Making the church more offensive
Mediacultureby Gordon Houser
Should the church be a little more offensive—or at least a little freer from the surrounding society’s habits and institutions? Perhaps it has something to learn from a movement going on in our culture.
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15), and Peter answered, “The Messiah,” Jesus blessed him and added: “You are Peter [‘Petros’ in Greek], and on this rock [‘petra’] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (16:18).
We tend to think of the church as a fortress, a defense against the attacks of Hades. But here Jesus envisions the church doing the attacking, being on the offensive.
By “offensive” I don’t mean being rude or impolite or disrespectful. I mean acting on what God calls us to do rather than always reacting. I mean being bold rather than timid.
We might learn something from a movement taking place around the world sometimes called DIY (do it yourself). In various places, people are taking initiative in trying to bring about more just and healthy communities.
Yes! magazine (Winter 2008) includes some stories of such initiatives. A neighborhood in Christiania, Denmark, for example, has declared itself a “free zone,” open to all, car-free and governed by its inhabitants.
In southern Mexico, people have developed alternative ways of learning, emphasizing apprenticeships that foster traditional skills.
Conversation Cafés have sprung up in urban settings, encouraging intimate, reflective and respectful conversations. The guidelines for group settings are these:
Open-mindedness: Listen to and respect all points of view.
Acceptance: Suspend judgment as best you can.
Curiosity: Seek to understand rather than persuade.
Discovery: Question assumptions, look for new insights.
Sincerity: Speak what has personal meaning.
Brevity: Go for honesty and depth but don’t go on and on.
Imagine Christians practicing such guidelines more consistently.
In Miami, homeless citizens didn’t wait for the city government to solve their problem but formed Umoja Village—“Unity” in the East African language of Kiswahili. On Oct. 23, 2006, homeless residents and organizers erected a shantytown on public land. A drug- and alcohol-free zone from the beginning, Umoja offered a safe space to put down roots and work for a communal cause.
You can think of many other examples, including farmers markets and community playschools. And, you may add, the church has been doing such things for centuries, from the desert monks in the fourth century to the Franciscans in the 13th to the Anabaptists in the 16th.
Yet as churches grow, the temptation to institutionalize is strong, And such control can stifle initiative. The missional emphasis of Mennonite Church USA can perhaps free congregations and individuals to listen to the Spirit’s voice and act in ways that may be new and different, ways that may run counter to society’s habits.
We can learn from entrepreneurs, who have that willingness to take risks and fail in order to find something that serves people’s needs.
Kenneth Thompson writes: “Let’s not be content to say what [Jesus] did but do as he said.” That may require the courage to take action when no one else is instead of waiting for the government or some other institution to do it.
Perhaps we can adapt DIY to make the church more offensive in bringing wholeness to our world and opposing the powers of Hades.
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- Meeting in Annapolis offered nothing new
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