Monday, August 29, 2011

Mission is Lived in "Veiled Form"

"The mission of the Church is to be understood, can only be rightly understood, in terms of the trinitarian model. It is the Father who holds all things in his hand, whose province upholds all things, whose tender mercies are aver all his works, where he is acknowledged and where he is denied, and who has never left himself without witness to the heart and conscience and reason of any human being. In the incarnation of the Son, he has made known his nature and purpose fully and completely, for in Jesus "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col 1:19). But his presence was veiled presence in order that there might be the possibility of repentance and freely given faith. In the Church the mission of Jesus is continued in the same veiled form. It is continued through the presence and active working of the Holy Spirit, who is the presence of the reign of God in foretaste. The mission of the Church to all the nations, to all human communities in all their diversity and in all their particularity, is itself the might work of God, the sign of the inbreaking of the kingdom. The Church is not so much the agent of the mission as the locus of the mission. It is God who acts in the power of his Spirit, doing might works, creating signs of a new age, working secretly in the hearts of men and women to draw them to Christ. When they are so drawn, they become part of a community which claims no masterful control of history, but continues to bear witness to the real meaning an goal of history by a life which--in Paul's words--by always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus becomes the place where the risen life of Jesus is made available for others (2 Cor. 4:10). (Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society).

This kind of talk about the church and the God of the church causes us to see that goal of God's mission is not the success of a local church or the flourishing of a missional community. We tend to have such a small success oriented perspective. We don't understand the "veiled form" of God's life in our midst. God's veiled work is not about have a goal of being as good of a church as possible. This is not a missional community that is trying to make an impact in the world. This is the mission of the Father, Son and Spirit who has a much larger agenda than creating effective churches or good missional communities.

We tend to turn mission in on itself as if the point of redemption is to make good churches. That's like saying the point of an army is to participate in parades and do war simulations.

But God's mission is much messier than that. God gets involved in the dirt and filth of our life to redeem the worst of death. That's the nature of the suffering of the cross. The means of Jesus's death is the worst of the worst of suffering. He took on the darkest form of suffering to restore and raise up the lowest of the low.

Missional community is far from an experience of success and victory—as most of us wish it were. It's a community that bears the suffering of those in our little worlds. It's a community who enters into the pain of neighbors, friends and relatives.

Of course we don't do this on our own. Nor do we seek to purposely avoid success of try to do church in self-defeatist ways. Being missional does not mean “unsuccessful.” It just means that “success” is not our end goal. Our goal is to step with the power of the Spirit because it's God's presence that lives in the midst of the pain who empowers us to make a difference. This kind of success might look very different than we expect.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Living Missionally Study Guide

Last week I posted a video that was developed by The Table in Minneapolis. They developed this for a retreat I am doing for them in October. This week I wrote a study guide to go with this video. Click here to watch the video and download the study guide.

Might I suggest that you use this video and study guide this way: If you want your group to take new steps to join God in his mission, use these as for the discussion time during a meeting. And if the group wants to explore this further after that discussion, you can use the Study Guide for Missional Small Groups. All of this is free.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Live in the Local

Recently, I realized that this marks the fourth time that I have moved to Houston and the third time that I have lived in this specific area of West Houston. It hit me how I need to reengage this local environment, to pay attention to the specific life of this neighborhood. This is a challenge because life in modern society is not usually lived locally. With the web, Twitter, global news, franchise restaurants, etc., life is anything but local.

While reflecting on this, I've been reading a book by Wendell Berry. In it he wrote,

"Because they [early Americans] belonged to no place, it was almost inevitable that they should behave violently toward the places they came to. We still have not, in any meaningful way, arrived in America. And in spite of our great reservoir of facts and methods, in comparison to the deep earthly wisdom of established peoples we still know but little." (The Art of the Commonplace, 11)

This is a reflection on how the early Americans treated the land violently because they did not belong to the place. They just consumed space. If I am going to live locally, I have to embrace the local, to grab hold of this place and treat it as God's creation.

The first step in my situation is to observe, to get to know this place. That's my goal.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Is Changing Diapers Missional?

Once while sitting in a pediatric doctor's waiting room, I read an article that a baby will have his or her diaper changed an average 3700 times. This means that by the time all four of our kids are out of diapers, we will have changed about 15000 wet and stinky, mushy wads of fiber. Ugh!

In a sermon I preached a few weeks ago, I spoke on Making a Difference.  I was making the point about how our everyday, mundane choices make a difference, that we can advance the Kingdom of God in what we might assume as insignificant. I was trying to confront the myth that only the big choices make a difference. While I was preaching I said something like, "My attitude while changing a diaper makes a difference." This statement was not in my notes. It just came out of my mouth and I almost had to stop myself while preaching and think more about what I was saying. I can choose to have a complaining attitude while serving my children or I can use this act as a prompter to pray for them.

It might not seem like much. It's not something to put in one's memoirs. But the very normal, everydayness of changing a diaper (and millions of other small stuff we do everyday) and the attitude I choose to have while doing it can change the world. I might not know exactly how I'm changing the world, but if I cannot do it in the small stuff, how can I join with God in his mission in bigger things?

What are some of the things in your life that could make a difference when done with an attitude of joining the work of the Spirit through that activity?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Confronting the Utopian Church

“We look at what has been given to us in our Scriptures and in Jesus and try to understand why we have a church in the first place, what the church, as it is given to us, is. We are not a utopian community. We are not God’s avenging angels. I want to look at what we have, what the church is right now, and ask, Do you think that maybe this is exactly what God intended when he created the church? Maybe the church as we have it provides the very conditions and proper company congenial for growing up in Christ, for becoming mature, for arriving at the measure of the stature of Christ. Maybe God knows what he is doing, giving us church, this church. (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 14).

I love this passage from Peterson but I also have a distain for it. He brings us as leaders into the realm of sober reality while not leaving us to settle for reality as we know it. Too many writers and speakers about the church are in the business of talking about an ideal utopia. They pull on our heartstrings because most if not all of us want church to be a different experience than what it currently is. And we are drawn forward not to be a new reality but by a dream-like unreality. To be honest, every time I read another promise for a utopian church experience if I only adopt the plan of the writer, my heart wishes it were true.

It’s not that we don’t need new experiments that explore new ways of being the church in our world. It’s not that we don’t need to call into question our current experiences. We need both. But Missional Community is about as far from a utopian experience as anything I’ve ever known. Missional Community actually leads us into a greater revelation of reality. Our struggles come to the surface. Our pain is shared. Our relational unhealth is open for all to see.

Some respond with some kind of cheerleading mantra like, “Yes, this is the way it should be. Now we are getting into real church.” But when people respond this way, I know that they are only talking about the dream and not living into it. While the experience of Missional Community is one of the greatest joys of all of life, it is revealed in the midst of death. If you are really living it, cheerleading is not necessary and talk of a utopian ideal is ignored. Just like there is not utopian family experience—something that everyone who has been a parent knows—there is no utopian community. But when you have it, you know that it brings life.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Life Change Brings New Challenges

Well, we have landed in H-town. And besides the heat, we are settling in quite well. We have done the normal things: Unload moving truck and put all in storage. Find preschool for kids. Register kids in elementary school. Try to make the kids feel secure in the transition. Try to feel secure in the transition ourselves. Do paperwork and more paperwork. Finalize some details on our house which will be ready in September.

This week, Shawna started her job at the church. I start my part-time role as an Equipping Pastor next week when the kids go back to school.

I'm getting my Fall consulting/training schedule organized. And I'm developing a phone coaching process where I set up monthly hour-long conversations to work with pastors and help them either with the implementation of a missional church strategy or with the development of small groups.

Everyday life stretches our faith in God but it's during times like this that my faith gets stretched. What is stretching you today?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Do We Really Need New Ideas for Small Group Ministry?

I've been asked to write a blog post where I share something innovative in small group thinking, some idea that will help churches advance small groups in new ways. I am excited to contribute an idea. I do have a few. However I find myself fighting with myself as I write about innovative small group ideas.

King Solomon once said that there is nothing new under the sun. Every time I read a book or blog that promotes some kind of new idea that will revolutionize small groups, I'm quite cautious. I've yet to find any new small group idea that is really new. I'm even cautious about my own new ideas.

What I have found is that most of the small group fruit that I have experienced is the result of some very basic principles that are as old as Moses. Groups flourish in an atmosphere:

  • of prayer, which causes me to ask if churches today depend upon programming more than they do upon prayer.
  • of life together, where people connect in healthy relationships, but most people are too busy to really invest in a few people who share life in a group.
  • of neighborhood engagement, where love is given without expectations, but to many in the church spend their energy judging those who need love instead of actually loving them.
  • of relational discipleship and mentoring, where spiritual growth is not dependent upon attending classes but upon personal investment in one another.
  • of relational investment in leaders, where coaches and pastors have the time to invest in the lives of leaders and in group members.

But is any of this really new? Not really. Maybe our innovations are simply undiscovered ideas that have been true all along. Maybe what need are new ideas to help churches facilitate these relational principles listed above. The focus though is not on the new ideas, even though my pride gets in the way from time to time and wants to elevate their importance. All that we innovate must be in the service of promoting relational life, community that is on mission.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Baseball Matters and Mission Matters

I must admit that baseball is my favorite sport. Sometimes I wonder if circumstances had been different if I could have made it in the sport. But alas, I am just an admirer of the game and those who stumble along to excel at this difficult game. Recently, I realized how the game of baseball is a kind of parable for how the Kingdom of God is manifest. Here are some reasons:
  • Baseball games happen almost every day, as opposed to less frequently in most other sports. It's not about huge up times followed by long periods of down times.
  • Baseball is comprised of tons of small, almost imperceivable actions stacked on top of one another. Games are won and lost based on these small things, not on big huge, spectacular moments.
  • Success in baseball depends upon those who can deal with failure the best. Think about it: if a hitter is successful 1/3 of the time, he will be in the Hall of Fame.
  • Baseball allows individuals to stand out and contribute their unique talents in obvious ways.
  • It makes room for average player to have their better than average moments.
  • Superstar players cannot carry a team to victory on a consistent basis. In fact, two or three superstars on the same team is not enough. Too many players are needed to play all of the roles that are required to win at this sport.

Kingdom life practiced in missional community:
  • is an everyday thing,
  • is comprised of small actions of love,
  • depends upon how people respond to failure,
  • makes room for individuals to offer their gifts,
  • and puts those with stand-out gifts on a team.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Video that Captures the Missional Imagination

I'm doing some training in October with a church in Edina, MN. The funny thing is that the church is only about 30 minutes from where I used to live. Anyway, The Table is the name of the church and they are holding a retreat for which they developed a video to promote. I was so impressed by their promotion which you can view here that I asked them if they would do some slight modifications to use. The first time I saw this, I cried. I was moved by the fact that the Spirit was revealing a missional imagination to these leaders.

Explore the More from Jeff D. Johnson on Vimeo.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Can the Church Be More than a Purveyor of Personal Salvation?

“The fact that Christian faith becomes increasingly a matter of personal decision can be misunderstood to mean that Christianity is concerned only with the narrow range of personal moral problems. When this happens, there is a grave danger that the Gospel may be mistaken for a mere offer of individual and private salvation, like the mystery religions which were its rivals during the first centuries of its mission. … The Gospel is concerned with something greater, with the redemption of the world, including precisely those realms of human life which are being so drastically secularized in our day. (Newbigin, Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission, 60).

This sounds good. It resembles things we have heard in the Bible. But if truth be told, it is hard for most Western Christians to even begin to think about the Gospel and salvation in these terms. Salvation is most often seen as a personal experience that we have so that we have a personal relationship with Jesus, deal with our moral problems (because we have been told that we are powerless to change them on our own) and go to heaven when we die. When we take this approach to the Gospel and salvation, we have a good private relationship with Jesus, line up with an upstanding moral code while still living the rest of our lives according to the standards of the broader culture.

Jesus came to set us free from the –isms of our culture not to place church on top of them and call our lives holy. He came to introduce us to a new way of life that challenges the life patterns of individualism, sexism, racism, isolationism, consumersism, workaholism and others that shape our lives in ways that we don’t even recognize. We most often overlook such life patterns because we assume that public issues like these belong to the realm of the secular. When we only see the Gospel as applying to our private lives it hard to imagine how it can apply to matters like abuse of the environment, how people of color are neglected by the governmental systems or how immigrants have trouble integrating into the local culture. We fail to see how the idol of success is destroying families and the drive for power and prestige is crushing our souls.

Has the church simply become a purveyor of personal salvation? Is it primarily a provider of events so people can hear a message that will empower then to become all they can be in their “real” lives?

Is community, whether in a small group, mid-size group or a house church, just another spiritual option for people who have that felt need?

If the Gospel is really about the redemption of the world, then we must tear down the artificial divide between the secular and the spiritual. Church then becomes something much different. It becomes a venue for salvation formation, a means for shaping our lives to flow with the salvation of the world in all its parts. It becomes a pod of redemption where salvation life is demonstrated in the midst of all that is controlled by non-salvation. This means that our lives will be shaped by a set of salvation practices instead of secular practices. We need not attack the secular to change our lives. We just need to establish an alternative way of living in the midst of the secular.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Brief Theology of Missional Spirituality

“The difference is that these churches must now ‘package’ their spiritual ‘values’ in accordance with the dictates of the market, which means that they must effectively vacate the specifically Christian content of their life and language.
            Under the terms of this agreement, whatever it means to be a Christian can no longer be tied to the practices that constitute the church as a social body visibly, publicly manifesting the intrusion of God’s apocalyptic regime into the world, but must be limited to mattes of the soul, leaving the body to the authority of the powers and economic principalities of the age. Christian identity and church authority are thus disembodied, relegated to a separate sphere of private life, transvalued into ‘religion,’ that is, habits and practices that are useful for both depicting the mysterious and invisible whole taht is the body politic of the modern state and global market, and also for conserving social energies in a numinous ether called ‘values,’ which at the appropriate time can be put to a ‘real’ social use in the state’s behalf.” (Barry Harvey, Can These Bones Live, 123)

If we wait until we need to call upon a spirituality that we might call "missional" then it's too late. In other words, if we see a need in our neighborhood and we want to do something to make a difference then how can we make a difference unless we already practice a spirituality that could truly make a difference.

I believe that most Christians want to have an impact upon the world around them. I believe that we want to lead people to embrace Christ followership. That most want to do more than give money to good causes. That they know they have a calling to make a specific difference in the world.

It's like a baseball player who comes up to bat in the ninth inning with an opportunity to win the game. No doubt that anyone in that situation "wants" to come through in the clutch. But want to is not enough. Players that are prepared depend upon their preparation not their desire.

In this quote, the author refers to an agreement that the church has made that has relegated church to the realm of the private, internal spiritual matters that have nothing to do with the public practices of daily life. Public life is driven by the market, which basically means that the supply and demand for goods, services, jobs, and resources controls how we live on a day-to-day basis. Therefore our lives are shaped by market-driven practices, these are the practices where we invest our lives wisely in order to guarantee as much as possible an equitable return on our investment. And these practices we assume are beyond the realm of any spirituality. As a result, our lives outside of church looks pretty much like that of anyone who does not call themselves a Jesus-follower.

Then when we do want to make a missional difference--when we want to hit that game-winning home run--we don't have the wherewithal to actually come through. We must practice the non-private disciplines of missional spirituality so that we challenge the practices of the market economy. These include things like: hospitality, generosity, self-sacrifice, fasting, praying the hours, returning non-violence for wrongs down, blessing those who cannot bless back, etc. These are practices that rebel against the life shaped by the market.