First Steps? I Really Don’t Remember Them

First Steps? I Really Don’t  Remember Them

I have been asked to go and speak before a group in October about the journey that my community of faith has been on over the last 12 years or so.  I have to say that I am a bit afraid. It is really hard to remember the first steps…the first revelations that have led to profound transformation from a “church” that was focused primarily on its own maintenance, to a community willing to sacrifice itself in order to participate in God’s present kingdom.  When we began this journey into whatever it means to be “missional”, the questions being asked all began with, “What do I want?”  Now the questions all begin with, “What does Jesus want from us/me?”  But where we began?…how we got started?…what opened our eyes?… those things are going to be hard to tease out.  Things are now so dynamic, so fluid, and so immediate that looking back has never been a necessity or a luxury we could afford to spend much time with.  Now, however, I have been asked to tell someone else how we got to where we are…a very humbling honor in and of itself…and somehow I have to figure out how to it.

I liken this task to another one I had many years ago.  When I was in the Army, my superiors noticed that I was a pretty good skier.  And they asked me to teach people in my unit how to ski.  I started to immediately say, “Yes, sir”.  And then I realized that I knew how to ski very well.  I just didn’t know how I came to know how to ski very well.  And teaching others apparently requires both things. Uh oh.

When I was in grade school or early middle school (I really am not sure which) my friends took me up to the mountains for a ski trip and they taught me how to ski.  Actually, they didn’t teach me anything.  They just gave me the opportunity to teach myself to ski…or die, actually.  They got me on the ski lift after several painful and unsuccessful attempts and got me to the top of Bryce Mountain.  And then they said, “See you at the bottom.  And don’t hit the trees.”  Then they took off and left me standing at the edge of the precipice wondering how in the world I was ever going to get down.  I imagine that that part of my story likens itself to what it feels like for a church or faith community to peer into the future and see that change is at the very bottom of a steep and icy hillside that could kill you if you get it wrong.  No matter what, nobody’s going to get to the bottom without some scrapes and bruises, and more importantly, some very injured ego.  Looking over the edge and knowing that I didn’t know how to ski was terrifying…absolutely terrifying.

When I looked down that slope at my impending doom and then realized that my only alternative was to put my tail between my legs and be escorted down the mountain by the Ski Patrol, my brain clearly malfunctioned because that kind of moral calculus was more than a boy of my age and wiring was capable of.   So…with my hands and knees literally shaking, I said to myself, “What the heck.  Let’s do this!”  And off the edge I went.  I got about twenty feet and wiped out painfully, and decided maybe I ought to watch the other skiers…the practitioners of this sport…and see what they do and how they do it.  Then I can just sort of emulate what they do.  I watched intently and emulated the best I could.  Somehow, I managed to arrive at the bottom alive though one of my skis arrived several minutes ahead of the rest of me.  I repeated that process over and over until I finally got pretty good at skiing…or at least got to the point where both of my skis arrived at the same time and with me still attached to them.

I looked around at the kids whose parents had bought them a place in the fancy ski school.  They all had the nice ski apparel…everything matched and all their gear was top of the line.  They weren’t all bruised up with pine branches sticking out of their jackets from where they sailed off the trail. They all learned the same way and the safer way.  They all looked the same, acted the same, and even talked the same.  I wished I could do that, too.  But my parents weren’t in that tax bracket.  Taking lessons wasn’t something they or I could afford.  And my ski apparel consisted of blue jeans and a ski jacket acquired from the Salvation Army.  That was what I had to work with, and I was grateful for it.  There were plenty of kids who didn’t even have the money to get a lift ticket or to ski at all. At the same time, I did look with envy on the wealthier kids…it would have been very hard not to.  I think that sometimes small churches look with envy at the churches with big budgets that can do fancy training with all the cool technology at nice hotels at attractive locations.  My community wasn’t in that situation, and most of the people reading this participate in communities that aren’t in that situation either.  The temptation is to look with envy at the formal and pretty training that some communities get.  Some of us think that if we don’t get that, we’ll never learn what we need to know.  But the truth is, as I learned to ski then, we’ve learned to be effectively missional now…in blue jeans and hand-me-down jackets and by the seat of our pants.  I have come to believe that God gives us exactly what we need to be what God wants us to be.  We don’t need to envy others.  Theirs is simply a different journey.

When my military counterparts asked me to teach others to ski, I came to the realization that learning to ski was a methodical process of steps learned one after the other, and I had no idea what those steps were.  I didn’t learn that way, though I did learn the steps some way.  What I ended up doing was going back and taking novice classes so that I could learn a way to teach the steps…the first, second, and third steps…so that I could teach others a method of going forward without nearly dying a terrifying death among the pine trees and stickers bushes and boulders.

My experience of learning to be missional is kind of the same thing.  My friends took me to the top of a mountain and said, “See you at the bottom” and just kind of left me there.  By scrapes and skids and cuts and bruises, and by watching the few others who were in the journey with us and learning from them (and they from us) our community arrived at the bottom of the missional mountain alive, and it has now repeated the process again and again to the point where we are pretty good at it.  Teaching someone else, though?  Well, that’s a whole other thing.  There’s a lot of purported “experts” out there, but I have found them highly suspicious…mostly because they don’t seem battered and bruised in a way that would indicate that they are on the same mountain we are on.  This one is brutal.  We are, by no means, experts.  We are battered and scruffy and we still fall down a lot.  We are merely avid practitioners seeking to be more effective and more obedient to the call of Christ.

So…in looking back, the first transformational realization that we came to had to be why we needed to make a change to begin with.  At least a part of it was that we were dying up on top of the mountain…left as the dead to bury the dead as the Kingdom of God marched on without us.  But that fear wasn’t what got us moving.  I can point to hundreds of congregations that would rather die up there and face the shame of being helped down the mountain by their adjudicatory and ecclesial ski patrol. What got us moving down the mountain was a joyous, life-altering realization and a simple one. I will begin and end this article with this simple realization.  We had misunderstood the project of following Christ and had misunderstood the nature of Christ’s message.  We had understood the project as coming to salvation as an achievement of a status and that protecting that status was the aim of the project.  The first and most important realization was that the Good News of Jesus Christ as related in scripture has nothing to do with our status…indeed it has nothing to do with us as individuals at all.  The Good News is simply this: “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”  The project then is to participate in the Kingdom wherever we are and to invite others to participate in it with us.  That is the mission – to seek first the Kingdom of God.  And the project of following Christ is to live more and more into His present Kingdom. That realization got us moving down the mountain.  It wasn’t all we needed to know by any means, but it did get us moving and it keeps us moving deeper and deeper into some pretty scary territory as we seek to follow Christ into His mission.

If you are on this missional journey, it would be awesome if you’d comment on here about what the first and second steps were for your community that got you moving into the mission.  If you were someone fortunate enough to have received some formal training, I’d love to hear what was recommended in that as good first and second and third steps.  Thank you, and God bless you on the journey.



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