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!