Month: June 2012

Six Months, Six Lessons in Church Planting

In January, I started working on a church plant with a few friends.  My involvement wasn’t public until late February because of various timing issues but in total, I’m six months into this new venture.  As a church planting novice, this first half year has been eye opening, challenging, and exhilarating.  Here are six lessons I’ve learned from my first six months as a church planter.  This is by no means a comprehensive or definitive list for church planters – just a few things I’ve learned in my context.

Love for Community begins with Love for Team.  I love the people I work with.  I don’t just love working with them or planting a church with them.  I actually love them.  This love has developed over the past few months as we’ve been in the trenches, grinding it out on most days.  There is a sense of family that develops out of friendship when sharing something as intimate and intense as planting a church.  I’ve found that my love for our team has deeply influenced my heart for our community.  I am beginning to see our community as an extension of our team and so it has become increasingly more natural for me to love our community because I so deeply love our team.

Focus on Growing Stronger, Not Bigger.  I stole this directly from my friend Ryan, who also happens to be my boss and co-planter.  Let’s not over simplify and say that size doesn’t matter.  It does, for a number of reasons we won’t get into here.  But when an organization, especially a church, focuses primarily on getting bigger, there is a growing temptation to speed up the process in all sorts of unhealthy, unnatural ways.  Healthy things grow naturally, so a focus on growing stronger will result in healthy growth, often in supernatural ways.

Celebrate People, not Programs.  Churches, especially here in the west, are designed with our worship services and various programs offered as the centerpieces of what we do and, in turn, who we are.  But most of us would also agree that the church is people, not a building, a service, or a program.  Many of us have said as much.  We must address this discrepancy not just with our words but with our actions, in what we celebrate, promote, and emphasize.  We must focus on celebrating the stories of what God is doing in people and place less emphasis on all the cool stuff we’re doing or the great programs we offer.

Friendships trump Strategies & Systems… Strategies and systems are vital [more on that below] but friendships are of primary importance.  Jesus calls his disciples friends [John 15:14-15] and bases this friendship on the disciples’ ability and willingness to remain in his love for them, love one another, obey his commands, and produce fruit with their lives.  It seems to me that these are the essentials of any church – love God, love one another, follow him in obedience, and watch as God produces fruit through our efforts.  As such, we must begin with friendship – friendship with God and with one another.  Friendships are built on trust and where there is trust, there is room for failure, learning, and growth.  There is also joy, delight, and rest in friendships.  I’ve found this to be the best place from which to operate when church planting.

…But Strategies & Systems are Necessary.  I’m not good with strategies and systems. I tend to be much more abstract and ambiguous in my thinking, which gets me into trouble sometimes.  Thankfully, I’m surrounded by friends who are very strategic and great with creating systems.  Some have made the mistake of thinking that allowing the Spirit to lead means sitting by idly, waiting for something to happen with no plan in place, totally unprepared to respond well if and when God moves.  During the Exodus, as God led the Israelites through the wilderness, the people lived within a nomadic system with a detailed strategy for packing up and moving quickly whenever God was on the move.  Strategies and systems are never the catalysts for life change but they are the operating procedures which allow us to move with God as he leads our kingdom charge into our city.

God’s Kingdom has no room for our Empires.  The temptation for most of us, from small church plants to established mega-churches, is to build our own empires.  No one ever really admits to empire-building but it’s seen in a number of ways – lack of relationship with other churches, with the city, and with the community.  In these last six months, I’ve been humbled and inspired by the ways other churches in our city have rallied around us, supported us, and come to our aid in times of need.  Our relationships with these churches reminds me that we are all in this together.  Our churches are not warring empires from distant lands.  They are all cities on the one hill of God’s eternal kingdom.  When we embrace this reality, we are released from all sorts of false pressures and can more effectively go about the eternal work God has called all of us to.

*If you live in or near the San Jose area and are interested in hearing more about the launch of Awakening Church this fall, you can email me at jay@awakeningchurch.com or check us out online at www.awakeningchurch.com

Father’s Day Regrets & Redemption

Last year on Father’s Day, I wrote about apathy toward my father and my desire to change.  Here’s an excerpt from that entry on June 19, 2011:

I care far less than I should.  But today is Father’s Day and I am inspired to change.  I’m not sure what I’m going to do.  Maybe I’ll write him a letter.  Maybe I’ll get his number and call him.  Maybe my wife and I will plan a trip to go see him in the next few months.  I believe fathers and sons are reflections.  Sons see their fathers, reflect their fathers, and become their fathers.  But maybe it works the other way around too.  Maybe a father can see his son, reflect his son, and become his son.  Maybe we all have demons we’re wrestling.  Maybe my father and I are in some ways wrestling the same demon.  And maybe, after all these years of wrestling with alcoholism, addiction, and apathy, he and I, my father and I, can beat this thing together.

Sadly, I didn’t have the resolve to actually do what I set out to do.  I sat down to write a letter to my father a few times in the weeks after this initial blog entry.  But I was never able to finish.  Everything I wrote felt trivial or fake.  So I quit.  I never wrote him.  I never called.  I just let him be, as I’d always done.

My father passed away two months ago.  I went to Korea for a couple of days to attend his funeral and take care of some family business.  While there, I found out that my father had given his life to Christ and turned his life around in the last few years of his life.  He’d beaten his demons and spent his final months praying for me and my mother and actively participating in the life of his local church.  He’d taken up photography and snapped pictures any chance he got.  He’d always been a good man, my aunts and uncles told me, and in the final years of his life, he’d actually lived a good life.  Here’s an excerpt from my entry on April 30, 2012, describing my thoughts and feelings on losing my father and the powerful story of a life redeemed:

It’s difficult to describe in words how shaken and moved I am by this part of my father’s story.  I am grateful that God would weave his grace and love into a story as tattered and torn as that of my father and me.  But this is how our God works.  He takes the most broken, mends things together, and redeems the rubble into the most beautiful mosaic.  And so today I remember that my father, despite the mess he made of life, was a good man, kind and compassionate, loved by God and family and friends.  I remember that in spite of his absence, he has been and will continue to be a massive part of who I am, a backdrop against which to color the story of my own life, within the lines of his successes and outside the lines of his failures.  Most importantly, I remember that he is my father, I am his son, and we are both children of the Most High, rescued by love, redeemed by grace, remade into the sons of God neither of us could ever become on our own.

I miss my dad.  I wish I’d been a better man myself.  I wish I’d reached out, written a letter, given him a call every now and then.  I wish I had more pictures of him and with him.  I wish we could’ve shared a cold beer and grilled meat and talked about baseball.  I take comfort in knowing that in God’s kingdom, even regrets can be redeemed.  So I eagerly await the day I’ll see my dad again, when we’ll laugh together for the first time, and we’ll enjoy catching up for eternity.

Enjoy Today

A couple of days ago, I was watching highlights from Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, their annual unveiling of the latest and greatest technological gadgets and goodies.  The WWDC has turned into a sort of Christmas for both the tech-savvy and the tech-challenged, of which, I am the latter.  I watched as they unveiled the new Macbook Pro, complete with retina display, 5 million pixels on a single screen, and jet boosters that take you to the moon.  I watched on my Macbook, which I’ve owned and enjoyed for a few years now.  You already know what happens next in this story.  I stared at my “old, outdated” Macbook and was overcome by a sudden dissatisfaction.  It was working fine, doing everything I needed it to do.  It is absolutely the best computer I’ve ever owned.  It was more than enough when I woke up that morning but after a short little video from Apple, it was the biggest piece of crap computer I’d ever seen and I needed to upgrade!

In Matthew 6:34, Jesus says, “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”  Most of the people he was talking to were peasants living under the oppressive rule of a foreign empire.  They worried about paying 90% taxes and still having enough money to buy food for their families.  Things are a bit different for us.  I don’t worry about immediate necessities like food, shelter, and clothing.  Instead, I am concerned with what’s next.  My guess is that, to a certain extent, you are too.  We live in a world where the non-essentials – technology, fashion, entertainment, etc. – evolve at an alarming rate.  We talk about sequels to movies before the movies themselves are released.  I never feel cool enough because the minute I buy a pair of jeans, they’re out of style.  My awesome laptop sucks the moment I hear about a newer model.

But all these advancements in technology, all these new forms of entertainment, and all the latest fashion trends aren’t just giving us something.  They’re also taking something precious from us.  They’re stealing from us the ability to enjoy the present and robbing us of the simple pleasures of the here and now.  They’re poisoning our gratitude and appreciation into bitterness, envy, and greed.  Maybe if Jesus could speak the words of Matthew 6:34 to us today,  he’d say, “Don’t worry about tomorrow…ENJOY TODAY.”  We live privileged lives.  We stress over luxuries, not necessities.  So let’s remember that we are blessed with abundance.  And the most Godly thing we can do is enjoy every moment fully, not worrying about what might be tomorrow, instead finding contentment and satisfaction in what is today.

Carrying Each Other

There was a story in the news last week about two high school girls, Meghan Vogel, a junior at West Liberty High and Arden McMath, a sophomore at Arlington High.  Meghan and Arden were both competing in the 3,200-meter race at the Ohio High School Track & Field State Championships.  In the end, Arden and Meghan were the final two runners as the field ahead of them had all crossed the finish line.  With just 20 meters left, Arden McMath’s legs began to give out.  Her knees buckled and she collapsed to the ground. Meghan Vogel could have rushed past her fallen foe, a stranger she’d never met.  No one would have blamed her for doing what she was supposed to do and running hard to the finish line, taking advantage of the opportune moment to save herself from finishing last.  But instead, this happened:

The Vogel home has been bombarded with calls requesting interviews with Meghan in the week since her display of sportsmanship.  Regarding the sudden attention on her act of kindness, Meghan Vogel says this: “I think fate may have put me in last place for a reason.  It’s strange to have people telling me that this was such a powerful act of kindness and using words like ‘humanity.’  It’s weird.  When I hear words like that I think of Harriet Tubman and saving people’s lives.  I don’t consider myself a hero.  I just did what I knew was right and what I was supposed to do.”

I think the Church has something to learn from Meghan Vogel.  Her beautifully selfless act reminds us that the Christian life isn’t about finishing first – it’s about finishing together.  Carrying each other when we fall is what’s right, it’s what we’re supposed to do.  Life is a marathon and the point isn’t to finish before everyone else.  The point is to run well, with integrity, generosity, and joy.  None of us will run this race without falling from time to time.  Inevitably, we’ll all stumble here and there.  And when we do, it is by picking each other up and carrying one another toward the finish that we’ll make the greatest difference.  News reporters who were there to witness Meghan Vogel carrying Arden McMath to the finish line have written that the loudest cheers of the day, by far, were during those few moments.  Some stories have noted that many in the crowd were in tears.

So as you run the race of life, be selfless.  When others are fallen, help them up.  When our legs are weak and our knees are buckling, share your strength with us and we will share ours with you.  And as the world looks on, they will wonder about this peculiar group of people, devoted to a servant King who left his throne to love the least of these.  The world will take notice when we live selflessly, sharing our strength, carrying each other.  Their spirits will be lifted and their hearts will be drawn toward the King of this upside-down kingdom.  And so in carrying another, you carry us all.

The Church, The Bride

I have had a lifelong relationship with the Church.   It hasn’t always been good.  We’ve shared countless ups and downs but after all that we’ve been through, I am grateful to be able to say that I still love her deeply.  I have learned over the years that love for the Church, like love for anything, is forged over time on long walks up and down the steep hills between life’s peaks and valleys.  And so the Church and I, with the many miles we’ve traveled together, are connected intimately.  I have learned over the years to see and appreciate her beauty, which lies not in her exterior nor her interior, but in her expressions.  Like a ballerina, when she is still, she is small.  But when the Church moves and expresses herself to the fullest, she commands the space, creates motion out of nothing, shakes us with her grace and undoes us with the beauty of her dance.  The Church must express herself, she must move, because she is alive.  She is a living, breathing, feeling entity because she is nothing more and nothing less than the people who gather in the name of her Bridegroom.

When the Church is a place, she is static, a dull hue of beige, a small box shoved full of stale traditions and rituals robbed of meaning.

When the Church is people, she is dynamic, a messy mish mash of colors, a wide open space full of new ideas and relationships built with shared stories.

Many people come to Church to learn theology; specifically about God and how to go on living after the grave.  But it is important to remember that good theology is always shaped first and foremost by relationship.  It is shaped by our relationship with God the Father, Jesus his Son, and the Holy Spirit.  It is also shaped by our relationships with one another.  The ways we love, hate, encourage, slander, lift up, and step on each other…all of these beautiful and horrifying realities of the human condition played out uniquely in our relationships shape our theologies in ways that sermons and books never will.  And it is in these very relationships that we find ourselves immersed in the beautiful mess of the Church.  It is here that we learn to love honestly, because honest love requires that we see the filth as well as the fortune.

My Church is attempting to live out these realities in a way that’s completely new for us.  This summer, we’re inviting everyone to meet in homes for six weeks with about 30 other people from our community.  For lack of a better term, we’re calling these groups House Churches.  But this is also intentional. Most of our people think that what we do on Sunday nights is Church. They’re wrong.  What we do on Sunday nights is talk, sing, listen, learn, teach, pray, give, celebrate, laugh, linger, stare, etc.  But the Church…that’s nothing anyone could ever do.  As much as love is a verb, we must realize that Church is a noun.  It is a proper noun, in fact, because the Church is the beautiful Bride of Christ.  She is you and she is me.  She is all of us, together, in our brokenness and our embarrassing worst.  And she is beautiful indeed.

*If you live in or near the San Jose area and are interested in journeying with us as we launch House Church communities this summer, you can email me at jay@awakeningchurch.com for info or sign up online at www.awakeningchurch.com

Reflections on Seminary

This afternoon, I graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary.  I was given the privilege and honor of speaking briefly at the ceremony.  Here were my thoughts on a four year journey that’s changed everything.

Good afternoon.  Fuller faculty, fellow graduates, friends and family, I’m thrilled and honored to have a moment to share with you today.

When I was first approached about sharing a few thoughts, the task seemed simple enough.  I was asked to answer this question: How has Fuller Northern California equipped you to be a missional leader for the work of the kingdom?  As has been the case with most of my experiences here at Fuller, what seemed simple enough at first, turned out to be a more difficult task than initially anticipated.  And yet, also consistent with much of my Fuller experience, the difficulty of the task eventually gave way to a sort of accidental joy.

In wrestling to answer the question well, I stumbled my way into the realization that it is this very wrestling with questions that is the great gift that Fuller Seminary has given me.  It is a dissatisfaction with irresponsibly simple & convenient answers and dogmas built upon human insecurities.  My time here has sparked a humble curiosity in me; it is a humble curiosity about God, life, and people.

My first class at Fuller was New Testament with Professor Daniel Kirk in the fall of 2008.  I’m certain he doesn’t remember having me in that class because I was a remarkably average student, as most of us were in our first quarter or two.  After a brief introduction, he wrote this question in big bold letters on the white board: What is the Gospel?  I immediately thought to myself, “Seminary is going to be so much easier than I thought!”  But three hours later, that thought had been crushed beneath the weight of both Professor’s Kirk’s lecture and dialogue between much more experienced seminarians in the class.  I left that first night completely humbled.  This continued for the next four years, as each new quarter offered me new opportunities to learn, in depth and detail, just how little I actually knew about anything.  But over the years I have learned to find great joy in the process of being humbled by the enormity of our God.  G.K. Chesterton explains it this way:

“If a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small.  Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility.  Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility.  For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we.”

Fuller Seminary has taught me to stand in wonder beneath towers and giants.  This posture has led me to curiosity.  While knowledge and know-how are vital to kingdom work, I believe that as missional leaders, we must first and foremost master the art of curiosity if we are to fully participate in God’s redemptive work here on earth.  Curiosity about God compels us to seek him passionately.  Curiosity about life opens our hearts to experience and expose the divine in what others might consider mundane.  Curiosity about people inevitably leads us to love as Christ loved, seeing the intrinsic goodness of Eden in every human soul, beneath the chaotic clutter of the Fall.  Since day one, Fuller Seminary has inspired me toward this sort of humble curiosity.

And in doing so, Fuller has not only equipped me as a missional leader, it has instilled in me a missional spirit.  I know and experience God differently today than I did four years ago because of the work he has done in me through this place.  As a result, I see the world and the people in it differently.  C.S. Lewis once said…

“There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal… But it is immortals with whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

So today, we are surrounded by one another – beloved friends and family, made in the image of our God, loved beyond measure, everlasting splendors.  May we all, together, participate in the work of our God on the earth, redeeming the lost, restoring the hopeless, and remaking the broken.  And may we enjoy every moment as a gift, with humble curiosity.  Thank you.

 

Contemplation in a Digital Age

Recently I’ve been practicing elements of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.  One of the key components is contemplation.  Contemplation in Ignatian spirituality is a mode of prayer that offers a unique view of the internal narrative.  In the time of contemplation, we are invited to begin by asking for God’s grace and understanding from the experience of prayer.  This request must be made with selfless motives.  Ignatius writes that we are to ask for these things in order that we “may in all things love and serve the Divine Majesty.”  We are then invited to imagine a story, whether a real one from the past or one made up in our minds, which may illuminate for us a divine reality about God.  The hope is that we would see, hear, taste, smell, touch the story and feel the feelings fully.  All of this is designed to help us experience more richly the divine reality of God moving in, through and around us.

In many ways, Ignatian contemplation offers an opportunity for a visceral experience of God often lacking in the busyness of our everyday lives.  In this day and age of digital technology, the idea of being connected to a story, a person, or even a reality has been deconstructed and reconstructed into something that, while often convenient, is lacking something core to the human soul.  We have Facebook “friends”, we “chat” with people online, we “follow” each other on Twitter.  But often, these people aren’t really friends, we didn’t really chat, we just typed away on our keyboards and read responses, and we’re following from the comfort of our own personal spaces and cubicles, not moving a literal inch.  So Ignatian contemplation speaks convincingly into this sort of digital reality we live in two distinct ways.

One, it speaks a familiar word.  Contemplation is not actually physically stepping into a story.  Instead, it is an invitation to use our imaginations, to explore the vastness of our minds and find out just how much reality we might sense in there.  And all of it is designed for the purpose of experiencing something very real.  This speaks effectively into our lives today because it accurately describes the digital age.  Nothing is literal, everything is digital, and our imaginations are always in play.  When I tweet something on Twitter and a friend replies back, its just 1’s and 0’s on a digital page but I can almost hear my friend’s voice as I read the reply.  It is the exercising of my imagination in order to make the digital feel a bit more visceral.  Ignatian contemplation offers an opportunity to do the same, but with a much grander purpose – to experience God himself.

It also speaks convincingly a second way.  Ignatian contemplation speaks a very unfamiliar but necessary word by calling us to connect the personal feelings of the narrative we are contemplating with God himself.  In other words, the emotions we experience in the story we are contemplating ought to lead us to an understanding of how God feels about us and about the world.  This is a fresh understanding in light of the postmodern context of our lives because postmodernism has emphasized God’s bigness and mystery to an extent that personalizing him has become a bit awkward.  This is not a knock on the postmodern church.  In many ways, I believe the postmodern church has done a great thing in reminding us of the mystery of God and his unfathomable nature.  However, we mustn’t lose the understanding that he desires to be known by us and to be in relationship with us, personally and intimately.  We must also remember that God exudes emotions and that our own emotions are an extension of divine souls exuding what is in them because God put them there.

So take some time to exercise prayers of contemplation in your life.  Be still for a few moments, dive into your own soul, and meet God there.

*To get started, check out St.Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises*