Vision For A Thriving Community

The Christian Church’s influence on American society diminishes daily, and as a twentysomething Millennial, I quite personally feel its effects. Though many Boomers still fight ardently for “conservative values”, and I absolutely believe we need to encourage and empower more disciples of Christ to enter into politics and law-making, many of the battles we choose seem futile to me. I have embraced the fact that we no longer live in a Christian culture. The values and belief system I hold exist in tension with the world around me. I speak, think, behave, and interact quite differently from the majority of my peers. And I’m actually really okay with that, because if I’m going to live as if I’m from another world, I’d rather people notice.

I wish more churches and spiritual leaders would embrace the fact that Christendom has passed. Maybe then we could begin to focus less on the number of people walking through our church doors and more on the quality of Christ-followers we’re sending out from our community into the world. I’m excited to see more literature being written that emphasizes the need for mature discipleship, but I still worry that churches will respond by simply creating more programs.

For thirteen months, I experienced the honor of serving as the discipleship pastor in a local church. After overseeing the academics for a nine-month residential discipleship program for young adults, I learned two important lessons:
1) Programs do not work well.
2) Listening to God does!

In the first semester, I labored intensively to rewrite all of our academic guidelines. I created syllabi, prepared lessons, taught fervently, and graded papers diligently. But even with all of my effort, the impact on my students’ lives remained minimal. Why? Because my primary relationship with them stayed at a teacher-student status, and no one was succeeding. Very few of my students exhibited proficiency in their academics. And out of those who performed well, some displayed significant character issues. What good would it do if my students learned to read the Bible correctly, but they never allowed the information to transform them?

So for the second semester, I decided to change things up. I set aside two hours each week to meet with students one on one. During each hour, I got to know one of my students personally. It’s amazing how deeply you can get to know someone when you purposefully spend one hour listening to them share from their heart. (I also learned a major transgression for pastors: running out of tissues in your office!)

Choosing to spend time with my students individually drastically increased the impact of the ministry. Why? Because as I listened, I received the opportunity to truly know each one of them, and while doing so, I diligently sought to hear from God on their behalf. Though I initially sat aside only two hours in order to guard my time, I soon did so to guard my energy. I quickly discovered how much more work goes into an hour of listening well than an hour of lecturing. Self-control proved trying when I had to choose patience and compassion over defensiveness with an angry student, and when my flesh wanted to tell them blatant truths, but God’s Spirit subtly warned me to hold my tongue. Though difficult, the intentionality that it took to listen to the voice of God was worth it every time.

I believe that the greatest need in our churches is mature believers who hear and respond to the voice of God. In Hebrew, the verb for obey quite literally means “to listen.” It carries the idea that as we listen to God’s voice, our hearing demands response. If we do not obey, we have not truly heard.

Imagine with me a community of Christ-followers who actively hear and obey the voice of the Lord in everyday life. A community in which you and I participate. Compassion for the broken and the lost come naturally. We become people who embrace the tension of grace and truth. We address problems boldly, but in timely manners. We speak life into dead souls and spirits. We call forth potential and hope in individuals and communities. We cast visions of redemption. We know the mind of Christ, because He regularly reveals hidden truths to our hearts. The Spirit speaks through our mouths and lives to engage those who need to experience the living God. We are a community that brings healing to all who choose to participate, because the Holy Spirit moves freely through His willing vessels. Broken lives are made whole and new.

This is the Kingdom that Jesus came to bring. It’s not just a romanticized dream of idealism. No, this is the message of the gospel. This is why Jesus called it good news! Such a life and community is fully accessible to us now.

So will you choose to participate with me? I’ll warn you: it will cost you much. Your pride must go. You must be willing to submit your mind, heart, spirit, and body to the lordship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But in return, we will all gain more than we could ever dream.

Maybe, just maybe, if we become people who attune our hearts to hear the voice of God, we won’t have the problem of a diminishing Church. I’d even take the risk to declare it thriving.

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My Confession

I write today with a broken heart. But it’s a good brokenness. The kind where God has to break something which seems whole in order to refashion it to be like Him.

I don’t know the way God works in your life, but in mine it’s all about seasons. For one season, he’ll give me extra joy, contentment, fullness, and grace. But soon, He leads me through times of sorrow, inadequacy, lack, and utter dependency. The ironic part about God’s seasons is that during most there is both harvest and pruning, sowing and reaping. While I’m experiencing the abundant fruit of the last season, He’s planting and pruning areas for the next.

So what season is this? It’s one of deep pruning. Within the last few months, I’ve experienced a lot of life. From the loss of my grandfather, leaving my job, going on a missions trip, moving to a new state, leaving my entire community of family and friends, and starting school, it seems that there have been transitions in every part of my life. I’ve spent a lot of time facing the truth of my own heart and dealing with the ugliness. During a time of abundance, it’s hard to see the weeds and the seeds that were choked out underneath the surface, but as my life has been stripped down, God has been revealing the barrenness.

So here’s my confession:

I’m a perfectionist. I’ve built my whole life and self-worth on performance, the things that I do well. The good part about this is that I love to grow. I love to be a part of always making things better than they are now. And because of this drive, I’ve experienced lots of “success” and really exciting accomplishments. Spiritually speaking, I most love the change and growth that comes from seeing a broken life made new. There’s nothing quite as exciting as healing from pain and depravity, seeing transformation to wholeness in a person’s life. Since I love this process, this is the most important goal that I’m driven to pursue: life change.

But here’s the problem. Building my life on accomplishment is a big house with a weak foundation. No matter how tall it gets, it’s always susceptible to crumbling down. Finding my value in what I do well keeps me from finding my value in Christ. I have a hard time accepting that I have intrinsic worth, regardless of my productivity, because I am created in the image of our most incredible God.

And here’s what it looks like in real life:

When I mess up, I’m devastated. Problems that I can’t fix depress me. I have a hard time accepting that which I have no control over. Mistakes are crushing, even when they’re slight. I have a tendency to take too much responsibility for things that aren’t mine to take, which undermines those around me. Because I’m not okay with my own weaknesses, this can cause me to have a hard time feeling compassion for other’s shortcomings. I start to think that the reason I can do things well is because of my own hard work, which leads me to put a heavy weight on those around me to work harder for what they want. But that doesn’t work. This only creates legalism, which may look good on the outside but is devastating to the heart.

So God’s been taking me through a hard process. He’s stripping away my confidence in the areas where I’ve found my identity. He’s reminding me that they’re gifts He gave me, but they’re not who I am. What if I couldn’t communicate well? What if I had really poor social skills? What if I was unable to work? Does this mean that I have no value? As St. Paul would say, “Absolutely not!”

I can just imagine Jesus standing with me in the middle of an incredible view of nature. As we would look around at the trees, birds, grass, hills, sun, flowers, clouds, and all else, he would point to them and tell me what God does to carefully provide for each one. Then he would look at me and say,

“Starla, all of these are important to me. After all, I created them, provide for them, and enjoy them! But even as much as I care for each, you’re set apart from the rest because I created you to be like me. You’re the only one that I view as a mirror to see my own reflection. So how much more valuable are you? And yet I require nothing from you. I only desire a relationship. I just want you.”

I’m having a hard time accepting that. I have a hard time with the fact that I would be just as valuable to God if I were in a hospital bed having no cognitive function as I am when a pastor or seminary student, working in a church and contributing as much as I can. The gifts He’s given me were meant to be a joy, not a burden. They’re an invitation rather than a requirement.

So what does all this mean? I don’t know yet. But what I’m hearing the most is God saying, “Just be.” I’m trying to let go of the pressure to create certain results, choosing instead to listen for God when He says, “I love you regardless.”