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A Candle Is Enough




 

When it is darkest, the smallest of light can show the way. This was true in Bethlehem. This is true today in Tampa. For here the incarnate light of Jesus has broken into the darkness to show new missional possibilities in a decadent post-Christian world. This Christmas, in a world at war, in a nation fraught with political partisanship, when the demonic expressions of bloodletting are evident, when up seems down and down seems up, and confusion abounds... there is hope. The symbolic pattern of incarnation has broken again into the darkness to provide belonging to the lonely, direction to the lost, and enchantment to the disenchanted. This is the promise of Jesus. This is the reality of VU VI VO Ministries.

 

We live at a time with a conflicted rejection of the sacred. This secularity or provisional rejection of the sacred is nuanced by those who live within a secular frame while remaining nonetheless open to the transcendent. This is captured in Julian Barnes' affirmation, "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him."[1] For young people, this sense of being "haunted" by the transcendent only adds to the anxiety and alienation of their lived secularity. The modern young person has a crisis of meaning, an alienation from belonging, and a spiritual lost magic—despite their hauntedness. Their private realities when the social justice protests are over and the techno-utopian chest beating has waned are a sense of being lost, alone, and anxious. For these persons traditional religion or church has little relevance and even less appeal. So too does a confident atheism. A world without windows provides no potential solace as their sense of hauntedness drives them toward spiritual seeking. Their longing is to find an authentic place of community, where reality makes sense, where enchanted spiritual reality is affirmed, beauty experienced, life enriched, and where disorganized searching and gasping confusion is accepted without judgment. Here are lives conflicted by intense secularity coupled with intense spiritual longing leading to an existential confusion and exhaustion. These are the contours of our missional moment.

 

Religious observers and social critics now recognize that what the church has been doing in response to the rise of advanced modernity has not been effective. George Barna concludes,

 

It is becoming clear that Christian ministry as practiced for the past five decades will not be effective with the emerging America. Worldview and faith ministry statistics also make it clear that those ministry practices have also been largely ineffective during those past five decades....

 

If we were objective and honest, we would acknowledge that many of the approaches now relied upon by Christian ministries—and especially by churches—are inadequate to impact the emerging population that needs to be reached with God's truths and principles.[2]

 

In response, the next generation of Christ followers are exploring new approaches to missional outreach. Missional Labs is a think tank/ministry incubator for missional innovation based in Vancouver, New York, and London. Its aim is to equip and encourage the future church's missional pioneers who are facing the big challenges of modern missions. This is a mission agency focused on reaching places that are hard to reach; environments saturated by advanced modernity; where innovation is required because the status quo has failed.

 

A noteworthy exemplar of missional innovation for our time is VU VI VO Ministries based in Tampa. Here is a ministry that is presenting faith as spiritually significant, culturally compelling, breathtakingly beautiful, and relationally connected. It is faith steeped in wonder and enchantment. It aims to share the life and beauty of the gospel with the world in a manner that breaks from the been-there-done-that religious norm. I believe VU VI VO represents one of the most hopeful and strategic missional ministries in the contemporary American church. Here is why.

 

This ministry is grounded in the recognition of intrinsic creational gospel patterns, captured in its enigmatic name, VU VI VO: vision up (to God), vision in (our hearts, souls, psyches), and vision out (engaging the world as we find it). Though a yearning generation does not always see this at first, the vision in all three directions is Jesus. And it is not the Jesus of trite religious slogans and easy solutions: it is a nuanced patterned vision that gives form and direction to all of life.

 

The founder of VU VI VO, Zach Elliott, observes that we live in a flattened and disenchanted age, a way of life lived without a transcendent view. This flattened world is a world without meaning. A world filled with facts without a frame is a world that no longer makes any sense. The symbolic frame is an indispensable, sense-making map for living among the facts. The frame tells you where to look and gives the facts coherence. The frame creates the possibility for meaning. The VU VI VO frame—vision up, vision in, and vision out—places the gospel in a meaningful narrative that is rooted in creation, embedded in the incarnation, and is further revealed in all of Scripture. The Christian story is written into the fabric of reality and is thus expressive of human nature and longing. The insight that reality is symbolic, has a patterned frame, means that VU VI VO can tell the gospel story in a fresh manner. Moreover, this symbol system is fractal, which means that all parts of reality are a variation of the one meta-pattern. Practically, this means that the gospel narrative once understood symbolically touches all aspects of life becoming an existential script for life. The lines between sacred and secular disappear as do the distinctions between supernatural and natural. In its place a sacramental wholeness remains—creating life, meaning, and beauty.

 

VU VI VO is more than a frame that gives meaning it is a community that offers belonging. In a world saturated with technologically enhanced virtual connection, VU VI VO provides a safe place for friendship, conversation, questions, and yes, worship. Here the priority is belonging before believing—being affirmed as a God-created person of full dignity as one comes to understand how to live into the fullness of that personhood. Saint Irenaeus's much quoted affirmation frames the communal experience of VU VI VO: "The glory of God is man fully alive." This overt Christian humanism is rooted in the reality that a "man fully alive" is also a person infused with the life of Christ. Your identity fostered by communal rituals encourages you to become a "little Christ."[3] The gospel here is more than a forensic declaration. It is rather a lived experience of spiritual intimacy and embodied transformation.

 

If this borders on the mystical and mysterious, this is not an accident. The mission of VU VI VO is "uncovering enchanted reality." In the past decade, Christian missions has been shaped around words like "shalom" and "flourishing." The up-and-coming word for the next few years is "re-enchantment." Bestselling author and influential podcaster Rod Dreher has a book coming out next year on this theme. He is often ahead of the curve regarding what's coming next in our culture. Fellow Christian culture-commentator Aaron Renn adds, "I anticipate re-enchantment being a much bigger theme for younger generations in a Negative World. This will be something that the moralistic therapeutic Boomerism of mainstream evangelicalism will struggle to adapt to." Such skepticism by evangelical traditionalists about enchantment is exactly what VU VI VO has found in its ministry experience. Nonetheless, Christian re-enchantment is the much-needed antidote to the deathwork culture. We are being called to a life that embraces a full-orbed supernaturalism in every part of our world experience. We are being called to live like Jesus, to follow all that he commanded us to be in our moment. Status quo cultural Christianity is done, anemic, failed. The call of Christ is to convert to an enchanted way of seeing the world.

 

The rise of re-enchantment means more than simply embracing Christian supernaturalism; it also means facing the reality of spiritual warfare. Today we are living in the breakdown of materialism coupled with the rise of spiritism. Things in the coming years are going to get crazier and more religious—and not always religious in a good way. We are morphing from culture war to spiritual warfare. This will mean that Christian believers will have to be more comfortable in living within the realities of a spiritually charged universe; that is, we will need to be both more spiritually grounded and more culturally discerning. The moment materialism starts to breakdown and the church's influence wanes the spirits will seep back in. Uncovering enchantment is living fully into the reality of spiritual warfare. Knowing the Scriptures without also knowing its power is dangerous. There is the necessity of recapturing God's presence in the material world and appropriating his presence actively in our lives.

 

This is nothing less than bringing the Two-Third's world's spirituality into the First World. For the desacralized disenchanted materialism of the West is a global and historical aberration. This is not the way the rest of the world sees reality. This is not the way the past saw reality. The truth is that reality is charged with God's grandeur, and we live on a spiritual battlefield. It is now ours to live into the full reality of our spiritual inheritance to bring the reality of heaven on earth. This common prayer must become our common experience. This is what VU VI VO is leaning into and learning collectively in its engagements with others in Tampa.

 

This is not done with a sense of fear or weirdness, but with a celebration of life and beauty. Sociologist Christian Smith after extensive study of the coming generations of young people concluded that if we want to get young people back to faith, we cannot do it by focusing on morality or rational arguments for the faith. We must do it in some other way. This new way is the way of wonder: rediscovering the miraculous and mysterious at the heart of the Christian faith. The best arguments for the Christian faith are beauty and holiness. Beauty is the key that opens the door to God's presence in our lives.[4]

 

Not surprisingly, beauty is at the heart of the VU VI VO's communal DNA. As a community of practice, they have gone on beauty immersive pilgrimages to art museums in Chicago.[5] They have commissioned a poetic symphony composed by Constantine Caravassilis based on the symbolic patterns of up, in, and out. They have commissioned a visual piece, "Enchanted Reality," based on Colossians.

 

For in him was created the universe of things, both in the heavenly realm and on the earth, all that is seen and all that is unseen. Every seat of power, realm of government, principality, and authority—it all exists through him and for his purpose! He existed before anything was made, and now everything finds completion in him.[6]

 

Here is a practical embodiment of the way of wonder. There are those who talk about missional theory or re-enchantment in the abstract, but at VU VI VO we find an existential engagement with enchantment, beauty, community, and reality. The fruit of all this is life, or more personally, "humanity fully alive."

 

This is a pattern of missions that is guaranteed to make mainstream evangelicalism uncomfortable. It will feel like a thinly veiled capitulation to New Age spirituality approaching the excesses of Burning Man. VU VI VO takes these concerns seriously. Its missional aim is not innovation for the sake of innovation but rather a desire to recapture the ancient spiritual sensibility that has been eclipsed by modernity, to ground a way of viewing the world in biblical truth, historic orthodoxy, and spiritual authenticity. The goal is to be not cool or hip, but godly and holy. To this end, in the spirit of exploration VU VI VO and its ministry team will remain vulnerable, accountable, and humble—to God's Word, to the great historic orthodox Christian tradition, and to godly advisors.

 

This much is certain. If you are going to reach people who are not being reached by the church, you are going to have to do things not being done by the church. It is not much of a spiritual risk because many acknowledge that what we have been doing has failed, is ineffective. As the pundits are pointing to a new way forward—"wonder," "re-enchantment," "beauty," and "belonging"—VU VI VO is showing that way.

 

Do you think it's possible for modern people living in this post-Enlightenment world to re-enchant the world? VU VI VO demonstrates emphatically that the answer is "Yes!"

 

We are living in a deathwork culture experienced as a negative world. Increasingly, this is also a spiritualized deathwork, revealing demonic manifestations. A Christian approach to re-enchantment is the means of being equipped for the spiritual warfare. Uncovering enchantment to reveal the life and beauty of the gospel is a missional vision whose time has come. VU VI VO is the missional tip of the spear in addressing the darkness of our time, the confusion of our youth, and the ugliness of our culture. For seven years of quiet faithfulness, VU VI VO has built a community of practice in Tampa. Though small in its current scope, VU VI VO shines brighter in the darkness. At night, a candle is brighter than the sun. This Christmas we can be grateful for Christ's coming and for his life that shines through VU VI VO. Both bring hope.

 


[1] Julian Barnes, Nothing to be Frightened Of (Vintage Books, 2008), p. 3.

[2] George Barna, American Worldview Inventory 2021-2022: The Annual Report on the State of Worldview in the United States (Arizona Christian University Press, 2022), p. 22-23.

[3] This is the language of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. An excellent study of this dynamic in Lewis's life and teaching is found in Gary S. Selby, Pursuing an Earthly Spirituality: C.S. Lewis and Incarnational Faith (InterVarsity, 2019).

[4] Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, 2005), Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford, 2009), and Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford, 2011).

[5] See Matthew J. Milliner, "The Christian Invention of Art," Comment: https://comment.org/the-christian-invention-of-art/.

[6] Colossians 1:16-17 (The Passion Translation).

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