I have been involved with ministry and professional coaching for over five years now. I have a coach, I coach people and I serve as a coach trainer. I think it’s fair to say that I believe in its value. And yet, while the industry is growing rapidly, there are still tons of people who ask me “what sport?” when I tell them about my coaching work.
Coaching is the process of helping others solidify vision, establish goals, identify obstacles and move forward. I’ve coached people to write books, change careers, plant churches, start new businesses, develop organizational and time management strategies, lose weight, resolve systemic conflict issues in their organization, and relocate overseas as missionaries.
In case you’re wondering, no, I haven’t done all these things myself. So how is it that I’m qualified to help someone else? Because the role of the coach is not one of expert, mentor or advice giver. For the most part, coaching is a non-directive practice – which means that the client sets the agenda and owns the process. My role is to listen deeply, ask probing questions that deepen awareness, consider all the options, move conversations toward action plans, evaluate effectiveness…and repeat as needed.
This doesn’t mean that the answers to all questions are already present in the client’s mind. Often my role includes helping them figure out where they need to go to find information they are lacking…and then I help make sure they actually do that. This tool is particularly well suited for the missional-incarnational impulse which acknowledges that each of us are called to follow God in our specific context. And the truth of the matter is, while I can help you dig deeper, you are always going to be more qualified than me to discern what is going on in your context. You are the “boots on the ground.” You’re the one who is there every day. As a coach, my task is to help you be fully present and more effective.
Being coached has helped me tremendously. Having someone to help consider blindspots, ask me the tough questions that I’d rather avoid, consider alternative viewpoints…these are all very powerful. It’s even more powerful when you add to that a consistent reminder to move toward implementation, but also to periodically stop and evaluate what is and isn’t working – and celebrate accomplishments.
What I find interesting though, is how often coaching someone else provides break-throughs in my own work. By focusing all my attention on the other person, trying to get out of my own head and enter their story for a brief period, my perspective is stretched. After a coaching call I often find myself rapidly typing out realizations and insights from the conversation that have implications for my context. Angles I’d never considered, solutions that had avoided me.
I find my own creativity stoked, imagination unleashed and ideas generating at a pace beyond any hope of implementing them all.
As I think about this serendipitous by-product, I cannot help but think that every minister, every business leader, every entrepreneur, church planter, or community developer, every person who needs to be (or wants to be) more creative, innovative and effective should not only have a coach, but set some time aside to coach others.
Almost every single person I’ve worked with as a coach mentor has commented that the training has made them better listeners and more effective in all areas of life. Group projects at work, household plans with their spouse, helping friends through difficult times or big decisions…all of these are areas in which coaching principles can be incredibly beneficial.
So what about you? Could you benefit from greater creativity and innovation? Would being a better listener and conversationalist improve your work and home life? Would you like to be more equipped to help when the friend calls and says, “I don’t know what I’m going to do!” Then there’s the added benefit of an opportunity for extra income….
If you’d like more information about coaching fill out the form below, contact me on facebook or just leave a comment on this post.
I don’t mind putting effort into communicating well. I may not always be successful, but I will try. I’m stronger in some mediums, and I continue to work on those areas where I’m less effective. I don’t mind reading articles about how to use social media like a pro. I periodically work through online courses on writing effectively and understanding my audience. I’ll take advice from marketing experts and communications gurus. I work with a great one and I take her counsel very seriously.
I understand both sales and fundraising; I’ve done quite a bit of both over the last five years. I realize that my salary as a director of a non-profit depends on our ability to partner with supporters, just as my work as a church planter has for years now. Furthermore, the ability to tell our story well is essential to equipping others to unleash the missional imagination in their own lives.
So, I will continue to give careful consideration to how well I’m telling our story. I will try to be very aware not only of what we’re trying to say, but how others are actually hearing it.
But there’s a limit to how much I am willing to cater the message to the whims of the audience.
While there are certain aspects where it is helpful and imperative, I do not feel obligated to boil EVERYTHING down to a 30 second elevator pitch. We’re not selling widgets here. My calling, both in church planting and working with Missional Wisdom, is about reorienting lives and that takes more than 30 seconds. Always.
Some of what I do and teach is very simple. It can be communicated quickly and is easily understood (if not always easily implemented.) Our life in God involves our whole life, not just certain parts. Easy enough. Missional means that we are sent on a mission, therefore a missional orientation means that the faith of each disciple involves joining in God’s mission…wherever we are, and whatever we do. Got it (sorta). Alan Hirsch talks about the power of the phrase “Jesus is Lord.” It is simple and yet dense enough to be passed along easily. In fact, he compares it to a virus that is “sneezed.” Anybody can spread it, anybody can catch it. Some may find that analogy a little gross, but it makes the point.
But it isn’t all so simple. The statement “Jesus is Lord,” has a lot of implications, some of which look very different depending on your cultural situation. So, communicating that Jesus is Lord can be done simply and quickly. Unpacking that statement takes a while, doesn’t it? It isn’t always simple to sort through the ways that Christian culture itself may be working against living on mission with God. Examining (and helping others examine) the many ways that words like missional are used, and the implications of those usages, is complicated. There is no simple, universally applicable, detailed instruction on how people in each particular context live “missionally” – except in the most general terms.
And honestly, its okay that some stuff requires work to understand. The work leading to understanding is a large part of the understanding itself. Refusing to do that hard work may not have any immediate negative consequences. You may draw a large crowd, you may see transformation occur in people’s lives. That is fantastic. The impact of skipping out on the hard work of theological reflection will always catch up to you. They will undermine discipleship, rip apart communities and generally mess stuff up. I’ve seen it firsthand, I’ve heard the same stories repeatedly from church planters and church leaders…and I see it in consumer driven Christian subculture in our society.
Growing up and then later ministering in the Churches of Christ we had a saying that inadvertently applied to this issue. “Dunk ’em and chunk ’em,” refers to the sad reality that often our efforts in evangelism consisted of getting people to accept the sneezed part of “Jesus is Lord,” culminating in their baptism…but then they were mostly left to their own devices to figure out the “now what?” part. The sound-byte approach to evangelism and discipleship leaves us ill prepared and sometimes dangerously malformed.
So, I can’t really justify turning everything into a brief commercial length sales pitch. If you don’t quite get what I’m saying in a sound byte, that’s okay. I’ll try to rephrase. I’ll use a different metaphor. I will consider ways that I am causing noise in the communication. But what I’d like – what I believe must happen – is for us to continue this conversation tomorrow and the day after. I want to invite you to come and see what I’m talking about for yourself. If you don’t have time for that or if you disagree and have no desire to pursue it any further, that’s fine.
Giving careful consideration to how I communicate is certainly part of what it means to remain true to my own particular calling. So, I’m not just trying to be difficult or stubborn here. Igniting and unleashing people’s imagination is a central component to helping others reorient their lives around God’s mission. So I want to do that well, and I don’t want to let my ego hinder the process.
But in order to actually unleash people’s imaginations we have to resist the temptation to become “answer people” who tell others what to do. And we also need to avoid the inspirational but relatively meaningless sales pitch which gets people to sign up without knowing the implications. Both approaches cripple the imagination. Both do more damage than good in the long run.
As with nearly everything, this isn’t a cut and dried issue. We need to keep our communication simple, but never simplistic. The two are not always easy to distinguish from one another. What seems simple to one person may not be so to another. However, that which seems confusing or convoluted may not need simplification, but may actually require diligence and tenacity of pursuit. Einstein is often credited with saying that if you can’t explain something in simple terms you don’t really understand it. (I don’t know if he actually said that or not…remember, Abraham Lincoln said that you can’t trust everything you read on the internet.) But the thing is, Einstein may have been able to explain a concept in simple terms so that you could catch the gist, but he couldn’t teach you to be a serious physicist in one brief conversation. If he could we’d have had thousands upon thousands of Einsteins trained and unleashed during his lifetime. I get the gist of physics (by that I mean that I watch Big Bang Theory and Discovery Channel shows on string theory and the multiverse), but that hasn’t equipped me to contribute anything to those wanting to live like Einstein. If I believed that living like Einstein was my calling in life then there would be no way around putting some effort into the process.
I’ve had this post half-written for a couple months now. Yesterday I began reading my latest review copy book from IVP, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development. By page 40 I was hooked and looking forward to finally publishing this post and writing a review of the book (which I’ll do in the coming days.)
The book addresses what I believe to be a significant problem behind the demand for constant sound-byte communication and simplistic sales pitches. Our thinking is broken. Or, at the very least, bad thinking habits have caused mental atrophy. The good news is, we can correct the problem in our selves.
So now I need to think carefully about how I’m going to write that review…
There isn’t anything else going on April 5-6, I checked.
So break open the piggy-bank, dig under the couch cushions and come see me in Fort Worth. Wes Magruder and I will help you figure out once and for all what missional and monastic have to do with each other. We’ll also be talking about the Missional Wisdom Foundation’s experiences with forming missional communities. I’m quite positive other people will say good things too…but mostly, you don’t want to miss Wes and me. 🙂
Find out more about TransFORM at their website.
A few weeks ago it was a red velvet cake, today it was a giant chocolate chip cookie. When The Gathering, um…gathers… for worship, there is ALWAYS food involved. If someone is having a birthday, there’s cake; maybe left over, or it might be made especially for the occasion.
And so recently we stumbled across what is rapidly becoming one of my new favorite traditions. Seeing the red velvet birthday cake near where we were preparing the communion elements, someone jokingly asked, “Are we having birthday cake for communion?”
I stopped dead in my tracks and said, “Yes. Yes we are.”
To help our children understand the meaning of the Eucharist, we have a slightly modified way of describing the bread and cup. We talk about the bread as Jesus’ body that GIVES life – as food does. And we talk about the cup as Jesus’ blood that SAVES life – just like it does in the hospital. Communion is our practice of proclaiming to one another, and recommitting to the One who gives us life and saves our life.
And the purpose of a birthday cake is to celebrate a life given and kept safe through another year. So today it was time to celebrate Rachel’s birthday. I lifted the giant chocolate chip cookie, breaking it in front of the community and proclaiming the familiar words, “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…”
Then the birthday girl, in celebration of the gift of life, shared the gift of life with others. She broke off bite sized chunks, handing them to each person in turn saying, “This is Jesus body which gives life.” After everyone else was served, I got to break off a piece for Rachel – and her cake, celebrating God’s gift of life to her became Jesus’ body….celebrating God’s gift of life to her.
The symbolism was incredible.
So I asked Conner (9) and Micah (7) what they thought about our practice of birthday cake communion.
Conner: “The cake is, well, for one thing, its yummy. And two it celebrates people’s life and you know, this is Jesus’ body that gives life. Its important for us to do this together because Jesus loves us and we love Jesus.
Me: So why do you think we involve everybody in communion and not just the adults?
Conner: Its better to have all of us take communion instead of just the grown ups because everyone should be able to share Jesus with each other. Jesus loves kids too, not just adults that have been baptized, so we should all celebrate Jesus together.
Me: Micah, what do you think?
Micah: Its really good, especially when there’s cake… Its important to let kids take communion too because it helps us keep it in our minds when someone asks us why people take communion…we’ll just know the answer right away. The juice is the blood of Jesus and the bread is the body of Jesus. Jesus’ blood saves life and Jesus’ body gives life. That’s why we do it.
The decision to incorporate our children fully into the life of the community has meant that our worship gatherings are hectic…sometimes stressfully so. Conner and Micah are two of the liturgists and worship leaders in our community. We typically use the Common Prayer liturgy in our gatherings and its often Micah or Conner who lead that time. They find people to read the scriptures, they lead us in the Lord’s prayer, they lead the responsive readings…and often they’ll lead a song or two (and so will several other people…including their little brother and the other 4-5 year olds).
The impact has been phenomenal. An intergenerational community that is truly an intergenerational COMMUNITY. My role, as “the minister,” has shifted to be one voice among many. I will often capitalize on teaching moments as they arise – for instance when we’re reading a passage from the Old Testament, I’ll follow up with some comments about the cultural setting or that particular story’s role in the larger narrative. And the others are quick to interject their own reflections on the readings or a prayer. Our times of prayer become an opportunity to lament, rejoice and wonder together. Each of us are able to share stories of God at work and frustrations for the areas in which God seems painfully absent. And it is absolutely normal for a child to respond with uncanny wisdom to a presented problem, or ask a probing question in response to a shared story.
We take time to pause and help the kids understand that the colon in the scripture reference separates the chapter from the verses; the dash tells us to read from one part through to the next and a semi-colon tells us to jump to the next passage. And these simple teaching moments have often provided unintended insight for adults as well.
And as Micah said, all this keeps our faith in our minds so that whenever someone asks, we’re ready to answer right away…even if we’re 7 years old.
I truly enjoy my work with the Missional Wisdom Foundation. As the Director of Operations many of my tasks focus on the logistics and details of our various ministries and efforts. As our organization grows, the IT aspects of my job have also become increasingly complex. The crazy part is that I’m not a detail person by nature, nor do I have any formal training in IT. I’m out of my comfort zone and “expertise” fairly often. While this isn’t always pleasant, it has been incredibly beneficial. I’ve been forced to stretch and grow aspects of myself that would be very easy to leave dormant. Like physical exercise and balanced diet, I believe these challenges are slowly reshaping me into a healthier person.
They’ve also helped me appreciate even more the aspects of my work that do come more naturally. I love teaching. A lot. I love the process of coaching and walking alongside folks as they explore their own calling, decide to take risks and then step out onto the edge.
Of all my tasks, teaching the first course in the Academy – The Missional Imagination – is probably the most exciting. Participants in The Academy are excited about the possibility of something new and more authentic – but many are also unsure, confused, intimidated or even a little terrified by the thought. I have the honor of helping them begin to see more clearly.
As we spend time over the first six weeks exploring the need for and the practice of a missional imagination my prayer is that we begin to envision the ways we can go by staying, because, as Wilson-Hartgrove claims, “If real life with God can happen anywhere at all, it can happen here among the people whose troubles are already evident to us.”1
A missional orientation elicits a tangible response from disciples of Jesus. This is not an ivory tower philosophy, it is recognition of a call to be answered with our intellect, our emotions and most certainly our actions. However, it cannot be stressed enough that missional is not simply an adjective to be placed alongside a program, model or pragmatic list of activities.
Though it carries a significant call to active faith, missional is an orientation (who we are) rather than a program (what we do). The cultivation of a missional approach to faith does not originate in a study of best practices of business, vibrant churches or high-profile individuals. It is not a church growth strategy developed through market analysis. First and foremost missional is a theological issue rooted in our encounter with the one true God of the universe; modeled in the text of scripture, witnessed in the life of the early church and evident throughout our history.
This Missional Imagination course is concerned with the role of missionally oriented imagination regarding the themes of God, scripture, discipleship, worship and community. Imagination is used by advertisers, movie and television producers, motivational speakers, politicians, personal trainers, psychologists and even infomercial gurus. Imagination cultivates us as the germination ground for the seeds of revolution, reform, embodiment of particular ideals or commitment to a particular brand, product or cause.
Imagination is what we experience when a story takes root in our mind. As tendrils of the narrative spread, new regions of brain activity are ignited. Once our imagination is fully engaged, we not only hear the story but we see the story; we can smell it, taste it, touch it…experience it. There are those who believe that the imagination is just for keeping children occupied. They are sorely mistaken. Imagination is an essential aspect of development during childhood. Imagination helps young people explore their world, discover their place in the story, develop the confidence to face monsters and pursue dreams.
Imagination is significantly more than entertainment for children and its significance does not dissipate in the transition to adulthood.
No organized sporting contest, no battle for liberation, no educational reform, no campaign for office, no quest for a corner office, no cry for release from captivity, no response to that cry, no charitable organization or humanitarian cause has ever been conceived or realized without the assistance of the imagination. It is our window into the world that could be. In the case of the missional imagination, its our window into the world that should be, can be and will be through the power of God.
Missional imagination is the ability to see a day in the future when you and your elderly (and to this point barren) wife have become the ancestors of a people that outnumber the sands on the beach and the stars in the sky. It equips us to envision a valley of dry bones being knitted together by God, with life breathed into places formerly inhabited only by death.
A missional imagination inspires conviction and courage in the face of seemingly hopeless odds. This is why in Isaiah 61:3b-4 the prophet, despite contemporary evidence to the contrary, could say:
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his spendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
The missional imagination can take a simple mustard seed, or perhaps a handful of seeds, a coin, a sheep, a lump of bread dough or a lamp on its stand, and transform them into a vision of an entirely new reality.
And this is our goal.
…Yes, I enjoy my work with the Missional Wisdom Foundation.
1 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 2010), 24.
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.
Within Churches of Christ, Randy Harris is well known…even infamous in some circles – which makes him all the more likable in my book. 🙂 Quirky would be a fair, though insufficient descriptor. He chooses to dress simply in black pants and black shirts everyday in order to clear away one more materialistic anxiety from his life – what will I wear today? Strangely enough, though dressing in one color, he often still manages not to match – quirky.
He has also managed to order his life as a missional monk while remaining within the Church of Christ tradition – and he far surpasses me on both accounts.
Randy teaches undergraduate theology students at Abilene Christian University, travels around the country speaking to and working with churches, and has played an integral role in shaping Mission Alive’s theology lab for church planters.
We interviewed Randy for the podcast – check it out on the page or listen here.
In his latest book, Living Jesus, he addresses the Sermon on the Mount – a section of teaching which has captivated folks, and often left them scratching their heads, for the past two thousand years.
Over time there have been countless expositions and interpretations of the text and many of them seem to fall into one of two (mis)readings of the sermon. Some see Jesus as teaching us to “out Pharisee the Pharisees” – a harsh and legalistic reading which beats the life out of its adherents. Others have basically said that the sermon is intentional hyperbole or an impossible standard. This reading tends to come from the “all people suck” camp and sees the passage as a reminder of our total depravity and need to throw ourselves at the mercy of the court. We can’t live up to this message, and Jesus knew it.
The problem with both of these readings is that we have to basically ignore the text itself to get there. Jesus directly and fearlessly critiques the Pharisee’s tendency to dwell in harsh legalism to ensure their elite awesomitude. And yet Jesus also speaks very directly about how his disciples will actually live – a deeper, more significant righteousness which grows from our identity rather than one which forms the basis of it.
I’m pretty convinced that one reason the Sermon on the Mount is often seen as unattainable is that we continue to read it the same way the Pharisees read the Law. We see a set of external rules to be obeyed rather than the description of a transformed self and society…which have come about because God is at working reconciling and restoring creation.
The bulk of Living Jesus takes us through the sermon passage by passage, considering how each piece serves to show us how to live as citizens of a new kingdom – in ways which neither legalism nor “woe is me” are capable. This reading makes considerably more sense in the context of forming a people and describing a new community…beyond just heaping expectations on the isolated individual.
Within the publishing world there seems to be a growing expectation that when we read about church or faith, we’ll do so in conversation with others. To this end, it has become common practice to include a mini study-guide at the end of each chapter or section of a book. Though the questions are often overly elementary – less challenging than I would have used with a junior high discipleship group back in the youth ministry days – I very much love what they imply.
Their presence may be a marketing strategy, but it is a strategy that suggests we’re beginning to take communal practices more seriously…even in the case of something as private as reading a book. The reminder is constantly before us – this isn’t just for you, its for us.
One aspect of Randy’s study guide is particularly exciting. Beyond just discussion questions or very general application moments, there is a specific suggestion for practice associated with each chapter. It doesn’t just say, “look for ways to be forgiving.” Instead he calls us to make a list of people we have wronged and contact one person a day for the next week (or however long it takes). Specific practice in the reader’s actual context is a powerful and needed tool. In the closing section of the book we see why this is important for Randy as well.
If you listen to the podcast you’ll notice that one of the main reasons we wanted to talk with Randy was to hear more about his work in developing a “quasi-religious order” among college-age men at ACU. This monastic community is ordered around a shared Rule of Life and covenant to living out the Sermon on the Mount.
Randy suggests – and I whole-heartedly concur – that the lack of covenanting community is a significant part of what hinders the development of discipleship in our churches and makes living according to the teachings of Jesus infinitely more difficult. He encourages Christians to consider ordering their lives more intentionally regardless of where they live or in what stage of life they currently dwell.
He recommends several excellent books to help those who wish to pursue this idea. I’d add to that a short book by Elaine Heath: Longing for Spring. Though written for a Methodist audience, it is broadly applicable for any who are looking to form intentional communities of discipleship, prayer and service – and also describes ways in which established congregations can partner with (rather than compete with or fear) these communities.
And of course, helping people form these kinds of communities in their context is exactly what we do in the Academy for Missional Wisdom…so there’s that (shameless plug).
The Sermon on the Mount is a foundational passage and it has consistently held an integral role in monastic communities throughout history. I have no reservation recommending Living Jesus as an accessible resource for groups who are currently wrestling with what it might look like to pursue more intentional community in the way of Jesus.
There is also an accompanying dvd series available from Leafwood Publishers. I haven’t seen this series, but you can check out this intro video:
I have just finished writing and scheduling two posts reviewing Thin Places (they’ll be live next week) and tonight as I sat down to finish my multiple-post series on JR Woodward‘s Creating A Missional Culture, a different post wrote itself. It began as an information dump – an attempt to clear my head in order to focus on the planned task. I write a lot of these and few of them ever find their way into the public sphere…but here it is.
I’ve noticed a trend over the last decade. A lot of my Church of Christ and other non-liturgical, free-church tradition friends have found their way into historically mainline denominations – Methodist, Episcopal…even Orthodox and Catholic. Meanwhile a large percentage of the admittedly smaller number of mainline friends have gravitated away from those same denominations towards more decentralized and sometimes even Evangelical contexts. Many of these have moved into what would be characterized as non-denominational emergent churches as well as more missional church planting contexts.
As I’ve continued to wrestle with my own connection to the Churches of Christ, this phenomenon is one of several reasons that I have NOT made any moves toward “membership” in another denomination. As I mentioned in my previous post highlighting the dangers of “freedom,” there is a marked tendency to move on to something new and (IMO) reject too much of that which we’re moving from.
People from “low church” traditions have seen how limiting and restrictive spontaneity can be…and they long for the richness and beauty of ancient liturgy. People from mainline traditions are tired of the institutionalism (that others of us complain about even without having experienced at nearly the same level) and they long for freedom of expression in faith. People from Evangelical churches are tired of the suppression of women while Mainliners are weary of the suppression of laity.
Within the missional conversation, many are calling for the release of the apostles, evangelists and prophets…and I wonder if we’re already beginning to bind up the pastors and teachers.
Jon Stewart said it so well in his critique of Bill O’Reilley – human history is a cyclical account of a minority group rising up to overthrow the establishment, only to become the new establishment which will in turn be overthrown by the oppressed minority they create.
I don’t have any delusion that my perspective is unique, but over the last several years I’ve been able to simultaneously watch behind the curtains of conservatives and liberals, mainline and evangelical, large church and house church, rural, urban and suburban. I’ve seen the same kinds of passion, conviction, blind spots, rhetoric, logic, and faith employed – for good and ill. I’ve noticed how the faulty reasoning which Group A accuses Group B of using is often also employed by Group B…just on a different set of agenda items.
As people have switched sides I’ve seen how quickly they leave behind the very things that folks switching the other way are coming to claim. And I’ve also seen this observation become an excuse to defend the status quo, rather than what seems the more obvious conclusion – it has never made more sense than now for us to work together to cultivate the truly holistic faith culture we all obviously crave.
I realize that for those who have grown weary in a particular context, it is difficult to not be sickened by anything that reminds them of that context. I’ve gone, and continue to go, through much of that myself.
For those who have grown weary of the almost exclusively inward-focused gathered church, it is right to long for the experiences of living as the scattered church. But don’t jump out of one ditch into the other. We are called to be the gathered AND scattered church. We need spontaneity and liturgy; mission, worship, ministry and discipleship. We need information and experience for our transformation. We need prayer and action, faith and deeds.
We need a missional church that acknowledges all believers as disciples and all disciples as agents of God’s reconciling mission. But we still need people who dedicate time and energy to learning the Biblical languages, the history of the church, the debates of the Great Councils, the cultivation of rich theologies. We don’t need those people calling all the shots, but we do need their voice in our midst. Just as we need the voice of our children, the practically-minded blue collar worker, the stay-at-home parent, the school teacher, the nurse, the lawyer, the small business owner and large business executive. We need the pastors, teachers, apostles, prophets and evangelists…because God gave us each of them to equip the saints for works of ministry.
We need to embrace messiness and the beautiful chaos of vibrant life, but not to the exclusion of rhythm and structure. We need them in constant interplay, providing counter-melodies which keep our song vibrant and alive.
We need to go out and we need to come back together. We need the meal in the upper room and we need the enormous gathering of Pentecost.
We do not need to settle for what we have, but neither do we need to start over from scratch.
We need each other.
In my class on the Missional Imagination students are required to select a “missional space” for the duration of the course (and hopefully beyond). The only requirements for selection are that it must be local, public and regularly accessible. So, for instance, if they live in Fort Worth, their location shouldn’t be a favorite hangout in Dallas (unless they drive there every day for work), it shouldn’t be a church building or their living room and it shouldn’t be someplace like Six Flags that they can only afford to visit a couple times a year.
Beyond that, they can choose just about anywhere. A coffee shop, local bar, grocery store, community center, town square, neighborhood park – or in some instances, perhaps even their front yard.
Each week part of the course curriculum involves spending time in this location. The first assignment is simply to describe what they see. What are the sounds and smells of the place? How is the place decorated? How would they describe the atmosphere? What do they notice about the people? Is this a place where people come for escape or connection? Do people notice each other or keep their heads down as they go about their business?
And what we often discover is that we’ve seen a place a million times without ever seeing it.
As the course progresses I ask them to look again. When we talk about the missional imagination, we’re talking about the ability to see what could be, can be and will be as the kingdom of God breaks in more fully. Where is the kingdom of God already breaking in here? Where does this place and these people desperately need God’s kingdom more fully?
What do you see?
I believe that most, if not all, of us could benefit from someone walking alongside us all day long asking this question. “Wait. What do you see?”
Because our temptation is simply not to see. Perhaps its a matter of convenience, self-absorption, frustration or fear, but we just don’t see. We don’t see the stuff that is right in front of us…so how can we possibly see what could be? Whenever people ask me to help them think through ways to engage a more missional orientation to faith, this is one of the first questions I ask.
Whenever someone complains that missional – or any other – theology is too abstract or theoretical, this is one of the first questions I ask. Whenever someone says that they aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do with their life, don’t know how to move from intellectual to holistic faith, don’t know where to begin…I ask, “What do you see?”
Everywhere we look, if we will look, there are signs of God at work and there are signs that the people of God need to cry out for God’s ministry of reconciliation, redemption and rescue.
So, what do you see?
This series is dealing with the ways in which a “bare minimum” approach to faith has robbed us of a deeper life in community – with God and others. In this third, and final (for now) installment, I’m getting to the crux of what I believe this has cost us – and what it will cost us to reclaim what was lost. This is something which, if not addressed, I believe will continue to block our growth regardless of what “discipleship” strategies or approaches to faith, worship and spiritual formation we engage.
Because we’re so obsessed with the bare minimum, I don’t think we put up much of a fight as society morphed into a series of disconnected moments in time. I recently read Building a Discipling Culture by Breen and Cockram. If you haven’t read it, and you’re interested in digging into discipleship (and how to go about it), then I recommend the book. I didn’t find anything new or earth-shattering, but it was solid stuff.
Their content and approach isn’t significantly different than what others have done, such as Greg Ogden in Discipleship Essentials and Transforming Discipleship. However, the authors, themselves heavily invested in equipping others for discipleship, have some very practical and useful “shapes” which make many of their concepts easily grasped and transferrable to others. And that’s a definite plus.
Their basic vehicle for the discipling relationship is huddles of 8-12 folks meeting together regularly (as opposed to Ogden’s use of triads called formation groups). These groups meet once a week or every other week for 1-1.5 hours. There’s also an expectation that those in the huddle have access to the “normal” life of the huddle leader – and I suppose, one another as well.
They make a point that Jesus’ disciples learned from him in the way that disciples learned from a Jewish rabbi – they followed them everywhere, learning as the walked along and witnessed how the rabbi operated in a wide range of contexts. They make the point that discipling relationships – Christian faith in general – requires time.
And that’s really the rub, isn’t it?
Let’s go out on a limb and say that Jesus was a better disciple-maker than me (not finding that one difficult to imagine, eh?) So, the disciples spent pretty much every day with Jesus for THREE YEARS and Jesus still had to send the Holy Spirit to explain this stuff again after his resurrection. Three years. With Jesus. Daily.
So…how does it make sense to expect an hour and a half meeting each week, with perhaps a few random times hanging out with someone is going to have the same effect as Jesus’ approach?
Yes, we certainly hold up the expectation that in our discipling relationships we’re actually encouraging one another to walk with Jesus daily. I’ve been trying that for a long time, and I’ve made significant progress in listening for God’s voice…but let’s be honest, it is not the same…at all.
My point isn’t to detract from Breen and Cockram or Ogden or anybody who cares deeply about discipleship – not at all. In fact, I greatly appreciate their work. However, as I consider how the overall attempt at disciple-making seems to have had minimal impact on Christians in our society, I wonder. What the heck is (or isn’t) going on?
It seems that the common element missing in nearly every discipleship process I’m aware of is time – at least in the way we see time spent in the life of Jesus and the early disciples. Many processes – the ones mentioned particularly – place an emphasis on time…but its still so “part-time.”
This is a large reason that I’ve been so drawn to the work of the neo-monastics and have sought to cultivate a suburban attempt at missional monasticism. Time is a large component in the examples of communitas that Alan Hirsch points out in his writings – sports teams, soldiers in combat, etc.
Yes, they have a shared mission, ordeal or struggle to overcome…but they overcome those things together in close proximity over a period of TIME. I’m not talking about another hour-long meeting added to the list. I’m not even talking about trying to call each other on the phone each day. I’m talking about daily, real-life, face-to-face time spent together – in both formalized and mundane contexts.
If the purpose of our life in God is more than just “getting saved” so we can go to heaven – and I hope its clear that I believe wholeheartedly that it is – then the bare minimum approach to faith just doesn’t make sense. Sure, I’m all about minimizing the bureaucracy and hoops to jump through – understood that way the simplicity of the gospel is compelling and reasonable. But that kind of simplicity shouldn’t lead to minimalism. Its simplicity is found in its reordering of life around the life-giving call to love God with our whole being and love people as we love ourselves (… and we sure do love ourselves with whole being). This kind of love can’t ever be expressed in the bare minimum. It requires our whole life. And that means time. With others. Lots of it.
“But,” you may say, “That just isn’t realistic.”
I know. That’s what scares me.
We live in a hyper-mobile, overly-busy society. We jump from one disconnected meeting or duty to another, with little time to talk, let alone share life deeply. In Building a Discipling Culture, Breen and Cochram suggest inviting those who we’re in discipling relationships with to accompany us to the grocery store or other mundane tasks. This is great advice, but we’re all spread out with different work schedules and availability. We don’t even go to the store at the same time of day. We can work to simplify our schedule and spend more time with one another but…we probably won’t.
The response seems simple enough – restructure time so that we are able to share life daily with others who are seeking to follow Christ together. But, its simple in the way that a drowning person knows that the answer is simply to keep their head above water indefinitely.
But I wonder – and I’m really wondering, not just employing a rhetorical device – if we might need to face the truth that either we’ll learn to reclaim time or accept that discipleship in the way that the early disciples experienced it is no longer going to happen.
I think the new monastics have figured out one good way to address this issue. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, one of the strongest voices in this movement, says “The first task of any monastic movement is to remind the church that our story is the adventure of God’s relationship with a peculiar people.” But he also points out, “My point is not that churches ought to imitate new monastic communities but that another way is possible.” (For a deeper look at what this “other way” describes check out New Monasticism and The Wisdom of Stability both by Wilson-Hartgrove).
Yes, another way is certainly possible. But is it at a price that Christians and the contemporary church are willing to pay?
We don’t have to plant new churches – in fact, even when we do, this issue remains one which must be considered deeply. Regardless of our ecclesial context, I don’t see how we can embrace life with Christ and not embrace another view of time and community.
I hate to leave such a long series of words on a bit of a downer – so I hope this isn’t the end of the thought. I’d really appreciate some feedback here…when you have time.