Tuesday, April 8

Begin with Friends

Dear Jacob,

When we determined to plant this church Dad and I made a mistake.

Our first move was to instantly provide teaching and shepherding.  Because that's who we are.  Because that's what our friends needed.  Because that's what we knew how to do.  We set up church in our backyard for a month.  We set up church inside our home at Christmastime. We heard people's expressed needs and we met them. It doesn't sound like a mistake at all.

What we did was set ourselves up to be providers of religious goods and services. We offered a way for people to come and get something, instead of empowering them to give and become something. We kind of floated on the crest of a wave we had just come from and surfed it all the way to the beach.  But we almost ended up in the rocks.

Something has to happen before you call people a church. There has to be a foundation.  There has to be a commitment to unity, to the story you're telling, to the mission you envisage. There can't just be content and experience, subject and sense. There are plenty of churches that just offer content and experience. Maybe there's a service that teaches crucial themes, maybe there's music that moves the heart in a space that motions the soul toward God. That's a great assistance to people, but it's not a church.

So we revamped. We listened to our partners. We set ourselves in a more vulnerable place. Instead of inviting people to a thing, we've invited them into a relationship, into a friendship that forms a family. Which, of course, means that instead of using our strengths we are beginning by building up our weaknesses.

I tend to be a leader of relational extremes. I adore being around people who are the healthiest version of themselves, who need nothing from me, who can laugh at the world and give me some grins right along with them. But if there isn't an entertaining person in the room, I start to feel like I have to become her.  I also love being around people who are unhealthy versions of themselves, who need something sincere and candid and perceptive from me. I start to get nervous when I can't identify an unhealthy person in the room because then it assume that it must be me.  I tend toward taking and then I swing toward giving.  Balancing the two is where I feel exposed.

Because I'm always seeking out the amusing or the aching, engaging with the people in-between all of that leaves me in a peculiar gray area we call friendship.  In-between all of that there are the relationships that entail both give and take. Of course, it's the in-between where you find your truest friends, the ones who can take your junk and your joy and not unequivocally define you as either thing. Friends are the people who can give you space and not take it personally thinking that your need for space is really your need for space from them. Friends are the people who can live with that tension that gray simply is.  It's not sunny, but it's not cold; it's not full, but it's not empty. Friends flex.

As we establish this church we're developing a core of trust before we move into evenings of rich teaching and spiritual experiences. We're making space for a community of friends to open themselves up to one another, to the laughter and the letdown, to the abundance and the scarcity, to the hope and the doubt. There's been dog-sitting and kid-swapping. There's been private dinners and meals all-together. We show up for one another, when we have a sadness, a birthday, a day to go skiing, a tough encounter, a marital question, a new business venture. In time, they'll be the people who are the guests at a thirteenth birthday, a law school graduation, and a some-day baby shower. These are the people we'll live life with for a while.

Friendship isn't the only thing that makes a church a church, but it's the ultimate level of living a missional life. Friendship isn't pity, isn't altruism, isn't fixing someone, isn't even following someone around because you see God at work in them. Friendship is a side-by-side refusal to objectify a person and to simply see them for what they are: image of God and human flesh.  It's a grace-giving mutuality. It's a provision of hospitality. And hospitality is the context for the gospel.  See where this is going?

Without these relationships our idea of planting a church would be an empty, task-oriented endeavor.  Some churches are focused on their program, or their reputation or their evangelistic number-counting.  All of those  focuses have the potential of shipwrecking a faith and a fold. We want to be a church that's centered on love, on talking to one another with depth and grace, on being God-bearing restorers, on growing together. We have to begin from a place of trust.  We have to begin with friends.

You will undertake many things in life that will require all of your breath and hope and strength.  Hard things. One day you'll start your own business, court a wife, and even settle my estate. Don't begin from a place of producing.  Begin from a place of listening.  Don't begin by thrusting your wares on a wary culture.  Begin by learning the language.  Don't begin with a structure, begin by investing in relationships that will carry you and stretch you and cast you out into the best rendition of who you were made to be.

When we lean on friends that we trust, support, respect and accept, we're using our strengths to build up our weaknesses because we'll break that trust, we'll be a fool, we'll forget to listen and we'll need to be forgiven. This is the building block for everything good: whatever you begin, begin with friends.