“And they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). ~Matthew 1:23
Most churches decline and even die because the “us” of their “God with us” is too small. I believe fresh expressions catalyze revitalizations in existing congregations because they expand the “withness” and the “us-ness” of those congregations, which is profoundly illustrated by the analogy I want to share with you: the Möbius Strip.
Immanuel. This is the central affirmation that we pondered and proclaimed throughout Advent and the Christmas season. Each year, as I reflect on the verse above, I am inspired by a never-ending sense of wonder and mystery. What does it mean to say God is “with” us and not simply above us, before us, over us, or beyond us? Who is this “us” that we speak of after all?
The Word Made Flesh
When we talk about this God who is with us, we are not just talking about any god. We are not talking about the gods we make of our stuff or ourselves. We are talking about a very real God, who comes to us in a very particular way, in a very precise moment in human history, with a very specific name: Jesus. Ultimately, a baby born in a stable that smelled like animal feces and afterbirth, is the purest revelation of God that ever was.
This God demonstrates his withness by coming to us in human flesh, and in the humblest of circumstances. Jesus isn’t born in a basinet in Herod the Great’s manmade monstrosity, the Herodium, or in Caesar Augustus’ palace, but in the shadowy corner of the empire in a little town called Bethlehem, the “house of bread.” God comes to us in a very relational and vulnerable way, utterly dependent on the goodness of humanity.
All relationships necessitate vulnerability, but this God goes to extremes to be “with us” in a very peculiar manner. He is with us all the way to the cross and the shadowy chasm of death, and he is “with us” always, to the end of the age, by sending the Holy Spirit. He’s the God who refuses to be God without us, so he becomes Immanuel, “God with us.” He comes to be “with” us not through military might, or unilateral, micromanaging power, but in a graceful, selfless, non-violent, relational way.
Through the incarnation, God also demonstrates who the “us” of this “God with us” is. In the ministry of Jesus, we see him constantly pushing the boundaries and expanding the concept of our “us.” Jesus reaches out to the religious other, the Roman Centurion, and heals his servant (Luke 7). Jesus reaches out to one considered racially and religiously impure, the Samaritan woman (John 4). Jesus reaches out to the cursed ones with withered limbs (Mark 3), the untouchable lepers (Luke 17). Jesus reaches out to sinners, tax-collectors (Luke 15), and prostitutes (Luke 7, John 8). In fact, Jesus demonstrates the “us-ness” of this God is massive in scale, it includes people from every race, tribe, and nation (Revelation 7).
The church is called to continuously perpetuate this withness and us-ness in the world. As the body of Christ, we are called to be God’s withness in the ruins of a sin-broken cosmos. We are with the hurting, the hungry, the broken, and the oppressed in the same way Jesus is “with us.”
In fact, when Peter catches flak from fellow Jewish Christians, it is for hanging out with “them,” in this case the gentiles. He reports a gentile Pentecost broke out, and the Holy Spirit instructs him to “go with them, and make no distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12). Indeed, any time our “us” creates a “them,” God is always with “them” too. God desires for us to reach out to every “them” in love, the same way God has reached out to “us.”
I’m convinced some of the greatest atrocities in human history have been committed with a misunderstanding of one little two-letter word: “us.”
“God with us!” has been the battle cry of terrorists flying passenger-loaded planes into buildings, racist organizations, oppressive practices of extraction and commoditization, and Christian wars where millions of people killed each other in the name of Jesus.
Furthermore, I think most of the churches that are in decline also misunderstand the “withness” and “us-ness” of God. So how does the “us” of so many churches become too small? And is there anything we can do about it?
The Möbius Strip
One of my favorite authors, Parker Palmer, shares the analogy of the Möbius Strip in his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. While the Möbius Strip is a concept that comes from mathematics, Palmer innovates this form to tangibly illustrate the journey of a healthy human soul. I want to push the analogy a bit further, to describe the journey of a healthy church.
You could use a strip of paper, or simply take off your belt to get a visual representation of this process. Palmer believes that we come into the world as an undivided whole, but over time, every person erects a wall between his/her inner and outer lives. One side of the strip represents the outer or onstage life, the “role” we play in creation. The concerns of the outer life are things like image, influence, and impact. The other side represents the inner or backstage life, the essence of who we are, or the “soul.” This inner dimension reflects ideas, intuitions, feelings, values, and faith.
Palmer suggests that the relational process embodied in the Möbius Strip occurs in four phases.
In stage one, as a newly minted human being created in the image of God, there is no separation between our inner and outer life. In our earliest formative years of life, we are born whole, living in the fullness of life.
In stage two, we form a wall between our inner truth and our outer world. We form this wall largely to protect our inner vulnerabilities against external threats. As we develop, we learn the world is a dangerous place, and it is not safe to express our souls.
Stage three begins when living in a state of duplicity brings us to our knees. Trauma occurs in our inner or outer world, and we turn our wall into a circle. By bringing the two ends of our strip together we can see what some religious traditions have called centering. We center our lives on our inner truth and our core values. However, Palmer points out that this maneuver has a dark side. If we turn the circle horizontally, we can see that it now resembles a walled city or a gated community. We allow only certain people into this secret garden of withness while using the wall to keep unwanted visitors out; we limit the “us” by limiting access to our soul.
In the fourth and final stage, we break open that circle, twist one end of the strip, and reconnect the two ends together. The resulting form is called a Möbius Strip. If we use our finger to trace one side of the strip, we discover that as we follow it, the inner world appears to express out into the outer world and vice versa. Now there is no longer an outside and an inside, but a continuous loop of co-creation in which the soul and the role are fully integrated. What is inside is always flowing out to affect the world, and what is outside is always flowing back to affect within.
Revitalizing the Church
Now I want to add an innovation to Palmer’s concept. I believe the Möbius Strip is a wonderful analogy for what is happening in the incarnation. Humanity had closed itself off from God, rejecting God’s gracious offer of loving relationship. In putting on flesh, God breaks the closed loop, and draws us into God’s soul while simultaneously inviting us into God’s role. God is constantly expanding his withness and us-ness by inviting us into this journey of co-creation. God draws us into Godself, makes us “at-one,” and sends us out as ambassadors of God’s withness and us-ness.
Now, apply the journey of the Möbius Strip to the journey that happens in the revitalization of a church. Four of the five congregations I have served were in significant decline, some for many decades. The congregations had dwindled down in numbers, and engagement with the community around them was little to non-existent. I find this analogy the most helpful in describing what actually happens or needs to happen for a church to reverse the process of death.
All churches are initially born in a state of wholeness. Every church that’s ever been planted in any community is there to be “with” that community and expand the “us” of the new church. I have never heard of a church that was planted that didn’t want to grow and reach new people. If those have existed in history, I wouldn’t call them churches. This is stage one in the soul journey Palmer describes. As a newly planted church there is no separation between the inner and outer life. The church exists to be fully alive and expand the “withness and us-ness” that is the soul of the new organism.
In stage two, there is some kind of threat to the church, and thus we form a wall between the soul of the church and the role of the church in the community. Perhaps another church is planted across the street, or a major cultural shift occurs, or some kind of event triggers the community to protect itself. We form a wall in our impulse to protect the soul, to shelter inner vulnerabilities against external threats, and to create a tangible sense of belonging.
Stage three begins when we turn our wall into a circle. We center the community on inner truth and core values. However, the very wall we have created to protect the soul of the church prohibits the withness of God’s presence in the community. While the wall may shelter against perceived threats, it also becomes a barrier to growth. The very divisiveness of the condition of the church creates an unhealthy paradigm and a survival mentality.
Rather than a community reaching out with the withness of God in neighborly love, self-preservation becomes the new normal. We protect the soul and the legacy of who we have always been. We have a well-defined “us.” Typically, we only allow people who we perceive as safe to come into our circle. Again, the dark side of this maneuver is that our church now resembles a walled city or a gated community. We only allow people who look like us, believe like us, and have the same interests of self-preservation as us into the inner circle.
The “us” of our gated community diminishes until there is really no us left. Our withness is no longer extended to people outside the walls of the church building, but withness has now become about being with each other, at any cost. The secret garden becomes a toxic place where nothing grows, the soul withers, and the “us” inevitably dies. In this condition, there is only one hope for this church.
In the fourth and final stage, some brave person or team must come and blow a hole in that wall. We must break open that circle, and when we do, usually a contingent of people will run out of the opening. They’ll say things like, “We’ve never done it that way before,” “We don’t want to reach people like that,” or “It’s not safe in here anymore, the soul of our church has been exposed.” Such declarations are often on their lips as they leave.
The task of breaking open that wall of dysfunction, then, is not for the faint of heart. Now, with the remnant still left inside the circle, the twist begins. People really don’t like this part; no one likes being bent in new configurations. Human beings just don’t like change!
Nevertheless, the shift continues, and the soul and the role of the church are reconnected together in a new configuration. Here is our Möbius Strip! In the new arrangement, we discover that the inner world of the church now appears to express out into the outer world in a continuous loop of co-creation. The soul of the church is constantly expressing out and affecting the surrounding community, and the community is constantly flowing back in to affect the inner world of the church. The distinction between outside and inside is no more.
Through this loop of continuous co-creation, the withness and the us-ness of God are constantly expanding and contracting in a healthy cycle of full integration. What is inside is always flowing out to affect the world, and what is outside is always flowing back to affect within.
Breaking the Wall
Each church I have served was in stage three of this analogy. You might be asking, “So how do we break open the wall and bend into this new configuration churches that have become gated communities?” In my experience, the only way that can happen, is by creating a missional culture in those churches. The word “mission” may be like some dusty old book that was forgotten in the church’s ancient library, but it is a word integral to the history of every church that has ever existed. If you trace the history of a church back far enough, you will find a missional identity was once the soul.
One of the most effective ways I have discovered to do that is through Fresh Expressions. The impulse of the people will be to demand that you be their spiritual butler as they die in their withering us-ness. Of course, you must care for those people who have carried that church with their own lives and resources, but I think you should consider that half of your job.
The formula that I live by is 50/50. 50 percent of my time is devoted to caring for people inside the walls of the church. 50 percent of my time is dedicated to reaching people outside of it. You can be quite sure that some folks will not be pleased with that job description, but the key is to organize teams of the willing to help cover the areas where there’s not enough of you to go around. You can’t storm the gates of hell with 80-year old’s, they have already done all their gate storming! However, an elderly congregation can provide soul-care for each other, give you permission, and support you as you lead others to listen and engage the context.
The focus of a fresh expression is not to revitalize an existing church, but rather, to reach not-yet-Christians in incarnational ways, and form them as disciples. They are “fresh expressions” of that greater one, holy, apostolic, and catholic church, and a microcosm of that universal whole. However, fresh expressions do inadvertently revitalize existing churches. If you serve in an inherited system like I do, then you know it is unlikely that you will be appointed to plant and sustain only fresh expressions. Most of us are deployed to serve existing congregations, many of which are in decline. However, fresh expressions give us a vehicle to break down the wall of the gated community. They provide a mechanism to transform a walled city into a missional outpost.
A fresh expression forces a congregation to look outside itself. It breaks us open and reconfigures our soul in such a way that it touches our community again. The twist causes us to see and ask who is our neighbor. Some of the churches I served existed in the same places since the mid-to-late 1800’s, and yet the community just outside their walls didn’t even know they were there.
Somehow, over time, in the life of every church and person, our “us” becomes too small. It is the central affirmation of our Christian faith that we believe in one named Immanuel, “God with us.” The central claim is that God has somehow reached out and claimed our life with his love, and that God is now with us, not above, or beyond, but “with.”
As a community of God-withness, our central task is to ever expand the withness and us-ness of God in the world. This is a very big “us” that includes all the people of the earth, of every tribe, race, political affiliation, and religion. We are called to reach others with the very same withness we have experienced in Christ. Every church is called to exist in this continual loop of co-creation, laboring with God to reach all of humanity.
Fresh expressions don’t just benefit the people that they reach, they transform the soul of existing congregations. They provide the stories that remind us what we are all about. They wake up local congregations from a form of missional amnesia. They provide a vision for the future for dying congregations that refuse to go down without a fight.
Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.