Tag Archives: discernment

The Church is Invited to Listen, Discern, and Follow

It is with these two models in mind that I would like to propose what a missional engagement with the Word of God might be. We encounter the Word of God in three ways: in scripture, in communication, and in the world. We are then invited to listen to this word, discern the voice of God from the voices that move contrary to God, tend to the community, and be ready to move when the Spirit moves.

The three forms in which the Word of God speaks are not distinctive, separate modes, but are interdependent media that are at once separate and definable while also entangled and interdependent.[1] It is helpful, albeit somewhat artificial, to address them separately. We are called to dwell[2] in the Scripture, to dwell in the community, and to dwell in the world.[3]

Dwelling in the Scripture

I have already stated that the canon of scripture is the accurate and honest record of particular people making sense out of their particular encounters with the presence and movements of God within their own context. These stories, as they are retold throughout the generations, are formative and unitive for the gathered body of believers. The biblical narrative displays a panorama of God’s creative and liberative promise as it moves from the incarnation of the Word in the symbol of the Exodus story to the incarnation of the Word in the symbol of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This panorama creates a substantive pattern of God’s creative, liberative movement throughout history. Each generation since the closing of the canon is invited to engage the narrative, meet the Word of God behind the text, in front of the text, within the text, and through the text, to discern and appropriate the Word and movement of the Spirit in its own context.

Dwelling in the Community

I am playing with the word community. I mean it in three senses. First, it is the gathered body of believers that we call the church. Secondly, it is the broader community—the physical neighborhood and the relational networks that include all people with which the church is engaged in everyday life—in which the church finds itself. Third, I mean it in the philosophical sense of the communicative process itself. The Word of God is experienced in the communication of human beings with one another. Human communication is a difficult process wrought with equal parts intimacy and agony. The important point here is to, perhaps, expand the typical understanding of the church’s relationship to the Word. We often imagine that the Word of God only exists within the church and within certain “holy” forms of communication, e.g. liturgy, catechesis, the eucharist, etc. It is important for the missional church to imagine that the Author speaks everywhere, at all times, and that through the physical media of the Community (in the tri-fold meaning that I have presented) the Spirit can help to illuminate God’s Word in this medium.

Dwelling in the World

I have nuanced the use of the term World from Community. Some may argue that to dwell in the Community, as I expressed above, is the same as dwelling in the World. The World, they would argue, is simply the sum of all human Community.[4] This is true, but my point for distinguishing the World from the Community has to do with power structures. It is one thing to have embodied communication with other human beings in the adjacent community. It is another thing to have a relationship with the powerful movements of sociological structures like economics and politics. We, as individuals and small communities, often watch in helpless awe as the events of the world unfold like gods and demigods wrestling in the cosmos. The power structures that rule this world—what the apostle Paul called the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12)—are spiritual forces that can either move with or against the movements of God. It is important for the church to be able to discern, through the illumination of the Spirit, what is from the Author and through the Medium and what is contrary to the rhythm of the Trinity.[5] It is also important for the church to remember the apostle Paul’s words that these power struggles are not against flesh and blood. When we dwell in the community, we dwell with people. We love people and find the person of peace to listen and receive. When we dwell in the world we stand in solidarity with those being oppressed by the evil power structures that threaten the peaceful rhythm of God.[6]


[1] I introduce the term entangled here as a foreshadowing for a central theme that I will develop more fully in the Trinity Frame. For now, understand entangled as a metaphor borrowed from Quantum Physics. Ernest L. Simmons, The Entangled Trinity: Quantum Physics and Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014); J. C. Polkinghorne, The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., 2010).

[2] I am intentionally borrowing the term dwelling from the practice of Dwelling in the Word used by Church Innovations. See Keifert, Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations; Pat Taylor Ellison and Patrick Keifert, Dwelling in the Word (St. Paul: Church Innovations Institute, 2011).

[3] See the distinction of community and world below.

[4] See Scharer/Hilberath’s discussion of We and the Globe. The group has its own culture, but the group also exists in the larger culture that shapes it. Scharer, The Practice of Communicative Theology: Introduction to a New Theological Culture.

[5] John encouraged his readers to “test the spirits” to discern which ones are from God (1 John 4:1).

[6] This is a bold statement that implies a certain flavor of liberation theology. The liberation hermeneutic reads all contexts through the assumption that God always stands with the oppressed in order to defy the destructive forces of the oppressor. The face of the Oppressor and the Oppressed changes with each context and each generation. Ironically, the face of the Oppressor in one generation can be the Oppressed in the next, or—even more complex—the face of the Oppressed in one context may be the face of the Oppressor in another cotemporal context.

The Holy Spirit, Twitter, and Practical Wisdom

practicalwisdom_schwartzI believe the Holy Spirit moves through Twitter. I know that sounds weird, but the story I am about to tell is one that has happened often to me.

Yesterday I started writing an essay about dualisms and how we can navigate between seemingly polarized opposites. I’ll post it when it is finished. This morning I opened up Twitter and the first tweet I saw was from Brain Pickings and was a link to Maria’s review of Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe. Maria is a great writer and her review of this book, and the quotes that she highlighted, were a great help to my essay and to my research in general.

I look forward to reading this book in the future. For now, let me highlight some of Maria’s highlights.

The book is built upon Aristotle’s reflections on wisdom and his belief that wisdom is not built from rules, but from telos. The Greek word telos literally means end or goal. For Aristotle, it meant knowing the bigger picture and purpose for why we do certain things. For example, a physician’s telos is to heal people. A musician’s telos is to play music. Each of these disciplines–medicine and music–have certain rules and guidelines that frame the practice, but the telos of the practice is not to rigidly follow the rules. The telos is to heal people and play music, and sometimes that requires improvisation. The wise person knows when to bend, or even break, the rules in order to achieve the telos of the practice. Many people in our culture slavishly follow the letter of the law in the name of wisdom, but, according to Schwartz, are actually unwise and often hurtful to themselves and society.

I believe this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he discussed the Law and the purpose of the Law in his letters, specifically in his letter to the Galatians. He was, of course, following Jesus’ lead in his reframing of the Law in Matthew 5-7. The telos of Law is life, not blind rigid obedience.

Schwartz describes how we are hardwired to become wise as we grow throughout our lives. Maria summarizes the argument, “We exercise our capacity for wisdom in three key ways: natural categorization (our predisposition to organize the world into categories of things, arranged in nuanced ways); framing (finding a context of comparison for things we are evaluating); and storytelling (constructing sense-making narratives about our lives and our experiences). One particularly interesting feature of our predilection for categories is the notion of “fuzziness” — the idea that the categories in which we classify the world are more often based on a nuanced spectrum than a binary dichotomy.

This is where I got really excited because the very thing about which I was writing yesterday was the navigation of these binary dichotomies. Additionally, I decided, within the past week, to frame my dissertation around a narrative structure under the premise that we are storytelling creatures who make sense out of our stories and how we frame them.

The fact that Twitter led me to this post, today, seems to be one of those affirmations from God, and the movement of the Holy Spirit, that I am on a good path. (At least that is the story I’m telling myself as I frame it in this moment 😉 )

Here are some quotes that Maria highlighted that I feel are worth requoting here:

“Schwartz and Sharpe go on to outline the six core qualities of the person endowed with telos:

  1. A wise person knows the proper aims of the activity she is engaged in. She wants to do the right thing to achieve these aims—wants to meet the needs of the people she is serving.
  2. A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.
  3. A wise person is perceptive, knows how to read a social context, and knows how to move beyond the black-and-white of rules and see the gray in a situation.
  4. A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another—to see the situation as the other person does and thus to understand how the other person feels. This perspective-taking is what enables a wise person to feel empathy for others and to make decisions that serve the client’s (student’s, patient’s, friend’s) needs.
  5. A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what a situation calls for, and to inform judgment without distorting it. He can feel, intuit, or “just know” what the right thing to do is, enabling him to act quickly when timing matters. His emotions and intuitions are well educated.
  6. A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. People learn how to be brave, said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling.”


“Frame” is a wonderful metaphor because it emphasizes our capacity to take the chaos of the social world around us and organize it in an understandable way. In framing the scene, we are setting the picture off from its surroundings, excluding what is on the outside and defining what is inside as special and worthy of attention. Frames tell us what is important and help us establish what should be compared with what. The capacity we have to frame enables us to do one of the most important things that practical wisdom demands — discern what is relevant about a particular context or event in regard to the decision we face. Learning to frame well helps make us wise.
“Framing” has gotten a bad name. In a marketing context, it is characterized as an effort to manipulate us into buying things we don’t need. In a political context, it is labeled as “spin” and characterized as an effort to slant or distort the truth in the direction of our favored position. And evidence that we depend on the frame, or context of comparison, for making judgments is sometimes regarded as a defect of human reason. We should be able to see and evaluate things as they “really” are, unbiased by the way they are packaged. But in fact, it is our capacity to frame that enables all our judgments, and it is nearly impossible to make judgments that do not depend on frames… It is only our capacity to do this automatic framing that enables us to make sensible judgments at all.
Framing is pervasive, inevitable, and often automatic. There is no “neutral,” frame-free way to evaluate anything.

compare the above quote to my article on frames.

A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule… A wise person knows how to improvise… Real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand. A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the service of the right aims. To serve other people, not to manipulate other people. And finally, perhaps most important, a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.

Let me frame this in the narrative of my research. A wise person is one who is participating in the life of the Trinity, involved in a dynamic relationship with God in ever-deepening layers of discernment, aware and in tune with both the Word of God in scripture and also the Word of God in the World, following the prompting of the Holy Spirit to know what is best in each particular moment for the good of the other and the best interest for all.

A wise person is improvising in the Trinity’s Jazz band, yes?

Thank you Spirit, for using Twitter to lead me to this reflection today. Thanks for listening.

Why Am I Doing a PhD? (am I crazy?)

Writing a PhD dissertation is hard. First you have to work through the classes and seminars that stretch your perspective through reading thousands of pages, writing hundreds of pages of peer-reviewed papers, engaging in cross-cultural discussion, and submitting to the scrutiny of your professors. Then you must pass language proficiency exams (I failed Theological German twice before I finally passed it the third time). Then, once the course work is done you must pass the Comprehensive exams, or, what I like to call, the pain-stick ritual. I studied a bibliography of over 100 books and then sat in a room all by myself for thirty-two hours over four sequential Thursdays, eight hours each day.

Once you pass all those classes and Comps, then you are given the privilege of submitting a research proposal. You are expected to come up with a compelling question that explores the intersection of sociology and theology, determine a relevant research methodology, give theoretical and theological warrants and frames for why you asked the question. Then, when your research is done, you are expected to contribute something unique to your field of study in the form of a written document that is generally between 250 – 500 pages long.

I have encountered one recurring question over the past 3 years as I have pursued the above list of waypoints. The question is, “Why?” It is usually accompanied by a contorted face that is difficult to discern between a look of “Oh, you poor thing!” and “Oh, you poor idiot!” My guess is that it is a mixture of both. Most people, in my opinion, think it is crazy that I’m doing this. Some of them mildly admire me for making the effort, few of them believe it is really necessary, and most of them just shake their heads and thank God that it isn’t them going through it. None of them, not even my wife, truly understands what it is like to go through it and balance full-time ministry and family along with the process.

“Why?” they ask. Trust me, I ask myself that question often, especially when the stress level gets to the point of near mental breakdown. My answer boils down to one simple word. Love. I love God, the church, and the world.

I realize that this may sound trite, but I truly mean this. Let me explain. First, when I say love, I don’t mean that gushy, sentimental feeling we get when we watch a Hallmark movie or see a cute puppy or go on a first date. If that was my reason, then I would have high-tailed it out of there when I saw my first syllabus on the first day of class. No, love is something so much deeper than that. It is like a root that burrows deep into the core of your being that wraps so tightly inside of you that when it seems that all else has been stripped away by the storms of stress, conflict, and even persecution, the root remains.

I love God. I don’t understand God. In fact, the more I study theology at the PhD level the less I understand God and the more I stand in awe at the complexity, beauty, and incomprehensible love and grace that is the Triune Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of this amazing universe. I have known God’s love since I was a child as it was first manifest through my parents. I have always wanted to live my life in service to and for the glory of God. My understanding of God has been viewed through the Baptist lens, the Mega-church Evangelical lens, the Emerging Church lens, and now is expanding exponentially through the missional/Lutheran lens. The constant throughout all these lenses is my personal experience of God’s love and grace in my own life and the deep sense that God has led me to each place–pain and all–that I have lived and served. The leading usually betrays conventional wisdom, in that it has never involved financial gain or prestige. I have simply felt, and sometimes even heard, God’s voice softly telling me to go and follow that path. Then I have followed, because I love God and trust in God’s love and faithfulness to me and to the world God created.

I love the church. That’s hard to believe after all that I’ve been through in the church. I grew up as a pastor’s kid and watched the church repeatedly abuse my parents. I have been frozen out of one church staff, walked out on by close friends in another church, and have weathered the storms of many nasty church fights. Why would I love the church, let alone stay working in the church? Trust me, I’ve asked myself that question many times, and have tried to run away from the church and make a living as an artist. Each time God calls me back. Why? Because the church is people and people are a wonderful mess that are loved by God and are in the complex process of growing up and growing into the grace of God. I’m just as messed up and hurtful as any of the people that I have perceived to have hurt me in the past. I can’t blame them for what they have done. I can only love them and seek to be a conduit of God’s grace as God works in, with, under, against, and for each of us to deepen us and expand us in God’s grace and mission in the world. With all its faults, the church is the only place where people are gathered around the risen Jesus and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, are sent to be prophetic partners in the world. I love the church, warts and all.

I love the world. I’m not referring to “the world” that the Apostle John noted when he said, “Do not love the world.” He was referring to the “ways of the world” or the distorted thinking of the world that is contrary to the grace of God. Of course I struggle, along with everyone, to (a) discern what is the “ways of the world” in our context, and (b) not love “the ways of the world” rather than the ways of God. But that is not what I mean when I say that I love the world. I love this universe that God created. I no longer have a dualistic view of the universe in which God is completely separated from the universe and will someday wipe it all away, saving only a few of us who “prayed the prayer” and start over from scratch. I believe that this universe is eternally being created by the relationship of the Triune God and that the vast complexity and diversity of the universe is the natural reflection of God and through which God is continually speaking. The apostle Paul indicated that even creation groans for God’s promises to be fulfilled. The metaphorical image of the New Jerusalem in John’s Revelation was not a picture of people being snatched up to an otherworldly place, but was a picture of a city of God descending to earth. The new heaven and new earth that Peter speaks of is not, in my opinion, a physical destruction of the planet/universe, but a transformation of all things into the preferred and promised future that God is continually unfolding and inviting us into. I love the world because I am part of this world and cannot be anything other than that. The world needs to know the grace and love of God that is a peace that passes all understanding, demonstrated through Jesus and made accessible through the Holy Spirit. This is God’s mission in the world and we are invited to join it every day.

Why do I struggle through a PhD? I do it for love. I believe God has called me to do it. I believe that the things I’m learning in this program and through the process of my research are helping me to be a better servant of the church and companion in God’s grace in the world. I hope that my research will encourage others to grow in the grace of God and imagine new ways to be in this world that God loves so much so that we can grow together and live into God’s preferred and promised future.

That’s why I do it.

Catching the Wind: A Theological Theory of Strategic Action

A Term Paper Presented to Dr. Craig Van Gelder

Luther Seminary

As a Requirement in Course LD8910 The Hermeneutics of Leading in Mission

St. Paul, Minnesota



Theory of Strategic ActionThis essay presents my theory of strategic action. It explores how to lead a missional congregation through the process of decision-making and taking action in the world. I will communicate my theory by using the metaphor of a sailing vessel. ((I first encountered this metaphor when reading Leonard Sweet’s book Aqua Church in 2000.[Leonard I. Sweet, Aquachurch (Loveland, CO: Group Pub., 1999).] I use his basic metaphor, but I have modified it for my own purposes.)) The church is a sailing vessel that has been called to take a journey of exploration with God into this wonderful and turbulent world of postmodernity.

Questions for the Journey

A traveler preparing for a journey must ask three questions: 1) Where am I? 2) Where am I going? 3) How will I get there? My theory of strategic action is built around these three basic questions. The missional church must ask these questions in regard to the journey that God has for it. The basic structure is this. We must first ask where we are. What is our story, style, and culture that places us in a specific location? We then ask where we are going? This second question has two facets. The first is to ask what God is doing in our context. Second, we must discern what God is asking us to do and where God is asking us to go. Finally, we ask the question how will we get there? This question also has two interrelated parts. The first part requires strategic planning and organizing for the journey. The second part requires experimentation and constant revision.

Setting Sail: The Metaphor of a Sailing Vessel

The purpose of a sailing ship is to go places. That is an important point for the church. We are not fixed in one location. God calls the church and sends the church on a journey. It is a journey of spiritual formation and of global renewal. The hull of the ship represents the distinctiveness of the local congregation. The sails of the ship are the ministries and mechanisms that the church has constructed in order to do the work God has called it to do. The ocean is the postmodern world of discontinuous change. Jesus is the North Star, standing as the one fixed point by which we locate ourselves in the ever-changing universe. The Holy Spirit is the wind that propels the ship.

The Holy Spirit is the power. This is an important point. The church does not propel itself. The Holy Spirit drives the boat. The job of the church is to align itself properly with the power of the wind so that the ship will sail and not capsize.

The Illustration

I have also provided an illustration to help explain this theory at a glance. Refer to figure 1. It all begins with God’s Story that is constantly flowing all around us. The self is located within the context of human relationships. The self is informed by the story it tells itself, the stories of the world, and the Biblical narrative (assuming the self is of the Christian persuasion). All of these factors come together to help the self make a choice to take action. The action has consequences which alter the environment, thus causing a feedback loop that alters the story the self tells itself and placing the self in a new location. The process begins again.

A Theory of Strategic Action Illustration
fig. 1


The First Question: Where (am i) Are We?

Why start here? Why not start with the destination question? Isn’t that the point of a journey; to get somewhere? The destination is definitely important, but the postmodern self cannot start with the question of an objective destination that is out there. The process must begin with self, because that is all we really know. ((Immanuel Kant is the one who got us started on the discussion of starting points. His critique of pure reason drove the wedge between the noumena and phenomena. Kant questioned whether it was possible to truly know the object. The only connection the subject has with the object is the secondary sensory perceptions located in the perception of the object by the subject. Many scholars tried to bridge the Kantian divide between subject and object. Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heideggar, Gadamer—they all had variations on the theme, but agreed that the starting place of knowing the object, is in the subject. Jean Grondin discusses this 19th and 20th century hermeneutical lineage from Kant to Gadamer. [Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, Yale Studies in Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).]))

Jumping on the Merry-Go-Round

Let me use a simple metaphor to illustrate this point. How do you jump onto a spinning merry-go-round? You approach the spinning platform and realize two things. First, it is a continuous blur and you cannot decipher a single place on which to jump. Second, you, and the world around you, are calm and stationary. How do you move from being a stationary observer to being a fully engaged rider? The process begins with you. You must start running along side the platform. The faster you run, the slower the ride seems to move and the clearer the handle and platform appears. There comes a critical moment when you are moving fast enough and the platform seems slow enough that you can make the leap and you jump onto the merry-go-round. A significant event happens in that moment. Everything shifts. You suddenly become stationary once again. This time, however, it is the merry-go-round that is calm and stationary while the world around you spins into a blur of motion. The more you know about yourself and where you are situated, the more able you will be to position yourself relative to the object and make a connection to it. You must make the first move.

Confessing Horizons

This is my theory of action, therefore it is limited to my particular horizon and location at this moment in my life. ((The language of horizons and the fusion of horizons comes from Hans-Georg Gadamer. A horizon is created by one’s position in the world. It is limited to one’s own ability to perceive the world and articulate that perception through language. Every person and every work of human creation—art, literature, culture—has a horizon and is limited in its finitude. It is only when the individual acknowledges her horizon and engages the horizon of another person, or work of art, through the fusion of open dialogue that she can begin to grow her horizon and understand more about the world. Gadamer explains these concepts thoroughly in his magnum opus Truth and Method. [Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed & Ward, 1975).])) If I want to present a theory of action that helps the church answer the three journey questions, then I must first ask them of myself. Where am I?

I am a white, middle-class, suburban, male. I was raised in a conservative, fundamentalist, Baptist culture in my youth. I served in a seeker-targeted, evangelical, mega-church in Las Vegas during my twenties and early thirties. I received a Masters of Divinity from Bethel Seminary during that time and began to migrate to an emergent and missional theology. I disengaged from the mega church and experimented with house church from 2002-2007. My theology became progressively more eclectic and missional during that time. God called me to move to the northern suburbs of Minneapolis in 2007. In 2009 I met the pastor of an ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregation who welcomed me into the Lutheran church. I am currently in the process of transferring my ordination to the ELCA. I am a husband, father, artist, writer, musician, pastor, teacher, and PhD student.

I believe in the reality of the Triune God. I believe that God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose death and resurrection have reconciled humanity with God and whose coming kingdom is both a present and unfolding reality. I believe that the Holy Spirit is active in the world and is our source of power and insight in daily life. I privilege the Hebrew and Christian canon as normative for the church in that the scriptures record the historical, dynamic relationship of God with the people identified within the particular election of Abraham and his descendents.

All of these things locate me in a very specific place—geographically, culturally, and theologically—with a very specific perspective on the world. These prejudices have a strong impact on my theory. While I would like to think that it is a brilliant and universal theory, it is not. It is my theory and I pray it will be appropriate for the people that God has called me to lead.

The Me/We Principle.

The local congregation is a conglomeration of individual selves who are connected in a collective self. Each individual has his or her own horizon and must ask the where am I question. These individuals must start with a me perspective. The collective of mes becomes a we. The we becomes another form of me as it stands in relation to the larger world around it and must also ask the where am I/where are we question.

I call this the MeWe principle. There is an important truth embedded in this principle that ripples throughout my theory of action: it is only when the me reaches out and engages the other that the me truly discovers itself. There is no me without we. ((Paul Ricouer explores this concept deeply. Paul Ricœur, Oneself as Another (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 17.)) The biblical image for this is the body of Christ. Each individual me is a part of the body, and all the parts work together interdependently to form the collective we of the body. ((1 Corinthians 12:1-31))

The rest of this presentation will operate under the assumption of a double-layered application. I will sometimes use language that addresses the collective we, while other times I will address the individual me. Each of the following principles can and should be utilized by the me and we simultaneously.

Know Your Story

We all tell ourselves a story. Most of the story we tell ourselves is a story that was written for us without our consent. I did not ask to be born. I did not ask for my parents or the genetic material they combined to create me. My parents chose where I would grow up, what language I would speak, the people I would know, and the church I would attend. All the early experiences I had that imprinted on my young mind were done to me, without my consent.

Some of our story is written by our own choices. Granted, the choices we have are still limited to the language we know, the place we live, and the physical resources at our disposal, but we can start to have some say in the matter and contribute to our own story.

If a local church desires to form a strategic action plan, it is important for it to become aware of its own story. Your story locates you in time and space and helps you understand the perspective from which you perceive the rest of the world. If you are financially well off, for example, and occupy a place of privilege in society then you will perceive the world and the scripture very different from one who was born on the margins of society and had to struggle for basic physical resources.

Know Your Style.

Another factor that contributes to the location of the MeWe is that of style. Style refers to the unique personality traits, skills, and spiritual gifts that each individual has. Personality factors impact the way a person learns, expresses himself, and contributes to the larger we. The issue of style is not limited to the individual person. The Local congregation has a style as well. Some congregations are warm and welcoming, some are serious and studious, some are wild in worship, some are contemplative and serene. Each style is a unique part of the body, and the better one knows one’s own style, the better equipped one will be to engage in the community as a positive, contributing member. ((The Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator is an excellent tool to help a congregation discover its style. David Keirsey treats this subject well in David Keirsey, Please Understand Me Ii: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, 1st ed. (Del Mar, CA: Prometheus Nemesis, 1998). Another excellent tool is the Enneagram. Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types (New York: Bantam Books, 1999).))

Know Your Surroundings

The missional church must be aware of where it is physically located. A church’s physical location is comprised of geography, demographics, cultural mores, and political powers. The church that does not adapt to its surroundings will suffer. Two simple examples will illustrate this point. If you are out in the middle of a snow storm, you will want to put on warm clothes. This is a strategic action directly proportionate to the physical surroundings. If you were out in the desert you would most likely not wear the same clothes that you would in the snow. The sailing vessel that is not aware that there is a shallow reef ahead is in store for a shock. These illustrations seem obvious, but it is surprising how many local congregations lose touch with their immediate physical surroundings and dress inappropriately or crash on the rocks.

Who Are Your Neighbors?

The most important surrounding that an individual and a church must acknowledge is that of the neighbor. Jesus taught that the second great commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. ((Luke 10:25-37)) When asked who is my neighbor, Jesus essentially replied…everybody.

There are three basic kinds of neighbors: the intimate neighbor, the comfortable neighbor, and the uncomfortable neighbor. The process of loving each kind of neighbor is different. We will discuss the difference between these three rings of neighbors now, and this differentiation will come into play in a few more places along the way.

Intimate Neighbors

The intimate neighbor is the soul-mate, the friend, the confidant. This is a small circle, but a crucial one. It is in these relationships that we truly experience love and intimacy that feeds the soul and provides strength, comfort, and encouragement. It is the goal of the church to be the place in which each person can find the intimate neighbor to love.

Comfortable Neighbors

The comfortable neighbor is the person who is like you and does not make you feel threatened. The church should be a place of intimate and comfortable neighbors. The comfortable neighbor is not limited to the confines of the church, however. This neighbor is the person in the community that is like you. They blend into the background. Most often the comfortable neighbors flock together in homogenous groups and strive to stay comfortable within their safe boundaries.

Uncomfortable Neighbors

Loving the intimate and comfortable neighbor is relatively easy. They generally love you back. It is when we come to the uncomfortable neighbor that things get scary (and the gospel may be lurking). The love of Jesus is found when we reach across the boundary that divides the comfortable from the uncomfortable. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” ((Matthew 5:43-48))

The missional church must be in tune with the neighborhood. Who are the people that would naturally be uncomfortable to us? Those are the people we need to notice. We need to learn who they are and how their stories shape the larger community in which our congregation’s story finds itself.

What Are the Rules?

There is more going on in our surroundings than just physical space and people. There is the culture which is comprised of the rules—both explicit and implicit—that govern our behavior and interactions.

Cultural Values

Some cultures have overt rules that prohibit the interaction of certain people or dramatically restrict certain behavior in certain people groups. Other cultures have unwritten rules that are often stronger than the explicit rules. We don’t play with those kinds of kids. There goes the neighborhood. You can’t trust them. Important people drive this type of care, have their children in this type of activity, and would never think of doing that.

Spiritual Powers

There is more going on in the surroundings than just culture. Culture is a component and a symptom of something different. Sin is at play in our societies. People are broken and trapped within self. The isolation of self leads people to fear. Fear leads to self-protection and mistrust. Self-protection and mistrust leads to war and violence. War and violence leads to famine and disease. War, famine, and disease lead to destruction and death. Violence also leads to fear, which starts the cycle again. When fear rules people’s hearts, the collective will of the people becomes a spiritual force that takes on a life of its own. The apostle Paul referred to these forces as the principalities, powers, rulers, and authorities. The church is called to stand against these forces of evil through prayer and the love of Christ. We are called to unmask the powers of evil and demonstrate that Jesus has won the victory over them. It is only when the church acknowledges these powers that they can take the action to stand against them. ((Ephesians 6:10-20))

Know Your Shortcomings

We end this first section where we started. We must acknowledge the fact that we are limited in our horizons. We are finite creatures, bound to make mistakes. This acknowledgment will keep us humble and able to be attentive to the other.

Shackled by Sin

The discussion of spiritual powers can tempt us to view the church as a bastion of holiness surrounded by a maelstrom of evil that is out there. We must always remember that sin is a constant companion within each follower of Jesus. Martin Luther left the legacy simul iustus et peccator—that we are each simultaneously both sinner and saint. It is only by God’s grace that we can do anything. This acknowledgement should keep any notion of self-righteousness and pride in check and allow us to reach out to the other in authentic openness.

Bound by Horizons

Finally, we must always remember that we are bound by our own horizon; our own perspective relative to where we stand in the world. The uncomfortable neighbor is only uncomfortable because their horizon is beyond mine. I can’t see it, so I fear it. When we approach the uncomfortable neighbor with the attitude to engage their horizon in dialogue, then we can move to the fusion of horizons and perhaps, together, gain better understanding. ((Gadamer, 269.))

The Second Question: Where Are We Going?

We have located our self, at least provisionally. Now it is time to ask the second question. Where are we going? This question is better stated where is God asking us to go? The discovery of God’s calling requires two things. First, we must learn to open our eyes and look around to see what God is currently doing in the world around us. Second, we must learn to open our ears and listen to what God is asking us to do. ((Craig Van Gelder articulates these questions well in his theory of action. Craig Van Gelder, “The Hermeneutics of Leading in Mission,” Journal of Religious Leadership 3, no. 1-2 (2004).))

What is God Doing?

Looking at God with Fresh Eyes

The missional church needs to look at God with fresh eyes. The theological story that the western church has told itself for the past 1500 years is one of a monarchial God who works through the top-down power structure of the church. God’s presence and means of Grace has been confined within the church and under the power of the clergy. This God-in-the-box mentality has tended to centralize the church in culture and communicated to the world that people must come into the church to find God.

The western church has lost its position in society. This is actually a good thing for the church. This disruption of our story is forcing the current generation to look at scripture, the world, and God with fresh eyes. The missional church needs to have a missional theology. The basic tenets of this theology are as follows:

God is a creative trinity. God is a community of three persons, eternally loving one another. The scripture names these three persons with two masculine and one neuter title: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. ((It is important to note that God is not male or female. The masculine language of scripture stems from scripture’s cultural horizon. We need to be sensitive to this type of language in our world where the feminist movement has shed great light on gender abuse through the ages.)) This eternal community of love has created, is recreating, and will eternally recreate the universe for the purpose of bringing all creation into loving community with Godself. ((Ted Peters, God–the World’s Future : Systematic Theology for a New Era, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).))

Jesus is the redeeming and reconciling King. Humanity has been disrupted by sin. The effect of sin is isolation, fear, violence, and death. The second person of the Trinity became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He took on the pain of sin and death and conquered it through the shame of crucifixion. He rose from the dead and conquered death. He has been exalted as the King of Kings and his reign is over the entire universe. He seeks to bring the shalom—the peace—of God to all nations through his loving reign. His kingdom is a proleptic reality. It is already, but not yet. ((Hans Küng, The Church (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968), 47-53.))

The Spirit is at Work. The Holy Spirit is the active agent of the Trinity in the world today. The pluriform and polycentric spirit is present and active within all nations, working to draw them into the diverse unity of the Kingdom of God. ((For a complex and robust discussion of the pluriform and polycentric Spirit, see Michael Welker, God the Spirit, 1st English-language ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994).))

Looking at the Church with Fresh Eyes

I mentioned earlier that the church has changed. It has lost its privileged position in western society and has been marginalized to the ranks of volunteer organization or vendor of religious commodity for those still interested in the medieval model of church life. It is time to re-imagine what the church is and what God is doing in and around it.

The Church is Called and Sent to Partner with God. God has specifically called the followers of Jesus to be God’s covenant people, in the same way that he called Abraham’s people. ((Lesslie Newbigin presents a compelling argument for the purpose of election. Communication must be particular. Humans communicate through language and cultural symbology. Culture is specific, not universal. Therefore, if God was going to communicate with humanity, it had to be done through a particular language, which is de facto bound by a particular culture. Jesus had to be confined to a human being, bound by language, culture, and history. The church is also bound by language, culture, and history. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans; WCC Publications 1989).)) The church is called out of the world to demonstrate the Kingdom of God’s peace at work in the lives of real people. The gathered people of God are then called to move into society with the good news of peace and reconciliation demonstrated by the healing and forgiveness of Jesus((Van Gelder and Zscheile provide an excellent overview of the sending trinity in Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective : Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011), 101-123.))

The Church is a Spirit-Empowered and Spirit-Led Body. We have already discussed that the church is a MeWe collective. The Holy Spirit is the bond that connects the individual mes to one another. The Spirit dispenses gifts to the parts of the body so that every person has a contributing part to play in the action to which God calls the body. The Spirit also calls and leads the church into missional space in the world.

The Church is Led by a Plurality of Leaders. Scripture indicates a plurality of leadership for the church. Leadership is necessary for the church to function, but the purpose of leadership not the wielding of authoritative power. The purpose of leadership is “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” ((Ephesians 4:12))

Looking at the World with Fresh Eyes

The church must no longer look at the world as them and the church as us. The Holy Spirit is at work in all people drawing all people into the healing and reconciliation of Jesus’ kingdom of peace. The Missional church must learn to look at the uncomfortable neighbor across the street and ask what God is doing in their midst and what can we learn from it? When the local church engages its community with this attitude it opens channels for the Holy Spirit to bridge the gap and draw different cultures into constructive dialogue. This fusion of horizons can make new spaces in which the Holy Spirit can move among the people. This is not to say that the church must relativize its belief for the sake of a new homogeneity. Rather, this allows the church to connect to the larger community in a heterogeneous unified diversity in which the Spirit can demonstrate shalom in ways that the world has seldom witnessed. ((This is an image of what the Spirit did on the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts. Many people groups gathered and simultaneously experienced the presence of God within their own diverse languages. This is a further aspect of the Holy Spirit that is developed in Welker.))

Where is God Calling Us?

Listen to God in the Scriptures

We have seen with fresh eyes who God is and what God is doing. Now it is time to listen with fresh ears. This is also called discernment. If the church is going to know where God is calling it, then it has to learn how to listen for God’s voice and recognize it when it is heard. God usually speaks in whispers. ((We see a prototypical example of this in 1 Kings 19:11-13.)) Listening for God’s still small voice is a difficult task in a world inundated with noise and frenetic activity. The missional church needs to rediscover the classic spiritual practices that help us settle our mind, spirit, and body and allow us to listen to God’s voice. A key component to the church’s listening process is to engage in the spiritual practices in community and learn to dwell in the scriptures together. ((Both Alan Roxburgh [Alan J. Roxburgh, Fred Romanuk, and Leadership Network (Dallas Tex.), The Missional Leader : Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World, 1st ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 85-91.] and Patrick Keifert [Patrick R. Keifert, We Are Here Now : A New Missional Era, a Missional Journey of Spiritual Discovery (Eagle, Idaho: Allelon Publishing, 2006), 68-71.] utilize an exercise of dwelling in the Word to help congregations listen and discern God’s voice.))

Listen to God in the Neighbor

Not only does the church need to listen to the scripture to see what God is doing, we must also learn how to listen to our neighbors. We discussed earlier how the me is found in the interface with the other. This dynamic is also true for the church. When we take the time to listen to our neighbors to see where they laugh and where they cry, we will begin to see the spaces in which the Spirit wants us to move and how we can join in what God is already doing in those spaces. Sometimes the voice of God is in the mouth of a Syro-phonecian woman, sometimes a beggar, sometimes a king, and sometimes an ass. We need to be ready to hear it wherever it speaks, and then respond.

The Third Question: How Will We Get There?

It is tempting to think of this final question as the practical question, as if the first questions were purely theory and introspection. This is an erroneous distinction. The fact is that all of the questions require action. Finding our location requires action, as was demonstrated in the illustration of the merry-go-round. Looking at God and listening for God’s voice requires action and community involvement. The entire process is praxis. In the doing we discover the going. ((Gerben Heitink discusses this in great detail. The time has come to deconstruct the false dichotomy between theoretical theology and practical theology. When we obey Jesus’ commands and act on them, then we discover the reality of God at work in the world. There is no sequence to how this works. Sometimes it is theology-theory-action, sometimes the other way around. Gerben Heitink, Practical Theology: History, Theory, Action Domains: Manual for Practical Theology, Studies in Practical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1999).)) Put in simple terms: you can’t steer a parked car, and you can’t navigate a docked ship. We must now look at the question of how.

Get Organized

Organization is not a bad thing, nor is it a good thing. It is simply a necessity. The church does, however, need to be cautious with the role of organization in the life of the organism. We are often tempted to make the organization the thing that we serve, rather than the other way around. It would serve us well to remember this simple axiom. The church is. The church does what it is. The church organizes what it does. ((This is a basic premise of Craig Van Gelder’s work on the missional church. Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007).)) We need organization and planning. Current insights from the world of organizational theory can help the church understand that it is an open system that must be in tune to its environment and be able to adapt to constant changes. The leadership and structure of the church must be organized in such a way that it grants power to the maximum number of people who are closest to the areas needing adaptive change. The church is more of a network of social connections than a hierarchy of bureaucratic power. ((Mary Hatch details these various postmodern organizational theories. Mary Jo Hatch and Ann L. Cunliffe, Organization Theory : Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern Perspectives, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).))

Make Decisions

The most difficult and most fruitful process the church can experience is that of making decisions. We ultimately have to decide on a specific how. We have to craft the sails for our ship. We have to train the crews, set a direction, and develop a strategic plan. Who makes the decisions? How are the decisions made? In this process we see the best and worst of people and our organizational structures. In this process we see the true flow of power and we unmask the real motives and values that rule our hearts. It is often a painful process that can lead to conflict. Yet, it is through this conflict that we are given the opportunity to work out our differences, extend grace and forgiveness, and find collaborative alternatives that lead to a greater good. This is called communicative action and, when done in the spirit of humility and equality, it can open up great space for the Holy Spirit’s wind to blow powerfully into the sails of the ship. ((Jürgen Habermas is most noted for his work with communicative action (also known as communicative rationality). Gary Simpson gives a good discussion of the application of Habermas’ theories for the missional church. Gary M. Simpson, Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).))


The missional church needs to have a spirit of playfulness and experimentation. We need to simply try things and see if they work. Jesus called us to follow him, not to sit in a classroom and study him. This is on-the-job training where we make mistakes and learn from them. Perhaps the church should be more like a dojo—where students practice the art of doing the topic—than like a classroom—where students study the theory about a topic. ((The Jesus Dojo is a concept that Mark Scandrette has developed with his ministry—ReImagine—in San Francisco. Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011).)) When the congregation moves out to experiment in the ways of Jesus’ love in the neighborhood, we will learn from our successes and failures, together.


There is one final step in the process. Repeat. It is necessary to constantly revisit this process because of the feedback loop. In figure 1 we see the process. Everything flows into making us who we are. We are located by the story we tell ourselves. We are situated within the context of geography, people, and culture. We are informed by the scriptures and led by the Holy Spirit. That is our place. We then make a decision and move forward. The choice propels us into a new location. The decision creates consequences—for good or evil—and alters the environment. This altered environment then feeds back into the story we tell ourselves and we are changed. This new location forces us to ask where are we and the process starts over again.


This is my theory. I am here. Now. I will try to lead the people that God has called me to lead through this process. We will experiment. We will change. Hopefully, we will be attentive enough to partner with what God is doing. Six months from now I will be in a new location. I wonder if my theory will look the same then? For now, all I can do is simply experiment and fall forward into the grace of God.


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Van Gelder, Craig, and Dwight J. Zscheile. The Missional Church in Perspective : Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation The Missional Network. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011.

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