Archives For Life Change

The Deep Ground

Charles Kiser —  October 4, 2011 — 3 Comments

I had an insightful conversation recently with Randy Harris about the spiritual life.

Randy, giving credit to the work of Martin Laird in Into the Silent Land, described three postures of discipleship.

“The first operates from up here,” Randy said, moving his hand up by his head. “Here we work out of our brilliance, out of our giftedness, out of our understandings.”

I suspect that most young people (twentysomethings down) take this posture in life and discipleship. Perhaps this suspicion is rooted in my own admission that I’ve lived most of my life out of this posture – and, as you’ll see, it’s nothing to be proud of.

“The second [posture] operates from here,” moving his hand back and forth further down by his chest. “Here we work out of a keen awareness of our own brokenness, our limitations, our struggles and turmoil.”

In the past few years habitual patterns of sin (like anger, pride and lust) moved me to this posture of discipleship. It reminds me of the words of a graduate school professor who said that we twentysomething seminarians needed a few more years of struggling with sin so that we could recognize the depth of humanity’s brokenness (and our own).

“There’s a third way that operates from here, ” Randy said as he moved his hand down by his waist in the chair he was sitting in. “We hardly have language to describe this place. So few find it. It is the deep ground of God.”

“What exactly is this deep ground?” I asked.

“It’s God. It’s God in us. It’s your true self. It’s the Holy Spirit. It’s silence. It’s the place where you stare down your brokenness in silence and tell it to back off. It’s the Center.”

He’s right – I’m not sure even how to describe it. But I think it’s the place where we discover God. Where we encounter God. And after the encounter, where we sit in deep peace.

I’ve only touched the edge of the deep ground’s garment in my life – if that.

The key, Randy says, is to find the deep ground of God in contemplation (silence) and then begin to live out of it in every moment of our daily lives. That journey lasts a lifetime.

Laird adds that “union with God not something we are trying to acquire; God is already the ground of our being.” The real issue in finding the deep ground is to realize that “we live, move and have our being in God” – that we, in fact, are already rooted in the deep ground, though not consciously aware of it.

The extent to which we realize we are rooted is God is the extent to which we live out of the deep ground. Such realization is the work of contemplation and silence.

I’m eager to find this deep ground. It’s exciting to think that the deep ground is as deep as God is big, and that I can spend the rest of my life exploring it.

What about you? In what ways do you identify with these three postures of discipleship? Which posture are you currently living out of?

“Busyness is a Discipleship Problem” – Mike Breen

I read that line in Mike Breen’s tweet-feed before the beginning of this summer and it got my attention.

At the time I was planning on making a summer push – starting some new initiatives, ramping up the ministry – all when most of our community takes a slower pace and vacations.

It was a word to me to rest, take it easy, plan less, and let the Storyline Community rest, too. Rest would prepare us to enter the next season of ministry with vigor and anticipation.

So instead of making ministry plans, I made plans to pour into my family life, have some vacation time, and go on a spiritual retreat to connect to God.

I’ve been part of churches where the summertime was mourned because of low turn-out, lower giving, and people “checking out.” I’ve even seen guilt tactics engaged in worship gatherings encouraging people not to take a “spiritual vacation” in the summer.

But what if we church leaders embraced summertimes and Decembers and released people to rest in the Lord, enjoy their families, and recharge? What if we trusted that the world and our ministry would not crumble if we left God to tend to it for a while?

The same questions apply to our individual weekly rhythms: could God take care of us if we chose not to work at least one day a week? What if we turned off our phones and email for a day every week and connected to God instead?

We need to have times of pruning in our churches, times when most, if not all, activity ceases….It looks to many like nothing is happening. But in this time of abiding, great strength is given to those who do the teaching, singing, and serving throughout the rest of the year. – Mike Breen, Building a Discipling Culture

The truth: I’m a different person on this side of the summer of rest than I was before it. God made some significant changes in my heart and relationships this summer through my rest. More than that, I’m charged up and excited to enter a fruitful season of work.

God made us to work. And to rest.

When Storyline began, we committed ourselves to live out a value for adaptability in mission, knowing that times would come when we need to adapt and flex because of changing circumstances.

I’m so thankful that this value has not remained at the aspirational level. We have indeed practiced it. For instance:

  • We thought we were going to be a “Sunday morning” church. But we adapted and morphed into a network of house churches.
  • We thought we were going to be a church for young adult professionals. But we adapted as we spent time among friends in poverty and welcomed them into our spiritual family alongside young adults.

I feel strongly that these adaptations were in sync with promptings from God’s Spirit.

And now, Storyline finds itself in a season of adaptation again this spring.

The Backstory

Last fall, several things happened that helped us to see that Storyline was “missing” something:

  1. Approximately 30% of our small community transitioned awaynone because of any conflict or bad feeling toward Storyline (praise the Lord). Mainly because of life transitions – new jobs, new cities, moving to be closer to family, etc.
  2. Storyline had plateaued in its growth and development in the nine months preceding the transitions. No new groups had started. About the same number of people were participating as were at the beginning of 2010. (This was a new trend for us – Storyline had doubled or tripled in size each of the preceding two years.)
  3. Participation in our Formation Retreats had dwindled significantly. We cancelled two Marvelous Light retreats in 2010.
  4. The equipping staff – Ryan Porche and I – had taken second jobs to help sustain our ministry financially which resulted in us working less with Storyline.

What did we make of it? What was missing?

After spending much time in prayer and discernment with the leadership team, we sensed that at the heart of our plateau was a struggle to do discipleship at a deeper level. Storyliners, both those with Christian backgrounds and those without, were not being adequately equipped to follow Jesus in a way that led them out in consistent mission.

It’s not hard to grow a church. It’s just really hard to make disciples. — Mick Woodhead

One reason for the discipleship deficit, we perceived, was because we had developed no way to allow participants within Storyline to make a commitment to following Jesus with Storyline. In an attempt to be non-institutional amidst a context where people are very suspicious of the institution, we had shrunk back from asking for people to commit to the life of Storyline in any formal way.

I’ve come to the conclusion that a ‘bar’ cannot be set in following Jesus unless there exists such an underlying covenant to journey together. Discipleship is too hard to hope that people will just get it on their own. We were made to follow Jesus in community – together – and that assumes some kind of commitment to each other.

I’ve had a hard time admitting this, particularly because I have absolutely hated the frequently unjust and inhospitable practice of “church membership” up to this point in my life. And that might not be saying it strongly enough.

Further, the communal nature of discipleship means that programs and events – like our worship gatherings, retreats, and even house church gatherings – cannot accomplish our goals for discipleship in and of themselves. Learning to follow Jesus is something that takes place in the context of day-to-day relationships, where the lifestyle of Jesus is rubbed off from more radical followers (leaders) to others.

Acts 2:42-47 seems to represent a kind of covenant that followers of Jesus in the early church made with each other: they “devoted themselves” to the apostles’ teaching, prayer, giving, sharing, doing life together, and worshiping.

How are we responding? How are we adapting?

My friend and fellow Mission Alive church planter Kester Smith with the Immanuel Community in Austin, Texas, painted a winsome picture of communal discipleship for me in a class at the ACU Summit in September 2010.

He spoke about how the Immanuel Community, out of struggles similar to Storyline’s, had developed a “Way of Life” – a rule or order – that the members of the community had committed to live out together. The Way of Life included things like daily prayer, weekly worship with the community, hospitality toward new people, service and confession. Sounds like Acts 2:42-47. (You can read the whole thing here.)

The Immanuel Community reflects a growing movement in missional communities toward a “communal rule” as the primary way of doing discipleship.

Alan Hirsch, in The Forgotten Ways, describes it as a shift of focus from core beliefs to core practices — a shift from asking what do followers of Jesus believe to how do followers of Jesus live?

Beliefs are certainly important. They just mean very little unless they are put to action. James says that passive belief is dead (James 2:17). “Even the demons believe.”

It is less important to ask a Christian what he believes about the Bible than it is to inquire what he does with it. — Leslie Newbigin

This “rule of life” approach to discipleship has become so helpful that Mission Alive, my resourcing organization, has made the development of a communal rule of life the focus of its week long Strategy Lab for church planters and church leaders.

As a result, the Storyline Leadership Team has prayed through and developed what we’re calling the “Storyline Lifestyle.” It is our first attempt at a communal rule of life in the way of Jesus. It is the way, in our particular locale, we live out the STORY of God:

  • Sharing life with disconnected or downtrodden friends at least weekly
  • Taking ownership of our spiritual formation in formation groups weekly
  • Opening ourselves to God through prayer and Scripture daily
  • Rallying together with our spiritual family at least weekly
  • Yielding our resources generously to the mission at least monthly

To equip our community to begin to live this lifestyle, we’ve created a 6-week bootcamp that’s called Lifestyle DNA. It’s a catechesis of sorts – spiritual training for newcomers to Storyline. We spend one week framing up the gospel and the lifestyle of Jesus as a response of gratitude to the grace God gives us in Jesus; then the remaining five weeks practicing each of the five life rhythms in community.

At the end of Lifestyle DNA, previously Christian participants can choose to partner with Storyline in its mission and are commissioned publicly in our community gatherings. Not-yet-Christians are given the opportunity to make the decision to follow Jesus and demonstrate their commitment to God and the community publicly in baptism.

After completing Lifestyle DNA, two things keep the lifestyle in front of Storyliners: 1) Formation Groups – gender specific groups of 2-4 people who gather for confession and prayer – are being retooled to flow out of the Storyline Lifestyle; 2) House church leaders will also help by sharing life with and coaching those who have decided to partner with Storyline in mission.

Our leaders have just finished a pilot run of Lifestyle DNA together, and already I can see how my life is changing. Parts of my brokenness are healing up; my connection to God has deepened; and I have a much keener sense of God’s presence when I’m on mission.

Pray for our community as we start the first community-wide Lifestyle DNA tomorrow night!

Stay tuned for upcoming conversations about how Storyline is changing. Part two addresses how Storyline will change structurally. Part three addresses how Storyline will become even more of a training ground for future church planters.

I highly recommend The Good and Beautiful Life to anyone interested in living a good life.

This book is the second of three in an Apprentice Series by Jim Smith (the first about God; the last about community). Smith is the protege of Richard Foster, author of the widely-read Celebration of Discipline.

Smith approaches character formation and the pursuit of happiness by examining the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). He compares the (true) narratives there about the good and beautiful life with false cultural narratives many of us believe and act upon.

For instance, one false narrative associated with the pursuit of the good and beautiful life says, “When someone hits us, we hit them back harder.” The narrative of Jesus, however, is “kingdom jujitsu”: subversively serving those who would intend to harm us, loving our enemies, and, in many cases, taking the course of non-violent resistance.

Smith submits that when we examine our personal narratives in light of Jesus’ narratives and engage in spiritual practices in the context of community, we make ourselves available to the power of the Holy Spirit to change us.

I think he’s on to something. I’m looking forward to journeying with my friends in the Storyline Community this fall to experience more of the good and beautiful life.

Click on the picture of the cover if you’re interested to purchase it.

One of Storyline’s most important structures for life change / spiritual formation / following Jesus is a Formation Group. These are gender specific groups of 2-3 people who journey together on a weekly basis for the sake of listening to God and to each other.

Over the last 3-4 years, I’ve been on quite the journey regarding this discipleship structure. When I worked with Christ Journey Church, we experimented with Greg Ogden’s Discipleship Essentials. It bore fruit, as demonstrated by comments on a previous post, but was too head-heavy and hard to reproduce.

When we started Storyline, we began using Neil Cole’s template for Life Transformation Groups. He’s written a book about his approach called Search and Rescue. I’ve very much enjoyed Cole’s approach, especially the inherent reproducibility, high dose of Scripture reading, focus on mission, and patterns for confession of brokenness. My only qualm was that the language of his template was “too evangelical” and foreign to the language we used within the Storyline Community – terms like “Strategic Prayer Focus”, and an overwhelming focus on mission as it pertained to people’s souls, to the neglect of more holistic expressions of mission like working for justice.

It wasn’t until I began experimenting with Church of Two this spring that another point of dissonance with Cole emerged: the lack of a contemplative element. Granted, Cole uses the language of listening to God, particularly through reading long sections of Scripture, but he offered little help in how one actually goes about trying to hear something. Church of Two, however, builds its entire existence around the practice of listening. After finding some life in it ourselves, we decided that Storyline’s Formation Groups would benefit from that same focus on listening.

At this point we were faced with a decision: do we transition to Church of Two or do we build a hybrid version that draws out the best of both Cole’s Life Transformation Groups and Church of Two? At first, I didn’t think such a hybrid was possible, particularly because the two represent fundamentally different paradigms for discipleship. But at the end of the day, we decided for the hybrid because of shortcomings we perceived with Church of Two – the principal shortcoming being that it didn’t give adequate attention to the role of Scripture in the formation of disciples.

Church of Two‘s approach to Scripture amounts to reading as much or as little as one senses God is leading her to read. Personally, I read much less Scripture  in my Church of Two experiences than with any other approach with which I’ve experimented (either contemplatively, via Lectio Divina, or in sheer volume, as with Cole’s approach). Other friends of mine in Church of Two have admitted to similar experiences. I actually read almost no Scripture in Church of Two groups – which is fine, I suppose, because I’ve been reading and studying Scripture for many years.

But what about newcomers to the story? If Scripture is the normative story of God’s work in the world, how else are those who are new to the faith to be formed by the story unless they are spending time listening to it (i.e., by reading Scripture)?

I know that not everyone’s experience with Church of Two regarding Scripture mirrors my own in this regard. I anticipate proponents of Church of Two reiterating: if people are listening to God, God will tell them how much Scripture they need to read. The same logic follows for other big staples in the diet of a Jesus-follower like confession of brokenness and participation in mission.

All this leads to my fundamental hesitation about Church of Two, best expressed in a comment I made on a previous post:

Here’s a hesitation I have about assuming that confession, Bible reading, and participation in mission will flow out of CO2s: what if it doesn’t? The CO2 model seems to have a pretty high view of humanity: that if we listen, we’ll hear from God…and have the courage and faith to respond accordingly. How do we factor in our brokenness into the equation? I’ve sensed in my own participation, for instance, the desire to resist confession because I didn’t want to share it. I was resisting God, really. And because there was no explicit accountability mechanism to hold my feet to the fire, I just let it slide. I guess I’m concerned about the way my own brokenness has the potential to hijack the experience. None of this is to say that human brokenness cannot hijack Neil Cole’s LTGs – it certainly can. But there’s something in me that feels good knowing that people will constantly be attentive to Scripture, confession and mission because they’ve given others the permission to support them in that.

I’m concerned that unless checks and balances are put in place, “This is what I heard from God…” could potentially function as an unquestioned, unchallenged expression of human brokenness – even unwittingly. It seems very difficult to argue with such a statement otherwise. One check/balance is relationships in which I submit to other people who are listening to God/God’s story. The work of discernment (and the tentativeness assumed therein) is another. But, in the end, both of these elements gain their footing by standing on Scripture. Scripture is the normative check/balance, because followers of Jesus really don’t know if they’ve heard from God unless it jives with the story of God in Scripture.

Certainly Scripture can be, and has been, hijacked by human brokenness as well. It’s a risk we will always face as finite humans. But if Scripture is, in fact, the normative story, we have no choice but to face it.

Let me be clear: none of this is to say I’ve sensed that my friends in Church of Two have listening to God in such a way that it was hijacked by their brokenness; it’s only to say that I sense it’s a very real danger of the approach.

For Storyline, the result of this process and conversation (for now) is a beta version of Storyline’s Formation Groups template. Those of you who know Neil Cole’s work will see the influence of his work in the template. Those of you who know Church of Two will see its influence as well.

This template is not offered as the ‘answer’ by any means. It’s very contextual. It’s far from perfect. It’s merely Storyline’s small contribution to this particular structure of discipleship after experimenting with many different approaches.

I’d love for anyone to take a look at it – better yet, give it a test run with a group of friends – then give us some feedback on how we might make the next version better. We’re testing it currently in the Storyline Community, too – so this request is also aimed for you Storyliners out there!

Just click on the image below to download a PDF of the template.