Missional, From the Inside Out

The word “missional” has been terribly abused in its first couple of decades of wide circulation. Theologically, the word simply describes God’s ongoing work in the world—and the church that intentionally participates in that work. There are multiple of facets to that work and our participation in it, and perhaps this explains why the word has been stretched around so many different kinds of churches or styles of discipleship. We understand ourselves to be participating in God’s mission as we spread the news of Jesus’s redemptive work in our community and around the globe, as we encourage each other to follow Jesus, and as we pursue the conditions of justice, righteousness and peace. None of these the full breadth of what God wants for this world, but in each of them we engage with values near to the heart of God!
Our churches pursue each facet collectively, working together for the purposes of evangelization, transformation, and justice—and churches can implement structural shifts to facilitate progress in each cause. We can create systems that create opportunities for faith sharing, venues in which transformation is more likely to occur, and initiatives that push against standing systems of injustice. Whether we’re the leaders fashioning the new programs or congregants supporting and participating in the moves, we can too easily begin to think that the structural changes mark us as “missional”. However, those structural shifts can only move us so far! Church programming and structure may create the conditions in which we move towards mission, and poor structures can get in the way of such practices or implicitly devalue them. Structure has its place, and should be approached with intentionality. However, creating the structures should not be understood as the heart of the work itself—the work itself is a matter of flesh, blood and spirit.

Flesh, Blood, and Spirit

The missional work of evangelization occurs when flesh and blood humans filled with the spirit of God reach out to their known and loved neighbors with the good news of Jesus. The missional work of discipleship takes place when people of flesh and blood, acting by the power of God’s spirit, encourage and teach each other about the way of Jesus, giving testimony of Jesus’s work. Justice progresses as spirit-driven people stand in solidarity with the oppressed, whom they have come to see and love because of their transformation in Christ. The heart of missional christianity isn’t a matter of organization, but of embodiment. While the church’s programming might provide the sort of vehicle or venue in which these things happen, the structure itself won’t succeed until it is filled by the right kind of transformed people—the new humanity, formed from the inside out for the purposes of God’s mission in the world. That formation takes places when we, both as communities and as individuals, nurture the sorts of mentalities and habits that encourage people to align with the mission of God and to engage in it.

The inventory of those mentalities and habits is surely diverse and contains some familiar things, like the virtues of faith, hope, and love that the church has long sought to nurture, and the habits of prayer and listening to the word that have been a part of both the gatherings of God’s people and the classical understandings of their individual devotional practices. These are well and good, and contribute to our transformation into people aligned with the mission of God, but I want to suggest a further practice, one that I see both in the life of the early church and in the missional movement of our own time: the nurture of a particular obsession.

Obsessed with the Missio Dei

The Missio Dei is a fancy latin phrase meaning “the mission of God”. It’s a bit of shorthand meant to point us towards what God is doing in the world—something we train ourselves to discover by drinking deeply of God’s story in the scriptures, and which we prayerfully seek by the spirit of God in our own time. Becoming obsessed with the Missio Dei means that at every turn in our lives, we are always asking, “What might God want to happen here?” or “How can I join in what God might be working towards by what I say and do in this moment?”.

These are the sorts of questions the early church obsessed over. Missional churches have these questions embedded in their culture, whether or not they ever use the fancy latin phrase or have super-sophisticated “missional” structures. Missional people can’t help but ask what God wants in the world, and how they can bear witness to God’s desires and God’s work towards fulfilling those intentions. Each encounter with the word, each gathering with the church, and every moment in the neighborhood is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of God’s mission in the world. That obsession is planted deep within our hearts, and keeps gnawing at our souls. Like a deep mystery, it holds us in vigilant tension, so that every moment we are ready to perceive the clues that might shed light on what God is really at work doing. The seed of that obsession grows from the inside out, until its fruit becomes apparent in the world. It is an internal drive that fuels every external step we take. 

Hovater’s 2016 Reading Plan

2016 Reading List

Over the last several weeks on social media, I’ve been posting  different book lists that I’ve come across as I’ve compiled my own reading plan for 2016.  But now it’s time to show my own cards, so here’s the list I’ve come to so far. If you have something else you think I should add, let me know!

The Writings of John of the Cross is what I’ve been working through a few pages at a time for devotional reading. I already feel like John is helping me deepen my prayer life.

Essentialism by Greg McKeown is a book about guarding the things you put time and energy into, and making sure that you carefully discern the things you commit to.

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr.  I’ve already dipped my toes into this one, and love it. Rohr writes about what it means to press onto maturity in faith.

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America is a look at life for our neighbors who are struggling in poverty.

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright is a much needed book that offers a corrected to our popular understandings of eschatology. (That is the least compelling description, I know.)

The Heaven Promise is Scot McKnight’s version of Surprised by Hope, which promises to be a bit more readable.

Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd looks like an interesting book about what it means for Christians to resist our culture’s thirst for blood. I’ve heard Zahnd talk about Christian Nationalism before, and I’m very intrigued.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright is the heaviest book on my list this year, literally. Taking my medicine with this one, but the first three in the series have been outstanding…life changing, really.

Prodigal Christianity by Fitch and Holsclaw, whose podcast Theology and Mission has become one of my favorites. We’ll see if the book matches up.

Jesus, Feminist by Sarah Bessey is a book on Gender Justice in the church that I haven’t had a chance to work through yet, so 2016 is the year.

The Powers Trilogy by Walter Wink is something I’ve been needing to read to clarify some of my theological thinking about the dark powers of the world, and the way evil is manifests through systems.

Home and Lila by Marilynn Robinson are on my list after reading the first of the trilogy, Gilead. I found it to be a fantastic novel, the kind that makes you want to read everything the author’s ever written. I’m also including her book of essays, The Givenness of Things.

The Martian is also making the list in the fiction category. I hear good things—You people better not be leading me astray. I’m looking for another good novel.

Leaders Who Last by Dave Kraft has a great reputation as a leadership book.

Lessons in Belonging from a Church-going Commitment Phobe is a fantastic title.  Fantastic book? Remains to be seen.

Good to Great and Outliers are two books on excellence I’m looking forward to. I like reading about the sorts of practices that people who stand out exemplify. Not all of these sorts of things translate well, but I think these two will be useful.

Fellowship of Differents is a book by McKNight on Ecclesiology that looks to be very useful.  I’m preaching on Ecclesiology this coming summer, and this will be part of my prep work for that series.


Remembering Restraint

BEWARE It’s not the prettiest of the spiritual disciplines, and at this point in history, it’s not the most fashionable. Of course, restraint has had its heyday—there was once a time when becoming a saint meant taking on all kinds of ascetic practices, moving out into the desert, living as a hermit on a few crumbs a day.

But those days are gone. Now the pendulum has swung in another direction, and that’s brought important facets of faith back into play—we’re more inclined to think about the world as full of God’s presence, and to perceive the created world as important to God—as we should. We tend to think of the things we receive as blessings from God, and if we think about our appetites at all, we generally just try to regard the things we use to satisfy them with gratitude. Only in their most extreme distortions do we regard the appetites as dangerous.

John of the Cross, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic, has been relentlessly reminding me off the cost of allowing our appetites to run free. At Randy Harris’s suggestion, I’ve been digesting John’s Ascent of Mount Carmel a few pages at time, and I didn’t have to wade very far into it before it got challenging. John considers one of the first steps in the spiritual journey to be the mortification of the sensual appetites (think broadly about what these are, by the way). He allows no quarter for prisoners on this matter:

“As the tilling of soil is necessary for its fruitfulness—untilled soil produces only weeds—mortification of the appetites is necessary for one’s spiritual fruitfulness. I venture to say that without this mortification all that is done for the sake of advancement in perfection and in knowledge of God and of oneself no more profitable than seed sown on uncultivated ground. Accordingly , darkness and coarseness will always be with a soul until its appetites are extinguished. The appetites are like a cataract on the eye or specks of dust in it; until removed they obstruct vision.” (1.8.4)

and later on he pushes even further:

“Manifestly, then, the appetites do not bring any good to person, Rather they rob one of what one already has. And if one does not mortify them, they will not cease until they accomplish what the offspring of vipers are said to do within the mother: While growing within her that eat away at her entrails and finally kill her, remaining alive at her expense. So the unmortified appetites result in killing the soul in its relationship with God, and thus, because it did not put them to death first, they alone live in it.” (1.10.3)

John doesn’t mince words here: in his view the appetites serve no good in person’s spiritual journey, and to progress we simply have to be done with them. That may sound harsh, and it probably serves a good bit of nuancing, but I’m not so sure that it isn’t closer to the truth than our naive way of approaching our appetites. Don’t you share the same suspicion that I do; that our progress in the spiritual life stalls out at precisely that point where drive for satisfaction overtakes our desire to pursue the Lord?

I’m not sure that John’s way should be taken as absolute…but I am absolutely convinced that he points us in the right direction, because it’s a way that resonates with the story of Jesus. Jesus didn’t abandon the world or scorn creation, and neither was he a man without appetites…but in the end, he mastered them. Jesus enjoyed creation and community, but never worshipped any object of his appetites. In the end, Jesus was a man of full self-control, a man full of the dignity of restraint, even in the shame of the cross.

Perhaps it’s time that we follow him by remembering restraint, and learning again the discipline of dissatisfaction.

Proportional Perspective

images-2When I think about the skills I want my kids to have as they grow into maturity, one of the key things that keeps coming to minds is the ability to keep a proportional perspective. It’s something we often repeat with a little mantra “Don’t turn little things into big things.” Normally we say that when some little issue is escalating into a big dramatic fight,or when some very little situation we’re trying to correct gets blown up by their resisting discipline or something. (Pick up your book becomes “go to time-out” becomes “three consecutive time-outs” becomes “WHY OH WHY?!? WHEN WILL THE MADNESS STOP?!?!”.  You know, normal family stuff.)

When we’re debriefing this sort of thing, we often have a moment when we try to help them understand that what started up as a little issue became a big deal, and we try to figure out what we could have done differently to keep from turning the little thing into the big thing.  I should go ahead and point out that this all works in reverse, too.  There are some issues that really are a big deal, and sometimes we want to minimize them and ignore them. That’s not any good, either.

What we want them to learn is how to keep things in the right proportional perspective—to give problems, challenges, and opportunities the proper weight and emotional energy.

There’s an easy reason why this skill of keeping things in proportional perspective is so important to me—I know too many adults who are really bad at it. It’s a discipline, and if people who go years without practicing it, become people who have a hard time solving problems without destroying everybody in their path. They become people that nobody really wants to deal with, because you suck too much energy out of everyone along the way.  Others begin to think of things that involve these people (problems or opportunities)  as just not being worth the energy that’s going to be required by messing with them.

Everybody knows somebody like that. You know somebody like that. People that struggle to keep things in the proper proportional perspective. They drive you nuts.

But let’s thicken the soup a little bit. If you’re thinking this is just a problem for the sheer villains of your life, you may want to stop and let yourself back on the hook.

Proportion distortion is the sort of thing that not only the “worst” people do, but normal people do when they’re being the “worst version” of themselves. When I’m at my best, I don’t do this kind of stuff.  But I’m not always  at my very best. When I’m tired, hungry, or just in a foul mood, I let my discipline down. I exaggerate things that I think are important, and I minimize things that other people think are important. So this isn;t just an “other people” issue.

I want to get better and better at keeping things in the right proportional perspective. I want to develop first the skill of noticing when I’m out of proportion (and listening to people who are telling me this!) and second, the skill of backing up and getting things framed better. I want to help my children learn as they grow up to keep pressing towards a proportional perspective, not only when it’s easy, but even when it’s elusive and everything in their minds wants to pull things into distortion.

Of course, the secret to teaching them is is not what I tell them, although I like the mantra.

What’s really important is what I show them. It not only requires that I have the “right ideas” about what I want my kids to learn. It demands that I develop the discipline to model it as well. It demands that I keep learning, keep stretching, keep practicing, keep growing—and that’s why parenting is hard work.

Homiletical Mirror-talk: Cleaning the House

Homiletical Mirror-talk: Cleaning the House
(I’m working on doing a bit of analysis on my own preaching, as a way of improving. So this is kind of like a preacher doing film-study…I want to catch the places where I need improvement, and also just be able to look back and learn from the sermons themselves.)

I’ve been working on migrating this site, and part of the process for doing so has meant moving over a bunch of sermon files. I’m trying to do a bit of archival work on some of those, so I can have easier access to them later. While I’ve been doing that, I’ve been listening to a few of my own sermons, which I think is an underutilized practice for most preachers, myself included. Doing some reflective critique on your own recordings can be an intensely formative exercise. (Also, doing so with another person! Basically, I’m in favor of most forms of intentional reflection.)

Cleaning the House.001 This morning, I listened to a sermon from this summer, called “Cleaning the House” (July 20, 2014). It’s from the Luke series, and revolves around the episode in Luke 19:41-48 where Jesus laments over Jerusalem and then clears the temple. I chose to include that lament with the temple story, rather than with the preceding account of the triumphant entry, because I think together the lament and the temple clearing create a fierce critique of the power plays of Jerusalem. Here’s the sermon audio:

Here’s a little bit of what I see in the sermon, looking back.

  1. There’s a lot of wind-up. I chose to illustrate the idea of “Place as symbol” in multiple ways, and I think there might be a layer too many. I think it works okay, but I probably could have pared that down to be more efficient without really losing too much of the punch. As it is, it takes a while to really get to the heart of the text. The sermon weighs in at 27 minutes, and it could have perhaps lost 5 here.
  2. This sermon is a bit pedagogical, and relies on a nuanced interpretation of the text. While I generally avoid selling the exegesis in the sermon, I think in a case like this it’s a little more important. I think one of the places this sermon needed a little more was in showing how the temple was a symbol that carried multiple meanings (as a sign of economic oppression, for instance). It’s implicit in the sermon, but I’m not sure if it would have really carried for someone who wasn’t already on board with that particular interpretive line.
  3. I think the bit towards the end where it moves to talking about prayer as dependence on God is pretty useful. I also like that it returned to that piece of the text with the language of “the things that make for peace”. I think that the sermon gives that phrase the space to have some resonance. Ultimately, that’s the kind of thing I think I’m trying to do with a lot of my preaching…carve out some space for the text to echo around in, letting it play and find a place to do some formative work.

Using Questions to Teach

Discussing Discussions

Increasingly, adult education in churches has depended upon discussion formats and less on lecture formats.  An increasing number of students expect there to be some level of discussion, whether that takes place in smaller discussion groups or with a larger class as a whole.  This shift has some very positive qualities to it, as it enables perspectives to be heard that otherwise would not, asks students to contribute from their own experiences, and think on an application level.  It also can help produce a warm, casual, and comfortable environment.

The shift has negatives as well, though, which often go unnoticed in the rush to adopt the new style of teaching.  It’s easy to imagine that because of the time used by discussion, then the teacher needs less time to prepare for the class.  As a result, sometimes discussion times are used as a crutch to cover over poor class preparation.  This robs the class!  It’s important to make sure that we are using discussion as a tool for the right reason.  As a teacher, I have to ask, am I doing this just to take some of the pressure off of myself, or because it’s what everybody expects, or is it the best way to accomplish the goals of the class?  Starting off with the right reasons for using discussion as a mode of teaching goes a long way towards making sure I’m using it the right way, because done properly, managing and encouraging effective discussions is a lot of work!  It takes thinking ahead, using the right balance of active energy and passive receptivity to elicit the right responses, and using the right kinds of questions.


Good Questions

But what are the right kinds of questions?  It takes some skill and practice to realize what will work and what won’t when preparing to lead discussions, and even master teachers sometimes ask a dud.  Here are some things to keep in mind as you develop the skill of leading discussions and grow into a master teacher!


What’s the purpose of this question?  Is it to discover new perspectives or to just get everybody talking?  Am I trying to get people to provide information or express feelings?  Think through what you want to accomplish with each question you ask.  How does it fit into the overall plan for your class?  Does it contribute to what you are wanting to accomplish, or does it just fill space?

How many different answers to this question are possible?  A question that has only one right answer is a dead end discussion.  Most people won’t even give that answer, because they sense the dead air that’s going to follow it.  A good discussion question has not only the possibility, but the probability of many different answers.

Who can reasonably respond to this question?  In a related sense, there are some questions that only invite certain members of the class to respond.  Does the question require extensive pre-knowledge to answer, or a certain type of job or life experience?  This isn’t a deal-killer for a discussion question, but it can help you think through what is likely to happen and what is not likely to result from a particular discussion question.

What can I follow the discussion with in order to enrich the discussion and validate it?  This is both a question of preparation and one that is ongoing in the mind of the teacher in the middle of the discussion.  This does not only mean validating the responses given, but demonstrating that the whole discussion moves the class closer to a desired goal.

How does the Word respond to the discussion?  In completing the process, what are some ways that scripture might respond to the discussion, or add to it?