15 September 2015

My Book is Out!

It's been a while since I've written here. I've been consumed with writing projects so my well of content has been pumping solely in that direction, but I'm excited to announce that my first book has released!

“Dan White Jr has penned a well-written, distinctly potent book on incarnational mission.  In it he boldly calls us to a life beyond our standard cultural obsessions with success to a faithfulness that is rendered through rootedness, slow abiding, faithful presence and humble service. Subterranean is an insightful and necessary voice for the future church in the West.” 
— ALAN HIRSCH, Author, The Forgotten Ways

Thank you for your faithful readership over the years. In many ways I have verbally worked out my ideas and practices on this blog. As I've attempted to live into a rooted life for the sake of God's mission, this virtual space has allowed me to pass them along. I hope you find my book a more holistic and concrete exploration into what it means to live into God's in-breaking Kingdom.  I look forward to interacting with you more as I will be migrating this blog over to danwhitejr.com

Peace to you, 

20 July 2015

Confessing Church Planters Guilt

I’ve been going at this Church Planter thing for a few years now. I must say that it’s taken more years off my life than my previous decade in ministry. If there is one thing I’ve learned is that there are a plethora of expectations pummeling a church plant. I’ve experienced many nights tossing and turning over the projected wants lobbed in my general direction. At those moments I make my best attempt at getting still with God and releasing those burdens to the Trinity to deal with. I’ve experienced great spiritual direction over the years in how to root myself in the love of God and not the affirmation of others. All of this has been helpful, but I personally find myself susceptible to hearing, feeling and owning the expectations. The last five years I’ve spent dwelling with and coaching other planters and discovered I’m not alone. The sheer battering-ram of what a successful church plant should look like is felt in the chest of a church planter. Unless you have skin like Teflon, the cultural demands, and the interpersonal demands seep in and stir together a stew of guilt. Guilt that your church is not enough, doing enough, far enough along, dynamic enough etc.
Many of the expectations put upon a church planter and their church are soaked thoroughly in the cultural waters of Idealism. Idealism is the epistemological doctrine that mental ideas are the most fundamental reality. Essentially, it is any philosophy which argues that the only thing actually valuable is what is brewing in our cerebral cortex. RenĂ© Descartes was one of the first to claim that all we really know is what is in our own consciousnesses. Therefore, he claimed, “I think, therefore I am” is the only assertion worth pursuing. Idealism in its culturally appropriated forms infects our ability to accept reality, work within reality and find real contentment within reality. Idealism has infiltrated most of our society and cajoles us to exalt our preferred dreams as authority over the raw, complicated, messy, relational material before us. Idealism perpetuates self-love for our own ideas and creates a naive delusion that we can actually live up to our own ideas. Idealism doesn’t humble our opinions, it exalts them. Idealism perches us on a ledge waiting to criticize, measuring everything against our perceived perfect scenario of how things should be. Idealism sours us against the anvil of messy practice. Years ago I think a portion of idealism caused me to believe I could plant a church that mashed together all my ideals, theological idiosyncrasies, social convictions with a twist of attractive flair. I never considered the most important factor, my church would not be constructed of people that would think like me, feel like me, read like me, see like me and have a personality just like me. My entire church planting journey has been generously peppered with compromise and negotiation. Oversimplified, I get about a 25% to a 50% portion implemented of every ideal I have for my church. This can feel unsatisfying when the fullness of an idea is what beautifully captivated my mind in the first place. Here’s an unrelated metaphor that helps illustrate how this tension plays out. Almost every time my wife and I take a long road trip, about a few hours in I’m craving coffee; a drip filtered, fair-trade, freshly roasted, good cup of coffee. I know I’m picky but my palette longs for this. Every time without fail, the only thing we can find is Dunkin Donuts, a watered down, sugar-saturated, 2 hr burnt cup of imposter coffee. I’m miserable and my wife says “at least you got a cup of coffee”. Church planting can feel this way in the world of Idealism. There are vast regions of my church that I have to say “at least I got a cup of coffee”.
Not only is this Idealism a torment within but it also comes from without. I’ve journaled over  the years all the statements of expectations and ideals made about my church plant:
  • You worship’s not Spirit-filled enough
  • Your church doesn’t have enough for kids
  • Your church is not liturgical enough
  • Your church has too much liturgy
  • Your church is not diverse enough
  • Your church is not multi-generational enough
  • Your church is too small
  • Your church is too liberal
  • Your church is too conservative
  • Your church is too hierarchal
  • Your church has no strong leadership structure
  • Your church is not missional enough
  • Your church is not relational enough
  • Your church is not intellectual enough
  • Your church is not blue-collar enough
  • Your church doesn’t use the Bible enough
  • Your church doesn’t talk about relevant issues
  • Your church has a weak website
  • Your church isn’t into justice enough
  • Your church seems like it’s all about justice
  • Your church has too much space for conversation
  • Your church doesn’t have enough conversation
  • Your church is too institutional, not organic enough
  • Your church is too organic, it feels chaotic
  • Your church encourages doubt
  • Your church gives no space for doubt
I get exhausted reading through that list again. Reading that, the yoke doesn’t feel lighter it feels like a cinder block just got laid on my shoulders. Consumerism tempts me to find a way to purchase the ideal, or find a way to manufacture a shortcut to the perfect church so that people are happy. Part of my soul wants to please people so they walk away saying “that’s the church I’ve always been looking for”, yet I’m increasingly realizing that's not possible in the here in now. My theology of the Kingdom situates in a frustrated tension. The Kingdom has broken into the world through Jesus and there are parts of the kingdom that can be realized but there are parts that cannot be realized. An under-realized eschatology lulls me into apathy about the ideal, but an over-realized eschatology tricks me into hubris that my ideals can be fully experienced. Understanding this truth gives me both a sense of ongoing hope and cold realism as I’m cultivating a church community. The work of church planting is the work of the Kingdom and if the Kingdom is caught in a push-and-pull then the church is caught in a push-and-pull. Just as the kingdom is already here, but not yet here, so we should also consider the church as already beautiful but still kind of ugly.
Honestly, grace is becoming my soothing balm under the demands of idealism, over-realized eschatology, and my people-pleasing tendencies. Grace is not an excuse for not changing but it’s a consolation amidst the difficulty to change. I need grace because I’m humbled by how short my church falls of the ideal. We’re addicted to stories of dramatically “ideal” church’s, ones that have cracked the code on the above list. There is not enough information I can consume that changes the pain of working with real-humans, with real-differences, with real-complicated lives, with real-passion and a real-weak follow through. I’m encouraged by reading the stories of the churches planted by the Apostle Paul. These oikos (household) churches were a hot-mess, with minimal resources and with a minimal impress factor. Nothing but the Grace of Christ Jesus bonded them together in the midst of imperfection. The first-century church was not utopia, it was filled with strife and disappointment. The Apostle Paul embraced this imperfection and carried it in his own body by suffering as a “faithful intermediary, filling up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of laboring for his church."  (Col. 1:24) I feel the ache of imperfection but I must persevere and seek shade under God’s tree of grace.

Beautiful Mess
The pursuit of the ideal church is an idol. Dietrich Bonhoeffer slayed this when he said Those who love their dream for the church more than they love the community of the Church itself become destroyers of that community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial… those who dream of this idolized church demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another accordingly.” Idealism can wreak havoc on the church planter’s heart, baiting them to be whatever the world needs them to be. I’m trying to let go of Church Planter’s Guilt. I’m trying to take the counsel Paul offered Timothy in the midst of a tsunami of church demands “seek a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:3–5). Just the other day someone asked me “what’s your church like?” and a response slipped out of my mouth “my church is what it is”. We are beautiful mess in progress, learning to be faithful to the unique mission God has given us and learning not be crushed under weight of idealism.

24 February 2015

The Renewal House: Locally Rooted Care

When I first co-planted our church, we struggled to find jobs with livable wages. Years ago we were strangers trying to cultivate roots in a new place but along the meandering journey we meet other strangers; strangers with greater challenges than our own. 

We encountered Refugees attempting to resettle in this city from Burma, from the Congo, from Somalia, from Sudan and from Cuba. Our city welcomes almost 1000 refugees each year and 12% of the children in our city schools are refugees. 30% of the population in our city live below the poverty line.  Onondaga Citizens League

We listened to their stories and our hearts were broken open to their struggles. 

Many refugees struggle to find ways to survive as basic as finding a minimum wage job, learning how to drive, acclimating their children to our school system and most importantly finding faithful friends that will walk the journey with them. 

Over the years we've become bonded friends with those struggling to make a new life here; walking the path with them in anyway that we could. In our work we've discerned the need for a designated local space for pressing into this issue. This space will exist to empower our refugees neighbors to move beyond surviving into thriving.

This is a project our faith community is undertaking. If you feel compelled, please help us develop the Renewal House. 

Click here to help us meet our goal> [Our Project Support Site]

Please consider how you can support our cause?

14 January 2015

Ecology of a Worship Gathering

The design of a space is never neutral; it always communicates some specific value. For example, what does it say about someone’s values if they set their living room T.V. off in a corner, while all the furniture is turned towards a window looking out into the back yard? The way a room is set up communicates certain values. Physical spaces have a way of shaping our feelings and even behavior. The church worship gathering is no different. How we design the physical space of our worship gatherings matter. How does our gathering space shape us for mission? How does it shape us for community? We already ask interrogating questions in relation to preaching since we are so intensely an information-transaction-culture. Yet we often forget to inspect the mediums we are using to communicate those messages. What if the medium we use has a message of its own? 

The very spatial mediums we use to communicate those messages shape and architect us in powerful ways. In fact, as a medium, the literal physical spaces we use may actually subvert the very messages we are preaching. What if the arrangement of spaces are actually speaking louder than what we are saying in our sermons?

Trained by the Climate
This exploration into how physical spaces shape us is called an Ecology of Gathering. Ecology is the branch of biology that looks at how organisms relate to one another, and to their physical surroundings. If we apply this field of study to our worship gatherings, then the non-living components (abiotic) of a worship gathering would be: the stage, the positioning of the chairs, the instruments, the volume of the instruments, the symbols, the place where the communicator stands, the video screens, the lighting, the communion elements etc. The living components (biotic) would be the people who are present at the gathering, including the collective vibe created by group dynamics. The premise of an Ecology of Gathering is that the non-living components dynamically interact and stimulate the living components (biotic), creating a living spiritual climate. This climate communicates a message, and over time, this climate controlled message trains us into a certain way of thinking and behaving.

The Early Jesus Movement
The 1st Century Church  had an Ecology of Gathering. Over and against the Jewish Temple-centered practices and the Greek Mystery Cults of the first century, there was an Ecology of Gathering unique to the early Jesus-followers. The early Church went through a new but vital transition that did not allow them to rely on public temples as the primary space for gathering. Meanwhile, the Mystery cults were primarily clustered together by shared social interests and were characterized by a volume of impressive rituals. The early Jesus movement was not bonded together by mere social or political rituals. In 1 Peter 2:5 we can see the transition from the Old Testament model where only a certain group of people (Levites) could dictate the gathering, to a more participatory model where every person is considered a priest, opening worship up to the priesthood of all believers. The clearest picture we have of an Ecology of Gathering is found in I Corinthians 10-14. Paul guides the Corinthians into a rhythm that centers The Lord’s Table, the expression of spiritual gifts, and the essential-ness of community. Paul was not only concerned about what they did, he was also concerned about how they did it. As an architect, Paul was paying attention to an Ecology of Gathering.

Clash with Consumerism
The gathered church does not cultivate an Ecology of Gathering in a vacuum; it will always be formed in the midst of the wider culture. Consumerism is the current we swim in, and is potentially the most exalted god in the Western context. We must become aware of how our approach to gathering has been shaped by the dominant cultural forces. The doctrine of Consumerism states that whatever dazzles us with words, with personality, with brilliant production, is worth our time. We measure our experiences by the immediate emotional return these things offer us. Consumerism is not so much an action as it is an underlying belief system, a narrative that tells us that meaning comes from the things we consume; what we take into ourselves. Consumerism sends us hunting for products that impress, productions that inspire and personalities that captivate in an effort to deliver us from our unsatisfying and bored existence.

Churches end up playing into this powerful narrative when they seek to find the relevant hot-spots for what people want, and then use them to design their “services” and “market” it to church “shoppers.” The stage, the sermon series, children's ministry that acts more like a glorified Disney Land-type babysitting service, all become covert tools to keep us coming back for more. This places all the emphasis on the veneer of the gathering not the ethic of the gathering. When we primarily design our gatherings around these marketplace sensibilities, the controlling questions end up being “Will people like what we produce?” “Is it quick and easy to access?” “How do we compete with other “service” providers?” We have to be cautious about how our gatherings can unknowingly malform towards consuming spiritual inspiration. Our worship gatherings must embrace an ecology that introduces frustrations to this stealth, rabid impulse to consume and judge the “presentation” purely based on how the experience makes us feel.

Discerning and Designing
As an architect of community, you have to begin to grapple with an Ecology of Gathering. This means asking questions and making choices based on the end goal of re-shaping people into a new narrative of self-emptying love, others-oriented community and costly mission. (Philippians 2:1-11) We can no longer simply adopt what has “worked” in the past, what works at a popular church, or what works down the street. Just because something appears to be “working” doesn't mean it’s actually working for the good. The medium is the message, which means every aspect of your gathering is either supporting your message, or subverting it.  

How can we design our gatherings in ways that build in a measure of resistance to the cultural forces of consumerism? The following are three overlapping categories for discerning and designing that help in the diagnostics of the Ecology of your Gathering.

·        How is the room arranged?
·        What values does it communicate?
·        What is central in the room? What is peripheral?
·        Is the furniture arranged for consuming or contributing?
·        How is technology used in the room? What does it amplify? What does it reduce?
·        Does the room communicate one groups values over another?

·        What is the purpose of the gathering?
·        Does the order of worship encourage watching or participating?
·        Does the liturgy perpetuate autonomy or community?
·        Does the content reflect being sent people?
·        Does the communication exalt one person or the priesthood of believers?
·        Does the worship communicate God’s transcendence and Immanence?

·        How often do you gather for worship? Every week? Every other Week? Monthly?
·        What does the frequency communicate?
·        How is the frequency of this gathering situated in the life of daily community?
·        Is this our primary expression of being the church?
·        Is this a service to attract the curious? or to gather the People of God?
·        Is the marketing around our gathering sensationalized or over promising? 

It is unhelpful to prescribe exactly how you should construct your worship gathering. The missional church is not a cut and paste model. As architects of community, we have to enter into deeper, ongoing reflection as to how the Form, Function and Frequency of our gatherings are shaping people's imagination about what it means to be the church.

10 December 2014

Top 10 Missionally Helpful Books in 2014

There were a plethora of good books I worked through this year. The stack of books on my desk were a bit larger than normal because I was in the middle of research for my own project Subterranean. Outside of research, I often find myself reading from a missional-pastoral angle. So I picked 10 books this year that helped me coach, counsel or gently cajole others to enter deeply into community, for the mission of God.

1. A Thicker Jesus by Glen H. Stassen
Sadly, Glen Stassen passed away this year but he had a significant influence on me. Both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr., were been able to practice truth against power at great personal cost, while others readily capitulated to injustice. In this magnum opus, Stassen spingboards of their work to argue that such a robust Christianity stems from believing in a "thicker" Jesus, who is Lord over all of life. Belief in this thicker Jesus results in "incarnational discipleship". We must break away from idealism, individualism and cynicism to engage in the flawed messiness of our world.

2. The New Parish by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight Friesen
I was able to hang with Paul Sparks in my own city this summer and his presence was a deep encouragement. I respect these guys because they are practitioners. This book is about when faith communities begin connecting together, for the neighborhood, they learn to depend on God for strength to love, forgive and show grace like never before. The gospel becomes tangible and compelling when the local church is actually a part of the community, connected to the struggles of the people, and even the land itself.

3. Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations edited by Kay Higuera Smith, 
Jayachitra Lalitha, L. Daniel Hawk.
In 2010, the Postcolonial Roundtable gathered at Gordon College to initiate a new conversation regarding the significance of post-colonial discourse for evangelicalism. Colonialism involves more than just territorial domination. It also silences and disenfranchises those who do not hold power. Post-colonialism seeks to disrupt forms of domination and empower the marginalized to be agents of transformation. This book offered me good challenges as a white pastor in an urban neighborhood.

4. Theology of Mission by John Howard Yoder
Decades later, these lectures read just as fresh and relevant as if they were written today. Yoder effortlessly weaves together biblical, theological, practical and interreligious reflections to think about mission beyond Christendom. Along the way he traces the developments of mission and argues for an understanding of the church that is not merely a corrective but a genuine alternative in society. My favorite chapter might be chpt 17 on the Medium, Message and Presence. He goes on multiple tirades about consumerism, conversion-pressure and the breakdown of community.

5. Sermon on the Mount Commentary by Scot McKnight
I've got a bit of an obsession with the Sermon on the Mount. I read it every year and find it refreshing and unsettling everytime. I'm always looking for commentaries on it. McKnight explains each passage in light of the Bible’s Grand Story. This is good narrative theology. Scot consistently ties the Sermon back to the countercultural life the People of God are to express; as the in-breaking Kingdom. While the writing is not highly technical, it is theologically and philosophically rich. This book is accessible to the layperson and equally challenging to the academic.

6. Living Into Community by Christine Pohl
This is my second time through this book. Many of us are idealistic and passionate about community but when we dive into it we experience deception, grumbling, envy, and exclusion. These experiences make life together painful and can cause us to bail on the project of community. When we are not faithful through the difficulty, it prevents us from developing the skills, virtues, and character we need to nurture sturdy and love-filled communities. Christine Pohl acutely looks at practices that can counteract these destructive forces and help sustain vibrant communities.

7. Facing Levianthan by Mark Sayers
I was able to have breakfast with Mark recently and was captivated by his quirky, unconventional, rapid fire wisdom; this book reflects that personality. On one side, the mechanical leader casts a vision of heroic action aided by pragmatism and technology. On the other side, the organic leader is aided by creativity, defying convention and relishing the margins. This book explores the godlikeness of the mechanical leader and the dark chaos of the organic leader. Sayers weaves the history of leadership through the Enlightenment, Romanticism and the 19th century pointing out the leadership dangers while calling us to a better way. 

8. Incarnate by Michael Frost
For real, this is Mike's best book as he is prophetic in his critique of disembodied ways we attempt to be the church. The story of Christianity is a story of incarnation—God taking on flesh and dwelling among the people he created. Yet Christianity is increasingly understood as something personal, sentimental, interior, private, neighborless. As a result of dualism, technology, and individualism, the vast majority of people are now living relationally disconnected lives. Frost defines the problem but then provides hope for the church to be the incarnational alternative in society today.

9. The Peep Diaries by Hal Niedzviecki
We have entered the age of "peep culture": a tell-all, show-all, know-all digital phenomenon that is dramatically altering notions of privacy, individuality, humanity and community. Peep culture is YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Blogs. In the age of peep, we live vicariously through others, form pseudo relationships with people we'll never observe in real life and erode our senses with constant stimulation. The Peep Diaries reflects the aspirations of the growing number of people willing to trade the details of their lives for catharsis, attention, and notoriety.

10. Place Attachment edited by Lynne C. Manzo & Patrick Wright
Place attachments are emotional bonds that form between people and their physical surroundings. These connections are a powerful aspect of human life that inform our sense of identity, create meaning in our lives, facilitate community and influence action. Place attachments have bearing on such diverse issues as rootedness, belonging, placemaking, mobility and loneliness. This is a highly academic read, I think its a text book. I found it helpful in understanding the crisis before us; that we're encountering a generation that doesn't know how to stay but is caught in perpetual search for the next opportunity.

What books were helpful for you this year?

01 December 2014

Advent: The Challenge of Waiting

In this Season of Advent we learn about waiting. Waiting is painful; it brings anxiety and in some cases causes us to wonder - “Where is God?”, “Does God sleep?”, “Does he care?” 

Malachi had spoken of the Messiah’s coming in chapter 1 "I have loved you, saith the LORD. Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me saying ‘the Lord, whom ye seek is coming to his temple, for he brings a new covenant, a new day of delight. Will you stand with him when he appeareth? For his message is like a refiner's fire."

Imagine being the Jewish people hearing these words of promise, the coming of a new day, a new hope and then suddenly silence. After these words from Malachi there was cold, tortuous silence for 400 years. Between the Old Testament and the New Testament it seemed as if God disappeared. Nothing was spoken and nothing moved. 

Jesus did not arrive into a quaint storyline. There were thousands of people hanging on the words of Malachi who did not see these words fulfilled. There are no easy answers as to why God would take his time. In our emotional economies this is not O.K. In our demands for immediacy there is no space and no purpose for waiting. What we need, what we long for, must come on our terms and on our timelines. If we have to wait too long we're prone to move on, become cynical and pick another course. 

By the time Emmanuel arrived, those looking for the Messiah had been whittled down to a small remnant and few were looking any longer. Many had filled in the silence with their own agendas and demands. During Advent we are challenged with the complexity of waiting. We are confronted with our own character, our own faithfulness and our own expectations. This is the challenge of waiting. “Why would God makes us wait for what is good?” 

During Advent we ponder the place we are in. We have been offered a new purpose but not one without pain and paradox. We are given vision for a Kingdom-future but then we are weighed down in the obstacles of today. Our lives are still a mix of delight and despair. We are exposed everyday to the merging of brokenness and beauty. As we light the Advent candle’s let’s consider what we are waiting for. Let’s consider the kind of people we desire to be as we wait. To hold onto hope is to embrace that God's Spirit may be working on character deep within us as we wait.

A Community Prayer for Waiting

When we are heavy with sorrow, 
let us cling to a whispering hope.
When we are deep in the night, 
let us not forget the light we’ve once seen.
When we are exhausted from waiting, 
let us find strength in each other.

Like the Remnant of Israel, teach our hearts how to wait.

When we are hardened by conflict, 
let love interrupt our bitterness.
When we are frightened by scenarios, 
let us receive wisdom from each other.
When we are haunted by failures, 
let grace heal our self-inflicted wounds.
When we are dismal and defeated, 
let faith be our nourishment.

Like the Remnant of Israel, teach our hearts how to wait.

When we are weary and complaining, 
let our hearts discover perspective.
When we are apathetic and clumsy, 
let deep apologies flow from our lips.
When we are dashed by disappointments,
let us find footing to press forward.

Like the Remnant of Israel, teach our hearts how to wait.

We are sheep who wander in the waiting, 
but the Shepherd knows our names.
We are strangers without a country, 
but the Kingdom of God is our true home.

In this time of great meaning, 
in the stillness of Advent, 
birth new patience, 
give us grace for the days before us.

In the name of the Father, 
the Son and the Holy Spirit,