Refounding Communities of God’s People
What’s Involved in Leading?
The “Camino” Journey – Part 1
This is the first of several posts proposing some of the actions that are needed for the refounding of the Euro-tribal churches in North America.
Introduction – Call to Refounding:
Since about the 70s of the 20th century there has been an almost continuous series of attempts to address the decline that has continued across practically all the Euro-tribal churches. In my book Joining God I proposed several reasons why these attempts have, and will continue, to fail. Overall, these initiatives are funded by an admixture of four characteristics that drive programs of renewal and reform or attempts to restructure and re-engineer:
- Technical rationality
- Management and control
- Ecclesiocentric focus
- Clergy centric leadership
These drivers are, collectively, expressions of an underlying narrative shaping what these Euro-tribal churches have sought to do. These efforts to reform, fix and renew point to an underlying conviction that solutions lie in the primacy of human agency. It’s not that God as Agent has been evacuated from the life of these churches, rather, God has been rendered a useful resource in support of human agency.
In a recent book, written with Martin Robinson, Practices for the Refounding of God’s People, I expand on these themes arguing that:
- The emergence of the modern Western imagination represents a radical departure from all previous narratives of meaning that have shaped the West.
- The modern West is a massive wager, Modernity’s Wager – a new imagination founded on the conviction that life can be lived well without God.
- Within that wager God has been inexorably turned into a useful resource for living as the modern West created its own primary agents for modern life:
- The state
- Consumer capitalism
- The Self
- In the context of this reality notions of the reform or renewal or restructuring of the Euro-tribal churches make no sense; they need to be refounded.
- Such a refounding requires forming communities of God’s people in practices of joining with God in the local where the Spirit is fermenting a new future in the everyday lives and places where they live.
Refounding amidst the three dominant stories of our time
The social theorist, Eva Illouz (Saving the Modern Soul, Berkeley: University of California, 2008) points in similar directions when she proposes there are now primary modern symbols (markers) that shape all of life in the modern West:
- Political liberalism in the form of the modern nation state
- Maximizing the pervasiveness of market efficiency through the invisible hand and a consuming life.
- The therapeutic self
Collectively, these markers comprise modernity’s wager. The tension and confusion for many of God’s people lie in their failure to see how God has been turned into a useful symbol to resource the state, capitalism and the self. These three powerful stories go deep into the self-understanding of the modern West controlling and shaping all other stories.
For Illouz, with others, this wager isn’t simply an overlay, a patina, on the surface of life in the West. It is it’s the identity. We are buffered from any sense of God as agent. God has become a useful back-up resource to life within the politics of liberalism, consumer market economics and the imagination of the Self in its self-making. This form of the modern West goes all the way down; it is now our basic identity – the culture we inhabit whether Christians or other.
When the situation before these people of God is one of being colonized by a culture then their programs of renewal, reform or organizational innovation will come and go with a dizzying regularity because they fail to engage the embeddedness of modernity’s wager. Such has been the story of the Euro-tribal churches since their decline began in the early 70s.
As Illouz explains even the introduction of innovative or well-organized adaptive change does not transform social networks. “Injecting” such methods into the existing organizational culture as if they were new cultural ingredients will not result in cultural transformation. Such injections don’t affect the underlying culture of the organization. This is why organizational systems routinely default back to their pre-injection practices, absorbing the new language into existing practices. Thus, addressing the challenges to Christian life through structural or organizations change (methods borrowed from the world of business organization and change theory such as adaptive, innovative or agile), fail to get at the underlying cultural issues.
Modernity’s wager with its three primary narratives shapes the practices, habits, beliefs and the values not just of our political, economic and social institutions but, more critically, our everyday lives determining our ways of knowing and communicating. Political liberalism, consumer capitalism and the therapeutic self are now just facts. They can’t be argued against because they just are; there is no other way. They are the taken for granted ways in which we live with one another as a society. As Illouz states, by way of example, “Thanks to consumerism and therapeutic practice, the self has been smoothly integrated into the institutions of modernity, causing culture to lose its power of transcendence and opposition to society. The very seductiveness of consumption and therapeutic self-absorption marks the decline of any serious opposition to society and the general cultural exhaustion of Western civilization.”  What, then, might be the shape of response for the Euro-tribal churches?
The Challenge: Camino – creating paths as we walk
We argue for the refounding not the reforming or renewing of Christian life for the once dominant Euro-tribal churches. Organizational transformation through injective methods such as adaptive change or innovation, while helpful, will not get at the questions of culture change that confront us. What is the shape of a response? Part of that answer lies in the story behind a poem written in the early part of the 20th century by the Spanish intellectual Antonio Machado (1875-1939): “caminante no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar” – Traveler, there is no path. You create the path as you walk.
Machado was born in the late 19th century, a period pivotal in the imagination of the Spanish people. It represented the literal ending of the Spanish Empire after a long period of crisis. As a result Spain entered a period of despondancy as its world unravelled and was extinguished. Machado wrote about these experiences. His poem is a generation’s coming to terms with an ending, with a crisis of identity. His had been the Spain of colonial domination resulting in a culture rich in traditions of music, literature, and social life. It was ripped away with no possibility of being reconstituted. Machado’s fellow Spanairds faced an existential crisis of identity as the cultural assumptions shaping that identity where torn away. Machado saw that the roads that had been possible to travel where no longer there. For some, the option was to still pretend, to carve out an enclave of those trying to recreate what was lost, to remake and fix the old roads as if they were still there. For Machado they where in a place that no Spanish citizen had been in before – old roads weren’t repairable. His writes about “paths” that where not there but invited learning how to make.
|Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino,
sino estelas en la mar.
|Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
Walking makes the road,
and turning to look behind
you see the path that you
will never tread again.
Wanderer, there is no road,
only foam trails on the sea.
from “Proverbios y cantares” in Campos de Castilla, 1912
This is the situation of the Euro-tribal churches. They’re in contexts for which they don’t have adequate language. Metaphors that once made sense of the world often don´t help anymore. There is talk about being in a post-world: postcolonial, post white majority, post-modern, post-Christendom (in this last phrase Euro-tribal Christians miss how they continue to read the world as if they were still at some center unaware that for a majority of, for example, Hispanic or First Nation Christians, such language writes them out of the conversation). These terms can only point out that what once was is no longer. There isn’t clarity about what lies ahead.
Joining the ferment of the Spirit
I call for this making paths as we walk for another reason. There’s a ferment of the Spirit in this multi-cultural, multi-racial, “post” context. The Spirit is at work in all the ordinnary places where we dwell. But discerning the Spirit’s ferment requires this making of paths as we walk. Across racial and ethnic groups, leaders are being impacted differently by the unravelling and the ferment. Some know the roads they’re on aren’t going where they thought they were. Others are on established paths wonder how long before they need to change. None of us can know what the paths will look like but we know God is inviting us to become pilgrim people of the Way. How might we hear together the Spirit and make new pathways with one another?
This refounding is not casting aside traditions to start over with a clean sheet. That option is an illusion; culture change is forever messy. Its not like a pradigm shift were one way of thinking, seeing and behaving switches off in the dawning light of a new paradigm. Culture change involves incorporating as well as testing. Making new paths as we walk is about trail and error, testing and reflecting and testing further. This path-making is always contingent on the peope and places where we dwell, on the stories they’ve inhabited. These are places where we can come together to test and experiment making pathways.
If this argument makes sense the question is: What’s involved in in making the path as we walk on it?
 Alan J Roxburgh & Martin Robinson Practices for the Refounding of God’s People (CPI: 2018)
 See, for example, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2007) where he defines secularism in three distinct types to show that while God remains present in the Western imagination the understanding of that presence has been radically transformed. In his third form of secularity belief is merely an option that can be taken up, if needed, as a useful resource for living in what he calls the “immanent frame”.
 Eva Illouz, Saving the Modern Soul, (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 2008), 35.
2 Replies to “Refounding Communities of God’s People”
“God as agent” vs “God as resource” is a an absolutely intriguing antinomy, and I believe on which we need to explore and act upon with urgent seriousness. That on its own has sole me the book.
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