Maurice’s Musings For Thursday, April 26, 2012
Dear fellow followers of Christ,
Your situation on the campus at Vanderbilt University has come to the attention of your fellow believers around the country. And because we are one body in Christ, your struggle has become our struggle. So, I write this letter first and foremost as a fellow believer in response to your situation and your struggles. You have my heart-felt prayers. I also write this letter as a former student-leader of a campus-wide spiritual awakening at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (circa 1975), at that time one of the most spiritually cold and antagonistic University communities in America (a “hotbed of radicals and communists” according to the late Senator Jesse Helms) when I arrived there as a student in the early 1970s. With the benefit of hindsight, experience and the perspective of time, I write to you now as one who has seen first-hand how a genuine grassroots student movement of authentic spiritual awakening can come to such a campus, and in spite of great obstacles, can have a profound, surprising and lasting impact on a student body, a University community, and upon all who come in contact with them. What follows in this open letter (which I hope you will see the benefit of circulating widely to your fellow believers there) represents my personal reflections on your situation as seen through the lens of what God may be doing to ignite spiritual awakening on your campus. Been there. Done this. These are my thoughts.
1. Welcome to Postmodern Persecution. I’ll keep this simple and to the point while attempting to resist and avoid obvious and tempting “bunny trails”. To be Post-Christian and Postmodern is to also be Post-Tolerant. The advocates Postmodern secularism in America pride’s themselves on being “tolerant”. In your situation, this “tolerance” (which is really a “pseudo-tolerance”) takes the form of being “non-discriminatory”. As you have now discovered, this pseudo-tolerance is a ruse and an illusion. In truth, Postmodern secularism is tolerant of anyone willing to agree with it’s politically correct agenda. But Postmodernism is breath-takingly intolerant (to the point of persecution) toward anyone, particularly people of faith and strong moral convictions, who dare to oppose their agenda. Welcome to Postmodern persecution and the unrelenting pursuit of anyone who dares to stand on principle and refuses to offer the required pinch of incense to the gods of Postmodern secularism and “tolerance”. The Postmodern god of politically correct “tolerance” is the new Caesar, and your obeisance is required.
2. Just Say “No!”. It is a profound truth of history and of personal relationships that the person most difficult to threaten, intimidate or blackmail is the one who has accepted a profound “death-to-self” and – irrespective of the consequences – is willing to simply say “No” to the unjust demands being made upon him (or her). Throughout the history of the Church, “No” has been a timeless and eloquent word when spoken in the face of persecution. It is time for the Christian Community of Vanderbilt University to collectively and emphatically declare a timeless and eloquent “No” to the demands for compromise and subservience being placed upon it by the proponents of Postmodern secularism and pseudo-tolerance. People of faith and unshakable spiritual and moral convictions, like yourselves, stand out as spiritual and moral “bronze walls” in an age of moral and spiritual mud huts (Jeremiah 15:20). And the inhabitants of the mud huts resent the “audacity” of your moral and spiritual convictions. “Mud huts are good for everyone,” is their non-discriminatory mantra to be uncritically accepted by everyone seeking their blessing.
3. Embrace Your New Reality: A Collegium Illicitum. From the days of Nero (c. AD 64) until the reign of Constantine (c. AD 313) the profession of Christianity was a crime punishable by death, and any organized gathering of Christians constituted a Collegium Illicitum (an “illegal gathering”). In his book Defending Constantine: The Twilight of An Empire and The Dawn of Christendom, author Peter Leithart points out that during the Imperial persecutions, no Christian was ever prosecuted as a member of a Collegium Illicitum. Christians were punished for being Christians, for the name alone. (Leithart, page 212). But times change, and the secular Postmodern authorities at Vanderbilt understand that they cannot “outlaw” Christianity or persecute it outright. But they also understand that they can “outlaw” the organized practice of Christianity on the Vanderbilt Campus on any terms other than those dictated by the University and the Postmodern zeitgeist which propels them forward. Like the Ancient Romans before them, they have, in effect, declared organized Christianity (on anything other than their terms) to be a Collegium Illicitum. The Postmodern secular authorities of our age understand that any organization created by you can be threatened, attacked, compromised, corrupted and co-opted by them. It is the “fatal flaw” of any tightly organized hierarchical organization. Compromise or co-opt the leadership and you can cripple the message and effectiveness of the entire organization. In this way, highly centralized organizations are like spiders as opposed to starfish (See The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom). If you cut the legs off a spider, the result is a crippled, dying spider. But if you cut the arms off a star fish what you get is five more starfish (just ask any oyster fisherman). It is time for the Campus Christian Community of Vanderbilt University to emulate the star fish. It is time to “de-centralize” and “de-organize”, and that is where I want to go next.
4. De-Organize . . . Quickly. People create organizations to perpetuate themselves. They create organisms to reproduce and multiply themselves. You are now at a critical juncture. You must decide – and quickly – whether your goal is to effectively penetrate your extended campus community with and for the Kingdom of God or to merely “perpetuate” your existing organizations. Is your goal a spiritual movement or a spiritual monument. If your goal is to erect a monument, then you should focus your energy on build an organization, but you’ll have to do it on the University’s terms. If your goal is to ignite a spiritual movement that will penetrate your campus community and will produce multiplying disciples of Jesus who will multiply themselves and teach others to do the same, then you MUST de-organize and become an “organism” . . . and you have no time to waste.
5. Become An Organic Missional Community, Not A Gathering Of Competing Organizations. Speaking out of my own experience of leading a spiritual awakening on a campus which was hostile to our very presence, I feel impelled to repeat and emphasize the last sentence of the previous paragraph: If your goal is to ignite a spiritual movement that will penetrate your campus community and will produce multiplying disciples of Jesus who will multiply themselves and teach others to do the same, then you MUST de-organize and become an “organism”. Old paradigms with their old boundaries, methodologies, programs and limitations must give way to a new reality. You cannot remain a collection of organizations competing with one another while fighting off the encroachments of Postmodern secularism, pseud-tolerance and persecution. The structures you currently have in place – the very structures which the University is now seeking to ban except on their terms – cannot carry you forward to where you need to go. They represent the remnants of a different day. First, you need Organic Leadership. Organizations prefer politically elected leaders who hold an office and can be controlled by those electing them. God prefers spiritually gifted leaders who do not look over their shoulders for approval but who look forward at what God is calling the Church to do. Biblical leadership is determined by gifting, by character, by example and by vision. Such leaders live their lives for an audience of One. They understand that if they please Him, nothing else matters; and if they fail to please Him, nothing else matters. Who are the individuals in your midst who carry a vision and a burden for your campus and community and who may even carry in their hearts and minds the God-breathed strategies necessary to reach your campus? These biblical leaders (as opposed to organizational leaders) are the ones absolutely critical to equip and build up the body there for the work and tasks which lie ahead (Ephesians 4:1-12). Without them you cannot get to where God wants to send you. Are you one of them? Then it is time to step up and lead, regardless of who is following. Second, you need Organic Gatherings. These will be both spontaneous and planned, both ad hoc and regular. They will be student-led gatherings for prayer in places all over campus, wherever people gather. They will be student-led bible studies and equipping gatherings to receive information, training, encouragement and more. They will be groups of two, three or four students meeting with others for prayer, encouragement, strategizing discipleship. Use viral social media to communicate about people, times and places. Learn from viral underground churches around the world (places like China) where believers meet spontaneously and on short notice in homes, in offices, on rooftops, or in any available space. Practice what David Platt (Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream) calls “secret church”. Underground churches experiencing persecution and meeting in secret are among the fastest growing and most viral churches in the world. Ever wonder why? Answer the question they have already answered, “Is your goal to be ‘visible’ or to be ‘viral’”. Third, you need Organic Strategies which outline God’s heart and plan for your campus and community. There are unrecognized leaders in your midst to whom God has given organic strategies to penetrate your campus community with the Kingdom of God. Strategies for planting bible studies in every residence hall on campus. Strategies for penetrating and reaching sub-communities within the larger campus community. Strategies for how to more effectively utilize emerging social media to communicate with and reach previously unreachable groups within your community. We serve a God Who is both organic and strategic. Throughout the centuries he has used flawed but willing people to further His Kingdom, in the process overcoming human frailties on the one hand and hostile opposition on the other. And from eternity past He has carefully and strategically planned every move along the way leading to your own salvation and your current ministry at Vanderbilt. Do you genuinely think He doesn’t have a strategy for penetrating your campus community with the good news of His Son?
6. Accept The Gift You Have Been Offered, And Ask God To Grant You A Viral Student-Led Spiritual Awakening. And so we come to the reality of your situation. I understand that it probably doesn’t feel this way, but congratulations are in order. You have been offered a gift – the gift of an historic “opportunity”. It is coming to you wrapped in adversity and disguised as persecution. Hope you weren’t expecting flowers and a bow. But like all gifts, it must be received and appreciated before the opportunity can be fully realized. God frequently brings about change in His Church through conflict, including persecution. Such conflict forces us to re-examine how we do things and while challenging us to either change or abandon old ways and old paradigms which no longer suit the new context in which we find ourselves. This is one of those times. This is one of those conflicts. And this is your opportunity.
Alan Hirsh (The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating The Missional Church) has frequently asked the question of how a relatively small band of persecuted Christians numbering only a few thousand at the end of the first century could, in a matter of 200 years bring the Roman Empire to it’s knees. The answer that he and others have offered is simple: Christianity was a viral faith; an organism rather than an organization. When Pliny the Younger, the Roman Governor of Bithynia and Pontus in Asia Minor wrote to the Emperor Trajan concerning the persecution of Christians in his Province, he described their faith as a “contagion” (See Pliny, Epistulae X.96). Christianity was viral, and Pliny understood this reality. Do we? The way to reach the Vanderbilt campus and community is NOT to improve your organization or to submit to the terms of the secular Postmodern authorities demanding your obeisance. The best way to penetrate the Vanderbilt campus and community is to spread “the Jesus virus”.
The purpose of this letter is to help you see that there are many people (including this writer) in the greater Evangelical Church community who can and will stand with you as you seek God for His path forward for you and your ministry at Vanderbilt. Those of us who have been deeply involved in the work of “organic church” are aware of excellent resources which can help. My friends Tony and Felicity Dale have written extensively on the role and impact of small organic churches (Small Is Big!: Unleashing the Big Impact of Intentionally Small Churches). Ross Rohde has written on the need for us to return to a genuinely viral faith like the one which caused headaches for Pliny and has ignited spiritual awakenings throughout history (Viral Jesus: Recovering the contagious power of the Gospel). Our friend Neil Cole has written extensively on the nature of organic discipleship and leadership (Cultivating a Life for God: Multiplying Disciples Through Life Transformation Groups and Organic Leadership: Leading Naturally Right Where You Are). These are just a few of the resources available to help equip you for this new opportunity of an organic journey into campus wide spiritual awakening. For our part at Rising River Media, we are prepared to offer every student in the Christian community at Vanderbilt a free copy of our book, The Inextinguishable Blaze: God’s Call To Holiness, Repentance, Intimacy and Spiritual Awakening. All you (or anyone) needs to do is to send us an e-mail at email@example.com with the Subject Line, “Free Book Offer”. Give us your mailing address and we will ship it out. You can also order a copy on our website through “The Viral Book Project”.
In some ways I pity the advocates of Postmodern secularism who have chosen this battle and this arena. They have apparently forgotten the lessons of history, as they seem intent on repeating them. In the words of Alexander Maclaren (and Theodore Beza before him), “The Church is an anvil which has worn out many hammers and the story of the first collision is, in essentials, the story of all.” Your faith – our faith – is a timeless anvil. Ill-informed or arrogant hammers come and go.
Christians throughout the centuries have become well familiar with the arena of faith versus persecution. The saints and persecutors may change over time, but the arena and the contest remain the same. As does the eventual outcome. That struggle and that outcome have, perhaps, been best described by Will Durant in his summary of the conflict between those early believers and the Roman Empire. Their struggle is your struggle, and their victory presages your victory. Take courage.
“There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned or oppressed by . . . . emperors, bearing all trials with a fiery tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the word, brutality with hope, and at long last defeating the strongest state that history has ever known. Caesar and Christ had met in the arena and Christ had won.” (Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 3, “Caesar and Christ: A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their Beginnings to A.D. 325, pp 652)
Those of us who have traveled paths of conflict, opportunity and spiritual awakening have some sense of the opportunity which now lies before you, hence, this open letter to encourage you to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”. This is your calling, your opportunity and your challenge. Allow us to stand alongside you.
Maurice Smith, Executive Director
Rising River Media
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Maurice Smith is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1976), an alumnus of Campus Crusade for Christ, International and an honors graduate of Denver Baptist Seminary where he also served on the adjunct faculty. He is the author of nine books focused primarily on the topics of revival/spiritual awakening and organic house church. Maurice resides in Spokane, Washington with Gale, his wife of 34 years. They have two adult children. Together they coordinate Rising River Media.