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…
This may seem a bit obvious, but Chris and I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the suburbs lately. Its obvious (obviously) because we live and are planting churches in a suburb of Fort Worth, TX.
A couple months ago we both read a book, Death by Suburb, that we felt addresses many of the issues that we and our community deal with on a regular basis. Toxins like the temptation to for every relationship to be transactional – based on an exchange of goods, services or some perceived benefit. We get our coffee from a drive-thru worker, not a person; we buy our groceries from a corporation and pay a cashier…no names required. Even our interactions with our Christ Journey family runs the risk of becoming transactional – I call you because you volunteered to read Scripture on Sunday or because you are a House Church Leader, not because I wanted to see how your doctor’s appointment went yesterday. That reminds me, I want to call somebody about their doctor’s appointment yesterday….
…Okay I’m back.
Transactional relationships, the inability to slow down, the temptation to define ourselves by what we do or have, the compulsion to have someone else’s life – to compete with our neighbors and define ourselves through “immortality symbols” such as new minivans, community service activities, successful kids, etc, – none of these things are unique to the ‘burbs, but many have unique expressions in suburban life. And we deal with all of them in one way or another.
Of course, our work here in Burleson is interesting in that we aren’t in an exclusively “typical” suburban area. There are sprawling McMansion neighborhoods to be sure, but there are also still plenty of “small town” and even “rural” areas, many of which found in the same zip code.
As we’ve continued to engage this suburban idea in our studies and conversations, we’ve come across some very helpful resources, including this article in Newsweek magazine (thanks for the link Chris!)
I couldn’t help but think of my time in the New Orleans area when reading that article. I typically say New Orleans when folks around here ask where we were in Louisiana. But to the locals, we were well outside of NOLA…we were on the Northshore. New Orleans is situated around the Mississippi River but is also held in place by Lake Pontchartrain (the huge oval shaped water feature on the southeast corner of a LA map). Across the 24 mile Causeway Bridge there is a growing “bedroom” community made up of several towns: Mandeville (where we lived), Madisonville, Covington, Lacombe, Abita Springs…and plenty other small communities.
MANY people drive across that bridge to the Southshore every day. New Orleans would be in serious trouble if it were not for the North Shore. And yet the various discussions of urban renewal and even church planting typically ignore or show mild neglect to the residents of St. Tammany Parish.
The Newsweek article addresses the reality that as the popularity and availability of suburban life increases, so does the existence of social concerns which many suburbanites tried to leave behind. One quote in particular said it well:
The end of the (traditional) suburbs was inevitable. Hopeful, mobile Americans may once have thought they could leave behind the pressures, demands and compromises of city life. But social concerns inexorably follow society.
One of the things that Chris and I have wanted to be very intentional about in our Navigating the Suburban Wilderness series is to avoid telling people they should move to the country OR to the city.
It seems that these options are often held up as the true choices for the person who doesn’t want to become a Stepford wife…or husband. “Move to the country and get back to your roots!” “Enjoy small town values with people you can trust.” “Experience the land again.” These are all great things – I come from the country and enjoyed these aspects of my upbringing.
“Return to the cities and stop ignoring the poor!” “Jesus wouldn’t live in the burbs, he’d be in the city where the oppressed and forgotten live.” “If you want real character and personality, you have to experience city life…suburbs are too sterile.” There is a deep pull in my heart for speaking for the voiceless, seeing the invisible and breaking the chains of injustice. And its hard not to like areas like Sundance Square in Fort Worth…
But make no mistake, Jesus is not merely a resident of the city or a friend of the rancher. Jesus is the one who has come near and is the companion of humanity – not just a certain cross-section. Anywhere there are people there is opportunity to know their names – not just in small towns. If you won’t meet your neighbor in the burbs, you aren’t likely to learn the names of shop owners in a rural town either. If you haven’t spoken up for the needs of the oppressed in the suburbs (refer back to the Newsweek article if you think they don’t exist…or better yet, visit Harvest House, Heart for the Kids, or talk to just a couple random people and ask them their story) then why would you be more likely to do the same in the city?
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that there are people who feel a special calling to show solidarity with the urban poor and I am so glad they are willing to answer that call. There are plenty of people raising their families is small towns, and that is great. But you don’t typically have to go any further than your own neighborhood to find opportunities to love those who are unloved and share hope with those who are trapped in despair.
I believe that the burbs are going to continue to become more and more complex and diverse. We believe that the Kingdom of God is breaking in even here and the Lord Jesus is seeking to proclaim freedom for the captives, even if their prison bars are picket fences and their sentence is self-imposed.
A large part of college education is to take a group of people who feel that they know everything (college freshmen) and get them to the point where they feel that they don’t know anything. That takes a lot of work in the classroom. The goal is to instill a curious bent to the student’s intellectual character. To get them to see each new experience (ideological and interpersonal) as an opportunity for learning.
Higher education is good at this. But I wonder how good the church is at this process. Churches, it seems to me, move in the opposite direction: They try to instill certainty. A similar thing happens in political affiliation. You don’t see circumspection when Democrats and Republicans square off. I think this is why we live with the rule to never discuss religion or politics in polite conversation. The “feeling of knowing” infuses those discussions, making them very intense but also very unproductive.
So I wonder, can a church survive if it actually tried to undermine the “feeling of knowing” the way higher education does? Probably not. But I think some persons can make this shift. As a consequence, these person seed the church with question-raisers. The presence of these people infuse the faith community with flexibility and curiosity which prevents ossification and stagnation. A healthy church would be a mix of those who feel they know along with people who feel they don’t know. The real trick is getting these people to get along with each other and to mutually affirm the gifts each brings to the communal setting.
What a great thought from one of my former professors, Dr. Richard Beck. His blog, Experimental Theology is quite challenging for several reasons. First of all, those who think that the content of my blog is too heavy and serious should not even click on his link (though his sarcasm and humor ensure that even his scholarly work is often light-hearted and enjoyable for nerds like me). However the real challenge of Experimental Theology is that Beck is quite comfortable living into the role he suggests in the extended quote above. Challenging not only assumptions but assumptions which entire systems of thought are often built upon.
While I will not cover this topic in any way like Dr. Beck and his very well researched article, I would like to talk a little about the usefulness of doubt and willingness to question assumptions. And since this post is over a thousand words, I’ll post the rest tomorrow.
Some of those who have responded to my previous post on the wrath of God(primarily in person or by phone) seem to have understood me to say that God is not concerned with sin or that there is no response of wrath.
I understand how they could come to that since my first post on this subject was intended primarily to pull our focus away from the satisfaction of God’s wrath as the primary purpose of the cross. I made a case against this perspective not because I don’t believe it has a part in this story, but because for so many of us it has been the ONLY part of the story that seemed to matter.
I do believe that sin and injustice matter to God. I believe that violence and oppression certainly bring about the wrath of God; my friend Luke pointed out the story of Sodom and Gomorra…another good example would be the plagues on Egypt. I have said before, and still believe, that mercy taken to an extreme is injustice to those offended.
I believe that our obstinate desire to continue in sin when faced with the Truth of God, is something which does bring guilt and potentially wrath.
I’d like to talk more about what that means. When we read about the wrath of God being poured out or threatened to be poured out there are two basic categories: 1) evil and violent cultures/people groups and 2) God’s chosen people who continue generation after generation to refuse to worship God alone; who fail to be the people they’re called to be.
Notice that if the evil communities – such as Sodom and Gomora or Egypt – would have repented, then God would have withheld his wrath. Look at Ninevah – Jonah preaches the worst sermon in history and boom, the whole city repents and then, double boom God relents. No sacrifice needed to appease his wrath other than the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart.
Regarding the wrath poured out on God’s people – a story which is repeated throughout Israel’s history – let’s not forget how often they were given the chance to repent and turn back to God. The message of Jeremiah was that God’s wrath would come in the form of exile and control by a foreign power unless the people turned back to God. God’s wrath was NOT inescapable, it only came about after repeated refusals by His people to listen.
I’m not arguing that Jesus’ crucifixion didn’t serve as the final sacrifice for sin – I think that is absolutely part of what happened. However, I believe that it is false to assert that God is bound by his justice to require a sacrifice and therefore that must have been the primary reason for the cross. If God is bound to satisfy justice, then God is subservient to justice…we should worship justice because it is more powerful than God. But God is love. Love certainly involves seeking justice for others, but love also forgives offenses against itself.
I believe that there are some serious holes in the position that God is bound by his justice and so the pouring out of his wrath on someone (be it on us or Jesus) is central to his nature. While God is certainly just, God is not subject to anything – if so then, again, we should worship that. It is not okay to say that God IS justice and thus he is bound by himself. First of all, while Scripture says that God is just (an adjective) it does not say that God IS Justice (noun) – we’re told that God is Love…not Justice.
One response I’ve heard to this is that love must be just. Love certainly contains a component of justice yet it is also filled with mercy, long-suffering, forgiveness and grace.
Substitutionary atonement fails to acknowledge God’s longstanding history of offering forgiveness to those who have offended him without requiring the taking of life. Hosea 6 reminds us that God“desires mercy, not sacrifice.” In that passage God, through through the prophet, is urging his people to turn back and acknowledge him – they had ALREADY broken their covenant with God and thus justice demanded that they be put out. The entire point of Hosea’s life and ministry was that God is not bound by this expectation of justice. God is willing to set all that aside if his people will remember and return.
Isn’t that precisely what we are called to as well? Paul confronts the church in Corinth for their insistence on getting justice when they’ve been wronged: “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?(1 Corinthians 6:7)”
Demanding justice for yourself does not seem to carry the same weight as demanding justice for the weak and the oppressed (assuming you aren’t the weak and oppressed). God is the One who speaks up for justice on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves and yet where God is concerned he extends mercy and forgiveness.
When God is finally forced to pour out his wrath, he tells the people he will not remain angry forever – God’s wrath is redemptive rather than merely retributive (thanks Nate); God’s wrath is a means rather than an end.
How does Jesus describe God in relation to our “lostness”? Well, most of us are familiar with the three parables of lost things. The lost coin, lost sheep and prodigal son are important parables where Jesus stresses heavily the nature of God – hence three similar stories in quick succession. In these stories we find not a vengeful God of righteous wrath, but a compassionate caretaker, shepherd and father. The shepherd does not require the sheep to be sacrificed and the father does not require the son to become a slave – apparently being lost was punishment enough.
HOWEVER (Galatians 6:7) “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” God does take sin very seriously because sin is a component of the larger brokenness that plagues all of creation – a creation that is beloved by God and which God is even now working to restore and heal. Sin, brokenness and evil are true enemies of life, if that is what we sow then that is what we will reap.
What if that is what the wrath of God really is? Eventually God allows us to remain in the lostness we brought on ourselves. It isn’t that God brings about some vicious torture because his sense of honor has been accosted. He invites us to return but if we continue to refuse; if we continue to willingly sow evil, then how can we not reap destruction?
This shift in understanding does is not devalue the damage of sin or the need for a Savior. However, it does demand that we recognize how we’ve made sin the point for too long. Sin is only the point if our genesis (beginning) was in Genesis 3. But the fall of humanity is not the foundation of this story, the point is the power of a good creator God speaking all things into existence and being very pleased with his good creation (Genesis 1). The point is that this God desires to be in close communion with that which he has made and he will cross any chasm to rescue us from death.
Sin is a character in this story, but it is not the main character. The wrath of God is a potential subplot, but not the climax or the resolution. The wrath of God is no more central to this story than not failing a class is the central reason to study in school or gaining nutrients for physical survival is the primary reason to share a meal with friends.
God is a just God; he demands justice for those who are oppressed and he will not allow those who continue to defy him to remain unpunished. But God IS love. God is the One who is at work in healing broken lives and restoring damaged relationships. This is the central message of the cross – a new power and a new kingdom are available. No longer will the oppressive regimes of this world define power. The Kingdom of God is at hand, it is for everyone and it has a whole new definition of life.
The barriers have been torn down; the enemy has been vanquished and the invitation to enter into life has been given. This is not primarily about a loan shark collecting a debt, this is about a father running to meet his child on the road. Falling on his knees, kissing and embracing his beloved, putting rings on fingers and coats on shoulders and throwing a feast to celebrate the restoration of the father’s broken heart.
That is a much better story.
I just finished 5 weeks of preaching at Christ Journey on the topic of Sabbath. My suspicion going into this series was that very few of us, particularly here in our faith community, really understand, appreciate or practice any type of Sabbath rhythm.
I think this suspicion was confirmed and (hopefully) overcome. Over the past month I’ve had people come to me and say, “I’m glad we did this, I never knew that Sabbath had anything at all to do with Christianity – I thought it was just an Old Testament thing like Passover or Kosher laws.” Another told me, “I was always taught that Sabbath was going to church and NOT GOING to movies or the mall on Sunday.”
What we spent this entire month considering were the ways in which a Sabbath rhythm could be cultivated (which basically means that we have an intentional time set aside each week to cease from work and the compulsion to produce and prove ourselves and instead embrace other things like rest, worship, feasting, remembering, celebrating and storytelling).
I admit fully that while I have a great affinity for the concept of Sabbath I am not always very good at practice. I can see the areas in my life that would be healthier and more satisfying were I to center myself in the practice of remembering God is God and I am not…but I do not do the thing I want to do and what I do not what to do, I do.
One concept which has come up quite a bit lately, through our Sabbath discussions as well as in other (seemingly) unrelated settings is the importance of story. Being good storytellers and story-hearers is important to our spiritual formation and it is also a reenactment of the Gospel of Jesus.
We discussed in a couple of the sermons that Sabbath itself is rooted in story – we are first introduced to Sabbath in the narrative of creation. It does not simply show up out of the blue in the middle of the Ten Commandments. In fact the command issued in Exodus 20 is to REMEMBER the Sabbath day. This story is formative.
Later when the Ten Commandments are retold to Israel in Deuteronomy 5 Sabbath is set within another story. Here the people are told to remember the Sabbath day as a way to remember that they were captives in Egypt and God rescued them and brought them to freedom. The Exodus story is central to understanding God’s relationship to humanity. We, the captives, cried out to God and he came near in order to set us free. He is not a God demanding constant production, like the Egyptian masters. He invites his people to rest in Him.
Jesus would later say that He came so that we might have life and have it to the fullest. He said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”
The hearing and telling of these stories – our stories in scripture – is central to participation in the life of faith. But that isn’t where the importance of story ends.
In the midst of one of our worship gatherings we had an opportunity for several couples to share stories. They were asked to talk about how God had worked in their lives in the past or where they were hoping to see God at work in the future.
I thought it was a great moment for our family when one couple shared what they thought were two unrelated stories. However after they shared their two stories we helped them to reinterpret their story. In fact the two were so closely connected that it was quite powerful – one talking about the struggle to find balance between providing for his family and spending time with them and the other talking about her struggle to forgive a father that failed to maintain that very balance.
We are a community that tells, retells and sometimes, reinterprets stories. It is what we do because it is precisely what God has done for us. The story of human existence was one of brokenness and despair. Sin, unchecked, destroys life after life with no compassion or mercy. God in his greatness did not allow this story to define us forever. Instead he stepped into the story and began redeeming and reconciling the characters. Humanity and all creation are in the process of being healed and restored by the Great Storyteller who was not happy with this tale ending in tragedy.
Where there are chapters of brokenness, God is editing and rewriting to include restoration. Where there is pain, God writes in healing; where there is chaos, God speaks a narrative of peace.
We too have that ability. We are able to tell the story in a new light. This isn’t to say that we stick our head in the sand and pretend that everything is okay. No, we step into the midst of a story that says everything is doomed and proclaim that in fact, there is hope. (Which was part of what happened at Marvelous Light)
Paul stepped into the midst of total relativism in Athens (Acts 17) and said, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
Paul was able to reinterpret this story for the Athenians because he was willing to enter into their story in the first place. Had he simply stood outside the Areopagus and denounced their idolatry he would have had no impact whatsoever.
I recently heard a Christian say that they were unable to participate in Christmas activities because December 25 was an ancient pagan holiday associated with the Winter Solstice and the practices of Christmas originate in the worship of Saturnalia and other pagan gods.
It may be jarring to learn for the first time that there were religious celebrations associated with winter and even December 25 prior to Christ. While this may be difficult if you didn’t know about it, it isn’t a great deception.
In (I believe) 350, Pope Julius declared that the celebration of the birth of Christ would take place on December 25. This happened when many pagans were being forced to convert to Christianity. The move, while certainly containing the risk of syncretism, retold this story – which was always one of hope.
And theirs was a good story. The worship may have been false, but the concept was one of hope in a higher power that could rescue humanity from the powers of nature which were so threatening.
In fact, the practice of bringing an evergreen tree into one’s home was meant as a reminder that life would return even though the harsh cold winter seemed an unstoppable ally of death.
And Christianity retold this story. “Yes” we were able to say, “there is hope in the darkest of times; yes we can look forward to resurrection of life from the dead – but not because we’ve properly coerced the pagan gods but rather because the One True God has become one of us in order to be life and light in this darkness.” In other words, “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
Granted, the early church’s use of power and coercion was not something I believe to be Christlike. There were probably many pagans who simply used Christian language while maintaining their pagan beliefs – just as there are many Africans today who struggle with syncretism…and many Americans who baptize their consumerism and greed.
For Christians not to celebrate Christmas – at a time when the whole world is just a little more receptive to hearing the story of God coming near – seems to me to be a tragic missed opportunity to engage in this story. This story has been reinterpreted, retold and redeemed. For those who used (or use) the winter solstice to worship gods which are unable to actually save, we say, “Do not be afraid. We bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” And because this story has been redeemed we can claim it as our story…because that it what it has become, it is a new creation!
I love the season of Advent – which is focused on anticipation of God coming near; the season of Christmas – which is focused on the arrival of our hope in the form of a Savior; the season of Easter – which is the fulfillment of our hope through the victory of Christ over sin and death. These seasons are filled with storytelling cues which can be incredibly powerful…and they can also prime the pump for the story to be told to those who’ve never heard.
I love the music, the decorations, the preparation for Christmas…there is no denying that something is happening. This story is just begging to not only be told, but to be experienced and entered into.
Now if we want to have a conversation about letting Christmas be an excuse to become self-centered materialists…well that’s an altogether different story.