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Neither Einstein Nor a Widget Salesman

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…

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Missional Imagination

Missional-Imagination

I truly enjoy my work with the Missional Wisdom Foundation. As the Director of Operations many of my tasks focus on the logistics and details of our various ministries and efforts. As our organization grows, the IT aspects of my job have also become increasingly complex. The crazy part is that I’m not a detail person by nature, nor do I have any formal training in IT. I’m out of my comfort zone and “expertise” fairly often. While this isn’t always pleasant, it has been incredibly beneficial. I’ve been forced to stretch and grow aspects of myself that would be very easy to leave dormant. Like physical exercise and balanced diet, I believe these challenges are slowly reshaping me into a healthier person.

They’ve also helped me appreciate even more the aspects of my work that do come more naturally. I love teaching. A lot. I love the process of coaching and walking alongside folks as they explore their own calling, decide to take risks and then step out onto the edge.

Of all my tasks, teaching the first course in the Academy – The Missional Imagination – is probably the most exciting. Participants in The Academy are excited about the possibility of something new and more authentic – but many are also unsure, confused, intimidated or even a little terrified by the thought. I have the honor of helping them begin to see more clearly.

As we spend time over the first six weeks exploring the need for and the practice of a missional imagination my prayer is that we begin to envision the ways we can go by staying, because, as Wilson-Hartgrove claims, “If real life with God can happen anywhere at all, it can happen here among the people whose troubles are already evident to us.”1

A missional orientation elicits a tangible response from disciples of Jesus. This is not an ivory tower philosophy, it is recognition of a call to be answered with our intellect, our emotions and most certainly our actions. However, it cannot be stressed enough that missional is not simply an adjective to be placed alongside a program, model or pragmatic list of activities.

Though it carries a significant call to active faith, missional is an orientation (who we are) rather than a program (what we do). The cultivation of a missional approach to faith does not originate in a study of best practices of business, vibrant churches or high-profile individuals. It is not a church growth strategy developed through market analysis. First and foremost missional is a theological issue rooted in our encounter with the one true God of the universe; modeled in the text of scripture, witnessed in the life of the early church and evident throughout our history.

This Missional Imagination course is concerned with the role of missionally oriented imagination regarding the themes of God, scripture, discipleship, worship and community. Imagination is used by advertisers, movie and television producers, motivational speakers, politicians, personal trainers, psychologists and even infomercial gurus. Imagination cultivates us as the germination ground for the seeds of revolution, reform, embodiment of particular ideals or commitment to a particular brand, product or cause.

Imagination is what we experience when a story takes root in our mind. As tendrils of the narrative spread, new regions of brain activity are ignited. Once our imagination is fully engaged, we not only hear the story but we see the story; we can smell it, taste it, touch it…experience it. There are those who believe that the imagination is just for keeping children occupied. They are sorely mistaken. Imagination is an essential aspect of development during childhood. Imagination helps young people explore their world, discover their place in the story, develop the confidence to face monsters and pursue dreams.

Imagination is significantly more than entertainment for children and its significance does not dissipate in the transition to adulthood.

No organized sporting contest, no battle for liberation, no educational reform, no campaign for office, no quest for a corner office, no cry for release from captivity, no response to that cry, no charitable organization or humanitarian cause has ever been conceived or realized without the assistance of the imagination. It is our window into the world that could be. In the case of the missional imagination, its our window into the world that should be, can be and will be through the power of God.

Missional imagination is the ability to see a day in the future when you and your elderly (and to this point barren) wife have become the ancestors of a people that outnumber the sands on the beach and the stars in the sky. It equips us to envision a valley of dry bones being knitted together by God, with life breathed into places formerly inhabited only by death.

A missional imagination inspires conviction and courage in the face of seemingly hopeless odds. This is why in Isaiah 61:3b-4 the prophet, despite contemporary evidence to the contrary, could say:

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

a planting of the Lord

for the display of his spendor.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins

and restore the places long devastated;

they will renew the ruined cities

that have been devastated for generations.

The missional imagination can take a simple mustard seed, or perhaps a handful of seeds, a coin, a sheep, a lump of bread dough or a lamp on its stand, and transform them into a vision of an entirely new reality.

And this is our goal.

…Yes, I enjoy my work with the Missional Wisdom Foundation.

1 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 2010), 24.

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.

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