Saturday, December 20, 2014

Beyond the Status Quo

As 2015 approaches, I have been reflecting the past several weeks on what God is saying to me personally, to our community, and to the wider church.  The question I have been wrestling with is this: “Is 2015 going to be another year of the status quo?”  Of course, God is always working within us through circumstances and our relationships.  We continue to be challenged by God’s overwhelming love and acceptance for us.  There is no doubt of his love for his children - ALL his children.  Yet I sense that as important as this message is for everyone who has ears to hear, the still small voice keeps calling like Aslan in the Narnia chronicles, “Come further up, come further in!”

On a larger scale, I feel that God has been and will be in the process of taking away the “familiar ways” of relating to him.  The worn-in traditions, routines, and patterns will steadily lose life.  But even the bright, fresh ideas that energize us for short seasons will fail as well.  I don’t believe he is calling the church to deconstruction or to rally around some new cause or to a flashy renewal, but rather to a season of repentance, rest, quietness, and trust.

In Isaiah 30, the prophet describes how God feels about Judah’s reliance on Egypt for military protection from their enemies.  It’s not a pleasant series of verses.  In essence, God says their trust in a foreign power to save them will utterly fail and potentially destroy them.  At the center of his complaint is their refusal to listen to his voice:

"They tell the seers, “Stop seeing visions!” They tell the prophets, “Don’t tell us what is right. Tell us nice things. Tell us lies. Forget all this gloom. Get off your narrow path. Stop telling us about your ‘Holy One of Israel.’” - Isaiah 30:10-11

Judah cannot hear what God has to say because they have stopped up their ears and are looking for help from a nation that once enslaved them.  As ludicrous as that sounds, it is no different than when the church relies on either traditionalism or innovation to maintain the status quo.  Maybe God has something richer in store beyond what has become comfortable and maintainable.  Getting there requires a prescription:

"This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: “Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength. But you would have none of it.” - Isaiah 30:15

I believe this is God’s command for this season: repentance, rest, quietness, trust.  In other words, shut up.  God is telling us to stop slinging our opinions around on what ails the nation or world or families or the government and making ourselves look like fools.  Be willing to be wrong.  Be willing to admit that we don’t have all the answers.  Be willing to confess to the world that we have failed to follow the Way of Jesus.  Don’t just talk about repentance, lead in repentance by repenting! 

Then rest.  Resist the urge for quick solutions and feel good remedies for problems that span multiple generations.  Rest and be quiet before The Master.  And trust.  Trust that he knows what we really need.  Trust that the King of Kings is in charge of his Kingdom.  Trust that he sees every injustice, every place of pain in the world, every broken heart, every life cut short by disease, every person that feels unloved.  Trust, because we are a people of the cross and the healing it brings.  Trust, because we are a people of the resurrection and its promise of now and future abundance.

The warning at the end of Isaiah 30:15 should give us pause.  “But you would have none of it.”  We live in the age of instant gratification.  Pez dispenser faith.  Karma.  But that is not God’s Story.  He looks at the scope of human history and sets about the slow, patient work of forming a people for his glory and the world’s blessing.  Both of those must go together - glory and blessing.  Glory alone divorces itself from pain and reality.  Blessing alone forgets to sit at Jesus’ feet and worship.  But glory and blessing together are the home for which we were created.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Finding the Real Thing

Every few days (it seems like at least) there is a report / study / survey / commentary / sermon / rant / prophetic word / gut feeling that people are giving up on church in large numbers.  Here is the latest one (HT Jesus Creed).  This has been going on for quite some time.  I don't doubt the numbers and it is fairly obvious to the casual observer of American culture that this is, in fact, happening.  As someone who has been watching this for a long time, I am not alarmed, dismayed, and certainly not surprised.  However, I continue to be troubled.  Not because people have given up attending church services.  But because a generation has been sold a false bill of goods.

In my last post I talked about how easy it is to base a church's life and ministry on "taking a stand".  This is a dangerous place to be and can suck the life out of even the most vibrant communities.  The simple fact is, God did not wire the church to take on the culture in some kind of direct frontal assault.  He actually never asked us to take on the culture at all.  If anything, the image the New Testament paints is of a Spirit-filled, cross-bearing, underground family of subversives.  In an article I wrote a few years ago, I described how a church like this would approach its mission:

"The Subversive Community's mission is not to bring the kingdom of God from without; it is to release the kingdom of God from within. Subversives do not "reach outside people and encourage them to come in." Subversives live and do their work ‘undercover’ where the world lives and breathes. Their goal is not escapism (trying to build a Christian utopia), but to show people how they can lay hold of life as God intended, in his Kingdom."

The startling thing about the rise of the "nones" is that they are not going to return to church if somehow churches make their services more relevant.  They also won't return just because our theology is more inviting or inclusive.  Quite simply, the ship has sailed on institutional Christianity's position of influence to a large portion of the population.  Again, this should not be a shocking revelation to any Christian who has had their eyes open in recent history.  But it should have caused us to ask deeper questions than what kind of music we should play for worship or if we should have a Saturday night service to attract a younger crowd.

Full disclosure here:  I am committed to a way of "doing church" that I feel best suits the place that God has called me and my family to live.  You could call it simple church, organic church, home-grown-on-the-farm-church - whatever, pick your poison.  In essence, we have chosen to worship in a way that strips back a lot of organizational fluff so we focus on the essentials.  What are our essentials you ask?  Well, here is a list we come back to again and again:

Worship - bringing glory to God and receiving his love in return.
Care - living by the Golden Rule.  Love God, love your neighbor as yourself.
Discipleship - following Jesus together.  Giving away what we have received.
Mission - making the world a better place.  Building for the Kingdom.
Fun - enjoying ourselves along the way.  We NEED to have fun.

It is amazing what can be accomplished by a relatively small group of people with limited time and resources if, as they like to say in AA, you keep the main thing the main thing.  I believe the answer for the church's next season will be found in returning to the beauty and simplicity of the Way of Life Jesus gave us.  There is incredible diversity to be found in this Way.  It will look very different from place to place (which I believe is an important challenge to the American tendency to franchise "success," but that is fodder for another post.)  But where the life of the Kingdom is concretely practiced by people who profess Jesus as Lord, there WILL be tangible fruit.  It cannot be otherwise.

My response when people walk away from church en masse is to ask, "How have we not been living out the real thing?"  This is the only response that honors the fact that the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in the world.  As has been said so many times, our only job is to find out what he is doing and join in.  

Maybe God is trying to tell us something:  "I've been at work all around you in places you would never expect me to be.  But you have been so busy playing church, that you forgot how to see me outside of a church service.  Wake up!  Take notice!  Throw off your comfortable routines and empty traditions.  Seek out and find me with the broken, the hurting, the sick, and the lonely.  Find me talking with your atheist friend.  Find me spending time with your shut-in neighbor.  Find me sharing a drink with your blasphemous co-worker.  I am there."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On How Not to Take a Stand

I have been a practicing ecclesiologist for the past fifteen years.  As much as I love thinking and writing about the kingdom of God, resurrection and new creation, following Jesus, or authentic community, I always come back to this core question (and title of this blog): What is Church?  The secondary questions flow easily from there.  What does it mean to be the gathered people of God?  What is our mission?  Who gets to lead and how?  What defines our priorities?  How do we measure success?  How should we relate to the world around us?

It would be easy to write volumes on any of these questions, but the last one is what I have been thinking about most lately.  From my observation, churches have been implicitly or explicitly answering this question and in turn allowing that answer to define how the other questions are addressed.  Let me state that another way.  Instead of starting with the question, "What is Church?" and allowing that answer to shape answers to the other questions, churches have started with "How should we relate to the world around us?" and let that define how they answer "What is Church?"  The result are churches that know how to draw clear lines in the sand on "issues" but have no idea how to love their neighbor, heal the sick, set people free, or proclaim hope.

Hope.  Shouldn't that be towards the top of the list of what we are known for?  Somewhere between love and faith?  Sound familiar?  There is tremendous pressure for churches to "take a stand" on some of the very public and very hotly debated issues of our day.  Consequently, it is inferred that by taking one position or another, we are either taking a stand for biblical faithfulness or becoming a voice for the voiceless; having compassion on the hurting or prophetically calling out the sins of our culture.  Never mind that all of those things are important for the church to do.  Instead, we are defined by our position on the issues which lumps us into one camp or another.  And woe be to the church which sides with one camp on one issue and the opposing camp on another issue.  Ye be double-minded and shall be cast into the lake of wishy-washiness.

Do you see the problem?  The world is a complicated, messy place.  We are bombarded by media - social and mainstream - that is unrelenting in its wranglings about "the issues".  "As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness," the proverb says.  So it becomes natural to think that our response to these issues is of utmost importance.  If we don't respond, we will be accused of collusion with the wrong side (whatever that means to you) by association or set aside as irrelevant (aghast) and belittled for our lack of courage.  How should we relate to the world around us?  By taking a side.

Jesus said, "A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit."  If a church primarily defines itself by what it is for or against in response to the surrounding culture, the tree will suffer.  Fighting endless battles that never resolve is like pouring poison on its own roots.  New battles will announce themselves at every turn and slowly, the tree will stop bearing fruit.  It will simply try to survive.

The alternative is so much better (and more fun).  A good tree - a healthy, sustainable church - starts with the primary question, "What is Church?"  What does it mean to be the sign and foretaste of God's kingdom in the midst of a broken, hurting, imprisoned world?  With its roots firmly planted in the soil of God's love, it relies on the Holy Spirit to provide the best conditions for growth.  It is cared for by gardeners who protect it from poison and keep it well watered and fertilized.  As a good, healthy tree, it can't help but bear good fruit.  But its fruitfulness is measured not just by quantity, but equally by quality.  The tree might have a thousand apples that look pretty on the outside, but are rotten to the core.  The true judge of its value can only be made by the Master Gardener.  If the tree remains healthy and bears good fruit, it naturally (effortlessly!) becomes a blessing to the world around it.  People will be fed by its fruit and its leaves will heal (man, that sounds familiar).  The tree will become a source of hope and symbol of the goodness of God.

Perhaps I am a voice crying in the wilderness.  Taking a stand on serious issues feels so right, so necessary.  And certainly, there were times in the church's history when it kept silent to its peril and other times when a portion of it rose up to denounce a horror or champion a cause with astounding results.  But so much of what the world needs to hear from us now can again be boiled down to those three simple words - faith, hope, and love.  We have faith in a big God who loves us and sets us free from our bondage.  We hope in the power of the resurrection and the glory of the coming kingdom that sets the world right.  We love each other as God loves us.  And we love those around us who simply just need to know that in God's world, they belong.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Live Now Because of Kingdom Come

In my last post, I ended with this thought: "This final image in Revelation is not of God’s people escaping the world floating on clouds. It is of a City with God himself at the center, we as his worshipping, resurrected family, and a glorious renewed earth. If this is our future, what does that mean for the present?" 

The Christian hope in the resurrection and the Kingdom stands in stark contrast to the typical escapist images of life in heaven for eternity.  We will inherit a "limitless" body, a bustling City, and creative, fulfilling, beautiful work without the curse that makes our work now often so frustrating.  These are powerful, challenging images, but they beg the question: "how do we live now if that is our destiny?"

This is not a new question.  The New Testament was written primarily to small communities who were trying to make sense of how to live in a confusing, changing world.  They had the same questions we do.  Why is there so much suffering?  How should we respond to evil in the world?  How can we live in the world, but not be of it?  How can we see people come to faith in Jesus?  What does the future hold and when will Jesus return?

The apostolic writers directed these communities back to the heart of Jesus' message of Kingdom come.  They envisioned small groups of people singularly committed to the Way of Jesus.  In these groups, there was at the same time an incredible challenge to the self-righteous and an incredible invitation to the broken.  The lavish, unfathomable love of God destroys religious achievement and blazes the trail for even the worst sinner to experience the riches of the Kingdom.

Dallas Willard describes what this will look like in practice:  “We should, first of all, find ourselves constantly growing in our readiness and ability to draw our direction, strength, and overall tone of life from the everlasting kingdom, from our personal interactions with the Trinitarian personality who is God.  This will mean, most importantly, the transformation of our heart and character into the family likeness, increasingly becoming like “children of our Father, the one in the heavens (Matt 5:45)." - The Divine Conspiracy

Yet it is still tempting to slip back into a vision of our future that only values individual decisions.  Transformation is wonderful, but are you choosing an eternity in heaven or hell?  This, of course, gets right to the heart of the matter.  What is salvation for?  Why are we being saved?  What is the ultimate purpose of salvation?  Is it just to avoid hell?

This is where our friend Tom Wright spells it out clearly:  “As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future.  But when we see salvation, as the NT sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality - what I have called life after life after death - then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence.” - Surprised by Hope

So we are being saved to participate in something much larger than ourselves and certainly something greater than to just avoid punishment.  We are, in the words of Willard, training for reigning.  So our life and work now as the church takes on new meaning.  We are hope-filled, joyous, peaceful, excited, wonderfully creative, and constantly aware of the power we live by.  It is important to say that we do not build God's Kingdom.  As Wright says, we build for God's Kingdom. 

Returning to my question above, in light of our future, how should we live now?  To begin, I think we need to revise our expectations.  If your vision of the future amounts to hell-avoidance, then your expectations for the present will be very limited.  At best, you will hope to convince a few of your family and friends to say the sinners prayer before you go to be with Jesus.  But if your vision is of a new heavens and earth brimming with hope and resurrection power, you will want to see that manifest in the present as much as possible.  You will expect God to act in a way that is consistent with that future.  And you will want to join in on the fun however you can.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Leaves for Healing

In my vision, the man brought me back to the entrance of the Temple. There I saw a stream flowing east from beneath the door of the Temple and passing to the right of the altar on its south side...Fruit trees of all kinds will grow along both sides of the river. The leaves of these trees will never turn brown and fall, and there will always be fruit on their branches. There will be a new crop every month, for they are watered by the river flowing from the Temple. The fruit will be for food and the leaves for healing.” - Ezekiel 47:1,12
Ezekiel saw this vision in captivity. Israel had been removed from the land, the temple (and Jerusalem) had been destroyed, and the Israelites were decimated as a people. Ezekiel's words made it clear that this would not be a short visit, but there was hope. God would restore what was lost and be present with his people. At the center of this restoration would be a temple (God's presence – the name of the city would be YHWH-Shammah or “The Lord is There” - Ez. 48:35), a river (literally bringing life back to the land), and green fruit-bearing trees (providing fruit for food and leaves for healing).

I spent some time researching the properties of fruit leaves. It turns out that all the common trees that grow in Israel have leaves with healing properties. Apple tree leaves and bark have powerful astringent and antiseptic qualities. Mulberry leaves can be made into a tea that is packed with vitamins and minerals. Olive tree leaf extract can lower blood pressure and is full of antioxidants. Pistachio leaf extract has anti-fungal properties comparable to nystatin. Fig leaves have even been used to treat diabetes! Of course, the leaves must be green to extract these health benefits. So the promise that the river keeps the tree bearing fruit every month also keeps the leaves green and God’s people healthy.

This beautiful image of presence, provision, and healing has important parallels in the biblical story. For Ezekiel, this vision was not just about imagining a renewed Israel. He was pointing back to the beginning of the story, to the Garden:

Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed from the land of Eden, watering the garden and then dividing into four branches.” - Genesis 2:8-10

The “four branches” describe what historically been called the fertile crescent, or the cradle of civilization. Right from the beginning, God intended Eden to be the head waters for the rivers that would populate the earth with life. Also present were the fruit-bearing trees bringing provision (and sadly, disobedience).

Ezekiel's vision did not get fulfilled as he thought. The people returned to the land, the temple was rebuilt, but the other promises delayed. It was within this climate of hope deferred that Jesus spoke these words:

On the last day, the climax of the festival, Jesus stood and shouted to the crowds, “Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’” - John 7:37-38

So now, instead of the life-giving river coming from the heart of the temple, the living water (God's Spirit) would come out of our hearts! Jesus, playing off the river imagery, draws a straight line from Eden, through Ezekiel, intersecting his own ministry, and points forward at the promise of the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:29).

But the line does not end there. As Paul declares in Ephesians 1, the Spirit is God's guarantee of a future inheritance. This inheritance, when “he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth,” (Eph. 1:10) is not our “heavenly reward.” It is not paradise, rest, or disembodied bliss. It also is not a return to Eden. Our inheritance is not a garden, but a City:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” - Rev. 21:1-2

Yet there is no temple in the middle of this city. It has been replaced with the throne of the King. Issuing from this throne is something very familiar:

Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.” - Rev. 22:1-2

Now we get the full picture; the culmination of thousands of years of prophecy, hope, and expectation. The river flows straight from God's unrestrained presence right down Main Street. Now there are two Trees of Life bearing fruit and providing leaves. Lest the impact of that last part be missed, the leaves are still “for medicine to heal the nations.” If this does not blow your mind, it should. There is something so profound about this idea, but John can only give us hints. Somehow, in the new heavens and earth, we are still involved in God’s healing and restorative project. John is quick to clarify, “No longer will there be a curse upon anything.” But it still does make one wonder. 
This final image in Revelation is not of God’s people escaping the world floating on clouds. It is of a City with God himself at the center, we as his worshipping, resurrected family, and a glorious renewed earth. If this is our future, what does that mean for the present? I think it means that everything we do now empowered by the Holy Spirit is pouring living water into this world. Whatever we do, big or small, that bears fruit provides food and sustenance. And if our trees are bearing fruit, our leaves are green and healthy and becoming tools of healing for everyone around us.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Scandalous Resurrection

This is Easter morning, which I prefer to call Resurrection Sunday.  It's a quiet morning as we prepare to have family over for dinner later in the day.  Last night, we ate and worshipped with our friends at the Stand Down House in Lake Worth, a halfway house for veterans with substance abuse or PTSD.  It was a beautiful night; sharing the Lord's Supper together and praying for healing.  As has been our tradition, we will not have an "Easter service" on Sunday morning.  Instead, we encourage each other to take this day to be with family and rest.

In the world of Christian religion, that must seem very strange.  After all, this is the day.  For many churches, it is the one annual shot they have with people who may only attend church twice a year.  For others, nothing will be held back in their pomp and circumstance.  This is like the Super Bowl of Christianity.  But reading through the different Gospel accounts of the resurrection, I have a different reaction.  There is no Rock Star Jesus coming out of the tomb with fireworks and smoke.  There is no televangelist Jesus showing up on the temple steps wowing the crowds and getting them saved.  Instead, he spends time with the ones he loves.  First, he honors the women that have ministered to him and been such a crucial part of his ministry.  Then Peter (and John depending on the account) and the rest of the disciples are introduced to the new world that has just dawned.  Jesus comes to them as you would expect - humble, gentle, and among the stuff of real life.  Walking on the Emmaus Road discussing the scriptures, having breakfast on the beach, sitting around the table with their Master as they had done so many times.

Resurrection Sunday is an invitation to be with the real Jesus.  Not the superhero that no one can relate to or see.  But as a friend that comes to us right in the middle of our mess and calls us into a life where we belong and are loved.  The scandal of the resurrection is that it is shockingly real.  It reveals something we only speak in whispers about.  Push aside the pageants and regal fanfare and there is a rough Galilean carpenter with holes in his hands and feet that quietly set in motion a movement to change the world.  The risen Lord I worship today is that carpenter.  He is alive and he is waiting for us to join him.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Resurrection Church - Who We Are

It has almost been a year since Amber and I began gathering a group of people who wanted to start a new community of faith in our home town, Jupiter, Florida.  Reflecting on the last several months, I have seen how much fruit can come from a small group of people that continue to yield to the Holy Spirit.  We are committed to nurturing what has popularly become known as "missional communities."  Of course, like anything that has become popular, a little defining might be helpful.  Also, my hope is that our story continues to inspire others to dream about what this would look like in their town, suburb, city, or neighborhood.

A missional community is a group of 10-70 or so people who join together for worship, mutual support and encouragement, growth as disciples of Jesus, and to find simple ways to do good in the world.  We think this is the best environment to cultivate maturity in individuals, create authentic deep relationships, and actively join God’s mission.  Our belief is that missional communities are a way to compliment and balance larger traditional churches in a suburban area.  But a missional community is just the vessel.  We are most concerned about calling people back to the treasure of the Christian life.

There are four New Testament words that are important for us to understand and live out:
Love, Grace, Spirit, and Kingdom.

It all starts with God’s love.  If we start from a place of condemnation or failure as individuals, we miss the beauty of the Gospel.  “For God so LOVED the world…”  This is our trump card to the secular, consumer-driven society that we live in.  God’s love cannot be bought or sold.  From a humanistic point of view, his love makes no sense.  It is an offense to the religious, proud, and self-justified.  For the broken, God’s love is a treasure.

When we come to the place of receiving God’s love, we then understand how everything is a gift - it’s all grace.  Not just our salvation, but every breath.  Growing as a disciple of Jesus is growing in receiving grace and living grace.

Then we begin to understand the wonderful action of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  The Spirit fills us, directs us, empowers us, comforts us, and sustains us.  As we are joined together in community, we rely fully on the Holy Spirit to lead us and show us how we fit into one body.

It is at this point when we begin to understand our place in God’s kingdom - how we can experience the already of his kingdom and anticipate the kingdom to come.  God’s kingdom is where his will is done perfectly, where what he wants done is done (D. Willard).  That’s our goal as a missional community.  To live in his kingdom, be agents of his kingdom, and to pray for his kingdom to come in the world.

Our dream is to see thousands of these missional communities popping up all over the United States.  The beauty of what we have discovered is that they can be started and led by ordinary men and women.  There are a variety of organizations out there who exist to train and support missional communities.  Our heritage happens to be in the Vineyard movement which already has in place programs to help train people in most of the necessary gifts and theological foundation.  What is needed is continued support as new communities are started and multiply.

The experience Amber and I have had as pioneers for the past 12 years has given us a unique perspective on the suburban church and how to help ordinary people grow into passionate, authentic followers of Jesus.  We certainly do not have all the answers and are learning new things every day.  But we believe we have built on an excellent foundation with the right materials.  

Our challenge, frankly, is finding people with the courage to step outside the comfort of a traditional church setting where pastoral leaders and staff do 80% or more of the ministry.  Honestly, we don’t need superstars.  We are looking for people who simply want more and want to grow.  The less capable you are in traditional ministry, the better.  There are very few transferrable skills from a typical evangelical / charismatic church into a missional community setting.  We have no parking attendants, greeters, band, sound engineer, ushers, childcare workers, or counseling team.  Our budget strives to be 80% mission and 20% internal, which is the complete opposite of the average church.  We actually encourage you to spend more time with your family, in your neighborhood, and actively a part of your community, than doing church activities.

In fact, our mission together is primarily aimed at connecting the people around us with, well, us.  We don’t try to get people to come to a church service.  We want people to experience God through actions like community meals, serving the poor and broken, healing the sick, and just having fun.  Eventually we will invite them to worship with us, but only when they’re ready. 

We actually enjoy being around each other, for the most part.  Occasionally we’ll butt heads and have conflict.  That’s normal.  What’s not normal or good is ignoring the conflict or letting it fester.  We practice reconciliation as a part of our worship.  We work things out because God worked things out with us.  Anything less is just being religious and fake.

So we are looking for a few good men and women.  We need both to lead, because the New Testament is very clear that both men and women are meant to lead.  We need apostles (fire-starters), prophets (God-reminders), evangelists (Gospel-tellers), pastors (community-builders), and teachers (kingdom-instructors).  The Holy Spirit gives us these people in all shapes and sizes, and they aren’t all leaders!  

But leadership is very important, especially when you are pioneering something new.  Not all leaders are pastors.  Sometimes they are just people willing to do something no one else is willing to do.  Leaders can be trained and given room to grow.  That’s the kind of environment we want to have.  

Some organizations out there are working really hard to make this missional community idea work.  You can pay them money, go to a few conferences, and they’ll coach you on how to do this.  That may work for some people and I don’t doubt it is a perfectly valid thing to do.  But in my humble opinion, there is nothing like experiencing something first hand.  To me, there is no substitute for planting your feet in the soil of an actual community and learning as you go.  Conferences, books, and outside coaching are beneficial to some degree. But I would never trade the last 12 years of working this out among friends in the paradise of Jupiter, Florida.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a prize and a hearty congratulations.  But you may also consider joining us.  God didn’t call us to the inner city, a trendy part of town, or to the beautiful countryside.  We live in ground zero of modern, consumeristic America.  People are busy, self-absorbed, mildly religious, some conservative, some liberal, and totally American.  On the outside, they have it all. Great weather, nice homes, good jobs, active fun lives.  On the inside, it’s a wasteland of loneliness, anger, failed marriages, financial ruin, and shame.  Middle America is crying out for the Gospel while it consumes the latest self-medicating diversion.  Unfortunately, the church has been all too willing to provide it’s own diversions in order to maintain the status-quo of church attendance as the only true measure of success.

We know there is so much more.  Let’s end the self-medication.  Let’s move on to something real; something that points us towards the kingdom of God. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Why I (Still) Believe in God

This week Ken Ham and Bill Nye told us their versions of the origin of the universe.  Just another Tuesday night in America.  I didn't watch, but it was probably like most of the presidential debates I've seen...two people with a lot invested in demonstrating to the average American that they are, in fact, more right than the other guy.  Unfortunately, as with presidential debates, both sides accomplish little towards their goal.  Minds have been made up; or at least made up that they do not want to be on the wrong side of what is becoming popular opinion.  We are fools to think that the modern debate is dialog.  It is marketing.

Yet the market for God-denying, or at least God-ignoring, is becoming an easy sell.  Recent statistics show that the largest percentage of millienials are "unaffiliated" (33%) in terms of faith.  Read any progressive blog or news aggregate and you will discover why.  The new heroes of science and technology provide a very compelling narrative...and some great quotes:  "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it." - Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Hard to argue with the laws of thermodynamics, right?  Without those, I wouldn't have a job!

Combine this with a generation of church scandals, the failure of the religious right, petty theological arguments, the rise of terrorism tied to religious extremism, and total ignorance of how to respond to the LGBT community, and it's no wonder why rejecting God makes so much sense.  After all, God is just a construct of the human imagination in order to maintain a patriarchal society, alleviate the fear of the unknown, and keep the masses poor and ignorant so the rich can continue to rule the world.  Why on earth would any self-respecting, intelligent, modern person in 21st century America continue to hold on to these ridiculous beliefs about God?

I mean, really.

When I was five years old I gave my life to Jesus Christ.  I remember where I was sitting on our vintage 1970's living room couch with my mom and dad.  I remember the feeling of peace and security of being included.  Years later, I was preparing to go to college and I had an internal conversation.  Was I going to continue pursuing God or make my own way?  Perhaps unusual for an eighteen year old, but I was quite sure that my own way was pretty miserable.  For the past twenty-two years I have been working that decision out amidst marriage to a wonderful woman, with three children, in the engineering profession, all while leading communities of other Jesus followers.

Why do I still believe in God?  The older I get, the more I understand my place in the world can be easily filled with my own short-sighted ideas and grasping at self-preservation.  It is human nature to believe that I make my own meaning and survive as any animal might.  But things that appear true today often turn out to be false tomorrow.  And what seems guaranteed today is often tragically lost tomorrow.  God is everything we have hoped for and longed to be, but failed to deliver as master of our fate and captain of our soul.  His story is ancient and modern all at once.  Ironically, God is more concerned with our future than our origin.  His story is filled with ridiculous ideas like love, grace, mercy, restoration, sacrifice and ultimately the most absurd idea of all - resurrection.  It is these ideas that have been pushed aside because they are uncomfortable, old-fashioned, or illogical.  However, they are at the heart of God's good news to the world.  We may be star-dust, but we are Loved.

So I will continue to pursue this God and his mysterious plan for the redemption of mankind, the heavens and earth.  I recognize that it may no longer be a popular path.  In the near future, it may cost me more than I can imagine.  Sometimes I live like a functional atheist.  But hopefully more often than not, I'm a believer.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Moving Beyond Affinity

Affinity is a strong attractor.  Knowing that others will look, act, think, talk, or smell like you in a group provides a measure of safety and comfort.  This is how most churches begin, and our experience in the past has been no exception.  However, the challenge of being a missional community is that all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, believer and un will be welcome and accepted.  Two things (at least) will be true about all these people: none will be perfect and all are loved by God.

So instead of searching for safety and comfort among friends, we must face some daunting questions.  How do we love like God loves?  How do we respond to brokenness; visible and invisible?  How do we become a community of healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness?  A lot of Christians never think about these questions on a corporate level.  This is the unfortunate consequence of normal church culture.

The water we swim in worships the twin gods of individualism and consumerism.  Most people still see the church as a "vendor of religious goods and services".  If that is true, then these are not questions for the average church-goer.  They would naturally be taken care of by paid professionals or hard-core volunteers.  But in a missional community, everyone has to play*.  There is no clergy-laity divide.  There are no passive observers.  No one is exempt from considering the other.

As a result, we must be prepared for a healthy amount of disagreement over how to practically respond to these questions.  Some will debate mercy versus justice.  Others will consider unhealthy people a threat to their healthy relational boundaries.  Many will wonder, how will I have time to add anything else to my life?  These concerns must be named and wrestled with collectively.  The alternative is to fall back to the safety net of affinity.  Jim Van Yperen says in his book, Making Peace, "If we gather, as the world does, around values of individualism [and consumerism], then we form self-absorbed people whose empty lives demand a constant fight (or flight) for individual rights and needs.  But if we gather in authentic community hungering and thirsting for righteousness, we have God's blessing and filling to grow through our differences." 

In future posts I will continue to explore the makeup of a community that is becoming a loving, healing, restoring, and forgiving community.  This is not the formula to quickly grow a church.  But there are principles right out of scripture that do grow a healthy church in the long run.

* John Wimber is famous for saying, "Everyone gets to play," to show that ministry is not restricted to the professionals.  I'd like to modify that slightly to "Everyone has to play."  Not in a legalistic sense, but in order to communicate necessity.  If the whole of the community isn't being constantly invited into the process of growing into their gifts and callings, everything I've talked about in this post will be severely restricted.  There is always room for times of rest and healing.  But it is often the case that the weakest has the most powerful gift to offer.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Myth of Bi-Vocational Ministry

In 2002, I started working part time as an engineer for my father-in-law's consulting firm.  It was a little like Gilligan's Island...supposed to be a three hour tour.  Our fledgling church was discovering that centering our efforts on making disciples of Jesus didn't market very well.  It was slow work, planting seeds of the Kingdom.  Amber's small music business for kids was paying some of the bills, but we had a growing family.  So I worked to give those seeds (family and ministry) time to be nourished well.

Eleven years later, I'm still working.  In fact, I manage a department and oversee a good portion of the firm's output.  I laboriously studied for and miraculously passed the Fundamentals of Engineering exam MANY years removed from college then passed another exam to become a Professional Engineer.  This was not in the plans when we moved to Jupiter as church planters.  The plan was to be in ministry full time.  In other words, I anticipated that eventually my livelihood would come from the church or some kind of ministry effort.  But now, I cannot imagine doing anything different.  What changed?

During those first few years, a sea change was occurring in my vocational identity.  It was a painful process, but I eventually discovered that I was not built to "run a church".  The reality is that I have never been good at making up a job for myself.  My tendency is always towards introspection, study, and ideation.  This, unfortunately, does not make a church go.  To run a church, at least in the traditional sense, you need the same skills that anyone has who runs a business.  In the end, running a church means having a boss, workers, money, and a pot full of volunteers to support enough numerical growth to produce a salary.  I'm not being crass or critical.  This is just the honest truth.

The theory of bi-vocational ministry is that you work a second (or third or fourth) job - whatever it takes - to give time for a full time position to develop.  The fallacy is believing that this will somehow result in a healthy church, marriage, kids, body, or soul.  Something will give, eventually.  Many church planters have lost everything in the race to becoming "full time".  Others just give up and take a staff position elsewhere.  For those who make it, maintaining a salary can change godly vision into a drive to survive.

Years removed from that vocational crisis, I have discovered a new freedom.  I can cultivate community, help build up the spiritual gifts in others, teach, lead worship, organize mission groups, and have a lot of fun in the process.  This is all in the context of a missional community that I lead along with Amber while I continue to work as an engineer.  Yes, there are limitations to my time.  But there is now a harmony between work and ministry like never before.  In fact, I have learned more about myself and grown more as an individual through work than anywhere else.  

My model is the Apostle Paul, who willingly continued making tents for a living while shepherding a Jesus movement in Asia.  Part of his decision was to keep from being a financial burden to his fledgling churches.  Another part was strategic.  But I think there was also a part of Paul that simply enjoyed the work.  Making tents was deeply formational.  He learned the value of good materials, how to weave strong seams, and teach an apprentice well.  These were skills developed over time, long before he was a "successful" apostle.  They matured and interlaced with his skills as a writer, teacher, and leader.

My message in this post is to abandon bi-vocationalism.  If you are called to receive a salary within existing church or ministry structures, then find a way to do that in a sustainable manner.  But if you are a church planter or missionary, consider the example of Paul.  Embrace work.  Let it form you.  Enjoy the fruits of your labor.  And watch how it weaves its way into your calling as a minister of the Gospel.