Author Archives: wesmagruder
A few days ago, Steve Knight, curator of the Missional Shift blog, reposted part of my blog entry, The Great Missional Misunderstanding under the headline, Maybe Methodists Are Not So Missional After All.
We’re not. But we do have the capacity, the heritage, and the personnel to be missional. John Wesley was nothing if not the ultimate missional pastor. At the very beginning, the Methodist movement was a living, breathing example of what a sent people looks like. The Methodists were missional monks, transforming their neighborhoods, discipling folks in small groups, and going on to the perfection of entire sanctification. Many elements of our current polity originally arose out of a missional paradigm, such as itineracy, lay preachers, and holy conferencing.
In other words, we have missional DNA. It’s deep in there, way down.
But something happened in the first half of the nineteenth century in American Methodism. It’s all summed up in the image of the itinerant, circuit riding preacher getting off his horse, and becoming “located.” This happened across America as the frontier stopped expanding; preachers decided they wanted to stay home, raise families, and build churches. This was an understandable shift, but it completely changed the modus operandi of Methodism.
I believe that the itineracy is the very place where United Methodists could once again, and immediately, start living out of a missional paradigm.
We could start making truly missional appointments.
In Methodist-speak, an appointment is what a bishop of a geographic region, known as an annual conference, gives to each ordained pastor. Each appointment is officially made for the duration of only one year at a time, and it is made at the discretion of the bishop.
Most pastoral appointments are made to existing local churches. Every year in our conference, a few appointments are made to new church starts. Pastors who feel called to serve outside of a local church may request appointment to “extension ministry.” Common examples of extension ministry appointments include seminary or university faculty positions, conference administrative positions, or chaplancies.
But the vast majority of appointments are to an already-existing congregation, every one of which are heavily invested in attractional ministry and maintenance of a campus. Over time, the best and brightest pastors get sucked into these traditional church settings where they inevitably end up serving the status quo.
A very simple way to change this dynamic would be to create missional appointments, in which pastors are charged with creative assignments, or are tasked to serve a very unique people group.
Let me throw out a few possibilities, using my own conference as an example:
What if we appointed someone to the night life in Deep Ellum? A few city blocks on the east edge of Dallas contain a thriving night scene, including tattoo shops, metal clubs, coffee shops, and artist lofts. But maybe only one church. Where is the reign of God breaking out in Deep Ellum? We have no idea, because none of us are there.
What if we appointed someone to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport? Not only do hundreds of thousands of people fly in, out, and through the airport, but thousands of people are employed at the airport. Could we imagine the airport as a vast mission field, with unique needs, problems, and pastoral care opportunities?
What if pastors were appointed, not to local churches, but to zip codes or neighborhoods? And what if they had no other responsibilities but to live in the neighborhood, spend lots of time in the coffee shop and grocery store, and hang out with people?
What if we appointed someone to a public justice issue, such as the death penalty? Imagine a clergy person spending all her time researching the impact of capital punishment in her city and state, speaking out and educating people in churches about the issue, and making public acts of witness.
What if we appointed someone to be a missionary to refugees? Every year, close to 2,000 refugees are resettled in the Dallas area. They come from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, and Congo, among other forsaken places. They arrive here with their entire worldly possessions in their hands, and are forced to adjust to life in the States in a very short amount of time.
The possibilities are truly endless. I have heard and seen such appointments happening in various conferences around the country, but they don’t happen often enough. Lorenza Andrade Smith, whom I have written about before, is appointed to the homeless of San Antonio, and actually lives on the street with them! I can’t imagine a more creative appointment!
In the North Texas Conference, back in the 1990s, there were a series of creative 3-year appointments like this, thanks to grant money from the General Board of Global Ministries. My friend, Diana Holbert, was appointed to work with the creative, artistic community of downtown Dallas; another friend, Marcia McFee, became the worship consultant for the conference.
Now the reason why appointments like these don’t happen often is very simple — money.
Pastor salaries are paid by the local churches where they serve. Leaving aside the contentious issue of pay equity among clergy, we should note that this means that there is little to no money normally available to fund new missional appointments. Our conference does fund new church starts, often at quite large sums, but the assumption is that these churches will become self-sustaining in three years. Missional work may not ever be “self-sustaining” in the traditional sense. Thus, conferences frown on such work.
In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to be appointed as missionary to refugees in our conference. It’s what I feel called to do. I’ve started a nonprofit refugee ministry called Daraja, which takes up most of my time. My official appointment is to the Missional Wisdom Foundation, which initially helped pay part of my salary. However, now the funding has run out, and I find myself in the position of raising my own salary support, an unusual new job skill which I am learning on the fly. (Not doing it particularly well, yet, so if you feel so inclined, here’s where you can make a monthly pledge!)
Yes, I’d love it if the conference could pay me a base salary, ensuring that I can pay my mortgage and bills, but since working with refugees is not a particularly lucrative business, nor is it ever going to be “self-sustaining,” then they will be wary of this move. I will have to rely on good old-fashioned fundraising.
My point is that our Methodist connection actually does provide us with a network of like-minded, followers of Jesus who could, if they dreamed and dared, find ways to fund, resource, mobilize, and send pastors into unique places for missional purposes. It could happen, and as I said before, does happen from time to time.
But there’s room for more.
In his excellent blog post last week on the travesty that is called the “Timely Justice Act,” which still sits on the desk of Florida Governor Rick Scott, my partner-monk Bret wisely rips apart the argument that justice has anything to do with the bill, which would speed the execution process. In fact, as he shows by the words of those who support the bill, justice is actually beside the point! What matters is a swift process, not an accurate one.
But this skirts a fundamentally more important issue, one which has a lot to do with the life and calling of a missional monk. That issue has to do with a right understanding of justice.
What exactly do we mean we talk about justice? In current popular usage, justice refers simply to the process by which those who are accused of a crime are tried, and either absolved or convicted and punished. The popularity of shows like “CSI,” “Law and Order,” and “NCIS,” as well as superhero movies, proves that we like to watch bad guys get caught, and we like to see them get what’s coming to them.
In contemporary Christian lingo, justice tends to take one of two predominant meanings. It could refer to a trait of God, which is unyielding and stubborn, and finally exercised by Jesus on a white throne at the end of time. Of course, God’s justice is tempered by God’s mercy, but it is never obliterated or removed. This justice is a divine necessity.
A second meaning is used, either perjoratively or complimentary, of Christians who are concerned with social issues, such as climate change, poverty, environmental destruction, and war. Usually the word “social” is tacked on in front of the word “justice.” Often, churches are depicted as focusing either on personal piety or social justice; this dichotomy has infiltrated most churches in North America.
I think we ought to abandon these notions of justice, and start over with something that is more concrete, as well as more scriptural.
First of all, we must reclaim justice as an integral part of our identity as followers of Jesus. It is not a separate sphere of action; it is not a call to which only certain people and prophets must pursue; it does not stand in contradistinction with piety, spiritual disciplines, or worship.
When we follow Jesus, we are pursuing lives of justice, which orients us to all areas of human activity.
In scripture, there are two Hebrew words for justice: tzedekah and mishpat. These words get alternatively translated as “justice” and “righteousness,” and are shown to have roughly the same meaning. And in fact, in the Greek New Testament, there is simply one word used interchangeably for both.
The best scriptural definition for justice, then, is righteousness, which means simply “to be in right relation with.” Justice is a relational word! When justice is done, then right relationships exist between individuals, communities, cities, and nations. Things are set right, things become what they were meant to be in relation to each other.
Justice is never an abstract concept; it can be seen concretely when people treat each other with dignity and respect, or as Jesus would put it, with love.
This is why every part of our lives is a justice issue. The things we teach our children orient them to a certain relationship with others and the world; the prayers we pray strengthen our relationship with God; the worship we engage in impacts our relationship with fellow members in the pews. Everything is about justice, because human existence is a dense network of relationships.
In his book, Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, Bryant L. Myers argues that the nature of poverty is essentially relational: “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.”
By introducing the word shalom into the conversation, Myers brings a different scriptural word into play, one which I believe could transform the conversation. Shalom is a beautifully rich Hebrew word which encompasses everything we could possibly want to say about justice. It is translated peace, wholeness, fullness, and wellbeing. It is used, to this day, as a greeting as well as a benediction. Shalom is both the goal of all life and the promised future, as well as the kind of life which we, as followers of Christ, have access to right now. Shalom is, essentially, the kingdom of God, which is both now and not yet.
Shalom is being in right relationship — with everything and everyone!
Myers illustrates the idea of shalom with a simple chart that depicts the self in relationship with five other spheres: the self, God, others, community, and the environment. Shalom is the state of being in right relations with all of these spheres. Thus, one must have a healthy self-awareness and identity, must have a living relationship with God, must have healthy relationships with family and friends, must be a responsible and participating member of the community, and must be a conscious and careful citizen of the planet. Only when all of those relationships are in order, can it be said that true justice, or true shalom, is present.
What makes this state of affairs difficult to achieve is that everything is overlaid with the unseen, invisible forces of systems — economic, social, political, global, and even religious — which conspire to thwart, twist, and corrupt any attempts at making relationships sound. These systems include patterns of thought, unspoken assumptions, prejudices and hatreds.
When seen in this framework, then, bills like the “Timely Justice Act” are seen as what they truly are — pitiful and painful attempts to make things right by removing the relational aspect from the picture.
In fact, the death penalty itself fails to achieve anything like “justice” for this very reason.
If justice means to restore even the remote possibility of a right relationship, then killing someone is out of the question. To take someone else’s life means to destroy all possibility that something new and hopeful might replace the well-worn conflicts and abuses that have existed before.
This is why so much is being made today of the difference between retributive and restorative justice. Retributive justice pays back and punishes; it makes a judgment that someone must be harmed in retaliation for what he or she has done. This retaliation usually results in destroyed relationships.
But restorative justice believes that a person can be redeemed and can have his or her relationships with others restored. Hope remains, because the possibility of a new relationship is kept open, even if only slightly, with family, friends, and even the victim and victim’s family.
The death penalty is the ultimate anti-shalom measure. It breaks and crushes the possibilty that a murderer might be able to find forgiveness, receive a word of grace, or even speak a word of grace to someone else. It continues the spiral of destruction which a murderer began, often because of the lack of shalom in his own life.
If we want true justice, which is always timely, by the way, then it begins with the relationships closest to us. Down the hall, across the street, on the other end of a phone.
Do justice. Make shalom.
And please, Gov. Scott — kill that bill.
For United Methodists, the gathering known as Annual Conference is the high-water mark of the year. It is the time in which we gather to worship, organize our priorities, focus our vision, and catch up with each other — at least that’s what it’s supposed to be.
In past years in North Texas, Annual Conference has been particularly mind-numbing. But this year, things took a turn for the better with a gathering that refocused our eyes on the work of discipleship and revitalization.
The highlights of the event were the two addresses given by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, one of the leading youth ministry authors and speakers in the country. She galvanized the crowd with her depiction of today’s youth culture and a breakdown of Therapeutic Moralistic Deism.
People left the conference feeling better about the future of the church than when they arrived, and that says a lot about how well things went.
However, I think one thing did become clear to me: whatever we United Methodists are, we are not yet truly missional. Everything that happened at Annual Conference this week presupposed and presumed that the attractional church is the preeminent and ultimate expression of Christian community.
Now, before I go any further, let me define exactly what I mean by missional. The word has become a catch-all for a couple of different concepts. Dr. Dean used the phrase missional church in her first talk, and defined it herself as meaning “a church that looks outside of itself and its walls, instead of being preoccupied with itself.”
It would be great if that described most churches in North America, of course, but that is not what missional means, nor is it the best definition of a missional church.
I also heard the word missional thrown around in casual conversation and in the exhibit hall, where a number of ministries (including Daraja!) had booths set up. Most of the time I heard it used like this: “Oh, our church is very missional. We support a food pantry, we have two or three mission trips a year, and we sponsor a missionary in Africa.” In this context, missional means “our church loves to support mission projects.” But that is also not what missional means.
Missional means sent.
A missional church understands that it primarily exists to be sent.
A missional church is so preoccupied with life in the neighborhood that it doesn’t really have time to worry about the maintenance and upkeep of buildings, vehicles, and programs.
And, as a Missional Monk, I would like to remind us that we aren’t sent alone. We are Sent. Together.
Here’s an example of the fact that our Annual Conference doesn’t get that yet. The last thing that happens at every Conference is the reading of appointments. Traditionally, each district superintendent would get up and read the names of all the churches in the district, followed by the name(s) of the pastor(s) appointed to that church.
This year, they changed it up. Instead of taking the time to have each name read, one by one, each appointment was put on a slide which was then projected on the big screens during our closing communion service. The media team had also asked each pastor in the weeks leading up to Conference, to send a picture of the church which they served. Thus, each slide showed a picture of the church building, the name of the church, and the appointed clergy.
Think about the message that presentation sent. The clear message is that Rev. Jane Doe has been appointed, or sent, TO a particular building. Pastors are sent to an already-existing church, where there already exists a group of people who are used to meeting every Sunday morning to hear an inspiring word and then go home to lead a comfortable life. There are already committees and systems and customs in place, which mostly prop up a status quo which we know isn’t sustainable anymore.
Here’s another example that our Conference doesn’t understand missional yet. Another innovation in this year’s gathering was a Monday afternoon Toolbox Session, which is just another name for a series of workshops that people were free to choose from.
Look at the workshops on offer:
- Social Media as a Ministry: Challenges, Content, Growth
- Big VBS for Small Churches: Making VBS the Biggest Outreach Event of the Year
- Planting and Growing an Explosive Small Group Ministry
- Developing a Culture of Call to Ministry: How to Cultivate a Call in Young Adults
- Building a Community Center Without Bricks and Mortar
- Welcoming the Stranger in Small Churches: Five Changes in Hospitality that Can Make All the Difference
- Inclusion at Our Church: A Place for Those with Special Needs
- Are We Building Towers or Temples?
- Retiree Matters: New Retiree Medical Insurance Program
- God Talk: Reaching the “Nones”
- Energizing Volunteers: Maximizing Lay Leadership for Small Churches
- Multi-Site Worship: One Church, Different Zip Codes?
- Confirmation: Claiming the Faith We Profess
- Mission Programming: Growing Your Church Through Social Services
- 911 Responding to Violence in Your Church or School
- A Church Full of Cowboys: Alternative Worship for Small Churches
- Partnering with Schools, the Community, and Other Churches
- Creative, Collaborative Worship Team Planning
- Senior Programming: Do Bingo, Buses and Brunches Really Meet the Spiritual Needs of our Elders?
- In Sickness and in Health: Faith Community Nursing in Your Congregation
- MinistrySafe Refresher
- Effective Programming for Small Membership Churches
Did you notice that every single workshop offered presumes the existence of a building? Interestingly, one session explicitly suggests that you can do social services without a building, but not church!
Did you also notice that what is primarily being encouraged is programming? Lots of programs. The right kinds of programs.
Now, I am not criticizing these workshops, nor the presenters. I am sure these were great sessions, and I happen to know many of the presenters personally, and believe that they have plenty to share that is helpful and valuable.
But what I am saying is that everything presented at Conference was firmly inside the attractional church box. Everything shared and celebrated and lifted up as worthy of emulation was traditional, programmatic, and based on the idea that our job as church leaders is to try to get people inside the church building. And that’s an idea that I think we must get away from, if merely because it’s too small a vision!
The mission of God is greater than that. It transcends the narthex, the vestry, and the sanctuary. In these days of “nones,” spiritual-but-not-religious young people, the benign-whateverism of a good number of Americans, and the different religions and faith traditions of all the rest of us Americans, it might be very good for us to turn our attention away from our buildings and start paying attention to what God is already doing out there.
We cannot go on assuming that the best way forward is getting our programming right. In fact, perhaps the way forward will lead us to forsake programs altogether.
Rather than write a long, boring bio of myself, which you would only briefly scan anyway, I thought I’d make it easy and give you a bullet-pointed list of things you need to know about Wes Magruder, the newest Missional Monk:
- Yes, I actually am a friend of Bret Wells. We got to know each other through our work with the Missional Wisdom Foundation, but even then, I kind of like him. I think he’s cool, especially with the facial hair. We like hanging out together, and even more, talking about how to be Sent. Together.
- I am a Wesleyan, but not sure how Methodist. Full disclosure: I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I became a UM because I felt called to the Church, and because I resonated with John Wesley’s emphasis on sanctification, joining together of faith and good works, and patterns of discipleship. When I see those things happening in the UMC, I celebrate. When I don’t, I get a little crabby.
- I don’t think most people who throw the word “missional” around knows what it means. I will say more about this later, but the missional conversation has been dangerously diluted by those who use the word loosely. And a lot of them are denominational folks looking for a new angle. If I can accomplish anything as a new Missional Monk, I’d like to help correct this situation.
- I hate church meetings. This comes from experience, believe me. I’ve been a pastor in churches in London, rural Texas, and suburban Dallas. Most church meetings, I have learned, peak after 11 minutes, and then quickly descend into ineffectiveness, gossip, and malaise. The proudest moment in my years as a pastor was shutting down a committee in England that couldn’t remember why it was meeting in the first place.
- I’m distrustful of institutions, but love community. This isn’t a paradox. It’s just a recognition of the reality that institutions quickly lose sight of the movements that birthed them, and end up doing things that undermine relationships and community. Exhibit A: most North American congregations.
- I believe that justice work is one of the great neglected themes of the North American church. Which means that most evangelical churches are lopsided, having determined (consciously or not) that social justice is not “spiritual” work. We need a recovery of the whole gospel, good news for every system, principality, power, and people group. Look for my contributions on this theme coming soon on this blog!
- I don’t own a gun, and never will. I might as well get this out here now: I’m a pacifist. No, I would not kill someone even if they were advancing on my family to do harm. I can explain some other time and in some other forum. All you need to know is that I believe the way of Jesus is nonviolent. Completely.
- I am suspicious of most Western missionary efforts, though I have been a missionary myself. I spent four years in Cameroon as the director of a new mission initiative through the denominational missional board. The experience was wonderful and life-giving (to myself and others), but even while I worked on the ground, I wondered if I was engaged in anything more than a colonizing project.
- Daraja is the Swahili word for “bridge,” and the name of the nonprofit organization that I recently started. Daraja is my current passion, a ministry to recently resettled refugees in the Dallas area. We train volunteers to coach refugees and their families, and help them make a successful transition to life in America. For more information, check out www.jesuswasarefugee.com.
- I am a girl dad. That’s what my three daughters call me. This means that I know way more than I ever wanted about drill teams, the Twilight series, hair and clothing, and emotional swings. But it also means that I am pampered, loved, and spoiled. Rachel is 19 and currently touring the world with Long Island University — Global. Chloe is a Planoette and going to be a senior next year, while Mallory starts high school next year as a Vikette. Oh, and my wife recently started her own business, a franchise of Kumon.
- In my next life, I want to be a rock musician. Seriously. My younger brother lived this life for awhile as the drummer of a band called Calla, and I was madly jealous the whole time. I’m currently digging the new album by The National, but I also like Bon Iver, Delta Spirit, Mumford and Sons, The Tallest Man on Earth … ok, this could go on awhile. Just know this — Bob Dylan is the man. And so is Bono.
- When Jesus says to follow him, I think he meant it. My whole life has been an attempt to figure out what this is supposed to look like. It’s taken me to some pretty crazy places, but it’s what life is supposed to be about.
- There are only two seasons of the church year: Baseball Season, and Ordinary Time. My major leisure activity is watching baseball. I am a lifelong fan of the Texas Rangers, and thus, have recurring nightmares of a ninth-inning fly ball in St. Louis. I’m SO glad we let Josh Hamilton go, but hope we never trade Jurickson Profar.