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Heroes & Villains

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Stories can be compelling. You listen to people long enough and you realize that nearly every conversation is a form of storytelling. Some are like, “Dude, the other day I was moving my grandmother into her house and we dropped the dresser down the stairs! That sucked!” Protagonist, antagonist, conflict, and resolution.

Others are more subtle in their plot line. “Did you hear what so-and-so said about such-and-such? Can you believe that?” It isn’t some super long narrative, but it is a narrative, told by a narrator.

Narrators get to decide who the heroes and villains of each story are. When your friend tells you “so-and-so said such-and-such,” the intonation of their voice, the purse of the lips, and the roll of their eye tells you what you should think about the story. They are immediately, even if unintentionally, offering you a hero or a villain.

Marital counseling brings out the 9-year-old in everyone. This is why marriage counselors like to meet with both partners. When it comes to conflict in a relationship, each person truly believes the other is to blame. If you only get one side of the story, you will often be wooed into perceiving the other spouse to be the villain. Even the worst and most obvious of offenses (e.g., marital infidelity) can be understandable depending on who controls the narrative.

You know who else does this? 9-year-old boys. I know because I have two. They tattle and twist, shift blame, and point fingers until they are blue in the face. Every time they are offended or hurt or frustrated it is at the hand of the other. They are constantly jockeying to get my wife and I to demonstrate that we do in fact love one of them more than the other.

In the Church, we have our heroes and we have our villains too. I read a critical article from the Gospel Coalition Australia on “the dangers of the Bethel Church,” which outlined the pitfalls of their global healing movement. The author says “Jesus Culture, Bethel Music, and Awakening Australia” are “gateway drugs” to Bethel’s weak theology and cultish revivalism. As much as I love the Gospel Coalition (and I really do), the voice in this particular article sounds awfully similar to my pre-pubescent twins. There’s so much finger pointing and so little charity.

This whole “unreliable narrator” phenomenon is actually happening right now as you read this article. In this story, I am the hero, sent to fight all the jackassery that turns us against our fellow believers and makes us feel justified in magnifying other people’s shortcomings like bad caricature artists. Meanie heads like the Gospel Coalition are the villains in this chapter because they oppose the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17. Of course, there’s always another way to tell the story.

If narrators are unreliable, who can we trust? What is true? Who are the real HEROES and VILLAINS?

Actually, this is the wrong question, derived from the wrong job description. Our primary mandate is LOVE: love of God, love among believers, even love of one’s enemy.

Jesus spent a long time going over this.

If narrators are unreliable, who will help us discern these things? Who CAN we trust? Fortunately, loving human beings doesn’t depend on accurate story telling. Justice does, but love does not. Justice must get to the bottom of who did what to whom. Insurance companies need to calculate percentage of culpability, but love doesn’t need that. In fact, love can be given, and is best received, when it isn’t deserved in the slightest (insert the often told but never old story of “The Prodigal Son” in Luke 15).

If the Bible tells any story, humans have a single job: Love. Love God. Love others. God has a more complicated role. He must love. He must judge. But he is far more qualified, and is way better at seeing through our BS.

In the biblical story, human beings often play the role of the villain (with some help from the adversary). God is the hero.

“We are all unreliable narrators. So how will we determine who is the hero and who is the villain? Fortunately, loving human beings doesn’t depend on accurate story telling. Justice does, but love does not.”

Sure, we have our moments when we get to play like heroes. People at Bethel worship Jesus with passion. It’s contagious. GLOBALLY CONTAGIOUS! In that way, and many more, they are my heroes. Leaders and pastors at the Gospel Coalition fight for the clarity of the gospel, and much more. Their passion for Jesus has carried me through very low seasons in life and ministry. But if I need to choose which child of God is the favorite, I can’t. I love them both. They are for now Spirit and Flesh. Which means for now, they are hero and villain. As am I.

The Missional Jackass

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The Missional Church: I love you and I hate you! Ever since I read Darrell L. Guder’s book in 2004, I’ve been undone. It ruined me forever. It’s nearly on par with the night I read the story of the rich young ruler in my college dorm room and knew I had to leave behind my visions of worldly riches and esteem to follow Jesus into the unknown venture of vocational ministry.

In college, God radically flipped my paradigms. I went from attending church to being trained up to lead, teach, and share my faith with others. I went from consuming church offerings to being the church. It was thrilling, scary, invigorating—the Holy Spirit was palpable. Leaving college I knew that was the dynamic movement I was called to bring to the church. Every believer a priest. Every saint sent to bring Jesus to the world around them.

I left my time in college on fire to train others to do what I did. Then I worked for an institutional church in Southern California. Church wasn’t a movement designed to equip people to be the church where they lived, worked, and played. Sometimes it felt like the overall goal was simply to exist, or to be better than last year.

I was on staff at seven churches between between age 20 and 30. Each church was different; the people were beautiful. God used each environment to grow and challenge me, but I was always frustrated by the overall goal of the church. It was like nobody believed the average person could make disciples or even tell their neighbors about Jesus. It seemed like the church was only interested in providing religious services. And the people were only interested in attending them.

Eventually I landed where I am now: a small-to-mid-sized church in the suburbs. This time I was the Lead Pastor, so I could make the changes I longed to see. We eliminated programs and redeveloped systems. We called people to higher expectations of disciplemaking and missional living. We changed a lot. We are still changing a lot.

In all the change, through all the prayers, we saw a lot of fruit. Leadership stepping into their call as disciplemakers, people hosting parties and dinners in their homes for the community, the gospel being shared by “average” church people. There have been many highlights over the last decade.

There are many who caught the vision, but there are many more who didn’t. Those who didn’t ended up leaving and going to other churches because the preaching was better, the children’s ministry more dynamic, the youth group larger, the expectation less, the worship more powerful, etc. Many people drifted to the mega churches and the institutional churches: the thing I was fighting so hard to be distinct from.

Here comes the jackassery. When people reject your leadership, when they don’t want to go where you are going, and you need to continue to lead, it is tremendously difficult not to vilify everyone else.

When people reject your leadership, when they don’t want to go where you are going, and you need to continue to lead, it is tremendously difficult not to vilify everyone else.

In order to lead, you have to fight for something. Leadership requires the sacrifice of untold hours, heartache, tears, and prayers. You absolutely need to believe that the sacrifice is worth it. So you create the enemy, you create in your mind who the problem people are. My enemies became mega churches and everyone willing to settle for church as usual. I thought—and often still think—very jackassy things about them. It’s not right.

The bad guys were everyone who was satisfied with sermons and youth programs and rock n roll over disciple-making. The enemy was all the churches and the places that provided these consumer services. They produced programs I didn’t care about, with resources I could never ever imagine having. But the people I ministered to cared about these things. Often, they chose them over me.

For some, you are fighting for doctrinal integrity, Reformed Theology, reaching lost people, or miraculous signs. Anyone who is not fighting with you is settling for something lesser.

Honestly, it’s hard to fight for something that matters without becoming a jackass.

I’ve dedicated 15 years of blood, sweat and tears to developing a missional ministry, and I feel only mildly successful at it. I still believe in it with the same tenacity I felt the first day I read Guder’s book. But I’m more jaded now. I used to believe that the idea itself was so compelling that if we only tried it, the masses would flock to join. Not the case.

Much as I believe in missional church, I’m tired of vilifying and scoffing and rolling my eyes at people who don’t.

If I can’t be missional without being an ass, then something is seriously wrong. I’m not better because I’m convicted to do church a certain way. I’m just a guy serving Jesus in a mission field packed with a radically diverse methods. Honestly, I throw up a little bit in my mouth every time I see a mega church raffle off a car at Easter. But it doesn’t mean they are bad or that they are not key players in God’s plan and kingdom.

God has spoken through asses, he has used prophets and burning bushes. He has used house churches, institutional churches, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Luther King Jr., Whitfield, Evans, and Bell. He has drawn thousands to himself through tent revivals and crusades, miraculous healings, and intellectual ivory towers. He has used simple preachers like Billy Graham and philosophical scholars like Soren Kierkegaard. He uses all of these people. Their methods are so different. Their ways all unique, but something tells me their methods where never the point.

In Hebrews 11, so many different people are highlighted, and in every case what mattered was simply their faith to hear and respond. What mattered was their courage to act on the Holy Spirit’s conviction for them in that place and at that time.

Can you say this with me: I’m not the only one doing ministry the right way. If I have even a modicum of success it isn’t because I figured out the perfect formula, it is because the Holy Spirit decided this time to do something special.

The method is never the answer. God is.

Being missional is my method. Often I’m a missional jackass. What’s yours?

The Feast

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Scripture says it in many ways, but basically, God is calling you to join him at the table for a meal. After all the heartbreak and rebellion and doubts and struggle, the Bible ends with a picture of God’s people joining him for a marriage feast. But even now, the table is open. God’s work in this world consists of drawing us in to sit and eat.

In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:22–32), one son runs off to spend his portion of his inheritance while the other son stays at home with their father. When the young prodigal returns home in shame, the father runs to embrace and restore him, while the older brother pouts outside and refuses to join the party his father throws to celebrate the son’s return.

We tend to focus on the sons in this story, but we should ask: What is the father’s goal for each of his sons? To get them to sit down together with him at the table. What are each of the sons resisting in their own way? Sitting down for the family meal.

Why the table?

It’s a place of celebration. A place of relationship. A place of healing. Of mutuality. Of equality. Grace. Blessing.

The two sons are invited to join their father at a table. Not a classroom. Not a temple. What the father was after was not education or ritual. He was after relationship. It wasn’t about what they could offer. It was about them.

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When we are able to get past the madness that drives us to the far country in search of pleasure or significance or autonomy, we can set aside all of our shame and come back to the father just as we are. In these moments, we know we simply belong. As is. We can stop trying to live large or make a name for ourselves. Stop running from the relationship we know deep down will be the purest and most meaningful we will ever experience.

The father is calling: “Come home. Join me at the table. It’s time to celebrate.”

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When we are able to release our outrage that the prodigal has returned, to stop demanding penance or some positive contribution from our brothers who have failed, we can set aside all of our self-righteousness and come back to the father just as we are. In these moments, we know that we and all of our siblings belong at the table. There is no one we want to see excluded. We acknowledge that the table was made for this. We let go of our longing to celebrate accomplishments and we long to celebrate people. We see beyond the costumes and affectations and affiliations of our brothers and we simply see them. And our love for them leads us to first accept the father’s invitation to the table, and then to stand beside him as he invites the prodigal.

The father is calling: “Come home. Join me at the table. It’s time to celebrate.”

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Jesus ate his way through the Gospels. We often find him at a table. With people who are celebrating life (John 2), with all sorts of “sinners” (Luke 5, 19), and with his followers (Luke 22, 24). Jesus even ate with Pharisees (Luke 11, 14), which means he did not bar anyone from the table, though some meals were more awkward than others.

“God’s work in this world consists of drawing us in to sit and eat. You’re invited. But eating means celebrating that everyone is at the table again.”

The table is vital because a meal is more than a meal. It’s a celebration of the relationship. The meal is the relationship—the relationship takes place around the table.

You’re invited. But eating means celebrating. And actually, the feast is a celebration that everyone is at the table again. You don’t get to celebrate only yourself or only your favorites. The feast flows out of the father’s joy—we get to share in his joy. And his joy is over the gathering of all his children, including the ones who have not cleaned themselves up and those who nearly refused to come because of their disgust over the guest list. They all belong at this table. Celebrating means eating and drinking together. As equals. It’s more than a handshake or contract. It’s a party. The point is to enjoy being together.

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The meal continues at our tables. There we meet with Jesus still as we join with older and younger brothers to celebrate the relationship. How different would the Church look today if instead of whispered gossipy exchanges we actually sat down at a table, looked each other in the eyes, and enjoyed the relationship? Celebrated it?

The feast will happen with or without us. The question is whether our disapproval of the guest list will keep us from joining our brothers. And our father.

Do We Still Know How to Apologize & Repent?

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It would seem not. I’m struck by this thought because I find myself frequently asking for forgiveness from my daughters. It’s weird to do. They’re 8 and 10 right now, and we have a great relationship overall. I grow impatient, raise my voice, or overreact. When I do this, it’s because they’re being unreasonable, stubborn, or refusing to listen and obey directions. The thing is, my wife and I teach our daughters that it doesn’t matter what their sister did, their job is to respond in love and grace even when they don’t like what someone else is doing to them.

“My theology tells me that humans are imperfect, so why should it be a rare occurrence that we turn to each other and ask for forgiveness?”

So I find myself apologizing to my daughters often. I’m not perfect about it, but it strikes me as important for my own soul and for their developing understanding of what it means to be a human being. My theology tells me that humans are imperfect, so why should it be a rare occurrence that we turn to each other and ask for forgiveness?

I have a concern about Christian celebrity culture, where big names make big statements and often go too far in speaking against someone or something. Often this involves outright sin and slander. But how often do these key figures backtrack or repent of what they’ve said? From where I’m standing it seems rare. More often they double down. And what I see with the Christian celebrities, I see in all of us (myself included, of course). Especially the online versions of ourselves.

“When a celebrity pastor makes a harmful statement, why is it so rare for them to issue an apology? Why do they more often double down on it? Doesn’t our theology teach us that we’ll need to repent—often?”

I want to share an older story in order to bring some hope to our current situation. Back in 2012, Ann Voskamp’s book Ten Thousand Gifts was very popular. It’s a wonderful book. But when Tim Challies reviewed her book, he was not gracious. It’s not a hateful review, but it’s marked by the sort of watchdog theology and uncharitable interpretations of her work that characterize a certain Christian subculture. As an example, Ann Voskamp describes having a spiritual encounter with God in the Notre Dame cathedral. Challies’ response was to question her understanding of the gospel because she felt the need to travel to a specific location (a location in which poor theology has been preached, nonetheless) in order to encounter God. There are several things like this. It’s sad for me to read now, as it was then.

But then something unusual happened. One day after Challies’ review was posted, Ann Voskamp and her family invited Tim Challies and his family over for dinner. I don’t know if that dinner ever took place, but the mere invitation caused Challies to issue a public apology to Voskamp for his uncharitable review. It really is remarkable. He doubles down on some of his critiques of the book (which is his prerogative as a subjective reviewer), but he reflects on all the things he might have done differently if he had thought of Voskamp as a real human being:

“Something happened inside me when I saw Ann’s name in my inbox… this strange feeling that comes when I suddenly realize that the name on the front of the book—’Ann Voskamp’ in this case—is not some cleverly programmed, unfeeling robot that spits out blog posts and magazine articles and books, but a person. A real person…

“In my review I had treated her as if her words mean less than mine, as if I was free to criticize her in a way I would not want to be criticized…

“I would have said certain things differently had I known that she and I might soon be sharing a meal together… I might have said certain things differently had I considered her an ‘insider,’ a fellow member of whatever little circle of the Christian world I inhabit… I can’t deny that somewhere in my mind lurks this insider and outsider kind of thinking which somehow encourages me to extend greater courtesy to one group than another. I did poorly here and I can see that I need to grow in my ability to critique the ideas in a book even while being kind and loving to its author.”

Challies ended that article by explicitly asking Voskamp’s forgiveness. It’s so refreshing. It’s beautiful, and all the more so because it’s rare.

In this fallen world, we’re all going to be jackasses from time to time. This shouldn’t surprise us. But let’s take a note from Challies and learn to own up to jackassery and repent when we find it.

More than that, let’s take a note from Ann Voskamp and begin inviting people to dinner. Notice that what prompted Challies’ response was Voskamp inviting him to a meal. It was the simple relational gesture that acknowledged him as a human and initiated a relational path forward that helped him see the jackassery. That’s powerful stuff. We all have so much room to grow in this. We need more of these stories.