Monday, April 26, 2010

We need new soil!

It's planting season here in the Midwest. Warm temperatures and dry spells lasting several days have propelled farmers into their fields where they're spending numerous hours behind the steering wheels of their large and sophisticated pieces of equipment planting seeds in the ground.

Unlike its counterparts in the more mild regions of the world, where farming happens all year round, planting season in the Midwest seems to carry with it a strong sense of revitalization and renewal as the once frozen soil comes to life to serve as the container for growth and potential fruitfulness of the crop. And every farmer knows that the condition of the soil is what determines the quality of the crop.

For the soil to generate healthy growth and do its best work (i.e. produce a high yield) it must be healthy itself. Conditions such as too little top soil or too much water will limit the fruitfulness of the crops. At the front end of planting season, much work goes into preparing the soil to be as healthy a host as possible for the crops. Year after year, farmers begin their planting season by first tending to the condition of the soil so that it's prepared to be a healthy host come time to plant seeds.

Imagine for a moment what the crops would look like in a field that did not have its soil tilled and nourished before accepting seeds? Words like "stunted" and "unfruitful" come to my mind, don't they?

In many ways, churches in North America are a lot like unprepared soil. Sure, they started out with the right purpose - wanting to serve as a container for the growth, and fruitfulness of the seeds planted in it - but over time (sometimes just a couple years), and for whatever reason, these same churches have lost sight of that purpose and are now trying to raise crops without tending to the source of their crop's growth. Churches have fallen in love with the crop and have forgotten about the soil!

Research shows that in North America, in general, there is an inverse correlation between the number of years a church has been in existence and the number of disciple-making disciples it produces. In other words, the longer a church survives, the fewer disciple-making disciples it produces.

To combat this trend, some have argued that we simply need more new churches in the world (those with a great chance of having the right purpose in mind), and so for the last forty years, church planting programs, conferences, and resources have been developed by church planting experts to fuel a movement of church planting across North America and the world. This, I believe, is not the best approach to take as it may only perpetuate the trend of spending hundreds of millions of dollars and decades of time building long-lasting but ultimately unfruitful organizations. The policies, procedures, and strategies that have been developed over the last half a century are no longer effective today. So what should we do?

What we need, I would argue, is to create spaces within our faith communities to dream about a new kind of soil. We need to return to the questions of the soil, so to speak, and ask ourselves, "what are the essential elements we must embody as followers of Jesus to be obedient and fruitful ourselves and then help others be the same?" I have some thoughts on this but I'd like to hear yours first. What do you think? What would a healthy container for the growth and fruitfulness of Jesus-followers look like?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Missional Easter

In the weeks leading up to Easter I've been asking myself, "What does a missional Easter look like?" And for weeks, I've struggled to find a helpful image...until this past Thursday. I was reading Luke's version of Jesus' death and resurrection and was struck by the stories that immediately follow his resurrection.

As Luke shares with his readers, the disciples of Jesus were quite amped up after discovering that Jesus' tomb was empty - that he was no longer in there - and yet they didn't have any physical evidence that he had truly been resurrected. In fact they were not fully convinced themselves that he was alive again. Perhaps they were just cautiously optimistic.

One post-resurrection story on which Luke spends a significant of time is one of Jesus appearing to two of his disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, which happened to occur on the same day of his resurrection, post-Passover (Luke 24:13). While walking along the road, Jesus shows up and walks alongside Cleopas and his mate who do not recognize him. They have no clue who he is. In fact, Cleopas treats Jesus like a newcomer to the area, wondering why Jesus had not heard about all that had happened in Jerusalem in the last few days. I picture Jesus trying not to laugh in response to Cleopas' questioning. Imagine that scene for a minute: here's Jesus, who three days earlier had been arrested, beaten, ridiculed, stripped naked, and hammered to a Roman execution stake left to suffocate to death. Jesus finally surrenders his spirit (breathes his last breath) and dies. Three days later, Jesus is resurrected by the power of God and now stands in front of two of his disciples who wonder if he is aware of what just happened to Jesus in Jerusalem. If I were Jesus, my response would be something like, "Yeah, I'm fully aware of what happened." Seriously Cleopas! It's all quite humorous really. Anyway, back to the story.

As the story goes, these two disciples don't recognize Jesus until much later in the day - not until after sunset when they share a meal together - and only then are their eyes opened to who he really is. Now in the Jewish culture, the next day began when the sun went down. For example, the time after sunset that we would call Sunday night the Jewish culture would consider the start of Monday. (Read and reflect on the creation poem of Genesis 1 for more insight on this). But that is not the point I want to make here.

What I find really interesting here is that Jesus chooses to have people recognize his true resurrected self for the very first time in the midst of a post-resurrection (post-Easter) meal. The two disciples with whom Jesus shares the meal later point to the way he broke bread during the meal as the key moment for their recognition of him. One could say that it is in the post-resurrection breaking of bread, or the post-Easter sharing of a meal, that Jesus reveals himself to others.

We could dig much deeper into the post-Easter activities of Jesus, but my original question remains unanswered: what does a missional Easter look like? If living a missional life includes practicing hospitality (sharing meals), and if Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, perhaps hosting a meal on Easter (be it breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner) is the closest encounter the people you know might ever have with the resurrected Jesus.

Perhaps in the sharing of a meal - whether it be friends, neighbors, co-workers, other followers of Jesus, family, strangers or even enemies - Jesus might choose to reveal his fully alive and resurrected self to those present, some of whom might even encounter him for the very first time? If Jesus did it once, he just might do it again.