29 November 2005

What is the gospel?

Over at the Mars Hill Unauthorized Theology Pub (a Yahoo group I enjoy participating in), I started a discussion on the topic, "What is the Gospel?" In right cowardly fashion, I declined to submit my own opinion on the matter and waited for some others to do so first. Some did, and their thoughts were excellent. Finally I plucked up the courage and submitted what follows. For this week, anyway, this is how I would formulate an answer to "What is the gospel?"

One sentence super-nutshell version: "The Gospel is the story of God's loving work to save the world through Jesus Christ."

To expand on that a bit--bottom line: it's all about Jesus. Since Jesus is the complete intersection of God and the world God loves, it's also all about God and all about the world. But it's about Jesus, and I think a full telling of that story makes reference to the following elements:

  • His preexistence as the Word of God, creating and loving the world and every living thing, in joyful, communal dance with the loving Father/Mother and the indwelling Spirit.
  • His anticipation in the lives and stories of the Jewish people, grappling as we all do with the tension between the love God calls us to and our sinful temptations.
  • His birth, becoming fully incarnate in the world he loves, as a helpless baby born into a poor family in a poorly-regarded corner of the Jewish world.
  • His life and ministry: calling followers, proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom and eternal life, and demonstrating it through teaching, healing, generosity, radical welcome, and speaking prophetically about justice.
  • His passion and death on the cross: by entering into the deepest depths of human existence--the deepest depths of cruelty and suffering--somehow opening the way to eternal life and the salvation of the world he loves.
  • His resurrection: in becoming the firstborn from the dead, demonstrating that God's love is more powerful than death, and that to the kind of life to which he invites us, death is no enemy.
  • His ascension and commissioning of the church, giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit, calling us to our mission as the sign and foretaste of the now-and-future Kingdom, and returning to his Father.
  • His life today as the risen Lord and Son of God, lovingly present to us through prayer and worship, eternally in communion with Father and Spirit, and inviting us to join in that communion.
  • His coming again at the end of the age, when the loving God will wipe away every tear and the Kingdom will be fully established on earth as it is in heaven.

That, I think, is how I'd present the gospel. This week. :-)

28 November 2005

Required church programs?

Once again, a truly incisive question in a comment to a previous post becomes a post in its own right. P3T3 said:

mike -- really enjoyed this episode. i loved the scripture passages and your perspective re: discipleship with respect to both Christ and us wanna be little christs. from there (i submit) we took a rather broad leap and extrapolated church responsibility. i don't know that this, or any other church program, is required or specifically supported by scripture. to be clear, i am *not* suggesting the church is to be "not missional". however, i am questioning how we assign *requirements* to the church. thoughts? pete

Hmm, OK, like I said, really good question. I can see where I might have given the impression that I was talking about an "evangelism program" and a "mission program" that every church needs to have, although I did say that I wasn't talking about "just another church program". In fact, I really didn't mean to imply anything like required programs; I meant to be talking about identity. I do think it's something close to a requirement that every church put some conscious effort toward discerning their missional identity/vocation (you agree that to "be missional" is important, and I could come up with bunches of verses to support that if you wanted me to, starting with these in John and the Great Commission in Matthew 28). And I do think that something like "programs" will flow from that missional discernment, since churches by their nature don't just be, they do. But the shape of those programs/activities will be particular to the discerned vocation of the church, and I agree that there's very little specific that the Bible dictates all churches must do. (Might be fun to try to build such a list some time.)

That said (and here I'm trying to circle in on the point I was trying to make, if it wasn't about specific programs), I think there are certain attitudes regarding missional identity that should cause us to pause and go "hmm." I'm not going to be so presumptuous as to call these attitudes "errors" or "sins", but I really do think that, if you or your church seem to hold these attitudes, it's worthy to stop and consider them carefully. In case it's not obvious, this is just my opinion, informed by scripture, study, and experience. So here we go:
  • If you or your church seem to consider ministry and mission to be something reserved for a select few (be they "clergy", "elders", "missionaries", or whatever), go "hmm." I think the New Testament calls all followers of Jesus to ministry and mission.
  • If you or your church seem to consider ministry and mission to be primarily individual affairs, with everyone having some vocation but no strong belief in a communal vocation, go "hmm." Jesus always sent his followers on their missions in groups of at least two, and it's hard to read the book of Acts or the letters of Paul and miss the fundamentally collective (and missional) nature of the early Christian communities.
  • If you or your church seem to consider ministry to be properly directed more or less exclusively inwardly, toward members of the church and people who come through the front door on their own, go "hmm." Followers of Jesus are, I think, definitely called to outward-directed mission in (but not "of") the world. Someone said that the church is the only human organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members. That's not completely true (there are others), but it is completely true that the church exists to bless the world, not just itself.
  • If you or your church seem to consider outward-directed mission to be exclusively a matter of proclaiming the Gospel and trying to make more disciples (i.e., evangelism), then go "hmm." Many evangelical/fundamental churches seem to be close to this point of view, but social justice, welcoming the outcast, healing, nonviolence, and speaking truth to power were vitally important parts of Jesus' ministry, and in my opinion should be vitally important to his followers too.
  • If you or your church seem to consider outward-directed mission to be exclusively a matter of programs of social justice, hospitality, etc., then go "hmm." Many mainline/liberal churches seem to be close to this point of view, but proclaiming the proximity of the Kingdom of God and calling followers were vitally important parts of Jesus' ministry, and in my opinion should be vitally important to his followers too.

So in discerning a church group's missional vocation, it may well be that there's an emphasis on clergy ministry or lay ministry, or on individual ministry or collective ministry, or on "social mission" or "evangelism". Depending on the discerned identity of the group, any of these might be emphasized or de-emphasized--there's nothing wrong with that! However, in my opinion, if a church group is intentionally excluding some aspect of ministry/mission (such as evangelism or "social mission"), it's worthy to stop and consider the reason(s) for that exclusion. Do they really believe it's something incidental to the Gospel and the mission of the Church? (Was it incidental to Jesus' ministry?) Is it due to discomfort or attachment, and if so, are those things that need to be examined in the life of the church? Or is it just that the activity is not compatible with the gifts of the church group? In any case, it's worth thinking about.

(I realize that by including "clergy vs. lay" in my little list of dualities, the above might be read to imply that I think the idea of ordained clergy is fundamental to Christian ministry and mission. In fact, my point regarding clergy is just the opposite. My understanding is that the establishment of an ordained "religious class" has a lot more to do with the emergence of Christendom than it does with anything in the NT, and in case you didn't get the memo, Christendom is so over. Don't worry Rick+, I'm not saying ordained clergy are a bad thing, just that I don't think they're central to the mission of the Church like disciple-making and social justice.)

So to summarize, I think my point was not that any particular programs/actions are required of a church, but if some activities that were very important to Jesus are being (more or less) intentionally excluded from a church's sense of missional identity, then that's worth a second thought, and maybe some collective prayer and discernment.

21 November 2005

Jesus, love, and mission in the Gospel of John

Here's something I learned at my Discipleship Group gathering this evening: The footnote to John 6:57 in my HarperCollins Study Bible sends you on a cool trip through the Gospel of John and several increasingly missional statements of Jesus. Here they are:

John 6:57: "Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me."

John 15:9: "As my Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love."

John 17:18: "As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world."

John 20:21: Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

I encourage you to read them in context. You can do that by clicking on the hyperlinks if you want.

Can any sane person read the Gospels and doubt that Jesus saw himself fundamentally as someone sent on a mission by his loving Father? And can there be any doubt that he saw himself as, in that same love, sending his disciples into the world on their own missions of love? And that those missions, in the same spirit of reciprocity, are to pass on that love and to, in turn, equip other disciples for their missions?

Mission is not a program at your church, one among many. Mission (which includes both disciple-making, aka evangelism, and active love, aka healing, hospitality, justice, etc.) is why your church--any church--the Church--exists. It's unavoidable. If you're a Christian, do you see yourself, as Jesus did, fundamentally as a person on a mission of love in the world? If not, what is fundamental in your Christian identity?

16 November 2005

Oh. My. God.

This site is sooooo funny, I think I am seriously going to plotz. The blog. The Cavalcade of Bad Nativities. The Holy Week kitsch. WTFWJD? I am so ROTFL I'm in serious danger of losing my supper.

Thanks to Helen for the pointer.

"...and they brought him gold, frankincense, and snausages." Ha ha ha ha ha ha ulp....

15 November 2005

Whole grain, whole enchilada, whole church

Well, if you were looking for a dose of pretentious BS with your morning cup o' joe (or whatever tasty beverage you might be enjoying just now), you came to the right place. In the following post, I make sweeping statements (not uncommon in this blog), I invent words (less common), and I present to you a half-baked ecclesiology in such a way as to imply that this is the system God intended for the church and was kind enough to reveal to me. So I apologize up front and hope that by these words I can defuse it a bit. But this is one of those things that just seemed to download into my brain from somewhere while I was driving in to work this morning, thinking about the "Missional vs. Intentional" thing I was on about a few posts back. And this blog is where I work those things out. So please, be kind--I know I'm being something of a windbag--but please do comment and please do criticize and help me think these concepts through.

The thing that I like least about it is the name I came up with for the overall concept. "Whole church" implies that I think churches that don't emphasize the things I say are important are somehow incomplete, inadequate, or less than "whole." I don't think that. It's just the best name I could think of so far. Anyway, here's my "theory", such as it is.
  • A whole church is MISSIONAL/TRANSFORMATIONAL. A whole church recognizes that the most fundamental identity of followers of Jesus is that of a people on a mission. That mission is specific to each Christian, each church, and each church system, and must be continuously discerned, but it always consists of the two parts of the mission Jesus gave his emissaries in Luke 10:9: proclaim the inbreaking Kingdom of God, and demonstrate it by transforming the world, one child of God at a time. By living out their particular missions together as contrast communities within and fully part of their larger cultures, Christians become the sign and foretaste of the Kingdom by healing the sick, welcoming the outcast, and speaking truth to power in defense of social justice and peace. Through proclaiming, through deed and word, the Gospel of Jesus and his Kingdom, they invite more disciples to join in this transformational work. I believe it's telling that it's mainly folks from a liberal/mainline/denominational background who are doing the hard thinking and writing on Missional Church: this sense of mission is perhaps something especially needed in those traditions.
  • A whole church is INTENTIONAL/FORMATIONAL. A whole church recognizes that authentic Christian lives are permeated by a habit of spiritual practice and prayer. Whole churches appreciate the rich inheritance of the Christian traditions of the past. They foster communities where the spiritual life does not revolve around the Sunday service, but bridges Sunday to Monday in a rich rhythm including prayer, discernment, fellowship, study/learning, service, and hospitality. Only through a Christian life that's formational can new disciples become mature disciples, and mature disciples stay grounded enough to be the sign and foretaste of the Kingdom and agents of God's work to transform the world. I think it's telling that so many "emerging church" thinkers from a conservative/evangelical/nondenominational background (Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt) are writing books about practice: this habit of intentional practice is perhaps especially needed in those traditions.
  • A whole church is CHANGE-EMBRACING/REFORMATIONAL. A whole church is not afraid to change. As the faces of its members change, or the faces of the folks outside the church doors change (or as new faces are discovered inside or outside that were always there but never noticed before), a church needs to be ready to reform itself to serve those who now need to be served in the ways that they need to be served--and to allow its own members to minister in the ways they are called to minister. To be able to do this, it's essential that the first two items be true. Without a strong yet continuously discerned sense of mission, how can a church know what is essential to its vocation and what is negotiable? Without a strong (or at least developing) habit of intentional practice, how can we have the courage and maturity to embrace change in this way?
  • A whole church is ESCHATOLOGICAL/"PRE"FORMATIONAL. A whole church always keeps in mind that everything it does--forming disciples, transforming the world, reforming itself--is in a very real sense just rehearsal, just preliminary. A whole church expects to change the world, but not through that modern myth called "progress." Instead, we expect God to transform the world (including us) through the surprising inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, through the work of the Spirit in unexpected places, and through us as the sign and foretaste of that Kingdom. We hold in tension Jesus' announcement that the Kingdom is at hand and within us now and his prayer for the future day when God's kingdom will come, fully, on earth as in heaven.

The key to all of that is a steadfast focus on what Jesus spent so much time proclaiming: the Kingdom or Reign of God, God's inbreaking New World, both now and yet to come. We transform the world as we proclaim and demonstrate that Kingdom. We form ourselves as mature members of the Kingdom. We reform our institutions to conform to the inbreaking of the Kingdom in our where and our when. And we "pre"form all our work in the image (so we hope and pray) of the full Kingdom that is to come.

So that's my high-fallutin' theory of "whole church". Church with plenty of fiber, organic and unbleached. ;-) Thoughts?

13 November 2005

Sleeping in Light

I just finished watching Joe Straczynski's commentary on "Sleeping in Light", the final episode of Babylon 5, and I'm cryin' like a baby. I'm telling you, folks, whether or not you like sci-fi, if you're willing to give this series a time investment, you will be rewarded. Absolutely breathtaking storytelling, characterization, performances, and very deeply human themes. Don't allow yourself to be put off by the odd space aliens or the explosions. This is a story about friendship, redemption, sacrifice, love, acceptance, triumph against all odds, and the fact that ultimately that which can bring us together is so much stronger than those things which would tear us apart. And it's a sustained, coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end that's told over five years of television episodes--a feat both unprecedented and unmatched.

Sniff. All good things must end. I'm glad this story was told, and I'm glad I can watch it again some day on DVD. Thanks, Joe.

God in full view!

Wow, the translation of Psalm 84:5-7 in The Message is gorgeous:

And how blessed are those in whom you live,
whose lives become roads you travel;
They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks,
discover cool springs and pools brimming up with rain!
God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and
at the last turn--Zion! God in full view!

Some of Peterson's translation of the rest of that Psalm is a little awkward, and say what you want about free paraphrase transation of poetry, but as a poem in its own right, I think that's right purdy-like, not to mention evocative in its imagery. It makes me think of John 7:37-39. I also love the way it subverts "spiritual journey" talk (which I'm fond of in its unsubverted form too): our lives become a road God travels. Neat.

Anyway, just wanted to share.

12 November 2005

Postmodernity, purpose, and mission

Usually, when a bunch of unrelated threads in my life seem to intersect (and I notice), I end up thinking and writing about it. This has happened recently.
  • I recently saw the movie "Rabbit-Proof Fence", about three young girls who trek 1500 miles to return home in defiance of an early 20th-century Australian national policy of "rescuing" mixed-race children from their Aboriginal families so they can be raised in the obviously "superior" white culture.
  • I'm reading a novel written by a friend of mine, in which the protagonist is a young woman whose face was severely scarred in an auto accident. In the section I'm reading now, she's coming to terms with the idea that the concepts of "beauty" and "ugliness" she's so far taken as self-evident are just social constructs imposed by society, nothing more.
  • Another book I'm reading is Darrell Guder's The Continuing Conversion of the Church. In it, Guder writes about the history of Western European missionary efforts, with their assumption that white European culture is the ultimate expression of the Gospel, and that the encounter between the Gospel and non-European culture necessarily entailed the reshaping of those cultures in the Western mold.
  • Finally, while I was walking this morning with another friend of mine (who's taking a class on postmodernism), she told me about some thinking and research she'd done on colonialism in the Philippines and on western feminine ideals. Both involve the establishment of a cultural construct as normative for everyone, often to the detriment of those it is imposed upon.

I think there is a common thread in all of this, and it has to do with the transition between modernism and postmodernism. Western cultural superiority, white racial superiority, narrow definitions of femininity and of beauty--all of these are metanarratives (big stories) that are a product of human cultures, but have been set up by those cultures as absolute and normative for all. In the modern age, it was common to accept these sorts of metanarratives as self-evident, or at least obvious to the sufficiently "civilized": since absolute truth was knowable, what the culture "knew" about civilization, about race, about gender, about beauty was usually accepted as absolutely true and normative for everyone.

There have always been rebels, of course, who bucked those norms. But if cultural observers are correct about this "postmodern" shift, for the last half-century or so (probably more like one or two centuries, actually), whole cultures have begun to rebel against--and relativize--these metanarratives, and to see them as mere cultural constructs without absolute value. Obviously, this can be very liberating. It can also leave us without a Story or Stories with which to interpret our lives. I tend to think this is something human beings need. Whether that's true or not, many of us postmoderns seem to be searching for a new Story--we may not want it to be absolute for everyone or think it could be so, but we do want to find some narrative that's authentic for us and helps us interpret and narrate our lives.

In the Western Christian world, one popular candidate for this life-defining story has been pastor Rick Warren's "Purpose-Driven" Life/Church/etc. While Warren's ideas are being voraciously consumed, my sense is that they're much more popular with Boomers and others who are largely "modern" in outlook, and less so with younger postmoderns. I've read The Purpose-Driven Life, and I found it fairly compelling, although not wildly so. I couldn't put my finger on why not--other than some biblical literalism which wasn't central to the book, I couldn't identify a big problem I had with it. So what makes "Purpose Driven" more of a "modern" phenomenon?

I'm still not sure, but I've sort of decided that it's "modern" because it's setting up one more absolute metanarrative that's normative for all individuals. Let me pick that apart a little. Rick Warren's "purposes" are presented as the purposes in life for everyone, everywhere--normative and absolute, one-size fits all, like most modern Stories. Further, they primarily seem to represent demands that each individual needs to fulfill--it's all about the purpose in my life, which I need to live out. I suspect that Purpose-Driven Church, which I haven't read, takes a more collective approach, but my impression of Warren's approach is that it's pretty individualistic, another hallmark of modernism.

What I like about the Missional Church conversation, is that in some ways it's the opposite of this. Missional Church is about discerning the unique vocation that God is calling you to in the world. It's not about a one-size-fits-all, normative metanarrative; it's about looking at the context of the world around your faith community, your particular talents, spiritual gifts, and passions, and figuring out where and how you can do God's work in the world. On the other hand, the way that story is discerned and lived out is fundamentally communal--there is an individual aspect to missional discernment, but calling must be discerned in community, and that's also the way it must be practiced in the world.

So: to me, a Story appropriate for us postmodern seekers is one that's our story in that it's specific and authentic to us, but also our story in that it can only be told and acted out in community. It should also be one that promotes humility, openness, welcome, diversity, and health, unlike many of the metanarratives of our past. I believe the Missional Church conversation--a conversation fundamentally about authentic ways to follow Jesus in the world--a provides one path toward answering the question: as we leave behind or diminish many of these cracked old stories, what new story--our story--are we going to tell?

05 November 2005

Solomon's Porch

I ran into a little bit of a traffic jam on the way to Solomon’s Porch, so I got there a few minutes late. (Side note: driving in the Twin Cities was, in general, a very pleasant contrast to driving in the DC area!) They were already underway with a first worship song of the evening: a good, well-played, inspirational alt rock tune that they composed (like all the music they use) themselves.

So here’s the picture: SP is currently meeting in a traditional, older Presbyterian church in urban Minneapolis. When I walked into the sanctuary, I was immediately struck by the extent to which they had transformed it. The front part of the nave, ahead of the pews, had been turned into a living room, with comfy chairs, sofas, and floor lamps. To the left, where the choir might be in regular Sunday morning services, they’d set up the band, and lyrics were being projected on the high white walls to the left and right of the pews. To the right of the central living-room area, the sanctuary had a removable wall that opened into what appeared to be a parish hall. They had more comfy furniture set up in there, facing the central area, and beyond that they had coffee and other refreshments. Behind the central area were raised wooden chairs that were part of the church itself. Members of the congregation sat on those, in the central area, on the comfy furniture in the parish hall area, and in the pews, all facing the central-front nave area. The overall effect: very “round”, very warm and welcome and comfortable. The light from all those floor lamps made the space very soft/warm and living-room like. They’d hung the walls with artwork that contributed to the homey, communal feel.

There were also little tables set up among up front and among the pews, accompanied by those soft floor lamps and laden with sliced bread and jugs of grape juice. As I found a pew to sit in, I almost grabbed some, thinking “refreshments!”, before the reality of the situation (“communion!”) dawned on me. :-) So I sat down and enjoyed the worship music. One thing I noticed was that, despite the projected lyrics, not many people were singing along wit the band. This may be a consequence of their always writing new music, so the songs don’t have a chance to become favorite hymns—I don’t know.

After the music, I think they launched right into the evening’s readings: Romans 1-4. Yep, that’s right: four whole chapters of St. Paul’s magnum opus! First, three congregation members stood up, one after the other, wherever they happened to be in the church, and read a portion as it was projected on the walls. Then, Doug Pagitt (the pastor) explained how the evening was going to work (four chapters of Romans!). The same three folks each read another portion, there was a musical intermission, and finally the three readers finished reading the text. It was an effective way to make the reading of such a long text not seem boring, and having the readers stand up and read from wherever they sat in the congregation was also effective—it seemed very egalitarian.

Then we had communion. The majority method of doing this was to go to the nearby tables, get some bread and juice, and bring it back to where you were sitting. Then, when everybody had some of the elements, we would share the body and blood together, like a big party. There were also other options, though: at the front and back of the church, there were places where folks would serve you bread and wine Anglican/Catholic style. Even there, you could take the wine in a cup, by dunking, or by sipping. This last option being the one most like “home” for me, I chose it. I don’t think many people do choose that option, because the young lady who served it to me poured it down the front of my sweater. As Blair remarked later, I was truly “bathed in the blood of Christ”. ;-)

After communion, they began what would often (I gather) have been a sermon or message. Doug Pagitt introduced this evening’s concept, spinning slowly around on a bar stool so as to address everybody in the round-ish congregation. During the previous week, four congregation members (including Pagitt) had written their own versions of Romans 1-4, and once again they stood up one by one wherever they were in the congregation (Pagitt ran up to the choir loft for his) to read their compositions. These ranged from a “The Message”-style paraphrase to a very broad meditation on Paul’s themes. The last interpretation was addressed not to the Romans, but to the people of Solomon’s Porch, which I though was effective, though I wished the writer had found a way to extend the metaphor throughout: are there any groups that the Christians of Solomon’s Porch can’t believe God is working among, just as the Jews of first-century Rome might have had trouble believing that God could be at work among the Gentiles? Thankfully, none of the presentations was as long as the Biblical passage itself.

After that, there was a brief time for the congregation to gather in small groups and discuss the passage and the interpretations, and then to share insights with the whole group. I never would have believed that a group that large (I think there were at least 100 of us) could have profitably grappled with a text that long in a less-than-two-hour church gathering that also included musical worship and a shared Lord’s Supper. But it really worked!
Well, that was more reporterly than contemplative, and even as a piece of reportage, I probably got some of the details or order of events wrong (it was two weeks ago). But overall, it was a wonderful, worshipful, and fundamentally communal and welcoming experience.

Rethinking dualities

Upon reflection, I'm a little concerned by some of the lines I drew in my last post.
  • I implied (as I perhaps have in the past) that liberal mainliners tend not to have a sense of outward-directed mission in the world. But that's not exactly true; many liberal mainliners have a strong sense of this, but it tends to be limited in concept to work for social justice, peace, ecological stewardship, etc., not proclamation of the good news of Jesus' saving work.
  • I may have implied that conservative evangelicals do tend to have a well-developed sense of mission. I think that, as broad generalizations go, this is true, but to make another such sweeping statement, I think their concept of this mission is often also limited: it includes only proclamation of Jesus' saving work, and that only on an individual basis (saving individual souls from hell). It tends to ignore the world-transforming scope of Jesus' message of the inbreaking Kingdom of God, and the implications for Christian concern for things like, well, social justice, peace, and ecological stewardship.
  • In reality, I think both ends of this spectrum can have a sense of mission, but it tends (in my opinion) to be a limited, reductionist one that doesn't take a full account of the Gospel. And I would go so far as to say that one of the chief failings on both sides is a lack of deep study and reflection on the "both now and not-yet" character of the Kingdom of God that Jesus spent his ministry proclaiming and demonstrating. I think we all need to return to a careful study of the life and teachings of Jesus, in the light of the lives and teachings of his followers, both in biblical times and through the ages. (Incidentally, I think this is exactly what those Missional Church theologians are doing.)
  • In regard to practice, I may have implied that liberal mainliners are more likely to be grounded in a life of spiritual practice than conservative evangelicals. Again, that's a caricature. Evangelicals tend to be much stronger in certain important practices, such as regular Bible study, than mainliners. And they may pray more, though their sources and modes of prayer may be more limited and less embracing of the long Christian tradition. And plenty of mainliners (including a shocking percentage of pastors, according to a statistic I recently heard) have no regular habit of spiritual practice.

So I just wanted to confess to having set up some false (or at least artificial) dualities for rhetorical purposes. I've made some generalizations in this post that repeat that sin. So please take my verbal diagrams with a grain of salt; my real point, again, is that in my pursuit of being an authentic follower of Jesus I need to be both missional in motivation and intentional in practice.

Another confession: I fear that this blog has gotten too intellect-oriented, dense, and philosophical again lately. Sorry, my head was full coming back from that conference, and I had to let it out. (Also, I've been sick, so I've had lots of time to blog.) Anyway, the next post will be a more contemplative reflection on my worship experience at Solomon's Porch, a warm and welcoming emerging church in Minneapolis. Thanks for bearing with me.

04 November 2005

Missional vs. Intentional: Smackdown!

So I've been blogging a lot about this "Missional Church" idea. Go back two posts for a fairly concise definition of what this is. Innovation in this space is being done by folks like the Gospel and Our Culture Network, Church Innovations, Missional Leadership Institute, and Luther Seminary. Most of those folks come from a mainline Protestant background: Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, etc. However, I've discovered something interesting by creating a Google Alert on the word "missional": the idea, or at least the terminology, is catching on like wildfire among conservative, evangelical, even fundamentalist churches and church systems. (I'm not talking about emerging churches--they also tend to be thoroughly missional, at least in theory, but they aren't the big Google Alert generators.)

I haven't done a lot of research into their use of the term, but I wonder (idly and ignorantly) whether all of those conservative churches are thoroughly grounded in the deep theology being done by the groups I link to above. I also wonder whether they have a grounding in historical Christian tradition and spiritual practices--or do they act as if Christianity was founded and died out in the first century, and only resumed again in the 19th century when the Plymouth Brethren invented Dispensationalism?

OK, gear shift. As I mentioned in my last post, there's another concept, "Intentional" church, being investigated under the auspices of the Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, a study being carried out by (among others) faculty at the Virginia Theological Seminary. One of those VTS profs, Diana Butler Bass, has written an excellent, slim book called Practicing Congregations: Imagining a New Old Church, which outlines her theory. Essentially, intentional congregations are those which intentionally and creatively choose to stop devoting all their resources to uncritically preserving the "shallower" (my word) traditions founded within the last century or so (church suppers, particular hymns, etc.) in favor of re-forming their communities in new ways, resulting in new vitality. Often these "new ways" are really old ways: reconnecting with the "deeper" traditions of the spiritual practices of the historic Christian faith, from contemplative prayer to radical hospitality to discernment to art.

Bass goes on to say that the "intentional" expression within the more conservative, evangelical churches is the Emerging Church, while the "intentional" expression within the more liberal, mainline churches is what she calls "Practicing Congregations": churches that have truly embraced the sorts of "deep" traditions and practices noted above and re-shaped their collective life around them.

I think it's a really exciting movement of the Spirit within the church that these mainline churches are rediscovering a life of intentional practice. But I can't help but wonder: shouldn't these practices flow out of a sense of missional vocation? Similarly, I think it's wonderful that those evangelical churches are embracing the missional idea. But I hope that, at the same time, they are grounding that missional commitment in an intentional habit of deep spiritual practice. I just have this feeling that each of these movements--potentially--is only telling half the Story. (I want to stress potentially--clearly many congregations talking the missional talk are walking the walk of intentional practice, and clearly many mainline "practicing congregations" are working from a discernment of their missional calling. In fact, these two movements are coming to many of the same conclusions--just compare the lists of practices on PCIP web site with those in the Missional Church book Treasure in Clay Jars, or read this review, which compares the two and comes, in the end, to conclusions not unlike mine.)

Like I said, I don't have much to back up my concern on the missional-but-not-intentional side, but I've gotten definite vibes from within my own liberal mainline tradition (including a conversation with a very cool gentleman from the PCIP project itself) that the idea of being intentional and practicing is a way for mainline congregations to let themselves off the hook for being sent out into the world to proclaim and demonstrate the Kingdom of God. If that's the case, then while I admit that intentional practice is a step in the right direction and may lead to renewed vitality, stopping there stops short of the full Gospel. It certainly falls short of the example of Jesus, who spent a great deal of time out in the world teaching about and demonstrating the Kingdom. It also ignores pretty much all of Jesus' post-resurrection instructions to the church, in the Gospels and in Acts. But the opposite approach (missional but not intentional) is also fraught with danger--Jesus also spent a lot of time "recharging his spiritual batteries" through solitude and prayer, and practicing healing, hospitality, and speaking out for social justice, and so have his followers through the last two milen

I think this is one of those classic "both, and" scenarios: in my opinion, the authentic Christian disciple, congregation, church system, etc. needs to be both missional and intentional. It's like running a race: mission marks the course, the starting line and the finish line, while intentional practice provides the ground under your feet and the water and electrolytes along the way. OK, that's a terrible analogy, but the point is that nobody, in my opinion, is off the hook. Even if you're a liberal mainliner, you have a missional calling in the world--inwardly-directed practice alone doesn't cut it. Even if you're a conservative evangelical, living out your mission requires an intentional habit of practices like contemplative prayer, hospitality, healing, art, theological learning and social justice--it's not enough to support evangelistic organizations and socially conservative politics and get all your creative ideas from the Left Behind books.

OK, well, that's why I call it Rude Armchair Theology. In any case, I guess my message is: when it comes to the Gospel, don't let yourself off easy, even if you're moving in a positive direction. Jesus' life consisted of both passionate mission and deep practice, and so should those of his disciples. And it's him (sure as HELL not me) that I'm holding up as the paragon of both. Oh, and sorry to disappoint: in the end, I am incapable of getting rival seminary professors into a WWE steel cage. And don't think I haven't tried. ;-)

03 November 2005

Resources for missional discernment

OK, as promised, here are some resources for helping an individual, a congregation, or a church system (synod, diocese, judicatory, loose affiliation, etc.) to discern the shape of their calling in the world. I learned about some of these at the conference I recently attended; others I learned of in other ways.

Discernment resources for individuals:

LifeKeys is a set of tools developed by a trio of diversely gifted Presbyterians. It helps an individual determine his or her natural talents, spiritual gifts, personality (using the MBTI), values, and passions. Together, these can be great clues to what you're supposed to do with your life.

One organization that uses LifeKeys is Church Innovations, an incredible Minnesota-based consulting organization that I found out about at this conference. Most of their resources are aimed at congregations or larger bodies (so I mention them a lot below), but I'm sure their LifeKeys-based services are excellent. But if you're a lone individual, you should just buy the book.

The Centered Life program, created by Luther Seminary (where the conference I attended was held), looks to be an excellent resource for discovering a sense of calling or vocation in daily life, be it working in your home or working for "the man". Their tagline is "Connecting Sunday to Monday."

Another expert on that topic is Anne Koester, associate director of the Georgetown Center for Liturgy (second bio down on this page) who offered a series on the Spirituality of Work at my church which I found extremely helpful.

Last, but not least, Listening Hearts is an outstanding program developed by folks within the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. It's designed to help an individual at the point of an important decision to discern what God may be calling him or her to do in that instance. It's based on a great deal of research into historic Christian traditions on discernment (Quaker, Ignatian, etc.), and it essentially involves a trio of trained discerners using a combination of listening, questions, silence, and prayer to help the "focus person" perceive the voice of God. I've been through a session myself, and found it incredibly helpful. If you buy the book, you won't regret it.

Discernment resources for groups and congregations:

Listening Hearts also has a book/program for group discernment, called Grounded in God. I don't have first-hand experience with it, but I don't doubt that it's excellent. Here's the book. They also have a program for spiritual conflict resolution, called Opening the Ear of Your Heart.

Getting back to Church Innovations, they too have a program for dealing with conflict, plus programs on staff covenanting, growing healthier congregations, and small group training.

They also have a really, really exciting tool for congregations interested in being guided through a process of learning about themselves and their contexts. Called Church FutureFinder, it's sort of like a LifeKeys for congregations, with the added benefit of guiding the church to gather demographic and anecdotal (story) information about the context to which they've been called. (In other words, church members are sent out into the neighborhood to talk to people--and not to hand them tracts, but to hear their stories.) That is so important for coming to understand the what God is calling them to do in that place! It's free to use if you don't want to print reports, and only $70 if you want reports and a user manual. It's also worth noting that by using it your congregation becomes part of a database and research project being undertaken by CI. There's also a "complete with consulting services" version of this process, called Congregational Discovery, which costs $2,500.

Finally, I recommend that mainline congregations check out the Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, a study being carried out by (among others) faculty at the Virginia Theological Seminary. I'm a little concerned that this project may be encouraging some mainline congregations to ignore the elephant in the room (labeled "MISSION"), but intentional and practicing is way ahead of nominal, and I think this project and its findings are wonderful, if they perhaps don't go far enough. (My concerns will be the subject of an upcoming post.) So check it out.

Discernment resources for larger church systems:

I admit I'm new to this, but as far as I can tell, the experts of missional discernment at this level are Church Innovations. They've got a program called Partnership for a Missional Church, in which they take a collection of at least 12-15 congregations through an extended journey of discernment and convenanting together which is built on all their other resources. They've got another program called Robust Church Development which seems to be aimed at teaching church systems practices that help them build strong churches.

CI has also been working with the Gospel and Our Culture Network to equip at least four major major U.S. church bodies to re-envision themselves in a missional mold. This was the main topic of the conference I attended. One of those church bodies, the Mennonite Church, USA, has a lot of excellent resources that interested folks at any level (but especially big church systems) may benefit from. I was personally inspired to hear how these Mennonites, as well as Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Churches of Christ congregations are making mission the core of their identity throughout their organizations.

So that's all I've got for now. To my mind, this is what it's all about, or at least where it all starts. If Christians are a people on a mission, then their first and most important obligation is to discern the shape of that mission, or their particular calling in the world. It's not easy, but there are those who can help!

Know of any others? Comment on this post and tell me about them!

02 November 2005

Discerning Missional Vocation

OK, so now I'm finally getting around to writing about the actual subject matter of the Gospel and Our Culture Network Conference I attended. The basic motivating idea behind the conference is "Missional Church", which I've blogged about before, but in a nutshell, it's the idea that the Christian church is, in its most fundamental identity, a people on a mission. That mission is to be the sign and foretaste of the inbreaking Kingdom of God by proclaiming the Good News of God's redemptive work in Jesus, and by transforming the world through imitating Jesus' acts of welcome, love, and healing.

One easy thing to miss in that definition is the corporate nature of that missional calling. The church is not a collection of independent persons on a mission; the church is a people on a mission. Together. Early in my Christian walk, I "got it" that I as an individual Christian have been gifted and called by God to a particular ministry, a particular vocation. It's my job to discern the shape of that call (which may be fairly broad, but will be related to my natural and spiritual gifts, my passions, and my cultural context) and to live it out in the world. I've been busy with that process of individual discernment for much of the last three years. But what I missed until recently was the fact that this missional calling isn't just individual; it's collective. Just as each Christian has a particular call to ministry and mission, so does each church, each judicatory (diocese, synod, etc.), each denomination, etc.

And that, more or less, is what this conference was about. If congregations and larger church bodies also have a missional calling based on their particular gifts, passions, and context, how on earth would they go about discerning and living out that vocation? The good news (and I use those words intentionally) is that there are organizations out there bringing to bear a combination of deep, biblical, missional theology and leading-edge sociological tools to provide great resources to church organizations (congregations and larger bodies) that are ready to get serious about discerning and living out their missional calling in the world. I came in contact with many of these organizations in Minnesota, and I know of a few others from different sources, so my next post will include pointers to some of these resources. Stay tuned....

01 November 2005


I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

This is the most basic prayer of Tibetan Buddhism. To the Buddha (the enlightened teacher), the Dharma (his teaching), and the Sangha (the community of learners), I go for refuge--for protection from the evils of this world and of my own mind. For six years, since I first officially took refuge in Buddhism in the summer of 1999, I've tried to pray that prayer every day, morning and night, to honor the vows I took in that initial refuge ceremony. (Third Refuge Training: "To repeatedly (thrice in the morning, thrice in the evening) take refuge by recollecting the qualities of the Triple Jewel [i.e., the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha]."

But after a conversation I had with Blair in Minnesota, I've now stopped. This is the first time I've intentionally broken one of my vows, so this is a big deal for me. Even when I became a Christian, I didn't see any reason to think that this freed me from the vows I took as a Buddhist, especially since (as far as I could tell), there was nothing in them that conflicted with the life of a follower of Jesus.

But when Blair asked me if there where any practices from my Buddhist past that I maintained today, and I tried to describe this practice of taking refuge, I realized that my words made no sense. They didn't fit. I realized that, in point of fact, I don't take refuge in the Triple Jewel any more. When I was praying this prayer, it was just words with no meaning. I tried to rationalize it broadly: I was taking refuge in all wise teachers (Buddha, Jesus, Paul, the Hebrew prophets, etc.), their teaching, and the communities that learn from them. But that seemed lame and untrue, little more than a platitude: "Wisdom is good." I even tried Christianizing it: "I take refuge in the Christ, in the Gospel, and in the Church." But I realized that even that doesn't work.

The Christian doesn't take refuge, not even in Jesus. The Christian doesn't retreat from the world, or from his own sin, to the safety of the shelter of Christ and Church. The Christian goes to Jesus to have his sin forgiven, his life redeemed, and to be sent back out into the world to be the sign and foretaste of God's inbreaking reign. He doesn't flee the world, he goes out into it like a sheep among wolves to transform it as he himself is being transformed.

So with sadness and humility, I find myself having to lay this practice and this vow back at the feet of the Buddha who gave it to me. I can't continue taking refuge without violating another one of my vows: not to lie. Because that's what these words of refuge have become for me.

So I pray this prayer instead:

I go to the Christ for forgiveness and redemption.
I look to the Gospel for my missional calling in the world.
I go to the Church for companionship and accountability in living out that calling.