The Eternal Current
By Aaron Niequist
Each gathering is broken into three parts: (1) an opening liturgy, (2) a teaching that leads into practice and (3) the Eucharist, which sends us out into the world. Some nights the three parts are closely tied together thematically. Other nights they aren’t. But they always flow together as a single journey.
We gather to learn to see where God’s current is flowing in our lives and in the world, to explore and practice swimming patterns that help us swim with Christ in the river and to get launched by the Spirit into the river of God’s kingdom for the sake of our lives and the life of the world.
To do this, we anchored the Practice experiment in six values. I’ve come to believe that, broadly speaking, they are indispensable guideposts for every individual and community that wants to swim in the eternal current. They are not the only values, and I’m wary to even imply a one-size-fits-all solution, but I can personally attest to the powerful ways that these six values help keep us in the current.
1. Staying centered on the kingdom keeps us in the current.
Jesus has invited us to join God in healing and redeeming the world. Through the Scriptures, story and worship, we want to align ourselves with this good work.
Without a big-picture kingdom vision, spiritual practices can be weird and unhelpful. They can become a way to try to earn God’s blessing and establish spiritual superiority or to avoid reality as we hide in prayer closets. Separated from the big story of God’s kingdom, spiritual practices (or anything we do) can become mere religious tools that often help us miss the point.
We can’t allow the practices to become the point. Author and innovative thinker Simon Sinek wrote a helpful book titled Start With Why. He shows the importance of asking why before one asks how or what in any endeavor. Our why of swimming with the eternal current is to align with the kingdom of God. Our how is through spiritual practices. Our what is a community of practice.
Or to use the river metaphor, our why is that we want to get swept up in God’s river of restoration. Our how is that we join Christ in the water to learn to swim with the current. Our what is that we are a community committed to swimming together.
At the Practice, nearly every gathering involves hearing the big story again. We use the first few minutes to offer a kingdom context for the spiritual practice we will focus on that evening. These practices include breath prayer, the Examen, praying for the world through images, Lectio Divina, centering prayer, lament and many other historic and modern practices. But we always begin with a reminder of the big kingdom story.
2. A practice-based approach keeps us in the current.
To learn how to swim with Christ requires church gatherings to be more like a gymnasium than a classroom. We don’t need just to learn the facts; we need to focus on the activities that help us live out the facts and join Christ in the water.
If information alone could transform us into Christlikeness, then we would be the most Christlike generation of all time. We have unlimited access to all the knowledge in human history through the smartphones in our pockets, yet the world doesn’t seem to be moving quickly toward a holy utopia. Why is this?
Philosopher James K. A. Smith, in his game-changing book Desiring the Kingdom, suggests that humans are not fundamentally thinking beings. We’re not even primarily believing beings, but at our core, he wrote, we are “defined fundamentally by love.” So schools, teachers and churches that try to change people by giving them information fail to address the core issue: We become what we love. The path of change involves redirecting our love toward a different object, not filling our heads with ideas. This redirection primarily happens through participating in certain formative practices.
Rather than approaching our church gatherings as a classroom (to fill our minds with information) or a concert hall (to move our hearts with emotion), we long to create a spiritual gymnasium, which can form our whole selves. Our minds and hearts are critical parts of ourselves but not enough on their own. It’s important to know what Jesus taught and to desire to obey, but we also need a place to learn the practices that will rearrange our lives. Only then can we become holistic people who can live out Jesus’s teachings in our everyday living.
Simply believing about the river is not enough. Singing passionate river songs is helpful but not enough. Jesus has invited us, through spiritual practice, to wade into the water and allow God to do—in us and through us—what only God can do. We all need a community of fellow swimmers learning to bring every part of our lives into the center of the current with Christ.
3. Empowering beyond Sunday keeps us in the current.
According to Ephesians 4, the church exists to equip the people for ministry (see verses 11–12). A Sunday service is not the main event but rather a training ground to help all of us become people who can live the way Jesus would if he were in our place.
I can never get over the beauty of the priesthood of all believers. Through Christ, we all have equal access to God, and through the Spirit, we all can be ministers of the good news. I believe this theological concept reminds us that the church is not just a top-down institution but rather a body of empowered image bearers of our Creator.
For instance, please allow me to oversimplify a bit for the sake of contrast. (Most churches don’t fall fully into either extreme.) In a church for the people—a church focused exclusively on what the leadership can do for those who occupy the pews—worship means “Come hear our gifted artists provide a worship experience that will inspire and bless you. When it’s done, you’ll want to give them a round of applause and be glad you attended.”
But in a church of the people, worship becomes prayerful, intentional space that empowers the people to co-create a worship experience both as individuals and as a body, both when we are home and when we are together. The church helps people connect with God and one another—and then gets out of the people’s way.
In a church for the people, evangelism means “Bring your friend to church to hear the pastor preach the gospel.” This type of church entrusts the kingdom-of-God message to experts and often reduces the sweeping story of God to disembodied information that people are encouraged to believe but not always to practice.
In contrast, a church of the people practices evangelism by training disciples and launching them to serve the world and share their stories. Such an approach helps foster a community so alive and beautiful that people are eager to participate.
In a church for the people, mission means “Give your money to the church so it can carry out a ministry to the poor.” Attendees simply write checks and the church will make sure things get taken care of.
But a church of the people declares, “No one knows the poor in your town better than you. Let us help you serve them. And if you don’t know the poor in your town, following Jesus means that you’ll need to make some changes. Please let us help you learn from and serve the poor.”
Inspired by the teaching of Ephesians 4 and the priesthood of all believers, a church of the people declares, “You can do it! If the Spirit of God is inside you and you are connected to your sisters and brothers in Christ, then you can be the hands and feet of God in the world.” A church of the people is a Spirit-empowered training community that is more about launching than retaining, more about empowering than directing. And at its best, a church of the people sounds a lot like the Home Depot’s old slogan: “You can do it. We can help.”
4. Ecumenical humility keeps us in the current.
Since the eternal current is wider than any one Christian tradition, we are blessed by humbly learning from other Christian traditions and practices. As an evangelical for most of my life, I believe evangelicalism is full of truth and can be helpful to the world. But it’s only a small segment of the church universal. When we see it as one chapter in the diverse, eternal, global story of God’s kingdom on earth, our eyes are opened to so much more of who God is and how we can participate.
We need the beautiful diversity of the body of Christ (see 1 Cor. 12:15–27). We must recapture our ability to learn from those outside our circle. Conviction is a beautiful thing, but so is humility. We long to be people who admit what we don’t know and then humbly partner with those who can teach us.
At the Practice we declare, “Jesus is the center and focus of everything we do, but we acknowledge our limited vantage point. We embrace and learn from any tradition or practice that elevates Christ and forms us into his likeness.” Reading ancient prayers? Yes. Singing pop songs with our hands in the air? Yes. Passing the Peace? Yes. Singing old spiritual laments? Yes.
Just as each member of a church is one part of the body, I wonder if each church tradition needs to be understood as one part of the bigger body of Christ. Each is absolutely critical, but each on its own is only one part of the story. Fundamentalist Christians remind us that God’s truth is profoundly important. Catholic Christians remind us that we are called to work for good in the world. Evangelical Christians remind us that we need to be saved. Episcopalian and Anglican Christians remind us to keep our hearts and minds open to all the things God is doing on earth, even things that might surprise us.
Each one is a glorious part of the tangible kingdom of God among us. And how can the “eye … say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ ” (1 Cor. 12:21)?
Over the last few years, those who assemble as the Practice have learned from a Jesuit priest, a self-described progressive Pentecostal hillbilly preacher, an Anglican canon theologian, an Eastern Orthodox teacher, a rabbi, an Episcopal priest, a number of justice workers and peacemakers, an Emergent leader and a feminist Christian, as well as medical doctors, therapists, pastors, artists … and even evangelical Christians. These brilliant women and men have stretched us to see how wide, deep, long and high is the love of God through Christ and to see the expansive beauty of the diverse ways to swim.
5. The Eucharist keeps us in the current.
The weekly practice of communion anchors us in Christ’s death, resurrection and promise of return.
My good friend and mentor Rory Noland remarked, “You know, Aaron, for most of church history, the pastor’s lecture was not the central part of the service.” I was surprised, to say the least. Up to that point, I was familiar with only the evangelical order of worship: worship music, announcements and a forty-five-minute sermon; or in the worst case: warm-up songs, offering and the main event.
Rory had been studying church history. He pointed out that over the last two thousand years the church had commonly seen the Eucharist as the high point of any gathering. The sermon was important, but mostly to prepare people to meet Christ at the table. The Eucharist was the focus, and every part of the service led to this holy moment.
The more I explored a Eucharistic theology, the more it came alive in ways I had never imagined. It began spilling into how I saw all of life. Reading For the Life of the World by Orthodox priest and theologian Alexander Schmemann unlocked a sacramental door in my heart that keeps opening wider. (I need to reread this book once a year, forever.) But reading about the Eucharist isn’t enough. The weekly practice of celebrating the Eucharist is changing my life and transforming our community. The Practice’s worship space, which I’ve mentioned is set up in the round, says Christ is at the center. Everything revolves around the bread and juice, and every gathering builds to this point, helping us begin to live into one of the mysteries of our faith:
Communion is participation with a presence, not merely remembrance. The bread and wine don’t simply help us look back at what Jesus did; they help us get swept up in what Christ is doing now, today, every moment in every place on earth.
Many volumes have been written about the deep mystery and centrality of the Eucharist, based on lifetimes of studying and practicing. I am clearly not one of those writers and will not attempt to explain what I am only beginning to understand. I will, however, testify to what I’ve experienced. A weekly practice of holy communion is re-forming me from the inside out.
Before we come to the table each week, we pray through a liturgy, based largely on the Anglican Eucharistic liturgy. (This has been incredibly important to those of us who grew up in nonliturgical traditions.) Each Sunday as we approach the table, we are reminded of and included in the huge story that God is writing in human history. The story centers on the redemptive arc of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. And by amazing grace, we are invited to participate in this eternal and constantly unfolding story.
No matter the test we’re studying, the topic we’re exploring or the practice we’re participating in, every gathering guides us to engage the living presence of Christ at the communion table. Where else would we turn?
6. Community keeps us in the current.
The Christian life is not meant to be practiced alone. A life of faith is a communal journey. If we are merely a group of individuals on parallel personal journeys, it won’t work. It can’t. God created us not to be independent, self-contained individuals but rather to be interdependent members of a whole.
At the Practice, we struggled with the best ways to flesh this out in a practice-based gathering. While our convictions about community have only deepened, we spun our wheels for the first few years as we tried to integrate the contemplative inward journey with the communal nature of God’s invitation. We found it difficult to create a safe enough space for the intimate work God wanted to do in each person while simultaneously encouraging each person to step out of his or her comfort zone to connect with other people. The energies of the inward and communal journeys seemed consistently to be at odds.
Then in 2017, Pastor Jason Feffer created Practice Tables. This was the wise and simple framework we needed to bring individual stories and practices into safe and holy community. Once a month, the Practice gathers in homes around tables instead of coming together in the chapel. Eight to 12 people meet in a home to share a meal, pray a short liturgy and offer a part of their stories to one another.
This quickly became a powerful way to support one another on the journey. In Jason’s words, “Every one of us has a need to be seen and known. At our tables, we create an environment for Christ’s presence to become tangible in the seeing and knowing of loving community.”
These six values have kept us in the eternal current—both as a practice-based community and as individual Christ followers. The more we submit to and orient our lives around these guideposts, the more they open us to Christ’s gracious invitation to swim. I could tell you story after story of how God met our community in this messy and glorious stumble into the river. I wish you could meet the incredible swimmers of the Practice.
This journey is changing my life. Not all at once. Definitely not in ways that I would have predicted or even chosen. But in the midst of the brokenness of the world, the messiness of the modern church and my propensity to sink more than swim, I’ve never been more thankful for the way of Christ. I’ve honestly never been more grateful to be a Christian. Thanks be to God.
Friend, you can join us. And by us I mean the billions of imperfect human beings throughout history who have stumbled into the eternal current by grace and learned to swim. You really can. It will look different for each of us—depending on each person’s story, history and background—but these six values can help keep you in the current, swept up with Christ for the sake of the world.
Excerpted from The Eternal Current: How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us From Drowning by Aaron Niequist. Copyright © 2018 by Moped Media Company. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.