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. 

The Two Most Powerful Words in the World

In seminary I took a class on theology and film.  It was one my favorite classes because it brought the academic rigor of theology down to the real life issues portrayed in films.  Films today have the power to communicate like nothing else we have.  They are arguably our most prominent form of storytelling.

Some of us like movies that remove us from our own experience—movies where we can pretend to be the main character, even though the storyline is so far from real life.  Those movies usually end up leaving us with a feeling of happiness, or heroism, or with the idea that all of sudden we now have the ability to jump our cars over drawbridges or something else crazy like that!
Those movies suspend reality—they draw us out of our own experiences.
But then there are the films that drive us straight into the experiences of our life. These films are usually a bit more artistically directed, and don’t necessarily require a huge budget for special effects or high paid actors and actresses.  But we love them because we connect to them.  They don’t necessarily make us feel happy, or heroic, but by portraying part of our story, they have this way of letting us know that we’re not alone in our pain.
Oftentimes, movies like this don’t even try to answer the “why” question.  In fact, if there were a nice, neat reason for whatever tragedy occurred in the movie, it would make the entire film seem that much less believable.  But becauseof the tragedy, and because of the raw emotion, and because of the messiness, we are drawn into this type of movie because it connects with our own experience.  
It doesn’t have to answer the question, “Why?” and yet it still make us feel better because we know what we aren’t alone.
In one of the most viewed TED talks online, researcher Brene Brown says that the two most powerful words in the world are, “Me too.”  
Me too.  When someone tells us the words, “Me too,” we are immediately drawn out of our loneliness and connected to someone by a mutual experience.  
And I think, in a way, we connect to these tragic films because they artistically portray those two words: “Me too.”
Sometimes, the most powerful words you can say to a friend in the midst of a tragic experience are not those that try to answer the question, “Why?” but are simply those two words that provide the profound gift of empathy: “Me too.”

Mean Restaurant Guests and the Power of Forgiveness

Quite possibly more than any other job I’ve ever had, I learned more about forgiveness and reconciliation while I worked as a server in a restaurant for the three years that I was in seminary. 

When you work in a restaurant, you tend to notice patterns in people.  One of those things that you see over and over is that when people show up to a restaurant, they’re usually hungry.
And when people are hungry, they’re usually cranky.  
And when people are cranky, they’re not usually fun to be around.
That’s when the server steps in.  

I saw it as my task in life to bring smiles to the faces of each guest that sat at one of my tables. 
Now, some people would just show up happy.  They were the easy tables.  They were the tables that you could get their entire order completely wrong and they’d say, “Oh, that’s okay.  Don’t worry about fixing it.  Whatever this is looks good.  I’ve been meaning to branch out and try something new anyway.”  Those people were wonderful, but they were rare.  
Then there were the people who were a little more “normal.”  They’d come in so-so, but after getting a drink or an appetizer they were great.  If you messed up their order, they’d kindly inform you and ask for it to be fixed.  After fixing it, they’d continue with their meal like nothing ever happened.
But then, on the far end of the other side of the spectrum were the mean people.  You know who you are…!  These are the people who walk in mad and have already decided to be mad throughout their entire meal before they have even been seated or met their server.  
You could spot these people as you spied on your table from across the room.  They’d either have face intensely dug into their menu, or they’d already have their minds made up and their menus stacked in a pile as if they’d been waiting there for 30 minutes already, even though you just saw the host seat them.
These were the people I saw as my personal projects.  I was going to make them smile if it took every last ounce of my soul.  
So, I’d approach their table and say, “Hi, I’m Josh and I’ll be taking care of you this evening,” as I wrote my name upside-down and backwards using the crayons on the table.  Usually the whole happy-greeting-thing didn’t go over so well with these people, so I’d keep it short and sweet.  I would quickly take their drink orders and then the challenge would begin.  
But here’s the deal.  This is what I learned.  I could try as hard I wanted, and I could provide them spotless service, but it wouldn’t make them smile.  Again, these people were determined to not crack!
They were constantly looking for me to mess something up.  But ironically, when a mistake was made, whether it was my fault or not, a window of opportunity was opened to show them some unexpected hospitality, and more often than not, that would finally make them smile.
Now, I wouldn’t say I would mess things up on purpose so I that I could apologize and make things better, but after I noticed this pattern, I certainly wouldn’t shy away from pointing something out, sometimes even before the guest noticed that anything was wrong.
It was in that restaurant that I learned the power of addressing conflict on the spot, rather than ignoring it and letting it simmer until it blew up.  When I would take responsibility and apologize for something, and not pass the blame to the cooks or to anyone else in the restaurant, the guests would usually respect that and I would have the opportunity to not just make things right, but to make them even better than they would have been without the mistake in the first place.
Why are we so afraid of conflict?  Why do we ignore it, letting it burrow and grow?  Think about a relationship in your life that has been broken by anger and a lack of forgiveness, whether it’s with a spouse, friend, or coworker.  The longer you run away from the conflict, the worse it will get.  Make that broken relationship your personal project, your “mean restaurant guest,” if you will, and pray for the opportunity and the courage to make things right.
Matthew 5:23-24
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

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. 

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!



How Will Twitter’s Vine Impact the True Vine?

Remember when families used to sit around and listen to the radio together because there were no televisions yet?  Remember when televisions came into the home and replaced the radio?  Remember when the ability to record TV enabled families to watch shows whenever they wanted?  And remember when you could stream shows and movies straight to your portable device or phone?
Remember when advertisers used to buy airtime on the radio?  How about when advertisers had to begin thinking visually as they created television spots?  Or do you recall the first time you watched a digitally-recorded television show and were able to fast-forward through every commercial??
With every transition in media technology, the advertising industry has been forced to adapt.  As more and more people use social media as their primary source for daily news and entertainment, companies have been trying to keep up by transforming their marketing strategies. 
Recently released by Twitter, Vine may once again change the face of advertising.  Instead of radio spots or television commercials (not to mention the sudden decline of print advertising), Vine offers users the ability to create and post 6-second GIF videos. 
Todd Wasserman, of, shares about several companies who have already started to experiment with Twitter’s new service.  Wasserman asks the question, “Will the :06 become the new :30 in the ad world?”
As a teacher of God’s Word, I already face the difficult task of encouraging people to spend time in Scripture.  I wish I could say that this challenge is particularly daunting with teenagers, but I’ve come to find that adults today have just as much trouble finding the discipline to sit down and intentionally read their Bibles.
In our ever-increasing world of sound-bites, people today stop paying attention after more than a few seconds.  When daily Scripture verses can be sent to their email accounts or show up on their Twitter feed, people think, “I’ve heard my sound-bite of Scripture for the day.” 
The memorization of large sections of Scripture has been replaced by keeping a couple favorite verses in one’s back pocket—and they’re usually paraphrased at that!  I’m afraid to see how this trend will continue on its current trajectory!
I can picture John 3:16 going from, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” to “For God so loved the world…” 
That changes things!  When we begin to chop up Scripture we start leaving out key aspects of various passages.  Sure, this would focus on God’s love, but it completely forgets about the True Vine, Jesus Christ, and the response that is necessary for those who love and follow Him.
Now, I would hope that this scenario is more hyperbolic than realistic, but we can regularly see the results of such thinking in all sorts of theological circles. 
As our attention spans get smaller and smaller, I pray that our Scriptural spans will not follow.  But I’m afraid that’s idealistic thinking.  The question that emerges is, “If the :06 becomes the new :30 in the ad world, how does the Church respond?”
Some may say, “We need to find creative ways to communicate the gospel in :06.”  These accomodationists will most likely jump all over Twitter’s new Vine service and find success in doing so.  I am not against this.  In fact, I wouldn’t put it past me to join those in this challenge!
However, as I seek to live intensionally, I will press on even harder to get those with whom I worship to seek intentional discipleship, to push back against the sound-bite trends of society by practicing discipline in their reading of Scripture.
Discipleship is tough.  Discipline is required.  But we cannot afford to lose the significance of the Christian story, simply because our attention spans have become too short to spend time reading Scripture.
Ignoring cultural trends will leave us naïve, isolated and completely irrelevant to the world.  Yet on the other hand, giving in completely to those cultural trends without challenging individuals to recognize them, and to make a conscious effort to subvert them, will lead to such a watered-down gospel that we will have nothing significant to offer the world in the first place. 
Even in our practices of social media, may we learn to live intensionally.

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.