On Saturday, February 25, I had the privilege of teaching about 35 (mostly) young adults at City Church San Francisco. The program I taught was connected with the Newbigin House of Studies, which is a wonderful new program for training lay leadership. It also includes a seminary program for urban church planters and pastors linked with Western Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Western is a seminary that is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, my own denomination.
I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to teach missional-ecumenism to this eager group in San Francisco. I met Christians who have been in the faith for less than two years who are already mature in their thinking and missional practice. They are living out the faith beyond what I have seen in most Christians that I’ve encountered around the country. This is why I am so excited about the future. The number of such young Christians leaders is not large but their depth and vision is strong. They are light years ahead of where I was in my 20s and 30s. They will need this depth and wisdom to navigate the future. I am committed to serving them to make a difference for that future.
Over lunch, on this particular sunny and gorgeous Saturday in San Francisco, I ate outside the church office on a roof top at a picnic table. (What a sight in February!) I spent some time with one young married couple in particular. The couple has been engaged in vocational pastoral ministry for several years (seminary trained with a degree) but has recently stepped out of this role for several reasons. I asked this young brother to write to me. The following email (with appropriate changes) is what I received:
I write today thinking that what I say is clearly related to some of what you were talking about on Saturday, and also to some of the political vs. missional issues that you raised in your recent blog. What follows is something I wrote to my wife after we decided to leave "ministry." Of course that is just vocational ministry we left. We are excited about the fact that we might actually get to do ministry now. She had mentioned feeling guilty, like we were turning our back on God by leaving my paid pastoral position. This is what I wrote to her:
"It feels like there is an imposter claiming to be the bride of Christ. She wears a similar veil so that it is often difficult to tell the difference until you come close and begin to lift it and rather than finding safety, compassion, and embrace you find protocol, judgment and exclusivity. I feel like our decision to move on is a desire to experience the true bride where vulnerable intimacy, unconditional embrace, and true rest exist and where protocol is not in charge except for the protocol to love. What is additionally discouraging is knowing that I have been seduced by this imposter and tried to entice others into her arms, explaining away her institutional nastiness while redirecting attention to her surface-level ‘pretty gown.’ From my time living behind this veil, I have seen many others who are much more beautiful than us on this side, who possess the characteristics of Christ and his bride much better than we (those who claim to be the church) do, even though they are not members of this visible/physical body. I think our decision to move on is a longing to celebrate with all those who possess the characteristics of the true bride and to cleanse ourselves from much of the nastiness that is contained and left un-dealt with behind the veil."
This word to my wife came after a stretch in which we were both feeling discouraged in my vocational ministry role which eventually led us to our decision to leave. Like I said, my wife felt especially guilty that we were turning our backs on God and the church, and I tried reassuring her that what we were turning our backs on was the institutional elements that have claimed the title "church.” What we were longing for and seeking by our decision was, in fact, God and his true church, which does partially still exist in the "institution" of the church that claims that title. Since making the decision, we have really grown in our excitement to serve and minister to our community. We are not feeling the awkwardness of being accountable to a job description. We love the church, but the present view of what church is, (not having read your book yet) is too small, and not only too small, but in many ways, simply wrong. This is true in a similar way to what you explained when you walked with African-Americans and realized how racist you really were. I never felt sexist in any way but it took my wife to show me the ways that the church still stifles and even dehumanizes women. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. Feel free to use these words.
Once again a young man and woman have shown me a great deal and encouraged me to press on in teaching this vision of missional-ecumenism everywhere I can. Pray for me and what I do to add something of faith and virtue to the lives of such young leaders who will have an incredible impact on the future of the church in America.
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Amen! I no longer “need” the “church” to be okay with my being the church. A dear, dear friend actually told me if I want to be part of the change within the church I will need to cut my hair and shave my beard. That I cannot have it both ways. In effect, saying leave it up to us, go do your thing. I was stunned…this is a mature man of God whom I have deep respect for. Needless to say, I do not need his permission either.