Archive for the ‘church planting’ Category

“you know not how”

John Piper and I don’t agree on everything theologically, but man do I love what he said at a recent conference at his church. He is speaking truth, and those of us in kingdom work had better listen closely.

Let me just give one last counsel or piece of advice. This comes right off of my devotions from this morning. I was reading in Mark 4 (vs. 26-27), where it says, ‘The kingdom of heaven is as if a man should sow seed on the ground. And then he sleeps and wakes, night and day. And the seed grows and sprouts. He knows not how.’

And my closing exhortation negatively is you don’t know how to grow the kingdom of God. Beware of conferences. Beware of books. Beware of seminars that tell you how to plant the church. You don’t know how to plant the church. The bible says you cannot know this. This is God’s doing. It is mysterious, it is deep, it is awesome. You go to bed at night. You get up in the morning. You sow your seed. And it sprouts. You know not how.

Watch the video of his talk in its entirety here.

kingdom

From time to time I get an update from a new ministry or church plant in Boston or elsewhere, and inevitably the update includes the line, “God continues to bless our work/efforts/plans.” Though I readily acknowledge that God’s promises are true — he blesses those who put their trust in Him &emdash; I’ve always been a little bit uncomfortable with the kind of language that makes humans the primary actors and God’s primary role the blesser of our actions.

In my experience, church planters and missionaries have often fallen into this trap. We rarely enter into a mission field searching for “God at work,” but instead carry the assumption that “God will be at work in this context through a church that looks like _______.” Furthermore, we carry into the mission field a preconception of what a church will look like in that context, and it quickly becomes our main objective to achieve that. It doesn’t matter if we’re looking to see people gather in buildings, houses, parks, under overpasses, or in coffee shops … we are susceptible to making mission about our work instead of God’s. (interesting … my assumption with that last sentence is that our primary intention should be to “gather” people together. not necessarily wrong to do, but could there be other pathways?)

I think the solution to falling into the “our work” trap is always elevating the Kingdom of God. The reign of God. God’s work in the world, wherever that might be. Could God show up in the midst of a rag-tag bunch of teenagers organizing an environmental festival? You bet. He did. Could God be present on a grocery shopping trip with a single mom and her two young kids? Yup. He did. Could God show up in the midst of believers gathering to exalt Him and fellowship together on a Sunday morning or Tuesday night or Friday lunch? Sure can, and again, He does all the time.

God’s work in this world never ends. It’s not like the question about the tree falling in the forest when no one’s around. God’s reign continues to break in around this world — in the most unlikely places and through the most unlikely people — whether or not we recognize or join it.

But it is our joy to join the work of our Creator as he continues to unveil his masterpiece. And it is God’s delight to watch his kingdom break in among His people, people who have put their complete trust in Him.

Here’s the funny thing: we’re learning more about this concept from single moms and rag-tag teenagers than we ever did from books or theology classes or sermons.

the challenges of traditional church in my neighborhood

As we spend more and more time in our new Boston neighborhood — in people’s homes or chatting in the park — we become even more convicted that the modes of evangelism that “worked” in the Bible Belt are moot on our block. (I’m growing more and more convinced that modes of evangelism that “work” in the Bible Belt — mainly the “if we build it, then they’ll come” model — have worn out their welcome even in the Bible Belt, but that’s a different post…)

One of the main reasons is the sheer diversity that exists in East Boston. There are over 56 nationalities that people in our zip code are a part of, and they speak over 20 languages. That’s one zip code in Boston.

As I asked in a post a few days ago, do we believe that God cares about the people of Boston — and the world — infinitely more than we do? Mateo correctly pointed out in the comments section a few days ago that though we often give this idea lip service, we seldom live it out. We rely too heavily on our own methodology or pragmatism. But Revelation paints a beautiful picture of a banquet at the end of time at which “every tribe, tongue, and nation” are represented at the banquet table of the Lord. This means every diverse people group from every socio-economic bracket imagineable. Not just “postmoderns” or college-aged or White Anglo-Saxon Protestants or African Americans — the Afghan, Argentine, Spanish, and Ukrainian children of God will be present as well.

Do our current church planting/evangelism methods account for this great diversity of God’s children, many of whom live right around us?

We’ve been asking the question, “What would it take to see a vibrant family of Jesus in close reach — culturally and geographically — of every person in East Boston?” Well, for one, we need someone who speaks Khmer, the native language of the Khmer people in Cambodia, to communicate the gospel in that dialect while modeling the Way of Jesus in a culturally relevant form (there are 36 people in my zip code who put Khmer as their “language spoken at home”). And what about the 10,319 people (in 2000, mind you) in my zip code who speak Spanish at home? (from experience, most of these people speak Spanish when they’re not at home as well) And who is considering how the hundreds of Islamic people in my zip code will not simply accept a proposition about the existence and divinity of Jesus Christ, but will follow Him?

Believing that God will use us to reach a cornucopia of people besides the WASP types we’ve grown up knowing means recognizing that our limited methods and strategies are just that — limited. Can just one church reach all 56 people groups in East Boston? Can 10 churches? Can 100 churches? Well, if we redefine what “church” means, then maybe. If “church” means “radical followers of Jesus hearing their master’s voice and following His lead,” then watch out. This will take us among the East Bostonians from Greece, Guatemala, and Guyana, and to those speaking Polish, Portuguese and Persian. We will begin to incarnate the love of Christ among the people — all the people — that God loves so dearly, and transformation will begin to take place. God will add to his church those who are “red and yellow, black and white.”

The best news is that Steve and Chrissy aren’t responsible for making disciples of every person in these 56 people groups (and those are just the people groups as they are broken down by nationality … imagine if we broke down people groups in terms of interests, socio-economic status, neighborhoods, social group…). God added to the church those who were being saved in the Book of Acts, and we believe He will not only do this in Boston today — He will commission and send Khmer-speaking Cambodian Christians back to their own people to live out the Way of Christ. Moroccans will begin to speak of one from whom they do not need to earn their way to heaven.

Our responsibility is simply to listen to our Master and do what he says, going in love to “all the world.” For us, “all the world” can be found within two square miles.

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Note: Originally, I titled this post, “why traditional church won’t work in my neighborhood,” but at 1:07 a.m. I got up and changed the title to the one you see now. God is using several forms and structures of Christian community in East Boston to reach the diverse people groups here, and for that I am grateful. Diversity — even in ecclesiology — is beautiful. What I am calling for is a deeper and more imaginative faith in what God can do through us to facilitate the planting of “vibrant families of Jesus within close reach — culturally and geographically — of every resident of Eastie.” This takes faith, and it takes all of us.

You can see all the nationalities and languages in my zip code by clicking here, clicking “search by zip code,” and entering “02128.” I’d encourage you to do the same for your zip code. You might be surprise who lives next door.

some reflections so far

1. Dogs help. We only would have met 1/3 of the people we have met so far were it not for our our poodle Damon. Walking Damon earlier today, I saw a woman struggling to carry several bags of groceries, so I went over and offered to help. She spoke barely any English, but I did manage to gather that she is from the Dominican Republic. We spoke Spanglish as I helped her carry several heavy grocery bags back to her apartment several blocks away. The chance meeting wouldn’t have happened were I not walking Damon.

An amazing story from tonight: Chrissy and I walked with Damon down to a walk/bike trail, where we saw several people standing around watching their dogs (little dogs, no less) play on a grassy area in the middle. We told each other, “we need to get to know them so Damon will have dogs to play with.” On our way back from the trail, we walked by them and Damon immediately started to sniff out and play with the other dogs. Before we knew it, we were chatting with the dogs’ owners. One of the people standing around was the guy from whom Chrissy has bought fresh produce since we’ve been here. Chrissy had already gotten to know him a little bit, so it came as a shock when we saw him in the park. One of the other dog owners we met was a young woman who just moved to Boston from Key West. She “just happened to be” a student starting her MBA at Suffolk University (exactly like Chrissy) and was thrilled to meet another student. They talked for a while, made plans to see each other again or attend a student function together, and exchanged numbers. It was quite an evening. All because of a d-o-g. (or could it be because of a G-o-d…?)

2. Ministry happens in the mundane, ordinary, everyday activities of life. People walk dogs, play in parks, go shopping, work in highrises, go to the beach, and sit on their porches, among countless of other things. How could we say we are involved in ministry if we purposefully avoid the situations where people are? How could we possibly spend more time in planning meetings or reading books or sitting in church than putting ourselves in these activities? If our God is in his nature relational, then relationship must be the cornerstone of any “ministry” we say we are doing.

3. People are people — not projects. We are learning to meet them on their turf with no strings attached — no agenda (accept to display the love of Christ). It is much easier to relate to the people we are meeting when we aren’t thinking about how quickly we can bring up their faith situation or receptivity to the gospel. In the beginning, we must get to know and love them because they are children of God, and no other reason. The deep stuff will come later. (not to mention the fact that we’re all broken somehow…the only thing Chrissy and I can do is walk with people toward the cross, and ask people to help us do the same)

4. Finally, All the planning and strategizing in the world couldn’t account for the spontaneous, take-it-as-it-comes encounters with people that occur on a daily — and often hourly — basis. Call it fate, the leading of the Holy Spirit, or what you will, but life doesn’t happen on our watch. We really can plan very little, when push comes to shove. This is why after almost a month in Boston, the idea of having all our ducks in a row with regards to “ministry” and “church planting” seems even more absurd than it did before we left. I now cannot imagine deciding back in Texas what our church in Boston was going to look like — types of songs, specific location, evangelistic techniques, etc. — without having first developing authentic relationships with neighbors and co-workers in Boston. It’s the difference between taking a potted flower to another place and planting a seed in the new soil. We cannot take our potted flowers — our preconceived notions about what “church” or “church planting” is — into soil that is completely different. The reality of this truth is hitting home.

…and that’s just after 4 weeks!

world-creation

I don’t want to be a church planter as much as I want to be a world-creator/enactor.

Let me explain.

Walter Brueggemann has popularized the image of the preacher as a poet who causes people to imagine new worlds and calls them to inhabit them:

The event of preaching is an event in transformed imagination. Poets, in the moment of preaching, are permitted to perceive and voice the world differently, to date a new phrase, a new picture, a fresh juxtaposition of matters long known. Poets are authorized to invite a new conversation with new voices sounded, new hearings possible. The new conversation may end in freedom to trust and courage to relinquish. The new conversation, on which our very lives depend, requires a poet and not a moralist.

While Brueggemann’s statement should be true for preaching, how much more true should this be for our lives? Shouldn’t our lives embody a new reality, a different way of living, as we also imagine out loud how “Christian difference” can change a person’s life and the world? If we are Christians, what role does actually following Christ have on this world creation? (GKB brings this up over here, if you haven’t already read it.)

This is why I’m not satisfied simply with “church planting” as the end-all of mission. We envision our lives being the sermon that demonstrates a different way of living — a truly Christian way of living, in the fulness of that term — to a culture crying out for a “different way.” I love the way Shane Claiborne puts it in The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical:

Few people are interested in a religion that has nothing to say to the world and offers them only life after death, when what people are really wondering is whether there is life before death.

If this is true, what would the Christian report card look like with regard to distinctiveness from yet attractiveness to the world? I have a theory about why people weigh Christianity on the scales and end up saying, “No thanks.” While hypocrisy is obviously a big deterrent, I think an even bigger reason people don’t choose Christianity is that we have created a religion that is really not that different from anything else in the world. The only thing that changes is the individual’s status, moving from the “Hell” column to the “Heaven” column.

What if we and everyone that reads this blog committed to modeling a truly different way for the world around us? Would lives and communities around us change? I’m afraid that taking this seriously, though, might mean taking seriously the thing that should strike fear in every comfortable, safety-oriented, “neat” American Christian (myself included) — following Christ.

tough situation in tanzania

A friend of mine and his wife are beginning a degree at ACU in preparation to join some teammates in Tanzania for long-term missions. (two couples, I think, are already in Tanzania planting churches in Mwanza) One of his teammates told my friend that a famine in the country has gotten so bad that providing for physical needs had become priority numero uno. Folks from the church (and from around the congregation) are really feeling the effects of constant hunger because of the famine, resulting in sickness and probably death (he didn’t tell me about deaths, but one can only assume…).

I asked my friend if his missionary teammates had considered facilitating any simple development projects that might bring more sustainable relief to the area around their church. He said that this probably wouldn’t be possible, seeing as how at least one of the supporting congregations specifically said, “No development projects. Just church planting/evangelism.”

Thoughts?

“come back to the kitchen”

I found this quote on a March 23 post from Tall Skinny Kiwi. It reminds me of what I said on this post a while back, except more concise.

The church began with a meal. The Church needs to come back to the kitchen and get itself sorted again. The Church needs to rethink the puny wafer and thimble ritual and get back to the love feast which is a MEAL that takes TIME and happens MORE than once a week and has LEFTOVERS which can given to the POOR (the justice element) and resembles a PARTY that is full of HOPE towards the FEAST that awaits us with our SAVIOR who is not drinking wine until we get there to toast with Him. Jesus said DO THIS in remembrance of me. We would do well to ask “[DO] WHAT?”