Last Friday was a holiday here in the United States, and Marianne and I opened our home, yard and pool for a day of family, friends and fellowship.
Fortunately, following my heart operation and extended hospital stay two weeks ago, several brothers in a couple of fellowships we relate to stepped forward and organized things – including a great cookout.
Afterwards, Marianne and I both said that this was one of the nicest days we’ve had in years – not because the past few years have been bad (they’ve been challenging due to some of my health issues, but not “bad”!), but because we’re seeing solid maturity arise among those we’ve been pouring our lives into.
Although we’ve always loved them deeply, now it’s actually fun to spend time with them!
In addition, we now have the profound pleasure of watching them reproduce their life in Christ among others.
As they step forward and do the work of mission, discipleship and strengthening our various fellowships, it seems more and more that God’s role for Marianne and me is to step back and serve through simple hospitality, unassuming encouragement and quiet mentoring.
One guy at the cookout was released from jail two months ago. While in jail, he was mentored by me and others and learned to “be the church” within one of the indigenous fellowships we started there.
Now he’s “homeless” and living in the woods. That may seem like a bad thing, but it’s not.
He’s active in a fellowship some of our folks started last year in the eastern part of the county and at the cookout he served – with great zest and enthusiasm – as our “grill master”.
After everyone had their fill of his perfectly-grilled chicken, hotdogs and hamburgers, he excitedly left early to be with another fellowship he helped start several weeks ago in his own tent community. It now includes about half a dozen “homeless” men and women who live near him in the woods.
God didn’t see fit to place him in a traditional house when he was released from jail in May. Rather, the Lord sent him to become a catalyst – using what he learned and experienced in jail – for Christ to come alive among his new community of men and women who live in the woods.
Some might not think of the “homeless” as being a “community”, but that’s only because they’ve never witnessed the very tight relationships and loyalties that often emerge there. For sure, there are lots of problems in the woods, but there also is lots we can learn from those who live there.
Rather than feel sorry for himself, he’s enthusiastically reproducing the life he’s found in Christ among them.
What blessed me at the cookout was seeing his joy as he cooked for everyone over a hot grill, then his unbridled excitement about leaving early to spend the rest of the day hang out with, encouraging and sharing Christ with some new disciples who were coming together as a new indigenous church among the trees.
That, my friends, is called “mission”.
Another thing happened at the cookout that deeply blessed me.
A woman came who was deeply wounded years ago when a traditional, somewhat legalistic church shunned her after her husband was arrested and sent to jail. Since then, she has avoided other “Christians”.
Over the last year, Marianne and I have quietly reached out and opened our home and lives to her, without bringing any agenda other than fully accepting her – including her brokenness.
At the cookout, she spent most of the day silently watching the vibrant love, acceptance and easy flow of friendship that was happening there among folks from our churches.
The fun, laughter and easy friendships she saw were real – there was nothing strained, artificial or fakey about it.
A lot of healing took place in her during the cookout, just from being invited to spend the day with others who also had come from places of great hurt – but now were experiencing new life, wholeness and real community. In them, she was seeing Jesus made real.
Towards the end of the day, she sat with Marianne and began opening up. She said she desired similar fellowship among other hurting women near her home, so they too could bring their brokenness and experience the Lord’s transforming love through simple relational community.
This may be an open door for Marianne to “go” and let the Lord take root within another unique community of wounded inmate spouses, as He redeems their shared experiences of hurt and pain.
That, my friends, is called “discipleship”.
Some may ask why we didn’t “save” that one brother from being “homeless” (which, in most cases, is an unfortunate and somewhat condescending misnomer).
Honestly, we find that God sometimes uses the experience of living in the woods as a redemptive work of grace among those He sends us to. Often, their lives are totally shattered and the Lord doesn’t want us to get ahead of His desire to put them back together His way – which is step by step.
Our human tendency is to interfere with God’s plans by rushing in to “fix” people by changing their circumstances, when His agenda is to redeem people by changing them. Although these are not necessarily mutually exclusive, there’s a big difference!
Resisting the impulse to “fix the fix God has fixed to fix them” is often key to letting His work of grace occur individually in their own lives, and in the lives of others around them.
We have learned the hard lesson of not preempting what God wants to do in others by projecting our own needs, wants and insecurities on them – which typically ends up reducing them to “objects” of “charity” and “ministry”.
Charity and ministry are good, but not when they objectify and turn those we seek to help into “others” rather than “brothers”.
When we do that, we destroy the essential need to be integrated parts, one with another, of Christ’s diverse but unified Body.
Trust me – folks in the woods have lots to teach folks with nice picket fences about things like grace, relational community and life’s true essentials. And although they will accept your charity, they would rather have you accept them and what they too have to offer.
Many folks in our fellowships have lived, or still do live, in the woods. We have seen that when it is time for them to move out of the woods, the Lord will make that clear by opening a way – maybe through us, or maybe through others.
Until then, however, we make sure they are fully integrated into our larger community of love and support and, most important of all, friendship. They are never “objects” of ministry, but full participants together in the Body of Christ.
We could have “saved” this one brother from living in the woods, but then we would have thwarted God’s plan to use him as a catalyst for yet another indigenous church to emerge within yet another tent community in the county. Rather than “fix” him, the Lord simply told us to embrace him in his circumstances.
Lest you think otherwise, let me assure you that even in the midst of real struggles, the Lord has used his “homeless” experience to also bless him – with an infectious gratitude and growing confidence that he’d never have learned otherwise.
Likewise with the woman who had been so deeply wounded by other Christians who had shunned her:
The breakthrough in her own life last Friday didn’t come from anything other than folks like Marianne simply accepting her in her woundedness and letting her see, experience and process – in God’s timing, not ours – what it meant to truly love and be there for each other.
I wish I could say this is easy to do, but it’s not. We often bring our own agenda to God’s mission, rather than embrace and be there for those to whom He sends us – with their mess and their confusion – and trust that He is able to do His work in them His way and in His timing.
We have learned to be patient and watch for God to open the right doors, then go and be a resource as He directs in His timing.
Lessons from the Cookout
Like the brother being used by God, within weeks of getting out of jail, as a catalyst for disciples and an indigenous church within one of our county’s several tent communities, I suspect that the woman who talked with Marianne during the cookout will be a catalyst, as part of her own journey of redemption, to reach her own community of similarly hurting women in the county.
Our role will to go and help the Lord become alive in them and among them, without imprinting them with ourselves.
For us, this is mission, discipleship and “normal” church life.
Our approach is not to grow our church, “do church” for folks, or impose some cookie-cutter concept of church life (whether “organic”, “simple”, traditional or whatever) on very diverse communities where Jesus wants to take root in very diverse ways.
Yes, there are some foundational essentials set forth in scripture – but even they can be expressed many different ways.
As soon as “church” becomes about us, our location, our meeting, or our way of doing things (even when Biblically justified), we have lost the Great Commission’s core idea of “going”.
Rather, we try to see the opportunities God creates for us to go and make disciples as we bring His Kingdom into existing indigenous communities and sub-cultures (i.e., “nations” as per the original meaning of that word in the Great Commission) – including those in our own county.
We then become co-laborers with the Him as we let Him take root within those unique communities, call forth disciples and build His church His way (whatever that “way” may be, which usually is different for each unique situation) – all within the context of the unique needs, strengths and dynamics of that community.
Although each of our resulting fellowships is unique, they routinely interact with each other and have lots of overlap between them. The never become insular or limited by their own cultural norms or experience of Christ.
We also have lots of interaction and overlap with more traditional churches that are part of the larger Body of Christ in our county, which also embrace a vibrant relationship with the Live Word while submitting to the authority and discipline of His written Word of scripture.
For example, at the cookout we were joined by others from those churches – who have tirelessly worked with us to see Christ come alive in all segments of our county – as we took time to enjoyed some mutual friendship and fellowship.
Where Others Fear to Tread
When we “go”, our job is to help lay the very basic foundation established by Jesus through those He personally-designated as His apostles in the New Testament. Beyond that, however, we give each community the freedom to “be the church” one with another – in their own wonderfully unique ways of relating and expressing life.
Often, that means the Lord sends us to places and circumstances where others fear to tread.
That fear – and our tendency to avoid or hold at arms length those who are different or not part of our own “norms” – has been a big hindrance to God’s Kingdom advancing not only in foreign lands but in the towns and cities were we each live.
We thus stay safely ensconced within our own comfort zones – while complaining because God isn’t meeting our needs, our way, within our own self-imposed world of folks who are just like us.
Maybe, just maybe, God is saying to stop complaining when others aren’t interested in coming and “being the church” the way you want – “organic”, “simple”, “traditional” or whatever – and instead go and see what He wants to do among others who are hungry and desperate for Him outside of your own little world.
Here’s the rub: By “going” to others and their world, rather than waiting for others to “come” into your world, you quickly learn to get out of your own self-referential comfort zones. When you learn to embrace and value diverse people from diverse backgrounds as your authentic brothers and sisters, you discover that you need them just as much as they need you.
Really. It’s ain’t easy. But it sure does keep life interesting!
Try it. Then one day, you too might have a cookout where you enjoy hanging out with folks who’s lives and experiences are so different from yours that you once would have avoided them. But now, rather than being “others” and “ministry”, they are your closest friends and fellow ambassadors of Christ’s Kingdom.
During the cookout, we also saw the beginnings of yet a third new fellowship emerge, which likely have some very unique characteristics – but that’s another story for another day.
Overall, it was a good day.
Life reproduces live. It doesn’t happen any other way – either for individuals or fellowships.
Watching it happen in real time during the cookout was very, very fulfilling.
~ Jim Wright