Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Provoking our Collective Community Imagination I

“Hey, we have a fellowship group that meets tonight……and would love it if you could join us”. It was with those words (or something close to it) I entered the world of Redeemer fellowship groups nine years ago. Though I was a believer, I was deeply discouraged by Christian community. Today, I participate in overseeing hundreds of groups here at Redeemer as a director of fellowship groups. That small encounter with a fellowship group leader served a very big purpose in my present vocational life.

Why have I become so heavily involved in fellowship groups? I could give a thick theological answer that includes talk of calling, providence, divine sovereignty, and the like, and that response would be correct. But the straight forward facts-on-the-ground answer is quite simply – someone asked me to visit their group. An unpretentiously courageous group leader extended an invitation to an unfamiliar newcomer.

To my surprise, joining that fellowship group, challenged and provoked my imagination about Christian community in fresh, exciting, and encouraging ways. That group experience was formative in helping me to think about (and experience) what small group community can be and also served as a helpful reminder of the prophetic wisdom of not ‘despising small things’.

So, how might others in Redeemer come to participate in a fellowship group and experience robust renewal in gospel community? What could substantially increase church wide participation in small groups thus transforming our big city? One way is to issue cattle calls to join and/or lead a group. This is a helpful and needful thing and usually works to a degree. One of the things that scripture does is convert our community imagination and then challenge us to live into that renewed vision.

Community imagination

Catching a vision of what can be is always deeply inspiring and motivating. When a person is provoked to imagine new possibilities, to see beyond present material circumstances, he/she will move confidently in the direction of seeing that new horizon realized. This is true regarding the dynamics of Christian community formation. When a believer catches a glimpse of what transforming community looks like, gets a taste of thick rich community life, they will seek more of it (and often invite others to do the same). We see this kind of vision casting and provocation to community imagination in the Biblical prophets in particular.

The OT prophets are commonly understood as a cranky community of grumpy divine spokesmen. They blow into town and, with bony pointed finger, announce doom and gloom on a community gone wild in sin. They blow in, blow up, and then blow out of town (if they don’t get beat up first!).

There is another (better) way to see what they’re doing. As Walter Brueggeman states, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us”.

That is, if Israel found itself in a state of disrepair and surrounded by hostile enemies, the prophets would provoke their collective imagination and expand their visionary awareness by painting pictures of a time when the community (particularly, the big city – Jerusalem) would flourish and its enemies would flock to it (cf. Isaiah 2).

Wherever there were pockets of darkness, the prophets would often inspire repentance by describing images of what an alternative community transformed by the light of the gospel would look like. They would inspire a people experiencing a failure of community imagination, with their words, giving them a window into the world to come.

This is what a fellowship group can do. When those members are together doing community group practices (praise, scripture study, prayer, fellowship, and mission) they are demonstrating and living out a taste of the world to come. An onlooker is getting a fresh little vista into life in the New city. This is attractive. Light, in the midst of darkness always is.

What is needed is people who will dream together with others about what gospel-driven group life can be and then will fund that vision by forming (or hosting) a fellowship group. What is always needed is people who’ve undergone (or are willing to undergo) a conversion of their community imagination and then challenge others to the same as well.

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