Sunday, August 31, 2008

What Ray Said

Okay, I can see that I never did really tell you what Ray said when he called (after suggesting that I would describe that, at least a bit). This will be brief.

Ray encouraged me about the steps of faith I (we) are taking in launching our community-based ministry network. He said he wishes he and his wife could be out here with us to help kick things off. Ray believes in what we are doing and, along with me, is still reflecting on how the things we have shared in the past will roll out into the things we will share in the future. Ray wanted me to know he believes in the vision, concepts, principles and plans I am promoting.

He went on to talk about their role in their new church home in Illinois. There are some great things happening with this church and Ray has already been asked to teach a series on evangelism, etc. But before taking too much of a public role, he wants the new young pastor to find his voice in this new congregation first. Ray is very wise.

He also pointed out some of the classic potential problems (burnout, etc) that could be brewing around this exciting new work. Ray and his wife are looking for ways to be a blessing without feeding some of the things that could ultimately undermine long term health and soundness. And, oh yeah -- Ray's wife is already enrolling people from their new church to go to China! Now, there's a surprise (not).

Ray loves the church -- from the Chinese Underground Church to the American church (large and small). But he also knows the pitfalls, hazards and inbred weaknesses of church life and tries to be honest about those things without letting them rob him and others of the blessings of church life. When I think of the Ephesians 4 gift of "Evangelist", I think of Ray (and only a few others). That he believes in what we are endeavoring to accomplish lifts my heart -- and that he called to tell me so refreshes my commitment.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Ray Called (Part Two)

After speaking with Ray for a moment, he told me he felt impressed to call me. That didn't surprise me because there have been times I have also felt moved to call him too. My brother calls these mysterious and invisible impulses: "the coconut wireless".

Ray has taken on a major new direction and challenge in his life in beginning an oil company, Bethel Oil, and starting a few wells in Illinois. It has been many years since Ray was in the oil business. He had long ago left that world behind to answer a call to serve the Lord in China. A couple years ago, God called him back to the fields. At the time, oil was going for about $50 a barrel.

Ray's vision is that funds produced from the fields could be used to support missions and ministry all over the world. It's a great concept. But getting oil out of the ground requires far more than a great concept. Watching Ray find investors, work with his exploration team, prepare studies, secure drill rigs and workover rigs, try various methods to overcome obstacles, deal with weather, push through exhaustion, prepare reports, do endless paperwork, secure and maintain land leases and everything else has only raised my respect for his ability to see something through from the A to the Z of it. At this time in my life, I admire people who can work hard by faith -- perhaps for a long time --before they actually see the rewards of their labor. In our instant gratification society, it is a shining gift.

That's why Ray's call uplifted me so. Like him, I have recently changed my life in a big way. Like him, I am developing a vision that will first require a great deal of endurance before the fruit will appear. I am no oil man, but I am pioneering a new endeavor of a different kind that requires a new team, a new level of learning, a new approach and a new philosophy of ministry as well as a new lifestyle. In other words, Ray and I are each "betting the farm" on things that can only be validated in the actual doing. It feels good to talk to someone who knows something of this path.

Will Ray find lots of oil? Who can say for sure. But he's risking everything he has because he believes it is what God is asking of him. Will I succeed in developing an intergenerational community-based ministry network after having been a traditional local church pastor my whole life? Who can say for sure. But I am also willing to spend that acumulated competence in order to make a meaningful contribution that, Lord willing, will extend far beyond my own lifetime. It is, I believe, the supreme task of people at my life stage to do just that.

I once heard John Wimber talk about this phenomenon in a way I am only now really coming to understand. He was reflecting on Jesus' brief parable of the pearl merchant. In it, a man who buys and sells pearls (he doesn't collect them or hold on to them -- he is a merchant after all) comes upon a pearl that, if it could be bought, would re-sell at a great profit (Matthew 13: 45 - 46). To buy this pearl, the man would be required to sell everything he had so he could obtain the purchase price. His faith in the ultimate profitability of the pearl motivates him to go "all in" and do so. It is a gutsy move, to be sure. But it is not a senseless one if a man understands the potential value of the sacrifice.

Wimber said that he had come to see that this story was not just a parable about giving up one's old life in order to come to know Christ and have salvation even though that is often how the text is preached. Upon closer inspection, the story reveals itself as a parable of the kingdom of God. It speaks of the way of life that citizens of the kingdom should prepare to adopt if they are going to invite the fulness of God's reign within them and around them. "I came to see," Wimber said, "that this is something I will do over and over again as a believer". I think he is absolutely right about that.

Selling all to buy the pearl is something my friend Ray gets. He thinks I get it, too. That's why, when he calls me, I feel like I am talking to a true compadre in the faith. That's why I always try to pick up when Ray is on the phone.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ray Called (and why I took it)

So, I'm on vacation with my family in Newport Beach. It's been a really nice week. We've done a variety of things from sitting around and talking, to playing board games, to acting very silly, to watching movies or TV, to playing tennis, to going to Crystal Cove beach, to spending the day at Wild Rivers (yesterday), to swimming at the pool where we are staying, to eating in, to eating out (a little) -- and even getting in a little writing. We are such a diverse tribe in ages and interests that it makes for a very rich time whenever we're together.

I've been trying to be selective about answering my phone and even some of my emails since, after all, I'm on "vacation" which is supposed to involve disconnecting from the usual routines and voices in my life in order to give my brain a change of pace and a break. But then Ray called. I did not hesitate to take it.

But even Ray was surprised that I did. Still, Ray and I have learned over the years that when we call each other, it's usually a divine appointment. This was no exception. Ray's call lifted my spirits and helped me see my life through the eyes of someone I deeply respect. Yes, Ray's call was a godsend. But to understand why, you'd have to know who Ray is and where he's been in life.

Ray fills a number of roles in my life, but none more important than "the man who took me to China". I didn't want to go to China, mind you. I've never felt drawn to China or to the Chinese people or culture, even as a tourist. But, when it comes to going to China, the "Ray Factor" trumps people's resistance or disinterest (I have witnessed this on many occassions) including my own. Of course, in my case, there was the God factor, too -- as in God said, "go with Ray to China". So I went.

Those ten days in China taught me something unexpected about why God put that nation on the map; at least when it comes to American Christians like myself. See, people like me think the only reason God would send them to China would be to somehow change China. I suppose that could be true in the same way a raindrop might change Lake Superior. But really (I came to discover) it's about how China changes you, especially if you get to hang out with the believers there in the underground church. Especially if you are doing that with Ray.

Let me ask you: can you always connect the dots in your life? Do you know why God has you go through this thing or that thing that seems (as the kids say today) "totally random"? It's been several years since I bounced around China with Ray and our small team and I'm still unpacking the spiritual bags I brought back from that relatively brief experience. I see now that my exposure to the life of the underground church in China gave me an instinct about the power of church as network that I could never have really appreciated otherwise -- something I didn't know I was going to need the way I need it now. And those people...their generosity, their passion for Christ, their vitality and their simplicity; they truly rocked my world. As someone recently observed about another people group of similar constitution: "I marvel at how much they do with so little and at how little we (the American church) do with so much".

Ray and his family used to live in China and he speaks fluent Chinese which, if you met Ray on an airplane or something, you would suspect about as much as you would suspect him to be an expert on nuclear physics, artichokes or women's fashion. Ray doesn't present as a Chinese man trapped in a tall, middle-aged white man's body. But when I saw Ray counsel and pray and teach and preach and translate and relate to people in China it was like watching Clark Kent go into a phone both and burst out a minute later as Superman. Stunning.

But now, Ray lives in Illinois and not Shanghai. He's there mostly because God called him to drill for oil. Of course, given who Ray and his wife are, that includes tons of "ministry" within and without the local church scene there as well. And the truth is that it's been really, really hard on Ray and his wife to completely reconfigure their lives to accept this call to drill for oil instead of serve the Lord in China. But one thing you get pretty quickly about Ray is that he understands that his life is not his own and that following God means going wherever He leads. And because Ray and Christine are visionaries AND a hard-workers, I keep them close.

So, in my next post, I'll tell you more about that phone call.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Utter Aloneness of Exercised Faith

There is an aloneness to faith that is not often mentioned when great faith is discussed. It's understandable that we typically focus on the more victorious aspects of faith -- the ones that involve the payoff of faith put into action. But the resolutions, the victories, and the happy endings of faith are only one part of the story (usually the end). Let the record show that faith, if it is truly acted upon, has another dimension that involves feelings of utter aloneness.

This is because exercised faith takes you into regions no other human being can share with you. Only God can be with you there, though even He may seem utterly absent at times. In his classic book The Road Less Traveled, author Scott Peck speaks of this aloneness in his chapter on Grace. He talks about it in terms of the aloneness of leadership but, of course, leaders are by definition people who exercise their faith.

Dr. Peck cautions those who would pursue deeper spiritual development to prepare for the inevitable aloneness that goes with achieving that goal. He speaks of how Jesus chould not bring even His closest followers beyond a certain point as He moved into those place His faith and insight led Him. He hints that this aloneness (which he differentiates from loneliness) would be unbearable but for the very grace of God itself.

My recent steps of faith have renewed my own acquaintance with the broader aspects of faith's dimensions. Along with the exhiliration and adventure I have felt as I have stepped out into my own new calling, I have also known persistent feelings of deep aloneness at a level I have not felt for some time. And, since the flip side of faith is doubt, I have known that too. I am stunned by how quickly these doubts can pop up and then disappear again -- literally like the flip of a coin. At such times I suddenly doubt myself, doubt my abilities, doubt my choices, doubt my future, doubt my obedience to God itself. It's not so much that I question if I have done the right thing, it is more that I question whether I have done the right thing in the right way.

It is at such times that I feel the utter aloneness of exercised faith. I take comfort from seeing that my Bible heroes know this turf. Abram and Sarai, Joseph and Jeremiah, Elijah and David and Jesus and Paul -- all of them could testify to faith's shadow side as easily as they could praise its shining brightness. Yet even though I know that I am (as the old hymn says) "trodding where the saints have trod", I find this path to be unbearable at times. Thank God He gives a greater grace for, without it, there could be no path at all.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Your Church Can Flop!

Pity the American pastor. Over the past couple of generations there has been a clear and consistent shift in what is expected of him (or, in some cases, her) as a church leader. Just look at the host of articles, ads, books, seminar opportunities and the like that address how “we” (that is, pastors) can make “our church” grow. Just explore a website like to see what I mean. Here you can find a boatload of resources to “make your ministry more effective”. By clicking on the “Growth Products” tab, the needy pastor can access resources such as the book Welcome to the Family which claims to contain the: “Way to Unlock the Secret to Growing Your Church… Guaranteed”. The come-on continues:

“You’re working hard to build your congregation. Even though you bring new people to Christ, you can’t quite seem to grow. As quickly as you bring them in the front door, they slip out the back door. Now you can close the back door---forever!”

Don’t you love how that whole spiel characterizes the pastor and their calling?

I gotta admit; these marketers have really done their homework. By tapping into the latent guilt many pastors feel about how “they” can’t get “their church” to achieve a net gain (even after “they” have brought “new people to Christ”), the purveyors of these products have effectively identified their target. In my opinion, their message to church leaders comes down to this: “YOU are the problem. YOU work hard but not smart. YOU bring new people to Christ but YOU can’t seem to grow (after all: YOU ARE your church, pastor). YOU are letting them “slip out the back door”. But YOU are also the solution! YOU can get it right (if you, ahem, buy and implement our book) and make YOUR church grow successfully… guaranteed!” How inspiring!

All of this makes me think of those display boards churches used to mount in their sanctuaries back in the day. Have you seen those things? Each week there would be an updated account of the prior week’s attendance and giving figures there for all to see. I can remember hearing Jack Hayford remark some years ago that if you turn one of those things over and look on the back you’ll find it inscribed with the words: “Made in Hell”. Could it be that the whole notion of “YOU” growing “YOUR CHURCH” came off the same diabolical drawing board below? Who knows? One thing I can say with certainty, however, is that it didn’t come from Jesus.

“I will build my church”, Jesus said (Matthew 16: 18). He did not say: “YOU will build my church”, or “I will build YOUR church”, or “YOU will build YOUR church (for me).” But I can tell you from personal experience that if you could overhear a room full of pastors talking about their lives, their concerns, their plans, their hopes and their dreams (not to mention their needs and frustrations) you would think they’d never heard of these words of Jesus.

When church leaders talk from their hearts, it is clear that -- whether they realize it or not -- they have come to define “growing their church” in corporate terms (i.e., bigger market share). This definition of church leadership success is just so pervasive that many have come to see achieving it as their number one responsibility as a spiritual leader. But check it out: statistics tell us that only 5% of American churches are “mega” (2,000 or more average weekend attendance). Furthermore, the average church in America still numbers less than 100 and church attendance here is at an all-time low and declining more with each passing year. This leaves the vast majority of pastors feeling like THEY are the problem and that THEY are failing in their vocation. It’s heartbreaking to think of how many pastors secretly believe that if they could “unleash the secrets of church growth” then “THEIR CHURCH” could “grow”.

But the truth is more like this: someone has handed a whole bunch of good men and women a terminally broken system (churchianity) that has already failed Europe and is steadily losing ground in the rest of the West and then told them: “This used to work for most. It still works for some. Now -- if you want to be a success -- make it work for YOU”. The more I think about this, the angrier I get.

So, I’ve got a different message for frustrated pastors who feel like they are a walking, breathing failure: “YOUR church can flop!” In fact, if what YOU are building is YOUR church, then let it flop. It’s the only hope you have of fulfilling your true calling. Stop spending YOUR time and energy blowing air into the punctured beach ball of American churchianity. Doing so only continues to spread the disease of contemporary consumer spirituality to what remains of the faithful.

Pastor, church leader, elder -- listen to me: it is time for you to return to your first love. It is time for you to re-discover Jesus and the Church HE is building. It is time to re-discover the gospel, the mission of God and the value of a life lived for the kingdom. It is time launch your quest for something more in God and see where it takes you. And, who knows, fellow traveler, perhaps, one day, our paths will cross.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

"I Feel Like Saying a Beatnik Poem"

All you'll be able to say is, "wow!"

Keeping in Touch With My Inner Dylan

I have long been a fan of Bob Dylan -- not just the music, but the man, or better yet, the mystique. Dylan the archetype. Dylan the poet-jokerman-philosopher (and, oh yeah, musician). In his heyday, no could touch his ability to present art with such a mixture of conviction and detachment. The iconic Dylan of the 60’s with the sunglasses, the frizzed up hair and the polka-dot shirt defied the conventional by taking it on directly and without apology. Love him or hate him, you were going to have to make a decision about Dylan the man and the things he confronted you with -- starting with that voice and those jagged harmonica stylings. In his music, in his interviews, in his lifestyle he kept telling us he didn’t care what we thought of him. Our reaction was our own business. Then, he would hit us with another shockwave. It was a scenario perfectly suited for colossal failure --or enduring influence. All or nothing.

Dylan filed regular reports from the edge of the world as he saw it. He did it his way and, at times, with very uneven skill. Nevertheless, a lot of people began to rely upon him to express their feelings for them. Dylan somehow became their chosen prophet -- “the voice of a generation” -- a role which he seemed to both hate and feed. Once his legend was established, the sight of Bob Dylan confidently and carelessly striding out on the cultural tight wire was in itself enough to keep us watching. His refusal to be limited or defined by “what worked” last year kept us guessing about what could possibly come next.

In an era of sappy love songs and bubblegum dance hits, Bob Dylan fearlessly roamed the range of human relationships from one end to the other and told us what he experienced. One minute it was: “Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm’; and the next: “I wish that for just one day you could step inside my shoes, then you’d know what a drag it is to see you.” Who else was taking these kinds of chances with song lyrics? Bobby Darin? Frankie Valie? Herman’s Hermits? Not even The Beatles were this unblinking in their observations. But somehow or another, this skinny anti-hero connected (against all odds) with a mass audience. Think about it: who else but Bob Dylan could perform a mocking, gloating chronicle of the downfall of an over privileged girl called Like a Rolling Stone and actually have it become a radio hit?

Ultimately, what stands out about Bob Dylan is the same thing every unforgettable artist possesses. It is the willingness to take on your world in the courage of your convictions. The sweet spot of any creative gift is to ask no other question but “do I tell it like I really see it?” In the mega-buck world of contemporary entertainment where there is so much at stake, fewer and fewer people seem to grapple with this question. The fawning and calculated impact of the entertainment culture has even, it is sad to say, found a home in the contemporary mainstream evangelical church in ways both obvious and oh so subtle.

In a way, it seems inevitable that Dylan and Jesus should find one another as they did in the late 1970’s. For a brief time, we Christians clapped our hands in delight as the “voice of his generation” voiced biblical convictions about salvation (Saved), the end of the age (Slow Train Coming), and even the tender reassurance of devotion (Every Grain of Sand). But, before long, Dylan’s Christian phase was “over”.-- though not before he had managed to offend everyone from his puzzled fellow believers, to his angry fans, to his ever-vigilant critics. In typical fashion, Dylan did not spend a lot of time explaining himself. But then that never was his style.

These days, even I can’t quite deal with the contemporary Bob Dylan as an artist. His croaky voice is just too hard for me to listen to (imagine that!) and I find the fact that he performs at Indian Gaming Casinos less-than-inspiring. It’s not that I begrudge him his success or his final chances to stand on a stage and do what he does. It’s just that there just doesn’t seem to be much left for Bob Dylan to say that he hasn’t already said. And yet, when I listen to the old music or watch the old videos, something inside rises up within me. It is something challenging, powerful and even a little bit depressing. It is the question: “do I tell it like I really see it?” And because I know the answer is sometimes “no”, I try to keep in touch with my inner Dylan.

Crown Valley Vineyard's Last Slide Show Video

Friday, August 22, 2008

What Andrew Said

Back in June, my son, Andrew, published this post on his blog. I told him I considered it my Father's Day gift. Now, I share it with you.

Bill Faris has been a pastor for longer than I have been his son. Two weeks ago he told his church of just under one hundred people that his church will cease existing as early as August. The Crown Valley Vineyard has been in South Orange County for all of its eight year life and has done remarkably well. I know of few members who passively sit by on Sundays as if that was all that being a part of a church meant. Church members genuinely desire to grow in Christ and evidence that by consistent giving of their time and money, not to mention their attention at most church gatherings.

The community is tight knit. Even this last weekend on a church men’s retreat, men were, as we have now been able to expect on such retreats, beautifully open and honest about their struggles and equally responsive with exhortations and encouragements. There is passionate worship, a good children’s ministry, and biblical preaching and teaching (including frequent guest preaching from regular members of the church, even if not pastors). So it should come as no surprise that upon hearing the news at our church family meeting two weeks ago, many were upset to the point of weeping. Understandably so: not only has the church done well according to general church standards, but many of those who wept at that meeting had personally seen their lives and marriages saved and their relationships with Jesus come to some vibrancy thanks to my Father and other church leaders (through Christ, of course).

Thus the natural question: why does a successful pastor shut down his church? Is it moral failure? Dryness in personal relationship with Christ? Family problems? A mid-life crisis?No. My Father is incredibly godly, walks in daily communion with the Lord, loves his wife and kids, and is thoroughly pleased with what Jesus has used him for in this life, most certainly including as the pastor of the Crown Valley Vineyard, which he calls the best years of ministry he has ever had. The answer is somewhat the opposite of any of those proposed above. My Father is utterly convinced both that the Lord has worked powerfully and still has much work he wants to do with the people that thus far have comprised the Crown Valley Vineyard. This is why he has thoughtfully and prayerfully decided to close his church.

At least three factors have combined to make this move happen. First, even when your church is good at giving, it is financially difficult to have a building in South Orange County. Almost all of the money that the church has is spent on simply sustaining itself which is so frustrating when there are so many needs in the wider community and in the world more generally. Second, the church as it is now does not meet non-believers with the gospel. If we are not mobilizing to be missionaries in our local communities in eight years despite having a great church family, we need to rethink things from the ground up. Attractional model church does not work for the generations younger than the baby boomers. We must go to the world and we are failing to do so as we are currently constituted. I plan on writing more broadly on this topic in the future. Third, my Dad sees his role as a leader shifting from pastor-shepherd to mentor-empowerer for younger generations. My Dad is powerfully aware of an obvious truth: he will die. Seeing as he is closer to death than to life, he now sees the need to develop the next generation of leaders to continue Christ’s work. Younger leaders need to be developed who will both now and later be equipped to reach their own (read: my own) generation with the gospel, and we need to spend huge money on ourselves to do that.

The Church- and now I do not just speak of the Crown Valley Vineyard- must get away from trying to get people to come to it if it will survive in America when the Baby Boomers die. The brothers and sisters who have heretofore made up the Crown Valley Vineyard are realizing those same things, and that is why the weeping was overshadowed by passionate exhortations to take heart and jump in with the vision of bringing Jesus to the world at that church meeting two weeks ago. Church will still happen, even if it looks different than it has (house churches are a real possibility), largely because believers are realizing that church is a group of people rather than a place you go. And I am thus encouraged that people like my Dad are thoughtfully and carefully following the Lord’s leading over his church to do His work in the world. Pardon the length of this post: it is an issue close to my heart both in my own thinking and studying and because it so directly involves my family. My hope is that, like the story of my friend Jacque saving a child’s life, it will encourage some to see the way theology is touching the life of the church and continue in the pursuit of following the leading of Christ in this world well.

Posted by Andrew Faris

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sunday Morning Strange

It's Sunday morning and I'm not in church and I'm not on vacation. I'm at home. Over a lifetime of church leadership and ministry, my Sunday mornings planned themselves. The plan included me, my wife, and my children too. We all knew what to do on Sunday morning: go to church. But today is different than any Sunday I can remember.

Today, Robin is working at the hospital, Jeanne Ann is away at summer camp and it's just the Taits at home with me and Matthew. Tonight, I'll be leading a training that includes a prayer meeting and teaching / discussion time. But as this Sunday morning came and went, I was at home instead of sitting in a worship service in somebody else's church.

What, I suddenly wonder, do my neighbors (the non-churchgoing majority) do with their Sunday mornings anyway? Funny -- I haven't had a thought like that in years. I start to silently scheme about what I could do to open my home to my neighbors on a given Sunday. Should I hold an open house pancake breakfast like the Bagley's? A free car wash? Take a prayer walk with my eyes wide-open? How can I become a part of my neighbor's lives and routine after hoping for years that they would become a part of mine?

How weird to think of Sunday as just another day. For so long, it has been THE BIG DAY (the one I spent all week preparing for). But today, as I reflect on what Sunday represents to my unchurched neighbors, I find myself considering that Sundays may be the day that some of them dread most. Witness the following Kris Kristofferson lyrics:

On the Sunday morning sidewalk,Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
'Cos there's something in a Sunday,Makes a body feel alone.
And there's nothin' short of dyin',
as lonesome as the sound,
On the sleepin' city sidewalks:Sunday mornin' comin' down.

For the first time in a long, long time I'm thinking about my neighbors (instead of myself or my congregation) on a Sunday morning. And it's strange -- and, somehow, right.
--Bill Faris