Summary of “Profiles of Missional Disciples” Series
I picked eight people for my initial set in this series of Profiles of Missional Disciples: Andrew and Debbie, Rod, Joshua and Kristen, Shannon, Jessica, and Dave. These are the friends who immediately came to mind when I thought and prayed about “the million dollar question” posed in Willow Creek’s Reveal self-study book: What would I do if someone gave me one million dollars to invest in maximum Kingdom impact? My first thoughts were about people I personally would want to invest in, not programs or products I would spend money on. And these eight men and women are learner-leaders/multiplier-mentors I am confident in to direct the course of the future in their corners of the Kingdom. I have no doubt they will continue shaping more generations of disciples who will shape disciples who shape disciples, because that quality of multiplication is already demonstrated in their life and lifestyle.
Meet Rod Miles – Missional Pastor and Church Planter
Some of the friends in this series I’ve known for as long as 15 years. I’ve known Rod the least amount of time among this group, just over four years. But we’ve met together for a few hours of discussion every few months about local culture, life, and theology and I’ve learned a lot from him in that short time. I see Rod as a missional pastor in a missionary setting. And to profile even some of how he is missional, I need to give some background on why this is a missionary setting that calls forth cross-cultural sensitivities.
Missional Pastor in a Missionary Setting
Rod is the founding pastor/church planter at Grace Church of Marin. The Miles family came to Marin County, California, in 2004 to plant a church. This county just north of the Golden Gate Bridge creates a faith-stretching experience of culture shock for almost all church planters. For most, it is a cross-cultural enterprise because Marin’s cultural realities and spiritualities are so unlike what they are used to, and few seem to thrive in it. It requires not only being missional and implanting into a neighborhood, but being a missionary who sets aside The Usual Assumptions and stays humble enough to learn before being entrusted to lead. Not all settings are this difficult to navigate, but my theory is that we all can learn a lot from those who are led into the extremes. And Marin seems to have been a concentrated dose of post-Christendom culture for at least the past few decades – though becoming more “spiritual”/embracing than “secular”/skeptical in orientation.
Culturally speaking, Marin has been home to a significant number of highly recognized paradigm shifters in just about every field of academics, business, ecology, entertainment, and technology. And joke all you want about California being considered the “Left Coast.” But remember the underlying truth that people who are here, or their forebearers, ended up here because they “left” behind what they didn’t like or felt too ordinary in order to forge their way out West. So, those who are here often have inherited a pioneering spirit.
And indeed, this has been an epicenter for the creation and exportation of the new “global culture” of pop culture, media, green development, etc. Over the past century, Marin has been home to many of this country’s recent and next-edge intellectual, socio-cultural, and financial elites. (For example, Howard Rheingold, Anne Lamotte, Eric Erickson, George Lucas, Isabel Allende, Ram Dass, Philip K. Dick, Joan Baez, Frank Herbert.) In fact, it seems it could be a capital city in the Empire of Postmodernity. Culture and spirituality are inseparable here. And wealth is a factor as well – according to the 2000 census, Marin had the highest per capita income in the U.S., at $44, 962. People here get so many props and have so many props that they certainly don’t seem to be interested in a Savior – and yet, they are deeply spiritual … perhaps because this is about as close to the Far East as one can get from the continental U.S.
“Everybody here does religion. But historic Christianity is shockingly foreign to Marin, as much as Zen Buddhism would be to someone from Mississippi.” ~ Rod Miles
In my nearly 20 years here, I’ve had only three discussions with atheists or agnostics. Many other conversations or drive-by listen-ins involve people who have some kind of system of spirituality.
Yet for all its spiritual focus, Marin is not a particularly Christian or even pro-Christian place. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Often enough I’ve overheard and read overtly anti-Christian statements where Christendom kinds of behaviors were blamed for all sorts of social problems from the environment to the economy to “low cosmic consciousness.” And true to form for post-Christendom people, they often like Jesus but really have a problem with Christians, as witnessed by a fleet of (r)evolutionary Darwin fish stickers, and the bumper sticker I’ve seen on multiple cars: “Lord save me from your followers!”
From a survey done in the mid-1990s, this place reputedly does have one of the lowest (if not the smallest) percentages of active/evangelical Christian population of any county in the U.S. – not even 3%, which puts it near the range of percentages found in Japan (1%) or Taiwan (2%) and less than Hong Kong or China (5%). (See the Profile Addendum for more details.) And other than perhaps one or more Catholic churches in this county of 250,000, probably the largest Christian gathering is a Pentecostal denominational church with about 700 people.
Also, by comparing several local reports on religion around that same time, it was clear that more Marinites and guests went to meditate at Spirit Rock – a huge boulder situated in a grassy field – than went to all the churches in the county combined during a typical week. And that trend doesn’t appear to have changed much in the last 10 years. Eastern practices like Buddhism and Tantra in their pure and Americanized forms flourish here, as do Western alternative spiritualities like Course in Miracles and paganism, and global traditions of tribal eco-spiritualities. Enlightenment-era alternative religions like Christian Science are dying out here.
And so, church planters who think they will “rescue” Marin County for the Kingdom by importing their brand of church from elsewhere generally get a very rude awakening. Marin presents a different reality in religion, and, when it comes to church planters, this place has a reputation for “chewing ’em up and spitting ’em out.” Numerous church plants here have faltered or failed over the past few decades – and I believe two main reasons are an unwillingness by leaders to listen to the local culture, and their inflexibility by importing and implanting a church model that doesn’t fit here. Often, church planters move on within a couple years, their Marin experience becoming a line on their resume. But, sadly, they’ve often swathed through a quick layer of harvest which then gets left aside to spoil when the planter departs. So much for commitment to a setting and sustainability, it appears, which means it probably wasn’t a very missional endeavor from the outset.
However, for church planters to come here and survive, they need a compelling spirit, both in the missional/missionary and pioneering senses of that term. Rod arrived here with both. Here are some ways he’s lived them out, and some things I’ve learned from him in our journeying together.
Stretching and Shining, and Listening Strategically
“Everybody contextualizes. I listen to what questions local people or groups are asking, and seek to relate the gospel to them.” ~ Rod Miles
When I think of learner-leader lessons from Rod’s life, I think especially about his balancing what I call “stretching” (functioning past our comfort zone) and “shining” (functioning within our strengths and giftings). He also exercises intentional listening to culture, in order to be both relevant and countercultural.
Given Rod’s background in career and ministry, you might expect him to take a more traditional perspective of pastor/leader as “vision-caster.” (He used to work in the banking industry with financial securities accounts, which would seem to be a very linear kind of a profession. And his church denomination is Presbyterian Church in America and its theology is Reformed – which can sometimes turn out quite rigid and yet the PCA seems to encourage a significant amount of innovation in church planting.) But Rod has not followed a typical leadership template. Instead, he embodies his faith as a “vision-carrier.” He doesn’t just point people to where they should go or tell them what they should do. I see him living it out himself first. For instance, he connects with people in his neighborhood and kids’ schools through coaching a sports team. Also, in recent months he’s spoken with community members who are dealing with crisis from financial reversals – as a former banker, he can provide a distinct level of understanding of those issues and their personal, family, and spiritual implications. The conceptual and ideal are consistently backed up by embodying the concrete and real. Rod didn’t just create a strategic plan, he lives strategically.
A typical visionary leadership approach to church planting involves a crash course of developing a team in just six months before “the launch.” Also, even if you have a pioneering mindset, it’s quite easy to arrive with preconceived methodological models in place, and you hit the ground running to implement plans developed off-site, before you were even living in your new home culture. (And given the unusual characteristics of Marin, one’s previous home-base culture was seldom in sync with that of the new!)
Rod had the pioneering spirit to come here, as have others before. However, he assumed little about how best to plant a church here. And although he’s lived in the Midwest, Northeast, and South, he didn’t attempt to superimpose onto here the ministries designed for there. Instead, Rod took the route of a cross-cultural missionary. This required him to work far slower, longer, and deeper. During his first two years here, he served with CityChurch in San Francisco, one year as an intern and another as an elder. (He’d already been an elder in his church before moving here.) And all the while, he continued his path as an “Everyday DiscipLeader” by studying Marin cultures, interviewing local insiders, developing networks of relationships, and strategizing how best to create a church start-up here.
Actually, we met because Rod wanted to listen. Rod did something done by no other church planter I’ve been aware of since the early 1990s. He conducted extensive personal interviews with pastors and other church leaders in the county, to find out more about the cultures and the Church here. Certainly others have done at least that. But then, one of his interview questions was always, “Who else would you recommend I talk with?” And then he followed up on those suggestions – every one of them. Someone referred him to me.
I believe I’m known for speaking forthrightly, and I hope I’m known for investing significant energy into discerning so I can speak forthrightly. And so, for some, one conversation might give them more than their fill of me. And yet, Rod and I have continued meeting on at least a quarterly basis for four years now. I can serve him as both a “culture reader” on the local scene, as well as a “person of peace” who welcomes his presence.
The “visionary leader” kinds of church planters I’ve met have more typically arrived here with preset strategies and plans, created before doing any kind of significant on-site research. Rod’s done it right to create a firm base for ministry that is missional and cross-cultural. I suspect it has cost him in some ways during the short run, but I also expect it will prove the wiser investment in the long run. After all, he’s still here, going into year number five in a place known for confounding planters who are intellectually bright, spiritually sincere, and initially enthused. But you know what? “Success” isn’t about IQ, EQ, GQ, or SQ. It’s about faithfulness and tenacity in relying on God for the guidance, empowering, and blessing to keep going forward.
Maybe it’s seriously cross-cultural for Rod to live here, and therefore it’s quite stressful. But I see consistently over time that he lives in a culture of the Cross, and that gives an anchor of security. Rod has said, “I learn a lot from Pascal, whose motto was to live the Christian life with joy and authenticity.” He does, and it shows …
To be concluded in Part 2, focusing on Grace, Centered-Set Preaching, and Being Missional as Seen from the Eyes of an Outsider – plus another “Missional Metrics” and Do-It-Yourself section for the series.
This profile is cross-posted at my futuristguy@Missional Tribe blog.