I Can Only Imagine, or Can I?

I have a few thoughts swirling around about imagination, memory, identity, and potential for change. Just to be clear, this isn’t an angry or bitter rant. I am just thinking out loud and sharing some not-fully-developed thoughts.

Cindy asked in the previous post, “What now?”

There is important and necessary work happening in the conversation in an attempt to re-imagine what church is when we remove the Christendom lenses through which most of us have always known church. At this point however, it is mostly theory and conversation.

In The Forgotten Way, Alan Hirsch asserts that embedded within us is an apostolic memory that he refers to as mDNA. If we were to remember and realize that aspect of our identity as the people of God, the church could be transformed from an institution to an organic missional movement.

Even for those experimenting with changing models and methods there is an innate tendency to modify and remodel aspects of the dominant model. I really wonder if we are capable of imagining beyond what we have always known.

According to Alan’s mDNA, it is within us. Yet it seems that the power of the memory we are imprinted with may be a force greater than mDNA.

Instinctual drift is the tendency for organisms to revert to their natural tendencies, a history of learned behaviors so ingrained that they have become second-nature. We instinctually drift back to these known patterns by default.

In the Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch said:

“One of the major blockages to unleashing Apostolic Genius is our adherence to an obsolete understanding of the church. A people whose imagination of what it means to be God’s people has been taken hostage to a less than biblical imagination of church.”

Not only have our imaginations been taken hostage, but our desires have been captured also. I said in the previous post that we have the church we want. The majority of us live among people completely entrenched in and satisfied with the church model I described in my previous post.

I am doubtful that we will see church re-imagined to the degree that Alan describes. I am also doubtful that the dreamers who attempt to launch into something new will overcome the instinctual drift to revert to the inherited memory of church or to overcome the resistance from the masses whose expectation is for the institution of church we have always known.

While diagnosing the need for change is important, what will become of a handful of people asking “what now?’ in the shadow of the Christendom machine?


22 thoughts on “I Can Only Imagine, or Can I?

  1. Great post.

    I love the book “Prohpetic Imagination” by Walter Brueggeman, and one of my favorite quotes feels relevant to this: “We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable…The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined.”

  2. Hey Grace, as a new church planter that just kicked off our first preview service, I have to admit that I feel as if at some point in the future we may end up compromising what we ultimately would love to see happen for the sake of reaching more people. We definitely will never be a program-oriented church though!

    As we try to maintain a missional focus and a vision of engaging in community and having dialog with Christians and non-Christians it is my prayer that the word “compromise” will never enter into our language. Hirsch’s book resonated loudly within my spirit and it has influenced a lot of what we will intentionally do from the beginning as we start the adventure of Revolution Church Sacramento.

    In the end, regardless of the model, the essence of the truth of Christ’s salvation and his deity must stand and I believe God will use many models of churches and worship gatherings to come to know his son Jesus as Lord and Savior.

    Great post…thanks for sharing this food for thought!

  3. Grace,

    I appreciate your concern and perhaps even fears. I do see this a bit differently. It is not my responsibility, nor any of ours, to try to change the church. We are responsible for whether we are being the church individually and collectively with those who we gather with in community. It seems to me that once we have been changed by the Holy Spirit and have passed through a time of detox we need to act with like minded folks. We may not get it exactly right but if we are sensitive to the Holy Spirit we will progress in our journey toward what Father wishes us to be.

    Whether the institutional church changes, goes away, or continues as it is today, is really not our problem or responsibility. God will see that his church survives in his own way.

    For all these reasons I am no longer concerned what others in the institutional church do or do not do. I am only concerned with whether I am being the church Father requires of me in this moment and with the people in whom I am in community with now.

    We are tempted to think this is our work when it is the work of the Spirit in which we simply cooperate by following his leading.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts which always make me think.

  4. Hmm… well, Traveller pretty much summed up what I was going to say. ;-)

    Our job? To imagine and be willing to follow wherever He leads. It is His job to implement. I think that is where a lot of churches get hung up…

  5. Grace,

    I believe Alan asserts that the dormant mDNA is kick-started as part of an imaginative and hopeful response to an adaptive challenge — one that is much like what many of us are embroiled in with the whole post-whatever syndrome that is resulting in so much deconstruction.

    I hope that sentence even makes sense to you….

    As we recognize the adaptive challenge — “what the heck is church supposed to be about anyway, now that I just can’t keep doing what I’ve been doing” — we move into a vulnerable and liminal state. If we are able to connect with others in this same state of liminality, the collective power of the Holy Spirit in the group can give rise to a vision of what God is doing in our midst, and takes the opportunity afforded by the adaptive challenge to forge what Alan calls communitas — community on the edge. I call it eucatastrophic community — where missional victory is always being snatched from the jaws of failure by the Spirit, bringing strength through bonds forged in the fires of adversity.

    …always makes me think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — and the Leap of Faith from the lion’s head. The optical illusion makes it impossible to see the narrow rock bridge … but it is right there.

    I think many of us are still in the stage of disorientation caused by being abandoned in the dangerous forest alone … and we are working to find those who have also been dumped into the forest … and then must be about learning to help each other survive and trust and collaborate in that developing liminal state.

    Then, watch out for explosive mDNA! At least that’s my story! 8)

  6. i like peggy’s thoughts. but i’m beginning to feel, after wandering alone in the forest for so long, that maybe i’m the one who’s lost after all.

  7. This is such a tricky subject. On one hand, I believe that by God’s grace and redemptive work in us, He is able to use even our flawed “models” for His Kingdom (i.e. see Israel’s demand for a king). On the other hand, if we read the teaching and watch the example of Jesus, we cannot ignore that He is calling us together into something radically different than what we have accepted as status quo.

    Traveller’s statement, that it is none of our responsibility to “change the church” is true as far as it goes, but fails to address the main question of this blog. Being “changed by the Holy Spirit” and going through a time of “detox” doesn’t just happen TO us, but something we must willingly and intentionally embrace and participate it. Time and again I hear people say that if we are just faithful, God will do His work through us. Again, it sounds right, but it still begs the question of what does it look like to be “faithful”? This is the question I hear you asking.

    Jesus does NOT call us to be WILLING. He calls us to follow Him- intentionally, proactively, bodily, communally, incarnationally- and He calls us to follow Him to the Cross. While the cross might (in part) represent the internal process of moral & character transformation, it is about dying to our selves and Resurrecting into His Body, the Church- the incarnate presence of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue the radical work of Jesus to establish His Kingdom. Looking at Jesus example of how He did that, I think we can see a far more demanding model than we have accepted.

    However, in this we must go back to my first point- God is gracious and tends to use our mistakes redemptively. It frees us from the despair of having to create the perfect expression. He still calls us to radical discipleship, but we are no longer ruled by fear of getting it wrong.

    Ok, I’ve rambled enough. Thanks Grace!


  8. Next time, Katherine, you comment first and I will agree with you. It’s your turn.

    Cindy, if you will allow me to be so bold, I will suggest that you not give up. I have looked at your blog and read your comments here. You are on a God journey (apologies to Wayne Jacobsen) and its those other folks who are lost. I pray you persevere.


    There is much good in the thinking of Alan Hirsch, but he still seems far too systematized to me. I just do not believe we can take God out of one box (institutional), then put him in another box (whatever it is). Alan may not be trying to do this but I sense some of what he suggests is just another box.

    I do really like your analogy with the optical illusion from the Indiana Jones movie. That has some very valuable imagery.

  9. I think I resonate most closely with Traveller’s perspective. I don’t want to build anything. I’m not interested in being ministered to by Apostles, Prophets, Pastors, Teachers, Missional, mDNA, House Church, Communities, etc. I just need some loving friends to help me process what God is already speaking to me. Friends who have the time and desire to hang out together. I don’t want to fix you or you to fix me. I want friends who will love me without getting anything in return. I don’t want to be a part of any project you’re working on for God. Conversely, all I have to offer is my friendship in return. And, our friendship doesn’t have to last forever, just the season that God desires. Maybe it’s as simple as learning to be good friends to each other, saint or sinner.

  10. Jamie- “God is gracious and tends to use our mistakes redemptively”
    thank goodness! that’s just about all he has to work with in me.

    Traveller- thank you.

    David- well said!

  11. Katherine,

    I agree with you…. that we do not have to agree.

    What I really find spectacular about being in Jesus’ family is that we can sincerely, deeply love one another but still disagree.

  12. Hey all,
    I am kind of late on commenting on this. But I do think that we shouldn’t worry at all ( as if ) about what the “machine” is doing .We should just follow where God is leading us as individuals and communally. I know that there are a lot who feel led out who also feel very alone in this. I do as well, even though my being led out is more out of necessity ( as far as work & rest ) . To some people it would seem that my stopping attending a regular Sunday service is just that I have become too busy “for the Lord”.
    The reality is, I think this is a growth thing, a spiritual maturity thing; where God has shown me how futile and unnecessary my regular church attendance is.
    The church ( the organism ) has to make it . There is no if . Like Yoda said ,” there is no try”.
    God’s word WILL go forth and prosper in the thing He has purposed it to do. It WILL happen.
    I believe that this is really a natural progression in us ( the Church) becoming more like Jesus. Wow , I hope some of that made sense.

  13. Traveller (and others),

    It is almost always the case that those who will try to explain the complex will be seen as trying to “box” something. I sincerely do not believe that this is what Alan is attempting to do — and I’ve been in conversation with Alan for a year and a half.

    There is a difference between observing and identifying the essential components of an organism and the ways that organism grows naturally … and taking those components and isolating them from their natural state in order to organize them into something else that can be “manufactured”. I believe Alan is doing the former, not the latter.

    I also do not believe that any of these “simplex” things (simple concepts that are complex to implement) are processed well “virtually” — it really needs face to face interaction. I am so grateful that I met and spent a weekend at a conference with Alan, listening to him process the major theories in his books BEFORE I read them. All the things he was saying were just putting terms to what I had come to understand over 40 years of living and serving in the Christendom model.

    And one more movie scene … my favorite from Narnia: when Lucy is trying to justify to Aslan that she could not follow when she saw him because the others would not come, he tells her that she is always to follow, whether anyone else comes or not.

    That’s the thing that brings hope. When we see Jesus, it is always right to follow him. He may not be “safe” — he certainly isn’t a “tame Lion” … but he IS good!

  14. David’s got the right idea. If we can’t find Jesus in one another – we’re probably going to have a hard time anywhere – institution or not. When you loose sight of that – you really are way out there.

    I’m with traveller on Alan’s book – Alan’s a very smart man – I think that’s why I like James Rutz’s book so much – you kind of get the USA Today version instead of the scientific church journal on the Deoxyribonucleic acid makeup of the five-fold ministry. If you really want an intellectual adventure – go read some of Brad Sargeants stuff – wow – there are some very smart people out there.

    Really – I’ve seen open church work where a semi-retarded gal was telling a struggling home owner how to fix his 90+ percent efficient gas furnace. She didn’t quite nail it – but she got him close enough to fix the problem. This ain’t about smarts – it’s about Christ and the person standing there next to you. Incredible things happen when you mix the two.

  15. Great conversation everyone.

    That book is on my wish list. It sounds like I should move it to the front of the line.

    It is so important that we continue to hear reports from those in the trenches attempting to implement missional expressions of church. Not necessarily to find the “perfect” model, because I believe that experimentation and failure will be part of the process, but to spark creativity and imagination by their willingness to step into the unknown. Blessings to you.

    traveller and katherine,
    I’m pretty sure it’s my job to meddle, but I could be wrong. ;)

    Seriously though, I agree that being obedient and following Christ is really where the rubber meets the road. An aspect of what I was trying to point out is that for many of us in the process of detox, there is a strong gravitational pull to the understanding of church in which we were trained.

    Thanks for the longer explanation of Alan’s theory of mDNA. I know that I didn’t really do it justice in my post.

    I think that it is important that we acknowledge the powerful force of the memory and mentality of church that is imprinted on the collective Christendom conscience. Just my opinion, but I think what I called instinctual drift frequently handicaps the vision of those attempting to imagine a missional understanding of church.

    Liminal = can’t go forward, can’t go backward, kind of sucks.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    He is calling us together into something radically different than what we have accepted as status quo.
    Exactly! Great rambling. A couple of aspects of intentionality are allowing ourselves to be changed and also expressing the vision of something that is radically different.

    david and sarah,
    Yes, I don’t want to move away from institution just to step into another form of institution. I am still on the fence about whether relational christianity and mission is enough without intentional committed practices of community. I really don’t know. For now, it is where I’m at – valuing and investing in the relationships around me.

    Interesting. Perhaps the growth of the organism follows stages similar to our individual stages of spiritual growth (see kathy escobar’s recent post about this). If that were true, maybe the organism of church has or will soon collectively hit “the wall” and corporately we will experience the same progression that many of us have experienced personally. Your comment triggered that thought. I hope some of that made sense. ;)

    So true. We can delve into complicated intricacies, but if we can’t bring it back to the simplicity of Christ, his kingdom, and love, we’re off on an irrelevant tangent.

  16. Grace~

    You’re right. But, for me, He has shown me that to meddle effectively, I need to meddle on His leading (and He will lead us to meddle, sometimes). And I understand the gravitational pull to the church that I’ve left. It’s been a year and a half and I still want to go and ‘meddle.’ ;-)

  17. katherine,
    The interest in what “they” are doing will wane. It is difficult if there are people you still care about who are involved.

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