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?

"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.

When History Hinders

There are many churches around the country with similar stories to ours.  20-25 years ago you experienced the “glory days” with a full sanctuary, a thriving children’s program and 700 different Bible studies you could choose from!

Today, however, things look different.  There are more empty seats in the sanctuary, the children have grown up and the Bible studies have been replaced by committee meetings.
You long for the days gone by, those days when all you had to do was make sure that the Sunday morning services were attractive and people would show up.  Going to a church was way more “normal” in the life of the average American than it is today; it was just a matter of finding the one that met the needs of you and your family.
So what do we do?  Where do we go from here?  Will we ever return to what used to be?
Unfortunately, no.
In today’s post-Christendom, post-congregational American society, our ecclesial imaginations must be rewired.  What worked to attract people yesterday won’t work in a society of people who are more concerned with sleeping in or spending a day with their children on the sports fields every Sunday. 
Church is no longer a central component in the lives of Americans.
This reality can be depressing to those of us who pour so much of our hearts and souls into ministry, both clergy and laity.
I suggest that one of the greatest hindrances to moving forward in new and creative ways is our obsession with the past.  What I am not saying is that there isn’t a place for tradition.  Tradition is a vitally important element of who we are as the Body of Christ.  What I am saying is that many churches like ours become hindered by the history of their “glory days.”
Have you seen the movie Men in Black?  You know the little gizmo they use to erase people’s recent memories on the spot?  Wouldn’t it be great if we could use one of those with our churches?
Granted, our memories shape who we are as a people, and I would in no way advocate actually doing this…
But, think about the results if we did.
Imagine if a church like ours was to have the memory of its last 20-25 years erased, and let’s say they started meeting in a sanctuary that required people to stand because there wasn’t enough seating (as opposed to meeting in their current sanctuaries with empty seats that used to be full).
This would completely change the focus of the questions we ask as ourselves as we attempt to move forward. We wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about what is missing, because we wouldn’t know anything different!  Rather, we could focus on discerning what it is God is calling us to do today.
So, instead of asking, “What can we do to attract more people to our church, so we can return to the numbers that we used to have?” our questions might sound more like, “What can we do to be faithful disciples of Christ and make a difference in our community today?”
When we operate out of scarcity, our default questions tend to focus on the negative.
When we operate out of abundance, we recognize the fact that we have everything we need to be used by God now, today not in the future when our seats are more full, not when we have a larger budget to work with, not putting any conditions on our answer at all, but saying, “God, we trust that YOU know what you are doing, so we are going to follow YOU into the unknown.”
Now, does that mean that we don’t want to grow?  Of course not.  God calls us to make disciples, which means growing in number.  But, we leave the growth the God.  We do our part by being faithful disciples, and we allow God to add those numbers to our church family.
We can’t confuse the end with the means.  We often think that growth in numbers is the means to a healthy church that can make a difference.  Instead, we should see growth in numbers as one possible end, or result, of a church that has been faithful and is making a difference with what it has.
Luke 16:10 says, “He who is faithful in little will also be faithful in much.”
When we are faithful with what we’ve got, God will bless us to be faithful with what God decides to give us.
But it takes trust.  Sometimes the only way of finding out what God has in store is to step out in faith without knowing what lies ahead.  
I’ve heard this kind of trust compared to the headlights of a vehicle that only illuminate a particular distance into the darkness.  The only way to find out what lies ahead is to simply keep driving.
Or you can think of it like the training wheels of a bicycle.  A child can go their entire life riding a bicycle with training wheels.  It’s familiar, comfortable and safe.  That child will never realize the feeling of freedom that comes when those training wheels are removed until they actually try it!  Then they’ll realize what they have been missing and they will never want to go back.
It’s the same way in the church.  We like what it feels like now because our imaginations are limited to what we’ve seen and what we’ve experienced.
What if God actually does know what God is doing?
What if God actually does know where God is leading?
Then we need to pray for the courage to see beyond our own histories, to trust in the plan that God has in store for our futures, and enjoy the blessing of being used by God today.

"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.

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.