Real Presence

A few years ago, we hiked the south and north rims of the Grand Canyon.

Oh, the Grand Canyon! The last 100 miles or so of the trip there, you’re driving through the Kaibab National Forest, which is this immense pine forest — mile after mile of evergreen — and finally, we arrived to the Canyon a couple hours before sunset. We walked down to the edge of the canyon and just stared. You don’t really see it coming: it’s pine trees and pine trees and pine trees and then, bam, something you’ve never encountered before. A panoply of striated color and extreme topography and the blue blue sky with puffy white Georgia O’Keefe clouds and you just stare.

While staring, I remembered that Charles Darwin had journaled in great detail throughout all of his explorations. Each day of his travels, he’d scribble down a ton of words to describe whatever he’d seen. But one day, wherever he was in South America or the Galapagos, he came upon some unexpected panorama so staggeringly beautiful that all he managed to write in his journal for that day was “Hosanna!”

That’s what seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time was like. Hosanna!

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So we’re walking back to the car, and radiating out from the visitor center there’s this network of sidewalks all through the park. And just off the sidewalk we were on, like right off the sidewalk, there’s an elk in this little grove of pine trees. Five feet from us. And we’re staring again. And while we’re staring, she leans her head down to the ground, bites off a mouthful of grass, looks up at us and just stares right back into our eyes and calmly chews her food. Hosanna!

Up the sidewalk only about 15 feet away, but on the other side of this little grove of trees where the elk was, was another couple. Imagine the scene: We’re on the sidewalk looking at the elk. Then there’s the grove of trees. Then the other couple. We can see both the elk and the couple. But because of the trees they can’t see the elk. And the guy is standing there and he’s noticed some hoof prints in the dirt.

He points out to his girlfriend: “Look, I think these are elk prints.”

“Wow,” she says. “So cool.”

“They actually look pretty fresh.”

“So cool,” she says.

“And — Oh my God! — Look, you can see where the elk has eaten off this bush here.”

“Oh, that’s so cool,” she says.

The elk is right there behind the trees and they’re thrilled with the hoofprints.

So they walked away, in the other direction, back to the parking lot, and after I came out of my elk trance and realized they were leaving, I couldn’t bear to let them go. I dashed after them and finally reached them, breathless and chest heaving from my first day at high altitude. I felt like Mary Magdalene on Easter morning.

Me, pointing wildly: “Elk!”

“I’m sorry, what?!”

“Did you see the elk?!”

“What? No? Where?”

I’d caught my breath enough to speak. “Yeah, just back there. I saw y’all investigating the hoof prints and if you’d walked just another few feet down the sidewalk you would have actually seen the thing that made the prints. The elk itself is right there.”

And they ran back, calling their friends from farther up the sidewalk. They all ran down and came into contact, into the real presence of the thing they’d been talking about, which was right there all along, only they hadn’t seen it. But when they did: Hosanna!

Sometimes we forget that spirituality is like that. Spirituality is about so much more than inspecting texts about God, or investigating the tracks of where God has been or predicting where God will be. Authentic spirituality invites us into that little grove of pine trees, into the real, actual presence of the God who is with us — right here, right now — only we hadn’t noticed.

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What Is Good Soil for Starting New Churches?

Last week I visited one of my favorite spaces in the world: London’s Tate Modern museum, which is currently featuring an installation by artist Abraham Cruzvillegas, called “Empty Lot.” Cruzvillegas’s sculpture is a labyrinth of raised garden beds built from recycled wood and filled with soil from dozens of neighborhood parks across London.

Nothing has been added to the exhibit over its six-month life except water and light, and yet day-by-day, it changes. It’s a complex piece of living art. Some of the planters have become fields of green; others, scraggly tangles of brambles; a few show no visible growth at all.

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As I pondered this weird micro-farm, I thought of the Biblical Parable of the Sower, in which Jesus describes four different kinds of terrain, three of which produce little to nothing when farmed, and one of which — the “good soil” — produces an extraordinary harvest. The traditional interpretation of the parable, stemming from Jesus’s own teaching, is basically that receptivity to God (that is, good soil) will yield increased manifestations of spiritual growth (that is, good harvest).

Abundance Rates & Failure Rates

I once heard a conference speaker use this parable to talk about starting new churches. He extrapolated a bit, noting that since only one in four terrains (25%) yields abundance, there is a 75% failure rate. Therefore, he advised, in order to be fruitful, we should not only start more churches, but we should also learn to focus our planting in the ideal terrain — in the “good soil.”

With the speaker’s first point, I am all in. I definitely agree that we should start more churches and faith communities. In my opinion, church planting — or pioneering, as it’s often called in the United Kingdom — should become standard operating procedure for every region of the Church. It should be as “normal” in the mission strategy and budget of a judicatory (conference, district, diocese, synod, association, etc.) as children’s ministry, property insurance, or the salary of the bishop.

That said, I thoroughly disagree with the speaker’s second point, particularly when it comes to denominational or judicatory planting strategies.  We should have deep reservations about directing our energy only toward the demographic “soil” we perceive to be the best. Such a selective focus not only potentially limits the diversity of people we might be in ministry with, but also reduces the options for church-starting models that might be employed. If the conventional wisdom is that “one soil is best,” then what usually follows is the conventional wisdom that “one planting model is best.” To my mind, that’s not real wisdom. (Additionally, it’s very boring.)

Moving Beyond an Either/Or Strategy

I’ve noticed this either/or tendency in my conversations with leaders and practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic — and in myself, too. Large church planters say that good soil is wherever you can eventually grow a weekly worship attendance of over 500 adults. Niche pioneers say that numbers don’t really matter and that good soil is wherever you can have a meaningful conversation with someone. Some believe that an attractional model is the best way to grow a church; others disparage trying to attract anyone at all and lift up a missional or incarnational model as the most authentic, regardless of whether there is any numerical growth.

My sense is that, at the end of the day, most of us tend to go with what we know. That’s an understandable if unreflective human bias.

Don’t get me wrong: going with what we know is not necessarily a bad practice, especially at the beginning of a particular project, as long as we don’t superficially award the “most faithful” label to the model that is, if we’re honest, really only our personal preference or cultural default.

But a monocultural, “what you know,” “one-soil-and-one-model” practice is absolutely less than ideal, in my opinion, when the goal is developing a long-term, multiple-project strategy of church starting and church revitalization for a whole region.

Another Take on the Parable

As I pondered the “Empty Lot” last week, a museum guide told me that the installation would soon be taken down. The whole exhibit, made of found things, will be recycled again. I found myself thinking of the raised beds where there has not been any growth yet: “But it’s only been six months! What if it just takes longer in some places for something to sprout?”

It does sometimes take longer. Actually, these days, when it comes to starting new churches and faith communities, it often takes longer.

We’ve been so conditioned by the “only-one-soil-is-good” interpretation that we miss the truth hidden in Jesus’s parable that growth actually happens in three of the four terrains. The “success rate” for initial growth is actually 75%, not 25%, but long-term potential, according to the parable, is stifled by oppression and trauma or choked by greed and egocentric desire.

Towards a “Mixed Economy”

What if, instead of starting new churches only in demographically targeted patches of “good soil,” we broadened our scope of approach and model? Actually, what if, instead of defaulting to obsessive market segmentation, we began to see all soil as good soil and all contexts as good contexts for being on mission with God (and being missioned ourselves by God)? What if we acknowledged that in some contexts, an attractional model really works, in other contexts, an incarnational model really works, and in most contexts, some hybrid will work best? What if, in addition to planting in fast-growth places, we made it possible to minister long haul in places where growth is trickier due to materialism, unchecked white privilege and white supremacy, addiction in its many forms, or other contemporary versions of the thorny and rocky conditions that Jesus diagnoses in his parable? What if the rubric for evaluating the “success” of church planters included not only how quickly she or he or they are able grow a harvest in easy soil but also by how thoroughly committed she or he or they (and their church) are to engaging and dismantling the pernicious systems that restrain God’s vision of wholeness for all people?

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, uses the economics term “mixed economy” to describe such an orientation: a diversified portfolio of (even contradictory) attitudes, theologies, missiologies, models and practices that can be employed across a range of terrains for the common good and the common goal of starting new things to reach new places and new people. Williams’s prayerful, humble brilliance knows that it is always context — not your preferred model or theology du jour — that should shape mission.

Planting and pioneering strategies for a mixed economy are necessarily more complicated and more difficult to oversee and lead, which is why, again, we tend toward what we know. But flexible, future-oriented leaders will accept the challenge because they know that a mixed economy is actually both more faithful and, over time, more successful. So they put together a weird, counterintuitive, Gospel portfolio that in the long haul will mean fewer and fewer empty lots.

Just a Few Suggestions

My personal experience with a mixed economy approach comes from helping start Urban Village Church, a multi-neighborhood and multi-group project in city center Chicago, and from mentoring and coaching scores of church planters, residents, and interns across a wide range of contexts.

A few suggestions for a mixed economy strategy:

  • Make bold plans.

A mixed economy approach does not give permission for missional vagueness or entitled laziness. Placing a high value on a diversity of approaches should not be mistaken for laissez-faire oversight. Diverse planters and pioneers should be encouraged to dream boldly; challenged to contextually communicate those dreams in clear, compelling, vernacular (non-insider) language; and then coached to build practical plans to humbly try to bring those dreams into being.

“What are you doing to experiment with that idea or accomplish that idea?” “How are you moving from imagination into action?” “How will you involve people beyond yourself in that action?” These should be a regular questions and conversations in coaching and supervision relationships across the mixed economy.

  • There should always be metrics, but the metrics will be different for each context.

Please, let’s do away with the false dichotomy of “numbers mean everything” or “numbers mean nothing.” Benchmarks are important, of course, but make sure you’re measuring appropriate things. As a coach, I’m interested in how many folks turn out for small and large gatherings that a church hosts, but I’m equally interested in how many times the pioneer/planter AND members of their leadership team have met individually with neighborhood leaders and unaffiliated folks in their community or locality. And I’m even more interested in how lay leaders are being continually developed for real ministry.

One church plant I’m coaching is just at the very beginning of casting an intentionally multi-ethnic and anti-racist Gospel vision. Because of how racism works, though, building a diverse leadership team around that vision will probably require more time and more intentionality from them than building a mono-ethnic team would require. We absolutely must take current realities and power histories such as that into account when setting appropriate metrics and benchmarks. Context, context, context.

  • A mixed economy strategy is for local churches, not just judicatories.

I believe that every Christian community, both established and new, both inherited expression and fresh expression, should build into their five-year ministry map a risky experiment of starting something new in a different terrain, hopefully outside of their current building or default mission framework. This will help dismantle the suspicion that church planting or pioneering is something that only a certain type of leader or congregation does and will reposition planting as a normative practice not only of judicatories but also of local congregations.

Conclusion

With an increasing receptivity to the counterintuitive truth that abundance and failure are both integral parts of any healthy approach, the good news is that it’s a weird and wonderful time to be making plans for new churches and faith communities.

And the even better news is that God is always ahead of our plans: active in every city block, every village green, every empty lot, every square inch of soil in all of creation. Together let’s partner with God to see what will grow.

If you’re interested in finding out more about my ministry as a coach, check out the website of the Epicenter Group. Or email me at trey@epicentergroup.org to schedule a free conversation about how I might partner with you in the future.