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Wanna Hang Out?

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.

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Creating a Missional Culture

The culture of a church can either pull people down to their base instincts, or lift people up to their sacred potential. We create culture, and culture re-creates us. – JR Woodward


creating-a-missional-cultureI can’t help but be impressed by the time and energy that must have been required to write Creating a Missional Culture. JR Woodward can be a goof-ball in conversation and his writing style is often light-hearted, but his content is serious, focused and substantive. My biggest complaint is the difficulty of boiling down a review to blog post length…thanks a lot JR.

In the first part of the book, Woodward addresses several different aspects which converge to create what we call “culture.” He discusses the impacts of language, artifacts, narratives, rituals, institutions, and ethics across various manifestations and specific examples.

I remember in one of my grad classes when a professor said, “What is culture? Everything. Every freaking thing is culture.”

Well…Woodward pretty much covers “every freaking thing” individually in this first section. Again, from a content standpoint, the book is packed full. However, and I confess I’m not always the best judge of this particular trait, he does seem to balance some of the heavy lifting with easy (or, at least, easier) to grasp explanations and illustrations.

It would have been very easy to conclude this section of the book after describing the various aspects and implications of culture. Instead he makes an exceedingly helpful move and includes a chapter on specific environments which should be cultivated with these cultural factors in mind. Then he concludes with a case for polycentric leadership – neither centralized nor decentralized, but rather where “leaders interrelate and incarnate the various purposes of Christ in such a way that the entire body is activated to service and matures in love” (60).

This polycentric approach relies on the currently popular “5 fold pattern” of Ephesians 4 – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Personally, though this language is quite prevalent in much of the missional literature, I remain unconvinced that this was ever intended to be a comprehensive or prescriptive list of the necessary leadership styles in the church. However, I don’t see much reason to resist it either. It’s hard to think of many broad leadership categories which are needed and not covered here.

There are those who push back against the 5-fold structure. They challenge the biblical merit of the term leadership altogether, and call instead for “disciple-makers,” but their arguments seem less than compelling. When couched in these broad generic terms it becomes a game of semantics.

I’ll challenge the strong claim that Ephesians 4 is meant to provide the rubric for leadership. However, what the passage does say explicitly, is that these giftings are made available by God in order to equip the saints for works of ministry. Yes, that is disciple making. It is also leadership, and you have to do some crazy acrobatics or employ very thin and skewed definitions to pretend otherwise. I love Claiborne and Perkins’ statement in Follow Me to Freedom, that the response to bad leadership isn’t no leadership, it’s good leadership.

Part 2 of the book takes this chapter on leadership and expounds. Woodward looks at the ways in which the leaders’ missional imaginations can shape culture significantly. He completely reframes the definition of leadership to fall more closely in line with Paul’s exhortation that leaders are present to unleash the potential among the people. It requires humility, listening, releasing control and focusing gifts on empowering others more than accomplishing tasks.

release the APEWe dive even deeper in Part 3 where each of the five leader types are examined as culture creators. Rather than focusing merely on the apostle, prophet and evangelist to the exclusion of the pastors and teachers – as the growing, “Release the APE” movement sometimes risks doing – JR looks at how each temperament / leadership gifting is equipped to influence missional culture in healthy and holistic ways. Of course, he stresses that this will only be effective when the five are working together, rather than operating from paranoid competition.

The final section of the book brings all the previous parts together in order to consider how the missional culture is embodied in a local context. While there is a substantial amount of theory and theology discussed, very little of the book could be honestly dismissed as too theoretical. That is particularly true in Part 4 which is a sort of “applied sciences” division incorporating all previous discussions.

In places throughout, but especially in the closing chapters, the book does seem to be a bit biased towards larger communities – many of his suggestions would be completely unnecessary and impossible in our small house church. However, I often found myself thinking, “How could this principle be applied to our context?” and “What would it look like to set this expectation in our community now, even though there are only a few families serving together?” Given our larger culture’s tendency to cut-and-paste what others are doing, I’m glad a one-to-one correlation wasn’t feasible.

So, who should read this book?

I would definitely recommend it to pastors, elders, church planters, or others in leadership who are wrestling with the cultural roadblocks to living (rather than just studying) missional faith as a community. I think that the casual reader in an institutional, maintenance mode congregation might come away a bit frustrated. Maybe if they can talk some of those in positions of leadership into reading it with them…but even then, I don’t know.

It isn’t really a “casual reading” type of book…but I don’t think anyone is pretending it is. JR tackles some very complicated material head-on and does so in a remarkably accessible way, all things considered.

As I suggested earlier, I wish I had been able to read this book five years ago. I’ll be using portions of it in my next Academy class on “The Missional Imagination”…since I only have six weeks with these students and have to be very selective with the readings, that’s about as high praise as I can offer.


What would the church look like if everyone in the church used their God-given gifts and talents to equip the rest of the church in such a way that the entire church became more like Jesus? And if the whole church looked more like Jesus, how much more would our neighborhoods and cities look more like heaven? – JR Woodward


Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for the free review copy of this book.

Conversation with Jon Huckins

jon huckins

Click to visit Jon’s site

As I mentioned in my previous post, I didn’t know Jon Huckins before picking up Thin Places a couple months ago. I drove Rachel a little crazy as I read her passages from the book. I’d come running into the living room, “This section is almost exactly the same as the beginning of the theological foundations chapter in my dissertation!” …and then she would sit patiently as I read paragraph after paragraph. She said, “Sounds like you two would get along really well.”

The copy of the book I purchased also came with a DVD of video vignettes for each chapter. These excellent clips provide a fantastic glimpse into the content of the book, but also into the hearts and lives that fill the pages the pages. The book’s publisher, The House Studio, has made the following available to the public…so I’ll share it with you here.

I was very excited when Jon not only accepted my Facebook friend request, but generously agreed to respond to some questions about Thin Places.

So, without further ado, blah blah blah, here we go.

Bret: In our experience, many (though certainly not all) Christians who are drawn toward more decentralized approaches to faith are often carrying a lot of “rejecting the structure” baggage.

This becomes a lens through which they filter so much of what they encounter. The “I’m done with organized religion” statement can become a rejection of anything that reminds them of past structures. Have you seen this as well? If so, what has been most helpful in assisting them toward a generative rather than negating outlook (focusing on what they ARE about rather than what they are NOT about).

Jon: Yes, this is certainly a reality we have experienced quite often in our time of forming missional-monastic communities that look quite different than the traditional church structures many of us have experienced.

While the discontent did give birth to much needed renewal and new life in the Church, it is certainly not sustainable, nor the point of forming missional-monastic community. Something we have focused on is being constructive rather than deconstructive, while celebrating and supporting the Church in all her forms.

A movement can’t move if it is primarily based on dissatisfaction. We must be fueled out of a holy satisfaction that comes out of people living as they have been called to live for the good of the world. Also, as we have rooted in neighborhood and invited non-churched people into our communities, the DNA of our communities has evolved to being more concerned with who we are than who we aren’t.

Bret: I love the idea you describe of radical invitation. In particular, the story of Darren and LaDonna struck chords of harmony with our own experiences. It is so easy to get stuck in between – where our friends have come to trust a community of Christ followers, but have remained hesitant about jumping in wholeheartedly as disciples themselves. What would you say to those who are simply afraid to extend that invitation out of fear that it will “scare off” their friends?

Jon: I think a lot of it has to do with transparency and identity. If we are going to cultivate relationships that allow for shared life and mutual invitation, we have to be transparent about how we live and who we are living for. That’s where identity comes in. If I am first a follower of Jesus and second part of a community that is committed to following in his ways together my whole reality is shaped around that. In the same way that I would want my friend to be transparent about the stuff that matters most in their life, I must offer them the same. From our experience, people are more intrigued by the particularity and intentionality of our way of life than scared off by it.

Bret: In the chapter on contending, you talk about a commitment to “gently calling one another out” when habits of communication tear down rather than build up. How does this translate into situations with those who have deep seated emotional problems or even mental illnesses which make healthy communication difficult?

Jon: Great question and one that probably needs individual attention for each person and community that is experiencing their unique realities. With that said, a big piece of covenanting to a missional-monastic community is the discernment process that precedes commitment. There needs to be space and expectation that each person will be open with their community about what they bring to the table (strengths, weaknesses, disabilities). At that point all know what they are committing to as a community and can better navigate those realities when they inevitably come up in the life of a community.

Bret: Does NieuCommunities have any collaborative or even conversational relationships with more traditional, “brick and mortar” oriented churches in the community? If so, how have these relationships been cultivated?

Jon: Absolutely! In fact, these relationships are some of the ones that bring us the most joy and fulfillment. As I mentioned earlier, we seek to value the church in all her forms. We certainly don’t have a corner on the market and are committed to remain in a posture of humility and listening. There are about five churches in and around our neighborhood who we consistently support and partner with. In fact, we have been able to act as a neutral presence of sorts and regularly instigate gatherings where we all worship, equip and encourage one another under the same roof. Rob, who wrote much of Thin Places alongside of me, personally coaches a handful of the local pastors in our city.


Thin-Places-210x300I’m very grateful to Jon for his responses. Hopefully we’ll have more opportunities for dialog in the future. I encourage you to pick up a copy of Thin Places for yourself. In the next brief series of posts we’ll stay with the theme of cultivating and sustaining a healthy missional culture  by discussing JR Woodward’s fantastic book, Creating Missional Culture.

A Crippled Postscript

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.

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

Missional.

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

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

Missional Coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Difference Does it Make?

Streams of Missional Thought, pt 1

Streams of Missional Thought, pt 2

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

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

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

The Bare Minimum: Part 2 – What Is the Least I Must Do or Believe?

In part one of this mini-series, I began by addressing the faith vs works debate as an attempt to answer the question “How do we gain access into salvation and life with God?” To summarize, I think the faith vs works debate misses the point…partly because we’ve missed the point of the goal and question we’re asking. I’d like to get into that a little more in this post.

One problem is that we cannot seem to squelch our obsession with comparing ourselves to others – and to come out looking good in that comparison. To state it in overly-simplistic terms: If you do less good than I do, you’re not committed enough. If you do more good than I do, you’re trying to earn your salvation. If you do different good things than I do, you’re misguided at best and an enemy of God at worst.

I think that most of these problems really stem from our understanding of who God is – that’s a subject I’ve written on before so I won’t spend too much time on it here. But it seems to be assumed that our goal should be to figure out the most basic, bare minimum of “being a faithful Christian.” This is not a new development. Its in the background of the discussions of faith and deeds in the writings of Paul and James as well as Isaiah and the other prophets. More recently, much of the Protestant protesting came from a desire to throw off the “extra trappings” that had accumulated over time. For folks in my own tribe in the American Restoration movement, that desire was an even more pronounced and primary consideration.

Again, none of us magically or arbitrarily arrived at this point. We have received both the unfinished struggles and the firm conclusions of those who came before us.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to pioneers in the faith who helped to chart the course through difficult waters. We pick up and continue their struggle to discern how it is we are to live faithfully in this place. And yet, sometimes we fail to recognize the ways that past discussions about how we should live are influencing more and more matters in less and less healthy ways.

At some point along the way – and perhaps this struggle was present from day one – we began thinking of our life in God in terms of the bare minimum. “What is the least I have to do in order to be okay with God?”

Let’s set aside for a moment what this implies about our view of God, and look instead about what this implies about us. Do we really want to treat our faith the same way we would a silly class or assignment in school that we don’t care about, but must complete for graduation? Is life with God something we simply go along with to avoid punishment?

Okay, its unavoidable, we have to consider the implications of how we view God in this quest. Do we really think God is basically a cosmic principle who, with detached professionalism determines whether or not we graduate? (Or, if you believe in Purgatory, may choose to leave us in Junior High for an indefinite period…wait, no, maybe that’s hell…never mind, the metaphor is getting out of hand.)

If we believe that God sees humanity as basically detestable things that deserve nothing more than eternal punishment, but has grudgingly offered reprieve to those who meet a rigid set of criteria…then, yeah, I guess concern for the bare minimum makes sense. Honestly, who would want to spend any more time than required in the presence of such a being? Talk about a stressful and toxic work environment. You just think having 8 bosses complaining about your TPS reports is bad.

If I believed that this were an accurate depiction of God, I’d be writing a best-selling book about “The Gospel According to Office Space” – my real motivation would be to not get hassled…and to keep my job – but you know what Bob? That’ll only make someone work just hard enough to not get fired.

What if, in our obsession to get it all right, we’ve pulled a Pharisee and completely missed the point?

What if God came near because God actually…likes us and wants to be with us? What if God has invited us into a full life of collaboration with the one who creates universes? What if the whole point is to experience life to the full, which is found in the way of Jesus; in the renewed Kingdom of God?

Perhaps if this is true, the question is no longer about the bare minimum, but about the abundance of new adventures which await us today. Maybe the reason we have seen such minimal transformation of life in the church (we don’t really look all that different from anybody else) is that we’ve only sought after minimal transformation in God. Even if we’ve obsessed our whole life with getting every little piece of Biblical knowledge memorized and correctly categorized, that’s still SO incredibly minimalistic. Isn’t there more to us than storage and recitation of information or checking the right box on a doctrinal belief test? Isn’t there so much more to life?

Yes. There is.

What impact has this minimalistic approach had on how we “do” church? Well, probably more ways than we can begin to describe. But there’s one way in particular that actually scares the hell out of me. That will be the focus of the third and final installment in this series.

Teaching With Tadpoles

I’m already on record with thoroughly researched and documented evidence that my wife, Rachel, is ridiculously amazing. She has a fully stocked art, craft and science experiment center parked in our kitchen…and bedroom…and closet…and in corners of the bathroom…and in the storage unit…

She’s way to hard on herself, often feeling like she’s missed opportunities or hasn’t done enough with one of the kids. But the truth is, and I know I’m biased (which doesn’t mean that I’m wrong), she is both naturally and intentionally awesome. Hardly a day goes by that she doesn’t come up with some creative way to teach something.

A couple years ago while at the park, Rachel and the boys saw a family catching something in the creek (its VERY shallow and perfect for stomping around in). Rachel asked what they were doing – “We’re catching tadpoles!”

That was all it took. Rachel got some tupperware from the house and off they went to catch these little metamorphosis science lessons. Well, that first round was fun…but most of the tadpoles morphed into…dead tadpoles.

Not to worry. She did some research and last spring they tried it again with much better success. We actually raised several little frogs in a fish bowl and then turned them loose in our creek behind the house. The boys learned a lot about biology, ecosystems, caring for animals…but I think Rachel and I were at least as mesmerized as the boys.

Today was the third annual Tadpole Extravaganza.

We currently have about 30 little creatures living in a fish tank by the kitchen window.

 

We’d only been at the creek a few minutes when other kids, and then their parents started coming by wanting to know what was going on. So we shared our sophisticated amphibian collection devices (dixie cups) and invited them to join us. Several kids jumped in and added their catches to our bucket. But one family, after a brief conversation with Rachel and I, got a large bottle from their car and started their own collection for home.

There was only one little girl who didn’t catch a single tadpole – the one who didn’t want to get her feet wet. It’s difficult to catch tadpoles without getting in the water. (And yes, that statement has multiple levels of meaning…more on that momentarily.)

However, there were a few times the “new kids” got frustrated that their “slap-the-water-with a cup” technique didn’t yield many catches. So I’d say, “Hey, wanna see how I do it?” I’d model my craft, then watch them try it once or twice and then I’d wander off. Sure enough a few minutes later: “Hey! I got one!” The best part was that after a few catches, most of them tweaked the process to suit their own latent skills and they began catching even more.

We didn’t set out to teach anybody about our home science experiments…but tonight a couple kids and their parents are looking at their own tadpole farm, simply because we shared our experience. And really, that pretty much sums up the missional-incarnational life. We simply live our faith out in the open, trusting that God is willing and able to bring us into contact with others. Of course, we have to be willing to share what we’ve learned and also be ready to learn from others. You don’t have to walk up to strangers and begin grilling them about their sinfulness – or even tell them they need to catch tadpoles.  People are often so genuinely shocked and excited to see someone doing it, they’re naturally attracted to what they see.

 When we commit to actually living where we already live,

we begin to see things that we missed before.

At one point today I began walking up the creek looking for actual frogs. I came to a section that had not been disturbed by the pitter-patter of dirty little feet. As I looked at the water I could tell it was moving more swiftly – actually, because it was more shallow, I could just see the current better. I noticed some plant life and the rocks along the bottom. But at first I didn’t notice anything else. I stopped for a moment and looked more closely, then I saw one tadpole – just one. That was when the curtain pulled back.

The moment my vision adjusted to that one little critter, I suddenly realized they were everywhere. There were WAY more tadpoles in this part of the creek. The weird thing was that I’d been looking at these things all day and I still needed a moment to readjust when I moved to a new area. And yet, once I saw them it was impossible NOT to – seriously, they were everywhere.

At first we may have no idea what engaging God’s mission in our neighborhood looks like. And in all honesty, I think too many of us never stick with it long enough to allow our vision to adjust. Sometimes we need another person to model this way of life for us (and then get out of our way so we can give it a shot) – think about the Ethiopian eunuch’s response to Phillip’s question of whether or not he understood what he was reading: “How can I unless someone explains it to me?”

But other times, all we really need is to slow down long enough to see what we didn’t see when we first saw what we thought we saw.

Of course, those of you who know me well are aware that I love metaphors…I will play with them until I’ve completely destroyed them. At the risk of over-extending this one, the presence of tadpoles themselves seems very significant.

This summer was the hottest on record – with so many days over 100 degrees that it actually got too hot to swim. Along with the heat came a terrible drought. Our little creek was bone-dry for months. And then in the past couple months we’ve gotten a lot of rain – several times flooding the creeks. Neither of these scenarios seem all that conducive to producing fragile critterlings. And yet, even in the midst of hardship, life finds a way (didn’t they say something like that in Jurassic Park?)

I agree with Dan Bouchelle’s recent blog post where he challenged us to reconsider what constitutes a “receptive” location where the gospel is concerned. His claim, based on Jesus’ instructions to the disciples in Luke 10, is that a context is considered receptive if there is one family that shows hospitality and openness.

Don’t assume that the place where you already live, whether due to drought or flood, is not ready to support life. It may take a few moments to adjust, but I’m guessing that if you look deeply, you’ll find a perfect context for engaging God’s mission right below the surface.

How will we respond?

In my last post I described our decision to begin submitting resumes to congregations searching for a minister. The reason, simply stated, is that we’ve run out of money, and we’ve run out of time to hang on until a more sustainable situation becomes available.

The very day that I put my resume together (which was an interesting process…which jobs, experiences and skills from the past 4 years do I list? I certainly didn’t have room for all of them!) I ran into a young lady I haven’t seen for about two years. She was a waitress at Denny’s when we met. With a baby on the way and stuck in low paying job, her despair was barely concealed. Over time we became friends. I gathered some baby shower gifts from Christ Journey and Conner and I attended her baby shower…at Denny’s.

I learned that she was trying to get into a medical assistant training program. So Christ Journey gathered money to pay her entrance fees. And not long after that she was gone.

I asked about her often and for a while the other servers had updates – she was doing well, progressing through the schooling. But over time the people who knew her moved on to other jobs (not surprisingly, turnover is high). So, I was shocked – and initially saddened – when I saw her standing in the restaurant one evening a few weeks ago…until she came over and filled me in. She’d completed the school but had no luck finding work in her new field. However, after some time she approached her old boss at Denny’s who respected the initiative and effort she showed in getting more schooling. They not only hired her back, but did so – as a manager!

Now she’s working 4 nights a week making more money than she previously made working 6 nights a week (without the stress of depending on tips), and has hope for more advancement. It was so encouraging to see her change in demeanor – more confident, less beaten down – and I immediately began lamenting the thought of leaving Burleson all over again.

Not long after that experience I met with the Mission Alive crew for our monthly church planter’s forum. I listened as they discussed various lessons learned in their experience equipping church planters and leaders from established congregations. They described upcoming changes and a more intentional focus on discipleship and equipping folks to disciple others more intentionally as well. I left that conversation encouraged…and lamenting again.

Two days later, one of the other two directors in the Missional Wisdom Foundation and I met with an organization to discuss the potential for a major overhaul and redesign of our website and internet presence in The Academy and the other ministries of the foundation. In our conversation he said something which caught me off guard. He stated that one of his goals in this proposal was to simplify the IT details and upkeep to free me up for other matters which make more use of what I have to offer – apparently word hadn’t gotten to him yet that I was most likely moving on to something else altogether. And again, I lament.

To top it all off, several families that we and other folks in The Gathering have been cultivating friendships with have finally begun expressing interest in joining us for worship and other activities.

In the midst of all this I began to discern a still, small voice saying, “So…how will you respond to this?

A lot has changed since we set about raising money for church planting in 2008. We’ve learned so much about what does and does not foster discipleship and cultivation of missional community in this area. During that time I’ve gotten to know this area, the people here, the deep need. I’ve started and finished a doctorate in missional church studies. I’ve developed processes for discipleship and leadership training – both for church planting and established church contexts. I’ve walked with skeptical, cynical, angry folks and seen many of them reclaim and rediscover a faith they thought was dead and gone. And I’ve come so close to a long-term sustainable bi-vocational situation through the Academy…its just that even the short distance from here to there is beyond us.

We’ve sent out several resumes in the past month, and we’re going to pursue those conversations if they call back. However, we’ve decided not to send out any more at this point. Instead, last week I put together a new packet of fundraising material.

We’re seeking congregations to financially partner with us in church planting for up to 2 years. Just two years. In that time I will be able to get established in a full-time position with The Academy and the ministry of The Gathering in Burleson (and beyond?) will continue. I’m not asking for support hoping that by then we’ll have a congregation large enough (and wealthy enough) to pay my salary – within two years I can be employed full-time in a position that not only allows me to continue in church planting, but encourages it and is itself an opportunity to train and equip missional disciples.

Again, I have learned a great deal over the last four years. I have been immersed in the practice as well as conversation, study and wrestling with the concept of cultivating sustainable approaches to church planting in the increasingly post-Christian context of North America – specifically as it relates to this area.

One other difference between this fundraising attempt and the previous one in 2008: I feel that I have something more to offer congregations in terms of a true partnership. I hope to be able to share what I’ve learned to strengthen and encourage other congregations. Perhaps I can serve as a ministry coach or even teach coaching principles to the leadership team to use in their various ministry contexts. Maybe we can use Communitas or the Missional Imagination as an equipping process in the congregation. Or I can come in for a series of guest sermons or classes, or lead a retreat. (Read more about these here)

Furthermore, we invite partnering congregations to view our context here in Burleson as a potential training ground for individuals from their own church – how could these principles be applied within your own context?

I believe strongly that we are on the verge of a long-term, healthy and fruitful ministry here in the Burleson area, which can have encouraging implications and collaborations with many other contexts. We just need time.

I’ve uploaded several fundraising resources to this site – If you are part of a church, or know of one, that may be interested in such a collaborative partnership, please pass this along and prayerfully consider a special gift or ongoing support for up to 24 months.

View and download the resources here.

Or contact me if you’d like a hard copy sent in the mail.

Mission as Organizing Principle – Not Priority

This post has been stewing for a while, but conversations in last month’s Mission Alive Church Planter Forum have prompted me to begin the process of downloading the jumble of thoughts.

When my family moved back to north Texas in order to participate in the ministry of church planting, we did so by joining with a young church plant in Burleson, TX. My first task was to develop a spiritual formation process which would equip and sustain the leading and multiplying of house churches in our community. These house churches existed as expressions of the Christ Journey Church, which also gathered for corporate worship weekly.

This task proved quite difficult. Many people within the context of the “Bible belt” culture, both long-time members of Christian churches and those who do not self-identify as Christian, have strong notions of what church participation “looks like.” In our local experience, when pressed beyond knee-jerk and reactionary statements, both groups have a similar expectation: being a faithful member of a church means avoiding behaviors recognized as sinful, being a good person and attending multiple worship gatherings/bible studies each week.

Attempts to develop a process of spiritual formation in the context of house church leadership, which would emphasize the healthy cultivation of disciples and multiplication of house churches, was met by the most unlikely (via our expectations) of adversaries: community.

Strangely enough, the concept of community can (CAN, not will or must) become its own form of passive resistance to discipleship. It should not have been surprising – this same dynamic was present in the small group ministries in every established church with which I have worked. I believe my mistake was misinterpreting the problem. People often resist the multiplication of small groups because it is an unnatural and painful dissolution of community.

We hoped that our approach of multiplying by sending would address this problem. We did not have a set point (date or number of participants) at which a house church would split and form two new groups. Instead, we attempted to take our cue from the church in Antioch (Acts 13). Each house church was encouraged to regularly pray, listening for who God may be calling to be “set apart” and sent to form a new house church.

Participants in the house churches of Christ Journey were committed to one another. This was a great blessing and should not be downplayed. Community was seen as a very high value in the Christ Journey context. But community as a value can be attained without discipleship, without participation in mission, without any real goal beyond the deepening of connection with people with whom you are already in relationship. And community proved to be a poor organizing principle.

Alan Hirsch raises the issue that we should pursue communitas (the experience of deep connection formed in the midst of a shared mission or struggle), rather than community. This shift of focus moves us away from an approach to community that “has become little more than a quiet and reflective soul space…or a spiritual buzz.” Such experiences, though important in the proper context, fall considerably short of the church’s purpose. Communitas, on the other hand, is cultivated through a shared commitment to a common struggle, ordeal or mission. Community can be a very passive concept; communitas can never be such.

In addition to the focus on community, our experience with house churches also suggested that though we had adopted a much more decentralized structure than many “established congregations,” we were still heavily entrenched in the development of internally focused ministries. The church’s obsession with developing an impressive list of ministry opportunities within the congregation is another symptom of the problem Hirsch is addressing, as well as a barrier to fulfilling our purpose.

Experience tells us that a church that aims at ministry seldom gets to mission even if it sincerely intends to do so. But the church that aims at mission will have to do ministry, because ministry is the means to do mission. Our services, our ministries, need a greater cause to keep them alive and give them broader meaning.

What we began to realize is that we had made community our organizing principle – and as Hirsch suggests, this focus stalled many of our sincere intentions of moving deeper into discipleship while engaged in mission with God.

That’s the first part of the story.

Once we began speaking of mission (rather than community, worship or ministry) as the organizing principle we also began hearing others using the same language.

A couple months ago Mike Breen of 3DM wrote a blog post titled “Why the Missional Movement Will Fail” in which he directly (and rightly) challenged any movement which attempts mission without discipleship – or begins with mission with hopes of getting to discipleship later.

That this critique is even needed is evidence of an underdeveloped concept of mission and a problem distinguishing between organizing principle and priority.

First, when we speak of mission we must guard against reductionist tendencies. Mission is more than evangelism. It is more than discipleship. It is more than social justice. It is more than community development. It is more than reconciliation… Mission is all of these things. Remember, when we use the word mission we aren’t referring to an act we initiate. We’re talking about what it is that God is up to in this world and what we’re called to join. So, in the context of God’s mission, we’re called to discipleship, evangelism, justice for the oppressed, reconciliation, new life and community in the kingdom of God – and “we” in this case refers to all those who have heard and responded to the gospel, not just the “professional” ministers or super-Christians.

And so it is important to recognize in this missional orientation of faith that mission should be our organizing principle precisely because it either involves or naturally cultivates so much of the life to faith.

When we say organizing principle we are saying something different than priority. I’m not sure that priority is necessarily a bad word here, but it may lead (and perhaps already has) to a misunderstanding. It isn’t that we begin with mission and then get to the other stuff when we’ve attained that goal. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, an individual or community must hold the basic physiological needs as a first priority – if you don’t have food and water it is useless to run after less immediate needs like intimacy, morality, recreation, etc. But that isn’t what we’re talking about here. Mission may be our priority, as might worship, discipleship, ministry, etc. That’s a conversation for another time. But we’re not (or at least, shouldn’t be) talking about priority here.

Rather we say organizing principle because a commitment to the mission of God binds us together in a context where all of the priorities of life and faith are addressed. We not trying to make mission the priority, we’re saying that without mission as our organizing principle it is difficult to actually get to our priorities. Hirsch says that with mission as the organizing principle: “ministry is the means to do mission.” Likewise, discipleship/spiritual formation is the result of following Christ intentionally; community develops as we go out together; worship is a natural response to encountering the missional God; justice, reconciliation, evangelism, new life and kingdom ethics are the contexts in which the mission is actualized.

In most congregations, worship serves as the organizing principle – the Sunday morning hour is what holds us together and from there we try to move into the other aspects of faith. Worship is a vital aspect of our life of faith, but it falls short as an organizing principle – we can get together to worship each week without moving into discipleship, mission, community, etc. Focusing on the development of community through small groups is a good thing, but community falls short as an organizing principle for the same reasons.

However, for this to work as it is described here, we must organize around participation in – not merely discussion of – the mission of God. But that, too, is a whole other conversation…

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