09 April 2014

The Numbers Leash

Starting from the small church of my youth, winding through my last 20 years of vocational pastoring, I have had a decent vantage point on the church growth narrative.

When I was in a booming attractional church, we took pride in our voluminous of felt-needs programs. When I was in a liturgical church, there was a palatable panic around when our numbers of people dropped. No matter what our style was, we were numbers conscience.
We’d hear about the metrics over and over; how many campuses we have, how many people attend, how many got saved, how much money we raised etc. Honestly I came to dread church conferences because of the onslaught of that single question “so how many…” Even when I pastored at a megachurch, I was embarrassed to answer.
The question itself exposes our ambitions.
As a church planter, the volume of resources for church planting stresses this anxiety. Supposedly, after you’re first Sunday Launch the race is on to get to 100 people in order to survive. This is the goal. I was just reading a church planting book published last year that suggested borrowing people from another church to create the illusion of numerical energy so that church shoppers feel you’re a big deal in town. This feels awfully disingenuous.

Weighing Our Impact
Every church I’ve served has been led around by the numbers leash, creating a producer-consumer relationship with parishioners. Whether spoken or unspoken, it is how we weighed our impact. Simultaneously we always had angst about a lack of involvement, spiritual maturity and genuine care for mission.
Despite this angst, we did not change our matrix. We still emotionally and pragmatically lived under the shadow of numbers. The unnerving truth is God gets heated when leaders survey the success of their organizations using numerical size.
“David took a census of the people of Israel commissioning Joab to count the inhabitants of Israel. ‘Take a census of all the people of Israel—from Beersheba in the south to Dan in the north—and bring me a report    so I may know how many there are.
But Joab replied, ‘May the Lord increase the number of his people a hundred times over! But why, my lord the king, do you want to do this?’
But the king insisted that they take the census, so Joab traveled throughout all Israel to count the people… God was very displeased with the census.
Then David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly by taking this census. Please forgive my guilt for doing this foolish thing.’” - 1 Chronicles 21

A Paradigm Shift
This leads me to believe that we need a major paradigm shift. We need to stop emphasizing the most obvious, simplistic cultural sign of success and instead use a more Kingdom-oriented pattern. What we measure is what will eventually matter the most.
Albert Einstein said, “That which counts is often the most difficult to count.”
I’ve found this to be true.
Missional Churches are going to have to wrestle with resisting the numbers template. Numbers tell us very little about the DNA of Discipleship, Neighborhood Rootedness and Relational Tethering. These are qualities that mattered in the 1st Century Church. What if we reoriented around their vitality?
We need a new fresh metaphor, one that has little do with numbers and a whole lot to do with rich soil and earth under our fingernails. The metaphor I find most helpful is The Garden, The Gardeners and The Gardening.

The Garden – Seeing Neighborhoods

God got really clear about his love for the world by moving into the Nazareth neighborhood. We need to get clear about locality. Like a raised bed in a garden box, we need to define size, shape and contents of our garden.
Your garden may be a section of your city or include several small towns in your county. If the language you use in your church is always connected to the brick-and-mortar of your Sunday gathering place, then you will naturally count heads as the means to measuring.
Talk about the neighborhood more than you talk about your little church empire. Direct eyes outward. Pull people into the garden to explore, to behold, to understand where they live. Release into the air imagination for the particular province God has situated your community in. Make it obvious over-and-over that the energy is outside the building in the neighborhood. This takes a lot of bandwidth, but it is the most foundational missional shift.
Moving people’s affections beyond the spiritual goods-n-services they consume to the needs in their neighborhood, is moving from a “me-orientation” to “mission-orientation.” Honestly there is probably nothing more vital or volatile than this dirty work.
Focus on questions like:
  • Who is our city?
  • Who are our neighbors?
  • Where do we live?
  • Who is already doing good work in this garden?
  • What is beauty in our place?
  • What is the brokenness in our place?

The Gardening – Seeding Relationships

It’s not enough to have better intelligence on a neighborhood, now we need better relational attachment.
Cultivating a garden is more than raising money for an initiative or throwing in some skilled leaders. The Garden needs us to get on our hands and knees and enjoy the soil. Is your church relationally investing in a region?
We need to move beyond an event-mindset to a rhythm-mindset. Having events that catalyze missional serving in our city can cause good sparks. Those sparks can easily be compartmentalized. Our passion must be sustainability.
We must cross and close the relationship gap. You must push for tangibility about how to foster connectivity with a place. This is the labor of incarnation.
Create spaces for clusters within your church to brainstorm the pathways into a particular place. Let people verbalize their challenges, ideals, fears and hurdles to bridging the relational disparities with their neighbors.
Some helpful questions for these clusters to wrestle through are:
  • How are we going get dirty in our place?
  • On a daily basis?
  • On a weekly basis?
  • On a monthly basis?
  • On a yearly basis?
  • How can we do this in micro-groups?
  • With other families?
  • With our friends?

The Gardeners – Shaping Disciples

An agriculturist understands the challenge, the fine art and backbreaking work found in the garden.
I’ve had a literal urban garden for a few years. My wife is the expert and must continually teach me how to plant seed and nurture them to life. She understands the conditions of the soil and the variables of gardening. I’ve got a lot to learn.
Every Spring, that garden needs fresh work and focus. If you’re inviting people to into the garden how will you equip them? How will you foster their intelligence and their perseverance?
Gardeners burn out without water, nourishment and best practices. How do we build a disciple culture? Tilling-and-toiling requires tools. What tools are you putting in the hands of your Gardeners?
Gardeners who inhabit a relational-ecosystem will need water and sustenance to continue. Jesus will build the church if we make disciples. Shaping disciples is not directed at more service to the church infrastructure but more service to the labyrinth outside our church doors.
Consider:
  • How are we cultivating disciples?
  • How are we training for the hands-on work of missional dwelling?
  • How are we clearing out space on our church calendars for this pivotal work?

06 March 2014

Missional Minimalism

In my first 10 years as a pastor I became accustomed to resources. I worshiped and served with a charitable portion of resources as unidentified supports around me. I had great worship facilities, great budgets and decently funded programs to suit any need or stage of life. I had on-hand artists to paint canvases for my sermons and quality writers to write fresh liturgies every Sunday. I had talented musicians to create any mood we needed.
Whenever I would start a new sermon series or spiritual program, I quickly found myself pondering what resources were needed to land it with excellence.
For 10 years, I privately wrestled with this landscape, tucking away bothersome thoughts.
Then One summer I went to Kenya and returned with hard questions pummeling my mind.
Learning from the Underprivileged
In Kenya, I observed the fallout atrocities from tribal wars, unique farming methods in poor villages and children who just wanted to play until the sun came down. Yet, there was something else that lodged under my rib cage: a one hour conversation with a young PHD Kenyan Pastor.
One afternoon this pastor took me on a village walk and then we moseyed into his hut for what he called a “Pastor to Pastor chat.”
I was expecting a delightful spiritual conversation, but I received a gentle but pointed rebuke on American Christianity. The classic memorable line from my new pastor friend was “we don’t want your overstuffed Jesus.”
Ouch.
We talked intensely about how buildings, budgets and bands had crowded out the DNA of the 1st Century Church. With grace, he expressed how Jesus-followers in his village gathered simply and cared for each other in their poverty. Mission was extended through generosity to other villages.
I was confronted and undone. My privilege blinded me to the wisdom and splendor of limitedness.
I did not know it at the time, but he was a Minimalist, and so was his church. They embraced simplicity even in the face of booming church plants springing up in his country that attempted to mimic American brands.
Paring Way Back
God took me on a voyage after that conversation.
I read a barrel of books, such as Robert Bank’s 1979 work Paul’s Idea of Community. This book seized my hand as I navigated afresh the cultural setting in the New Testament. A year later I met some underground Chinese Christians that shared the richness of their uncomplicated movement.
I felt something brewing, and I didn’t like it.
God was taking me on a pilgrimage towards the place where Minimalism meets Missional Theology.
The term “Minimalism” was originally coined right after World War II. It referred to a shift, found both in jazz and art, that pared everything down to the basics. It was a corrective needed to recover simple palettes. The term refers to something that is stripped to essentials, de-cluttering in order craft open space. The end purpose is not open space. The open space provides more intentional focus on the inhabitants and their relation to each other.
Minimalism, to quote William Henry Channing, seeks “to live content with small means.”
From Synagogue to Simple
The Narrative of the New Testament Oikos added gasoline to this fiery fascination with the axioms of being the church.
When I read through the apostolic letters I observed a trajectory from Synagogue to Simple Community, an intentional breathing space for the Centrality of Love. This new garden of community was the fertile soil for “increasing and abounding in love for one another” (1 Thessalonians 3:12).
They developed a reputation for minimalism which stood in contrast to the Jewish Synagogues and the Greek Mystery Cults of the first century. The Mystery cults were primarily clustered together by interests and were characterized by a volume of shared rituals. The early church was not bonded together by interests and rather what characterized them was mutual love for each other.
The early Church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, went through an awkward but vital transition. They no longer relied on brick and mortar temples as a gathering point. Space was busted open to make room for a new familial temple, made of flesh and constructed by the Master Builder. With aesthetics and a volume of rituals removed they now had to face each other. Former enemies, were now sharing a meal, orbiting around the bread and wine of Jesus the Messiah.
Acts 20 tells of one such gathering packed inside a home in Troas. They shared in the riches of Christ, imaging the ancient People of God assembled before Yahweh.
For the Apostle Paul, the gospel wired people together as a witness to the Resurrected Christ. To be drawn into the Gospel was to enter into the nucleus of community. It was not until Christianity gained favoritism with an Empire in 312 A.D that the Synagogue made an appearance among Jesus-followers.
A Moral Compass
I am now a client, practitioner and champion of “Missional Minimalism,” where the Missio Dei and sacred sparseness converge. Both of these are rails for the future mission of the church.
Persecution or Poverty typically imposes minimalism. I invite you to embrace it voluntarily.
Minimalism promotes making space for inter-dependence instead of dependence on elements. We unknowingly relate through buffers. Minimalism reminds us to audit them. It is a bit of a moral compass for protecting the Kingdom-social-politic of our being tethered together.
I cannot prescribe how Minimalism should be applied in your context, but I know it will lead you to differentiate between needs and wants in the ways in which you gather. A church that does not seek to frustrate conspicuous consumption loses its prophetic voice in the West.
When we add “stuff“, our common-life is the first thing that becomes deluded even if we’re in the same room together. Missional Minimalism is a nimble embodiment of the Body of Christ built for maximum expression of the all-consuming love of Christ.

17 February 2014

The Irritation of Incarnation

Incarnational Theology emphasizes that the Father has sent Jesus as one of us. God does not scorn the human condition rather God dwelt in the fragility of the human body (Phil 2). This human form brought the Glory of God down from Mt. Sinai to the streets of Nazareth. The fullness of God somehow, someway was displayed in the limitations of the God-man Jesus. He embraced those limits to model for us how to be present, really present. Jesus was a “manger wetter” as the poet Stephen Mahan states. This is not sacrilegious, this is sacred. God experienced human flesh and in it opened up space to observe his kindness. (Rom 2:4). The incarnation continues as we are sent (John 20:21) and now the Divine is being downloaded into the ordinary. An Incarnational God leads us to inhabit the world not as one fearing but as one searching; searching how the Kingdom of God breaks into the crevices of our world through tangible touch. This imagination is a burst of light into my life offering me a framework for being available in my local context.

Cost and Consternation

I’ve had the joy of meeting many young Incarnational Theologiz-ers springing forth with fresh vision about this vital spirituality. I too drank a firehose of books years ago that helped me visualize incarnation as a refreshing path forward in the world. Yet I’ve sadly observed that many with all this incarnational ideation often lose steam with little on the ground sustainable actualization. It’s not mentioned often that many who leap into “doing justice” burn out from discouragement or fizzle out because of boredom. It's one thing to learn about the content and another to live into the content. My suspicion is that our imagination for Incarnational Theology is still elementary and quixotic. For all my fervor, my imagination needed to be filled out with the cost and consternation. I’ll be honest, incarnation is a thorn in my side, and it’s exceptionally inconvenient and even irritating at times. Many days that I press into the mystery of the incarnation and attempt to move it into practice I get a bit ornery, straight up grumbly in my spirit. The incarnation confronts me with a private emotion; I don’t love people. I don’t hate them but I don’t love them either. I know that’s not cool to say as a church planter and community cultivator. I have sentimental love, maybe even theological love but practical love comes and goes for me.

I live in a cold, economically depressed part of the country that is fighting for progress. I’ve lived here for a few years now, buying a former abandoned drug house, gutting it and renewing it. We’ve had multiple families do the same, taking the plunge into this pocket of the city extending renewal. All of us champion a missional-incarnational life but we know it’s not a pretty scene at times. The sidewalks are littered with trash, the roads are peppered with boarded up houses, the gang violence can make you nervous to go for a walk and mental illness on the streets is no longer interesting, it actually frightens your children. My wife and I scratch our heads at times wondering “how the Gehenna did we end up here?”

Relentless Disappointment

The deeper we dive into this particular place the more inconvenient our lives get. I’ll give you some examples: people knocking on my door looking for a ride at weird hours when I’m exhausted laying on the couch, sitting and listening to a neighbor’s drama when I’m privately stressed on my way to an appointment, pouring the energy of love into someone and having them steal from you, cultivating trust with another and having them go "Gollum" on you. You can read about incarnation in a book and idealize it but translated to real life it is invasive. There is relentless disappointment in the up close and personal space of incarnation. The sheer dashed hopes can do an angry-dance on your perseverance. Sure I can gain applause outside of my hometown when I speak about incarnation but on my streets few are impressed. I preach and teach incarnation but I want to be truthful, I have a hard time in good conscience making it sound sexy.

The Curriculum is People

Yet something continues to happen on a subterranean level in our community: we are being discipled by the phenomena of being with people. The curriculum is people; they expose our attitudes and our actions. There is resistance within me. I do not want to bear with others. My un-love regularly rises to the top and I can feel it floating on the surface of my heart. At that point I either tackle it or pamper it. God is not interested in a professional compassion he wants to take us through the labor process of birthing the real thing. This practice of tangible love has brought me face to face with my own limits, impatience, stubbornness and resentment. Trying to be present, really present in a particular place has ironically made me aware of what is present in me. Everyday I’m challenged to bail on beholding the beauty and brokenness in others. Will I stay? Will I lean in? This is the battle ground in my heart. I share all this to summarize that I love Incarnational Theology but we must speak about its proletarian irritation to be truer to its actuality. We must be careful not to perpetuate the abstraction of "being incarnational" or we do a disservice to the Incarnation. To know the incarnate God you must experience the pain of incarnation.    

19 December 2013

Top 10 Missional Posts in 2013

I started blogging in March 2010. My first few posts were quite whiny. I started out yacking about whatever front-of-the-lobe-ideas I had on the church. The tone of my posts were bloated with ideation and mere opinion. I have to confess they weren't extremely helpful. It was my wife that pushed me to move beyond pontificating on ideas and instead write about what we were learning on the ground; the good, the awkward and the ugly. Thanks to her, in the end of 2010 my blog took on a narrowed focus. I began scribbling solely on dynamics piloted and practiced in mission, community and discipleship from our minimalistic approach. This has limited the voice of my blog but I'm grateful. I'm a newbie when it comes to throwing my thoughts into the cyber circus but 2013 was good year. This December the blog hit 70,000 reads since March 2010 with the majority of them being in 2012 and 2013.  

The following posts received the most traffic in 2013



"We need to upend the flight of radical that is bored 
with the mechanics of being vitally ordinary."



"No matter what tool you employ in discipleship, it must include a power sabotaging element." 
"It's honorable to want to 'save the city' but it's humbled by learning to 'love your neighbor'. 





"The individualistic framework threatens the future of the Missional movement."
"Bitterness goes where we go and it paralyzes our energy for mission and community."





"The reign of Jesus must take on a local, communal tangibility or it will merely blow out to sea as a cliche."




"We should be compelled to kindle a culture that disciples one another outside of formal, organized programs."



"I'm just starting to adjust to people being unimpressed and even a bit repelled." 




"I've noticed that when faced with paring back the complexities of church life, some discover they're more dependent on the packaging than the contents."  




"Looking around at the Christian landscape it’s obvious we do organizations and events really well but we are really poor at the nuance of relationship."






"It is possible to put together the semblance of community 'a little of this and a little of that' and end up with a self-selected substitute community." 

10 December 2013

Sabotaging the Hero-Complex in Discipleship

Power is a tricky thing. I remember as a teenager discovering I had some speed and athleticism. I was no Superman but I was a fast little goober that could throw the ball on target. That was enough in my small school to push me to the front. I made the football team and found I had power on the field that evidently flowed into the halls of my high school. Being the quarterback gave me a compelling identity in contrast to my previous nobody ranking. Here’s the curious thing about power, I tried out for the team with a trembling spirit but within months I was relishing the attention that being a quarterback gave me. Internally I morphed into a hungry ego gremlin that began to ooze on the outside.

Powers Leverage 
My hypothesis is that most don’t seek power for the intent to dominate. Yet, power has leverage on our innocence and original intentions, eroding them both without our noticing. This is what occurred in my quarterback situation and I've seen it play out in various domains. I did not play for power but when it was attained it had an insidious effect on me. This is the moral of Boromir in the Lord of the Rings. Originally he's called “good hearted” but the Ring gave him command and influence. At first he did not desire the power of wizard-lords but only desired to protect his people. Eventually, the acquisition of power corrupted his character. Often we're not completely cognoscente of the power we've collected but when made aware of it, we can’t imagine living without it. Power offers us a firm status and more preferable identity..

Discipleship Hero-Complex
I’d like to apply this subtle power trajectory to the art of discipleship. Nothing fuels me more than the space of discipleship; I feel at home in this expanse. Discipleship is energizing as it affirms the good pulsing within, confronts the idols we cling to and sends us back into the world on mission. In most rooms I’ve been the defacto discipler since I’ve been a pastor for the last 15 years. Ten years ago I began to detect a lurking energy in the dynamic of my discipleship methods. Something about this unnamed energy was reminiscent of my time in high school. I now know a raw and real phenomenon actualizes in the discipling relationship. When guiding someone towards transformation something takes place - a power forms. A Hero-Complex sprouts in the transaction. In my good intentions to disciple, venom was simultaneously sneaking into my blood stream. This venom wanted to riddle my body with egotism. Honestly, I did not chase after this Hero-Complex, it grew in strength with my effectual influence and I ignorantly cozied up to it. I was becoming a little deity in my own little empire. Most are sharp enough not to wallow in this publicly but we know it; being a spiritual hero is intoxicating. 

Keeping an Untarnished Image
Spiritual Leaders are often taught to keep their weakness close to the vest, lest we cause someone to stumble. If it’s not taught directly it’s modeled indirectly. I rationalized why keeping my image visibly untarnished was good for everybody. I was genuine in my desire to be used of the Holy Spirit as a discipler but it could not compensate for the system I was a member of. It took a traumatic event to spotlight the egotism inherent in my approach. In 2003 there was an interruption to my Discipleship fantasy and it rattled me. I watched a deeply trusted leader collapse. My heart was cracked. I was close to this leader, I loved this leader, I was discipled by this leader. As I grieved I had an unnerving realization “I knew little of his inner world, How could this be? I was in close discipleship quarters with him. How was I not privy to his brokenness when I offered mine regularly?" Something unhinged in me. 

Agony in Vulnerability
I was done with infrastructures that created pseudo-popes out of spiritual leaders. My first impulse was to rail against all leadership that posed and protected but God’s Spirit confronted me to move beyond anger cloaked in a righteous agenda. God instead pinned me on my own unexamined discipleship practices. I needed reformation but I was confused at where to begin. Romantically, I thought I could construct a new way of discipling that had no power dynamics, no acknowledged leader. I was wrong. No matter the context there will always be a bit of deference to a defacto discipler. My fresh passion needed to be harangued into something valuable on the ground.

I had studied social psychology and found some valuable insights there but it was the oddity of Jesus that confronted my leadership principles. In one of Jesus’ weakest moments in the Garden of Gethsemane, a place of intense strain, he does something foolish in the school of leadership. Jesus invites Peter, James and John in close to behold his struggle. Jesus pioneers space for others to witness his knee-knocking fragility. “Dad, I’m afraid, could you please take this cup from me?” (Luke 22:42). Jesus is violently vulnerable. Don’t domesticate what Jesus did. In our culture this would be called “seeing someone at their worst”. The Hero Jesus was exposing disciples to the drama of his own humbling. (Phil 2) The wisdom of this is hidden from leadership experts. There is an agony in Christ vulnerability. Theologically I knew about the weakness of God on the cross but my senses were opening to how this flowed into real-time discipleship habits. To participate in Christ is to participate in weakness with others. 

Self-Sabotaging Egotism
Leaders are notorious for offering idealized reflections of themselves. We’re all tempted to suppress anything that would threaten our guru image. We must take a sledge to that superiority soaked in sage spiritual insight. Discipleship has a power dynamic that must be sabotaged. I’m convinced the nucleus for change is the self-imposed offering of vulnerability. God was not calling me to stop discipling but was inviting me into a new tension; a tension that God in Jesus inhabited with 1st Century disciples. I needed to offer teeth clenching vulnerability in the very discipleship huddles I was piloting. Over the years I’ve learned this is easier said than done. First, I’ve had to learn (still learning) how to be naked in my insecurities, fears, idols and unrepentant angers. Downloading vulnerability into my own discipleship approach has risked rejection. We're all weak most of us are just too afraid to admit it. Second, I’ve learned that vulnerability from a discipler can be disorienting for apprentices. A discipler off their pedestal looks iconoclastic to some. Many find confidence in having access to a leader who appears quixotic in their connection to God. Even the most progressive among us lives vicariously through the strength of leaders, online celebrities and writers. Having spiritual leaders secured in their place provides us with a solid point of reference. We want our spiritual leaders to be spiritual maharishis.

Taking Shortcuts
There are ways pastor’s shortcut around this; they banish their struggles into a container. One of those tricks is vulnerability in preaching or from a media/writing platform; I call this pulpit protection. There is an unspoken detachment in a platform or a pulpit. Vulnerability from a pulpit can actually prop up our image with people. This does not mean you should not model a fitting vulnerability from public platforms but please understand its serious relational limits. The other shortcut: pastors are solely vulnerable with other pastors. I used to think this was the only appropriate domain for me. I thought only they could understand. This has proven to be well intentioned but misguided leadership wisdom. If you want to call others into covenant-community you cannot contract your vulnerability out to some off-ramp or pit-crew.  

Opening Up Space
Discipleship has changed dramatically for me in the last 10 years. It has been awkward and discomforting at point blank range. Yet I've discovered something afresh, mutual vulnerability opens up space for the Spirit of God. A mini-temple springs up between us; a temple the Holy Spirit enjoys hanging out in. No longer am I convinced God needs my brilliant strength more than he needs my weakness. So be on the look out for sophisticated ways we photoshop ourselves. No matter what tool you employ in discipleship, it must include a power sabotaging element. Institutional Leaders do not offer people deep meaning, incarnational ones do. 

06 December 2013

Community Is Not Self-Actualization

This video was so true I could not resist posting it. As a church planter this has been one of the hidden hurdles to forming genuine, tethered communities. Culturally we seem more concerned with "how we want to be recognized by others" rather than "how do we meaningfully relate with others".  I've recently been recognizing how vintage my own church plant appears in a viral culture.

Check it>