Anarchy in the USA

April 2001 'Small Fire' column for Ship of Fools

Andrew Jones is a man who travels the world seeking new movements of God and connecting them. If you see him, run away and certainly don't give him your email address, or you will be pulled into all sorts of unlikely things. Such as a double-bill event in Austin Texas, called Epicenter/Tribal Generation; Epicenter being a worship event, and Tribal Generation being a get-together of people representing church planting movements across the globe, with emphasis on the 'emerging culture' or postmodernity.

Austin is the capital of Texas, but leave your stereotypes in Dallas and Houston along with the oil money and big hair. Austin is a student city, a Generation X city - Richard Linklater's seminal 1991 movie 'Slacker' was filmed in these streets - a city of coffee houses and alternative music, a seaside city 120 miles from the coast.

As Austin is not typical Texas, so Austin First Baptist is no typical Baptist church. It offers courses in meditation and spiritual direction, and worship almost Anglican in flavour. Indeed, the four-storey atrium and concert-hall scale of the worship space - real fishermen's nets 60 feet high behind the sanctuary - give substance to the joke that it is 'Austin First Baptist Cathedral'.

And so one Saturday morning in March, a bunch of strangers sat on the sanctuary steps, knowing they had less than 48 hours to pull off a major worship event from nowhere. On Tuesday night a bunch of friends sat on the sanctuary steps discussing what had happened for the benefit of TV cameras. This is about what took place in between.

The process, said someone, is as important as the event; is itself an act of worship. And the process in Austin replicated, automatically, the process of 'alternative worship' anywhere - the brainstorming, throwing ideas into the pot; the emergence over discussion of shape and theme; the point where people can be given parts of the event to work out for themselves; the rummaging through the church for materials; the frantic shopping trips for everything else; the last-minute changes of plan over things that can't be done; the opening, slightly breathless, while people are still adding finishing touches; the point, about half an hour in, when it becomes possible to relax, because it all seems to be working...

The church has huge glass doors, but entrance was denied. Instead it was necessary to queue, and then to knock, at the fire exit door round the corner. Beyond the 'narrow door' lay a stairway filled with the refuse of the streets. Visitors left their shoes, and were asked to plunge their hands into muddy water as a sign of their participation in the sin of the world. Washing could only come at the top of the four-storey climb, after encounter with a cross.

At this point worshippers were invited to remove all branded items of clothing and to don white robes. Many did so, lending a sense of the angelic to proceedings. A variety of worship experiences awaited them as they moved down through the building. The top level held a dance space with pounding sound and video wallpaper; across the atrium, the 'Luscious Room' based on the Song of Solomon was a bridal bedchamber, a lavish and erotic space of candles and fruit inviting us to consider ourselves as the Beloved, the Bride of Christ.

On level 3 [second floor if you're English] rooms and corridors had been turned into a 'Senses Lab' - wind machines, coloured lights, scents, humidity. On level 2 was a quiet room for prayer, dedicated to a friend who had died just weeks before the event. It was heartening to have space made for grieving and pain on an equal footing with celebration, without denial or hurrying over.

The floor of the atrium was given over to play, poetry and musicians. The older members of the congregation clearly relished the chance to play with children's toys, to crawl around and burst bubble-wrap. Also on this level in a side-room was the Labyrinth hosted by yours truly - it seemed to function as a microcosm of the whole event.

Finally at ten o'clock everyone gathered in the sanctuary around a pile of soil and refuse gathered from the streets. This represented the city brought into the sacred place for redemption. The bread was retrieved from the filth wrapped in a dirty cloth, the wine bottle was passed round in a paper bag such as street people use. It was shocking and profoundly moving. As someone said later, it confronted phobias, whether about hygiene or trashing holy places.

The following two days were given over to presentations of people's ministries in the emerging culture around the world, and discussions as to how these might be better connected for support and fellowship. At least as important as the structured sessions were the discussions going on day and night, the friendships being made, on balconies and porches, in barbecue houses and front rooms, over sleeping bags and coffee.

Strangely, the way people made friendships appeared to replicate, quite unconsciously, the distinction between camps usually labelled in England 'alternative worship' and 'evangelical'. It was odd to see this difference emerge, unbidden. Clearly it was wrong to call one camp 'evangelical' and the other something else, since both camps were made up of evangelicals, and some of the charismatics were in the 'alternative worship' camp. So what was this almost instinctive difference?

It seemed to have something to do with differing ways of imaging God. Some image God as absolute monarch, employing the terminology of kingdom, temple, generations, nations etc. They are concerned with structures and hierarchies, befitting to a monarchical God, and see the development of the Church in terms of defined generations [with the energies of development always being held by the 'new' or 'emerging' generation]. Their focus therefore tends to be on youth mission, and their structures tend to focus on questions of leadership [who, what kind, how old].

Others sense a more anarchistic form to God's activity and nature - anarchy meaning not total disorder but a dynamic self-regulating system, akin to 'chaotic' ordering in the natural world. In this model the Kingdom is subtle and hard to grasp, perceived as much by instinct as intellect, revealed in the process as much as the result - indeed it is the processes that remain, and the results that are transient. Progress may not be linear, the old may count as much as the new, and mindset counts more than age. God is becoming who he is becoming, retaining the initiative, and the Kingdom is a flowing river, in which being in the river and moving with it is the thing asked of us.

It was striking how attempts to impose definitive order on the proceedings failed, and yet order there was, of a different kind, in the connections running like wildfire through every informal discussion. Many discerned God's hand in the process - as if God had something far more complicated in mind and wasn't prepared to tolerate our attempts to freeze it at any stage. It seemed like a battle between organic and mechanistic forms of order, with God on the side of the organic. We were trying to concrete a highway for God, and he was pushing up flowers through it.

<< previous month’s column / top / following month’s column >>