Canoeing With Tod Bolsinger is a Systemic Adventure

Earlier this month I had opportunity to meet Tod Bolsinger, author of Canoeing the Mountains. He addressed a group of pastors throughout the day and then joined some of us around the table that evening. (Kudos to Bob and Heather for hosting and bringing the brisket). The conversation was stimulating, Bolsinger is the kind of guy that is fun to hang out with. We discussed church and education and conflict and future projects and brisket among other things.

Something we did not talk about at length is systemic thought. However, in his book he demonstrates an obvious interest in systems. He quotes people like Donella H. Meadows and Edwin H. Friedman who write about such thinking. He warns us that to fail to see the systemic relationship between all living things is to miss out on most of what happens around us. He wants us to know that every part of the system affects every other part.

He borrows from the field of physics (Systemic thought crosses disciplines). The emotional field in a system is like gravity. Once relationships are formed, the pull of the relationship becomes more powerful than the individual. A reminder that relationships are more important than any one person in the system. Wendell Berry goes so far to say this about community, “to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.”

Bolsinger rightly brings this thinking to church. The church is a living system in relationship with God to accomplish God’s mission in the world so loved by God. Therefore, church is more than a simple collection of people. It is a network of interdependent relationships that share in the mission of God. This ought to be expected since even the Trinity is “best understood as a relationship of distinct persons who share one essence.”

I wish we would have had more time to talk. Canoeing with Bolsinger is surely a systemic adventure.

The Church and the “Dones”

It has become increasingly fashionable to stop attending church. It is not unusual for someone to convince oneself they can be as spiritual or even more spiritual than those who show up for the weekly gathering. Some of those fashionable people have even coined a term for themselves, the “dones.” I have even heard some of the “dones” refer to themselves as a prophetic movement.

I have no doubts that some have left the church for what seem like good reasons. I am equally certain that among those who continue to attend the weekly gathering are some strong feelings about those who are leaving. In my best effort to read this situation through a gospel lens, here are two thoughts;

1)      The church needs the “dones.” We must never forget that behavior is communication. The “dones” are communicating something and the church would be naïve to ignore it. The “dones” are not the enemy and the church has some responsibility to continue nurturing that relationship.

2)      The “dones” need the church. No matter who comes or goes, the church remains the group called to represent the ways of God in the world. As imperfect as a church may be, it is still the big part of God’s plan. The church has a responsibility to continue offering hospitality, even to those who claim to be done.

Church and Compost

Pitchfork in hand, I am turning the compost. This pile is full of onion peels, the tops of tomatoes, potato skins, unused herbs, pieces of peppers, corn cobs, eggshells, tea bags, coffee grounds, clumps of hair, grass clippings, the list could go on. Occasionally I recognize some of the individual scraps, but the contents are being transformed into an entirely new material. They may not seem like much before they become a part of this collection. But together, this stuff is something. Turning the pile permits air to enter and allows the pile to breathe.  Turning it into the garden helps to hold moisture, fight disease and feed plants that will feed us.

I am turning the compost and can’t help but think about the church. I can’t help but think that individuals who become part of this gathering are no longer what they used to be. I can’t help but think of how God is turning this group into something new. I can’t help but think of the big plans God has for this group together as a source of blessing and hope for the earth.

I am reminded the apostle Paul sometimes made lists of common sins and sinners that could be found throughout the Empire. We often read Paul’s lists of sins and sinners as a list of who gets into heaven and who does not. But the text does not read as if these folks do not have hope. In fact, these letters are written to recipients who used to commit these very sins and were described like these very sinners. To the Corinthians he said, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” Perhaps we could say, “You are no longer what you used to be, you are being made into something new.”

Yes we look around and we might not see the church we dream of. Instead we find a broken, wounded, divided, spent, used, messed up group of scraps. But together our individual-ness, even our natural abilities and inabilities, takes a backseat. We may not look like much as individuals, but together we are God’s plan in action. Gathered and turned by the Spirit, we bring new hope to the world.

Church and Its Relationships

An all too simple summary of the church and its relationships might sound something like this; A) When the relationship between God and church is strong, the world benefits. B) When the relationship between God and church is strained, the world suffers. C) When the relationship between the world and the church is off balance (either due to alliance or hostility) God grieves. D) When the relationship between the world and the church is balanced (church demonstrating what the world is meant to be), God is pleased.

The above summary implies several things. One, the church holds a central place in creation. Two, the relationship between God and the world remains constant. The world convinces itself it is central and can survive without God. At the same time, God continues to invite and welcome and love the world into relationship.

Yet, relationships involving the church are less consistent. The church has consistently moved back and forth in faithful relationship with God and the world. Corporately, we seem to find it as difficult to love God and neighbor as the rich ruler. Another implication from the above summary is that the world will always struggle with itself without the church. In fact, it is possible the world cannot understand who it is without the church. I think of Stanley Hauerwas at this point, “For the church to be the church, therefore, is not anti-world, but rather an attempt to show what the world is meant to be as God’s good creation.”

Church and the Wetlands

Not far from my present office is Wildwood Lake. Its proximity allows me to visit on occasion. Wildwood is not a traditional lake; it is more accurately a wetland. An ecosystem that provides food, water, shelter, and space for raising young. Wetlands are an overall excellent habitat for wildlife.

The swamp like feel feeds the imagination and causes me to wonder if an ogre might live there and if creatures gather for karaoke at night. More realistically, it is good to know that wetlands act as a natural sponge. The muck and variety of plant life absorb water and help prevent flooding. Wetlands act as a natural filter, trapping debris, silt, and other pollutants. Wetlands like Wildwood may look to some like a no good swamp, but they serve significant purposes in the larger system.

I walk around Wildwood and I think about the church. The church may not fight pollution or prevent flooding but is a place of sustenance and for raising young. And like the wetlands, it may not look like much but plays a significant purpose in the larger system.


An Eccle-Systemic Look at Witness

A witness is someone who has made a discovery and attempts to pass the news on to someone else. It always happens this way; it has to happen this way. Witness always happens in relationship. This becomes important for us because some still try to convince us that following Jesus is similar to mastering a doctrine. One could not be further from the truth. Following Jesus is a way to live in relationship. Following Jesus allows us to interpret life meaningfully and influences our relationships significantly. Therefore, a Christian witness is someone who demonstrates that following Jesus has done something significant to them.

This emphasis on relationship directs us toward the systemic nature of this thing called church. We should be taking a more eccle-systemic approach to witness. In fact, we misunderstand Christian witness if we overlook its corporate and relational nature. At our best we are a collection of people who are called out in a way that cuts across the natural boundaries (culture, geography, language, gender, race) that we use to divide ourselves from one another.

It is my opinion that our witness has been hindered by our emphasis on personal witness over corporate witness.  Also, by our emphasis that Jesus has done something “for me.” While I am not adamantly opposed to either of these ideas, I do think they are more the product of an individualized consumer oriented western mindset than of a New Testament picture of witness.

We get ourselves into trouble when we start to think about following Jesus in ways that isolate some of us from others. Sometimes it seems that we prefer differences over a common desire to follow Jesus.  A case can be made that the church should be the safest place to discuss differences. Instead we often act as if we cannot welcome others into the body unless we are in agreement with everything they believe. We fail in our corporate witness when we act as if the sins of others are greater than our own. We fail when we are uninviting to people who are unlike us.

To be a corporate reflection of God is to shift our allegiances by gathering in a fellowship that re-orients and re-prioritizes the way that we live our lives. All prior commitments are brought into conflict with the allegiance now given to King Jesus. This will create tension with the allegiances that others have invested in. This will put the church in the sometimes awkward position of being concerned with the affairs of the world while at the same time those we are concerned about are at odds with us.

This seems to be right where we belong. In relationship with this God who significantly alters all other relationships, including both those who see things similarly to us and those who do not. We are living in a place where people we are concerned about overlaps with people who line up against us.

This all makes witness something that is rather unpredictable. Yet, we cannot stop the fact that we are in relationship with one another, with a world that does not understand our allegiance, and with a God who is unwilling to stop this relational way of doing things. Witness will continue to happen in relationship. The impact of our witness will be directly related to how serious we are about belonging to a fellowship that is witness to what God has done.


When I talk about an eccle-system, I am not trying to propose a new term or a new description of church.  Rather, I am attempting to strengthen the idea of church that emerges from the text by playing with the more popular idea of an eco-system.  An idea, I think a helpful one, that encourages a systemic way of thinking.  It is an idea that strongly suggests that even the smallest piece of information is connected to a larger system and helps to make it what it is.  For example, in an eco-system we would find that the entire system is affected by the presence or absence of any one piece.

The implications then for the term eccle-system are that every story is connected to the story told and experienced by the church.  Therefore, our text affects everyone no matter their espoused text.  We are connected to a body of called out followers and each of our individual actions, behaviors, and decisions affect that body.  At the same time, our story influences and affects the larger community, including those who do not read our text or follow our King.  If this thinking is correct, and I think it is, then even the activities that we consider the least significant are of extreme importance in the eccle-system.

By this I am suggesting nothing new.  I am simply highlighting the idea that the church is not a closed system.  Instead, by design, it is an open system that experiences a continuous inflow and outflow.  It can never become stale or stagnant without ceasing to be the church.  The text suggests clearly that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another or in isolation from God.  The text suggests that the church is a system of interdependent individuals that is interconnected with the rest of creation.  I fear that we lose when we fail to see such a connection.

Scattered Thoughts About a Text

I am not a lone adventurer.  And I am not the first.  I read the logs of those who have gone before.  Their insights help to orient me.  They help with decision making and direction.  Those of us participating in this adventure are explorers of these particular texts.  Exploring text is a lot like exploring the forest, or the backyard, or the seashore.  In order to become skilled at it, we must be attentive to things like contrast and movement.  Things like shape, tone, and frequency call our attention to what is going on.

Sometimes it is tempting to read the texts through the eyes of where I am and when.  But reading the text is necessarily contextual.  All texts have a specific context.  Eugene Peterson says that we must “immerse ourselves in their soil and weather.”  The texts were formed because the traditions are important.  We take this seriously so we continually read the texts, gather around them and acknowledge that we are wisest when we are attentive to what they have to say.

The text is not tame and calls us to either choose a new world or defend the old one.  Reading the text is a daring, dangerous act.  The text calls us out and places us in a larger system than first imagined and explores our relationships with the Creator, creation, outsiders, enemies, neighbors, and with one another.  Ecclesia may mean “called out” but it does not eliminate our connection with the world at large.  The text reminds us that we do not dominate what is around us. Instead we are participants in it.  We are part of an eccle-system.

The text does not exist that we may gain information.  Instead it directs us to a King and invites us to join up with a collection of people who gather to follow that King.  Our words, our behaviors, our attitudes, all of our moves become extremely important and influences everything else in this eccle-system.  Here, we recognize that everything belongs to the King and that determines how we respond to it.  Our response becomes one of thankfulness and gratitude, of becoming as children, as taking on the attitude of a servant.  This is a community where love for God and neighbor are strong, but love your enemies is equally strong.

In this community it is evident that what happens to one member affects and impacts the rest.  It is no accident that the text calls us to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn.  What outsiders do affects us as well.  Persecuted by someone?  Bless them.  Have enemies?  Feed them.  Evil is not an option.  Peace to everyone.  The text provides an eccle-systemic view of this gathering, this thing we call church.