People are Watching, Wash Feet

This post was inspired by JE’s post “Leaders of the Towel and Basin”

I grew up in a faith community that practised what Jesus did with his disciples in John 13. Twice a year, Good Friday and Thanksgiving, we washed each others’ feet. Since leaving home as a young adult this Anabaptist ‘sacrament’ lost much of its meaning for me. As a pastor and a Christian of the Mennonite tradition I avoided the washing feet thing at every turn.

Then I visited Burma.

In the back waters of that nation I spent a week teaching and preaching an Anabaptist understanding of the Gospel to a Bible College student body and faculty. At the end of the week I spoke at their convocation service. Over 500 people gathered on a warm February Sunday afternoon to celebrate the 14 students who were graduating with their Bachelor of Theology degrees.

With input from the President of the school I decided I would dust off the Anabaptist ‘sacrament’ which I had grown to loathe. Nancy, my wife and fellow teacher, and I proceeded to wash the feet of these students. I was unprepared for the rush of family and friends who came forward to take pictures.

One of the faculty summed up the people’s curiosity around foot washing. “We have taught the importance of John 13 to our students but no one ever dared to think that a wealthy, educated, leader from the west would ever wash the feet of one of my people. We look up to you. We are your servants. That you would wash our feet is amazing to me.” 

Read JE’s post. Then, as a leader, go out and serve those who least expect it. You too may be as surprised as I was.

People are watching; wash feet! – BB

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The Importance of Emptiness

The Baby-boomer anthem by that laid-back California troubadour Jackson Browne has always said it best:

“Running on-running on empty
Running on-running blind
Running on-running into the sun
But I’m running behind”

(Running on Empty, 1977)

Leadership often seems to have that sense of no matter how hard one works, one is always behind.  Leadership in the church is frequently about managing process without closure.  There is always one more call to make, one more meeting to take, one more thing to do.  We run and run and run…and run out of gas…and we become exhausted from all the running.  We find ourselves as leaders empty.

But is that such a bad thing?  Recently two writers, Gordon Cosby and Sister Joan Chittister, have given me new insight into the importance of emptiness.  Cosby, in a 2001 interview said, “Our culture promotes a constant filling up, but our disciplines will draw us toward a greater emptiness, so that we can be better prepared for obedience and, ultimately, for finding our place in God’s plan finding true relevance.”  Sister Joan, in her book, “Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope,” (Eerdman’s, 2005), encourages Jesus followers to cultivate the spiritual discipline of detachment – of letting go – of emptying in order to gain that which is greater.

If we “run on empty” because we are obsessively trying to control our world, we will fail.  But if we run on empty as a means to unburden our souls from all that crowds us , to unclench from our tendency to hoard, then as leaders we discover true freedom, and the ability to be the non-anxious presence required of good leadership in our post-everything world.  – JPW

Jesus liked A.P.E.s

Recently I noticed first hand a leadership reality which Alan Hirsch, an Australian Missiologist, teaches. “At the beginning of a religious organizations life the Apostles, Prophets and Evangelists are large and in charge and by the time the organization matures and plateaus the Pastors and Teachers have taken over the management positions. The ‘APE’s’ have either moved on or have been ostracized.”

I had the privilege of meeting with the National Executive of a 15 year old Christian non-denominational organization in Burma two weeks ago. It was a room full of passionate, fervent, God fearing, fearless, tireless, and generous to a fault men and women. The majority were self-proclaimed Evangelists with a couple of Pastors thrown in for some balance.

It didn’t take me long to realize that this room of large yet healthy egos would not be tolerated in the North American church circles where I typically move as a leader. At best these Evangelists would be gently ignored and at worst be treated with disdain and derision.

They taught me a valuable lesson. If I as a leader want to see new things begin or old ways truly renewed then I have to be able to identify the “APE’s” in the crowd, disciple them and then let them loose on the world.

This is what Jesus managed to do. Peter, ‘the Rock’; James and John, ‘Sons of Thunder’; Judas; were not gentle shrinking violets. I realize anew that Jesus chose leaders with large personalities who after three years of being discipled were going to be instrumental in starting a new thing; a large sustainable, life giving God thing.

It is an example worth following today. – BB

A Leaderless Occupy Movement?

An American business leader recently suggested in an interview on PBS that the Occupy movement was leaderless. I haven’t done any research or made personal contacts with people in the Occupy movement. I only know what the news media tells me and they haven’t yet latched onto a captivating celebrity but I do know one thing; A movement is never leaderless.

Occupy may not have one main charismatic Moses like figure in the middle of the fray but that hardly makes it leaderless. Leaders aren’t always found in the spotlight. Often they are the caring, thoughtful little guy who shuns the camera and the microphone.

 Troy Watson, a friend and colleague, recently visited an Occupy site and he saw leaders. Troy is a prophetic, provocative guy and this is what he wrote. “I think it is clear where Jesus stands on the oppressive economic and political systems of power in our world today. I find it hard to believe any Christian could think our current capitalist democracy is the kingdom of God Jesus envisioned for our planet. Jesus proclaimed a kingdom of selfless love, egalitarian ethics, holistic values and an economy of compassion for the ‘least of humanity’. Is this not similar to what the Occupy movement is calling for?”

I find myself strangely encouraged by Troy’s insights into the Occupy movement. To live into that kingdom requires leaders. Leaders who are passionate, wise and courageous and I believe most of all leaders who aren’t larger than life. – BCB

ReThink Everything

What we plant determines what we grow.  Farmers understand this but for an urban guy like me, it has taken a while to figure out.

For 25 years, I’ve been involved in what evangelical-Anabaptists refer to as, “church planting.”  The Christian world can be divided into those who think church planting is a good idea and those who are actually doing it.  I’ve lived in both camps, and I think that some of my fellow-travelers (myself included!) have been involved in a great adventure in missing the point.

 Leaders have engaged in church planting as institutional formation.  We focus on executing strategies that attract a collection of people who we hope find spiritual meaning in the church plant’s wonderful programs.  Growing a church requires the planter to commit to sustaining program excellence, manage costs, and form relational bonds through customer intimacy.  Mission agencies sustain this model by offering venture capital to the church plant with the expectation that a sustainable and self-funding church will emerge that supports the mission agency in return.  In short, the system demands we plant churches as institutions.

What if we did gospel planting instead?  What might it look like if we see every follower of Jesus as a church planter and believe every church can plant another church?  What if we incarnated the victory news that Jesus is Lord of everything?  

Gospel planting requires leaders to re-think everything:  our definitions of mission and church; our leadership cultivation and discipleship formation; and the way we use money in the formation of church plants.

Our current church planting models grow from the same Christendom assumptions that have informed much of the way we have done church over the past 1700 years.  Instead, let’s start planting the gospel, and experience the church fruit that grows from that seed.

 Scary, huh? – JW

Jim and Casper

It sounds like the set up for a classic joke:  “A Christian and an Atheist walk into a church together…”  But it’s no joke, it actually happened.  In the summer of 2006, Jim Henderson, a former pastor, and now publishing executive went on a road trip with his best friend, Matt Casper, an avowed Atheist.  They visited eleven churches across the USA:  mega-churches with superstar preachers and mainline congregations with mind-numbing liturgy and an Anabaptist-related house church (way to go, Jason!).  They pooled their insights into a book:  Jim & Casper Go to Church (Barna:  2007).  www.amazon.com

At the end of the book, Jim reflects: “Casper saw and experienced – over and over and over again – what Christians do when they do church.  He saw it done with big budgets and no budgets, in large stadiums and in small buildings.  The same format repeated itself regardless of the setting.  The greet-sing-preach-collect-present form played out in front of us with unrelenting predictability.  And when it was all done, he would turn to me and ask, ‘Jim, is this what Jesus told you guys to do?’”

Ouch.

Jesus told us to go into the world and share the victory news that God does not hate anyone for anything; that God loves everyone, all the time.  Only then can we baptize – forming communities of Jesus followers.  Together we figure out how to live faithfully, in love with Jesus.

Yes, sometimes we get it backwards. We figure out how people should live; try with all our might to assemble a group of those folks; then tell them God loves them.

Is that what Jesus told us to do?  What would it look like to start a church whose focus was not on the “show” or the “shoulds” but on the good news?