Category Archives: book review

The Other Man in Black

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Pick up a copy from Amazon

Within Churches of Christ, Randy Harris is well known…even infamous in some circles – which makes him all the more likable in my book. 🙂 Quirky would be a fair, though insufficient descriptor. He chooses to dress simply in black pants and black shirts everyday in order to clear away one more materialistic anxiety from his life – what will I wear today? Strangely enough, though dressing in one color, he often still manages not to match – quirky.

He has also managed to order his life as a missional monk while remaining within the Church of Christ tradition – and he far surpasses me on both accounts.
Randy teaches undergraduate theology students at Abilene Christian University, travels around the country speaking to and working with churches, and has played an integral role in shaping Mission Alive’s theology lab for church planters.

We interviewed Randy for the podcast – check it out on the page or listen here.

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In his latest book, Living Jesus, he addresses the Sermon on the Mount – a section of teaching which has captivated folks, and often left them scratching their heads, for the past two thousand years.

Over time there have been countless expositions and interpretations of the text and many of them seem to fall into one of two (mis)readings of the sermon. Some see Jesus as teaching us to “out Pharisee the Pharisees” – a harsh and legalistic reading which beats the life out of its adherents. Others have basically said that the sermon is intentional hyperbole or an impossible standard. This reading tends to come from the “all people suck” camp and sees the passage as a reminder of our total depravity and need to throw ourselves at the mercy of the court. We can’t live up to this message, and Jesus knew it.

The problem with both of these readings is that we have to basically ignore the text itself to get there. Jesus directly and fearlessly critiques the Pharisee’s tendency to dwell in harsh legalism to ensure their elite awesomitude. And yet Jesus also speaks very directly about how his disciples will actually live – a deeper, more significant righteousness which grows from our identity rather than one which forms the basis of it.

I’m pretty convinced that one reason the Sermon on the Mount is often seen as unattainable is that we continue to read it the same way the Pharisees read the Law. We see a set of external rules to be obeyed rather than the description of a transformed self and society…which have come about because God is at working reconciling and restoring creation.

The bulk of Living Jesus takes us through the sermon passage by passage, considering how each piece serves to show us how to live as citizens of a new kingdom – in ways which neither legalism nor “woe is me” are capable. This reading makes considerably more sense in the context of forming a people and describing a new community…beyond just heaping expectations on the isolated individual.

Within the publishing world there seems to be a growing expectation that when we read about church or faith, we’ll do so in conversation with others. To this end, it has become common practice to include a mini study-guide at the end of each chapter or section of a book. Though the questions are often overly elementary – less challenging than I would have used with a junior high discipleship group back in the youth ministry days – I very much love what they imply.

Their presence may be a marketing strategy, but it is a strategy that suggests we’re beginning to take communal practices more seriously…even in the case of something as private as reading a book. The reminder is constantly before us – this isn’t just for you, its for us.

One aspect of Randy’s study guide is particularly exciting. Beyond just discussion questions or very general application moments, there is a specific suggestion for practice associated with each chapter. It doesn’t just say, “look for ways to be forgiving.” Instead he calls us to make a list of people we have wronged and contact one person a day for the next week (or however long it takes). Specific practice in the reader’s actual context is a powerful and needed tool. In the closing section of the book we see why this is important for Randy as well.

If you listen to the podcast you’ll notice that one of the main reasons we wanted to talk with Randy was to hear more about his work in developing a “quasi-religious order” among college-age men at ACU. This monastic community is ordered around a shared Rule of Life and covenant to living out the Sermon on the Mount.

Randy suggests – and I whole-heartedly concur – that the lack of covenanting community is a significant part of what hinders the development of discipleship in our churches and makes living according to the teachings of Jesus infinitely more difficult. He encourages Christians to consider ordering their lives more intentionally regardless of where they live or in what stage of life they currently dwell.

He recommends several excellent books to help those who wish to pursue this idea. I’d add to that a short book by Elaine Heath: Longing for Spring. Though written for a Methodist audience, it is broadly applicable for any who are looking to form intentional communities of discipleship, prayer and service – and also describes ways in which established congregations can partner with (rather than compete with or fear) these communities.

And of course, helping people form these kinds of communities in their context is exactly what we do in the Academy for Missional Wisdom…so there’s that (shameless plug).

The Sermon on the Mount is a foundational passage and it has consistently held an integral role in monastic communities throughout history. I have no reservation recommending Living Jesus as an accessible resource for groups who are currently wrestling with what it might look like to pursue more intentional community in the way of Jesus.

There is also an accompanying dvd series available from Leafwood Publishers. I haven’t seen this series, but you can check out this intro video:

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Creating a Missional Culture

The culture of a church can either pull people down to their base instincts, or lift people up to their sacred potential. We create culture, and culture re-creates us. – JR Woodward


creating-a-missional-cultureI can’t help but be impressed by the time and energy that must have been required to write Creating a Missional Culture. JR Woodward can be a goof-ball in conversation and his writing style is often light-hearted, but his content is serious, focused and substantive. My biggest complaint is the difficulty of boiling down a review to blog post length…thanks a lot JR.

In the first part of the book, Woodward addresses several different aspects which converge to create what we call “culture.” He discusses the impacts of language, artifacts, narratives, rituals, institutions, and ethics across various manifestations and specific examples.

I remember in one of my grad classes when a professor said, “What is culture? Everything. Every freaking thing is culture.”

Well…Woodward pretty much covers “every freaking thing” individually in this first section. Again, from a content standpoint, the book is packed full. However, and I confess I’m not always the best judge of this particular trait, he does seem to balance some of the heavy lifting with easy (or, at least, easier) to grasp explanations and illustrations.

It would have been very easy to conclude this section of the book after describing the various aspects and implications of culture. Instead he makes an exceedingly helpful move and includes a chapter on specific environments which should be cultivated with these cultural factors in mind. Then he concludes with a case for polycentric leadership – neither centralized nor decentralized, but rather where “leaders interrelate and incarnate the various purposes of Christ in such a way that the entire body is activated to service and matures in love” (60).

This polycentric approach relies on the currently popular “5 fold pattern” of Ephesians 4 – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Personally, though this language is quite prevalent in much of the missional literature, I remain unconvinced that this was ever intended to be a comprehensive or prescriptive list of the necessary leadership styles in the church. However, I don’t see much reason to resist it either. It’s hard to think of many broad leadership categories which are needed and not covered here.

There are those who push back against the 5-fold structure. They challenge the biblical merit of the term leadership altogether, and call instead for “disciple-makers,” but their arguments seem less than compelling. When couched in these broad generic terms it becomes a game of semantics.

I’ll challenge the strong claim that Ephesians 4 is meant to provide the rubric for leadership. However, what the passage does say explicitly, is that these giftings are made available by God in order to equip the saints for works of ministry. Yes, that is disciple making. It is also leadership, and you have to do some crazy acrobatics or employ very thin and skewed definitions to pretend otherwise. I love Claiborne and Perkins’ statement in Follow Me to Freedom, that the response to bad leadership isn’t no leadership, it’s good leadership.

Part 2 of the book takes this chapter on leadership and expounds. Woodward looks at the ways in which the leaders’ missional imaginations can shape culture significantly. He completely reframes the definition of leadership to fall more closely in line with Paul’s exhortation that leaders are present to unleash the potential among the people. It requires humility, listening, releasing control and focusing gifts on empowering others more than accomplishing tasks.

release the APEWe dive even deeper in Part 3 where each of the five leader types are examined as culture creators. Rather than focusing merely on the apostle, prophet and evangelist to the exclusion of the pastors and teachers – as the growing, “Release the APE” movement sometimes risks doing – JR looks at how each temperament / leadership gifting is equipped to influence missional culture in healthy and holistic ways. Of course, he stresses that this will only be effective when the five are working together, rather than operating from paranoid competition.

The final section of the book brings all the previous parts together in order to consider how the missional culture is embodied in a local context. While there is a substantial amount of theory and theology discussed, very little of the book could be honestly dismissed as too theoretical. That is particularly true in Part 4 which is a sort of “applied sciences” division incorporating all previous discussions.

In places throughout, but especially in the closing chapters, the book does seem to be a bit biased towards larger communities – many of his suggestions would be completely unnecessary and impossible in our small house church. However, I often found myself thinking, “How could this principle be applied to our context?” and “What would it look like to set this expectation in our community now, even though there are only a few families serving together?” Given our larger culture’s tendency to cut-and-paste what others are doing, I’m glad a one-to-one correlation wasn’t feasible.

So, who should read this book?

I would definitely recommend it to pastors, elders, church planters, or others in leadership who are wrestling with the cultural roadblocks to living (rather than just studying) missional faith as a community. I think that the casual reader in an institutional, maintenance mode congregation might come away a bit frustrated. Maybe if they can talk some of those in positions of leadership into reading it with them…but even then, I don’t know.

It isn’t really a “casual reading” type of book…but I don’t think anyone is pretending it is. JR tackles some very complicated material head-on and does so in a remarkably accessible way, all things considered.

As I suggested earlier, I wish I had been able to read this book five years ago. I’ll be using portions of it in my next Academy class on “The Missional Imagination”…since I only have six weeks with these students and have to be very selective with the readings, that’s about as high praise as I can offer.


What would the church look like if everyone in the church used their God-given gifts and talents to equip the rest of the church in such a way that the entire church became more like Jesus? And if the whole church looked more like Jesus, how much more would our neighborhoods and cities look more like heaven? – JR Woodward


Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for the free review copy of this book.

A Little Help, Please?

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“We were saying Gig ‘Em long before there was a Johnny Football.”

Some groups are meticulous and thorough in creating a certain culture. For instance, growing up just outside of College Station, TX had such a strong cultural impact on me that, though I no longer live in Aggieland, it’s influence has been passed on to the next generation. Fan or not, just about anyone who follows college athletics can attest to the depth of tradition attached to Texas A&M University. The culture is so ubiquitous that my children disapprove of all burnt orange clothing, are suspicious of any emblem which resembles a longhorn, and refer to their Aunt Tiffany (A&M grad) as “Aggie.”

But there is a lot more to creating culture than just branding. The difficulty is enhanced when the “new” culture is perceived to be replacing/challenging/augmenting another which is already established…even if the old culture is falling / has fallen out of prominence.

When Chris Chappotin and I started the Missional Monks podcast we were just trying to sort through what we called the “what now?” questions in regards to missional church planting. Everywhere we looked there were books, podcasts, articles, conferences and webinars focused on teaching the basics of missional faith and why people should care. But there was so little available for those who had taken the plunge and were looking around – disoriented, alone and slightly terrified. “What do we do now?”

There was so much we didn’t understand (and plenty that still escapes us). How do we balance the value of discipleship and spiritual formation with busy schedules and deeply ingrained cultural expectations regarding information based education? What does it look like to have mission as an organizing principle? It’s one thing to SAY we’re missional…it’s another thing to cultivate a community ethos that actually lives that way.

Why does it seem that so many people, even those who were not raised in a Christian faith tradition, have such deeply ingrained expectations about what church “looks like?”

We would sit for hours at Denny’s – splitting time between talking to the servers and wrestling through these questions. Eventually it occurred to us that a) other people might benefit from listening in and b) there were undoubtedly others having similar discussions…and we needed their wisdom.

One of the fantastic byproducts of the decision to start the podcast was that we “met” lots of new people. Several of these folks – though we’re spread out geographically – have become good friends and vital conversation partners.

That is certainly true of JR Woodward, aka the Dream Awakener. You can check out our conversation with JR on the podcast page or just listen here.

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If you haven’t ever spent time on JR’s website, I recommend doing so…though not until you’ve finished carefully perusing MissionalMonks.com!

Fair warning, JR might give you a case of whiplash. He can go from incredibly goofy to profound more quickly than just about anyone I know. JR has experienced the struggles and pain associated with missional church planting. Rather than cover up these blemishes, he is willing to speak honestly and vulnerably about these matters. And yet his demeanor exudes an incredibly authentic joy. I was excited to finally get the chance to meet him in person this fall at the Sentralized Conference in Kansas City… and as my grandfather would say, he’s good people.

JR’s latest book, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World, is packed with biblical and cultural insight as well as practical tools for engagement. He looks beyond branding and marketing to consider the myriad of aspects which create, sustain and perpetuate culture. This is exactly the kind of resource we were searching for in our early days of church planting – and it is just as helpful now. His publisher, InterVarsity Press was kind enough to send me a free copy to review…which I will do in my next post.

Stay tuned…

Conversation with Jon Huckins

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Click to visit Jon’s site

As I mentioned in my previous post, I didn’t know Jon Huckins before picking up Thin Places a couple months ago. I drove Rachel a little crazy as I read her passages from the book. I’d come running into the living room, “This section is almost exactly the same as the beginning of the theological foundations chapter in my dissertation!” …and then she would sit patiently as I read paragraph after paragraph. She said, “Sounds like you two would get along really well.”

The copy of the book I purchased also came with a DVD of video vignettes for each chapter. These excellent clips provide a fantastic glimpse into the content of the book, but also into the hearts and lives that fill the pages the pages. The book’s publisher, The House Studio, has made the following available to the public…so I’ll share it with you here.

I was very excited when Jon not only accepted my Facebook friend request, but generously agreed to respond to some questions about Thin Places.

So, without further ado, blah blah blah, here we go.

Bret: In our experience, many (though certainly not all) Christians who are drawn toward more decentralized approaches to faith are often carrying a lot of “rejecting the structure” baggage.

This becomes a lens through which they filter so much of what they encounter. The “I’m done with organized religion” statement can become a rejection of anything that reminds them of past structures. Have you seen this as well? If so, what has been most helpful in assisting them toward a generative rather than negating outlook (focusing on what they ARE about rather than what they are NOT about).

Jon: Yes, this is certainly a reality we have experienced quite often in our time of forming missional-monastic communities that look quite different than the traditional church structures many of us have experienced.

While the discontent did give birth to much needed renewal and new life in the Church, it is certainly not sustainable, nor the point of forming missional-monastic community. Something we have focused on is being constructive rather than deconstructive, while celebrating and supporting the Church in all her forms.

A movement can’t move if it is primarily based on dissatisfaction. We must be fueled out of a holy satisfaction that comes out of people living as they have been called to live for the good of the world. Also, as we have rooted in neighborhood and invited non-churched people into our communities, the DNA of our communities has evolved to being more concerned with who we are than who we aren’t.

Bret: I love the idea you describe of radical invitation. In particular, the story of Darren and LaDonna struck chords of harmony with our own experiences. It is so easy to get stuck in between – where our friends have come to trust a community of Christ followers, but have remained hesitant about jumping in wholeheartedly as disciples themselves. What would you say to those who are simply afraid to extend that invitation out of fear that it will “scare off” their friends?

Jon: I think a lot of it has to do with transparency and identity. If we are going to cultivate relationships that allow for shared life and mutual invitation, we have to be transparent about how we live and who we are living for. That’s where identity comes in. If I am first a follower of Jesus and second part of a community that is committed to following in his ways together my whole reality is shaped around that. In the same way that I would want my friend to be transparent about the stuff that matters most in their life, I must offer them the same. From our experience, people are more intrigued by the particularity and intentionality of our way of life than scared off by it.

Bret: In the chapter on contending, you talk about a commitment to “gently calling one another out” when habits of communication tear down rather than build up. How does this translate into situations with those who have deep seated emotional problems or even mental illnesses which make healthy communication difficult?

Jon: Great question and one that probably needs individual attention for each person and community that is experiencing their unique realities. With that said, a big piece of covenanting to a missional-monastic community is the discernment process that precedes commitment. There needs to be space and expectation that each person will be open with their community about what they bring to the table (strengths, weaknesses, disabilities). At that point all know what they are committing to as a community and can better navigate those realities when they inevitably come up in the life of a community.

Bret: Does NieuCommunities have any collaborative or even conversational relationships with more traditional, “brick and mortar” oriented churches in the community? If so, how have these relationships been cultivated?

Jon: Absolutely! In fact, these relationships are some of the ones that bring us the most joy and fulfillment. As I mentioned earlier, we seek to value the church in all her forms. We certainly don’t have a corner on the market and are committed to remain in a posture of humility and listening. There are about five churches in and around our neighborhood who we consistently support and partner with. In fact, we have been able to act as a neutral presence of sorts and regularly instigate gatherings where we all worship, equip and encourage one another under the same roof. Rob, who wrote much of Thin Places alongside of me, personally coaches a handful of the local pastors in our city.


Thin-Places-210x300I’m very grateful to Jon for his responses. Hopefully we’ll have more opportunities for dialog in the future. I encourage you to pick up a copy of Thin Places for yourself. In the next brief series of posts we’ll stay with the theme of cultivating and sustaining a healthy missional culture  by discussing JR Woodward’s fantastic book, Creating Missional Culture.

Thin Places by Jon Huckins and Rob Yackley

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I saw the marketing table set up at the Sentralized Conference in Kansas City. I’d never heard of Jon Huckins (which is fine, I’m sure he’d never heard of me either), and I hadn’t heard of this book. But with a title like Thin Places: 6 Postures for Creating and Practicing Missional Community, how could I not be intrigued?

I began digging for my wallet as soon as I read the back cover…”Joining the concepts of monasticism and mission, authors Jon Huckins and Rob Yackley will walk you through the six postures of missional formation: listening, submerging, inviting, contending, imagining, and entrusting.”

Missional Monks unite!!

Yes, I confess that I was hooked by keyword marketing…but I’m not sorry. I encourage you to check out the NieuCommunities website to learn more about these folks and their ongoing task of cultivating missional disciples in monastic community. This book does an excellent job of combining clear reasoning and instruction with well told narratives of a life lived in community with others. It doesn’t cut corners to paint a utopian picture; it doesn’t hold back from the messiness and struggle involved.

The six postures the book describes are more than “keys to missional effectiveness.” They describe an intentionality in rhythm and structure that facilitates community, missional engagement, spiritual formation and growth. An excellent treatise against any who would claim that structure stifles the movement of the Spirit, this book describes how the members of NieuCommunities are more attuned to the moment precisely because of the rhythms and postures they’ve adopted.

The Six Postures

Listening

Living as a community of Jesus’s apprentices who are being formed and seeking to form others, it is imperative for us to enter the path of formation by listening to God through our communities (both intentional and local contexts) and ourselves. As a missional community seeking to engage our local contexts with the good news of Jesus, we choose to view our neighborhoods and our cities as our classrooms. (p 32)

Submerging

When we give ourselves fully to God, we begin to see and experience the dynamic mystery and identity of one who is inviting us into his story. When we give ourselves to each other, we begin to realize that relationships are designed to be much more than talks about the weather or to be used for personal gain. When we submerge into our context, we see that the story we have been told to believe about our neighbors, politics, and economy is far from reality. (p 48)

Inviting

Practicing the postures of listening and then submerging into our context prepares us to engage the third posture – inviting – with softer hearts and more intimate understanding. In the inviting posture, we learn to tell our stories, tell the story of God, and invite those with whom we have come into relationship into both. People are invited into our lives and faith journey by being welcomed into our homes, small groups, community meals, and worship gatherings. (p 66)

Contending

The problem [with issues of injustice in the world] is that they can be so overwhelming that we choose to simply go about our routines and ignore the areas of brokenness and injustice that surround us. However, while simply ignoring those who are in need is tempting and far too culturally acceptable, our role as God’s people is to step into these stories and contend for those who are broken, hurting, and alone. We are to be the manifestation of the good news brought about with the arrival of God’s kingdom. (p 86)

Imagining

The imagining posture is not one of fairy tales and science fiction. There are no glass slippers or alternate realities. The divine imagination allows us to see things as they really are – to engage reality in the way Jesus desired when he announced a new kingdom and a new way of life…In this posture we desire to discern God’s call on our lives, to live into our role as co-creators, and to see in our mind’s eye the kind of transformational faith community God wants us to pursue. (p 115-116)

Entrusting

When we catch a vision of what God has for his people, we can’t help but entrust ourselves to it by stepping forward as sent ones. In this posture, we desire to entrust people to God, celebrate their new or renewed understanding of God’s call on their lives, and lean confidently into the future. Without sending, our transformation is incomplete: it is where everything falls into place, and it moves us from speaking about it to living it out. (p 132-133)

Some things stand out as one progresses through the list of postures. Firstly, “posture” is a very appropriate term. A book written from other contexts might refer to values, practices, characteristics, keys, etc.

The reason posture is so powerful is that it simultaneously conveys both reflection and action. An intentional posture allows for both giving and receiving while simultaneously conveying a sense of readiness and anticipation. And it also reminds us that our structures and practices serve our calling and mission – not the other way around.

The stories of how these postures find expression in the real, actual lives of real, actual people in a real, actual community are really what set this book apart from many others. Stories of risk, adventure, transformation are set in an astoundingly normal – and yet profoundly abnormal – landscape. Look long enough and you’ll see that the extraordinary actually resides just below the surface of the mundane…the same mundane that too often slips by unnoticed outside each of our doors.

NieuCommunities is described as a community of discipleship and disciple training. Far from the inwardly-focused approach often found in churches, people are equipped for ministry in the neighborhood, in order to serve wherever they may go – not to simply for the self-preservation of the local system. Apprentices are given a chance to experience community, cultivate spiritual disicplines and missional engagement, and receive coaching/spiritual direction along the way. Rather than trying to hoard all these gifted people in one place, NieuCommunities celebrates occasions when these apprentices are sent out by the Holy Spirit to listen and submerge into new contexts, contend with new issues, imagine and invite new possibilities and entrust themselves to God’s outcomes.

After reading the book, I sent author Jon Huckins a few questions/reactions. Check out the conversation in my next post.

Have you still not picked up a copy of this book? Seriously? Click the image below and the magic of the interweb will take you to Amazon. A few clicks more and a kindly delivery person will bring it to your house…and there will much rejoicing throughout the land.

 

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Crippled By Our Own Freedom

One of the strengths of the program driven church is that people know exactly what to do and when to do it. Many churches will even provide folks with printed and online catalogs of choices for when, where, and how to get involved. Those ministries are led, whether by volunteers or paid staff, with planning and an expectation of clear communication.

Meetings are scheduled and publicized, events are planned and organized, roles and responsibilities are spelled out. Sometimes there is even training.

Of course, things aren’t always so ideally constructed, but this is the goal.

In fact, I remember attending a conference years ago that described the need for well trained parking lot staff, redundant and highly visible signage and an army of volunteers ready to answer any question and direct people precisely where they should go.

While the majority of my mind and body shiver at both the mindlessness and the amusement park aura this cultivates, I can also recognize why it is effective. Most of us do not like feeling uncertain about our next step.

I’ve seen job descriptions for Involvement Ministers whose primary task on the ministry staff was to formalize structures in order to assimilate all members into a ministry. Certainly there will always be those in a congregation who have an idea and what to put that idea into action. But, as one speaker (and likely countless others) said, “Most people are willing, they’re just waiting for you to ask.”

These dynamics are often among the primary punching bags for those seeking to cultivate more missional approaches to faith.

“We’re not inviting people to an event, we’re inviting them to share life with us.”

But what does that mean? What does it look like? How do we get there from here? There are some stark realities that must be faced. Many of us have jobs, many of us have children, few of us live in the same neighborhood.

We want to experience a more robust, holistic life of faith…but we’re afraid of anything that looks like the cookie-cutter programs. We don’t need all the market-driven hype, flashy consumeristic products, and event based ministries…right?

We start tossing structure, planning, and organization overboard because they smack of institutionalism. And in our overreaction to structure we can create an environment where “sharing life” with one another is haphazard, sporadic and largely ineffective.

Growing up I knew that every evening, barring some strange circumstance, my family was going to sit down at the dinner table to eat. I knew that I was going to do my homework before I could watch TV, play outside, talk to friends…or generally enjoy life. I knew what time I was expected to go to bed. I knew that I would brush my teeth before doing so.

I also knew what kind of language I could get away with using and what would bring swift justice raining down. I knew how I was to speak to adults. I knew what my mother meant when she said, “Remember who you are.”

I knew that my parents would be at my sports games and even most practices. I knew that if I was wrongly accused of something at school, my fiery little mother would raise ten kinds of hell until it was put right…and so I knew that I better not lie about whether or not the accusations were true.

Because I didn’t just remember who I was. I remembered who WE were.

These structures, rhythms and postures didn’t stifle me, they created room in which I could grow in a healthy manner…and they cultivated the spaces in which our family would engage.

In their book, Thin Places: 6 Postures for Creating and Practicing Missional Community, Jon Huckins and Rob Yackley give us more than just a peek into the characteristics of the missional-monastic NieuCommunities. They also model the ways in which intentional rhythms shape organic, authentic, relational, discipleship-oriented community.

Those who would strive to live holistic, missional lives would do well to learn from the wisdom of the monastics – the ancient as well as the contemporary. In my next post I will give a brief overview of Thin Places. I’m also very pleased that author Jon Huckins was willing to engage in some brief dialog concerning some of my reactions – I’ll share his thoughts and my responses as well.

All Work and No Writing Makes Bret a Dull Boy

It is certainly true that I feel better, have more energy and fewer headaches when I’m exercising regularly. I hate exercising, but that doesn’t change this reality.

Meanwhile, reading and writing regularly has the same effect on my mental clarity, focus and energy as exercising has on the physical. I do not hate reading and writing – I love it – but lately my crazy, wonderful life has pulled me away from this discipline.

…And laziness has pulled me away from physical exercise.

I hope to reengage the reading/writing with an upcoming series of book reviews…a project that has been on my to-do list for some time now. I’m nearly finished with the first two and hope the others will follow in reasonable succession.

If anyone wants to read along, here is a list of books that will be addressed on Missional Monks in the near future. You can click the titles to pick up your own copy from Amazon.

Now, if I can just get my fat self to the gym…

Thin Places by Jon Huckins and Rob Yackley (read part 1 & part 2 of the intro, read the review, read the interview)

Creating a Missional Culture by JR Woodward (read the intro, read the  review)

Simple Harmony by Larry Duggins

Living Jesus by Randy Harris (read the review)

Missional Spirituality by Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson

Missional God, Missional Church by Ross Hastings

Living Mission edited by Scott Bessenecker

Review of McLaren’s Newest Books: Part 3 of 3

This is the final installment in a 3 part series reviewing two of Brian McLaren’s books which I think are best read in tandem: A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That are Transforming the Faith(not to be confused with the similarly titled New Kind of CHRISTIAN) and Naked Spirituality: Life With God in 12 Simple Words. I confess that my reviews pretty much ignore his major project in both books – not that they aren’t valuable or worth considering, but I found his subplot to be much more intriguing.


For many of us engaging in the work of missional church planting there is a temptation to view those who “don’t get it” as inferior. It becomes accepted (in some circles) to sit around mocking Christians who want nothing more than to attend a worship gathering and “be fed.” I confess that I’ve been guilty of this. What precisely does this achieve?

Again, it is well and good to challenge one another, but perhaps we must recognize that seasons progress as they progress and it doesn’t do any good to mock summer for being hot. Unless you’re Texas, you don’t get to skip seasons…and when we try to skip over the process of struggle we may find ourselves in an unnatural season of winter.

The autumn season of perplexity may sometimes be the catalyst for some to embark on the task of church planting. When that is the case, we may be tempted to skip the winter of meditation, reflection and beholding and instead move right into a new spring of simplicity. This is understandable. When we make a life-changing decision during a period of deep perplexity we can be so relieved to find something new that we rush forward with little or no preparation.

This may help explain why some groups define themselves by what they’re against rather than what they’re for. We get frustrated with our experience and without pausing to reflect on what we’re being called TO, we simply react out of what we’re running FROM.

This is like trees that begin to bloom and bud in an unseasonably warm January. The hard freeze is still coming and when it does it can kill them. In this case, the natural progression of winter which should send plants into a dormant state actually serves to destroy the tree. Instead of natural season of rest it becomes an unnatural harbinger of death. Naked Spirituality is helpful in reminding us that following seasons of perplexity we need a season of beholding before moving forward.

I suspect that we could trace the cycle of McLaren’s metaphorical seasons through our progression through each of the quests he spoke of in A New Kind of Christianity. As we move from the quest for survival to security or from individuality to honesty there is likely going to be a move from simplicity to complexity to perplexity because it is precisely that season of perplexity to propels us further. The danger of skipping over the winter of beholding, in this macro view, remains a major threat. Before moving forward, we need time to reflect, process, heal…time to “be still and know.”

As we progress from season to season we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater or set about reinventing the wheel. Its important to bring the lessons we learned previously with us into the new. It seems to me that there are two parallel temptations at this point.

On the one hand we may reject everything that had to do with the previous system – like organic church planters recognizing the previous short-comings of rigid, bottle-necking structures and then mistakenly labeling structure itself as the problem.

The other danger is that as we bring these things along, we must allow them to be replanted in the new season, in ways that are appropriate to the time in which we now dwell. If not, we will simply add new things to the old list of things and bring on a whole new season of perplexity and despair. We find ourselves trying to plant seeds, till the ground, pull the weeds and harvest the fruit all simultaneously (I’m afraid that I’m dangerously close to obliterating this metaphor…I think I have a spiritual gift for doing that).

An example of this mistake can be seen in congregations that grab the latest trend and plug it uncritically into their church culture. This can be true for things like the Purpose-Driven Life program as well as missional church “stuff.” Particularly for something like a missional mindset, it simply won’t work to treat it as something we work into our schedule or add on top of all the other programs. Missional represents a new paradigm or a new season, to borrow McLaren’s metaphor. As such we must take time to consider what lessons and practices from the previous season need to be contextually replanted and which ones will no longer function well in the new.

All in all, I think Naked Spirituality is one of McLaren’s better books, particularly if read in tandem with or following New Kind of Christianity. I didn’t even cover the 12 words or spiritual practices that McLaren desribes for each of the seasons of faith – but I found them to be appropriate and useful for both individuals and communities.

These two books are not necessarily ones you just want to give to everyone to read on their own. They aren’t as quick and easy to read as some of his other works. However, I think that the contents of these two works could be very beneficial for a community to process through together, even in (or perhaps especially in) contexts where there is a wide diversity of familiarity and experience in the Christian faith.

Helping the Church Be the Church: Part III – Response to The Mystic Way

I recently posted a short excerpt from the book, The Mystic Way of Evangelism, by Elaine Heath. Several people have asked about the book so I thought I’d include a couple short sections from a paper I wrote. For those that haven’t read the previous posts on this topic (read intro here), the paper is a review of 12 books pertaining to new monasticism and creative missional expressions of faith. After reading each of the books, I’m asking 3 primary questions: 1) What does this book offer new monastic communities? 2) What does this book offer missional/monastic church planting movements? 3) What does this book offer to the established church wrestling with these issues?


This paper is meant to provide a 30,000 foot view – it isn’t meant to touch on every important aspect (otherwise I’d never be able to deal with all 12 books in this one paper!)


Regarding The Mystic Way, here is a section from my introduction and question #3 (pertaining to the established church).



Is the American Church experiencing a dark night of the soul? Elaine Heath thinks so and I doubt many people find this hard to believe, or even surprising. What we may have not considered is her claim that this dark night is a necessary component of the path to renewed health, vitality and evangelistic impact. In a world that is becoming increasingly aware of the widening disparity between the have’s and have not’s; a culture that has come to suspect that the Modernist/Enlightenment project was never more than a smoke-and-mirrors illusion, perhaps a good dose of humility is precisely what the Church needs.

Particularly here in the West, we have come to exhibit a level of entitlement that is (for some of the people I talk to on a regular basis) simultaneously terrifying and nauseating. We expect the government to enforce our religious convictions on others, yet we hit the streets in protest if we feel they’re infringing on our religious turf through taxation or accountability. It seems that we want to be simultaneously protected and ignored. We want to get something for nothing. Just as it did on Wall Street, that mentality may be leading to a crash.

I received the following text message yesterday from a member of our community: “If u can, turn to am-660, the topic is ‘zoning ordinances pertaining to religious home meetings.’ I think its important to note that the public conversation has begun.” There seems to be an increasing population of people dissatisfied with the Church attempting to function as a business in the competitive market, without playing by the market’s rules.

Operating with a sense of entitlement, functioning as a business (with or without proper oversight) and holding an ends-justify-the-means mentality to support coercive or deceptive evangelistic strategies may have all contributed to the present situation. For this reason, I think Heath is correct in The Mystic Way of Evangelism, to suggest that the way out is to move through, not skirt around, this dark night. This assertion simultaneously strikes chords of fear and hope because, as she says, “Though the dark night is perilous, with no guarantee of a good outcome, it holds the possibility of new beginnings.”

Heath’s book traces the ancient three-fold way of the contemplatives and mystics which includes purgation, illumination and union. Perhaps our present experience is one of purgation, not unlike the Israelites wandering around in the desert while time and new birth cleansed the community of its institutionalized slave mentality.

You can’t hurry a process that only occurs over time, but you can often hinder your progress and increase both the stress and duration of the ordeal. As we transitioned into more organic and whole-life expressions of faith, there were a myriad of different expectations, assumptions and (mis)understandings that had to be purged through our own desert experience. There was no way to rush through this time, and in many ways the process continues even today.

The Mystic Way reminded me that regardless of one’s specific context, the interior life (particularly with the intention of it bearing fruit in community) is something we cultivate rather than instantly inherit. We did not arrive at our present location overnight, nor will we relocate in such a way.


What does it have to offer the established church?

I recently saw a commercial attempting to convince people that they need to take action when they notice the early signs of a stroke in another person (which I never realized was a problem). The scene involves a young man with an arrow through his chest, confidently declaring, “It’s no big deal.” Perhaps this commercial could have also been used as a trailer for the release of The Mystic Way.

It is a big deal. The situation in our churches today is a big deal. The question that remains to be answered definitively is whether or not we will adequately acknowledge and respond to the situation.

Several years ago I heard Walter Brueggemann speak about prophetic ministries. He reminded us that prophets will not be effective unless the people to whom they speak are aware (or are made aware) that there is a problem to begin with. It appears that some of our churches are beginning to realize what many who have left our churches are saying: “something isn’t working.”

Mission Alive, a church planting resource group with which our team is connected, was formed in 2004 by missiologist, Dr. Gailyn VanRheenan, whose study of the status of churches in North America convicted him of the need for renewed efforts in domestic mission work. One fairly new aspect of Mission Alive is a ministry called REvision, where leaders from established churches are trained – often by and alongside current church planters – to develop, communicate and implement a missional ecclesiology within their traditional context.

It is still too early to assess the impact that this ministry is having on the congregations involved, but the hope and prayer is that there is hope beyond only planting new churches. As Brueggemann pointed out, a lack of awareness of the situation among a majority of the leadership (let alone the whole congregation) seems to be one roadblock to the needed growth and maturation process. Standing outside the circle throwing rocks may get people’s attention, but then we have the added roadblock of angry people with bruises on their heads!

I believe that The Mystic Way can serve the established church by raising awareness of the need for whole-life discipleship / community and presenting a way forward that doesn’t require a violent dismantling of congregations, yet contains practical content for how to proceed.

Heath describes in several brief, but encouraging sections, different potential avenues for partnership between established, “anchor churches” and new communities. The picture is one of mutual encouragement and support, where the strengths of each are used to build up the other rather than being placed in tension and competition. The question that looms in my mind is whether or not this is possible given the history of turf-wars, power struggles and (to be totally honest) market-driven-rather-than-kingdom-focused definitions of success in the church. The Mystic Way, suggests that it is not only a possibility, but is a necessary and exciting present opportunity.

Where I’ve Been…

A couple people have asked when I was going to post again…many many other people have not asked.

Recently I’ve been loaded down with extra work to pay the bills, reading books, writing papers that aren’t very bloggy (translation: too long) and trying to learn how to live missionally in my community with the new overly full schedule.

But I have plans to post some stuff soon – several things that have had plenty of time to incubate, a few papers that can be whittled down to manageable lengths and some new stuff that is just starting to simmer. For those who are interested, I’d like to provide a list of books I’ve read over the past few months and a few that I’ll be reading over the next couple. Some of these have already had an enormous impact on my thinking. I plan to write a short blurb about each of them (some very short, some more lengthy) The titles on this page will become links to those posts as they become available.

Longing For Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community by Elaine Heath

The Mystic Way of Evangelism by Elaine Heath

Organic Church by Neil Cole (I was supposed to read this one a long time ago…)

Introducing the Missional Church by Alan Roxburgh

New Monasticism by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Becoming an Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism edited by Rutba House

The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder

The Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay

The Shaping of Things to Come by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost

ReJesus by Hirsch and Frost

The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch (another one I’ve had for a while but hadn’t gotten around to)

How (Not) To Speak of God by Peter Rollins

TO BE READ VERY SOON:

With Justice for All: A Strategy for Community Development by John Perkins

God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics and the Future by Joerg Rieger

The New Friars by Scott Bessenecker

Inhabiting the Church: Biblical Wisdom for a New Monasticism by Jon Stock, Tim Otto and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Evangelism After Christendom by Bryan Stone

Organic Leadership by Neil Cole

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