Category Archives: missional community

posts pertaining to the cultivation of missional and incarnational community

Every Monday Matters

no-cat

As we begin this new year, many of us are making resolutions. And here, on January 7, my guess is that many of us have already broken those resolutions. There are any number of reasons why we’ve already given up – lack of discipline, lack of motivation, abundance of distractions and temptations. However, there is a simple component which, when missing, makes room for all these other roadblocks…and, when present, levels the field tremendously.

So very often, for whatever reason, we make our resolutions in isolation rather than in community. We may tell others what we “want” to do and hope that the accountability will keep us on track. But the kicker is, we don’t really expect to do well…and the prospect of having to tell others we didn’t follow through simply isn’t that much of a motivator.

There’s a reason “strength in numbers” is a saying we all know. Whether we’re talking new year’s resolutions, a Rule of Life, or walking through the woods at night, stuff just works out better when there is someone(s) else along for the journey.

The accountability structure, where we tell others what we’re going to do so that they can later check-up on our progress, tries to distill the benefit of community for use in our hyper-individual society…without having to actually do things together. It is better than nothing, but pales in comparison to actual shared experience. Accountability is often based on fear – fear of looking like a failure, fear of breaking faith, fear of mutually agreed upon consequences. And that can be effective. To a certain degree.

But the actual shared experience is different. It isn’t about avoiding, it is about embracing. Avoiding fear and consequences becomes embracing hope and adventure.

To be sure, in situations where shared experience isn’t possible, we’re certainly better off having others who can at least encourage us in word, if not deed. In coaching, my primary task is to help the client determine their goals, form a plan with concrete action steps, and then evaluate the effectiveness after the fact. It isn’t my job to make people feel guilty when they don’t follow through. It IS my job to help them understand why they didn’t and address the barriers. Often what we determine is that, for whatever reason, they just aren’t going to complete this task on their own. “Should” and “ought” are pointless when combined with “but don’t.” In that case there are a couple logical responses.

The first is the goal isn’t really that important. Perhaps in this case, what they “should” do is stop stressing about it and move on. Of course, we often resist this option. But here’s the deal – if we aren’t going to complete this task, the consequences will be the same whether it remains on our “to do” list or not. So we have to ask, how important is this task? Is the stress of an incomplete task greater than the actual consequence of not completing?

Many times the stuff we’re stressing over isn’t that important. Letting it go can open the door to more effectiveness in other areas – and often we’ll find ourselves circling back to this issue down the road.

But when the goal is important, and we realize we are not going to get it done on our own, then it makes sense to find someone to work with us. Maybe its asking a spouse, sibling, coworker, neighbor or group of friends to join us. Or it could mean hiring an assistant, consultant or contractor.

I didn’t make any individual resolutions this year. I’m not very good with them and I decided to pass on the personal guilt trip this time around the sun. However, Rachel came across this book, Every Monday Matters. The book is part of a growing movement of people choosing to reclaim the least desirable day of the week as a time for shared experience and positive change. Check out the introductory video below.

So yesterday The Gathering decided that we would take up this challenge together as families. We won’t all do the activities together as a large group – the basic unit of “we” in this shared experience is the household. However, we’ll discuss our activities as a community, encourage one another and from time-to-time orchestrate larger joint efforts.

I encourage you and your family to join us. You can order a print copy of the book HERE or download the Kindle version HERE. Check out the EMM facebook page and website for updates.

If you’d like to join The Gathering in participating and discussing, just use the “contact us” form in the right hand column and put Every Monday Matters in the comments section. We’ll send out reminders each Monday and provide opportunities to dialog about experiences and team up for group activities. We’d love to have you join us.

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A Missional Post on Missional Scripture Composed on my Missional Laptop.

Missional.

For many, the word has become like a Katy Perry song: love it or hate it, you can’t go 10 minutes without hearing it…and catching yourself singing along unconsciously. Others may think that the word is owned by Apple, because it shows up in front of absolutely everything the same way their lower-case “i” does.

Speaking of which, yes, there is an iMissional.org.

Missional Coffee

And as often as I use the word, I admit, even I get tired of hearing about missional toasters, missional coffee, missional songbooks, missional underwear (wait, no, that one could be interesting). There’s even a Missional Study Bible. Perhaps I’m just bitter because I wasn’t asked to contribute anything, and in fairness, it looks pretty cool, but I believe we already have a missional Bible – the Bible.

That’s what I want to address in this series of blog posts. It wasn’t actually inspired by the publication of the Mission of God Bible – that’s just a happy coincidence – instead it has come about for several reasons. First of all, I believe that those of us who are committed to (or even just considering) missional and incarnational approaches to faith should wrestle with the deeper theological realities that accompany this orientation. They’re there, they have been ignored too often and for too long – and they transcend, “this just works better.”

I’ve written here, and lots of other places, that missional is first a theological, rather than pragmatic or strategic, issue. Theology is the practice of thinking, contemplating and talking about God. So when I say this is a theological issue, my claim is that saying something about missional is actually saying something about God – not just the strategies, practices or attitudes of Christians.

Therefore, it makes a great deal of sense to look more carefully at the relationship between missional theology and scripture. Is the Bible a missional text? What does that mean? What does it look like? This question is not just about putting missional in front of yet another aspect of Christianity. Frankly, I hope that we will someday reach a point where it is (as it should be) redundant to even use the word missional in relation to our faith.

Unfortunately, given that our society tends to devour words and ideas voraciously until they become bitter in our collective mouth, there is a good chance it will fall out of use long before it becomes unnecessary.

In one sense, I’m already seeing the trend begin. Mike Breen’s post, Why the Missional Movement Will Fail is one example. In fairness, what I take Breen to be saying in his post is that we cannot focus on “doing” mission if we are not first pursuing discipleship – without discipleship our missional efforts will be empty, short-lived, and will ultimately fail, cut-off as they are from the source of our calling.

Perhaps our thoughts on this depend on what we mean by, and how we’re using, the word missional. Stated very briefly, missional means that the whole community of faith, not just a few special standouts, is called to live on mission with God. The concept is meaningless without discipleship – just as discipleship can easily become individualistic and theoretical without a missional orientation. Missional isn’t a doing focus – it is essentially about who we are; who we are called to be and formed into being by the one we want to be with and be like. We can’t really claim to BE these people if we fail to DO what such people are called to do…but the doing is a result of being, not the other way around.

We live this way, on mission with God, because we are the people of God. In this way our actions are in response to our calling and thus originate, not in our own awesomeness, but in the Divine Awesomitude.

Missional is more than a call to personal piety, activism, social justice, evangelism or discipleship – it encompasses all these aspects in a holistic call to the Way of Jesus, empowered by the Spirit in the midst of God’s mission of reconciliation…together, as the Body of Christ. Each disciple of Jesus, each person who bears the name “Christian,” is included in this call – not just those who attended seminary, have tons of free time to volunteer, enjoy teaching Sunday School, or set aside time in the summer for a mission trip to Mexico.

Sadly, as we consider the state of the Church in North America, missional is not yet a redundancy.

So what about the Bible? Is it right to refer to it as a missional text? Are we saying that every passage is a “missional passage?” What does that mean?

When I refer to the Bible as a missional text I’m claiming that:

– The metanarrative (overall story) of Scripture is about a missional God who creates as an act of love and hospitality. The brokenness and separation experienced in creation are not God’s doing – they are precisely that which God is undoing. As those created in God’s image, God is (and has been all along) inviting humanity to collaborate as junior co-creators in this mission of reconciliation. Make no mistake, it is God’s mission – but we are called to participation.

– The purpose of Scripture is to equip God’s people as those being called and sent together. This Story, like all truly great stories, aims to change those who hear it. But our transformation goes beyond personal piety or eternal destination…we are being pulled into the Story that transforms everything.

– Basically, I’m saying that God is actually up to something in this world; we – all of us – are called to play an active role in that something, and the Bible is the story of that something.

In this series of posts we’ll address: (these titles will become links once the posts are live)

What Difference Does it Make?

Streams of Missional Thought, pt 1

Streams of Missional Thought, pt 2

Really? Scripture is Missional? Have You Actually Read It?

Still…Judah and Tamar?? What the What?!?

I hope that this series will be helpful for ongoing conversations – and that you’ll be willing to engage some of that here on this page.

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.

What Does That Even Mean?

So…I don’t know if you’ve heard, but all over the country students and teachers are returning to their regularly scheduled programming. Among other things, at our house that means no more staying up until 9pm watching a movie, or sleeping in to ridiculous hours like 7:00 or 7:30am.

Apparently, this is also our cue to once again light up the Facebook with “like and share if you’re against the war on religion in our schools.”

There are certainly places in this world where there is a war on religion. I have a friend from Nepal that was hunted down and nearly killed because of his Christian beliefs. There are people who gathered for worship Sunday knowing full well that if the government found out they could be arrested or worse…yet they gathered all the same. We have some other friends who have just left to serve as missionaries overseas. They received training on what kinds of things not to say on the phone when they called home, because someone will be listening and there will be repercussions.

Christianity may be losing SOME of its privileged and protected status in our culture, but a) that isn’t the same as war and b) that may not be such a bad thing.

I’m concerned with our tendency to make a big fuss over things like the removal of Christian prayers from the morning assembly in schools – and somehow equating that with the removal of prayer from school.

One of the Facebook guilt trips shows a picture of a little girl, apparently praying to the American flag with the slogan “Like and Share if you support prayer in schools.” And of course, the poster adds the obligatory, “not all of my friends are brave enough to post this…”

What does that even mean?

I’m just old enough to have grown up in world where we still had these prayers over the PA system – in class, before football games, at some large school assemblies – and I gotta tell you…if that’s what we’ve lost, we haven’t lost much.

Do you remember those prayers? At our schools they were perfunctory, white-washed, civil religion speeches with an “Amen” at the end. From conversations with others, I think I probably had the better experience since ours weren’t typically xenophobic judgmental tirades against the godless infidels (you know, democrats and foreigners).

Even in places where these public prayers were amazingly rich, deeply meaningful expressions of worship…did they represent the full life of prayer for our Christian students? I surely hope not. If they didn’t, then would their removal constitute a removal of prayer from the school? A teacher friend recently reminded me of the saying, “as long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in schools.”

This issue of naming everything as a “war on religion” is ridiculous and we need to stop it.

As I hinted earlier, it belittles the fact that today there are people engaged in an actual life-and-death struggle because of their faith.

It also makes us look incredibly insecure, combative and fearful – none of which are characteristics of Jesus’ disciples. In fact, regarding the prayer issue, Jesus told people to get out of the spotlight and into their closets to pray anyway.

But the dangers here go beyond how others perceive us. We are being shaped by our rhetoric…or actually, we’re being misshaped. We are communicating to our children – and to one another – that our prayer life is controlled by our access to public platforms. We’re basing our religious freedom on the right to force non-Christians to listen to us pray… and expecting secular institutions to lead us in these prayers.

We’ve turned prayer – and our faith – into reality television.

What if, instead of focusing all of our attention on battling the Supreme Court – or school board – about the placement of a plaque listing the 10 Commandments, we turned that energy toward not coveting our neighbor’s stuff?

What if instead of lobbying for legislation, we focused on sitting down with the outcast and showed them a little compassion in the midst of an otherwise crappy day?

What if our teens and children made it their goal each day that, as long as they are present, nobody eats alone, plays alone or gets bullied without someone to stand up for them?

What if we encouraged them to look for the dark places in their school and to work together (with one another, and with God) to be light?

What if they didn’t need special recognition of prayer time and instead saw each moment as sacred and worthy of being lifted up to God?

You know what? Forget “what if” – this is who we must be. Now. Today.

And it isn’t some idealistic pipe dream. I know some kids that are living this way, and I’ve seen the impact it can have. If you tried to tell these kids that “they” have taken prayer out of the schools these kids would look at you like you’ve lost your mind.

Nobody has removed God from our schools, our nation or anything else. God doesn’t need permission to love God’s creation. God is in the schools, the abandoned places and the market places. And the people of God should have eyes to see. We are called to see the darkness and to see the ways that God is dispelling the darkness.

So long as the people of God are fully present, there can be no removal of prayer, no lack of mercy, no shortage of compassion, no extinguishing of light, no destruction of hope.

Because we are more than conquerors – we are something much greater than combatants – we are the Body of Christ in this place. We are ambassadors of a kingdom where the captives are set free, the naked are clothed, the hungry are fed, the oppressed are lifted up and the forgotten are called out by name.

If these things are not taking place, there’s no need to accuse the government, the secularists, the atheists or anyone else…we need to ask, “Why are the people of God not fully present?

We don’t need to throw a temper tantrum and pass new legislation. We need to see the good we ought to do and do it.

If we want to engage in a war, then let it be the war within – the war against apathy, indifference, and fear.

No more hiding behind our religiosity and sense of entitlement. It is time to live as a signpost of the kingdom that is already among us.

God is already in this place… Are we?

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…

Parts 4, 5 and 6…of 3

This picture doesn’t really have anything to do with the post…I just thought it was a great example of Rachel’s budding photography skills. If you really need me to I’m perfectly capable of fabricating a metaphor…an unfocused Josiah in the background, a young praying mantis focused in the foreground…it would be very simple. But just enjoy the picture, jeez.

Last weekend I started writing down some thoughts. I’d been wrestling with the issue of time in discipleship/spiritual formation. Over the years I’ve encountered several books and resources on discipleship which I believe are solid in both theology and theory…but they’ve mostly fallen short in practice. Its hard to get folks to commit to even an hour or two a week – we’re all so very, very busy. And even when we do, the impact and growth we experience still pales in comparison to what we read in the Gospels and Acts.

And it struck me that our discipleship strategies – even the ones modeled specifically around the way of Jesus – differ from what we know of the early Christians in one incredibly significant area: time. Well, that and Jesus not being bodily present.

So my notes soon expanded into a blog post…then into a 2000 word blog post. When I started approaching 3000 words, I decided they’d need to be split into multiple posts or even my 2 faithful readers would abandon their journey in despair.

I scheduled the posts for Monday-Wednesday of this week and let the idea sit (read part 1, part 2, part 3 here). Then the thoughts started coming again (I’m a little schizophrenic that way). Well, posts 4, 5 and 6…of 3 are just about finished. I’m going to let them simmer a bit before finalizing and posting, but needless to say, I believe this is an important discussion.

These posts describe the problem and only vaguely hint at possible solutions. To be honest, I’m not completely ready to rush to solutions because I’m just a little convinced that our hesitance to consider the problem is itself a part of the problem.

So I think I’ll hold off on solutions and save them for my book!

Thank you for reading, and please feel free to post some comments. I could use some help in thinking this through with others.

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.


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.

—-

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!

What Did Facebook Really Kill?

Last week I linked to an article by Richard Beck (written in February 2010) titled How Facebook Killed the Church. If you haven’t read this post, take a few minutes to read through – it isn’t long.

In the post, Beck discusses the decline of church attendance among Millennials (or Generation Y). He notes that the most common reasons given by young people focus on problems with the church itself. Citing the Barna Group’s book unChristian Beck says:

Young Christians and non-Christians tend to feel that the church is “unChristian.” Too antihomosexual. Too hypocritical. Too political. Too judgmental. That’s how young people see “the church.” And it’s hard to blame them.

However, as he goes on to say, this isn’t a new critique. Previous generations of young people have tended to feel the same way. Why didn’t they leave?

They didn’t have Facebook (and the vast technology universe it represents).

The church’s place as the social hub for friendships is diminished by the hyper-connectivity our current mobile culture. Of course, this was taken by many to mean that Beck saw socializing as the primary purpose for the church. That of course INFURIATED some folks – and, in good internet (non)etiquette fashion, they let him know in the comments.

But the point wasn’t that this is what church should be focused on, or even that Facebook has actually killed church (which, by the way, isn’t dead). The point is that for many people across the ages, whether we like to admit it or not, social networking has played a very prominent role in our regular church attendance (particularly as young adults).

Perhaps a more accurate (though less eye-catching) title would be How Facebook Killed Our Illusions About Why We Gather.

It may make you mad, but I’ve been around churches for over 30 years and I’ve been working with them since 1998 – I haven’t seen much that would challenge the social-network theory of Beck’s post. That isn’t necessarily an indictment – much of our approach to church planting is a recovery of deeper communal experiences in discipleship…an inherently relational concept. I will say though that too often we opt for social-networking (getting together with friends to hang out) over more significant relational connection (communitas: relationships formed through shared mission or struggle).

I began noticing the diminishing impact of the “hang-out spot” when I was in youth ministry in Dallas. It has always been an unchallenged rule with teenagers that, “if you feed them, they will come.” Well, we had a pretty awesome youth room at our church in Dallas. We had plenty to do, a decent sound system, a kitchen, enormous projection screen for dvd’s…and lots of pizza. But when I would pull these things together for an evening to simply hang out (which I did regularly in the summer) it just wasn’t nearly as effective as it had been when I was a teenager or when I worked for churches in smaller (less affluent) communities.

As I talked to the teens about it I began to realize something – they have better options elsewhere. I’d been raised on the assumption that youth ministries served a needed purpose of (among other things) getting kids off the street with a more healthy option. But these kids weren’t (usually) skipping to do drugs, have sex and torture puppie-dogs. They just had big screen HD tv’s, a larger movie selection and better food at home or at a friend’s house. Most of them had cars (or friends with cars) and could go to wherever their group of friends happened to be that night. It was simply no longer the case that they looked to the church as the best place to hang out. They were still involved, they were still good kids – for the most part 😉 – they just didn’t jump at the chance to hang out in the youth room.

Part of what this post highlights (and which fits with my own experiences in ministry and church planting) is that the younger generation isn’t merely leaving the church because they’re able to get their relationships elsewhere. The problem is that while a significant life of meaning in Jesus is proclaimed clearly in the Gospels and repeated regularly “in church,” it is too rare for such life to exist beyond the world of language. In the past, people stuck it out because while they may have frustrations, the church was still an important part of their relational network (if not the hub). Today, Facebook (representative of mobile/technological connectivity in general) has rendered that aspect of church life less important…so many opt out.

For sure “Facebook” doesn’t get at the whole issue – there are any number of reasons why young people are increasingly less involved in a church community.

But this pulls back the curtain a little. I talk to people all the time who assume that young people aren’t going to church because they have no (or less) morals. Neither my experience nor statistical data supports that claim (read Beck’s follow up post – Generation Next.) I meet people all the time who have left the church but have very conventional, even Biblical, belief sets. To be sure, this doesn’t describe everyone I meet…but should I begin citing the number of “church folks” who don’t have very consistent Biblical beliefs and actions?

What did Facebook kill? It hasn’t really killed the church, though it may well have contributed to the church’s health (I’ll let you decide if that’s for the better or worse). It may someday help kill some of our illusions…but in reality, our illusions are not easy to kill.

So, what did it kill? Probably nothing, but it makes for an interesting conversation.

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