This post is Part 1 of 5 in a series on missional and incarnation life. You can refer back to the Series Overview to see the posting schedule. Comments which are going to be addressed in a future post may not be responded to at length until after that post is up. Thanks for reading and engaging in this conversation with me! - Bret
Look around you. What do you see?
Right now I see tables and chairs, mostly empty. Outside there is a man walking a dog, cars whizzing by and a dude on a bicycle that may have to choose whether to hit the dog or the oncoming traffic...
I can see only a small part of the high rise building across the street - I’m too close to see much more than the first floor. I see the parking meters, which I’m slowly getting used to looking for as I search for a place to park. One person walking by is likely homeless, or close to it, while across the street is a group of business men and women who must be heading back to their office from a long - or late - lunch.
What I see right now is drastically different from what I saw this morning. Earlier I could see across a large parking lot to a somewhat rundown suburban strip mall. I could see road construction and a gas station. I saw a few trees and a car dealership. Meanwhile, the person I was talking with on the phone said he was looking out his window at mountains...
This morning, while sipping coffee in a Denny’s in Burleson, TX, I had a great phone conversation with a missional church leader and equipper in Canada (while, Anita, my ever-talkative and very opinionated waitress friend, continued carrying on her conversation with me even though she knew I was in “a meeting”...she’s cool like that.)
My new international friend was describing the scenery out his window and I was trying not to say something which would amount to throwing Burleson under the bus.
After lunch at home with my beautiful wife and my 3-year-old son in his favorite outfit...spiderman underwear and a smile, I headed up the road to one of my new occasional hangouts in downtown Fort Worth. I decided to give the Four Star Coffee Bar a try...it doesn’t have internet, so this may not be a repeat stop...
But sitting in this obviously urban environment, reflecting on my morning in the ‘burbs in conversation with a Canadian mountain-viewer, I can’t help but be struck by the contrasts.
I seem to be drawn to contrast.
Today I’m wrestling with funding for ministry. I hate it. To be totally honest, I don’t know the answer. One year ago today [this was written on October 7] we were packing our stuff preparing for the move to Burleson. We’d spent 6 months fundraising after months of praying and deliberating and years of dreaming. Around 60 people and one congregation came together to launch us into the ministry of planting churches.
Of the many things I learned while ministering in the New Orleans area, there are two that I’d like to point out right now. The first was how to enter an American context (which should be “home” to me) with the eyes and prayers of a missionary. Seeing the underlying pain, struggles, fears and sin unique (or not-so-unique) to that area, while also noting the flashes of brilliance and beauty that reveal to the careful observer the ways in which God is already on the move in this place. I see those things here; I notice them more naturally than before, though not as quickly as I should or hope to some day.
Second, I learned the missional ministry of presence. Being “fully present” is something that Randy Harris unlocked for me several years ago. But it was Katherine, Emma and Parvis that revealed the potential for presence as a foundation for mission work. My “technique” for evangelism is not very technical and it certainly isn’t a program that can be packed and sold at Family Christian Bookstore (which may be part of why I’m still dealing with funding stuff...)
When people ask me how I connect with the broken and hurting people in our community, there isn’t really one answer. But if I have to choose one its this: I try to drink coffee in the same places every week. Amazingly, being consistently present is a great way, even for a slight introvert like myself, to meet new people.
And the people I feel most drawn to - not the only people I engage in conversation or share life with, but the ones that cause that inner voice to scream, “Let those who have ears, hear!” - are the ones who present themselves as antagonistic or just plain uninterested in God, Church or Christians. Again, not a very efficient approach. Countless evangelism strategies teach you to look for those who are primed and ready to be converted.
But, maybe that’s why I’m typically repulsed by evangelism strategy programs.
Uh oh, alarm’s going off, that means that my time on the meter is about to run out. Gotta go...
Okay, where was I?
I’m seeing Church in great contrast to what I’m used to these days. That isn’t to say anything negative (right now) about a particular way of doing or being the Church. But the scenery is changing and so must our expression of church. One of the things that my Canadian friend said to me today was that Canada is about a half-generation ahead of the US when it comes to secularization - meaning the impact of “Christian values” on the culture is declining...and it began there sooner than here. Not having ever been to Canada, this will just be a guess, but I think his statement is probably more true for the northern parts of the US than it is for Texas. Here, when it comes to secularization, we’re probably a whole generation behind them.
That doesn’t mean that people here are more spiritual or more faithful - I don't really know one way or the other about that. What I mean to say is that here in the Southwest, Church still has a significant impact on culture.
But, make no mistake, its in decline.
I talk to people every day who have never once been to a Christian worship service of any kind. Most of them have an idea of what church is supposed to look like though, because all around us, churches have projected what that ideal image is. (Spoiler Alert - I don’t think that “ideal” tends to be all its cracked up to be.)
Because so many churches continue to scream loudly “Listen to us! We’re still relevant!” there seem to be people who don’t see the need for missionaries in our culture.
Let’s go back to that first question. What do you see around you? Do you see the big flashy church billboard? I drove past the one today that has a family laying barefoot in the grass. I wonder how often they encourage people to do that? (I hope its often).
What do you hear? Do you hear the radio station that is safe and fun for the whole family? Me too. I wonder, is following Jesus really something that is safe and fun for the whole family? It has been painful, terrifying and dangerous for me and mine...and I know lots of folks who went to church as a child and who today want nothing to do with it because messages like that are so far from the reality they experienced.
I’m not trying to be cynical here (though it does come naturally). Mostly I just want to point out that there is what we see and then there is what we can see if we look more closely.
I realize that there are churches all over the place. Many of them are embroiled in controversy over the style of worship music that is most appropriate for Sunday or that will best proclaim the gospel. We can even get overly concerned about what structure is best. But if our focus remains on keeping everyone inside the "organization" happy; if our goals are directed inwardly, does it really matter what style of worship we use or whether we own a building or meet in a living room? Meanwhile there is a generation of people walking down the street who will look a hundred other places before the church when they’re in search of good news.
I don’t think that these churches want to “major in minors,” or get embroiled in secondary things - often I think they’re fighting for what they believe to be central issues of the gospel. I tend to disagree with that assessment, but I can’t fault them for wanting to stand up for that which they feel is important.
I know there are churches who invest thousands of dollars in producing great advertising. And yet there are people all over who wouldn’t enter a church building or attend a Christian event no matter how awesome the commercial, billboard or direct mail piece.
And the thing I’m realizing is that most of these folks aren’t disinterested because they’re just rebellious...no matter what the local religious talking-heads are saying. They’re disinterested because too many Christians have been more interested in Christianity than Christ.
I don’t want to be one of those Christians anymore.
I am increasingly convicted that many churches have become more focused on protecting the institution than on participating in the advancing Kingdom of God in this place. Often this has not been a result of anything sinister, but rather of necessity because we’ve invested in real estate and programs that demand upkeep. Soon all our energy is dedicated to keeping this beast we have created alive.
Meanwhile we’ve lost the ability or forgot the calling to live missionally and incarnationally. For our purposes here, “missional” refers to a commitment to living in response to the Lord’s calling and sending, partnering with the Missionary God in the ministry of reconciliation. “Incarnational” means that Christ’s teachings and lifestyle are enfleshed in us. We live the message and seek to tangibly reflect Jesus to our neighbors, coworkers, classmates, etc.
The million dollar question, of course, is, “What does that look like?”
I can’t say completely. Partly because I don’t know and partly because I think its contextual and none of us have the luxury of letting someone else answer that question for us anymore. But, I’ll say a few things to get the conversation going...