This post completes this Recovery from Spiritual Abuse section on “how to choose a healthy fellowship” with a portrait of a healthy church that is intergenerational and intercultural, and also looks at the redemptive role of suffering in building leaders who leave a legacy.
In the long run, what counts is how the next generation thinks. How far new ideas permeate culture is not measured just by attitude change during one generation, but by what is taken for granted in the next.
Helen Haste, in The Sexual Metaphor: Men, Women, and the Thinking That Makes the Difference, page 149.
Introduction: “Mentor Appreciation Month”
April happens to be a month when I take time to remember and celebrate a number of my key mentors, many of whom have passed on to their reward. These women and men have helped keep me sane (if such is possible?!) amidst the typical rigors and growing pains of maturing spiritually, and amidst the extreme emotional and spiritual pains of surviving toxic leaders and their torturous inflictions of abuse and neglect.
Through most of my twenties, I could not find anyone to mentor me. That deep but unfulfilled desire spurred me to commit myself to work toward providing for others what I could not find myself. And, when God did send “soul friends” to help refine the shape of my destiny, I rejoiced! “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12, NIV).
And so, I am glad that I can post this entry today, in honor of them and as a fitting wrap up to Part 2 of my series on Recovery from Spiritual Abuse. Its two articles offer glimpses of hope from a healthy “integrative model” church, and from thoughts on the positive impacts of mentoring as a “soul friend.”
In retrospect, I see that my mentors’ greatest impact often came not through helping me deal with the specifics of spiritual abuse, but simply by helping me deal with the generalities of life. They helped me see myself in God’s largest perspective possible, instead of within the confines of “my issues.” How easy it is for those of us who have been spiritually abused to “become” what has happened to us, and wrap ourselves in that false identity as if we deserved it or as if we cannot escape it!
But consider the wise words of Abbe Faria, who has mentored the wrongfully imprisoned Edmond Dantes. As he dies, he whispers to Edmond, “Here now is your final lesson. Do not commit the crime for which you now serve the sentence.” (The Count of Monte Cristo, 2002 film version, scene 13.)
We never deserved abuse. We are more than the abuse we suffered. We can escape its devilish clutches. We still have an identity and destiny apart from the abuse – and we all need people who will help us break the chains of our past and stretch forward into our future. Otherwise, ironically, we inflict spiritual abuse and neglect upon ourselves … and are then more likely to “dementor” others.
Note: I will be taking a blogging break from this series for perhaps a few weeks to a month or so. I want to do justice to Parts 3 and 4 on what makes us susceptible to become spiritual abusers or be spiritually abused, and what makes for respectable leadership. And that will require some prep time. Meanwhile, I plan to continue my series on The Golden Compass, since the DVD will be released at the end of this month.
The Whole and the Holes
An Intergenerational, Intercultural Church Genre That Counteracts “Spiritual Osteoporosis”
Long ago I concluded that the main problem in our modern and postmodern fellowships is seldom false teaching. Much more, what we are missing is what traps us. Our church methodologies and structures may seem perfectly sound. But then, like spiritual osteoporosis of the soul, the gaps in our own lives and in our church Bodies go unnoticed until we experience a complete and sudden collapse. The holes that were hidden can cripple or even kill us.
If this assumption is true, and both modern and postmodern genres of being/doing church have inherent deficiencies, then what can we do? What approach fills in the gaps? Where can we find an example of holistic church that fits, especially in the emerging post-postmodern era and beyond?
Let me offer a brief case study in “integrative church planting” (i.e., intergenerational so there is mentoring and passing the church on to the next wave of leaders, and intercultural so that it calls all people groups beyond their native culture to a comprehensive “Kingdom culture”). It’ll take a book to share the details of why this approach counteracts what currently is missing in so many of our churches, but I believe even the short version can illustrate some practical aspects.
Actually, I can’t even recall how I met Pastor Bill. It was one of those relational introductions so common these days – friends telling each other about finding “our kind of church” and inviting you to come meet their cool church planter/pastor. “He’s just who he is, and he let’s everybody else be real, too!”
Bill is one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever met, but you’d only know that because it can’t be hidden. He’s also one of the most humble leaders-by-example I’ve ever met, and that can’t be faked. Bill’s innovative, narrative-based sermons bring the Bible to life like nothing I’ve ever heard! He spins the stories together so well that you feel you’re walking right beside Jesus and The Twelve, surveying the scenes they saw, smelling the salts in the seas, tasting hot fish fillets straight from the fire.
Jesus comes alive to us through those sermons, and Bill models how to become like Jesus to one another. For instance, we all know we’re welcomed to drop by Bill and Laura’s place just about anytime, and it’s not just anyone who can make 20-somethings through 50-somethings feel comfortable, accepted, and equals. But they do. And they constantly disciple people naturally, in the course of pastoral care, small groups, and one-to-one conversations.
There’s such excitement among our little multigenerational band of men and women! We’ve felt like the misfits of both the world and the Church. But, ahhh, finally … here’s a place of our own! Where we meet in small groups to slog our way through Scriptures to real understandings and relevant applications. Where we’re covenanted together as each other’s priority relationships, and we experience intimacy that seems so elusive elsewhere. Where we help each other discover and use our spiritual gifts for the good of the church and the surrounding community. And none of that simply-send-“problem”-people-away-to-get-fixed mentality. With Bill’s leadership, we’ve developed a willingness to walk through life’s muck with one another, even when people do go for counseling if needed. There’s a spiritual support system beyond anything the recovery movement could offer.
Our church plant isn’t based on some external, abstract vision that we aspire to because of some pie-in-the-sky charismatic leader. Instead, this small Southern Baptist congregation is the natural expression of who we are and what we ourselves already hold inside as an organic, concrete version of seeking wholeness and holiness.
And what does our theology look like? I guess it really is the ultimate “blended” system. Overall, the theology and “style” seem to integrate the best from each major church tradition, without the excesses of each that bring toxicity. And that’s what prevents gaps, or fills them in. We have the biblical grounding supplied by theological conservatism. Reverence for God and a sense of His transcendence from the liturgical traditions. His imminence as expressed in the intentional connectivity of the radical Anabaptists, house-church movement, and other faith communities. The sense of mystery and reflection among the Orthodox branches. Broader range of freedom in expression of motion and emotions in worship from the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Creativity and cultural relevancy of the missional church emphasis.
Does that sound to you like what we’ve been searching for the past few years to reach the emerging cultures?! It works, but it takes hard work to integrate consistently toward a comprehensive theology, axiology [values], and praxology [practice]. But we seem to have all the hallmarks of a countercultural church that is contextualized for contemporary postmodern cultures and beyond. Clarity, creativity, community, complexity, and comprehensivity – what more could you ask for …?
… well, maybe just that this little body of believers would have survived a few more decades. But Pastor Bill and “Church of the Covenant” were too far ahead of their time, and it was not financially sustainable, though it demonstrated other kinds of sustainability. The years of this, my first church planting experience, were 1979-1980, and we didn’t even know at the time we were in a vanguard “(post-)postmodern” church plant experiment.
In one way, I fibbed by tweaking the verb tenses above, as if this church existed in the here-and-now. But in another way it does, because I carry the seeds of intergenerational, intercultural church planting in my soul. I believe it represents an integrative, organic approach that will not only survive into the post-post-postmodern era, but perhaps even dominate contextualized churches in that period and multiply heartily. But first, we must move beyond mere reaction to the institutional church genres of the modernistic, monocultural past. We must move beyond the incremental changes and pragmatic experimentations of the multicultural, postmodernistic present. We must venture and adventure into the futuristic realm of intercultural, holistic paradigms.
When we’re ready for the hard theoretical, theological, and methodological work called forth by the task of filling in our gaps, I pray the remembrance of this pioneering church plant will guide us.
© 2003 Brad Sargent. The above article originally appeared in a newsletter for church planters. It is presented here with almost no editing.
Epilogue 2008. I lost track of Bill and Laura over 15 years ago, after the church folded and they relocated so Bill could work pursue doctoral studies. A few years back, I finally found them during one of my periodic internet searches for them.
The Heart of Leadership and Legacy
One privilege of leadership is redemptive suffering – finding ways relationally in God’s providence to see our wounds transformed into another’s wealth. Is that not what Christ accomplished for us in His death for our sins? But it seems to be the suffering part that we stumble over on the way to the transformation …
When I was in my early twenties, I was getting more and more ill. College went slower and slower, and by the time I graduated, I was supposedly qualified to teach English as a Second Language, but my body forced me to settle for four hours a day of keypunching and data entry. Over the next seven years, four different kinds of doctors couldn’t figure out what was going wrong with my body. One suggested it was all in my head. I wondered if I was dying; some days I felt so fatigued that I simply wish it was time to meet my Maker, and rest joyfully in His presence instead of live fitfully here.
But I also felt a God-ordained spark of destiny fueling me forward. Often the direction was not clear, and I’d think, “Oh! I really liked experiencing thus-and-so … maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do with my life …” And I’d pursue that. A few months later, it was something else. I didn’t realize that part of my destiny in becoming a man of the Kingdom was to experience ministry widely for a while. Over 20 years later, I feel like those seemingly unrelated experiences are finally integrating, and that I am (at last!) entering that era when the main thing God intended me to do with what He invested in me, is becoming manifest.
Ironically, it seems like that destination is the same for each of us who name the name of Christ as His followers. It is a general destiny of leadership, where we are called to mutually guide our peers and those of the following generation of followers to enter into their own destiny, which is to guide those born after them, and so on. And each of us will live out that privilege, that destiny, with as much diversity as entered the world at the tower of Babel, when God ordained multiculturalism and the differentiations of our language drove us to the four winds.
The particular privilege I have in leadership now is this: to be a “soul friend,” a “spiritual director,” and simply an older brother in the faith to the teen- and twenty- and thirty- and forty-somethings I know. Many of them are as fatigued of spirit now as I was of body in my twenties then – especially those who have been de-energized while being marginalized as “too random” or “too postmodern” or “too creative” or “too subcultural.”
Know it or not, they need help to reflect on their lives and interpret them in a bigger biblical framework. They need to receive the truth that, as my friend Kathy Koch teaches, “the Lord trusts young people and entrusts them with our futures,” even when traditional church structures often refuse to do so. He has a stunning purpose for each of them, even if it is always a behind-the-scenes kind of ministry of service that is never formally recognized as “leadership” by the churches. He values them as members of His Kingdom, even if perhaps no one else thinks so but we and the Watchers who look over our apprentices’ shoulders to see what on earth God is up to.
Our younger brothers and sisters especially need to hear from us that they matter deeply to Jesus and to us, that they will indeed survive their “spiritual acne” years, and that the wait will be worth it … because they have the most precious stuff in the universe invested into them already, the image of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit. And now, by the hardships they endure, they are being transformed with the character of Christ. And wow! What a “pay-off” those investments are even now birthing into this emerging new world!
The heart of leadership’s privilege lies in this: by our touching the life of others with who we are, God transforms them more into who they are, and all of us together are changing the very course of history thereby. As one disciple’s identity connects with his or her destiny, Christ ensures the future of His church for yet another generation. Is that gift of eternity not something that goes beyond anything we could ask or think?
Here is the most recent poem I wrote, as I’ve pondered the mystery of mentoring.
© 2002 Brad Sargent
mentors leave a legacy
by gifting opportunities
to develop skill and character
transform our lives from who we were
into the who we’ve yet to be
help us embrace our destiny
to send forth waves on human lakes
transform more lives for Kingdom’s sake
by gifting opportunities
that re-steer human history
expand the chain of legacy
from mentors to infinity …
Paradoxically, both the privilege of serving and being served require that we embrace suffering through the supernatural strengthening God supplies, not run from it, as is our natural response. Alan Jones captures this issue well in his book, Exploring Spiritual Direction: An Essay on Christian Friendship:
Meaningful existence presupposes … a willingness to be broken open for the sake of growth. Our primal impulse is to transcend ourselves, and that impulse (what the mystics call the extensio animi ad magna, the stretching of the soul to great things) is fundamentally sacrificial. It stretches the human spirit to the breaking point and beyond; yet without that impulse toward great things human life degenerates into mediocrity and triviality. I hardly know what I’m doing sometimes and I can easily lapse into the blind and casual indifference characteristic of our age. Spiritual direction challenges that indifference and opens me to the demands and fulfillment of the sacrificial and creative way of Christ. The director or friend of the soul presents us with the way of the Cross, which in the power of the Spirit becomes a “royal way” to our deepest joy. …
In order to accept and proclaim the Christian hope in all its fullness and in all its joy, we have to rediscover the road of sacrifice and accept the two great and traditional dissuasives to Christian discipleship: darkness and suffering. But I don’t want to stop there and have all of us wallowing in negativity and self-rejection. The sacrificial life is also the liberated and the liberating life. The Christian life leads neither to self-fulfillment nor self-rejection, but to self-transcendence. It is for the enlarging of the heart. It is for love. It is for delight. And the relationship I have with a spiritual director serves to widen more and more my capacity not only to face darkness and suffering but also to stretch the mind and heart to bear love and delight. (pages 113, 115)
May the Lord of the Church, through the love of the Father and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, help each of us to embrace the integration of our identity and destiny through the bittersweet gift of suffering. May we be transformed into Christlike people whose leadership projects authentic hope, because we ourselves have been mentored toward transcending ourselves and embracing God’s love.
© 2002, 2008 Brad Sargent. Written July 2, 2002; edited slightly April 17, 2008.
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