A Spirituality of ‘Boring’: Finding the Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life

In contrast to my last post, which encouraged a spirituality of adventure, now I want us to consider finding the extraordinary God in the ordinariness of everyday life.

It’s not hard to find preachers who will tell you that God wants to give you an amazing life. Of course, the discerning theologians among you will know that the truth of this all depends on your definition of ‘amazing.’ boringAuthor Michael Kelly argues in his book Boring: Finding an extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life (2013) that while it’s good to chase your dreams, and have a spirituality of adventure [see my last blog post], we also need to be careful that we don’t start finding our significance with God only in what is big, showy and exciting. Kelly’s point is that we should resist thinking that being ‘extraordinary’ (in the popular sense) is what matters to God:

What if the whole idea of “ordinary” is a myth? And what if a life of great importance isn’t found by escaping the details but embracing them? What if God actually doesn’t want you to escape from the ordinary, but to find significance and meaning inside of it?

Kelly wants us to learn to find the beauty of God and his gospel in the ordinary. Learning to do this is important for any Christian who wants to experience spiritual nourishment. Sure, you can walk the Camino trail in Spain, spend time with the Taize community in France, or go to the Hillsong conference in Sydney, but what if you could experience transcendence while cleaning your bedroom?

In Colossians 3:23 Paul tells us: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” He wants the Church to be a people who do not have their hearts and minds focused on earthly things, but on things above.

This requires a kind of mindfulness. Merri Creek Anglican member Ed Cavanough recently gave a great talk about being heavenly mindful. He urged us (along with the Apostle Paul) to embrace our new lives as people who have been “raised with Christ” (Colossians 3:1) by setting our hearts and minds on “things above” (Colossians 3:2).

I loved this idea of Christianising mindfulness, so we are not just being mindful in the earthly here-and-now, but so we become mindful of God in the here-and-now.

Mindfulness has become an important practice for helping some people overcome depression and anxiety. When they struggle to move on from the difficulties they have experienced in the past, depression can set in. Mindfulness can certainly help people move their focus away from the past and onto the present.

Mindfulness is not necessarily Biblical — it is, in fact, Buddhist in origin — yet Ed did not reject mindfulness as a concept but used it to build a bridge to Paul’s idea of a ‘Godward posture’ or, as the writer of the Hebrews says, to: “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

In the last couple of blog posts I have written about the problem of being religious but not spiritual (RBNS). Heavenly mindfulness is another great way of becoming spiritually nourished for people who only experience dry religion.

How, then, can we become heavenly mindful? What are some discipleship practices that can help us find God and the beauty of the gospel in the ordinary?

  • Say grace before your meals
  • Pray in the car on your way to work
  • Put a cross up in your kitchen to remind you of Jesus when you are doing the dishes
  • Read your Bible and pray each day
  • Make a point of asking your Christian friends about how their faith is going (not just about their work and family)
  • Pray for the little things as well as the big things (“God, please help me to find my keys”)
  • Practice the spiritual disciplines which help you focus on God, such as meditation, silence and fasting
  • Choose a posture of gratitude to God, which could include, each day, making yourself name ten things for which you are thankful
  • Put a Bible on your desk at work as a prompt to involve God in your decisions and interactions with colleagues (you may even want to read it!)
  • Set reminders on your phone to pray (there is a good app calledCommon Prayer for Androids and iPhones that can send reminders).

The list I have given is not meant to be prescriptive: hopefully you will think of your own approach. The point is to build systems that bring God into your everyday life.

Gerard Kelly on Community and Church

Gerard Kelly from Bless on Vimeo.

I first met Gerard Kelly about ten years ago when he spoke at my church and we went out for beers and cigars afterwards.  While hipster city pastors who like to show off their expertise on single malts are now a cliche of the clergy, Kelly is no poser.  He’s too old for that, I think he just likes a smoke!   I remember thinking at the time that he was fascinating thinker about urban mission.  Also, my friends, Dave and Blythe Toll, went and worked with Gerard and Bless in Europe for eighteen months, so I feel like I am only two degrees of separation from him.

This video was recently forwarded to me, and I liked it so much I thought I’d comment on the six words.

Six words that Gerard Kelly believes describe the kind of churches people want to belong to:

Sustainable

Kelly rightly identifies the shift of meaning in this word from ‘what we do for the environment’  to ‘having a sustainable lifestyle,’  So it is natural that churches should think about sustainable models of church, community and mission in a sustainable way.  He is right when he suggests that what many churches are doing is unsustainable.  I love his hook here that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate renewable energy source.  The guys at St Thomas’ Sheffield and 3DM ministries make a big point about this and so work hard at balancing their community calendar.

I often speak  with people who are not living sustainable lifestyles: they might be married with young kids, both parents are working, and maybe even studying.  Even the kids in my church are over worked – trying to fit all the school activities in as well as studying so hard to get into the top University courses.  To the overworked Christian, church activities can feel stressful and a burden.  Sunday worship is attended out of loyalty rather than joy.  Often there is guilt around a lack of a personal devotional life, and the only formal ministries they can sign up to is to do the Bible reading once every few months.  In addition, many adult Christians finances are overstretched and unsustainable.  They have committed to a mammoth mortgage without first prioritising their budget ‘christianly.’

We’ve never been good at identifying our idols.

All of this points to the great opportunity we have as the Church to discover Christlike sustainability and then to share that with the world.  People want to be part of churches that help them to live sustainable lives.  A good question every pastor should ask is what programs can we slash and still have good community?  And what might happen if we all had a Sunday off from attending our church service?

Social

This is not about social networking but about human commonality.  Kelly urges us to adopt the logic, “you’re not my friend because we vote the same or believe the same but because we are both human.”  We should learn to mix with people who don’t agree with us.  Often the community that the church offers is one dimensional and boring but it should be vibrant and countercultural. Christlike friendship is more important than faction:  “you are my friend even if you choose a different life to me.”  Christ-centred society is supposed to have friendship with meaning.  What does it mean to create churches that have relationships and friendships and mission like this?

One of the best things a church can do to be attractive is to be Christlike in its relationships.  Unfortunately this often isn’t the case.  Congregations often trash the pastor and vice versa.  [See Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.”]  One of  the best things you can do as a pastor is (1) repent of all the times you’ve whinged about your congregation (2) forgive your congregation for when the whinged about you and ask them for forgiveness (3) preach against whinging and promote a culture of generosity (4) promote lay people to positions of leadership who are generous.  If your church can turn around and be generous and positive, you will be modelling one key aspect of Christ-cenetred community that will cause you to become very attractive.  If you can also promote love for the marginalised, and a culture of listening before speaking, then you’ll be one step closer to heaven!

With regards to the idea of learning to develop friendships with people who disagree with you, a great book that I’ve been reading lately that goes into some detail about how you pursue the tension between your submission to Jesus as Lord and your engagement with the world is Graham Cray’s book “Disciples and Citizens.”

Choral

Following on from the idea of “Social” is the idea of “Choral”.  Kelly is playing with the idea of difference and harmony.  When people sing different parts in harmony the effect is beautiful.  What we are called to in the church is sing our song in a million different voices – and enjoy the fact that when we do this something amazing happens.  We should not seek to become homogenous but be and celebrate difference.  Mix people together who don’t normally hang together – slaves and masters, jews and greeks, young adult hipsters and noisy toddlers.  This raises an interesting question about the validity of aged focused churches and congregations.  Kelly is suggesting  the best way forward is to offer diversity of culture rather than sameness.  Perhaps, now that we have learned that we need to engage with people cross culturally in church and not assume that everyone understands the medieval aesthetic that we have enjoyed for a 1000 years of European church, that now we can go back to having congregations with people from all ages and stages?  Christians should get over the idea that we need to find the perfect church which is one that is filled with lots of people just like them.  If our churches do reflect the diversity of the neighbourhood, then we will be one of the only contexts where those subcultures will meet together.  “Choral” is a glimpse of heaven.

Conversation

Kelly believes that churches of the future need to become “conversational” as a way of seeking truth.  We are discovering that truth is about conversation – we should promote conversation.  Truth, Kelly argues, “is woven from a thread of a thousand stories.”  Don’t tell but dialogue and listen.  This is going to become especially important as thorny divisive issues such as sexuality continue to become more thorny and divisive.  Preaching in the 21st century church needs to become conversational and move away from simply being declaratory (not easy to get this right).  You can have a conversational culture and still believe in the truth of scripture.  But you have to remind yourself that while the Bible is inerrant, you’re capacity to interpret the Bible is not.  (Which is why we should read the Bible in community and not just solo.)

Aesthetic

Kelly makes a zinger of a point about prioritising aesthetics in the 21st century church.  He reminds us that the younger generations are an aesthetically informed people.  And yet despite this, the evangelical and pentecostal movements are so aesthetically starved!  For the past 20 years or more we’ve produced churches that seek to meet in starchy warehouses and sing cheesy sentimental juvenile worship songs.  God is beautiful – God is not just true.  What’s the point of the gospel being true if it’s ugly?  Beauty always points towards God, says Kelly.  Therefore, believe in design and beauty.  Making, painting, and designing should be part of the church.  [Note to megachurch pastors: just because you have sexy marketing and lavish HD digital projections in worship does not mean that you do this well].

Pastors of the future should seek to be aesthetically intelligent people.  If they are not, they should find people to work with who are.

Entrepreneurial

Like Al Hirsch, Kelly says the church of the future needs to promote its entrepreneurs.  The Church needs heroes who start things.  The church needs to do something, make something, be something new, and have an entrepreneurial spirit.  This is especially challenging for the denominational churches who are chained to the concept of propping up their heritage.  Anglicans and Baptists promote Pastors and Teachers to leadership but where are the Apostles? Answer: for the past few decades the Pentecostals have stollen them.  But that is beginning to change as Pentecostalism starts to join its Anglican and Baptist brethren into being a ‘denomination’ with a heritage to uphold.  Now the entrepreneurs are starting to rise up in their respective denominations.  In my Anglican tribe in Melbourne we have about six or seven church plants in development at the moment, whereas five years ago you were lucky to have one.  Exciting times.  Promote a culture of entrepreneurialism.  Promote the entrepreneurs!

Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Introduction,” Reflection

Chapter Summary

Keller calls for church leaders to move away from thinking about their ministry purpose in the false binary of either simple faithfulness to God, or “successful” with growing sunday attendance.  The problem lies in the fact that one can be faithful and see little “success” (like the missionary who commits his life to a people and sees no converts), or one could be unfaithful but because of some reason or another, your church grows exponentially.  Therefore, Keller advocates that pastors should aim for “fruitfulness” in their churches and he uses the garden metaphor to explain.

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 12.59.29 PMPastors need to be faithful in their work and skilful at what they do – but ultimately the gardener cannot control the success, only God can.  Other key variables for the pastor/gardener are: soil conditions (the receptiveness of the people to the gospel) and weather conditions (what the Holy Spirit is doing).  Therefore, “When fruitfulness is our criterion for evaluation, we are held accountable but not crushed by the expectation that a certain number of lives will be changed dramatically under our ministry.” (p.14)

To discover a pathway to fruitfulness Keller invites us to learn how to integrate the different types of books in the “how to do church” library.  Instead of looking for techniques for ministry effectiveness, learn how to make your own decisions that are centered on the gospel.  Be wary of attaching models of ministry to your church divorced from their doctrine and cultural context.   Keller uses a computer metaphor of Hardware which is your doctrine, software as ministry, and middleware as the software between the hardware and operating system.  In the case of the church, one’s middleware is the vision for how “how to bring the gospel to bear on the particular cultural setting and historical moment.” (p17)

Keller Illustrates it this way (p. 20),

Doctrinal Foundation (What to believe, theological tradition…)   -> 

Theological Vision (How to see, ministry dna, emphases, philosophy of min)  ->  

What to do (Ministry expression, local and cultural adaptation, style etc…)

Reflections

I will be planting out of a flagship evangelical Anglican Melbourne church, which attracts church goers (in part) because of its popular mainstream ministry model: strong children’s and youth programs, a big network of small groups, and relatively “safe” low-church worship services (five songs, a sermon, and some occasional prayerbook liturgy).  It would be easy for me to try and repeat this model in the inner-city in the thought that I could attract other mainstream Anglican evangelicals.  Or, I might try and improve on the model by sending my leadership team out to do some reconnaissance to ten other key churches in the area to borrow their best ideas.  Or, like many church planters, maybe I’ll try and emulate my transatlantic ministry role model?

Keller is arguing that before I get into focussing on programs and models, I should clarify my doctrinal foundation, then work out my theological vision, and then after that look at programs and models.

Reflections on Tim Keller’s Center Church

Every now and then a ministry book comes a long that is a game changer.  I think Timothy Keller’s Center Church is one such book.

While most ministry books  have one good idea that is padded out with anecdotes over 150 pages, Center Church is concise and yet not overly academic, well paced: gold on every page.  I am interested in this book because I am engaged in church planting.  Eighteen months ago I planted a congregation, but later this year I plan to plant a new church in the inner-city of Melbourne.  Center Church attracted me because it is a packaging of Keller’s ministry ideas developed in the Redeemer Presbyterian church planting organisation called City to City.  Therefore, it’s not simply someone’s latest idea on church planting, but a codification of 25 years of idea development and testing.  I identify with Keller’s context in New York as there are similarities with mine in inner-Melbourne.  Both contexts are deeply secular, academic, wealthy, artistic, cynical towards the Church and multi-cultural.  What I will seek to do in my blog posts is summarise chapters, and then comment and apply Keller’s thoughts to my own setting.  Please feel free to add your own comments.