The up side of being the most annoying person in your church

A close friend of mine has spent the last couple of years since moving to a new suburban community trying to play an active role in a local church. This particular congregation has important familial ties, a large number of families with children the age of their own and is located in their community.

What’s remarkable is that this congregation is theologically at odds with him. The church is fairly Calvinistic. He’s more of an open theist. The church is firmly complementarian. He’s egalitarian. The church pours its resources into weekly worship services pursuing prevailing megachurch strategies. He’s leaning toward Eucharistic table fellowship-based house church more every day.
yelling
To be honest, while I’ve admired him, I’ve met his attempts to uncompromisingly “fit in” with some incredulity. I’ve observed him taking great pains to foster a small group and grapple with the very issues where he is at odds with his congregation—even hosting his small group bible study and enduring a marriage and family study where he and his wife often felt the need to speak out in opposition to the authors. At one point he engaged a few church elders in a group reading and discussion of Christena Cleveland’s Disunity In Christ. The conversation he had hoped to spark stalled out.

My mentality has always been to seek out the like-minded rather than push against existing power structures. The former admittedly has been hard to find, while the latter has wounded me emotionally more than once.

Yet, the efforts my friend has been making prompted me to rethink my approach to church community when I encountered the work of Carl DeSalvo, professor at Georgia Tech. DeSalvo is a proponent of something called “adversarial design,” the kind of design thinking that leads to alarm clock robots that run away from you after they go off to force sleepers to get out of bed and hunt them down to shut them off. Rude, agitative, and very effective at making you get out of bed on time.

Like most people, I tend to problematize every situation involving conflict or discomfort, and for every problem there must be a solution. When the conflict produces interpersonal disagreement, finding a solution often means parting company and seeking out the like-minded through separate denominations, theological positions, generational groupings, gender roles and other binary parameters.

From this human tendency proceeds a design where relationships (and social acceptance) are predicated on an increasingly narrow set of agreements—and this is nowhere more clearly visible than it is in the church.

The drive toward a design of separation comes from placing a high value on establishing unity and an often unconscious psychological response that pushes people to avoid any information that causes discomfort when it conflicts with or challenges their beliefs. Leon Festinger’s research into cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias is particularly informative in this regard. Those most invested in the solution of separation, tend to see no viable alternatives and fail to recognize the benefits of a community that comprises various dialectical tensions. In fact, Festinger and others might argue that the overemphasis on unity in all aspects of church community is more a result of error justification where dissonance is reduced by exaggerating the importance of goal in question.

Returning to my friend’s intentional participation in “a fellowship of differents” (borrowing wording from theologian Scott McKnight), I have to honestly evaluate what is lost when I knowingly or unknowingly allow my response to dissonance to drive my behavior. By extension, the church needs to do this as well.

Wisdom comes from suffering.

– Aeschylus, “Agamemnon”

Carl DeSalvo’s Adversarial Design (2012) advocates a state of agonism whereby social, political and technological design drives “productive contestation and dissensus.” This is not a formula that seeks to solve conflict but an ongoing state of tension—a suffering that produces wisdom.

…to be a good church is to come to a community with different people, who don’t agree on everything, but who fellowship around Jesus anyway. And the only thing harder than doing this, is what happens, over time, when we don’t.

– Jonathan Storment.

Where existing church culture is predisposed to separation in order to foster an ecclesiology buttressed by complete unity in all matters, individual believers have to intentionally apply adversarial design to their engagement with their church communities, which, my friend readily admits, feels one-sided most of the time. It leaves one subject to mistrust, ad hominum attacks, social ostracizing and, at its worst, spiritual abuse. It’s often not a safe space to inhabit. The dissonance can be deafening.

Now look if you’re gonna come around here / And say those sort of things / You gotta take a few on the chin / You talking about love and all that stuff / You better wear your thickest skin / Sometimes you can’t please everyone / Sometimes you can’t please anyone at all / You sew your heart onto your sleeve / And wait for the axe to fall”

Bill Mallonee, “Skin”

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Out of One Blood, Immeasurable Worth

Today I watched blood slowly drip into a vivid red line leading to a bandaged plastic tube that had been inserted intravenously into my 11-year-old son’s arm.

some textI’ll be honest: I’m not a good one when it comes to needles, and the most disconcerting thing for me to deal with when it comes to IV treatment for my son has been blood transfusions. It was a rare occurrence when he was being treated for cancer (Rhabdomyosarcoma) in 2012. Even though I knew in my mind that the chemotherapy being administered was basically poison, it was the blood transfusions that hit me the hardest. I remember weeping back then, as I did recently, when they first gave him blood to support his own struggling system. Something about the vivid color and the knowledge that some one gave that precious substance to help my child in dire need touched me profoundly.

As a privileged white male, it also became most clear to me at that moment that with the free gift of life blood, there is no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor free, no male and female—no color, no creed, no class, no division that changes this unifying feature of our humanity.

The blood remains as red

– The Choir, “Clouds” (1987)

The bones that serve as the framework of every human form have at their core the source of that unity—the marrow that regenerates this common lifeblood.

Amid varied and beautiful human diversity, an essential sameness exists at the core.

The constitutive elements of blood have become too familiar in the past month as my son fights a new battle with aplastic anemia. We’re back to regularly fretting over platelets, hemoglobin, neutrophils, and so many blood tests. All of these building blocks of blood emanate from the core of his framework of bones—his marrow.

This blood is life. Its value is costly.

Lost in thought amid the hours of treatment this week and this contemplation about blood, I encounter the horrible news of the Charleston, SC, Emanuel AME Church shooting.

While I struggle to comprehend the full extent of this attack, I’m more aware than ever of the precarious nature of human life and the unity that this bloodshed represents.

And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.

– Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” Address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1967)

This killer’s hatred and his evil act of terror, as much as he wants it to, cannot blot out the red blood and the marrow at his core that he shares with those he seeks to destroy. Yet as this enemy selfishly takes blood, so many others selflessly give their blood, literally or figuratively, and bear witness to the love of Christ.

This is how Osheta Moore’s message to Kingdom people, in the aftermath of this shooting, spoke directly to me.

We’re called to be the ones to cry out, “Immeasurable worth!” when image-bearers are devalued. We’re the voices of justice. We’re the ones who draw in the sand and level the playing field. As peacemakers, we’re tasked with identifying with our Prince of Peace who overcame our blood-thirsty enemy by shedding his own blood—selflessness and love flows from the cross and lies out our chosen path—humility.

– Osheta Moore, “What I Need You to Say in Response to the Shooting in Charleston”

The blood of Christ—incalculably valuable, immeasurably costly—flowed freely to meet my desperate need. I know this to be true in the marrow of my bones.

The blood remains as rich

That poor sinners drink like wine

– The Choir, “Clouds” (1987)

some textI don’t know the nine people who were mercilessly gunned downed as they prayed, studied and fellowshipped Wednesday night at church but I see Christ’s love flowing as they served God, each other and their community.

I know they have unsurpassable worth.

I don’t know the people that gave the blood that is now flowing in my son’s veins, renewing his life and helping him recover.

I know we are grateful and humbled to receive such a gift.

I am beginning to understand that this “one blood” encounter through my son’s illness can be used by God to teach me. Today, it is teaching me to listen more closely and identify more deeply with the sorrowful in Charleston and the black community.

 


At our university documentary film festival this past April, the best in show winning film centered upon the last prayer of Christ that included the words, “I pray that those who believe in me, that they may be one.” Christ’s last prayer directly connects to His most costly gift.

THE LAST PRAYER / story from Chitwood Media on Vimeo.