Canoeing the Mountains

This post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

After fifteen difficult months of travel, they had made it. Lewis and Clark had reached the spring that began the Missouri River, that great river they had been following since they crossed the Mississippi and began their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase.

For over three hundred years before Lewis and Clark arrived at this spot, explorers from numerous nations had assumed that just beyond the headwaters of the Missouri were the headwaters to the Columbia River, and with it, a route to the Pacific. Indeed, this was the entire purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition—to determine the best way to connect the Missouri and the Columbia, thus connecting east and west, Atlantic and Pacific. To accomplish this goal, the expedition had invested heavily in their canoes—big, sturdy things that could carry all the supplies and people needed to make their trek from the Mississippi to the Pacific as manageable as possible.

Meriwether Lewis himself had written about his belief that when they reached the springs that fed the Missouri, he and his men would walk up a hill, look down across perhaps a half-day portage, and then simply set their canoes in the Columbia and set off for the Pacific Ocean. All they needed to do was crest the hill, find the steam, and coast to the finish line.

Lewis and Clark could not have been more disappointed.

What they actually discovered was that three hundred years of geographical assumptions were completely and utterly wrong. For when they reached the top of the hill and looked out, they saw not the Columbia River, but the Rocky Mountains. Stretching out for miles and miles, as far as the eye could see, one set of peaks after another: tall, dangerous, and imposing. In other words, Lewis and Clark didn’t see anything like what they expected to see—and not at all what they were trained or prepared for.

And in that moment, Lewis and Clark were faced with a choice: should they turn back, or should they press on? They were equipped with canoes; before them lay mountains. And in the words of one of their companions, “the most terrible mountains I ever beheld.” No one would blame them if they turned back; no one would think less of them if they needed to regroup and try again later. Should they take the safe bet? Or should they venture into the unknown, into uncharted territory that was even more dangerous and uncertain than they had originally thought?

Of course, there are museums dedicated to Lewis and Clark across the United States precisely because they didn’t turn back. We know the names Meriwether Lewis and William Clark because they embraced the path before them and forged ahead, into the unknown, even though the path was very different than they originally expected. In the words of Tod Bolsinger, Lewis and Clark canoed the mountains: they adapted, they learned new skills, and they completed their mission, even though the circumstances of that mission changed. It’s a fitting description for many aspects of reality right now. But it’s particularly fitting for planting a church during a pandemic.

Planting During a Pandemic

I’ve written previously about church planting at Conciliar Post, what it is and why it’s important, and even shared some of my church plant’s working projects on things like leadership in the church. But, as I’ve taken to saying, that was “before the dark times.” Church planting, like exploring, is difficult under the best of circumstances and 2020 is not the best of circumstances. With the arrival of COVID, much of life was thrown into chaos. The seemingly inevitable became problematic and dangerous. The best-laid plans were disrupted, and “uncertainty” became the watchword for “these unprecedented times.”1

Like so many other ventures, COVID forced us to consider the wisdom and viability of trying to launch a startup church at a time when nothing seems to be starting up. In the spring and summer, we wrestled with all manner of questions about the uncertainty of the future, the realities of the virus, social perceptions, and logistics. How does one build community, reach the lost, and pay the bills while under quarantine? What would happen if a staff member or key volunteer gets sick (or worse)? What might happen if church becomes a super-spreader event? Would pressing on distract people from the gospel? Would being open drive people away rather than inviting them in? With so many gathering spaces closed, where will we meet? Without the benefit of face-to-face team building, will anyone still plant with us? These are but some of the questions we faced and wrestled with.

The Shift

As we sought to answer these questions for our plant (or, at least get as close to answering them as possible), we relied on a number of voices. Foremost were conversations with our leadership team and the leadership team from our planting church. We also were in consistent communication with our church planting network, which helped give us insights into how different leaders and churches were creatively tackling some of the concerns we were facing. Finally, there was the value of experience. From late May until August, I was serving as an associate pastor at our planting church, where I was on the frontlines of doing church during a pandemic. In combination with lots of prayer, these conversations and experiences gave us the grounding to make some critical decisions.

Most significantly, we made the decision to move our plant from a movie theater to a storefront. Rather than leaving the week-to-week fate of church meetings in the hands of a distant corporation, we moved to lease some local space in a local shopping center. This enabled us to work directly with St. Louis County on adhering to COVID restrictions, rather than some intermediary who may or may not include additional restrictions. Such a space would also allow us to host other meetings throughout the week, including the filming of online services in the event of another shutdown. Of course, this shift of venue resulted in a cascade of other changes.

No longer could we need to plan for a portable church that would pack into our trailer every Sunday morning. Instead, we needed to sell our trailer, find chairs, and acquire all the other accoutrements necessary for a semi-permanent church space. This required plenty of adjustments to our preparations. As one example, when you’re meeting temporarily in a movie theater, you don’t have to worry about where your toilet paper comes from and if you have enough trash cans; but when you’re the tenant in a space, those mundane things are a little more important. We also had to make some changes to our service schedule (we have two services instead of one in order to facilitate space-friendly seating arrangements) and our launch timeline. We had hoped to launch on September 13. But because of all these COVID-induced changes, we were forced to move our launch all the way back to September 20.

But, Why?

At this point, it’s natural to ask why. Why are we planting in a pandemic? Why have we jumped through so many hoops in order to launch this Fall? It would have been far safer organizationally, financially, and personally to remain in our comfortable and well-resourced planting church until things settle down. So why did we press on toward planting?

Because people still need Jesus.

Studies have consistently shown that church plants are one of the best ways to reach people who don’t know Jesus with the good news of the kingdom of God. The fact that people still need to encounter and be transformed by Jesus hasn’t changed because of this pandemic (or any other obstacle). The Church still has a mandate to “make disciples of every nation” (Matthew 28:19-20). Our mission has not changed—only the circumstances in which we work.

All of the reasons that we needed church plants in 2019 also apply in 2020; only the need for churches to reach their communities is greater. More innovation is required to survive and thrive. More churches have plateaued or are in decline. People are still hurting and in need of safe communities, perhaps now more than any other time in recent history. Loneliness, anxiety, depression, isolation, and self-harm were epidemics before COVID and they’re only getting worse. People crave authentic connection and community—even more so after they’ve been in social isolation for long periods of time. The world is decidedly not normal—but the Church can still be a place of relative normalcy, a place where we can be reminded of the goodness and hope of the Gospel that we so desperately need when things are not normal.

Canoeing the Mountains

Fear, sickness, hatred, racism, division, malice, and anxiety may seem to guide much of our world right now, but that’s not the whole story. What better time to bring people the hope of light and life eternal in Jesus Christ than in the midst of this present darkness?

God has given us the task of planting a church. And God has provided an amazing team and the resources to carry that task out. We can be confident that God will be faithful to carry through to completion what He has started. Yes, things have changed. No, things are decidedly not easy. But the world needs Jesus. Our nation needs Jesus. Our city needs Jesus. That’s always true. But it’s especially true right now.

And so, we move forward. The future is yet uncertain; there’s still much that’s up in the air. We’re only in our seventh official week right now. All signs have been promising so far, but only God knows the future. All we can do is trust and hope in Him. Well, that—and we can continue to canoe the mountains.


Notes

1 I say this tongue-in-cheek: the only things truly unprecedented about this global pandemic is that we can dissect it on social media faster than it can spread and that modern medicine continues to perform miracles right before our eyes to save perhaps millions of human lives from our fragility and stubbornness.

Kids and the Kingdom

It’s wonderful to be a father.

I always suspected as much, but there are some things in life you just have to experience in order to truly understand.

Sure, being a parent is hard work. You learn to die to your wants and to put your spouse and kid(s) ahead of yourself. You sleep less, you work more. But it’s all worth it when you see that smile, hear that laugh, and get that hug when you come home in the evening. It’s a supreme privilege to be a parent–to learn from my daughter and to be able to walk with her as she grows.

I could go on, of course, as every parent could. But what I really want to say today is this: being a father has made me realize that the Christian life is a lot like the birth and growth of a child. Let me explain.

Preparing for Birth

When couples announce the impending arrival of a child, there’s typically quite the celebration. Letting family and friends know the big news is tremendously exciting. Then, you get to figure out a clever way to tell your Facebook friends you’re pregnant. Gender reveal parties are a thing now too, so that’s fun. People throw you showers. Gifts show up in the mail. It’s quite the hullabaloo.

Of course, you and your spouse are also quite busy. There’s a room to be repurposed (and often repainted) and furniture to find. Small people require lots (and lots and lots) of clothing, so you acquire plenty of that. There are diapers, wipes, bottles, burp cloths, baby monitors, noisemakers, and a whole host of other things Babies R’ Us sells that you absolutely need in order for your kid to survive and thrive in the world.

You attend childbirth classes and go to a hospital or two. You visit a plethora of doctors and have a host of appointments (the best ones being where you actually get to see your beloved baby). A due date gets circled on the calendar. Eventually, you pack a birthing bag. One day, the birth pains begin and you drive (a little faster than absolutely necessary, truth be told) to that magic space in which your baby will be brought into the world.

And after all that fervent preparation and all that excitement, then your new life begins.

Life is a Journey

Preparation for your baby can be fun. And the actual day of birth is a wondrous time–a day you’re unlikely to ever forget. But the big day isn’t important for its own sake; it’s important because of what it brings about. The best part of parenthood is actually everything that comes after that day.

It’s taking your newborn home. Introducing them to all the important people in your life. Surviving until they sleep through the night. Helping them eat their first real food (as if baby food is something real). It’s watching them learn to crawl, then stand, then walk. The best part of parenthood isn’t the day your baby is born–it’s those moments when your child begins talking, calling your name when they need you, and growing into their personality.

Of course, parenthood isn’t all fun and games–there are plenty of sleepless nights, days of sickness, messes made, and painful lessons learned. But all of these steps and stages in life are part of the incredible process that is seeing your kid grow into the person that God created them to be.

Life is a journey–it begins with the incredible moment of birth, but it cannot ever be reduced to that moment.

Obsession with the First Part of the Journey?

It’s here that we must turn to the Christian life. Countless Christians throughout the ages have written about how following Jesus as a journey, a process. The author of Hebrews declared, “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Heb. 12:1-2).

It makes sense to highlight portions of the journey of faith. Starting strong, reaching certain milestones, and finishing well–these are all moments worthy of celebration and remembrance. Sometimes, however, Christians have overemphasized particular moments of the faith journey. Some ancient Christians, for instance, were a bit too zealous in celebrating the end of life, particularly when lives ended in martyrdom.

Writing from my current context, it seems as if contemporary American evangelicals have overemphasized the moment of conversion in the Christian life. Now, conversion is a very important and special moment in one’s faith journey. It’s rightly something to be excited about. Conversion is, in many ways, like the birth of your child–a moment to anticipate, work toward, celebrate, and remember for a long time. But some Christian churches have made the moment of conversion the pinnacle of all of Christian existence.1

If we make conversion the sole emphasis of the Christian life–or, perhaps even worse, the sole driver of the life of the Christian church–we might end up with a lot of births. But we’ll also be left with a lot of baby Christians, feeding on milk rather than meat (Heb. 5:12-14). Focusing on the “birth” moment will also result in a distorted way of life in the here-and-now; rather than looking forward to the next milestone of growth and maturity, we’re constantly looking back, yearning for a time that wasn’t quite as great as we remember it being and missing out of the opportunities available to us today.

A Life of Growth

Rather than focusing so exclusively on the day of birth, our living out the Christian life should look more like the life of a child: a birth followed by tremendous growth.

In the same way that children grow and mature, so also Christians must mature into adult members of the kingdom. When we talk about the Christian life, we must recognize that we’re ultimately talking about much more than birth–we’re talking about the journey of life. It’s instructive that Jesus commands his followers to make disciples–complete with an outline of what that entails (Matt. 28:19-20)–rather than telling them to make converts.

The Christian Church cannot be an institution that is just focused on getting people to open up the front door, walk in, and “make a decision.” We must be a Church that is obsessed with getting people to come in off the street and enter the deepest and most holy places that God has prepared for us.

In short, we must be like kids–kids who are growing and going deeper and deeper into the Kingdom.


1 Scot McKnight does a masterful job explaining this reality–as well as the distortion of the Gospel that it brings–in The King Jesus Gospel.

This article originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

Book Review: Firsthand (Shook)

FirsthandNFL quarterback Robert Griffin III, speaking about Christianity, once said that “There comes a time when you can no longer cling to your parents’ coattails and you have to chose to make it your faith.” In Firsthand: Ditching Secondhand Religion for a Faith of Your Own Ryan and Josh Shook tackle the issue of transforming the secondhand faith that many American Christians grow up with– their parents’ faith– into a vibrant firsthand faith of their own. Ryan and Josh grew up as preacher’s kids, got to a point where they were tired of Christianity and set out on their own, only to later realize that they needed an authentic relationship with God– not merely secondhand religion that had grown up with. Continue reading

Book Review: Religion in Human Evolution (Bellah)

Religion in Human EvolutionRobert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution stands as magnum opus of breathtaking proportions. Developed from the Merlin Donald’s work on cultural evolution, Karl Jasper’s insights on the axial age, and drawing upon a range of historical, anthropological, and biological sources, Bellah traces the evolution of religion within human culture from its origins in primordial play to the theoretical turns of the Axial Age. Central to this argument is that nothing is left behind during the evolution from episodic to theoretical culture through the mimetic and mythic. As a result of this massive study, Bellah argues that the evolution of human religion, which culminated in theoretical religious discourse in axial cultures and refigured preceding mimetic and mythic culture, continues to influence human religion and culture today. Bellah’s latest monograph stands as in-depth treatment of the evolution of human culture that is a must read for those involved in the study of the history and sociology of religions. Continue reading

Book Review: Celebrate Recovery Bible

Celebrate Recovery BibleThe New International Version Celebrate Recovery Bible is geared toward those looking for hope in the face of difficult life circumstances and destructive habits. Developed by Jeff Baker and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, the Celebrate Recovery Bible includes the text of 2011 NIV accompanied with several useful features designed to guide Christians toward true recovery in Jesus Christ. Continue reading

Reflections on Harry Potter

“I cannot get a cup of tea large enough nor a book long enough” –C. S. Lewis

HarryPotterLogoMuch like C.S. Lewis, since I acquired the ability to read, I have always greatly enjoyed the reading of books. Lots of them. In fact, during elementary school I once read so many of the books in our classroom that I resorted to reading the World Book Encyclopedia in order to prevent myself from re-reading too many things. The more books I have read, the more I have come to realize two critical facts: First, there will always be more books to read. By this I mean that no matter how many books I read, there will always be more ideas and narratives to engage (this I see as a great thing, in case you were wondering). And second, there are such things as good books and bad books. That is, the content and worth of all books is not inherently equal. Some great works of literature are clearly more valuable for understanding the human condition than others. To see this, one only need to compare something by Shakespeare with any modern paperback Harlequin romance novel (or perhaps the Twlight series, but I won’t go any further into that hornet’s nest). Of course, there are less drastic comparisons and rankings, but that’s not the point of this post. Instead, I want to delve into a discussion of some (relatively recent) works of literature that have elicited a variety of judgment calls, especially among American Christians: the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Continue reading