Monday, December 19, 2005

Incarnational Unity

I've been thinking about Christian unity. One conclusion that I've been driven to by my experiences is that God's unity is beyond and more than human endeavors.

I say this because if the reality of godly unity were only known through experience, I would struggle to affirm its existence at all. The existence to which I could attest would only be that it is fleeting, easily disrupted by human agendas, and not very powerful in transforming our world. If unity has to do with the presence of God's reign, practical observation would lead me to question whether the Kingdom is near.

So I am convinced that unity does not exist only with our experience of it, but even when we fail to embrace it, live it, see it, or understand it. Christian unity is a spiritual reality despite our historical realities.

I also know the dangers of simply spiritualizing something, making it ethereal and intangible, so as to justify its non-existence in so much of our communal living out of faith. That is an easy path to take - excuse our failure by claiming unity has no Monday morning or Friday night meanings.

This is why I find myself wanting to talk about Christian unity as being incarnational - of God beyond history, and yet of God in history.

When I experience so little living out of unity in faith, I am reminded that the reality of unity is not proved by experience. However, I am called to relentlessly pursue the practice of particularized unity, historical unity, in everyday living unity . . . and so the unity which is beyond history is also historical. Our unity is a tension even as Jesus, God-as-man, is the tension of the beyond history and historical flesh and blood.

Monday, December 12, 2005


The first three Sundays of Advent have been particularly rich in our fellowship gatherings. Perhaps it is because many of us came from Christian traditions that would readily celebrate Christmas as a "Santa" focused holiday, with little or no emphasis on Christ.

There is a redeeming of the season going on in my heart . . . and I think in others as well.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Constantinian Christmas

I am reading A Peculiar People by Rodney Clapp, which probably isn't good because it encourages the radical within me . . . and I generally don't need any encouragement in that area.

Put that together with the current blurring of lines between Christianity and politics in our country and the way Christmas has become anything but spiritual, and I'm in a radical mood.

Here's some of my beef:

That Christianity sacrifices its essence in trying to create a kingdom of this world is apparent in many ways. It wasn't long after Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world that his followers started to try and prove him wrong. "In, but not of" has been discarded for "over and of".

This continuing trend is seen in the conservative right's attempts to create a theocracy - or claim that America has always been one - and rewrite history in the process. This New York Times article gives one such example regarding the present season.

I noticed another indication in my recent visits to Kirklands. I have been looking for candlesticks and whatever we might use to create a more sacred place for where we gather to worship. Kirklands has a good selection of crosses, ones to hang on the wall, table crosses, nativity scenes, and all types of items symbolic of Christian faith.

But I don't like it.

The problem is, I think that Christian faith is now sinking into a sentimental and nostalgic part of our history, so it is "in" to decorate and accessorize with symbols of Christian faith. Turn faith into fashion and it ceases to be authentic.

But this is the end of trying to make Jesus' kingdom into a realm of this world. The path ends in quaint reminders of what has in reality lost all meaning. When it is not scandalous to wear a cross, it is not a sign that our culture is Christian, but that the meaning of the cross has been compromised.

Of course, I can take advantage of Kirklands' marketing and easily find symbols of the sacred . . . but for our community these aren't simply options for interior decoration. We have to be keepers of radical faith that is not of this world . . . which isn't easy in a world where faith is trivialized as a political agenda, a marketing strategy, a sentimental curio, or a national identity.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Reviewing the Journey

I keep thinking about this journey we've been on for almost three years. What I mean is that I reflect on where God has been leading us, how in general terms it is what we vaguely imagined, but how in specific ways we have moved along in ways I didn't imagine.

There are at least two reasons this keeps churning over in my mind: 1) as a congregation we continue to talk about what we are to be, reviewing and adjusting our sense of community and mission to hopefully tune our walk to the Spirit's rhythm, and 2) we've had and receive opportunities to discuss with others how they might embark on a similar trek through non-institutionalized Christian life.

Our general idea of being a congregation that does nothing to further its own existence but only seeks to be involved in God's Mission in the world has been an interesting goal. This value has led us to have no weekly contributions, to abolish any sort of church membership, to de-emphasize the Sunday gathering so as to not let it be the penultimate mark of faithfulness or Christian life, to remain largely unstructured and unorganized, and to choose to meet in a leased building.

This concept has also entered into our reluctance to do much with having signs. Anything that moves our focus off living for Christ daily and onto building up "our church" has been suspect. By implication all marketing is out. So is any proselyting of people to come to "our church."

This is not to suggest that sharing this vision has been all that easy. We've all had to struggle with tendencies to fall back into institutionally-focused ways of thinking and acting. It is easy to want to ensure our own existence by planning for our corporate future, and harder to allow God the freedom to do whatever He wants.

One leader of another church in town, on hearing of our original vision of being a church that welcomed and accepted marginalized people, remarked that one couldn't build a church with people like that. In other words, you need resources to build a church . . . and when you focus on the needy - they "consume" resources rather than provide them.

Interestingly enough, our congregation - which continues to try as best we can to simply do what God asks and not to think of our own institutional needs - is having no trouble finding resources to do whatever is needed. Obviously, God really is faithful even when we aren't planning our own path.

What I take away from my review is not a prideful "pat-on-the-back" for how well we are doing, but a gratefulness for God's faithfulness and a sober realization that we must continue on the difficult path of being willing to lose everything - even our community - for the sake of God.

A few weeks ago I came to the decision that my role is not to "defend" the journey we are on, but to simply be on that journey. A non-institutional community won't try and preserve its non-institutional character. Such defensiveness is an institutional trait. A truly non-institutional group will remain such by staying focused on life in God rather than the nature of its own existence. As soon as I start defending rather than simply being - I've become more concerned with how we exist in this world rather than how we participate in God's Reign.

So . . . when we lose it, we gain it. And if we try and keep it, we lose it. Imagine that!

Monday, November 21, 2005

More on 'Leadership'

We rejoined the Christian calendar - actually at the end with "Christ the King" yesterday. I am looking forward to the rich movement of Advent through Easter.

Don Hill led a good discussion class yesterday about what it is like when people exist together as an organism of life rather than a static organization.

One of the real challenges that came out was the tension between being a Christian within the hierarchies that exist in the world and the lack of such among believers. Since I do not long for a utpoian Christian society, I think that as believers we live counter-culturally in a world that will continue to need hierarchies, and yet the Kingdom will come among us when we have only servants and no positional leaders. That cannot be replicated in the world, and cannot by definition be forced on others. Only a group that chooses this may experience it.

We do have giftedness which encourages us to fulfill different roles in the Christian community, but there is no gift of telling everyone else what to do. There is a giftedness of suggesting creative ideas, and even visionary possibilities, . . . but each responds to these as the Spirit directs and not as the visionary instructs.

Again . . . leadership is about the willingness of others to listen.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Epistle to Dothan

First, the text from a seminar on being missional for those who are thoroughly modern:
Advanced Consulting Skills for Missional Transformation: August 1-12
This specialized 2-week training is for those who wish to increase their diagnostic skills to work out of a missional framework with church systems. Participants will learn how to probe more deeply and productively into the complex theological, interpersonal, and organizational dynamics of the church.

Discover and learn to use a powerful diagnostic model in your consultative role that will help churches to -
* clarify the end-results they are seeking,
* identify the multiple factors at work,
* put complex situations in perspective,
* integrate and apply a variety of concepts and theories,
* define and evaluate progress on a missional journey.

Participants will learn to use the Systems Model of the Church within the context of a powerful feedback and learning process for the church. An actual intervention with a local church will serve as a significant learning tool. As a result you will be able to incorporate many new skills into your ministry.
Yes . . . this text was accompanied by a diagram of the aforementioned systems model with nice arrows, text, and flow chart flavor.

I'm glad someone is creating charts about being incarnational.

On to the next subject . . .

Our trip to fellowship with the believers in Dothan was a blessing. They have a truly wonderful storefront space which dissallows standard preconceptions about "attending church" or "listening to sermons."

The location and functionality of the area lends itself to multiple uses . . . and they are thinking about ways of letting it be a place of commnity and conversation . . . for whoever. Really good.

What we talked about was not at all sterile and systematic nonsense- you know, the type of mechanistic planning evident in the example I copied above. We ended up in very real-life discussions about sharing faith, building community, setting boundaries, accepting others, clinging to faith in God's mysterious working - observing general principles from our discussions of specific situations.

I was blessed by the opportunity to talk and worship with the Christians there. I am confident in God's working as clearly evident in their ministry to one another. I know that the same care and guidance will be shared with everyone whose lives they touch.

As one of the others who went from our Birmingham fellowship remarked as we were driving home, it seemed like a very New Testament church-like thing to do . . . the sort of thing Paul would write a letter about:

To the saints in Dothan, grace and peace to you, from and through our God, who has richly filled us in our inner being with every gracious gift.

I give thanks every time I think of you, and the joy you have in serving the Lord. May your patience and love be expressed to one another in grace for the sake of Christ, so that you may continue to offer hope and care to anyone who is suffering and discouraged.

For you know that today many are fleeced in churches that seek only their tithes in order to service their debt. Many are promised earthly rewards for their faithfulness, which only leads to a crisis of faith. And others labor under fear, guilt, and shame as they seek to please God believing he will only save those who are worthy. Many have settled for membership in a religious club not knowing the way of a disciple.

All these are the children of God, and need to hear again the Good News of God's grace through Jesus. They need to find others willing to listen and bear their burdens; those willing to be patient as they walk imperfectly on a journey in Christ through the Spirit. Their hearts are sincere and good, but do not know the way of our Savior who gave us life in him rather than a church to attend.

There are many others who search through the confusion of today's culture, unhappy with the religious nature of the churches they have rejected, but struggling to find God. They have an inner awareness of needing the transcendent, and relationship, and hope and love, but the only churches they know seem in their eyes to offer little of this goodness.

You will be the body of Christ to each one you accept, encourage, and instruct in love. Do not worry that your efforts should produce great gatherings of many people, or impressive movements, for God is Sovereign and He will do His work to His glory! It is enough for you to be faithful in offering whatever is in your hand to give. The fishes and loaves feed thousands even when we do not see who is being fed. We should not be limited to wanting to minister in ways where we can see the results. Our work is by faith.

I have seen God among you, and enjoy His presence and be thankful. God is doing much, and all of it will be both glorious and difficult. Rely on the Spirit at all times. Honor everyone above yourselves and others will see God.

Grace and peace to you all in Christ, and may he supply your every need for the ministry to which you have been called. Be content with the mystery of God's working, finding the faith He gives sufficient for your contentment. Live in Kingdom you have received. The saints who meet at Disciples' Fellowship greet you.

Or something like that . . .

Friday, November 11, 2005

Dothan Trip

Several of us leave tomorrow to spend a couple of days with Christians in Dothan, AL who have begun on a journey similar to ours. The similarity is not necessarily in the details, but in the overall values.

I look forward to sharing in conversation, fellowship, and worship with them.

We'll see what the Spirit has in store.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Community and Coercion

One thing that was impressed on me during our years in Africa is that ecclesial power is illusionary. In that situation you realize how powerless you are - and how foolish it would be to believe you can control those people.

I used to tell the Tanzanians "Budula wane buli giki, butogwa wingwe wa kudegeleka" (my power is this, your willingness to listen). I was being honest. They could walk away, do anything they wanted, and totally disregard me. There was nothing I could do to make them do what I wanted or said.

All Christians are volunteers. In Tanzania the word for believers also meant "agree-ers". What binds us together is uncoerced agreement. We agree to submit to one another. We agree to follow God's leading. None of this can be forced.

So often guilt, shame, and fear are used to wield power over people even in matters of faith. "Jesus gave us the power to bind on earth and in heaven so if you don't do what we say we will consign you to hell." The threat of excommunication kept medieval kings in line, if not because of their own fear, because their subjects would rise up in revolt against an excommunicated sovereign.

Spiritual blackmail has no place in spiritual formation. No fellow believer rules over me spiritually, and I rule over no one. We are all brothers. And yet I willingly submit to the instruction, guidance, and interests of others.

Trying to live out this reality in a community is challenging because all models that I am familiar with, have a hierarchy at the core. That hierarchy is based on illusory power, but those at the top of the structure attempt to wield it nonetheless.

Being free to pursue God, and yet indebted to love others, is the tension that keeps us in relationship without the coercion of human power.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

My Moment in the Academy

I got to talk about Africa yesterday to 23 Master of Divinity students at Beeson Divinity school. They are taking Introduction to Christian Missions and I was a guest lecturer on church planting in Africa.

I was amazed that no one raised their hands when I asked who was familiar with current discussions of the church needing to be missional. That's where I started in an attempt to show the relevancy of what I would be sharing - that it wasn't just how to live in the Kingdom somewhere else, but how to be participating in the Missio Dei here.

The rest was basically about how everything is God's, and our best work is to not screw up what He is doing. The Spirit of God will lead and work if we don't try and control everything out of our patronizing and ethnocentric tendencies.

All in all I enjoyed the experience. Without a context of knowing the students, or much about what they've already studied, I shared what I shared and have little idea of how it agreed/conflicted with what they've already heard. The damage may be irreparable.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Seeing . . .

Imparting vision. I know God does it . . . but is there anything we can do to help someone else see?

While I know that all spiritual insight is a divine gift, I do believe that God wills also to give such revelation to us through one another. I am reformed in my persistent desire to trace every impulse and good gift back to God - while affirming the role of willingness on our part to submit and accept God's working.

However, given our human nature of self-will, our culture which has enshrined that tendency in individualism and independence, and the protestant idea of sola scriptura that has sometimes been hijacked by individualism to make each one his or her own spiritual authority, little room remains for submitting to spiritual direction.

There is a difference in accepting spiritual instruction - a more educational situation - and spiritual direction. We will readily accept teaching in a classroom setting, but to accept individualized spiritual guidance which cuts to the root of our problems is foreign. And threatening to individualism.

When people approached Jesus as a Rabbi they expected spiritual wisdom more than intellectual information - due to their tradition of spiritual mentoring. We see people coming and asking for guidance. Obviously, many turned away from the personal prescription he gave when it didn't suit them . . . but at least they expected such. Were I to speak so boldly to identify spiritual maladies and point out the remedy to people individually, the resistance would not only be to the diagnosis but to my apparent audacity. I would be "overstepping" my role religiously.

Which is one spiritual vision I have - that of people seeking mentoring and wisdom. But how do I share that? Can I do anything to impart it? How can believers move from consumers who want to be served to seekers who want to be formed?

(Okay . . . that last sentence just popped out there, an insight from my writing process).

This is one of the core problems. As Christians we are consumers who believe we are the customers in the motto the customer is always right . . . and therefore our needs ought to set the agenda. How can we make a fundamental shift? The task is a revolution against the culture and human nature.

All I know to do is talk about it . . . and let those who have ears to hear, hear it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


This past Sunday we heard from several about how their creative pursuits are reflections of their spirituality. Kara posted about her experience and the text of what she wrote/read and you can read it here.

One of the passages we read was from Exodus 35:30-36:1 where Moses said that God had given his Spirit and skill in crafts and artistry to those who would build the tabernacle. Beauty and creativity have always been inherent to spirituality, but unfortunately not always to our practice of church-ianity (at least for some protestant churches).

I am thankful that God is helping us to rediscover how our creative impulses reflect the image of God, and can become pathways for nurturing our spirituality.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Confession about Idols

A personal observation: The favorite idols of natural man are his fleshly appetites; the idols of church-going man are his preferences. It is as difficult to wrest self-indulgence from a person in the world, as it is to tear personal religious preference from the grip of someone accustomed to living a religious life. Neither can imagine life without these, and therefore both resist every attempt to find God as one's sole sufficiency and comfort.

In fact, one might say that the problem is one and the same; the personal preference of the person of faith is a form of self-indulgence transferred from more fleshly pursuits to religious ones.

I can assert this with the confidence of having seen, and am now seeing, that I have idols of both kinds. I am in some ways still very much a natural man, and I cannot imagine living without my self-indulgent sins. How can I let go of the fleshly sins that give me comfort? My possessions, pride, and lusts all give me some pleasure and sense of self. Can God alone satisfy me?

Can I let go of my preferences concerning my faith, and let God do whatever, however, and wherever? Can I trust God enough to have no conditions about my faith? I don't want to go "back" to certain things - but does that make spiritual growth an idol?

Selfishness is at the heart of this - not wanting to let go of some level of control or my idea of what I need - whether in sinful indulgence or religious faith. It is all the same - dying to self is the answer, and it will erase both my sinful indulgence and religious preference.

Questions to Suggest Direction

What if . . .

worship was an expression of the whole of our lives of faith rather than a disconnected event where people try to correctly perform a checklist of activities to keep God happy?

we really stopped worrying about who is first and how to get others to see/do everything our way, and instead pursued servanthood and enjoyed the diversity of the Spirit within one another?

no one had ever taught us to concentrate on inconsequential matters and make those the bedrock of faith, and we simply enjoyed whatsoever is good, pure, lovely, noble . . . wherever it may be?

we followed Christ as if he is teaching and showing us how to live rather than how to be saved?

we understood the word church as refering to people who've received a different way of living rather than a place where we go and an organization in which we have membership?

we knew what Jesus meant when he said his Kingdom wasn't of this world, and we stopped trying to contradict him?

we lived by an ethic of love of God through faith instead pleasure through selfishness?

. . . how different would we be?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Ramblings . . .

Here I sit.

I feel like I should blog - basically because I want to do something, but don't feel like doing anything else. Blogging seems to be legitimate ministry, don't you think? I'm not being lazy if I'm blogging.

Bill got a job - and an offer to come fill out paperwork for another - so he's going to end up with a choice of jobs. Looks like Stanley got a job too! If everything comes through he will be helping take care of animals at a local veterinary clinic!

I am genuinely rejoicing for them . . . but selfishly I am glad for this progress because it takes a burden off me (see the last post). Self-interest is always in the back of my consciousness even if I don't want it to be.

When I think of Jesus being tempted in every way like us, I imagine that he knew what it was to think of everything from an economy of selfishness.

Oh, Father! Why did you give me these 12 losers?? Keeping James and John from destroying people with divine fire is a constant drain, and the in-fighting . . . ! 'I want to be first!' all the time. Maybe if I heal these people they'll go away and leave me alone!

No way . . . not Jesus! No person's need was too taxing, no request the last straw, no day too long.

Yeah, right!

But what am I talking about . . . today I am actually seeing progress! Just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Is that too pessimistic?

Okay, think about the good stuff.

I really am enjoying the Thursday morning group I've joined. We are focusing on prayer. Our biweekly meet-up of emergent-ish/ancient-future believers is rich. This faith community is a constant blessing as we share life instead of doing church. My lovely wife, Marsha, and two great kids are extraordinary blessings. Aaron was reading me his favorite lyrics from an Alter Bridge song last night - what a blessing to have a 16 year old that shares his own thoughts with me.

Enough rambling . . . got to spend some time thinking about worship this Sunday.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Where Selfishness Lives

We started housing some evacuees from the coast in our building- and in the process also began more intensely walking with others who are in recovery. This new challenge has highlighted some spiritual garbage in me that has always been there - but is now just more apparent.

My selfishness makes itself evident in the ways I minister to others when I try to find easier and quicker ways to help people - desperately wanting their problem or struggle to be resolved without too much personal cost to me. Secretly I don't want their struggle to be too big a burden for me.

I know . . . that attitude really sucks. But I think it is what is often lurking around backstage and subtly influencing me.

The reality is that I can neither be the savior for someone else, nor should I hope bandaids can be a substitute for discipleship in community. Being in community does impose itself on "personal" space - and may call into question whether there is anything really like "personal" space in Christ's way.

If I think about it, not only do I not want ministry to become inconvenient, I don't like it to be without obvious "progress." Sometimes what makes another person's burdern something I don't want to share is that it can't be "solved." So I end up treating persistent struggles as temporary ones - hoping in vain that without too much effort it will go away.

So I really do have a selfish attitude. Somehow, by God's grace, I also have a true desire for ministry - to see God's working and participate in it. I am a contradiction: wanting to administer God's grace into the lives of others (in my regenerate self) and being selfishly concerned with how much of me that process involves (in my sinful self).

A little more death comes creeping in.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

New Community

Todd and Teresa Thomas started "being" a new church - Disciple's Song - and you need to check out their website.

Awesome guys! Who gave you permission to do that??

Monday, September 26, 2005

More on Good News

continuing . . .

Given the fact that the first century was a target rich environment for anyone wanting to blast away at false religions, we should be amazed to realize that none of those gods and deities are named and criticized in the letters of the New Testament. Criticism of wrong belief and behavior and false religion was leveled at those within the Christian community rather than at those without. The consistent proclamation from John the Baptist, to Jesus, to the apostles was God's reign. That was the Good News. They didn't start with "Zeus is false."

Could it be that all human pursuits of the divine, however misguided and fundamentally flawed, are a pursuit of God? Could this be why Paul, in his pluralistic environment, criticized flawed ideas of God instead of disparaging anyone's pursuit of God no matter how incorrectly conceived, parsed, and executed. Surely there was graciousness and generosity involved in not taking easy shots at the piety of those who aren't following Jesus.

The other side to this discussion goes beyond the way the believers we read about in scripture didn't go around tearing down other religions and shows that what they did proclaim didn't require proving other religions wrong. When the Gospel is seen as a set of propositions to be accepted, of course there must be a competition with every other set of propositions. When Christianity is reduced from a way of life to a religion of beliefs, then it has to fight with other religious ideas.

However, when the Good News is that God is near, and that He reigns, the proclamation isn't about the clash of propositions. In fact, everything doesn't hinge on those - and the Gospel can be communicated through a cup of cold water. Of course, the story of how atonement was accomplished in Jesus is part of the nearness of God's reign, but not the only part. It is not even the first part for the person whose throat is parched.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Exclusive Good News

With the on-going collapse of modernity and Christendom, there is a mix of those who will readily engage in discussion, and others who won't. If one engages in discussion, not like we see Paul and Jesus, but from a Christendominal (can I make up words?) mindset there will be resistence among those typically willing to share in metaphysical dialogue. In other words, there is a willingness today for many to talk about spiritual matters, but often the way Christians try and have that discussion results in closing down the dialogue.

It is amazing to me that in Christianity where the foundation of our identity is in grace we often can't seem to speak about our faith without coming across as intolerant. We are so certain that the Good News means asserting our exclusive claims on truth we are perplexed when others don't hear any Good News in what we have to say. We attribute the problem to their relativistic leanings, rather than asking ourselves whether we know what the Gospel is. Maybe the Good News isn't "you're wrong and I've got the only real answers . . . want to hear them?" Maybe if we learn the Good News of the nearness of God's Reign then we will be able to speak readily without always coming off as intolerant of others.

When we consider the posture of Paul in conversation with Greeks in Athens (Acts 17) he doesn't say that he's got the truth and that they don't. He doesn't condemn the Greek gods, tell those philosophers that they are lost, or try and accuse them of being guilty of sin. Instead he compliments their spiritual orientation and devotion while seeking to expand their thinking about God. He proclaims the nearness of God and the grace of God in history. He manages to talk about Jesus without maligning their gods. I think if he'd been able to keep going, the grace of God through the resurrected Christ would have been where he would have gone - calling people to accept this outrageous gift.

Is this a aberrant behavior on Paul's part, or did he go around sharing Good News without trashing the beliefs of others? What about the riot in Ephesus (Acts 19)? Surely the artisans who started that were upset because Paul had denounced their religion - right?

Read carefully: even those who were angry with Paul had only this accusation - "He says that man-made gods are no gods at all." They didn't say "Paul has denounced Artemis as a false god." Why didn't Paul preach clearly that their god was false?

I can't believe that these artisans were missing an opportunity to accuse Paul. Seems that he wasn't denouncing their faith in Artemis, but only pointing out that graven images could never represent that which was truely divine. It seems from what he's accused of that Paul was doing in Ephesus what he'd done in Athens. He is talking about God's nature being beyond the conceptions of idolatry - that God needs our service or that he can be represented physically - in other words, that he's just a bigger version of us. But vilifying the beliefs and faith of pagan people, Paul doesn't do that.

Of course, to people of faith, he can speak bluntly that the there is no communing at the tables of demons and of Christ. But sometimes I think we have missed the difference between how we are able to speak to one another and to those who are unaware of the Good News.

I'm not done - but gotta go . . .

Thursday, September 15, 2005

In Celebration of Chaos

For those wanting to keep up with the insanity of how our dysfunctional fellowship continues to make bad choices which keep us from ever becoming a respectable church . . . you can read a recent article from our website on how we are An Unorganized Church.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Supposed Prophets

The usual chorus of some who believe they are following a biblical prophetic model can be heard pronouncing that Katrina was God's judgment on New Orleans.

Some facts they miss:

1) Biblical prophecy of doom almost always preceded the event of destruction in order to bring about repentance - rather than following it as a way of heaping abuse on those who have suffered.

2) This was the position of Job's friends who insinuated that his calamity was due to his sinfulness. They were wrong, God was angry with them for misrepresenting him, and ultimately Job was the intecessor for them.

3) When Jesus encountered those who were suggesting that the Galileans were slaughtered by the Romans because of their sinfulness, he turned the conversation back on those making such suggestions. He denied that these after-the-fact claims were right in asserting that the Galileans were greater sinners. Seems those making such accusation ought to heed Jesus' warning.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Todd's Blog

A good friend (and fellow mal-content with the status quo - why can't it be better?) recently started a blog. More accurately . . . I recently discovered the blog he started several months ago!

Anyway, Todd is a good friend from way back. He and his family followed us to Tanzania - coming in as we were leaving.

Maybe it is the being missionaries thing - but we share a spiritually adventurous bent which pursues God without tremendous regard for sacred cows.

So I encourage you to visit his blog and read his confessional post about being tired of the idea of strategy.


Monday, August 29, 2005

Called to be . . .

I came across a good quote from Soren Kierkegaard:

"It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression "follower." He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for."

Down to the River to Pray

We went down to the river to pray yesterday. Not just any river, but a particular place on a particular river. Stanley wanted to be baptized and had a very special place in mind.

Since I come from a baptizing tradition - I mean serious as hell about baptizing, or maybe it is serious as heaven. Either way, we were baptizers in a big way.

But Steve's baptism last week and Stanley's yesterday were not the result of "a sit down Bible study" which ends up with a dissertation on proper Christian baptism (with all the proof texts in tow) and the question "so do you want to be baptized and go to heaven or stay like you are on the road to hell?"

No, they asked for baptism as part of their continuing journey of being drawn to God. Their participation in fellowship and through being loved and accepted is what moved them to ask for baptism. Their faith was ready to be expressed in this new way, a declaration of accepting Christ and his way even more fully.

This new acceptance wasn't based on new understandings of modes and the meaning of baptism, but on their changing lives and deeper understanding of the need to rely on God. Conversion isn't a point in time like their baptisms, but a process over time with many "points" of newness and change.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Thinking About Our Future

Every so often I get an urge to think about where our spiritual village is going. Maybe it hit me this week because school has started, summer is over, and we are into the Fall. Maybe I started thinking about this because Mark is back from Honduras.

The truth is that I don't know if these urges are Spirit-driven impulses to embrace what God is doing or deadly temptations to direct our own steps through human ingenuity. I can't say that I've figured out the answer this week, either.

But I did think about our community and wonder what is coming/should come next.

When in doubt, it is always good to share those doubts with others. So I told Ken. We didn't resolve anything, but did discuss how thinking about what to do next might either be good or bad. If anything, being aware of the dangers means we are less likely to fall prey to them.

Probably, the Spirit is prompting me to think about our community's immediate future, but it is not likely that the Spirit is giving me the green light to generate awesome programs to accomplish a bunch of temporal goals. Nothing I've learned about the Spirit's work or the nature of our journey with others under God's reign would suggest this. I've found most promptings have to do with reminding me how dependent I must be . . . not how important it is for me to take hold of things.

So . . . I am reminded that we need to be aware, intentional, and active in pursuing God and let the Spirit's community arise out of a divine fellowship founded in that hunger. I am thinking about the future of our congregation - but less in terms of its organization, promotion, or funding - and more from the standpoint of loving only God.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Pragmatists and Christianity

The whole Pat Robertson speculation about given the option to invade or assassinate, maybe we ought to assassinate - is too easy a target for a rant . . . so I won't do it. On CNN last night Ted Haggard seemed too interested in making fine distinctions, and Jesse Jackson in making political points by calling for the FCC to go after Robertson.

The unanswered question is "what is the Christian response to the Venezuelean president's rhetoric?"

Loving your enemies doesn't seem to have made it as a viable option next to fullscale invasion or assassination.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Cool Days in the Hot Summer

Yesterday was a spiritually cool day. I guess I could say Spiritually cool - giving correct emphasis to the One who made it that way.

Cool things the Spirit did:
1. Our Barnabas Sunday seemed to touch hearts, when I thought it might come across (at least my meditation) as trite and shallow.
2. Andy and Jill, guests from Nashville, shared their thoughts and stories through music that made it one of the best "classes" we could have had.
3. Steve Watson was baptized in a swimming pool, giving God all the glory for his continuing recovery and changes in his life.
4. Stanley Autery said he wants to be baptized next week in Cahaba River where it runs through his uncle's property.
5. Our students and their parents got together to talk about continuing spiritual formation and ministry for the Fall. God is doing very cool things with the youth.

Can't wait to see what will happen this week!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Can't We Be Relational?

I'm still stuck on this idea of questionnaires . . . which I think Paul would hate. He seemed to despise "letters of recommendation" and prefered the personal ties to be sufficient.

He vouched for Phoebe, which is a long way from filling out a multi-part critique of her various skills so it can be cross-referenced with a matrix of suitablility scores (gleaned from surveys received from 25,342 ministry and para-church workers, along with ordained clergy, from 46 states and analyzed by a Sun-Micro systems super computer on a proprietary program which generated a .46 correlation - quite good actually) which compares giftedness with task and role criteria to produce a "fitness rating" so we can find out if statisitically she is likely to perform well, under the Spirit's leading, of course, in the position for which she is applying. All of this was developed by Spiritual Analytical Ministries of Boise, Idaho - a thriving company dedicated to producing scientific instruments to decipher the Spirit's working (none of that wind blowing where it wills stuff) since 1987. The company's current work is on a spiritual prognosticator, which rather than measuring what the Spirit is doing right now in any given disciple, is intended to predict what the Spirit will do - all to develop more efficiency in plugging believers into the right ministry. Fitness, you know.

I read Post-Rapture Radio on the trip to my father's funeral (another subject entirely, which I will blog about . . . I think) so that might explain my sarcasm in the previous paragraph. But I'm not far off . . . am I?

If we are more relational, less focused on "is this person going to be able to contribute like we want" - if we had less of an agenda of what we want to do and were more focused on who others are, leaving the "what to do" more up to God, then we might act differently.

Or not.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Modern Questionnaires

I just filled out a recommendation for a friend concerning a ministry position. It struck me how the form asked for all very modern attributes: how organized, efficient, prompt, analytical, good at setting objectives, reporting on progress, is this person. Leadership was about communicating objectives, forming teams, making progress.

This would not be surprising but this friend isn't applying to work as a pastor in some institutional church, but to be involved in church-planting through a group looking at starting house churches in apartment buildings, among other things.

I suspect that some of the modern values are there because often the funding will come from modern churches - but the relational stuff, more creative attributes, personal attributes like genuineness, transparency, humility, goodness were almost missing entirely.

I would like to believe that we can assume that everyone looking to start new churches are prayerful, humble, accepting, people - but do we really want to look for all the business skills?

It occurred to me that what the questionaire was asking for is some of the least important stuff with regards to what I do within my community. I can't say that right now I have a better questionaire, but I've got to believe that a better one with less ties to modernity could be created.

Friday, August 05, 2005

A Christian Nation?

We invited a guest who has been worshiping with us this summer while in a Master's program to speak to us about what God has been teaching her. She is Jordanian, a Christian woman in a nation where only 2% of the people are followers of Jesus.

She shared many of her insights as she spoke about wisdom. Her faith, conviction, and pursuit of God came through clearly in her testimony.

After she concluded her thoughts we had a time for questions, and one asked what it was like living in America where there are so many Christians, as compared to Jordan which is overwhelmingly muslim. She said (as best I can remember and paraphrase) it's not very different. You see, the muslims believe in Jesus as a prophet . . . so they believe in Jesus. Here in America people believe in Jesus just like the muslims do . . . that he is a savior, a teacher, and they see themselves as following him, but they don't take him seriously.

This godly woman who has grown up in a muslim country sees "Christian" America as no more truly committed to following Jesus that a muslim country.

I think she is, unfortunately, correct.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Critiquing My Own Criticisms

I've sometimes posted my concerns regarding the "marketing" of Christianity. I want to add another example, and also to address some thoughtful responses I've heard or received.

On our trip back from the northeast yesterday I saw one of those billboards purportedly saying things God would want to say, if He chose to. The one I passed said "All I know is . . . everything. God." I'm not sure what the point is. I guess getting people to realize the God is omniscient is good.

Personally, I would be hesitant to put words out there and attribute them to God. Does anyone else feel apprehensive about being a publicist for God? "Here's what God would say . . . " seems presumptuous. To me it would be different putting on the sign actual things God did say, but putting words in God's mouth?? I don't want to go there.

Now I know that you may feel that I am being too critical, too hard on these attempts to make people more God-aware . . . and some have referred to Paul's observation that for whatever reasons, good or bad, at least Christ was being preached. If these marketing campaigns get people to think about God, isn't that good?

Not necessarily. We must encourage helpful, true, transforming thought about God. For me there is an important reason that Paul's words do not fit this situation.

There are two things Paul is talking about: motivation and message. In his case, he says that a true message is being communicated though the motives may differ. However, in the marketing situations I see just the opposite: there is a true motviation, but the technique of marketing changes the message. Paul says that if the message presented is true, then we won't worry about the motives. I don't doubt the motives of anyone who is marketing their faith, but I'm concerned that the message is unwittingly changed in the process.

Whether it is billboards, slick presentations, the ads in the movie theaters in our area offering rocking music, free donuts, and Starbucks coffee if you attend the advertising church, mass mailers, or other marketing techniques, it seems to me that the message is being changed . . . and that is not what Paul was talking about. It's not all good just because the subject is God.

How is the message changed? When we start trying to appeal to people, to market Jesus to them, we are leaving the proclamation of "Christ and him crucified" and are trying to find ways to "package" and "spin" a life of faith to people so that they will be attracted to it.

Does this change the message? Yes, I think so. We put matters of faith right along side shampoo, dietary supplements, fried chicken, and everything else that is being peddled. Paul said something about not using rhetorical techniques to persuade, and not peddling the gospel. I believe that there is a subtle change in the message, not an overt one, but a change through the very fact that we are trying to "sell" a life of faith. Paul had deeply theological reasons for not employing the refined Greek rhetorical oratory techniques of his day. Often I hear that we ought to use whatever means are available to advance the cause of Christ. Why didn't Paul think that way?

Many others have made the observation that when people have Christianity marketed to them as something to meet their needs, we should not be surprized that they rebel at the idea of Christ calling them to self-sacrifice. After all, the initial appeal was that God would serve them . . . not that they would serve God. Christianity was presented in the same was as a "product" to enhance their lives . . . much like a wrinkle-reducing cream. No wonder they balk at the hard teachings of Jesus. We can't appeal to people's appetites, and then turn around and call on them to abandon their appetites to the desires of God.

Some others have wondered if Paul's concept of becoming all things to all men would justify such an approach. Again, I think this suggestion misunderstands the thrust of Paul's statement. Paul is not saying that any means may be employed to reach a desired end. He is not talking about techniques of sharing Christian faith.

Instead, Paul is addressing his own self-sacrificing posture in sharing his faith. He is not saying to those who want a quick-fix, he becomes a quick-fixer; to those who are looking for something to enhance their own lives, he becomes one who enhances their lives. If they want a buddy, he becomes a buddy. Some suggest that Paul is describing how he becomes whatever his audience wants, which sounds very much like a marketing technique, but there is a difference between incarnational identification and serving the tastes of people.

Paul is declaring that he works incarnationally, leaving his own desires and self for the sake of others. He is not saying that he markets the message to people in a way they want to receive it. Rather than forcing Jews to act as Gentiles, or Gentiles as Jews, Paul presents gospel as gospel. He gets himself out of the way so as not to contaminate the message with his own Jewishness.

We cannot adjust the message of the cross to make it appealing to our audience, but instead wait for the Holy Spirit to adjust the audience to make it desire the message of the cross.

Saturday, July 23, 2005


Today we did the mid-town part of Manhattan. It was less hectic than yesterday. We just got to amble around and take in the sights, look in shops, and enjoy the beautiful (low humidity) weather.

It was good family time.

Friday, July 22, 2005


Spent the day in lower Manhattan today - doing sightseeing and the usual tourist things.

I am thoroughly overtaken by the diversity of humanity. The subway, with everyone lost in reading a paperback, the paper, or listening to music, emphasizes the isolation that is possible among so many people. There was a salesman in our subway car on one trip, trying to sell Duracell batteries for $1.00. His pitch was you didn't want to wait until the music stopped to get new batteries. Just made me think . . . how we wouldn't want the cocoon of music to stop.

Later on the ferry back to Battery Park, a young jewish man was shooting pictures out of the same window as me, trying to get just the right shot of the the Statue of Liberty - and I noticed the earphones he was wearing - keeping him company on the ride.

Probably if I had an ipod I would be doing the same (he actually had a CD player).

Connecting, community. The urban setting has so many possibilities for community . . . but I probably wouldn't cultivate it if I were living here. The fact that I have to work to build it in my life right now is a good indication I would struggle even in the middle of so much humanity.

I've got much to learn about living relationally.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


My absence from the blogging world has been caused by recent travels - and upcoming ones.

Last week I acompanied some of the young people on a retreat and had a blast. Tomorrow our family leaves a week in the Big Apple, though I do hope to blog some from there.

We'll see what happens.

Monday, July 11, 2005


I am somewhat suspicious of the number of churches around here that claim 70-80% of their members are from the ranks of the "unchurched" population.

I associate "unchurched" with my African missions experience: never, ever been Christian.

Obviously, in the Bible-belt south there aren't many "unchurched" people unless they are recent immigrants (and virtually none of the Hispanic population is unchurched).

I think it is a point of pride and straining for legitimacy for a church to claim such a high number of "unchurched" people in its ranks. They are fending off the accusation that their new mega-church edifice is just rearranging the sheep - taking them from more traditional congregations and entertaining them with a more appealing show.

Here's Barna's definition:
An adult (18 or older) who has not attended a Christian church service within the past six months, not including a holiday service (such as Easter or Christmas) or a special event at a church (such as a wedding or funeral).

Thom Rainer has a more stringent definition: one who has not been in church, except sporadically, for at least ten years (most for a lifetime).

A Presbyterian group says: The general definition of an unchurched person is anyone who has not attended church other than Christmas, Easter or special events in the past five years.

My guess is that some are sliding towards definitions even less stringent than Barna - saying something like "someone who was uninvolved in his or her previous congregation," "was just an attender," or "never was a regular weekly church-goer". Barna says if you miss 24 Sundays (excepting high holy days) and you are a prime unchurched prospect. I guess that means anyone can woo you into their group with a clear conscience. No sheep rustling here!

I wonder if the reason "unchurched" has become a popular term is that it would be much harder to say these people aren't Christian. But because we want it to sound like we aren't simply taking sheep from other flocks, we declare people "unchurched" so it sounds like we are carrying the Gospel to places its never been.

Most of us in our congregation weren't unchurched people. We can't even approach the high percentages of unchurched "members" of the congregations around us. Maybe I would say that 10% were not churched. The few I would point to as being unchurched before joining with us in a faith community hadn't been in a church, nor practicing a person faith-walk with Jesus, in over 20 years, if ever. Such a person I would say was "someone coming to Jesus."

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Chair Arrangements

For two weeks our sanctuary has been arranged so that we are meeting "in the round" with Christ in the center, his presence indicated by the bread and cup. There is no "front" - only believers gathered around a center.

Like so many different ways of experiencing our worship together, this one brings its own blessings and richness. Of course, we are not searching for some way that we will ultimately settle on so that we might "do it right". All aspects of our journey are a continuing seeking that brings constant change, and if that restless pursuit of God can be expressed through a shifting physicality in the forms of our worship times - so much the better.

My daughter wants us to keep it this way - she says she likes it. I do too.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Christian as an Adjective

I'm sitting in our meeting place waiting for the bands to start. We've opened our leased facility to the local bands and so now regularly host a concert every couple of months. Tonight it'll be a couple of the regular local bands, and one from Oregon and another from Italy (unless Alex was messing with me). Should be interesting.

So I get to sit here and blog . . . and probably work on some teaching for this week.

Note to all cynics - we've had upwards of a couple hundred high school students here putting on their own concerts several times, and except for the one incident where someone microwaved a t-shirt and discovered the singe/melt factor . . . we've never had any trouble. The organizers even stay afterward and help set up the sanctuary after it's over.

I'm sure that some would want to ask "are they Christian bands?"

I'm not sure how to answer that. I'm not sure what that question means. Does is mean the band members are believers? Does it mean the songs are overtly Christ-centered? Does the band have to have a creedal statement to be Christian?

Sure . . . I know what most people mean by that question, but it is a lousy question. "Christian" is not an adjective that can be used to modify all our nouns. Is that a Christian school? Is that a Christian restaurant? Is that a Christian political party? Is that a Christian nuclear weapon? See how quickly it devolves?

Using "Christian" as an adjective separates the world into two camps. By not bestowing that adjective we implicitly label them as pagan. It seems that in an Ephesians sorts of way Christ is seeking to break down walls of separation - not erect them. We are redeeming, inviting, including, welcoming, and leavening the world. That's hard to do when everything either receives or is denied the "Christian" adjective.

I doubt that these bands are Christian in the overtly we-are-trying-to-communicate-evangelical-messages way. They might even be wary, perhaps hostile to Christianity. I heard two girls talking in the hall as they looked at some of the books we have in our coffee shop area, and one said sarcastically, "let's read the Bible." But maybe the fact that we welcomed those two girls to use our space, and even to express their disdain, will start to undermine their negative attitudes toward believers. Of course I want to tell them that we're different . . . not like institutional bastions of exclusion - but they'll only believe it if they experience a difference. I can't tell them anything.

Still sound checks. It's going to be a long night.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Hell and the Kingdom of God

Yesterday with people in an addiction recovery program I facilitated a discussion on the subject of spiritual motivation. We talked about what serves to motivate us. People mentioned what I would consider positive motivations, and the destructive ones like fear (abject terror - not biblical awe), shame, and guilt. Those are negative as long term motivations because they tear down. Being afraid, shamed, and feeling guilty, have a place but cannot be the foundation for spiritual growth - at least in my opinion.

Threatening people with Hell as never led them to be Christ-like. Did the Son live in holiness out of love for the Father or fear of punishment? Was shame, guilt, and fear the driving forces in his life? Did he obey that he might not burn?

We cannot form people into the image of Christ through terrorizing them spiritually. We may indeed foster some compliance, but they will hardly resemble Jesus when we are done. We cannot stoke fear, shame, and guilt believing those to be fires that will refine in people lives of righteousness, holiness, love, joy, peace, and such.

The reason punishment is not driven out of our vocabulary through perfect love may be that often the agenda is to convert people rather than form them into the image of Christ. When we convert them in ways that create an inner motivation that is foreign to the spiritual maturity of Christ, attempts to form these same people to grow up into Christ has become doubly hard.

The Spirit will convict, and the Spirit will comfort. To those in the grace of God in Christ there is no longer any condemnation, and perfect love has dissolved the fear of punishment. The kindess of God has led them to repentance (Rom. 2:4) and the Spirit brings fruit from that good soil of every godly attribute.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Installment #6

Perhaps my last (for now) thought about working for renewal in an established congregation, is the idea that renewal can't be copied.

What I mean is that renewal is an authentic response by believers to the movement of God's Spirit. Therefore, it cannot be, by nature, the calculated response of those seeking pragmatic ways to accomplish their desired goals, even if those goals are admirable and theologically-driven. The latter is by nature not renewal. It can't be.

To illustrate, one cannot be like Thomas Edison by inventing the light bulb. Thomas Edison, when he invented the light bulb, was creating something new. There is a difference between mimicking Edison (creating a light bulb) and being like Edison (inventing something new).

Renewal cannot be mimicked, though that is often attempted. We cannot copy the faith of others (though the Christian heritage I grew up in tried desperately to do just that) but must live it out ourselves.

What this has to do with congregational renewal is that a community must faithfully seek renewal according to the movement of God's Spirit in their time and place. We can learn from other examples of renewal (in scripture, Christian history, or our world today) but we do not gain from those stories techniques and strategies (as if renewal can be brought about on human terms) but indications about how to connect with God's prevenient Spirit. We can be inspired, we can see what faithfulness looked like for others, but in the end we must ask God anew to stir us with his Presence.

So if you take what I am saying seriously, I have almost completely nullified everything I've been talking about in these installments! I have . . . if anyone has been sifting them to discover a "plan" for renewal. It is about new wineskins, and about believers being bold in their faithfulness so that God may redefine their relationships with him, with each other, and with the world.

I hope that the experience of the gathering of believers I journey with daily will entice others to hunger and thirst for a similar adventure. If they seek, they will find . . . and another story of God bringing renewal will be written . . . in order to lure others to bold abandon.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Comment and Response

I thought the following comment to my last post deserved a post of its own - because several good points are made. My being "depressed" over Emergent heading in a more institutionalized direction isn't leading me to slit my wrists or anything - or abandon conversation and affinity with others of the emerging church.

Hey Friend,The fact that emergent village has a national director won't mean that we have less of a conversation. I'm here in blog world even with a natinoal director. In fairness, the leadership team of emergent, along with much help from Laci Scott, has done much of what a national director will be doing. Neither you nor I can run conferences, help direct conversations, nor keep in contact with supporters when time is limited. A full-time director will be able to give his/her full attention to the emergent conversation. I would strongly encourage you not to be too depressed about this decision. While it may not be what you nor I might want, it doesn't mean that either the theology or conversations will change significantly.Send me an e-mail if you are still depressed about this one... we need you in this conversation too.

You made some good points and I do realize that whether the whole thing becomes more institutionalized/organized that does not really affect my opportunity to share in and enjoy the conversation on this journey. My journey started in Africa and quite independent of “Emergent” – and it will continue because I can do no other.

My disappointment is that I can see a shift – in language and practice. Servants are always needed, and service is vital to the discussion and to invite others into the openness of it. But, I like the fact that no one has been able to “speak for the movement” but only for themselves. The request “take me to your leader” should be met with apology for our inability to point to human beings. I’ve succeeded in getting some of my brothers and sisters to stop introducing me to their friends as their preacher or minister – but just as a friend.

At least in the eyes of the rest of the world, this move turns the conversation into an organization replete with the necessary levels of leadership. Tony becomes the spokesman in the eyes of the world, whether he likes that or not. Even if Emergent continues to act in counter-cultural ways, something important has been lost in the means that have been chosen to get to a desired end.

I would rather remain, and do within the community I worship and share life with, downright stubborn in my refusal to be more than a servant despite some suggestions that being a “leader” would give us a more efficient organization. I think we have to resist mightily that direction because it is seductive.

I’m not going anywhere conversationally. Part of the dialogue is saying “I don’t agree”. To me, what is being set up is a para-conversation organization. Why? Because we need to grow the conversation.


Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Big 'E" Emergent

The white smoke was seen rising from a cabin in Minnesota. The "leaders" of the emergent conversation gathered in conclave, and chose a "National Director" (click here). But that was only the first of four announcements - and I can hardly wait for the next three!

Now we can start distinguishing being emergent (the original, institutional-less conversation, small "e") and Emergent (the institution born out of the conversation, big "E").

I'm depressed about this.

My first encounter with the emergent conversation was in Chattanooga several years ago when three of us went from our community and were blown away to find others were thinking like us! We never patterned ourselves after some supposed template, didn't start our community based on the conversation, and our worship is not as cool and "out there" as many other places. Our community also includes many people in their 60's even into their 90's - which I suspect is why we don't look exclusively pomo. Our community worship reflects who we are, which is diverse, not some specific group we are trying to evangelize (like gen-Xers).

Our commonality with emergent wasn't in externals, but in theology, the journey, the searching, and the non-institutional/non-leadership community emphasis. It was exciting to find like-minded seekers. I not saying we don't have anything in common any more, but I think our paths are diverging somewhat. That part is disappointing. I hope, like one of the bright spots of the Christian heritage I grew up in, they have their own "Last Will andTestament of the Emergent Leadership Council".

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Spiritual Direction in Marital Counseling

I have no extensive training as a marriage counselor though I've tried to help couples who've come to me. I have meant well, but not sure that what I've done has helped much.

I think the problem has been that I took an analytical/behavioral approach . . . which all the relationship/marriage books seem to employ. You know . . . endlessly examine what he does and what she does, try to foster self-understanding, see how the other person views it, attempt to substitute new behaviors, suggest alternative techniques, and underlay it all with some godly teaching. Sound good? For the most part, it has been a failure as far as seeing real improvement goes. Maybe I should have used more shame and guilt . . . just kidding.

On the other hand, I can think of three couples who have told me that I have helped their marriages . . . and I have done absolutely "zero" marriage counseling with them! Does everything have to be ironic?

The difference was that they benefited and experienced transformation in their marriage because of fresh understandings of Jesus, of God's grace, of what it means to be Christian . . . not through addressing the specifics of their married life together, but the foundations of how they relate to God. Our spiritually formative journey has brought healing and new blessing to their marriage relationships.

The obvious lesson I am drawing from this is to no longer search for behavioral techniques to substitute for current behavior (can't you say something positive in the morning instead of criticizing him/her?) but to focus on spiritual formation and disciplines.

I am coming to believe that there is great wisdom in the Catholic concept of the confessional. Sometimes we just need to hear someone tell us we are forgiven as we expose our sins, and then we need to be told to pray. I won't go into how I believe the practice has been panned by Protestants (perhaps, in some cases, rightfully so). To confess, to hear we're forgiven, and then to be told what to pray or do, not to pay for the sin, but to discipline oneself against falling prey to the sin again, seems profoundly formative.

Last week a man I met at the alcohol and drug treatment center asked if I would do some counseling with he and his wife. My response: yes, but I won't talk about what you're both doing and how to change it. Instead, we'll talk about becoming like God through prayer, meditation, scripture, and action. I feel like this is a good, theologically sound change in how I respond to those seeking help with their marriages.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Installment #5- Impediments

(This is the second post for today so you may want to read Installment #4 below)
One of the biggest problems I see for a congregation moving to embrace revival is any form of institutional pride. It is also the stumbling block that can stop a revival in its tracks.

What I mean is any sense of entitlement, achievement, legacy, nostalgia, "arrivalism", or satisfaction may be a symptom of group pride which suppresses the seeker mentality and striving forward to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of us. One of the hardest tasks is to not allow the blessing of "success" (and this doesn't have to mean crass temporal garbage like numbers and contribution, but real work that God does in us) to be a stumbling block toward additional movement.

I guess this is where a hungering and thirsting is essential, and where complacency must be banished. The goal to which we strive must not only be theologically defined but must be beyond satisfaction. The church growth movement is shot through with temporal goals manageable and achievable on human terms. There is nothing more aimless than a church which achieved its dream and now flounders for a new sense of purpose. Usually they just add superlatives to the original goal - more of everything.

Theologically driven congregations seek relationship with God, likeness with the Son, and filling with the Spirit. The mysterious here is sufficient to keep pride at bay, and a spiritual hunger and thirst alive. If humility is the beginning for a personal spiritual journal (see how the opening chapters of Thomas Kempis' Imitation of Christ and Fenelon's Forty Spiritual Letters begin here) it is foundational to congregational journeys as well. Without humility, it is hard for us to receive grace.

The question, then, for someone desiring to spark a revival, is how to subvert the complacency that results from any hints of congregational pride and to encourage a humble longing for God. If there is pride it flourishes in wrong goals, because longing for God is satisfied only by the inexhaustible person of God.

I am not suggesting that there is no satisfaction in seeking God, but only that longing for the Triune God is a unique endeavor in human existence because it offers genuine rest while never displacing the restless desire for God. We are filled while still hungering and thirsting. But this is not frustrating, because our desire for God leads to more filling. This paradox is only found in the mystery of relationship with God. This is the only goal for an individual or congregation that remains fresh, giving peace without complacency; satisfaction without sterility.

The one working for revival must help people acquire a "taste" for God so they see that He is good. This must coincide with cultivating a distaste for anything else - particularly the achievements of human effort. Even the gifts of the Giver should never satisfy. Undermining congregational and institutional pride is difficult, particularly when the accomplishments that are the objects of pride are the works of God himself. Glorying in the exodus instead of the God who wrought the exodus does little to prepare people for the wilderness.

I don't know how to actually communicate this . . . except to talk about it, draw the distinctions, live the proper orientation of longing for the immanent/transcendent God, and pray for the grace to be given for a congregation to taste God. A humble congregation that regards as refuse all human accomplishments and is careful not to confuse the blessings with the Blessor, will pursue the One who pursues them - satisfied but always wanting more. I believe that renewal will define their journey.

Installment #4

(more of my thoughts about a friend's question regarding how his congregation might discover more of authentic Kingdom living) . . .

I ran across a list of characteristics of revival movements in Christian history on Andrew Jones' blog
- They always begin on the periphery of the institutional church
- They are motivated by a transforming experience (grace) of God by an individual or group.
- The result is the desire for a more authentic Christian life that often leads to concern for the church and world.
- Face to face groups for prayer, Bible study, mutual encouragement are important.
- New methods of selecting and training leaders become important. These are less institutional, more grass roots and lay oriented.
- There are theological breakthroughs, that is, rediscovery of aspects of the Biblical message that have been forgotten or overlooked by the Church, usually they involve a focus on the gifts of every believer.
- There is a leveling effect, distance decreases between clergy and laity, social classes, races, men and women, and denominations.
- The movement is countercultural in some ways, often because it reaches out to those who have not been valued by their society.

A number of these characteristics seem to necessitate (at least to my way of thinking) what I suggested about an instantaneous movement to a new paradigm and not incrementalism, about the need for guides with a vision of the Kingdom in new and robust terms, and concerning taking intentional steps to break our worst religious addictions. I know that for the congregation I am part of, many of the specific matters mentioned in this list were and continue to be deep concerns of our community.

Monday, June 06, 2005

A major feature of my own journey (and I believe everyone's) has been shifting from man-centered ways of viewing everything, to seeing all things for the sake of God. I am talking about more than "who's on the throne" type of questions. Being raised in a Christian home meant that God was always on the throne; even so, my religion was largely human-centered.

In that continuing quest . . . I think about accepting people for the sake of God, rather than judging them for where they are theologically, spiritually, morally - in understanding or practice. Where anyone is in relationship to God is a phenomenon of time and place. I meet them here and now, but I don't know where they've been, or where they will go. If I make judgments on their present state, I am considering what God has done, but also their human imperfections. Anyone looking at me would see the same.

If, however, I view others through faith in God, then promises such as if one seeks, one will find, and Paul's confidence that the One who began a good work in the Philippians would bring it to completion, lead me to confidence in their perfection by grace (and mine too).

What if I accept people from a God-defined view, not measuring them in time where I meet them and noting the imperfections of thinking, practice, and devotion, but by faith in God when seeing evidence of his work and accept them as God will form them? I will accept the non-orthodox seeker as an orthodox believer, not giving them some "benefit of the doubt" or overlooking that person's non-orthodox beliefs or practices, but strictly for the sake of God's faithfulness.

I find that I have common ground not based on an acceptance of the Apostles' Creed, a high view of scripture, Trinitarian theology, a certain view of atonement, ecclesiology, eschatology, or a host of other important matters. I find that I am in a fellowship of seekers, and only find common ground lacking with those who don't seek (but might in fact agree with my thinking on many of the above-mentioned theological subjects).

May I accept those who seek on the basis on God's promise that they will find, welcoming them for the sake of God's faithfulness wherever they are "in time" on that journey. Of such, to my present thinking, is the Kingdom of God.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Installment #3

In continuing to respond to a letter from a church leader who is seeking revival in his congregation . . .
I reread your request about how to get off “dead center” and saw something that I don’t know how to understand: namely that you have listening/praying leaders and yet, at least you, feel that something is being missed. Do others feel like something is lacking? Is God calling your congregation, and despite sincere listening, the call isn’t being heard? Is God calling, people sense the message, but don’t know how to act on it? Are you hearing it and others are not, or do others hear it too? Do many hear it, understand it, but fear acting on it? Is the problem hearing, understanding, or acting? – some part of all three?

If people aren’t hearing a call that you hear, it may be because you’ve had the experience of that small, vibrant community you mentioned. You, better than I, understand the nature of the Spirit’s prompting – which seems often to be a message which needs interpreting. The process of us working through the discernment is one aspect of why the message was given. Do others know God is calling, but struggle to interpret the message?

Being able to convey the concept of a land of “milk and honey” so that people catch the vision in God’s call is important. For those who’ve witnessed it, they want to be there. For those who don’t know it even exists, how can they hear the call?

If others are not aware of what can be, and so don’t sense God urging them onward, a guide is necessary. In many ways we spent four years preparing for our jump, but others had labored for years before me in the recesses of discontent within the hearts of seekers. Anyone who knew what could be, started sharing that with others and helping them taste the possibilities. At the time that this group began moving they had longed for something with the vague shape of what we now do. They were hungry and thirsty for community, ministry, living out of “one briefcase” (faith intersecting with all of life), and moving beyond southern civil religion – but the group needed guides who could describe the forms this experience of faith would take. The guides didn’t have to do much convincing, for when they described how things could be quickly a majority seized on it and affirmed “that’s what we’ve been wanting!” The majority were not being equipped by the Spirit to put the longing into some form, but the confirmation was there throughout the community for each step. Obviously, we have still had our troubles discerning, and nothing is ever unanimous. There are some who consistently struggle more than others to catch the vision.

I am writing so that I may understand (a stream of consciousness here) rather than putting this down as an essay. You’ll have to bear with my process.

Where my thinking is taking me is to a place of recognizing the importance of visionary people – but not in the entrepreneurial sense. We don’t need people with grand visions of their own imagination, but who have a “Kingdom sense” and can communicate it. The means must be Kingdom expressions. Having Kingdom ends is not enough to justify any means.

For me, God showed me what could be through watching God build churches in Africa. He’s shown that to you through that unconventional church (and many other experiences as well). The question is, what can we do to help others see what congregational life can be like when it is a daily expression of living in Christ rather than membership in an organization? For us it was experientially realized, not informationally through seminars and classes. It might happen at a convention, but I doubt it unless the people are already extremely primed. Conventions are forms that are too institutional (like lectureships) where often things come down to “how to” classes – which feed the wrong mentality. The form is too institutional to convey a non-institutional freshness.

I think that perhaps sharing, even for short periods, in congregations that have the life you are seeking for your community is the way to go. Different experiences will help people realize that it is not about a certain configuration. Two couples from here visited Church of the Savior. That is a good place to see very authentic Christian life being lived out. Besides personally witnessing community I think that narrative can serve as a vehicle for experience – even though instruction does not work well. The Emergent idea of conversation is powerful too.

I guess these ramblings are coming down to how you can guide others into hearing more clearly the call of God: creating dissatisfaction with where we are, longing for more of God, and experiencing how that longing can be met in vibrant community. I know . . . I’ve said nothing new. Maybe this “methodology” could be wedded to my earlier thoughts about “abrupt” change and intentional negation of our worst religious pitfalls.

Keith Brenton commented on my blog saying “wasn’t I talking about new wineskins?” Yes, I am trying to give some detail to what it means to have new wineskins. That is something we have heard said, but how well do we know what it takes to have new wineskins? I guess that is what I’m trying to describe as best I understand it- but I am afraid that you will likely find little new in my thoughts. I wish I had better answers!


Thursday, May 26, 2005

Addendum to Initial Installments

As I think about two of the ideas I've put forth:
1) The type of change I am discussing must be an instantaneous leap to a new paradigm and not incremental progression,
2) Those jumping to the new paradigm exist as an open community among others,
I believe these aspects are seen in the Jerusalem church.

Peter describes the leap to a new world in his call for separation for the corrupt generation and submission to the name of Jesus . . . accepting completely the one who'd been rejected profoundly. The fact that those making this jump were distinct is seen in the statement that "no one else dared join them" (Acts 5:13). The paradoxical verse which follows says "more and more . . . were added to their number." To me it is language that decries any incrementalism: a little in and a little not. People didn't come gradually . . . they either were living there or they weren't.

And yet this distinct group which had leapt to acceptance of Jesus as the messiah still lived daily in the temple, among those who'd not made that jump. Everywhere, they continued in the synagogues. They spoke about new realities with a welcoming posture to anyone willing to begin living in the Kingdom.

Their story seems to me to illustrate how revival takes place. In essence, they were participating in a revival of Jewish faith. Avoiding the tired controversies of "saved" and "not saved" we can envision a revival in Christian congregations through reinvigorated faith, self-understanding, and action in similar terms. A new vigorous community erupts through God's Spirit among what has become stale. This is not about judgemental statements against those (like myself) who've been caught up in fossilized religion. The new community emerges abruptly, and is anything but exclusive. It is distinct and simultaneously inclusive.

In a similar fashion, a new Christian faith emerges within old communities, not to be iconoclastic, but to be inviting and hopeful.

Tibi gloria, Domine!

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Installment #2

See the previous post for the beginning of this subject:

I have continued to think about your query and to look for what I can say. As you know, none of this “life in community” follows a formula, though there may be some aspects that are common to such a journey. So let me dive into another of my opinions – one which is related to my earlier installment on making a clean, new start rather than attempting an incremental journey.

One of my missions professors, Dr. Ed Matthews, gave us this advice: when you go to your field of work, find out what stereotypes the people have about missionaries and Christianity, and break them. Where we were in Africa, two groups in particular, had been there for close to 100 years – the White Fathers of the Catholic Church and the African Inland Mission. One of the stereotypical ideas the local people had about Christianity was that one term for followers of Christ was “readers” because being a Christian was so closely tied to literacy. Among that tribe where functional literacy was well below 20% to me that was a problematic stereotype.

This doesn’t mean that I was going to criticize all that other missionaries had done before me, but to see where the people of that culture had put missionaries and Christianity “in a box” and then intentionally create a new hearing for Christian faith. To me this does not necessarily mean being iconoclastic, but showing the unbounded character of Christian faith, deepening the mystery, and exposing new aspects to surprise the local people.

We learned the tribal language and not just the trade language, which was something the Catholic missionaries did but not the Protestants. We tried to find ways to create a fresh hearing for the Good News among people who had experienced a Christian witness for 100 years but were still 90% traditionalists.

When I take this idea and apply it to my thoughts about reinvigorating a Christian community today, I think that a group must take some radical positions to directly challenge where there has been lethargy, “in the box” thinking, and routine. This is a very contextual endeavor.

Taking an example from our community, we felt led to break out of an institutional mindset that bred loyalty to congregations – their funding, their programs, their progress. We wanted to create a new vision for discipleship to Jesus in daily life rather than succumbing to the tendency to enjoy membership in a church much like membership in a country club. To hit this problem head-on (for ourselves, to remind us how we are susceptible to such thinking) we did away with “membership.” Since no one can be a member of Disciples’ Fellowship, we were actively opposing our own tendencies to revert to “institutional” promotion, thinking, and identity. We also started to use the knock-off from the Southwest commercial saying “You are now free to move about the Kingdom” as a way to intentionally capture our desire to see the body of Christ rather than our local congregation.

Obviously, someone in another context might see no sense in that intentional stand. They probably shouldn’t. When we talk about “not being Sunday-centered, preacher-centered, campus-centered, or sermon-centered” – again we are identifying the particular weaknesses that exist for us.

The general point I am thinking about is that not only does a clear change need to happen at a moment in time rather than gradually, that change needs to involve some distinct paradigm shifting which is a redefining of the weaknesses and negative tendencies of a group.

When you say that you feel that your congregation may be over-staffed, over-propertied, and self-centered then, if I were in your situation, I would do things to turn those aspects around 180 degrees. The same idea is suggested by Jason Zahariades in his article on
“Detoxing from Church.” Like people suffering from an addiction to chemical substances, we need a radical detoxing unlike the “moderation” which is possible for those not addicted.

If believers in your community are addicted to too much staff, their property, and an inward focus – then I think a big jump is essential. Maybe nothing concerning the internal nature of the group will be discussed for a year – consciously and overtly changing the dialogue. Letting everyone know that we aren’t going to talk about . . . because, though those matters are good, we’ve neglected other conversations of the Kingdom. Maybe the staff is reduced, or maybe they start doing ministry to outsiders only (and do nothing for the internal maintenance of the group). Maybe the property is sold, or maybe in some way a new paradigm is introduced by some new use that makes it clear that the addiction is being broken. I like the idea of using the 12-steps of substance addiction as a process of thorough-going repentance.

We joked about being in church-recovery, or Church of Christ anonymous classes. That was the attitude that we had to adopt. I’m not sure, as I’ve said before, how this is worked out in your context as the practice of faith. Please accept this humble second installment - which may be simply the misguided thoughts of an outsider.

Peace to you.

Monday, May 23, 2005

From Institution to Fellowship of Believers - 1

Recently, I was asked how our fellowship of believers made the change to head towards what we are becoming . . . so because I want to kill two birds with one stone, here's part of that as a post. Unfortunately, you will have to do without this person's question and description of his own church situation. Suffice it to say that he is part of a very good congregation, but which may suffer from institutional lethargy - and he longs for a more vital, outward looking, missional/incarnational community.


I take very seriously your request, which is why I am going to answer in several installments. I want to be able to think about this and let it simmer for a while. But I can respond initially to one thing you raise in your letter - Could you see an established church really transforming into what you now are?

I think it could happen 1) if the leadership is willing to take risks and pursue the vision, and 2) the fact that significant numbers of people may decide to not go along for the journey won't kill the effort.

If there is a united and courageous group of leaders, I think something can happen, but it will be a “cultural” change – which will be as difficult as that language suggests. We are not talking about organizational, methodological, stylistic, doctrinal, or some lesser change, but the most fundamental restructuring of the DNA imaginable. I believe that I am telling you nothing new.

Of course, such a thorough-going change is easier to adopt in a new context – rather than to infuse it into something familiar, just because the old places, structures, environment, configuration, etc. all are repositories for the old church culture. They are memorials which tend to lead people to associate familiar concepts of church with where they have practiced them. Again, nothing new here, but only my take on the added difficulty of doing something profoundly different in a location and with people who have long-established habits. Take those people out of that setting, and they know there has to be change, and I think they will be more accepting of it. If a family moves to New York, they expect to experience some change even if they would rather not. Changing at “home” is possible, but more difficult.

My second comment, and the thought that first “jumped to mind” (was prompted by the Holy Spirit? – that must yet be discerned) is that incremental change cannot get a group to this new culture. Using another subject to illustrate- there is no “incremental” pathway from legalism to accepting grace. Understanding the radical difference may come incrementally, but the leap is “all or nothing” in a moment. A person goes from trusting in his or her own actions to bring righteousness, to abandoning all hope of that and desperately leaping to a whole new paradigm that exists in an entirely new universe. Even if done imperfectly (there is certainly more to learn) the jump happens at a specific time. There is no middle ground – a little legalistic and a little grace-dependent. The gradualists want to believe in middle ground to lessen the impact, to manage the change – but not when we are talking about mutually exclusive matters.

We cannot assess where we are, figure out where we want to be, and then create a series of gradual steps to get from here to there. We can do this if the change is not at the depth of the fabric of things. But I think we are talking about a Copernican revolution that involves how we relate to God, what “church” is, how we are to exist in relation to the non-confessing world, what leadership is, the role of believer-to-believer relationships, how we view our Sunday activities, what being a Christian means, etc.

My own assessment of our congregation, in ways that I believe are not at first even evident to many outside observers, is that we are in a different world completely. I think the Emergent thing is like that – but many seem to be going to Emergent events to “get ideas” to apply in the usual modern incremental (tweak the model) fashion. I don’t think it will work.

That is not to say that every person who shares life with us here is in that new world – but if they hang around they learn the new culture. I guess every individual doesn’t have to “jump” to it at the same time, but the identity/focus/configuration (those words aren’t good, but I don’t know what to use) of the group must jump all at once to something new. Obviously, many people have to be “in” that first jump. Others will feel the disequilibrium, but their move may come later.

I am probably rambling, but I think this incremental versus instantaneous distinction is vital. Most churches that are established want to eat the elephant one bite at a time and hope people will be able to handle the change in small bits. If we talk about leadership, there is no incremental way to go from top-down authoritarianism to bottom-up servanthood. You stop the old way, switch to the new way, and deal with the whiplash effect. Now if you want to tweak the top-down to make it less arbitrary, maybe less mean-spirited, less personality centered – that can be done incrementally because there is a continuum to move along gradually since there is no fundamental change happening. It is just a new form of top-down.

If a church is going to move from self-centered keepers of the faith to Kingdom outposts to bless a non-confessing world, that cannot be done little by little. Trying to do it gradually usually means that it never happens. What one can do in an established church is to start creating a new church within the old church – the new one operating in a whole new way. People are invited to join the journey. Of course, through time the difference will become apparent, and often that can be painful and difficult. What many want is incrementalism. “Can’t you preach about grace and yet say things to emphasize the old essentials?” – as if those were compatible and the switch could happen gradually.

For me, the new emergent paradigm of church is so radically different that it cannot be ushered in through old means. In other words, the new pattern is not top-down, so it cannot be brought in through a top-down mandate. That would be a contradiction. The new is lived, not organized and implemented. So I think ultimately you are looking at people opting out of old ways, adopting new ways, and jumping to a whole new paradigm. If the “leadership” agrees, they cease to be “leaders” in any modern organizational sense and begin living a new reality. Can your congregation endure the whiplash and enter the new world? I don’t know.

My fear is that you’ll actually act on what I’ve written. I’m not even sure of what that would mean at this point. Let me think on this and maybe that will come in a later installment.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Three police officers thought they might be making a drug bust Wednesday night when they rushed in, but found instead my friend and his son had taken another friend home from our prayer meeting and had just stayed to chat. Not that these officers didn't have a reason to suspect something illegal . . . they're just not aware of what divine transformation has been happening. They busted in on the fellowship of believers in Christ!

Oooooo . . . I love it when our witness is starting to make a real difference - when our presence is salt and light in places known to be otherwise.

Thursday, May 19, 2005


Okay, I admit . . .

Sometimes my ideas don't sound so good the second time around.

I still get a twinge of feeling left behind when I read/hear of others progressing in the profession of ministry.

I am still way too judgmental of those selling out ministry as a profession.

I sound like I am better read/more knowledgeable than I really am - I probably spent last night getting my butt whipped online in Halo 2 rather than reading . . . (insert notable author/book here).

I really do think that most heavy metal songs are redeemable if they're honest about life.

I am still unforgiving towards some people who have wronged me.

My thoughts are very heathen even if my actions aren't. I'm really scared of "snapping" and doing what I think about.

I'm not too certain that confessing like this is a good idea.

I wish God would put an end to all the silly stuff that is promoted on the INSP network.

That last confession means God would have to put an end to my silliness as well.

I'm a really judgmental idiot.

I need to think more before confessing - so really stupid statements like that one about the INSP network can be filtered so I can keep up the pretense of not saying dumb and self-condemning stuff.

I thought of something to confess, but I'm not going to say it here.

I get impatient with others.

I really do want to praised by men and women - though I know that is very dangerous.

Sometimes I worry about the future.

I don't want to get seriously sick for a long time.

I'm not real sure how I feel about definitely not being young anymore. I want to age graciously but don't know if I'll do that well.

I am too intently concerned about criticism - which is ironic because I knowingly do things that will generate it.