Category Archives: spiritual formation
In his book, Practicing the Way of Jesus, (also on kindle) Mark Scandrette recounts a very powerful conversation. A small group of friends had chosen to engage in a short-term experiment. The idea of the experiment was to live simply, making more space for devotion to God and service to others. One of the aspects involved simplifying their wardrobe – boxing up all their clothes except for two outfits.
After describing the experiment to another friend, that person was highly skeptical. He says that, having grown up in an incredibly legalistic faith community, he had hoped that “we” were moving into an age of more grace and freedom. And this experiment sounded a lot like that legalism.
Scandrette’s response was fantastic.
“A rule is oppressive when we impose it on others or judge them by it, but there is great freedom when we choose limits which add value to our lives.”
Now to be sure, the danger of being human is that we (or those who come after us) are tempted to take the helpful experiments of today and make them into the universal codes of tomorrow. My friend Nate used to say, “Disciples will be to an extreme what their teachers were in moderation.”
However, I also believe that using the slippery slope argument is typically nothing more than laziness built on the fearful anticipation of future laziness.
There is great wisdom in Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4 to think upon those things that are true, noble, excellent and praiseworthy. This isn’t just about keeping our thoughts pure and untainted. Dwell on the excellent, noble things because the mind is a powerful tool. I’m not talking about “The Secret” here, I’m talking about human obsession and self-fulfilling prophecies.
For instance, in many “men’s purity” ministries, there seems to be an incredibly unhealthy obsession with our own sin and temptation. In the process we go from dehumanizing women as sexual objects to dehumanizing women as instruments of temptation. Men are encouraged to look away, attempting not to see this woman in order to avoid lust. This is seriously messed up.
What if we instead focused on that which is excellent and praiseworthy? If we struggle with seeing women as sexual objects, the solution isn’t to simply change the image to another object – the solution is to actually see the person. See the image of Christ. See the child of God. Because they are not the problem, we are and our continued obsession on sin just feeds our own brokenness.
As a blogger and purveyor of blogs, facebook posts, twitter feeds, etc., I hear a lot about Christianity’s “image problem.” We talk about the way that Christians are perceived by the media, by those who are not Christian, by those who feel (happily or indignantly) like outsiders. We talk about the “Shoot Christians Say,” to playfully deconstruct our constant use of insider language. But, I wonder if Christianity has a much more fundamental image problem: how we see ourselves.
There is a difference between acknowledging our imperfection and narcissistically obsessing about our depravity. Constantly commenting on our unworthiness sounds like false humility or compliment fishing. I don’t think that is what’s going on as often as it may seem. It’s an image problem. We don’t see ourselves very well and that makes it difficult to see God clearly…and vice versa.
A well known pastor recently said, “All theology is cat theology or dog theology. Let’s say two pets have an amazing, kind, generous owner. The cat thinks: “I must be an amazing and valuable cat.” The dog thinks: “I have an amazing and valuable master.”
There are about 37 things wrong with this brief quote. First, it makes me agree with a cat…and that should never happen.
Second, it equates our relationship to God to a person’s relationship with a pet – also problematic. I’m not just being an overly literal metaphor reader here; the relationship dynamics that this brings to mind are off base. But that isn’t the real problem.
The biggest flaw is that it buys into the assumption that there is something wrong with rejoicing in our value and worth as image bearers and children of God. I’ve said this before, but if I found out my kids were telling people that I loved them even though there is nothing lovable about them it would break my heart. My children are amazing. I love their quirky personalities. I love how different they are from one another. I love Conner’s analytical thinking and tender heart; Micah’s artistic eye and stubborn individuality; Josiah’s constant passion for everything and quickness to show affection. My kids are amazing and I hope they know that.
Does God enjoy us less than I enjoy my own children? That seems odd.
The tendency to constantly belittle the human condition seems pious…but it only seems that way. In a sense, the running commentary of total depravity makes light of suffering, brokenness and sin. “Of course we do awful things, we’re awful…whatcha gonna do?”
We have become Wayne and Garth…and that’s only funny in brief doses.
Its very convenient, really. We have a built-in excuse for never growing, never taking responsibility for our actions and feeling spiritual throughout it all.
This denies Jesus’ claim and Paul’s exhortation that we are being made new – new creation, new life, new people.
Why do we not see more of this transformation? Perhaps its because we’re so busy giving ourselves negative reinforcement that we are unable to see anything else. We’ve trained ourselves not to see. We tell ourselves we’re worms and wretches, then gorge ourselves on self-centered consumerism like a half-gallon of Blue Bell after a break-up.
Or we become disillusioned with the whole thing and reject all discipline, structure and guidance…even that which would be life giving.
I’ve found that living with a Rule of Life – particularly in community with others (including the one I live with my boys) – is freeing and rejuvenating. I’m able to explore the possibilities of my own discipleship in the Way of Jesus because I’m not constantly trying to figure out where to start. I can embrace limits to my “freedom” which add value to my life by clearing away the clutter, because I trust that that which I will see more clearly is worth seeing. Like the grueling summit climb to a mountain top, I know that momentary discomfort will be rewarded with a view you can’t get from the valley.
But this won’t work if my heart and mind are filled with pseudo-pious self-loathing. I am an image bearer of God, a beloved child of the King, one who is worth much because I was fearfully and wonderfully made. I know that I am valuable because my Father has repeatedly told me so.
And this does not make me a cat, damn it.
It was something one of my mentors used to say every congregation should do and something every single healthy congregation actually does regularly. It was taught to me – by living instructors and long dead sages – as an essential spiritual discipline. It was stressed as a vital role in my own coach training and something I continue to emphasize regularly as a trainer of coaches.
No matter how many victories and accomplishments fill our resume, no matter how many defeats and failures litter our consciences, if we are to continue pressing forward with any semblance of health, hope and sanity, we must take time to celebrate.
Christian communities should be known worldwide for their parties. We’re ambassadors of good news for crying out loud! When the day draws to a close, it should be common practice to reflect upon the preceding events – giving thanks to God and rejoicing together in those areas where we were fully present; where we lived as Christ and saw Christ in others. And we should rejoice in our failures – if for no other reason than they give us the opportunity to reflect, learn from our mistakes, and possibly gain wisdom which will shape our future endeavors.
That doesn’t mean we should plaster on a smile when tears seem more natural – by all means, healthy disciples should mourn as well as they celebrate. I’ll venture a guess that our ability to do one of these truly well will increase our ability to do the other.
This past Friday after saying our Four Things and the Lord’s Prayer on the way to school, I issued Conner and Micah a challenge. This isn’t uncommon. Some days I just encourage them to focus specifically on one of the four things, or one aspect of the Lord’s Prayer. I even recently invited them to say the Prayer silently throughout the day. Conner is 9. Micah will be 7 in a month. They are exceptional dudes. But they are 9 and 7 years old. I didn’t expect them to come home chanting like the desert monastics. I didn’t really expect anything – I just offered a challenge.
Friday, rather than a more mental exercise, with no tangible markers of progress, I decided to invite them into something concrete.
“Today, your challenge is to see how many acts of kindness you can perform. Big things, small things, totally random things. How many times today can you go out of your way, even a little, to do something for someone else? And keep score, because the winner gets a prize.”
They’ve been talking about going to a restaurant to eat Mexican food – we don’t eat out much, so that’s kind of a big deal. So, in anticipation of something to celebrate, I decided we’d go to Miranda’s for dinner (then I forgot to tell Rachel, which goes in my own “today, I will mess up” column). I figured whoever won would get the be the hero and tell his brothers what we were doing. It isn’t always a hard task, but an important discipline for myself is actively looking for reasons to encourage these guys and celebrate with them – this was a great chance to do so as a family.
When Conner came in from school the first thing he said was, “I won the contest Dad! I did seven acts of kindness.” Some were pretty significant. One thing he said was, “I was talking to my friend Ryan, and I figured out that he doesn’t have Zook and we have two…so I want to give him one.”
Now, this is a BIG deal. Zook is a Skylanders figure. Some marketing genius created this game for the Wii – you not only buy the game, but you also buy little character figurines which are placed on a sensor attached to the Wii – there’s something like 70 of them altogether. The Wellsbrothers are obsessed with this game. They’ve collected dozens of these characters – and they love having duplicates because they can be upgraded differently.
A few minutes later I called Micah in and asked how his day went. As usual he didn’t have a lot to say. So when I asked about the competition I was prepared for his reluctance to answer…but not for the stated reason. He said, “I did five acts, but I don’t need to tell you what they were because Conner did more and that’s what I wanted to happen.”
Conner lost his ipod a while back. After weeks – maybe months – of it being awol, Rachel found it…in the van…right under Conner’s seat. So we told him that he wouldn’t get it back until we witnessed him doing something especially responsible.
Micah looked me square in the eye and said, “Conner really misses his ipod. I figured if Conner could do more than 5 acts of kindness that would be pretty responsible and he could get it back.”
That kind of selflessness…I still can’t really describe how amazingly proud I was – am – of that boy.
“Oh yeah, the one good thing I want to say: I told Aiden I would give him one of our Chop-Chops [another Skylander] – we have two of them.”
Both boys came to that kindness separately.
But then Rachel brought up an important and potentially problematic issue. All three of our boys love Skylanders. Josiah no less so than the others. So, we told Conner and Micah that their little brother would need to sign off on the decision to give these characters away.
And then I held my breath as they presented their idea to the four-year-old, King Josiah.
Conner: “Joey, we have two Zooks and Ryan doesn’t have any. I think we should give one to him…it would be a nice thing to do.”
Josiah: “Hmm. Yeah, okay. That’s a good thing.”
Micah: “And Aiden doesn’t have Chop-Chop, but we have two. We should give him one.”
Josiah: “Yeah, sure. Let’s do it!”
We have a lot to celebrate as a family.
…and I’ve never had more delicious enchiladas.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
This morning I had the opportunity to take part in the filming of a new video for Mission Alive dealing with the issue of “Moving from Theology to Practice.” (Keep an eye out here and a Mission Alive’s website for the release of that video.) As is often the case, as I was driving back across the metroplex, I thought of a dozen things I wished I had said or said differently.
Partly this is because I felt a little disconnected and disjointed in my interview (we’ll see what wonders they are able to do in editing…) But the primary reason I couldn’t stop thinking of things I wish I’d said is that I believe this subject is So. Very. Important!
Much ink and perhaps a little blood has been shed over finding the “best practices” for ministry…and all too often those quests have been carried out with little thought given to the theological implications of our choices. Worse yet are the myriad of successful practices (where success = large crowds and financial support) built around anemic or just plain BAD theology (see Richard Beck’s excellent series on Why Bad Theologies are So Popular).
We often fail to see the ways in which the unreflective adoption of “best practices” can shape the way we view other people and even the way we view God.
In the case of “bad” theology the problems can run even deeper. Here’s a popular example (and one which I think many people are starting to see through): The loss of a loved one is deeply traumatic – all the more so when that loved one is young. In our attempts to console grieving family, statements are made, such as: “God just needed another angel.”
Aside from the fact that this statement completely misunderstands the origin of angels, it also says some very unsettling and incriminating things about God. It is even more unsettling when these types of statements are made from the “pulpit.” (Some may not agree with making a distinction between what a “normal” person says and what a “minister” claims – but that is simply the reality of the situation in traditionally structured churches.)
Beginning with best practices or unreflective theology works against the goal of cultivating faithful missional communities.
Additionally, it seems that a large number (I won’t pretend to know the percentage) of people involved in church planting are doing so from a largely reactionary and negative mindset. In this case, I don’t necessarily mean “negative” in the sense of having a sour attitude, but rather that our practices and our theology (even if its just implicit) are rooted in negating or reversing what someone else has done.
To be sure, there are some abuses of the past which should be reconciled or flat-out abandoned. However, in talking about moving from theology to practice, an inherent claim is that our thinking about God, faith, church, discipleship, worship, etc., should be generative (developed by what are we FOR because of the gospel vs. what we are against).
Think about it this way: When someone asks about your church planting (or your established context…or your personal faith – this holds true across contexts) how do you describe it? Do you begin with, “We/I aren’t so focused on _____” or “We’re/I’m trying to get away from _____”?
These statements may have their place – particularly when they’re used to clarify false-assumptions about the nature of our community. However, when they become the language of vision casting (formal or informal), warning sirens should begin going off in our heads.
The question that needs more attention in these situations is, “Okay, so what ARE you/AM I about?”
One thing I appreciate about Mission Alive’s approach is the steady commitment to deal substantively with this question – BEFORE formulating a strategy for church planting.
A couple years ago I read John Patton’s From Ministry to Theology. Patton states, “Christian ministry involves not only understanding what we do in light of our faith, but also understanding our faith in the light of what we do.” It is in the context of our dealings with others that our theology is able to be fleshed out and incarnated. I’ve begun incorporating this insight into my own work and teaching – We move from ministry to theology to practice.
This is not referring to ministry as an official position of leadership in a church – I mean ministry as engaging in concern, care and service within an actual place with actual people.
Theology, if it is going to lead to healthy practice, must be contextual theology – it is rooted in what God is up to IN THIS PLACE. To be sure there are cosmic elements to our theology (things that transcend time and place) but even they have contextual implications.
The people we encounter, the trials we go through and the victories we witness are able (if we’re willing to reflect carefully) to shed light on our theology, just as our theology sheds light on them. In her book Teaching From the Heart, Mary Elizabeth Moore addresses the value of case studies in religious education. One significant point in the book is her reminder that there is truth to be found in the case itself – not just in what we bring to it. When our eyes are open to what is happening around us, we begin to realize that God is indeed still at work in this world – and lo-and-behold, God’s actions are still able communicate truth.
I recognize that many people are hesitant to engage in theological reflection. I’ve heard a number of people say, “that’s for academics – my calling is in the field.” Or others are suspicious of the whole process: “I just read the Bible and do what it says.” I vividly remember a conversation I had at a fast food restaurant with a friend who said, “Well, you know I’m able to hear from God more clearly than you because you’ve read what other people have said about it – but I just read the Bible.”
It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that, but was the first time I heard it from a friend in such a matter-of-fact, non-accusatory way. It was just common knowledge that those who engage in theological reflection – especially if they’ve studied theology -simply can’t hear from the Spirit.
This same struggle has been played out for years between “academics” and “practitioners.” I remember in seminary the tension between those who were preparing for academic careers / PhD studies and those who were preparing to serve as preachers or other local church ministries. One group says the other is too lazy to do the hard work of real substantial theology, while the other group lobs back accusations of being disconnected from the “real life of faith.” (And of course both groups agreed that the missions majors were just plain weird.)
Aside from being a ridiculous game among privileged students (which unfortunately grows into a ridiculous game between privileged professionals) – this whole debate misses anything resembling the point. This isn’t an either/or issue. We cannot hope to cultivate healthy communities of faith without both theological reflection and practical ministry. They are two sides of the same coin – each leading to further insight in the other.
This isn’t to say that we all have to read Barth’s Dogmatics once a year (to my non-nerd friends, Dogmatics is the theological equivalent of War and Peace…great stuff but not a beach-read by any stretch).
However, we must come to grips with the reality that what we do (or choose not to do) will inevitably communicate something about who we believe God to be… At the very least we should pause to think about what that might be.
To be as clear as possible, I’m not simply talking to those who’ve spent the last 14 years pursuing degrees in ministry like this one insane guy I know. Taking the move from theology to practice seriously doesn’t require the ability to read Greek or Hebrew, quote your favorite theologian or describe the history of theological development in the church. (Though, contrary to my fast-food companion, I still think these are valuable contributions to the conversation.)
Theological reflection should inform our practice, it should be considered from within a local context and it is best approached in community. Our churches should be communities of theological discernment – with each disciple contributing the gifts and resources they possess to the process. Theologies which are formed in private can have a tendency to represent our own personal preferences and idiosyncrasies more than the movement of God in this place.
I didn’t really have time, and the context didn’t really allow for me to get into all this in the video…and I expect that about 10 minutes after this is posted I’ll begin thinking of other things I wish I’d said or said differently in this post. But…its a start.
In the meantime, I’d love for others to weigh in on the topic.
Prayer: Fruitfulness in Our Own Lives
Lord of the Harvest, we know that it is from the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks. We pray that you will continue to cultivate the soil of our hearts so that our lives will produce much fruit for you. We desire to be the change we hope to see in this world; we long to live as citizens of the kingdom that is at hand and which we anticipate arriving in fullness. Only the Almighty God can bring about this kind of change in our hearts. When we’ve tried to produce this harvest ourselves, our efforts have been exhausting and fruitless. We turn to you, O Lord of the Harvest, as the one who brings growth. We call on you, the Faithful One, to do what you’ve promised. And we pray with confidence, knowing that you desire this more than we do.
Today is the final day of our 7 weeks. I am so grateful that you’ve participated in this process with us. As I look at all that has happened since Easter Sunday, I am once again amazed by our God. As usual, things have not progressed as I anticipated…and as usual, I rejoice that God is at work beyond what I’m able to see in the moment. 7 weeks ago, I expected this Sunday to be the launch of fundraising for Intentional People and had no idea what sort of timeline we’d be working with regarding a new church plant…
Well, we’ve made a lot of progress with Intentional People, but we’re moving the official fundraising launch forward to September, when we’ll be participating in a Missional Church Conference in St. Louis. Yet, our new church plant, The Gathering, has already begun! The Christ Journey community encouraged us to move forward and three families decided to join us.
Since then, Brandy, a friend I met at Denny’s nearly 3 years ago (who was quite uninterested in “church” at the time), has also joined us. Several months ago she moved to Fort Worth and with her work schedule hasn’t been able to be part of our worship gatherings. However, Ron and Shandy Stogsdill (participants in The Gathering) were able to offer her a job with better hours and she told me yesterday, “Just so you know, I’m in.”
Rachel Elder, another member of our community, invited her friend Paula to join us for a swimming party for the kids a couple weeks ago… This past weekend Paula made the comment, “I’ve never enjoyed being part of a church service like I did today.” She was one of the first to sign up to bring food for our meal this Sunday… Thank you for your prayers, I believe God is hearing them.
Prayer: Fruit for the Poor and Oppressed
Lord of the Harvest, if our service in your name isn’t good news for the poor in our community, then it isn’t good news. You are the God who declares freedom for the captives, deliverance for the oppressed and hope for the hopeless. Almighty God, we pray that you will take our meager offerings and multiply them so that no one among us will go without. We pray for the faith to give generously and sacrificially and we pray that you will direct us to the places and people who most need to feast on the fruit that you have provided. Lord of the Harvest, we pray for you to send out workers into your fields; we long to be counted among those workers and we eagerly anticipate the new co-workers in your kingdom that are even now being prepared to serve alongside you with us.
Again, for weeks now, we’ve prayed for the poor and oppressed in our community. What have you learned from this process? What opportunities have arisen…were you able to respond? In the past month and a half my family has witnessed our son raise over $1000 for people in Japan; we’ve seen a young single mother get a new computer and a new job, a struggling family get a new car, hungry people receive food, thirsty people receive cold water…and each of these gifts came from regular people who would not normally consider themselves wealthy (at least by US standards).