Category Archives: discernment

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!

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Prayer for Friday, May 6

Prayers for Wisdom for Ourselves

God of Wisdom, we praise you and we ask you to grant us a full measure of discernment through your Spirit. Let us not despair when we encounter chaos, for we walk in confidence at your side. We offer you our doubts, insecurities, fears and confusion, and we pray that you sanctify these offerings and return to us a spirit of power and self-confidence. We pray for wisdom in order that we may experience continued transformation into the likeness of Christ. We know that this transformation is not for ourselves alone; we know that you bless us and expect us to bless others in return. Create in us clean hearts of discernment, O Lord, so that we may be equipped to bless others in your will. We thank you, Father, because we know that our sincere requests for wisdom will not go unheeded. We confess the presence of our false and impure motives and ask that you purify our intentions. Thank you, O God of Wisdom.

Look back on the issues you identified on Sunday. Have you received any clarity? If so, rejoice and thank God! Take the opportunity to share these stories with others. Post them on facebook, twitter, at missionalmonks.com or on my blog, where these prayers are posted daily (www.ancientjourney.blogspot.com). Those who are part of Christ Journey will have an opportunity to talk about them in our gathering Sunday – if you are part of another congregation, seek out ways to share with your worshiping community.

If you don’t feel any closer to the response to this issue, consider bringing it to your community for continued prayer seeking wisdom and discernment.

Prayer for Monday, May 2

Wisdom for the Church
God of Wisdom, we ask that you continue to pour out your wisdom on your Church. Raise up, from among the harvest, wise workers who are able to discern your ways and share their insight with others. We ask, God, that you will remove from us the virus of that pseudo-wisdom heralded by the present systems of power and coercion. We pray that your Church will be known as a people who possess discernment that leads to reconciliation. We continue to pray, as Jesus taught us, for your will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Grant us the wisdom to not only discern your will, but also to know how to join with you in bringing it to pass in this place. may your Kingdom come in fullness, O God of Wisdom.

Take a few minutes today and look through the list of congregations in your community (you can search for “churches” on google maps, or I’ve also heard that there are these printed books with yellow pages that also list such things). Lift up the names of these congregations to God, asking for wisdom on their behalf as they discern how to incarnate Christ in this place.

The Power of Discernment

I’ve learned a lot about discernment over the last few years. Being a wise, discerning person is something to which I’ve always aspired. When I was very young I was taught the story of King Solomon asking God for wisdom. I was told then that this is a gift that we can ask for and God will always give it. Perhaps my motives were less than saintly (as most of my motives tend to be) but that seemed like a pretty sweet deal…I wasn’t going to pass up on asking for something that I would definitely receive.
Over the years I’ve continued to ask God for wisdom and discernment, and to be honest, I struggle with how to have humble confidence – see my last post – on whether or not this prayer has been answered. I feel that God is teaching me to see what’s going on around me, but I’m always a little nervous having confidence in myself. One of my greatest insecurities is the fear that I lack self-awareness – that I’m actually like Michael Scott in The Office and have no idea how people really see me.
A few years back, a friend commented on the value of communities of discernment – which was a new term to me at the time. He went on to explain that wise people take matters of discernment to their community and do not get overly confident in an answer before it has been subjected to prayer with others. This seemed wise.
Since that time, I’ve had several opportunities to engage in discernment processes with others – sometimes it is formally structured, sometimes less so – but each time the goal is to seek God’s guidance together.
This is going to be somewhat vague as I’m not ready to put specifics on the interweb just yet… but recently there was an issue that I’d been wrestling over for months, seemingly to no avail. I simply could not find any peace. The whole thing was causing me to feel disconnected – spiritually, emotionally, relationally – as if I was just floating along with little purpose or meaningful interactions in my life. I tried to approach the issue in prayer, with study, with logic, with imagination…but solutions continued to evade my grasp.
Finally, it seemed that I was discerning a response from God. It wasn’t as though God were sitting on the couch telling me what to do. But there was a response that kept coming back in my mind over and over and I felt like I understood that to which it was calling.
Typically this type of realization brings a sense of peace, even if the answer itself isn’t what I expected or thought I wanted. But this time I just wasn’t feeling it. I want to be faithful to the Spirit’s guidance, and this seemed to be just that…so why couldn’t I feel at peace with it?
I began making plans to take this issue to my community.
In the meantime, I continued to pray. I talked the matter over with Rachel, and she prayed.
Then, as I worked an over-night security shift, I spent time reading through the book of Acts and had some things stand out in very confrontational ways – ways which seemed to conflict with what I thought I was hearing. It wasn’t that what I thought I was hearing was in conflict with Scripture per se, but what I felt it was calling me to seemed counter to how this passage called out to my heart.
First thing in the morning I received an email from Rachel, with a text she’d read that morning and the comment, “I think this was actually meant for you.” Though it was a completely different context, the message was very much the same as what I’d gleaned from Acts the night before.
That afternoon I had a brief conversation with a professor friend of mine who made some seemingly random comments which once again connected with the previous night’s reading.
The next day I talked with my friend Anthony and asked him to comment on the initial issue of discernment. I didn’t go into the events of the previous couple days. He has been a trusted friend, coach and counselor for the past three years and knows my situation as well as just about anyone. His response, after hearing what I’d felt God was saying in the initial piece of discernment was basically, “I think you’re on to something, but maybe you’re interpreting it wrong.”
As soon as he said that, all the pieces fell into place. The scripture passages, the conversations with Rachel and Elaine, my own lack of peace…it all made more sense. Through this continued process and struggle with communal discernment it became apparent that the Spirit was leading me in a certain direction and I’d misinterpreted what that meant on a practical level.
And here’s where the whole process seems to get confirmation. Since those conversations, I haven’t really changed much of what I’m doing day-to-day, but suddenly doors for connection and conversation have been swinging open left and right. In the past couple weeks friendships have deepened – often at the other’s instigation – and people I barely know have sought me out for one reason or another. I’ve been given the honor of being asked to walk through confusing, painful and even frightening situations with people who have not known me long enough to trust me…or maybe they haven’t known me long enough NOT to trust me! 😉
My schedule is still just as hectic and stressful, an issue that needs to be addressed, but I’m not feeling so disconnected and lacking peace.
I’d love to know whether this experience resonates with your own. Have you had similar times of struggle and discernment? What was it that helped you find peace? How did you go about listening to the Spirit?

Listening

First, a coded message for my friend who is just waiting to see if I will blog about this:

“Hmmm…I do not think that Word means what you think it means…”

And that’s all I’m gonna say about that.

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On a completely unrelated note (sorta), we had a great conversation at our DFW Church Planter’s forum today. For those that don’t know, once a month, there is a gathering of church planters who are connected to (or friends with) Mission Alive and our growing network of churches in the DFW metroplex.

Today, as usual, we had some really good laughs – the kind that left my face nearly purple with tears streaming down my cheeks. It was great. It is good to be with a group which has that kind of synergy and friendship so that the jokes compound on one another, reproducing until they have completely rabbified and take over. I think I may have burned as many calories as I would have had we been playing racquetball!

We also had some great (semi-legitimate) conversations. One which sticks out in my mind was in regards to cultivating communities of discernment. The conversation began with the comment that the type of leader we hope to cultivate and see develop in our churches is not solely (or perhaps even primarily) defined by skills or abilities in regards to some ministry. Rather, we are praying for individuals who listen to the voice of God. Folks who practice a lifestyle of spiritual discernment and following Jesus in such a way that others desire to follow in their footsteps.

As we unpacked what this may look like, how we encourage this type of growth, etc., it came out that the need is for our churches to operate this way communally. We need to cultivate communities of discernment for several reasons. For one, the community should model corporately the same things which we hope to see played out individually. 

But even more than that, there is a need for the members of the community to serve one another in this process. There is great danger in individuals engaging in an isolated “spiritual discernment.” It is easy to use the phrase, “the Spirit told me,” to simply rubber stamp what you want to do. A community can help us engage in the process honestly and fully.

Several years ago, when I was first introduced to the concept of listening to the voice of God in a real way, I was blessed to have a friend guide me away from an isolated approach. I said to him, “I really think that the Spirit is speaking to me about this. In fact, I feel that in a way I’ve never experienced before, I’ve heard the Voice of God.”

His response has stuck with me: “Wow. What did your community say when you brought this to them?” 

I had no idea what he meant – first of all, my faith community didn’t really do “listening to the voice of God” so I was pretty uneasy saying anything to anyone. He told me, “You should be very hesitant to declare that you’ve heard the voice of God without first approaching a community of discernment. Does this word line up with Word of scripture? How does this word resonate with their hearts and the Spirit which resides in them?” 

These types of questions are not meant to shoot down or squelch the Spirit – but they do take seriously the need to test the spirits and discern whether the voice being heard is of God, of the person or of something else entirely.

So how do we go about forming that type of community?

Well, I’m sure there are lots of ways to go about this process. It seems to me that one extremely valuable precursor to cultivating a community of discernment is to nurture and develop a confessional community. When our gatherings and conversations – formal and informal – are marked by a willingness to openly and authentically confess our sins and struggles with one another we create an environment where posturing and creating a polished version of ourselves is neither needed nor even accepted.

I’m not sure all the ways in which this type of culture was encouraged at Christ Journey but it is definitely present. I think that Chris has modeled this type of behavior – both in his preaching and in one-on-one interactions. I really believe that Marvelous Light has been instrumental in this as well – since confession is an integral part of that experience. Beyond that, I believe that those who participate in this community have seen the value and are intentional about continuing to journey (cha-ching) deeper in this practice.

A community which is confessional is poised, I believe, to practice discernment. When we engage in something like Lectio Divina (which we have done in our house churches as well as our Sunday gathering) we experience a process of communal discernment. Together we listen to the Word of Scripture and we share the fruit of that listening with the community. Because of the experiences with confession, this doesn’t come across as contrived and there’s little need to shroud the practice with pretense. 

As we continue to engage in discernment at this level, as we continue to be people who live in this fashion, I believe that we’ll find ourselves more and more in a context where communal discernment is the norm. And this is something which gives me great hope and excitement.

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