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What are we going to do about Christmas?

For the first time, I feel like I’m entering into the debate in a serious way – my own life and family rhythms are on the line. What am I going to do about it? Up to this point, I’ve gone into default mode – I do what my family has always done. Wanting to be more responsible and adult, I’m trying to reflect intentionally on it this year.

The debate has gone something like: should Christmas be observed as a religious holiday or as a cultural holiday?

In other words, is Christmas about Jesus, or is it about a time of celebration and gift-giving with friends and family?

Practically, people respond to the question by observing the Christmas season in a handful of ways:

  1. Observe it as a religious holiday but not as a cultural holiday. Jesus should be stripped away from the commercialization and materialism of the holiday season. Jesus is the (only) reason for the season. E.g., the message of the little movie Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Also anyone who uses the language of “taking back Christmas for Jesus.”
  2. Observe it as a cultural holiday but not as a religious holiday. I grew up with this perspective in Churches of Christ. The line of thinking: a) Jesus wasn’t born on December 25 (which is true); b) Christians don’t worship the baby Jesus; c) Christians remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus every week in their gatherings; d) So Christians don’t celebrate Christmas the way the rest of the “world” (used often very negatively) does. We did, however, celebrate Santa and presents etc. with the rest of the “world”. I suspect most atheists prefer to celebrate Christmas this way, too. Irony intended.
  3. Observe it as a religious/cultural holiday. This approach rolls it all up into one big holiday ball: we sing Silent Night and Jingle Bells right alongside each other; we talk about both Santa and Jesus; we buy gifts for family and we go to Christmas Eve service to celebrate the incarnation; we even try to talk about how the cultural values around Christmas (e.g., gift-giving) emerge from the story of Jesus. Yet we certainly disapprove (though sometimes succumb to) the extremes of materialism and over-consumption that occur in the broader culture during this holiday. I suspect most Christians fall in this camp.
  4. Observe it as separate religious and cultural holidays. This perspective is new to me. In fact, I just read one writer’s proposal about this approach in an article today in USA Today. She proposes that we don’t try to meld the two together or fight about how we should celebrate either the religious or cultural expression. What if it wasn’t either/or but both/and? What if we just distinguished between the two and practiced them as separate holidays that happen to overlap (and fall on the same day)?
  5. Observe it neither as a cultural or religious holiday. I have friends who eschew the whole season of Christmas as a combination of #1 and #2. The cultural practices are unacceptable expressions of materialism and commercialism. The religious practices are unacceptable because Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas. So they don’t practice either.

Personally, I’m leaning toward #4. For these reasons:

  • As a missionary, I cannot hide from cultural practices but must rather engage them as a way of helping people see God in the midst of them. In my world, there is no secular and sacred divide. All is God’s.
  • As a believer, I cannot say that the cultural expression of Christmas is altogether bad – giving gifts, helping those in need, and spending quality time with friends and family are all quite good things. I can affirm these things without affirming materialism, greed and selfishness.
  • As a believer, I also cannot deny the historic Christian faith and the Christian calendar that’s been around for 1600 years. I’m ready to get past the fact that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25 and that Christmas first emerged in conjunction with a pagan holiday (so did Easter, by the way) and use the Christian calendar (re:Advent and Christmas) as an opportunity to live into the story of Jesus with my family and church. I find tremendous solidarity with the people of God in doing so.
  • I’m concerned about what will happen if my family celebrates Christmas as a religious/cultural holiday. Will my kids ask me questions like: “So are Santa and Jesus cousins?” Or, “So is Jesus Santa’s Helper or is Santa Jesus’ helper?” How do you pull all that off without getting confused yourself?

What do you think? If you’re willing to engage the debate yet another time – share with us how you’re choosing to live out the Christmas season and why. And make sure to be nice about it (as opposed to naughty).

Happy Advent, everyone.

For those of you who didn’t grow up with the Christian calendar – I didn’t either – Advent is the four-week season starting the Sunday after Thanksgiving and culminating on Christmas day. It’s a season of anticipation and waiting for the arrival, or advent, of King Jesus into the world. It is preparation for the incarnation that is celebrated on Christmas.

As a way of teaching our kids about the season of Advent – and also to teach them that Christmas is not primarily about getting a Star Wars lightsaber or a princess doll that burps after feeding – we borrowed a great idea from our friend Summer Newman called the Jesse Tree. You should read her great post about their Jesse Tree last Advent if this interests you.

We set up a little tree on our dinner table with four purple candles around it (a symbol of Jesus’ royalty). Beside it sits a our kids’ Bible and a little box. In the box is a white candle (to be lit on Christmas day), four pieces of candy (because chocolate is delicious), a lighter, an ornament for that day, and a little card with a Bible story and prayer for the day. The daily Bible stories walk through the major moves of God’s story in Scripture that anticipate the arrival of the Messiah. You can see a PDF file of the ornaments and daily prayer cards here.

Each day after dinner during Advent, we’ll open the box together, light the candles, eat some chocolate, read a Bible story that anticipates the birth of Jesus, color and hang an ornament on the tree (each day’s ornament corresponds with the Bible story), and pray together.

I think the Jewish Community is really on to something in the way they train their children in the faith with hands-on spiritual practices. It’s fun and enriching – not just for the kids, but for the parents, too.

What does your family do to prepare for the birth of Jesus in the Advent season? Share your family traditions (so we can copy them)!

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.

God’s Story

Charles Kiser —  August 15, 2010 — 1 Comment

Storyline hosted its DNA event this weekend. Friday night is a ‘Storyline 101’ session – where we talk through the values and practices of our community with people who are new to Storyline. Saturday is called ‘Leader DNA’ – where we provide training to developing leaders in house church ministry.

At the beginning of the first session on Friday night, Ryan read the “God’s Story” article from our website, like he always does. And, like always, it charged me up and reminded me who I am and why I do what I do.

I’ll share it with you here in hopes that it will provide similar encouragement.


GOD’S STORY

We believe the story of God in Jesus is the true story of the whole world.

It is the grand storyline of which all of our lives are a part in one way or another. We want to discover our place in this story. We believe the Christian Scriptures are the definitive source of this storyline.

Creation

The world in which we live came into existence by the work of a creator God. This God is a personal God that exists not as an isolated individual but as a loving community of persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This God is good in every way—characterized by love, holiness, faithfulness, compassion, and justice.

Out of loving community, God created the world for the sake of sharing his love with it.

Humanity was the height of God’s creative work. Humans were created in the image of God, to reflect God’s nature as relational, loving and just people. They were to care for the world in a way that reflected the good nature of God.  Click here to read an excerpt from the Scriptures about God’s creation of the world and humanity.

God designed humanity to experience a relationship of trust with God. For the sake of genuine relationship, God gave humanity freedom to choose whether or not to remain in a trusting relationship with God.

But something went terribly wrong.

Brokenness

The first humans were enticed by the powers of evil at work in the world and used their freedom to choose their own path—to be their own gods. As a result of their decision, their relationship with the creator God was broken and so were they.

Terrible evil resulted. The world was cursed. Humans murdered other humans. Evil is a part of the story to this day.  Click here to read an excerpt from the Scriptures on the entrance of brokenness into the world.

But this God did not give up. He did not destroy the world and count it a failed project.

Partnership

God raised up the family of a man named Abram and made a pact with them: God would bless the whole world through them and use them to restore his broken relationship with humanity. To read more about Abram, click here.

This family grows and becomes the people of Israel. God gave them a law to live by that would embody what right relationship with God looked like. Israel lived as an example for the rest of the world to see. To read more about Israel’s law, click here.

Yet Israel fell into the same traps the first humans did: over and over again Israel tried to go its own way and be its own god. The problem of brokenness was too deep for humanity to fix. God would have to do something drastic.

Jesus the Messiah

And so this creator God did the unthinkable: he took on human form in Jesus, a Jewish man from Nazareth. Jesus embodied the fullness of God and modeled for Israel and the rest of the world what it looked like to be in right relationship with God. Click here to read about Jesus’ entry into the world.

Jesus called people away from being their own gods and urged them to turn toward the one true God. He taught about living in love, service and humility rather than with dominating power and selfishness. He declared that another world was possible and was indeed making its way into the present world. It would replace the world humanity had made for itself. Some of Jesus’ most famous teachings can be found here

Jesus’ message was so radical that it upset the powers that be—both the Jewish leaders of Israel and the Roman Empire. As a result, he was executed as a criminal for insurrection by way of crucifixion—suffocating to death while hanging from a wooden cross. Click here to read an account of Jesus’ death.

What seemed like a failed cause became the greatest victory in the story when, three days later, God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus was the real deal. The world he spoke of was the real deal. Not even death could stop it. For an an account of Jesus’ resurrection, click here.

Followers of Jesus came to believe that in the death of Jesus, God provided a way for the world to be healed. God took all of humanity’s brokenness upon himself, through Jesus, on the cross. At the cross, God defeated the powers of evil that enticed humanity. Those who trusted Jesus’ work on their behalf could experience a right relationship with God as a gift from God to undeserving people. For early Christian commentary on the death of Jesus, click here.

After Jesus rose from the dead he returned to the loving community of God, promising to come back and make the world right for good. In the meantime, his followers were commissioned to share the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection with the rest of the world.

The Church

Anyone who believed the story could be a part of the new community of faith—called the church—that was experiencing right relationship with God and each other. The church’s task was to live into the new world that had opened up through Jesus and to invite others into that world. To read a text about the church, click here.

God even gave himself, the Holy Spirit, to live in those who followed Jesus and empower them to live in relationship with God and fulfill their task. Click here for a text about the role of the Holy Spirit.

This is the part of the story we find ourselves in.

The Restoration of the World

One day, Jesus will return and restore the world to rights, just as he promised. Brokenness will be eradicated. The powers of evil will be stamped out for good. Pain and suffering will end. This world will be transformed into a new world where we’ll enjoy the loving relationship with God and each other that was always intended for us. To read more about the restoration of the world, click here.

How do we know this story is true? While it’s not possible to make an airtight case (about anything), we do have good reasons. Dozens of authors in different contexts have recorded this story in the scriptures over the course of many centuries with remarkable coherence—so much so that we believe God was behind it. People have been living by this storyline for thousands of years. And this story makes sense to us—it answers our questions about nature of reality in a way no other story does.

Perhaps the greatest reason this story is true to us is because we believe Jesus really was raised from the dead. That changes everything.

We’re discovering our place in this story. And we invite you to discover yours, too.

What We’re About

Charles Kiser —  August 4, 2008 — 5 Comments

One of the products of the last several months of groundwork and planning has been the initial development of our identity as a church. Mission, vision, values — this is the language of identity.

To a certain extent, much of the groundwork we’ve done is tentative. As the church grows and comes to life more fully it will give body and character to much of the initial dreaming and articulation we’ve done. We’re prepared to adapt (adaptation, in fact, is part of our values set).

When I look at our values I think of time spent in the Mission Alive Strategy Lab nearly two years ago, hours spent in front of a whiteboard with Ryan, Claudia and Julie, searching the Scriptures, conversations with mentors, coaches and other church planters, and even asking our Dallas friends and neighbors what they thought. These values have been a community project.

What you’ll see below is our take on the whole mission/vision/values task. You’ll notice that it’s not much. Part of our bias in developing this kind of thing is that less is more. What is the use in crafting this language if it will sit in a document somewhere on our computers and never be used? We wanted our values to be simple and memorable. Our values sum up what we’re all about.

These values will be our roadmap for future decisions. They’ll be the way we organize our job descriptions as the staff grows. Even our children’s ministry will find its place living out these very same values.

Ultimately, all of our values flow out of the story of God as Father, Son and Spirit that we find in the Christian Scriptures.

You’ll notice that each heading is one of our major values; underneath the headings are sub-values, if you will, or further explanation as to how the major values come to life in our community. Accompanying each value is a short statement that brings the value down to earth. When people ask “What are you guys about?” we’ll say, “We’re people that live for something bigger than ourselves” or “Storyline is a church where you can make real friends.”

Here’s an excerpt from material published on the website (which will be fully up and running next week…hopefully that will be the next blog post!):

Storyline Christian Community lives to discover its place in God’s story through dependence on God, mission, life change and genuine relationships.

Dependence on God — God manages our lives better than we can.

  • Trust: The best way to live is in a trusting relationship with God

Mission — We live for something bigger than ourselves.

  • Reproduction: followers make new followers and churches make new churches
  • Hospitality: extending a warm welcome to strangers
  • Justice: befriending the poor; helping the helpless; caring for the earth
  • Adaptability: the courage to create new things and the willingness to adapt

Life Change — God is fixing us.

  • Character: thinking, acting and feeling like Jesus
  • Expression: reflecting God’s image with our unique gifts and abilities
  • Generosity: extending our resources — time, money, abilities — on behalf of others
  • Simplicity: finding more in less

Genuine Relationships — We make real friends.

  • Authenticity: being real about who I am with others
  • Acceptance: embracing people as they are without judgment
  • Collaboration: working together where everyone has something to contribute

What do you think? What do you like? What feedback would you give? Again, we’re all about adaptation.