If you have followed me to this point, you are familiar with the notion that the earliest church was like a caravan, a group of committed believers on a journey to a destination of maturity and witness. Leaders in this caravan shepherded the group to keep them on track toward this destination. Along the way, to the present time, the caravan was hijacked by the powers to support the agenda of the empire, nation state, protestant hegemony, fundamentalism, liberalism, etc. (name your power). However, times have changed. The powers don’t need the church anymore. No longer do they need Christianity to endorse them; more often than not, the church has been a minor irritation. In Calgary, for example, new communities are planned without any dedicated space allotted for “churches.” Churches in these new communities find they must become a kind of ‘third space’ within the well-planned structures of these new communities.
In the final piece of this series, I would like to suggest the “caravan” might serve us as a helpful, even constructive, metaphor for the next move for the church (here defined as those “really-want-to-be-followers of Jesus”). Experientially, the church has become something of a bureaucratic mess. Entangled with regulations and governmental accountability, the church struggles to respond either to real needs or even the new opportunities. And let us not even delve into congregational internal bureaucracy that seems designed to thwart God’s mission. The church today is not very nimble or responsive. The caravan version of the church was.
Is there a way to recapture the spirit (dare I say, the Spirit) of the caravan? The first thing for us to do is allow God to have our imagination. Can we imagine a church that is minimally ecclesiological? What I mean by this is: Can we envision a common life together that has just enough leadership, just enough structure, just ‘enough’ to support the kind of life God would like to create in and among us? Because of my role with Alberta Bible College, I work daily with policy and procedure—a lot. One of my working administrative rules is we should have no more structure, policy, or procedures than necessary. What if we thought that way about how we do church? Can we imagine an unfettered future? Imagine with me, if you will, the return of the caravan. The features of a caravan included its ability to travel light, it was headed somewhere, it required everyone’s gifts, it was carrying precious cargo, and it had leaders who knew what they were accomplishing together. Perhaps there are other characteristics we could mine, but these will get us started.
A caravan travels light. In the North American culture, we have too much stuff. Churches have too much stuff and sometimes the stuff becomes more important than the people that the stuff was intended to serve. We are so entangled in the “world’s affairs” that we have difficulty imagining how to live out the Kingdom of God in a way which does not just mimic one of the polarities offered by the world. The Kingdom of God invariably offers a third way that can only be seen if one is untangled from the Left vs. Right, Liberal vs. Conservative, Democrat vs. Republican polarities of our time. We are encumbered people and God is seeking to set his people free once again.
Caravans know where they are going. The church needs to recapture a robust eschatology that is neither the bus stop model that has us waiting for God because we are, on the one hand, confused about where we are supposed to be, nor a sensational, nonsensical version designed to scare Christians into not being left behind, on the other. The purpose of stories of the end in Scripture is to pull us into God’s future. The end of our story gives the “now” direction and forward movement. One of the themes we explored earlier in this series was that the destination God is seeking to take us to can be called maturity, the steady process of growing up to look more like Jesus (see https://www.abccampus.ca/2021/01/20/the-journey/).
Other characteristics of a caravan include the following. Every member of the caravan brings something the whole caravan needs. Every person is important. Additionally, the people have the strange notion others are more important than they are, believing the whole is more than the parts. In this way of thinking, the community of the caravan becomes a lively experiment of grace. Everyone’s talent is welcome and necessary. While leaders might be important for the survival of the caravan, more appreciated are the people’s gifts in cooking, or the ones who could entertain us around the campfire after an arduous day of travel, for example. Speaking of our leaders, they would know their job is investing in the travelers to not only make it all the way to the destination, but to prioritize people’s growth and learning because one day they might be leading the caravan. This way of thinking is summarized in Ephesians 4:11–16:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Finally, and most importantly, caravans transport precious cargo. While one can easily think of the people in the caravan as being precious cargo, the caravan, that is the church, was God’s intended vessel for containing the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus. Paul uses a similar image in which the precious treasure we carry is contained in jars of clay. It is through the mundane jars of clay (the caravan) that God shows his “all-surpassing power” (2 Cor 4:7). Paul explains,
We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you (2 Corinthians 4:10–12).
To paraphrase Paul here in light of the caravan: The caravan represents a group of believers who have willingly accepted the sacrifices involved in living the ‘caravan existence.’ We are those who understand we have given our lives to Jesus for the sake of the world. Thus, we are willing to experience death, all kinds of death, for the good of others. Ultimately, the caravan does not exist for its own sake but willingly places itself at the disposal of the one who called them into this way of being in the world.
So, what’s our next move? I suggest we imagine the caravan.