Category Archives: church planting

How Methodists Could Become More Missional

circuitriderA 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.

The Missional Monks Book

A while back I started writing a series of posts titled “The Bare Minimum.” While the series did not start this way, as I have unpacked these ideas (mostly offline) the contributions of the new monastics have surfaced as valuable answer to the discipleship conundrum presented by our part-time schedule in faith.

Obviously, I haven’t posted any of the follow-up posts that I’d suggested were in the works. There are a few reasons for this.

First, we’re entering a very busy season for the Missional Wisdom Foundation – new cohorts forming, current cohorts engaging in one-on-one coaching for their practicums (I’m doing a LOT of coaching these days). In a sense, I haven’t had time to write about the impact of missional monasticism because I’ve been consumed in the cultivation of missional monasticism.

But the main reason I haven’t posted anything else on this in a while is pretty simple…it is being worked into the manuscript for a Missional Monks book!

This year the Sentralized Conference is partnering with Forge and IVP to host The Great Forge Write-Off. People who have never published a book are invited to submit proposals that will be reviewed by a panel of authors and narrowed down to six selections – which will be pitched to the folks from IVP at this year’s Sentralized Conference in Kansas City.

So between work trips, coaching calls, course planning, retreat/immersion leading, schedule coordinating, and summertime Wellsbrother mad-houseness, I’ve been working on my first book.

Here are a couple excerpts from my application/proposal to The Great Forge Write-Off:

In The Forgotten Ways, Hirsch says that “if mission is our sending, then incarnational is how we go.” Missional Monks is about how we go together.

Within the missional conversation, some have begun questioning whether the missional impulse adequately emphasizes intentional discipleship.

Perhaps the problem isn’t a low emphasis on discipleship, but a struggle to find ways to translate that emphasis into actually, consistently pursuing discipleship together in our hyper-mobile culture. We talk about missional as an orientation, as a way of life. But is it?

Have we gotten good at talking about being missional, even started getting to know our neighbors again, but failed to address the rhythms of life that continually pull our focus away from living in the moment?

If engaging in the mission of God is going to be rooted in deep discipleship; if it is going to be more (though not less) than social activism, we must find ways to fully and finally let go of our part-time and individualistic approach. This message has been put forth, but often the question remains… “How?”

This is where the new (and old) monastics can help us – even in the suburbs. This book draws largely from our experiences in the Missional Wisdom Foundation, from my own struggles and successes in missional-monastic church planting, and the stories of friends who have sought to cultivate this kind of life in their own context.

Contribution to be made by this Book

The information in this book is not “new.” It is ancient – and has been wrongly set-aside in our culture. By bringing the missional and monastic streams together in this way, the book provides a glimpse into a major aspect of why our attempts at discipleship often flounder.

This book is the fruit of both academic study and actual practice. I’ve read and been shaped significantly by a wide range of missional and monastic scholars and practitioners. I have reflected academically on their work. Yet, I’ve been blessed to work in the trenches as a church planter and a minister in established churches. My thinking has been challenged and refined through my work with multiple missional-monastic communities through the Missional Wisdom Foundation (MWF) – both residential communities and worshipping communities. And I’ve seen these principles fleshed out in many different ways as teacher, equipper and coach with those in established church contexts through the MWF’s Academy for Missional Wisdom.

It seems that often in missional literature we simply avoid the problem of time. We say that we must focus on daily-lived faith, but we dance around how to actually accomplish that with others.

On the other hand much of the work of the new monastics fails to connect with those who aren’t planning to relocate to urban centers, and aren’t willing to move into a large house with several other people.

That being said, I am finding it increasingly common to encounter people who have read the work of Elaine Heath, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, John Perkins, and others. The question – whether asked longingly or dismissively – seems to be, “Is it even possible for this to translate into our context?”

Missional Monks bridges the gap. It will address the issue of time and community, but with a constant eye toward what that means for everyday disciples with jobs, families, and responsibilities that may seem – at first glance – incompatible with monastic rhythms.

By drawing from the stories of real people attempting to live these principles in community with others, this book provides examples of how missional-monastic rhythms are possible in our culture. This book will not attempt to convince people to organize in a particular way, leave to plant churches or relocate to a specific type of location. It will inspire imagination as to how a disciplined imagination in community can be lived out wherever we are.

At the end of this month I’ll be flying out to Kansas City where hopefully I’ll be among those selected to pitch my book idea to IVP…and then hopefully will be one that they’ll decide to publish (they might not select any of the proposals…or may take all six).

So, if you’re on Facebook or Twitter, please let the folks at Sentralized (Facebook page / twitter account) and InterVarsity Press (Facebook page / twitter account) know that you’d like to see Missional Monks: The Wisdom of a Disciplined Imagination in Community become a published work.

Affirmation of Discernment, continued.

This post is continued from yesterday. I hope you hugged a preacher…

The decision to potentially pursue a ministry position with an established congregation would most likely mean moving out of the area – possibly out of Texas, yet again. We didn’t like the idea of moving away, but if the job didn’t come through with MWF, I didn’t really see what options were left. I’ve learned that you can do just about anything for a season – if it is important enough. But we all have limited energy and resources…and mine were tapped.

In late February we received the news that the MWF’s paperwork would not be finalized in time for the March grant deadline. It could be another year or more before the position would be possible (in fact, it is now May and the paperwork is still pending). It was time to initiate plan B.

Damn.

Putting together a resume was not half as difficult as getting my heart and mind to a place where A) any church would be interested in hiring me and B) I would be faithfully entering a new situation without bitterness and reservation.

I really believed that just making a decision to move forward would bring a semblance of peace. Isn’t that how it usually works? Even if it isn’t the outcome we’d hoped for, just the removal of wondering is typically a relief.

It wasn’t… at all.

The truth is, I felt fairly confident that if we accepted a position, I would throw myself into the life of that community…but it still seemed wrong somehow. This was when I started doubting just about everything in a significant way. How could I feel so strongly about what it was God had called me to and yet not be able to do that? It was as if Paul had received the vision about the man from Macedonia calling them to come help only to find that someone had extended the Great Wall of China right across their path.

An answer that seemed increasingly reasonable was that God hadn’t called me to anything, I was just making it all up in my clearly “nuts” head.

The day I sent out my first batch of resumes I had an experience which brought me more sadness about leaving Burleson and caused me to question everything all over again. Then a couple days later, I had another one (you can read about that here).

So I talked it over with Rachel and we decided to do something that neither of us wanted to do again – a path we’d even rejected in choosing to put together resumes. We decided to continue pursuing conversations with any of the churches that contacted us from the first round of resumes, but to hold off on sending any more until we tried one final round of fundraising.

Fundraising…ugh.

From conversations with MWF I felt confident that within two years I could have a full-time position which would allow to continue in our church planting work here in Burleson and also work to equip others to start new faith communities, as well as lead established ones in missional renewal. If I could just hang on for a couple more years.

At this point the “are you nuts” questions started bubbling up again.

Nuts or not, I put together a packet of fundraising materials. I posted them in pdf form here on this website, and started contacting churches in hopes of setting up a meeting to discuss our request.

I didn’t get any takers. That wasn’t really surprising – I’ve done fundraising before and I know how long it takes to get any traction with churches and missions committees. I wasn’t discouraged by the lack of folks jumping at the chance to support us…though I was starting to get a little antsy at the lack of any response at all – not even a “we’ll get back to you.”

I forwarded my material to lots of people, including several who I knew would be good at offering a careful evaluation and suggestions for how to improve.

One of those people was Larry Duggins, the executive director of the MWF. We were working together on a website project anyway so he asked if I’d like to stay a little longer in order to talk about my fundraising material.

In the two days before our meeting two separate churches (neither of which in or near North Texas) contacted me saying I’d made it past the initial “resume culling” and was invited to pursue further conversations about their ministry opening. Both asked me to fill out a questionnaire to help the search team get to know my theology and philosophy of ministry. Honestly, just trying to fill them out was difficult.

There was a (mostly) unconscious part of me that was rebelling and wanted to subtly undermine my chances of further interviews – easy enough to do. There was a more conscious part that just wanted to curl up in a ball. But I knew that if this was the door that God opened then I’d better get my head and heart into it – both seemed like good churches and if I wasn’t going to commit then, well…they deserved better than me and I needed to stop pretending like I care about following where God leads.

So I committed. I responded carefully and honestly (without being so in-your-face that they’d run in fear).

The day after both had been sent, I met with Larry. I was looking forward to some helpful insights on the fundraising process. Instead he said, “We looked over your stuff. We’d like to offer to pick up the amount you’re seeking to raise and have you start working full-time for MWF effective immediately.”

I think I was accepting the job before I’d even registered that it had been offered.

I’d like to say that my calm acceptance and conversation was simply an example of my awesome professionalism. But really, I was simply blindsided and in shock…in a good way for once.

I didn’t start shaking until the drive home.

Back to the discernment issue. If we hadn’t carefully and prayerfully made plans – and then stuck to those plans – there’s little chance that we would have been in place long enough for this to all play out. Sure, most of the plans we made didn’t pan out the way we anticipated. It was frustrating and exhausting.

In retrospect I can see how most of what we attempted over the last three years either taught us something significant about this approach to missional life and church planting (you should hear some of my stories of 2 am conversations with fellow security guards) or they kept us going until the next temporary phase came along.

In the moment it didn’t make sense that my prayers and processes of discernment lead to the perceived response of “I’ve called you to this, do it faithfully.” How? How could we keep going when the doors to support kept slamming shut? And yet, we never missed a payment.

That part really didn’t make sense. According to our budget and financial records, we should have run out of money MONTHS ago. But at the end of each month everything worked out. Every month.

I don’t think that our plans give God something to laugh about. Our plans, if they are developed through prayer and discernment, keep us moving forward when we can’t see where the road is headed. Our plans are one part of why we were still here to see God’s miraculous provision come to pass. Without prayerful planning – and sticking to our commitments even when conventional wisdom said to cut our losses – we most likely would have given up and moved on to something else entirely. Had that happened, I am confident that God would have still found ways to use our lives for his Kingdom, but we would have missed out on that which I believe God has been carefully and thoroughly preparing us. By sticking it out, we are more convinced than ever that we are doing precisely what God has called us to do.

And I wonder about those two interviews. The timing was very interesting. Was this a situation like Abraham on the mountain with Isaac where I was being given a chance to see for myself just how much I trusted God’s leadership? I don’t know if it was or not…but that’s precisely how it has impacted me.

I’ve been trying to write this post for a couple weeks…but I’ve been speechless.

Obviously, it was a short-lived affliction.

For the past 17 days I could feel the implications, lessons and reflections rolling around in my head, but they wouldn’t surface. Dan Bouchelle wrote a post recently on the danger of journaling and writing for us wordy types. I think he is absolutely correct. I needed to be silent before God in thanksgiving and praise before trying to share this story.

My role has expanded considerably within the MWF and I’m already tackling some new challenges – not the least of which being the very enjoyable task of getting to know the students and leaders who participate, serve and lead in the Epworth Houses and New Day communities. One of the aspects of my job which I anticipate bringing me great joy is coming alongside to support and encourage these folks. Their holistic approach to life, faith and ministry is inspirational and, let’s face it, somewhat nuts.

I can appreciate that.

Affirmation of Discernment

A lot has happened since I started working on my Bare Minimum series of posts. I haven’t forgotten about that, I’ll come back to it very soon. However, after a couple weeks of vacillating between dazed and frantically busy, I need to post some thoughts about a huge development in our lives.

I’m needing help processing a particular feeling. I’ve heard of it before, I’ve even known people who claim to have dealt with it, but the very concept has always been absolutely foreign to my life experience. So, I’ll need some coaching from those more accustomed to this (for me) uncharted experience of being rendered “speechless.” Who’d have thought such a thing was even possible?

Of the spiritual disciplines I’ve sought to cultivate in my life, perhaps none has been more transformative (particularly to the way I make decisions) than the practice of spiritual discernment. Sure, I grew up in a tradition and in a family that valued praying about matters, big and small, to ensure that we were submitting to the will of God in our lives. And sometimes, not always, this got translated into a low view of planning and thinking ahead. After all, “our planning just gives God something to laugh about.”

This wasn’t always the mentality, but it certainly cropped up – usually when someone was tired of thinking, didn’t know what to do or was frustrated by rapidly changing circumstances and unpredictable developments.

Several years ago, as I began digging more deeply into the classic spiritual disciplines, someone commented on the “lost art of discernment.” The comment was made that “the only planning which is a pointless, human endeavor is that which is pointless, human planning.”

What if, instead, we viewed the process of planning as an act of prayer and discernment. To spend time with God in silence, listening deeply. To listen, meditate on scripture, bring what you feel you’ve heard back to a discerning community and “compare notes.” And then to allow our decisions, plans, etc to grow from this intentional process of listening, rather than praying over what we’ve decided…could be cool right?

Actually, as I already suggested, its been transformational. Ridiculously so. So what do you do when you’ve submitted something to prayer and discernment repeatedly, and in community with others, consistently hearing the same thing…only to have outside factors block the path over and again? What do you do when your heart, your prayers, and your praying community all agree, but other issues seem to be demanding a different conclusion?

Well, I don’t know what you do, but apparently I begin to lose confidence in whether I have ever actually been led by God at all. It isn’t an “all at once” kind of deflation, but a gradual, life-draining, slow-acting toxin which little by little even erodes one’s basic convictions about their relationship with God…I must not be walking too close if my messages are getting this crossed.

For quite some time people have been telling me I’m nuts. They’re right, of course. However I’ve always felt they had reached the correct conclusion on wrong evidence.

When I left a well paying, relatively stable (shocking in its own right, given the history) preaching position in order to pursue church planting, some said the decision was inspirational – others said it was nuts.

When we chose to do so in 2008, on the verge of a national economic melt-down, most people said we were nuts – a few said it was inspirational…but even some of them seemed to wonder if at least the timing was nuts.

When we decided that our efforts in church planting would focus on the slow, non-salary producing connection to cynical de-churched folks and the suburban poor, people rightly asked how we’d pay the bills. My response that God had called us into this and wouldn’t leave us stranded received a nearly unanimous “you’re nuts” even from those who thought it was inspirational.

When I accepted that the bi-vocational approach was necessary some believed I was starting to see the light. But when we realized that my skill set and training don’t exactly translate into many “secular” career opportunities – and certainly few that would allow us to continue church planting, even I began to think I was nuts.

When bi-vocational became multi-vocational (sometimes as many as 6 different part-time and full-time jobs simultaneously) I started thinking that “Nuts” should be printed on my business card.

Throughout this time we continued to pray and discern with others. Perhaps relocating to a new area for church planting would provide other opportunities – both for support and employment. But over and again the closest thing to an answer I felt I was receiving (and having confirmed by others) was “I’ve called you to this, do it faithfully.” It didn’t seem to matter that I was increasingly convinced that I had no idea how to do it.

I tried working in sales for both a roofing company and a security company. It was not good. I prayed with a few people as we put new roofs on their house – that was great. I had some very significant conversations about the Way of Jesus with a couple contractors. But at the end of the day, I wasn’t a good salesman…which sort of defeated the purpose.

I tried taking my experiences and education and translating them into an organization – Missional Monks – which could provide the financial support we needed. I still think that is a good idea, but it became very apparent that I would need one or both of the following to grow Missional Monks into something financially sustainable: time and money. I had neither.

According to our budget and conversations with some of our financial supporters in church planting (without whose partnership we could not have held on this long) we expected that our situation would no longer be sustainable after August/September of 2011.

But then another possibility arose. Last year I helped to launch The Academy for Missional Wisdom – one of three ministries operated by the Missional Wisdom Foundation (MWF). I was able to integrate my work with the Academy with the completion of my D.Min. project and dissertation – which I believe improved my efforts in both.

We began conversations about the possibility of a full-time position with the MWF around the beginning of 2012. Unfortunately, it seemed as though the timing was going to be a little late. We began praying that if this was the path forward that God would not only provide for our needs in the meantime but would also give us the courage to push through.

September came and went and somehow there was still enough money in the bank to pay the bills. Seriously, Rachel is fantastic with budgets and stretching a dollar but she said plainly, “I don’t understand, there shouldn’t be anything left in there.”

In November we learned that there were some IRS bureaucracy log-jams impeding the MWF’s progress toward getting the grants necessary to fund a full-time director. The job was still a possibility, but things were looking shaky on the early 2012 timeline.

Meanwhile, even those who’d been our strongest supporters began asking subtle questions like, “So…what’s plan B?” I insisted that I wasn’t interested in plan B until I had clear evidence that God wanted me to abandon plan A…and I’m pretty sure I heard “you’re nuts” in the subtext of my friends’ replies.

Others asked, “At what point do you decide that all of this is the answer to your prayers for discernment? Maybe the answer just isn’t what you want to hear.”

That one rocked me a bit. For the first time I began wondering if my friends were right in their conclusion of my mental state.

After more prayer we decided that if the paperwork for the MWF didn’t come through in time for the grant deadlines then we would begin pursuing the dreaded plan B…we just had to figure out what that was.

I’ve worked a lot of jobs these past several years and I’ve learned a few things about myself in the process. It’s not just that I’m trained to equip disciples and teach others about God, I’ve been called to do so. I know that because I’ve tried doing a lot of other things, and this is the only stuff that makes sense…and it is what I want to spend all of my working hours devoted to. This isn’t about not wanting “a real job” or only wanting to do what is pleasant – if you think differently, I’d be happy to compare time-sheets and job lists.

A line from the movie Gladiator has always resonated with me, “Sometimes I do what I want to do, the rest of the time I do what I must do.” I will do whatever I must do in order to continue doing what God has called me to do.

But if a sustainable bi-vocational situation wasn’t possible – and working a crazy assortment of random jobs was no longer sufficient, what would I do in order to continue doing what God has called me to do?

We determined that if plan B became necessary then I would once again pursue a position as a minister with an established congregation. We would pray that God would direct us to church that was seeking to equip the congregation for missional life in their community. Perhaps I would even be able to find a situation where we could work to equip and support the planting of new churches and the formation of missional-micro communities from within the congregation.

It shouldn’t be the case, but so often serving in leadership for a church is not very conducive to connecting with people who aren’t Christians. There is so much “stuff” that gets in the way of the very thing you feel called to be doing. I know its fun, and more than a little humorous, to make jokes about preachers getting paid to play golf all week. There are probably a few for whom this is accurate, but I don’t know many personally…and I know a lot of preachers. It is a rewarding job, but it is frustrating, exhausting work that comes with an oversized target as part of the compensation package.

If you’ve never served as a full-time minister or an elder for an established congregation, stop reading this, go find one and give them a hug. I’ll finish the rest of this post tomorrow, after you’ve had a chance to do so…

Seriously, at least send them an email…

MY Community

I’m kinda weird.

No, no, don’t try to deny it. Its true. If you remain dubious, my wife and mother will both happily provide confirmation.

I’ve always lived in this strange tension between groups – belonging to many but not really belonging to any. This isn’t so much an adolescent existential crisis – at least, I don’t think so…but adolescents always deny it too…dang dirty paradoxes!!

Part of it stems from my inability to do things the “normal” way. I graduated high school in August – so, not a full year early and not with my original class…I’m not really in either group. As a growed-up, I’ve tried to walk the line between academics and practical ministry – which means that I’ll likely never be a stand-out in either and I’m not enough of a people person to do a good job of bringing the two groups together. There’s another one…what kind of introvert goes into church planting?? A weird one.

I have conservative friends who all think I’m too liberal (they’re probably right) and liberal friends who all think I’m too conservative (they’re probably right…but admittedly there are fewer of them and they’re all pretty weird too.)

Country folks say I’m too city and city-folks say I’m too country…though using the word “city-folks” certainly provides a colloquial indicator of leaning toward the former. Of course, using “colloquial indicator” returns the scale to neutral.

Many in the Churches of Christ find me suspect – and so does everyone outside the Churches of Christ. Maybe that’s not a good example, I’m just suspect.

If scientists had any reason to study me they’d find a confusing mixture of (over)work ethic and laziness, obsessive tendencies and flightiness, perfectionism and procrastination.

I absolutely love to plan things in my head. Stupid random things that aren’t ever going to become reality – but if they do, I have a plan in place. The only problem is that I can’t stand operating under a strictly planned regimen like the ones I concoct.

You may say to me, “You aren’t so unique. There are plenty of people who are wired this way.”

Touché scientist.

However, my response is, “Yes. There are others like me. And they too are weird.”

Make no mistake, this weirdness sets the stage for interesting things to happen. I have accumulated a number of life experiences which are inspirational and/or (usually and) utterly ridiculous. And it seems that I’m genetically predisposed to these sorts of stories.

The closest I’ve come to “normalcy” was right before I got laid off and moved my family to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But these interesting stories come at a price. Life isn’t an epic novel and I’m not the beloved main character. Maybe I’m the strange traveling companion who bites it just before the plot resolves…who knows, my “biting it” may just provide the aforementioned resolution.

And unlike a character in a novel, I often don’t experience a miraculous rising above my limitations. I also haven’t found the instant healing energy/medical packs that litter the video game landscape.

They say that its darkest right before dawn – which if “dawn” is defined as the point at which it starts getting light, then that statement is like saying you found something in the last place you looked. Really? Amazing.

But the problem I’ve found is that when you think you’ve reached that darkest time right before dawn… it often gets darker still. You don’t know the night is as dark as it can get until it starts getting light again. So waiting for dawn seems to be a recipe for frustration and ulcers.

But you can only sing so many songs to make the night seem less terrible.

My life lacks normalcy. I’ve accepted that. I often feel like an outsider everywhere I go…partly due to the abnormal rhythms of my life, but mostly due to my general weirdness. Okay. We’ve lived in our current house for three years. That is by far the longest I’ve lived anywhere since leaving my parents’ house back in the 20th century. Today, I had a brief and yet eye-opening experience.

While my truck was drinking an expensive steak dinner for two’s worth of gas, I went into the gas station to get a cup of ice. In the contemporary world of 32oz plastic cups, ice ain’t free. Supposedly that used to happen – in Mayberry – when everybody was neighborly and whatnot. Those days are gone. I live in a hyper-mobile culture where nobody knows anybody and ice ain’t free.

But today it was.

And I realized that it has been on several occasions at this gas station…just like the coffee often is at my favorite cafe (if you know me, you know what that is…but I’ll leave the name out in case Big Brother is listening). Why was my ice free? For the same reason my coffee often is.

Because I’m a “regular.” Because I’m part of the group. Because even if they don’t all know my name, they recognize my face.

For whatever its worth, to some small degree, I belong to these transient communities. A moment of normalcy in the midst of chaos. I initially set out to “inhabit” these spaces three years ago as on opportunity for missional engagement in THE community. Somewhere along the way it became engagement in MY community.

…Which probably means we’ll have to move soon.

Sorry, neither of you two readers would have believed this was authentic if I didn’t include a little cynicism.

Perhaps I should say more about this. I should unpack it and explain away the weirdness to show how I’ve developed healthy rhythms within the insanity…to provide some attempt at profundity. But I haven’t…so I won’t. Today, a brief moment of connection will have to suffice – for me and for you.


A Timely Retrospective

As we prepare to once again launch a fundraising effort for church planting, I decided to repost this article I wrote on the cusp of our move to Burleson nearly three years ago. The details are different this time around, we’re hoping to relocate to the other side of town, not to another state. We have 3 years experience in the ministry of planting churches and specifically working with people in this area. We’ve now been married over 10 years and for the first time ever have lived in the same house for over 2.5 years. We’re hoping our next move will be the last for many years to come. As I reread this post, I was struck by how much things have changed and how much they have stayed the same. The economy got worse, then it seemed to get a little better…nationwide, organizations are giving less to charitable causes and non-profits while individuals seem to be giving more. Our prayer as we begin this process is that the Holy Spirit will guide us to connect with both churches and individuals willing to partner with us in the ministry of planting churches and equipping congregations to live missionally in their neighborhoods.

Bad Ideas and Ones That Just Seem That Way. Oct 3, 2008

So as you may or may not know, Rachel and I have been married nearly 8 years and we are about to (hopefully) complete our 8th move together. Over the years we have become pretty proficient packers and movers, with a thoroughly tested and carefully revised system. Rachel has always been in charge of packing (I handle the garage, my closet and anything she tells me to do…). I’ve been in charge of moving day and take pride in the fact that when folks show up to help us load the trucks there are pretty much only two types of items in our home: boxes and furniture. When we moved from Mesquite to Dallas the total time from when the first box was picked up until we were all sitting in the new house eating lunch was 2.5 hours (that’s including the 15-20 minute drive to our new house).

But times they are a changin’. If you read Rachel’s blog you know that she normally has nearly half the house packed before we send the kids to grandparents’ house for crunch time. The jump from 2 to 3 kids has shifted the balance of power and we simply did not have nearly as much done. Wednesday when I took the boys to my mom, Rachel was sick – which meant that the whole day she had to herself to get stuff done without me or the boys in her way was…well, it wasn’t good. Then yesterday I spent the day battling off the ick as well.

However, last night as we prepared for bed, we felt that all-in-all we were in decent shape. Joey had been incredibly cooperative, we actually had several boxes packed, the garage was close to ready…and we still had all day today, Saturday, most of the day Sunday and Monday before the big day Tuesday.

But that wasn’t good enough for me.

While carrying some stuff out to the truck I accidentally walked into the side of an open drawer. That was not a good idea. Three hours later we were back home with seven stinking stitches. But you know, we still got a lot done today.

The doctor, after conceding that I wasn’t going to stay off my feet, requested that I at least spend an hour of so with my leg propped up so that the bleeding would stop (which it didn’t do the entire time they were stitching me up…it was kinda cool). During my long lunch break I watched CNN. There was plenty of talk about the bailout plan – which at that point was being deliberated in the House of Representatives. There was also plenty of talk about the overall state of the economy and the future for jobs and financial security for American citizens.

This isn’t a bombshell; things have been looking a bit dreary for quite some time now. And to be totally honest there have been a few people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that we’re raising money to plant churches. “Now?” they often ask. A few have even come right out and said that they think this is a bad idea. Is the decision to step out on faith and plant new churches right now an idea comparable to kicking an open drawer while packing?

The short answer, I believe, is “no”.

It is true that finances are tight and we are asking people, in the midst this situation, to partner with us financially. It is true that many people are unsure about their job security. It is true that for many people the hope, optimism and general sense of well-being found in this country’s prosperity have been shaken. But that is all the more reason for us to be doing precisely what we’re doing.

Chris Chappotin, my new coworker, just read a book called Death By Suburb. I’m currently reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope. Both of these books, in one way or another, discuss the danger of putting our hope and faith in something less than God. I wonder how many people have been uninterested in God because a prosperous society has been providing them with liberal doses of pain killers – never truly addressing the problems in their life but effectively masking the symptoms in the short run. But (at the risk of overusing the metaphor) perhaps the prescription has run out for many of us.

I believe that today there are many people who have lost or are afraid they may lose their security net and I believe that those people are going to be more receptive than ever to hearing the good news of God who has come near; a God who has come to repair the broken systems of this world which lead to insecurity, fear and oppression; a God who has called us to work with him to reconcile, heal and restore his good creation.

I believe that people are going to be receptive, but there’s more to it than just that. I also believe that right now we NEED hope. Part of why folks are receptive is that the good news which we proclaim is something which we legitimately crave. The truth is that the Kingdom of God is breaking into this world, even in the midst of financial crisis. This kingdom has implications (as Surprised By Hope emphasizes) for life after death, life after life after death and even life BEFORE death!

There has never been a more appropriate time in our lifetime to be engaged in God’s mission; planting churches right now is a GOOD idea.

Those we are asking to partner with us are being faced with a big commitment of faith – trust me, I understand that very well. However, I am more convinced than ever that this is precisely the kind of risk we are being called to take in the name of Jesus. We have raised nearly 50% of our goal (for the first year anyway), we are moving Wednesday and we are convinced that God is opening these doors. We are also convinced that the hurdles which keep popping up this week are examples of spiritual warfare. I believe that the forces of darkness at work in this world should be nervous – not because of us, but because of the powerfully advancing Kingdom in which our citizenship resides.

We are talking with a few churches right now about coming on board as a supporting church for our family and the ministry of planting churches in the Burleson / south Fort Worth area. Several of these churches are considering one time or special gifts – which we of course appreciate greatly. Our church here at Tammany Oaks has agreed to partner with us for one year. We need other congregations to partner with us regularly over the next three years or so. Make no mistake, we’re still looking for individuals to join us. But perhaps your congregation or one you know of would be interested in supporting (or partially supporting) a domestic missionary family. Perhaps your church family also believes that it is time for the community of God to advance into the darkness in order to reflect light into every dark corner. If so would you help us get connected with your church? Would you be the voice calling your leadership to partner with us?

I have now officially shed blood for this ministry, and the 7 stitches (a good, holy number by the way) are symbolic of my commitment…not my inability to watch where I’m walking, as you may have thought. I pray that very soon we will have raised our full support (because apparently I really need to get medical insurance!!). In the meantime we are continuing to pray for the individuals and congregations that God is preparing to bring into our lives as partners, as well as the individuals and families that we are going to be blessed to be in relationship with through the ministry of planting new churches.

A New Day Dawns

In the summer of 2005 my world turned upside down. I was a youth minister at a church in Dallas, only a few months away from finishing grad school at ACU and we’d just found out Rachel was pregnant with Micah (our now 5 year old). Life seemed to be progressing in fairly predictable fashion. My job seemed secure, my family was growing, we lived in a house we planned to buy in a nice but affordable Dallas neighborhood. We had some exciting things happening in the youth ministry. It wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops, there were frustrations and struggles, but all in all, things were good.

Then one Tuesday I was told that the leadership of the church had decided to eliminate my position at the church. In one conversation the rug was pulled out from under us. I began looking for another job. We had grown to love Dallas and had very good friends there…but to find another ministry job would most likely mean moving. For months I searched. Time and time again we found ourselves among the final 2 applicants for a position – several of which were still in the DFW area – and every time someone from the selection committee would call to say they were very sorry but they’d decided on the other guy. In one week I got a call from one church saying they felt like they needed someone a little younger, another saying they wanted someone a little older…and another that just wanted someone else. I felt like I was the momma bear’s porridge AND the daddy bear’s porridge.

After 6 months, and jobs in insurance adjusting, Barnes and Noble bookshelf alphabetizing, bounce house set-upping, disaster relief child caring and even a few random jobs, we were invited to move to the New Orleans area on a one year contract where I’d work as an outreach minister in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The first year and a half were brutal. We were still wounded from our previous job loss…and in hindsight were probably not in the best state-of-mind to relocate to a disaster area. However, our one year contract became nearly three years, the outreach ministry position became the preaching ministry position and Tammany Oaks became our family.

I began spending time at local coffee shops and cafes. I met and developed friendships with people who had little or no desire to ever step foot in a “church building.” It became apparent to me that in order to truly connect with such folks we’d need a very different approach than what we were used to. We began to discern a call to church planting.

So, we told Tammany Oaks what we were thinking and our desire to take up this calling in north Texas – to be sent home as missionaries. I was nervous, I’d been dropped by a church before, how would this one respond? My fears proved to be unfounded in this instance. For six months we remained at Tammany Oaks while we raised support – in the midst of church family that prayed over us and pledged a year of financial support themselves, and friends who are still very dear to us.

Four of us had left Texas in April/May 2006 and five moved back to north Texas in October of 2008 (Josiah was born in Covington, Louisiana, but still secretly on Texas soil as I’d had a bag of that beautiful sandy-loam smuggled into the delivery room…) We began working with Christ Journey, a young church plant in Burleson. I spent time developing spiritual formation and discipleship processes for a house church based ministry, got to know waitresses and strangers in the park, started new house churches and began working on a doctor of ministry in missional church studies at SMU. My school studies were helpful and have led to the development of a training resource for groups – particularly established congregations who wish to begin connecting with people like the ones I’d met in south Louisiana coffee shops…and Burleson coffee shops.

But the real learning took place in the midst of the Christ Journey community and our attempts to cultivate a missional community in the midst of Bible belt culture. I gained insight into the struggles that come with planting churches in an area that author/professor/church planter, David Fitch recently described to me as “extremely comfortable with church.”

I learned about the limitations of and the need for godly leadership in young communities of faith. I learned about the inherent relational risks associated with an approach to faith that calls you to invest in one another beyond merely attending events together. I learned about the difficulty and the necessity of leading as a fellow follower, co-laborer and travel companion and the danger of abdicating that calling.

I learned the importance of serving the poor and connecting with neighbors as central elements of life as a disciple of Jesus – experiencing life as “the scattered church” …and I developed a whole new appreciation for the value of gathering regularly for worship – life as “the gathered church.”

I struggled with the role of preaching and proclamation in a culture that values dialog over monologue…and am learning how to navigate that path.

I learned to recognize the need for structures that benefit organic growth and learned how stunted that growth will be without such structures.

My learning is far from complete. But my family and I, along with a few other families have now been sent out by Christ Journey to continue the ministry of planting churches. The Gathering is already connecting with others and inviting new friends to taste and see that the Lord is good. Just as planting an apple tree means planting apple seeds, planting churches means planting not the finished fruit but rather a seed, which is the good news that Jesus himself planted – The kingdom of God is at hand!

Since we moved to Burleson we have been supported financially by a combination of raised support and part-time (and sometimes full-time) jobs. As we launch out on this new phase of our adventure, we are once again seeking others to partner with us financially. In addition to our ministry with The Gathering, I’m currently working several part-time jobs (4 to be precise, along with completing the final stages of my degree at SMU) and am in the process of starting a non-profit ministry called Intentional People, formed around Communitas, the process I’ve developed through SMU. Rachel currently has 3 jobs of her own (in addition to caring for the infamous Wellsbrothers).

One of our primary goals for fundraising is to be able to raise enough support to let go of a few of these other jobs in order to devote more time to church planting and Intentional People.

We have put together a newsletter which describes The Gathering and Intentional People, and provides information about how others can partner with us. If you, someone you know, your church or another group may be interested in learning more about either of these ministries, please leave a comment, email me at bret@intentionalpeople.org, or send me a message on Facebook or Twitter.

Prayer for Friday, June 10

Scripture for Friday
20 But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.
 21 They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. 23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders[a] for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. 24 After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, 25 and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia.
 26 From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. 27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.

Prayer: Fruitfulness in Our Own Lives
Lord of the Harvest, we know that it is from the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks. We pray that you will continue to cultivate the soil of our hearts so that our lives will produce much fruit for you. We desire to be the change we hope to see in this world; we long to live as citizens of the kingdom that is at hand and which we anticipate arriving in fullness. Only the Almighty God can bring about this kind of change in our hearts. When we’ve tried to produce this harvest ourselves, our efforts have been exhausting and fruitless. We turn to you, O Lord of the Harvest, as the one who brings growth. We call on you, the Faithful One, to do what you’ve promised. And we pray with confidence, knowing that you desire this more than we do.
—–

Final Thoughts
Today is the final day of our 7 weeks. I am so grateful that you’ve participated in this process with us. As I look at all that has happened since Easter Sunday, I am once again amazed by our God. As usual, things have not progressed as I anticipated…and as usual, I rejoice that God is at work beyond what I’m able to see in the moment. 7 weeks ago, I expected this Sunday to be the launch of fundraising for Intentional People and had no idea what sort of timeline we’d be working with regarding a new church plant…

Well, we’ve made a lot of progress with Intentional People, but we’re moving the official fundraising launch forward to September, when we’ll be participating in a Missional Church Conference in St. Louis. Yet, our new church plant, The Gathering, has already begun! The Christ Journey community encouraged us to move forward and three families decided to join us.

Since then, Brandy, a friend I met at Denny’s nearly 3 years ago (who was quite uninterested in “church” at the time), has also joined us. Several months ago she moved to Fort Worth and with her work schedule hasn’t been able to be part of our worship gatherings. However, Ron and Shandy Stogsdill (participants in The Gathering) were able to offer her a job with better hours and she told me yesterday, “Just so you know, I’m in.”

Rachel Elder, another member of our community, invited her friend Paula to join us for a swimming party for the kids a couple weeks ago… This past weekend Paula made the comment, “I’ve never enjoyed being part of a church service like I did today.” She was one of the first to sign up to bring food for our meal this Sunday… Thank you for your prayers, I believe God is hearing them.

Prayer for Thursday, June 9

Scripture for Thursday
1 At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. 2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders. 4 The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5 There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. 6 But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7 where they continued to preach the gospel.

Prayer: Fruit for the Poor and Oppressed
Lord of the Harvest, if our service in your name isn’t good news for the poor in our community, then it isn’t good news. You are the God who declares freedom for the captives, deliverance for the oppressed and hope for the hopeless. Almighty God, we pray that you will take our meager offerings and multiply them so that no one among us will go without. We pray for the faith to give generously and sacrificially and we pray that you will direct us to the places and people who most need to feast on the fruit that you have provided. Lord of the Harvest, we pray for you to send out workers into your fields; we long to be counted among those workers and we eagerly anticipate the new co-workers in your kingdom that are even now being prepared to serve alongside you with us.

Again, for weeks now, we’ve prayed for the poor and oppressed in our community. What have you learned from this process? What opportunities have arisen…were you able to respond? In the past month and a half my family has witnessed our son raise over $1000 for people in Japan; we’ve seen a young single mother get a new computer and a new job, a struggling family get a new car, hungry people receive food, thirsty people receive cold water…and each of these gifts came from regular people who would not normally consider themselves wealthy (at least by US standards). 

Prayer for Wednesday, June 8

Scripture for Wednesday
The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along. 24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. 26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”
 27 While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”
 30 Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. 32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ 33 So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”
 34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
 39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
 44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues[a] and praising God.
   Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.


The Global Community as a Harvest Field
Lord of the Harvest, as often as we overlook the harvest field in our own back yard, we are often even more unaware of how you are moving in distant lands. We confess that too often our focus in too narrow, our vision too clouded by our supposed limitations. Open our eyes Father, to ways that we can partner with others who proclaiming the good news of new life “over there,” just as we are doing here. God, we pray that these connections will serve your advancing kingdom and that they will also serve to remind us that you are not a regional God. You are the Lord of the Harvest, at all times and in all places. We worship you as such.


During the last few weeks, we’ve been encouraged to connect with different resources and groups operating around the world. Have you taken the opportunity to communicate with anyone? If so, would you share their story with us? I plan to challenge The Gathering to partner with someone financially, to encourage them regularly and pray for them often – I challenge you to do so as well.

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