How Most Churches Seem to View Discipleship

Okay: I know I’m dating myself here, but Steve Martin used to have this bit in his standup called, “How to Be a Millionaire and Never Pay Taxes.” He used it in his opening monologue 1977 when he hosted Saturday Night Live. The transcript reads like this:

 

You.. can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You say.. “Steve.. how can I be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes?” First.. get a million dollars. Now.. you say, “Steve.. what do I say to the tax man when he comes to my door and says, ‘You.. have never paid taxes’?” Two simple words. Two simple words in the English language: “I forgot!” How many times do we let ourselves get into terrible situations because we don’t say “I forgot”? Let’s say you’re on trial for armed robbery. You say to the judge, “I forgot armed robbery was illegal.” Let’s suppose he says back to you, “You have committed a foul crime. you have stolen hundreds and thousands of dollars from people at random, and you say, ‘I forgot’?” Two simple words: Excuuuuuse me!!

 

Sometimes I think the church views discipleship in a similar way. In a variety of different ways we proclaim, “You can be like Jesus!” (Well, at least I hope we proclaim that. A lot of churches still focus on proclaiming, ‘You can avoid hell and go to a weightless, disembodied heaven!’ This, um, was not Jesus’ message. But that’s for another time.)

Then we roll out our “plan”, which essentially sounds like this:

“You can be like Jesus!”

“Pastor, how can I be like Jesus?”

“First, be like Jesus. Now…”

Um, what?

Most of church “discipleship programs” essentially tell people to be like Jesus without ever examining how transformation actually happens. 

We do well, and quote Paul about training versus trying, but then we never seem to actually do anything about the training! Which really amounts to us actually advocating trying versus training!

Maybe I’m wrong; maybe it’s happening in more places than I see (I know my church is doing its best at a multifaceted plan for discipleship).

But if we were doing our job, it seems like we’d be producing more transformed people according to Galatians 5:

  • more loving people, who fight against the divisive and often hateful speech of our country (particularly in the political realm)
  • more peaceful people, who are willing to entertain the fact that violence and war are often not God’s will
  • more self-controlled people, who are willing to recognize and separate themselves from all entanglements and addictions, whether they be from alcohol and drugs or food and shopping
  • more kind people, who are willing to stop blaming the poor and powerless for being, well, poor and powerless

As I said, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the North American church really is aligned with God on the subject of spiritual transformation (or as C.S. Lewis put it, “Producing ‘Little Christs’”. But I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it.

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I Know I Am (But What Am I?)… 

I like personality and gift tests: Myers/Briggs; Strengthsfinder; Enneagram; so on and so forth. Enjoy finding out how I (and others as well) am wired, and why I think the way I think. Overall, it’s really helpful. In fact, a lot of organizations (including churches) take great stock in how these gifts are allocated and mixed through staff members. All of these tests help us identify how to interact with each other, and where the pitfalls may be in our common life.

However, the last time I was a part of a round of these tests, I found myself thinking, “How many times do I need to be told what or who I am?” Furthermore, I found myself thinking a lot of how I’d used my personality type as an excuse for some issues in my life that I actually needed to address. Rather than thinking about my behavior or thoughts as issues that needed to be addressed or changed—as sin or brokenness—I thought about them as “this is the way I am.”

But is that all there is to life?

Lately, I’ve stopped being so interested what/how/who I am now, and I’ve become much more interested what/how/who I can be. 

I love all of these tests, but I know for me that I am very adept at hiding inside these labels and avoiding the call to grow, to change. I’m afraid that it’s all too easy to use these labels and titles to simply reinforce my “false self”—the part of me that is so good at hiding from God and others—and ignore the possibility that all of these “strengths” and “gifts” may actually inhibit my growth if all I ever do is focus on them and remain content.

Which is ultimately what we are called to: I wholeheartedly believe that the point of the life that Jesus offers us is to change and to become increasingly more like him. Our personalities, or strengths, or gifts are tools that we can use to grow and change, but there’s also a limiting side of those gifts. I’ve come to believe that every part of our personality has a shadow side; a broken part that can keep me from growing and being shaped into a “little Christ” (as C.S. Lewis would put it).

For instance, I know that I’m an introvert, but I also know that I have a tendency to use my quietness as an excuse to hold back from people, from actively welcoming the stranger, from being a voice of invitation.

I know that I tend to look at the world from a “strategic” perspective, and this has been very helpful to my church. However, I also know that this perspective sometimes keeps me from getting in and just “doing the work” to ideas and initiatives that I don’t always understand. It can also keep me from supporting ideas that I don’t agree with.

The point is not to reject my gifts and personality; it’s to think about the idea of change and growth as an imperative. It’s about refusing to be content with what the assessments say that I am, and writing off my behavior as, “Well this is just as good as it gets, because I’m an INTJ (or whatever).”

It’s about seriously accepting the call to grow, and never stop growing until I can say that I have truly adopted the “mind of Christ” that Saint Paul says I’m supposed to have.

No I’m not there yet. But I am increasingly knowing who I am, and hungry for who I’ll be next.

Does this make sense?

 

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That Time When Jesus Kicked Us Out of the House

When Jesus begins his ministry, one of the realities that he stepped into was one of “exile.”

To make a very long story very short, between 580-595 BC, the nation of Israel experiences two devastating events. First, the Temple—the very center of God’s activity in the world—is destroyed. Second, the core population is sent into exile in Babylon. It’s virtually impossible to understand how dis-concerting this was to God’s people.

They were without the sense of God’s presence in the world…

They were without a home…

Psalm 137 records just a little of what this felt like to the community:

“Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up in the trees there
because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
‘Sing us a song about Zion!’ they said.
But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil?”

 

Eventually, the Jews returned to the Land, but significantly the presence of the Lord never returned to the Temple. It was rebuilt, but God had not returned. In a sense, they were still in exile.

Furthermore, over time more nations and empires showed up. In particular, Rome came knocking, and easily occupied the land and subjugated God’s people. Now, they were still “in the land,” but they were no longer in control; the Romans were. 

They might as well have been still in Babylon, and again, it’s as if they were still in exile.

God hadn’t come back to the Temple, and they were not in control of the “Promised Land.”

When Jesus shows, up, much of his activity centers around demonstrating that exile is over: God has returned to the Land (through his ministry), and will now “do battle” with Israel’s enemies (who are not the Babylonians, or the Romans for that matter).

At the cross, Jesus defeats the “true enemy” of Israel (evil) by dying. Three days later he rises from the dead and ushers in a new way of living.

But he’s not done yet.

In Matthew 28, he commissions his disciples, telling them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19  Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (CEB)

In short, he sends them out, away from their homes, away from what they know and find comforting.

Kinda sounds like exile…

As one of my professors says, “Jesus announces (through is life, death and resurrection, ‘Exile is over; now go be exiles!’” 

However this time not only has God returned to the Land (in/through Jesus), but now Jesus promises to be “be with” his disciples.

So the bad news is that when we “sign on” to this Jesus movement, we don’t get to come into the house and kick our feet up. Rather, Jesus kicks us out of the house to go be exiles in our world: go out where you aren’t comfortable, where you don’t know all the rules, where things may seem strange and alien to you.

But the good news is that exile no longer has to feel empty, or pointless, or like punishment. God’s presence is with his people, even where things are strange and “different.”

We may be in exile, but we are not alone.

 

 

 

 

Just As I Am (But then again…)

It is one of the great mysteries of God (and, indeed, the universe) that I am accepted with all my faults and imperfections. So much so, that one of the great journeys of my life (or anyone’s for that matter) is simply coming to terms with that great truth: I am loved in spite of myself.

But lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s something we’ve been leaving out.

Simply stated, I’ve been wondering how much of what passes for faith and spirituality in the American church is geared towards letting me stay the same arrogant, prideful, self-obsessed person that I’ve always been.

Is that the path that we’re on?

I know we give lip service to “change” and “transformation”, but at the same time we our “de jeur” practice of faith celebrates our individualism and uniqueness, often simply allowing our individual “quirkiness” (read: brokenness) to simply become part of who we are.

In a way we say, “This is who I am, warts and all: deal with it.”

Even some of the most helpful tools we have in understanding ourselves: Strengths Tests, Myers-Briggs, etc. Can we used to REINFORCE our false self, rather than expose its shortcomings and invite us to change.

In my life, for instance, some of the major characteristics of my personality are that I’m introverted, I’m highly motivated by intellectual curiosity, and I place a high value on individual stories and perspectives. These are all amazing and helpful.

But I’m afraid that what we don’t talk about enough is the shadow sides of our strengths, the ways all of these assets can tend to reinforce and prop up our false self; that part of ourselves that—out of fear, or self-centeredness, or pride (or all three!)—has difficulty relinquishing control to God.

Let me show you how this works: Yes I’m introverted, I can’t merely celebrate my “quietness” without recognizing that it can keep me from seeking to embrace the outsider; that my quiet reflection can also morph into arrogant self-justification.

Yes, I’m intellectually curious, but that curiosity can also turn into a crutch, and an instance where I substitute the latest book ABOUT God for God Himself. It can also drive me to needlessly spend resources, and to over-complicate my life with more material things.

Yes, I react powerfully to people’s individual stories and perspectives. I seek to hear and understand what “makes someone who they are.” However, this can turn into a hesitancy to challenge their assumptions about their lives, or the decisions they are making.

I am not saying that understanding yourself is in any way wrong or mis-guided. What I AM advocating is that we keep in mind that there is ALWAYS a shadow side to ourselves. Declaring to the world, “This is who I am” can neglect the powerful and necessary truth of our need to be transformed, to be liberated from the brokenness, the compulsions, the pathological desires that still govern our lives.

Don’t ever—for one minute—think that you can (or even have to) earn God’s love: it is freely given to us all, no matter where we find ourselves or what we have (or haven’t done). However, also don’t ever think that we should remain content with who we are in this world. There is great brokenness in the world, and the church is no exception. We need to avoid our tendency to self-justify our personalities and false selves, and embrace the true mystery of the spiritual life: eternal change and transformation.

Be a Part of Shana’s Birthday…

Hey all…

Maybe you know my wife; maybe you don’t. Either way—she wants to do something pretty amazing. Here’s how she puts it:

Sabera was just entering school when we started sponsoring her. We originally did it as a way to teach our daughter about being generous and about other cultures.   It has turned in to much more than that.  We’ve been writing back and forth, learning about her, her family, friends and school, for well over a decade.   It was a letter she wrote last year that caused me to take pause.  She did something she’s never done before - she asked for something. She asked if we could meet her.

For the first time, another sponsor had visited her school and it must of touched her.   As I read her request it made my heart smile, and a little sad all at the same time.  She lives in East India – 1000′s of miles away.  Trying to get 2 of to see her would be a feat, so I dismissed it.   There is no way 2 of us can go to India! The thing is, the feeling hasn’t left me alone, and I’ve learned to listen to whispers of that sort.  She is graduating soon and will be leaving the program, so it is now or never.

I’ve taught my kids, “it doesn’t hurt to ask”, so now I am doing the asking.  Instead of birthday presents celebarting me and my life, I am asking you to be a part of the movement to help us meet Sabera; to celebrate her life.

I have a feeling the pictures of her smile will be a picture of pure joy.

Please take a moment and go here and see what she wants to do.

For now, I’d love to ask everyone to do two things:

  1. Consider being a part of this with us http://www.gofundme.com/a2jz0k
  2. Forward/Re-tweet to others who might want to participate.

Thanks!

 

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Is “Religion” REALLY Opposed to “Relationship”

I’m tired of playing off “religion” against “relationship.”

The notion (as defined by my tribe) is that Jesus came to save us from “religion” and invite us into a “relationship” with God.

This is a false dichotomy for a few different reasons.

First of all, it’s generally understood by Biblical scholars that the Jewish faith of Jesus’ era was immersed in “relationship”. The Jews (probably even moreso than most modern, western Christians) were intensely aware of the all-encompassing nature of God. They lived in a God-soaked, God-bathed world. God pervaded their politics, their art, their social structure.

They did not compartmentalize.

This God that was everywhere lived in a vital and dynamic relationship with them through a Covenant relationship that looked something like this: God committed Himself to Israel in a binding relationship; Israel would wander away, and God would pursue, invite and even “woo” Israel back like a lover who had betrayed her true love and left.

This God—YHWH, or even “The Name”—acted time and again to bring back and restore Israel, not because they kept the Law or were perfect, but simply because He loves them. (Read the Exodus: when does God rescue? before Israel has a chance to even hear the Law, much less obey it. God acts while His people are helpless and enslaved. For those of you keeping score at home, this is what grace looks like.)

Now, had some people in Jesus’ time forgot about this? Had some of them turned the vital faith of Abraham and Isaac into rote performance and rule keeping?

Sure. But look around us: we are just as adept at doing that in the 21st century as they were in the 1st.

What Jesus was up to was (among other things):

… showing what an “eternal life now” could look like
… welcoming in the outsiders to the Kingdom
… conquering evil through suffering love
… providing a ransom for our sin

It’s simply too narrow of a statement to say that Jesus saved us from religion.

Furthermore, by playing this “binary” game (black and white, on or off, etc), we are missing a vital part of what “religion” actually means.

Though the etymology is slightly unclear, the root of religion could be understood as a coming out of the Latin root legare, which means to “connect or bind” (it’s where our word for “ligament” comes from as well). In other words, “religion” at its best re-connects us. It should literally “knit us together”; it should connect us with ourselves, the world around us, and with God.

It should not fragment us, or make us small-minded.

With these thoughts in mind, what I’d actually say that Jesus (and the Prophets, and Paul, and the church fathers and mothers, and the great saints as well) was not trying to save us from religion as much as he was trying (still is trying, actually) to save us from bad religion, that fragments, fractures, and reduces our world.

So I’ll take both. I like my relationship (with the Triune God, with the world), but I can only have that relationship through my religion (my efforts to re-connect with God through His Holy Spirit).

Two Strange Gifts That Working at a Mega Church Gave Me

For one strange reason or another, my first full-time ministry job (or part-time ministry job, for that matter) was at Willow Creek Community Church, at the time one of the largest churches in North America. At the time Willow was (and still is, in many ways) the flagship of the Evangelical, mega-church world. The statistics are probably old, but I do remember doing 12 Easter services over two days; we had a “conference season” during which we hosted a Small Groups Conference, Student Ministries Conference, Arts Conference, the Church Leadership Conference and, eventually, the Global Leadership Conference.

It was crazy, and tremendously exciting.

Looking back now, I’m struck with how that time at Willow (I worked for their “Axis” ministry, one of the first GenX/post-modern/post-college gatherings in North America) shaped me. I definitely internalized “The Willow Way” in regards to excellence and leadership, but I also received a couple of very different gifts that have significantly impacted my approach to ministry since.

Platform

Before I had 2 years of leading a worship ministry under my belt, I was teaching at Willow’s Arts Conference; before I really knew what post-modern worship was (do I know now?), I was conducting seminars and trying to help other pastors “figure it out.” Though practically all of us at Axis were wet behind the ears and learning to do ministry on the run, hundreds and hundreds of leaders from around the world sought us as experts. Though we were very vocal with our ignorance, and very up front with the idea that we were also just trying to figure things out, we also didn’t shy away from the attention.

In addition, I personally fielded invitations to come and lead worship at a variety of different camps, conferences and other churches. Again, I was honest enough to be somewhat humbled at the invitations given my inexperience, but I still accepted what I could and was privileged to lead in these different environments.

In short, Willow’s reputation within the evangelical world (again, well-deserved in almost all respects) was such that we were perceived as insightful experts on ministry. People listened to what we had to say; they paid attention the questions we were asking (because a good post-modern only asks the questions; never answers them).

In short, we were given a platform, and a pretty big one at that.

For the years that I taught and led around the Willow circle, it was amazing. But over time, I realized that it’s very easy to mistake having a platform for being a pastor. Platform and ministry can get so dangerously intertwined that when one diminishes, you start to question your effectiveness in the other. If you’re not careful, you start to believe that doing ministry equals having a platform, or somehow entitles you to be an expert. What’s more, in my case at least those invitations and opportunities began to feed an unhealthy ego, and I began to believe that I was entitled to have a voice. Rather than seeking an opportunity to serve my local community, I was raging with the thought that I was “too special” to be contained in only one church: I deserved to be traveling, to be playing at conferences and festivals.

This was about as far from Jesus as you can get.

Eventually, the platform went away. As “Willow Creek” moved lower and lower on my resume, the invitations came less and less frequently, and it was actually pretty depressing, until I came to realize what most people know already:

That practically every pastor in the world simply does his or her work, week in and week out, with no expectation of a platform:

  • no speaking engagements
  • no article writing
  • no leading seminars
  • no perception of being “an expert”

… and this is okay. 

I’m pretty embarrassed to admit this, but it’s the truth. Being a pastor does not mean you are an “expert” in ministry. It means that you’re a shepherd, trying to help people navigate their life in an effective, gospel-shaped and meaningful way.

Downward Mobility

The first strange gift from being on staff at Willow—or rather its loss—would have been difficult to navigate had it not been for the second gift.

In the process of becoming a member at Willow, Shana and I received a workbook to fill out that contained many of the values and principles that Willow sought to embody.

In its pages had a statement that we were charged with embracing and embodying as Willow Creek members:

“I will embrace the idea downward mobility as a way of life.” 

(Or something very similar to that.)

Wrap your heads around that for just a moment.

This mega church in the affluent Northwest suburbs of Chicago was asserting that the normal way of life for a follower of Christ was to embrace, not affluence and “prosperity”, but generosity and even poverty.

I have never, ever seen this statement in any other church membership material. Ever. 

For all of its reputation of “easy spirituality” and “cheap grace,” Willow was advocating a much more radical discipleship, and that statement has haunted me ever since I read it. It’s a simple assumption that every new ministry opportunity should be bigger, or more prestigious, than the last, but that short little sentence and concept reminds me that this was not the model of Jesus’ ministry. 

His ministry ended up with him being deserted by all of his followers and dying alone.

True downward mobility.

(Note that I am not saying all “up-and-to-the-right” ministry paths are bad; I’m just saying that you can’t evaluate success or failure this way.)

Obviously, this second gift made putting the first gift into context a bit easier. It was still difficult, but over time it made more and more sense. These days, I feel like I’m still doing “recovery work” from the first gift, and doing the difficult and challenging work of staying engaged with a community over the long haul. I’ve been blessed to do a couple of things here and there outside my church, but I can no longer pretend to be an expert on anything, and that’s really okay. Frankly, my spirit is much healthier when there are none.

Lastly, let me say that there were other gifts that I got from Willow as well: a baptism, a mentor, a vision for ministry, amazing friends and colleagues, the opportunity to be a part of a truly great team, to work under an amazing leader (and to see other amazing leaders work as well), and many, many others.