Monday, April 25, 2016

Rhythms of the Jesus Way: Relating

In the previous post, I introduced the rhythm of Communion. In what follows I want to talk about the rhythm of Relating. I've struggled with what to call this rhythm through the years. Something like community or life together flows of the tongue much easier. But there's a reason why I use this word. Let me explain. 

In Western society, friendships are expendable. When we try to connect with others, we often ask questions like, “What’s in this for me?” or “How can this benefit my life?” or “What’s this going to cost me?” Relating does not come naturally to us. Loving others is not something that we do very well or very easily. 

It’s easy to criticize this fact. We describe the experience of individualism, isolationism, loneliness, selfishness, etc. Over the last few decades, cultural observers have used images like the lonely crowd, bowling alone, the saturated self, a society of strangers, intimate strangers, the myth of individualism, and many others. There has never been a time in the history of mankind when we have practiced a way of life that is driven by such isolation. While it's easy to diagnose the problem, it’s a lot harder to talk about my own individualism. And it's even hard to actually do something about it.

Imagine that you are in a conversation with a historian who lives 200 years from now. Somehow she has developed the technology to send you an questionnaire so that she can better understand life in the twenty-first century. Her research is not delving into the history of war or politics, which is the normal stuff for history classes. She is focusing on everyday life to determine how people lived.

She asks you, “What words might she use to describe how we live today?” Every time I lead a group through this process, the words used always include things like:
  • Fast-paced, frenzied, time-crunched 
  • Lonely, isolated,
  • Productive
  • Unsettled, transient 
  • Binge watching
  • Extended family scattered
  • Controlled by fear
  • Fast-food
  • Exciting, exhilarating 
  • Technology-driven
  • Rootless
Then she asks you a follow-up question: “What words might use to describe how people ‘do relationships’ today?” Do these words come to mind?:
  • Avoidance of Conflict 
  • We have too many 
  • Overwhelming 
  • Social media-driven (Facebook and Twitter) 
  • Paper-thin 
  • Surface 
  • Short-term 
  • Nice
We know that this is how most of us do life. And we know that it's not how we were made to do life. We were made for relationships, but it seems that we don't do them very well. Groups become the natural go-to fix and churches organize people into groups with hopes that people will somehow develop different patterns simply because they join one. However, we end up with groups of individualists who are trying to connect on a regular basis, but they are not relating in a way that expresses the life of unity. It’s almost as if we are trying to merge individualism with community and hold on to both at the same time, an act of futility. Individualism is based on a certain set of life practices that stand in contradiction to the practices of community, and it keeps groups mired in mediocrity.  

So we use groups to form some kind of relationships that we can produce if we put enough effort into it. And we write books and hold conferences that talk about how great it is. Putting a group of individualists in the same room for a meeting once a week is a good start, but it’s not the goal. 

It's not relating in the way of Jesus. 

The Russian Orthodox pastor Seraphim Sigrist was shaped by an underground church during Soviet reign. He writes, “Community life is a journey toward, and an entering into, a space that is immensely greater than the combination of all personal spaces, and into a life that is far more than that of all our separate lives taken together.”

This is a new space where who we are as a group is far more than what we add up to be as group members. Here the “I” is grounded in “we.” In other words, who I am is shaped by who we are together.

And in this sense, I become far more in the midst of this “we” than “I” am when I’m trying to hold on to my individualism.

This does not mean we give up our individuality. Instead our individuality flourishes when we enter into the Jesus way of relating.  Russian theologians have used the word sobornost to describe this. This word is hard to translate into English. Sigrist writes that at the heart of sobornost is “sharing life together without any loss of your true self; we are no longer isolated from each other and no longer isolated from the whole of God’s creation.” We become our true selves while at the same time become more than ourselves. How’s that for a paradox?

This is far more than the development of a small group program or of some kind of organic missional community experience. It actually is not something that we produce at all. It's not something that we make happen. It's something that we enter, that we participate in as we love the other in the presence of Christ. We love each other through Christ who stands between us by the Spirit and in the same way we are loved. 

This is mystery. This is the reason why I use the awkward word "relating" to describe this rhythm. We know what it means but in all honesty, we only enter into this dynamic when we realize that we don't know how to do it. 

—Adapted from Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus, pages 58-59

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Rhythms of the Jesus Way: Communion

Churches want the Jesus way, or at least that's what we confess. It seems like most church leaders like the idea of talking about the simple purpose of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. Some use the five purposes as developed by Rick Warren. Others use the Up-In-Out idea (Mike Breen). There are lots of ways that people talk about. We know that God wants us to live the way that Jesus did, in communion with the Father, in loving relationships with one another and in gospel engagement with our world.

We could diagram the rhythms of the Jesus Way like this:


We all want this in our churches as a whole, in our small groups or missional communities, and for individuals. But how do we get it? Saying that we want it and even setting up a plan to get it is one thing. Actually leading people into it is another.

Is more training what we need? Will more sermons or teaching on the topic change things? How about another book?

Yes, yes and yes! We need all kinds of proclamations that call out of the normal and present the vision for the way of Jesus. But if we’re leading a others, whether the church as a whole or a small group of people, we need something slightly different. Vision proclamations of what God wants for us might open the door, but they won’t necessarily change the way we live. For that, leaders need ways to ask questions and foster conversations. When we ask good questions, we provide opportunities for people to discover for themselves what the Jesus way means for them. For instance:
  • How does the kingdom contrast with the ways of the world, especially in Western cultures? 
  • What does it mean to love God when the world is pulling us in ways that are unloving? 
  • How do things like workaholism, our addiction to power, our need for entertainment and other common patterns hinder the kingdom? 
In the next few posts, I offer some questions around three rhythms of group life that form us in the way of Jesus. These three questions have at their center the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). The first is the rhythm of communion.

The Questions of Communion

Leading with predetermined answers instead of questions propagates this clinging to others because we naturally try to connect to others in order to fix our loneliness. We join a small group and try to relate to others the way we are supposed to do, as outlined by the book or by the pastor. Isolated people try to fix their isolation by clinging to others. Even those who seem strong and independent connect to others in order to get their needs met. We cling like hungry leeches, assuming that this is the way we’ll find answers to our loneliness.

The alternative to relating directly to others is to relate to one another in the “space between.” That is the space where Christ exists. The most direct path to ministry is communion with Christ. The only way to relate well is to cling to Christ, the one who lives in the space be- tween us. Nouwen writes:

We are connected not as individuals who cling together like melded metals but as individuals who are in Christ, and Christ is in us who are joined together for a journey. The Christ in me is united with the Christ in you. And the Christ in us draws us together. This is not about clinging to each other but mutual identity in Christ.
  • Where is the deep loneliness within me?
  • How do I tend to cling to others to fix my loneliness? 
  • What does it look like for me to find myself in Christ? 
  • How can I share this struggle to find myself in Christ with others in my group?
In the next post, we will introduce the Questions of Relating and Belonging

—Adapted from Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus, pages 55-58

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Pressure To Be a Heroic Pastor

As I sat around the table over lunch with the pastoral staff of a large church in Tennessee, I asked them to share how they practiced sabbath. The senior pastor started off by saying, "I enjoy my job so much. I find that I don't need one." As I consulted with the leadership, it became clear that the life of the church revolved around him and his gifts. He was always speaking, always leading, and always setting the agenda.

When I landed at the Kansas City airport to lead a weekend of training, the pastor was there to pick me up. He told me that he could not spend much time with me outside of the formal meetings. He had to make some hospital visits, lead a wedding rehearsal, officiate the wedding and then preach three times. He confessed, "I'm so glad my wife and kids are so patient with me. I never see them."

Such stories, sadly, are not uncommon. As I work with churches, in most cases I find that pastors are pulled in impossible ways to accomplish impossible tasks. To meet expectations would require superpowers. While this is not new in the history of the church, the current situation adds additional pressure. Churches are struggling. What once worked great, and the things we learned to do in seminary are no longer working. Then there are all of these great leaders of mega-churches telling us how we can become like them.

And one more thing: the missional conversation. Now pastors must not only lead the church organization, but they must also lead their people into mission because people don't come to church any more.

Pressure, pressure, pressure.

Last week, I wrote a post on problem of heroic Christian leadership. I first reflected on this a few years ago while reading Improvisation by Samuel Wells. In this great book, the author writes about the difference the nature of a hero and contrasts it with the New Testament word "saint" (pages 42-44). He names five distinctions between the two. I want to uses these distinctions to help us understand some about the pressure to be heroic.

First of all, the hero is at the center of the story because the hero is the one who makes the story worth reading. Wells writes, "The hero steps up and makes everything turn out right." On the other hand, a saint does not make the story work because he is not at its center. At best, he is a peripheral character as the protagonist or the primary agent of action is God.

The second difference between a hero and a saint is found in the story itself. The story about a hero is told to celebrate the greatness of the hero and how he or she rose above the crowd to overcome horrible circumstances and do what no one else could do. According to Wells, "The story of the hero is told to rejoice in valor. The story of the saint is told to celebrate faith." The saint may not have any great qualities that causes him or her to stand out or to accomplish great feats. The saint is merely faithful.

On a third level, the hero's story is distinct from that of the saint because the hero fights over a limited resources. The hero is trained to fight over competing goods, to defeat others who will lose out on those resources. Violence and the power of controlling others is core to the activity of the hero. Wells comments, "Whereas the icon of heroism is the soldier, the icon of sanctity is the martyr. The soldier faces death in battle; the martyr faces death by not going to battle." The word martyr is also the Greek word translated as "witness" (see for instance Acts 1:8). The hero wins the war; the saint merely points to one who has already won.

The fourth contrast comes to light when weaknesses surface. The hero, being the source of victory, cannot fail and must eschew weakness. The saint knows that failure is part of the journey and takes solace that the victory lies in the hands of God, not in his or her actions. "A hero fears failure, flees mistakes, and knows no repentance: the saint knows that light only comes through cracks, that beauty is as much (if not more) about restoration as about creation."

And finally, the hero "stands alone against the world." He or she is the one of great virtue that stands above the crowd. The hero must fight alone because no one understands their calling; no one can relate to their plight. In fact, the hero depends upon himself and does not need the crowd or close friends. A saint, lives in community, knowing that he depends upon others.

If the expectations of Christian leadership—both by leaders and followers—is that the Christian leader be a hero, then increased pressure is the only option. The future of the church falls on the shoulders of the pastor. If he or she does the job the right way, then the church will succeed. If the pastor is a better preacher, then more people will come. If the pastor organizes the church in the right way, then more people will get involved. If the pastor gets out into the community, then we will reach more people with the Gospel.

The pastor is the agent of action, the hero who rises above the norm and makes the church great.

Something must change. We are called to pastor others out of who we are as saints, not as heroes. But this won't change simply because we want it to. We have long been shaped to lead through practices of hero. And churches have been shaped by practices that cause people to expect their pastors to be heroic. We do these practices without even thinking about them. These practices shape our habits and these habits form our character. In order to operate in a different way, we need new leadership practices, those that align with our identity as saints.

What might that look like?

Photo Credit: Bill Spence via Flickr

Monday, March 7, 2016

Breaking the Power of Heroic Christian Leadership

My wife and I like to listen to Mike and Mike, the morning radio talk show on ESPN. Last week, one of the hosts talked about his disdain for the Oscars. He said something like, "Why would I want to watch something where people get together and give awards to each other." I actually like the Oscars, but I think that this observation about it says a lot about our world. We live in a day of adulation. We like to adore those who stand out in unique ways.

In fact, it seems that in our culture there is an addiction to adoring certain people. When I lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, a few of us were sitting at a coffee shop when someone who looked like Tom Selleck walked in. As he stood in line with his six foot four inch frame, we stared, saying things like, "That has to be him. Who else could look like that and be that tall?" Somebody said that he owned a house nearby. But this man had a full beard so we were unsure. For the next ten minutes our conversation turned toward whether or not this was in fact the man from Magnum P.I. Finally someone went up to him and asked.

My friend returned and told us that the man said, "No, but I get that a lot." Then my friend commented that the man sounded so much like Tom Selleck that he did not believe him. So this sparked another line of conversation of why he would not tell us the truth. It was like we got a shot of some kind of chemical compound that created a euphoria because someone famous came into our presence. It was almost like it made us significant.

We do this in the Christian world too, more than any of us would like to admit. We tend to set certain people up on a pedestal. In the sitcom The Soul Man, Cedric the Entertainer played the role of a pastor who had been a recording artist. He said in one of the early episodes, "Preachers are rock stars for Jesus." And while we might discount such statements as hyperbole for TV, think about how you might respond if you saw your favorite preacher or Christian author walking down the aisle at Wal-Mart. The culture of adulation has crept into our way of thinking about the church, our life in Christ and, of course, leadership.

Adulation affects both the one being adulated and those doing it. And both are troubling.

First let's look at those who are being adored. 
Jean Vanier writes, “There are few things worse than adulation. It stifles love. It kills people who want a life which is real, made up of gift and loving presence. Adulation is a poison which, if it gets too deep, can make the whole body sick.” (Community and Growth, 263). Adulation sets up a person as being better than the masses. In the church, it means that we presume that an individual has a connection to the divine that the rest of us do not. They have a unique connection to the holy and thereby they become spiritual heroes. Instead of the leader simply offering his or her gifts out of love while others do the same, he or she gets set apart to rise above the rest.

There is grave danger in this because the leader can quickly assume that the adulation of the masses reflects truth, that he or she actually has a unique access to a holy pipeline. Then the leader is forced to keep this up. He or she is expected to be a hero. By definition, a hero is simply one who denies weakness, pursues greatness, and puts forth all effort for the common good of others. But there is a problem. To be heroic means that one eschews repentance, as such is a sign of weakness.

There is little that kills the soul as much as the pursuit of Christian heroism. Leaders who get caught up in this find themselves working 60-80 hours per week for the sake of the church. They make all of the hospital visits, do all of the pastoral counseling, and are constantly thinking about how the church can "take the next step."

The leader has no opportunity to be human as he or she must offer a facade in order to meet the expectations of those offering adulation.

Within these expectations, the leader is forced to surround himself or herself with those who show him due respect that fits the heroic position. Dialogue, feedback, and real conversation are not an option. While leaders might say they want honest relationships, the framework of spiritual heroism hinders it.

Now let's consider the affects of adulation on those who do the adulating.
Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Pope Francis, Tim Keller, Samuel Wells, T. D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, Brian McLaren—note I've tried to cover a wide range of those held up a church heroes—do not possess any special access to the throne room of God that you do not possess. When we assume that they do, then the goal of discipleship turns into the pursuit of becoming heroic.

Let me put it differently. When I offer adulation to a Christian leader, then I set myself on a path of unrealistic expectations. I assume that growth in Christ means that I move from my present state of weakness to a state of heroic strength. This means that the more I grow in Christ the more unrealistic it is for me to actually be honest before Christ. 

Heroic Christianity works against my actually living in Christ. I, then, am not free to offer my gifts to the community. I feel compelled to live up to the expectations of the Christian leader I adulate and try to become heroic in his or her image. 

From Adulation to Dialogue
I think that the reason we assume that our leaders need to be Christian heroes is because we lack a sense of the presence of the Spirit. Instead of the church being about God and God leading and shaping God's people, we operate as if the future of the church depends upon us and our actions. The leader becomes the generator of the church's life. Therefore we are constantly looking for those who look like they have a special connection with the holy who can produce this.

In our world where the secular mindset reigns, we do life as if God is hidden behind a curtain. We are left to ourselves to figure it out. Only the special few, the heroes, are able to get behind the veil and see what God is really up to. 

We lack an imagination of "God with us" in there here and now, in the everydayness of going to work, cooking our meals, or laying down to sleep. The best we have is a sermon, a podcast, or a book by one of our favorite heroes so that we can get through another day out in the real world.

We have been formed by practices of heroic Christianity. This is the water we swim in. While we affirm beliefs like the priesthood of all believers, that's not the way we practice our faith. And it's not the way we tend to lead our churches. 

This is not meant to denigrate the importance of Christian leaders or good teaching—whether through speaking or writing. I only want to reframe it, to move way from adulation to dialogue. Christian leadership is not about setting up a hero who has it right while lining up everyone else behind that hero. It's about setting up space to listen to the Spirit in our midst. What does this mean? It means that we must develop leadership practices that cultivate environments of dialogue and discovery so we can learn together God is doing in our midst.

Heros shut this down. What we need are leadership practices that resemble gardening, that is tending to the mystery of what the Spirit is growing, which is what we cannot produce. Or we might say leadership is more about discerning and spiritual direction. What does this look like? How is it different from heroic leadership? What are the leadership practice that lead us into this space? 

Photo Credit: Letitbe. via Flickr

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Myth of Heroic Christianity

God did not call us to be heroes. He did not challenge us to be zealots. And he did not invite us to be radicals. Instead he renamed us. He called us "saints," that is holy or set apart for him. Think of it this way: to be holy is a bit like those special dishes that were passed down to your mom that you only used once a year at Christmas. They were distinct from the everyday. They were treated with special care. God's church, God's people, are his group of saints, God's advertisement to the world.

Of course we don't look like saints. And by the way, neither did the people in churches during the first century, but Paul addressed them as "God's holy ones" nonetheless. 

However, we live with the myth that the success of the church depends upon us. And since we are far from looking like saints, the clarion call to heroic Christianity, to zealous discipleship and to radical mission looks so appealing to serious Christians. Being that the average church is so average, we must feel compelled to make sure that someone does something about that. 

This stuff will preach. It's a shame that it falls short of the truth. 

Following Jesus is about embracing our identity as saints whether we look like it or not. And the way we do this is to simply walk the path with Jesus taking the next step along the way by the presence of the Spirit. It's not about great leaps of faith, wild acts of love, or renegade efforts against the status quo. It's not about being a spectacle. It's about making space for the Spirit to help us walk the next step in the presence of Jesus. 

Heroic faith calls for success and triumph on the journey. It leaves no room for failure because heroes have to be the center of the story. Yet if there is anything I’ve learned on this journey, it is that the failures along the way teach us more than the successes. Life involves suffering. It means hitting walls and falling down. And we so often talk about getting up every time we fall, but what about when we just don't have it in us to get up again? 

We like to talk about successes in our life in Christ, but we don't talk so much about the difficulties, the failures, or when doubt or fear overwhelm us. We have bought into a triumphal view of God's kingdom that assumes God is more present when we are on the mountain than when we are in the "valley of the shadow of death." But it's in the valleys where God shapes us in ways that are not possible on the mountain tops. In the valleys God shapes our  “who-ness” to become the kind of person that is able to make room for the Spirit to move through us to love others.

There are some things that we can only learn through the school of hard knocks. Honestly, I wish this weren’t the case. I had much rather learn the right way to follow Jesus from a book or a sermon and simply avoid the personal struggle. However, God does not invite us into a rule following contract. He does not expect us to follows the five steps to being a great Christian as some kind of external standard of heroic Christianity. That only puts the work of Christ back upon us, which is not, after all, the work of Christ. He invites us to learn to love him and others, and since there is no formula for love, we are invited on a journey to have love woven into our being. This requires the work of the Spirit.

Learning to love like this will break us. There is just no other way because following Jesus involves serving others. As we serve, we begin to see that the needs are too big and our weaknesses are too great. Heroism turns serving others into a way that "I" get the attention, which is not love. Zealotry just stirs up energy that I produce something for another. Again, that's about me not the other. And radical service tries to stand out against the status quo. Yet again, that puts me at the center of attention. Such an attitude might cause us to feel like we are rising above the norm of failure, but the facade can only carry us so far. Our most heroic efforts will eventually cause us to beat against the rocks of the needs in the world, where instead of the rocks breaking, we are broken. 

We don't like this. We try to avoid it. We work harder and we search for alternative strategies. But eventually reality sets in. Brokenness prevails. 

We are not heroes. We are simply saints.

When we come to the end of ourselves, we have a choice between three options. We can be broken apart, which means that our pain controls us and usually spills out on others at their harm. We can be broken but bandaged, which means we cover up the pain while pressing on, trying to rise above. Or we can be broken open. We can embrace our brokenness and allow God to create a new future out of it. This third option is the only way to embrace our identity as saints. Henri Nouwen wrote a wonderful little book called the Wounded Healer, where he writes,
“No minister can save anyone. He can only offer himself as a guide to fearful people. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely in this guidance that the first signs of hope become visible. This is because a shared pain is no longer paralyzing but mobilizing, when understood as a way to liberation. When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.

Through this common search, hospitality becomes community. Hospitality becomes community as it creates a unity based on the shared confession of our basic brokenness and on a shared hope. This hope in turn leads us far beyond the boundaries of human togetherness to Him who calls His people away from the land of slavery to the land of freedom. …

A Christian community is therefore a healing community not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision. Mutual confession then becomes a mutual deepening of hope, and sharing weakness becomes a reminder to one and all of the coming strength” (94).

There are no heroes on the journey with Jesus. You are not the center of the story. Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2). He is the protagonist of this story and we live by faith in him.

Photo Credit: Magnus Froderberg via Flickr

Monday, February 22, 2016

Old Wine vs. New Wine

Over the last couple of posts, I’ve been reflecting on the parable of the wine and the wineskins. In Luke’s version, there is a sentence not found in either Matthew or Mark. It reads:

“No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’” (Luke 5:37-39).

The final sentence is unique to Luke and for this reason it deserves special attention. On the surface, it seems to confused the issue because the ending is not about new wineskins but about the wine. And it's saying that the old wine is better.

The final sentence of a parable like this is crucial to understanding it. It’s a bit like the punch line of a joke. If you skip it, the meaning changes.

For the longest time, I concluded that Jesus is contradicting himself since he said that the new wine is less desirable than the old. Since his being present with the disciples is the new wine (see previous post) then why isn’t his presence desirable? That won't preach. And honestly, who wants to say that the presence of Jesus is less desirable than that which came before. What about the miracles? What about the kingdom? What about the healing? What about the "setting the captives free"? Who wouldn't want the "new wine"?

However, if you know much about wine, Jesus' observation isn't actually shocking. Wine that has not been aged is tart and even bitter. It's not something anyone naturally desires.

In the Christian world, we talk about “new wine” as if it is something to be prefered, as if we are ignoring the facts about "new wine." There is a long tradition in the church of pursuing and promoting the "new wine." And we promote it so that we can promote our new wineskins. Jesus’ comments don't ignore reality as they tap into the common understanding that old wine does actually taste better. And when you taste the new, no one wants more.

So what do we do with this parable?

Jesus is simply using a common experience about life to explain what it means to be his disciple. The question to which Jesus is responding is about discipleship. The disciples of John the Baptist were asking why Jesus' disciples did not fast. In other words, why weren't they doing the normal stuff that prepares the way for the Messiah. (Note: this is not about following rules. This is about trying to figure out the right way to be Israelites in order to clear a path for God's Messianic deliverance). Jesus' response was to say that the bridegroom had come. The bridegroom is an image of the Messiah and since Jesus had come, they were no longer looking forward for God's deliverer.

However, there is a catch. The wine of Jesus' presence, that is the way of life that he offers, does not fit common expectations. It will taste like bitter wine to most. Doing something new—like following a Messiah on a journey to the cross—will not be something people are lining up to do. The old ways of doing a certain set of practices to make a way for the Messiah will be be more attractive than actually being in the presence of the Messiah. When Jesus followers tasted the truth of Jesus, they often returned back to their old comfort zones. 

Before we condemn "those faithless ones," it's important to recognize that this is a normal part of life. The old adage "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" is appropriate. The old wine represents those patterns of life with which we become accustomed. We don't think about them. They are just habits that make the life as we know it the kind of life that we like. This is one reason why we experience culture shock when we move to another country. Nothing "feels" right and therefore we feel lost. It's only natural that we are drawn back to what we find comfortable.

Jesus' presence was new wine, and his ways "stirred the pot." His wine was tart and bitter. His presence was, and still is comforting, but rarely comfortable. When God gets up close and personal, we begin to see the world in a different light. It calls for new wineskins.

But the emphasis here is not on the new, the next, or the novel. The emphasis lies on the fact that the disciples were with Jesus. This is the only reason that there is new wine and therefore a need for a new wineskin. Jesus was not a future expectation for them. He was a present reality in their midst.

Neither is God isnow a future expectation for us. We are in Christ. The Spirit lives in us. We are with God. And God surrounds us. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be with him.

But rarely do we think that being with God is enough. We expect results. We expect to do the stuff that Jesus did. We want to make a kingdom difference in the world. And sometimes it feels like the old wine can get more stuff done than the new wine we experience in Jesus' presence.

The list of things that need to change in the world are endless. We need new wine and new wineskins all over the place. Some of these places might include:

  • Personal issues
  • Relationship patterns
  • Work Struggles
  • Political concerns
  • Violence and war
  • Racism
  • Famine
  • Then of course there is the church that so many want to change. 
The common path to making a difference in these arenas is to attack them head-on, to make a plan and develop a strategy and structure that will change things. In no way am I saying that such efforts are unnecessary. But it seems to me that we find ourselves in a never-ending loop of trying to fix one thing after another. We often end up doing what we think God wants us to do, but we are doing it without him. God is up there telling us what to do, and it's up to us to pull it off. And while we do a lot of good things this way, this is not discipleship.

The wine of God in Christ did come to change the world. God entered into our life from the inside, at the lowest levels of society and he changed it from the bottom up. 

However, the change Jesus brought is veiled. It's only seen by those who view that the world is different because God is with us. They realize that God did not come to fix the world, or at least he does not fix like we fix.  

The first goal of God with us is to be with us, not to change the world. Changing in the world—new wineskins—is a derivative. The world is simply different because God is with us and being with us is the point of it all. This changes the world, but in a way that we don't expect. It's slow. It does not feel productive. It's hard to measure. 

And thus it tastes like tart, bitter wine. We get impatient with the way the new wine works. How does church leadership put on their annual report the ways that they were with God? How do we talk about leadership by saying that Sabbath rest is crucial to leading God's people? How does a pastor convey to his church that spending extended time with God is more important that being available to answer the phone 24/7? 

So we are tempted to return to the old wine. We get busy, busy, busy, caught up in the rat race of trying to make a difference, of trying to change things for the better. 

The wine of Jesus will not change the wineskins of the world the way we expect them to be fixed. Nor with the wineskins of the church. The call is to be with God. God's goal is not to fix everything externally while we remain alienated from being with God. He comes to be with us and as we are with him, then, usually in small ways, new wineskins develop that fit the patterns of being with God.

And thus everything changes. 

For those who have eyes to see.

Photo Credit: Josh Galloway via Flickr

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

New Church Structures Won't Change People

In the last post, I discussed Jesus' comments about putting new wine into new wineskins. Here, I want to continue this conversation because the issues concerning the way of life in a church (wine) and the structures of the church (wineskin) are much more complex than they might appear or than we like them to be.

I've found that most of us prefer a plan, a method that has proven effective elsewhere, and if we learn how to make that method (the wineskin) work then I will get similar results. For instance, we might read a book like Reggie McNeal's Missional Communities and survey the various new ways that churches are grouping in order to promote creative forms of community and mission. We pick the one we like the best and then try to copy their methods.

We can learn much from experiments and creative structures that have been developed in other churches. In fact, one of the best ways to help people catch a vision for a different of being the church is to observe it elsewhere. However, there are a few things that we commonly overlook.

In the early 1990s I was a part of a new wineskin, an organic/missional experimental church in Houston. Of course we did not call it organic or missional, but that’s what we were. We did not fit the normal patterns of church life as we tested new ways of forming and living in community. We did not have traditional expectations of church life and if you spent any time with us this was very clear.

We saw many people embark upon a new relationship with Jesus, and we had a very strong leadership core. Those who came to Jesus for the first time through the relationships in our church joined right into our life quite well. To them the structures of our life as a church was all that they knew. I remember one person returning from vacation and sharing her shock at the how the traditional church she visited operated.

In addition to knew Christians, we also had many join us who had been a part of traditional churches. Those of us from this category did not flourish in this new wineskin experience quite as easily. It was not hard for us to commit to the vision. Many who joined were fed up with traditional church forms and some had been hurt by church life or were simply burned out. Our vision for this new way of being the church was compelling and, for most, easy to commit to.

However, there was a problem. We had been shaped and formed by the practices of previous churches. We didn't suddenly leave behind these patterns when we moved into this new experimental church. That "old wine," if you will, came with us. And that included things like expectations, patterns of leadership, and participation habits that were woven into the way that we did church. It's impossible to leave such things behind simply because we choose to do something else.

The practices of our former church life had formed us and because of this formation the old wine was poured into a new wineskin. Let me illustrate: Some tried to get the church leadership to perform traditional roles, even though they were told up front that the leadership would not do those things. Others would ask where we did Bible study, and the leaders would lay out all of the places where the Bible is woven into the life of the church, but because we did not have a specific ministry called "Bible study" they could not get it.

This is not unique to church life. For instance, if someone has been a successful section manager in a department store and then takes a new job managing a small retail store, the old "wine" of the former job doesn't disappear. Some of the work patterns might transfer well, but many will not. For instance, in a large department store, the manager of a specific department has a very limited role that focuses on one section of the store and has the support of various other management divisions that make the whole store work. Whereas in a small boutique, the manager has to take care of almost everything. One cannot simply choose to change and expect to flourish in the new role. And providing some kind of up-front training will only set the right course. The new employee must do the hard work to embrace and be shaped by the patterns of work that fit the vision and strategy of the new employer. 

The employee won't necessarily change simply because he is in a new store. He could have been very successful in his former role, but when you put him in a new role (a new structure) he naturally will continue operating according to old patterns because those patterns proved effective in the past. And when stress rises, he will even more ardently depend upon those old patterns. When stress comes, the first thing we do is to return to what we already know how to do, even if we logically know that it won't work.   

Many Christians today are frustrated with the church. They know they want something else. And the natural response is to look at a different structure of church life. And who is to blame them when there are so many church structure prophets promising entry into the ecclesial promised land with the adoption of their strategy. While these prophets might very well have experienced something akin to ecclesial bliss, others adopt their methods and find themselves wander around in the land of banality. 

And after a couple years, they go looking for another strategy.

In many ways, this is exactly what the disciples faced while following Jesus. They followed him because he gave them a vision for the kingdom of God. However, they brought with them a definition of what the kingdom of God should look like. For instance, Simon the Zealot—like all Jewish Zealots of the time—would have assumed that the kingdom of God would come when the Israelites rose up and violently drove out the Romans. Matthew the tax collector—whose vocation required him to collaborate and compromise with the Roman authorities—would have had a more realistic vision of trying to work with the power players in the Roman government. As the Gospels clearly illustrate repeatedly, none of the disciples assumed that the cross was going to be part of the vision of the kingdom. Self-sacrificial love did not play a part in the common Jewish vision for God's Messiah.

Putting the twelve disciples in a new structure did not change their understanding of how God's kingdom work. They brought with them patterns of following God. Even though Jesus gave them a new structure (the small group of discipleship) for three years, all except John walked away from it when Jesus went to the cross. Afterward, the fishermen in the group of disciples returned to their old life patterns—they went fishing—when they did not know what else to do.  The natural tendency within us all is to return to our former conform zone—old life structures—when God is trying to form new wine within us. But to deal with that topic requires another post altogether.

About ten years ago, a staff member of a large church in Florida shared how her senior pastor had read the book Missional Church written by a team led by Darrell Guder. He passed out the book to his staff and church counsel and told them, "This is our vision. This is what we shape all of our ministries from this point on." Of course this did not work. Sadly, I've heard this story repeated with quite a number of different books on church vision and strategy. As with the staff member from Florida shared, almost always, this fixation on structures and strategies never deals with the real issues that actually gives life to those structures and strategies. 

New forms of church life are not alive because of the new forms. "New wineskins” don’t transform “old wine” into “new.” Most of the time it just creates “whiners” who don't understand why things have changed. They are stuck in the old wine, the old ways that don't line up with the new vision. It takes new wine, and in the case of this parable, this is about the living presence of Jesus in our midst. We are reminded of this when we participate in communion. We drink the blood of Christ as a physical reminder that the blood of Christ is within us. He took on our death so that we might enter into his life. He shed his blood for us so that the life symbolized by that blood can flow through us. 

Let us receive this new life.

Photo Credit: Ray via Flickr