How Testimony Saves Lives (Mine Included)

Testimony saves lives.

That’s one of the reasons that when people ask me for best practices for starting or revitalizing churches, I almost universally recommend it.

Every week in worship, organize a layperson to stand up and share in five minutes or less what it feels like to undergo God in their own particular skin. Every week, make sure someone who is not the preacher tells a true story of faith, that is to say, an honest personal account of gratitude or struggle or changed perspective or joy or lament or doubt or beauty or surrender or anger or trust or love or anything that finds and searches for a grounding in Christ. Call it testimony, call it spiritual autobiography, call it whatever you want – just start doing it. Every time you meet, make room for diverse people to translate their faith experience into public words.

Because of its capacity to channel spiritual power, testimony has been and still is a crucial part of the pioneering days of many Christian traditions and movements, but it often falls out of vogue as we grow more “refined” or bureaucratic and contract out our fundamental need for storytelling to clergy or other religious “professionals.”

WHAT HAPPENED TO ME

That may be one of the reasons that the first testimonies I heard were not in Christian worship but in the rooms of a 12-step recovery community that I visited one sunny Saturday morning to “do research” for a sermon series on addictions that I was planning.

I arrived a bit late, and as the meeting was in a grotty church basement and as I had a lot of assumptions about substance abuse, I expected to find a fragmented collection of miserables possessed by guilt and teetering on the verge of self-destruction. But instead I was greeted by a happy crowd of people and volunteers trying to add more cheap metal folding chairs to rows that already almost touched the walls of the packed-out room. I saw an open seat and squished in between a young white guy with dreadlocks and a cigarette tucked behind his ear and an octogenarian black woman touching up her lipstick and wrapped in a flawless floor-length fur coat.

After a short welcome, the meeting’s chairperson asked, “Is there anyone here who’s celebrating an anniversary or counting days?” and that’s when the testimonies began. People scraped their chairs back on the dusty tile floor and lined up in the aisles. One by one, they moved toward the front to say phenomenally beautiful things:

“Yesterday I celebrated a year of continuous sobriety,” someone almost sung into the microphone, and the crowd broke out into applause.

“Today I have twenty-five years free from alcohol and drugs” someone else said, to whistles and cheers.

“Today it’s two weeks, and it’s hard as f***ing hell, and I’m just trying to take it day by day, but I’m here. Two weeks.” The already enthusiastic clapping intensified to ovation, and I started to cry.

I was genuinely surprised by the tears running down my face, and off my face, and onto my notepad, smearing the “research notes” I’d taken for my sermon. Why am I crying? I asked myself, but I knew – somewhere deep down, beneath all the calcified layers of self-deception, I knew that these testimonies of lives-in-the-process-of-being-saved were meant to save my life, too.

I managed to pull myself together for the rest of the celebrations. “I’m just here for research,” I said to the fur coat woman, and she looked me in the eyes, nodded her head, and called me “Baby” as she offered me a tissue to dry my face.

The meeting didn’t stop with the testimonies of celebration. My tears continued as two other speakers got up to share slightly longer stories that included not only that their lives had been and were being saved but also what they had been and were being saved from – all the addictive, compulsive stuff that had gone down, that had landed them in the pit where they finally accepted they needed help that they couldn’t conjure by themselves. From relational misdemeanors to serious slips to colossal moral bankruptcies, people were telling the truth – in detail. Stories of waking up next to people who weren’t their husbands or wives in foreign countries where they hadn’t been three days before on the last day they had any clear memory of. Stories of losing their life savings or their jobs or their dignity or the custody of their children. Stories of losing everything. Stories of lying and falling and failing and embarrassing themselves (and many others) in epic or everyday fashion.

Interestingly, while I was crying, it seemed like everyone else in the room was laughing. It wasn’t a laughter that made light of these testimonies or tried to cover over their thick descriptions, however grave or garden-variety. You could easily intuit that there wasn’t an ounce of denial or shame anywhere. Rather, it was the laughter of joyous freedom, fueled by the deep knowledge that telling the truth, a miracle in itself, was the doorway to a life of miracles. The knowledge that God can use even the most ersatz sense of freedom (which is finally all your drug of choice can offer you) to break you out and into the Something More that is shatteringly freeing and truly saving and always, always on offer.

Why don’t we do that in the church?

Probably for a host of reasons: the idol of polished “excellence” in worship, clergy control freakery (I cry “Guilty!”), Christianities that have prioritized the rational or the official or the “liturgical” over the subjective, the false notion that “real” testimonies are only about dramatic events and not the boring, ordinary parts of day-to-day human life, the individual fear of exposure, the pain of invidious comparison with others’ stories and the anxiety that “my story isn’t _____ enough” or “I don’t have a story to tell.”

WHAT CAN HAPPEN IN CHURCH

Make room for testimony and as true storytelling becomes a norm in worship, these negative barriers will begin to diminish. Your community will begin to teem with new verve and potential. People will listen more attentively, as they recognize themselves in the testimonies of others, as they relax into the awareness that they are not alone in their own stuff, both good and bad: Oh, right, she’s talking about me! I totally do that, too. I’ve also felt that way, or wondered about that. I want what he has. Yes!  Laughter, tears, and deep existential rest — all symptoms of the spiritual assurance that can be opened with testimony – will begin to transfigure congregations and individuals that before seemed stagnant or hesitant or repressed.

Make room for testimony and your church’s mission statement about changing lives will no longer only be something that you print in your bulletin every week; now it will be narratively demonstrated every week in people’s stories. And a mission story is always better than a mission statement. Missional power and humility will expand as people come to subjectively experience what they might have cognitively believed (or not) for years, that their true stories are what God wants. Which is why regular lay testimony is also one of the most evangelical commitments a church can make. In my experience, most unaffiliated folks are not that interested in checking out a worship service to hear an unknown preacher’s sermon, but they’ll show up to hear a friend of theirs tell a story. I’ve baptized a number of adults who came to worship only because of a friend’s testimony and ended up sticking around and rather unexpectedly coming to faith.

HOW TO DO IT

So, how do you start a regular ministry of testimony in your congregation? For some longer reading, check out two wonderful books: Lillian Daniel’s Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony and Thomas Long’s Testimony: Talking Ourselves Into Being Christian.

But to get you started, here are some basic suggestions:

For church leaders:

  • You can start whenever you want, but some find it helpful to launch a testimony trial run that is framed in a particular season of the program, liturgical, or calendar year. Whenever you start, share in advance with your congregation what testimony is and isn’t and why you’re embarking on such an experiment.
  • Since the first experiences of testimony in a congregation will begin to establish a culture, choose the first 8-10 testimony givers with several things in mind. You’ll want a diverse range of people (age, gender, race, sexuality, etc.), a diverse range of experiences and stories (incorporate the wide spectrum of the human experience so that you don’t privilege one personality or spirituality “type”), and people that you trust to take it seriously.
  • Reach out to these individuals well in advance, tell them what you’re hoping for, and ask them to pray about it. Give them a list of guidelines (see below) and if they say yes, schedule them for a particular worship service. I like to have testimonies scheduled at least 6 weeks in advance so that testimony givers have time to reflect and prepare.
  • Especially if the practice is new for your congregation, offer to read folks’ first testimony drafts or meet up with them one-to-one to encourage them. When they stand up to share in worship, you want them to feel as confident as possible. As the practice continues and deepens in your congregation, you may decide to add an additional one-to-one meeting afterwards, as the experience of testimony often unlocks callings, purpose, and questions in those who give it.
  • You can place testimony anywhere in the service. I personally think it works best in the first half of worship, perhaps before the Scripture reading, so that people connect it to the other proclamations of the Word.
  • Have someone briefly introduce the testimony each week, sharing in a sentence why your church does it, and inviting the testifier up by name: “Here at ___ Church, we believe that stories change lives. So let’s give Demetrius a round of applause as he comes to share testimony with us today!”
  • Have the testimony giver close the time with prayer, or have someone else pray for the testimony giver.

For those giving testimony:

[The following is from an email I send to people several weeks in advance of their testimony.]

Thanks for being willing to share some of your testimony in worship on [date]!

Plan on your testimony lasting no more than 4-5 minutes. The time goes quickly, and written words take longer to speak than we might imagine, so be sure to prepare in advance and to practice.

We’re trying to help people get connected to each other and so we would like to include your email address in the worship program so that folks who identity with your testimony can be in touch directly. If you would prefer us not to do that, just let us know.

There aren’t a ton of dos and don’ts for testimony, but these suggestions may help as you prepare:

1. Your testimony is your testimony. Don’t feel like it has to be like others you’ve heard in worship. If yours is funny and full of levity, that’s great. If it’s more introspective or chill, that’s great, too. A short reflection, a story, a poem that you’ve written or some other media: share authentically how God is moving/active/present/working in your life and you’ll be just fine.

2. We hope that testimonies will share “new life” experiences – a new perspective, a change of heart, a new belief or practice or question, a new community, etc.

3. Don’t try to cram too much in; pick a point or two and let that be it. Remember: 4-5 minutes goes quickly.

4. If you are sharing something marked by pain, we suggest, as some have put it, that you “speak from your scars, not your wounds.” Both scars and wounds are part of the Christian experience, of course, but scars are perhaps better material for testimony as they often include the reflection and wisdom gained by walking through time in the pain, whereas speaking in public about open, current, unexamined wounds can sometimes hurt more than help.

5. Don’t diss directly on other churches or denominations or religions. We understand that we all come from some place and sometimes this includes a difficult religious experience. It’s totally fine to be honest and to reflect on that, but we ask that you not single out particular groups; for example, please don’t say anything like “the Baptist church is horrible and exclusionary” or “Roman Catholics don’t understand” or “Muslims don’t believe in grace.” We want to avoid the potential stereotyping and demonizing of other traditions.

6. Be yourself, for Christ’s sake. You can only be where you and who you are. No need to pretend, because, after all, it’s your testimony.

7. Don’t forget introduce yourself by name at the beginning of the testimony and to close in prayer at the end.

8. Did we mention 4-5 minutes? 😉

So, that’s it. Try it for a few seasons in your congregation, and see what happens as people start to tell the honest-to-God truth, in detail, in public. Church renewal is not guaranteed, but lives-being-saved are.

___

If you’re looking for coaching or consulting around church revitalization or church planting/pioneering in the US, UK, or Europe, you can find out more about my coaching ministry here.

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The Recovering of Sight to an Egomaniac with an Inferiority Complex

I was on a train in Chicago, going home after a very important meeting that I had done a very excellent job of leading. As I looked out at the city through the train windows, my inflated ego was drinking its strong cocktail of success: one part self-reference, two parts self-congratulation, and a long pour of judgmentalism – of some of the other people at the meeting, of course. Dude, you killed it. I love how cleverly you responded to that person’s critique. Definitely a mic drop moment.

It was dusk and as the light faded outside, the windows on the train started to become mirrors. I saw my reflection and began to examine it. As I considered my crow’s feet, my receding hairline and expanding pores, and my no-longer-fresh face, my ego turned on me. Dude, you’re looking so worn out. I don’t think you don’t have it anymore. What’s happened to you? The egoic cocktail is complicated: one moment you’re buzzing; the next you’re angsting.

And then the light outside changed – maybe the train went around a bend or came out from behind a building, I can’t remember – and the mirror became a window again. My too reflective preening and pummeling became transparent, and I could see through to the sunset, and a neighborhood, and people on the street carrying their groceries and walking their dogs, and a jazz club on the corner. A fleeting shift of energy delivered me from competition to connection, from evaluation to ecstasy, and for a moment or two I was lost in a space more generous than my ego could ever concoct.

Fasting from Social Media

The American election brought me into contact with how occluded and mirrored my vision still is. A week or so after the election, I decided to take a break from social media in order to observe how my using/not-using influences my perspective.

My decision to fast from Facebook and Instagram did not come from an original insight. A couple of friends had posted that they were going to abstain for a while. I was reading a book on contemplative silence by Maggie Ross, a Christian solitary. I had seen a shattering episode of the British TV series, Black Mirror, and a compelling article by a Millennial professional who’s never been on social media. I also just could not bring myself to watch Trump’s Presidential Twitter parade (and still cannot).

A friend who’d signed off of Facebook for the month before the election commented that during his abstinence he’d realized just how much time he’d been spending “watching other people’s lives.” I knew what he meant.

As I began my fast, one of the first things I noticed was how much extra time I had. I finished the novel that’d been sitting on my bedside table for months. I settled back into a daily pattern of prayer and meditation. I threw the ball for our dog a few more times every day and enjoyed his running after it.

I realized that a significant percentage of my daily life had been being filtered through an admixture of screen-based critique, “affirmation”-seeking, and “meaningfulness.”

Here’s a representative sampling from my ego feed:

I simply cannot believe the insensitive idiocy of his comment! How much time can I manage today to write a brilliant rejoinder?

Wow. She’s really doing some beautiful, important work with her new blog / business / book deal / home redesign / work project / marriage. I wonder how I could spruce up my life like that?

How will I wittily curate my posts today to feel the sensation of that envisioned sprucing?

Invidious Comparison & Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose

I began to “come to”: to see how much of my social media using was about not only watching other people’s lives but also watching my own life through the innumerable lenses of “invidious comparison.”

That’s a term that Brian Mahan, one of my theology school professors, uses to describe how even our spirituality can potentially mask our tendencies toward self-seeking. If we’re not awake, our “prayer” or “meditation” can become a subtle way of judgmentally watching ourselves and others, all the more dangerous because our evaluative comparisons and compulsions are masked (and reinforced) by our “practice” or “devotion” or “theology.”

Mahan’s book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose suggests some truly enlightening spiritual exercises and thought experiments that can help us relax from the invidious comparison, see ourselves and others more generously, and decenter our imaginations of what others might think of us.

For me, at least, it turns out that the path to a more truthful vision requires less “work” than my ego would have me believe and more intentional silence than my ego can generally stand (right now, about 20 minutes a day).

Which is why, recovering “egomaniac with an inferiority complex” (as the Twelve-step community puts it) that I am, joyfully forgetting myself (at once the method and the gift of this practice) – or, in other words, learning how to pray – will probably take my whole life.

A life, I hope, of mirrors slowly turning to windows and perhaps the occasional and increasing awareness, that, as 13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart writes, “[t]he eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

A life, I hope, that can see graciously in the midst, even (more consciously and less time-consumingly?) in the midst of Facebook, because, y’all, honestly, I have missed the dog videos, and baby announcements, and pictures of Hillary Clinton hiking, and (among my own) the intending-to-offend and waiting-to-be-offended soliloquies, and, yes, most of all, the pearls of great price that are revealed from time to time.

That’s how I hope I’ll see.

A Non-Negotiable Practice for Ministry Leaders

I get asked a lot if there is a common characteristic among the successful church planters and redevelopment leaders that I know or coach.

And there absolutely is.

In my opinion, it has nothing to do with their theological or political location, Enneagram type, race, gender, geography, or sexual orientation – the folks I work with are wildly diverse in those ways.

So, what is one crucial thing that all of these leaders share?

They know how to build real, no-BS relationships with unaffiliated people.

They have a natural capacity or a learned competency for authentic connection with folks who are not part of their religious organizations – the “nones” and “dones” that our recent studies are so rightly obsessed with.

EVERYBODY KNOWS THE RIGHT ANSWER, BUT…

That relationships are essential is, of course, not an esoteric bit of knowledge. We all know that “relationships” is the right answer.

You give a one-question exam:

1) What is the church?

(a) Relationships

(b) Buildings

(c) Money

(d) My own agenda and rigidity projected onto other people and God

You give that exam and everybody gets 100%.

Everybody knows the right answer is (a) Relationships, but here’s the thing: not everybody knows how to do the right answer. To be blunt, many lay and clergy leaders simply do not know how to connect with people outside of their church cultures.

But here’s the good news: the great majority of folks can learn how.

This longish blog post has the singular goal of teaching one basic practice to shift your ministry orientation outwards, toward building new relationships with new people. This practice is called the relational meeting, or the 1-1.

COMMUNITY ORGANIZING AND THE 1-1

I learned about relational meetings as a young pastor, just a couple years out of seminary, when I attended a weeklong community organizing training. Community organizing is a multi-layered process focused on increasing the participation and power of diverse people in a community in order to generate collective will for social change.

The relational meeting, a fundamental part of community organizing, is a short (30-45 minute), one-to-one, in-person conversation meant to uncover, explore, and share the animating stories, core values, and motivating interests of each conversation partner.

The goal of a 1-1 is to figure out the “why” of the person you’re talking to by inviting them to tell you.

On an average day, we spend a lot of our time in “what” conversations: we exchange pleasantries, rehearse our resumes, report our track records, seek or provide advice, etc. That’s all well and good, but the relational meeting is not any of those things. It’s not a commercial for our new project, an interview, or a pastoral counseling session, either.

A relational meeting is a brief, in-depth exploration into why someone is the way they are: what they give a damn about and why, what keeps them up at night and why, what they hope against hope for in life and why. It’s also an opportunity to share those same things about yourself and to look for overlaps. And maybe, depending on the connection, perhaps eventually at another 1-1 in the future, to explore whether you might work together on a common project.

Urban Village Church, the multi-site congregation I helped to plant, used the relational meeting practice to dream, launch, and expand a new way of being church in Chicago. Over and over again, lay and clergy planters sat down for 1-1s at coffee shops in neighborhoods across the city. And they still do. We’re talking thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of relational meetings over their first 7 years. The 1-1 has become Urban Village Church’s standard way of discerning vision, practicing evangelism and discipleship, and engaging mission and justice. For the church planters I now coach, relational meetings are a non-negotiable.

HOW TO ACTUALLY DO A 1-1

Here are the basics: a blend of what I’ve learned over the past 16 years of ministry from community organizations like Industrial Areas Foundation and Community Renewal Society.

[SETTING UP THE MEETING]

1) Make a list of everyone you know in your city, town, village, or whatever your ministry context is.

That’s right: why not start with everyone? Put everyone you know on your list. (This was a suggestion I got years ago from the Rev. Junius Dotson, a church planter who is now the General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries, an agency of The United Methodist Church). These will be the people you reach out to first. If the idea of that list is simply too overwhelming, make a list of the leaders of important organizations in your community – the schools, social service providers, businesses, cultural groups, etc.

2) Choose ten of those people and email (or call) them to ask for a meeting.

Invite a range of people. Offer your credential and your connection, clarify what you’re inviting them to and why, and ask them to respond if they’re available. Some of them will immediately respond; some of them won’t. It’s totally fine to follow up on an email invitation a week later. Schedule the meeting and the meeting location.

Here’s one of my basic invitation templates:

Hi, Principal Morris,

I’m Trey Hall and I’m a new pastor in the neighborhood.

My friend Emily Jones (insert the name of your personal connection, if there is one) knows you and mentioned some of the cool things you’re doing at Coleman Elementary School.

As pastor of _______, I’m really interested in meeting up with folks who are doing cool things in the city, and I wonder if you’d have 45 minutes to grab a cup of coffee and talk sometime over the next month. My treat.

Let me know what your calendar’s like and we’ll find a time that works.

Peace,

Trey

[DURING THE MEETING]

3) At the beginning of the meeting, restate your credential and context, and be clear that you’ll honor the time set aside.

Thanks again for taking 45 minutes out of your day to talk. As I said when I contacted you, I’m part of a church that takes community relationships very seriously, and Emily Jones told me that you’re someone I should get to know.

4) Then move into the main part of the meeting: the conversation itself.

Resist the temptation to default to the aforementioned conversation patterns that the relational meeting is not. Your goal is for the conversation to be memorable, to stand out from the hundreds of other conversations that happen in a week. So ask good questions, follow up with more good questions that invite folks to consider the “why” of the answers they just gave, and share meaningfully about your own commitments.

At first, navigating the balance of deep listening, probing questioning, follow-up, and story sharing will feel clunky. But don’t worry. The more relational meetings you do, they more natural they will become to your practice of ministry.

Here are some potential starter questions, culled from trainings over the years:

  • Tell me the story of how you became a _______. Biography is best place to start, but push hard on the particulars; don’t let it stay superficial.
  • What does that mean for your life now?
  • What’s the main thing you’re up to in your organization?
  • Who are your s/heroes?
  • You seem angry/passionate/convicted about that. Where did that come from?
  • What are you going to do about that anger/passion/conviction?
  • If money were no object, what would you do?
  • What’s next for you?
  • Go for a spark or a probing question that risks troubling the easy information exchange that we’re used to. For example, someone might risk asking a pastor: “I’ve read some studies that say the church is increasingly irrelevant to young people and will be dead in another generation. Do you think that’s true?” That’s a very different kind of question from “tell me about your church.” Ask big questions that have punch and verve.

Don’t forget: during the conversation, you should find natural places to speak about your story, interests, and values. The 1-1 is not an interview.

[ENDING THE MEETING]

5) Five minutes before the end of the meeting, you’ll want to move to finish meaningfully.

It’s okay – actually, it’s great! – if you have to finish a really good conversation that could go on for hours. Resist the temptation to stay at the table for a long time. Finishing the meeting on a high note increases the likelihood that you’ll meet again in the future.

  • Ask your conversation partner if they have any last questions for you.
  • This is essential: ask your conversation partner if they know anyone else that you should be talking to. Ask the question and then be quiet and wait. More often than not, they’ll suggest a couple people. Then ask if they’d be willing to e-connect the two of you. This is how you get more 1-1s for the future.
  • If you sense that there is some potential for future connection with your conversation partner, mention how interesting the meeting has been and then ask if you could follow up in a couple months for another conversation.

[AFTER THE MEETING]

6) Record your conversation partner’s basic information with whatever technology you use to keep track of contacts. Note any compelling things or important resonances that that came up in the 1-1.

7) Follow up with an email the next day to thank your conversation partner and see if anyone else has come to mind that you should reach out to. If they haven’t yet e-connected you with the people they mentioned at the end of the 1-1, ask them directly to do that.

8) As you’re doing 1-1s regularly, figure out how to scan and organize the increasing “data” you’re getting from the meetings in order to discern next steps for current and future projects.

9) Repeat. Keep reaching out with more invitations for more 1-1s. You should never run out of people to talk with.

SO, HOW WILL YOU SPEND YOUR TIME?

I promise you that if you begin to do 1-1s as a weekly practice of ministry or leadership, you will become a better leader.

I’m not being hyperbolic when I tell you that I don’t know of one person who didn’t grow significantly when they started doing 1-1s on a regular basis. Many of their churches and organizations started growing in numbers and depth, too.

I do know lots of clergy and lay leaders who don’t do 1-1s. They spend more time in their offices, behind their computer screens, managing their social media streams, than they do in the community – and the result is that they and their congregations suffer.

In most contexts, there is a “positive” correlation between the amount of time the leader spends on solely internal matters and the inability of their new project to launch or the decline of their current project.

When I train clergy groups on relational meetings, invariably I hear from some people that they don’t have the time to be out doing 1-1s, that they are unbelievably busy, that such a practice is for those who have the luxury of spare time or different kinds of churches.

I try to gently call BS on that claim. (It’s interesting that these people are usually the same leaders who are “too busy” to spend serious time putting together a compelling sermon every week. One wonders what they do have time for). The truth is, of course, that we each have the same amount of time as everyone else in the world. And, speaking for clergy, it’s largely us who decides how we’ll spend it.

What would it look like for you to build relational meetings into your standard operating procedure as a leader?

Right now, do an honest assessment of how you generally spend your work or ministry time each week. Break it down into percentages. Take a good, honest look at your stewardship of time, and see how you might start by giving 10% of your work week to 1-1s. That’d be like four or five 1-1s a week.

As you do more 1-1s, you’ll certainly build new relationships in the community, but you’ll also find other parts of your work coming alive with an energy and insight that wasn’t there before.

  • That tricky sermon you’re architecting? Instead of sitting behind your computer for another hour, do a 1-1 and see how the sermon gets unlocked.
  • That long-term mission plan? Instead of writing it all by yourself, do some 1-1s to see how others would frame the vision.
  • That new project that you hope will take off? Instead of developing the blueprint with an internal committee, do some 1-1s in the community you’re hoping the new project will take off in. See how that changes the focus and timeline.

Over my years of ministry, I’ve developed a personal mantra:

When in doubt, do a 1-1.

It’s never failed me yet.

YOUR EXPERIENCE?

Have 1-1s been part of your practice? I’d love to hear your comments, ideas, nuances, suggestions, and pushbacks on this post. Share away!

Reports from the Spiritual Frontier

My friend Ben Yosua-Davis recently launched a cool podcast featuring conversations with ministry practitioners “working on the spiritual margins of culture,” particularly with unaffiliated folks (the “nones” and “dones”).

I was honored to be invited to join Ben in conversation about post-ideological faith community, contemplative life, 12-step recovery, and a few other bits and bobs.

Check it out here.

Jesus’ Trashy Family

In the whirlwind of the ideological purity games that are wreaking havoc right now in American and British national politics and United Methodist church politics, I thought I’d post an excerpt from a sermon I preached a few years ago:

I’m a huge Dolly Parton fan. There’s a great BBC interview in which she talks about her history, coming from the poverty of East Tennessee.

The interviewer asks, “When did Dolly Parton, as we know her, appear?”

dolly parton

Dolly said, “I really patterned my look, a country girl’s idea of glamour, after what they call the town tramp. This woman… I just thought she was beautiful. She had this beautiful peroxide hair piled on her head, red nails, high heel shoes, and I just thought she was the prettiest thang I’d ever seen.”

Dolly’s mother said, “Oh, honey, she ain’t nothing but trash!”

And Dolly responded, “That’s what I wanna be, Mama. I wanna be trash!”

One of the wonderful things about that story is you can tell in the interview that Dolly saw that woman in a different way, like God actually sees us—not as trash, but as treasure.

Unfortunately not everyone sees in the divine way that Dolly did. Most people don’t.

Every family (and every institution, organization, party, religion, movement, etc.) has folks that they consciously or unconsciously think of as trash—people they would rather keep secret about, keep out of the family pictures, skeletons in the closet—because they’re eccentric, because they don’t fit the family mold, because they’ve done something that has brought dishonor or shame to the family. Or the family feels they’ve done something disgraceful. Often that person has done nothing other than be themself, but the family is not happy.

You know what I’m talking about. Maybe you’re that person in your family. Maybe you’ve made fun of someone who is.

Some folks imagine that Jesus comes from a perfect family. They would do well to consult the New Testament. The very beginning of the Gospel—its opening salvo, actually—is not a catchy story or a funny joke or a sublime theopoetical passage, but rather a very extended family tree. The Gospel writer goes to great length to name the people from whence Jesus comes. And as you begin to explore, you realize: this is not good breeding; this is no high pedigree line.

Can I be honest with you about Jesus, whom Christians call the Savior of the World?

He comes from a trashy family.

Liars, thieves, frauds, murderers, manipulators, passive-aggressives, corporate hucksters, and egomaniacs—these folks abound in Jesus’ family roots.

When people talk about Biblical “family values,” I always wonder exactly what they mean. Have they read the first chapter of the Gospel? Jesus’ family is irregular, nontraditional, and often downright scandalous. You think your family is weird? Jesus’ family will out-dysfunction anything your family brings to the table.

And according to the Bible, this is good news: trying to convince us that God doesn’t choose “perfect” to get God’s message into the world. God chooses actual people, real live human beings, to speak God’s truth. Which includes you and me and other trashy, treasure-filled folks offering ourselves, the best (and worst) we can.

Five Evangelical + Inclusive Ways to Resist Schism in The United Methodist Church

I am a Wesleyan evangelical. My life has been saved and is (slowly) being changed by Jesus.

In my opinion, being evangelical means, at its core, living from an ongoing internal assurance of God’s love for you and therefore finding yourself freed to do everything possible to carry the Gospel to others.

Since the election of Karen Oliveto as a Bishop in The United Methodist Church, there has been an understandably intensified experience of conflict throughout the Church.

And that’s okay. We remember from Pastoral Care 101 that conflict is to be expected in human life, especially in organizations, and most especially in organizations made up of millions of humans who find their unity not in a uniform ideology but in a living God and a process of salvation based on undergoing that God. With a unity rooted in Something as dynamic as that, conflict is not a problem to be eradicated but a constitutional part of the thing itself and potentially even a means of grace.

Of course it’s how we deal with the conflict that makes it redemptive or toxic. So as we continue to engage the ongoing set of questions and concerns around human sexuality, let’s do it as maturing disciples of Jesus. For Christ’s sake, let’s be careful with the accusations we make and the metaphors we employ.

For example, let’s not assume, as some do, that because someone has a more conservative hermeneutic when it comes to sexuality or wishes that an openly lesbian Bishop had not been elected, they are a blatantly homophobic hater or a hard-hearted hypocrite. A good faith approach both inspires a genuine openness to hear how someone thinks and feels about the subjects at hand and expects that the other’s journey is as complex as ours.

On the other hand, let’s not assume that supporters of the election of Bishop Oliveto (I quite joyously am one) are petulant children chomping at the bit for church schism (I quite emphatically am not). Let’s not assert, as some have, that the Western Jurisdiction has willfully sent divorce papers to the rest of the Church. The aforementioned good faith approach of actually listening to the testimonies of others will probably dissuade us from such a simplistic charge.

N.B. It’s interesting to me that most of the voices accusing the Western Jurisdiction of triggering schism haven’t offered any similar critiques of Bishop Scott Jones and his unflinching willfulness to force a church trial of the Rev. Cynthia Meyer (for being a “self-avowed, practicing” lesbian and a clergyperson at the same time) despite the commitment of the Council of Bishops “…to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another — including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.” If some of the same writers who have taken to social media to express anger or grief or snark at the election of Bishop Oliveto — in the service, they say, of a moderate or centrist position —  had publicly shared similar sentiments because of the actions of Bishop Jones, perhaps their analysis might be received as more properly centrist and as more deeply sincere.

So I wonder: can we shelf the schism rhetoric for a while in order to remember that we are, in Paul’s language, the Body of Christ, which is not a mere metaphor but an ontological reality?

We are the Body of Christ. If that reality and the necessarily evangelical life that flows from it are kept central, I believe that we will be able to hold (not deny) difference and resist schism as we also commit to truly doing no harm.

That’s obviously easier proclaimed than practiced, so here are five suggestions for living into a more profound unity. I am committed to these myself, though I am no saint. I try, I fail, I try again, I fail again. I believe that God uses the trying and the failing: such is the process of continuing to be saved.

1) Pray silently.

Give an hour a day to God for meditation on Scripture and contemplative prayer. Particularly I recommend silent prayer, and even more particularly, I recommend silent prayer before you begin your day, before you begin your work, before your ego has a chance to fully wake up and begin to plan and plot. As someone with a huge ego, I speak as one with authority on this!

A receptive, or apophatic, prayer practice (as differentiated from an active, or cataphatic, practice) means that you’ll spend less of your devotional time telling God what you think is right. Personally, I’m a fan of Centering Prayer, but whatever medium you choose, the key is to give God time and space to work in you and on you. To let go of your own words, desires, concepts, truths, maybe even your own feelings. Not forever, but for an hour. See what happens when you let the Spirit do the work the Spirit wants to do, not the work you think the Spirit should do.

2) Spend 20% of your time in the community.

Change up your schedule to spend at least a full day of your workweek making and building relationships with people who aren’t part of your church or of any organized religion. For many clergy and laity, this will be totally new, as we are used to spending the bulk of our time with church folk. There’s nothing wrong with church folk. I love church folk! But see how your missional outlook changes when you regularly have coffee with unaffiliated folks (“nones” and “dones”) and listen to why they are where they are. Put this commitment high on your list of ministry priorities. Work intentionally to set up meetings with community leaders. Join a weekly group that’s not faith-oriented and hang out with those folks week in, week out.

3) Plan a new expression of Christian community to launch from your congregation.

Start a vision process now that has as its 2-3 year goal the emergence of a new way of being in mission. Pour a significant portion of your congregation’s energy, time, and money into that experiment. Think of it as holy R&D. Help people get freed up to build something new, compelling, and beautiful for God.

4) Clean up your own side of the street.

The temptation to judge and evaluate others is, at least for me, very real. In the 12-step recovery program I’m part of, I am told that I can treat that temptation by focusing on my own shadow side and by trying to clean up the mess on my side of the street. I think 12-step recovery got that wisdom from Jesus, who teaches that before we attempt to remove the sawdust in someone else’s eye, we first need to remove the 4×4 obstructing our own vision.

I can’t speak for all human beings, but if you’re anything like me, there’s an endless supply of personal ocular lumber. The other day I got into a Twitter argument with someone. The discourse stayed civil and I think my points were fair and sound, but when I finished, I felt this surge of self-righteousness and self-importance. Again, I can’t speak for you, but when I felt that chemical surge, I knew I was in dangerous spiritual territory. If you know what I’m talking about, the next time you feel tempted with that kind of energy, do some street cleaning. Look directly at the stuff that blocks you and warps you. Honestly confront the idols and drugs of choice that you use consciously and unconsciously to maintain your superior sense of self. After a couple doses of that treatment, I usually feel a lot humbler and a lot kinder toward those with whom I disagree.

5) Gradually rethink your boundaries.

I sat next to a really smart, really committed United Methodist Bishop at breakfast one morning during a theological forum in Texas last winter. We were talking and he asked why I thought the church I had helped to plant in Chicago had grown so quickly. When I responded that among other factors, it was because we were trying to be a third-way, inclusive Wesleyan congregation, he seemed to get defensive. He said, Well, if it’s growing because you have no boundaries or foul lines, that’s not good growth. I said, Bishop, with all due respect, it’s not that we disagree that there should be boundaries around or clear descriptions of what discipleship of Jesus looks like, it’s that we disagree about what those lines are. Do you think we might dive deeper than the obsessive foul lines around human sexuality we’ve set up denominationally and reclaim, say, the Wesleyan process of salvation and the traditional evangelical doctrines (repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification) as a way of clarifying what healthy, holy pathways are and what maturing disciples of Jesus look like? He wasn’t convinced of my take, nor was I of his, but this is a long-term communal project that we’ll have time for if we take the low-hanging fruit of schism off the table.

As I write these little suggestions down, I realize how fragmented and unsystematic they are. But I hope that you’ll receive them as I genuinely intend them: as little practices of hope that perhaps God will meet us in and use, in concert with many other offerings, to show us  — all together — a more excellent way.

 

Bishops, Politicians, & the Importance of Being a Sinner

On a cold February night some years ago in Chicago, I sat down with my mentor in his office, opened my journal, took a deep breath, and started to name aloud the sins of my life. Not only to name them but to describe them in detail – the stuff I’d done that I shouldn’t have done, the stuff I should have done but hadn’t, the stuff that had been done to me.

This face-to-face confession is a crucial step in the process of transformation suggested by the recovery community that I am a part of. In the weeks leading up to it, I’d spent many hours working privately on a list of all of my shit. A friend who knew what I was up to told me that I wasn’t looking so good. It turns out that writing down all of your shit can make you feel pretty shitty. It’s painful, after all, to stare honestly at the secrets that you’ve been ignoring or denying for years. And, for me at least, it was even more profoundly painful to acknowledge those hidden things to another living human being.

To admit them to a forgiving God in my prayer closet? No problem.

To whisper them into the night wind under a new moon? Poetic.

To divulge them to a scrap of paper destined for a meaningful fireside ritual? Burn, baby, burn.

But to reveal them to someone sitting across from me?

Faced with this kind of spiritual challenge, if you’re like me, your mind will try to convince you that such drastic measures are absolutely not required for healing. Depending on your personality, your ego will search for Bible verses or Buzzfeed lists or TED Talks in order to rationalize an easier course of treatment. A self-care spa day, maybe, or a punishing new workout regimen at the gym, or dusting off that Tony Robbins book you bought last New Year’s.

Telling the Truth Is Not a Carnival Ride

A friend of mine is a Catholic priest. He says that the confessional booths in his church stay dusty most of the year, until Holy Week, when there’s a bit of a pick-up before Easter. I’m not dissing on Catholics. Once-a-year-in-earnest seems more significant than the lackluster practice of my own Protestant tribe, which generally relegates truth telling about our condition to a tidy little unison prayer tucked in at the beginning of worship.

I get it. Real confession is not a carnival ride.

My mentor said, Are you ready to do this?

I said, Absolutely not.

He said, Let’s push in.

And so, with a metallic taste in my mouth from the adrenaline, I started with the tiniest of things, the stuff in my list that was true but didn’t affect me existentially all that much:

I littered occasionally as a child, I said.

I haven’t recycled properly.

I have an unpaid parking ticket from 1997 that the city can’t pin on me.

(We tend to stay on the surface of things when we know that deep down there’s a Ponzi scheme-level enterprise that we’ve been internally defending even as it kills us.)

My mentor listened to those little bits for a while, and then he said, Trey, why don’t you look through your list and tell me the 3 things that you are scared to death to tell me, the things you thought you would carry to your grave, but you’re going to tell me now?

And so, by some gracious courage that did not come from me, I did tell him those things, and everything else that I was aware of at the time. He heard it all and held it all. I remember him saying with such compassion, Yeah, that’s what happens sometimes. Welcome to being human. Wow, you’ve been guarding that for all these years. Now you can begin to let it go.

So Much More Is On Offer

That night was without a doubt the holiest encounter of my entire life. Coming clean about my shit in the presence of someone who didn’t look away, who didn’t collude with my ego’s desire to cover it over or point the finger at someone else, and who didn’t judge me – that experience began to unlock the armies of locks and to unclog the colonies of clogs that had been holding me captive and slowly cutting off my oxygen supply.

The freedom that I began to feel that night has expanded over the years as, fueled by that selfsame freedom, I began to make amends to those I had harmed, to forgive those who had harmed me, and to slowly – and I mean slowly – recover and rebuild a life built less on secrets and more on truth. The apostle Paul writes of undergoing Christ, It is for freedom that we have been set free, and that is the long-term offer: not just a one-time “cleanse” but a being-freed life powered by honesty, humility, and the unpretentious courage that comes from divine assurance.

A Politics of Confession

I started thinking of all of this afresh early last week when I took part in a conversation at a theology school about what’s needed for meaningful Christian mission and evangelism in the 21st century. Much of the time these conversations center on new techniques for changing psychographics, but we found ourselves talking about the importance, for anyone charged with carrying the Gospel to others, not just of knowing yourself as someone with a message to offer but also – perhaps before anything else – knowing yourself as someone in need of help. In traditional terms: as someone who sins and falls gloriously short.

My social media feed this week is filled with news of police brutality, Prime Ministerial and Presidential candidates, and – in my own particular United Methodist tribe – the election of Bishops.

I see some White people, many of whom are people of Christian faith, reacting to “Black Lives Matter” with equivocation, denial, and defensiveness. Not me! Not us! All Lives Matter! (I can see them because I recognize myself). And I wonder about the correlation between the absence of thorough, ongoing confession in our religious practice and the intensity of our racist or racialized self-justification. It takes practice to admit that you are a sinner and even more practice to allow that truth to be not a statement of paralyzing defeat but a potential acclamation of hope. As many have said in some form or fashion, the healing is in the revealing. We will only be able to chip away at the satanic power and principality of racism by confessing in detail how it has formed / is forming us – blinding us and lifting us up if we are White or silencing us and oppressing us if we are People of Color. Only by true confession can we be joyously freed for larger-scale truth telling and justice seeking into the future.

The Stump Speech I Would Love to Hear

In the spin of the battle for the Bishop’s Office or the White House or 10 Downing Street, I grow tired of the endless tallies of victories won and awards received and bits of vague or ersatz wisdom dispensed. That’s all fine and good, I guess. I get it. It’s all part of the political/PR process in both the government and the church.

But I just long for a candidate or current leader to stand up and tell the deeper truth. Can you imagine someone starting their speech or sermon not with their shiny c.v. but instead with their list of shit?

Let me tell you about a time that I really fucked up. Let me tell you how I am guilty of sin now and how that drives me again and again into a dependence on Someone-Who-Is-Not-Me. Let me confess some of my failures to you as a testimony that I am indeed someone like you, someone in need, someone who continues to undergo transformation and therefore can join you in the transformation of everything.

I would trust a leader like that.

I want to be a sinner like that.

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.

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.

 

You May Fall Apart

Because I’ve always lived in big cities, scaffolding has been a regular fixture in my life – not only the pipes and decking assembled for new construction work but also the brackets and braces that hold crumbling buildings together during repair.

It’s not just buildings, either. I think that we all have scaffolding in place. Stuff that props us up, tricks that help get us through, temporary remedies to steady the tottering frameworks we have come to mistake for real life.

A Sabbath is a day to take down the scaffolding and to remember what it’s like to be human without all the props.

Depending on who you are and where you are, that will sound like the best idea or the worst idea in the world.

Cease producing?

Lay off the multi-tasking?

Waste time?

What will I do?

Who will I be, if I’m not working (or organizing or producing or fixing or managing or planning)?

If I stop moving, I may totally fall apart!

Despite its ancient roots, Sabbath is still such a culturally weird practice that even folks who have the privilege of having two days off every week may find themselves filling the time with stuff. A friend was recently describing his “weekend”: he went to the gym twice (trying to lose weight), did all his laundry, did his taxes, deep-cleaned the bathroom, painted his study, weeded the garden, washed the dog, planned a friend’s birthday party, and bought plane tickets for his summer vacation. If that’s a weekend off, I can only imagine what his “vacation” will look like!

Look: I’m not saying that his activity, or activity in general, is necessarily unhealthy. It may indeed be a normal weekend for lots of people. But it’s not Sabbath.

So, here’s an invitation:

Stop.

Really stop. For a day. One day.

Take down the scaffolding and see what happens.

Crumbling may occur. You may even fall apart.

It will be worth it.