Where we sent or did we just go? Many church starter asks this question, especially when the church start is not going as well as desired. We either “went” ahead to plant or were “sent.” Although I was sent, needless to say, I was exhausted by church starting and had God not made it clear that it was my calling, I would have quit by now. Recently, however, God has helped me keep the faith by reminding me of two things: 1) I love connect-the-dots, and 2) I once employed incredible documentation and reflection skills. Huh? Yes, connect-the-dots and documentation/note taking have helped saved me from burnout in ministry. Hitherto fore I was just surviving an exhausting life of seemingly constant struggle in an effort to do what I had to do, minister. The persons to whom I was sent to serve were doing the exact same thing, doing the basics to survive. We were in a stalemate, and it was not until I did a side-step and changed things up that the stalemate was broken.
So, let’s jump right into it: It has been hard getting people to commit to church, but not hard at all getting people to express disappointment about their lives. Here is the typical situation here in Lavon, TX, population 4,000. You have primarily two-parent households and each person earns between mid-30k and mid-50k annually. Home mortgage payments are affordable but HOA fees and school taxes and municipal taxes are high, very high. Add to these a daily commute between 90 and 180 minutes due to traffic and the fact that many of us live in Lavon because living closer to Dallas is too expensive. What do I typically hear: not enough hours in the day and where did my money go? Church is seen as a somewhat relevant, albeit not pressing, chore. Residents overwhelming believe in God, and state that if they “need” to attend church, they can worship in the bedroom or living room or maybe attend some of the best mega ministries money and high attendance can build.
So, there’s one dot: we are exhausted and when we attend church it will be in a manner that works for us: at home or a mega ministry that concludes quickly so we can go about the rest of our day. As my relationships with residents progressed over weeks and months, I felt comfortable asking the impact of church attendance on their lives, including daily struggles. Most of the time I did not receive a reply. Those few times I did, the person said something to the effect that it is just life. Hence, another dot appeared but was almost immediately erased. That dot is the idea that faith in Jesus includes a movement toward the establishment of God’s kingdom. Although this kingdom is not completely realized until the Second Coming, aspects of it can be felt progressively revealing itself today. Hence a problem: if experiencing the kingdom’s inbreaking is a dot that has been erased and Restoring Hope (RHF) was founded to help lead people to that dot, then how and when would they ever journey toward RHF, especially when others can do that “awe-inspiring church stuff” larger and better. RHF is perceived as irrelevant at worse or too “political” and/or “cultural” at least.
From a purely scientific standpoint, this is not good. First, as a progressive, we know the impact religious thought can have on society, including elections. So, if a progressive voice is not heard and is also not connected to the Gospel, it weakens our society in many ways, including allowing for justice to seem “secular” or reducing the scope of ministry’s impact in a manner that limits and/or eliminates the pursuit of justice as a goal of Christian praxis. Second, the human brain burns a lot of calories for it size, so asking an exhausted person to think in radically different terms is literally enervating since more energy is consumed with additional thinking. Third, establishing a new way of behaving and thinking involves creating a new habit and mental pathway (or way of thinking), respectively, so that new behaviors become permeant. Exhaustion would complicate this as well.
Well, God made it clear that I was strong at connecting-the-dots, so I stood with them on their dot and expressed my disappointment with life instead of being so calm. And it worked! As I spoke critically about our HOA dues, daily expenses, how life is so exhausting that marriages are challenged, inequality and the “isms” of our world, and connected all of these to greed and inequality and lack of loving our neighbor as ourselves, I had a crowd. Moreover, as I connected these to the influence of certain religious expressions that perhaps inadvertently exacerbate the situations, I distinguished RHF and conveyed its vision with a single stroke. Now hear me: I was not faking; this was really how I felt. For example, I would state that Scripture forbids gleaning the field twice so that vulnerable persons (e.g., strangers or national “aliens” as well as the poor) could survive from one’s abundance (e.g., leftover grain). Then I would explain how this “no double gleaning” is a contemporary parallel to The Affordable Care Act’s paying for subsidies partially by increasing taxes on the more affluent persons. Moreover, this point was deepened when I add that these same more affluent persons had great financial gains amid being taxed higher. Moreover, because of the expansion of health care, i.e., more providers needed and more facilities needed to care for the increase in patients, this change positively impacted construction, health over all, and hiring, so we cannot really say that anyone was hurt. Rather, some just do not like the optics of such actions, options which ironically have a biblical precedent. And when I was told that these acts are church vs. state problems, I would state that if Jesus is Lord of lords, and a lord is a ruler, then do we not expect for a lord/ruler to do things that are consistent with an inclusive love-of-neighbor ethic that is revealed in Scripture? I had a crowd.
In the end, although more calories were consumed in these conversations and new thoughts, this type of talk was therapeutic. By being therapeutic, these conversations actually energized persons rather than exhausting them. This approached affirmed their pain, identified Christians morals like equality and fairness as goals, and showed how current realities go counter to these goals. Most importantly, it communicated that Jesus was concerned about every facet of our being.
In addition, my conversations were increasing at such a strong rate that I was forgetting. Trying to be responsible, I began taking notes. These notes evolved into deep reflection that helped me connect the dots even more. I had to slow down to make time for the journaling and documenting, but it was worth it, especially since these dots led to putting ministry efforts in place that clearly proclaim the core tenants of the Gospel and connected those tenants to everyday experiences of people.
At this point I have learned that people were more than willing to open up to the Gospel if it seemed relevant. Yes, some would hear out of reverence, but some needed a reason to hear. God is concerned about and loves both groups, as well as other groups, equally. I now see this aspect of evangelism as a matter of approach. It is like having two cheeseburgers’ sitting side by side that are identical in composition but one is in a carton and the other is in thin paper that shows grease and cheese penetration. One will be appealing to some and one will be appealing to someone like me, a guy who if he is going to eat a cheeseburger, it is going for the artery-clogging kind. They are the same burger but the packaging will draw one but not necessarily another. We should present the Gospel in a package that is appealing, and as persons draw near, they will see that the Gospel is the Gospel and worthy of adherence simply out of love of God. Moreover, not a few persons came to faith in Christ because Christ was deemed relevant because of his addressing immediate needs (e.g., miraculous healing of paralysis), and Christ did not object. Although some only needed to hear to believe, others needed to experience to believe. Christ welcomed and welcomes both.