Right now we are in the midst of another global epidemic – this one from a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Nobody knows how far this COVID-19 disease will spread, or how bad it will be, but it has arrived now in our community here in Washington and has already caused some deaths. Most likely it will be similar to other epidemics we’ve experienced in recent decades, and it will be a cause for legitimate concern, will peak, will wain, and in the end will probably cause less deaths than the Flu this winter. But right now we don’t know, and it is in that space of unknowing that fear breads.
As I write this, though I have not seen it myself, I am told that there has been a run on the grocery stores, hardware stores, warehouse stores, etc. People are stocking up and hoarding food, hand sanitizers, surgical masks, and apparently toilet paper (I admit I don’t get that last one: “It might be the end of the world! You know what we really need in order to survive? Toilet paper!). The stock market has fallen about 10%. I wouldn’t be surprised, as has happened in past times of crisis, that we will also hear that gun sales have spiked this week and that generators are sold out. There is a sense of “Every man for himself!” that seems to be spreading through the nation. As a pastor I wonder: what should a Christian response to this crisis look like?
This is not the first time that the world has faced an epidemic and it won’t be the last. In fact, this may turn into a “pandemic” before it is all over. We are, after all, much more connected globally than at any other time in the world’s history. Lately I have been reading through Jerry Sittser’s book Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World. In it, he describes how the response of Christians to a plague in the Roman Empire in AD 250 had a big impact on their witness to the love of Jesus Christ (146). Scholars estimate that up to one fifth of the population of the Roman Empire died during this plague! It was so bad, that people began leaving bodies and dying people littering the streets. One biographer from the time wrote “All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also” (Sittser 147). But while many were fleeing and hunkering down and looking after only themselves, the Christian response was different. They began to wash, wrap, and bury the bodies.
Not only did these early Christians take care of the dead, but they also took care of the sick. While they had no understating of germs and viruses like we do today, they knew that if they cared for the sick, then they were likely to get sick too, and perhaps even die themselves. They also knew, that if cared for, some of the sick would survive. Their theology developed to be something like this: If we Christians step in and care for a sick and dying person, we may be able to take their sickness from them, prevent death, and take their place in sickness and in death as Jesus has taken ours. Some miracles of healing did happen – the Spirit was at work – but the larger miracle was in the way the Christian Church became knows as the one community that would care for and love those who had nowhere else to turn – even if it was a risk to their own life and comfort. So I wonder… do we still carry this same faith and witness today?
I’m certainly not suggesting that we Christians need to begin rushing to put ourselves in harms way of this disease. We live in a different world with different ways of caring for and managing an epidemic. However, I do know that our response should be to give rather than to hoard, to live in hope rather than fear, to seek the welfare of others ahead of our own, and to be people of courage, hospitality, faith, and love. Rather than hunker down and bar the doors, we are called to reach out in the love of Jesus Christ.
“…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
On a recent vacation I had the opportunity to take some surf lessons on the beach. I grew up skateboarding, I’m a descent wakeboarder, and I can snowboard, so I didn’t think it would be all that difficult. And I was right – once I actually stood up on the board, it wasn’t all that hard. But getting up, that was the challenge! And not only getting up, but getting back out to catch the next wave! My patent instructor would stand in about 6′ of water, hold the board for me while I got onto my stomach on the board, and then tell me when to start paddling for the wave and let me go. I would make an attempt to stand, sometimes successfully, and then jump off quickly before I got too shallow, or fall off and tumble into the shallows. Then I would turn around and walk/swim the board back out through wave after crashing wave to my instructor. It was exhausting! I longed to simply get up on that board and take a long ride on the wave. I appreciate wakeboarding a lot more now. Give me a boat!
I read a fabulous Verge Network article today by Hugh Halter called “Cheap Church: Bi-Vocational Living.” In the article he discusses many issues that I have also been thinking about in terms of the way that churches are changing, and the challenge of leading a congregation in light of those changes. Some of these changes are financial, some are cultural, some are structural, and some are spiritual. And of course, all of these changes are interconnected. Major shifts in just one of these areas would be challenge enough for the Church, but right now all of these areas are changing at one time, and changing rapidly. It is like we are standing in waste-deep water on the beach, but rather than withstanding one wave, catching our breath, and then fighting off another, we are instead facing a massive tsunami that is way over our head and unrelenting! Some people see this happening and say that the Church in the U.S. will simply drown. Others say, “let’s get the surfboard!” Here are some brief thoughts on some of these challenges.
Emerging generations of Christians in the U.S. don’t give financially in the same way as previous generations. I’m not sure if I have read any definitive statistics on whether they give more or less, but I do know that they give differently. Hugh points out in his article that they prefer to give to things that have “meaning” – either something that they perceive to be making a big difference in the lives of others or something that gives them personal satisfaction. Compare this to previous generations that gave out of a sense of “loyalty” to an organization, and often in the church out of spiritual obligation to “tithe” (give 10%). This means that even if these young Christians are official members of a church they are probably not interested in giving most of their charitable donations to the church – especially since paying for staff, buildings, and utilities doesn’t check the “meaning” box.
The western church’s business model based on the expectation of growth, optimism, and promise of financial blessing has proven to be a consumer nightmare.
– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church
Churches of all kinds are feeling this pinch in their budgets and wondering how to move forward. Some dig harder into old habits, requiring members to pledge and running ongoing “stewardship campaigns” that are often thinly-veiled manipulation campaigns using modern fundraising practices laced with scripture. Others have adapted by allowing people to give to specific causes within the congregation (thus meeting the “meaning” standard). This of course leaves a smaller and smaller pool to cover the unsexy costs of keeping the lights on and the lawn mowed. And some are realizing that there are tectonic shifts happening that will require greater adaption by the Church. I appreciate that Hugh mentions the emerging economic realities in his article. Things like: the emerging generation of young adults will be the first in U.S. history to make less income than their parents, and most people have to remain mobile and moving in order to get better jobs.
As people lose their sense of stability, security and sustainability, their tendency is to move from generosity to scarcity—they simply won’t give like they used to. At present, the average Christian gives to the church at the exact percentage non-believers give to charities—just fewer than three percent.
– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church
Obviously some new ways of doing things are required. As a church planter, the one thing discussed often in my circles is the idea of a bi-vocational or “co-vocational” pastors. Of course, there are plenty of challenges associated with this, but there are also plenty of opportunities for further engagement of a pastor with the community. Another common assumption being challenged is that of the church building (often confusingly called “the church”). How much building do we need, and is the building being fully utilized or sitting empty most of the week? Are there other ways to use existing community space that might meet our needs? These two areas alone (staff & property) account for the bulk of most church budgets.
People, even those inside the church, are exhausted at giving to boxes or buildings whose influence is waning, and they simply won’t give to keep the lights on or pay the staff. They want to help real people with real needs.
– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church
If people don’t give financially in the same way that they used to, they also don’t attend worship and other church activities in the same way that they used to. And in my experience, this has less to do with any generational changes, and more to do with larger cultural shifts. I often tell people that I am lucky to see our church elders two Sundays a month! And that is not to disparage the elders, they are the ones elected by the congregation because of their spiritual maturity! This is to say that if even the most spiritually committed are at worship about 1/2 the time, that means that many others are going to be there even less than that!
As church attendance declines nationally, and as we fail on a global scale to see new disciples made, mega churches and growing churches are tasting what could be the last wave of transfer growth before the reality of the trends hit home.
– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church
There are definitely many reasons for this shift, and undoubtedly some of it has to do with increasing “competition” for people’s time from things like sporting events, kid’s activities, and endless entertainment options. Here in the Pacific Northwest, even a sunny day can be competition – and how do you compete with the sun? (Hint: you can’t!). Add to this mix the fact that many more people are working on Sunday mornings and on nights and weekends. Also, the fastest growing demographic in many U.S. communities are single-parent homes. I can’t imagine life as a single parent, but I can imagine how difficult it would be to get the family to a worship service after a hectic week! This is to say nothing about the access to endless content online with the click of a button. YouTube, podcasts, email subscriptions and more offer access to all kinds of Christian content from sermons by celebrity preachers, podcasts by professional theologians, to live-steaming videos of worship services and worship music on-demand. Some of this content is excellent, and some of it is garbage, and unfortunately few churches are doing anything to help navigate these waters.
The response to this in some churches has been to compete head-on! Make a consumer-oriented worship experience featuring the best live concert-style worship music, the most awesome venue, cutting-edge advertising and technology, entertaining preachers, etc. And of course, this will often result in what Hugh calls “transfer growth.” These exciting congregations will often attract consumer-Christians from older, traditional, smaller, or less-appealing churches. Other churches have responded by digging in their heals and holding on dearly to the way that they have always done things in the name of faithfulness and orthodoxy – even if it means that they will slowly die. They pretend that nothing has changed except for the level of sinfulness and compromise in the population at large.
Yes, there will always be churches that expand through transfer growth and that can keep their pastors paid and their churchy folks happy and safe, but what about the rest of us who are no longer content to simply exist in the religious zone?
– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church
All of this, in my opinion, misses the bigger problem. Churches of all stripes are failing to effectively make disciples in the world that we live in today (this topic is already the source of some of my other blog posts and will be again in the future). Time is precious, and people are less willing to spend it doing something that they perceive to have little value. The truth is, the Church does not need to compete at all, but it does need to think about new models. The Church already has the one thing that people desperately need and that they cannot find elsewhere: the community formed by Jesus living together on mission. This community can be structured in a lot of ways that work well in this cultural context – but it will necessitate new forms inspired by the Holy Spirit.
So are we at a moment of desperation or opportunity, or both? I suppose the answer to that question depends on whether we want to try to stand our ground and take on the waves, turn our backs and ignore the waves, or grab our surfboard and take a ride.
I just finished reading a fascinating blog post by Michael Brendan Dougherty titled “This Election Is God’s Judgment On Us.” He wrote this on the eve of the general election, before anyone knew what the result would be. I feel like I need to preface any following comments by saying that I am not sharing this to express my thoughts on the results of the presidential election but rather to reflect on what brought us to the point that we are at in American politics. Neither is this intended to endorse the author – this is the first post that I have read from him so I don’t know where he stands on other issues.
Here is an excerpt from the end of his post:
So these are the last of tens of thousands of words I’ve written in the run-up to this wretched election. I have lost my illusions about my political allies. Everyone seems to recognize the world tipping into craziness, and they respond by holding on tighter to their own version of craziness. Maybe this is mine. Roll your eyes if you like. I no longer fear Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or their fans. This election has taught me to fear God.
I have often said publicly, and I will continue to say, that I do not believe that God deals with nations now in the same way that God did before Jesus came to make everyone part of the family. It seems that in the years that I have been alive, every time something bad happens to this country there is some “Christian” leader somewhere hollering that this was “God’s Wrath” upon our nation. I think that this is absurd! To me it is just as ridiculous as the claim that every time we get sick or hurt that God is punishing us for something that we have done.
I do, however, find the argument compelling that part of experiencing “God’s Wrath” on sin is experienced when God allows us to corporately pursue our own demented desires to their final conclusion. In other words, even though there are undoubtedly faithful individuals within any society, the society as a whole will still suffer when God allows the masses to pursue rebellion and rejection of God’s desires for humanity. The author seems to imply that our two major party candidates for this election are examples A and B of this phenomenon. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that I agree with all that is said in the referenced article, that is not my point. I don’t. In fact, if you have the time to read it I would love to hear some of your thoughts and reflections because I think it is very well written and worth further digestion. But I do believe that this election is likely to have a terribly negative effect on many of the most vulnerable individuals in our society, and perhaps even more around the world. This makes me grieve and also causes me to repent of the times when I have remained silent or sent a tweet when in fact I should’ve been more involved in doing God’s kingdom work.
As I get older I find that very little of what I say or teach originally came from me. Sometimes I can remember where I read or heard something that I am saying, sometimes I can remember that it was not my idea but I cannot remember where it came from, and often I suspect that I forget altogether and take the idea as my own. Those are probably the best ideas. They hold so much truth that I “own” them.
Such is the case when it comes to one of my favorite things to say in response to those who want to start or reclaim a “New Testament Church.” I know this isn’t my idea, but I now claim it as my own. My response is this: “Which of the crazy, sinful, messed-up New Testament churches do you want to be like?” The reality is that most of Paul’s letters were written, in part, because there was a major problem in a particular church community. Even if we go to the earliest, and claim the first church in Jerusalem that we read about in the beginning of Acts as our ideal, we have to stop short in our reading. Otherwise we find racial tensions, people deceiving the church, and administrative problems.
Such has always been the case with the church. It isn’t a perfect community, but it is a community formed around the worship of a perfect God. Currently I am re-reading Eugene Peterson’s book, Leap Over a Wall, about the life of King David. In it I am finding a lot of inspiration for my current preaching series on 1st and 2nd Samuel, following the life of David. While reflecting on the story of David at Ziklag, Peterson writes this:
Every time I move to a new community, I find a church close by and join it–committing myself to worship and work with that company of God’s people. I’ve never been anything other than disappointed: every one turns out to be biblical, through and through: murmurers, complainers, the faithless, the inconsistent, those plagued with doubt and riddled with sin, boring moralizers, glamorous secularizes. Every once and a while a shaft of blazing beauty seems to break out of nowhere and illuminate these companies, and then I see what my sin-dulled eyes had missed: word of God-shaped, Holy Spirit-created lives of sacrificial humility, incredible courage, heroic virtue, holy praise, joyful singing, constant prayer, persevering obedience. I see “Christ-for Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/ To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
The phrase “biblical through and through” grabs me! A “biblical” church, if it reflects what we see in scripture, is made up of a thousand stories of sin and redemption, failure and hope. To be “biblical” in this sense is not to be moral, or to have good exegetical preaching, but rather to be in relationship with a Holy God that continues to work through the messy community of redeemed people that we call “the Church.” I wonder if all those “Bible” churches had that in mind when they put it in their name? Hmm… “Tidelands Bible Church.” That has a nice ring to it!
This past week I had lunch with a group of amazing pastors from the Stanwood – Camano Island area. This is a group that has been meeting about once a month for many years. Pastors have come and gone, but many of them have been serving in their current congregation for a very long time. And just to be clear: these are NOT Presbyterian pastors (there are no other Presbyterian churches here). These are pastors from a number of different denominations that gather to talk and support one another.
After we had lunch this past week I left marveling at their humility and genuine concern and support for one another (not for the first time). I reflected on how they so willingly allowed me to join them when I came to the area 18 months ago as the new church planting pastor. Not only that, but every time I meet with them I go away feeling encouraged, supported, and connected with the larger Church. I’ve often wondered: Would I be as supportive and caring to a new church pastor in our community if they were starting a new church?
When I think about this question I think back to when I was in staff in Marysville. When I search my heart honestly I have to admit that whenever I saw a sign or advertisement for a new church I often felt threatened and competitive. Why? Ok, sometimes their advertisements were basically saying: “We are way better than any other church! Come here and see what you are missing” (not in those exact words – but not far off). In other words, their advertising was clearly being directed at those already connected to other churches and offering the “new and improved version.” However, sometimes the advertisements were nothing more than a sign with a new church name, service time, and an invitation. Why would I or any other pastor/church leader feel threatened by that?
There are perhaps many different ways to answer that question, but probably the #1 reason this happens is when a person’s focus is not on Jesus and the Gospel but rather on the institutional church. Institutional focus results in the need to produce results and the measuring of success revolving around “butts, bucks, and building” (attendance/membership, money/budget, facilities/survival). Focus on the Gospel and on Jesus results in the ability to say (with the Apostle Paul) “…Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). The truth is, there are many people that have not yet believed the gospel and who do not have a church community. There is no reason for competition unless our goal is to get everyone already connected to a church to come to profess the same doctrinal statements and to leave their church and come to us.
So I am humbled and grateful for the many pastors that already serve this community and their friendship. I know that God has called us here to participate in what the Holy Spirit has already started. We know that we have a unique role to play, and that we are being called to disciple a unique group of people, but we are all part of Jesus’ body – the Church. My prayer is that as I continue in ministry that there will be more unity among church leaders and that I will be as humble, kind, generous, encouraging, and hospitable as the pastors of this community have been to me.
Recently my youngest son, Calvin (8 years old), made a comment about wanting to be a pastor someday. I don’t exactly remember how the conversation began, but it had to do with something at school where he had to answer that dreaded question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The conversation happened with both my wife and I present. With a mixture of pride and concern I asked, “WHY do you want to be a pastor?” His response: “It doesn’t take much energy.” My wife and I tried to hide our reaction as we both looked at each other wide-eyed.
My wife’s look said it all, because she knows exactly how much “energy” being a pastor requires of me. She sees me lying on the couch in a gelatinous pool of emptied humanity every Sunday after worship. She gets woken up on those nights when I can’t sleep because an important issue with a certain person is keeping me awake. She sees all the hidden hours of work that will never make it onto a timesheet – and so much more! Fortunately, I was able to keep my thoughts to myself and give him a generic response equivalent to: “That’s nice honey.”
Not much energy!? Where did that come from? I could’ve taken his meaning to be: you don’t work very much or very hard. But I have a sense that there is more to it than that. Let me explain.
Recently I was with some other pastors and we were talking about this very issue of “energy.” One woman shared a story about how her young children once explained her work as a pastor to others as “going to a bunch of meetings.” Another person shared that their child once described themselves as “living” at the church building. Unfortunately, these stories aren’t that uncommon.
When my wife and I were newlyweds, I took a job as a youth director at a church. It was our first time being exposed to what full-time paid ministry work looked like from the inside. Like many people we naively assumed that it would be a somewhat “easy” job. After all, I had spent seven years working in wildland firefighting where it wasn’t uncommon for me to put in over 1000 hours of overtime between June and September! 21 days on, 2 days off during the busiest times. How hard could ministry be in comparison?
I quickly discovered that not only was I putting in hours that well exceeded my expectations (including stretches extending at times to multiple weeks without a full day off), but many of those I knew in ministry were even busier. So busy, in fact, that my wife and I made a vow to each other that we would never allow our life to get out-of-control busy for the sake of ministry. Not that we weren’t willing to make any sacrifice to follow Jesus, but we didn’t believe that God desired for us to be burned-out casualties, with neglected children and a broken marriage, all for the sake of running church programs.
That brings me back to my son’s comment about wanting to be a pastor because it doesn’t “take much energy.” Does he think that my job is easy? I hope so! When we started Tidelands we had people questioning the wisdom of starting a church with a core team consisting of families with young children (I’ve questioned the wisdom of that myself many times in the past year as well). But we believed, and still believe, that if we couldn’t start a church while as the same time practicing self-care and raising our children well, then we were starting something that we didn’t want to be a part of anyway!
The truth is, I do work from home a lot right now since we don’t yet have an office in the community (we have a room in our shop that I use that is separate from the house). Even as I type this I am working from home with my kids around (they have a half day today from school and my wife is still working). So part of this probably has to do with perception: my kids see me a lot. I drop them off at school every morning. I pick them up from school every afternoon. But I also coach their soccer and help with their baseball – and that is intentionally part of our mission. Also as part of our mission, we have our missional community at our house every Sunday night for dinner and a meeting where all the kids are included. Last Sunday we went and worked as a missional community at a neighbor’s house that needed some yard work done with the kids’ help. Tonight we will be doing our monthly dinner out at a restaurant with our MC (including kids). So I believe that part of what my son means by, “it doesn’t take much energy,” is that he knows that I am very much a part of his life and the life of our family. I’m not locked away in an office somewhere running off to meetings every night of the week in order to keep programs up and running. I hope that is what he means.
I also hope that part of what he is trying to express is that he can see just how much joy is in my life because of Jesus. Despite being physically, emotionally, and even spiritually drained at times, I hope that he is noticing that because I am doing what I am called to do by God that I still have joy and energy left for him! I have peace rather than exhaustion when the day is done.
I recognize that all of this may come across as unnecessarily sanctimonious. I hope that it doesn’t. Just a couple of weeks ago my kids were complaining about me being at too many meetings because I had two nights in row when I had to be gone. So for them, even one meeting a week is too much! But I do hope that we as pastors (and parents in general) take the time to question whether we are modeling what life in Christ and life in the church community is supposed to be about. Are we converting people to Jesus’ way of living or something else?
The conversation came up again, and this time my youngest son told me again that he wanted to be a pastor. He said that my job was better than “mom’s” (she is an elementary school teacher). When my older son challenged him, he explained that my job was best because it was so important. It was important, he said, because I get to go out and tell people about Jesus that don’t know him yet. I was driving them home from school at the time, and I was so overjoyed that this was how he defined my work as pastor that I had tears in my eyes and almost had to pull over! I didn’t have the heart to argue with him, because I actually believe that telling people about Jesus is the job of every person in the church. For the record: I also believe that, in terms of impact for God’s kingdom, my wife’s job is much more important than mine. Someday, I hope he’ll understand that as well. In the meantime, I’ve tried to prove to myself that all that I’ve written here is valid by taking the time to blog in the midst of a day when my “todo” list is long enough to justify 1,000 hours of overtime!
I’ve been amazed at all of the media attention about the Oso landslide in recent days. Not only have I heard reports on regional and national news, but on world news as well (I was amused to hear BBC describe Oso as a “fishing village.”) This is the second time in the last year that this has happened. Last year the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit river collapsed and made headlines. Now it is a disaster on the Stillaguamish river drawing attention – and the tragedy is much worse because many lives have been lost. In both situations I had the surreal feeling of being close and yet so far removed from what was happening.
This one definitely hit close to home! We drive across the Stillaguamish River (“Stilly”) every day when we travel on or off of Camano Island. My boys and I enjoy fishing the Stilly for salmon every fall. Just this December we drove the stretch of highway that is now covered by the landslide on our way to get a Christmas tree. The bridge over the Stilly is the only land access we have to our island, so you can imagine that it was nerve-racking to hear people talking about possible flash flooding and debris damage to bridges downstream from the landslide. For the first 24 hours, whenever we drove over the island bridge we looked anxiously for the river flow to return to normal from the eerily low state it was in after being blocked by the landslide. Fortunately, this danger passed quickly and attention turned to all of those directly hit by the slide debris.
I have already talked to one woman in our church who has family with property destroyed by the landslide. Fortunately, they only use the place as a vacation home and no one was there during the slide. But the death toll continues to mount and the list of missing persons is still large. And yet, it seems a world away from us. We have been told that volunteers are not needed at this point because already there are too many people on scene and professional rescuers (including the National Guard) are doing their work. Money donations are primarily needed at this point (The Red Cross is actively involved). But beyond this it is hard to know how to help for now.
I can’t help but think that this is just the latest story in the media spotlight, and that attention will soon be focused elsewhere. The reality is, that while this disaster is huge for those of us who live in this area (and especially the residents of Darrington who have now lost their primary route to the urban Puget Sound region), soon the news stations will be bored and move on to the next sensation. In my mind, that is when the real help begins.
As I look at the pictures of homes laying wrecked in a mass of mud I can’t help but notice the similarity to the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf Coast (though this landslide is on a much, much smaller scale). I took a team down to work with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) roughly one year after the storms hit. At that point the media spotlight had moved on and what was left was simply a lot of work. People were trying to rebuild, trying to get insurance help, and living in small trailers where they once had a spacious home for their family. Businesses were closed and life was hard, but I was proud to see churches stepping up to help so long after others had moved on. I saw something similar in Cedar Rapids, Iowa when I went to work with PDA on flood recovery there after media attention had moved on and winter was setting in on homes still damaged.
That brings me to the main purpose of writing this entry. We live in a culture that has been programmed with a “commercial” mentality. Something grabs our attention for awhile, but then we become bored and want the next thing. Don’t bore us with details – just say it and move on! But this is not who the church is called to be. It is great that we can mobilize volunteers to go halfway across the country to help when tragedy strikes. It is great that we can raise lots of money to support those affected by disasters. It is good to gather in prayer for those facing loss. But the real work of the church comes when people are engaged in the lives of other people – when Christians live out the gospel so thoroughly that they are willing to commit to people for the long haul rather than look for the “quick fix.”
My sense is that theOso community is rather close-knit, and that there are deeply committed Christians already there and engaged. When, and if, they ask for help that will be the time for the larger church to step up. If that happens, it will likely be afterthe excitement of being a “rescuer” has passed, after national attention has turned elsewhere. Being a “first responder” might be a great adrenaline rush and might make us feel better about something that is ultimately out of our control, but being a “second responder” – out of the spotlight, pushing away the long-dried mud,listening to the grief of those still struggling with loss, speaking words of hope and doing deeds of love – that is the work of God’s church!
A sign of life in the form of a raised garden bed – Pearlington, Mississippi post-Katrina/Rita.
I’ve been working on some images that I hope will be helpful as we continue work on communicating what it means to be a church with a missional community structure. Part of the challenge is that we are still working this out ourselves as well. I got the idea for the following graphics from the “napkin theology” found on the Soma GCM site. I’ve posted some of their graphics on this blog before. They are definitely worth looking at. You can also find a free e-book of Napkin Theology by Seth McBee here.
Here are some that I have been working on: People are often confused when we begin to talk about missional communities. We were recently asked if we were a “commune!” I have found it helpful to tell people that we are striving to be a “congregation made up of missional communities.” Though I would prefer to say that our primary mode for being the church is through missional communities, I think that only brings up more commune-like images for those that haven’t seen it. I also don’t want to say that we are a church with many “small groups” of people in MCs. The idea of what a “small group” is in the church has taken on a life of its own (often very inward-focused) and we don’t want people to think it is just a new “small group program.” So for us, the worship gathering is still our touchstone every Sunday morning for all of our MC’s (right now we only have one). We have people that worship with us that are not part of a MC yet, and some may never be (but we hope they will give it a try). But our MC’s help fill in that large gap between Sunday worship and where we live the rest of the week.
The above image is obviously just an expansion on the first, showing the inward/outward nature of missional communities. We gather together to worship as “Tidelands Church,” but each MC is focused on sharing the gospel with a different “people group” in the larger community. The focus is outward!
I stole this idea directly from Seth’s napkin theology. His is much better and you can see it here. The most simple definition of a missional community is “a family of missionary servants.” I like this because it connects us into our identity in a triune God. We have one Father so we are family. We are all filled with the Holy Spirit and are “missionaries” to those around us. We all claim Jesus as our Lord and follow him in serving others. (John 13:13-17).
Again, the above image is an expansion on the previous idea. If we know that the identity of an MC is a family of missionary servants, then we can talk about how they function. In the graphic above I’ve given just some of the activities that an MC might do as they seek to live this out together. I could add a lot more, and probably need to move a few around, but I hope it conveys the idea. People always want to know: “What does a missional community do?” Really, that is like asking: “What does your church do?” In many ways each MC functions like a mini church plant: finding creative and effective ways to share the gospel to a particular people in a particular culture. We do a lot of activities as an MC, but the things that we “do” are always rooted in who we “are” in Christ and our desire to bring the gospel to bear in all of life. This is not a program, this is living as the church!
I hope these are helpful. Visuals always tend to stick with me better than simply listening or reading. If you’ve made it this far let me know what you think.
Take a look at the following article that addresses the idea of interaction during preaching in the worship service: “What You Can’t Say in Church.” I would love to know what other’s think or have experienced with this. At Tidelands worship gatherings I have tried to allow time after many sermons for questions and interaction. I have found that it is often one of the most profound moments in our time together. However, I also know that we are small and that is one of the reasons that we can get away with it. I like the idea presented in the above article though: Preach for a bit, ask a discussion question to be talked about with those seated nearby, and repeat. Of course, coming up with a worthy question would be the key.
I just recently returned from “Soma School” in Tacoma, Washington. Jeff (another one of our leaders) and I spent a week living with and learning from the Soma community. They are a church based on missional communities that has done an excellent job training and equipping church planters. The “school” session that we were a part of was videotaped and will be a available on their website in the coming months for anyone to use. They already have audio up from previous schools.
I could share a ton more here, but if you’re interested you can check it out for yourself. What I really want to share has to do with some of my “takeaways.”
The first is simply this: As a church (and as pastors/leaders) we need to remain grounded in “being” rather than “doing.” Four questions to help us stay grounded in this are:
Who is God? (Theology)
What has God done? (Christology)
Who are we? (Ecclesiology)
What do we do? (Missiology)
When we get these in the correct order we stay grounded in the Spirit and empowered by who we are in Christ. If we get these in the wrong order we can fall into the trap of relying on our own strength rather than the Spirit’s power. We can also work backwards through these questions when we are anxious/worried/in crisis (i.e. What are we doing right now? What does what we are doing say about what we believe about ourselves, what we believe about what God is doing/has done, and what we believe about God?). While I’m certainly not expressing this as well as they do at Soma, I find it to be a very simple and helpful way of evaluating both the church and our own lives.
The second “takeaway” for me is less academic. I believe that we are on the right track with our first missional community and that we will begin to see more “fruit” from it in the next couple of years. We are building many great relationships with people that do not yet know Jesus. We have found many ways to be a blessing to our community without expecting something in return. Even with all of the support and amazing leadership available at Soma, many of their missional communities seem to take a couple of years to really begin to mature. I love that there is an amazing simplicity in all that they do that constantly brings people back to Jesus. All of the structure and planning is meant to serve a life and a community focused around Jesus. We can do this!