School of Hard Knocks: Experiences in Planting

Like those people who wake up hung-over from the night before vowing to never drink again only to find themselves at a bar later that day, every time I look forward to being part of a pre-existing movement, my heart flutters at the thought of another unreached place.

This past week my wife and I were in Guyana at missions conference with students and staff from all around the Caribbean where we had the opportunity to lead a workshop on our experiences in starting new ministry. I thought it’d be appropriate to share some of those ruminations here.

  1. Not only is it okay to fail, you will fail – You have to be pretty solid in your relationship with Jesus to start new ministry. If you’re someone whose worth is contingent on success, planting will be your worst nightmare. Planting always involves risk and risk always opens the possibility of failure. It hurts but it’s part of the journey. It’s best to not take it personal, learn what you can, and move on. Fail often.
  2. It’s okay to start small – When I was on staff in Florida I was assigned to one particular campus. By the end of that first year I had something going on at four of the five main campuses. That may sound impressive but none of them had solid foundations. They were four flimsy chapters with a staff worker spread so thin real discipleship couldn’t take place. In starting small, you allow yourself to invest in a concentrated effort with the hope and vision it will grow to become self-sustaining if not multiplicative. Speaking of vision…
  3. Vision is everything – Without vision the people perish and so do ministries. Vision informs who you are, what you’re trying to accomplish, how you’ll get there, and sometimes the timeline you’re working with. It creates space for buy-in, which allows for unity within a community (after all, a house divided against itself will not stand). Without vision, it’s impossible to put appropriate structures in place and find the right leaders. You’ll find yourself expending lots of energy but it will all be counterintuitive.
  4. Context is key – When I joined InterVarsity as a student, it was at a small, private liberal arts university in the heart of downtown Tampa. When I came on staff, I was sent to a 48,000-person community college with five main campuses and numerous satellite locations. Even now as I pioneer ministry, I’m in another country where the main campus has 1,000 students from all around the island. Ministry has looked completely different in all three places. A lot of things will make or break your ministry but failure to know your context is striking out before you even play the game. Failure to know your context is in essence failure to love and affirm the people you’re reaching, which has disaster written all over it.

Planting is one of the hardest things I’ve done. It’s lonely, it’s frustrating, and it highlights every insecurity and fault in me. Yet I’m crazy enough enter the flames repeatedly and expect a different result. For all the failure experienced, few things beat the joy that comes when something actually works. I feel closest to God in the fight to see his kingdom come. And that has been the biggest thing planting has shown me about myself: I enjoy a challenge.

 

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Encouragement for the Exiles

Though Florida should actually be known as the Sauna State, when the sun manages to defeat the clouds it’s no mystery how its nickname stands the test of time. It was spring 2012, I was in my first year with InterVarsity planting at a local community college, and on this particular day I was standing in a parking lot, flagging down any student I saw entering and exiting the off-campus housing facility. It was the only way I was able to invite them to Bible study.

Despite the veneer of caring about student organizations, it often seemed as if this institution purposely set rules in place to prevent them from existing, especially if they were Christian. Because we couldn’t hang posters, hand out flyers, or even have a table at orientation before having ten students as well as a faculty advisor on board, most of my recruitment looked like me walking around campus, finding some kid sitting all by themself, and persuading them to investigate Jesus that semester. Whereas, on any other campus, I’d be able to get anywhere from 40 to 75 students signed up by myself, on this campus I’d be lucky if I got 20. It was hard; and most days it felt like I was getting nowhere, but I secretly loved every minute of it. Partially because something in me likes to subvert authority, but also because I was reminded the coming of the kingdom can’t be stopped.

Acts 8 tells a similar story. In the preceding chapter Stephen becomes the first Christian martyr after getting dragged out of the city and stoned by the Sanhedrin. As if following Jesus while he was on earth wasn’t scary enough, the religious leaders started killing his followers in his absence. But interestingly enough the death of Stephan didn’t mark the death of the church. It marked its expansion. Instead of the church becoming an institution, it became the movement Jesus called it to be (Acts 1). That’s the annoying thing about Christians: you throw them in jail thinking they’ll learn a lesson about sharing the gospel and instead they preach to the inmates. Acts 8 tells us the Samaritans came to faith. And so it’s always been with us: the places where we persecuted most become the places our numbers grow the fastest. You can’t stop us.

Sometimes in our comfort we rely on our tried and true, fancy structures but crisis calls us back to the barebones of ministry and innovate again. It’s these moments that test us as leaders and as movements but we find God is nearer than our very breath. As hard as it is, perseverance is in our blood.

A couple years back the entire California State University system has decided to remove campus access from not just us but all religious groups that refuse to comply with their policy on “tolerance.” While they’ve granted us a grace period, our time is running out. This of course is an absolute travesty. But while I do pray that administration recants their decision, even if they don’t, I am more than confident what was intended for evil, God, in his sovereignty, will use for good. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more students come to faith. It will undoubtedly be hard but I have faith that even in our exile God will do something beautiful. He always does.

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” – Romans 5:3-5

 

*For more information on what’s going on and how to pray for my brothers and sisters in California.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Every so often I’ll stumble across an article on social media promising sage advice for young twenty-somethings entering the throes of adulthood. Typically, it boils down to doing what makes you happy. While I usually struggle with these articles, for the most part ignore them and move on with my day. But this past week I stumbled upon Jaden Smith’s twitter and found a tweet of his that read “from the day you’re born to the day you die, you have one responsibility and that’s to make yourself happy.” When I saw the amount of favorites and re-tweets it received, it got me thinking: does this philosophy actually do more harm than good?

The irony is that in our pursuit of happiness we’ve become the most miserable people ever. Studies show depression has increased in recent years and that self-absorption has played a part in it. Our self-centeredness has caused the breakdown of the family further isolating ourselves from outside community. When the commitment is to our happiness, other things invariably suffer. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. Though there are numerous reasons behind this, I imagine a solid chunk of them being people whose spouses no longer made them “happy.” I wonder if this philosophy is actually selfishness disguised as wisdom. Ultimately, if all we care about is ourselves then that’s all we’ll have in the end.

The other day I was in the grocery store when I saw a woman with a t-shirt that read, “it’s all about me.” Regardless of whether or not this woman actually believed it, it’s a testament to what we think about ourselves: the world exists for us. But don’t you see how counterintuitive that is? When everyone believes that everything is about them there is no room for others in their lives apart from that person’s service to them. But, of course, that person would never be their servant because they themselves are convinced the world is supposed to be theirs. Who wins in this situation? This philosophy is both a product and a perpetuator of our individualistic culture, which is self-defeating by its very nature. 

Some will invariably ask, “what if helping people makes you happy?” I’m not convinced that’s good enough. To use happiness as a motivator allows us to excuse our passivity towards people because it would make us unhappy. That, to me, is wrong. Some things are more important than our feelings. Moreover, to say action only flows out our feelings overlooking the inverse. Sometimes in the process of doing something for someone we gain a sense of happiness or joy we didn’t have before – which, by the way are not the same thing. You can be unhappy for a moment while having a profound sense of joy about your life and you can also be happy about something without joy. 

But even from a neurological standpoint I find this to be somewhat troubling. Our brains are constantly at war with each other when it comes to decision-making. Our pleasure center wants things instantaneously whereas our more logical brain argues for delayed gratification. Which makes us happier?

As a follower of Jesus, my understanding is that I was made to love and be loved by God. What’s interesting is that in Him I am happiest and most joyful. Yet while happiness is a great byproduct of following Jesus my commitment isn’t to my happiness, it’s to his glory; and my joy flows from that. Out of the abundance of what God has done for me I’m freed up to serve others. I find this infinitely more fulfilling than living for myself.

Preparing to Win the Battle and the War

As a campus minister, one of the greatest joys of my heart is watching as students give their lives to Jesus. For all the prayers, setbacks, and hard conversations, it’s the moment where everything feels worth it. Luke 15 says there’s rejoicing in heaven and I believe it. It’s exciting. Yet if there’s one thing Cayman has taught me, it’s the importance of seeing past the initial victory to equip new believers for the greater war.

As some of you have undoubtedly heard someone say, our call in the great commission is not to go and make converts but rather disciples. After almost a year-and-a-half in Cayman I can see why. Discipleship is everything. Alan Hirsch in his book, The Forgotten Ways, examines the DNA of well-known Jesus movements throughout history and one commonality between them all is their commitment to discipleship. From an organizational standpoint it’s the most strategic thing we can do. If you’re in ministry and find yourself often wondering why you’re doing everything, there’s a possibility it’s because you haven’t discipled anyone. But more than that, from a kingdom perspective, it’s the most important thing we can do. Some would say it’s why the church exists.

In the same way we were born to parents who taught us how to walk, talk, and eat, when we are born again we need someone to show us how to live in light of this newfound freedom. So, why don’t we disciple? Off the top of my head I can think of four reasons.

1)     It’s daunting. I mean, where do you even start? Is it just a matter of teaching theological truths? Is it instilling practical things like prayer and bible study? What about the values distinct to your ministry and/or heart? Discipleship is all those things, which leads me to my second point.

2)     It’s a long and messy process with no shortcuts. The temptation is try to mass-produce disciples through a class or a series of bible studies but while discipleship is no less than a class, it is so much more than that. It’s sharing life and working out its kinks together. That requires getting personally involved in the lives of folks, which means focusing on a few rather than the crowds.

3)     Our own discipleship was accidental. It’d be easy to replicate your discipleship if it was intentional but more often than not we ourselves were unconsciously discipled, making it difficult to duplicate.

4)     We’ve bought into the lie that empowering people means losing our own authority. We’re afraid our disciples will be better followers of Jesus than ourselves when in reality that’s exactly what we should want. If this is you, it sounds like you’ve got some wrestling with God to do.

If we want our movements and ministries to outlast us, if we want to see people walk in the fullness of what God has called them to, then we must disciple people and disciple them to make disciples. Some materials I, as well as others, have found helpful include: the Bible (of course) John White’s The Fight, Greg Ogden’s Discipleship Essentials, Mike Breen’s Building a Discipling Culture, and InterVarsity’s LAUNCH (though this is catered towards students).

Cayman is a very religious country but for all its religiosity, a relationship with God is often an alien concept. Our prayer is that through discipleship we would see love for God spread as well as deepen and this initial victory lead to an even greater triumph.

Courage & Cowardice

For only five chapters, the book of James has an uncanny way of making you feel unfit to follow Jesus. There’s a verse in that epistle that gives me chills every time I come across it. It reads, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (4:17). All of a sudden sin stops being just something you do. It’s also something you fail to do.

That scares me.

It scares me because I know me. And I am a coward.

When I was in the sixth grade I witnessed a classmate fight a kid half his size. I remember watching it happen, knowing I should do something but being paralyzed in the moment. The kid’s shrieks brought me back to reality. My classmate and I took off in opposite directions but before I could get anywhere, a teacher apprehended me and told my father how I stood by idly as a sixth-grader beat up an eight-year old. I learned that day that neutrality is still an option and doing nothing makes you just as guilty as the one perpetrating the crime.

In solitary moments I often contemplate the man I’ll be twenty years from now. I wonder if historians will write about the issues of this generation and if they do will I be on the side that stood for justice or did I capitulate to the prevailing notions of the culture (history shows us they’re not always the same). It’s why I’m drawn to leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These men looked societal evils in the face and proclaimed the will of God – even died for it. My greatest fear is that when the fight of my generation comes, when the moment of need arises, I’ll punk out on Jesus.

Part of who I am is a people-pleaser. Wisdom says you can’t make everyone happy. Most of my life’s been spent trying to prove her wrong. Perhaps a characteristic of courage is not caring so much how people feel as much as caring about doing the right thing. Sometimes neutrality is cowardice and courage rests in the decision to do something. It isn’t the absence of fear. It’s the strength to overcome it (fear). It’s the recognition certain things are more important and more costly than our cowardice. The gospel reminds me of that reality.

At the beginning of every semester I spend at least the first week doing my best to faithfully invite as many students as I can to investigate Jesus. During a club fair one semester, a Hooters-eque restaurant was recruiting girls to work in their establishment. As terrified as I was to share my faith it was a real picture of what was at stake. I could either offer these students living water or I could punk out and allow the enemy to shortchange them. They were my motivation all week.

I believe a byproduct of the gospel is a more courageous life – namely because Jesus can’t leave well enough alone, but also because in Him we have eternal security and the promise of resurrection. Yes, danger is real but so is our heavenly Father who protects his children. When we find our security in Him, we are freed up to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We have not been given a spirit of fear.

I want, with all my heart, to live a life that embodies this philosophy, a life not plagued by fear and self-preservation. Like Bonhoeffer and King I want to be bold in the face of evil even if that means my end. It starts with living courageously today. It starts with deciding God’s will is ultimately more important than my life.