The Savannah House- A Missional Experiment in Plano, TX

Today marks the beginning of a grand experiment–an experiment for the Kingdom of God, an experiment in doing ministry in the 21stcentury.
Far too many churches suffer from an addiction to outside-in thinking.  They look at what other churches have found successful and they try to mirror those same practices in their own context.  Often, when the practices fail, they are left scratching their heads, asking, “Why did it work for them, but not for us?”

Outside-in thinking leads to burnout.  Rarely will your church live up to the success that another church had with its own program.

Inside-out thinking, however, asks, “How is God calling us to uniquely live out the gospel in our particular context?”  Like missionaries in foreign cultures, each ministry approach is most effective when it is organically shaped by the context in which it exists.

Our grand experiment at Christ United Methodist Church here in Plano, TX is asking the question, “What does it mean to live missionally in our backyard?”  How might we take our particular context seriously?  In a day when fewer and fewer people are choosing to make church attendance a regular part of their lives, how might we reach our neighbors on their turf (instead of waiting for them to come onto ours)?

The Savannah House has emerged as a result of these questions. 
With a grant from the Young Clergy Initiative of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church, we are moving three residents into an upscale, 3-bedroom apartment here in Plano.  We recognize that, as Christians, we are called to address issues of brokenness and injustice in the world.  Sometimes that brokenness and injustice gets overlooked in upscale settings because we are quick to assume that “they’ve got it all together.”

The Savannah House residents have three goals:

1) To live in covenant community with one another, following a Rule of Life together, as they encourage each other in their ministry discernment processes. 
2) To seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as they engage in creative opportunities to live hospitably as “urban missionaries” in the context of their apartment community. 
3) To gain local church experience by interning in a variety of capacities at Christ United Methodist Church (determined by their passions and interests).

The Savannah House gains its name from the “failed” missionary exploits of John Wesley to Savannah, Georgia.  Two observations that Wesley noted in his journal as he left Savannah helped shape the vision of the Savannah House: 1) He admitted that his preconceived evangelistic strategies were deemed ineffective by such a radical change in context (outside-in versus inside-out thinking) and 2) As Wesley reflected on his time in Georgia he wrote: “I, who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted.” As a part of the Young Clergy Initiative, one of the goals for the residents is to experience the life-transforming power of God as they discern where God is leading them.

Christ UMC has partnered with the Epworth Project of the Missional Wisdom Foundation in an effort to glean as much wisdom as possible from their vast experience of intentional living communities.  The Missional Wisdom Foundation also has an excellent, established system of spiritual guidance that includes a community Abbott, Prior, Spiritual Directors and Coaches, and a host of team members to assist the residents of the Savannah House as they grow deeper in their faith.

Do we know exactly what this will look like one-year from now?  No.

Do we have specific ministry strategies in place?  No.

Do we know that this will even work?  No.

But today, as we move our residents into the Savannah House, we’re choosing to trust that it is God who has stirred this vision within us.

And God usually has pretty good ideas. 
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Lessons From a Warthog: What a Zoo Taught Me About Judgment


This past week we celebrated Emily’s 2ndbirthday.  It’s been a great week with family in town, and cake and ice cream and presents.  Emily has been beside herself with excitement all week—it really has been the cutest thing.

She was particularly cute on Thursday when we visited the Dallas Zoo.  She had been to the zoo once before, but it was when her older cousin was visiting, when she was only a few months old.  So this was the first time that she had been to the zoo while she was really old enough to name all the animals and make their sounds and really know what was going on.

And she absolutely loved it.  
Each animal we saw brought a big smile to her face.  That sense of fascination and child-like wonder was in full display, and it was quite incredible.  
The cool part was, it really didn’t matter what the animal was; she loved it.  Granted, she had her favorites, but mainly because those were the ones that she was most familiar with from books and stuff.
For the most part, though, every animal she saw was as fascinating as the last.
She even liked the animals that weren’t officially part of the zoo!  Like when we were all standing at the flamingo display, trying to get her to look at the bright pink flamingos that were standing 30 feet away from us, she was fascinated by the little ordinary, brown duck that just happened to be sitting five feet in front of us.
Or when we were watching the gorillas in their habitat—which is one of my favorites—she saw a squirrel running around and was immediately glued to every move that the squirrel made.
In my experience as an adult at the zoo, I’ve already set up categories in my mind: which animals I want to see, which animals I don’t care about, which animals are beautiful and fascinating, and which animals are not.
For example, have you seen the Red River Warthog at the Dallas Zoo?  This thing was crazy looking.  I looked at the thing and and found myself thinking, “Wow, what was God thinking when he designed that guy??”
And just when I thought it couldn’t get worse than the warthog we came across the giant anteater.  I mean, really.  Look at it.
But did Emily care?  Of course not.  The only thing she would have cared about was whether it was awake or asleep, whether it was putting on a show by simply moving, or it was sitting still.
Did she know these animals were ugly?  Not unless I told her they were.  To a child, they we were just as fascinating as the last.  But to me, they were definitely placed in the category of ugly and crazy.
Unfortunately, it’s not much different than what we do with each other, is it?  We have this natural tendency to create categories.  We place each other in boxes of predetermined categories that limit the opportunities we give to one another based on preconceived judgments.  Even before meeting a someone and learning their story, we’ve judged them into a box.  
The real danger emerges when we pass on those prejudices to our children.  Emily doesn’t know that the Red River Warthog is “ugly” because I never told her it was.  To her, it’s a fascinating animal.  In the same way, the categories our children begin to form for other human beings are shaped the influence of the adults in their lives.  
Who are the people we deem “ugly” or “less-than” or “unlovable” or “crazy?”  And how are we passing on our own prejudices to the next generation?  
Instead, what would it look like if we learned from our children–if we looked at all of God’s creatures with the same benefit of a doubt with which Emily looked at all of the animals at the zoo?

Unboxing Worship


At Table of Grace we are currently in a sermon series called “Unboxed” where we are identifying the various ways we place limits on God.  This past Sunday we discussed some of the boxes of worship that have the tendency to form.

The Box of Style:Some of us grew up in traditional worship services, some of grew up in charismatic worship services, some of us grew up in contemporary worship services, and some of us didn’t grow up in church at all.  What does this mean?  Well, it means that we all have different perspectives and preferences based on our own traditions and backgrounds.
Sometimes we get in “worship wars” because we think that one style of worship must be superior or more effective than another.  But really all we’ve done is formed a box.
The Box of Time: Some of us have preferences about when worship should occur.  Should it happen on Saturdays?  Should it happen on Sundays? Should it happen at 11:00 AM or maybe at 6:00 PM?
And we begin to form another box.
The Box of Quality:Sometimes the box we form has to do with the quality of worship.  We set benchmarks and expectations, and if a certain worship experience doesn’t meet that bar, then it’s worthless because we check out.  We’ve formed another box.
Style. Time. Quality.
Do you see what each of these boxes has in common? Each of these boxes is formed when we become the center of worship, and not God.
When we’re the center of worship, the style of worship has to meet my needs.
When we’re the center of worship, the time of worship has to meet my needs.
When we’re the center of worship, the quality of worship has to meet my needs.
But what about God?  Where is God in all of this?
When God is the center of the worship, the style doesn’t matter.  If it’s honoring God, and engaging God’s people in community, then it’s working.
When God is the center of worship, the time doesn’t matter.  In fact, when worship is honoring God, then it’s not confined to just one hour every Sunday.  Worship becomes a lifestyle in which we offer our bodies as living sacrifices that are pleasing to our Creator, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
When God is the center of worship, the quality doesn’t matter.  Hear me out on this.  There’s a fine line between the pursuit of excellence—giving God the best we have to offer with the gifts that God has given to us—and the vain judgment that occurs when we say, “This isn’t good enough for me to truly worship.”  
We get so into habit of comparison that we’ve lost sight of a theology of enough.  When we compare ourselves to what other churches are doing, or we compare ourselves to what has happened in our churches in the past, we blind ourselves to the new things that God is doing right here, right now.
Am I saying we should stop striving to improve and become more and more excellent in our worship?  No, not at all.  Think of it like a human being who is trying to become more and more mature, and is trying to become the best person he/she can be.  Just because you are trying to become better doesn’t mean that you aren’t currently   We can always get better.  But we’re also always good enough today.

perfect, just the way you are.

What would happen if we truly made God the center of our worship?  It might not always be comfortable and familiar, because it might mean having to experience a new kind of worship that is outside our preferred box.  

But it’s often in the moments when we aren’t as comfortable as we’d like to be that God surprises us and moves us in new ways.

 

My Storyless Story

I was almost literally born and raised in the church.  I was born around 9:00 am on a Sunday morning and my mother brought me to the 6:00 pm service that same day because my sister was receiving an award at church.  The same day!  
As I grew up in that church for the next 18 years of my life, I was surrounded by a community of believers, who raised me in the faith.
But one of the things that always bugged me as I got into high school and college was that I could never point to the moment that I became a Christian.  I was actually kind of secretly ashamed that I didn’t have a really cool story.  I had some friends who knew the exact day and time that they had decided to follow Jesus, and some even had a plaque on their wall commemorating what they called their second birthday.  
I would get really nervous that one day someone was going to ask me point blank when I had been saved and I wouldn’t be able to answer!
This really bothered me.  
The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, was a huge proponent of the idea called assurance of faith.  This is simply the feeling that the Holy Spirit gives you to assure you of your salvation.  Wesley talked about his heart feeling “strangely warmed” the day he knew he would spend eternity in heaven.  
I had that.  In my heart of hearts, I knew that I knew Jesus.  I knew that I had a relationship with my Creator, but I could not tell you when I had crossed that line between not being a Christian and being a Christian.  
I heard stories like Saul’s conversion in Acts 9, of lives being instantaneously transformed, and I felt my like my storyless story just didn’t measure up.
Until… I got to seminary, and I took a class on evangelism.  The professor talked about the difference between the conversion experience of Paul and the experience of Jesus’ own disciples.
Whereas Paul’s experience was sudden and drastic, the disciples’ experience was gradual and messy.  This professor used the Gospel of Mark to show how Jesus’ disciples slowly came to the realization that he was the Messiah.  They didn’t start off knowing that.  They simply recognized him as a Rabbi and decided to follow him.  But the longer they followed him, the closer they grew to him, and the more they realized that this Jesus guy was waymore than they had initially thought.
And I bet, that if you were to interview the disciples at the moment that Jesus spoke his last words to them on earth and ask them, “So, when did you officiallybecome a follower of Christ?  When did you make that transition between your former life and your new life in Christ?” they probably would have looked at you and said, “I don’t know… I knew he was important when I started following him, but I didn’t know howimportant he was.  I can’t point to a specific day and time—I’ve just been following him and slowly realizing more and more that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the world!”  
And at that moment in that class in seminary, I finally had language to describe my experience.  I didn’t have a story like Paul’s.  I had a story like Jesus’ disciples! I had been following Jesus my whole life.  And sure, there were times when I was following more closely than other times, but I couldn’t tell you the specific day and time that I made that transition from my former life to my new life in Christ because it had been slow and gradual.
Some of us have stories like Paul.  And that’s awesome!  

But some of us have stories like the disciples, and that’s okay too.

Debabelizing the World


<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>This past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday when we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church.  The go-to text for Pentecost Sunday is obvious: Acts 2:1-12.  The less obvious text that I love to highlight on Pentecost Sunday is the story of the Tower of Babel, found in Genesis 11:1-9.[1]

In the story found in Genesis, the people want to make a name for themselves and decide to build a tower to reach the heavens.  This selfish ambition angers God, so God confuses their language, making communication impossible and bringing their work to a halt.  God then scatters them across the earth.  

In Acts, however, God brings together people from all around the globe, people who speak different languages, and enables them to understand one another.  God takes what was once divided and brings unity so that they can effectively work together.
So what is God doing here? He’s “debabelizing” the world. Now, I just made that word up, so look for it in any Bible concordance or anything.[2]  God is taking His people and uniting them by reversing what occurred at Babel, by reversing the consequences of humanity’s own mistakes. 
And you know what?  This isn’t the only time that God debabelized the world.  God is always taking the confusion of the world, and turning it on its head to unify His people and to use His people to redeem the world. 
We serve a God who wants to take the ways of this world, to take the things that we’re comfortable with, to take the popular way of doing things, and debabelize them, flipping them upside down so that they line up with His way of doing things. 
This is how God works.
This is how God has worked throughout the history of the world.
And this is how God continues to work today.
The question is, “How are you allowing God to use you in debabelizing the world around you?” 
We have the opportunity to debabelize the world around us every single day.  Every time we are faced with a decision to do things the world’s way–to do things in a way that is more divisive than unifying–we have the opportunity to join God in God’s mission to redeem the world one decision at a time. 
In your workplace, you can one-up the barrage of jokes being slung around about your new coworker, or you can debabelize the conversation by breaking the cycle and becoming the peacemaker.
In line at the movie theater, you can respond with your natural instincts when someone cuts in line in front of you, telling this person where they should reallygo.  Or, you can debabelize the situation by praying to God for the courage and patience to shrug it off.
In your relationships, you can give in to the lie of the world that tells you that you need to be right, that you need to win this argument.  Or, you can choose to debabelize your relationship by out-serving your significant other and walking the road of humility instead.
One decision at a time, with the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to join God in the redemption of this world, bringing unity and peace to those places and situations that are confused and scattered.   


[1] I am indebted to Michael Lodahl for first pointing this out to me in his book, The Story of God: A Narrative Theology.
[2] I actually looked this up after typing it and realized that it is actually a word, just not one that is used often, particularly not theologically… though it should be!

"Locked In, But Not Locked Out"


<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>When I graduated from high school and moved to San Diego to go to college I was so excited to dive right in.  I attended Point Loma Nazarene University, which is a private Christian college of about 2500 students.  They have chapel three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  And every student is required to go to chapel. 

The worship music is led by bands that are made up of college students, and I had my sights set on being in one of those bands.  I had been playing guitar for a few years at that point, and I had the opportunity to lead worship for my youth group through high school, so I put all my eggs in that one basket.  The problem is, when the auditions came around and I tried out, I didn’t make it, and I was crushed.  I even got kind of mad at God thinking, “God, you’ve given me this gift and I’m passionate about it.  This would have been a great opportunity to show it off in front of a couple thousand students!”

But God has this way of humbling us when we fail to listen to God’s voice, and we instead choose to listen to our own.

A couple weeks later someone asked if I would be interested in joining the prison ministry team.  I had never considered being a part of a prison ministry before, so the thought of it sounded intriguing.  Then he said, “You know, we could really use you to help us lead worship in there.”  And I thought, “I don’t know about that…that’s not what I pictured myself doing.”  But I decided to give it a try, anyway.

I still remember the first Sunday we visited.  There we were, this group of 10 or 12 college students, all dressed up for church.  We showed up, had our ID’s checked, we got these visitor badges to wear around our necks, and then one of the guards told us, “Remember, if any trouble breaks out in the yard and we sound the sirens, all the inmates will get down on the ground, but you all need to remain standing with your hands in the air and we will escort you to safety.”  I gave him one of those little “test chuckles” like, “You’re joking, right?” But when the guard didn’t crack a smile in return I knew he was totally serious. 

Then we were escorted to the yard where the chapel is located, walking through several outside corridors, going in and out of these huge gates with razor wire everywhere, with armed guards in towers watching our every move.  Talk about intimidating!  We definitely looked like fish out of water and it felt like every eye in that prison was staring directly at me.

But we finally made it to the chapel and began getting set up for the morning worship service.  Now, this was not a required church service, so the inmates who showed up were choosing to be there, and at the proper time they started filing in. 

I had no idea what to expect, so when I started being greeted warmly with handshakes and smiles, I began to relax a little.  After a short greeting and introduction from the prison chaplain, we began to sing our first song.  I don’t remember what the song was, but I will never forget the way they sang it.

I’m sure it was the first time they had heard the song we were introducing, but it did not stop every inmate in that small chapel from singing from the very bottom of their hearts and the very top of their lungs.  It was one of the most beautiful moments of worship I have ever experienced. 

Did it sound good?  No, not at all. 

Was it on pitch?  No, not even close.  In fact I think at one point they were singing in twelve different keys. 

But it was genuine, and passionate, and absolutely beautiful.

These inmates were in prison.  When we left, they couldn’t.  Some of them would be in there for the rest of their lives.  And yet, in the midst of their circumstances, they were praising God with every ounce of their souls.

They had a saying to describe themselves, talking about God’s Kingdom, they would say, “We’re locked in, but we’re not locked out.”  What a lesson for those of us who aren’t locked in and cheapen God’s grace by taking it for granted.

I was so grateful to God for giving me that moment, for leading me into that experience—an experience I would have missed had I tried to do things according to my own ideas.  God had my attention; and as I looked out over that worship gathering of inmates it was as if God were looking me straight in the eyes saying, “Trust me.  Trust me.  Why follow your own desires when I am the one who gives you life, and gives you life abundantly?  Trust ME.”

May we have ears to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd and the courage to trust that voice enough to follow wherever it leads.

Faceplants and Failure: A Lesson on Brotherly Love


<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>I remember it like it was yesterday, even though it took place sometime around 6thor 7th grade.  On a blistering hot summer day in Northern California, I found myself floating alone in the middle the lake.  Strapped to my torso was my life jacket—nothing out of the ordinary there.  But strapped to feet, was one solid, flat piece of fiberglass and plastic they refer to as a wakeboard.  In my hands—that were shaking with nerves and adrenalin—I held a triangle-shaped handle at the end of a 65 or 70 foot rope that was attached to a boat designed to go fast and create a big wake behind it.  In that boat sat my older brother—who is five years older than me (and sometimes six, depending on the date)—with three or four of his closest and coolest high school friends.

As I tried to run through every word of advice and instruction that I had just received in the moments before I jumped from the boat into the lake, it was as if time just froze.  It was one of those moments where you know something big is about to happen and the entire soundtrack of everything around you goes silent so all you can hear is the sound of your own racing heartbeat (thump, thump—thump, thump). 
Here I was.  My moment had come.  It was my first time wakeboarding, and I was not going to embarrass my older brother in front of his friends. 
When I felt like I had everything in the right place and was ready to go, I took a deep breath, and I yelled the customary, “Hit it!” that signals the driver of the boat to push the throttle. 
And when he did, the rope immediately tightened and I was quickly pulled up out of my sitting position in the water. 
This is also one of the moments that when they portray it in a movie it’s in slow motion.  The only problem was, as soon as the boat pulled me from my sitting position, and I could picture everyone beginning to clap and cheer in slow motion with the volume of heroic music rising, that solid piece of fiberglass and plastic that they call a wakeboard, the one that was strapped to my feet, sunk below the surface of the water, bringing the bottom-half of my body to a complete stop while the top-half of my body continued to rise and propel forward and then… immediately downward.  The rope snapped out of my hands and I face-planted with a loud smack on the surface of the water.
I was humiliated. 
It didn’t matter that everyone had warned me how difficult it was to learn how to wakeboard.  This was my moment.  I was going to prove to my older brother, in the presence of his cool friends, how cool I was, even though I was five (and sometimes six) years younger. 
But I failed.
When I finally collected myself, shook the water out of my nose and ears, holding back the tears of frustration and embarrassment, I looked up at the boat that had circled around to give me a second chance.  And I’ll never forget what I saw next. 
My cool, older brother, who had strapped on a life jacket of his own, jumped off the boat and began to swim towards me.  Part of me assumed that he was just going to ask me to swim back to the boat so he could show me how’s it really done, but instead he said, “All right man, you got this.  I’m going to sit here in the water with you for as long as it takes you to get up.”
And for the next several attempts and face-plants, he sat there with me, encouraging me and giving me helpful pointers as I got closer and closer, until finally, I stood up and rode that wakeboard, feeling like I had just conquered the world. 
He didn’t have to stoop to my level; he chose to.  In the presence of his cool friends, he put his own reputation to the side, jumped off the boat and joined me in the water in order to encourage me and teach me.
Now, don’t get me wrong, my brother didn’t alwaysdo things this cool.  He was a good guy—and he still is—but we were still brothers.  But on this day, in this moment, he went the extra mile to make sure I had the chance to succeed. 
We’ve all had times in our life when we’ve felt like we’re floating alone in a lake with the weight of the world on our shoulders.  We’ve all experienced what it feels like to face plant and fail. 
One of the greatest gifts that God has given us is the Church.  It’s in these hard times in life that the body of Christ is called to thrive.  Each one of us has the opportunity to strap on our life jacket and jump off the boat to join those around us in the water.
Who is it that God has put in your path?  Who is God calling you to join in the water? Jump off your boat of comfort and swim straight toward that person, saying, “All right man, you got this.  I’m going to sit here in the water with you for as long as it takes you to get up.”
You never know when the roles will be reversed.  But when they are, and when the body of Christ is operating as it was designed, you can bet that when you look up, someone will be joining you in the water, going the extra mile to make sure you have the chance to succeed.