I thank God for every moment of honest soul-searching I run into during my week. Probably the best thing about the last two, terrible years is they have reduced people to asking the basic question of soul-life: Who are you Lord? And who am I? In an uncertain time, we have many terrible opportunities to ask those basic questions.
I would never tell you exactly what a client said, or even a recognizable story about them. But you probably know that Black people continue to be tormented by the violence and subjugation they experience. On April 4, Patrick Lyoya was executed when he ran from a traffic stop in Grand Rapids. On May 14, 19-year-old Payton Gendron murdered 10 Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo — last week he was also indicted on 27 federal hate crimes and firearms offenses. On May 28, a hurting Jayland Walker ran away, unarmed, from a traffic stop and was shot 60 times by 13 Akron police officers. Black parents with young sons are terrified.
The Supreme Court rulings are returning the country to the divisions that started the Civil War. The main one I hear about is Roe V. Wade. A woman’s past choices are criminalized. Medical care is politicized. Husbands question wives about routine procedures following a miscarriage. People are again debating “quickening” and whether unused frozen fetuses can be destroyed (Embryo Project).
This just begins to describe the challenging times in which we live. Who am I, now that my post-pandemic church fell apart? (CT) Who am I, after the deconstructers upended our institution and grabbed power without a purpose? (Northern Architecture) Who am, I when the one percent continue to game the system (even during a pandemic!) to make record profits? (Fortune) As we ask our immediate questions, the atmosphere continues to warm.
Burned on the bulb?
All my interactions last week seemed to lead back to these fundamental questions. Now that I am this age, in this country, re-forming community, surrounded by distraught people, who are you Lord? And who am I?
The other day a group of us in the Jesus Collective were drawn into a discussion on Jesus-centered leadership. The leader loves the Mural app so we each made virtual post-it notes of leadership traits we then offered to the whole group for discussion and ordering. The process was mostly bereft of personality, dialogue and context so it ended up more like editing than revelation. It used a method which, essentially, presumes deconstruction and so requires social construction, mostly centered on words and fragments of meaning (Wiki). But it still has me thinking. It was asking an abstract question, but it again begged the basic, organic question, “Who am I as a Jesus-centered leader?”
Two of my three post-it offerings (I can’t remember the third) about a Jesus-centered leader’s traits were “at rest” and “indomitable.” I think I was mainly recalling an analogy I often make about a lion and a moth. When a lion rests in the sun, he or she has little to fear; they are secure in their place. It is good to be at rest, indomitable, like a lion in the sun. When we live in the light of God’s love and truth, we have an inner security which allows us to be at rest even when we are working hard for a troubled world. The moth, on the other hand is drawn to the light but is always beating its head against the bulb — a frantic restlessness, always seeking and never finding. It is exhausting.
A Jesus-centered leader (or anyone) is not coercive because they can’t be coerced. They are who they are in Christ. They share the Lord’s sense of “I am.” The Mural exercise easily reinforced a moth-like seeking of “what” I am, what is required of me, how do I fit in. It took some effort for someone to be “I am who I am” doing this exercise with this beloved collective.
Or relentlessly asking the right questions?
But, like I said, the process still has me thinking. It led me back to Francis of Assisi being spied upon by Brother Leo as he prayed.
About 100 years after his death this story appeared in a compilation:
Brother Leo knelt and with great reverence asked the saint: “I ask you, Father, to explain for me the words which I heard and tell me what I did not hear.” Saint Francis had a great love for Brother Leo because of his purity and his gentleness, and he said: “O Brother Little Lamb of Jesus Christ, two lights were opened for me in what you saw and heard: one, a knowledge of the Creator, and the other a knowledge of myself. When I said: ‘Who are you, Lord my God, and who am I,’ then I was in the light of contemplation in which I saw the abyss of infinite divine Goodness and the tearful depths of my own vileness. Therefore, I kept on saying: ‘Who are you, O Lord, supremely wise and supremely good and supremely merciful, that you visit me who am utterly vile, an abominable and despised little worm.’ The flame was God who was speaking to me as he spoke to Moses in a flame. (The Deeds of the Blessed St. Francis & His Companions 1328-1337)
Like a lion, Francis was “in the light of contemplation.” Who am I? I see the “abyss of infinite divine Goodness.” This is not a personal trait one can find by completing an inventory. It is reality one can experience. Who am I? I see the depths of my own self-deception and brokenness. I think being a worm, to Francis, is more about being tiny, meritless and slimy than being unlawful. But what quickly follows this wormthought is the question, “Who am I?” I am the visited one, the one to whom God speaks like in the burning bush that drew Moses into his true self and best action.
But who is God now?
In a socially constructed world, now habitually deconstructed, most questions end up answered through the lens of “me” (maybe “us”) and this moment – like the Mural exercise. But there is no true wisdom and little self-awareness if one does not know God.
Even though a lot of people are seeking to know God, God seems hard to find, these days. Many churches are just a big mess. And the church in the news looks terrible. A mentee was thrilled the other day when a man my age told him, “It is so nice that you aren’t an asshole like all the other pastors I know.” And where does one find a way for themselves, much less their grandchildren, through such an era? David Brooks calls it “some sort of prerevolutionary period — the kind of moment that often gives birth to something shocking and new.” Overwhelmed, uncertain, isolated are the characterizations someone will use to describe their circumstances almost every day in therapy.
I have the same experiences, so I have the same questions for God.
What about the future? How I knew you before won’t quite do for the next 20 years will it?
What can I trust? What we thought was certain or needed to be certain probably doesn’t matter, does it?
How do I find comfort? Our focus on ourselves is bearing its fruit, isn’t it?
We might have to stay up all night and pray, won’t we? We might have to commit months, not minutes, to build a community that matters. We might have to listen in new ways when Jesus tells us to leave it all behind and follow him. We might need to sink into the eternal now in this moment and hear God speak in the contemplative flame.
[About 7 years into my service as Circle of Hope’s pastor I offered the congregation some teaching I first heard from Janet Hagberg in 1979. It stuck with me. I happened upon this forgotten message on Rehoboam when I was searching my files for something else and thought it was worth repeating, since it is a very challenging time for leaders, inside the church and out, as so much is changing.]
You people are amazing. In our network we have 22 cell leaders and 20 apprentice cell leaders. 4 coordinators of cell leaders. A pastor. 5 PM team leaders. 2 PM facilitators. 9 Mission Team leaders. The list goes on. Lot’s of leaders. Not only is it amazing that we have found so many wonderful, gifted, willing people to lead, you follow them well, you nurture them well, you cheer them on and support them – even when they drive you crazy.
It is the being driven crazy part that we are exploring tonight. Someone wanted to know, “What do I do when my leader seems half-baked?” It is an excellent and frequently asked question. And it has lots of variations.
I’m fifty, my leader is 23, she seems to me like a cookie that was taken out of the oven after four minutes. What do I do with that?
I’ve been a believer for fifteen years; my leader has been a follower for fifteen months. He looks like a pretty loaf of bread, but the inside is doughy.
I’m working hard on my issues and repenting of my sins, the leader doesn’t know about some important issues, apparently, and I’ve heard a few too many things about his sins. Do I report them or something?
I am serious about my faith and our mission, I want to contribute time and energy to the cause, but the person in charge seems to be on a perpetual vacation and implies that I am a pain in the neck because she thinks I am being too critical of her lack of intensity. Am I being too critical or am I being criticized?
Do you recognize any of these variations? If you do, then you are not alone. And that’s why there is a lot to say about this subject. I am not going to talk about all the ways we have structured ourselves as a body to alleviate the stress of having a half-baked leader – which mainly boils down to our reliance on being a team and the accountability and nurture involved in having apprentices and being in cells. I want to answer it at the micro level : what do Ido when the leader is half-baked – which, in one way or another, may be inevitable, since we’ve all got a long journey to completeness. Jesus is the fire, but we are the oven, and you are part of that oven. If the leader is half-baked, you may have a part in his or her completion. So let’s start with you and me this time and see where we get.
The Tragedy of Rehoboam
A tragic story about a half-baked leader and what people did about him can be found in the history of Israel in 1 Kings 12. (I know how you love 1 Kings). It kind of starts with the prophet Samuel. You know that he was not too happy to be asked to give the nation a king. He liked the old way of letting God be the king and relying on prophets and judges that were raised up by the Spirit of God in them to fulfill the leadership functions necessary for the people. But Israel wanted to “go to town” like the nations around them and have a king. So Samuel anointed Saul, who turned out to be a disobedient disaster. He replaced him with David of the great heart but dysfunctional family. David was followed by the famous King Solomon, who was probably the most famous king Israel ever had, as far as being a king of note among the other kings of his age.
King Solomon, by most accounts was a great leader. He was famous for being wise. He expanded the borders of Israel and the whole nation prospered for the forty years of his rule. But there were some flaws. It seems like the more authority a person has the more important his or her flaws become.
Solomon may have had a wise beginning, and may have been very educated, but his method for solidifying his kingdom abandoned trust for God as King and relied for security on the common approach to kingdom building of the time – marriage. (Be careful about what your leaders tell you they need to do for security). Solomon filled his life with foreign-born wives, who were the guarantors of the treaties he was making with their fathers and brothers. What’s more, he let them keep their foreign ways as he moved them into the enormous new palace that he had built at the same time he built his enormous new temple for God. The simultaneous projects, tell you that something might be mixed up right there, plus, they cost the people a huge amount in taxes and conscripted labor. He was a flaming polygamist. The son who succeeded him (some people say it was his only son from all those wives, maybe he was just the oldest one) was the son of an Ammonite princess. His name was Rehoboam.
From the little we learn of him in the account, Rehoboam sounds like an insecure man who didn’t have much direct fathering or king-training. As soon as he is crowned he ruins the kingdom. His people wanted to go with him, but they had a few questions that people always ask their leaders, and Rehoboam answered all of them wrong.
12:1 Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all the Israelites had gone there to make him king. 2 When Jeroboam son of Nebat heard this (he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), he returned from Egypt. 3 So they sent for Jeroboam, and he and the whole assembly of Israel went to Rehoboam and said to him: 4 “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”
5 Rehoboam answered, “Go away for three days and then come back to me.” So the people went away. 6 Then King Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father Solomon during his lifetime. “How would you advise me to answer these people?” he asked.
7 They replied, “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.”
8 But Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him and consulted the young men who had grown up with him and were serving him. 9 He asked them, “What is your advice? How should we answer these people who say to me, `Lighten the yoke your father put on us’?”
10 The young men who had grown up with him replied, “Tell these people who have said to you, `Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter’–tell them, `My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. 11 My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.'”
12 Three days later Jeroboam and all the people returned to Rehoboam, as the king had said, “Come back to me in three days.” 13 The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, 14 he followed the advice of the young men and said, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”
15 So the king did not listen to the people, for this turn of events was from the LORD, to fulfill the word the LORD had spoken to Jeroboam son of Nebat through Ahijah the Shilonite. 16 When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king:“What share do we have in David, what part in Jesse’s son? To your tents, O Israel! Look after your own house, O David!” So the Israelites went home.
If you are a leader, of a cell, a family, a school project, an outing to the Camden Waterfront, make sure to pay attention to what the people asked Rehoboam. It really wasn’t much that he couldn’t supply if he would have relied on God.
People keep asking the same three questions.
Essentially they began with “Do you love us?”“Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”
Solomon got caught up in his own grand schemes and ended up enslaving his own people. By the time he got done people were resentful because it seemed like he cared more about himself than them.
They also asked “Can we trust you? Are you listening?” “He asked the elders, “How would you advise me to answer these people?” he asked. They replied, “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.” He did not listen to their advice. He went back to his cronies, which was like looking in the mirror. It was like these guys he’d been playing the grand prince with since he was a kid were hungry to exercise some power. When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king: “What share do we have in David, what part in Jesse’s son? To your tents, O Israel! Look after your own house, O David!” So the Israelites went home. The ten northern tribes made Jeroboam their king and Rehoboam spent the rest of his life at war trying to put the kingdom back together again. If he just would have listened to one of his father’s proverbs: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes; but he that listens to counsel is wise.” (Proverbs 12:15)
I also think they were asking “Who and what do you serve?” The historian who wrote the story in 2 Chronicles said, “Rehoboam did evil, because he prepared not his heart to seek the LORD.” (II Chronicles 12:14). People know when the leader can see a picture that is bigger than herself and her cronies. They can sense when the direction is coming from God or from one’s half-baked maturity. They can tell if you are open to understanding what is happening with the least as well as the greatest among us. They know if a certain action is about the cause or about enjoying the exercise of power or getting one’s needs met through draining the life out of one’s followers. They can tell if you serve or dominate. And that counts even if you are just taking your nieces to the mall.
There are not too many leaders who never have a Rehoboam day. If you get one that is as unbaked as he was, poor lad (although he was 41 years old!) I guess you’ll be wondering what to do. Normally, your leaders around here will be doing the best they can and not feeling like they are all that great at it. They will be serving because someone asked them or someone had to do it, not because they always had an aspiration to give their heart and time to further an extremely difficult cause for no pay, little recognition and the headache of having people ask them penetrating questions about their character. Even so, they will have half-baked days, they’ll have bad ideas and they will undoubtedly not be complete yet. What do you do?
I would take responsibility for your leader like they were your precious first-born child. When they spill the milk, do not slap them around; keep helping them to learn to hold that cup, because they will be dealing with milk again at the next meal. Don’t just leave the spilled milk there to stink, clean it up together – if they don’t want to deal with their stinking spilled milk, make them help you – and let’s go on. My conviction is that leaders are baked; they are nurtured into completeness by caring followers.
So if the leader is half-baked, for instance, they don’t love you or even God well, love them.
We have had leaders involved in some sins that became as public as their leadership. Getting drunk. Sexual sins. Major lacks of reconciliation with other leaders. And worse things will happen and may be happening right now. In the middle of that, I think our first responsibility is to love. They are having a problem, just like you and me. For instance, right now my parents are both terribly sick and might die soon. Some days I am going to act out of my grief and conflicted feelings about that. Before you decide my actions make me a bad, unholy leader, ask me some questions. When you think a leader is half-baked, talk to them, understand them. Figure out what is baked not just half-baked. They are people, so speak the truth in love to a person, not to your abstraction of what a leader ought to be or to your fantasy of what you would like or to your unfinished business with your mother or father or with the last leader who abused you. The talking will be very instructive. Talk to God about them, too. Prayer may soften your heart to love.
Please notice that I did not say, “Love them by pretending they are baked.” That will do no one any good. I did not say, “Learn to love unbaked food.” I did not say, “Turn off your brain and stop being so critical.” But I did say, “It is easy to see where someone is. And it is relatively easy to see where they ought to be. But love calls us to help them get from here to there, even if they are the leader. If everyone has to perform perfectly for you, they will either fight you or run from you because you are scary. Either way, that won’t help them lead.”
Secondly, if the leader is half-baked, they are not altogether worthy of your trust, trust them.
Naturally, you’ll have to have hope like God’s to do this. To trust the demonstrably untrustworthy is God-like. After all, isn’t it true, that God entrusts us with his own Spirit and God is relying on you and me to advance his cause of redemption? God’s is an heroic trust. I say that trust breeds trustworthiness. It is true that we give people responsibility and authority and they get too full of themselves and run people over, their natural insensitivity is heightened, they say wrong things, say things that aren’t true, they alienate people. It is true that when my son Ben uses a butcher knife I find it almost impossible to watch, but I trust him with it. And it is also true that I have been known to cut myself, as well. He needs to learn how to do that and he needs a person who loves and trusts him and who has been cut to help him learn better.
If you can’t trust your leader, you may not be trusting God enough to bear the pain of seeing someone go through life as half-baked as he sees you are. Trust God in someone else, not just what you see them doing. Trust God’s precedent, not just their track record. Don’t build a case against them, build a case for them and then help them realize their potential. Your admiration will do more to make them trustworthy than your suspicion and anxiety.
Every leader is going to make mistakes, but we need them, and we need more of them. We live in a trust system so people can gain their fullness and serve us and transform the world. If you hold back all the time, they can’t do as much, and they can’t catalyze us to reach our potential as a body. Can you see how much power mistrust can have? I used to sit in Council meetings and have elaborate discussions about what we were going to do as the church. It seemed like I would end up paying special attention to people who could always find a flaw in any argument and always cast suspicion on the process. I finally stopped listening so carefully. What I had counted as discernment was just mistrust. People wanted to move, but the mistrusters didn’t.
You’ve noticed that I’m turning around every question people always ask of leaders and asking them back at the followers. Do you love me? Can I trust you? Now, Who and what do you serve?
Serve with them
When the leader is half-baked, when you’re not sure what they are serving, serve with them.
It is hard not to serve God when you are surrounded by people determined to follow Jesus. Our leaders either have to bake or flee the oven, because we are not changing our minds. I’d say that most of the time we get the leaders we deserve. If we are apathetic we frustrate them and make them lazy and ambivalent. If we are critical we make them defensive and short-lived, and maybe even cause them to give in and serve us, rather than the Spirit of God! If we follow Jesus first and allow the leader to catalyze and steer and discern the process of the journey, they end up being very valuable to us.
It is true, Rehoboam was a bad leader. He was worse than half-baked. He didn’t love them, couldn’t trust him and he served himself and the god of his own power, and maybe some Ammonite idol his mother brought to town. But while the elders did try a little bit with him, it probably should be noted that the people didn’t love him too well, they did not have a radical trust for God in him, and they never served the cause larger than him. So they ended up with half a kingdom and civil war and eventually a whole boatload of them got carted off to Babylon. It’s not just about the leader.
I think you know that, for the most part. But someone asked the question, and it will come up again, because we are going with the people God calls out to lead us and many people have answered his call. They are shaping us, nurturing us, guiding us, and helping us make a difference in the world. If God is doing so much with the half-baked, what might he say to you if you came before him at the end with a whole plate full of fresh leaders for his people and the cause of his kingdom, baked to perfection by you and your little oven in Philly? I think the Lord would really enjoy that.
As Circle of Hope, most of us pride ourselves in generously allowing people to try out the deepest expressions of their true selves. We like supporting their good ideas and especially enjoy seeing people taking on leadership through our cells and teams. We’ve even raised all our pastors up from within our ranks to their present service!
Last week one problem with leading came to the fore. It had to do with “plowing.” I told the pastors the C.S. Lewis quote below “appealed to me because you all have the terrible and joyful task of plowing. But plowing always means the disruption of the surface so that the deeper, richer soil can be turned over. The earth should not feel violated when it is readied for multiplication, but it does. It is hard to be the ‘violators’ all day.”
Lewis is the master of the apt metaphor and the following quote from Mere Christianity is a good example of his genius. For every leader of the mission of the church, he pictures a grassy expanse, perhaps like all those huge lawns in our region for which the air-cleansing trees were sacrificed. The lawns are like all the self-chosen identities of the people the leaders serve — identities the people carefully mow and weed until they, too, resemble suburban lawns, each guarded by security cameras collecting data on intruders. The Lord which every leader of the church serves plows up those artificial interior landscapes so they can be penetrated with truth and love, and so they can bear the fruit of knowing God again. There is little doubt that most people feel the “plow” as a violation and see the wielder of the plow as a violator.
See what you think of this little gem from Mere Christianity
The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes, and precautions—to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good.” We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.
And that is what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and resown.
That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.
We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through.
He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When He said, “Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder – in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird; it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. — C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity
Mowers can become plowers
It is encouraging to see that Lewis understood, even in the 1940’s, how distracting life is. I think he could imagine, even then, how our phones would wake us up every day and start notifying us to manicure our personal lawns. He could imagine a day of “fussing and fretting” blowing into every corner of our consciousness until we could hardly be interrupted from our distractions. How sad to be stuck polishing our egg when we were meant to fly! — or stuck mowing our useless lawns when our souls were meant to sow the world with the seeds of real food and “gather fruit for eternal life.”
All Jesus followers put their hand to the plow. But the leaders, who are catalyzing our ongoing reformation, building a transformative community, and liberating our united action have a commission to handle the plow that keeps us from returning to the wilderness of an artificial, spiritually-unproductive landscape. They plow up the grass and plant a farm that grows life in Christ. They have to deal with causing the suffering they do when they stick their blade into the hardened earth of our false selves and sin. They have to deal with the alarm they cause when they tap on the shells of the birds who should be learning to fly.
I’m not sure we will every feel good about our hard earth being violated or our thin shells being penetrated. But I do think we can feel sympathetic to and thankful for our leaders: cell leaders, team leaders, congregation leaders, and church leaders, as they dare to play their vital role in catalyzing what the Spirit is doing to make us new and to redeem the world. As the writer of Hebrews teaches, when it comes to our leaders, we should “Let them [lead] with joy and not with sighing – for that would be harmful for you.” I can see how hard we make it for them sometimes. And I know they think it is hard to wake up every day with the plow right there beside the bed and all that hardening earth to face.
The pastors finished their reading of Pete Enn’s book How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News. They loved it. But one of them had to note that the Bible leads to a right-now experience of the Holy Spirit and discernment, not mere wisdom.
I visited a church on my travels last week and a similar sentiment kept rising to the surface among my friends. They want to be led by the Spirit, not just their pastor or tradition. Keeping the program running has value, but it is hard to do if the reason for doing so has become sketchy. A theology built on principles without Presence is hard to sustain.
Likewise, Hallowood Institute’s first offering on “spiritual bypass” last Saturday highlighted the tendency of Christians to find a work around when it comes to their deep healing and the difficulty of relating to God by keeping faith “in their head,” citing principles and following the program rather than opening up to the fullness of the Spirit (Ephesians 3:14-21).
Running a program is too easy
“Programming” can often be the hideout for spiritual cowards. Everyone who ever came up with a structured, even bureaucratic way to serve Jesus was NOT bad, of course. But “programming” CAN be the big temptation for people with big ideas who don’t want to bear the suffering of being personally responsible for them — that is, responsive to the Spirit, not just the manual. The main reason I cast such blanket aspersions (apart from needing to remind myself) is that I think people often put on blinders and lose sight of Jesus (even stop listening to the somewhat-rational Paul) when they commit to their program.
Why does it so often seem like making “programming” basic to following is a good idea to Christians? Why send an email rather than making the phone call? Why make an event rather than a relationship, etc.?
I’m not suggesting that scheduling things, making a plan to serve some felt need, or having a curriculum to follow, etc., etc. is always bad. Circle of Hope is a very well-planned enterprise! I’m protesting how we fill up every spare moment with an event designed to do what normal human relationships and organic connections can and should do. I’m protesting fulfilling the letter of the program’s law, rather than following the Spirit behind its genius.
Just because we went to school and got trained to create a programs to do what we should do personally and as a body doesn’t mean we should do that! Just because we train to be “experts” in charge of “things” before we love someone doesn’t mean we should exercise that training. And the big thing is: just because we don’t trust people and don’t trust the Holy Spirit, alive among us, doesn’t mean we should keep doing things designed to keep people in line and teach them what they, in our estimation, probably don’t know and keep them moving in the right direction we suspect they can’t figure out.
Is it a who or a what on which my hope stands?
I guess since we broke out into this song one night at our cell, it makes me afraid that people might rewrite it, now that we among the Circle of Hope have buildings and big ideas to fill them. Some prophetic people rewrote it to make my point:
My hope is built on oughts and rules
On principles and schedules.
Like counter-service is my grace —
A drop to each receding face.
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All others rest on sinking sand
I dare not grasp one sinking hand.
When we came up with the idea for Circle of Hope, we installed the simple thought that we wanted life to be simple. So we have two meetings a week: the cell and the public meeting. We think almost everything we need to “program” can fit into those meetings somehow. Extraordinary people may have extraordinary things to do, of course. So we wanted to leave a lot of time in the week to do them. What we didn’t want to see is the church filling up everyone’s calendar with obligatory things to do – as if the church were happening in the daily programs happening in our buildings. Daily things might happen, but it isn’t like you are supposed to be doing them to get with the program.
I think we are, basically, like this. The leaders are called to a “daily” kind of obligation to who we are and what we do that requires their time. Thank God for them! But most of us are free-range Christians. The problem is, preserving a habitat for free-range Christians is hard to do. As we get more capable, it is tempting to get real organized and programmed. We have some nice corrals all over the region, now, and it is tempting to herd everyone in all week and ride them, train them to jump over fake fences like show horses and such.
What is the basic thing Christians do?
Brave Christians love people face to face. Responsible Christians make teams. Paul says in Romans 13: Owe no one any thing, but to love one another: for one that loves another has fulfilled the law. Programming, at its worst, takes the one another out of the loving. The program does the loving. Love often gets mediated by the program. The “thing” is supposed to communicate – thus, I either don’t communicate or don’t have to. The event touches, the performances move — so I either can or do stay separate.
Not all programming is bad, of course, but you can see the temptation. It seems to me that Jesus is pretty much the anti-program. He is God coming into the moment and upending the control-system that violates his personal rule. I was going off on this subject the other day and someone quoted 1 Cor. 14:33 to me: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” They were telling me how God had ordained hierarchy and propriety and we dare not deviate. I think he had a point. But Christianity easily dies when men (in particular) order it according to their understanding and don’t think Jesus can do that himself. We are tempted to organize all those others rather than becoming one with them, suffering with them and for them. It is very easy to stand back and perversely admire a very tidy “love.”
It is the Lord among the “one another” who is the organizing force, not the program. If the life of Christ is pulsing among us, we’ll need to structure its expression. But if we just structure the idea of a pulse and expect it to fill with life, we may end up quite empty, and exhausted from all that effort, to boot.
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Do you think this old proverb is true? “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” – Winston Churchill.
I love proverbs like that one, so I don’t care how “true” it is as long as it helps us ponder something worth pondering. In this case, I think we should be pondering, “Am I making a living or making a life?” Maybe even better: “Am I making something wonderful or just getting used by someone to make their fabulous living?”
How Jesus-followers answer that second question right now is elemental to whether their church is a living organism or a demanding volunteer society, whether their church is a community with transforming power or just another inept non-profit overshadowed by the corporations that dominate the landscape. When it comes to being the church, do we rent our lives or own them? Is life in Christ about ownership or volunteering?
Ownership proverbs from passionate pastors
New churches are boldly wrestling with how to get Jesus followers to be more like members of the body of Christ and less like members of the swim club they rarely have time to visit. They are trying out proverbs on their people:
“Members have rights, Owners have responsibilities!” Pastor Matt at Good News Church made “this quick video” about it.
“Battleship vs. Cruise ship” is the title of Pastor Josh’s teaching for Redemption Church. “Ownership is not just coming and seeing what’s happening at Redemption, but being willing to come and die for the mission of connecting people to Jesus for life change!”
“Customers vs. owners “ Ed Stetzer wanted to shift the the culture in his church from passivity to activity. His problem was when new people entered the church, most of them connected to the 100 passive people instead of the 25 active. A bad situation became worse.
Sometimes it is hard to know whether these church leaders are just being critical of people who aren’t making their dreams of church glory come true or they are prophetically noting sinful behavior that will destroy the work of Jesus. I suppose it could be both.
We’re having trouble even associating!
It is not just church people who are considering what is happening with associations in society — that is, entities that require mutuality to exist, not just paying people for their labor. I’ve spent my whole life hired by such associations, so I’m interested, too! People seem to be having trouble associating themselves, period, much more “owning” an association!
The famous Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835, but people think it still has relevant observations to offer about the American character. He said, “Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.” Supposedly, when Americans want something done, they don’t ask the government or the aristocracy, they associate. That tendency purportedly made U.S. democracy strong. I’d say the church in the United States created this character trait more than the Constitution. But associating is a good trait. I am deeply involved in Circle of Hope, Circle Counseling and the Mennonite Central Committee, which are all good examples of highly effective associations
Over time this character trait has been undermined by rapacious capitalism and the ascendancy of so-called democracy over the church. Robert Putnam famously captured the trend in his book Bowling Alone in 2000. It is even more true now that less people join clubs, have dinner with the family or invite friends over. So the associations I love are really bucking the trend. Circle of Hope is founded on cell groups, which is about inviting friends over every week! My cell is, essentially, a family dinner! Nothing could be more countercultural. Plus, our church assumes everyone will eventually share a covenant relationship with the others who form it. Our covenant members are the heart of the community and its many enterprises – they own it. That’s presently odd, as far as the direction the world is going.
I wish we had more fights about whether we are volunteering for or owning the church. This would be a good proverb to ponder: Volunteers help owners do good things. Owners do good things by nature. I think that is true, and it always makes me wonder who the volunteers think they are when they share some little bit of their limited good with an association. Manuals for non-profits remind the organizers to help volunteers “feel some ownership” during the hours they contribute. They generally don’t — what do they feel?
It is good to “feel some ownership” when we volunteer. But having ownership that is in one’s thoughts and feelings rather than in one’s hands and feet is hard to sustain. Just going to church can become so boring, it is unsustainable over the long haul. If you’ve been “going to” a church for over a year and you don’t own it yet, I can’t imagine what it does to your sense of self to keep doing it! How could one possibly see themselves in 1 Corinthians 12 or Acts 2 if their association was mainly a matter of being in the Sunday meeting twice a month, having stints in a cell group and doing random acts of volunteerism?
That sounded critical; I’d rather it was prophetic. But you see what the church is up against. We should be inviting people into our home when we go to a meeting, not tentatively entering someone else’s meeting. But since most people never invite people into their home and rarely are invited, since most of our time is spent making money for someone else, it is quite a leap to act like we own the place when it comes to being the church.
It is great to give our time for the owners
Most people are over “getting stuff” (maybe because the 1% has most of it). They are convinced their 86,000 seconds a day all need to be invested wisely. Or at least they feel guilty for spending 3600 of them at a time making Netflix a reality. They want their moments to count because they only have so many — so they think. This preoccupation with how short life is helps make volunteers scarce. People are out making as much money as possible in the least amount of time so they can get as many experiences as possible to fill their seconds before they are too old to have them. They make money to get experiences [Xbox ad].
Many people have trouble believing that wasting time on volunteering is worth their precious seconds. Some people won’t even get married because relationships take so much time! So associations that depend on volunteers try to make it seem like volunteering is a great experience so someone will do it: “National Volunteer Week is…a wonderful opportunity for everybody to check out the volunteering options in their community. Proactive, hands-on service is an amazing way to meet like-minded people and give something back to your community at the same time. Whether you are looking to use your professional skills to help others, paint a school, or serve a meal at a soup kitchen, you will be able to find something to interest you!” Some people love that pitch. But many more, I think, have better ways to be self-interested.
Maybe this is a good proverb: Volunteering is a good experience. It can also extend one’s life. A few years ago, a therapist was researching how kindness affected health. He learned that volunteerism was associated with a markedly lower risk of dying. Depending on the study, the decrease in death rates ranged from 20 to 60%! This is huge. For perspective, another good example of lowering the risk of dying is the introduction of clean drinking water. After water filtration and chlorination were introduced early in the 20th century, death rates from contaminated water dropped about 15 to 20%. Volunteering should be a public health issue!
Even though volunteering is good, I still think feeling like a volunteer in your own church is unworthy of a Jesus follower and makes the Bible writers, who know they have become heirs of the kingdom of God (!), look silly. If a Jesus follower does not really believe they have an eternal life, like Jesus demonstrated when he rose from the dead, then what is the point of being a Jesus follower? Jesus followers are intimates of the King in immeasurable ways! But if volunteering is the best one can do, it is still healthier than protecting one’s time, even though that volunteer time remains the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much time the faithful have to “waste.”
It is better to give our lives because we own them
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. — Matthew 20:28
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” — John 10:17-8
The amazing restoration Jesus has brought us includes the astounding freedom to give our lives. No one can take our lives. We don’t have to buy one with our labor. We have been given it back as a free gift and we are expected to live free from our former masters.
This is the main reason we are owners of the church, not mere members of an association or volunteers in someone else’s enterprise. As good as those latter things are, they are shadows of what it means to be risen with Jesus. Like Him, we choose to serve for the joy set before us and the transformation it brings, not because we have to spend our precious time well enough to justify our existence or get what we deserve. We lay down our lives for others because it is what we are made for, not just because we’ll live longer or feel better about ourselves (although we will!).
Churchill had to convince Britain to give it all they had or the Nazis would have taken over everything. He did it for God, King and democracy, I suppose. His great success shoul have taught everyone a proverb for all time, don’t you think? — You’ve got to own your own country, not live under a Fuhrer. But immoral powermongers are hard to keep out of power, since they wake up every day with nothing to do but grab it.
In the face of our own challenges, our pastors struggle with our idealistic (and straight-from–the-Bible) vision of being the church. Like other places, our church is often colonized by consumers who admire volunteers, when who the pastors really need to lead are owners. Fortunately, our pastors have an amazing preponderance of covenant keepers expressing their ownership in cells, compassion teams and all our other teams and businesses. We are so far from going along with the present societal trends we look weird. But the need is great and the temptation to become just another seconds-of-my-minutes-counter is ever-present.
“We are called out to be a living organism, building community together in love”
Some days I wonder if we have the stuff to keep being a “we” and keep giving our lives fearlessly for the transformation of the world. Usually, those are the very days someone does something that splendidly expresses the life they were given to give with real freedom. Then I am encouraged all over again that Jesus is risen and we are a circle of hope — and a church with some radical proverbs of our own!:
The church is not a “thing” that does things; it is not a building. We are the church and we support one another as Jesus expresses himself through us.
We are living as a created organism, not creating a religious organization.
Forming cells and teams is a basic way we keep learning how to express who we are and what we do as people called into a new community in Christ.
Good leaders are in short supply. You don’t need an expert to tell you that, but they can tell you that. Our church has great leaders; I hope yours does, too. But to keep up with Jesus, we need to work with him to make more leaders in 2019. How do you think we are going to do with that?
Let’s dispel one misconception right at the start. When people talk about creating more leaders, a natural response is, “If everyone becomes a leader, who is left to follow?” [Dean Martin asked a similar question]. It’s true, if everyone is fighting their way into the top position, the endless power struggle will create a terrible organization (and those exist). That would definitely be “too many leaders, not enough followers.” But in the church, I think we usually have the opposite problem. A lot of people give their ambition at the office and would rather someone else lead the church, even if they are the best one to do it! Plus, I think people really care about what Jesus says, and they would just rather quietly serve than deal with the issues that come with works of power at all.
Anyway you look at it, Jesus was making leaders and He still is. He is the epitome of the great leader we would like to be. He is not against power; he exercises a miraculous amount of it! If you clicked the two links in the last paragraph, I think you’ll see, with me, that we are taught that leaders are always followers, but followers should be ready to lead when they are needed. Everyone has the power of the Spirit and we are responsible to use it humbly.
The best leaders are elevated followers who have learned by serving their master, Jesus. So let’s not worry about creating too many leaders. Jesus followers are not climbing over one another to be the leader of the church; they gave up such pursuits when they responded to the call to follow Jesus and live a new life. Let’s call out the leadership in one another in 2019 and find the faithful, available and teachable servants who can lead our cells, teams and further congregations and, as a result, lead the world out of the mess it is in.
Here are four suggestions for how to think about leading and how to apply what we know.
Leadership is a role, not right
Eurocentric people have been debating the “divine right” of the leader to rule for centuries. The revolutions in the 1700’s put an end to that for kings. But humanity just gave the “divine” part to “the people” who gave the elected parties the “right” to rule. Recent presidents take that right rather absolutely, don’t they? And if you work for a boss, you may feel their absolute authority acutely. Some corporations have a “god” upstairs somewhere who can deliver prosperity or poverty with a word. This situation is one we are used to so we think it is normal. So when people enter the alternative society of the church, they often assume the same thing is going to happen: there is some king or some secret cabal running things and not them. And plenty of church leaders see an opportunity to get their divine rule on and get carried away trying to be powerful. We could talk about this for a long time, and should.
For 2019, however, why don’t you help someone take the role of leader and help them with the weird power dynamics it creates? It will be challenging for them if people think the church leader is exercising a right or an identity. They will suddenly become this strange person — like one day Rachel was your buddy, now she’s the pastor and you need to treat her like some “thing” that is not like you anymore. Let’s keep our heads on straight; all our leaders are still like us. We give them a role to exercise in the church because they can do it and we need them. They are elevated in our structure and given power to act, but they still have the same kind of issues we do. Imagine yourself being a leader! Ouch! It is a joy to serve, but there are a lot of things people need to figure out on their way to being a good one.
Leadership is a duty not just a delight
Some leaders honestly feel about leading like Freddie Mercury felt about singing. When they can lead, they are in their sweet spot. Good for them! But I still think the most effective leaders in the church feel like they are answering a call, not considering whether they are following their bliss. The see the necessity, or the opportunity, or the emergency and they decide to act on behalf of the mission of Jesus to transform the world. They were not sitting by their Christmas tree one day scrolling through their Ipad and said, “I think I will lead the church. That would make me feel good.” Maybe someone has done that, but I have never met them yet. Most of the time, like when a cell multiplies, the most obvious person becomes the next leader. They may have never thought about leading a cell until it becomes obvious to everyone that they should be deployed.
I know I was pretty shocked when it became obvious that I was a pastor, way back when. That was NOT what I had in mind. But, to be honest, I had a lot of trash in mind that would certainly have been a lot worse, so I am delighted. It has been a lot of fun to follow Jesus in my role. So, in 2019, why don’t you be delighted in someone who is doing their duty? We can make it hard on someone or we can make it delightful to have such followers. Yes, they will do their duty wrong, but you will probably do your following wrong, too, won’t you? So we will need to work it out — and it is given to us to do that.
Leadership is a gift to you and from you
I am glad we are still talking about spiritual gifts in our church. Leadership is one of them, in several forms, when you look through the lists in the New Testament. The lists make it obvious that we don’t need as many leaders as we need other gifted people to make a whole church. There will always be many more followers than leaders at any given moment, even though any of us might be gifted to lead when it is necessary. The idea of spiritual gifts implies, however, that a few people are usually gifted to lead and we should honor the work of the Spirit in their lives. We also need to honor their difficulties, since each one of us has our own difficulties discerning and exercising our gifts. We have a hard enough time having confidence that the Spirit of God even cares enough about us to lead us! Most leaders feel like that, too.
So the leader gives the gifts of leading and we give them back the gift of following. It is all gift with us and God, just so Christians worked gift-giving into the Christmas celebration of God’s self-giving love in Jesus. So in 2019, why don’t we give our leaders, new and next, the gift of their leadership? Help them do their work; don’t make them beg, as if they were just dying to see if you would follow them. It is our responsibility to make good leaders. They have no more innate value than the rest of us Spirit-bearers. But they are crucial for our life together to work well. If they have the gifts, we want to receive them!
It is your church, not theirs
Some members of our Leadership Team have been frustrated when our church did not work like their business or agency (or their ideal of how they work). They regularly experience hierarchical modes of leading where a boss (or HR policy) has the power to take away someone’s money and give them a bad resume. As a result, people show up on time and do what they are supposed to do. They wish they could fire some church people!
I tell them, quite often, since I had to learn it too, that the church is more on the family side of life, not the corporate — thank God! But that means people are more likely to act like they do in their families and the leaders are more like parents than bosses. This can be lovely, since we all could use some re-parenting and we are brothers and sisters in Christ. But it also means that people refuse to pick up their blocks, are rival siblings, and feel intense symbolic feelings about things the leader thought were minor. It is terribly easy to act like an infant instead of being elevated to parent! Like Paul had to convince people: we used to be children, but now we are heirs of the kingdom of God [Paul’s great Advent passage].
So, in 2019, why don’t we refuse to exercise the luxury of reacting like we are children while the only adults in the room are our overworked leaders? And, by the way, how about helping our own relatives with the holiday celebrations rather than showing up late with a six pack? If your mom doesn’t want you to do the dishes for her because you do them so poorly, how about doing them with her and finally learning what you missed while you were avoiding things? We’re the church. It is not the leader’s church, as if she is supposed to get you to clean your room as her vocation! We are all “heirs according to the promise.” If we don’t act like that, no leader can save us. They’ll probably burn out or move on and our community will deteriorate into something that barely looks like Jesus lives there at all.
The subject of making a leader is a bit more than this blog post can chew, I think. But I was looking into 2019, when the leadership of the United States is going to show more of its true colors. Who would want to be a leader in such a mess? Not me. But I was also looking at our resilient, intense church, and was downright excited about what we might become. I think we are uniquely gifted and well–situated to offering the alternative the region needs, as the church always is, especially now. If you are a leader in some way among us or wherever God has placed you, thanks and don’t give up! If you are making a leader and can be inspired to keep at it in 2019, thanks and don’t give up!
Memories are like the Mouse King in Disney’s new Nutcracker. A lot of little memories often come together to form very powerful big ones. One of the advantages of being over 40, or so, is that you have enough little memories to shape big responses to the challenges of the day. At least that is what it felt like the other day when I was reminiscing about how I learned about “moving the ball.”
In high school I played football. I know I am not supposed to approve of football, since it is a concussion factory and intrinsically too violent for peacemaking types. But, looking back, I really enjoyed my youthful collaboration in body-crunching. Even more useful, I learned a lot from those days about how to be a team, not least of all because we were a terrible team – and sometimes failure is a great teacher.
The big, instructive memory I’m talking about is about a time we were actually winning, I think, and Ron Herman was especially psychopathic. Unlike Ron, I was a rather mild-mannered football player, which never pleased my ex-Marine coaches — but I was efficient, determined and could remember the plays, so I got to play first string. Ron Herman, on the other hand, was a coach’s dream — a weightlifting, maniacal ball of energy at linebacker. I am not sure what happened to me; I think I got clipped after the whistle. Regardless, I became the center of a brawl on the field and was not faring well in the fight. I was having some kind of dazed reaction to a much bigger lineman who was coming at me. Then, from out of nowhere, Ron came at the brute like a smart bomb and took the guy out – laid him flat and then ran around him with his fists up like Rocky. My memory plays the impact in slow motion and I still enjoy seeing the enemy fall. (Sorry Jesus, but that’s the truth).
That moment contains a lesson about being a team I have not forgotten. It is: Some team mates are just better. Ron was a LOT better at football than I was. He had the strength and attitude and gleeful malice to be a force on the field. We needed him. I was scared of him off the field, but I was glad to have him on my side, watching over me (for some reason) on the field. Unlike him, I had a hard time just completing my small assignment on a given play, but Ron was seeing and wandering the whole field, improvising actions that would move the ball.
We are a big team
Memories of football came up because I was discussing Circle of Hope with a partner and we needed a good metaphor. Football worked. For one thing, like in football we, as a church, feel the urge to make a lot of “touchdowns” and we are disappointed when we don’t. Even more important, we are a big “team,” made up of many smaller teams, which contain many marginally clever individuals, for the most part — though we do have our Ron Hermans, thank God!. You see how well the analogy works? Church works a lot like a football team, if it works at all. How we perfect being a team is our greatest asset. But it is always our greatest challenge, too.
I learned a lot about being a team by being part of a terrible football team. I have learned a lot more by being part of the miraculous Circle of Hope. Who we are and what we do is so unique, so great, that we yearn for about a 1000 more people to join in the cause — seriously, that’s the touchdown we’re shooting for. If our congregations all expanded to their optimum size and we added a 1000 more people that would make us about .03% of the metro population — not really that much to shoot for, right? It will take good team work from our pastors and leadership team at the center, and good team work clear to far reaches of our constituency to “win” that “game.” We’ll have to move the ball.
At this point, I have enough memories stored up to think I can say three big things about how to move the ball that direction. Actually I guess I have already mentioned two. Maybe they are all pretty obvious. But here goes. To be a good team that makes it to the goal:
Keep the ball moving
When the Eagles don’t convert their third down and get a new set of downs, you can hear a palpable groan ripple through the stadium (like last night!). The other day a caller into sports radio said, “I just want a couple of players who can move the ball.” I yelled back at the radio (which I sometimes do), “And what else would you want?” Momentum is obviously the key to getting somewhere.
In high school football and the church, confidence is the key. As a church, we need enough people who think working with Jesus is just the best and only thing worth doing in order to keep our team rolling. In high school, our bench was full of anxious guys who weren’t so sure they wanted the coach to put them in. They got enough stuff out of just wearing the uniform, but they weren’t sure they were quite up to playing. The guard who played next to me, on the other hand, was well known for having the dirtiest uniform on the team after a game. Those kind of players keep their cell multiplying, the money coming in, the events excellent, the ideas coming to fruit. And if things aren’t moving, they can feel it and do something about it.
Admire the great players
Being a good team does not mean everyone is the same or what they do has the same value or weight. It means everyone is valued for what they bring right now with the hope that they will get to be better and better players. Regardless of whether you are good or not, we need whatever you have at the moment to make a good team. When Eddie Velasquez walked around school after a game, I wouldn’t even talk to him when I was a freshman. I had just watched him break through the line and run for a touchdown, moving like the wind, as far as I was concerned. I admired him so much I didn’t think he’d want to talk to me.
Now that I look back, I regret how seldom our really great “players” in the church get the admiration they deserve. They are so humble and Christians are so shockingly stingy with their praise (lest someone lose their humility under the pressure of their affirmation, I guess) that we tend to nurture the mediocre and hamstring the creative. I don’t think our church has the worst case of that disease, by any means, but sometimes we hitch thoroughbreds to plows just because they will plow, when they should fly.
Do the best you can with what you’ve got
We did not succeed much as a football team, so our task was more about making something from nothing, like feeding 5000 with a few loaves and two fish. I admit I often felt successful if I did not make a complete fool of myself while my dad trained his binoculars on me. Now that I look back, I think that hanging in there, even when you don’t feel like you are that great, is a lot more OK than I thought it was then. As it turns out, even an hour of bad football is a decent training session. It was preparing me for the long haul of following Jesus as a member of the body of Christ. Churches full of inadequate, even terrible Christians have been moving the ball for centuries, now. That’s the huge way we are NOT like a football team.
When the ex-Marines were getting our team into shape. They wanted us to run a six minute mile in our equipment. Needless to say, the tackles regularly failed to achieve that goal. Don Lancet, for one, was always last. He was just too fat and out of shape. But he was big. So when he got in the game, just falling in front of people often proved effective. Our quarterback was short and indecisive. But he was afraid to fail and managed to make plays out of his messes. Our fleet running back was sent to jail, so the coaches platooned the second, third and fourth stringers. It does not matter how we get there. It matters that we keep moving and use all the gifts we’ve received to make the biggest difference we can make together.
Keep your eyes on the first down which leads to the goal
It is depressing when you are an ineffective team on your own 30 yard line looking way down field at the goal post. There are going to be Ron Hermans who have a vision for winning the game – admire them as they are yelling at you to play harder! (And wake up and play harder!) Thank God for the leaders, because most of us will have to rely on their vision, since we are doing well just to line up and run the next play.
Most of us will content ourselves with gaining the most yards we can on the way to a first down. A touchdown may feel like a lot to ask. I think that is OK. Because, over time, the little things count even more than the big plays for the vast majority of us. Yard by yard, we move the ball. The body of Christ is also like the Mouse King — a compilation of all our small efforts in service to our profound memories of grace and the promises they speak to us. We’re all about a long obedience in the same direction, not just memorable video clips of the best plays.
I think my varsity team won two games in two seasons. But the real value of the experience was not lost on me. I think I even have my letterman’s sweater stored someplace. I never really qualified as a jock, but I was proud that I was successful enough to letter. I was part of the team – that terrible team. At this point, the terrible is not as important as being a part. My usually critical parents were delighted to see me out there in uniform doing something. I kind of blew off their admiration when I was a teenager. But now that I look back, like in so many things, I can see why those 40somethings were happy I would have a few memories to mull over.
When we tell people they should leave behind their precious memories of church and move into the future, we don’t mean that their former churches were all bad or that they should not remember them. As you can see, even if their churches were terrible, I think they could learn a lot from them. What our proverb means is that we need to deliberately grow from our past experiences, not sit in them the rest of our lives like my poor friend Phil, who never once got his uniform dirty the whole season. The coach knew he just wasn’t going to play.
At the end of this list, it seems like most of my ideas kind of run together; they are even a bit repetitive. Maybe that’s the nature of team sports and the nature of being a community in mission – everything kind of works together. It is not so important to define and understand how all the parts work, or even to individually excel at our part. It is more important to get up for each play, all of us doing it again with all we’ve got, and advance the ball as far as we can before the buzzer sounds. That keeps us in contention. And there is a lot with which to contend, isn’t there?
In 1997, about the time Circle of Hope hired Gerry West to help with music, a couple of ethnographic filmmakers followed a theater group through Papua New Guinea who were hired to be “advertising missionaries.” We once had an IVEP person connect with Circle of Hope from Papua, so that makes the film even more interesting [about IVEP].
Back then in Papua New Guinea, three quarters of the population could not be reached by the regular advertising mediums of television, radio or print. “The market” had to be developed by other means. Small theater groups traveled to remote places performing soap operas devised around advertising messages for a variety of products. They were missionaries sent to bring the consumer revolution to the people of the highlands. They would unfold a set on the back of a flat-bed truck, portraying a modern Western living-room where the advantages of Coca-Cola, Colgate, clothing, canned food, and washing powder were touted. The film observes the impact of the advertising theater on a previously “untouched” village in the remote valley of Yaluba. The change is sometimes comic, but, to my Western eyes, mostly tragic as the natives are converted to the religion of consumer capitalism.
There are reasons we are a well-kept secret
From the beginning, Circle of Hope has had a bad relationship with advertising, since the whole language seems tainted by another religion. As a result, we might be one of the best kept secrets in town. People who find us are consistently relieved to have done so. But they often say, “Why have I never heard about you before now?” One of the reasons is that many of us feel if we tell someone about Jesus or about what His church is doing, it sounds like advertising and advertising is, essentially, evil. Does that make us a very holy group?
Maybe your church feels a similar ambivalence or outright resistance. I was talking to one of Dan’s friends at his wedding last weekend and he said he dabbled in a big Baptist church in Jersey. His take was that people came to it because the church had a bang-up “living nativity” every year. I imagine many in our church and maybe yours would consider that unholy, if not embarrassing, advertising.
So the evil advertisers have shut many of us up. We don’t want to seem like them so we just don’t say anything. That reaction sounds like something right out of Screwtape Letters: “The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.” We want to open our mouths because we love Jesus and we think our church is a miracle. But we dare not sound like we are advertising. So we get in the habit of never speaking. Then we become numb to the feeling that people really need to hear from us.
This might sound far-fetched. But I know aversion to advertising is a strong sentiment among us because I have often been in charge of the limited advertising the church does. Many people are extremely sensitive about how we look to the stranger they imagine who receives our mailings or sees our website. They are afraid those unsuspecting people are going to feel invaded by some lame thing from a church and think Jesus is lame (or themselves, of course). They have a reason to fear, since so many churches, especially the big ones with live nativities in the front yard, speak advertising like their native language and turn off as many people as they turn on by their collusion with consumer capitalism —something like this, maybe.
Can we learn the language spoken in our mission field?
Lately, some of our leaders did some thinking about this and decided we needed to take some risks to make some new relationships. We need to have “advertising” as a second or third language. While our main language will always be spoken face to face, which has been the main way we grew to nearly 700 people, we think that among the nearly 7 million people in the metro there are many more people who would like to meet us. So we want to learn to speak their language better. Right now they might speak advertising better than English, for the most part. So we at least want to dip our toes in that water. We think we can get better at representing Jesus and our vision in all sorts of ways that won’t bring shame on the Lord or embarrass the sensitive hearts among us. A key distinction between the world’s advertising and ours is that ours is a result of being constrained by God’s love. We advertise because we are already compelled. It remains to be seen if that love can get through to people in spite of the medium of marketing in the U.S.
This is what we think we are doing with the medium, which is quite different than the hucksters in New Guinea trying to get villagers to drink warm Coke. For us, any advertising we do…
is a hand of friendship to people who respond to advertising.
is an opportunity – for the Holy Spirit to move and for unchurched to change. Each way of connecting can be used by the Spirit beyond our strategy or control.
is a way to shape perception. We want people to see Jesus and the church favorably.
We cannot “clever” people into the kingdom of God. Our best advertising is the love we have for one another, the open confession and forgiveness of our sins and the compassion we show to those in need – the fruit of the Spirit. If any of our demonstrations can do it, these everyday miracles can awaken the desire in unchurched people to know Jesus and become part of the Christian community. Advertising in itself doesn’t make the body of Christ happen. It is a way to be found by people who are looking. Our goal is not, “Let’s have really good marketing.” Our goal is, “Let’s show people Jesus and what he is doing in our church.” Advertising simply reveals what is already happening. If nothing is happening, there is nothing advertising can do to fix that!
A lot of us among the Circle of Hope are listing all the ways Joshua Grace has been a great servant to us as our pastor. His resignation marks a brand new day, in many ways, since he has been a fixture for twenty years and our pastor for nearly fifteen years. No one could replace him. We’re glad we won’t have to do that, since we expect him back after four months of personal reconstruction starting in October.
The old beginning
I have a lot to say about Joshua’s gifts and contributions: musician, maverick, imagineer, innovator, justice-seeker and jock. I have been there for the whole journey and am glad for the honor.
But I don’t want to seem like I’m summing up a subject many are working on. So let me start with the beginning and stay there.
I don’t have a great memory, but I do remember some of my first days relating to Joshua. He resembled this picture above much of the time. A bike messenger, and musician ready to give worship the Nine Digit Number influence, and a man who was very young to have the amount of insight he had about how to plant a church. By the time we were doing our second attempt at congregation multiplication, the leaders passed over a number of good candidates to appoint Joshua as one of the youngest pastors ever. Here he is being launched one time:
Why this responsibility did not kill him remains to be seen (one of his fans will probably write an article). But instead of killing him, it motivated him to pick up a sledge and make a meeting spot for Circle of Hope “East.” I had fun being something of an odd couple with him at times and had loads of relating as the pastor team for years as we lost and added mates. I think he had fun too.
The new beginning
I won’t go through the whole history and prove to you how I admire Joshua Grace. Let me stick with the beginning, namely: the beginning that he is experiencing now.
Cell leaders lead and then they don’t for a while. Same with the other leaders of our movement. We’re flexible like that and really try to understand that our leaders are part of an organic/spiritual process, not merely on a career path. So in the last few years, we have been strangely flexible with our pastors. We transferred Nate to Director of Operations and Ben stepped in for Marlton Pike. I soon followed with a transitional role as Development Pastor and Rachel stepped up for South Broad. Julie was called out of an apprentice pastor process and became the pastor for Ridge Ave. Now we have consolidated North Broad and Frankford Ave. to form a healthier congregation we can afford, led by Jonny. We’re flexible.
We’re flexible enough to let Joshua change and grow and remain our loved one in covenant for as long as the Lord desires. Joshua is brave to decide to do this, since no one knows how such a shift might work for him. We’re brave to allow it, because we all have to change because he is changing. But we’re connected and we have the strength to work these things out.
At the bon voyage party there will probably be more stories and pictures. I hope he can take in all the good will. It is not easy to change. I plan to be around to do what I can for my good friend, my long-term partner in alternativity, and one of God’s favorite Drexel students ever, no doubt. I think good things are about to begin. God bless you in them, brother.
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