So we left the evangelical church. Several of us began meeting at Mark and Barbara’s home. Mark and I, disillusioned by the consumerist model of church, desired to create a new kind of community. We wanted this community to be organic, not requiring a building or staff. We wanted this community to avoid becoming meeting-centric. Our hope was that our times together would supplement each member’s personal apprenticeship to Jesus. We didn’t want our members to rely on any structure, program, system or staff in their relationship with Christ. We wanted to purge ourselves from the contemporary Christian ethos of viewing the church as the organization that provides for my spiritual needs.
It was out of this vision that I wrote the article “Detoxing from church.” In hindsight, I wished I had entitled it “Detoxing from Consumer church,” since I was actually critiquing the consumerist model of the evangelical church.
We also began acquainting ourselves with the fledgling Emerging Church. Through blogs and relational networks, we discovered others who were leaving the consumerist evangelical church with the hope of developing alternative forms of Christian community. We were encouraged by people with similar stories, who were paving the ecclesiological path into the future.
Our group developed three simple values — the inward journey, the outward journey and the corporate journey. We hoped to become a community that focused on being formational, missional, and communal. We wanted to be apprentices, becoming like Jesus from the inside-out. We wanted to become ambassadors, living like Jesus in the world. And we wanted to become apprentices and ambassadors by how we lived and worshipped together. One of the statements we adopted was
“To embody, demonstrate and announce the fullness of Christ.”
Simply put, we wanted to be incarnational. We hoped to learn how to be Jesus’ actual body, the continuing incarnation on earth. Just as Jesus embodied Yahweh, we desired to be sent as Jesus was sent (John 20:21). In fact, we embraced an Orthodox saying, “Becoming by grace what Christ is by nature.”
So our group met, lived, and loved together. We read books together, studied Scripture together, and ate together. At this time, our home church is five years old. I am forever grateful for the experience. After fourteen years of professional ministry, I relearned how to have substantial friendships completely free from any pastoral role. I was also free to engage in theological exploration and discovery that I could not have done on staff at my previous church. And most importantly, our group has shown my family love in very rich and meaningful ways.
Yet, during these past five years, I have learned several lessons that ultimately turned my gaze toward Eastern Orthodoxy.
I quickly learned that while spiritual formation requires personal responsibility and effort, it is a communal endeavor. During our home church’s first couple of years, even though I knew spiritual formation requires community, I think I overemphasized the individual aspect. To our members, I continued to liken spiritual formation to individual athletic training — one needs to train as an individual in order to be like Jesus and live his kind of life just as one needs to train in order to be a great basketball player.
However, I learned that just as very few people are capable of mastering a sport simply by training on their own, very few people are capable of mastering God’s life by training on their own. Spiritual formation is a team sport. The “one another” exhortations in the New Testament alone make that clear. Spiritual formation must be learned, practiced and lived at the corporate level. The community’s experience of formation is not supplemental, but foundational to each member’s formation.
This became especially evident as Debbie and I discussed our children’s formation. We obviously wouldn’t expect our kids to train into spiritual formation on their own. They needed guidance from us as parents, which we gladly accepted. But we also realized that they needed some sort of structure to help them experience formation within a community. They needed to worship, pray, study and fellowship in a community. We also felt that they needed formational moments like youth camp and service projects. So after a couple of years as a home church, Debbie and I decided that our family would also attend an evangelical church in order to provide community and structure for our kids. Unfortunately, it got to the point that once a week, we were driving our two younger kids to one church for their children’s program and our two older kids to a church in a different city for their youth program. That got old quick.
In our home church, we knew we needed some sort of structure during our community gatherings to help us be formational, missional and communal. Gathering only to eat, study and talk was meaningful, but also lacked something essential. Specifically, we needed worship and prayer. But I didn’t want us to fall back into singing contemporary worship songs that contained shallow, mishmash theology. Nor did I want us to digress into prayer meetings that were filled with extemporaneous and usually forced and shallow prayers. Communal worship and prayer needed to be deeper in order to be formational.
At first, this was difficult to admit. Because the consumerist structure that we had left was so destructive, I clung vehemently to the concept of a community with very limited structure. And we floundered. We needed structure to steer us as a community into formational worship and prayer. But I dreaded the idea of creating a system upon which we would develop an unhealthy dependence as we had done in the consumer model. Yet, we couldn’t continue without structure. We decided we needed some form of liturgy to guide us.
Since none of us came from any liturgical tradition, we began exploring liturgical components from a variety of Christian traditions. We used the Divine Hours. We used Lectio Divina. We used the Common Book of Prayers. We incorporated Eastern Orthodox prayers. We lit candles. We read from the Revised Common Lectionary. We even created our own prayers.
And we discovered two things. First, creating liturgy requires a lot of energy and time, something we didn’t have. Also, this kind of endeavor creates a liturgy that is discontinuous and jumbled. While sometimes meaningful at a personal level, our efforts failed to create a regular structure that supported a formational life. And, quite frankly, I’m simply not smart enough to create a cohesive liturgy every single week. Others in the Emerging Church were developing liturgy, but the results either seemed relevant only to the life of that local community or were pieced together from various sources like we had experienced. We needed something cohesive that was larger than our local context and had a time-proven record of supporting spiritual formation.
Our liturgical exploration also made us aware to the need for sacraments. We knew Jesus’ Incarnation redeems all of creation and the entire world is filled with his presence. We realized that formation occurs by living one’s whole life with Jesus’ presence in the world. But learning to experience his presence in the world requires special moments of his presence as a community. One cannot experience the entire world as a sacrament without actual sacraments. One cannot view the entire world as holy and filled with Christ’s presence without having special moments that are holy and filled with Christ’s presence. The logical conclusion of Christ’s Incarnation is a sacramental life. But as Protestants, our only regular sacrament was communion. But was it only symbolic or something more? Unable to agree, we left it at “to each his or her own.”
Bottom-line, over the last five years, I have learned that an incarnational life — being formational, missional, and communal — must be supported within a community that has effectively practiced time-proven and life-giving liturgy and sacraments. My family and I need this kind of community, but where would we find it? Our simple non-Protestant choices were Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, or Eastern Orthodoxy. While certain aspects of Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism were attractive, their historical roots as well as contemporary issues dissuaded me from leading my family in either of those directions. Also, I had become very attracted to Eastern Orthodox theology over the last several years and had become convinced that they had preserved the biblical Gospel better than other traditions. I was surprised upon reflection that I agreed more with Orthodox theology than I did with Protestant theology.
So through David’s encouragement, Debbie and I decided in late 2007 to give our family twelve months to explore Eastern Orthodoxy in a parish close to our home.