Thursday, August 15, 2019

Baby Steps into Mission: Presence, Part 2

Faithful readers, I apologize for the long delay in getting this blog up. Between summer vacation, official cross country practices starting, launching a child into Kindergarten, and all the ministry usuals, blogging has been on the back-burner.

So, let's dive back in!

We ended last time with a call for us to move from being in proximity with the people we would reach to becoming a presence. After establishing our proximity (remember, 7-10 hours/week in our mission context), our goal was to become a familiar face, to be available, and to be ready to start meeting people and having conversations. We were to do this for the purpose of establishing trust and building relationships. That was the long and short of it.

Today I want to underline the importance of this process. If you've been in an evangelism or outreach program before, what I've said might seem too slow and time consuming. After all, it could take several months or even longer for you to become a real presence in the place God has sent you to!

So why do I advocate this long-haul approach?

Because we're called to make disciples!

Our job is not just to get someone to say a "Sinner's Prayer," or to believe in God, or even to show up to church one time. We're called to make disciples, which means we're called to walk with people and lovingly show them the way of Jesus and the Kingdom and to integrate the gospel into the totality of their lives. You can't do that without a relationship founded on trust. If there's not trusting relationships, then there won't be new disciples!

Let's take that a step further, and give a preview of what's next for us. In order for someone to want to be a disciple of Jesus they will need to see Jesus in us. Not a superficial, "always-happy-smiling-Christian thing, but a legitimate, "you really live differently in a good way and you care about me" sort of thing. Again, that won't happen apart from a relationship!

So what about inviting people to church and letting the church disciple them? After all, that's a pretty common strategy for churches to reach people. In brief, taking someone to your church is usually not a bad strategy (but it could be... more on that later). But, you are still the one who has the relationship built on trust with the person considering discipleship! You are still the one in the best possible position to help this person become a disciple. Being a part of a church community of some sort is a necessary aspect of discipleship, but it is not sufficient.  So if we take someone to church our job is not done; our relationship is still the primary link between that person and discipleship, and until that changes we are called to continue graciously leading them towards the King.

We often talk about the high cost of being a disciple of Christ. It is high indeed. And part of this cost is in making more disciples. There are no short-cuts here. It takes time and sacrifice to consistently be a presence, develop relationships, and lovingly help another both give and align their life to the King. 


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Welcome to the Team Anthony!

It is my pleasure to introduce the newest member of the Burning Bush Communities team: Mr. Anthony Morgan!

Anthony is 52 years old and hails from Miami, Florida. He served 23 years in the Florida penitentiary system, and about halfway through his time in prison Jesus got a hold of his heart and set him on a new path of loving God, loving others and sharing the hope that he found in Christ. Anthony now operates Mr. Clean Pressure Washing Service (you can find them on Facebook HERE), and has a passion for working with at-risk youth who face many of the same obstacles and pitfalls that he faced as a young man. What excites me most about having Anthony on our team of local missionaries is the joy he carries with him wherever he goes. Anthony will be leading Cultivate this next year, and we can't wait to see how God uses the joyful spirit He's placed in Anthony to bless our friends in Pine Manor.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Baby Steps into Mission: Presence, Part One

Today we're back with our baby steps into mission! Here's where we are at:

1. We know that our key question is: Who is God sending me to?
2.  We've identified the places where we have (or could have) proximity and the relationships we have in those places. (Remember, proximity means that others have the ability to access you and vice versa).
3. We've considered if there are other places that God has placed on our hearts, and if we could gain the necessary proximity hours there.

From this point the fun can begin! Here's how we start on mission:
1. Choose a place to engage (your mission context) based on our discernment process. Remember, it's okay to not be 100% certain... we have to be willing to do some trial and error.
2. If we don't have the proximity hours in that place, make that happen (our goal is 7-10).
3.We begin using our proximity to become a presence.

From Proximity to Presence
Proximity- important as it is- isn't enough. It's necessary for mission, but not sufficient. We can spend time in almost any place and remain relatively anonymous if we choose. Our next baby step therefore is to become a presence in our mission context, meaning, that we are known and trusted by the people we have proximity with. To be a presence is not necessarily to be an insider, but it is to be a known entity. If you have presence in a place then you are part of the social fabric there, and it is socially acceptable for people to begin sharing their lives with you: what's going on with them, what they hope for and what they're anxious about. To have presence means you have earned a community's trust and you can freely and naturally engage with them.

I cannot overstate the significance of this step; almost all mission and ministry depends on trust. And while this may seem obvious, it is rarely done well, because it requires time, intentionality and patience, and we generally value speed, efficiency and quantifiable success (more on this to come). Furthermore, this step never goes away! Even when we have moved on to other missional tasks and steps we must always be building or maintaining our presence in our mission context.

How does one build trust? Fortunately for us, if we're being diligent with our proximity then we're ahead of the game, as familiarity is step one. Think about it, if you see a neighbor walking, mowing the lawn, getting the mail, and simply doing the regular tasks of life in plain sight you begin to trust them. We are disarmed by people who we can observe behaving in regular, non-threatening patterns. For example, if you decide that God is sending you to your neighbors, you can start by intentionally letting yourself be seen doing the regular activities of life. Take a walk after people come home from work. Mow the lawn when you know neighbors will be outside. Play with your kids in the front yard, instead of the back yard. You might think of this step as "becoming visible."

After "visibility" our next step is "availability." Be available for introductions and conversations as you go about those daily tasks. Put yourself into the social spaces in your mission context where it's appropriate to talk with those who you don't know (for example, the break room at work, a neighborhood pool or park, a pick-up game, a bar, etc.) and be ready to share who you are. Your goal at this point is just to make acquaintances without being over-bearing. Remember, this takes time. We can't rush building relationships. Most of us have experienced Christians who rush this and are avoided by ourselves and others because they are unwilling to allow relationships to develop at their natural, slow pace.

All that I've said thus far might seem painfully basic and obvious to you. If so, great! The truth is though that many of us do not have presence in any of the spaces we primarily inhabit (i.e. the places we have proximity): we're unknown to our neighbors, to most of our coworkers, and to the people we shop next to, workout next to, and do the basics of life next to. This is because we're on our phones, we have headphones on, we rush from from place to place, and we only make space in our lives for people who we have already established common ground with: people at our church, in our hobby groups, or families. And it's also because our entertainment (hello Netflix) isolates us from our neighbors, rather than drawing us together.

So with all that said I'm going to stop here. There's more to come on becoming a presence in our mission context, but first things first. Your job at this point is simply to start meeting people. Establish some routines that make you visible and available to the people in the place you're sent to. Take off the headphones at the gym. Make that neighborhood walk regular. Stop rushing around as you do chores and run errands. Again, as simple as this sounds I believe it's quite hard. We're so used to rushing that it's tough to move slow and lose some of our "productivity." And (admit it!) we're comfortable being unknown and detached from our surrounding. We're tired and being anonymous means saving lots of energy. And some of us are introverts (like me!), and getting to know people is scary and exhausting. I understand that struggle... but God is sending us! So let's start praying, and put ourselves out there! Next time we'll pick up with some what-ifs, next steps and common rebuttals. 

The truth hurts.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Cultivate: Gone Fishin'

One of the big challenges facing our youth outreach ministry in Pine Manor (Cultivate Pine Manor) over the last couple of months has been replacing our volunteer leaders. All the leaders who served with us last year are now transitioning to new jobs that don't fit our schedule, moving away, or working on establishing new ministries in their neck of the woods. For the last two months I have been praying for God to provide new leaders, and wondering if Cultivate would even be able to restart with school in the fall.

So I share with great joy today that God has answered our prayers! He has provided a whole new team of volunteers, and even a new point person, so that I can put my focus on the ministry opportunities open to us at South Fort Myers High School. Thank you Lord- You are much better at recruiting leaders than I am!

This past week some of the new Cultivate leaders took several of the guys fishing out in Estero Bay. A good time was had by all, and here are a few pics from the day:

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Baby Steps into Mission: Issues

Congratulations reader! If you have worked through the relational map exercise and spent some time considering proximity you are ahead of most. However, you are still probably lacking of clarity about where/who God is sending you to. That's totally normal. Today, I'm just going to tackle some basic issues that you might be facing as you think and pray through this process...

Issue #1: "I'm not 100% certain who I'm sent to."  

Welcome to the club! Absolute certainty and clarity are generally lacking when it comes to mission. Though we have goals, and we'll even have strategies, the truth is that we must give up control of the process, starting with our desire for total clarity over who/what/how things will play out. Mission depends on God's leading, and on our faithful following. We have to be okay with trying and experimenting at this stage, even if we're not sure we're in the right place. Trial and error and lots of grace will get us to where we need to be (Paul's journey to Philippi in Acts 16:6-10 is a great example here).

Issue #2: "I don't have viable proximity with non-Christians." 
If you feel this way then let me first gently push back... really? You really don't even have proximity with any neighbors or with co-workers who are non-Christians? It's possible this is true (I live in a vacation oriented condo community with few full-time residents and I have no co-workers myself), but I would challenge you to really think hard about this before you claim it. If this is your situation, then you have some work to do. If your work is mobile, it might be time to start doing some work at a library or coffee shop. Join a gym or a club or get involved with something that will give you proximity. Have fun with this! I'm giving you an excuse to pursue a hobby as a means of getting to know people.

Issue #3: "I have proximity with people but my heart isn't there."  
I have two follow up questions for this issue:

1. Is your heart somewhere else?
Let's say you don't feel the Holy Spirit tugging on you at all where you already have proximity. But you're losing sleep over the plight of the homeless, or the forgotten elderly in the local government nursing facility, or the migrant families struggling to survive in your city and feel God is calling you there. Great! If God has laid a burden for a particular place or issue then we can go from there. But it's important for you to consider what this will mean up front. You still need proximity, which means you'll probably need to make some significant sacrifices to get that proximity. If you work full-time, can you give up a couple of nights a week and some weekend time to make this happen? If not, then either you are mistaken about this call, or you need to make some lifestyle changes.

2. What if your heart just isn't anywhere?
Assuming you agree with me that mission is critical to being a disciple of Jesus (not sure why you'd be reading this blog otherwise) then I'd gently suggest that this is a compassion issue. If you read the gospels, much of Jesus' ministry was driven by his compassion for hurting, lost and desperate people. If we (I include myself in this) lack compassion, then God's love is not working in us as it should, or is being obstructed by other issues. My experience is that these issues could be:

- Ignorance: we don't know the people around us, and the painful struggles they face.
- Trauma: our own wounds are consuming us and we don't have energy to spare for others.
- Self-Righteousness: we don't think the people hurting around us merit our time and energy.
- Satiation: we're so entertained and comforted that we are not disturbed by the pain of others.

If you're in this camp, this would be the time and place for you to ask yourself some difficult questions. And let me add, please, don't throw in any shame and guilt here. Those won't help! What we're looking for is honesty, and the courage to deal with what we truly find. If we're honest, we've all hit those four categories at various times on our journey.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Baby Steps into Mission: Proximity

Today we're jumping back in with our conversation about how to launch into local mission. Remember, our goal is to reveal the King and the Kingdom, and to invite people to become disciples of Jesus where God has planted us. This isn't a new program, but it is a new focus.

Again, our key question is: Who is God sending you to? We know God is on mission, and we know as disciples of Jesus that He is sending us to participate in that same mission. And we know that we can't be sent to ourselves, so our mission is directed beyond the body of Christ. (We do have an obligation to serve and participate in our local body, but that's not mission.)

So, you have now had a week to work on and reflect on your relational maps. Essentially, the relational map shows you the places where you could begin to engage missionally at this very moment. It doesn't mean you should, but you literally could start this very week in those places. Now that we've named those places, how do we determine where to begin?

People vs. Places
At this point, you might be thinking, "Why is John talking about places instead of people?"

That's a good question, and an important one. Engaging in mission is a long-term commitment. It is a lifestyle, not a program. The problem with narrowing our focus to individual people or even a group of people is that people are incredibly fluid today. Fifty years ago, you could expect people to live in the same place and hold the same job for many years. That simply isn't true today. Furthermore, people have many opportunities and options for how to spend their time, so scheduling around them is difficult. The issue here is access; it's hard to access people today, and especially for the long-haul (which is where we're headed). By choosing a place to dedicate ourselves to for mission, we know we'll have the ability to access it and build it into our schedule (if it's not already there). If we're in the place, we'll find the people.

The exception to this would be people groups who are stable due to other factors. For example, the homeless, a traveling youth sports team, bikers and an ethnic enclave are all groups of people that would be more stable and accessible due to cultural and institutional factors. 

Choosing a Place
So where do we start? Here are a handful of questions that we can use to sort through this:

1. Has God made it clear in your prayers where to start?
If so, you are ahead of the game! But, go ahead and work through the next two steps anyway as a means of discernment.

2. What places do I already have relationships with people who are not disciples of Jesus?
If you are already well-connected somewhere, then it makes sense to start there. For many people this could be a work-place or neighborhood.

3. What places are there opportunities for relationships with people who are not disciples of Jesus?
This could be a gym or a place where you participate in a hobby or go to relax (coffee shop, bar, etc.).

Step One: Proximity

What we've done up to this point is determine the places where we have or could have proximity with those who God is sending us to. Proximity is simply sharing a space with someone. You have proximity with people who workout near you, who walk around the park you take your kids to, or who sit in the waiting room at the doctor's office near you. You have proximity with the people who live on your street when you're both home from work. It doesn't mean you interact at all; it just means you are near enough to each other to potentially interact. Proximity is absolutely vital! You cannot establish relationships and reveal God's love without proximity.

So how much proximity do we need?
Here's where the rubber hits the road. One of the hard lessons I've learned is that establishing proximity is easier said than done. It's easy to get proximity for an hour or two at a cafe, gym, or recreational area. It takes commitment though to get the level of proximity we're looking for. Our goal is 7-10 hours per week in our mission space. Remember, we're just talking about being near enough to those who we are sent to that we could connect. That means we're available and accessible, and they are too. If we are spending ten hours a week in our missional space people have plenty of opportunity to interact with us and to get to know us. Now you can understand whey we are probably going to choose a place we're already at... Most of us can't afford to add on these hours to our schedules! Look back at your relational map. Where do you already have proximity with people? Meaning, where are you already in that 7-10 hours a week zone? Where could you have that sort of proximity?

You may be asking, "Why so much proximity, John?" Great question... and I'll answer that in my next post! Until then keep praying, discussing and discerning!

Friday, June 28, 2019

Baby Steps into Mission

I have spent a fair amount of time on this blog critiquing individual Christians, churches and
If Bob can do it, so can you!
ministries for failure to engage in mission. However, I recognize that I have not offered much in the way of help for folks who want to do mission but aren't sure where to start. Over the course of the next few blogs I'm going to try to remedy that, and lay out a few baby steps for you to take if you are ready to move into mission. (Of course, if you live in Fort Myers and are ready to dive in you can just write or call me!)

First, a couple of disclaimers:
1. I'm assuming that you are already praying about this... keep praying!
2. I'm assuming you are attached to a community of disciples.
3. When I say mission, I mean revealing the Kingdom of God to people who are not disciples of Jesus in word and deed, with the goal of inviting them to become disciples of Jesus.

Okay, now that we've got that out of the way let's get to it.

The number one question we need to answer is: who is God sending you to?

I'm assuming you're not sure about that (otherwise you'd be doing something already, I hope). That's totally normal. That is the baseline question though, and one that we will come back to again and again. So start praying about it.

As we begin to think about that, let's take on a couple more questions:
1. What people are currently in my life?
2. What sort of relationships do I have with them?

A great way to answer this question is to create a relational network map. Here's are instructions on how to do this:

1. Put your name in a circle in the middle of your paper.
2. List your different network “locations” in other circles (work, neighborhood, gym, etc.).
3. List all the people you have a relationship (of any sort) with around these circles.
4. Determine (roughly) how many hours a week you spend in each circle.
5. Create a simple ranking of relationships. Like 1 for an acquaintance, 2 for casual friend, 3 for close friend, etc.

Now, look at your relational network. What names on the paper stand out? Who is a believer without a community? Who is a nominal Christian? Who doesn't know anything about Jesus?

What needs or issues do you see in your network?

What common interests or passions do you see in your network?

The reason we do this is because, more often than not, God sends us to the places we already are. And this is a good thing for a variety of reasons. One, because we already have an insider's level of understanding in most of the places we inhabit. Two, because we are a known entity (and hopefully in a good way!) in these places. And three, because most of us lead busy lives and are not ready to make the scheduling sacrifice necessary to engage a new mission field. (See previous post. Of course we will be looking hard at our schedules in future posts, so be prepared!) By going on mission where we are we don't need to add a whole new program- we just change our focus in the places we're at.

Note: However, if your relational network has very few people in it who are not already disciples of Jesus then we're going to need to get you in some new places! 

So, start working on your relational map, start praying over it and asking for God's leading, and I'll be back next week with next steps!

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

No time for mission?

The number one excuse given by otherwise obedient disciples as to why they can't engage in mission? Surely you know the answer already... too busy! Of course busyness is the answer we give to everything today, as it is the most polite way to decline an invitation in our society, and it is a way for us to signal our virtue. After all, if we're busy we must be doing something worthwhile and productive with our lives! (There's an interesting new book, Seculosity, by David Zahl that explores busyness as our culture's new version of "righteousness.")

Unfortunately for us, in the light of history it seems the numbers just don't add up. This morning a favorite blog of mine, Jesus Creed, shared some fascinating evidence and statistics put together by Robert Whaples, a professor of economics at Wake Forest University (( Essentially, Whaples demonstrates that those of us living in the present time have far, far more leisure time than anyone living in history. For example, if you lived in the 1800's, there was a good chance you worked 60-70 hours a week on average (six days a week, at ten to twelve hours a day). The average man at that time would have had 1.8 hours of discretionary or leisure time per day, averaged over the course of the year. Today, the average working man averages 5.8 hours of discretionary or leisure time per day, averaged over the course of the year. 

Here is a chart with the implications of this over the course of a lifetime:

 Estimated Trend in the Lifetime Distribution of Discretionary Time, 1880-2040
Activity 1880 1995 2040
Lifetime Discretionary Hours 225,900 298,500 321,900
Lifetime Work Hours 182,100 122,400 75,900
Lifetime Leisure Hours 43,800 176,100 246,000
Source: Fogel (2000)
Notes: Discretionary hours exclude hours used for sleep, meals and hygiene. Work hours include paid work, travel to and from work, and household chores.

Pretty amazing change! We're supposedly the busiest generation ever, but it's not because of work!

The reason I'm sharing this is not to guilt trip anyone, or because I begrudge people their leisure hours. It's simply to make a few points. First, our busyness is self-imposed; it's not because we're working ourselves to the bone to survive. It's a choice we make. Second, we don't manage our time well, and we blow it on the internet and social media and entertainment. Finally, if we can't "find" time to faithfully engage in mission it most likely means that it's just not a priority to us... Which means that being a disciple of Jesus is just not a priority to us.

Please note, if you are one who does work 60-70 hours a week, and/or are swamped with babies or other desperately needy persons, this blog entry was not meant to target you. Of course workaholism is an issue too, but that's not what this post is about. This post is about those of us who fit into the average categories for work but want to claim we're strapped for time... Don't believe us!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Welcome to the team, Peggy!

For the last two years I have consistently prayed for God to connect Burning Bush Communities with local disciples who are full of His love and passion, and who desire to reveal the Kingdom in our city. Disciples who are both ready to go, and recognize their need for support and community from like-minded brothers and sisters. This blog has testified again and again to how God has answered, and continues to answer that prayer!

Today it is my pleasure to introduce you to Peggy Welch, a new member of the Burning Bush Communities family, and the leader of Justified, a ministry dedicated to walking with and discipling women as they come out of jail and prison. Peggy was incarcerated for five years herself, and her experience in coming to faith and the difficulty of navigating life after exiting the justice system has inspired her to pursue the call that God has placed on her.

In her own words:

Justified was implanted in my heart about 8 years ago while sitting in the Florida Department of Corrections. At the time I was a new Christian and did not even know what that word meant. Now I do. Now I understand. Justified is when we are in right relationship or standing with God. We are His. It is the foundation that we are building from that point. Everything in life emerges from our relationship with Jesus.

I would never have chosen this for myself. I can honestly say that this is not my desire but a desire placed in me by God. I have actually tried to fight it, run from it, but there is no fighting or running God unless you want to have a miserable existence. The ministry or vision came from a place of pain, sin and stupidity. But He will use my mess for His message, and to equip and empower women to be the women that God has called them to be. To release them from the bondage that holds them back. To discover a healthier path to life. To allow them to cultivate the life God intended for them.

Justified will be a place for women that were previously incarcerated to locate the tools necessary to live a life of stability. To move pass the labels. To give them hope that they can accomplish amazing things even though they chose to go down a difficult road. It’s not too late for them. Justified will offer biblical crisis counseling, credit and financial counseling, career coaching, and health and wellness programs. These tools and skills will empower them and give them the confidence that they can achieve success. For those who decide they want to change—Justified will be there to offer direction and a plan action for them to follow!

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Cultivate at Busch Gardens!

When we started Cultivate (our youth mentoring program) at the beginning of the year we set a variety of goals and incentives for the students. They earned points by attending Cultivate, getting A's and B's on tests and report cards, and for service hours in the community. Each month and quarter there were different prizes to win based on the amount of points the students earned. But we also set a grand prize for the year, a trip to Busch Gardens, for any student who attended 75% of Cultivate meetings and who had a 3.0 grade point average.

This year we had four students who won the grand prize (woohoo!), and this past Saturday a small group of us (unfortunately life events prevented two of our winners and a couple of leaders from joining us) went to Busch Gardens to celebrate! While the rides were fun, in my opinion the best part of the day was simply enjoying the relationships that God created through Cultivate. At this time last year we were just starting to get to know some of the students in the neighborhood, and on Saturday we talked and related as spiritual family. And that in turn made me reflect on all the different people we met, the friendships that were birthed, and the significant moments that God orchestrated through our rag-tag ministry. So thank you Lord for your provision for Cultivate, and below are a few pics of fun at the park!

A tired but happy bunch!
Super proud of these two young ladies!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

A Missional Critique

Today we're jumping back into our series on the missional movement and its critique of both "traditional" and "contemporary" churches. Much ink has been spilled on this subject, and there is far too much for me to cover in this blog, so I'm going to limit this to what I believe are the five most potent and pressing criticisms.

1. Christendom is over!
For hundreds of years the key to "church planting" in the western world was simply to build new churches. After all, Christianity was the privileged belief system and the church was the source for spiritual guidance and succor. Obviously, this is no longer true, and most people understand this point. However, many churches still operate under the illusion that if they get their worship and programs and aesthetics right (good youth group, good parking, good preaching, a great band, etc.) then people will come to the church and they can participate in God's mission without strategically reorienting their focus, resources and people into the community. They are wrong! The statistics demonstrate that most of these techniques simply draw Christians away from their previous churches, and do not reach many non-Christians. The truth is, non-Christians aren't looking for a church! If they are going to be reached, it will be through disciples who know them and have put forth the effort to love them. Mission today requires sending disciples out; it cannot consist of simply trying to attract people to worship services!

2. Mission- not institutional health- should be the driving and organizing principle for the church.
Everything that a church does should be an expression of, and driven by, God's mission. One of the biggest issues in the institutional church is making decisions about "what's best for the organization" based on: protecting the institution, culturally determined metrics for success, and keeping members happy. As soon as our priority is on survival, success, and institutional serenity our goose is cooked. By making God's mission the organizing principle we don't allow (or at least put up a better line of defense!) our institutional ties and loyalties and comforts to distract us from participating in the mission. And if we organize around mission we are less likely to spend ourselves attempting to please consumers of religious services. Instead we free up the necessary space and resources to equip and empower disciples to lead out in mission. (As opposed to offering our missional people the organizational left-overs.)

Also, by making mission the organizing principle we pave the way for authentic worship and community to happen. Worship is about obediently offering our lives to God. Therefore, our corporate worship is false if it's not flowing out of mission and into mission, since we are called and sent by God into mission. And worship grows in fervor as a response to witnessing God move as we're on mission. Christian community without mission is just a Christian club; enjoyable but often superficial. But if we allow mission to create community we'll discover a deeper fellowship made through mutual sacrifice and shared effort.

3. Discipleship and mission are inseparable.
Disciples are made in the mission field and are made for the mission field, as the goal of the disciple is to carry on the Master's work. Any cursory reading of the gospels will show that Jesus trained his disciples while on mission, and a reading of Acts shows that Paul followed suit. Without a balance of learning, going and reflecting (with the aid of spiritual practices) we don't get disciples. Rather, we get educated Christians, which isn't a bad thing in itself, but is not our goal. Furthermore, when we make mission the end of the classroom-style discipleship track we ensure that people will have lost all momentum and initiative by the time they are released, and many will not even make it to the end. I understand the fear of releasing untrained disciples, but the reality is that mission more often than not serves as a catalyst for learning. We learn about our ignorance and incompetence when we engage in mission, and that directs us to where we need to learn and grow in non-missional settings. And, local mission badly done is usually a product of lack of love and character, and not lack of knowledge.

4. Mission is for everyone, not just a select few!
As everyone is called to be a disciple, so everyone is called into mission. Mission is not to be left to a committee, or to the "super-spiritual," or to the paid professionals. And it's not a program for people who have time left over in their busy lives. It's simply a commitment to revealing the Kingdom of God to the people God has sent us to (i.e. the people in our lives). Of course that requires some specific practices, but it doesn't require a program or formal ministry.

5. Our metrics and methods should be determined by God's mission, and not by our culture.
I've written about this on previous posts, so I won't belabor this point. As mentioned above, if we're determining our success by our culture's standards then we're already toast. Plus, what we win people with, we win them to, so if we're not winning them with Christlike mission then we'll lose them when we call them to discipleship anyway.

Recommended Reading: Untamed, by Debra and Alan Hirsch

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Welcome to the Team Edward!

Today we get to put our missional theology discussion on hold for a great reason: we're welcoming a new local missionary to the Burning Bush Communities family!

Say hello to Edward Ekwa everyone!

Edward is originally from Cameroon, and he moved to the US in 2009. He has served in a variety of ministries and leadership roles in Cameroon, Nigeria, Liberia and here in southwest Florida as well. Edward has a passion for revealing the love of God and the gospel through ministries and outreach events in the marketplace, and then walking with new disciples as they learn the way of Jesus. We are thrilled that Edward will be joining our community of local missionaries, and we look forwarded to receiving the blessings from his deep love for Jesus and his rich experiences as a ministry leader.

Please join me in praying for Edward, and for the community he is planting, Faith in the Word!

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Excursus: The Mission to Reveal and Invite

In the previous post I shared my take on the mission of the church as:

1. Embrace the King and the Kingdom of God,
2. Embody the King and the Kingdom of God,
3. Reveal the King and the Kingdom of God, and
4. Invite all people to come to the King and join into this Kingdom mission.

Today, as I was finishing up The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, an excellent book by Jonathan Pennington, I came across this passage regarding the mission of the people of God, and I am compelled to share it as a similar perspective on our mission, and far more eloquently said:

As the church awaits the return of the risen Savior, the disciples of Jesus are invited into a way of being in the world that leads them into an experience of present-but-not-yet-full human flourishing, aligning them with the reason God created the world as the place of life and peace for his beloved creatures, and empowering them to be engaged in bringing flourishing to the world. Jesus is the sage and king who is inviting hearers into his coming kingdom of flourishing and life. The Sermon is at the center of this message. (309, italics my own)

In Pennington's view, disciples of Jesus we are invited to embrace and embody Kingdom life (which is the place of flourishing, in Pennington's words), and through the Spirit we are empowered to manifest this flourishing life in and into the world. This "bringing flourishing to the world" is what I refer to as "revealing the King and Kingdom." It's not making the world flourish, but rather demonstrating the flourishing Kingdom and blessing others with its presence, and then following in Jesus' footsteps to invite others into this "kingdom of flourishing and life."


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Getting Down to Business


Before you do anything else and lose focus (shiny object!) read the list below:

Point #1: God is on a mission (which flows out of the love intrinsic to His nature).
Point #2: The church is a product and expression of God’s mission and exists for that mission.
Point #3: We don’t get to determine the mission, God does.
Point #4: We don’t get to determine the methods for mission, God does.
Point #5: Mission is the organizing principle of the church.
Point #6: Mission is for all disciples of Jesus.
Point #7: Success or failure can only be determined by reference to the mission.

What do you think about that list of missional claims? Do you agree with those claims?

If you disagree with that list, that's cool. You should probably stop reading this and read something else. Maybe the bible, since you seem to have missed some key parts of the story... Just kidding! Seriously, it's okay to have theological disagreements, and now you know exactly where I stand as we move forward.

If you agree with the above list, then it's time to get down to business, because you have work to do. Whether you  agree with my view of the church's mission (below) or not YOU are called to insert your definition and then ask the hard questions about what applying the the aforementioned missional claims would entail.

Up until this point I have declined to define the mission of the disciples of Jesus (aka the church, or the people of God, or however you want to say this). I chose to do that to avoid a battle that would distract us from the task of understanding the logic of missional theology. But now I'm going to lay my cards on the table so that you have a clearer picture of how I see these ideas coming together in practice. This is, for the record, one working definition for the church. It is not THE definition. And, I didn't come up with this; it is a synthesis of other people's ideas.

The mission of God's people is to...

1. Embrace the King and the Kingdom of God,
2. Embody the King and the Kingdom of God,
3. Reveal the King and the Kingdom of God, and
4. Invite all people to come to the King and join into this Kingdom mission.

My conception of our mission is directly related to my understanding of the Gospel. I believe that through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and enthronement of Jesus, sin and death have been decisively defeated and the Kingdom of God has been made available to all who will give Jesus their allegiance (repent and believe). This comes with the promise that Jesus will return someday to establish the Kingdom in power, resurrect the dead and rid the world of evil (judgment).  

Because I believe these things I don't think it's our mission to change the world, to "build the Kingdom," or something along those lines (shout-out to my friend Michael Bare who wrote a great FaceBook post on this the other day). That's all God's job, and frankly we don't have the knowledge or power to do it very well. Change for the good is a good thing, but it's a fruit of mission, and not the mission itself.

However, it's also not our mission to just "save souls" for a disembodied heavenly existence. God's Kingdom will reign in this world; God will not abandon His creation!  This world will be regenerated by God. So we don't preach escapism and we don't just hold on until death to get out of here. We faithfully live under the reign of Jesus and help others to do so while trusting in the eventually victory of the King and His Kingdom.

Now that I have laid out my definition of the mission we can move on to thinking about what the implications of applying the seven missional claims I've made to that mission would be. In the next few blogs we'll look at arguments and perspectives from several sides the issue, and consider what changes might help us stay closer to the mission that God has given us.

I want to close today by sharing how this thinking impacts Burning Bush Communities. What we strive to do is to partner with disciples who have embraced and embodied (always in process, of course) the King and Kingdom, to then go and reveal the Kingdom and invite others into it. We believe that in many local churches disciples are not called, equipped and empowered to carry out these tasks (usually it's left to the ministry professionals). We believe that God has called us to step into this gap and serve as a community, resource provider (material, theological, etc.), coach and cheerleader for disciples who are ready to fulfill these tasks of revealing and inviting.

Recommended Reading: The Forgotten Ways, by Alan Hirsch

Recommended Reading Bonus: Endangered Gospel, by John Nugent


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Mission: Accomplished or Forgotten?

Today we arrive at our last major points of the missional movement! But first let's restate the missional points we've made thus far:

Point #1: God is on a mission (which flows out of the love intrinsic to His nature).
Point #2: The church is a product and expression of God’s mission and exists for that mission.
Point #3: We don’t get to determine the mission, God does.
Point #4: We don’t get to determine the methods for mission, God does.
Point #5: Mission is the organizing principle of the church.

Flowing out from these points we get our final two points:

Point #6: Mission is for all disciples of Jesus.
Point #7: A ministry's success or failure can only be determined by reference to God's mission.

Let's take a look at these last two points one at a time...

Mission is for all disciples of Jesus.
If the church (the community of disciples) exists for God's mission, and that mission is the organizing principle of the church, then it follows that every disciple should be engaged in mission. Of course, many in churches today would agree with this, and yet, frankly, few disciples are currently engaged in mission. So why is that? Here are a few of the causes:

1. They are too busy serving on church committees or in ministries serving church-members.
2. They are too busy participating in discipleship programs that are inwardly focused, because...
3. Mission has been broken off from discipleship, and there is no integration of learning and doing.
4. Mission is portrayed as a program or service activity to be occasionally engaged in.
5. Mission is portrayed as something for the elite few.

The first three causes listed above plague the traditional church. I have a lot of compassion and mercy here, because so many followers of Jesus are taught this model and are so busy sacrificing to make their church's programming run that they don't have time for mission. Of course, there is a place for serving the body Christ and participating in some interior-looking ministries and learning about our scriptures and theology. But when disciples of Jesus cannot fulfill the mission He gave them because they are over-loaded with other church programs or duties there is a problem. And when our bible studies and teaching and classes contain no missional impetus or integration, there's a problem. If we are not forming disciples who can carry on the mission Jesus gave us then we're not actually forming disciples. We're forming Christian consumers of Christian programming instead. If mission is not a priority over programs for members, and there's no plan to integrate it into our discipleship then it just won't get done. Mission requires too much of us to be done as a secondary task.

The last two causes are more offensive. Honestly, it kills me for churches to check the mission box with one special event a month or less. I don't have time to discuss here why this is a total theological fail, but when Jesus said, "As the Father sent me I send you" (John 20:21) He wasn't telling the disciples to go and do some pain-free, social media covered service projects. And as for mission for the elite few, that's usually the product of ministry super-stars who would prefer for their followers to celebrate their success and perform supporting tasks for them than to equip them to do mission themselves.

Success or failure can only be determined with reference to the mission.
If the mission is God's, and the method is God's, then the standard for success must also be with God. Therefore we cannot use our culturally determined standards (in America it's size, money and speed) to judge ministry success. I believe that Jesus' most chilling words speak to this point:

Matthew 7:21-23
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

In the end, it will be our obedience to God's command- our faithfulness to His mission- that will be the measure of ministry success. The missional movement calls out the contemporary church for substituting culturally defined success for faithfulness to the mission, and seeks to develop new metrics for success that are aligned with God's mission. (Much of this has to do with tracking output instead of input. For example, don't measure how many people come to a program, but how many people implement what they learned to serve as witnesses in their spheres of influence.)

Book Recommendation: The Church as Movement, by Dan White and JR Woodward 


Thursday, May 9, 2019

One Big Mission Umbrella

Fearless readers, today we are plunging ahead in our series on what missional is and why it matters!

Thus far we have laid out these key points from the missional movement:
Point #1: God is on a mission (which flows out of the love intrinsic to His nature).
Point #2: The church is a product and expression of God’s mission and exists for that mission.
Point #3: We don’t get to determine the mission, God does.
Point #4: We don’t get to determine the methods for mission, God does.

So, drum-roll please for Point #5: Mission is the organizing principle for the church.

In other words, mission is the big umbrella under which all activities of the church take place. This stands in contrast to the mindset of mission as one ministry among many others (kids, youth, discipleship, worship, etc.) in the church. The diagram below (from ReThink, by Brad Brisco) is one way to picture this shift:

This point usually ruffles the feathers of many who believe that (corporate) worship should be the the organizing principle of the church. Certainly corporate worship has the pride of place as the organizing principle of most strains of traditional Christianity. However, the missional movement reminds us that worship is not a program, but a lifestyle ("offer your bodies as a living sacrifice..." and all that good stuff). As such, worship is not in anyway lowered in importance by organizing around mission. Further, our corporate worship is an expression of our mission; it is one critically important way that we witness to each other and to the world. So worship isn't threatened by mission here. Rather, we're ensuring that our corporate worship is aligned to, and reflects the mission we've been given by God.

At this point it's difficult to proceed without a lengthy discussion of what the mission of the church is, and I don't want to go there yet. Rather, I want us to grasp that this should be the outcome of believing that we (the church) are the/a fruit of God's mission, and that we exist for that mission (however we define it). If we exist for mission, we ought to organize ourselves around it, and everything we do should be clearly connected to it.

Organizing around mission is a big deal for three reasons:

1. It strikes a blow at institutional inertia. 
We all know that after a while churches, like any other institution, simply do things because of preference and history and inertia. These programs and activities are no longer connected to God's mission, and distract from the mission. They are usually not bad in and of themselves, but we must always evaluate our activities and programs for their connection to the mission. Are these activities and functions helping us faithfully carry out the mission, or are they distractions?

2. It strikes a blow at institutionalism.
Worse than disconnected programs are institutions whose mission is simply to keep existing. If we're more concerned to keep the form of our institution going than God's mission then the game is lost.  By organizing around God's mission we remember that our institutional existence is always of secondary importance to God's purposes: His mission continues even if our institution dies. (And we should remember that the true Church, the Body of Christ in the world, is not an institution.)

3. It gives priority to the commission we received from Jesus.
There are some people who believe that missional Christians are unbalanced by the focus we give to the commission that Jesus gave His disciples. So be it! All of our gospels end with a commission: "Go make disciples... You shall be my witnesses... As the Father sent me so I send you." Jesus organized His life and ministry around God's mission, and so should we. Our mission is not exactly the same as Jesus', to be sure, but arguments against making Christ's commission our organizing principle fall short. Yes, there are other scriptures and important theological issues to consider, but when the God-incarnate, resurrected Lord gives you one final task it should go to the top of the list! (For the record, I believe that the whole New Testament reflects this focus on God's mission, even if it looks different in different writings. But we'll save that for another time!) 

Book Recommendation: Missional Church, edited by Darrell Guder

A classic for the missional movement!


Monday, May 6, 2019

Whose methods?

For the last couple of weeks we've been exploring the missional movement and its implications. By way of reminder, the missional movement began as a response to the decline of cultural and institutional Christianity in the West. The movement essentially named the problem that God's mission was not at the center of the life of the church in the West, and asked what it would look like if that mission was returned to the heart of the church.

Let's start our conversation today by reviewing first three points of the missional movement:

Point #1: God is on a mission (which flows out of the love intrinsic to His nature).
Point #2: The church is a product and expression of God’s mission and exists for that
Point #3: We don’t get to determine the mission, God does.

Today's point should come as no surprise...

Point #4: Since it's God's mission, He also gets to determine the methods.

You might think that this point would be obvious and hardly warrant mentioning. However, this point is often the deal-breaker when folks are considering joining the missional movement. All too often people like the idea of returning to God's mission as the organizing center of church, and are excited about discovering their calling in the scope of that mission, but are ultimately unwilling to make this next step.

At this point you might ask, "Why is that the case, John?"

Well, let's consider what God's methods for pursuing His mission look like in the New Testament (brief survey here!):

- absolute trust and reliance upon God's power and provision
- constant attention to developing loving relationships and a loving community
- the slow work of training, equipping and empowering others to whole-heartedly love God and seek the Kingdom first
- on-going sacrificial service and risky witnessing as the means to engage with outsiders
- humble leadership that gives itself away to lift up others

If we're honest, that's a very difficult set of methods for us to adopt. Culturally, we're inclined to pragmatism, which means seeking the biggest result (or the "most effective strategy") for the least amount of sacrifice. Unfortunately for us, pragmatism is antithetical to God's methods of pursuing His mission. Adopting His methods requires embracing our limitations, embracing slowness, and embracing sacrifice. (Of course, the upside here is that we're also embracing God!) 

Now, let's ask, "What methods do we like to employ to pursue God's mission?"

- trust and reliance upon our natural abilities and available resources
- constant attention to developing programs that will entice others to join our community
- attempting to quickly socialize newcomers to live as respectable, nice, well-balanced individuals who have room for Jesus in their busy lives.   
- large scale projects that make us feel like we "made an impact" without jeopardizing our lifestyle
- charismatic and powerful leaders who make us feel excited

Now this is what we like: make a plan, get the right people, get the resources, and make it happen baby! We do good and we're doing good at the same time!

Down the road I will explain how I see our methods supplanting God's methods in typical American churches (always good to save the controversy for the end!). But for now, I simply challenge all of us to consider our methods in whatever ministry we're involved in. Are we committed to employing the methods we see in New Testament (not that we can't use the OT, but that requires a little more interpretive work), or are we committed to using the methods which are prevalent in our culture and which we believe will bring us the most success?

Book Recommendation: This is a special one for me... The House of Jesus, by my father, Charlie Halley! I'll give you a full review on this down the road, but it's all about how we've adopted our culture's methods for growing the church and how we can return to Jesus' methods... Way to go Dad!

Image result for the house of jesus charles halley

Monday, April 29, 2019

Whose mission is it anyway?

We’re continuing today with our series on what missional means and why it matters. Last blog we established that according to missional thinking:

1. God is on a mission (which flows out of the love intrinsic to His nature).
2. The church is a product and expression of God’s mission and exists for that mission.

The question then that naturally follows is, “If we accept those points what are the implications?”

While we can go in many directions here, I think there are three answers that take priority. In this blog I will tackle the first of those points, which is Point #3:

3. We don’t get to determine the mission, God does.

This is both the obvious answer and the “easier said than done” answer. If the church exists for God’s mission then God should dictate what that mission is. Duh. But, you might ask, by what means does a community of disciples know what God’s mission is?

In the history of Christianity there has been much dissension (and insanity) over this point. Some people will say just scripture. Some will say scripture and tradition. Others will want to add reason or experience or Christian philosophy to that mix. For my own money, scripture, interpreted in community, should lead the way, but with ample help from Christian tradition and history. But, that’s not the only valid opinion. (Note: Later in this series I will briefly unpack how missional movement leaders define God’s mission, and my own opinion as well. But for now I just want to focus on the big picture logic of the missional movement.)

However you come to your answer of what God’s mission is, the CRITICAL PIECE is then asking these hard questions:

1. Have we really put in the time to consider what God’s mission is, the scope of that mission, and our place in it?

2. Can we articulate that mission and our place in it?

Then we can move on to another difficult set of questions:

- Are we focused on our place in God’s mission, or being successful?
- Are we focused on our place in God’s mission, or advancing (or protecting) our institution or organization?
- Are we focused on our place in God’s mission, or on pleasing our community?

None of those three things are inherently bad, but they often usurp the place in our center that should be taken by God’s mission. Far too many Christian communities make decisions based on "being successful" (as their culture defines it, usually budgets and buildings and size in the US), on simply continuing to exist, or by making sure the people involved in their community are happy with them. When these questions displace the focus on God's mission there's a problem, and the missional movement has been a prophetic voice regarding this problem. The truth is, every community has places where it compromises, and every community also ebbs and flows between faithfulness to God’s mission and forgetting God’s mission. The point here isn’t to condemn or to judge; the point is to call for repentance for all of us and to challenge us to consider these questions seriously.

Book Suggestion: The Open Secret, by Leslie Newbigin

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

What does missional mean?

Today I am kicking off a series of blogs dealing with the concept of "missional" church or ministry. In this series I am going to explore:

1. What it means to be missional;
2. The missional critique of the established church in the US;
3. The critique of the missional movement;
4. Why I am a believer in the missional method;
5. The implications and challenges of mission.

My goal is to keep this discussion simple and succinct. Therefore, I will not be filling up these blogs with footnotes, but will simply paraphrase and state openly that these ideas are not mine (unless otherwise noted). I will however offer one book suggestion for readers each post, and in these books you'll find all the ideas I'm drawing on. Finally, in these posts you will see the basic theological framework for Burning Bush Communities... That is, why we do what we do.

So, let's begin with a few basic beliefs of the missional movement...

The very first thing that the missional movement claims is that God Himself has a mission. We believe that God's love, which is intrinsic to His being (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), moves God to act in the world as an expression of that love. We believe that scripture bears witness to this mission. Traditionally, this concept is called the missio Dei.

Point #1: God has a mission!

The next claim we make is that the church is a fruit of God's mission, and exists to participate in God's mission. What's critically important here is that God's mission precedes the church and provides the church with its reason to exist. I believe Leslie Newbigin said, "The church doesn't have a mission in the world; the God of mission has a church in the world." While this seems like wordplay, the distinction here is important. Mission isn't a program or an aspect of what the church does or even a specific type of activity. Mission is who we are, and should encompass all we do. The church is an expression of God's mission.

Point #2: The church in its totality is an expression of God's mission, and exists for the purpose of God's mission.

We'll pick up there next time!

Book Suggestion: The Mission of God by Christopher J.H. Wright

Monday, April 15, 2019

Burning Book: Dedication and Leadership

It's not everyday that a former communist leader offers advice to the church. In this respect, Douglas Hyde's Dedication and Leadership is a unique and fascinating book. Hyde worked his way up in the Communist Party in the UK in the 1930's and 1940's, and in his journey he did just about everything from training new recruits to publishing tracts to traveling all over the world to birth new Communist cells. However, in 1948 he renounced communism and converted to Catholicism. Dedication and Leadership is a call from Hyde to the church he loved, in hopes that the church would reclaim its heritage of producing dedicated and passionate leaders.

In Dedication and Leadership Hyde seeks to answer a single question: How is it possible that the communists, a tiny fraction of the world's population, have made such a large impact on the 20th century, while Christians, a large portion of the world's population, have made so little?

While Hyde looks at many of the successful methods that communists employ, in the he believes that the difference is all about high level of commitment that is expected of every communist. Hyde finds this dedication at play in all the steps that communists use to develop leaders:

1. A radical vision of a transformed world proclaimed;
2. A leadership that models dedication to this vision;
3. The expectation and necessity of sacrifice to join the organization;
4. The expectation that all who make this sacrifice grow to lead others in the same manner.

Of course, as a Christian I look at that list and cringe, because that list of attributes is ours! There is no greater vision of a transformed world than the Kingdom of God. There's no higher call to sacrifice than that of Christ. And there's no system of developing dedicated leaders more compelling than Christ to the apostles to the early church. Once upon a time these were our strengths.

Dedication and Leadership is a butt-kicker on many fronts, but is a Burning Book because Hyde is a true believer that ordinary men and women can be equipped to do amazing things. Over and over Hyde witnessed ordinary men and women become communists and bring about radical change. The reason they were able to is because they had leaders who believed in them and expected this of them. My hope for Burning Bush is that we can one day say the same... That we made a Kingdom impact because, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we called, we trained and we supported ordinary disciples whose dedication to Jesus- and not human talents or ability- made the difference.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Way to Go Come As You Are!

What a joy for the Burning Bush family to see one of our network partners Come As You Are recognized and celebrated for their long-term service and compassion for the homeless in Fort Myers! Read the write up on them HERE.

Thirteen years of loving service... amazing! And one of my favorite things about the Come As You Are team is their humility. They don't look to be celebrated or recognized; they just serve as if it were the natural thing to do and always seem to find a smile for those they serve in spite of some challenging aspects of the ministry. Thank you Tonya, Tom, Tawny, Greg and all the CAYA team for inspiring us with your love for Jesus and the people He loves!

Greg and some CAYA friends

Getting ready to serve... same time, same place for 13 years!

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Hotdog Grill

Grilling season never ends in Fort Myers. It might be a little chilly, or a little wet, but you can fire up a grill here just about everyday. And if you are a hungry non-vegetarian, being handed a freshly grilled hotdog or hamburger at lunchtime at no cost feels pretty close to true love... maybe even the love of Jesus. And that is exactly why John and Darla Mezger fire up the grill in the park on weekends: to make the love of Jesus known to neighbors through a warm welcome and a warm meal!

Several years ago the Holy Spirit laid a desire on John and Darla's heart to love on their neighborhood by meeting practical needs and creating a space for neighbors to connect. Out of this desire a hotdog ministry was born (hamburgers have been added since). It's a simple deal: a sign, a grill, a few coolers, and some chairs for folks to sit in as they enjoy their meal. But out of this simple act of grilling many friendships have been born and lives touched. John and Darla have cooked out all over San Carlos Park and have blessed hundreds (if not thousands) of neighbors with a delicious lunch, a word of encouragement, and an opportunity to learn about Jesus.

A desire to share God's love with neighbors, a willingness to take the risk and go, and persistence in making Jesus known through kind deeds and both gracious and truthful words... these are Burning Bush traits. And as soon as I met John and Darla, saw them in action, and heard their story I felt they would be a good fit for our team. So I am thrilled to announce today that they have taken me up on the invitation and have joined the Burning Bush family!

So, a warm welcome to John and Darla, and we look forward to seeing how Jesus will continue to use your grill, your warmth, and your heart to serve in San Carlos Park and beyond!

It must be lunchtime!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Burning Book: Paul and the Gift

Most of us struggle to read anything that was written two or three thousand years ago. Even if the writing is well translated it's a challenge, because the cultural world it was written in is completely foreign to us. While we understand the meaning of the English words we read, we don't necessarily understand how those original words were used when the author first penned them.

Of course, when it comes to these issues of understanding ancient writings the bible is no different. In our last edition of Burning Book we saw this issue with the word "faith." This week, we're taking on the word "grace."

One of the most common ways that Christians describe God's grace is that it's a "free" gift. That is, it cannot be earned, merited or repaid. And it's given to undeserving people and there's nothing that they can or should do in return for it. It is non-circular.

The problem, according to John Barclay in Paul and the Gift, is that that is not what the Apostle Paul or his contemporaries meant when they used the word charis, which we translate as "grace!" In Paul's world "grace" could refer to many things, including:

1. A superabundance of something given ( a gracious gift could be a big gift)
2. The benevolence of the giver (a gracious attitude)
3. A gift that was earned but was still a gift (not an agreed upon payment, like an MVP award)
4. An undeserved gift (think of a judicial pardon as an act of grace)
5. A gift that was effective in obtaining its goal (usually a relational change)
6. The initiative of the giver in seeking to give the gift (grace belongs to the one who initiates)

However, you'll notice that what grace DID NOT mean in the ancient world was a gift that required no return. There was no such thing as a non-circular gift in the world of Jesus, Paul and the apostles. Every gift required a return, if not in material reciprocity, then in honoring the giver with recognition, elevated social status, and social and political loyalty. The ancient world, and certainly the Roman world, were built on this understanding of reciprocity in gift-giving and honoring.

Barclay says, "As depicted in this letter [Galatians], the grace of God is "unconditioned"(without prior conceptions of worth) but not non-circular or "unconditional," if that means without expectation of return. To the contrary, practice arising from and aligned to the truth of the good news is integral to what Paul means by "faith." (446)

God's gift to us (the undeserving) in the death and resurrection of Christ is the ultimate gift. This gift cannot be earned, but requires a return. We must renounce our own lordship over our lives and our own status, and give our loyalty to God (through Christ) in order to rightly receive the gift which is offered. The scandal of the cross is not that it's an unconditional gift with no strings attached, but that's it's offered to undeserving people (everyone!).

Obviously, this has some significant implications for how we think about evangelism, salvation and discipleship. If grace demands a return (hello repentance) then just getting someone to "accept" grace in one moment is not the goal. Rather, the goal is to help them take hold of the gift which is offered through a life of discipleship, meaning, a life of obedience to Jesus.

Barclay's book has some tough parts. But considering that we have more access to information and education than practically anyone who has ever lived, I challenge you to take on Paul and the Gift. It might take a while to work through, but is well worth the effort.


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Foundation Ministry

My favorite blogs to write are blogs which introduce new local missionaries and new mission endeavors. Nothing gets us more fired up at Burning Bush than seeing ordinary disciples claim a calling, take a risk, and make the sacrifice to reveal the King and His Kingdom. So I am thrilled that I am getting to write on of those blogs today!

Today I have the pleasure of introducing Lori Ann Martell, a local missionary who is launching the "Foundation Ministry" in partnership with Burning Bush Communities. Foundation seeks to love, serve and empower single mothers who are working to get back on their feet and put addiction in the past. It is really a an amazing ministry, as Lori Ann is weaving together her clinical background in drug rehab, her Christian discipleship training, and substance abuse counseling resources to assist women who are ready to move towards the healing that Christ offers. Lori Ann is hardly a newcomer in serving and working with this demographic, but this is the first time she's had the opportunity to bring all these pieces of the healing puzzle together. She is currently working with several mothers, and already there are more women interested in the ministry as word is getting out.

Please keep Lori Ann your prayers! Pray that Christ would gather a team to serve with her and guide her in establishing a community in which women can work through this long-term healing process together.

Lori Ann loving on a new member of the Foundation family!
A family on the road of healing...

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Bad Christian Books and a Burning Book: Salvation by Allegiance Alone

There is no shortage of bad Christian books in the world. It seems these days that every megachurch pastor (real, aspiring or otherwise), child of a famous Christian, and Christian blogger (gulp!) believes that their words are deserving of at least a paperback edition.

If only this were the case! Frankly, I find most popular Christian books to be about as enjoyable as the flu. At first glance you break out in a cold sweat, then comes the headache, and by the end you are nauseated. The genre as a whole suffers from too many maladies to detail here, but some key issues are plagiarism, a failure to do any significant research on key claims, straw man arguments, excess sentimentality and a constant appeal to popular catchphrases.

Fortunately, we have some alternatives. Whatever you think about Amazon and online bookstores they do provide us with access to far more than what a Christian or popular bookstore carries. And there are some wonderful, and important, new Christian books out there.

All that being said, I am starting a bi-weekly tradition here of sharing recently published (within the last ten or so years) or largely unknown books that are deserving of your time and attention. Each of these books has deepened my discipleship, pushed me further into God's mission, and provided me with new understanding and excitement about God's story and God's work in the world. I will call these books "Burning Books," as they served to make God's word and calling clear to me.

I am not going to provide a book review for these books. Some I will write a fair bit about; others I will be very brief. The point is simply to pass on the blessing that these books provided me with, and I do hope you will task the risk of cracking open a few of them!

Burning Book of the Week: Salvation by Allegiance Alone, by Matthew Bates

Salvation by Allegiance Alone articulates what many Protestant scholars and pastors have uncomfortably hinted at for years: the word "faith" in the New Testament is closer to what we call allegiance or loyalty than "belief" as a mental category. Faith is not primarily an intellectual understanding or propositional belief about Jesus, but rather an adherence and faithfulness to Jesus as King.

Bates is able to succinctly demonstrate that the Greek word pistis (usually translated "faith") was often used to express one's allegiance to a ruler. In other words, if you were a Roman citizen you gave pistis to Caesar. Soldiers gave pistis to their commanders (as seen in Josephus). These citizens and soldiers were not merely saying they believed that their king and supervisor existed, or even that that trusted them, but rather that they supported them and would be faithful to them.

This argument is further strengthened by Bates' demonstration that the Gospel message itself was not a/the plan of salvation (as is often used in Reformed and Evangelical circles), but was rather the message that Jesus was God's anointed Messiah, and the resurrected King of the world. Of course as such He could offer salvation, but the point of having "faith" in the gospel message was the transfer of allegiance to Jesus the King.

Ultimately Bates points to three elements of faith that are at play in the New Testament when the word pistis is used:
1. Mental affirmation (yes, we still need this and at times is the meaning of "faith")
2. Professed fealty (publicly claiming Jesus as Lord)
3. Enacted loyalty (obedience)

In many ways Bates' argument resolves the questions surrounding faith and works in the New Testament, as someone who believes and trusts in the message of the Gospel will give their allegiance to Jesus and earnest seek to obey Him.

Bates' work serves as a helpful admonition for ministries dedicated to evangelism and discipleship, as he shows how evangelism fails without a call for obedience to King Jesus (hello discipleship). Bates helps us see how evangelism and discipleship are inseparable; they are in fact two sides of the same coin. And this understanding frees us from an evangelism built on convincing someone about theological truth claims up front and hoping for speedy success. Rather, if we conceive of our task  as revealing Jesus's kingship and helping people come under Jesus's rule (which still includes the necessary information, but goes beyond it), then we can begin the long-term work of disciple-making with patience, knowing that transformed lives require far more time than accepting minds.

While Salvation by Allegiance Alone is not a terribly challenging read (some of the later chapters are a little more difficult, but aren't central to the argument), it is a challenge to modern believers who have separated their "belief" from their "faithfulness." It is a call to reexamine our own faith, and to ask if it is a faith characterized by allegiance and loyalty. As a good "Burning Book" should do, it points us back to the journey of repentance- aligning our life with the King- and therefore it begins to direct us into His mission. After all, those who are loyal to the King are called to fight in His battles.

Baby Steps into Mission: Presence, Part 2

Faithful readers, I apologize for the long delay in getting this blog up. Between summer vacation, official cross country practices starting...