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Friday, August 05, 2011

Everyday Relational Networks and a Movement of the Gospel

In the 1946 Jimmy Stewart classic “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Angel 2nd-Class Clarence Oddbody is given the arduous task of preventing George Bailey from taking his own life. In a naïve, bumbling sort of way, Clarence grants George the privilege of seeing what life would have been like if he had never been born.

At first, George attributes the strange, new experiences to the affects of alcohol, or a blow on the head, but he soon finds himself living a nightmare where every person he cherishes either denies they ever knew him, are dead, or simply don’t exist anymore.

As George is staring at his brother’s grave, horrified by the realization that his brother is not alive anymore because he wasn’t there to save him from drowning at the age of nine, Clarence gently drives the point home:
“Strange, isn't it?” Clarence replies softly. “Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he? You've been given a great gift, George: A chance to see what the world would be like without you. You see, George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?“
Perhaps I’m just a bit too sentimental, but I never seem to tire of that movie. The message is so very clear, and whether we're aware of it or not, our lives really do intersect with and influence the lives of so many. We can see it at work all around us. In fact, every society on the face of the earth, whether it be Japanese, Iranian, North Korean, or American, is ultimately structured around the very simple principle of interconnected relationships.

Though the Japanese are much more group oriented than we are in the West, the network of relationships nonetheless exist in both, and we can be sure that at least some of these connections are more than mere happenstance. If there's one thing we can be certain of, it's that the Holy Spirit is constantly at work orchestrating relationships.

Whether it be the people of group-oriented Japan, or the people of individual-oriented America, it is precisely within the fertile soil of these everyday relational networks where the untapped potential for a movement of the Gospel waits to emerge.

However, to see the Gospel "move" within these networks, a radically different approach to evangelism, coupled with a whole new way of thinking about ministry, is required. A different mindset, if you will, among the people of God, that is very much in line with the truth of Scripture and the heart of the Gospel.

Too often, we in the West have been guilty of encouraging new believers to "leave" their existing network of relationships out of fear that their personal growth would somehow be hindered by remaining.

No doubt this would be understandable if our concern centered on a new believer connected to a network of people involved in such things as Satanism, organized crime, or the like, but what if our objective was to see the Gospel move within the mainstream of a particular society, community, or network? What then?

Is "leaving" what the Bible really teaches? Is personal growth simply not possible for the new believer in their existing network of relationships?

Take Iran, for example. No doubt the handful of new believers who are able to escape the Islamic system would benefit greatly from "leaving" their hostile relationships, but what about the millions in the Islamic World who have no choice but to continue living in and amongst the cultural and religious system of their birth? What about them?

Is the only hope for the masses in the rocky soil nations based on whether or not they are able to extract themselves from the culture they were born into? In the final analysis, is the Gospel really only good news to the handful of Iranians who are able to flee the land of their birth? Is that what God intends for them to do?

I suppose the answer to that question depends heavily on whether our Gospel is impotent, or truly "the power of God...." If people's lives cannot be transformed unless they are taken out of an oppressive system or removed from their existing network of relationships, what does that say about the very nature of our Gospel?

Is it any wonder, then, that in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives the following advice:
"Each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him.... Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised."
Not become uncircumcised? How in the world does one who is already circumcised become UNcircumcised (particularly back in those days)?

Paul is obviously not speaking of the physical here, but about the Jewish system that the new believers were born into. He was essentially telling them that their "first birth" was no mistake, and he dared to suggest that a life of fullness in Christ could be experienced in spite of the cultural pressures and realities they faced.

Repeating himself twice more, Paul says:
"Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you - although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord's freedman.... Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to."
What is Paul saying? Simply this: That slavery and, I might add, family upbringing, culture of birth, oppressive systems, harsh employers, unjust governments, etc, "is no roadblock to obeying and believing......under your new Master you're going to experience a marvelous freedom you would never have dreamed of."

Do we really believe that? Though we in the West, may not be comfortable with certain aspects of Asian culture, Islamic culture, or even Western culture, do we believe that the Gospel is powerful enough to truly free hearts regardless of the cultural pressures and realities of a person's first birth?

Obviously if they could gain their "freedom" from the harsh realities of their first birth it is fine to do so, but do we really believe, like Paul, that even in the worst of cultural circumstances (of which nothing could undoubtedly be worse than slavery) that the human heart can experience a marvelous freedom?

Is our Gospel impotent, or is it truly "the power of God...?"

For us, this was a critical issue during our time in Japan. Though nothing like the harsh realities of the Middle East, we nonetheless made the intentional choice not to "impose" the western church system, along with all it's forms, practices, and mindset, on the Japanese people. Instead, we chose to utilize the existing social structures and networks within Japanese society.

Though that may seem like an innocent enough statement, the ramifications and implications are immensely significant. Not only does it call into question many of our deeply rooted assumptions about missions and ministry, it forces us to go back to the foundational truths of Scripture for guidance.

So, for example, do the Scriptures even remotely suggest that Paul's intention was to set-up or impose a "religious system," yea, even a "Christian system," on the people he encountered on his missionary journeys?

He certainly introduced a degree of "order" and "organization" (with a little "o") but, as a former Pharisee who was well acquainted with the hazards of a religious system, it is quite doubtful that Paul had any intention of formalizing things into an elaborate, hierarchical, organizational "system" (with a big "O"). The very heart of Paul's Gospel suggested otherwise.

Is it any wonder, then, that when the foundation of a "new work" is laid on the premise of creating or expanding the organizational structures of a "system," that the eventual outcome can be anything other than "organizational" in tone and substance? The DNA is set right from the beginning and it eventually produces a way of thinking and behaving among believers that is, well, "organizational."

Simply put, the relationships that exist are often highly dependent on the organizational structure for their existence. And, the sad truth is, the relationships often cease to exist when ties to an organizational structure cease to exist. One is either in or out depending on the definition imposed by a particular organizational structure and it's rather doubtful that this is what Paul had in mind.

What then did Paul have in mind? Though it's beyond the scope of this post to go into the issues at any length, it appears that rather than introducing an "organizational system" into a new culture, Paul simply utilized the family and social structures that already existed. Once the foundation had been laid, Paul trusted the Holy Spirit to take the Good News of Jesus and His Kingdom and weave it into the fabric of everyday life and relationships.

Just how effective was Paul's strategy? In a quote from a most fascinating book written by a sociologist named Rodney Stark called The Rise of Christianity, Stark sums up his thesis on the first 3 centuries of growth. Then, in a second quote from his book For the Glory of God, Stark comments on the conversion of Constantine:
"The basis for successful conversionist movements is growth through social networks, through a structure of direct and intimate interpersonal attachments. Most new religious movements fail because they quickly become closed, or semiclosed networks. That is, they fail to keep forming and sustaining attachments to outsiders and thereby lose the capacity to grow.... Thus, if we are to better understand and explain the rise of Christianity, we must discover how the early Christians maintained open networks - for it would seem certain that they did."
Far too long, historians have accepted the claim that the conversion of Emperor Contantine (285-337) caused the triumph of Christianity. To the contrary, he destroyed its most attractive and dynamic aspects, turning a high-intensity, grass roots movement into an arrogant institution controlled by an elite who often managed to be both brutal and lax."
Wow!!! Now there's something to ponder!!! The DNA that the Apostle Paul and other early church leaders set in place lasted nearly 3 centuries before it was knocked off course, and the early church grew from a handful of followers to what some historians estimate to be nearly one-fourth of the Roman Empire by the time of Constantine.

So then, at the risk of oversimplification, it would seem that if a foundation is laid on the premise of utilizing existing networks of relationships, there is every reason to believe that the outcome will continue to utilize existing relational networks. The reason is quite simple: the relationships that exist are already woven into the fabric of everyday life and are not dependent on an "organizational structure" for their existence.

Furthermore, not only does this allow for dynamic body life among believers as they interact with each other during the normal course of life, it lays a foundation for a movement of the Gospel among family, friends, relatives, coworkers, and neighbors.

There is nothing to "join" because the church is not seen as an organizational structure or a western church system, but as it really is: a dynamic set of relationships among believers whose chief aim is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever while living in meaningful connection with those not yet in the family of God.

As I already wrote at the end of my post on Assumptions and Absolutes, this is not about dismantling what exists, meaning, the western church system.

This is about opening up "new pathways" for the Gospel and allowing for "new expressions" of body life to emerge for those, like the people of Iran, North Korea, Japan, and even now in America, simply will never be part of our western church system.

Since we have nothing to fear and everything to gain from these "new" pathways and expressions into everyday relational networks, the central question we need to grapple with is simply this:
How might those of us in the existing "organizational structures" seek to serve (rather than control) a movement of the Gospel within everyday relational networks in our communities even if it means that not one of these new believers will ever embrace the western church system itself?
Furthermore, what might personal growth and body life look like for the new believers who are outside the western church system, and how might we, who are leaders in the existing organizational structures, seek to serve these believers while continuing to cultivate a movement of the Gospel within their everyday relational networks?
There are no easy answers, for sure, but these are critical issues that we, as the people of God, must grapple with, and I can't think of a better reason to do so than for the sake of the Gospel itself.


  1. Hi all. This is my first time visiting/commenting on a blog; a very useful bit of technology I must say, thank you Bill for getting it started.
    I just finished a cross cultural Christianity class at a well known on line seminary and thought I'd share with you/others that I appreciate your insights. We HAVE been entrusted with 'the Words of life' and are All called to share these Words to the ends of the world. What too many of us don't realize is the role culture plays in our lives. Want an example? Until I joined the military, I thought everyone called carbonated beverages 'pop'; when I got to basic, I learned 'there' people called all 'pop' Coke. A simple example but this one comes from just living several states apart.
    The point is, this ought to cause us to contemplate that between U.S. Christians, we have some culture differences, and to the 'lost', we have a huge culture difference, but to when we go to another nation and their lost, we might as well be from another planet.
    As you well said, God help us rid ourselves of anything that stands in the way of the precious message. Brother Paul said it well, I have become all things to all people that I might win some. He was familiar enough with Greek philosophy that he was invited to speak more in a large gathering with others. Tricky Paul, he found a way to get them to open the door, then he made the of Athens, I can see that you are a religious people, you even have an alter to the unknown god. I am here to reveal Him to you.
    Having also served in the military, I have had the unpleasant response from the locals regarding the reputation some of our countrymen have established; this is often communicated in this way, "you Americans...bla bla bla." It's a strange thing to be the foreigner and have someone stereotype you. How will we respond? We need look no further than the example Jesus gave us. Though He was God, He set His glory aside and became that which He created, lived among these creatures and did Not demand they understand where He came from. He dressed like us and except for His message (of salvation) talked like us, suffered and rejoiced with us. May I be so bold as to say we should do the same?
    St Francis of Asisi (sp) said something like, 'wherever you go, speak volumes of the gospel to people, and if absolutely necessary, use words.' Sure, eventually we need to share the words, but I believe what he was emphasizing is people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care (anonymous?)
    I took another course as well, evangelism. The essence of that course is this: there are those who talk the talk and those who walk the talk. We either obey the command to evangelize or disobey; but get it right, it's not a suggestion.
    I could go on and on but I'm the new person so I'll sit back to see if I get any replies. I served in Japan too Bill, domo arigato!

  2. If I didn't know any better, I'd say this particular comment from "anonymous" was written by non-other than my good friend from Michigan, Bill C. Thanks for stopping by, Bill, and thanks for chiming in!

    I have personally come to love the quote you referred to by St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words."

    I didn't always like it because I thought it was too much of a cop-out used by Christians to do nothing. But then as I reflected on that "other" famous quote by St. Francis, I began to see that what he had to say was the furthest thing from a cop-out:

    "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
    Where there is injury, pardon;
    Where there is doubt, faith;
    Where there is despair, hope;
    Where there is darkness, light;
    And where there is sadness, joy.

    O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
    to be understood as to understand,
    to be loved, as to love.

    For it is in giving that we receive,
    It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
    and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."

  3. Hello Bill, right you are identifying me, your forever grateful Brother. I have some 'recovery' experience and found an interesting inter-relationship between their world and that of the Church; they each need what the other has to offer. As is true in every cross cultural experience, the question is will they cross their cultural lines leaving their baggage behind or stubbornly, pridefully cling to it. (This is well represented in the cartoon with those who would use spoons to feed each other and those who would not.)

    By the way, here is a link to prayers used in the A.A. recovery program; at this link, one will find the St Francis prayer you posted Bill.

    I like the thought communicated in the A.A. to help those wounded by 'religion' get past that to reach 'relationship' are bits and pieces:
    - Religion is a problem for a lot of people - not just alcoholics or those of us in AA...sometimes it's more problematic for those who have lost or rejected faith than to those who never had any faith at all, for they think they have tried faith and found it wanting.
    - A lot of us have had bad experience with religion. As we look around us, and at history, we see that we are not alone either. A lot of people have been beat up by religion. However to be fair, a lot of other institutions have beat up a lot of people too. A lot of people have been treated unfairly by authorities. Many people have been treated wrong by the educational system, by government agencies and the corporate world. So religion isn't the only institution that has mistreated people.
    - Perhaps the reason it irks some of us so much is that religion, of all institutions or organizations, should be the one that doesn't beat people up. After all, if God is a God of love, why do so many religions mistreat people?
    * HERE is where WE Christians need to understand what religion has done, declare it wrong, humbly apologize and THEN re-direct these souls to the reality of what God did. For God so loved us, the He mistreated His Son...He BEAT His Son to death. It is not His desire for any to be punished further than righteous guilt for wrong doing, and that, only to call us back to repentance. So, phooey on religion. It was declared dead by Jesus in His days on Earth, and it is STILL dead.
    - And now, look at the solution the A.A. program do what? Overcome cultural prejudices and hurts there in:
    - I decided to look for the good in religion. I knew there were bad things about religion but I decided that I was going to look past that. I decided to give God the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the reason religion has done so much bad is because it is filled with imperfect people unable to properly represent a perfect God. Step 11 started me on a spiritual quest and I had to lay aside any prejudice I had against religion. I acknowledged that the knowledge I had was anecdotal. It was unfair to judge all religion simply by the experience I had as a child and young adult with one segment of it. What I discovered was a lot of good religion does that I had never noticed. Religion, which is simply organized spirituality, has helped me improve my conscience contact with God. Today I can understand why the authors of the Big Book would write, "Be quick to see where religious people are right. Make use of what they offer."

    - As my mentor, friend and Brother Bill would say to me, "I'm just a poor beggar telling another poor beggar where I got my meal and inviting him to join me."

    Blessings to all, Bill

  4. Bill, I made reference to a cartoon with spoons depicting Heaven and Hell; for some reason (old age, ADD ? :P ) I thought it was your posting, but upon looking for it, I found it not! Turns out, it was likely part of my reading for one of my courses. Here's a link that explains it well!

    Good lesson, funny story: K.I.S.S.

  5. Great thoughts, Bill. For as long as you've been in the trenches bringing Christ to the hurting, your untiring passion never ceases to amaze me. Thanks for being such a faithful advocate for the down and out in society and helping us to see things clearer from their perspective.

    Oh, I did check out that link you mentioned about the "long spoons" - good stuff for sure!

  6. This is so true! It seems that much of our American Christianity wants others to become like the church before they can join the church and become a part of "us". The truth is, when you believe and are born again, you ARE the church, whether you jump into the mold or not. It never ceases to amaze me that Jesus makes us new creations without changing how He originally created us. We are told to GO into all the world, not to invite the world in.

  7. Welcome Lou! You hit on an interesting point.

    I think most believers understand that anyone and everyone indwelt by the Holy Spirit is the church, but where we really get tripped up is on the definition of a “legitimate” expression of the church (in terms of body life).

    As long as we continue to see “the church” through the eyes of the western church system (rather than from a kingdom perspective), the momentum will always be toward insisting that they embrace our “system.”

    If we’re going to truly “serve” the believers outside the western church system, we’re going to have to first come to grips with what the Scriptures say about “legitimate” expression in body life.

    That’s a very difficult concept for us to grasp in America, which is why I keep bringing us back to the rocky soil nations. If the only way the Gospel could even have a chance to make an impact in Iran is based on our western church “system,” than the people of Iran are truly without hope.

    But thanks be to God that the Gospel is not dependent on our western church system; not in Iran; not in America.

  8. Hello all, I recall an article I read some time ago in Voice of the Martyrs, A 10-year-old Filipino girl was beaten to death by her father after she professed Christ. Before she died, she held the bloody dress she was wearing when she was beaten and told the missionary, "I just want Jesus to know that I was willing to bleed for him."
    Here are a few excerpts talking more about martyrdom.
    Few of us in America have faced the types of suffering that Christians in other countries have endured...According to Voice of the Martyrs "More Christians have been killed for their faith in the 20th century than have been martyred in the total history of Christianity." That should be a wake up call for the sleeping Christians in America who have taken their freedom for granted for too long.
    Ask any one of the Christians in the countries where Christians are persecuted if they have problems with what version of the Bible is 'right,' or what color should the new carpeting be in the new nursery be, and they would likely look at us as if we were crazy.
    Maybe we are. When we carefully consider why we are here (what purpose do Christians serve: salt and light) are we really blessed to be Christians living in America? Not if we are constantly majoring in the minors.
    Throughout the history of Christianity, persecution brings growth. He who began a good work in us will bring about our growth; consider the cost and decide...better to be hot or cold than lukewarm.
    Let us therefore highly resolve to be good Christian soldiers, follow the example of our Captain, wipe our feet on the new carpet and pick up the old cross and encourage like minded believers to do the same.

  9. It is amazing to me (sort of) that where people are suffering for their faith, they are almost always praying for American Christians. As a Chinese person told a "missionary", "We handle our persecution better than you handle your prosperity". I just listened to a talk given by Wess Stafford where a man told him about the same thing. He said, not quoting, we (Americans) have bibles but we don't read them, we have beautiful churches that we don't go to because we'd rather be on a picnic, and we have so much that we don't pray because we don't see the need to do it. I am unfortunately guilty to much of this. And this is the Western church we want everyone else to have? We really need to do a reality check and start seeking God's Kingdom His way. Now I need to remember that it starts with me. I hope this hasn't gotten too far off the original idea Bill.

  10. Thanks, Lou, it really does begin with me, doesn't it.