Category Archives: Church Planting

Blog posts pertaining to the ministry of missional church planting.

Birthday Cake Communion and a 7 Year Old Liturgist

red velvet communionA few weeks ago it was a red velvet cake, today it was a giant chocolate chip cookie. When The Gathering, um…gathers… for worship, there is ALWAYS food involved. If someone is having a birthday, there’s cake; maybe left over, or it might be made especially for the occasion.

And so recently we stumbled across what is rapidly becoming one of my new favorite traditions. Seeing the red velvet birthday cake near where we were preparing the communion elements, someone jokingly asked, “Are we having birthday cake for communion?”

I stopped dead in my tracks and said, “Yes. Yes we are.”

To help our children understand the meaning of the Eucharist, we have a slightly modified way of describing the bread and cup. We talk about the bread as Jesus’ body that GIVES life – as food does. And we talk about the cup as Jesus’ blood that SAVES life – just like it does in the hospital. Communion is our practice of proclaiming to one another, and recommitting to the One who gives us life and saves our life.

And the purpose of a birthday cake is to celebrate a life given and kept safe through another year. So today it was time to celebrate Rachel’s birthday. I lifted the giant chocolate chip cookie, breaking it in front of the community and proclaiming the familiar words, “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…”

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Then the birthday girl, in celebration of the gift of life, shared the gift of life with others. She broke off bite sized chunks, handing them to each person in turn saying, “This is Jesus body which gives life.” After everyone else was served, I got to break off a piece for Rachel – and her cake, celebrating God’s gift of life to her became Jesus’ body….celebrating God’s gift of life to her.

The symbolism was incredible.

So I asked Conner (9) and Micah (7) what they thought about our practice of birthday cake communion.

Conner: “The cake is, well, for one thing, its yummy. And two it celebrates people’s life and you know, this is Jesus’ body that gives life. Its important for us to do this together because Jesus loves us and we love Jesus.

Me: So why do you think we involve everybody in communion and not just the adults?

Conner: Its better to have all of us take communion instead of just the grown ups because everyone should be able to share Jesus with each other. Jesus loves kids too, not just adults that have been baptized, so we should all celebrate Jesus together.

Me: Micah, what do you think?

Micah: Its really good, especially when there’s cake… Its important to let kids take communion too because it helps us keep it in our minds when someone asks us why people take communion…we’ll just know the answer right away. The juice is the blood of Jesus and the bread is the body of Jesus. Jesus’ blood saves life and Jesus’ body gives life. That’s why we do it. 

The decision to incorporate our children fully into the life of the community has meant that our worship gatherings are hectic…sometimes stressfully so. Conner and Micah are two of the liturgists and worship leaders in our community. We typically use the Common Prayer liturgy in our gatherings and its often Micah or Conner who lead that time. They find people to read the scriptures, they lead us in the Lord’s prayer, they lead the responsive readings…and often they’ll lead a song or two (and so will several other people…including their little brother and the other 4-5 year olds).

The impact has been phenomenal. An intergenerational community that is truly an intergenerational COMMUNITY. My role, as “the minister,” has shifted to be one voice among many. I will often capitalize on teaching moments as they arise – for instance when we’re reading a passage from the Old Testament, I’ll follow up with some comments about the cultural setting or that particular story’s role in the larger narrative. And the others are quick to interject their own reflections on the readings or a prayer. Our times of prayer become an opportunity to lament, rejoice and wonder together. Each of us are able to share stories of God at work and frustrations for the areas in which God seems painfully absent. And it is absolutely normal for a child to respond with uncanny wisdom to a presented problem, or ask a probing question in response to a shared story.

We take time to pause and help the kids understand that the colon in the scripture reference separates the chapter from the verses; the dash tells us to read from one part through to the next and a semi-colon tells us to jump to the next passage. And these simple teaching moments have often provided unintended insight for adults as well.

And as Micah said, all this keeps our faith in our minds so that whenever someone asks, we’re ready to answer right away…even if we’re 7 years old.

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From Theology to Practice

The Mission Alive video I recently participated in has been released. For those who aren’t aware, Mission Alive is a resource organization that collaborates with churches and church planters in order to plant new churches and revitalize established churches.

Mission Alive is committed to the idea of, as they say, “Moving from theology to practice.” Basically this means that our starting point in ministry/missional life is not “what works” but “how God is at work.” Theological reflection must then compel us into action…because that’s precisely what we find God doing.

Take a look at this short video and tell me what you think.

From Theology to Practice from Mission Alive on Vimeo.

Courageous Church Conversation with Coffey

I recently stumbled across a series of blog posts by Shaun and Rai King (see the primary post here). In these exchanges the Kings describe (and defend) Shaun’s decision to step down as Lead Pastor of Courageous Church in Atlanta (which they planted in 2009).

I recently posted a link to the article on Facebook and ended up having a significant exchange with my friend Marshall Coffey. Marshall has agreed to let me share that conversation here with a few additional comments. (In order to remain true the original conversation, I have not edited these comments for content or typos.)

Marshall: After two difficult church planting journeys, I know the difficulty of the task. Yet I read immaturity in this couple with an intense focus on self. In our criticisms of church we often become the new religious elite, those who “have it figured out”. After three years they took shortcuts where Jesus mentored people who didn’t get it. As someone has said, “the family of believers already has an accuser.” Let’s not be guilty of joining him in our accusations. Love must drive everything we do, followed by patience.

Bret: Marshal – I don’t know these people so I can’t speak to their immaturity or maturity. They are obviously flawed (as are we all) but what I see here is an attempt to process through these issues and to whatever degree possible, to respond faithfully. However, after having been a part of a church plant that became a victim of its own “success” I also identify with their struggle to discern what it means to remain faithful to their calling.

The place where I see the most evidence of “immaturity” is in Rai’s first post – which she herself comes back and comments on how she spoke out of the raw emotion of the moment. I can only imagine how painful it can be for our wives to watch the pain we go through – particularly in the type of leadership situation that Courageous Church had chosen (we can say whatever we want about whether this was a healthy approach – regardless, its what they had.) However, she also seems to be trying to process through the event without being dishonest.

I see what you’re saying about “taking shortcuts” – but I also identify with their position. There comes a point when the rest of the leadership and the voice of the congregation is calling for a particular direction, focus and style of leadership where we must decide a couple things – Am I simply threatening the good this church IS doing by constantly trying to pull them in a different direction? Can I remain faithful to my calling and go the direction they’re calling for?

Perhaps one part of spiritual elitism is thinking that we know best and should remain at the helm regardless of what the rest of the congregation seems to want. Again, I’m not a big fan of this type of leadership model – but its the one their congregation has.

One reason I think we should all read this is that it highlights a trend that is beginning to emerge across denominations and cultural contexts. It seems that church plants that are seeking to function missionally face this kind of struggle (in one way or another) after about three to five years. We did, [at least three other church plants associated with our network did] – Hugh Halter and Alan Hirsch both comment on similar situations themselves and with countless others they’ve spoken to. As I’ve continued research for my doctoral project, it seems that this story is the norm

The pull of culture toward comfortable and consumer driven forms of “church” doesn’t stop just because we’ve seen early successes in living missionally – in fact, they seem to increase. A statement made to me a couple years ago seems to sum up a lot – “Okay, we’ve done this missional stuff. When do we get to be a real church?” Many times this is a result of the church planters making concessions and compromises to the missional calling along the way, but not always.

The question is how we will deal with this situation when it arises. I think it also highlights the need from the very beginning to not just focus on “missional church” but more specifically, missional discipleship.

Marshall: Bret, all good thoughts. Thank you. I can identify for sure. I stand as one still looking for answers. I see the trend you mentioned. I suppose we should expect it and learn how to push beyond it. Not sure how. What I do know is discipleship is a long and arduous process. We cannot make people “missional”. We can model and equip. We can teach. Ultimately, we’re waiting for the Lord to move in their hearts like he has the church planter’s. 

I try to recognize that many people who come into our churches are already tired, and most of them are experiences many forms of brokenness. Do we sometimes lay an additional burden on them with our talk of discipleship and missional living? I want us to be thoughtful how we present the message of following Jesus in a radical way. Until he is their Master in whom they place their hope, they will not experience freedom in the journey. They will be like those disciples in John 6 that wanted more bread but not the Bread of Life, and simply desert Jesus.

The immaturity I read in this couple is 1) They expected their desire and their words to quickly transform hearts, and after a very short time they stand in judgment on people who came for “not getting it.” 2) They both exhibit an air of superiority based on their grasp of discipleship that’s at a deeper level than others. I recognize it because I was (or still am?) arrogant in a similar way. I see this in many who leave one naiveté regarding church but have not come to grips with where that leaves them. Negativity is detrimental. (I think Rae’s first post is a great example of why we should not vent in a public way.) 3) His first two points where good, but his third was deficient. He’s suffering the Elijah syndrome of thinking there are so few, when God says, “shows what you know.” Who can count the faithful disciples of our Lord, and who judges the criteria of discipleship. I know I cannot. 

I’m convicted in Ephesians of the perspective God has of His Church. When I see Him enthroning His church alongside Jesus (2:6) and empowering them in the resurrection and ascension power of Jesus (1:19-20), I question how I’ve come to have such a low view of His church (in the past at least). I hear in the language of many church planters a low view of church and a high view of discipleship. Perhaps we should question if our culture is informing that as well. We need correctives, but need to be careful in running too far ahead.

Please here me say, I’m not condemning them. They are learning from their mistakes just as I did, the hard way. They are passionate but dangerous. Perhaps they need to stick with non-profit and show their discipleship there. Church has always and will always have a tension of arriving and not-yet-arriving. We need the Ephesians perspective, calling people to become what God has already made them.

Bret: I’m totally with you on the low-church vs high-discipleship issue. I am constantly getting myself in trouble with the more “organic” folks over that very issue.

I think the title of his third point is a bit of hyperbole (whether intended that way or not) – but I agree with his following paragraphs. Your point about the slow process of discipleship is well made. A question we must ask though is whether our patience serves to slowly lead folks out of consumer mindsets or provides a safe place to continue in the perpetually.

I’m against putting “additional burdens” on people – particularly the non-essential baggage that institutional forms of church have accumulated. I’m not so sure that missional life and discipleship can be added to that list though. These form the backbone of our calling itself. Jesus is the one who said “come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” But he also said, “take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” – And then there’s that “take up your cross daily and follow me” thing. Jesus “lost” a lot of disciples this way too. We shouldn’t try to run people off – but we have to be honest about what the call to Christ entails.

I’m all about inviting people to share life with us even before they’re ready to embrace the way of Jesus – I do it all the time. But I’m very much against communicating to people that its okay to accept Jesus as Savior and leave the Lord part until later…because later rarely gets here.

There is danger of elitism here…but it is a danger we all face constantly. My theory is that we’re all a little elitist – the rancher who talks down about city-folk, the uneducated who mock those in school, the Southerner who belittles the yankee – and vice versa for all these – …the list goes on and on.

Perhaps he was wrong to step down – perhaps not. I’m not sure from the little information we have. Maybe the problem is that these types of reflections will always be read with judgmental tone assumed when they’re published so close to the time of the event (I know this from personal experience).

One of the big questions I’m hearing from you (which I share) is whether the proper response to folks “not getting it” is to leave. My suspicion is that there isn’t an easy answer. I can identify with his statement that he can’t continue on the path of church as a “big buildings. huge crowds. few disciples.” Should he have stayed and helped them move towards a more healthy expression? Perhaps.

I don’t present these posts as an endorsement of all their content – in a different conversation, I’d have some pretty strong critiques. However, I do think there is much to reflect on and learn here. I’m not sure whether it was a good idea to put everything “out in public” like this or not – I can see both sides. However, I do know that what they’re saying is something that many are thinking – and feel isolated in their thoughts – so, in a sense, it also serves to confront the Elijah complex that many of us have.

thanks for the dialog!!! Its been helpful for me.

Marshall: My point about “additional burdens” concerns how we frame, or perhaps how they hear, our missional language. It can sound like more busyness rather than a way of life that is freeing and joyful, yet always calling us to the cross, His and ours.

I’ve also shifted my thinking away from the one’s who don’t seem to get it, allowing them to sort of stay present in their apathy, and instead pour energy and time into those beginning to open eyes. The former I can do nothing about. The latter is an exciting medium of art where the Master artist is busy doing his creative thing.

Bret: The busyness thing is certainly an important issue here – I’m currently writing a blog post for Helen Lee with the working title, “Missional Isn’t About Putting God First” – one of my primary points is that our life with God cannot be defined by stuff we add to or take away from our schedule – it actually entails a rearranging of how we view and engage everything. So the calling is actually much more than adding something to your already full schedule – its viewing the whole schedule (and more) as the context for God’s movement. – So, I’m with you here.

Your reply about pouring energy into those beginning to open their eyes is good – I’m in agreement. But what happens when the majority of the congregation seems to exist in the previous camp and expect you to focus your energies on the things they want? And not to be argumentative or critical (just trying to get at this from every angle), but how do you make these judgements (open eyes versus closed) without falling prey to the same elitism that you see in the original post?

Marshall: I don’t see it as a judgment thing, but a recognition. It may be how Paul chose a Timothy. As we spiritually discern our people, we can see those who are asking and seeking to go deeper. In a sense, I cannot help but notice, and I’d like to think it is a derivative of the Holy Spirit. I’m not suggesting everyone else gets kicked to the curb because we have very limited understanding of where they are in their lives, or at what point they may seek to go deeper. So its not, “We’ve got it and you don’t,” but a natural gravitation toward those God has positioned for His glory. The hot ones may be a key to opening the perspectives of the are not as far along. If a congregation is stifling the Spirit, perhaps that is a recognition to move on to more fruitful branches. When we moved into our current context, an established congregation, we came looking for 5-10% that seemed to be getting it or wanting “it”, knowing God has a history of using a few insignificant folks like myself to accomplish more than we can ask or imagine. I cannot see everything or much at all about our future here, but a granule of sand a day will eventually fill a bucket. Insert the Holy Spirit who may empower in His time, and you get the shore.

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I realize this is already a long post, but I’d like to offer a few final comments. This issue gets at the heart of our struggle to cultivate missional communities. We are trying to embrace people in the midst of their brokenness AND call them to embrace risk and adventure on mission with God. I believe both are not only possible, they are necessary…but they are certainly difficult.

Marshall makes some great points – particularly in reference to the patience required in discipleship. A six month process leading to large-scale change is pretty quick…which is one of the major drawbacks of an event and program driven church regardless of size. Its also a reason to consider whether a top-down program change will ever be effective – that’s my not-so subtle plug for Communitas, an approach that focuses on encountering the change you hope to see rather than mandating it 😉

However, change is difficult in any context.

The question of when to move on as a leader is quite difficult. On the one hand I very much appreciate Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s statement in The Wisdom of Stability: “If life with God can happen anywhere, it can happen here.” And yet, on the other hand, when a community of people, including leadership, insist on moving in a direction that you are convinced (and have had others affirm) is not the direction God is calling you…what is the proper response?

I recently struggled with a similar question for about a year. My initial impulse was to just leave and do something else out of frustration and exhaustion. But as I spent time in prayer it seemed that the Spirit was telling me to stay put and submit to the community for a season. Over time my heart changed. My desire to start something new remained, but for a whole new reason. I began to view the situation as an opportunity for new growth – not leaving something else behind.

I began to see that there were leaders in place who had a clear vision for where they felt God was leading them – specifically toward more one-on-one connection in discipleship outside of “church” participation. At the same time, I felt increasingly drawn toward reclaiming practices of spiritual formation, worship, etc that would seek to form a missional discipleship culture within the church community (as expressed in both the gathered and scattered church). So, why not use this as an opportunity to “plant out” and spread our influence to other parts of the community?

Things didn’t all progress quite like I’d hoped or anticipated…they rarely do. But we press on in light of God’s grace. While I know very little about Courageous Church or the Kings, I hope and pray that there will be grace and mercy shown throughout this transition and that both they and the community of Courageous Church will continue to pursue life with God boldly and… well, courageously.

My thanks to Marshall for his willingness to process through this stuff with me…and to you for reading all the way to the end!

From Theology to Practice

This morning I had the opportunity to take part in the filming of a new video for Mission Alive dealing with the issue of “Moving from Theology to Practice.” (Keep an eye out here and a Mission Alive’s website for the release of that video.) As is often the case, as I was driving back across the metroplex, I thought of a dozen things I wished I had said or said differently.

Partly this is because I felt a little disconnected and disjointed in my interview (we’ll see what wonders they are able to do in editing…) But the primary reason I couldn’t stop thinking of things I wish I’d said is that I believe this subject is So. Very. Important!

Much ink and perhaps a little blood has been shed over finding the “best practices” for ministry…and all too often those quests have been carried out with little thought given to the theological implications of our choices. Worse yet are the myriad of successful practices (where success = large crowds and financial support) built around anemic or just plain BAD theology (see Richard Beck’s excellent series on Why Bad Theologies are So Popular).

We often fail to see the ways in which the unreflective adoption of “best practices” can shape the way we view other people and even the way we view God.

In the case of “bad” theology the problems can run even deeper. Here’s a popular example (and one which I think many people are starting to see through): The loss of a loved one is deeply traumatic – all the more so when that loved one is young. In our attempts to console grieving family, statements are made, such as: “God just needed another angel.”

Aside from the fact that this statement completely misunderstands the origin of angels, it also says some very unsettling and incriminating things about God. It is even more unsettling when these types of statements are made from the “pulpit.” (Some may not agree with making a distinction between what a “normal” person says and what a “minister” claims – but that is simply the reality of the situation in traditionally structured churches.)

Beginning with best practices or unreflective theology works against the goal of cultivating faithful missional communities.

Additionally, it seems that a large number (I won’t pretend to know the percentage) of people involved in church planting are doing so from a largely reactionary and negative mindset. In this case, I don’t necessarily mean “negative” in the sense of having a sour attitude, but rather that our practices and our theology (even if its just implicit) are rooted in negating or reversing what someone else has done.

To be sure, there are some abuses of the past which should be reconciled or flat-out abandoned. However, in talking about moving from theology to practice, an inherent claim is that our thinking about God, faith, church, discipleship, worship, etc., should be generative (developed by what are we FOR because of the gospel vs. what we are against).

Think about it this way: When someone asks about your church planting (or your established context…or your personal faith – this holds true across contexts) how do you describe it? Do you begin with, “We/I aren’t so focused on _____” or “We’re/I’m trying to get away from _____”?

These statements may have their place – particularly when they’re used to clarify false-assumptions about the nature of our community. However, when they become the language of vision casting (formal or informal), warning sirens should begin going off in our heads.

The question that needs more attention in these situations is, “Okay, so what ARE you/AM I about?”

One thing I appreciate about Mission Alive’s approach is the steady commitment to deal substantively with this question – BEFORE formulating a strategy for church planting.

A couple years ago I read John Patton’s From Ministry to Theology. Patton states, “Christian ministry involves not only understanding what we do in light of our faith, but also understanding our faith in the light of what we do.” It is in the context of our dealings with others that our theology is able to be fleshed out and incarnated. I’ve begun incorporating this insight into my own work and teaching – We move from ministry to theology to practice.

This is not referring to ministry as an official position of leadership in a church – I mean ministry as engaging in concern, care and service within an actual place with actual people.

Theology, if it is going to lead to healthy practice, must be contextual theology – it is rooted in what God is up to IN THIS PLACE. To be sure there are cosmic elements to our theology (things that transcend time and place) but even they have contextual implications.

The people we encounter, the trials we go through and the victories we witness are able (if we’re willing to reflect carefully) to shed light on our theology, just as our theology sheds light on them. In her book Teaching From the Heart, Mary Elizabeth Moore addresses the value of case studies in religious education. One significant point in the book is her reminder that there is truth to be found in the case itself – not just in what we bring to it. When our eyes are open to what is happening around us, we begin to realize that God is indeed still at work in this world – and lo-and-behold, God’s actions are still able communicate truth.

I recognize that many people are hesitant to engage in theological reflection. I’ve heard a number of people say, “that’s for academics – my calling is in the field.” Or others are suspicious of the whole process: “I just read the Bible and do what it says.” I vividly remember a conversation I had at a fast food restaurant with a friend who said, “Well, you know I’m able to hear from God more clearly than you because you’ve read what other people have said about it – but I just read the Bible.”

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that, but was the first time I heard it from a friend in such a matter-of-fact, non-accusatory way. It was just common knowledge that those who engage in theological reflection – especially if they’ve studied theology -simply can’t hear from the Spirit.

This same struggle has been played out for years between “academics” and “practitioners.” I remember in seminary the tension between those who were preparing for academic careers / PhD studies and those who were preparing to serve as preachers or other local church ministries. One group says the other is too lazy to do the hard work of real substantial theology, while the other group lobs back accusations of being disconnected from the “real life of faith.” (And of course both groups agreed that the missions majors were just plain weird.)

Aside from being a ridiculous game among privileged students (which unfortunately grows into a ridiculous game between privileged professionals) – this whole debate misses anything resembling the point. This isn’t an either/or issue. We cannot hope to cultivate healthy communities of faith without both theological reflection and practical ministry. They are two sides of the same coin – each leading to further insight in the other.

This isn’t to say that we all have to read Barth’s Dogmatics once a year (to my non-nerd friends, Dogmatics is the theological equivalent of War and Peace…great stuff but not a beach-read by any stretch).

However, we must come to grips with the reality that what we do (or choose not to do) will inevitably communicate something about who we believe God to be… At the very least we should pause to think about what that might be.

To be as clear as possible, I’m not simply talking to those who’ve spent the last 14 years pursuing degrees in ministry like this one insane guy I know. Taking the move from theology to practice seriously doesn’t require the ability to read Greek or Hebrew, quote your favorite theologian or describe the history of theological development in the church. (Though, contrary to my fast-food companion, I still think these are valuable contributions to the conversation.)

Theological reflection should inform our practice, it should be considered from within a local context and it is best approached in community. Our churches should be communities of theological discernment – with each disciple contributing the gifts and resources they possess to the process. Theologies which are formed in private can have a tendency to represent our own personal preferences and idiosyncrasies more than the movement of God in this place.

I didn’t really have time, and the context didn’t really allow for me to get into all this in the video…and I expect that about 10 minutes after this is posted I’ll begin thinking of other things I wish I’d said or said differently in this post. But…its a start.

In the meantime, I’d love for others to weigh in on the topic.

Anybody?…

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