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. 

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?

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.

"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.

Evangelism Doesn’t Have to be a Bad Word

One word that brings with it a variety of responses based on each person’s own experience is the word “evangelism.”  

To some, evangelism can be a passion of the soul that brings purpose to a person’s role in this world.  Every day they wake up ready to evangelize the world.
To others, the idea of evangelism creates anxiety.  Talking to strangers about one’s faith is out of their comfort zone.
And yet, to others, the word evangelism invokes feelings of downright anger.  Perhaps they experienced the abuse of someone who preached a gospel of judgment and hate, all under the guise of evangelism.
Evangelism a tricky word because of all the different meanings it has adopted, and yet, it is a word that we need to take seriously as Christians.  
In its essence, evangelism simply means to announce good news.  Most of the time that it is used in the Bible it is translated as “preach,” but not always.  
Oftentimes when we think about evangelism in the Bible, we think about the New Testament.  After all, when we talk about preaching the good news of the gospel, we are usually referring to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But have you ever thought about evangelism in the Old Testament?  If you think about it, God created the nation of Israel as God’s holy people.  They were to be set apart from the world to point the world to its one, true God.  As a nation, they were living the good news of the kingdom of God.  
They didn’t have to sit people down and verbally convince them that their theories about God made more logical sense than somebody else’s.  No, they simply lived differently, and by doing so, they pointed people to God.  They were practicing evangelism by living within God’s plan and design for their lives.
The truth is, there isn’t one, true way to practice evangelism.  Think about how many different ways people find God on their individual journeys of faith!
Yes, for those who are intellectual, someone may need to provide a convincing argument for the existence of God.
But for those who are hurt, someone may need to love them with God’s unconditional and forgiving love.
Or for those who are lonely, someone may need to invite them into their home with the radical hospitality that Jesus showed to everyone he met.
Really, we could spend all day talking about the best methods of successful evangelism.  But what, exactly, makes evangelism successful or not?  What if the success of evangelism wasn’t based on the immediate outcome, but was instead based on the faithfulness of the person to practice it in the first place?  
In other words, what if we focused less on the result, and focused, instead, on the practice?
Sometimes we focus so much on the goal, that when it doesn’t turn out like we think it should, we give up on trying at all.
It’s kind of like the game of golf. 
You can spend 4 hours building frustration toward that little white ball that will never, ever go where you tell it to, and completely lose sight of the fact that you have the physical ability to be playing golf in the first place, the freedom in your schedule to take a four hour break, the resources to participate in such an expensive game, all in the context of God’s beautiful creation!
You can get so focused on your perceived goal, that you lose sight of the main goal of any game: to provide enjoyment.
It’s the same with evangelism.  We get so focused on our perceived goal (to amass countless numbers of converts to Christianity) that we lose sight of the main goal to which God calls us: that is, simply living out God’s love publically and faithfully, announcing the good news with each breath we take, each word we speak, and each decision we make.
1 Corinthians 3 reminds us that we can do the planting and the watering, but God brings the growth.

Does that mean we don’t want to see people give their lives to Christ? Of course not! We want every single person to experience the good news of the gospel as we have!

What it does mean, is that we don’t have to be afraid of the word “evangelism.”  We don’t need to feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of saving the souls of the world (which often leads to giving up trying at all).  Yet, on the other hand, we also need to recognize that although God brings the growth, God uses us in that process.

May we learn to point the world to its Creator, simply by the way we live our lives.  May our words and actions be a reflection of the One who created us, and who desires for us to thrive.  And may we be faithful in our calling to continually plant new seeds, to water the seeds that have already been planted before and around us, and to pray to God for the growth that God has promised.