We’re coming down to the ground

There’s no better place to go

We’ve got snow upon the mountains

We’ve got rivers down below…

-Peter Gabriel, Down to Earth

Mixing it up

The Fresh Expressions movement advocates a mixed economy between inherited and new forms of church. The mixed economy of Church is a metaphor with which some of us struggle because it suggests a redistribution of wealth where the ‘inherited’ church reallocates the great inheritance for the sake of creating new Christian communities among people who don’t even know the great inheritance of the Church exists in the first place. Redistribution takes from those who have and gives to those who have not. It’s simple.

But not when we consider the pattern typical of the inherited church. Ours has been more about reinvestment than redistribution. We have budget meetings and benevolence funds. Depending on our denominational stream or political stripe there are projects of various types labeled under the banners of mission or missions or justice or peace or mercy that get resources into the hands of the people who need it the most. These are good things that take up a fraction of our church budget. Mostly, however, we take our people and resources—our ‘appreciating assets’—and we reinvest them. We enlist them to join or lead a program. This allegedly makes the church ‘sustainable’. But what happens when we over-invest in assets that don’t appreciate like they used to?

Sell… and retire, of course!

The onslaught of circumstances brought about by the COVID19 situation has raised all sorts of economic questions for all of us. And yes, some churches might have to retire as a result. About 20 years ago, the late author Phylis Tickle wrote that “every 500 years, the Church has a giant rummage sale.” and yes, there are assets we need to sell. There are stacks of who knows what sitting in church attics all across America that need dealing with. But the reality of COVID19 brings us face to face with a situation that we’ve not had to confront— at least not for a very long time.

The reality of COVID19 brings us face to face with a situation that we’ve not had to confront— at least not for a very long time.

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Overnight, by government decree in some places and a sense of good citizenship in others— many have become part of a distributed workforce overnight. Bosses have had to give up control. Meetings and deadlines are there, but they’re different. Students are still in school but their education is more squarely in the hands of the parents without any time for homeschool certification. One of my friends who works at the local community college told me they’ve been planning the launch of a campaign for their online offerings called “College Everywhere.” He and his colleagues won’t be retiring anytime soon, I assure you.

If the workplace is everywhere, if elementary school is everywhere, if college is everywhere, why can’t Church be everywhere too? “Our church is offering our services online” you say. But soon things will be back to normal, Right? One of my colleagues told me that the present moment for the church at least reminds him of the movie WALL-E.

Did you think you’d escaped from routine

By changing the script and the scene?

Despite all you made of it

You’re always afraid of the change.

-Peter Gabriel, Down to Earth, from the WALL-E soundtrack

The Gospel According to WALL-E

WALL-E is a 2008 Pixar animated film about life in the 29th Century. In the film, Earth had become so polluted that it was deemed uninhabitable. Everyone who could afford it boarded the gigantic Starliner Axiom bound for outer space where robots with artificial intelligence dole out every entertainment money can buy. The people on the ship grow lazy. They’re absorbed by their screens. They don’t have to do anything. And this is how it goes— for 700 years until WALL-E, the last remaining robotic trash compactor left on the earth meets EVE— an extraterrestrial vegetation evaluator sent by the mothership to scan the Earth for life. Wall-E shows EVE his latest find, a plant seedling, and they lift off to take it to the mothership. The robots running the ship want to keep things on autopilot but Captian McCrea— the human captain of the ship becomes curious about the seedling and begins to learn things about the earth he’s never heard of before. “I do not want to survive—I want to live!” He says.

Spoiler Alert: The Starliner Axiom returns to earth, the people disembark to a far from perfect planet riddled with pollution and decay. No longer a multitude of unknowing captives, they are free to come and go as they please. The first thing Capitan McCrea teaches the people is to plant seeds so they can grow their own food.

Jesus-followers everywhere are in a Captain McCrea moment. We can keep surviving on the Axiom or we can try planting some seeds on Planet Earth. But how?

Working from Home

For the last several weeks, many of us have been working from home. With church buildings off limits, the only place we can worship is at home. For the first time in nearly a decade, our family is cooking and eating three meals a day together—at home. While the Zoom calls and live-streaming technology might seem like an edict from the Axiom— if we pay attention something much more profound is at work here. Rather than living on autopilot, let’s return to earth instead. Earth is that place we call home.

In a busy and extraverted American society, our homes have become a fortress. It’s a place where we pull up the drawbridge—or close the garage door—and escape from the outside world. It’s our place to veg out, to cope.

But what if home wasn’t the place of escape? What if was the starting point for the distributed church, instead? What if pastors around the country—instead of doubling down on sermon preparation or paying for 5G—used the home as a starting point to equip and entrust the great inheritance of our faith within the life of every believer to the point that church was really everywhere? What if all of us were involved in leading it?

What if home wasn’t the place of escape? What if was the starting point for the distributed church, instead?

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Church everywhere goes something like this: pastors use this season of zoom calls, phone calls and telework to train their leaders. The leaders train the households. Because households are spending more time together than ever before, they make preparations to become the first place of operation in the life of the church when the church buildings are open again. If the church has multiple staff, staff are reoriented toward a posture of training and equipping. The reconstituted Sunday gathering begins allocating time for the sharing stories and bearing witness to all that happened throughout the distributed church during the week. Mission projects are spearheaded by families in the church alongside their neighbors who are not. Families are tighter. Neighborhoods are stronger. Schools are safer. All because we distributed the Church.

A couple of years ago our friend Fr. Renzo Bonetti gave us a little ceramic house— It has open windows and room for a little votive candle inside. “You can’t keep the candle lit with the windows closed,” Bonetti said of the gift. But what if the house isn’t clean enough? What if the children aren’t well-behaved enough? What if we’re vegan but the neighbors aren’t? 

When we think of our home as a base for the distributed church my good friend Paul Maconochie says “we are quick to name the price but not the prize.”  That’s because, for too many of us, the tail is wagging the dog. This season— albeit unprecedented, begs us to consider the prize that comes with a renewed focus on our first place. Now is the time for the Church to get our collective house in order.

In one congregation of which I was part, we regularly held hands and sang: “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God . . . I’ve been washed by the fountain, cleansed by the blood.”

In these days, we have the opportunity to finally understand what life in the family of God. actually means.  Opportunity ends with unity. So does community.

Maconochie has told the church community of which I am a part, “that many of us in the church say we’re sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers but in reality, we act more like servants, and cousins, aunts and uncles.”  When I think of servants, I think of parking lot attendants; cousins are people who know each other, but who only come together for large family gatherings. Uncles and aunts dote on the kids, but they don’t really play much of a role in raising them. 

These metaphors are general, of course, maybe they are stereotypes. Maybe each of them break down depending upon the context in which they are lived but there is a point to all of this. And this could be the moment of reversal. But what’s our strategy?

Getting Socially Fit

We all know what it means to get ‘physically fit’. But how does that help us with our strategy for home as a base for the distributed church? Physical fitness helps us with another concept— that of becoming ‘socially fit’.  Many of us scoff at or shy away from getting physically fit— “I could never do that!” But what can you do? In January my neighbor Wes and I decided to start running a mile together every day. We’ve missed a few days here and there— but had to start somewhere. We didn’t say five miles— we said one mile.

Now, saying something like “I could never run a mile, or walk a block!” is the same thing as saying “My household could never be a base for a distributed church.” But you got your distributed workplace ready, didn’t you?  if we’re getting back to earth, if we’re getting socially fit, how might we make the same kind of manageable goals for our social fitness?

In Acts 2:42-47 we see a pattern of social fitness in the distributed—and interdependent church. Here we see shared resources, shared prayer, shared food, and shared time together. How might this be a pattern with those in our household and in our immediate vicinity so that we can be prepared for when others can join us too?

  1. Holding things in common—we have little trouble with this related to sharing those in our immediate household. But it’s worth asking the question. If we can’t hold things in common with our households, how might we learn to hold things in common with others?
  2. Fellowship, Breaking Bread, and Prayers— are we gathering for worship at home? Not to merely to watch something on a screen—but to really participate in the worship of God together. What pattern are we developing around the dinner table during this time when we are all at home? How could we leverage that predictable pattern so that it becomes easier to create more space at our tables when others can gather in our homes again?

Hospitality is different than entertaining. Hospitality is the welcome of the stranger— but there are a few things we can do in the interim to prepare our homes for others.

  1. Have simple food on hand. We’ve all gotten better at stocking up on groceries. For us, that means always having an ample stash of coffee and tea to offer. We have insulated cups that sit on any surface without worry. When coffee and tea aren’t received, water nearly always is!  We keep chocolate, nuts, and dried fruit on hand and often have something the freezer too. A friend recently told us about the impact of being invited in for a frozen pizza of all things. It turns out that simple gift made a big impact. And it helped our friend see that hospitality is different than entertaining.
  2. Upfit your house to make hosting easier. We have a chest notoriously called “the big metal lunch box” where we put clutter on a moment’s notice. It’s also where we keep board games. We keep folding chairs in a corner, there are empty drawers in the guest room. Glasses and mugs are kept on a shelf in the kitchen where any adult can reach.
  3. Ask yourself the question God asked Moses: “What’s in your hand?” We all have constraints, but what do you have, what can you do?
  4. Create margin in your life now for unplanned interactions later— build in that extra moment to speak to the neighbor without feeling rushed, make time for conversation with the clerk at your favorite store when it opens again.

As we get down to earth working from and on home, we establish new habits and patterns that change the quality of our lives and the lives of those we encounter. We move off of the Axiom—away from consumption and autopilot, back to a grounded and more intentioned place. But we must stay patient.

Patient Ferment

As we lean into our present reality, may we be directed by what Mennonite scholar Alan Kreider calls The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. The early church was a distributed church. They met in homes in private gatherings, often for a meal. The meal led to a time of prayer, worship, and testimony. The purpose of gathering was not to attract new people but to build up the saints. Rarely did the whole body of Christ in a place assemble for a large gathering. There was no teaching on evangelism because the lives, habits, and patterns of the believers compelled others to belief. It was not what the early Christians said. It was how they lived. Their lives were rooted in a verifiable fact—that Jesus had the ultimate victory over death. Unlike most formal associations in antiquity, the community of believers included men and women; slave and free. Amidst of a hierarchical society, the Christians developed an interdependent and horizontal reality. The writings of 2nd-4th Century Church writers like Justin, Clement, Origen, Cyprian, Tertullian, and Lactantius took up the common theme of patience. God was in no hurry— and neither were they.

We’re coming down to the ground

To hear the birds sing in the trees

And the land will be looked after

We’ll send the seeds out in the breeze…

As we come down to earth to work from home and on home—as we move from our Starliners and learn to plant seeds again I pray the same patience for us. For sure, not all the seeds will fall on patient soil. Some will be trampled on by the feet of others. Some will be choked by thorns and deprived of moisture. But those who have ears to hear will hear as we worship not only with our lips but with our lives.

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Gannon Sims
About the Author

Gannon Sims

Gannon Sims is a Founding Director of Fresh Expressions US and the author of Bringing Church Home. He and his wife Carey along with a team of mostly college students and young adults planted The Center Community, a network of house churches in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Earlier this summer he became pastor of Cliff Temple Baptist Church, an historic urban congregation with a vibrant ministry and network of house churches in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, Texas.