In a few previous posts I have been posting bits and pieces that begin to explain the thinking and the history behind why we have founded a new “simple church” network. You can read something about why we feel the need for something new here. Or something about the back-story here. If you want to understand the name Four31 you can find that here. You can read the values that we hold as particular communities and as a network as a whole here. And you can read our dream for the future here.
When I was trying to put some of the many ideas buzzing around my and our collective heads on paper I was tempted to stop there because I have an allergic reaction to five-year plans or anything that tries to feed my desire to have the future all worked out. Rather I have learnt that I have very little concept of what God is actually wanting to do through and in us tomorrow or next week never mind next year or the one after. A road map is helpful as something to guide you, though. As long as you keep it looking more like a satellite map than a street map and you remember that you may not even have the right map in your hands.
Having said all that I thought it might be helpful to try to give people who are “for us” but don’t “get it” or who might “get it” if we could “show it” a picture of how it could all look. That is if “it” even works and grows or if we even have the right map…
When we use phrases like “organic” or “simple” church it could often sound like we are advocating a no-structure approach to church. This is not the case; it would be more accurate to say that we are advocating both a structure-light approach as well as a fluid and flexible structure. We are content for our structure to grow with us and to be reinvented and re-imagined whenever necessary. We do not expect every part of the network to look the same as any other part. We expect uniformity in theology and values not in structure. We want our structures to free us for mission not conform us to ecclesiastical distinctives.
With the above points noted we have considered what a simple church network structure could look like. We envision four basic expressions of network life. These expressions are a guide not a prescription. Nor are they designed to be sequential “steps” to a pre-determined outcome.
A node is an area in which we are working but in which there is no formal gospel community as yet. Because much of what we are hoping to do will take the form of pioneering ministry, we expect that this will take time. Time to connect with people, to invite them into community and together envision what church could look like in this community and among this people.
If we have a trusted leader in an area then we have a node that is a part of the Four31 Network. We do want Gospel Communities or church plants to develop (and in fact we believe this cannot but happen when the gospel is at work) but we do not want to restrict belonging to Four31 to only those who already have a Gospel Community structure or who are actively in the process of forming one. We are committed to “commissioning” gospel men and women to get on with ministry in an area and allowing church to grow up contextually and organically without the pressure of immediate results or “church plant” expectations in order to legitimise the ministry.
Our hope is that Four31 can become a home to those who are called to pioneering ministry outside of the current church structures. And that together we can begin to envision what new and complementary structures might begin to look like.
Currently we have three nodes:
1. East City Area, Cape Town – Woodstock, Salt River, Observatory
2. Northern Suburbs, Cape Town – Bellville, Durbanville
3. Arizona, USA – Mission to the Apache Indians
2. Gospel Community: the most basic and fundamental unit of church life beyond one’s own family. A gospel community (GC) is a group of up to 20 people who have covenanted together to share life with one another and who share a common mission to an area or people. Some potential Gospel Communities that could develop around the East City Gathering for instance may include:
a) Area Gospel Communities into the areas of Woodstock, Lower Woodstock, Observatory and Salt River.
b) People Group Specific Gospel Communities to, for instance, Muslims, French Speakers, Youth, Students or Homeless People. These Gospel Communities would exist as a missional team seeking to find ways to reach and serve that specific people group with the gospel. This would not necessarily be a Gospel Community for those from that particular background but for those who want to reach them. When people follow Jesus they could be integrated into a Gospel Community or this team may consider how church might be contextualized for these believers
3. Gatherings: As the number of GC’s grow it would be useful to group a number of these GC’s (3-6) around a centralized gathering. This gathering could share training, leadership, and some collective identity. This gathering (for instance the East City Gathering) could determine the frequency and appropriate shape of their gathering.
4. Network: As Gospel Communities multiply so new Gatherings would be formed. As the amount of Gatherings increase so these Gatherings would then be formed into a wider network of Gatherings.
In a few previous posts I have been posting bits and pieces that begin to explain the thinking and the history behind why we have founded a new “simple church” network. You can read something about why we feel the need for something new here. Or something about the back-story here. If you want to understand the name Four31 you can find that here.
In this post you can read about the values that we hope will shape us as individual Christian communities and as a network.
1. We are becoming a people shaped by the Story of God. Our lives, both individually and communally must be shaped by the Bible story. We call each other to live lives of sacrifice, service, submission and risk-taking for the sake of the gospel. We listen to God’s Word as the reliable, authoritative and sufficient word of God.
2. We are becoming a dependant people, completely reliant on God to give fruit to our efforts. We cannot plan the shape and direction of mission ahead of time it is the supernatural work of God and cannot be planned, organised or controlled. We are committed to prayer as both a regular communal rhythm and a spontaneous response to needs and opportunities. Our role is to plant the gospel seed, to respond to opportunities and to allow the Holy Spirit to guide the shape and direction of our ministry.
3. We are becoming a missional people. Our primary identity is as God’s sent people and we seek to shape ourselves, our lifestyles and our structures around this primary identity. We want people to experience church as a network of relationships rather than a meeting you attend or a building you enter. We are committed to mission and not our traditions, comfort or preferences as the organising principle for our life together.
4. We are becoming a restored people. The Christian community is a foretaste of God’s future restoration of all things and we seek to reflect God’s coming, yet now broken-in, Kingdom as a community of justice, mercy, peace, reconciliation, beauty, creativity and love. We experience this restoration now imperfectly, in hiddenness and weakness, but one day in fullness and in glory.
5. We are becoming a communal people. We have not been saved for a life of individualistic spirituality but to be a part of a people, God’s new community. We are thus committed to sharing our lives together as extended family. This will impact how we make decisions, how we use our time, how we regard our possessions, where we choose to live and how we deal with conflict.
6. We are becoming an inclusive people, a community of peace in our busy and divided world. We, who in Christ have found rest, peace and wholeness, must now embody that in a community of grace for others, both believers and unbelievers, and not one based on performance.
7. We are becoming a diverse people; restored to one another through the gospel. We will not favour any one culture, education level or socio-economic status over another. All cultures are simultaneously redeemed and judged by the gospel. This diversity must be reflected in the make-up of our community and leadership and in the rhythms and shape of our life together.
8. We are becoming a local people. We wish to see truly contextual gospel communities planted that whilst maintaining robust gospel faithfulness are also truly recognisable expressions of that culture or locality. We are committed to stripping away all the non-essentials to church life and allowing the gospel to reinvent church in every subculture and local community. We are committed to living, listening to and sharing in the life of our local community.
9. We are becoming an ordinary people; sharing life together with gospel intentionality. The context for mission, community, discipleship, pastoral care and training, is ordinary life. We value people over programmes. When we run programmes they must be relational, timely and if necessary dispensable.
10. We are becoming a growing people. We are committed to a simple model of church that is small, decentralized and easily reproducible. We believe that home is the primary location of church and the location for all or most of church life. Church planting must not be dependant on financial resources, buildings, formal education or paid leadership. Leaders must be disciple-makers who create a culture of permission giving for mission and innovation.
11. We are becoming a global people. We recognise and celebrate that we are only a small part of God’s global mission among all peoples and cultures. We are committed to praying for, blessing and celebrating global mission. We are committed to sending people and finances to bless other communities, cities and nations outside of our immediate focus.
A number of missional thinkers have noted that the church globally is living in a time of liminality. Liminality may be defined simply as a time of transition from one state to another. While we, in South Africa, may not have seen the almost wholesale collapse of Christendom witnessed in Europe and parts of North America, we cannot, however, afford to be naïve about the fact that the place of the church in society is changing.
The church can no longer be said to occupy the central place, or even a significant place, in our communities. Increasingly we are a church on the margins, our opinions tolerated or ignored but rarely sought after or embraced.
In South Africa we still have a strong support for and recognition of traditional church structures but we also have an increasingly strong disconnect with traditional church structures or methodology. This is far deeper than simply dissatisfaction with the music or style of the service, although these could be symptoms of a deeper-seated dissatisfaction or apathy. Increasingly people are not simply looking for a “better kind of church.” they simply have no desire for church. This may manifest itself in hostility, around certain issues, but increasingly they feel only apathy as to what organised religion says or does. This trend in our experience is increasingly cutting across racial and socio-economic categories. We are increasingly reaching a transitional stage between what was and what is to come.
What is required in this time of liminality is not an either-or when it comes to church but a “mixed economy” church culture. There is still a value and a role for traditional church structures but there must be an increasing realisation of the need for new ways of doing church. These new ways must not be led by personal preference or clever innovation but by mission. Mission is the catalytic mark of the church.
This is what Four31 is all about, re-envisioning church for a new reality in order to reach those who are no longer being reached by traditional church structures. Liminality is a threshold experience that requires risk and danger as we seek to create a missional urgency for the journey between what is and what will be.
Many of those who share a similar vision to us will struggle to find a home within the current church structures. Four31 is about creating a home for missional pioneers, so that they may be commissioned and set free to litter the forgotten and neglected places of our cities and country with scattered communities of light.
Also: Four31: The Back-Story
Here is an excerpt from our recent newsletter (sign up by sending me an email letting me know you want in):
“Our trip to the UK in October and November last year was a huge blessing. We returned home excited, inspired, encouraged and hugely challenged by all that we saw. We were particularly blessed by our time in Loughborough with The Crowded House (TCH) family there. We love the folks at TCH. We love their passion for mission, their willingness to ask the hard questions and their love for the gospel, the church and for us.
TCH leadership have, however, been re-evaluating how external church plants best affiliate with them and how best they can operate as a network. In short they thought that it would be best for us relocate to the UK for at least 2-3 years (probably more) for a time of training, assessment, gaining of experience, belonging to the church family and building of strong relationships.
While there was much to commend this suggestion and everything was been discussed in a spirit of love and grace towards us; we do not think moving to the UK for a few years will best prepare us for church-planting in Cape Town. So, it is with sadness that we will no longer be a part of The Crowded House network.”
“As a result we have begun work on developing a vision for what our own network (cue Four31) could look like.”
“More and more it feels as if God is calling us to pioneer something new. There is great value in partnering with more established overseas networks, but we all know that contextually Africa is a very different place. So perhaps God is leading us (read kicking and screaming) to take up the experience and the wisdom of our overseas brothers and sister and forge something new and highly contextual here. Perhaps it is time to stop looking at what others are doing and to start simply asking “what would it mean to follow Jesus here?” “What would church look like here among these people in this place?”
Mez has a brilliant and hard-hitting post that I think is hugely relevant to us in South Africa. Especially us middle-class, evangelical Christians, who often seem all too willingly ignorant of the vast gospel needs in the prosperity gospel infested townships, the drug-flooded Cape Flats and the desperately poor rural areas such as the Eastern Cape. The gospel cry is for a new generation of downwardly mobile Christians to give up their small ambitions of nice houses and good schools and move into these less than sexy neighbourhoods with the gospel. Will it cost us to leave the safe suburbs and follow the gospel need? Definitely but did it not cost Christ everything to leave the glory of heaven and take on humanity, suffering rejection and betrayal and ultimately death on the cross, for our sins. Where we deserving? Not a chance. But we move in with the Good News of resurrection, of forgiveness, of new life, of peace, of joy and of hope!
Here are a few of my favourite parts:
“Jesus is more important than your family. He is certainly more important than your children. Deal with it. Or walk away. There will always be issues and worries and problems and questions concerning the Christian life… But the bottom line will always be whether you are prepared to put your allegiance to Christ before all and above all, including those wonderful, fluffy, cute, sweet-smelling bundles of (often) idolatrous joy that we call our offspring.”
“Church planting might actually cost us something. That something might even turn out to be everything. It might turn out to be every sacred cow we hold dear in our middle class, educationally driven, child centred, play it safe, let’s cover all the angles before we step out, Christian culture.”
“Really? You mean those biographies of long since, dead people who buried their children on the missions field after suffering all sorts of wasting diseases, might actually have some relevance for my coddled, sanitized Twenty First Century life? Are you suggesting that I may have to make difficult decisions today that may even be (in human, earthly terms) detrimental for my loved ones? Well, that sounds a bit over the top. That doesn’t even sound biblical, or even closely like my God who wants me and my family to be safe and sound. What would Joyce Meyer or the guy with the nice teeth on the God Channel say about that? God wants me to take decisions that make me and my family happy, doesn’t He? God wouldn’t really want me to suffer for His namesake, would He? OK, maybe a bit of name calling and some strong debate with my atheist friends. But, to move my family to a tough scheme without thought to my young ones? C’mon. God wouldn’t want me to do anything that is irresponsible, surely? We should, at least, consider some sort of risk assessment? You seriously mean to say that my children might suffer for the gospel? My wife might suffer for the gospel? I thought I might have to suffer but not like this. Actually, when I come to think about it, I’m not actually sure what I mean when I say that.”
I shall confess…. I am a misfit.
I have never really fitted in with the church scene.
Don’t misunderstand me, this is not going to be one of those disgruntled with the church blogger type rants (at least I hope not).
I love the church!
When I read the Bible I find a picture of the church made in the image of our God. A church that reflects the character and the mission of our God. I read about a God who loves the unlovable; who shows grace to the undeserving, mercy to the merciless, who sends rain on the just and the unjust. I read the story of the King who used his power not to crush us or serve his own ambitions but to rescue us, to restore us and to give us new life and new birth into a living hope.
The church is not perfect but we are right now a foretaste of what God is at work doing. His Kingdom has now broken in and is at work saving and restoring a people, where the good and gracious reign of King Jesus can be seen. We are now a foretaste of God’s restored humanity. In the church we find a taste of what it means to be truly human… again.
In the Scriptures I find a picture of church far beyond my experience.
I find myself frustrated wishing it would be so much more. It could be so much more. It should be so much more.
Mostly I wish we were more radical in our love for lost people…
I am fully convinced that God does and can and will continue to use the contemporary/ traditional/mainstream (choose the most appropriate and least offensive description) church to preach the gospel, care for the broken, disciple believers, and reach the lost. I, for one, am a testimony to this.
Honestly I think that there are some great churches within easy driving (or walking) distance of where I live. They are reaching people and will continue to do so. But in all honesty, many of them are reaching the same kind of people. Even if they have a diversity of membership it is still largely a similar kind of diversity.
In a country as diverse as South Africa, and in a city as diverse as Cape Town we need to continually be thinking through our methodology and our church culture, asking ourselves – who are we reaching? And perhaps more significantly who are we not reaching?
The answer of course is not to be all things to all men in one structure. What we need are scattered communities of light willing to get into the nooks and crannies of our society, adopting the rhythms, and shape of their lives, meeting them on their terms and on their turf. Engaging them with the gospel of Jesus Christ, in word and in deed. And demonstrating through the shared life of the gospel community that it is good to live under the reign of King Jesus.
I suspect am a misfit because I did not grow up in a Christian family or breathing the unusual air of the pervasive Christian culture. I got saved in a culture of mission and I was discipled in a culture of mission. I admit I got lost in the whole church culture scene for a bit. But through some really tough circumstances I ended up out of the church culture for a bit. And I realised that I never want to go back…
Like I said I love the church and I love so many people who are part of the contemporary church scene. Some of them are doing some amazing thing and some of them are being used by God to do amazing things. But we have slowly (read kicking and screaming) made peace with the fact that God has called us to a different path. A path for misfits. I struggle to put words to it but somehow I have always gravitated to those on the fringes; the doubters, the strugglers, the broken, the sceptics.
For as long as I can remember I have always had a burden to reach those who are not being reached by others. I can clearly remember on Scripture Union camps asking for the “difficult” kids to be in my group and volunteering to be on duty to “baby-sit” the smokers because I knew it was most likely that most of these kids were not Christians. At one church I worked at as a youth pastor I remember another youth pastor telling me that my kids scared him a bit… I’m still not really sure what that was all about?
But something within me has always come alive when faced with those others deem too difficult, too broken, too lost. When I was a 19-year-old rookie camp leader, a man I greatly admired looked at me across the table one meal time and said, “John, God is going to use you to reach people the rest of us can only dream of reaching!”
Honestly, I never believed him. But as I look back over 15 plus years I can see unlooked-for echoes of those words throughout my life. I still don’t really know if I believe him but I now know I want it to be true.
And finally I think I am starting to be at peace with the unorthodox shape of our ministry. Finally I realise that sometimes it is a blessing to feel more alive outside with the smokers than inside singing with the saints. Sometimes God uses misfits too…
After a few coffees pastor’s tongues start to loosen up, call it a bit of Geneva courage, and they begin to speak their mind a little less cautiously. After plying a few unsuspecting but prospective lads with a few drinks the talk has begun to turn to a surprisingly similar topic. There is a growing frustration with imports. Not the cheap Chinese variety but more like the polished Western variety. Theological imports are awash on our shores. Go into any good or not so good Christian bookshop and what you will find are hundreds of books written by European or American authors. If you look hard enough you might find a South American or Indian author gathering dust in some forgotten corner. Finding a prolific African author might well be more difficult than finding a white person who supported apartheid. And dare I say, evangelicals might well be the worst?
We have this love-hate relationship with our Western poster boys (or girls for you egalitarians out there!). We cram our bookshelves with their books, fill our ears with their pod casts and stampede to their conferences if they bless us with their presence. We can quote them, discuss them and gently critique their exegesis, where necessary, but yet, we knowingly nod; they don’t really understand our context. We give that conspiratorial smile as we condemn their ignorance. “What we really need,” some particularly loquacious soul will declare “is to write our own stuff.” But yet despite the chorus of muttered agreement and nodding heads nothing will happen… until the next round of coffee that is!
So what is it about South Africa that has engendered so little serious theological reflection, so little writing and so little publishing? Why is it still more natural to go offshore when you need some expert help in a given area? No doubt we have the capacity, we have the intellectual capital, we have the thinkers, we have the experience (it is our context after all?). What is it then?
There may be contributing factors- time, money, experience, less of a writing culture and the realities of living in a third world as opposed to a first world country. But I suspect the underlying factor has more to do with us and less to do with circumstances. Fear! It sings it’s poisonous song within my heart every time I boldly clatter a few keys on my keyboard. Fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear of being wrong…
It is always easier never to try than to try and fail. It is always easier to read other’s more accomplished works and to repeat their thinking than to actually engage in the rigorous discipline of your own writing and risking being wrong or not good enough.
The answer to these fears cannot be a call to pluck up some courage or find some greater sense of self-belief (we see you Oprah!). Underlying these fears are a more fundamental story, a more fundamental theological error that goes to the heart rather than the symptoms of failure.
We have allowed our identity to be shaped in this issue not by the gospel but rather by an alternate story. It is a story in which our identity is shaped by success or approval or being right. Our story might go something like this:
CREATION: I am meant to be successful in life
FALL: I am not sure I can be successful. I fear failure.
REDEMPTION: I will minimize my risk of failure by limiting my activities to things I have a reasonable confidence in my ability to achieve at least partial success. I feel good about myself and appear to be successful. (Therefore it is easier to talk about other’s writing than to risk failure through my own writing)
CONSUMMATION: If I avoid being a failure perhaps I will have been a success.
CREATION: I am meant to be loved and accepted.
FALL: I do not always feel accepted
REDEMPTION: I seek people’s approval and stay away from activities that could bring disapproval (if I write people may not like it or worse, disagree with it, then I would not be accepted)
CONSUMMATION: I hope that I will be approved by what I do.
The solution to these alternate gospels is as with most things to replace it with the better and truer Story. An identity that is rooted in the Gospel Story liberates us to write, sing, dance, plant churches or climb mountains. A gospel believing writer’s story might go something like this:
CREATION: I am meant to create, reflect on and shape God’s world for His glory
FALL: I use this God-given task to redefine my value and measure my worth to others in the light of my success or lack of it.
REDEMPTION: I am loved and accepted because of what Christ has done on my behalf already. My performance cannot change that. Christ has completed the work on my behalf; it has been declared an overwhelming success. In Him and because of his work, I am already a success.
CONSUMMATION: I find lasting approval in Jesus the one who loved me when I was still a sinner. I can rest in Jesus finished work on my behalf. I am free to create without the pressure of approval or failure.
When our identity is rooted in Christ we are set free to be wrong, to write badly or to not be liked. When we know that we are a beloved child of the most High God we are set free to create, to write, to inspire, to challenge and to risk. When we are justified in Christ we no longer have to prove ourselves through our theological correctness or our inspiring prose. We no longer have to be novel, interesting or readable in order to be successful.
Our writing probably will not be as good as our first-world counterparts but why should we expect it to be? They have been doing it for far longer than we have. They have a culture of writing, mediating, critiquing, improving and encouraging. Not to mention the obvious benefits of time and resources that financial stability and dedicated academic institutions bring. But we do not have to be like them or as good as them. We may get there, we may even surpass them one day but unless we learn to rest in our gospel identity we will forever be relegated to those whose greatest contribution will be to consume and criticise.
Not only does the gospel free us to not be as good as them but it also frees us to not be like them. The church does not need us to support a ravenous publishing industry by producing more of the same, simply with more exotic author names. No, we need to write as the church in South Africa. Our theological reflections must be coloured by our context. Our questions, our issues, our struggles as well as our strengths, our insights and our victories are all different to those of our brothers and sisters in the west. What the church worldwide needs is not window dressed publishing but it needs us to be the church and to reflect and write as the church in the context in which God has put us.
We have to write with our weaknesses, our insights, our blind spots and our questions. We may be rejected, derided or misunderstood but we can write boldly, prophetically and faithfully knowing that we rest in our gospel identity. The church does not need another western publishing industry the church needs us. We write not to be contentious or to make a name for ourselves, we write to serve the church, to love our brothers and ultimately for the glory and fame of Jesus.