Adjustment for the Sake of Mission

This post is the third post in a nine-part series reflecting on InterVarsity's Ambition conference. For more posts in this series, check out the series frontpage (Series: An Ambition for Mission)

"If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten."

I must have heard my mentor Bill Hunter say these words a dozen times. If we want to change our outcomes in ministry (or business or education or government), we need to change our inputs and our processes.

Change is difficult.
Change can be scary.
Change will always be necessary.

The "big name" at the Ambition Conference was Alan Hirsch. He's follower of Jesus and a strategic thinker about God's mission and the church. He's written several books and directs Forge, an incubator for the people of the missional movement.

He presented us with a series of big adjustments churches and ministries can make to better pursue God's mission, what he called: ReJesus, ReDisciple, ReMission and ReOrganize.

ReJesus

The first move, according to Hirsch, must always be a move back to Jesus. Over time, churches and parachurch movements drift away from Jesus, building a shell of religion around the center of relationship. Christology reorients us toward mission.

This is a challenge for our work on campus, as many students long to go deeper with God and assume that "Deeper" equals "Away from Jesus." We study Mark and John with students every year, stories about Jesus. And we want students to be able to see Jesus in the Old Testament. But we have to fight the drift of boredom and the shallow desire for "depth."

What would happen if "deeper" meant "toward Jesus"?

ReDisciple

As missional communities reorient themselves to Jesus and dig into Christology, Hirsch notices that a funny thing begins to happen. Crowd size and swelling attendance seem to matter less and less. It's not a big deal if the crowd wanders off in search of a new spectacle. Investment of resources begins to be focused on smaller units: neighborhoods and disciples.

When I started working with InterVarsity, discipleship was a big deal. We invested in the lives of students: counseled them, cared for them, equipped them, spent time with them, prayed for them, loved them. The work of discipleship is small work, non-spectacular, seemingly inefficient. And that's why so few people prioritize discipleship.

Many pastors spend most of their time preparing their sermons and "casting vision," and little time with people. Many InterVarsity Staff prefer to speak at Large Groups and plan training events for students, claiming they don't have time to disciple.

What would happen, though, if we made significant investments in a small number of people? Some would squander that investment, sure. Big opportunities would pass us by. But we would be ministers who actually loved people ... and that matters.

Tell me, what sort of person are you becoming as you minister? Do you feel like you are becoming more and more like Jesus as you serve him?

ReMission

At this point in the session, Hirsch really hits his stride. He challenges us to consider the source of our thinking about mission: is it from ecclesiology or theology? Does the church have a mission or does the mission have a church?

For Hirsch this thinking about mission radicalizes our discipleship. We see the mission as God's mission, a mission he includes us in (to be sure), but his mission none-the-less. We do not initiate, we join.

And as late-joiners to the ongoing mission of God, we must keep in step with him. And if God prioritizes incarnation as his mode of self-revelation and rescue, we must learn to be a people who are truly present in the lives of others (both Christians and those who have yet to take up their cross).

For campus ministry, this presents a true challenge, as our organization requires us to have completed a degree before joining Staff. In my 8 years of campus ministry, I've never attended a single class. As an InterVarsity Staffworker, I've reveled on being an outsider, a voice in the wilderness. But is this Christ-like?

How can we better pursue incarnation in ministry, joining our God who is truly present on the college campus by being truly present ourselves?

ReOrganize

At this point in the session, Hirsch was pressed for time and rushed to his conclusion. He challenged us to rethink how we organize for mission. His challenge included these points:
  • Include everyone (no spectators)
  • Develop a structural network
  • Decentralize power
  • Think about Ephesians 4 roles
For our work on campus, this reorganization flows really well with our re-emphasis on discipleship, but adds a challenge. It isn't enough for us to disciple students. We need to raise up generations of students who will disciple other students. We need to raise up students who will live in the dorms or hang out after class and help their peers see Jesus. We need to help students get off of the bench.

In our Area, we've struggled to helps students see themselves as leaders. In the past year and a half, we grown from reaching 170 students to reaching 305 students, but our leader-numbers have dropped from 35 to 25. We have more and more students, but fewer and fewer of them see themselves as players in the game. The stands are filling, as are the benches, but we don't have enough players on the field.

How do we help students see themselves differently?

In tomorrow's post, I'll reflect on the Q&A that followed Alan Hirsch's session, particularly on his claim that we were coming to the end of the parachurch era. Should we "break our contract" with local congregations and start our own churches? I'll post a link here (The Future of the Parachurch in God's Mission) as soon as the post publishes.

Eschatology and Mission

This post is the second post in a nine part series reflecting on InterVarsity's Ambition conference. For more posts in this series, check out the series frontpage (Series: An Ambition for Mission)

We have a hard time knowing what to do with eschatology.

Some of us cash in on the study of "last things." We make wild predictions and call for donations. We make wild accusations and sell books. We make popular fiction and entrap the holy imagination of a generation in small, narrow boxes.

Some of us avoid eschatology actively. The return of King Jesus sounds like a fantasy and his judgement sounds frightening and cruel, out of step with his character of love and mercy. We avoid eschatology as speculation, as ignorance, as a too-gleeful sneering cackle directed at the world God so loves.

But more of us just ignore eschatology, feeling like it has little to do with our day-to-day lives and our engagement with the mission God has included us in.

Not York Moore.

At the Ambition Conference he talked about the Artist of all time, willing to completion his master work, molded from the shards of his shattered Creation. The completion of God's master work is one way of talking about eschatology. And this way of talking about eschatology sculpts the way we view mission.

Our engagement with God's mission is shaped by our view of the end to which God is working. The goal is to make all things new. Following God and with his power, we make new whatever we can. We fight the old, broken, dirty and selfish. Rejuvenate. Pour life into. Bless and serve. And all this in light of God's ongoing work.

Eschatology provides a ring of urgency and saves us from panicked desperation in our participation in God's mission.

As York said, our soteriology sustains us in mission while our eschatology propels us into mission. Without a firm conviction that King Jesus will make all things new, we cannot deeply participate in the mission of God.

What would it look like if we served the poor, fed the hungry, fought injustice, shared the gospel, loved our neighbors, loved our enemies, loved God ... and did all this with a ring of urgency. Not as if this was our last chance, but as if this was our best chance?

As for me, I was challenged by this talk. I have frequently avoided conversations about eschatology, feeling like they distracted us from the real and important task of following Jesus today. These conversations frequently devolve into argument and arrogance. And I'm tired of people who sit on the sidelines debating because they are too afraid or too lazy or too well-pressed to get in the game and get dirty.

But after hearing York's talk I had to wonder, what am I missing by ignoring eschatology? What are we missing?

Monday's post will reflect on Alan Hirsch's session, particularly on his challenge to us to refocus on Jesus, disciple well, rethink mission and organize accordingly. A link will be posted here as soon as the post publishes (Adjustments for the Sake of Mission)

Series: An Ambition for Mission

"Start something new."

This phrase rang throughout the Ambition Conference up in Tampa last weekend. Together with 200 Staff from around the country, 100 student leaders and a handful of outside-InterVarsity voices, my Staff team and I engaged deeply with this idea.

Over the next couple of days, I'll post reflections on what I learned and experienced at Ambition. Links will be posted here as they become available:

Eschatology and Mission (reflecting on York Moore's talk)
Adjustments for the Sake of Mission (reflecting on Alan Hirsch's session)
The Future of the Parachurch in God's Mission (reflecting on Q&A with Alan Hirsch)
Insights into Planting at Community Colleges (applying ideas)
Equipping Everybody for Mission (reflecting on Kim Hammond's talk)
Storytelling and Mission (reflecting on Q&A with Kim Hammond and Alan Hirsch)
Insights into Planting at Hispanic Serving Institutions (applying ideas)
Apostolic Missional Movements (reflecting on Brian Sanders' talk)

What if the Christmas Story was an Immigration Story?

We've passed Christmas. For the most part, we've left it far behind. Maybe you still have your lights up. Maybe you're still returning gifts that didn't quite fit. But you're off to the New Year.

But I found myself today thinking about Christmas, and looking at it through a slightly different lens.

What if the Christmas Story was an Immigration Story?

Take 1

Jesus: I was born into poverty, in a strange place.
YoSteve: Your parents were immigrants?
Jesus: No, well, kind of. My mother was from here. So was my step-father.
YoSteve: But your biological father?
Jesus: Some people don't believe it, but he's actually not from this planet.
YoSteve: So, you're part alien. I knew it. That whole walking on water thing.
Jesus: [Laughs politely]
YoSteve: Anti-gravity space sandals. Where can I get some of those?
Jesus: An alien, but not that kind of alien.
YoSteve: Do you have papers? A green card?
Jesus: No, I didn't get any of that.
YoSteve: I know this is a pointed question, but are you here legally?
Jesus: Does it matter?


Take 2

Another way of looking at the Christmas Story as an Immigration Story is to see God as the owner of the land. Under God's ownership, the world spoke a certain language, the language of love and faithfulness.

But look around and that's no longer what you see. The language of love and faithfulness is hard to find. Everywhere you look that language has been warped and twisted, abandoned. And God's ownership of the land has been denied. By me. And you. And people like us.

And God has the power to return everything to the way it was. To round us up and deport us. But he doesn't. He offers us papers of citizenship ... not just green cards ... but full citizenship.

Born in a manger, living a life among us, speaking the language of love and faithfulness, teaching it to our untrained ears, Jesus represents God's hand extended to us.

God didn't build fences but broke down dividing walls of hostility. (see Ephesians 2)

What would it look like for us to go and do likewise?

Considered an Outsider (A Reflection on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day)

Every year around this time I take a few minutes to sit and read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This long letter represents the closest thing (in my mind) we have to an American Epistle. Personal and historical, abstract and theological, poetic and sharp, Dr. King's response to the critics of the civil rights movement still resonates today.

[read the Letter here: Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.]

Every year I read the Letter and every year something else jumps out to me.

This year, I'm fascinated by Dr. King's usage of insider/outsider language in his conversation about the marches that took place in Birmingham.

His critics called him an "outside agitator." And here is a small sample of his response:

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against "outsiders coming in." I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Dr. King draws on three themes to explain his presence: his ties to the community, the need for outsiders, and the myth of outsiders. These three themes roll throughout the Letter, challenging the story being told about the civil rights movement and about the church.

Ties to the community (I am an inside outsider)

Dr. King points out that he was invited to protest. He points out that his organization has ties to organizations in Birmingham. And in a piece of entangling alliances logic, makes the case for his presence in Alabama.

These entangling alliances (the SCLC with local movements) echo a deeper entanglement that Dr. King believes should compel white churches to join the civil rights cause. If Dr. King has ties to the oppressed men and women in Birmingham because of an organizational affiliation, how much more should the local white churches have ties to their oppressed neighbors?

When an outsider identifies himself with an oppressed people, something powerful happens. Walls collapse. Spotlights shifts. Change begins to roll.

In so many ways, this is what Jesus Christ has done for humanity. An outside agitator, he linked arms with us, for our salvation and our good.  

How can we go and do likewise?

The need for outsiders (Outsiders are good)

Comparing himself to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Paul and even Jesus, Dr. King explains his presence by pointing to the missional perspective an outsider can bring. When a community is diseased and deceived, only an outsider can bring healing and enlightenment.

Outsiders, whether crossing state lines or denominational barriers or time horizons can speak prophetically to communities in bondage, whether that bondage is a ethnic bondage of oppressive segregation or a bondage of blindness that keeps us from seeing the sinfulness of the status quo.

It is altogether fitting and proper that salvation should come from outside.

What is our attitude toward outsiders? Are we open to hearing their voices?

The myth of outsiders (No man is an island)

Though he never quotes Donne, the interrelatedness theme rings throughout the Letter. Outsiders cannot just mind their own business because what happens here matters everywhere.

In our age of globalization and the resultant moves toward hyper-localism, the truth of the interrelatedness of communities cannot be forgotten by the church. The church is a universal and global body - expressed locally to be sure - and as such must not believe that local action is anathema to global concern.

As members of God's church, we are always and never outsiders. This tension is nearly unbearable. When we see sin, we want to distance ourselves and claim outsider status, denying our culpability. When we see opportunity or privilege, we want to deny our outsider status and demand the rights of insiders. But Christ compels us on a different path, a path that sets rights aside and that bears the consequences of sin (deserved or not).

What would it look like for us to live as resident aliens in this world, never accepting that our outsider status means we should care?

If you get a chance today, check out Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail and ask yourself what an appropriate response would look like.

Book Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

How do the Great become great?

"Loads of natural talent" some would answer.
"Hard work" others might say.
"The right opportunity" you might hear.
"All of the above" and you'd be right ... according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.

The natural talent matters, but less than you'd think. It turns out that genius-level natural talent isn't extraordinarily rare. And a lot of geniuses live pretty normal lives.

According to Gladwell, these talented people fail to become "outliers" because either they didn't devote the time to developing their talent or because they never had the right opportunities to grow.

The book has fantastic stories, draws sweeping and interesting conclusions and entertains even when digging through hard, dry terrain. Like much of Gladwell's work, Outliers occupies that sweet spot where journalism and psychology. And it has some implications for how I think about ministry.

Devoting the time

This has two implications for us.

Firstly, as someone who works in campus ministry, I read Gladwell's Outliers and thought of the ever-present university conversation about "a liberal arts education" and "specialization."

A classical education covered a broad field: classics as well a math, science as well as philosophy, music as well as history. With the rise of state-funded, research-driven universities, higher ed has become more and more specialized. Students feel tremendous pressure to line up their education with a specific vocational objective.

At first blush, Gladwell's claim that it takes a significant devotion of time to become an "outlier" might seem to support the movement toward specialization. But the numbers don't line up. Gladwell doesn't just say that you need to devote time, he says that you need to devote a ton of time (10,000 hours). That's 40 hours a week, every week ... for 5 years. No breaks. No electives. No major changes. Not going to happen.

This doesn't decide the argument, not by any means. But as someone who not-so-secretly pulls for the liberal arts, it does encourage me.

Secondly (and much more briefly), Gladwell's insight challenges me to focus and focus on the things I want to excel at as a minister (and to be patient). I want to preach well and write well and disciple well. At the rate I'm going, it'll take me 20 years to become great. I need to be okay with that or make some changes.

Providing opportunity

One of the most beautiful elements of Outliers is Gladwell's delicate unwinding of the cultural forces that help the greats become outliers. Family, ethnic grouping, economics ... blind luck. All matter.

We want to build extraordinary followers of Jesus, extraordinary missionaries, extraordinary leaders ... outliers. And so many of the students don't have opportunities. They don't have intact families, don't have strong ethnic identity, don't have money. They go to school in places that don't have a lot of campus ministry activity.

Our presence on campus changes the environment. We provide opportunities to serve and lead and grow that these students wouldn't have otherwise.

And our presence could be a key ingredient God uses to form an outlier for good and truth and beauty in the world.

I would highly recommend this book.

What do you think it takes to make an outlier?

The Crowd and The Committed

The crowd clamors for attention.
The crowd comes and goes.
The crowd makes you feel good by showing up.
The crowd is easily counted.
But the crowd barely matters.

The committed blend quietly into the crowd.
The committed stick around long enough.
The committed may not impress.
The committed are also easily counted.
And the committed matter more than you can imagine.

Can you tell the two apart?

New Books and Old Books

Over Christmas break, I decided to take some time to re-read Athanasius' book De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (On the Incarnation). It's a classic book about Jesus.
Why did God become human?
What does that mean for us?
Why would anyone object to this?
What do we have to say to those objections?
Athanasius' book is beautifully written, clear and precise and old. Really old.

He wrote in the 4th century. When's the last time you read something so old?

At the beginning of one translation of Athanasius' De Incarnatione, you'll find an introduction from CS Lewis. Before he really gets to talking about the book (which he commends) and the translation (which he admires), Lewis gives this famous piece of advice:
It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.
His reasoning was that, while old books may have their errors, they have different errors from our own. And that God's work in our time is not the only work worth knowing. And that Time filters out books that aren't worth reading. And that old books give us context for current conversations.

And I have found this to be true. I'm shocked at the things Athanasius assumes to be true, curious about the things he considers to be important. The distance from his age to ours shows up on every page. And I love it.

I'm going to try this, this year. To read one old book for every three new ones.

And by "old," I'm going to try to read books written before the Enlightenment, before Luther and Calvin, more than 500 years old.

On my radar are Plato, Augustine, Eusebius, Herodotus, and Josephus.

Two questions:
Who else should I consider reading?
Have you ever tried this?

Prolific, Brilliant and Healthy

One of my favorite podcasts is The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry. He is an excellent interviewer, an insightful coach and someone who has managed to thrive in what he calls "the create-on-demand world."

Part of his mission is to help people who work with their minds - creatives - to be prolific, brilliant and healthy. That is, Todd wants to help people do a lot of work, do great work and to do it in a way that's sustainable.

Over the last couple of years, I feel like I've done great work with InterVarsity and (even if I haven't done great work) I've done a lot of work. Prolific. Okay. Brilliant. Maybe. But healthy? Not so much.

So, in the new year, I'm looking for ways to do my work in a way that's more healthy. This blog has been a huge step in the right direction for my health and sanity.

When I started preaching more intentionally and regularly, the blog gave me a place to share ideas that ended up on the cutting-room floor. It freed me from the guilt of leaving good content out of my sermons and allowed me to preach shorter and shorter sermons (which left everyone happier and me less exhausted).

When we made the move to Florida, I was so lonely, missing my regular conversation partners and not wanting to bore Amy with all of the random thoughts bouncing around in my head, especially not when she had been up to her elbows in poopy diapers and baby burp cloths. Blogging gave me an outlet.

And I'm trying to figure out what role this blog is going to play now.

I don't want it to be an ego extender.
I don't want it to be an obligation.
I don't want it to be a time killer.

Any ideas?


ps. One of the books I'm most looking forward to reading this year is Todd Henry's The Accidental Creative. Check it out and let me know what you think?