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U2 singer songwriter Bono expresses a spiritual yearning in the 1987 album The Joshua Tree hit single: “Still haven’t found what I’m looking for…” New Musical Express (a pop music mag in the UK better known as the NME), points out that the popularity of the song may be due to the way it showed that the band cared about something which could not be reduced to a few words, principles, or statements to “save” them. The spiritual yearning, “climbing mountains” and “scaling these city walls” with a singular aim, “only to be with you”, made U2 “special” with a message that resonated making the song among the most popular of all time. Why?
Bono captured the heart-cry of a generation. Harvard University graduate Noah describes his own spiritual yearning: “My education has prepared me better than most to ‘make a living’. But once I have that living, I haven’t the faintest idea what to do with it…” He continues, “My expanded intellectual capacities make it more difficult for me to find anything to believe in… the American educational system has armed me with so much cynicism and has not allowed more opportunity to contemplate what I truly want of life.”
What I truly want…
The search, seeking what you truly want, should not cause any shame. If you are not on a search for something more, then it may be you have lost hope for the future. Or worse, it may be your search has resulted in a dead end, a fatalistic future, which requires no participation. Fatalists, whether Christian or not, have no reason to invest their lives, their resources or their work, toward something meaningful. The future is fixed and cannot be changed, according to their fatalistic belief system. To know that the course of your life has meaning, you must consider ‘what?’ or more appropriately ‘Who?’ will give your life significance.
Os Guinness writes, “First we must resolutely refuse to play the word games that pretend calling means anything without a Caller – and we must not allow people to play such games on us.” He continues,“If we don’t recognize the Caller, there are no callings; all that can remain is work without true meaning.”
A spiritual quest for meaning
Be encouraged. There is more and the future is made by those who seek a better world, those who are really living in this world as a witness of the goodness of their Creator, the God who is both the beginning and the end. The call of God is a spiritual quest. It is a call to be like him, believing in the future and creating it through our words and actions, our work and our investment, our hopes and our prayers. Even God seeks. He is the One who calls. With all his power and knowledge, God seeks those of us who will respond to his call:
“Heaven is my throne, earth is my footstool. What sort of house could you build for me? What holiday spot reserve for me? I made all this! I own all this! But there is something I’m looking for: a person, simple and plain, reverently responsive to what I say.” Isa. 66:1-2 (The Message)
Responding to God’s call is taking this spiritual quest for meaning very seriously. I believe this generation, probably more than any other, is on a search for significance. Unfortunately, the search requires resources not readily available. Though some have been on the journey and could serve as guides, they often go unnoticed; the people who might serve as a guide or mentor are hidden in plain sight. They do not hang a shingle advertising their availability to lead you on a journey of significance. If they do, you might check for references. Those who can lead you on a journey of the discovery of God’s calling will not self-promote because the act of self-promotion is contradictory to the call of God. If you seek someone to help you on your quest, do not turn to a “professional” who has reduced the process of discerning the call of God to a “12-step program” or a costly university diploma. Instead, get on with your quest, respond to God’s call with all your heart. That quest, whether you are enrolled in university or not, will likely lead you to become more of a student, more discerning, and more prayerful. A quest is a “mystery discerning enterprise,” rather than a “problem solving” project. Your quest is not a self-help program and it is not merely an adventure. Those who go on adventures experience amazing things, but they return to their routine; their lives are not changed. Those who go on a spiritual quest are changed. If they return, they are never the same. They cannot return to the same routine. They have become pilgrims on a quest that will continue throughout their lives.
Should I seek a guide?
Keep your eyes open, especially the “eyes of your heart” (Eph. 1:18). Paul the apostle prays that you may “know the hope of his calling.” Discernment and humility are needed when considering who may be a guide as you seek what is really important. The guide will be someone who is on their own journey, discerning and seeking to obey their own call from God. That they are on their own quest will likely conceal their spiritual identity from you and their value to you as a guide. Recall the characters from J. R. R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings? Frodo’s quest came after Bilbo gave him the “One Ring” and Gandalf charged him to take the ring to Rivendell. On their way, Frodo and his friends met a stranger at the Prancing Pony Pub. Little did they know the stranger is the son of a king. Aragorn’s identity is concealed to others and partly concealed to himself. He is first introduced by the name Strider. Strider joined Frodo’s quest while serving as a guide and protector for the hobbits.
Please understand: This is not a formula for seeking a guide for your spiritual journey. However, Tolkien’s story is useful here. From my experience, the most valuable mentors/teachers to me have been humble individuals who were/are on their own spiritual journey. Their identity and their significance was largely concealed from me when I first came to know them. The extent of their service, guidance and protection, and their ultimate contribution to my spiritual quest is immeasurable. These individuals have been like spiritual fathers, investing themselves unselfishly as part of their own spiritual journey.
The struggle…the work
Your search will take you far from familiar territory. You cannot respond to God’s call hidden safe behind the comforts of your own culture, whether material comforts or theological/ideological comforts. Responding to God’s call takes the honest seeker both deep inside the needs in their own heart and out to a world of desperate needs. If there is deep within you a passionate desire to make a difference, you will need to become desperate enough to free yourself from the shackles of your own culture, your own hurts, and your own false beliefs. To get to know your own identity, which includes your family, your culture, and your personal trauma in life, is hard work. The call of God will always lead you to a thorough assessment of your motives and values, your woundedness and your strengths. To know that passion and the difference for which you are called is not found by taking an online survey for $50. Bottom line, it takes work to discern your calling.
“Doing anything as a calling-especially doing something quite difficult-is a lot more fulfilling than merely drifting.” Michael Novak, from his book, Business as a Calling.
What does revival look like? I was in a pastor’s meeting recently where the topic was discussed. I think they were correct when they said it’s like a wave that you cannot control. All you can do is begin paddling like a surfer to prepare to catch the wave.
What I have noticed, paradoxically, is that revivals down through history have rarely been met with a great welcome by the religious leaders of the community. When revival comes, it raises the hope of the community for a future with Jesus at the center of every home and every conversation. Revival brings a transformation of culture, a culture of hope.
I believe the way to create hope in a community or even a wider culture is to proclaim the good news by word and deed. The message of hope gets drummed up like a political slogan, but hope is much more than that. What is taking place in the Middle East today is the activation of a fervent hope for a future that honors individuals, families, communities, and whole nations.
We cannot control the destiny of nations, but we can participate. As a missionary, I believe hope can be realized in a community by consistently reporting the good news. The good news is the gospel story, but it is much more. Christians need to engage their world with active involvement, even in small ways. We can visit prisons, hospitals, shut ins, and neighbors. We can invite strangers, the lonely, and the lost into our homes. We can enjoy a simple meal with the hungry and share our time and belongings with the poor and needy.
Proclaiming the good news is done, not only through word, but also through deed. And hope is fostered in a community when those words of Scripture are matched with actions of love. Hope grows as we report on the many small actions that are making a difference in our community. You might call them “achievable wins”, simple acts of love in community.
Hope is not found merely in acts of charity, however. Hope must be firmly rooted in the Person of Jesus Christ. That hope should not be rooted in this world. Neither should the hope be rooted in heaven, which has caused too many lovely Christians to ignore the needs of this world. So proclaiming the good news, reporting on our “achievable wins”, must include a clear presentation of the overarching vision of relationship with Jesus in our daily lives and in our neighborhoods.
A culture of hope will grow under that vision and mission of Jesus. What grows in that culture are is a spirit of missional unity, which produce many missions partnerships. The hopes of pilgrims in the no-man’s-land of collaborative culture, those who recognize each individual, family, church, and organization’s identity as a contributor to the whole task of Jesus’ mission, is what makes up the culture of hope.
Some people will be early participants in this “culture.” They are the boundary spanners who are willing to examine and work to span the chasm between different groups, churches, and organizations. Though each expects something different from their emerging partnerships, they will work to enhance their part so that their group may in turn develop a culture of collaboration, a willingness to enhance the vision of Jesus in their community.
The early participants will often begin the task before everyone else is on board. They continue to remain open and hospitable, content to not be leading a large public movement. They choose rather to open their homes and share meals and prayer times with those who would catch the vision later. These courageous ones are willing to address difficult questions. They do not study theology; they DO theology. Their every conversation is dripping with theological hope. They are students. These disciples of Jesus are learning together in community. They are learning to manage tensions and complexities of the new places God is leading them and the new culture that God is promising. They are working like gardeners, creating a collaborative environment in order to produce a culture of hope.
These people embrace a high cultural value of personal responsibility, the language of stewardship and shared responsibility, recognizing the task of collaboration is not everyone else’s responsibility. These people are accountable to each other and to the overarching vision. They may work toward achievable wins, however they are not seeking immediate rewards; they are looking toward the long-term.
This culture shuns the zero-sum game with competitive winners and losers so often found in the religious movements of yesterday. This new culture resists isolation and looks for synergy. It is not stuck in past structures; it is open to a variety of possibilities and structures to serve the purpose of accomplishing Jesus’ vision. This culture is like a bridge, easy to get on and easy to get off, as necessary to the current task.
The question is when and how do we collaborate. Ultimately, these people embrace and create a culture that recognizes Kingdom values, that we are all already working together. Our calling is not to create unity, but to preserve it.
The effective Kingdom partnership culture is breathing out Spirit-filled prayers and exhortations, speaking truth with mutual humility. It is a “place” where Jesus is Lord, and the voices of all constituencies are heard, especially the voice of God. It is a partnership “by people in Christ from within organizations for the Kingdom.”
Wikipedia strongly espouses verifiability and a neutral point of view, but critics of Wikipedia accuse it of “systemic bias and inconsistencies”. They say “favoring consensus over credentials gives undue weight to popular culture” in its editorial processes.
From a vantage point of a missionary, I see an important similarity here to the argument that laity, those lacking credentials from a church denomination or seminary, have no business leading a church plant or Missional community. The argument goes like this: “Those untrained leaders could lead their people into heresy or false doctrine.” That was a major concern of the early church.
If reliability and accuracy are really the issue, and not the status of “experts,” then it’s worth noting that “an investigation in Nature (scientific journal) found that the science articles they compared came close to the level of accuracy of Encyclopedia Britannica and had a similar rate of “serious errors”.” In this Nature article, Alex Bateman and Darren W. Logan write:
“Ten years ago, it would have been inconceivable that a free collaborative website, written and maintained by volunteers, would dominate the global provision of knowledge.”
So then, should an “untrained” leader draw together a group of Christ’s followers and attempt to demonstrate and declare the gospel of Jesus by making disciples from within their specific people group, their neighborhood, workplace, or school? Could such a group represent an authentic church gathering?
For centuries leadership of churches has been left to “experts”, those with credentials, degrees, and funny hats. Concern for this issue was pronounced during the recent post-colonial period, after WWII, when newly independent nations opened the opportunity for multiplied thousands of new independent churches which resulted in the greatest expansion of christianity in history, especially the Global South (see Inter-Varsity article). Many attempts to train the multitudes of new church leaders in Africa and China, through programs based mostly in the West, such as TEE (Theological Education by Extension), could not keep up the pace of church growth at the end of the 20th century. At issue: what would come of these “younger” churches? Would they slip into heresy and error?
Perhaps a little humility is required as we respond to these questions. The church in the West has not been without error, despite her theological “maturity.” The early church had error, the Medieval church had error, and the Protestant church has had error. Some error is difficult to perceive from a purely Western mindset. What could be wrong with promoting individual choices for Christ, reducing the gospel message to “three steps” or “four laws”? Well, getting “saved” for heaven is not the kingdom message Jesus preached. And it’s not the gospel message Paul preached. Salvation is much more comprehensive, and not just a private decision. The West has exported this erroneous gospel message through the modern missionary enterprise for more than a century.
Examining the laundry list of error in Western theology would require several other posts, so let’s just humble ourselves long enough to accept our brothers and sisters in the now Majority church of the Global South, not as immature “younger” churches, but as full fledged churches.
Like the world of Wikipedia, we now live in a new, “flat” and globalized world (See Thomas Friedman’s popular book, ‘The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century’), where information, correction of error and validation of facts now spread instantaneously around the world. Whether we are ready or not, it is time to consider our ways, to search the Scriptures for understanding the way to reach our new world.
Jesus did not make it complicated and neither should we. It is simple to experience community with those you already have an affinity, a similar culture. People who already share interest and time together are more likely to worship together and work together on a mission of Kingdom expansion.
This is the approach to missions and church planting in India put forth in the 1930s by Donald McGavran, the late missionary statesman who coined “Homogenous Unit Principle“, groups which can be a culture or language, a tribe or caste, a clan or geographical unit. McGavran was studied church growth, proposing a church which is not sending mission so much as it is itself sent. With so many different cultures in India, McGavran saw the need to encourage many cultural expressions of church. The different people groups should not be forced into one church cultural mold, like your neighborhood mega-church. Could it be that McGavran’s approach would also now be appropriate for churches in the Western world?
Lesslie Newbigin, another great missionary statesman, spent over 30 years living as a missionary working with the Church of South India. When he returned to England, Newbigin noticed something: the Western world had become as pluralistic as India, with new “faith” in materialism. (See Newbigin’s book: The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society.) The West, especially Europe with the USA not far behind, had already lost much of its “Christian” heritage. Once vital Church structures in England are now nightclubs with names like “Ministry of Sin.” Newbigin saw the need to not only continue to send missionaries around the world, but also to receive missionaries to re-evangelize the post-Christian West. He suggested the formation and structure of Western churches require a new reformation in order to reach our Western society with the gospel. He and many of the leaders in world missions today, contend that the Church in the West must again become primarily a missions station sponsoring Missional communities among the people groups in our cities. The Anglican Church is championing “Fresh Expressions” of church formation for the communities in which it has been established for many hundreds of years.
What am I proposing? Three things:
- First, I propose we learn humility, perhaps unlike or feeble attempts to humble ourselves in religious services, temporarily weeping at the altar and then returning to our comfortable lives behind our TVs, in our over-sized houses, and compressed lifestyles. We must humble ourselves, relinquishing our supposed rights to power, privilege, and too often prestige.
- Second, like Wikipedia, we should learn to trust every believer to gain access, participate, and contribute to theological conversations. We should trust those with a desire to be a witness to their community.
- Third, we should flatten our church hierarchies, eliminate the exclusivity of church “membership”, and commission believers to “go” into their world to plant simple church communities.
Imagine if Jesus could once again become the main focus of conversations and life in your neighborhood, your workplace, and on a your campus, perhaps it would also be possible for the message and works of Jesus to fill an entire city. No, I am not suggesting we merely “unite” churches (which tend to be organized in a competitive business model anyway). Unity is not something we create, it is something the apostle Paul exhorts us to “preserve”.
This vision for a new church-planting movement in our neighborhoods could only be realized if everyday believers, people like you and me, choose to go on mission in our sphere of influence, planting the church where you are through non-formal gatherings in homes, workplaces, and campus dorms. Of course, those with the status as “experts” may resist this missional movement for various reasons. But I am confident that the leaders whose hearts belong to Jesus will cheer ANY effort to reach our world with the good news.
The hard part is this: We have to renew our thinking, repent of our fixed cultural habits, and begin to walk worthy of this calling. Church is not just something you attend…it’s something you are. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is within you; that’s true of every believer. The good news is within us.
We need break our individualistic mindset in order to see our world is not just one big community of individuals. It is hundreds of people groups, small communities put together to make up your city.
So I am proposing ‘simple churches’ or missional communities to be formed by two or more believers among these people groups. Missional communities are incarnational in that they arise out of and focus on the communities they desire to reach. Imagine multitudes of new small groups of believers in Chicago, LA, and New York, and in university campuses, businesses and suburbs in your area… Leaders need to find courage to once again be the church and release a new generation of churches in their most localized and organic form. This is what I propose: Form simple churches that are “Wiki-Missional.”
The emergence of the church is “part of a long history of God-inspired apostolic endeavor.” (Steve Taylor, Out of Bounds Church 2005, p. 39) Before discussing formations of the Church, which I plan to do in subsequent posts, it is imperative that our understanding of “church” be distinguished from the “kingdom of God,” which is the boundary-free domain that Jesus commissioned his witnesses to proclaim. As citizens of heaven, Christ followers must remember that our formation of church communities will fall short of the ideal. However, the most effective witnessing church formations take a posture of humility and service within smaller groupings. Amid a world consumed by façade, how do we create authentic communities to best demonstrate the Church’s anticipation of the kingdom of God? (Tim Keel, Intuitive Leadership 2007, p. 117)