Nothing is truly ordinary

Being Relevant (part 2): An Honest Confession

relevance

I used to mountain bike.  A lot.

(The younger, healthier version of myself that I once was is saying, “No, seriously, Kevin, you used to mountain bike.  A lot.  Kevin, why did you quit?  Why did you exchange your bike pedals for game controllers and TV remotes?”)

While that inner struggle may come up in later posts, for my purpose here just know that I DID, in fact, go mountain biking on a regular basis.

There are few outdoor activities that are more intensive and grueling than mountain biking.  It’s just you, the hills, and the ability to balance and steer while going ludicrous speeds down single track paths where one false move could send you into a tree or down an embankment in a bad way.  It’s not hiking uphill.  It’s pedaling uphill.  Balancing at slow speeds as well as fast speeds.

I also had the right equipment.  I owned bikes from vendors like Trek and Specialized.  I had to sell a kidney to afford them, but every mountain biker will tell you that you have to have good gear because bad gear will fall apart on you when you’re, oh, 7 miles from the car.

While I claim to be no expert, I can say it was something I did not suck at.  I rarely fell.  I never had broken equipment (helmets, bikes, or otherwise).

Best of all I was in shape.  (Again, the younger, healthier version of myself is screaming at me.  Allow me a moment to pause and say, “Shut up, I’m trying to blog here.”)

But one glorious afternoon in 2002, something went horribly wrong.  I was attempting to slowly creep down a steep incline.  My feet are locked into the pedals.  I’m carefully maneuvering just to stay balanced as I’m literally moving only inches every few seconds.

Suddenly, the front wheel hits an unseen dogwood stump.  The stump is only about 3 inches high but it is enough to stop the bike.  Time freezes, or at least it seems to.  In reality, a biker’s worst fears were unfolding before my eyes.  I was falling.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t falling to the right.  I wasn’t falling to the left.  In reality, I wasn’t falling at all.  I was flipping.  I was going over the handlebars in ridiculously slow motion.  It didn’t just seem slow.  It WAS slow. And there was nothing I could do to stop it.  My feet were locked into the pedals, and I was committed to the next few, horrible seconds.

As the rear tire raised over my head, I could at best choose HOW to crash.  As the ground approached, I released the handlebars, stuck my right shoulder in front of me to take the blow, and I hit the ground.  Hard.  After all, the incline was steep.  So for all practical purposes I fell 6-8 feet and – CRACK! – I landed on my right shoulder, with my bike twisted over my back like a victorious wrestler.

At first, I thought I was okay.  I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me, but I could move.  So I slowly crawled out from under my bike.  A friend who had been riding with me helped me free my feet from the pedals.  I stood up…

…and attempted to breathe.

Pain shot through the right side of my ribcage.  It hurt so bad, I couldn’t take a full breath.  While my shoulder had kept me from hitting the ground chest or head first, the impact had shoved my right elbow into my ribcage, fracturing several ribs.

We were 8 miles from the car, but I managed to push the bike out to a road, and “coast,” steering with one hand, back to the car and then drive to a doctor.  The next few weeks were agonizing as the injury healed.

But what bothered me the most was that it had happened at all.  I had been riding for years.  I had taken far more dangerous risks.  Yet I was undone by the smallest obstacle – a tiny dogwood stump that sent me and my full-suspension Specialized head over heels into the dirt and weeks of painful recovery.

I no longer felt like I knew what I was doing.  I felt like an amateur all over again.

***

Recently, I’ve had the same revelation in ministry.  I feel like an amateur.  I could attempt to astound you by touting my years of experience working in various ministries in several churches.  I could tell you stories of the occasional mission trip or once-a-year service project.  Or I could post a picture of my Master’s degree from a great school.  But like the guy twisted under the weight of his own mountain bike suddenly realizing that he wasn’t the expert he thought he was, so I now realize that there is so much more I need to learn about ministry than I already know.

Mainly, it has become increasingly clear to me that THE key part about being a disciple is learning to be a servant to those in need – not merely to put on a great Sunday morning program, but to identify and care for this generation’s widows and orphans – the hurting and abandoned, the lonely and suffering.  I have readjusted my entire career path to do this.  And I have NO IDEA WHAT I AM DOING.

Growing up, I went to a great church.  But I learned that church exists mostly INSIDE the walls of a building.  Sure, there was a concept of ministry beyond the walls.  On exception, we would occasionally serve in a soup kitchen (usually near Christmas time) or serve meals or bring care packages to shut-ins.   However “missions” (as it was called) usually was something relegated to the work others with a specific calling to missions engaged in.  We would give to Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon offerings.  We would hear stories about once a year from the missionaries our church supported.  We’d even see the slide show, or as I called it, “nap time.”

Sure, we would all “serve.”  I sang in a choir.  I served on the youth council.  I helped set up a booth for the annual Fall Festival.  I’d led a group during VBS.

But I never considered myself a missionary.  None of us did.

In college, I was challenged over and over by professors to “make a difference.”  I did, on occasion, engage in special class-sponsored projects – working at a community center one or two times a quarter, for example.  I even got involved in a fantastic campus ministry.  But in both cases, “church” was still considered an institution attended on Sundays or a “para-church” institution attended during the week.  Serving in those institutions was where ministry happened.  Sure, a few professors and students would challenge our way of thinking, but – in the end – church was just easier.

In those years, I never considered myself a missionary either.

Then I attended divinity school.  I earned a Master of Divinity degree.  I learned how to translate Greek and Hebrew.  I learned centuries of church history.  I could sit in a classroom and debate the great theological issues with other students.  I was evaluated in my “preaching” ability.  I was instructed HOW to do youth ministry.  I even interned in the youth ministry field.

Still, “missions” was a separate entity.  Though I had one or two professors who were trying to challenge the status quo as they did in my undergrad years, I still left this great educational institution believing that the most important things about church happened on Sunday mornings when the doors were flung open and the masses flocked to the pews (or theater seats or portable chairs).

***

What I learned through all this is that there was an all-too-clear distinction between CHURCH and MISSIONS.  They were separate concepts.  Missions was assigned to those only with a special calling to go overseas or to move into the projects in New Orleans or the like.  It was not for everyone else.  That’s what CHURCH  was for.  Church was the way the rest of us could serve, IF we served at all.  So church is where we invested all our energy.

We became worship leaders, greeters, ushers, and Sunday school teachers.  We led life groups, served coffee, or swept the floors.  We would assist in parking our guests.  We might even drop canned goods or shoes or coats into a box in the lobby or atrium once in a while when there was an opportunity.

Allow me to underline the point:  Ministry happened within the walls on Sunday morning (or whatever night some in-house activity happened for teens or college students or life group).  The rest of the week was reserved for “prep” time – band rehearsals, video editing, phone calls to invite people to the service, etc.

Of course, there were exceptions (there always are in communities seeking after God).  There were mission trips – activities so mind-blowing that we would come back desperate to help people, but would quickly – and sadly – settle back into our routines.  There were outreach projects that so impressed the community that you could even get your name in the paper for your good deeds.  Yet we’d still settle back into our routines.

“It’s all about Sunday morning” – THIS became our mantra.

To be fair, it makes sense.  Most people do not think of themselves as missionaries anyway.  Most Christians do not know how to engage in any sort of evangelism on a personal basis (beyond leaving a “tract” for someone to find, but that is a topic for another post).  It wasn’t their spiritual “gift.”  So we made it easy on them.  “Okay,” we thought, “you might not be able to talk to people about Jesus personally, but you can invite them to church, right?”  Rather than teach them HOW to do these things, we gave them an “out” and evangelism became the work of the church staff or certain key ministry leaders.

After all, Sunday morning is where ministry happens, right?  The preacher preaches, the band or choir plays, people “serve” by making the events of the day happen, and when the service ends, we hit the “reset” button and start all over again prepping for the next Sunday.  People made decisions to follow Christ.  People found a “place” to belong.  People were challenged to become more like Jesus.  It MUST be all good.  God would not be blessing it so if it was incomplete.  So we invest more time and more energy and more money into the Sunday experience.

***

But something IS missing.  I feel it in my gut.

I felt it after returning from a mission trip to West Virginia.  My friend and I were driving back to the church building after returning a rental van, and both of us simply asked, “Why don’t we do ministry like that every day of the week?”  Sure, the question nagged at my heart, but the urgency faded as we settled back into our Sunday to Sunday routine.

I felt it every time someone walked through the door asking for money.  I felt uncomfortable every time we gave them anything – NOT because people don’t have real needs and NOT because I believe everyone seeking money is dishonest or running some sort of scam.  I felt uncomfortable because they had to come to us; we weren’t going to them.  I mean, why even have any sort of benevolence ministry if you aren’t truly benevolent by going into the neighborhoods or areas where people are hurting?  Why invest thousands in sound equipment and lights and marble floors and fellowship halls and comfortable seats, yet only have beans left over to serve people in their needs?

You see, this is why I feel like an amateur in ministry.  Most of us do Sunday mornings very well, whether contemporary or traditional.  We deem ourselves relevant.  But like the “expert” I was at mountain biking, the church has become extraordinarily irrelevant in knowing how to engage people outside of the Sunday morning box.  And as our unchurched culture is evolving, it is also watching us.  And I cannot help but wonder:  Do they compare our churches to monasteries?  Do they see us as places closed off to the world around them?  Will our Sunday morning model eventually become that small dogwood stump which will cause us to flip over the handle bars and watch all that we have built come crashing down as our culture increasingly loses interest in us?

I must pause to make something clear.

I am baring my heart.  I am sharing my struggle.  I am being confessional.  And though my language is strong, any challenge I am making is not merely directed at churches, but also to myself.  This is MY perspective after being an agent of the Sunday morning model for over 15 years.

It is not my intent to “lessen” the impact that churches have made in their Sunday morning routines.  It is not my intent to say that leaders – pastors, student ministers, etc. – are failing because their ministries are locked into that model.  I do not want to cheapen something where God obviously still moves in the lives of people, and they are better off because of it.  I still have a deep love and respect for the churches and ministries I have been a part of.

But…

What if there is so much more that we ALL could be doing?  How much more of an impact could we be making in bringing the love of Christ to a world that needs it?

***

And here is where it comes back to my point about being an amateur all over again:  I’m not sure that many of us truly know WHAT to do. 

I was talking with a friend a few weeks ago who has also been involved in ministry for years.  He asked the question, “How are we serving people beyond the walls of the church?”  I replied, “I don’t know.  How should we be doing it?”  His reply, “I don’t know, either, but I just know we should be.”

In that moment, I realized that after 8 years of undergrad and graduate education and 15+ years of professional ministry that I could not answer the question, “How do we do this?”  I realized that I was irrelevant, because my life did not and does not reflect the very things that God has placed on my heart.  Yes, I have led worship.  I have served by sweeping the floors and greeting people at the front doors.  But is that truly serving this generation’s widows and orphans?  (Read Isaiah 1 and Isaiah 58).

Rather than make this easy by closing out this post with a bullet-point list of “how to do it better,” I will not pretend to have the answers.  My goal here has been to confess and pose the question:  “How do we break out of the Sunday mold and truly serve people?”

My personal response to this is to become a student all over again.  I am reading how unique people do these things in relevant ways in their communities.  I am opening dialogues with people who do these things in other churches.  I, along with some friends, are even going to jump in with some people who are already engaged in ministry beyond the walls and get our feet wet and learn from what they do.

After years of ministry, I have flipped over the handlebars and I am sitting in the woods barely able to breathe.

But I think this is also the very place I need to be if I want to truly become the kind of Christ-follower I – and my culture – needs me to be.

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