"All Things to All People: Growing Up with Missional Parents”

As I embark upon my doctoral journey, finally beginning the project phase of introducing the concept of missional living to an established congregation, I have come to recognize an irony in my theological training.  After all of the books read, and classroom hours spent, as a philosophy/theology major in undergrad, completing my Master of Divinity, and concentrating on missional leadership in my doctoral work, I have come to realize the blessing of my own upbringing.  Better than any author or professor could possibly communicate the concepts of missional living, my parents embodied what it means to be missionaries in our own backyard. 

In the 1980’s there was an influx of refugees from Southeast Asia to the United States.  The town in which I grew up in Northern California, called Redding, had a lot of Mien people move in.  The Mien are a hill tribe from Laos, so you can imagine the culture shock they experienced as they arrived in the US. 

Through a series of circumstances that included one little old Mien lady being brought to our church by her neighbor, my parents’ hearts resonated with the Mien people.  What started off as my mom deciding to help by teaching English to a handful of refugees soon developed into a Bible study that continued to grow.  Through the efforts of my parents, others began to see what God was doing and decided to jump on board, as one Mien family after another turned away from their religious pasts of Animism and Daoism into a relationship with Jesus Christ.  The Mien Christian community in Redding continued to blossom into a self-sustaining church with trained and ordained Mien pastors leading the congregation. 

My parents began doing this about the time I was born, so I was raised in the midst of this, never really knowing how unique it was that I, a middle-class white kid with about as blonde hair as you can get, was always hanging around poor Asian refugees who had literally just arrived in America.

My parents embodied what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 9:

“Becoming all things to all people so that by all possible means some might be saved.”

And they did this in many different ways.

Though they could have used the language barrier as an excuse to say, “We don’t fit with them,” my mom was the one giving English lessons, my dad was the one who developed a passion for learning the Mien language.  You should see the surprise and thrill on the face of Mien people, who don’t know that my dad can speak Mien, the moment he greets them in their own language!

And when the Mien families who had just become Christians asked my parents to help them host a ceremony to burn their idols and artifacts from their former religions, my parents could have said, “We don’t do that type of thing in our church,” but instead said, “We would be honored to help.”

When my dad would walk around the house, singing “…Aengx maaih ziex nyungc dongc yie maiv hiuv, maaih ziex norm dorngx yie mingh maiv duqv….(I had to reference him for those lyrics)” with its unique Asian melody, inevitably getting stuck in our heads for days, I could have said, “Dad, seriously.  Stop it.  I’m sick of that song!”—and I’m sure there were times that I did—but I also remember realizing how significant it was that there were worship songs in the Mien language in the first place, and how brave it was of my dad (who isn’t exactly a professional vocalist…) to join the Mien choir at church and sing boldly, even in a different language.

At the potluck feasts that were held on a regular basis in the apartment complexes in which they lived, when I was passed a serving bowl with a type of food that looked like nothing I had ever seen before, I could have said, “Ew, gross,” but my parents taught me to put a little on my plate, and ask what is was later…

And when my parents raided my closet on a regular basis, looking for clothes that would fit the children of a family who just arrived, I could have thrown a fit and protested—and I probably did at first—but I remember the feeling of joy I would get seeing one of my new Mien friends wearing an outfit that he didn’t know came from me.

You see, this is what it means to be missional.  This is what it means to become “all things to all people so that by all means possible some might be saved.”  And not just some were saved… many heard the good news of Jesus Christ and came to know the one, true God who created them. 

Mission living isn’t about coordinating occasional projects of mercy. It’s a complete orientation of life, committed to justice, driven by unconditional love. 

Thank you, Mom and Dad. 

Some things you just can’t learn in a book or a classroom.

Why Everyone Should Go on a Confirmission Retreat

This past weekend our youth group held it first ever “Confirmission Retreat.” It was a retreat to welcome our confirmands into the youth group, mixed with a mini-local mission trip.

Prior to the weekend that involved “kidnapping” the unsuspecting 6th graders, I had several conversations with parents about their particular child’s anxieties about being in our youth group, particular personality traits to beware of and other disclaimers as to why their child might not be quite as ready as the others.  Unbeknown to those parents, there were other parents having the same conversations with me about their own children.  Regardless, I assured each parent that their child would be well cared for.

When it came time for the kidnapping on Friday, I told our youth group that the point of this entire weekend was to make the 6th graders feel like a part of our “family.”  I knew the group would embrace the motivation, but I had no idea how well.

One by one, as we stopped at each house with our caravan of youth, with silly string flying everywhere and pots and pans being pounded together loudly, the smiles told the story.  After dropping the youth off in front of each house, I didn’t have time to park the church bus and head toward to the front door before the youth group was already emerging from the house with a new friend in tow, grinning from ear to ear, one even being carried out on someone’s shoulders as if he had just hit the game-winning home run in the World Series.

Friday evening was spent at a family-fun center with putt-putt, bumper boats and arcade games.  On Saturday morning, everyone woke up, donned their work clothes, and we headed out to work with Amigo’s Days, a missions initiative of the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Our particular project was in Oak Cliff, painting the house, garage, shed and neighboring wall of an elderly gentleman.  Working side by side with people of all ages from four different churches, this was yet another intentional opportunity for intergenerational ministry, something that has become an emphasis of our youth ministry.

Following a full day of work, we went to Tyler Street United Methodist Church and stayed at their facility for missions, “C2K” (Connect to the Kingdom).  The hospitality we received from their coordinator, Jamie, and from the entire TSUMC was incredible.  Never before have I been handed a key ring with 50 keys on it and told, “Feel free to explore!  If a door is locked, you’ll find a key for it on this ring.  Please make yourself at home in our entire church!”

That evening we worshipped together in TSUMC’s chapel.  What was particularly special about Saturday evening’s worship was the opportunity for our youth group to teach several of our “worship traditions” to the incoming 6th graders.  These included such things as hand washing and communion, several a cappella songs that are special to our group, the familiar way we use small groups, our arms-crossed, hand-holding circle of “joys and concerns,” and of course, the benediction that ends with “…and give y’all peace!”

Sunday morning we woke up, worshiped with the good folks of TSUMC and then headed out to play Whirlyball.  For those of you unfamiliar with the sport, it’s a mix between basketball and lacrosse and takes place in bumper cars.

The greatest moment occurred when we returned to the church to everyone’s parents waiting for them in the parking lot.  As we piled out of the church vans, hugs began to be exchanged.  The best part, though, was that before the hugs were being given to the waiting parents, they were being given from youth to youth, with our brand new confirmands in the middle. 

The looks of relief and joy on the faces of the parents were priceless, as they realized that their child had been successfully welcomed and accepted into our youth “family.”

After telling these stories to our church staff at yesterday’s staff meeting, one person raised the question, “Why can’t adults do that?”  And my answer is, “Good question.  There is no reason we can’t!

Can you imagine if our churches welcomed the “stranger” with as much enthusiasm as our youth group welcomed these confirmands?  What if the moment someone stepped foot onto our church campus we gave them the feeling of being hoisted onto someone’s shoulders as if they were a hero?  They wouldn’t be able help but feel like a part of our family!  And then, what if we didn’t stop there, but began a process of assimilation in which we taught them the traditions and norms that help to define who we are as a community? 

We should be doing everything we can to create an atmosphere of inclusion and unconditional love.  It shouldn’t matter if someone is anxious, or has a quirky personality trait or is different from us.  I know not everyone can experience a Confirmission Retreat like we did this past weekend, but we need to be pulling out all the stops when it comes to welcoming people into our church families!

 

 

“May the Best Meme Win: Social Media’s Impact on Theological Inquiry”

This week has been revealing.  The many goods and ills of social media have been on display, taken to the limit and even pushed beyond their normative boundaries.  As the deeply meaningful topic of marriage has been brought to the forefront of the society’s collective dialogue, arguments from every angle of the issue have been clawing their way to the surface, attempting to win the day.  On whichever side of the issue one finds one’s self, the form and fashion of both personal discernment and civil debate have been fascinating. 

Over the centuries, the Church has sought to identify the source of God’s revelation, particularly as it pertains to the task of theological inquiry.  When faced with various issues, the burning question being asked has been, “How do we discern the truth?”  One of Martin Luther’s key concerns with the Roman Catholic church was its twofold source of theological truth: scripture and apostolic tradition.  Raising the banner of sola scriptura, Luther argued that Scripture alone should be the sole source for theology.  As theologians continued to wrestle with Luther’s premise, however, the impact of one’s context on the theological task began to raise questions.  Within the Methodist tradition, the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (practiced by John Wesley, but coined by Albert Outler) seeks to broaden the scope of theological revelation.  While it affirms the legitimacy of scripture and tradition, it also recognizes the importance of reason and experience.
For those within the Wesleyan tradition, this quadrilateral approach is the litmus test for theological truth.  When faced with an issue, one is wise to view it through all four lenses, always remembering to keep Scripture as the primary source.  With the advent of social media, however, the entire task of theological inquiry seems to have taken a back seat.
This week I have read, heard and watched solid arguments on both sides of the marriage issue.  As I continue to strive toward “intensional living” on the via media, I have done so with an open mind, trying to bring as few prejudices and biases to the conversation in order to give my full attention to both sides.  As people have publicly grappled with this issue by sharing articles, videos, references to scripture and stories of personal experience all over Facebook and Twitter, the thing that perhaps makes me most uncomfortable is the viral sharing of memes, and the startlingly serious comments in reply.
For those of you unaware, the phenomenon of “memes” is the pairing of pictures and illustrations with pithy and witty sayings, often shaped by irony and/or humor.  The more clever the meme, the more it gets shared on Facebook and retweeted on Twitter.  In a world where Stephen Colbert and John Stewart are more trusted news sources for young adults than any of the major networks, wittiness wins the day.  If you can relay information in such a way that makes somebody laugh, they are more open to trusting it as the truth.  I won’t lie; many of the memes that I have seen are extremely clever and often elicit a chuckle from me.  However, I cringe when I see someone share one of these pictures or illustrations and say something like, “No further questions,” as if this singular image and saying has made up their mind on such a deeply significant issue.   
Allow me to share a couple examples:
In favor of homosexual marriage:
Opposed to homosexual marriage:
In reference to the trend of those in favor of homosexual marriage changing their profile pictures to the red equal-sign logo as the SCOTUS makes their decision:
Again, witty? Yes. 
Funny? Sometimes.
Authoritative? Absolutely not.
You may think that I’m simply blowing things out of proportion, or making a caricature of the sharing of memes, but I beg to differ.  When a teenager in my youth group shares a meme, I am not surprised.  When they comment on a meme and make obvious the fact that they have not put much time into personal discernment on the issue, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.  However, when I see self-respecting adults sharing these images and sayings and commenting on them as if they actually add credibility to one side of an argument or the other, I have to shake my head in disbelief. 
Has our social dialogue been diminished to this?  Has personal discernment taken a back seat to collective pop-humor? 
As faithful Christians, we are called to be disciples and to create disciples.  We must do everything we can to train and equip thinking and discerning Christians who take the theological task seriously.  With Scripture as our guide, and with tradition, reason and experience each contributing to the conversation, may we not lose sight of the importance of the process of faithful inquiry.

Lost in Translation: Guiding Metaphors in the Church

My last blog post was about the changes in spirituality that have occurred since the 1950’s.  Robert Wuthnow suggests that there are direct correlations between changes in American culture—particularly in the structure of families—and changes in the way people think about spirituality.

This got me thinking even more about the power of guiding metaphors in the way we think about, talk about and organize our churches.  As Wuthnow suggests, when people use the metaphor of a “perfect family home” to organize a church, their actions follow.  God becomes the father of the family and God’s house is the sanctuary in which that family worships.  Congregants dare not put their feet on the pew in front of them, just as they would not dare to put their feet on their father’s coffee table (nor bring coffee into the sanctuary in the first place!).  Just as June Cleaver is never seen wearing anything casual, congregants wear their Sunday best to church.  There is a genuine element of respect for God’s house.

This is not a bad thing.  Sure, changes have taken place in American culture that may make this type of church less effective than it once was. However, it is critically important for us to recognize that there are people in our churches who grew up with this guiding metaphor, and who still prefer to think about church in this way.

It is also equally important to recognize that this is not the only metaphor people use to think about the church. 

Some people prefer to think of church as a business.  Progress and “the bottom line” take priority in decision-making processes.  Congregants become “giving units.”  In order to attain growth, churches look the latest marketing strategies.  Pastors become Chief Executive Officers, organizing various levels of middle management. 

Other people prefer to think of church as a social organization, such as a country club.  Congregants attend church to see and be seen.  They pay their dues and receive the perks of membership.  Their membership fees include a full-service staff to organize and run the operations of the church.  If a church isn’t providing social events (a.k.a. “fellowship opportunities”) then the church is failing.

What about those who see the church as a hospital?  Congregants are all patients, looking to be healed.  There are support groups for individuals suffering from a variety of maladies.  God is the Great Physician, looking to heal those who put enough faith in Him. 

Some prefer to think of the church as a flock, a collection of helpless sheep that are simply following their shepherd, the pastor.  Their pastor embodies the Great Shepherd who walks with us through the valleys of darkness as He leads us to still waters for refreshment.

Jesus used all sorts of metaphors throughout Scripture to describe the kingdom of God.  Even using the term “kingdom” is metaphorical to point to the idea that God is the king!  Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, like yeast, like a net and like several others images with which people connected. 

Paul loved to use metaphors as well.  He regularly returned to the metaphors of the body of Christ or of a family to describe the church. Throughout the Pastoral Epistles, Paul uses the metaphor of the household of God, and the order that is required as a result (which helps shape the context of his instructions to women in 1 Timothy 2). 

If the church is an earthly reflection of a heavenly reality (ideally), then we really don’t have adequate language to describe what, or who, exactly the church is.  By recognizing the guiding metaphors that exist in our congregations, we are able to identify the various motivations to different thoughts and actions of our congregants.  Many of the arguments that unnecessarily turn the smallest disagreements into large, drawn-out “big deals,” are often simply a matter of competing metaphors.  For example, picture the conversation that might occur over the issue of electric guitars in church between someone who sees the church as the holy house of God and someone who sees the church as the latest, greatest business venture to reach new generations.

The pastor’s job, then, is to become a translator.  We need to do our best to recognize when competing metaphors are guiding the actions of our congregants, not to point out who is necessarily right or wrong, but to help each party understand the worldview (or “churchview”) of the other. We also need to realize that it is not our job to convince our congregants that our metaphor-of-choice is the best choice.  Different people connect with God in different ways.  We need to do everything we can to honor the variety of ways our congregants experience the Divine.  Sure, there are negative aspects to various metaphors with which we can pastorally disagree and discourage, but not before listening first.  Only when we make a genuine attempt to listen and view particular situations through the metaphorical lenses of others can we begin to understand why it is they act, think and speak in way they do.  Until then, we cannot expect to convince anyone that our view of the church is more effective. 

As churches continue to wrestle with the vast—and fast—changes in American culture, it is my prayer that we will learn to listen to one another, appreciating the perspectives of those who think differently than us, and finding creative ways to unite in our mission to embody the gospel.  This is part of what it means to live intensionally in the church.  

Dwellers, Seekers and Missionaries: Why the Church Needs to Change

            Imagine life during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  For some of you, you won’t have to use any imagination at all.  Remember when going to church was almost a cultural norm?  Sure, there were people who chose not to be religious; but for many families in America, every Sunday was spent at church.  Whether the faith of those individuals was genuine or not can only be determined by God.  Either way, much of the country was very familiar with Christianity.  As the years have gone by, however, fewer and fewer people have decided to make the act of going to church a priority in their lives.  With more options than ever on Sunday mornings, families are now spending their day on soccer fields, tennis courts, or simply in the privacy of their homes.  Times have changed.
            In his book, After Heaven, sociologist Robert Wuthnow describes very interesting categories of spirituality to help think about this dramatic shift in the spiritual culture of America.  He argues that the baby boom and expansion of suburbanization following World War II led to the centrality of the nuclear family in the lives of Americans.  The picture of a father, mother, children and pets, all living together peacefully under one roof, became the guiding metaphor for peoples’ sense of spirituality.  Referring to it as “dwelling-oriented spirituality,” Wuthnow suggests that pastors shaped their churches around this picture, creating churches that were “comfortable, familiar, domestic, offering an image of God that was basically congruent with the domestic tranquility of the ideal home” to make people feel “at home with God.”[1]  This central theme also shaped the mission of the congregation.  Wuthnow says the goal of the local church, whether explicit or implicit, was “to provide a safe haven amidst the growing uncertainties of the world in which people live.”[2]  It would be wrong of us to judge this metaphor of spirituality negatively in retrospect.  The approaches of church life that emerged during this time were effective for the context in which they existed.
            The 1960’s, however, marked the beginning of the shift toward an era of exploration and “freedom.”  Turned off by the denominational “claims to having absolute truth,”[3]as well as “changes in the U.S. family,”[4]the shape of dwelling-oriented spirituality began to change.  As more and more families became dysfunctional and complex, the idea of a church reflecting one’s home life was no longer attractive.  Wuthnow says that these “complex social realities [left] many Americans with a sense of spiritual homelessness.”[5]  Instead of finding comfort in the church buildings in which they grew up, people began to seek for experiences of the divine in a variety of places.  This new seeker-oriented spirituality changed the congregation from a refuge to a “supplier of goods and services”[6]in competition with the range of alternate voices.  Again, for the context in which it existed, the practices of churches to attract seeker-oriented individuals were effective.  American spirituality, however, has continued to change.  The problem is that many of our struggling churches today are still operating with one, or both, of these guiding metaphors shaping their programs and missions.
            In the new religious America we find fewer and fewer families attending church on a regular basis.  Going to church is no longer a priority in the lives of individuals, much less of whole families.  While many people had a basic knowledge of Christian beliefs and practices in the 1950’s and 1960’s, people today are very naïve to the ways of the church.  We can no longer assume that the people we are trying to reach are already familiar with the Christian language we use.  Christianity has gone from being a cultural norm in America, to becoming an afterthought, if it even enters the psyche of an individual to begin with.  Again, times have changed.
            So, if being a safe-haven no longer works to attract people to our churches, and appealing to “seekers” is no longer working as well either, then how is a church supposed to attract its neighbors?  What if I told you that being “attractional,” in and of itself, might be one of our biggest hang-ups?  Enter the missional church.
            For the first time in the history of American culture, the church must be formed around the mindset that it no longer exists as a primary entity in society.  Instead, the church in America now finds itself as a missionary outpost in the midst of a post-Christian culture.  In the same way that a missionary adjusts to life in a foreign country, the church in America is forced to adjust to life in a highly secular world.  Our best bet to making this adjustment as painless as possible—fully recognizing that it will not be pain-free—is to take our cues from missionaries around the world who have been faithfully embodying the gospel for generations.  This is foundation of what it means to be a missional church.
            Does that mean that we kick everyone out who grew up within the context of dwelling-oriented or seeker-oriented spirituality?  Of course not!  In fact, recognizing these categories can really help us communicate across generational divides within our church families.  These different spiritual worldviews are not necessarily “wrong;” they’re just that: different.  Depending on the context in which each of us was formed, individuals connect to and prefer different models of church structure and organization.  The bottom line is, the dramatic shifts in American culture are forcing us to ask the question: “How will the church respond?”  In my humble opinion, our churches must make the shift toward becoming missionally-focused, or else they risk letting their numbers dwindle as fewer and fewer people step foot into their sanctuaries.


[1]Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950’s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 33.
[2]Ibid., 15.
[3]Ibid., 56.
[4]Ibid., 19.
[5]Ibid., 168.
[6]Ibid., 15.

Visiting a Missional Worship Gathering: A Reflection on a Recent Visit to a New Day Community


The following was written as a brief reflection on a class “field trip” to a worship service of a New Day community, a missional gathering of individuals who currently find themselves in Dallas, even though they have come from all corners of the earth:
            On Sunday evening, January 13th, our class had the privilege of visiting the New Day community that meets in the Amani House, an apartment in a complex that houses many refugees.  I believe that the experience would have been different had I been attending individually, but I can only comment on my experience of having several people from our class visit at once, packing into the little home for a worship service.  Despite the limited space, what we all experienced was an incredible gathering of God’s people breaking bread together, singing praise to our Creator, diving into God’s Word and enjoying genuine Christian fellowship in community.
            In his book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer states that “the goal of all Christian community” is to “meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.”[1]  One of the first things that I noticed as I entered the Amani House was the authentic greeting in the Spirit of God.  Each person in that room was happy to be there, and the joy of their salvation was evident on their faces.  It was exactly as Bonhoeffer had stated; the message of salvation was being passed from smile to smile and hug to hug, all in the context of community.  From the moment I walked in the door to the last goodbye, it was clear that we were united by Christ.  Even though I was meeting most of the people there for the first time, it was almost as if we were long-lost friends reuniting—a feeling that is oftentimes absent in many of our traditional, attractional churches.
            I could not help but think to myself, “I wonder how congregants from my own church family would react to such a gathering?”  Would they jump right in with the drum-circle worship, even though not everyone was on beat, and not everyone was on pitch?  Would they be open to discussing Scripture so intimately with people they just met, even though the one leading the Bible study was an eighth grader?  Would they be open to the community, even though not everyone in the room looked like them or fluently spoke their language?  Would they be able to relax and worship in an apartment, even though it didn’t have an ornate cross, pipe organ or beautiful stained-glass windows? 
            Reflecting on these questions, I cannot help but think of Sara Miles’ description of her soup kitchen church in her book, JesusFreak.  Miles shares about the motley assortment of individuals who dine together and share life together at the soup kitchen.  She tells story after story about the sacred moments that exist in the midst of what others may consider profane.  For Miles, the community that gathers regularly at the soup kitchen ischurch.  She points out examples of Scripture in which God uses crazy situations to reveal God’s self:
“Just as the unmarried teenager Mary is the mother of God, so the madman John is the baptizer of God: both improper figures, completely unauthorized by the religious authorities.  And just as a mucky feed trough is where Mary lays the bread of heaven, so the river Jordan is where John anoints the Son of God: inappropriate locations for something holy to occur.[2]
In much the same way, many in our church may deem the Amani house an “inappropriate location for something holy to occur,” but God has other plans.  What I experienced in our worship together at the New Day service was completely holy and sacred and good.
            We talked a lot about evangelism over the course of our class.  What strikes me as fascinating regarding the New Day community is the lack of an “evangelistic program,” and yet the effectiveness of faithful witness.  In Graceful Evangelism, Frances Adeney references Bryan Stone’s idea that the primary purpose of the church is to simply live faithfully.  People will naturally be attracted to the character of the church if we embody God in the world.  Tweaking Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of goods that are internal to particular practices, Stone argues that faithful evangelism is good in and of itself.  We should not need to look to resulting numbers to measure its effectiveness.[3]  In the context of the New Day community, there was not an “each one, reach one” strategy to obtain new members of the community.  The participants simply lived out their faith in genuine ways.  Evangelism was an orientation of their heart, as well as the lifestyle that emerges as a result.  Worshiping unashamedly to the point where neighbors had to ask us to quiet down is something that people notice, and something to which people are drawn.
            I would love for each member of our congregation to experience the New Day community.  I know that it would pull people out of their comfort zone because it pulled me out of my comfort zone, but that is one of its strengths.  Experiencing new forms of worship is so healthy for those of us who have grown up in the church, or for those who have only experienced a certain method of Christian worship during their life in the faith.  I won’t pretend that I found myself immediately connecting to every element of our worship together.  I caught myself worrying about the neighbors as we sung out our songs of praise while beating numerous drums.  I felt bad that we didn’t have enough places for everyone to sit.  I wish we could have heard more from those who were a part of the community, and less from those who were observers from our class.  However, when I was able to push those trivial worries and discomforts to the side, what I experienced was the faithful evangelistic witness[4] of a community who embodied the message of salvation[5] in the midst of an inappropriate location.[6]  And I praise God for the opportunity to have been stretched in that manner.    
                       


[1]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together(San Francisco: Harper, 1954), 23. 
[2]Sara Miles, Jesus Freak: Feeding,Healing, Raising the Dead (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 6.
[3]Frances Adeney, Graceful Evangelism:Christian Witness in a Complex World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 83.
[4]In reference to Adeney
[5]In reference to Bonhoeffer
[6]In reference to Miles

Turning Handouts into Handshakes: Discussing the Differences Between Mercy and Justice


Having just finished Dr. Elaine Heath’s doctoral seminar class, Evangelism and Discipleship in a Missional Church, at Perkins School of Theology, the topics of justice and mercy are filling most of my thoughts.  One of the richest conversations we had during the course was a discussion about the differences between mercy and justice, as we sat around a table at the Refugee Services of Texas.
Inspired by the conversation, I decided to see how the teenagers in my youth group would handle a discussion of the topic.  So last night, during our weekly small groups, I began our time together by offering a metaphor.  I explained that mercy can be illustrated as giving someone an aspirin to alleviate a regularly returning headache.  Justice, however, is the discovery and surgical removal of the tumor that is the true cause of the recurring headaches in the first place.  While mercy may provide temporary relief to a problem, justice identifies and addresses the source of the problem.  I then dismissed each of the small groups to discuss this idea further amongst themselves. 
Each week I have the privilege of leading our high school guys’ small group.  Last night’s small group discussion with these young men confirms my use of that word, “privilege.”  As we talked about biblical examples of mercy and justice, one young man spoke about the injustice that Jesus addressed as he turned over the money-changing tables in the temple.  Another young man brought the discussion home as he talked about our annual mission trip, which has taken us to Oklahoma City for the past two years to work with an intentional living community of urban missionaries called, The Refuge OKC. 
Commenting on his observations, he said, “You know, when we fix up and paint all those houses, we’re showing mercy to the residents of that neighborhood.  But the real justice is found in those members of the Refuge who have chosen to move into that poor neighborhood for the long-haul.  They’re the ones who are bringing the light into that darkness.”
At this, another young man piped up and said, “Do you remember when a couple of the guys from the Refuge talked about arms-length ministry?  It’s like arm-length ministry—when you give someone a handout—is mercy.  But when you turn that into a handshake, then you level the playing field.  You’re saying, ‘We’re equal.’  That’s justice.”
Sometimes in ministry you shake your head because you cannot understand why people keep choosing to make the same mistakes over and over, as if nothing you were trying to teach them was sinking in.  And then there are those divine moments, when all of a sudden, something sticks.  Last night, as I listened to these young men grasp the difference between acts of mercy and the pursuit of justice, I thanked God that they were getting it! 
Now the question becomes: “How do we address issues of justice in our own back yard?”  As we tackle this challenge together in the coming weeks, it’s my prayer that our youth ministry will lead the way in teaching others that although mercy is good, it’s not enough.

“What Do We Do With All the Old People??”

If anything forces us to “live intensionally” (as explained further in a previous post), learning to be a part of a Christian community is definitely toward to the top of the list.  Particularly in the social and religious climate in which we currently live, we find ourselves living in tension between what used to be and what is to come. 
Walk into most churches 60 years ago and you would find nearly everyone in the local community in attendance.  Dad, mom, sister and brother, sitting together in a pew, dressed in their “Sunday best.” 
Walk into most churches today, and the congregation looks vastly different.  Gone are the days when “everyone” in America was a Christian, and “everyone” in America spent Sunday morning at a local church.
The tension exists when those who lived during the era of the church’s prominence in America worship under the same roof as those who did not.  Those who have a more historical perspective of the traditions of Christianity in America become frustrated when the “newbies” attempt to introduce new ideas and methods of ministry.  Those who are younger, or maybe just less steeped in American church culture, become frustrated when their new ideas and methodologies are met with disapproval. 
And let’s get real for a second: the real tension exists because those who are older usually have the resources (monetarily, as well as influentially) that the younger people need to implement their new ideas and methods.
This often leads to the building of a wall of separation.  What do we do??
Some churches offer two different services as an answer.  The more “traditional” people can have their church and the more “contemporary” people can have theirs.  As a result, the two services end up becoming two distinct churches that happen to share a building.
Other churches have observed this type of interior-split and decided to start brand new churches all together, leaving the older generations completely to themselves.
But there has to be a middle ground, a Via Media, if you will.  How do we affirm the realistic differences in worship preference without creating isolated churches within our churches?  And how do we refrain from giving up on those who have gone before us, simply because they never seem to change in the ways we think they should?
How different would our churches look if we recognized the tension in which we live, and committed together to live in Christian community in spite of it? 
When I hear younger people in the church say, “What do we do with all the old people?” I want to respond, “You respect them for who they are in Christ.”  In the same way, when I hear older people in the church say, “These young people will never understand,” I want to say, “You’re probably right.  But we still need to respect each other for who we are in Christ.” 
Living intensionally isn’t about finding the easy way out.  It’s about finding the way that we believe God has challenged us to live.  And when we do, we will discover things that we didn’t even realize our own stubbornness had been blocking us from. 
I think this is why the article on intergenerational ministry that I recently wrote has been getting such positive feedback.  Somewhere within us we long to experience Christian community as God designed it, with all generations represented. 
As a young pastor in the church, I need to be asking the question, “How can I be a steward of those who have paved the way ahead of me?”  Yes, this means making compromises and not pulling teeth to change everything at my preferred pace.  But, if I’m living intensionally, keeping stewardship in mind, it also means creatively building bridges so that I can encourage the changes that may be necessary to keep the church alive and effective in the 21stcentury.
Living intensionally—not always easy, but so very crucial.     

How Speed-Dating Changed Our Church

In youth ministry we’ve begun to notice that two things occur as our youth programs become increasingly self-sustaining and disconnected from the rest of the church: The adults in our congregation feel left out, uninformed and unappreciated, and the teenagers in our groups fail to become a part of the larger church family as God intends.

Having taken classes from youth ministry leader Chap Clark while pursuing my M.Div. at Fuller Theological Seminary, I decided to attend a learning lab on “Sticky Faith,” led by Fuller Youth Institute’s Kara Powell and Brad Griffin at the National Youth Workers Convention in November 2011.

 

As soon as I returned home I began to see this phenomenon of separation in our own church, and began to talk about it with our parents and adult leadership team. Together we agreed that an intergenerational approach to our youth ministry would be a win-win for everyone.

One way we’ve begun to create more intergenerational connection is by regularly hosting what we call a “Ministry Mixer,” an event to bring together our youth ministry with the various adult ministries of our larger church family. Our very first Ministry Mixer was a joint mission project creating sleeping mats for the homeless population of downtown Dallas, using “plarn,” or yarn made by cutting and connecting the scraps of plastic grocery bags.

I had very high hopes for the first mixer event. I printed out pages with discussion questions to place at each table and dreamed of the lengthy conversations that would take place between youth and adults. I was a bit disappointed when the natural seating arrangements of the room became a microcosm of our church: The adults sitting together and chatting freely on one side, and the youth sitting together and listening to their music on the other. Though I encouraged them to mix and mingle, each time I looked away the room would naturally regain its homeostasis. Everybody had a great time and the event was chalked up as a success, but I knew that there was so much more potential for interaction.

So we reflected, re-evaluated and decided to try again with a more intentional approach. I recalled a fellow youth pastor telling me how he incorporated the model of speed-dating as a fun way to get adults and teenagers to carry on conversations face-to-face. We decided to try it by inviting one particular adult Sunday school class to join our youth group for a potluck lunch and an afternoon of speed-dating-style storytelling.

I asked each member of the adult class to bring a single item associated with a story or memory. Following our lunch together, I had all of the older adults sit in a circle around a large room. I had an inner circle of chairs directly facing each adult chair. This inner circle was filled by our teenagers. I explained that I would be sounding a chime every three minutes to signal the end of a round, at which point the adults would remain seated while the youth would rotate one chair to their right. By the time we were finished, each teenager had rotated around the entire circle, experiencing two dozen different show-and-tells, and each adult in the circle had told their story two dozen times. (I made sure to tell them to bring an item that they wouldn’t mind sharing about over and over and over!)

 

To conclude the afternoon, we held a jeopardy-style quiz and gave Starbucks cards to the teenager who could answer the most questions about all of the stories, the teenager who could name the most adults, and even to the adult who could name the most students.

Every once in a while in ministry there is a moment when you unexpectedly realize that the ground on which you are standing is holy. Looking around the room that afternoon, seeing the smiles on the faces of the participants, listening to the stories being told, the questions being asked and the memories being shared, I recognized that the Holy Spirit was moving amongst us. From the model of a plane flown in the Vietnam War, to the wood plank of the razed house that someone’s great-grandfather had built, to pictures of grandchildren, high school letterman jackets and everything in between, the wide eyes of our young people said it all.

Our teenagers need adults in their lives. Our adults need young people in theirs. When the body of Christ is operating as God designed, the church is a gathering of family. It takes all shapes and sizes, all ages and generations.

I cannot tell you how many positive comments I have received from both youth and adults who participated in that Ministry Mixer. Everybody is already talking about the next one!

Whether this intergenerational event—or the other elements of the Sticky Faith initiative that we are continuing to incorporate—will increase the number of young adults who remain involved in churches after high school graduation, is yet to be seen. But I can tell you this: When each of those students looks back on their time with our youth group, and they recall the adults who cared enough about them to share their own stories, they will have a picture of the church as a family that values and needs each of its members.

It’s my prayer that those who remain active in the faith will be encouraged, and that the hearts of those who have drifted away will be pulled back by these memories, to a congregation they can again call family.

____________________________________________

*The great people at Fuller Youth Institute recently invited me to write this guest article for their “Sticky Faith” website.  It was originally published here: “How Speed-Dating Changed Our Church.”

*Additionally, the United Methodist Reporter decided to publish it as well, under a slightly different title: “How an Intergenerational Mixer Changed Our Church.”