Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The heart of missional living

In my attempt to keep up with all this talk about being "missional" I can't help but wonder how future generations will interpret this movement of sorts. In 50 years, will the missional movement be viewed more as one of radical service, generosity, and devotion to Jesus, or as an impotent, top-heavy, cognitive exercise that produced little more than some occasional service projects and new terminology for our lackluster ministries? I pray that it's the former, yet with all the conferences and books being produced with "missional" in their titles, I do have reservations.

Just as we teach our kids that what's popular is not always right, so too must we as missional leaders regularly ask (and be asked) if what we're doing is in alignment with the historical ministry and present guidance of Jesus. I've read and heard stories of churches simply tacking on more service opportunities to their ministries in which their already overly busy members can participate and then proclaiming themselves to be missional. Now I'm all for service, but if the pursuit of more service is an attempt to jump into the popular missional movement so as to somehow satisfy our deep desire for significance, then we need to stop and question our motivations. The missional movement at its core is not about more service. If it was, we wouldn't need God. We could simply set up shop as a charity and call ourselves missional. That's not what the missional movement is primarily about. Rather, it's about something much less noticeable at the outset.

At the core of a missional lifestyle is the difficult and deeply necessary practice of listening - listening to God, listening to others, listening to ourselves. Where some people and churches want to immediately jump into action as a demonstration of their being missional, living an intentionally missional life actually requires us as individuals and communities of faith to create space for listening to occur. Jesus demonstrates this when he is led into the wilderness for forty days at the beginning of his public ministry (Matthew 4). So too do his first followers as they wait in Jerusalem for the promised Spirit to arrive (Acts 1-2). As much as we want to go out and prove ourselves to be followers of Jesus, we must resist the urge to step out ahead of the Spirit.

There will come a time when we need to act, and act with a servant's heart. But first we must listen, not just to one another, not just to those who have gone before us, but, most importantly, to the Originator of the missional movement.

This leads us to three critical questions for missional living:
1. How are you intentionally creating space to listen?
2. How do you know if what you're hearing from God is truly God?
3. What would an obedient response to God's missional invitation look like in your context?

Following Jesus today is just as difficult as it was 2000 years ago. Doing so will require everything of you, but once you step into that journey you realize there is no one else you'd rather live your life for.

If you have a story to share about your own following of Jesus, I'd love to hear it. Please feel free to email me about it.

As you step into the world, may you go in the name of the risen Christ who will always be with you. And may you develop the habit of listening and responding to God. Perhaps you'll be surprised by what you hear.


Friday, March 19, 2010

The Issues Behind the Issues

Upon moving to a new city last summer, I sought to answer this question: what are the needs - both obvious and hidden - that God wants to meet in this community and how can I join him in doing that? To answer that question, I decided to take a tour of the city, and guess who I invited to be my tour guide? None other than one of the sergeants of our fine police department (I'll call him Sgt. Tom).

So on a recent Saturday night, Sgt. Tom and I patrolled the city. For four hours I rode in his patrol car, asking numerous questions about the city, its people, and their issues in hopes of gaining a fresh perspective on the city, my city, our city, God's city. And while I didn't participate in a high speed chase or provide back up for a drug bust, I did experience moments of great surprise.

One of those moments occurred when Sgt. Tom drove us through the parking lot of a shady motel and pointed out the issues of each person who called that motel home. One by one, he rattled off the issues as if he was reading through a class roster. "This person struggles with ____ and this one is in therapy for ______" and so on and so forth. What blew me away was not the depth or intensity of the issues he shared but that he was fully aware of the issues behind the issues! One person's drug addiction was actually a symptom of a much deeper issue in his life: his inability to find a steady job. Another person's petty theft was a direct result of her unhealthy relationships at home. What struck me about Sgt. Tom was that while he knew he had a job to protect and serve the community, he took that responsibility a step further.

Sgt. Tom's desire was to change the status quo for the community he lived in and loved. He sought to lower the level of domestic violence and see that each person who desired to work could find gainful employment. He sought to truly understand each person he encountered so as to get at the root of the destructive behaviors they were demonstrating and then provide them with an opportunity to change. It wasn't enough for him just to lock people up for the crimes they committed; he wanted to see them become changed people who changed their city, his city, our city, God's city. This is redemption.

The tour of the city opened my eyes to the issues behind the issues and I'm grateful for the opportunity Sgt. Tom provided me to learn about them. I'm now dreaming about the next steps to take so as to stop the vicious cycles of destructive behaviors that get passed down from generation to generation.

Here are two questions for you to consider:
1. Who can you connect with to learn more about your city so as to discover the issues behind the issues?
2. After learning what those issues are, what steps will you take to see change come about for the good of your city and its people?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fear and Love

In the spring of 2007 I was wrapping up my master's degree and contemplating where to go and apply everything I had learned in my studies. In my head, there was only one option for us: Michigan. My wife and I had moved from Michigan to California two years earlier so that I could go to grad school, and being familiar with the cultural landscape of the region it made a lot of sense for us to move back. We scheduled a trip to visit the community from which we came fully expecting to experience a strong tug back toward that place. As the trip neared, our excitement grew about the opportunities we would encounter and the re-connections we would make. It would be as if we went on a long vacation and now we were coming back! Everything would be the same!

As you can guess, things weren't the same. While we thoroughly enjoyed connecting with friends and visiting our favorite places, we never sensed that God was inviting us to go back there. Needless to say, this threw us for a loop as we had not considered another option. What do we do now?

Over the next several months were spent time in prayer and discussion seeking to understand two things. First, why had God not called us back to Michigan? And second, where was he inviting us to go? As the weeks turned into months we began to feel what everyone seems to feel in times of uncertainty: fear. For me, fear is like walking through a maze while blindfolded. The longer an uncomfortable situation persists the more I feel like I'll never get out of it and there's nothing I can do to get out. It's exasperating! I can't see! If only I could see then I could find my way out and put this feeling of uncertainty to rest!

One morning, after several months of what felt like wandering around aimlessly, I was sitting alone with God and asking him what he had in store for me. The response I "heard" caught me a bit off guard, but it was as clear as the ocean by the beaches of St. Petersburg (I've never been to St. Pete by the way, but I've seen the "untouched" photos). God said, "You are right where I want you to be." What? Here? In Pasadena? What could you have for us here?

My wife and I never considered living in Southern California for longer than we needed to, but now God was asking us to essentially open our eyes to all the opportunities around us to demonstrate his way of life with and among others. Why had we not considered this option before? I'll tell you why: fear! Our fear of the unknown had blinded us to what God was doing in our midst. We kept looking elsewhere, especially back to the familiar land we had come from, and realized we were not being led to those other places. God has us right where he wanted us.

Many who sincerely seek God's will in times of transition find themselves dealing with this beast called fear. And if I've learned anything from my own times of transition, it's that fear quickly fills the void when I am blind to love. I'm not talking about the romantic kind of love here, I'm talking about the love God has for me and for others which propels me to serve. Perhaps this is why we never read of Jesus being fearful. He was so confident in God's love for him and others that he could peacefully and gracefully enter any situation or setting and serve people with complete joy, openness, and freedom.

Perhaps you're in a time of transition or are wondering what purpose God might have for you and your life. If I can only say one thing to you, it would be this: God deeply loves you and thoroughly enjoys being your Father. Let that sink in for a while. After it does, I encourage you to take some time to reflect on the situations and settings you regularly find yourself in and ask, "Who can I serve in these places?" You may find that God has you right where he wants you.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The beginning of change

Change is not a foreign term for anyone who's been alive the past 2 years. President Obama's election campaign was driven by it. The air waves and cable programs have overflowed with deafening voices shouting about it. Change seems to be a constant topic of conversation, if not a constant yearning within every one of us.

If change is what we want most, then we have to ask some very difficult questions. Oftentimes, the underlying question during discussions about change is "How can we bring about change?" This is not a bad question as it points toward a desire to provide a better way of life for others. Below the surface, this question demonstrates a realization on the part of those engaged in the discussions that individuals, sub-cultures, and even whole nations are not as independent as they once thought they were. We're not alone on this planet!

With the help of those studying chaos theory, we're discovering that the actions of an individual in Wichita can have a profound effect (positive or negative) on a group of people halfway around the world. In fact I just saw a news report today about an 8 year old who is raising money to purchase much-needed school supplies for Afghan children. Think about that: an 8 year old in America improving the literacy rate for a whole region of students in Afghanistan! Amazing!

Individuals who engage in the process of serving others often share in one way or another how doing so makes them feel more alive, more human. Imagine that! Acting generously toward others actually makes us more alive! And yet these initiatives are seldom sustained and the people helped often revert to their previous lifestyle.

Change experts like Peter Senge (author of The Fifth Discipline)have proclaimed for years that true, authentic, lasting change begins with our own personal transformation. In other words, if we want to change others, we must first change ourselves. While the idea of personal transformation being the beginning of larger, societal change may be revolutionary to some, Jesus followers for centuries have pursued this journey of personal transformation. As a result, we've taken on disciplines like fasting, listening prayer, and giving to others which have developed into larger annual traditions like the season of Lent that we are in right now. These practices have brought about the transformation of many individuals over the course of a few thousand years (including myself) and they are perhaps more necessary now in our current time in human history than at any other time given the historical levels of chaos and brokenness evident around us.

Most people want to see change come about but are usually less than willing to do what is necessary to begin the change process. Tough questions stare us in the face when we talk about change, namely, "What are we willing to change about ourselves?"

As someone who has spoken with many about the process of change, there's one thing that usually prevents people from beginning their own process of personal transformation: fear. Fear is a real obstacle for most people and yet it's the one thing that Jesus reminds us not to embrace. I need to double-check this, but it's been said that the most numerous commandment from God in the Scriptures is a variation of "do not fear." If we can live without fear, what kind of change could we see come about in our lives? Beyond that, what kind of change could we see come about in our neighborhoods and in our cities, even our nations and world? Living a life without fear is possible and you can start right now.

As you consider your own process of personal change, take some time to think about who you would like to come alongside you in your journey. You can't change all by yourself. You'll need someone's encouragement and support as well as their tough (but necessary) questions to help you move forward. If you've never had a coach, I encourage you to consider getting one. I have one and it's changed my life. If you'd like to give coaching a try, feel free to contact me. I'll be glad to walk by your side during your process of change.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Ministry and planning

Ministry is not the same as strategic planning.

Having connected with hundreds of ministry leaders and served in various communities of faith for the past dozen years, it's interesting how ministry has turned into a practice of strategic planning. Attend any number of church conferences this year and you'll find that a significant percentage of the sessions are devoted to helping attendees become better strategic planners. One person's success becomes a strategic plan for hundreds or even thousands of others to seek to emulate. I call it the "Willow Creek Effect." Is that what today's ministry leaders really need? More advice from people on becoming successful? Really?

Now before your mind goes any further, let me say that there's nothing wrong with planning or from learning from others. In fact, the Proverbs of Solomon are full of insight on how to seek advice from others when making plans (Proverbs 16 is good place to start). Yet even the best of plans can be thwarted when the Spirit of God blows through town and through our churches.

With increasing frequency I'm hearing stories from ministry leaders (primarily in North America) who are putting down their conference manuals and strategic planning guides in order pursue a more simple and faithful (faith-filled?) practice of planning. Instead of immediately calling a meeting to discuss the problems staring them in the face, ministry leaders and teams are turning to God to seek his guidance. Instead of talking to one another, people are listening to God. Instead of trusting the latest book on ministry success, leaders and teams are learning to trust God by believing that his creative Spirit is actually living inside of them and is begging to reveal His unique and amazingly creative plans to them and their communities.

Out of these listening sessions are coming some powerful ministries, like the group in Wyoming who is now providing haircuts and shaves for oil field workers who otherwise wouldn't receive such care. God's not asking you to be great, just obedient. And by being obedient, you find yourself participating in ministry.

Perhaps you're in a similar situation as some of the leaders I've spoken with were - overwhelmed with meetings, bogged down by petty arguments, feeling dry and impotent in their leadership for a community of faith which was created to participate in the abundant life of our Creator God. Who can you talk to about these thoughts and feelings? How can you carve out an hour a week to listen to what God might be saying to you? What plans might God have for you and your ministry?

If you'd like for someone to come alongside you in this stage of your journey, someone who has been there himself and can understand what you're experiencing, feel free to contact me. I'd love to hear what God is saying to you.