Archive for the 'missionary' Category

We Can’t…But We Can–Part 2

As I was writing Part 1, I thought I knew just how Part 2 would go. I’d briefly recap the five qualities I’d identified from my childhood church experience—1) Church-family partnership; 2) Sense of genuinely being cared for by church people; 3) Children and youth involved in meaningful ministry; 4) Exposure to different and challenging ideas: 5) Clear, consistent values taught and modeled. Then I’d address each point and suggest ways to bring it into our very different 21st-century context.

But you know the saying—“We plan. God (and the Blogosphere) laugh.” Your comments led me toward a more holistic approach. My childhood experience didn’t happen because church leaders consciously focused on those five qualities. It happened because pastors and lay leaders built a culture of discipleship over many years. While far from perfect, that Maynard Memorial Methodist Church culture shaped us in profound ways that I’m still discovering. The question isn’t, “How do we put these pieces together the right way?” It’s “How do we build a church culture that forms committed, effective disciples of Jesus Christ?” If I had all the answers, I’d be on a book tour right now. But I don’t, so I’m writing in my basement study.

One commenter said, I do wish families today had the love of a church family. But they have to go to church first!” Once upon a time mainline churches could open their doors and watch the building fill up. Fifty years later, the church’s role in many communities has become peripheral at best. We’ve lost our place at the center of community life. The church is no longer the “go-to” place for families.

What if we turned that statement around? “I do wish churches today shared God’s love effectively with families in their communities. But first they have to go where families are!” [Please remember that today’s families come in many configurations besides the stereotypical working dad, stay-at-home mom, 2+ kids, a minivan, and a dog.]  Hard as it may be for life-long church folks to comprehend, a growing number of people today have either no significant church experience or significant negative experience. They aren’t likely to get up and pop into our church some Sunday. Reaching them starts with meeting them on their turf. After we’ve established a genuine relationship and let our deeds and presence do the talking, our new friends are more likely to be receptive to hearing about our faith and eventually venturing onto “our turf”. [NOTE: If “making friends” is merely your “strategy” to get folks in the door and on the roll so the church can survive, don’t bother. Folks know when they’re being used. If genuine Christlike love isn’t motivating you, you’re hurting the cause of Christ, not helping it.]

What would it mean for you and some friends to go “where families are” in your community? ASK SOME FAMILIES YOU KNOW! Ask church families. Ask your neighbors. Ask families who live near the church. Ask folks where you work. If you dare, ask families who have left your church. WHEN YOU ASK, LISTEN CAREFULLY! “School” and “sports” are two common responses. You’ll discover others in your particular context—4H, the homeless shelter, Children’s Hospital. Ask yourself and your friends: How can we go where families in our community are as the presence of Jesus who was Love-in-the-flesh? The Jesus who told his disciples, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27)? Ask the school principal or the soccer league president how you can be of service. Expect some suspicion about just being there to proselytize. Expect to have to prove yourself. Do the jobs nobody else wants to do better than they’ve ever been done. Focus on building relationships and being yourselves. Over time your church will become known as a faith community that genuinely cares about children and their families.

“First we have to go where families are.” One Sunday afternoon Rev. Adam Hamilton visited a first-time visitor to that morning’s worship service. She told him she’d enjoyed the service but she wouldn’t be back. She explained that her son (who had stayed home with her husband) needed constant one-to-one care. She couldn’t participate in worship and also care for him. She didn’t expect to find a church that could provide that care. “If we can provide the care Matthew needs,” Adam asked, “will you come back?” She said she would. Adam Hamilton very quickly found folks willing to be trained to care for Matthew on Sunday mornings.  His mother was able to come to worship and know he was being cared for. Adam Hamilton led his church to stand beside Matthew’s family (and others) where they were—“staying home with our child whose special needs make it nearly impossible for us to take him/her anyplace that’s not absolutely essential.” Today “Matthew’s Ministry” shares God’s love with hundreds of families whose children have a variety of special needs.

Nearly every church I know says it wants to reach children and families. But few actually “…go where families are.” You can hardly blame them. It’s a missionary journey likely to trigger a seismic shift in the life of the church. It requires substantial investments of time, energy, study, prayer, and faith. It demands that we set aside “the way we’ve always done it” in order to discover “the way to share God’s love with today’s families in today’s world”.

On the other hand—the journey transforms us. We grow together into a community of “effective, committed disciples of Jesus Christ.” We claim the possibility of changing lives and whole communities. We are faithful to the One who says, “Let the little children come to me…” (Mark 10:14). I’m ready to go. Are you?

The Relative We Don’t Talk About


Jesse Lee

My wife’s maiden name was Lee. Her tribe is directly related to Jason Lee, the first Methodist missionary in the Oregon Territory. The family is justifiably proud of this connection. Jason’s branch of the family was in Stanstead, Canada. As a young adult Jason taught school and served a nearby Methodist church. His interest in mission work eventually led to a connection with General William Clark (of Lewis and Clark). He was chosen to be part of a team sent to the Flathead Indians. Jason Lee’s team did remarkable, groundbreaking work in the Oregon Territory. Willamette University is a direct result of his ministry and a good place to learn the full story of his pioneering work.

Recently I learned the story of another Methodist named Lee. I stumbled upon a website called the Jesse Lee Project. The Project grew out of a conversation between some New England United Methodist pastors. One had recently talked with some “twenty-somethings” who’d made a difficult decision to step away from the organized church. They found it outdated, boring, and irrelevant. These “twenty-somethings” sought a church that was authentic, focused, creative, and open to “out-of-the-box” approaches to ministry. Another pastor in that group recalled the story of Jesse Lee, a pioneer Methodist missionary in New England. He was one of those focused, “out-of-the-box” characters who might mentor us on our 21st-century mission field. For example:

1)   When the Revolutionary War broke out, eighteen-year-old Jesse Lee declared himself a Christian pacifist. After serving a short jail term for his stand, he spent the rest of his military service in the noncombatant wagon service.

2)   After the war, Jesse met and grew close to Francis Asbury, one of the first bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Asbury pressured him to move toward ordination. Jesse resisted, but in 1789 he became a Licensed Local Preacher. Asbury showed up for his consecration service in elaborate clerical garb–because That’s How They Always Did It. Jesse Lee asked Asbury to change his clothes. Such formality and ceremony would alienate average Americans. His approach had to change.  Asbury agreed with Lee. He changed into simpler clothes and held a simpler service. That’s hardly the way you treat your new boss when you’re starting a new job! But on the mission field connecting with people matters more than massaging the boss’s ego!

3)   Asbury appointed Jesse Lee to the Stamford, CT circuit, along with another preacher—who never showed. Jesse didn’t wait around. He went to work establishing a Methodist presence wherever he could. One community gave him a very chilly reception. He saw no way to hold a service and begin to gather a congregation. So he hitched his horse to a tree outside the small, one room school house.   As school let out, Jesse Lee started singing his way through the hymnal. In between hymns he’d tell the children stories. Jesse and those kids had a great time together. Finally Lee asked if anyone thought his or her parents might invite him to hold a service in their homes. Nearly every child’s hand shot up. Jesse picked one. What parent could refuse such an enthusiastic request? “Please, mommy, please!” This technique became a staple in Jesse Lee’s missionary repertoire.

4)      One town council grilled Jesse relentlessly. They even asked him to speak biblical Hebrew! With supreme confidence, Jesse delivered an extended monologue in the ancient language—of Dutch! The town councilmen didn’t know the difference, and they welcomed Jesse to minister in their community.

As I said, my Lee relatives never mentioned Jesse. Maybe they don’t know about that branch of the family. (I promise I’ll do some genealogical digging—one of these days!) But neither has anyone else in my United Methodist family (in my hearing) except the Jesse Lee Project. Obviously we can’t just copy his methods. Hanging around outside a school and approaching children as he did is completely out of bounds these days! But we can still follow his lead.

  • Jesse Lee knew who he was. He stood for his convictions, even when there was a price to be paid. You may not agree with him on that particular issue. But how many eighteen-year-olds do you know who’ve wrestled through similar issues and would do jail time for their core beliefs?
  • Jesse Lee knew that people mattered more than tradition—even at the risk of offending the guardians of the tradition. So he spoke up when Francis Asbury came to his consecration way over-dressed. When Lee was ordained a deacon years later, everyone dressed very simply.
  • Jesse was talked about as a candidate for bishop. But he never had the political backing. He cared more about reaching people than about playing church politics.
  • Jesse Lee did whatever it took to reach people for Christ. He’d sit under a tree and sing and tell stories to schoolchildren. He’d travel long distances on horseback. (Francis Asbury reportedly rode 250,000 miles on horseback. One of my district superintendents claimed he’d driven that far in his six-year term as superintendent.) He kept it simple most of the time. Yet he also wrote prolifically and served as chaplain for both houses of Congress.

I suspect folks in New England where Jesse Lee started many churches still talk about him. I suspect the rest of us would do well to learn more about him. Those pastors talking about Jesse Lee were onto something. He practiced authenticity and integrity. He was clearly focused on reaching people for Christ and he’d do anything to make that happen–including what “nobody ever did” and what “the experts” say can’t be done. 

The relative we don’t talk about just might be the one we need to talk about–and listen to–very intently. What if that authenticity, honesty, missional focus, and “whatever-it-takes” conviction became the marks of our discipleship? Who knows? We might even find some of those “twenty-somethings” coming back to check us out. We might even hear them saying, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!”




A benevolent wrinkle in cyberspace provides me with the ELCA Gulf Coast Synod’s “Connections”. I receive about a half-dozen specialized mini-newsletters each month. I love seeing how different Christian “tribes” do church. The latest newsletters included an article entitled “Does the Church Still Send Missionaries?”  Peggy Zahn, author of the article and Assistant to the Bishop, must have heard the question one time too many. Well-meaning church folks wanted to know if the church still sends missionaries “out there” [beyond our comfort zone, where “our kind” dare not go, to lands teeming with “those people” living out their miserable existence].Peggy’s informative article clearly explained how ELCA missionaries work in partnership with nationals in various countries, and how they connect and engage churches in the synod with ministries all over the world.

But the title pushed my buttons—hard! I am not typically a ranter, but this theme deserves a rant. “DOES THE CHURCH STILL SEND MISSIONARIES???” ( ALL-CAPS is like yelling on the web, in case you didn’t know.) The question perfectly diagnoses the church’s sickness-unto-death. Decades after Ken Callahan, Bill Easum, and many others began urging  us to wake up and face post-Christendom reality, we still prefer to hit the snooze button and burrow deeper under the covers. I am aware of some courageous exceptions, but I know too many Christians and churches that still refuse to confront this disturbing (for some) new world. The church has been squeezed out of the center to the margins of society. While we still send missionaries “out there”, the inescapable new reality is that we live on the mission field–all of us. Our culture contains a rich and sometimes confusing mix of different languages and dialects (e.g. rap/hiphop, Spanglish, etc.), cultures, and belief systems. Christian missionaries have faced these challenges since the first century—and now it’s our turn.

Tragically, too many Christians and churches are still singing, “La-la-la I can’t hear you!” with their fingers in their ears.[Again,I’m thankful for notable, hopeful exceptions. Let the exceptions become the rule!] Too often we try to get by with cosmetic changes that upset no-one–and make no real difference. Or we seek to become more “welcoming”—in other words, fine-tune our sales and marketing.  Some brave folks make more substantial adjustments in worship style, Sunday schedule, etc.—with far more roaring and screaming from “the saints” than the changes warrant. They (we) talk a good game about wanting to reach out to new people. But they (we) still believe in our  heart of hearts that taking care of church members matters more than building relationships with “outsiders” . You can check this out in your own situation. Take a look at your church’s and pastor’s calendars. Look at your church’s finances—not that idealistic dream budget but where the money actually goes.  If I were a gambler, I’d lay very attractive odds that the bulk of both time and money are spent on members and maintenance. To the extent that’s true, we are not “missional” churches and people, no matter what our strategic plans say.

“Does the church still send missionaries?”  Some churches have a slogan above the door through which most people leave the sanctuary: “You are now entering the mission field.” The church sends missionaries into the world every time the benediction is pronounced and we head for the door!  Wherever we live our lives is the mission field where God has sent us to serve alongside his Risen Son. (“Missionaries” are the “sent” ones.) We proclaim the Gospel or deny it in every personal interaction, both face-to-face and electronic. Sometimes we use traditional religious language. Always the spirit and tone of our presence either proclaim Jesus or deny him.

None of this is new stuff. And none of it is rocket science. So why am I moved to rant? BECAUSE NOBODY’S PAYING ATTENTION! NOBODY’S DOING ANYTHING ABOUT IT! (BOLD CAPS IS BEYOND YELLING.)  Again, I’m thankful for notable and hopeful exceptions I see. Bishop Mike Rinehart of that Gulf Coast ELCA Synod writes about “Rethinking Everything”. The article is a progress report on the Synod’s Strategic Plan. Why a new Strategic Plan? “It would be so much easier to just keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them,” Rinehart writes, “but that was not getting us where we needed to go…We are swimming upstream against a cultural current of secularism and declining confidence in the church as an institution.” In other words, Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more! We can’t control external circumstances. But we can choose our response. We can whine and complain forever. We can demand and even pray for the return of the “good old days”. Or we can accept the fact that the world has changed and the church must respond to that change in order to accomplish our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.

What determines our choice? It’s not rocket science.  Effective missional change will not happen in us and in our churches until  nothing matters more than loving our neighbors as much as God in Christ loves us. Other loves have gotten in the way. Let’s be completely honest, we’re talking about idols. We love ourselves and our religious comfort zone more than we love our neighbors who are starving for love. We love “the way we’ve always done it” more than we love our neighbors for whom Christ died. We love stable, convenient familiarity more than the wondrously messy transformation the bible calls “new birth” (1 Peter 1:3).

Speaking of stables and birth—Christmas is the story of God’s missionary journey to an obscure corner of an obscure planet in an obscure corner of Creation. In Jesus God came and entered fully into human life—our life. “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14 The Message) Bishop Rinehart describes his vision of “…re-rooting congregations in their communities. We simply cannot serve or evangelize communities we do not know, and with whom we are not deeply engaged.” How can we as disciples, how can our churches (at least a pilot group initially) “re-root” ourselves and become “deeply engaged” as God became “deeply engaged” with us in Christ? How can we get to “nothing matters more than loving our neighbors as much as God in Christ loves us”?

     End of Rant