It’s been said within the “hallowed walls” of seminaries that the purpose of the church is to show the world that it is not the church. This statement can be interpreted in at least two ways:
- If the church is merely a place, we can demonstrate with our architecture, our music and our words something of the awe and mystery of God. People who are looking for God can and do encounter God in places like this. We can join together in the place we call church to fast and pray in the Spirit of the apocalyptic writers for the day when Jesus will make all things new.
- But if the church is a movement, a way, a people on a journey with Jesus we must show the world that it is not the Church by befriending the world until it resembles the shape of the Kingdom.
To be on mission is a giving over to the rightful created order, what our Catholic friends call a life of fecundity—a life of absolute fruitfulness. What would it be like for us to live a fruitful life as part of God’s mission in the world?
When Sam Wells, the former dean of Duke Chapel was pastor in a little Church of England parish that desperately needed a dream, he quickly realized what many of us realize in ministry, that we need “more imagination and less information; less education and more confidence in the Holy Spirit.” He had no choice. There were only 25 people in the membership. He had to cultivate the “fertile soil of wonder.” He quickly realized that the work of Jerome Berryman—the pioneer in Children’s Christian education—was just as much for adults as it was for kids. He adapted Berryman’s themes of Godly Play to ‘non-formally’ teach adults that the Kingdom was at hand.
In an essay in the book Fresh Expressions of Church and the Kingdom of God, Sam writes about the vision articulated in Isaiah 65:17. “Behold I will create a new heavens and a new earth.” He writes of a vision “poised between heaven and earth—poised between God’s action and human action.” Isaiah goes on to say: “Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will feed together and the lion will eat straw like the ox but dust will be the serpent’s food.” (65:24-25)
Everyone Has Enough
A vision of life where the wolf and the lamb are feeding together isn’t an internal battle within seminaries and denominations for resources. It’s not a battle between those of us who want to plant churches and those of us who want to serve within established churches. It is an act of sharing where everyone has enough.
By achieving a gathering like this where seminarians are at table with pastors, faculty and denominational executives, some might suggest that we’re living into Isaiah’s vision. The wolf and the lamb might just be eating out of the same bowl. Students paved the way for this conference to take place and the field education office gave permission. Little did they know that this conversation was happening with the faculty and in seminaries across the country at places like Fuller and Asbury and Pittsburgh Seminary.
This week, as we look toward the cross, Isaiah’s vision takes on an even greater meaning. It’s embodied in Michelangelo’s Pietas. Here the self-giving love of Jesus is literally being poured out from the church giving life to the world. Our call to journey with Jesus, co-creating new forms of church along the way, demands sacrifice. It is here where we are poured out and renewed.
An excerpt from the opening Plenary session at All Things New, a conference on new forms of church organized by students at Duke University Divinity School and funded in part by Path1 an initiative of the United Methodist Church.
Gannon is the Director of Ministry Formation for Fresh Expressions US and leads the Fresh Expressions efforts of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. He earned the Bachelor of Arts Degree from Baylor University and the Master of Divinity degree from Duke University. Prior to entering seminary, Gannon worked as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate and as a public affairs officer in the anti-human trafficking office at the U.S. State Department. He enjoys forging partnerships between followers of Jesus from different traditions and has served in various roles at several churches, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican. Gannon is married to Carey, who also is a graduate of Duke Divinity School. Together they work to bring fresh expressions of church to the collegiate community at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.