College Air Conditioner Wars

The apartment had been hot for a week.   It didn’t seem to matter how low we set the air conditioner, the poor thing was unable to keep up.

Well, that’s not completely true.  My and Zach’s room was fine…cold actually.  It seemed only the central common room, kitchen, and Peter and Phil’s room that were suffering.

Every time I came into the apartment I pondered the problem, “Maybe the air conditioner is going out?  One of us should go check the filter, or call the apartment complex, or something.”  But none of us had time for that.  We were all extremely active juniors in college.  Between classes, studying, social activities, and church stuff none of us had time to address minor problems like half the apartment being 90+ degrees.

It’s amazing what problems you can put off until tomorrow when your busy.

It was a Thursday afternoon when everything blew up.  Phil and I were sitting on the couch sweating.  At first we were both sitting in silence roasting together.  Then Phil let go a loud, “AHHHHH!  It is freak’in hot bro!”  We were both erupted in hysterical laughter.  The humidity had driven us to delirium.

That was when an incredibly sweaty Peter erupted from his room clutching something tightly in his fist.   Lines of anger ran across his forehead.  “Where is Zach?” he said with an eerie calm.

“What’cha got there?” Phil said with a grin.

Peter released his death grip to reveal a crumpled piece of notebook paper with holes poked in it.  I stared at his hand in confusion until Peter pointed to the vent in the living room and said, “Look!”  There behind the vent was another piece of paper.  Peter darted into his room and re-emerged with a screw driver.  Grabbing a chair from the kitchen to stand on, he went to work on the vent.

Like clock work the front door opened and in came Zach.  “Oh man.  You found them.” he said to a glaring Peter.

“Why would you do this?” Peter said with rage.

“When I said my room was hot you said it was tough luck.  I don’t believe in luck so I decided to fix it.”  Zach said with a grin.

My mind flashed back to a conversation I had witnessed two weeks ago in the kitchen.  Zach was complaining that our room was always hot while Peter and Phil’s room seemed cool.  Peter had made some smart comment about it and then Zach had left the room in silence.  At the time I didn’t think anything of the silence.  We were tight friends.  Poking fun at each other was no big deal.  Looking up at Peter on a chair and then looking over at Zach’s grin, I realized that Zach’s silence had not been acceptance and defeat but rather the birth of a plan.  Zach had a twisted genius we all loved, laughed at, and feared.

All Peter’s rage was gone.  Now only shock remained.  He said, “Bro, you can’t just do stuff like this.”

Zach smiled and said, “I won’t do that again.”  Then he went to his room leaving us to wonder at the emphasis he had placed on the word “that”.

Peter looked at Phil and I confused.  Phil started laughing.  I laughed too and said, “I’m going to bed.  It’s cooler in there.  See you guys in the morning.”

College Air Conditioner Wars

Struggling with My Consumer Christianity

I’ve been processing what it means to have a lifestyle centric definition of church a lot lately.  If you want to jump to the beginning of the conversation click here.

Many will claim that one of the biggest problem with the American church is the consumer mentality of attendees; and I agree.  We come.  We sit.  We listen.  We leave.  We choose our church by whether or not we have been “fed” by the preacher, or moved by the music, or made comfortable by the security and appearance of the children’s programs.

Some of you right now, who don’t believe you have a consumer mentality, are wondering what is wrong with picking a church by their children’s program.

Am I saying that we should accept crappy unsafe programs for our kids and nobly attend a church that is broken and doesn’t inspire us simply because it is around the corner?  Am I saying that the solution to consumerism is that we all dutifully attend worship services we find irrelevant?  Am I saying that to avoid consumerism we should practice rituals simply because they are provided and not judge their quality?

No.  That is not what I’m saying.

What I am saying is that we shouldn’t define ourselves as “attendees” to begin with.  Defining ourselves as attendees of a church assumes an activities centric definition of church – that being part of a church means participating in a set of activities.  There is no where for this definition of church to lead accept to consumerism.

The first wave focused on combating this consumerism mentality I observed  (keep in mind that I am only in my early 30’s) was the push for “service.”  The theory went something like, “We need to combat consumerism by getting attendees serving in the church.”  So we, the church leadership, provided tons of places to serve – the worship team, sound team, ushers, Sunday School, ministries in the community, etc… The concept was that if you could move people from sitting in the worship gathering to serving in a ministry you would encourage spiritual health and shift people away from consumerism.

But for many of us this only created a funnel effect where most showed up to watch a few serve like crazy.  And in my experience it didn’t heal the consumerism.  Many of those serving like crazy still wanted to be consumers.  They had simply stepped up like martyrs to take on the responsibilities no one else wanted.

Now we are in the middle of this “missional” conversation.  The theory seems to be that to combat consumerism we need to teach and encourage people to see themselves as missionaries.  We need to call them to “be Jesus” in their communities.

Sadly, unless there is a direct assault on our definition of “church”, I fear consumerism will continue to plague us.  We must address this broken understanding that the church is a set of activities we participate in.  As long as church is defined by our activities we will operate as consumerism.

Addressing this I’m learning is no simple task.  Forget addressing it with others…I’m simply talking about combating the consumerism within me.  You see, shifting to a lifestyle centric definition of church – in which being part of a church means living a common lifestyle in the world – is rough.  It demands a massive amount of personal responsibility on my part.  Showing up to stuff is so much easier.

When we first started the Thingy (the church Wendy and I are a part of that gathers on Monday nights) this was a major struggle for all of us.  Shifting from the centralized leadership providing activities focused on spiritual growth to taking responsibility for our own spirituality was rough.  A year and a half into this journey some of us still talk about it.  I constantly catch myself planning big events or asking myself, “So when will a time come when I can just show up to something?”  There was even a period of detox for all of us – a time of intense frustration and pain where we longed to just be consumers.

At the same time.  While the transition away from consumerism has been hard, I’ve never felt more alive in my faith.  I’ve never been closer to Christ.  I’ve never felt so in tune with the New Testament.  For so long I would read scripture and feel my spiritual life was completely disconnected from it.  There were so many things Jesus said that made no sense to me.  Moving to a lifestyle centric definition of church was like removing a veil.  All of a sudden passages that never made sense started connecting.  All of a sudden I felt like a part of the story, not just a reader.

The shift is hard…but it is worth it.

Struggling with My Consumer Christianity

The Adjacent Possible – What I’m Learning about Change

I’ve had the privilege of witnessing a lot of change during this past year.  I’ve watched individuals and institutions struggled with massive shifts in thinking and behavior.  Seeing all of this go on around me has helped me reflect on my own transformation and how I operate as a change agent…and I think I’m learning some stuff…maybe.

Recently I was listening to the Radio Lab pod-cast and picked up a phrase that has brought more depth to my understanding of how change works – “adjacent possible.”

By the by, Radio Lab is fantastic.  If you have and inquisitive mind and currently aren’t listening to it, I would recommend you go try it out.  Not only is it entertaining, its brilliantly informative and creative.

The episode that brought about my current enlightenment is called “What Does Technology Want?”  It is a conversation between Robert Krulwich (one of the Radio Lab hosts), Steven Johnson (author of Where Ideas Come From), and Kevin Kelly (author of What Technology Wants?).  One of the things they talk about in the episode is how ideas develop.  They make the point that people in medieval times could not have conceived of the internet because the necessary steps to the idea of the internet hadn’t been made yet.  Ideas, they explained, develop through the “adjacent possible.”  Change is evolutionary.  To achieve something the proper steps of development have to happen first.

One of the deacons at Valley, a brilliant leader who I admire, pointed this out to me earlier in the year.  We were talking about large system change in the organization and he made the statement, “You have to take people there in steps.  Before they can do it themselves they need to see someone else doing.  They need transitional moves.  They can’t just take a huge leap from A to B.”

I’ve observed that this is true about personal change as well, not just organizational change.

I will put myself up as my own example.  Why were Wendy and I able to embrace the ideas of guys like Alan Hirsch and Neil Cole so quickly?  How were we able to turn on a dime, move away from institutional church, and start thinking about being the church differently?  There were two steps that made the evolution in our thinking possible.

1) My parents were missionaries.  We heard and saw the missionary lifestyle through them.  Missional theology therefore wasn’t such a hard leap.

2) We experience a form of the Cell church model while we were in college.  It made the shift from institutional thinking to more organic thinking easier.

So now I’m really struggling with this statement – “before a leap from A to B can be made by an individual or an organization the adjacent possible has to be present.”

If this is true, should I be approaching change differently?  The vision-centric approach I’ve been taught says put the new picture out their and have people conform to it.  Give them the big end vision and start working to it.  The adjacent possible model (I think) would argue, don’t flood people with the whole all at once.  Work them in a series of steps putting the next necessary step of evolution before them, helping them move toward the goal a little at a time.

The problem is, this concept assumes we can figure out what the steps are toward the goal.  Is that even possible.?

Welcome to the chaos of my mind.  Pull up a chair and join in.  I would love to hear the thoughts of others.

The Adjacent Possible – What I’m Learning about Change

What about house churches? Activities Centric or Lifestyle Centric?

This is a continuation of a discussion.  Jump back to the start by clicking here.

The title “House Church” encompasses so much stuff that even simply defining the model is hard.  Some describe every church that meets in a house as a “house church”, but this definition isn’t helpful because it brings a massive amount of variety under one umbrella.   I’ve known of house churches, for example, that are worship obsessed.  They sing.  They dance.  They do crazy worship stuff that makes me uncomfortable (like Holy laughter…I’m not down with the Holy Laughter).   I’ve known of other house churches that are super institutionalized.  Even though their are only fifteen adults in the room, they have a paid pastor and deacons.   They take up an offering; and they belong to a large denomination. I’ve known other house churches that are all about freedom. There is no planning for each gathering beyond time and place.  “What ever the Spirit leads us to do we are going to do,” a leader once told me.  The point is, there are so many different types, so many different expressions, that the term “house church” really isn’t helpful…but it is out there so we have to use it.

I’ve seen a lot of people moving into these smaller venues of worship in hopes of recapturing vitality in their faith.  “Maybe if we get away from the crowd” they think “our faith will be better.”  Often there is someone in the back ground holding a piece of scripture describing how __________ church met in a house telling everyone that if they would just go small everything else will fix itself.

Just as a side note – the Thingy (the church who gather on Monday nights that Wendy and I are a part of) is not a house church.  We don’t even meet the simplest criteria because we don’t always meet in houses.  We’ve met in restaurants, parks, coffee houses, and back yards.  Really we will gather wherever we can find space for our kids.   I once got in an argument with a Baptist reporter about this.  She was doing an article for the state Baptist paper on all the different church plants going on in Baltimore so she asked me for the name of our group.  I replied, “Well, we intentionally don’t have a name; but we refer to ourselves the as Thingy because we have to call ourselves something.”  She condescendingly said, “Well, I’ll call you in the article ‘the Hamilton House Church.'”  That she thought she could name us really made me angry.  It was on like Donkey Kong.  In the end she ignored me and did what she wanted to.

Back on topic now…

In my experience, house churches are usually comprised of people trying to escape the institutional church setting.  They’ve been burned by church, or they hate the money involved in the institution, or they are put off by obsession with growing the organization, or one of a thousand other bad tastes have formed in their mouths.  They go to the house church model because they find the intimacy of the small group setting refreshing.  It’s different than where they have been so on the outset it has an exciting momentum about it.

Sadly though, in my limited experience, house church people rarely address the underlying issues that brought about the institutional model of church that frustrated them.  They attack the symptoms not the problems.  For example, they leave the large gathering because they are angry about the consumerism it encourages, but they never take the time to figure out what caused that consumerism in that large group setting, so they end up duplicating it in the house church.  After a time they find themselves in a room with 15 adults who want to be fed rather than sitting in a room with 150 adults who want to be fed.

So while I would like to say that moving your faith into a smaller venue will help you move from an activities centric understanding of church to a lifestyle centric understanding of church, the truth is it won’t.  The activity you define church as will simply have less people and you will get to sit on a couch instead of in a row of chairs.

A friend of mine gave me a great illustration today that I’m going to blantantly steal.

When the foundation of a building is cracked you can repaint the walls all day long, but you won’t fix the building that way.  If you hope to fix the building you are going to have to address the foundational problems.

Moving to a lifestyle centric understanding of church doesn’t happen automatically because there are less people in the room…although it is easier to change the hearts and minds of a small group of devoted friends than a mass of attendees.

What about house churches? Activities Centric or Lifestyle Centric?

The Assembly Line that Makes Me Feel Great

Jackson and Julianna’s school is fighting to develop new ways to educate urban kids.  I have learned so much from them in the past two years about myself, about organizations, about education, about leadership…and about church.

Which is funny because it is not a Christian school.  It is a public school lead by brilliant people who are seeking justice for inner city children.

The leadership at the school consistently struggles to explain their vision of education to parents like me.  One illustration they use that has touched my soul is of an assembly line.  (I’m probably going to mess this up some…bear with me.)  They explain that our contemporary form of education was developed during the industrial revolution, the same time as assembly lines and factories.  The system, because of the context in which it was developed, is focused on producing factory type workers in assembly line style.  We bring the kids in.  We sit them down in rows.  We tell them what they need to know.  Then we test by asking them to regurgitate it back to us.  Critical thinking, creativity, and individualization are spoken of but not valued by the system.

Instead, these wonderful educators say, we need to recognize that kids speak a thousand languages.  Yes learning the information is important; but even more important is developing the skill to process it and create with it.  Yes having a foundational instruction is necessary, but not all kids learn in the same way.  Some are visual learners.  Others are auditory.  Others need to experience it.  Others need to feel it.  The truth is every kid learns in many different ways.  Education then, these leaders have taught me, must to personal.  It must be individualized to the child.  No more assembly lines.  Let’s replace them with communities that learn together, embrace each other, and encourage one another to learn.  Teachers move from being experts to living as students of the children they seek to empower.

What breaks my heart is that I see this same problem in our churches.  We bring the people in.  We ramp them up with music.  We then lecture them about life change.  Even when we break them into smaller groups, there is no room for customization.  There is no room for individualization.  We want every group to look the same.  Do the same stuff.  Learn in the same way.  Connect to one another as we, the experts, have deemed is the most effective way to connect.

And from this assembly line mentality our activities centric definition of church has arisen.   Now making the assembly line more effective is the point.

And here is the real problem for me.  I like the assembly line.  I like standing in front of large groups of people and speaking.  I like looking at systems on a white board and strategically planning how to move people from one environment to another.  I like writing curriculum for masses.  I like looking at statistics and debating numbers.

I like it because it makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something.  The problems of the city are so large.  When I am working on a mass of people it feels like I’m getting something done.

And there is the rub.  The church assembly line isn’t really about individuals.  It is about me.  It helps me feel like I’m making a difference.

Individualization is hard.  Sitting over coffee with one person, helping them work through their issues can be discouraging.  Trying to come up with a new strategy for each person you are discipling is tiring.  Not teaching crowds on cool subjects like “A Righteous Marriage”, not writing a series on the latest T.V. show or fad; but rather trying to figure out the core stuff everybody needs and keeping it simple with intense discipline so others can be creative with their own expression of it is tedious.

But it is wonderful because when I focus on individuals I see Jesus in them and am called to worship God as I have never been called before.

The leaders of my kids’ school are killing themselves to change the paradigm because they love kids and want to see them become the absolute most successful adults they can become.

If we, church leaders, also love our people and want them to become more like Jesus everyday, to experience the abundant life more today than yesterday shouldn’t we also be killing ourselves to change the paradigm?

I would be lying to you if I were to say moving to a  lifestyle centric understanding of church was easy.  Its not.  It hurts.  It is a journey full of self-doubt.  I consistently have to kill my ego – that voice within me that starts thinking movements, or masses, or anything beyond the individuals right under my nose.  Every time I put it to death its painful.  Repentance is demanded.  Confessions have to be made.  Surrender has to come.

Yet while the journey may be difficult, it is beautiful; and I am thankful that I live in such a time as this when I have the privilege of embarking on it.

The Assembly Line that Makes Me Feel Great

New Thoughts on Church – Innovation or Discovery

Innovation is creating something new.  For example, when Konrad Zuse put together the Z1 in his parents living room in 1936 giving the world the first programmable computer he was innovating.

Discovery is finding something that is already there.  In 985 when Eric the Red landed his boat on Greenland, he wasn’t innovating.  He didn’t create Greenland.  Eric hadn’t invented anything.  He had discovered and named something that was already there.

When we talk about “new stuff” in church world (like new missional thinking, or emergent theology, or new organic ways of organizing ourselves, or new styles of worship, or putting drums on stage, or having a stage, etc…) it is important for us…okay, me – young leader with ego…to remember that we aren’t inventing.  We are simply rediscovering and relabeling truths about God’s family.

Take the recent posts I’ve been throwing up on Activities Centric thinking of church vs. Lifestyle Centric thinking of church.  This way of talking is new for me.  It excites me because it is fresh and invigorating.  It helps me make sense of the world around me.  It helps me classify and organize feelings in my gut and thoughts in my brain.  But its not new.  There is no innovation going on here.   For example…

Amos 5:21-24

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. 22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.  Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.  But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!  Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the desert, O house of Israel?  You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god– which you made for yourselves. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD, whose name is God Almighty.

Sounds like a “misisonal” lifestyle centric vs. activities centric debate to me.  This whole conversation is not about inventing anything.  It is simply discovery.  And what I’ve been writing about is not even new discovery…more like personal discovery.  I’ve simply stumbled upon some language that helps me make sense of stuff I see around me.  Some of you I’m sure read it and think, “I don’t know what the big deal is.  I’ve thought this way for years.”

Anywho…I share this because I’m going to continue on this activities centric vs. lifestyle centric train of thought for a while (I’ve got a lot more to work out) and I wanted us all to be on the same page.

New Thoughts on Church – Innovation or Discovery

Mission Statements vs. Lifestyle Centric Understanding of Church – Contrasting Examples

To get the back story on this post click here and then here.

After yesterday’s post I’m feeling the opening line of Eminem’s Love the Way You Lie, “I can’t tell you what it really is, I can only tell you what it feels like…”  So maybe sharing some of my experiences with mission statements and statements created out of a Lifestyle Centric Understanding of church will help get my thoughts across.

Building and Using a Mission Statement

While on staff at one church a few years back I was commissioned to redesign the church’s small group system.  The church had a small group system already.  The groups were creeping along, but they were clunky and unfocused (I had helped create that system as well, so this attempt was a redo).  We, the staff team, were frustrated by the current Purpose Driven system we had been living and needed a change.  Recently we had stumbled upon  North Point’s foyer, living room, kitchen model and felt it was a perfect fit.  Our Sunday morning worship service was rocking awesome – fantastic worship, strong-relevant-personal messages, solid setting; but we needed a good living rooms and kitchen’s to back it up.

So I called together a bunch of leaders and potential leaders and we got to work.  We combed through scripture together.  We looked at other models else where.  We brainstormed at 6am over coffee and donuts.  We debated, white boarded ideas, laughed, and argued some more until finally we landed on a system of discipleship that we believed would begin to build intimacy and empower group members to grow.  At the center of the system was a great mission statement – We will provide opportunities for discipleship through environments that foster accountability, community, and time with God (A.C.T).

Once the theoretical system had passed through the staff team for tweaking, we were off to the races of implementation.  We began training the existing groups in how to practice ACT.  We did a huge sign up campaign and launched new groups.  We developed a new tracking and reporting system (a very cool excel sheet that took in weekly ACT scores, attendance, and visitors from each group and pumped out an estimation of group health…that was a cool toy built by Ben Piccone, the Excel Ninja).  We recruited coaches that would continuously provide the small group leaders with support.  And finally we trimmed the fat.  Everything not focused on ACT either had to change or it was allowed to die off.   The by product of all this effort was a great growing small group system that involved over 85% of the congregation.

Every mission statement / system redesign I’ve been a part of, whether it was at a ministry level or a whole church level, has followed this pattern – build the statement, implement in the activities, people practice.

Building and Using a Lifestyle Centric Understanding Statement

As I said before, this is very new for me.  I’m only on round two right now with Valley (my first go was with the Thingy) and the Thingy is only a year and a half into practice; but I can already see some core stuff that distinguishes this practice from the formation and application of a mission statement.

With the Thingy, again, as with it was with building a mission statement, a team of leaders and potential leaders were assembled.  (All Thingy members reading this are now wondering if they were a leader or a potential leader and that makes me laugh.)  We too combed through scripture.  We too looked at existing models.  We tpp brainstormed, white boarded, debated, compromised, etc…  But what we landed on was not a system of discipleship.  Rather it was a pattern of life.

Of course the statement defining that lifestyle looked very much like a mission statement, “We will love God and love people by living in a way defined by humility, forgiveness, service, worship wonder, and surrender.”   And if we were planning to use it as a mission statement, at this point we would have then built activity around it.  Conversations like, “A, B, and C activities help us practice humility and give us an opportunity to serve so they are cool.  Activities D and E don’t encourage any part of the mission statement so they are out…”  We then would have taken the good activities and figured out how to work them into a cohesive flow so that they harmonized rather than compete with one another.

By accident, we weren’t smart enough to do this on purpose, we went a different route.  Instead of focusing on activities that encouraged the lifestyle, we started living it out in our communities.  Each one of us took the lifestyle statement and translated it into our existing world.  How one person lived it at their restaurant was completely different than how Wendy and I lived it at our school.  The statement was open sourced.  We gave it to one another to struggle with.

Activities came.  We do gather.  But the content and structure of those activities are not built off the Lifestyle statement.  Rather we constantly ask each other, what do you need right now to keep yourself refreshed and keep the lifestyle going.  Sometimes the answer has been worship.  Sometimes it has been teaching.  Right now it seems to be prayer and scripture discovery.  Living as missionaries in our communities, struggling with this common style is what hold us together.  Not the stuff we do.

So is living out of a lifestyle centric understanding of church the same is centering what we do around a mission statement?  I don’t think so.

Some of you have been on teams with me that both built a mission statement and are now are part of the Thingy.  What do you think?

Mission Statements vs. Lifestyle Centric Understanding of Church – Contrasting Examples