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Friday, August 30, 2013

I Wonder Why We're Not Steadily Growing? Seven Questions.

Before I launch into this piece, I need to say a few things. First, we are grateful for every person who is a part of imagine/Northampton. Some of them have been a part us for a number of years. That's no small thing. It's not insignificant. Each person adds life to our lives. Second, I nor anyone on the team sees adding numbers as the essence of what it means to be a vital church. Growth is important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which, is to spread the redemptive Kingdom of Christ widely. But growth for it's own sake misses the mark. Third, we think churches don't have to be big or produce an ever increasing membership to be of use to God. In fact, ecclesial and spiritual depth anchor meaning which enhances growth so it's not shallow and ineffectual for God's purposes.

I also need to say for a church which so far tends to stay in the teens, Jesus has enabled us to have a tangible impact on people. We have made a difference, and we're desirous of making more of a difference. At times our small band of  imaginistas has been powerful. Growing numerically will not automatically increase that power or impact. Actually, there is reason to believe it can result in a spiritually somnolent equilibrium where being the church of us settles in imperceptibly. So the questions I'll ask -- and have been asking myself for a while -- are simply my sorting through what might be wrong which can be fixed, or what we're missing which can be found, or what God might be saying in the challenges we've wrestled with since being here.

I should also add by God's beneficence and gracious will we've made it in Northampton for 5 years. The previous church plant in town lasted 3 years.We've been in a struggle to stay the course for the entire time, but we're still here!

When anyone plants a church there's an underlying and plausible assumption that with fiercely resilient faith, heaping portions of God's will and grace, and long hours of persisting hard work, the church you planted will  grow eventually. Most everyone never assumes: "I'm going to move somewhere and plant a church of one! That's God's dream for me!!" Every church planter hopes deep-down not only it will grow and/or even replicate, but it will grow to be self-sustaining, and filled with spiritually vibrant people who love Jesus and therefore love others and they might come to know him.

I think it safe to say for the planting team came here with the same hope: God would begin to grow imagine/Northampton, and in a reasonable period of time it would have the people, gifts and resources to take root and grow steadily (both in depth and missional breadth). In our thinking, God would build a strong base and we'd've replicated by now. If our assumptions were correct we're behind schedule. If our assumptions were naive, we're either on schedule or behind. This is New England.

So below is a series of questions I've asked God, others, and myself about why we're not growing. They seem some pertinent questions to ask. Most people in what we've experienced would ask the same ones, I bet.

1. Why hasn't God grown us beyond a certain number?

This is the first and a very important question.We've always held that God grows the church as it is his pleasure and will . The Church is his idea; he sovereignly furthers its purposes in the world. He leads; we follow. So we have to start with him. If he doesn't build the house we labor in vain.

Currently there are 12 of us; we've had as many 24. We've had as many as 32 in our Sunday worship. Over the years, we've had visitors who come once or a few times. We've had a number students who check us out, and a handful have stayed until they graduate. One in fact was IV Staff at Smith and stayed for 3 years, including being on the Leadership Team.We've had folks stay for a time and then move away because of work. We've had people consider coming, but then change their minds. The most painful have been folks who stayed, but then would leave because of an issue they had with us, and we couldn't resolve it. I hate those.

So I wonder: maybe we just missed his will in actually coming up here at all. Maybe he never asked us to do this. We just thought he did. Yet, at the same time, as I noted above, he's brought people to imagine and blessed them, and they us. Others who've supported or believe in our mission have been inspired and encouraged by our efforts, directly or from afar. They've told me. Does that count as affirmation of God's will? Or, is the Lord keeping to testing and refining us through this struggle, seeing if we'll be faithful and stay the course even if it takes 10 years or we lose everything on the way? And I must remember, the history of the Church is dotted with people who labored for decades in planting and cultivating the church all over the world and never saw substantial fruits for their labors, even though they were substantial because of their faithfulness. Some felt as failures. It's possible to fail and still serve God's interests on our watch.

2. What if we're just not very good at this. Do we not have what it takes?

Another place to look would be whether we are equipped for this work from launching to planting to growing and sustaining a church. Maybe we don't have the gifts necessary to build the church. Perhaps we're lacking in a critical gift. But why wouldn't God supply it if he wanted us here? If we're really bad at it, how've we been able to be here for five years? I know we've helped folks heal, grow and mature while here. I know we have good teaching and opportunities for people to deepen their spiritual lives with Jesus and one another. I know we have helped people outside the church and stretched our experience well beyond what many of us have done before. So, we do have just some of the gifts and heart to serve Christ's interests in our neck of the woods?

I know we've made mistakes; some of them have caused pain. I know we've had to grow when faced with dilemmas or problems none of us have dealt with; which says a lot because Tricia and I have dealt with just about every darkness under the sun as counselors. I know there are things we'd have done differently if we had a chance to begin again -- hindsight can be very clear-eyed. That said, I cannot affirm that we just didn't, or don't have any of what it takes to do this. I know we need others who can fill in gift-gaps and enrich what we bring to Northampton as a church. But I'm not sure our lack of growing steadily is because we're really just lame at this. There's been good fruit borne of love. That's just true.

3. Did he have us come up here for something else?

Sometimes in the middle of the night as I'm awake and qvetching over how long we'll be able to make it, I'll think perhaps God did want us in Northampton, but for some other reason. Maybe it was just to put Christian counseling on Main Street. Or maybe we missed what he had because we were so focused on planting imagine/Northampton we never caught a glimpse of what he was signalling elsewhere. Were we supposed to be part of some other church in town? Therefore, we're not growing because we're supposed to be doing something else in Noho. I doubt this has much influence on our lack of steady growth. 

4. Did we get the timing wrong given the economy, etc.

This one seems more plausible. The right timing sometimes spells the difference between success or failure.  We also didn't realize how tough things would get in the overall economy. The pressure increased on our resources not very far into our adventure. Maybe God wanted us to take more time in Simsbury praying and preparing, perhaps even getting some training in the church planting enterprise. Maybe we should have raised more money or affiliated with a larger church that could help meet what we lacked. So if we weren't supposed to be here as early as we were were we just stubborn and disobedient? If we missed his timing, how did we miss it, or is that even very related to why we've not been growing? 

5. Are we just too weird?
Hmmm. I've often mused over our weird name which has, at times, confused people as to who and what we are. What kind of legitimate church has a name like that? And we don't meet in a church building. Our worship is different. We don't speak "church" very well. We don't have the programs, services, amenities or church culture most people associate with church, including non-Christians. We can't seem to keep a worship team together and we're musicians! We are followers of Jesus Christ, but our culture is not traditional beyond the fact we teach and counsel matters of the Christian spiritual and missional way. We get together to study the Scriptures, we pray, we care for each other, we help folks whether they are Christians or not, we worship, and share our resources with one another and people not part of our community. For us Sunday morning is not the central feature of our life together. It's important, but not the anchor of our life as a community.

But is that why we are not steadily growing? I know a large percentage of the Christian folks who've visited us don't stick - young and old. They must be looking for something more familiar and different from what we are. I don't know for sure. I do know we're warm, inviting, hospitable people to anyone who crosses our threshold. And we have a door open onto Main Street. We don't ignore folks who come through that door whether its to worship, counsel, come to the art gallery or some other event we're having.

6. Is it we are not building relationships with folks who have no church history?

When I wrestle with why we're not growing my mind often goes to the fact we as a people are still not being very successful at building transformational relationships with folks which lead to spiritual engagement, exploration of the merits of the Gospel, and new life emerging from them. In other words, while we as leaders have been a sometimes broken record (never demanding or legalistic about it, though), about living the missional way in the world so others might come to know Christians who are accessible and loving -- not that we are the only ones working at that in the Pioneer Valley. I think it's a scary thing to do, especially if you've experienced it done very poorly, or have had pressure to perform to prove you are the real deal. Still, our dream has been to love and serve people so much they want to join us in loving and following Jesus in this place. I don't think that's feckless spiritual romanticism. I think it's not creatively persevered by most Christians I've known, with me being the chief of sinners in that regard. I'm lousy at it, BUT something is happening in me that's working to breakthrough.

I have this belief if we step out and love fearlessly, creatively and persistently we'd certainly "grease the skids" and God will open blind eyes and turn hearts toward him. I know it takes much time in New England. There are no simple formulas or sure bets. I just have this "hunch."

7. My last question is a simple one. What if we're going to remain a small band of Jesus-followers who have an impact that doesn't result in imagine/Northampton growing beyond a handful. What if God says, "You have more power and potential than you can imagine; you just don't access or venture forth from it." What if our life together is meant to be compact and different, but still powerful to change lives. I know it's happened in the lives of folks who've walked with us. For most, they are imagine folk because God touched them and they wanted to be a part of what he is doing in and through us. They feel at home, connected. Maybe the growth he wants is measured in spiritual depth full of love, grace, freedom, wisdom, hope, joy and peace. Maybe the struggles we have to keep the doors open are to keep us humble, riveted to him and grateful for every blessing he sends our way. A question he always asks me when I'm "under it" for whatever the reason is: "Will you love anyway?" I bet he also wants to know from me: "Will you trust anyway?"

So growing or not growing maybe a wrong focus. Maybe the right question is: Will I love and trust him every day by showing up, doing what he leads me to do, and then leave the rest of the questions for prayer until he shows me.

I'm not sure why we're not growing or if the questions I've asked are the right ones. But if I don't ask at all, I'm not being responsible, and that's not good enough.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

When God Has You Circle Back To Refresh Spiritual Tools You Learned Earlier.

I don't know if this has ever happened to you, but the God who intersected my life literally for a few seconds on a warm, Albuquerque spring day in 1957-8 as I was walking home from school for lunch, and then pursued my heart full-out in the winter and spring of 1972 in Boston, has let me know he wants me to circle back to an earlier time of great learning, and re-immerse in the spiritual disciplines he taught me then. He's not said why.

Those of you who've read my Old Men Planting Churches blog over its duration are aware of what I think about having experienced an adventure I'd never undertaken previously with him. Planting a church was not on the radar screen until late 2007, and then quite unexpectedly. For 20 years prior, I and Tricia spent our time at the Center For Renewal Retreat House on the property of Covenant Presbyterian Church (aka The Barn), in Simsbury, Connecticut offering counseling, the healing of memories, and spiritual direction. We also led many Listening in Christ and Immersion Retreats for folks from all over. Having returned to the CFR to do some of that again in the last couple of years, I recently began to notice a subtle enticing, and I really do mean subtle. It persists too.

He wants me to re-immerse myself in the spiritual disciplines we learned and taught, especially finding an internal quiet in solitude and silence, listening prayer, and journaling. The point of such pursuit is intimacy with Christ. Because of what he's shown us here in Northampton regarding the missional way of following him, I've recognized for awhile these spiritual disciplines are to be wedded to this way of life with the Spirit. For instance, that's why I named the cohort we are a part of the inward (intimacy with Christ)/OUTWARD (following Christ in the world where he places you), Missional Formation Cohort. Focused intimacy and mission are at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Focused intimacy and mission are at the heart of what it means to, "love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself." Neglect one and our spiritual life is skewed, or out of balance in my opinion.They both need to be there. I see their unity as the "normal Christian life."

So, I've begun listening and journaling what I hear more frequently. The retreat we led a few weeks ago seemed to open something: These vital spiritual practices  had really fallen by the way side, and was pretty much a hit or miss activity. I wasn't working at it as a discipline whatsoever. For many years listening and journaling were key means by which I connected with God.

In turn, the Spirit has been enticing me to re-read some of the books which formed my understanding about listening and journaling starting with Dallas Willard's Hearing God: Developing A Conversational Relationship With God. From there I plan to re-read the very first book I read on the subject called Dialogue With God by Mark Virkler, and Hearing God by Henry and Richard Blackaby. I'm not sure where I'll go after that.

Interesting to me is I notice re-reading Willard's book feels fresh. I'm an avid underliner and write-in-the-margins kind of reader, but I've been delighted about how much clarity I'm seeing from the second read. Because I'm an explorer by design, I tend to be very much in the moment with new reading. It's more surficial, and I'm making new discoveries as I read rather than going deep into or parsing out the ideas carefully. I get lost when I do so. I also tend not to re-read a book right after I've read it the first time. Study has never been easy for me, but I have a quick mind and can appropriate what I need for the road ahead on a first read.

Also, the return and re-immersion in general has surprised me a little. Since being in Northampton, we've primarily focused on imagine and the missional way, a forward vantage: helping people discover and follow the God who is far more than they imagine. Prior, our vantage was in helping believers know this God through listening, praying, journaling, being on retreat, learning how to sit vigilantly in the silence and solitude, or learning how to heal from past hurts and destructive habits. Now, it seems God wants to bring the two together. I'm on board.

I suspect this circling back from God's point of view is merely another facet of the task we've been given to reflect his heart and nature to others on our watch. In his flow of history toward redemption all is forward for everyone called by his Name. So if or when he's called you to revisit what you learned before, it's to enable you to be more fruitful in the future, to expand your understanding with previously tread ground so wisdom can achieve it's life-yielding results in lives. God-ordained circling back deepens wisdom. Thomas Merton said we are always beginners when it comes to the things of God. I think there's an element of truth to that, especially with our spiritual growth and ripening. We never arrive until we arrive in the presence of the King of Kings and become who we truly are. For now, we move forward, stay still, take side paths, or circle back on the way to what is needed and what will be all that was ever necessary.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Thoughts On Having Re-formed The inward/OUTWARD Missional Formation Cohort.

Last Wednesday up in our third-floor apartment overlooking Main Street Northampton six of us reconvened the inward/OUTWARD Missional Formation Cohort. I wrote about it's launch in early 2012 if you didn't read it: We disbanded in the summer, and I was not sure if I'd reconvene it. However, over the last few months the Spirit seemed to bring it to mind repeatedly. Despite some of the problems we encountered with the first, for instance, it being too big and having folks come in and out who were not part of imagine, there was much of great value and formative spiritual and missional import going on. I never thought otherwise.

So in the late spring of this year, I was wanting to provide another opportunity for folks to really talk about and encounter each other's actual life with Jesus: the good, the not-so-good, and the "I'd rather not talk about just yet " stuff. I wanted it to be real, informal and engaging for everybody, similar to what Tricia and I have experienced in Listening in Christ retreat formats. While I or Tricia might set the stage - although not exclusively so - I would encourage everyone to engage all of us as equals, on the same formation journey, while in different places along the road, but connected and close as a cohort necessarily is. Because we were in on the ground floor and have been leaders since imagine's inception it is easy for people to fall in line with that. There are times and places in the journey where such "positioning" is essential, but I wanted to loosen it considerably to explore where it could lead. I wanted freedom and responsibility to unfold from everyone.

We'd had an initial meeting a month or so ago to test the waters with folks, and see if people wanted to do it at all. They did. So when we met this week, I did a quieting/settling opening activity, then set the stage for our evening which would be "weighted" toward open dialogue much in the way a spiritual director would invite a person to talk about how he or she is actually living with God. I guess you could term it group spiritual direction, but neither Tricia nor I would assume a formal director role; we'd participate as well. If things fell apart we could get it back in motion because of the years of experience we've had, but there was no need for that. I told everyone to feel free to ask questions to clarify something or seek more input. Again, I wanted interaction not top-down leading.

The bulk of our time together was talking about how we were experiencing relationship with God these days. Everyone had something to say; there was dialogue, even some offering of insights based what a person had experienced or learned. The conversation was real and people seemed quite free to offer what they were thinking or feeling. I sense there is a mutual hunger for this in everyone. Spiritual life can grow the deepest when people have a chance to talk about what they are actually going through with others who listen, offer support, even a word or two of insight without judgment or sermonizing - you all know what I'm talking about. I think trust was being built, although not because people were afraid of each other. It's just natural to test the temperature of the water before taking the first plunge.You know: what are the ground rules? How are people responding and communicating? What feels safe and appropriate, etc.?

I think it safe to say our first plunge seemed to agree with everyone in the room. Hopes are high for a substantial camaraderie to form including deep friendships, spiritual or otherwise. We want to go beyond the traditional "fellowship," "community-building" group into a life-giving interplay of love, filial support and inspiration which helps each of us follow Jesus with passion and realness. Following Jesus flows out of a vigorous and deepening love for Him, and a life-giving love in real-time for one another as we head down His path together.

By the way, so no one gets the wrong idea we're not pulling away and forming another church; we're still imagine/Northampton with other folks who are imagine/Northampton too, and have been since the beginning. We're just exploring life together in the way I explained above. It should enrich our overall corporate life. I hope similar groups form in our midst so people have a chance to be the church in this more intimate form as well. We do get together with everyone else at imagine for worship and such, but the cohort will be small, weekly, and intentional around growing in the spiritual/missional cohort way which such groups can promote through grace and love.

Stay tuned...

Friday, August 9, 2013

To Walk Out Of God's Will Is To Walk Into Nowhere.

The title of this blogpost is a C.S. Lewis quote from Perelandra. I found it on Pinterest (I know . . . really, dude???) actually, and was grabbed by it. Because I don't know the context of his sentence, I'm not sure what larger theme he was exploring.

Be that as it may, I think the sentence itself has all sorts of realities to ponder.

Here are some off the top of my head:


1. God's will is the SOMEWHERE of all somewheres worthy of  my full effort to" live and move and have our being" therein.

2. God's will is the REALITY creating, animating and sustaining all of life. "Let there be" begins it all; without it, there is no some-anything.

3. God's will is expressed most fully by a relentless, creative love which has no boundary unless he wills one; love infuses his will.

4. God's will is full of God's counsel and God's provision; wisdom finds and knows its course by God's will.

5. God's will reflects his Lordship over all being animate and inanimate, time and space, seen and unseen, that which is, was, and will be for eternity, before time, and after time, beyond time.

6. God's will is subject only to how he chooses to direct it, as he chooses to direct it, where he chooses to direct it, whenever he chooses to direct it.

7. God's will is true life, genuine liberty and ultimate completion for all who yield their wills to embrace and follow it.We become truly human under its tutelage.


1. Walking out of God's will and walking into nowhere is tragic blindness.

2. Walking out of God's will and walking into nowhere is a fool's errand masquerading as free self-determination.

3. Walking out of God's will and walking into nowhere is trusting the present, immediate or future to one's perception and understanding of what is and what will turn out, i.e., naive faith in chance, being in control, or being a good person so good things must happen.

4. Walking out of God's will and walking into nowhere is cutting oneself from a parachute and assuming you'll figure out how to fly in due time.

5. Walking out of God's will and walking into nowhere is following enticing delusion which ultimately kills the ability for true being.

6. Walking out of God's will and walking into nowhere is much ado about nothing or no ado toward what matters most.

7. Walking out of God's will and walking into nowhere can never satisfy the deepest longings of the heart, the noble quest for what yields enduring significance, or the intended meaning for why a person lived at all.

8. Walking out of God's will and walking into nowhere becomes a slow, imperceptible death leading to existential and final NOWHERE.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Enveloped By An Abiding Interior Stillness.

If you've ever spent time high in the mountains, deep in the forest, far into one of the great deserts, or alone on the ocean, you'll know a bit of the experience I'm about to relate. Another way you could have learned of such an experience might have come from reading the writings of Christian mystics, pilgrims or monastics; anyone who has spent a lifetime of deep, persisting prayer. Or perhaps you've made it a spiritual discipline to go regularly on retreat - not the prevailing evangelical version of teaching sessions and recreation - dedicated to prayer, listening, reflection and discernment. By any of these means you might likely have encountered the stillness I did this past weekend.

Tricia and I had another opportunity to head back to the Center For Renewal in Simsbury, CT last weekend. We had the privilege of leading a woman who'd been on a number of our Listening  in Christ Immersion Retreats. They've met something special to her since the first time a few years ago.

Tricia and I are not on retreat when we lead one of these; we're there to work, but invariably, Jesus has something for us as well. Often, he engages her and me when the retreatant is out for an extended time of quiet listening and prayer based on spiritual direction conversations we'd have with them over what God was doing in their times away him, as well as how he directs us to direct her. We also take the time to seek him in listening and reflection.

This time I experienced something fascinating, and to my recall, had never been as pronounced; either that, or I just didn't have the ability to notice prior. It was an abiding sense of internal spiritual stillness. By that I mean my spirit was at rest deeply while I was up and about. There was very little internal dissonance, or restlessness. I noticed I was still and very calm inside as if all was well, and all would be well. My heart and soul were quiet, even centered, or balanced with no measurable equanimity. I was there and God was present. The day's rhythm was easy and flowing without any forced effort on our parts. We certainly worked, but not rushed. Each chapter of the day unfolded quietly as if each was meant to be there and someone else was writing it.

The experience just felt good and fitting for the setting. The stillness enveloped us as a Presence: loving kind, safe and pleasant. I felt as if a gentle "atmosphere" of calm pervaded, but again. it was as if we were in the presence of Someone who knew us and gave us this time and space to soak in. Remember, it was subtle and unobtrusive, but there unmistakably.

It reminded me of the verse: "deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls" from Psalm 42, but it was more like, "deep calls to deep from the stillness of your welcoming Presence." From such interior stillness came all sorts of freedom for me to listen and hear the still, small voice of the Spirit. I recognized that living on Main Street in Northampton with it's incessant noise of community (not all bad) about us 20 hours per day never gives me the sense of being enveloped in an abiding interior stillness; an interior clanging jangle is often more like it! I know Jesus is here in Noho too, but it seems to me the CFR Retreat House, and surrounding property, if not already close to being what Celtic Christians refer to as "thin places"; places where it is believed the veil between heaven and earth is "thinner" and the presence of Spirit is palpable, is already a thin place. Because the grounds have been dedicated to listening, praying, seeking after Jesus, and healing, and the people in the church have spent many hours in prayer over the decades,or helping others do so,  it feels "set apart" for such purposes and those who come for a time are met there in spiritually refreshing and revealing ways.

So I'd loved to be enveloped in such a deep and abiding interior stillness all day, every day. The reality of it  transforms how I am. Also, it would serve as balm in the midst of the discord and stress I experience (some of it brought by my own brokenness). Interior stillness abiding brings consolation in which I experience and freedom, creativity, a refreshing lightness of being, and an ability to love far beyond my natural inclining. Perhaps God will grant this gift to me as I finish my days here or wherever. I'd like that very much, and would be widely grateful for such kindness and love from him.