Here is a revised version of a talk I gave at LA2010 last week, an unconference on Discipleship. Each speaker was asked to present a Big Idea on the topic.
SLOW COOK DISCIPLESHIP IN A MICROWAVE WORLD
I was born in the mid 60’s, right up the 101 Freeway at the Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles, but my earliest memories and formative years were from the 70’s. Besides growing up on L.A. soul music, like any of us who were around then, it was a time before CDs and DVDs, before computers, before answering machines, and before microwave ovens.
Being a third-generation Japanese American, we weren’t dirt poor, but we were hardly wealthy either. Both my parents and their families were forced into internment camps during World War II, returning to nothing when they got out - having lost homes, businesses, and work – and forced to rebuild their lives from scratch.
I’ll never forget the day my dad went to the local electronics store and brought back our very first microwave oven. We were the first family I knew who had one in their home. It was amazing. You could heat up water, make cup ‘o noodle, pop popcorn!
Before microwaves, TV dinners had to be heated in conventional ovens. They came in these aluminum trays with their separate compartments that neatly kept the main entree (usually turkey, fried chicken, or meatloaf) separated from the assorted vegetables, mashed potatoes, and dessert. TV dinners had been around since the 50’s, but with the advent of microwaves, the TV dinner really came of age. The microwave promised to revolutionize our lives!
Except in the end, it didn’t.
The only thing the microwave revolutionized were leftovers; all of a sudden you could pretty much reheat anything, which for a kid is just about the worse thing ever. The fact is, the microwave was incredibly convenient for some things, but it never did replace conventional cooking. If you wanted a great meal, you still had to cook it the old fashioned way: with real food, putting in hard work, time, planning, and a touch of love.
Discipleship is the same way. It’s more real cooking than TV dinner, more crock-pot than microwave oven. TV dinners may look like the real thing, might even smell or taste familiar, but they can never give you the satisfaction nor nutrition that real food can.
Let’s state the obvious: If I were to ask if we believe discipleship takes relationship, long-term investment, and time – I think we’d all nod our heads and say “yup.” I think most churches would say the same thing, too. But let me go on a limb and say though this may be true, I have the sinking feeling that many churches are still trying to make disciples using microwave ovens. On one hand, we know it takes time, but if we're honest we’d still prefer to press the minute button and hope people come out heated and looking like Jesus. In some ways it’s still about information and technique. It’s still the hope that if we just find the right content or the right the vehicle it will heal and transform people.
One of our assumptions has to be that the gospel of the kingdom of God is for people, all people. The goal is to get the beautiful gospel story that God loves us into people, not get people into an institution called the church. Our objective is not to build a church, but to build people.
And that does take time, it is heavily relational, it does require an intentional commitment to give ourselves to one another so we can look more like Jesus. It is more slow cook than microwave oven.
THE RADICAL CALL TO STAY
At Epic slow cook discipleship has looked like the radical call to stay.
For my generation (I’m an old Gen Xer) the default was to stay home. That was pretty much the worldview of everyone I knew. That meant attending college close to home, getting jobs close to home, settling into places close to home. What we feared most was that Jesus would call us to go somewhere…far…like Africa…somewhere foreign and dangerous where we didn’t want to go. The radical call then was to go anywhere Jesus called us. The belief was that only crazy, hardcore missionaries would find any delight in this. Obviously, the call to go was necessary, appropriate, and fitting. There was a lot to be corrected and challenged with this worldview, about mission, about God, about us.
Somewhere, however, things changed. Where the default for my generation was to stay, I think the default for today’s generation is to travel. This generation actually wants to go to Africa. For them, the planet is a smaller place, many just assume they will see the world, even make an impact through something meaningful. And I want to applaud that. I can admire the desire to make a difference somewhere, especially among the poor and the least. It is good to see how the rest of the world lives. For today’s generation, instead of staying, the hope is that Jesus will call them somewhere; anywhere, but here. The worse thing that could possibly happen is to remain home.
That’s why I think for this generation the radical call is to stay. At Epic we don’t call people to stay in any absolute sense – we don’t encourage everyone to stay, all the time, for any reason. People do leave, and for good reasons. We celebrate every time we commission someone for the work of the kingdom somewhere else. But we probably do call people to stay more often than not – or at least make people think about it. We do this especially with the serial movers. And we do this too with those who seem lost, unprocessed, and disconnected. We believe enough in the primacy of community to call people to be more rooted, not less.
The problem with moving from place to place, repeatedly, is that relationships become transient too. People are not in one place long enough to be known, and in fact a lot of folks prefer it that way, we think to their detriment. Instead, at Epic we tell people to stay, get mentored, be in community, be invested in. We let people know that we believe in them in so much and believe in God so much that we think that despite whatever opportunities are out there for them, they will grow more if they stay than if they pick up and leave. It’s a call to grapple with what’s in front of them, to look at what’s inside, and to deal with the very real, often scary, usually painful things in their life - in relationship with others – precisely because this is what is most needed and what is actually good for them.
If it’s always (ding) - time to go – it’s too easy for people to become phantom ghosts, not human beings rooted in community. And I’m sorry, but e-mail, tweeting, and Facebook are not relationship. I love those tools, use them often, really helpful, but it’s not the kind of relationship discipleship requires.
It’s hard, right, because to go somewhere else looks more sexy, sounds more radical, appears more faithful. But what if that isn't always true? And pastors might be the biggest culprits. It’s rare these days for pastors to stay long-term with their congregations, especially the ones who make it big. What we end up teaching people is that when you’re successful, the real important stuff is out there at the next place, not right here, with them.
Ultimately, at Epic we encourage our people to stay so they can be developed for ministry, so that whatever it is God is calling them to, wherever that might be, whenever that might be, they’ll be a better, more mature, more processed person when they get there. Because it matters not just that we get to our destination, but the kind of person we are when we arrive. This is the discipline of discipleship.
SOME DISCOVERIES FROM STAYING PUT
As we’ve called people to stay and commit to community for the sake of their own growth, we’ve made a few discoveries along the way. Let me share two as it relates to staying.
1. The Need for a Framework of Lifelong Development
One of the traits I noticed of people today, one of the conditions of those who don’t figure staying in one place very long, is that they want to change the world and expect to do it now! We realized that most of our people, especially young people, had no vision beyond next month. Getting people to commit to a year is nearly impossible. But nevertheless we try to help our people entertain a lifetime perspective of growth and maturity. We’re training people to think about where they’re going, to convince them there is a life to plan that God cares about and is deeply involved with. We are trying to help people see that discipleship is not a sprint but a marathon, that God works slowly and over time to form and shape us, using our entire lifetime to get us to a place we’re really effective, when we minister out of who we are.
This is where Dr. Bobby Clinton (Making of a Leader) has been extremely helpful. Clinton in his work provides a leadership framework in which to understand stages of development over a lifetime. We help people understand their own story, interpret what God is doing there, what he’s showing them and teaching them, and where he’s leading them. It’s not just about getting people the right content, but teaching people how to learn, how to interpret their lives, listen to his voice, learn how to respond – so that it can last a lifetime. People who stay get to journey with others who have chosen to stay - others who know them and can provide valuable and necessary input and feedback. Again, it’s not a minute-made program, but engagement slow cooked over a lifetime.
2. People Need a Language for Their Souls
As we’ve asked people to commit to community and relationship, one of the things we are better able to do is explore with them, in a significant way, their internal worlds. In doing so, we’ve found that it is a foreign place for a lot of people. One of the biggest hazards of a microwave life is a general lack of depth and self-awareness. People are simply unaware of their own souls.
We think that one of the key reasons people weren’t developing at Epic like we had hoped is because in part they had no idea how God was shaping them. We realized that people were not able to identify or articulate what God was doing in their lives. They needed a new vocabulary, a new language. As a church we needed a common language to describe our souls.
Again, this is where Bobby Clinton has been so helpful. Our people really had no handle on the kinds of processes and checks and tests God uses to shape our souls and build character in us. And when we don’t successfully push through the hard lessons God is teaching about obedience, about pain, about generosity, about forgiveness and reconciliation, about truth telling, about justice – mostly because we don’t even see them as such – we end up in remedial class having to learn the same lessons over and over again. Consequently, we get stuck in our development. We get older, but not wiser. Staying in relationship gives people the advantage of a context and a community to work this stuff through - and a way to talk about it.
In the end, slow cook looks like calling people to stay and commit, where commitment is a necessary aspect of growth. It’s the call to stay and grow together in a particular place. Because if long-term relationship and engagement is key to development and an antidote to microwave discipleship, then there is a way that traveling with Jesus can only happen by staying put. In our age, part of "Go and make disciples" may look like "Stay and be a disciple."