I’m reading, Dave Browning’s Deliberate Simplicity: How the Church Does More by Doing Less, one of the books I was given for my birthday. I’m only in the second chapter, so this post will be far short of a full review, but rather more of an initial thought.
I’m ambivalent about simplicity. On the plus side, my animosity toward a Weberian routinization of charisma, leads me to think we over do the program and activity side of church. We think, “If we build it, they will come,” or “If we program it, they will show up,” both predicated on the assumption that “If they come, they will become disciples.” I’ve seen lots of activity that was only activity. Simplicity can be part of the antidote to that way of thinking.
On the other hand, my personality type sees complexity everywhere. Browning simplifies his church doctrine to four points:
- God and his word are trustworthy.
- Christ is the Savior and King.
- There is hope for the future and forgiveness for the past.
- The church holds the hope of the world in its hands.
If your objective is simplicity, and you’re starting with a blank slate, I suppose these are ok. But why these? Christian doctrine is rooted in history. It’s not just that it happened at particular times in history, but that the doctrines arose as they did because of particular questions and needs arising in particular cultural and historical settings. While it might be the case that these four “simple” doctrines might be a response to the questions of our age, our age flows from what has gone before. The new “simple” church has not appeared form nowhere.
How well does doctrinal simplicity work? Well, if these four statements are all we have, we haven’t said anything about Jesus. Oh, we’ve said that “Christ is Savior and King,” but what doctrine do we have that connects “Jesus” with “Christ?” Our age certainly doesn’t assume that. Plenty of folks today are happy to say that Jesus is A Christ, not the Christ. Maybe the connection comes from doctrine number 1 – “God and his word are trustworthy” – and since we see an equation between Jesus and Christ in the bible, we don’t need to worry about finding it elsewhere. But how do we make the connection between “his word” and the bible? Do we have a doctrine somewhere that identifies “word of God” with the bible? Do we have one that limits it to the bible? Why or why not?
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the desire for doctrinal simplicity. I think if you want doctrinal simplicity Islam is probably the way to go. They have a simple confession, “There is no God but God and Mohammad is his prophet.” You confess that, you’re a Muslim. What could be simpler? No Trinity. No resurrection of Jesus. No complicated relationships between faith & history. They have a simple theory of scripture. The Quran is an exact dictation of what God has said eternally in heaven. The believer’s job is to submit. What could be simpler?
We could also come at this from the back side. In the second chapter Browning references Rick Warren’s theories about church “drivenness.” He (and Browning agrees) says that all churches are driven by something. It could be tradition, personality, program, finances, buildings, events, seekers, or purpose. I bet you know Warren’s pick. I understand that. I even sympathize with it. But again, complexifier that I am, I don’t think it’s so simple.
They suggest that a church driven by tradition is one that majors on “doing what we’ve always done.” I understand the critique here. I’ve seen too many churches that are driven (if we can dignify their institutional conservatism with the term “tradition”) into the organizational hospice by doing what they’ve always done. But what if there’s more to tradition than “doing what we’ve always done?” If you read my book, you know that I’m convinced that God calls us to be willing participants in his ongoing action in history. Through Jesus, we’re part of the same story we read in scripture. We were called to be part of this story a thousand (hundred, fifty – put in a number of your choosing) years ago. Now since this is a story, a drama, the appropriate action on our part might differ from year to year or setting to setting. But as part of the same story, there are clear limits on what can do that will make sense, i.e., constitute a faithful performance of the story.
Or perhaps we can pick on the driven metaphor a bit. What kinds of things are driven? I drive a car. I can drive a lawnmower. I can (in theory) drive a golf ball. The first of these depend on a mechanical metaphor. Mechanical things are driven. All depict what is driven as inanimate objects. Is the church an inanimate object? Is it merely a machine? Or is it just a human institution? If we were Weberians (or Lockeans) we’d say, Sure! It’s just another voluntary association, trying to routinize the charisma in our founders (Jesus, for the primary tradition, folks like Luther, Wesley, Calvin, Wimber, for subsidiary traditions). But if we’re neither Weberians nor Lockeans (or other variants of good moderns), maybe the driven metaphor and its dependence on non-animated-ness falls apart. At best, it seems, we could talk about being Spirit driven. That doesn’t do the work that Purpose (or simple, or program, etc) do though, because the Spirit isn’t reducible to a formula or simple statement.
So how do we decide what to do? That can be described fairly simply: We walk in the Spirit, in a constant relationship of dependence on God, listening and paying attention so that we know what our role is in God’s ongoing story. Pretty simple, isn’t it? Listen, pay attention, obey. What could be simpler? But then maybe these simple things aren’t so simple. Sometimes our appropriate action will be to do something we’ve always done (like, Pray, Worship, Witness, etc.). Sometimes we’ll be doing one of these things in the same way we’ve always done it. Other times we’ll have to step out in faith and do them in some new way, perhaps even a way that challenges us and leaves us crying to God for help.
So Deliberate Simplicity? Again, I like the basic idea, but it depends on what we mean by that and what it entails. We’ll see.