Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Beyond "I'm Right/You're Wrong" Thinking

One of the best things about my work is the fact that I serve churches across a variety of traditions. I find it a great honor to enter into the life, tradition, and culture of different streams of faith to see what God is already doing amongst a local church and help them develop small groups that fit them.

Last week, I had the honor or worshiping with, leading training sessions for, and interacting amongst the leaders of Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, TX. I participated in their high church service, their contemporary Uptown service, and their very Anglo-Catholic evensong service. Then I attended the morning service on Monday at 7:30 am. Because I wanted to understand them so as to help them shape small groups that fit them, I needed to pray and worship with them.  Their buildings which are under construction are pictured above.

This is a far cry from the low-church experience of most of my life. The picture below is of the church where I worshipped.

I must admit, I've not always had this attitude toward other traditions. I grew up Southern Baptist and to us our way was right and other ways were wrong. I'm not sure we knew why we thought this way, but our language definitely revealed how we thought we had a corner on the truth. The Pentacostals were "holy rollers." The Presbyterians and Lutherans were "liberals." The Catholics were "idolaters" because they prayed to Mary. And anybody who used a prayer book was just "dead, dry, and boring."

We were right. They were wrong.

While in seminary, I went to Russia on a missions trip with other students. We attended a Christmas Eve service at the grand Saint Isaac's Cathedral in the heart of Saint Petersburg (pictured below). When we arrived, an old lady was standing at the door trying to get people to make the sign of the cross. Lots of judgmental whispers were bantered around by our group. I thought "I don't need to do such things to pray to my God." 

We were right. They were wrong.
St. Isaac's Cathedral during the White Nights in St Petersburg, Russia
We were not trying to understand their worship practices. We were sitting in judgment of them. 

Of course, I have my convictions that shape the ways I worship. No one can embrace everything from every tradition. However, as I work with a variety of traditions I've learned three things.
First, in order for me to worship in my tradition, I don't have to assume that everyone else is wrong regarding the ways that they worship. If I have to critique traditions in order for me to hold the convictions that I hold, then I must not have very strong convictions. When I try to substantiate what I believe by tearing down others, this says more about the weakness of my own convictions   about those I am challenging.

Secondly, I can learn from other traditions. I can experience God with them. I can honor who they are and what God is doing in their midst. I can recognize the fact that I don't have a corner on THE truth about all things while at the same time embracing the convictions that I do have. Here's the shocker: I can even learn from other Christian leaders with whom I huge disagreements. We don't have to be an idealogue (that is one who things in terms of "my group is right/your group is wrong" categories) in order to serve God.

Thirdly, I don't have to convince other people of my convictions. I'm not afraid to enter into dialogue about differences in convictions, but there is no need for me to try and win people over to my way.

There is a much bigger world out there than what "my way is right and your way is wrong" thinking can handle. It's a world full of mystery, grace, and fullness. It's a world where others just might be able to see and experience God from an angle that I have not yet. This kind of thinking about other traditions has been good for my soul. I don't have to be "right" and I don't have to convince others that I'm right.

Let me conclude with this: This does not mean that I've become a relativist or that I am no longer standing up for what's true—two common go-to accusations of those who think in terms of "I'm right and your wrong" when I offer this perspective. If that were the case I would not be a writer because writing requires that I have convictions and that I believe them enough that I am willing to argue for them. It just means that I am free to offer my convictions without having to be entrapped by comparisons and the need to prove to others that I'm write.

This is a kind of freedom that I didn't even know that I needed to experience.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Ways We (mis) Read the Bible

Like many who grew up in the church, Sunday school small group Bible studies shaped my life. Then I added home Bible studies. Then I got involved in the early days of the cell church movement in the 1990s. Sermons, Bible studies, Bible teaching sessions, conferences—how could I ever count the hours of information that I've poured into my brain about the Bible.
Prayer A Powerful Weapon
My situation is not that uncommon. Many in the church know a lot about the Bible. I've even heard it say that we know more Bible than we can obey. As an alternative, many propose a focus on Bible application. So the point of a sermon or a Bible discussion time in a small group is to get people to the question of How can I apply this to my life? Or What am I called to obey as a result of this study? Or How is God calling me to respond to this passage?

I don't think that the problem in the church is having too much Bible information. Nor is it about having the right information. And I don't think the solution is Bible application. We don't need more talk about specific passages apply to our lives. As far back as I can remember, Bible application was a central part of the Sunday school lessons of my youth.

The real issue relates to our imagination that we have about the role the Bible plays in our lives. To help us see a different imagination related to how we read the Bible, let's think about it in terms of different kinds of travel literature.

• Travel Encyclopedia-with this imagination the Bible is a repository of facts about God. We boil these facts down into theological principles, assuming that if we get the principles right that we know God. It's like reading a travel book about London without ever visiting actually getting on a plane and walking its streets.

This imagination relates to the information-based reading of the Bible. The following relate more to application-based reading.

• Roadmap–many of us read the Bible to find direction for our lives that will show is the steps to get from here to there.

• Vacation Brochure—when we read a brochure, we are reading marketing copy that only promotes the positive attributes of a location. Often we read the Bible in the same way. We read and talk about the parts we like or makes is feel good.

• Emergency Manual—the Bible is a back-up guide when we get in trouble.

• A Critic’s Report—when we have this imagination we use the Bible to assess ourselves and others. We often use it to prove how right we are and how wrong others are. 

The next one sees the Bible a bit differently and might I say a way that most of us will find challenging.

• Travel Narrative—this imagination tells a story of how others have participated (or failed to participate) in God's life and invites us into the imagination of that story. Barry Harvey put it this way, “The Bible provides nothing like a map that charts the precise path for us to follow into the future. What it does give us is the travel itinerary of God’s people, that is, the story of their pilgrimage as strangers and foreigners through this world toward the kingdom of God. ... An itinerary, by contrast, consists of a series of performative descriptions designed to organize our movements through space: “to get to the shrine you go past the old fort and then turn right at the fork in the path.” (Barry Harvey, Can These Bones Live)

We don't know too much of the Bible. We don't know enough. That's the problem. We need to talk less about how we can apply the Bible to our lives and talk more about enter the other world of the Bible, the alternative universe, the radical contrast of God's story. Then we can allow that story to shape who we are, how we act, and what we apply to our lives. This is not knowledge for the sake of knowing the fact, but neither is it knowledge for the sake of application. It's knowledge for the shaping how we see the world. And the only way to see the world, God and ourselves differently is to enter into and embody the story of this travel narrative.

Of course we will know the facts, and we will be able to apply the Bible to our lives, but this imagination is radically different. It's different in this way: in all of the other ways of the reading the Bible, I as a reader have the control. I can mine the Bible so that I can get out of it what I need. When I read it as a travel narrative, I have to submit myself to the Spirit to draw me into God's story.

As a travel narrative, we read it, we study it, but we also make room for it to enter into our souls. This occurs as we walk out the story ourselves, and along the way struggle, fail, get back up and sometimes experience victory, on the way. We read the Bible well, otw, as we walk the journey with the travel narrative in hand.

This has application to both our private reading of the Bible and in our small group conversations. More on this in my next post.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Today: A New Beginning

"A new beginning! We must learn to live each day, each hour, yes, each minute as a new beginning, as a unique opportunity to make everything new. Imagine that we could live each moment as a moment pregnant with new life. Imagine that we could live each day as a day full of promises. Imagine that we could walk through the new year always listening to a voice saying to us, "I have a gift for you and can't wait for you to see it! Imagine!" Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 16

Autumn dawnFor years, I would read a Henri Nouwen book about once every 12-18 months. I would mark it up, take notes, and copy quotes like this in my journal. Then I would put the book aside and think, "Well, I'm just not there yet."

Upon reading his stuff, I would get what he is saying conceptually, but my soul didn't get what he was really saying. I felt like a little league baseball player watching the high school team practice.

Then I realized that I had never been through the periods of wrestling with God like I read about in Nouwen's journals, with all of the brutal honesty, the willingness to deal with reality, the courage to step out of security (leaving his professorship at Yale), and searching his soul for his true vocation. His walk with God was so full of ups and downs and that shaped his spirituality.

I, on the other hand, had a view of spirituality that looked like a staircase, one that presumed that the path with God was one of continual ascent. Victory unto victory. Overcoming unto overcoming. Success unto to success. Any struggle, any failure, any down periods, only meant that I needed to pump myself back up and move up to the next level on the spiritual staircase.

But what do you do with the struggles?
What do you do with the doubt?
What do you do with the fear?
What do you do with all of the stuff that does not look like victory, overcoming or success?

Well, you listen to the sermon, you claim the victory, you press on with the truth. When your imagination is shaped by a staircase view of spirituality, there is little room for such honesty. After all, it might get in the way of ministry. It might prohibit the work of the church. It might derail the work of God.But the struggles, the doubts and the fears don't go away. And any promises of a "new beginning" only looked like pipe dreams. 

I was drawn to the simple vulnerability of Nouwen and the doors into the life of God that it seemed to open up for him.

This "new beginning" is not about the journey of continue progression up the mountain with God. The journey with God traverses both mountain trails and valleys. (See Ps 23.) We can only embark on this new beginning as we offer our reality, our honest selves to the Lord. As an old friend told me once in college, "God can handle your honesty." Here we find the reality of a "day full of promises." They won't come like we expect, but our expectation will open our eyes to see God's gift in ways that we cannot predict.

Of course this applies to our personal relationship with Jesus, but it also relates to the way we walk with others in community. The journey with others—whether in our families, in our small groups, or with a few friends—will advance to the degree that we give room to one another to be themselves. As soon as we project expectations of moving up the stair steps with God, then we actually jerk the rug out from one another. The only way to advance is to make room for reality. That's where the gift of God comes in unexpected fashion.

Picture Credit: Creative Commons License James Jordan via Compfight

Friday, March 7, 2014

4 Ways to Fix Un-Community in Your Group—NOT!

In yesterday's post, I asked the question related to why it is so hard for people to enter into community. Most of the time, we look for ways to fix this problem.  They usually come in the form of "6 Ideas for Taking Your Group to the Next Level" or "3 Sure-Fire Ways to Turn Your Group Around."
Work in Progress
Posts like that are needed. But this is not one of those. Sometimes I think we try to fix the problems in our groups without going deeply enough to identify the real issues. So we medicate the lack of community, while we become numb to what the Spirit of God really wants to do.

The problem though is that the Spirit of God usually does not work as fast as we want him to. We want to "get over" the problem of the lack of community. While God wants to lead us into the painful reality that we are not very good at living in community. He wants to reveal show us that we don't know how to love others very well. That "considering others as more important than ourselves" (Phil 2) does not come naturally. That we cannot fix our need to protect ourselves.

We want the glorious experience of resurrection community, but we would like to jump over the cross and the grave to get to it. So we think in terms of, "If I just do a few things that have worked in other groups, then maybe we will experience community."

Here's the deep reality about life: There are forces at work in our culture that undermine bonding. Things like busyness, working long hours, stress from debt, long commutes, and the like. On top of this, the rootlessness of our society always provides a way out when things get tough in our relationships. So if one group becomes frustrating, all we have to do is switch to another.

In my opinion, these forces are much more than cultural. They are spiritual. C. S. Lewis once wrote, "Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, and you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage."

Living in community is an act of spiritual warfare and adopting a few ideas that are quick fixes to the problem might provide a short-term solution, but it won't train us in the ways of the kingdom. This is what Jesus came and demonstrated with his followers. "Over against the forces and powers ..., Jesus introduces an alternative pattern of communal life, a distinct set of personal habits and relations, and a different story in terms of which to make sense of all things on earth and under heaven." (Barry Harvey, Can These Bones Live, 78).

Through us and by the Spirit, Jesus enters into enemy-occupied territory to train us to be a community that lives in a distinct way in the midst of the patterns of the world. We are not to be conformed to the pattern of self as defined as independent from the community (see previous post). We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and this happens through community. When we read Romans 12:1-2 in the context of the entire chapter, we see that transformation is set in the midst of community. Transformation is not an individualistic experience.

So, what do we do as leaders to re-shape our group life? I'd like to offer four ideas that focus on the need to waste time with one another. If we are going to actually be a community, we have to learn how to be with one another without an agenda, without a purpose, without a need to produce something. In other words, one of the key ways to "take part in a great campaign of sabotage" is to learn to love one another in the midst of sharing the normal stuff of life. Here are some ideas:
  1. Hold a meeting that is centered around the question: What do you like to do in your spare time? Invite people to bring an artifact from their spare time experience, i.e. display something from their hobby, show clip from their favorite movie, read a passage from a book. Then talk about how your personal passions can be shared with others in the group. 
  2. Have a party. Who's birthday is next on the calendar? That person gets to be celebrated in a unique way. Or host a game night.
  3. Spend the next three meetings sharing your story about how you came to know Jesus and what you feel like he is doing in your life right now.
  4. Eat together, eat together, eat together!!!!!!!!!!!
These four ideas won't fix un-community. However, they can help generate an environment where people can learn to waste time with one another, and this gives space for people to let down their walls and connect in new ways. 

Picture Credit: Creative Commons License J L via Compfight

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Why Isn't My Group Experiencing Community?

 In a previous post, I wrote about how we our core being is defined relationally. We are socially formed. At the same time, this formation has shaped our personal identity in such a way that we set the self over against others. We are taught to look for our core identity apart from others, as if there is some kind of essential identity that is pure and untainted that can only be found in the individual, isolated soul.
film night | self portrait  
This sets up a problem that often goes unnoticed when we try to establish small groups. We tell people that they need community, that we are created as social beings in the triune image of God, and that the Bible tells us that we are called to love one another. Then we organize people into groups and give them curriculum to talk about each week. Thus far things are heading on a good track.

But something happens. The group doesn't move beyond the Bible study experience into community. People say that they want to love one another, but the group struggles to open up. People start making excuses to miss. The energy in the meetings wain.


So we try to fix the problem. Some of the common options might include:
  • Call people to a higher level of commitment.
  • Get a new kind of curriculum.
  • Take a break for the summer.
  • Have a party.
  • Get some training on how real groups should operate.
  • Create short-term groups where people can easily switch groups on a regular basis.
While there is some merit to all of these things—I've seen each one help a group take it up a notch—there is no magic pill.

However I do think there is an issue that we have to face if we want to experience group life as all of the books talk about. We have to deal with the Western idea that arises out of the Enlightenment that the individual self is independent from the community. Here are three quotes from The Relational Being by Kenneth Gergen that have bearing on how this view of the self undermines small group life:

"If the self is primary, then relationships are secondary in their importance to us. We must be forever cautious about connection. Relationships will inevitably place demands on the individual; expectations and obligations will develop; norms of right and wrong will be imposed. If we are not very careful, our freedom will be destroyed" (17).

"If we see relationships as secondary and artificial, we will seek them out primarily when they are required for our personal use or satisfaction. In this sense, a committed relationship is a subtle mark of insufficiency. It suggests that we lack something. We are so vulnerable that we sacrifice our autonomy" (17).

"Living our lives in the first-person singular stands in the way of strong bonds. Self-narration essentially solidifies a boundary between self and others. We recognize each other as fundamentally embarked on separate journeys. In this case, bonding requires that we accept 'unnatural' constraints on individual autonomy. Choosing to 'go my own way' is seldom questioned" (176).

Here's the deal: As long as people embrace this view of the self as over against the community, then strong bonds will be difficult to form. So what do we do about this?

If you have ideas about this, I'd love to hear them. In the next post, I'll propose a few.

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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Are We Building Small Groups on a Lie?

Cover for 
Relational Being

I'm reading a mind-blowing book entitled Relational Being by the psychologist Kenneth Gergen. He is confronting the paradigm through which we understanding ourselves, which he calls "bounded" identity. That is, we have grown up in a world where we view ourselves as individuals first, as if there is a core identity that we possess that is independent and distinct from our relationships to other people or to our world. In other words, we tend to think about self in one category and our community in another.

He lays out the falsehood of this view of the self by demonstrating how we cannot even understand our identity apart from our relationships. The most basic illustration of this is found in the way we are born into a family. We learn how to talk, how to think, and even how to reflect about our own identity from those who care for us as children. Our identity is wrapped up in social interaction.

This takes us beyond typical ways of talking about individualism and the need for isolated people to experience community, and therefore small groups. We talk about how disparate and disconnected individuals "need community," about how we are made in the image of God who is triune and therefore social, about how we are social creatures. We use such arguments as a foundation for small groups. But we still talk in terms of individualism. You, as an individual, need a small group. You, as an individual, will benefit and grow in your relationships with God through a small group. You, as an individual, will learn how to serve God in mission through a group and thereby discover your personal spiritual gifts. While all of this is true, too often we end up only promoting small group experiences as a conglomerate of individualists.

We are working within the assumed paradigm of "bounded" identity, that each is an individual who has an independent identity apart from the group experience. We assume that this "bounded" identity is given first before there is any interaction with others or within a culture.

But here's the thing, this view of a "bounded" identity is something that has been passed down to use by our culture and through others who have thought about themselves in the same way. The idea of "bounded" identity did not arise within each of us independently. We've been formed by it socially.

The problem is that it creates a false identity of self. While the idea of a "bounded" is actually a lie, it still shapes how we view ourselves.

Our identity is shaped socially. Other people impact how I see myself. The way I think, talk, interact, and experience life is formed as we interact. Gergen states, "In all that we say and do, we manifest conditions of relationship. In whatever we think, remember, create, and feel—in all that is meaningful to us—we participate in relationship" (133).

Here's the thing I want to explore over a few posts: If we do small groups in a way that leaves the "bounded" identity in tact, are we in effect just feeding a lie? Are we actually hindering people from experiences a new reality of their identity? I know that we have to work with people where they are and then lead them into a new experience, but I question whether we are really leading them into that new experience. There's a lot here to think through.

I leave you with this question today: How does our view of "bounded" identity impact group life?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Team Leadership & the Early Church

Last week, I wrote about five things we can learn from small group house churches from the first three centuries. Actually there is a sixth, but the last one is so significant—and so often overlooked in our day—that it merits its own post. This attribute of the early church is related to how leadership operated in early house churches; it was team based.
teamwork 5 If we are academically honest about how we understand the history of the early church, we have to admit that we have very little detailed data about how leadership operated. Some have argued therefore that the early church was absolutely flat, that there were no appointed leaders. Then there are others who read the modern approach of singular leadership into the early church. We cannot read the New Testament to find some kind of house church leadership manual. We have to enter into the story and read between the lines. And we must be careful not to read our current experience into theirs.

New Testament theologian, Gilbert Bilzekian, wisely states, "Whatever leadership structures existed in the early churches, they were inconspicuous, discreet, self-effacing, and flexible. ... They were invisible servants, whose role is to equip the body" (Community 101, 97).

New Testament leadership was not about hierarchy, determining who is in charge, or leadership recruitment strategies. Leaders led out of their character, their knowledge of God, and their love for others. They would have formed a set of people to whom others would have naturally looked. Michael Green comments on how this kind of leadership would have naturally operated:

"Leadership was always plural: the word 'presbyter' from which we derive 'priest' is regularly used in the plural when describing Christian ministry in the New Testament. They were a leadership team, supporting and encouraging one another, and doubtless making up for each others' deficiencies" (Evangelism in the Early Church, 25).

It's safe to conclude that the early churches did not operate around the modern idea of a singular leader. But we insist in our modern group strategies that we build groups around individuals. We do this with small groups, cell groups, missional communities, and ... well you get the picture.

The standard approach to group leadership is to develop leadership on a 1:10 ratio: one leader (or couple) for ever ten members. Missional Communities often have a larger ratio, often 1:50. Of course we say that the goal is to develop apprentices so that they can lead a group on their own in the future, but apprentices are future leaders. I see five problems with individualistic leadership:
  1. The leader feels like it's his or her job to make the group work. 
  2. The group looks to leader to make the group work. This in combination with #1 causes the group to be leader centric instead of Christ centric. The fact that this issue is so little discussed in the literature on small groups and missional communities baffles me. 
  3. There are usually some things required of a leader that he or she is not good at doing. As a result the leader ends up expending inordinate energy trying to improve weaknesses instead of investing that energy on things which he or she is good at doing. For instance, a leader could be great a leading meetings, but horrible at providing care and follow up during the week. 
  4. Leaders never get a break. Can you say burnout? I talk to too many leaders who secretly confess to me how tired they are from leading their group, but they don't want to tell their pastors because they know how important small groups are.
  5. An individual or even a couple working together usually cannot establish a culture for the rest of the group to enter. You might say that it's the responsibility of the entire group to set the culture, and I guess in an idealistic world this would be the case. However, usually the group at large sets the culture around the lowest common denominator, leaving the leader asking what he or she is doing wrong. 
Team-based, small-group leadership would have an impact on our group strategies in the short run. I know many pastors who balk at this idea because they immediately do the math: 1/2 the number of groups. I'm not saying that we need to make some kind of radical shift from singular leadership to team leadership. That won't work. The problem is the fact that we have developed a church culture that is founded upon individualistic leadership. We need to

What think you? 

See Michael Mack's excellent little book The Pocket-Guide to Burn-Out Free Small Group Leadership. 

If you want to explore more about how leadership operated in the early church, there are some great academic reads on this subject. Joel Comiskey has written a very accessible introductory text entitled, Biblical Foundations for the Cell-based Church.

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