Planting Lessons: Prayer and Preparation

A quiet morning overlooking the soccer field at Flo Valley

A quiet morning overlooking the soccer field at Flo Valley

And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia
Acts 16:13-14a

One of my least favorite memories of my time as an InterVarsity staff at SLU was the time that I was asked to lead a prayer at Greek Convocation, a service held in College Church to celebrate the beginning of the year for Greek Life. I had spent a few months trying to start a Greek ministry on campus and it was starting to take off a little bit and some of the kind folks in the Greek Life Department asked me to say a prayer over the community as the rush season began. I felt really honored.

Not honored enough though, apparently, to overcome one of my crippling weaknesses in life – time management. I was having coffee with a friend right before the service was supposed to start and underestimated the amount of time it would take to get to SLU from the coffee shop. I also underestimated the amount of time it would take to park on campus (who decided Greek Convocation Day was also a good day to host another large conference on campus that used the parking garage?).

By the time I parked, it was five minutes before convocation was supposed to start. I grabbed my suit jacket, threw on my dress shoes, and ran from the garage to the church. By the time I got there, it was my turn to pray – unbeknownst to me, I was the first thing on the agenda. Awesome. I whipped my jacket on and huffed my way up to the podium – whoops, wrong podium – I was pointed across the stage to the other podium.  Fumbling with the microphone, I quickly realized, between gasps, that I had no idea how to introduce myself nor what came after me so I just decided to jump right in.

Then, sweat rolling down my face, I also came to the harrowing awareness that the run I had just taken was much further than I thought and it was gonna take me a good couple minutes to fully catch my breath – minutes I did not have to spare.  Suffice it to say, I mouth-breathed my way through what had to have been the most awkward prayer of all time, which was also a prayer I was making up on the spot (hard to prep on the way when you’re panicking about your time). Believe it or not, that was the only time they ever asked me to do Greek Convocation.

I tell you that story to give you a snapshot of one the key ways the Lord has had to break me over my years in ministry.  Before and during much of my tenure as an InterVarsity staff, I have been able to “wing it” through much of what IV staff has put in front of me. I love building relationships with people and love investing time deeply into college campuses; meaningful preparation for that time, though, has always been the shallow end of my talent pool. After all, doesn’t prep time just take away from time with students? Shouldn’t I just trust the Spirit to prepare me for my time on campus?

This year, my talent for winging it encountered the unsubtle brick wall of planting a new ministry on a community college campus. I quickly found that my charm and charisma (at least what little the Lord saw fit to bless me with) was quickly overshadowed by my fear of new surroundings and unfamiliar students. I walked around campus and simply had no idea what to do. How do you build a ministry where you know literally no one? How do you start conversations as a 28-year-old, non-student who had to use Google Maps to find the right highways into this part of town?

Somewhere along the way, the Lord brought to mind a passage I had led students through at our Urban Project over Spring Break this year – Acts 16 – the beginning of the church at Philippi through Paul’s interactions with Lydia. I love this story for so many reasons, but mostly because Paul’s normal plans for engaging a city fell apart right from the beginning. He normally went into town and looked for a synagogue from which to preach the Gospel. When he showed up in Philippi, there weren’t enough Jewish men to even have a synagogue. What do you do as a foreigner in a new place when your previous strategies can’t get you in the door?

Luke tells us that Paul went to where he could find “a place of prayer.” From that place, a riverside gathering of faithful women (not men!), the church at Philippi came into being. Everything came out of that place of prayer. Their interaction with the slave girl that leads to the conversion of the jailer later on in Acts 16 also began as they were on their way to the place of prayer.

This story came rushing back into my mind one day while feeling helplessly uncertain of my role on campus and I remembered back to my first time at Flo Valley, when the Lord showed me this soccer field just off the edge of campus. I remember feeling a serene sense of peace and acceptance in that place, like Jesus just wanted me to linger there awhile. It was one of the evidences to me that the Lord was calling me to Flo Valley – the presence of this peaceful place where the Spirit seemed to be so tangible to me. Perhaps this could be my place of prayer. Maybe the Lord would bring me a Lydia – some insider to the campus who would be receptive to the Gospel and through whom the entire campus might be reached by Jesus.

So to the soccer fields I go, every morning before I do anything else at Flo Valley. No more running from meeting to meeting, hoping my theology and experience and “eloquent speech” can carry me through to whatever “ministry success” I hope to find that day. I am learning to stop, to listen, to wait for the Lord. I am learning that these moments of prayer and preparation are themselves part of the calling – that the Lord desires to shape me in silence, stillness, and dependence as much as he desires to reach the campus in word, deed, and power.

It is from this place that I have seen the Lord do incredible things, even small ones, this semester. It is at this place that my co-workers, alumni from SLU, local pastors, and other friends have met me to prayer-walk the campus. It is at this place that many conversations with intrigued seekers, politely uninterested skeptics, and even a few believing professors have taken shape. I’m not sure if we’ve found our Lydia yet, but I feel like I at least know how we will.

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A Summary of the First Week of School

In InterVarsity lingo, NSO stands for “New Student Outreach,” the first few weeks of the school year in which InterVarsity staff and student leaders meet incoming freshmen and other new friends and invite them to become part of our communities on campuses all over the country. These posts are a few snapshots of the beginning of the school year on a few of the campuses where I either staff or oversee other IV staff.  Click below to read blog posts from the first week of school.

NSO Day #0 – Find Your Faith at UMSL
NSO Day #1 – Free Lunch with Kale
NSO Day #2 – Proxe Stations at Webster
NSO Day #3 – Fall Expo at UMSL
NSO Day #4 – Exploring at Flo Valley

Book Review: Miracle Work by Jordan Seng

The Overview:  The subtitle on the cover of Miracle Work reads, “A Down-to-Earth Guide to Supernatural Ministries.”  This is a perfect description of what this book is all about.  Jordan Seng, the pastor of Bluewater Mission in Honolulu, HI, contends that followers of Jesus should live and minister in two distinct ways: (1) with an everyday awareness and practice of the supernatural power of God at our disposal and (2) in humble proximity to those who most need the miraculous work of God in their lives.  The chapters in his book, after a few introductory pages, alternate between descriptions of five supernatural ministries (healing, deliverance, prophecy, intercession, and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit) and personal anecdotes of those gifts at work.  He labors to give an explanation of both what supernatural ministries are and what it feels like to use and grow in them.

The Good:  This book is immensely practical and relatable.  For someone coming from a conservative evangelical background with minimal exposure to supernatural ministry (or charismatic gifts or practice as it is sometimes called), I came in open-minded but wary of potential red flags that I have often associated with ministries particularly focused on these practices.  Honestly, other than some likely theological disagreement with the chapter on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, I didn’t see much with which my fellow conservative evangelical friends would disagree.  This is simply a primer on what these five miraculous ministries are and practical steps in learning and using them.  Dr. Seng is charming and personable as he explains simple tips and shares stories from his own experiences, including his failures as well as successes.  He is sharp and succinct on the “how-tos” and thorough and pastoral in his explanation of the “what-ifs” (“What if this doesn’t work the first time? What if I use the wrong words? What if things get really intense?”).  The interesting thing about supernatural ministry, in my experience, is that though the listing of these gifts is seemingly always associated with gifts that are used all the time in our church and parachurch ministries (teaching, knowledge, wisdom, serving, evangelizing, etc.), they are almost never talked about, let alone used, in many Christian circles.  I have given hours of my life to being trained as an evangelist; I have never even heard of a training on healing or deliverance.  In this book, Dr. Seng balances this equation and gives us some practical tools that we need to be fully equipped for ministry as those who walk by the Spirit.

The Bad:  This is a book that you will either love or ignore, period.  I wish that Dr. Seng had included a chapter near the beginning that addressed the walls of resistance that many will no doubt have about retooling their ministries or worship services to allow for the utilization of these supernatural ministries.  A five-page chapter entitled “For all my Reformed and Catholic readers…” with some sharp theological critique of the neglect of these gifts and caring pastoral guidance over the stereotypical barriers that exist between certain camps of Christians would have done wonders to help this book appeal to a broader audience.  It is somehow both a relaxing charm and a minor disappointment that Dr. Seng moves quickly out of the station without slowing down to see if he lost anybody who wasn’t already on the bus.

The Transferable:  Literally everything in this book is transferable.  The chapters on each ministry are so incredibly practical and full of little tips and simple steps to take in using supernatural gifts.  I will share one practical tool that Dr. Seng describes as “the heart of this book.”  He (with some self-deprecation) calls it “the power equation.”  According to Dr. Seng, “growing in power is the biggest key to doing supernatural ministry well” (54).  Here is his “equation” for growing in power:

Authority + Gifting + Faith + Consecration = Power

Using Scripture and experience to back up the argument, Dr. Seng argues that our growth in these four areas will lead to greater access to successful uses of the Holy Spirit’s power.  Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical of something so spiritual laid out in an equation but the more I read his explanation, the more I found myself resonating with his logic.  If we grow in our obedience to Jesus, our understanding of and appreciation for the gifts, our willingness to risk and say yes to Jesus, and our willingness to sacrifice our worldly desires for holy living, doesn’t it make sense that we would become more attuned to the voice of Jesus and be able to discern his will and access the resources of the Holy Spirit?  It certainly does to me.

Who Should Read This:  This is a book that should be read by ministry leaders and practitioners who are genuinely desiring to grow in their understanding and practice of the gifts of the Spirit.  This is not a book for those who desire a theological explanation for why these gifts are still usable and useful today (other than the chapter on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is quite challenging and theologically well-argued).

Book Review: The Permanent Revolution by Alan Hirsch & Tim Catchim

One of my goals for 2015 is to finish one book every week. I love reading and usually have a few books going at a time but I notice that though I may finish several books in a year, I don’t always retain much of what I’ve read. To combat this trend, I want to start reviewing and synthesizing some of that here, likely just for my own personal enjoyment. Here we go!

The Overview:  In Ephesians 4, Paul offers what many have argued to be the key lever for understanding missional leadership in the Church: the fivefold gifts of Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Shepherd, Teacher (APEST for short).  Hirsch and Catchim weave together biblical studies, theology, organizational theory, leadership theory, and elements of other social sciences to argue for the return to this model of leadership, particularly for the re-centering of the apostolic function in our understanding and praxis of missional leadership in the Church.  They trace a historical de-centering of the apostolic (along with the prophetic and evangelistic) and an unhealthy bias and obsession focused on those with shepherding and teaching gifts.  They spend about 1/3 of the book establishing Ephesians 4 and the APEST roles as a framework and the rest of the book unpacking the function of the apostolic specifically.

The Good:  This book is brilliant at its best moments and smarter than most at its worst.  The authors offer a solid and well-reasoned argument for the prominence of the Ephesians 4 text in our understanding of leadership in the Church and an equally strong critique of its marginalization.  Alan Hirsch is at his best when he is trumpeting the priesthood of all believers and his “everybody gets to play” understanding of mission in the local church context and this book is no exception.  The first third of the book presents a robust understanding of how the five functions fit together and the capacity for Kingdom-building that could be unlocked were they properly understood and empowered.  Without doubt, the authors paint a compelling picture of the Church fully activated in the world.  Throughout the other two-thirds, they employ (unforgettably, at times) the best of current thinking in entrepreneurial practice and sociological understanding to illuminate the truths of Scripture and apply it liberally to much-needed areas of church leadership, particularly focusing in on culture change, leadership development and deployment, and missional innovation.  This is a small detail but I also highly enjoyed the quotes from various world leaders, Christian and otherwise, that began and cast light onto the chapter to come.

The Bad:  While intelligent and well-researched the book certainly is, easily accessible it most certainly is not.  The first third is well worth the price of admission and easy enough to understand and apply.  The back two-thirds, however, take a fairly disciplined reader with a heavy interest in social psychology, entrepreneurial leadership, or both, to endure to the end.  The book is tedious at times with diagrams, analogies, and expansions of material already covered.  Hirsch and Catchim seem almost overly eager to show the reader how many connections to sociology and business practice can be made in the realm of the apostolic.  No doubt a heavier editorial hand would have been welcomed by many a reader (or would-be-reader).  Also, my wife hates the cover, so -2 points.

The Transferable:  Much of the first hundred pages would be easily transferable in the realm of the average ministry leader.  Hirsch and Catchim’s definition and explanation of each of the fivefold gifts are brilliant in their scope and application.  I recently taught a group of young potentially-gifted evangelists the Evangelistic Ministry Matrix (pictured at left), which helps explain four different types of evangelistic function. This was an eye-opener to some who had previously questioned their evangelistic gifting based on stereotypes with which they could not relate.

Who Should Read This:  I would argue that a basic “reader’s digest” version of the book’s best material can be found in other works by Hirsch (and his tribe).  However, I have yet to come upon a more thoroughly unpacked rendering of the five gifts and their functions in the Church.  For that reason, I would highly recommend the first third of this book for any leader with a level or two of leadership beneath her who desires to see everyone activated in mission.  I would also recommend parts of it to any follower of Jesus who seeks to understand the APEST gifts and their rootedness in Scripture.  I would recommend the back two-thirds to apostolic leaders (planters, entrepreneurs, movement thinkers) who geek out on Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, and the like, and who love making connections between the worlds of church leadership and the social sciences.