We are (Not That) Church: The Forging Ploughshares Story

The convergence of the people making up the community of Forging Ploughshares is a story unto itself.  Among us we have tried the megachurch, the rural church, the Roman Church, and the mission Church. We have come together more out of desperation than any organized intent.  Most of us are millennials, one of the least churched groups in America.[1] I am suspicious (as a boomer) that the generational divide on this issue has more to do with an older generation which has come to expect very little.[2]  Whatever reason my generation is most happy to attend ordinary church (40%), they apparently do not attend so as to grow their faith (according to Barna).  The generational disaffection (some 59% of millennials who have grown up in church have left) may reflect a determined unwillingness to settle.   Millennials find church irrelevant and presume God himself is absent from the institution.  They are looking for honesty in regard to hard questions but most of all they are looking for a cure for loneliness – and Church is not perceived as speaking to either issue.[3]  In other words, church as we mostly have it, is not being the Church.

The FP community has arisen as a group due to this profound disappointment. We got here through an organic connection and shared understanding that has both a theological and a (dis)organizational component. It may be that, like Francis Chan who is attempting to reduplicate house church based communities, that FP could be endlessly replicated in the way we have organized ourselves – but I am convinced it is not just organizational or the lack thereof.

The theological component, a commitment to peace and nonviolence which is itself part of a holistic and practical notion of salvation, entails such a radical theological departure that it requires a 24/7 support group.  Theoretically, I suppose, every Catholic and Protestant group would claim that it is a full-time job to join up.  But we all know this is a sort of tongue in cheek description which will, in reality, only require an hour or two a week.  In fact, allotting even this much time is overkill, and as a result a bit boring.  This hour or two is mainly spent, as Francis Chan describes it, with thousands showing up to witness one person (himself, in this instance) exercise their gift.[4]  The theology entailed does not require much more than a token sacrament and weekly attendance.  Hard questions are not addressed and profound relationships are not to be had, as the focus is elsewhere.  The heavenly economy is not disruptive to earthly economics and the theology keeps them from interfering with one another.  A theology, open to nationalism and capitalism, results in institutional structures that reflect and support the way things are.

A theology which would suspend the prevailing economy in the lives of its members will result in a resistant organizational structure.  I am convinced, this works only with small numbers of people who are like minded and determined to do life together.  On the other hand, small numbers of people meeting in a house, apart from the theological commitment, do not make for a resistant alternative culture.  House church based communities may align themselves with all sorts of theologies which are not organically tied to this organization.  Chan describes his own turn to house church, not as theologically driven, but as part of the same utilitarianism which drives the church growth movement: “So I’m wasting the human resource of these people that according to Scripture have a miraculous gift that they could contribute to the body but they’re just sitting there quietly. … [T]hey just sit there and listen to me.”  The “waste of the human resource” and the drive to harness and utilize their gifts so as to “contribute” describes a sort of Christian utilitarianism.  The proper goal, however, is not ultimate efficiency; rather, the goal should be for the church to constitute a counter culture.

What the gifting and the gathering should be aimed at – in its miraculous manifestation (as Chan describes it), is providing for an alternative cultural identity.  The effort needs to “utilize” and “harness all the gifts” to “contribute,” not as an end in itself, but because what is being undertaken involves divine intervention into the way things are.  The “utility” is to be aimed at establishment of, what most churches would never presume, a socio-political-economic entity – the culture of the body of Christ.  Linguistically this culture organizes itself according to the deep grammar of the Word.  Politically it embraces forgiveness and mercy and structurally it is aimed at a community of love.

While Chan may have missed the deep cultural need, he is aware of the absence of agape.  He describes the difference between house church and “ordinary” church as something like the difference between an orphanage and being adopted into the family: “Church, the way I was doing (it), was like an orphanage. Here’s just a bunch of kids with one leader. And rather than saying ‘No, you know what, we’re going to put you in a home and these guys are going to actually know you and love you and care for you.’”  There is a lack of love in the traditional organizational structure: “attendees would simply greet each other for 30 seconds and mainly hang out in cliques once a week.”  The question is whether agape is simply a product of reorganization or is it the end point of a radical theology?

Agape Love is nonviolent and willing to lay down its life for others. This willingness entails a reworked value system and life course, and not a one-off action.  It could only result from a completely reconstituted socio-political structure in which the Other is not subject to possible elimination (as an enemy of the state, a religious enemy, or a personal enemy). Killing the brother or the potential brother cannot be reconciled with the command to love: “We should love one another; not as Cain, who was of the evil one and slew his brother” (1 Jn 3:11). In the Gospel, John makes it clear that this self-sacrificial love is not that of the patriot or zealot (e.g. Peter cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant).  This comes late in the Gospel in which the final few verses are devoted to training Peter how to feed sheep. The love which would serve to feed sheep – the very sustenance of the sheep –  is the love which would lay down its life.  It is inclusive of a nonviolence which would refuse to take up the sword for state purposes (saving the King of Israel), for religious purposes (rescuing the messiah from slaughter), or for personal glory (proof of the willingness to lay down one’s life – Peter’s mistake).  This sort of love is not simply a momentary warm glow; rather it is the end of a reworked value system instituted in the alternative culture which the Church is to be.

FP is a group of people committed to this sort of culture.  We are a group of like-minded Christians who would live out the peaceable Kingdom together.  The presumptuousness of not needing one another does not enter in, as we have been brought together in desperation.  Ours is a community welded together in the forge of various adversities.  The common theme of these adversities is disenfranchisement by, and disaffection with, the “ordinary church.”  By necessity, we are not focused on capital growth and numerical expansion but on surviving and thriving through interpersonal connection and relatedness.  This is what John calls abiding together and it is what is entailed in abiding in Christ (I Jn 3:24).  The alternative to this abiding together sort of love is to abide in death (I Jn 3:14).  This death dealing form of “Christianity,” in John’s description, is individualistic (imagining it has secret knowledge), elitist (only a few have access or are chosen for this knowledge), and divisive (they would reject ordinary Christians).

Chan’s goal is to replicate house churches so that there are millions of members in his “We are Church” movement.  He points out that it will cost nothing (no buildings, no paid staff or ministers) and it will work more effectively.  His project is commendable, in many ways, but it seems to lack one key component: a theology which necessitates the sort of communities he hopes to replicate. His church growth by other means has not arrived at the desperate theological situation of finding itself “counted out” by the powers that be.

The suffering of Christ is outside the city gates and it is precisely this rejected and rejecting sort of suffering through which we arrive at the intimate communal meaning of his suffering.  He was subjected to rejection and suffering because he would not go along with the cultural norms.  He overturned the table of the money changers and forever rejected the values of this sort of material exchange.  He said to Peter “put away your sword” and this is the uncontroverted command given to the Church. He claimed to be the true temple, the real King, and the promise was that he would rule.  Where his Kingdom is established this alternative economy, devoid of the sword, marks the fact that he provides the security as King.  Swords are turned into ploughshares in an economy which does not plunder the Other nor presume to need to protect itself.  Those in this economy cultivate their garden and depend upon the King for security.

At FP we are attempting, together, to put our security in the hands of the King by relying on His economy, politics, and culture to shelter us.  The profound comfort and depth of love is unique but I believe this is the result of a theological understanding that of necessity sets us apart into a small tightly knit group.

[1]The Barna Group maintains millennials (those 30 and under) stand out as least likely to value church attendance; only two in 10 believe it is important. And more than one-third of Millennial young adults (35%) take an anti-church stance. https://www.barna.com/research/americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church/#.V-hxhLVy6FD

[2]Barna confirms that Church did not make it into the top ten items which are thought to help spiritual growth.

[3] https://www.barna.com/research/how-the-last-decade-changed-american-life/#.VvRuVMdOL8s

[4]I am referencing the following article throughout: http://www.christianpost.com/news/francis-chan-goes-into-detail-with-facebook-employees-on-why-he-left-his-megachurch-190136/

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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