The Long Strange Trip Continues (We’re Planting Another Church!)

church_planting-400x300In 2008, my family and I moved from TX where I was pastoring back to AZ to plant Church of the Cross (which has since become Missio Dei Peoria).

In January 2015, a year after adopting four kids at once (putting us at 8 kids), I resigned from ministry in general and specifically from the church we planted in 2008.

2015 has been a whirlwind with a consistent theme from Psalm 46:

Be still and know that He is God.

When I resigned, it was important for Kristi and I that “vocational ministry” not be a career option for an unspecified period of time. With over ten years of lead pastor experience, I probably could have been hired at an existing church. But that just wasn’t right. Throughout 2015, I applied to more than 153 jobs (I stopped counting at 153). Most of those were jobs for which I was well qualified (at least on paper). But nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Bupkiss. A big goose-egg.

That’s not to say that I haven’t worked hard during this time, just that God has not provided full-time employment. Kristi and I both have worked part time for our friends Mark and Jill at Twigs and Twine. This has been a great experience. We’ve learned a lot but we’ve always known that this was not a long-term solution to our situation. It has felt like God was arranging our circumstances so that we would rest in Him even without knowing what was next. To be still. And know that He is God. And we are not.

This is a difficult lesson. It is often uncomfortable but it gets to the very heart of faith itself. Following Jesus means submitting our wills to His and trusting. God has been teaching me this tough lesson over the past year or so.

As I stated, it was important for us to have an unspecified period of time during which full-time ministry (at least in the pastoral sense) was not an option. Not only did we want to see what else God might have for us, we knew that one of two things would happen:

  1. The “indefinitely” would simply progress and we would not ever return to vocational ministry and we would be OK with that, or
  2. God would change our hearts and the “call” to ministry on our lives would return.

As 2015 wore on, the latter happened.

Before I explain what this means, I want to pause for a couple of side-notes.

First, my wife Kristi and I have been remarkably on the same page for every major decision throughout our relationship. This has helped serve as a natural form of discernment for both of us. Believe me, Kristi is not afraid to tell me when she thinks I’m wrong. It is important to me that my wife is on the same page. And she is.

Second, the idea of a “call to ministry” is fuzzy and nebulous at best. But I can say is that our decision to once again consider full-time ministry was not motivated by the fact that I had trouble finding employment. I hope that this goes without saying but I wanted to say it regardless. I have a healthy respect for ministry which requires that it be more than just a job.

In late 2015, not only did I start to miss vocational ministry but Kristi confirmed that I was once again being called to return and that we as a family wanted to give our lives in this way. As we wondered what this might mean for our family, we began talking with my friend Steve about planting a church together in Gilbert.

Steve planted a church called Ekklesia in 2009. Through mutual involvement with the local Surge Network, Acts 29 and Soma Communities, Steve and I became good friends. Around the same time I resigned, Steve shut down his church plant. However, because he’s so awesome, Steve has maintained great relationships with the people of that church, retaining a core group ready to plant another church.

After nearly eight months of prayer and consideration, Steve and I believe that the time is right to move forward with planting a church made up of Gospel Communities on Mission. We are humbled to announce that we are in the initial stages of planting Mosaic Church.

The Thomas Ten is in the process of moving to the Gilbert area so that we can devote ourselves to this exciting new gospel work. Since our ministry conviction is based on relationships and everyday life, it is important for us to be where we minister. We are currently raising the necessary funds to launch this new church and we appreciate anything you can give towards this goal.

Once we can get to that side of town, we will move forward with forming Gospel Communities and launching a Sunday gathering. Our goal is to move as soon as possible so that the kids can transition schools smoothly.

There’s still a lot to figure out and I’m sure you have questions. Feel free to ask them. And please pray for us. Please pray for wisdom, for discernment, for joy, for clarity and conviction. Please pray that God would provide the necessary resources and prepare hearts.

  • Visit the Mosaic Church website.
  • Visit the Mosaic Church Facebook page.

An Introduction to the “Ugh-Churched”

ugh-shirtI am Ted Wiggins and I speak for the trees!

No, that’s not right. I am Brent Thomas and I speak for . . . well, I might not speak for anyone other than myself. However, I have the hunch that I speak for a growing number of Christians who are increasingly frustrated by American Christianity.

Discipleship is the primary task Jesus left His people (Matthew 28:18-20). This simply means helping ourselves and others become more like Jesus. This is the fundamental task of Christians and encompasses all of life including all of our relationships. We are publicly trying to live out the ways of Jesus and striving to help others (no matter where upon the faith journey they might currently find themselves) to see the beauty in doing so (This is different from evangelism. Evangelism is not a thing in and of itself but is a subset of discipleship. Maybe more on this later.).Many churches grasp this, using pithy, easy-to-remember phrases like: Make, Mature and Multiply (Disciples), or Gather, Grow, Go.

Few seem to argue the fact that the core of Christian Living is discipleship. Over the years, I’ve asked over a hundred people: How well do you think the American Church as a whole, has done at the fundamental task of Discipleship?

I have yet to have a single person tell me that “as a whole,” we’re rocking it. Several people have been able to point to specific times when they have been spiritually cared for and encouraged and seen significant growth but these cases seem to be the exception rather than the norm. No one has argued that, “as a whole,” we’re doing well. There was one guy who was adamant until I realized that he was arguing that Young Life did a great job of discipling, not the church.

93434191-einstein-tongue_custom-36fb0ce35776dc2d92eda90880022bf48a67e192-s6-c30And yet it seems like just about every church is doing the fundamentally the same things. You remember how Einstein defined insanity, don’t you? Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. That seems to be the current predicament for American Christianity. Sure, the flavor might change but nearly every church seems to have the basic, Sunday-driven, education-based, program-driven structures. Two or three songs, a sermon and some more songs. Some churches are showy-er about it than others. Some churches have different emphases within those parameters but nobody seems to question the basic. passive, education-based approach.

But there is a growing number of people who believe that the Christian life is more, not less than the modern church experience. Many people sincerely want to follow Jesus and find a divide between how we see that suggested in the New Testament and how it is largely practiced here in the United States of 2016. Drawing from researchers like Thom Rainer and others who discuss the “pre-churched,” the “de-churched,” the “un-churched,” etc., I have come to think of this group as the “ugh-churched”.

The “ugh-churched” as I understand them, are not abandoning their faith nor do they want to abandon church participation. Much ink has been spilled rebuking people who say that they love God but feel no need for church. These are not the ugh-churched. The ugh-churched, if I may speak for a category I’ve just made up, believe that the current model is lacking at best and broken at worst. The ugh-churched believe that so many modern churches rely on programs because real relationships simply don’t exist.

But it’s a catch-22, isn’t it? Many churches see the New Testament’s expectations that we will “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:1-2), that we will rejoice and weep together (Romans 12:15), that we will speak the truth to one another in love (Ephesians 4:25), that we will live as family and so we create programs in which these things are supposed to occur but these things do not occur in programs because programs are not relationships. People oftentimes don’t know how to have these types of relationships because they’ve been caught in programs. A growing number of people have become disillusioned with the current approach and long for Christianity to be lived out in the context of meaningful, challenging relationships. Though there’s lots to do in the American Church, it just doesn’t always seem worth the time and energy and many are left wanting more.

As my friend April recently said:

I’m at a point in my Christian faith where I don’t want to go to a church with a “tag line” or catchy mission statement. I’m so over it, like way way over it. I want to go to a church that really wants to be the Church and not some cool kids club, that strives to be relevant, or hip, or urban, or progressive, or liberal, or seeker sensitive, or “down to earth”. I’ve found that there’s a lot of flavor out there without a lot of substance (kinda like Doritos). Hoping God will bring us into a community of believers who want to do honest, raw, life together for the long haul. Keep our family in your prayers, and keep me in your prayers that God will show Himself to me in his people and that I would be encouraged.

The problem is that we’re left with cliché’s like “authentic”, “genuine” and “organic”. They sound great but have largely lost their meaning in the current church context because every church uses these terms but seems to mean something different by them and the result is has simply become a standardized approach to how we “do church”. This is why many of the ugh-churched feel increasingly disenfranchised from the American church; they want more, not less. They want substance over performance and they believe that following Jesus is about more than superficial slogans like “Win at Life”.

This means that we must stop doing church the way we’ve always done it. Far from being threatened by the ugh-churched, we should revel in the desire for deep and meaningful community faith. This is an exciting time for the American Church. We are faced with an identity crisis and we have reached a tipping point. How will we emerge? Will we embrace the growing desire for simplified schedules and deeper relationships or will we create another church program?

 

 

What Can the Church Learn From the Grateful Dead?

grateful-deadRegardless of what you think of them as a band, you can’t deny the Grateful Dead‘s indelible mark on popular culture, especially in light of the band’s 50th anniversary/farewell “Fare Thee Well” concerts.

Never has a band succeeded so well at making themselves more than a band. They filled stadiums for years, encouraging fans to tape, trade and even give away their shows. They revolutionized business dealings for musicians and have their own Ben and Jerry’s flavor. I even got married in a Cherry Jerry Garcia tie I bought at Mervyn’s. Don’t judge. And that stupid little dancing bear seems ubiquitous.

As the band says it is done, many are considering what it all meant, if anything. Some, like Huffpo‘s Mike Edison argue: “Never Has a Band Had Such Contempt for Their Fans“, while others (like me) have argued that the Grateful Dead are “America’s Band”. But, for many, the band’s legacy is a muddy conversation.

Once, in my sheltered, sometimes unintentionally legalistic Evangelical youth, I went on a summer field trip with the church group to the Phoenix TBN studios. A cameraman in a Grateful Dead shirt gave us the tour and I remember being appalled that a “Christian” organization would allow an employee to wear a shirt by such a pagan band, especially one with skeletons on it. Of course, in hindsight, I should have been appalled that my church group was visiting TBN, but you live and learn, right?

As years and experience have colored perspective, the Dead have become one of my favorite bands. I’ve thought a lot about what the American Church might learn from these “Entrepreneurial Hippies”. This might seem a bit odd; I mean, after all, shouldn’t the Church stay away from sinners like the Dead and their black market traveling circus? But really, is asking what the Church can learn from the Grateful Dead any more odd than asking what Corporate Leadership lessons we can learn from Jesus? It’s just a different perspective. And, I think, a valuable one to consider.

So, what might the Church (particularly the “American” Church, of which I am a part). I think the legacy of the Grateful Dead carries with it at least three important things for the American Church to consider.

  • They Weren’t Interested In Simply Repeating the Accepted Norms

The band seems to have understood fairly on that the key to their success did not lie in the traditional, record sales, radio play model. The band consolidated many of their business dealings early on and relied on their live performances as the foundation of their growth. Further bucking the accepted way of doing things, the band not only encouraged fans to tape and trade the live performances but to give them away. Understanding that they did not have traditional commercial appeal, the band instead created their own business model.

I bring this up because, at least for the Evangelical wing of the Church family in America, we’ve come to accept “that’s the way we’ve always done it” as “this is the way it should be done”.

Perhaps it’s not necessary, but let me preface this next section by saying that I love God’s people. I value gathering with them. I have given most of my professional life to serving the Church. Any concerns I might have are spoken as a family member to family.

Over the past months, I have had the privilege to visit lots of different Evangelical churches on Sunday mornings. Though it has been a terrific experience to be able to worship with so many different groups of believers, one thread has tugged at my thoughts during my travels: most Evangelical worship gatherings are pretty much the same thing.

We’ve simply accepted the 60-90 minute, Sunday morning, two songs, announcements, sermon, two songs, go get your kids model as the way things should be done. At least that’s what it seems like. Though the music may be different (loud band in bright lights or organ lady in a flowery dress), the decor may vary, the style of speech and depth of the sermon may vary, but we’re all pretty much doing different versions of the same thing.

I worry that we forget that we are part of an Ancient family, and for most of our history, our public worship did not look like it does now. We are quick to view history through a short lens when asking how (or even why) we should do things.

Nearly everyone I talk to says that the current model of the American Church has done a less-than-stellar job at doing our one main task: to make, mature and multiply disciples. And yet, we are all doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results than the church down the road doing the exact same thing.

In order for the Church to flourish in consumeristic America, we are going to have to let go of the idolatry of our model and learn to take chances without branding risk takers as heretics or simply write them off as “emergent”. I’m not questioning Orthodox theology, here, but I am concerned with just how similar and bland and interchangeable we all seem to think Sunday (and church life) should be.

  • They Built Their Reputation On Community

The Grateful Dead understood that the vitality of their business model hinged on creating community rather than simply consumers. Though I guess you could argue that, as a business, the Dead were interested in creating a community of consumers, I think the point is that they understood that they needed repeat customers who would be loyal to a fault and evangelize to a fault.

They created a place of belonging for many people who had not ever experienced a truly welcoming community. Yes, there were of course bad apples in the Deadhead community, but by and large, the stories are of welcoming, accepting and dedicated people, bound together by a common community that happened to center around a band.

I worry that the current American Church model, by default lends itself more towards creating consumers than it does community. We arrange ourselves as a passive audience on Sundays and many churches quite openly tie their view of success or failure to how many people are in the audience each week.

Very little of the current church model in America lends itself to an active faith lived out in community. And hence, very little of our current model emphasizes the necessity of Believers taking responsibility for their own faith. The church must take seriously Paul’s admonition that leaders have been given to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-13) rather than perpetuating the myth of the “sacred profession” held by pastors. Deadheads understood that if they’re community was going to be sustainable, they had to make it so. The band could not do all the work of creating a self-sustaining, traveling community, nor is it what they were called to do. They were simply facilitators.

We have tried to appropriate so much of the way we do things from the business world that, of course we believe that success is based purely on numbers. But the Dead showed us that a loyal community is the real goal. Consumers will come and go. But community is something different and it is sorely lacking in many of our outposts.

  • They Were Not Afraid To Fail

One of the greatest criticisms of the Grateful Dead is that they, by all accounts, were a hit or miss live affair. Whey they were on, everyone understood why they were there. But when they swung and missed, everyone was thankful for the accompanying community because it wasn’t necessarily the success of that night’s show holding them together.

And yet, how often I hear pastors prepping themselves to believe that every week is the most important message their church will hear. If they happen to have an off Sunday, their egos are deflated and the success of the entire mission is questioned. Somehow, we who find our breath in God’s grace have lost the ability to fail. We have turned the Sunday morning into a performance with such pressure that many churches have countdown clocks right on the wall, the lighting is on point and God forbid the slide person miss a cue. When something does “go wrong” on a Sunday, we fret, frown and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we should strive for excellence in our public worship. But it is not a performance. It’s not a big deal if I forget my place in a sermon, if the guitar player misses a chord change or the slide person misses a cue. Those things matter when it’s a performance and when you’re creating consumers. They matter and we should try to avoid mistakes, but they’re not a big deal when you’re after real community. If you’re unwilling to fail, you won’t take chances and when you won’t take chances, everyone ends up doing the same thing.

What if you already had all of the love, acceptance and grace you could ever hope for and more? Would you be willing to take chances that might lead to failure? Would you be able to model grace in mistakes rather than striving to portray a perfect performer? What if we really believed that our worth is not based on our performance?

It’s beautiful to know that there are so many valuable lessons for us to learn in such unlikely places. For the health of the church, let’s humbly consider what’s valid, what’s not (even if I’ve written it) and continue to strive for a more genuine faith.

Why Do We Make It So Difficult (02)? Missional Living And The Plague Of Passive Christians

cemetery-church-416587-mOver the past ew months, I’ve thought a lot about various aspects of the way we “do church” in America. Though there are certainly variations on a theme, many if not most American Evangelicalism churches look pretty much the same. Though one may have “young adult contemporary with a hint of edginess to attract the Millennials” style worship while the church down the road maintains “traditional values”, chances are, the basic structure of what they do, (order of worship, ministry structure, classes offered, etc.) is probably pretty similar. You can repaint the barn all you want but it’s still a barn.

The other day I considered whether the American approach to “church” tends to exclude otherwise qualified men or whether I’m just a curmudgeon. By the way, I did get one vote for curmudgeon from a friend on FB, so that is still a real possibility. Just like I have come to wonder whether or current models of ministry tend to favor certain personality types over others, I wonder whether the current model of church has actually hindered rather than fostered discipleship. The primary thing Christians have been called to do may actually be stunted by our approach to try and fulfill the commands of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).

While I love that there are exceptions, the general rule seems to be that the American church produces passive Christians. I have been part of the missional conversation since I was encouraged by my Acts 29 Assessment team to attend Soma School in 2008. Since then, I have been challenged to actively live out my faith and I have given my life to equip others to do the same. We tried to plant a church that would require people to participate. We have participation in our sermons. We are structured around Missional Communities, we limit our church programs, etc. After all, Paul is very clear that it is the people of the church who are to be responsible for the majority of its ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13).

And we have seen God change people’s lives! We have seen people not only learn their neighbors’ names but build relationships with them. We have seen families open up their homes for foster care and adoption. We have seen people learn to identify and de-throne the idols they worship. We have seen people increase in love for God and others.

But it has been a slow and sometimes discouraging process. It has meant that we have to be sensitive to the fact that many people are simply not accustomed to their local church expecting a lot (other than maybe money and volunteer time) from them. Jesus certainly gave people pause before following Him, reminding them to count the cost. Following Jesus will often cost us in life because Jesus expects our entire lives to be devoted to Him. The local church is the avenue in which and through which we live out this life-encompassing call. If you are never challenged or made uncomfortable by your church, you might have reason for concern.

God’s people have been blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12:2). God calls us to bless the cities in which we live, even if we feel captive (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Jesus  calls His people “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16). But I often meet Christians and pastors who feel like they just don’t know how to tangibly live out their faith.

Why have we made it so difficult for Christians to actively live out their faith in natural, unforced ways in everyday life? Why have we made it so difficult for so many Christians to talk openly and welcomingly about their faith? Why have we made it so difficult that throwing parties and serving others seems so unnatural? Why have we made it so difficult for people own their own spiritual growth?

I have come to believe that many of the challenges American Christianity faces are a direct result of the methods we have adopted in living out our faith. These methods have actually created a culture of passive Christians who need to be awoken, energized and equipped to put feet to their faith.

Though there are certainly other factors, I think that at least a few reasons we seem to pump out passivity, such as:

Theology (or lack thereof) of Place: American Evangelicalism generally seems to have a poor theology of place. Instead of challenging commuter culture, we have adopted it wholesale. We have removed most churches from their local context. Sure their property sits in a particular geographical area but it is increasingly rare for those surrounding communities to feel that the church is a blessing.

We need to regain and live out the notion that faith is put in to practice in everyday life. Local churches should be involved in their local communities. If we have been blessed to be a blessing, our communities should have tangible blessings to point out. Instead, they complain that our mega-services cram up the traffic and we take tax breaks from our communities rather than pouring in to the city.

The issue here is probably bigger than just a theology of place.

A n0n-holistic Gospel Leads to Christian Isolationism: Though the Evangelists and Revivalists of recent ages past certainly meant well, American Evangelicalism seems to have learned from them that the salvation of souls is the most important thing. But if all of creation has been affected by sin, surely the Gospel impacts and will someday redeem all of creation. The Gospel is not about getting in to heaven when we die, it is about living out the Kingdom here and now.

One practical result of this disconnect is directly tied to our poor theology of place. Not only have we disconnected the local church from its neighborhood, the separation of salvation from everyday life has only led to the fact that Christians like to clump together, removing ourselves from the “secular” world. We create our own sports leagues, reading clubs, etc. It is entirely possible for a Christian to have no contact whatsoever with those who believe and live differently. We can eat Christian toast, listen to Christian radio on our way to our Christian job, having lunch at the Christian coffeeshop, and then go to Bible study before going to bed.

As Francis Chan says in Crazy Love  (a book itself devoted to shaking Christians from passivity):

“Christians are like manure: spread them out and they help everything grow better, but keep them in one big pile and they stink horribly.”

Christians were never meant to separate themselves from the rest of the world (John 17). Not only does isolationism separate us from those who don’t yet believe, it increases passivity. Though I may be challenged on the certain nuances of particular ideas, when I’m surrounded by those I generally agree with, stagnation is usually close by.

The Professionalization of the Pastorate Has Led to Poor Equipping: Though Paul clearly say the five-fold ministry as given to the church to equip Believers for the work of the ministry, we have relegated this “work of the ministry” to those paid to do it. Instead of viewing themselves primarily as equippers, many pastors are forced to live as doers. Part of this is related to the fact that seminary is probably not the best way to train equippers and we primarily seem to have seminaries in general because we wanted legitimacy from the academic world, but I am digressing and hope to address some of those issues later.

The very fact that John Piper (regardless of your thoughts on him and his ministry) felt the need to write a book called Brothers, We Are Not Professionals reminds us that this is indeed a real issue amidst American Evangelicalism. Many Christians have adopted passivity because they have come to believe that that’s what they pay others to do. And, instead of encouraging people to take responsibility for their own spiritual growth, we have turned spiritual growth over to the professionals.

Consumerism and An Entertainment Culture: Very few would argue that American culture has not willingly gift-wrapped itself in consumerism and the desire to be entertained. But, as Neil Postman has pointed  out, the medium is the message. Our news shows are more scripted drama than simple reporting of events. And our worship gatherings are often more about entertainment than they are equipping Believers.

As Hirsch and Frost and others have pointed out, the very fact that our congregations are lined up in rows facing a stage means that the gathering will typically mean a passive audience. Top this off with the unhelpful aspects of “seeker sensitive churches” and we have many churches that will adopt the “USA Today” model of preaching, never challenging above a seventh-grade level. The music is led by slick emotionalists and the message is delivered by a professional public speaker.

Another side of this is the self-righteously Reformed folk who have adopted the notion that the sermon is the time for lessons in doctrine and the transfer of information. I was heard a famous preacher say, more than once, that if a pastor wasn’t spending 40 hours a week in their study, they had no business stepping behind a pulpit. While not necessarily entertainment driven, this approach certainly promotes passivity rather than engagement.

As I said the other day, I am not bitter towards the church. But I am in a personal place where I feel the need for public dialogue. Over the years, I have asked hundreds of people if they thought the American church was rocking it at actually making, maturing and multiplying disciples. I have not had a single person say that they think we’re doing a great job. That should prompt some deep self-reflection and some really big discussions.

As Einstein reminded us, insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Even though we have painted the barn lots of different colors over the years, it is still a barn. If our current system does not excel at the one main task to which we have been called and, in fact may have not only discouraged some men from serving but encouraged passivity, (and I am open to the fact that you may have had a different experience and that I may actually be wrong) we need the humility to talk openly about our shortcomings.