Loon’s linkage (March/April ’13)

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Book review: Creating a Missional Culture

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Creating a Missional CultureWho has time to read every new book with the word “missional” in its title?

Personally, I haven’t always been a fan of how this buzzword gets used, whether to baptize PR strategies aimed at boosting Christianity’s poll numbers or to unveil ecclesiological secrets promising to revolutionize the face of ministry as we know it. Protests of market-driven megachurches and program-driven pragmatism may still have their place—complete with nifty charts contrasting specific straw man A with nebulous ideal B—but many of these critiques spend more energy deconstructing dystopias than supplying a sustainable way forward.

In other words, I don’t buy into all things declared “missional.”

But this book is a gem.

With its unique blend of realism, optimism, practical how-to and theological why-to, JR Woodward’s Creating a Missional Culture (IVP, 2012) integrates the very best of recent contributions on mission and culture into a compelling vision of the local church equipped for the world’s sake. This is not another how-to-replicate-my-results-in-your-church book. Nor is it another predictably peevish protest of church caricatures. On the contrary, JR (who follows me on Twitter so I can call him JR, right?) has served up a delectable feast of multi-layered insights gleaned from his years as a church planter and ministry practitioner.

In Part 1, JR defines key terms and details the power of culture dynamics, both in society at large and within the local church. Synthesizing influential thinkers like Lesslie Newbigin, Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf, Jamie Smith, Tim Keller and Andy Crouch, JR describes six elements of the “cultural web” (language, artifacts, narratives, rituals, institutions, ethics) as well as five kinds of environments needed for the creation of missional culture (learning, healing, welcoming, liberating, thriving). Citing Suzanne Morse, he introduces the concept of “polycentric leadership,” first as an outworking of Ephesians 4, then as an alternative to both centralized and flat leadership structures.

Part 2 looks at how shifts in media, philosophy, science and religion provoke a shift toward polycentric leadership. JR contends these shifts have “highlighted the vulnerabilities of a hierarchical leadership structure” and therefore, “shared leadership engenders greater trust in those who are cynical to truth and power.” (p. 76) Asserting that structures are theological statements, he proposes that “the church ought to be led by a Spirit-gifted polycentric team of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers who model and equip their fellow priests in the communal way of life patterned after our triune God.” (p.92) JR further submits that polycentric leadership can be good for one’s emotional health, enhancing the pursuit of wholeness and interdependence in community.

Part 3 forms the book’s core, providing a detailed look at each of the five-fold equippers, rooted in an understanding of Jesus himself as the ultimate culture creator who was concurrently the archetypical apostle (dream awakener), prophet (heart revealer), evangelist (story teller), pastor (soul healer) and teacher (light giver). Employing a mix of ministry anecdotes and vivid examples, JR’s chapter-length portrayals of each role are where the book shines brightest. The chapters on five-fold ministry close with reflection questions to help readers discern which equipper they are. While reading these winsome depictions blending freshness and familiarity, I often found myself thinking, “I’ve never thought about it that way, but it totally makes sense.”

In Part 4, the book concludes with practical implications for embodying a missional culture in one’s particular context. Recalling the cultural web’s six elements introduced in Part 1, JR suggests ways to apply core practices and liturgies to the rhythms of a neighborhood church. Using Jamie Smith’s notion of “thick, bodily practices that engage our senses, grab our hearts, form our identities and reshape our desires,” (p. 188) JR advises specific practices corresponding to each of the five equippers, such as solitude for prophets and confession for pastors. The final chapters offer further specifics on possible strategies for multiplying disciples, commissioning equippers and implementing polycentric leadership.

Tightly written with thoughtful eloquence, this is not just another book with a trendy title. Creating a Missional Culture is a gold mine for anyone desiring to see Christians flourish in their giftings. If you are new to the missional conversation (or skeptical of its veracity), here is an outstanding primer on the local church’s role in God’s redemptive purposes. If you are steeped in the latest church-planting lingo, this book will spur imaginative reflection on the possibilities of polycentric leadership. Thanks to its accessible, yet expansive theological vision loaded with practical wisdom, I suspect this will become an essential text for ministry practitioners of diverse backgrounds, especially those with an affinity for Newbigin’s thought.

[Also: A free online five-fold equipper assessment can be found at JR’s website.]

Loon’s linkage (January/February ’13)

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  • LoonA field guide for pastoral facial hair
  • Philip Yancey suggests a 5-word summary of the Bible.
  • Robert Chao Romero reflects on growing up half-Chinese and half-Mexican.
  • Gregory Wolfe on the “whispered” faith of today’s literature
  • High school math teacher Jake Scott raps about the “Quadradic Formulatic.”
  • Alexandra Bradner on why America’s “favorite joke” is anything but funny.
  • Gary Brinn lists 9 secrets your pastor can’t share in a sermon.
  • David Brooks outlines the economic case for comprehensive immigration reform.
  • Jen Pollock Michel on why being skinny is not a Christian virtue
  • Edward Gilbreath laments that “our nation’s collective imagination and humanity are no longer big enough to tolerate an America where we can practice loving our neighbors, even as we disagree with their politics.”
  • David Gushee reframes (and reminds us) what it means to say one is an “evangelical.”
  • NYT interviews Tim Keller on our “strange relationship with the idea of work.”
  • CT remembers the late Richard Twiss.
  • Alan Jacobs tells extraverts (while insisting on spelling it that way) to “just leave us alone.”

Why the local church?

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church artThe church is no ordinary organization. We know this intuitively, as even the word ‘church’ can provoke strong reactions. Many of my postmodern peers seek deep spirituality, but resist the concept of church, preferring instead to identify as spiritual but not religious.

Comparing the church to other kinds of organizations is tricky. Every local church has a financial component, yet is not a business. It helps those in need, but is not strictly a non-profit. It facilitates teaching and learning, but is not a school. It offers encouragement for weary souls, but is not merely a support group for insiders. It cares about issues of public justice, but is not a political action committee (despite predictable schemes to use it as one).

Indeed, there is no organization of people quite like the church.

Lesslie Newbigin wrote, “The church lives in the midst of history as a sign, instrument and foretaste of the reign of God.” (The Open Secret, p. 110) If Newbigin was correct, the church is not just another interest group gathered to make a difference, but the community through which God does his best work. Started by the Holy Spirit as an alternative community proclaiming the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and return, the church is Christ’s body in the world. Each local expression forms the visible community through which all lasting differences are made. Together we are a sign, instrument and foretaste of the kingdom.

That the church has made a ton of mistakes over the centuries is undeniable. Our shortcomings have been well-documented, our failings familiar to postmodern ears. Now as ever, our flawed attempts at mission hinge on divine grace and continual repentance. Since the early days, quirky collections of Jesus followers have found ways to locally gather, break bread and share life. In community, we find God’s remedy for isolation, immaturity and individualism. Without the Holy Spirit, there is no church. But without the church, there is no true communion of sinners and saints.

If anything, the church’s failures point to a greater, not lesser, need for common unity centered around Christ. When considered from a global perspective across time and cultures, the church is remarkably resilient. I cannot think of another voluntary association of people representing all ages and backgrounds that meets weekly, year-round in almost every nation on earth and has a 2000-year history of adaptation and survival.

The church has outlived the rise and fall of tyrannical empires, philosophical movements, socioeconomic conditions, cultural shifts and technological advances. And while Euro-Anglo religious structures decline in the West, the global, multicultural church has risen to unprecedented vitality in places like China, Nigeria and Brazil. According to historian Mark Noll, “Close to half of Christian believers who have ever lived are alive right now.” (New Shape of World Christianity, p. 21)

As former Christian “majorities” of North and West reverse roles with former “minorities” of South and East, I believe the global church’s best days are yet to come—not because we’re so clever in keeping it afloat with the latest techniques, but because God’s hands are all over this project.

2012 in Stringerland

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fireworksAs I write this, our boys sleep peacefully undisturbed (so far) by the sound of neighborhood fireworks heralding 2013’s arrival. Much has happened in Stringerland in the past 365 days since last New Year’s Eve. Perhaps the question is not, what has changed? but what hasn’t?

For starters, there is a new person in our family. On November 23 we welcomed Andre Wing Yee Stringer, whose middle name means “eternal virtue.” Andre’s cuddly 22-inch presence makes him an unrivaled celebrity whose birth eclipses all other family news for the year. But plenty of transitions were underway even before Andre made his grand entrance.

2012 saw a new school for our kindergartener Theo, a new job for Rebecca, a new job for myself and a new church family for all of us. After 7 years in social services with intermittent roles in bi-vocational ministry, I began my first full-time pastoral ministry position in September. We shifted gears from an older, mainline congregation in a high church tradition to a larger evangelical congregation full of families and children. I went from a federal job in social (but still spiritual) work to a local church position in spiritual (but still social) work. My paychecks no longer come from your taxes; they now come from your tithes!

2012 was also a year of new discoveries and learning experiences for me personally. I visited 7 churches in 9 days, attended a lecture by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and completed 4 seminary courses in through Fuller online (Pentateuch, Christian Ethics, OT Writings, Systematic Theology). I also discovered something they call tweeting in June and haven’t looked back. After much deliberation and apprehension, I took the plunge on my first ever smartphone—and love it!

Other wonderful things I discovered in 2012 included the joy of swimming beneath Waimea Falls, the taste of souvlaki, the voice of Paula Fuga, the songwriting of Marty Haugen, the theological mind of Wolfhart Pannenberg, the practice of Election Day Communion, the Ecclesia Leadership podcast, and some show called The Wire. Oh, and it didn’t hurt that my favorite baseball team won the World Series.

If 2010 was a year of searing loss and 2011 was dominated by grief, 2012 was a year of fresh beginnings. It’s not that we’ve finished grieving or that new experiences necessarily equal better ones. But it does mean we’re still growing, still trying, still kicking. Maybe all my dreams didn’t die with Vincent.

Maybe God’s hope has surrounded us all along.

Loon’s linkage (October–December ’12)

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Film log (2012)

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Here’s a list of the movies I watched in 2012, admittedly not as diverse as last year’s list of gems and duds. No profound agenda here, just another excuse for a year-end lookback (most recent views at the top).

1. Les Misérables, 2012

2. Safety Not Guaranteed, 2012

3. The Narnia Code, 2009

4. The Hunt for Red October, 1990

5. Courage Under Fire, 1996

6. Flight, 2012

7. The Bodyguard, 1992

8. Page One: Inside the New York Times, 2011

9. Up in the Air, 2009

10. LOTR: The Return of the King (extended), 2003

11. LOTR: The Two Towers (extended), 2002

12. LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring (extended), 2001

13. The Bourne Legacy, 2012

14. Super 8, 2011

15. Seeds of Hope, 2012

16. Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, 2010

17. The Dark Knight Rises, 2012

18. The Dark Knight, 2008

19. Batman Begins, 2005

20. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, 2011

21. Moonrise Kingdom, 2012

22. Glory, 1989

23. The Woman in Black, 2012

24. The Way, 2010

25. Get Low, 2009

26. The Iron Lady, 2011

27. Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, 1994

28. Wonders of the Solar System, 2010

29. Win Win, 2011

30. The Artist, 2011

31. Safe House, 2012

32. Higher Ground, 2011

33. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, 2011

34. Of Gods and Men, 2010

35. Waiting for Superman, 2010

36. Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, 2005

37. Moneyball, 2011

38. Exit Through the Gift Shop, 2010

39. My Run, 2009

40. The Ides of March, 2011

41. Witness, 1985

42. The Taking of Pelham 123, 2009

43. Millions, 2004

44. Midnight in Paris, 2011

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