We recently added a puppy to our family. We were all excited about this--especially the kids. But, as you might imagine, the kids underestimated their excitement about how much they would need to pitch in to help train the puppy and take her outside!
This reminds me of the slow work of discipleship. The great joy we experience over someone who begins to turn towards Jesus is tempered by a period of high activity, energy, and investment from the disciple-maker towards the disciple. But it’s all worth it when a disciple grows in faith and even becomes a disciple-maker herself!
I had a breakthrough conversation last week with Aaron (name changed), my neighbor across the street. I had helped a homeless couple with shelter and food, which led me to want to meet more folks who were homeless. So I bought some loaves of bread, lunch meat and cheese, and a case of water and went down to the park to look for homeless people whom I could invite to have lunch with me.
When Aaron found out, he “warned” me (his word) about not giving money to homeless people because they use it for drugs and alcohol. I told him I had a strict policy of not giving money in those circumstances, but I did want to share lunch with them if possible. (I didn’t find any folks to eat with that day, but I’ve decided to make a weekly visit to the park with lunch supplies.)
Aaron’s eyes took on a weird look and he asked why I would want to do that. He wasn’t critical; he was almost compassionate. I could tell, behind his question, that he was struggling to understand why someone like me would care about someone like “them.” So I shared with him one of my core values, that there is no us/them mentality, that I’m trying to live according to the values and priorities of Jesus as I read them in the Gospels, and that anybody can pick up the Gospels, read them, and try to follow Jesus. We had a very good and engaging conversation.
Aaron would not identify as a follower of Jesus. And yet, in the time that we’ve known them, both he and his wife, Susan, have reduced the amount that they swear, Aaron has drastically reduced the amount of beer he drinks (going from, on some days, a dozen beers per day to, on many days now, not even one), and they have shown tremendous hospitality towards us. If we look at them through the Conversation Quadrant, they are definitely on the bottom half, moving more deeply into serious, spiritual conversations.
This is what it looks like to disciple people towards conversion, rather than try to convert first and disciple (hopefully) later. The work is slow, and moves at the pace of the one being discipled, but if we believe that God has led us to people, then who are we to dictate how quickly they must move? If God has prepared people as persons of peace, then we follow Jesus’ instructions to stay with those people, let them serve us, and be messengers of peace in their midst (see Luke 10 and Matthew 10).
Disciple-making in secular culture is slow, difficult work. We believe that movements can occur, but we also believe in reproducing disciples one at a time.
(First published at Missional Church Planting.)
Pilgrims and Priests: Christian Mission in a Post-Christian Society by Stefan Paas (SCM Press, 2019)
Church planting wasn’t supposed to be this difficult!
Don’t tell Mission Alive I said that. They warned me about its difficulty, but I wasn’t really listening, because I knew it was just a matter of gathering some folks who had already been softened to the gospel during the summer mission trips my supporting church had engaged in for a decade. Imagine my surprise when my Christendom tactics (which I was well-versed in) did not work!
Stefan Paas, in his excellent book, Pilgrims and Priests, gave me understanding, in part, for why I found church planting so challenging. In Canada, as in Europe, where Paas teaches missiology and has planted churches himself, we find a post-Christian, secular culture that has largely left Christianity behind as a narrative of consequence. Paas is conversant with Charles Taylor’s work about secularism but is more concerned with the concept of post-Christian: secular culture no longer has a need, or even a place, for the Christian meta-narrative.
What, then, are missionaries to do? This is the project Paas turns to in this very engaging book as he tackles Christian mission within secular culture. While Paas writes mainly from a European context, there is much to be absorbed in the Canadian context (and for forward thinkers in the American context).
Paas writes about the “always elusive majority” (chapter two). In this, he outlines the roots of Christendom and a “conquest” motif that has always underlied the Christendom church. The church has always been seeking to have a majority but has never fully actualized it. “Church” has, even during periods where culture was largely considered to be “Christian,” been the minority acting on behalf of the majority. Paas references “vicarious religion,” the minority functioning for the majority, with tacit approval from the majority. Christianity was safe space, even if the majority didn’t actively practice it.
He uses the images of “hospital” and “restaurant” to describe this phenomenon. A hospital is a place you support so that, in time of need, you have access to its services. A restaurant is a place you choose to go to when you want access to its services, though you do not support it otherwise. The Christendom church has functioned in both of these ways in Christian-majority culture, in some cases even as a state-sponsored church (hospital) and certainly as a restaurant serving the buffets of Easter and Christmas.
But times have changed, and the church has not kept up. The longest chapter in the book (chapter three) is given over to critiques of much of current missiological thinking, which Paas locates as being dependent upon Christendom in some way. This is because we find at the heart of Christendom a "conquest" motif: Christianity seeks to transform (to overcome) the world. This mindset is no longer helpful, or appropriate, in secular culture.
Perhaps the most striking critique he offers in this chapter is the critique of what would commonly be known in North America as the missio dei, or, missional church theology. Paas critiques this because he finds that a Christendom approach underlies it. Although he critiques it from a European perspective, he is aware of the work of contemporary missional practitioners who are popular in North America such as Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost.
Paas names this approach “Inside Out,” which is drawn from the work of Johannes Christiaan Hoekendijk. In short, Hoekendijk argues the church, in engaging with secular culture, must seek to turn itself inside out. The “church” is located wherever the presence and activity of God is located. Therefore, transformation (of the world) occurs when the church turns itself inside out and goes into the world. The world is God’s world, after all, and the church helps the world recognize that it is being guided towards God’s eschatological future. The church can only do this by being embedded within cultural structures.
Paas critiques this approach as relying too heavily on Christendom and conquest. It absorbs the world into the church, rather maintaining a distinction between the two. The church and the world are separate, and the church represents God to the world while not blending the two. To blend, or to absorb, is to harm. It is to “expand” the reach of Christendom in a takeover model that Paas does not see as deriving from scripture.
Constructively, Paas draws from 1 Peter (chapter 5) to elucidate the themes of pilgrimage and priesthood. Christians are pilgrims. We are travelers, foreigners in the land, who have no interest in conquest and transformation because that time has passed. Likewise, Christians are priests, and our mission is not to transform, or take over, the world, but to bless the world on behalf of God.
His work on 1 Peter is strengthened by his work on Israel’s exilic situation and spirituality (chapter four). He develops the theme of “loss,” that exile was not merely a deportation and a grappling with a new culture. Rather, it represented the actual loss--even the failure--of the promises of God: the loss of land, the loss of a king, the loss of the temple. Amidst this loss, Israel had to find new resources to draw upon, and they did. In the exilic literature of the Old Testament, we find the rise of Sabbath as both an identity marker and a participation in God’s created order, identity practices such as circumcision and purity laws, and devotion to God through cultivated practices of prayer at regular hours and almsgiving. Israel in exile had to carve out a way of being God’s people in a culture that didn’t care.
For Paas, the most unique thing about Israel’s exilic situation was that Israelites did not actively proselytize. They accepted proselytes who came to them, but they did not “evangelize” in the sense that the church in the New Testament was called to do. This was a new move that the church made as it pushed into Gentile territory with an inclusive message. However, the New Testament church’s context was pluralistic, and because Paas sees secular culture as post-Christian (i.e, post-pluralism), he advocates for the exilic model of forming identity and living within the culture (the world) as a distinct community of priests.
The remainder of the book (chapters five and six) is given over to Paas’ construction of a model that posits the church as a small thing (I hesitate to write “small group” because of the connotation that phrase has in North American Christendom culture) that cultivates practices that enable it to function with a specific identity (as pilgrims). These small churches then function as priests in the world, blessing the world on behalf of God, where the Spirit may be/is present, with no expectation of “results” or transformation, inviting interested (or blessed) people to join them but making no claims and staking no ground in the public square.
This book has shaped my missional imagination in many ways. First, the deconstruction of church models opened my eyes to the prevalence of the Christendom model (and its conquest motif). This enabled me to see that one challenge I faced was that I was trying to import a model of church among people who knew what that model was and had already rejected it. This is not to say that they have rejected God, only that they have rejected a model of organizing belief.
Second, the discussion of Israel’s exilic situation and their spirituality within that context, combined with the priestly reflection on 1 Peter, helped me to understand the distinction between the people of God and the world. Here, formation is key and is privileged above public proclamation and evangelizing. The church must focus on its identity; and formational practices are important to that end. Rather than evangelizing for new members, churches can focus on the ways in which they are being formed into the people of God and can discern the ways in which God is calling them to bless their neighbourhoods.
Third, the practical implications of small churches, distinct from the world, functioning as priests who bless that world on behalf of God is generative. Small churches are nimble and can operate as mission outposts without the apparatus that larger, Christendom-style churches have in terms of buildings, staff, and other commitments. These small churches can gather in living rooms, backyards, community centres, and public parks to pray together, dwell in the word, and discern where and whom God desires them to bless. They can bless freely without the need for results hanging over their work.
I do have a few concerns about Paas’ work in this book. In no way do these concerns negate the constructive value of what I have written above, but they do create openings for critiquing his model. First, in his exploration of Israelite exilic spirituality, Paas does not allow for enough contestation during this period. I was impressed with the breadth of his awareness of academic issues related to exilic literature, and he acknowledged that most of the biblical writers lived contested lives, but he stopped short of describing how contested spirituality was in exile. Instead, he amalgamated the disparate spiritualities into one whole that he described under the umbrella of identity. There is a marked difference between, on one hand, the temple cosmology of creation that leads to Sabbath as a caretaking practice within God’s created order and, on the other hand, the purity laws of Leviticus. There is a difference between the identity practices of Daniel and the way of universal wisdom seen in the wisdom literature. All of these things form identity but the identity is not homogeneous and may speak to a forking stream of identities rather than a static one.
Second, in positing the exile as a dominant image for understanding our post-Christian landscape, it is important to distinguish that we have not experienced loss in the same way that those in exile did. To suggest that we have is to conflate loss in the same way that contemporary, western evangelicals conflate their persecution over such things as loss of political power or public prayer in schools with the persecution Christians face in different parts of the world where it is illegal to be a Christian. We may have lost privilege due to the loss of Christendom, but that was never promised to us. We have not lost the promises of God as happened to Israel in the exile. “Loss” as a trigger for being creative in forming new practices for discernment is important, but it is also important to distinguish the difference between their loss and our loss.
Finally, I’m concerned that Paas’ Reformed background coloured his ecclesiology coming into this project. There is an a priori commitment to the church as an entity. Ecclesiology comes first for Paas, then missiology. In a post-Christan context, it may be that mission creates the people, and identity formation comes second as the people on mission figure out who they really are.
Paas’ project to define a post-Christian mission is ambitious but helpful and practical. He has helped me see the disconnect between my earlier Christendom approach to church planting and the reality of the post-Christian, secular culture. I have much to think about as I contemplate a new, smaller, more nimble, and priestly approach in our post-Christian, post-covid era.
“I like ‘love first.’ I just don’t like the church.”
I was having a conversation with Cindy (name changed) and we had gotten around to the topic of the Sunday gatherings I had been trying to get more people from Kathleen Avenue to come to. After all, the gatherings were for their benefit, and the gatherings were held locally.
We had begun a Sunday gathering immediately following a North Atlanta Church of Christ summer mission trip. The North Atlanta church had been coming to Sarnia for 10 years, doing 2 week long summer mission trips, and sharing the “love first” message through their work, teaching, and branding. We had hoped to capitalize on their trip to build momentum for our gatherings as we worked to plant the Love First Church.
We initially met in the public park towards the Indian Road end of Kathleen Avenue. On Sundays, a few of us gathered to put up shade tents, set up our sound system, and hang our banner. Our gatherings were well attended in the beginning. But as summer gave way to fall, we had to consider moving indoors. And with that movement indoors, attendance at our Sunday gathering cratered.
Cindy stuck out to me as a person to talk to about this because she “reps” the idea of “love first” on Kathleen Avenue. She is in regular contact with members from the North Atlanta Church of Christ, who initially brought the “love first” message to Sarnia over the course of their 10 year summer mission trip project. She talks about her North Atlanta friends. She throws around “love first” in conversations. She even has the “love first” sticker on her mailbox.
So I was taken aback when she made that comment.
At first, I really struggled with it. I’ll admit, I was actually angry that someone could say that. How could someone identify with “love first” but have nothing to do with the church that teaches that message?
I have since learned, through many conversations and observations, that folks on Kathleen Avenue see “love first” as a value. They can separate the value from the organization that teaches that value, and hence, they don’t have any particular utility for, or allegiance to, the Love First Church. Folks on Kathleen would not express it this way, but they are doing theology as they relate “love first” to their lives. In some sense, the church is active in this work.
Pete Ward, in his excellent book that melds ecclesiological studies (“ecclesiology” is the academic study of the church) with ethnography (“ethnography” is an academic discipline that comes out of anthropology and studies the lived experience of people groups), Liquid Ecclesiology, writes about a “liquid church” versus a “solid church.” A solid church is defined by its meeting and what happens there. A liquid church focuses on the fluidity of the presence and activity of God in both church structures and social locations (pgs. 6-11).
If we operate out of a liquid ecclesiology, we can see that it is natural for Kathleen Avenue folks to identify with the “love first” value but not with the organized church. The activity and presence of God is located in the “sociality” (Liquid Ecclesiology, p. 6) of their intertwined lives, social networks, and neighbourhood problems. These relationships and interrelationships provide a fluidity where God is at work.
To be clear, I am not calling those relationships “church.” I am hinting, however, that there is something ecclesiological about them by virtue of the presence and activity of God being located in that sociality. “Church,” in a secular culture, might be a function more than a form.
I bring up secular culture because that is the milieu of the Canadian society. Canada is secularized. A secular society proceeds on the basis of natural and humanistic considerations, with a clear separation (and even suppression) of religious beliefs and activities from public life and institutions.
I’ve gotten technical for a bit, but it’s important to begin fleshing out the way the Canadian secular culture, and secularity in general, impacts our work here in Sarnia. A (not the) way forward includes equipping interested people in “grounding practices” that teach them how to locate the fluid presence of God in their relationships and in the broader culture around them. “Church” might function as something like a discernment group, where members share in common practices--both in their common meeting and away from it--that tie them together in looking for the fluid places where the Spirit of God goes and is.
Let’s circle back around to Cindy. What might it look like, and even mean, to teach her to pray? To pray with her? To meet with her and one other twice a week to ask simple questions like,
The key for mission work in secular culture is to help people gain “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” what God is up to around them.
I was raised in a heritage that often pitted itself against the world. We were encouraged not to hang out, or even make, friends at school, lest they poison us toward God. Church members bragged about only visiting other members’ homes for Halloween despite that meaning Halloween became a drive around the city rather than a neighbourhood walk. Persecution was believed to be occurring because public Christian prayer was not permitted in schools. Even my friends from other denominations were suspect because those churches were noted for not believing the “right” things (aka, what our church believed).
I wrestled with these views all through high school and college and even into my early years of ministry. All this while, I was reading the gospels and being captured by Jesus’ imaginative vision for a kingdom of nobodies. He healed people who were outcasts from society because of their disease, gained a reputation as a glutton and drunkard, and hung out with the dredges of society (tax collectors and sinners).
Jesus, in both his person and his mission, was very different from what I had believed in my youth. Rather than being exclusive, Jesus was inclusive in fellowship.
His fellowship was rooted in hospitality, one of the core virtues of Christianity. If nothing else, Jesus was hospitable. We see, in his hospitality, a vision for equality and inclusion around hospitality.
Emily M. D. Scott has written a wonderful book, For All Who Hunger, which touches on these themes through her work as founding pastor of St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn. Her book is largely autobiographical, but, as the best autobiographies do, she teaches us as her experience mediates a theological reality to us.
The book details table fellowship as a, if not the, sign of the kingdom of God. Folks from all backgrounds come together to prepare the table, prepare and share a meal together, participate in a shared liturgy, and clean up together. The emphasis is not the particularities of the people gathering, but their shared practices and the eschatological notes that are being proclaimed through gathering and sharing.
Three things in particular stand out for me from her book.
First, the way of the early church was a way of table fellowship, not gathered, building-centric worship. Scott writes, “[i]n the first few centuries of Christianity, worship took place not in a sanctuary full of pews, but around a handful of tables in people’s homes” (8).
This is an obvious point to make in our time where the effect of Constantine has been well documented. What is less obvious is the way that we note the priority of the early Christians for house-based table fellowship while we make apologies for maintaining our status quo. I’m not suggesting that churches need to sell their buildings and go back to houses. However, in virtually all cases, we can do better. Imagine a network of small groups in an existing church transitioning from Bible study group to neighbourhood, meal-based fellowships where neighbours were invited and stories were shared. What might be different for this church as a result of changing their practices?
Second, Christians must embody practices, not just rehearse rituals. Scott recounts a story from her childhood where, after sharing communion together with her church, her family sat down for Sunday lunch. Outside, she noticed two children who appeared to her to be homeless and were hungry, but who were not invited in to share a meal (31).
Jesus, on multiple occasions, ate with people, miraculously fed large crowds, and taught that small deeds of kindness done to people were more important than large things done to be seen by others. While we may rightly draw inspiration and encouragement from our rituals, we must also be transformed by them so our religion becomes something that is alive, something is rooted in ritual but redeemed by action.
Third, repentance must be at the heart of our practice. Scott reminds us that Lent is a church season that occurs every year and reminds us to repent (169).
Repentance is like a heart-check for ourselves, a way to remind ourselves to walk in the way of Jesus. Jesus’ first teaching, in fact, was about repentance -- “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Repentance balances our activist-side with our contemplative-side. It keeps us grounded in Jesus, and reminded of the core values of hospitality and table.
Repentance also helps us work through our attitudes toward others that keep us from being hospitable and practicing table fellowship with them. It is the great equalizer, reminding us that Christ’s body, shared by us in the eucharist, is in fact an offering for all.
Practices are at the center of a Jesus-based spirituality. Hospitality, table fellowship, and repentance are all core to who we are becoming in Christ. If we will focus on loving our neighbours, being hospitable and sharing with those in need, and living in repentance, our communities also can grow to be Jesus-shaped.
[This article reviews For All Who Hunger, Emily M. D. Scott (Convergent, 2020).]
Imagine the life you know being completely upended. The things you found comfort in are gone. The symbols that were important to you are destroyed. Imagine further being forced to move -- not just neighbourhoods, but to a new land that is unfamiliar and entirely foreign.
This is a situation similar to what Israel experienced in the exile -- a period of time where most of the people were displaced from Israel proper into other lands occupied and controlled by other nations (most notably Assyria and Babylon).
The temple was destroyed. They had to leave their land. There was no king. All of these symbols, which for them represented promises from God about his faithfulness to them and his presence among them, were gone. And if the symbols were gone, perhaps that meant God himself was gone.
In exile, Israelite faith underwent a resurgence of sorts. The wisdom literature rose to prominence during this time. These books (the final-form Psalter, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job) asked questions and explored themes about finding God in the absence of the tradition, about the justice of God, and about faithfulness to God even if he didn’t appear to be faithful to them.
This is a good image for mission in a secular culture. Christian symbols no longer play like they once did. Church buildings are more likely to be perceived as cultural or heritage symbols than as places of hope and worship. Christianity is no longer the predominant voice, religion, or culture. Christians are, in many ways, wandering through a metaphorical wilderness in exile.
The wisdom literature is both instructive and formative in this context. In this article, while initiating a broader engagement with the wisdom literature, I want to narrow in on Proverbs 1. It is well known that the Proverbs 1-9 is an introduction to the book, quite different in form than the rest of the book. Many of these chapters contain monologues from a “father” figure, or Lady Wisdom herself, admonitioning listeners to perceive, understand, and follow the way of wisdom set within.
Wisdom has but one path. When religious symbols and markers are gone, where our religion is no longer commonly accepted as authoritative, where do we go? We walk in the way of the fear of the Lord. Rather than a religion that is built around symbols and cultural assimilation of those symbols, we focus on a way of life that is built upon and around the wisdom of the Lord and the fear of him -- and fools despise these things.
The way of God becomes translated through wisdom from a predominant way of “rule” over others to a way of living within the culture as an underdog, of sorts, with a distinct and alternative way of life. We are exiles, and wisdom is our way.
Last year, I became impatient. The church plant was progressing much more slowly than I wanted it to. As a “type A,” I planned for, and expected, results. Of course, the coronavirus crisis in Ontario, which came with a lockdown and multiple levels of restrictions, complicated things. But we were able to have a really good and successful summer. I expected to capitalize on that summer work and build into something greater.
Imagine my frustration as I saw summer slipping into fall and then into early winter with less and less to show for things.
I had time on my hands because there wasn’t really anything else to do as December came around. It was too cold to meet outside, restaurants were largely closed to the public, and it was obvious we were heading towards another lockdown.
So I did what I should have done from the beginning -- I turned to God. I doubled down on reflective Bible reading and listening prayer. And those exercises reminded me to trust God. Rather, God showed me the value and simplicity of listening to him, of waiting upon him for direction and answers.
It reminded me of the experience of the Israelites as they wandered the wilderness. (The secular culture of Canada can feel like quite a wilderness!) They became hungry and thirsty and complained to God. They became impatient. But the lesson for me was this -- God always provided for them.
In Exodus 16, there is a story about hunger. The people were hungry. They complained to God. They didn’t trust that he would provide as they needed. But God did provide. Through Moses, he gathered the people and instructed them that he would provide for them -- daily, even!
These daily provisions, however, would come with a caveat -- they were to gather enough manna for each day, and for each day only. If they gathered too much (i.e., to hoard, perhaps because they didn’t trust that God would provide daily), the manna spoiled overnight. And it didn’t matter how much they gathered, because each one ended up gathering all that they needed (16:18).
What a wonderful thing -- God providing sustenance in the wilderness where it didn’t naturally occur.
I began to see this as a word for me. If I would trust God, and seek him each day, he would provide everything I needed for that day (i.e., my daily bread; Matthew 6:11). But if I raced ahead of God, accumulating plans and gathering ideas without seeking him, those plans would “spoil” and become useless.
And then I noticed that God provided one additional measure for the Israelites. Although they were only to gather manna one day at a time, God made a provision for them so they could worship him. They could gather twice as much as they needed ahead of the Sabbath so that they would not have to gather on the Sabbath and could leave the day for God. If they gathered too much on any other day, it spoiled, but if they gathered twice as much before the Sabbath, it kept, so they could keep the day for God.
I believe this story provides an image and a metaphor for mission work in the secular wilderness. We must proceed with daily trust in God, letting him provide what we need as we need it, without “spoiling” ourselves by rushing ahead with our plans. We must also take care to make provision for ourselves to hold God distinctly before us in ways that honour a worshipful relationship with him.
I have been working as a church planter, and a western missionary, for the last year and a half in a small Canadian border city in Ontario called Sarnia. Canada is deemed a “post-Christian” nation and is largely secularized. Church planting in this context requires more than just launching a new church, locating space to gather and worship, and building out good programs.
The shift from pastoral, brick-and-mortar ministry to missionary work has been a challenge for me, with many ups and downs over the past year and a half. I was struck with insight, however, while recently reflecting on the beginning of Ezekiel’s ministry (chapters 1-3). Ezekiel, although a prophet, functions in many ways like a missionary.
I would encourage any new or prospective church planter or missionary, especially in a western context, to think through these points and ask themselves the following questions.
1. Ezekiel’s ministry began with a vision of the glory of God (ch 1).
It was striking to me how strong Ezekiel’s vision was. It was not simply a line at the beginning of the book that Ezekiel received a vision. The vision was laid out with specificity and clarity. It was so strong that Ezekiel bowed down to worship and yielded to God.
I’m sorry to say that my missionary work began with my vision for what I wanted to do. Over the past year, God has slowly eroded that and brought me back to his vision for neighbourhood-based micro-churches that enter deeply into and redeem the neighbourhoods in which the micro-churches dwell.
Does your ministry originate with a vision of God’s glory over a people? Or are you working to implement your own vision derived from a recent book you’ve read? What can you do to align yourself with God’s vision?
2. He was then sent by God to speak to rebellious people to declare God’s words (ch 2).
It was only after Ezekiel saw the vision and yielded to God that ministry became possible. It was at this moment that God sent Ezekiel to the mission field. He was sent to speak God’s words to rebellious people.
We can get excited about our vision and the notion of working to bring rebellious people back to God. But where is our confirmation of being sent? How do we know the people to whom God is sending us?
What is your sense of how God has called you to mission and to whom? Is it connected to the vision he has given you?
3. Ezekiel had to eat God’s word and let them sink deep into his own heart first before speaking to the people (ch 3).
I came to my location with a plan and I was ready to execute that plan. I had lessons to teach, words to say, and programs to involve people in. I missed this crucial step that God made Ezekiel go through. I am now convinced from my own failure that failure to deeply perceive God’s words for oneself is a critical mistake that must be corrected before one can find any kind of faithful success in mission.
God told Ezekiel to take the scroll of his words and eat them, and they were sweet to the taste. God’s words are encouraging and helpful and give us guidance not just for our own discipleship but also for how we engage in mission. Later, God told Ezekiel (3:10-11) to let the words sink down deeply into him first before he spoke to the people.
What are your plans to reach the people God is sending you to? Have you deeply reflected on his words for yourself first?
4. Ezekiel’s first act of ministry was to simply sit with the people for seven days (3:15).
I’m intrigued that Ezekiel’s first act of ministry was to simply sit with the people in their grief for one week. In church planting, we can deceive ourselves into believing that we have all the answers, that we have the programs that will change peoples’ lives, and that we have what everyone else needs.
Yet, contextual ministry takes time to develop. In post- or pre-Christian locations, the missionary must take the time necessary to learn the values and beliefs of the indigenous people. In first sitting with the people, Ezekiel came to know their grief and pain.
Are you willing to be among and with the people God has sent you to? Can you simply sit with people without an agenda in order to learn about them, their values and beliefs, and their lives?
5. Obedience to God’s words (not belief in God’s words) is where we see genuine response to God (3:16-21).
God’s word to Ezekiel was to teach obedience to God’s words to the rebellious people. They were rebellious because they had disobeyed God. In ministry, we often mistake belief in God’s words for obedience to God’s words. We believe that God said he will punish those who are disobedient, but we don’t believe those words apply to us.
We must be willing to measure ourselves according to God’s word and to be obedient to him in all things. Then, when we teach a message of obedience to God’s word, our actions line up with our words and reinforce the message.
Are you obedient to God in everything? Have you mistaken belief in God’s words for obedience to his words? What evidence exists in your life for a nonbeliever to see your obedience to God’s words?
6. God confirmed Ezekiel’s sending by showing him his glory (3:22-23).
After God had given all these instructions to Ezekiel, he instructed him to go to the plain. When Ezekiel went, God’s glory was there, and Ezekiel once again fell face down in worship.
Church planting and missionary work is hard enough when done with God’s presence. It is impossible apart from that. We must cultivate habits of the worship of God and live with a continual awareness of the presence of God with us, helping us to what he has sent us to do.
Are you living in a continual awareness of the presence of God? What are the habits of worship that you are cultivating?
At the risk of oversimplifying this excellent section in Ezekiel, I believe we can adopt these six points as principles or a pattern that will enable us to be faithful to God’s call. Beginning and ending in worship, we must follow God’s vision and be sent by him, know his word deeply before teaching it to others, be willing to simply be with people, and teach others to obey God’s words in all things while building hearts that worship God at all times.
(If you are a church planter, missionary or pastor and struggling with any of the things I wrote about here, message me and let's connect. I love to help folks like you learn how to better engage with the mission of God.)
[Also published at LinkedIn.]