And then life…

Sometimes life happens.

I’m not very good at accepting this.

I am, by nature, a planner.

I’m very skilled at coaxing (or coercing) my life to fit into my next set of top priorities.

One of the central tenets of my strategy for post-Vine Ben was to post a reflection on the Vine, once or twice a week, regular as clockwork.

This worked for a good long time.

That is, until last week, when I lost two days of work to an unexpected house project and then got sick (which I still am now.)

I stressed about this, especially as my self-imposed deadline for one post a week passed on Saturday.

Then, I remembered that I need to embrace the fact that life is bigger than I am and will not always meekly comply to the plans I set out for it.

Sometimes, mess is inevitable, and that is okay.

So – I’m taking a break this week. Drinking lots of fluids. Taking a few extra naps on the couch. Crawling up from under the mountain of undone items on my to-do list. Spending some time with family.

And, I think, it will be okay.

See you all next week.

We Are Not a Nice Church

“I hope we never become a nice church.” One of our people told me during a class one Wednesday evening.

“Why do you say that?” I responded.

“Well,” he said, “I don’t like nice churches.”

“Oh really?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Why not?”

“Nice seems so superficial. Nice people ask ‘How are you doing?’, but don’t want to know the answer. Nice people will say, ‘I hope you feel better,’ but won’t offer to help. You can’t swear in nice churches. You can’t cry in nice churches. You can’t be screwed up in nice churches. I don’t want us to be a nice church.”

“Yeah”, I said, jokingly, “We should put that up on a billboard. The Vine: We Are Not a Nice Church!”

“Yeah!” he said, with unselfconscious enthusiasm, “We should!”

(We didn’t put up that billboard. Maybe we should have.)

It became one of our unoffical slogans for the next couple years.

The Vine: We Are Not A Nice Church.

We’ve made a cult out of nice in the church.

We’ve come to believe that following Jesus means being a nice person.

The problem is that Jesus was not a nice person.

Seriously. Read the Gospels. The guy could come across as a real asshole.

He turned over tables in the temple when he didn’t like what the merchants were selling.

He called the good church people of his days a bunch of whitewashed tombs.

He said that his generation was a group of spoiled children who just wanted a nice religious song and dance.

He realized that the world did not need another nice person.

Our world doesn’t need more nice churches.

Often, behind the often kitschy, sometimes cute, proper niceness of our communities lies nothing that is particularly interesting or life changing.

What the world does need is more loving churches.

Churches that will speak up against injustice, especially the injustice that they practice in their own lives, before they point fingers at anyone else.

Churches that will accept horribly messed up, broken people, just as they are, and then treat them like brothers and sisters.

Churches that will speak honestly about the doubt, disappointment, and messiness that is life.

Churches that will stop worrying more about their carpets than the people who walk on them.

Churches that will care more about feeding the hungry than what hymns they sing.

Churches that will be more concerned with loving people first than fixing their theology first.

Say, for instance, a formerly homeless man walks into a typical church one Sunday. He talks about how much he loves Jesus. He talks a lot about how much he loves Jesus. Not like a little ‘a lot’, but a lot ‘a lot’, flooding the whole group with Jesus-themed, conversational sewage that leaves everyone else gasping for space like a bunch of flopping fish.

What do nice churches do? They listen to him. Generally impatiently. They let him hijack conversations with his bazooka made of words, they let him destroy their well made small groups, kidnap prayer time (your joys and concerns will only be returned to you if you’re willing to listen to my story about this person I met on the street this last week and also applaud my newly composed rap about Jesus, which is so new I’m only now making it up on the spot!), and hijack sermons with long-form answers to unasked questions. Finally, under a veneer of tremendous niceness, they will no longer be available to give him a ride to church, will stop going to the Bible Study that he has happily commandeered, and steer as far away from his conversational miasma as possible during coffee hour.

This is what I did for the first four months after John joined our community.

I tried every polite, demi-passive aggressive trick for moderating him. I would ask him small yes or no questions. I would ask people to raise their hands if they wanted to chime in and would not call on John unless I was scraping the bottom of the conversational barrel. I would wait, like a tiger in the grass, to spring upon the first pause in his conversation, so I could cut him off and call on someone else. (Much to my frustration, it always seemed like he could talk for minutes without taking a single breath.)

I used all my small group leader magic on the other members of the group. I talked about how good it was that we accepted pople like John. I talked about how good we were at welcoming everyone, no matter how screwed up they were, (or how much they screwed up our discussion). But, sometime after our conversation about loving-not-nice, I realized that not only was letting John run his mouth bad for the group, it was bad for him as well.

We were treating him like a nuisance rather than as a brother.

One January night, one of our members finally cut him off during one of his long responses, saying, “John, it’s my turn to talk now.”

Much to my surprise, he stopped talking.

And thus began a long (and still incomplete) process of transformation.

The group served as John’s personal moderator. They would tell him to be quiet when he talked too long. They would ask him follow up questions when it seemed like he was onto something important. They would pray for him when he was struggling. They would wake him up when he fell asleep in his chair after dinner (at least sometimes, at other points, the group decided that a little twenty minute John vacation would be best for everyone).

He became more real. Little bits of real talk – real questions – real experiences occasionally unearthed themselves in the midst of his conversation. And, if he still was not a model of group process, if he would occasionally burst out in a stream of language that sounded parroted from a particularly obnoxious religious pamphlet, if he would regularly very inappropriately invite people to the Vine when it was clear they were not interested, he was growing in a way that was meaningful for him.

He didn’t stick around forever. But I rather think that someone telling him to be quiet was, if not the nicest, then perhaps the most loving thing anyone had done for him in a long time

What Do You Think?

Where do you need to work on being loving-not-nice?

Next Week: Part Ten! Stumbling Into Success

Part Eight: Quick Everyone! Act Normal! (2/2)

This is part two of my post. If you’re looking for part one, click here!

“What are you?” was the question I never entirely answered.

I wanted an answer, preferably one that came with colleagues and well-developed resources.

What people often perceived as us doing ministry “outside the box” was simply us jumping from box to box.

This wasn’t about wanting a bunch of ministerial shortcuts.

It was about loneliness.

When I was out on my own, with nothing but a few people, a little money, and a couple dreams standing between myself and ministerial oblivion, I felt like Atlas, holding up the world with nothing but the force of my will and the sweat of my body.

It’s even more lonely when planting in a denomination that often doesn’t believe in church planting. (I can’t count the number of colleagues who have said, “Plant a church? Why don’t we just spent that money on the churches we already have?)

It’s even more isolating when planting with a model that doesn’t exist and hasn’t been recognized by many experts as legitimate. (When we started, many church planting experts believed that unless you had a large core team, a space, a worship launch plan, and about 150,000 dollars, you were dead on arrival.)

It’s even more frustrating when you’re starting a ministry that not everyone believes is church. (There were a lot of people who, when they heard we didn’t have a building or weekly worship, would nod enthusiastically and say, “So you’re not a church! You’re a community ministry!)

It’s even more difficult when you can’t find anyone else who’s doing the same thing you are.

The “Are you crazy?” question was not just asked by the many well-intentioned people around us, it was asked by us as well.

And so, in the interest of trying to figure out what the hell we were doing, I went to a lot of exceptionally well-done conferences to listen to experts in my field.

The experts would came up on stage, stripped down to their ministerial underwear, do a nice song and dance, and then ask for our twenties.

In retrospect, the experience was more voyeuristic than I (or anyone else) would care to admit.

Many of us like looking at the undergarments of the various successful ministry-du-jour that we feel we should imitating. How do they run worship? How do they manage staff? What’s the exciting “I’m calling you out on the carpet” righteous anger story? What’s their own personal lifetime movie moment, complete with pain, angst, lost, and a beautifully staged ending? What are the sure-fire methods that will, without a doubt, allow us to replicate exactly what they’re doing?

The speakers were always more enthusiastic, more humorous, and more articulate than I was.

I listened to their systems for ministry that were clearly better thought out than mine.

I’d think, “We should do that.”

However, as I didn’t discover until much later, there was a very significant problem with accepting whatever latest ministerial strip-tease came my way.

Take Mike Breen (or, Hugh Halter or Alan Hirsch or Diana Butler Bass, or whoever else works for you).

(Incidentally, I currently think that the whole neo-monastic micro-missional community thing could be the Next Big Thing! I’m warning you Elaine Heath – you now have potential groupies!)

Mike Breen is a great guy. He knows how to plant churches without buildings. He believes in the centrality of following Jesus as a 24/7 way of life. He knows the importance of people simply sharing life together. He has discipleship processes that work for people without a college education. I’ve learned a lot from him.

However, imagine wearing Mike Breen’s underwear.

I’m sure he wears very great, very British, very godly underwear. But do you really want to wear anyone else’s ministerial underpants especially after they’ve worn them for a few decades?

The fit is never going to be right, and you’re going to start stinking in a way that isn’t entirely you.

Each time we picked up a new model, it gave us cover. “Look!” we could say, “Of course it’s legitimate! There are books about it. There are even famous people speaking about it!”  We could go to a conference, meet some of the people, and perhaps finally have some brothers and sisters who not only supported us, but got us – got what drove us, got the challenges we faced, got our desires for the future.

However, when you mix a perfect ministry system with messy people, you always end up with a less than perfect fit.

I’d look at our Friday morning Bible study and say: “Wait? What purpose does that solve? Could that ever really become a missional community? Does it become a huddle? Could we get rid of it? Could we change it?”

I’d look at our volunteer time at the local soup kitchen and say, “Wait? That doesn’t fit as any of these essential ministry priorities I’m supposed to have now. Could it be taking energy away from more important work?”

I’d look at our leaders, who I developed through a nice home-baked curriculum, and go, “Shit, now I have to redevelop you all, using this much better curriculum than that mess I came up with last year.”

I’d look at your community priorities and say, “You’ve been doing this, you like this, and now I have to convince you to do that. How the hell do I does that happen?”

I learned that if you don’t know, down to the tips of your toes, you’ll get in trouble.

I learned that unless your vision can stand comfortably alongside other forms of ministry developed by people who are at least as smart as you (and probably more successful and respected than you), then you’re just building your house on the sand. Every time the tide changes, the whole thing will come crashing down – again and again and again.

I wish that I had given up trying to find a good box to fit in.

I wish that I had stopped trying to find a group of people where I’d be normal and just grown comfortable being weird.

I wish that when people had asked, “What are you?” I had replied, “I don’t know. But whatever it is, I’m pretty sure God likes it.”

What Do You Think?

1) Who’s underpants have you been wearing recently? (Metaphorically speaking, of course, we are not that type of blog.)

2) What does it mean to create an identity that is simply yours?

Coming Next Week! Part Nine: We Are Not a Nice Church

Part Seven: Quick Everyone! Act Normal (1/2)

Nearly everyone asked us, “So what are you?” during the first few years of our ministry.

This one topped the list of several important questions which popped up like lice in the kindergarten classroom that was the first few years of our ministry.

“Are you a church?” was a popular one.

“Where is your building”, was another one, followed every time by “When do you plan to get one?”

“How do you get paid?” was another top hit, followed by head shakes of speechless admiration that we’d do all this work for nothing

“Do you have group sex?” was a question asked us by several less discreet Christians who believed that any group of non-biologically related people living together, praying together, and helping their neighbors together, must, in fact, be doing it so they can live in their own Jesus-themed pornography.

Over time, I came up with a set of stock answers.

No, we’re not a church, we just worship, study scripture, pick up trash, and love people like Jesus did.

No, we don’t have a building and we don’t plan to get one, hence the reason why I described us as church without walls.

No, we don’t get paid, except with the deep satisfaction that comes from following Jesus (and with lattes, lots of lattes. We literally spent over half of our first-year budget at one local coffee shop.)

Fuck no. Literally. No group sex.

However, it was that first question which managed to crawl into my brain and bother the hell out of me.

“What are you?”

The answer to that question changed, depending on the time of day, the people I was talking to, or what mood I was in.

Here were a few common ones I used:

A) We are a group of neo-monastic church planters, embodying an Acts 2 community while planting small, deeply relational groups throughout the city.

B) We are a church without walls, building spiritual community based on nothing but friendship.

C) We are a church using the multipling cell-group model (or the Missio model of discipleship or the 3dm missional community model – we tried a lot of strategies.)

D) I don’t know, but if you figure it out, will you please let me know?

All of these answers and their million other variations were all true at one point or another over the course of my ministry..

To a certain extent, this was just simple, healthy experimentation. When no one (or at least, not many people) have done what you’re doing, there is no playbook, no accumulated wisdom, and no long-hallowed (and long-fossilized) set of best practices. You find out what works and what doesn’t by throwing a lot of crap at the wall. Sometimes it sticks there. Sometimes it just ends up sticking on you.

I remember talking with the pastor of one of our partner churches during dinner at a conference. He was trying to describe us to another person at the table. He opened by saying, “Every time I talk to them, they’re doing something different. They change more in six months than my church does in six years.”

For him, that was a genuine compliment.

For me, it contained a note of uncomfortable truth.

What Do You Think?

1)When have you had to interact with people who didn’t understand the life choices that you made? How did you respond to their questions?

2) What are the challenges of living in a way that looks different than the rest of the culture?

Coming Friday! Part Eight: Quick Everyone! Act Normal! (2/2)

Why I Talk About My Failures

Since I started sharing the story of the Vine, I’ve been blessed by a lot of wonderful feedback and encouragement.Of you’ve been one of the person’s who has reached out to me via facebook, e-mail, or this site, thank you so much. You’re helping me make sense of this joruney.

There are several themes that have emerged pretty consistently since I started hearing from you all, and I’d like to talk about a few of them.

1) For all of you who are wondering, I’m doing okay, really. I think that we are so unused to any degree of personal vulnerability in our culture, (especially from church people and especially from pastors) that many people must assume that if I’m saying this much publicly, I must be a real hot mess privately.

I’m not. That’s not to say that I’m not grieving, that I don’t have good days and bad days, (like all people); I’m simply trying to tell my story as honestly as I can. Sometimes that honesty is just a little messy.

2) I’m not trying to burn any bridges. I don’t have any interest in making anyone look bad (except perhaps myself at times.) I use pseudonyms for all my characters, the stories I share are generally years old, and I test out my level of disclosure with a small circle of readers whose opinions I trust (sometimes those readers tell me to disclose more, sometimes they tell me to disclose less. I listen to them.)

3) I’m glad to see that this story is striking a chord for so many of you. I hope that when you read, you find moments when you laugh, moments that you nod because something similar has happened to you, moments that you feel a little challenged by something I shared.

As a writer, I send words out into a vacuum, hit send, and then see if they touch down anywhere. You let me know that my confessions have meaning that goes beyond myself, so please, continue to share with me.

Thank you all for being a part of this process.

(And my next story touches down on Tuesday.)