“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.”


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.”

How (Not) to Give a Christmas Present

Here in Korea, giving gifts is illegal.

At least certain kinds of gifts are illegal. Specifically, illegal are those gift-giving instances in which the recipient has some influence or authority over the giver. It’s called the Kim Young Ran Law, and it’s designed to curtail corruption, or “graft”—the giving of gifts in order to secure some sort of gain from the recipient.

As a result, I, a foreigner and private school teacher in an American-style school, am considered a “public official” in Korea. It’s an odd classification, one which effectively prohibits me from accepting a bottle of Scotch, a fountain pen, or even a cup of coffee from a student or parent who is currently, or may at some point be, my student. This would put me in a position in which I might be inclined to show favoritism to a student, giving them a grade they haven’t earned.


Kim Young-Ran herself! Photo: Yonhap News/Korea Herald

Curiously, I may give my students Scotch (?), fountain pens, and coffee, because they can’t pay me back in any shady way.

The law is an overcorrection aiming to fix a real problem. And here at Christmas time, it’s heartbreaking to imagine all the Scotch, fountain pens, and coffee that I’m not getting. All that generosity, nullified! Bah humbug!

The problem, of course, is that bribery strips the gift of its very status as a gift. When a gift is given with a wink, the gift disappears. The gift fails to reach the outer space of gratuity and is sucked back into the orbit of an economy where goods, services, and cash are exchanged within a transactional rationality.

Is there such thing as a pure gift?

But wait, you might say: is it even possible to give gifts that don’t collapse under the gravity of pure economics? When I give my kids presents at Christmas, isn’t it because they didn’t shout, cry, or pout, and thus, Santa Claus was contractually obligated to show up? When I buy my wife a bouquet of flowers, aren’t I really attempting to buy another few months of cooking and cleaning from a low-maintenance partner in home-economics?

Jean-Luc Marion comes along to rescue us from our deconstruction of gifts. Along the way, he shows us some ways we can give in purity. A philosopher saves Christmas!

How do you give a real gift, then?


Photo: LE BRAS

1. Eliminate the giver!

Marion says that when an inheritance is given, the giver has been stolen away by death, and cannot be thanked or reciprocated. I had never heard of my Icelandic uncle Skuli from North Dakota until he died and left me some cash. So I never felt “indebted” to him for the Martin D-28 dreadnaught acoustic guitar I bought with his money. I was able to simply enjoy it.


Thanks, Uncle Skuli! (Me out in front of King’s Cross Church in Charlotte, NC, 2012, with my Martin D-28, now almost 20 years old.)

But he wasn’t able to enjoy me enjoying it, except proleptically. I wouldn’t suggest giving all your Christmas gifts at once, when you die, simply in order to eliminate the possibility of the gift falling back into the realm of quid pro quo.

But isn’t Santa Claus a way of eliminating the giver? Sure, Santa can be conscripted as an all-seeing eye crossing naughty kids off his list. But one argument for keeping Santa around is that he gives parents a chance to watch their kids open and enjoy Christmas presents without their kids feeling any shred of indebtedness to them. The parents (spoiler alert!) are the real gift-givers, and they’ve been hidden by the person of Saint Nick. And Saint Nick is long gone.

Grown-ups can receive gifts from Santa, too. Why not give a completely anonymous gift, ascribed to Santa, this Christmas?

2. Eliminate the recipient!

This is not as sinister as it sounds. “Sorry, son. I could gift you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Marion has in mind here a humanitarian gift. The giver remains, but the recipient is unknown to us. We can give a pure gift that can never re-enter the transactional economy if we don’t even know whether it is helping pay a child’s tuition in Timbuktu or keeping the lights on at a Boys and Girls Club in Kalamazoo.

But here’s an idea: Give a big fat Christmas present to your local church! These are the leaders you know and trust. These are the ministries with which you are most intimately familiar. These are the anonymous recipients who, though they cannot repay you, live among you.

I frequently tell people that giving to their local church takes faith and releases them from control. If choose the charity which, or the individual who, will be the recipient of my gift, then I give and I withhold according to my own private calculus of who is worthy, and of how much help. In contrast, if I give to my church, I abandon my gift completely to the wisdom of my church’s leadership—people who I know and whom I have elected to be ministers of mercy and stewards of modest kingdom resources here in my own community. And best of all, I’m not in control. This is a way of technically eliminating the recipient, but more fundamentally eliminating me—at least the me who would otherwise be picking, choosing, and managing the “gift”.

3. Give to an enemy!

Marion says that “my enemy appears as my gift’s best friend.” Weird. How so?

He says that when I give a gift to an enemy, they (1) will not give me a gift in return, they (2) will resent me all the more, and they (3) would rather kill me before they acknowledge that I’ve put them in my debt.

Voilá! The gift is purely given, and I can’t and won’t be compensated for it.

To kill an enemy with kindness, to heap burning coals upon their head—it seems like a weird way to channel one’s resources at Christmas. But the guy who Christmas is named after says to do it, so …

4. Eliminate the gift!

Finally, Marion describes a man who gives a woman an expensive piece of jewelry. There are two possible things going on in such an instance.

Either the man is giving the jewelry in place of time, love, and tenderness, or the man is not really giving jewelry at all, but is instead giving himself. He is either saying “I love you,” but lying; or he is saying nothing, but saying everything. The necklace or bracelet is where the gift begins and ends, or it’s simply a stand-in that signifies the un-monetizable gift of self, the provision of one’s soul.


Michael Bolton, who is hiding in the margins of this post, and can be found if you look closely. (Photo: buzzfeed.)

It gets cooler. Marion says that the placeholder gift can be given all at once. But when I give myself with the gift, “I can only give symbolically, since it will require the entire duration of my lifetime to truly accomplish it.”

Spare the gift, spoil the child

If we lavish our kids with stuff, there is always the chance that our kids will receive it not as grace, but as karma. They could develop a karma disposition to the world. The mountain of gifts we give them would then disappear by its perversion; they would rot by ceasing to be gifts at all.

But if we can figure out a way to give our kids ourselves in, with, and under their Christmas presents, they have a chance of experiencing real gratuity, real grace. The mountain of gifts will still disappear. They’ll be wasted—symbolically, sure, but also they’ll literally end up in a landfill somewhere. But their disappearance will allow the only gift that really matters to emerge: the gift of self. Isn’t this the whole idea of love, anyway?

Marion says we cannot live without love, or at least we cannot live without the hope that we will some day be genuinely loved. That is to say, we can live without a pile of toys or a box full of jewelry. But we can’t live without someone giving themselves to us in complete generous abandon—another claim that makes us recall the historical origins of Christmas.

This Christmas has me thinking of how I can give myself via the placeholder of a few gifts. But it also has me thinking of how a Christmas present, to be a real gift, requires me to be present to those I love all year long — long after the “gifts” have been discarded.

The Expatriations of Bono and TS Eliot

As soon as I became an expat in the summer of 2015, I began feeling a new kinship with those who throughout history have gone to take up residence in a land not their own.

In the past year I’ve been fixated on the so-called “Lost Generation” of expats who lived in Paris after the Great War. First it was a near obsession with Hemingway. Then I got a group of friends together to read this generation. We’ve read Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Joyce, and now Eliot. In their lives and literatures, they were trying to dial into life after the cataclysm that was World War I.

Eliot’s difficult waistcoat

As I’ve studied The Waste Land, I’ve paid close attention to Eliot’s expatriation. As Yale’s Langdon Hammer humorously notes (in his Open Yale Course), Eliot is the only major British poet from St. Louis. In speaking of Eliot’s forced entry into British culture, Hammer makes a big deal out of the young poet’s waistcoat. (Being a sartorial old soul myself, I was all ears.) Hammer says Eliot’s waistcoat can be read as a symbol of his quest to strip himself of his Americanness, to fully embrace British culture, and to inscribe himself within its literary tradition, however uncomfortable, stuffy, and restrictive that might seem.


Photo: The Telegraph

As Eliot settled into his British tweed, he made it his practice to quote heavily from authoritative literary and religious texts of the past. He was conscious of their power to convey an authority to him by their very citation. But he was also conscious of the fact that everything had changed in the wake of the Great War, and that he would have to do something new with the old he treasured. The result was a sort of bricolage of lines from Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Homer, the Bible, and Buddhist texts. Nick Mount’s fantastic lecture on The Waste Land likens Eliot’s use of texts to a Canadian soldier’s gathering of bits of broken stained glass from across Europe and their assembly into a new window at the University of Toronto. Eliot was old and new.

He was also difficult! In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, he insisted that, following the War, poetry had to be difficult.

And so Eliot set out to become a tastemaker in his new home. By quoting authorities, he wanted to tell Britain what its literary and cultural legacy was, and he, the American, wanted to make himself the standard of what it meant to be literary, cultured, and British. Spoiler alert: he basically succeeded.

Bono’s star-spangled jacket

U2’s front man maintains a home in Dublin, and has most definitely not renounced his Irish citizenship or roots. And while in 2000 he had “just got a place in New York,” he was not new to America. The Joshua Tree feels like the wide open spaces of the American west. The video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was filmed under the pulsating lights of Las Vegas. “Bullet the Blue Sky” was addressed to the American industrial military complex and its commanders-in-chief. The Rattle and Hum album and tour was an immersion in American sounds and culturescapes. They re-toured The Joshua Tree for its 30th anniversary, convinced that it had something yet to say to the two Americas under Trump.


Image: Getty/GQ

After 9/11, it was U2 who memorialized its dead at the Super Bowl halftime show that winter. The names streamed up the screen like a New York skyscraper as though they were headed to “Where the Streets Have No Name”. Bono showed his American flag jacket lining in solidarity with the country reeling from the attack less than six months prior.

All of which is to say that Bono is a lot like Eliot. He has quoted America’s traditions to it, and has made himself himself its modern interpreter and its most enthusiastic champion. Though while Eliot renounced his Americanness to cozy up to the British, Bono has used his outsider status to hold a mirror up to America—to try to convince America of its exceptional history, ideas, status, and burden to serve and lead the world in all things free and brave.

However, Bono hasn’t postured himself as America’s authority. As recently as last night, Bono sang two songs to America on Saturday Night Live. In one of them, he sings:

I could sing it to you all night, all night
If I could, I’d make it alright, alright
Nothing’s stopping you except what’s inside
I can help you, but it’s your fight, your fight

Moreover, Bono, unlike Eliot, increasingly doesn’t seem to be convinced (as perhaps he was during the Zooropa/Pop period) that, in order to point America back to its founding documents, his music and lyrics need to be difficult. Where Eliot thought the cataclysm of World War I called for difficulty, Bono seems to think the post-9/11 world needs joy and simplicity “with an acid drop mixed in with the sweetness.”

Bono’s and Eliot’s expat churches

One final consideration of Bono’s and Eliot’s expatraiations.

Everywhere in the world where there are expats, there are congregations for them. Eric Liddell went to the English-speaking presbyterian church in Paris on the Sunday when he skipped his Olympic event. Flushing, New York has Korean congregations that dwarf the rest of my denomination’s churches. I currently pastor an English congregation in Seoul.

Perhaps it was just another of Eliot’s anglophilic waistcoats, but the poet converted from Unitarianism to Anglicanism in 1927. He submitted to the authority of a bishop despite his professed Puritanical temperament. While he moved and shook the literary world, effectively becoming its archbishop, in ecclesial matters he sat in the pew and became, liturgically, an English commoner seeking communion. For all we can tell, he was a quiet orthodox church member until his death. Two years after his death, his name was emblazoned in stone in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. That seems like a fitting place for one who became both the English language poet of the twentieth century and a humble Anglican.

On the other hand, as one of my fellow expat churchmen has recently pointed out to me, Bono’s relationship with the church has been a different sort of expatriation experience. As Joshua Rothman ably recounts, U2 struggled in its early years with their potential for international stardom and the felt demands of their fringy ascetic ecclesial community. Eventually, they chose rock n roll over church. The Irish context of Protestant-Catholic violence certainly contributed.

The result, as I’ve hinted at above, is that Bono became something of the megachurch worship pastor of America’s sorta-spiritual and maybe-kinda religious stadium rock crowds. He doesn’t fancy himself a papal authority in American music or culture the way Eliot saw himself in the world of British letters. Bono has always taken more of a persuasive posture of influence; he just doesn’t have an ex cathedra temperament. But if one made a bit of a Puritanical analysis of Bono’s dealings with the American soul, one might say he is an unauthorized street preacher; a circuit-riding camp meeting convener; an officiant of strange fire.

In the end, Bono has not expatriated the way Eliot did. Part of me thinks Bono is doing it right. Who instinctively cozies up to Eliot’s renunciation of homeland? Who can bear his stuffy sartorial affectations? Who cannot look on quizzically at his brazen cultural interpolation? And, by contrast, who cannot help but admire Bono’s admiring pep talks in star-spangled jackets?

But the churchman in me, along with the would-be rebel in me, knows that while Bono bends over backwards not to be seen as an American authority, his churchless spirituality ultimately amounts to an unwillingness to sit under authority. He’ll read the Psalms, interpret them, sing them, and make them sexy enough to sing in an arena. He’ll earn his money, and then he’ll decide where it should go and who it should help. And ultimately, he’ll make himself a sort of Unitarian pastor in a “church” where everyone that’s feeling the vibe feels at home, as long as their politics are sufficiently socially conscious and they’re okay periodically holding up their consciences to a certain figure of Jesus of Nazareth.

Bono has expatriated not from Ireland, but from the church. This leaves him homeless, dislocated in a way that Eliot would have remained had he merely gone all-in with the British literary tradition and not settled into the back pew in his local parish church.

It has been 35 years of ecclesial homelessness for Bono. My hope is that he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for in churchless spirituality. My hope is that, if he still can’t reconcile church and rock n roll, he will become uncool or irrelevant enough, soon enough, to settle down into some quiet parish outside Dublin and perhaps duck into Redeemer when he’s playing expat at his other home in New York.

To be at home, to repatriate, he’ll need to take some of the advice he’s giving to America on the new album and get out of his own way.

[Update: As I mentioned to my critical fellow U2 enthusiast, sometimes we assume we know the perspective from which Bono speaks and the audience to which his songs are addressed. We don’t, necessarily. It turns out that America may not be the primary audience of “Get Out of Your Own Way”—instead, that honor seems to belong first to his daughter and second, to himself. ]

6 Three-Quarter-Baked Arguments for Becoming Church Members Even if You’re About to Relocate


I thought I’d pseudonymously share an exchange with a dear couple in our church about church membership, especially since they thought, as Dustin Hoffman says in The Graduate, these ideas were fully baked rather than half.

This couple is planning to relocate for a new job, after having leaned into the life of our church increasingly in the past year.


Dear Andy,

We appreciate the personal email asking about membership and where we’re at with it.

In light of our current life situation, we weren’t considering membership. If we were staying in Rock Hill, we’d be first in line to become members of Hill City. That’s a no-brainer. We love the church, consider it our home, and are committed to it. However, it’s clear to us that we’re not staying in Rock Hill, and we will be moving this summer. It didn’t make sense to us to become members and make that level of commitment if we’re leaving four months later.

As we look at our future and the coming move, the biggest regret we have about moving is leaving Hill City. Hill City has been a great fit for us, and we have felt more loved, wanted, and appreciated here than at any other church we’ve been a part of. We hope and pray that when we move, we can find something that approaches what we’ve found here with you all. You love Jesus and live life for him with an authenticity that is rare. You avoid pretense and aren’t afraid to live in a messy reality of brokenness and grace. You all are awesome!

In our remaining time in Rock Hill, we want to be fully engaged (and used!) in the church in any way we can. We want to make the most of the time we have left with you all.

If you have any feedback for us or a different perspective on this, please feel free to share.

-Joe & Judy


Dear Joe and Judy,

We’re of course so sorry we’ll be losing you and your gifts in our church, but obviously we want what Jesus wants for you and for his kingdom, and so we are thrilled that you’ve been given clarity about your next steps.

May I suggest a couple half-baked arguments for why you might consider going ahead and becoming members anyway? Either way, of course, we support your decisions.

1. Ellie and I were 90% sure we were moving away from Ohio when we found Grace Church in Hudson, OH. We found an unfathomably rich community and the restoration of our spiritual sanity, along with some robust Bible teaching that challenged us in our walk with Christ. We joined 2 months after beginning to attend. We moved 4 months later to SC. They baked us a cake and had a commissioning and send-off for us after the service on our last Sunday. It was moving, and we never regretted joining for a second.

2. When you arrive in your new context and settle into a church family, you’ll be able to have your new church contact us and we can commend you to them and to their care, so that there is a continuity in your care and in your membership. I know church membership and ‘transfer’ is taken more seriously in the Presbyterian tradition than maybe in others, but it was really neat to settle into our new church family in Columbia and have their elders contact our old elders in Ohio and have them commend us to their care. Weird Presbyterian idiosyncrasy, but I think it’s cool-weird, and meaningful.

3. If you were engaged to be married, because you had found your dream-spouse (or something finally close enough!), and then, 2 weeks before the wedding, found out that you only had 4 months to live: what would you do? I’d get married. You said “it didn’t make sense to … make that level of commitment if we’re leaving in four months.” The only level of commitment you’re making is to love and serve your heart out for the four months you’ve got with us before God calls you to your new home.

4. Obviously we’re not grasping for numbers, numbers, numbers, or we’d have a very different way of “doing church” (or “playing church”). But at the same time, it will be very meaningful for our church and for our supporting presbytery to see that we gained you two as members, even if for a short time. Especially the fact that you’re a generation more senior than me and Ellie makes a big difference and says something important to our supporting presbytery and to our rather young church body.

5. Four months is way too short a time for you to get in trouble for all your quirky views. You’re safe. 🙂

6. If in some measure God has restored your hearts to confidence in what the local church can be under the grace of Jesus, then consider your membership vows a testimony to the goodness of Jesus for what he’s done here in this place, and in your hearts while you have been among us.

You all are such a blessing to us, and your support and encouragement to our church is a huge vote of confidence that God is really at work among us. For a young, relatively less-experienced leader like myself, it’s both incredibly humbling and a massive encouragement to me that you all would affirm what Christ is doing within Hill City’s body. Thank you for that. Even if you still feel like membership is not the way to go, that’s okay for sure. It’s really no personal slight whatsoever. Either way we’d like to have the chance to lay hands on you and commission you in your new kingdom deployment when you are getting ready to leave for your next assignment.

Yours in Jesus,


This couple found these reasons compelling. Maybe you will too?

My man Daniel also wrote a piece today on the beauty of church membership, which is worth a read.

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.”

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 3.07.42 PM

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?


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.

Subscribe to get these posts via email.

Hanging Out Isn’t Work

One of the oddest things about church planting is determining whether or not you’ve put in an honest day’s labor.

When Paul describes his church planting experiences, you don’t get the sense that he spent much time casually schmoozing with people over organic coffee or indulging in rarified theological discourse with the petite intelligentsia (did I just make up a new term?) at the corner cigar lounge. Instead, you get the sense that when he wasn’t being shipwrecked, run out of town, broken out of prison, or receiving lashes, he was working in his trade to support his evangelistic endeavors, pouring out his heart from house to house, or writing to ministry colleagues in similar circumstances.


I’m pretty sure it never crossed Paul’s mind that he ought to log his hours and make sure he wasn’t becoming distracted by superficialities and calling laziness ‘work’.

It’s easy to impress people in the community by all your personal connections. Yesterday I was meeting with a colleague in Amélie’s, our downtown bakery and coffee joint. He was floored by how many people I greeted during our one-hour meeting. “Who do you not know in this room?” Well, I hang out. It’s not exactly hard. It’s not work.

Two ‘not quite’ solutions

What’s the solution for the troubled conscience of a church planter who feels guilty trying to justify all the coffee refills as ‘networking’? Some would suggest arithmetic. If the average person in your congregation works 40 hours per week, and then is engaged in 10-15 hours of church activities—worship, community group, discipleship, mission, etc.—then a pastor/church planter ought to work for 50-55 hours each week, regardless of where that work happens or what kind of work it is.

On the other end of the spectrum are work-hackers like Timothy Ferris, whose NYT bestselling book The 4-Hour Workweek suggests that 9-5 is completely arbitrary. Ferris declares that there ought to be no correlation between the value of one’s work and the amount of time spent getting it done. He cites Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Give yourself 10 hours to do 40 hours worth of work, and you’ll do 40 hours worth of work in that 10 hours. The Ferris hack shaves off time mostly by eliminating time-wasting interruptions and by avoiding human beings.

A working synthesis

Here’s my current conviction. I think church planters need to give themselves to…

  1. Working on the System. Carve out blocks of un-interruptable time and stay laser-focused on the non-urgent, hyper-important, high-leverage work that will make the biggest difference in your missional endeavor.
  2. Working the System. Set aside small intervals of time dedicated to delegating tasks to the appropriate people within your system, and completing the urgent, important tasks that you’ve assigned to yourself or that need your attention.
  3. ‘Working’ outside the System. Hang out and be the ‘regular’. Pastoral and church planting ministry is a relational calling. Ignore human beings like Tim Ferris while you’re doing #1 and #2 above, but ignore #1 and #2 above when you’re doing #3. Keep track of the people you meet. Learn their names. If possible, become their ‘chaplain’.

At the end of every week, we church planters should know that we moved the ball across each of these three important fields: the systemic, the maintenance of the system, and the relational. Some weeks this might occupy 75 hours, and other weeks it might only take 25 hours. No matter what week it is, it will be impossible to quantify our “hours” with any amount of precision. But the best barometer is actually our gut’s response to an honest look at your task list: at the end of the week, at the end of every day, did we move the ball?

Subscribe to get these posts via email.

The Benefits of the Middle of Nowhere

My grandmother has the coolest name of anyone in America, guaranteed. Olena Sigurros Homfrieder Paulson Stager.

She’s probably also from the least cool place in America: Mountain, North Dakota. The population has never topped 220, and the size has never reached 0.15 square miles.

That is a provincial locale if there ever was one. 


Gonna Die in a Small Town?

“Provincial”, of course, is usually a pejorative term. Backwater. Flyover country. Irrelevant.

I am reading a set of essays by someone who has been called provincial. He is also from North Dakota. As a novelist, Larry Woiwode lived for a time in New York City, but wrote about the North Dakota he felt connected to. Eventually he decided he needed to move back to North Dakota to learn whether the North Dakota he remembered, and the North Dakota that emerged in his fiction, was rooted in a semblance of facticity.

It was, and it wasn’t, as he says.

After living in New York, and in England, the most cosmopolitan Anglophone places on earth, ultimately his family re-settled in that provincial place.

Citizen of Nowhere?

“Cosmopolitan” is the strongest antonym of the adjective “provincial”. Originally “cosmopolitan” was a self-congratulatory word Enlightenment elites loved to have applied to them. It did not mean that they were Parisians or Londoners or Frankfurters. It meant that they were not citizens first and foremost of their own country. They were fundamentally citizens of the world. (Or technically of the cosmos.)

They abstracted themselves from the narrowness of their motherland. Even Paris was too provincial for such free thinkers. “Internationals” was still too constraining. They were supra-national. Cosmopolitan. They were enlightened, after all.

Wendell Berry has an essay in which he laments the academic institutionalization of agrarianism. Another way to say this is that he regrets the ism-ification of the agrarian intellectual movement. Somewhere along the way, the best agrarian writers and thinkers moved to places like Columbus, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois. Places where they could get away from their provincial farming communities and the peculiar social and physical demands of such places. Places where they could think, write, and rub shoulders with … cosmopolitans.

Berry and Woiwode both say that the more distant you become from the particularities and idiosyncrasies of the dreadfully provincial places they’ve come to love, the more difficulty you have saying something truly valuable, unique, and believable. Why? Because you are not inhabiting a place that is utterly unique. You’re inhabiting, like those enlightened cosmopolitans, everywhere. Which is to say, you’re inhabiting nowhere.

Move Up in the World?

Tim Keller, a personal hero and inspiration, wants to see an emphasis placed on church planting in Global Cities. I get that. Maybe someday I’ll even do that. But for now I am in a smallish town. You probably are too. Should you move to the big city and plant a church? Maybe.

But maybe not.

And if not, embrace your small town. Delight in, and study closely, its provinciality. Don’t be bullied by the cosmopolitans. Instead, take heart and heed the words of Woiwode, Berry, and, last but not least, Chesterton:

“The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce variety and uncompromising divergences of men…In a large community, we can choose our companions. In a small community, our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized society groups come into existence founded upon sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery.”

Subscribe to get these posts via email.

It Isn’t / Is Your City


It Isn’t Your City

If you’re involved in a church plant, probably one of the reasons is that this isn’t Christendom anymore. Christendom is when the church is the cultural and moral authority in society.

And yet, so many pastors act and speak and conduct ministry as if Christianity was still obvious. In established churches, many pastors are simultaneously preaching to 3 different congregations:

  • A large congregation of people that indeed assume Christianity, mostly in their mid-60s-80s
  • A medium-sized group of BoBos (aging former hippies who are now SUV-driving elites in their 50s-60s) who returned to church hoping that religion would keep their kids from becoming hippies.
  • A small group under 40 who are either in church to please their parents or maybe because they have deep faith.

It’s a little bit of an exaggeration. A little bit.

What’s the point? If this is the story in the typical established church, just imagine how little influence the church has in the wider culture.

People of church plants: it isn’t your city. You are no longer the host, responsible for welcoming and assimilating newcomers from outside cultures into “the way things are around here”. You are the guest. The fundamentally non-Christian society is the host. And for the time being, they’re graciously allowing you to be their guest.

So be careful of your assumptions. Definitely get off your cultural high horse if you’re still mounted atop it. And take great care in the words you chose and the postures you adopt as you are engaging with your host community. And plant a church that seeks the flourishing of your city, not one that seeks to collect holy entitlements from your city.

It Most Certainly IS Your City

On the other hand, we have too easily let the disestablishment of Christianity discourage our would-be missional words and deeds.

We are right to quit making assumptions that our Christian way has cultural hegemony. We are right in realizing that we must become anthropologists and sociologists in order to reach cities that once seemed very Bible Belty. We are right to take the posture of a guest subculture seeking the favor, asylum, and tolerance of our hosts.

But we are wrong to think that our city does not belong to Jesus, and thus, to us.

For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Cor 3)

Because Jesus is Lord of your city, and because he is reconciling all things to himself in order to hand it over to his Father, you are ‘right at home’ as a kingdom agent.

And this means that you mustn’t be so anthropologically sophisticated as to never speak plainly of the fall of man and the rise of the God-man. It means that you mustn’t be so sociologically subtle that you fail to establish an outpost of the new society on the hilltop of your city, in plain view.

It’s going to sound and look foolish to many. Eh. So be it. Paul was sophisticated and cultured. But he was determined to graciously assert the crown rights of King Jesus over every pagan city in the Roman Empire, even if his speech and action reeked of weakness and foolishness to the cultural powers and sophists.

This isn’t your city.

This is your city.

Subscribe to get these posts via email.

eBook! Podcast!


How about grabbing our free eBook?

My friend Daniel Wells and I are very happy to announce the release of our eBook: Countdown to Launch: 10 Church Planting Rules Worth Breaking. You’re going to love the great illustrations by Stephen Crotts.

And it’s yours for free when you subscribe to the weekly Gospel Neighboring update.

Head on over to GospelNeighboring.com and throw your email address in the box, and the book is yours.

First 3 Podcast Episodes are Streaming!

While we wait for iTunes to list our new Gospel Neighboring podcast in their store, you can listen to the first 3 episodes now on our site. We talk shop with Seth McBee of GCM.

We’ve got a great interview with pastor & singer-songwriter Justin McRoberts. And we’ve got a book mash-up of bestselling business / entrepreneurship title ReWork by the guys who built Basecamp.




You can expect new episodes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

And, of course, the new site itself is live. We’ll be posting articles and resources relevant to Gospel Neighboring there on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I’ll continue to write reflections on the church planting journey here at Gardens Don’t Launch. 

Thanks for reading. I can’t wait for you to hear the podcast and read the book.



Practice Sticky Gospel Neighboring

Chip and Dan Heath more or less say in Made to Stick : How do you know when and idea succeeds?

When the hearer can articulate its essence as well or even better than you can.


How do you know when you’ve practiced effective ‘gospel neighboring’?

When your non-Christian neighbors can and do articulate something about the gospel more clearly, succinctly, concretely, and passionately than maybe even you could, because you live on their street.

What makes things compelling?

The Heaths say that ideas need to be dressed in a simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional story.

The great thing about the gospel is that it’s not an idea that needs outfitted with a simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional story. The gospel already is all those things.

This ought to make our gospel neighboring much less complicated than pitching a startup to a group of venture capitalists or crafting a closing argument to deliver before a jury. We’re not ornamenting an idea in compelling garb. We’re imitating a Person’s words of grace and truth, a Person’s deeds of love and mercy.

Less-is-more neighboring

If you’re a church planter, you probably love ideas, are careful with forms, are sensitive to presentation, and are a connoisseur of subtle ecclesiastical practices. Great. Me too.

But we’ve got to be much more than that. And more often than not, less is more. Don’t be afraid to read the Bible, ask what is so great about Jesus in the passage, and then commit to acting on one way to immediately go about imitating him.

Your care with ideas, forms, presentation, and practices probably won’t hurt your gospel neighboring. But neither will they be the thing that makes your neighbors feel as though Jesus moved onto your street.

 Why not follow @gospelneighbor on Twitter and like the Gospel Neighboring Facebook page to get news about the new Gospel Neighboring podcast? 

Subscribe to get these posts via email.