Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 7 (Summer-Fall 2016)

group Conference Article

Ecosystems of Grace: An Old Vision for the New Church

P. Kent Smith

What will it take for Americans to come to know God for who God really is? In the face of the epidemic distractions presented by American culture, this question invites a more pointed question: What way of life centered in God has the capacity to capture and hold the attention of people in our time? With focused attention such a rare commodity, much discussion of mission, discipleship, and love as a lifestyle remains hypothetical. The concrete acts of love that undergird the way of Jesus can happen only sporadically at best. We are simply too busy and distracted to be available for the attention and discernment love requires. This paper reviews the nature of our contemporary distractions, then explores an ancient understanding of church as a way to reclaim our attention and re-engage the mission of God more deeply. A concluding section offers specific research-based guidance for joining God in mission in our context.

Stolen Attention: Naming the Challenge

What will it take for North Americans to come to know God for who God really is? The way we answer this question has profound implications for how we think about and engage the mission of God in our place and time.

I begin with four observations and a question. I assume we can agree on the first two observations, and I present evidence in support of the next two. They are:

  1. God is love.
  2. We are made in the image of God to be lovers.1
  3. Love requires attention.
  4. Our attention has been stolen—but if we really want to, we can get it back.

Love Requires Attention

In the English language, to love includes both the desire to share and the actual act of giving. Love enacted is the sharing of some gift by one person for the joy of another. The Greek language offers intriguing insight on this relationship between love, giving, joy and gratitude. Three words with the Greek root for joy—char—are instructive:

Chara—joy

Charis—a gift or grace (that which brings joy)

Eucharistia—gratitude (joy returned)

Lovers want to bless their beloved by sharing good gifts with them. When the lover takes action and gives a gift, this brings joy to the receiver. The gift also brings joy to the giver, as the comment attributed to Jesus suggests, “it is better to give than to receive.” The beloved then extends the process by expressing gratitude—literally returning joy to the giver.

This simple process, giving a gift to bless another, is therefore self-reinforcing. Love is regenerative.

This may sound simple, but in reality such enacted love requires careful attention. We cannot truly love what we do not know. Only the attentive lover knows the need of the beloved clearly enough to offer a gift that brings blessing and joy. Without paying attention, I may offer you water when what you needed was information, or I may not notice you at all. Furthermore, only the carefully attentive know themselves well enough to know what they actually have to offer.

Our Attention Has Been Stolen

The essential role of attention in love underscores the depth of our current challenge: our attention has been stolen. While it is also true that we give our attention away, my emphasis here is that from infancy our attention has been taken from us. The culture we have inherited virtually ensures we will have little room for love in our lives.

Our attention has been stolen.

In the presence of epidemic distraction, with focused attention such a rare commodity, most discussion of mission, discipleship, and love as a lifestyle remains hypothetical. The concrete acts of love that undergird the way of Jesus can happen only sporadically at best. We are simply too busy and distracted to be available for the attention and discernment love requires.

Consider these five areas that illustrate this epidemic of distraction:

  1. The average American now spends nearly eleven hours per day in screen time, with five hours of that dedicated to television.2 Without even getting into the pros and cons of what we are seeing and experiencing, what do we lose in our capacity to love when the vast majority of our attention is habitually directed toward screens? How might other use of our time and attention impact our capacity to live and love well?
  2. In 1985, researchers learned that one person in ten did not know anyone with whom they felt safe to be themselves—a true friend. By 2004 that number had risen to one person in four. Since then, one of the greatest attention magnets of all time, Facebook, has come to claim over 1.5 billion user “friends,” and during these years research shows that average measures of human empathy have plummeted.3 What if there were ways to develop true community in our time, where deep friendship and compassionate shared life were not the exception?
  3. The average American family spends thirty-five percent of its lifetime earnings on interest. Given the uneven earnings typical in most households, that thirty-five percent represents nearly the full-time attention of one adult.4 What this means is that almost half of each family’s adult working hours go to enrich banks and other financial institutions. What do we lose in our capacity to love with this loss of adult-parental-neighborly attention? What plausible alternatives exist?
  4. Sixty-five years ago the average American family spent thirty percent of its income on food and five percent on health care.5 With the rise of industrial agriculture came cheaper food. Now Americans enjoy some of the least expensive food in the world. At the same time the annual cost of health care for a typical American family of 4 has now risen above $25,000.6 The result is that we are spending at least as much on food and health care, but in significant ways we are losing our health—and undermining the health of our planet in the process.7 How is our attention being compromised over a lifetime by these changes? What saner ways exist to meet the nutritional needs of present and future generations?
  5. In his book Church Refugees, social scientist Josh Packard reports extensive research documenting a group he calls the “Dones,” sixty-five million American adults, nearly a third of the total population, who have left their churches behind. In subsequent research he has learned that another seven million present church-goers are “almost done.”8 Church, as Americans have been practicing it, seems to have a dwindling capacity to capture and hold the attention of people—even those who have spent a lifetime attending church. And contrary to what we might expect, according to Packard, the people leaving church are often people who have been holding primary leadership roles and continue to have a deep commitment to their faith.

Examples of our massive distraction are abundant. These five areas alone suggest that Americans have had much of their attention stolen: a serious challenge for people committed to a life of love. If true, we can now ask our initial question with more precision: How will ordinary Americans be able to reclaim their attention to the extent that their life is caught up in the life of God—the life of love? We might be inclined to dismiss this vision as a utopian dream, were it not for the confident statement of Jesus, “You must love each other as I have loved you. All people will know you are my disciples if you love each other” (John 13:34-35).9

A Vision for Shared Love in the Ancient Church: Ecosystems of Grace

The disciples who heard Jesus state that love would distinguish them proceeded to embody a way of life that, despite enormous opposition over the next three centuries, came to permeate the known world. That way of life, long known to scholars of ancient Mediterranean history, is largely invisible to contemporary readers because it represents a reality with which we rarely have experience.

The ancient Mediterranean world was a world of households. Everyone—rich or poor, Roman or Jew—was part of an extended family. Those without a household were in deep trouble, because that community was the basis for economic and social well-being. This household, or oikos, provided the livelihood wherein people found work in the family business—fishing, farming, or ruling a region. This was the community with whom daily meals and life were shared, that provided social standing in life and security in senior years.10

Jesus called the first disciples into a new family—a new household—partly because he knew that many who followed him would lose their natural families. When people made it known to their biological household, whether Jewish or Gentile, that they had decided to follow Jesus, the reaction was often the same: You have denied the true religion, you have dishonored our family, you have endangered our business—you are no longer a part of this family.

Knowing this, Jesus said, “And all who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or farms to follow me will get much more than they left, and they will have life forever” (Matt 19:29). These new, vibrant families of Jesus were tangible, local good news in the Mediterranean neighborhoods of the first three centuries. And ultimately they permeated every corner of the Roman Empire. As New Testament scholar J. H. Elliott observes, “Households thus constituted the focus, locus and nucleus of the ministry and mission of the Christian movement.”11

These new, vibrant families of Jesus were tangible, local good news.

This might all appear to us an interesting historical footnote, largely irrelevant in the radically different context of twenty-first century Western culture. However, in what follows I want to consider a reading of early Christian thought that seems to suggest just the opposite.

Ecosystems

The earliest Christians understood this new household—the oikos family of which Jesus spoke—to be the means by which God’s ultimate purposes would be fulfilled. This understanding runs right through early Christian writings, but it is given special expression in the letter to the Ephesians. Here, the writer elevates the household system to cosmic significance.

Though the common transliteration of oikonomia is economy, the English word economy normally carries the connotation of financial systems.12 A more accurate translation of oikonomia in our time may be the word ecosystem, which carries the idea of an interdependent community of shared resources. For the household-dominated ancient Mediterranean culture, this translation comes much closer to conveying the fullness of shared life borne by the word oikonomia.13

In Ephesians this oikonomia of God is the pre-ordained system for the summing up of all things into God by way of Christ. This theme is introduced in chapter one: “making known to us the mystery of his will, in accordance with his good pleasure that he purposed in himself, leading to the ecosystem of the fullness of times, to head up all things in Christ—the things in heaven and the things on the earth” (Eph 1:9–10).14

This ecosystem is the object of God’s self-purposed pleasure, something revealed in the fullness of times, what has been a mystery but has now been made known. These ideas are taken up and developed more in chapter three:

To me, less than the least of all saints, was this grace given: to announce to the non-Jewish peoples the boundless riches of Christ and to enlighten all that they may see what the ecosystem of the mystery is, which throughout the ages has been hidden in God, who created all things, so that now, to the rulers and authorities in the heavenlies the multifaceted wisdom of God might be made known through the ekklesia. This aligns with the eternal purpose which God made in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Eph 3:8–11)

Here it is as the ekklesia—the gathered people of God—that God reveals this finally-disclosed “ecosystem of the fullness of time.” The ekklesia is the divinely appointed means of displaying God’s multifaceted wisdom to the heavenly powers.

The ekklesia is an ecosystem of grace that reveals God’s multifaceted wisdom.

An Ecosystem of Grace

What makes this an ecosystem of grace that reveals God’s multifaceted wisdom is that each person in this community is a gift, a grace of God freely offered in love on behalf of the household. The case is summarized in the next chapter of Ephesians:

To each one of us a grace has been distributed as a gift of Christ (4:7).

From Christ the whole body is joined and held together . . . by means of the distributed divine energy of every single growing part of the body working to build up his body in love (4:16).

God’s divine energy is distributed to each growing part of the body according to the distinct grace each one bears. The exercise of that grace by each one under the headship of Christ builds up the body of Christ, the ekklesia. And that completed person—the Bride of Christ—fully reveals God’s multifaceted wisdom.15

Ecosystems of Grace for the 21st Century

How could this understanding of an ecosystem of grace—an extended family wherein each person has a vital role in giving, receiving, and displaying God’s love and wisdom—take form now? How might a more richly shared life be possible?

In 2013, two ACU colleagues and I conducted research on eleven intentional communities across North America.16 Over the course of three months we conducted dozens of interviews exploring the dynamics of communities that share resources to an uncommon degree. We began with a working definition of intentional Christian community:

A group that practices an uncommon sharing of assets in order to follow Jesus together.

“An uncommon sharing of assets,” or resources, was a key in our analysis. It became clear that the love that characterizes these communities is a tangible love. It involves sharing—and this sharing is across a whole range of gifts or assets that individuals and communities possess. In these communities it was often obvious that the time and attention necessary for loving God and neighbor was present to an uncommon degree.

As the study continued it also became clear that across this spectrum of assets all Christian communities make decisions, either intentionally or unintentionally, about the degree to which they share each asset. By paying attention to this reality, every Christian community can map where it currently is with respect to the depth or “thickness” of its sharing.17 For those who so choose, with this insight they can also make intentional decisions to change the ways they share their gifts.

Together the eight assets we identified form a typology by which communities can take inventory along a spectrum of sharing from thin to thick.18 A question about each asset provides a starting point from which to explore that asset:

THIN THICK

PurposeHow would you describe your community’s purpose? In communities with a strong, thickly shared purpose, people across the community could describe why they were where they were, doing what they were doing. They might say, “We are living in this neighborhood of San Francisco to be the family of Jesus among and for our neighbors.”

PeopleHow do you identify and engage community members’ unique gifts? Whether a person is 9 or 89, male or female, regardless of ethnicity or wealth, healthy intentional communities act to understand and call out each member’s gifts. In an ecosystem of grace, every gift is honored and every voice is carefully heard.

PlaceHow does the community’s social/cultural/physical location influence the community? Extended families that are attending carefully to the gift of their place reflect the distinctives of that setting in ways that are profoundly unique and effective. Should we expect suburban and urban or African and Asian churches to be the same in practice and culture?

ProductionWhat is the community’s approach to shared and individual work? In every healthy family there is work to be done. Healthy intentional communities are proactive in seeing that each member has meaningful work that contributes to their shared life and purpose.

ProcessHow are community decisions made and implemented? Families that honor Jesus as Lord discover ways to discern a path forward together. Beyond authoritarianism or majority rule, healthy intentional communities work out a means to discern and govern that takes seriously God’s present guidance among God’s people.

PreparationHow do newcomers become community members? Research and personal experience make it clear that unless communities are intentional in the ways they include new people into their ongoing practices, people are unlikely to stay.19 This is true of people who grow up in the community, as well as newcomers.

PossessionsHow are material goods shared? What was true in the first century remains true today—people who love one another as family find ways to share what they have with each other “so that there are no needy among them.” This is true whether the asset in question is money, cars, homes, or fields. Sharing of these assets, in particular, impacts not only the quality of our attention, but also the quantity available. People who can live well on half the financial resources through simplicity and sharing may have twice the time for loving.20

Play – How does this community renew its life in joyful re-creation? A key marker of the love of God embodied in a community is that community members find joy in playful sharing together. While this may take many forms, play together seems to be a steady characteristic of healthy families.

Each of these eight community assets presents an arena to explore a more richly shared life, to take decisive steps to love more deeply.21 Every community can find in these shared resources opportunity for growth in love.

If We Really Want To, We Can Get Our Attention Back

We struggle to live according to our design as lovers in large measure because our attention has been stolen. Our distraction results in lack of attention to the beautiful, glorious God of love. Our distraction also results in failure to give attention to the grace we bear in and for an ecosystem of grace. The outcome for many is that we find ourselves weary, wasting our lives in lonely, trivial pursuits.

Our distraction results in lack of attention to the beautiful, glorious God of love.

But it is not inevitable that we should live distracted, debt-driven, lonely lives—even though we have inherited the isolating cultural structures of our society.22 In noticing and naming what steals our attention, we are empowered to make other choices. We are freed to re-envision our own lives in an ecosystem of grace. Over time, such communities have the capacity to address the kinds of crippling distractions that hold our attention captive: debt, poor health, addictions, and loneliness.

For many of us, the pathway to reclaiming our stolen attention will require a deep reconsideration of the way of life embodied by Jesus and his earliest followers. This invites concrete decisions to share life at a level uncommon in America today, a willingness to face the fears this evokes for people acculturated to radical independence and distraction, and a choice to acknowledge that we are in fact designed for life in an ecosystem of grace.

No simple formula can be constructed for the formation of such communities. Attention to the God who gathers people into new families is all that can ensure the distinctive expression of God’s life in each place.23

Wherever such communities show up in our neighborhoods, not only will they hold our attention, but they will also capture the attention of the people around us who long for life as it was meant to be lived. The lifestyle of love in God is the one reality strong enough, beautiful enough to capture and hold the attention of people in our time. What it takes for people to know God for who God really is has not changed: ecosystems of grace that display the compelling love and multifaceted wisdom of God.

Dr. Kent Smith is CHARIS Professor at Abilene Christian University and has taught there in the Graduate School of Theology since 1991. His teaching and research focus has been in the area of spiritual nurture systems, especially as they relate to new expressions of church. He directs ACU’s graduate internship in missional leadership and has been a trainer for international mission teams over twenty-five years with ACU’s Halbert Institute for Missions. Kent and his wife Karen are founding members of the Eden Community. He can be contacted at smithpk@acu.edu.

Adapted from a presentation at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 8–10, 2016.

1 James K. A. Smith reviews the case for this understanding of humanity helpfully in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 37–88.

2 See, for example: Jacqueline Howard, “Americans Devote More Than 10 Hours a Day to Screen Time, and Growing,” CNN, Health, http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/30/health/americans-screen-time-nielsen.

3 Kay Toombs, Changing Our Minds (Elm Mott, Texas: Colloquium Press, 2014), 60–61.

4 See Michael F. Thompson, “Earnings of a Lifetime: Comparing Women and Men with College and Graduate Degrees,” In Context 10, no. 2 (March–April 2009), http://www.incontext.indiana.edu/2009/mar-apr/article1.asp.

5 See, for example, Derek Thompson, “How America Spends Money: 100 Years in the Life of the Family Budget,” The Atlantic, April 5, 2012, http://theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/how-america-spends-money-100-years-in-the-life-of-the-family-budget/255475.

6 Christopher S. Girod, Scott A. Weltz, Susan K. Hart, “The Milliman Medical Index,” Milliman, http://milliman.com/mmi. Thompson, “How America Spends Money," states: “In short, health care costs are squeezing Americans. But the details of this squeeze elude [a graph]. We are paying for health care with taxes, borrowing, and compensation that goes to health benefits, rather than wages.”

7 For an overview of the issues here, see Union of Concerned Scientists, “Industrial Agriculture: The Outdated, Unsustainable System That Dominates US Food Production,” Food and Agriculture, http://ucsusa.org/our-work/food-agriculture/our-failing-food-system/industrial-agriculture.

8 Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are DONE with Church but Not Their Faith (Colorado Springs: Group Publishing, 2015); Josh Packard, Exodus of the Religious Dones: Research Reveals the Size, Makeup, and Motivations of the Formerly Churched Population (Colorado Springs: Group Publishing, 2015).

9 Scripture quotations are from the New Century Version unless noted otherwise.

10 See, for example, David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000).

11 John H. Elliot, A Home for the Homeless: A Sociological Exegesis of 1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 188.

12 I, too, have made use of the common transliteration. See Kent Smith, “Economy of Grace: An Early Christian Take on Vulnerable Mission,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 4, no. 1 (February 2013), http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-4-1/authors/md-4-1-smith.

13 For a broad overview of the use of oikonomia in the earliest Christian centuries, see G. W. H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 940–43.

14 Translations of Ephesians are by the author.

15 Descriptions of the church in Ephesians 1–4 are dominated by the cognates of oikos: God’s house, temple, and household, as well as God’s body. See, e.g., 2:19–22. In 5:23–32 the mystery is further disclosed: this body is Jesus’s Bride.

16 Dr. Monty Lynn of the College of Business, and Brandon Young, architect and design professor, were my co-researchers in this study. Some of our findings are available at: http://modelingintentionalcommunity.org.

17 Broadly speaking, the move from thin to thick sharing in each of these assets entails an increase in both awareness of the need to share that asset and the embodiment of that awareness in changing practice. For a helpful introduction to contemporary expressions of thicker community, see Charles Moore, Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People (Walden, New York: Plough, 2016).

18 Although the study began with seven identified assets, the recurring importance of play in the research led to its addition to the list.

19 See, for example, Karl Olav Sandness, A New Family: Conversion and Ecclesiology in the Early Church with Cross-Cultural Comparisons (New York: Lang, 1994).

20 Examples can be found throughout the affluent, developed world of communities voluntarily halving their cost of living. We need not look to intentional Christian communities like Reba Fellowship or the Bruderhof—a walk through a college dorm or retirement village can illustrate the point. Meanwhile, across the majority world and throughout history most people have lived interdependently on far less by necessity.

21 CARA, the Community Asset Review and Assessment is an instrument we have developed to help teams and groups assess their current status as an ecosystem of grace and to plan a path into deeper community. For more information see http://edencenter.org.

22 Each of the attention-draining examples described above are inherently isolating and reinforce our physical isolation from one another. For a brief review of the relationship between friendship, community, and housing, see David Roberts, “How Our Housing Choices Make Adult Friendships More Difficult,” http://vox.com/2015/10/28/9622920/housing-adult-friendship.

23 A number of examples of such communities can be found in the groups we profiled in our 2013 study of intentional communities (along with some who made clear they were not explicitly Christian). See footnote 16 above. Diverse as these groups were, however, they cannot begin to span the diversity of ecosystems of God’s grace in our time—which in each case will be a distinctive expression of God’s love, appropriate for that people and place.