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This morning I woke up and realized that, for the first time since we moved out of our house and into the Crowsons’ back in April, I was waking up in my own home.  Not my “own” in terms of home ownership, mind you, but not some hotel or someone else’s place.  We’ve been living out of suitcases for over three months, and it is great to be able to start to unpack.  We are in an apartment complex called the “Arboretum” (I still don’t know whether the accent goes on the “bor” or the “e”) in Vestavia Hills.  I just discovered that I can access the office’s wireless internet connection from our patio, hence this post.  We are not so hard up that we can’t afford a phone line or cable, but I don’t want to bother with six-month minimum contracts when I don’t expect to be here that long.  I’m actually praying that we are not here very long, but for the time being, it’s great to have a place to call home.

Folks here in Birmingham have been very generous in giving and loaning us furniture to use while most of our things are still in storage in Texas.  The one thing we have bought was a sofa that we found at a great price at the Lay-Z-Boy clearance sale.  My brother-in-law predicted that I would regret not paying the $80 delivery charge.  He, my nephews, and I, brought it to the apartment yesterday in his pickup truck.  We had quite a time getting it up the bank that leads from the parking lot to our ground-floor apartment, then through the breezeway, and around through the patio door.  There were moments that I did regret not having it delivered.  But, to tell the truth, now that it’s done, I’m glad the $80 is still in my pocket.

Help us out with a decision that needs to be made quickly.  We have been planning to homeschool Jeremy at least for this fall.  The main reason is that we hope to have a long-term job soon, which will mean moving, and we didn’t want to disrupt his life even further by getting him into a school and then transferring out and into another one in a short period of time.  We also have some traveling we still need to do this fall, and want to do as a family, so we can have more flexibility.  Another minor complication is that we only have one car so I would have to arrange my daily schedule around his school hours.  Unless we could work out a ride, it would be out of the question for me to take the car out of town during a school week, since there is no local school bus.

However, we have discovered that our apartment is in one of the best public school districts in Alabama and there is a wonderful K-3 school near us.  Jeremy is very social and will do better in academics if he is around other kids.  Also, neither Maureen or I have education experience, though home school material is pretty well laid out.  And what do we do with Jonathan while Jeremy is in school?

Here’s your chance to weigh in on our schooling dilemma.  Do we stick with the homeschool plan, or find a way to make the public schooling work?  What do you think?

Oh, I lost my wireless connection, but now, a few hours later after writing the above, it appears to be back.

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We have enjoyed spending this week with my family in North Alabama following his week taking a course in Chicago. The highlight of the week was that Maureen passed her test on the first attempt and received her Alabama’s driver license! So now, I am driven — by my wife. Before she got her license, she didn’t want to drive, but now she races me to the driver’s seat.

Sunday we will be heading back to Birmingham. Jeremy plans to attend a four-day camp for first through third graders sponsored by the Homewood children’s ministry. We will be moving into an apartment on Saturday, July 29. Several people are loaning us furniture and they’ve even planned a housewarming shower for Aug. 2nd after Bible classes at Homewood. (Selections are at Target!) Our address will be 1818B Arboretum Circle, Vestavia Hills, AL 35216. I will continue to use my current cell number (256-226-0445), while we have changed Maureen’s to a local Birmingham number (205-223-2354).

As you continue to pray for the missionaries, the Christians, and the lost among the Watchi, please ask God to continue guiding our family to a another area of fruitful ministry.

For those of you who are wondering how my paper turned out, I got a 95. I guess that means that 95% of the stuff in there is right, and it’s up to you to figure out what the other 5% is. The only negative comment was that I left my name off the cover page and didn’t use the correct formatting. How’s that for doctoral level proficiency?! At least there were only 8 students in the class, so the prof didn’t have too much difficulty figuring out who had written the paper.

As much as I have missed Maureen, Jeremy, and Jonathan this week, it has been a good time to get away and have some quiet, prayerful reflection as well as to have my thinking stimulated. The stuff we’ve been talking about hasn’t been particularly heavy, just rich.

Monday we took a bus and went into inner city Chicago to visit the ministry of the Lawndale Community Church and the Christian Community Development Association. There’s really no way I can describe to you what is going on in what used to be one of the roughest neighborhoods of Chicago. Have a look at the web sites or read Wayne Gordon’s book, Real Hope in Chicago. Wayne is the founding pastor (no, I don’t like using the word that way, but that’s how everyone thinks of him), a white man who moved into inner city Chicago when he was just out of college. He was the only teacher at the Lawndale high school where he coached football and wrestling who lived in the community. Thirty years later, he’s not called “pastor” but “Coach” by all the people in the community.

For dinner, we ate at the Lawndale branch of Lou Malnati’s Pizza, which consistently earns awards for the best pizza in Chicago. Their pizzas take your basic Dominios to a whole new level. When the Lou Malnati’s chain had opened its 9th restaurant in Chicago, Wayne talked them into opening a 10th restaurant in Lawndale as a “tithe,” so that the community could have one sit-down restaurant and so it could provide jobs. The church bought and renovated the building. This restuarant still doesn’t turn a profit (largely due to the fact that they don’t serve alcohol), but the chain has spread to 24 branches, so they must not be hurting too badly.

On Monday, Don Cousins, one of the founders of Willow Creek Community Church, spoke to us. Don left Willow Creek several years ago when he found that the ministry no longer fit his gifts as a starter and builder. Don now works as a church consultant, and talked a lot about finding the right fit in ministry. He talked about the “Leadership heresy” and how the church often lets the world define what leadership is. I’m sure glad that’s the only thing we let the world define for us.

Along these lines, think about this quote that was shared today:

“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others and by himself …” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Cousins also contrasted an “Institutional” model of ministry with a “Biblical” model. Of course, that just happens to be his model as well. Here is how he constrasts them. (I’ve changed some of hte terminology to suit our church polity.) What do you think?

Institutional Model

  • The Elders Lead
  • The Staff Serves
  • The Congregation is Served
  • The World is Ignored

Biblical Model

  • The Elders Protect (They protect the unity and purity of the church, they see that the Word is faithfully taught, they protect the church through prayer, and see that the body of Christ functions as it should.)
  • The Staff Leads (This is not just the paid staff, but anyone in a position of leadership.)
  • The Congregation Serves
  • The World is Served

Is he on base? Are we off?

Here are a couple of more snippets from Cousins:
“God doesn’t call us so that we can do something for him. He doesn’t need us. He has called us so that he can pour out his blessings through us for his glory.”

“Great leaders surround themselves with people who know more than they do and are more competent than they are. Non-leaders surround themselves with people that they can stay on top of.”

Well, there’s more, but that’s enough for one post. I’ll be flying back to Birmingham tomorrow (Friday) morning; say a prayer for safety.

Thanks to Denise’s post, I’ve now generated my Hillbilly name.

Your Hillbilly Name Is…

Jimbo Montana

I’m in my classroom in Chicago waiting for the course to start. My paper is due in an hour, so if you have any last minute suggestions, please get them in quickly. Here is the last part of my paper (see posts below) which has to do with putting some of the ideas into practice. It’s a little lengthy, I had originally intended for this to be two posts. Your comments are welcome!

These readings convicted me of two practices which I must adopt if I am to be an effective missionary within North American culture. First, I must learn to present the gospel in a way that will capture the attention of non-believers and be comprehensible to them. The content of the gospel cannot be modified, and even its presentation must be driven by theology rather than the marketplace. Understanding the shifts within our culture, however, necessitates changes that must take place in our presentation of the unchanging gospel.

We must present the gospel with authenticity and without a desire to promote our institutions. We must be willing to move to the margins of society, where we serve with vulnerability and humility (Gibbs 2000, 28, 30). “Our age has more regard for the artist than for the orator,” observes Gibbs (2000, 26). I must adapt my rather cerebral style of learning and teaching and embrace more artistic forms of communication.

Ryken believes that the “plain teaching of God’s Word” is sufficient. He acknowledges, however, that “… a major pastoral task is to explain Christianity to people who really have no idea what it means” (2003, 24, 46). If we are to do so, we must communicate God’s word with both authenticity and artistry.

A second practice that I intend to adopt is to foster the intentional planting of new, theologically-driven, contextually relevant churches. I am uncertain whether this mean, for me, being part of a church planting, functioning in a facilitating role in a mission organization, or encouraging an established church to adopt this vision. I do believe, however, that intentional church planting offers a positive way forward in reaching this rapidly changing culture. I use the modifier “intentional” to distinguish these church plantings from “splants”—church plantings that are a thin disguise for church splits.

Established churches need to recapture a vision for planting churches. The modern era saw a movement to consolidate large numbers in institutional megachurches. Many of these were driven by a laudable desire to reincorporate seekers who had wandered from their religious roots. As observed above, however, while these churches will continue to play a role in twenty-first century Christianity, they will not be as effective in reaching the growing number of people without a Christian heritage. To reach these people, we need fellowships that foster intimacy and community, small enough to function with transparent authenticity.

To encourage this, established churches must be willing to release their concerns for institutional maintenance. Gibbs maintains, “Old churches must not simply stand as monuments to the past but as spiritual grandparents that have invested in the future by passing on their life to others and releasing their offspring to form new congregations. Church planting needs to be given priority by old-line denominations” (Gibbs 2000, 73).

Church planting stands in contrast to the individualistic approach to spirituality adopted by many. God has established the church to manifest his reign in the world. This happens through self-giving communities of Jesus’ disciples. These new churches may employ seeker-sensitive approaches, but they must be driven by a desire to reach the lost, not to fill buildings (Gibbs 2000, 148). What is needed is for the church to practice authentic, biblical Christianity with a heart for seeking and welcoming the lost. Ryken notes, “Whenever Christians have joined together to establish teaching, worshiping, and caring communities, they have been able to meet the unique challenges they faced from the surrounding culture” (Ryken 2003, 30).

In a missionary situation, however, many established churches find it difficult to speak the language of the surrounding culture. These churches need to undergo missional transformation, but the pace of such transformation is often slow. Intentional church planting is the response that we need to make to the urgent call to reach the lost around us.

See below for my two previous installments and for the sources cited in this series.

A third understanding that emerged from these readings is that churches are complex organisms. Both intimate relationships and in-depth analysis are required to understand, function effectively within, and lead a church. Perhaps because I have served smaller, rural churches in an advisory, not pastoral, role, I have probably been somewhat slow in recognizing the complexity of the dynamics of even a modestly-sized North American church. The authors of Studying Congregations (1998) discuss the dynamics of local congregations and offer helpful approaches to understanding them. Van Gelder recognizes that “Local congregations are complex creations of the Spirit that require leaders to exercise sophisticated management and organizational skills to give direction to the work of the Spirit in their midst” (2000, 19). Consideration of the nature of the church must take precedence to its function, but its incarnational nature demands that we understand how the church operates on a practical level. The church is both a spiritual community and a social reality, the “communion of saints” according to the Apostles’ Creed. It is “a relational community because God is a relational God” (Van Gelder 2000, 50, 96).

Every congregation develops the characteristics of a subculture. Each has its own a “complex network of signals and symbols and conventions” (Hopewell 1987, 5 cited in Ammerman et al. 1998, 78). As such, the social sciences can be useful for understanding how a congregation’s theology, history, context, and make-up influence both the spiritual and social aspects of the congregation. As the authors of Studying Congregations point out, “Although your context does not determine your congregation’s commitments, it does provide the setting within which you must make your decisions” (Ammerman et al. 1998, 14).

Studying congregations, however, is not sufficient for understanding their function as communities created by the Spirit. Ministers must participate relationally in the life of the church, as interdependent members of the body of Christ, if they are to lead the church in embracing the mission and embodying the kingdom of God.

Well, the help for my homework hasn’t exactly been pouring in, but Steve did ask a good question about who we move from being “inviting” to “infiltrating” churches. I think my last installment will try to address this as I deal with some practical issues. In anticipation, let me say that any kind of transformation is a much slower, though still necessary, process in existing churches. Churches which see the need for this kind of transformation but who do not want to be torn apart in the process should probably look at planting a new church, where the process can happen quickly, and work more slowly, yet consistently, at bringing about this missional transformation at home.

Continuing where I left off last time …

A second idea that emerged from these readings is that the church is the vehicle through which God’s reign is accomplished on earth. We make known the triumph of Christ to the principalities and powers. We dare not dismiss the church as irrelevant or obsolete.

This does not mean that the church pursues relevance at all costs. Philip Graham Ryken correctly warns, “When churches make relevance their primary goal, they are vulnerable to the twin perils of postmodernism: relativism and narcissism” (2003, 22). We can easily be seduced by the culture in our quest for relevance. Rather, the church must understand that it is by nature relevant because God has chosen to make his reign known to the principalities and powers through the church (Ephesians 3:10-11).

Being possessed by God’s kingdom, the church is an agent of the kingdom (Van Gelder 2000, 88). We are called to manifest and to promote the values of the kingdom taught by Jesus—love, justice, peace, and joy—in the world. As God’s kingdom people, we are both reconciled and redeemed. Because we have been reconciled to a holy God, we are “ministers of reconciliation,” both on the vertical and horizontal dimensions (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). As redeemed people, we hold forth the possibilities of redeemed living, as we call people to experience with us the “already” of God’s reign (Van Gelder 2000, 81).

Embodying the kingdom of God also calls us into conflict with every power that competes with God’s sovereignty or oppose his reign. We are inevitably drawn into this-worldly situations that reflect cosmic struggles. In these power encounters, we have no strength except to rely on God and to move forward in faith, confident that the victory has already been won. In faith, we call others to enter God’s reign and to embrace the victory that has been won on their behalf, overcoming the bondage of the rulers and authorities who compete with God—whether demonic oppression, physical addictions, or human oppressors.

Next week (starting July 10), I  have a course in Chicago and I have a short paper due on the first day.  It’s basically reflections on the required reading.  We were asked to write about three “seminal ideas” that we now “own” as a result of this reading, as well as two practices we would like to adopt.  Over the next few days, I thought I would post parts of my paper to get your reactions, which will in turn make it a better paper!

Here are the books that these reflections are based on:

Ammerman, Nancy, et al.  1998.  Studying congregations:  A new  handbook.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press.

Gibbs, Eddie.  2000.  ChuchNext:  Quantum changes in how we do ministry.  Downers Grove:  Intervarsity.

Ryken, Philip Graham.  2003.  City on a hill:  Reclaiming the biblical  pattern for the church in the 21st century.  Chiago:  Moody.

Van Gelder, Craig.  2000.  The essence of the  church:  A community created by the Spirit.  Grand Rapids:  Baker.

Here is the first “seminal idea” I chose to write about.  I would appreciate your input:

            Among the important ideas that I distilled from these readings, I was impressed by the reality that the North American church faces a cross-cultural challenge that requires a missionary approach to the dominant culture.  North American culture represents a context in which traditional, modern, and postmodern worldviews are interwoven (Gibbs 2000, 25).  Ministry in this context must be able to speak to all three perspectives, without being subverted by them.  Unfortunately, the modern worldview has often undermined North American Christianity (Gibbs 2000, 22).  As a missionary church, we must seek to understand and overcome such influences, while at the same time seeking to understand postmodern perspectives without being overcome by them. 

            We should not be surprised to find that the church must assume a missionary outlook, even though we have long felt at home in North America.  To be missionary is part of the genetic structure of the church.  The church is rooted in the sending nature of God, and this sentness is reflected in the ancient confessions.  The church has long claimed to be “apostolic.”  While often interpreted to reflect the foundations of the church’s doctrines, practices, and institutional structures, the church is primarily apostolic because it has been sent out by God.  Craig Van Gelder maintans, “This sentness is to be the primary dimension of the apostolic attribute.  The institutional dimensions of the church, those related to its teaching content and governance, are to support and mobilize the ministry of sentness” (2000, 125).

            Neither should the church be surprised that it finds itself at variance with the dominant culture in North America.  For too long we have operated with a Constantinian model in which we presumed that the larger culture shared the church’s values.  Whether or not that presumption was ever accurate, it can no longer be maintained.  We cannot simply meet the needs of the seekers who walk through our doors.  Many are looking elsewhere to quench their spiritual thirst.  Churches that rely on seekers to fill their pews will find an increasingly shrinking market for their product.  Instead, the church itself must become the seeker, transitioning “from becoming an inviting church to an infiltrating church” (Gibbs 2000, 190, 236), and reflecting the heart of its missionary God.

I’m going to try to be better about blogging, if for no reason than to keep some of you checking in on the off-chance that I may write something worth reading. 

We have now been back in the U.S. for one month.  I think I can best describe my feelings upon our return as—panic.  It suddenly hit me that I had a family of four to care for with no car, no insurance, no house, and no long-term, secure job.  I had preached about the virtues of being a “stranger and a pilgrim” in this world—suddenly, being a stranger and a pilgrim did not feel so virtuous.

My response to all of this was to go into task-orientation mode.  I spent hours on the phone and the internet trying to get some basic “necessities”—a car, medical, life, and car insurance, travel plans, a social security card for Maureen—worked out.  It’s strange that all of these seem like such necessities when they are not at all a part of the life of the Togolese.

In Africa, even though you don’t expect things to go smoothly, it’s still stressful when they don’t.  It’s even more stressful when you expect things to be painless and they aren’t.  Some of my biggest frustrations have been with airlines and trying to redeem frequent flyer miles and travel vouchers for a couple of unexpected trips that I’ve made since returning.

So…what have we been up to?

In addition to some time with my family (not nearly as much as my mom would like), Maureen and I made a trip to the Dallas area to work with Mission Alive!, a church-planting ministry, in an assessment lab for new church planters.  We were also assessing ourselves to see whether we might have a future role in this ministry.  It truly is a wonderful ministry and we were able to be with some great people, including Gailyn and Becky Van Rheenen for a few days.  In the meantime, our boys stayed with my parents and got to know their grandparents better.

Oh yeah, just before making this trip, I spoke at Homewood, our sponsoring church.  I had contracted a terrible cold so I was sounding very nasal that day.  Also, I had shortened my Power Point presentation so that it would be more pulpit friendly.  Only when I got up to speak did I realize that I had given the office the long version—and my notes matched the short version—so that was a big awkward.  I was told that I “recovered nicely,” so that made me feel better.

Back to Dallas—when we arrived in Dallas, Gailyn met us at the airport and broke the news about Cyndi Chowning’s death.  We waited as plans developed for her memorial service, which eventually was planned for Denison, near Dallas, but after we had planned to return to Alabama.  We had also planned to visit friends in Atlanta the following week.  Eventually we worked it out that I was able to travel back for the funeral while Maureen and the boys stayed with our friends there.  Maureen and I truly regretted that she was not able to attend the funeral.  I was happy, however, that she was able to attend a Women of Faith conference with our friend Lanita Henderson.  While in Atlanta, we were also able to spend time with Andrew, Pulcherie, A.J., and Nikki Gordon who were in town for some training for Andrew’s job.  The Gordons were our teammates in Benin and are now planning to return to Africa to serve the Djoula people of Burkina Faso with Christian Missionary Fellowship.

Since our return from Atlanta, we have been in Birmingham, enjoying the hospitality of Steve and Amy Castleman and their girls, Emily, Erin, and Elyse.   Next week we’ll hit the road again, going to my parents’ for the 4th, then to Nashville for Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration and to visit our former teammates the Bunners.  The following week I have a D.Min. course at Trinity in Chicago.

As this month has passed, my feelings of panic have eased.  I seem to have most of the major “necessities” taken care of, and God has worked out a million details already.  I have several “irons in the fire” looking for a long-term ministry.  We do feel a need to be temporarily settled into our own place, but we also want to take advantage of this time to reconnect, which requires travel.  Some folks here at Homewood are helping us look for some affordable, short-term housing, so hopefully we’ll be able to get into something not long after I return from Chicago.

Please drop us a line to say hi or call us—my cell phone is (256) 226-0445.