I have been a backpacker since I could walk. One of the most important principles of backpacking is weight. It is not just how fit the hiker is (though that helps), but how light the hiker is. Certainly this applies to the weight of one’s body. But the more relevant variable is the weight of one’s pack. If your pack is heavy, so are you, and every pound – every ounce – slows you down. So when I prep for backpacking, I cut my toothbrush in half, count calories per ounce in my food, and (most importantly) leave behind supposed “necessities.”
Of course, I am not the only one who does this. Traveling light has become a bit of a fad. Not only in backpacking, but life in general – including matters of faith. Christians around the globe are searching for a “churchless Christianity” or “Jesus without the church.” [Note: The fact that this fad is not actually new does not concern me here; I am less interested with the genetics of this pattern and more with its current form].
I think traveling light in matters of faith is a good idea. I have no vested interest in preserving the institutional church as-is. Cutting away excess is the heart of reform in every age, and I willingly and joyfully participate in such a move.
But, traveling light is not an end in itself. What would you say if I packed a 9-pound dry pack, then sat at home and watched a James Bond marathon? You would rightfully jeer, because reaching a light pack is no achievement in and of itself. It is a means to an end. The goal is to hike more miles. I pack light only in order to travel light.
The same applies in matters of faith. Freeing oneself from the shackles of ungenerous orthodoxy or institutional preservation are no accomplishments themselves. It’s actually quite easy and rather unimpressive. I will save my applause for those who develop doctrine and transform institutions in service of the church’s mission. The church is sent to proclaim Christ and do his work to the ends of the earth. As Matthew 10, Acts 15, and the whole Epistle to the Galatians attest, there are doctrines and practices that unnecessarily hinder the mission. A truly missional church will joyfully put itself under this kind of Gospel-centered criticism.
So what does this look like? Well, it starts with not giving up on the church. Then the next step is to follow criticism with construction. Tell us what’s wrong, but tell us more about how to do it right. The path to construction comes by mulling over one’s criticism with these questions in mind: What about this doctrine or practice bothers me? Is the motivation for my criticism truly missional? If so, what does the missional alternative look like? And if you are not willing to enter into these constructive reflections, then maybe you should consider putting your criticisms on the shelf. For goodness sake, if you are not going to hike, stop cutting your toothbrush in half!
What do you think?
Is traveling light a good idea?
Does a missional understanding help?
How can we avoid the twin dangers of institutionalism and spiritualism?
Am I right that criticism without construction is incomplete?
How else might one move from criticism to construction?