Missional Expectations

The Dwelling Place has always defined itself as a missional faith community. Granted, we’ve been labeled an emergent church which I don’t care about because people love their categories and will use them to embrace and vilify you. Defending the emergent church or being missional is not part of my mission. In fact, arguing over the emergent church, its theology, etc. sounds like arguments that few but the inside care about (I get that arguments like these and things like the “ontological Christ” are important in some circles—and I know it’s hard to get our missiology correct if our theology is suspect—but in the final analysis, the bulk of my conversations are not with inside folks).

Generally, I’ve seen three models of what folks call emergent church. So most of the time we’re trapped between the traditional crowd believing us to be “different” to the point of being suspect and emerging/emergent folks playing “more emergent than thou.” Basically, the thing I’ve taken away most from the ongoing emergent conversation is the idea of rethinking what it means to be the church. As a faith community, is our chief responsibility to focus on how to teach and transmit faith? Are we to be a social service provider, a religious service provider, and follow a business model? Are we to build grand testaments to our empire and hope to attract people to our weekly production?

Basically I’ve been stung by two recent articles. The first by Alan Hirsch called Definining Missional. He recovers the roots of what it means to be missional this way:

Missional is not synonymous with emerging. The emerging church is primarily a renewal movement attempting to contextualize Christianity for a postmodern generation. Missional is also not the same as evangelistic or seeker-sensitive. These terms generally apply to the attractional model of church that has dominated our understanding for many years. Missional is not a new way to talk about church growth. Although God clearly desires the church to grow numerically, it is only one part of the larger missional agenda. Finally, missional is more than social justice. Engaging the poor and correcting inequalities is part of being God’s agent in the world, but we should not confuse this with the whole.

A proper understanding of missional begins with recovering a missionary understanding of God. By his very nature God is a “sent one” who takes the initiative to redeem his creation. This doctrine, known as missio Dei—the sending of God—is causing many to redefine their understanding of the church. Because we are the “sent” people of God, the church is the instrument of God’s mission in the world. As things stand, many people see it the other way around. They believe mission is an instrument of the church; a means by which the church is grown. Although we frequently say “the church has a mission,” according to missional theology a more correct statement would be “the mission has a church.”

On the flip side, I was equally chastened by Dan Kimball’s Missional Misgivings. Most on point was this criticism:

We all agree with the theory of being a community of God that defines and organizes itself around the purpose of being an agent of God’s mission in the world. But the missional conversation often goes a step further by dismissing the “attractional” model of church as ineffective. Some say that creating better programs, preaching, and worship services so people “come to us” isn’t going to cut it anymore. But here’s my dilemma—I see no evidence to verify this claim.

… some from our staff recently visited a self-described missional church. It was 35 people. That alone is not a problem. But the church had been missional for ten years, and it hadn’t grown, multiplied, or planted any other churches in a city of several million people. That was a problem.

Church ought to be put together in a way that makes sense. The missional model is more focused on deploying people, not attracting people. Drawing people out, finding their gifts, figuring out their callings, then sending them out to be a blessing in the world. In other words, we need to be about the doing.

The model of church that makes the most sense for me is family. Sundays are the family meeting, including the family dinner (Communion as our soul food). But we aren’t family just on Sundays, but have to be family during the week also. Families are hard and are re-defined with each addition. We don’t assimilate new members (to make them “one of us”) as much as add their gifts to our own. There is no privileged place and we learn and are taught in midst of life. We build communities of hope, full of hopeful possibility and people living from a place of hope.

And families grow. The goal of parents is to raise their children to be able to start their own families. It is anticipated, planned, and celebrated. You start your own family, you don’t take your brothers and sisters and begin a family.

Before I strain that analogy any further, I’d say missional churches operate from an organic paradigm , without a predetermined ministry method but rather letting their context determine their ministries. The environment should draw out people’s affinities and nurture people’s giftings. And the leadership should cultivate that environment. If you have the environment right, fruit happens naturally.

Believing in deep ecclesiology means that I’ve come to terms with the idea that there needs to be room for all kinds of church expressions, from the attractional model/mega-church to the niche church/coffee shop model. I know I’ve been quick to criticize mega-churches and touting how we’re “not about numbers”. At the same time, if we don’t grow, but rather remain static, we’re a collection of friends hanging out discussing spiritual issues, which isn’t bad, but not all we’re called to be.

I’m still waiting this wondrous conversation between the races promised by the emergent church, but I find that true across the board when it comes to the church. In the mean time, we’re to be communities of faith, hope, and love. We can have all the faith we want, but without love, it’s worthless. It’s sad that I have to remind myself that this includes loving my fellow Jesus people.

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Been Caught Cheating

What was it Chris Rock said? “Women are like the police: they could have all the evidence in the world, but they want the confession.”

“What’s this?” my wife asked holding out a crumpled piece of paper with a phone number in her hand.

“It’s not what you think,” I said while backing up.

“Oh, it’s looks like it’s exactly what I think it is. I know you did it, just admit it.”

“Honey, I swear …”

“I know you did it, just admit it. You’ve been sneaking behind my back involved in other ministries, haven’t you?”

“Yes.” I couldn’t look her in the eye any more.

“Was it better than ours? Did it give you a greater sense of mission or purpose?”

“No. It was a fleeting thing.”

“How long has it been going on?”

“Only a few Sunday nights.”

“Were there any others?”

“They didn’t mean anything to me, honey. It was only a spiritual thing. A few folks in need.”

“If we’re going to have an open relationship, you need to be honest. These things can only work if we abide by the rules we’ve set out. No more sneaking around.”

“Okay.”

Good thing she hadn’t been checking my cell phone records …

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I’m Sending Emerging Kids to Hell

Don’t ask me how I ended up helping with the kids ministry at our church.

Our overall philosophy was that we wanted everyone as much a part of our main gathering as possible, figuring that we all learn from each other, grandparents, parents, and kids. Practically speaking, we ended up having a nursery but that left us with the question “what do we do with our 6 – 12 year olds?”

A guy who was visiting one of our elder meetings talked about a kids class where the kids essentially taught themselves. They speak each other’s language, pay attention more, and even handle keeping order in the class. They lead the songs, lead the prayer, prepare lessons, and prepare activities to flesh out the lesson.

Now, bright though our children may be, I don’t think they’ll be setting the stories they are learning within the context of the greater story of the Bible or tying everything back to Christ and kingdom work/living. So adults would be needed to help facilitate the discussions. Plus, I know our kids and left to their own devices, this would quickly turn into “Lord of the Flies … In Jesus’ Name” (replete with images of a lone adult tied up in a corner while the kids plotted).

This sounded so good in theory.

Still wanting to keep them in the service as much as possible, we stay in for the music and prayer, but when He Who Would Be Head Pastor begins speaking, we go back to our room. The first day’s class was made up of my two boys, my sister’s two kids, and one of our elders two kids. Maybe I shouldn’t have made the observation that I have license to beat two-thirds of the class. When it came to opening us in prayer, I turned to my eldest son, my name sake, jewel of my crown who comes back with “I don’t know how to pray. You never taught me.”

So after a rocky start (come to find out that some of our kids have some real control issues), we’ve been falling into a nice rhythm, to the point where my kids drag me out of bed to get to church on Sunday mornings. I’ve always wanted the kind of kids ministry where kids can ask any questions they wanted and the teachers would serious wrestle with their questions. So here’s the question of the day for my theologically minded friends (because no one warned me that our kids were so bright):

We’ve spent the last month or so going over the story of the Ten Commandments (we’ve spent three weeks on what “honor your father and mother” means). Anyway, the following discussion breaks out:

Emmi: Well, our baby sister died last year and she’s in heaven. When you’re a kid, God doesn’t hold you responsible for not knowing and obeying the Ten Commandments.

Me: You’re not seriously bringing up the age of accountability issue, right? How old are you?

Ian: Wait a second. If we’re not accountable until we’ve been taught the Ten Commandments and you’ve just taught us the Ten Commandments, if I die today, I could go to hell?

Me: This is your take home lesson? How old are you?

Maggie: I’m telling my mom you just taught us into hell.

Luckily, I have a co-conspirator in this (the elder/mother of the other two kids). I most certainly almost made He Who Would Be Head Pastor pull his sermon over to come back and talk to the kids. How would you answer this question?

(I actually did come up with something, after I let the kids wrestle with answering the question themselves–“That’s a good question. We’re going to go over it some more next week. Try not to die before then.”–then being frightened at how smart they are. We discussed how best to live rather than living to stay out of hell. Each week is a reminder that we start asking very real and very important questions early on and that it’s good to have folks who not only listen and take you seriously, but wrestle with the questions alongside you. I STILL need that.)

There’s probably a book idea in here somewhere.

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Take Your Ass Home

Dear Pastor, Ministry Worker, or Non-Profit Person:

Before I decided to work in ministry, part-time though it may be, I went around and talked to a lot of folks that I know in ministry. From pastors, to people who do other full-time ministry or charity work, one particular warning kept popping up: your first ministry is to your family.

Take your ass home.

Are we family here? Let’s be real then: you ain’t that important to Kingdom work. Yes, we are called to be missional and join in a ministry of reconciliation, but you aren’t irreplaceable. The work will be there tomorrow. You can’t sacrifice your family, (especially) not even in the name of the Lord or doing His work.

Consider this a welcome to leadership lesson two. It took me a long time to get comfortable (well, first that I’m a leader, and then) with the idea of what it means to be a leader in the Biblical sense. Being a leader doesn’t require sinless perfection. It doesn’t require academically qualified or highly skilled (we may not outright say it, but we tend to expect our leaders to have initials after their name if they are going to speak or write). A piece of paper doesn’t make anyone a good leader. It’s more about their character. Their honesty (with people and money). The stability of their personal/family life. An ability to teach. A maturity as a believer.

Take your ass home.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got next to zero self-control in this area. Left to my own devices, every waking moment would be filled with me volunteering for one group or another. My wife is already suspicious that I may be committing “ministry adultery” with all of my recent writing about Outreach, Inc. (Though, combining it with existing ministries is fine. However, she is, for real, tired of me volunteering for things, be it writing or “in the name of the Lord”). Here’s how we solved the problem for us: she’s in charge of my time. It’s similar to submitting to who is gifted in what area.

She’s better at balancing a checkbook and making (and sticking to) budgets, so she runs that aspect of our life. My heart and mind want to prioritize my family, but it’s funny how “work” can make us lose sight of these things. To ensure that I wouldn’t, I asked her to hold me to account for making sure I spent however much time she needed me to at home (this includes regular date nights). I have a day job, I work for the church, and I write – to which she’s been quite sacrificial in accommodating. To ensure that my time/priorities don’t topple out of order, for every “new” venture I decide to adopt, I have to drop something else I do. She also gets a veto on how many evenings I book up with “stuff” (everything we do gets cleared on the Family Calendar Board), because neither one of us wants to be constantly “busy”. It’s our system, but I know how this “mutual submission” talk makes some folks nervous, so your mileage may vary.

The bottom line is that too many of us think that we’re indispensable. That we have to be at church, our ministry, our vocation, our whatever, from sun up to sundown. Yes, sacrifice is often required and there is not enough time in the day to get everything done. However, your family is not that sacrifice. Tuck in your kids and kiss your spouse because if you’re neglecting your family, you’re neglecting your first ministry.

Take your ass home.

Love and kisses,

Maurice

P.S.

We Need More than a Prayer Meeting

Local ministers and community leaders will hold a news conference today to discuss crime in Indianapolis. Rev. Charles Harrison, pastor of Barnes United Methodist Church, was a victim of a robbery over the weekend. While at church Sunday evening, he was robbed by three young men. The group will discuss that and other crime issues at 1 p.m. at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and 30th streets.

What was it that Chris Rock said you should do if you found yourself lost on MLK Jr Street at night? Run! This is more sad than funny as we are coming off one of the most murderous years in our city’s history.

We keep waiting for folks, politicians, churches, and community leaders to do more than talk. There comes a point where talk is cheap. When you’ve done all you can do to draw attention to a problem and have to come up or join in with a solution. Maybe we–the people, the community–need to do more to stem the tide of violence where we can. Bear our share of the burden. Warehousing criminals, again, sounds good but isn’t a real solution. That’s society saying that we’ve given up so when you go bad, we’ll just lock you up. Yep, statistically crime will drop. Yep, we will “feel” safer knowing that we’ve thrown away the key. However, this country already has too long a sad history of putting people in chains and we can’t afford any more of those long-term scars on our collective soul.

Too many of us live in an utter state of self-delusion. We think danger is black, brown and poor, and if we can just move far enough away from “those people” in the cities we’ll be safe. If we can just find an “all-American” town, life will be better, because “things like this just don’t happen here.” What has gone wrong and is not TV, rap music, video games or a lack of prayer in school. What went wrong is that we, as a society, decided to ignore dysfunction and violence when it only affected other communities, and thereby blinded themselves to the inevitable creeping of chaos which never remains isolated too long.

Churches are a good correct place to start in the war on crime. The church is supposed to be a reproducing community of authentic disciples who are being equipped as missionaries to be sent out by God. We listen to the questions asked by our community and dialogue over those questions. We don’t force questions that we think our community “should” be asking and provide those answers. That’s not real helpful.

As Christians, we have our identity in Christ. We find our mission in Christ. Missional people might not spend as much time at church because their whole lives are missions. And that mission is connected to social action, the key word being “action”. Not just “press conferences”. But you know what? I know in my heart that these leaders won’t be stopping at this press conference. I’d be willing to bet that this press conference is the beginning of a conversation. A laying out of a vision that will then be taken off camera as people assemble to put “feet” to the vision and do the work.

At least that’s my hope.

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Thinking Through Children’s Ministry

I love it when my oldest son, all of four, sits with me during the “worship portion” of our church service. He doesn’t sit through it very well. He’ll color. He’ll wander off to stare out the windows. Now, this may have something to do with the fact that I’m with them through the day, and we’re all about short attention span theater. But you know what? He makes my worship. We’ll chat about what’s going on. I’ll color (even when he’s not with us, I write during church. I find that I pay attention better when I do). I’ll go with him to the window and we’ll talk about the beauty of God’s creation. My wife is not as fond of us disrupting everyone while we do what we do.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m of two minds on this issue: I love the chaos of (the idea of) kids being in the gathering with us, but I also love the peace of kids being off in their own area so that I can learn in peace. This was my mindset as we wrestled with an article written by a friend who describes himself as an amateur pastor, hack theologian, and wannabe mystic. His article summarized a book by Ivy Beckwith called Postmodern Children’s Ministry.

This is one of the most important discussions that any new church can have. It’s important that the whole community is on the same page in order to make any fundamental paradigm shift work. You see, most of us grew up in the crafts, snacks, and games model of children’s ministry and while we were entertained, we didn’t find it terribly impactful. The question has to begin with what the purpose of children’s ministry is supposed to be.

* If our purpose is to provide glorified “babysitting” for children while the adults do the “real” work of worship, then we will simply seek to keep the children occupied, whatever it takes.
* If our purpose is to entertain children because we assume that they are unable to grasp or appreciate transcendent spiritual realities, then we will seek to incorporate the snazziest programs possible in order to ensure the kids have fun.
* If our purpose is to use children’s ministry as a marketing tool for prospective parents, then our focus will be on creating the most attractive program.
* However, if our purpose is the spiritual formation of children, then we will proceed in a completely different direction. The significant question will not be, “Do we have the best program?” or “Is our program fun and exciting?” but “What does it mean for a community of faith to take seriously its responsibility to spiritually nurture its children and families?”

It takes a village to raise a child. There is wisdom in this African proverb, wisdom that shouldn’t be rejected just because Hillary Clinton once co-opted it. People are in our kids lives. As parents, ours is the dominant voice, but rarely is it the sole voice. The reason that we gather together as a church is to engage in spiritual formation, in order to be a blessing to the world. If we believe that this is something best done in the context of community, then this should apply to our children also. There needs to be a different mentality, one that begins from the nursery on up.

“The child develops more trust than mistrust when the child has trustworthy, consistent caregivers and lives in a trustworthy, consistent environment… if these things are not present in the infant’s environment, then the ability to have trusting, loving relationships with others can be severely disabled”.

Often the work that happens in the church nursery is seen as little more than baby-sitting. No wonder it’s hard to find committed volunteers! The caregivers in our church nurseries need to know that they are doing much more than helping parents. They need to understand that by loving, holding, feeding, and changing these babies, they are putting bricks in the foundation of trust these children will need in order to know and love God.

Here’s our dilemma: in order for children’s faith to become their own, they need to connect to it on their terms in their time. What we’ve seen happen entirely too often is well-intentioned coercion as we manipulate kids to make “decisions for Christ”. We ask kids, kids as young as five years old, to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives in terms of their spiritual walk. Decisions which lead to uncertainty if not rejection by their college years. Do some kids understand this, sure; so some grow into their decision, certainly. But I also recognize that I have a three and a four year old, two boys who seek my approval. I can get them to “accept Jesus” and parrot a prayer. They’ll love the attention of everyone celebrating their choice (or want the attention if they see their friend receive it) and their baptism would be a significant event. But if their decision is not their own, then their conviction will turn to doubt or will fade with age.

“I believe the time has come for churches to reconsider the overt evangelizing of children. The approaches typically used have little to no bearing on what’s actually happening in a child’s heart and mind. For the most part these tactics are manipulative, playing on the child’s emotions and desire to be accepted and loved. A faith community should never be involved in manipulating the soul of a child”. Overall, an imbalanced focus on conversion rather than transformation has the capacity to short-circuit the entire process of spiritual formation. Evangelism is not simply about one decision; it is about inheriting and embodying a way of life.

“Family is everything to a child. Family is the first place a child forms and experiences relationships. It is a child’s first experience of community. Family is where a child learns language and motor skills and where she develops her first view and understanding of the world. Family is the first place a child experiences love, intimacy, forgiveness, and physical care. Conversely, family can also be the place where a child experiences her first emotional violence, neglect, indifference, and physical hurt”. For this reason, “family is the most important arena for a child’s spiritual development and soul care” … “Instead of building children’s ministries on more and more programming, the church needs to see families as the axis of their children’s ministries. The first priority of children’s ministry ought to be supporting parents in their role as the primary spiritual nurturers of their children”

And lastly, children need to learn to be a part of something bigger than themselves. What we are trying to figure out is how to immerse kids in the constant community of the faith, trying to figure out how to incorporate them into the worship, and how to encourage the inter-generational mixing that best informs the truest aspects of community. The discipline of sitting through a meeting is good to learn. The lesson of respecting the people upfront and the people around them and listening is good to learn.

Churches often fail to recognize that “children need to be involved in processes that communicate belonging. An affective relationship with people in the faith community other than their parents and relatives is an important piece of their spiritual nurture. Children must feel they belong in their faith community as much as the a
dults do”

The child sees adults who struggle, who trust God, who make mistakes and are forgiven, who work for mercy and justice, who model kingdom values. This modeling is powerful teaching for children – more powerful for faith development than listening to a hundred Bible stories or watching a month’s worth of VeggieTales videos. Children will remember the people of the faith community and their lives more than any Bible facts they learned at a church program.

This model is especially powerful when it is manifested by someone who actively participates in children’s ministry. “What a shame that the adults in our churches can’t see the importance of connecting with the children in the community! The friendships children form with those who lead them in religious education are among the most influential relationships they will have in the community”

Here’s the thing, everyone sounds like we’re on the same page about trying to let kids be more of a part of the Sunday morning gathering. The fact that we were already on the same page should make me happy, yet I only get suspicious; like maybe we’ve overlooked something. What that means or what it may look like, we aren’t exactly sure. Though this all sounds good in theory, the problem may come in the future. Right now, we’re a few dozen families deep. As new parents with kids and teens join, they may be expecting kids programs. What we’re talking about sounds like a fairly tall order, or at least more work on the part of parents. Breaking up the church into homogenous groups is the easier route. Too often, we don’t want to put in the effort to having our kids learn to participate in worship (that’s why we bring them to Sunday School and what we expect the Sunday School teachers to teach them). We make them sit through six hours or school and programs, but we don’t make the same effort for a 30 to 45 minute sermon. Maybe we don’t value times of worship, but valuing worship won’t happen on its own and needs to be instilled in kids (as well as some adults).

The bottom line is that everyone is involved, everyone participates, even if they don’t understand every element of what is going on. Heck, adults don’t understand every element of what’s going on half the time.

Oddly enough, everyone ignored my ideas on how to calm kids down enough to sit through a gathering by having them engage in serious spiritual formation-cum-Christian pacifier through the sacramental wine: “Alright kids, extra Jesus juice today.”