Part Ten! God Has No Target Demographic.

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When we came to Haverhill, I wanted to build a church that connected primarily with two groups of people: those on the margins and post-Christian 20-somethings.

Connecting with these groups of people has perpetually confounded my denomination. In the moment when we realized that inviting people into a better version of the 1920’s might no longer be effective, people started proposing solutions.. Generally speaking, these solutions were proposed by parents of those 20-somethings, those on the margins often not being particularly sought after, due to their messy lives or general lack of money.

The solutions were:

  1. A) Do more contemporary worship! Because young people would love it if we get a really bad band together and play all the songs in the style that we loved when we were young adults in the 1980’s!
  2. B) Get more videos! Because young people like all that media that looks like those MTV music videos that we loved when we were young adults in the 1980’s!
  3. C) Get someone who has a lot of energy and great hair to lead worship! Because all those young people need a pastor who looks like a member of those hair bands we loved when we were young adults in the 1980’s!
  4. D) Throw a pizza party and play silly games! Because all those young people secretly want a church that will still treat them like they’re eight years old (which they were when we were young adults in the 1980’s!)

Who was going to unlock the secret to a church that would attract both all those mysterious young people and also those people on the margins that everyone secretly knows Jesus would be hanging out with?

Us.

I already had my first book started and I wanted stories: not the typical “I went to another church, but I didn’t like the worship/pastor/sermons/theology so I found you all, and your worship/pastor/sermons/theology just feeds me (feeds me? Really? What are we? Cattle? You know what happens to them!) and it just makes me so happy!”

I wanted amazing stories.

Stories like: “Once upon a time, I didn’t even believe in God or organized religion. I thought that all Christians were just a bunch of mean, old, ignorant white people. But then – I MET all of you! And now – I believe in God! Jesus is my best friend! And I spend all my time volunteering, worshiping, studying scripture, and telling my friends about Jesus over lattes or craft beer!”

Stories like: “Once upon a time, I was living on the street. I slept in a paper bag every night! I was addicted to seventeen different drugs! I had three major mental illnesses! And then, I MET all of you! And now- through God’s power, my hard work, and your amazing awesomeness, my life is transformed! When I’m not living in my new apartment, working at my new job, or going to my new institution of higher learning, I’m volunteering, worshiping, studying scripture, and recording compelling fundraising videos about how awesome you all are!”

“God,” I prayed. “Just send me a few of those people!”

Then, something funny happened.

Or, at least, I’m sure that God found it pretty funny.

God sent us a few of those people.

Matter of fact, God sent us a lot of those people and they didn’t fit well in my pre-written stories.

After about six months, I began to learn two very important lessons about the new people I was growing community with:

The first was this: young adults and people on the margins are great. I learned to love many of them, to appreciate their gifts, and to celebrate their wisdom. Many of them are still my friends today. However, they are really hard to build a church with.

Take, for instance, those who struggle with addiction.

(A note to all who are in recovery or work with those who are: I know that addicts, like all people, come in many different shapes and sizes. Many of them are incredibly wise, mature people. You ever want to see what honesty and authenticity look like? Go to a good AA meeting and just listen. What I’m talking about here is the huge group of people who are known in twelve step recovery as the “two-steppers”: those who get into the program, will tell others all about how wonderful it is, but never do the hard work in between.)

If you want a good boost to your ministerial ego, talk to an addict four to six weeks after they’ve engaged with your ministry. They will tell you how you walk on water, levitate about six inches off the ground, and even shit diamonds. They will convince you that you are the best human being walking on God’s green earth.

However, wait about six months. Wait until that amazing new-church smell wears off. Wait for a life change. Wait until you (or someone else in the group) says something that pisses them off. Wait for the first dry spell. Most will leave, and they will convince you that their new behavior (which is often connected with the new substances they’re now using again) is either A) your fault, or B) definitely not their fault.

At first, I just loved it when a new addict would walk into one of our groups.

“Oh Great!” I said, “Another addict!”

They’d speak honestly, they’d invite all their friends, and they’d burn with appealing enthusiastic brightness.

Inevitability, however, they’d not do their work, and if I was lucky, they’d disappear. If I wasn’t lucky, they’d exit messily, leaving a bunch of wreckage behind them.

Some people are good at tolerating the ups and downs and being patient.

I was not one of them. I struggled to stick with all those people I had asked for.

In the end, it’s just hard to build a church when people haven’t learned discipline, conflict resolution, or basic life skills and aren’t always interested in learning about them either.

I developed a set of aggressively rose-colored glasses. I would look at another wonderfully undeveloped person, squinting at them from every possible angle, trying to convince myself that they had leadership potential in the near future. I could take the smallest positive sign (Look! That person brought potato chips to the Bible study without being asked!) and construe it as a prediction of their future greatness as a leader.

However, no matter how hard I squinted, changed my angle, or looked at them cross-eyed, all my frantically hopeful dreams eventually had to make contact with reality.

That’s when I learned my second lesson about those two populations groups that I had idealized.

People are people, not amazing stories just waiting to happen. They are on their own growth curves. When those growth curves are steep, because of addiction, mental illness, arrested development, utter inexperience, or anything else, you do violence to them when you push them up that curve before they’re ready. For one person, the decision to get up, tie their shoes, and step out of their apartment doors is a daily victory that we need to celebrate. For another, the decision not to give into addiction, or talk to someone who upset them, or to bring a casserole to dinner is so remarkable that it deserves a parade.

However, if a community is going to have any staying power, then it needs people from those other non-sexy population groups who will show up, follow up on commitments without being harassed, and will stick with it when it gets tough or boring.

I learned to thank God for every prosaic, boringly competent fifty-something baby boomer who joined our community because, in the end, it was those people who provided us with enough gravity to let everyone grow on their own terms. I also learned that they were just as interesting and just as important as those young adults and people on the margins who I had idolized so much beforehand.

I understand my denomination’s focus on underserved people. When we notice that a group of people are no longer at our table, it’s important that we ask why.

However, it’s also important to remember that God loves the life-long baby boomer church person just as much as God loves the young hipster or the person just off the street.

Creating a truly inclusive community means having a seat at the table for everyone, where people’s gifts are celebrated, where their experiences are valued, and where everyone is challenged to grow in a way that is meaningful for them.

So – bring on the young adult post-Christians and the people on the margins. But let’s bring on the ex-church people, the baby boomers, and the grey haired elders as well.

After all, God has no target demographic.

Wisdom Wednesdays

“Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We would like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet, it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability — ​and that it may take a very long time.”

– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (hat tip: Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)

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