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.