2009 April

For many would-be ministers, missionaries, and church planters, a full-time, paid position is not going to happen. Some might intentionally reject the paid-clergy model. Others might just not be able to raise the kind of funding that would allow them to quit their day jobs. Either way, lots of ministers are looking for ways to support themselves.

Here’s the problem, though- your Bible College degree in Religion and your seminary-conferred M.Div. may have prepared you for professional ministry, but business? Not so much. Your years of church work and missions haven’t exactly provided you with a lot of “marketable skills.”

Or have they?

In my last post, I pointed you to Apartment Life, a company that arranges free housing for believers who will commit to building a sense of community among tenants. I mentioned that community development would be a great platform for church planters and incarnational ministry. Beyond the creative access platforms they provide, however, Apartment Life offers us something else: An example.

What do you have to offer that people in your community might find valuable, important, or worthwhile? How about your leadership abilities? You’re a whiz at sensing needs and developing a plan to meet them. You can communicate clearly and motivate people to change their behavior. Integrity is important to you. You’re good with money (yours and other people’s), you believe in accountability, honesty, hard work, and sacrifice. You know how to gather and build community. You know right from wrong, and you know how to encourage people to do what’s right.

You have valuable skills! Why not use them to interact with unbelievers in a natural and beneficial way?

Frank Daly went from being a priest in the Catholic Church to being chief ethics officer at Northrop Grumman, a southern California defense contractor. Instead of waiting for people to come into his church to confess their sins, he went to them.

In fact, lots of companies are hiring ethics officers.  Many are setting up internal ethics hotlines, and others are outsourcing ethics counseling to independent services. Business are willing to invest lots of money to fight theft, corporate espionage, fraud, and lawsuits. Ethics officers make themselves available to counsel employees who might face an ethical dilemma. Identities and confessions are kept confidential, but eventually provide the business with reports on potential trouble spots that need to be addressed and recommend ways the business can keep things on the up and up.

Most businesses work to retain customers and clients- something you do every day by listening, teaching, encouraging, and meeting needs. Why not offer those services to a local coffee shop? Your community-building efforts could translate into regular customers and same-store sales, for the business. Apartment complexes, high school and college campuses, even local businesses, all benefit from a sense of community. Best of all, your services would provide you with a platform to build relationships with unbelievers and impact your city.

You’ve put together a thousand posters, flyers, and t-shirts. How many local businesses can’t afford to hire professional graphic design and branding services? craigslist is full of requests for charity fund-raisers, after-school tutors, or campaign managers. You could do those jobs in your sleep!

I’m not suggesting that we sell ethics, community development, or even pastoral care. I am saying that there are real-world applications for your skills and knowledge. Something like ethics counseling, community development, or  might provide a great part-time job for a church planter or a great free ministry your church can provide for your community.

Christians need to start thinking like missionaries. You can lead the way by putting your marketable skills into practice for something outside the church.

apartment-building-location-3412632In missiological terms, it’s called a “platform.” It’s how you enter into the community, what you do, how you present yourself, in order to make a connection. Many missionaries aren’t “missionaries” at all, but doctors, teachers, businessmen, artists, social activists. A good platform allows for natural interaction with the people to whom you’re ministering while leaving you with enough time to connect socially. Everyone in ministry needs a platform.

Apartment Life is an example of a great platform. Millions of people, especially in unchurched urban areas, live in apartments and multi-unit housing. The owners of these properties stand to make lots of money, but only if they can retain their tenants. Studies have shown that building a sense of community among residents can raise the level of retention. In other words, people will stay in an apartment complex if they have friends there. They may even be inclined to pay more in monthly rent, take better care of the property, and actively recruit potential tenants.

picture-3-2638428Enter Apartment Life. They place believers into apartment complexes in order to build a sense of community among residents. In exchange for welcoming new tenants, organizing community events, and making friends in the complex, you get to live there for free. Kind of like a property manager, but with relationships. It turns out that the cost of fixing trashed apartments, finding new tenants, kicking out deadbeats, and making people feel safe adds up to a lot more than what you would pay in rent each month. Apartment Life brokers a deal with property owners based on the idea that your presence adds value to their business.

This is one of the most creative and promising endeavors I’ve ever heard about. If you’re in any sort of incarnational ministry, whether it’s to urban professionals, immigrants, or the working poor, odds are they live in apartments. A great way to incarnate the gospel is to move into the neighborhood. Church planters could easily make this their platform for planting a church. (For a great example of apartment complex church planting, check out Mission Arlington.) You’ve got natural access to people, total property owner permission to throw parties and interact with tenants, and you don’t have to pay rent. You’re not limited to existing Apartment Life opportunities, either. If you need a place to live and you can proactively build community, send them an email requesting that they set something up in your area. Already living in an apartment? They might be able to broker a deal where you already live.

Brilliant.

driscoll-4146917Obviously, I’m not Mark Driscoll. I couldn’t be, even if I tried. The man is an amazing communicator, a fearless preacher of the scriptures. Through his sermons, interviews, debates, and seminars, Pastor Mark makes the Truth understandable, accessible, and applicable for thousands of people on a regular basis.

Beyond the teachings of Mark Driscoll is the persona of Mark Driscoll. The dynamic pastor of Seattle-based Mars Hill Church doesn’t just set an example for young pastors across the country, he’s a role model. The regular-guy with working-class roots who’s cool but tries not to try too hard. He’s into music and art, pop culture, theology, and sports. In my interactions with pastors and church planters everywhere, I’ve met several who are Mark Driscoll fanboys, choker necklaces and all.

While I could never build and maintain a megachurch like Mark has, I’d love to step into his role for just a day. For one day, instead of Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill (and the hundreds of churches it influences) would get me- a burnt-out former church planting missionary to Western Europe. For that one day, here’s what I’d do:

I’d start the morning with a staff meeting. I have no idea what sort of leadership team Mars Hill has, but I’d call in all the elders and pastors to tell them the big news: Mars Hill is selling their building(s). The goal would be to sell or give away all of their properties by the end of the day. Why? Because Mars Hill has a vision of growing their church to 50,000 disciples by the year 2019, and getting rid of the walls and grounds that tie them down would really pave the way for that to happen. Buildings only create bottlenecks in the expansion of the kingdom. If they publicized the sell off/giveaway, they’d give instant credibility to their claim that the Church is the people, not the building.  Giving some of the locations away to local nonprofits and needy people would be another opportunity to put into action what they already believe about grace, compassion, and social justice.

Next, I’d resign as pastor of Mars Hill Church. Not that Driscoll isn’t a good pastor or great communicator- he is. But that’s precisely why he should resign. For nearly ten years now, Driscoll has served an apostolic role in evangelical circles; writing, teaching, leading, and casting vision. He spends hours per week in study and sermon preparation, and it shows. If you  haven’t seen Mark field questions on the fly via SMS, you really need to. His wit, and wisdom, fueled by his knowledge of scripture (and what seems to be an inability to filter his thoughts before voicing them) are really nothing short of divine gifting.

Which is why he should resign. Mark isn’t the pastor of Mars Hill Church. He’s a spiritual entrepreneur and visionary. He’s not a people person. I’ve never met him personally, but I suspect that Driscoll doesn’t care about your sick aunt or your new job. He’s probably not going to sit for hours by your side as you work through your marriage. No, Mark Driscoll needs to quit calling himself a “pastor” and reframe his role for what he is- an apostolic leader for the Church. Look at his aggressive expansion of Mars Hill through the opening of new campuses and video venues. Pastor Mark is a de facto elder of the Church at the city/region/nation-wide affinity/demographic level. He’s not trying to build an empire, he’s trying to be apostolic within the confines of his role as pastor.

Mark could still draw a paycheck from Mars Hill, and I would hope the he would continue to teach and answer questions. So much of his identity is wrapped up in his being considered a pastor, letting go is control would be an extremely difficult thing to do. But his resignation would take loads of pressure off of young leaders across the country who struggle to fill the role of Pastor as Driscoll has practiced it. Conferences? The Acts 29 Network? Resurgence? Debates on ABC? Those aren’t pastoral things, they’re apostolic things.

After resigning, I guess I’d go to lunch. But not without holding a press conference. On my way to Chili’s (or wherever Mark likes to eat), I’d meet with reporters, bloggers, protesters, and followers to ask for help. If the church suddenly doesn’t have the central location(s) in which to meet, they’re going to need somewhere else to go. As Mark Driscoll, I’d use my sizable influence to ask for hundreds (thousands) of places to meet in the Seattle are. Bars, theaters, coffee shops, living rooms, bowling alleys, high school gyms, Lion’s Club halls. These smaller meetings would spread Mars Hill church out into the community, rubbing Salt into Seattle’s mundane spaces and forcing parents and leaders to take spiritual responsibility for the few they meet with. To be pastors. Those are the people who I’d want to read my blog and listen to my podcast. As an apostle, my goal would be not to pastor the thousands of people who participate in Mars Hill, but to mentor and coach the pastors of small Mars Hill gatherings wherever they meet.

As I wrote, I’m no Mark Driscoll. I’m just a hack missiologist. But I’ve been to America’s future in Western Europe, and I want the Church here to be prepared for it. I believe that Mark Driscoll is one of many leaders God can use to get us there, if only we can free them from the modern pragmatism that keeps them from being truly missional.

PREVIOUSLY: Impractical Spaces

Lest you think these last few posts reflected only the thoughts of a lone anonymous cynic, I’d like to introduce you to some of the many other intentionally impractical leaders among us:

When he started the Evergreen Community in Portland, Oregon, Bob Hyatt had a vision- he knew what he wanted his church to be (biblical missional community of faith), and what he didn’t want it to be (legalistic, programmatic, location-dependent). Now, five years later, Evergreen meets in three locations (two pubs and the facilities of another church), and has established itself in Portland as the church for people who are burned out on church. Evergreen’s intentionally small gatherings allow for conversational dialogue and the kind of accountability that only true community can provide. “Community isn’t optional for followers of Jesus.” Bob counterintuitively says, “So if you’re not sure Evergreen is the place for you, there are lots of other churches in town that might be a better fit for you.”

Michael Carpenter planted intentionally nontraditional Matthew’s Table in Lebanon, TN. The Nashville suburb’s claim to fame? It’s the proposed site of Bible Park USA, a “Christian” Theme Park. Matthew’s Table is an impractically missional gathering of believers in an unlikely place. Why Lebanon? “I have to honestly say that this is the VERY last place I thought we would plant, yet I am glad we are here.” writes Michael. But for him, it’s not so much about strategy as obedience. “This is where God sent us, period.”

Todd Littleton is the epitome of Impractical Church leadership. While most of the players in the “missional” conversation plant their own churches in trendy neighborhoods where it might be easier to find like-minded people, Todd has remained pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in rural Tuttle, OK for the last 15 years. Their worship isn’t focused on twenty-somethings or lighted with candles, but Snow Hill is an incarnational gathering. I visited one Sunday morning, and was greeted by a little old lady who spelled it out for me: “We are a different kind of church. Around here, we try to be ‘missional.’ That means that we take Jesus to the people instead of just inviting them to church.”

The list is long: Marty Duren in Buford Georgia. Steve McCoy outside Chicago. Both traded denominational influence for influence in their local communities. Kevin Jamison moved into Middletown, Ohio just as everyone else seemed to be moving out. Dr. Thom Wolf is a brilliant thinker and teacher who left a prominent teaching position to move to India. Andrew Jones and his family live in a truck. There are many Counterintuitives among us.

I don’t have a problem with megachurches or their pastors. I do have a problem with the fact that we listen to them so much. We read their books. We pay to hear them speak at conferences. We look to guys like Perry Noble, Mark Driscoll, and Mark Batterson for practical tips on how to grow our churches, open video venues, or make them more relevant. They are great guys- godly men, to be sure. But I think we’ve heard what they have to say. I think we need to hear from the Impractical Churches among us.

Previously: Impractical Worship

Megachurches don’t just happen. And they’re certainly not the inevitable result of God’s blessing. They are the results of decisions throughout the lifetime of a church. Say a church plant starts out with three couples meeting in a living room. That’s six people meeting regularly to worship God and be a local expression of His body. Say that group, through evangelism, transfer, or gimmickry, grows to two dozen. Twenty-four people can fill a living room. Add kids or guests, and the space is full, right?

Most churches that find themselves in this situation do what makes sense; they find a bigger place to meet. They rent a theater, they meet in a public school, they lease a storefront. This move brings a new set of challenges- the bigger space makes it harder to hear, so the growing  young church buys a sound system. As more people come, the church introduces a video projector (in case anyone doesn’t remember the words to “Lord I Lift Your Name On High,” and to show the scripture text for all those who forgot to bring their Bibles.) Staff members are hired to keep up with all of the people. Bylaws are written.

The church grows, filling the space, and is faced with another decision. Naturally, they embark on a building program to raise money to buy some land in the suburbs and build a multi-use facility. This, of course, requires an upgraded sound system, an increase in staff, facilities maintenance, the Disneyfication of the children’s ministry area, and a logo for each of the church’s ministry programs. Then come the satellite campuses, video venues, and nationwide franchise networks.

A series of decisions, each seeming quite sensible, that solve the “problems”that a church might face. But what if a church, at any point along this path, chooses otherwise? What if a church deliberately decides not to rent a bigger space? What if they refuse to go into debt? What if they wait to raise up leadership from within? What if they intentionally do the counterintuitive, impractical thing every step of the way?

The Impractical Church doesn’t build a building. Ever. Instead, it meets wherever its people live- in their homes, hangouts, restaurants, parks, pubs, libraries, break rooms, basements, parking garages, and empty church buildings of dying congregations. They don’t pay to rent these spaces- they hardly even have to ask to use them. These are the spaces they move in every day. By paying taxes, punching time cards, and spending time and money, they’ve earned the right to use them. They find favor with the people who manage and own the spaces.

They show up to the same neighborhood coffee shop every day for two years. They’ve taken spiritual responsibility for the others who use the space. They’re on a first name basis with the owners. They start to meet one-on-one in the corner. Next as a small group during a time when business is slow. Maybe a waiter gets involved. Soon, the manager is turning down the music so the group can hear one another. Next thing you know, the group is offered keys to the back door and invited to stay after hours so they can have some privacy.

Call it the Friendly Takeover.

The public nature of their meetings challenge the church to apply their faith to their everyday lives. They’re forced to be the Church in context of the local community. Their small size insures that they remain personal, relational, and free of the overhead that burdens other churches. This church is sustainable and truly local. It is indigenous to the neighborhood. They manage growth by planting more of these churches, each interconnected and accountable, but with its own leadership and the freedom to adjust the form and location.

It takes time to expand the Kingdom by filling the impractical spaces, but taking shortcuts has cost us.

NEXT: The Impractical Churches Among Us

PREVIOUSLY: What’s Wrong With Pragmatism?

The majority of evangelical churches don’t pray prayers written by someone else. Sure there’s the occasional St. Francis quote, or a Puritan prayer used in a responsive reading, but for the most part, we like to pray more personal prayers that express a personal sentiment. Yet when it comes to worship through music, how many churches sing songs they’ve written?

Is it okay to outsource the message, language, and composition of your worship to Matt Redman (or Chris Tomlin, or David Crowder)? What about the preaching? There are countless “resources” available to expand and facilitate our ministries. We outsource these basic functions of the church because it just makes sense. The quality is better. It’s easier. It’s practical. But there’s a problem:

Quality, ease and practicality aren’t Kingdom values.

People who don’t make their own stuff soon forget how. We value things more when we know what goes in to creating them. Worship is not singing (someone else’s) songs in a heart-felt manner. It’s a posture, an attitude, a natural result of interaction with the Most High. Music is a great medium for that. It’s a powerful spiritual thing that can teach, unify, sober, excite, comfort, inspire… well, you get the idea.

So the Impractical Church writes its own worship music. Their worship time might not be as polished or professional as the new Passion City Church’s, but they’re okay with that. Polish and professionalism aren’t Kingdom values, either. Sincere hearts, clear consciences, and confidence in faith are. If an Impractical Church doesn’t have any musically-inclined people, they learn. Or, they find other ways to express their adoration of God. Even if it’s messy, the important thing is that the people of God learn how to worship in Spirit and in Truth.

NEXT: Impractical Spaces

PREVIOUSLY:  Let’s Be Clear

Some might read my commentary about widespread pragmatism in the American church today and ask, “So what?” Others might share my concern, but see few alternatives. I have never wanted to be merely a critic, so here I’d like to draw some conclusions. Next, I’ll try to share some ideas for what a counterintuitive church might look like.

As missionary church planters, we were constantly faced with the challenge of thinking through the eventual outcomes of our strategies and approaches to ministry. This was due, in large part, to the fact that our efforts to cooperate with the few evangelicals we found in Europe were often frustrated by their adherence to what their churches learned from the American missionaries who planted them a generation ago. European evangelicalism today looks a lot like American evangelicalism from the 1960s. Why? Because there are consequences to the decisions church leaders make.

Everyone’s traditional. Some of us just start new ones rather than following someone else’s. There are consequences to the tradition of pragmatism. You might be seeing “results” with the way you’re doing things but consider this:

  • If people come to faith through confrontational, guilt-trip evangelism, they’re coming to a confrontational, guilt-trip faith.
  • If your church’s myopic focus on Biblical knowledge makes it more lecture hall than place of worship, you’re likely going to get a bunch of armchair Reformation theologians and wanna-be ancient Greek scholars who are more concerned with being right than anything else.
  • If you allow your church to get so large that it’s a challenge to really know everyone (anyone) else in that local body, (versus starting smaller, more local gatherings,) you are discipling your people into a less personal expression of Christianity and, therefore, a less personal view of Jesus. [Pragmatic argument:] Of course, relational church can happen in your megachurch (through small groups, cliques, informal social circles, etc.), but as you add programs and square-footage, it begins to happen in spite of how you do church, not because of how you do church.
  • If your church mired in legalism, it won’t last. Legalistic religious people eventually can’t keep up with their legalisms. To them, God is only pleased with an impossibly demanding cycle of performance. They usually end up abandoning their “faith” or isolating themselves for fear of secular contamination.
  • If your church worships worship, your people might not learn to worship God. At the very least, they could be left unable to worship without a worship band and Mediashout® video backgrounds. Believers need to learn to worship, learn, serve, and share without the help of the professionals who make their livings by (intentionally or otherwise) perpetuating dependence.
  • If your church sits in grandstands with the lights dimmed, staring at a jumbo-tron, don’t be surprised if they act like spectators.

Nobody has a perfect church. I certainly don’t have all (any?) of the answers. And if we wait until we’ve got it right to do ministry, we’ll never start. Nevertheless, we must always be open to changing the way we do things- especially as we begin to see the potential detrimental results of  the way we do things. We must be sure that we know the costs before we say that we can do “whatever it takes.”

What’s wrong with practicing pragmatism? It tells people that we serve a pragmatic God. But we don’t. Ours is a God who time and time again shows Himself to do the opposite of what we would do.

NEXT: Impractical Worship