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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

On Modalities and Sodalities: A Letter from a Friend


I have an honest question for you: what do you think is the chief value of the current evangelical religious system? I consider the system to be the procurement or control of brick-and-mortar buildings for the purpose of the normal weekly routine (teaching, singing, prayer), subsidization of a select few that facilitate the routine and, in most, managerial/hierarchical structures in oversight of the whole lot. It is the target of most evangelical resources, attention and general involvement, which probably goes without dispute, but we are observing curious scenarios out here that lead us to question its worth, both in Africa and abroad. I am not looking to discredit the kingdom value of activities within the scope of the system - singing, praying and study are all extremely worthwhile, particularly on a routine basis. But, quite obviously and also (probably) without dispute, there are equally efficient and credible non-system outlets for these sort of things.



Great question! First a few observations/comments before actually answering.

First, what you call the "current evangelical religious system" I would call "the Christian Establishment religious system" for a few reasons. (1) Though it's current, it's not new. It's been around in this form since at least Constantine and in some ways before (as I get into below). (2) Though it's not new, it has never been the story of the whole Church, because there have always been movements that have gone around, beside, or within or somehow subverted this Christian Establishment system—e.g., mendicant orders in the Middle Ages (the Dominicans and Franciscans stand out), the Jesuits in the Catholic Reformation, the Methodists under the Wesleys in the Church of England, revivalism on the post-Revolutionary American frontier, parachurch evangelistic organizations in post-WWII America (led by Billy Graham, Bill Bright, etc.). The hip terms for these today (borrowed, I believe, from Catholic ecclesiology) are "modality" (the Established Church) and "sodality" (the lean, flexible movement). (3) The Establishment is by no means unique to Evangelicalism. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church and Mainline Protestantism have an even more robust Establishment system because their ecclesiologies are more centralized with stronger and larger denominational overhead. Further, Mainline Protestantism has had generations to enjoy tacitly favored status in American culture and has accumulated a lot of wealth, liquid and solid, the administration of which is a pretty big job.

I think that there has been a sort of dialectical pattern of engagement between modalities (Establishment) and sodalities (movement) through the history of the Church. When the modality stagnates, a sodality arises to give it life that also challenges it. The modality and the sodality have a complex relationship that contains both reciprocal appreciation and reciprocal hostility ("They're just dead!" "They're just fanatics!"). After a while the modality absorbs and "establishes" parts of what the sodality does (e.g., putting an altar call at the end of a Sunday worship service, taken from the revival tent). Meanwhile, the sodality establishes itself to perpetuate its work a la the modality (buys land, builds an office building, becomes a new denomination, etc.). So they each become more like the other. And eventually a new sodality rises up to breathe life into and challenge that.

Sodalities are like fire—they burn hot and transform/consume much, but they don't last. Modalities on the other hand don't go places but it takes a long time to kill them off. I'm guessing that a lot of what you're seeing in Africa and elsewhere, where the Church is on fire, is like a sodality. In fact, to the extent that missions organizations from the West stimulated the initial growth, it was started by sodalities. But those sodalities will be forced to establish themselves somehow if they will consolidate their gains. For example, a ministry (sodality) that I support, Gospel for Asia, equips thousands of "native" missionaries to plant churches in South Asia through the donations of Christians in the West. But once these missionaries plant churches, they find it very beneficial to establish a presence in their villages by constructing church buildings, and each congregation is to grow to the point that it can support its own pastor so that the Western dollars can go toward new missionary recruits.

And maybe that leads us back to your question: what is the value of this religious system? Perhaps the main value of the admittedly inefficient, often resource-intensive system is that it consolidates the gains of the passionate kingdom movement that brought it about. It provides an environment for converts and their families to be socialized into their new family, the family of God. It is an intake point for resources that do make their way into the sodalities. And when they allow themselves to be positively influenced by vivacious sodalities (e.g., a church teaching its children with outstanding curriculum from a Christian publisher), they can remain alive, make converts, and pass that life on to them.

And this seems to have some biblical warrant. Jesus himself was a sort of one-Man sodality, but he chose disciples as the beginning of structure for the movement. (He also instituted the "pay the professional Christian worker" system—Luke 10:7; 1 Cor. 9:4-14; 1 Tim. 5:17-18). He trained those disciples to do the sodality-type evangelism that he did (Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-24), but as the Christian movement grew in numbers after Pentecost it eventually required some degree of administrative structure and division of labor to manage it all. But out of early church-modalities came new sodalities, like Paul and Barnabas being sent out by the Holy Spirit from the church at Antioch, who in turn planted new church-modalities.

So, bottom-line, if modalities and sodalities can serve each other, not only will each flourish, but each will take on some of the benefits of the other. The Establishment will live instead of being the living dead, and kingdom movements will keep their gains to the next generation and not break their tether to the kingdom itself.


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