First, Happy New Year, everyone. May 2017 be a Year of Blessing—may you receive them, and be them.
It’s now been two months since my brain cancer surgery. I’m done with radiation, though its effects on my hair, scalp, and energy linger. I now have one month “off” in order to allow my brain tissues to settle down and resume pre-swelling size and function. By late January, I will then have a baseline MRI, which will be used against future scans. Beginning in February, I will go back on chemotherapy for six months—five days on, 23 off, rinse and repeat until August.
I remain thankful for prayers, positive thoughts, humor, and dear family and friends who stay in touch and visit. I have loved seeing Stephen and Ariel at Christmas. My wife continues to vie for sainthood. It is very difficult to overstate the generosity of the European Missions Society, for whom I work, and the Berlin disciples, with whom I hope to resume work soon. We miss Berlin and have many dreams on our hearts for the days ahead.
Earlier I was complaining about my hair and scalp—I look, on one side of my head, like a mangy hyena. Will it get better? And if it didn’t, what would my outlook be? It is an important personal exercise in what we call, in Therapyland, “Looking for the health” rather than looking for pathology–my scalp may testify to cancer cure and the answer to many prayers. That choice of perspective can frame the stories you get about others, about your employer, about your family, about your government, and much more. It is tempting to look for the flaw—to literally be a flaw-based thinker rather than a faith-based thinker. When you turn such a gaze on yourself, we call it self-loathing, and I wonder sometimes if that isn’t in play for us when we seek to make our family of churches better and stronger. Are we trying to “get better” in a healthy way?
For example, many months ago, a good friend of mine, the senior minister of the Jacksonville Church of Christ, James Robbins, authored a new way of doing outreach Bible Studies and called it “Paradigm Shift.” Predictably, it soon stormed social media, and with an interesting bent: so many commentators used it to question themselves and our ministries in what I experience as a kind of self-loathing: Is our study method all wrong? Have we been shutting the door of the kingdom in peoples’ faces? Have we been narrow-minded and judgmental? Are newer, younger ideas really welcome in the church, or are we just an “old boys’ club?” And other questions that frame flaw-based thinking and emotion.
Lately, in a similar way, I’ve been approached by younger Berlin disciples who are concerned about evaluations of our churches: Have we become lukewarm? Have we lost our commitment? Are we growing so slowly now that we are no longer really given to the Great Commission?
My short answer is “No.”
My longer answer is about having an eye for the health in a thing, and making this the center of your growing faith and reform—not just what you believe is possible with God’s help, but whether or not you see things the way He sees things: “the God who raises the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” (Romans 4:17).
If you are currently caught up in flaw-based thinking, you will be, ironically, tempted to view this idea with negativity: “Well, we can’t just put our heads in the sand!” “Everyone needs tough love sometimes!” “We have to speak the truth in love doggone it.”
Yes, there’s a time and place to say, “We’ve given up the mission. We’ve stepped off the battlefield. We’ve gotten soft and self-pitying.” But I would be careful to assume that set of circumstances for us all, world-wide. Instead, judge yourself, and start small. If you feel you and your group have indeed hung up your sword, then work on local repentance, and light a candle in your proximity. Go show us how. It will spread.
There’s much more to say about this, and I realize this is just my experience and my opinion. There’s always the problem of underestimating danger. And there’s the problem of overestimating failure or sinfulness. If there is a theological error to be made one way or the other, it seems to me that Jehovah has invested all he has in potentially “erring” on the side of grace, not judgment. How then shall we, as time goes by, as we gray in hair, as our children grow up, as our limbs weaken, reflect upon our work with God, and critique it in a spirit of maturity not reactivity? Here are some principles I hope worthy of serious reflection and discussion:
- Remember that critiques are interpretations. They are descriptive maps of our current or historical territory. But the map is never the territory. Whether it is our critique or someone else’s, it is one of many, many “stories” about church life. As Lyotard famously put it, be skeptical of all metanarratives, including your own about self, or the church.
- Beware of “one size fits all” evaluations. It’s easy for any of us to do this because most of us are drawn to singular, final, “silver-bullet” answers. I’m the same way. Still, our family of churches are hardly one culture, one thing, and we need to humbly leave abundant room for different experiences.
- Don’t panic. Any leader who has read Ezekiel 33 will want to be brave enough to “sound the shofar” (sound the alarm!). My encouragement, in a context of multiple experiences and judgements, is to work on pluralism: I may feel it’s time to sound the alarm, but my three fellow elders or ministers may see it differently. Trust the many, but make sure the many are being honest with one another.
- Watch out for essentialism—the tendency in academic truth-seeking to claim a radical new insight or solution, while disrespecting or disregarding everything previous to the discovery. I did this myself in my 20’s, both as a college student and as a young minister. I didn’t respect the shoulders on which we, as a reforming movement, stood. We tended to disregard anything that was “traditional” Church of Christ, seeing this as a ball-and-chain on our reforming sprint. Too bad. We missed a lot. And I want to make sure we don’t keep doing that. In essentialism, the offender eventually realizes that the magic bullet they’ve “discovered” isn’t as magical as they thought, and really does fit as a significant piece of progress into the general narrative of the subject they’ve studied. Let’s do that. The status quo is not to be worshipped. But neither are silver bullets that trash our past, including our more recent past.
Some good things:
- Keep to your own experience and let its richness inspire your reflection while letting its local limits inform a humble evaluation. Beware of importing experiences from others and other churches; this kind of introjection will likely make the story you feel bigger than is merited and too dramatic for others to embrace. These become “runaway stories” that are “too hot to handle” in a healthy way.
- Observe the Golden Rule. Gordon Ferguson and Wyndham Shaw saw this first and saw it well before the storms of the early 2000’s. Before getting too down on other leaders or other churches, interrogate yourself along GR lines: What have I personally done about these weaknesses or deficits? Could I have done, for sure, better than those I’m disappointed with? Am I part of the solution or just a clarion of the problem?
- Remember that we are always a reforming church, whose work is never finished. There will always be weaknesses and perceptions of disasters. Can we dialogue about them, knowing we’ll always have them?
- Remember, show the way; show us how.
And now, a few thoughts about how I personally experience our ICOC slower growth (compare to the 90’s for example) and our struggles with “discipleship” and “commitment.” These are just my experiences—though these are extensive across three cultures, languages, and continents—and these ideas are useful for me, the Berlin leadership, and the Berlin Church in the main. Perhaps they are not so useful for you, fair enough. But I do raise these questions hoping each of us will henceforth not only reflect on the church, but also reflect on how we come to the conclusions we draw. Is it healthy? Is it working? Can we search for the Health?
I believe most of our current frustrations with commitment emanate from our unprocessed conflicts with aging. When we first uprooted ourselves within the Church of Christ context, and embarked upon a new path, we were largely 20-somethings, college students, grad students, single pros, with just enough “mature people” like the Bairds and Gempels mixed in to make us feel legitimate. Now here we are, nearly 40 years later, and we who were so full of energy and ideas—we hope and pray we are the Bairds and Gempels. Would we be so blessed. Why does this matter? For two reasons.
First, what I call the youth vote (YV) of society (teen, campus, young single) is the seeking part of society—the revolutionaries, the thinkers, the, yes, seekers. At that age, our social networks are incredibly fluid and our minds are often on meaning, morals, and what our future holds. We are both open-minded and open-to-relationships. Commitment seems obvious to the young Robespieres, and mentoring—whether you are the mentor or the pupil—is attractive as in no other time of life. In addition, the YV are naturally spiritually ambitious.
Second, the older generation (OG), by contrast, is usually building walls and closing down social networks, and our minds then are on responsibility, including for family, money, and career. We have the most irons in the fire, and are often out of touch with our need for God until it becomes acute and practical: my teens are out of control, my marriage is on the rocks, etc. To the older, mentoring may seem unnecessary, and commitment is defined within a context of exceptions—especially for career and family. Often, various levels of ambition—some high, some not so much— will be present in an older generation, something we may confuse with variable commitment.
When the workers in the harvest field are nearly all YV and reaching out to all YV, explosive things are possible, and commitment will look obvious and almost easy. When the workers are more and more OG, reaching out to more and more OG, church growth is likely to slow, commitment will be challenged more by exceptions, and the need for mentoring will need to be talked about often, as members genuinely grow in competence and–the dark side of that coin–complacency. More dreams will have been broken along the way, and a faith refined in fire will be singed periodically.
In Berlin, we are challenging the youth vote to be the spiritual sprinters and to lead the way for we who are older in outreach. We want them to drive the outreach agenda. We are not excusing a failure to grow in other groups; rather, we thirst for it, but know who can really drive that agenda. Similarly, we are challenging the older generation to lead the way in wisdom, life lessons, refined faith, and counseling. We want them to drive the maturity agenda. We are not excusing a failure to mature in other groups; rather, we thirst for it, but know who can really drive the maturity agenda. Together, we will build a stronger church, a wiser church with “discipling,” a church that can handle more and diverse needs, and, yes, a still growing church (including in numbers).
Next year, in Berlin’s neighboring village of Wittenberg, the 500-year anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation (our words not his) will be celebrated. The village, Luther’s home, and the various museums there remind me that we, as a Restoration Movement, stand indeed on broad shoulders of history and brave figures. If we really understand the circumstances and spirit of Luther, we will vow to always remain a “reforming” church and movement; that work will never end.
May God bless us, every one, in 2017, and may we, every one, go be a blessing to those around us in 2017.
Shared from LifeScript Re-Visions.