Tell a Story, Change the World

I’ve said in this space many times that information is a fairly weak instigator for change. We don’t change much, generally speaking, just because we receive new information. We tend to absorb new information into the frameworks we already have in place. And these frameworks are related to stories we’ve learned to tell about ourselves and our world.

So, deep-down-big-change requires at least two things. First, significant change requires new experiences that disrupt business as usual. Second, new narratives have to be told that take the disruption as the starting place for a new account of things. And this is where we are failing.

I think we have a lot of experimenting going on. Congregations are trying new things all over the place. But the potential these experiments hold for deep culture change is largely dissipated because we lack sufficient reflection that would ultimately lead to story-telling. We tend to reflect on new experiences around one question: did this work? To which I want to ask, work according to what framework? In other words, the question “did it work” tends to be answered from our current frameworks of understanding, thus robbing us of the ability to provide a new account of things. Reflection around different questions–my favorites are “what are we learning” and “what surprised us”–lead to new narratives.

But I am convinced that we are also in need of story-tellers. Not everyone can make narrative sense out of the confusion of new experiences. So, when we find story-tellers with this capacity, we have to encourage them.

So, with regard to missional innovation, the moment we are in is not an information moment. While gains can still be made by connecting the mission of God to Trinitarian theology or good eschatology, the biggest catalyst for transformation will be the sharing of stories. And I’ve been trying to encourage the story-tellers. And I’ve found a few good ones. I’ve been reading Bruce Logue’s reflections for awhile now. Bruce is launched into a deep and meaningful learning curve. He’s re-learning ministry in the new, trying, and exciting environment of a new kind of Christian community. You can find his stories here.

If you have stories, and I’m also very interested in stories within existing congregations, let me know where you’re telling them. We need to hear them. Tell a story, change the world.

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Blessed are those who believe without seeing

Wouldn’t you kill for a paragraph or two in the NT on what should happen in the worship assembly? Maybe we could put to death some of our worship wars. Alas, no NT writer ever weighed in on the appropriate style of music or whether sermons should be topical or textual. In fact, I think much of the NT assumes views of worship carried over from the temple and synagogue, practices developed over time and modeled most clearly in the Psalms.

This is not to say the NT has nothing to say about worship, it’s just that what is said is embedded in narratives or assumed in theological arguments. So, what is said about worship is fairly indirect and must be teased out theologically. Since we have no NT manual for worship, we have to think about what we do in relation to the God who is the subject of our worship and what it means to live in praiseworthy ways in the world God created.

There is, however, one direct statement about worship in the NT that is both deserving of our attention and frustratingly vague in its application. When Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, she poses a question about worship to him. “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” She tries to pull Jesus into a worship war to deflect his queries into her personal life.

Jesus responds, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Well, that’s clear. We must worship in spirit and truth. My hunch is that the various worship traditions represented by contemporary Christianity all think they are in compliance with this statement, but have very different views about what it means. Some place the stress on the word “spirit,” others on the word “truth.” All would agree that something huge is at stake in the phrase “spirit and truth.”

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Jamie was born in Michigan, just a few miles from RC, but hadn’t been here since she was 3. I was excited that she came to visit recently with her mom. She can’t wait for Streaming.

I’m not sure I’m the one to shed a lot of light on this text. Fortunately, we have Jamie Clark-Soles coming to Streaming to help us think about worship in relation to the Gospel of John. Jamie is a Johannine scholar from Perkins School of Theology at SMU. She is also very concerned with the renewal of the church in North America in our post-Christendom context. My first instinct in encountering Jesus’ statement to the woman at the well is to say it needs to be answered first in relation to the world imagined by the Gospel of John. So, I’m anxious for Jamie to help us explore the contours of John’s gospel with this question in mind.

Here, I will offer only one suggestion. In John, both seeing and hearing play a role in creating belief. Seeing creates initial belief, but hearing is necessary for deeper belief. In a crucial text near the end of the gospel, Thomas believes because he has seen the resurrected Jesus and touched his wounds. Jesus does not rebuke Thomas for his need to see, but offers a blessing that indicates the priority of hearing: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

I’ve often thought that much of what passes for worship renewal these days runs along the rails of seeing. We want the experience of worship to be immediate, to produce in the moment. The one thing, then, that we can’t be is boring. We are constantly giving people something to “see.” Hearing is a much more patient endeavor, requiring the capacity to be still, to be attentive, to be reflective. Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but I think it’s worth asking if our worship aims too much at the more superficial level of seeing, not enough at the deepening capacity of hearing.

Come to Streaming and help us extent this important conversation.

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Worship Planning: what are we aiming at?

I am often struck by how much thought goes into planning worship these days. Back in the day, worship planning often meant the song leader picking out songs on the front row right before worship (with enough time to slide the song numbers in the board at the front, next to the attendance and giving board). These were usually the song leader’s favorites. There was seldom thought given to themes or how the service might flow or build. In Churches of Christ, we thought of worship differently then. We were satisfying “acts of worship,” not so much curating an experience for worshippers. Though informal, we had set prayers and liturgical pieces (“guide, guard, and direct us,” “help us to take this in a manner worthy,” “separate and apart from the Lord’s Supper,” “we lay aside in store”). These stock phrases reminded us that worship was satisfying a list or approved practices of worship.

Surely, the thought that goes into worship planning now is an upgrade over the “guide, guard, and direct us” days.

I’ve put out a worship planning survey in advance of our Streaming conference, Oct 6-8, featuring Jaimie Smith from Calvin College. Our theme is, “Everybody has a Hungry Heart: Worship and the formation of missional communities,” a theme which allows us to consider the relationship between worship and the formation of communities. (I’ve gotten good response, but hope to add more in the next few weeks). The surveys to this point bear out my observation that a considerable amount of effort goes into the planning of worship in most places.

I have other observations from the surveys that deserve further attention. First, the planning process is very sermon-centric. This is particularly true among “free churches” that don’t rely on lectionary readings, but even in more “liturgical” churches, many choices are not made until after the sermon’s direction has been set. Most planners talked about the sermon as setting a “theme” for the worship. And in my own worship planning days, this was certainly how things went.

I was struck several years ago by a comment from Luke Timothy Johnson related to his being asked to speak in chapel at Candler School of Theology. Johnson was taken aback by the suggestion that there would be a “theme,” supplied by his message, that would become the strategic focus of worship planning. This seemed to him to be manipulative and presumptuous. This approach to worship planning sought to manufacture a certain experience in the worship participants, primarily an affective response of some sort (inspired, moved, etc). It was presumptuous of those leading worship to assume we know what best outcome there might be for worship and worshippers and that somehow we can manage God’s work in worship.

Those provocative words have troubled me ever since, and I think he’s on to something. At the very least, every preacher and worship planner knows very well the experience that what was planned or hoped for was not what came to fruition, and often what was not anticipated was better. Still, I think thoughtful planning is better than not, though I would begin now with the lectionary and the time we occupy on a liturgical calendar, not the sermon theme for the day. But I think Johnson’s critique might occasion other important questions.

It seems clear from the surveys at this point that the worship planners are typically aiming at the interior of the individual worshipper, whether that be a rational or emotional aim. One of the strengths of Jaimie Smith’s work is his critique of a modern anthropology, namely that humans are self-possessing, autonomous individuals, and that the interior life counts above all else. It’s pretty easy to make this argument from our worship practices. Increasingly, our worship spaces are theaters for the head and heart, stages, video screens and sound monitors replacing the table, or even the pulpit, as the symbol of worship. I am not opposed to these things in general (though would someone put a table somewhere visible in the worship space), but offer them as evidence that the aim of worship is often the interior of the individual. If you can’t imagine a different aim than that, then this underscores my point.

Other things could be the aim of worship. For instance, the making visible of a redemptive, reconciling community might be the aim, in which case, theater seating and a big stage would be a poor venue. Or we might imagine that the aim of worship might be bringing God’s concern for the world more into focus. Often, we are encouraged to leave the world behind when we come to worship, reinforced somewhat subliminally by the lack of art or plants or windows in our sanctuaries. Mark Noll once suggested changing a lyric in the song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” from “the things of this world will grow strangely dim” to “the things of this world will become strangely clear.” Our hymnody, architecture, suburban locations, etc, all seem to communicate that the church is a sanctuary from the world, not an outpost for the Kingdom of God.

Let me be quick to say here that our worship does things we do not intend and that there are important ways that community and belonging to the world are fostered by what we do in worship. And God certainly cares about the interior of the individual. But our aim matters, and, at the very least, we should be aware of how our aim(s) are shaping communities of faith.

I hope we can talk about this some at Streaming in October. Hope you’ll come.

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Worship and the formation of missional communities

While barrels of ink have been used to explore all things missional, very little of it has been used to talk about the relationship of missional communities and worship. I think the primary reasons are two-fold. First, many people still think of missional only as things done outside the four walls of the church. “We’re out their doing missional things,” is an ill-informed comment I often hear. Worship, then is one thing, missional something else. Second, worship has been so over-identified with the experience of church that missional true-believers shy away from it in favor of themes more immediately associated with the social realities of the Kingdom of God. As Craig Van Gelder has aptly stated the problem, “in North America, worship has replaced Christianity” (or something to that effect). So, if you’re in the business of rescuing Christianity from worship, then you don’t write as much about worship.

But there are huge gains to be made by thinking worship and mission together. To this end, our ministry conference this year is taking as its theme, “Everybody has a hungry heart: worship and the formation of missional communities.” And we’ve invited the absolute best presenter for the subject, Jaimie Smith of Calvin College.

16478344637_9ce25a995c_kSmith’s books, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom, along with his new book, You are What You Love, make the case that humans are not brains on sticks, primarily driven by reason, but are desiring creatures, driven by what we love. And we learn to love through our bodily practices. Smith makes several applications around these basic themes, the most significant being that we learn to desire the Kingdom of God through the bodily practices of worship. Our desires are formed through liturgy, the repetitive, embodied practices of worship.

This is good theology, it seems to me, but I was curious if my psychology friends like Richard Beck thought this was good psychology as well. From what they’ve told me, pretty good psychology as well.

So, if Smith is on to something here, then two questions pose themselves: 1) Why have our worship liturgies not done a better job shaping the next generation of Christians? Or, are other cultural liturgies more powerful and pervasive than the ones being offered in congregations? 2) Why don’t our current liturgies produce missional communities? Or, if “missional” represents a deep cultural shift within congregations, and if worship is a key to such deep formational shifts, then what must worship become to embody missional community?

These are the questions we will be pursuing this October 6-8 at Rochester College. Joining Jamie on the program will be Gospel of John scholar Jamie Clark-Soles (Perkins, SMU), Randy Harris and Richard Beck (ACU) and Naomi Walters (Rochester College).

Jamie suggested our conference title, “Everybody has a hungry heart,” which is of course an excuse to feature the Springsteen catalog at the conference. We have some special plans along these lines for opening night of the conference,

 

 

 

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God’s peace, Jesus’ death,and the unmasking of the myth of redepmtive violence

This is a long post, but a little taste of what I’ve been working on instead of blogging. It’s a hard word for us, but I think a necessary one–a saving, hope-filled one. I am following, in part, the work of Mark Heim in his important book, Saved from Sacrifice.

In the church of my boyhood, the story of Pentecost was very important. It was the birth of the church, after all, and we were all about restoring the New Testament church. But not every part of Acts 2 was equally important to us. Tongues and signs and wonders belonged, we supposed, to the apostolic age and had ceased. So, we didn’t emphasize the opening verses when we talked about Acts 2. All of us, however, had verse 38 memorized. “Repent and be baptized…,” and some other stuff. For us, Acts 2 was important because it gave us an important description of how people were saved. While Acts 2:38 is a dramatic part of Peter’s sermon, I have come to believe that placing our focus here has obscured for us the central drama of the text.    For us, as for many Protestants, the animating question of the New Testament was “how does an individual sinner receive forgiveness of sins and secure a home in heaven?” If this is the animating question of the New Testament, then Acts 2:38 might very well be the central focus of the Pentecost narrative. But what if the animating question is different than the question of personal forgiveness and a heavenly home? For instance, what if the central question of the New Testament is closer to what Jesus focused on with his disciples in the days following his resurrection: the Kingdom of God. A question that places the Kingdom of God at the center of the New Testament story might sound something like this: “How is God at work in history to bring all of creation back under his gracious and righteous rule?” Or, we might put it in other terms that Luke uses, “How is God at work to establish his peace, or shalom, in all creation?” This is a very different question than the one about personal forgiveness and heaven. 

These questions are connected, but the priority given to one over the other makes a significant difference. For instance, favoring the second question–the shalom question–draws our eye more to what God is doing than what humans are doing, and this is always an upgrade, theologically speaking. In turn, this shift emphasizes God’s agency in the world, how it is that God establishes peace in ways that differ from human efforts to establish peace. Or how would God establish his reign in ways that differ from Herod or Pilate or Caesar or even Caiphas? It is only within this larger question of the establishment of God’s reign, or shalom, that individuals find their lives in line with God’s life. We might think here of the critique of the prophets, like Amos, who criticize the solemn assemblies of Israel’s worship while the demands of justice are overlooked. Or we might think of Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees who are religiously observant, but neglect the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy. 

I think of a multi-campus church not far from me that just announced an impressive capital campaign of several million dollars to make their campuses more appealing to prospective members. All of their campuses are in upscale communities, this in an area that features ravaged communities like Detroit, Pontiac, and Flint. Why not plant congregations of God’s people who are called to serve the world in communities like these? Their rationale is related to the first question. They are reaching more people with the gospel, which for them is related primarily to personal salvation. I wonder if their church planting strategy might change if the the question about God’s shalom had priority. So, the shift in questions is significant.

    But what difference would this shift mean for our reading of Acts 2? I would suggest that it changes the way we read Peter’s sermon in significant ways. For instance, I think the question about God’s kingdom places verses 32-33 at the high point of Peter’s sermon, not verse 38: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.” In a very succinct way, Peter explains the experience of Pentecost in trinitarian language around the theme of the Kingdom of God. The Father has raised Jesus from the dead and exalted to him to a position of authority at his right hand. In doing so, the Father has made Jesus, Israel’s messiah, Lord–the one who reigns. And Jesus has received from the Father, the “promise of the Holy Spirit,” the effective agent and source of power for God’s reign to be embodied in human communities. Moreover, the dramatic events of verses 1-4 are the result of Jesus having poured out the Spirit whom he received from the Father. Father, Son, and Spirit are working toward the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

    Peter’s sermon, then, is about what God has accomplished related to establishing his effective rule through Jesus, and now through the giving of the Holy Spirit. Everything in the sermon revolves around this theme. The odd experiences of the sound of a violent wind along with the appearance of tongues of fire and subsequent astonishment that comes from every person gathered hearing what is being said in their own native language are a fulfillment of what was spoken by the prophet Joel. “In the last days,” the Holy Spirit will to be poured out on all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy. The pouring out of the Spirit is a sign that the last days have come, that the glorious day of the Lord is near, the day when God’s ultimate reign will be established, and salvation will be available to all who call on the name of the Lord. The rest of Peter’s sermon demonstrate that what the crowd now sees and hears is the result of what God has accomplished through Jesus of Nazareth. This one was “attested to you by God through mighty deeds of power, signs and wonders that God accomplished through him in your presence.” He was handed over “by you” to be killed by those outside the law, but God raised him up, confirming him as both Lord and Messiah. This is the thrust of the sermon.

    The sermon is about our second question (God’s shalom), and not our first (the salvation of an individual). The audience is cut to the heart because they have found themselves on the wrong side of history. They are culpable in the death of the one to whom God attested through “deeds of power, signs and wonders,” having even handed Israel’s messiah to be killed by those outside the law. Not only that, but the one they killed is alive and ruling, seated at the right hand of the Father.

    To fully appreciate this moment, I want to focus on Jesus’ own understanding of his death in the gospel of Luke. Jesus consistently aligns his pending death with the previous deaths of God’s prophets. At a strategic moment in Luke’s gospel, after having already predicted his death on two occasions, Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” (9:51). A few chapters later he offers a lament over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (13:34).This lament over Jerusalem matches woes delivered to the Pharisees in 11:37-52. At the conclusion of a string of woes, Jesus implicates them in the killing of God’s prophets from “Abel to Zechariah.”
Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. 11:47-52.
In setting his face to Jerusalem, Jesus is clearly aligning his death with the “blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world,” for which “this generation”” will be held responsible. The judgement against “this generation” finds an echo in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. After calling the crowd to repentance and baptism, “he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying,’Save yourselves from this corrupt generation'” (Acts 2:40). Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection in Luke clearly has something to do with this identification with the righteous who have suffered unjustly throughout history. The salvation offered by Jesus in Luke might very well cover road rage or impure thoughts or cheating on an exam, but it is specifically offered in Acts 2 to those who find themselves on the complicity side of killing God’s prophets, reaching a culmination in the unjust killing of Jesus. But how does Jesus’ death in this circumstance offer salvation?

    As a kid, if we had a really good song leader that Sunday (I worship in an acapella tradition), we might go for it and sing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And in the literal sense, we were not there. But when we sang, “sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble,” I knew there must be some way that I was there and was complicit. I think something similar is going on here. The people in Acts 2 did not participate in the killing of Jesus the way that Pilate or Herod or the High Priest did, or even in the way Judas did when he betrayed Jesus or Peter when he denied him. It’s not personal guilt that Jesus is concerned about in Luke 11 or that Peter is in Acts 2. The problem is much bigger than personal guilt. The problem is the way the world works. The problem is that God keeps sending prophets and the world as it is arranged keeps killing them.

    At the climax of the scenes related to Jesus’ trial, Luke makes it clear that his killing is a group effort. “Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people,” he reports. This is bigger than the decision of an evil person or group of people. The momentum that leads to Jesus’ death sentence feels more like a social contagion. This is underlined by Pilate’s repeated findings of Jesus’ innocence. Four times, including three in this climactic scene, Pilate finds “no grounds for sentencing him to death” (23:). But the crowd is unmoved by Pilate’s finding and shouts over him, “Crucify him!” They prefer that Pilate release Barabbas, a convicted insurrectionist and murderer. Trading Jesus for Barabbas makes no sense from a public safety standpoint. The crucifixion of Jesus is not about justice, but unmasks a deeper motivation to maintain social control and cohesion. Though Pilate finds nothing in Jesus to sentence him to death, he gives in to the crowd’s desire to crucify him, conceivably to avoid the social unrest that might come if he refused. More, Luke reports that one result of the series of interrogations that Jesus faces is “(t)hat same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies” (23:12). Herod, Pilate, the chief priests, and the people all find a place of unity in the violent death of Jesus. The killing of Jesus has kept, and even made, the peace.

    The thing about belonging to a way of being in the world that keeps the peace through violence is that the victims need to stay dead. Jesus knew this. His woes against the Pharisees and lawyers seem to indicate this. He compares the Pharisees “to unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it” (11:44). While the image requires interpretation, Jesus seems to be saying that their surface observance of the law obscures the neglect of deeper matters related to justice. Their piety, in this case, covers death. The image is more explicitly tied to the killing of prophets in Jesus’ condemnation of the lawyers. The lawyers build tombs for the prophets who their ancestors killed. This might be interpreted in two ways. One reading is to say that by building the tombs, they approve of the activity of their ancestors. I think the implication of Jesus’ words, however, runs deeper. They are honoring these who were unjustly killed, blunting the offense of the violence, burying it, literally. They are using the deaths of the prophets as propaganda for the very system that killed them.

    The inconvenient matter in the killing of Jesus is that he didn’t stay dead. The amazing scene of Acts 2:1-4 is explained by Peter as the result of God having raised this Jesus from the dead. Not only that, but this one who was raised from the dead wasn’t just any prophet, but Israel’s messiah. And not only have they killed the one they long expected and hoped for, but this Jesus is the very Lord who now reigns over the Kingdom of God and who will judge the living and dead. Peter ends the sermon with the worst words possible, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Oops.

    They were cut to the heart, is the way Luke describes their reaction. I might have said they felt nauseous, got weak in the knees, lost bowel control. They have found themselves serving the wrong kingdom. It’s not what they thought they were doing. They are, after all, Luke tells us, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:). Jesus knew this as well, praying from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34). But having found themselves on the wrong side of the appearing of God’s kingdom, they might likely have expected divine condemnation or retribution. “Brothers, what shall we do?” might better be understood, “Brothers, is there anything we can do?”

    Perhaps Luke has prepared us to interpret their question this way given Jesus’ parable of the “wicked tenants” in Luke 20:9-16. In this parable, the owner of a vineyard leaves it in the care of tenants. When the owner sends slaves to collect the proceeds from the vineyard, the tenants beat the slaves, refusing to pay. Desperate, the owner sends his son. Surely, they will respect the son. But they kill the son, hoping the vineyard will be theirs. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” Jesus asks. “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” God, in this case the owner of the vineyard, has repeatedly sent prophets, and now even his son, and the tenants keep violently oppressing them, even killing the son, deluded into thinking this act might even secure for them an inheritance. It would not be hard for those in the crowd to see themselves as the wicked tenants and expect that God might destroy them and give their inheritance to someone else. In fact, in a world ordered by retributive violence, this is exactly what should be done. 

Truth be told, some in Luke’s story might have expected God’s vengeance on the Gentiles who have ruled over them and oppressed them. At John the Baptist’s birth, Zechariah sings of God’s deliverance “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:71, also 1:74). That this deliverance might take the form of vengeance could very well be the expectation of the hometown crowd who hears Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4. There, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, a text which proclaims Jubilee for Israel, namely “the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus does not read the entire text of Isaiah 61, however, leaving out “and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Is 61:2). Israel’s comfort here depends in part on being avenged by God for their treatment at the hands of their oppressors. The audience in Luke 4 is favorably inclined toward Jesus, until he reminds them of God’s good treatment of Gentiles in the days of both Elijah and Elisha, perhaps indicating that his omission of the last few lines of Is 61:1-2 was no oversight. God’s salvation for Israel will not come with retributive violence for Israel’s oppressors. God will not oppress others for the sake of their comfort. God’s peace will come another way.

Neither will God’s vengeance come for the crowd in Acts 2. “Repent and be baptized, for the forgiveness of your sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” is Peter’s word of grace. Of all the remarkable things that happens at Pentecost, Peter’s offer of the Holy Spirit for those who handed Jesus over to death might very well be the most remarkable. They have not forfeited their right to be a part of a different way of making peace. “For the promise is for you,” Peter continues, “and for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39). 

This is a remarkable story. We often think of the violent death of Jesus as something required by God in order to forgive. Seen this way, violence can be redemptive, a way to make peace. But Luke gives us a different picture. The innocent death of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection pulls back the curtain on the myth of redemptive violence. Jesus stands with all the prophets unjustly killed, their deaths hidden or forgotten, or worse, commemorated in a way that serves the interests of the very system that put them to death. Jesus would deliver us from this way of making peace, in part by showing it for what it is, injustice. More, as Lord of the alternative way of the Kingdom of God, he offers us the power to live in a different kind of peace through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. The crowd at Pentecost, and we ourselves, are called to be liberated from “this corrupt generation,” to repent and receive God’s offer of peace–forgiveness for our complicity in this way of making the world and the reception of God’s Holy Spirit. Salvation is not just the forgiveness of personal sins, but the offer to belong to a different kind of kingdom.

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Love as the way of knowing

Paul says this great thing in the opening verses of Philippians. His prayer for them is “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best…” This is not the way I’ve thought about things. It’s teaching, or information, that overflows more and more in knowledge and understanding so that I can determine what is best. This is not what Paul thinks. It’s not that teaching is unimportant. He does a lot of teaching in his letters, obviously. But Christian understanding abounds in relation to love. 

Now, it’s not surprising that I would have learned to see information as the key to insight and understanding. I’m a cultural heir of a religious tradition that has prized the rational. If we “think it,” we’ve done it. We’ve valued sound doctrine and gospel meetings and preaching and teaching. We like to figure things out. And this is not bad, and I’m particularly thankful for the tradition of strong preaching we have in Churches of Christ. But we haven’t been known much for love. Sadly, we may have a lot of facts, but not know very much.

I’m currently re-reading Jamie Smith’s books, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom. Smith wouldn’t be surprised with the emphasis in Churches of Christ on right thinking. We are, after all, heirs of the Enlightenment, and what Smith calls a Cartesian anthropology. By Cartesian anthropology (marking the influence of the philosopher Rene Descartes), he means that we understand what it means to be human in relation to the life of the mind. Our actions proceed from our conscious thought, or the way our minds order the world. Smith suggests instead that we are driven by desire. We behave according to what we desire, or love–what we worship. And desire is formed, not primarily through information, but through habits and practices–the way we live in the world.

Smith’s voice is not alone. (I would also point readers to the work of Esther Meek, Longing to Know and Loving to Know). In fact, he is following the insights of neuroscience that correspond to notions of philosophers in the phenomenological tradition (Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, among others). Much of our understanding is pre-cognitive and comes to us through bodily participation in the world. We develop practical knowledge, or know-how, by attending with others (including creation) to our world with care.

This matches Paul’s statement in Phil 1 that Christian insight and understanding comes from love, a way of being in the world that is attuned to the other. In fact, this is what transforms our thinking. As we live putting the interest of others ahead of our own, we learn to perceive the world differently. Or as he puts it in Romans 12, the secret to a renewed mind is offering ourselves as a living sacrifice, and we do that through practices: eg, associating with the lowly, offering hospitality to strangers, blessing those who curse you, rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. This is how we “prove what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable, and perfect,” or as Paul puts it in Philippians 1, determining “what is best.”

Christian understanding, then, depends on empathy. We do not come to Christian understanding by marshaling arguments into a fortress of impregnable doctrine. This way of knowing is an attempt to be self-possessing, to secure ourselves by being right. Efforts at self-possessing, which I think Paul might call “the way of the flesh,” reduce our capacity for empathy for those who do not dwell with us in our citadel of belief. Sound familiar? Our knowledge cannot abound, in these instances. It can only defend its perimeters and congratulate its possessors. As Paul says, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

In contrast, the purest path to Christian understanding is through the loving of enemies. As Jesus says, there is no credit for loving your friends. Anyone can pull that off. The real trick is blessing those who curse you, praying for those who persecute you, acting kindly toward those who hate you. Paul goes so far as to say that the love with which Christ loved us while we were enemies to God, is the very love Christ pours into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. 

This kind of love calls us beyond ourselves. To love this way, we cannot be content to dwell within our self-possessing walls of certainty. In the way of love given by the Holy Spirit, others become, not threats to our boudaries of understanding, but doors through which love may abound with greater insight. Wisdom deepens. Insight is broadened. Know-how is enhanced. We learn to perceive the world differently, to see it the way God might see it. 

Let me be clear here. The knowledge that abounds through love is knowledge of God. We may or may not know our enemy better. Even if we know our enemy better, they may still be our enemy, though mutual understanding is the surest way to peace. But God becomes known to us through love. God is most clearly present to us and to others when we practice the love of Christ. There are all kinds of reasons for this, but the biggest might be the way we learn to respond to our vunerabilities, not with fear, but with trust. Vulnerable love can only proceed in trust–not the trust of the other, but trust in God–which opens space for knowing God. Fear reduces the space for knowing. Trust widens it.

Maybe you’re skeptical. Maybe the principalities and powers of this world have convinced you otherwise. Maybe you see Christian love as impractical, a sucker’s bet, in a world where no one else lives this way. I get it. I too sometimes despair. So, find one place today to love this way and see if there isn’t a little abounding in understanding. Begin to forgive someone who has wronged you. Choose to be hospitable in a situation in which you are usually closed. Weep with someone who is weeping. See if the God of Jesus Christ show up and love abounds in knowledge and full insight.

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Starting well: managing expectations in ministry (issues of power)

The issue of power is fraught with difficulties in congregations. Let’s begin with the fact that we are in denial that power is actually at work in congregations. Many Christians think power is a bad word, especially at church. And certain forms or kinds of power are certainly bad and antithetical to the gospel. But power is simply the ability to accomplish things. No less a Christian thinker than Paul can even say, “the Kingdom of God is not about talk, but about power.” In fact, I think Paul might say that the real issue that distinguishes the Kingdom of God from other principalities and powers is the right understanding and use of power. For Paul, the “word of the cross” is the power of God. We might say that God’s power is cruciform, or cross shaped. Instead of thinking of power as the ability to control others or outcomes, Christian power is expressed as enduring love in patterns of mutual submission.

Configuring a congregation’s life around “enduring love in patterns of mutual submissiom” is easier said than done. This is because, I think, we value control above all else. And we feel more in control if we think someone is in charge. In my tradition, Churches of Christ, this is played out often between elders and ministers. We are elder led congregations. They can hire and fire the minister. They can state direction and veto other directions. This is their prerogative even though few of them have theological or ministerial training. Ministers, in this sytem, possess borrowed or personal authority. That is, they can accomplish things because they have been given permission from the elders, who have real authrotiy, and/or they possess the ability to get things done because they are seen as competent or personally trustworthy.

So, we have elders who have lots of official authority and relatively low training which would make them competent in their field of endeavor. And we have ministers, who have low levels of official authority, but training that would make them competant in the field of endeavor. In this environment, elders often feel inadequate and threatened by the training of the ministry staff who serve “under their authority,” and who naturally act defensively in such a circumstance. Or, they borrow forms of power and authority from their jobs where many of them are managers or executives. Here, they feel competent and are sometimes unaware of how Christian leadership should be different than GM or Intel. Ministers feel frustrated that their expertise doesn’t count for more. They are being held accountable for performance according to standards that may or may not be Christian and with limited ability to do the things that would actually make a difference. Anyone recognize this?

Look, I feel for both groups here. I have a special place in my heart for elders who carry the heavy responsibility of authority with very little practical training. And I feel for ministers whose gifts of leadership are often frustrated and underutilized. Too often the result of this arrangement is similar to my golf swing. I swing too hard, losing all my power somewhere in the air, with too little at the point of impact. 

The solution here, in my opinion, is not to flip the power differential, giving the senior pastor or minister ultimate authority. The solution, rather, is to find forms, relationships, and types of engagements that would embody “enduring love in patterns of mutual submission.” After all, the one we call “Lord” is the one who gives himself up for us.

Few ministers inherit well thought out notions of power in a new congregation. So, the candidate interview is the first place that these issues can be raised and signaled as important. So, I have two questions that might reveal the practical use of power in a congregation.

1. How do big decisions get made around here? Can you tell me about how you made the last one? How satisfied were you with the process and outcomes? Actually, a candidate might already have a pretty good idea based on selection process in which they are involved. In my experience, however, congregations tend to be more deliberate and collaborative in a minister search than they are in other decisions. 

Congregations often have stated beliefs that are contradicted by their practices that embody deeper, often unspoken beliefs or assumptions. No set of practices, in my opinion, reveal more about these deeper practices than processes of decision making. First, what constitutes a big issue? Are processes regular or ad hoc (ad hoc favoring those in positions of recognized authority)? Who has voice? Who is excluded? Are risks minimized for the sake of maintaining the status quo? Do leaders express decisions as the wisdom of the leadership or as the discernment of the leading of the Spirit among the whole people of God? All the functional elements of power are on display in decision making.

2. How does this congregation handle conflict? Can you give me examples? A lot of congregations are in denial about conflict and will tell you they have none. The results of this kind of denial are typically two-fold. The congregation lacks the kind of energy needed to make significant changes. Conflict is not necessarily bad, and transformative change rarely comes apart from it. Conflict produces energy, clarifies values, provides opportunity for greater mutual understanding and respect, etc.  Second, denial about conflict produces a slow boil around unresolved issues. A really big one might be on the horizon and might very well get attached to the hiring of a new minister. Tick, tick, tick.

Conflict denial might also be a sign of autocratis leadership that values control and can’t abide controversy. So, you want them to admit to conflict. And you want stories where conflict provided clarity, reconciliation, mutual understanding. These kinds of stories indicate patterns of leadership that trust the movement of the Spirit of God. These kinds of stories indicate that people are shown respect and feel adequately listened to, which may be signs of mutuality around enduring love. 

Conflict with less stellar results might still have been handled in responsible ways. You can’t control the responses of all involved in conflict. But it is certainly important to know what issues produced enough heat for members to have left. And it is important to ask what the congregation thinks they learned from this painful episode.

Decision making and conflict resolution are two signficant places where the congregation’s deepest values are put into practice. It is good to know going in if they have Christian practices. As I tell my ministry students, it is better to have no ministry job than to have a bad one.

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Starting well. Observations on establishing ministry expectations

I think one of the most difficult things about full-time ministry is establishing and maintaining realistic ministry expectations. I think there are two primary reasons for this: First, few really no what a ministry job entails. I’ve been asked more times than I can count, “besides writing your sermon, what do you do during the week?” People just don’t know. Fair enough. Ministry is not like most other jobs. Second, and connected to the first, most ministers work without on-site supervision, most without colleagues who observe their day-to-day routine. Without concrete knowledge of what a minister does day-to-day, members are left to fill in the blanks. As a result, they have high and diverse expectations with little realistic information. 

This is a recipe for disaster. And, making things worse, other congregational leaders (elders, boards, etc) tend to be poor at helping to set realistic expectations for church members. Ministers have to take responsibility themselves for setting and maintaining these expectations, and this begins with the job interview.

As important as it is for the congregation to get a solid picture of a ministry candidate, it is equally, even more, important for the ministry candidate to interview the congregation well. The questions the candidate brings go a long way to discovering the work environment she might be stepping into. More, however, good questions are the first way a prospective minister can begin to set ministry expectations. So, I’ve developed a list of the questions I would ask if I were interviewing for a position. In this post, I’ll deal with the first two, the rest to follow.

1. Do you have a detailed, written job description for this position? I would not take a job where one doesn’t exist. In my experience consulting with congregations, most ministers work without one. One of the unfortunate results of working without a description is that everyone in the congregation becomes your boss. You are subject to the whims of every member who have wildly different ideas about what your job should be. A written, detailed job description gives the minister a set of boundaries that are defensible. Some things are your job, some things aren’t. You report to some people and not to others. Beyond the defensive benefit of a job description, however, a good one helps a minister make choices about how to spend her time most effectively. It is easy to get overcome with the diverse demands of a ministry position. A good job description might allow a minister to make choices, might provide a basis for saying yes and no to things.

Job descriptions should be thought of as living documents. They seldom are perfect at rendering the fit between the actual job and the gifts and capacities of the minister. I recommend a re-working of the job description at the one year mark, and at least every other year after that.

2. Do you have a regular process of evaluating congregational leaders? Obviously, this question is related to the first. It benefits neither the congregation, nor the minister to have a job description if there is not a regular way to evaluate leadership. Again, most congregations do not have a well-thought out evaluation process for leadership. Where evaluations are conducted, they are often poorly done and unfair. 

At one congregation I served, my first evaluation was a list of open-ended questions that had only a slight connection to my job description. Because most members had little knowledge of what I did during the week, they could only answer questions on the basis of what they knew of me publicly. Fortunately, most members were pleased with my preaching, and so gave me good evaluations across the board. One member, however, was very critical of me. She found me unfriendly and accused me of caring only for my friends. This became my performance evaluation. Keep up the good preaching, but learn to be friendlier and don’t care only for your friends. Now, this woman might have been right, especially about the unfriendly part, though I felt the characterizations were unfair and said more about her than me. The point is, these complaints were not evaluated before they became a part of my review. The process was poor and unfair.

I know its often no fun being evaluated. But regular, fair evaluations are the minister’s friend. They provide a benchmark in writing that can be appealed to when the system gets anxious about performance. And they provide the opportunity for mapping conrete steps for the minister to improve, hopefully avoiding trouble down the road. In fact, in a new position I would ask to be evaluated at the three month, six month, and one year marks. This would not only identify potential problems early, but might also establish a perception that the minister is open to suggestions for improvement.

Notice, that the question is phrased “process of evaluating congregational leaders.” I think its fair to ask if other leaders are subject to some kind of review. You want to work in a system of accountability, even mutual accoutability.

Now all of this assumes that congregations have their act together. And most don’t. In many cases, the minister will have to advocate for her own care. If the answer to the first question is “no,” then I would request that one be written before the next phase of the process. And if they fail to produce one, I would provide samples from other congregations and one you have written as a starting place for coming to agreement on one before you begin your job.

I’ve talked about why a minister should want a job description, but other leaders benefit as well when there are good job descriptions in place. In Churches of Christ, my tradition, congregations are elder-led. This means they are functionally the customer service department for members. Complainers go to them with their reports of dissatisfaction, and they are often left with little to say except, “give us some time, we’ll do better.” But a good job description and a regular evaluation process provides at least the possibility that a different response could be given. “Minister A has a job description that is regularly evaluated. She is doing what we have asked her to do. She can’t do everything and answer to everyone. Maybe the rest of us need to take more responsibility for helping this congregation become what God has called us to be and to do.” (This is my fantasy elder).

Fair evaluation processes are also likely to be something the minister has to take responsibility for. There is no HR department at church and volunteer leaders are sometimes ill-equipped and lack motivation for this kind of work. Again, I would want some examples of what other congregations do to provide fair and timely evaluations. And I would suggest two broad guidelines. First, the evaluation should be tied to the job description. Second, members should only be asked to evaluate those parts of the job about which they could make a reasonable judgment. 

One final piece of advice about receiving evaluations. Be as specific as possible about things you are asked to work on. Often evaluations remain vague and general in nature. Improve your sermons (usually shorten them, which on the whole is not bad advice), improve relations with other staff, manage your time better, etc. Ask for specifics. How are we going to measure improvement? What are reasonable outcomes? What specific steps can I take? When will we check progress or re-evaluate? Again, the minister likely will have to take the initiative and make specific suggestions. “Here are the three things I’ve decided to work on to improve my preaching. Here’s what I’m hoping to accomplish. I’ve sent samples of my sermons to David Fleer for input. Can you help me in these ways… Does this sound reasonable? Can we check in again in three months?”

None of these things will absolutely protect you in the managing expectations department. You may still find detractors with unfair expectations who wield a lot of personal power in the congregation who can make your life miserable. But at least you will have done what you can, taken responsibility for your own work, and invited the congregation into a collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship. On the upside, the process of coming up with a job description and fair evaluation process may clarify congregational values and model ways of treating one another with respect, with mercy and justice.

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A different kind of kingdom, a different kind of power

I’ve been away from the blog for awhile because I’ve been working diligently on what I hope will be a book on Acts and ministry. I’m finding I have lots of material, but am struggling with “voice.” I want the book to be for the kinds of people that I imagine as readers of my blog. So, I thought I’d put a sample here, an intrduction to my reflections on Acts 1, to see if I can get an indication that I’m hitting what I’m aiming for. Feedback is welcome.

Acts depicts the rise of the early church as a theological achievement. That is, the church arose from the experience and testimony that God has shown Jesus of Nazareth to be both Messiah and Lord by raising him from the dead. Put another way, the church in Acts is not the result of the organizational genius of the apostles or the predictable outcome of a strategic plan complete with five year goals and measurable outcomes. Rather, the church is the community swept into the wildly unpredictable experience of trusting that the risen and living Jesus is present to them through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

This fundamental theological reality shows that the church belongs to a different kind of reign under a different kind of power than the one offered by Caesar, or any subsequent empire. Strategic plans, after all, benefit those who can manage outcomes, who hold social power and make policy. A kingdom, however, consisting of the poor, the common, and the lowly makes its way in the world only by the surprising and disruptive activity of the Holy Spirit. And this is the story of Acts. The movement of the first Christians from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth comes through unlikely characters and surprising circumstances. All of this happens in spite of the best efforts of “rulers,” both Jewish and Gentile, to suppress what is happening. It is a story that is only explainable by the movement of the Spirit of the risen Lord.

It is open to question whether or not congregations in North America are explainable by the same theological achievement. Those Christians living in the American stories of progress and exceptionalism, have been hardwired to think of the world as something that bends to their efforts, as something manageable and manipulable. I fear that in this very way, the spirit of this age has conditioned the way congregations and their leaders have thought about ministry. As a former full-time congregational minister for over seventeen years, I confess to having been given over to the strategic. My energies and imagination in ministry were dominated by thoughts of “what would work” to extend the institutional health of the congregation that paid me to do this very thing. In spite of my theological training and commitments, which I took very seriously, in practice I was consumed more with strategic plans and congregational organization than discerning and being drawn into the life of the Holy Spirit. I had friends in ministry who took their theological commitments less seriously, opting instead for “leadership,” defined as stating a vision, setting goals and managing outcomes. Whether I or they, this is what we believed and this is what we practiced.

There are many telling us that the church in North America is being moved more to the cultural margins. Our experience confirms their observations. We no longer build churches across from city hall, signaling our influence in the public life of our towns and cities. Instead, we cater to the private needs of inidivdual religious consumers in the suburbs. We can no longer assume that our neighbors are Presbyterians, or Catholics, or Baptists, or Methodists. They are just as likely to be Muslim, Budhist, or “nones.” Perhaps most telling is that our congregations’ battle for the hearts, minds, and attendance of our own members, often results in a loss when pitted against a youth sports culture that no longer considers Sunday mornings to be sacrosanct. The end result of this marginalization is that the world bends less to our efforts and we are less in a position to set policy and make rules that would allow us to shape the world according to our purposes. I often get knowing glances from congregational leaders when I suggest that thay are doing everything they know to do, better than they’ve ever done it before, but with diminishing impact. In light of this, perhaps Luke’s story of the church in Acts offers us a fresh alternative, a chance to once again live as the power-filled powerless in the free bounty of the Holy Spirit.

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15:28 compliant: spaces for the storytellers

Let me remind you what I’m doing here in my recent blog posts. I’m taking Acts 15:28 as a decisive clue for Luke’s understanding of the church. That is, the phrase, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” says something definitive about what it means to be the church. So, what are the elements that make moments like these possible?

One of the remarkable things about Acts is how many stories are told by the characters. Peter tells stories. Paul and Barnabas tell stories. Stephen tells stories. All in an overall story about the Spirit leading the church to the ends of the earth.

I’m fascinated by Peter’s story telling in particular. The events that lead to his meeting with Cornelius in Acts 10 also lead directly to the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. What’s fascinating is how Peter’s understanding of what God is up to grows with each telling of this story.

You remember how it begins for Peter. He receives the exact same vision three times while in a trance, in which a sheet with unclean animals comes down from heaven accompanied by a voice imploring him to “rise, kill, and eat.” Peter, however, protests because he’s a good church boy and keeps the food laws religiously. The voice from heaven persists, clarifying the moment, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Yet, despite this interpretative clue, “Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision he had seen.”

Following the vision he receives the messengers sent from Cornelius, who inform Peter of Cornelius’ visitation from an angel who brings instruction to send for Peter. The next day Peter returns with them to meet Cornelius. By the time he arrives at Cornelius’ house, he is no longer puzzled about the meaning of the dream. He flatly declares, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” The vision Peter received is about food, or unclean animals. And while the voice from heaven gives a hint that this might be bigger than just food, Peter’s declaration makes the expanded meaning clear. No person is unclean. The story has received added clarity in the retelling.

In chapter 11, Peter is compelled to relate the story again to his Jewish brothers in Jerusalem. In the retelling, the meaning of the story is again expanded. Now Peter relates the story of Cornelius’ conversion to the story of Pentecost in Acts 2. The Spirit fell on the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house the way it did on Jews on Pentecost. We might say now, call no one unclean upon whom the Spirit has fallen. It was, after all, Peter himself in Acts 2 who suggests that the Pentecost event is a fulfillment of the word of God spoken by the prophet Joel, “In the last days…I will pour my Spirit out on all flesh.” In Acts 11, he connects the two stories.

Luke’s account of all of this is fascinating to me. In each re-telling, the significance of the story for those telling it, and hearing it, grows. Part of this has to do with the adding of new events, for example, the angel’s appearance to Cornelius and the Spirit falling upon the Gentiles. But it’s not just new information that gets assimilated into the telling of the story. It is also older stories that take on new meaning in light of the retelling of the more current story. And it takes multiple persons to provide the full meaning of the story. Peter’s confusion related to the vision is surely cleared up by in part by the visit of Cornelius’ servants and by Cornelius’ own account of things. The full meaning of the story is held by a community, not just an individual. No single person holds the entire meaning. It takes multiple storytellers.

This kind of telling and re-telling is essential to a 15:28 moment. And if my premise is right, then this kind of storytelling is also crucial to the church’s identity. That is, the church is not simply an organization with formal characteristics or marks, but it is a story-formed, story-performing community. The church lives in its Acts birthright when it bears testimony (a good Lukan work) to the movement of a living God through the stories it tells and performs.

This narrative understanding of the church, that the church is a story-formed, story-performing people, isn’t surprising given the fact that we express meaning primarily in narrative ways. We are constantly picking and choosing details from our life and placing them into a meaningful plot. And part of the way we pick and choose is by what others notice in our stories, or how others put little threads together in ways that we might otherwise miss. This telling and retelling is inescapably communal.

I’ve seen this dynamic at work in some pretty important ways in my work with congregations. I am a consultant for the Partnership for Missional Church (PMC), which works with clusters of congregations over a three year period. During this process, we have “cluster gatherings” where “process leaders” gather for reporting and training. Our consistent practice on the opening night of a cluster gathering is to tell stories. Each congregation decides on a story to tell the others from the work they’ve done since the last cluster gathering. We do it in a round-robin style where the storyteller stays put and the congregations rotate around to all the storytellers. So, a storyteller might tell the same story five or six times in an evening. At the end of each telling, those who are listening can make comments or ask questions.

As a consultant, I eavesdrop on the stories. Here’s the thing. They get better as the night goes on. The storyteller gets better with each rehearsal. But it’s more than just better communication. The storyteller is interpreting the story anew every time she tells it. The very effort to bring the experience to words clarifies its meaning. And the questions and comments made by others also pushes and shapes the story in certain ways. Things that others noticed now become a part of the story. It’s significance grows and becomes clearer with each retelling.

I think this dynamic is typical of the work of the Holy Spirit. From the initial experience that gives rise to a story, through its telling and retelling in community, the Spirit of God often moves to bring a meaningful testimony to the work of God.

So, congregations hoping for 15:28 moments must leave space for this kind of activity. It may take the whole church to tell the story of how the Spirit is leading. It will surely take the the creation of space dedicated to the telling of stories.

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