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The Unplanned Church

How a Brazilian congregation finds renewal by interruption

Claudio Oliver

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  • Sean Gladding

    Claudio my friend, thank you for this. Your life and community continue to shape our own here in Kentucky as we, too, seek to be more faithful to our human vocation. I write this looking out over beds of winter greens, watching the chickens dig out the flesh from pumpkins, as songbirds flit from tree to tree, easily visible in their bare branches. We are surrounded by beauty and goodness - gifts of a generous and loving Creator. And they continually call me to ask these question: "Are my neighbours sharing in this goodness?" "What more can we do to share in this goodness together?" Seven years ago I heard you speak at the Englewood gathering, and shared a meal with you later that day, and your words about friendship and Kin-dom continue to bless me and those around us to this day. May peace be with you and yours until the Kin-dom comes in its fullness!

  • Dago Schelin

    I was so inspired by reading this article and came here to leave a comment of "thank you". However, I couldn't help but notice how easy it is to miss the point completely when I read L's comment. But perhaps L's missing the point is a perfect example of what the author was aiming against, in this case theolog-ism. Anyway, thank you Claudio, thank you Plough-Team, for the great inspiration!

  • L.

    The 1st believers, were Hebrews -- not Greeks, or others. Pauline messaging/missionary activity, was of a cut-down version, of the Hebraeic tradition. A Greek-hosted version of believerhood, is incomplete. The West's inheritance, is thus, a truncated version, of the original, with the Hebrews. I would not be in so much of a hurry, to muddy, the waters if I were you. None of these traditions, from Asia Minor, was of cardinal importance. Paul was a translator, of Hebraeism, into a Gentile understanding. He reveals this, himself. The revelation, was unto the Hebrews, who were directed -- by inference -- back to Hebraeism,. for the fullness, of it.

  • Nathan Hill

    I really enjoyed this piece and reflection as we seek a sense of authenticity or affirmation in what we call church that we are pursuing and finding Jesus in our community. I love thinking of a sense of reduction as God's call - as a church, when do we do too much? How can we simplify and do the little things better - welcoming neighbors, responding to needs, listening, and loving?

When people say that we need to be like the “primitive church,” I usually ask, “which one?”: carnal like the Corinthians, foolish like the Galatians, lazy like the Thessalonians, legalistic like Jerusalem, or lukewarm like the Laodiceans?

Nostalgia is a dangerous path when we start thinking about the reformation we need now. Idealizing the church’s “good old times” makes us forget that time erases bad memories and creates fantasies.

The early church survived by keeping its eyes on the promise and living by hope – and we can do the same today. We have been promised to live with the Lord, see him face to face, and live in freedom and joy.

We do not plan for reform. The kingdom interrupts our plans. During apostolic times, Peter, John, and Paul – and Martin Luther, Jakob Hutter, and Menno Simons during the Reformation – all chose to live in tension, keeping their eyes on Jesus in expectation and aligning themselves with the life that had been promised. Each decision and act was made considering not the principles and values of the empires of the day or of the good old days, but the fullness of the kingdom to come. They tried not to emulate the past but to anticipate the future. Eventually, this brought persecution, misunderstanding, and pain.

We do not plan for reform. On the contrary, the kingdom interrupts our plans, and, if we are open to its message, points us to true renewal. In our community in Brazil, we have been interrupted over and over, and have tried to take steps that will keep us open to God’s interruptions.

members of Casa da Videira at a communal meal

Members of Casa da Videira, including the author (third from right), at a communal meal.

Our first step was to examine ourselves instead of criticizing others. If the church needed to be reformed, it should begin with us. And we started that by asking some key questions.

The first question was, “If we went off the grid and there were no gas, would what we call ‘church’ continue?” The plain answer was no. With no energy for sound equipment, projectors, and lights, attendance would go down. With no gas to cross the city to get together once a week, we would have no meeting at all. Something was wrong. We looked back two generations, to when it was possible to gather just by walking, and a word jumped to mind: community. We unplugged our services, moved our meetings to homes, and eventually closed the church building to gather instead where we could be seen by neighbors and friends in our daily life.

two women in front of several loaves of homemade bread

Next, we decided to deeply examine each of our programs. If Jesus was not at the very center of any of these, we would close it. We ended up closing 90 percent of what we called “programs.” We focused on building relationships based on something that was at the very center of our genesis as a local church: meeting Jesus in the lives of those we were serving. We had been on the streets years earlier to meet Jesus in the homeless people of our city. Rather than helping the poor, our goal was to have a close encounter with those Jesus loves the most. In those men and women, we met a fragile, sometimes difficult, and challenging Jesus. It is impossible to meet Jesus and continue to be the same. Some of them changed, but we changed the most.

Our third question was, “Are we obeying the Lord, and, if not, where should we start?” With a childlike mind, we went back to the Bible, to the first task given to humankind. The Hebrew words avad and shamar (Gen. 2:15), to serve and to conserve, jumped out at us. That was one of God’s first commands. How could we be so concerned about the small specks in our brothers’ and sisters’ eyes if we were not able to take care of the basic orders given, which were there as planks in front of our eyes? Awareness of creation theology and its consequences became central to our minds. Observing the way that the Lord has created the earth, plants, animals, and us – integrated, not dissociated, as is the schizophrenic pattern of the modern Western mind – to honor and please him led us to creation care as part of the restoration promised in Isaiah. Although we live in a broken world, we choose to live in a regenerative way, taking care of soil, plants, animals, and one another. By refusing to call the creation “natural resources,” we also learn how to approach our fellow human beings: not as “human resources” but as the image and resemblance of God, with dignity and a longing for restoration.

By obeying a simple order to tend a garden we learned that we must take seriously the care of our fellow human beings, and as we experimented with setting ourselves limits, we were led to greater freedom. Learning to renounce the seductive offerings of the world by saying, “Thanks but no thanks,” even inside our limits, gave us more time and opportunities to build families, friendship, and freedom.

men and women closing a truck tailgate

Finally, we asked: “Does this make sense?” Jesus is the answer to all questions, but we must listen, taste, smell, and see the questions being asked in the milieu around us. My grandparents were pioneers of the Salvation Army in Brazil. From them, I learned the meaning of “good news”: my grandfather used to say that good news for a hungry man is a plate of hot soup; for a dirty lady, a place to bathe and rest; for an unemployed boy, a chance to work; for an immigrant, a warm welcome. He had become a refugee at age five in 1900 when the family was expelled from Spain for “anarchism and the forbidden practice of Protestantism.” Later they lost everything in Belgium during a German bombing, including my great grandfather, who died trying to escape. When they were received by the Salvation Army in Switzerland, my grandfather found family, love, shelter, food, a call, and a ministry; eventually he founded his own missionary family in Brazil. From him, I learned to listen to the questions around me, and yes, Jesus is the answer, but he shows up in different ways: healing, sheltering, planting, feeding, and counseling. He is always present through his body, the church, always manifested in different gifts and talents, asking first, answering later.

We started our community as a typical “seeker-sensitive church” in the early nineties. That approach attracted people, and our attendance grew in a whirlwind of enthusiasm. But soon we perceived that that was exactly the problem: it was all about us. We had become a postmodern religious organization.

We rediscovered the church as “a place where the foolish can gather.

The path of questioning and reforming ourselves wasn’t a great march to victory, but a great reduction. The more questions we asked, the less we were considered a place to go for religious services. Eventually, we moved back to the streets, to neighbors and people around us. The power of a tiny mustard seed became real to us. As our attendance shrank, our influence grew. People, mostly non-churchgoers, in the city, in the state, all over Brazil, and even overseas started paying attention to what was happening to our insignificant little flock. Broken people from many different backgrounds started coming. We were no longer a place to go, but a people to meet. We rediscovered the church as “a place where the foolish can gather,” as Ivan Illich describes it; and we rediscovered that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 27–29). The outcome was a community of followers offering communion to anyone in need of being restored.

I think that sometimes Christians seem to know too much after too little observation and careful consideration of the struggles and pain of our times. Our “isms” – nationalism, capitalism, conservatism, progressivism, or idealism – set the agenda more than embracing contingencies. And that was another important point in our internal reformation.

As explained by Illich, the parable of the good Samaritan throws light on a forgotten aspect of the Christian life: corruptio optimi pessima est, the corruption of the best is the worst. Love is the best expression and the very essence of God. When we corrupt love into obligation instead of the natural flowing that comes out of mercy, we transform the very essence of the gospel into something institutional and cold. In Luke 10:30–37, Jesus teaches us a deep lesson, a key to understanding the very principle of Jesus’ ministry – responding to the unexpected.

Strategic planning, never taught as a principle in the Bible, is at the very center of much of the work of today’s churches. Goals, missions, plans, and budgets are set, and all contingencies are avoided. Essentially, there’s nothing wrong with this, but what did we learn from that parable? The Samaritan was not obliged to do good. He permitted himself to be touched by the suffering of a fellow human and responded using what he had at hand. He didn’t ask questions – he loved and acted.

Jesus illustrated the same principle in Luke 8:40–56. He was in the middle of a celebration when he received a call to see a very sick girl. He immediately left the crowd to go to her, but even as he was responding to this emergency, he allowed himself to be interrupted again, this time by a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. He stopped to heal the woman, and set back on his way to the girl. On his way, someone said it was not necessary anymore…the girl had died. Even under those circumstances he went and resurrected her, bringing praise and joy to that house.

Even after this demonstration, a religious man asked him: “Who is my neighbor?” The parable was his answer. How many times does our focus on strategic objectives blind us to our neighbor?

members of Casa de Videira in front of a truck

Reform in its original (Lutheran) Protestant sense was about what it meant to be catholic (universal). One generation later it was about what it meant not to be Catholic. For many today, “reform” tends to mean, “If you don’t agree with our way of doing church, we will just break away and do our thing.” Which, ironically, leaves being “protestant” being mostly “arrogant,” as one of my dear friends says. Instead of defining ourselves against some other group, the gospel always invites us to turn the mirror back on ourselves to ask about our own transformation as followers of “the Way.” 

So, yes, we need a new reformation, but we have learned that the first step is to stop waiting for this to start in others. Instead of criticizing others, we must ask questions of ourselves. We must be ready to offer answers, but only when we have listened to the questions. And most importantly, we must permit God to interfere in our agenda, to interrupt our plans, and to guide us back to his Garden. May he be merciful and gracious and bring the reformation we need, starting where we are.


Top image: detail, Arthur Brouthers, Organic Elements; image reproduced by permission from artist

Related Article Becoming a Rooted Church – by Claudio Oliver Read
Contributed By photo of Claudio Oliver Claudio Oliver

Claudio Oliver is a founding member of Casa da Videira, a community of faith practicing urban farming in Curitiba, Brazil whose mission is to live and express care for creation, to expect and cultivate the “regeneration of all things,” to serve their neighborhood, and to inspire other churches to find new ways to live out their faith.

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