Mending the Church by Expanding the Story of Jesus

Pandemic-era ministry reminds me of a road trip that took my family across “The Loneliest Road in America.” My husband and father-in-law took turns steering an RV through hundreds of miles of two-lane roads and non-existent shoulders. Meanwhile, the Nevada wilderness held us captive with its nothingness. It was unnerving.

As the RV wobbled against the wind, the driver’s attentiveness willed us to stay in our narrow lane. My job was engaging my four daughters in the art of being content in confined spaces. The driving conditions made this particularly important.

And then the non-existent shoulders steepened into the first of several mountain passes.

Divergent Discipleship

For those of us steering the church through the pandemic, the cliffs along this narrow road have felt particularly steep. But perhaps the most unnerving part of the pandemic wilderness is the diversity of reactions amongst and within our church families. Rather than practice contentment, we turned into backseat pastors, politicians, and pandemic experts. As we white-knuckled the curves, we heard arguments about what Jesus would do in this situation. And to our dismay, we couldn’t agree. The political season added fire to the crucible.

In their interactions with pastors, Michael Graham and Skyler Flowers observe how, especially over the past five years, evangelicalism is fracturing into six divergent groups. They note that each group is capable of communing with one or two adjacent groups before the tension becomes intolerable. My simplified analysis is that we have oriented ourselves to divergent theo-political stories.

In one theo-political story, loving your neighbor looks like wearing a mask. In another, it looks like refusing. Our story informs whether or not we recognize racial reconciliation as part of the church’s mission. Whether we protect the church’s reputation…or confess to failure.

One group points to one set of Bible stories and verses while an adjacent group preaches from another. Both within the Bible and without, we locate ourselves in unique storylines. We choose the stories that fit our theo-political intuition and then string fragments together to make something that is beautiful in our own eyes.

Just as the church has taught.

Yes—this is the fruit of several generations’ worth of discipleship. Thus, we face an important question: How does the church teach its members to act like Jesus when our familiar discipleship practices have brought us to a place in which we cannot agree on how our Christ would cultivate his kingdom? Considering that the human vocation is that of imaging God, and King Jesus embodies that vocation as he invites our bodies to enter his, this is a critical question. How does the church teach its members to act like Jesus when our familiar discipleship practices have brought us to a place in which we cannot agree on how our Christ would cultivate his kingdom? Click To Tweet

Our stories have caused collisions, and we have barely begun to wade through their wreckage. And those stories show few signs of sharing the road. Rather, unless we work to harmonize them, the collisions will continue.

A Patterned Plot

The way forward involves standing at the crossroads and asking for the ancient paths. That’s where God’s people “find rest for their souls” (Jer 6:16, NRSV). The most ancient of paths leads us to the story that claims to encompass all other stories:

It starts with a nothingness that was tohu va-vohu: “wild and waste”1. Then God brings earth out of the watery wild and forms some of it into a people. He invites humanity into a partnership and rests us in his garden temple. Our mission is to work together to expand God’s rule until his kingdom and glory fill and subdue the latent wildness of all the land. But the only way we can cultivate this kingdom is to seek his wisdom and then image God into the world around us. The mission is put on hold when humanity decides we would rather hold wisdom in our bellies. We become broken imagers, are exiled from the garden, and find ourselves in a very wild place.

When will a true imager of God emerge? When will God rest humanity in his garden again? Will we regain access to the Tree of Life? And how will he make it possible for us to partner with him to subdue the wild places? Will earth ever be full of God’s glory?

This is the plotline of the most ancient of stories. The book of Revelation confirms that yes, this is where the story is going. Jesus is the Amen, and he has been since creation.

Yet so much of Western discipleship has lost the plot. We tend to teach shrunken versions of this story that focus on individual sin, a merely spiritual salvation and mission, cultural dominance, morality, or social change. So much of Western discipleship teaches shrunken versions of God's story that focus on individual sin, a merely spiritual salvation and mission, cultural dominance, morality, or social change. Click To Tweet

This is all the more sobering because this story sets a pattern that continually repeats itself. Tohu -> water -> covenant -> garden  -> rebellion -> exile (tohu’). Each cycle of re-creation moves our story forward. Like matching Russian nesting dolls, each covenant story bears the patterns of the larger one until Jesus breaks the cycle.

Jesus’ disciples knew this pattern well. They recognized it in their own story of Babylonian exile and saw it in the parable of the lost son. They located themselves in these stories. They knew how baptism fit and what came next.

Jesus nested into his identity when he reenacted Israel’s story. Egyptian tohu. Baptism. Forty marks of time in the wilderness. Overcoming temptations to turn from God’s wisdom. Declaring an Edenic jubilee. Continuing the garden mission by imaging God and inviting the weary into his rest. Jesus cultivated God’s kingdom out of an acute awareness of who God revealed himself to be in each recurrent act of this ever-recapitulating story. Fueled by God’s own Spirit of love, he enacted the partnership of God and man. He showed us how to image God in each and every familiar scene. And when he was finished, the cherubim guarding humanity from God’s throne room left their posts. Jesus broke the cycle. Our exile is finally over, and we join him in subduing the tohu.

It is within this story that the euangelion of Jesus’ kingship and rule provides the model for our own action of imaging God.

Installing Guardrails

The most dangerous part of “The Loneliest Road in America” wasn’t the top of each pass, but rather our descents downward. The momentum of gravity and disappearing guard rails made this portion of the road particularly stressful.

Likewise, although the pandemic is on the decline, the church is still in a wild place, and we are steadily gaining speed. We have lost members to both death and deconstruction. Many of us feel disoriented. And we are seeking stability for the road ahead.

Post-pandemic unity starts with re-orienting the body of Christ to the story of God’s covenantal garden mission. It focuses on how King Jesus continues to image God in moving it forward. It invites us to live under Jesus’ rule and partner with him as the Spirit conforms us to his image. Post-pandemic unity starts with re-orienting the body of Christ to the story of God’s covenantal garden mission. Click To Tweet

In expository teaching, we can identify the acts in both the nested story as well as the larger one. For example, the crossing of the Jordan was an act of re-creation as a renewed people entered a new garden. Yet in the larger context, humanity was still in exile. This crossing pointed to when God would bring us through the ultimate waters of re-creation.

Topical teaching often begins with an experience of tohu. As we remind one another of our baptisms, we bring it under the submission of a covenant relationship with Jesus and seek his wisdom and restoration. And yet in many mediums of discipleship, re-orientation will required creative recalibration:

As I inventory my worship sets over the past twelve years, I have to ask how well I wove them together to orient my church family in this story. Yet I also recognize the challenge of finding songs that reflect the full spectrum of these themes. The church needs songwriters to fill these voids.

The vast majority of children’s resources point kids to a shrunken, segmented story. In addition to modifying these resources for my kids, I’ve been developing my own resources for them. And I know I’m not alone.

Many small group resources and Bible studies assume familiarity with the overarching story rather than embedding their lesson in that context. Writers and group leaders alike will want to become more intentional in this area.

Regardless of our area of ministry, moving forward means increased partnership across the Body of Christ, because the church will find herself in the middle of a lonely wilderness again. And when she does, may our undivided love for one another point to King Jesus and his mission of “on earth as it is in heaven.”

[1] A literal-literary translation by Tim Mackie

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