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Archive for the ‘Journey’ Category

Google’s recent firing of one of its software engineers, James Damore, has predictably stirred up a maelstrom of controversy. While the issue in question is not unrelated to evangelical debates on the role of women in the church, I instead wish to comment on the “ideological echo chamber” which Damore claims Google is guilty of.

Accompanying my prodigal return to the fold has been my (inevitable) return to biblical and theological studies. There were of course, the comfortable familiarity of “old friends” and treasured volumes that my brothers in Christ generously gave back to me.  Of course, I also naturally picked up from where I left off, delving deeper and exploring broad swathes through the contemporary terrain of academic scholarship. In particular, I have sought to escape the narrow confines of evangelicalism by intentionally engaging a diverse set of interlocutors of with viewpoints that differ from mine: feminist theologians, postmodern Continental philosophers and Orthodox patristic scholars, to cite just a few.

But then, in your typical church, questioning leadership, taking a dissenting position during a church business meeting, knowing too much, and not conforming to the church’s traditions is frowned upon and those who are guilty of such are labeled rebellious, disobedient, naysayer, troublemaker. Controversy is to be avoided at all costs and irenic dialogue is not an option. Basically, if you aren’t toeing the party line, dissenting views will be shut down. In this way, churches too operate in echo chamber mode.

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JR Woodward and Dan White, Jr., The Church as Movement: Starting and Sustaining Missional-Incarnational Communities (IVP; 2016)

During lunch a few days ago, one of my Christian colleagues shared his frustration in trying to find a suitable church home for him and his family. He was looking for a community of believers who were serious about discipleship and the pursuit of godly living. As he further shared his burden with us, I (half) jokingly said to him that it looks like he’d have to go and plant a church from scratch. At this point, when it became apparent that this might indeed be a path he may have to take by the grace of God, I suggested that he read some of the missional literature; in particular, I mentioned two books that I had read / am reading.

Earlier, I had posted a brief blurb on Michael Frost’s book, and in this post I will give an overview of The Church as Movement, which I just finished reading yesterday.

move

This theologically-grounded but practical book is divided into four sections (themes), each with two chapters, thus giving rise to 8 missional competencies:

  • Part 1: Distributing
    1. Movement Intelligence
    2. Polycentric Leadership
  • Part 2: Discipling
    1. Being Disciples
    2. Making Disciples
  • Part 3: Designing
    1. Missional Theology
    2. Ecclesial Architecture
  • Part 4: Doing
    1. Community Formation
    2. Incarnational Practices

These four sections are bookended by an Introduction and an Epilogue, and at 240 pages, this book is not a long-winded treatise, but in keeping with its subject matter, the pace is brisk without feeling rushed.

The Foreword by Alan Hirsch begins with an epigraph by business guru Peter Drucker: “People in any organization are always attached to the obsolete— the things that should have worked but did not, the things that once were productive and no longer are.” It is sad that some things are so sacrosanct that even when they become a hindrance to the advancement of the gospel or church life, Christians refuse to let go of them. As Hirsch notes, “most churches operate out of a largely obsolete understanding of the church that was developed in a completely different age and for a completely different set of cultural and social conditions— largely that of European Christendom.” Hirsch and others have proposed an alternative model of church for the new millennium, and Woodward and White have done a church a huge service in presenting this new paradigm in a fresh and appealing manner in their book. Both write as practitioners who have been through the ups and downs of planting missional-incarnational communities, so this is not a case of hopping on the missional bandwagon and spouting off theories: no, what they write is borne from the fires of failure and boots on the ground experiences. It would be apt to let the authors introduce the rationale for yet another “missional” book:

This book is an attempt to help people plant the kind of churches that reflect the viral movement of the early New Testament, fuelled by the values of tight-knit community, life-forming discipleship, locally rooted presence and boundary-crossing mission. This is “church as movement.”

At the heart of the book is a concern to return to the centrality of discipleship within a communal context. Indeed, I sighed with frustration and sadness when they write in the Introduction: “This book is best used with a group of four to twelve people. … It is important to work through this material with others, since it was designed for a group rather than to be digested alone.” Well, heck, I don’t have even three other people I know who could be part of what they call a “discipleship core”. So sad! It means that my learning from the book will be shortchanged and I will not fully benefit from the formational learning aspects (meta-learning, reflective learning, and experiential learning) that require communal participation. Sigh …

The first theme is “Distributing” which I take to be a shift from a hierarchical and centralized focus to pluriform gifts and polycentric leadership — i.e., a distributed and relational approach.  They begin by describing the Church as the “Christian-industrial complex”, at least those churches that are held up as models of success:

In our American imagination success means growing bigger, collecting more resources, consolidating power, creating strong hierarchical structures and growing rapidly.

American church leaders’ imaginations and metrics for success are increasingly shaped by the things they can count. But, as Albert Einstein said, “That which counts is often the most difficult to count.”

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Aging Biblically

Time flies. And it flies faster each year. So don’t procrastinate.

Like a game of hot potato, you should get rid of your possessions as fast as possible. Invest everything you can in the Kingdom. Your life is going to be over any minute, and you are going to regret holding on to things you weren’t able to keep.

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My wife and I had the opportunity to spend an evening at a salon hosted by a single mom at her home. The presenter was a young man (20 years old) who shared his life as an immigrant from Korea and his quest for identity and belonging. As a child of immigrant parents I can relate to his story and I also appreciated his honesty about trying to hold on to his Christian faith through it all.

We had an interesting and diverse group of people and we enjoyed the conversations over the potluck dinner. In many ways, though this was a non-Christian gathering, I felt it was as if I was in a house church meeting with the Lord’s Supper as a real meal (which it was) and everyone participating in the gathering (which was the norm). Even the children (including my youngest daughter) were part of the gathering: listening and interacting with the adults.

I wish I could experience genuine community in church as well …

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I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church. We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than at any other time in memory, and still we grow more and more divided. We want good things —justice, equality, freedom, dignity, prosperity — but the path we’ve chosen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago. We’ve broken the world into us and them, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp. We write off half the country as out-of-touch liberal elites or racist misogynist bullies. No nuance, no complexity, no humanity. Even when someone does call for empathy and understanding for the other side, the conversation nearly always devolves into a debate about who deserves more empathy. And just as I learned to do, we routinely refuse to acknowledge the flaws in our positions or the merits in our opponent’s. Compromise is anathema. We even target people on our own side when they dare to question the party line. This path has brought us cruel, sniping, deepening polarization, and even outbreaks of violence. I remember this path. It will not take us where we want to go.

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Dropping the Act

scaryclose

… we will never feel loved until we drop the act, until we’re willing to show our true selves to the people around us.

When I heard that I knew it was true. I’d spent a good bit of my life as an actor, getting people to clap—but the applause only made me want more applause. I  didn’t act in a theater or anything. I’m talking about real life. (xv)

No doubt about it, you will find many actors in your average church; people are terrified to take off their masks for fear of being judged. While Donald Miller’s latest book is about his personal journey from insecurity/isolation to intimacy and from failed relationships to freedom to be himself, much of what he writes is applicable to our relationships we have in church life.

Miller describes how he terrified he used to be of being known by others and how he felt people would only love him if he found ways to impress them. We see this played out in churches where Christians jump to serve in as many ministries as possible, in order to feel appreciated and acknowledged. I know how they feel: been there, done that. And one can’t blame them, because the alternative is that you’ll be largely invisible. So if we’re honest, more often than not, we are motivated by our desire for applause and adoration rather than for God’s glory. At the very least, the temptation is always there, for most of us are “attention addicts”.

self

Miller shares what a therapist once said to him: “when some animals feel threatened they make themselves appear bigger. She said it ‘s true with people too—they often make themselves appear better than they are in order to attract others and protect themselves from threats.” (31) What costume are you wearing to make yourself appear larger? Your job? Your wealth? Your education? Your good looks? Your biblical knowledge? Your position in church? Miller confesses that validation by others is very intoxicating. But then he “began to wonder what life would be like if I dropped the act and began to trust that being myself would be enough to get the love I needed.” (35)

We construct a false self to so others can’t see the shame we feel and we embellish that persona with all sorts of things. “Somewhere along the line I think many of us buy into a lie that we only matter if … We only matter if we are strong or smart or attractive or whatever” (56). However, “the more we hide, the harder it is to be known. And we have to be known to connect” (20). Paralyzed by the fear that we will not measure up to others’ expectations and petrified that no one will love us if they knew our true self, we continue to hide our imperfections and insecurities. But as Miller points out: “Grace only sticks to imperfections. Those who can’t accept their imperfections can’t accept grace either” (45).

“Perhaps that’s another reason true intimacy is so frightening. It’s the one thing we all want, and must give up control to get.” (98) And how do we control others? Through manipulation, which usually operates subtly. Miller identifies five categories of manipulation (104-108):

The Scorekeeper

“Whenever somebody starts keeping score in a relationship the relationship begins to die. A scorekeeper makes life feel like a contest, only there’s no way to win.”

The Judge

“When a Judge personality is religious, they’ll use the Bible to gain control of others.”

The False Hero

“The false hero manipulates by leading people to believe they have something better to offer than they do.”

The Fearmonger

“Fearmongers rule by making people suffer the consequences of insubordination. The mantra of the Fearmonger is: If you don’t submit to me I’ll make your life a living hell … Fearmongers are completely incapable of vulnerability and, as such, incapable of intimacy.”

The Flopper

“A Flopper is somebody who overdramatizes their victimhood in order to gain sympathy and attention. … Floppers assume the role of victim whenever they can.”

In a chapter entitled “The Risk of Being Careful”, Miller discusses the “roles that vulnerability and self-expression play in relationships” (138).  For most people, vulnerability is a frightening place to be, but then “How can we be loved if we are always in hiding?” (140)  So in church, for example, we put on our religious robes and pious masks and pretend we got our sh*t together. No wonder it’s so hard to find genuine fellowship with other believers. He goes on to ask, “Is there anything more toxic than the fear of being judged? Judgment shuts us down and makes us hide. It keeps us from being ourselves, which keeps us from connecting with other people.” (143) We say we believe God has accepted us in Christ but are we really living out that truth in our lives? Furthermore, we are commanded to “Therefore accept one another, just as Christ also accepted you” (Rom. 15:7; CSB).

Relationships are messy: manipulation, codependency, obsession. Intimacy and vulnerability is painful and scary because it means we have to be “naked” before each other—but we’re not comfortable removing the fig leaves we’ve covered ourselves with. Not everyone wants to be “scary close”; many people have inscribed on their foreheads “please keep your distance!”

keepback

Which leads me to the final point: ultimately our deepest longings can only be satisfied by God. But even then, that longing will not be fully satisfied here, but will have to wait until the eschaton when we will be finally and fully transformed. Miller himself discovered this as well: “I realized there was a subconscious longing in my heart that could never be resolved by another human being.” (213)

But knowing the reality of unfulfilled longing doesn’t dampen the desire for deep connection, for fulfilling friendship/fellowship and intense intimacy; and yet, the ache of that unfulfilled longing is actually for our good. For that yearning in our heart is a compass to point us Godward and a daily reminder that no substitute will satisfy.

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Your love is like radiant diamonds
Bursting inside us we cannot contain
Your love will surely come find us
Like blazing wild fires singing Your name

God of mercy sweet love of mine
I have surrendered to Your design
May this offering stretch across the skies
And these Halleluiahs be multiplied

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