Romanticized: Pulling the Veil Back on Bi-vocational Leadership

bivocational

There is an interesting shift happening within the world of Church leadership here in the West. More and more there seems to be not only an affirmation of pastors being so-called “bi-vocational leaders” but an overzealous ambition to become just that. This is interesting to me for many reasons, but of particular interest is the high level of romanticism encircling the bi-vocational conversation. (I don’t say this as an expert, but as one who was bi-vocational for years and has many bi-vocational pastor friends). Many seem to be rushing headlong into a position deemed less-than-pastoral a mere generation ago by many church leaders. As a friend of mine – who happens to be bi-vocational – recently said, “it is a badge of honor to wear around in the right circles; a cone of shame in others.” What I hope to do with this post is to begin to pull the veil back a bit on some of the realities inherent to being a bi-vocational pastor/leader.

Where are we?

This paradigm shift is often attributed to the crumbling of Christendom as post-Christendom emerges out of its dust and soot. Study after study has shown the dramatic decline in church attendance often accompanied with the closing of churches. Cultural pluralism and religious agnosticism are on their ascendency making Christianity and the Church an antiquated memory at best and an irrelevant hypocrisy at worst.

Yes, it is true that the Church is becoming more and more marginalized – which, I firmly believe is a good thing. However, this bi-vocational shift is also due in part to factors between churches. I have spoken with many, many pastors whose churches are on the smaller end of the spectrum. Usually they range between 75-150 people and have 1-3 paid staff. Many of these churches are “losing” people to the large churches down the road; those with between 500-1000 people and a host of staff members. Ironically, these small churches are becoming smaller despite their attempts to become more like their larger neighboring churches. Their Christian contingency is on a downward slope as the struggle to keep seats filled and bank accounts black becomes a weekly occurrence. Paychecks and other financial constraints piggyback on attendance and subsequently, the giving that comes along with it resulting in paid staff taking the hit . Rather than grow in numbers and (generally) thus finances, they actually shrink in size and are more akin to the house church or urban church of 25-50 and everything that comes with it.

The Non-majority Church

The above statements are becoming a reality within the white, middle class, majority  church in the West. But for many within this sector, being a bi-vocational pastor of a church conveys that you are not a true pastor. You may be on your way to being a real pastor, but not quite yet. In this imagination, real pastors don’t have need of a second job because we – the white, middle class, majority church – have resources, finances, and education at our disposal. The nonchalant overlooking of these things stemmed directly from the values we imbibed. Detachment, inattention, and abstraction are the fruit of the Majority’s Spirit.

Sushi maker at a grocery store. Educator within the prison system. Public school counselor. These are just a few of the jobs I can list off the top of my head that belong to non-majority pastors I’m acquainted with. For them and many others, having a second job isn’t something they sought out because of its current appeal. No, for them it is life. There is not another way of being rooted in their contexts in true incarnational ways outside of working outside of the church.

For many Majority leaders, this imaginative creativity isn’t part of their register.

And this is partly due to the overriding Superman complex we have within many pastorates. Again, I don’t know how many pastors I have spoken with that feel the weighty burden of their church’s life because they are essentially flying solo. Sure, there may be a board of some kind or an associate pastor or two, but with titles such as Senior Pastor or Lead Pastor, there is often a lone person where the buck stops. As such, it is the end goal of pastoral ministry. It is the achievements of achievements. You don’t go to Bible college or seminary to be a youth pastor; no, shoot for the stars and be the senior pastor.

In many ways, we’ve made CEO and Senior pastor synonymous.

Moreover, there is a destructive notion tied to this Superman complex that floats around Christian circles often going unnamed. It goes something like this: the epitome of Christ-likeness is being a pastor, even more so if one is a senior pastor. There is a presumed level of spirituality tethered to this role, thus making it the end-all for many younger people.

Interestingly, the aspirations of many have turned from established church pastorates to church planting. Being a church planter is the en vogue sugar plum dancing in the heads of many. And this is where I wonder if we haven’t especially romanticized bi-vocational realities. For many, Bible college and seminary prepared them for one specific role with their one specific degree. After all, that is the goal of education in America: prepare people to be money-making, money-spending consumers. Falling back on a second job denotes weakness or inefficiency; within the Church it can often be twisted into being less faithful or even downright sinful. Notwithstanding, many church planters have rightfully pushed these assumptions to the side and have forged ahead.

Regardless, being bi-vocational is not necessarily the panacea to the church’s ills. Many go on without actually seeing it modeled for them. Many go on in manners either unneeded or in unhealthy ways. Others don’t put any intention to the communal, missional, and incarnational considerations at play in a bi-vocational move. In doing so, they often bring death where there could have been life.

Bi-vocation or bi-occupation?

I often wonder if we haven’t mistakenly described these positions as bi-vocational when they should be deemed bi-occupational. Vocation used to denote a spiritual calling from God into “true” Christian leadership, namely pastoral or missions work. Vocation was rarely something tagged onto being a plumber, carpenter, school teacher, or prison guard. These were mere occupations, not vocations.

Yet I wonder what would happen if we began to use language like bi-occupational in the realization that we have all been called. Vocation, after all, is from the same word we get vocal, indicating a vocation as something you are called unto. I wonder what would happen if we began to posture ourselves in a way where our vocations permeated our occupations. This way you’re calling into the family of God and the giftings found therein don’t require you to become a paid church leader (necessarily). Rather, your gifting (vocation) stems from your identity as a son or daughter of God and runs through your job (occupation). Missional practices could flourish under this posture.

Perhaps it would be better if we saw ourselves as bi-occupational leaders with a singular vocation. Of necessity, this would require a team approach.

The Perfect Storm

Our church plant stopped meeting over a year ago, which has given me time to reflect upon things. This I now know: It was much easier for me to say I’m not taking a paycheck than it was to relinquish the control needed to make being bi-occupational work.

During our own church planting, I worked full-time in a local school district (still do) and part-time as Northeastern Seminary’s Syracuse recruiter (still do). These two positions – for better or worse – ate up huge chunks of my time, leaving me exhausted for my family and church. In the words of my wife

Being bi-vocational will necessitate the pastor as superman be put to death.  The Lead pastor mentality will need to be relinquished so that the church can function.  It can work but needs the support of a team given authority to use their gifts.  This paradigm shift will have to be recognized at all levels and will require a reorienting of how the roles of the body and leadership will function.  Bi-vocationalism will require compromise, an allowance for failure in yourself and others, and potentially lowered expectations.  Not addressing these issues from the start may lead to burnout or failure.

My family and I have been a part of variety of church planting models.  Scott opted not to take a paycheck. Things were purposefully kept simple.  Despite our best intentions, the church never grew.  Maybe because we didn’t offer anything overly attractive, maybe because there wasn’t enough time or space for the teaching, training and mobilizing that needed to happen. Or maybe because we had great people but not the right people for this type of venture.  Needless to say our church plant ended because we lost families who moved out of state.  Scott’s abilities as a bi-vocational pastor were limited and it took a toll on our family life and what we were able to accomplish within the church.

Obviously, there is a place for bi-vocationalism.  But not without, creativity, realistic expectations, and an understanding of the people within your congregation – along with their gifts and their ability to employ them. For most to succeed it will require the perfect storm of job opportunities.  If you have a family will you have to work a full time job in order to carry health benefits? Is your spouse able to supplement some of the income? How will it affect your family life? In considering your church family, do you have the right people serving with you?  And for those who boldly declare they won’t take a paycheck – is that a sustainable option for your family? For the long term? Are you able to accomplish what you need to do without any sort of income source coming from the church?

Many of the hardships realized as a bi-occupational pastor came from the lack of discipleship needed within our folks. There is a gulf between the thinking needed to carry out the ins and outs of both being a bi-occupational pastor and a missional member of a church with bi-occupational leadership. For many, their hearts and minds have been conditioned and formed in ways contra all things missional and incarnational. This isn’t finger pointing; blood is not on their hands, it is on mine. What I’m trying to say is that it takes patience and grace in bringing people along as one(s) ahead of them yet leading from in their midst. The questions here are: Are your people prepared for bi-occupational leadership in the same way you are? How are you discipling them to that end?

Nobody Showed Me

One of the biggest things I believe needs to be taken ahold of when dreaming about being bi-occupational is who has shown you or is currently showing you how to do this. Far too often we believe a book being read or a conference being attended equates to actual know-how. Please, please don’t fall for this. As in any area of discipleship, you need to actually learn from someone on the ground.

For me, this was a huge reality check as the pool of church leaders for whom this road was familiar was incredibly small. Again, for many within the white, middle class, majority church these factors don’t play into things. This is why I believe it is time to break down the dividing wall between churches.

We must begin to realize the vast wisdom and experience of the non-majority church. Relationships must be cultivated, not only for the sake of relationship, but for the sake of the gospel. The Majority Church’s deaf ears must be unplugged and blind eyes brought to sight as we push further and further into things known to our brothers and sisters. Our time of the ones being taught is long overdue. The question is: who I can humbly begin to follow, ask questions of, and get the fuller picture on these matters?

So what say you? What am I missing? What else is hid behind the veil?

This is a synchropost with the The Antioch Session blog. See Zach Hoag’s parallel entry, “Rooted: (How Not to) Rage Against the Machine

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Lord, may we be like mycelium: A Missional Lesson from Creation

As I read, my mind traveled past the abbey church across the fields to a cluster of sheds, where millions of tiny threads of mycelium worked in the darkness. A stringlike network of fungal cells, mycelium is the organism that produces mushrooms. The brothers cultivate mycelium, whose ‘fruit’ supports their life of prayer…the relationship of fungi to life as we know it goes back nearly 450 million years. Indeed, without mycelium, there would be no life at all. Only recently have we come to understand the true magnitude of our dependence on these organisms. We now know, for instance, that at least 90 percent of all plants on earth form symbiotic relationships with a fungus called mycorrhizae. Greek for ‘fungus-root,’ mycorrhizae are ubiquitous, found in nearly every ecosystem in the world.

The relationship works like this: the fungus penetrates a plant’s roots and provides the plant with nutrients and water from the surrounding soil, which the fungus accesses through its mycelial network. The fungus in turn receives starches from the plant. When mycelium grows out into the surrounding soil it is said to ‘run,’ and in doing so it not only forms symbiotic relationships with single plants; it provides links between plant species. In 1964, two North Carolina scientists chopped down a red maple tree and poured radioactive liquid into the stump. Eight days later they found that, within a radius of twenty-two feet, the leaves of nearly half of all the trees, shrubs, vines, and herbs contained radioactivity; mycelium provided the pathway through which the radioactive material spread. The experiment confirmed fungi’s link to every living thing. And every dead thing. Fungi are our biological go-betweens to the world beyond animate life. And like monks at prayer, fungi do their best work in darkness. – Fred Bahnson in Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, p. 19-20.

Mycelium:

– Connect non-related living things in mutually beneficial ways

– Provide pathways for mutual nourishment, not the actual nourishment itself

– Skillfully, intentionally, and silently do their essential work

– Work communally

– Become involved in all areas of life for the sake of the ecosystem

Lord, may we be like mycelium.

“In the end, the lion is God.”

I recently received Leighton Ford’s The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things. It’s been on my radar for awhile now, as I have been diving head first into resources geared towards the contemplative. I grew up in a world of faith bereft of the stillness and silence central to reflection and contemplation. In its place, individualistic devotions and missions trips comprised of agenda-driven questionnaires were dominant.

Nowadays, I find myself drawn towards activism. In a world driven by causes, I have become convinced in the strength moving into the neighborhood and finding where God is already at work. This means that activism takes on a very regular look, can seem humdrum and ordinary, and is a slow process. We don’t enter into situations and relationships as the ones bringing wisdom and learning; no, we enter in as ones who are in need of being taught as mutually live life together. Humility, vulnerability, and mystery lead the way as we devote ourselves to a place and a people, not merely a cause.

This also means a holistic approach is much needed. Activism without contemplation falls flat as we tend to move in our own strength while finding ourselves drawn to the flashy, big splash realities of what we think needs attending. Likewise, contemplation without activism gives us big ears full off of listening as we gorge ourselves on the whispers of God without doing anything about them.

I say this because I love the following story of missionary Vincent Donovan. He went to the Masai people of East Africa, a people I have spent a little time with myself. I love this story because it tells of a man who went into a place and a people expecting certain things and finds himself changed on the other end. He was honest with his own doubts and allowed “the High God” to teach him through the people he was supposed to be “reaching.”

I also love this simple story because of the lessons we can learn about God and God’s missional nature. God is a lion and I need to be reminded of that.

Once he [Donovan] told them how God has led the nomadic Abraham to see that he was the God of all peoples and not just of one tribe. Could it be, he asked, that they had worshiped this High God without knowing him – the truly unknown God?

There was silence. Then someone asked a question. ‘This story of Abraham – does it speak only to the Masai? Or does it speak also to you? Has your tribe found the High God? Have you known him?’

Donovan was stumped. He thought of how in France since the time of Joan of Arc, the French people has associated God with a quest for glory. He thought of fellow Americans who had always asked God to bless ‘our side’ in wars. After a long time he replied, ‘No, we have not found the High God. My tribe has not known him. For us, too, he is the unknown God. But we are searching for him. I have come a long, long distance to invite you to search for him. Let us search for him together.’

Months later, as he spoke with a Masai elder about his own struggle with belief and unbelief, the elder explained that his language had two words for faith. One simply meant to agree with something. That, said the elder, was like a white hunter shooting down an animal from a distance.

To speak of real belief, he said, took another word, a word that referred to a lion going after its prey, speeding to catch it, leaping at with a blow that kills, then enfolding it into its great arms to make it part of itself. That, said the elder, is faith.

Donovan listened in amazement. The elder continued.

“We did not seek you out, Padri. We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush…into our villages, our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this…We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.”

In the end, the lion is God, the God who began to seek us even before we knew it, in the time before our time. – Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life, p 62-63.

Life In Liminal Land

It has been an interesting past 7 or so months.

  • We “closed the doors” of our church plant, Common Table. (Aside: doesn’t that saying give away our dominant metaphor of seeing the church as a building?)
  • We had our third daughter.
  • We jumped into another local church plant with some of our friends from Common Table.

Ever since these things began to occur, we had a sense of calm as we’ve entered into a season of rest. In many ways, it has felt like a sabbatical as we haven’t had to plan, organize, teach, etc. However, it has also been a bit unsettling, especially at the beginning of this period. As such, it has become rather confusing and tended to make us feel uncertain.

These are hallmarks of what has come to be known as liminal space. Liminality carries the idea of entering into an in-between period; a time when the old ways of doing things has come to an end and new ones are emerging. The word is derived from the Latin limen which means “threshold.” In anthropological terms, it refers to standing at the threshold of a new time due to an initiation or rite of passage, yet still maintaining our place on the threshold. In other words, it is a middle state between changes – politically, religiously, ritually, economically, etc. – in which we have an eye on the past but an ear to the future.

Having sensed this reality for the Church in the West for some time now, we have been engaging in cultivating ecclesial practices that attempt to stay true to the tradition handed down to us while creatively moving into the future. The challenge of harmonizing innovation and tradition with humility and hospitality is daunting yet necessary. Doing this on a personal level, however, has (somewhat surprisingly) been disorienting.

The questions that have come along with this uncertainty and confusion have primarily revolved around the selling of our house. From there, they have naturally lead to levels of second and third results and furthering questions. What happens if we don’t sell the house? Perhaps, more importantly, what happens if we do sell the house? Should I stay in my current job? Is now the time to pursue more education? If so, should it be a PhD in theology or another Masters, this time in Education? If we stay 30 minutes away from our larger Jesus-community, how does proximity play into community? The list goes on.

In the midst of life in liminal land I have  noticed a few recurring thoughts and have been given a few through my friend Andrew.

Life in liminal land has the potential to freeze us in our tracks. Doubt, confusion, and uncertainty are potent. They have the strength to pull us out of being aware of what is happening around us. Together they redirect our attention, thoughts, and ultimately our actions to the future ahead of us. As Andrew has said, they form a concoction where we merely exist in life instead of living life. I have seen this play out in varying degrees over the past several months. Rather than being attentive to the people and places we live our life with and in, we bypass them for the unknown future ahead of us. Neighbors, co-workers, and friends become shadows of themselves as we overlook and neglect those among us for what lies on the horizon. We need to be self-aware and cognizant of this propensity.

Life in liminal land can give us permission to rip the beauty out of the short-lived. Here in America, we have been taught, whether explicitly or not, to be utilitarians. Usage of things is what they are for. People, neighborhoods, jobs: we suck the life out of them for our own maximized gain. Combine this with consumerism and individualism and we have a cocktail of misuse and abuse where neglect, power-wielding, and brokenness are left in their wake. In short, we are formed to see things as our own personal tools made for our personal gain; beauty is a bygone characteristic.

Moreover, we favor the short-lived, making it our main mode of existence and thus become blind to its beauty. It is like telling a fish to identify the water it is swimming in: we have become so accustomed to the short-lived and rootless that it has become the water we unconsciously swim in. To continue the water imagery, rather than diving in to our present situation, we get out of the water by isolating ourselves from our places and people. Presence and availability wane: two of the vital structures of community.

What I have been learning in our liminality is the beauty of change. I have been given fresh eyes to the beauty of our particular neighborhood. Now is the time of year when mayflies come out, followed by the annual return of the swallows. Their aerial dance reminds me of the grandeur of our shared ecosystem and interconnectivity. Neighbors begin to emerge from our long winter, changed from the months of snow and cold. Internally, the process of liminality has opened up areas of my own life that would have continued to hide in the dark. All in all, liminality offers me (and you) a chance to see the beauty of the ordinary in which we swim as move towards the future.

Life in liminal land reveals the interdependency of life. One of the main areas this time has revealed from its hiding is the reality of the interdependent life. The numbing effect of the everyday can fool us into thinking we are living life as independent beings. We lose sight of our interdependence and interconnectivity to the ecosystem we are a part of as we roll through the rhythms of the ordinary. Unconsciously, we assume we are autonomous beings without need of community found in God, neighborhood, and creation.

This becomes obvious to me when decision making becomes a solo act. Within the familiarity of my regular days, weeks, and months I see no need to confer with friends and family because I assume the ordinariness of everything will continue.

I’d rather remain in the presumed safety of my own decision-making than move into the messiness of communal life.

Yet in this in-between time (and, obviously, it should be all the time) I’m much more aware of my limits and the need for question asking, wisdom seeking, and conversation engaging. This manifests itself in prayer, chatting over coffee, and late night talks with my wife. Discussion and dialogue in community gives clarity as I begin to see that I’m not alone in this liminal life, but that we all share in limitations. My eyes and heart become more open to our need for each other and how God weaves us together and how this liminality actually forges community.

In the midst of life in liminal land, my main prayer is that I will stay attuned to the work of Jesus in me and through me for the sake of others. I pray I will not run away from it, but allow this time to do its work. Of one thing I am sure: I must remain present within this liminality so it can do its Spirit-filled work.

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So, how about you? What have you noticed about life in liminal land? How have uncertainty and confusion contributed to your life? In what ways has the regularity of liminality built community?

Missional Wisdom from the Tree Firmly Planted: Day 30 of Lent

He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers. Psalm 1:3

When I was 20 I went to Kenya to visit my sister and her family for about a month. It was my first international traveling experience, which I will never forget. Sights, sounds, and smells filled my senses and altered my imagination in profound ways. Acts of hospitality, the deep sense of community, and the ambivalence towards a utilitarian use of time all ensured that the white, middle-class suburban, college kid I was didn’t go home the same person.

One of the terms I kept on hearing while there was “mzungu.” Everyone I met repeated that term when I came into view. My immediate assumption was that it meant “white person.” I was correct in a sense; “white person” is its connotation.

However, what it really means is one who is always on the move, always wanting to see everything. There is a sense of constant swirling. It stems from the original Europeans entering Africa and “busily swirling around”. It is definitely a loaded word.

In many ways it still holds true today.

One thing I have learned over the past several years is the allegiance to the myth of productivity. We in the West, due primarily to the Industrial Revolution and technological boom of the past 100 years or so, are addicted to being busy in ever-increasing ways. Email, social media, and instant means of “checking in” have allowed us to take our offices with us in our pockets. People are literally working themselves to death in efforts to prove their productivity levels and the evidence of self-worth that comes along with them. It doesn’t take much to show this. Seeing the human as a machine has morphed from a metaphor into an identity.

Buying into the myth of constant productivity is a result of our seeking after growth and results. We think that if we are always busy, things will grow. Our businesses will grow, our intellects will expand, and our bottom lines will be blacker. Results will flourish based on how often and how long our noses are against the grindstone. “Hurry is not of the Devil; it is the Devil” quipped Carl Jung.

I wonder how much of our result-driven busyness comes out of our formulaic attempts at growth. If we implement this guru’s wisdom here, align this methodology there, add enough pressure, and we’ll succeed. A + B = C. When this doesn’t pan out, we often give up or think we are not busy enough with the correct solutions to the problem.

The same postures and practices are found within the Church, the very community in which fruitfulness and growth cannot be coerced.

Perhaps it is from our fervent evangelistic outreaches. Perhaps it is our pursuits of justice. Whether we’re a megachurch or a church that fits in a living room, in many ways, we tend to fall into the trap of thinking fruit is always in season and that growth is always available. Again, we tend to bail out when produce is not easily seen.

If you are like me and the communities of faith I’ve been a part of, we tend to love the “whatever he does prospers” section of the above Psalm. We tend to think that we are infused with the power of God and as we do the things Christians do, we will find ourselves and our efforts bearing fruit.

Yet the natural world knows nothing of this. Seasons of produce give way to seasons of stagnation. Fruitfulness comes in harvest, yet is only possible after plowing, seeding, and waiting. Like the tree firmly planted, fruitfulness only comes in its season.

This reality is essential for those partnering with God in his missional movement of renewal. Despite our best efforts, we can formulate growth. We cannot read books, attend conferences, and listen to podcasts from “the experts” and expect growth to occur. Like the tree firmly planted, we are called to do just that: be firmly planted.

Staying put, working among others, and being present within the contexts we have been placed is the core of what it means to engage in mission. The supermarket mentality of fruit always being in season begins to fade into a farmers’ market reality of seasons as we remain rooted where we are. Constant swirling around and busyness will not bring about produce; it is the long, aching, persevering staying-put-ness that will. As we do this, we will see seasons of fruit come along with the seasons of plowing, seeding, and waiting. Discerning the different seasons is key. It will give us roots to see beyond the seemingly lack of fruit for the season of plowing we are in.

Seeing fruit comes to those who remain firmly planted waiting for its season.

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Other posts in this Lent series:

Moving Beyond Immediate (and) Affirmation or Why I Will Be Blogging Through Lent

“Divine Sorrow” and Remembering: Ash Wednesday

Longings, Presence, and Vulnerability: Day 2 of Lent

Being Led by the Gentle Voice of God: A Notebook and 3 Questions: Day 3 of Lent

Lent Around the Blogosphere: 10 Links: Day 4 of Lent

First Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Psalm 91 and Cliche: Day 5 of Lent

Community and Prayer: Henri Nouwen on Pushing Through Individualism Via Communal Prayer: Day 6 of Lent

Humility, Place, and The Everyday: Lessons in Mission From John the Baptizer: Day 7 of Lent

Lenten Reflection and Fasting According to Joan Chittister: Day 8 of Lent

Jean Vanier’s “Seven Aspects of Love”: Day 11 of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Suffering and Lent: Words from Joan Chittister: Day 14 of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Loneliness: Day 20 of Lent

Fourth Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

If Lent Had a Theme Song…

The Difficult Place of Those Who Are Weaker – Jean Vanier: Day 27 of Lent

Humility, Place, and the Everyday: Lessons in Mission from John the Baptizer: Lent Day 7

This morning’s Lenten reading was the entirety of Luke 3. Here we find Luke’s version concerning the beginnings of John the Baptizer’s public ministry. I was struck by its missional attributes of humility, place, and the everyday.

Humility

John takes up some prominent space in the gospels. He has an angelic proclamation to his parents in preparation for his birth. Zacharias, his father was a priest, which made him known in their region. And his mother, Elizabeth, was Mary’s cousin. He even had his own group of followers, disciples, living and learning with him. If someone was looking for an impressive CV, you wouldn’t have to look much further beyond John.

Yet when it comes to wielding this recognition and authority, John deflects to Jesus. For the sake of mission, John understands his role as one pointing to Jesus. This comes to a head when he is asked if he is indeed “the Christ.” “No, but he is coming and he is mightier than I.” Personal limitations were well-known to him.

This stood out to me because I know I am a competitive person. Henri Nouwen says of our current culture,

We are living in a world where even the most intimate relationships have become part of competition and rivalry.

How true and frequent this is. Unfortunately, it happens within Christian community – read: family – and puts mission at a stand still.

It takes humility to know that we have a role within the family of God. We are not all called to be hands. No, some of us are called to be feet. We have different skill sets, giftings, and personalities, that together allow for the mission of God to flourish.

When we give into power and pride, we often assume roles that we have no part in taking. We bad-mouth, become overly critical, and, typically, ragingly jealous. I wonder how badly John wanted to say, “Yes” to the crowds’ question of him being Christ.

Humility isn’t merely a private posture; its effects are communal as we either live into humble love or arrogant power with others.

I wonder how often we assume the role of Christ – in our own lives or the lives of others – when we should humbly point beyond ourselves to Jesus and his unifying mission.

Place

John had an astute understanding of the role of place. It wasn’t by coincidence that he was meeting people and baptizing them in the Jordan River. The Jordan had (has) a special place in the social imagination and memory of the Jewish people. It was the geographic boundary the Israelites crossed over as they entered into the Promised Land. Found in the wilderness, John called people to repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of their sins. Now, we shouldn’t think of this as personal salvation, but as a renewed call to be the community of people they were meant to be. And this would have been obvious to the people there as they knew how place was intimately linked to themselves and their story.

John evokes a dual call to both coming judgment and hope by placing himself in the wilderness and baptizing in the Jordan. It was this rootedness within his place that allowed him to enter the social imagination and memory of his people. He didn’t just know his role, his people, and his story. Rather, they all combined with his knowledge of place to make one coherent proclamation.

With his humble call to the One Coming After Him, he offered this hope and called into being a picture of (finally) entering into the true Promised Land. Through his recapitulation of the ancient Israelites’ dealings in the wilderness, he was calling people to a life of justice and peace. It began with an understanding of the role of place in the mind of his people. From there, he called them into the continuing mission of God.

I wonder how we might understand place in our own contexts and by doing so tap into the social imagination and memory of the people around us as we join God in his mission.

The Everyday

I have found over and over again how enamored people are with the glamorous and the spectacular. We like things done big and done well. We’d rather make a huge splash than tiny ripples.

I’ve heard many times of peoples’ dreams of going big. People chase after the title, the organization, the complex social issue. Within the Church world, I have heard many people say they want the title of Pastor, the Homeless Shelter non-profit organization, and that they’re going to stop the social issue of human trafficking.

We tend to chase after the grandiose while missing out on the everyday. We reach for the stars, but forget the dirt we’re standing in. We’d rather flirt with the universal and reject the particular.

This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I think we often lose sight of where God has us now in lieu of pursuing something else. If we don’t start with the small, we will have a much, much more difficult time attaining the character and skill required for the large.

This was a temptation for John’s listeners as they heard and saw ancient words coming true before them. Their longings were finally being met and now the show could get started. Let’s do it big and do it now.

Our participation in the mission of God, however, always begins where we are in the everyday. 

John reminds us of this when he tells his questioners to start with themselves in the regularity of the everyday. “If you have two tunics, give one of them to someone who has none.” To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than what you’ve been ordered to.” To the soldiers, he says, “Don’t take any money by force; be happy with your wages.”

N.T Wright says,

What we discover at this point is that the sorting-out process begins here and now. We’ve come to hear about the big picture, about the whole world being put to rights. But we are brought down to earth with a bump by the questions people are asking and the answers they’re receiving. People ask: ‘What are we to do?’ Answer: ‘Straighten your lives out in the simplest, most direct way.’

And by doing so, they would begin to be the people they were created to be with Jesus as their Christ.

I wonder what would happen if we began to cultivate eyes to see and ears to hear God’s missional movement in the everyday.

Connecting the Dots

I have found that these three qualities intersect and overlap in mission. Often it is our lack of humility that pushes us into seeking after the grandiose. This seeking often results in a relegation of our everyday and our place as we yearn for the prideful position, organization, or eradication of the social ill. It takes humility to realize our placedness and to begin there by seeking God’s voice and movement. I think John was on to something as he deliberately prodded his community into humility, place, and the everyday.

May we do the same as we participate in God’s mission.

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Other posts in this Lent series:

Moving Beyond Immediate (and) Affirmation or Why I Will Be Blogging Through Lent

“Divine Sorrow” and Remembering: Ash Wednesday

Longings, Presence, and Vulnerability: Day 2 of Lent

Being Led by the Gentle Voice of God: A Notebook and 3 Questions: Day 3 of Lent

Lent Around the Blogosphere: 10 Links: Day 4 of Lent

First Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Psalm 91 and Cliche: Day 5 of Lent

Community and Prayer: Henri Nouwen on Pushing Through Individualism Via Communal Prayer: Day 6 of Lent

Community and Prayer: Henri Nouwen on Pushing Through Individualism Via Communal Prayer: Day 6 of Lent

The other week my good friend Dan posted about how the missional movement will survive into the future. I think he is spot on in his pushing us away from individualism and into community.

Individualism is running rampant in our culture and the Church has fallen prey to its tendencies. We have lost vital connections between salvation and community. We push people into evangelistic practices all alone. The list goes on.

One area I have seen this individualism run free is in prayer. As with many areas, we have studies and programs describing and analyzing prayer which fills our informational warehouses. Yet when it comes to learning through imitation, we have produced anemic lives of prayer. As I’ve said before, many people intellectually agree and yearn for justice, but don’t know how to engage in it because they’ve never seen a community faithfully practice it. I think the same is true regarding prayer: many of us have never had a community patiently and persistently model, lead, and invite us into prayer. We know we need to live lives of prayer, but we get stuck in the gulf between “book” knowledge on prayer and real life, hearing with our ears, resounding in our souls prayer.

We need these communal rhythms to enrich and guide our everyday individual ways of life. And vice versa.

Our lack of communal prayer has left us bereft of any individual prayer. And our lack of individual prayer has left us shortsighted in the need for communal prayer. The relationship is cyclical.

This seems especially true in many of our current models of Church where entertainment is our mode of being and doing. Prayer is often a bewildering thing, riddled with emotion, and, at times, seemingly fruitless. Sometimes, it rattles us into a deepening sense of God’s absence. It takes time, honesty, and vulnerability. Let’s be honest: it isn’t always the most attractive thing.

Yet, it is what connects us as a “waiting community.”  “Prayer is the language of the Christian community” says Henri Nouwen. “Prayer is not one of the many things the community does. Rather, it is its very being…But when prayer is no longer its primary concern, and when its many activities are no longer seen and experienced as part of prayer itself, the community quickly degenerates into a club with a common cause but no common vocation.”

Prayer – both communal and individual – is the essence of community and mission.

Enough of me. Here is an extended quote from Henri Nouwen discussing the intimate connection between communal and individual prayer:

Much that has been said about prayer thus far might create the false impression that prayer is a private, individualistic and nearly secret affair, so personal and so deeply hidden in our internal life that it can hardly be talked about, even less be shared. The opposite is true. Just because prayer is so personal and arises from the center of our life, it is to be shared with others. Just because prayer is the most precious expression of being human, it needs constant support and protection of the community to grow and flower. Just because prayer is our highest vocation needing careful attention and faithful perseverance, we cannot allow it to be a private affair. Just because prayer asks for a patient waiting in expectation, it should never become the most individualistic expression of the most individualistic emotion, but should always remain embedded in the life of the community of which we are a part.

Prayer as a hopeful and joyful waiting for God is a really unhuman or superhuman task unless we realize that we do not have to wait alone. In the community of faith we can find the climate and the support to sustain and deepen our prayer and we are enabled to constantly look forward beyond our immediate and often narrowing private needs. The community of faith offers the protective boundaries within which we can listen to our deepest longings, not to indulge in morbid introspection, but to find our God to whom they point. In the community of faith we can listen to our feelings of loneliness, to our desires for an embrace or a kiss, to our sexual urges, to our cravings for sympathy, compassion or just a good word; also to our search for insight and to our hope for companionship and friendship. In the community of faith we can listen to all these longings and find the courage, not to avoid them or cover them up, but to confront them in order to discern God’s presence in their midst. There we can affirm each other in our waiting and also in the realization that in the center of our waiting the first intimacy with God is found. There we can be patiently together and let the suffering of each day convert our illusions into the prayer of a contrite people. The community of faith is indeed the climate and source of all prayer.

What does your community do in an effort to be “the climate and source of all prayer”?

How does this translate into your individual life and then back into the community?

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Other posts in this Lent series:

Moving Beyond Immediate (and) Affirmation or Why I Will Be Blogging Through Lent

“Divine Sorrow” and Remembering: Ash Wednesday

Longings, Presence, and Vulnerability: Day 2 of Lent

Being Led by the Gentle Voice of God: A Notebook and 3 Questions: Day 3 of Lent

Lent Around the Blogosphere: 10 Links: Day 4 of Lent

First Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Psalm 91 and Cliche: Day 5 of Lent