Church Without Walls - the Sequel

When I titled last week's posting "Church Without Walls" - a tongue-in-cheek use of the name of a Church of Scotland emerging church project - I had no idea that the same week I would attend worship in a Church without Walls in a much more literal sense. On Sunday we joined with the folk at Lahaina Baptist Church here on Maui (I am on holiday in Hawaii in case you hadn't picked that up) and found ourselves in a sanctuary with walls that open right up, to let the breeze in and the music out. We received a warm welcome and a shell lei, and enjoyed the service which included an informal choir singing a syncopated version of Holy Holy Holy (the Reginald Heber hymn), a guitar-led music group with contemporary songs we knew, and a liturgical dance group. This last didn't really work for me - acting out a song with lots of expressive arm movements, like we often see Pacifika youth groups doing in Auckland - until I realised, by perusing the weekly notices, that this item was being performed in American Sign Language, through a ministry called Pomaika'imaikalani Signing. I felt a humble "God moment" as I realised this component of the liturgy was not simply a different form of musical worship, but provided for the benefit of those who cannot appreciate songs in the same way as hearing people can.

Which brings me to the second way Lahaina Baptist is a "Church without Walls." We had seen in the notices that the worship service is transmitted live over the internet, and had observed a discreet little camera on the back wall. And the pastor had explained during the service that this was happening, and greeted those worshipping with us via the worldwide web. Of course when we got back to our Ka'anapali studio apartment, we looked up the LBC website to see how it works. There we were, on the left near the front (Ric's white hair is easy to pick), singing, praying and being presented with our visitor lei. The resolution was poor, and because no editing was done, there were dead spots in the programme while people changed microphones or greeted each other, but overall I was inspired by the missional possibilities. If a smallish church in Hawaii can do this cost-effectively, what are the options for a larger Baptist church in Auckland, New Zealand? One with great musicians, good flow and awesome preaching? Something I will definitely be thinking about for the future.

My other God-moment this week started at the service on Sunday, but has been fermenting away in my brain ever since. Pastor Chris's sermon was the third in a series called Just Like Jesus, an exposition of Philippians 2 and having the mind of Christ. He took time to set the Captivity Epistle context and to reprise the two earlier sermons - one about Humility, the other about Obedience - from verses 1 - 11 of Paul's inspiring words to the believers in first century Philippi. Sunday's sermon was about verses 12 - 18, and I must have missed its exact title, though if I were finding a third aspect of having the Mind of Christ, I would choose "for God's good pleasure" from the end of verse 18. Pastor Chris did mention that, obliquely, but his main focus was on sanctification, and what it means to "work out your own salvation." For this he used a very active metaphor which included a lot of moving around, and may have been included for engaging webworshippers as much as for the benefit of those of us there in person. It was this extended metaphor that stuck in my brain, and made me defer writing this week's posting until I had sorted out why it made me uncomfortable.

Pastor Chris asked us to imagine a line running down the centre aisle of the church. To paraphrase (and if you want to hear the whole sermon its there for you online!), one side was to be the sinners, and the other the saints; in other words, the line is the line of conversion. There was a lot of joking around, and moving of the line and the sides, but I think what Chris wanted to get across was that when we are on the unsaved side we are being drawn towards Christ (who is at the far wall of the church) by the Holy Spirit, and that when we have stepped over the line we are still being drawn towards him, through the Spirit's work of Sanctification (good Calvinist stuff) and that in both, our own choices come into play (bring in Arminius, though Calvin himself believed this too ). I agreed with the theology. So why did I feel uncomfortable with this holy hopscotch? What was it about neatly dividing the world into two sides that bothered me?

Its not like I don't believe there is a line to cross in coming to faith. The Scriptures make this clear in a number of places, but Jesus' own image of the new birth (or literally the birth from above) will serve us here. Birth is not something unclear; you are either born or unborn. Sure, some births take longer than others, and sometimes - unlike human childbirth - a spiritual birth is not personally discerned at the time. Thousands of believers brought up in Christian homes or educated in Church Schools can testify to the fact that they do not know when they decided to follow Christ, that there is no experience of conversion to which they can look back. But to use an illustration I first heard through the Alpha programme, we can be travelling on a night train and be asleep when we move from France into Germany, and can recall no experience of crossing the border. The important thing is when we recognise that we are in Germany, or in this illustration, when we know we are a committed follower of Jesus. So there is a border between "seeking" and faith, even if the time and place of it are known only to God.

Perhaps my discomfort is something to do with the fact that the Scriptures also present faith to us as a process, a journey. It's not just about crossing the line, getting the ticket clipped on the Salvation Express and sitting on our backside for the rest of the journey. I need to explain this in myriad ways in my work as a discipleship coach, where I preach and teach and write studies for people who are at differing stages of the faith journey. Its my job - and my passion - to help them in developing their own unique expression of "godshapedlife". The theological word for this is sanctification - being made holy - but Jesus' new birth metaphor points simply to a growing and maturing, to becoming more like Jesus and to developing the family likeness. Simplistic formulae for "Saying Yes to Jesus" can seriously overlook this aspect, which is why I usually take a dim view of them, though the one Lahaina Church has on its website is new to me, and has some points in its favour (see Got Life).

As I have reflected over the last few days why I wasn't totally convinced by Pastor Chris's exposition, I have concluded that it has to do with the notion of a bounded set. I don't know where I first heard this mathematical concept used in a theological context, but it has caught my imagination ever since. A bounded set is a group that has very definite borders, and clearly delineates who is "in" and who is "out" - the two "sides" of the line in Sunday's sermon. The opposite is a fuzzy set where the boundaries are so unclear that there is doubt as to whether there is a set at all. The third option is a centred set, where relationship is more dynamic and defined in relation to the centre, which is this case is Jesus the Christ. People are not so much "in or out" but facing towards or away from the centre. The example of fences/wells in the Australian desert is often given as an illustration. Churches sometimes use this notion to describe their approach to membership, but to me it doesn't work so well when there are written values to which people do or do not subscribe. It does work well when we are talking about the faith journey. People can be on a spiritual quest and facing towards Christ - the well - even though they do not read the Bible or go to church. And people can be serving the church and attending regularly but actually facing away from Christ, by persisting in sin; a dramatic example would be Rev Graham Capill, convicted for child sex abuse while the outspoken leader of a "Moral Majority" Christian group in New Zealand.

I think what I am trying to say is that the heart of God is much bigger than our human categories, and that his work of sanctification is happening on both sides of that dividing line. The Spirit is at large among saints and sinners, and those of us who know we are both. He is looking for people who will go deeper with him, and those people might not always be found in the buildings we call churches. They are found in the Church without Walls we call the world.

He drew a circle to shut me out

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout

But love and I had a wit to win

We drew a circle that took him in.

Edwin Markham.