Thursday, April 29, 2010

New Wineskins: Accountability

We’ve all heard it—usually from a child about 5 or 6 years old but the malady may continue into the teen years: “You’re not my boss!” Independence (and defiance) is asserted at an early age. As we discover our personal autonomy, we feel compelled to express it.

We see this quite often in our daily lives—at work, at sporting events, in the church. The autonomous individual must exercise his or her free will no matter the consequences. I certainly agree that each of us is free to make our own decisions but this freedom must be balanced with responsibility and accountability. If we live in community, there must be not only boundaries but a social contract as well. In return for our autonomy, we must be willing to give up some things. In doing so, we become not only moral beings but responsible members of society. This is the way that leads to growth.

In Missional Renaissance, Reggie McNeal writes, “Genuine spirituality lives and flourishes only in cultures and relationships of accountability.” Churches fail their members when they do not help them be intentional about their own growth and provide structures to help them in their development. This is not authoritarianism. This is personal discipline. A similar emphasis is found in coaching. Life coaches provide accountability to their clients but they have only the authority given to them by the clients themselves.

Missional faith communities practice accountability. They believe that genuine spiritual growth and authentic ministry only take place where there is a high degree of accountability. Because of their size, this is a very intentional and visible part of their community life. Whether the accountability is to the entire group or to another individual, the member of a missional faith community is deeply involved in his or her own spiritual development. Each person knows that others not only will hold them accountable but will provide support and guidance as well.

Is this counter-cultural? It probably is, but maybe that is why it is so important.

Monday, April 26, 2010

New Wineskins: Hospitality

I have been told that wait staff in restaurants are not particularly happy to see church folks after Sunday morning worship. They often find the “brothers and sisters” demanding, rude, and lousy tippers! I am sure that not all believers are like this (many of us try to smile, call servers by name, and leave appropriate tips), but this does remind us how important first impressions are.

In Genesis 14, there is an interesting story about first impressions involving Abram (Abraham) and Melchizedek, the king of Salem and a “priest of God Most High.” As Abraham returned victorious from a battle, Melchizedek brought out bread and wine and blessed Abraham. In response to this show of hospitality, Abraham gave him a tenth of the spoils of the victory.

The story’s impact comes not only from the act of hospitality on the part of Melchizedek, but the response of Abraham. The king of Salem was “the other.” He was neither part of Abraham’s family nor one of his friends. He was, however, a holy man and a”priest of God Most High.” He welcomed Abraham, cared for him, and blessed him. Abraham responded with openness and gratitude. Subsequently, this type of hospitality was expected among the Hebrew people. In the Old Testament, they are repeatedly directed to show hospitality for “the stranger within their gates.”

Christians must also show hospitality to both those within and outside of the church. We must be aware of the needs of others as well as the possibility of their blessing us. Although we have come a long way in race relations in our country, it is rare to see African-Americans in a white church and vice versa. When a black person is found in the halls of one of our white churches, the first response is often “What are you doing here?” (even if it is not verbalized).

Missional faith communities are very intentional about creating community and practicing hospitality. They are committed to one another but not at the expense of “the other” who is different in some significant way. In fact, missional faith communities go out of their way to embrace those who are different. In so doing, they may well be blessed.

No one said being missional was easy!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

New Wineskins: Ministry in the World

In recent weeks, I have become aware of people in our congregation who have significant ministries in the community—the lawyer who volunteers with the domestic violence center, the former heart patient who spends time each week visiting heart patients and sharing insights about how to live with their disease, the busy mother who tutors at-risk children, the business person who finds himself the “chaplain” in his workplace. This is what missional Christians do; they serve in the world. These are not church-sponsored activities. These are ministries that they have identified and pursued.

In Missional Renaissance, Reggie McNeal notes: “People don’t go to church; they are the church. They don’t bring people to church; they bring the church to people.” Wherever a believer is, there the church is present. For some reason, we have erected an artificial dividing line between “sanctioned” and “unsanctioned” ministry.

The challenge for the church is to give members the permission to seek out and pursue their ministries in the world. We value what people do within the walls of the church through recognition, training, and encouragement, but we fail to do that for those who are doing Kingdom work outside the walls. In fact, we sometimes make members feel guilty if they are using their gifts elsewhere! The traditional church needs to find ways to bless and commission those who undertake ministries in the larger community.

Missional faith communities, on the other hand, start out with this approach as a basic premise. It is expected that their members will be engaged in ministry in the world. They may be focused on being the presence of Christ in their neighborhood, their workplaces, or in a common ministry that all members of the group support. Very often, missional faith communities will form around a particular ministry or a specific neighborhood in order to make a difference there.

Let us remember that God is always at work in the world and invites us to join in that activity.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

New Wineskins: Spiritual Growth

Where does spiritual growth take place? If your immediate response is “the church,” please think again. Where have your most meaningful spiritual experiences taken place? I am sure that we would all mention times of worship, Sunday school classes, retreats, and other church-based activities, but we would also talk about one-on-one conversations with friends, an “Aha!” moment in Bible reading, a time of quiet contemplation on the beach or along a mountain trail, an awareness of blessedness in family life, or a sudden realization of answered (or unanswered) prayer as we drove to work.

As Reggie McNeal comments in Missional Renaissance, many of us (especially in the West) have come to the conclusion that the church can “provide the venues and opportunities for people to live out their entire spiritual journey as part of a church-sponsored or church-operated activity.” This assumes that what is spiritual takes place within the walls of the church and not in the world. He goes on to say, “Everyday living is where spiritual development is worked out.”

Spiritual growth is not done as part of a production schedule or an assembly line. Each person is so unique in the eyes of God that we must recognize that our spiritual journeys may have a common thread but the final product may be a surprise. Missional faith communities lend themselves to this “customized” approach to spiritual growth.

One of the characteristics of missional faith communities is that they are committed to the spiritual growth of their participants. Members of these communities encourage one another in spiritual formation and the practice of the disciplines of the faith. They allow time and space for members not only to learn but to learn at their own pace. This learning may well involve mentoring and coaching experiences that are not available in larger groups. They also take seriously what members are discovering about their walk with God through their lives in the marketplace and service in the larger community.

Certainly spiritual growth does take place in the programs and activities of the church but the Spirit moves far beyond those walls.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Exercising Due Dilligence

Dr. Rosell leading workshop on ethical issues

New tools expand our abilities but those also bring their own challenges. During Central Seminary’s “The Church in a Virtual Age” Conference last week, Professor Terry Rosell offered an excellent workshop on ethical uses of technology in the church. The official title was “Why Take Up an Offering When We Can Donate Online?” but the session covered several other topics of concern and possibility.

Rosell’s basic premises were that technology itself is morally neutral but its use is morally significant. He also pointed out that technocrats (those makers who become rulers) in the church are dangerous and that technocracy in the church can become a state of idolatry. His final premise was that “use of technology in the church need not lead us into sin . . . but take heed lest you fall.”

After presenting ten principles that inform our use of technology in the church (such as “protect people’s privacy” and “use God’s resources wisely”), Rosell went on to consider four “case problems” including one on the use of social networking technology that recognized potential problems when the medium is not used wisely.

Professor Rosell’s presentation was very helpful. I was reminded that church leaders who are not technologically savvy should not just give free rein to those who have a passion for the digital world. This may be opening a Pandora’s Box that will be difficult to close!

The workshop also reminded me that rational people seem to lack common sense when it comes to the virtual world. Why would I want to put on my Facebook wall or write in my blog that I am going to be out of town on vacation? Do I really want to advertise that my home will be unattended? Why do otherwise cautious people share intimate personal information just because someone asks for it online? Are these ethical questions or ones of good judgment?

Church leaders, professionals, and individuals need to do a personal audit of their use of social networking, web sites, and other Internet tools. Discussions like the one led by Dr. Rosell help us to exercise such due diligence.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Mission Station" Mentality

When a person comes to faith in Christ, are we calling that person FROM something or TO something? I thought about this as I listened to Ryan Bolger address the recent “The Church in a Virtual Age” conference sponsored by Central Seminary. Bolger pointed out the missionary model used by western missionaries in India (and a number of other countries) in the 19th and 20th centuries pulled believers out of their society. This model called converts out of their culture into a way of life that was westernized, centered on the mission station, and separated from the world that gave them birth. The mission station was an enclave in a world that was perceived as hostile.

We may critique that approach as na├»ve and unproductive, but we often follow the same model today in calling people out of the world with which they are familiar into the church. We encourage people to find all of their friends, family activities, and service opportunities within the walls of the church. We often encourage people to come into a “Christian cocoon.” When they must have contact with those outside the walls of the church, we see this as a necessary evil.

If we are truly missional people, we will do several things. First, we will engage the culture in which we find ourselves and point out the redemptive work of God where we discern it. Second, we will not try to compete to provide the resources—recreational, educational, service—that are already present in our community but use them as a springboard for ministry. Third, we will give believers “permission” to pursue their call in the world then give them the coaching they need to do it.

The church is not meant to be a “mission station” but a recruiting center. In so doing, we pursue God’s mission in the world.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Practicing Hospitality

While attending Central Seminary's Spring Lectures on "The Church in a Virtual Age," I had the opportunity stay at the Stone-Yancey House in Liberty, Missouri, a bed and breakfast owned and operated by Carolyn and Steve Hatcher. It was quite a contrast to go from talking about virtual communication to experiencing the very personal setting of the Hatcher's home. As innkeepers, they go "above and beyond the call of duty" to make their guests feel welcome.

During the conference, lecturer Ryan Bolger and workshop leaders helped participants to learn a great deal about the use of digital means to build community, so it was some what refreshing to go from mediated to non-mediated communication. Hospitality, such as that shown by the Hatchers, is more than a business, it is a gift. Hospitality is an essential element of the life of the church, but it seems to be one that we are having to teach believers
Perhaps we need to practice doing hospitality with our neighbors before attemptin to do it as part of a virtual global community. Peple like the Hatchers provide a good model.

Monday, April 05, 2010

"Never Too Old to Learn!"

“Never too old to learn!” I would love to have someone say that about me when I depart this earthly home. I attended the memorial service today for my friend Frances McGlocklin. Frances was 94 when she succumbed to cancer. She retired at age 70 and spent the ensuing years traveling, gardening, and learning. She learned how to quilt. She also became rather proficient in the use of the Internet. Although learning how to function in the digital realm frustrated her at times, she was not deterred.

Frances kept up with the times. Not everyone does. That is certainly their choice. I think it is unfortunate, however, when we have new tools at our disposal but do not take advantage of them. We can curse the Internet or attempt to tame it for our own use. Technology is neither good nor bad; its value depends on how we use it.

The church is missing a great opportunity when it does not attempt to understand and function in the digital realm. On April 11-12, Central Baptist Theological Seminary will sponsor “The Church in a Virtual Age: A Conference on Technology and Ministry” at Second Baptist Church in Liberty, Missouri. The featured speaker is Ryan Bolger, associate pastor of church in contemporary culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Bolger will present three sessions on the relationship of churches and technology. Nine workshops will also be offered to provide practical applications in the ministry of the local church.

We should be no more afraid of digital technology than of the mimeograph machine (remember those?). The mimeograph was much harder to master and certainly much messier than the Internet!

Please take advantage of this opportunity to keep learning and growing in ministry effectiveness.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Great Convergence

The Great Convergence happens on Easter Sunday in churches across the land. There is a great coming together of various cohorts—those that usually only come the first and third Sundays; those who come the second and fourth Sundays; those who come to make Mom happy; those who just know this is the place to be; and those who are just curious. This convergence—the perfect storm, if you will--results in record high attendance in morning worship services in most churches.

Blessed is the pastor who overcame the impulse this morning to wish everyone “Happy Fourth of July!” because he or she knows that some will not be back until Christmas or next Easter. Blessed are those who gave up their favorite seat because an infrequent attendee or visitor got there first. Blessed are those who worked in the nursery to take care of all the unfamiliar children and babies; they entertained angels unaware. Blessed are those who parked further away from the sanctuary because someone else got their parking place. Blessed are those who went the extra mile to prepare a worship service befitting the occasion.

Thanks be to God for everyone who joined in worship on this Resurrection Sunday!

Saturday, April 03, 2010

New Wineskins

When we think of “church,” we generally think congregation—building, people, location, programs. This is the traditional faith community that most of us experience. A new model is emerging. This model has been called many things, but I refer to it as the “missional faith community.” Although I am not part of such a community, I do know of several that exist or are in the process of being formed.

In Missional Renaissance, Reggie McNeal introduces such groups in this way: “The anticipated future has arrived in the form of missional communities in every culture where the Westernized Constantinian order is collapsing and the organic church is taking root.” I won’t try to unpack everything that McNeal is saying there, but the key point is this: A more incarnational form is replacing the institutional form of the church.

These groups go by several names. In Europe, they are called “clusters” or “midsized groups.” The model includes many of the groups that we would call “house churches.” Some take the form of “new monastic communities.” Whatever they are called, they tend to have four characteristics in common.

First, they are committed to the spiritual growth of the participants. They encourage one another in spiritual formation and the practice of the disciplines of the faith.

Second, they are engaged in ministry in the world. They may be focused on being the presence of Christ in their neighborhood, their workplaces, or in a common ministry that all members of the group support.

Third, they create community and practice hospitality. They are committed to one another but not at the expense of “the stranger within their gates.”

Fourth, they practice accountability. They believe that genuine spiritual growth and authentic ministry only take place where there is a high degree of accountability.

Are these churches? Yes and no. I suppose it depends on your definition of church. They certainly are expressions of the people of God on mission with God. If that is what you mean by church, yes. They are not concerned about buildings, programs, and building an institution. If that is what you mean by church, no.

In subsequent posts, I hope to unpack the idea of missional faith communities further and consider their relation to the traditional church.