Thursday, September 22, 2011

On being and becoming truly missional: a personal journey

Today I was pointed to an excellent and thought-provoking blog post by a former classmate of mine hit the web.  The Reverend Doctor Lucas Woodford posted, “Getting the Message Out or Getting the Message Right?” on his blog at  I encourage you to go and read it, as it forms the impetus for this, the first blog post I have felt compelled to write in many, many months.

I’m writing today as a man on a rough and difficult journey.  It’s a journey in which I’ve seen my dreams shattered and the future of my vocation threatened.  On this journey, I’ve been driven to reevaluate basic, fundamental, underlying assumptions of mission and ministry, and I’ve been repeatedly shocked to discover how much I’ve had to learn.  I’ve gone from a man who had specific notions about what I wanted to achieve and where I wanted to be in ten years’ time to a man who wakes up every day not knowing what the challenges of the day will bring and not being entirely certain if I have the wherewithal to face them. 

In short, in encountering the real, stubborn face of pastoral ministry, my grandiose dreams and plans of “mission” have been burnt from me.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when I believed myself to be fully missional.  I spouted statements to fellow pastors that were both bold and brash.  I believed that to be missional, one simply had to follow the standard playbook: Attract people to church with a worship band with a cutting-edge sound, relax the unwritten rules of worship to allow people to feel more comfortable, dress down, preach relevant sermons on topics that people wanted to hear, generate a buzz in the community through advertising and events. 

But beyond that, I believed that the traditional church was dying.  Populated only by selfish, self-centered, out-of-touch pew-warmers that Amish-ly insisted upon living in a different era, those in the traditional church were not interested in proclaiming Christ to their neighbor.  In pastoral gatherings, I advocated simply shutting down dying churches and giving their resources to churches that were genuinely reaching out.

I wasn’t the only one.  Surrounded by a circle of like-minded, missional friends, we talked of turning the world upside-down.  No goal was unattainable, and in fact the size of the vision we had for the church was the marker of the degree of our faith in Christ.  Small pastors with small faith had small dreams.  Big faith was demonstrated by big visions.  Though we did not suppose life and ministry would be without challenges, we did believe that through the strength of our leadership and the courage of our vision, we would prevail and people would flock to our churches.  Many would be saved.  Mission would be accomplished.

And then something happened.  I failed at planting a church.  And on the heels of that failure I found myself relegated to a small, traditional church in rural America.  A church that in many ways had her glory years behind her.

Though some will tell you otherwise, I took my time.  I watched.  I observed.  I remembered my lessons from seminary in which I was advised to learn the church and community before introducing changes.  I bumped my nose on numerous unwritten rules.  I barked my shins against unspoken expectations.  And in the process, I formed, evaluated, and re-formed many, many ideas as to what “mission” looked like in the life of the church.

In observation and good old-fashioned trial and error, God began to teach me the dangers of substituting activity for mission.  I watched other churches busily grow and thrive under the influence of capable leaders, but when I searched for indications of people growing in Christ, I saw very little.  These churches taught me that you can draw a crowd by being an exciting place to be in, but having crowds in and of itself did little to accomplish true church growth—the growth of a church community in their understanding of Christ’s redemption.

Again, through observation and trial and error, God also taught me the dangers of substituting new methods for mission.  Very early on, I recognized that while I could—if I so chose—by claims of pastoral authority and by sheer will force new methods upon the church.  I could—again, if I so chose—force the church to have a very different public face: making worship look radically different than it had been, changing the old, staid church name to something new and far more catchy.  I could re-brand the church using images and techniques and technology.  But I wanted the people to love Jesus.  Stripping away their history and identity would only serve to distance them from the church and from genuine mission. 

Through observation, insight, and yes, error, I came to realize that I had been guilty of the sin of idolatry.  I had idolized methods.  I had idolized vision.  I had idolized mission.  And true to form, idols always lie.  They always promise what they cannot deliver.  The always draw you further away from—and not closer to—the One you truly need to be close to. 

It was as a pastor that I finally learned the true, undying value of grace: that though God never denied that I was a mighty sinner, nevertheless in Christ He had bound Himself to me, and pledged to remain united to me for all eternity.  I learned to put to death my hopes of redeeming myself through the works-righteousness of activity.  I learned to confess my sin of putting faith in the greatness of my faith.  I learned to hear His voice and believe Him when He said, “I now forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  I learned to covet not a bigger, better, fancier church, but the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of my sin.  I learned to lay aside my idols and instead run to the places where He had promised His Spirit would always be working: His Word and His Sacraments. 

In other words, I learned to live with Jesus.  To trust in His love for me, rather than trying to prove my love by living for Him.

And still, through the depths of pain that only dying to self genuinely produce, I realized that all along I had really only wanted one thing:  I wanted people to be redeemed by and know and love the same Jesus that had redeemed, known, and loved me.  And I realized that while Jesus had indeed used many different activities, many different methods, and many different technologies to draw me ever closer to Himself, that there had always been one, single, underlying common denominator in it all: the voice of the One, True God calling out to me, saying, “Come unto me, you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.” 

I still consider myself missional, but not because I want to use a particular method or approach, but because I want to tell people about Jesus Christ.  When I see complacency inside the church, I desire the complacent to grow in Christ.  When I see the lost in my community struggle through their lives without Jesus, I want them to know His peace.  When I see people die without Jesus, I am heartbroken over the future they are denied, but could have had.  I want to spend my life with Jesus telling people about Jesus.

As to what method is used to proclaim Him, I’m unconcerned.  It doesn’t matter much to me if a rock band is playing or if a pipe organ is thundering.  Not as long as people are clearly and deliberately pointed away from their idols and clearly and deliberately shown Christ. As long as they are drawn away from focusing on the glitz and glamour of what we do and shown the stark, humbling reality of what He has done, I will be satisfied.

But I am no longer guilty of the sin of idolizing mission, because I have learned to take my focus off my work of mission and instead look to God’s work of mission to me in Christ.  I have learned that being “missional” is simply this: to point people to search for Christ in the things that He used to find me.  In other words, to proclaim Christ in His Word and to offer Christ in His Sacraments.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The beauty of brokennes and grace

Blessed is the one who has no one to trust in but God alone.

I recall meeting a pastor from Nigeria once, long ago.  As he spoke at my (then) home church one Sunday, he said some words that became deeply imprinted upon my heart . . . words that shaped my thinking.  He spoke of the poverty of the Christians in his home country lived in.  Even with their little resources, they were nevertheless a joyful people.  A people that loved to proclaim the goodness of the God who had redeemed them.  They were a people who had nothing but Jesus Christ.

It moved me so much that I tracked him down as the service was ending.  Tapping him on the shoulder, I waited for him to turn to me, and then I spoke words to him.  I said,

"People all over the world think that Americans are rich.  We have money.  We have nice homes.  We have our own cars.  We have large church buildings.  But you come to us and say that you and your people have nothing but Jesus."

"We are not rich . . . you are rich."

And this gracious man smiled the broadest smile, spread his arms open wide, and embraced me in a true African hug.  He laughed a large, joy-filled laugh, and his laughter was infectious.

That day, he and I spoke the same language.  Not English . . . we both knew that quite well.  But we spoke the language of the ones who realize the gift of being broken, poor, and being able to find comfort in nothing but Jesus Christ alone. 

Since that day, I have had many people come into my office at church.  Broken and disheartened, they have all said the same thing, "I feel like I have nowhere to turn but to Jesus Christ."

And inevitably, I have broken into a broad smile, spread my arms open wide, and embraced them.  With joy in my heart, I tell them how deeply they just blessed me by saying that.  And I tell them what a great gift they have been given:  The gift of finding true riches in life's poorest circumstances.

Hebrews 12:2, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."

The world has no shame that God cannot turn to glory.  The world has no sadness that God cannot turn to joy.  Because it is in those very moments that we find our idols have no power to save, our strength has no ability to lift us up, and all our wealth has no value.

It is in those moments that we see Christ most clearly, and we find that He dearly loves us with a love that cannot be broken.  

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Just for Stephanie

Just a little note to my lovely wife . . . because that's the kind of romantic fool I am.

The Proclaimers - I Would Walk 500 Miles
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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Perfectly unable to shut up

Jeremiah 20:7-9  7 O LORD, you deceived; me, and I was deceived you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me.  8 Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long.  9 But if I say, "I will not mention him or speak any more in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.

There is a curious truth revealed in the prophet Jeremiah’s life; the truth that at one point or another proclaiming the life-giving Word of God could (will?) cost you very dearly.  And at that point, every fiber of your natural being will command you to zip your lip.  It will seem advice most wise.  It will seem most comfortable. It will seem most sensible.

But you will be perfectly unable to shut up. 

And there you will stand, frantically clasping your hands over your mouth, eyes widening with horror that you are unable to control or contain the Words of God that come tumbling unbidden off your lips, a spiritually sanctified Tourette’s.  You will wish you had never started to speak.  You will regret the coming emotional pain that your words have now made inevitable.

This is the humanly undesirable flipside to the Holy Spirit being a consuming fire.  Everyone wants to see the raging fire burn, but no one wants to be personally consumed by it.  We live lives that desperately cry out for God’s influence and direction, but strive mightily against Him when He actually does take charge.

We want to be in control.  To determine what is spoken when.  To pick and to choose this Word over that, to boldly proclaim this utterance and quietly ignore another.  And all along, we deceive ourselves into believing that the raging forest fire of the Holy Spirit is safely contained behind our handcrafted firewall.  God is safely in His box.

But fires need to be fed.  To contain a fire is to ensure that it will eventually die out.

So which would you rather have?  The dying embers and cool ash of a nicely contained, predictable God?  Or would you rather welcome the uncontained wildfire of the Holy Spirit that turns this way and that and who’s flames will on occasion burn even the hand of the one who wields it? 

Do you want to trust God to be God . . . or would you rather try to be Him yourself?

Monday, January 10, 2011

While I'm away . . .

Greetings, dear reader!

I've always wanted to say that.  It sounds so . . . so writerly.

But to the point at hand:  I want to take a moment or two to explain the dearth of recent posts and then to explain why that (most likely) will continue.

I have found myself in a position of needing to be employed on a part-time basis outside of the church.  This has put somewhat of a crimp on my schedule, and to be honest I've found it physically and mentally draining, as well.  As I largely use my blog as a place for creative, meditative, and spiritually-led writing, I have found that as of late I've had neither the time nor, frankly, the mental energy to put metaphorical pen to paper.

So while this is not by any means a good-bye, this is a notice that my blog posts will be a bit more sparse than what they already have been.  At such time when I can get a good grasp on how to ensure my family has the time from me they need, my church is being served to the best of my ability, my secular work is being done for the glory of God and the betterment of the company I work for, AND I find myself with the spare time, energy, and emotion to blog forth . . . well, things here will be a bit quiet.

I look forward to the day when we can speak again.  Until then, I'd appreciate your prayers as I learn once again to settle into a new and demanding schedule.