Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Mission of Agape

Saint John of the Cross said "Mission is putting love where love is not." I write about this in my forthcoming book Missional Small Groups. But here I want to reflect on a different angle. If love is central to mission then must we actually experience a God of love? Without such an experience how can we put love anywhere? Agape love, the Apostle John tells us in his first epistle, is revealed through Jesus on the cross, through self giving so that others might live.

But there is a problem. I've probably listened to about 30,000 sermons in my 40 years on earth and many different themes stand out to me. But I don't recall much ever really being said about God's overwhelming love. I recall a lot more talk about what I needed to do to line my life up with God or how I needed to be faithful. I just don't remember much about encountering the God who loves. The themes that stand out seem to focus on the things that I need to do.

And I don't think I'm unique. So when we talk about being missional and how the church must engage their own neighborhoods with the Gospel, I think about whether we go in love or we go with a message like "God has a wonderful plan for your life, so act now and do something about it." This usually means 1) come to my church, 2) pray a prayer to demonstrate that you are lining up, 3) support the church with your money, 4) get involved in church activities like me. I know this because this is what I thought love looked like when I tried to be missional. In reality I think I simply wanted proof that what I was giving my life to--the church institution--was worth the effort.

It never dawned on me that love has no strings attached, no hidden agenda to get them to church, no plan to get them to acquiesce to a Gospel presentation. Love simply loves.

I have a friend in Houston who has 4 or 5 friends who are entrenched in the gay lifestyle and have little interest in God talk. My friend has been praying for them for over 20 years, hanging out with them periodically and simply being with them as an equal. He does not look to convert them; they know where he stands. He simply tries to live Jesus before their view.

He can do this because he has experienced a God who loves him that way, no strings attached. This kind of love is wild, risky and even uncomfortable. It gets close, accepts, converses, shares honestly, and never judges. It knows that real love can transform because it gives the other the space to be and discover other ways of being.

Is this the kind of God we experience, preach, and know? Is this our mission, our mandate? This perspective turns mission into being and removes it from the category of doing something to or even for the world.
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Monday, March 22, 2010

What Kind of God?

Missio Dei is a Latin phrase that simply means "the mission of God." Many today have recognized that mission is not the mission of the church or even specific churches but it is actually God's mission in the world. Alan Roxburgh and I write about this in our book, but we are not the first emphasize this. Theologians like Karl Barth and Lesslie Newbigin wrote about this decades ago.

Recently I've been wrestling again with questions about the nature of God and how I envision God. It suddenly hit me a few days ago that the kind of God often talked about in churches is not the kind of God that has much love for the world. This God (or god) emphasizes rules, control and is really very concerned about how much glory we give him. I've seen so many people in churches who carry the weight of trying to get things right that they posses very little joy, only trickle of hope and even less love. The God they envision is not the beautiful God of accepting, forgiving and restoring love but one who is angry, frustrated, and punitive.

So to think about such churches being missional is less than thrilling. Honestly, who can fall in love with a God who demands our obedience? Who can join in freely with a God who strikes fear who threats of punishment?

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Creation and Mission

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. --Gen 1:1

When I think back to the church of my childhood, it is very clear to me what the central mission was of our life as a church. We aimed to get people to attend church services and get them to walk the aisle. After all the measure of good church depended upon whether people responded to the alter call. That was my Southern Baptist experience, but the same measure is applied to many other traditions with slightly different twists. The mission of the church is usually attached to getting people to attend a worship service and respond in some way to that service.

My imagination about church, God's life and the Gospel was shaped as a kid by this view of mission. Three times per week I sat and listened to services that pointed to a climactic end when we hoped that what we did would prove legit because someone would respond.

In my more sarcastic days I might say something like: did we assume that God created the world so that we could have altar calls? Or on the eighth day God created Just As I Am. We thought that if people would just respond then all would be right with the world. But is this really what God is up? Is this the ultimate of God's Gospel? Isn't there any more Good News that "someone walked the aisle this morning"?

God's mission is much bigger than my "altar call imagination" can handle. God created the heavens and the earth. The problem that mission must address is as big as the redemption of creation and of course personal salvation is part of that. God seeks a New heaven and new earth not simply a group of people looking for an escape route from this messed up world.

To participate in God's mission means that I get caught up in a wave of the Spirit that is pushing against the destruction of creation, one that is bring shalom, peace, wholeness, and beauty to our world. Most days this wave moves me in very small ways, not the spectacular. But imagine is enough of us added these small acts of beauty together. ... How might creation change?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Form Without Presence

During the time of Jesus the temple faith possessed all the right forms, liturgies and rituals but those things became ends in and of themselves. The temple religion was practiced in order to sustain and reinforce the temple religion. We don't read any stories about Second Temple Judiasm that come anywhere close to resembling those of the first temple or the Tabernacle where the presence of God was manifest and revealed. It seems as though they had all the forms without the ultimate goal of those forms.

I think this is an easy trap for us today in the modern church. The questions about church, how to make the church work, how to keep the church running, how to make the church relevant, how the church can grow, or even how the church can be more biblical can lead us down a similar path. It's as if we think that when we find the magical church pill all will suddenly be well with the world. Over the last 40 years trend after trend promises to make the church what God originally intended. Nowhere is this currently more prominent than in the organic church or house church movement. Don't get me wrong I'm not philosophically opposed to these forms. There is much value to them. However there is no secret formula within. We won't find in them the perfect way, the ideal set of practices or the magical liturgy (yes even house churches have a form of liturgy) that will make it all well with the church. But all of our questions about how to get the church right simply reinforce our church infatuation. I think we love to talk about the church more than the God of the church.

Sadly the "missional" conversation has been turned into one that is primarily about how to be the church. But missional is not about the church. It's about God, the Father's sending love, the Son's incarnate sentness and the Spirit's sent breath. Missional is about presence, the reality the God is with us, not about how to get church right.

I used to think that there was an answer to the question: what is the biblical model of the church?Now I see how that question is like a dog chasing its tail. There are many "right" ways to do things. When I learned this truth about life, I relaxed in my pursuit of an ideal form and I realized that when we learn to pursue the God of the church, the "right" way for us will arise.

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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Missing the Gospel

Today I stayed sick and missed worship with my church. I tuned into a couple of religious programs hoping at least to hear God's word, but I was rather dusappointed. Even though there were many scriptures quoted, I was saddened by the fact that all of the seemed to be geared toward finding success, God's will for my life or unlocking some kind of secret to being all I can be (for God of course). I must admit that I did not last very long and watched a recording of Psych and then fell asleep. I so longed to hear about the good news of God coming, of his inbreaking of time and how he expressed love, true love, that the world so needs. Instead I got a warmed-over version of the American gospel: if you do x then good things will happen to you. I've heard enough about what I need to do. What about what God has done? What about what God is doing? What about what God will do in the future?

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Agent of Mission

In the beginning God … --Genesis 1:1

The Bible begins with God. If we want to get inside what the Bible means, we must begin with a basic understanding that God is the primary actor in the Biblical narrative. He is the one initiates the story. He is main character of the story. And he is the producer of the story as the one who holds together the various other actors who seem to never quite get what God is doing in his story.

As I reflect on my years of reading the Bible, I realize how I failed to see this basic, foundational point about the Bible. I read the Bible as “God’s love letter to me” as if I was the central focus of the story. When I was in college, I began in Genesis and worked my way through the Bible on a daily basis and I would stop and journal my impressions and reactions to what I read. Recently, I looked at what I wrote and I must confess that almost every journal entry was about what I was doing for God, what God wanted me to do or what God was calling me to do. While I realize that when one is in their early 20s that questions about calling are pretty important, it never dawned on me that I was turning the Bible into a self-help book so that I could be all that I could be for God.

Now almost 20 years later, I have come to see through the school of hard knocks, that I am not the protagonist of God’s story. In fact, I am not even a main character. This does not diminish my importance or value in God’s eyes. It is simply a confession of the fact that God acts and initiates, and our part is simply a response to his initiation. But so often, we focus way to much upon our initiation and too little on what God does.

It is similar to dancing. God is the lead. If I want to dance with God I need to learn to follow. But to be a good follower means that I focus on the dance that God dances and not upon the right way to be a “good follower.” As soon as the follower in a dance focuses on self and the right way to dance, he looses sight of where the lead dancer is going.

As I have explored and experimented with what it means to be on mission with God, I made a mistake that resembled how I read the Bible. I made mission about my actions, my calling, my doing something in the world. Mission became MY MISSION. I asked things like:
What can I do to serve the poor?
How can I better fulfill my calling?
What are my gifts and my unique contribution?
Who can I share the Gospel message with today?
How can I advance God’s Kingdom this week?

And while such questions seem noble and even right, I have come to realize that they are 180 degrees off the mark. The problem is the “I”, “me” and “my” are at the center of these questions.
Sadly, it seems that I am not alone in asking the wrong questions. This is a dominant way of talking about mission. Instead of starting with God as the initiator and actor, we start by asking action questions about what we can do to make a difference in the world. The questions we ask then become about what we are to do, how we are to perform and how we can act differently. We focus on our own feet instead of the feet of the lead dancer.

But it is God’s mission, not mine. He invites me into his dance of mission, but to learn this dance, I must begin and keep my eyes focused on God and what he is doing and who he is in this world. For me, this goes against my achiever mentality that wants to get things accomplished and have some results to demonstrate that my work is of value. But when I slow down and seek to follow the steps of God, it seems that he is leading me and my community in surprising ways. And while they are most of the time far from spectacular, the steps we take possess much more beauty and rhythm than any of my own initiatives that I think must be done.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Mission amongst the Chaos

I don't remember much from my high school physics class, but there was one thing I remember quite well: everything tends toward chaos. Anything left to itself will gradually move toward disorder. This is illustrated in the movie "I Am Legend." In this movie, we observe New York City after almost the entire population has been killed by a virus. There was no one there to bring creative order to the city, and as a result grass grew through the streets, buildings were collapsing, and all the systems developed to sustain life fell apart.

On a more relevant level I see this reality in my closet, when I walk in my office or with my children almost every day. We have to vacuum our carpets everyday. Disorder happens even when no one does anything. Order, I have found actually requires a great deal of consentrated creativity.

We see this illustrated in the opening of the creation story. We see in verse 2 that the earth was a waste and a void. Chaos reigned. Darkness ruled. But the the Spirit moved across the waters. And the creative order of God rolled out. Day one ... Day two ... Day three... Day four ... Day five ... Day six ... Day seven ...

To join God in his mission in this world involves the creativity of bringing order to chaos. If you have every been a part of a creative project you know that there is an unknown element to creativity. It requires ingenuity, time, and unpredictable steps. Preplanned agendas and creativity do not coincide. Sadly many think there are such things as missional programs that we magically lead us into mission. But that's like coloring by number when we are invited to learn from the master artist of mission. The Spirit invites us to create with God and bring order to the chaos that surrounds us. I cannot do this by copying how someone else is participating in God's mission, but only by walking in creativity with the Spirit.

Missional living invites us into a creative way of life where we join God in his creative redemption of the chaos of our world. Most of the time this comes in small ways. Weeding a garden may not seem like a significant act when trying to grow vegetables, but skip a couple weeks and see what happens. In the same way, having regular conversations with your neighbors might not seem like it has a huge Kingdom impact, but without those conversations, how else will they see Jesus in you? How else will you learn their needs and respond with service? How else will you know how to pray for them?

Chaos is everywhere. Creative redemption is roaming over the face of chaos. We get involved when we get specific and care enough to get involved.

Monday, March 1, 2010

God's Love

I'm writing curriculum tonight for a 7-week series we are doing at our church called Scandalous Love. It is a focus on the radical, free gift love that God has for us. I often wonder if this kind of radical love is something that we think we need to outgrow. It seems as if we feel the need to grow up and be independent of love, to become self-sufficient as Christians. When I was a new Christian, I knew that I needed to experience the love of God on a daily basis. But over the years, the direct knowledge of this love seems to wain. And this seems to be a quite common pattern. But what if a sign Christian maturity is the growing knowledge of this love that cannot be measured.