This month: 182 - A New Wineskin for Church
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Charles Kiser

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My first instinct was to write about a specific model or expression of church.

And then I recalled something I heard Brian Sanders say in an old dilapidated Dillard’s department store that had been repurposed into a training center for missionary leaders. Sanders is the co-founder of Tampa Underground, a network of more than 200 “microchurches” in Tampa, Florida. 

Sanders shared a framework from Roger Martin’s book, The Design of BusinessTruly innovative forms begin first by exploring mystery — the mystery of a particular context, with all its problems, challenges, and assets. As that mystery is engaged, heuristics emerge: these are the principles or rules of thumb about how that context functions. Heuristics lead to algorithms, repeatable best practices for responding to a context.

The problem, Sanders said, is that most church leaders are interested in algorithms — the “how to,” the best practices — when those algorithms may not actually fit the varied contexts in which church leaders find themselves. What church leaders need, instead, is to explore the mystery of their own contexts and out of it develop principles (heuristics) and practices (algorithms) that fit their context.

In other words, when it comes to thinking about new wineskins for the church in our time, we’d do better to be contextually-responsive instead of model-specific in our approach to mission. 

I learned this the hard way. When I began church planting work in Dallas in 2008, my imagination had been captured by simple / organic / house church models for mission. I entered my context committed to a certain set of algorithms, and despite the counsel of wise mentors to listen deeply to my context, I thought to myself, I know my context and I’m going to implement these strategies because I like them. The results were mixed: parts of our approach connected, and parts of it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong: I still love small, simple expressions of church, but I often wonder if the church we planted in those early days was more a response to church planting books than it was a response to our context.

Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity, describes how the early church grew exponentially in a span of 300 years from 1,000 believers to nearly 34 million — more than half of the population of the Roman Empire. The early church did not invent the wineskin that facilitated such rapid growth. Instead, the church grew and spread through an existing structure in Greco-Roman culture: the oikos (household). Households were the economic backbone of the Roman Empire, consisting of both extended family members, slaves, neighbors, and business partners. Christian missionaries planted seeds of Christian community within these household structures in their context rather than inventing some alternative structure and seeking to attract people to it.

What if we don’t have to invent the new wineskins of the church in our time? What if they already exist? 

Already emerging are neighborhood churches, business-place churches, yoga churches, cycling churches, kayak churches, dinner churches, board gaming churches, bar churches, virtual churches, social service non-profit churches, and more — all of which are growing up out of structures already present and widespread in our contexts. Established churches are serving as anchors of stability and resourcing for these new expressions.

The truth is that Churches of Christ have trained global missionaries to respond to their contexts for decades. A context-responsive posture represents the basics of missiology, anthropology, and contextualization. 

It’s time for us to respond to our various North American contexts in the same way: to engage the mystery of our surrounding cultures and to participate with God’s Spirit to give birth to new expressions of church — hospitable, just, inclusive, and healing expressions — that make sense for our context.

If you’re interested in a longer-form discussion of these ideas, check out Elaine Heath’s presentation, “A Third Great Awakening,” where she describes the institutional dynamics of the United Methodist Church, which I believe are very similar to the current dynamics within Churches of Christ.

Like many churches in Covid, the church I’m part of has been meeting online since March of last year. Because we’re a small community, we opted to use Zoom (video conferencing application) for our worship gatherings, rather than a live-streaming platform like Youtube or Facebook, in hopes that we could maintain some of the connection and interaction that characterized our in-person worship gatherings.  

If Covid has revealed anything, it’s that the folks in our context are looking for connection more than content.  

They can get content anywhere. But what they can’t get anywhere is connection: people who know them, people who know about what’s going on in their lives, people to whom they belong.  

Covid revealed this truth, but didn’t create it. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in 2017 that loneliness was a public health epidemic in the United States, at the root of a great amount of emotional and physical pain. 

The global pandemic gave us the opportunity to enter into the ecclesial research and development lab in search of ways to facilitate connection and spiritual community through less than ideal digital mediums. And while I can’t wait for in-person gatherings to open up as soon as possible, I suspect these digital connection points will stay with us into the future.

Here are four strategies we’ve found helpful in cultivating community via Zoom: 

[Note: These strategies make the most sense in the context of a “mid-sized group” of 20-70 people (that is, not a small group and not a large group) — contexts like small churches, Sunday school classes, or large small groups.] 

  1. Employ leaders as virtual moderators. We offer discussion prompts throughout the course of our gatherings. For instance, every week the communion leader asks participants to share something they are thankful for that week. Those who want to share are instructed to put their name in the chat bar and the communion leader calls on folks one by one to share. For Zoom geeks, we use the chat bar rather than the “hand raise” function because it’s easier to identify. 
  2. Shorten or front-load content. Virtual venues seem to shorten participants’ already limited attention for information, so we decrease the amount of content we share in order to create more space for interaction about it. Some of my fellow Zoom colleagues are shortening their sermons to 5-7 minutes in response to this reality. We’ve also experimented with inviting people to process content ahead of time (e.g., a video message) and come ready to discuss it. This approach just happens to square with the cutting edge of adult learning theory — adults learn best when they are discussing what they’re learning!
  3. Nurture deeper connections with breakout rooms. Zoom’s breakout rooms are a great tool for deeper connection. Sometimes instead of introducing a discussion prompt for a group of 25 people, we’ll use Zoom to break people out into five groups of 5 people where the discussion can go deeper. We put the discussion prompt in the chat bar so groups can see it. Sometimes we prep breakout group leaders in advance to facilitate discussion; most of the time we just let the groups sort it out.
  4. For kids: minimize Zoom time and maximize parent participation. Last fall we started a simple format with our kids that they love. We get the kids together on Zoom for 10 minutes to see each other and talk about a discussion prompt. Then we get off Zoom for 25 minutes and parents do a lesson/activity they have prepared with their kids (we give all our parents access to our online kids curriculum and they choose what works for their kids). Then we get back on for 10 minutes for the kids to share what they learned with each other and pray together. The upside to this approach is that it empowers parents to disciple their kids while also giving kids the chance to connect spiritually with their friends — all while minimizing time on Zoom to account for short attention spans. 

I’m curious to hear from you all: how are you learning to cultivate community in this digital season of church? Leave a comment so we all can learn from your experiences! 

By Charles Kiser

Elaine Heath, in her book The Mystic Way of Evangelism, recounts a time she took a group of her SMU students to visit the Missionaries of Charity in Dallas — a branch of the ministry started by Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India in 1950. The ministry was located in a little red brick building in an impoverished Latino neighborhood.

The students met a small Indian woman named Sister Salvinette, who served as their guide. She described the ministry of the Missionaries of Charity: every day the sisters would knock on doors in groups of two and ask their neighbors how they might pray for them. At first they were met with suspicion and hesitation. But over time, as they got to know their neighbors, the sisters discovered needs they could meet. Out of these visits grew a food distribution program. Every week the sisters and volunteers prepared about two hundred bags of groceries for families in need in their neighborhood.

The sisters’ philosophy of ministry was expressed through their own “five-finger exercise”: “You did it unto me,” echoing Jesus’s words in Matthew 25. Whoever they met, the sisters believed that the encounter provided the opportunity to meet and serve Jesus.

For all the sisters’ ministry activity in the neighborhood, Sister Salvinette insisted that their basic ministry was prayer. The sisters gathered four times a day for an hour to pray, usually in silence. Such rhythms for prayer were how they received the love they needed both for themselves and to share with their neighbors.

Sister Salvinette explained the power of prayer in their work: “We could never do what we do if we did not pray this way. It would be too hard.”

The Missionaries of Charity demonstrate the power of contemplative prayer — the kind of prayer usually practiced in silence. In silence we are disentangled from the attachments of ego. In silence we hear the voice of God say to us, just as God said to Jesus in his baptism: “You are my child. I love you. I’m pleased with you. You are enough.” In silence we commune with the Ground of our being; we experience the abundant, eternal kind of life, that of knowing God and Jesus in the Holy Spirit.

It’s no wonder, then, why Pete Scazerro, in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, suggests that contemplative practice is integral to emotional health. Silence and stillness helps to unwind the knots of anxiety within us as we encounter the Good Shepherd, under whose care we lack nothing. And of all the years for us to need anxiety knots to unwind, 2020 would be the year, wouldn’t it?

Our own emotional health and well being, however, is not the telos (end goal) of contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer ultimately equips us to be present to others — both to be present to the Other (God), and to be present to God’s activity in and among our neighbors, so that we might participate in what God is doing.

To speak of the power of contemplative prayer is not to denigrate other forms of prayer, namely intercessory or petitionary prayer. Jesus said, after all, that God is like a good father who enjoys giving good gifts to his children, and that if we ask we will receive. But this is to suggest, however, that there is power in forms of prayer beyond what many might normally imagine when speaking of “the power of prayer.”

In fact, I believe contemplative prayer is the fundamental form of prayer because it anticipates and facilitates our union with God — the direction toward which the whole cosmos is headed. Contemplative prayer, to the extent it unwinds our anxieties and helps us to see how our ego is at work, subverts and even reshapes what we might otherwise think to request from God.

If you’re wondering how to begin in the practice of contemplative prayer, I’d suggest starting with five minutes a day. Set a timer, focus on your breathing, release your thoughts and emotions as they surface, and pay attention for God. If it feels like it’s not working, or like something should be happening that isn’t, then you’re probably actually doing it right!

The contemplative life is also meant for community rather than isolation. In other words, we’re better when we engage contemplative practices together — particularly because they are so difficult by ourselves. Find a friend or a small group who can share this commitment to contemplative prayer, even if you’re sitting in silence on your own and talking about it later. The church I’m part of has recently begun a time of shared silence in our worship gatherings as a way of supporting and equipping each other in contemplative prayer.

There are a number of good guides and resources for contemplative prayer. Here are a few in different mediums:

Sister Salvinette poses a question to all of us: What is God inviting us to do that we could not do if we did not pray in this way?

In October 2003 I attended the World Missions Workshop at Lipscomb University in Nashville. God had been stirring in my heart about church and mission and I wasn’t quite sure what he wanted from me. I remember descending to the basement floor beneath the Collins Auditorium. I entered a musty classroom where light was shining through the windows along the ceiling. I sat in one of those little wooden school desks that had a desktop along my right arm attached to the seat. I remember thinking that I was too big to fit into one of those little desks.

There I listened to a man talk about his journey as a missions professor. A couple years earlier he had taken a six month sabbatical to travel around the states, interview people and research the status of missions in Churches of Christ in the U.S. At the end of that time, he was struck by the fact that many churches in our tribe had lost their missionary impulse; they had become in-grown and self-absorbed; they had forgotten their calling into the world for the sake of the world.

This professor began to dream about what it would look like for churches to recapture their missionary impulse. He talked about the movement from theology to practice, wherein God’s nature and will are determinative for its mission rather than merely what methods are most effective at getting people to attend church services. He described that some churches are like hierarchical triangles with elders and ministers at the top, performing ministry and conducting services for passive spectators and consumers.

He wondered, “What if we tipped this triangle over so that it became a wedge? Rather than existing for itself, a church would exist for the benefit of the surrounding culture and world. Rather than leaders at the top and the front, the leaders would come alongside, making disciples and equipping them for the mission. These churches would hold out the gospel for unbelievers in their neighborhoods. What if we started a whole bunch of these kinds of churches? Can you imagine what would happen? We would once again become a missionary fellowship!”

I thought to myself: I have to do that. That’s what I have to give my life to do.

It was one of those moments where God calls and sends – the moment when God says “Hey you…come with me…let’s go on mission together.”

The professor had an email sign up list for those interested in talking more about church planting and I went and signed up.

Part of what was so compelling to me was that this professor had experienced his own God moment. And he couldn’t help but to do something about it. It was no longer sufficient for him to stay in the academy and teach about missions. God was propelling him out again into the mission field of North America to equip church planters for the mission. God said to him: “Hey you…come with me…let’s go on mission together.”

The professor in that classroom that day was Gailyn Van Rheenen. Gailyn and his wife Becky left their post at ACU two months later, moved to DFW and started Mission Alive.

Over the past ten years, God has worked through Mission Alive to call and send many leaders on mission in North America. Dozens of church planters and church leaders have joined the ranks with their own God moments – when God said to each of them, “Hey you…come with me…let’s go on mission together.” My wife Julie and I ended up joining this movement when we partnered with Mission Alive to start Storyline Christian Community in Dallas, Texas six years ago.

Along the way Mission Alive’s partnering churches started asking, Can we get in on this mission? What would it look like for us to adopt the same theology and practices as they church planters we are supporting? These questions led Mission Alive to begin equipping leaders of existing churches right alongside of church planters to help them pursue renewal within their congregations.

The best part is that Mission Alive is just one part of a larger movement of mission in our tribe – several other groups, like our friends with Kairos Church Planting, have emerged out of the same impulses and God moments. The missionary Spirit is stirring people up for the mission all over the place!

Granted, along the way there have been steep learning curves, struggles, set backs, casualties and failure. But God has been with us, and out of the dust God is giving life to a movement of discipleship and mission.

Mission Alive plays the role of an equipper in this movement. The core content of our equipping, which we call Mission Training, revolves around four major topics: 1) Cultivating Personal Discipleship: movements start at the level of individual apprenticeship to Jesus; 2) Planting Missional Communities: disciples live together as extended families on mission in neighborhoods and relational networks; 3) Equipping Disciple-Making Leaders: leaders in the kingdom develop relational systems for making disciples who make disciples; 4) Launching Kingdom Movements: missionary churches partner together for the sake of church planting and renewal in a geographic area or people group.

Fuel the Fire

The dream we’re pursuing in Mission Alive is no less than a movement of God’s Spirit: a movement of people who are passionate about being disciples of Jesus and living on mission; where churches partner together to start new churches in every region across North America; in which people live their lives among the broken and lost of our continent and hold out the good news of God in Jesus Christ; where people participate here-and-now in God’s in-breaking kingdom, anticipating the restoration of all things.

It’s a movement of people who simply hear the call of God and have the courage to go where he sends them – people who respond to those moments when God says, “Hey you…come with me…let’s go on mission together.”

What is God saying to you?

Charles Kiser is a church planter with Storyline Christian Community in Dallas, Texas, and the Director of Training for Mission Alive. He blogs at www.inthestoryline.com. You can contact him at charles[at]missionalive[dot]org.