Owen Alderfer, 1985
The first General Conference of the Brethren in Christ I ever attended was led by the Moderator named Owen Alderfer. He impressed us so much that Gwen and I thought we had stumbled upon the Shangri-la of denominations. We had lived in intentional community for years and here was Owen Alderfer trying to teach mutual respect and dialogue to a group of over 500 delegates who took themselves rather seriously. Just the fact that he would trust the group to debate meaty issues was way beyond anything we had ever experienced beyond the local level.
His mentality has slowly eroded over the years until BIC meetings would have to resurrect the idea of dialogue and few delegates take themselves seriously since they have little purpose — other than experiencing the show. But I have not forgotten Dr. Alderfer. If you talk about what should form the character of a BIC church planting, you might look to his summary of his dissertation called The Brethren Mindset.
Alderfer summarized an ethos that had four overlapping assumptions:
- Christian truth is open—ended.
- No one holds a monopoly on truth; God’s truth, therefore, may come to us from a variety of sources.
- A system of doctrine is qualified by trusting relationships among brethren.
- Mutuality is necessary to the existence and development of the body.
This mindset helped form the way of Christ for the Brethren in Christ. Unwittingly, perhaps, it is amazingly suited for the postmodern world. I have often said, and thought when I joined up, that the BIC’s capacity to be a little “big tent” was the main thing it could offer to the future. Right now I think that has been reduced to a “mosaic” of identities with little reason to hold together. Alderfer’s mindset offers a framework to actually make that diversity into a dynamic unity. I think he matches what Cavanaugh calls the pilgrim way through the mobility of the globalized world (see previous post).
I have to admit that I don’t really care if we plant “Brethren in Christ” churches, not really. I am not a so-called “cradle BIC.” I am not even a cradle Christian, since my parents never attended a church. So that kind of blood-family loyalty is not my strong suit. Instead of just extending the blood-line, what I want to do is make disciples who have the hope of making disciples and plant churches that have the hope of reproducing churches. I want to live in a lively incarnation of Jesus as the body of Christ — a body influencing individuals and whole regions by its unusual presence and prophetically demonstrating as well as explaining how it is the alternative to the fallen world around it, starting with introducing the person of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
I love the four-legged stool idea of Anabaptist, Pietist, Wesleyan and now Evangelical ways that combine to make a foundation for the Brethren in Christ. But I would add more legs: the charismatic movement, the “purpose driven” influence from a few years ago, and I would go further back and include the original desert father and mothers, the Benedictine movement in the 600’s, the Cluniac reforms of the 900’s, and the Franciscan movement of the 1200’s – it all comes from a common yearning from people who want to be Jesus followers, not just part of some “thing.” I came into Christianity with a trip through the history of Christianity, being personally attracted to all the radicals who just wanted to follow Jesus the best they could, and I was basically opposed to all the men who wanted to systematize and dominate the church to death.
So I am not that interested in the historic character of the Brethren in Christ or the very limited theological contours it has written for itself. I doubt that most, if any, of the BIC church people are that interested, either. (This blog post may be boring you already!). It just so happens that I think the Brethren in Christ stumbled upon a rather appropriate way to be the church. To the extent that we can express our genius and keep it living and not merely codified, then we are a good team to join. If we aren’t really a team and we are just trying to drum up enthusiasm for our dying tradition, then we won’t really have a good way to make disciples and plant churches, and I think we should just close down and go juice up the Church of the Brethren, or change our name and become something relevant.
I think we should be what Cavanaugh calls “pilgrims” in this interesting age. I have been a pilgrim and I think Alderfer was, too. A pilgrim is moving toward the center looking for gravity, not moving toward the periphery looking for difference or newness. The pilgrim, unlike the tourist, has a motivator outside themselves: God, rather than the interior motivator of satisfying themselves with relationships, knowledge or experiences. They are mobile, but they are not looking from above with the imperial gaze, they are looking ahead into what is next and looking inside for what needs to be emptied. They are humble.
When we planted Circle of Hope, we elaborately planned to build a church that had a brethren mindset. If you want to have one, I think it takes four features that match Alderfer’s premise: dialogue, a culture, listening leaders, and mutuality. See whether you think this bit of our genius is well-suited to making lifelong disciples from the people of our era.
Invite people into a dialogue.
Christian truth is open—ended; that is, it is not captured in a closed system and articulated in creeds and formal theological statements.
The idea is: “God may yet illumine the minds of His children to grasp new insights. True Christian faith is more a relationship than a system. We must, therefore, be open to the Holy Spirit that he may bring us new truth as our relationships to God and each other are enhanced throughout our Christian pilgrimage. We must continually be open to God lest we miss some fresh word from beyond.”
As the people God used to build Circle of Hope we had and still have choices. Our “small groups” could have just been a “program” of the church or the cells could be the church. We could have spawned independent congregations, dependent congregations, or do what we did: plant equal congregations joined as one church. We consciously formed a network of cells and congregations that are held together by a dialogue of love. The dialogue begins in the cells. It extends to cells of cell leaders and the Leaderships Teams that facilitate our life together. It is generated in the public meetings and works its way back down into the life of the body. The church is a breathing organism. That’s why we often warn people not to merely consume it, as Americans are accustomed to doing with everything, that would be cannibalism.
Everything we do has a feeling of being open-ended. Someone suggested a new proverb the other day: a newcomer is a gift you didn’t know you needed yet. That’s how dialogue should work. Alderfer quoted Vernard Eller saying that “’The central factor in brethrenism…is a commitment to follow Christ in radical discipleship.’ This thrust immediately skews Brethren thought away from the conceptual, the theoretical, the systematic, the theological, and toward the practical, the applicable, the existential. One’s positions are not as important as is the quality of one’s commitment and discipleship. The Bible is enough, and further creeds and regimentation are distractions.” God is splendidly complete, but God is humbly walking with us through our time until we are finished.
Thus, one of the main pieces of theology my children learned is that the people of God do not “go” to church, they “are” the church. They were forbidden to say, “We are going to church.” That’s impossible. Cavanaugh says the pilgrim mentality sees no differentiation between sacred and secular, clergy and laity, worship and work, spiritual and temporal. Speaking the truth in love undermines those, and other, false dichotomies. I like to talk about who is moving, not who is right or wrong, in or out, up or down. Those either/or identity arguments are the tricks of the powers. Having the arguments ultimately reduces faith to one’s private opinion. And when faith is private, the nation state owns the dialogue.
Nurture a culture
The first characteristic leads into the second: The body of belief held by Gods people may well incorporate principles from a variety of sources.
The idea is: “No one person or group has a monopoly on truth; we need to draw upon and learn from one another–using discernment and wise judgment all the while–lest our system of truth be dwarfed or truncated.”
This characteristic is seen in the early development of brethren-ish people. They were descendants of radical reformed Christianity. But they did not find this intense enough, so they searched for a deeper, richer expression of the faith. Their journey was later influenced by Pietism—-from which they drew a personal, immediate experience of God’s presence coloring all of life by the pervasive activity of the Holy Spirit.
God is always creating the culture by the power of the Spirit. As the people of God move through time they adapt, redeem and bring hope. Their pilgrim sense of having a center in Christ that they carry along their way and having a destination outside themselves, given by God, allows them to be agents of an ongoing creation. When Joe Snell (one of our early church planting pastors) answered our call to try to mother our first new congregation, one of the first things he did was organize our proverbs as he got a handle on our culture. We had collected the sayings of Circle of Hope in a rather disorganized document. In the course of our dialogue, certain things had become more important than others and we could reduce them to a line or two like the Old Testament proverbs. Joe put them in order. Ultimately, I was assigned to write a book about them, which I outlined as a group project with a few of my twentysomething comrades. We created a culture. We keep doing it: we write songs, we invent teams, we make a Map of our future together. The process makes us like family – we know who we are and who we are to each other and it makes us able to feel secure in hearing what God might be doing next.
Be a leader who listens
The thought system of the Brethren was something worked out in life among the Brethren.
The idea is: “A system of doctrine is not isolated from the trusting relationship of believing persons. The Brethren do not hesitate to state their beliefs and to support them with Scripture and argument; still, they are uncomfortable with a rigidly stated system regarded as capturing the entire body of truth and standing as the final measure of orthodoxy. More important is the Christian lifestyle and the caring relationships among Brethren. Minor and lesser differences may exist within a body as long as trusting relationship is maintained and fruitful conversation is progressing relative to the faith. Doctrine is seen as relational as well as logical; if there are differences between us we can work them out as long as we are under the Spirit and the Word and we maintain a trusting relationship.”
I think this mindset is perfect for the postmodern era. It would greatly enhance Brethren in Christ church planting, if we would stop diminishing the dialogue among the church at large, and our leaders demonstrated their trust for us rather than insisting that we trust them. I have objected, as I most recently did at the last General Conference, about the secrecy and trust-the-leaders mentality – not because I think the leaders are untrustworthy, but because I think they are undermining our unique capacity to plant churches that could make radical disciples. In the “global economy” radical Christians are like a boutique, like monasticism is within the Catholic church. Being small, familial, intense communities is our brand. Listening leaders culture that very necessary gift.
So when I came to Philadelphia to plant a church I first formed a formation team. They decided the church name; they helped form the plan. The first act was to begin cells and I was not even the first leader of one. While we want to double in size right now, I do not want to double by stealing the opportunity for individuals to become real Christians. No one needs to be a cog on a big machine. Just the opposite, they need opportunity to become deeper and to realize the full expression of their true selves as members of the body and full partners in the Lord’s mission. People often leave the church in their thirties because it is not meaty enough. It is boring, run by old white men who stopped listening in their thirties and just ran the organization. Leaders who listen demonstrate that the people are trustworthy and trustworthy people make a trustworthy church through which trust-starved postmoderns can find Jesus.
Mutuality is necessary to the existence and development of the body and to the working out of its system of belief.
The idea is: “Individuality is a valuable reality among the Brethren–the preciousness of the individual and the contribution of one single person to the whole; however individualism is a dangerous heresy which allows barriers to be erected between brethren and cuts one off from the inspiration and discipline of the whole. Brethren need one another in the identification of Christian thought, in the mutual discipline of the sanctifying process, and in life—warming, life-giving fellowship among believers.”
A leader can say whatever she likes but the culture, the system, the practices are what ultimately teach. We recently had an exciting Council meeting. In an inspiration we changed around our leaders and decided to spend Circle Thrift profits on risky dreams of expanding our influence and numbers. We call it the “second act” of Circle of Hope. At this meeting people cried. They questioned one another’s sensitivity and wisdom. We demonstrated how precious we think individuals are and we also reinforced that we want to be subject to the inspiration and discipline of the whole. We welcome the visible process of being the body of Christ in all our diversity, held together by a dialogue of love in the Spirit. It is a mutual process that takes all of us — at least the process reveals who’s not moving. You cannot present a brethren mindset in a powerpoint, it requires a community to learn. Life in Christ is a mutual endeavor if it is merely happening in one’s personal philosophy, it has left the Bible behind.
Being the church has always been challenging. The postmodern era is just another challenge the world presents on its way through the dark. We carry the light of Christ with us as we also make our way and we see the dawn on our horizon. It is worth the effort to make an authentic church with an ethos that matches the heart of Jesus as best we can.
Here are the previous posts to which I referred:
Who am I in the globalized world: migrant or tourist?
There is always a little pain in the introduction