Urban Ekklesia

House Church. Urban Church. Organic Church. Multicultural Church. Simple Church. This is a space created for both humble and passionate reflection on the missional, emerging church in urban North America.

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Location: Bronx, New York, United States

A space for thinking out loud and inviting others to join the refining process. Justice, mission, politics, the city. Everything is connected. Theology is life.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

(Another) Christian Response to Robertson

Katrina, 9/11, Haiti.... What do these and other events have in common besides loss of life and massive destructive? Pat Robertson made a highly publicized comment describing the catastrophe as God's judgment. Shortly after images from the earthquake came across our TV screens, Robertson claimed that Haiti was being punished for a pact with the devil made during the slave revolt over a century ago. Naturally, there are numerous alternative Christian responses to Robertson's comments, and though I haven't made use of this blog for some time, I felt moved to briefly add some of my own thoughts to the range of Christian responses.

It is striking to observe how many Christians intuitively share Robertson's sentiment. It is equally compelling to discover how many of Christ's followers passionately take exception with the judgment of Pat Robertson. It is abundantly clear that Robertson doesn't speak for the whole church of God.

To be clear, God is indeed Judge of the living and the dead. He is Lord and King over all the nations. However, Christian thinkers can and do debate if or when or in what way God judges tribes and nations today. If not futile, it may be an interesting theological enterprise. However, Robertson's comments are embarrassing, to many Christians -- myself included -- and entirely troublesome.

Beyond the theological difficulties raised by Robertson's comments, the inconsistencies of his judgment reveal a more troubling observation. Robertson reflects a rush to judgment more rooted in his cultural bias than in Scripture. He is quick to claim that 9/11 was a result of homosexuality in NYC, but the primary victims were workers in international commerce and the working poor of the service sector that supports them. He made the same claim about Katrina hitting New Orleans, but it was the poorest communities that were ravaged by Katrina. Now, Haiti is crushed due, according to Robertson, because of a pact with the devil over a century ago. It seems that whenever a part of the world that lies outside of the cultural boundaries preferred by Robertson undergoes a tragedy it is quickly determined to be Divine judgment.

But why are tornadoes in Kansas not God's judgment? Why are Hurricanes in Florida or the Carolinas not Divine wrath? Why are floods in the Midwest, America's heartland, not judgment from on high? Are death tolls resulting from random shooting sprees in rural Arkansas or Texas or Colorado not the hand of God too? There are other problems with Robertson's comments -- including theological issues deserving of a more extensive discussion -- but the most obvious problem to me is the shear inconsistency. It is that inconsistency that reveals the true source of this rush to judgment -- good old fashioned cultural bias.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Anger in Darfur

I was outraged. Following the presidential politics, I was checking a news website, and I came across a headline: Bush voices concern over Darfur rebels strikes against Sudan government. What?!? After 10 years of the international community sitting by while religious and ethnic genocides ravages this country, the current U.S. administration shares concerns over violence now?

I do not promote violence or violent resistance. The way of Jesus was imitated well in popular movements led by Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. The way of Jesus makes foolish any who follow the way of violence. But still, what are we to expect from Darfur when the powerful look the other way. When thousands of voices are lifted in protest while the principalities and powers of this world clasp their hands over their ears, are we surprised that some rise up in rebellion against a government that has raped and murdered them?

What I can't believe is NOW after 10 years of genocide the White House is concerned over Darfur. After years of the Chinese trading arms for oil with the Sudanese government and rebels manage to fight back, we get concerned. After years of protests and student movements and banners -- Save Darfur -- hung from church buildings and synagogues, now that their are dissidents to deal with?
G I V E M E A B R E A K!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

About a month ago I showed a group of people in the Bronx a music video by the secular band, Nickleback, called If Everyone Cared. (It's a great video by the way.) At the end of the video they display a quote by Margaret Mead -- Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.

A couple of months ago I turned in a paper for my current studies in missiology. Studying simple church networks (such as ours) in global cities (such as ours), I confronted the question that some have asked. Do house churches have any real continuity? To do research with integrity and with minimum bias, I felt it could be a good idea to further investigate the issue and so I raised the question. My professor disarmed the issue writing instead:

The continuity question seems to be a straw man. Most who ask it arepart of dead churches that have great continuity. But do they change a city?Change usually comes from a small group of people who are committed tochange, not by the institution itself.

I've continued to reflect on these statments. Jesus appeared to understand that change dynamics start with a small circle of committed followers. We see this in his practice -- choosing a small band of disciples -- and in his teaching -- the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed.

For many of us, this becomes a significant shift in emphasis, but I'm learning it's value. Bronx Fellowship and MetroSoul are at a point in time in their development when a small group of committed people is really going to matter. In Bronx Fellowship we are moving towards a new period of ministry development that promises to begin very small. In MetroSoul we are addressing the need for new initiatives in order to empower people and support long-term goals.

Pray that we follow the Lord's leadership. Pray that we recognize where the Lord is at work so that we can join Him there. Pray for a discerning spirit. Pray that the eyes of our hearts will be open. Pray that people will be set free by the power of the Spirit of God and by the name of Lord Jesus. And may the Lord multiply small bands of committed followers of the way of Jesus. Pray that those who are encountering the Gospel through us will have their hearts softened and receive the Father's life-changing grace.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Proclamation and Presence

When we look at the story of Jesus, we see a fully integrated description of both proclamation and presence of the Kingdom of God. Jesus embodied God's reign of righteousness-justice, and his words and deeds were an inseparable representation of God's Kingdom. Jesus was fully present amidst the brokenness and lostness of our world, and he brought justice and restoration. Jesus proclaimed the worldview of the Kingdom of God as true reality, and he did so without apology.
As the church in the western hemisphere turned out to embrace a more Greek worldview, Jesus' model of holistic ministry was dissected. Debates between liberal and conservative Christians reinforced this split. More liberal Christians took it upon themselves to embrace works of justice for the physical world around them. More conservative Christians were concerned with the soul and the eternal outcomes of savlation and judgement. Jesus appears to cares for both of these things somewhat seemlessly.
Proclamation was the primary ministry of conservative Christians during the Modern era. At their best, they communicated the Gospel as truth with precision and reason. Unfortunately, proclamation of the Gospel too often stopped short of presence. Preaching, on-the-spot conversions, and church growth outcomes blotted out authentic community, transformation, justice, and ongoing discipleship. Proclamation outweighed presence.
Post-modernism is just that -- "Post." It is a shift away from the worldview of the modern era. It is likely that many young post-modern Christians will follow this shift from one side to the other as part of the "post" phenomenon. Many good things are being embraced -- relationships, community, authenticity, and justice. However, without proclamation of the Good News, this
shift will still fall desperately short. But no less so than previous generations.
The nature of the Kingdom of God and the ongoing ministry of Jesus (through His people) is to be holistic. God's people proclaim Jesus while demonstrating, through their presence, the works of His Kingdom. It is my prayer that during this time of cultural change and upheaval in the church, Jesus' followers can again embrace a holistic practice of the Christian faith that is modeled on Jesus.

Friday, October 12, 2007

helpful conversations

Well, I've just begun the "field work" portion of my research project, and this is the part -- while a little more difficult -- that really gets me excited. It's the part that I believe we have the most to learn from. Last year, I put together a literature review paper that worked through some of the major themes involved in organic church planting in North America, and at this stage I'm conducting interviews with actual organic church planters. First, I'll survey (via phone) leaders of church networks in Chicago, Toronto, L.A., and San Francisco, and then I'll spend even more significant time digging deeper into the dynamics that impact ministries in NYC through extensive interviewing and participant observation. I consider this more than an acadmic project, but rather a ministry that can provide insight for any number of missionary-leaders in global cities across this continent. And if nothing else, it should really help to improve our thought processes here in our city.

I've only conducted a handful of interviews so far (so there is nothing quite so scientific coming from this e-mail), but I have already been enriched from the conversations that have taken place. Even in the few interviews conducted so far, there are commonalities. More than one have mentioned that challenge of the messiness of doing ministry this way, and more than one has mentioned (and this is truly sad) that having a church background in America can be a barrier for effective involvement in this kind of missional-organic community. Most have emphasized the "low cost" or "low overhead" since it is all about people without structures demanding expensive programs, professionals (though missionary leaders are often involved to some degree) or buildings.

One statement has really resonated with me through the week. One Latino leader in L.A. expressed that it is sometimes hard not having something big or programatic to point to as OUR success but then said, "When I step back and look at the big picture, it is amazing. We are in so many cracks & crevices of our community. We are in so many lives, and it is amazing because we are such a small group of people." It really hit (and affirmed) me. Our leadership base is even smaller than theirs, and we too are in so many lives and pouring the Gospel into so many "cracks & crevices" of the Bronx. It highlights one of the strengths of this approach in conjunction with the Lord's faithfulness. Comparable to a liquid, the Gospel is able to flow into lives through other lives because it is not limited to the imposition of a rigid structure. This is what many for years have called "incarnational" -- that is, fleshing out the Gospel.

Pray for us as we seek to "incarnate" the Gospel and see it flow into as many "cracks & crevices" as possible. Pray that we will have great boldness. Pray that the Lord will raise up workers (of many different giftings) from the harvest. Pray that my current research will open up new windows of insight for urban missionaries in North America. And may the Gospel be found pouring into the 'cracks & crevices' of your community.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Campfires & Church Planters

A couple of weeks ago my family and I went tent-camping for three nights. It was not only Adalia's first time, but it was Hylma's too! It was great. On the last night there, someone nearby came over asking for lighter fluid. Unfortunately for them, I had to explain that I didn't have any lighter fluid and had lit my fire "the old fashioned way." Knowing well how to build a fire combined with a lack rain, I didn't use more than a couple of matches throughout the entire 3 days.

During this trip, I contemplated what lessons could be learned from something as simple as a campfire. My friends, John White, Neil Cole, and Ben Cheek, all seem to be obsessed with lessons about the Kingdom and about the church observed in nature, and I'm proud to say that I've learned to share this obsession. These guys can't stop talking about viruses and agriculture and physics (okay, physics is just Ben). But it is largely fueled by the fact that Jesus seemed to have the same obsession as well. Jesus talks about farmers and mustard seeds and fishermen rather than the machines of His day. Paul explains things like "plant" and "water" and the church as a human body. Even Peter can't help but express that it is living stones that represent the individuals who make up the church. It all makes sense really. Authentic transformation of life is a growing process with the help of the Holy Spirit. So as I look at a campfire, there are some important lessons to learn from nature. Before the age of pre-soaked charcoal and lighter fluid, we had to actually build a fire. You have to collect tender -- small twigs, paper thin bark, etc. -- arrange sticks, and then finally add the logs arranged so that the fire spreads effectively. I've really been learning -- unfortunately through much trial and error -- that catalyzing church multiplication, we must begin with individual disicpleship. We can't expect churches to pop out disciples anymore than we expect to light a campfire starting with a log, but as we collect our twigs, bark, shavings, and sticks to receive our flame, we can expect disciple-making to result in churches.

All of this reinforces beginning small and having patience. We're not just throwing a pile together and splashing on some chemicals. I'm not sure I have all of this figured out yet or if I ever will, but it does seem that everything in nature takes us back to that mustard seed or to that farmer. It always begins on the smallest level and multiplies out from there. It often requires patience. It seems unavoidable that the mission of the God of creation would direct us along a such a path when encountering human souls.

Pray (passionately!!) for workers from this harvest. Pray that God will specifically place us into the lives of individuals who will embrace a life of discipleship. Everything begins there. That's certainly where Jesus began.

A Generation Losing Church

I've done a certain exercise with a few different groups as I've had opportunities to teach. I ask everyone to list several qualities that they believe their "unchurched" or unbelieving friends would say about church. I've done this in two different states and a handful of different groups, and the response is always the same. Negative, overwhelmingly negative. Then, I ask them to list several qualities that they believe the crowds -- not the Twelve -- said (or would likely have said) about Jesus. Overwhelmingly positive and usually includes qualities like confident or powerful as well as humble and loving. Now while I know that there are many churches that must overcome the harm done by others, this exercise demonstrates a significant tension. The very definition of being a Christian is to be a Christ-follower, and yet a disproportionate number of our Christian institutions don't appear to look or feel very much like Jesus.

Last thursday I was sitting in a park on University Avenue in the Bronx. As I sat on a park bench waiting to see if some of the kids that I sometimes meet there were going to show up, I overheard another conversation on the next bench. Two teens began talking about another girl that had just walked away after an exchange of typical insults and counter-measures. "Words hurt," the girl said to her friend. Then, she followed up with another comment, "She needs to go back to church." At that point the conversation shifted gears. It took me just a few moments for me to realize the new theme of their talk. I wish I had caught everything they said (I wish even more that I had taken advantage of the opportunity this could have been before they got up & walked away!!), but they started sharing a discussion about church. The girl asked the young man, "Do you ever go to church?" He answered, "I used to go with my aunt, but not for a long time. I'd usually fall asleep." The girl then stated, "I went once with my grandmother to her church. Never again!" And the conversation ended.

Today, I went and attended a rally that took place across from the United Nations in support of ending the violence in Darfur, Sudan. The crowd was overwhelmingly young people -- probably college aged mostly. One of the many statements that stuck in my head from the speeches given by Sudanese, Rwandans, and social justice & anti-genocide advocates was this. A young American girl in a video said, "We look at what has happened in the past, and we ask, where were the people that could have done something to stop it. But now we are becoming those people." (I was on the edge of weeping during nearly every speech as I thought about the heart-wrenching pain that comes from the evil of human injustice.) One rabbi from an anti-genocide commission stood up and explained that in a week in the liturgy of synagogues across the country the prophet Isaiah would call us to account for the unjust suffering in our world. As Christians, don't we also read this as a word to the church? ....concerning injustice in our world, but also about everything we are called to be?

It seems that if we have any hope of reaching those kids sitting in the park and so many others like them, "church" might have to be re-thought and probably done a little differently. But more than that, we need to invite Kingdom into our lives, families, and churches. To me, all of our decisions concerning church structure, ministry, outreach, etc. needs to beg the question: Is this going to push us to look more like Jesus? Think about it. Is that really how we typically make ministry decisions? Aren't we more often grounded in pragmatics? That is, what works. What if what "works" isn't exactly the same as what is faithful? What if what inspires us or comforts us is the exact thing that keeps us from being courageous? What if we are simply too often on an adventure in missing the point?

I suppose I've tried here to string together a few fairly different experiences, but are they so different at the core? I suppose the more we imitate God, the more we are going to be sick to our stomach to remain silent while rape and murder continues unchecked. I suppose that the more church becomes family rather than a stiff institution, the better our chances (not that all soil is guaranteed to be receptive) to reach kids that visit a church and then say "Never again!" It's all connected, and there is an axis where all of my thoughts connect here: Are we willing to risk enough to look like Jesus?

People or Maintenance?

A couple of days ago I received a call from a minister/church planter in Florida. We had never met, but our hour and a half conversation was the result of his own need to connect to someone doing this sort of "organic" ministry that he is feeling drawn towards. He described his own heart for people, his love of God, and his search for church as community.

Trying to encourage him, I assured him that he is not alone in the way that he is feeling. He shared how so many church planters get involved in their work because they care about people, are passionate about the Great Commission, and want to be used by God. However, after planting their church, they get wrapped up in the day-to-day maintenance of keeping the wheels of an institution going. While some enjoy this administrative role, there are many that go on and on without ever finding the courage to tell anyone -- especially their congregants -- how they feel. During our conversation this man told me that six months ago he also thought he was alone, but now, as he has shared these sort of conversations, realizes that he may be part of a much, much larger group. This seems to ring true as many 20-somethings I've spoken with are now staying clear of traditional church planting while remaininig excited about Christian community, social jusice, and even evangelism (but by any other name!).

Even with our church structure as stripped down as it is, it is easy to get buried in event planning, developing curriculum, and the like. These aren't bad things in themselves and sometimes it is practical for me to do them. However, I've been learning these same lessons. If we are going to see discipleship rise up from the harvest, we must keep the main thing as the main thing. The first Apostles understood this. When the Hellenized widows were missing out in the distribution of food, the Apostles instructed that servants ( i.e. deacons) be appointed to coordinate it. (Notice that the Apostles didn't even do the appointing, they told the people to do it.) They had to stay focused "on the word and prayer." They needed to continue and empower the body. Today, we face similar decisions. Missiologists, church planters, and similar leaders are needed to empower discipleship and service in others but sometimes fall into consumeristic expectations to please the body rather than to empower it.

Pray for these leaders, and pray for me. I am working to stay clear of the patterrn described on the phone by this church planter. May the Lord raise up servants, leaders, planters, counselors, intercessors, and many others who will be self-initiating, reproducing followers of the King. May the Holy Spirit produce fruit rising up from the harvest in the city.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

relational networking as norm

Occassionally, I travel to speak with churches in various places and every now & then I'm asked a question by an individual or two: How will people find you if they come into town and they want to use the phone book to find a church? My answer: They probably won't find us (though they would likely find us if they used the internet rather than yellow pages) becasue this is all really rooted in the networks of relationship. Relationship is a powerful medium. When we experience loss in ministry, it hurts more ( I've even felt this impact recently). When we experience victory, we're filled with joy because of the impact of relationship, and I've celebrated this joy many times. It is a powerful medium for the Gospel.

This morning I drove Malissa Endsley and a young women who has been living with her for the past few years to LaGuardia Airport. This young woman is going to college on the "left coast" in L.A. The two of them are staying at the McCullom's this week. The McCullom's are a couple working to reach the diverse populations of West Hollywood through planting organic/simple churches. I've been in their home, shared lunch standing by a taco truck, and enjoyed dinner in a Thai diner, and Malissa, also acquainted with the family, knew to make a phone call before their trip out west. Our young Bronxite turned Californian has an opportunity to meet them and stay in their home because of Malissa's relationship to them.

If we read Rodney Stark's Rise of Christianity, it is likely that it wasn't much different during his mission work stretching across the Mediterranean region. Paul leveraged his Jewish connections, networked with former co-workers, and took advantage of family/friendship relationships throughout the diaspora. The early church was connected through a web of relationships. Connecting through relationship rather than primarily through signs, buildings, and yellow pages (although our internet presence is actually quite substantial), but in a world of MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Google, Skype, and other such tools we find that relational networking is once again coming out onto center stage.

It is a new world indeed, and I've thought a lot over the last year about the value of missional experimentation. The reality is that many of us have been doing what missionaries have been doing overseas for years. We've been attempting to figure out how to faithfully practice missional engagement in our North American context. We, as a people, have generally thought as if missions is something that only happens "over there" somewhere. However, now that that myth is steadily fading, we must emerge from our religious enclaves to do the painful work of trial & error discovering how to engage -- as a people on mission -- with North American cultures.

God is indeed moving and doing some interesting things and teaching us a great deal along the way. I'm thankful for the many missional, incarnational workers across this continent who become a node in a web of relationships and missiological experimentation. As a result, none of us ever need to be truly alone.