Interview with Mark Scandrette founder of Reimagine

Never rely on technology, that should be my motto! I met Mark in a quirky Mexican diner in the Mission District of San Francisco. After fiddling around with my video camera we sat and chatted for a good hour with, I thought, the camera rolling. No need to make notes, I thought, ‘I’ll listen to it all when I get home’ I decided. So having been inspired and fascinated by Mark, I then left and mentally cleared my head in order to absorb the weekend with the Sojourners that was to follow.

Back in the UK, ready to be inspired once again, I discover that all I have is 30 seconds of Mark grinning at the camera before it goes blank! So my reflections are a week old and based on whatever ended up stuck in my head – which probably in the end are the important things! Dates and details may well be hazy!

Mark came to San Francisco with his family and some friends about 10 or so years ago. They had been involved in the Seeker Church movement and had run out of steam with traditional Churches and were, in a way, part of the whole post-evangelical scene. They were interested in discovering again what it really meant to be followers of Jesus in the world today. With others Mark began Reimagine. This is not another Church but is based around the idea that following Jesus should be challenging, radical and ultimately about transformation of ourselves and our world.

Mark told us the story of how it began; Mark, along with a few others, was challenged by the inequality in the world when faced with Jesus’ call to radical solidarity with the poor. A group of them decided to give half of everything that they owned to the poor. Having made this decision they then sent a message out (through facebook, email etc) and invited anyone who wanted to, to join them. 30 people signed up to this act of radical giving and over a few months they got rid of half their stuff. Mark very honestly reflected that while this was a powerful act, the reality was that within a year or so they had probably all bought as much stuff again. He reflected that transformation isn’t about one off symbolic acts (although they can give inspiration and focus to people) but ultimately about the mundane nitty-gritty of daily life.

The other reflection that Mark shared about the beginnings of Reimagine was the idea of the Dojo. A Dojo is a Japanese term which literally means “place of the way” and is a term that is used to refer to the formal training place for any of the Japanese martial arts. Reimagine have appropriated this term to refer to the training of people in the way of Jesus. Many people are disenchanted with traditional Church life and feel no connection with it, but they remain attracted to the person of Jesus. Reimagine’s focus is on the person of Jesus and, through participation in a series of Dojos, challenges people to explore what following the way of Jesus really could mean in their lives.

Mark spoke of the way that rather than challenging people too much the Church does exactly the opposite. God acts in people’s lives, they are inspired by the message of Jesus but the Churches offer no place in which people can really work together on how that encounter can transform their lives both inside and out. Instead people end up caught up in the everyday maintenance of Church life and structures and the real challenge of following Jesus slowly slips away. And as the challenge slips away so does the importance and relevance of faith. People continue to be drawn to the way of Jesus; the Church simply fails to be the place where they can learn how to follow that way.

I found Mark’s analysis chimed with my own experience. I remember in my previous Church a thoughtful man in his late 40s called Arthur who started coming to the Church. He had suffered from times of real deep dark depression and he was interested in what light and direction he might find in the Christian faith having been an agnostic all his life. After coming for over a month he e-mailed me and said that while people were very kind and welcoming no one seemed to talk about God and he found that rather strange as that was the whole reason he had started coming!(Through house groups, conversations – and of course the power of God – he later came to faith and was an active and committed member of that Church community)

A warm welcome, relationships, that sense of community, are a real and important part of the body of Christ, but unless there is also a real teaching, training, challenging of people into what it means to follow Jesus, then it is ultimately superficial. So often people remain within Church communities because of the relationships that they have built up, but the roots need to go deeper. One of the reasons that young people are hardly present in the Church is that they no longer find people ‘like them’ or a sense of community and friendship within the Church – it is culturally and generationally in a different world. But the creating of appropriate communities, where relationships can grow, is only the first step and can end up being very superficial if it does not also include ways in which people can be truly mentored in the way of Jesus.

Here at Keele, we have worked very hard on building up relationships, connecting with this generation and creating a sense of community around the Chapel. But unless we are able to help people into a deeper more transforming relationship with Jesus, then, I suspect, that many when they leave Keele, will struggle to reconnect with Church and faith. The community is important (the Dojos that Mark spoke of were communities of trust and friendship as well as learning) but opportunities for real challenge and transformation is maybe more so.

As Mark spoke of the Dojos it was clear that they were not some trendy version of the Alpha course: in some ways they offered a more radical challenge to people in terms of the lifestyle choices following Jesus entailed, in other ways there seemed to be a greater openness to exploring what is meant to follow Jesus together. My sense was that this was not about another discipleship course, this wasn’t about getting people ‘into church’, this was about responding to the call of Jesus in this time, this age.

Mark commented on how, when he first came to San Francisco, he had tried all sorts of Alternative Worship stuff (candles, multimedia stuff etc), but none of it attracted the un-churched/de-churched along. It was only when they embarked on the Dojos that he felt they were really beginning to connect with people.

Reimagine had an interesting model of commitment that recognised the fluid mobile nature of society. The community is organised in ‘Tribes’ and people commit to their ‘Tribe’ annually, so the commitment is only ever for one year, usually running from September. (It sounded a little familiar, an annual renewable commitment – just what we have got rid of at Keele Chapel!) But what people were committing too was demanding, and that is what gave the Tribes focus and meaning. Below is the list from their website:

  • Daily Scripture Reading
  • Morning and Evening Prayer
  • Weekly Communal Prayer
  • Monthly Commitment to Giving
  • Quarterly Sharing of created Artefacts
  • Yearly Silent Retreat
  • Yearly de-investment of possessions

I didn’t have a chance to ask Mark what these different areas meant in practice but on reflection it reminds me of my discussion with Tim from Sojourners about the importance of having clear boundaries as to who is in and out. It made me wonder whether we actually needed to offer a clearer and more challenging ‘membership’ option at Keele that had nothing to do with Church structures and everything to do with following the way of Jesus.

I asked Mark about how people ‘on the edge’ could get involved because for many people it would be way too daunting to commit in such a profound way, particularly when they are just exploring what it all means. How do you present people with an inspiring challenge and way to follow, but also keep an open welcoming door? Mark said that because the year is divided into ‘learning labs’ that will run for a set series (maybe 6 weeks) people can easily come t to those as a way of exploring and learning. To go to the learning labs people have to commit to the series (and there is a small financial commitment too) but they can come with no faith, little faith, wherever they are. Mark argued (and I would agree) that people actually value things more when they have paid for them. In the area where Mark is based people pay to go on a meditation course, a yoga course, an art course, so therefore it is a model that they understand and can connect with.

Mark also spoke of the importance of real tangible actions. The learning labs also often include practical actions: they don’t just talk about solidarity with the poor:  they try and live it. They help out with soup kitchens or engage in symbolic actions that challenge those around them. Mark spoke of one of their ‘actions’ when they had stuck dimes (worth about 10p) to pieces of card with quotes about ‘where your treasure is’ and  ‘sharing what we have  with the poor’. Then, on what is called ‘black Friday’, the day after Thanksgiving and the USA’s biggest shopping day of the year, they went out to a busy shopping centre and handed out the cards to all the shoppers saying ‘would you like some change?’ (pun on ‘can you spare some change?’)as a way of challenging the extreme materialism of that day.

But Mark also spoke about how the focus had also to be on the nitty-gritty of life and that sometimes it was easy to get swept away with grand ideas and gestures and ignore the mundane but real issues in your life. He mentioned the young man who prided himself on wearing the same old clothes, and enjoyed the ‘appearance’ of simple living but in fact had debts of thousands and thousands of dollars. What sometimes needs to happen is not the grand gestures but simple day to day budgeting– what am I spending my money on? Is it wise? Is it appropriate? Are there debts in my own life I need to sort out? Where could I spend less by maybe cooking home food more, buying second hand clothes etc?

We chatted a bit about Shane Claiborne (a friend of Marks) and the huge impact ‘The Irresistible Revolution’ had had. It had been a huge inspiration to many people, and suddenly Shane was one of the most well-known Christians in the world (well the US anyway) on radio, talk-shows etc. But the difficulty was what to do with that challenge – a whole load of young people started having dread-locks and wearing homemade clothes, but it was much harder to make it go deeper. And ‘The Simple Way’, the community that Shane writes about in the book, had really ceased to function in any real sense by the time the book was published. The model of community that he spoke of was not an easy one to sustain.  Sustaining community life never is.

In a sense none of that mattered because, in a way, Shane’s role was to be the inspirer rather than the community builder. As I spoke to Mark one of the things that came across, in his comments about the Sojourners, about Shane, about Reimagine, about the work I am involved in, was the clear sense that we are all called to different things. He didn’t sit there saying – ‘this is what you should do’.  He shared what he felt passionately about and he wanted to offer that to others (and that is what his new book is all about) but he also saw the way in which we all bring different gifts. Shane has inspired millions of people to a more radical faith and that is a wonderful gift. The Sojourners, on the other hand, seem to me to model a much more real and sustainable community of faith, and that is equally a gift. What Mark with Reimagine is doing is offering a generation who are disillusioned with the Church a way to make the way of Jesus real in their lives, and that is really important. It is great to inspire people but if we have no way of helping people live out the challenge then it will go nowhere.

Mark also spoke about the tendency for people, and particularly the younger generation, to flit from one thing to another. ‘I have learnt ‘contemplative prayer’ techniques, now what can I try?’ He suggested that it was important to help people to learn how to stick to things (hence the value of the commitment that they are asked to make), and to realise it is not just a trendy option but a way of life.

I was interested that when I asked Mark about worship that he rather forcefully said that he ‘never wanted to sing another worship song again’. He explained that their worship was in their shared meals together, their personal discipline of bible study and prayer life. When I asked about communion he said that anyone could lead it and that it happened as part of their shared meals together. He did also mention, though, that the younger generation coming through had a more relaxed relationship to ‘church worship’. I think what he was suggesting was that his generation (late 30s?) had reacted against their Church experience but that many of those who were involved in Reimagine hadn’t had that Church experience to react against.

We also spoke about the leadership of Reimagine and how it was funded. Basically each ‘Tribe’ has a leader (or two?) and they meet with Mark (and other overall leaders?) for training and support. Financially they have no buildings to maintain and very few overheads so easily cover whatever they need. I pointed out that Mark himself was a key resource as leader and trainer. Mark acknowledged that his input was important – he is a writer and trainer by profession and gives his time freely to Reimagine. As with so many exciting initiatives, although there is clearly a diffused leadership structure and an on-going training of others, the crunch will probably come when Mark is no longer involved.

I really enjoyed meeting Mark and came away wishing that I had had the opportunity to see more of what Reimagine was all about. On the other hand it was clear that the whole nature of the groups meant that a superficial dipping in and out might well not have been appropriate. In many ways, of all our US conversations, I connected most with what Mark was describing and felt that it could be hugely helpful in thinking about my work at Keele.


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