Save the marginalized, save the world

The first breakout session at the Origins day on Tuesday gave me a lot of options.

I had to find my box, after all. Was I a Pioneer, Entrepreneur, Innovator, Activist, or Explorer?

I don’t know. I’m a PhD student right now. What’s that? An Irrelevant? I turned the page to see if there was an Ivory Tower session where a balding man in a tweed coat discussed esoteric issues that would be sure to confuse the masses thus rendering them just senseless enough to beat them over the head and drag them into our church.

I don’t really have a particular sense of my own category. I’m not an activist, I know that, even as I affirm activism. I’m a contemplative, if anything, a guy who likes the mountains and forests and tends to be entirely introverted. That means I’m definitely not an entrepreneur. Which is good, because that’s a tricky word to spell a lot.

My family, historically, were pioneers, people who left the settled lands to find something unsettled. Pioneers were the kind of people who went west in a small group, gathering up their worldly possessions, leaving behind the known and safe, to find a better, more full life.

I like that. Maybe I’m a pioneer.

Dave Gibbons was the speaker at the first session of Pioneers. Now that’s even more interesting.

I’ve never heard him speak before, and only knew the barest about him, but I’ve been running into his church for about ten years or more. He started a church in Irvine in the early 90s. Called it Newsong.

I went to NewSong since 1992, worked there in various ways for a bit. “I go to NewSong,” I’d tell people who ask, and in Seminary lots of people ask. “Oh! I’ve heard of that, in Irvine!” they’d reply. “No, another one,” I’d say, “In Covina” or later I’d say “In San Dimas.” They got a new building.

NewSong in San Dimas hit it’s stride in the early 1990s and began a bit of a slide in the mid 90s, and quite the slide in the earlier parts of this decade. For a while there it was the NewSong to know. But, Dieter left, the mission became confused, people left, others came. It went from being on the cutting edge to being somewhere on the dull edge to being pretty far from the edge all together. It’s dangerous on the edge! A person might slip and fall or cut themselves. Better to gather everyone and move them away, fence off the edge altogether and arrange the occasional bus trip to have a look at it every so often, guided by a certain few ‘trustworthy’ guides who really never looked over the edge themselves as much as could talk about the dangers of edgeness and provide a certain comfortable fretting and theological sounding leadership points. Dave Gibbons

The other Newsong, the one in Irvine, became the Newsong to know, because Dave Gibbons started it, stayed with it, and led it through transitions finding a great rhythm along the way.

So, I went to be a pioneer and hear what Dave Gibbons had to say. Very glad I did.

Hear are my notes of what he said, with a bit of my own added commentary:

We are, he said, in a time of great transition. All of society is in transition. The church is in transition. The economic situation is in transition. Transition abounds. During times of transition your vision can get distorted.

My NewSong is certainly a testimony to this truth.

How we are engaging transition determines who we are and what we are to become. And so, it seems necessary to have, as Gibbons called it, a theology of transition.

For the church this transition involves transitioning from a powerful, commanding force who can institute its policies and assert them over people. Instead, the church now only has soft power, able to convince through attraction, discussion, earned influence. Coercion is no longer possible. We have to instead find community.

Gibbons turned to Luke 17:11ff for guidance.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. hen Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

He made such good points that I, apparently, chose to listen more than write, so I don’t have written down his particular use of this passage. Sorry about that. It was good though.

My notes continue with his development of the points. He noted that the greatest miracles happen in the transitions.

In the transitions we discover hybrid models, neither old nor brand new, but rather a participation with both that allows for movement without demanding absolute change before moving. Gibbons example was the Toyota Prius. The Prius is the car to have because of its environmental presence in this Green moment. Toyota became the #1 car manufacturer, beating out for the first time GM. GM kept to the old model, not predicting the transition, making H3 in the face of a growing gas crisis. It’s what Americans bought, after all, what they wanted. Until, of course, they didn’t. And they didn’t pretty quickly. The Big 3 American manufacturers tanked. Required government intervention to avoid bankruptcy.

The Prius is not the perfect environmental car. It’s not wholly electric. It’s not solar powered. It is a step. A transition. Because Toyota predicted the transition, got a model into the mix, they became the leaders of this present moment. In the transition hybrid models become key, steps as the wider infrastructure changes.

In this, as Gibbons put it, we honor the past while we fuel the fringe. We’re good, after all, at condemning the past for all its mistakes, and church history is filled with them, as is present history. In emerging/missional it’s typical to criticize Hybels or Rick Warren or others for embracing the attractional consumerism. But, they were doing what they thought was right to do. They had a role, and indeed freed us all a bit for this moment in which we can make more steps, fixing what is broken, learning from mistakes and victories. Gibbons made the interesting point that his Asian heritage helps in this. Asian cultures honor the ancestors, their past. We can learn from that, even as we push towards what is new, and better, and more freeing.

In times of transition we discover intersectional living, where ideas, plans, problems, solutions, and teaching can come, and must come, from all kinds of directions. The church which is not in intersection is not learning, and indeed is likely missing the broad work of the Holy Spirit.

Transition also involves turbulence, and this turbulence leads to different emphases and different forms.

Gibbons then moves to his next emphasis, one I find particularly interesting given my recent studies.

There has to be a priority for the fringe. There has to be liberation.

“If you reach the marginalized, you reach the masses.” This is a huge statement, a complete transition from the older forms of evangelism typified by Young Life, who sought to first reach the influential then use their influence to reach the masses. But, in that the dominant remain the dominant, and the dominated remain the dominated. There is no real need for the Holy Spirit. People who are good at life aren’t desperate for God’s life and so won’t live, and change, in response to the curious calls of the Spirit. The desperate will. The outcasts will. The fringes will. They become illustrations of the Spirit, incarnations, taking up a life that this world did not offer and reflecting a life that is the life that is and is to come from God.

The key in this is not to perfect a system then implement. That was the trouble at my NewSong. They were so cautious they would take literally years in bureaucratic discussion, so trying to make everyone happy no one was happy. No one was helped. Nothing worked, and what was working was dismantled for the new system, so nothing was left.

Start walking, Dave Gibbons said. Start doing. The rules for revolutionaries include the fact that to make real change you have to “put out a version 1.0”. It’s not perfect, it’s not ideal, it’s not the best possible ideal, but it’s the something that can be tested in the wild, explored, poked, discovered, enhanced. Weaknesses can be seen, strengths enjoyed. Start. Do. Contribute. Don’t wait. Act. Make the change that can be seen and experienced, then make more changes. If you wait for the perfect, or sit on the past, you become GM, bankrupt and embarrassed. No one wants what you have to offer anymore.

Finally, Dave Gibbons talked about leadership. The sign of a mature leader, he said, is gratitude. Mature leaders are aware of the people around them, who contributes, who participates, who adds, who provides. They are aware of how they’ve been taught before and how they are still being taught from all directions. They are in constant amazement of the work of God that is going on around them, that doesn’t need them, but can use them. This is an issue of valuation, a realization that just because a person has been healed doesn’t mean they’re whole. Leaders, such as Moses, are constantly still being led and trained in their maturity and they need the whole people of God as guides and helps.

Because of this, relationships always trump vision. This is what I’ve long thought, but I’ve rarely seen in practice. In churches vision almost always has trumped the people. The people are allowed to drift away, they are tossed aside or abandoned for this sake of supposed vision. Jesus, however, was always about people. People are the vision he had. He saw them for who they were, truly saw them, was there with them.

Work with the Spirit, work with people. That is what shapes the vision and allows it to become more whole and more alive and more fruitful than ever thought possible.

That’s what Dave Gibbons had to say. He is, by the way, one of the three key figures who put together the Origins network. So, his thoughts on these things are an interesting perspective on Origins as a whole.

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