I was, frankly, quite amazed at the very large response of my recent Blog on the re-birth of Canal Street Church in New Orleans after the devastation of hurricane Katrina. It is interesting that it took such a nightmare-ish disaster to bring it to this awakening. The fact is, that if one looks at the purpose of the church in the mission of God, that forgetfulness sets in rather quickly—usually after the second generation. One has only to look at the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible to see this—drift, pre-occupation and distractions, subtle erosions, Satanic attacks and persecutions, … It is so subtle: the preoccupation with place, or with clergy, or with church disputes … and the Kingdom community loses its clear focus on being the missionary arm of the Holy Trinity.

If you go all the way back to the beginning of Israel’s occupation of the Holy Land, after forty years in the wilderness, there was the provision that every seven years Israel should declare a year of rest and go back to the boundary, to the place where they entered the land, and to remember from whence they had come, and what was the clear purpose of their calling as a nation, which was given to them in their founding covenant at the foot of Mt. Sinai. They were to be a holy nation, living under God’s design, and to be a nation of priests, a light to the nations,  to communicate the design of God to all the nations of the earth. Then every fifty years was a Jubilee year, when all of the land reverted to its original ownership, etc. “Go back to the boundary and remember why you were called, and what God’s purpose for you is, and how you are fulfilling that calling.”

The problem was that Israel soon forgot their calling, and essentially forgot the Sabbatical years, and never seemed to have practiced the Jubilee year with much conviction. So, that within a few generations the nation drifted and took on many of the practices of the pagan nations around them. They were intended to always be a pilgrim people with a mission to the other nations of the earth. They forgot. They were not willing to stop periodically and evaluate who they were and why they were unique, so by the 8th-7th centuries before the advent of Christ, the prophets came with a single message: “Remember the Torah, the covenant by which you were formed. Remember that you are Yahweh’s unique people. Remember mercy and justice, and your guidelines for living among those of other religions. Go back to the boundary and remember.”

In more recent times the Marynoll Father, Gerald Arbuckle (a cultural anthropologist) was asked by his Roman Catholic order to diagnose why the order was diminishing so alarmingly. His conclusion was the whenever an order dilutes, displaces, or forgets its (what he designates as) founding myth, i.e. its raison d’etre, then the Order reverts to chaos. That, he concluded, was what had happened to the Marynolls. He also noted that ‘renewal’ is quite too weak a remedy—what the order needs is to radically refound itself upon its founding myth.

Very few Christian institutions take this seriously. They displace their founding myth, their true essence as communities under the Lordship of Christ, with religious institutional forms, forget their mission, or dilute their message to make it more acceptable to ‘religious’ folk, … then wonder why they are diminishing. Canal Street Church had been in something of a chaotic and unfocused state for decades and it took the hurricane Katrina to bring it to its moment of refounding. Congregations need to “go back to the boundary” at least every decade or so, and reclaim their integrity, their founding myth. … But few are willing. After the second generation the drift to chaos.


[I have sought to process this in a book: Refounding the Church from the Underside.]

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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