Thursday, December 31, 2009

Aha! Again

I’ve been on a yellow-caution pace (my normal reading “speed”) through Church Turned Inside Out by Linda Bergquist and Allan Karr. It’s a bit deeper than some of the other books I have been reading over the past few years. I read the following paragraph in a bit of a morning zone; stopped and read it again. I read it one more time and found my soul spilling out onto the page. The words are descriptive of what I’ve sensed and agonized about over the last 10+ years.
In ministry, we sometimes adopt prescribed roles or scripts because they are “working” well, and seemingly bearing much fruit for others. We attend conferences where mega-fruit bearers challenge us in new ways, and sometimes our egos are challenged as a result. We want to bear much fruit too; after all, the mission of God is what we structure our lives around. So we stop working in ways that reflect how we are naturally and supernaturally created, change the way we do ministry, attempt to reengineer our personhood, and sometimes actually become more successful as a result. For a period of time this satisfies, but eventually we burn out and wonder why. It’s because we are working contrary to how we are designed. It is also because we confuse fruit bearing with producing visible, countable results, as indicated by the common questions “How’d ya do last Sunday?” “How many showed up on Easter?” “Baptize anyone yet this year?”
Some of the counsel I’ve received from some insightful folks along my journey did not sink in when first given. I didn’t “get it” when a friend stepped outside of his administrative role and told me to put on my resume who I really actually was and not the format suggested in seminary class. I recall reacting with the Victrola dog look when Reggie McNeal stated at a seminar: “It is about you, despite what you may have heard.”

I didn’t comprehend as I had indeed adopted “prescribed roles or scripts” that followed an accepted formula of institutionalized dimensions. When burn-out and confusion resulted, I realized that I was not functioning according to my talent and ability. I had to take a risk to discover how to work in ways that were complementary and not contradictory. It’s been a major element of my own recent transformation process. I’m certainly not approaching a stretched out tape, but I believe I can make out what appears to be a finish line.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Website

Java Journey's website has been updated by co-manager Ben Curfman. Check it out (unless, of course, you linked from there).

This week, we will have an incremental (a consistent JJ pace) "soft opening." We hope to have our POS system up and running and baristas trained. We are still awaiting the service and repair of our main super automatic espresso machine. The delay is related to the ordering and shipping of parts via CA, via Spain. Since it was idle for 2 years, some gaskets and o-rings dried up.

We had a successful Christmas Eve candlelight gathering and a concert on the 26th. We had a nice group of people for both.

Spread the word that Java Journey is in first gear and letting out the clutch.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

We Are Ready to Open!

On Thursday, December 17, 2009, Java Journey passed final inspection by the city of Hickory, NC and received a certificate of occupancy. We are rejoicing. However, we've still got some tasks to complete before we can open.

The espresso machines are still in Asheville being serviced for operation. The single group machine (Conti) is ready, but still in the possession of co-manager Ben Curfman in Asheville as an uncharacteristic snow storm hit our area yesterday and he is snowbound. The fully automatic machine (Azkoyen Xpression) is awaiting parts for the heat exchange boiler (o-ring leaking). We will have a "soft opening" beginning Monday (Christmas week) and serve regular brewed coffee, tea and baked good. We will also have bulk coffee for sale.

Momentum is building, but as is typical in our joint pilgrimage - it is incremental (sometimes emphasizing "mental").

Sunday, December 6, 2009


I love this quote from John A.T. Robinson in Frank Viola's book "Finding Organic Church." Although I can't agree with Robinson's view of universal salvation, he had some very profound observations about many arbitrary notions that ecclesiastical hierarchy held.

As the Preacher of Ecclesiastes saw, "There is a time to break down, and a time to build up ...a time to keep silence and a time to speak." And the second Reformation, if it comes, will be distinguished from the first by the fact that it is a time of reticence, of stripping down, or traveling light. The church will go through its baggage and discover how much it can better do without, alike in doctrine and in organization.

Now I (and you) know why I cannot stand having "Rev" in front of my name and a decorative strip of cloth around my neck - among many other things.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Fransican Benediction

Teena shared this with me this morning. It's one of those "Yes/Ouch" things.

May God bless you with discomfort at
easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at
injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed
for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war,
so that you may reach our your hand to comfort them and turn their
pain to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe
that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

Well Stated

This is a quotation at the beginning of Chapter 13 of Frank Viola's book "Finding Organic Church" (DC Cook 2009). It's by the late John A.T. Robinson, former Anglican bishop. Although, I do not agree with most of his theology (he was a universalist), he did a great job of illuminating the overall preoccupation and distraction of the Institutional Church.
The real trouble is not in fact that the Church is too rich, but that it has become heavily institutionalized, with a crushing investment in maintenance. It has the characteristics of the dinosaur and the battleship. It is saddled with a plant and programme beyond its means, so that it is absorbed in problems of supply and preoccupied with survival. The inertia of the machine is such that the financial allocations, the legalities, the channels of organization, the attitudes of mind, are all set in the direction of continuing the enhancing of the status quo. If one wants to pursue a course which cuts across these channels, then most of one's energies are exhausted before one ever reaches the enemy lines.
Well said. I now know why there was often a churning of my stomach when I was part of weakly (sic) "staff meetings" in a former paradigm and had to step outside for some solar energy and a few snorts of fresh oxygen.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Future Has Become Present

We have had conversations with many people who resonated to various degrees to what Teena and I envision. There has often been a need to explain or clarify some of what makes our hearts beat. Never have we had such free-flowing conversation until we met Ben and Rebekah Curfman. God has bent our mutual paths so that they are now crossed. We are excited and joyful.

Ben posted this on Facebook and I am putting here for other friends and the reading community may see.
Nine years ago I had a unique experience in my relationship with God. Many people interpret their experience as a “call to full-time Christian service/ministry.” The experience is different for everyone. For me, it was at a Christian summer camp during a worship service. I was thirteen years old at the time. I did not hear the audible voice of God. I was not visited by an angel. I just simply became extremely aware of the pain and confusion in this world and my responsibility to share the hope that I had.

Since that time, it has been an interesting road. Because of my religious background, I felt that I needed to find a position or description of what God had set my heart toward. I pursued this calling through bible studies and heavy church involvement in high school, two years of religious education in a liberal arts college, and another two years of religious education at the school I will soon graduate from. During that time the question had been burning in my mind: “What is it I am supposed to do? How will I define myself?” I am finding more and more that God has defined my ministry of His Gospel precisely how he wanted to – namely by creating me the way He did. I am my own definition.

Knowing this, I began to ask myself, “If there were no limitations on where or what I could do to accomplish the mission placed in my heart, where would I go and what would I do?” Sometimes the right answers are discovered only through the right questions. I soon found that I was not most effective in a traditional church setting both because of growing convictions about traditional church practice and limitations on the scope of ministry I felt let to do. I decided that an atmosphere most conducive to ministry was a coffee shop.

After prayer, I began considering opening a coffee shop in Asheville, North Carolina in order to minister one-on-one with individuals who need personal attention and mentoring in their spiritual lives. After all, coffee and Christianity are two of my greatest passions. My wife and I began praying, along with others, that God would open the right opportunity for this ministry to take place. I specifically began praying for someone to handle the shop from a business perspective, so I could focus on my strengths – coffee and ministry.

A few weeks later I was visiting my parents near Hickory, North Carolina where I grew up. The Lord showed me then that the Hickory area is in desperate spiritual need. I had never realized that such a need existed in my hometown. The next question came: “Lord, would you have us begin the coffee shop ministry here in Hickory?” So we prayed again for a few weeks. The next time I visited my parents we went out to eat. Before sitting at our table, however, I recognized a good friend that I used to attend church with. I had shared our vision for a coffee shop ministry with him a couple of months prior to this meeting. He told me about a place called Java Journey that was opening soon. He said that their vision seemed similar to ours and that I should get in touch with them. So I did.

We contacted Jeff and Teena Stewart, one of the key couples involved in the ministry of Java Journey. I offered my services in the coffee industry and my ministry experience to them as a way of "throwing out the fleece" as Gideon did. “Surely they already had help and wouldn't need someone such as myself,” I thought. Nevertheless, we felt that we needed to at least get in contact in case the Lord was making a way for us. He has.

After some great conversations and a sharing of passions, Rebekah and I have agreed to relocate to the Hickory area and make a serious effort to change the community with the Gospel through Java Journey. We believe that this is what God has been preparing us for. We will be seeking financial and prayer support in order to make this a reality, with the faith that God will provide our every need as He has done in the past. I will be continuing school until the spring of next year when I graduate in addition to helping Jeff and Teena manage Java Journey. We ask for your prayers, gifts, and encouragement as it is an exhilarating and terrifying experience at the same time. We will also be seeking part-time jobs to take care of our living expenses until Java Journey gets off the ground financially.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Burning Questions

I found this while doing some web-surfing ("cowabunga"). The page has no dates and broken links. A friend of mine recently drew the same comparison of the use of "organic" with the food industry marketing strategy. "NOT to be confused with..." is all I can say.

The questions asked have been on my mind and in my heart for several years. At first I thought "Purpose-Driven" was the answer, but eventually realized it was merely a racing stripe on a Model T.

I love being stretched and then sharing the pain with others!
The UK is facing an organic revival! Check out (sorry!) and you can get organic everything from the standard organic fruit and vegetables to organic baby food, organic wine and even organic pet food. So maybe it is time for the Church to go organic too, or maybe it was always meant to be an organic community movement of the followers of Jesus Christ anyway? Perhaps during the last two millennia the Church has been spoiled by a multitude of additives and preservatives and now we just can't tell the difference.

Once upon a time God spoke through a prophet saying "I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring me choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream!"

Rethinking "Church"
Do you ever get fed up with the religiousness of communion? When Jesus said "do this whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me" (1 Cor. 11.25) he was not instituting a religious ceremony but rather encouraging us to remember him every time we eat and drink together. As the church goes organic we will do a lot more eating and drinking with friends, neighbours and strangers because that is where real community is built.

Do you ever get fed up with meetings? How often do we hear it quoted from the Bible "do not give up meeting together" as the reason for attending the Sunday meeting every week or to coax you to join a small group or attend the latest series of special meetings? Biblical theology makes it very clear that it is impossible to 'go to church' - when anyone aligns their life with Jesus Christ they are initiated into his community: the church (1 Cor.12.13). As the church goes organic people will stop 'going to church' and start being the church 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

Do you ever get fed up with paying your church tax? Why should we be disempowered by centralised giving mechanisms? As the church goes organic it will empower individuals and households to do such things as: give to those in the community in hardship, save up and buy a set of text books for a local school, support facilitators of the Christian community or put aside money in case of a natural disaster.

Do you ever get fed up with singing the songs? Within the evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal traditions of the church, which many of us have grown up in and love - worship has been reduced to the singing of hymns and songs. Our language of 'lets worship' gives us away - if we don't mean it, then lets not say it. As the church goes organic it will encounter God in the whole of life as we offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God (Rom.12.1).

Make it happen
Perhaps you, like me, feel like this but you dare not say anything because you know you might get branded as 'unsound'. As the Director General of the BBC, Greg Dyke says 'lets cut the crap and make it happen'! Everything you have called Church call it congregation and everyone you have called a Church leader call them a congregational leader. As an organic community of the followers of Jesus Christ we are all the church and leaders of it in every sector of society. Let's take the name church upon ourselves because we are the church - it does not exist outside of us. As a friend of mine says: 'whoever gets the name church, wins'.

Let's put a stop to our pre-occupation with meetings and lets rediscover organic community. Let's grow a faith that is meaningful for life, for our workplace, for our households and for our neighbourhoods. These are the places where we spend our time. These are the arenas where our faith needs to work rather than confining our faith to a few hours a week in a meeting. Let's encourage our congregational leaders to reinvent themselves to coach and facilitate an organic grassroots movement of the followers of Jesus Christ.

We must expect that like every new church movement in history this groundswell (which I do not want to name) will not be recognised as a valid form of church by the majority. However let's be different from every other new church movement in history and say this is just another way of being and doing church rather than 'the way' and thereby condemning everyone else.

Let's stop taking the additives and preservatives and let rot and die what is meant to rot and die and see something organic begin.

Matt Bird is Director of Joshua Generation a charity developing leaders to transform society, a strategic management consultant, author Christian Book of the Year 2002 'Manifesto for life' and Councillor for the London Borough of Merton.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cleared for Drywalling

I got to Java Journey shortly before 8 am to let 82-year old volunteer, Joe Guthrie, in so he could frame the doorway for the French doors. I knew the city inspector was coming later and I had to finish what he was going to review. We met Joe when he stopped by on a Saturday morning on July 18th when the youth from Trinity Church in Greensboro were volunteering. He told me he loved to work on things as a volunteer and gave me his number. After he finished the French door frame he asked: "What else you got?" I told him the other 3 door frames needed wood added, so he did that!

The inspector arrived while Joe was working on the other doors. I fully expected that we would be told to make a few adjustments and then call for a subsequent inspection. I was making haste taking into account the work to tweak everything and then be ready by the end of the week to be given a green light. The concern was brought on by the fact that 20-30 volunteers are scheduled to gather at 2149 N Center St on Sunday to put up sheetrock.

What a joyful surprise when the inspector spent about a total of fifteen minutes before saying: "I'll let you move on with this." Part of the time he looked at plans, wiring and plumbing, and asked a few questions. The rest was filled by conversation of our mutual enjoyment of music (I told him he looked like Peter Yarrow and found out he plays the drums).

Today was another big mile-marker day.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Organic Elements in the Corporate World?!

My friend, Dennis Cheuvront, e-mailed this link to me: The Customer is the Boss at FAVI by Kevin Meyer. Dennis sent it to me as it parallels principles of Java Journey and our "liquid church" gatherings (I love the idea of the "plant manager" in the blog).

It amazingly sounds like a lot of the things espoused by a single individual a couple millennium ago and the earliest form of his community. Applied in today's society, it may look something like this.

Sadly, many of us are indeed "measuring something irrelevant."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Finding Balance

I'm still reading and enjoying the book "The Rabbit and The Elephant - Why Small is the New Big for Today's Church" by Tony and Felicity Dale and George Barna.

In a discussion about "The Values That Define Us" there is a needed caveat for those who may become prone to smugness. But it is followed by another courageous observation about the M.O. most conventional churches operate with.

I must confess that it is easier to view the challenge from an outside-looking-in perspective than it is when trees hide a forest. I recall squirming in my seat hearing such observations during seminars with Reggie McNeal and George Barna when I was in that proverbial forest not that long ago.
Any of us who think that we have all the answers or that we are 'where things are really happening' are merely deluding ourselves. A synergy occurs when we lay aside our differences and work together across the body of Christ.

Christians in the West have followed the gods of the American dream of materialism, or popularity, of numbers. We have become performance driven rather than love motivated. We give Jesus the title of "Lord" or "Head of the Church," but in reality, we devise our own plans and then ask Him to bless them. We build buildings and create programs, following the advice of church-growth statisticians, and then we expect the Holy Spirit to come in power. And when, in His great mercy, He delights to bless us through some of these things, we presume that we have built His dream church. How can we have fooled ourselves so badly?

I would like to publicly acknowledge and express gratitude toward Trinity Fellowship of Hickory - under the leadership of Dodd Drake - for recognizing and proactively supporting Java Journey. TF has prayed for JJ and promoted our cause. Many have volunteered to spend time and energy on the build out effort.

The family of Safe Harbor Rescue Mission has also spent many hours helping JJ prepare to launch.

This is the kind of synergy mentioned in the quotation. Both ministries have not caved into the M.O. of growing big just to grow big.

I pray that more of this will happen across the American ecclesiastical landscape.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Melting Ice Blocks

I'm borrowing a quote from a FB friend's blog (Brad Boydston) that he pasted from the "Out of Ur" (David Fitch) blog posted yesterday.
...Having said all this, the “great halls” (stadiums) of preaching distribution will not connect to the lost souls of post-Christendom. Post-Christian people are not attracted to the sermon as the first place to go in their spiritual distress. We must help leaders understand that if you spend 35-40 hours a week in your office preparing a good sermon on Sunday, making it not only theologically competent (which is worthy) but slick, you are ministering to the dying vestiges of Christendom.
You know my "mantra" that this is all based on a blind dependency on an M.O. we refuse to see and break away from. The paradigm is the old church as a big block of ice sitting at one location never to move. The institutional church is hooked on invitation/attraction and all it is really doing is shuffling a small percentage of society from ice block to ice block. So we persist with the poor stewardship of pouring our resources into the block and expecting someone to sit within it for several hours per week to dazzle the shuffled masses.

Alan Hirsch has stated that in America a large percentage of evangelical churches are "tussling with each other" to reach a small percentage of the population. He qualifies the small percentage by noting the a majority of Americans report an alienation from the current form of "church" where you go to one location on one day a week for an hour or more.

Tony & Felicty Dale (with George Barna) have nailed the problem in their recent book "The Rabbit and the Elephant" with this observation:
"Liquid church happens when we stop inviting others to come to church and instead we go out into every sphere of society as the Lord leads. We reach out to our neighbors or our coworkers, and instead of asking them to come to church, we get together with those people right where they live and work. In this way, segments of society that might never have experienced church life are affected by the Kingdom of God."
May the Holy Spirit's heat once again go to work!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What Is an Organic Church?

-Frank Viola, Finding Organic Church 2009 (pp 20 & 21)

As I have stated elsewhere, I’ve been using this term for over fifteen years now. Today it has become somewhat of a clay word, being molded and shaped to mean a variety of different things by a variety of different people.

By organic church, I mean a church that is born out of a spiritual life instead of being constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grassroots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open-participatory meeting (as opposed to pastor-to pew services), nonhierarchical leadership, and the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional Leader and Head of the gathering.

By contrast, whenever we sin-scarred mortals try to create a church the same way we would start a business, we are defying the organic nature of church life. An organic church is one that is naturally produce when a group of people has encountered Jesus Christ in reality (external ecclesiastical props being unnecessary) and the DNA of the church is free to work without hindrance. It’s the difference between standing in front of a fan and standing outdoors on a windy day.

To summarize, an organic church is not a theater with a script. It’s a lifestyle – an authentic journey with the Lord Jesus and His disciples.

The difference between organic churches and nonorganic churches is the difference between General Motors and a vegetable garden. One is founded by humans, the other is birthed by God. One is artificial, the other is living.

For this reason, church planters are like farmers and midwives.

Friday, September 11, 2009

No Kingdom on YouTube

Matt 24:14
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come (NIV).

On a piece of paper, write down what you think this statement of Jesus means. (Did you get this from a Sunday School quarterly?)

καὶ κηρυχθήσεται τοῦτο τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τῆς βασιλείας ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ οἰκουμένῃ εἰς μαρτύριον πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν καὶ τότε ἥξει τὸ τέλος

Concept translation:

And this message that brings joy of the reign of God through his Messiah shall be proclaimed throughout the whole inhabited earth leading to a testimony to all various groups of people. And then the completion shall be present.

Kind of a riddle, isn’t it?

Read Luke 17
20Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, "The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, 21nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you."
22Then he said to his disciples, "The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. 23Men will tell you, 'There he is!' or 'Here he is!' Do not go running off after them.

ἐντός = inside

The Kingdom is NOT observable.

Question: “Can you really see inside you?” Try it.

There’s no “here” nor “there” is there!

Look at verse 37.

37"Where, Lord?" they asked.
He replied, "Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather."

What on earth does THIS mean???

OBSERVATION. “Dead body”/”vultures” "Where?" is the wrong question!

Kingdom cannot be viewed

NIV omits a needed concept in 17:21 that the KJV includes. ἰδού “I-doo” KJV: “Behold” is now “Look!” “Check it out!” - the YouTube prompter.

This buttresses the point that Jesus often made about the "secrecy" aspect of the Kingdom. It's not "can't tell because I'm not supposed to." It's "I cannot present this reign in a tangible form. It is much deeper and runs farther than anything imaginable - because it is life-transforming and eternal."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Saturated Synthesis

Deuteronomy 16:21 Do not set up any wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build to the LORD your God...

Vent warning - I have a confession. I don't know if I am fueled by frustration or jealousy when I see fellow believers evidencing their passion for play, big toys and self-aggrandisement with photos of huge campers and running around with little ATV's on Facebook. Or snorkeling in tropical waters far off - or even false eyelashes and implants. I realize that the measure I use (no pun) will be used for me as well, but I think it may be deeper than a surface annoyance. It looks like some type of justifying blindness. The justifying usually comes via a 10% check conveniently placed in a plate or box at the one location-for one+ hour-on one day a week. I'm going to once again place blame on the cultural condition we find ourselves in (therein the blindness).

A good friend (Jim Black) posted a link on FB that articulates the problem. It is an article from Minnesota Christian Chronicle Online published last month. It is called The good news in the decline of American Christianity written by Greg Boyd

This following insight jumped off the page for me as indicative but also as a personal caveat.
By contrast, whenever Christianity has become popular among those who are part of the dominant culture, it has tended to stagnate. While there are exceptions, the Christianity of the dominant culture has always tended to absorb and even “Christianize” the core values of its culture. It has thus tended to manifest less and less of the unique, counter-cultural values of the Jesus-looking Kingdom—values such as humility, simplicity, self-sacrificial service, community, unconditional love and non-violence.

The unique power and beauty of the Gospel tends to get diluted, and the church gradually is reduced to little more than a slightly Christianized version of the broader culture.
My response was a Charlie Brownian "THAT'S IT!"

Lord, help me to discover the secrecy of the Kingdom virtues of dying to self on a daily basis. Sting me with conviction when I start to erect any kind of Asherim beside the altar I build to you.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Awaited Milestone

A very busy day today.

In the midst of all my activity was a phone call I received from Hickory city planning department. They called to inform me that our plans had been approved but they needed an estimate on the cost of the project. I basically wet my finger and pointed up in the air and came up with a number. They also informed me that I had to have a licensed contractor sign the application. I didn't think we needed one as I was told that only a licensed plumber and licensed electrician had to sign off on the mechanical requirements of the build out.

I called one of our friends (Matt Taylor - the worship leader at Trinity Fellowship) whose father is a licensed contractor and had looked at our space in the past to offer advice. He told me to call his father and that he would call him to let him know I would contact him. Mike (his name) agreed to sign the application and will meet me tomorrow morning at the city planning office.

So after tomorrow - we are cleared to start the major work to transform the space into an operational Coffee Shop and intentional ministry. We are rejoicing.

If you can lend your support in any way by locally volunteering, supplying materials or supporting us financially (tax deductible) we would be very grateful. Please contact one of us so we can give you further information.

Thanks and keep up your prayers. Blessings!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Will You Take a Quarter For That?

Here are excerpts from an interview of Phyllis Tickle found on the Covenant Church website. I admire her courageous answers and the denominations willingness to open itself up to the challenge of her insight.
Changing the Church – Like a Giant Rummage Sale

By Cathy Norman Peterson

CHICAGO, IL (August 31, 2009) – Editor’s note: Phyllis Tickle, best known as author of the Divine Hour and founding editor of Publishers Weekly's Religion Department, has spent the last two years speaking about what she says is the changing face of Christianity. Tickle calls the current era “the Great Emergence.” She likens the changes we are witnessing throughout both culture and the church to a giant rummage sale in which the church cleans out its attic and starts fresh. Each upheaval, she says, brings about a new and more vital form of Christianity, but it also disrupts the dominant expression of Christianity. In an interview with Covenant Companion features editor Cathy Norman Peterson, Tickle discusses how she envisions this change impacting denominations such as the Evangelical Covenant Church.

How will this rummage sale affect the church in North America?

There are four tributaries that feed into the main river of what we call Christianity. Those tributaries are Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Anglicanism, and Orthodoxy. As emergence Christianity forms, it is more and more seeking to go back to what Robert Weber called the “ancient future,” to go back to first- through third-century practice.

For emergence Christians, many of whom come out of Pentecostalism, out of Evangelicalism, and out of Roman Catholicism - it’s what we’re still rebelling against to some extent. The attitude is, “Protestantism has failed us or we wouldn’t be in this mess.” In this country there are over 27,600 distinct Protestant denominations recognized by the IRS for tax purposes. Which is divisiveness gone pathologic!

Since its inception, members of the Evangelical Covenant Church have been asking, “Where is it written?” We always go back to the text…

One of the things about the Covenant that I have discovered is that there is very little defensiveness. That doesn’t mean you’re easily persuaded. It just means you’ll hear me out, or you’ll hear someone out. Then if it doesn’t mesh with the word, and doesn’t affect the walk, it will be thrown away. If it does, it will be incorporated.

If emergence Christianity were ever going to be organized - which it probably is not - if it were going to be organized into anything, it would look like the Vineyard Association or the Covenant. There’s enough hierarchy in both of those denominations so that they’re not pure emergence, they’ve still got some cache of denominationalism, but the sensibilities are there. That makes it easier to talk here. It also means that I learn more in talking with these groups, because now we’re talking with practitioners who’ve actually been doing it. In your case, for 125 years to some extent.

You say that emergence Christians aren’t limited to “bricks and mortar” anymore.

Emergence Christians really aren’t. And there’s a certain naïveté or irony in that. Obviously if you’re going to meet physically anywhere outside of the Internet, you have to have a place to do it. A lot of that happens in public space - in public parks and pubs. If you’re going to have a real cohort meeting, you’re going to have to go somewhere. But that’s not like owning property though. It’s a social justice issue because emergence Christians would say, “Well, that building looks to me like five, six million dollars. Do you know there are hungry people in the world?”

How does a denomination like the Covenant move into this new era if we’re not tied to buildings anymore?

Denominations, as we have them established now, are already so heavily invested in bricks and mortar that there’s no way to walk away from it. To whom are you going to sell it? That structure is so specific to what you’re already doing that it doesn’t have a whole lot of turnover, unless you’re going to raze the thing and sell the land.

By their structure, denominations are accustomed to worship in the physical presence of one another. A lot of emergence Christianity can happen on the Internet and in virtual church. So that’s one of the solutions - one of the ways they get away without bricks and mortar. For denominations, I think that more and more there is motivation to begin to use that space in more ways than just on Sunday morning.

The question is how can we have alternative worship? Or how can we have something that’s really emergence? Can we even have emergence off-site? Very often the church or the congregation that’s asking these questions has decreasing numbers. And the deal breaker always is, “Are you willing to unscrew the pews?”

Why do we need to unscrew the pews?

The pews are a gift of the Reformation - or the curse of the Reformation, depending on how you look at it. That’s where we got those pews. Pews are the Reformation way of delivering the gospel. You screw the parishioner down, and you put the priest or the pastor up there in front.

A pure denomination has a hard time not thinking of itself as having a geographic locus. Whereas emergence Christians - or at least those among them who are younger - are not really as tied to space as much as they are to relationships. Now, having said that, nothing bothers me more than the notion that emergence Christianity is generational. That is so far from the truth, it’s just not true. But those emergence Christians who are thirty-five to forty and under have had the Internet experience. It really is entirely relational. You don’t get the tribal loyalty or the locale loyalty that denominations were built on - that the Evangelical Covenant Church was built on to some extent.

How much do we lose, going that direction? Do we lose anything that matters?

Every time it’s happened before, whoever held hegemony of place - five hundred years ago, obviously it was Roman Catholicism - had to drop back and make room for what was emerging. It was Protestantism that time, and it’s emergence Christianity this time.

Christianity has spread demographically and geographically after every one of these things. So it will spread the faith. It may not spread Protestantism, or it may not even spread your particular denomination. But it will spread the faith.

How do you view what is happening online with the virtual church?

That really is scary to a lot of people. Because you’re talking about a worship experience where you can’t really see those who worship with you exactly. It’s a different form of worship. The one that’s easiest to get into now is Second Life. That will blow your mind. A common service is going on, but at the same time people all over the world are talking to each other about it. It’s a kind of combination of Twitter and being in church.

There are sticking points. How do you know the confession is right? Can the elements be consecrated electronically? Can you give the Lord’s Supper electronically? In a few places there are “congregations” that are purely virtual. They’re not in Second Life - they’re just communities, almost like a Facebook group. They’ll be ordaining their own pastors before long, I suspect.

The 1950s church was held together primarily by women being on the phone all the time and checking on each other. Then we lost that idea of June Cleaver at home on the telephone. The archbishop of Canterbury says it very well. He says, “Over the last fifty or sixty years, church has become a place to go instead of a people to be.” I think that nails it - it sounds slick, but I think he’s right.

What would you say to people who think that doing church online is the destruction of the church as we understand it?

No, it’s not. Did the church end when we got on a donkey and rode to the next town for the first time? Or crossed the ocean in a boat? It’s technology, and every time it comes, I’m sure there’s anxiety.

The notion that you were going to ride in a Ford to church five miles away, instead of walking down to the village church, was absolutely decimating. Technology is scary every time we’ve gone from our feet to a donkey. But that doesn’t really assuage the anxiety entirely. There’s nothing funny about having to live with change.

What do you think the church will look like in twenty or thirty years?

Anybody who answers it is sticking his finger out the window to test the speed of the wind - and it’s about that accurate. But I think there are some things you can say for sure. Emergence Christianity is already maturing enough so that it’s splintering. Clearly the emphases are going to change.

By its very nature, emergence Christianity is self-organizing. You can’t make it happen - it’s going to organize itself wherever it springs up. That’s in yoga class or a coffee house, or wherever a church comes up. It’s non-hierarchical, which immediately gets rid of bishops and ruling elders and all of that. That means that Protestantism, which is definitely hierarchical, is going to have to drop back and find a way to be church and still watch this other thing spread and grow and become probably about 50 to 60 percent of American Christianity.

It's always a relief to realize that we are not insane.

Monday, August 31, 2009

All Choked Up!

A friend of mine (Ed Broussard) posted this on his blog. This is illustrative of institutionalism reaching the "puke" level. I think there's an ironic camel floating in the cup, but the gnat sure is gone.
Jesus report card

Since school has now started back…it got me thinking about new routines, tests, and report cards. It has been a long time since I received my last report card. If I remember right, I think I skipped my last final in college because the grade I had going into the final would allow me to graduate with a zero on the test; therefore, my last semester report card resembled my first semester report card. Neither one made my parents very proud. Apparently I chose to receive most of my college education as efficiently as possible (without the bother of going to class).

Maybe that is why when I ran across this (see photo) a few months ago, it really flew all over me? Does Jesus grade us with a report card? Why is preaching 20% and Bible 10% Do we get 20% for just being present with a 10% kicker for being on time? Isn’t 10% on the offering kind of a double bonus? Do we get to fill it in…or does HE fill it in? I grew up filling these out each Sunday morning before church. I didn’t care much for it then and I don’t think I am very comfortable at all with it now.

As a child I think it was the guilt that I experienced each Sunday in not living up to God’s requirements or…the church’s requirements? As an adult I am mystified how we as Christians take good disciplines and pervert them into legalities in order to measure ourselves.

Matthew 24
23"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Something We Wish to Avoid

Head's up for the future by learning through observation from the past.

Founder's syndrome is a label normally used to refer to a pattern of negative or undesirable behavior on the part of the founder(s) of an organization. The term is anecdotal/unofficial and does not actually refer to a medical syndrome. It is particularly common where there has only been one person leading the organization or the board of directors since its inception and is common in non-profit and commercial organizations that grow beyond their early stages.

The organization faces founder's syndrome as the scope of activities widen and number of stakeholders increase. Without an effective decentralized decision making process there will be growing conflict between the newcomers, who want a say in how the organization develops and the founder who continues to dominate the decision making process. This can be very destructive, both to the organization and to the individuals concerned and should be dealt with quickly and decisively.

There are a number of negative dynamics that can occur when an original CEO stays on beyond the initial growth period of an organization.

* The first is that the CEO's passion and charisma that initially created the successful organization starts to become a negative rather than a positive force. As the organization moves in to a more mature phase additional, professionally-trained and talented people are engaged and the board is expanded. The founder's domination of the decision making process can frustrate effective group decision making.

* The organization can, over time, come to be overly identified with the person or personality of the founder and experience a loss of public trust.

* During the early phases of the organization the board tends to be selected by the founder and are either like-minded individuals or people who can be trusted to 'rubber stamp' the founder's decisions rather than offering a more representative view.

Surviving Founder's syndrome requires acknowledgment of the problem, a plan of action, and ideally interventions by the founder, the board and also by other people involved in the organization. The objective of the plan should be to allow the organization to make a successful transition to a more mature organizational model without too much damage to either the organization itself or to the individuals concerned.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Your Kingdom Emerging

"Thy Kingdom Come" is ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου and the verb can be translated, with the syntax used, as "emerge."

The whole context of Matt 6 is one of secrecy - where God's reign and influence are sneaking upon us. Interpreters often make the mistake of "will reward you" (vv 6:4&18)as something that awaits us above and beyond. I believe the rewards are expanding here and now.

Having my "sky-time" (bible & meditation) this morning - I realized a curious retrospective. Israel begs for a king. YHWH says they don't need one. They whine and like a loving parent a king is allowed (but with a lengthy "please be advised" disclaimer). They wanted a mere horizontal influence.

Then YHWH's people decide that a temple needs to be built. Again, God resists the notion. They persist and like a loving parent a temple is allowed (but with a lengthy "please be advised" disclaimer as well). They wanted a mere horizontal influence.

I read through the end of 2 Samuel and into 1 Kings (where David - "the man after God's own heart" releases his life-long bitter grudges and tells Solomon to "whack" a few guys he didn't like).

Solomon takes over and prospers big-time. He takes 7 years to build the temple and offers a very insightful prayer when it is dedicated. Then the narrative truncates his 13-year devotion to building his palace (something I don't recall ever being asked for and granted). I cringe knowing where all this will lead. I have read this story a few times before.

Within a handful of verses, Solomon finds himself being sucked down into a consequential vortex. All the peace and prosperity of his great horizontal influence turns out to be short-lived. Solomon dies and his son Rehoboam takes over.

The "kingdom" divides and many years of intermittent trouble and success follow.

Something that jumped off the pages (God's Word keeps doing that!) surprised me in the midst of the consequential conflicts and chaos. The words "this is my doing" made me realize the huge sovereignty God possesses.

1 Kings 12
22 But this word of God came to Shemaiah the man of God: 23 "Say to Rehoboam son of Solomon king of Judah, to the whole house of Judah and Benjamin, and to the rest of the people, 24 'This is what the LORD says: Do not go up to fight against your brothers, the Israelites. Go home, every one of you, for this is my doing.' " So they obeyed the word of the LORD and went home again, as the LORD had ordered.

Then I had one of those cinematic flashbacks of the history that followed (sounds strange putting it that way).

The kingdom goes awry and the temple is dashed to the ground. Then the temple gets rebuilt later and is dashed to the ground. Then the temple gets rebuilt later and is dashed to the ground.

Hmmm. It's still absent and there is no earthy monarchy where God's people have prevalence. Which returns me to the ideas that Jesus promoted in his lengthy discourse on a hillside.

Our influence was never intended to be exercised and experienced on a mere horizontal plane. Jesus advocates drawing on the invisible influence and reign of God to allow his pure dominance to flow through us to others - without calling attention to ourselves (that's one reason I don't where an advertising team T-shirt when I'm participating in a "mission project").

And the increment of this is a daily one. How often I overlook the "divine encounters" because I've got this idea that it will all happen in some venue that has yet to arrive in some type of form that would correlate to a king and a temple. I guess that's why I really went to seminary - so I could be the "pastor" of a "church" and then I could really accomplish so much more for God.

Such a journey continues. It's a very intriguing one. YHWH's Kingdom is continually emerging. There's nothing that should keep us waiting until something else happens or arrives.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

So I Didn't Set Myself Up for Disappointment - and it Worked

So the architect was correct. The city has to justify its existence. Got an e-mail from the city. IOW: "Planning and Zoning - Approved;" "Fire Status - Approved;" Building Status - Disapproved." Round 2.

11 more days of free rent anyway.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Insight from the "Outside"

A good friend of mine (Tom Lindholtz) is a fellow follower who exercises his pastoral gift in its biblically designed function. In other words, he's never been paid a penny to pursue his passion to shepherd other followers in any kind of conventional form.

This has kept him at an advantageous perspective of being able to view "ekklasia" from the outside in. He has provided insight for me (some of it "provocative" in its pure sense) over the last 15 years.

Since Teena and I have recently found ourselves outside of the institutional framework of "ministry," I have realized that some of the insight I have gained about the vast array of kingdom opportunities beyond the four walls of a "study" have come from Tom's own journey. He has had a natural-flowing rapport with many who are spiritually hungry, yet without the artificial wall the erects itself by an ecclesiastical prefix. He's just "Tom" and not "Pastor/Rev/Father/Dr..."

He has been a grand encourager when I have found myself without a "job" in the field for which I was "trained." He was the one who helped me realize that a verb is always more productive than a noun. He takes to heart the depth of the Great Commission where Jesus implores us to "...go and make disciples of all nations..." He's out there (sometimes in satirical form ;-D )and has been out there for most of his life "making the most of every opportunity."

So now that we find ourselves out there we have discovered how extremely vast the "harvest field" is. Where we were tempted to be disheartened that we were no longer in the form and venue we thought we were supposed to be, we have made a profound discovery.

Out is not such a bad place to find oneself. It actually ends up being the destination of "Go!"

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Put Your Sword Away!

I'm still very frustrated about the experience a family member encountered recently. It seems that while attending a particular church, the "pastor" (or more appropriate: "pester") made it clear that anyone who read or watched "Harry Potter" was inviting evil into their lives.

Why do some put it upon themselves to make a distinction on what particular brand of fiction/folklore is prohibited among those who seek God and desire to follow Christ? For instance - Halloween is bad; Christmas (celebrated very close to the pagan observation of the winter solstice with lights and greenery) is good. Harry Potter is bad; The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (chock-full of magic and fantasy) is good.

Without naming names or particular groups of people who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus, I can’t help but notice that some among us are still wielding swords to force the advancement of the Kingdom.

What follows will be some random thoughts and passages in context to this dilemma that have been insightful and profoundly inspiring to me as I endeavor to follow the teachings of God's Messiah - Jesus. In short, he never told us to take things upon ourselves for apart from him we can do "squat." (Greek double negative οὐ οὐδείς)

John 18
10Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant's name was Malchus.)
11Jesus commanded Peter, "Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?"

“The Cup” includes “it is finished” - what Jesus uttered as he was dying.

Matthew 16
18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades ("Some people call it 'hell' Mhhmmm") will not overcome it.

John 12
31Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.

John 16:33
"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

Romans 12:21
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

1 John 2
13I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, dear children, because you have known the Father.

John 6
14After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, "Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world." 15Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

Galatians 2
14When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

Matthew 21:32
Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

Matthew 16
11How is it you don't understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." 12Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

What IS the “leaven of the Pharisees?” - It's sad to conclude that it's in a lot of places today. We bear it and we battle it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Java Journey will be a “Third Place” and “Social Condenser” -or- The Mars Hill Approach Continues

Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean." (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) – Acts 17:19-21

The Cheers song has been overused for illustrative purposes, but for good reason. The part of the lyrics that states “You wanna go where people know, people are all the same, You wanna go where everybody knows your name…” is, without question, resonant to a majority. “Cheers” (the fictional tavern itself) is a “social condenser.” It is a “third place.”

Below is an excerpt from A Multi-Site Church Road Trip (Zondervan 2009) edited by Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon and Warren Bird. “Third place” is very well defined.

Ray Oldenburg is credited with coining the term “third place” in his book The Great Good Place. A third place is somewhere outside the first two spaces in our life: work and home…

Ray Oldenburg believes that bars, coffee shops, general stores, and other third places are central to developing a vital community. Some call such places “social condensers” – places where community is developed, cohesion is retained, and a sense of identity is created. In the business world, the third place concept has become a buzzword for retailers as a “place to aspire to become.”

Oldenburg lists the following eight characteristics of third places:

1. They are located on “neutral” ground.
2. They are “levelers” where rank and status don’t matter.
3. Conversation is a main activity.
4. They are easy to access and accommodating.
5. They have a core group of influential regulars.
6. They have a low profile instead of being showy.
7. The mood is playful.
8. They feel like a home away from home.

Ed Stetzer, president of research with LifeWay Research, in a February 2008 study conducted for Cornerstone Knowledge Network, asked, “What kind of places do the unchurched like to come to?”…

According to the survey, the reason why people choose particular locations to meet with their friends is because these places are relaxing, casual, and fun. When asked to describe in their own words design features of the kind of place where they’d like to meet a friend, responders mentioned a quiet environment, comfortable seating, and a spaciousness and openness.
This is precisely what drives the vision that Teena and I share, along with a “core group influential regulars.” Our design is purposeful so that folks will walk into the place to meet a friend, of just sit comfortably. Our mission is stated as being a place which: “provides hope and restoration to the hurting and broken by sharing Christ's story, showing His love and by empowering the restored to serve others.” We believe deeply that the only way to do this is to gain a trust and a rapport with fellow human beings – and the means to establish that is provided by an environment that maintains “a low profile instead of being showy.”

We grow more and more excited each day.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Faith Minus Expectations

What a renaissance on Sunday! Our simple gathering was plagued with technical difficulties and other glitches. In days gone by, both Teena and I would have to fight off anxiety and anger (in accordance with institutional expectations) so that plans would come off smoothly and without "distractions" (or as one former fellow staff person put it "we want everything to be 'clean and classy'") for visitors and guests.

Thank God we had listened to the wise counsel of Reggie McNeal who implores leaders to put "preparation" above "planning." With a handful of relatively fresh Christ followers, it was so invigorating that the strong community ambiance within the room overwhelmed all expectations that everything HAS to be smooth and without any proverbial "hitches." It's amazing that those with limited institutional experience become the most encouraging and composed.

Conversation during the teaching flowed as though someone more powerful than all of us was actually leading.

Why has it taken us so long to realize that this One's leadership is far above any so called leadership and direction we can provide?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Plans Dropped Off

The Architect completed the plans with the details requested by the city. I dropped the required 5 sets off Thursday morning. When he handed them to me, he gave me a heads-up about what the city seems obligated to do (being elected/assigned folks). "It most likely will be rejected at first" says he. "I've never seen anything fly through in one try."

It takes wisdom in knowing how to follow up. Do we become pests if we call too much? Do we risk the left hand and right hand not communicating if we lay back? We have 3 weeks left of free rent, but are not allowed to build anything until the city says "ok." I'm looking for heart here since we are non-profit and dependent on donations and volunteers. But reality and a few places in a book I read often suggests that it's not to be expected.

The last word used there has been a lesson in faith for us. The depth of faith nearly always challenges our "expectations." Everything to this point has clearly been a result of divine design. The reason we can say that is because almost nothing we imagined has taken place. Yet, the development and process that has led us to this present point is far superior to anything we could have envisioned or schemed.

Thanks for your prayers. Continue to pray for patience and resources. Feel free to contact us if you have questions or would like to support us.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

From My Hebrew (Me-ah) "Heart"

Lord. Thank you that Teena and I are both sensing the fulfillment of taking some risks in obedience to your teachings. Admittedly, we have battled fear at times but we both agree that we are willing to trade any ridicule of perceived failure for the frustration of approaching the end of our lives regretting that we served only in a "safe" mode. I.J.N. Amen.

One More Month of Free Rent

Looks as though we may run into September and part of October. We have an architect working to help us finish the "mechanical" (plumbing/electricity) portions of our plans for submission to the city. We can't start putting things in or up until they have been approved.
We are still tearing away at old stuff. The biggest challenge has been scraping away nearly 40 years of floor crud. Since we want to restore the original slab to a stained/polished look, we've worked extremely hard at peeling (actually "chipping") away the layers: Indoor/outdoor carpet on top of adhesive on top of latex paint on top of oil based paint on top of adhesive. We've had lots of advise on the best way to do it, but we've found that a heat gun and a sharp scraper are the most thorough.
We have had 2 people donate significant amounts toward the build out. If you would like to help financially - your gift would be tax deductible. Just send me a private e-mail using "javajourney (at) embarqmail (dot) com." (Be sure to remove the spaces and replace the symbols). We would be very grateful.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Man - does this article put a spring in our visionary steps!

Can Your Church Handle the Truth?
Recovery ministries demand a level of honesty many congregations aren't used to.
Matt Russell with Angie Ward

Monday, July 13, 2009

I am afraid that in many American churches, we are not telling the truth—at least not the whole truth.

In many churches we assume that once you accept Jesus as your Savior, you get involved in church and your life gets better. This is the standard story repeated in "testimony time" on Sundays, and the unspoken assumption regarding discipleship.

This "narrative of ascendency" has become the dominant American narrative of the gospel, rooted in American optimism and confidence. It is beautiful, compelling, and powerful. But is it the whole truth?

The church in America has struggled to embrace an equally true "narrative of descendency," the part of the gospel that is grounded in the One who descended into the depths of human darkness, and who calls us to face our particular and ongoing struggle with our own darkness.

We avoid this part of the story. We want a new life without a death. We want to ascend to Heaven before we descend into hell.

But the gospel includes both descendency and ascendency. The very process of recovery is understanding that there is a death, and there is a resurrection. They are inseparable, and it's a process that continues throughout our lives. The story of Mercy Street is a story of a community of faith in Christ that sees the gospel in both of those narratives.
My snowball interviews

Thirteen years ago, I had finished seminary and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I called Jim Jackson, a friend who was the senior pastor at Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, to ask him to help me think through some of the decisions I had to make. He asked me to work with him for a few years and get some ministry experience under my belt.

When I got to Chapelwood, Jim asked me, "What do you want to do?" I told him that I wanted to find a way to connect people who were outside the church, who saw no relevance in the way the church interacts with culture, with the gospel. Jim said, "Go for it. What do you need?"

I said I needed a laptop and a cell phone and told him I wouldn't be at the church a lot.

I asked Jim if he would give me the names of a couple of people who had left the church because they had bad experiences. Then I found a coffee shop in the Montrose area of Houston and cold-called the people on his list.

"My intention is not to invite you back to church," I said. "I want to hear what happened, how you felt, and what you wish was different. Will you just come and tell me your story?"

I didn't realize it at the time, but I ended up doing what is known as "snowball interviewing." After those first few interviews, I asked, "Is there anyone else you know who feels the same way about church? If I made the same promise to them, would you give me their name and number?" And they did. So for nine months, every day, Monday through Friday, I sat at Dietrich's Coffee Shop and interviewed people. I'd ask questions about their perceptions, their experiences, and their thoughts about church. What I heard broke my heart and changed my life.

Through these interviews, I came to see a distinct pattern. Most people left church not because they had a deep theological problem with something like the virgin birth or the resurrection of Christ. They left because people in church have the tendency to be small and mean and couldn't deal honestly with their own sin or the sin of others. As one man put it, "People in the church were more invested in the process of being right than in the process of being honest."

One of the main populations I interviewed was people who were in all types of recovery: from drugs, alcohol, sex addiction, eating disorders, gambling. Their interviews were full of stories of chronic behaviors that persisted despite confession, church attendance, small group participation, and Bible study. Many felt that their ministry leaders expected their behaviors to change as a result of prayer and participating in church activities. But that just wasn't the case.

As one person told me, "Just because you shellac a bunch of Jesus over your life doesn't make it right."

After nine months, I had conducted more than 70 interviews. I invited 30 of those people to a dinner to share with them what I had heard and learned.

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

A place that can handle the truth

During dinner I asked, "What if we became the answer to these problems? What if we formed a community that's honest, that welcomes those who feel disconnected and spiritually homeless?" These people responded that they wanted to be part of creating a church that would welcome those in recovery, where they could be vulnerable with each other as a way of growing spiritually.

In the past, these individuals had to step away from honest vulnerability in order to fit acceptability standards in the church. Some did it for a while, until they could no longer keep the masks in place and their addictive processes at bay. These people had been in the church for a long time but felt like they could never get honest when they talked with their pastor or small group leader. With Mercy Street, we wanted to change that paradigm.

Spirituality is social in nature. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that Christ exists in community. The first problem that has to be overcome in Genesis is isolation, not sin. That has deep implications for how we preach the gospel. Our believing is conditioned at its source by our belonging. Spiritual growth is stunted without honesty in community. But our Christian language of victory can become so dominant that we no longer are being honest about our sinful impulses and behaviors.

We can hide behind spiritual language and discuss someone else's sin, so we don't have to confess our own.

In other words, we learned that addicts desperately needed a community of faith that could meet them at the same level of depth, authenticity, and vulnerability that they find in the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve-Step program. They needed a church that was as committed to the narrative of descent as it was to the narrative of ascent.

At Mercy Street, we embrace the whole story. In one part of our service, we do "Celebrations," where people will stand up and celebrate being sober from drugs and alcohol for two days or twenty years; mothers will thank God that they are sober, have a job, and are getting their children back from Child Protective Services; men and women will celebrate getting off of parole, out of jail, or into a new job. It's both narratives all mixed in together.

Joining the Spirit's work in everyone

As I befriended recovering men and women, it became evident that many had experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of the stark honesty and transparency of the Twelve Steps. The same Spirit who had awakened them was now leading them to Jesus within the life of the church. When I would ask, "Where are you finding your spiritual nourishment today?" they would tell me, "I'm in this recovery group; I connect with God in those meetings."

Part of the way we see AA, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous (or any of the "A" programs) is that we don't have to baptize them in the name of Jesus in order for them to be the work of Jesus. Christ exists incognito in the rooms of recovery. The Kingdom of God is coming in all places where people are being liberated from bondage, sometimes even in church buildings. Or AA. We want to participate where Jesus is in the world, redeeming people and calling them to himself.

At Mercy Street, Christ is central. There is no other name by which we can be saved.

But we also live by this adage: "Jesus may have saved your soul, but AA is going to save your ass; and your soul is no earthly good if your ass is not intact." If you step into Mercy Street and into recovery, you go to meetings, get a sponsor, and work the Twelve Steps. That's what you do. That is discipleship.

Churches are filled with people who have made a rational assent to Jesus as Savior but who resist the presence of the Spirit in their lives. They say, "I'm not forgiving her." Or "I'm not going to fight my pornography addiction, but I believe in Jesus, my personal Lord and Savior."

They want a spiritual experience without having to do the hard work of recovery and discipleship. But the hard work of facing the wreckage of the past and surrendering yourself to Christ in the mess is the very pathway of faith.
Cell groups and secure locations

At Mercy Street, we like to say that you're just as likely to sit next to someone from Penn State as from the State Pen. This is a reflection of some of our early experiences as a community.

Keith had been a crack addict for several years. He lived on the streets and in and out of halfway houses. By the time he showed up at Mercy Street, he was sober and in recovery, but he said, "When I was in treatment, I needed a place like this."

Keith noticed some vans in the parking lot that weren't being used and asked if he could pick up people from halfway houses. So he started picking up people every Saturday night from nine or ten houses in the area. A group of women petitioned the state of Texas to get out of lockout to be able to come to church for an hour on Saturday.

Another man relapsed and went to prison for three years. While he was there, a woman in our community wrote to him every week, sending him transcripts of our services: songs, announcements, sermons—everything. He wrote back: "Would you send four of these to me? The warden says we can only gather in groups of ten, but a lot of guys want to hear what's going on at church each week."

We now send transcripts to men and women incarcerated throughout the state of Texas. Each week they gather in orange and white jumpsuits to pray, encourage each other, read the transcripts, and "have church." Many of these men and women come to Mercy Street after serving their time.

"I've been coming to this church for months," one man told me, "but this is the first time I've ever been here!" We consider Mercy Street a multi-site church. It just so happens that many of our sites are maximum-security prisons.
A pastor in recovery

The church can be a great place for pastors to hide. We have a role, a title, a whole language, and a reputation that can insulate us, protect us, and conceal us. That's why one of the biggest blessings of this journey for me is that I have been able to face my own addictions.

Thirteen years ago, while interviewing Jake at Dietrich's, I began to cry. While the details of our stories were different, I saw similar patterns of struggling and hiding. I started to pour out my story to this man across the table. He let out an expletive and said, "I think I'm going to have to take you to a meeting."

Two days later I went to my first recovery meeting, having a degree in theology, having given my life to Christ at the age of 13, having led mission trips. But I don't think I'd ever really encountered Christ until that day in the coffee shop. I was 29 years old at the time, and I realized I had never been completely vulnerable about my ongoing struggles.

Jake became my sponsor.

In those meetings I learned how to say the darkest truth about myself in the light of day. Saying the words "My name is Matt, and I'm a recovering addict" continually reminds me that I have access to grace only through vulnerability and honesty. That was 13 years ago, and by the grace of God I continue to go to meetings, work the steps, and I am sober today.

I'm called to be a person, not just a pastor. That means I submit myself to the hard work of recovery. I'm like the guy in the hair-replacement ads: "I'm not only the founder, I'm also a member."

Some people that come to Mercy Street also attend some of the meetings I go to. In those meetings I stand firm in my identity as a recovering addict. I speak honestly, listen carefully, and work with my sponsor. These individuals know the details; they are the keepers of my secrets and the protectors of my anonymity.

When I preach, then, I am able to speak in much more general terms about the nature and character of the struggle that is germane to us all without shifting the responsibility of that struggle over to the wider community. I understand this to be what Paul meant when he said, "bear one another's burdens" (Gal. 6:2) but "carry your own load" first (Gal. 6:5).

Between 65 and 70 percent of the folks at Mercy Street say they are recovering from an identifiable process addiction or substance addiction and are going to weekly meetings. But we define addiction very broadly. A man came up to me one night and said, "I finally understand my addiction: I have an addiction to entitlement." That is to say that each of us struggles with an addiction. Addictions are things I put in front of God so that I don't have to deal with God, my pain, or other people. Jesus invites us to do the hard work of acknowledging it and maturing in him.

Without descending into the darkness of our own lives, there can be no ascendency. Thankfully, Mercy Street is living proof that God still raises people from the dead.

Matt Russellis founding pastor of Mercy Street in Houston, Texas, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in adult identity development and recovery at Texas Tech.
Leadership in recovery
What if a leader struggles?

Leadership in a community full of addicts can be interesting at times. At Mercy Street, we require leaders in recovery to have been sober for 12 months, have worked through the 12 steps, have a sponsor who says they're ready, and not hide behind spiritual language (i.e. "I'm a new creature now, forgiven, redeemed, and free of my addiction"). Becoming a leader doesn't mean you stop your recovery. The structure of daily contact with a sponsor, meditation, going to meetings, and the work that is done in the steps is essential to lifelong discipleship.

Mike was divorcing his wife of 20 years because he was an alcoholic and crack addict. He got into recovery, and it started to save his life. Meanwhile, his wife was attending Al-Anon, for those affected by a loved one's addiction. While Mike was living in an apartment by himself, clinging to the high-profile job he was about to lose, his sponsor asked him to come to Mercy Street to work on the third step.

An agnostic, Mike came to Mercy Street, looked across the room, and saw his ex-wife. She was there with her sponsor, who told her to come as she worked through the steps. They had no idea they'd see each other there.

But they began to put their relationship back together. A year later, after a lot of therapy and Twelve-Step meetings, I stood in front of our community as they renewed their vows to each other.

Mike got very involved in Mercy Street. He was a church planter's dream. He designed our initial Web site, did graphics for our weekend service, and created advertising for the church.

But one morning his sponsor called me and said that Mike wasn't coming to AA meetings any more, had stalled at the third step, and was ripe for a relapse since he had only been totally sober for six months after years of alcohol and drug abuse.

The sponsor (who did not go to our church) and I sat down with Mike and said: "We're concerned for you. We feel like you're at a crucial place in your life. We think you're beginning to replace spiritual experiences for the actual work of the Spirit in your life."

Mike listened and agreed. But in keeping with the language we use at Mercy Street, we didn't ask him to step back from leadership, but deeper into community and his recovery.

Mike did just that. He stepped back into his recovery, and along the way brought his entire AA home group to Mercy Street. We baptized 12 folks from that group over the next two years, his sponsor included! Mike celebrated 11 years of sobriety this past spring.


Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.

Java Journey Set to Music

You don't know me but I'm your brother
I was raised here in this living hell
You don't know my kind in your world
Fairly soon the time will tell
You, telling me the things you're gonna do for me
I ain't blind and I don't like what I think I see

Takin' it to the streets
Takin' it to the streets
Takin' it to the streets
Takin' it to the streets

Take this message to my brother
You will find him everywhere
Wherever people live together
Tied in poverty's despair
You, telling me the things you're gonna do for me
I ain't blind and I don't like what I think I see

Takin' it to the streets
Takin' it to the streets
Takin' it to the streets
Takin' it to the streets

-Michael H. McDonald

Monday, July 6, 2009

Americans Embrace Various Alternatives to a Conventional Church Experience as Being Fully Biblical

A "George-Gem" from last year that I somehow missed.

Change of Heart

For decades, American Christians, who comprise more than four of our every five adults, assumed they had one legitimate way to practice their faith: through involvement in a conventional church. But new research shows that this mind set is no longer prevalent in the U.S. The latest Barna study shows that a majority of adults now believe that there are various biblically legitimate alternatives to participation in a conventional church.

Each of six alternatives was deemed by a most adults to be "a complete and biblically valid way for someone who does NOT participate in the services or activities of a conventional church to experience and express their faith in God." Those alternatives include engaging in faith activities at home, with one’s family (considered acceptable by 89% of adults); being active in a house church (75%); watching a religious television program (69%); listening to a religious radio broadcast (68%); attending a special ministry event, such as a concert or community service activity (68%); and participating in a marketplace ministry (54%).

Smaller proportions of the public consider other alternatives to be complete and biblically valid ways of experiencing and expressing their faith in God. Those include interacting with a faith-oriented website (45%) and participating in live events via the Internet (42%).

Activity Outside the Conventional Church

The Barna study also found that tens of millions of people are experiencing and expressing their faith in God independent of any connection to a conventional church. In the past month, 55% of adults had attended a conventional church service. During that same month, 28% of all adults who did not attend a conventional church activity did, however, participate in an alternative means of experiencing and expressing their faith in God.

Looking at some of the newer and more controversial methods of spiritual engagement, the survey found that 4% had participated in a house church or simple church; 9% had been involved in a ministry that met in the marketplace; and 12% had engaged in spiritual activity on the Internet.

Pastors Accept House Churches

In a companion study conducted by The Barna Group among Senior Pastors of Protestant churches, two out of three pastors agreed that "house churches are legitimate Christian churches." Surprisingly, pastors from mainline churches were more likely than pastors from other Protestant congregations to consider house churches to be biblically defensible forms of church experience. Among the pastors least likely to support the legitimacy of house churches were pastors who earn more than $75,000 annually; African-American pastors; and pastors of charismatic or Pentecostal churches.

The views of Protestant pastors regarding house churches show that they assign both strengths and weaknesses to house churches. For instance, more than three-quarters of conventional church pastors (77%) contend that "house churches genuinely worship God." Two-thirds (66%) said "a house church might be a better spiritual fit for someone than a conventional local church." And three out of every five (60%) noted that "house churches produce genuine disciples of Christ."

However, less than half of all pastors of conventional churches said that they would ever recommend a house church to someone (40%). Also, only one out of three conventional church pastors (31%) believes that "house churches have sufficient spiritual accountability."

Paradoxically, only half (54%) of the Senior Pastors of conventional churches who believe that house churches are biblically legitimate forms of church said that they might ever recommend a house church to someone.

Issues with the Origins of Church Practices

The research parallels the findings of a controversial new book co-authored by researcher George Barna, entitled Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Christian Practices. In that book, Barna and co-author Frank Viola explain the origins of many common routines widely used in conventional churches, ranging from preaching to communion. The early Christians met almost exclusively in homes and had few of the trappings that characterize 21st-century churches and services. Many of the church habits in place today were not apostolic or biblical practices but are vestiges of pagan practices adopted by Christians in the third century or later.

Pagan Christianity? contends that most of today’s church practices have no biblical foundation, and in some cases, hinder people from having a genuine experience with God. With extensive footnotes and documentation, the book shows that the following church practices had little to do with scriptural mandate or apostolic application:

Church buildings were initially constructed under the Roman emperor Constantine, around 327. The early Christian church met in homes.

The pulpit was a piece of stagecraft borrowed from Greek culture in which professional speakers delivered monologues in public debates. There is no evidence that Jesus, the apostles, or other leaders in the early Church used a pulpit; it seems to have been introduced into Christian circles in the mid-third century.

The order of worship originated in the Roman Catholic Mass under the leadership of Pope Gregory in the sixth century.

Preaching a sermon to an audience was ushered into the church world late in the second century. Sermons were an extension of the activity of the Greek sophists, who had mastered the art of rhetorical oratory.

There were no pastors, as an official or director of a group of believers, until sometime in the second century. That was eventually furthered by the practice of ordination, which was based upon the prevailing Roman custom of appointing men to public office.

The biblical approach to "communion" or the "Lord’s Supper," was truncated late in the second century from a full, festive communal meal without clergy officiating to the presently common habit of having a sip of wine and morsel of bread (or juice and a wafer) under the guidance of a recognized clergyman.

Pagan Christianity? also addresses a myriad of other practices, including tax-exempt status for churches, pews, stained glass windows, altar calls, the pastoral prayer, church bulletins, bishops, clergy attire, choirs, tithing, the collection plate, seminary training, infant baptism, the "sinner’s prayer," and funeral processions, among others.

George Barna commented that the objective of the book is not to criticize churches, but to give people the freedom to re-think many modern church practices. "Often, people feel as if their worship and ministry are confined to what is routinely done because those patterns have a biblical basis or mandate," explained the author of more than three dozen books about faith and culture. "But when you research the origins of church practices, and study the practices of the early church, you discover that most of our current church practices have ancient cultural origins, with no biblical basis. As people seek a deeper relationship with God and other believers, the book encourages them to do so with the knowledge that the Bible describes a spiritual experience that relatively few Americans have known - a model that is more organic and in which every person functions as a priest of the living God."

Early reviews of Pagan Christianity? have been divided between reviewers who appreciate the honest, painstakingly researched appraisal of church practices, and those who are incensed that the roots and biblical validity of so many common practices are questioned. "Whenever you challenge hallowed behaviors, controversy is the natural result," responded Barna. "Every believer must decide whether it is more important to follow biblical guidelines and examples or to instead maintain human traditions and preferences. If nothing else, Frank and I hope this book stimulates significant reflection and conversation about why the Church does what it does, what is the biblical model of the Church, and how we can be a more authentic representation of the Church that God envisions."

About the Research

This report is based upon two nationwide telephone surveys conducted by The Barna Group. One survey was a sample of 1005 adults, age 18 and older, conducted in December 2007 randomly selected from across the continental United States. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The other survey included interviews with 615 Senior Pastors of Protestant churches, randomly sampled from all Protestant churches in the continental states during December 2007. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables. All interviews in both surveys were conducted via telephone, and multiple callbacks were made to each telephone number to provide a representative sample.

The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website

© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.

Copyright Disclaimer: All the information contained on the website is copyrighted by The Barna Group, Ltd., 2368 Eastman Ave. Unit 12, Ventura, California 93003. No portion of this website (articles, graphs, charts, reviews, pictures, video clips, quotes, statistics, etc.) may be reproduced, retransmitted, disseminated, sold, distributed, published, edited, altered, changed, broadcast, circulated, or commercially exploited without the prior written permission from The Barna Group, Ltd.