Last night’s living-room discussion raised an interesting issue that deserves more elucidation and discussion here on the blog. The question is: how do you measure what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus?

Many churches choose to measure the boundary markers. The language is dichotomous: believer/unbeliever, member/non-member, in/out. And the boundary markers tend to be things that are external and easy to measure: behavior, attendance, signing off on a particular creed, dressing a certain way, doing the things that the “in” people do. If you do these things, you’re considered a “member” or insider. If you don’t do them, you’re an outsider.

Now certainly there are elements of truth in this model. We cannot entirely lose the language of believer/unbeliever, because Jesus makes it clear that those categories matter. But the problems with this model are obvious: externals become the main thing, rather than true heart transformation.

Instead of focusing on the boundaries, we want to put the focus on the center. What does it look like to passionately follow Jesus? Is your life reflecting the transformation that comes from His Spirit? Do you love people like He did? Are you living in light of the gospel more this week than last week? Is God more primary in your life today than yesterday? Is Christ everything to you?

When our focus is on the center, the boundaries become fuzzier. Some people will start to follow Jesus, and it won’t be totally clear when they “crossed the boundary.” Others will take longer to break patterns of sin in their life, but will truly be experiencing the knowledge of the grace of God in their souls. But the center is the main thing. The boundaries are peripheral.

This also means that for those of us on the preparation team, the bar is higher. Because “membership” in Coram Deo (whatever that comes to mean) isn’t about signing off on a doctrinal statement or taking a membership class or reciting the Apostles’ Creed while standing on one leg. It’s about whether there is evidence in your life that Christ is the center, and that the values of Coram Deo are your values. That’s both more subjective and more reliable than checking the boundary markers. Because you can fake the external stuff; but the heart has a way of showing itself.

To quote Jesus, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” “Make the tree good, and its fruit will be good; make the tree bad, and its fruit will be bad.” The reason Jesus was so bothersome to the Pharisees is that he had a centered-set view of the kingdom of God. The Pharisees were busy marking the boundaries; Jesus was busy dealing with people’s hearts. That’s what we want to do, too.

My friend Will is just putting the finishing touches to a book he was asked to write. He is a campus minister, and his book is about the concept of missional community. He felt the need to include a chapter about church, and about how church is supposed to be a missional community. Problem: Will hasn’t really experienced missional community at his church. It’s one of his major frustrations. So, knowing that I’d been spending the last year pouring over how to create a missional church, he asked me to write that chapter for him.

I finished the chapter last week while I was in Orlando. It was great fun. I told lots of stories about you guys – the Coram Deo community – because they illustrated what I was writing about. I also took pains to distance myself from people who are bitter and negative about church. Here’s an excerpt:

A lot of the people I know are pretty bothered by the way we do church, and by the lameness of the Christian subculture. The thing is, not many people are doing anything about it. There is a whole movement of Christians who are bitter about church, and so they sit around and write books about how church sucks, and how modernism sucks, and how everything before last year sucks. They glibly deconstruct the church, leaving nothing constructive in their wake.

It’s appropriate at this point in our journey that we pause and caution ourselves against this tendency. I LOVE deconstruction. I think it’s a valuable tool for teaching. I enjoy cutting out from under people the very foundation they stand on, leaving them groundless and conflicted. Frustrated people learn stuff. So if I can raise enough tension in your mind, you’ll crave an answer! That’s what good teachers do.

And in the process of planting a church, it’s necessary to deconstruct. It’s necessary to talk about where the Church in America is failing. It’s necessary to talk about the false ideas we’ve absorbed; ideas that have more to do with American individualism than with the Bible. But this sort of deconstruction will naturally create tension in us. So how do we keep from becoming a bunch of people who sit around and talk badly about Christ’s bride? How do we keep from being negative and cynical and bitter?

The answer is: we don’t stop there. Deconstruction is good… as long as it’s followed by construction. The problem with the bitter people I mentioned above is that they are content to deconstruct and that’s all. No construction. No proposing an alternative. No recognizing the good, even in failed models of church. Let’s not be “that guy.”

Let’s be people who value the good in everything, who keep a godly and generous spirit, who honor those who have gone before. Let’s recognize the Holy Spirit’s work in shepherding his imperfect church down through the ages. Let’s boldly propose an alternative model of church that answers the questions we’re raising. And let’s keep ourselves humble by reminding ourselves that in 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 years, someone will be using Coram Deo as a model of what not to do. Freeing, isn’t it?