Formation

The Church is Like a Tree: Lessons on Church from Dan White jr

Hey everyone. There’s a new book out by Dan White that I’d like to recommend. It is a book about the church, about mission and about how one leads such a church. But unlike so many of the books on these subjects, Dan’s book describes how one actually leads a church into being rooted in a neighborhood community’s life. It is such a good book that I wrote the afterword for it. Below is a version of the afterword that I wrote which shows not only what the book is about but just how important I think this book is. You can buy it with a 40% discount here by using the code ROOTED . I pray God uses Dan and this book to further His Kingdom in neighborhoods all around the world!

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AFTERWORD : SUBTERRANEAN by Dan White jr. 

For Christians living in North America today, these are the strangest of times. When it comes to church, the rules have all changed. Every thing we learned about evangelism, worship services and discipleship forty years ago (for those of us who are that old) seems no longer to apply. The culture has changed and we’re searching for new ways to do church. But, at this point in the upheaval of Western culture, we do not need a new way to do church. We need an entire new way of life. Allow me to explain.

Most of us learned church by “going to church.” We learned early to center the Christian part of our lives around attending a worship service on Sundays. The rest of our lives would develop from there. We would serve on some committees or boards whenever possible. We would take part in various evangelistic initiatives to engage with people outside the church, most of whom we had never met before. We would volunteer at the local soup kitchen to help ‘the poor,’ most of whom lived miles away from the places where we lived. Back then, we saw no need to intersect relationally with our neighbors, our surrounding culture or the hurting people around the corner from our church building. If any of them wanted God, they could simply “go to church” like us.

Somehow this worked when the majority of the culture was Christianized. Churches were everywhere. All one had to do to get serious about one’s faith was find the  right church with the programs that fit their life. We expected that if and when the people in our neighorhood wanted to get serious about their faith that they too would just come to church. Underlying it all, was this assumption: The Christian life starts with a good church. Church first, then neighborhood.

In the book you have just read, Dan White Jr. turns this on its head. Church does not start with a Sunday service and a list of programs. It starts with the neighborhood. Neighborhood first, then church. Church starts with being present with our neighbors at the intersections of our everyday lives. Dan not only refuses to separate church from the rest of our lives, for Dan church starts there. It starts with our lives taking root in the places we live. The things that once defined church – worship service, programs etc, – come organically out of our lives rooted in and among the neighbors. For Dan, the future of the church is subterranean.

We must start with the roots. In a world where less and less people go to church, church starts by planting deep roots in communities, neighborhoods with real people that are part of our lives. The church is like a tree, Dan says. I cannot think of a more important lesson I’ve learned about church these past twenty-five years than this: that every church must start by planting deep roots of relationship among a people, a neighborhood, around its tables. This is indeed church.

Throughout this book Dan has reminded us this will be slow. We must learn ways to sustain ourselves for the long term. Every leader missionary of the gospel, in the new places of mission in N America, must come to grips with this expectation. His or her mental health, ability to live, his or her entire life will depend upon it. Dan helps us imagine how this might be possible.

Dan tells us the leader of this way of church must be chastened of large-church expectations that the modernist churches have become so pre-occupied with. Instead, let us be grass roots organizers, slow steady cultivators. Dan exposes the performative contradiction in the aspiration of any Christian leader who seeks to be the next great mega church pastor of his or her generation. This Dan says will not result in church.

I sense, more and more, that the younger generations are seeing already what Dan is talking about in this book. They are already seeking a new imagination for what it means to be the church of Jesus in N American cities, towns and villages.

Recently, I was sitting with a group of seminary students in an upstairs apartment of an urban neigborhood talking about ministry. We were tackling the struggles of society, culture and church. I asked them if they wanted to be pastors when they graduated from seminary. In unison, they all said a resounding “NO.” They were all repulsed by the idea. I was a bit shocked to say the least. Why then attend seminary? And then I realized what they visualized in their minds when I said the word “pastor.” They had in mind that man (most of the time it was a man) who wore the suit and tie, preached a sermon, and worked hard to get people to come to church and serve on committees, and sign up for programs. Even if this pastor led a large mega church, these students couldn’t’ see this work as relevant to the culture of our day. So I changed the question, “what about political organizers of the Kingdom? Could you be interested in doing that?” Their response was “Yeahhhhhh.” I then redescribed the task of a pastor in these terms, as someone who gathered people together in a neighborhood to live the Kingdom of God under His reign and power. This leader would gather people to be present to the poor, the hurting, the children, the wandering souls of modernity. Worship would galvanize and fund imagination for the calling of Christ via a living encounter with the living Christ. By tending to Christ in this way, the Kingdom would be birthed, and (only) then be organized for Mission. With the pastorate reimagined like this, they all could say “yes” to being a pastor.

The struggle for students like those in the apartment that night has been to re-imagine the pastorate and the church for the new cultures of N America. The struggle for them has been to know where and how to start. Dan White jr, in this book Subterranean, is offering a path to be followed for all those Christians who would be political organizers for the Kingdom. By the mere courageous act of writing it, Dan assures us that there are people alongside us ready to begin church as this missionary way of life. He invites us into a living of the Christian life that is so true, so rooted, that it births communities of deep rich Kingdom life. He not only invites us to reimagine church, he invites us into the new world where God is working in Christ to reconcile the whole world to Himself. He helps us see that the future of the church is Subterranean.

And so I say “let the journey begin.” Let the grassroots renewal of God’s people sprout up across the land. May this book inspire you, like it has inspired me, to the rooted, slow, patient work of cultivating Kingdom where you live. For the furtherance of Christ and His Kingdom.