Talking with our staff last week, I was further convinced of the value of simplicity. We have made some significant changes along the way that have pushed us into more simply being the church. I have not read the book Simple Church, but as I see it there are two kinds of simplicity–one that ignores complexity and the other understands it. It is the latter that is shaping our church.
Black & White Simple
One kind of simple church ignores complexity. This kind of church calls it like they see it. There is one way to do things. They call the outs. They insist there is one way to spell gray. This kind of “simple church” refuses to re-contextualize the gospel, insisting upon old forms for new times. Like the missionary who exports Western pews, pictures, and pet theologies, simple churches that ignore cultural complexity produce disciples and doctrines that are disconnected from the people they are trying to reach. They are simple in missiology, but they are also simple in theology. Simple in that they assert that: “if we would just interpret the Bible literally,” we would all have the same theology. This simplicity ignores the complexity of biblical theology, revelation embedded in history and culture that alternately affirms and contradicts its historical-cultural context. This kind of simplicity is not what we are after.
There is another kind of simple church that understands complexity. This kind of church realizes that things are not always what they appear. They know that what appears as an “out” to some may also appear as “safe” to others. They realize there’s two ways to spell grey. This kind of simple church critically embraces cultural change in order to communicate the gospel faithfully within complex cultural shifts. This people understand that the difference between “the world” and “the church” is not black and white. They strive to bring Scripture to bear upon the grey of culture and their relationships. As a result, they are constantly theologizing. They realize that theology is not inspired and neither are they. They struggle to take inspired stories, letters, and gospels and learn how to bring them to life in variously delightful and decadent cultures. This process forces them to deal with the complexity of suffering, human flourishing, common grace, and human indifference and come through the other side with a simple, accessible, thoughtful, and reproducible way of following Jesus.
Theological Basis for Simplicity
There is a black and white simple church that calls things the way they see them. There is a grey simple church that is willing to do mission in the mess of life, not from the safety of doctrinal and traditional towers. The grey simple does not abandon theological conviction or absolute truth, but works to convey their conviction in ways that are digestible and contextual. But why simple?
Lamin Sanneh offers a staggering simplicity in the phrase: incarnation is translation. By this he means that by becoming flesh, Jesus translated divinity into cultural form. Theologians have debated the complexity of this phenomenon for centuries. Consider Philippians 2. Whatever you make of the incarnation, it communicates a single, simple reality. God is translatable, just as the Bible is translatable. God was touchable in Jesus. He ate, he slept, he walked, he talked. In many respects, he communicated the complexity of divinity in simplicity, so that common fishermen could catch on. That is the task of the Church–communicating the complexity of the gospel in simplicity so that our people can catch on.
Oliver Wendell Holmes captures the search for grey simple very well: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity the other side of complexity.” As a church, we are constantly striving for the other side of complexity. In fact, I am in the process of reducing our core values to three values. My original prospectus for Austin City Life has undergone a hundred revisions, most of them in space and time not paper and ink. This is primarily because we are trying to faithfully adjust methodology to our missiology, to be the church by following the Spirit through unplanned change and unchanging gospel conviction. We will be releasing a new, 2.0 website in the new year that attempts to communicate even more simply our vision and mission as a people. We are refining and maintaining a simple discipleship structure along which our church can grow. Our missional spaces are increasingly strategic and well-defined. I hope we never tarry in this task of simple church, for the sake of making the incarnation translation.