Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Small Groups Bull's-Eye

Groups are the most important aspect of the life of your church! 

Overstatement? Well maybe. But one could easily make the argument that groups will make or break a church as much as any other aspect of a church’s life. After all groups are the web that links people in the church together. They are not simply a strategy of a church. They pervade every aspect of a church, whether there is an explicit group strategy or not.

I make this claim because churches—as with all other organizations—do life as an organization of sub-groups. In many cases these are formal groups: leadership teams, worship teams, Sunday school classes, home small groups, youth groups, etc. But there are also other kinds of groups, informal connections of people who naturally gather and talk with one another in a way that they don’t talk with others. Just look around before or after a worship service and you will see the groups happen.

It’s only natural that churches would get stuff done in groups as they are part of the warp and woof of how good living works. All organizations operate as a system of groups. Businesses, governments, teams, classrooms, volunteer foundations, and, yes, churches work as a network of smaller groups.

We often miss the reality of how groups pervade our lives because they are always present, whether they are healthy and life-giving or not. We are born into a small group called a family. We go to school in groups called classes. We play in groups called teams. We organize our work in groups. Our friendships naturally cluster in groups. We even eat in groups, something that is easily illustrated—for good or bad—by our high school lunch breaks.

Small groups are everywhere.

This is just the way relationships naturally work. We cannot relate to everyone we meet with the same level of depth. We even see in this in the life of Jesus. He did not relate to everyone in the same way. He did not come to the entire world 2000 years ago. He came to the people of Israel. Within Israel he related to people at different levels. Like concentric circles, he connected more deeply with smaller groups as he move further into the center.

He surrounded himself with three intimate confidantes and nine other close friends. Jesus then related to a large group of up to 70 people who followed him in his ministry (See Luke 10). Then there were others who were connected to him, symbolized by those in the Upper Room after his ascension. Beyond this, he related to the crowds of people who did not know him personally (e.g. the crowds who heard the Sermon on the Mount or the 5000 who were miraculously fed). Those around Jesus formed a web of connections where he demonstrated God’s relational kingdom. At the center of this web was a small group.

What We Need
Even though groups are foundational to the way we do life, in our day, grouping well is a challenge. When we consider the reality of the context of how we do life in Western society, the need for the development of community has never been more central. We live in an era of chronic isolation and disconnection. It does not take much effort to survey how sociologists describe Western life to see what is going on. Over the last few decades, cultural observers have used images like the lonely crowd, bowling alone, the saturated self, a society of strangers, intimate strangers, the myth of individualism, and many others. There has never been a time in the history of mankind when we have practiced a way of life that is driven by such isolation.

We are “hardwired for relationships,” and we intuitively know it. However, our way of life fosters a set of practices that train us to live as if we don’t need them. In the describing this way of life, the authors of the classic book Habits of the Heart write about the mythology of individualism using the classic characters of a cowboy and private detectives as individualistic heroes.
“Both the cowboy and the hard-boiled detective tell us something important about American individualism. The cowboy, like the detective, can be valuable to society only because he is completely autonomous individual who stands outside it. To serve society, one must be able to stand alone, not needing others, not depending on their judgment, and not submitting to their wishes.”
While we all know that none of us can stand alone against the tide, this mythology shapes us. Our logical conclusions about the need for belonging and connections don’t necessarily form the way we practice life on a daily basis. The environment in which we live forms us without our even knowing it. For example, I grew up on a farm and I learned about life by being formed through the ups and downs of farm life. Those raised in the inner city, for instance, learn how to do life differently. If you are raised in the inner city, you will be shaped the pattens commonly found there. Western society has formed us through the mythology of individualism which means that who I am as an individual is to be prized over my relationships. The habits that correspond to this mythology create life patterns that we practice on a daily basis without ever thinking about it.

For instance, we tend to operate as if we are able to construct ourselves from nothing so that we can do what we want to do and be whomever we think we should be. We change jobs. We relocate. We create identities online. We switch marriage partners. We form and reform ourselves as if we were a blob of Playdo. If we were to look in the mirror and ask “Who are you?,” the honest response would be, “Who do you want me to be today?”

What We Want
When we take an honest look at how we do life and then compare that to the biblical call to be the church, it does not take long to see the disparity. We could look at many different scriptures to illustrate this, but this one highlights as concretely as any:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Phil 2:1-4)
The word that is translated “others” is the Greek word allelon, which literally means “one another.” The church is called to be a people who live in community with each other and manifest God’s love to each other in these ways. This stands in sharp contrast to the patterns of life that describe our culture.

We are made for this. We need this. We might even say that we hunger for this.

When you are hungry, what do you want? The answer is obvious: you want food. If you were to say that they want _____________ (insert your the name of your favorite restaurant), no one would think that you want the actual restaurant. You want the food that is served by that restaurant. The restaurant is simply the form used to provide that food.

When you say that you want groups to flourish in your church, what is it that we really want? We don’t actually want the form called “small groups” or “missional communities.” We want belonging, community, life together, connection, prayer, sharing, sacrifice, the presence of God together, mutuality, discipleship, leadership development, spiritual gifts, mission.

Our hope for our groups can easily be summed up with:
  • Love God
  • Love One Another
  • Be Witnesses in the World. 
One of my mentors put it this way, “If you love God, love each other, love those who don’t know Jesus and the train others to do the same, you group will flourish.”

Some kind of basic explanation like this for what we want to see in groups can be found in almost every book or conference on small groups and missional communities from the last half century. It's remarkable how every resource about groups starts out with the confession that we are aiming for the same things. For instance Bill Donahue writes of four basic components that he hopes to see in groups:
  • Love. “Love is expressed in a variety of ways in group life. First, we express love to God through prayer and worship and by giving him praise. We express love to one another as we serve one another and care for one another in our group.” 
  • Learn. “Learning about Christ and about his will for our lives is a key component of group life. All groups learn—they learn the Scriptures, they learn about one another, and they learn about them- selves.” 
  • Serve. “Service and good works are part of any vibrant, healthy small group. Your group must decide how you will express Christian love to your community or to others in the body.” 
  • Reach. “Groups must make decisions that ensure the group’s purpose and vision are carried out. That means reaching others for Christ.” 
Steve Gladden writes in his book Leading Small Groups with Purpose that his dream is based on the experience of the early church recording in Acts 2. There he finds the five purposes of the group: Fellowship, Discipleship, Ministry, Evangelism, and Worship. (41-42)

Joel Comiskey has done by far the most research on the worldwide growth of the cell church and has written over 25 books on the topic. While the cell church has not taken off in North America like it has on other continents, the hopes and dreams of what leaders want to see happening in the cell groups looks much the same as those stated by Donahue and Gladden. Comiskey writes,
“Cells are groups of three to fifteen people who meet weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism, community, and spiritual growth with the goal of making disciples who make disciples, which results in the multiplication of the cell.” 
Similar things are stated about what leaders want to see from the groups that are commonly called missional communities. Mike Breen writes of the Up-In-Out dimension of group life. Reggie McNeal summarizes it this way:
“The up dimension includes worship and efforts toward helping members maintain a dynamic and growing relationship with God, including a personal relationship with Jesus as Savior. Typical in-dimension emphases of community life are the nurture and care of each other, praying for one another, encouraging one another, and attending to the physical, social, economic, and spiritual needs of other members. Out-dimension expressions of service and witness vary from group to group, depending on the particular mission of the community. Some communities target the homeless and others minister in night clubs, some in gated communities, and others convene Alpha groups in their living rooms and office conference centers.” (Missional Communities, 45)
There are a ton of opinions and perspectives on groups. There are statements by thought leaders that they have found the most effective way to do groups. There are promotions that their perspective unlocks the biblical methods of first century church life. There are declarations that we don’t do small groups anymore because they are inward-focused and therefore we need outward-focused missional communities. However, when you survey what each perspective actually espouses, it is easy to see that we all want groups that live out the same things. I summarize them with the words Communion, Relating and Engagement.

This is the bull's-eye.

What We Want: Communion with God
Right before Jesus went to trail and then to the cross, he prayed for this kind of life together in this way:
I’m praying not only for them
But also for those who will believe in me
Because of them and their witness about me.
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.
The same glory you gave me, I gave them,
So they’ll be as unified and together as we are—
I in them and you in me.
Then they’ll be mature in this oneness,
And give the godless world evidence
That you’ve sent me and loved them
In the same way you’ve loved me. (John 17:20-23)
The connection with God that we were made to experience cannot be manufactured by our efforts. The oneness of Jesus’ prayer is oneness that is only realized as we are one in the life of the Father, Son and Spirit. And this is related to how we relate to each other. We cannot be connected to one another without communion with God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way:
Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus Christ alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it. (Life Together, 38)
We only connect to one another as Christ by the Spirit stands between us. If we lack an upward communion with Christ by the Spirit, then connecting to each other will only be something we manufacture via our efforts.

What We Want: Relating with Each Other
Jesus prayed that we might be one with each other in the same way that Jesus and the Father are one. Our communion with God unites us in love to one another. This manifests creatively like a great painting. I’m a fan of the Impressionists. Prints of Monet, Renoir and others bring life to a room. However, upon seeing the real thing in person, I entered into and experience that no print can reproduce. Prints, being flat cannot replicate the brush strokes or the depth of the paint on the canvas. The light bounces off the paint in such a way that the images come to life. The characters sitting around the tables looked as if they were inviting me to join them. I stood mesmerized. I didn't just view it. I did not see it. It saw me. It engaged me. It's beauty moved me.

The experience we long for in our groups is like a work of art. Each one is a masterpiece, but none are the same. Relating is not a cheap print replicated from a past experience or a formulaic concoction promoted by another church across the country. Relating cannot be copied, replicated or mimicked. Every connection experience is unique, a one of kind expression of God's love.

What We Want: Engagement with Context
According to the prayer of Jesus in John 17, the way that the world will come to believe that Jesus is the manifestation of God is through our connection with one another as we commune with God. Our love for each other demonstrates to the world that we belong to Jesus, that we are his disciples (John 13:35)

Jesus prayed that we might live in unity, in oneness with one another as we are one with the Father which results in being “witnesses about” Jesus. This is not about developing an evangelism program so that we can get converts to join our groups. This is about living in such a way that our lives are a witness, so that we put on display the beauty and love of Christ in the midst of the world.

What We Want: The Way of Jesus
Simply stated: The bull's-eye is groups that live out the way of Jesus. At least that’s what we confess. But what do we get? That's for another time. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Way We Pray is the Way We Lead

There is an ancient Latin rule of the church that reads: lex orandi lex credendi, "the law of praying is the law of believing." Or to put it into a slightly different vernacular, "the way that we pray is the way that we believe."

In other words, our theology is not merely a confession of agreement with an orthodox list of beliefs. Our beliefs about God are manifest and even cultivated by our communion with God.

So often theology is used as a kind of litmus test that we pass in order to get to the place of doing something for God. So if we believe the right things about God, then we are qualified to work for him. And as a result, it seems that theology has little to do with what we do in the church outside of that which we preach or teach.

In other words, theology is foundational to things like leadership and the running of the church, but we don't see how it is relevant to what we do when we walk into the church office on Monday morning or what we do as a church council on Wednesday night.

So on Sunday morning, we pray that God will help us to believe, because we know that we depend upon God to do what only he can do in the transformation of lives. But do we pray in the same way on Monday morning? Or during a council meeting?

But belief is not merely about a list of theological facts. Theological belief is about life, all of life. We could state it like this: The way that we pray is the way that we work. Or the way that we pray is the way that we parent. Or maybe still: the way that the pray is the way that we play.

The way that we pray as leaders in the church is the way that we lead.

The way that we pray as we lead the church reveals what we believe about how God leads the church. Recently, I surveyed about 25 books from the last two decades that are commonly considered to be some of the best on the topic of church leadership. It is remarkable how little ink was used to talk about the relationship between prayer and leadership. Endless pages spent on the crisis that we face in the church. Strategies upon strategies outline 5 ways to make your church outreach oriented, 8 steps to church transformation, 6 patterns for the church of the future, etc.

But prayer is in most cases virtually absent.

And where it is present, it is tucked away and presented as if this is something that we already know how to do. Or the focus lies on praying that God will help us live up to his or her full potential as a leader.

The way we pray is the way we lead.

Too often we pray by offering words up to God as a transaction. God did his part on the cross and in the resurrection. Now we pray that God will help us do our part. We are saved by grace, by the miracle of the work that only God can do. Church leadership is about our efforts, our strategies and our skills. Prayer is something that we do so that we might be as good a leader as possible.

We know that we need God when we preach, when we serve communion or during an altar call. But the rest of our leadership seems to fall back up us to pull off.

Church leadership gets thrown back upon us. It is something that we must accomplish for the sake of God's work. And those of us who are not "great" leaders—which is most of us—read the books by those who are—which is very few—and we try to figure out how to become like them. (Maybe I'm the only one who has done this, and if so, then ignore this.)

I'm no longer interested in trying to lead like those who get the most done for God. I don't want to implement a list of leadership habits or laws. I'm not sure that God is that interested in my ability to be a great leader.

Paul confessed to the church at Philippi:
The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.
I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it. (Phil 3:7-11, The Message)
What might it mean to talk about leadership within this frame of reference? What might it mean to see our leadership prowess as mere "dung" in comparison to knowing Christ, to embrace Christ and being embraced by him? How might that mindset change the way we lead?

The way we pray is the way we lead. We can focus on getting stuff done for God and that's what we will "know." We will be embraced by activities that accomplishes something because that's what we embrace. Or we can know God in the midst of our leadership.

And this can be part of the life of a leader on Monday mornings and during council meetings, just as much, if not more, than on Sundays.

Photo Credit: Daniel Maat vai flickr

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Rhythms of the Jesus Way: Engagement

Over the last couple of posts, I’ve been talking about the rhythms of the Jesus way. In the first, I proposed the rhythm of communion with the Father. The second introduced the rhythm of relating to one another. Here I want to introduce the rhythm of engagement with the other.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s masterpiece on Christian community, he opens with words about mission:
Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies. There they find their mission, their work.
The way of Jesus is found in diasporatic community, not cloistered community. Diaspora is the Greek word used to describe the scattered nature of God’s people throughout the world. And it implies that Christian community is about living in a way that engages the world around us. Bonhoeffer continues:
"According to God’s will, the Christian church is a scattered people, scattered like seed “to all the kingdoms of the earth” (Deut. 28:25). That is the curse and the promise. God’s people must live in distant lands among unbelievers, but they will be the seed of the kingdom of God in all the world.
God’s kind of community does not happen in an enclave or as an exclusive club. God’s kind of community happens in the midst of life, right in front of those who don’t understand why we worship and love the way we do.

What does this look like in the local contexts where our groups gather? The answer to this question might seem obvious at first. We think in terms of evangelism, relationship outreach, mission projects, service initiatives, social justice involvement, and the like. In other words, we invest in things that we can do for those outside the community of Christ. That which we do for outsiders is set in contrast to that which we do as a church or small group that we classify as insider activity. Insider stuff includes things like prayer, worship, Bible discussion, fellowship, spiritual disciplines, etc. Outsider stuff is what we do for those who are not a part of us so that they will come and do our insider stuff with us.

While I’m not challenging the specific actions found within outsider activities—there is actually great value to them—I think we do need a different imagination when it comes to engaging the “other.” Acts 1:8 tells us that we will become “witnesses” and to be a witness is to put on display the truth that we experience. We do not fully do this when we are doing outsider stuff in order to do outreach. For instance, the way that we pray is just as much a witness as doing a service project in our community, or at least it has the potential to be. The same is true about how we relate to one another in love. Our witness is truncated when we limit engagement in our community to some kind of list of outsider actions.

The challenge that the modern church faces is related to how we break down the barrier between insider and outsider church activities. What does it look like to show people how we commune and how we relate while we are also engaging the other as a part of life as a scattered community?

To address this is much more complex that giving out some kind of list of things that a group can do in order to be more effective at outreach. We have enough of those kind of things. While I'm not saying that such lists are unnecessary, I am saying that more often than not such lists don't really help that much because we implement them within this insider-outsider mentality. We can implement those ideas and put all kinds of effort into them and still find ourselves in the same place.

This is one of the reasons I wrote a chapter in Leading Small Groups in The Way of Jesus entitled “Hang Out.” We need to learn the art of wasting time with each other in the presence of those who need an encounter God’s love. In this way, they can see who we are as God’s children and give them a reason for asking why we do what we do and why we believe that we believe.

Too often we turn outreach or "missional" into another way of being an activist. It seems that we get anxious to make an impact, and we are very proud of the impact that we happen to make on the world. But this turns engagement into getting busy for God while we risk our own souls. God said to go and do and we had better go about doing it. This does not seem to be much of a witness to the ways of Jesus. It's more of a witness to what we can get done. Busy, stressed-out Christians who are trying to win the world and grow the church might look noble, but it's not the Jesus way.

It seems that we are reacting to the tendency for the church to be an escapist enclave. The answer is not found in activism that we might label as "missional. It's found in being with people as we are with God. And there we trust that God will be at work, usually in a much slower way than we would like. Within this mindset we find a ton of practical ways that this can manifest, some of which are very activist in nature.

If there is anything one practical point to make at this point, it is that we need to learn to practice eating together and while doing so, involving others who are not part of the church.

Being God’s witness involves showing people how we love with the love of Christ. This is about life, not just about an outreach project. In this way, we can show people who Jesus is. This is engagement with the other.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Rhythms of the Jesus Way: Relating

In the previous post, I introduced the rhythm of Communion. In what follows I want to talk about the rhythm of Relating. I've struggled with what to call this rhythm through the years. Something like community or life together flows of the tongue much easier. But there's a reason why I use this word. Let me explain. 

In Western society, friendships are expendable. When we try to connect with others, we often ask questions like, “What’s in this for me?” or “How can this benefit my life?” or “What’s this going to cost me?” Relating does not come naturally to us. Loving others is not something that we do very well or very easily. 

It’s easy to criticize this fact. We describe the experience of individualism, isolationism, loneliness, selfishness, etc. Over the last few decades, cultural observers have used images like the lonely crowd, bowling alone, the saturated self, a society of strangers, intimate strangers, the myth of individualism, and many others. There has never been a time in the history of mankind when we have practiced a way of life that is driven by such isolation. While it's easy to diagnose the problem, it’s a lot harder to talk about my own individualism. And it's even hard to actually do something about it.

Imagine that you are in a conversation with a historian who lives 200 years from now. Somehow she has developed the technology to send you an questionnaire so that she can better understand life in the twenty-first century. Her research is not delving into the history of war or politics, which is the normal stuff for history classes. She is focusing on everyday life to determine how people lived.

She asks you, “What words might she use to describe how we live today?” Every time I lead a group through this process, the words used always include things like:
  • Fast-paced, frenzied, time-crunched 
  • Lonely, isolated,
  • Productive
  • Unsettled, transient 
  • Binge watching
  • Extended family scattered
  • Controlled by fear
  • Fast-food
  • Exciting, exhilarating 
  • Technology-driven
  • Rootless
Then she asks you a follow-up question: “What words might use to describe how people ‘do relationships’ today?” Do these words come to mind?:
  • Avoidance of Conflict 
  • We have too many 
  • Overwhelming 
  • Social media-driven (Facebook and Twitter) 
  • Paper-thin 
  • Surface 
  • Short-term 
  • Nice
We know that this is how most of us do life. And we know that it's not how we were made to do life. We were made for relationships, but it seems that we don't do them very well. Groups become the natural go-to fix and churches organize people into groups with hopes that people will somehow develop different patterns simply because they join one. However, we end up with groups of individualists who are trying to connect on a regular basis, but they are not relating in a way that expresses the life of unity. It’s almost as if we are trying to merge individualism with community and hold on to both at the same time, an act of futility. Individualism is based on a certain set of life practices that stand in contradiction to the practices of community, and it keeps groups mired in mediocrity.  

So we use groups to form some kind of relationships that we can produce if we put enough effort into it. And we write books and hold conferences that talk about how great it is. Putting a group of individualists in the same room for a meeting once a week is a good start, but it’s not the goal. 

It's not relating in the way of Jesus. 

The Russian Orthodox pastor Seraphim Sigrist was shaped by an underground church during Soviet reign. He writes, “Community life is a journey toward, and an entering into, a space that is immensely greater than the combination of all personal spaces, and into a life that is far more than that of all our separate lives taken together.”

This is a new space where who we are as a group is far more than what we add up to be as group members. Here the “I” is grounded in “we.” In other words, who I am is shaped by who we are together.

And in this sense, I become far more in the midst of this “we” than “I” am when I’m trying to hold on to my individualism.

This does not mean we give up our individuality. Instead our individuality flourishes when we enter into the Jesus way of relating.  Russian theologians have used the word sobornost to describe this. This word is hard to translate into English. Sigrist writes that at the heart of sobornost is “sharing life together without any loss of your true self; we are no longer isolated from each other and no longer isolated from the whole of God’s creation.” We become our true selves while at the same time become more than ourselves. How’s that for a paradox?

This is far more than the development of a small group program or of some kind of organic missional community experience. It actually is not something that we produce at all. It's not something that we make happen. It's something that we enter, that we participate in as we love the other in the presence of Christ. We love each other through Christ who stands between us by the Spirit and in the same way we are loved. 

This is mystery. This is the reason why I use the awkward word "relating" to describe this rhythm. We know what it means but in all honesty, we only enter into this dynamic when we realize that we don't know how to do it. 

—Adapted from Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus, pages 58-59

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Rhythms of the Jesus Way: Communion

Churches want the Jesus way, or at least that's what we confess. It seems like most church leaders like the idea of talking about the simple purpose of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. Some use the five purposes as developed by Rick Warren. Others use the Up-In-Out idea (Mike Breen). There are lots of ways that people talk about. We know that God wants us to live the way that Jesus did, in communion with the Father, in loving relationships with one another and in gospel engagement with our world.

We could diagram the rhythms of the Jesus Way like this:

We all want this in our churches as a whole, in our small groups or missional communities, and for individuals. But how do we get it? Saying that we want it and even setting up a plan to get it is one thing. Actually leading people into it is another.

Is more training what we need? Will more sermons or teaching on the topic change things? How about another book?

Yes, yes and yes! We need all kinds of proclamations that call out of the normal and present the vision for the way of Jesus. But if we’re leading a others, whether the church as a whole or a small group of people, we need something slightly different. Vision proclamations of what God wants for us might open the door, but they won’t necessarily change the way we live. For that, leaders need ways to ask questions and foster conversations. When we ask good questions, we provide opportunities for people to discover for themselves what the Jesus way means for them. For instance:
  • How does the kingdom contrast with the ways of the world, especially in Western cultures? 
  • What does it mean to love God when the world is pulling us in ways that are unloving? 
  • How do things like workaholism, our addiction to power, our need for entertainment and other common patterns hinder the kingdom? 
In the next few posts, I offer some questions around three rhythms of group life that form us in the way of Jesus. These three questions have at their center the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). The first is the rhythm of communion.

The Questions of Communion

Leading with predetermined answers instead of questions propagates this clinging to others because we naturally try to connect to others in order to fix our loneliness. We join a small group and try to relate to others the way we are supposed to do, as outlined by the book or by the pastor. Isolated people try to fix their isolation by clinging to others. Even those who seem strong and independent connect to others in order to get their needs met. We cling like hungry leeches, assuming that this is the way we’ll find answers to our loneliness.

The alternative to relating directly to others is to relate to one another in the “space between.” That is the space where Christ exists. The most direct path to ministry is communion with Christ. The only way to relate well is to cling to Christ, the one who lives in the space be- tween us. Nouwen writes:

We are connected not as individuals who cling together like melded metals but as individuals who are in Christ, and Christ is in us who are joined together for a journey. The Christ in me is united with the Christ in you. And the Christ in us draws us together. This is not about clinging to each other but mutual identity in Christ.
  • Where is the deep loneliness within me?
  • How do I tend to cling to others to fix my loneliness? 
  • What does it look like for me to find myself in Christ? 
  • How can I share this struggle to find myself in Christ with others in my group?
In the next post, we will introduce the Questions of Relating and Belonging

—Adapted from Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus, pages 55-58

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Pressure To Be a Heroic Pastor

As I sat around the table over lunch with the pastoral staff of a large church in Tennessee, I asked them to share how they practiced sabbath. The senior pastor started off by saying, "I enjoy my job so much. I find that I don't need one." As I consulted with the leadership, it became clear that the life of the church revolved around him and his gifts. He was always speaking, always leading, and always setting the agenda.

When I landed at the Kansas City airport to lead a weekend of training, the pastor was there to pick me up. He told me that he could not spend much time with me outside of the formal meetings. He had to make some hospital visits, lead a wedding rehearsal, officiate the wedding and then preach three times. He confessed, "I'm so glad my wife and kids are so patient with me. I never see them."

Such stories, sadly, are not uncommon. As I work with churches, in most cases I find that pastors are pulled in impossible ways to accomplish impossible tasks. To meet expectations would require superpowers. While this is not new in the history of the church, the current situation adds additional pressure. Churches are struggling. What once worked great, and the things we learned to do in seminary are no longer working. Then there are all of these great leaders of mega-churches telling us how we can become like them.

And one more thing: the missional conversation. Now pastors must not only lead the church organization, but they must also lead their people into mission because people don't come to church any more.

Pressure, pressure, pressure.

Last week, I wrote a post on problem of heroic Christian leadership. I first reflected on this a few years ago while reading Improvisation by Samuel Wells. In this great book, the author writes about the difference the nature of a hero and contrasts it with the New Testament word "saint" (pages 42-44). He names five distinctions between the two. I want to uses these distinctions to help us understand some about the pressure to be heroic.

First of all, the hero is at the center of the story because the hero is the one who makes the story worth reading. Wells writes, "The hero steps up and makes everything turn out right." On the other hand, a saint does not make the story work because he is not at its center. At best, he is a peripheral character as the protagonist or the primary agent of action is God.

The second difference between a hero and a saint is found in the story itself. The story about a hero is told to celebrate the greatness of the hero and how he or she rose above the crowd to overcome horrible circumstances and do what no one else could do. According to Wells, "The story of the hero is told to rejoice in valor. The story of the saint is told to celebrate faith." The saint may not have any great qualities that causes him or her to stand out or to accomplish great feats. The saint is merely faithful.

On a third level, the hero's story is distinct from that of the saint because the hero fights over a limited resources. The hero is trained to fight over competing goods, to defeat others who will lose out on those resources. Violence and the power of controlling others is core to the activity of the hero. Wells comments, "Whereas the icon of heroism is the soldier, the icon of sanctity is the martyr. The soldier faces death in battle; the martyr faces death by not going to battle." The word martyr is also the Greek word translated as "witness" (see for instance Acts 1:8). The hero wins the war; the saint merely points to one who has already won.

The fourth contrast comes to light when weaknesses surface. The hero, being the source of victory, cannot fail and must eschew weakness. The saint knows that failure is part of the journey and takes solace that the victory lies in the hands of God, not in his or her actions. "A hero fears failure, flees mistakes, and knows no repentance: the saint knows that light only comes through cracks, that beauty is as much (if not more) about restoration as about creation."

And finally, the hero "stands alone against the world." He or she is the one of great virtue that stands above the crowd. The hero must fight alone because no one understands their calling; no one can relate to their plight. In fact, the hero depends upon himself and does not need the crowd or close friends. A saint, lives in community, knowing that he depends upon others.

If the expectations of Christian leadership—both by leaders and followers—is that the Christian leader be a hero, then increased pressure is the only option. The future of the church falls on the shoulders of the pastor. If he or she does the job the right way, then the church will succeed. If the pastor is a better preacher, then more people will come. If the pastor organizes the church in the right way, then more people will get involved. If the pastor gets out into the community, then we will reach more people with the Gospel.

The pastor is the agent of action, the hero who rises above the norm and makes the church great.

Something must change. We are called to pastor others out of who we are as saints, not as heroes. But this won't change simply because we want it to. We have long been shaped to lead through practices of hero. And churches have been shaped by practices that cause people to expect their pastors to be heroic. We do these practices without even thinking about them. These practices shape our habits and these habits form our character. In order to operate in a different way, we need new leadership practices, those that align with our identity as saints.

What might that look like?

Photo Credit: Bill Spence via Flickr

Monday, March 7, 2016

Breaking the Power of Heroic Christian Leadership

My wife and I like to listen to Mike and Mike, the morning radio talk show on ESPN. Last week, one of the hosts talked about his disdain for the Oscars. He said something like, "Why would I want to watch something where people get together and give awards to each other." I actually like the Oscars, but I think that this observation about it says a lot about our world. We live in a day of adulation. We like to adore those who stand out in unique ways.

In fact, it seems that in our culture there is an addiction to adoring certain people. When I lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, a few of us were sitting at a coffee shop when someone who looked like Tom Selleck walked in. As he stood in line with his six foot four inch frame, we stared, saying things like, "That has to be him. Who else could look like that and be that tall?" Somebody said that he owned a house nearby. But this man had a full beard so we were unsure. For the next ten minutes our conversation turned toward whether or not this was in fact the man from Magnum P.I. Finally someone went up to him and asked.

My friend returned and told us that the man said, "No, but I get that a lot." Then my friend commented that the man sounded so much like Tom Selleck that he did not believe him. So this sparked another line of conversation of why he would not tell us the truth. It was like we got a shot of some kind of chemical compound that created a euphoria because someone famous came into our presence. It was almost like it made us significant.

We do this in the Christian world too, more than any of us would like to admit. We tend to set certain people up on a pedestal. In the sitcom The Soul Man, Cedric the Entertainer played the role of a pastor who had been a recording artist. He said in one of the early episodes, "Preachers are rock stars for Jesus." And while we might discount such statements as hyperbole for TV, think about how you might respond if you saw your favorite preacher or Christian author walking down the aisle at Wal-Mart. The culture of adulation has crept into our way of thinking about the church, our life in Christ and, of course, leadership.

Adulation affects both the one being adulated and those doing it. And both are troubling.

First let's look at those who are being adored. 
Jean Vanier writes, “There are few things worse than adulation. It stifles love. It kills people who want a life which is real, made up of gift and loving presence. Adulation is a poison which, if it gets too deep, can make the whole body sick.” (Community and Growth, 263). Adulation sets up a person as being better than the masses. In the church, it means that we presume that an individual has a connection to the divine that the rest of us do not. They have a unique connection to the holy and thereby they become spiritual heroes. Instead of the leader simply offering his or her gifts out of love while others do the same, he or she gets set apart to rise above the rest.

There is grave danger in this because the leader can quickly assume that the adulation of the masses reflects truth, that he or she actually has a unique access to a holy pipeline. Then the leader is forced to keep this up. He or she is expected to be a hero. By definition, a hero is simply one who denies weakness, pursues greatness, and puts forth all effort for the common good of others. But there is a problem. To be heroic means that one eschews repentance, as such is a sign of weakness.

There is little that kills the soul as much as the pursuit of Christian heroism. Leaders who get caught up in this find themselves working 60-80 hours per week for the sake of the church. They make all of the hospital visits, do all of the pastoral counseling, and are constantly thinking about how the church can "take the next step."

The leader has no opportunity to be human as he or she must offer a facade in order to meet the expectations of those offering adulation.

Within these expectations, the leader is forced to surround himself or herself with those who show him due respect that fits the heroic position. Dialogue, feedback, and real conversation are not an option. While leaders might say they want honest relationships, the framework of spiritual heroism hinders it.

Now let's consider the affects of adulation on those who do the adulating.
Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Pope Francis, Tim Keller, Samuel Wells, T. D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, Brian McLaren—note I've tried to cover a wide range of those held up a church heroes—do not possess any special access to the throne room of God that you do not possess. When we assume that they do, then the goal of discipleship turns into the pursuit of becoming heroic.

Let me put it differently. When I offer adulation to a Christian leader, then I set myself on a path of unrealistic expectations. I assume that growth in Christ means that I move from my present state of weakness to a state of heroic strength. This means that the more I grow in Christ the more unrealistic it is for me to actually be honest before Christ. 

Heroic Christianity works against my actually living in Christ. I, then, am not free to offer my gifts to the community. I feel compelled to live up to the expectations of the Christian leader I adulate and try to become heroic in his or her image. 

From Adulation to Dialogue
I think that the reason we assume that our leaders need to be Christian heroes is because we lack a sense of the presence of the Spirit. Instead of the church being about God and God leading and shaping God's people, we operate as if the future of the church depends upon us and our actions. The leader becomes the generator of the church's life. Therefore we are constantly looking for those who look like they have a special connection with the holy who can produce this.

In our world where the secular mindset reigns, we do life as if God is hidden behind a curtain. We are left to ourselves to figure it out. Only the special few, the heroes, are able to get behind the veil and see what God is really up to. 

We lack an imagination of "God with us" in there here and now, in the everydayness of going to work, cooking our meals, or laying down to sleep. The best we have is a sermon, a podcast, or a book by one of our favorite heroes so that we can get through another day out in the real world.

We have been formed by practices of heroic Christianity. This is the water we swim in. While we affirm beliefs like the priesthood of all believers, that's not the way we practice our faith. And it's not the way we tend to lead our churches. 

This is not meant to denigrate the importance of Christian leaders or good teaching—whether through speaking or writing. I only want to reframe it, to move way from adulation to dialogue. Christian leadership is not about setting up a hero who has it right while lining up everyone else behind that hero. It's about setting up space to listen to the Spirit in our midst. What does this mean? It means that we must develop leadership practices that cultivate environments of dialogue and discovery so we can learn together God is doing in our midst.

Heros shut this down. What we need are leadership practices that resemble gardening, that is tending to the mystery of what the Spirit is growing, which is what we cannot produce. Or we might say leadership is more about discerning and spiritual direction. What does this look like? How is it different from heroic leadership? What are the leadership practice that lead us into this space? 

Photo Credit: Letitbe. via Flickr