Movements Happen When We Discover We're Not Alone
This is an excerpt of a soon to be released book, Everywhere You Look: Discovering the Church Right Where You Are by Tim Soerens, InterVarsity Press. Tim is a friend and former instructor of mine who is the co-founding director of the Parish Collective, a growing network and global movement of Christians re-imagining what it means to be the Church in, with, and for the neighborhood.
Along with some incredible colleagues, I’ve been privileged to spend the past ten years in hundreds of neighborhoods listening to stories of hope. I’ve sat in dark pubs late at night and in bright kitchens at the crack of dawn. Over the years I’ve slept on more couches than I care to count. My travels have taken me to gritty urban neighborhoods, cozy suburban towns, and tranquil rural villages. I’ve talked to trust-fund hipsters, Black Lives Matter activists, self-described rednecks, accomplished scholars in their eighties, and idealistic teenagers. Hopeful stories of transformation are popping up everywhere as ordinary people discern what it could mean to be the church in everyday life. A groundswell of momentum is gaining traction just in time to counter our cultural moment of fragmentation and confusion.
If you doubt me, I can’t blame you. After all, religious journalists won’t cover most of these stories because they don’t know where to look. Most pastors won’t see it because they’re focused on their own congregations. To witness what’s actually happening, we need to walk a few streets, ask plenty of questions, and be on the lookout for what God is doing in our everyday lives. If we look at the headlines, all we see is meltdown; when we get on the street it feels more like a movement.
We are at a tipping point for the church, at least for the church in North America. In all sorts of environments, when I have asked people about what the church or its purpose is, I’ve gotten such diverse answers that I wonder if the practical imagination of the church is essentially up for grabs. On the one hand, millions of mostly young people are giving up on the church. It just doesn’t make sense to them, and as a result they are placing their attention, hope, and time where they believe more change can happen. On the other hand is a movement that sounds an awful lot like “Make the Church Great Again.” But, both of these impulses make a profound mistake in asking questions about the church before asking questions about what God is doing. Ironically, the more obsessively we focus on the church, the harder it is to focus on God, who is making all things new and is active in our everyday lives.
When I say the experience of church is up for grabs, I’m not talking about how we feel when we attend a Sunday gathering. I’m talking about how everyday people imagine what the church is all about. From conservative evangelical churches in small Midwestern towns to mainline churches in bustling San Francisco, from two hundred-year-old establishments in New York to two-month-old church plants in New Mexico, a crucial question is rising: Rather than occasionally attend a service, how do we become the visible body of Christ in our everyday lives? I’m convinced God is prompting us to ask this question as well.
We are being shaken up to follow God into a bold new future where our faith guides our entire lives. It shapes our neighborhoods, cultivates an entirely new imagination for how we live, and draws us together when everything else seems to be tearing us apart.
Those who don’t believe this transformation is possible might be in the majority. But let’s consider how movements usually happen. First, the movements that matter almost always feel impossible until they aren’t. Here’s what I mean: the reason we don’t believe change can happen is not that we don’t want it and usually not because we fear something new, but because we believe that we are alone. We feel like we are the slightly crazy ones. We can see a path forward, but we don’t think it’s going to be possible to get there on our own. So we continue on as best we can. We know there must be something more but can’t quite name it. Maybe we try some new experiments and learn from them. Often, we feel like we are on to something but wonder if we can keep going. Most of the time it feels like our families, our institutions, or even our circle of friends don’t quite get it. But we carry on until one of two options presents itself. The first is to simply give up. The experiments stop; we conclude we had some great ideas and strong convictions, but we just can’t keep going. It’s time to fold. The cards were not in our favor. This is incredibly sad and always carries with it a sense of resignation, a tinge of bitterness, and constant second-guessing. We tell ourselves we tried, which is all we can do. It’s the end, and we need to face reality. Maybe the cynics were right.
But sometimes when we are pushing toward something new we receive the gift of a new connection, and it changes everything.
It can feel like winning the lottery. It’s a little disorienting because of how common and ordinary it actually is, but immediately we feel the possibility of transformation. We meet someone who has a common conviction and has courageously stepped into an experiment of their own. When we meet them, it feels like magic. Maybe we aren’t so crazy after all. Maybe there is something to this! Maybe we are on the front end of a long line of innovators. As it relates to our dreams for the church, maybe God is actually doing something. Maybe seeds of discontent and desire have been planted throughout the world, and we are now starting to see the seedlings emerge from the broken soil. All of this leads to a key principle at the heart of this book: movements happen when people who thought they were alone discover they are not.