Dan White Jr. is Movement Developer and Coach for The V3 Movement. His new book, Subterranean: Why the Future of the Church is Rootedness is now available.
The following excerpt is part of a free chapter you can download here.
God had been taking a jackhammer ever so gently to the foundation of my ecclesiology, which was rattling the bones of my self-understanding as a ministry leader. It was evident in my journal entries and in my percolating conversations with some close companions. My conscience was increasingly uncomfortable with what it meant to be a “successful” pastor and I was uncomfortable with the cultural description of what it meant to be a successful church. Success, though never stated overtly, was dependent on many of the factors that made me the high school quarterback or earned me public speaking awards or helped me pull off huge fund- raising events. I had personality, charm, and could infuse energy into a room. As a decent communicator I knew how to draw a crowd. Honestly, my framework for being the church was biased by my shiny skill set.
Rewind, as a couple of previous summers I experienced a disruption. I decided to read through the early church letters afresh, asking one simple question: What is the church? I wasn’t looking for sermon material; I just wanted to see the forest for the trees. With my Bible and a five-by-seven notebook alongside I meandered through Acts, Corinthians, Ephesians, and Thessalonians with that question written at the top of every page.
After a few weeks, I remember vividly sitting in a lawn chair, head resting in the palm of my hands, realizing I was reading something unfamiliar to me and it was unraveling me. I’ve studied all this before, slicing, dicing, and cooking it up to deliver to others, yet on an experiential level it looked strange and foreign. I had not known experientially the ecclesiastical life found in the New Testament, now scribbled in my notebook. I had a genuine sense of feeling like a sham, like a carpenter who somehow avoided ever being in the woodshop. I had versed myself in organizational principles, better church methods, communication tactics, and research on relevancy, and it had drifted me away from the axioms of being the body of Christ. I don’t mean body of Christ as a Sunday event and a midweek program, I mean body of Christ as unfolded in the imperfect community of oikos. Oikos is the Greek word for household. However, its meaning is much broader than what we typical give to the definition of household. For us it means those who live under one roof. However, for those living in the Ancient Near East during the time of Christ it came to mean the metaphoric family that intentionally oriented around each other, in a particular place. The oikos is the imperfect, messy, relational, organic but organized amoeba of the first-century church. Oikos was the hot mess of God’s in-breaking kingdom that supported early Christians for mission in a city, for maturing in love, for the practice of the Eucharist, for the collision of racial diversity, for resistance to paganism, and for being shaped as disciples. This is where the activity was. There was no other option. This was church undiluted and I knew very little of this alternative life exposed and explained by the Apostle Paul.
I had lead many discipleship programs, participated in many small group Bible studies and preached many captivating sermons, but very little of it inched me closer to the grit and grime of oikos. I’m not an idealist believing we can duplicate what occurred 2,000 years ago, but I certainly believe something primordial needs to be resurrected in our efficiency- constricted, personality-driven, entertainment-addicted, community-starved, size-obsessed culture. Sitting there that sunny afternoon I was being reinvigorated but in some ways paralyzed. I felt the hammer of change pounding away at my identity but I did not know how to move into the spaciousness of practice. So for the next few years I privately churned in conversation with my gifted wife. I did my best to serve faithfully at the ministry posts God had given me. Everything came to head for me when I was offered that “successful” pastoral position at a megachurch.
All my dreaming and ruminating about a new but old way forward as church was going to be tested, was going to be pressed through a gauntlet. For me the acceptance of that successful church job was a temptation offering me a shortcut around what God had been teaching me. Yet I was not emotionally ready for the cost. I wanted that job so desperately but was so conflicted that I decided to get away for three days to pray, fast, and get some clarity. I got a cheap hotel room in an adjacent city and began seeking wisdom. By the end of day two I came up completely dry; my prayers were cluttered and my headspace was no clearer. I found nothing at the bottom of the barrel of my mind.
So out of pure frustration I decided to go for a walk downtown that night. It was the dead of winter. I bundled up like an Eskimo and began stumbling around the city with no direction and a grumbling attitude. On my walk I came across a homeless brother sitting up against a building on the icy sidewalk. As I approached him, he waved me over. I hesitantly came closer and he motioned to the ground saying “sit down.” I sat down and I could see his breath puffing under the dim street light, as he turned and asked, “What are you afraid of?” I responded with a caught-off-guard “Huh?” My new homeless friend responded with quoting “I will never leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous. . . . Be careful to obey the law I’ve given you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for God will be with you wherever you go” (Josh 1:5–7). I was aghast. Horror gushed into my heart and I knew what was happening. I was a Baptist boy but this holy interruption was hard to pass off as merely a crazy homeless guy. He was a vessel of truth.
The message was clear. I was riddled with fear and my insides began to split open. I cried tears of honesty for the first time in a long time. My homeless friend got up slowly, using my shoulder as a crutch, and moseyed down the street around the corner. I sat there and I could feel my cowardice. I feared failing, I feared not making any money, I feared not being successful. My ego was in an Olympic wrestling match with the idea of success. God spoke through a homeless brother to break up the hard ground of my soul to make space for absorbing the fresh water of new directions. Soon I drove home, walked in the door, and immediately told my wife what had happened. She said, “We can’t be afraid.” So I turned down the job the following day. Fast forward, and it hasn’t been easy, but I’ve been attempting to practice a more rooted way of being the people of God in the world. I have had the joy of making this trek with others. My own blue-collar practice is dripping from the pages of this book and it is by no means perfect. I’ve tried to be honest throughout about my own inner temper tantrums to reorient around rootedness.
I recall that story because it is my story and it has framed much of the issues I will press into. I believe the future of the church is a rooted one; one that submerges itself in community, in neighborhoods, and in focused faithfulness. The recovery of a rooted church will collide with real leaders, trained in real “success” strategies that have formed real personal images of being significant. Everything about rootedness will collide with our inner dependency on versions of success built on personality, expediency, and efficiency. When pressing into the future of the church our own leadership habits must go through a maximum dynamic pressure. Maximum dynamic pressure is what a space shuttle goes through at the point it punches through the atmosphere. The integrity of the shuttle is taxed, exposing the craftsmanship and character of its construction.
Is the church of the future dependent on magnetic personalities or rooted practice?