Helping the Church Be the Church: Part III – Response to The Mystic Way

I recently posted a short excerpt from the book, The Mystic Way of Evangelism, by Elaine Heath. Several people have asked about the book so I thought I’d include a couple short sections from a paper I wrote. For those that haven’t read the previous posts on this topic (read intro here), the paper is a review of 12 books pertaining to new monasticism and creative missional expressions of faith. After reading each of the books, I’m asking 3 primary questions: 1) What does this book offer new monastic communities? 2) What does this book offer missional/monastic church planting movements? 3) What does this book offer to the established church wrestling with these issues?

This paper is meant to provide a 30,000 foot view – it isn’t meant to touch on every important aspect (otherwise I’d never be able to deal with all 12 books in this one paper!)

Regarding The Mystic Way, here is a section from my introduction and question #3 (pertaining to the established church).

Is the American Church experiencing a dark night of the soul? Elaine Heath thinks so and I doubt many people find this hard to believe, or even surprising. What we may have not considered is her claim that this dark night is a necessary component of the path to renewed health, vitality and evangelistic impact. In a world that is becoming increasingly aware of the widening disparity between the have’s and have not’s; a culture that has come to suspect that the Modernist/Enlightenment project was never more than a smoke-and-mirrors illusion, perhaps a good dose of humility is precisely what the Church needs.

Particularly here in the West, we have come to exhibit a level of entitlement that is (for some of the people I talk to on a regular basis) simultaneously terrifying and nauseating. We expect the government to enforce our religious convictions on others, yet we hit the streets in protest if we feel they’re infringing on our religious turf through taxation or accountability. It seems that we want to be simultaneously protected and ignored. We want to get something for nothing. Just as it did on Wall Street, that mentality may be leading to a crash.

I received the following text message yesterday from a member of our community: “If u can, turn to am-660, the topic is ‘zoning ordinances pertaining to religious home meetings.’ I think its important to note that the public conversation has begun.” There seems to be an increasing population of people dissatisfied with the Church attempting to function as a business in the competitive market, without playing by the market’s rules.

Operating with a sense of entitlement, functioning as a business (with or without proper oversight) and holding an ends-justify-the-means mentality to support coercive or deceptive evangelistic strategies may have all contributed to the present situation. For this reason, I think Heath is correct in The Mystic Way of Evangelism, to suggest that the way out is to move through, not skirt around, this dark night. This assertion simultaneously strikes chords of fear and hope because, as she says, “Though the dark night is perilous, with no guarantee of a good outcome, it holds the possibility of new beginnings.”

Heath’s book traces the ancient three-fold way of the contemplatives and mystics which includes purgation, illumination and union. Perhaps our present experience is one of purgation, not unlike the Israelites wandering around in the desert while time and new birth cleansed the community of its institutionalized slave mentality.

You can’t hurry a process that only occurs over time, but you can often hinder your progress and increase both the stress and duration of the ordeal. As we transitioned into more organic and whole-life expressions of faith, there were a myriad of different expectations, assumptions and (mis)understandings that had to be purged through our own desert experience. There was no way to rush through this time, and in many ways the process continues even today.

The Mystic Way reminded me that regardless of one’s specific context, the interior life (particularly with the intention of it bearing fruit in community) is something we cultivate rather than instantly inherit. We did not arrive at our present location overnight, nor will we relocate in such a way.

What does it have to offer the established church?

I recently saw a commercial attempting to convince people that they need to take action when they notice the early signs of a stroke in another person (which I never realized was a problem). The scene involves a young man with an arrow through his chest, confidently declaring, “It’s no big deal.” Perhaps this commercial could have also been used as a trailer for the release of The Mystic Way.

It is a big deal. The situation in our churches today is a big deal. The question that remains to be answered definitively is whether or not we will adequately acknowledge and respond to the situation.

Several years ago I heard Walter Brueggemann speak about prophetic ministries. He reminded us that prophets will not be effective unless the people to whom they speak are aware (or are made aware) that there is a problem to begin with. It appears that some of our churches are beginning to realize what many who have left our churches are saying: “something isn’t working.”

Mission Alive, a church planting resource group with which our team is connected, was formed in 2004 by missiologist, Dr. Gailyn VanRheenan, whose study of the status of churches in North America convicted him of the need for renewed efforts in domestic mission work. One fairly new aspect of Mission Alive is a ministry called REvision, where leaders from established churches are trained – often by and alongside current church planters – to develop, communicate and implement a missional ecclesiology within their traditional context.

It is still too early to assess the impact that this ministry is having on the congregations involved, but the hope and prayer is that there is hope beyond only planting new churches. As Brueggemann pointed out, a lack of awareness of the situation among a majority of the leadership (let alone the whole congregation) seems to be one roadblock to the needed growth and maturation process. Standing outside the circle throwing rocks may get people’s attention, but then we have the added roadblock of angry people with bruises on their heads!

I believe that The Mystic Way can serve the established church by raising awareness of the need for whole-life discipleship / community and presenting a way forward that doesn’t require a violent dismantling of congregations, yet contains practical content for how to proceed.

Heath describes in several brief, but encouraging sections, different potential avenues for partnership between established, “anchor churches” and new communities. The picture is one of mutual encouragement and support, where the strengths of each are used to build up the other rather than being placed in tension and competition. The question that looms in my mind is whether or not this is possible given the history of turf-wars, power struggles and (to be totally honest) market-driven-rather-than-kingdom-focused definitions of success in the church. The Mystic Way, suggests that it is not only a possibility, but is a necessary and exciting present opportunity.


Posted on April 7, 2010, in book review, church planting, elaine heath, Missional church, missional community, new monasticism, the mystic way of evangelism. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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