Suggesting a Few Changes in Form*

We have all been reading for years about how people in our post-Christian society are changing in relationship to spiritual understanding and approach. And for many of us who have been apart of the institutional church, it is not surprising that these same authorities are telling us that the institutional church is unable to comprehend or take advantage of this shifting spiritual environment.

Here is part of the shift they report to us.

  • Religion is out, but spiritually is in.
  • Christianity is out, but Jesus is in.
  • Future religious concerns are out, but “here and now” spirituality is in.
  • Propositional truth is out, but truth validated by intuition and experience is in.

The Pacific Northwest region of the United States (where I live) is called the “None Zone.”** This is because, when asked about their religious identification, more people answer “none” than in any other area of the United States. It also puts us at the heart of many of the changes the researchers are telling us about.

Here are some stats:

  • Northwesterners are twice as likely as people living in the Bible Belt to claim no religious preference.
  • The Pacific Northwest is the only region of the country where a majority of the population does not affiliate with a religious congregation.
  • Most Northwesterners do not participate in religious institutions and never have.
  • Sixty-three percent of total population of the Northwest are religiously unaffiliated.
  • According to USA Today, Seattle is the #1 unchurched city in America.

Yet it is also interesting that this is a spiritual region. Take a look at the following:

  • When asked, “Do you agree or disagree that God exists?”, 63% said they agree somewhat or agree strongly.
  • When asked, “Do you agree or disagree that God helps me?”, 53% said they agree somewhat or agree strongly.
  • Only 1.2% of Oregonians (my home state) describe themselves as agnostics (and a statistically negligible number are atheists).
  • Christianity is the stated religious preference of 75 to 79% of Oregonians.

My reaction to this is that we are living in a splendid place and time, filled with almost unparalleled opportunities! But we must think and act differently if we are to take advantage of the spiritual environment that we find ourselves in.

Form Follows Function

Because our thinking and action have to change, we must deal with the current “forms” that were developed based on old thinking and theory. Let me just throw out a few “form” changes I think need to be made.

Contextualized Language

Michael Frost says that we must employ “the language and thought forms of those with whom we seek to share Jesus.” Here are a couple of changes in language that I’ve made:

  • Jesus follower instead of Christian — We should not hide the fact that we are Christians, but they love Jesus so identify with him.
  • Faith community instead of Church — Faith Community is neutral language and could mean any faith and is comfortable with the not-yet-Christian. Again, we are not talking about hiding who we are, but instead, using neutral language that allows for open conversation and relationship building.
  • Spiritual pilgrimage instead of Christian life — Even the not-yet-Christian understands that they are on a life pilgrimage or journey and are usually willing to share that pilgrimage which give you the opportunity to share your journey.
  • God is Light instead of God is Love (meaning the love message as exemplified by the “Four Spiritual Laws” track) — As John wrote, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” Spiritual people by definition are looking for light, an excepted metaphor for a condition of spiritual awareness which could be outward (e.g., divine illumination) or inward (e.g., inner light). Using the term in a conversation allows you to explore spiritual “things” with the person at a level that they are generally comfortable with.

Remember, we want to employ the language and thought forms of those with whom we seek to share Jesus.

Smaller Faith Communities

Growing and maintaining large faith communities lends itself to attractional, seeker focused programs and activities, but also creates structural impediments for missional focused Jesus followers. We must consider establishing a greater number of smaller kingdom outposts where:

  • It is easier to foster community.
  • It is easier to be part of a supportive family.
  • You have better group communications and shared values.
  • There is less need (maybe no need at all) of dedicated buildings. The local pub or community center would work just fine.
  • The Pastor doesn’t become a CEO.
  • Community members don’t get sucked dry of time, energy, and resources attempting to maintain structure and organization.
  • It is easier to welcome the stranger into the midst of the community.

Geographically Close Faith Communities

Faith communities that are composed of members who are geographically dispersed foster, among many other things, individualism and attractional approaches to “doing church.” In contrast, members of missional communities should, as much as possible, live in the same close geographic area and become intentionally indigenous. This implies that many will purposely relocate to be part of a specific missional community. The advantages are numerous, including:

  • Shared values with that of your community.
  • Missional proximity.
  • Easier to built local relationships with local not-yet-Christians.
  • Easier to establish and maintain third places (a captivating concept).
  • Easier to contextualize the message for their own situation and place.
  • Easier to practice hospitality.
  • Concentrated prayer and missional effort.

Since I’m looking at this from my Pacific Northwestern USA context, I’d be interested in hearing your perspective. Its your turn to build on and add to this.

* This post is a rewrite and update of one I did a year or so ago which got lost in the great blog meltdown of December 2006.
** Killen Patricia O’Connell, “Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone,” AltaMira Press (March 2004).

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8 Responses to “Suggesting a Few Changes in Form*”

  1. Matt Stone says:

    I agree language contextualization is essential, but I differ somewhat in way I apply it. Maybe it has to do with my context, but in Australia the word ‘faith’ is strongly associated with Christianity and so ‘faith community’ is not much more neutral than ‘church’.

  2. Rick Meigs says:

    Interesting Matt. What would be a more neutral term in Australia (if there is one)?

  3. Brian Humek says:

    Hi Rick,

    Great thoughts. I totally agree, especially about the smaller kingdom outposts. We had church Wednesday night at Starbucks. There were 8 of us. Three of the group weren’t Christians, two of those don’t go to church anywhere. It was a great time of fellowship, beloning, sharing struggles and prayer.

    Last year I attended a church planting lab SW of Portland at a Bible camp in the woods (Yamhill). We have begun our church plant, a network of organic groups in homes, Starbucks, etc. We’ll have a bi-weekly corporate gathering too, God willing.

    Great site you have here!


  4. Rick Meigs says:

    Brian: Thanks for dropping in and commenting. Great to see some good things happening here in Portland. Love to hear more if you have time for coffee.

  5. Matt Stone says:

    Spiritual community seems more neutral to me if that’s what you’re after. To be honest though I am generally ok just talking about Christian community. I once found the word Christian problematic and went for Jesus follower instead, as you advocate here, but these days I am more relaxed about it given experiences in the interrim. The question I have is, what happens when we rebrand Christians as Jesus followers, but continue to use in house language like missional and postmodern and faith and and and. You get the idea. Its the rest of the conversational language I am spending more time trying to shed. I find its a self confessed Christian that can otherwise speak without jargon that really sends peoples heads into a spin and undercuts expectations. Even more, to be able to speak the gospel in their jargon. I am not claiming perfection here mind you, just sharing the trail am following.

  6. Rick Meigs says:

    Matt: I agree that the use of jargon really sends peoples heads into a spin. There is a whole set of in-house jargon that, to me, is used by Jesus followers all to much in conversations with those who are not followers. How many times in the business world or academia have we been told never to use jargon when speaking to those outside of our sphere of expertise. I barely touched the surface in the post.

    Thanks for following the trail!

  7. […] is an excerpt from a thought provoking article by Blind Beggar.  The article is titled “Suggesting a few changes in form” and these are few thoughts on having smaller faith communities.  We currently live in a world […]

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