Rough Draft Pt IV

All of this comes to a critical junction when we begin to talk about the Church.  While we might describe individual life in the Kingdom in terms of submission to God’s lordship, our description of corporate life never really gets beyond simply stockpiling individuals.  Churches are successful when they gather individuals; perhaps helping those individuals to have ‘Kingdom experiences,’ but the conversation does not elevate to the level of discussing power structures in the Church, or power structures in the wider culture.
The proponents of ‘Church Growth’ have essentially set aside Kingdom theology on a corporate level.  There is an unquestioned assent to the suburban ‘bigger is better’ mindset.  The Churches who buy in to this theological framework begin to reflect the suburban culture: taglines and advertising campaigns that are designed to exploit and promote individualism and consumerism, programs and staff that are designed to meet people’s demands for comfort and entertainment, heavy investment in facilities designed to meet people’s consumer expectations. 
A theology of Church Growth often explicitly promotes strategies that sacrifice Kingdom purposes in order to gain attendance at weekly events; two simple examples of this are the specific targeting of fast growing suburban communities, and the explicit targeting of groups that are culturally similar to the planting team.  In targeting a rapidly growing suburban community for a new Church, the planter is able to advertise and gather a crowd of people who are new to the neighborhood, and have yet to find a church.  Instead of asking ‘where is the Kingdom needed and how can I participate in its coming?’ the planter is asking, ‘where can I establish the largest possible weekly service with the least amount of work and relational connection?’
Even more problematic is the targeting of specific classes or ethnic groups because of the planter’s affinity for them (I will refrain from using the term ‘explicit racism’).  In attempting to reach people with whom they share similar cultural backgrounds they are able to provide people with a religious experience that does not require any jarring cross-cultural relationships.  Instead of asking ‘what should a Kingdom people look like with respect to ethnicity and class?’ the planter is asking, ‘how can I gather the largest possible crowd with the least amount of discomfort and conflict?’
In both cases a fundamental shift is made in the mindset of the Church from seeking God’s will no matter the cost, to seeking large crowds at weekly events no matter the cost.  In short, a Church Growth theology assumes that God’s will in nearly every and all circumstances is to have as many people as possible gathered together in large rooms for an hour or two once a week!  Within a theology of Church Growth there are very few Biblical concepts that are not sacrificed at the altar of this golden calf.  Our description of the Kingdom in terms of financial well-being, cultural influence, and sheer numerical size is the major factor encouraging evangelical churches to commit to suburban missions.
In an urban context, everything is slower.  As Bob Lupton has said, “There are too many people with a fifteen year strategy and a two year commitment;”10 this does not sit well with proponents of Church Growth.  Struggling with issues of racial tension, reconciling the radical cultural differences between socio-economic classes, navigating language barriers, as well as combating illiteracy, addiction, neglect, abuse, even hygiene problems, simply are not on the radar screen if our goal is Church Growth.  It is simpler and easier to achieve numerical success in a context where systems are healthier, people are wealthier, and the culture is homogenous.  It is for this reason that Evangelicals are committing to suburban missions; we are committed to the theology of Church Growth.


Rough Draft Pt III

Why is Heaven such a Lonely Place?

Oh, I have been to heaven and I have walked the streets
But I couldn’t find a hand to hold to keep me on my feet8
Evangelical theology has an almost exclusive focus on the individual that blinds us to so many of the larger implications of Jesus life and work.  This is clearly revealed by looking at the language we choose to use to describe life with God.  It is the language of ‘God and I,’ we think almost completely in terms of God’s dealing with individuals with regards to salvation, holiness, and sin.  Proponents of Kingdom theology do not necessarily do better.
Within the Vineyard historically our Kingdom focus has largely been described in terms of prophetic gifting, physical healing, demonic exorcisms, and perhaps less so in terms of intimacy with God, and acts of mercy.  Rarely (and perhaps only recently) has the Kingdom been described in terms of manifesting community, upending systems of injustice, or reconciling class and ethnic differences.  This description of the Kingdom in conflict with other Kingdoms certainly opens the door to a wider and more comprehensive understanding of God’s sphere of influence, however, it remains relegated to God’s activity within the lives of individuals.
Other proponents of ‘Kingdom theology’ describe life in the Kingdom in terms of submitting all of the various aspects of human activity to the Lordship of Jesus.  Our thoughts and emotions, our bodies and actions, our desires and choices, and our relationships are to be placed under Jesus’ tutelage through spiritual disciplines for the purpose of becoming like Jesus.  This too, however, while expanding the evangelical understanding of God’s work in the world, continues to describe the Kingdom almost solely in individual terms.
Our theological framework makes the individual the location for the whole of theology to be worked out whereas Scripture places the individual within the larger structures of humanity, within our physical universe, within the sphere of influence of the ‘powers and principalities,’ and makes this the location for theology to be discovered.  Within this theological framework the ‘Kingdom’ metaphor makes much more sense.  The ordering of larger structures of power, provision, and even protection from other powers; the governing of people-groups and their interaction with each other and their world; these are the concerns of a Kingdom, within which the individual finds her place.
The N. T. Wright quote below addresses this exact concern:

You get the atonement theology — boy do you ever — but you get it inside that political theology. And I’ve sometimes said that, and people have said, “Surely this is all about Christ dying for me.” Absolutely, right on, but you get that inside; again, it’s like a Russian doll. You get this Kingdom of God theology, which is a redefinition of what power is all about; inside that you get the meaning of the cross, the full atonement theology; and inside that there is room for every man, woman, and child in the world to find that Christ died for their sins according to the Scriptures. Let’s have the holistic biblical theology.9
            - N. T. Wright 


Rough Draft Pt II

Why are there Strip Malls in Heaven?

So paradise is a parking lot, a spot up front is your reward
And all the rest walk down streets of gold to the house they could afford2
In Erie County (the location of our Church Plant in Buffalo, NY) the Evangelical churches do not typically pursue a missional presence in the City and are instead primarily focusing their efforts into suburban ministry.  One out of every twenty churches within the City limits is an explicitly evangelical church, whereas one out of every five churches outside the City is evangelical.3 Of the half a dozen major evangelical denominations and associations in the area all are heavily weighted towards the suburbs; two denominations have not a single church in the City, the largest denomination in the area has thirty-two churches in the county, and only one in the City.4 Simply put, suburban missions have captured the evangelical imagination.  To what extent this trend holds true for other areas is beyond the scope of my data, however, personal anecdotes, and corresponding data (e.g. the ethnic makeup of national evangelical organizations) in other ways suggests that this is not an isolated trend.
The differences between suburban and urban environments are staggering.  With regards to ethnicity the City of Buffalo is majority minority (less than half of the population is white) whereas the suburban population is 92% white.5 With regards to class the City of Buffalo has a 27% poverty rate and a per capita income of $15K annually, whereas the suburban population has a 2% poverty rate and a per capita income $47K annually.6 Politically the suburbs trend Republican and the City Democratic; even in the last Presidential election where the suburbs narrowly voted for the Democratic candidate Barack Obama (51% - 48%), the City voted overwhelmingly Democratic (81% - 18%).7
These numbers, however, fail to convey the human texture of each environment.  The City is a place of wonderful diversity.  It is common in parts of the City to be in the presence of half a dozen languages at once and to be exposed to cultures from every continent (the choices for cuisine are mouthwatering!); the Upper West Side is peopled by Sudanese, Burmese, Puerto Ricans, Somalis, Iraqis, Cubans, as well as African-Americans and Italian-Americans; the University District is peopled by Pakistanis, Indians, Nigerians, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Kenyans, and others.
The City is also a place of immense and systemic brokenness.  Six decades of suburbanization has depleted over half the population, creating blight and abandoned housing with the attendant vandalism, vice, and violence.  The employers have also disappeared leaving behind families without hope, burgeoning lines for public assistance, and the breakdown of familial relationships.  The public schools are often powerless to educate, fraught with parentless students, violent cultural influences, and overworked and understaffed classrooms; students simply do not learn.  Even the food delivery system is broken; food desserts exist where fresh food cannot be found within whole square miles of City.  In these neighborhoods Doritos, Twinkies, and Pepsi form staples of the childhood diet.
The suburban context is vastly different.  The suburbs are drowning in opportunity; affordable and available groceries, healthy and safe housing, schools that educate, a police force that maintains law and order, and a culture that encourages hard work and individual responsibility.  The suburbs, however, often lack the network of relationships that are present in urban neighborhoods, and are completely lacking the cultural strength of diversity and immigrant ingenuity that helped to build the City of Buffalo (and our nation) in the first place.
And so the question is begged, why are evangelicals much more present in one cultural environ than the other?  Ignoring for the moment the question of how we got into the suburbs (a historical analysis would be fascinating, but would be a diversion from our present task of exploring the implications for discipleship of our current situation), we must simply observe that evangelicalism is both influenced by suburban culture, and a contributor to it.
Suburban Churches are largely communities of white, middle-class, conservatives, and so they tend to have the thought patterns, values, and decision-making patterns of white, middle-class, conservatives.  Suburbanites consider it normal, or even Christian, to make major life choices by considering things like safety, prosperity, and comfort; suburban churches end up endorsing this pattern.  Conversely, evangelicals have often implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, promoted a lifestyle of safety, prosperity, and comfort; this has led evangelicals to build and populate the suburbs.

We Evangelicals must come to grips with the simple truth that in our imagination the Kingdom is peopled by white, middle-class, Republicans, who live in well-manicured sub-divisions, carefully chosen for their safety and proximity to good schools, and whose choice to commute to work, church, and kids’ sports events inhibits most meaningful interaction with those they live next to.  This may not be the language we use to describe it, nor the plan we have to enact it, but it is the Kingdom we imagine.  This truth is manifested in our individual lifestyle choices and our corporate decisions; we live in the suburbs and consider it ‘normal.’  After all, we might hear evangelicals talk of a calling to ‘urban’ ministry, but no one feels the need to specify a calling to ‘suburban’ ministry (or for a calling to ‘rich, white, conservative’ ministry for that matter) that part is assumed; it is our default setting.
It is precisely this imagination that must be renewed.  We must reexamine the way we think about life in God’s Kingdom.  We must replace our values for safety, comfort, and prosperity with the King’s values for painful reconciliation, practical love, and enduring justice. 


Rough Draft Pt I

Abiding in the Heavenly City:
Implications for Discipleship of our Commitment to Suburbia
Steven Schenk
Vineyard City Church
Buffalo, NY

For the Society of Vineyard Scholars
By The Renewal of Your Mind: Imagining, Describing, and Enacting the Kingdom of God

Why does this Place look so Familiar?

I found my way to a familiar place I swear I’d been some time before
I would’ve thought it was the marketplace but I could not find the door1
Kingdom is a powerful metaphorical framework for imagining life with God; it provides a way of picturing how God’s influence is infiltrating many aspects of our world and way of life.  A Kingdom is an ordering of commerce, justice, personal relationships, well-being, and provision, in accordance with the will of the King.  The way in which different people conceive of God’s Kingdom gives shape to the way those people attempt to order commerce, justice, personal relationships, well-being, and provision; however, our pattern of life may actually reveal more about the way we imagine the Kingdom than the Kingdom itself.  Our evangelical imagination of the Kingdom looks remarkably similar to the suburbs.
This suburban imagination often enough leads us to a skewed description, and a skewed enactment, of the Kingdom of God.  It easily leads us to describing the Kingdom without reference to issues of class and race, and without confessing our cultural idols of consumerism and individualism.  This makes it simple and automatic for us to enact a lifestyle that reflects this monochromatic vision.  It should not need saying that such an alternative vision of the Kingdom has severe implications for Christian discipleship.
Assuming that the goal of discipleship is conforming individuals to the image of the Son, we must re-conceive of the Kingdom in alignment with His vision of it.  Jesus’ imagination, description and enactment of the Kingdom should be ours.  Our framework for understanding and practicing the Kingdom needs to be rethought; our minds must be renewed, this is essential to discipleship.
Over the course of this paper we will first contrast urban and suburban environments and explore the evangelical imagination of the Kingdom manifested by a Commitment to Suburbia.  Second we will discuss the theological underpinnings for such a commitment and examine the evangelical description of the Kingdom in terms of Church Growth. Third we will outline the evangelical enactment of such a Kingdom vision and detail four implications of such practice for Christian discipleship in terms of Diversity, Community, Systems, and Brokenness.


Systemic Evil

Thanks to Chris Lamm for getting me back in the saddle...