5 Ways to Prepare to Be on Mission

Like everything worthwhile in life, becoming more missional requires us to prepare.  Does that mean that we have to be rigid?  Of course not!  But it does mean that we need to be thoughtful as we begin to live like a missionary.

Let me illustrate this:

My parents are visiting us for Thanksgiving.  We’ve had such a great time so far!  I’m so grateful for them and their love for us!  One of the realities when they visit, however, is that we need to prepare; we need to get ready for their arrival if we want to be hospitable.

What does that look like?  Well, this time around it meant Alida (my wife) and I carefully planning out our meals, including our Thanksgiving feast (which was a-ma-zing!).  It also means that we need to plan a few things to do.  We don’t want to fill our schedule up, because we want to have some time to just hang with my parents, but we do want to do a few things.  So this year we planned to go to a stage production and on a movie studio tour.  We’ve already had a blast, and I hope it’s going to continue!  And part of the reason this is true is that Alida and I planned well.

What then does this have to do with being on mission as a follower of Jesus?  Well, in my opinion, being on mission requires intentionality.  We usually won’t just fall into being more missional!  We need to plan for it and then we need to carry out those plans!

Here are a few ways to prepare to be on mission:

  1. Seek the Lord’s Guidance: The centrality of prayer can’t be focused upon enough!  We must connect with God and ask him how and where he wants us to be on mission.  If we go out in our own power, then we are setting up a situation where we are the ones who will get all the praise.  Instead, let’s ask the Lord in prayer what he wants for us, and then let’s follow through with our actions.
  2. Build a Support Base: Before going out on mission it’s important to have a solid team of folks who are behind you and with you.  These can be obvious people, like your friends and family, or you could reach out and ask a missional person whom you respect but don’t know all that well to mentor you through this process.  Whichever way you go, hear this: Don’t go alone!
  3. Seek Guidance: There’s an old adage that applies here: Don’t try to reinvent the wheel!  There are tons of people who have walked down this path before you.  Read books by missional thinkers (I suggest the following to start: Tangible Kingdom, AND, and The Forgotten Ways.  Another thing to do is to ask missionary-minded people whom you know what their lives look like on a day-to-day basis.  Don’t be shy to ask this!  You’d be surprised how willing people are to share and how honored they’ll be that you asked!
  4. Read about Jesus Constantly: Our best example of living missionally is in the life of Jesus himself.  So, read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John often.  Read them however makes sense to you.  Here’s what I’ve been doing lately: I read one story at a time (you can cheat and use the headings in your Bible!) and then I write down any insights that I feel the Spirit speaking into my life about how to be on mission with the risen Jesus in my own life.  This is a simple method, but it has proven very effective!
  5. Assess Your Circles: Who are you connected to?  Who are your friends?  If you’re like me, then you might find yourself completely encircled by followers of Jesus.  This is a great thing!  But it makes it a bit hard to be on mission if everyone around you already knows Jesus!  So, think carefully about how you might inject yourself into different contexts in order to become friends with those who don’t yet know Jesus.  One way that I’ve been experimenting with lately is playing pick-up basketball at a local gym.  There are hundreds of other ways.  Be creative!

There are lots of other ways to prepare to be on mission.  Can you think of any?  Let me know in the comments below!

Living the Future into the Present

One of the hardest things about seminary was reading Jürgen Moltmann.  His works are dense and complex — well, they were for me at least!  However, Moltmann has been a major, shaping influence on my thinking and on how I live as well.  By trudging through his book Theology of HopeI came to a better and more complete understanding of eschatology, the study of how human history will end.

Up until I read Theology of HopeI was convinced that eschatology was something that got me through some boring sermons as a teenager (the book of Revelation reads an awful lot like the fantasy novels I loved then!), or an interest that only complete wingnuts had, or it was just an addendum slapped onto the end of a systematic theology.  I certainly knew that you didn’t preach about it since I had heard so few sermons covering eschatology growing up attending church services.

Suffice it to say, my understanding of eschatology was seriously limited!

But then I read Theology of Hope.  Moltmann helped me better understand why what we believe about the end matters.  He helped me better understand the future-orientation of both Jesus and Paul.  And Moltmann gave me an interpretative lense through which to understand the eschatology I read in the Bible and to apply it to my very own life in the here and now.

I want to share with you the passage that turned the light on for me:

From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. (Theology of Hope, page 16)

Let that sink in for a minute.  Really.  Go back and read it again.  And then again.  Let it marinate with you for a little bit.  Then read it again.

 

Okay, here’s how I understand what Moltmann is getting at: He’s saying that the future, namely Christ’s glorious return and God’s remaking all things new, is real.  It’s so real that it has the power to change the present.  The future can change the now.

Here’s one more way of saying the same thing: God is calling us to live the future into the present, just as Jesus prayed, “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The future realities that we read about in Revelation 4-5, 7, and 21-22 can begin to be realized now.

We can participate in God’s will to bring all people groups together, tearing down all the walls of separation.

We can work with God in order to bring real peace and reconciliation in our world.

We can join in God’s work of recreation in our own lives, in the lives of others, and in our world.

Now we cannot do these things in our own power.  It’s only through the working and empowering of the Holy Spirit within our communities!

The future is coming.  It’s not a maybe kind of thing.  The future reality is the real reality…and God is calling us to live that future reality into our present.

But how?  How can we do this within a missional context (or any context for that matter!)?

  1. We can live in Christian community with people very different from us.  The picture painted in Revelation 5 and 7 of those who will be present to worship God at the end is beautiful — there will be every sort of person there!  Why then do we syphon our selves off into little affinity groups where everyone looks like us and thinks like us?  The call of the Bible is as clear as the crystal sea: We are to be in community with those different from us.
  2. We can be workers of peace and reconciliation in our lives.  As we look forward to the future reality that is being brought to fruition, it is obvious that Jesus created peace and reconciliation by offering his whole self up.  We can follow suit.  Peace and reconciliation are tough and costly, but not to pursue them is disobedience and, ultimately, sinful.  So as we see brokenness, we must leverage all the power and influence we have to bring healing.  When we see strife, we must work tirelessly to bring resolution.
  3. We can utilize our talents and gifts to bring new life to a dead world.  Death is all around us.  It’s in us.  Our present reality is really pretty bleak if you think about it.  We’re hurtling through space on this tiny spec of dirt…and then we die.  Where is hope in that?  Nowhere, that’s where!  Our only hope must come from outside the system, from God himself.  And God brought hope to us in the person of Jesus.  As we follow him he will lead us into ways that bring life to our dying world.  He’ll lead us to hydrate the thirsty trees that are desperate to bear fruit.  And he’ll pour his refreshing water over our lives too, cleansing us and preparing us for our next steps.

How else can we live the future reality of God’s ultimate victory into our lives today?  Let me know in the comments below!

Thanksgiving Date

werner22brigitte / Pixabay

The fall is the favorite time of year for my wife (Alida) and I.  The weather is nice, you can get pumpkin-flavored anything, and it’s the month that has Thanksgiving in it.  Oh, and I can’t forget about football!

On top of all of that, Alid and I got married in the fall: October 12, 2002.

In other words, we really love the fall!  And one of our fall traditions is our annual Thanksgiving Date.

Here’s what we do: Every year around Thanksgiving Alida and I have a special date.  We try to plan the date as close to Thanksgiving day itself as our schedules will allow.  Sometimes this means that we have this date the day before Thanksgiving and at other times we’ll do this several days early.

Either way, the purpose of this date is simple — we just want to let one another know how thankful we are for each other and our marriage.  So we take turns sharing something we are thankful for back and forth.

We do this twenty-five times.  It’s usually pretty fast and we can do it while eating a meal together.  But now and again one of the things we are thankful for needs a little discussion or is really funny!  Either way, all we want to do during this time is connect with one another and show real appreciation for each other.

This has got me thinking…how appreciative of Alida am I every single day?  Do I say “thank you” enough?  Do I intentionally go out of my way to show Alida how grateful I am for all that she does for me?  Am I consistent in expressing to Alida that simply by being her she has totally changed my life for the better?

Or do I try to stick all that gratitude into our annual Thanksgiving Date?

I know I’m not perfect.  But I do often make an effort to be grateful.  But could I do more?  Absolutely!

So, here’s the question: Do you let the people in your life who are important (e.g., spouse, kids, parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, etc.) know how much they mean to you?  When’s the last time you looked one of those people in the eye and said “Thank you for being you.”

Here are a few ideas to get started:

  1. Say “thank you” a lot, so much so that it feels like too much.  It would be way, way better to err on this side of things than the other.  Become known and the thank-you guy or woman!
  2. Plan a meeting/date/hangout during which your sole purpose is to show appreciation.  So have a meal with someone and prepare a few things to tell them you are thankful for.  Getting reciprocation is great but even if you don’t get anything back, it’s still worth it to invest in the life of someone else.
  3. Send some of the most important people in your life a handwritten, thank-you note through the mail.  No one gets real snail mail anymore!  Our mailboxes are just stuffed with junk mail, ads, and printed invites.  Your hand-written note will really bless the socks off whoever you send it too!
  4. Thank the people most important to you in public ways too.  A private thank you is paramount.  Nothing can replace that!  But there’s something special about showing appreciation for someone important to you in public (e.g., while speaking in front of a group, on Facebook or Twitter, or even just in conversation with someone else).  I distinctly remember many of the times when I was thanked publicly — each one made my day!

Can you think of some other ways to be thankful?  Let me know in the comments below.

Kobe and Laying Down Power in the Church

My wife and I life in Pasadena, CA, which is the first city you come to as you travel east out of north Los Angeles.  We love it here!  And here’s one small reason: if you planned well and had decent traffic, then in the winter in LA you could ski in the morning, go to the beach in the afternoon, and watch a world-class stage production in the evening.  Amazing!

Besides how expensive it is to live here, one of the other things that I don’t like about LA is the constant chatter about the Lakers (the local basketball team, in case you didn’t know).  I love basketball, but I don’t really have a team that I root for.  Over the last few years I’ve grown to love the Clippers (LA’s other team) because they seem like they need a few more fans.  However, I’ve always, more or less, rooted against the Lakers, even before moving here.

Why?  Because I like to see new teams win sometimes!  And the Lakers have won sixteen championships!  In other words, I’m kind of tired of the same ol’, same ol’ when it comes to basketball.

It has been brought to my attention today, thanks to local news on the TV and sports-talk radio, that Kobe Bryant, the Lakers’ longtime star, has re-signed with the team for two years at a reported rate of 48.5 million US dollars.  That’s a ton of cash, especially when you take into consideration the fact that Kobe hasn’t played at all this season yet due to an achilles heel injury.

The Lakers are really betting it all on Kobe with this deal.  Because they re-signed him at such a large salary, the Lakers will have less money to sign other star players.  In other words, Kobe requires such a large investment, that the Lakers will have less wiggle room under the salary cap to lure any other players to LA.

All of this reminds me of something I heard recently.  Some people from the church my wife and I attend went to Mosaix this year.  Mosaix is a global network of believers, churches, para-church groups, schools, etc. who are attempting to catalyze a “movement toward multiethnic churches in the twenty-first century for the sake of the gospel.”  During a post-conference meeting a woman from our church shared this reflection gleaned from the conference: “Every perspective (white, black, Latino, Asian, etc.) has to give up something in order for us to gain traction toward truly becoming multiethnic.”

To translate that into Matt-ese, she’s saying that if we are really going to be the body of Christ the way that God envisions it (Revelation 7.9), then we all have to lay down whatever power me might have for the benefit of everyone else.  We must stop holding onto whatever power we have (which we tend to use for ourselves and those like us) and start making space for those who are different from us.

I’m going to do something heavy-handed here.  Ready?  This is what Jesus did.  Philippians 2.6-7 says Jesus “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”  And how does Paul introduce these words in Philippians 2.5?  He says “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset of Christ Jesus.”

Ouch.

So, let me get this straight.  I’m supposed to have the same attitude that Jesus had and Jesus gave up his power for the benefit of others.  So that means in my life I’m being called by God to give up my power, my advantages, and my preferences so that others can flourish.

Dang.  That’s hard!

And the situation with Kobe is a reminder of our basic human makeup.  Left to our own devices, the vast majority of us will take as much money as we can get, even if it hurts our team and our chances of ever winning again.  Left to our own devices, we’ll not make space for others, instead will actively and subconsciously exclude people.  Left to our own devices, we’re pretty selfish from top to bottom.

So the missional call is to live like Jesus, emptying ourselves for the benefit of others.  That might mean that we have less control, we have less time, we have less say, we have less money, we have less power, and we have less influence.  But it will mean that we’re obeying the clear call from God in the Bible to put the interests of others before our own.

And that unselfish living is what our culture is hungry for.  That’s what can make us stand out from the crowd.  That’s what can help create in us lives that invite others to come to know this Jesus who changes our lives.  That’s what can help us fulfill the Great Commandment (Matthew 22.37-39) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28.19-20).

Let’s do this together!

Do you have any ideas of what laying down our power might look like?  How have you done it?  How have you seen it done?  What were the results?  Share with me in the comments below!

Football or Going to Church?

I ran across an amazing quote from Hugh Halter the other day.  It’s from his book entitled AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church, which is co-written by Matt Smay.  Here it is:

If the vision of the church is not scary, if it doesn’t require everyone to pitch in, if faith is not needed, then folks will stay home and watch the football game.” (139)

This one is particularly interesting to me since it is Monday morning, the day after which Tony Romo led the Cowboys, my favorite football team, to a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback!  And, to be honest, my wife and I decided not to go to church yesterday at all.  Instead, we went hiking and then we watched some football.  Before you get too worried about us, we did go to church on Saturday night, and our normal Sunday-morning responsibilities were canceled this week.

Hans / Pixabay

So even though it was “okay” for us not to be at church yesterday, it sure did feel funny!  But I wonder if it felt funny because it broke our deeply-ingrained habits, or was it because we are truly connected to a church with vision where we feel needed.  Honestly, it’s probably a little bit of both.

This leads naturally to another question for me: If lifers like Alida and I sometimes feel disconnected from the vision of gathered worship, what do folks who don’t have the same level of history think?  My guess is that they don’t think much about church at all on Sunday mornings, and that if they do, they probably just think it’s cute and quaint.  Sure, there will be a few who hate church and decry it for one reason or another.  But my guess is that for most people, gathering together at a building called a “church” to sing songs, sit and stand, listen to a sermon, and give money never comes up.

And when it does come up, I wonder how often hiking, football, sleeping in, having brunch, etc. trumps gathering with believers to worship God?

Who knows.  Provably a lot.  But here’s a better question: Why are people choosing to gather less and less these days?  Why aren’t people coming, including people who profess to believe in Jesus?

I think Hugh is right, our vision isn’t all that compelling.  We aren’t all that attractive relative to other choices.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that Jesus’ vision for those who follow him would involve going out and coming together (Matthew 28.19-20).  But it seems that we’ve simplified Jesus’ mission into activities that revolve around gathering together.  Sure, we’ll throw in a few scattering things here and there: we’ll pack a shoebox full of inexpensive toys at Christmas, and we’ll gather school supplies for those sad public school kids, and we’ll write a check to support missionaries.  But that’s pretty much the extent of our participation in the scattering of the church.

Not long ago I was convinced missionaries, evangelists, and their sort were the ones who were goers.  The rest of us were people who went to church.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who had envisioned the professionalization of scattering that way.

So we’ve limited Jesus’ mission for us by half.  We’ve more or less eliminated the scattering and just focused on the gathering.  But our vision for gathering together seems very different from what Jesus had in mind.

In the Great Commission (Matthew 28.19-20) there are several things to learn about gathering together: 1) It should enable disciple-making; 2) It should involve folding people fully into the family of God through baptism; and 3) It should involve instruction to obey all that Jesus commanded his disciples.

Let’s start with #3.  Our gatherings in most Evangelical churches are almost solely about teaching.  We’ll have one person stand in front of many people and teach for 20, 30, 40 minutes, or longer.  I hope that our teaching revolves around what Jesus taught his disciples, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t always.  Besides, Jesus taught about some crazy stuff like loving your enemies, prioritizing God above family, caring for those in the most need, and praying for God’s future reality to become real in the present.

Now to #2.  We have baptisms in our gatherings, which is awesome!  It’s always one of my favorite things!  However, since so few of us ever actually go out to make new disciples, our baptisms are few and far between, even at large churches.  (Caveat: there are some churches who are baptizing folks like crazy, which is awesome!  My guess: they’ve fostered a better sense of missionality in all of their people.)

#1. When we gather it should be about disciple-making.  “So are you saying that every sermon should be about deciding between Jesus and hell?”  No, not necessarily.  What I am saying is that when we gather one of the chief purposes should be for us all to grow in our discipleship.  So new believers should be learning and old believers should be learning.  All of us should be helping one another, in the power of the Spirit, to figure out how to follow Jesus better.

And following Jesus leads us to gather together and to go out into the world on mission with him.

So if our vision for church is about buildings, budgets, and butts, we’re not going to inspire many people to gather and scatter.  And if our vision is to tell people what we think they want to hear, we’re not going to inspire many people to gather and scatter.  And if our vision is really about our personal, financial security (“There’s a mortgage to pay…”), then we’re not going to inspire many people to gather and scatter.

It’s time we catch Jesus’ vision, namely that we get to participate with God as he reconciles all things to himself through Christ (2 Corinthians 5.19).  That’s a scary vision.  That’s a vision that needs all of us to pitch in.  That’s a vision that requires faith.  That’s a vision that will inspire people to skip out on sleeping in, hiking, watching football, etc.  That’s a vision that will transform our lives, our communities, and our world!

What We Can Learn from Mormons (and Derwin Gray!)

A book that I read almost a decade ago has had a lasting impact on my understanding of religion, the early history of Christianity, and how and why people choose which religious tradition to follow.  The book’s title is The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries by Rodney Stark, the Co-Director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.  I really can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Interestingly, writing Rise began a journey for Dr. Stark that would lead him to study Christianity more and more.  And after some time devoted to looking into Christian history specifically, to paraphrase his own words, he found one day that he himself was a Christian!  Dr. Stark has written many other books as well, including another one about early Christianity that I love called Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome.

I wanted to introduce you to Dr. Stark and his work for one reason: He shared something in Rise about Mormons that changed the way that I have thought about evangelism.  He begins his book by discussing, from a sociological perspective, how people convert from one religious tradition to another.  In that line of thinking, he shared the following paragraph:

“Data based on records kept by a Mormon mission president give powerful support to this proposition [that people convert based on established social networks],  When missionaries make cold calls, knock on the doors of strangers, this eventually leads to a conversion once out of a thousand calls.  However, when missionaries make their first contact with a person in the home of a Mormon friend or relative of that person, this results in conversion 50 percent of the time” (Rise, 18).

Did you catch that?  The Mormons, who are famous for their data collecting, say when their missionaries go up to a stranger to share the “good news,” that works once out of a thousand times!  But when they take advantage of the existing social networks of their rank-and-file members, it works 50 percent of the time!  That’s just amazing!

Maybe you’re like me and you grew up in the church and were taught how to do cold-call evangelism.  You may still remember your parts of the rehearsed “if you died tonight” conversation or maybe you’re been trained in Evangelism Explosion.  Well, according to Dr. Stark, these methods simply aren’t all that successful.  We’d be better served to look into our circles of friends and family to find potential new followers of Jesus.

But how do we do this?  How do we live our lives in such a way that our friends and family will be interested in following Jesus?  In other words, how can we be more missional?

Derwin Gray is helpful here.  At the church where he is the pastor followers of Jesus who are missional, whom they call “Transformers”, are marked by five characteristics.  The last of these is what he calls “Inviting.”  Just to be clear, Derwin doesn’t mean that they invite people to church!  Instead, what he means is that missional followers of Jesus live an inviting life, the kind of life that leads other people to ask them what they are all about.

Naturally this idea of the inviting life leads to some obvious questions: Is my life inviting?  As I do life among my friends and family do I look more like Jesus (communal, sacrificial, and giving) or a standard American (individualistic, conumeristic, and materialistic)?  How can I shift my life to be more and more inviting?  How can I better use my life and my circles of influence to participate in the making of new disciples?

I don’t have all the answers.  Heck, I’m just starting out on this journey myself!  But here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  1. We need to have a missional posture: It’s important to view ourselves as missionaries in our neighborhood.  This subtle shift can change everything!
  2. We need to focus on relationships: As Evangelicals we sometimes get fixated on having a conversation with someone that ends with them praying the sinners prayer and we miss the fact that it’s relationships that matter!  Look at how Jesus led people into discipleship — he didn’t reason them in; he was their friend and lived life with them, slowly revealing himself to them.
  3. We must be intentional: Living an attractive life, an inviting life, isn’t just going to happen.  We have to strategize!  That means that we need to purposefully place ourselves in places where we can begin and deepen relationships with people who don’t follow Jesus yet.
  4. We can’t be judgmental: If we want to be inviting to those who don’t follow Jesus yet, the fastest way to throw a monkey wrench into the whole situation is by being judgmental!  Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5.12 are helpful here: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?”  I’m pretty sure that we Evangelicals tend to skip that little gem!
  5. We need to think incarnationally: Jesus came to earth and lived among us and made disciples.  Then, as he was leaving his disciples he asked them to make disciples of all the nations.  How though?  Well, follow Jesus’ example.  Invite people into your life and let them live life with you.  There’s a danger here though and Tim Keller captured it well in a video that was played during Exponential West.  To paraphrase, he said, “If we aren’t living holy lives, then discipleship will be impossible.”  So, if we want to make disciples, new ones or deepening old ones, then we must make every effort, with the power of the Spirit, to live followable lives.
  6. We should build belonging before believing: Historically Evangelicals have done just the opposite; we have called people to believe, then, once they do, we enter into relationship with them.  That’s simply not the picture we get from Jesus’ life.  He created space for people to belong and gave them time to grow into believing.

There are a thousand other ways to be more missional but these six are a start!

What are some other ways that we can be more missional as followers of Jesus?  Let me know in the comments below!

The Power of Labels: Proverbs 14.31

dustytoes / Pixabay

I was recently asked to do a devotional at a local, Christian, non-profit organization.  I jumped at the opportunity because I really believe in the work that this group does (justice-focused ministries for folks in my very neighborhood) and because I always love sharing from the Bible with people.

But as I started thinking and praying about what I wanted to talk about I started hitting a brick wall.  What can or should I say to a group of believers who care deeply and passionately about the tangible good news of the kingdom of God?  Should I do a cheerleader kind of devotional which will pat them all on their proverbial backs?  Should I challenge them to give more deeply to the cause of the gospel?  Or should I approach this all a bit differently?

I chose the latter — I chose to look at a biblical picture of how we are to interact with those who are oppressed, those who are in need.  I was hoping that this would be powerful for two reasons: 1) That it would give them some Scriptural validation for the work that they do; and 2) That they would in fact be challenged by the witness of the Bible with regard to those who are impoverished.

While there are hundreds and hundreds of verses about poverty, those who are in need, and God’s opinion toward those who are oppressed, some verses are more powerful to me than others.  As I was trying to decide which of these verses to select, I went over to World Vision’s website and read through some of the verses regarding poverty that they highlight there.

Proverbs 14.31 stood out.  Here it is: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

The very first thing that ran through my head when I read this verse anew was how it connected with Matthew 25.37-40.  There, as in Proverbs 14, the way that the oppressed are treated reflects back on God himself.  To put it differently, those who are poor and God are specially connected.  In fact, I think that we can safely say that when we look into the lives of those who are in need we catch a glimpse of God’s character that we can’t see elsewhere.  And we can say with great confidence that God cares deeply about how those who are impoverished are treated.

As I was unpacking these ideas with the group at the non-profit most of the non-verbal feedback I got was positive.  I felt that I had taken the correct approach.  So I continued talking as I had planned.  I used the language of the text in Proverbs 14 as I talked, namely “poor” and “needy,” and didn’t think twice about it.

Then after I finished my devotional one of the members of the team, whom I greatly respect and I count as a true ally in the work of the kingdom, noted that he didn’t like the word “poor” all that much, even though the Bible uses it a bunch.  After he said this, many others agreed heartily!  They pointed out, rightly so, that the words “poor” and “needy” are judgmental, or at least they can be percieved to be so.  For some people being labeled as “poor” or “needy” brings with it shame and/or frustration.

Some of the preferred words that were shared with me were “vulnerable,” “marginalized,” and “underprivileged.”  I’m happy with all of these terms because they do tend to be less judgmental.

However, the text in Proverbs 14 might help here a bit.  The Hebrew word, dal, that the NIV renders “poor,” is an evocative word.  It means “one who is low” or “one who is thin.”  When applied in different contexts, this word can be translated as “weak” or “poor.”  The implication seems to be that the pressures of life, injustice, and oppression can press people down and squeeze them.

When I shared this lexical information with the folks who worked at the non-profit they seemed excited about it!  They were all aware, either personally or through those whom they served, that lots and lots of people in our world are “squeezed” beyond belief.

The word in the second half of the verse, which in Hebrew is ebyon, is different.  It is more clearly to be understood as “one who is in material need,” i.e., it really does mean “poor” as in “doesn’t have much money or many possessions.”  Sometimes, of course, the context of a passage may lead one to translate ebyon as “oppressed” but that is natural enough: all throughout history those who don’t have much have been taken advantage of by others.

However, because the two words are presented as synonyms in tandem, the more specific word, elyon, controls the meaning of the less specific word, dal.  Thus, both words do have a material context.  Both have to do with folks who are in need financially.  However, it would be wise of us to use words that are less shame- and frustration-inducing.  Perhaps instead of using “poor” we can use “dejected.”  And instead of “needy” we can use “person in need.”

Lastly, how does the text encourage us to interact with the dejected and those in need?  The NIV says that we are “to be kind” to them.  This translation isn’t all that good in my opinion.  The basic meaning of this word, hanan in Hebrew, is to show favor or grace.  In other words, God’s word is calling us to yearn toward the poor, to extend to them tangible expressions of the love and mercy God has shown to us.  And one simple way we can show grace toward those who are poor is to use the least offensive words to describe them as possible.

The labels we use are important, especially when they are used of people.  It’s well past time that we used more discretion when applying labels to human beings!

Picnics and Mission Statements

Almost seven months ago my wife, Alida, switched jobs.  She was a speech-language pathologist at an agency that was about a one-hour, one-way commute from our house.  Now she’s a speech-language pathologist at an agency four miles from our house!  This change has allowed us to spend more time together, both thanks to the time we get back because she’s in the car less and the opportunities to have random lunches together.

bodiantal / Pixabay

Today we had one of those random lunches.  We met at a park near her office and had salad and a dessert together, picnic style.  I was almost finished eating when I did something my mom taught me not to do — I was talking with my mouth full.  Some food feel from my mouth onto my plate.  Naturally enough, I scooped that partially-chewed food up with the next bite and ate it.

But the craziness of the scene made me giggle.  Alida asked what I was laughing about and I said, “If I don’t have to tell you, I’m not going to.”  “Is it that nasty piece of food that fell out of your mouth that you just re-ate?” Alida correctly guessed.  We both had a great laugh together!

I’m truly grateful for moments like these.  Without them, life wouldn’t be half as fun as it is!  And we had this silly moment because of the decision that we made together for Alida to switch to an agency closer to home.

Now I want to be honest, that decision was really hard…for a ton of reasons.  But one reason why it was really hard for us to make is that we didn’t have a stated mission as a couple.  I am to blame for this.  Why?  Because Alida has been wanting us to have a mission statement forever, pretty much since they day I asked her to marry me.  But I was reticent because I thought it was cheesy and a bit too corporate for my laid-back ways.

But as I was praying today, it struck me why she and I have had such a hard time making some decisions: we don’t have a stated mission as a couple.

So after we cracked up about how gross I am and talked about some other stuff, I admitted to Aldia that she had been right all along about mission statements.  She got this huge, ear-to-ear grin!  And right there at the same table where I had just re-eaten some food, we crafted our very first mission statement as a couple.

Here it is: To make the God’s love tangible in our world.

May God be honored by our intentionality and may he work through us to his glory!

Whether you’re in a couple or not, do you have a mission statement?  If so, want to share it in the comments?

Failing at the Elevator Pitch

Nemo / Pixabay

Nemo / Pixabay

So yesterday was a big day!  My wife and I were hosting a team of six folks at our place to chat about the mid-sized community that we all help lead.  My goal at this meeting was to cast the missional/incarnational vision very clearly so that the six of us could dream together about how to shift our group from away from being attractional.

So I had been praying and preparing for several days.  I had a solid feel for what I would say and how I would say it.  Then I checked my email and I noticed a message from the Michael Hyatt newsletter.  If you don’t know, Michael Hyatt is a publisher, author, blogger, and leadership coach and consultant.  There’s a bunch of stuff on his blog about leadership, personal development, developing your brand, etc.  He’s really great!

Well the email from his newsletter linked to a really interesting article called “Why You Need an Elevator Pitch (and How to Create One)”  An elevator pitch is a short but effective way to tell someone about your idea in a limited amount of time, say the amount of time you have in an elevator with someone.  Michael Hyatt gave four pieces of advice:

  1. Describe your idea.
  2. Talk about the problem.
  3. How can your idea help solve the problem.
  4. What’s the key benefit of your idea.

I wrote these four phrases on a piece of paper and stuck it in my pocket.  My plan was that all throughout the day I would use the elevator pitch idea to think more carefully about how to cast vision with the team that evening.  I practiced while driving, in my mind while hanging out with friends, while in the shower, before leading a devotional, while at an immigration-reform rally, and then while cleaning the house.

I had honed the pitch down to two sentences: “My hope is for us to view ourselves as missionaries where we work, play, and live because the “if you build it, they will come” version of church just isn’t working anymore.  We can accomplish this by being more intentional about our up (connection with God), our in (community), and our out (service) and in so doing we can begin to express tangibly God’s love in our world.”

Saying those two sentences takes no more than thirty seconds.  That’s it.  Thirty seconds.

Why, then, in the moment with the team in our living room, did I spend twenty minutes explaining the vision!  Ugh.  I really blew it.  Luckily the team knows me pretty well and each of them has extended grace to me before.  And, despite my inadequacies, they all seemed to understand what I was talking about to some degree.

It wasn’t a total loss.  But as an elevator pitch it was an epic failure!

Has something like this ever happened to you?  Tell me about it in the comments.

Here’s book I recommend by Michael Hyatt about developing your brand: Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World.

Missional Beginnings

How did this all start for me?  How did the passion for having a missional posture and incarnational habits begin in me?

Well, it all started for me just about a month ago at Exponential West.  Exponential is a church-planting network that hosts conferences during which folks from all over the world come to get inspired and to learn.  This year the theme was “Discipleshift” — helping churches make disciples.  I was asked to go by Lake Avenue Church, where I am a member, congregational leader, and a part-time, temporary staff member.  The work that I do at Lake is specifically connected with discipleship and my role as a congregational leader is as part of a leadership team for a diverse group of young adults called Crossroads.  In other words, I am fully invested in discipleship at Lake.

So I went to the conference with some other folks from Lake, both staff and non-staff members.  From the very first session that I attended to the last I was blown away!  A simple and basic theme ran through everything — we need to get back to what’s centrally important: making disciples.  Sounds pretty simple and I think that almost all of us would agree with that basic premise.

But our churches just aren’t doing a good job of making disciples anymore. I talked about this some in a previous blog entitled New Wine?. But to reiterate, basically the churches in the U.S. that are growing are growing thanks to transfer growth and most churches in the U.S. aren’t baptizing any new believers who don’t have familial connections with the church already.

But making disciples is more than just making new disciples; it also involves helping those who are already following the risen Jesus follow him better. Our primary means of facilitating this growth in most churches in the U.S. has been through cognitive learning done at the church. Now there’s nothing wrong with cognitive learning!  But the truth is that it simply is not enough on its own. Why not? Because there are different types of learners. Because cognitive learning does not always lead to different behavioral habits. Because some people who want to follow Jesus need to learn within intimate community and/or in experiential, hands-on kind of ways.

Also, a second common theme at Exponential West was that being a disciple means at least two things: 1) A disciple’s life shows growth in fulfilling the Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22.37-39: Love God and love your neighbor); and 2) A disciple’s life shows growth in helping to fulfill with others the Great Commission (Matthew 28.19-20: Go and make disciples).  So, to put it more simply, a disciple is a follower of Jesus who loves God, loves his neighbor, and seeks to make disciples of others.

What does this look like?  Well, this is where a third theme emerged, which I have given a shorthand: Up, In, and Out.  This Up-In-and-Out language came to me from the mission statement at Transformation Church in Rock Hill, SC, which is pastored by Derwin Gray.  But here’s the point, a disciple has a strong relationship with God (Up), fosters authentic and fun community (In), and cares about living out the gospel in the world (Out).  My understanding of this concept grew thanks to the book by Hugh Halter called The Tangible Kingdom.  Hugh calls these three ways a disciple lives communion (Up), community (In), and mission (Out).

After taking in all of this on the first day of the conference, I was lying on the hotel-room bed staring at the darkened ceiling asking myself how I had missed all of this.  How could I have so contrived what it means to follow Jesus that I’ve missed the simplicity of growing in fulfillment of the Greatest Commandment and the Great Commission?  Up, In, and Out is so simple and so straightforward.  And yet for most of my life as a follower of Jesus I’ve focused almost solely on Up, some on In, and very little on Out.

As I stared at the ceiling I felt a growing sense of excitement that some of the things that I had been learning about could be implemented in my life and into the life of the community of which I am a part.  I started dreaming about ways to change some of what I do to become more missional.  I started thinking about how to tweak a few things in Crossroads so that we could better encourage one another to fulfill the Greatest Commandment and the Great Commission.  I started to get a vision for how things could be different.

Upon returning home I started sharing this vision with my wife, Alida.  She loved it!  Immediately she and I began discussing some new difficulties that might arise as a result of doing church differently.  We also started thinking about how our lives as a couple could change if we adopted a missional posture and began forming incarnational habits.  We both got really excited about this idea!  Alida is also part of the six-person leadership team of Crossroads and she thought that it would be wise and fair to share the vision with the rest of the team as well.  So, over the next few weeks I met with each of the other leaders in Crossroads to share with them what I had been learning.  To a person, everyone was excited!

Fast forward a bit and we come to last night.  Since we have a leadership meeting coming up on Monday night, I thought it would be good to remind our team of what we had chatted about.  So I sent them all an email that had a list of talking points for Monday.  The goal was for us to all be thinking about how focusing on discipleship from a missional/incarnational perspective might change how we do things in Crossroads.  With that meeting just a few days away now, my excitement is growing as I think about what dreaming together with our leadership team might look like!

What impact might this new wine have?  Only time will tell!

If you are interested in some helpful tools, I highly recommend the following two books, both by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay: The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community and AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church.