Plesionology is theology’s long lost twin, and why it’s renewing my faith

By Preston Pouteaux

I have had a persistent nudge of curiosity that I simply cannot shake. Everytime I have breakfast with my neighbour Chris, or talk about gardening with Steve, or get together with our neighbours Colin and Kayla, I find myself astonished. These neighbours have become vital to my faith, and I don’t have a category for it, a frame of reference for why they mean so much to me. I feel like there is so much more happening between me and my neighbours than just a stream of niceties.

Christ-in-me is meeting Christ-in-them and it’s profound. God is so remarkably present in my neighbourhood, and the implications of that fill my imagination.

Here is what I’ve found: Love of neighbour has become a hobby for the church and Christians who worship together each Sunday. Hobbies are something we dabble in on the weekends or in retirement. We pull our hobby down from the shelf when we have time and energy to spare. Hobbyists may be more or less enthused about their craft, giving a moment of themselves to their passion so long as it fills the need it was created for. When real life leans in, or the hobby loses its lustre, they are boxed up and eventually sold in a garage sale.

Love of neighbour, however, is not a hobby, Jesus does not give us the luxury of calling it that. It is a vital core practice of followers of Jesus and the Church. Baking or woodworking might be a hobby, but eating and safe shelter are essential. Love of neighbour, at least for Jesus and the early church, was clearly essential. Jesus said we are to love God and neighbour, while Paul wrote to the Galatians saying, “For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

This is not hobby talk, it is foundational and pivotal work on which the rest of our life of faith finds its purpose and direction.

I think something is missing.

Seriously missing.

In the pantheon of disciplines, the discipline and practice of loving neighbour is alarmingly absent.

Jesus’s own commandment to love neighbour has been relegated to the hobby bin of the Christian faith, we simply cannot imagine there is much to discover there, not much to experience, probably because we have never ourselves truly experienced the life of Jesus in our neighbours. So we view Jesus’ words to love our neighbours as an addendum; a hobby for those Christians who have time to spare.

Serious seminaries and churches don’t teach hobbies.

They teach theology, the study of God. They teach soteriology, the study of salvation. They teach epistemology, the study of knowing. They teach ecclesiology, the study of the church. They teach pneumatology, the study of the Holy Spirit. They teach Christology, the study of Jesus. They teach Eschatology, the study of the end times. They teach patrology, the study of the early church fathers. They teach missiology, the study of the mission of God.

Love of neighbour? Real, actual, next door neighbours? Sorry, it’s simply not in the index.

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While loving our neighbour is core to our faith, the church has found more energy in delving into mariology, hamartiology, and apologetics. More energy has been given to the study of Mary, sin, and defending our faith than we give to loving our neighbours — the very heartbeat of Jesus.

I would like to suggest we open a new line of study, practice, thoughtful discipline, research, and examination. Understanding how we love our neighbours should be so core to our seminaries, bible training institutions and churches and it should amaze us that it has been so lacking.

Jesus said that we are to love God and love our neighbours. We have the first half of Jesus’s Great Commandment down to a ’T’. Literally. Theology, the study of God, has so captured our imaginations throughout history that it was called the Queen of the Sciences. Alongside philosophy, theology glistened in the imaginations of those who studied her mysterious depths and glorious heights. Theological disciples blossomed as people discovered there was more to be found. Poets and prophets, pastors and academics revealed what they found. The study of God is vast. Soon we found ways to study God with systematic theology, practical theology, moral theology, historical theology, aesthetical theology, biblical theology, natural theology, spiritual theology, philosophical theology, liberation theology, ecumenical theology, pastoral theology and so on. There has been no end to the books written celebrating the first half of Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God.

But what of the second half. This invitation to love our neighbour?

The word Jesus uses in the Great Commandment to love neighbour is plesion (pronounced play-see’-on). Plesion is Greek and appears in all four Gospels. To the Jewish people plesion referred to a member of the Hebrew nation, but to Jesus it was extended to include people of other nations and religions. It comes from the word pelas, which means ‘near.’ Neighbour is a good English translation of plesion. ‘Neighbour’ comes from Old English root words neah “near” and gebur “dweller.” Neighbour is the ‘near-dweller,’ and plesion refers to the person who is near to us. Jesus says that the Great Commandment is to love those near to us; our neighbours, plesion.

Plesionology, then, is the study of neighbours. It is the close examination of how we relate to our neighbours and how we love them in obedience to the Great Commandment. It is paying attention to, being curious about, standing in awe of something so profoundly vital to being a human made in God’s image. Plesionology puts others, specifically those we can talk with and pass on the street everyday, and places them right in the centre of this human experience. It puts neighbours right in the midst of our faith in Jesus and says that we meet God when we love our neighbours. Jesus thought it was essential, and I’m starting to think it might be, too.

We are enamoured with theology because we can, as one of my theology professors said years ago, pick apart God like a frog specimen in science class. Theology and all of her branches of investigation does not often require much of us. We can think about God without having to become like Jesus. We can read our books and prepare our sermons without much changing in us. Theology, without plesionology can be hollow and void of any true life. Jesus never intended theology to exist apart from living out the very thing that God (who so loved the world) intended for his theologians. We were always meant to love our neighbours, and it is in loving our neighbours that we make sense of God.

So I’ve decided to follow that nudge of curiosity. I want to explore all that loving my neighbours means to growing in Christ. Why I love being a pastor in the neighbourhood way more than I ever did as the manager of a church program machine. Why my neighbours have come to trust Jesus, not because I was convincing. Why Christian spirituality finally makes sense within 90 paces of my front door. Why beauty and imagination compel me to love more and more. Why grace is truly Good News when it emerges between me and my neighbours. There are so many profound questions I have and they keep coming. Although I just made up the word ‘plesionology’ to serve as a much needed framework for these questions, there is deep joy in finally embracing the second half of Jesus’ words to ‘love God’ and ‘love neighbour.’ It’s making me more fully human, and I love it.

Jesus moved into the neighbourhood and it changed everything. Has our theology? Have we?

This post previously appeared on medium.com. Preston Pouteaux is a Pastor at Lake Ridge Community Church, author, beekeeper, and curator of neighbourhood conversations at intotheneighbourhood.ca

How is plesionology being studied and lived out in your community? Send us a comment!

Live from Banff

By Shannon Youell and Cailey Morgan

Greetings from Banff!

We’re having a great time with many of you and many new friends enjoying the beautiful snow-caps mountains and the joy of hearing–over good food, of course–stories of God on the move in our churches.

 

Along with both gentle and exhortative words that speak to our shared heart and struggles we face as church leaders, our speakers have been guiding and encouraging us to look first to theology (who God is) as the framework for our ecclesiology (how we live out our faith as a church family).

A recurring theme from keynote Cam Roxburgh is the hopeful remark that our ecclesiological culture is starting to shift towards reengagement with the “blue ocean” segment of Canada’s population of those who don’t yet follow Christ. Blue ocean refers to the increasingly secular reality of our society: many do not feel a need for faith, or are even hostile to the Gospel. As Colin Godwin shared with us today, it seems that we are not so much the persecuted church here in Canada but the ignored church.

Like the story of Jonah that Jeff Gullacher has been unraveling for us this week, we can find ourselves in “pouty self-indignation,” completely missing the point of our calling which is joining in God’s missional heartbeat.

The pathway to reengagement that God our loving Father opens for us is one of honest, responsive repentance and relearning how to act out of His redemptive nature, joining Him on mission.

One resource that has been helpful for us as we process what it means to see ecclesiology through a theological lens is Brad Brisco’s ebook Rethink. We commend this book to you, and have made it available here on the blog for you, with permission from Brad. Let us know what you think!

Book Review: The New Parish

new-parishReview by Rev. Matthew Kitchener of  Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight J. Friesen’s The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community (Herald Press, Scottdale PA and Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press, 2010)

In The New Parish, Sparks, Soerens and J. Friesen describe a movement of churches marked by deeply and faithfully inhabiting their neighbourhoods and allowing the neighbourhood to shape their practices of mission and faith.

I will structure my thoughts about this book by beginning with a “Coles’ notes” outline of the book followed by my assessment and the reasons I believe it could be just what some of our churches need!

The book is organized around 3 questions: “Why do we need a new parish?”, “What is the new parish?” and “How do we practice the new parish?”

Why do we need a new parish?
That key word “parish” is defined as “a geography large enough to live together (work, play, live…) and small enough to be known as a character within it.” The size and makeup of a “parish” will range greatly between Bowness and Brandon, Willowlake and Kitimat; which is precisely why the authors wrote this book. The place a church is located matters!

To the first question, “Why do we need a new parish?” the authors point to a North American church and culture following the lies of individualism and living above place: that is, living as if we don’t need others and living as if the uniqueness of each place doesn’t matter. Set in opposition to these lies, the authors teach that (contra individualism) church and parish do truly need each other and (contra “above place” life) churches cannot shoehorn themselves or their parishes into the “one size fits all” ministries offered up by the latest popular church and book.

In the midst of a church theology that few would dispute, the authors begin to ask praxis questions:

“Where does our neighbourhood impact us enough that it has a voice in the shape of our church mission and church life?” “Do we actually matter to our specific setting?”

Out of these haunting questions the authors begin to formulate a new articulation of the church/parish relationship. After exploring varieties of ways churches have related to (or avoided) their neighbourhoods, they cast a vision for a church “within” and “In-with” their parish.

“Within” means being deeply rooted in the place God has planted your congregation. “In-with” means seeking collaboration with others who are seeking the good of your parish. The authors name this ideal relationship of church within parish as “faithful presence.”

What is the new parish?
When they move to the second section of the book addressing “What is the new parish?”, they begin from the concept of “faithful presence.” The more precise definition of “faithful presence” is “a relational view of our neighbourhood asking us in each situation, listen for what our relationships require of us and respond according to our capacity.”(59)

How can a church begin to become a “faithful presence” within their parish? Sparks, Soerens and Friesen challenge churches to begin by recognizing their fragmentation from their place. Some churches have been guilty of idolizing a certain technique or strategy for winning over their parish without reflecting on whether that ministry fits the real lives of people who live in their communities. “How can you love YOUR neighbour?” is not something an expert from Chicago, Colorado Springs, New York City or London can tell you. Rather, get involved in the life of your literal neighbour. Learn to love your place rather than your hopes for the place or your strategies for changing it.

If churches insist on technique rather than love, if the techniques don’t work, the temptation is to withdraw from their parish, turning inward and relinquishing responsibility for their neighbours.

As opposed to fragmentation, the authors call churches back to an integrated life where the Church’s central call to holistic Worship is lived out in embodied practices of Christian formation, Mission and Community. A church that is moving towards this integration with an awareness of their parish will be faithfully present.

What areas of a community’s life might this impact? The authors describe a vision for a “new common,” arenas of everyday community life in which the majority of the neighbourhood shares a common concern. They choose four areas where a church’s integrated faithful presence might be practiced in its parish:

  • Economy: how we collaborate together so that everyone has what they need for a flourishing life (such as food and shelter).
  • Environment: all the ways we interact with the built and created world we share (soil, air and places built for living together).
  • Civic: all the ways we make decisions together; local governance and leadership.

Education-both the teaching of students within the parish and the broader themes of formation and wisdom; helping us all grow into mature and good people.

Imagine a local economy enhanced because neighbours took care of each other’s children, supplied food for neighbours by hosting them regularly or helped each other start a local microbusiness?

Imagine unused lots becoming community parks or gardens. Imagine underused structures becoming places of gathering or learning. Imagine churches being a community where people look out for the good of the whole neighbourhood not just their pet area. These are the kinds of visions toward which faithful presence can lead.

How do we practice the new parish?
The final section asks the question “How do we practice the new parish?” The authors attempts to get our imaginations and conversations moving by encouraging churches in “presencing,” “rooting” and “leading.”

By “presencing” they mean being truly and fully present to your parish. This begins by listening deeply to God’s story so your presence within the community isn’t simply accommodation to public expectation. They also encourage the dual listening to your own story and to the story of your place.

Do you know the history of your parish? Do you know the current “characters” in it? Are you one of the characters in it? As you listen to your parish, listen first to love and then to discern how you and your parish need each other.

By “rooting” the authors are describing a set of practices flowing from intentionally sharing life in your parish. This starts by “localizing” what you already do. Shop, eat out, drink coffee and beer, dry clean, bank…in your parish. Get to know others and be known by others as a person committed to the life of the parish. Do this not simply as an individual, but by linking up with other Christians in your neighbourhood and other people committed to the common good of your neighbourhood.

By “leading” the authors do not mean becoming some kind of power player in local politics or business. What they are describing is looking for others whom you can follow who are already a faithful presence in your parish. They offer examples of kinds of leaders to watch for:

“Designers” who create and design environments and practices for deeper shared life;

“Conductors” who find unique voices and strengths in the community and invite these parts to function as a whole by encouraging them towards authenticity and collaboration; and

“Player Coaches,” practitioners of faithful presence within the community (player), who also have a larger field of vision than her/his specific ministry (coach).

In leading, churches could begin simply by noticing and celebrating those examples worth following in your community. They end with going back to the very basics to remember that God is already at work in your parish and that Jesus remains the perfect model of one who was faithfully present!

Suspicions
Although this book is relatively new, I know that the conversation has been ongoing for many years within the “Missional Church” movement (and simply lived by some congregations for centuries!).  Coming to the book I was somewhat suspicious; not whether it was true but whether the information was worth the hours busy Christians would need to read it. It seemed as if the authors simply repackaged basic concepts of contextual mission popularized by Newbigin, VanGemeren and others. They had illustrations that described a “faithful presence” church; and new terms like “new parish,” “faithful presence” “Ecclesial center” and “new commons”; but was it simply new packaging to sell books or the “Inhabit” conference the authors run every year?

As I began to read (less as a critic and more as a local church pastor of a community church), I was both appreciative and inspired by the theology on the ground (or rather…in the parish!) modeled by this book. I think because the authors are theologically thoughtful and practitioners within faith communities the book is direct and practical without being theologically shallow. It is also helpfully structured to, not only be read, but be practiced. What I couldn’t demonstrate in my Coles’ notes was the format of the book, which doesn’t just teach at the reader, but takes space in each chapter to ask piercing questions and make helpful suggestions that could be considered together as church board, staff or small group.

I believe the real strength of this book is its appropriateness for the vast majority of CBWC churches.

We have a few “destination” churches where people come from many communities for a large gathering, but many of us are more “community” or “neighbourhood” churches. For the few “regional” churches, this book will take some adapting to make it applicable on a church wide level. However, for the majority of us already connected to a smaller locale, a “parish,” this book has an immediate fit.

Two Gifts
Besides the excellent practical suggestions, two gifts emerged for me while reading. The first was the encouragement that being a neighbourhood church is good and can be exactly what is needed for your community. Sometimes the insecure side of me reads books by successful church leaders on successful ministries and I hear (though the authors don’t say) “It’s o.k. if you are leading a small neighbourhood church. Here are some ways to overcome that deficit and put our ideas into practice anyway.”

Another gift of this book is that the authors point to some churches and leaders within Western Canada many of us would already know. We can have partners for the journey.

Some Questions
That is not to say I didn’t have some reservations about this work. There were a few questions that I feel could have been better addressed:

Could “parish” be another human ideal by which all churches are now measured to see if they are truly following Jesus or not? Generative visions can quickly become abortive idols if not held with humility and faith.

What does a “new parish” vision look like for larger regional churches? Are they modern aberrations people should leave to worship in the neighbourhood where they live? Should we turn people away based on geography?

What does a “new parish” church look like in a middle class or upper class neighbourhood? The vast majority of the examples of churches used in this book were poor and extremely under resourced communities. While we all know the needs are still great (just better hidden) in wealthier neighbourhoods, the book could have been more helpful for many of our churches had they included some examples and asked stimulating questions for churches in suburbs and wealthier neighbourhoods.

Final Thoughts
Even with these question marks I think this book is a “must read.” I am so glad to have read this book! I will be rereading it with my board and seeking to implement some of the suggestions this year.

The beauty of the book is in the basic teaching in understandable language and doable ideas: Living true to who we are as a community of followers of Jesus rooted in a place; loving that place enough to know and be known, to acknowledge we need our parish and it needs us.

HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK? DO YOU AGREE WITH Matt’s ANALYSIS? SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON The New Parish, THIS REVIEW, OR OTHER RESOURCES THAT MIGHT BE HELPFUL IN THIS CHURCH PLANTING DISCUSSION BY COMMENTING ON THE BLOG OR EMAILING CMORGAN@CBWC.CA.

What to Look Forward to in 2015

by Cailey Morgan

Happy New Year!

I can tell you that all of us at CBWC Church Planting are anticipating great movement in 2015. We are thrilled to now have a staff presence in each of our 3 regions. We are digging deep into what church planting means and how to offer the best support to our existing church plants, but also equip new planters and help all churches in our CBWC family realize their potential for multiplication.

This excitement will be spilling onto our blog as well. You can look forward to–and participate in–these three new developments:

  1. Book Reviews: In the fall, we launched a book review initiative wherein anyone willing to read and review a book for this blog will receive that book for free. The book reports will be trickling in soon, and will be posted throughout the year as a resource for you.

    By the way: this offer is still open, so email me today (cmorgan@cbwc.ca) to get your book!

  2. Philosophy and Action: Shannon, Joell, Ron and I really are grappling with the philosophy behind church planting and how to best express and live out God’s plan for the growth of His Kingdom through local communities of His people. We’re engaging these issues through the Scriptures as well as seminars and books from people who have gone before us, so you can expect some of our conclusions–and certainly many of our questions–to appear throughout the year.

    Please, please enter these conversations with us! Your input is crucial.

  3. Ministry Photos and Mini-Updates: This element is where we really need your help. It is such an encouragement to see and hear what churches and people are up to in ministry, and I love sharing these types of stories on our blog. However, we don’t know the stories even exist unless you tell us! I’m always accepting photo and/or story submissions, and am even available to help you craft your article if it’s helpful.

Thanks for your readership and participation!

Give me a call (604.420.7646) or email (cmorgan@cbwc.ca) to discuss anything I mentioned here.