Even My Baggage is Missional Now.
I had an interesting conversation a couple years ago. A good friend shared his frustration that many who engage in missional church planting seem driven more by being different from the church they grew up in than by a deeper positive conviction.
He noted how often people seem to operate out of a desire to be “not like” other churches…but aren’t really sure what it is that they are actually about. Beneath the hyper-activity and enthusiasm, they just often seem so angry, cynical and negative.
Like most stereotypes, this one is both painfully accurate and unfair (not to mention, in many cases, completely wrong). When we paint with broad brush strokes we miss details and blur edges. It isn’t usually so cut-and-dried.
However, I’m around missionally oriented church planters regularly. One lives in my mirror…and all too often when I see that face, anger, cynicism and negativity are staring back at me.
And no, I don’t think I’m alone in this regard.
Still, I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, reacting to perceived abuses – while a present reality – is not my driving force. I can articulate fairly well what it is we do hope to be about; why we’re doing what we’re doing. And again, I don’t think I’m alone in this either.
Motives are tricky, elusive things.
To make matters worse, the desire to run away from past experiences isn’t just made manifest in negativity…like superheroes and villains, sometimes it shows up wearing a mask.
Mike Breen and the folks at 3DM have this little diagram they use to describe the problem we encounter when we attempt discipleship from the starting point of obedience. Our starting point should be our identity – which was given to us by God before we did anything to earn it. So really, this means that the true starting point is God’s action – which gives rise to our identity which, in turn, results in our obedience (when things are functioning properly.) Obedience is the fruit of our identity, not the other way around.
Okay, makes sense. It also makes sense that a lot of people struggle with this. In fact, when a friend described it recently, he seemed to suggest that trying to start from obedience is the normative experience of Christianity in our culture. We all struggle in this way. (Broad brush strokes again.)
However, this isn’t the problem I deal with most often as a church planter in a missional context. I have the opposite experience. Non-Christians, new Christians, former Christians, re-Christians (I just made that one up, but its a real thing) – many people in each of these categories seem to be reacting to the legalism and abuses they’ve witnessed in the church or at the hands of a self-professed “Christian.” The result is often that the very topic of obedience becomes taboo; it is too closely associated with that judgmental legalism stuff.
And so the identity thing – the love, grace, mercy and compassion of God poured out for us, eliciting a worshipful response – that’s celebrated…but we’re not interested in your religiosity, so save the obedience talk, okay?
For some, functioning negatively (focused on what we are not) will not appear negative – or cynical, or jaded – on the surface. It actually seems very warm and inviting. Its very inclusive and pressure-free. That doesn’t make it a healthier problem. It makes it more dangerous, because the toxins are masked.
If you’ve had a similar experience, let’s be honest: we can’t talk about obedience because we’re living out of our baggage. We’re in the same boat as the person working themselves to death trying to please God like an impossible-to-impress father. We have the same struggle as the Bible-thumping legalist or the angry, cynical, jaded hipster Christian. We’re not responding to God, we’re reacting to baggage.
This is a problem.
If a church planter, church leader, average Christian or a Pope, is going to have a healthy lived ministry, it must be generative rather than reactionary (what we are about rather than what we’re avoiding).
And I don’t offer this critique from a position of superiority. My own baggage is pretty evident to myself and those around me. It has influenced many decisions – almost always negatively. In retrospect, I can think of several people who were openly asking me to push back against their anti-religion rants…and I didn’t want to offend them so I just sat there, nodding like an idiot.
Then there’s plenty baggage stemming from past relationships I’ve damaged due to my stubborn insistence on telling people what I think. So now I have a nearly neurotic desire to avoid conflict. Unfortunately, once I’m in it, I still have a tendency to say too much.
I am so very screwed up. But I’m dealing with that.
Right now I’m going to embrace my tendency to say what I’m thinking:
Your baggage is a terrible advisor and everyone else is tired of it trying to tell them what to do as well.
I’m sorry you had such a legalistic upbringing. Really, I am. But God still wants you to be holy. We’re not talking about group-think, blindly following the lemming in front of you, or transforming into a Stepford robot. I’m talking about being renewed, transformed, recreated and resurrected into something greater than the sum of your parts.
Obedience isn’t a bad word, a bad concept or a bad idea. It isn’t inherently connected to legalism – that comes when we try to give it a causal relationship to our identity.
Back in my Bare Minimum series I talked about the ridiculousness of the faith vs works debate. They are inseparable, we can’t just choose which one offends us the least. Doing so destroys both. Without obedience, our faith is a meaningless speech – like an apology from a sociopath. Yet without faith our obedience is anemic. If we root our identity in our obedience we become legalistic, judgmental jack-wagons.
Likewise, when it comes to church planting it is important to know our history, to honestly and boldly critique the ways in which we’ve become too much like the dominant culture or lost sight of who we are called to be. But a ministry is not truly prophetic unless the critique is paired with hopeful engagement. It isn’t enough to know what you don’t want to be – we have to know who we are, who we can be, who we hope to be.
Last night at the Sentralized Conference Hugh Halter gave some ideas for what leaders in established churches should remember before attempting to transform their church culture in a missional direction. One of his points was to stop criticizing everybody else. We’re so quick to dismantle what everyone else is doing – that can’t help but eat away at us.
But its so tempting. We don’t like to admit it, but we’re still – for the most part – trapped in the system of determining our worth and our correctness in terms of what others are doing. Perhaps we can try letting go of just a little bit of this; maybe we can be intentional about moving a tad more of our energy toward what we hope to accomplish rather than what we hope to avoid. Instead of allowing our baggage to determine our emphasis, it should serve as a point of contact with others who are hurting. But it doesn’t still dictate what we do – its called baggage, so leave it packed up.
See, even our baggage is missional now.