On Saturday, February 25, I had the privilege of teaching about 35 (mostly) young adults at City Church San Francisco. The program I taught was connected with the Newbigin House of Studies, which is a wonderful new program for training lay leadership. It also includes a seminary program for urban church planters and pastors linked with Western Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Western is a seminary that is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, my own denomination.
I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to teach missional-ecumenism to this eager group in San Francisco. I met Christians who have been in the faith for less than two years who are already mature in their thinking and missional practice. They are living out the faith beyond what I have seen in most Christians that I’ve encountered around the country. This is why I am so excited about the future. The number of such young Christians leaders is not large but their depth and vision is strong. They are light years ahead of where I was in my 20s and 30s. They will need this depth and wisdom to navigate the future. I am committed to serving them to make a difference for that future.
Over lunch, on this particular sunny and gorgeous Saturday in San Francisco, I ate outside the church office on a roof top at a picnic table. (What a sight in February!) I spent some time with one young married couple in particular. The couple has been engaged in vocational pastoral ministry for several years (seminary trained with a degree) but has recently stepped out of this role for several reasons. I asked this young brother to write to me. The following email (with appropriate changes) is what I received:
I write today thinking that what I say is clearly related to some of what you were talking about on Saturday, and also to some of the political vs. missional issues that you raised in your recent blog. What follows is something I wrote to my wife after we decided to leave "ministry." Of course that is just vocational ministry we left. We are excited about the fact that we might actually get to do ministry now. She had mentioned feeling guilty, like we were turning our back on God by leaving my paid pastoral position. This is what I wrote to her:
"It feels like there is an imposter claiming to be the bride of Christ. She wears a similar veil so that it is often difficult to tell the difference until you come close and begin to lift it and rather than finding safety, compassion, and embrace you find protocol, judgment and exclusivity. I feel like our decision to move on is a desire to experience the true bride where vulnerable intimacy, unconditional embrace, and true rest exist and where protocol is not in charge except for the protocol to love. What is additionally discouraging is knowing that I have been seduced by this imposter and tried to entice others into her arms, explaining away her institutional nastiness while redirecting attention to her surface-level ‘pretty gown.’ From my time living behind this veil, I have seen many others who are much more beautiful than us on this side, who possess the characteristics of Christ and his bride much better than we (those who claim to be the church) do, even though they are not members of this visible/physical body. I think our decision to move on is a longing to celebrate with all those who possess the characteristics of the true bride and to cleanse ourselves from much of the nastiness that is contained and left un-dealt with behind the veil."
This word to my wife came after a stretch in which we were both feeling discouraged in my vocational ministry role which eventually led us to our decision to leave. Like I said, my wife felt especially guilty that we were turning our backs on God and the church, and I tried reassuring her that what we were turning our backs on was the institutional elements that have claimed the title "church.” What we were longing for and seeking by our decision was, in fact, God and his true church, which does partially still exist in the "institution" of the church that claims that title. Since making the decision, we have really grown in our excitement to serve and minister to our community. We are not feeling the awkwardness of being accountable to a job description. We love the church, but the present view of what church is, (not having read your book yet) is too small, and not only too small, but in many ways, simply wrong. This is true in a similar way to what you explained when you walked with African-Americans and realized how racist you really were. I never felt sexist in any way but it took my wife to show me the ways that the church still stifles and even dehumanizes women. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. Feel free to use these words.
Once again a young man and woman have shown me a great deal and encouraged me to press on in teaching this vision of missional-ecumenism everywhere I can. Pray for me and what I do to add something of faith and virtue to the lives of such young leaders who will have an incredible impact on the future of the church in America.
Last fall I began my first ACT 3 Missional-Ecumenical Cohort Group. This group consists of fifteen men and women who are deeply committed to learning how to be practitioners of what I call missional-ecumenism. They have committed themselves to reading over 1,500 pages of printed text, meeting for four whole (long) days spread out over eight months, to small group dialogues and to interaction via social media. I have learned a whole lot more than I've taught in the past six months. I have also seen a number of things that need to be altered to make the ACT 3 Cohort Groups more effective. These students have encouraged me and helped to build a foundation for future groups. On April 17 this first class will graduate from the program. Then our second year begins in September-October. A group may be coming to a city near you.
If you would like to learn a lot more about these groups go to ACT 3 and check out the material about the groups on our home page. This link will take you into a series of three videos and a number of documents explaining the group and what is required, etc. We have scheduled ACT 3 Cohort Groups for Chicago, Philadelphia and Phoenix for this fall. We may also have groups in Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Dallas and San Francisco. The first three are 99% certain. The other cities are being determined between now and June 1. Dates will be available in June for each location where we can have a Cohort Group in 2012-13. Again, go to the site and click on "The Unity Factor" to learn more.
One of my current students, Sharon Shafer, has written a blog about something she learned in the ACT 3 Cohort process about the cross and relational dialogue. This blog will give you an idea of how one person thought very deeply and faithfully about the missional church and unity and then put her ideas down in a clear and succinct way. I am so proud of Sharon for thinking and reflecting deeply about mission. Check out her post. You will get a great idea of some of the ways people learn to think because they share in this learning process together.
Many readers of this blog know that I have been engaged in serious ecumenical conversation and mission for more than a decade now. This led me to visit the Vatican in March of last year. (Blogs about that trip can be accessed in the archives of this blog site from March 2011.) Shortly after I returned from Rome, in mid-March, Francis Cardinal George, the archbishop of Chicago, was featured on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. In a unique interview he spoke about various things that had been accomplished, and not accomplished, during his time in Chicago. One of his expresed interests was for a greater conversation between the evangelical Protestant community, with its great passion for Christ's mission, and the Catholic Church in Chicago. A member of the ACT 3 board, who had a wonderful friendship with a priest inside the archbishop's office, got a copy of Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ's Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church, to his friend who then gave it to the Cardinal. Cardinal George read my book and then contacted me by email to see if I would come to his residence for a personal, private conversation. I went in the summer of 2011 and it was a delightful time for me.
At the end of that lovely visit I asked the Cardinal if he would come to Wheaton and continue to discuss my thesis of missional-ecumenism in a public context. He agreed. But then the details had to be worked out. With profound gratitude I can tell you that Wheaton College allowed ACT 3 to use the largest facility on campus, Edman Memorial Chapel, for this special evening. Thus on Monday, March 26, at 7:00 p.m., Cardinal George and I will meet again but this time we will have our conversation in a public setting. You are cordially invited.
This event is free but seating is limited and we expect a very large crowd. I will say a lot more about this unusual dialogue in the next few days but please mark the date now. If you live far away from the Chicago area then you can see the video of this event on our web site sometime after it is over. (Some friends are flying in for this evening from both coasts!) We even hope to "live stream" the event via Wheaton College's radio station if the details can be arranged in time. I'll keep you posted on everything connected with this important event.
Please pray for me when you think about March 26th. Pray also for Chris Castaldo, director of Gospel Renewal at the Billy Graham Center, who will moderate our dialogue. And pray for Francis Cardinal George, the leader of Chicago's Catholic community and a rightly esteemed leader in the Catholic Church in America. I am uniquely honored to know this man of faith and look forward to our conversation with some degree of fear. My fear is not of the Cardinal himself. He is an extremely gracious brother and will strive to build up everyone in love without flinching on what he believes. I fear that I might fail the task of properly representing the unity of Christ's people in mission, the passion of my life. I also fear that I will not show the love of Christ as I should. My heart is filled with love and regard for all of Christ's flock so I pray this will be evident in my words and actions.
Finally, pray for all the work that goes into this event. We have a huge load of publicity to complete if this event is to be a great success. I need volunteers to do a great deal. A former staff member is coming from St. Louis to assist Stacy, my daughter, in running the evening event and handling the crowd, my books, etc. Pray for each person involved that we will all be safe, full of Christ's love and kind to all.
There is a long history behind the worldwide call to prayer for Christian unity but I became acutely aware of the history of this call at the Center for Unity in Rome last March. Then in June, about an hour north of New York City, I visited the grave site of Fr. Paul Wattson, the man who launched this global week of prayer for Christian unity. As deeply interested as I am in this subject I am pleased to share news today from the Vatican Information Service of January 18. The Pope's comments provide a gracious reminder of our common duty to the whole of Christ's Church, not just our own communion or fellowship.
VATICAN CITY, 18 JAN 2012 (VIS) - The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins today, was the theme of Benedict XVI's general audience celebrated this morning in the Paul VI Hall. The Holy Father explained how this initiative has been held annually for more than a century and brings together Christians from Churches and ecclesial communities, who "invoke that extraordinary gift for which the Lord Jesus prayed during the Last Supper: . . . 'That they may all be one.'"
The Week of Prayer - established in 1908 by Paul Wattson, founder of an Anglican religious community who later entered the Catholic Church - "is one of the most effective annual expressions . . . of the impetus which Vatican Council II gave to the search for full union among all Christ's disciples", said the Pope. "This spiritual event, which unites Christians from all traditions, increases our awareness of the fact that the unity we strive for cannot result merely from our own efforts; rather, it is a gift we receive and must constantly invoke from on high."
The texts for this year's Week of Prayer have been prepared by a group of representatives from the Catholic Church, and from the Polish Ecumenical Council which proposed the theme of "We will all be changed by the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ." The history of Poland - marked by defeats and victories, by the struggle to end oppression and achieve freedom - led the ecumenical group to reflect more deeply upon what it means to "win" and to "lose."
In this context the Pope pointed out that, "in contrast to 'victory' understood in triumphal terms, Christ shows us a very different way. His victory does not involve power and might. . . . Christ speaks of victory through love, mutual assistance and boosting the self-esteem of those who are 'last', forgotten, excluded. For all Christians, the best expression of such humble service is Jesus Christ Himself, His total gift of self, the victory of His love over death. . . . We can share in this 'victory' only if we allow ourselves to be transformed by God."
Likewise, "the unity for which we pray requires inner conversion, both shared and individual. But this must not be limited to cordiality and cooperation; we must reinforce our faith in God; ... we must enter into the new life in Christ, Who is our true and definitive victory; we must open to one another, accepting all the elements of unity which God has conserved for us; . . . we must feel the pressing need to bear witness, before the men and women of our time, to the living God Who made Himself known in Christ."
Ecumenism, as defined by Vatican Council II and Blessed John Paul II, is "the responsibility of the entire Church and of all the baptised, who must augment the partial communion that already exists among Christians until achieving full communion in truth and charity. Praying for unity . . . must then be an integral part of the prayer life of all Christians, in all times and places, especially when people from different traditions come together to work for victory in Christ over sin, evil, injustice and the violation of human dignity."
Benedict XVI also pointed out that "lack of unity among Christians hinders the effective announcement of the Gospel and endangers our credibility," but noted that, "as far as the fundamental truths of the faith are concerned, there is far more that unites us than divides us. . . . This is a great challenge for the new evangelisation, which will be more fruitful if all Christians together announce the truth of the Gospel and Jesus Christ, and give a joint response to the spiritual thirst of our times."
In conclusion, the Pope exhorted the faithful to unite more intensely in prayer during the course of the coming Week, "to increase shared witness, solidarity and collaboration among Christians, in expectation of that glorious day when together we will all be able to celebrate the Sacraments and profess the faith transmitted by the Apostles."
As readers of this blog already know I had the privilege of spending ten days in Rome last March. (There are extensive blogs on this trip archived on this site in March 2011.) I was a part of a small group of Christian leaders who serve in various contexts where missional-ecumenism clearly defines what we do in our mission for Christ. I only knew one of the six other team members of my small group before I journeyed to Rome. Deacon John Green and I had met some years ago and developed a friendship that has been mutually enriching. I have supported Emmaus Ministries, the work John pioneered many years ago here in Chicago, for some time. John's mission is featured in my book, Your Church Is Too Small. I also endorsed John's wonderful book, Streetwalking with Jesus: Reacing Out with Justice and Mercy (2011).
Just after I returned from Rome a member of our ACT 3 board, Marcus Payne, asked me to get the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune in order to read a front-page article about Cardinal George of Chicago. Marc noted that Cardinal George spoke about ecumenism and said that one of his regrets was not connecting more closely with the energy and mission of evangelical Protestants in Chicago. Marc felt led to get a copy of Your Church Is Too Small to Cardinal George. He had a personal friend inside the office of archdiocese, who had since moved to Canada, who could make sure that my book personally got to Cardinal George. I thought to myself, "This is a wonderful idea but I don't expect he'll even have time to look at it." (I get so many requests like this one, to read someone's book because a friend asks me to read it, that I knew he would very likely only find the time to glance at it.) To my utter surprise I recieved an invitation to meet with Cardinal George in his residence in the summer of 2011. He not only read my book but wanted to discuss it with me. I was both amazed and honored. We had a wonderful visit. At the end of our time I asked him, "Would you join me in a public venue to further discuss this idea of missional-ecumenism?" He agreed and I went to work on the place, time, format, etc. A lot of back and forth went into this effort but by late October it came together.
Because of these rather unusual series of events I am pleased to announce our forthcoming "Conversation on Unity in Christ's Mission" to be held Monday, March 26, in Edman Chapel at Wheaton College. Please tell anyone you know in the Chicago area that they are welcome to attend. If you cannot attend we plan to have a video of the event to put on our web site a few weeks after March 26th. We will also have cards and posters to advertise this free event by next week. If you need more information to make this evening known to the public please contact the ACT 3 office at 630-221-1817 or respond to this blog and I'll get information to you.
Several times each year I mention what I believe is the most important online writing that I do. I refer to the ACT 3 Weekly articles I write for our web site. (These are read by several thousand subscribers as well as by visitors to our home page.) These articles run between 1,000 and 1,400 words and address topics and themes that are directly related to our vision of missional-ecumenism, the vision that drives this ministry. I have been writing these longer articles for at least ten years. I have been blogging for about seven years. These weekly articles have often been delivered as public presentations (via lectures and dialogues) and some have even been used in multi-authored published works. Still others will likely become full-length books in the future. I do far more research, and do more extensive editing, on these articles than I can ever do with my blogging. My first priority in daily writing is this series. This material is actually the long-time staple of our serious effort to help the church, to serve church leaders and to think more clearly about mission and ministry.
I began a new series last Monday (January 9). The subject is Churchless Christianity. Ten years ago this subject would have been irrelevant except in some (Muslim and Hindu) contexts outside of North America. Now churchless Christianity is fast becoming an issue that the American church needs to understand and squarely address. I explain the problem and then offer some biblical and theological answers for how to proceed over coming weeks. I think all Christians ought to be discussing this issue, especially our leaders. I believe many of you will find these articles helpful.
You can read the first issue (01/09/12) at ACT 3 online. You can also subscribe to this ACT 3 Weekly series at the ACT site. A podcast is usually made (last week was an exception) and you can subscribe to this if you prefer an audio version that lasts about ten minutes.
Please pray for me during these days. I am working very hard on re-visioning the web site of ACT 3 and hope to have a new home page and blog site soon. I am also working on my presence on Facebook and Twitter. Check me out on both if you're interested at all.
ACT 3 exists to “equip leaders for unity in Christ’s mission.” To be a leader, a real servant-leader, you have to think about what you intend to do and then have a clear purpose to do it. You also have to take some risks. Albert Einstein once said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
My friend Bob Shank, a trainer of business leaders, says, “Most security addicts think that it’s crazy to try something new. Einstein would say that it’s crazy not to try something new, [especially] if the results you are realizing from what you’re already doing aren’t enough to be satisfying and fulfilling!” Amen!
The prophet Isaiah said: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland…” (Isaiah 43:18-19)
What is your strategy for 2012? How do you plan to make a difference in your family, job and community? How will your church be stronger, more Christ-like, this year because you’ve been there? The danger is that you will adopt a personal default strategy for 2012, which is to do 2011 all over again. Right now you can determine to make a real difference in this new year but you have to be decisive and proactive. You cannot drift and hope for the best.
Bob Shank says, “Leadership is measured by initiative, which is the power or opportunity to take charge or action before others do.” The key is clear adds Shank. Your life next December will give evidence of the initiatives exercised by you during 2012. What new initiatives are you considering for this year of new opportunity?
I want to thank all of you who read my various posts, whether here, on Facebook and Twitter or by subscribing to our ACT 3 Weekly articles that are sent each Monday to thousands of readers. Your interest and love over the past year is a blessing. I also want to thank many of you who faithfully and generously supported us. This ministry simply could not exist, at least in its present and fast-growing form, without you!
I hope you know that your support is helping me to challenge and teach thousands of Christian leaders across the country, even around the world. The Lord is using ACT 3 to mentor pastors, missionaries, educators, professionals, businessmen and women and homemakers. We impact Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians in an ever growing way. We uniquely combine a passion for mission with a vision for unity, some all too uncommon in our time. We are in partnership with a major Christian think tank, with a mission that reaches around the globe, with several growing churches and many other related kinds of ministries. Our desire is always to equip leaders in unity for Christ's mission in order to help draw Christians into a transforming faith and robust witness by becoming missional in their understanding of the church and of Christ's vocation/calling.
Please know that your confidence, prayer and financial support means so very much to me personally. I am so very grateful for each of you!
This season is critical to our annual fundraising. We have operated behind our budget for three-plus years now. By God's grace we are making it, step-by-step, but we could do much more going forward with your help. Please pray that God would touch the hearts of those receiving all of our year-end appeals. A Christmas card was sent to our physical mailing list. If you did not get one then be sure to send us your address for future mailings. (More and more these communications are being done by email to save money.) If your heart is moved toward this work then please give as generously as you can to help us end the year well with our revised budget. If we end well then we can move boldly into our new vision for 2012 and beyond. This vision is expressed well on the home page at ACT 3.
I pray that you have a wonderful Christmas and that the New Year will be filled with many blessings. God bless you all.
A year-end gift, of any size, will be appreciated. You can go to ACT 3 and donate online anytime.