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Friday, January 27, 2012

Thoughts on Gaining Traction in Northampton.

Traction: From the Medieval Latin tracti, tractin-, from Latin tractus, past participle of trahere, to pull, draw.], 1.e., Adhesive friction, as of a wheel on a track or a tire on a road.

Since the turn of 2012, I've found myself noticing and referring to the sense that imagine/Northampton is gaining a little traction with our mission in these parts. It feels as if we've begun to turn a corner of sorts. We are "adhering" to the city a bit; gaining a frictive foothold so to speak.

It's been three and a half years since our arrival - a tough three and a half for sure. This church planting stuff ain't for the faint of heart. I've not felt the traction of which I now speak.

So why do I say we're "gaining traction?"

Well first, it appears God is beginning to bless our perseverance in the face of trials, discouragements, pressures within and without, a myriad of spiritual attacks, and our own ineptitude being rookies at this church planting enterprise, to name a few. We still have serious financial pressures, but there are glimmers of relief. God seems to be showing us favor in that people, not just imagineurians, speak of us as a reality; they pray for us and refer people to our doors.

Also, in late 2011, we began to see folks sticking around. We've had people checking us out almost from the beginning, but they'd not stay. Now we have students from Smith, a few young families, and couples, talented musicians on the verge of becoming a Worship Team, a spunky survivor of woman in her 60's, a jazz trio of considerable potential, people with servant hearts, visual artists and a dancer, and kids full of life. We're beginning to bust out of our little space. We are also seeing a little multi-cultural diversity. We want more of that, Lord! Draw us further into your will, Father!

People who are adhering and have been so for awhile, talk of what they value in our church ethos and DNA. They refer to imagine as "our church," or "my church." Most thrilling to me is they're embracing (all at their own pace, of course), our mission of "helping people discover and follow the God who is far more than they imagine." They are taking it seriously, and working at deepening personal intimacy with Jesus while also striving to live out the Kingdom missional way of life devoted to loving and serving people who yet cannot see him. Their response is a dream come true for me. It makes my heart sing, giving refreshing grace to the burdens we've carried to plant imagine from a wisp of thought.

Another marvelous development is imagineurians are inviting friends to come to our gatherings, both Sunday mornings and the inward/OUTWARD Missional Cohort. They didn't really do that before - there were exceptions to that. Their willingness is a kind of "come and see" freedom beginning to settle into our hearts. When everyone wants others to experience what they've some to value, we're moving toward the heart of our Kingdom mission. By the way, I'm not saying we identify traction mostly by how many people "come to church" on Sunday. Far from it. We identify traction as imagineurians sacrificially loving and serving people in their families, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, etc. We recognize traction when imagineurians love the least of God's people or the pariahs of American culture. We see traction by how deeply they are actually surrendering their hearts to Jesus, and offering him the best of their lives, not the leftovers. We confirm traction based on how much grace we actually accept, and how much grace we all routinely offer others.

I also recognize traction in the fact that many of the the homeless in town know who we are, and we remain committed to helping them find life in the Life-giving Lover of their souls. We long for the day when they will feel loved enough by us enough to join our community.

In sum, another of my hopes for this year is that this traction to which I refer will settle to a firm foothold, and then generate the sinking of a deep taproot from which we'll grow fruit full of seeds to be transplanted elsewhere.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Engendering a Culture of Spiritually Fecund Leaders and Jesus-Followers, Part 2.

Continuing with Part 2 of our response to the question put: how can we engender that sort of leadership, that conviction that it is the "normal christian life" I'll begin by averring that a spiritually fecund culture I began describing in Part 1 will gradually be characterized by individual and corporate devotion to Christ, the One who is ever alive and present in our midst, coupled with a consequent lived-out devotion to what matters most to him. Character development, then I think, becomes centered in spiritual formation lived out by sacrificial love and service as the way of life.

In my mind, that means at least three things - under the guidance and with the help of the Holy Spirit of course: 1.) followers of Jesus taking responsibility for their emotional and relational health/maturing; 2.) followers of Jesus taking responsibility for their on-going spiritual growth; 3.) followers of Jesus taking responsibility for embracing God's mission, culminating in embodying the Gospel of Christ in a person's world.

Let me set the stage of bit. Beginning at age 35, the Holy Spirit began to pull me into the world of inner healing, first my own healing, then Tricia's. It took a couple of years. But the end of my soul work, a leash to self-hatred and fear had been cut. I was freed. I knew what it felt like and looked like. I knew how God did it.

Very soon after, God brought someone to us and our 26 years of inner healing and counseling began. Over the course of those years, I started to notice an unmistakable pattern emerge. I saw that men and women who decided to "own" their responsibility for pursuing healing got better. Those who didn't, for the most part stayed bound to their pain and/or darkness. They dwelt in immaturity unawares. It soon was plain to me that an engaged will cooperating with the freeing work of the Holy Spirit increased a likelihood for emotional, psychological and relational maturing. Conversely, when people came to my office looking mostly to blame others, find an easy, painless fix, or were not really serious about heading into distress, fear, and sin, it never went well and they remained spiritually infantile or adolescent . . . again unawares.

To the point of this blog, engendering a spiritually fecund culture of leaders and Jesus-followers requires leaders model and facilitate, i.e., foster the setting where wills are motivated to engage such spiritual maturing because spiritual maturing is communicated as the desired Christian life, and opportunities for such growth are many. In such a cultural atmosphere, people become well aware that emotional and relational maturing is not solely the job of the pastors, elders, Sunday School teachers, small group leaders or "spiritual parents." People are poked graciously, creatively and often to "do what it takes" to mature, as well as, heal rifts between one another. Help is generously offered, but people must step up and engage. Then again, time, emotional and relational growth is not seen as an end in itself. Rather, it is viewed as a gradual spiritual tempering and tuning, deepening character and making one fit for the Kingdom work to which he or she has been summoned.

Therefore, in my eyes, emotional and relational maturing is foundational to engendering a culture of spiritually fecund leaders and Jesus followers. Graciously expecting everyone is summoned to do such internal work themselves as the Spirit prompts is a Kingdom enterprise of leaders no matter how programmatic their church milieu. If it's not done, a church can wind up with perpetual "feed me" spectators, and burning out leaders scrambling to pour milk into all the open mouths gaping from one week to the next. 

In my work helping people free and grow up, I also realized those who pursued (as the normal Christian life) knowing Jesus intimately became spiritual leaders from their heart-driven following of him. Merely going to services on Sunday to sing, hear a good, uplifting sermon, and be prayed for after church was not enough for them. They took and held responsibility for finding and using the richness of what God made available to the Church for learning and followed hard from a surrendered heart and an informed mind. I liken it to becoming deeply knowledgeable or skilled with the essentials of one's work. There is investment and motivation and individual effort. Such people don't have to be enticed, or prodded. They embrace Jesus, His Gospel and Kingdom mission as their primary identity out of which all life flows - their normal Christian life.

Therefore, engendering a spiritually fecund culture of leaders and Jesus-followers in this regard means being less: "well, how about if we do this or offer that? Maybe this will be an exciting sermon series, or let's bring in that big gun, or have you heard about what's going on with revival over there; how about we get in on that? I'm not saying  new ideas or nascent moves of the Spirit are to be ignored outright, but the discipling bar has to be held high, and kept there, not as some legalistic super-spiritual club for elites, but as an inestimable treasure, well-worth everyone giving their all for, even if a person's life is a mess and it's going need some fixing. Spiritually fecund leadership and followership must reflect a passionate longing and resiling dedication for the glory of God manifested, so the bent-over are given generous dollops of the Good News. It's a matter of the heart in leaders and followers; what it truly desires . Hungering for spiritual growth and maturing is like glimpsing the beauty of heaven's standing invitation because one is family member, and spending life pursuing it, and then out of a joyous overflow, reflecting the family values to family members who've never dreamed they're invited. 

I'll close my post with the idea that engendering a spiritually fecund culture of leaders and Jesus-followers will be a training environment, particularly as it pertains to fostering a growing embrace of God's Mission culminating in embodying the Gospel of Christ in a person's world. Everyone in church communities should be gradually trained to recognize they are a Kingdom missionary selected by God, sent into the world under the guidance of the Holy Spirit "to proclaim the excellencies of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light," (1Peter 2:9), and to enflesh his love through sacrificial service and manifesting the good. The Gospel mission of God is entrusted to the people of God, each and every one. It is their calling and their completing.

Therefore the normal Christian life is life on mission. Church leaders are tethered to the task of proclaiming, modeling, counseling, exhorting, encouraging, and inspiring people to follow Christ into their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, towns and cities - ready to live the Gospel in a way others can make it out, and be intrigued (even if,at first, they're antagonistic, by the way). Leaders do well to communicate the reality of the call in a way that people can see it's really possible for "ordinary ol'" them to take up the mission. It will require patience and time to help people unlock or open to the possibility God uses folks, and the story they have to tell of how Jesus moved into their lives, changing the whole deal.

Leaders also need to train people how to overcome the relentless intimidation (at least, at first) of their adversary who assaults them with fear, lulls them into spiritual sleepwalking, or obstructs with life's exasperating entanglements and roadblocks. They must be given spiritual eyes to see (read discern) the tricks and subterfuges of the one who seeks to grind them down, turn them aside, or trap them in labyrinths of sin. He's part of the missional landscape, but we've the Cross, the Resurrection, the Scriptures and Spirit.
Leaders give them spiritual tools for the fight and fight along side them. Spiritual fecundity grows strong in the fight when people press on because Christ in them has overcome the world, the flesh and the devil.

By the way, lest I sound insensitive to the reality of crippling human pain, sorrow and suffering, I'm not. I know what it looks like from the work I've done, and what my family has endured. I've been asked to help in almost every variation of evil possible within the human condition, at least in my various necks of the woods. I agree leaders must create healing communities as well where the wounded and breaking can come to rest and refresh. Sometimes that takes a while . . . a long while. Occasionally, there are tragic casualties. The world we find ourselves in gives place to the church as a sanctuary and spiritual hospital. Our leaders are to help care for the sick, wounded and deeply tired or severely broken in our midst as they are also training up people to: mature emotionally and relationally, take responsibility for their spiritual growth, and enter the mission of the Kingdom in their sphere's of influence.

I know there's much more to be said about this spiritual fecundity business, but I'll let you chew on what I've offered for awhile. 

I'd love to hear your questions and concerns.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Engendering a Culture of Spiritually Fecund Leaders and Jesus-Followers, Part 1.

Recently someone asked me to offer my thoughts on " how can we engender that sort of leadership, that conviction that it is the "normal christian life"? The question came in response to a recent blog I'd written called Character and Spiritual Formation: Fitness for the Work: In it, I highlighted five character qualities I saw in folks who exemplified to me the "normal Christian life": (humility; (people taking) responsibility for their own spiritual growth and character development; (they having the) desire to serve, and when they accepted responsibility, they followed through; (a) penchant for hard work; and love (for God and for others because they were convinced he deeply loved them). I admired such folks whether they were in formal leadership roles or not.

I love this question because it's one I've wrestled with over my almost 40 years of Christian life. For some reason and from the beginning, I thought that my salvific encounter with Jesus was supposed to change everything: how I thought; how I acted; what I desired; what mattered to me; how I'd spend my time and effort; what my core values should express, and whether I could be anywhere near authentic in this following Jesus business. Before I knew anything Scriptural or theological, I somehow understood that what overtook me was a "sea-change;" an existential revolution which couldn't be adequately measured by which local church I attended, or not cussin', drinkin', and smokin,' (or not being around those who do), looking, talking, and praying a certain way, or being nice. It quickly didn't make a great deal of difference to me if I read the officially authorized Bible version, what music I should or shouldn't listen to, whether I prayed in tongues, was Calvinist or Arminian, or whether I thought women could be in leadership over men. Even in my spiritual toddlership, I was becoming fairly aware of the manifold positions people held in Christendom, and the controversies they sparked, but none of it gained much traction my heart for very long.

The change Jesus wrought in me owned my heart in ways I couldn't comprehend yet.

As a result, what seemed to persistently spark my imagination and fill me with wonder (even in the dark and dry times - I've had plenty), was the reality of this living God/man - Savior/Lord Jesus, the Christ. A decade into it when I found out I could hear his voice through the indwelling Holy Spirit, I experienced healing, and learned a depth of  intimacy which eventually led to the ministry Tricia and I would live and teach for almost 25 years now. Then as I've written about previously, two years before moving to Northampton, I was also profoundly changed by the ancient Christian belief that I was summoned to reflect the Kingdom reign of God by loving and serving people who can't or won't see him. I'd spent most of my ministry life helping his people come to and sojourn near the heart of God. Now, I was also supposed "go out" and help the "stranger" accept God's gracious offering of friendship. 

Intimacy and Mission came together for me.

They are still joined in my eyes and heart.

Why that's important to the question I'm addressing is because I'm convinced engendering a servant and servant-leadership culture in the local church begins with enticing people all the time to open their hearts to the ravishing and intimate love of God, including men. People's hearts can fall into slumber or grow lukewarm while their outward churchianity stays in tact. It's slowly morphs spiritual sleepwalking or becomes brittle in a shallow religiosity. Church culture offers people routines to follow. It's all predictable and scheduled. They show up, but not necessarily awake to Christ.

Penetrating, life-altering spiritual transformation, on the other hand, happens most profoundly in the furnace of God's love over time. So, the first thing necessary to such a spiritual culture of transformation is pastors, elders, teachers, and other leaders eager and willing to reflect, with a growing transparency, how they are being transformed by Christ's love for them. He needs to be talked about and referred to in the present tense, coming from the experience of encountering him in prayer, worship, conversation, retreats, study, serving, and on and on. Jesus is the point, and the exclamation mark. Such leaders also need also to wrestle persistently with their own soul numbness and habits of religious routine which can slowly deaden spiritual responsiveness to the Holy Spirit's enticing.

The fact is leaders become spiritual catalysts when they lead from their tethered hearts earnestly pursuing his heart, including the deepest thinkers in the church. I'm not talking about mindless, sentimental manipulating of feelings, I hope you realize. Right thinking married to enchantment over the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit balances the Christian mind and heart. Anyone leading from such an informed heart, and motivated to connect others hearts to the heart of God, does so because he or she has practiced abiding in his love (an act of the will at first), and then becoming a tireless, courageous advocate of people's need to learn to live freely from there. 

Engendering a spiritually fecund culture is also viewing everyone showing up as a Jesus-follower on the way, or in potential. Each person is graciously enticed to take or head deeper into Kingdom mission as a way of life. The Kingdom and the Missio Dei are not spectator sports. They're not programs, campaigns or discrete experiences to be savored as mountaintops along the way. Becoming and remaining an intimately devoted follower of Christ is the biblical, normal Christian life. While we more than likely will have seasons of rest, illness or preparation or temporary derailment in the course of our following, our primary call and identity never changes.

Therefore, spiritually fecund leaders fulfill their roles best, in my opinion, by transparently embodying, teaching, and kindly exhorting life in and with Jesus. They've been given a calling to communicate him as really alive and really with us, 24/7. While church cultures, especially as they grow large, require all sorts of routine operations and staff  management, problem-solving, program management, and keeping the ship on course, all of that should never supersede alluring people come to see, surrender to, and follow Jesus whose life animates it all. Conviction about the normal Christian life gathers around Emmanuel. The closer we come to him daily (intimacy), the nearer we come to the normal Christian life (spiritual fecundity).

In Part 2, we'll look at the need for character development that becomes centered in spiritual formation lived out in sacrificial love and service as the way of life.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Thoughts on imagine's First inward/OUTWARD Missional Cohort, January 11, 2012

Ever since we started dreaming in Simsbury about how we were going to become imagine/Northampton, we knew that having some sort of small group culture would be an essential part of our DNA. One of my very  first experiences of church was spending seven spiritually formative years in a small house church of Christian artists. I learned the meaning of communitas there, especially regarding companionship in Christ. We had some flaws, but we were genuinely in each others lives.

So as Jim, Tricia, Catherine and I were developing the concept of imagine/Northampton prior to even having a Launch Team, we knew at some point we'd need to provide the spiritual/missional richness of small group church culture. But before I go any further, I should note we are a small group already because we are a small church. And too, in the last three and a half years, we've gathered in all manner of small group configurations such as imagine/WORSHIP, missional outreach projects, workshops, brainstorming sessions, brunches, picnics and parties, creative events, Visionation meetings, 1FlightUP, the Leadership Team, and soon: the Creative Arts Team. None were the species of small group we knew we'd need to put in place.

To that end, last year, the Holy Spirit repeatedly prompted me to conceptualize, put together and offer, with Tricia, the first inward/OUTWARD Spiritual Formation Workshop (subsequently changing the name to the inward/OUTWARD Mission Formation Workshop for its second iteration) designed to link the spiritual disciplines promoting intimacy with Jesus with the outward disciplines of the missional mindset central to closely and persistently following him.

The Holy Spirit also made me aware that from the workshop, we could form an inward/OUTWARD Missional Cohort. I picked the word "cohort" to capture the notion of a group of dedicated companions associated in a common cause that would be difficult to do - communitas. It's an ancient Roman military term that I think accurately reflects the missional life in the midst of very real spiritual warfare, particularly as Christ-followers start to make real inroads into the community and people open to discover and  follow Christ. I know Christ or the Church never adopted the term, but I think it fits, especially because it can become a communitas culture. I don't want to overstate the Military or battle side of it, however.

In essence, the i/O Missional Cohort is a training environment. In each gathering, we begin by silence and settling. We pray - including listening prayer - for the needs of Northampton, each other, people we are praying for individually, and working to build relationships with, plus imagine's Kingdom mission to Northampton. We all dialogue about  what God is teaching each of us; how we see him working in and through us, and what we're working on: the attempts, insights, opportunities, challenges, struggles, obstacles, spiritual battles and breakthroughs we experience during the week.Over the course of the weeks, we'll also read helpful articles, and look at the Scriptures. As it seems right to us and the Holy Spirit at any point in our journey together, we may even embark on a short-term missional project or trip together. We'll see.

So last Wednesday evening we set out on our maiden voyage ensconced in our Main Street apartment. There were 13 of us. We'll add 2 more this Wednesday. I have to say it set an atmosphere where you could sense the presence of the Holy Spirit. I don't say that all the time. People were open, vulnerable, real and engaged. It felt they really wanted to be there; to head out on this opportunity to help each other learn a growing intimacy from Christ, and from there, follow him into the Kingdom mission he has for each of us and all of us. The energy was high and people connected with one another. In fact, we hung out for another half hour around a lavish spread Tricia had made. People seemed to like being together, building relationships and sharing life.

A pleasant surprise for me was the relational atmosphere and spiritual tone the gathering had for me, and I think Tricia as well; an unmistakable" feel" we used to experience when we'd lead Listening in Christ Retreats at the Center For Renewal  in Simsbury. Something transcending happens when a group opens to the Spirit and thus one another. We let out our common humanity and our desire to know God more and be found in his will. I think this "feel" was most in evidence when we prayed for Jenn, anointing her with oil and asking for all that God wanted for her in our learning and mission together. Hearts are knitted together in such intimate prayer. I love that!

My deepest hope for this group and the groups which follow if God so opens the way, is we'll experience a depth of unselfconscious intimacy with the magnificent One who has deep affection for us, our desire to make him real to others could become infectious, or "viral," if you like. What we experience might even be shared naturally, and God will be magnified.

Tall order . . . astounding God . . . and he's gotten the likes of us this far . . .