The Hold Steady and Being Born Again

I found The Hold Steady much later than I should have. They’ve been making music since 2004 in the Bruce Springsteen mold. Rock and Roll and great stories. They even sound a little like the Boss. They’re from Minneapolis, which is where I discovered them while I was taking courses for my doctorate at Luther Seminary. Still, I didn’t buy any of their stuff until their 2010 release, Heaven is Whenever. I loved it.

Recently, I’ve been buying some of their older work. This week, I’ve had their 2005 work, Separation Sunday, on a loop. It’s a fascinating album. Every song features the adventures of a young woman named Holly. Actually, as we find out toward the end of the album, “her parents named her Halleluiah, the kids all called her Holly.” Her name is fitting, as the album traces her experiences through both drugs, sex, and religion. And all of this simultaneously.

Here are some snippets to give you a feel for Holly’s world of mixed images and experiences..

She’s got a cross around her neck that she ripped off from a schoolgirl in the subway on a visit to the city. She likes how it looks on her chest with three open buttons. She likes the part where one brother kills the other. She has to wonder if the the world ever will recover. Because Cain and Abel seem to still be causing trouble.

He was breaking bread and giving thanks. with crosses made of pipes and planks. leaned up against the nitrous tanks… i’ll dunk your head. then when you wake up again. you’ll be high as hell and born again.

tiny little text etched into her neck it said “jesus lived and died for all your sins.” she’s got blue black ink and it’s scratched into her lower back. it said: “damn right i’ll rise again.” yeah, damn right you’ll rise again.

the priest just kinda laughed. the deacon caught a draft. she crashed into the easter mass with her hair done up in broken glass. she was limping left on broken heels. when she said father can i tell yr congregation how a resurrection really feels?

she said: i was seeing double for 3 straight days after i got born again it felt strange but it was nice and peaceful. it really pleased me to be around so many people. of course half were just visions but half of them were friends from going thru the program with me. later on we did some sexy things.

halleluiah came to in a confession booth. infested with infections. smiling on an abcessed tooth. running hard on residue. crashing thru the vestibule. the crucifixion cruise. she climbed the cross and found she liked the view. sat reflecting on the resurrection. talking loud over lousy connections. she put her mouth around a difficult question. she said lord what do you recommend? to a real sweet girl who’s made some not sweet friends. lord what would you prescribe? to a real soft girl who’s having real hard times.

I won’t pretend to have the album solved, to know exactly what’s going on in the songs. It might be too obvious to say that there’s not a great distance between religious experience and getting high, or to say that people who like to get high or whose lives are a mess are also close to the Kingdom of God–that hitting bottom and finding God often go together.

But I’m more interested in the way that being “born again” can fit neatly beside other experiences in people’s lives. Like it might fit on someone’s bucket list: get my pilot’s license, party with the Stones, swim with sharks, see Paris, get born again. It’s one experience among others. Life is a buffet. Try it all. See what sticks.

I’ve sat by “hollys” on plane trips, and when they find out I’m a theologian, they say something like, “that’s so cool, I accepted Jesus into my heart at a church camp. I’m a very spiritual person. Lately, I’ve really gotten into Buddhism and Amway.” You get the idea. Spirituality is completely internal, impressionistic, idiosyncratic, without content, and so can be set easily alongside other experiences in life, even if they’re at odds with one another.

I find it interesting in Mark’s gospel that Jesus refuses an easy identification of his identity with the expectations of others. He demands silence from the demons and tells others to keep quiet about their experiences with him. Jesus’ life has a specific content that is not as easily co-opted as spiritual language or experiences. He is the one who will die at the hands of others and be raised on the third day, calls us to take up our crosses and follow him, and unless we’re clear about this, he doesn’t want us calling him Christ or Son of God or inviting him into our hearts.

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Hospitality and Christian Witness: competency #7

Most congregations I know feel stuck evangelistically. They know that the old ways of doing evangelism (door knocking, high pressure, guilt-inducing, proposition stringing) don’t fit anymore, but they’re not sure what else would count.

I think this issue is particularly acute for congregations that are taking a missional/hospitality posture seriously. Let me explain this. Stephen Pickard in his book, Liberating Evangelism, says that the gospel is good news only insofar as people are treated well. He uses the work of Jurgen Habermas to sharpen this distinction.

Habermas distinguishes between “instrumental” and “communicative” reason. Instrumental reason serves an end other than knowing the other. For instance, instrumental reason seeks your vote (and on the heels of this election season, we know what that kind of communication sounds like) or wants you to buy a certain product. Communicative reason, however, seeks only to understand the other. Instrumental reason depersonalizes by objectifying relationships. I’m valuable to you only insofar as I further your agenda. That overly friendly waitress wasn’t hitting on you, but hoping for a bigger tip (seriously, she’s not hitting on you). The car salesman offers rust protection, not because he cares deeply about your well-being, but because its a high margin earner for the dealer. These are crass examples, but you get the point.

For Pickard, genuine care comes not through instrumental reason, but through communicative reason. And too much evangelism, for Pickard, has the feeling of instrumental reason. We fashion messages

One of our highest competencies for missional innovation is hospitality, or cultivating new relationships, and not primarily on our own terms. This stance of hospitality moves us away from the instrumental and toward the communicative. To suddenly turn the other, the person of peace that we’ve found, into an evangelistic target seems to instrumentalize that relationship.

This is a very real dilemma. It’s hard, in my estimation, to have someone be simultaneously a friend and a prospect. So, once you’ve cultivated a friendship or a partnership, how do you switch things and turn it into an evangelistic encounter? Whichever way you go, it seems you’re either compromising friendship or your convictions.

I have three pieces of advice. First, being a friend means sharing your life. And your life is Christian. That should be plain, even natural. I don’t think you have to have a Bible study with someone or constantly be quoting Scripture to have an authentic, Christian witness. Be yourself. And pray for the best for your friend. You might be surprised.

Second, this is a place where our limited sense of what passes for good news limits us. If we think of the gospel, and in turn our evangelistic message, only as salvation from sin and personal guilt, then our only issue in evangelism is personal status. The individual is the issue, not the condition of the world. Personal guilt is the issue, not how sin distorts human life and the life of all of creation. The only roles in our evangelistic script, therefore, are for God to be a no-tolerance judge, our friend a guilty defendant. And we, unwittingly, get the role of prosecuting attorney. We have to convince our friend of their guilt for our message to work.

But if we understand the gospel the way Jesus did (and I would argue, also the way Paul did), as the announcement of the nearness of the Kingdom of God, then all the issues and roles change. Now the issue is God’s good rule over all of life. The issue is shalom and the world’s lack of it. And I doubt we’d have a hard time convincing others that our world lacks wholeness or well-being. And I doubt we’d get much resistance with most people that a different way of ordering our world is sorely needed.  The issue now is whether or not we believe the way of Jesus is the way of shalom.

What happens to personal guilt and the need for forgiveness? Forgiveness is a necessary part of the Kingdom of God. God’s shalom can’t get off the ground if we’re overcome by the powers of sin and death, if our own guilt and shame overwhelm us and make us neurotic, unstable, and untrustworthy. What happens to the importance of the death of Jesus? It’s significance becomes greater. It is not only a sign of our forgiveness, but also a model for a different way of life under a different set of powers, notably the power of trusting, self-giving love.

So, most of the old stuff is there, but its been reframed by the larger theme of the Kingdom of God. Now, the message is inviting others to belong to God’s in-breaking reign with all the benefits that brings. So now, not only is your friend more than a prospect, but your friendship might actually be a sign of the Kingdom of God. It can actually be a part of the good news you proclaim.

I have friends in Ontario who have developed relationships with Sikhs and Muslims in the neighborhood near their church. They drink chai together and play cards. They’ve built relationships of trust and care, and for my friends, this has been done in the name of Jesus. As their relationship has grown, they’ve eaten in each other’s homes and have talked about God and life. All of this started in a community center where my friends asked what, if anything, was needed there. My favorite story involves the director of the community center, who is an atheist, being encouraged to believe in God by both my Christian friend and her new Muslim friend. In a world where religious differences lie at the heart of much of the violence in our world, I think the story of Christians who drink Chai with others as an offer of the peace of Jesus qualifies as good news of the nearness of the Kingdom of God. And while these Sikhs and Muslims might never become Christians, there are others watching and listening, hoping to find in God’s name a witness to peace in the name of Jesus.

Missional congregations learn how to link hospitality and witness in precisely these ways.

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Hospitality as leadership: a different kind of grad program

I have the privilege of directing a unique graduate program in missional leadership. In addition to our great faculty, we have four features that make our program unique:

1. We insist that all of our students have ministry contexts in which they can do projects for each course. We encourage them to see as their primary classroom the contexts in which they minister. So, we bring content to them through a combination of intensive and online courses.

2. We create dynamic learning communities through cohorts. Students take the same 12 courses in the same sequence with the same students. It is hard to overstate the importance of cohorts to developing both an enriched learning environment. Our students not only become friends, often very close friends, but they press each other to deeper learning because of the quality of the ongoing ministry conversation they have together. They learn as much from each other as they do their profs.

3. We emphasize spiritual formation through a cohort rule of life. Randy Harris helps each of our cohorts develop a shared set of spiritual practices that then we coach throughout the program. Natalie Magnusson does a great job providing spiritual direction to each of our cohorts. As a result, our students experience grad school as an environment in which they grow in their “God-centered identity,” and avoid the cynicism that too often is the result of graduate theological education.

4. I already mentioned that our courses are either intensives or online. Our intensives are a special part of our program. We don’t just meet at Rochester College, but we go to places like Portland, Dallas, and Durham, NC where we can learn from other missional leaders by looking over their shoulders. These are great weeks and are essential to the success of our other courses held online.

In relation to #4, I want to post the comments made by one of our students, Graham McMahon (Chilliwack, BC), on his experience in the intensive we had in Durham this past September.

The intensive in Durham, North Carolina proved to be a formative and rich experience for me. Richard Beck’s teaching on purity psychology was excellent, especially in relationship to our understandings of hospitality. We learned all of the ways we can psychologically exclude those different than us so that we can then learn to include them. Richard taught us about “The Little Way” of Saint Therese of Lisieux which provided us with a set of practices to help us learn how to welcome the other, the person or stranger who is different than us. In this way, not only did we think critically about the psychology that often unconsciously keeps us from welcoming the other, but we also learned how to overcome this by adopting simple practices that help us welcome the other.

Our time with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove was also a transformative experience. Jonathan
challenged us to see hospitality from a place of justice, reconciliation, and the overcoming of oppression and racism. He also taught us the importance of intentional community, a rule of life, a communal approach, and the significance of place when it comes to the practice of hospitality. Jonathan teaches from a place of abundant and varied experience; he is a true practitioner. He walked us through his neighbourhood, welcomed us to his African American church’s worship service, and invited us to join his monastic community in morning prayers, all of which were highlights of our time with him.

In our final two days together, Mark Love provided us with a deep theological foundation for the practice of hospitality. He challenged us to imagine our liturgical practices and worship gatherings as experiences of hospitality and to find new ways of making room for the other outside of our Sunday gatherings. As with all of our intensives with the MREML program, there was ample time to discuss as a cohort all that we were learning and to begin to envision together how what we were learning would translate into our immediate ministry back home.

As I stepped back into life with our church in Chilliwack, I was immediately able to begin
implementing what we had gleaned together through the Durham intensive, and we are already seeing the fruit of transformation as a result.

The intensive in Durham has proven to be one of the most practical and transformative
intensives to date and I am grateful for the opportunity to learn at the feet of wise experienced people together with my fellow ministry partners from my cohort. This is truly one of the most effective ways to learn and grow as leaders and has proven to be a catalyst for healthy growth and change in our local church community.

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The Faithfulness of Risk Taking: Competency Six

I have two initial diagnostics I use when gauging a congregation’s capacity to innovate missionally. First, is their trust in the system. Second, is their tolerance for risk. These two things, of course, are often linked, though you can have one without the other.

I do find congregations with high trust throughout the system because the system is stable, even risk-averse. After all, God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And in a world that is rapidly changing in sometimes disturbing ways, its nice for the church to be a stable constant, even a voice against change.

But I am convinced that this is the opposite of being faithful. This is more like burying talents in the ground where they can remain exactly the same, rather than spending ourselves in ways that might bring new life.

So, a big task in congregations is convincing them that change and risk are built into the fabric of faithfulness. Along these lines, I’d point you to my friend, Dwight Zscheile’s, new book, The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age. Dwight argues convincingly that innovation has always been a part of the church’s story, rooted in the Incarnation, that God took human form in a particular time and location, in a particular culture. So, you can read the incarnation as the establishment of a particular culture for all time (which not even the Amish can pull off), or that God becomes present in every time and place in ways that are culturally appropriate. The early Christians clearly chose the latter posture, evidenced, for example, by the fact that they recorded the words of Jesus in a language other than the one he spoke. As James Brownson and others point out, the success of early Christianity was due in great part to its aggressive strategy regarding the cultural, its willingness to adapt and express the news of Jesus in ways that made local sense.

To these observations, I would add the following: God is always bigger than our ideas about God. The church can never be satisfied that it has solved God. The church is not the same as God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is always coming, and the church is always praying in anticipation “your kingdom come, your will be done.” There’s always more, which means there is always the possibility, even necessity, of change. To refuse to change is to participate in idolatry.

I also love the insight made by William Placher in his book on the history of Christian theology. He describes the intent of the early church fathers as preserving the faith. Everything they did was an effort to keep things the same. The ironic result was that in their efforts to keep everything the same, they changed everything. One thing that Placher is pointing out is that the same form can have very different meanings given different contexts. To express the meaning of the gospel consistently across time and space will necessarily involve rick and change.

Finally, I would point out that the story the church lives is the story of the death and resurrection. The church does not live to preserve its life, but to give its life away in the hope of resurrection. Paul talks about his ministry this way. He is always carrying in his body “the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be manifest in his body…Death is at work in us,” he says, “so that life may be at work in you… Indeed, everything is for your sake so that as grace extends to more and more people, it may increase in thanksgiving to the glory of God.” Paul’s strategy for mission is a death and resurrection strategy. Carrying in your body the death of Jesus involves risk. Giving your life away is always a risky proposition. But it is always faithful to the story of Jesus. And we do it confident that God will raise us up.

So, risk can be a great act of faithfulness. Refusal to risk anything is faithlessness.

Risk, however, for its own sake is not a virtue. Change for change’s sake is not the way of wisdom. Zscheile, using the image of the householder in Mt. 13 who brings treasure both old and new, talks about “traditioned innovation.” Here, a living tradition helps the church make judgements about risk-taking. The church is always learning the way of “treasure old and treasure new,” always seeking to bring the best parts of the past forward in ways that give it continuing relevance and power.

Most congregations, however, need little encouragement toward continuity. They do need encouragement to take risks. And for my money, the risks taken should always be measured against our sense of God’s mission for others. Instead of taking risks in light of our personal preferences, we should risk for the sake of God’s mission for the sake of others.

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Moving beyond the 20/80% rule: competency five, finding and empowering new leaders for mission

I say this all the time to congregations: “the 20% who do 80% of the work.” I have yet to meet resistance to this characterization of church life. Not a single person has expressed skepticism about this or insisted their church is different. It’s true in congregations principally because its impossible for volunteer organizations to function without a core group like this. That’s not where the problem lies. Here’s the problem. New initiatives are often piled on the 20% because this is 1) easiest (laziest?) 2) because we value control and can maintain that within smaller networks.

As a result, finding and cultivating new leadership is inhibited.

Add to this another observation. Most of our current leadership tasks are defined around what I call chaplaincy functions: teaching, praying, serving the interests and needs of the flock, etc. Because these things are so crucial to sustaining identity, this kind of leadership tends to function conservatively. Even if an individual is fairly open to risk, make them an elder and they get cautious.

So, we need not only new leadership, but different kinds of leadership. We need apostolic leadership. Let me be clear what I mean here. We need leadership that takes the faith, not just preserves the faith. Or, as my friend Pat Keifert says it, we need not only guardians, but traders.

These leaders are good at taking faithful risks. And they often have primary relationships with non-church members. We trust the 20% because they’ve made church their top priority. We don’t trust the other 80% because they don’t seem as committed. And they might not be to the things that preserve the institution. But they may very well be more committed to the things that would produce new growth.

In the PMC process I coach, we create new leadership tasks through the process and make sure that congregations identify people outside of the 80% to do much of the work. We ask them to do short-term work, make it clear what the focus of their work is, and encourage them to take some risks. We don’t put the whole system at risk, but delimit both the scope and duration of their work. This puts the existing leadership and the “guardians” within the congregation at ease, while still allowing for fresh exploration. And, we give them spiritual practices to do as a group while they lead. Ideally, as the capacity of the congregation to experiment increases, so can the scope and duration of this type of leadership.

Some congregations have trouble letting go of control when we ask them to do this. I asked one congregation to create a team to manage aspects of process that should include no elders or ministers. When I met the new team, they had appointed as co-chairs an elder and a minister. But the most consistent positive feedback I get on the PMC process is that leaders emerge in ways the existing leadership never could have imagined.

It’s one thing to appoint new people to leadership tasks, it’s another to fully authorize them for their work. The work needs to be clearly defined. They need to have all the resources they need to do the work: time, money, training, authority, etc. And they need consistent encouragement/feedback and appreciation that is both concrete and genuine.

Finally, they need the room to fail. Innovation typically comes, not through a series of “successful” experiments, but from failures from which we learn new ways of looking at things. The evaluative question cannot be, “did this work?”, but “what did we learn?”

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Streaming Images: Our recent conference, Oct 9-11, No Fear, Only Love

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Zach Wilson led us in worship. Awesome gifts!

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John Barton, Pepperdine University, talked about the ways the cross makes us pay attention to context. He gave us a cruciform missiology.

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The premiere of the band, Barton W. Stone and the Cane Ridge Revival, was a highlight of the conference. In a very moving way, they took us from songs of a suffering world to songs of praise of the God who joins us there.

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For sheer number of words, Greg Boyd gave us our money’s worth. He took us on a ride through Revelation to show us that cruciform power is different than empire power.

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We had a great crowd, which included some Rochester College students.

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Sara Barton, Pepperdine University, made a passionate case for cruciform spirituality. The best I’ve heard Sara, and she’s always good.

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Jennifer Rundlett led us through a meditation on the last words of Jesus, using both images and musical pieces. Very moving.

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Another shot of conference attendees in wrapt attention.

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Richard Beck turned us inside out and showed us how the power of death manifests itself in several ways in our lives, and gave us pictures of cruciform love that overcomes death’s power.

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Why, that’s me, sitting between my wife and parents! Good times!

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Jen Christy opened our conference with a beautiful sermon from Hebrews.

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Ben Ries closed our conference, by urging us to go “outside the camp” and share life with Jesus there. Powerful sermon.

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Practice hospitality in ways that convey the welcome of God much? Missional competence #4

I hear this story often. “We’re very friendly. Friendliest congregation I’ve ever been a part of. I don’t understand why we aren’t growing.” I have a hunch. Congregations that think they are friendly are often very inward oriented congregations. It’s hard to break in. They’re friendly, but not hospitable.

Hospitality is the key characteristic, in my opinion, of participation in the life of God. After all, God exists as a community, Father, Son, and Spirit flowing in and through each other’s lives. God’s very life is expressed through making room for the other. And our salvation is found in the fact that he has made room for us as well.

As I have written here often, it is no small thing that the primary symbol in Christian worship is a table. An altar has been replaced by a table, a place of welcome. And each week we learn what it means to participate in God’s life as we experience the welcome of God around the Lord’s table. No longer do we experience God through sacrifices to overcome our exclusion from God. Rather, we are welcomed into God’s life through our participation in the life of Christ.

So, it makes sense that communities interested in participating in the mission of God in the world would excel in hospitality. And yet, we don’t. Shifts are necessary for us to create greater capacity in this area.

The biggest shift required is understanding that we share God’s hospitality with others, not our own. This shift carries significant implications. If we think in terms of the church’s hospitality, then we are the host. Hospitality takes place on our turf and on our terms. But God’s hospitality can take place anywhere. In fact, it’s likely that it will take place precisely in those places where we give up privilege, including home turf. In an era in which it is decreasingly likely that if we build it they will come, then learning how to both recognize and thrive apart from home court advantage will be crucial to a congregation’s vitality.

I think a test of whether or not a congregation is developing capacity here is whether or not new members come in some other way than visiting Sunday assembly. This might indicate that members are learning to recognize occasions of God’s hospitality.

Learning to participate in God’s hospitality requires two significant capacities: interrupt-ability and attentiveness. Though being friendly may help, it is not the key to hospitality. Interupt-ability and attentiveness. The enemy to these capacities is being in a rush. So, it’s hard to imagine developing capacity for hospitality without a similar commitment to simplicity. Put simply, the more simple our lives, the less we need to rush and the more room we have for others. This is deeply spiritual work.

One more note about hospitality. Some churches are good at making room for others in terms of joining the mission of God. Others, not so much. I’ve used the image before of the church as merry-go-round like the ones on playgrounds. Some churches are happy for you to jump on as long as you are willing to run alongside and grab a handle and jump on. Others, the hospitable ones, stop the merry-go-round to let you on. This is hospitable and the work of God.

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Competency three: find and cultivate new partners in mission

Here’s the wrong distinction: missional vs. attractional. It’s trouble six different ways. Stop saying it. Phew, I feel better. So, how would I distinguish missional from other kinds of impulses? Let’s try this. Partner vs. paternal.

Let’s go back to the previous post. The biggest assumption funding a healthy view of ministry is that God is living and active. An implication of this belief is that God is already at work in the communities and neighborhoods that we serve. So, the deal is not that the church has all the good stuff and is merely taking it to the world. This is what I mean by paternal. Rather, God is already at work in unlikely places and among unlikely people, so the church hopes to find in neighborhoods and communities the living presence of God in actual human experiences. We don’t enter these spaces to take over or to direct or to garner advantage for the institution–again paternal. But we go to serve and to learn from and with others who are interested in God’s promised future for the world. This partnering.

My friend, Ryan Woods, was great at this. Ryan, Jessica, and others hoped to–what’s the right word, not plant, not establish–discover or uncover a confessing, worshiping, serving community in downtown Vancouver, Washington. Their belief was that if you loved people the way Jesus does, a church was inevitable. Ryan once contrasted their approach with another church “plant” in the downtown area in relation to an Easter egg hunt in the downtown area. The local community already sponsored an egg hunt for kids in the community. The partnering instinct says, “how can we join?” In contrast the church “plant” decided to sponsor their own, rival Easter egg hunt. Paternal.

As a former full-time minister, I both cringed and recognized myself in Ryan’s story. My instinct was always to find ways to make our church stand out, to offer something on our terms that people would want to be a part of. My interest was with the benefit that accrued to the institution–more members, etc–instead of searching for the living God. And in a twisted way, I operated under the conviction that the best posture of the church in terms of witness to the community was control or ownership, not the posture of servant. I might very well have organized a competing Easter Egg hunt.

Now, we did things to serve others. But in our minds, we had all the good stuff and were bringing it to others. The transaction was all one-way. We weren’t looking for partners, we were looking for clients or customers or admirers. And while these efforts met with mixed results, they never seemed to satisfy our desire for new members. This is because, I think, it’s terribly difficult to move socially from being a client to a member. Think about it: how many of your benevolent efforts translate into visitors or members at church. I think this is because it requires those with the least social resources to “move up.” And clients of our benevolent activity will always find it difficult to imagine that they could belong. I think the gospel suggests that the church has to find ways to “move down,” to give up its perceived privilege, its way of life, to live truly as servants and not patrons.

In Luke 10, the 70 sent out “to all those places Jesus himself intends to go,” necessarily rely on the hospitality of others. Mission doesn’t exist because those sent are bringing everything needed. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” Instead, the visible presence of the Kingdom depends on the welcome they receive from “people of peace.” Both the one sent and the one receiving possess what is necessary for the Kingdom to be visible–namely, peace. The peace of Jesus always requires others to become visible, because God’s peace happens among and between persons (including God), not just to or within people.

So, communities of faith in a new missional era find ways to partner with others in serving the interests of God’s coming Kingdom. Many churches are so inwardly focused, spending all their energies organizing a variety of programs and initiatives for others, that they have little energy, experience, or capacity finding partners.

These partners may be people who have not yet confessed Jesus or do not yet belong to God’s Kingdom. But they serve the interests of God’s coming Kingdom by being with and among the poor or by working for flourishing neighborhoods or by caring for creation, and they benefit from the ways that the new creation is becoming visible–even in their experience of faith communities that seek not their own interest, but the interest of others.

I know congregations that are getting good at this. And here’s one observation I would make: these ways of “partnering” seem to snowball. One thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another, and in ways that these congregations could’ve scarcely imagined on their own. I know of congregations in Oregon, Washington and Ontario that have broad access to public schools–in Oregon, Washington, and Ontario! I know congregations where Sikhs and Muslims have been the doors to wider opportunities for serving in the name of Christ. And the stories these churches tell bring tears to your eyes and convince you that the Spirit of God is truly moving in our world.

When I repeat stories like this, someone always asks how many baptisms have there been? Three things, in order of increasing importance: first, these congregations now have a living testimony among people they could never have reached before. Second, its nearly impossible for someone to simultaneously be a partner and a prospect. To me, the key is to pursue “partners” as a fully visible Christian, or as someone who consistently lives out of their Christian identity. (I will say more about how hospitality and witness go together in my final post in this series). Third, the broader implications of what makes for a credible Christian testimony have to be kept in mind. I think one of the things that hurts Christian witness is the perception that Christians want to run everyone else’s life. This may be fair or not, but it is a perception. I think the conditions for Christian witness improve when people perceive we want to be their partner/servant rather than their parent, when we find common cause with others, as servants, to resist the principalities and powers that rob us all of life and meaning. We have much repair work to be done here, in my estimation, before any of us will be particularly effective, evangelistically speaking.

And it occurs to me that I have a fourth thing to say about this. The first work of conversion for us to have a credible witness in the world will be our own. And here is our salvation: to believe with everything we have that God’s power and significance in the world can be fully expressed in the form of a servant.

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Competency two: discerning God’s calling in communal processes of discernment

I think the single biggest assumption that should inform the practice of ministry in congregations is this: God is living and active. Now you would think that this would be a no-brainer. After all, we all would say “Amen” to such a declaration. I’m convinced, however, that this is often the one thing that fades into the background as congregations make plans and form initiatives.

Let me explain. I think the question we typically ask is “what should we do…” with the unspoken finishing phrase “…to get bigger.” Now to be fair, I think we also assume that we know the kinds of things that God is interested in, and so we find those kinds of things to do. But asking, “what should we do?” is different than asking “what is God calling us to do?”

Now, I’m aware that for some people these two questions sound exactly the same. God has called us to do what the Bible says we should do. We don’t have to discern that. That’s all been taken care of. We just have to be obedient.

I have several concerns about this way of conceiving things. First, it assumes that Scripture is flat, yielding simple, consistent formulas that simply need to be obeyed. Unfortunately, this is not the Bible we were given. In fact, the Bible we were given is notable for the fact that God’s will gets worked out in a variety of ways that are very context specific or sensitive. Hence, the Bible’s testimony about a living God contains an impressive amount of diversity and variety, ruling out cookie cutter or one-size-fits-all notions of God’s calling on a congregation’s life.

So, among the many things the Bible teaches us about God is that our concrete situations matter. That knowing what to do in any given situation depends less on a wooden obedience to Scripture, and more on our ability to discern what God is doing or calling us to do. I believe each congregation is a gift to the world. And God’s gift come in a wonderful variety.

Which brings us to the questions: how do you discern this? who does the discerning? Let’s take the second question first. In many congregations, a small group does this for everyone else. It is interesting, however, that in the two big decision making texts in Acts (chpts. 6 & 15) the whole community is gathered and the whole community is pleased by the decision made. I think this fits Luke’s understanding of the church as the people on whom the Spirit of God has fallen.

While it is clear very early in Acts, even in Luke, that the Gentiles are to be included as covenant participants, it takes the church several chapters to come to that conclusion, and even then in piecemeal fashion. I mention this to make two observations: first, God is always ahead of the church, leading the church. The church is always discovering more fully what it is that God is up to. Second, the church didn’t come to its decision in Acts 15 by studying it out in Scripture. In fact, as Luke Timothy Johnson insists, you can’t get to Acts 15 just by reading the OT (namely that Gentiles could be included in the covenant as Gentiles). The way it did come to decision was to hear the stories of how Gentiles were coming to faith in real life situations (Cornelius and the church in Antioch).

The way many churches decide is strategic and abstract. They have general understandings of what God wants and they devise programs to reach abstract audiences or populations. The belief that God is living and active recedes into the background.

Beginning with the assumption of a living God requires attending to the stories of those who are being led in the world by the Spirit of God. As Alan Roxburgh is fond of saying, “The Spirit of God is among the people of God.” And if this is true, then God’s calling will be discerned, not by a small group in a room somewhere, but in the actual lives and stories of the people of God.

So, discernment takes place as the congregation gathers to hear the stories of Scripture and their lives in prayerful attentiveness. Because these stories are diverse and rarely come with neat and tidy conclusions, some in the congregation have both the gift and confidence of the congregation to make judgements about common meanings and directions.

For my money, leadership in congregations should always be working to make sure that practices of attentiveness are ongoing. Because what is more important than pursuing a living God? Congregations in a new missional era develop both the practices and environments necessary for discernment.

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Competency one: developing a shared biblical imagination for mission

Communities of faith participating in the life of God in a new missional era have the capacity to develop a shared biblical imagination. The really big word in this sentence is “shared.”My sense is that there are few biblical texts that rise to the level of a shared imagination within a congregation. What functions at the level of a shared imagination is a loose pastiche of images and phrases that come from a variety of sources.

I have evidence for this claim. I’ve got roughly 350 interviews within congregations where respodents are asked how the gospels are used in congregations, including in processes of decision making. The interviews suggest that specific stories of Jesus play little part in shaping the imagination of church members. They play in the deep background as a set of loosely connected impressions. I have yet to find a real example of how a story from the gospels was appealed to as a part of  rationale for a decision made by a congregation.

While this research needs follow-up work to clarify themes that are emerging, and while my research is limited to the gospels at this point, it suggests that it is no small thing for a biblical text to rise to the level of shared imagination.

While there are certain texts that warm the collective cockles of our heart–Matthew 28, Acts 2, John 3–the way we use texts in our churches does little to develop a shared imagination. This is not to say that the way we currently use texts–primarily for teaching and preaching to passive learners–is wrong or should be abandoned. Rather, they should be augmented with other, more intentionally communal approaches.

Anyone who has taken a class from me, been to a conference I’ve directed, or been in a congregation I’ve consulted with know the practice of Dwelling in the Word. It’s a practice I learned from Alan Roxburgh and Pat Keifert and that I have become committed to. The basic practice is simple: choose one text to dwell in as a group for an extended period of time (we dwell in one text for a year in PMC). Each time you gather, read the text, observe moments of silence, share what struck you in the text in pairs, or with a “reasonably friendly looking stranger,” and report back to the group what your partner noticed.

When we do this with congregations, we always get resistance. Why stay in Luke 10 for a year? What’s left to learn after about a month? Fair enough. But the purpose of Dwelling is not to get a set of ideas into your brain. The purpose is to develop a shared imagination. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been dwelling with groups in Luke 10 for several years now and I still learn things from others. But more significant is how living in a text over time forges a shared vision of life. After awhile, we’re thinking together, not about the text, but through the text and with the text. Now people are recognizing situations as Luke 10 situations. They’re talking about finding people of peace, and they have a shared sense of what that might be about. And when they make decisions, they remind each other about accepting God’s hospitality on someone else’s terms, of not moving about from house-to-house, or of proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom of God.

Luke 10 is not a text they visit from time-to-time. It’s a text in which they have come to dwell.  And while they really liked the preacher’s last series from Galatians or Exodus and love sister so-and-so’s Bible class, few of the texts visited in sermon or class have risen to the level of shared imagination.

I think what develops from consistent teaching and preaching over time is something of a shared doctrinal or moral imagination. And this is important work. But give me biblical texts that live in a congregation’s shared imagination!

If you only dwell in one per year, then choosing texts is very important. Here we want texts that serve a new missional era well. Not all texts are equal in this regard. Luke 10 is better than Matthew 28, for instance, simply because our notions of mission tied to Christendom are well funded by Matthew 28, which unfortunately has been used in triumphalist or imperialist kinds of ways.

Dwelling in the Word is not the only way to accomplish a shared biblical imagination for mission. But the same kinds of things would have to be present: repetitive use of a text, ritual framing, every member response, deep listening postures related to the text, the Spirit, and the stranger. In fact, the framing of the practice within its ritual processes are also a big part of what shapes a common imagination for mission.

Truth is, many congregations who complain about Dwelling in the Word while they are in the PMC process, continue its practice after the three year project is over. They have learned how powerful it is, how it does things that other practices don’t do. And how it can prepare people for a shared future with God in a new missional era.

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