I received some really great push back on yesterday’s post from a very dear friend. It was so good, it made me go back and rethink some things I stated yesterday. So let me clarify a few things.
First, I think community is still a critical thing all Christians need in their lives. More what I wanted to get after is that our search of community for the sake of saying “I have community” is really unhelpful for our growth. The process of formalizing deep community is actually a critical part of our growth. But when that becomes the end goal, I think we’re missing critical other portions of our faith. It is, however, still part of the critical core.
Second, we need to dismantle some myths about deep community. Deep community is NOT a “happy all the time” place. I think some of my deepest conflicts come at this point in community. When I come to deep community, I must always ask the hard questions about my willingness to both receive and give honest feedback to others. God uses community to shape me. Maybe this is Africa rubbing off on me, but I think I need others to be a whole person (my watered down definition of ubuntu).
So what is the end goal we’re after? I think something Henri Nouwen made popular in his writings, which is the core of NieuCommunities DNA, is an interweaving flow between my communion with God, my community with others, and my missional context outside. Each of these three tenets flow in and out of one another, stretching me and those I’m journeying alongside. It’s a highly complex thing for my Western mind to wrap around, but I think each of these three tenets flows into out out each other. If I take one of these elements out, I’m going to be lacking in my growth and influence.
But one thing I do want to restate… I think we put a lot of pressure on outside sources (like the local church) to produce things for our spirituality. That’s left so many people disappointed and hurt. I guess I don’t think it’s the local church’s responsibility to stuff my face with spirituality, it’s the place I go to be with other broken followers of Jesus who will become a critical part of my Christian walk… IF I LET THEM and will be willing to work… work hard… towards these things!
This series really is about providing you a window into a process that we’re on ourselves. I don’t think it’s “the answer,” is something we’re wrestling with ourselves and with those we’re serving with here.
One of the areas I work at has been quite fun lately. I’ve been working to infuse some of the Nieu Communities DNA into a local church here and have just begun working them through some of our “submerging posture” objectives. In blending us with them, I have sought to expose this congregation to various parts of the Bible that aren’t always talked about. This section on “submerging” I felt God suggest we discuss the role of the Holy Spirit in mission (which submerging is trying to get after).
In understanding the Holy Spirit, we always go to the book of Acts where we’re introduced to its role with humans. In preparation, I was reminded of a video we used earlier this year in some of our training at Nieu Communities. It was a video of Paul Ford (author of “knocking over the leadership ladder” and key proponent in the Grip Birkman testing… by the way, if you’re part of a team, you MUST check out Grip Birkman stuff. It will give you language and tools that can take you exponentially further together). In this video, Paul discusses the role of the Holy Spirit in mission as he saw it unfold in Acts chapter two. His illustration was an oreo cookie (immediately he has my attention as I run to the kitchen for a glass of cold milk for dunking).
The idea he revealed was that the first twelve verses show the power of the Holy Spirit. Verses 14-41 revealed the message of the gospel, which, in my camp, has tended to be the central part of mission. Then in verses 42-47, there is the presence of a love filled community. The power of the gospel message is sandwiched and delivered in between the shell of the Holy Spirit’s power and the love filled community. Most of the rest of Acts, this is a similar pattern we see.
Now, when it comes to mission, one thing that I’ve been notorious for neglecting is the central role the Holy Spirit has in initiating, guiding, empowering and sustaining mission. If we want to do small things, then we just go about ministry out of our own strength. But if we want to see deep and wide transformation in a city, country, continent or globe, we must learn to follow the guidance of the Spirit in the context of our love filled communities. God wants to do immeasurably more than we ever asked or imagined possible, and what I’m starting to think is that the way in which the Holy Spirit functions in mission is in the context of a love filled community that, when leaning into the Holy Spirit’s guidance, proclaims a powerful message to all.
Over the next few posts, I’d like to discuss what we’re seeing as to why each of these components is so critical for submerging into mission.
for many years of my life, i have had this nagging feeling about my “conversion experience”. i was taught in the school of bridge diagrams, argumentative apologetics… in other words: revealing the depravity of humanity and its need for salvation lest we run head first into the gates of hell. i don’t dare knock on that. i met Jesus through these models. however, i’m starting to wonder if that process has actually cheapened my walk with God.
there’s a sense that when i had my conversion experience, i was just made fine. now i could move through life knowing my eternal destination was secured. then one of my fellow discussion partners chimed in with this line, “the problem with Christians is that no one wants to kill us. we fit in nice and neat into the society around us and we don’t worry too much about calling sin ‘sin’ because we’re often caught up in it ourselves! what’s different about me than anyone else? i still lust after consumeristic things, i still go after success at the sacrifice of my family… i’m no better, and in many ways, i’m worse than everyone else!”
a better way of understanding what is happening at this moment is that i have entered into a journey of following the WAY of God. rather than saying “you’re a sinner going to hell” (thus scaring some into a decision, chasing others away, and isolating everyone), offering a wholistic system of life that God wants to renew in every human being. so then every day, i’m confronted with the things in my life God wants to restore and make new. it’s a better option for life, not a ticket out of hell!
when i experience the life of Jesus as my option, i then move into service out of gratitude for his love.
I notice this is true with kids. when i have loved Ezra well, like right after a good afternoon of backyard soccer, i can ask him to clean up just about anything, and out of gratitude, he obeys. he’s not obligated to obey (which we experience more often than we’d like), but he’s grateful for the love we just shared in and serves from that place.
i prefer gratitude out of love than gratitude out of guilt. it’s more unifying and intimate with my master.
Continuing in the introductions of “what gets us excited” to return to South Africa, I would like to introduce you to my friend Hougaard and his wife Marelie. We met them about three weeks into our time in South Africa, and our families have grown to really appreciate one another. Ezra is getting very close with their son Rolf and Keziah is possibly developing a crush on their younger son Kian (we’re really working on keeping them apart, although, being connected to their family would be pretty rad!).
We met them at 3rd Place, one of the churches we’ve connected with in our time there (blog post coming next). When we first met them, they immediately welcomed us into their home and became very dear friends of ours. It became very clear that God had crossed our paths when in sharing our stories with one another, Houg and I had very similar situations happen to us.
“When I was twelve, I had contracted spinal meningitis. It really had a major impact on my health even to this day.” As those words came out of my mouth, Houg lit up and revealed that as a young baby, he too had contracted the same disease and had gone through similar health problems. “I grew up in the church, but only in college did I really experience the presence and love of Jesus in my life”. Again, Houg resonated with my story and followed up with such an amazing declaration of our friendship.
“God knows what he’s doing bru! It’s like He just knew we needed to get together. I really think we should do more together… start a group or SOMETHING. So as soon as you guys get back, let’s talk!”
God opens doors. God brings friends to fill the void of those we left back here in the States. God is opening up things that we never even dreamed up. As you can see… there’s a lot to be excited about!
I had an interesting conversation tonight with some friends in Pretoria East. Not getting into ALL of the details of the evening, one of the things that came out was the question of why the many South Africans seem to be fleeing for brighter futures in other countries (mostly to Australia). I don’t know all of the thinking that goes on behind this, but they helped me put together a thought I had been chewing on (something I’m considering preaching on in the States in December at a church near you!)…
God, in all His splendor, saw it fit to infuse himself into the hectic world on earth in the lowliest of forms. He stripped off all of his royalty to be amongst the least of us. He brought with him the message “the kingdom is at hand… repent and take part in it!” This hope-filled message was seeping from his lips, all the while, never having a place to call home. So how shall we respond to the crises we face? Shall we flee for the preferred lives that we THINK may be across the oceans, or should we incarnate ourselves into the lowliest of places? This has implications for both my American friends and South African friends.
God has richly blessed us in less than 4 months with some incredible friendships. Today, I took the kids to our friends Hougaard and Marelie. They have two kids around the same age as ours. Rolph is a year older than Ezra, but doesn’t speak English very well. Kian is about 6 months older than Keziah, and I think may be the first real threat on my daughter (just kidding Houg). But something happened today that will be edged in my mind forever. How Ezra and Rolph have formed such a rich connection in such a short time without the use of language.
As Hougaard and I were chatting away on his back stoop, the boys came up and each in their native tongue said “we want to play in the water”. So we turned on the sprinkler and let them at it. Hougaard and I had just been speaking about the deep need for true community in our churches and how much that has been found wanting in every corner of the globe. Then we both realized how our boys had sorted things out and come to a conclusion together without any solid communication.
Then Marelie came home, shut the water off, and got the boys dry clothes. In the same way they figured out the water, they figured out the freedom of being naked and running around the backyard before she could dress them!!! Our sons spoke volumes into what it means to move so fluidly in community. There is only one thing that matters : FUN.
I think the same thing is true in Christian community. The one thing that drives us is to follow God in the way of Jesus so intimately that we cannot help but be connected to one another in deep community. I suggest that when community is broken, perhaps it can be linked back to a broken communion. I would go further to suggest that if mission is not present in our communities, perhaps it is due to a lack of both communion and community.
May we find the freedom in community that Rolph and Ezra have unlocked. May our community be so vibrant that we cannot help but mission together into the world. And may we remain so locked in communion that we cannot help but see the other two pieces just fall into place. May it be.
Last weekend, we took the kids to see “wall-e”. It was a pretty interesting film, and as do many things, it made me think of the Church. Without spoiling the bulk of the movie, the humans in the movie were living on a space ship going nowhere, all sitting on hover-float recliners and were being waited on hand and foot by robots. They literally never had to do anything for themselves, and they had no idea where they were going (and I doubt that they cared much about it either).
I wonder how our systems have actually helped to stunt mission rather than help generate it in deeper ways. How many times have we thought “if we can get our friends into our church, then they’ll hear this great information, and then things will change for them.” Or from a leadership perspective, how many of us have ever thought “if people just came to this thing at our church, then they’d start to get it.”? If we’re honest, we’ve mostly set up our churches based on this mindset! But I’m not convinced that giving people more information will actually lead to their transformation. I’m not convinced that our class systems for discipleship are ever going to draw people into a deeper understanding of what it means to follow G-d in the way of Jesus. I wonder if there’s a deeper way.
In a sense, what we’re saying with the “get people into our church” perspective is that they just need to get my notes on the matter (whatever their issues are). It suggests that the classes we offer are all there is to being a devoted Jesus follower. It takes away from the need to be known as a necessary element in my transformation. We establish the space ship not going anywhere in particular with people who are trapped in their hover-craft recliners! Please hear me… I am not knocking on the motivation of our church leaders… I’m challenging the necessity to rethink things to strengthen and beautify the bride of Christ.
So what should we do if classes or small groups aren’t the “final solution in discipleship”? I think the bigger issue here as leaders is that we help people get off their hovercraft recliners and into the lives of their friends. It’s not our duty to be the savior of the communities we live in. It’s our duty to follow G-d more deeply in the way of Jesus ourselves. It is our duty to point those we’re in relationship to do the same. It’s our duty to destroy any notion of dependency on us, and help them realize their unique ability to contribute to the larger effort… to shake them out of their recliners, pick them up and help them learn to walk again. Perhaps one day, after we’ve learned to walk again, we will learn to run. Perhaps when we begin to run, the kingdom will erupt. Perhaps this doesn’t have to be a dream I dream any longer…
I was emailing back and forth last week with a very dear friend of mine back in the States. He made the comment that he’s tired of seeing churches become routine. That really resonated with me because I’ve seen it as well. It’s so easy to get into the church schedule and start functioning roboticly week after week. Eventually, we start becoming complacent about the needs in our community (despite the best efforts of the enthusiastic preacher to spur us on), and then mission stops all together in our contexts! What’s the point then?
So then I ask, “what’s another way?” Another way involves three elements I think. These elements push me towards the main goal “FOLLOWING GOD IN THE WAY OF JESUS”. These elements are communion, community and mission. In my communion with God, I become capable of loving and serving those in my faith community. In my faith community I am known deeply, am held accountable for my communion and mission, and am called to a deeper way of living (the way of Jesus). My mission flows out of this dynamic relationship, and surrounding communities are impacted with the gospel.
How can we create space for this to happen in our current contexts?
Someone who has really helped to open my eyes to the need to rethink how we do church is Alan Hirsch. One of his lines has constantly stuck in my mind. The idea that church follows mission, NOT mission follows church.
I’ve been part of church planting for a while now and what I’ve noticed is that the methods we choose to plant are to find a target audience, set up preview services, and launch a service shortly thereafter. Now, after participating in four church plants (in various capacities) let me tell you the realities of what happens. Most of the people who come to the church are coming from other churches. These folks are bored with their old contexts, have an agenda that wouldn’t get pushed at the other church (so they hope the new one will push their agenda through), or are genuinely excited about a new mission field. But if the purpose of planting churches is to reach new people for Christ, I think we ought to consider a different way all together.
Church follows mission. If this is true, which I think it is, then wouldn’t it make more sense for a church planting team to incarnate themselves in a community, form relationships with those far from God, and as our team walks through life with our new friends, a church would be formed? I think this is a DEEPER way. I’d so much rather this be our model than to ask 100 people to leave one church to go start another one somewhere else. It just seems that true mission gets lost in the shuffle if we go this route. I know it’s a slower process on paper, but whoever saw a tree sprout up in 6 months?
Part of the process in preparing to go to South Africa has involved a deep re-evaluation of our marriage. Natalie and I have spent the last six months in counseling together with the Indiana Wesleyan Gradate school’s program. During this time, much has been revealed that I feel many who would read our blog could benefit from.
Relationships are each, individually unique. Within Natalie and my relationship, we have a sort of cycle we go through that happens because we both bring wounded-ness into our marriage. All of our arguments follow the same pattern, and instead of resolving conflict, we have a tendency to allow the cycle to be a downward spiral instead of an ending resolution. So here’s what we’re learning. We both have tendencies for how we react in conflict. Those tendencies tend to play against each others’ responses, which cause more problems (hence the downward spiral issue). Our counselors have helped us recognize each other’s tendencies for reaction in conflict, which in turn has helped us bring resolution and unity back into our marriage.
Community is no different. I not only think it’s possible to be in community with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, I think it’s necessary for our own formation. As I enter into deep relationships with other Jesus followers who are vastly different than myself, I find another piece to a puzzle of spiritual wholeness. And when I enter into conflict with one of these individuals, I grow to love them more as we become one body through true resolution.
What am I saying here? I’m saying that in the last six months, Natalie and I are beginning to see how we complete one another. In that completeness, we are becoming whole individuals. The result is that we serve more deeply and widely in the community we find ourselves in. I think there’s something to community as a cornerstone for mission. It’s in the completeness that we find in community that we become more whole and effective kingdom carriers.
May the kingdom explode because we love more deeply, we fight more efficiently, and we resolve more diligently.