The Underground Railroad has been called “one of the most revolutionary, quiet, insurrectionary, and subterranean movements in American history.” During the early 1800s, it was a network of people, African American and white, who offered shelter and assistance to escaped enslaved people, guiding them from one safe house to the next, from the South to the North and eventually into Canada.
The Underground Railroad developed organically as a convergence of several different clandestine efforts. There was no central command, no governing body. It was a secretive web of people, most of whom had never met the other links in the chain of escape.
Safe houses included private homes, barns, churches and schoolhouses. Those who guided and hid the escapees were called “conductors” and included people like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as well as ordinary farmers, ministers, and business owners. Gerrit Smith, a millionaire who twice ran for president, once purchased an entire family of enslaved people from Kentucky and set them free.
Some groups were actively involved, like the Quakers and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but many of the conductors were individuals or families fueled by their deep abolitionist convictions.
Without any visible or institutional structure, the Underground Railroad managed to guide thousands of incredibly brave escapees northwards every year – one estimate has it at 100,000 enslaved people between 1815 and 1850.
In his book, Subterranean, Dan White Jr says the church needs to learn from the example of the Underground Railroad. Marveling at how the conductors created such a “deep, substantial, spiritual movement …without the channels of publicity, celebrity, and institutionalism,” White writes,
“The spirit the Underground Railroad embodied is a spirit I hope we can learn from. This was in some respects subterranean. We need ingenuity and imagination for what happens below the ground, beyond the landscaping that most churches fixate on.”
Unleashing an underground movement isn’t easy. Often it happens by necessity, as in the case of the Underground Railroad or the Chinese underground church. But I would contend it only happens based on shared purpose and a calling to a higher ideal.
Dee Hock, the CEO of Visa, coined the term, chaordic to describe networks and organizations that operate on a mix of chaos and order.
A truly chaordic movement is one that displays characteristics of both, with neither the chaotic nor the ordered dominating. If chaos rules, the movement becomes anarchical, something the Underground Railroad could easily have devolved into. But if order dominates, the work becomes centralized, which is the death of a movement.
This has been the challenge with recent movements like Occupy, MeToo and Black Lives Matter. In fact, it is their very chaordic nature that befuddles their critics. BLM, for instance, is often dismissed by conservative critics because of the Marxist beliefs held by its founders. But BLM is a completely decentralized movement, comprising a broad array of people and organizations protesting against incidents of police brutality and racially motivated violence against black people. In fact, the slogan “Black Lives Matter” itself remains untrademarked by any group.
There’s something powerfully humble about unleashing a movement over which you feel no sense of ownership or control.
We’ve seen Christian examples of this in the rapid growth of the early church, as well as in revivalist movements like the Great Awakenings, the Student Volunteer Movement, Pentecostalism, and the house church movement. Indeed, the inclination to systematize, centralize, and institutionalize these movements was what ultimately quenched them.
In Tampa, Florida, there’s a network of microchurches called Underground. It is a truly chaordic movement – chaotic and ordered, decentralized and centralized. In fact, I’ve often said if I lived in Tampa, I’d join them. They are an extraordinary movement of missional activists.
I’ll let one of their leaders, Brian Sanders describe it to you (from his book, Underground Church):
“The Underground is composed of over 200 microchurches of all shapes and sizes in Tampa Bay. Some of these churches are grand endeavors with hundreds of people, paid staff and a large budget. Others are made up of a dozen people who are picking a fight with a big problem in the name of Jesus. Then there’s everything in between.”
Each of these microchurches exists to serve others. One Underground microchurch runs the Affirmation Ballet Company to build self-esteem in girls and young women. Another runs an improv theatre group. Yet another provides doula services for unsupported single mothers. One microchurch supports foster carers, another ministers with women who have been harmed by sexual abuse. There’s a group that runs “Beer and Bible” meetings in local pubs. There’s NUBAI, a group that seeks to challenge distorted images of the black community. Undergound microchurches serve on school and college campuses, they address issues like addiction, homelessness, depression, and incarceration. There’s over 200 of them so I can’t list them all, but it is a remarkable network of love and kindness.
Brian and the other leaders don’t see it as their role to control the movement. They provide teaching, inspiration and coaching to the leaders of the microchurches, helping them to sustain their work and find the resources they need. Brian sees it as his job to inspire people to surrender all their lives to Jesus and his cause, to connect them into microchurches, to empower those microchurches to discover and obey their God-given mission, and to cheer them on as they engage every kind of evil in their city.
For the most part, Underground is operating invisibly, unseen by the casual observer, but they are infiltrating every sector of the Tampa Bay society. In recent years, their movement has grown to include networks in Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, Texas, and Georgia, as well as Ireland, Myanmar, Philippines, Dominican Republic, France, and Canada. If you want to learn more about Underground, you can watch this film, Underground People.
In his 1997 book Love and Liberty, Bishop John Gladwin predicted the churches of the future would have the following four features in common:
- A focus on the journey of faith and the experience of God (as opposed to a focus on church attendance);
- A desire for less structure and more direct involvement by participants;
- A sense of flexibility in order and a distinctly non-hierarchical culture;
- A recognition that the experience of church is about the sustaining of lifelong discipleship.
Gladwin concluded, “So the church will focus on core faith, on minimum essential order, on people and their gifts, on flexible patterns of life held together in communion and on a shared sense of community.”
And this from a bishop!
An underground church will place high value on communal life, egalitarian leadership structures, and the contribution of all. Underground churches are less concerned with building themselves up, and more concerned with building God’s kingdom. They are less interested in “going to” church to hear sermons and more interested in gathering around tables to engage in dialogue. They are more passionate about serving the neighborhood as church than they are about serving at church.
Whether house churches, dinner churches, microchurches, church plants, messy churches, or any other kind, may their number increase.