If you are new to this blog....

Welcome! The primary purpose of this blog is to explore and encourage around what it means to be winsome and sent into the world for God's glory. If you are new here, the definition of "lighthouse-searchlight" or our missional journey is a good place to start. Come peruse the blog and add me to your RSS feed!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

caroling with the neighborhood

In the past eight days, two significant neighborhood encounters occurred. Both could easily have slipped by unnoticed, but I think the persistent focus on being the church outside the walls has sharpened my eyesight a little.

The second encounter (read the first here) came last night at our annual caroling event in the neighborhood.  We've been doing this for a number of years (eight?), usually going a different direction each year in the neighborhoods right around our church.

This year, something significant happened.  We had two different families from the neighborhood show up and join us for dinner and caroling.  I'm not sure how or where they heard about when we were going - in one case, a grandparent couple invited their out of town daughter and young grandkids to join us.  They said that the kids had never been a part of caroling and they wanted them to have the experience.  In another case a mom from down the street brought her two young daughters.  And they jumped in with us - part of the "Good Shepherd family" caroling to our (and their own) neighbors.

What stood out to me is their willingness to come do something as "out there" as walking in the dark with a big group of strangers, knocking on doors, and singing... again, I think that this was made possible, or at least easier, by the time we've spent out in these same neighborhoods.  We used to be relatively unknown to these neighbors.  Now we are not only safe to associate with, but desirable companions in carrying music (and Good News!) to our mutual neighbors.  As I said in the previous post, I'm not sure we even know all the significance of this encounter, but I'm pretty sure it is significant!

Here's a video clip of us singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas!"

eating with the neighborhood

In the past eight days, two significant neighborhood encounters occurred.  Both could easily have slipped by unnoticed, but I think the persistent focus on being the church outside the walls has sharpened my eyesight a little.

The first encounter came eight days ago on a Wednesday.  That morning we got a call in the office from a neighbor who had seen on our church sign that we had a Wednesday night dinner and wondered if he could come get some food for himself and his sick wife, who was housebound.  I think he thought we were offering meals for sale - he asked a question along those lines.  But the person taking the call said it was a potluck, and neighbors visiting were not expected to bring food, and he should just come on and join us.  Well, sure enough, he came that night.  We invited him to sit and eat with us before taking the plate home to his wife, but he wanted to get back to her.  So we visited in a line for a few minutes.  He lived nearby and simply noticed our sign.

What stood out to me is that he would venture inside a church full of people he didn't know to accept food that was "family meal" style.  I don't think this would have happened even two or three years ago.  I think that we have been spending so much time out in our neighborhood, including HIS immediate neighborhood, that he perceived us as safe, friendly, and helpful - worth calling and visiting to help out his wife.  It was a subtle interaction, and I don't think we have yet grasped the significance of it; but I'm pretty sure it was significant in our growth as a church for the neighborhood.

Friday, December 09, 2011

the filter bubble: the invisible self-idolatry of the internet

This is a fascinating and disturbing TED Talk on the ways that Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and many other online sites sort and individualize our "personal internet experience" with the mostly invisible (to us) result of only showing us what we WANT to see rather than what we NEED to see.

Not only do we only see what is let INTO our "filter bubble"; we don't get to see what is filtered out.

On the video, the speaker shows two different friends' simultaneous Google search results on "Egypt" during the revolution there.  One friend's results were full of news and politics and revolution; the other got nothing related to it.

We used to have human editors serving as gatekeepers to public information.  Now we have programs (algorithms) that feed us back ourselves.  Additionally, these programs don't have the kind of embedded ethics that human editors did.

What are we missing when we can't see beyond our individual horizon?

We lose a sense of public life and civic responsibility - and we need some controls over what gets through and what doesn't

We need programming (algorithms) not just keyed to relevance, but to things that are uncomfortable, challenging, and important.

I challenge you to watch and comment about what you think we are missing or losing and how we can address these problems through changed habits, different programming, a rediscovery of ethics and public good, etc...   Share your thoughts! 

Update: on my FB post linking to this article, I received an excellent comment from Grant Sutphin, who is a Presbyterian pastor in Statesville, NC.  Here is a part of his post I'd like to share and then respond to:

I think you're principally promoting the presenting issue of this talk rather than its conclusions, but I feel I should point this out:

Internet companies are just that: companies. They are market-driven entities that will make whatever decisions maximize their market-determined value to their shareholders. Imploring corporations to be altruistic and have at their core a desire toward building a more perfect society is a distraction from what we as pastors know to be the real issue.

It is the individual who proves a steady disdain toward world events in their internet-behavior who determines how the Google algorithm will then lead them in the future away from news stories. Pariser's own newsfeed begins to weed out conservative opinion not randomly but after he's clicked exclusively on progressive articles for a period of time. He might want to read the conservative headlines, but it would seem he doesn't need to look any deeper by clicking the links. If he did, the algorithm would continue to promote them.

Sin will always draw the individual away from community, away from otherness, away from confrontation. The sin isn't in the corporation, it's in the people, and that's where you have to go (Christ before you and beside you) to get it out. Regulating internet companies so they more readily show content unrelated to previous searches won't solve the strong desire we have toward alienation. We should never believe that a more altruistic Google or Yahoo will cure us of this.
I responded:
I agree, which is probably why I focused more on the presenting issue than the speaker's solution. I don't think pleading with corporations to employ ethic-coding programmers is the solution (or reasonable in any way). The speaker also notes that while he holds up human newspaper editors up as capable of gate-keeping, they were historically no better - also serving the needs of their employers.

My intent was to note the problem - our tendency towards self-preoccupation, made significantly easier and more accessible by the Internet. It's not unlike what having Star Trek like food replicators in the home might do for the gluttonous among us. (Lord, help us!) We are all the more in trouble when we allow technology to feed and enable our sin.

You rightly point us towards what is needed - a spiritual remedy for sin and bent towards sinning.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

consecration as distinctly holy

The word that describes behavior that is distinct from the world around us for the sake of honoring God is “consecrated” (also "holy"). It means set apart, but we often think of that as separated AWAY from the world rather than distinct WITHIN it. But the special use for which God sets us apart is to be used.

From the beginning God set apart His people – by laws, by covenant and sign, by behavior. The purpose was not to shelter them away and keep them pure and aloof, but that they would be a witness to the surrounding world of the character and nature of God.  In Christ, we continue to be set apart IN the world for God's glory (cf. 1 Peter 2:5-12).

Said another way, we are to be a reflection of the holiness of God. But God, as perfectly holy, does not hide away from humanity. Rather, in holiness God has come among us in Jesus Christ, to live and be one of us, but to do so with complete distinctness as the perfectly obedient one, to redeem and draw humanity unto Himself.

Whether we talk about consecrating gifts of money for the mission and work of this church or talk about consecrating our lives in service to God, we are talking about openly belonging to God for His public glory. So, the mission and ministry of the Church is not for ourselves, but for the world around us, to point to God. Our mission and ministry as Christians is not to get blessed by God, but to give ourselves in service to God for the blessing of others.

As Christians, we are God’s own possession, set apart as distinct for God’s public glory.

Friday, October 28, 2011

gspc kids have personality

This was too good a picture not to put up!  No shortage of personalities here.  :)   This was at our church family retreat to Fellowship Point, a presbytery property just north of Charlotte.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

traveling musicians

One exciting thing that has just happened this last week is that we have had the privilege to share of our musical bounty with another congregation in the presbytery.  The organist/music director at Hickory Grove Presbyterian Church is leaving, and I offered my friend, Rev. Kate Murphy, that we might be able to loan them some musicians for the month of November while they searched for a new musician or interim musician.  I am thrilled to share that Linda Jenkins agreed to volunteer as their organist and choir director for the month, and Chuck is also going to sing bass in the choir.  I marvel at the riches God has drawn to Good Shepherd in arts and music and am excited that we can share those riches with others outside our walls.  I look forward to hearing from the Jenkins and Pastor Kate how God blesses them and the congregation at Hickory Grove.

So, when you don't see Chuck and Linda in church during November, know that they are on ministry assignment serving the larger Kingdom of God!

What is God doing in and around you and how can YOU be a part?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

neighborhood jazz with sister church

Next weekend, our choir will join with that of Carmel Presbyterian for a jazz concert.  But we are taking seriously what it means to get outside the walls, so we are performing outdoors in "Stumptown Park" in Matthews, NC, on October 30, at 3pm, .  There was a great write-up in the Charlotte Observer here:


It included some great quotes:

The concert is a combined effort of the two churches' music ministries, led by Paul Reynolds, director of music ministries at Carmel and Cathy Youngblood, director of music ministries at Good Shepherd.

Youngblood says this event is a response to a new call for churches to balance the "come-and-see" attitude with the "go-and-tell" mindset. "Rather than only presenting the message of Christ through music in the church building and expecting others to come to us, we are heeding the call to go out into the community and meet people where they are," she says.

Performances will include a combined choir from both churches, a variety of jazz favorites performed by soprano Mindy Damon and old-time classics performed by The Rick Bean Jazz Trio. 
Rick Bean, founding pianist of the trio, was a long-standing friend of the late Loonis McGlohon, former director of music at Carmel Presbyterian. Bean is now the president of the Loonis McGlohon Foundation, which supports events that promote ministry through jazz.

Youngblood says that jazz is an accessible means of expression and Stumptown Park, a fun place for families and friends to enjoy on a Sunday afternoon.  She says, "We hope to give folks a relaxing evening of jazz - sacred and secular - as a bridge between community and church."
If you are in the area, come out and join us!

Friday, October 21, 2011

wee kirks

This past week I have been at the Montreat Wee Kirk conference, a wonderful 32-year old conference for smaller membership congregations in the PCUSA.  I have been privileged to serve as the conference worship leader and seminar leader for the past 9 years!

Growing up in a church of 3000+, I admit to grossly underestimating the TREASURE in the Kingdom that the small church can be when it sets its eyes on Jesus and follows in obedience to Word and Spirit.  Certainly there are churches of all sizes that struggle with health, but size itself is no determiner of faithfulness or effectiveness in the Kingdom.  Indeed one of our speakers, Sasan Tavassoli, said he was used to Iranian cell groups of 8-10, so he did not even recognize the distinction between 'big' and 'wee' churches.

I am reminded of our own commitment at Good Shepherd, from 7-8 years ago to be vigorously faithful in the "small things" God laid before us in our immediate neighborhood.  Now, it seems clear that God is challenging us to continue outside our walls NEARBY - with tutoring, witnessing, friendships, bluegrass, book clubs, coat drives, relationships, and more; but also FURTHER OUT!

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

missional does as missional is

Though I don't use the term "missional" much in everyday conversation (I've stuck with the lighthouse/searchlight metaphor in our context), I do use it in conversations with others beyond my local context.

But both in my own context and in conversations with people outside it, I realize that many of us continue to struggle with BEING or BECOMING missional in our identity.  The default for American Christianity, even bombarded with missional teaching and resources, is to try to create one more new program - that is to focus on DOING "this missional stuff" and hope that makes us missional.

There is proverbial wisdom to "one is as one does" - (perhaps immortalized in the negative sense by Forrest Gump's "stupid is as stupid does").  Certainly if we repeat behavior, our identity is shaped and molded, whether for good or ill.  But when several generations of "mission and outreach" in our churches has resulted in a small handful of go-getters doing hands-on mission and most of us simply paying others to do God's work, I wonder if "missional is as missional does" is going to work out.

I have been wrestling with flipping that around: missional does as missional is.  As strong as the dynamic of behavior shaping identity is, the dynamic of behavior flowing out of identity is even stronger.  And we find so much more energy and LIFE in the latter (again, for good or ill - and even as I type this I realize the far-reaching implications of this observation beyond the scope of the "missional" conversation... but that'll keep 'til another day). 

The huge apparent challenge of primarily approaching missional BEING over DOING is that naming and re-shaping Christian identity so that it results in action seems (and is!) a humanly impossible task.  But in the same way that it is God's job to save people, so it is the declared work of Christ (so says the scripture) to give us a new identity.  My job as a pastor, and indeed our job as Christ-followers, is to declare what is already true in Christ.

Jesus said he came to seek and save the lost - to obediently serve the mission God gave him.  As believers, our identity is found in Jesus Christ, and as Christ followers, we follow him into mission.

We can create "mission (or missional) programs" or send money for people to "do Christ's work," and it is possible that doing so may begin to inform us as to our Christian identity.  But would it not be far more effective and LIFE-GIVING to root our missional activity in the missional identity we have in Jesus Christ?

Missional does as missional is.  What would that look like in your context?

-----Additional Resources-----

Some narrative on how we've cultivated missional identity in my own context.

Preaching to cultivate and confirm missional identity (partial list):
God as Inviting Host (series)
How Can I Be a Part? (sermon and lay testimonies)
Sheep for the World (Pentecost sermon)
Discipleship – focusing outward on our neighbors (series)

Reposted and revised from May 2010

Saturday, July 02, 2011

intentional residence communities: a new model for theological education

I was in conversation with some seminary professor friends who were talking about a shift from what I experienced in the 90s - two required "field education" classes that included some supervision - to a more long-term pairing of seminary students with a local pastor.  Rather than serving in a church for one semester or year to get a class credit, trying to match up a student with a church for the duration of seminary, to have not only a church "home" in the seminary context, but also a pastor/mentor for the duration.

I think this is a good direction for seminary education, as it not only grounds the education in the setting of ministry, but can provide an experienced practitioner of ministry as a mentor, coach, and guide, along with some hands-on experience of ministry.

But here's the thing: that's a great step, toward the old attractional model of church ministry happening in the church.  I started pondering how I would want to train, equip, mentor a seminary student who chose Good Shepherd as a seminary church home and me as mentor/coach/trainer during that season of life.

Here's what I came up with, and am floating to a couple of seminary folks I know at different institutions.

A New Model for Theological Training for Ministry

Envisioning new models for theological training and preparation for ministry in the 21st century, the IRC model builds on traditional theological education and newer paradigms of mentored ministry:
  • Theological Education: top-caliber academic training in the Reformed tradition
  • Mentored Ministry: direct participation and ministry in a local Presbyterian congregation, regular accountability and discipleship by a teaching or ruling elder of that congregation, and sustained fellowship and accountability to that local congregation; for the duration of the degree program
To those building blocks, the IRC model adds the following:
  • Intentional Residence Communities: combines the fellowship and encouragement of living with or near a group of seminary students and families with the real-world opportunity of living in a secular apartment or housing complex; the local residence ministry community will meet regularly for accountability, fellowship, and support as well as work with the local church pastor to develop and implement ministry and mission in the apartment or housing complex

To help flesh out what this model would look like, I created a sample application form for a student entering seminary, including the following narrative questions in addition to basic contact info.  The seminary would use this form in conjunction with a corresponding church application form to help match students and congregations.

Student Application - narrative questions
  1. Narrative Description of Background, Testimony, Sense of Call 
  2. Vision for Intentional Residence Ministry: How can you envision engaging in ministry in a housing complex? You don’t have to have all the answers – just brainstorm with us a bit!
  3. Areas of Desired Ministry Experience: note that ministry opportunities will not be limited to those named; rather this will help place students in the optimum environment
  4. Housing Needs: family size, # of bedrooms, budget for housing
  5. Host Church Preference: please list in order after reviewing host church applications on file; if no order of preference, so note

And here is a sample church application, filled in with narrative as if I were answering...

Host Church/Pastor Application
  1. Narrative Description of Church (denominational affiliation, size, location, demographic, mission, vision, etc…)

    Good Shepherd is an evangelical and Reformed congregation of the PC(USA). It is located in the Old Providence neighborhood in South Charlotte. The congregation has an intentional and developed mission strategy to the approximately 2000 households in the Old Providence area, which include a surprisingly wide range of economic and racial diversity. In addition to the missional opportunity to love and witness to these neighbors, the session of Good Shepherd has identified several key mission opportunities in a local public elementary school, a medium-sized contemporary shopping complex, several group homes, and the Swan’s Run/Brighton Place housing complexes (see housing below). Mission partners in the area include a predominantly African-American PC(USA), Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and Moravian congregation. Good Shepherd has a unique and very intentional theology of worship and creative arts. We are a confessing church in the PC(USA), and the pastor is active in denominational renewal and witness as well as leadership in the local presbytery. Explore our website at www.gspc.net.

  2. Pastor Narrative (describe training, mission/vision, availability, and anything else deemed pertinent to mentored ministry)

    I am an alumnus of Davidson College (music composition), Gordon-Conwell (M.Div., pt. 1), Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div., pt. 2), and Reformed Theological Seminary (D.Min. biblical theology of worship and music). I have been pastor of Good Shepherd since 2002, am married and have three daughters. I am a life-long musician and enjoy leading worship through music as well as preaching and pastoring. Since 2006, we have been actively engaged in a missional model of ministry in our local context. I blog and explain this in much greater detail at my “Lighthouse-Searchlight Church” blog at http://robertaustell.blogspot.com. I have also mentored seminary students most of the years I have been at Good Shepherd and enjoy those ministry relationships.

  3. Ministry Experience Opportunities

    Good Shepherd offers a broad range of ministry experiences for pastoral interns, including preaching, teaching, youth ministry, music/worship, drama and creative arts, missional development, discipleship, home and hospital visitation, and more. Interns will also be encouraged to identify and develop new ministries in areas of gifting and calling.

  4. Description of Housing Available

    Swan’s Run Apartments is an approximately 140-unit apartment complex immediately behind Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church. Rent is modest ($500-700) and housing configurations include duplexes, quad apartments, and a large multi-unit building. 1BR, 2BR, and 3BR units are available.

  5. Number of Students Desired (min. 3; indicate any other parameters)

    To launch the first intentional residence community at Good Shepherd, it is recommended that 3-4 family units seek housing at Swan’s Run Apartments. Once the program is up and running, as many as 6-8 family units might live at Swan’s Run and be engaged at Good Shepherd, but the intent would be to have families rotating in and out as they enter and exit the degree program rather than as one large block. Each family unit is invited to become an active part of the worshiping community at Good Shepherd and Pastor Austell will work with each student to match learning goals with ministry experiences on an individual basis. Each student will meet regularly with either Pastor Austell or one of the elders of the church.

If you've read this far, I would love to hear some feedback, either in the comments or at robert{at}gspc{dot}net.

Monday, May 30, 2011

pray for the welfare of the city (jeremiah 29)

To God's people in Exile, the Lord speaks challenging words through the prophet, Jeremiah:

“Seek the welfare of the city… and pray to the Lord on its behalf.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

This challenge connects to the covenant of old, in which God told Abraham He would bless him that Abraham and his children might be a blessing to the whole world. It does not matter that God’s people have been taken from Jerusalem; they are still able to fulfill their covenant purpose of being a covenant community of faith and blessing those among whom they lived.

There are several points about this challenge to “seek the welfare of the city” that I want to lift out. First is the meaning of the word translated here as “welfare” (or 'peace'). The underlying word here is shalom. Depending on context and shade of meaning, it can mean peace, well-being, completeness, wholeness, blessing, or as translated here, welfare. The use of shalom here stands in marked contrast to what the Jewish exiles seem to have lost. Taken from home, they felt lost, broken, incomplete, and cursed – anything but shalom. Yet God asks – even commands – that they pray on behalf of the city of Babylon for the very thing that they feel is missing. Can you imagine? I think some of you can, as you are identifying with the kind of loss the Exiles experienced.

“What about me, Lord? What about MY welfare?"

Interestingly, God says, “In the city’s welfare you will have welfare.” Pray for the shalom of this city and her people – the place where you are exiled – and as they experience my peace, healing, and wholeness, then YOU will experience my peace, healing, and wholeness.

“But Lord, I had those things back in Jerusalem. I just want to get home.” In this case, the Lord had them in Babylon for a reason, and peace was not to be found in returning to the place from which they had come. Peace and healing and wholeness and blessing was to be found in their praying and God’s providing shalom for the city of Babylon.

The New Testament talks about some teaching as milk and some as meat. Well this, I believe, is a thick bit of steak. The shalom that I long for – that I NEED, Lord –

...is not found in the place I came from,

...nor where I think I might go,
...but in obediently following the Lord to the place He leads.

Adapted from the full sermon here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

sinners, sinners everywhere

I've been disappointed by some people.  They didn't do what I wanted them to do; they didn't do what I thought God wanted them to do.  They've heard the scriptures; they gather regularly in worship; they say they want to do the Lord's will.  And bottom-line, I think they missed the mark.

I know that sounds judgmental.  I don't mean it that way.  It's more sadness mixed with frustration.

What am I supposed to do?  Should I stop associating with them?  Should I only get together with the ones who seem to "get it?"  Should I pray for them to go away?  Or more actively try to get them to go away?  Should I confront them more forcefully?  Should I try to convince them more winsomely?  Should I be patient and continue to love them with consistency and grace?

What do you think?

Oh, did I mention that I love these people and I've been called to be their pastor?  They are family to me.

Oh, and there are a lot of days I don't do what I think I should do or what I think God wants me to do... many days I miss the mark.  So, yes, I do have patience with them, because I'm right there with them.

Oh sorry, did you think I was talking about church politics and voting and some presbytery out there somewhere?  Maybe they were on my mind, too, but then they reminded me of my own congregation... the ones I love... the ones God has called me to pastor.

I guess I don't see the distinction.  I am where God has called me to be.

Monday, May 02, 2011

who is my neighbor?

My congregation has been stretching and growing as a “searchlight church” over the past 5-6 years. One of the key studies for us has been Jesus’ teachings on neighbors. More recently, I’ve been asking the key question, “What is God doing and how can we be a part?” This question assumes, of course, that God is already at work in the world around us and outside the walls of the church.

A year or more ago I met a literal neighbor, Wendy Smoliak. Wendy lives down the street from the church. My recollection is that she called asking about older adult ministries… but that conversation soon turned to the neighborhood. I found that she had a huge heart for the neighborhood – HER neighborhood and OUR neighborhood. She was involved in the homeowner’s association; she took food to sick people; she was aware of the needs around her. The Lord was already working in the Swan’s Run neighborhood with this sister in the faith. And when I shared with her about our deepening vision as a church, we hit it off immediately.

Wendy has connected us to needs in the neighborhood and has helped connect the neighborhood to us. Very recently, with her great encouragement and leadership, we invited our Swan’s Run neighbors to have a potluck at the church. We also invited several of the police officers who patrol our neighborhood. And a few church members came. I asked Wendy to describe a bit more and here’s what she wrote:

Potlucks: A Call to Community
Wendy Smoliak

I am the co-chair of our Neighborhood Watch Committee. The purpose of Neighborhood Watch is ‘neighbors watching out for neighbors’. The motto of Neighborhood Watch is that if you know who is suppose to be there then, you know who is suppose to not be there.

So for several years, I have gone about the business of getting to know my neighbors in several ways. Neighborhood Watch has sponsored an ice cream social in 90 degree weather; a pool party with hotdogs and chili; a Christmas event where decorations were hung; a garbage day where 4 tons of refuse was removed; a National Night Out event where neighbors walked the streets with a flashlight; a beautification day where neighbors planted perennials; and many neighborhood yard sales.

This last week, Neighborhood Watch did something different. We decided to sponsor a Potluck. We invited our neighbors and we invited the local police. Further, we had this event in our local church – just ½ block from our neighborhood. The church to which I belong.

At this potluck affair, Christ brought people out of their homes to meet their neighbors, Christ brought the local police, and lastly, Christ brought people to His church. Community at its finest.

In the end, only Christ knows what seeds were planted at this event. What seeds are you planting in your neighborhood?

He told then another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” ~Matthew 13:31-3

This is what I mean by “searchlight church” (with a little lighthouse thrown in there, too!). We have been blessed by Wendy and the new ways in which we are learning to be good neighbors.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

searchlight (missional) presbytery: focusing in

In 2006, after the officer/staff retreat at Good Shepherd that marked the beginning of our lighthouse-searchlight vision, our leadership evaluated all of our ministry and missions through the very tight focus question.

For Good Shepherd, the focused question was: “How can EVERY ministry and mission of Good Shepherd “shine” as a LIGHTHOUSE and SEARCHLIGHT for Jesus Christ?” We then evaluated every program and ministry in light of that question, from missionary support to the church website to the use of buildings and rooms.  We even created a rating system such that every activity and resource got a lighthouse rating and a searchlight rating of 0-3, for a total of up to six points.

The Council of the Presbytery of Charlotte is using a similar process right now to evaluate the effectiveness of the presbytery through a similar focal question. We are asking the council and committees of the presbytery to do a similar ministry audit of every ministry, mission, and resource around the focusing question:

How does each ministry, program, and resource strengthen the health, vitality and effectiveness of local Presbyterian congregations?

  • How does the presbytery quarterly publication...
  • How does the camp and conference ministry...
  • How does the Presbytery resource center...
  • How does our choice of office space....
  • Of staffing...
  • Of mission and justice programs...
  • And so on...
We are trying to take a fresh look at the work of our presbytery, through a missional lens defined by the ministries of local congregations.  It is our hope that this will help us reprioritize, refocus, come together, and increase a sense of community calling to shared mission.

The Council has a level of energy and engagement I haven't seen in 8 years here.  I'm encouraged and prayerful that we might be drawn together around this shared mission and focused calling.

July 2011 Update:

Each member of the council and staff has moved forward on the "ministry audit" and has evaluated (0-10, with comments) every ministry and activity of the presbytery according to the following three criteria.  I'm compiling the results now to bring back to the council the first week of August.
  • Missional Effectiveness: how well does this program/resource strengthen a congregation’s local ministry?
  • Congregational Connectivity: how well does this program push resources down/out to local congregations?
  • Disciple-making: how well does this program make disciples (missional followers) for Jesus Christ?

See also the previous post on "missional presbytery"

Thursday, March 31, 2011

searchlight (missional) presbytery?

Original Post: November 11, 2010

Recently I have been pondering the role and function of the presbytery related to the local congregation.  Let me start by saying that I highly value the presbytery, which is part of the polity and structure of the Presbyterian church.  I think the presbytery can provide oversight, accountability, connectionalism, and community; and these are things I value.

Recently I was also struck by a potential analogy to the "searchlight church" theme of this blog.  Analogies are not perfect, particularly because they are not comprehensive in describing things, but I think this comparison might point us in a helpful direction.

the presbytery is to the local congregation
the local congregation is to its neighborhood

Ponder that.  I almost wrote "should be" but then realized the presbytery struggles at precisely the same point the local congregation struggles: gathering resources for internal ministry rather than focusing resources on external mission.

"Now wait, wait!" you say.  Presbyteries are all about mission.  They do collectively what individual congregations cannot.  Yes, when they are working well, that is sometimes true.  But often the message and experience of presbytery is:
  • send us your money to support our programs and missions
  • send us your people to fill our committees
  • give us your days to conduct the business of presbytery
There's nothing specifically wrong with any of those things, but I see such a close analogue to the local congregation strategies that have served us since the 1950s.
  • come and visit us!
  • we've built it so that they will come
  • give to the church
  • bring your friends and neighbors
What if the presbytery could harness some of the vision of a missional church? ... or in my choice of terms, become a "searchlight presbytery?"

So, just as we've tried to re-frame local church in terms of going where our neighbors are and asking what God is doing and how we can be a part, what if the presbytery started re-framing its role in terms of going where the congregations were and asking what God was doing there and how presbytery could equip, facilitate, encourage, empower, and be a part.

What would it look like (and what would my answer be?!) if my presbytery called and asked me what God was doing in and through my local congregation and how presbytery could encourage, equip, facilitate, or otherwise be a part of what is happening?

I wonder.

Update: March/April 2011

It turns out that I didn't have to wonder... I was asked to serve as the vice-chair of council for 2011 and the chair (Kate Murphy) and I brought these very questions to our council.  Follow the link to see what is happening: http://robertaustell.blogspot.com/2011/04/searchlight-missional-presbytery.html


Related Posts (03/31/11)

Related post on missional re-think in the Presbytery of Cincinnatti: http://gamc.pcusa.org/yearbook/march-28/

The Middle Governing Bodies Commission is seeking input on the role of GA, synods, and presbyteries around questions related to the topic of this post.  Respond to one of their surveys here:

#mgbcomm survey...
for WHOLE CHURCH: http://www.pcusa.org/MGBChurchWideSurvey
for SESSIONS: http://www.pcusa.org/MGBSessionSurvey
for LEADERS: http://www.pcusa.org/MGBLeaderSurvey

Friday, March 25, 2011

can the ten plagues of exodus teach me anything?

A Top-Ten List from the Plagues
Here is a summary list of themes and take-aways from our study of the miraculous signs in Exodus 7-11.  They don't match up one-to-one with the ten plagues; rather, they are broad themes found in each of the signs.

#10 DRAMA: Miraculous Signs
#9 HOLINESS: A Holy People (whether they know it or not)
#8 AUTHORITY: The Absolute Authority of Yahweh
#7 IDOLATRY: Pharaoh’s control issues and the showdown
#6 MERCY: Even in the Midst of Judgment
#5 FAITHFULNESS: God Keeping Covenant and Achieving His Purpose
#4 NAMES: Especially God’s Name
#3 WITNESS: among the Nations
#2 WEAKNESS: God Uses the Weak to Accomplish His Purpose
#1 GOSPEL: a Demonstration of the Gospel

From the 03/20/11 sermon here - see link for full manuscript, audio, music, bulletin cover by one of our church children, and a skit used in conjunction with the sermon. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

michael frost on 'greatness'

We were challenged and stretched by studying and interacting with a Michael Frost video a few years ago (part 1, part 2, part 3).  I just ran across this short clip by Frost which nails what we are trying to do and be in the Old Providence/Swan's Run neighborhoods of South Charlotte.

Michael Frost on "Who is the greatest?" from Parish Collective on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

a different kind of ash wednesday service

... for us, at least.

WE thought we'd try something different this year.  I'm not talking about content-wise; we still focused on sin, our own mortality, and repentance.  We still had the imposition of ashes.  But here was the particular dynamic we had in view...

One of the exciting fruit of our searchlight vision (in general) and "Wednesday Night Experiment" (specifically) is a blessed pandemonium on Wednesday nights.  Our pattern has been to draw all of the Wednesday night crowd in for the Ash Wednesday service.  But now, rather than the group of 40-over-40 from several years ago (see "Blessed Pandemonium"), we had 100 or so folks, with 30 under 12, various reading/ADD/learning style challenges at the child to adult level, and an exciting number of "I've never been to church before" folks in attendance.

And we were going to work through a liturgy about sin, death, and repentance using the wide-ranging and weighty words of Psalm 44.

We recognized that so much of our worship is word-oriented (and Word oriented!), musical, and visual - and all delightfully so.  But maybe something different tonight?  Psalm 44 has a number of references to "hands" - and the series from Lent I (this Sunday) through Easter is called "I Will Stretch Out My Hand" in reference to God's statement in Exodus 7:2 to that effect.  So, we decided to have a more kinesthetic learning-style service (yes, I remembered that word from developmental psyche back in college!!).

We used Psalm 44 as the structure for the whole service, and we used our hands (literally!) to understand and work through each part of it.  Here are the basics, and I will link to the order of worship below.  When I realized we'd be using our hands throughout, we did away with the bulletin and projected all the scripture and music on the screen.

Psalm 44:1-8   We opened with a Call to Worship and time of thanks and praise these verses, which celebrates God's faithfulness in times past.  We saw a visual of a strong hand.

We sang "The Potter's Hand" which talks about God's molding, guiding hands (like a potter).  :)

Psalm 44:9-14    We talked about anger and blaming God for our circumstances and read these verses together while tightly clenching our hands into fists and holding that through these "God, look what you have done to us" verses.  I then spoke briefly about them, connecting them back to the anguish and frustration in Exodus 6 (last Sunday's text), then we let go with our hands.... (after 2-3 min of tight clenching, that's an interesting feeling!)

Psalm 44:17-19    The Psalm moves into more of a pleading tone, saying, "but we have not forgotten you (Lord)."  We clasped our hands into a child-like prayer gesture and prayed these verses together.  I then spoke briefly, asking whether Israel (and we) might have forgotten God, despite these words.

Psalm 44:20-22   We continued with "extended hands" (as if grasping for something), focusing on the words about "extending our hands to a strange god" - and I spoke briefly on sin and idolatries we sometimes reach for instead of God. 

And with that move from anger to pleading to self-examination (which reminds me of the stages of grief!) led us into a prayer of confession.  I had been looking for a time in which we could join hands.  This didn't seem the obvious time, but we did and I reminded the congregation that though sin isolates, we are never alone - indeed, scripture reminds us that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" - and so we prayed a prayer of confession together - eyes open reading screen - and holding hands.  Very interesting...

Psalm 44:23-24    These verses literally ask some questions of God - "Why do you sleep?  Why do you hide your face?" - so we raised one hand like a child would at school if asking a question, and we read these verses together.  I spoke briefly about how multiple times in Exodus 3-6 (the text we have been using in worship the past month) God's word to the people was, "I see you; I hear you; I remember you and the covenant; I will deliver you." 

Psalm 44:25    I noted that this verse is the next to last in the Psalm and is where we end up without God intervening to save.  "Our soul has sunk down into the dust; our body cleaves to the earth."  And at that point we had the imposition of ashes.

Psalm 44:26    Then the Psalm ends with a plea for help and hope: "Rise up, be our help, and redeem us..."  We read that, sang another song ("Give Us Clean Hands") - yes, another hand song.  :)

The benediction was from Romans 8:35-39, which quotes Psalm 44, which we had just read: "For your sake we are being put to death... sheep to the slaughter," but which surrounds that with one of the most hope-filled declarations of the Gospel in scripture: "Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ..."  I asked the congregation to hold out their hands in a receiving gesture as I spoke these words of blessing over them.
Did it "work?"  Well, we focused on God's Word and the Spirit was present; this wasn't about a gimmick.  But, I do think it was an effective way to enter into that Word.  The chaperones for the kids we tutor and for the group home guys caught up with me after taking their folks home and said the conversation on the way home was significant.  I asked my own 8, 10, and 12 year old what they thought - and they are usually pretty honest if they are bored - and they all really seemed to like and understand it.  The gestures (clenched fist, etc...) seemed to help explain/experience some verses that probably would have been hard to process in a normal sermon-type delivery.

So, that's what happened.  We won't be shaking fists every Sunday, but this definitely was something new and something to return to in different ways.

Here are the notes I was working from and what was projected on the screen (with lots of "handy" artwork by Kathy Larson).  I can even send the PowerPoint slides if anyone is interested (just e-mail me at robert@gspc.net).

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

don't waste your time

This is a re-post of an older article from 2007... I thought it worth elevating to draw us back to the primacy of worship.  ~rma

In Mark 14, when the woman anointed Jesus with what translates into maybe $30,000 worth of perfume in today's dollars, the disciples laid into her about what a waste that was. She could have given the money to the poor! $30,000... talk about a waste! And Jesus told them to shut up and leave her be, for she had done a "beautiful thing" (NIV). It was an act of worship.

A missional church is predicated on
being a worshiping church.

Why do I assert that so diligently, seemingly against the current "missional" movement?

Worship? What about the poor? What about those who haven't heard the Good News? What about our mission and God's mission to the world? Aren't all those things really important?

Yes, they are. That's why Jesus put them together. What is the greatest commandment?
The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. (cf. Mark 12:30-31)
There it is - Jesus didn't omit it - we are to love our neighbor. We are to feed the poor. We are to build houses for Habitat and support missionaries to those who haven't heard. We are to love our enemies and join in God's mission the world. But here's the point: those things don't matter if we don't love God with all we are and all we have.

You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who is more gung-ho about God's mission, whether that be ministries of mercy or sharing the Good News. But if I haven't made this clear, then hear it clearly now, as taught in this passage:

All the love in the world is wasted without first
loving the God who is the author and creator
of that world and of love itself.

Want to talk about waste? There's a statement to chew on.

What Jesus taught is that loving God with all we have and all we are cannot but result in love of neighbor. Jesus taught that a lot! But the opposite is not true. Love of neighbor does not automatically result in loving or even knowing God.

And this woman, probably Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha (cf. John 12), got it right.

That's why wherever the Gospel (the Good News) is proclaimed, what she did will be remembered. It is because what she did was worship God with all she was and all she had, with heart, soul, mind, and strength. And where the Gospel goes and people respond, they too will come to know what it means to worship and serve the Lord.

The prophet Isaiah said, "Seek the Lord while He may be found." (55:6) This blessed woman demonstrated both the wisdom and the beauty of doing just that.

Full Sermon HERE

Monday, February 28, 2011

mission setbacks - lessons from the king of egypt

From last Sunday's sermon on Exodus 5:

What may be more common in our experience is what I would describe as “spiritual opposition.” Scripture points to one called the Accuser or Adversary, or Satan, as being like a lion prowling and waiting to devour. Satan is called the prince of the power of this world and actively works against God’s purposes. In many ways, Pharaoh reminds me of Satan, viewing himself as the king of this realm and actively opposed to God’s intrusion into it. Just as Satan is known to accuse believers falsely, Pharaoh accuses the Israelites of being lazy rather than faithful in wanting the time away to worship the Lord.

In this story, I think Pharaoh’s opposition most closely aligns with the spiritual opposition of Satan, but I want to mention one other spiritual obstacle that we also commonly face. That is ourselves. When we view ourselves as little kings and queens of our own realm, and come to see God’s Word or Will as inconvenient or contrary to our own plans, we set ourselves up to be Pharaoh, standing against God’s purpose in our life. It is entirely possible to be our own Pharaoh and our own worst enemy.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

some reflections on the mgb commission

If you are wondering, MGB what?  The Middle Governing Bodies Commission is a group established by the 2010 General Assembly to study, evaluate, recommend, and even enact changes to the structure and purpose of our Presbyterian structure of presbyteries, synods, etc...   This is a subject in which I am quite interested.  I wrote about one such re-visioning of the presbytery in a post entitled "Searchlight (Missional) Presbytery?"

In "From the MGB Comm Observation Deck #3" - commission chair, Tod Bolsinger, writes the following:

Second, do we agree that the congregation IS the basic form of mission, and thereby the basic form of church? Do we agree that the congregation in its particular contexts is the foundational and primary place where the MISSION of GOD engages the need of the world? The congregation (and not the denomination nor the individual) is the foundational, first line engagement of God to the world. 
I commented on Tod's blog post and wrote the following... would be interested in feedback or pushback from any readers of my blog.
So I'm tracking with what you have in this post, but find myself wanting a little more nuance on congregations being the basic unit of mission, without better describing the role of the individual. I agree that it is more inaccurate to say that either individual or higher governing body is the basic unit, but would like to see more integration of how the individual is called in and with the community.

I'll also give this more thought (as it's new to me) - but am thinking practically in terms of my own congregation. I think what I'm looking for is a recognition that each member is called to ministry and mission in the world, not disconnected from our local congregation, but as expressions of it. Even as a small congregation, we don't move in the world in a 200-person clump, but in ones and twos (and sometimes more)... perhaps the Pauline metaphor of the body would be helpful. Sometimes there is work that only a hand can do (don't want to try gardening with one's feet)... but the hand doesn't (or should not try to) operate in discontinuity from the body.

All that is to say that I'd look for a more precise way of saying "the basic unit of mission is the congregation"...

Maybe (and just thinking out loud here):

The basic unit of mission is the individual Christian, participating in and with the congregation as a local expression of the Church, related and accountable to other congregations through the service of the higher councils of the church.
I'd welcome feedback (or pushback)...
I would note that Tod offered some more nuance in the post; I'm just trying to enter into the conversation and push a little towards more clarification over the relationship and calling of the individual and the congregation.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

blessed pandemonium

Every Wednesday evening at 6:15, we gather in a circle for prayer before the potluck dinner... 

I remember 4-5 years back: a group of 20 faithful gathered - that core group of (mostly) adults that dutifully (though also enthusiastically) shows up for just about anything.  We'd pray, eat, enjoy the fellowship, and have our Bible study.  It never got too big, but never too small.  Kind of like Goldilocks and the three bears - it was "just right."
I was running late last night - they had to send someone back to get me.  The kids were ready to eat and wanted Pastor Robert to pray.  It had not been a stressful day, but it had been a long day, and I had crammed a lot in that last hour or two before dinner.  I closed my office door behind me and came out into... pandemonium.

There must have been 40 kids - and I'm pretty sure I saw one of them pass a football through the fanciest part of the vestibule... the group home guys were running late... the kids we tutor before dinner were staying for the evening and their parents had come... the neighbors across the street had sent their kids, but then I was so thrilled when they came too... our missionary friends were home between trips to Florida, Budapest, and Greece... she was talking to me about an album she wants to record before they get back to the field... I saw at least five different people I had cried with the previous week and thought, "I know they are really struggling; how glad I am that they are willing to live out their struggles with the church family."

Noise, newness, babies, children, youth, limping, laughing, crying.... blessed pandemonium.

God is good!

And that was all before we left the building....   :)

I AM the light of the world;
You are the light of the world... 
So let your light shine that all people might see me.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

searchlight 2.0

In February of 2010 I wrote the following in the church newsletter, trying to describe the outward turn in focus and vision that is starting to shape our life together at Good Shepherd:

The designation ”2.0” has been used to describe the move from linear progression to multiplied connection and inter-connection. If those words don’t make sense, think of the move from regular mail or e-mail to Facebook (where in a matter of hours new users can become “connected” with 30, 50, or 200 people from various times and places in their life). Likewise, our calling to worship and outreach is manifesting less in the traditional and “1.0” pastor --> member --> visitor model to what I’m seeing as “Searchlight 2.0” – Old Providence girl scouts are using our building and their parents who hear us playing music at the corner coffee shop tell their neighbors about this hospitable and neighborly church and someone two or three times removed from our direct “evangelism” is now visiting to see what God is doing in this place. Do you start to get a sense of what’s going on? Rather than instituting a program, we are becoming a “fragrance” pleasing to God in Old Providence, Swan’s Run, Brighton, O.P. Elementary, and the corner shops.
Now a year later, and with some hiccups, ups, and downs, I see how this outward focus is growing, stretching, and weaving into the life of our neighbors.  The connections are multiplying. People are joining in singing and playing music at Caribou on Wednesday nights, where management could not be more supportive. In the past week, some nine non-GSPC folks have connected online (on meetup.com) to come in person to the Wednesday night book club meeting at another coffeeshop. The group home guys are starting back because two new people stepped up to meet with them. A major company has matched funds given through a non-member because of our White Gift appeal and given that to the Timothy Fund. The Wednesday night service group is suddenly bursting at the seams with ideas and opportunities, from tutoring to food for the homeless shelter to visitation to more.

God is doing something… a God-sized thing. If you are not yet plugged in, I urge you to do so. It’s easy, painless, and I would dare to say enjoyable! Come talk to me about how you might answer the key question:  
What is God doing and how can I be a part?

Monday, January 03, 2011

the ten commandments - more than a list of rules

From a sermon on the Ten Commandments and from a forthcoming devotional study book on sin and redemption (e-mail or comment for more info).

I realize that most often we look at the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) as a list and consider each one as a self-contained unit. But the Commandments function as a whole, as a legal and moral whole. Formally, they are presented as a covenant document. There are several covenants in the Bible, but at heart each is God graciously reaching out toward humanity and offering to intervene and help in the human condition. If you look at the Ten Commandments as a whole, you can see the way they describe an order to life – a pattern of living in obedience to and relationship with God. And it is that ordered life, which would also be understood in Scripture as a blessed life that is in view for all who would trust God.

A God-ordered Life

I-III. The first three commandments describe a God-ordered life with God alone as priority, vision, and worthy of worship, love, and service. They speak of God alone in the highest place, the place of worship, love, service, and obedience. Nothing is to take God’s place or even compete. It is the supreme and sole priority of God in our lives that orders all the rest of life. So these commandments speak to idolatry and worship, to obedience and disobedience, to service and to selfishness.

IV. The fourth commandment (Sabbath) describes a God-ordered life in terms of work, rest, and time. Often you will hear the commandments sub-divided into the first four about God and the last six about human relationship. But the Sabbath commandment bridges between. Most importantly, it speaks not just of one day in seven, but of all seven days. It marks out our time as all belonging to God, subject to the commandments already given. And part of ordering our life under God is to not to over- or under-prioritize work, rest, or the balance between the two. Issues of work, recreation, family time, personal time, exercise, health, rest, and worship are all addressed in this commandment. It is a prime example of how the Commandments bring order and structure to our view of time and life.

V. The fifth commandment (parents) describes a God-ordered life in terms of home and family. So submitting our lives to God’s leadership and worship not only affect our use of time, but also our relationships. The commandment to honor parents is more than respecting mom and dad. It requires something of children, but also of parents. It gets at all of family life, from respect to obedience to communication to how parents and children should relate throughout life.

VI-IX. The sixth through ninth commandments describe a God-ordered life in terms of our neighbors, not taking from them selfishly, but loving them selflessly. Murder, adultery, stealing, and lying all take from those around us. Their inherent selfishness breaks the first commandments and the community implications breech what Jesus will later call “love of neighbor.” In these commandments, we see that God’s design for humanity is not just individual and internal, but societal and missional. Indeed, you do see in the Ten Commandments what will be lifted up clearly in the New Testament, that the greatest commandments are love of God and love of neighbor.

X. The tenth commandment uniquely points towards a New Testament perspective, where we must even guard our interior thoughts, guarding against temptation and the sinful attitudes that lead to sinful actions. This aspect of the Ten Commandments is often overlooked; we think of the Ten as major crimes or sins of commission. But here we see that continued longing for what we don’t have is itself sin. Is this not Adam and Eve’s original sin in the Garden?

What God holds up to us in these Commandments is a picture of life ordered according to God’s wisdom, justice, and love. The Law may be compared to a parent’s rules for children. You may play in the yard; but not in the street. It is not only the rule, it offers safety, security, and in the extreme, even life over injury or death. So also, the Ten Commandments are not rules to hamper us, but rules to set us free. Keeping or breaking the Ten Commandments isn’t about salvation. Breaking them doesn’t take you out of consideration; keeping them doesn’t purchase you a ticket to Heaven. Rather, they form a description of what a God-ordered and blessed life looks like. To the extent that we experience that, we begin to get a sense of how good God’s Word and will are for us. To the extent that we fall short and live in disarray, we realize just what was lost in the Garden.

These are not rules by which we should measure and ask, “Am I good enough?” The answer to that question is that we are ALL dead in sin – dead in sin! Rather, the Ten Commandments are an example of God COMING AFTER US, to breathe life and hope into us – to offer us boundaries and a home and a place of safety in a fallen world where we are already at play in the street. God is already initiating His rescue plan. So our attentiveness to the Commandments at once shows us how lost we are and how God is already coming to find us through His Word.

God’s Law cannot save from death, but for those living in the ashes between Eden and the End, the Commandments offer a temporary shelter in the present world, with all the hope of a God who is coming to save us from death itself.

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