Friends are Better than Books

On the (obvious) limits of books written about urban ministry.

A friend recently posted a link on his Facebook page to a webpage cataloguing a list of “Top Christian Books on Reaching Cities.” I’m not linking to the page as the entire site is a bit confusing and the list itself seems flimsy as pointed out in my friend’s commentary: “How to justify educated, upper middle-class white folks moving to the city to plant churches that end up gentrifying neighborhoods.” You can imagine, given his sarcastic description, what he thinks about the list. I’ve not read any of the recommended books, so I can’t speak to their content, but the list does strike me as overwhelmingly white, male, and mostly coming from a particular evangelical tradition. There may be some helpful books on that list but I wouldn’t know.

However, because I’ve pastored in Chicago for 9 of my 14 years of ministry, I am interested in why lists like this one exist. There’s clearly a market for books that attempt to help Christians reach cities with the gospel. (We’ll leave, for this post, the question about what is imagined by that seemingly innocuous word, reach.) I’m sitting next to my well-stocked bookshelves as I write this and I can’t find a single book about urban ministry among my many, many books. I have to imagine that certain pastors have been helped by such books but I’ve never once felt the need to read about urban ministry over these years, especially from the perspective of those authors – often white – who aren’t homegrown to the contexts about which they write.

Making the Second GhettoNow, I read a lot and many of these books are uniquely relevant to the life and ministry of our urban congregation. This year, for example, I’m doing a deep dive into housing policy and federally-mandated segregation. Books like Making the Second Ghetto,  GentrifierThe Color of Lawand Jim Crow Nostalgia are helping me to see our city and neighborhood more accurately and to think more carefully about our presence within a city that continues to experience the harsh results of hugely complex economic and social forces.

I also read a lot that isn’t geared to urban realities but, given my context, I work to apply those books – wether theology, sociology, history, etc. – to our city and neighborhood. There’s nothing unique about this; it’s the kind of thing pastors in our neighborhood do all of the time. Sometimes the contextual application comes relatively easily while other books require the thoughtful reader to spit out a lot of bones to get to a bit of meat. So it goes. The idea that I would limit my reading to books written specifically for my context or demographic seems odd, thought I suppose this is how much of Christian publishing operates.

So I’m ambivalent about books lists like this one but I do feel very strongly that no list can remotely approximate the wisdom of friendships with those who know more than me. When I think about urban ministry I’m rarely thinking about a book or article; I’m almost always thinking about a person or a congregation whose authority has shaped my vision and commitments. The danger – not small in my experience – of book lists like this one is that it gives the reader, often a white pastor with good intentions, the sense that he or she has read enough to do good ministry. But it’s not possible! Nothing can replace the embodied wisdom and accountability that comes from friendship, mentoring, partnerships, and collaborations in which the long-term residents and congregations set the agenda, goals, and metrics of success.

Maybe this takes more time than working through a list of books, but it’s also so much better. And frankly, it’s not all that complicated, though I suppose someone could write a book about it… or maybe they already have.

The View From Here

I spent portions of last week with new church planters who had come to Chicago for training with our denomination. On Sunday evening Maggie joined two other church planter spouses to talk about their experiences and what the pastors and their families should consider as they go into this unpredictable work. She was, of course, her typical thoughtful and keeping-it-real self.

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Mosaix 2013

Multi-ethnic Church Conference

This week I’ll be at the Mosaix 2013 conference in California. As the pastor of a multi church, there aren’t a lot of conferences where I can show up and assume that folks share my commitment to multi ethnic (racial, cultural) ministry. Mosaix 2013 will be that kind of a conference. I’ll be wearing a few different hats while at the conference. Primarily I’ll be there as a learner, looking for good theology and methodology that will benefit New Community Covenant Church. I will also be there in my role as Director of Church Planting for the Central Conference of my denomination. I’ll be paying attention to church planting trends and noticing the different ways church planters talk and think about diverse community. (We don’t all think the same way!) Finally, I get to spend some time representing my friends at Leadership Journal. I’ll write an article about the conference for them and connect with some of the speakers on their behalf.

There will be a lot of folks at the conference who have been long-distance teachers and mentors to me: Paul Louis Metzger, Christena Cleveland (whose blog you should follow and whose new book is quite good- I’ll post a review soon), Soong-Chan Rah, and many others. I’m glad for the chance to continuing learning from these women and men.

Will you be at the conference?  

Installation Sermon

On Sunday I was installed as the pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville.  As a church planter I’ve functioned as the pastor, but the church decided this was an appropriate time to affirm their call to be their pastor. It was a special service and I was reminded of God’s faithfulness and this church’s commitments to following Jesus.  Here is my sermon (lightly edited) along with some photos taken by our friend Esther.

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So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. -Ephesians 4:11-13

Thank you for calling me to by your pastor. I wouldn’t be a pastor had you not called me; not simply a pastor of this church but a pastor, period.

I never wanted to be a pastor. I grew up with a mild appreciation for the church but it wasn’t where the action was and it wasn’t what I wanted to give my life to. But during the fall of 2000 I began to realize God’s purpose for the church. (I say began because I doubt I’ll ever fully comprehend God’s purpose & love for his people.): The new temple, where heaven & earth are brought together; The reconciled people of God; The presence of Christ. This I could be excited about. But pastors? Not so much. Why?

I was given hilarious (& symbolic gifts) by the church.
I was given hilarious (& symbolic gifts) by the church.

At the same time I was being convinced of the purpose and importance of church, I was also coming to understand consumerism as one of the main forces at work in shaping the American landscape. To be American is to be a consumer. We are defined and valued by what we purchase & own. We are marketed to so constantly that we are usually unaware that it’s even happening. We are trained to be dissatisfied because content people don’t buy stuff they don’t need. One of the most devastating effects of consumerism is that we see come others as consumer goods, objects that can be used to satisfy a need.

Here’s the point: Within such a crassly consumerist culture, a culture where people’s insecurities & desires are exploited for profit, within this culture it is almost impossible for pastors to avoid conforming to consumer expectations.

And so, at the same time God was teaching me to love his church, I was observing pastors succumb to the needs & expectations of people who had been formed not by the sacrificial love of Christ but by the selfish & empty promises of the American Dream. These pastors experienced the incredible pressures of our consumer-driven society: pressures to entertain; pressures to market a relevant message; pressures to fine-tune the spiritual sales pitch and close the religious deal; pressures to command respect like a business leader, to heal dysfunctions like a therapist, and inspire happiness like a self-help guru. I have known these pressures and succumbed too many times to count. So while I learning to love the church, and was beginning to discern a call to serve the church, it was increasingly hard to imagine being a pastor.

So what happened? Well, I had some important examples of faithful pastors who helped me imagine a different way to sever the church. And through God’s grace, I came to some understandings that have allowed me to answer the call to pastor. Allow me to share three of them now – summarized in three different words, though you’ll notice that these have less to do with being a pastor and far more about living as disciple.

First: Gift. Paul writes, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.” Like the other spiritual gifts, the role of pastor is a gift. Paul makes it explicit that the role of pastor, just like every other gift, is for the building up of the community. And here’s the thing about gifts that can be hard to swallow: a gift has nothing to do with worthiness. Imagine giving a thoughtful, expensive gift only to have the recipient, upon unwrapping the present exclaim, “I totally deserve this!” No, gifts say far more about the generosity of the giver than the worthyness of the receiver.

My friend, Pastor Michael Washington, gave the charge from Scripture.
My friend, Pastor Michael Washington, gave the charge from Scripture.

We are given spiritual gifts simply by virtue of our identities as children of God. Some of you have the gift of prophecy; service; evangelism; faith; healing; generosity; hospitality. You have these gifts only because you are loved & accepted by the giver of all good gifts. And this undeserved gift is meant for us to then give away for the flourishing of our community. For the gift of pastor this looks like equipping the church for service & unity as we grow toward Christ.

The beautiful thing about God’s gifts is that they subvert our consumer culture. They are given freely and are free from the market forces that generally confine and define us. I am free to pursue my call as a pastor because the call itself is a gift.

Second: Pastor. The Greek word for pastor is used eighteen times in the New Testament, but only one of those is translated as pastor. The other seventeen refer to shepherds, often to Jesus Christ as our shepherd. The author of Hebrews calls Jesus “that great Shepherd of the sheep” and Peter refers to Jesus as “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” In other words, every person who has been gifted and called to pastor must be incredibly clear that we serve the one perfect pastor.

But it’s not simply a matter of hierarchy, making sure Jesus is in charge. Listen to how Jesus talks about himself as our shepherd, our pastor: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.” [John 10:11, 14-15]

There are different words for Jesus could have used for good; this one has the idea of beauty. This is Jesus the compelling; Jesus the beautiful; Jesus the attractive; Jesus the captivating. And why? Because this good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Here is the most good, the most beautiful, the most compelling, the most attractive, the most captivating idea in all of history: The all-powerful creator God laying down his life for his creatures. The strong, faithful shepherd leaving the flock behind to find the one lost sheep. The majestic King of the universe, stepping down from his throne, replacing royal robes with a servant’s towel, trading the crown of heaven for one of thorns. Is there a more beautiful thought than one whose love is so perfect, so complete that death itself is overwhelmed? Evil itself is overcome by the wild beauty of this Good Shepherd.

My aunt Tammy Swanson Draheim, a superintendent in our denomination, led the time of prayer.
My aunt Tammy Swanson Draheim, a superintendent in our denomination, led the time of prayer.

As a pastor I am called to point to this Good Shepherd. I am not a therapist, an entertainer, a marketer, or a salesperson. No- the purpose of my ministry is to simply point to the only one powerful enough to gather up all of our needs – not the insatiable needs fed to our fickle hearts by a culture of consumption; no, this Good Shepherd gathers up our deep and secret needs – the sin, rebellion, and selfishness that shadows & splits every one of our relationships, including the friendship we are meant to know with the God who made us, with the Shepherd who cares for us.

Our burden became his, as he took it onto himself, the good & beautiful One taking our bad & ugly; the giver of life submitting to our death, even death on a cross. This story is my call. In fact, this is our call. We together, as the flawed, foolish, but reconciled people of God are called to make clear the beauty of our Savior. Our words and actions are meant to serve as a passionate cry to an overly entertained, overly medicated world: Isn’t He Good! Isn’t He beautiful!

Third: Called. I said before that I am a pastor because you called me. And it’s true. I am the wrong person for this job: I don’t like people enough. I watch obscure documentaries that make horrible sermon illustrations. I’m an introvert who gets ornery without regular alone time. I’m not from Chicago. My skin is a handful of shades too light for this neighborhood and my privileges & prejudices to many for a multi-ethnic church.

And yet you’ve called me. You have been the voice of the Gospel of Grace to me: stark reminders that my usefulness to the Kingdom comes not from my strength or knowledge, but from my weakness and foolishness. Your call has reminded me more often that I’d care to remember that the Good news of the Kingdom is displayed not through my by supposed best, but through the insecurities, failures, doubts, anxieties, and fears that are the stuff of my actual life.

Eliot carefully laid his hands on my shoulders for the commissioning prayer.
Eliot carefully laid his hands on my shoulders for the commissioning prayer.

We are called to contribute our gifts for the good of one another now; as we are, not as we hope to be. The idol of consumerism tells us that we will be useful and worthy some day – after we get that thing, possess that person, accomplish that dream, fix that personality trait, clean up that addiction.
But God’s call – the call you have voiced to me – is a call to come as we are. It is a call to be known, loved, accepted, and commissioned today. It is a call to reject every false measuring stick, every twisted logic, every deceitful story that leaves us feeling inadequate, unlovely, and not quite worth-it.

God’s call remains despite ourselves. God’s call remains despite unjust laws and stolen lives. God’s call can be heard through the clatter of consumerism, the noise of injustice, and the incessant blare of our own sinful rebellion.

Jesus said that the sheep follow their shepherd because they know his voice. May we hear our Good Shepherd’s voice and follow where he may lead.

Thank you for calling me to be your pastor. Even more, thanks be to God for calling each of us out of the valley of the shadow of death and into the green pastures of life. May we live our lives together, giving the good gifts of the Spirit, so that a grieving world may turn to the Good Shepherd who has laid down his life for us.

2013 Multi-ethnic Church Conference

Multi-ethnic Church Conference
2013 Multi-ethnic Church Conference

On Sunday afternoon I met with a leader from our church over coffee and our conversation turned to an upcoming sermon about worship.  This African American woman and I discussed the many different levels of complexity when it comes to worship in a multi-ethnic church.  She pointed out some of the generalizations that are often made about the worship preferences of different cultures and ethnicities; I wondered about the potential for spiritual formation when we submit to forms of worship that are not initially comfortable.  As we left the coffeeshop I mentioned how grateful I am to belong to a church community that expects these kinds of discussions, questions, and sermons.

In fact, I’ve come to take these conversations for granted though they are probably rare for most pastors and churches.  Despite the many challenges of a young, diverse church, such conversations – and their applications – are surely one of our greatest gifts. Pastors and church leaders who serve in less diverse circumstances must look elsewhere for the theological agitation that is necessary for forming churches that faithfully reflect Gospel reconciliation.

Thankfully, the upcoming Mosaix Multi-ethnic Church Conference will provide one such forum.  With sessions on theology, church planting, sociological trends, best practices, and more and with seasoned and competent leaders like John Perkins, Choco DeJesus, Michael Emerson, and conference organizer Mark DeYmaz, the conference will be full of thoughtful information.  But as I look at the list of speakers and consider who else will be attending I know that it will be the conversations, like the one this past Sunday, that will make those days in Long Beach so fruitful.

The conference is November 5-6 so you’ve got plenty of time to register.

CCDA Conference Recap

There were quite a few highlights from the CCDA conference last week.  Like I mentioned before, this was my first CCDA conference and I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I bumped into a few friends from around the country, got to room with my dad who was there with a couple of folks from his church in New Jersey, and ate delicious arepas – the Venezuelan food of my childhood – from a food truck.

Liberty to the Captives Our Call to Minister in a Captive World, Ray RiveraThe session on urban church planting I helped with seemed to go well; it was a smaller group which allowed for a lot of conversation and brainstorming around questions raised by the participants.  My favorite plenary session featured Rev. Dr. Ray Rivera preaching about captivity theology including four biblical responses to ministry in the context of captivity.  Rev. Rivera is from NYC and is a mentor to a couple of church planter friends from that city.  I’m looking forward to getting into his new book, Liberty to the Captives.

I arrived in Minneapolis on Wednesday morning in time for my session and left Friday afternoon for my flight home so I missed the final 24 hours of the conference.  All in all it was a great introduction to CCDA and I’m grateful for the many, many folks who worked to put on this excellent event.  Interestingly, the session that has provoked the most follow-up thought, in addition to Rev. Rivera’s sermon, was one I found myself disagreeing with.  I’ll come back to that in a subsequent post.

A New Sunday Home

For the first couple of years of our church’s short existence we’ve meet at an elementary school on the northern edge of Bronzeville.  It’s been a great place for us in so many ways, including a partnership with the community at the school.  The only downside was the massive rent that we paid each month, an amount set not by the school but by the larger bureaucracy.  For about a year we’ve kept our eyes open for a new location that would allow less of our church budget to be spent on the facility.  Earlier this summer we located an excellent space in a park district facility – on the southern edge of the neighborhood – and this morning we made the move.

Putting together our storage shed. Photo by Esther K.

The move went exceptionally well and in some ways symbolized something important about our church: we’re in it together.  There were a few time this morning when I couldn’t find something to do; everyone pitched in and in less than three hours we were done.

Tomorrow we begin weekly worship at Kennicott Park.  It will take a few weeks to get used to our new home but, if you’re local, I hope you’ll visit us one of these Sundays.