Until one died of old age (and a rough life) a couple months ago, we had two cats, which we got at the same time from the same shelter. Both were considered special cases and, even though there was a line out the door because it was a mass adoption event, we had no conflict or objections in taking them both. One, who we named Cullen, was 10 years old, had spent some unknown amount of time living on the street, and had to receive a number of medical procedures during his time at the shelter to make sure he would be okay. The other, who we named Cassandra (but usually call Cass or Cassie), was almost a year old and therefore should have been in high demand; however, she was the product of inbreeding and had some neurological and physical problems which we were warned may or may not become major issues later on. The major impact of her neurological issues is that, while she clearly wants attention and loves people, she was incredibly skittish and her behavior was described as "she doesn't really know how to be a cat."
This was actually a big part of why we got both of them. We would have been very happy with either alone, each for their own reasons, but we specifically wanted both of them. The logic was that having an older cat who knows how to interact with the world and with people, and has a grasp on general cat behaviors, would help Cassie adjust; while having a younger cat to look after and play with would help Cullen stay active and healthy.
Some of the things Cass needed to learn from him were just social cues, but over the time Cullen was with us, he also seems to have taught her necessities like how to hunt. She didn't learn everything exactly the way he does it, but she clearly picked things up from him. Like how Cullen was very fond of headbutting me and rubbing our foreheads together as a form of social connection; she has not acquired that specific behavior and I doubt she will now, but after watching him do that she has taken a habit of leaning her face close to mine so we can sniff at each other for an apparently similar end.
The fact is, no one in our house was ever going to be able to teach Cass some of these behaviors ourselves. She would have, I'm sure, found some way to engage with us that worked for everyone involved, but it would have been alien to us as previous cat owners and stressful for her to figure it out on her own. And there's no guarantee she would have picked up everything. Maybe she would have taken an interest in hunting mice all on her own (a very valuable skill for our old house in the forest), but we certainly would not have ever been able to help her do that, let alone do it well. There are probably countless little daily behaviors that she picked up from Cullen, some necessary to her well-being but completely unnoticed by us, that we would have never known how to handle or been in a position to teach if we had.
A couple years ago I was talking with a friend who was finishing his ministry training in something similar to a church internship. His congregation was mostly older, and he was looking for some way to get them active in his community while accepting their limitations, and asked me if I had any thoughts. After gaining some information about his congregation and the community from him, I suggested that he reach out to a local college's campus ministry and see if they would be interested in an arrangement where his congregation served as mentors and the young Christians helped with church activities that the congregation wasn't up to doing. After he asked me to explain the mentor relationship I had in mind a bit more, he told me he was certain the pastor he was working under would not take well to the notion that some Christians are more mature in their walk than others.
I called myself a Christian for most of my life, but never really knew what that meant until a pastor in Boston started actively investing in me. He asked me tough questions about my life and faith, met with me to discuss application, gave me resources that I needed, and treated me as more of a son than a random face he saw every week. It was in his church that I began actually feeling the gravity of the teachings I had believed, and for the first time in my life I spent time actually fighting against this body of sin; it was shortly after moving away from that church, at my lowest point, that I finally fully submitted to Christ. This was a step I was not ready to take until someone realized how lost I still was and made a point of showing me the way.
One of the ministries that seem the hardest to put into place in churches today seems to be discipleship ministries. Which is a shame, because we are all, in our earliest days as Christians, very much like Cass was when she was brought home. New to this life, excited about living it out but not really knowing how to do it, and in need of guidance from someone who has experience in the daily grind of the Christian life as well as some of the hardships that arise in it. Even as we mature and wrestle with deeper theology or a wider range of practical concerns, we still find ourselves needing someone who has already been to this part of the road, who has made it through, who is just that little bit further along. We all, at every stage of our Christian walk, need a Cullen.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes [only] of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.
Why was the church given teachers? To equip, serve, and build up the body. We are not called to gather to watch someone preach. We do not have, as our core goal, the act of spectating a sermon. When we reduce church to this, when we make it our focus, when we make it the only thing we're willing to fight for, we lose sight of the true function of the church and give in to an elevated view of the pastor as the central focus of our work, even if we refuse to call it that.
Consider the comments sections of nearly any news reports about Grace Community Church right now. Those speaking in defense of MacArthur's actions universally do so on the grounds that the central command of Christians is gathering in one place on a regular basis (which we are never commanded to do),** and that inhibiting this specific action is condemning the full work of the church. Which simply is not true, unless one believes that the full work of the church is to focus our attention on listening to one person teach. But we know from scripture that those positions we are inclined to hold in highest esteem are never to be given the focus of our work.
On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those [members] of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need [of it.] But God has [so] composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that [member] which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but [that] the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if [one] member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
1 Corinthians 12:22-26 (NASB)
Did Jesus stand before large crowds and explain the scriptures for them? Yes. Is this how He built His church? No. That was through personal relationships in which He walked with people for years, showing them what life He was calling them to, explaining things they were ready to understand, calling them to active participation in His ministry. We have letters to Timothy, but is that method of teaching how he became Paul's spiritual child? No, that was through Timothy's time spent traveling with Paul, watching how he worked and lived, actively taking part in the mission. Were His final and ultimate orders to His disciples to "call all the world into your sanctuaries and have them sit quietly as you explain the Word to them," or were they to "go therefore and make disciples of all the nations" (Matthew 28:19a, NASB)?
Our job is discipleship. To both teach and learn from personal experience, close relationships, and active participation in the life of the church. May we learn to put discipleship of one another higher than our pastoral hero worship as we continue to navigate this Christian life.
**- Yes, I know the verse that tells us not to forsake gathering. However, there is a great deal of flexibility in terms of how many of us gather in one place at one time, how we gather, and how frequently we gather. The Sunday Morning All-Church In-Person Service expression of worship is not here, or anywhere, commanded.
Most of Acts 15 is occupied with the Jerusalem Council, at which they addressed the question of the day: how Jewish do gentile converts need to become to be considered Christian? That is, as non-Jewish people were entering what was then a predominately Jewish movement, how much did they have to adopt Jewish practice to be welcomed as members? The short answer in that particular instance was very little. It was observed at the council that the Holy Spirit was being poured out on gentile converts, which seemed to indicate God's acceptance of them (us, let's be honest here), and that acceptance into the church had been established as being a function of grace and not keeping the Mosaic law. Therefore, it made no sense to demand that people make themselves as Jewish as they could before they could be considered Christian.
Which, as it happens, reminds me of something else going on. I've been trying to figure out a way to say some of this, but I think instead I'll let someone else present the general concept and then just show how it applies.
See, when countries like England and Spain and France were out conquering the world, they had this notion that having Christians in the culture made the culture Christian. When Spanish missions were popping up in the new world, for instance, they did not simply tell the native peoples around them about Christ and offer whatever gifts they had in service to the community. They demanded cultural conquest; in their minds, being Christian wasn't simply a matter of serving Christ as Lord and rejecting the authority and draw of sin. It wasn't simply being Catholic, as the missionaries were. It was living like the Spanish do, thinking like the Spanish do, speaking the Spanish language, eating Spanish food. Being Christian meant, for all intents and purposes, being thoroughly Spanish.
This notion carried over to the new world. People around the world recoil at the concept of missionaries because they, or their elders, have memories of people coming in and establishing an American lifestyle and an American style of worship and American values and calling it all the gospel. This is why my wife and I, as hopeful future missionaries, are targeting a sending agency that would put us under the authority of native-born church planters, to lend them our skills and gifts but let them decide how the actual work is carried out; we are refusing to establish little outposts of America and call them churches, even accidentally.
And this is happening at home. Consider the recoil against identity politics. I have heard some version of this at all kinds of levels, from major movements within denominations to individual elders at little local churches, that "well, we want to support people who are hurting, but we don't want to get wrapped up in identity politics." But what are identity politics? Basically, they're nothing more than people saying "because of this, or these, aspect(s) of who I am, I have these specific concerns and issues and goals." See, what we are saying when we talk about wanting to avoid that, is that we want to help people who are hurting, as long as they are hurting in ways we understand. As long as they are hurting in ways we hurt. That people who do not share our history, or our experiences, or our backgrounds, or our relationship to government authority, must nonetheless act like they do before we can view them as brothers and sisters with an equal share of Christ and an equal right to be supported as family. In fact, we sometimes treat it as an attack on the gospel itself to consider the possibility that people with a different ethnic background are facing different problems. As Shannon pointed out, we expect them to look at the flag and our nation's history through our lens rather than their own before we're willing to consider their concerns valid.
Because this is what we've convinced ourselves Christianity looks like. Being a Christian means viewing the world and one's nation and one's flag and history the way white Evangelical Republicans do. And the result is that my Facebook wall has dozens of posts from people saying they do not, and cannot, understand how certain forms of protest help advance the cause. Hear me on this: no one cares if you understand. Very little of it is aimed at making you understand (blocking traffic does tend to have the implicit "if you're this angry about being unable to advance for an hour, imagine how angry you would be if your entire culture was unable to advance for decades" statement, but not everything does). The question is, are you listening? And if you are listening, what are you going to do about it?
What is it going to take for us to listen? How many people are going to die before we decide to work with the hurting, to mourn with those who mourn, to weep with those who weep, to stand as agents of the Author of Life against forces that are bringing death and destruction? How badly must the world break around us before we realize that our own brokenness is feeding into it? How much more will we burden our brothers and sisters, people in our churches and serving the same Christ, not only with the trials they already face, but with our silence and judgment in the face of it?
"Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are."
Acts 15:10-11 (NASB)
What I mean by that statement is this: if God has called a person to a specific work, and called a person to a specific church body, then the person is also called to contribute to the specific mission that church is tasked with, and certainly not to hinder it. Likewise, the church is called to contribute to the specific mission the person is called to, and certainly not to hinder it. The Biblical statements about every member of the church needing every other member and every part of the body having a necessary function attest to this. If that is true, then it must also be true that a person who feels called to a mission that hinders, or is hindered by, the mission of their church is either on the wrong mission or at the wrong church or, in some hopefully more rare occasions, the church has the wrong mission; and it is vitally important that they find out which it is and correct it. The question is how to do that.
The first step is always going to be prayer and scripture, by the way. Going to God for wisdom and clarity, digging into the Bible for anything that may grant that wisdom and clarity, and earnestly listening for Him to speak will be necessary if you want an honest, usable answer. Every piece of advice that follows assumes you are only implementing it after spending some time in prayer and the scriptures. Also remember that this is only advice; the Bible does not give us a check list for this, and I can only share as much wisdom as I have so far.
Questioning Personal Calling
- Your spiritual gifts can give you some clue as to your mission, because your mission will be something God has equipped you to do;
- Your trained skills can give you some clue as to your mission, because your mission will be something you have been prepared to do;
- Your interests can give you some clue as to your mission, because your mission will likely be something you can recognize and be drawn to;
- Your context, including where you are physically and where you are on your specific life journey, can give you some clues as to your mission, because God has been molding and placing you to perform it;
- Your limitations can give you some clue as to your mission, because it will not be something you will be capable of or comfortable doing without leaning on God's power and guidance.
Consider Moses. His gifting and skills enabled him to lead a large body of people, to judge fairly and honorably, to write the texts they would need going forward, and to face great trials. His interest in protecting his fellow children of Jacob enabled him to see their need and desire to find some freedom for them. His life experiences gave him access to Pharaoh, knowledge of the Midian desert, the skills he used leading Israel, and an unshakable faith that God would do exactly what He said He would do. His difficulty at speech meant he needed always to lean on God for his words and on his brother to deliver them, and his willingness to run when things got hairy meant he had to rely on God to be the example of strong leadership Israel needed.
Questioning Church Membership
Some initial questions:
- Have I submitted to the church leadership?
- Do I understand the church's mission?
- Do I understand my calling?
- Am I actually performing my calling, or at least seeking opportunities to do so?
- Have I invested in this church? Do I care about the people here and the work they do?
- Am I bitter about something and finding it difficult to work with the church because of that?
If none of these resolve the issue (and sometimes even if they do), you need to talk to the church leadership. The exact person will vary based on your church's leadership structure and your relationships to them, but identify someone in a position to handle your questions and who you feel comfortable receiving honest answers from. Ideally, you will have been already talking to this person while analyzing your calling.
Personal mission and church mission do not have to be identical to be compatible. Our church hosts a growing food pantry which some members feel strongly called to lead or participate in; the mission statement of the church does not include that, but it does serve the church's mission goal of serving the community in a Christ-centered way that enables opportunities for us to share the gospel. Take the time to find out whether or not your calling and the church mission are actually incompatible. It is entirely possible that the church leadership will know about directions the church is going, ministry opportunities, or just detail about the mission that you don't know for one reason or another, and they can point you to a way to do what you are called to do under the umbrella of the church's mission. It is, in fact, entirely possible that what you are called to do is something that doesn't exist at the church yet because they are waiting for someone called to do it.
Seek ways to serve. Use your spiritual gifts under the guidance of the church and for the building up of the body. As much as possible, seek ways to be an active, contributing part of what your church is doing. But if all of this is not working, and it becomes apparent that you are simply not built for what the church is doing, then it may be time to prayerfully look into places where you can be active and invested.
Questioning Church Mission
That being said, when the leadership revisits the church mission, it will generally follow pretty similar steps to those for analyzing personal calling, with the additional understanding that church missions are generally paired with church visions; the latter being where the church is going, and the former being how it will get there. Wise church leaders will look at how the people God has called to that body can do a work that uses the available gifts, skills, and interests to engage with the church's context to participate in a work that only God can bring to fruit.
Understand, it isn't that running for office is a bad thing, it's that my heart wants it for bad reasons. If I go into politics, I can let myself believe that I'm saving the world and doing it my way. But ministry, which I have been called to, doesn't allow that. Ministry has a knack for reminding people that we are just servants participating in God's work, and his plans are far better than ours. When I am fighting off the temptation to turn astray from my calling to pursue public office, I am fighting off a very direct idol of self and trying to reject following and trusting God. This will look different for all of us, but we must not give in to whatever it is that pulls our affection away.
I came close once. In the 2010 election cycle I went so far as to request the necessary paperwork to run for office and started filling it out and collecting signatures. I was registered as a Republican instead of a third party specifically so I could get some money from someone to fund the campaign. I went to dinner with this one girl and it came up that her dad was a liberal third party candidate for the same office I was trying to run for (Massachusetts 1st District, U.S. House of Representatives) and she never spoke to me again.
I was pretty serious about it, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. But something started to nag at me that had been on my mind for about a year already.
I never turned the paperwork in.
Now my friend and I have joked about the fact that, afterward, there were emails about that sermon. I got emails about that sermon. He got emails about that sermon. These were not terribly encouraging emails. I haven't been back to his church. The real reason is that my family moved two hours away and I got pretty busy with another church so the opportunity just hasn't been there as much, but when we ran into each other at the Small Town Summit I joked that it was because of the emails we got from that sermon. My pastor sat in on the sermon and when he heard about the emails he told my friend that he wasn't really surprised. It truly is an act of grace that my pastor let me preach at our church after that.
But in one of those emails, a member of his church asked me what he seemed to think would be a gotcha question. "If you knew that being elected would ensure that you could stop abortion right now," he asked, "and save the lives of so many precious little ones, would you do it?" He was trying to get me to confess to a certain reliance on political power that I had condemned in the sermon, and oh, how tempting that question was. Not only because I am pro-life, but ever since the 2016 election I had been struggling even more with the temptation to get elected and burn the whole system down from inside. This guy was pushing exactly the right button, and I realized it wasn't an accident. So I prayed before I replied.
"I would not run," I answered. "Not because I do not value that cause, because I do value it; but because God has called me to a different path and I would rather turn down a great work than refuse that which God has commanded." I hit send and never heard from that guy again. And that moment has given me great comfort ever since.
When people ask me why I feel called to serve in full-time ministry I usually tell them that God has told us as much, and has confirmed that calling multiple times. What I don't mention as often is that He has also made it very clear that I don't belong anywhere else. Any time I go off and start trying to make my own plans and serve my own interest about things that I think will make me feel important and powerful and successful at forging my own path and saving the world because obviously I'm really equipped to be the savior of the world, He makes me choose. And each time, I have to stop and look at the door I'm trying to force open and be reminded of the one He's put my name on, and I have to let go.
And it gets easier. There are things I still struggle with and I'm sure there always will be, but they're diminishing and changing. As I have matured and grounded my joy on Christ more, I have found myself pushing off in my own direction less often. Because in the end, none of my attempts to make my life work by my rules ever brought me lasting joy or peace. Just look at the rest of the posts in this series and see a sampling of the pain I've endured and inflicted on others through my quest for self-fulfillment. When I serve me first, I can drift off into becoming a true monster, and it isn't worth it. Are you any different, really? Does your idolatry of self improve your life and soul and mind any more than mine has?
The Leader's Guide had us close the final session with Psalm 16, and while the whole psalm is worth consideration, I want to highlight two verses as I end my thoughts on this series.
I said to the LORD, "You are my Lord;
I have no good besides You."
You will make known to me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.
Psalm 16:2, 11 (NASB)
"Under Fred's leadership it would be possible for us to slide a long way back toward where we once were, and that would be devastating."
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a number of Christian denominations had to wrestle with the role of scripture in the revelation of truth. The primary camps this usually fell into were those who held that the Bible was fully true in both its concepts and facts (called inerrancy), and those that held it was only fully true in its concepts. The former, for instance, would hold that Jonah literally spent time in the belly of a whale or great fish, while the latter would hold that the lesson taught by Jonah's story was important but the details were probably fictional. The SBC's turn to wrestle with these issues began with commentaries and books published as early as 1961, but kicked into a real fight in 1979. Guided by men including Paige Patterson, Adrian Rogers, and Paul Pressler, the churches which held to inerrancy (which was the vast majority of them) sent messengers to the SBC annual meetings and elected Convention Presidents and entity trustees who also held to inerrancy, thereby slowly shifting the seminaries and ministries of the SBC in a conservative direction. The matter was considered functionally resolved with the publishing of the updated Baptist Faith and Message in 2000. Most of those who opposed inerrancy left the denomination.
During the controversy, nearly everything had to be called into question. People seeking to keep their jobs while opposing the shift were very careful about their wording to suggest that they believed in the truth of scripture while avoiding making any solid statements on the details of scripture. Those who considered themselves liberal or moderate described the conservatives as lusting after power and causing unnecessary division in the denomination just to claim control. Some churches that seem to have actually agreed with the inerrantists ended up opposing them out of a belief that the resurgence or takeover was about a political agenda rather than a doctrinal difference. Those who took the side of the conservatives, which ended up winning the day, were those who saw past careful wording or caricatures to look for the doctrinal root of everything that was being said and done. An entire generation started as children, went to Bible college and/or seminary, and then took posts at Baptist churches and colleges during the controversy. That generation, and the one that was leading the controversy, spent over two decades training to see the world along very specific doctrinal lines and to look for the opposition that wore the masks of allies. This was necessary, the whole fight was necessary in my opinion, because ultimately the cause of inerrancy warranted a defense and this was the defense that needed to arise at that time.
The problem comes when you take combat strategies into a time of peace.
So what does that have to do with the letter, or my earlier post about the Founders Ministry dispute? The short answer is that a generation who views the world in terms of finding hidden enemies will always see enemies hiding among their friends.
The Controversy taught that generation that any difference in belief or practice is a signpost indicating a deeper attack on scripture. Those who raise questions about how the SBC handles things are trying to undermine the work of the Controversy Generation in reestablishing the authority of scripture. Those who come from a different perspective and therefore see a different application for the truths of scripture are substituting secular ideologies for the gospel. Every doctrinal or practical difference that can be associated with a different treatment of scripture must be viewed as an attack on inerrancy.
And this is what Patterson was expressing in his letter. Whether conscious or not, the fear was that minority pastors, who have a tendency to view the SBC and the Bible in light of a different set of life experiences than white pastors, are in fact interpreting the Bible as subject to those experiences. That the interpretation of scripture does not begin with the claim that the Bible is factually true and the ultimate source of truth, but rather that the truth claims of scripture can and should be measured against a different standard. This is the same complaint of Founders Ministries, and the same fear that pushes against reform in the treatment of abuse victims, and the same understanding that led John MacArthur to misrepresent the actions voted on by the SBC over this past summer, and the same standard that demanded Kanye West to display a certain level of doctrinal maturity before his conversion can be seen as valid. It is present in churches, ministries, schools, conferences, and online spaces. And the thought process can be shown by example.
Liberation Theology is a school of thought largely held in black churches and present among other minorities that sees a certain relationship between the slavery to sin and the slavery of their ancestors (and/or ongoing issues and oppression they face), and therefore read the liberation from sin and its effects as a particularly notable promise in their lives. While individual views may vary, the core idea of the theology is that freedom in Christ is an important aspect of the gospel that has specific and unique application in their lives. Patterson's letter does not cite the existence of this framework as part of his concern, it is merely being used as an example. Detractors of liberation theology, however, view the emphasis on freedom from sin as a replacement for penal substitutionary atonement (the belief that the primary purpose of the death of Christ is to take on the weight of our sin on our behalf) and, as such, a false gospel. And, of course, a false gospel must come from a different read of scripture; and a different read of scripture, to the Controversy Generation, is probably a sign that inerrancy is being denied. Therefore, by this logic, allowing liberation theology to have a place in the SBC is a challenge to inerrancy and a reversal of the Controversy's achievements. That some opponents also believe the claims of ongoing oppression are false is relevant when it comes up, but on a doctrinal level this is the actual issue.
But this mindset, while a very good tool during the fight for inerrancy, causes more problems than it solves when it is applied to differences that do not come from the issue of inerrancy. Black people who hold to liberation theology, by and large, are not wrestling with what the gospel actually is or how the Bible defines it; they are wrestling with what that gospel looks like as it interacts with their lives and communities. Disputes about the nature of the manifested Kingdom of God do not generally arise from a dismissal of the authority of scripture, but from different attempts to piece together the authoritative clues that scripture contains. Allowing for the use of secular tools designed to help victims of abuse is rarely an attempt to reject the Spirit speaking through scripture as the primary means of healing, but an attempt to understand what specific needs a victim may have and therefore what parts of scripture or aspects of the gospel will best speak to those needs, and how to apply them in a healthy manner. But when these issues are handled with the mindset instilled in the Controversy Generation, the natural response is to oppose good things being handled by righteous servants of God out of fear that anything different is an attack in disguise. This pushes people away who are actually allies, causes continued pain in people who come to the church seeking healing and find only rejection, and damages our witness to those watching how we shoot at each other over every minor dispute.
Brothers, this cannot stand. I have said before that I support the work carried out by inerrantists during the Controversy, and I stand by that; I also believe it is necessary to see the impact the Controversy has had on the people who fought in it, and the ways their scars can cause unnecessary division now. We have had to fight for inerrancy before, and it is possible we shall have to again; but the question right now is what a church that holds to inerrancy will look like in a hurting world coming to grips with a host of problems that are being brought into the light. If we will not fight the battles that really exist because we are too focused on those fought decades ago, we will face a much greater loss than the roughly 1,900 churches who left during the Controversy. It is time to lay these weapons down, pick up the scriptures we fought so hard for, and begin exploring what it looks like to live them out today.
"But to the extent evangelicals despise the small places, we will fail them. We cannot serve what we despise."
The answer to the first question is essentially that small places are both better and worse than the picture our assumptions about them may paint. These first few chapters explore the unique problems, opportunities, and cultural tendencies that small places offer. It also defines the concept of small places, for the purposes of the book, to be "countryside and communities that are relatively small in population, influence, and economic power" (22). Witmer draws from available surveys and data, as well as his own experiences in both rural Maine and small town Massachusetts, to explore the current condition of small places and the ways the gospel may interact with them. While he regularly refers back to the role of the church in interacting with various aspects of small place life, this section is very clearly aimed more at description than application. The goal could best be described as helping the reader see small places the way God sees them. After all, doing so is the only way to honestly answer his first major question about what small places are like. This focus is presented as part of building his argument, which continues in the second section.
"A theological vision for ministry to small places must recognize the deep sinfulness, brokenness, and complexity of people everywhere, in places big and small."
The second section of the book begins to look for application. Witmer encourages the practice of establishing a theological vision in ministry, and points to the example of Tim Keller's vision for cities as a guiding post. Where the first section guides the reader to see small places as God sees them, the second section challenges the reader to love small places the way God loves them.
He then begins to apply the gospel and the examples in scripture to our models of ministry, arguing that the strategy of God is not always the strategies men would choose and that there is value in the small and slow. This section closes out with a chapter encouraging readers to invest in the place where they are and discussing how that looks different in a small place than in a big place, and then a chapter addressing some of the personal struggles that can make small-place ministry difficult to carry out over the long term.
Finally, the third section answers the question, "should I minister in a small place," with a call to ask ourselves a series of clarifying questions. It raises good and bad reasons to go to small places, as well as good and bad reasons not to. Rather than telling the reader to go to small places, it provides guidance on how to determine where God is calling the reader and encouragement to serve there faithfully.
"Churches and ministers who live outside the circle, who ignore their community, will also be ignored by their community."
While the book does allow for its definition of small places to include isolated neighborhoods within cities, much of the language of the book assumes a rural or small-town context. Personally, I found much of it easily applicable to the small and forgotten city where I grew up, a place that cannot be described as rural or a small town in any sense but qualifies as a small place because it had lost most of its population and all of its economic power when the steel industry collapsed. I would encourage readers to focus on what Witmer says about these places and allow them to paint the picture he is trying to present rather than limiting focus to the most overt examples he includes.
Overall, I believe Witmer achieved the goal stated in the introduction. He answers all three of his guiding questions in thorough, detailed, and considerate ways that allow application to all kinds of small places without falling into the trap of assuming they are all the same. Most importantly, he maintains his gospel focus throughout the book. Not only is he concerned with us carrying the gospel wherever we are, he takes the time to clarify the content of that gospel and pours much ink on the role of the gospel in forming us as we work.
"But if the Bible’s clear articulation of the gospel doesn’t shape our thinking, our thinking will fashion our own self-generated gospel, one that conforms to our own expectations."
As someone who has spent most of his life in small places but has in recent years begun to buy into big place emphasis, the book was personally challenging to me. Ultimately, the book performs well at both challenging anyone who has devalued small-place ministry (whether engaged in it or not) and encouraging those who have committed to it. It is my opinion that this is a resource that should be in a great many Christian minds, whether in professional ministry or as a layperson seeking to carry out God's personal calling. Every member of the church has reason to ask the following question Witmer presents, and to consider the guidance he offers in helping to answer it.
"What if we considered this question: How is our church uniquely contributing to the universe-wide display of God’s character expressed in the gospel of Jesus Christ?"
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The video narrator was the late Chuck Colson, who worked his way up to becoming a personal aide of President Nixon and was one of the people who went to prison in the wake of Watergate. He fits the mold of what we may most easily envision for someone who treats power as an idol: driven, quickly rising through the ranks of his chosen field, a known leader and power player on a stage few of us can ever manage to even reach. The questions, however, focused on helping us connect to Colson’s story to see how the idol of power can draw any of us. As Colson noted his youth during the Great Depression and his time in the Marines to be factors in how he viewed the world and himself, the provided questions encouraged us to look back at our past to see how it has impacted our present and the way we view ourselves and others. In response to that goal, and because this topic was so personally relevant, and to help clarify a different way this idol can manifest, I told my own story. Which went something like this:
I had a stubborn father who came from a stubborn family and the only options in that situation are to grow submissive or develop a habit of fighting. I went with the latter. While he still denies it, he also very openly invested in my brothers and their sports while only showing vague, if any, interest in my love of marching band and stage crew. I felt just as forgotten and overlooked as my city, and longed to have someone obsess about me the way I believed I saw him obsess over their cross country meets and baseball games. The combination of these things, a quick wit, and a natural bent toward charismatic leadership resulted in a very overt idol of power and my own clever use of people and situations to my own advantage; I especially sought respect and adoration from people I could control.
The thing is, I wasn’t driven. No one would describe me throughout my youth and early 20s as seeking after power or influence or position. I didn’t look like someone who worshiped power in those ways. What I became was someone who didn’t much care where I ended up, as long as I had manipulated my way there. I wanted to explore loopholes, control situations, make connections, and just freely breeze through life on a series of half efforts and adoring hangers-on. I acquired friends who would follow me, I manipulated people into getting into serious trouble for my own entertainment, and no matter how friendly I seemed while meeting them I instantly forgot anyone who I didn’t read as useful because they were beneath my notice. It was my ex-fiancee that set me on the path to breaking me of that. I’ve mentioned her before, how our relationship was deeply unhealthy and how one aspect of that was her desire to receive the kind of love she felt her life had been missing. The other side of it was my manipulation. Regardless of how much of it was intentional and how much wasn’t, what I actually did was break her down and try to remold her into what I wanted over the span of our entire relationship. My behavior toward her cannot be honestly described as anything but abusive. And when our relationship drove her to attempt suicide, I was forced to face the fact that I had done this. My elevation of self and power combined with her desire to be accepted by me sent us onto a path where she was addicted to the love I had for her and the only love I could offer was so corrupted it had nearly killed her.
But I was so deep into this idol that that still wasn’t enough. It wouldn’t be the first or last time she would make that attempt because of me, and in my attempts to fix things I took a path that still ended up with me controlling where things went and how she would be forced to recover, without receiving any input from her or granting her any power over what happened to our relationship. Rather than face what I’d done, I ran away, and over the course of the next year God beat me down over and over until the day came where I was truly alone for the first time. I had no car, no money, no prospects, and no friends or family close enough to come to my aid. And I was furious. It would end up being a seven hour walk back to my new apartment, and I began that walk demanding an answer from God about His treatment of me, raging at the heavens for the ways everything had fallen apart. During that walk, God finally had His opening to soften my heart and help me see what I had become and how hard He had been fighting for me. It was the summer of 2009, completely lost and alone walking along a road in western Massachusetts, that I finally gave up control of my own life and submitted myself to fully serve Christ. It would be years after leaving my home town before He had done enough work in my life that I could really be trusted with power again.
It was my responses to my environment that set the path to this idol, and the way I played out my worship of it was nearly invisible to everyone around me. Despite how I described it above, to everyone else it just looked like fun little anecdotes and a gift of leadership and a devoted, though deeply mentally ill, significant other. There are people who still, even after I’ve tried to explain how much of it was my fault, blame her and the illness they see in her as the cause of all the problems in our relationship. This idol was unseen to her, the woman closest to me, and she continued to blame herself for years after we last saw one another. It was unseen even to me; I honestly thought my hands were clean through all of it. Because the way I chased after it didn’t look like money and fame and promotions, it looked like a slacker just drifting through life and somehow always having someone to call to avoid the worst effects of the lifestyle.
What should stand out in my story to highlight the idol, and what occupied a large percentage of the discussion as guided by the Leader’s Guide for the session, is how people are treated and viewed. Whether this idol manifests as a drive for success that views people as competition to be crushed or surpassed, or an abusive desire to control those closest to us, or anything else that takes people and views them as something other than human beings with equal standing before God, this idol can usually be seen in the way we view our fellow human beings. Because, as image-bearers of God, how we view one another tells much of how we view Him. Is this not why Jesus said that that which we do to the least of these, we do to Him? The idol of power seeks not only power over situations, but over the course of our lives and everything around us. In some way or another, when this idol is seated in our hearts, our ultimate desire is to be like God in the same way that caused Satan to fall. And no matter how well we hide this desire, it will come out in how we view and treat our fellow image-bearers of God.
As we examine our hearts to find the idols that dwell there, let us also examine the burdens we carry from our youth and the way we interact with other people. When something unhealthy arises in these relationships, with the course of our lives or with others, it may very well be evidence of an idol hidden deep in ourselves that has remained hidden from even ourselves. We must be a people humble enough to let go of control, confess our sins, and submit to the lordship of Christ. Let us be a people marked by humility, confession, and a desire to make our God greater than ourselves in all things.
As Idleman has been saying throughout the series, the core issue is trusting in anything other than God to do what only God can fully do. It is trusting in anything other than God for our salvation, whether eternal or immediate. The idolatry of money looks like treating money as our functional purpose, our immediate savior, our great help in time of need. It looks like basing our identity on our net worth. My one friend back home, who lived in a lower-income part of town, showed this idolatry when he refused to let our friend from a nicer part of town enter his home for years because of what he assumed the higher class friend would think of him on seeing his house, just as surely as the 1% show it by flaunting their wealth.
It's so easy to fall prey to this one, far easier than we tend to acknowledge. After all, money goes a great distance in defining our daily lives. Study after study has shown that our income bracket has a direct impact on the economic and higher educational opportunities available to us, our access to healthcare, our mental state, our likelihood of crime and drug addiction (and the punishment when we're caught), and the quality of our public schools.* We are judged constantly on our income, inside and outside the church. I have been turned away from a preaching class hosted by my pastor because my two work incomes still weren't enough to get us off food stamps and I was deemed "worse than an unbeliever" and therefore unable to preach based on a particular, and I believe twisted, read of 1 Timothy 5:8. I've had disputes with people, Christians and non, about whether or not I was allowed to use those same food stamps to buy something nice for my family once in a while instead of just the bare minimum every meal. These are Christians defining their views on morality based on income (amusingly enough, these same Christians will condemn the prosperity gospel without ever apparently seeing the connection they have to it).
It's natural to want to avoid these things, we want to avoid being the ones who get judged and dismissed and ignored because of our socioeconomic class. I can tell you that living that life is not comfortable or enjoyable. And there's nothing wrong with wanting to give our families a better life, to oppose injustice, to engage with our culture in a different way. But what can happen is we can view the trials we face as being bigger than the God we claim to serve, and put the opinions of individuals and our culture above the view God has of us. And once we do this, once we allow ourselves to be defined by something other than our identity in Christ and rely on something other than God for our immediate salvation and hope, we have set up an idol.
Our self-examination on these issues needs to go beyond the obvious. We need to be willing to submit to actual scrutiny of our intentions, our desires, our hopes and fears. And whenever an idol is found hidden away in one of these corners, we need to have the humility to repent and hand its place over to God.
Small town, rural, and other unstrategic locations for church plants get even less than that. There are fewer agencies, churches, and individuals willing to take the risk to invest in a church that might never grow beyond 20-50 people simply because of location, and the few that are willing to give may still hold to their 3-5 year expectations for a plant that may take a decade or more to get to the same level of financial stability. The reasons for this longer timeframe vary, of course, by location. I had already had discussions with a pastor about how some urban (but still considered unstrategic) contexts take longer simply because they're slow to trust, while churches in rural areas may grow incredibly quickly among the people nearby but only have ten households in a close radius.
For this reason, small-place church plants require a certain degree of creativity that may exceed that demanded of large-place church planters. With less money, fewer people, fewer places to meet, and presented with an unrealistic timeline, the work is marked in a big way by how a planter sees the opportunities that exist and acts on them with the limitations they have. But, ultimately, it comes down to the work of God; beginning with the work in calling the planter.
One bit that came up during conversation was the frequency with which church planters appear to be focused on fulfilling the goals and requirements of their sending agencies more than dealing with the specific needs of their context. This concern may or may not be as common of a problem as it was being presented by the man who asked about it, but I can't deny that there is a degree to which this model of being called to a place first runs against what I've been taught in other church planting programs. The contrary view, that a church planter is called to the occupation first, is more obvious in some places than others. The most overt was the flagship class for my church planting minor, where choosing a town or neighborhood came a few steps into the process of preparing to plant a church. Get called to church planting, then find somewhere to do it.
I've had some reservations about this approach for some time, though I've rarely had need to state as much or even really clarify it for myself. I must admit there's a certain degree of reality to it, after all, my wife and I believe we're being called to be involved in church planting, and each place we've ended up from that point onward has had some degree of consideration about what that call might look like where we are. In that way, the call to be church planters came before a few towns we've lived in, but I think the point is in how we think about it more so than chronological order. If we make the practice of church planting our primary focus, we invest in the church plant more than we invest in the lives of the people around us. A plant that leads to the creation of an established church surely must include some investment in the community, if only to get people in the door, but where we put our focus is where we will put our hearts and I believe God loves the people we are called to serve far more than He loves the idea of having a hip new congregation.
We need to be willing to let go of the plant if it means more people will come to Christ and God will receive more glory. We need to be willing to not even start a plant if there is another avenue available that God would prefer us to take. When we enter the community with the primary objective of planting a church before we invest in the community and learn what God would see done there, we run the risk of leaning on our own understanding and ideas to get the results we think are best. I've been guilty of it. I think what Gordon articulated is something we need to hear more often: we are called to a place and the people in it, for the glory of God, first. And if God wants to plant a new church, then we should eagerly do so, in accordance with His design for it and the needs and unique traits of that community. But if we come in with our detailed plan for starting a new church in a town where we know nothing but the stats we downloaded from a community profile, we need to seriously ask whether what we're doing is our idea, or God's.
Gods At War
Gospel Of John
Gospel Of Matthew
Small Town Summits
Stanley E Porter
The Good Place
Who Is Jesus