(Our next worship gathering is July 7 @ 6:00 at the home of Kent and Kris Wehmeier. Come and be equipped and encouraged for life on mission.)
Agree or disagree: “In the prevailing framework of the church today, leaders are constrained to serve only those who come into their ministry sphere – their church building or programs. The ministry, then, is limited to only their capacity and the capacity of that sphere. This also means we are often chasing our tails trying to serve people who are disinterested in the kingdom. Many people will claim to be Christian, but their true desire is to be served, to be fed, and to consume. Serving these people is hard, expensive work with very little kingdom fruit.” (Brian Sanders, Underground Church, p59)
At just about every point in my ministry I would have agreed with the statement above and I would have pushed back, too, because what other choice is there? Church was what it was. In order to reach some, we had to put up with the demands of the consumers of ministry, who, as they would sometimes point out, were footing the bill. Every ministry leader had a list of things they didn’t want to do and that were a waste of time and energy, but were expected to do. That was the church.
The churches I served as a youth leader, elder, and pastor were “prevailing framework” churches. Some of those churches were considered pretty healthy. A couple others, no so much. But even in the healthier ones, the work in the church included a lot of interruptions, empty rituals, maintenance, and putting out fires. Sometimes, God would work in the interruptions. (There’s a cliche about that, so certainly it must be true.) Sometimes, the empty rituals included sparks of life. Sometimes, the maintenance of ministry, the finances, facilities, and endless writing of things that next to no one would read provided an avenue for connection with others involved in helping with the maintenance. And sometimes, the grace of God would be manifest in the putting out of fires. God did things in the church still. The demands and distractions are just part of church. That was ministry in the church. As a volunteer in ministry, it seemed like I spent all my free time at church. As a pastor, I worked about sixty hours each week (as my father had before me.) I think the actual engagement of ministry with people – the preaching, teaching, visitation, praying with others, and helping those in need began after hour forty-five. And that was on weeks when the fires to put out were small ones.
And it would have been worth it if I had seen more kingdom fruit. But outside the church, people seemed to be growing ambivalent about Christianity and disappointed in (sometimes hostile toward) churches. Inside the church, transformation seemed rare and accidental. It did happen. I’d seen it – surrendering to Jesus, conversion to faith, and spiritual (re)awakening. But most people were spiritually stagnated. Too many people thought that was okay. Attending worship, being in a small group Bible study, and serving in the church, and going on a retreat or mission trip – that was the best formula I knew of for steady spiritual growth. But most people I invited into it didn’t want to or didn’t have time for such things. Even among those who did, spiritual growth sometimes just didn’t happen. I learned of an Alban Institute study that revealed that spiritual growth essentially stopped for most people after age 20. Virtually stopped! Trying to address it was frustrating. There was little freedom to try new and different things to bring about better results. And mission – blessing the world – was hard work! We did it. But the effort was huge and often costly.
I had heard that the body of Christ, the church, is supposed to be beautiful. But the beauty was getting pretty hard to see. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When I started LoveFirst Coast, a good friend told me, kindly, that he thought I was going in the wrong direction. Even though we’d read a couple of books together and he appreciated the theory of missional community and respected me for trying, he said that there was no proof of concept. There were rumors and stories, beautiful stories. But he was right. I could not prove that this thing, this new thing, would work. But I couldn’t keep at it the old way. If nothing else, I needed a break.
So we pushed ahead anyway. And I’m so glad we did.
Allow me to draw a few comparisons with my ministry today with my ministry then.
Today, I still work forty-five hours or so before I get into ministry. But those forty-five hours are at an engineering firm. It’s how I provide for my family and it feels like good stewardship of my engineering skills. (I work at Murray Engineering in St. Augustine, FL). I enjoy being with the people I work with. Over time, I have been able to encourage and pray with most everyone there. I love the glimpses of God at work in the lives and in their families. The time I spend in ministry (ten to fifteen hours) is focused in a better way. I don’t spend much time in maintenance, putting out fires, or managing demanding or critical consumers of ministry. Rather, I spend it with people who have become dear friends who are joining God in what God is doing around the First Coast. Our discipleship groups are missional incubators. The job of the leader of a discipleship group is to encourage and equip others to represent Jesus as well as they can wherever they go. I can say pretty confidently that those involved are growing spiritually, steadily. They see themselves as sent, just like me. The touch others with the grace of Jesus across the First Coast. They pray, teach, lead, care and serve. Some are beginning to develop discipling relationships with others When we get together, it is to spur one another on to love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10:25). We focus on learning from Jesus how to live like Jesus (to borrow from Dallas Willard). I still preach a good bit, not only for LoveFirst Coast, but also for the Sawgrass Chapel – a group that gathers to worship on Sundays at 7:30 am out at the beach. Preaching is easier than it used to be. Mostly, I pass on what I’ve been learning as a disciple of Jesus. We still have challenges. We’re human. We sin. We struggle to love, forgive, and get along. We experience strain in our families and other relationships. We get distracted, tired, and off track. But not as much and not as long. We keep coming back to Up-In-Out, to encouraging one another to learn from Jesus how to live like Jesus, to listening, loving, and praying, to pursuing Shallom. It’s beautiful.
Here’s the big shift. We believe followers of Jesus are sent. We are trying to bring people in. We are trying to encourage and equip those who are sent to join God in what God is doing around the First Coast. That’s where we invest and spend our energy.
This different way of doing church, this thing that started as a missional community experiment, is proving to be worth it. But as for proof of concept, well, a lot has happened around the world with missional community in the last five years.
Recently, a documentary was made about a network of missional communities called the Tampa Underground. If you have time, (35 minutes) it’s worth the watch. You’ll get a pretty clear sense of what church done differently could look like. It’s beautiful. I mean, wow, is it beautiful. And that’s shouldn’t be surprising, really. Because, the body of Christ, the church, is supposed to beautiful. Vimeo on Underground Network