Sunday, February 29, 2004

Donna and i had dinner with our friends Gary and Jan last night, and one thing we discussed was people who are internally motivated to change things (like "cultural creatives"), how this impacts the church, and how to find roles for people outside current structures and institutions. This, Patsy's sermon this morning about Teresa of Avila (which should appear at the end of this link soon), and other recent experiences have got me thinking about house churches.

It seems like a lot of what happens at Big Church could happen more effectively with 20-30 people who regularly meet together, not to "go to church", but to "be church." (a great title for this blog)

These seem like key principles:

No spectators
Everyone participates, without a stage or pulpit as the focal point. Accountability instead of anonymity: we know each other well enough that "love one another" (John.13.34) has a natural expression. We come together to help each other, not to hear a good speaker, cool music, or be spiritually entertained. This also means accountability: i can't hide in a backrow pew, and it's too small for conflicts to simmer unresolved while we just avoid each other.
Focus on spiritual formation
The goal is that Christ might be formed in us together (Gal.4.9). That means people who are serious about spiritual growth, who are individually worshippers and pray-ers and learners, come together as the Body. Rather than a one-way flow of information from the pulpit, a chance to talk together, practice together, and engage - in completely pragmatic terms - what it means to be like Christ.
At Big Church we only interact on Sundays, so mission tends to becomes a special event. In a smaller setting, there should be more opportunities to be Jesus' hands and feet together in practical ways.

What would be missing?

  • high-quality, professional preaching. But many of us are already over-taught and under-practiced: we need help to act on what we already know, rather than stuffing more knowledge into our heads.
  • the "full service program" of Sunday school, teen programs, adult classes, choir. This kind of church would be more like an extended family.
  • safe ways to casually explore the faith: small groups often aren't initially friendly places for hurting people who're not even sure they belong.  This might also be too intense for people who only want a little spiritual frosting, not a whole life commitment.
  • celebrations and other expressions of membership in the larger body: it might be essential to get together with other groups on a periodic basis, or also attend some Big Church services. (no rule against that!)

It's always easier to criticize than to create new forms, but overall, i see a lot of really positive things, even if this isn't the normative form for everybody's faith experience. In the same way, the monastic tradition brought great spritual growth in different eras of the church, even though the number of monks and nuns was only a small percentage of the larger society.

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Warning: lots of technical and terminological speedbumps ahead.

For some reflection this morning, i decided to explore what an ontology to model the imperatives of Jesus might look like. The IEEE SUMO definition of an ontology is a reasonable starting place:

An ontology is similar to a dictionary or glossary, but with greater detail and structure that enables computers to process its content. An ontology consists of a set of concepts, relations, and axioms that formalize a field of interest.

The Stanford Protege project also has a slightly more detailed introduction.

I wanted to try building on the SUMO work, since one of the main benefits of careful detailing of knowledge is the opportunity to build on other work and provide interoperable data. The SUMO is highly detailed, but it wasn't too hard to pick out a few initial connections points. An imperative is a kind of LinguisticCommunication, for which there are existing relevant subclasses of Directing, with subclasses of Ordering, Requesting, and Questioning (as well as numerous other subclasses that aren't so relevant). Any Directing event is performed by an Agent, for which the relevant subclasses are Human, Organization, and GroupOfPeople. I had to add a few new subclasses: God is a kind of Agent, and SonOfGod is a subclass both of God and Human (obviously both of these are fairly unique classes!). And so any of the imperatives of Jesus are an instance of LinguisticCommunication whose agent is Jesus.

So far so good. So then i started to think about the very first imperative in Luke, "It is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve'" (Luke.4.8) What does "worship" here really mean? It's a kind of SocialInteraction: is it Communication? or perhaps an IntentionalPsychologicalProcess? Is it a ReligiousProcess (i don't really think so)? An attitude? A state of mind? An intention?

All this feels a little like stepping a few yards off the beach into the water, and suddenly finding you're not just in the deep end of the pool, but entirely off the Continental Shelf, with huge rolling waves and trans-oceanic currents pushing you around, and enormous unseen sea monsters slowly moving many fathoms underneath your feet, perhaps to rise up and carry you off.

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