Rhode Island & Walden Pond: How They Shaped the Way Americans Think About Church

person sitting on bench under tree

It has been said that there are two men who did more to shape the American psyche and culture than anyone else:

#1: Roger Williams, Founder of Rhode Island

Roger Williams moved from England to Boston in the 1600’s to be part of the Puritan colony of Massachusetts

The Puritans’ goal was to create a pure church, free from politics, corruption, and compromise.

Roger Williams loved this idea… the only thing was: after a while he noticed some things in the church there in Boston that he didn’t really like. Things such as how baptisms were carried out, and how the church was managed.

So, do you know what he did?   He left.

Roger moved down south of Boston and established his own colony, with its own church, in what is now Providence, Rhode Island.

But then, guess what happened… After a while, Roger found some things he didn’t like about this new church, and some of the people there (the very church he himself had founded!). And so, Roger Williams left that church as well, and established another church nearby.

And then he left that church too…

Every church he started, he eventually left – because he found things he didn’t like… and they never completely matched his vision for what a perfect church should be, which is particularly interesting since he was the leader of these churches.

Roger Williams ended up alone, still having faith, but completely withdrawn from Christian community.

#2: Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was a writer, who famously encouraged us to “march to the beat of our own drum.”

He lived in a hut, next to Walden Pond, and would write about going for walks in the forest alone.

Thoreau expressed a very powerful theme for Americans: we take care of ourselves, we work for ourselves, we answer to ourselves — and when it comes to church, we do that for ourselves too.

Thoreau shaped American culture by putting the self at the heart of the American psyche.

His biographer put it this way:  Henry David Thoreau “stands as the most powerful example…of the American mentality of: self-trust, self-reverence, or self-reliance.”

But here’s the thing:  if you look at Thoreau’s life, you don’t find a happy person. He struggled to engage in long-term, meaningful relationships with others, and at the end of his life he had no friends.

Rugged Individualism + Personal Religion = Selling Us Short

The “rugged individualism” of Thoreau plus the “personal religion” of Roger Williams shapes American culture to this day.

Like fish in water, it is hard for us to imagine things any other way, but thankfully God’s Word gives us God’s vision for what the Body of Christ, the gathered, redeemed People of God, AKA: the Church is intended to be and called to be. And when understood, it becomes clear that our culture of rugged individualism + personal religion is selling us short. God has something better for us!

See the article: A Culture of Loneliness and What to Do About It 

I love this quote from Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson:

We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.

This Sunday at White Fields Church in Longmont, we will continue our Vision series by looking at God’s vision for the church. If you are in the area, we would love to have you join us!

For more on this, check out the book: A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together by Scot McKnight

What is the best thing happening at your church?

About 2 months ago I got invited to a pastors’ lunch up in Berthoud. There were about 12 of us there from different churches in Northern Colorado – I was the only one from Longmont. There was a guest speaker, Ray, who pastors a large church in Sacramento.

I’ve been to these kinds of meetings before – but this one was different, because Ray asked a question that I wasn’t expecting:

“What is the best thing happening at your church?”

That was the question which he opened the meeting with, and it caught me off guard! I had expected Ray to talk about the great things that he is doing, or to ask: ‘what needs to change at your church?’ – but I wasn’t ready for that question: “What is the BEST thing happening at your church?”

It seems that the other pastors in the room were caught off guard by it too, because many of them didn’t know what to say. Quickly though, momentum picked up and everyone had plenty to say on that topic – including me.

Ray went on to explain that we need to stop focusing on what is lacking, and we need to start focusing on what is right – the areas where our church is knocking it out of the park and killing it, the things that we just naturally do well, and we need to do those things more and better!

I have found this concept to be so freeing, so invigorating and exciting and so vision-focusing – not only when it comes to visioneering for church, but when it comes to life and who God has called me to be.
The essence is: Who is it that God has uniquely gifted and called you to be? What is that niche that God has created you for and called you to?  You can’t be everything – but you can be something, and if you learn to focus on being and doing what God has uniquely called and gifted you to do and be, then you will thrive, and it won’t be contrived, it won’t be a burden – it will feel like you just stepped into the fast-current on the lazy river ride at the water park, rather than being stuck in the whirlpool.

This is important when it comes to church, because the fact is that there are other churches out there. And there are many churches that are doing things that we aren’t – or can’t. BUT – there are things that we can do better than any of them; there is a culture that we have, that they don’t. There is a place and a role that God has uniquely given us in the Body of Christ in this place. There is a reason why people come to our church – and it’s not because they don’t know that there are other churches out there.

So I’ve been asking the question: What are the greatest things happening at White Fields church?
And THOSE are the things I want to be focused on. Those are the things I want to turn the dial UP on and make better. Rather than focusing on what we aren’t (yet) – I want to focus on what we ARE and what makes us great, uniquely – and turn up the dial on that! When you start thinking that way, you are no longer “competing” with other churches, but you realize that you are each filling a different role in the Body of Christ.

The danger is, that if we spend all our energy focused on what we aren’t (yet), we can neglect the things which to us are as easy and natural as falling off a log – and then those things will suffer as a result. The end result of that? We are mediocre at EVERYTHING and great at nothing. Rather, our focus should be on being GREAT at the things which God has uniquely gifted us to be and do – and those are usually the things which come most naturally to us – which are as easy as falling off a log.

People wanted David to fight Goliath the way that Goliath was good at fighting. David knew that he could probably do that – but it wasn’t what he was good at. He knew that he wasn’t Goliath. But he also knew what he was: he was David. And he had certain abilities and strengths, that he was uniquely gifted at: he could sling a rock like no one else! So he went out to battle with his strength, and ended up victorious.
It is important to know who you are, who you aren’t – and how God has uniquely gifted and called you. Go to battle with that, and you are much more likely to be victorious.

This doesn’t just apply only to church – it applies to many areas of life, business, etc. Who has God uniquely called you to be? What is the niche that God has called you to fill?  You don’t have to be everything! But God has called you and gifted you uniquely for somethings. Focus on those things. Go and kill it in those areas, and focus on developing those areas and being GREAT at those things.

Leave me a comment below and tell me: What’s the BEST thing happening in your church?


The Cost of Community

“If you love deeply you're going to get hurt badly. But it's still worth it.” – CS Lewis

One of the things that my wife and I liked about Longmont when we were first moving here last year was that it wasn't a suburb of Denver or Boulder, but a stand-alone community. Whenever possible we choose to spend our money at local businesses and restaurants rather than at chains. Last year we had some friends visiting from California, and we took them out to eat on a Saturday night in downtown Longmont, where we walked around for a while trying to find a place to eat where we wouldn't have to wait an hour for to be seated. At one point this friend of ours asked us, “Don't you guys have any chain restaurants around here? I haven't seen any!” I think people in this area pride themselves on supporting the local community. That's why people here love Oscar Blues and Left Hand Brewing, because they are local businesses that love this community and pour back out into it. 'Community' is an increasingly popular concept all over America – just as it is here in Longmont. Its a good thing to be a local and to be a part of your community – which means knowing and being known, it means relationships and mutual support.

And community is at the heart of Christianity. The whole of the Bible centers not around isolated individuals who know God, but around families and nations – people living out a relationship with God in community. What we learn from the Bible is that community is essential to growing in the knowledge of God and living out your faith. The radically individualistic American culture has tried to take Christianity and make it into a private, personal thing that you can do on your own without any ties to anyone but God – but that's not what it was ever meant to be.

There has been an increasing resurgence of value for community in Christian circles in recent decades – with lots of books being written on the topic and books like Bonhoeffer's “Life Together” becoming popular. But the thing is: when you actually do it, you realize that there's a cost to community. And the reason there's a cost is because real life is messy and people are imperfect. So if you get close to people and you really, actually “do life” with them, and enter into their lives and allow them to enter in to the reality of your life, sooner or later you are going to see their mess and they will see yours. It's a lot easier and cleaner to keep people at arm's-length, and keep relationships superficial. That's what social media is great at: we are able to always put our best face forward and only show people what we want them to see about us. But that's not reality and that's not real community. In fact, neither is simply knowing your neighbors and shopping at the local store and gardening at the community garden.

The word the Bible uses is the über-Christianese word “fellowship”, but the original Greek word for it is super rich: Koinonea, which means 'sharing' or 'having in common' – the root word of 'community'. It says in Acts 2 that the early Christians had all things in common. They were dedicated to fellowship and they met in the temple daily and then met in each other's homes and ate together. This is the life of a community. Knowing and being known. Sharing and partaking. Life together.

And life together can be a rich and fulfilling experience – but the flip-side of that is that there is risk involved. Any time you choose to share your life with someone and get close to them and love them, you make yourself vulnerable – vulnerable to the pain of losing that relationship, vulnerable to the hurt of being betrayed by that person, which, the closer they are to you, the more it hurts. You make yourself vulnerable to their junk affecting your life and messing it up.

If true community has a cost and risk involved, then the question is: is it worth it? Why not just isolate yourself, keep your relationships superficial and your life private? You can still know your neighbors and shop local, but you don't have to get involved in other peoples lives nor will they get close enough to hurt you or cause you grief. The reason is, because the more you love, the greater your capacity for joy. It also increases your vulnerability to be hurt, but you can't get great returns without taking great risk. It's like having a child; there is a great amount of risk involved: your kids could turn out to be terrible people who hate your guts and ruin the world. But if you never take that chance, you'll never experience the depths of joy that kids can bring. Or like marriage: that one's a huge risk statistically! If you get married, there's a huge chance you could go through a painful and expensive divorce. But if you don't get married out of fear of those things, you will miss out on the depths of intimacy and fulfillment and joy that marriage can bring.

So, here's my 2 cents: let's not just like the idea of community – let's actually live life together. You'll be richer for it. Because those other people have something to give to you and to receive from you. There is a cost to community, and it can be substantial! When someone is close, their junk can affect you. But the risk is worth it, because it raises the ceiling on how much joy and growth you can experience.