“You are So Young”: Patience, Ambition, and Mentoring

When Eugene Peterson, the great contemplative pastor, died last Autumn, I found as many interview videos of him as I could, and watched them all. What impressed me about his latest interviews was this:

Whether he was asked about his life, his ministry, about the counsel he would give young people in ministry, his response was always a variation on the utterly simple but elusive quest to just be yourself. 

rappersville water

Near Rapperswil, Switzerland

One can tell through these videos that the joy in which Peterson reveled in his old age was precisely this: the increasing pleasure of merely being himself. For Peterson, this second coming-of-age was not a growing disregard for sources of personal and moral formation outside of himself. Nor was it a quest to discover some hidden “self” within himself. It was rather a gradual—though quicker than for most!—and at last triumphant loosening of the fetters that bound his soul to what we might call juvenile ambition. 

I have tended to go on spurts of great ambition myself. And to champion ambition against its naysayers. And I would still defend it today, if what we mean by ambition is intentionality, deliberateness, zeal, and even something so crude-sounding as goal-setting. No one thinks of novelist and writer Annie Dillard as a paragon of American “Ambition,” but she nevertheless has grabbed hold of thousands of wandering attentions with her sage counsel: “A schedule is a net for catching days.” And “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

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Eugene Peterson. NavPress.

My instinct is that Peterson learned to catch days. Not by pursuing “achievement” or “progress” in the American industrial sense of those words. Rather, I think he learned to shut out the world in order to hear particular people. When asked about his magnificent paraphrase of the entire Bible, he said that he spent the first years of the project simply pastoring his congregation, learning how they used their English language, and recognizing that plain folk, normal folk who aren’t pastor-scholar-nerds, speak the English language much more plainly, effectively, naturally, and with greater feeling than academic lexicographers do.

Peterson was, as the Christian approach to culture is too infrequently summarized, against the world for the world. In order to contribute, he had to shun “achievement.” In order to speak through and beyond the noise and clamor of the American Christian trinket-and-publishing industrial complex, he had to ignore it and focus his attention on his little church in Bel Air, Maryland. By the end of his life, his very congregation had taught him how best to be himself. The real Eugene. He didn’t rush it. He knew that, by and by, the real Eugene was destined to develop and emerge. But first he had to be deliberately, almost monastically, local. Intentionally contemplative, prayerful, and hopeful.

Earlier in my own ministry, I too often caved in to juvenile ambition. Propelled and justified by a dubious earnestness and urgency to “make an impact” and “start a movement,” I indulged in the rush and hurry of church planting, even as I formally renounced all the industrial metaphors. I made fun of those who “launched” churches and insisted that we “plant” them instead. But despite my organic vocabulary, I was a manager, ambitious at heart and impatient in spirit. 

As our congregation enters upon an initiative to pair mentors and mentees in relationships designed to foster support and growth in grace, I have been enjoying our leadership’s consensus that we aren’t going to programmatize things. That we aren’t going to churn out disciples on a conveyor belt. That, instead, we are all going to commit to pursuing growth in grace, to supporting one another’s growth. I am enjoying a certain feeling of liberty, rather than managerial unease, as we pursue this together.

I am among the late-bloomers when it comes to the blessed substitution of patient intentionality in the place of juvenile ambition.

Paula Modersohn-Becker of Rilke

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Portrait of Rilke

The great German poet of a century ago Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, says of art and artists what I think can be said about ministry and ministers; about Christian growth and Christians; about human development and human beings:

Being an artist means: Not numbering and counting but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconscernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the so-called 10,000-hour-rule. The idea that to become great at something, you’ve got to put in 10,000 hours. I bet Rilke would say “fine, but don’t count the hours.”

Ten years into my pastoral ministry, I find myself repeating myself, particularly as I try to bring my sermons to a close. Two of the things that I keep saying are, “Isn’t it such a wonderful thing to be a Christian believer?” and “Remember: in Jesus Christ, your best days are always still ahead of you.”

Or, as Rilke tells his young poet, whom he mentors patiently with his tender letters:

“You are so young, and so much before all beginning.”

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The Churched Disciple: The WHY

Your own personal WHY

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

What are you dedicating your life to?

What do you believe most deeply about the world and your place within it?

This is the question of calling. Of vocation. Some people call it a “through-line” or a “final narrative”, a “personal mission statement” or a “single motivating purpose”.

I am pretty much decided on what I believe most deeply about the world. I’m still working on the question of my particular place within it, though I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions about what my specific roles are, regardless of how I might sum up my overall calling in one sentence.

All of this gets at the question of WHY. As Simon Sinek says in his fantastic TED Talk,

“Everyone knows what they do. Some people know how they do it. Very few people know why they do what they do.”

One WHY leads to another

What gets your church out of bed in the morning?

What is your church dedicating its life to?

What does your church believe most deeply about the world and its place within it?

This also is the question of calling. Of vocation. It’s an ecclesiastical through-line, a Christian community’s single motivating purpose.

Does your church have one? And is it glorious, memorable, and inspiring enough to get your church out of bed in the morning? Does it lead from a breathtaking premise (what your church believes most deeply about the world) to an ambitious conclusion (what your church’s place in that world is)?

Simon Sinek might say

Your church knows what it does. Many folks in your church know how it’s done. Does your congregation know why it does what it does?

Compelling Verbiage

Church mission statements are pointless if they don’t reflect reality—if they don’t reflect both deeply held beliefs and deeply felt callings. But they are powerful, resonant motivators for those authentic church communities which rightly insist upon a compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning.

In our series of gatherings called “Life in Jesus’ Church” (sort of our living room introduction to our church’s understanding of the gospel, the church, and our communal calling, with lots of food), we ask people if they know our church’s stated mission. Since it’s often newcomers, only about half do. Then we go over it.

“The truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus for the flourishing of Rock Hill.”

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I ask folks what this verbiage suggests about our church’s belief and calling. Here are some of the responses we’ve gotten:

  • “It suggests that we don’t just preach the truth, but practice goodness and value beauty.”
  • “I’ve never heard of a church before that put ‘beauty’ in its mission statement.”
  • “It says that Jesus is Lord over our city and will be the one who produces fruit here.”
  • “It implies that what we do as a church is tangible, and valuable for our town.”
  • “It says that because we have a Jesus who’s good, true, and beautiful, we’re hopeful for our city.”
  • “It communicates that we’re not just looking for conversions or superficial morality, but for our community to come to life in every respect.”
  • “It makes me think of the New Heavens and the New Earth, and the New Jerusalem, and our city’s future in cosmic redemption.” (This person was a bit of a theologian!)
  • “It says that there’s more to church than teaching right doctrine.”
  • “It tells our community that we’re here for them.”
  • “It says that we are committed to being an incarnation of the good news, like Jesus, and not just talking about it.”
  • “It seems to go way beyond ‘going to church on Sunday’.”

Now, I don’t expect anyone in our church to tattoo this statement on themselves. It’s not even important to me that everyone memorize it. But it is important that it would come as no surprise to anyone who heard it, once they’ve seen our church out of bed, on the streets, doing its thing.

As Simon Sinek says, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

What would Donald do?

Could it be that the Donald Millers of the Christian world, who have opted out of “going to church”, have done so because our what is mundane, our how is full of cliché, and our why is nowhere to be discerned?

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Put another way: if you are a culture-maker within your particular congregation, do you have the spiritual imagination to bore down beyond the what and how to articulate a compelling why? Is that why freighted with your most deeply held belief about the world, and your most deeply held belief about your church’s place in the world? Are you committed to starting with your compelling why and translating it into a sensible how and a well-aligned what?

At the most basic level, do the Donald Millers of your community sense that their personal why is reinforced, challenged, provoked, stoked, informed, and deployed by your church’s why? Are there Donald Millers around who can now say, “I can hardly believe I’ve found a church that is so committed to equipping me and unleashing me to do what God has called me to do”?

What’s next?

Tomorrow, I’ll begin to outline the how. I believe that cultivating ministry across the domains of Sabbath, Neighborhood, and Vocation are the next logical ways to concretize our church’s why. If you resonate with our why, then something similar to Sabbath, Neighborhood, and Vocation is probably called for in your context as well.

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Perfect Pastoral Pride

Technically, it’s awkward to say, as I often do, that the church is just as much the church when it’s scattered and sent as when it’s gathered together. It’s awkward because “church” is ecclesia, a word which means “assembly”. It’s freighted with gathered-ness.

And yet there’s something very exciting about moments when we spot the scattered church “being the church” beyond the church, beyond the gathering.

I get to experience this quite often with my church. As pastor and church planter, I feel the best sort of pride in my people. I’ve assembled them. I’ve churched them. But then out they go, into the world, doing their thing. Doing in many cases the very things they were doing quite well before I came along and churched them. I can never take any credit for what they’re doing, or the special quality with which they do what they’re doing. But I still feel … proud.

Whence perfect pastoral pride?

I haven’t been able to put my finger on exactly what this is that I’m feeling, and why it feels so appropriate. Part of it comes from the mere fact that I’ve got these people. They’re coming to my church. Cool!

Beyond this, I think my pride comes from knowing that I get the privilege of nourishing their souls for the work they’re called to. And I get the joy of “churching” them alongside others who are in many cases much better at nourishing their souls than I am—or at least who can bring the nourishment to a place where it is converted into energy for their vocations.

The other sort of ‘un-churched’

As church planters, we must gather, we must church. But precisely because we church, we must un-church. And we can have the pleasure of a certain species of pride when we see our un-churched church doing its thing, or their things, at a great distance from the church branding, budget, and board. It’s not the pride of control or appropriation. It’s the pride of having done your part, and knowing that others, having been nourished by the part you’ve played, are now playing their part and nourishing others.

An invitation

While we’re on the topic, why don’t you come to Rock Hill, SC later this month for the 3rd annual Friday Arts Project forum? This year, they’re exploring ‘truth’. You won’t be disappointed. And you’ll get to experience one of my greatest sources of perfect pastoral pride.

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Sandra McCracken, Maurice Manning, Aaron Belz, delicious food, and much more.

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Plant an ‘Arts Church’

“I would think that most educated atheists are much more likely to be suddenly ambushed in the heart by poetry than they are ever likely to be converted by reasoned argument.”

– Peter Hitchens, former atheist and brother of late atheist Christopher Hitchens

I remember an acquaintance dismissing the church we are planting out of hand, right from the get-go, because he perceived that it was “a niche arts church”.

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An ‘Arts’ Church?

For just a moment, I thought “wow, that would be really cool. Could I plant a church that was so saturated in the arts that all the cool, young artists in the area came in droves?” But of course I quickly realized that our community didn’t need a spiritual support group for struggling artists. It needed a struggling community of faith that expressed its struggle very often through more or less artistic means. 

I say “more or less” because, of course, a community need not be primarily engaged in the production of things to be hung on walls in order to have an artistic approach to communal life.

There is a both a merely prosaic, as well as a curiously poetic, way to live together in community. The life of a church can be shaped like an argument, or it can be shaped like a story. It can be described visually through bar graphs and pie charts, or it can be caught on film and—better still—experienced first hand.

Perceptions and Impressions

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing reports of outsiders to Christian orthodoxy who have told the poetic misfits and starving artists among us that, indeed, there is something different about our church community that is hard to put into words.

Is there something of the puzzlement of abstract painting running through the life of your church plant? Is there something of Bach’s music, which he said was ‘for the glory of God and the refreshment of souls’, echoing out into the neighborhoods inhabited by your congregation? Is there  something of the punchy poem, which makes its readers stumble and stagger under the disorientation of suddenly seeing everything differently, when your neighbors come within earshot of your church fellowship?

Turn, Turn, Turn…

There will be plenty of time and usefulness for argumentation and prose. Plenty of moments that call for straight-forward Q-and-A. Times for precision, rigor, and clarity in the life of a disciple-making church plant.

But the life of your church will need to sound like a song. It will need to pierce like a poem. It will need to perplex like a painting.

Your church’s life will need to be shaped like a story, and not like an argument.

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