Underground Church
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Underground Church

Brian Sanders

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📖 eBook - ePub

Underground Church

Brian Sanders

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About This Book

What If the Church Truly Empowered People to Engage in God's Mission?

Something extraordinary has been happening in Tampa, Florida. A new expression of the church has been quietly growing. It's something of an experiment, but over the last ten years the church has been validating its ideas with sustained and growing results. At The Underground, being the church is not focused around a weekly gathering or church programs. It's about empowering individuals to respond to God's call to ministry and mission, especially to the poor and disadvantaged in our midst.

While many churches talk about discerning calling and engaging in mission, very few are structured to make this their ministry focus. Underground Church is a new vision for the church rooted in its biblical mission to share the love of God and serve the poor. Sanders explores how to make structural changes, how to think about leadership, how to fund ministries, and how to truly engage people in God's mission. Filled with creative insights, he explains what it means to center the mission of the church around the callings of individuals to outward ministry - whether that involves leading Bible studies in the workplace, feeding the homeless, or working to free women and children from sex trafficking.

This book will both tell the inspiring story of a church that is rethinking what church looks like while also outlining and uncovering the principles that transfer for every church and Christian community that hopes for more. It's the true story of a 10-year experiment that unpacks the possibilities of a church structured and streamlined for mission.


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Chapter 1


We are the ones we have been waiting for.
This is the story of a relatively small but potent expression of the kingdom that has come to understand itself as something unique and worth knowing. It begins with an apostolic story of which I am not the hero, but in fact perhaps the villain at times. Since I was the first mover of this story—or perhaps the first to be moved—it begins with me.
I finished college in 1994, or should I say it finished me. I was twenty-one, newly married with a baby on the way, and ready to start my life in the “real” world. I was offered a job with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, in the city where I was born, to pioneer work at the University of South Florida. It was one of those ministry jobs that didn’t come with much money or many people. It was a chance to start from scratch, so I took it. “It has always been my ambition to preach Christ where he was not known,” said Paul.1 The same was true for me.
The genesis of what we now call the UNDERGROUND movement really began with my first step into the nothingness of that pioneering work. Perhaps all movements start in a similar space. My first real job was a blank slate, and I had all the missionary hope a twenty-one-year-old could muster. I was asked to reach out to a campus and change the world. In the end, I believe this lofty goal must be why I said yes. It was a big enough task, worthy of investment. I stepped onto the massive commuter campus of South Florida with very little knowledge of how to do what I had set out to do. That was important too, and illustrates something very important that I learned in the years that followed—every movement begins by coming face-to-face with a mystery.
My experience of innovation flowered through a process described by Roger Martin in his groundbreaking book The Design of Business. Martin argues that all innovation follows a predictable, observable process.2 First, he says, you start with mystery or what he calls an “impossible question.” In the throes of that mystery, you struggle and scrape your way to a series of heuristics or rules of thumb that narrow the answer. Finally, if the heuristics prove true, you find your way to algorithms, repeatable processes that always produce the results you seek.
It is in that first moment, when we are threatened by the vastness and the mystery, when we find God. He is active throughout the process, but he is never more real to us than in the place of desperate impossibility, when we feel there is no way to do what he has sent us to do. Like the children we are, we cry out. If bravado moves us to the threshold, it is prayer alone that carries us into the house. The nothingness of starting something new, I would come to believe, is the essence of discipleship. Recapturing that experience for myself, over and over, and offering something similar to every follower of Jesus that I influence, is the purpose of my life’s work.
Campus Soil
I remember walking onto the South Florida campus feeling conspicuous. I was probably suffering some version of what psychologists call imposter syndrome—the feeling of inadequacy and knowing that you don’t belong, and that others will find out you are a fraud. I remember standing atop the parking garage, praying and surveying the vast campus, contemplating my impossible task. In my prayer, I considered my limitations and, even if only for a mustard-seed moment, the capacity of God to accomplish the impossible task. That day, I prayed for every residence hall and for a movement to begin.
Unsure of where to find instruction amidst my desperation, I fell headlong into the pages of the Acts of the Apostles, feeling—as all apostles3 do—the timelessness of the mission of God. Inspired and instructed by the life, community, and witness of the early church, I built a team. Over the course of the next three years, we planted witnessing communities in every residence hall. God used us to build a mission on that campus that grew into something substantial and beautiful.
Urban Soil
Despite the success of that campus ministry, I was restless. I saw in Jesus a cutting edge that challenged everything about our privilege as Western disciples of Jesus. As I continued ministry and mission at the University of South Florida in Tampa, I started taking trips to the developing world to learn more about mission and to witness to the lost. I became a student of revolution and liberation, both political and spiritual. I moved my young family into the highest crime neighborhood in Tampa to be close to the most desperate persons, believing Jesus would also choose to live and serve there. Each of these choices took their toll on me. The edifice of my American Protestantism began to crumble, and I became grateful for the demolition. Picking through the rubble of that inherited system helped me open my heart to the way of Jesus and to the promise of his kingdom.
My family and our growing ministry formed an intentional community and committed ourselves to the poor of our city. I pledged to take university students out of their world and into this other world I had discovered as often as I could. This focus on a larger mission field proved to be a critical feature in the foundation of the UNDERGROUND.
The first program our group started was a tutoring project, followed by a summer-long poverty “immersion project” meant to help university students encounter God in the beauty and pain of an American inner city. I thought of our work among the poor as the discipling of students and not as a mission in itself. To my mind, the students were the mission, the inner city was the classroom, and the poor were the professors. But as our campus witness grew, so did our presence in the neighborhoods. I started to understand more of what Jesus meant when he said, “Whatever you did for the least of these you did for me.”4 We were following Jesus into the heart of poverty. Whenever you look at the anatomy of a revolution, you always see students near the center. There is virtually no example in history of a revolution that was not fueled by the hubris, idealism, and sacrifice of the young. And so it turned out that we were planting the seeds of just such a revolution—rather, God was planting us.
Because I showed aptitude for tilling new ground, I was asked by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to take responsibility for an unreached area of my state and to hire staff to begin new work on every campus. It was a role I relished. Over the next few years, we started outreach efforts at every major school in that area. It was a time when lots of people were ready to take a job with no money, only the excitement and challenge of that impossible mystery.
Then our students started to graduate.
Perhaps every college ministry seems this way to the people involved, but it truly felt like we were doing more than mere “college ministry” during that time. Naturally, this was all happening because I was starting college parachurch groups, but something seemed unique to this project, like we were living out the Lord’s Prayer, “on earth as it is in heaven” as we were encountering the kingdom of God in very literal ways and seeing the transformation that comes with it.5 We were laying down our lives for the glory of Jesus and the coming of his kingdom. We were truly invested, not just in our campuses, but also in the city we loved and in the poor that Jesus said were blessed. While some students didn’t give as much attention to their studies as they did to the kingdom, the college didn’t mind. When enough credits were amassed, they gave pieces of paper to each of our comrades, and one at a time, our student disciples began to leave college. They had gotten more than just a degree, though; they had a purpose too.
All of a sudden, a new set of demands and pressures fell on our graduates. With school in the rearview mirror, they felt like they had to get real jobs, settle down, get married, buy houses, have kids, and start acting normal. Of all those expectations, the most treacherous seemed to be that they must find a “proper church.” Many of these individuals had become Christians through our campus ministries, and all they knew about Jesus and “church” came from these groups. They understood mission, witness, care for the poor, and radical community only through the lens of our work. There was little dissonance between the lives they were trying to lead and the pages of Scripture. Now, they were trying to fit into the middle-class churches that surrounded us.
It wasn’t pretty.
Three things happened. One group acquiesced; another group dropped out; and a third group persevered. The pressure to conform to their new church environment, coupled with what Jesus called “the worries of this life” and the “deceitfulness of wealth,” caused the first group to give up the way of life they had learned and loved.6 Most of them would come to recall their time in college as a crazy experience, chalking it up to the exuberance of youth.
Another group simply refused to go to a “normal” church once they graduated. The dissonance, between the Jesus they had pledged to follow and the Jesus preached in the comfortable middle-class churches, was too great for them. They simply could not stomach it, and eventually, they came to realize they didn’t have to go to those churches. They still loved Jesus, but they had drifted out of formal church fellowship.
Finally, there was a group who persevered in their church attendance while hating every minute of it. I counted myself in this group. I was still a full-time missionary on campus, and church attendance somewhere felt like an entry-level requirement. Even nominal Christians go to church. So, I just complained. Even though no one was listening, that didn’t stop those of us in this group from railing against a system with which we could not come to terms.7 Leaving never seemed like an option.
At some point, we woke to the fact that if we wanted something new we would have to start with the mystery of the unknown. When we are handed someone else’s hard-fought algorithm for the church, we miss the process of discipleship that comes from understanding how that algorithm developed. And we are also trapped by someone else’s conclusions about what it means to know and follow Jesus. We will all eventually question a Jesus who is handed to us by someone else. We need to experience Jesus for ourselves and come to conclusions on our own. Of course, we aren’t starting from scratch; the journey is guided by those who have gone before us. But inheriting a religious system without understanding where it comes from fails to transform us, and it almost never leads to depth in our relationship with God. There is a role for tradition and for learning from the past—these are critical gifts to the church. But in order to be received, they must be offered to the next generation with some flexibility.
We had not experienced the church as something offered or as something with flexibility.
In the end, we did not choose to leave behind traditional forms of church simply because we were frustrated (although at times we were). We left because we were alive with the hope of the kingdom of God at work in and through the people of God. We were not seeing this hope in the churches we attended, even though we played by the rules. We were involved in everything they told us to get involved in. We went to the services, attended the classes, even taught the classes and led the services. But in the end, we could not escape the nagging, burning belief that there was more to the church of Jesus Christ than what we were experiencing in our classes and services. We were not trying to be obstinate or petulant. On the contrary, we had a childlike belief that, in spite of all we were seeing, the church could yet be something beautiful and potent. We believed that something greater was possible.
Some have accused me of being “anti-church” and an opponent of the church, but nothing could be further from the truth. I believe in the church and yearn for it. Every disciple, pastor, and missionary I know who loves and leads the church shares this longing. We seek the true church and grieve the counterfeit versions that exist, masquerading as the Bride of Christ. While I resist those imposters, I am also guilty of contributing to them. At our best, in our deepest dreams, we all yearn for a renaissance of the church that would strip away the excess to unleash the church in its purest and most potent form. This is part of an ongoing renaissance of the church, something called ecclesia semper reformanda, the continual renewal of the church. That’s not to say we have it all figured out. We have our own imperfections and shortcomings, but we are also starting to see the realization of God’s vision for his church and of his promises, which are available for everyone. We are learning that we don’t have to settle for less than being God’s pure and spotless bride.
One of the blessings of being involved with a parachurch mission was that we did not have to call ourselves a church. It was strangely freeing. Of course, it was not true—we were the church. We were the people of God on campus. Sadly, the mission component of such a parachurch is what has traditionally distinguished (and strangely disqualified) these types of ministries from being considered church. It is as if there is some kind of ecclesial truce between churches and parachurch ministries: You do the mission, churches say, that we can’t or won’t do. They seem to make parachurches promise to not offer the sacraments, and then the churches will send a little money for mission work and not consider them a competitor. It was a gift to not think of ourselves as a church at first, even though we always were, and we probably always knew it.
We came to terms with that thinking by asking ourselves, “What is our ecclesial minimum?” If you strip everything away that is not essential to being a church, what are you left with? The answer we decided on was worship, community, and mission. What makes a group of people a church is that they worship together, are committed to each other, and undertake mission together. We can define a church, then, as a group of people:
  • In consistent, devoted, and surrendered relationship to Jesus Christ,
  • Totally accountable and connected to each other, and
  • Engaged in his mission, making disciples and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.
That is a church. Things like rites, rituals, ordination, sacraments, finance, and governance, while good and perhaps even necessary for long-term health, are not essential for a thing to be a church of Jesus Christ. But if we strip things down, these three qualities are absolutely essential.
It is easier to criticize a failing form of the church than it is to embody a faithful alternative. In history, when political revolutionaries win, they are often left dumbfounded by the mechanics of governance. It is easy to stand against something and to see that a way of leading is wrong, but it is much harder to know what is right. People who clamor for large-scale change can identify how the old form is wrong, but oftentimes, they haven’t really worked out how things will operate better when they finally take power. It was similar for us. As we were refining our understanding about the essentials of the church, we began to experience a shift in power so stron...

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Citation styles for Underground ChurchHow to cite Underground Church for your reference list or bibliography: select your referencing style from the list below and hit 'copy' to generate a citation. If your style isn't in the list, you can start a free trial to access over 20 additional styles from the Perlego eReader.
APA 6 Citation
Sanders, B. (2018). Underground Church ([edition unavailable]). Zondervan. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/581239/underground-church-pdf (Original work published 2018)
Chicago Citation
Sanders, Brian. (2018) 2018. Underground Church. [Edition unavailable]. Zondervan. https://www.perlego.com/book/581239/underground-church-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Sanders, B. (2018) Underground Church. [edition unavailable]. Zondervan. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/581239/underground-church-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Sanders, Brian. Underground Church. [edition unavailable]. Zondervan, 2018. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.