Am I missional?

I’m still exploring this issue. Honestly, it’s not one of those times in which I’m making some kind of story or series of posts lead towards an already decided position. I’m not starting with an answer and working up to it.

I’m actually really debating this in my head. I am, you see, pretty good at justifying my behavior and pretty good about taking terms that mean one thing and getting around them to make it seem like the terms describe me.

But, in this case I’m wanting to wander through my story a little bit, mostly for my own sake and see what I see as I do so. If others can add their contributions then that’s very helpful. But, I’ve learned not to depend on that…. which is sort of part of my story.

If I had to describe this story in a sentence I’d say: “I have sought God.”

That’s sounds so… Christianese. I know. It’s not like the worship songs sort of chorus though, the “I’ve only sought You, Lord”. Searching for God has shaped and focused just about every major decision in my life since high school or before, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been other concerns that have gotten mixed in along the way. But, now I’m breaking the cardinal rule of story writing. I’m telling, not showing.

Not sure where to begin really, as I see where I’m at as basically being the same long, still being written, story for about the last 15 years. Ever since I went to Wheaton….

But starting there would make the story too long. And not entirely immediately relevant for my question about whether I am now missional.

I went to Fuller Seminary… that’s a better beginning, as it’s a little closer to the present, starting in 1999. Not too much went into that decision, truth be told. I was in an in between place. I sat in a park and considered what I loved and what was my real passion. What would I do if money were not an issue at all.

I realized I loved studying about God. Note, this wasn’t me trying to figure out how to study enough to tell other people about God and push what I learned onto them. I didn’t really have a passion to be a pastor. I really liked studying God. I think because there were so many unresolved questions in my life, mostly related to the curious paths of poverty that seemed to have marked my life thus far. I was constantly poor while among those who had never come close to poverty. That leads to some sense of isolation. And leads to different kinds of questions than most others are asking, and demands different kinds of questions than churches directed to those others are offering as answers.

Which is probably why when I really have a distaste for church camps…

I went to Fuller, because I had deep seated questions, and felt a path towards answers that no one was handing out. I had tasted enough at Wheaton, read enough, to see there were greater depths of Christianity than Christians, that I knew, conceived of, and I needed to taste more of that.

So I went. And going to seminary brings with it responsibilities and duties and opportunities.

The church I was going to at the time I first started going to in late 1991 or so. It was a Gen-X church then. The first, if I’m not mistaken. Started by Dieter Zander and made up of almost entirely young singles. After I graduated in 1992 I participated in a small group, the best small group I’ve experienced, that was led by a couple of college students. I think it was good because it was so unintentional. No one new what they were supposed to plan for on the ministry expectations path, so they didn’t manipulate or force anything.

I went to Wheaton for four years, returning on breaks and summers. It was still my home church. That probably explains a lot of disconnection while at Wheaton. But when you go to “the flock that rocks” it’s hard to find other places as satisfying. Especially since it wasn’t about the music or the trendiness. It was about the real spiritual involvement I felt, the community of friends that were really seeking God together. It was about not being a college ministry, but about college aged men and women engaged in ministry, with shared leadership, open participation, involvement and goals. The sunday service was fun, but it was the other than Sunday goings on that I valued deeply.

Dieter left. Went to Willowcreek when I was a sophomore at Wheaton. I had no car, and no real way to make the hour drive there. So I didn’t join in on that ‘new’ movement that got all manner of attention.

Newsong continued. It planted churches, which would even more so fit the model of missional/emerging. One was in Pasadena. The other was in Pomona. The Pomona one, curiously enough, got a strong mention in Alan Hirsch’s and Michael Frost’s book The Shaping of Things to Come. I had friends in both church plants. Circumstance kept me from joining both, mostly due to transportation, and so I stayed at the main Newsong, which moved to its own building during my first year or so at Fuller. It became a propertied church.

I joined up with a small group/home church, whatever the term of the moment was. It was me, the worship leader at the church, his girlfriend (soon to be wife), and assorted other people they knew with a fairly strong mix of church background. They were not, to be sure, the stereotypical church members and it was a group I’m confident in saying was in fact missional in shape and form and function. This was about the year 2000… before missional was really part of the parlance. At the same time, I was pushed towards being relevant to those without church experience I was being pushed deeper into studies of spirituality, ministry, and theology taking my seminary learning seriously. It wasn’t a degree for me. It was formation. I encountered John Cassian for the first time and the wonders of desert monastic spirituality. I also started becoming quite active in church ministry, not on staff really but for my internship, but involved in all kinds of functions at the church. I played saxophone on the worship band. I worked on developing an alternative service for the church, one that would reflect a lot of the then burgeoning “church within a church” styles. It was all coming together nicely until the day 2 weeks before it was to start in which all the work was torpedoed by a lead pastor who decided he wanted a class on door to door evangelism to take place at the same time and the same place. I learned this while sitting in the church service and listening to the announcements. Not by being told directly. Basically, that started a path of learning that while I was busy there were alternative plans for the church being developed that didn’t include any of the burgeoning styles, but instead hearkened back to the ministry models of the 1970s.

This was a regular occurrence during my latter tenure at Newsong. Indirect, passive aggressive leadership that tended to be concerned about protecting territory and asserting hierarchy. Oddly enough, this also seemed to be reflected in a lot of the church plants, those proto-emerging movements that I was aware of.

I did get to put some of my creative ministry juices to work in various events, as I accepted invitations to join up with others’ ideas. I saw what I had in my heart turn out to be as successful as I had thought… once given the space to move and breath. The Stations of the Cross we did in 2001 was a high point of this. I realized how broad participation that depended on the oft “silent” people in a church was so, so helpful.

For whatever reason, I didn’t get in on the politics of the church and so wasn’t able to either influence, push, or otherwise find a place for continued participation for a while. Not all of those were on the church side of things. I wasn’t particularly mature in understanding the ways of churches or emotional communication and probably contributed to the alienation. But, by this point I had begun to lose my earnest joy in ministry and began to expect the hidden knives and silent torpedoes. That does not do well for a passion. I began to get cynical and alienated from church ministry. Not from the usual sources of church frustration, those established kinds of churches that reflect christendom that are such the topic of frustration from emerging folks. My distaste was partly in that direction and increasingly in the emerging direction, as I saw the broken husks of other once earnest souls wandering about having been burned by emerging leaders seeking their own place in church influence.

It was a general, and almost total, distrust of leaders in general. In pursuit of “vision” no one was safe. Everyone was a tool or target. Especially in those emerging places where there was no mature guidance or established locations.

My interest was still to pursue God. I didn’t care about ministry, though those who did care about ministry “vision” apparently didn’t see that and thought I was interested in their territory. I just wanted to see God and see others join with me in seeing God. Whatever way that works out best. I got back involved at Newsong my last year in seminary. I helped teach some classes, mostly the membership classes that the staff, for whatever reason, couldn’t themselves be bothered to teach. That increased my disconnect with what the church said it was about and what the church actually was about. And once a person sees that wide gap, it’s hard to join in with the celebration of leadership that seemed to be the way into the heart of ministry there.

I worked on a young adults group, found a method of conveying theology and Scripture that brought the participants into the conversation. I finished up seminary. I was almost entirely burned out on church, ministry, and those who did ministry for a living. I still sought God. I still sought God with those who also sought God. I realized, maybe unfairly, that so, so many people involved in church work don’t seek God directly as much as they seek organizational leadership models, patterns of ministry, and other forms of leadership events that use God as an object for their more important purposes. The ‘vision’ is always, it seems, more important than the content or the people.

There are exceptions. And sometimes profound exceptions. Those exceptions, however, were not my experiences.

Something was wrong. Not only with Christendom churches but something that was a poison even within those communities that were missional and emerging. Both the Pasadena and Pomona church plants collapsed, their participants scattered, not all to other churches.

That wasn’t why I left Newsong though. I was broken. Almost entirely broken. My joy in serving God, in seeking ministry creativity, in seeing the delight of other people come to deeper insight in knowing God was almost entirely exhausted. I loved working with people, but I hated, hated, hated the politics, visions, missions, programs, leadership, of church work. But I was still committed to people if not the church.

Only I couldn’t find a job after seminary. No one would hire me. The church I was working at for 40 hours a week wouldn’t pay me, even as I kept my bitterness and frustration hidden and tried to be a good little church boy for a while. The politics expanded as one pastor left and a new pastor was hired, a process that took over a year even though it was the assistant pastor who was finally hired. I made my voice louder and more known. I took a stand for what was true and right (as shown by subsequent history). But I didn’t play nice as I should. I was shunned, in essence if not in fact.

Mostly though, I was poor. I couldn’t pay rent, but had a kind roommate who took up the slack. A kindness that means more than I likely ever expressed and continues to fill me with gratitude. I was eating about half as much as I should. I lost about 25 pounds.

I had a choice. I could pay for gas to go to a church where people didn’t really care if I was there or not (but for the 10 or so people I was directly working with) or I could eat. I continued to eat. In a church of 1000 people or so, there was no offer of help or a job. Not just a church job… any kind of employment. It was community in name only, and only as far as I could play the expected role.

I ran out of funds. Couldn’t pay rent. Became profoundly depressed.

Suicidal. No where I looked seemed to have a place for me. No matter how good I was in studies, in ministry creativity, in anything, I couldn’t find a place. I started writing. In that I found peace.

My parents had moved to the mountains in Southern California the year before. My dad worked as a teacher in juvenile hall. My mom didn’t work outside the house because of her post-polio syndrome. I was faced with a choice.

I could try to subsist in Pasadena, among people who didn’t seem to care if I was there, while doing something I didn’t like to do for money (assuming I could find something that would pay rent). Or I could be entirely counter-cultural in a way that doesn’t get respect for counter-culturalness. I chose the latter.

At age 29 I moved back in with my parents. I continued to try my hand at writing, writing mostly fiction. I thought maybe this could be a direction to go towards. Meanwhile, instead of merely existing for myself I could participate with my parents, who themselves had their own issues. I could assist my mom, who could not drive and who could not walk, in both practical ways, as well as having mutually influential spiritual conversations that helped us see truth within difficult circumstances. I also began to develop web design skills and began working for my dad, who had developed a theory of working with juvenile delinquents called academic triage. I put together a website that reflected this methodology, and he began to use that in the classroom, and began to make huge strides with students who had long ago been left behind.

They became my spiritual community, my family and, in so many ways, my mission as I joined with their missions.

I did not go to church again after I moved to Lake Arrowhead.

What was the point? I was bitter. I was burned out. I saw spiritual development in every way happening outside the church and not nearly as much within the church. My spiritual restoration began as I delved more deeply into the monastics, learning the patterns of spiritual life that occur day to day, in deeper and more profound ways. I wrestled with myself, with my God, with my circumstances, with my history. I continued to write.

I realized what churches had missed in their visions and methods. They had the name of Christ, but no Spirit of Christ.

I wrote a book about the Spirit. It was a catharsis and it was a way forward. It was published.

To stir my brain I took a class on Moltmann. My work in that class led to being invited to join a PhD program at Fuller Seminary. I applied. I was accepted. I was given a scholarship.

I worked on promoting my book, which was published but not by the major publishers, and so didn’t have the marketing reach. I met a woman while promoting my book while she was promoting her CD. I got to talking to her more. Long story, short, I married her this past January.

I moved from the mountains and back to Pasadena. I’m now in school full time, working on emerging/missional theology as it relates to more established theology such as that of Jurgen Moltmann.

I still haven’t gotten connected with a church. But, I’m open to that now. Or really, open to finding others who just want to seek God within where they’re at.

I seek God. That has been the driving force for my life.

But am I missional?

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