Monday, August 22, 2011

The Missional Church: A Reflection

Recently I have heard a lot of discussion swirling about in evangelical circles that suggests that the Church needs to refocus its idea of its own purpose and identity. Church leaders, in light of the burden brought about by the current confusion that suggests that the church is a place and is run and cared for by a select few, are now on a mission to reorient the lay persons' minds to the radical truth that the church is not a place, but exists as the community of all believers, that its purpose hinges upon all our participation. With this in mind, I want you to watch a quick yet moving video that demonstrates the church leaders’ attempts to refocus and reorient the body:

What if…? What if we actually mobilized like this and acted as the early church, organically. I hope that this reality really catches on. I hope our church leaders are successful in their endeavor to promote this Kingdom work that reflects the missio dei. I will pray until we find success through His grace and power. Will you join me?

...On the other hand...

Now that I have shared my heart on the issue, I hope you will hear my earnest plea to not take what I am about to say as a critique of what our leaders are doing through this message. I am merely trying to promote a proper understanding of what is being said.

In light of this video, and in light of what church leaders are saying concerning “how we do church” today, it can become easy to become cynical concerning what we still do on Sunday morning (worship, listening to sermons, serving in childcare-see note at end for a deeper look at this issue). If we are being told as a congregation that we have the wrong idea of church, we might miss the point and think that Sunday morning service is the issue. Sunday morning service does not sum up church, but it is a part of church, a part of what we do, gathering.

So often in the history of the church, reformers, as they are called, have come to bring a corrective to the body’s mindset, to call the church back to its rightful place and purpose. Usually these reformers are acting because of some extreme shift church leaders have allowed and perhaps even encouraged to happen that molds the church body's understanding of itself and its faith in a negative fashion. In an earnest attempt to right the wrong, these God-sent activists preach vehemently about the way the church is behaving, the result sometimes being an extreme shift in the other direction.

This need not happen in this case. In fact, I am of the opinion, right now, that it should not happen. We need not jump out of one ditch into the next. Yet, I am afraid that church member malaise, when and where it happens, might, in some cases (certainly not all, and probably not the majority of the time) stem from a lack of purpose, from a lack of understanding of who we are in light of all the ideas that are floating around. Some might feel that what they do on Sunday mornings matters little in light of the missio dei, and they might develop this understanding from a wrong attitude towards the proclamation that "how we do church" is wrong. They might assume that what is being said is that unless they are "out there" in the world, there service amounts to little. Certainly going out should be a large part of what we do. As the video above suggested, Jesus commands us to, "go," But does this mean that gathering and serving the gathering of believers is not a worthy cause. Certainly not:

And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25

Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6:10

What I am trying to say is this: What this emphasis on identity seems to suggest is that we do church wrong because we do not understand the identity of the Church. In fact, that is exactly what is being said, as illustrated by the video, which suggests that the Church should look more like a mobilization than a mere gathering of people on Sundays, more of a servant movement than a concert, and certainly there is cause for a shift. Clearly the Church needs to understand that "church" is not a building or a once a week gathering. The Church needs to know it is the Church. We must have identity to properly act. However, does this mean that we must drop everything we are doing on Sundays for this re-visioning? By no means… I certainly do not believe that this is what the church leaders are suggesting. It would make no sense for them to say such while still doing the normal Sunday routine. Instead, I believe what is being called for is a shift in mentality concerning our purpose.

We still need to gather. Gathering is not the antithesis of going. Going is something that needs to be the overflow of our gathering. The idea of “going” stresses the fact that we need to impact the world outside our church walls. But, I think that this stress of going as a means to reach the world can cloud, if we let it, the fact that gathering, as we do, can be impactful, even for those of the world. Our community can be a reflection of something great. Make no mistake. The world watches us, even coming inside our walls to see what we are up to. To better understand what we are doing in the here and now as we gather together, maybe we need a clear vision of where we are going:

What Wright is saying here is that we will be active in the life to come. We will not get a personal cloud with a harp. In fact, Wright points out that we will be leaders in the New Earth. We will have something to do. However, do not be confused; we will lead in the manner that Christ has already demonstrated for us in His first advent, not the way humans are accustomed. Jesus had a radical idea of leadership that certainly did not reflect the Greco-Roman model of leadership of the day. Instead of an idea of absolute, heavy-handed ruling, we will lead through our service to one another. So, what does this have to do with the role of the church in the here-and-now?

What Wright will also say in various places is that the Church is to be a reflection of this reality about the life to come. In other words, our job here on earth is not simply to ensure others will make it to a heaven, which has little to do with what is going on here and now. In fact, the New Testament is clear that heaven is not some ethereal and eternal resting point. Instead, heaven and earth will be joined together, as the Kingdom is consummated. In light of this great fact, we mustn’t forget that we are the representatives of the Kingdom. The good news that Christ shares and has appointed us to share concerns the reality of the Kingdom (Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:23). Our role is to share this reality with the world. In other words, part of what we do now, if not all that we do, is doing Kingdom...

One of the greatest proclamations of the Kingdom of God is the living example of the Kingdom, embodied by believers (Matthew 5:14-16). Through our service, one to another, we exemplify the truth of the Kingdom. When we gather in worship on Sunday morning, we are, if in the right spirit, a glimpse of the life to come. Through servant-leadership, we speak to the world, and we say, “This is how life is to be done, now and forever.”

At the local church gathering that I attend, Saint Simons Community Church, the leaders have been in the pangs of recasting a vision that holds together the truth of our calling: “Reach Up, Reach In, Reach Out.”They are doing exactly what I am musing about above: holding together the reality of gathering together (RI) to worship God (RU) so that me might be ready and refreshed to go out into the world (RO). The leadership has been tirelessly seeking after the body’s heart to capture it and proclaim to it: “We, all of us, are the church.” We are the priesthood of all believers. We must go. We must reach out. We must act. In light of this, I have been reflecting on this call to be better at reaching out, and I have come to the conclusion I hopefully fleshed out above: While reaching out means we go beyond merely reaching up and in, it does not preclude these efforts. Instead, the beginning point of reaching out is reaching up and reaching in. By our worship of God and service to others, we speak to the world in a soft, but clear voice, saying:

“The Kingdom of God is like this, that we love God and love others, and through this love, a radical new way of living is discovered. Don’t you want to be a part?”

Let us not give up on being this picture, but let us be enlivened by this picture so that we might go and make disciples, so that the picture can spread across our globe.

A Further Reflection: This blog has already overreached the comfortable reading length for a blog, so, if you are already fatigued, I apologize and suggest you take a break and come back to read the rest. The following is simply an application to the above. It is part of another piece I am working on, but I thought it would fit well with the above:

From "What Good News is This" -Essay by Rev. Tab Miller, TSM Inc:

As the Church, in everything that we do, we act out of one inspiration given by God, to proclaim and demonstrate the good news. It is often the case that we perform service projects and volunteer our time at church because of some sense of obligation, and, at these times, we need to remind ourselves of the truth of the good news, that we, through service, are not merely fulfilling an obligation to help out, but we are reflecting the reality of the Kingdom of God in a lost and broken world, that something has truly happened that has called us to action. Through our care one for another, we show the world another way, the right way, His way.

I know at times people serve in areas such as, let’s say, child care at church, and they might wonder, “What does this have to do with the good news of Jesus Christ," and even a sense of guilt might wash over them when they think, “I could be out there really proclaiming the good news right now, out in a lost and hurting world, and, yet, here I sit allowing people the luxury to sit in a service while I watch their kids. Could we not do better than this? Should we not be out in the world acting instead of shutting ourselves in this building away from the world?” I certainly cannot help but think that this sense of guilt is not proper, but it might be the sense that some gather by many evangelicals' attempt to reorient people away from the idea of the “church, as it exists today.” I think some might be moved to throw the baby out with the bath water. I think that this misunderstanding is damaging to the call of the gospel. So, where is the disconnect? Have we really understood our call if our understanding of the call becomes burdensome instead of exciting.

What we must do at these times is go back to reflecting on the good news, the good news of a kingdom where people do not race to the top to be first, a kingdom where the last shall be first, where people will rule by washing feet. Instead of feeling burdened, live with a Kingdom heart, because, in the Kingdom of God people selflessly serve one another. With this at the forefront of our mind, childcare, that seemingly lowly act of service, becomes a reflection of the heart of the Kingdom, that heart being service. The good news is a radical proclamation of a “now, but not yet” reality. The Kingdom of God resides in the heart of the Church, and we live as resident aliens in the world. When we serve one another, we testify to the world: “The Kingdom of God is like this.”

In light of this reality, it is always beneficial to remind our selves about the radical reality of the good news and why we serve...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

My Soul Is Haunted and Hurting for the Navajo

I woke up this morning and rolled out of bed, taking for granted the quality of sleep afforded me by my tempurpedic mattress. As I sat at the edge of my bed, I wiped my eyes and silently thanked God for the day, taking for granted the fact that I knew God was available to talk and actually wanted to hear from me. I stumbled into the kitchen and poured a glass of water because the air conditioning I take for granted had been so cold throughout the night that my throat was dry. I drank the water from the tap, taking for granted the ease of access and the quality of the contents of my glass. By this time, my body was warming up, and so my stumbling turned into a walk. As I went back into the bedroom, I opened my drawers filled with the multitude of clothes I take for granted. After I was dressed I slipped out the door telling my wife and daughter, those healthy and loving family members I take for granted, that I love them. I hopped into the car filled with the gas that is nearly four dollars per gallon, and, even so, I took for granted, even at such a premium, the fuel that I burnt between home and here at the coffee shop. As I sit here and peer out at the sun light, I am struck by an eerie reality.

The sun that has been pouring out over this little south Georgian island for almost two hours now is just now peering over the ridges of the Navajo Nation’s plateaus, spilling into the valleys, and crashing into the little tin roofs that cover the precious heads of the people called Navajo. For so many, there is no mattress to awake upon. There is no knowledge of the Holy One who wishes to speak with each of them. If water is available, which is not always the case, it is full of uranium and e coli. As they sip the water before passing the cup to their siblings, the heat in the house slowly rises, and the window unit is out today, as it is so many days. Each child goes to his or her designated corner and does not have to dig through piles of clothes to decide what to wear. All that each child owns is right there before him or her in a small stack. It is now reaching temperatures in the nineties, yet one of the young boys slips on his North Face jacket that some kind soul from thousands of miles away sent him at Christmas. It is his prize possession, so he wears it. As he turns around, he sees his mother drinking out of a cup, but he knows it is not water. She’s doing it again, which means he is in charge of taking care of his siblings. There is no car to drive to the nearest hangout. It is just the family, alone in the dilapidated singlewide trailer in the desert. And the sun relentlessly beats at all sides.

It is easy to feel passionate about the peoples of the world right after feeling the spiritual brokenness afforded by a short-term mission. Piety fills the veins and righteous indignation strikes to the bone and shakes us to our core. We shiver when seeing the waste of our own culture, including our own. Resolution to be better sets in. We walk and talk a little bit differently, and this is good. However, those children are still out there, and we are here. Fear sets in because I know the routine. The wound is fresh in my heart, but it will eventually close up, and, while the scar tissue remains, I will become use to it again. I do not want it to close; I want to bleed. Although it hurts, I do not want to forget this pain. The wound beckons me to action; my mind moves a thousand miles a minute, revolving around the needs of the Navajo, but, again, I am here and they are there, and I wonder, timidly, how God is going to use this pain. I have yet been called to move my family to full time missions, but I know the need is there and my heart sinks into my stomach when I think of how forgotten the Navajo really are.I wonder respectfully what God is up to with the Navajo, and the "Whys" fill my mind...

Sunday, I awoke from my post-mission trip crash, and had yet to fully recover. As I walked into the church, I knew my eyes would grow increasingly heavy. I resolved that God would understand if I dozed off here and there. While God understood, my wife did not, and she jabbed her sharp elbow into my rib cage. I came to just in time to hear the preacher introduce a couple who will be moving to Haiti for a life of mission work. As I heard of the call that God had placed on their lives, and the deep understanding they had of God’s mission in and for the world, I began to covet, for the sake of the Navajo, the call they had for the Haitian people. Do not misunderstand what I am about to say. I know God has called these people to Haiti, but I cannot help but wonder. In light of the massive influx of missionaries to places like Haiti and Kenya and China, when is God going to call for such a convergence upon the Reservations of the Native Americans who are as lost, if not more lost, than the peoples of the foreign world. Why are the Navajo so forgotten? They sit in our backyard, hopeless and ignored. HOPELESSNESS. For even very young children like Sabrina, who was fourteen the first time our team reached out to her family and community, suicide seems to be the only option out of the hopelessness they awake to every day. Hopelessness over took this child, and she did that thing most of us find to be unimaginable. I once heard it said that when we wish to ask, “Where is God in this place,” our question should be, “Where are God’s people?” God resides in our hearts, and He goes with us to the far reaches of the world and even to the backyard. Who will God send, or even more to the point, who is God trying to send, and are they listening?

I have been sitting here writing for some time now, trying to express this painfully consuming thought that I just cannot express, because it is more of an emotion than an idea. I am not sure I will ever be able to express what I feel, but I think I can tell you an idea that it elicits each time it washes upon the shore of my heart. This feeling is closely associated with the realization that, while I am home safe and sound, the reservation is still there. It is a real place where real people live, precious people, forgotten people. For so many, it is an uncomfortable home and not a place to visit like it is for me. At this very moment, some two thousand miles away, those precious children are living, breathing, feeling, wanting, and many feel hopeless. Right now, as I think about these children, they are living. Even outside my reach, they still exist. Savannah and Eli are out there, in need of help, in need of love, in need of God, and here I sit, heart broken and bleeding. And I wonder, whom will God send. Is it I Lord? I know He has a plan for the Navajo, and I must take solace in His love and provision, but I am begging you, Oh, Lord, my God, do not allow this wound to close. I wish to bleed.

For now, God has me where He wants me, but He has called me to raise awareness for these forgotten souls, these precious people:

I, the Lord of sea and sky
I have heard my people cry
All who dwell in dark and sin
My hand will save:

I who made the stars and night
I will make the darkness bright
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?

Here I am Lord
Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go Lord
If you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart

I the Lord of snow and rain,
I have borne my people's pain,
I have wept for love of them,
They turn away...

I will break their hearts of stone
Fill their hearts with love alone
I will speak my word to them
Whom shall I send?

Here I am Lord
Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go Lord
If you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart

I, the Lord of wind and flame
I will tend the poor and lame
I will set a feast for them
My hand will save:

Finest bread I will provide
Till their hearts be satisfied
I will give my life to them
Whom shall I send?

Here I am Lord
Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go Lord
If you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart

("Here I am Lord" -Dan Schutte)

He is calling, and we must listen. His heart breaks, and ours should as well...