In seven chapters and seven appendices Gary Nelson offers a Canadian take on what it means to live in the borderlands. Or, more precisely, he challenges us to embrace the borderlands where we live. These really are two different things, because like our American brothers to the south, we have largely failed to live in the communities where we dwell. The borderlands are a place where faith and unfaith intersect, and a place decidedly outside the comfort zone of Christendom structures.
Gary is the General Secretary for Canadian Baptist Ministries. He brings a wealth of experience to this task, and the book straddles an academic and practical line with ease. While Gary works at a theological task, his emphasis is on practice and to that end he stories this journey very well. Moreover, he is passionate about his purpose, and the stories he tells help us to envision a new kind of church and a new level of engagement in our communities in Canada.
The book is comprised of seven chapters, as follows:
1. Learning to Sing the Song
2. Crossing Over
3. Recovering our Roots
4. Landscapes and Tool Kits
5. Herding Cats
6. Missioning the Church
7. Mapping the Journey
I'm looking here at the first two chapters. The generous number of appendices are indicators that Gary hopes this book will become something of a handbook, enabling existing congregations to engage and embed in their neighborhoods.
In the Introduction Gary sets his work clearly in the Canadian context, and then offers some reflections on the task at hand. He begins by noting the paradox that in Canada spiritual interest is growing at the same time as churches are dwindling. The tension this induces for religious leaders causes many to look for the "magic key," a key which does not exist. But the hope and desire for that key has led us on a journey -- from seminar to seminar, and book to book, and in particular attempting to import American models which were touted as the path to success or "the next great thing." We often failed to do the needed work -- theological and cultural-exegetical -- or to engage in a listening posture in the places we live because we hoped we could simply adopt a working model from somewhere else. And now.. we are reaping what we sowed.
At the same time, however, many churches and leaders have seen the writing on the wall. At one level or another there is a growing response to the movement of the Spirit, calling us to engage in the borderlands instead of remaining safely encamped around the boundaries. This brings us to the first challenge (p 9): "It will be impossible to lead others to places of effective missionary engagement if we, as leaders, are uncomfortable in the borderlands. Borderland living for the church requires catalyst leaders who are more than pastoral caregivers or great visionaries. They live what they teach... merely developing authority [and then] telling others what they should do will not be enough to mobilize." Gary offers some examples, and then we move into chapter 1: "Learning to Sing the Song." Psalm 137 is the paradigm.
The movement Gary is describing is also documented by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay in The Tangible Kingdom. On pages 103-110 they draw the structural diagram of a typical business model for the last century.. leaders on top, and those implementing the vision and following the commands from above in the wide body below - a triangle. But the missional paradigm requires that we turn the triangle on its side.. with leaders out front learning and risking, and the entire body mobilized in their neighborhoods, work places, and tribes.
"We aren't in Kansas anymore." Ripped out of the familiar world, Israel had to learn to sing the Lord's song in a strange and foreign place. Out of a deep sense of dislocation, the faithful of Israel must seek the face of the Lord. The temptation is to dwell in the past, in the "glory days" when there were predictable rhythms, adequate funds, respect in the wider community. When we lose these things we feel frustrated, often angry, sometimes desperate. Instead of pulling together and looking to the future we fight with each other about what change means and how to recover a sense of stability.
Gary quotes John Kotter of the Harvard School of Business: the greatest hindrance to needed change is lack of a sense of urgency (18). Kotter studied organizations which were struggling and found that complacency was entrenched. No one was asking if there was a better way. In fact, to his surprise, measurements of effectiveness were often adjusted to meet the downward spiral. Negative feedback was often ignored and the status quo was celebrated.
The most important element for healthy change in any organization is a sense of urgency. A deep and unsettling questioning of reality always precedes congregational renewal. Yet the paradox is that leaders ultimately only have control over themselves. So our greatest task is to engage in mission, question our familiar frameworks, and be transformed.
I appreciated that Gary closes this chapter with a challenge to theological reflection as well as courage to resist the calls to "go back to Egypt." We want the story to be about us.. our comfort, our welfare. But this isn't the story that God is writing -- it is much, much larger. A consumer focused ministry is not about the Gospel, but about a distorted western reading shaped by the Enlightenment and a market culture. Gary quotes Eddie Gibbs in Leadership Next, and then we move to chapter two..
The second chapter in Gary Nelson's recent book is titled, "Crossing Over." It's an appropriate title and contains a certain poignancy. While every church and every leader wants to make this crossing, like Moses, some will not make it...
Gary begins by noting that Joshua's experience of moving across the Jordon to the promised land serves as a framework for today's church -- we are invited out of the security of the familiar into the borderlands. For Gary the Hebrew word, `abar will define this experience. It is translated "crossover," and this is the first time it appears in the Old Testament. It describes a decisive moment, perhaps a "kairos" time. The people of God will cut themselves off from what has been and move into the unknown world. Like the Latin word "limina" it describes a threshold -- we can't go back and we may not want to go ahead -- and it conjures the anxiety that we experience in those moments that require us to intentionally leave our comfort zones behind. The challenge is that we have to manage our own anxieties as well as that of those around us (see Heifetz in this regard).
Gary notes that we live in a crossover time. On page 30 he quotes Mike Regele, noting that change today is not like change in the past. First, it is global rather than local. Secondly, the rate of change is much faster. We are mostly aware of this, but many of us continue to live with the illusion that we have a choice whether or not we will engage this strange new world. Our choices are crucial. We must find the faith to move forward.
But HOW we move forward - how we engage -- is also crucial. Some may want to rush across into the new land. This is also a choice generated by anxiety and fear. We want to rush into solutions. Gary describes the people of Israel as they move across the river (31).The Ark of the Covenant goes before them and it is set up in the middle of the river. God's presence.. not our own skills or our courage.. secures the ground. Moreover, we are not permitted to run ahead. We follow the leadership of the Lord.
Next Gary typifies the difference in American and Canadian approaches to change. The American approach may be to rush ahead. The Canadian approach may be "let's have another conversation." He quotes Jonathan Wilson who argues for a third way, participating together in God's grace. We must reframe our attitudes and assumptions, listen to the Holy Spirit, and embrace the process at His pace. "Tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you" (3:5). Gary writes, "Borderland living comes from the kind of people who are open to the God who is the ever-present surprise of the Christian life and sovereign over the church and its mission."
Gary notes that while this time may be unique, it is also similar to other places the Church has been -- like Joshua's crossing over. Recovering a missional theology, then, is really the recovery of a central biblical story. As a result, the church that is emerging in this crossover time is very different from the church that grew out of the last two decades of the twentieth century. Many churches have continued to operate in the "come to" model (attractional), a model that was a product of Christendom. With the death of that compact we are in a new place. The old model was a success because of certain cultural conditions -- conditions which are now disappearing. The shift we are now seeing takes us to a new location and requires a new posture -- an incarnational "go to" posture.
Gary references the work of Lesslie Newbigin in helping recover a theology of mission and a missional posture. Newbigin noted that it was not enough to understand culture and then to shape mission and ministry in response; church communities must themselves first be shaped by the Gospel (37). Gary tells the story of a church family that met directly across from a high school and yet never saw itself as in a mission field. Eventually they began to see themselves in a new way, and they made connections with staff and administration in the school. The entered the life of that community and became a resource -- serving the school. Gary references Bosch here and makes a strong connection to the Trinity. "The missio Dei emerges from the very nature of who God is." He quotes Gibbs and Bolger: "The missio Dei changes the functional direction of the church from a centrifugal (flowing in) to a centripetal (flowing out) dynamic.." (39).
"How will we know we are crossing over?"
"It begins with a new attitude that can only be described as `openness.'"
"Members ask the exploratory question, "Why not?"
"Borderland churches know their neighbours, their politicians, and their neighbouring businesses. They share in the community activities and are recognized by the agencies that work there."
Gary has made a helpful contribution for leaders and churches in transition: a spontaneous act of luminosity!