Wednesday, April 5, 2006

nemawashi: growing an organic church

My mom used to take in stray cats. She’d feed them and sing to them and, typically, any given afternoon you could ride up to our house and see about 8 cats on the back porch begging for food.

We had one cat, a Garfield look-a-like, who actually broke into our house to try and steal food. We decided to keep this cat, whom we named ‘Friend’, because of his charming dancing ability [he’d stand at the sliding glass door and hop up and down on one foot while smooshing his belly into the glass when he was hungry].

Friend was the first pet I can remember having, and I remember the wonderful process of discovery I enjoyed while discerning the differences between pets and toys. For example, you can throw most of your toys but if you throw your cat he’ll hate you; or, you put most toys underwater and they’ll come to no great harm, but if you try that with your cat he’ll hate you; likewise, most toys can be ignored, but a cat will actually like you more if you ignore it – if, however, you try and pet the cat, it will hate you.

The lessons I learned about things that are alive – like Friend, the cat – and things that are not alive – like GI Joe, the Transformers, and Hot Wheels – have actually carried me through most of my 11 years as a pastor.

Because a church is actually a living thing, an organic community; not an inorganic thing.

Church isn’t a mechanism – we are not cogs in a wheel.

Church isn’t a provider of religious goods and services – we are neither a grocery nor a concert.

Church isn’t a computer program – we are not controlled by a central processing unit.

Neither is church a business. Though there are elements of business to church, and those elements are important, I think we run a great danger sometimes of reducing our living community to the notion of a business, or a construct, or a program. It’s like, sometimes, we treat the cat like the lego – and it hates us, we aren’t fulfilled by it, we don’t get what we were hoping from it.

Because there is no “it”.

“It” is “you.” “It” is “us.” “It” is alive!

And so I think that today our task is to stop thinking of our church, westwinds, in strictly business terms because we lose something when we reduce it to just a missions statement – which we have, and which is a good thing to have, but which can miss out on the fullness of expression.

You can’t reduce living things to simple statements even though simple statements can be used to bring focus. Just imagine what would happen if we thought about our spouses in business terms – again, not that having a focus for your marriage is wrong-headed, just that describing your marriage in corporate terms excludes the mystery and wonder of romance, the spontanaiety of friendship, and the richness of love.

On the internet you can find “missions statement” generators; so, just for fun, I entered in Carmel’s name to one such website to try and figure out what my “mission” should be with her:

My mission for carmel is to professionally target mission-critical areas of maintainable growth strategies in our marriage. I plan to competently facilitate parallel leadership skills with her, while uniquely providing incentives fully tested paradigms of parenting, finances, and human sexuality.

And, of course, I needed one for Jacob as well:

My vision for jacob is to energistically actualize corporate mindshares between he and his maternal unit and – future – sibling models.

So, you see, we’re actually involved in something far more complex than a business model – we’re involved in a community, in a family, in an organic web of lives and relationships.

Let’s read from 1 Thessalonians, which is a letter that one of the early church leaders wrote to a church as a kind-of guide from what is truly important:

1 Thessalonians 5:12-28 (The Message)
12And now, friends, we ask you to honor those leaders who work so hard for you, who have been given the responsibility of urging and guiding you along in your obedience. 13Overwhelm them with appreciation and love!
Get along among yourselves, each of you doing your part. 14Our counsel is that you warn the freeloaders to get a move on. Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. 15And be careful that when you get on each other's nerves you don't snap at each other. Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out.
16Be cheerful no matter what; 17pray all the time; 18thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.
19Don't suppress the Spirit, 20and don't stifle those who have a word from the Master. 21On the other hand, don't be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what's good. 22Throw out anything tainted with evil.
23May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together--spirit, soul, and body--and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. 24The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he'll do it!
25Friends, keep up your prayers for us. 26Greet all the Christians there with a holy embrace. 27And make sure this letter gets read to all the brothers and sisters. Don't leave anyone out.
28The amazing grace of Jesus Christ be with you!

I love that everything Paul is addressing here is an issue of relationships, not functionality. He makes a clear point that the ways in which we interact with one another are the defining factors about who we are as a community and as followers of Jesus Christ. It is these things, these relational things, that help us understand the identity of the church and why we have it.

Now, we have a vision for the way our church is going to morph and change. I like the term vision, by the way, the “mental picture of a future state” because it is an organic term – a representation of life. But seeing the future of our church implies that there are some things that will be different than what we see now, these are the things that require vision – special sight – to grasp hold of. Furthermore, transportation from this place to that place can be a complicated affair and may require some awareness on our part about those intricacies if it’s to be successful.

That’s why I’d like to talk about the Japanese concept of nemawashi. Nemawashi is a horticultural term for the process of binding roots in order to safely transplant trees to a new location. Particularly with banzai trees, if you are careless or unconcerned with the root system of a tree while moving it, the liklihood that the tree will survive the transplanting process is very low. Root-binding – which actually involves the excavation of soil coupled with the cutting and then binding of roots - ensures that the nutrients, the life-blood, of the trees are kept intact in order for the health of the plant to be maintained during the translation.

Nemawashi is also a business term used in Japan that is used to modernize outmoded companies and procedures with the rapidly changing market. Of course, in Japan, there is tremendous tension between the traditions of the Japanese culture and heritage, and the innovations of their youth that necessitate great care to be taken with such a modernizing process; so it is with church in America – there is a great chasm between the roots of what we do with the relevance of what we’re doing to today’s culture.

I believe that the core essense of Christian spirituality is not only relevant, but one of the defining characteristics of entertainment and ethos in the west; but I also believe that we must be wise about preserving the purity of our spirituality, specifically by not contaminating it with old models or paradigms of church involvement, membership, belonging, or rules that really aren’t represented in scripture.

The transportation of our church into the future requires a significant shift – even though we may consider ourselves ‘ahead of the curve’ – and whether that shift is best expressed as a movement from modernity to postmodernity, from propositional truth to storytelling, from personal piety to communal devotion, or from rationalism to existentialism our world is shifting quickly to a new version of itself and we must do what we can to be faithful to Christ – first! – but also faithful to ourselves and the time and place that God has landed us in.

After all, we are not just transporting ideas, but people, and people matter.

To mix metaphors, I like to think of Zygmund Bauman’s notes about the differences between a vagabond and a tourist in light of our need to be translated into a new version of ourselves. Bauman insists that a vagabond and a tourist do essentially the same thing, but that a vagabond moves from place to place and relationship to relationship by accident and by exclusion; whereas a tourist moves from place to place and relationship to relationship by choice and through welcome.

I think being wise about our transition into the future allows us the privilidges of being a tourist, instead of the anxiety of being a vagabond; but it also requires us to make some smart decisions and wise planning about what that future might look like.

It requires us to be smart about how we transplant ourselves – it requires a little church-nemawashi.

So, to try and give you a clear picture of what we’re all about, let me start simply by saying that fusion is the most important thing we do; the other most important thing we do is everything else.

Fusion is the place where most people will get their first taste of what it’s like to be involved in our community. Fusion is the place where we experience the presence of God in passionate corporate worship and are able to digest biblical teaching in such a way that it assists our quality of life and perspective on the earth. Fusion is the place where we are challenged about our weaknesses, prodded to greater good, and are able to adopt another perspective – a community perspective – for an hour or so without solely thinking about our own wants and needs.

And it is the most important thing we do.

The other most important thing we do is everything else.

Everything else is the bread-and-butter of who we are at westwinds. It is our small groups and our lag groups, our involvement in experience design or our community bonfires and blood drives. Everything else – the guerilla warfare part of our church, that happens independent of bureaucracy – is what you make it, what defines you as a church and what the world sees and hears when they come to think of westwinds and christianity.

It’s like the things that are really important here are both orbital and centrifual. The centrifugal things – the things at the center of it all: fusion – are what hold us together and identify us as “us” and not something else. The centrifugal things are the things that make us common to one another and distinct from other communities to such a degree that we’re allowed to enjoy and take pleasure in the brand and bravado of our spiritual flavor.

But it’s the orbital things that allow us to express our individual desires and passions, wants and dreams and thoughts while still being connected to one another. The orbital piece is the piece that knows no boundaries and is only governed by your response to the spirit.

So what does that look like?

What does it look like to have an organic church instead of a corporate one?

Well, organisms all share one important altruism: the cycle of life and death, birth and decay, growing and deteriorating; and, I think that the first great questions we need to ask ourselves as a church – not just westwinds, but anyone who actually claims to follow Christ – are “what is God birthing in you?” and “what are you allowing to be killed off?”

We are giving new life to a community of new ideas, of self-led missionaries who don’t have to pretend their “holy” or “self-sufficient”. We are allowing old models of church structure and irrelevant spirituality to die out; we’re allowing some of the sacred cows to never return from the pasture.

As a community, we are giving birth and permitting death all of the time!

But what about you?

See, our collective ethics are summed up in “imagination, permission, authenticity, and community” and if you were to start a new church today and you wanted it to “feel” like westwinds you’d have to uphold those kinds of values. The new place probably wouldn’t look like this one – there is, after all, a new premium on slate tiles and steel sculpting – but it would feel the same.

It would have grown out of the same soil.

So what is our vision? What does the future look like?

It looks like ipac. It looks like new ideas born of new passion furnaced through new experiences bringing new people into our community and expressing our love and devotion for Jesus Christ in new ways. It looks like you, in your neighborhood, becoming fed up with the inability of our government to solve spiritual problems with bureaucratic solutions and instead doing the work of Christ’s mercy with your own hands. It looks like us all coming together to imaginatively and creatively rediscover the mystery of the Spirit as we immerse ourselves in corporate worship, surrending our preferences to the community ethic of love and acceptance.

It looks like more imagination.
It looks like you’ve got permission to do what you want.
It looks like you don’t have to fake it to fit in.
It looks like you can belong before you believe.

That’s the vision – that’s the future; not necessarily a new path, but further and faster down this one.

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