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My Verge Conference Thoughts and Highlights

#Verge14 ended almost a week ago and as I reflect on the few days of binge-tweeting and listening to speakers at a conference they are honestly a blur. It was too much information to digest in the moment, the evening, or in the process time. I guess that’s why they have a digital access pass.

In the midst of the blur, a few things stand out in my mind as highlights.

The Stage was Set Well

The opening session once again set the stage for the Verge conference, which has become known as the place to learn practices for missional communities, but the main thread for the entire conference was about the worship and love for Jesus Christ. The practicals mean nothing without this and opening night created the perfect framework for the conference.

Halim Suh, who is not a conference circuit speaker, but a faithful teaching and preaching pastor at The Austin Stone Community Church, displayed that his gifts are needed for the entire body of Christ. He called out the downside of the missional dialogue, the side where mission becomes greater than Jesus.

“With Jesus mission becomes worship, without Him it becomes slavery.”

His invitation was to go sit at the feet of Jesus before running to activity for Jesus. It was a perfect beginning to what would become an overwhelming amount of speakers and information.

Of the next few days, a few events and speakers stood out.

Anything John Perkins is Always a Highlight

John M. Perkins is an incredible man of God. He’s 83 and has more passion for Jesus and people than just about anyone I know. His work in the civil rights movement, in planting churches that love and transform communities, and being an advocate/creator of many social justice initiatives is inspiring. He is a living legend.

Verge had a session on Incarnational Justice that included Holly Burkhalter from International Justice Mission  on ending sex-trafficking and a video on a Palestinian Christian loving his enemies followed by a panel on Racial Injustice and White Privilege. That alone is a conference in and of itself, but at Verge, it’s one session.

The entire panel was brilliant, included an analogy using Monopoly to highlight White Privilege (at a very white conference), and immense gospel-centered wisdom on facing the lingering effects of racial injustice throughout many centuries with honesty and humility. The panel was 20 minutes, but could have been 3 hours and some will say it didn’t do enough to provide clarity and next steps on the issue. But what conference gives a main session to addressing racial injustice and white privilege at all?

This was just 1 step in the right direction for this conversation that must continue. Duce Branch, The Ambassador, said wisely “This isn’t a conversation just for a conference, but for our dinner tables, in our homes, and in our communities.”

But the highlight was John Perkins saying at the beginning of the panel,

“I come in grateful with 53 years of expectations around this conversation of racial injustice. I am honored to be a part of it.”

Wow. Decades of expectation, of hope for even the conversation, let alone any resolution. That’s powerful, as is his passion that I thought surely was going to bring him off his seat. It was amazing.

Helen Lee, John Onwuchekwa, Hugh Halter, and Kevin Peck

I didn’t count, but I think there were 100 or so messages, spoken words, or videos. It was insane, but again a few rose to the top.

Kevin Peck, Lead Pastor of The Austin Stone, spoke on leadership development and the value of systems as a means for people to flourish. The need in this area is so significant. The church is in a declining situation because of our inability to make disciples and develop an intentional approach to multiplying leaders. If we hope to embody Jesus Christ at all, we must be willing to empower others to be greater than ourselves.

John Onwuchekwa, Teaching Pastor at Blueprint Church, had the topic of prayer, which can cause major guilt or frustration, but his approach was brilliant. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more thoughtful, careful, truthful, and empowering approach to speaking on prayer. It was incredible and one more example that God is doing great things in and through Blueprint Church in Atlanta.

Hugh Halter, “accidental” planter of Adullam Church and leader of the Missio Project, spoke on evangelism. Hugh is the prophet/evangelist that makes the conservative evangelical establishment nervous and uneasy. He finds himself amongst people who are far from God and shares the Good News of Jesus Christ in a way that causes people to be attracted to it. He shared about a tattoo artist who voiced that he felt like he was a part of their family and saw Hugh as a father figure in his life through Hugh’s love and care for him. The point was a call us to live incarnationally, which means to follow Jesus’ example of putting on flesh and living amongst people in a way that displays and attracts people to God. It’s challenging and inspiring to remember that we can never be missionless pastors or Christians.

Helen Lee, author of The Missional Mom, stood out for a few reasons. Helen spoke of the reality that moms and kids have a greater opportunity and connection to mission than anyone else, but we’ve allowed our culture and created churches that communicate that their mission is solely the kids and not God’s mission to make disciples. This does a disservice to God’s intent for motherhood and children, let alone moms and kids.

Is there such a thing as too much good content?

If a conference could commit gluttony on too many good speakers, worship and spoken words, then Verge was in sin. I’ve never been inundated with that much information that was both amazing and hard to process all at the same time. There were multiple times where it felt like we all needed about 10 minutes to sit with Jesus, beg Him to forgive us for our wrongs and invite Him to change us.

I may need to start Verge Processing Support Groups. (VPSGs anyone?!?)

You always leave Verge amazed at what they were able to put on, processing and wondering what to do with the information you just received. I’m thankful for Verge and look forward to #Verge15.

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How to Make Attending the Verge Conference a Waste of Time

There are many conferences, but Verge is the only conference that I think is worth attending. That’s a bold statement, but I’ve yet to find another conference that focuses on loving God, shaping a community by the gospel and moving entire churches on mission together.

Verge is not perfect, it has its holes and lacks certain aspects of church ministry that are important, but few conferences seek to impart great theology AND great practices. Most conferences focus only on one or the other.

Conferences are miniature versions of seminary packed into 3 days. It is amazing, yet incredibly challenging to drink from a firehouse for a few days then try and implement anything you learned. You leave inspired, tired, feeling like you need to change everything, but with no idea how to do it.

Attending Verge or any conference becomes a waste of time when you do the following. If you’re not attending Verge, you can watch the Free Webcast.

Critique and Bash Everything Your Church is Doing Now

At Verge, you will hear from all the “experts” who have 12 minutes to share their best stories and material. The temptation is to focus on all that your church is doing wrong and how the church leadership just doesn’t get it. You move away from loving your church to critiquing your church and you no longer are a blessing because your heart is far from love.

What you miss is the struggle behind the story and 12 minute message. There were failures, setbacks, disappointments, and frustrations with beautiful results.

Be open to learning and dreaming about what your church could become for God’s glory, allow for conviction, but hesitate when you find yourself angry and disappointed. Check your heart, pray for your church, and see how you can humbly love and serve your church.

Copy and Paste the Methods You Hear

You will hear the best practices and think there’s one method for missional communities that you can copy and paste their methods to achieve the same stories!! If you do this, you’re missing the beautiful diversity of the gospel of Jesus Christ, missional communities, and even Verge.

There are 4 gospels and Paul wrote letters to different context with different challenges. Focus on the truths of the gospel guiding the mission and the principles, but don’t be lazy in your thinking.

Set aside time throughout the day at Verge, at the end of the day and a whole day when you get back just to process what you are learning, assess what is transferable, and question whether what you’ve heard applies to you and your church.

Worship the Mission and not the Messiah

It can also be tempting to worship the mission over Jesus the Messiah. We’re hungry to see people explore Jesus and the gospel and to be a part of community that loves and serves their neighbors.

This hunger can unfortunately drive us to be more obsessed with missional living than with love for Jesus. What mission is there if we lose our love for Jesus?

Enjoy Verge, learn from it, but enjoy and worship Jesus most. Mission is a terrible God, but Jesus is a beautiful Lord.

What if I want to Implement this and Don’t Know How?

There are so many mechanisms to learn how to implement what you will learn at Verge. Verge must be the beginning of the learning and exploring process.

There are seminars, workshops, collectives, and coaching that will be the best way for you to implement it. Missional communities sound amazing until you start doing it and find it challenging along with facing objections from your church community.

Only these ongoing learning environments or coaching will allow you to apply the gospel of Jesus Christ along the way while you transition your church or plant through missional communities.

I’m looking forward to Verge and learning from others on missional communities, but mostly looking forward to worshipping our missional Jesus.

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Soccernomics & Church: Why England Loses & Others Win: Benefits from a Broad Network

(Yesterday, I began a series of blog posts on how a book on soccer, Soccernomics, can teach us much about the American church.)

England is the birthplace of soccer, has the most popular soccer league and yet finds itself in recent decades failing on the global stage of soccer. Soccernomics highlights that England is in denial of this reality and finds ways to be disappointed in assuming their team will come out on top in the next World Cup. As the authors analyzed it though, you can bet on England falling short in Rio.

Soccer has become the most popular global sport. We can largely thank the British colonization for this, though it didn’t take off in America, as we hated all things Britain after our independence, but have recently returned to our anglophile ways. Despite originating in England and have the English Premier League, soccer’s dominance has found a home in continental western Europe, from the world’s greatest players, most obsessed fans, and even the style of soccer.

How could this be? How can the birthplace of soccer not remain the most dominant force in soccer? Soccernomics highlights that this is the result of England lacking and at times neglecting a diverse network in proximity, which influences the spread of ideas.

Diverse Network in Proximity: How Ideas Spread

In analyzing England soccer’s decline, Soccernomics highlights the benefits of a broad, diverse network to learn the latest best practices, be inspired to expand on those practices, and then spread your own ideas just as quickly.

“Just as the brain works by building new connections between huge bundles of neurons, with each connection producing a new thought, so we as individuals need to find ourselves in the center of the bundle in order to make more connections.

Networks are key to the latest thinking about economic development. Better networks are one reason some countries are richer than others. As it happens, networks also explain why some countries have done better at soccer than England. The country was too far from the networks of continental western Europe, where the best soccer was played.” Soccernomics p. 24

The spread of ideas from a diverse network in proximity can shape the status of a soccer team, but also an economy and an organization. This happens most effectively in Western Europe.

“Western Europe excels at soccer for the same fundamental reason it had the scientific revolution and was for centuries the world richest region. The region’s secret is what historian Norman Davies calls its ‘user-friendly climate.’ Western Europe is mild and rainy. Because of that, the land is fertile. This allows hundreds of millions of people to inhabit a small space of land. That creates networks…

For centuries now, the interconnected peoples of western Europe have exchanged ideas fast. The ‘scientific revolution’ of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could happen in western Europe because its scientists were near each other, networking, holding a dialogue in their shared language: Latin…the proximity of many thinkers in western Europe created an intellectual ferment. That is why so many of the great scientific discoveries were made there. These discoveries helped make the region rich.

Centuries later, soccer spread the same way.” Soccernomics, p.25-26

The authors go on to discuss how the proximity led to two world wars, but following World War II, the region again began to share ideas quickly, especially for soccer. The world’s best players and best coaches were packed together in Western Europe leading to the best soccer being developed and refined there.

A World Cup has not lacked a western European country in the finals in almost 50 years and the majority of the World Cups have been won from those countries over the same time period. They are great at soccer and their diverse, dense network provides that success.

What does this mean for the American Church?

Often the church has been close-minded to a broad network, limiting who we will listen to by determining our denominational boundaries and refusing to listen to others with a filter. My generation of church-goers (though shrinking supposedly) is honestly tired of the denominational battles and prideful exaltation of secondary issues as primary.

The Christian blogosphere is a microcosm of that affect. A writer posts an article and apparently that’s a signal for forming into battle lines, choosing sides and fighting an online war that looks foolish to the outside world. Why have we decided to read everything without a filter and take an all-or-nothing approach to online bloggers?!? Am I the only one that thinks this is foolish?

Are we unable to read with a filter, extend grace in perceived errors like we have received from God in Christ?

There are a few main issues and hurdles that the American church needs to move beyond and then I can foresee partnership and the exchange of ideas that could move us forward.

Lacking Close-Handed Issues, Differing Theology is Seen as Heresy

The first I ever heard of close-handed and open handed issues was from Mark Driscoll (cue battle lines being formed). The idea being that Christianity has close-handed issues, fundamental issues that deal with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the ability for someone to be saved through His life, death, and resurrection.

The open handed issues are things that differ between denominations, churches, and Christians. These are issues like baptism, though the Presbyterians & Baptists different in their theology, you won’t (for the most part) hear them claim the other is not Christian. There are issues of ecclesiology (how the church is structured) and missiology (what’s the mission of God’s people) that are also secondary, open-handed issues.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that even these that I have called secondary issues, are secondary for everyone. But that’s the problem. Christians have spent much time, energy, and money fighting over these issues while the world around us breaks apart with no effort from the church to help. I’m aligning myself as guilty here as well.

This is easily the biggest hurdle for many denominations and churches. An additional issues that needs to change must be the willingness to share ideas for the greater good. A number of churches and denominations draw unnecessary lines that prevent partnership. In doing so they assume this helps them, but it ultimately is killing the church. Only when we view the gospel moving forward as success rather than our church growing will this change.

The good news is I’ve started to see a change in the American church that gives me hope.

Partnering for Gospel Mission to Help The World

In New York, where I live, I’ve honestly never seen church unity like I do here. Pastors praying together regularly, encouraging transferring church-goers to reconcile or at least discuss their reasons for leaving before doing so, and seeking to learn from one another. I don’t see fighting between churches, I see celebration of the gospel and it gives me hope.

I see similar things at conferences like Verge. There was quite a diversity of theological distinctives at Verge, but a collective desire to make the gospel primary and learn from one another how to do so.

These types of partnerships display the unifying work of the gospel, not the unifying work of discussing unity. Jesus declared that our unity and love for one another will declare to the world that we are His followers. This also creates a willingness to freely share ideas in hopes of benefitting the larger community of faith beyond our church walls.

Not only are we failing at the declaration and demonstration, but we’re hurting the American church by cutting off a lack of new ideas that can fuel our mission to love the world. Our shrinking network that often lacks diversity of race, denominational affiliation, and methodology is matching England’s shrinking network of soccer ideas. We can follow England’s soccer slide to mediocrity if we continue to due so.

I highly recommend Soccernomics, you can buy it here.

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My Verge Breakout Notes

I had the privilege of participating in the For The City Pre-Conference at the Verge Conference. I led a breakout session titled “How to get the people who care about you to care about your mission.” Below is an overview of my notes. I hope they are helpful, but I publish them to invite dialogue, pushback, and additions to my ideas. If you want the full version of the notes you can email me.

The idea was to assist people who are passionate about a certain mission to be able to articulate and spread their passion.

Where are we going?

  1. You need more people than yourself to accomplish the dream
  2. Community accomplishes mission
  3. Shepherd them into the mission

Biblical Basis for a Community-Driven Mission

Main principles:

Jesus Himself gathers a community to His mission and when He sends, He always sends a community on mission, not a lone ranger.

-       Matthew 10, Luke 10:1-12

-       Matthew 28:18-20 – Great Commission

-       Acts 2 – Community, Acts 4 community, Acts 13 – community

-       St. Patrick – Evangelizing Ireland through a movement of communities

The goal is to meet people where they are and guide them toward a greater mission.

To get people to care about and partner with your mission you must move them from prayer to ownership of the mission. I would encourage you follow the following path.

Prayer –> Understanding –> Educate –> Vision –> Engagement –> Ownership

Prayer – Matthew 9:35-39

Jesus had a clear goal and His first word toward His disciples was…PRAY

Matt. 9:36 – The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few, therefore…pray earnestly!

If passion for mission is lacking, prayer is lacking. Prayer is God’s means of aligning our hearts to His, of us declaring our dependence on Him, and requesting an action greater than we can create ourselves. We don’t ask of God because we aren’t typically doing anything beyond our own means.

We want to exhaust all of our options first and then go to God for help. Jesus shows us the opposite. We see someone faithful to being with God, asking Him for people.

Prayer continues throughout the process, but it must be a foundation. What do I need to be praying for? Who do I need to be praying for?

From there, we move from prayer to understanding.

Understand The Other Person or Community

If you are ever going to get people to the point where they care about your mission, you must first discover where they are at in regards to your mission. This comes from asking questions and listening with a filter.

-       Listening for what they value

  • What do they say? What do they do?
  • What are they most passionate about?

-       Ask good open-ended questions

  • Have you ever thought about…?

-       Are they receptive and interested in your idea?

Their values display their worldview and meeting people where they are means understanding and connecting the mission to their worldview.

Educating

Know the Issue.

Knowledge Communicates Competency & provides confidence worth following.

Read Multiple Approaches

Tim Keller’s thoughts on preaching

“When you listen and read one thinker, you become a clone… two thinkers, you become confused… ten thinkers, you’ll begin developing your own voice… two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise and develop your voice.”

Whatever your issue, you must become the pseudo-expert. In our age of information, we have no excuse for pursuing knowledge and gaining information on all sides of the issue.

Informing on the Issue

-       How much do they know?

-       What do they need to know? How easy can you tell it and they repeat it?

-       What stories can you tell them?

Visioning

From there, Jesus had a Clear, Repeatable Vision & Values.

Jesus’ vision: “Go & Make Disciples”

Jesus’ values: “Love God. Love one another. Love your neighbor.”

Our vision and values are based on the aims of our mission. The ultimate goals of the challenges we face. Vision is the mission statement and values summarize the direction our actions must take.

Ways to Assess: How repeatable is your vision?

Harvard Business Review Quote:

“Companies with Great Repeatable Models℠ translate their strategy into a few simple values and prescriptions that people throughout the organization can understand and use to shape actions and decisions.”

Engaging

Let the Values Guide Engagement & Ownership

Engagement is how they start to serve in your mission.

This happens by letting your practice flow out of your values. This is how values become repeatable. They connect with how people learn and retain (head, heart, hands).

Develop a Pathway for Engagement

Exposure à Investment à Commitment

Exposure – 1 time serving

Investment – Consistent Serving

Commitment – Main Service Outlet

Owning

Empower People to Own The Mission

You know you have accomplished this when the people that are a part of your mission are the ones guiding people through this same process. That’s the aim, to transfer the passion for your mission to the people who join you.

Most people stop at engagement, but we must move to ownership for this process to become transferable.

Conclusion

A Mission is Sustained by the Gospel

Lastly, I want to make a comment about sustainability for you and your community on the mission. We must be careful to not focus so much on the mission we neglect the proper motivation and ultimate purpose, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel leads us to make cherishing Jesus the ultimate mark of success rather than mission success (Luke 10:17-20) and then to care for those who are a part of the mission as well as our own souls.

Dialogue, Pushback, And Additions

What do you think? How have you been able to get people to care about your mission? I welcome additional thoughts, disagreements or additions to help me and other continue to learn in this process.

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3 things that set #Verge12 apart

I attended the Verge Conference last week which was more of an experience than a conference. It was the best conference I’ve ever been to and I’m still processing the abundance of God-centered teaching that came our way. As I’ve thought about the conference and compared it to others that I’ve attended, I just keep asking myself, what sets the Verge Conference apart from the rest? What makes Verge so much better than Passion, Exponential, or The Elephant Room?

I’ve landed on 3 things because I didn’t want to write a book about a conference.

1. Kingdom-Focused

There was a whole day of breakout sessions for Missional Communities, for mercy & justice, and for global missions. In the middle there were 2 full days of main sessions structured like TED talks.

There was a ton of information, but it never felt disconnected because of one main stream of thought toward the Kingdom of God and the reign of Christ breaking into our lives, our churches, and the world.

Jesus was lifted high from start to finish and ministry strategy or methods or celebrity pastorism ever took precedence over knowing and obeying God. I never felt like someone was shamelessly plugging himself or herself or that it was an emotional experience lacking practical steps to obedience.

The idea that Jesus came to end brokenness, sickness, and disconnection through His death and resurrection to become the gracious and reigning king and now empowers people to extend His kingdom (not our own) was the consistent and primary theme of Verge 2012

2. Kingdom Effectiveness over Dogmatic Debate

If you were to do a theological survey of the speakers, undoubtedly you would find that they differ, but the God-centeredness of each of their time trumped their theological differences.

This may have rubbed some people the wrong way, but the condensed structure of the talks placed the priority on equipping people for kingdom-effectiveness over defending their theology.

This wasn’t an Elephant Room type controversy where there were obvious Trinity & gospel of Jesus Christ differences; these differences lie in secondary issues while all affirm and lift high God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The primary aim of every talk was not to push a specific strategy or way, but to inspire people to participating in bring the gracious reign of Christ into the world.

3. Equipping All for Kingdom Ministry

Lastly, this wasn’t just a pastor’s conference. It was structure to allow people to take a day off work and be equipped through breakouts in their primary ministry area. It wasn’t focused on building a mega-church or the pastor’s heart. The aim of Verge was to equip all the saints, every Christian, for the work of extending the message and mercy of Jesus Christ.

This came about through the diversity of the speakers, but also through a unique twist they called the unConference which I had never seen before. A large portion of each day was given to allow anyone to dictate the topic. Anyone could approach the 2 large whiteboards, write down the topic, location and time to process, share, and encourage one another.

This provided learning for every church leader, from volunteer to lead pastor.

I enjoyed attending Verge 2012 after being there in 2010. In 2010 it seemed that a lot of the leaders of this idea were meeting and getting to know one another. Two years later it feels more like a movement that collaborates and celebrates the ideas of all that are involved. I’m looking forward to getting all the Verge content in a few weeks.

This is only a reality where kingdom-focus trumps celebrity pastor, method propagation, and dogmatic debate.

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Verge Day 2 Recap

Wow, there is so much to process through after day 2. With all of these amazing speakers, it made me thankful for going to the Verge Pre-Conference and especially the For The City Pre-Conference.

Day 2 started with Stew setting the tone and fixing our purpose on the right thing, knowing, delighting in, and loving Jesus and His gospel above the ministry strategies and methods we would be hearing.

Following worship, Stew warned us that we would be drinking from a firehose, but challenged us to think through the lens of 2 major questions. He said these questions are prevalent wherever there is a major movement of disciple-making disciples.

The 2 questions: What is God telling you? What are you going to do about it?

The Format

For those of you who have never been to Verge or did not watch it on the simulcast, the format is different from many of the conferences I have been to because the main sessions are tied to a major idea and then 3-6 presenters are given the opportunity to teach, equip, and inspire us on these main ideas over the course of an hour.

This format requires that you process this information in some way and preferably with another person so it was really great for Stew to frame the content through the lens of these questions and then call us back to these questions following each session.

The danger of conferences is never processing what God is telling you and challenging YOU to do in your context because if you do not do this, you jump at adopting ideas and practices without yourself ever being changed in the process. If you are not changed you will never lead change in other people.

Main Session 1: For The City

Rudy Carrasco, Bob Lupton, John Sowers, & Dr. John Perkins

Main session 1 was truly amazing. Rudy Carrasco led off by challenging us to affirm that business is an outstanding Christian calling that we must honor and encourage in our congregations. If we only affirm business for the money it can provide, we completely miss the opportunity for people to use their business to create jobs and opportunities for our city. The greatest way we could enable people to be for the city is to affirm that their skills, talents, and ethic in their work can create jobs and equip people to create new companies and enterprises in poor areas of your city.

Having listened to Bob Lupton & Dr. Perkins yesterday, I loved hearing Rudy cast the vision for unleashing the workforce in your church from feeling guilty for being successful in the “secular” world and affirming the absolutely necessary skills and talents they have for restoring the brokenness of neighborhood.

Lupton and Dr. Perkins are always a highlight. Knowing how much they love one another and have been so influential in each other’s lives over the last 30+ years made it all the more special to see them share the stage at different times in the morning.

It is always amazing to listen to Dr. Perkins. Justin Lopez of the For The City Network did an amazing job of interviewing Perkins by not pushing any agenda and letting Dr. Perkins expound on all that God has taught him. One of the more interesting parts was his conversation about parachurches and churches. He discussed a need to repent for creating a parachurch rather than affirming and building up a church. It was beautiful to watch an 82-year old man affirm that God continues to teach us and work on us for our whole lives.

Main Session 2: Incarnational Mission

Mike Breen, Leonce Crump, Hugh Halter, Dave Ferguson, Alan Hirsch, Jon Tyson, Todd Engstrom, Jen Hatmaker & Jeff Vanderstelt

Yes, those were all of the speakers. Drinking from a firehose doesn’t begin to describe it. I’ll try best to summarize the highlights.

Alan Hirsch led us off by defining Incarnational Mission. Again, Alan is way smarter than me and seems even smarter than that with his accent, but setting the focus on following Christ and embodying Christ (incarnational) made it impossible to seek to adopt a ministry strategy and led us to focus on following Christ.

Dave Ferguson shared his personal story of how God has been changing him, a mega-church pastor, into someone who seeks to love his neighborhood. The transformation came as a result of focusing on being a blessing to his neighborhood rather than trying to convert it.

Hugh Halter placed our focus on 1 John 2:6 “whoever says he abides in Christ ought to walk in the same way that Christ did” and then contrasted a religion focused life with how Christ confronted his culture on their abuse of the scriptures, the Sabbath, and discipleship. It is definitely interesting how we need to be challenged in our approach to all 3 in our current day in the church just like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day.

Jon Tyson was the highlight for me. He discussed how faulty our typical ways of sustaining mission are and then laid out the only way to sustain mission. “Love is the only thing that can sustain incarnational mission.” His reasons were that love leads us to identify with people rather than our brand, project, or mission and identifying with people leads us to agony for their needs. Only in agonizing in their need will we follow Christ’s love for the world and extend Christ’s love to the world. Passion for God, compassion for people.

Todd Engstrom of the Austin Stone did a great job of challenging us with a very practical training tool they use to equip their leaders. It contrasted the church’s typical approach to community with how the rest of the world approaches community. This contrast forces you to ask what is going to change about how we seek to develop community with the rest of the world. Very helpful and you could see a lot of light bulbs go off in the room.

Admittedly, I missed Mike Breen and Jeff Vanderstelt, both guys I respect and love their content, but I wanted to see my former co-workers since I was in downtown Austin again. It was great to connect with them and share with them what God is doing in our lives in New York.

Jen Hatmaker put our focus on the scripture “Follow me as I follow Christ” and then asked us “If people are following you are they becoming more like Christ? Or are they spending their week writing a sermon or participating in bible study?” The challenge was a great one. Am I using my time too much for ministry work without developing people and challenging them toward the way Christ lived.

Unconference and Main Session 3: For the Gospel

This was followed by 4 hours for what they call Unconference. This was the more organic portion of the conference where you could dictate the topic and the location and discuss with others at the conference what you were processing.

It provides a great opportunity to get even more practical with those who are processing some of the same issues. A very different idea for a conference that I continue to think is the best.

I also skipped the night sessions for a family dinner. From what I heard, Jeff Vanderstelt challenged us all through the Story of the Prodigal Son to focus on the gospel implications that drive us to worship God more. Matt Carter reminded us that activity is worthless without knowing and loving Jesus. This was followed by an amazing time of worship.

My day ended with grabbing drinks with guys who do my job way better than I do my job. Thankful to Todd Engstrom to organizing these men and getting us together. It was refreshing, I learned a lot and felt more equipped to serve Apostles Church when I return. It was a great time.

Conferences as Seminaries?

One of the more interesting thoughts was shared over twitter by Jon Tyson with an observation that conferences have become the new seminaries.

I completely agree with him and think this is a great opportunity. There’s more collaboration, there’s more practical handles and tools for people to begin to actually accomplish the ideas and it’s more refreshing.

On to day 3…

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Verge Day 1 Recap

The Verge Conference started today and it was amazing. I said it was the only conference that I feel like was worth attending for its theology and its practice.

It did not disappoint at all. I really love the way it is arranged this year with Pre-Conference Breakout Sessions for Missional Communities & Mercy/Justice all on one day. This provides a great opportunity for any church member to take a day off and attend so that it’s not just a pastor’s conference.

Today, I spent half the day at the Missional Community Pre-Conference & half the day at the For The City (Mercy & Justice) Pre-Conference. I’m so thankful to have been at both.

Missional Community Pre-Conference

I missed the first panel discussion thanks to Austin traffic and fog, but I made it to Brandon Hatmaker’s breakout session, Serving Through Missional Communities: Seven Steps to Moving Beyond the Event. It was very helpful and practical for how the gospel of Jesus Christ develops a community to be merciful and compassionate. It was also helpful in leveraging service events to be more than a social justice activity to become an opportunity for Christians and those outside of the church to be educated on the full meaning of the gospel.

One of the more impacting parts was the idea of letting go of the return on investment we get from serving. Brandon told the story of feeding the homeless and the homeless consistently asking about when the church was and how he began to understand that was their way of paying him for his service. They had nothing to offer him, but the hope that they might come to his church. This is important because churches can often use social justice to get people to come rather than to extend the love of Christ without expectation of anything in return.

It challenges us to check our motives and come to serving others and meeting needs with no expectations but to extend the love of Christ.

It was really refreshing to hear how God is using Brandon and his church to display the gospel of Jesus Christ. He wrote a book if you want to learn more: The Barefoot Church (Primer)

For The City Pre-Conference

As much as I enjoy missional communities, I could not have been more thankful to be a part of the For The City Pre-Conference.

I think it could potentially be the best part of Verge for me this year. Time will tell.

I arrived right before Bob Lupton spoke and it was absolutely amazing. I’m sure much of it is in his book Toxic Charity, but to hear someone who has empowered the poor rather than kept them dependent on handouts was challenging and so encouraging.

Some quotes that challenged me:

“The poor can pay a heavy price for our goodness.” – Talking about how our handouts create dependency which continues the cycle of poverty.

“One way giving keeps the needy in the needy role and the giver in the giving role. It diminishes relationships.” – This was incredibly challenging in regards to how the giver can often relish their position and never relinquish it to those they give to. We can participate in giving olds clothes and gifts in a way that removes the dignity of the poor and disempowers them. So challenging.

I also got to lead my first breakout session at a conference. How to get those who care about you to care about your mission. It was fun to share what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about meeting people where they are, helping them understand the mission God has called you to, and how you invite them to participate and engage needs with you.

But nothing really compared to listen to Dr. John Perkins. I was able to meet him and just thank him for his life, his love for Jesus, and his faithfulness in ministering for the gospel of Jesus Christ. He has been a slave, fought for civil rights, created the Christian Community Development Association, and participated in discipling and creating many leaders to continue the work of restoring broken communities.

Some quotes from Dr. Perkins:

“We have deified capitalism to the point that the church is unable to speak prophetically into the system.” – He was discussed how capitalism is the best system in the world, but making it a god makes us slaves to a system that was meant to serve us. For the church, we are unable to talk about the brokenness of America’s abuse of capitalism because Christians have replaced Jesus with the system as well. A challenging thought for sure.

Listening to him talk about 50+ years of knowing and serving Jesus was such a powerful testimony to the worth of giving your life to serve Jesus and display Him through restoring brokenness in neighborhoods as well as systemic brokenness.

In the middle of Bob Lupton’s talk, I asked one of our church staff to buy the digital access for the Verge content because I know I wanted to hear it again. It’s worth it.

I ended the night with dinner and beverages with great missional community thinkers that challenged and encouraged me tremendously. It was a great day 1.

Tomorrow starts the Main Conference sessions that you can watch on simulcast if you want. It will be well worth your time.

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Missional Community Fail: When Mission takes Center Stage

Yesterday I remembered when I hated missional communities and how that changed over time. As I’ve watched a number of missional communities, I’ve seen two major ways they end up failing as a gospel-centered community on mission. These failures both result from making something other than the gospel the motivation for the group of Christ followers.

I watched multiple missional community groups fail when mission takes center stage. When the motivation for gathering is solely and primarily about a specific people, service project and success is only seeing those people know and love Jesus Christ. Today I will elaborate on this danger for missional communities and tomorrow I will elaborate on the danger of community taking center stage over the gospel.

3 Major Failures Resulting when mission takes center stage

1. Great Commission Trumps the Greatest Commandments

The church overall has lacked in extending the love and grace of Jesus Christ, whether that’s to their neighbor, co-worker or even close friends. In response to this, many church leaders have over-emphasized the Great Commission (Go and Make Disciples) to the point that it has trumped the Greatest Commandments (Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself) for the Christian.

The Great Commission flows out of the Greatest Commandments. You only talk about, proclaim, or extend what you love and enjoy. If that’s football, the latest fashion trend, or your faith in Jesus, you will naturally share it with others. The church’s lack of mission is a gospel issue, not understanding that they have been given salvation in Christ, provided reconciliation with God, to bring reconciliation with God to the world. It’s not merely that they haven’t been challenged to go and make disciples.

We can’t trade loving God for duty to God and expect making disciples to be sustainable. A community only emphasizing the mission is very active and looks like they are accomplishing much, but often turns people into projects to fulfill their duty rather than to extend the love of God.

2. Your value is based on your contribution

When mission becomes center, your value to the community is becomes based on your production for the mission. How much have you been evangelizing? How active have you been in building relationships? How many of the service projects have you been to? Are you accomplishing the mission of the community or not? You become an impersonal cog in a mission machine.

The scriptures describe each Christian as valuable to any Christian community because they are sons or daughters of God, saved by Christ and equipped by the Holy Spirit to use their gifts for the common good. When your value is not based on the gospel but on your contribution, you are only cared for and celebrated when you tell stories of mission. Your exalted for the evangelistic or justice work you have done, while your personal holiness and love for God becomes of no concern.

This leads to burnout, a lack of desire for anything to do with God, and when you stop contributing you don’t want to be a part of the community anymore. You realize you are not valued or cared for unless you have proven your successful mission.

3. Community Dies

There is a saying that goes “If you aim for community, you never get mission, but if you aim for mission you always get community.” It’s false. It sounds like a great tweet that would be retweeted across the twittersphere, but it lacks sustained results.

It is true that mission enhances a gospel-centered community, but mission alone is not the answer. Jesus is the solution, not just His mission.

When mission becomes center, people aren’t cared for well and then there is no loving community to invite someone into that is exploring faith. Jesus said they would know we are His disciples by the way we love one another. If we show our love for one another only by celebrating successful mission that proclaims a gospel that Jesus loves you only when you do great things for Him.

What type of community are you inviting people into?

The Gospel at Center

A community that desires to see mission flourish must lift the gospel of Jesus Christ high as the most valuable definer and sustainer of the community. Jesus was sent into the world, God’s best missionary, invested in community, led them on mission to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the world, died for them and for us, and then sent them on mission as a community.

A gospel-centered community remembers the invitation of God into His family, into the community of faith to be a contributor to the growing love of that community. The community defines the value of each individual as God does, valuable because God has declared them valuable in Jesus Christ.

The gospel-centered community doesn’t stop at merely enjoying the benefits of the loving community, but remembers that as God sent Christ into the world, so Christ has sent His community of follows to extend His message and mercy.

For a missional community to see community and mission flourish, the gospel needs to take and remain the center stage.

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Remembering when I hated missional communities

The next month for me will be pretty much consumed with this idea of Missional Communities. Not only is it my job as a pastor, but I will be attending the Verge Conference at the end of February, which should be worth it. So over the next month I’m hoping to describe my experience with missional communities and our churches approach to being a gospel-centered community on mission to love and serve each other and our city.

This past Sunday, we started the first of 3 open invitation Community Group trainings, this one focused on Gospel Enjoyment, with the aim to provide equipping to anyone in our church to be an effective part of and eventually lead a Community Group.

I started out with my story of encountering missional communities and absolutely hating it.

My wife and I had just finished the 2nd year of leading a college community group at our church. I was part of the leadership team for the college ministry and our church had decided to transition from community groups to missional communities. One of my first interactions with this idea was that missional communities are NOT a small group, a bible study, a support group, a social activist group or a weekly meeting.

Everything I’ve just done for 2 years is wrong?

What I heard from that, though it was not intentional, was that everything I had done for the last 2 years was wrong. We had led a bible study during our community group, we had seen people come to faith in Christ, people sacrifice for one another, people prayed for and healed, and a community formed that loved one another well.

So I initially hated the idea, I thought it would destroy communities instead of enhance communities. I had to understand this idea more and had to figure out scripturally what God calls us to as a community who believes that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose from the grave.

Let the Research Begin

I started with Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch, Organic Church by Neil Cole, and Church Planting Movements by David Garrison. I’m not smart enough for Alan, I understood Neil’s angst against the institutional church, and was encouraged by David Garrison’s descriptions of what God was doing around the world.

But honestly I was left asking what it practically meant. It wasn’t until I picked up Total Church by Steve Timmis & Tim Chester, read the book of Acts about 10 times and learned more about The Crowded House and Soma Communities that I began to grasp what missional communities could really be.

Total Church does an amazing job of laying the groundwork for how the gospel of Jesus Christ defines a community of believers. In the gospel we are invited into the family of God to be a blessing as the family of God, to enjoy a loving, Christ exalting community and then to extend it to our world.

This was helpful in stepping off of the reactionary pendulum that pointed to mission as lacking and tried to over-correct at the cost of community. At the same time it brought me away from community as the purpose of the church to the neglect of mission. It pointed to Jesus as the center of all things (just like the Bible does) and outlined how community and mission flow from a right understanding and embracing of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Not Wrong, But Incomplete

This process helped me realize that our Community Group that we had led was great and God used it in mighty ways, but it was incomplete.

We had been based in the scriptures to know Jesus, we had loved one another really well, caring for each other’s needs and serving one another. These college kids were helping raise our son, they were finding their identity solely in Christ and seeking to honor Him with their school, their work, and all of their lives. They were getting engaged and married; a few were coming to faith, prayers were being answered, it was a joyful community.

But we were not consistently seeking to extend our community to those who disagreed with us or to those who were in the midst of broken lives and truly needed the mercy of Christ. We were missing how the gospel propels a community toward loving our friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors as Jesus had loved us.

I could not be more thankful for wrestling through this, for the patience of my pastors at the time, and for their continued investment in me as I processed my disagreements.  I went from hating missional communities to embracing, promoting and seeking to live it out and help others do the same, not because of how special a method is, but because of how gospel-centered it is. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only thing that changes us.

I learned much from watching The Austin Stone transition to missional communities and continue to learn much as our Community Groups at Apostles Church do the same.

Tomorrow and Thursday I plan on expanding on how a missions-first focused community or a community-first focused community misses the gospel and misses the opportunity to display Jesus to their community.

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Why I’m going to Verge and why you should too

Every year there are hundreds of church conferences where pastors and church leaders gather to collaborate and learn from speakers and breakout sessions. They are usually titled after a motivational word (Exponential, Vault, Catalyst, Unleash) tied to a theme for the conference.

I don’t like most church conferences.

So when I initially heard about Verge when I lived in Austin in 2010, I thought “Another Conference? Is this really necessary?” But since it was in my hometown at the time and focused on Missional Communities, a topic I am passionate about and now work to accomplish, I decided to go.

I was blown away.

It was unlike any church conference I had attended. I am used to a church conference that has all the celebrity pastors and feels more like a sales pitch for the pastor’s church/book/website/resources than about Jesus. When most conferences are promoting theology but lack practicals, or promoting practicals for church growth without good theology, Verge combined good theology with best practices. When many conferences pit the megachurch against the house church, Verge brought the two together and everyone else in between to focus on how each can learn from the other.

It started with Matt Carter & Francis Chan calling us to love Jesus more than our mission or method, what followed were speakers from house churches, global church planting movements, mega-church pastors, mid-size church pastors, and authors coming together to promote Jesus and the mission of the church over any method of church. I attended the pre-conference workshops, the main sessions, the breakouts, and I walked away challenged by truth and equipped for ministry. It’s the reason church conferences exist, but they rarely accomplish this goal.

That’s why I was disappointed to hear there was no Verge Conference in 2011, so I attended Exponential (which I will never do again and wish I would have attended RightNow instead), but it’s also why I’m excited for Verge 2012. Every pastor I meet, I recommend Verge to them because it really is, in my opinion, the best church conference and one of the few I will always attend.

Verge 2012 maintains the focus on missional communities, but has expanded it’s scope to address the impact of the gospel in mercy & justice through their For The City track and the impact of taking the gospel to the nations in their For The Nations track. The speakers continue to range from theologians to practitioners, from house church leaders to megachurch pastors, and everyone in between.

The For The City track has Dr. John Perkins who was a part of the civil rights movement and has done monumental work in establishing lasting Christian community development principles that inform the way we approach mercy & justice. It includes Dave Gibbons, Bob Lupton, and many others who have and are working to fight injustice, poverty, and seeking to extend the mercy of Jesus Christ.

The For The Nations track brings back George Patterson, who came off the stage into the audience at Verge in 2010 to make his point during his message and who has also been a part of starting and multiplying churches through Central America. He is joined by David Platt, author of Radical, and Jeremy Story, who is the president of Campus Renewal Ministries. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Jeremy here in New York City and am always encouraged by his heart to see God use the prayers of the church to fuel missions.

Verge was established as a Missional Community Conference, a conference focused on helping communities of believers join Jesus in renewing all things with the message and mercy of His gospel. It continues to bring some of the best thinkers and practitioners in missional communities with Hugh Halter, Alan Hirsch, Neil Cole, Jeff Vandersteldt and many others.

When I attended in 2010 I was a part of a college ministry in Austin while working as civil engineer. It influenced my approach to ministry, but also my approach to work and how I cared for my neighbors. I think that may be what is most unique about Verge, its ability to impact anyone who attends a church with the implications of the gospel let alone those who pastor them.

It’s only $129 (until Feb. 20) for 4 days that will encourage and refresh you as much as challenge you.

That’s why I’m attending Verge 2012 and you should too.

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