Thursday, November 20, 2014

the beauty of being repurposed - funnels and disciple-making, take 2

Our Mozambican friends are great at repurposing.

Everything in this part of the world gets reused or recycled.

Kids turn trash into toys.

Scrap paper and bamboo shards are used to start cooking fires.

Even a busted fridge can be turned into a piece of furniture!   

The other day, in a nearby neighborhood, I came across a guy selling cooking oil.  He dipped a cup into a bucket of vegetable oil and would pour it through a funnel into little bottles to sell to his clients.  But, what caught my attention was his funnel.

In my previous blog post, I talked about the ways that the process of making disciples is like a funnel.   It is an illustration that I use all the time.  I try to encourage people not to act like a cup, but to use what they learn and act like a funnel by passing on what they know to others.

And on this day, the vendor's funnel caught my attention.  Someone had taken an empty, used tomato can and reshaped it into a funnel.  I think it's beautiful - it's a piece of art. 

Now, tin cans are nothing special.  They are containers that we throw away without a second thought.

But a funnel - that can be an important tool.  One that is used over and over again.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the fact that in order to be good at making disciples, we must be reshaped.  To become a vessel that is effective in making disciples we will need to be repurposed.  Like that tin can, we'll need to be formed into something new - a funnel.

The world may have shaped us in a certain mold.  And because of that we may be under the impression that our purpose in life is to store and hold onto what we've got.

But there is something beautiful and redemptive in realizing the truth that we can be remade into something that serves to bless and fills others up.

Now, the process of being reshaped into a funnel may be painful.  We'll be bent and stretched in ways that may be uncomfortable.   But, that's the only way that to become a useful instrument for making disciples.

May we see beauty in the way that God is working to repurpose us - shaping us into funnels that channel blessing and life to those around us.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, November 6, 2014

The funnel and disciple-making

There's a teaching illustration that I have found to be extremely useful for encouraging disciple-making to take place in the church.   I learned it from Murphy Crowson who explained it in an email this way.

"Emphasize that they HAVE TO PASS THIS ON! This is not a leadership training school where they will get a paper diploma. Their graduation certificate will be those who they've discipled who are discipling others! They must have an outward focus on this material and an "I'm learning to teach others" attitude from day one. I use the visual illustration with my leaders of a glass and a funnel. Some leaders/churches/Christians are like a glass, always receiving and never giving. When the glass is full, God can't pour anymore wisdom/blessings/etc. in.  A funnel however constantly receives and gives.  Always receiving more and always passing it right along."

Murphy shared this insight about the difference between a funnel and a cup to me back in 2007 and I have used this illustration more than any other to describe the process of disciple-making with my Mozambican friends.

But a couple weeks ago, a church member offered a new insight that deepened the imagery of the funnel and the cup for me and the rest of the group.

I had taken a basic, plastic water bottle to the church cluster meeting and cut it in half in front of the students.  The bottom half was shaped like a cup and the top half had the form of a funnel.  I talked (once again!) about the need for each of us to be like a funnel.  And this time I took advantage of the fact that this water-bottle-funnel had a lid on it.  We talked about how sometimes we may want to share what we've learned with potential disciples, but until we remove the lid, we will be unable to effectively share.  The word for lid in Portuguese is "tampa" and the Makua-Metto version of that is "itampa."  So, I emphasized how changing our practices could help us remove the lid from a strategic point of view and help us become the funnels we were created to be.

Then one of the church leaders made an important insight.  He noted that sometimes our best intentions and even our best practices for being funnels will be limited by our own sin and lack of integrity in our witness.  Interestingly, the word for sin in Makua-Metto is "itaampi."  It is not just that the lid that limits us (itampa), but sin (itaampi) also keeps us from fulfilling our calling.  The group all laughed at the truth found in this play on words (okay, so maybe I found the pun more interesting than the others did :) ).

The task that Jesus commissioned us for is to make disciples (Matt. 28).  But we will only be able to do that well when we have been liberated from a life of sin (itaampi) and when we've removed the lid (itampa) that keeps us from opening ourselves strategically to minister and pass on the gift of living water to others.

So, Murphy, thanks for being a funnel so long ago and passing on what you learned.   That illustration is still blessing people and bearing new insights and fruit even over here.

May we be a people who let neither itampa or itaampi get in the way of making disciples of Jesus.

Grace and Peace,

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Macro and the Micro

I don't really understand church planting.

There.  I've said it.

Church planting is a big part of our mission here, one that we've spent a lot of time doing.  So, you would think I would have the process all worked out.  And yet, I still don't get it.  Why one church plant thrives while a different one fails to survive boggles my mind.  There have been times when I've pointed to positive signs in a new church plant, feeling confident that it would take off and grow...only to find it fizzle out a short time later.  And then in other villages, churches have begun in ways so precarious that I've assumed there'd be no way they would make it.  But to my surprise and joy, they've continued to stick it out.

The main factor in the establishment of a church is certainly the Holy Spirit.  But beyond that there are a host of factors involved in whether a church plant makes it over the long haul.  There are countless variables that affect the long-term sustainability of a church.  And most of them are way beyond my control.

There's a village in the district of Chiure that has a solid church.  They have a good leader, they have young and old members, and they built a sturdy church building...but their village is slowly dying.  People are moving away to bigger villages along the main road - villages that have schools.  These are sociological factors that none of us predicted.  One regional leader told me that in five years this village, and by extension it's church, will probably be no more. 

A few weeks ago, my friend Havara passed away.  The church in Ncororo had been meeting at his house.  This Sunday, his widow told us that she was moving to the city to be close to family.  So now this small house church has lost two of its most stable members.  Will anyone step up and lead this body of believers?

Even when I discuss this topic with Mozambican church leaders, people who have planted and led faithfully the body of Christ for years, at some point eventually we all throw up our hands.  There are too many variables.  Success in church planting is a mystery.

Trying to get a handle on this topic takes me back to classes in college - not classes on evangelism and church planting - but my business classes in economics. 

I remember taking Microeconomics.  Now here's a class that makes sense.  We looked at finances on a small level and how faithful management of resources is a good indicator of success.  We named good practices and habits that help individuals or organizations be good stewards. 

But Macroeconomics was a different story.  In this one we tried to understand how complex industries and national economies functioned.  I left that class under the impression that no one really understands macroeconomics.  While most people could grasp economics on a micro level, I came away convinced that only a select few would even come close to being able to consistently predict economic trends on a macro level.

So this is the rubric I've been using lately to help me understand the complexities of church planting - Disciple-Making is to Church planting what Microeconomics is to Macroeconomics.  Or if we put it in the form of an analogy on the SAT test -  

Disciple Making : Church Planting :: Microeconomics : Macroeconomics 

Making disciples is what we've all been commissioned by Jesus to do (Matthew 28).  It is the micro level of discipleship.  We are all called to replicate ourselves and pass on the passions, principles and practices that had been entrusted to us to the people in our sphere of influence.

But, church planting is the outworking of disciple-making on a macro level.  It is the union of followers of Jesus in a specific time and place.  Therefore, it is understandable that not everyone may be called to plant a church, but all of us are called to make disciples.  We may never understand the "macroeconomics" involved in planting a church, but all of us should be able to "get" Kingdom work on the micro level, making disciples - that's the commission that Jesus gave us.
So, while it is frustrating and depressing to think about churches that I have watered that may eventually cease to exist, James Bryan Smith offers this helpful perspective. 

"Churches come and go, but the kingdom is eternal.  Their life, power and reason for existence are in the Kingdom of God, and it will never falter...Communities become other-centered when they are steeped in the narrative of the kingdom of God.  They know that their community is an outpost of the kingdom of God, a place where grace is spoken and lived for as long as it is needed.  The value of a church is not in its longevity but in its love.  The success of a church is not in its size but in its service to the people and the community." (The Good and Beautiful Community, p. 72-73)

 I appreciate this quote because it reminds us to focus on the big picture as well as on things that we can actually control.  God's kingdom is the big picture.  When we apply that wide angle lens, it helps us not give in to despair when pieces of the picture may not be progressing as we would like.  And Smith  also reminds us to focus on what we can control.  We cannot control how large a church gets or how long a church exists.  But what we can control is the amount of love and service we pour out to those around us.  We can't control the macro, all that we can control is what we do at the micro level.

It is certainly good to study church planting and adapt best principles and practices, but we will never be able fully wrap our minds around discipleship at this macro level.  My conviction is that all of us who involve ourselves in church planting will eventually come to the point of throwing up our hands.  Hopefully, though, when we throw up our hands, it will not be in a spirit of frustration or as an indication that we've given up.  Ideally, when we come to the end of our own understanding of church planting and we throw up our hands - we'll throw them up in worship.  Celebrating the mystery and giving all our confusion and amazement to the One who reigns over all.

May we be a people who faithfully live out the Kingdom life (even if we don't understand it!) on the micro and macro levels.

Grace and Peace,

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Heart of Ministry

Over the last few months, there have been a couple of leadership issues in the church that have been very painful for me.  During that same period, as part of a Bible study with a young man I've been discipling, I worked on memorizing 2 Corinthians chapters 2-6.   At one point a few weeks ago, I perceived a real connection between those two things - those leadership issues and that Biblical text.  So, in order to work it out in my mind, I tried my hand at writing a section of Paul's letter from my perspective.  I took the text of 2 Corinthians 6:1-18 and re-wrote it, from my own vantage point and out of our experience in ministry among the Makua-Metto.

As one fellow slave of God to another, I'm begging you not to throw away the generous gift of grace that God has entrusted to you.  As God has said, "When the time was right and you needed it most, I answered the call to save you."  Let me tell you that now is the time - today is that day - the day of salvation.

We've worked hard to not put any barriers up for anyone, conscientious and careful so that this work will not be disqualified in God's eyes or your own.  As good slaves we've tried every approach, every angle to reach you.  In doing so we've had to put up with a number of challenges.  We've struggled to learn your language and culture.  We were falsely accused by human authorities and lived in exile for over a year.   We've endured sickness and sunburn, malaria and dysentery.  And all of it has been for you.

We've been robbed and held at gunpoint.  We've endured scorn and been looked down on by fellow church leaders.  We've had to leave behind family and friends.  Fellow missionaries have abandoned us and trusted colleagues have fallen into sin.  We've worked hard and done our best to bless you.  All of it has been for you.

Although we have been misunderstood and mistreated, through it all God has been faithful.  He has provided for us, fully equipped and sustained us, even in our weakness and imperfection.  By his grace, we have stuck it out.  All of it endured because of you.

And now we are speaking freely and openly with you - don't shut us out.  As a parent might reach out to a child, I implore you, keep your hearts open and soft to us.  Don't abandon this path and join up with Satan.  We are confident in making this request of you because of our firm belief that the life God has to offer is infinitely better and richer. Please, whatever you do, hold on to what is true and real!
For many years, this passage from 2 Corinthians has been a sustaining and life-giving text for me.  I memorized it as part of a Bible study back in college.  And at that time, the testimony of Paul about his ministry gave me a perspective to strive for.  Reading it now, though, after spending over a decade working with our friends here in Mozambique, I resonate more with Paul's desperation and deep longing that the believers he is writing to will hold firmly to what is true.

In this text, I am reminded that the story of one's ministry reveals the heart of one's ministry.  Knowing and claiming that story is a powerful tool in both sustaining oneself as well as uncovering the credibility we possess to minister to the ones that we are called to serve.  

Thanks for reading - I hope this text is a blessing to you, too.

Grace and Peace,