Monday, August 31, 2015

Only God Reveals God's Mission

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” —Hebrews 1:3

God is only known by us if God himself reveals himself to us. I do not have the ability to see God rightly from within the way that I see the world. Left to myself, I am stuck in a closed loop, like a race car perpetually racing around the same track. Every new thought, every new perception is simply an incremental advance upon what is already known.

In other words, when it comes to God and my understanding of God, my "looped" way limits, dulls and even prevents me from seeing what God is really like. Therefore I project my experience in my loop of life upon God. I cannot not do this.

This has in fact shaped much of the history of various conceptions of god. We need not go beyond Greek mythology to see how the gods were projections from life that we can experience on earth onto the life that could not be experienced. The experience of earth was cast upon the experience of heaven, just in a supposedly perfected way. If life experienced in a human culture deems power to be of utmost importance, then god is a perfection or ultimate expression of that power. And if the ultimate power in the land looks like a violent monarch who gets his way by inflicting fear, then ultimate power of the universe is simply a perfected version of such a monarch.

This approach to understanding God has continued in many different streams of thought, even within Christianity. We could talk in terms of systematic theology, but I'd like to explore this in terms of our spiritual theology. We read the Bible and see that God is called Father. For some this is a good thing because they have or had good, faithful fathers. For many others, however, this is a hopeless expression. The name Father does not stir up positive images. Their experience here on earth has looped them into a perpetually limited understanding of what it means for God to be Father.

Only if God redefines Father according to the way that the Father is Father can we understand who God the Father is. Only if God breaks into our loop from the outside can we see God for who God is. This applies to both those with good earthly fathers and those with horrible father experiences. God's Fatherhood is analogous to faithful fatherhood in this life, but it is as different as life on the moon would be from life on earth.

Only when something outside this closed loop of earth enters into that loop and introduces a new way can we catch a glimpse of God's way of being God.

When we dive into the truth that only God can reveal God—as the Church Father, Hilary put it, "God cannot be apprehended except through himself"—then we see that we are not left to ourselves to figure out who God is. Jesus broke into our looped way of thinking about God to set us on a new course. As the "exact representation of [God's] being," we must allow the image of Jesus to be burned into our imaginations.

This applies to God's mission and our participation in God's mission as much as anything else. We are not left to ourselves to figure out God's mission in the world. 

The work of the mission of Jesus was a revelation that broke into the looped life of this world. Jesus broke into the Jewish world of messianic expectations. The Christ was the Jewish Messiah, the one who would deliver the Jews from foreign oppression by driving out the Romans, rebuild Jerusalem to it's royal glory and restore the majesty of the Temple. In other words, the Messiah would be the greatest of all rulers in the world as defined by worldly rulers.

But that's not the way God entered into the loop. God came in weakness, as a servant of all servants, revealing true power, demonstrating the surprising impact of love, and turning the world up on its end.

The way that God works in the world can only be revealed by God. The work of God today does not, cannot and must not diverge from the way of the work of Jesus.

God defines what the work of God looks like. The work of God today does not, cannot and must diverge from the way of the work of Jesus looked two thousand years ago. It's far too easy for us to say that God worked through Jesus in that way then but he is leading us to do the work of God in a different way now.

The work of Jesus then is a marker, a paradigm definer, of what the mission of God looks like today. Left to ourselves we will project out good ideas of mission upon what we think God wants us to do. We will try to do God's mission within the loop of our life experience. 

I want to explore this more. I just wonder how much of the conversation about the mission of the church has been shaped by this looped life experience. How much are we "doing" mission without God revealing his mission? 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Reading the Bible as If God Is Working

“[W]e preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” —1 Corinthians 1:23 CEB

The Bible is the most unique book ever written. The reasons for this are many, but the fact that it claims to be the word of God and that the central figure claimed to be God, but that God was killed on the cross makes this the most unusual kind of story ever. As Paul wrote, it is foolishness and a scandal. This one attribute, the reality that God died on a cross, while the most shocking claim in history, reveals a God that is at work in this world in ways that we cannot predict or control. It reveals truth that comes to us from God, not something that we could ever drum up. This foolish truth of the Bible must cause us to ask: What kind of book is this?

Of course, we often read the Bible by domesticating it. The truth of the Bible is so beyond what we expect that we try to fit its message into already conceived notions. We read it to confirm what we already believe. Like a dog chasing its tail, we find passages that reinforce what we already think is true. For instance, for years I assumed that almost every passage pointed to a call to conversion, to an invitation to unbelievers to become believers. Later I realized that the only reason I assumed this is because this was the way that sermons were crafted in my tradition. The sermons were preached to lead to a call to conversion.

With this mindset, once one is converted then the point of biblical truth is to retell that truth so that others can get converted. Since the converted are supposedly on the inside of the truth, the insiders are tempted to feel like they have control of Biblical truth. The foolish scandal is not for me; it's for others.

As a result, we read the Bible as if God is not working in the text.

But to say that God is at work in the Bible, that we should read the Bible as if God is at work in the world, is to say something that's devoid of meaning. It's something to which we too often agree with too quickly. Familiarity has bred banality. Of course God is speaking and working through the Bible, we silently ponder.

But God is working, by the Spirit, through the grand story of the Bible. And as soon as we lose the ability to be shocked by the scandal and the foolishness of this story, we lose touch with the God of this story.

This is not a story that reinforces my already entrenched beliefs. This is the story of God that comes from outside of me, outside of my experiences, outside of our established preconceived notions to reveal God and God's ways. The only way to know God is for God to pull back on the curtains. Our kind of thinking would never come up with the God revealed in the Bible. Who would ever create a story with a God who dies on a cross, rises and then ascends? And then he leaves behind a group of followers who are told to mimic this cross-like life.

This is foolishness. This is scandalous. 

The story of God does not fit, and until we are shocked by this story—again and again—then we are stuck trying to domestic God into what we think God should be. We are mired in our own thoughts about God, self and this world. This is the reason why the story must be repeated.

God is at work in this world, but the work of God never looks like something we would come up with. The way of God is a revelation, something that comes from outside of us. This story reveals a God who washes feet and invites the rest of to join him in washing the feet of others. This story reveals a God who invites the first to be last. This story challenges us to take up our cross and follow Jesus. This story invites us to believe a foolish scandal. 

There God is at work.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Praying as If God Is Working

When I was in high school, our church youth group would sit every week and talk about the Bible. It was a small church and usually we only had four or five people in our youth meetings. At the end of our discussions our youth pastor would ask something like: What does this mean for your life?

I distinctly remember one night when we all responded with "Pray and read the Bible." But in my mind I thought, "We always say that. Is that all there is?"

I've come to see that there is nothing beyond prayer.

At the same time, I've also realized that that everything lies beyond prayer.

Communion with God is the ultimate of life. It's the reason that God created. We were made for communion. Our lives are true to the extent that we live in unity with God.

Our lives are out of sorts to the degree that we are not living in communion with God. Prayer makes or breaks our souls.

However, there is far more than prayer. Prayer itself is not the goal, the end game. God is the goal. Living in the love who God is the aim. Prayer I can do. Prayer I can make happen. That is, I can do the kind of prayer where I feel like I've done my spiritual duty for the day after I say Amen and get back the rest of life. This is the kind of prayer which I have come to call "Praying as if God is not at work."

In this kind of prayer, I feel the need to rise up to some kind of spiritual level where God is. If I follow the right plan, if I work at it hard enough, if I pray long enough, if ..., if ..., if... Then I will rise to the realm of God's life and I will see God work.

It's as if we are trying to twist God's arm to do something. And if God does not do it, then we need to look for a different "If ..." formulas that supposedly will unlock God's work in the world.

And there are a ton of different "ifs" out there on the market. I've prayed through ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication), through the Lord's Prayer, through the Tabernacle. I've written my prayers. I've done lectio divina. I've practiced the presence. And I've done the Jesus prayer. Then there is fasting, enduring prayer, praying out loud, praying in tongues, and praying the promises of God. And of course there was the ever popular "prayer of Jabez." All of these can be helpful, but if they are used as an "if ..." in order to get God to do something, then we miss the point.

We pray as if God is not working, as if God's work starts with us. Prayer, then becomes a means for us to rise to a spiritual plain, to enter into the realm where God is at work. It's as if we look at this world as less than real, as less than the place where God works and our job is to find that real space of God.

Then prayer becomes a way that we try to transform ourselves so that we can do spiritual things.

But the surprising revelation of God, the Incarnation, reveals that God comes to us. We don't go to God. Jesus came and "pitched a tent" in the midst of the real world (John 1:14 MSG). He did not create a formula to help us rise above the world. He entered the world and established the mess of this world as the realm in which God works.

Prayer is not a means for us to somehow rise up a spiritual latter to unlock spiritual secrets. Prayer is a way of communing with the God who is already present with us, already working all around us.

God initiates the conversation in prayer. We don't. God leads the conversation. We don't. Jesus is the great high priest before the Father, offering continual intercession on our behalf (Heb 9). the Spirit prays through us in our weakness (Rom 8:26).

God comes and meets us right where we are and he takes our weak, feeble, honest prayers and redeems them. God works with reality, not with our religious wishdreams and formulas.

God is working right where we are. That's where prayer is prayer.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Where is God at Work?

Jesus replied, "My Father is still working, and I am working too." John 5:17

God is already at work. He has been working while I have slept. While I rest, God loves. God loves and works in love in order to restore all of creation. God is moving in love to offer love. Today begins with the love of God which has been at work and continues to work. 

It does not begin with me.

God's mission flows out of God's being. God does love because God is love. God's actions align with God's being. God's being is love. God's actions are love. And this love looks like Jesus hanging on the cross. God works in the world with cruciform love.

God's mission in the world does not begin with me or with the church. How could anything like cruciform love begin with me? I would never opt for that. I would never have enough wisdom or creativity to love people like that.

God's mission of cruciform love begins, continues and ends with the love and work of God. To fail to see this lowers the mission of God to what I can produce. And since I can save no one or no thing, then what good would it be to root the mission in my efforts. I have nothing to offer the world. 

At the same time, I have so much to offer the world. I have the meaning of the world within me. It's in me but it's not of me. I'm defined by this meaning, but this meaning is not mine. It's fully in me, but it's far beyond me. I chose what to do with this it, but I don't control it.

The meaning of God, and life and my life, is not a list of facts that I can describe, even though there are facts about this meaning. This meaning is woven into me, remaking me, forming me. It's not about me, but I'm more fully involved in this than anything else. I'm not the center of it, but I a wrapped up in it so much that my center becomes re-centered.

This is the mystery of love.

This is the mystery of the cross.

This is the mystery of God. Beyond me. Beyond the world. But fully in me, fully in the world. And turning everything around.
God is at work in the world, and because I'm in God through Christ by the Spirit then I'm also in the work of God. I do not produce this work. I do not make this work happen. I do not produce the results that God wants. I might be involved in "small acts with great love." I might be working to make a difference. I might be doing something worthy of headlines (most likely not) or I might might be doing a lot of small things that no one will notice (this is almost every day), but either way, the work I do is wrapped up in the life of God.

God loves. God works are love. And I'm in this love and work. Today in my connecting with my wife, Shawna. In my time with the kids. In my "work" activities. In conversations with neighbors, clients, friends, and parents at soccer games. Through our meals, in our dialogue, and as we do what we do. Even in online conversations. 

Where we are, there God is. God loves. The cross is at work in love. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Foundation for Training Small Group Leaders

Over the years, there have been a myriad of programs, books, and seminars on small group leadership. Most of them focus on practical techniques for how to do small groups in the “right” way. They address questions like: 
  • How to lead a group discussion.
  • How to facilitate an icebreaker.
  • How to grow your group?
  • How to lead worship in the group? 
While understanding these techniques of group leadership is important, I found that doing these techniques well does not make for great groups. At best, you will get good group meetings.

Leading a group by following the right techniques is a bit like trying to love your spouse because you follow a set of rules for a good marriage. It will leave you wondering why it's not working when you are doing what all the books tell you to do.

The foundation for leading a group well lies in the end that you imagine. If all you want is a good group meeting, then follow the techniques. But if you want a group that “lives in love,” that lives out what Paul instructs “And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Col 3:14), then we need something more. We need practices or a “way” that lines up with this “end.”

The leadership practices that we adopt will possess within them the seed or DNA of the end that is envisioned. The end we envision for our small groups will dictate the kinds of practices we adopt as leaders. Over the years there have been many different “ends” offered for small groups or missional communities. They include things like evangelism, discipleship, getting people connected, Bible study, multiplication of groups, or creating a Jesus movement. Those with the goal of evangelistic growth will focus on practices to reach the lost. Those that seek Bible study will spend great effort honing their Bible study skills.

I’ve wondered if the apostle Paul might write something like this today: “If my group reaches lost people and grows but there is no love, we are only a growing shell of emptiness. If my group raises up new leaders and multiplies but there is no love, we are only multiplying a form of spiritual cancer. If my group gets serious about discipleship and dives deep into the Word but there is no love, we are puffed up hoarders of information. If my group serves and goes forth on mission but there is no love, we are like a chicken with its head cut off. If my group gets lots of people in my church connected but there is no love, we are no better than a salesperson who sells products for a living.”

Our actions, our goals, our vision and even our results matter little if we don’t have love, because love defines the way of Jesus.

The way of Jesus defines the nature of our practices. The practices are shaped by the essence of who God is and, as 1 John 4:8 states, “God is love.” Love is at the core of God’s being.

We lead out of love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). Therefore, love of others is an overflow of our love received from God. I don’t mean this in abstract terms, as in when we make orthodox statements regarding how much Jesus demonstrated his love for us on the cross. I’m referring to the experience of God’s love. Love is not love if it’s abstract. Love is about encounter. We are relational only be- cause we have experienced God’s relational love for us. Too often we forget this. We focus so much on the lists of things a Christian should and should not do that we fail to see that we love only be- cause we have first experienced God’s love.

We need to fill the word love with God’s way of love if we are going to receive and experience the kind of love that God is. God gets to define the way that he loves. We don’t. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). The way of Jesus is the way of love demonstrated on the cross. The practices of Jesus’ way will be practices that train us to “take up [our] cross daily and follow [him]” (Luke 9:23).

Think of how this contrasts with our normal patterns of relating. Our world most often trains us in practices where we value ourselves at the expense of others. Sadly, this way of the world has crept into the church and formed the way we lead. The way of Jesus love turns this around: we value others at expense to ourselves.

When we talk about leading in the way of Jesus, we are simply talking about becoming the kind of leaders who live in the love of God demonstrated on the cross, allowing God’s love to move through us. The end is God’s love, and since God loves the world (John 3:16), we are simply joining him in the continuing work of the Spirit to love the world with crosslike love. We need leadership practices that will align us with how God’s Spirit is moving. We are creating environments in our groups so that people can grow in this crosslike love. This is the end. This is the goal.

So if you want to train leaders in your church, begin with this foundation. No! Don’t just begin with this foundation. Weave this truth, this way, through all of your training. If any of our training or leadership practices are not permeated with the law of love, then they must be tossed aside. It doesn’t matter if people like it. It doesn’t matter if it works. We cannot keep doing it even if our groups are growing.

Our measurement of the kind of leadership we need is not whether it produces results. Our measurement must always be whether or not it trains our leaders to live in love, to lead in love, the kind of love demonstrated by the cross of Christ.

—Adapted from Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus, pages 39-44

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Practicing the Missional Church

I have many fond memories of the church of my childhood, Foote Baptist Church, located in McKinney, Texas, in what was then a rural setting north of Dallas about 30 miles. One of the most significant memories was the altar call, the time at the end of the three weekly services when the pastor would extend an invitation to make decision for Christ. This decision time was the culmination of the entire service. It was a call to walk the aisle and make a public demonstration that a person was “getting saved.”

Later, I was a part of a charismatic church in Houston. At the end of our services, we too emphasized an altar call, though the invitation was not as focused on people making decisions for salvation as much as making decisions to come and get a touch from God’s presence.

However, both focused on the importance of making a decision.

This practice of making a decision has been shaped historically by the revivalist experiences of the American church. The first and second Great Awakenings, followed by 200 years of tent revival meetings, has taught us this. Speakers would articulate a clear message and they would call people to express this decision publicly. This decision-making spirituality is part of our way of doing church.

The call to a decision inside church meetings illustrates much of the way we do Christianity in other arenas. We are deciders. As a default, without even thinking about it, we live according to a decision-based Christianity. It forms a kind of rhythm to the way we do spirituality. It's a kind of music our lives play without our even thinking about it.

While some might argue that this decision-focused mentality is specific to the Evangelical tradition of the church—scholars have defined Evanglicalism around the core of “conversionism,” (See David Fitch’s The End of Evangelicalism?)—the idea of focusing on decisions is much more pervasive. Decision-focused living shapes how we think, without our even necessarily thinking about it. The assumption is that if we want something, then we should decide for that something and then stay focused on that something. Then if we do this, then we will get that something.

But reality does not work this way. If I were a salesperson, I might decide to increase my sales every month, but focusing on increasing my sales numbers won’t change anything. I have to learn to focus on the practices that will lead to greater sales.

Sometimes, in Christianity, we have have this belief that if we decide for the right thing, then the floodgates of the good life will open up. If I decide to believe the right doctrines, or if I decide to repent in the right way, or if I decide to act in the right ways, etc, then all will be well.

In some circles, this decision-based mentality has crept into the missional church conversation. If we see the truth of doctrine of the missio dei (that God is a missional God), and we understand that the church is a missional church (that we are participants in God’s missional nature), then we decide to be missional. Then we get to work doing the stuff that fits with being missional, things like evangelism, social justice, discipleship, movement multiplication. Then we establish metrics that will measure our missional focus.

But like the sales person who has decided to sell more product by focusing on his sales numbers, we often fall into the trap of focusing on the end results, thereby forcing us to do the try-harder approach to be more missional. We don’t get what we decide for by focusing on what we decide for. We don’t get missional, in other words, by focusing on missional. Or if we were to put it in a different way, we don’t make a difference in the world by focusing on making a difference. (This is the point behind my introductory book on missional living entitled Difference Makers.)

That’s like a husband who decides that he wants a great marriage and focuses on all of the leading indicators of what a great marriage should look like. Everyday he makes a list of all the things that great husbands do and don’t do. But the problem is that he is not actually practicing the things that demonstrate love for his wife because he is so concerned about being the “right” kind of husband.

We participate in God’s missional life by developing practices that will shape us into being the kind of people who are missional. Doing a bunch of stuff that looks missional might make for good stories in books and on blogs, but doing missional stuff does not necessarily mean that we are missional.

Consider the salesperson again. If he wants to increase his sales, he must develop practices, most of which will be unseen, that will make him a better salesperson. This might include learning more about his products, going to a sales seminar, and showing more interest in his clients. It might also require him to deal with hidden character issues like impatience or that he needs to work on following through with his commitments. This takes time, effort, and lots of repetition.

We don’t become missional simply because we decide to be so. Missional is an act of the Spirit who transforms us from the inside out. For this we need missional practices. We must develop disciplines or practices that shape us for the journey. Tim Morey writes in his book Embodying Our Faith, “A spiritual discipline is any practice that enables a person to do through training what he or she is not able to do simply by trying. They are practices, relationships and experiences that bring our minds and bodies into cooperation with God’s work in our lives, making us more capable of receiving more of his life and power.”

According to Lyn Dykstra, “Practices are patterns of communal action that create openings in our lives where the grace, mercy and presence of God may be known to us. They are places where the power of God is experienced. In the end, they are not ultimately our practices but forms of participation in the practice of God.” These practices train us to move beyond doing missional stuff as if we were the if we were the agents of change to participating in the work of God, who is the acting in our world.

We are shaped by practices. The problem is that most of us who have been around the church for any length of time have been shaped by practices that conform to the ways of the attractional church. We know how to do the attractional church without even thinking about it. It’s part of who we are. That’s the way practices work. We practice them until they become part of us.

Practices are specific in nature. They are the specific actions we are going to make a part of our lives that will make space in our souls for the Spirit to work in an through us. They are both a work of the Spirit and they are things that we do. We are participating in the life of the Spirit as we do them.

In my book, Missional Small Groups, I introduce 21 different practices that can shape individuals and communities for mission. As we move into a few of them and they generate a way of life in Christ and with one another that is missional. Practices shape this way as we develop through basic rhythms that are organized into three categories.
  • Missional Communion—A way of connecting with God together that shapes our life patterns so that we are no longer shaped by those of this world but changed from the inside out and thereby can impact people in our neighborhoods.
  • Missional Relating—A way of loving one another that stands in contrast to typical relational patterns of the culture, of mutual service and self-sacrifice that is visible to others and impacts them.
  • Missional Engagement—A way of being in neighborhoods and in networks (friends, next-door neighbors, family members, co- workers) that displays Christ’s love in tangible ways.

All three of these rhythms are “missional.” The way we pray and the way we love one another shapes how we participate in God’s missional nature. We cannot say that missional is only about doing stuff like evangelism and social justice. As we move into these three rhythms, we find that missional manifest in the overlap of the three.

As we practice these rhythms of life, we learn to play a different kind of music, missional music that is not based on our deciding for something and then acting, but the kind of music that flows out of us because it is part of who we are.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What Story is Your Small Group or Missional Community Telling?

Group strategies abound. Some refer to them as small group, others as missional communities. There are a lot of right ways to do groups. Some will argue about where they should or should not meet. Others talk focus on things like when they should meet, whether they should be mixed gender to gender specific, whether they should target a specific demographic or be geographically based, whether they should be closed or open, whether they should be long-term groups or short-term groups and whether they should study the sermon or choose their own topics. Should the oversight system be flat or a pyramid? Should the leadership system be based on the advice of Jethro to Moses in Exodus 18 or upon Jesus' strategy of choosing the twelve? And there is quite a bit of discussion about whether small groups of 8-15 or mid-sized groups of 20-50 are preferable. We could talk for hours about the various nuances and distinctions between strategies.

Discussions around all of these issues are important. And no doubt if you have spent any time in the literature about small groups and missional communities, you will have your own preferences and even justifications for the conclusions that you have drawn.

Here's the thing: there are a lot of group strategies that will work. I've seen all of the strategies that are being promoted today flourish. I've also seen them all fail. There is no grouping "silver bullet." There is no magical formula. Anyone who promotes their specific approach as being "the" best or "the" most biblical only stands in a long line of many others who have said the very same things over the last 50 years. I know this only because I once stood in this line myself.

Time, and a lot of listening to the journeys of various leaders and pastors, has taught me that the key will never be found in any specific strategy, although we can learn much from each one that has been developed. Instead, central to the development of group life, whatever specific strategy you adopt, is to think in terms of the story that your groups tell. If the stories being lived in and through the groups are compelling then the group system will develop, even to the point of taking on it's own organic life. If the stories that we live in our groups are not compelling, they go through the motions and we have to prop them up with more structures, new strategies.

Think about it this way: while we, as pastors and leaders, ask all kinds of strategy questions that are related to the topics above, these are not the questions that the group leaders nor the group members are asking—single moms with three kids, overworked accountants who are afraid their job is on the line, teachers who work with kids who are being neglected, (insert a description of one or two people in your church). And the life that they live together in the groups is what make the groups work. If the groups are not working at that level—at the level of the story that they experience—then it matters very little how we tweak the actual strategy.

My point is this: small groups depend upon relationships. A specific strategy cannot produce loving relationships. The strategy can create environments that promote the development of these loving relationships, but only relationships beget relationships. It's organic. It's fluid. And it cannot be forced contrived or controlled.

Assume that finding the right small group strategies is the key to flourishing groups is similar to assuming that a novel is quality because it printed and bound or published on Kindle. The story makes the novel. This does not make the form of the book unimportant. But when reading a good novel, I don't think that much about how it is made.

Therefore, the job for us is to think stories first and then to think about the strategies that will foster what we want to see in those stories.

There are four basic stories that I have observed in groups, and I've seen all of these stories occur in a variety of strategies.

The first story is called personal improvement. This is the group experience where individuals participate because it is personally beneficial. The people involved are either drawn to a topic or to a group of people like themselves, and participation is high until it becomes inconvenient. Nothing in group members’ personal life is required to change to participate. The key distinctive of this story is that people attend as long as it benefits them.

Lifestyle adjustment identifies the second story. People view such groups as beneficial, and therefore group members are willing to adjust their life schedules to prioritize attendance at a weekly or biweekly meeting. Usually people make longer-term commitments to attend such groups because they’re good for one’s spiritual journey. But the group is not great. It’s a good-meeting group that requires some adjustment in schedules, but most often there’s little commitment to living out community and mission beyond the group meetings. The key distinctive is that people make schedule adjustments to prioritize meeting regularly.

The third story is called relational re-vision. In this narrative, groups have a sense of urgency to operate according to a distinct set of practices that will form them into a community that stands out in our world. They recognize that loving one another does not come naturally in an individualistic, fast-paced culture that dominates modern life. They know that they have to learn a new way of living, that it will take practice and that it will take time. The key distinctive here is that the group is committed to learning how to live in community with one another in a way that stands in contrast to typical patterns of life.

Missional re-creation describes the final story. As a group begins to practice these distinctive patterns and the way of Jesus becomes part of its being, the group will follow the Spirit on creative paths of life together as members engage the community. They will engage the neighborhood, determine needs, meet those needs and, as a result, change as a group. Through the dialogue with those in the local context, the actual forms and patterns of life will be shaped by the context. A few from one group might meet with a group of shift workers at a bar they frequent after getting off work early in the morning. Others will adopt a home for mentally challenged individuals. And still others will come around a family that lives in a mindset of poverty and walk with them into a new way of being. The specific form is not the point. The key distinctive is that the group takes on unexpected manifestations that have an organic impact on the world around the group.

Most groups settle for one of the first two stories. Most hope for the latter two. It’s tempting to judge the first two and say that they are off the way of Jesus and elevate the latter two to special Jesus way status. And while in some ways this is true, we cannot make this conclusion. All are on the way of Jesus because the Spirit of God is drawing us from where we are further down the way. We don’t get to take the next step on the way from where we wish we were. Jesus works with us where we are. \

In other words, we don't move into the third and fourth stories only because we have good intentions to do so or because we develop clear vision for them. Groups rise and fall through our life together, the lived experience, not because we mandate something called community or announce that we want to be missional.

When you think in terms of stories, you can see how various groups and specific individuals live all four of them at the same time. The question then we must as is this: What does it mean to develop a system that will facilitate movement from the first and second stories into the third and fourth? 

This is where the call to practice rhythms that will form us into the kind of people who live out the third and fourth stories. This I will discuss in tomorrow's post.

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