The Surfer, the Sea, and Missional Transformation in the Small Church Environment: Chapter IV

Again, I first posted this two years ago to help folks who were trying to figure out what missional means in their community…and to offer some hope to small churches  who were sold the lie that your community has to be “mega” to be effective…or influential (whatever the heck that is).  So, here it is again.  As usual, use what you want.  Chuck the rest.  And God be with you on the journey.

Chapter IV – Terror and Commitment: Paddling In and Popping Up

Paddling Into the Wave

Catching a wave looks a lot easier than it actually is.  Even little “logs”, an East Coast term for those little rollers that are common to beach breaks in the Carolinas, travel at fifteen to twenty miles per hour.  And monster waves at breaks like Jaws and Outside Log Cabins can travel at speeds of up to fifty miles per hour and faster.  Big wave surfers (of which I only dream of being) catch waves by being towed into them by jet-skis because they can’t paddle fast enough to match the speed of the wave.  And that is the trick.  In order to catch a wave, you must be traveling at the speed of the wave when you pop up.  If you are sitting still on your board or not moving fast enough, one of two things will happen.  Either the wave will simply pass underneath you and leave you right where you started, or it will pick up the back end of your board and flip it end over end, sending you head first straight to the bottom.  One is obviously worse than the other, but neither one is good.  Catching a wave is a little bit like jumping onto a moving vehicle.  You gauge the distance and start running before the vehicle gets to you so that when it gets to you, you are moving at a similar speed and can jump on.  It’s kind of the same with surfing except that you are out in front of the wave instead of running along beside it.  You try to gauge the distance and rate of travel, and then you paddle like mad until you feel the wave start to overtake your paddling.  Then you pop up at the critical moment.

How do you know the critical moment? Experience.  That is the only way to learn.  Hundreds of waves pass you by and wipe you out before you just kind of get the feel.  It is a sensory thing more than a knowing thing – a spatial-kinesthetic epistemology.  Knowing the critical moment can only be learned by blowing it numerous times until you finally luck into one and remember what it feels like.  Remember what we learned about paddling out?  That’s an awful lot of extremely hard and exhausting work given that most of us fail over and over again learning how to catch a wave the first time.  But as I said, and I think most surfers will affirm, there really isn’t any other way.

Missional living is kind of the same way.  Consider the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 23).  The two disciples are walking along, sharing their broken hearts and despair with one another over Jesus’ crucifixion and the impending demise of everything they had poured themselves into.  They were the death of hope embodied, the death of the Kingdom walking along. They were a moving wave of despair.  If ever there was a mission in that moment, they were it.  And Jesus, whom they did not recognize, catches up to them and walks up along side of them.  He matches their speed.  To be walking “with” someone, we have to be walking at their speed.  It’s definitional.  In other words, Jesus paddles into their wave of despair. Jesus matches not only their pace of walking, but he also paddles into their emotions.  Matching a person’s emotion, or “speed”, is also called “compassion”.  It is knowing by feeling.  Jesus compassionately listens to the waves of emotion that these two hurting souls are feeling, and enters their conversation at their speed.  There is an exchange, a question and an answer – Jesus is judging the distance and speed.  The wave of emotion crests in an angry, incredulous outburst – “How can you not know what has happened here?!?!”  Instead of fighting the wave of anger, Jesus rides with it, opening Scripture to them in the very wounded places that they are moving in.  He isn’t paddling out.  He is paddling in.  Jesus doesn’t demand that the two come to him.  He comes right into their reality, riding what is going on in them.  He isn’t rebutting their experience.  He is adding a new perspective to the movements that are already taking place, and he is doing it at the speed that the two disciples are traveling.  And Jesus doesn’t “pop up” until the critical moment that will come later in the story when he is revealed to them in the breaking of the bread at supper.  How did Jesus know when to pop up?  I don’t know, but I would hazard to guess that he knew from experience.  He lived it enough to know simply from the living of it.

Living missionally means paddling into other people’s circumstances, cultures, and lives.  If we don’t paddle hard to match their pace, then one of two things will happen.  Either the Kingdom opportunity will simply pass underneath us and leave us right where we started, or it will send us end over end in the most dangerous way possible.  Surfers don’t demand things of the waves.  The waves are what they are.  They don’t bend to our needs.  We have to judge the distance and speed and paddle hard to match it.  We have to do that in the mission, too.  If the language and culture is “teenager” for example, then we have to paddle in with an open mind until we match the speed of their emotion and the speed of the Kingdom of God that is already at work in them.  We have to catch the language and the folkways of teenagers in order to move at their speed.  We have to ask ourselves the distance judging question: “What is going on here?”  And we have to ask ourselves the speed question: “Where is the Kingdom working in this situation?” It’s as much feeling it as thinking it.  It is as much right feeling as right thinking. “Accurate empathy” is the term for it that I learned somewhere along the way.

An Example of Getting Moving – We Never Have it all Figured Out

Missional living also means being willing to get moving.  Something I have learned along the way is that is easier to steer a vehicle that is moving than it is to get it going from a dead stop.  It is even easier to steer a vehicle one hundred and eighty degrees, to turn it completely around, than it is to start from a dead stop.  I think it is a gravity/inertia thing.  Our community no longer waits to have every duck in a row before we engage a mission. We have a feel for it now.  We get in it, start moving missionally and make adjustments along the way.  Let me give you an example.  We had been looking for a way to engage the homeless population in the City of Milwaukee, and we are always looking for ways to plant new missional communities.  The Holy Spirit put the idea of street ministry on the hearts of a couple of people in the community.  They felt very strongly that we could be doing some innovative things with intentional community building among the homeless.  The call did not seem to be one to change the world with a big program, just a process of one-to-one engagement and relationship building.  We had no specifics.

The call was affirmed when we sent a mission team down to Galveston, TX after Hurricane Ike to do some relief and rebuilding work.  That trip began when a wild Christ-follower named John L. had a deepening sense that God wanted him to go on a mission trip, but he didn’t know where.  The “where” emerged around dinner at his house when he shared his vision with the group gathered there sharing a meal.  We had no team and no money, but within a week or two, we had a team, funding, and transportation.  We just started moving, and the resources came to us.  The presence of those resources is affirmation of calling to us.  If resources don’t happen, we assume that what we were about to do is not something God wants us to do yet or at all.  In this case, we got the resources.  At the time that the call to go to Galveston emerged, no one had yet made the connection to the burgeoning sense of calling to do something locally.  It’s funny how God works.  The City of Galveston government assigned our little team to work for a week with an inner-city ministry group that did street ministry to the most marginalized members of Galveston society.  They had planted themselves in some really ratty buildings in the worst part of the city, and had relocated in order to live there where they ministered.  And they ran a street ministry.  Where before we did not have a mental model of what a street ministry might look like, God took our team and immersed them in a ministry just like what we felt called to do.  We helped them muck out and repair their damaged facilities, and they taught us how to do street ministry.  We were both the object and the subject of mission in the same moment.  So the team came back with a story to tell, and a model to teach, and we were off and running.

Now let me be clear about what “off and running” looked like. A fabulous Christ-follower named Chris J. had been feeling the birth pangs of a new mission building up inside of her for some time.  It had no real shape, just a sense of spiritual anxiety and urgency. She thought it might be connected to the feeling in the community that we should be engaging the homeless.  She had gathered about six people including myself around the truth of what was going on inside of her. Those six people were really committed to getting something started.  We had no money to work with. And we didn’t really understand how the homeless migrate and live in the City of Milwaukee.  We began a process of intentional prayer beginning with praying in and around the neighborhood where our food pantry was located.  The Galveston ministry leader even came up and prayed through the neighborhood with us the first day.  He was surfing our break that day.  We prayed over every house and alley.  And we walked a few miles in every direction around the pantry.  Chris felt that she had had a vision for a place to start, so we put together some meal bags like the ones the Galveston ministry uses, and we set out for the park that had come to Chris in a dream. Did you hear that? The place to start came to Chris in a dream.  That kind of thing is related in the Bible more times than I can count.  And if it happened then, why wouldn’t it go down that way now?  Why have so many church people stopped believing that the Holy Spirit is currently alive in the same way that the Holy Spirit was alive in the Bible?  Chris believes, and so do all of the people she gathered around her.  A point of note here is that Chris, who was once the object of mission, was now living and leading apostolically, led by Scripture and the Holy Spirit alive and at work in her.  That is how multiplication works in our community – object to subject of mission, mission to friendship, friendship to discipleship, discipleship to leadership, leadership to apostleship.

When we arrived at the park we found that that neighborhood had been gentrified and that there were no homeless people living there. Chris was sure that her vision was to reach the homeless.  Now, ten years ago, we would have chalked this up as a failure, packed up our vehicles and just quit.  We would have belittled the vision as the remnant of a taco eaten too soon before bed.  We have learned better now.  Experience has taught us the feel of the rising wave overtaking our paddling.  So we decided to do a walk.  We prayed for a direction to walk in, and felt called to head north, so we did.  Along the way, we passed a man with a couple of bags sitting in a doorway.  We had the mistaken idea that we were being called up to the bridge over-passes that were up ahead where we had seen sleeping bags a week before.  We walked right by the guy in the doorway except that I made eye-contact with him and I remembered thinking that there was something almost haunting about him.  When we got to the over-passes, we found no one there.  Again, that might have been enough to make us quit ten years ago.  But now we were on a “God-walk”, led by the Spirit. Experience had taught us what it feels like to catch a wave.   It came to two of us that the man we passed had a couple of plastic bags with him, and his shoes did not match the rest of his attire.  Don’t confuse what I am about to say with stereotyping.  I assure you it is not. But those are some visual characteristics of people who live on the street.  In that moment, we all realized that that was a man we were supposed to talk to.

We walked back to that doorway, and engaged the man in conversation.  It was, in fact, our first street ministry encounter.  We learned that the man was homeless.  We also learned that he was hungry.  We hooked him up with a couple of bags of food.  And we asked him where the homeless population hung out at this hour of the day.  He told us that if we took him to McDonald’s, he would show us where to go.  So we put him in our van and took him to the “Golden Arches” and got him a hot meal.  He then informed us that if we proceeded up that same street to the intersection that was just three blocks ahead, we would find a strip mall parking lot.  He told us to go there, and just open up our vehicles, people would begin to show up.  So, we did that.  And he was right.  The corner was a bus hub that the homeless frequented at that time of day.  We prayed over the spot and asked God’s blessing on what we were about to do, and before we knew it, we were handing out meals, meeting all kinds of people, and praying for anyone who asked for prayers.  Because we believe that the movement from object to subject of the mission is the most important conversion in a life of conversions, we invited everyone we served or prayed with to hang out and help us hand out bags and pray for others.  Many did.  Within just a couple of weeks, it was common to pray for a hundred people or more.  And it was common to have conversions every time we went out there.  Those who had a conversion were immediately engaging others with an invitation to participate with us in the Kingdom of God on that corner.  We developed a community of regulars who came out to serve with us.  We have become friends.  We open up the ministry now with prayer and a brief scripture study, and then we go out into the neighborhood with a meal to offer and a mission of prayer.  Wow.  Scripture, accountable friendships, prayer, mission…sounds like a church to me.

Remember that I said that when we started we had no money.  These meals cost money – about $6,000 a year.   We started buying them out of our own pockets, but quickly realized that we were feeding so many people that we couldn’t sustain that.  So we put the word out through e-mails and through our virtual on-line communities such as those developed through Facebook, and we began immediately to receive donations from all over the world.  We have received enough donations or food, clothing, blankets, and funds to continue this mission right up to now. And those who give also pray for the people that we pray for – we post their first names and concerns on Facebook so that anyone who wants to participate in the mission can. Thousands now pray.  Had we waited to have cash in hand, we never would have gotten started.  People connect their hearts to missions that are bearing fruit.  We were bearing fruit before we ever went looking for donations.  The truth of the matter is that this mission is a prayer ministry, and we could have done that without food or clothing to give to people. But inviting others to give to the mission, allows them to participate in the Kingdom of God.  And so fruit is borne in two directions at once, and it is borne among people who have never met in person.  They only know each other through on-line connections.  We got moving, and then figured it out and made adjustments, and that has made all the difference.  The street mission is constantly changing.  Every week it is different, and since we started, we have changed locations several times.  We did not have it all figured out when we started, we don’t have it all figure out now, and we will probably never have it all figured out.  If we had waited to have it figured out, the wave of the Kingdom of God would have passed right underneath us, and we would still be sitting on our boards right where we were.  We had six people, no money, and a vision not yet figured out.  Apparently that was enough.  It is now the norm.


As I said, in order to catch a wave, we have to match its speed before we pop up.  If we mismatch the wave we will know pretty quickly because, in the example of mission to teenagers, either the teenagers will roll their eyes and pass us by, or they will respond vehemently and maybe even violently against us.  When dealing with young gangsters or gang wannabe’s, that kind of miss can be as dangerous as it gets.  I mismatched once out on the street in front of our food pantry, and said the wrong thing to a couple of gangsters who couldn’t have been more than fifteen or sixteen, and both of them turned towards me while reaching into their waistbands up under their hoodies. On the streets here, the most unpredictable killers are under eighteen.   Fortunately, I had enough experience to know to pull out of that wave and I beat feet back into the food pantry and locked the doors.  I missed that wave and it nearly got me shot.  I have learned a lot from that missed opportunity, and have become a better surfer because of it.  As they used to say in skydiving, “Any landing you walk away from is a good one.”  Or, as they say in surfing, “Whoa. Dude.”  They mean essentially the same thing.  By the way, with that lesson learned, I was paddling back out in front the food pantry the next Saturday.  I have caught a few beautiful rides there since then.  We have a couple of gangsters who now help us give food out, and participate in the Kingdom in doing so.  The scarier the wave, the wilder the ride.  We don’t do “crazy” for the sake of “crazy”.  But Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10), and that’s what we’re trying to do too.

Popping up: Total Commitment

In catching a wave, I will tell you right now that there is a point of no return.  If you have paddled in to the point where you can feel the wave begin to carry you, you are going to go screaming down the face of that wave one way or another.  The only question is, “How?” Once you’re up, you don’t get to pick the conditions.  It might be like glass on the face of that wave.  Or it might be all chop and bad wind.  You just have to deal with the conditions because if you don’t, there’s going to be a big wreck and a lot of scrapes and bruises at the bottom.   It’s true on a personal level, and it’s true on the community level, too.

Communities move on the energy of individuals.  Communities get behind people. Almost all mission opportunities begin with a vision for a mission in an individual.  But mission isn’t mission if it doesn’t involve at least two people.  Individual acts of service are awesome and they are treasure in heaven, and the world would be a much better place if we all regularly engaged in them.  But they are not the mission.  The mission always involves a subject and object giving and receiving, and so it always involves more than one person.   Paddling into the mission means tapping into your networks and into the hope and energy of your community. It might be the “brain” or the “ear” of the community that gets the community up on the board, but the whole body is going to ride it and the whole body is going to pay the price for a bad wipe-out.   Yes, paddling into a mission opportunity means investing yourself, but people who don’t realize their connection to the hope and energy of the community they have invited to join with them are dangerous people in a community. Jesus told us that people like this are a reality and a part of the mission when he told us that some seed falls on rocky soil (Matthew 13:5).  Mature communities of faith know that if they send people out into mission right away and disciple them along the way, from time to time they will find that the seed has been planted in soil that has no depth of character, and when that seed blows away it has the potential to do damage to the community.  Mature communities send people out right away anyway.  If we wait to see what kind of soil we are dealing with before we send any workers out into the harvest (Luke 10:2), then we will never send anyone out into the harvest.  We just have to learn to deal with the reality and accept it as part of the mission.

People who don’t understand their connection in mission to the body, whose soil or character has no depth, are like a brain that wants to do its own thing without considering the impact on the body as whole.  They are like the mind of an addict who loves the high and doesn’t care about the toll, because the toll is paid by the body more than the mind.  The mind of an addict just keeps on writing checks that the body can’t cash.  Dangerous stuff.  Once you have gathered a community behind something, that something is no longer just your idea.  It is a movement.  And that movement is no longer simply yours.  It never really was yours.  It is Christ’s.  It belongs to the Holy Spirit. And the body that Christ has gathered with you in your idea through your inspired invitations is going to pay the price right along with you.  Mature communities of faith know this from experience and are less likely to have the wind knocked out them when the wind blows the seed away and the shallow believer quits or falls away.  Immature communities put their hope in these new converts, and run a terrible risk of having their hope collapse when some of these new believers fall away.  A community’s only hope is the Holy Spirit.  Mature communities know that the only hero in any of these stories is God, not any one person.

As with the absence of human heroes in the mission, mature faith communities know that the only hero in Scripture is God.  Any human “hero” that you can name in Scripture turns out to be pretty flawed upon close examination.  Abraham is the covenant father, but I doubt that Hagar would see him as the hero of Scripture.  King David is a man after God’s own heart, but I doubt that Uriah would consider him the hero of Scripture. If it was true in Scripture, it must also be true now.  Mature communities invest in the development of disciples knowing that some will bear good fruit and some will fall away.  They do not idolize people, though they may admire the work they do.  They realize that all good work comes from God alone, and so what they admire is the work of God in and through individuals.  They have learned from painful experience not to idolize people and place their hope in them.  We have to be willing to risk failure when we get behind people.  We have to be willing to take risks.  And we have to be willing to fail if we ever hope to succeed.  But be careful where we place our hope.  God is the only one worthy of that investment.

Know this.  Never forget this.  Love and responsibility are the same word.  Irresponsible people kill immature communities even though they might be saying that they are motivated by love.  Irresponsible people who gather momentum and then fail to follow through on the commitment they have started have the potential to suck the hope right out of an immature body and injure it terribly.  Integrity – being solid enough to count on, and staying connected and focused – is the key characteristic of a missional leader.  It’s not that they don’t fail sometimes.  It’s that they don’t quit when what’s at stake is more important than they are.  Having the courage to commit totally and to stick with that commitment in the face of fear and personal loss is the only kind of missional leadership.  Anything else is just addictive behavior and is destructive to the Kingdom of God.  Mature communities are aware of the signs of this behavior because they have all seen this behavior and its impact at some point in their journey and have somehow lived through it and learned from it.

The Skill Set

Once you’re up, what you knew doesn’t matter.  Things happen too fast to really think long and hard.  You make adjustments.  That’s the skill.  It’s not what you knew going in –what you carried around in your head. It’s how well and how quickly you can figure things out and adjust to them.  It’s not how well you can regurgitate what you learned in some rote format that you memorized.  It’s how well you can adapt what you know to an ever-changing mission field, and connect what you know to what you need to learn to navigate the immediate situation.  The skill set of mission is no longer simply “knowing”.  The skill set is “learning”.  Can your mind and heart expand to fit knew understanding and new dynamics that none of us control? I think that’s what’s behind the metaphor of new wine skins that Jesus uses (Luke 5:37).  If our minds are rigid, when the need for new knowledge comes along, we burst at the seams instead of being able to expand what we think to a new situation.  The Kingdom of God is constantly expanding, and our ability to learn must constantly expand along with it.

A Final Point on Commitment

Jesus tells his disciples to “consider the cost” before he sends them out.  Jesus knows that surfing has a point of no return.  Jesus knows that to follow him requires total commitment.  There is no half-way once you’re out in the mission.  And it can cost you everything.  Surfing has its martyrs.  Some of the best surfers have paid for their art with their lives.  The mission has its martyrs, too.  Remember Paul and Andrew and Stephen, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?  Once you’re in it, you’re in it.  There’s no going back.  Once you see that the Emperor has no clothes, there’s no going back to old ways and pretending he’s not naked.  Once the enemy knows your name, you’re in it whether you want to be in it anymore or not.  Consider the cost.  Once your eyes are opened to the reality of the Kingdom of God in our midst, there is no turning back.

By Max Ramsey (Copyright 2-1-10)


1 Comment »

  1. sojotru Said:

    Can I say, “Whoa!!”? Great post, Max.

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