I have been considering the idea of deep church. Is there church and deep church? Deep church and shallow church?
In Spanish the word for deep is profúndo. If this site originated in Spain, Mexico or Venezuela, it might be called Iglésia Profúndo. This helps me to think that church is, by its nature, profound. I am not talking about methodologies or systems or specific liturgies. I am talking about essence. In its essence, the church is profound. It extends below the surface of things and goes somewhere deep. In that depth there is mystery and things unknown, but there is also life.
In the western world—and in places where the west has had tremendous and even invasive influence—people who have embraced Christian faith are trying to learn new ways of doing and being church. There are new and renewed expressions of worship. Some of these are innovative and revelatory. Some are ancient and illuminating. Others are just plain silly. Still others simply miss the point.
How do we find the profound in the midst of so many competing agendas and preferences? In all the debates about church, in all the attempts to deconstruct and reconstruct, and in all the moves toward being emergent and convergent (and sometimes even regurgent), where do we find that which is truly profound in church?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has something to teach us here. In his first doctoral dissertation (Sanctorum Communio) he explored the idea of collective spirit. He observed that in all communities of people there is a kind of spirit that includes them but is in fact more than simply the sum total of the people. In some ways the collective spirit of a community is a thing unto itself.
Think of the times you have been in deep conversation with another person. In that conversation there emerges a relationship and, in a sense, there are now three things present: The two people and their relationship. The tangibility of that relationship is made evident when suddenly a third person enters the scene. Whether or not that person is a welcomed addition, the person initially encounters the resistance of the relationship that has already been established. If that person joins the others, a new collective spirit emerges.
Bonhoeffer declared that, while people groups all over the world can have a collective spirit for either good or ill, when Christians gather in the name of Jesus their collective spirit is actually the Spirit of God. This is not the spirit of camaraderie or the spirit of common interest; it is the Holy Spirit that binds each to the other.
This is helpful to me as I consider what it means for church to be deep. We really don’t have the power to make church deep. Church is already deep, already profound by virtue of the presence of the Holy Spirit that binds the people together in summoning them into God’s mission of recreating the world in the image of his Son.
When Jesus prayed for his disciples, he also prayed for we who would come afterward:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21)
The oneness that we share in the community of Jesus cannot be simply a oneness of shared culture or common interest or social compatibility. For the church to be deep, to be profound, its oneness must be grounded in the oneness that Jesus shares with the Father.
I wonder if sometimes, in our efforts to be authentic in our engagement with church, we might be looking for and even attempting to generate a collective spirit that is made up of the stuff of personal preference. I understand that tendency because there are many things in church life that I do not prefer and other things I wish would happen because I prefer them. But that typically creates a collective spirit of commonality. That is different than being defined, transformed, bound and catapulted into the world by God’s Spirit.
We need a lot of work in the church. We need to revisit our theologies and methodologies. We need to reach farther back in time and simultaneously cast our eyes further out to God’s eschatological horizon. We need to learn, unlearn and relearn so many things, and our ongoing conversations and explorations are part of that creative and open process.
But we really need God’s Spirit. We desperately need one another—not because we are essentially able to be to one another what only God can be, but rather because we need the personal relationships that are captured by the oneness that has always existed in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It may be that when we alter our course so that we reorient ourselves before God that our preferences will be drawn into the preferences of God. Our criteria for oneness might be deconstructed and reconstructed within the oneness of God as Trinity.
In the oneness of God’s Spirit, the church is essentially profound.
Mike McNichols, DMin, is the Director of Fuller Theological Seminary’s Southern California Extension Campus and also the pastor of Soulfarers Community. He is a contributor to the book, Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross (Baker Academic, 2006).