It’s been a year now since I began attempting the life of bi-vocational domestic mission work. I started off last fall as a substitute teacher in Mansfield. Then in February I began working as a roofing contractor - slowly at first, still subbing as I learned the ins and outs of this trade. This summer, after some very heavy storms, I spent five or six days a week doing the roofing thing in Oklahoma City. All throughout this season I’ve wondered what life looks like for the long term.
Working bi-vocationally came about as a necessity, with bills and groceries and whatnot, but it also makes a lot of sense theologically and strategically. The reality that we have slowly come to see is that raising long-term missionary support in the US is difficult (even in a good economy) and the work we’re trying to do is slow...and often among people with few financial resources to support us.
We could go the route that many others have and focus on gathering a large crowd of Christians who are dissatisfied with their current church. However, I did not feel called to leave my job preaching in order to seek out people from other churches. I felt called, and continue to feel called, to go out in search of those who haven’t heard that there is a new kingdom at hand. Mine is a missionary calling. More specifically, I feel called as a missionary to join God in inviting others to live as a community of missionaries under the banner of a new (old) kingdom.
So, I am a missionary with gifts in teaching and discipleship, not merely striving to impart information but to participate in a particular way of life with others. The past couple years in Burleson have been a series of ups and downs, victories and failures. I’ve witnessed miracles I couldn’t have anticipated and watched helplessly as friends decided that this way of life wasn’t for them, and walked away.
I’ve discovered that my struggles aren’t unique, even though I have often felt isolated and at times, even abandoned. There are others who even now are experiencing the same insecurities and confusion.
Today the small part of the church that I am a part of is growing - slowly by “church growth” standards, but often faster than we’re prepared to handle. There are problems and difficult life situations we don’t feel equipped to help people escape. Then there are the logistical issues for which we have no brilliant solutions.
For both practical and theological reasons, we are convinced that “church” should be a community of shared leadership under the reign of God; people on mission together sharing life and the responsibilities of ministry. But what does all that look like?
The reality is that people look for a point person. The slaves in Egypt needed a Moses, the Israelites wanted a king, the disciples followed the man Jesus, the early church looked to the apostles, then later to bishops and elders. We aren’t advocating a leaderless church (and please note that we are not discounting the role of Christ as our head, however, God has always chosen to work through human leaders). We ARE advocating a church that recognizes that we were neither created nor called to a life of passive consumption; deferring the call to make disciples and proclaim the new life to a few chosen “professionals.”
We believe that when God’s people take seriously the call to make disciples, the church will spread through neighborhoods, coffee shops and work places. The church should be at the forefront in standing against injustice and oppression, declaring the hope of life in the face of death’s despair.
The difficulty we face is relearning what it means to be this kind of community. Those of us who grew up in churches have only seen one primary model - that of the professional minister. Now, to be sure, growing up in rural Texas I was acquainted with many congregations who had part-time or volunteer ministers. With no disrespect to those wonderful people, I did not see many of them joined together in a meaningful ministry of transformation. Some of those small town churches were filled with people who’d known each other their whole lives, and unknown and “fringe” members in their little country churches were rare...because strangers in their little country towns were rare. If you were born in the church you were part of the church, if not...
But I also know that often in those congregations, members had little to no contact with each other between services. There were no attempts at service, outreach or ministry to their community. There was little, if any, emphasis on evangelism - even that done by “ministers.” The life of those churches was a couple official meetings each week, and whatever friendships already existed between members.
This isn’t to disparage those congregations, most of them were filled with very good people, doing the best they could. However, the model of the rural church doesn’t seem to offer much help to our current situation. The reality remains however, that if I (and Chris) are working full time jobs and raising families, we simply will not have the time to fill the same rolls that we did when church planting was our sole vocation. We are, in the sense of finances, part-time or volunteer ministers.
When we initially invited Christ Journey to enter into a more intentional shared leadership we witnessed a mass exodus of folks who felt that other, more established ministries would be more beneficial to their families. To quote a relatively unknown person engaged in this same struggle in WWII Germany, “It is not that we who stayed are good, and the others bad...It is just that they saw everything as an experiment, and we know it is a calling.”
As the school year has begun, Chris is now engaged in his first year as a teacher and I am still struggling to string together sufficient pay checks. I am still willing to use my gifts for our community and I’m committed to connecting with unbelievers, but time is in limited supply. The other members of our community have jobs and families as well, so it isn’t just an issue of people not being committed. We have folks who are ready to do what needs to be done, but I think everyone is looking around for someone to take point. We don’t have money to pay someone...and when we do have money, I think we’d rather use it to help people who are struggling anyway.
This is going to need to look different than what we’re used to, and I don’t think it will work if we just tell everyone what we’re going to do. This will need to be something that the community discerns together so that we have a shared investment and firsthand perspective of what’s being described.
So what does it look like? I admit it, I don’t really know.