“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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Be a ‘Food Church’ // The Churched Disciple: Sabbath / In / ‘Feast’

Much of what we’ve been talking about under the Sabbath rhythm of church life has already involved feasting. We believe that the best way to facilitate enjoyment, expectation, and even submission as we receive from Jesus on Sundays is to do so in the context of a feast.

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OF COUSE WE’RE A ‘FOOD CHURCH’

Scholars have observed that Jesus essentially eats his way through the gospel of Luke. He is always on his way to a meal, at a meal, or on his way from a meal. That means that every miracle of his goodness, every challenge made with love, every surprising embrace of his grace, every rebuke and warning to the self-righteous and hypocritical, and even every movement of his passion, occurs in the context of food and drink.

If you don’t eat and drink with your fellow disciples of Jesus, it’s very difficult to claim that you are, in fact, Jesus’ disciple. If you don’t share meals together with the family of God, it is very difficult to maintain that you are indeed a member of the household of faith.

A mark of a truly “churched disciple” in our context will be an increasing commitment to break bread on Sundays with your spiritual family. You should find it awkward to show up right at the time the service is supposed to start, and to have a seat with your hands folded in your lap. Hardly anyone else should be there; they ought to be clearing their plates, stealing a few extra moments of feasty togetherness around the tables, and savoring the bonds of friendship that are formed and strengthened over bagels and coffee, or pot luck fare.

A PRIORITY AND HABIT

So, make it a priority and a habit to feast with God’s people on the Sabbath, for this, in large measure, is what will make you Festal Sabbatarians, and not obtuse people who woodenly adhere to an ancient law.

In a sense, you owe it to your spiritual family members to show up ready to feast, just like you owe it to your mom to come to the table at dinner time, and just like you owe it to your grandmother to be at the big table on Thanksgiving Day. Your presence and your readiness to feast enriches the experience of the whole family.

And if your propensity is to keep the feast straight through the afternoon between festal gatherings, then have someone over for lunch or head to an Old Town eatery together.

HARD PLAY IS HARD WORK

One other thing to keep in mind: while the Sabbath is a day of rest, and may well involve a holy siesta, the growing disciple of Jesus recognizes that hard play is hard work. Do what you can to prepare your food on Saturday. Do what you can to leave the clean-up till Monday. Recognize that you’ll need energy to be joyful for a whole Sabbath feast, especially as you turn your face and your life toward your spiritual extended family in a posture of acceptance.

Trying to do everything on a Sabbath feast day, including making lots of meal preparations and cleaning your kitchen, will make it so that you won’t enjoy much of anything. Conserve your energy for the uniqueness of the Sabbath feast day.

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The Churched Disciple: Sabbath – “Expect”

Alas, back to our series on ‘the churched disciple’. If we’re going to have the kind of church that doesn’t underwhelm earnest Christians and encourage them to opt for ‘community’ instead of church, what kind of body of disciples do we need to become?

“Discipleship is never complicated or easy, but always simple and hard.” – Mike Breen

That’s certainly true of this call to discipleship. We’re called to expect that Jesus will give us plenty to receive in each Sabbath feast.

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The great London Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once had a pastor-friend who came to him discouraged. He was upset about the lack of fruit he saw from his preaching ministry. The pastor complained that he was not seeing people come to faith in Christ under his preaching.

“Well,” Spurgeon retorted, “you don’t expect that someone will come to faith in Christ during every sermon, do you?” Sheepishly, the pastor said, “well, no.” “That’s precisely the problem,” Spurgeon said.

SMALL EXPECTATIONS?

We often suffer from abysmally low expectations of what God will do in the power of the Spirit when his people are gathered in his presence.

Growing disciples of Jesus, in contrast, will experience an growing anticipation of what Jesus will do. Especially when we come to God in the posture of receptivity, we come expecting that it will primarily be him that does a great work in and among us.

We no longer look at Sunday as the religious version of a dreaded Monday. We no longer see it as a day when we have to get the children up, get them dressed, get them fed, and keep them quiet so that we can say we went to church, and that our kids didn’t embarrass us.

Instead, Sunday becomes one of our favorite days of the week—even if we love going to work on Monday and we begging out with pizza, beer, and a movie on Friday night.

3 LETHARGIC ALTERNATIVES

Some fast-growing churches seem to put all their energy into making the worship experience so spectacular that someone could wander in half-dead and be resurrected by the sheer force of the music, the lights, the preaching, and the crowds.

Other stagnating and declining churches seem to simply go through the Sunday motions, which can make the most zealous Christian comatose ten minutes in.

Some Christians have seen all this at its worst, and have lost hope in ever seeing it at its best. And so they are satisfied with small group gatherings and private devotions.

Our church’s experience of Jesus is dependent on our church’s expectations of Jesus. Will he pour himself out by his Spirit when we are gathered to keep his feast? Do we expect it? Do we believe that Jesus always throws the best feasts and brings the best wine?

So, what’s our challenge? How do we be become an expectant people?

ARE WE EXPECTING?

The challenge for those preparing to lead us in Festal Sabbathing is to mine the riches of the gospel of Jesus in its diverse implications for a more abundant life under his lordship. Preachers must prepare with diligence, with prayer, employing all their God-given powers of spiritual imagination to proclaim the gospel with authority and generosity (2 Tim 4:2). They must expect that God will accomplish much through its proclamation.

Those that cook food for the rest of us to enjoy should cook with love, expecting and praying that it will be received (there’s that word again!) with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:46). Those who watch the young children in the nursery, those who lead music, those who clean the kitchen, and all others who serve at the Sabbath feast should ready their hearts, expecting that their humble service will be used by the Spirit of God to enable others to receive his grace and be transformed by it.

Whatever we bring to the feast, we bring it with the joyful expectation that Jesus has given us the gift, and intends to use it for the edification of the body (Rom 12:4ff).

It is incumbent upon each member of the feasting body to calibrate their hearts throughout the week, expecting that the feast will be satisfying, and that Jesus will delight our souls on the richest of fare.

The challenge for each of us is much like the challenge of our entire Christian lives: to live our week in the hopeful expectation that the best is yet to come, and that each Sabbath feast is a foretaste of the greater feast of the New Jerusalem, which we also expect to enjoy soon.

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The Churched Disciple: Sabbath – Be Contradictable

Are you contradictable?

It’s time to get back to my string of posts on how a church, and especially a church plant, can become the kind of holistic discipling culture that would make underwhelmed veterans of evangelicalism like Donald Millers stay put and dig deep.

Today, a first swipe at why “going to church on Sunday” is still a really good idea.

This is probably the least sexy reason I’ll give.

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Community. Dialogue. Living life together. Going on mission together. These are the necessary antidotes to the truncated version of church that many evangelicals have regrettably experienced. They’re also the things that many people have begun to find outside “traditional church” (whatever exactly that means). A lot of such folks, according to Donald Miller, just don’t go to church much anymore.

But consider this:

Scripture is the breath of God, given so that it might teach us, rebuke us, correct us, and train us to be godly and ready for every good work Jesus calls us to walk in. Agreed?

‘Organic’ is Great, But …

Humanly speaking…

When you’re reading your Bible alone, your mind is the limit of what you’ll see in a chunk of Holy Scripture. Your own heart is the limit of how the sermon you’re preaching to yourself will be allowed to get at you. Your schedule and personal discipline are the limits of how much listening to Jesus you’ll do in one sitting, and how frequently you’ll sit and listen.

When you’re dialoguing about the Bible with friends, your friends’ minds become the limit to a potentially enlarged understanding. Your friends’ willingness to say hard things to you, often with others sitting right there beside you, now becomes the limit to how closely the Bible will press in on you. Your friends’ schedules are another limit to the quantity and quality of these Bible reckonings.

There are a lot of factors that make these group and individual encounters with God’s word potentially powerful. And there are even more ways to make a sermon in a church on a Sunday almost useless to discipleship.

What makes your eardrums beat?

But the advantage to sitting still for 30 minutes every Sunday and hearing someone give a monological discourse from God’s word is this:

You cannot control what is said. You cannot direct the conversation where you want it to go. You cannot pick the passage. You cannot determine the trajectory or scope of its application.

You also aren’t dependent on the guts of a person in a group setting to say something difficult to your face. You don’t have to wait around for your friends to get there, move past the chit-chat, hope the vibe is right, and then, hopefully, hear something insightful, life-giving, and perhaps even challenging. You don’t have to send 291 emails to reschedule when life gets busy for this organic group of Bible-appliers.

At both 10:25am and 7:25pm every Sunday in our church a fresh, never-before-heard, well-struggled-over, well-prayed-over, very much fallible and sometimes even outright boring, but always earnest, gospelicious, challenging, provocative bit of teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness aimed at equipping the body for every manner of good work can be heard.

You can doze off, play on Facebook on your iPhone, harden your heart, or even make better discoveries from the passage than the preacher makes. But what sets your eardrums beating will not be your choice. You will be contradicted. You’ll be called to change your mind and to change your life. You’ll be called to quit proving yourself right and instead rest in the righteousness of Jesus given to you.

Relationship Requires Contradiction

As Tim Keller has suggested, admitting that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself so much as it contradicts you is the crucial step toward being in an actual relationship with the God whose breath the Bible is. From there, the question becomes: how can I ensure that I’m regularly opening myself up to being contradicted by the God who speaks in the Bible?

One of the most basic answers to this is, yes, to sit under its preaching.

Even if you have an exquisite preacher, you can still spend your life ignoring everything he says. But it’ll get said. Over and over. And much of it—especially the bits that contradict you—won’t get said by your private homilies to yourself or by your friends around the table, no matter how much they care for you.

Be contradictable.

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The Churched Disciple: When ‘Going to Church’ feels like a Distraction

In my last post, I suggested that many of the Donald Millers of the Christian world would be re-engaged with the local church if our churches gave them a compelling story about why their particular church exists.

photo: Sara McAllister. saramcallister.com

photo: Sara McAllister. saramcallister.com

Now, I’d like to suggest that a church’s broadened, compelling why calls for a integral and tightly-aligned, but diverse, multi-faceted, and sprawling how. If “going to church on Sunday” provokes a blasé response from passionate Christians, then it may be that the church has abandoned some key dimensions of its corporate calling.

Why leads to how

If your church believes most deeply that Jesus wants more than anything else to assemble his people for worship and instruction, and that its corporate calling is therefore to gather people to worship God and instruct them in Christian doctrine, then Sunday for 120 minutes or so will probably do the trick. That will be its how. 

On the other hand, if your church has a more expansive belief about spiritual reality, and a corporate calling as expansive as “the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus for the flourishing of Rock Hill”, for example, then your church is going to have to gather, bless, challenge, equip, and deploy its people across a number of different spheres of kingdom reality.

Worship, or ‘every good work’?

In our case, that means Sabbath, Neighborhood, and Vocation. Because we believe that Jesus is Lord over all, and because we believe that he has entrusted the mystery and power of the gospel to the church, we know that we’ve got a much larger job than providing worship and Sunday School. We need to gather the people of God so that we can open the word of God, teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training one another in righteousness so that every one of us will be fully equipped for every good work. Every good work. That’s what the church is responsible to help the people of God with.

And that’s partly what Donald Miller is grieving over as he looks at the ecclesiastical landscape, and at his local options. He has learned to worship God through his work! He gets something that many Christians never get. And yet he isn’t graced, challenged, or equipped by the church for what he is called to do with roughly half of his waking hours.

We need grace and truth, warm invitation and robust challenge, not just for the good work we’re called to do on Sundays “at church”, but for the pursuit of our neighbors and our networks, and for faithfulness in our spiritual, spousal, familial, educational, and occupational callings.

When ‘going to church’ is a distraction

What I’m suggesting here is this: If our beliefs are too narrow and our ecclesiastical missions are too truncated, our Donald Millers may end up becoming too ‘distracted’ by the glorious expansiveness of their personal kingdom callings to take even 2 hours a week to “go to church on Sunday.”

And I find it difficult to blame them.

In the next few posts, I’ll outline what I believe what a more expansive approach ministry looks like. I’ll discuss what I mean by Sabbath, Neighborhood, and Vocation, and how these or similar ecclesiastical hows can more fully equip God’s people for every good work.

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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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The Churched Disciple: Responding to Donald Miller

Last week there was a fairly major dust-up by evangelical standards when the popular spiritual memoirist Donald Miller told the world that he rarely attends church these days. He cited a personal learning style that was not particularly responsive to monological teaching as one  reason. The other was a lack of connection with God through singing.

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I’ve had some constructive dialogues with people who have defended Miller’s nonchalance with respect to church attendance. These conversations have stirred up in me the desire to spell out my philosophy of ministry. So, at the risk of appearing self-important and possibly overly cerebral, I venture forth. While I usually use this blog as a miscellany of short church planting proverbs, now I’ll take a more programmatic approach, even if just for a week or two.

CS Lewis said that the best way to counteract negative cultural developments is to create their happier alternatives. I’ve tried to do this in my church plant itself instead of simply whining about unfortunate church cultures. I’ll try to do something similar here by articulating a happier alternative to the particular sort of church culture that dominates evangelicalism, making it possible and perhaps even understandable for someone as serious about their spirituality as Donald Miller to rather blithely opt out.

I would welcome your comments as these posts get going. But unlike with my more one-and-done posts, I might wait to make my replies until I’ve had a chance to sketch out the contours of my philosophy of ministry as a whole. This is one of those awkward “hang on, I’ll get to that!” moments. Don’t mean to be professorial.

But to give you a quick sense of where I’m going, I am going to make the case that a church community committed to engaging together in the life rhythms of Sabbath, Neighborhood, and Vocation will be the sort of church community that our Donald Millers wouldn’t dream of casually opting out of.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

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