Or, What If The Empire Sometimes Does Some Good? Or, Why I Hope I Don’t Have To Talk Much More About 3DM.
This series started out as one blog post that became a two-parter, and then a 3 part series, and now I can’t do it in 5 parts without breaking up the last part into “Part A” and “Part B.” So this is the first part of how I want to wrap up this bit of writing I’ve been doing. I’ve called the whole series “Striving No More” in reference to the Keith Green song that I mentioned in Part 2 of this series, “When I Hear The Praises Start.” I mentioned that this is probably my favorite song of his, and I said:
It’s the first line that gets me: “My son, my son, why are you striving?” The truth is, I spend much of my waking hours striving, always striving, always trying to do better, to do more, to work harder. “Resting in my faith” or in much of anything else is mostly a foreign concept. As Bill Mallonee put it, “I’ve been trying to negotiate peace with my own existence.” There’s more to be said, there, obviously, but my point now is that when I hear Jesus singing to me through Keith in this song, I’m invited to leave “Struggleville,” even if only temporarily, and be still, knowing that God is God, and I’m not, and this brings (momentary) peace. For this, I’m grateful.
I spoke in Part 1 of this series about Circle of Hope, about the central place it occupies in my formation as a young adult, newly married, trying to follow Jesus in the big city. I talked about all the things I learned about how to follow Jesus while immersed in that community, that first of all trying to follow the Bible(‘s teachings), let alone Jesus, is a group project. It was in that community that I learned that so many of the “you’s” in the Bible that talk about how to live the Christian life are not singular; they’re plural. They’re directed to you all, the church. It was in that community that I came to understand that Jesus ought to be the “lens” through which I read the Bible, and arguably most importantly, that the Church is a people, not a place, and so we must work at “being the Church.” I could go on, but that’s what Part 1 of this series is all about. Please read it, if you haven’t.
In Part 2 I found myself dedicating a whole post to Keith Green, whom I’ve already spoken of above. He lived a remarkable 28 years on this earth and his passion not only for loving Jesus but those around him remains an example to me today. His heartfelt music is so very earnest in the best sort of way, and was a soundtrack for my life probably from the age of 12-25, or something close to that. If I am to follow Jesus, I hope to do so from the heart, like Keith did. In Part 3 I then had to talk a little, again, about Rich Mullins. Keith and Rich represent the two (early) pillars of my connection to God through music, Keith carrying me through my teen years into early adulthood, and Rich picking me up just before and into college and then on into married life. Obviously, there was a little bit of overlap there. Like Keith, Rich loved Jesus and was compelled as a result to love those around him. Both struggled with aspects of the “institutional church,” and both were unafraid to speak or act prophetically when there was truth that needed to be spoken to power, even/especially if the “power” was supposedly “Christian.”
In part 4 I talked about House of Mercy and described why that faith community was so important to us for the five years we were here in the Twin Cities from ’98-’03, including all the major events that occurred in our life during that time. I spoke of our continued respect and appreciation for House of Mercy’s pastors and the debt of gratitude we owe them, and I alluded to our struggle to fully immerse ourselves in/commit to the congregation in the year+ that we’ve been back. I alluded to the reason for that struggle having to do with our felt need for community, for a commitment to “being the church” together in a way not dissimilar to what we experienced in our two stints in Philly with Circle of Hope. I tried to be careful to say that I didn’t want House of Mercy’s pastors or House of Mercy- to be anything other than what they are. I did conclude, though, that if honest, “I suppose I yearn to really work at ‘being the church’ with others who are just as ‘into it’ as I am,” which I know is not the case for House of Mercy and its pastors, though they recognize the value of it as a supplement to what they’re already trying to do, if I’m not putting words in the pastors’ mouths.
So where does that leave me and my family?
Obviously our time with House of Mercy and especially Circle of Hope mark the high points in our experience of (being the) church in our 20 years of adult, married life. Since leaving Circle of Hope and Philly the second time in 2005, we’ve had a string of ultimately failed efforts to fully connect with any other faith community. Naturally over the past 11 years, I’ve asked myself why. I think there are a lot of reasons, of course. Maybe those early adult church experiences were “mountaintop” ones, and everything else- every other congregation that we’ve tried to participate in since- has simply been unable to stand up (in our eyes) under the weight of our (unrealistic, inappropriate) expectations for them. That could very well be the case. I think there’s a similar dynamic for me personally in regard to Kingdomworks (hmmm….I probably need to write a post entitled “Why I Keep Talking About Kingdomworks”). That very intense few months in Philly during the hot summer of 1995 between my sophomore and junior years at Gordon was a mountaintop experience for me if ever there was one. When I recently marked 20 years since that summer, a year ago, I remember thinking, and may have written, that in many ways, especially in my career choices but also in our decision to move to Philly as newlyweds in 1996 in the first place, in all of that I was no doubt trying somehow to relive or recreate that Kingdomworks experience. In fact, seven years ago, writing about Kingdomworks, I quoted a letter I got shortly after completing that Kingdomworks summer in ’95 from a Kingdomworks teammate, Holly, who said:
“At present I desire to high-tail it back to where we belong. Back on the streets where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting. Back where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.”
In that same post from seven years ago I added:
“She (Holly) also said that when we went back, we would do it ‘for them this time’- for those kids and people like them, rather than for us (to open our eyes to the need for such a life). In many, many ways I’ve been trying to high-tail it back to where I belong ever since. I despair to report that I have not made it yet..”
So all of that is to say that I know it’s legitimate to wonder if our disappointment with every church since Circle of Hope and early House of Mercy doesn’t have more to do with “us” than it does with “them” (all those subsequent churches). After all, I quoted in Part 1 of this series, about Circle of Hope, something one of my old (Circle of Hope) pastors said to me the other day via email. I had reached out to him in order to invite his comment about something I’ll describe below, and again he said:
“I have to say that I think a lot of the things that trouble you are in you. Stay in therapy and don’t project too much on others — they won’t match up to what you need. Jesus will save you, not some outer experience (you know that). If you came back here, we would likely look wrong, too, by this time. Jesus may have also had an idealization of what we ought to be, but, fortunately, he healed us instead of holding us to it and just being eternally disappointed in how human we were.”
My experience of “life together” in a faith community that was really working at being the Church was again transformational for me. But I do well to remember that the pursuit of community for its own sake can be just as idolatrous, not to mention selfish, as any other such pursuit. After all, it was the martyr who wrote the book on “life together,” after all, who said:
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it.”
I fear- and recognize- that this is what I’ve been doing. I must be careful precisely here, however, because recognizing that I’ve “loved my dream of a Christian community more than…the community itself” does not absolve me of the responsibility to carefully discern how I and my family might best connect with and serve the community that is (as opposed to the one that I wish to be). After all, if I and my family are to keep working at following Jesus, we do well to carry with us the lessons learned when we have perhaps done so most faithfully- usually in community- since, as I said above, following the Bible, let alone Jesus, “is a group project.”
So that brings me to 3DM, the organization calling itself a “movement” that has been the force behind the rise of “missional communities” in more than a few churches across the U.S. of late. Mike Breen is a pastor originally from England. He coined the phrase “missional community” as a descriptor for the form of church life that seemed to be working in his parish in Sheffield, England. He says:
A Missional Community is a group of 20 to 50 people who exist, in Christian community, to reach either a particular neighborhood or network of relationships. With a strong value on life together, the group has the expressed intention of seeing those they are in relationship with choose to start following Jesus through this more flexible and locally incarnated expression of the church.
A hallmark of missional communities is that they exist in a “rhythm of life” marked by movement “up” (toward God), “in” (Christian community), and “out” (toward those in need and/or who don’t know Jesus). As Breen says, “Each MC (missional community) attends to the three dimensions of life that Jesus himself attended to: Time with God (worship, prayer, scripture, teaching, giving thanks, etc), time with the body of believers building a vibrant and caring community, and time with those who don’t know Jesus yet.” As the missional communities in Sheffield began to grow and develop “exponentially,” Breen began advocating for the use of the phrase as a proper noun and took this model for church life “across the pond,” where 3DM was born. As 3DM says of themselves: “3DM was birthed out of a desire to train leaders in the US in the principles, vehicles, and tools that were empowering the movement in Europe.”
When I reached out to my former Circle of Hope pastor recently and got the response I quoted above and in Part 1 of this series, I did so in part to invite his comment on 3DM. I had expressed to him my reservations about them, and he was good enough to give me a few thoughts, while along the way telling the truth about what he saw in me, as I’ve noted. I came across 3DM for the first time in OH and even went to one of 3DM’s two-day trainings for church leaders while we were part of a short-lived church plant that began about a year and a half before we left OH. Our participation in that new church didn’t last, and neither did that church for reasons that do not need to be told here or now, but that context of learning about 3DM and going to that training while we were a part of that church is important, as I’ll describe in more detail momentarily.
For now, what I appreciate about missional communities as I was introduced to them through 3DM is that they’re, well, missional. The practitioners of this way of working at trying to be the church together seem to get that, as I keep saying, the church is a people, not a place. Missional communities seem to be focused on really trying to have a life together, which obviously I would say is good. I even like that they try to marry “life together” with being very service focused. I appreciate that missional communities have written into their “DNA” that instead of having “Jesus as the only agenda” as with a cell group (a la Circle of Hope), instead each missional community has to have some sort of “out”ward focus that serves to direct the group’s energy toward loving their neighbor, whether their neighbor is someone experiencing homelessness or refugees or people caught up in human trafficking, etc. I should add that while I struggle with the “up/in/out” language, I simultaneously appreciate it. Adding “up” (focusing on/listening to/following God) and “out” (responding to God’s love for us with love for neighbors, especially when they suffer or are in need) to “in” (the community that is so important to me) gives a balance to the effort to follow Jesus, together, that it might not otherwise have. This is a needed corrective to my tendency to “love my idea of Christian community more than the community itself.”
Other features of missional communities are that they are much larger (up to 40-50 people) than a cell group (about ten people). Likewise, there seems to be some capacity for missional communities to “multiply,” though this does not seem to be so essential that a group must multiply or it will end when its covenant period does, as with a (Circle of Hope style) cell group. Unlike cell groups, however, in which discipleship happens naturally within the cell as the leader teaches and prepares his or her apprentice to become a leader in their own right while likewise the apprentice develops a relationship with whomever will become their apprentice- unlike that- with missional communities there seems to be something of a “parallel track” in play as in addition to whatever missional communities may exist within a church there is something else called a “huddle.” In a “huddle,” as I understand it, leaders very intentionally disciple/prepare others to go out and be leaders in their own right, perhaps of a missional community.
I should note that this type of multiplication strategy for growing leaders-in which a leader trains a whole group that consists entirely of other leaders who will repeat the process- is not unheard of in the larger, worldwide cell church movement (go here and here for some U.S. based organizations that identify with the cell church model), and I should further note that the largest church in the world is cell group based, but I digress. In any case in the cell church model as I experienced it with Circle of Hope, everything is focused on and streamlined within cell groups. The gifts of the members of the group are identified and unleashed to serve the church and leaders are identified and trained as each cell multiplies, but all of this happens within cells. There are layers to this, though (at least in my experience with Circle of Hope), as cell leaders are part of their own “cell” of sorts within Circle of Hope as they meet in “coordinating groups” in which a cell leader coordinator- a leader of cell leaders- mentors, trains, and disciples the cell leaders so that they’re better equipped to lead their cells. Still, the focus is on cells. By way of contrast, with the missional community model it appears to me that there are two tracks- the missional community track in which anyone can join a missional community and experience the “up, in, and out” rhythm of church life- and almost separately, unless I’m mistaken- the “huddle” track in which leaders call out other future leaders and train and equip them to lead and repeat the process.
As you might imagine, then, it was with very mixed emotions that we first encountered that new church plant in OH that was working to get missional communities started (though it wasn’t clear at first that this is what they were going for, as they called them something else). There was a lot that we really liked about that church, including the amazing and prophetic “manifesto” that made up most of its website and the willingness of its lead pastor to speak prophetic truth to power in part by espousing peacemaking in a country at perpetual war, for example. However, as I said above and have said elsewhere our participation in that church didn’t last all that long and that church has since come to an end. Still, we were glad initially to find a church that really “got” that the church is a people, not a place, as it worked to “be the church” through that “up, in, and out” rhythm of life together. I was glad to feel again like we were a part of a “people on a mission together,” as I had long described what I hoped for from church, even if the phrase (extended) “family on mission” as used and spread by 3DM felt like a commodification of my lived experience.
So when I asked my former Circle of Hope pastor for his thoughts on 3DM, I did so because we’ve recently come across another church, here in the Twin Cities, that is using missional communities as the “vehicle” for their group life together. I should probably stop right here for a brief aside. When my former Circle of Hope pastor suggested that much of what bothers me (about 3DM, and no doubt many other things) is in me, he was, I’m sure, quite right. I know this is so because it will take a long time I fear before I can extricate my understanding of missional communities and 3DM from my relationship with the staff person at that church in OH that was their biggest proponent. I ought not say much more about that except to state that he and I didn’t always love each other very well, and the fact that he was so “into” missional communities makes it hard for me to ever be so. I know; that’s my issue, not anyone else’s. Anyway, we found this church here that has missional communities, and I was immediately, though reluctantly and warily, intrigued. I’ll say more about that in my conclusion to all this in Part 5b.
In the meantime, I should state that in all my yearning in all the years since leaving Circle of Hope for the last time, in all the years since then in which I’ve longed to be part of a faith community that really was a community, that really worked at being the church and trying to follow Jesus together, I’ve wondered if my hopes were in vain, and maybe my faith too. If the life together as the Church that I experienced so many years ago now really was of God, and really did represent some of the best of what He has in mind for us, I had to believe that it couldn’t only exist in one city. I came to believe that it was vitally important to understand that if God, and my faith in Him- if any of it was real- then I must also understand that surely God was at work in every culture, in every land and language and time, and if I would but listen and try to get on board with what God was already doing wherever I happened to be, I would no doubt soon find myself immersed in just the kind of community I longed for, so long as that yearning for community was a result of being drawn to follow Jesus and realizing that I can’t do so alone.
This is why as I’ve been working through all this that I’ve come to a place of reluctant acceptance of 3DM. This was not an easy place to come to. I’ve not only struggled with 3DM because of how much I associate them with the staff person at that OH church plant that was so very “into” them. No, I actually have what I believe to be some legitimate concerns. When I first heard of them and started doing a little research, I quickly learned that there were a lot of affiliated/related groups that sprang up in the wake of the “missional community movement” begun by 3DM in the U.S. One of them is the Soma “network of churches,” and that staff person at the OH church plant really liked them. What I quickly learned about Soma is that they’re affiliated with the Acts 29 Network, another church planting group, and Soma is committed to the Acts 29 “Distinctives,” including the strong conviction that there is no place for women pastors or elders in the church. I’m deeply committed in exactly the opposite direction. Here is the somewhat buried page where Soma says their “distinctives” came from Acts 29’s, and here is the page listing the Acts 29 “distinctives,” including that firm commitment to exclude women from pastoral leadership. In fairness, I don’t know that 3DM shares this commitment, but again my early exposure to 3DM was deeply conflated with Soma, which is itself based in part on the Acts 29 Network in all its ugliness.
More importantly, though, something about 3DM just bugged me. It took me a long time to put words to it, but I finally did. Part of what bugs me is simply base on my part. I know now that I struggle to like missional communities because they’re not cell groups, and I know quite a bit about and am very experienced in participating in and leading (if not very well) cell groups. This objection on my part to missional communities is itself objectionable, and I’m aware of this. Beyond that, though, what “bugs” me about 3DM, if not missional communities themselves, is the way that something good that at best can be described as being “of God” has been turned into a product/program that is being sold in the marketplace. For example, the second thing you see on Mike Breen’s website is an offer for a $10 monthly subscription plan for his “daily audio devotional;” and if you want to “better imitate the life and leadership of Jesus” by “develop(ing) the DNA for making disciples who make disciples,” you can purchase 3DM coaching for only $150 per person, per month. (Not very) arguably, closely imitating Jesus and making disciples who make their own should be the goal of every Christ-follower. 3DM will teach you how to do so…for a price. Am I right to feel angry? I know there’s some justification in Scripture for paying pastors, but that coaching that 3DM is selling isn’t necessarily for pastors; they say it’s for “anyone in any context” (“who wants to better imitate…Jesus” as described above).
Anyway, all this blatant (and literal) commodification of what Jesus gave freely is one issue. A related one, and my last big concern about 3DM is the way that following Jesus, which by definition is very relational and contextual, has been turned into a program. If you don’t know me, I think programs are great for many things. Following Jesus and being the church are not among them. Like Debbie Blue of House of Mercy wrote once and I recently quoted in this series, “Faith is relentlessly relational, thus unsystematizable.” Like my former Circle of Hope pastor said when I invited him to comment about 3DM: “Why don’t you steer away from national things that should be local? I don’t think you like them. Can’t you just steal their seed thought and great presentation and do something yourself? (Like buying strawberries and making your own ice cream?)” Following Jesus, however closely you may want to, and especially “making disciples,” can no more be accomplished by a program than believing (in) Jesus can be accomplished by lending intellectual assent to a series of propositions about him. There are no (true) “checklist Christians” (that is, folks who “accomplish” being saved by ticking off items on a checklist detailing required beliefs and behavior).
After all, Jesus didn’t say, “Come understand me.” He didn’t say, “Come be enlightened by me.” He did talk about “believing in him” in the oft-quoted John 3:16, but read after that famous verse, and the argument’s a bit more nuanced. Usually when the concept of belief comes up in the gospels it’s in the context of a conversation about “eternal life.” Take this passage, where Jesus talks about where his authority comes from- God the Father- and makes it clear that whoever “hears Jesus’ word and believes (not “believes in”) him who sent me” (God the Father)”- whoever does so will have eternal life. Or take John 14:1-7. Jesus does talk about “believing in God,” at least in some translations, but no sooner has he done so than he says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The thief on the cross whom Jesus promised would be with him in paradise never said the “sinner’s prayer.” He didn’t have what many would-be “Christians” would call a conversion experience. The thief simply believed Jesus, and asked to be remembered when he came into his kingdom. No doubt the thief didn’t understand much about Jesus in any intellectually theological way, but he had a relationship with Jesus, and that relationship was enough. He surely came to the father through Jesus. And even in John 14, the Message translation makes clear that it’s about trusting Jesus, not thinking all the right thoughts:
Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.”
5 Thomas said, “Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the road?”
6-7 Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!”
So being Jesus’ disciple, following Jesus, isn’t about intellectual assent; it’s about recognizing authority. It’s relational. Thus, in these and many other passages I think simply believing him is closer to what Jesus is often going for, and in any case when he was making disciples, what he did say was simply “Come follow me.” There is a proposition here, but again it’s very relational, and it’s made to each of us. Jesus is the one who makes disciples, after all, and they’re his disciples. We can help, to be sure, and do well when we again listen to him and get on board with the way he’s doing it.
So all of that is to say that while I have some significant concerns about 3DM, there was a time when I was so turned off by them that I would have considered involvement with them on the part of any future faith community that I would want to be a part of to be a “deal-breaker,” and that is now no longer the case. After all, in the most potent of ironies, the 3DM “missional community” program-for-sale-to-the-rich-who-can-afford-it is based on a relational, communal approach to following Jesus, one that I otherwise resonate with deeply. At some point along the way in this whole missional community “movement,” I suspect that God was up to something, and somebody was paying attention. They may have commodified and trademarked “the message,” but there’s some “good news” in there somewhere. I may have a deep distaste for what looks by all accounts like an empire that somebody’s building out of a kingdom that is surely not of this world, but I recognize that sometimes even the empire does a little good. I may not like the fecundity of Starbucks (or Wal-Mart, etc.), especially as they push local businesses out of business, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up coffee. In the next, final post in this series I get to talk about the “coffee” (or “strawberries” from my former Circle of Hope pastor’s question about 3DM above)- the good that I’m finding in what 3DM is selling and how it’s being expressed and lived out in a local church.