One of the things most human is our shared love of story. The swashbuckling reveries of grandiose characters in drama or comedy, romance or tragedy, that bespeak our common existence. We are, for a few moments at least, transported beyond the banalities of daily existence into another world. A world of imagination. A world where anything is possible. A world where rights are wronged, where grown men cry and grown women conquer. A world that brings hope and the promise of a new tomorrow.
Let’s admit shall we that, whether or not you are a person of faith who believes in the literal, historic events of Jesus, an ardent atheist, or even someone of different faith, one can hardly deny that his person and work make for an amazing story. Try as he might to keep things tight and under wraps, he was consistently headline worthy. Even in his day he was deeply polarizing.
He certainly said some weird stuff. In one encounter with a Syrophoenician woman he stated, rather insultingly, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Dude, really? To the casual observer, he could be whiny, “how long must I endure this faithless generation?” Like, wow. One word: take a breath (hyphens not included).
He is as enigmatic as he is tragic. Hard to pin down and easy to argue about, Jesus never submitted well to easy stereotypes or casual name-brand philosophies.
The blessed among us grew up reading or listening to stories. Those without this experience are truly the poorer for it and to be pitied above all else. To tell a story is to welcome mystery, fantasy, possibility, into our lives. Everyone needs that.
The Bible is literally a collection of stories, both literal and otherwise. It’s arc is that of a journey. It is one great exodus from a place of slavery, woe, and darkness into the Promised Land of freedom, joy, and light. What was seen as macro in the Old Testament through a nation – her monarchs, mayhem, and movements was pictured later in the living allegory of love itself, Jesus the Christ.
I recently came upon this remarkably inventive little meme. It is wonderfully succinct and simple. It is a one-stop shop for the incarnational story of redemption. A creative at heart, I have always marveled at the unending possibilities the sacred calendar offers for creativity. Drenched in changing colours, themselves a metaphor of deeper spiritual-theological realities to which they point, possessing interesting descriptors like “Ordinary Time” or “Epiphany.” It is a playground of possibility.
But what I love most about the church calendar is how it celebrates our common love of story in one great story, retold every year. It is the ongoing reminder that every moment of every day of our lives is something holy. We live the mundane in the well-lit streets of God’s neighbourhood. And nothing gets wasted. The times of our lives are mimicked in the smaller patterns of the Paschal Mystery, itself mirrored in the sacred calendar.
Anticipation of Advent.
Our longings are always met by God, but in unexpected ways; in little things, unseen or forgotten things; out of the way things. In pregnant teenage moms and confused dads. In the injustices of supply and demand, leading to scandalous birthing conditions.
Incarnation at Christmas.
In shivering babes without homes. A child far beyond their parents’ ability to understand or control grows to be a man of profound ability and dubious abilities. A man with an unending capability for love of the least and worst.
Revelation in Epiphany.
These longings are experienced by everyone, not just the acceptable, country-club religious. Even pagan philosophers, totally outside the proper parameters of faith and, as such, acceptability, find their way to Jesus. And they came not just out of curiosity. They came to worship. Try that one on for size, o ye doctrine police!
Repentance through Lent.
The richest things are found not in laughter and smiles but through the forgiveness of wrongdoing, the weighing of life in the balance and grace received to make up that which lacks. There is good stuff to be found in the dark soil of penitence. Here we meet God at His/Her most vulnerable. The self-giving God who pursues death that we might have life.
Resurrection at Easter.
The sacred story, although confusing, rough and often dark, is one that only gets better in the telling. Death means little to a God always busting at the seams to live. The grave was a blip on the screen to Jesus whose eternal realities were too intimidating for death. Up from the grave He arose – and we with Him.
New life at Pentecost
The Gospel was never intended as a window-dressing tale to be told to well-dressed children from gold-gilded pages. It is a story as fresh and wild and untamable as the God who is its author. That story becomes powerfully ours at Pentecost.
The rest of the story in Ordinary Time
We then must learn to inhabit these truths. Let them inhabit us. Learn them. Trust them. Doubt them. Love them. Hate them. Deny them. Reintegrate them. Love them. Let them love us, until we start all over again.
Why not learn to live in such a way that the immensity of grace finds place in us at every point of our calendar? I pray that, for you as for me, this story becomes ever more our own to cherish, to tell.
Given the constant pestering from my legions of adoring fans, with characteristic humility, I submit to your desire for a year-end Rob exposé. Okay, so maybe it has a little more to do with keeping up appearances and SEO ratings. Okay, so maybe I’m too lazy even for that.
Consider it a need-driven march to help lay bare some personal truths gleaned from another calendar year of living large in a small town. In any case, here’s my look back at a year, now mere hours in our rearview mirrors.
A few hours ago, that big, magical clock from which we run, upon which we hang our goals, and against which we struggle, strain, and strive for personal betterment clunk itself over from 2018 to 2019. And, in that instant, all our accumulated belly fat, financial debts, interpersonal fireworks, and personal bugaboos disappeared in plumes of rainbow-coloured smoke.
Well, for those of us who lived through it sober, ’twas nothing more than the slight rightward movement of the minute hand on my late father’s mantle clock. That is, of course, if I were awake to see the magic happen (I wasn’t).
2018. Hmm, what to say about the year. Despite being a year primarily of seeking and discernment, a kind of quiet faithfulness to duty prevailed. So much so, that I struggle to write much of anything with any real drama, sizzle or wow. A certain plodding along prevailed. A daily attention to the simple joys of waking up, having a job to do, and family and friends for whom to do it.
2018 did see a number of significances worth mentioning, not the least of which was the end of a thirteen-year long chapter.We bid farewell to the Master of Arts program in Spiritual Formation and Leadership through Spring Arbor University, Michigan. I graduated from this program in 2011. It’s one of the few genuinely cool things I get to hang on my wall.
My relationship to this program is close and deeply held. As is my reverence for the stalwart souls who envisioned and implemented it so well. Through my role as musical liturgist, and resident buffoon (I never got paid extra for that),
I was given opportunity to work with spiritual luminaries the likes of Richard Foster, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Mindy Caliguire, Robert Mulholland, Reed Sheard, Valerie Dodge-Reyna, Eric Rasmussen, Elaine Heath, Michael Christensen, Robert Moore-Jumonville, Wil Hernandez, John Michael Talbot, Juanita Rasmus Dallas Willard, and numerous others. People whose books dot my shelves and whose spirits challenge my own.
It was like letting the poor kid from the blue collar neighbourhood hang out in the executive box (is that what it’s called?) at the Superbowl (that’s the football thingy, right?). I was the starry-eyed groupie meeting his super-heroes for the first time. Not only did I meet them, but we even worked together in the process of souls intermingling at heaven’s cocktail party. It means that, now, I can shamelessly name-drop like everyone else! I’ll have one of those “wait till you hear this” kind of stories for water-cooler and narthex, post-service chit chat.
But seriously, my heart is heavy with its demise. And, yes Ms. Dion, my heart will go on, but not without a dent or two from some serious front-end collisions with God’s good people, equally hungry for spiritual food.
A rather vexing concern of 2018 was the personally arid landscape for new words. Put another way, a decided lack of writer’s cramp. Subsequently, I’d become accustomed to dropping bits and bobs of literary refuse hither, thither, and yon.
Anyone who creates anything at all is constantly confronted by this particular demon. Hips are always a little out of joint thanks to creative-angel wrestling-tomfoolery. That said, it was not entirely without a gem here or there. Besides, like the end of an old toothpaste tube, here I am all the same, squeezing out whatever is left in the curl (because I squeeze out toothpaste properly!).
My journey in a renewed sobriety continued apace. The egg-faced embarrassment of a 2016 fall from grace is still freshly washed off and replaced by the smile of A.A. rediscovery.
I discovered the little joys of posting spiritual memes rather than multi-layered tomes.
All things U.K., longing and retrospective, coupled with growing understanding of my own lineage dotted this blog as well. I dare say, it will always be that way.
My 2017 retrospective shared much of what I continue to encounter in daily living. That is, an appreciation for the beauties of, well, daily living. What could be at the root of this humanizing of an otherwise heady mysticism? Could it be the relative lack of mid-fifties testosterone? A more ready shrug of the shoulder to that which might have destroyed a younger me? The unyielding march of days set in years, marching still faster, that offer greater calm in the storm? A good running regime? Dental hygiene?
Whatever the case, my life, despite its fair share of discouragements and mystifying conundrums, seems to have taken on a more settled timbre to its previous, grittier iterations. How can one be anything but grateful for such?
My wife of over thirty years continues apace wrestling her first novel into submission. I’m sure more on that tale will be forthcoming. My sons, Calum (27) and Graeme (22), are struggling and reaching and hoping as young men do to find their respective places in the proverbial panoply of similarly struggling humanity. Graeme graduated from Selkirk College in Contemporary Music and Technology. Calum writes and produces music and paints houses.
Of them, I could not be more in awe.
Despite an appalling lack of inspiration (sometimes even interest), I plod along in my daily responsibilities as music and worship director atYakima Covenant Church. For reasons best left a mystery, they continue to employ me. I think they even like me. Not everyone can say as much. And, that alone, gives me pause for reflective gratitude.
So then, like you, I stand at the threshold (such a tired, but useful metaphor) of a new calendar year. In one hand I hold my hopes and aspirations for what I’d like to see in my life and ministry. In the other, the memories and experience of all that helped fill the other hand.
And I sing songs of remembrance. Of hope. Of lives yet to touch. Of songs yet to sing in days yet to live.
Most of all, eight years on, you are so appreciated, my beloved innerwoven family. Your interest in my words, pontifications, occasional perturbations, and contemplations – my life – mean that you are as much a part of me as anyone else.
I am humbled by your presence here and your willingness to hang out at this cyber-fire with me. Let’s keep telling fireside stories together for our mutual edification, shall we?
Thanks for just being here with me and, Happy New Year.
Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken – A Review
Drive down any neighborhood street in America and one is struck by the sheer number of church buildings dotting the suburban landscape. They are all roughly the same size, striving toward the same full palette of programming options, and feigning ecumenism while struggling for the same group of spiritual consumers intent on gaining the biggest bang for their religious buck. All this while balancing a staff-for-growth strategy with the mortgage on a newly renovated building designed to make those same folks comfortable, happy and faith satisfied.
The Christian church in North America wrestles with an image crisis. More specifically, it wrestles with a crisis over image; image over anything else. Ever since the church growth movements of the seventies and eighties that saw the emergence of the mega-church and seeker movements, we have trained ourselves well as church leadership offering a goods and services model of Christian life. The colorful costuming, extensive advertising and lavish user-friendly layouts all hint at some high-interest Promised Land investment, but in the end make us guilty of false advertising. By only catering to the felt needs of the spiritual-goods and services clientele we misrepresent the gospel’s insistence upon self-sacrifice and identifying our deepest needs.
As someone who, for four years, was on the music and arts staff at a large Willow Creek Association church in British Columbia, I was instantly drawn to encounter the newly published, Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation by co-pastors, Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, and offer a few thoughts.
Like so many other churches of its era and philosophy, Oak Hills enjoyed a meteoric rise from a few dozen people in a strip mall to many hundreds in just over a decade. The high production values endemic of the seeker-targeted church mentality assisted in creating a monster that “demanded to be fed.” When one stands back and looks at sheer statistics and rapidity of growth it is a hard ideology to criticize. That is especially true in our own cultural setting where we are now suffering the effects of an economic beast created through consumerist greed, unbridled capitalism and blind adherence to the free market. It has now turned to face its creator and is quite happily dining on us. The church has mimicked the prevailing culture perfectly and is paying the price. Oak Hills was paying that price. Renovation of the Church is a book that tells the story of how they recognized the high price they were paying and, instead, sought to redefine itself in an entirely new way; a sustainable way. The Jesus way.
These concerns have faced all of us to some degree. In this regard Oak Hills is no different than any other local collective of believers. What is telling for our purposes however is the ways through which they were brought into a new arena of self-reflection, asking hard questions like how to present the radical message of Christ in a church that has catered to the religious demands of the nominally committed, or how the cross and self-denial can possibly become the central facts in a prosperous, consumer culture. Or, how can discipleship to Jesus be the modus operandi in a thriving North American congregation? Carlson and Lueken openly share the ways Oak Hills turned to face the monster, stare it down and either tame or kill it. They chose neither. Instead, they were reintroduced to the Way of Jesus with its inherently subversive undertones.
A staff retreat to Donner Lake, California, playfully called the Donner Party, became their epiphany. “Gradually, we began to get some clarity on a troubling truth: attracting people to church based on their consumer demands is in direct and irredeemable conflict with inviting people, in Jesus’ words, to lose their lives in order to find them. It slowly began to dawn on us that our method of attracting people was forming them in ways contrary to the way of Christ” (p. 35). Eugene Peterson would heartily agree, offering a similar viewpoint in his book The Jesus Way. How we journey is every bit as important as with whom.
The transition from their Donner Retreat illuminations to an Oak Hills steeped in seeker-church mentality to a new entity built upon spiritual formation and kingdom life forms the basis for most of the book. By their own admission, that has been a richly rewarding but deeply painful process. Faced with a crushing clash of values, they had to admit that when they turned to face what it was that was lacking, they “found themselves hungering for a life with God that had more substance, more depth, more reality” (pg. 31). Their palette of boast-worthy ministries didn’t include well-fed souls. The lives of congregants too closely mirrored those in the surrounding culture. The human spirit has an annoying way of insisting upon its needs.
The scope of the book did not allow it, but I believe that much of our contemporary philosophy of ministry grows out of an insufficient theology so tied to the culture in its efforts at relevance that it becomes incongruous with the deeper call of the transforming gospel. Oak Hills seems to have avoided some of these pitfalls due in part to their complete reexamination of the gospel they were preaching and the philosophical crucible out of which it was spawned.
As effective as the Willow Creek model has been (the authors graciously offer praise rather than subtly boasting a ‘look at us now’ motif) it unearths this cut and dried notion of who’s in and who’s out, lost and found, saved and unsaved. This is great for building pie graphs for the boardroom. It is not so helpful in determining the state of the human soul before the God who calls us to union with Godself. Too often we give the impression of having the answer to every question.Says Lueken, however, this “illusion of understanding pinches the mystery of faith” (p. 99). The seeker model is utterly dependent on this epistemological approach. Essentially, Oak Hills began to morph from a propositional gospel into an incarnational one.
It takes great courage to begin the immense and bloody task of moving a large ship like Oak Hills that has inertia, a history of success, and much to lose. The systemic change for which they had opted required and found a unified leadership. This is one of the great strengths I believe in the Oak Hills transition from faith-wide to faith-deep. If a church or organization can weather the gargantuan groundswell of change required of them, it will do so by means of careful listening to the continued guidance of the Spirit in concert with solidly committed, interdependent leadership.
What Oak Hills came up against is the inevitable result of the runaway train of self-satisfying materialism, birthed in a political crucible lacking checks and balances and designed for its flourishing, all supported by a weak and insipid theology that, in the interest of getting more customers, is often complicit in its advance, baptizing it in Christian jargon. The gospel of Jesus Christ is promoted as the best among a pantheon of available choices. As a result, the buying public views it as such; one loaf among many.
This is the courage of Oak Hills. Says Lueken, “we began to realize the gospel is bigger and grander than a private transaction between a sinner and God” (pg. 56). Evangelicalism, of which the seeker model is the ultimate representation, is fed by the culture in an effort to preach a message about God. A spiritual formation model allows Jesus to change us, taking the culture along for the ride. It is about the God of the message.
They make the poignant observation that, if followers of Christ “are barely distinguishable from the non-churched people around us, the kingdom of God is not advancing” (pg. 87). We should not succumb to the temptation of thinking that God’s kingdom is expanding simply because our organizations are growing bigger. In fact, it is more common that the expansion of the local body, at least in the short term, is inversely proportionate to its growth deeper rather than wider. Says St. Francis of Assisi, “few be the lovers of the cross.”
Oak Hills began the process of change by first addressing their own leadership ambitions, seeing them for what they were. This needed honest recognition and open-heart surgery. Most notably, the oft incendiary nature of ecclesiastical culture wars, in this case church-wide versus church-deep, was at least partially quelled in the humble waters of their kind-hearted approach. The story is peppered with a heady, refreshing honesty all but missing in most works of this kind.
For me, the chapter on worship, alone, was worth reading the book. As the authors are careful to clarify, the seeker movement has reintroduced the arts back into the local church. But, again, only inasmuch as it points at belief in a doctrine about God rather than an expression of God; God’s beauty and our place in the vast and mysterious cosmos. “Worship, at its best, exposes…oppressive self-absorption and invites us to root the smaller story of our lives into the larger story of God’s ongoing redemption of humanity and this universe” (p. 149). The worship of the church acts as the faith jello-mold, shaping the wobbly framework of our lives and offering spiritual coagulation.
In evangelical circles, people who do what I do are often paid handsomely because of our role in putting a pretty face on an attractional church. If we play the worship game right, we’ll be assured our market share of the paying public. In this way, Christianity basically becomes a hobby. The authors suggest however that, the deeper one’s worship theology, the less it will look like the prevailing culture. Churches will shrink accordingly. They will deepen however, something much more commensurate with the demands of Kingdom life; a life willing to forego relevance and style in favor of depth and significance. It is a radically transformed life, emerging out of corporate worship that does not “neglect issues of justice and the needs of our neighbor….Biblical worship that finds God will also find our neighbor” (p. 155, 156). In other words, the quality of our worship will begin to be reflective of the quality of our lives.
If the book can be faulted for anything (other than the occasional awkward eighth grade writing level) it would be that its short, narrative style denies an even deeper reflection of the issues involved and how they are impacting so many other churches. I would like to have heard their take on church for the de-churched; those in our midst whose relationship with the larger church has been almost irrevocably damaged. Not unlike other faith communities who are aglow in their newfound Kingdom life epiphanies, their language, although much more expansive and perspicacious than earlier in their history, is in danger of creating yet another sub-culture – a spiritual formation one – with its own language, insider jargon and products. Still, their own journey reveals a willingness to embrace the unknown and shows much promise in their ever-evolving theology and ministry.
Ultimately, this book is not just an exposé of Oak Hills Church and its ministry. Nor is it primarily arguing the benefits of the church as crucible for spiritual formation. This is a book about leadership. It is a book about the possibilities available to faith communities who are willing to listen collectively to what the Spirit is saying to the church and then act vociferously on what they hear.
A church intent on growing a faith-wide organization seeks leadership. One interested in nurturing the faith-deep spiritual life of the Body seeks training in spiritual disciplines. A church intent on growing a faith-wide machine relies on unanimity of vision and approach. One set on the faith-deep pilgrimage to the Celestial City is antithetical to the leadership sub-culture since “the church is not a sect….a collection of people who see things the same way and have bought in at the same level” (p. 109).
Beyond the benefits of its testimonial merits, the authors give us a peak into the elusive leadership in faith communities looking to become Kingdom centered. It is a great primer for congregational spiritual formation.
As a graduate of Spring Arbor University’s Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadership (class of 2011), I heartily endorse this book for anyone interested in hearing a word of hope regarding the spiritual poverty of the American church and how one congregation is finding its way.
Finally, please, PLEASE toss in the bin all leadership books that utilize corporate America as their model, the very stew of consumerism out of which Oak Hills is struggling to climb.