Tag Archives: missional church

A Search for Kingdom Churches

Every day I drive past church parking lots and admire the church buses and vans that sit collecting dust while we attempt to address the transportation crisis in our city. Across this city, congregations gather for meals that resemble a feast as I watch my urban friends scrap together a meager meal so that they can enjoy the same kind of table fellowship.  I read church bulletins about the upcoming missions trips and the thousands of dollars being raised to help send members to the other side of the world for a one week experience while our local urban missionaries fail to find the support and encouragement they need to transform our own backyard.  We currently have four desks crammed into one office and two team members per desk while many inner city churches sit empty all week.  I get letters from churches asking for funds to support their next mega-building campaign while I watch families become homeless because they do not have the $200 they need to maintain their housing.  When we approach churches about using what should be God’s resources to advance God’s Kingdom or care for God’s children, we hear the following:

“We can’t use our van to help you take inner city kids to the park because of “liability” issues.”

“We can’t host your fellowship event because our people are just too busy.”

“Members of our church really like going away to foreign countries to do missions.”

“Our policy is to only use our building for “church-sponsored” activities.”

“We only provide financial support for “members” who are in crisis.”

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Filed under missional church, Stories from the Street, Top Post's of All Time, Urban Ministry

Missional Leadership

Alan Roxburgh in his blog titled “Join the Wild Goose Chase” gives some wonderful insights into missional leadership formation.  He critiques several methods but the one I think most speaks to our current approach is this one

“Throw them in the Deep End and see who survives: The most ineffective form of leadership developing leader but the most used. People are put into big jobs, we watch them flounder, morale erode, and people quit – then do it all again.”

I don’t know if anyone else is in over their head but I know I feel that way a lot.

His proposed method is

“Leadership Action Teams: Leaders group together to work on leadership situations above their current capacities; a coach assist them engage untraveled leadership challenges.”

I think that is pretty much what we are doing with our leadership huddle and our proposed community huddles and I know at least from my perspective it has been very helpful.

I also liked his comparison of today’s missional leader to that of the Celtic missionaries and their willingness to move with the spirit that is wild and untamed and unwilling to comply with strategic plans, man-made methodologies and tactics.

I pray you all get to go on what Roxburgh calls “Wild Goose Chases”.

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Filed under Leadership, missional church

Taking off our Lenses so we can See

Do you believe that you can take a radically diverse group of people and in all that diversity find unity while still respecting differences?

When I wrote the vision of Embrace Richmond in 2005, I never dreamed it would be so difficult to live out.  Our vision is “a city united to embrace all who are in need; a place where people of every race, class and religious background join together to care for one another.”  This is no small vision.  The issues of race, class and religious beliefs have deeply divided, not only our city but our world. These are the things that have brought about wars and terrible destruction.  It would be much easier to pretend these differences did not exist or to simply hang out only with people who are just like us. There are very few places in our society where this level of diversity exists in harmony.  While I believe in the vision, I acknowledge that Embrace Richmond has a long, long way to go in achieving this vision.

While the issues of race and class are often the most visible dividing lines, I believe the issue of religion can be the most divisive if we do not approach it with sensitivity and intentionality.  However, I also believe that if we learn to respect the beliefs of others, and focus on our common values, then our shared faith in God can be a unifying bond that can help us bridge the divides of class and race.

I think all of us would agree that respecting the religious beliefs of others is essential to creating unity across religious divides.  However this is no easy task and I have fallen short on many occasions.  It is not that I sought to offend, I simply forgot to take off my Christian lenses. At times, I act as though everyone around me believes the same things I believe and by making that assumption, I have unknowingly offended others.

I know my evangelical Christian sisters and brothers are getting very uncomfortable, they are thinking “But I am a Christian and I am not ashamed of the name of Jesus!” I am in no way suggesting a kind of Universalism. What I am wondering is if there is a way for us to each be true to our own beliefs while still respecting the beliefs of others?

I am a Christian, every one knows that. I make no attempt to hide that fact.  Embrace Richmond was founded on Christian principals and values and is sustained by the prayers of my Christian brothers and sisters.  I do not want to underestimate the role our shared faith in Christ has played at Embrace.

However, even among Christians we often fail to recognize that we all have different theologies (ways of understanding our faith).  Some believe that the primary reason Christ came to this earth was to save us from the wrath of God and eternal damnation; while others believe Christ came to this earth as the tangible presence of the living God so that we could come to know God more fully through him.  Some emphasize Christ’s life, some his death, and some his resurrection. For some its all about a “personal relationship”, others the “saving of souls” and for others it’s about “redeeming the world” or “ushering in the Kingdom of God.” Some focus on the “sin of man” and some focus on the “grace of God”, some on the “word of God” and some on the “life of Christ.” All of us know that even among Christians, we don’t agree…thus the vast number of denominations.  We will never achieve unity by trying to reconcile all these differences or by coming up with some unifying “statement of faith” that we all agree on.

However, with all the many things that divide us,I have seen individuals from vastly different understandings about faith grow to love and respect one another and each others beliefs. I think often we offend out of ignorance of about what others believe.  This ignorance exists because we don’t make space for honest conversations about faith.  If we always assume everyone agrees with us,they will not feel safe enough to share that they think differently.  This is especially true if we present our beliefs as “the only way of understanding God.”  This simply perpetuates the ignorance about what others believe and prevents honest conversations. To create this safe space we must acknowledge that none of us are God…none of us know everything there is to know about God…there is room in all our theologies for a margin of error.  Honestly, I would not want to worship a God that could be fully understood and defined by man.  Would you?

Brian McLaren’s new book “A New Kind of Christianity” is an interesting read.  I especially liked his analysis  of the “lenses” we use when we look at Jesus.  Some view Christ through the old testament, some theologies view Jesus heavily through the Apostle Paul’s lens. McLaren argues that Paul viewed Jesus through the lens of his day, the Greco-Roman world view which was influenced by Plato and Aristotle.  Most western Christian’s view Jesus through the theology of Augustine.  All protestant Christians are heavily influenced by Martin Luther’s “solo scriptura”.  The list of “lenses” is endless.

Having grown up unchurched, I see the church through the eyes of an “outsider”.  I have spent time in seven different denominations and thus have been influenced by the lenses of these denominations, I have dear friends from every specter of the Christian tradition.  I read extensively and thus have adopted the lenses of those I have read.  It is impossible to read the bible, or reflect upon our faith without bias.  If you have only been in one tradition or have only experienced one version of the Christian tradition, I believe it is even more difficult to see these blind spots.

This past week six very devout Christian women read a chapter of scripture and spent time praying about what the passage meant to us personally.  Everyone of us interpreted the same words out of the same Bible passage completely differently.  So who was “right”?  I don’t think “rightness” is the point of reading scripture. The passage spoke to all of us through our own lenses and met each of us where we were.  The key is allowing space at the table for everyone to agree to disagree and fostering a spirit that allows the scriptures to speak to everyone where they are.

McLaren argues that the place to start is to view Jesus through the gospels.  That is the reading of Jesus that is the clearest, least contaminated by human lenses.  I love reading the gospels in my parallel bible which lines up the passages that are similar side by side. By reading the same story in different gospels, you also come to see that even the gospel writers had their own lenses, their own target audience, and their own agenda. Ask any devout Christian and each of us will name our favorite gospel.  My favorite is the Gospel of Luke because of Luke’s strong liberation emphasis.  What is sad is that we even argue about which gospel is the “best”.

My prayer is that we stop trying to prove ourselves or our positions as “right” and begin to simply see them as “different” or “right for us.”  I don’t want to stifle religious conversations, I think our world is hungry for safe places to explore spiritual questions.  I simply want us to engage in these conversations with the utmost respect for everyone at the table and I think context is important.   If everyone at the table happens to be Christian, we need to respect the diversity of the Christian tradition but can find common ground in the person of Jesus.  If we do not know the beliefs of everyone at the table, then we need to respect the diversity of religion in general and find common ground in the loving God who created us all.  This does not mean we have to be shy about our own beliefs, but that we simply need to acknowledge that our way of understanding God is not the only way of understanding God.

Brian McLaren’s blog is very interesting.  In a post titled, “On Emergent”, McLaren reflects on the diversity of voices present in the emerging church conversation which is trying to define what the church of the future might look like.  McLaren writes “The process is awkward and messy at times…. the key issue is to stay at the table when you’re hurt and offended and misunderstood and made uncomfortable.”

This is my prayer for those of us in leadership roles at Embrace; that we would stay at the table, seek to understand one another, be willing to be made uncomfortable, forgive when we are hurt and above all seek not to offend but instead seek unity while respecting our diversity.  It will not be easy, but I believe this is the unique call of Embrace Richmond.


Filed under Leadership, missional church

Simplifying the Complex

In my experience ministry is messy.  Can it really be simple, straight-forward and focused?  Our leadership team has been going through a strategic planning process and one of our leaders suggested we read the book “Simple Church” by Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger.  The just of the book is that you should have a clear mission and that programs should be aligned in a “process” that leads toward the fulfillment of that mission.  This is nothing new, we all know the importance of a clear and focused mission.

What was a bit different about “Simple Church” was the emphasis on the “process.” The official definition for a “simple church” given was a congregation designed around a straight-forward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. The examples given in the book of process focused mission statement was “Love God, love others, serve the world.” (p.38)  The emphasis of a “Simple Church” structure is on movement through the process.

While Embrace is not a “church”, our goal is similar; individual and communities transformation.  Our mission is to “Prevent and End poverty and homelessness in the city of Richmond by engaging, equipping, and empowering people of faith to do works of service”.   It is our belief that if we unite people of faith from across the city around the issue of poverty; we will help prevent and end homelessness in Richmond.

Embrace is a bit unique because we are working with two different demographic groups; homeless and at-risk individuals and people of faith largely from the suburbs; our goal being to unite the two in a way that both are transformed.   We often use the metaphor of a bridge to depict our ministry process with the goal of the two sides of our ministry uniting in the center of the bridge and then individuals being empowered to move back and forth as cross cultural missionaries thus transforming both the urban context and communities of faith.

Our “process” for ministering to each side of the bridge is similar; 1) Engage in service through large group events (Faith Works Program), 2.) Equip potential leaders through missional communities (Community Works) ; 3.) Unite leaders who then empower one another through mentoring (Dream Works) and 4.) Release proven leaders to expand the ministry by empowering them with employment as urban missionaries (Just Works).  I never thought of our programs and mission from the perspective of a “process” but I can see how this would be very helpful.

I do have one issue with the “Simple Church” approach.  It is too simple!  There is the assumption that spiritual growth is linear; ie has a designated starting place and ending place.  The example given is that people come to love God, then love their neighbors, then serve their community.  However, I believe growth is a bit more complex and more circular with access points throughout the process and the process being an unending journey.  I have seen the spiritual journey depicted through a spiral type design and I think that is a better image than a baseball diamond or a straight line.  Each stage we go through we get nearer and nearer to the core of our faith.

Overall  “Simple Church” was an interesting read and I pray the insights we all glean from the book will help us better focus our ministry efforts.  I encourage the rest of our Embrace team to reflect on our “process” and how our current programs fit into that process from both sides of the bridge.  How are people moving through that process?  How do we know the process is working? Are there activities that do not fit within the process?  Is there a smooth handoff between programs and activities that insures people know the next step in the process?  Has the process been communicated and is it clear? I encourage you to post your thoughts and insights on this blog or to raise them in your group huddles.


Filed under Leadership

Immersing into Emerging

What is the future of the church?  Denominations?  Christian leadership?  How is technology and cultural shifts impacting the church and shaping its future?  These and many other questions are being asked and answered through the Emerging Church conversation.

The Emergent conversation is something that I am aware of for many years but have never been an active participant in.  However, in many ways I am living its message. Today I spent much of the day exploring various blogs related to the emerging church discerning how I can position my book within this conversation.

Most of what I found on my journey into the world of countless blogs on the topic was theory and deconstructionist conversations around what should change in the church with only limited examples of what will emerge.  This is where I think Embrace Dreams: A Journey Beyond the Pew could add value to the conversation since we have seen something completely unique grow out of Embrace Richmond.

The one article that caught my attention was “Theology After Google” by Philip Clayton.  While the article was written to promote an event (which sadly I discovered too late), it contained some great insights:
“The new Christian leader is a host, not an authority who dispenses true teaching, wise words, and the sole path to salvation. Today, the leaders who influence our faith and action are those who convene (or moderate or enable) the conversations that change our life — or the activities that transform our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our God. It could be an older Christian who convenes discussions at a church, a house, or a pub. It could be Shane Claiborne leading an activity at The Simple Way on Potter Street in Philadelphia, say a time of gardening in the communal garden that gives you a sense of community that you’ve rarely had but always longed for. It could be a website or a blogger that you frequently go to, where you read others’ responses and add your own thoughts. Christian leadership is about enabling significant community around the name of Jesus, wherever two or more are gathered in His name.”

I would add “It could be a bunch of crazy Richmonders who gather in public housing complexes and join hands with formerly homeless individuals to be a blessing to their community.”

While so many are writing about the emergent church, I am blessed to be witnessing its birth through the work we are doing at Embrace Richmond.  I doubt many would see what we are doing as “church” but the emergent conversation is helping those trapped in old paradigms for defining church to discover new lenses and to see God at work in new ways and unexpected places.

Take a look at Clayton’s full article and let me know what you think.  It was an interesting read.  What do you think the church will look like in the future?  Do you agree with Clayton’s assessment?  For those of you in the missional communities birthed through Embrace, do you see your role as “host”?   I would love to know your thoughts on the topic.


Filed under Leadership, Urban Ministry

Recycled Churches

Have you ever wanted to peek inside of an old church, just out of curiosity?  This past Saturday a team from Embrace Richmond helped paint an old Sunday school classroom at Central United Methodist Church.  The room was donated to a Boy Scout troop started for the boys in the Hillside Court and surrounding communities.  I could not resist pressing the scout master for a tour of that old church which was built at the turn of the century.  The stain glass, the unique double sanctuary design and magnificent woodwork, were breath taking.

My daughters were with me and we were all moved by the sheer beauty of the building and decided to worship there this past Sunday.  (Chris was out of town and does not like my crazy church visiting ventures.)  At the conclusion of the worship service, I complemented the pastor on the beauty of the church and he shared that when he first came to the church, there was talk of closing the doors due to the low membership.  However, when he choose to come to this dying inner city church, he did so with a vision; a vision for using this magnificent building as a kingdom asset to serve the hurting community around it.

Several years ago Central UMC developed a partnership with Trinity UMC, a thriving suburban congregation.  Over the years, members of Trinity UMC have breathed new life into this congregation through community focused outreach ministries including the Micah Initiative, a Sunday Afternoon art focused Kid’s Club, and now a Boy Scout troop led by my 83 year old church tour guide, Jim. Jim inspired me.  He could be out playing golf in his retirement years but instead he was investing in urban youth, taking them camping and instilling in them pride in their American heritage.

However as wonderful as the volunteers from Trinity are; had a remnant from Central UMC not remained to keep the doors open, this church like so many others would have died long ago.  What is unique about Central is that they have come to recognize that it is not “their” church but the Lords and are willing to open it up to the community as a safe haven for the children of this impoverished community.

I am often challenged by the emphasis suburban churches place on building buildings while beautiful structures such as Central UMC are so underutilized.   In my previous post “Has the Light Gone Out?” , I questioned the effectiveness of these large traditional churches that adorn the landscape of the inner city.   However, today I just want to give thanks and praise God that these structures still stand and continue to inspire awe through the beauty of their design and the beauty of the remnant that is keeping them alive.  Most of the members of Central UMC are seniors and most no longer live in the community where they worship.  While they are small in number with only an average of 50 people in worship; they are faithful.  They drive past dozens of “conveniently located” churches and journey into the city to preserve Christ Church for the next generation.

I have a question; will all their effort be in vein?  What if my generation, a generation obsessed with convenience, refuses to make a similar sacrifice?  Are these magnificent houses of worship destined to be abandoned?  Will we grieve when the “For Sale Sign” goes up?   Is there any real kingdom value in keeping them alive?  If so, what role can we play in assuring they stand as a beacon of light and do not add to the darkness all around them?


Filed under missional church, Stories from the Street, Top Post's of All Time, Urban Ministry

Stop Doing; Start Being

This past week we concluded a three week training session at a local church.  This particular church is very active in urban missions.  They provide shelter through CARITAS, participate in feeding programs, the members sit on a number of non-profit boards, they assist with housing rehab for the elderly and donate money to local charities.  They are a very active church.

At the conclusion of our training one of the comments we got back from a participant was that “We still do not know what Embrace Richmond “does”.”   I wish I could say this was an uncommon comment but I have heard it after trainings before.  It always disturbs me and I am continually trying to figure out ways of overcoming this challenge.  However, this week, as I prayed about this comment, I realized that perhaps the problem is not in the way we are answering the question; perhaps the problem is with the question itself.

We are a society obsessed with “doing”.  When we want to get to know someone, often the first question we ask is “What do you do?”  We define people and organizations by what they do, more than who they are.  However, what Embrace Richmond “does” is empower others by “being present” with people in their own communities and helping them to “do” the things God is calling them to do for the benefit of their neighbors.

Like all non-profits we have programs that are about “doing”, like our Faith Works program which provides youth and families with short term, hands on missions experiences, and our Community Works program that provides transitional employment to homeless and at-risk individuals.  However, all our programs are about empowerment, not about us “doing” something for someone else.  We have no program to provide shelter, no feeding program, no furniture program, no clothing program and no financial assistance program.  We do none of these things as “programs” yet we do all of these things.  We do provide shelter, we do provide food, we continue to provide furniture and clothing, and on occasion we provide financial assistance.  However, rather than create a “program” we choose to provide these services through relationships that empower rather than programs that often breed a sense of entitlement.

I think rather than asking “What do you do?”, we should be asking “What kinds of relationships are you forming?”  Non-profits that spend all their time “doing” and no time “being present” to their participants may have impressive short-term outcomes but programs do not change lives, people do.  Every person I have met who has successfully escaped the cycle of poverty did so by building strong relationships with a healthy network of support and a relationship with a God.  This is the power behind the AA/NA model and why case managed care and peer based programs like The Healing Place are so successful.

So, the next time you “check out” a non-profit, don’t spend all your time reading the annual report, judging the quality of the board members, or evaluating the outcomes; instead listen to those who are a part of the communities where the non-profit works and judge success through those relationships.  Do you see people who are empowered to address the needs of the community themselves, or do you see people dependent on the “programs” of an outside agency?  Which do you think is healthier?  I guess I should be thankful no one can define what we “do”; it means we are doing the right thing by simply being present with those we care about and empowering them to do good works.  To God be the glory…we are not willing to claim credit for any of it.


Filed under Urban Ministry