missional social trails

Photo by Glen Alan Woods

The sign depicted in this photograph is located near the trailhead at Devil’s Backbone in Colorado. Those who maintain the park clearly want to retain the natural beauty of its environment. When hikers attempt to go off of designated trails it puts them at risk and it damages the fauna and scenic beauty.

When I encountered this sign I understood and appreciated these points. But I also related it to the mutual pushback between emerging church leaders and traditional church leaders. Specific vocal writers and speakers in both general camps see each other as wandering off the reservation in a capitulation to culture, creating harmful social trails which damage God’s purposes. Dr. Jim Belcher chronicles this problematic way of viewing each other quite well in his book Deep Church, which I have nearly completed. He rightly acknowledges that both have some valid concerns, as well as very real blindspots.

I am intrigued by the notion of social trails which divert from the prevailing cultural norm of those in ecclesial power, locally, regionally, and nationally. Power brokers may perceive the unauthorized excursions as a  threat to their authority, or harmful to the harmony of the whole. This is true in any ecclesial tradition, including emergent groups and house churches with little authority structure. For the sake of argument, let us assume I am not speaking about heresy, unorthodox teaching, an overemphasis on a specific tertiary doctrine, or stirring up dissent among believers. Instead, imagine that I am speaking of creative new ways of engaging the culture which might be uncomfortable to those who view church strictly through the lens of their personal experience.  These are like new exploratory social trails, full of trial, error, discovery, correction, and even wonder.

Isn’t that part of what being a missionary to our culture is about? With Belcher, I affirm Scripture as authoritative for instruction in life and godliness. Likewise, I submit to other believers who are a covering over me as together we listen to the Holy Spirit, discerning God’s purposes according to Scriptural teaching. But instead of hunkering down in a spiritual foxhole, waiting for Jesus to call me to heaven, I believe part of my mission is to blaze new missional trails which might make some of my friends uncomfortable (perhaps because they begin to perceive the pressure for themselves to get personally involved).

Again, this is not about stirring up dissent or creating division among fellow believers. It is about using what God has given me to relate creatively and redemptively to those who do not know him. And in so doing, new social trails will be created which give opportunity for believers and non-believers alike to interact without presumption, to care for one another without prejudice, and to learn from each other with mutual respect. In short, it requires that we love one another according to the example of Jesus. It takes being real, letting down our guard, and setting aside offensive assumptions so that the offense of the gospel can do its work. Thus, we tear down our signs preventing new social trails so that the lost can encounter the cross and Jesus Christ. I am okay with taking responsibility for awkward (according to normative customs) new social trails if it means that the footprints are those of the lost and the redeemed having divinely ordained encounters with Jesus together.


One thought on “missional social trails

  1. If you think about it, everything Jesus did was “off the trail” and they killed for it! But it was all part of God’s ultimate plan. The trail is often the wrong path in my experience. And when hiking, especially in Yosemite, those “social trails” overlooked or ignored by most hikers usually lead to the most spectacular vistas for the best photography and often I’m the only hiker to get those pictures because the others hurried by those trails either afraid or unwilling to explore them, or missing them altogether. I think there is a lot that applies to ministry here.

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