Fellow Explorer, Sometime Guide (May-Aug 2004)

By Matt Dabbs

by Fred Peatross
May – August, 2004

Last year my wife and I joined a diverse group of friends at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta for a two-week vacation to Costa Rica. Our party included three young women from Colorado whose vocabulary was frequently sprinkled with colorful metaphors. Two middle age couples from Atlanta whose worldviews were very different from ours and a South Africa couple who had moved to Costa Rica to become caretakers of the El Castillo, our point of destination.

For two weeks we all lived together at the El Castillo, a castle in the rain forest overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We laughed together, played together, told our stories, but most important we showed mutual acceptance to one another.

Drinking was part of this group’s day but we never raised an eyebrow, we even joined them with an occasional beer. When my wife and I read the Bible in the morning I could sense a little uneasiness in the beginning, but soon they became familiar with our routine and accepted our daily Bible intake. As a sign of trust they began sharing small parts of their life. It was obvious that we had convinced them that we were normal people—just like them. Suddenly, we were missionaries who had stepped across familiar borders to engage our friends on their ground. Each day our relationships grew. We had become spiritual explorers walking alongside our new friends.

Three days into our trip my wife asked the group if it would be okay to have a morning devotional. The questions flowed. The group granted us permission to help them connect the dots of their story with the Grand Story. We had created a safe place on their territory where life was lived by their code of conduct. Each night I prayed behind their back and then told them to their face over a morning bagel.

Creating safe places offers nothing new or beyond the model Jesus gave us almost 2,000 years ago. God became flesh and joined the indigenous practices of His culture. Now it’s our time to embed the message of Jesus into the emerging culture of our day. (I’m indebted to Brain McLaren for this terminology.) Flesh is encoded culturally and historically and is socially constructed.

Safe places stand as a corrective to the prevailing mentality of the church and its uncanny addiction to centripetal ministries, which attempts to drag seekers into its gig. Jesus wasn’t centripetal but centrifugal. The four walls of a church building should simply serve as a location for training loyal apprentices how to leak the life of Jesus to the people around them. Portable spirituality is the ministry of Jesus.

The tradition of primarily using church facilities for activities to bring people closer to the presence of God is not the creation of “safe places.” Church buildings are owned and managed by the church, sometimes to good effect but always subordinate to some other purpose. God’s people would come closer to fulfilling the mission requirements of the emerging culture if they could define the common ground in such a way that it is not directly under the control of the organized church. This is the significance of the boundary between the sanctuary and the “Court of the Gentiles” —such as, believers must come out of the church in order to play on the common ground. They do not cease to be believers, but the rules of the game have changed.

It is unfortunate that someone is writing on creating an “outer court,” where Christians and pre-Christians can comfortably mingle, considering that Christians should be that “outer court” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, regardless of their location. Yet, our history of engaging the pre-Christian hasn’t created significant middle ground between the church and the world, between being either wholeheartedly Christian or ashamedly secular, between expressing and repressing our faith. The pre-Christian screams “Fanatic!” when the overtly evangelistic shows up on their doorstep and murmurs “Hypocrite” when the spiritually sterile bows their heads. This is perhaps the fundamental missional challenge we face — how do we allow this emerging state of spiritual being to emerge, protected from both the world and the church?

Jesus was the master at creating safe places. His portability was seen in the inordinate amount of time he spent with prostitutes, tax collectors, government officials and fishermen. Our addiction to centripetal ministry has kept us away from those Jesus misses. We’ve been called to leave our Temple and enter the court of the Gentiles to engage the “missing” on their territory. Territory comfortable and familiar to them, where government officials assemble for city council meetings, where art museum curators show their prizes, and where the missing ones willingly sit with “people of the way” to discuss life issues over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. Reaching this emerging generation will require a few bold Christians to step out of the boat of church life and into the streams of culture in pursuit of something unprecedented, even downright miraculous. It means we replace our preoccupation with church and begin to walk the fringes of the mission field looking for those Jesus misses.

I have to wonder what our faith communities would look like if we reduced our church staffs by fifty percent, spent less money on in-house ministries and expended less creative energy crafting our Sunday morning worship and redirected those resources toward the architecting of “safe places,” spiritual conversation zones that potentially become “church” for the people Jesus misses most. What would that look like? In the beginning there would be enormous resistance to this, but this is true with all new paradigms. Local church viability into the next several decades will call for us to wrestle with these questions and possibly implement the answers.

Individually each of us has been called to love and serve the people God has placed in our day-to-day life. Yet God has called his people to collectively incarnate their culture. To innovatively infiltrate its communities in the style of Al Quada: deliberately, quietly, determinedly, and with intention.

As with any new beginning, there will be problems. Consequently, this recreated outer court will need fresh insights from the culturally crafted missionary who is intentional in his desire to incarnate Christ. What would cross-border faith communities look like?

Make an investigative trip to the local Mall with intentions of leasing the next vacant storefront. Create a café environment with comfortable seating, relaxing music, and coffee. Set up a wi-fi hot spot and offer free internet access to anyone with a wireless enabled device such as a laptop or PDA. Purchase a Multimedia Projector, computer, and software and once a week offer an evening of Movie Karaoke. Don’t let “How will we finance this?” become the obstacle that stops creative enterprising. Instead, believe that God will provide the resources necessary to create a safe place for Christians to connect with pre-Christians. Connect—belong—and let God do what He wills by intentionally positioning ourselves where the people He misses most do their shopping, living, and playing. We’ve spent years and years (and millions of dollars) building edifices for our people subordinate to our plans and ideas while neglecting the common-ground principle of relating and connecting with culture.

Dan Kimball, author of The Emerging Church, says he spends two days a week in the office on the church campus conducting church business and two days outside the office at a coffee house where he prepares his lessons while establishing friendships with pre-Christians, Dan says, “I’ve realized this has extreme value, not only in building friendships with those who aren’t Christians, but it also keeps me in connection with how nonchurched people are viewing church and Christianity.”

Have a Credit Card Debit Revival every two months and pay off someone’s credit card.

If your community has a university, spend a Saturday on campus offering $25 a head to have a few college students come and share their perceptions, experiences, and understanding of church and Christians. The investment to learn from someone outside our four walls about perceptions and impressions of us — and, at the same time, afford us opportunities with them—is not a costly one.

Connect with your culture by taking your ministries out of the church building and placing them in different buildings all over the city. Most churches would never do this, for lack of a vision narrative. Yet, mobile ministries that move beyond the confines of a “one building” or “one campus” church are, first, concerned with the missing ones and attempting to minister to people all over their city.

Whatever we do must have sufficient momentum to resist the centripetal attraction of exclusive, self-obsessed Christian fellowship and must be sustained by more than just a commitment to mission—it will require a whole way of being Christian, a culture, a lifestyle that is comfortable functioning without the regular weekly church structure, that is able to draw on a diffuse set of spiritual resources, that is innovative and creative in generating community and in providing mutual support. At the very heart of it all must be an instinctive enthusiasm for developing a “cross-border” spirituality. Whereas in recent years evangelical spirituality has been driven by Bible study we would need to see a shift in the direction of a less confident, exploratory mode of relating to God where we explore our way out of the narrow confines of traditional evangelicalism into a missional space where theological reflection becomes more meaningful.

There is no particular template for cross-border communities. They could be small or large, short-term or long-term, personal or impersonal, organized or disorganized. Cross-border communities will be dependent on the development of an outlook, a way of life, and a sense of personal empowerment for the apprentice of Jesus in this complex, paradoxical, yet fascinating landscape of the postmodern world. Perhaps one key criterion would be the need to get ourselves to a point where in relating to pre-Christians we can say that we are on common ground. We must find that point where our journeys converge so that we can build relationships on the basis of spiritual commonality.

Here’s a thought—what if the programming comes from those on the outside? What if we allow pre-Christians to set the agenda and decide the playing field? We don’t do this in the Temple, but in the court of the Gentiles perhaps a different set of rules apply.

Think about the possibilities…New Wineskins

Fred Peatross is a Christian who lives and worships in Huntington, West Virginia. He has been a deacon, a missionary to the former Soviet Union, a pulpit minister, and shepherd. Fred has written three books. He is married to a dietitian, and is the father of three college children. Fred makes “ordinary attempts” to evangelize through relational acts of kindness and enjoys praying behind his friend’s back as he journeys with them as a spiritual explorer and sometimes guide. He avidly creates safe-places for the pre-Christian. [Fred Peatross’ book Missio Dei - In the Crisis of ChristianityMissio Dei: In the Crisis of Christianity, reviewed in New Wineskins]. He blogs at [Abductive Columns].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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