Category Archives: Leadership

The Lord among us organizes us, not the program.

The Lord among us is the organizing force, not the program.

The pastors finished their reading of Pete Enn’s book How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News. They loved it. But one of them had to note that the Bible leads to a right-now experience of the Holy Spirit and discernment, not mere wisdom. 

I visited a church on my travels last week and a similar sentiment kept rising to the surface among my friends. They want to be led by the Spirit, not just their pastor or tradition.  Keeping the program running has value, but it is hard to do if the reason for doing so has become sketchy. A theology built on principles without Presence is hard to sustain.

Likewise, Hallowood Institute’s first offering on “spiritual bypass” last Saturday highlighted the tendency of Christians to find a work around when it comes to their deep healing and the difficulty of relating to God by keeping faith “in their head,” citing principles and following the program rather than opening up to the fullness of the Spirit (Ephesians 3:14-21).

Programming is too easy

“Programming” can often be the hideout for spiritual cowards. Everyone who ever came up with a structured, even bureaucratic way to serve Jesus was NOT bad, of course. But “programming” CAN be the big temptation for people with big ideas who don’t want to bear the suffering of being personally responsible for them — that is, responsive to the Spirit, not just the manual. The main reason I cast such blanket aspersions (apart from needing to remind myself) is that I think people often put on blinders and lose sight of Jesus (even stop listening to the somewhat-rational Paul) when they commit to their program.

Why does it so often seem like making “programming” basic to following is a good idea to Christians? Why send an email rather than making the phone call? Why make an event rather than a relationship, etc.?

I’m not suggesting that scheduling things, making a plan to serve some felt need, or having a curriculum to follow, etc., etc. is always bad. Circle of Hope is a very well-planned enterprise! I’m protesting how we fill up every spare moment with an event designed to do what normal human relationships and organic connections can and should do. I’m protesting fulfilling the letter of the program’s law, rather than following the Spirit behind its genius.

Just because we went to school and got trained to create a programs to do what we should do personally and as a body doesn’t mean we should do that! Just because we train to be “experts” in charge of “things” before we love someone doesn’t mean we should exercise that training. And the big thing is: just because we don’t trust people and don’t trust the Holy Spirit, alive among us, doesn’t mean we should keep doing things designed to keep people in line and teach them what they, in our estimation, probably don’t know and keep them moving in the right direction we suspect they can’t figure out.

Is it a who or a what on which my hope stands?

I guess since we broke out into this song one night at our cell, it makes me afraid that people might rewrite it, now that we among the Circle of Hope have buildings and big ideas to fill them. Some prophetic people rewrote it to make my point:

My hope is built on oughts and rules
On principles and schedules.
Like counter-service is my grace —
A drop to each receding face.
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All others rest on sinking sand
I dare not grasp one sinking hand.

When we came up with the idea for Circle of Hope, we installed the simple thought that we wanted life to be simple. So we have two meetings a week: the cell and the public meeting. We think almost everything we need to “program” can fit into those meetings somehow. Extraordinary people may have extraordinary things to do, of course. So we wanted to leave a lot of time in the week to do them. What we didn’t want to see is the church filling up everyone’s calendar with obligatory things to do – as if the church were happening in the daily programs happening in our buildings. Daily things might happen, but it isn’t like you are supposed to be doing them to get with the program.

I think we are, basically, like this. The leaders are called to a “daily” kind of obligation to who we are and what we do that requires their time. Thank God for them! But most of us are free-range Christians. The problem is, preserving a habitat for free-range Christians is hard to do. As we get more capable, it is tempting to get real organized and programmed. We have some nice corrals all over the region, now, and it is tempting to herd everyone in all week and ride them, train them to jump over fake fences like show horses and such.

What is the basic thing Christians do?

Brave Christians love people face to face. Responsible Christians make teams. Paul says in Romans 13: Owe no one any thing, but to love one another: for one that loves another has fulfilled the law. Programming, at its worst, takes the one another out of the loving. The program does the loving. Love often gets mediated by the program. The “thing” is supposed to communicate – thus, I either don’t communicate or don’t have to. The event touches, the performances move — so I either can or do stay separate.

Not all programming is bad, of course, but you can see the temptation. It seems to me that Jesus is pretty much the anti-program. He is God coming into the moment and upending the control-system that violates his personal rule. I was going off on this subject the other day and someone quoted 1 Cor. 14:33 to me: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”  They were telling me how God had ordained hierarchy and propriety and we dare not deviate. I think he had a point. But Christianity easily dies when men (in particular) order it according to their understanding and don’t think Jesus can do that himself. We are tempted to organize all those others rather than becoming one with them, suffering with them and for them. It is very easy to stand back and perversely admire a very tidy “love.”

It is the Lord among the “one another” who is the organizing force, not the program. If the life of Christ is pulsing among us, we’ll need to structure its expression. But if we just structure the idea of a pulse and expect it to fill with life, we may end up quite empty, and exhausted from all that effort, to boot.

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Ownership proverbs: More evidence that Jesus is risen

Image result for You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.Do you think this old proverb is true? “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” – Winston Churchill.

I love proverbs like that one, so I don’t care how “true” it is as long as it helps us ponder something worth pondering. In this case, I think we should be pondering, “Am I making a living or making a life?” Maybe even better: “Am I making something wonderful or just getting used by someone to make their fabulous living?”  

How Jesus-followers answer that second question right now is elemental to whether their church is a living organism or a demanding volunteer society, whether their church is a community with transforming power or just another inept non-profit overshadowed by the corporations that dominate the landscape.  When it comes to being the church, do we rent our lives or own them? Is life in Christ about ownership or volunteering?

Ownership proverbs from passionate pastors

New churches are boldly wrestling with how to get Jesus followers to be more like members of the body of Christ and less like members of the swim club they rarely have time to visit. They are trying out proverbs on their people:

  • “Members have rights, Owners have responsibilities!” Pastor Matt at Good News Church made “this quick video” about it.
  • “Battleship vs. Cruise ship” is the title of Pastor Josh’s teaching for Redemption Church. “Ownership is not just coming and seeing what’s happening at Redemption, but being willing to come and die for the mission of connecting people to Jesus for life change!”
  • “Customers vs. owners “ Ed Stetzer wanted to shift the the culture in his church from passivity to activity. His problem was when new people entered the church, most of them connected to the 100 passive people instead of the 25 active. A bad situation became worse.

Sometimes it is hard to know whether these church leaders are just being critical of people who aren’t making their dreams of church glory come true or they are prophetically noting sinful behavior that will destroy the work of Jesus. I suppose it could be both.

We’re having trouble even associating!

It is not just church people who are considering what is happening with associations in society — that is, entities that require mutuality to exist, not just paying people for their labor. I’ve spent my whole life hired by such associations, so I’m interested, too! People seem to be having trouble associating themselves, period, much more “owning” an association!

The famous Alexis de Tocqueville published  Democracy in America in 1835, but people think it still has relevant observations to offer about the American character. He said, “Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.” Supposedly, when Americans want something done, they don’t ask the government or the aristocracy, they associate. That tendency purportedly made U.S. democracy strong. I’d say the church in the United States created this character trait more than the Constitution.  But associating is a good trait. I am deeply involved in Circle of Hope, Circle Counseling and the Mennonite Central Committee, which are all good examples of highly effective associations

Image result for bowling alone

Over time this character trait has been undermined by rapacious capitalism and the ascendancy of so-called democracy over the church. Robert Putnam famously captured the trend in his book Bowling Alone in 2000. It is even more true now that less people join clubs, have dinner with the family or invite friends over. So the associations I love are really bucking the trend. Circle of Hope is founded on cell groups, which is about inviting friends over every week! My cell is, essentially, a family dinner! Nothing could be more countercultural. Plus, our church assumes everyone will eventually share a covenant relationship with the others who form it. Our covenant members are the heart of the community and its many enterprises – they own it. That’s presently odd, as far as the direction the world is going.

I wish we had more fights about whether we are volunteering for or owning the church. This would be a good proverb to ponder: Volunteers help owners do good things. Owners do good things by nature. I think that is true, and it always makes me wonder who the volunteers think they are when they share some little bit of their limited good with an association. Manuals for non-profits remind the organizers to help volunteers “feel some ownership” during the hours they contribute. They generally don’t — what do they feel?

It is good to “feel some ownership” when we volunteer. But having ownership that is in one’s thoughts and feelings rather than in one’s hands and feet is hard to sustain. Just going to church can become so boring, it is unsustainable over the long haul. If you’ve been “going to” a church for over a year and you don’t own it yet, I can’t imagine what it does to your sense of self to keep doing it! How could one possibly see themselves in 1 Corinthians 12 or Acts 2 if their association was mainly a matter of being in the Sunday meeting twice a month, having stints in a cell group and doing random acts of volunteerism?

That sounded critical; I’d rather it was prophetic. But you see what the church is up against. We should be inviting people into our home when we go to a meeting, not tentatively entering someone else’s meeting. But since most people never invite people into their home and rarely are invited, since most of our time is spent making money for someone else, it is quite a leap to act like we own the place when it comes to being the church.

It is great to give our time for the owners

Most people are over “getting stuff” (maybe because the 1% has most of it). They are convinced their 86,000 seconds a day all need to be invested wisely. Or at least they feel guilty for spending 3600 of them at a time making Netflix a reality. They want their moments to count because they only have so many — so they think. This preoccupation with how short life is helps make volunteers scarce. People are out making as much money as possible in the least amount of time so they can get as many experiences as possible to fill their seconds before they are too old to have them. They make money to get experiences [Xbox ad].

Many people have trouble believing that wasting time on volunteering is worth their precious seconds. Some people won’t even get married because relationships take so much time! So associations that depend on volunteers try to make it seem like volunteering is a great experience so someone will do it:  “National Volunteer Week is…a wonderful opportunity for everybody to check out the volunteering options in their community. Proactive, hands-on service is an amazing way to meet like-minded people and give something back to your community at the same time. Whether you are looking to use your professional skills to help others, paint a school, or serve a meal at a soup kitchen, you will be able to find something to interest you!” Some people love that pitch. But many more, I think, have better ways to be self-interested.

Maybe this is a good proverb: Volunteering is a good experience. It can also extend one’s life. A few years ago, a therapist was researching how kindness affected health. He learned that volunteerism was associated with a markedly lower risk of dying. Depending on the study, the decrease in death rates ranged from 20 to 60%! This is huge. For perspective, another good example of lowering the risk of dying is the introduction of clean drinking water. After water filtration and chlorination were introduced early in the 20th century, death rates from contaminated water dropped about 15 to 20%. Volunteering should be a public health issue!

Even though volunteering is good, I still think feeling like a volunteer in your own church is unworthy of a Jesus follower and makes the Bible writers, who know they have become heirs of the kingdom of God (!), look silly. If a Jesus follower does not really believe they have an eternal life, like Jesus demonstrated when he rose from the dead, then what is the point of being a Jesus follower? Jesus followers are intimates of the King in immeasurable ways! But if volunteering is the best one can do, it is  still healthier than protecting one’s time, even though that volunteer time remains the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much time the faithful have to “waste.”

Jesus owns his life
For These Sheep I Lay Down My Life — Eugene Higgins (1874-1958)

It is better to give our lives because we own them

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.  — Matthew 20:28

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” — John 10:17-8

The amazing restoration Jesus has brought us includes the astounding freedom to give our lives. No one can take our lives. We don’t have to buy one with our labor. We have been given it back as a free gift and we are expected to live free from our former masters.

This is the main reason we are owners of the church, not mere members of an association or volunteers in someone else’s enterprise. As good as those latter things are, they are shadows of what it means to be risen with Jesus. Like Him, we choose to serve for the joy set before us and the transformation it brings, not because we have to spend our precious time well enough to justify our existence or get what we deserve. We lay down our lives for others because it is what we are made for, not just because we’ll live longer or feel better about ourselves (although we will!).

Churchill had to convince Britain to give it all they had or the Nazis would have taken over everything. He did it for God, King and democracy, I suppose. His great success shoul have taught everyone a proverb for all time, don’t you think? — You’ve got to own your own country, not live under a Fuhrer. But immoral powermongers are hard to keep out of power, since they wake up every day with nothing to do but grab it.

In the face of our own challenges, our pastors struggle with our idealistic (and straight-from–the-Bible) vision of being the church. Like other places, our church is often colonized by consumers who admire volunteers, when who the pastors really need  to lead are owners. Fortunately, our pastors have an amazing preponderance of covenant keepers expressing their ownership in cells, compassion teams and all our other teams and businesses. We are so far from going along with the present societal trends we look weird. But the need is great and the temptation to become just another seconds-of-my-minutes-counter is ever-present.

“We are called out to be a living organism, building community together in love”

Some days I wonder if we have the stuff to keep being a “we” and keep giving our lives fearlessly for the transformation of the world. Usually, those are the very days someone does something that splendidly expresses the life they were given to give with real freedom. Then I am encouraged all over again that Jesus is risen and we are a circle of hope — and a church with some radical proverbs of our own!:

  • The church is not a “thing” that does things; it is not a building. We are the church and we support one another as Jesus expresses himself through us.
  •  We are living as a created organism, not creating a religious organization.
  •  Forming cells and teams is a basic way we keep learning how to express who we are and what we do as people called into a new community in Christ.

Four suggestions for making leaders in 2019 (maybe yourself)

Good leaders are in short supply. You don’t need an expert to tell you that, but they can tell you that. Our church has great leaders; I hope yours does, too. But to keep up with Jesus, we need to work with him to make more leaders in 2019. How do you think we are going to do with that?

Let’s dispel one misconception right at the start. When people talk about creating more leaders, a natural response is, “If everyone becomes a leader, who is left to follow?”  [Dean Martin asked a similar question]. It’s true, if everyone is fighting their way into the top position, the endless power struggle will create a terrible organization (and those exist). That would definitely be “too many leaders, not enough followers.” But in the church, I think we usually have the opposite problem. A lot of people give their ambition at the office and would rather someone else lead the church, even if they are the best one to do it! Plus, I think people really care about what Jesus says, and they would just rather quietly serve than deal with the issues that come with works of power at all.Related image

Anyway you look at it, Jesus was making leaders and He still is. He is the epitome of the great leader we would like to be. He is not against power; he exercises a miraculous amount of it! If you clicked the two links in the last paragraph, I think you’ll see, with me, that we are taught that leaders are always followers, but followers should be ready to lead when they are needed. Everyone has the power of the Spirit and we are responsible to use it humbly.

The best leaders are elevated followers who have learned by serving their master, Jesus. So let’s not worry about creating too many leaders. Jesus followers are not climbing over one another to be the leader of the church; they gave up such pursuits when they responded to the call to follow Jesus and live a new life. Let’s call out the leadership in one another in 2019 and find the faithful, available and teachable servants who can lead our cells, teams and further congregations and, as a result, lead the world out of the mess it is in.

Here are four suggestions for how to think about leading and how to apply what we know.

Leadership is a role, not right

Eurocentric people have been debating the “divine right” of the leader to rule for centuries. The revolutions in the 1700’s put an end to that for kings. But humanity just gave the “divine” part to “the people” who gave the elected parties the “right” to rule. Recent presidents take that right rather absolutely, don’t they? And if you work for a boss, you may feel their absolute authority acutely. Some corporations have a “god” upstairs somewhere who can deliver prosperity or poverty with a word. This situation is one we are used to so we think it is normal. So when people enter the alternative society of the church, they often assume the same thing is going to happen: there is some king or some secret cabal running things and not them. And plenty of church leaders see an opportunity to get their divine rule on and get carried away trying to be powerful. We could talk about this for a long time, and should.

For 2019, however, why don’t you help someone take the role of leader and help them with the weird power dynamics it creates? It will be challenging for them if people think the church leader is exercising a right or an identity. They will suddenly become this strange person — like one day Rachel was your buddy, now she’s the pastor and you need to treat her like some “thing” that is not like you anymore. Let’s keep our heads on straight; all our leaders are still like us. We give them a role to exercise in the church because they can do it and we need them. They are elevated in our structure and given power to act, but they still have the same kind of issues we do. Imagine yourself being a leader! Ouch! It is a joy to serve, but there are a lot of things people need to figure out on their way to being a good one.

Leadership is a duty not just a delight

Some leaders honestly feel about leading like Freddie Mercury felt about singing. When they can lead, they are in their sweet spot. Good for them! But I still think the most effective leaders in the church feel like they are answering a call, not considering whether they are following their bliss. The see the necessity, or the opportunity, or the emergency and they decide to act on behalf of the mission of Jesus to transform the world. They were not sitting by their Christmas tree one day scrolling through their Ipad and said, “I think I will lead the church. That would make me feel good.” Maybe someone has done that, but I have never met them yet. Most of the time, like when a cell multiplies, the most obvious person becomes the next leader. They may have never thought about leading a cell until it becomes obvious to everyone that they should be deployed.

I know I was pretty shocked when it became obvious that I was a pastor, way back when. That was NOT what I had in mind. But, to be honest, I had a lot of trash in mind that would certainly have been a lot worse, so I am delighted. It has been a lot of fun to follow Jesus in my role. So, in 2019, why don’t you be delighted in someone who is doing their duty? We can make it hard on someone or we can make it delightful to have such followers. Yes, they will do their duty wrong, but you will probably do your following wrong, too, won’t you? So we will need to work it out — and it is given to us to do that.

Leadership is a gift to you and from you

I am glad we are still talking about spiritual gifts in our church. Leadership is one of them, in several forms, when you look through the lists in the New Testament. The lists make it obvious that we don’t need as many leaders as we need other gifted people to make a whole church. There will always be many more followers than leaders at any given moment, even though any of us might be gifted to lead when it is necessary. The idea of spiritual gifts implies, however, that a few people are usually gifted to lead and we should honor the work of the Spirit in their lives. We also need to honor their difficulties, since each one of us has our own difficulties discerning and exercising our gifts. We have a hard enough time having confidence that the Spirit of God even cares enough about us to lead us! Most leaders feel like that, too.

So the leader gives the gifts of leading and we give them back the gift of following. It is all gift with us and God, just so Christians worked gift-giving into the Christmas celebration of God’s self-giving love in Jesus. So in 2019, why don’t we give our leaders, new and next, the gift of their leadership? Help them do their work; don’t make them beg, as if they were just dying to see if you would follow them. It is our responsibility to make good leaders. They have no more innate value than the rest of us Spirit-bearers. But they are crucial for our life together to work well. If they have the gifts, we want to receive them!

Contrition Set No. 8 (2008) — Anthony Smith Jr. (NYC/Bethlehem, PA)

It is your church, not theirs

Some members of our Leadership Team have been frustrated when our church did not work like their business or agency (or their ideal of how they work). They regularly experience hierarchical modes of leading where a boss (or HR policy) has the power to take away someone’s money and give them a bad resume. As a result, people show up on time and do what they are supposed to do. They wish they could fire some church people!

I tell them, quite often, since I had to learn it too, that the church is more on the family side of life, not the corporate — thank God! But that means people are more likely to act like they do in their families and the leaders are more like parents than bosses. This can be lovely, since we all could use some re-parenting and we are brothers and sisters in Christ. But it also means that people refuse to pick up their blocks, are rival siblings, and feel intense symbolic feelings about things the leader thought were minor. It is terribly easy to act like an infant instead of being elevated to parent! Like Paul had to convince people: we used to be children, but now we are heirs of the kingdom of God [Paul’s great Advent passage].

So, in 2019, why don’t we refuse to exercise the luxury of reacting like we are children while the only adults in the room are our overworked leaders? And, by the way, how about helping our own relatives with the holiday celebrations rather than showing up late with a six pack? If your mom doesn’t want you to do the dishes for her because you do them so poorly, how about doing them with her and finally learning what you missed while you were avoiding things? We’re the church. It is not the leader’s church, as if she is supposed to get you to clean your room as her vocation! We are all “heirs according to the promise.” If we don’t act like that, no leader can save us. They’ll probably burn out or move on and our community will deteriorate into something that barely looks like Jesus lives there at all.

The subject of making a leader is a bit more than this blog post can chew, I think. But I was looking into 2019, when the leadership of the United States is going to show more of its true colors. Who would want to be a leader in such a mess? Not me. But I was also looking at our resilient, intense church, and was downright excited about what we might become. I think we are uniquely gifted and well–situated to offering the alternative the region needs, as the church always is, especially now. If you are a leader in some way among us or wherever God has placed you, thanks and don’t give up! If you are making a leader and can be inspired to keep at it in 2019, thanks and don’t give up!

Moving the ball: The church as a team (video version)

Here  I am on my phone giving your the first part of my Monday blog on video.

The church is in a lot of contention these days. We need to break through and get down the field before  the buzzer sounds.

If you want to get into what my phone would not do, read the last post from Monday!

Moving the ball: The church as a team

Memories are like the Mouse King in Disney’s new Nutcracker. A lot of little memories often come together to form very powerful big ones. One of the advantages of being over 40, or so, is that you have enough little memories to shape big responses to the challenges of the day. At least that is what it felt like the other day when I was reminiscing about how I learned about “moving the ball.”

In high school I played football. I know I am not supposed to approve of football, since it is a concussion factory and intrinsically too violent for peacemaking types. But, looking back, I really enjoyed my youthful collaboration in body-crunching. Even more useful, I learned a lot from those days about how to be a team, not least of all because we were a terrible team – and sometimes failure is a great teacher.

The big, instructive memory I’m talking about is about a time we were actually winning, I think, and Ron Herman was especially psychopathic. Unlike Ron, I was a rather mild-mannered football player, which never pleased my ex-Marine coaches — but I was efficient, determined and could remember the plays, so I got to play first string. Ron Herman, on the other hand, was a coach’s dream — a weightlifting, maniacal ball of energy at linebacker. I am not sure what happened to me; I think I got clipped after the whistle. Regardless, I became the center of a brawl on the field and was not faring well in the fight. I was having some kind of dazed reaction to a much bigger lineman who was coming at me. Then, from out of nowhere, Ron came at the brute like a smart bomb and took the guy out – laid him flat and then ran around him with his fists up like Rocky. My memory plays the impact in slow motion and I still enjoy seeing the enemy fall. (Sorry Jesus, but that’s the truth).

That moment contains a lesson about being a team I have not forgotten. It is: Some team mates are just better. Ron was a LOT better at football than I was. He had the strength and attitude and gleeful malice to be a force on the field. We needed him. I was scared of him off the field, but I was glad to have him on my side, watching over me (for some reason) on the field. Unlike him, I had a hard time just completing my small assignment on a given play, but Ron was seeing and wandering the whole field, improvising actions that would move the ball.

We are a big team

Memories of football came up because I was discussing Circle of Hope with a partner and we needed a good metaphor. Football worked. For one thing, like in football we, as a church, feel the urge to make a lot of “touchdowns” and we are disappointed when we don’t. Even more important, we are a big “team,” made up of many smaller teams, which contain many marginally clever individuals, for the most part — though we do have our Ron Hermans, thank God!. You see how well the analogy works? Church works a lot like a football team, if it works at all. How we perfect being a team is our greatest asset. But it is always our greatest challenge, too.

I learned a lot about being a team by being part of a terrible football team. I have learned a lot more by being part of the miraculous Circle of Hope. Who we are and what we do is so unique, so great, that we yearn for about a 1000 more people to join in the cause — seriously, that’s the touchdown we’re shooting for. If our congregations all expanded to their optimum size and we added a 1000 more people that would make us about .03% of the metro population — not really that much to shoot for, right? It will take good team work from our pastors and leadership team at the center, and good team work clear to far reaches of our constituency to “win” that “game.” We’ll have to move the ball.

At this point, I have enough memories stored up to think I can say three big things about how to move the ball that direction. Actually I guess I have already mentioned two. Maybe they are all pretty obvious. But here goes. To be a good team that makes it to the goal:

Keep the ball moving

When the Eagles don’t convert their third down and get a new set of downs, you can hear a palpable groan ripple through the stadium (like last night!). The other day a caller into sports radio said, “I just want a couple of players who can move the ball.” I yelled back at the radio (which I sometimes do), “And what else would you want?” Momentum is obviously the key to getting somewhere.

In high school football and the church, confidence is the key. As a church, we need enough people who think working with Jesus is just the best and only thing worth doing in order to keep our team rolling. In high school, our bench was full of anxious guys who weren’t so sure they wanted the coach to put them in. They got enough stuff out of just wearing the uniform, but they weren’t sure they were quite up to playing. The guard who played next to me, on the other hand,  was well known for having the dirtiest uniform on the team after a game. Those kind of players keep their cell multiplying, the money coming in, the events excellent, the ideas coming to fruit. And if things aren’t moving, they can feel it and do something about it.

Admire the great players

Being a good team does not mean everyone is the same or what they do has the same value or weight. It means everyone is valued for what they bring right now with the hope that they will get to be better and better players. Regardless of whether you are good or not, we need whatever you have at the moment to make a good team. When Eddie Velasquez walked around school after a game, I wouldn’t even talk to him when I was a freshman. I had just watched him break through the line and run for a touchdown, moving like the wind, as far as I was concerned. I admired him so much I didn’t think he’d want to talk to me.

Now that I look back, I regret how seldom our really great “players” in the church get the admiration they deserve. They are so humble and Christians are so shockingly stingy with their praise (lest someone lose their humility under the pressure of their affirmation, I guess) that we tend to nurture the mediocre and hamstring the creative. I don’t think our church has the worst case of that disease, by any means, but sometimes we hitch thoroughbreds to plows just because they will plow, when they should fly.

Do the best you can with what you’ve got

We did not succeed much as a football team, so our task was more about making something from nothing, like feeding 5000 with a few loaves and two fish. I admit I often felt successful if I did not make a complete fool of myself while my dad trained his binoculars on me. Now that I look back, I think that hanging in there, even when you don’t feel like you are that great, is a lot more OK than I thought it was then. As it turns out, even an hour of bad football is a decent training session. It was preparing me for the long haul of following Jesus as a member of the body of Christ. Churches full of inadequate, even terrible Christians have been moving the ball for centuries, now. That’s the huge way we are NOT like a football team.

When the ex-Marines were getting our team into shape. They wanted us to run a six minute mile in our equipment. Needless to say, the tackles regularly failed to achieve that goal. Don Lancet, for one, was always last. He was just too fat and out of shape. But he was big. So when he got in the game, just falling in front of people often proved effective. Our quarterback was short and indecisive. But he was afraid to fail and managed to make plays out of his messes. Our fleet running back was sent to jail, so the coaches platooned the second, third and fourth stringers. It does not matter how we get there. It matters that we keep moving and use all the gifts we’ve  received to make the biggest difference we can make together.

Keep your eyes on the first down which leads to the goal

It is depressing when you are an ineffective team on your own 30 yard line looking way down field at the goal post. There are going to be Ron Hermans who have a vision for winning the game – admire them as they are yelling at you to play harder! (And wake up and play harder!) Thank God for the leaders, because most of us will have to rely on their vision, since we are doing well just to line up and run the next play.

Most of us will content ourselves with gaining the most yards we can on the way to a first down. A touchdown may feel like a lot to ask. I think that is OK. Because, over time, the little things count even more than the big plays for the vast majority of us. Yard by yard, we move the ball. The body of Christ is also like the Mouse King — a compilation of all our small efforts in service to our profound memories of grace and the promises they speak to us. We’re all about a long obedience in the same direction, not just memorable video clips of the best plays.

I think my varsity team won two games in two seasons. But the real value of the experience was not lost on me. I think I even have my letterman’s sweater stored someplace. I never really qualified as a jock, but I was proud that I was successful enough to letter. I was part of the team – that terrible team. At this point, the terrible is not as important as being a part. My usually critical parents were delighted to see me out there in uniform doing something. I kind of blew off their admiration when I was a teenager. But now that I look back, like in so many things, I can see why those 40somethings were happy I would have a few memories to mull over.

When we tell people they should leave behind their precious memories of church and move into the future, we don’t mean that their former churches were all bad or that they should not remember them. As  you can see, even if their churches were terrible, I think they could learn a lot from them. What our proverb means is that we need to deliberately grow from our past experiences, not sit in them the rest of our lives like my poor friend Phil, who never once got his uniform dirty the whole season. The coach knew he just wasn’t going to play.

At the end of this list, it seems like most of my ideas kind of run together; they are even a bit repetitive. Maybe that’s the nature of team sports and the nature of being a community in mission – everything kind of works together. It is not so important to define and understand how all the parts work, or even to individually excel at our part. It is more important to get up for each play, all of us doing it again with all we’ve got, and advance the ball as far as we can before the buzzer sounds. That keeps us in contention. And there is a lot with which to contend, isn’t there?

Advertising: Our hate/maybe-not-hate-so-much relationship

In 1997, about the time Circle of Hope hired Gerry West to help with music, a couple of ethnographic filmmakers followed a theater group through Papua New Guinea who were hired to be “advertising missionaries.” We once had an IVEP person connect with Circle of Hope from Papua, so that makes the film even more interesting [about IVEP].

Screenshot of Papuan converting to Coke.

Back then in Papua New Guinea, three quarters of the population could not be reached by the regular advertising mediums of television, radio or print. “The market” had to be developed by other means. Small theater groups traveled to remote places performing soap operas devised around advertising messages for a variety of products. They were missionaries sent to bring the consumer revolution to the people of the highlands. They would unfold a set on the back of a flat-bed truck, portraying a modern Western living-room where the advantages of Coca-Cola, Colgate, clothing, canned food, and washing powder were touted. The film observes the impact of the advertising theater on a previously “untouched” village in the remote valley of Yaluba. The change is sometimes comic, but, to my Western eyes, mostly tragic as the natives are converted to the religion of consumer capitalism.

There are reasons we are a well-kept secret

From the beginning, Circle of Hope has had a bad relationship with advertising, since the whole language seems tainted by another religion. As a result, we might be one of the best kept secrets in town. People who find us are consistently relieved to have done so. But they often say, “Why have I never heard about you before now?” One of the reasons is that many of us feel if we tell someone about Jesus or about what His church is doing, it sounds like advertising and advertising is, essentially, evil. Does that make us a very holy group?

Maybe your church feels a similar ambivalence or outright resistance. I was talking to one of Dan’s friends at his wedding last weekend and he said he dabbled in a big Baptist church in Jersey. His take was that people came to it because the church had a bang-up “living nativity” every year. I imagine many in our church and maybe yours would consider that unholy, if not embarrassing, advertising.

So the evil advertisers have shut many of us up. We don’t want to seem like them so we just don’t say anything. That reaction sounds like something right out of Screwtape Letters: “The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.” We want to open our mouths because we love Jesus and we think our church is a miracle. But we dare not sound like we are advertising. So we get in the habit of never speaking. Then we become numb to the feeling that people really need to hear from us.

This might sound far-fetched. But I know aversion to advertising is a strong sentiment among us because I have often been in charge of the limited advertising the church does. Many people are extremely sensitive about how we look to the stranger they imagine who receives our mailings or sees our website. They are afraid those unsuspecting people are going to feel invaded by some lame thing from a church and think Jesus is lame (or themselves, of course). They have a reason to fear, since so many churches, especially the big ones with live nativities in the front yard, speak advertising like their native language and turn off as many people as they turn on by their collusion with consumer capitalism —something like this, maybe.

Can we learn the language spoken in our mission field?

Lately, some of our leaders did some thinking about this and decided we needed to take some risks to make some new relationships. We need to have “advertising” as a second or third language. While our main language will always be spoken face to face, which has been the main way we grew to nearly 700 people, we think that among the nearly 7 million people in the metro there are many more people who would like to meet us. So we want to learn to speak their language better. Right now they might speak advertising better than English, for the most part. So we at least want to dip our toes in that water. We think we can get better at representing Jesus and our vision in all sorts of ways that won’t bring shame on the Lord or embarrass the sensitive hearts among us. A key distinction between the world’s advertising and ours is that ours is a result of being constrained by God’s love. We advertise because we are already compelled. It remains to be seen if that love can get through to people in spite of the medium of marketing in the U.S.

We don’t meet too many people who have not checked out our webpage before they show up at a meeting.

This is what we think we are doing with the medium, which is quite different than the hucksters in New Guinea trying to get villagers to drink warm Coke. For us, any advertising we do…

  • is a hand of friendship to people who respond to advertising.
  • is an opportunity – for the Holy Spirit to move and for unchurched to change. Each way of connecting can be used by the Spirit beyond our strategy or control.
  • is a way to shape perception. We want people to see Jesus and the church favorably.
  • is a way to subvert the lies that flood the airwaves and infect the landscape. Ben wrote about this.

We cannot “clever” people into the kingdom of God. Our best advertising is the love we have for one another, the open confession and forgiveness of our sins and the compassion we show to those in need – the fruit of the Spirit. If any of our demonstrations can do it, these everyday miracles can awaken the desire in unchurched people to know Jesus and become part of the Christian community. Advertising in itself doesn’t make the body of Christ happen. It is a way to be found by people who are looking. Our goal is not, “Let’s have really good marketing.” Our goal is, “Let’s show people Jesus and what he is doing in our church.” Advertising simply reveals what is already happening. If nothing is happening, there is nothing advertising can do to fix that!

The beginning of Joshua

A lot of us among the Circle of Hope are listing all the ways Joshua Grace has been a great servant to us as our pastor. His resignation marks a brand new day, in many ways, since he has been a fixture for twenty years and our pastor for nearly fifteen years. No one could replace him. We’re glad we won’t have to do that, since we expect him back after four months of personal reconstruction starting in October.

The old beginning

I have a lot to say about Joshua’s gifts and contributions: musician, maverick, imagineer, innovator, justice-seeker and jock. I have been there for the whole journey and am glad for the honor.

But I don’t want to seem like I’m summing up a subject many are working on. So let me start with the beginning and stay there.

I don’t have a great memory, but I do remember some of my first days relating to Joshua. He resembled this picture above much of the time. A bike messenger, and musician ready to give worship the Nine Digit Number influence, and a man who was very young to have the amount of insight he had about how to plant a church. By the time we were doing our second attempt at congregation multiplication, the leaders passed over a number of good candidates to appoint Joshua as one of the youngest pastors ever. Here he is being launched one time:

I suppose you are noting Martha, too.

Why this responsibility did not kill him remains to be seen (one of his fans will probably write an article). But instead of killing him, it motivated him to pick up a sledge and make a meeting spot for Circle of Hope “East.”  I had fun being something of an odd couple with him at times and had loads of relating as the pastor team for years as we lost and added mates. I think he had fun too.

Facebook was started the same month Frankford Ave started in 2004. One of the reasons I still look at it is happy pictures of loved ones like this.

The new beginning

I won’t go through the whole history and prove to you how I admire Joshua Grace. Let me stick with the beginning, namely: the beginning that he is experiencing now.

Cell leaders lead and then they don’t for a while. Same with the other leaders of our movement. We’re flexible like that and really try to understand that our leaders are part of an organic/spiritual process, not merely on a career path. So in the last few years, we have been strangely flexible with our pastors. We transferred Nate to Director of Operations and Ben stepped in for Marlton Pike. I soon followed with a transitional role as Development Pastor and Rachel stepped up for South Broad. Julie was called out of an apprentice pastor process and became the pastor for Ridge Ave. Now we have consolidated North Broad and Frankford Ave. to form a healthier congregation we can afford, led by Jonny. We’re flexible.

We’re flexible enough to let Joshua change and grow and remain our loved one in covenant for as long as the Lord desires. Joshua is brave to decide to do this, since no one knows how such a shift might work for him. We’re brave to allow it, because we all have to change because he is changing. But we’re connected and we have the strength to work these things out.

At the bon voyage party there will probably be more stories and pictures. I hope he can take in all the good will. It is not easy to change. I plan to be around to do what I can for my good friend, my long-term partner in alternativity, and one of God’s favorite Drexel students ever, no doubt. I think good things are about to begin. God bless you in them, brother.

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Build a trust system: Whether trials or Trump it starts with safety

It is a tough era for building a trust system. When that idea first got going with us, maybe it was not really much of “a thing” because people wanted it and thought it was possible. Now trust has almost disappeared and building a trust system might be “THE thing” because it seems so impossible. Many people are wondering if we can believe in trust again, much less build it. But trust is the basis of Christian relationships, with God and others. How can we do without it?

trust artwork
Bruno Mangyoku

David Odom executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, wrote a blog post about trust a week or so ago that is still making us think.

Maybe it makes me think because Gwen and I started watching The Honorable Woman from the BBC on Netflix, upon the advice of someone we trust. It is a series whose stated premise is, “It’s no wonder we don’t trust anyone.” I DO NOT recommend this series — we can turn on the news for lies, unfortunately. But it did make me wonder if we can build the trust system we desire if most people have a traumatized trust center in their soul.

The entire United States is having trust issues, and experience what troubles everyone. Donald Trump is a big tip, but he is not the whole iceberg of mistrust waiting to sink our love. The president’s lies are just so well documented (by what he deftly labels “fake news” outlets), they are hard to avoid. People are no longer mincing words about them. Journalists regularly point out the authoritarian tactic labeled the  “Big Lie.” Telling the big lie is a technique dictators use to gain power. After WW2 the agency that preceded the CIA warned the U.S. population against dictator tactics. They actually issued a report that outlined the primary rules evil people follow for lying big:

Never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.

This sounds familiar, right? It is now well established that the President is an inveterate liar, a lesson first learned during his decades as a businessman and reality star, then re-affirmed during his presidential campaign, and then reiterated once again with his inauguration, starting with his Big Lie about the size of the crowd on that day. At the moment, Trump’s favorite lie is that the whole Russia situation is a hoax. For instance, last Thursday, just hours after high-ranking members of his administration confirmed that Russia is meddling (and has meddled) in U.S. elections, Trump made this declaration before a rally crowd in right here in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania:

In Helsinki, I had a great meeting with Putin. We discussed everything…We got along really well. By the way, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Now we’re being hindered by the Russian hoax — it’s a hoax, OK?

This is not just “political talk.” Trump greatly contributes to the cloud of mistrust in which we wander every day. When the Leadership Team of Circle of Hope started talking about some momentous  next steps for the church last month, a few people automatically assumed they were going to receive poor treatment from faceless leaders somewhere (even though they were sharing their fears with members of our Leadership Team face to face!). Even though we say we are building a trust system, there are a lot of people who are finding that dubious prospect in this disappointing era of U.S. history.

Related image
Elicia Edijanto

So the article from David Odom was timely, if irritating. We need to think about building trust, right now! It is irritating to have to do it, since we have already been doing it. But as soon as we build some trust, some emissary from the world comes along and plants a bomb in it. So we are always REbuilding shattered trust. And for increasing numbers people, we are not rebuilding, we are building from scratch, since they never had much trust to begin with.

Trust begins with safety

Odom says, “To cultivate trust, leaders must contribute to a sense of safety, commit themselves to listening, empower others to act, learn from their mistakes, and promise only what they can deliver.” The leaders of our church definitely think they are doing these things until someone hints they are not — which someone usually does.

What Odom discovered in his consultations with churches is that the low trust among congregants exhibited before hiring him as a consultant transformed into remarkably high trust in him as soon they shared stories of pain and loss. Once people had a chance to tell their stories, even to a stranger, they began to discover what was really important to them.

His work was to figure out how to get people to listen to each other, across their dividing lines. For all the therapists listening, this probably sounds just like marriage counseling. And in the church, building trust is like marriage counseling because we share a love covenant as members of the body of  Christ. That covenant comes complete with all the passions we bring to relationships with our lovers.

Odom laments that today many people in the United States don’t remember a time when they were heard. Some feel that the American economy and society have left them far behind. Others have been silenced for generations, their stories missing from history books and media coverage. As a result, many increasingly believe that they can be understood only by people like themselves. So, by extension, people not like themselves feel dangerous. For protection, some people hide, while others lash out.

Image result for the honorable woman safe room
The Honorable Woman in her safe room.

Building trust is a crucial task

In this moment, engendering trust is one of the Jesus follower’s most important and difficult tasks. This task is not only about one’s personal truthfulness and reliability but also about one’s leaders and entire community. We can start with a foundation of credibility and transparency. But before some people can even consider those things, they need a sense of safety.

We call ourselves a Circle of Hope, but we know that before people can get over how hopeless they feel, they need to feel safe.  We can do something about what they feel interpersonally, but factors (like Donald Trump) outside our influence can make everything feel dangerous. In the TV show I referenced above, the main character sleeps in a “safe room,” she has been so traumatized. After watching such a show (and they are legion), then listening to some news, we all feel the need for a safe room! The impact of systemic oppression that has kept people at the margins of organizations, communities and society is now being named more clearly for those in power. Marginalized people have always known they are not safe; now, more privileged people feel unsafe as well.

One would hope that if we provide opportunities for relationships, trust will be an inevitable product. But many people can’t get into relationship because they do not trust themselves, others or the system to allow love. The vulnerability is just too much for them. That’s why many people avoid cell groups, can’t stand a Sunday meeting of less than 50 people, and often feel the whole church is too demanding to be tolerated.

Odom gave an example how he discovered this preliminary step into safety on the way to trust when he was a “freshly minted” church consultant. After a long meeting, a church leader pulled him aside and said, “If you were assisting my company, I would fire you. We trust you more than we trust ourselves. Don’t promise what you cannot deliver. We need you to be dependable.”

He was trying to design a good process to help the congregation after it had been betrayed by its pastor. But he learned that before the people could buy into the process, they needed to feel safe with the leader of the process. They had to place their confidence in that person and experience the leader’s confidence in them. They did not trust themselves to have difficult conversations alone and needed the leader to bridge this gap of trust. In conflict situations all over the world, where trust is broken, Christians often make themselves the bridge. One mediator in South Africa taught me a long time ago that being a Christian is often allowing yourself to be the bridge on which both sides walk toward reconciliation.

There are some basic behaviors that can build trust

Even among our church, where we specialize in letting love rule, we face mistrust. Any action is subject to scrutiny. Any situation can become primarily about trust. We must admit how challenging this is. (I am trying to do that with this post). Plus we need to admit the emotional consequences of needing to build trust. At best, it feels irritating.

How can we all build trust – especially our leaders? Odom has important ideas (here elaborated for us):

  • Let safety-building be a priority, even if you think it should be a given. Analyze every situation through the lens of how its resolution will increase or decrease the sense of safety the weakest are longing to experience.
  • Listen, listen, listen. What is everyone saying? – not just the people with whom you feel safe. What feelings are underneath the words? What is the history behind the concern? Listen for systemic injustice that often goes unnamed. We are not necessarily agreeing with people by listening to them, but we are offering a key ingredient of safety: acceptance.
  • Empower people to solve their own problems. There is not some systemic tinkering that can be done to make every problem go away. We can’t have a meeting or pass a resolution and assume everything will be better — sometimes yes, often no. Given the multiple and deep causes of the challenges people face every day, the leader is not the only person who can or should act. We are all in the trust-building project together.
  • Name mistakes and lessons learned. This is one reason we often talk about our failures. People are deciding right now how to talk about our present situation – is it a time of failure? adjustment? growth? transition? All the above? There are many things to learn. We will keep collecting stories of our mistakes as well as our successes. We will apologize and we will celebrate.
  • Don’t promise what you cannot deliver. This is one reason we are serious about our covenant and determined to live according to our agreements, not according to whim of the leaders or the tyranny of the most recent majority. We want to keep naming our intentions and understand our limits. We’ll keep pushing on the limits, but we will know they are there. People often walk into one of our meetings looking for a safe place and run into the fact that we are new, we are surprising or disappointing, and they don’t fit in yet. Rather than fretting about that inevitable reaction, we will keep loving those strangers who also feel we are strange.

Cultivating trust requires consistent work over time. Maybe that’s why it often feels irritating. Trust often ebbs and flows and is influenced by personal, organizational and societal experiences. To keep building trust, we need to admit our daily responsibility to cultivate it – most of the time, cultivating trust would be a good first step when you greet your mate in the morning, when you enter your next cell meeting, or when you see who is at the Sunday meeting.

Helping each other recognize how important trust is may be critical to any claim we make to be authentic followers of Jesus — who has trusted us with His own Spirit!  Our future can take many good roads if there is trust. Many processes can work and and varying plans can come to fruit if there is trust in God and trust in others. But most processes will go nowhere and most plans will never get off runway if they are overloaded with the terrible cargo of mistrust. So as we navigate the stormy seas of Trump and our own turmoil, let’s keep steering toward safety in our Savior and cooperate as He creates a safe place for people to explore trust. Those are steps we can all take in building a trust system — thank God we can trust Jesus for what comes next!

Paul’s disasters: And those looming for us

Image result for church disease

The apostle Paul’s church planting project was definitely prone to disasters! When I was in Greece following him around, that fact I knew from the history in Acts became more and more evident.

  • In Philippi, the first main stop, he is attacked, flogged and thrown into prison!
  • In Thessalonica, jealous opponents round up ne’re-do-wells and start a riot. He escapes after dark.
  • In Berea, he is successful until agitators from Thessalonica show up. He escapes by sea
  • In Athens, he makes a great speech, but he is not too successful — not quite a disaster, but disappointing.
  • In Corinth, where he stays quite a while, he is thrown out of the synagogue and moves next door. The Jews eventually make a united attack and bring him before the authorities.

When you read Paul’s letters back to these church plants with a disaster lens, you realize that he was trying to prevent what was about to kill them! In Galatia, they are changing the gospel back to Judaism. In Corinth, there are factions which are each  reinventing the good news to support their power struggle. In Philippi, pillars of the church are unreconciled. In Thessalonica, people are freeloading off the community waiting for Jesus to return.

Before we get too discouraged about humanity, Luke makes sure you understand that miracles ensue. [We need those.] I think he makes sure we see how difficult it was to plant the church so no one gets the idea it was not miraculous. His book should be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit, so we more human-centered types will not forget the Apostles were just like us. The big miracle is that the church not only survives, it appears to thrive on disaster, from the first martyrs and persecutions to the present day attacks on Indian believers associated with the Brethren in Christ.

Related image

We are prone to disasters

Last week I reminded our Leadership Team Core of these historical facts as we started our meeting for a couple of important reasons.

First, we Americans think we are so powerful (rich, smart, better, etc.) that everything will and should work out. A traditional song of some American Christians is “Victory is mine!” Others go right along with “God bless USA!” as the camera pans the soldiers. That just goes to say, as the president says, that we think we are supposed to win. So we are easily disappointed. If something doesn’t work (like marriage or most of our electronics) we throw it out. People leave relationships (and so the church) at the drop of the hat, following their bliss. We almost never take the good given, because that offends our sense of what we deserve. We have a Christianity that looks almost nothing like Paul’s and so we cannot do disaster. We hardly ever take uncalculated risks, which he apparently did all day until Nero killed him.

Second, we are headed for any number of disasters

  • Trump may do us in [He’s like Nero].
  • We have bid farewell to a significant number of people in the past year and we might end up on a roll as people think we are less successful than we have been for the past 22 years. [Admit church planting failures]
  • We may buy another building in the Northwest that causes all sorts of trouble. [Do we need buildings?]
  • We are not sharing the amount of money people promised and we might need to make some radical adjustments to adapt. [Sharing is radical]
  • People keep sinning and you never know when the system gets too weak to endure it until it gets too weak.
  • We are transitioning from my former role to a whole new, better, structure. But it takes radicals to do it and we might not even be paying much attention  as (back to point one) we live in the Trump fog.

I must tell you, I think my dire warning about us met with the same reaction I had to Paul’s disasters in Greece and elsewhere. I was excited. I think our LTC was generally excited too. The fact is, we Jesus followers feel like we are really alive when we are on the edge of death in some way. How better to identify with Jesus? Paul said, “I want to share in the Lord’s suffering and so share in his resurrection!” Me too. I’m not going to be foolish in order to tease out a miracle — but I am foolish enough to require one.

I have often had some great solutions to problems, led by the Spirit. But I have to admit, I have persistently relied on miracles when it came to church planting. It is the only authentic and realistic thing to do. I may think I know a lot and think I should exercise a lot of power. But when it comes to church planting, it is an act of the Holy Spirit and we follow in the Lord’s wake to get anywhere at all. When we talk about being on the apostolic edge of what is next all the time (at least I hope you talk about that) it means being on the edge of disaster a lot, since we are also on the edge of the amazing next thing God is making us and making with us.

Wildness and worry: How Paul puts them together

The probable site of the “bema,” or the steps/platform where the magistrates sat, in Philippi.

A boring picture of rocks, then two pieces of the New Testament letters of Paul is not the most exciting way to begin this blog post. I hope it gets better for you.

I am trying to describe how wildness and worry go together in us.  And I mean both words in their best sense, since some of you may think both or either are not that attractive.

  • Wildness, when we are thinking of the Holy Spirit, is alluring — at least it is attractive in people who are free enough to experience and express God’s presence.
  • Worry, on the other hand, is usually seen as unattractive — and it should be when it is all about our fear. I am thinking of it as an inevitable feature of caring for others and for the redemption project, as you will see.

Here are the two Bible portions on my mind:

2 Corinthians 11:21-29

Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

Galatians 4:19-20…5:7-13

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you! …The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

When I was on my pilgrimage recently, following the Apostle Paul through Greece, I had a recurring fear: “If I tell anyone how much I identify with this man, will they label me a grandiose fool?” But last week I had to admit to my spiritual director that Paul has been my spiritual guide from day one of my faith. As I have the vantage point now to look back on many years, I can see how much that is true. I think the parts in bold, above, are key elements of his teaching, and I have tried to make them key to my life.

My new Paul icon from Berea

I identify with both Paul’s wildness and worry

You can decide if the Spirit speaks through Paul, or not, as he would heartily agree you should. So I offered two little portions of his letters today that demonstrate something I recently put together for myself, as well: There is a connection between his wildness and his worry.

My director was parsing out meaning in my deluge of storytelling the other day and he noted how I spoke with delight about how I stood before the “bema” in the ruins of Philippi, undoubtedly near where Paul stood himself, and loved the wildness of the whole scene. Then I was talking about my worries about the future of Circle of Hope and he noticed such a change in my demeanor that it was striking, “What are these two things? Do they go together?” I think he wanted me to stop worrying and move with my bliss.

I eventually told him, “It is all part of the same story.” I had been talking a lot about Paul so I said, “I think I can connect these two things to Paul, want to see me try?” He did. And I remembered today’s verses.

In our dialogue, I had been alluding to our Church Planting Summits last year, when we had all sorts of scenarios for the future of our movement. My director was surprised at how wild we are, since he has been a Presbyterian for a while. For instance, when Presbyterian pastors end their service in a local congregation (like I did in 2016), they are generally sent packing and have a strict no-contact clause in the ending agreement. Circle of Hope did not do that with me. So there I was last summer leading a discussion as Development Pastor about how we should connect as congregations (association, aggregation or composition?) and helping us consider combining congregations if they would be better together than struggling as small groups apart. He marveled at the flexibility! He could see the benefit of being one church in many locations. He said, “Most churches just try to survive and most of their energy goes toward protection, not freedom.” You are rather wild.

But I am also rather worried – quite often. I sometimes think I would rather buy a beach view and practice my well-earned inner peace apart from worries. But then I realize that I hooked my wagon to Jesus and God is very concerned about the earth. It is not so much that the Lord is just worrying over us like something shameful or terrible is going to happen to his creation – he knows the end. But he is worrying like a mother hen might brood over her eggs until they are hatched; and the Lord is fussing like a human mother whose children are just getting mature enough to drive a car.

The wildness of creation is at work. Re-creation has been set loose by Jesus. The sentient, loving beings who carry the heart of it all are yet to be fully revealed. Will they all make it to the good end? I am worried with that kind of worry.

Paul demonstrated both his wildness and worry when he wrote

You can see the complementary nature of wildness and worry in the Spirit in the verses I shared. The passages are often consigned to the “worry” category: “You dear Corinthians with whom I spent so much time. Are you really going to divide up and think you are more special than your teacher?” And “You dear Galatians who responded so favorably to the gospel, are you now going to listen to people who teach you need to be Jews first so you can be Christians?”

I can relate to the worry side. I often think it is wrong to worry — and mistrust in the end is probably wrong. But I might say, “Circle of Hope are you going to squander your community and alternativity now that it is so sorely needed? Will you really think about yourselves first and not imagine a future of mutual trust in Jesus?” Maybe we all relate more to anxiety, so when we see it in Paul we remember it.

But the wildness is also in these passages. I mean that very attractive Spirit-driven wildness that makes Paul such a notable and world-changing guy. I suppose if he walked into the Sunday meeting we’d either adore him or be scared to death by him. The way he makes his point to the Corinthians is to list all the wild things that have happened to him because of his calling in Jesus. Prison, floggings, shipwrecks, bandits, hunger, it goes on. When I was following his journey, just the amount of walking he did seemed daunting to me. The prospect of entering a new town in a car provoked enough anxiety in me! — when I was in Philippi, I was complaining that it was too hot and I was glad to get back to my air-conditioned vehicle! Paul was entering a new continent with a brand new message expecting God to work a wonder – and repeatedly that is just what the Spirit did.

To the Galatians he appeals to their highest, wildest selves in contradiction to teachers who had come in and appealed to their lowest and enslaved selves. He speaks so boldly people have been criticizing him for being too aggressive ever since. But Paul feels free and he speaks freely. And he thinks the Galatians can handle their freedom in the Spirit without being reduced to the Jewish law, which was just a tutor for their adulthood in the Spirit as the children of God. When I thought of Paul being hauled up in front of the magistrates, I was reminded of how much faith he had in the work of the Holy Spirit Jesus unleashed!

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A “celebration of what can be” by David M. Kessler

I can’t seem to have wildness without worry, either

I am not sure I convinced my director, but I began to convince myself that my wildness and worry went together. There is no way to take risks unless I hope they will make a difference. There is no way to exercise my freedom without hoping others experience the joy of it. There is no way to be part of a cell or team and not long for the fullness they represent or despair over the trials they face. There is no way to build the wild thing called the church and not worry over its future and brood over the fragile new birth springing up in it all the time. Paul was not just traveling around Greece for the sheer exhilaration of exercising his thrilling new freedom to do so! He was nurturing a people who would be set upon, almost immediately, by their own unprocessed sin and by people ready to redirect their movement into channels that suited themselves more than Jesus!

The movement of the good news in Jesus keeps on rolling in about the same way it did in Paul’s time. As I look back on how Jesus has led me, it makes me happy to think my mentor from the past was so influential. I wish I could be more like him, even now. But I am delighted the same Spirit who moved him made me like him at all! — intrinsically wild and often worried for good reasons.

Why does being part of Circle of Hope seem so demanding?

Aren’t most churches afraid of being too demanding? If we ask too much, people might shop down the street or decide Jesus is not their brand altogether!

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There is no hiding it. We at least seem demanding.

For instance, some Sunday Meeting Team leaders were talking about how to ask people to develop their worship discipline. One of them worried out loud that someone might think it was too demanding if we did not just lay out different music and exercises at our meeting without too much direction and let people browse without breathing down their necks like anxious salespeople.

I said, “Most of the time, when I lead people to do something, I add a caveat at the end — ‘Or do what you want.'” When it comes to worship, I’m saying, “Worshiping God is worship – not much I can do about that. But if you want to be here and not do it, that’s OK. Don’t do it.” That’s one way to deal with the demanding nature of what we do — let everyone be where they are, including God. I want to embrace people where they are, first, and let them catch up to what God has for them in their own time.

We are ambitious — that is demanding

Just hearing me admit that we are ambitious let’s you know that we prize speaking directly, which is also demanding. We make plans, and we want to complete our goals; we truly think we are listening to Jesus, and we don’t mind telling you what we are hearing. We take people seriously enough to include them in making our plans and in our conversations with Jesus. What’s more, we like the term “radical.” But even apart from our traits as a people, it is only honest to say we are demanding because we are relating to God, which, by nature, is quite demanding.

At the same time we are inevitably demanding, we don’t really want to be. People get upset with us! Someone actually asked the question I am answering with some exasperation: “Why is being part of Circle of Hope so demanding?!” We struggle with their exasperation. When I wrote a blog post about cohabitation once, people wrote to me and said, “Wow, thanks, that was bold. You waded right in.” They were scared for me. I was talking about things people have feelings about. I created a demanding situation. If you talk about something intimate people sometimes forget you are not their mother and react accordingly. Some people think it would be wiser to let a sleeping dog lie most of the time. Why kick someone’s fear and resistance? Why ask someone to have an identity centered on Jesus and never let anything get in the way of that? It’s very demanding.

We we assume you have “the stuff” to do what you decide to do – and that includes deciding about Jesus. 

It is kind of demanding to treat people like they don’t have to be a Christian and I don’t have to coerce them. It requires a lot of maturity of people to think they can stand on their own two feet and do what they need to do.

Facing this assumption is hard on quite a few people because they inherited Christianity from mom and dad. They didn’t have too many choosing experiences about it. They are used to feeling coerced, and they like to think the church is doing that so they can rebel against it. I don’t think it is the same for everyone, but, to be honest, I find us relatively undemanding, since I want to be a Christian. The church could not possibly be as demanding as Jesus. He tells me to lose my false self so I can gain my true one!

When Jesus was talking to people who were already settled into their religion, he raised the bar very high. He told them they had to deal with their own personal sin, not rely on their standing in their family or community. They had emulate Abraham’s faith and hope, not just rely on their honored place as his descendants. They had to listen to the Son of God, not to the lies the powers were telling them. This kind of talk made them very defensive (John 8:31-47).

Sometimes when we speak into American life and American Christianity, any straight talk can seem confrontational. American Christianity has kind of been dumbed down, in general, so it can be sold to a mass audience. Sometimes it seems like a self help book, or religion for dummies. It is all about what people feel and do personally, and it is designed to be convenient, like an IKEA. Plus you can be a Christian easy enough because it only happens once a week at church. It can be like a sitcom — happy theme songs, plot lines that are not too deep; everything is expected to work out quickly. These are such gross generalizations I wish I hadn’t said them. But they are kind of true.

Jesus took away the lines on the aisles leading to the checkout counter and made faith in God a whole-life thing. He acted like we had the stuff to relate to God — just like he was living and giving his whole life. We think that is how it should be. In comparison to being in control or thinking one can accomplish the job of being good quickly and efficiently, what we talk about is demanding. We have to relate. Love is expected. Reconciliation is important. Doing the most and the best is normal.

I wonder what you think. When Jesus comes at you and seems confrontational, does it make you resistant and mad? Or when Jesus comes at you and seems confrontational, do you think he loves you and has a life for you? How much do you reduce him to merely “demanding?”  I think the only thing he is really demanding is this: live as your true selves in an environment that is becoming new and making all things new.

Our era is more and more inhospitable to Christianity. 

Unless we conform to the prevailing philosophy, or at least accept being deconstructed, it is hard to be a Christian. Even saying the name of Jesus can seem like heavy lifting.

When my hero, Teresa of Avila, awakened to the gospel as a twentysomething in the 1500s, she thought the convent she was living in was lax and compromised. She got demanding and changed thousands of lives. But her situation was different. Almost everyone she knew was a Christian. There was no debate about whether one should believe in God! So her ground floor was Christian and what she was complaining about was a convent, where women went to pray and devote themselves to God. I think most people we know think convents were last heard of in the Sound of Music! And even then, the convent  Julie Andrews was in was one she was escaping because she wanted freedom and sex, and to fight Nazis with Christopher Plummer on the way to a stage career in the United States. If a screenwriter put a Maria Von Trapp character in a movie these days, it would be to mock her as way too wholesome and moral. It is a new day.

There is a famous account of Jesus speaking with an upper class person like Teresa of Avila and like Julie Andrews who came to him to ask a question. It was, basically, “How demanding is it to follow you?” I think how Jesus related to him might be considered very demanding by some people because he so uncompromising and unaffirming. The man had a lot of money and didn’t want to give it away to follow Jesus. He had a lot to lose. The picture I found (at left) seems to picture the moment well. I think the artist captured the sharp contrast between Jesus and the man very well. Jesus looks like he totally does not fit in the picture. The man to whom He was speaking did not think Jesus fit into his picture, either. He thought he was good already and his prosperity helped convince him that he did not need more saving — and even if he was not that good, he was at least good at getting stuff. Why would a Savior demand his stuff?

In Circle of Hope Daily Prayer not long ago, the “voice” was talking about some other things people believe these days that make it hard to be a Christian. For one thing, they believe humankind is good and getting better all the time, just like the man Jesus was talking to only more so. N.T. Wright finds it remarkable that in spite of the evidence, people still believe in the myth of progress. In the 1800s, he says, philosophers thought they had gotten rid of the idea of original sin when they propagated the idea that humankind could keep making things better, forever. Marx and Freud offered replacement doctrines about why things get so bad and offered new solutions to match: new doctrines of redemption which mirror and parody the Christian one, just minus that demanding Jesus. Wright says that somehow, despite the horrific battles of Mons and the Somme during World War I, and despite Auschwitz and Buchenwald in World War II, people still continue to this day to suppose that the world is basically a good place and that its problems are more or less solvable by technology, education, and “development” — that is development in the sense of “Westernization” and the application of Western “democracy” to more and more regions of the world – surrendering to Western social-democratic ideals or Western capitalism, or a mixture of both. The powers that be ignore their sin — they think everything they do is progress. When their sin hits them, or when someone sins against them, they are surprised. When they are surprised they do weird things, like start 17-year war in Afghanistan or design a rocket that can hit the U.S. from North Korea. It is surprisingly hard to leave that thinking behind and follow Jesus.

The man who came to Jesus thought he had it down. But Jesus told him he needed to follow Him personally, not try to fit him into his Beemer. You can get a lot of Jesuses into Beemers, but not the one who had the actual conversation I’ve noted, at least if you are trying to drive Him into Beemerdom. It seems very demanding, even insulting and demeaning, to dismiss the Beemer as trivial. Who does Jesus think he is, and how can he be so undemocratic?

What do YOU think?

When Jesus looks at you in pity, does it make you ashamed and mad? Or when Jesus looks at you in pity, do you think he loves you and has a life for you? How much do you reduce him to merely “demanding?”  I think the only thing he is really demanding is that we live as our true selves in an environment that is becoming new and making all things new.

Why is Circle of Hope so demanding? Like I said, I’m not sure we are, truthfully. But I think we seem demanding in relation to how people were raised in the church and in relation to the society in which we live. I think we need to be sensitive about that, lest we just choke people with our insensitive ambition. But Jesus is a lot more demanding than us —  if you want to see him that way.

Anything might work because nothing really works.

We had a sweetly earnest cell plan intensive the other night in the basement of 2212 S. Broad. All those couches reminded me of the youth group I used to lead! I suppose that’s why I remembered a lesson I learned very early in my life of mission.

Here’s the lesson: Anything might work because nothing really works. What I mean is: God works. I am just a vehicle, an opportunity, a marginally-capable participant. In the cause of redemption, God has used a lot more surprising partners than me to get things done.

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The cell leaders were mainly talking about how to make connections with people without seeming like Verizon trying to get someone to switch. [Hate this commercial]. They were lamenting those awkward conversations when they suspected someone felt weirdly pressured to sign on the dotted line when they were only being invited into a cell group — a group that would likely feel like a precious gift after a few minutes or meetings. “The ask” is always so hard.

So I told a story about being a youth pastor and feeling compelled to make new relationships with high school students. I used to somewhat-illegally go to Arlington High and sit at one of the lunch tables hoping I would connect with someone. It was, of course, awkward enough to go to lunch when I was in high school. This was even more awkward. And more than a few kids let me know how weird it was, including the ones I already knew! But I also made some new friends, and many of them became friends just because they appreciated just how far I would go to get a chance to meet them [Love this commercial].

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I had learned a lesson from Jesus and I was just determined enough to apply it. Jesus also went to great lengths to get to know us. One time he found someone to heal in Jerusalem and the leaders were mad because he did it on the Sabbath. He told them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17). Then they were mad that he said God was his father. Nothing worked with these people! He might have gone to a meeting in a basement and lamented that his healings resulted in too little and people responded poorly when he called on them! I would do that and have.

At the same time, I heard what he was saying and went out and tried again. Because the Holy Spirit has repeatedly made it plain that God couldn’t care less about the rejections and absurdities that people throw against Love and Truth. God is at work, so I can trust that. “My Father is still working” — and if that doesn’t work, then nothing works.

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The fact is, I throw out a lot of resistance and nonsense myself! And what I come up with as a strategy is usually weak, at best. If I were basing my next move on my predicted effectiveness, I would certainly do nothing. I can demonstrate how ineffective I am (even when others think I’m successful!). Fortunately, God could not care less about my estimations of myself. He died for me when I was turned away and uses me in spite of myself, repeatedly.

That motley, beautiful crew in the basement had a shocking number of success stories to tell the other night — that is, if you consider God transforming lives to be success and you don’t restrict Jesus to making your plans for world redemption work out properly. You could tell we thought very little of our successes. The stories were told to encourage us not to give up, for the most part.

When we prayed, I silently hoped that we would see you at work, Lord. Anything we do is just for revealing you. If people don’t see you at work, what is there to do but heal them, or at least be at the table when they show up for lunch and provide the opportunity for living bread?

Nothing works. People will reject a healing done before their eyes by the Son of God! But anything can work: a prayer, a meeting, a note, a cold call, a random encounter, a song, because God is at work and Jesus is alive in his people. Why wouldn’t we just take the best shot we can according to whatever we have available at the moment? Stranger things have introduced people to eternity.

Why Five Congregations?: It is more than a strategy

Becoming part of any organization, from a corporation to a little league can be very confusing for a while — a church, especially Circle of Hope,  is not that different. You can walk into all our meeting places, except Ridge Ave, when no one is there and any number of people who come in will ask, “This is a church?” Quite a few have looked at me about the same time and said, “You are a pastor?” If I explain, they say, “Most of you meetings are on Sunday night?” Once the high school kids from Pequea BIC in Lancaster Co. stopped by for a little visit. They predictably said, “You have other sites and pastors?” It can be very confusing.

Here is the main reason we are one church in five congregations: Jesus said “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). People need a lot of Jesus doorways in different forms.

  • We are wandering in the dark; we need the light of the world to guide us.
  • We are slaves to our own understanding; we need reconnected to what is beyond us.
  • We are sinful and broken; it is only by the work of Jesus and his merit that we can be forgiven, and restored.

We want to make Jesus accessible like he has made God accessible to us. That’s why we are five congregations in one church.

More directly, we have a great purpose and we are doing the best we can to live up to it. The Bible gives us a mission statement for our family business. It guides us. People call it “the great commission.” It is Jesus’ last words to his disciples.

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

The essence of the Lords’ plan for redeeming and recreating the world is to draw together disciples who make disciples who make further disciples. We have planned our life together to do what we have been given to do, making the most of what we have to make an impact in our time and place.

More practically and specifically we are five congregations because it is an practical, radical, attractive strategy. Some people reading this might bristle as soon as the word “strategy” is used, but it is what it is. Strategy is just about getting from here to there in the best way we can imagine. We’re trying “to get to” making disciples who thrive, who make it to fifty with a vibrant, world-changing faith. It is at least possible that Jesus uses billboards, TV, airplane advertisements flying down the coast, charismatic talking heads on big screens and all that to call together disciples. But his main strategy is you and me and anyone else we can get to follow him telling someone else that he is our way, truth and life, now — and showing that in a way that can touch our hearts and minds, face to face. We might not be as desirous or patient as God, but the Lord has decided to need us, even if we have not decided to need Jesus, yet.

So our strategy is to go with Jesus on this, he is the way. His way is our way. He is the truth and the life; we want people to get to God and their true selves through his work. We also presume that you will hear and feel the great commission and be a follower who connects with others who will eventually follow the Lord you follow. You love God and you love them so you find ways to makes a connection just like God found a way to connect to you. If you don’t care about that, we are mostly out of business, because that is what our family business is.

Here is how we do it.

We make a cell. That is how Circle of Hope started, with the nucleus of one cell. And if you look at Jesus and the twelve disciples, that’s basically what he did, too. So we had one, then we had two and quickly three, and on we have gone over the years, multiplying cells and watching them live or them die on their own spiritual strength. That’s the basic body-life way we operate. The cells get together and form a congregation.

South Broad was the first congregation that formed (at 10th and Locust, then Broad and Washington). It drew from the entire region. We have always had a wide region in which we operate, and we still do. Marlton Pike also has a very wide region — all of South Jersey. North Broad also see themselves as having a wide pull, but mostly they are North Philly. Frankford and Norris draws from all over, but they are mostly Kensington and Fishtown. Our newest congregation on Ridge Ave tries to attend to all the Northwest. We used to have congregations in G’town and Frankford, but they dispersed.

Multiplying congregations is part of our strategy: When the congregations get over the 200 adult mark we start looking to see if they are going to have enough expansiveness to multiply. We think of it as bees in a hive — when the hive gets too big, it “hives off” into another hive. Right now, South Broad has about 130 adults after sending people off to the Northwest last year. If we had 230, we might think about sending off 50 or so to begin a new congregation. Better to have 270 and send 70, but that would be a judgment call we would have to make.

There are a lot of practical reasons for having multiple congregations instead of one big one, but our best reasons are about making disciples. We have a strategy for making authentic disciples of Jesus in the megalopolis. See if you think we are making the right decision.

Being one church in four congregations allows us to be big and small

We are as small as a cell, and as big as the whole church; as face-to-face as a congregation and as unknown as what the Spirit is doing next on the frontier of the constituency.

In terms of congregations, since that is theme of this post, we like the congregations to be relatively small. I say relatively because most churches in the United States are smaller than our typical size. Even though you see all those megachurches on TV, most churches are between 70-100 people. They are a big cell group with a very energetic leader, the pastor. It takes multiple leaders and multiple cells not to be a 100 person church; we think having multiple cells is more expansive. So for us, small means about 200, which is about the number social scientists say an interested member of a social group can hope to connect with in some meaningful way, like remembering names. We like to be face to face. Jesus had twelve, then the 70 and then there were 150 in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. It was personal.

But there are also advantages of scale, being five congregations in one church. In larger groups, one person or one clique has a tough time dominating, so there can be multiple centers of leadership and accountability. That’s why we like to have two Sunday meetings, so it is built into us that there are more people than just the ones who are in the room. One of the biggest advantages of scale is sharing resources. Circle of Hope has a common fund, so if one congregation has less money than they need, the others can help. We have one mutuality fund, so we can distribute it where there is most need. We have a common set of compassion teams that we all share. We have the covenant list and share list that are fruitful places to contact a lot of people. We draw from the whole network for our Leadership Team. Our pastors are not singular, but are a team, so they have less psychological issues with isolation and get a lot of stimulation.

Jonny Rashid sent over another image after this was published.

Being five congregations as one church allows us to be complex and simple, old and new

We are as complex as a network of cells, teams, businesses and events that have grown over time and as simple as the next new relationship we make.

On the complex side, it might be quite daunting to think that one congregation could come up with Circle Thrift and other good businesses. I am sure we would still have big ideas, but more complexity takes more time and staff and organization.

At the same time, we are quite simple. Our pastors do not run the one big church all day; they are mainly local pastors. We hope you feel like you can call up and talk to your pastor. I have a new friend with a 2000 person church in Delaware. People are on a three-month waiting list to get on his schedule, and he is their pastor. We want to know and be known, and that includes our leaders.

Being big and small also allows us to be old and new. At a Love Feast several years ago Gwen overheard someone saying, “Welcome to the covenant. I joined in three months ago.” So she chimed in, “Yes, welcome. I joined in 16 years ago.” Hiving off new congregations helps us stay new and attentive. Being a long-lasting network helps us have continuity and stabilizing lore.

Being five congregations as one church allows us to be in a neighborhood and also city/region-wide

We are fully part of our neighborhood and fully part of our whole city and region.

A few years ago we started naming our congregations after their addresses. We’re all identified with neighborhoods; our region likes things local. You may not do this, but quite a few people over the years have signed in on the welcome list as “Tony from 12th and Mifflin,” or some such address. We want to actually live, as congregations, in our neighborhoods. It is true we have cells in all sorts of neighborhoods, but the congregation has a home, too, in its neighborhood, and we like to think we are a vital part of it.

On the other hand, we don’t want to be just our neighborhood, because our region’s neighborhoods see themselves as so distinct they don’t even talk to each other sometimes. Broad St., right outside my door, was a demarcation line for 50-60 years until that began to break down lately. We thought it would be a good representation of Jesus to be in different neighborhoods, but actually be one church. We did not want to give in to the arbitrary dividing lines that keep people apart.  We even decided to cross the river, and that was no small deal. Tons of people work every day in Philly and cross the bridge, but when they think about doing that to be one church and it seems like a big deal. We like to push the boundaries of what seems possible.

It does not make any difference how we are structured if no one cares about the family business. It would break a lot of hearts if we actually did it, but I and the leaders are pretty much content to let the whole thing die if no one applies themselves to working the strategy. I think I should trust your passion to run the business, just like Jesus trusted his first disciples. You have to want the Lord, have the purpose, and do the strategy, or it is all just a lot of talk.

People do not move into eternity with mere talk. They need to make a relationship with God in the person of Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life. For many people, each of us is the only Jesus-is-my-way kind of Christian they have ever met. It is not an easy business to be in, but it is our family business. I am doing my best to tend it with you.

The Spirit’s Impressive Church Planting Track Record

The South Broad stakeholders had a lot of good ideas on Saturday morning! I think we were just getting warmed up when our two hour time-allotment was over. I was impressed with the work of the Holy Spirit among us. We have gifts and vision – and the Lord has transformed lives in so many ways! People told stories to illustrate what they were saying over and over — transformation is so common among us we can use the instances as just another example. We should trust that Spirit.

We don’t make the body, Jesus does. We’re just working with the Spirit of God, here.

The Holy Spirit is just as ready to guide us as he guided all those people in the New Testament. The Lord is the ultimate church planter. The Spirit has never reduced church planting into a reproducible model. The everfresh work of church planting must be reduced into a loving, dependent relationship! Every cell, congregation and church is planted a unique way. So if you are called to plant the church (and you are) you need to develop an ever increasing, intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit and trust the Lord’s work.

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Seeing how the Lord was working and seeing how we need to stop worrying, controlling and judging instead of trusting, made me want to remember how the Spirit is guiding us. So I have two things for us. First, I want to lay out how the Spirit planted the first churches on three continents and how that inspires us. Then I have one piece of advice for keeping up with Jesus as you plant with him.

Jerusalem

Jesus told his disciples to WAIT for the Spirit before beginning to make disciples in the city. As they obediently prayed, the Spirit showed up and empowered courageous witness that pierced the hearts of 3000 unbelievers. What a way to launch a church plant! It has never been done quite the same way since.

How did your church start? Do you even know? Or do you think it started when you showed up? It was probably impressive and it was probably so long ago that most people can’t even relate to it. It is interesting to look back and learn things. But the more important question that looking back usually begs, “How is the church starting NOW?”

Samaria

After this impressive start, what happened next? No doubt the disciples never predicted that persecution was the church planting strategy the Spirit would use. For instance, Philip was one of the Acts 6 leaders who were recognized as being “filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” It seems the Spirit helped Philip stay on task rather than panic once persecution scattered him to Samaria. The Spirit empowered his message of Jesus there until there was “much joy in that city.”

Terrible things in the world, great failures in leaders and in communities are often just the new seedbed of the next church. Aren’t we experiencing that right now? The oddly-successful church planter Robert Schuller was fond of saying, “Turn your scars into stars.” We have some failure among us; don’t you? Do you think we can trust God to turn it all to good when we trust the Spirit?

Africa and Caesarea

Next, to plant churches in Africa, the Spirit inspired an encounter between an evangelist and a seeker. The Lord said to Philip, “Go toward the South…” Philip did his part, “he arose and went.” He came upon an Ethiopian court official reading Isaiah and the Spirit said, “Go over and join this chariot.” Philip and the Ethiopian discuss Jesus; the man asks to be baptized and continues his journey home to plant the church in Africa.

Stories like this pile up in Acts just like they pile up among us. In Caesarea and Joppa, both Peter and Cornelius received visions that brought them together to move the good news of Jesus into new territories. When Peter spoke about Jesus in Caesarea, “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.” The believers who had traveled with him were “amazed” that Jesus poured out such grace “even on the Gentiles.” The Holy Spirit was building quite a church planting resume: Jerusalem, Samaria, Africa, and now Caesarea.

Stories almost as strange were told this month among us. God spoke in dreams, through random encounters, through random acts of kindness and deliberate plans. Boundaries were crossed. We can trust the Holy Spirit to plant the church.

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Asia Minor

Next, we see “the hand of the Lord” was also simultaneously with the believers who were scattered by the persecution in Antioch, about 300 miles north of Jerusalem. During one of their meetings, “while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said.…” As we know from experience and from looking at the story in Acts, the Holy Spirit was not dictating rules and regulations, Jesus was leading his body to ACT. Our job is always to “keep in step with the Spirit.”

The leaders in Antioch were reshuffled, much like we have done since we began our “second act” in 2015. Three leaders stayed in Antioch and two leaders, Paul and Barnabas, were sent out by the Holy Spirit on a great adventure to plant churches throughout Asia Minor. During their second visit to each city, they appointed elders in each church, because the Spirit had been at work calling, gifting, and guiding.

The Spirit at times says “GO” and sometimes says “NO” to our plans. Paul had the noble desire to go back on the road to strengthen the churches that had been planted. However, in the middle of that noble work, he was “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” to speak the word in Asia. Next, the Spirit of the Lord didn’t allow them to go to Bithynia. There are limits to what we can do.

The Holy Spirit is bigger than our imagination. We can only hope to appreciate our own slice of the mystery. We are always doing more than we are capable of doing; we are always given less than we think is necessary. When we look over our meager work and our troubled region we may respond with passion or despair. More deeply, we should respond with trust and gratitude. Our cup is half full. It is amazing there is living water constantly available at all!

Macedonia

When the Spirit says, “No,” we can often expect something better. In Paul’s case, the Spirit gave him a vision that sent him to a new continent. He ended up in Philippi to plant the church. The leading city of Macedonia had no synagogue, where he would expect to begin his work. He didn’t panic. He found a few God-fearing women meeting at the river. The Lord opened the hearts of Lydia and her household. The next core group members added to the church at Philippi were a freed slave girl with a spirit of divination and the jailer. The Spirit impressively planted a church in Philippi with an unlikely cast of characters and through an unpredictable series of events.

I know people are reading through Acts right now and are getting the rest of the story. It is impressive. The are anticipating new acts. It is time to move into the next territory and the Lord is leading us to do just that.

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We can trust the Holy Spirit

Each cell, each congregation, each church is special. Each challenge is unique. Each core group is unpredictable. It just takes the Holy Spirit’s guidance and the message of Jesus to successfully plant a church from its smallest form to the largest — not fabulous talent or charisma. The Holy Spirit goes before us and leads you every step of the way. Jesus is so impressive, we don’t have to be. You just have to trust Him.

Jesus has already been where we are going. When we look over the meeting room on Sunday or in the cell, Jesus is with us and in each of us. We don’t need to get people to do what they don’t want to do, we need to catalyze what the Spirit is already doing! We are cooperating. If we are creative at all, it is all about co-creating. We don’t need to feel over-responsible for what people do our don’t do; Jesus is with them. We don’t need to protect them from what they fear; Jesus will save them.

Following the Holy Spirit is about the character of our relationship with God, not the competence of our job performance. It’s about a relationship to be developed with the person of the Spirit, more than a technique to be mastered. Dallas Willard says it well: “Perhaps we don’t hear the voice of God because we don’t expect to hear it. But perhaps we don’t hear it because we know that we fully intend to run our lives on our own and never seriously considered anything else. The voice of God would be an unwelcome intrusion into our plans. By contrast, we expect the great ones in The Way of Christ to hear that voice just because we see their lives wholly given up to doing what God wants.”   

From the apostles in the upper room, to Phillip after the persecution, to the people worshiping and fasting in Antioch, they were all “wholly given up to doing what God wants.” They were done trying to run their own lives. Ray Ortlund Jr. says: If our purposes rise no higher than what we can attain by our own organizing and thinking, then we should change our churches into community centers. But if we are weary of ourselves and our own brilliance, if we are embarrassed by our own failures, then we are ready for the gift of power from on high”(The Gospel, 104-105).

When I look around us, I admit I see plenty of people who are not weary of themselves yet — and they are wearisome! But those people are far from the majority. Most of the people in our church did not get involved with our radical little group of subversives to look great. Like the stakeholders demonstrated the other day, they got involved to follow Jesus and plant the church. They got involved to give their gifts in love. And they can be trusted to give them, just as the Spirit can be trusted to use them.

The half time leader: Let’s understand and try to help

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We are fond of saying that we ARE the church, we don’t “go to it.” So why do I care whether people come to the Sunday meetings (and all the other meetings)? Why am I worried that our LEADERS are only at the Sunday meetings half the time?

The obvious answer is that it is hard to BE the church if one does not exist in real time as the church.  The meetings are an expression of our reality; we embody the Spirit; we have a location that is not just in our mind or in our belief system. Like Jesus showed his skeptical disciples: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20:27). People doubt if there is no wounded side for their fingers.

What’s more, the Bible is pretty strong on the idea that we are what we do. So the writer of Hebrews teaches, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another,” (Heb. 10:24-5). S/he reminds me of NA folks repeatedly saying, “And keep coming back.” The meeting matters because I showed up, no matter what happens in it.

Why are people half-time when it comes to meetings?

Most of our attenders probably agree with what I just wrote, certainly most of our many leaders. But most of them miss plenty of meetings. Let’s consider a stereotypical married couple. Of the 52 Sundays a year, they could easily gather for worship 31 times and still think of themselves as deeply engaged. They lost 5 Sundays to vacation and weekend getaways. They lost 9 Sundays to the kids’ sports and art activities. They lost 3 Sundays to the diseases the kids brought home. They lost 2 Sundays to visiting relatives or friends. They lost 2 Sundays to Thanksgiving and post-Christmas. You can see how attendance can make a person’s commitment seem “spotty” if that is all you are measuring.

What do we do, let each other know we are watching how many times they miss the meeting? On one hand, yes, exactly. We’ve got a team sport going and it is hard to play if no one shows up for the game. On the other hand, no, obviously. Few people need a friend who has an equation in the back of their mind to apply to their schedule.

So why do people seem to be coming to church meetings, even ours, less these days?

  1. They are richer

Money gives people options. U.S. personal disposable income is at an all time high.

They have technology options, travel options, options for their kids. Do you think the richer people are the further away they are from a committed engagement to the mission of their congregation?

  1. If they have kids, their activities run the schedule

A growing number of kids are playing sports. And a growing number of kids are playing on teams that require travel. Many of those sports happen on weekends. Affluent parents are choose sports over church.

  1. They are travelling

Despite a wobbly economy, travel is on the rise, both for business and pleasure.

More and more families of various ages travel for leisure, even if it’s just out of town to go camping or to a friend’s place for the weekend or a weekend at the lake.

  1. Blended and single-parent families have less-reliable schedules

When custody is shared, “perfect” attendance might be 26 Sundays a year. A single parent has many challenges others don’t. Transportation can be harder, taking care of the house, balancing work and family time. If being part of the church does not help with those challenges, it is hard to get into the schedule.

  1. People can, and do, get better stuff online

Many churches have created a social media presence and many, like us, podcast their messages. Some churches with a strong online presence have seen it impact physical attendance. Anyone who attends our meetings has free access to the online resources of any church. Even my blog post on Monday was viewed by people form eight countries.

  1. They don’t feel guilty

People who grew up in church (and we have plenty of them) feel guilty when they don’t show up to the meeting because that was a major thing in their childhood. Going to church or not marked them as good or not. People don’t get that so much anymore. They don’t feel any more guilty about not being in church meetings than you do about not being at the mosque on Friday.

We tend to make it plain that we don’t really want anyone to come to a meeting involuntarily, as if coming to the meeting makes them something. People in meetings who are fulfilling an obligation wreck the spirit of the meetings. So maybe our lack of guilt-production contributes to irregular attendance which contributes to flabby faith that is susceptible to disease. I’m not sure.

  1. More people all the time have a self-directed spirituality

People are looking less to churches and leaders to help them grow spiritually, and more to other options. We live in a era in which no parent makes a visit to a doctor’s office without having first Googled the symptoms of a child’s illness and a recommended course  of treatment. I did it to my dermatologist this week, to her dismay. We research everything we buy online.

In an age where we have access to everything, more and more people are self-directing their spirituality…for better or for worse. They don’t trust institutions to do it for them and don’t feel obligated to them.

  1. They don’t sense there is something for them at the meeting

Even among people who say their love our church, their attendance might be spotty because they don’t see a direct benefit. They don’t see the value in being there week after week. That could be because the  meetings are held because we’re supposed to hold a meeting or because there is value that they simply don’t see. Either way, failure to see a direct benefit always results in declining engagement.

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We could help each other, not just evaluate

Assuming these things are true and we care about BEING a visible church by means of having meetings where people can stick their hands into us, what might help people experience something that make the meetings relevant? Why would the leaders make the effort to make them relevant?

We embrace people where they are.

People are not ideas and they certainly are not machines that should perform on a schedule. Like Jesus, they have wounds; we can see them.

Maybe Thomas was sulky because he thought of Jesus’ death as a rejection. If someone doesn’t come to the meeting and I do, what does that say to me? Did they reject me? If you are an insecure church leader people can feel when you feel rejected.

Before the meetings stats make us feel rejected, we need to find out what’s really happening with people. Chances are they did not make a relationship with us on the basis of coming to a meeting. The relationship is bigger than the meeting. Jesus is with us always, even as you are reading this. We need some object permanence so we can embrace people who are somewhere else for a bit.

We separate the mission from the method

Our mission is to lead people into a life-changing, life-long relationship with Jesus, not just get them to come to our cell or Sunday meeting.

Our meetings are great vehicles for mission and there will not be much community for people to share if no one spends time building it face to face. But our mission is not to fill our empty chairs, it is to lead people to Jesus and stay there with Him. We should be obsessed with our mission, not with filling seats.

Some of us are more in love with the method than the mission. Circle of Hope has wonderful methods that have been very successful, but doing them perfectly and defending them from detractors is not our job. People who move into authentic relationship with Jesus Christ show up more regularly.

We use technology to help people not corral them

Social media and even email can help deepen someone’s journey with Christ. Communication tools are not just for “selling” our latest event. We use them to help people. I don’t think we can overestimate how much help everyone needs right now. It would be nice if they thought what we put in their inbox or on their newsfeed was about them and their needs and not about their attendance. We are an opportunity to serve and grow, not an opportunity to make the church succeed.

We consider output not just input

Church leaders, like most organization leaders, are programmed to measure inputs, not outputs. We measure how many people showed up, how much money they gave, who they brought and even online traffic. But we rarely measure outputs.

What if we developed ways to measure all we do? It would be interesting to know how much time people spend attending to God each day — according to a recent study, 57% of Americans read their Bible four times a year or less. What if we found out if people were better off a year after their covenant than they were before? What if we collected stats about the difference our attenders make in their workplaces and neighborhoods? Leaders tend to get passionate about what they measure. So we should watch what we measure.

You probably want to be part of a “bloody” church, like I do. It is kind of gross to think about Thomas putting his fingers in the Lord’s side. But it is kind of great to think about Jesus being that face-to-face about Thomas having trouble with showing up for the resurrection. Every time we have to BE someone who is different than our prevailing feelings or different from the ways of the culture, it is going to be hard for us. So building the church is full of hard things. Let’s help each other make a church, not assume it is already made and we’re just blowing it when it comes to participating.