Gleaning Wisdom from Outside the Church

what do anarchists, the military, community organizers, and the mafia have in common? 
-we can learn something from each of them.

It is not uncommon for folks to feel put off by the church. Even Christians, and in my mind especially those who are actually trying to follow Jesus, are bothered by so many things they see within church communities. I am a part of a community that actually decided to quit church because we wanted to follow Jesus. It got to the point that we didn't see how we could remain connected to an institution that wasted money, supported the status quo, alienated so many, and practiced greater racial and economic segregation than any other type of institution we were aware of. If Jesus was to be lord for us, it was going to mean flipping tables within these building made by human hands, or to just leave and try to live lives of faith and mission. 

Well its been about a decade since a group of about 50 of us left our respective institutional church communities and started meeting in our homes regularly to worship, build community, and at least try to engage in some missional expression in our neighborhoods. All we had was each other and the example of Jesus and honestly that was all we really needed. All the trappings that had become so normal to 'church' life were superfluous, we didn't need buildings, budgets, pews, professional clergy, or anything more than Jesus, each other, and a commitment to love our neighbors. 

Over the last ten years those house churches have multiplied and changed and grown and other communities have joined our little network. We are now known as the Underground Network and are made up of over 100 little communities that we have come to call 'micro churches.' 

The network is beautiful and our community is rich with examples of something like a living faith in Jesus. Inevitably, with 100 communities there is a fair amount of ideological diversity. We have communities that seem very conservative and others that are very liberal. We try to learn from one another and hold onto unity as much as possible by focusing on what we have in common rather that those points that might divide. 

Our network likes to get together and so has a service, not unlike any other church's Sunday morning service, where folks gather to sing, worship, hear teaching from scripture, and feel connected to something larger than their small micro church community. 

I have to confess, though, even with house church meetings, larger Sunday gatherings, leadership assemblies, etc. I still feel a sense that there is something more and  I often see glimpses of things in other communities that I envy or long for. More than just long for, but feel challenged by. 

I think our community of communities is on the right track and am proud of the ways we have resisted the temptation to professionalize ministry, forget the poor in our use of resources, or allow petty disagreements to divide us from each other. Still I think there are a lot of ways that we can continue to grow as a movement and I think there are a lot of lessons we might learn from other non-faith based communities. 


There are a lot of ways that I love and have familial connection with radical activist communities as they hunger and thirst for justice in our world. Besides all the things we already have in common or the minor or major differences between us I am always looking for that place where the heart of God is being made known among them. I always feel, after joining a radical group in a protest where they are crying out for justice, like I have been in an awesome prayer meeting. Because I think that is exactly what it is. Beyond that however, I am so impressed with the openness and inclusive nature of many of these communities. I love them and am consistently challenged by their  intentional carefulness about things like using oppressive language. Among them I have had to face many things I had never even considered before. One very practical example that I think highly illustrates this intentionality and carefulness was the way one group opened a direct action training that they were leading. They began the meeting by asking the group to do a couple of things. The first would be, since many of us didn't know one another, to introduce ourselves and then to also inform the group as to which gender pronouns we would like used to refer to ourselves. For example I said "Hi, my name is Jon and I use male pronouns." The room had several folks that were LGBTQ and this form of introduction made it very easy to find out who might like to be referred to as 'he' or 'she' or with gender neutral pronouns like "they." The second thing they had the group do was to 'Build a container.' This would be our guidelines for discussion for the rest of the session. They offered several suggestions and opened the floor for others to make known possible boundaries or requests that they might have as well. A few examples of the agreements for our container were "no oppressive language" and then they also introduced a very simple way to let someone know that what they said offended, simply say "ouch" to which the speaker may respond "oops." They suggested us use what they called "step up step back," this is simply a challenge to all of us, for those of us who tend not to speak up in a group, we will challenge ourselves to speak more, if we find ourselves talking more than others, we will challenge ourselves to step back and listen more. There were several other such agreements we made so that only one person would speak at a time, all voices would be respected and heard, etc. These two requests from the outset of a meeting in which not everybody knew each other set the tone for a safe space in which all would be welcome, respected, and most importantly safe. 

When I honestly compare this kind of intentionality and caution with my own community I must admit that it illuminates the fact that we might often offend, oppress, or alienate others even unintentionally by simply not being more proactive about such boundaries and precautions. If being inclusive is to be valued then some pro-activity is going to be necessary and I am so grateful to my anarchist and leftist friends who helped illuminate this place to grow for our own community.  

I should add that these communities also tend to exemplify the priority and have the best tools for the process of consensus decision making, which is glaringly absent in so many of our faith communities. 

The Mafia

While the anarchist community mentioned above has a sweet and welcoming spirit that plays itself out in its practices I also think we might find lessons to be learned in communities or organizations which have ugly spirits about them as well. Obviously, since they do not have the Spirit that we want to posses our faith communities, it is important that we just zero in on the practices from which we might learn. One example that I think of often is La Cosa Nostra, or the Sicilian Mafia. Obviously we can't model our faith communities after organized crime syndicates but I do think there are a few attributes of the Mafia that I wish were a bit more present in our churches. The first thing that comes to mind is the idea of being a Family that you join, to which you remain loyal and who has your back. I honestly love the idea that those who come into our community might gain our undying loyalty and commitment and in turn offer long term commitment to the community. I understand that gang loyalty is often coerced by threat of violence and death and I think every drop of coercion and violence should be exorcised from any christian community. I also think there is a benefit to a community that makes lifelong commitments. "Blood out", is an ugly way to frame up what could be seen as a beautiful commitment, till death do us part.  

I also think the Mafia has excelled in infiltrating all levels and and areas of society. From the streets to the boardrooms, whether legal, civic, business, or even recreation the mob was present and influential. I think one mistake that Christians in this country have made is trying to set up their own versions of things rather than engaging those things in society itself. There should not be Christian music or a Christian Music Industry, rather than musicians who are Christian who can love and serve within that industry. Churches shouldn't set up their own softball leagues but they should, as families of people interested in sports join existing leagues. Christian schools are another way that church folks have quarantined themselves off from the world rather than engaging fully and even influencing those sectors of our society. The Mob had such influence.

Another attribute that I think may be related to their incarnational efforts is secrecy. La Cosa Nostra has a code of honor know as Omertà. Omertà is a code of silence that implies the categorical prohibition of cooperation with state authorities or reliance on its services. Basically don't rat, ever. Omertà is an extreme form of loyalty and solidarity in the face of authority. One of its absolute tenets is that it is deeply demeaning and shameful to betray even one's deadliest enemy to the authorities. For this reason, many Mafia-related crimes go unsolved. This code is a kind of blood oath that is enforced by the threat of violence and so that I am clear, that is not something I wish we would emulate. I do however admire both the extreme loyalty and solidarity as well as the culture of secrecy that I wish was more commonplace within the Christian community. There is so much about "christians" that bothers me and one of the most pervasive and troubling attributes of so many who consider themselves christian is their constant propaganda, or the story they tell (and even believe) about themselves. All in the name of 'evangelism' or 'the gospel' they spout off propaganda. This was very clearly pointed to by one of my heroes Dietrich Bonhoeffer during a lecture he gave in Berlin in 1932.

Confession of faith is not to be confused with professing a religion. Such profession uses the confession as propaganda and ammunition against the Godless. The confession of faith belongs rather to the "Discipline of the Secret" in the Christian gathering of those who believe. Nowhere else is it tenable...
The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself. If this deed is to have become a force, then the world will long to confess the Word. This is not the same as loudly shrieking out propaganda. This Word must be preserved as the most sacred possession of the community. This is a matter between God and the community, not between the community and the world. It is a word of recognition between friends, not a word to use against enemies. This attitude was first learned at baptism. The deed alone is our confession of faith before the world.
This Discipline of the Secret, this arcane discipline is something that I believe the church should seriously consider. There is so much that we fail to do in terms of concrete action all the while spouting off, or as Bonhoeffer put it "shrieking out propaganda." We do not live lives of faith and we also profess a religion. Imagine if we really kept what was sacred sacred rather than trying to peddle it like a snake oil. Imagine if that secret fueled and compelled those who were in the know to lay their lives down in love and service to the world around them. Imagine if we were like Jesus rather than salesmen who simply talk about Jesus, and poorly at that. While we should be a powerful force that is infiltrating and influencing the entire landscape of our cities, our business, our school system and every other corner of our world for the sake of establishing peace, justice, mercy and every other value of the coming kingdom of God, we instead rat ourselves out, throw our pearls before swine, and become greasy snake oil salesman instead of powerful secret agents of change. I don't mean some weird secret society kind of secret but a sermon on the mount kind of secret. Remember:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
In 1944 Bonhoeffer wrote a baptism homily for his best friend's son Dietrich Bethge while he was in prison. In it he wrote these words to little Dietrich and others present:
Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christian today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men.
Righteous action, as in doing justice and works of mercy, are the things that we do among men. This is, as he said in the Berlin lecture 12 years earlier, the deed which interprets itself, the primary confession of the Christian before the world. Prayer is the other thing mentioned, it is the secret, the thing which sustains us in our 'righteous action among men.' The Mafia's actions were anything but righteous and their secrets were anything but communion with God but I still think we could learn a good bit about the value of the secret from them.

Community organizers
I will never forget the first time I went to an organizers meeting with leaders from many different groups who work on a variety of political and justice issues. Some of them focused on ecological, others legal, still others fought for civil rights, etc. Obviously many of the issues they worked on had overlap and only rarely was one group actually opposed to the work of another. I remember being impressed by the facilitation of the meeting and the general spirit of supporting one another and learning from one another. At this particular meeting there were two groups present who had upcoming actions and were looking for support. They were each given the floor for a certain amount of time to talk about their cause and their plans and their needs and then the facilitator did something I will never forget. He stopped the discussion and asked for us to make commitments. Not just an open floor but specifically, each person at the table was asked; Can you support this? how many can you invite, inform, or bring? When will you talk to them? When can we follow up with you? I was a bit uncomfortable as I felt a bit put on the spot and later was so thankful for that. They pushed for commitment that was specific, measurable, and timely. They asked in front of everyone so that each was accountable. Also I think it was important that it was the facilitator, rather than the group who needed the help who did the pushing. I have seen this play out many times since at similar meetings and have become convinced of its wisdom.

When micro church leaders gather, this is the thing that I think I long for. Mutual support and commitment that transcends our own groups and our own activities. There is a danger that each of us get so caught up in the thing that we are doing that we fail to love and serve the broader community and so also loose the power of their support when the time comes that our group might really benefit from it. Organizers know that we are stronger together and also that when I support the work you are doing and the cause you are fighting for you will be there for me when my day comes as well. This is simply the wisdom of mutual aid and cooperation which should be second nature to the people of Jesus. should be.

Even the military which I thoroughly oppose has attributes that we should emulate. Particularly ethnic diversity. I am not aware of any other institution that has been more intentional and more effective at bringing together more people from differing ethnicity that the United States military. Though done for all the wrong reasons one still must acknowledge, that in a country that is as racially divided as ours, this is quite a feat. Meanwhile there is no more segregated hour in America then on Sunday mornings when so called Christians gather together. For all the ways I wish churches would be a whole lot less like the military, with its rigid hierarchy, command and control, and flag waiving patriotism I do wish, in this one way, we could be more like the military. The mission of God in this world will be better accomplished when every tongue, tribe, and nation stand shoulder to shoulder, eyes fixed on one vision, the reign of the peace of God. 

What are some communities that you have learned from? or been challenged by? It's a bad sign if you don't think there are things for your community to learn BTW