Everyday DiscipLeaders 2-Rod Miles (Part 2)

Part 1 introduced Rod Miles as a missional pastor and church planter. It showed how he learns like a crosscultural missionary would in this missional setting, and how he stretches himself and listens strategically. A Profile Addendum: Marin as a Missionary/Missional Setting provided more background on his cultural setting of Marin County, California, and showed how it differs from many places in North America as a locale where post-Christendom manifests in spiritual rather than skeptical forms. Part 2 concludes this profile by focusing on how Rod emphasizes making grace, liturgy, and narrative theology comprehensible to disciples and spiritual seekers.

Grace and Centered-Set Preaching

In March 2006, Grace Church of Marin was birthed, after a few years of preparation work. It’s still a fledgling church, but it was well named: Grace is a focal point. Rod Miles, the church planter and lead pastor, continues to work at discerning how to make this enterprise successful by being sustainable in the long run, and at trusting in God’s grace to give him sustenance and perseverance.

On the theological side of things, I’m challenged to a different level by Rod’s deep understanding about grace. He consistently speaks of grace as something that every person needs, rather than as something we Christians have and others don’t. Also, he’s passionate about making sure his teachings don’t follow what he sees as the troubling trend in contemporary sermons toward moralism (just being “nice”) and toward living by the strength of human will power. Those ultimately lead to legalism and should never be accepted as a substitute for the life that is Living-Word-oriented and Spirit-led-and-empowered.

Although Rod’s perspective on grace has long been on my radar, a month ago, I finally saw that it’s a great illustration for the concept of the “centered set.” That concept pops up sometimes in semi-technical discussions at Missional Tribe. Here is a comment I posted January 19, 2009, on the group wire for “Searching for Bereans,” in response to the following question from MT member Joanne:

Hi all,

Am very thankful for the rich discussion here, and think I am beginning to understand more (am having a little bit easier go of it, trying to put things in my own words, which must mean I am beginning to understand better).

In any case, I do have some more questions – this is from a couple of days ago […] I found this sentence in a series describing what missional is; website is http://missionaltribe.org/a-working-description-of-missional.

“Missional sees the church as a centered set rather than a bounded set.” What do these terms mean?

My response summarized a lot of what I’d seen on this subject from Rod, so I’ll quote most of the wire post here:

Hi Joanne and all … I can give an introductory thought or two on centered set vs. bound set, as I “just” happen to be working on a “missional profile” post about my reformed theologian pastor friend Rod Miles, and what I’ve learned from him. A bit more detail in the eventual post, but for the time being, here’s The Big Picture.

As I understand it, a bound set focuses on what divides a specific group of concepts, objects, or people from other items. It’s about figuring out the boundaries or borders for the group – what/who is in the group, and what/who is out of it. So it’s about what differentiates us.

A centered set focuses on what brings us together, despite our other elements of diversity. It’s about figuring the integration point(s) or areas of overlap among members of a group. So it’s about finding common ground.

Without ever using the terms “bound set” and “centered set,” my friend Rod talks a lot about the concepts. In some more traditionalist views, the gospel/grace is “something we have that everyone else needs.” That sets up an us-them mentality that we have the goods and no one else does. Instead, he believes we need to take the approach that “the gospel/grace is something that everyone stands in need of, us included.”

When we start working through some of the implications of this, the differences in approaches aren’t exactly subtle any more. The bound set – we have the gospel/grace and we’ll give it to you – leads to a sort of exclusive/exclusion mentality that can be interpreted by outsiders as quite contentious and arrogant. The centered set – we all need grace – leads to a more inclusive mentality that can be more easily interpreted as humility that keeps us on the same common ground as our neighbors.

Missional seems to require a far more “we” mentality as opposed to other approaches that seem to have an “us/them” mentality. And the countercultural “we” approach of grace doesn’t mean we accept everything as okay, but we can still learn to embrace every person and treat each and all graciously, regardless of who they are and what they do. I appreciate that kind of perspective, so perhaps Rod’s view of grace-is-for-all is part of why we’ve connected so well over the past few years. As he’s said, “When we say, ‘All of us need grace,’ that is a welcoming and safe slogan.” It fits with my understanding of a “welcoming and transforming church,” where we welcome people and help them on their journey to pursue Christ and be changed toward Christlikeness.

Making Things Comprehensible for Spiritual Seekers

Another thing Rod is committed to is making the liturgy “comprehensible.” As a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, Grace Church of Marin emphasizes the historic gospel and liturgy. The liturgy is a gospel re-enactment that moves through recognition of our separation from God due to sin, to reconciliation with Him through Christ. As the liturgist, Rod leads by linking the sections of the service together with commentary that sets up what is going to happen next and/or explains why it is important.

His intentional efforts to “frame” the flow of the liturgy make the theologically-rich story underneath the liturgy more accessible to spiritual seekers. For instance, in one service I visited, Rod explained the “Call to Worship” as a holistic view of praise and judgment: Everything will eventually be put right in the realms of heavens and earth and people, and this redemption of all things will bring praise to God.

Over time, a process that emphasizes being comprehensible leads to an understanding that is potentially more comprehensive. And I think a comprehensive theology is absolutely critical to having a holistic perspective, and a holistic perspective is absolutely critical to having a missional mindset.

Some may think it an oxymoron to combine missional, reformed theology, and liturgical worship style. However, I think what can make it work together coherently is when liturgy is wedded to a narrative theology framework (even if it isn’t welded to narrative theology as if liturgy is the only possible right worship style). The narrative approach interweaves conceptual theology with concrete actions. Historical accounts of people show forth character qualities that demonstrate themselves in real-world actions. The liturgy stylizes all this into a symbolic set of interactions, where deeper meaning can grow over time as worshippers reflect on the continuity of God’s character in showing grace and mercy to His people in general and to them as individuals in particular.

Also, I think that those who are steeped in narrative perspectives generally tend to be more missional. This is because a storying approach to Scripture emphasizes tribes, cultures, nations, and civilizations – and how both individuals and groups of people are often reached with God’s revelation through crosscultural encounters. By tracking with the Bible’s primarily narrative approach to laying out the history of God’s interactions among people, we have a built-in bias that is missionary/missional and crosscultural.

On a sidenote that isn’t really a side issue, there are definitely reformed approaches to theology that are not narrative and really aren’t all that missional, even if they are about “reaching people.” For instance, I once heard Rod graciously but clearly critique a particular reformed-theology evangelism movement as being:

“… fear-based, not Jesus-centered. It presents a proposition, not a person. There is no application of the gospel to life in it. It is reductionist, only dealing with heaven and hell. There is no present value of the gospel for a life of overcoming. We prefer to talk about the story of redemption, and how we can fit in.”

So – back to Rod and Grace Church – in my opinion, a narrative-missional-crosscultural framework that is “seeker comprehensible” is far more helpful than is a typical “seeker-sensitive approach” where a theoretical principle is presented and then there is talk about how to apply it. (I guess that’s a fairly technical subject. Maybe I can address that sometime, from a perspective of learning style theory and why the ways we construct our services and communications make a substantial difference in setting up how people absorb and apply the messages presented.)

Also, I suspect the narrative and seeker-comprehensible approaches make for a more realistic pace in the worship service. For instance, I’m intrigued that there is typically a relatively long greeting time at Grace Church, in comparison to many other kinds of churches. It’s at least five minutes, which actually gives people time to get into a reasonable length conversation with guests and/or friends beyond an obligatory handshake and hello. It’s counterintuitive, but I think the longer greeting time seems to help make the conversations less awkward, rather than more awkward.

(I have difficulty with the fast pace and short spans for various items in a typical 60-75 minute church service. In those, I feel I’m a spectator who is warp-speeded through a series of spiritual aerobics. First, there’s a micro-concert of worship songs, interrupted by a couple of bulletinfomercials, with a whack-a-mole jump-up greet-time, followed by a theological pep-talk, and perhaps a blipvert prayer or two. All of which makes me reel, as if I’ve been on a holy-rollercoaster or a spiritual speed-date with God, and not in a sacred/set-aside space for learning, asking, participating, reflecting.)

From a missional perspective, there’s a lot at Grace Church to think about in how to construct a service that creates more opportunities for participation than in just simply watching, listening, and occasionally moving. This may be worth spending some concentrated time focusing on, sometime …

Missional as Seen from the Eyes of an Outsider

Huh … who would’ve thought … the person I’ve known the shortest time in this initial group of eight may end up getting the longest ministry profile description! Maybe that’s because Rod represents someone who is intentional in being missional, contextual, and countercultural – three themes that I find essential for individual disciples and for gatherings, and it takes a while to describe all that.

Also, it took a reasonable amount of space to show the kind of courage and faith it took for an outsider to move to the far edges of spiritual post-Christendom culture resident here in Marin. My other friends I’m profiling as missional DiscipLeaders have the opportunity to serve more from the advantage and vantagepoint of already-insiders in emerging cultures. But – in the multicultural world as it is unfolding – we need all kinds, because no one kind alone will do.

I’m not sure Rod would exactly consider himself in the “emerging” vein of ministry, but he certainly seems to live out the principles of crosscultural ministry in the “edge culture” here, in terms of his conscious and conscientious attempts to listen to the culture and still be countercultural. After all, as Rod says, “Historic Christianity with its message of every person needing grace and redemption is VERY countercultural in a locale like Marin County,” which has for decades been full of people who’ve shaped the global culture shifts!

In fact, I’ve seen Rod intentionally stretch himself (and let God stretch him) in almost every way conceivable in order to understand and serve both this community and his congregation as a church planter. I appreciate Rod for his humility in being a learner-leader, and in his risk-filled choices to put himself outside his comfort zone. Craig Combs, a member at Grace Church of Marin, says of his pastor:

Rod says he’s not a natural risk-taker, but he puts himself out there in ways that he cannot succeed without grace. Most pastors aren’t willing to do that. To me, that reflects he really does believe in grace, because his whole life and ministry depend on it. I have this sense that often, the people God calls weren’t the first people He asked, just the first to say “Yes.” Rod said yes.

And for that “yes” and with all his follow-through, Rod is a hero to me …

Missional Metrics –

Compositing a Profile of Christlikeness

From themes in my encounters with Rod I see demonstrated that missional DiscipLeaders who are church planters and pastors …

  • Put themselves is situations of discomfort on purpose, for the ultimate purposes God designed for those people in that place.
  • Implant themselves for the long haul, even with the willingness to be there the rest of their lives, if God so leads.
  • Do not assume that just because they speak the same language as the locals that they speak the same “lingo.” They invest themselves in listening deeply and for a long time in order to hear and interpret their adopted community BEFORE launching.
  • Stay committed to the formation of disciples who will engage in personal and social transformation. Thus, they reject what I’ve termed a “slash-and-dash” approach to quickee harvesting of supposed “converts.” Instead, it’s about long-haul discipling, and letting the people they disciple become the church’s evangelists.

Do-It-Yourself Section

  • What qualities in the life, ministry, and message of Rod Miles seem to you perfectly suited for new paradigms and cultures that are unfolding in what was previously Christendom?
  • If you could interview Rod about what it means to him to be an everyday disciple who is a learner-leader, what specific questions would you want to ask?
  • Take some time to check out the Grace Church of Marin website, and pray for Rod, the other leaders, and the people there. And perhaps you’ll find it as intriguing as I do on how well they blend theology, theory, and practice for a missional approach. I’d especially suggest studying at least their statements of:

This profile is cross-posted at my futuristguy@Missional Tribe blog.

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