What Is Scripture For? An Architect Wrestles with His Calling
*This is part 3 of the Laity Leadership Institute Missional series with Senior Fellow Darrell Guder, who is the Princeton Theological Seminary Henry Winters Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7
Rick Archer was a rising architectural star in Washington, D.C., when some fellow believers challenged him: “You’ve always chosen what was best, but have you chosen what was right?”
For Archer, what was right was synonymous with what was best for his career, and he had just been offered the opportunity to rise further in his field through a two-year all expenses paid fellowship to study in Florence, Italy. His friends advised him instead to take a sabbatical so he could learn about Jesus and what it means to be his disciple.
“The story of the rich young ruler who went away sad because he wouldn’t follow Jesus hit me like a ton a bricks,” said Archer.
Archer was, in fact, experiencing the power of Scripture to form people and communities for their calling to be witnesses to Christ. That understanding of Scripture informed the work of British missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, whom Laity Leadership Senior Fellow Darrell Guder describes as a major influence on the growing debate about the mission of the Church in the so-called “Christian west.”
Newbigin had been a missionary in India for decades when he returned to Britain in the 1970s and was confronted by the rapid secularization of that culture. He began to ask hard questions about the response of traditional churches to the rapid movement from Christendom to a post-Christian reality. Britain had become a difficult mission field. How could the Church become a missionary church to address that challenge?
This problem guided Guder and his colleagues in their Missional Church project. Since that book was published, Guder has been increasingly focused on how missional theology translates into practice. One way he addresses this issue is through the study of missional hermeneutics, which is about how we interpret appropriately.
“I’m persuaded that the real key to interpreting Scripture," Guder explained, "is to understand that the Bible exists for the continuing formation of called communities of Christians to be faithful to their calling. It’s not just information. It’s the instrument of God’s spirit that actually shapes us for obedience, that helps us, and guides us to be faithful to our calling, which is to be witnesses to Jesus Christ.”
So what did Rick Archer do when those missionally minded followers of Jesus and the word of God confronted him?
He quit his job, gave up the fellowship, and spent eighteen months working as a caretaker on the grounds of a retreat center near Washington, D.C.
“I was very humbled by that experience because my identity as a highly successful architect wasn't there anymore," Archer said. "What I had thought from childhood was my calling wasn’t there. What I really began to discover was that my passionate pursuit of architecture was actually clouding me from even being able to hear God’s call.”
One day Archer was unwittingly weeding poison ivy roots. A severe allergic reaction landed him in the hospital emergency room where his swollen, blue, numb, ice cold, immobile hands told the medical staff that the poison ivy had grown inward and was constricting blood vessels and nerves.
“You’re probably never going to use your hands again,” a doctor told him. He laughed and said, “Without my hands I can’t do what I do. I’m an architect and I’m really good at it. I love architecture, but I love God more and if he doesn’t want me to be an architect, I can’t what to see what he has for me, because it’s going to be incredible!”
Archer described what happened next as a Lazarus experience in which he was unbound of all the things that had wound him up and kept him from hearing God.
“Mercifully God gave me architecture back,” Archer said. “I practice it very differently. I hold it very lightly and realize it’s a way to do the things God is calling me to do, but it's not the calling at all.”
In 1987, Archer and three college friends opened Overland Partners, an architecture firm in San Antonio, Texas. Because they launched in the midst of a recession that didn’t allow them to be picky about the type of work they did, the partners established a value system to drive their practice instead of defining it by project type or design style. The firm’s mission is “to model how we should live and influence the world through the practice of architecture.” Archer said the unwritten conclusion to this statement is: “for the Kingdom of God.”
“We have to be excellent to do that,” said Archer. He described Overland’s work environment as religiously diverse, but deeply spiritual. Most of the staff comes together on Monday mornings for prayer “in the spirit of Jesus,” and the kind of work the firm does is generally missional in nature.
“If a big idea needs a building, that’s us,” he said. For example, Overland Partners has designed facilities for the homeless throughout the United States, including the largest homeless center in the country, he said.
The Bible is the Holy Spirit’s chosen instrument for missional transformation and the church is continually converted through biblical engagement, said Guder.
“That means we have to read and work with the Bible in very different ways than what we’re used to. The Bible is really only authoritative when it’s open and working. It’s not authoritative sitting on a shelf,” he said.
Jesus’s parable of the rich young ruler worked together with the faithful witness of the church to transform Rick Archer’s life for the common good. How have the church and the Word worked together in your life to continually convert you?