Take the Aziz Ansari First-Date Challenge

After the Aziz Ansari episode, a thought:

Want, as a single male heterosexual, to be a radical feminist?

19961192_10156005571760656_6905410604910853056_n.jpgMake it your rule that there is no such thing as anything that could remotely be construed as sexual contact on the first date.

YOU say no.

By saying no, you’re saying yes to that woman’s humanness.

Talk, hang out. Find out the beginnings of what makes this woman tick as a unique creature. Learn a smidgen of her hopes and dreams and fears and longings. Have a modest dinner and then splurge on expensive coffee and dessert with more conversation if this female human person with whom you’ve spent dinner is interesting.

Affirm their intellect and emotions, not their body or even their outfit.

There will be plenty of time for complicated stuff: understanding one another’s moral imaginations and convictions about sexuality; navigating the intricacies of consent and desire; figuring out how far is far enough at given levels of life-commitment.

But on the first evening together, you can take all that completely off the table. You can be, for at least one night, a feminist man, who comes to the first date not without hormones or desires, but without sexual ambitions.

You don’t have to love her on Evening One. But you have to be loving to her. Loving another human means that you don’t get naked with them on the first evening you spend with them. Loving another human means that, at minimum, for one evening, carnal knowledge does not precede personal knowledge.

I know. Radical, right? Scandalous.

Still. Single male heterosexuals of the world, be this sort of oddball radical feminist for just this one night. To start with.

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Of Pears and Porn

I’ve come to believe that one of the best tools in fighting sin is to meditate intellectually on how profoundly stupid and ridiculous the sin is.

Ideally, of course, one would leave vices behind simply because one was attracted to the good things of which those vices are a mere parody. But at any given season in their lives, every person is at a different place with respect to each vice.

Today, I might have lost the taste for drunkenness, and grown to so delight in sobriety that I’m hardly tempted to drink excessively, while at the same time I might be an overeater of junk food with no “taste” yet for things that actually taste good and would make me feel good after I’ve eaten in moderation. What I’d need in such a scenario (I speak hypothetically, of course!) is a physically fit foodie in my life, whom I admire, who would have the patience to teach me to savor delicious and nutritious foods until junk food tasted to me like the junk that it is. But, absent such a friend, I’m left with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma to help me see food for what it is.

funny-stupid-signs-useless-pointless-11-571f374995df4__605.jpgAs Augustine undertakes his famous protracted analysis of his adolescent pear-stealing night with his friends, he engages in precisely this sort of intellectual meditation. Writing as he is in his adulthood, he’s presumably gotten over the particular vice of Theft with Friends. But certainly as a Christian bishop he is now sensing the lure of new and more pernicious vices—perhaps pride and envy in particular, temptations which seem to go hand-in-hand with ministry.

He unpacks the pear-theft ad nauseam. 

He is succinct, however, in describing, what the theft was not:

“Those pears were truly pleasant to the sight, but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had an abundance of better pears.”

A married person with a loving spouse has an abundance of better pears. Whatever is going on when one goes after porn, it’s not images of bodies of other people after which the soul lusts. Those bodies may be pleasant to the sight like Augustine’s neighbor’s pears, which he praises because they were carefully and wonderfully made by God their Creator. But when the miserable soul lusts, it’s not for pears or porn per se.

Augustine goes on famously to detail the intricacies of concupiscence—of the deformed workings of a soul that in one respect or another is dead to true delights and delighted with dead things. And it is worthwhile to follow his exposé of such a soul as his (and yours and mine) in the fight against vices.

But the first and proper step is to learn of and meditate upon the sheer stupidity of eating junk food when there’s real food available, of stealing your neighbor’s pears when there’s better pears available in your own orchard, and of stealing glances at mere images of the bodies of anonymous humans when you have infinitely more in a good wife or husband.

Education can’t save the world. Knowledge is not really power. Rational Choice Theory doesn’t explain behavior. Reading proverbs won’t automatically make you wise and reading Aesop’s Fables doesn’t mean you’re going to avoid the folly in the fable. There’s much more going on in the soul of which the mind knows little.

But still, nobody wants to be stupid.

Grasping the stupidity of porn and telling yourself “Self, don’t be stupid. You don’t want to be stupid, do you? C’mon, stupid!” seems to be a worthwhile strategy.

Flattening our reality, one share at a time

This past semester I taught our school’s senior class a unit on media studies. This was mostly an excuse to geek out on Marshall McLuhan and call it “work.”

But in the context of our course as a whole, I had another aim. We are spending the year studying the way in which we derive stories from various influences and then enact those stories in our own lives. When we live our lives, full of thought, passions, and actions in the world, we tell a story—what we’re calling (after Richard Rorty and Mark Edmundson) our ‘Final Narrative.’

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I’m hoping to help students identify the sources (scriptures, rituals, works of literature and art, philosophies) from which they hope to consciously construct their Final Narratives. I am also hoping to make them aware of the ways in which their immersion in the structures of social media may inhibit their efforts to discern, adopt, and enact dimensions of the Final Narratives proposed by compelling authors, mystics, filmmakers, and artists.

In short, it’s hard to mine Homer, Hemingway, Hebrews, Heidegger, Herzog, or Handel for actionable glimpses of the good, true, and beautiful when most of our attention is captured by #hashtags, handles, and header images.

And, even if our minds and hearts are profoundly moved by an encounter with great Final Narrative proposals, the life-changing impact of such encounters may be significantly diminished by the way in which our social media supervenes upon our lived experience. We are brought crashing back down from our mountaintop experiences not by the demands and duties of our daily lives, but through the banality of living within social media’s world-flattening reality.

We put down a great novel and pick up our phones. The Old Man and the Sea was trying to convince us that doing what we were made for, and doing it with heroic perseverance, is intrinsically valuable. But now Twitter is trying to convince us, by the very structure of its ‘world,’ that the latest nuclear provocation by Kim Jong Un is worthy of the same amount of concern as a snarky comment by Stephen Colbert.

We come home from church, where the liturgy was attempting to en-world us in the life of the world to come. We sit on the sofa and amputate that far off world in order to save the World of Facebook, within which a historically private moment like a marriage proposal is photodocumented alongside the also historically private (but for opposite reasons) event of my high school buddy’s afternoon snack.

When we bookend our reading experiences, however immersive they are, with immersion in social media, however brief, we tell our souls that the worlds of those books are fantasy, and these selfies and cat videos are reality. When we enfold our corporate worship within a life more fundamentally framed by Facebook, in a subtle but undeniable fashion, it is Facebook that corporate worship becomes about. 

Our technology has enabled us to see the world from the vantage point of distant planets. But our technology has also given us lifelong memberships in the Flat Earth Society. And, when our lives are through, it will be difficult for people to discern from their movements story arcs other than, perhaps, “they were born, they posted, they died.” Our Final Narratives, our supposed visions of the life well lived, are telling the story not of deep conviction and persistent action, but of things liked, things shared, things retweeted.

Are there some of us who manage to utilize social media in ways that do not allow its structures and its ‘world’ to supervene upon the ‘real world’? Are there some of us who primarily live within a world wherein duty, heroism, conviction, love, and sacrifice are treasured and enacted, rather than a world of mere likes and retweets? Certainly.

Do we have the reflective capacity to recognize when we’ve swapped the enchanted world of the great texts, great films, great artworks, great religions and real-life heroes for the flattened earth of Facebook? Do we have the will power to make a substantial change if we recognize that we’re living in the wrong world? I’m not sure.

Who Needs ‘Leaders’ in an Organic Church?

Our church’s culture exists within the tension between organism and organization, just like every church should.

Of course, we tend to put the stress on the organismic. We live among and serve a generation that is suspicious of institutions. At the same time, even those who have grown weary of the evangelical subculture’s hyper-institutionalism aren’t fond of being all at sea, especially when it comes to gospel, community, and mission.

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How do you make sure that in the organism of your church, you’re still organized enough to stay alive? You need ensure that you’re doing what all living things need: having an identity, having unity within diversity, and playing your role successfully within your host community.

We’ve gravitated toward the language of Up / In / Out. (We stole it from 3dm.)

Up is about our identity in fellowship with Father, Son and Spirit.

In is about our unity within diversity as we fulfill the “one anotherings” of the New Testament.

Out is about our calling to our host community, those we serve in word and deed in Jesus’ name.

What is a leader? One way we look at it in our context is this: a leader is someone who advocates for one of these trajectories (Up, In, Out), and who organizes opportunities for the organism to move deliberately along that trajectory. 

So, does a gospel community on mission have a single leader, or shared leadership? Does it veer toward the organismic or organizational? Does it flow freely or does it have structure?

Hopefully you can see that these are not well-framed questions.

The most important thing for me as a leader is not which trajectory I’m predisposed toward. The mark of a community group leader is not whether they are balanced balanced across these trajectories or skewed toward one of them.

Rather, the mark of a healthy gospel community on mission is that all three of these trajectories are progressively pursued, one way or another. 

If you happen to have a leader who is incredibly balanced, perhaps they could lead the community along all three trajectories. More often than not, the unity of the the body and the balance of its pursuits, even in the body’s smallest expressions, is accomplished as different champions of Up, In, and Out arise from within the group.

When such champions are able to successfully advocate for their respective trajectory, they are leaders. And when the organism is led and organized in each of the three trajectories,  beautiful, powerful things happen.

Why do we need leaders in an organic church? Every organism that wants to be survive and thrive must be organized. Leaders organize the organism for life-sustaining and life-giving action.

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Gird Up Your Loins

“Don’t think. Act.” – Steven Pressfield, Do The Work

Pressfield wants us to quit being men without chests. To quit rationalizing, talking ourselves out of the things we want to accomplish. He believes we need bigger hearts and smaller heads.

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If he’s right, and if I’m right, this is the kind of no-guts-no-glory approach that gets young men like me married. We think we’re up to the task. We go at it like heroes bound for marital glory. And then later we pick up some more rational tools once our sheer guts have gotten us as far as they can. Eventually the duties rise up and stare down the bravado with which we started. It’s then that our ignorant heroism gets transmuted into prudence, fortitude, and the other cardinal virtues.

Now, I’m a Presbyterian clergyman. Our types add a lot of footnotes whenever we talk about God calling us to do this or that. We’re bookish, educated, subtle, decent, and in order.

When it comes to Yours Truly, all this thinking often becomes a way for me to guard my heart. To keep me from putting all my eggs in one basket. To keep me from biting off more than I can chew. To keep me from having to look myself in the mirror and say “you know what? You don’t have a choice, Bucko! God has called you to this, and you’ve answered that call and committed to executing it.”

Often, we guard our hearts so that we don’t have to gird our loins.

Has Jesus called you to plant a church? Have you said, “Here am I. Send me.”? If he hasn’t, or if you haven’t, then stay away, or walk away. But if he has, and you have, then get in there and do it.

Our father Abraham didn’t subject his his call to move from Chaldea to Canaan to my version of Presbyterian cerebral purgatory. He packed and got going.

Don’t read a thousand church planting books first. Don’t read all 93 of my blog posts, or my eBook Countdown to Launch: 10 Church Planting Rules Worth Breaking. Don’t register for the 2016 Acts 29 Boot Camp.

If you are called to plant a church, start today. Commit yourself to the entire process now. Pressfield would say to get out a legal pad, and on one sheet, determine what the beginning, middle, and end of the call entails.

1. Beginning: Apprenticeship, assessment, deployment, core group, evangelism, discipleship, Gospel Neighboring

2. Middle: Worship, multiplication of missional communities, ordaining elders, financial sustainability

3. End: Church is established, you are replaceable, and the church is ready to plant a new church

And then, he’d say, act. Fill in the blanks as you go.

I’m scared to say for sure that this is what I actually believe. But if Pressfield is right, then that very fear may be evidence that I’m still hedging, guarding my heart, thinking.

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Be The Grown-Up

I’ve always resonated with the cry of the Toys R Us kid. I don’t want to grow up.

386719_2805399182138_1473404158_32953718_697594335_nThis renunciation of my faithful parents’ work toward my maturity didn’t just effect my learning (I wanted to be ‘well-rounded’, and so I raced toward popularity through jock-dom at the expense of doing things like reading).

This renunciation didn’t just effect my college major choices (I rejected my dad’s insistence that I would be very good in the business world, and in sales and marketing in particular, and opted instead for a dream of loafing around while teaching high school social studies and coaching football).

This renunciation has ultimately effected my pursuit of church planting.

While I proclaimed the evangelistic advantages of planting new churches, I was more-than-just-a-little-bit interested in escaping what I perceived to be a rather stuffy, adult ecclesiastical environment. In some ways, I wanted to have a license to not grow up. To not be the adult my age was trying to make me.

What have I learned in church planting? What is the one big piece of counsel I might give to prospective church planters?

Be the Grown-up in the room.

You can only play cool for so long. You can only ‘contextualize’ your philosophy of ministry toward young and/or less mature people in your community to a certain degree before it becomes plain to your wife, to the actual adults there might be in your church plant, and, finally, to you, that you’re really just trying to not grow up.

Church planting is not nearly as hard, in my experience, as people said it would be. So much of the great stuff that’s happened has seemingly just happened.

But what the experience has done to me is exactly what I hoped to avoid by entering into it. Church planting has forced me to be the adult in the room. To say the tough thing that needs to be said. To say something “spiritual” when everyone else might be content to just go on chewing the fat. To stop trying to be everybody’s buddy and to start being who I’ve actually be called to be: their pastor

To a great extent, church planting has pressed forward the task that marriage began and children carried on. It has made me reckon with the fact that the most selfless, loving thing I can do in many instances is to simply play the part of the grown man.

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)

You’re Not Building a Steinway

When I was in graduate school and seminary simultaneously (don’t ever do this!), we got pregnant with my first son Deacon. I went scrambling for a summer job, and a framing carpenter felt sorry for me and hired me temporarily.

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When “Right” is all wrong

They say that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I guess I wasn’t a man, because I was very reluctant to swing the hammer.

But I began methodically pretending to be a carpenter.

Over in the corners of the soon-to-be-home where my work would never be visible to another human eye, I took my time and did everything “right”. Except my boss didn’t want me to take my time. And my version of “right” was so right that it was all wrong.

“You’re not building a Steinway”, he said at least 10 times that first week.

Rhythm and momentum

When you’re getting started with a church plant, or even with leading a missional community, you experience much the same thing. There is a sense of urgency: “I must get working now.”

But accompanying that sense of urgency is a strong hesitancy: “I’ve only got one shot at starting this thing, and starting it right.”

Establishing the DNA of a new gospel community is indeed important work that bears careful reflection and a methodical approach. But you’re not building a Steinway. Momentum and a consistent rhythm may be twice as important as having a “plan”. In fact, the only way to know whether your plan has any chance of doing what you want it to is to dig in and get going.

You’re not building a Steinway. But what you do hope to see built is something far more beautiful than a Steinway. Something that makes music more transcendent than any Julliard pianist could produce. And something not just more beautiful and transcendent, but much more forgiving.

So get rolling. You’ll figure it out as you go.

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A Guest Church Planting Proverb from Steve Jobs

As far as I know, the legendary Apple innovator never spoke at an Acts 29 Bootcamp or the Exponential conference. And yet here he is,  affording us a posthumous pithy planting proverb.

“It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.”

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Silly Surveys

Some say that the way to decide what sort of church to plant is to ask un-churched, de-churched, or meh-churched people  what kind of church would resonate with them.

What programs should we offer? What kind of music should we play? What time should the service be? The customer is always right. Right?

A Sort of Fundamentalist

My sense from the conversations I’ve had with people in our church plant is that most of them didn’t know exactly what they longed for until they began experiencing it. Further, not everyone likes everything. And yet the people who feel thrilled with what God is doing among us are not (or are no longer) persnickety about what we do in all its detail.

Instead, they have sensed that life lived as a family, drenched in the gospel, with a face toward our neighbors, is what church is fundamentally all about. The rest really is just details.

Take note, but don’t take orders

Forget the focus groups and the surveys. Ignore the unsolicited advice of the disgruntled.

It’s your job to discern what church Jesus is calling you to plant by listening to his heart as you lead and practice gospel neighboring. Listen to people’s pains. Observe the barometer of their brokenness. Glean from the grumpy.

Take note, perhaps, of people’s preferences.

Take note, but don’t take orders.

Plant the church God has planted in your heart. You’re the church planter, after all.

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Plan Your Church Split Now

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Richard Branson heads a bizarrely global galactic branded house. You may have heard of it. It’s called Virgin.

In his book Business Stripped Bare, Branson describes Virgin’s forays into ventures as diverse as small Americana record labels, rail travel, telecommunications, and space travel. They’re all over the place.

Despite this, Branson has sought to keep small-company culture operating across Virgin’s gazillion sub-brands.

How?

Picking Teams

When a typical Virgin company gets to 100 employees, Branson splits them into 2 companies. He gathers the senior executives and their deputies together, and what ensues reminds me of choosing teams for kickball in the schoolyard. They put together two new teams of 50 people. They promote from within. New executives often rise to leadership after beginning as coffee-fetchers or even janitors.

Resulting small companies even “compete” with one another in the sense that they’re sometimes going after a overlapping markets. Yet they share administrative resources and retain a sense of camaraderie as new ideas surface and cross-pollinate.

The small, intimate work culture keeps every Virgin company agile and innovative and allows for growth without allowing them to settle into the institutional predictableness that besets Big Companies.

Like a Virgin

Plan your church split.

Cell division is a bona fide reproductive method. Once you get beyond the capacity to exist as an extended family on mission, split. Once you distinguish that a new cluster of neighborhoods calls for a new sort of missional community, split. Once you begin to have more people with talent and character than can be deployed in pioneering ways, split.

Once you need a sound system to hear the person speaking, praying, or leading the music, split.

You can still get together and share resources, talk shop, celebrate, collaborate, and cross-pollinate. But if the Church is going to maintain its missional edge and its extended-family sense of community—two things that the post-Christian world needs to experience so desperately—you’ve got to face this unsettling, exciting challenge.

Like Branson, I think 100 is a nice round number. Maybe you’re still technically the same “church” by some official reckoning. But you’re 2 fresh start-ups operating with a fresh mission and fresh missionaries.

Plan your church split now.

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If You’re the Gatherer, You’re the Decider

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It happens all the time.

You’ve surveyed the landscape. You’ve seen a gaping hole. You’ve become agitated, unable to tolerate the absence of a vital community thriving in that unoccupied space.

Not one to go on wishing without acting, you forge a community around a vision you’ve articulated to bring the needed communal presence into that space. People gather. The space begins to be be filled. A culture develops. Something special is happening.

And then someone passionately, vociferously wants a different sort of culture in that same space with those same people. The people you’ve gathered. In the place you’ve gathered them.

You’re too nice to be mean.

You value input, so you can’t write people off. You insisted on shared ownership, so you can’t divest participants of their stake without being a hypocrite. And maybe you’re a people pleaser, so you can’t quite bolster the courage to take a stand for your values over this other person’s values.

But, if truth be told, it feels almost as though this member of your community is attempting to hi-jack the people you’ve gathered and the culture you’ve nurtured and take it in a radically different direction.

It’s not every day that Gardens Don’t Launch pulls a line of wisdom from George W. Bush. But today we do.

You’re the gatherer. So you’re the decider.

Pillaging is easier than gardening.

It is very, very hard to gather people. If you’re the church planter, then you’ve taken a bold and risky move by staking this thing that everyone else calls a “career” (but you’re not allowed to because it doesn’t sound spiritual) on the success of a venture that everyone else can walk away from without missing a fiscal beat. In a “real business”, the other people in the organization call these heavily-invested pioneers “boss”.

Ultimately, you need to be ready and willing to pull the culture-hijacker aside and lovingly but firmly make the very point I’ve just made in this post. Liberate them to begin something new and gather a fresh group of people in an unoccupied space if they are provoked like you were when you started cultivating the present community.

Don’t allow someone to dismantle the community you’ve gathered and the culture you’ve nurtured, however pure their intentions.

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