Monday, October 05, 2009

Update your link

In case you still haven't done it, please update your bookmarks and/or links to catch my blog at its new location:


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

New Book Look, New Blog Location

Two announcements for anyone following what I post these days:

1. New book revision on the way! I've had plenty to think about the last few months, so of course there's lots to write about. The new version of Christ In Y'all is about 40 pages longer, has a new chapter, and represents an updated version of how I'm thinking about things these days. Check out the cover design Brad Thomas came up with for me:

Pretty cool, huh? Looks professional now. A bit less homemade :-)

2. I'm moving my blog to WordPress, so from now on you'll need to access this blog from this site:

Saturday, August 08, 2009

First Day of School, First Broken Arm

The three older girls had their first day of school this week. So here's our annual first day of school pic:

We also went to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta to get a for-real cast put on Dorothy's broken arm. We decided Dora needed a cast, too. So now she's got one (you have to look close!) That Dorothy still loves her tongue!

You have to admit, she does look really cute walking around with that tiny little sling. People everywhere involuntarily say "aawwwww" wherever she goes.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Long Evening at the Carter House

Our toddler, Dorothy, gives me fits these days because she's always on the verge of something dangerous. I'm not even sure how she worked this one out, but she got up on our piano bench when our backs were turned and she fell off, apparently twisting her arm and breaking it.

Her sisters were pretty concerned as we hauled her off to the doctor and then to the emergency room. But thankfully their grandparents had just arrived in town, so we had help with the older three while April and I were at the hospital.

It was a tough evening, but all's well that ends well. Dorothy got some supper (at 9:30pm!) and sat with Grandmama watching her new favorite show, Dora.

I'm going to sleep.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Ohio Trip 12: Four Meetings and an Epiphany

Day Nine of my trip gave me the opportunity to attend for different meetings of Grace Gathering.


Corporate worship at Grace Gathering (GG) happens on Sunday morning in a multi-purpose gym/meeting hall with concert-style lighting, commercial grade carpet, and tons of round tables for gathering around during the service. And while the praise band led worship from the stage, the pastor spoke from the middle of the floor, which I thought was great. There's an unspoken message communicated in the arrangement of a room, and having the preacher address the congregation like this really says something.

Chris's message was about using a variety of forms of expression for worship. It was interactive. It began with a call for people to share personalized Psalms they had written the week before, and three people took advantage of the open mic to read theirs to the whole congregation. I loved that. My only disappointment was that he cut it off after only three. I wanted to hear many more. But I guess he had a lot more to say, and only so much time to say it. After he spoke about raising hands or clapping during worship, we sang a song and did what he suggested. After he spoke about laying prostrate before God in worship, we spread out and did just that. I thought that was pretty well done. He encouraged all who were in attendance to go home to their home churches and try putting these forms into practice. Clearly there was fundamental integration between the equipping ministry of the teaching pastor and the work-it-out-in-real-life function of the house church here at GG. As my hosts, the Heckleys, told me, the HC setting "gets trumpeted" from the pulpit (or gym floor) every week. And that's what it takes. The guy up front's gotta believe in it, or it just won't fly.


After "big church" (as we called it growing up) I had the pleasure of joining one of the small groups for their meeting in one of the rooms at the church building. Because this group specializes in ministering to people with special needs, they use the church's handicap-accessible facilities for their meetings. Today they were having a party, and I had a good time. One new friend wandered in looking for some company and found a room full of accepting folks. Since he had lost his wife several months ago, he was clearly still hurting and looking for some fellowship and encouragement. He seemed to have found it the moment he walked in. I was touched by that.

I was also touched by the warmth and encouragement of the group as prayer concerns and updates were offered. The fellowship and community-knitting was evident to me, an it was like water for my soul. We prayed for one another, ate some pizza, and played Mad Gabs and laughed a lot. It was a good party, with some very sweet people. I'm glad Scott recommended visiting them.


Immediately after that the leaders of all the HC's at GG got together to talk about their progress in the transition from "attractional" to "incarnational" (those aren't their words, I borrowed them from somewhere else). I was glad to sit in on this meeting as well, because I got to see some of the downside to this task. There was some notable discouragement apparent in the group, as many of them were struggling to transfer ownership of the small group from the leaders to the rest of the Body. This is where the rubber meets the road, and it takes some outstanding ministry to change folks from passive spectators to active participants in the work of the church.

My suspicion is that it takes a heavy dose of high, deep revelation from the gospel to make this transition happen well, and I just didn't hang around long enough to figure out if that has been a part of their experience. Let me digress from the leaders' meeting for a second to explain what I mean:

The Rest of the Gospel

The way I see it, the gospel is not just a short story, with four or five bullet points telling you how to "get saved" and go to heaven. The gospel, as I understand it, is a much larger story that begins with God seeking to establish a family on Earth whom He will inhabit, and through whom He express Himself in visible, tangible ways. This is what Christ came to accomplish, and it doesn't stop when you get saved--it's only just begun.

I think that larger story, when grasped and communicated in all its vast richness, FUELS the mission of the church in such a way that your methodology becomes so much less important then what drives the activity of the church. More to the point, I think a church can major on pragmatic goals, structures, methods, and measurements, and never really hit that "sweet spot" that I'm talking about.

When you hit a golf ball right, it makes this beautiful "click" noise, and you have to feel it to know exactly what I'm talking about. That's what happens when the ball and the club come together the right way. All the golf lessons in the world won't fix your game until you discover what hitting on that "sweet spot" feels like.

It's kind of like that. When a group of people really SEE what it means to be in Christ and for Him to be in them, as a them, it changes everything. It opens up a world of ministry that wouldn't make sense in any other context. Folks have to see what it means to be the Body of Christ. It's like an epiphany. You mind shifts and suddenly you look at the church in a totally new way.

Folks at GG (and Apex and anywhere else) will have to be struck by this realization. Something has to click in place in their minds before the church really "gets it" and becomes what she was meant to be. I've known this for a long time. But what's new to me at the moment is the possibility that our actions may sometimes precede our thinking just as readily as the other way around. I was taught that belief always precedes action, and that you have to change how people think before you can change how they behave. Nowadays I'm not so dogmatic about this. I'm beginning to wonder if it's just as likely that you can initiate new behavior and watch it gradually lead to a changed way of thinking. In other words, belief and behavior are symbiotic, just like the different corners of the triangle from the last post. Sometimes one precedes the other, but sometimes it's the other way around. I dunno. Just something I'm processing these days.

The upshot of all this is that I still think churches need a significant amount of ministry from its leaders in order to equip them to do the work of the church (see Ephesians 4:11-16). I still think that ministry needs to be heavily soaked in the "bigger Christ" and the "bigger cross" that I wrote about in Christ In Y'all. But then, that's why you write a book, isn't it? Because you believe in something?


My visit with GG ended with a visit to one last HC, this time at the home of Brad and Heather Thomas. This group felt more familiar to me than so many previous ones this week because these were all young families with small kids. Their logistical struggles were similar to ours (what do you do with/for all these kids?!). But this group felt like they are still figuring out what they're about, in a way. The leaders of this group still hold the reins, and they've got a long way to go for that to no longer be the case.

What encouraged me most about this is that they know this is their objective. They discussed that shift in functioning from the leadership to the rest of the Body, and that means they're light years ahead of so many other churches who don't even know that's their goal. There's a significant hurdle to jump when it comes to this transfer of leadership and it remains to be seen whether it can be done on this scale all at once.

Which is easier: Starting small, with a single small group, building in the distributed leadership from the beginning and building outward from the first group, or taking a medium-sized church (with several hundred people) and rolling out a transition plan for all of them en masse? The latter would take some serious patience, humility, and a very slow pace in order to be done well.

And the former? Well not everybody has the luxury of starting from scratch, or the gifting for it. I sure see some benefit to being a part of a larger support network from the beginning. Starting small from scratch means starting with precious few resources. Maybe it's a different story in the midst of a nation-wide revival (e.g. Xenos in the Jesus Movement), but what about right now? What about in the South, where more people trust the validity of an established church than some fly-by-night rogue folks starting their own thing?

Like I said, still processing...

On a personal note, I enjoyed hanging out some with Brad Thomas, who reminds me of me in a lot of ways. Only he's got real design skills, and designs logos for a living. So I asked him to come up with a new cover design for my book (and this blog). I've wanted that since the very beginning, and now it looks like the Lord provided somebody to fill that need. Woohoo! You should see a way cooler book redesign soon, so stay tuned. I'll also be revising the book in order to account for some of the shift in my thinking over the last year or two. I hope to have it ready in time to send to the next House Church conference in Dallas.

There's so much more that can be said upon reflection about this trip. It'll take me a while to unpack and digest all that I saw and heard along the way. But I'll try to tie it all together a little in the final post in this series.

In the meantime, I leave you with a couple of photos I snapped on my way out of Indiana early Monday morning.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ohio Trip 11: Ft. Wayne, Indiana

Welcome to Ft. Wayne, Indiana, where the corn is as high as an elephant's eye...

My final church to visit was Grace Gathering, a traditional community church still early in the process of transitioning to the home church model. Unlike the last three churches, who seemed to be "winging it" for the most part, Grace Gathering is following a model borrowed form a famously innovative church called St. Thom's in Sheffield, England. These guys have really done their homework. I spent part of an evening chatting with Scott Jester, the House Church (HC) coordinator for the church, and he caught me up on the story:

While Grace Gathering (GG) has long been into tweaking their organizational structure (previously they divided up into several mini-congregations), their foray into the house church model followed on the heels of a visit to England in order to learn from St. Thom's. Both Scott and Chris Norman, GG's teaching pastor, spent a good bit of time researching models and ideologies in order to find the right fit for their church. Once again, I am reminded that this kind of transition requires that the "up front" people buy into this vision or else it won't fly at all.

And like Apex in Dayton, these folks found that the transitional period unavoidably leads to a thinning out of the congregation. Some folks like just sitting in a pew, thank you, very much! They don't want to be thrown into a living room where they're suddenly expected to function in some way other than taking up space. Perhaps the stories of Apex and GG warn us that churches need lots of "transitional ministry," where the newer, decentralized model gets an extensive introduction, and where fundamental mindsets about church get challenged "from the pulpit" as it were. But again, that throws a good bit of responsibility back on the leaders, who will likely be improvising so much that they wish they had a script or an outline to follow once in a while.

I think both churches (Apex and Grace Gathering) illustrate the importance of getting help from other people (or groups) who have already implemented some of this decentralization themselves. Apex has gleaned some from Xenos and from the previous HC experience of a couple of their elders. Grace Gathering very studiously sought out examples, models, and even consultants who specialize in helping churches do this kind of thing. This transition is NOT EASY. It's messy, and you'll quite certainly lose folks in the process. But counting nickels and noses can't be too important to you if you're going this route, so maybe folks know to expect that already.

When numerical growth necessitated that GG build a new meeting facility, they kept it minimalistic. Their building consists primarily of a single meeting hall (which is actually a gym with indoor/outdoor carpet and a stage) attached to an inviting coffee house-style foyer, plus a few smaller meeting rooms for smaller groups and kids programs. One medium-sized room houses the kids worship meeting, and there's a cool little den with some video games hooked up to an LCD projector.

Grace Gathering borrows heavily form St. Thom's conceptual world, tossing around phrases like "low control, high accountability," plotting their course according to four stages of growth (which I found pretty instructive as well), and perhaps most helpful of all, borrowing Mike Breen's triangular UP, IN, and OUT visual in order to balance out the priorities of the church. As long as nobody sues me for it, I'll be stealing these things myself, thank you!

Each home church that forms within their network is expected to develop a "missional focus"--a ministry to a specific target like troubled teens, or low-income immigrants, or a food bank. And in time most of them do. Following the advice of Kent Hunter (aka The Church Doctor) a while back they decided to group their HC's together according to missional focus. So now there is a cluster of churches ministering to the needs of a sizable local Burmese population, another cluster serving with Angel Food ministry, and another working with a local youth center, etc. This way, the separate groups don't feel quite so isolated in their ministries and they can draw strength from each other's numbers. Pretty cool idea, I think.

As fabulous as all this looks on paper, I still have some reservations about how they're going about it all. I'll need to save that for another post. But for now, I have to compliment my hosts, Todd and Sue Heckley, for their entertaining conversation and their warm hospitality.

And for letting me come stay a couple of nights in their home, which was just a few hundred yards from the church campus (very convenient!).

Monday, July 27, 2009

Ohio Trip 10: Reflecting on Columbus

One of the things I look for when I visit a group is the effect it has on a person after a decade or more. I'm not particularly interested in how great things look after a year or two. How does a person fare after 10-12 years in a church? That's something worth noting. That's also why my ears perked up when a member of Xenos asked Ajith Fernando about how to maintain lifelong relationships when your home groups reconstruct and reproduce every three to four years (as they do with Xenos).

This commitment to duplication/multiplication is largely responsible for Xenos' enormous size and successfulness (they've got over 4000 members, most of whom are regularly plugged into 270 house churches!). But something is lost when you keep multiplying so many times over again. As this sister admitted to me later, you can only connect at such a deep level so many times before you can't really do it so well anymore. You become close to people over a period of years only to have them redistributed in order to start a new group with a new set of people. And with schedules as busy as they have, there's not really any space left for maintaining relationships outside of your most immediate relational commitments.

Consider, for example, a sample Xenos member's weekly commitments: You and your spouse meet with a house church one night a week, but you also lead a group of college students in their house meeting another night. You attend a "central teaching" once a week at the main campus along with the rest of the house churches in your "sphere" (cluster). Your children attend different central teachings and home groups, though, and since one is a high school student and the other is an elementary student, they keep two different gathering schedules, too.

But that's not all. Since a good "xenoid" also disciples people, you've also got a weekly meeting with at least one younger believer for prayer, counsel, and teaching. You will likely also meet occasionally with others who are discipling folks in what are known as "workers' meetings." Add to that one purely social outreach event a month and a prayer meeting or two and BAM! You're burnt out in a few years. It just seems a bit over the top to me. And since those groups regularly subdivide as a matter of principal, I can see how lifelong relationships would be really hard to maintain. And one of Ajith's main points was that the church should be providing a witness that's counter-cultural, resisting the fragmented, frenzied style of life to which we've all become so accustomed. Needless to say, that sister's question caught my attention and confirmed a lurking suspicion.

To be fair, I should admit that some seem to be managing this kind of busy-ness with grace and competence. My young hosts, Jim and Lisa, seemed quite contented with their commitments and spoke highly of the lifestyle in which they have lived for several years. When I asked them about burn out, they countered that a life of giving yourself over for others tends to be replenished by the Lord so that there's always enough of you to go around. Once again, I found that both encouraging and challenging. I only want to see how families with several kids balance this kind of schedule without losing something in the process.


I believe it was Mike Breen (more on him in a later post) who developed the triangular conceptual framework for church life. You see an adapted version in the image below.

We have three dimensions in which we travel, or three directions: UP, IN, and OUT. UP refers to our worship, IN refers to our fellowship within the Body of Christ, and OUT refers to our outreach and our interaction with the world around us. Apex calls these Gathering (IN), Growing (UP), and Going (OUT). They're both useful frameworks, so I'll be adopting the basic idea for a while.

My contention is that every church seems to choose one of these three dimensions to emphasize. The other two merely serve the third and at least one is bound to suffer as a result. My group has always stressed the UP direction at the expense of the other two, especially the OUT dimension. I believe Xenos stresses the OUT at the expense of the IN. I see the potential for alot of burn-out among members of a church which neglects deep and lasting peer relationships in the interest of always growing, duplicating, expanding the kingdom.

Maybe I'm way off here. I'm significantly open to that possibility at this juncture of my life. But I might as well admit my bias. I suppose time will tell if I'm off or not.

The way I'm thinking about it, those three aspects of the life of the church are symbiotic, and need to be in balance with one another. Without the UP, you lose the motivation for both the IN and the OUT. Without the IN, you burn out chasing the OUT and the UP. And without the OUT, the IN becomes stagnant and the UP weakens, too. They feed one another.

Well, anyway, the conference ended on a good note, with an encouraging message from Gary DeLashmutt, one of the lead pastors of Xenos. He spoke about keeping Joy in your life, which felt like a perfect message for the moment somehow. Maybe I'll write more about that another time. It tracked for me personally because I'm in a place of needing to rediscover the joy of knowing God, perhaps as it so naturally comes in introducing people to Him for the first time (or maybe even re-introducing people who forgot that there's more of Him to know). And it tracks for Xenos because, as I've supposed already, the emotional side of life may be missing from their experience these days. Either way, Gary is highly spoken of among those I spoke with, and he didn't disappoint.

After the last meeting let out (around 10pm!) a group of college students who ordinarily meet with my hosts, Jim and Lisa Long, showed up. Incidentally, Jim and Lisa were very kind and helpful to me during my stay in Columbus, and I hope to keep in touch them over time. It's too bad I didn't get time to visit one of their "ministry houses," which at Xenos is how students are grouped together, like church-organized dorms. College ministry (and student ministry in general) is a big part of the life of this church, so that was on my to-visit list. But I only had so much time...

I had a good time hanging out with them that evening, especially since we spent way too much time engaging in one of my favorite pastimes: quoting movie lines from every conceivable genre until your eyelids get too heavy to keep it up.

If I ever get to come back to Xenos again, I'll be sure to visit at a time when I can sit in on more home church meetings, since that's what I came for. But the conference was challenging, and thought-provoking. Well worth my time.

Ohio Trip 9: Urban Concern

The second day of the Xenos conference began with a talk from a former teacher of the church, Lee Campbell, on suffering in the book of Job. He did a great job of pointing out how Job's friends didn't have a bad encouragement plan to begin with--they just flubbed it up after they got very far into it, and they had some bad theology in there, too.

What struck me most was that they invested a good bit of their time and resources to spend time with Job in his loss, even to the point of sitting with him a whole week without saying a word. Lee explained that rabbinic tradition calls this "sitting shiva" (sitting a week). It's significant because it simply involves moving with the sufferer, being with them and feeling what he/she feels, because that's what is needed more than advice or platitudes (which Job's friends couldn't resist offering later). When C.S. Lewis lost his wife, he said he wanted most to be around lots of people who would just "leave him alone". I think I get that. Anyway, it was a great talk, and you can download it for free here.

The rest of the day took a decidedly urban-missional direction for me. I had signed up to tour Xenos' urban mission over lunch, and it was an encouraging tour to take. Nearly 20 years ago some folks from Xenos took an interest in ministering to a poor urban neighborhood close to the Ohio State University campus. Today there are house churches, after-school programs, and an easily affordable Christian school in that neighborhood. The Harambee School, financed jointly by Xenos and by government grants, serves to educate about 100 kids from K-5th grade. And while other schools in the area can only get about 20% of their kids to pass the state tests, Harambee's kids are passing at a rate of 67%. That's pretty fantastic! They must be doing really good work.

On the tour we heard from James Brown, the director of the larger urban mission, and Alex Steinman, the principal of the school. They explained how the church engages the neighborhood holistically, not merely babysitting kids for a few hours each day, but ministering to entire families, entering into their lives where they live. Families invest huge chunks of time, many of them permanently moving into the neighborhood. Over time they've built lasting relationships with area residents, including the crack dealers on whose turf they're treading. Ironically, they seem to get a warmer reception from the thugs than they do from the local churches, who hardly give them any help in their work (most of those churches are comprised of members who commute from far away). Somehow that's funny and disgusting at the same time.

Back at the conference, I attended a workshop entitled "Untying the Urban Knot." Lisa Gintz told us of her own relocation to a poor urban segment of town, and of the subsequent validation of her ministry that produced in the eyes of the residents. She, too, found that the local criminals warmed to her presence so that now her house is the safest place on the block. The drug lords warn their underlings not to touch her place because they like her, and they trust her. When asked by conference-goers if she felt safe there, she replied, "The safest place in the world to be is in the middle of God's will." Well put. And she's definitely earned the right to speak about urban ministry.

The gist of her presentation was that building incarnational relationships is the only way to truly impact a community. It takes years to earn the trust of people who have learned so much distrust. And it takes years to learn how to relate to people from a culture so different from your own. One helpful bit of advice she gave was to start by reaching out to people within your own culture before you make the leap to people in a significantly different one. We tend to romanticize "ministry to the needy," so there's quite a revolving door in urban ministry. People come dreamy-eyed and last for a year or two then give up. They too often come solo, too, and that's a recipe for burnout as well.

In the end I was encouraged and challenged to see and hear from those who have built their lives around giving to others. None of them struck me as highly religious or legalistic about it, but seemed genuinely and organically compelled to be doing what they're doing.

There were other workshops that day, but I've written enough for now. Next, I'll briefly tell about the conclusion to the summer institute and the home group that gathered afterwards, then I'll move on to the last church I visited: Grace Gathering.