Columnists > Voices

Slouching toward the comfort zone

Do our churches want to be Acts normal or American normal?

Issue: "Exit strategies," Aug. 5, 2006

Even the name of the church is a little suspicious: "Spirit and Truth." I think it's the "Spirit" part. I was at a Labor Day picnic last year sitting next to a woman who teaches at the elementary school associated with that Philadelphia congregation, and during our conversation she mentioned the Holy Spirit three times. In the old days I would have expressed a need to get up for more potato salad.

Susan Baker is a member of "Spirit and Truth" and looks to be normal, judging from her demeanor at the seminary café where I make tuna cranberry wraps and she is adjunct faculty in practical theology. I thought she might speak to me during these languid summer days. The first thing I noticed is she keeps her office door open. Might not mean anything.

Susan is just a little older than I, so I was curious as to what someone of my generation was doing while I was wasting privilege. Just out of Wheaton College, she and her husband moved into the bowels of Chicago and ran a youth center supported out of their own pockets, doing tutoring, sports, and Sunday school. I asked if she married Randy and moved to the city because they shared the same vision. She said no, she moved to the city because she liked Randy, and Randy moved to the city.

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They had gotten a taste for that kind of thing when still single undergrads through Wheaton's "Inner City Christian Action" program, helping a pastor on the South side who converted a factory into a roller-skating rink in the projects. This, incidentally, proves what I have also found, that action precedes love. The only way to get to like doing God's work (which no one naturally likes) is to throw yourself into it. I say this for your encouragement.

The only problem with Randy and Susan's youth group thing was the lack of a good ecclesiology in terms of a bigger church. They would lose the kids in the end. They started hauling them in their 15-passenger van to the church of a man named Manuel Ortiz. But Manny was called to my fair city and Susan's husband decided to take classes at Westminster, so the Spirit was moving them to Philadelphia. (There goes that word again.)

"Spirit and Truth" church grew out of their Bible studies and eventually came under the Christian Reformed Church umbrella, Rev. Manuel Ortiz, pastor. "Spirit and Truth" seems to be all about church planting. Church planting is church splits that leave greater mass after the operation than before, like a zygote rather than a bowl of ice cream between two brats. Three of their nine ordained elders do full-time community internship. Two of the church plants have just purchased buildings in the last six months. It occurs to me that church planting as a mindset rather than an exotic specialty is closer to the book of Acts than what I normally see around.

I asked Susan why "Spirit and Truth" has so many ordained elders, and she said, "Because we know we're not keeping them." Then I popped the touchy question: Don't you get nervous about the income loss from that constant spawning of churches? She said when the Germantown church left, "Spirit and Truth" lost $40,000-but recouped it in one year by a new influx. Also, mysterious monetary gifts tend to turn up.

This is not to endorse irresponsibility. Susan is the church treasurer, and she doesn't do irresponsible. One of her roles is teaching good bookkeeping to church planters, and how to have good financial statements in case they ever need to go to the bank for a loan.

"Having a kingdom-centered approach rather than a church-centered approach" helps too, explained Susan. "By that mentality we can send out our best leaders."

I asked why this Acts normal isn't American church normal. She said, "Society tends to infiltrate the church better than the church infiltrates society." Slouching toward comfortableness stifles church growth. "If all you're dealing with is transfer growth, then you're just moving people around."

How do you keep yourself from that sinister slouch? I wondered. "I'm not immune to that. I have to be involved in things. If I were not involved in the exciting work we're doing, I would be complacent."

I don't think the Spirit will let that happen.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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