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church journey

relationship churn

I’ve been thinking about relationships among the church. If you’ve been in a typical, institutional-type church (like most of us) for any length of time, you’ve probably had some relationships implode, self-destruct, blow up – pick your metaphor. My wife and I certainly have. And one of the things we came to see is that in these environments it’s easy to cast aside good wisdom on growing meaningful relationships in the spirit of doing a task together, seemingly for the Kingdom of God. The ironic thing I see now is that good relationships are the foundation to the Kingdom of God thriving on earth. This is yet another one of those places that the “church business” model has gotten us into trouble.

Here’s how it often goes: We get involved in a church and, going along with the flow, commit ourselves to various large & small group gatherings with perfect strangers, or maybe we know a couple people. Before long we’re signing up to help with various tasks to help the business grow. With the best intentions we are usually quick to put ourselves in very vulnerable situations relationally. There’s the sense that, “hey, we’re all part of the Family of God, right?” And true, openness, honesty, humility – these are core values in the Kingdom of God. We all naturally hunger for relationships that have these qualities. But this whole business is often going way too fast for the proper development of the relationship “container” where these things naturally happen. And sooner or later, either you don’t measure up to someone’s expectations, or someone else doesn’t seem to be the person you thought they were, and a relational crisis happens.

What usually follows is some mixture of fear, anger, blaming, desires for revenge, and many other intense emotions, and it becomes really difficult to sort out what really happened, why it happened, how to fix it, or if it even can be fixed. Depending on how far the vulnerability went, how long the charade had gone on, how relationally vested people were to those involved or the activities you mutually participated in, my observation is that most of the time, the relationships are not fixed.

I’ve been through situations like this a few times. When I finally got off the “church business” merry-go-round long enough to think and pray reflectively about all this, I realized that I was my primary problem. I chose to relate to people at levels far beyond where true trust and rapport had brought us. It was inappropriate for me to place such levels of trust in people so soon. Sure, 20+ years of active participation in growing churches and para-church movements had encouraged bad relational habits. But blaming others only prolongs the necessary steps of growth – I had to learn new habits.

The good news I found is that it really wasn’t that difficult to come into better relating habits as I have allowed God to take me through “detox” out of a church subculture, and the ways of church businesses, and into a simple, more natural, Spirit-led approach to following Jesus. For many years I had to deal with not having very many relationships at all among other followers of Christ because we didn’t have regular times to gather with them – this was when we were first getting started in simple gatherings with other followers. Truly, there were years of despair from the lack of meaningful relationships. But this, too, was formative in helping me detox from bad habits. Even as we started gathering more regularly with others, it took years to see people more than once or twice a month. Tough going relationally, but now I look back and realize God was shepherding me into new, healthier ways of forming long-lasting, meaningful relationships. It’s not so much that I’ve learned how to deal with “blow ups” better, but it’s now very rare that I even find myself in a situation where that can happen. We’re generally not getting ourselves committed beyond the true trust levels. I’ve still had times of unfortunate misunderstandings, and not every situation has come to the desired end. But I’ve come a long way on this path of healthier relating. I’ve been blessed to have special people around me who are either better at this than I, or have had their own years of relationship churn among the church, and God is shepherding them to new places as well, so the commitment levels to “go slow” are mutual.

I could summarize the lessons as:

  • God is not in a hurry, and it’s best if we aren’t either. Go slow with relationships. Let the pace be natural, easy, peaceful. Pay attention to warning signs, where something feels inappropriate or rushed. I think one of the biggest factors contributing to relational crisis is going too fast in the initial trust-forming years. Don’t allow yourself to be coerced to go faster than what is right for you. When in doubt, wait.
  • Let the relational risks you take be small at first, and appropriate to allow both you and the other to gain levels of confidence in each other. Don’t inappropriately invest yourself in a relationship beyond where the trust levels really are.
  • Allow yourself to have a certain amount of thick skin. We all do and say things we regret later. And sometimes communication is presented and received such that the end result is nothing that either party intended. If the relationship is worth it to us, I think we’ll all have times where we’ll have to simply overlook the offense and move on, choosing to love the other person and forget the offense.
  • Don’t pretend. Don’t pretend to be at a different level of trust, appreciation, rapport, etc. with someone than where you really are. Don’t pretend you feel fine about participating in a level of activity with people that you really don’t feel right about. Be completely honest with yourself. God leads us through our guts most of the time. Pay attention to your guts.
  • When the void for relationships is strong in your life, and you’re doing all the things you know are right, I find the best thing to do with the loneliness is to let it drive you deeper into your relationship with God, who is always present. At the right time he will bring us meaningful relationships if we are steadfast and wise in our growth. By then our vision and understanding of right & wrong in this area will be all the more precise.

I’ve come to believe that doing well in this area of relationships is foundational to our quest to “be the church.”

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church journey

on being a missionary

I’d like to say a little more on my thoughts on being a missionary today. It’s really tied up with how my wife and I see the bigger picture of spreading the kingdom of heaven throughout the earth. We don’t have every angle covered here – far from it. But it’s something we’ve recently been thinking over again.

If we felt God leading us to be in Vietnam, China, or any other country, I would assume that I would take up work there and we’d become like normal citizens and contributors back to the community where we lived, then let the Lord reveal himself through us living our lives right along side others in our domain. Our first inclination would be to do exactly what we’re doing right now, only in another country. We’re being the church, and continue growing into being the church, in every way he leads us. God has us here in the pacific northwest of USA, but we don’t have a different understanding of what it means to be the church for different places of the planet. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog some related thoughts on this topic.

A fundamental belief of mine is that people everywhere need to see what the loving Father in heaven is like, and they see it by interactions with us of many kinds, a primary one being watching is go through the same life they go through, yet consistently, day after month after year, there’s something different in our lives. It’s the kindness of God poured out on us, and since we’re living under the same life burdens as others, they see a gospel that they can embrace. It’s essentially the message of Jesus’ life, who humbled himself and became like us, was tempted in the same ways yet without sin, and seeing this we are further enabled to embrace his Father as our own.

As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” In my own words, God wants to dump his kindness on us, in front of others, to show everyone what kind of Father he really is, so they’ll want him too, and he’ll get the chance to have relationship with them.

Now, we realize many followers of Jesus have chosen to try living in other countries on a long-term basis with a different approach than finding gainful employment in a community there. This usually amounts to some form of raising financial support from the generosity of others who are employed, and thus is similar to the concept of “full-time Christian work.” We have dear friends that we love and respect who do this. We don’t have to all agree on this stuff to stay side by side in the Kingdom. But the way they are going about trying to live in the foreign country is not the first approach we would naturally take ourselves, and so it is not aligned with the natural flows of our faith and passion for being the church in our world today. It’s in these situations that we often find the best we can do to support them is simply pray that God make his way clear to them and bless their faith and obedience to him.

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church journey

the years ahead, by the Spirit of God

As I’ve been thinking over all the areas of the church where I’ve sensed God trying to bring correction in me, I believe they all have their root in the same thing – living by the sinful nature. Take a look at the blog category names that I’m using to characterize church activity that I’ve done in the past, yet I now see in a negative light: full-time christian work, money, christian subculture, church businesses. I’m still working through thoughts on this, and I plan to use this blog as a way to log my way through topics and scripture as I continue to seek the Lord on it and dialogue about it with my wife and friends. But at this point I can say that it’s looking like the distasteful aspects of church activity are coming from my sinful nature. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the God of this universe gave us a Savior, Jesus, to help us out of that, and he gives us his Spirit of wisdom and revelation that Paul talks about in his letter to the Ephesians, so that we can “get it” when it comes to living by the Spirit. Perhaps knowing what a good steak tastes like is first being really clear about what a bad one tastes like. I’ve had both, and I’m learning to discern the difference quicker. I’ve tasted of living by his Spirit, and I want all of it that God has for my family and I, and as many as will walk with us, as we go forward. As I see it, I lost over 2 decades trying to follow Jesus mostly – though not entirely – out of the sinful nature. I’ve had periods of pause when God did a significant retooling of my heart, and the last 10 years have been the most significant ever. I’m sure there will always be the unlearning and re-learning as long as we’re on earth. But I’m committed to spending as much of the life before me – personal thought & prayer, marriage, family, work, other relationships, and doing the works of the kingdom of heaven – all out of living by the Spirit of God.

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church journey

living by the spirit: the way of a believer in Jesus

I’ve been pondering over this thing of living by the Spirit of God, and getting practical real-life understanding and words around what that really means. I’m planning to explore various aspects of this as I spend time thinking, pondering, musing over it with God’s Spirit, the bible, my wife, and friends. I’m seeing more and more that there are really two options for us: live by the Spirit of God, or live by our sinful nature. The interesting part for me is that I’m realizing that MUCH of what has been considered normal living for followers of Jesus is actually living by the sinful nature, and I’ve been duped into not recognizing it as such. So for the sake of getting some clarity on the practical part of “what does this really look like” as God brings wisdom on it, I will likely draw some comparisons of the two in the midst of common scenarios for us believers today.

The focus for this research project came to me when I recently read this in Paul’s letter to the Roman believers:

“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.”

and,

“Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”

I’ve concluded that I am living largely out of the sinful nature at this time in my life. Being a parent of small children (3 and 5), is helping me see this! But the good news is that there’s so much to look forward to as God pulls me more and more into living by his Spirit.

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church journey

the blindness is deeper than imagined

It’s tough work dealing with the staining that we’ve taken from the practices of church businesses and the christian subculture, and not everyone comes to the same conclusions. Think of stained wood. Stain seeps into the grain and goes deep. It is not removed by a simple sanding. It may take a long time – several applications of stain remover, and several sandings – to ever get it out. And even then, you may always deal with a residual. This is how I think of our challenge in the church today, after 1700 years of this yuck. The better foundation we allow God to lay in us now, the farther along will be the generations that follow.

My experience detoxing is teaching me that we seriously benefit from thinking long and hard about ALL the issues with church businesses. I’m finding that a huge hurdle for many is cutting the heart strings attached to the business – personal identity in it, a paycheck, a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in the roles played, etc. These are things given by God in the context of our earthly labors (Eccl 5), but they get us twisted up and confused when done in the context of the kingdom of heaven. I want to take as much time as needed for God to unravel it all inside of me. I want to let heavenly light ruthlessly expose blindness, which runs much deeper than I imagined. This detox journey isn’t a switch to a different methodology (eg, from institutional church with leadership hierarchy to home-based church with everyone on a level playing field), but a major cleansing and revitalizing of our hearts and thinking. There’s a complete language that has to be unlearned, and a new one to replace it. I only see pieces of where God is taking us. Sometimes I get spun up wanting to begin building again with these alone, but then I’m thankful for friends that remind me it would only mean facing tear-downs again, and that it really is His church, He’s the head of it, He’s the one true discipler of it. It’s His Spirit that causes it to grow. There’s a significant risk of syncretism with a rush to presume arrival rather than fully embracing the journey.

A design flaw in the very idea of church businesses is the need to gain legitimacy by providing some kind of goods or services – like solving other people’s problems & puzzles, being their answer, a benevolent mediator, an institution to depend on – which is what earthly work is all about, designed by God for earthly life. But when the same ideas are applied to the kingdom of heaven, wrong things happen that we didn’t foresee – such as the blunting of our awareness of their need to know and hear God’s voice for ourselves. I doubt many in the church businesses intended this. I didn’t either, but I contributed to it nonetheless. John the baptist knew better – he didn’t get between the Groom and his bride. When we love Jesus and his church, we have the same response as John, “I must decrease, He must increase.” Beware the trap of being the answer to someone’s question.

My encouragement to those of us on the detox journey is to be ruthless about getting free from the church business mindset. Consider taking 2-3 years off this activity. If you aren’t there already, consider gainful employment in a “normal” job outside the christian subculture. I have yet to see anyone truely clear themselves of bias regarding church businesses and the christian subculture as long as their livelihood is tied to it. And then try simply asking God what’s important to him. Let’s humbly posture ourselves as those who know nothing, and see what God will do. Let’s not be in a hurry. I have never sensed that he is.

At times I have suggested that starting church gatherings is tough work and not everyone is the pioneer that it requires. I’m rethinking this. Could it be that the common (mis)understanding of what church gatherings “should be” has over-burdened the many into thinking they’re dependent on the few to do it? Did Jesus really intend for “two or more” gatherings to be that difficult? 10 years into detox and I’m seeing brand new areas of blindness in me. If you can organize a birthday party, you can gather with 1 or 2 others and share your thoughts regarding God and church. If you can call a plumber to come fix a leak in your pipes…if you can use a map to drive anyplace you’ve never been….if you can hear a new word and begin using it in a sentence…if you can try out some new software on a computer…if you can walk into a new restaurant and order off the menu….then you can find 1 or 2 people and begin talking about your questions regarding God and church and ask him to show you his answers. Jesus said, “where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” And presto, you’ve got a church gathering!  It’s so easy to make this WAY over-complicated.

My wife and I began with the two of us. We had just moved to the area and knew nobody. We’d helped plant a few church businesses in previous years, but now felt like we’d been on the wrong bus. So we spent Sunday mornings at a nearby food court in a mall, sipping tea and coffee and talking about God, church, his word, worship, the Spirit, what’s a Christian, you name it. It went on for 2-3 years. One thing led to another and for the last 6 years we’ve been gathering with 4-5 families at least a couple times a month. We’ve done two annual retreats together. We’re growing into more of what it means to be the church with each passing year. We’re connecting with others all around us who are on the same journey. We’re living faith on the front lines, and seeing God use us for his purposes. Our kids are growing up together under this entirely simple concept of church life. We’re learning things we can’t even articulate yet. Growth happens and sometimes we only know it in the rear view mirror – “hey, we’re not as bitter as we used to be…” We’re not clever, and we’re only a slice of the pie of what it means to be the body of Christ.

It’s my view that it could be generations before we have many post-detox “elders” among us. Now is the time for letting the purifying finger of God leave no stone unturned in our hearts, so he can lay a foundation that others will stand on. My prayer is that my children’s children know the answers to these current struggles by the time they are 5 years old :-).