A safe place to explore and express God’s love (2008)

Presented to the BIC Study Conference, November 2008

The last time we trained cell leaders, Joshua, Nate and I sat around a set of tables dragged together to make one big one, so we could eat pizza and chocolate for four hours and talk. We were in usual form. The pizza came late; a street person from the neighborhood wanted to come to the meeting; I forgot the books we were handing out to study, so I had to go get them; most people showed up even later than I did. Just a few of the 20 people present were over 30 — about half women, an Egyptian, Liberian, Filipino, a recovering addict, and several recovering evangelicals. I told them that we needed to convince them of three things to be successful: 1) there is enough love to go around, 2) it is at the heart of their dignity to be engaged with God’s redemption project, 3) our plan for multiplying cells is a good, Biblical way to extend the kingdom of God. We are not doing much that is new under the sun. But we are doing enough of what is next to seem new.

The way I interpreted my assignment today is to ponder how we have come to understand evangelism and discipleship as Brethren in Christ in the postmodern era, specifically as Circle of Hope — something quite old moving into what is new. I might have been raised to do that.

I did not have a traditional church upbringing and I tend not to understand people who have had them very well. I was a convert. As a result, I got about the best most churches have to offer – especially from the little Baptist Church to which my parents delivered me most Sundays to get my religious training. The Sunday School teachers taught me all the songs they loved from the post-civil-war era and the ones that stuck in my strangely receptive head had to do with being the light, like,

“Jesus bids us shine with a clear pure light,  

Like a little candle burning in the night.

In this world of darkness we must shine,

You in your small corner and I in mine.”

That one was definitely written just after the Civil War for a youth brigade devoted to fighting darkness. I don’t mind seeming kind of cute when I tell the truth about myself. My friends, a lot of whom are 20 or 30 years younger than me, sample music from all eras and all over the world and listen to my childhood stuff just fine, as long as it is offered with love and with a story and not given as a principle of correct singing, or something like that.

As I look back on my blessed connections with the Baptists, I realize that I was something of a prize for them. Because even though they talked a lot in church about being evangelistic, there were not many converts around. I was like the prize convert! I didn’t notice my status then, but now that I know how hard it is to lead someone into faith in Jesus who follows Him on into their fifties, I can see that they must have been quite proud of me. For some reason, I didn’t really care what they were thinking because I didn’t have that much commitment to being a Baptist or not, anyway. I sort of picked and chose among the many Christian options in my town – maybe I was the first consumeristic, postmodern Christian! One of my girlfriends was Catholic so I got that. My youth pastor went Pentecostal, so I got way into that. Calvary Chapel started when I was young, so I got into that – Greg Laurie is just a little older than I am and he got started in the town where I got my BA.

This year I got to explore the past in a major way and ponder, again, what I bring to the present. I won one of those Lilly grants and spent four months in blissful sabbatical. During that time, I had a lot of opportunity to look at my past and ponder the call I received many years ago to faith and service, and I also had time to pick and choose from among the opportunities Christians are offering for evangelism and discipleship these days, to ponder the state of the church and my place in it. It was very instructive.

Good examples from the past for today

During my sabbatical, my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the homeland of some of my heroes of the Celtic church (c. 300-700). I have always admired the missionary monks and I have always considered my self among them. One of their most transferable techniques that I try to practice is their habit of going as a community to influence whole communities. Instead of the Romanized church’s method of legalizing and imposing, they related and osmozed.

Circle of Hope is all about osmosis and is regularly considered something of a cult as a result. It is really hard to get a policy statement out of us; we make you get to know us. For hundreds of years there was a whole movement that was more familial like that, more organic, more respectful of the wisdom people brought and the innate value of a creature, human and otherwise. It was a bit anarchic, ready to move with the Spirit, ready to try “weird” stuff. We’re a bit like the Celts in that way and I like it.

As it turns out most young unbelievers are hungry for family, hysterical about nature, full of disrespect for others and themselves, into anarchy, and can’t resist anything new. Plus, they have rejected most of the Romanized ways that got built into European Christianity after Augustine and Aquinas defeated all the other theologians. The Brethren in Christ, by the way, when they are not selling off their heritage like it’s a fire sale, are weird, eclectic, and part of the radical reformation enough to be appealing, too.

I enjoyed getting a review of a good example that we’re trying to work out today. Old passions for evangelism are rarely too old to be instructive

Bad examples from the present for today

I also had time to go to some very disturbing church meetings while I was not otherwise engaged on Sundays. These meetings reminded me why I felt called to plant a church rather than fight it out for years with people who had installed ill-considered and ineffective habits into the culture of their local bodies! I mean, in particular, the worldly philosophies that dominate the evangelicals and the worn out pieties of the holiness movement that permeate what most people, believers or not, think are so-called Christian values. I thought I needed to use my golden years trying to make some disciples among the young.

For instance, while poking around churches in the U.S. I went to a Mennonite meeting. I could not totally figure it out. I thought that maybe most of the people there did not attend the meeting enough to notice who was new and who was not, so they were embarrassed to talk to me. They carefully made me feel unwelcome even when I went to the cookie time after the meeting! The whole meeting was so insular, so not-porous, so uninterested in anyone who did not already know what they were talking about that I was amazed.

Across the pond in England I dragged Gwen to umpteen renditions of evensong in the Anglican Church, because I like all that old music and ritual. Again, I was amazed. A lot of the big cathedrals were performing old stuff like bad Broadway musicals and it was wrung dry of meaning. There is no reason to do old stuff unless you do it with joy. I sat across the aisle from young tourists in York who had obviously never been to evensong, but who were slowly getting it. I could see their faces light up here and there with some understanding and appreciation. But by the time the leaders had droned on and essentially ignored what was happening with these young people, they visibly sank into a reinforced sense that church is boring. Such a tragedy! – there were less than a hundred of us there; the leaders could have pointed it all at these young men. We were there from all over the world to be Christianized and the truth was made boring and delivered without love!

Doing the word

I came back more eager than ever to do the word. That’s probably the simplistic heart of how I think we must participate in the redemption project these days. Do the word. Do it with real people right now, in real time as real people.

The word at Circle of Hope tends toward “proverbial.” I don’t really know how this got started. It was probably that we were supposed to have a “values” section to have a valid business plan to present to the people who were going to approve the generous subsidy the BIC were investing in Philadelphia. Warren Hoffman worked hard on that. The proverbial section kind of kept growing like it had a life of its own, year by year, until we had a collection of sayings that we hadn’t organized too well. Joe Snell came along and made sections with titles and I eventually wrote a book based on them. (Buy one!). A whole section of the proverbs of Circle of Hope is about doing the word.

When we do our version of who are the Brethren in Christ for our prospective covenant members, we tell people that the Brethren In Christ are doers of the word, too. They soaked up every revival movement that came along that seemed to be for doers and not hearers only and it made them who they are. We have also begun to tell the people at the meeting that we are probably about everything but Reformed in our understanding about how to follow Jesus. We are honest with people and tell them that we may not be the typical BIC, since we like a lot of Catholic and Orthodox practices, and we are pretty Pentecostal;  we ring bells, beat drums, act Celtic, or whatever, when it suits us. But we are doers of the word like the BIC.

The burnt out Reformed people often come in with a problem about “the word.” They want to be taught, and taught according to the pseudo-scientific paradigm that took over the evangelicals and started them making principles out of everything. That cave-in to a worldly philosophy allows James Dobson to somehow call lower taxes a “Biblical principle” and allows all sorts of megachurch folk to think “country first” is a spiritual aphorism. We tend to tell these Reform-influenced folks that we aren’t going to teach them any more until they do the word they have. It’s like this, “If you love the Bible so much, honor the Bible you know, then we can talk about delivering you more of the word. We are not a Bible vending machine. This is the church. It is personal. It is the body of Christ. We are filled with the Spirit. We mean it, we aren’t just talking about it. If you read the Bible, you’ll see that they mean it to. They ARE it; they are not perpetually aspiring to do it right.”

I was asked to talk about how it works, how does the church do evangelism and discipleship? Well, it does not work. God works and I mean to test that out.

Seven Ways We Attempt to Do the Word and Complete the Lord’s Work

Attempting to emulate Jesus, let me try to get at whatever I have to offer across by telling some stories about how we try to evangelize and help people mature. See if the process encourages you or stimulates you or somehow adds to what we think the BIC are doing these days to fulfill our calling. I wouldn’t say what we do works too well, but we are having some fun trying to follow the Lord’s lead with the 500 or so we have moving together in our network, so far. I think what God has made us is an interesting approach to being the church in the megalopolis in 2008. Here’s a random collection of some of the things we do.

1) We trust our Cell Leaders, especially

We have forty-eight cells now, circles of ten, among our three congregations forming one network across our region. About three/fifths of our constituency is part of a weekly cell meeting. The Coordinators of our Cell Leaders are the main leaders of our church. I am one of the nine Cell Leader Coordinators and a Cell Leader. As a Coordinator, I nurture a circle of seven cell leaders.

One of the Cell Leaders in my Coordinating Group is a junior at Delaware University. She wanted to start a cell. It is not a very practical thing to do, since she lives 38 miles away. We trust her. Another leader in my group is a South Philly social worker. His apprentice is a Center City young professional. They just started an offshoot of my cell among the high rises. We admire their audacity. These people are the main people who deliver our evangelism and discipleship, face to face. We like it to come in unprofessional packages as an expression of our community.

Since September the number of cell participants has grown by 70 people or so. But I would still say what we do “works” rather poorly. It has taken us 12 years to get from 20 to 400! But we have been stubbornly working to train real people to make authentic disciples who will still be a disciple who does the word when they pass the age-fifty mark. We don’t want to just run through a lot of people consuming our meetings – although that happens too. At least we have 48 cell leaders and their apprentices who are committed doers.

We often say we have to live in a trust system, or there is nothing to talk about. I don’t think people get our principles as much as they get who we really are. Especially in this day, people need to see Jesus in action. They just watched who-knows-how-many hours of  political commercials that they presumed were mostly lies; they were just grandly deceived about their financial system, they were lied to about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A convincing infomercial from the pastor is definitely more of the same. Most people who come to us without a personal connection go to our website to see if they can trust us before they even come to a meeting. If we didn’t have a website, they wouldn’t bother. If we don’t appear to trust each other when they arrive, how will these skeptical people learn to trust Jesus?

2. We let our Mission Teams (and cells) die and rise and die

Philadelphia is one of the major destinations for Iraqi refugees. Right now a mission team called the Refugee Team is getting going. We have a person who works with refugees professionally and she thinks we could serve and evangelize many newcomers to Philly. Everyone thinks this is a good idea, but we are still forcing Diana to come up with a team of people who care about it and will give their energy to make it happen. We don’t institute good ideas and make them live. They need a grass-roots support to exist.

For a bunch of city people, we do a lot of talking about farming. If one does not out and seed and hoe and harvest, the good idea dies. Likewise, we don’t prop up cells with no life. If a cell goes on too long without multiplying into two cells, we suggest they commit suicide. We don’t want people to visit a building where their spiritual life is stored. They need to live in the body of Christ. We don’t want them to pay a worker to do the work they think needs to be done, but are not willing to do.

So we encourage pain. The illusion of life is not life. It is risky to exercise one’s gifts in our godless environment. We want to make sure there is the possibility of failure.

3) We-ness. We ask people to take responsibility for the future, the vision.  

As part of this fabulous Lilly Grant, we had money to subsidize a weekend retreat in October for the Network to collectively discern our 2009 Map. We got to concentrate what is usually a month or more of process into three days. 90 people from all our congregations spent an intense weekend talking about our common vision. All our cells had offered some ideas with which to work. We did lots of group exercises with big charts, putting little stickers on our favorite ideas, all to come up with next year’s big five goals. The Coordinators did not have anything predigested. We acted as facilitators for listening to God.

It was very serious, very exciting. We did a victory dance together at the end, circling in a march around the room to a Lesotho song we like. Because the weekend, among other things, was another victory over individualism and isolation. The culture is making units; many people are generally anonymous, interchangeable parts, easily uprooted and transferable. 60% of the people in Center City live alone. The college students are living in hook-up culture and having sex to find connection.

To make a disciple who can love others like Jesus loves them, we have to engender another kind of culture, an alternative culture that can be felt, that one can handle, about which people can say, “Come and see.” We call the sense we want to culture “we-ness.” We want people to be fully accepted as part of us, and to feel like they make us or break us. So we try to engineer our activities so that is really true. I like it when people are astounded by our lack of perfectionism. They have always been taught to handle the church like they could easily soil it with their presence.

4) We revel in being whatever God has brought together.

This is kind of a corollary point to the last one. On the way to the discerning retreat, I passed a lot of big box stores like Target and KMart. I don’t get out much, so I forget about the strange leveling of the country — if one goes to a Lowes and they have laid it out differently, it can feel very irritating not to be able to walk to the plumbing department with a blindfold on. In that conformist environment we celebrate being unique. At the PM we often tell people, “This gathering really is who we are right now. This is it.” We are not producing someone else’s material, like another rendition of The Lion King. This is not a videogame one is running through like a rat in maze. (Many of my friends were kids when Smashing Pumpkins sang “In spite of my rage I’m just a rat in a cage.”) Our meeting is real. “If you don’t bring it, we don’t have a reason to exist at all.“

Last year, my cell group got colonized by couple of people I later found out went to Messiah College. We had a small influx of the attitude I might call “big box Christianity.” They were associated with a brand name, but they had never been on the manufacturing side. They expected good products and services but felt offended when not left to shop in relative anonymity. Fortunately, I have a former sex worker and her recovering boyfriend in my cell to balance them out. These latter two are getting married on Saturday. It has been a long process to get to the altar. Our cell met in her apartment. He lost his place to live when he was in rehab and moved in with her. This put me in a bad situation, since they were not married and there was one bedroom. They made a pact to not have sex until they were married. It is easier to get out of one’s stifling box when real discipling is happening with real people.

We love the reality of that struggle. We try to induce it. Some of our strategies are purposely disruptive so people have to solve problems together.

5) We make agreements, especially that bloody covenant

We had our fall Love Feast a couple of weeks ago. We baptized some people at the YMCA. We had a big potluck in Joshua’s unfinished rehab project for about 200 people. One of the big parts of our quarterly feast is when people tell a story about why they want to join in the covenant we keep at the heart of the church. In a commitment-phobic age, we like to promote this in-your-face moment. We like people committed to cells, to marriage, to leadership. It is a crucial element of disciple-making to give people an opportunity to be a public Christian who takes the cup from Jesus and says, “Yes I want to be part of this bloody covenant and be a blood-sister/brother with the rest of the new humanity. This is probably why we are not a mass movement.

At a Love Feast a few years ago, we made a covenant with a couple who managed to get through our screening process too fast. They already had a child but were not married, and now they were having another one. On the same weekend, they got married and wanted to make a covenant with the church. Their friends were excited by all this progress. They were encouraged that they credited the church with being a healing, centering experience for them. As soon as they made the covenant, their lives exploded into a big mess. There was violence, lying, restraining orders, revelations of mental illness.  They got their respective Cell Leaders mad at each other. She got him thrown in jail and he lost his job; so we ended up employing him. She needed food support for her kids. But we made the covenant and we stuck with it.

I think messy is a reasonable expectation of making disciples. So often people instinctively recruit non-messy types for the church because they think they’ll fit in – that’s what they call outreach. I can’t imagine why God’s strategy would include coming as a human child born in a trough unless he likes it messy. The people who are naturally messy have an easier time learning how we do mission; we have to teach the naturally neat how relate to those “born in a barn.” The covenant makes sure we are relating.

6) We let the Public Meetings be messy and real and personal

I often think our meetings are sinking into tameness until I go to other Sunday meetings, like I did last summer. Then I can see how people who are familiar with other approaches to worship and teaching might think we are inexplicable. One of our first public events in 1996 was a punk concert. I showed up late and six police cars were at the door. One of my church planting mentors, Ralph Moore, said I should “Do something that makes the church notorious.” That concert worked rather well toward that end.

I was thumbing through some pictures of the early days last week and came across a photo of Joshua Grace when he had bleached blond hair. I’d forgotten that era. I met Joshua through a mutual friend when he was in college and into different permutations of a band. He became a wonderfully experimental worship leader who had a team that was so loud I sometimes had to leave the room. At one point we got kicked out of our meeting place because a neighbor complained so often that the city enforced their sound ordinance and we came under injunction. While we were in a high school auditorium for a while, Joshua lead a worship time that reverberated so loudly that I will never forget it.

It was a bit raw. It often still is, by design. Strange people get up front. We talk back after speeches. We encourage people to get up and move around the room and often encourage them to contribute art or words that create the evening as we go along. This regularly communicates to people that they should think, “I am OK. I can enter this as I am and give what I have, or not.” I do not like to imply that anyone is supposed to be meeting up to some artificial standards. I want them to have the opportunity to be faithful to what they have been given, not to what they imagine ought to be given. We need to keep moving, not wait to start until we can do it all right. Joshua helped us make that statement. It helped even more when he became the pastor.

The Brethren in Christ used to call people to lead “out of the field.” This is a good day to be a gathering of Gideons.

7) We play with the culture

Militant Christians make enemies, not disciples. People who engage in culture wars don’t have a cross in their strategy. Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace talks about the cross as the trinity reaching out with the arms of Jesus and the Holy Spirit to embrace the enemy. The wounds of the cross are like a fissure where God breaks open to make space for lost humanity. We try to work out that redemptive love practically. We tend to embrace people and include them before they become believers and we keep embracing them when they have lost faith. So we are at home in our pluralistic culture even while we are calling people into an alternative to it. We respect it even as we undermine it — like Ryan Howard respects the Mets right before he blasts a home run. We are not an argument as much as we are a presence. We tend toward “play” as a method.

For instance, one time I was looking for a little R and B tune I could rip off for a worship song. So I somehow happened upon an artist I liked on YouTube who was singing a catchy, redundant song that had words I could tweak just a little until they became a prayer. I’d never heard of the woman. When my PM Team introduced this song, someone came over after the meeting and said, “I just heard that song in Dunkin Donuts on the way here!” I had managed to lift a Nellie Furtado song that was like the number one in Philly pop! It is a sign of respect. We don’t think Nellie is automatically the devil; she needs some love, too; she offers something. I really like the Beyonce tune I used to deliver a Psalm song, rap verse and all.

I won’t do just anything the culture does, however. For instance, when we got started, I was encouraged to make human robo-calls to a purchased list to get a constituency formed. I told my advisors that I didn’t want the people who would respond to such calls. If I culled those people out they would strangle us. I also said, like George Barna demonstrated, that I did not want to poison the evangelistic atmosphere any more than it already was by alienating all the people who felt invaded by such calls, who I suspected would be the vast majority (like me!). That’s why we invented the no call list. When we align ourselves so closely with the culture, in this case retail marketing, who are we? It is one thing to play with the culture and redeem it, but we get killed when we are it. Sometimes the Church tries to outdo it or match it. What, then, is the point of being a Christian? This is one reason we don’t work very hard to put up spectacular buildings to impress shoppers. (Since we have very little money, this is an easy thing to accomplish!). We try to keep our buildings fairly “low class” so people won’t be surprised when Jesus shows up in peasant dress.

Gearing things for the next person can be very frustrating for people who want things organized, consistent, reliable and unchanging. The next person is probably none of those things (especially if they are going to start following Jesus!) and we love them. So we are frustratingly more like this speech:

  • fluid, presuming that things are changing for the changeable as we speak
  • more than meets the eye, trusting that God is filling in the gaps
  • like the Proverbs of the Old Testament that are so random and even contradictory – one has to  think them over, chew on them, talk them through,
  • like Jesus wandering around a telling a story about a bush or a bird,
  • like James collecting his wisdom without a very good outline, repeating himself — being reasonable then furious, passionate then judgmental, personal then esoteric.

I am just trying to do the word. I figure if I do it then others think they can, too.

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