Inward First

Inward First

An observation as one who spends his days making disciples…One challenge in discipleship is that most adults have never been taught to pay attention to their inner life.

Whenever I am troubled in any way, the rush is to find external explanations for what I am experiencing. In that sense, the cause of my discomfort is always outside of me – someone or something else has caused it. In my mind, I tell myself that if I could just change that circumstance, go to a different place, surround myself with different people, all would be great. That’s what I tell myself, but I know all along that it’s not actually true.  The truth is actually much closer to me than I’d like to admit.

There’s an old adage which says, “wherever you go, you are there.” Do you remember that one? Sobering words, right?

 
In the rush to find an external cause for our every discomfort or misadventure, we forfeit the golden opportunity to look inward. Though often avoided, looking inward is an incredibly powerful practice that we must discover or rediscover if we are ever to mature spiritually and emotionally. Learning to look inward and inward first, is an essential part of living a “whole and holy” life.

As a pastor and leader, this is especially true for me. Tending to my inner life is a 24/7 gig and it’s not easy at all. Yet, I lean into this practice because of the reality that who we are internally will eventually show up externally. Rather than being paralyzed by the fear of how your inner brokenness might eventually show up and wreak havoc on your life and the life of those around you, why not get started on the work of becoming aware of your inner life and working to transform it? As you getting started in this work, may I suggest a resource?

 

The single best modern resource that I’ve come across for practice of inner transformation is a book called The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Pete Scazzero. Helping leaders to see a connection between their emotional health and spiritual health is a part of Pete’s life work, which that you can learn more about at EmotionallyHealthy.Org. The Emotionally Healthy Leader is an incredible resource that helps the reader pay attention to their heart, their past, their motivations, and many other elements of the inner life. You’ll explore topics like sabbath, leadership shadows, marriage and singleness, boundaries, and more. I highly recommend this book and the workbook that goes with it!

Regardless of your career or stage of life, your inner life matters. You’re never too late or too early to begin this work. Today is a good day to get started!

Questions:

  1. What do you think keeps most adults from doing that needed inner work? 
  2. Over the years, have you learned any helpful strategies for looking inward? 
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Sin & Broken Hearts

Sin & Broken Hearts
A few years ago, I recall counseling a young couple through a very difficult situation that left one of them deeply heartbroken and the other, in many ways, crippled by their own actions. Journeying with them caused me think differently about the effects of sin. In churches, especially American evangelical churches, our general understanding of sin is individual and personal – one person’s actions that impact their relationship with God. More and more, I’m realizing that sin is also a communal thing. When one sins, it affects everyone in significant ways. Although significant, the effects are not always immediately visible. Because of that, we maintain that sin is between God and the individual. That is an insufficient understanding of sin. Sin kills. Sin destroys community and relationship. Sin leaves behind a trail of broken hearts. Sin gets in the way of God’s will being lived out in us and through us.
 
God. others. self. community. Can you see how many are affected by the sins of even one?
 There is good news, though. Just as so many and so much can be affected by the sins of just one, there is redemption available to many that is attributable to one. It was the Apostle Paul who wrote that God’s grace and the gift came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, and overflows to many. (Romans 5:15)
 
So what am I saying? I’m suggesting, at once, at least two things:
  1. Sin is debilitating and needs to be taken much more seriously because of the havoc that it wreaks. Minimizing it is like playing with fire.
  2. We need not feel hopeless about sin, because redemption is available in Jesus Christ.
May God bring both of these truths to our remembrance daily and use them to shape us into his likeness!
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Got Change?

Got Change?
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(Photo Credit: “Babies of the Revolution” by Patience Zalanga. Accessed by Facebook on Nov. 17, 2015.)

 

This week in Minneapolis has been a very difficult one. As a metro area, we have all experienced a trauma. I say all emphatically because we often lose sight of the connectedness of our lives. It isn’t always obvious, but when there is violence or hurt in the inner city, it impacts those who call the suburbs or rural areas home. When violence hits those other areas, it impacts lives in the inner city. This is true because we are not as divided as it can seem. Despite our best intentions to separate ourselves – by location, culture, or preference – our lives are, ultimately, deeply interrelated. Despite what America’s racist history or our current turmoil might suggest, we must remember that we are, ultimately, “tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

Those last few words are not my own. They belong to someone who lived and served faithfully at a time when nearly every indicator suggested that hate, not love, was the name of the game. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived and served at a time when both de jure and de facto law served to keep Black and poor people oppressed and separated from the rest of society. It would have been easy to fall into hopelessness, despair, or lawlessness, yet, Dr. King and others chose a different path and changed the course of world history.
 
In light of recent events in America and as we search for meaningful ways to affect change in my own city, I think we would be wise to look back to the philosophies and actions of the movement that Dr. King led. These campaigns impacted nearly every facet of American society and that effect reverberated around the globe. What they did matters. How and why they did it mattered just as much.  Below are some of the core philosophies of Dr. King’s nonviolent movement that we should not ignore in contemporary social movements:
 

 
SIX STEPS OF NONVIOLENT SOCIAL CHANGE
 
The Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change are based on Dr. King’s nonviolent campaigns and teachings that emphasize love in action. Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence, as reviewed in the Six Principles of Nonviolence, guide these steps for social and interpersonal change.
  1. INFORMATION GATHERING: To understand and articulate an issue, problem or injustice facing a person, community, or institution you must do research. You must investigate and gather all vital information from all sides of the argument or issue so as to increase your understanding of the problem. You must become an expert on your opponent’s position.
  2. EDUCATION: It is essential to inform others, including your opposition, about your issue. This minimizes misunderstandings and gains you support and sympathy.
  3. PERSONAL COMMITMENT: Daily check and affirm your faith in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence. Eliminate hidden motives and prepare yourself to accept suffering, if necessary, in your work for justice.
  4. DISCUSSION/NEGOTIATION: Using grace, humor and intelligence, confront the other party with a list of injustices and a plan for addressing and resolving these injustices. Look for what is positive in every action and statement the opposition makes. Do not seek to humiliate the opponent but to call forth the good in the opponent.
  5. DIRECT ACTION: These are actions taken when the opponent is unwilling to enter into, or remain in, discussion/negotiation. These actions impose a “creative tension” into the conflict, supplying moral pressure on your opponent to work with you in resolving the injustice.
  6. RECONCILIATION: Nonviolence seeks friendship and understanding with the opponent. Nonviolence does not seek to defeat the opponent. Nonviolence is directed against evil systems, forces, oppressive policies, unjust acts, but not against persons. Through reasoned compromise, both sides resolve the injustice with a plan of action. Each act of reconciliation is one step closer to the ‘Beloved Community.’
(Based on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in Why We Can’t Wait, Penguin Books, 1963.)
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#GospelChallenge, Part 3

#GospelChallenge, Part 3

Over my last two posts, I’ve described what I see as a huge obstacle to discipleship in urban areas. That obstacle is racial strife.

In the first post of this series, I described racial strife as a past and present struggle which makes it very difficult for people of different ethnic and “ racial” backgrounds to connect, develop trust, and grow together. I contended that the gospel message often runs into a wall because the Church in America refuses to confront its racist legacy. In the second post of this series, I described the image problem that the Church has and challenged us to begin to re-imagine what it means to be “the people of God” in urban areas.

In this third & final post of this series, I’ll share a bit of my story, highlighting the road that has brought me to this place of understanding.  Finally, I will offer up some practical insight from my experiences that may prove helpful as we journey forward together.

Check it out and share your thoughts…


While I love the city and my ministry here, I am first and foremost a country boy.  I grew up in a small community in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. My family was a part of a small church there, maxing out at about 100 people on Sundays like Easter and Christmas. We had a “larger than life” pastor and no other staff. I have very fond memories of our pastor placing the youth of the church on the front row for Bible study and teaching us the Scriptures there, alongside the adults. It was there, in my childhood, that I developed a love for the Scriptures and a love for the Church. Even while I struggled with my faith during my college years, that love persevered.

My wife and I moved to Minneapolis in 2005 and after a year, I took a position as a youth pastor at a large Baptist church on the Northside of the city.  North Minneapolis was often described as the stereotypical urban area:

    • high crime (often violent crime), high rate of family breakdown, high in nearly all the societal negatives
    • low-income, low property values, low performing schools, etc.

Even so, or perhaps because of those things, North Minneapolis was the community that I felt called to. I wanted to serve that community faithfully. I cared deeply for the people, and my heart broke over and over again to see the plight of the people there, especially, young black and brown children.  Despite its reputation, I knew that God was at work there, and I wanted to be a part of what God was doing!

In January of 2007, after serving that church for 3 months, I entered a master’s program at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN.  It was a truly  transformational time!  A few questions were my constant companions throughout seminary, as I served and studied:

    1. What does it look like for a disciple-making church to take root and flourish in an urban area, specifically North Minneapolis?
    2. How does racial strife and segregated churches contribute to what we see happening in these communities?

I wrestled with these questions for 4 long years.  Even today, I’m wrestling with these kinds of questions.  After graduating from Bethel Seminary in 2011, I took a position at a large, urban, intentionally multiethnic church in the same community. I moved out of a sense of calling but also because my wrestling with these kinds of questions had grown more intense.  Today, I’m a part of the pastoral team at that church, and I’m still wrestling with similar questions.

While I don’t claim to have all of the answers, I’ve observed a number of things in both study and practice that I’d like to offer up to you,  not as an expert but as a co-laborer in Christ:

Urban churches and ministries need a more balanced view of discipleship. 

Due to the sheer nature of urban life, discipleship can quickly lose its place of priority in the urban ministry.  In urban ministry, the needs are often glaring and overwhelming.  Mission drift happens easily and effortlessly.  As a result, I’ve seen urban churches and ministries drift into one of three categories:

  1. Group One churches turn their attention and resources upward, towards purely “spiritual things.” Their strategy is to become increasingly heavenly minded as a way of dealing with the dire situations around them. These churches become experts of great choirs, prayer meetings, and pastor’s anniversaries but little else.
  2. Group Two churches turn inward in response to the conditions that exist in the community.  They become a proverbial oasis in the city, a country club in the midst of vast poverty.  What matters to these churches is what happens within the walls of the church. The people who matter most to them are the ones who call this church their home.
  3. Group Three churches make the decision to fix their attention and resources outward, focusing entirely upon meeting the social needs of the community around them. These churches move from project to project, from this drive to the next, while neglecting spiritual or communal things entirely.  These churches often have a revolving door of socially conscious people who come and go because of burnout and a lack of meaningful relationships.

I believe that each of those churches can teach us something, but that each has failed to be balanced in their view of discipleship, therefore producing one-sided believers. An unbalanced church is an ineffective church.

The folks at 3DM paint a much different picture of discipleship, one built on rhythms of:

  • Time with God (Up)
  • Time with other believers (In)
  • Time in the world on mission (Out).

I believe that urban communities would see great transformation when urban churches and ministries call them towards passionate spirituality, radical community, and missional zeal!

Racially homogenous churches & ministries are at a severe disadvantage and will struggle to overcome their own cultural preferences. 

There is a common occurrence in urban ministry that seems to be on the upswing as urban ministry becomes “the flavor of the day”.  Regularly, I witness the entrance and growth of large, well-meaning Christian ministries. They are well-resourced organizations with lots of paid staff, plush buildings, name recognition, and much more.  None of this is troubling on its own.  The inherent problem is that many, if not all of these organizations, have a staff that is 100% white in areas that are mostly non-white. Even more troubling is the fact that many of these young, white staffers come from colleges and backgrounds where they have never had to wrestle with issues of privilege and whiteness.  In many cases, they enter urban areas and do serious damage because of a lack of cultural intelligence and self-awareness.

I contend that racially homogenous churches and ministries must become a thing of the past.  I agree with the writers of United by Faith when they argue that, “The best antidote to national & evangelical struggles over racial & ethnic issues is to build multiracial congregations (organizations) whenever possible.” This point feeds into my next point.

You will not reach and disciple an increasingly multiethnic world by holding onto to mono-ethnic preferences. 

Even today, in the eyes of many people, to be a Christian is to be white.  This is not to say that to become a Christian a Black or Brown person must change their skin color, but many believe that Christian culture is largely synonymous with suburban, white culture.  In other words, too much of what we pass off as Christian, is really what is comfortable for white people.  Consider our worship styles.  Consider the milestones that we celebrate. Consider the way that we view things like time, honor, conflict, even aging.  From where do many urban churches/ministries adopt their values?

Before the gospel is able to really take root in urban areas, we need to have some open, honest conversations about how we exist as the people of God.  How much of our current existence as the people of God is tainted by Eurocentric bias? How much of what we do and believe come from cultural biases? It’s a challenging conversation, but I see the church as a worthy “crucible” where we can work out some of these issues of race, ethnicity, and other “isms” in a grace-filled way.

Us vs. Them is a self-perpetuating impasse. You need indigenous leaders in meaningful positions within your organization

I’ll say this succinctly. The greatest testimony that you can have as a ministry in an urban area is the track record of raising up indigenous leaders and handing off meaningful leadership responsibilities to them. How quickly can your organization move from a place of “us” and “them” to a place of “we?”

Finally, I remember 4 steps from Miroslav Volf’s excellent text, Exclusion and Embrace.  Volf argues that, “The church has been involved in oppression and exclusion. We have become so absorbed in our own cultures that we are blind to the evil of exclusion.” Volf offers up four steps that I feel must become second nature to all people who would be reconciled, especially in light of racial or religious strife.  He says that both the oppressor and oppressed are called by Jesus to:

  1. Repentance
  2. Forgiveness
  3. Making Space for Others
  4. Healing of Memory

These are not one and done steps.  On the contrary, I do not see us overcoming this great #GospelChallenge unless we are daily entering into this process.  Repentance. Forgiveness. Making Space for Others. Healing of Memory. Repeat!

May the God of Peace grant us daily the grace to be reconciled…to God and to one another!

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#GospelChallenge, Part 2

#GospelChallenge, Part 2

In my previous post, I proposed that when it comes to discipleship in urban areas of this country, there is a major obstacle that cannot be ignored. That obstacle is racial strife, the struggle that exists in our past and our present, which makes it very difficult for people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds to connect, develop trust, and grow together. 

Check out part two of this series and please share your thoughts…


In 2013, an amazing film was released to theaters called, “12 Years A Slave.  The film was based on an autobiographical book written in 1853 by the same name. The book told the story of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1840’s New York. The film allowed audiences to catch a glimpse of the horrific conditions of slavery and this man’s struggle to regain his freedom. It was a gripping story, shining a light on the brutal system of slavery. 

Beyond what it teaches us about history, there was a huge theological thread woven throughout the film.  In the film, we saw two images of Christianity and neither of them were especially pleasing.  On one hand, we saw Christianity presented as a tool of the slave master used to coerce and keep slaves obedient to their masters.  You see the slave masters preaching to their slaves about obedience, as if that were THE central message of the scriptures.  When I think about that, I recall an often-quoted thought tossed around by some who dismiss Christianity. The saying goes, “If your faith comes with instructions of how to treat your slaves, you need a new faith.” It’s not enough to simply dismiss that as rhetoric.  The other image of Christianity that we see in the film is that of Christianity being used by the slaves as a coping mechanism to survive this ruthless system.  This is not to say that their faith was not authentic. I believe the very opposite to be true.  Even so, it’s unsettling to think that some may have come to faith, primarily, for the sake of numbing the pain of their lives.  

Here’s how this is relevant for us today: When churches engage urban communities, the question that is directed at you, either verbally or nonverbally, is: “Which Jesus are you selling me?”

  • Is it the Jesus that keeps me weak, docile, and controlled?

                                                      OR

  • Is it the Jesus that is only good enough to get me through my week? 

For far too many people in urban communities, the church is not trustworthy, on one hand, and has no real power, on the other hand. We have a #GospelChallenge!

So have I lost hope? Am I saying that we should throw in the towel and give up our efforts to reach urban communities with the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ? 

Heck No! 

Even with these vast and far-reaching challenges facing us, there remains what Reinhold Neibuhr calls “a resounding cry, calling the Church back to her mission & purpose.”

Two things are absolutely clear to me: 

  1. We, The Church, must address our troubling past when it comes to race, culture, & ethnicity.   
  2. We, The Church, must begin to reimagine what it means to be “the people of God” in urban areas. 

I feel a clear and profound calling to help the church figure out what those two things could look like.  

In the third & final post of this series, I’ll share a bit of my story, highlighting what may have brought me to this place.  Finally, I will offer up some practical insights of how we might move towards this challenge together!   


QUESTION: When you think about iconic portrayals of the Christian faith in film, past or present, what do you recall as some of the more memorable ones? Have those portrayals shaped how you see the church at all? 

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