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A Theology from Below (and Subterranean Book Review)

subterraneanYear after year as my community seeks to live well in the unique soil of our little neighborhood, we discover how much our neighborhood has to teach us about ourselves, each other and the One we follow. Because real life is textured with both the beautiful and broken realities of humanity, we find ourselves formed and informed in new ways that we couldn’t have ever expected. For this reason, we make plenty of space for our theology to be shaped not only from “above” through our intellect, study and empirical insight, but also from “below” through the realities of God’s presence in the mundane of everyday. In fact, it is often this lived theology that most clearly reveals to us where we fit in God’s story that is unfolding in our place. 

The reality of having our theology developed from below means we regularly expose ourselves to darkness, disappointment and failure. The stories don’t always end the way we want them to. In our heads we may have the perfect theological formula, but in reality, the formula is often as unhelpful as our freshman algebra class. What happens when that friend you’ve been walking with for years falls back into addiction and violence? What happens when your seemingly perfect family reality get upended by tragedy? Or when despite your best efforts, your vision for what is “good” in your neighborhood turns out being the exact opposite? 

In Practicing Locality -- chapter 9 of Dan White’s new book, Subterranean: Why the Future of the Church is Rootedness -- he argues that despite the cost and potential disappointment, we have to give ourselves to everyday practice because it is only there that we will develop a “living theology.” To do theology faithfully, we must participate in the social realities of our broken and beautiful places“(pg 95). This is a theology not only informed by a textbook, but by the breath of the Spirit moving in and through a community of practice. It is for that reason Dan opens the chapter by describing the necessity of imagination. When we give ourselves to the everyday, we have to carry with us an imagination for God’s dream for the world in the midst of the inevitable disappointment, failure and darkness. As one who is part of a faith community committed to a “living theology,” we experience as much heart ache, failure and brokenness as we do joy and “success.” An imagination for not only what is, but what will be, is often the fuel that sustains us.

Dan goes on to offer a couple “tools” that can help faith communities experience a “living theology” by participating in the fabric of their neighborhood as a reflection of renewal and rooted presence. Without going into the nuances of his suggested pathways here, it is clear that Dan is a practitioner whose stories and insights could only come forth out of a life of practice. Not only does he encourage us to hold our theology accountable to a lived set of practices, he reminds us to remain in the posture of learners rather than hero’s. “We speak from where our bodies are situated. Too much theologizing and Christian living techniques are formed in the ivory tower of the Christian world, telling us what people need and how they should receive it(95).

In contrast to many “church-planting” books, he continually highlights the necessity of learning from and being loved by our neighbors in a mutually beneficial relationship. We aren’t the hero’s who have come to conquer or correct, we are simply participants in what God is already doing for the flourishing of all.  We must take a teachable posture as we are confronted by our ignorance and misplaced judgments. We must recognize our own blindness and limitations in the spaces we dwell in. We must behold, not just look (97)…walk gently and quietly so as to not stomp all over others’ sweat-soaked work. Innovation happens when a community humbly comes together to discern how to be in a place in a way that blesses the lifeworld of a neighborhood(98).

If there is a liability to this chapter, it is the introduction of so much new language. This is not only true of Dan’s book, but characteristic of a whole moment of theologians and communicators who are seeking to offer a renewed vision for how the church can be in the world. While fresh language is vitally important, it can also be confusing and a hurdle rather than an asset. I have been guilty of this myself and would love to see a growing movement with common language so as not to require the continual interpretation and reinterpretation of shared ideas. 

In the end, Practicing Locality is a refreshing reminder that we must live the stuff we talk about. Theology means little (if anything at all) if it isn’t lived out in the context of everyday life in neighborhood. Further, this chapter serves as a helpful guide to onramp individuals and communities into a lived set of practices that reflect a Jesus who didn’t come to conquer, but to give himself away for the flourishing of others. May we go and do likewise. 

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This review was part of a Subterranean Book Blog Tour, which is offering a unique 40% off discount code that expires Oct 23rd if purchased at http://wipfandstock.com/subterranean.html Here is the code: ROOTED

BOOK GIVEAWAY: Thin Places

Ok, so I’m looking to give away some copies of Thin Places to those who want to engage its message a bit.  The Celtic idea of a Thin Place is a location (I see this as geographic or experiential) where heaven and earth are only thinly separated; a place where God’s Kingdom is being made real.  From our experience, these places are often found in the mundane and unexpected.

So, here’s how to win a copy (I will give away 1 copy for every 20 comments posted) of Thin Places: Six Postures for Creating and Practicing Missional community:

  1. In the comments section below answer one of these two questions, In what way(s) have you experienced a thin place in your neighborhood/community? What is one way you can best use the message of this book to influence the way you engage in your community/church/neighborhood?  
  2. P.S. For all of you who post this on Twitter and tag me (or hashtag #thinplaces) OR post this on facebook and tag me (so I can track who you are!)  I will be randomly giving away a bonus copy! 
  3. Ready set go!

Video stuff: Remember there is a Small Group Edition for communities/churches that are looking to engage this together!  The second video is a full session from that edition.

Here is what some people are saying about Thin Places who have already read it:

“I thoroughly loved this book and found myself saying ‘Amen’ at every page. A primer in incarnational mission by those who have lived it and taught it for well over a decade.”   ~ Michael Frost, Author of The Shaping of Things to Come and The Road to Missional

“As God continues to call the church to it’s most powerful essence of missional communities, Thin Places offers an inspirational look into practices and postures that forge God’s people together and propel them outward.”  ~ Hugh Halter, Author of The Tangible Kingdom, AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church, and Sacrilege

“Over the past decade interest in community life and neighborhood engagement have emerged as significant themes for a new generation of Christ followers who yearn for embodied and holistic spirituality. To thrive, this world-wild movement needs practical resources, born from historical awareness, thoughtful reflection and most importantly lived experience. Thin Places by Jon Huckins, is precisely this kind of storied resource, a tool that can equip groups to practice the way of Jesus and make a life together in their local contexts for the good of the world.”   ~ Mark Scandrette, Author of Practicing the Way of Jesus and  Executive Director at ReIMAGINE

“The terms ‘missional’ and ‘monastic’ are all too often tossed around by Christians as buzz words, an unfortunate reality given the importance of both terms.  That is why ‘Thin Places’ is such a gift to the church!  Not only do the authors understand and protect the integrity of both concepts, but bring them together in a way that points us towards an exciting future as God’s people actively living into His kingdom”   ~ Jamie Arpin-Ricci, Pastor and Author of The Cost of Community:Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom

“The call of faith has always included living in community. The thing is, it is really hard. And there are not enough places where gritty community meets possibility. But, that is what I found in my time with NieuCommunities. These are people who welcomed me in, as a stranger and not only treated me as an honored guest, they made me part of the family. In short, these are people who know what they are doing in creating Christian community and Thin Places not only chronicles their experiences, but invites other communities to imagine how to do the same.”  ~ Doug Pagitt, Pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, Author of Preaching Re-Imagined and Church Re-Imagined

“In the modern world of exponential speed and individual mobility, there is a growing hunger for a faith that can be lived out together… where we can be present… where there is an embodied practice… where the gospel becomes tangible in a particular place. NieuCommunities extends the rare gift of a transformative discipleship process that is full-bodied and place-based. Their longevity and fixity is in rich contrast to a world of quick-fix and fast-track!  ~ Paul Sparks, Founding Co-Director Parish Collective

There is a “come and see” authenticity about NieuCommunities that is so reminiscent of Jesus calling the disciples out of fishing boats on the shore of Lake Galilee I can almost taste the salt air. At the same time, the “come and see” community is balanced by a “go and do” mission that gives me hope for inside-out change in neighborhoods in the global city. At a time when many are talking about missional communities, NieuCommunities quietly and expertly goes about doing it—forming young men and women and transforming neighborhoods. The vitality of NieuCommunities is less about what is being said than what is being lived. You’ll want to read this book and listen to their story.  ~ John Hayes, founder of innerCHANGE and Author of Submerge and Living Deep in a Shallow World.

Following Jesus Calls For Much More Than Going to Church

I recently sat with a pastor friend of mine in the Bay Area who is seeking to radically reorient the life of his faith community away from viewing the church as merely a weekly gathering and towards daily life in neighborhood.  Strikingly insightful, he said, “I have found that we can live in our neighborhoods without ever actually living life within them.” 

There is much conversation swirling around the attractional versus missional church models. In short (and in what is inevitably an overgeneralization), attractional models pour their time and resources into worship services so as to create a place that non-believers will want to come and be exposed to the reality of Jesus. The church campus and/or gathering is the central place or hub to where others are drawn. In contrast, the missional church embraces the mission of God and God’s extension into humanity by moving outside the traditional church walls and into the lives of individual non-believers with the hope of introducing them to Jesus in their local context. As such, the focus is not on a central worship gathering, but on equipping believers who are sent to be good news to their neighbors, coworkers, and families.

For the sake of this conversation, we prefer the word extractional over the word attractional when speaking of the traditional (at least in reference to the last 100 years), worship-service-centered church structures. First, a missional community is also going to be attractional (albeit in ways much different from that of the former definition) as people are inherently wired for community and are enlivened by shared practices. Second, and most importantly, the traditional church is extractional in the sense that it extracts people from their local contexts to attend a church service and inadvertently teaches us that church is something you go to rather than someone you are in the places you inhabit. Many of these people have been taught that attending a church service and serving in it is the central act of our Christian vocation.

Not only is there potential for the extractional church to sell people short in their understanding of Christian vocation, but it also pulls them out of the contexts in which they live and often disconnects their contribution from their everyday context. Rather than extracting its participants from a place, a missional community is designed to equip its people within a context to enter the stories of those we live alongside. In doing so, we are able to meet people where they are and begin to create a viral movement of embedded followers of Christ who are transforming individuals, communities, neighborhoods, and cities through the power of Jesus.

Living out the submerging posture is the antithesis of the extractional model. When we submerge rather than trying to find ways to draw people into another world, we take it upon ourselves to draw close to our neighbors in contexts that are normative to them. The gospel as Jesus proclaimed it transcends our expectations for where it should be extended and has the potential to come to life in the mundane or unexpected realities of everyday life.

When we submerge, we resist the temptation to drive by the ugly or unglamorous realities of our local context. Instead, led by the power of the Spirit, we pour our time, energy, and heart into the often forgotten places and people with the hopes that the gospel of Jesus might be made real by transforming the realities that envelop us.

What would your church community look like if it poured more of its energy into submerging into the narratives of neighborhood than into programs that extract your community from life in their neighborhood(s)?  How might that free up the People of God to be Good News in their local contexts? 

Want to put flesh and blood to this idea?  Check out our Submerging video from the Thin Places Small Group Edition

Note: Much of this post is content from my book (with Rob Yackley) Thin Places published by The House Studio

 

Empire, Jewish Renewal and Jesus’ Invitation

I recently stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee near where Jesus is thought to have spent much of his adult life in Capernaum. The village is right on the water, and the view of the sea is breathtakingly serene. When standing on the shore looking south, the rolling hills of the ancient Decapolis wrap around the east side of the Galilee, and the city of Tiberias highlights the low hills on the West that lead toward Nazareth. Directly below my feet were the pebbles that led toward the water’s edge.

Overlooking North Galilee

In Jesus’s day, the Decapolis would have been a place that represented the gentile Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire and Tiberias, a place largely espousing Jewish values and tradition. To the north of both, and where I stood on the shores of Galilee, I could picture Jesus making his way along the pebbles while looking out at the fishermen faithfully practicing their trade. In one breath this first-century rabbi invites the fishermen to follow him, and in the next they are walking right beside him into a story that would upend their lives.

Jesus’s invitation was to something as ancient as it was new. He was not inaugurating a new faith: he was fulfilling an ancient faith, but it wasn’t going to purely look like either the Hellenistic culture of the Decapolis or the Jewish culture of Tiberias. It was something that transcended culture and tradition and required full immersion into a way of life that reflected the rabbi. Jesus’s way countered the values of the Empire and the espoused traditions of the overly religious. In this sense, it didn’t require only physically turning toward the way of Jesus, but re-orienting and re-defining truth and faithfulness. For those of the Empire, Jesus’s way was confusing in the sense that he promoted selflessness and non-violence in contrast to a culture of self-promotion and violent dominance. For the religious, Jesus called into question some of the holiness codes they held most true as a means to remain faithful to the Torah and the coming Messiah.

Further, Jesus’s invitation was as complex as it was simple. In this light we can see why so many didn’t understand and act upon his invitation. At the same time, in his simple offers to “follow me” and “come and see,” the viral invitation of this all-of-life Jewish renewal movement was under way. It was not an invitation involving only a prayer, but an invitation that would call all of life into submission to the values of the renewed kingdom.

As a people who seek to listen and submerge into the relationships of our local contexts, we hope to invite others into our homes, life, and way of Jesus, but we also hope to be invited into the lives of others.We follow the model of Jesus, who, after living for thirty years alongside those in the Galilee region, began to invite others toward his new way of life, but was also invited into the homes and around the tables of others. In Luke 5 Jesus is the guest of honor at the home of a former tax collector. Jesus was so embedded in deep relationships that others were willingly extending invitations to him.

How might our lives and communities more faithfully reflect the all of life nature of Jesus’ invitation to this Third Way that rejected the lure of Empire and renewed/transformed the call of the religious?  Have we bought into a faith “invitation” that is anything less?  Are we inviting and being invited in the homes of our neighbors, co-workers and schoolmates?

Much of this content is from my book Thin Places published by The House Studio

Jesus’ Invitation to the Discipline of “Wasting Time?”

A few of us from our missional community asked one of the hero’s of our neighborhood to sit down for a meal so we could hear more of her story and learn from her experiences.  Among locals, she is known as “Judy the Beauty” and owns a local restaurant that has been around through all the years of violence and pain our neighborhood has endured over the past 30 years.  Rather than calling the police when gang members would threaten her, she would simply hire them and give them a warm meal.  She is now the “mom” to dozens of guys society had written off as a lost cause.  When we asked her what she would suggest we do as a community who deeply desires to be good news in our neighborhood, she said, “You have to listen.  Drop your agenda’s and allow the stories of the inhabitants of the neighborhood inform how you engage and participate.  Simply be present.”

I never fully understood the significance of the first thirty years of Jesus’s life until I had the opportunity to walk from village to village near the Sea of Galilee in modern-day Israel. Between dusty roads that rise and fall over rolling hills that circle the beautiful body of water, small villages and ancient cities fill out the first-century context of Jesus.

Following the model of his earthly father, Jesus was a carpenter. In that day, carpentry was much more closely associated with rock than with woodworking. The ancient city of Sepphoris—near Jesus’s childhood village of Nazareth—is still largely intact because of the rock structures that served as building foundations Also, because the leaders of the city chose not to participate in the Great Revolt of 66-70 AD against Emperor Vespasian, the Romans didn’t destroy the city. In fact, as Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great) rebuilt the city during the start of the first century, it is likely that Jesus would have spent much time working there as a carpenter. 

Sepphoris was a significant city for many reasons. Besides being the Galilean capital, it was the central hub of commerce and a highly influential Jewish place of leadership. There were many layers to life in cities like this and for life in general during the time of Jesus.

As I walked the modern-day ruins of this site, I couldn’t help picturing a twenty-year-old Jesus working next to his dad while listening and living a radically submerged life within this context. While shaping rock that would act as foundations for buildings whose use he may or may not have agreed with, Jesus was present.

Jesus was not just present for a year or two; he was present for thirty years before entering his formal ministry. There is an element of lingering inherent with submerging. It is a willingness to be present to the point of feeling like we are wasting time, when in reality we are leaving ourselves open to be used by the Spirit in ways we be might otherwise have never been aware of. Lingering is not simply walking aimlessly in circles: it is knowing what we are looking for and being intentional with our time and presence.

Jesus, with his building vocation as Messiah and inaugurator of the kingdom of God, spent time to linger, to be fully present and submerge into his context. And he did so for thirty years. Being the one chosen to redeem all of humanity, I have to wonder if he ever felt as thought he was wasting time at any point during the first thirty years of his life. After all, he had a lot of work to do and a renewed story to tell and invite God’s people into.

In the end, we know that Jesus wasn’t wasting time: he was listening to the voice of his Father and doing the very things he saw his Father doing (see John 5:19). He was submerging deep into his context and preparing to invite others into the story of God. The same is true for us: what may feel like wasted time is quickly redeemed by the Spirit when we linger and submerge with intentionality.

How might we have unhealthy expectations for the speed and frequency in which we see and experience transformation in our neighborhoods?  

May we be driven to better love on our neighborhoods by the Spirit rather than our ambitions or agendas, even if they are developed with the best intentions.  

Note: Much of this post in content from my book Thin Places

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