So it has taken me over a week to process what happened in Austin at the Verge conference.
My Description of Verge
First, let me give you some background.
There is a desire for reform in the air of the American church. A vast variety of voices are talking about how most major denominations are/have been in decline for some time. Each voice has a different answer to solving the problem. These answers each carry a new/reformed model of how-to-do-church. Some proclaim mega-churches that attract lots of people. Other cry for house-churches whose primary expression of the Gospel is the freedom of expression. Others have even dug deeper into traditions and practices of centuries past. Everyone seems to have a different opinion.
One voice that has arisen recently with force is the missional voice. The term “missional” currently has many different meanings. Common to all the definitions though is the desire to see every believer empowered as a missionary – to see their identity as participants in the Misso Dei (the Mission of God).
The Verge Conference was the first attempt (to my limited knowledge) in the U.S. to get all the different missional voices together under the same roof. The centralizing theme being that the missional movement is on the verge of something really special happening in the American church.
The conference was structured around Alan Hirsch’s book The Forgotten Ways. The book calls the church to recapture Apostolic DNA, elements of the New Testament church that create conditions for movements of God to occur. There are six components of Apostolic DNA Hirsch indentifies:
- Jesus is Lord – The founding and driving proclamation of “Jesus is Lord.” This should completely define the church’s world view.
- Becoming Disciples – An obession with discipleship, becoming more like Jesus.
- The Incarnational Impulse – Every believer should be Jesus in the world.
- Apostolic Environments – Ephesians 4 leadership structures (which I explained two posts ago).
- Organic Systems – decentralized systems that are easily reproducible.
- Communitas – an understanding of “team” amongst believers, the idea that they are on mission together.
Each main session began with a video of Hirsch explaining one of these elements. Then four speakers would follow. Each one spoke for fifteen to twenty minutes. I believe they were supposed to be addressing Hirsch topic, but as with every conference, that didn’t always happen. In-between the main sessions were breakout sessions held by leading voices and practitioners of “missional” church.
I put “missional” in quotes because, as I said before, not everyone agrees on what that means…and that was clear at the conference.
The Odd Tension
To be completely upfront, I’m an Alan Hirsch fan. I love his understanding of the church. Forgotten Ways radically changed how I understand the world. It is why Wendy and I gathered the Thingy. It is shaping my work at Valley. It has been a defining book for me. That being said…
I sensed an odd tension at the conference. Forgotten Ways opens with a discussion of how the American-consumer driven-attractional-mega-growth centered-church is broken. Hirsch pits his understanding of missional as a rejection of that way of church. The book has an openly corrective, “this is broken and we need to fix it”, tone; but the conference was filled with attractional mega church leaders. In fact, the speaker of the opening breakout I attended started his two hour session off with the statement, “I believe that there is no difference between an attractional church and a missional church. Every church needs to be both.”
See, for me, that is like saying every fruit needs to be an apple and an orange; or every pet needs to be a cat and a dog – a cat-dog! But that feeling underlined the conference. “We want to keep our visionary leadership (not your Apostolic environments) and our centralized systems (not your organic stuff); but we want to adopt your obsession with discipleship, incarnational living, and communitas.”
Most of the time I was frustrated. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You either empower the people by giving up control or you hold control, build a fantastic show that attracts people, and recognize you are going to create some consumers. This tension was so tangible that when, in the last main session, Francis Chan confessed it and put it out on the table a huge time of worship began. Chan openly confessed that while he loves the idea of decentralized missional church, he is terrified by it as well. He left the stage and the room was struck with a thick silent reverence that led to people yelling out statements of worship toward Christ.
My fear is that most people left, not challenged to surrender their current plans; but rather justifying their desire to be both missional and attractional. Despite Chan’s confession and Hirsch’s aggressively honest breakout sessions, that was a real temptation of the conference.
My Great Take Aways
I’ve already written extensively about my take aways from Hirsch’s understanding of Appostolic Environments; so now I will summarize (attempt to quote but butcher the actual wording) some of the thoughts I found inspirational and helpful.
Hirsch on “Jesus is Lord”: We are the carriers of a virus. That virus is the statement “Jesus is Lord.” We carry this and infect everyone around us with it. Our Christology in this way forms everything.
Chan on “Jesus is Lord”: We cannot simply allow this to be the latest fad. God holds leadership responsible. We need to be biblically centric and courageous. We need to erase all other models, look at the Scripture and simple ask, “If you opened the Bible and read it, how then would you live?” The answer of course is that you would be a passionate disciple on mission.
Hirsch on Organic Systems: Every agent needs to be able to reproduce the whole. Right now the church is like a spider. Legs can be pulled off and the creature will live; but pull off the head and the creature dies. We need to become like a starfish. Every leg contains the DNA. Pull one off and not only will the starfish regrow it; the leg will also regrow the whole starfish.
Neil Cole on Organic Systems: We spend so much time trying to make things grow. Jesus spent time sowing seeds and harvesting. Curriculums, methodologies, and books don’t change lives. Reading the Bible together changes lives. This is much simpler than we make it out to be. Plant the seed and the Spirit will grow it. As long as we are depending on our methods and messages nothing will ever grow.
Jeff Vanderstelt on Organic Systems: Jesus Christ is the senior pastor of the church. When we take His role the congregation ends up paying us to do ministry for them. Instead everyone should consider themselves full time staff members. Jesus didn’t die so you could hold an event; and our people are more than volunteers. Structure in such a way that everyone is empowered to be a carrier of the Gospel.
Hirsch on Organic Systems: The structure of a movement is “chaordic” – chaos + order. Order destroys life and creativity; but chaos doesn’t last. We need to find the sweet spot of balance. Build operational principles that can be implied in a billion different ways. The congregation should not be defined by its organization, but rather by the idea everyone embraces and lives. In this way everyone gets to play.
Hirsch: If I was the devil and I wanted to strike a blow at the people movement of Acts 2, the first thing I would do is separate clergy and laity. Ordination is the doctrine of the devil. By creating a separation between the professional class and the normal believer we kill the movement. If we are the clergy than they are the spectators.
Hirsch on Discipleship: We must be obsessed with this. If we don’t disciple people, the culture will. Consumerism is a religion. It is being defined by what we own. Discipleship is about becoming more and more like Jesus. Therefore, you cannot build a church on consumers because they have no commitment but one to their own needs.
George Patterson on Discipleship: Present the living risen Christ. Mobilize every believer. Stop trying to shove the camel through the eye of the needle. (Everyone plants churches in the suburbs. Go to the poor.) Don’t get stuck on methods; use what works. And don’t pull people from their environment into a church culture; empower them where they are.
Hirsch on the Incarnation: God is a sending God. He is a missionary God. We are therefore sent into the world.
There was more…but you get the idea. The conference gave me a tone to chew on. It was frustrating, challenging, and encouraging all at the same time.