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

This is the last post of a series I first posted two years ago.

Chapter V – Urgency

At some point the metaphor breaks down.  There is something that needs to be said and deeply understood that a surfing metaphor simply can’t get at.  Surfing is fun, and there is something at stake in what we’re about here that is serious business. I think we can have fun in the mission. I very often do.  There is abundant joy to be found in this faith.  That being said, there is also a seriousness to all of this that we must wake every follower and every church up to.  For far too long Satan has had his way with churches.  And he hasn’t had his way by making churches suffer.  He has simply put them to sleep.  He has simply managed to get churches so distracted from what’s really at stake that they all too often have begun to think that the most important item on the agenda is whether or not there will be enough food at the next fellowship potluck, or whether or not the tablecloths will match the napkins at the next church social.  Satan has managed to bury the church in such minutiae, that they have even broken up and split over styles of worship and details of doctrine that are frankly silly when they are compared to the gravity of the task that Jesus himself set before the Church.  Every single day that churches spend arguing over silly things, and investing their energies in self-serving distractions people die in their addictions.  Every day that we forget why we are here, people have their marriages fail and families crumble because they have no idea of what marriage really is because no one has ever reached them with the Way to life and love and joy.  Every day that churches waste arguing about organs or guitars, people live lives of the deepest suffering right outside our doors.  People die, kids are lost to gangs and drugs and alcohol, and souls are lost forever.

A  lie that small churches fall prey to is the one that says that what our congregation wants matters.  Too many meetings center on this question in various forms: “What do we want?”  A wrong question always yields a wrong answer.  The truth of the matter is that nowhere in Scripture is the Church, any church, asked what it wants.  The only question that matters and the only one that will lead anywhere in the Kingdom of God is, “What does God want of this church?”

What God wants from us is laid out in Scripture: “Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is serious stuff.  What is at stake in it is everything.  No metaphor can contain its gravity.  Perhaps we look too broadly at it…too philosophically.  And maybe the stories I have related about the realities of urban ministry and street ministry are examples that just don’t fit your ministry or mission context.  So let me try relate to you one of my greatest failures, one of my most excruciating lessons, and in doing so, help to illuminate the urgency of this passage.  It did not happen in the worst neighborhood of the city, although it happens there all the time.  It happened right across the street.  Before I tell you this, I need to tell you something else.  I have seen literally hundreds, if not a thousand people come into the Kingdom of God.  I have witnessed the saving hand of Christ grab people by the soul and yank them out of hell instantly and forever.  I do not remember all of their names.  The truth be told, I do not even remember all of their faces.  But I remember every name and every face of every person I have seen lost to the grave because I failed to act.  I remember them because I am responsible for them, and I will one day stand before my Lord and Savior and answer for their loss.  There are no excuses.  Not for me, and not for anyone who claims to serve Christ.

Ten Thousand Miles I Never Reached Across

I didn’t even know she came to the door.  Jackie, my wife, talked to her outside.  We didn’t know her accept to say “hi” or to wave in passing.  She and her husband and son had moved in across the street two years before this day.  A lot of well-meant thoughts of getting together had come and gone without action.  You might know how that goes.  “We need to call them to get together.”  And then another week goes by.

I walked into the living room, an ordinarily busy day behind me, as Jackie came in from outside.  Jackie had a stunned look on her face.  “That was ______ from across the street.  They buried  Ben (her son) last Saturday.  He killed himself.”  Boom.  Stunned. Silence.  I don’t know what moved her to cross ten thousand miles of street like that to tell us of her unbearable loss.  There are so many inexplicable facets of grief.  We had been out of town during the time that Ben took his life and was buried.  We almost never took a five day vacation like that.  We needed to put our troubles behind.  I guess I forgot that we can’t really do that when our primary trouble is that we live in a world where young people kill themselves.  I don’t know why yet, but the first emotion I felt when Jackie told me about Ben was guilt.  I stood before God having failed to reach the boy across the street.  And here I stand today.  Had I been so focused on seeing our church grow that I had forgotten that life is lived between the blades of grass?

I had met Ben once.  He was kind of Goth or at least dressed a little that way, obviously sensitive and bright, and vulnerable.  I met his eyes during that encounter and I could see him hoping for something I can’t yet name.  A pensive expectancy?  An anxious hope of acceptance?  Was he reaching out to me for something? I don’t know.  I waved at him each time I saw him out in his yard, but that one encounter was the only time I ever spoke to him.  He lived across the street and ten thousand miles away.  His mother said that he had a few very dear friends.  I am now profoundly sorry that I never made a concerted effort to be one of them.  My vision for reaching out to young people had been the one I was taught in seminary –  to build a group from within the church that I could connect people to.  Our youth group had come apart and died in pathological conflict about the time I met Ben.  In my mind, I had nothing to connect Ben to, to invite him to.  I did not see that that was no excuse for missing someone’s pain.  So many lofty conversations had been taking up my time. “Missional Church”, “Emerging Church”, big notions of big movements.  “Important” thoughts.  “Important” ministries.  I have a very different understanding of what is “important” now.  My church at that time was in the throes of transformation.  Yours may be in the midst of that now, too.  My church was at war with itself.  That’s a necessary part of the transformational process, but it is no excuse.  What am I supposed to tell Christ when I one day meet him face to face?  “Sorry, Jesus, I missed that one because the sun was in my eyes?” The church was turned inward, convulsing.    We were focused on all the wrong things, and so was I.  We kept asking ourselves, “What do we want?” and couldn’t figure out why that questions kept leading us into conflict and away from the mission of Christ.  All that goes into leading a church to change was filling up my mind and narrowing my vision.  Do not get me wrong, the church was and is filled with great people.  But change is tough.  It’s a war.  Not bad people.  Just bad stuff.  I don’t mean any of that as an excuse now either.

Love and Jesus Christ are among the blades of grass. We have to get down in it and risk losing the big picture in order to find kids like Ben.  Ben was not a statistic.  He was not an aggregate.  He was a boy dying from the disease of depression that I should have seen but I was focused on all the wrong things. I was taught in seminary that the people in the pews on Sunday morning were the congregation.  But, I now know in an unforgettable way that Ben was my congregation even though he never stepped foot inside our doors. And I failed to reach him.  I know something about the end of a gun.  My own Ben, my odd uncle, ended his life there.  So did my dad’s dad.  I just didn’t see it in his eyes that day so long ago when he walked across ten thousand miles of our street so ironically named Hope Street.

I have learned in ministry not to ask questions of people in grief.  Over time they have supplied me with the information that I needed in order to walk the road beside them.  ______ (the mom) has not fully shared her grief with me. I have not visited enough or timely enough.  Or, perhaps it simply isn’t time for me to know.  There are so many things I don’t know.   The usual morbid and irrelevant questions seem to come up first.  But also, when she can’t catch her breath because the grief in an encounter with some relic of Ben found stuffed between the sofa cushions puts the weight of an elephant on her heart, does she feel God’s presence?  What does she think she could have done that she didn’t do?  Does she think she loved Ben enough?  Does she beat her soul bloody in fruitless penance for a crime she didn’t commit?  Where does she think Ben is now? Our faith community, this church, here is in a different place now and has been for a while.  We embraced _______ (the mom), her husband, and Ben’s siblings immediately, and I have seen God do some amazing healing in them over these past years.  She has made some incredibly courageous choices that have allowed God to minister to her profoundly.  She is now a stakeholder in our community and is impacting our lives every day.  Yet, I have not forgotten the lesson in this loss for me and for my faith community.

Ben belonged to a nation, a tribe.  I never tried to reach his tribe.  Goths are a tribe, a nation. “Go, and make disciples of all nations.” I fell prey to the lie that there would always be more time.  I missed the urgency of the commission.  I thought, “When I get a youth group back together I can invite Ben to that.”  But the need was THAT day, not SOME day.  The command of Christ to “Go” is an urgent command.  And I did not, “Go!”  I do not tell this story because I am worried about Ben’s soul.  I do not embrace a God who sends people to hell who have succumbed to the fatal disease of depression.  I believe that Ben is with God working out the damage done to his family and friends who loved him and lost him. And I do not tell you this story because I seek your sympathy.  I do not need anyone to tell me about grace.  Grace is not cheap.  Christ did not allow himself to be hung on that cross because we have all the time in the world to get around to what matters.  And Christ did not pull me out of hell for my own sake.  Christ pulled me out of hell and, in that same moment, immediately gave me a commission – an order. “Go!”

I remember Ben’s face.  I see it in my dreams.  And there are others.  I remember them because I never want to forget again why it is that I am here.  I never want to have to answer to my Lord and Savior because I got distracted by wrong questions,  or simply was afraid to reach out to someone. I want to forever be more afraid of answering to Christ than I am of being embarrassed or of failing.  I am not afraid of failing.  I am profoundly afraid of failing to act.

As far as I am concerned, the Church of Jesus Christ must be oriented toward the Great Commission. The mission must always drive our church. Yes, we’re to take seriously the Great Commandment – to love your neighbor as yourself. But never forget that a kid just like Ben  IS your neighbor! It doesn’t matter whether your church is small or large.  It doesn’t matter whether your Sunday is attendance is 2 or 2,000. It does matter whether or not your church takes seriously how urgent Christ’s commission is.  It is URGENT!  There is a Ben across the street or down the street from your church.  There is a Ben in your classroom at school. There is someone within arm’s reach of your doors who is ostracized, marginalized, and feeling hopeless and alone – disconnected from the present Kingdom of God.  And THEY are why we are here.  If we have claimed Christ as our Lord and Savior, then we are already dead and buried with Christ, and we are no longer here for ourselves.  It is no longer about what you or I want or don’t want.  It is no longer about what you or I like or don’t like.  It is about using every tool and every ounce of energy and every dollar at our disposal to accomplish what GOD wants FROM us. And what God wants from your church and from my church is simple: “Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

May 20th

If I knew

A way (or away)

To make it all


That is what I would do.

If I could take

The scratches out of things, I would.

I know a way…

But it doesn’t

Make everything


It just makes it so I can

Breathe sometimes.

I remember Ben.  That is

My way.  Remembering.

– For _____ (Ben’s mom) , May 2o, 2008


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