Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Sticking Point: Social Density

A Facebook group I belong to associated with Luther Seminary recently started a discussion on this question:

What are the sticking points of your community of faith that keep you all from becoming a missional congregation?

I thought I'd take a crack at that and here's what I posted:

The sticking point? If only there were just one! I see a host of impediments to the emergence of a missional culture - everything from clericalism and Biblical illiteracy to the hyperindividualism and consumeristic ethos of our civic culture. But there does seem to be one factor that exacerbates all the others and is the place I keep coming back to when I try to decide where to invest my energies.

There is a general lack of substantive relationships.

You can easily unveil this by looking at the one-anothers that describe healthy Christian community. For example, how common are relationships in our churches that are substantive enough to allow people to actually "admonish one another?" Not very.

Culture change - like faith itself - travels from person to person like a virus. You can stop a virus cold (so to speak) by isolating people from each other. Similarly, our community relationships are generally too distant to support a culture-change epidemic. We don't "breathe each others air" enough to transmit anything.

Our primary gatherings may look like good places to catch something - Sunday services are something of a crowd scene. But there is very little relational contact that can take place in that setting. You may catch a cold by passing the peace, but you won't catch a missional culture that way.

Invest in small groups? Of course. But that's typically done as an add-on to Sunday services, as icing on the cake of everything else that's already entrenched in conventional congregational life. Most of our time & energy goes towards the large gathering which tends to have a small impact on a large number of people. Small groups, that have a larger impact on a smaller number, get the leftovers. That's a fundamental mis-alignment. (To see it graphically as a napkin diagram, go here: http://bit.ly/Misalignment.)

To switch metaphors from infection, think in terms of a nuclear chain reaction. To make that take place, the atoms have to be at a high density, packed very tightly together. Then as the neutrons fly, they release even more and the reaction multiplies.

Our "social density" is not high enough to support a "chain reaction" of missional culture change. In contrast, that's just what you see when the Church is "packed very tightly together" under persecution, often resulting in "explosive" growth.

So if I had to pick one factor above the others to focus on, I guess it would be social density. That's why I continue to be drawn to the house church movement - an eminently Lutheran expression and a subject for another time!

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