Tag Archives: church planting

How much time is there?: Does that question make a difference?

Lagetha and Heahmund run out of time

The Vikings series is one of the most Christian shows on television. The whole thing is about Norse religion/culture bumping up against the  Christian church/state in Wessex, among other territories, and vice versa.

As a result, in Vikings this season, Bishop Heahmund and Queen Lagetha have a religious problem. Lagetha is not interested in deserting her gods, but the supposedly-celibate priest, Heahmund, falls in love with her when he is taken captive to Kattegat (actually filmed in Ireland on a lake owned by the Guiness family).  The deposed queen falls in love back.  Before a crucial battle, Heahmund has a vision of hell and renounces his illicit connection to his pagan queen. Spoiler alert, he is killed (above).  But his last words are “Lagetha.”

Good TV, right?

Religion tackles questions about time

Obviously lust, greed, war, etc. etc, are also big, religious problems everyone ought to be having in Vikings, and they do. But I want to talk about time.

Lagetha and Heahmund are both getting up there in years (especially for the 9th century!). Heahmund has a young new king with ideas that will be new for a generation, as it turns out. Lagetha has step-children who have become Christians and farmers, while her oldest son is ready to leave for mayhem-yet-to-be-determined. Times are changing and time is short. So what do we do with our time? Should Heahmund hang on to this surprising love he relishes and forsake eternity? Should Lagetha try to regain her youth and take back Kattegat? Is Valhalla a good enough reason to risk death today? Is Jesus really on our side forever and is that promise enough to die preserving a place where he is Lord? I love this show.

I wish we would ask questions with similar passion and not merely watch others ask them. And we often do ask them. Actually, it is hard not to ask, since time is running out and we are not getting any younger (well, especially not me).

I had a question about time early on in my faith when I ran into a job description in the annual report of the Baptist church: Flower Arranger. A woman’s whole job was to make sure there were flowers on the communion table under the pulpit each week. Her job made me indignant! I thought it was a waste of money and time to be concerned about furniture and aesthetics when people were dying of hunger! (I still pretty much feel that way). But I am a little softer now, realizing that some people are suited for arranging flowers; plus, gratuitous beauty looks more like God than most things; and the simplicity of wasting time on something one can do with a pure heart of grace is sweet.

She must have asked, when she heard I was asking questions, “Is what I do with my time of any value? Do I have time for this? Am I wasting my time?”

We are all asking that, along with Bishop Heahmund and Queen Lagetha. It is a strange place we find ourselves, as time-bound creatures. We have been made for the age to come, as well as this one. We have a taste for eternity, no matter how much science tries to convince us we are just material.  Our day to day life, and its brevity, leads us to think about our own time contracting and stretching simultaneously. And so many things in our experience seem to have leaked over from eternity, it is hard not to believe there is another dimension we only see as though looking through frosted glass. Is time short or long?

So busy, ambitious people, in particular, have trouble on both sides of the question.  Do I have enough time to give the church a lot of time? If I am responsible for my time, that is a tough question. If I have all the time in eternity, isn’t that a great gift that I dare not waste?

A flower arranger takes her time

I am going more for questions than answers today. But here are two Bible verses on both sides of the main question that help us figure things out.

Make the most of your time

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. — Ephesians 5:15-16

This is Paul with his second-tier thinking. He’s very practical about what people taking first steps to follow Jesus should know. He says, “You can easily see people wasting their days as if their hours did not mean anything. As long as the sun shines, there is a chance for transformation. Time is about changing the world, not spending it on whatever makes you feel something in the moment.”

I have taken his words very seriously since I first memorized them way back when. Sometimes I think I was TOO serious and missed some flower arranging.

The time you have is a gift.

For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God — 1 Cor 3:21-23…. What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you!  — 1 Corinthians 4:7-8.

I learned this section later in life, when Paul’s first-tier, deeper thinking starts seeming reasonable.  He’s saying, “Surely you do not believe what you know or have achieved as of today is the raw material of meaning? It is all a gift! You already have all the time in the world and in eternity. There is no scarcity, as if time were something you could hoard away and should protect with all the power you could acquire.

The other day I took a day off and ended up watching an episode of Vikings in my robe about 10 am. At times I felt like the second hand might be watching me! But I let myself waste the time it took for my imagination to wander. Come to think of it, the ministry of the Baptists grew and the flowers were also arranged!

Unwise people in this evil day want to steal our time. At best, they commodify it and buy it from us for work as if that makes any eternal sense. We need to fight them and make the most of our time, carefully living as the body of Christ — with all the hard work that requires in a hostile era.

But we probably won’t make the most of our time unless unless we have a deep sense that the beginning and end of our time is the gift of God — and every act we do, whether we judge it large or small, is made good by the touch of the Spirit, reaching into our time with love and truth. If we are open to receiving everything from the hand of God in Jesus Christ, we receive eternal life. That’s the place we start to answer all our other questions about how to use, or spend, or waste our time. Having a receptive heart is a crucial place to start when planting the church, or the process just seems like it demands a lot of time, as if it were a scarce commodity.

Poor Bishop Heahmund! He was right in the throes of deciding how he would spend his time when a Viking put a sword through his back. The show leaves me wondering if he ran out of time or just went to prepare for the age to come. Good question, History Channel!

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 ask: The background music of multiplication

Garden at the end of a tunnel of decay

One time a striking circle of ten got together for a late-night brainstorm about the future development of Circle of Hope Broad and Washington. It was stimulating. While we were discussing great things, there was a little emotional tune playing in the background. It was almost like a minor-keyed theme in a mystery movie that lets you know something scary is going to happen, a note of fear [or 30 minutes of it!]. Growing a church to hiving size means making new relationships, which most of us like, but making new relationships includes something most of us don’t like: the ask. The tune kept building to the point when all the ideas would come down to the ask. Then it got loud.

The tragedy of NO

My mother liked taking me shopping for groceries as child. For one thing, my mother was so extroverted she didn’t like to do anything alone and I was available. But I think the main reason I got to go was that I was rather entertaining as I interacted with the various people we would meet in the aisles. I would ask people about themselves, ask about their clothes, ask about their groceries. And if they wouldn’t talk to me, I would ask my mother about them. My mother found this boundary-breaking amusing. The downside for her was that I would also ask for every single thing on the shelves that looked mildly interesting or tasty. So very early on, I had a lot of experience with the word NO. I could see my self not long after when I was buying snacks for the Sunday Meeting. A young boy was lying in the candy aisle screaming under the watch of his bemused dad because Skittles were not on their list —  the tragedy of being told NO is still very real for the under-six set.

I was relatively oblivious to being told NO as a child. I just kept on expressing my hope for Skittles until I got a YES. If I got one YES out of a hundred NOs, that kept me going. But as I got older and understood that NO often has more meaning than whether I am going to get a piece of candy, I got a LOT more reticent. I began to feel rejected by NO. One hundred NOs of rejection were not balanced with a single YES. I began to feel generally rejected and didn’t want to ask at all, lest I get rejected some more. The scary tune of the ask became background music in my brain.

Having intimates who lived a general YES to me did not necessarily make up for the times they dared to say NO to me. Even having a God who Paul could say this about didn’t solve all my problems:

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.”  For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. 2 Corinthians 1:19-20

Even God did not consistently convince me that being rejected, being an “imposition,” or being “unwanted” was less important than being free to be myself, being confident that I am safe no matter what, and living in a state of grace that is “YES” to me. I still was nervous about asking.

Image result for fear of the ask

Fear of the ask throttles church planting

This nervousness about asking makes church planting hard (I know this personally!).  Some of us are loathe to ask someone to come to an event (like our cell or the Sunday Meeting) because it seems so aggressive and could easily incite rejection. But our fear can be even more fundamental. Even when some people get a turn to tell their story, they are still reticent to ask someone to listen. If Jesus is included in their story, then they often feel like they are being too aggressive!

Meanwhile, church planting is all about the asking. It never really gets that easy for most of us. Because we usually experience many forms of NO before we get to a YES. Should we therefor learn to avoid asking so we avoid suffering? Should we just pass by the Skittles without a peep of desire? Should we just pass by people who might like to know Jesus because we have learned never to risk loving someone who might reject us?

I told the circle of hive-interested people that night about when I was an evangelistic wildman in college. I had days when I vowed to ask everyone I met to come to our new Bible study in our side-by-side apartments. That meant I would be asking all sorts of people I was sure would say NO, unless a miracle happened. Many did say NO. But a surprising number didn’t and an even more surprising number became new disciples of Jesus.

Its been more than a few years since I was in college. Since then advertisers have become so oppressive (i.e., AT&T Station is still travesty!) that anyone with love in their heart feels like they should not add to the asking. That’s just a general, devilish thing that has happened to us to make us keep quiet. No one even gets to hear the YES we have for them because we are all too busy telling AT&T NO for the millionth time, like some five-year-old in the store who never learns. It is tiring. We don’t want to add to the asking, even if we are asking in the name of Jesus! Someone might think we are merely marketing!

Authentic Google Jr. Highers

NO is even harder to bear in the love zone

Even more so, it is hard to ask because we don’t like getting rejected. Asking in the name of Jesus is more like asking, “Do you want to make love?” than it is asking, “Do you want to buy a box of Girl Scout cookies?” (Samoas are still the best. A man came up to me in Fresh Grocer a few weeks ago and asked me to buy some from his daughter. I did). Works of faith are intrinsically intimate. They are in the love zone.  If we ever hive off another congregation, it will be because a substantial number of people trust the YES in Jesus enough to bear the NOs of people who aren’t ready yet or, for whatever reason, don’t want them and Jesus right now.

Nevertheless, like perpetual askers at a middle school dance, we’ll get up and cross over to a person who has a lot of power over our emotions and ask them to dance. There’s no hiding it; we’re asking because we like them. In Christ we love the about-to-be-asked, already, even before we find out what their response will be. We aren’t selling a mere product; we can get hurt if they reject us! Our love for Jesus and them is built in to the  “product” if we are “selling” at all. And it is a hurtable love, just like Jesus is a hurtable God. So asking is no small thing. The music of the fear of NO could drown out the dance music!

It is no wonder that we sometimes hate to ask. But if we don’t ask, it could hurt even more. It will certainly hurt our chances of multiplying if we won’t do it. I am going to keep meditating on that YES I can count on from God so I don’t pass by too many more seekers fearing they might reject Jesus in me.

On the apostolic edge: Your grace might feel sharper than you think.

Peeking over the apostolic edge. Light Story by Ilya Rashap

If you ever visit the apostolic edge of Circle of Hope, you might need a discerning set of eyes and a some gracious reactions for those you meet.

An apostle (like the Apostle Paul) is someone called and gifted to carry the news and life of Jesus into places it is not known. The apostolic edge is the boundary between known and unknown, present and next, content and compelled. We have people among us who are apostles. As a church, we have, as a whole, the gift and calling to keep pressing outward to meet the next generation of Jesus followers amassed on the edge of our cultivated spiritual territory. We even have a leadership team (the Church Planting Core Team) to keep us on that edge.

Our “apostolic edge” is the invisible boundary over which our community of love in Jesus crosses to enter the next place we are being led: the territories of unbelieving people, the places where our compassion is needed, the next era of thinking that needs our Truth. From our side looking out, that edge is soft, even inviting. But from the other side looking in it might feel sharp or frightening, even taboo — many people looking over it from the outside might see things that feel very distant from everything that seems normal to them.

For instance, Ben recently wrote the to the Covenant List and enthusiastically reiterated the Leadership Team’s list of things that make Circle of Hope unique — things they thought would make many people glad to connect, just like they feel. It is hard to see, from the inside looking out, why anyone would not cherish the things on their list, we are such a great thing God has made! — but it happens.

I don’t think they were just being self-congratulating when they came up with their list, just happy. You decide. Here’s what he shared:

“At the leadership Team Training last night I was so encouraged by all the things people were saying I whipped out my phone and furiously started thumb typing them. We were on a roll answering Nate Hulfish’s question: As far as your experience goes, what makes Circle of Hope unique compared to other churches and organizations? Here are as many responses as I could write down:

  • Nate Hulfish. (We laughed, but it’s true!)
  • There is a willingness to be vulnerable. (We are safe.)
  • Everyone wants each other’s wholeness. (There is genuine concern and mutuality.)
  • We are honest and not transactional. (We have a purpose and it is not my ego.)
  • There is an uncanny lack of self interest.
  • We are encouraged to live a life of worship. The rhythm of my day and the focus of my thoughts are in sync. It’s almost monastic.
  • We receive transparency from our leaders.
  • There is flexibility — not just wanting to do what’s next with the Spirit  but relying on the Spirit for what will happen.
  • I can have a knit together life. We have broken out of capitalist compartmentalizations.
  • We trust that people will have a face to face conflict — not online, not behind my back.
  • We are a real place of belonging — more home than what other home I’ve experienced.
  • There is more grace than I know what to do with sometimes.
  • I sense the purpose and joy of Jesus — a purity of heart that is not weird. I have a people to be that devoted with.
  • The leaders are followable. (They are not too lofty — no inflated sense of importance at “the top”)
  • There are so many leaders, along with a constant expectation of deploying the next leader.
  • We have a rare sense of tribe with Jesus leading us. We are a part of something bigger than ourselves.
  • We have the freedom to fail.
  • Circle of Hope is what I was always looking for but never thought I’d find.”

I thank God for the great blessing of being part of an authentic, growing, expressive church!

A few days later, Megan and I were talking in the surreal, sunny-February atmosphere of Miel. Pleasant, Frenchified music played in the background as we wondered about what is happening on the apostolic edge of our mission. (Yes, that’s exactly what we talk about over little sandwiches).

We could think of many reasons why Trumped-down people would want to meet Jesus and his people (as in the great list above!). But we could also imagine a few good reasons why people would avoid us without more than a glance.  If I could hear the script playing in those people’s minds, I think there would be several themes in what was being said about us:

  • This feels way too close.
  • Oh my, this is demanding. Not only am I singing, they expect me to feel things.
  • These people are very ambitious. What a lot of work!
  • I’ve got a feeling they expect me to be reading this blog post. They will probably be upset if I don’t read their email. Way too personal.
  • I have heard three people tell a personal story. I hope they don’t call on me.
  • Did they just say I should get therapy?
  • Uh oh. Here comes the part about money.
  • I’ve got a feeling they are going to sign me up any minute.
  • Can everyone articulate exactly what they believe?

it goes on.

I am not trying to make the alt-list to the one the Leadership Team made. I just want to have sympathy for people who would read (or intuit) such a list and feel like they were running into it, like it was the edge of something, something to cross over. When it comes to faith, people stand at the door a long time, some of them, and inch their way over the threshold if they move at all, if they ever notice the threshold! Very few people hear a compelling speech or meet a compelling person and automatically change their direction. I do psychotherapy, so I know firsthand how incrementally people change when they feel desperate for change, and are paying good money to change! Our apostolic edge is crowded with people who are more ambivalent or paralyzed than antagonistic or indifferent. We should be patient, confident in what we have been given, but aware that people on the other side might not be aware of those gifts, yet — or even the possibility of them. We can make them aware, but we can’t rush their response. We need to remain confident, knowing that Jesus is knocking on their door, not just us. We can wait — he is.

One time a woman was honest enough to say to me, “I just want to go to church. You guys are just too much.” So she went to church. That’s going to happen and that is OK. That doesn’t mean we aren’t God’s gift to the Philadelphia region or we can’t be pleased with exactly who we have become. But that memory reminds me to be discerning and patient before I think people don’t like me because I follow Jesus, before I think they have rejected me because they don’t want to come to my meeting. Jesus loves them right where they are, and he is with them, helping them over the threshold into all the graces we are receiving, and maybe even into some meeting that will feel life-giving and not so uncomfortable in  a year or so.

 

There is always a little pain in the introduction

My sense of church planting begins with introducing myself and the Lord who is with me. Like God became incarnate in Jesus, the Holy Spirit dwells in me, a human. So church planting is personal — just like Jesus walking around Galilee; we’re walking around being one with God; God is walking with us and we are walking around with the Lord. When Jesus talks about planting the word about his work, planting the Word Himself, in the world he says it is like a seed going into the ground and “dying.” I find the process just that painful and just that joyfully regenerative all the time.

Paul talks about sharing the sufferings of Christ. “Filling them up,” being planted again and again. Very specifically, for me, part of that suffering is the need to keep introducing myself to new people and new situations and not hiding out in or merely enjoying the little group of people who already “get me” and love me. I am doing that again right now as I tell you about Jesus in me. This blog is one way to “get out there.”

eccehomo
Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Ecce Homo, 1871.

During each era of my life in mission, I have discovered things about Jesus in me that have proven  valuable for church planting. As I tell you about a few of them, I hope you will consider how you might introduce yourself with what you’ve got.

College days

It all started with that college Bible study. I was called to be a church planter early on.  Jesus used the most inept evangelist ever to win many of my dorm mates to Christ. In my sophomore year, I started a Bible study to disciple them. It grew by my junior year to two apartments and 50-100 people coming every Monday. I have not forgotten what it was like to feel twenty – ready to invent the wheel.

What did I (and my friends) have?

  • gall
  • conviction that “if it is true for me it will be true for everyone”
  • trust in the presence of God, not our skill

That’s all great for church planting. We thought, “There is a great movement of goodness in the world and we have found it.”

Seminary

I went to seminary. I was called from planting a new youth group with the Assemblies of God back to the college church who had lost their beloved youth pastor a few months back and a lot of their kids. At the first meeting I led we had four people. When the church blew apart about seven years later they did not fire their boy (lucky me!) with everyone else. Plus, there were about 200 kids from jr. high through college. They were about a third of the church.

What did I (and a very beloved team) have?

  • I had added a wife who added incarnational evangelism as a concept to my sense of mission. When we discovered Anabaptists, we began calling the idea “invasive separatism.”
  • Love
  • Fun
  • Tons of energy
  • Empathy

That’s all great for church planting. We lived like, “Life in Christ is a big party and you are invited.”

The first church planting

We finally decided that the group of us who lived and worked together at the center of this youth ministry were not going to make it into the next act of this Baptist church. So we got them to send us to plant a new church. It was their first and maybe last multiplication. We had never heard of a church multiplication but we did not want to be responsible for a church “split.” We traveled together for another seven years or so and the new congregation is still going.

What did I (and this remarkable congregation)  have?

  • We discovered that we were a group who had the same odd flavor mix that the Brethren in Christ has. Mostly we were Anabaptists because of our simple, straightforward Bible reading – we were doers of the word. But we had the Baptist pietism flavor and I, especially took holiness flavor into Pentecostalism. That and some great practices we discovered (like the Love Feast) seemed perfectly suited for what we postmodern types were looking for.
  • We already had community.
  • We just wanted to do it; we did not have to do it. It was all new and exciting to us.
  • We liked being real.

That’s a great combo for church planting: a convicted core team doing their own thing based on a dream, not just an application of a program or a duty to some principle.

Circle of Hope

During our short stint in the BIC homeland we were called to explore urban church planting (when it was not so fashionable!). We thought God was calling us to one of the mega cities of the third world. But we finally ended up, to our surprise, in Philadelphia. We thought we could contemporize BIC thinking to meet urbanites where they lived. It was a mid-life leap for me: all my training and experience were put to the test. I liked that. I became a Christian by having my new beliefs put to the test and they survived. I still do not want to be part of an institution that is not constantly being tested to see whether it deserves to survive in its environment.

What did I (my family and the small core team)  have?

  • Inspiration
  • Willingness to risk it all
  • Supportive friends and family
  • A vision
1st PM at B&W 3
Hot, dusty, delighted when we took a new risk in 2005.

When I came to Philly I had a simple conviction. I was not a likely candidate to win a bunch of people to Christ from scratch and form a church. I thought I was sent to catalyze what the Holy Spirit was already doing. I would introduce some people to Jesus and include some ready-made partners, but who I would mostly find were people who had an idea that what I was talking about was what they were looking for. They would mostly be burned out evangelicals, dissatisfied Catholics, under-used twentysomethings who Baby Boomers would never let drive the car, and people who were spiritual but who had never met an authentic Christian before, people who wanted the church to be a good thing but just hated it.  I parachuted into Philadelphia and wandered the streets for a few months and, sure enough, I met a lot of these people. From September through March we gathered  a formation team, formed four cells and were ready to have a public meeting on Palm Sunday.

What did we have?

  • Encouragement from successful people that we could do it. I had an almost slavish humility in practicing what others had learned.
  • A good plan – and that we did our plan. We had good, practical goals; we considered the barriers to meeting them; we had actions steps for how to accomplish what we considered. It was a serious project — and still is.
  • I had a very supportive wife and family. My sons and their wives are stalwarts in the church and my youngest son is our newest pastor.
  • We listened to the call and were there when the Spirit was beginning to move. As a result, we have been copied relentlessly. And that is great.

What do you have? What do we have now? What is the Spirit doing and how are we moving alongside? Yes, we answered that call and those questions in the past. But Jesus is dying and rising all over the region and the world right now. How are you and I planting the church with him?

How will we introduce ourselves and the Lord who is with us? As God became incarnate in Jesus, we are his body, filled with His Spirit. Church planting is personal — just like Jesus walking around Galilee, Circle of Hope is Jesus walking around the Philly region. I find it painful.  But I also experience resurrection in myself and others through that suffering. My true self is put into action and grows in the process of getting out there with Jesus. For the joy of that re-creation, we endure the cross.

Further thoughts on church planting:
Who am I in the globalized world: migrant or tourist?
THINKING like we ought to belong together — even these days

Church planting: What it takes to rise with Jesus now

My sense of church planting begins with introducing myself and the Lord who is with me. Like God became incarnate in Jesus, the Holy Spirit dwells in me, a human. So church planting is personal — just like Jesus walking around Galilee; we’re walking around being one with God; God is walking with us and we are walking around with the Lord. When Jesus talks about planting the word about his work, planting the Word Himself, in the world he says it is like a seed going into the ground and “dying.” I find the process just that painful and just that joyfully regenerative all the time.

Paul talks about sharing the sufferings of Christ. “Filling them up,” being planted again and again. Very specifically, for me, part of that suffering is the need to keep introducing myself to new people and new situations and not hiding out in or merely enjoying the little group of people who already “get me” and love me. I am doing that again right now as I tell you about Jesus in me. This blog is one way to “get out there.”

eccehomo
Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Ecce Homo, 1871.

During each era of my life in mission, I have discovered things about Jesus in me that have proven  valuable for church planting. As I tell you about a few of them, I hope you will consider how you might introduce yourself with what you’ve got.

College days

It all started with that college Bible study. I was called to be a church planter early on.  Jesus used the most inept evangelist ever to win many of my dorm mates to Christ. In my sophomore year, I started a Bible study to disciple them. It grew by my junior year to two apartments and 50-100 people coming every Monday. I have not forgotten what it was like to feel twenty – ready to invent the wheel.

What did I (and my friends) have?

  • gall
  • conviction that “if it is true for me it will be true for everyone”
  • trust in the presence of God, not our skill

That’s all great for church planting. We thought, “There is a great movement of goodness in the world and we have found it.”

Seminary

I went to seminary. I was called from planting a new youth group with the Assemblies of God back to the college church who had lost their beloved youth pastor a few months back and a lot of their kids. At the first meeting I led we had four people. When the church blew apart about seven years later they did not fire their boy (lucky me!) with everyone else. Plus, there were about 200 kids from jr. high through college. They were about a third of the church.

What did I (and a very beloved team) have?

  • I had added a wife who added incarnational evangelism as a concept to my sense of mission. When we discovered Anabaptists, we began calling the idea “invasive separatism.”
  • Love
  • Fun
  • Tons of energy
  • Empathy

That’s all great for church planting. We lived like, “Life in Christ is a big party and you are invited.”

The first church planting

We finally decided that the group of us who lived and worked together at the center of this youth ministry were not going to make it into the next act of this Baptist church. So we got them to send us to plant a new church. It was their first and maybe last multiplication. We had never heard of a church multiplication but we did not want to be responsible for a church “split.” We traveled together for another seven years or so and the new congregation is still going.

What did I (and this remarkable congregation)  have?

  • We discovered that we were a group who had the same odd flavor mix that the Brethren in Christ has. Mostly we were Anabaptists because of our simple, straightforward Bible reading – we were doers of the word. But we had the Baptist pietism flavor and I, especially took holiness flavor into Pentecostalism. That and some great practices we discovered (like the Love Feast) seemed perfectly suited for what we postmodern types were looking for.
  • We already had community.
  • We just wanted to do it; we did not have to do it. It was all new and exciting to us.
  • We liked being real.

That’s a great combo for church planting: a convicted core team doing their own thing based on a dream, not just an application of a program or a duty to some principle.

Circle of Hope

During our short stint in the BIC homeland we were called to explore urban church planting (when it was not so fashionable!). We thought God was calling us to one of the mega cities of the third world. But we finally ended up, to our surprise, in Philadelphia. We thought we could contemporize BIC thinking to meet urbanites where they lived. It was a mid-life leap for me: all my training and experience were put to the test. I liked that. I became a Christian by having my new beliefs put to the test and they survived. I still do not want to be part of an institution that is not constantly being tested to see whether it deserves to survive in its environment.

What did I (my family and the small core team)  have?

  • Inspiration
  • Willingness to risk it all
  • Supportive friends and family
  • A vision
1st PM at B&W 3
Hot, dusty, delighted when we took a new risk in 2005.

When I came to Philly I had a simple conviction. I was not a likely candidate to win a bunch of people to Christ from scratch and form a church. I thought I was sent to catalyze what the Holy Spirit was already doing. I would introduce some people to Jesus and include some ready-made partners, but who I would mostly find were people who had an idea that what I was talking about was what they were looking for. They would mostly be burned out evangelicals, dissatisfied Catholics, under-used twentysomethings who Baby Boomers would never let drive the car, and people who were spiritual but who had never met an authentic Christian before, people who wanted the church to be a good thing but just hated it.  I parachuted into Philadelphia and wandered the streets for a few months and, sure enough, I met a lot of these people. From September through March we gathered  a formation team, formed four cells and were ready to have a public meeting on Palm Sunday.

What did we have?

  • Encouragement from successful people that we could do it. I had an almost slavish humility in practicing what others had learned.
  • A good plan – and that we did our plan. We had good, practical goals; we considered the barriers to meeting them; we had actions steps for how to accomplish what we considered. It was a serious project — and still is.
  • I had a very supportive wife and family. My sons and their wives are stalwarts in the church and my youngest son is our newest pastor.
  • We listened to the call and were there when the Spirit was beginning to move. As a result, we have been copied relentlessly. And that is great.

What do you have? What do we have now? What is the Spirit doing and how are we moving alongside? Yes, we answered that call and those questions in the past. But Jesus is dying and rising all over the region and the world right now. How are you and I planting the church with him?

How will we introduce ourselves and the Lord who is with us? As God became incarnate in Jesus, we are his body, filled with His Spirit. Church planting is personal — just like Jesus walking around Galilee, Circle of Hope is Jesus walking around the Philly region. I find it painful.  But I also experience resurrection in myself and others through that suffering. My true self is put into action and grows in the process of getting out there with Jesus. For the joy of that re-creation, we endure the cross.

Further thoughts on church planting:
Who am I in the globalized world: migrant or tourist?
THINKING like we ought to belong together — even these days

Ambition in hard times with Teilo

teilos headWhen we went to Llandaff Cathedral, outside Cardiff, Wales, the lonely docent said we should go find a special cupboard with Teilo’s head in it. We found one in a musty, dark corner way in the back, behind the altar. When we opened the creaky old door we got a peek at a dusty skull. As it turns out, the famous skull was in another cupboard, as you see. I don’t know who’s skull we were disrupting. But we were still excited to make the connection. The great church planter’s skull was preserved in the church, displayed in memory of a life admirably lived. He died sometime after 560, which was not an easy time to live. He had helped establish the church in Wales. Feb 9 is St. Teilo’s Day. Church planting types should mark that one their calendar. We need all the encouragement we can get.

Continue reading Ambition in hard times with Teilo

Why Four Congregations?

Becoming a part of Circle of Hope can be very confusing. I suppose that is true of any church or organization – it is also true of us. I have had any number of people come into our room at Broad and Washington when the people aren’t there and ask, “This is a church?” Quite a few have looked at me and said, “You are a pastor?” If I explain, they say, “Your meetings are on Sunday night?” Actually all this happened when the high school kids from Pequea BIC in Lancaster Co. stopped by for a little visit last summer. They said, “You have other sites and pastors?” It can be very confusing.

Here is the main reason we are one church in four congregations: Jesus said “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). We are wandering in the dark; we need the light of the world to guide us. We are slaves to our own understanding and we need a reconnection to what is beyond us. We are sinful and broken, and 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 four congregations in one church.

More directly, we have the purpose statement for the family business that guides us. They 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’ strategy for redeeming and recreating the world is to draw together disciples who make disciples who make further disciples. Our structure is a strategy for doing 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 four congregations for the purposes of 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’re trying to get to making disciples who thrive, who make it to fifty with a vibrant, world-changing faith. I think Jesus might use billboards, TV, airplane advertisements flying down the coast, and all that to call together disciples. But his main means 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. 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. Then we had two and quickly three, and on we have gone over the years, multiplying cells and having them die. That’s the basic body-life way we operate. The cells get together and form a congregation.

Broad and Washington was the first congregation that formed, so we have always had a wide region in which we operate, and we still do. Marlton and Crescent has a very wide, region, too, all of South Jersey. Broad and Dauphin 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. We used to have congregations in the Northwest and Northeast, 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, Broad and Washington has about 180 adults, in the congregation. If we had 230, we might think about sending off 40 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 network; as face-to-face as a congregation and as unknown as what the Spirit is doing next on the frontier of the church.

In terms of congregations, since that is the question, 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 advantages of scale, being four 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 PMs, 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 compassion 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 dialogue list that is a fruitful place 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 four 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 the Thrift Stores and the Good Business consortium. 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. I am not running the one big church all day, so I am a local pastor. 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 me.

It also allows us to be old and new. At the Love Feast in July 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 four congregations as one church allows us to be neighborhood and city-wide, 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 corners, Philly style. Philly is a city of 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.

But, on the other hand, we don’t want to be just our neighborhood, especially in Philly. Because Philly neighborhoods see themselves as so distinct; they don’t even talk to each other sometimes. Broad St., right outside out 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 do that for something like being the church and it seems big. 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, want the church, want 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 ask: the background music of hiving off

A striking circle of ten from the BW Hive List got together last night for a late-night brainstorm about the future development of Circle of Hope Broad and Washington. It was stimulating.

While we were discussing great things, there was a little emotional tune playing in the background. It was almost like a minor-keyed theme in a mystery movie that lets you know something scary is going to happen, a note of fear. Growing a church to hiving size means making new relationships, which most of us like, but making new relationships includes something most of us don’t like: the ask. The tune kept building to the point when all the ideas would come down to the ask.

My mother liked taking me shopping for groceries as child. For one thing, my mother was so extraverted she didn’t like to do anything alone and I was available. But I think the main thing was that I was rather entertaining as I interacted with the various people we would meet in the aisles. I would ask people about themselves, their clothes, their groceries. And if they wouldn’t talk to me, I would ask my mother about them. My mother found this boundary-breaking amusing. The downside was that I would also ask for every single thing on the shelves that looked mildly interesting or tasty. So very early on, I had a lot of experience with the word NO. I was buying snacks yesterday for the PM, so I know that the tragedy of being told no is still very real for the under-six set. A young boy was lying in the aisle screaming under the watch of a bemused dad because Skittles were not on their list.

I was relatively oblivious to being told NO as a child. I just kept on expressing my hope for Skittles until I got a yes. If I got one yes out of a hundred NOs, that kept me going. But as I got older and understood that NO often had more meaning than whether I was going to get a piece of candy, I got a LOT more reticent. I began to feel rejected by NO. One hundred NOs of rejection were not made up for by a single yes. I began to feel generally rejected and didn’t want to ask at all, lest I get rejected. The scary tune of the ask became background music in my brain.

Having intimates who lived a general yes to me did not necessarily make up for the times they dared to say NO to me. Even having a God who Paul could say this about didn’t solve all my problems:

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.”  For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. 2 Corinthians 1:19-20

Even God did not consistently convince me that being rejected, being an imposition, or being unwanted was less important than being free to be myself, being confident that I am safe no matter what, and living in a state of grace that is “yes” to me. I still was nervous about asking.

This nervousness about just asking makes church planting hard. Even if one is not aggressive about getting someone to come to an event and you just want to tell your story, you’re still asking someone to listen. Church planting is all about the asking. You have to experience a LOT of NOs to get a yes.

I was telling the circle of hive-interested people last night that when I was being an evangelistic fanatic in college, I had days when I vowed to ask everyone I met to come to our new Bible study in our side-by-side apartments. That meant I would be asking all sorts of people I was sure would say NO, unless a miracle happened. Many did say NO. But a surprising number didn’t and an even more surprising number became new disciples of Jesus.

Its been more than a few years since I was in college. Since then advertisers have become so oppressive (i.e., AT&T Station is a travesty!) that anyone with love in their heart feels like they should not add to the asking. That’s just a general, devilish thing that has happened to us to make us keep quiet. No one even gets to hear the yes we have for them because we are all too busy telling AT&T NO for the millionth time, like some five-year-old in the store who never learns. It is tiring. We don’t want to add to the asking, even if we are asking in the name of Jesus! Someone might think we are merely marketing!

But even more so, it is hard to ask because we don’t like getting rejected. Asking in the name of Jesus is more like asking, “Do you want to make love?” than it is asking, “Do you want to buy a box of Girl Scout cookies?” (Samoas are still the best). Works of faith are intrinsically intimate. They are in the love zone.  If we ever hive off Broad and Washington, it will be because a substantial number of people trust the YES in Jesus enough to bear the nos of people who aren’t ready yet or, for whatever reason, don’t want them and Jesus now. Like perpetual askers at a middle school dance, we’ll get up and cross over to a person who has a lot of power over our emotions and ask them to dance. There’s no hiding it; we’re asking because we like them. We love them, already, even before we find out what their response will be. We can get hurt if they reject us. We aren’t selling a mere product. Our love for Jesus and them is intrinsic to the “product” if we are “selling” at all. So asking is no small thing. The music of the fear of no could drown out the dance music!

It is no wonder that we sometimes hate to ask. It could hurt. But if we don’t ask, it could hurt even more. It will certainly hurt our chances of multiplying if we won’t do it. I am going to keep meditating on that YES I can count on from God in Jesus.

Coming from the “holy island”

lindisfarne-castleThis is St. Aidan’s day. He came from his comfortable, focused community on the island of Iona to Lindisfarne in 635 and had a long, productive ministry of church planting in Northumbria. He is a good example for us, since we are an island, ourselves, offering an alternative to the people of our age. I saw his name on the wall, first on the list, on the roll of bishops in the old island church, last summer.

As a result of the infighting of the royal families in Northumbria, Prince Oswald had been exiled and lived with Aidan’s community on the island of Iona, off Scotland. He became a passionate Christian there. Oswald’s name came up in the line of succession and he returned as king. 

The new king brought a leader with him from Iona to install as his bishop. The man was hard and demanding. No one would listen to him. He ended up returning to Iona resentful. When Aidan heard the story of his failed mission, he was moved. He asked him why he did not feed the people the truth like feeding milk to a baby.

The community sent Aidan to Oswald, even though he could not speak the language of Northumbria. Oswald installed him on Lindisfarne, which came to be known and is still named on the road map today, as the Holy Island. Aidan’s first forays into the community found him accompanied by the king, who interpreted for him. The passion and humility of both leaders had a huge impact.

Today, as I honor the memory of Aidan, I am longing to live with a missional community coming from their Holy Island. Lindisfarne has the unique character of being an island for only part of the day, when the tide is in. The rest of the time you can walk to it. It is a good symbol for people who want to make a huge impact, like we do. We must live on an “island,” in that we nurture our relationship with God and His people and feel our dignity as ones called out and set apart; being God’s people is our only hope and our great strength.  But we must not stay on our “island.” There is a rhythm to life in Christ that is as natural and cleansing as the tide. We must spend half the day, at least, accessible to the mainland and crossing over to create new islands of grace.

So many believers I know live on the mainland and visit the island.  They love the idea of the Holy Island, but they just vacation there. They even love the vacation. But they have not bought property. They haven’t settled there. As a result, they don’t even know the tide schedule. They can end up living so far away that they find life in Christ to be a memory.

In honor of Aidan, I want to walk with humility among the hungry people of Philadelphia. I will need an interpreter, since I am like an alien to a lot of them — I will rely on my King.  If I say or do something wrong, I know he will find another way to express his grace. If I successfully share the limited grace I am carrying, I know he will make more of it than I might expect. If I continue to contribute to building something of a Holy Island of our own, I hope it makes a lasting impact, as well.

What Holds this Church Together?

I’ve come to love the “how” questions. But for whole segments of the population, I answer them rather poorly. The other night at “rabbi time” one of my favorite people (Jeff not only thinks and sings well, he plays the accordion!) asked one of my favorite questions about the church. “How does it hold together?” I didn’t get all of the back story, but I think he’s seen a few places fall apart. It took him a while to join in, since he was skeptical about Circle of Hope’s staying power! It does not seem to have enough mechanisms for survival; it just kind of is.

My answer received a funny response that I have been pondering since. “Every time you talk about this, you use the words relational, love, incarnational, but I end up not knowing a lot more.” (I felt a bit like Jimmy Carter being humored by Ronald Reagan). That reply echoed a much more incoherent protest by a blogger who objected to the chart I was explaining on the Circle of Hope blog a week ago. (Just how did you come across that blog, Courtney?).

So I thought I would try again.

Most of what I think is better summed up by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians: “[Jesus] gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
        Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of [people] in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

What holds us together? Here are five applications of the scripture we are trying to make, with just one example each that demonstrate how we are trying. (Want to comment with more?)

1) We assume people are not infants (or at least are not destined to be so). They are gifted and relevant. Jesus is in them to bring fullness and unity.

We expect our Cell Leaders to work out our agreements and follow our very general plan. We do not tell them what to do each week; they are not given a curriculum.

2)  The pastors and other leaders are relentless about contrasting the deceitfulness of the philosophies of the age with Jesus. We know we are a “ship of fools” as far as the deluded world is concerned.

You may have noticed that we are not an “emerging church,” we are not “postmodern.” We tend to rail against modernism, too and a couple of weeks ago I took a swipe at Facebook and the immortality of the soul in the space of a few minutes.

3) Dialogue is practiced. Speaking the truth in love is an organizing discipline; not just a personal aspiration.

Our yearly Map-making is an extravagant exercise in taking what people say seriously and encouraging them to say it.

4) We think of ourselves as a body with Jesus as the head, not a mechanism with a set of instructions for “how it works.”

The hardest think to understand is being an organism. Right now we have planted the seeds of another congregation and we are watching to see if it will grow. We also have a congregation in Camden that is stretching out roots. We have methods, but they won’t replace Jesus causing the growth.

5) We assume that we will fall apart if people do not love each other, and promote such dissolution.

Some astute historian told me that such an idea is so 70’s — well, 90’s, too. I think it is central to what Jesus is giving is. As Paul says elsewhere, “Nothing matters but faith working itself out through love.” People come to the leaders quite often with a great idea for mission (and I mean often and great). We send them back to create a mission team. If you can’t team, your idea can’t matter. Sometimes teams don’t have the devotion and want the “church” to take over their idea, we let them die.

My dear friend was in wonder that we do not fall apart. Now that I have sketched out why we don’t, so am I. Jesus must be behind it. On a human level, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Teilo’s Head

Today is St. Teilo’s Day. When we went to Llandaff Cathedral, outside Cardiff, Wales, last summer, the docent said we could open the cupboard that was around back, behind the altar, and get a peek at Teilo’s head. The great church planter’s skull was preserved there, as a relic of a life admirably lived. He died sometime after 560, which was not an easy time to live.

I think his story might encourage a few of the people I have been talking to who think their time to live is pretty challenging, too — especially the people who either need to get their head into the game of church planting again, or who feel like the church has their head stuffed in a cupboard and they don’t like it.

We’ve had some dialogue and a meeting about Circle of Hope Broad and Washington, lately, and one of the words that has risen to the surface is that we need some revival and reformation. We need to get back to basics and give our gifts. As a result, some patterns that people have established in relationships and mission are getting disrupted; people are feeling challenged, and things are changing for the better (already!). Some people feel excited; some people don’t feel so good. Especially for the people who have been giving it their all, it feels like a bit of an insult – “I give my gifts and resources already. I can’t do more.”

What I have been saying to a few of the stalwarts, where it fits, is, “The problem is not that you don’t do things, the problem is that you just do your things. You might not be a church planter, but you need to concern yourself about whether the church gets planted. You might not have time to care for the children but your love has to be great enough to care about whether they are cared for. And if you do lead the worship, or care for kids, or lead a cell or do the limited thing you can do, you need to fill it with enough love, and let it be filled with God’s Spirit, so that it can make an impact beyond the borders of your smallness.”

Maybe this is what the famous story of Teilo is about. One day his settlement was attacked and they were robbed of all their stores of fuel. In the cold, Wales winter, that meant they had to immediately go to the woods and cut down more trees. Their work was made easier when a great stag came to help them by delivering the wood with his antlers. Teilo is often pictured riding a stag. Life gets hard. Irritating things must be done. God shows up.

It will be great when you and creation are in such harmony that you can ride stags. Maybe that won’t happen. That’s no big deal. You can be in harmony with God’s own Spirit. The challenges of this day can be met. And even the small things you can do will probably end up magnified, if you allow them to be in the hands of Jesus. Let’s keep our heads in the game — it’s bigger than our incapability.