Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Circle

O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope -- the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born
O night divine! O night, O night divine!

Truly He taught us love for one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break, the slave is now our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Bold hymns of joy we raise in grateful chorus
With all our hearts we praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord! Oh, praise His name forever!
His power and glory evermore proclaim!
O night divine! O night, O night divine!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

On The Edge

It seemed so strange, that the glimpse of the eerily-reflective water in the causeway should remind him of another moonlit night, so many years ago. When he had stood on a very different edge, surveying a very different panorama, and thinking very different thoughts.

As the mist drifted languidly across the water, illuminated by the ghostly lamp-posts lining the causeway, he absent-mindedly rubbed the ancient scar on his left wrist; over the years, it had faded quite a bit, and now was rarely noticed by even the sharpest observer. But he knew exactly where it was, even without so much as a glance, while his fingers instinctively knew where that old desperate line existed.

And what it had almost become.

He remembered that night, the knife sharp and glinting in the semi-darkness of the kitchen, backlit by the intrustion of the lights from the hall. Without realizing it, he winced as he had that night, when he had begun the little "practice cuts", working up the nerve to plunge the blade into his arm.

If they hadn't come home at just that moment...

His memory shifted abruptly to the other edge from his past: the cliff overlooking the freeway, the lights of the city spreading out before him, the water of the lake a distant and dark blur in the night. Unlike tonight, there was no starlit tranquility, no mist curling around glowing lampposts -- just a cold, biting wind and the resolve that he had felt as he tried to nerve himself to step off the edge and plunge to the busy highway below.

How many times had he stood there, berating himself inwardly for not having the courage to jump? How many times had he angrily stamped back down the hill, furious at himself for lacking the wherewithal to put an end to his own miserable existence?

He was abruptly jolted out of his reverie by the appearance of a shadowy figure across the water, striding to a pre-selected point on another edge. The figure carried something bulky, fiddling with it, until suddenly a mournful drone called across the water to him.

He couldn't help but shake his head, smiling slightly; what was it about misty nights and waterfronts that attracted bagpipers? It was almost a cliché, right down to... ah, there it was: the easily-recognizable strains of "Amazing Grace". There must be an unwritten rule, somewhere, that demands all pipers stand on waterfronts and play that song.

His smile faded and his countenance became more thoughtful as the long-memorized words of the song sprang to the forefront of his mind. "Amazing grace... a wretch like me... grace will lead me home..."

He turned away from the causeway's edge, just as he had turned away more than once on that cliff, so many years ago. But there was no anger, no recriminations, no loathing. In its place was a deep sense of wonder -- that grace had found him, so long ago. Of marvel -- at what might have been if grace hadn't found him (this caused an involuntary shudder). Of thanksgiving.

Grace, he mused. It really is just... amazing.

Monday, November 19, 2007

In Remembrance: John Wimber

It's been ten years since John Wimber died. Sam Storms, who knew John personally, writes a thoughtful remembrance. I never knew John personally, but was deeply impacted by his writings.

Wimber was a firm advocate of "the radical middle" between charismatics and evangelicals. While many of the things that would occur in a Vineyard context under John's leadership would be clearly described as "charismatic" by even the most casual observer, John also held strongly to the evangelical emphasis on Scripture, and also grounded everything in a hands-on, "doin' the stuff" authenticity of touching peoples' lives.

Many will recall that John was vehemently against hype and showmanship which characterized (and still does) most charismatic ministry; John was all about being low-key and "normal", even when praying for healing. We often heard the word "authentic" in Vineyard circles long before it became part of the new lexicon of buzzwords for the emerging/missional church.

John stressed ministry to the poor very strongly; if there was any observation/criticism that I had in my early days as a Vineyard pastor, it was that too few Vineyards actually followed Wimber's teaching and example; few had any ministry to the poor, and too many opted to emphasize the spectacular and developed a culture of hype.

One of the things I always appreciated about Wimber was his analogy of not "trimming the bush" too quickly; John would allow the "bush" to grow for a season, not jumping to immediate conclusions about different streams or emphases, but allowing it a chance to produce some fruit. Then, if things appeared to be getting out of sync with Vineyard beliefs and practices, he would "trim the bush" (think: Toronto Blessing).

At times, this would land Wimber and the Vineyard into hot water (think Kansas City Prophets), but I respected and still respect Wimber for trying to remain open and teachable, although also still willing to take action when necessary. And, in reference to the KC Prophets, Wimber would later state that it was a mistake to embrace some of their teachings, and that it had gotten the Vineyard off-track.

Wimber's "Vineyard Genetic Code" was simply:
  • Clear, accurate, Biblical teaching
  • Contemporary worship in the freedom of the Holy Spirit
  • The gifts of the Holy Spirit in operation
  • An active small group ministry
  • Ministry to the poor, widows, orphans and those who are broken
  • Physical healing with an emphasis on signs and wonders as seen in the book of Acts
  • A commitment to missions and church planting at home and world missions abroad
  • Unity with the whole body of Christ with a healthy relationship with other local churches
  • Evangelistic outreach
  • Equipping believers in areas such as: discipleship, ministry, family, finances, and serving.
Wimber's books, most notably Power Evangelism and Power Healing, are powerful statements of the necessity of the present power and ministry of the Holy Spirit in the growth and expansion of the Church. I'd recommend giving them another read, or picking them up if you've never read them before.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Miscreants & Misfits

Not so long ago, I had someone come up to me, with the question of how I would "envision apostolic ministry in the 21st century" on their mind. As I've been part of the Vineyard shoal in the larger charismatic pond for the better part of two decades, it's not a question I take lightly. At the same time, it can also be a "run screaming into the woods" type of question, as well.

Although, I must confess that I'm somewhat surprised at the assumption most people seem to make about apostolic ministry – namely, that it involves a pretty powerful anointing coupled with a position of respect, authority, and people submitting to you.

I can't help but think of St. Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 4 regarding how he was treated by people – and if anyone could confidently assert his/her genuine standing as an Apostle (which I don't believe 99% of those currently trying to posture themselves as modern-day apostles have any claim to), it would have to be the man formerly known as Saul of Tarsus.
"But sometimes I think God has put us apostles on display, like prisoners of war at the end of a victor's parade, condemned to die... Our dedication to Christ makes us look like fools, but you claim to be so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are so powerful! You are honored, but we are ridiculed." (1 Corinthians 4:9a, 10 NLT)
In this passage, where Paul is belabouring the point that elevating one human being over another is a sign of spiritual immaturity and "worldliness", Paul makes it look like being an apostle in the biblical sense is that last “position” anyone would want to aspire to.

I remember someone breathlessly asking a friend of mine, "You and Robby are totally like icebreakers, breaking new territory for the Kingdom! What does that feel like?"

After a moment's pause, my friend responded, "It FEELS like we're strapped TO the icebreaker, getting our faces mashed into the ice over and over again."
"Even now we go hungry and thirsty, and we don’t have enough clothes to keep warm. We are often beaten and have no home. We work wearily with our own hands to earn our living. We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us. We appeal gently when evil things are said about us. Yet we are treated like the world's garbage, like everybody's trash — right up to the present moment." (1 Corinthians 4:11-13 NLT)
Let's see what we’ve got so far…
  • hungry and thirsty
  • not enough clothing
  • enduring beatings
  • homeless
  • working hard at manual labour
  • cursed
  • abused
  • slandered
  • treated like garbage…
The New International Version ends this passage with the phrase "we are the scum of the earth..."; why anyone thinks that being "apostolic" means power and prestige is completely beyond me.So, when asked how I would "envision apostolic ministry in the 21st century", maybe it was a Holy Spirit moment of inspiration behind the immediate answer that came to mind:
"Remember St. Francis of Assisi? Picture St. Francis, walking barefoot in the snow, followed by a small band of brothers, also walking barefoot in the snow, on their way to serve the poor in some village. That's how I would 'envision' apostolic ministry in the 21st century."
We went on to have a great talk, late into the night, about re-envisioning the five-fold ministries (not "offices") of Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, and Teacher through the lenses of a Servant Motif à la Philippians 2:5-11 and John 13:1-17.

Who knows? He may yet become another miscreant with an apostolic bent, but hopefully he'll never equate it with an ivory tower and a cushy job description!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Rain on the Windshield

The door of the dingy pub closed abruptly behind them, perhaps aided as much by an aversion to natural light and fresh air, as by the damp and chill breeze driven off the nearby ocean. Sealed now against outside intrusions, the effluvium of alcohol and a large number of hard-working bodies – along with the accompanying noise of laughter and conversation – was gone as if it had never existed.

Each instinctively burrowing a little deeper into their coats, the Younger and the Elder set off at a brisker pace than normal, the signs of approaching winter acknowledged without comment.

"The Rusty Parrot?" queried the Younger, as he glanced back at the name on the garish sign serving as a neon lure to the Elder's favourite watering hole. "Was the name chosen after sampling each and every drink on the menu?"

The Elder tucked his chin into the collar of his coat, hands balled into fists deep in his pockets. "Well, obviously they didn't have your marketing expertise back in the day when this pub first opened," he replied, favouring his young friend with a wink and a smile. "But if my math skills are still up to par, you were probably watching reruns of Gilligan's Island in diapers at the time."

"Gilligan's what?" dead-panned the Younger, feigning ignorance and innocence all at once.

"Was that a geography show on Discovery?"

The Elder almost certainly said something worthy in response, but whatever it was, a sudden gust of frigid air, bringing with it the beginning of a cold rain, obscured it. Quickening their pace yet again, they arrived at the roadside location of the Elder's car, ignoring the sentinel presence of the parking meter; it was after five o'clock, and it was Friday.

As they fidgeted on either side of the car, the Elder fumbled with stiff fingers for the correct key, pretending not to hear the Younger muttering darkly about remote entry systems. With the popping sound of the lock being released, both quickly ducked into the cold, but thankfully dry, environs of the vehicle.

"Maybe I'll regret this," began the Younger, "but I wanted to ask you what you meant back there", as he gestured towards the Rusty Parrot, "about how ministry to the poor was another reason why a totally "flat" structure in leadership wouldn't work."

The Elder started the car, adjusting the climate controls to "heat", assuming of course, that waiting 20 minutes for the ancient engine to warm up was acceptable.

"Well, it brings some reality to the well-intentioned idea that a totally flat leadership structure is even possible (which I doubt), where even assuming it were possible, it still might not be wise." Although he had begun his answer looking straight ahead, gazing at the sizable raindrops being teased across the window by the cold wind, he turned to look his young friend in the eye at the end, as if to emphasize "wise".

Schooling himself to not break the steady gaze of the other, the Younger replied, "Help me understand."

"Okay," agreed the Elder, nodding and shifting his gaze back to the sight and sound of the rain pelting the windshield. "Let's start by assuming that you're involved in a regular, ongoing ministry among the poor, versus the normal practice of Christian suburbanites making the occasional "ministry field trip" into the less economically fortunate areas of town."

The Younger nodded without speaking; the Elder's thinly-disguised impatience for what he called "field trips" was familiar territory for them both. It was all part of their larger discussion on being "incarnational".

"Well," continued the Elder, "if you are expecting to have a regular, incarnational -- dare I say missional -- presence among the poor, it would only make sense that they would be considered part of your communitas, and not just one of your projects, eh?"

Again, the Younger nodded and waited, although for a moment -- but only for a very brief moment -- he felt a mild annoyance at how long it was taking the Elder's car to warm up. Cold air wafted over him from the "window and foot" setting.

The Elder spoke again. "People are poor and/or homeless for a variety of reasons, of course, but one of them is mental illness. Most of them often resist medication even when it's available, and many remain undiagnosed. You follow me so far?"

Again that look, before the Elder once more resumed his lecture directed at the windshield. "What would untreated -- or undiagnosed -- mental illness do to a flat leadership structure? A round table where everyone's voice is equally valid?"

The Elder paused for a moment, appearing to chew reflectively on the inside of one cheek. The Younger knew that his friend had strong feelings about his involvement with the poor and disenfranchised of their city, and that one of his recurrent "beefs" was the condescending attitudes of "field trippers"; the Younger instinctively felt the Elder's uneasiness in giving his blunt assessment.

Finally, the Elder spoke again, a little softer, "We can learn from the poor, yes. According to St. Matthew, we meet Jesus in the poor. But anyone who sincerely believes in a flat leadership approach must include the mentally ill in all decisions. And, frankly, there will be some -- if not many -- places where that would be inappropriate. And so, even if a flat structure were possible -- ignoring for a moment that there will always be people who seek to elevate themselves even in a so-called "flat" setting, becoming quite manipulative in the process, to preserve the façade of being a round table -- it would not be wise, unless you plan to keep the poor OUT of your community."

"Sort of like creating a missional 'court of the Gentiles', eh?", suggested the Younger, carefully. He was intrigued by his friend's uncharacteristic quietness, especially on the subject of the poor. "I think I see what you're getting at; basically, you're saying that a 'round table' or flat leadership structure only works if everyone is exactly the same. So, again, help me understand -- then why are people so set on having a group without leaders, if it's not really possible? Or wise?"

The Elder started suddenly, as if jarred out of distracting thoughts elsewhere. The Younger suddenly realized that the heater was finally working, and that they had fogged up all the windows. Putting the car into gear, the Elder smiled and quipped, "This is how rumours get started," before easing into traffic.

"Fear." He said suddenly, as they navigated the turning lane.

"And distrust," he added a moment later, before the Younger could comment. "Fear of being controlled, and distrust of others, for the same reason. And neither is a good motivational emotion for choosing -- or rejecting -- a leadership structure."

And as the rain continued to pelt their windshield, bravely held at bay by the squeaking wipers, they continued on in silence, each deep in his own thoughts.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Doctor Bob

ex·hor·ta·tion [eg-zawr-tey-shuhn,] noun;
  1. the act or process of exhorting.
  2. an utterance, discourse, or address conveying urgent advice or recommendations.

It's been well over a decade since I began to re-surface out of my own season of detoxing. During this time – especially since posting the original Detoxing from Church article online – I have had the privilege to connect with people from literally around the world. And as we have all shared our stories, discoveries, struggles, and questions (hindsight is always 20/20), I remembered a significant day when someone I had never met before shared an exhortation with me, which I have never forgotten.

As the definition above suggests, exhortation is beyond simply offering a take-it-or-leave-it suggestion. It's more profound than off-the-cuff friendly advice. There's a sense of urgency, as if failing to heed the exhortation may result in disastrous effects. It may even be an admonition that challenges your current thoughts and attitudes.

And yet, when it is truly a word of exhortation, you recognize the spiritual wisdom it holds, and you are grateful that somebody cared enough about you to say it. The story of how this word of exhortation came to me goes something like this:

More years ago than I'd normally like to admit, I had the dubious distinction of experiencing first-hand what it feels like to be fired from a church. Well, technically, I 'resigned', because the leaders wanted to tell the congregation that they didn't fire me. However, it was an increasingly difficult environment, in which the proverbial heat was being turned up with one goal in mind: to encourage me to accept the inevitable, and 'resign'.

As stubborn and thick-headed as I can be at times, I finally realized that we'd reached a complete impasse, and my continued presence was only going to wear everybody out: the staff, the leaders, and the congregation. It was definitely taking its toll on Wendy and I. So I resigned, although it sure felt like getting fired. I think the technical word is 'duress'.
"Well, of course he resigned of his own free will! Look, here's his signature, at the bottom of this blood-stained document!"
But I digress...

In the midst of the pain, feelings of betrayal and disillusionment, as I watched my dream of full-time pastoral ministry morphing into something less than what I had hoped for, I felt very isolated, without anyone to turn to for wise counsel.

What had once been a vibrant team of youth leaders had become a difficult place for everyone. These were our closest friends and co-workers, but all of us were suddenly caught in a maelstrom of church politics, which none of us had a grid for processing. Wendy and I couldn't think of any way to share our side of the story without being accused of sowing division, and the numbing silence that grew between all of us resulted inevitably (for Wendy and I) in further isolation.

My last official pastoral duty was locking up the church after the midnight Christmas Eve service, before sealing my keys into a letter-sized envelope, and 'delivering' them back into the church through the mail slot in the front door.

We lost our church family, our house (the parsonage), the youth ministry we had pioneered, our only source of income, and a lot of friends, who felt they had no option but to choose between friendship with us, and their church home.

It was a very dark time.

During this hard season, just a few weeks before that final Christmas Eve service, the phone rang in my office, and I heard an unfamiliar female voice asking if she could schedule me for a lunch appointment with Dr. Bob.

I had heard of Dr. Bob by reputation only, having never met him nor heard him speak, although I was aware that he was a pastor in a local church. Curious, I agreed to a time and a restaurant, and the church secretary informed me that Dr. Bob would meet me there.

At the appointed time and place, Dr. Bob showed up and treated me to lemon pie and coffee. During our one hour together, he delicately probed the situation I was experiencing, and allowed me to sort through some of my thoughts and feelings through his wise combination of insightful inquiries, and lots of reflective listening.

As the close of our far-too-brief hour arrived, Dr. Bob gave me the only piece of pastoral advice that he was to offer that day. His exhortation.

Stirring his coffee, seemingly fascinated with the concentric swirls he was creating in the cup, he asked, "Tell me, Robby, how old are you?"

"I'm thirty," I replied, and waited.

Dr. Bob took his time, stirring his coffee slowly and deliberately. Still gazing thoughtfully into his cup, he softly remarked, "You're still quite young. You have many, many years of fruitful ministry ahead of you."

Then he stopped stirring, carefully placed his spoon on the napkin beside his empty pie plate, and finally locked eyes with me.

"Unless you grow bitter."

His gaze held mine for what seemed an eternity, as he watched the lesson sink deep into my soul, before he spoke once more.

"Guard your heart, young man. Guard your heart."

And with that, he paid our bill, bade me farewell, and that was the last I ever saw of him.

But what a gift he had given me that day...

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Bull Whips & Morpheus the Worship Leader

I was sixteen years old the first time I led worship. Typical: it was at a summer camp, and I was the only teenaged staff member who could play guitar, so I became the default worship leader. Didn't matter that I had never sung in public (my elementary school teachers told my parents I was tone deaf, and my high school music teacher said I had absolutely zero musical talent), or that I had only been playing guitar for about eight months and had a special abhorrence for the aptly-named "F-chord".

It's another example to me of God's infinitely creative and ironic sense of humour, in that I would later be a worship/youth pastor in a denomination known for its worship (Vineyard Canada). And although there are in all likelihood still some who think I'm tone-deaf and have no talent, worship leading has been a significant part of my life ever since.

During the past decades of worship leading and/or being a backup musician to folks like Graham Ord, Norm Strauss, Andrew Smith, and David Ruis, I have observed a number of styles of leading worship, and I'd like to contrast two of them.

The first I call the "whips and flames" approach. This is the kind of worship leader (NOTE: none of the guys I mentioned by name ever did this!) that forces people through all kinds of performance hoops. Perhaps you've suffered under met a few of this type.

For example, there's that old song "Undignified" which includes the weighty lyric:
I will dance, I will sing
To be mad for my King
Nothing, Lord, is hindering the passion in my soul

And I'll become even more undignified that this (repeat last line until eyes glass over)
I don't want to pick on Matt Redman (and I'll admit to having played this song about ten or twelve years ago, myself), but where this gets into "whips and flames" is where the worship leader starts the song, notices that people aren't "performing" quite the way the leader had envisioned would happen when s/he was making up the worship set list, and stops the band to cry passionately:
"Don't you guys love Jesus? Look at the words!! Undignified! Dance! C'mon, let's get with it, people!"
...and then restarts the song and cracks the whip so that the congregation feels like it has no option but to jump through the hoop of performance fire.

There are many variations on this theme, including the dreaded Worship Leading With Cattle Prod, but what they all have in common is the musical equivalent of threatening/beating people with pointed sticks until they perform as the worship leader thinks they should be, usually presented as if Jesus Himself feels the same way.
The other approach, which I think more accurately reflects the true heart and job description of a worship leader, would best be exemplified by the postmodern prophet Morpheus, of The Matrix.

"I can only show you the door, Neo. You're the one that has to walk through it."
That's what worship leaders are supposed to be doing.

Worship leaders function as the maitre de, or the doorman, who invites, beckons, and shows people the door, but allows them the freedom to walk through it, each in his or her own way, and to worship in freedom, not in a prescribed, pre-programmed, lock-step agenda.

"Freedom" will rarely, if ever, look like everyone doing the same thing, at the same time. If it's orchestrated from the front, it can never be called "freedom". But if worship leaders emulate Morpheus, then we'll begin to see real worship, real freedom, and real hunger for more of Jesus.

Monday, September 24, 2007

And They're Off!

Our Fall DTS (Discipleship Training School) began with a bang today; Wendy & I are the DTS Directors this fall, which is fun and a whole lotta work.

Our students come from Canada, South Korea, Fiji, Germany, and Switzerland. The staff are an even split between Canadian and Fijian. The students range in age from 19-24 -- great bunch of people, and Wendy & I are really looking forward to working with them for the next five months.

This will also hopefully explain the scarce amount of blog-posting these past few weeks. Once the school gets into its normal rhythm, things here should be as close to "normal" as this blog is capable of.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Wormwood's Apprentices

It was a scorchingly hot day: stifling, energy-draining, punishing — you might even say it was sulphurous. Yet Wormwood barely noticed, as he gazed slowly and malevolently around the circle of eager apprentices, none of whom seemed — in Wormwood’s opinion — to be sufficiently cowed by his presence.

“All right,” he hissed. “Let’s review a bit, shall we, my young apprentices?”

“I have gone to great lengths to serve Our Father Below by attacking the Enemy’s plan of…”, he paused momentarily, as if undecided whether or not to voice the terrible curse word, “…evangelism.”
The three young apprentices immediately and passionately joined Wormwood in the traditional response to the “E-word”, which every demon, young and old, knows is to ritually spit to the left. It sounds like “hyuck, spit”, and woe to the foolish apprentice who mistakenly spits right when everyone else spits left.
Wiping his leathery lips, Wormwood continued: “I have persuaded many of the Enemy’s deluded followers into adopting the same methodology as those they call ‘cults’ — they go door-to-door and annoy people who just want some peace and quiet, hand out unwanted literature in malls and on the streets, and generally make themselves as unappealing as chicken-ripple ice cream.”

He indulged himself in a moment of gloating triumph. “These puny mortals don’t seem capable of recognizing that when they use the same methods as the cults, people just think they’re another cult!” The four of them cackled and snorted with great glee.

Wormwood’s smile disappeared as if it had never existed. “Now, my young apprentices, what have YOU come up with to put a stop to evangelism?” He drew the word out like a bandage being peeled slowly off an open wound.

Hyuck, spit,” responded the three apprentices. Then the boldest, Rotgut, went first.

“Under my tutelage,” he began airily, not noticing Wormwood roll his bloodshot eyes at the arrogance of the young, “the puny mortals have ‘decided’ that they need to make their loathsome little gatherings focused on the needs of those who aren’t with them.”

The other apprentices gave him looks ranging from incredulity to derision. Before the obvious question could be asked, Rotgut quickly continued. “But since none of the little idiots actually knows anybody outside of their churches, they waste all their time, energy and money on planning their meetings. Additionally,” — (Wormwood hated it when Rotgut would repeatedly use the word “additionally”. Wormwood had never suffered fools gladly.) — “additionally, the rank-and-file actually believe that their main job is to try and invite people to big meetings, where the ‘professionals’ can do what they don’t realize that they should be doing... evangelism.”

Hyuck, spit”, replied the gathering around the table. Wormwood said nothing — let the little imp stew for awhile, wondering whether he’d gained Wormwood's approval or not. He kept his baleful glare fixed on Rotgut for an additional moment, and then eyed the next apprentice. When he finally spoke, it was a sharp and heated bark that caused all three apprentices to visibly quiver. “WELL?

“Mine’s even better!” crowed Snivelski, attempting to stifle his quiver. “My puny, insignificant slugs never even think to go out the door to talk to anyone, even to invite them to church!”

In other scenarios, such an announcement would have brought curiosity and envy, but in the slash-and-burn circles of demonica, Snivelski’s triumphant arrogance only earned him looks of malevolent suspicion.

“You see,” he hastened to add, speaking as if his listeners were slow of mind and wit, “the trick is to keep them inside their loathsome little buildings, where they’re safely isolated. So, in my grand experiment, I have them convinced that they must spend exponential amounts of time attending meetings to ‘prepare for the harvest’, where they wail, they flail, they sing, and they have created an entire subculture for themselves that is so absorbed in conferences, chasing ‘anointed’ people, meetings, videos, and minutiae that they are self-imprisoned!”

“In a word,” he concluded without even attempting to hide his obvious superiority, “containment.”

Wormwood nodded grudgingly, impressed, and instantly wished he hadn’t. It was always best to keep these impudent young tempters under one’s thumb, and acknowledging even the beginnings of a good idea didn’t help.

His gaze shifted to the third apprentice, Slyster. He’d always liked Slyster; although he was big and strong, he was much more subtle and cunning than his peers — the kind of deviousness that separated the truly effective tempters from the trolls and wanna-be’s.

Sensing that all eyes were on him, Slyster began to speak in his whispery, conspiratorial manner. “Whether inside their churches or outside, I have devised a way to fool the Enemy’s scrawny peons into voluntarily becoming completely passive non-combatants.”

Glancing around the table with narrowed eyes and a devious look on his otherwise benign face, he clearly saw that they were intrigued and showed it, in spite of themselves.

“My peons can go anywhere, and still be no threat to us or Our Father Below. You see, I’ve convinced them that it’s offensive to speak of the eternal destiny of others, and that it’s even more of a faux pas to act or speak as if they know the only way to our Enemy Above. They may perform a few do-gooder duties here and there, but that's all.”

Slyster could clearly see that he was winning the grudging favour of his fellow apprentices, and even Wormwood looked menacingly deep in thought. “You see, Master Wormwood, it’s one thing to attempt to contain them, or to make them too absorbed in their own ridiculous little subcultures, but imagine — just imagine — what it would be like if we convinced our Enemy’s followers that there is nothing so arrogant, so elitist and so offensive as…” he paused to look around the resentful but impressed circle, and hissed: “evangelism?”

Hyuck, spit,” everyone agreed, each carefully remembering to aim left.

Wormwood favoured each one of them with a glowering look, stroking his chin. At last, he simply grunted, “Huh. A four-pronged attack. Each of these strategies compliments the rest. Our Father Below will be pleased.” He allowed them just a brief second to savour the moment, before crashing his fist into the table and thundering, “Now, get back to work!

Wormwood watched them scamper off in fear, smugly satisfied that they remained appropriately deferential to him. Still, he mused as he got up to leave, they were showing themselves to be clever and innovative. Wormwood would take all the credit when he reported to his Father Below, of course, but deep down, he had to admit: he was impressed.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Ministry Time Q&A

In the comments to the previous post on the my longing for a return to the Vineyard 5-step prayer model (Pining), Dave Halls raised some interesting questions and insights, which I thought warranted a new post to address.

I've tried to re-phrase Dave's questions into a Q&A format, and I hope this does justice to what he was intending.

Q: Could the Five Step Prayer Model best be seen as "Prayer 101"?
As we used it back in the day, it certainly did function as an introduction to prayer ministry. And while it should never be seen as the be-all and end-all of prayer ministry, the simplicity of it kept us from becoming overly-dramatic (adopting unnecessary language, volume, tone, or physical gestures to demonstrate "anointing"), and kept the focus on the person receiving the prayer, and the co-operation with what the Spirit was doing.
Q: Could the well-known stories of manifestations at Wimber's meetings served as giving “permission” to similar things at TACF, while the five-step model was now "old news"?
Yes, although I had never attended one of Wimber's Signs & Wonders conferences, I suppose what was written in Power Evangelism and Power Healing could be seen that way. I think where things started getting "off" was more when a thinking co-operation with the Spirit gave way to scripted "here's what you're coming for prayer for".

And any prayer model can become routinized. Sometimes, however, the things we seek or allow that get us "out of a rut" may not be of long-term benefit.
Q: Doesn't TACF train their prayer teams to take time with people, instead of the knock-em-down style that was highlighted in the comments to the other post?
I haven't been for a number of years, so I'm not sure how they train their prayer teams. I know the phrase "soaking prayer" was around during those days, and the idea was to take time when praying for others, instead of having the ministry time version of a fast-food drive-thru.

It's apparent that people have had differing experiences of prayer times in TACF, and each of us can speak only of what we personally experienced. Wendy & I were once mowed down by an over-zealous prayer couple who yelled "more, Lord" and "yes, God" as they pushed and pulled a whole line of people down within minutes. Because we were Vineyard pastors at the time, we knew we needed to inform the leaders there about this substandard behaviour, but the leaders assumed we were critics and literally turned their backs on us as we were talking to them.

I don't want to make the mistake of seeing this as a TACF-only problem. It affected many Vineyards and many churches in other denominations, as well.

And it bears repeating that we're not questioning the genuineness of the Spirit's presence at TACF or other places that were "in the river" – we have benefited spiritually from what the Holy Spirit was doing in that season. Those were precious times with Him; it's the way that we allowed prayer times to change that is of concern to me.
Q: Didn't "more Lord" originate with Wimber, or wasn't he at least one of those known to say such things during ministry times?
I don't doubt it, and let me be clear: I'm not advocating for a moratorium on the phrase "more, Lord". Sometimes, it may be the only appropriate thing to say, depending on what God is doing at the time. It's the mindless repetition of "more Lord", as if it were a charismatic incantational mantra, that I'm suggesting has replaced a more pastoral and Spirit-led model of praying for others.
Q: Would it be better to place prayer models, of any kind, into the category of spiritual formation, instead of seeing them devolve into palliative care?
If I'm getting what you're saying here, I would agree that the hard work comes after prayer is over; however, I'm NOT suggesting that the prayer is significant only as a "decision point", with receiving prayer being some kind of participatory indicator of the seriousness of the person making said decision.

For example, when people have come forward requesting prayer for their struggle with forgiving someone, the prayer time is significant on several levels – acknowledgement of the need for change, inner healing for whatever wounds have contributed to the lack of forgiveness, and empowering of the Spirit to "walk out forgiveness" once the prayer time is over and Monday morning reality must be engaged. In this sense, prayer ministry does indeed fit into the category of spiritual formation.

And certainly, there are people who treat ministry time as a magic wand that fixes everything instantaneously and that applies both to those who are praying and those who are receiving prayer. Without in any way discounting or marginalizing the Holy Spirit's touch during those prayer times, we need to realize that the "co-operation" part of ministry time must continue as we walk out those prayer times in real time.
It seems like the theme across greater blogdom this past week has been prayer! Thanks for keeping the conversation going with some great questions. I look forward to seeing this dialogue continue.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Recently, I have been pining. As someone with a lot of Vineyard history, I have been pining for the old days of the five-step prayer model that John Wimber taught all of us in that movement.

A few weeks ago, the pastor of the local church we attend called all the artistic people up to the front to receive prayer; for the Clan McAlpine, this meant our entire family went forward. Two things really stood out for me during this "ministry time":
  1. It's been a LONG time since I've stood at the front of a church to receive prayer from anybody.

  2. One of the elderly elders came up to me and spoke a phrase that I haven't heard in years: "Hi, Robby. What can I pray for you about?"
Both of these elements gave me pause. WHY had it been so long since I'd received prayer in church?

And why was it so surprising -- and yet, refreshing -- to hear "what can I pray for you about?"

I think the answer to both traces it's way back to the Toronto Blessing. It's well-known that the Vineyard parted ways with the Toronto Airport Vineyard over what became known as the Toronto Blessing over a decade ago, a decision that was -- in hindsight -- both inevitable and probably for the better (imo, of course).

Among all the other things that characterized the critiques of the Blessing -- from the outcry against providing some kind of prophetic theology to animal noises, to the Latter Rain and/or Prosperity teachings creeping in, and the ongoing progression (and justification) of increasingly bizarre 'manifestations' -- the Vineyard made a statement at that time that the leaders of TACF were "redefining renewal" in a way that the Vineyard could not embrace.

I'd like to suggest that something else got redefined, much to our detriment, that is much more basic and grassroots, yet ultimately just as derailing.
Simply put, the Toronto Blessing-style approach redefined how churches in the Vineyard and beyond practiced ministry (prayer) times.
Prayer times previously had followed Wimber's Five-Step Prayer Model, which always began with the simple question: "What can I pray for you about?" There was always an engagement of the person receiving prayer, as well as listening to what the Spirit might be saying either to them (which the question would uncover) or to the person praying (which was always voiced as "I think God is showing me this -- what do you think?").

Once the Toronto Blessing hit, the questions stopped. Prayer was reduced to "More, Lord". Special attention became focused on the people exhibiting wilder manifestations. Those who didn't show "signs of the Spirit's presence" didn't get prayed for, or were labeled "hard to receive (HTR's)" -- which meant they didn't get as much prayer as those "in the river". Altar calls had but one theme: "More".
And "ministry time" went from an active three-way engagement between pray-er, pray-ee, and the Holy Spirit, and devolved into Clone Army prayer teams wandering up and down rows of expectant people, muttering Repetitive Renewal Phrases while making the arm motions that our youth group referred to as the "Wave" or the "Scoop".
And long after the Blessing became less center-stage, ministry times have often continued to resemble a sort of Holy Spirit Filling Station in their approach, which has resulted in less and less people seeking prayer at church, or the same people going through the same motions -- usually the "wail and flail" -- week after week after week.

So, I'm pining.

Longing, even.

You might even say I'm interceding.

I'm longing for a return to authenticity in "ministry time", when the oldskewl Vineyard phrase "dial down" (no hype) was the norm. When there was honest engagement of people sharing their story, and others using their gifts, and the Spirit gently doing His deep inner work in and through the Body of Christ.
Where there is an element of pastoral care embedded in our approach to praying for each other, and there is an equal expectation that those praying for us will be pastorally engaged with us.

Where prayer is not reduced to robotic catch-phrases and supposedly-significant 'prophetic' gestures, and we see people actually receiving ministry, not just being rewarded (or not) for their "performance" on some charismatic scale of Approved & Desired Reactions To The Spirit.

I just want us to be normal people, who are full of the Spirit.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Dingy & Musty

The door slammed behind them, driven by the wind perhaps, or else the seedy wharf-side tavern itself had a strong disaffection to natural light entering it’s questionable environs.

“Dingy and musty, a haven for the nefarious,” opined the Younger, as he took in the sights and smells of the establishment.

“Not so loud,” cautioned the Elder. “The local clientele may not appreciate your literary wit as much as I do.”

They exchanged conspiratorial smiles and threaded their way through the crowded tavern to order their drinks, the Younger momentarily stymied by the unfamiliar assortment of ales proffered. As per their earlier agreement, of course, the Younger paid.

Once they had found a place to sit, in a shadowy booth near the back of the establishment, they continued their conversation from the street.

“You still haven’t convinced me,” began the Younger, ever the skeptic, “that a flat leadership structure is such a good idea.”

“Excuse me -- did I really say flat, or was it flattened?” countered the Elder.

The Younger made a sour face, either in response to the Elder’s question or possibly the unexpected taste of the unfamiliar ale. “You’re not going to start playing semantics with me, are you?”

A small group of rowdies, obviously enjoying some comrade-time after a long day of work, stumbled past their table, at once merry and bawdy. The Elder seemed barely to notice their passage as he responded.

“It’s an important distinction.” A pause for another sip of ale. “There’s really no such thing as a totally ‘flat’ — or ‘leader-less’ — group. Every group has a leader. It’s more a matter of how many unnecessary or redundant layers of leadership there are, that get in the way of the rest of the gathering actually participating. So, I’m all for flattened leadership, but I don’t believe in flat leadership.”

The Younger frowned and studied the dark liquid before him before answering. "But I’ve heard quite a few people talking about their gatherings as being completely ‘round table’, following the leading of the Spirit alone. Are you saying they’re lying, or possibly delusional?”

“I wouldn’t put it in those exact terms,” laughed the Elder, raising his hands in mock surrender. “They’re probably quite sincere in their desire for such a group, but it simply doesn’t exist.”

“Well, then, I guess it’s my turn to play ‘devil’s advocate’,” grinned the Younger, tossing his napkin down on the table with as much force as the thin paper product would allow. “Consider this the ‘gauntlet of challenge’, my friend. Surely there's some way of having a leaderless group that has a truly flat, repeat flat, leadership.”

The Elder gazed at the scoured wall above the back of the booth’s bench for a moment, not really seeing the faded and stained painting of a ship in high seas masquerading as ‘art’. “Yes, I suppose such a group is possible, as long as it (A) is made up of people who already have a long-standing shared history, (B) is small in number, and (C) intentionally does not allow new members to be added to the group.”

“The previously-established relationships would be more likely to safeguard the ethos of the group, and the small numbers would put relationships on a high enough premium that a certain — oh, how shall I say it? — status quo could be preserved. And by preventing the addition of outsiders, the group would be protected from people who don’t have the same shared history and concern for maintaining the relational balance, and who might introduce new ideas or direction.”

The Younger came perilously close to spewing his mouthful of ale across the booth, so shocked was his reaction. “Wow, that’s got to be the most unexpected thing I’ve heard come out of your mouth in... well, I don’t know, maybe ever,” he sputtered. “Why would you assume that new people would bring new ideas that would threaten the group? If somebody came in and tried to change the group, they would just have to be corrected. With ‘gentleness and respect’, as St. Peter said, of course.”

The Elder leaned across the table, his eyes locked with the Younger’s. “And who would do that correcting? The whole group? That would seem like over-kill, I’d think, and the newcomers would probably run for the hills.”

The Younger toyed with the rim of his glass for a moment. “Okay, point made. Somebody would have to take the responsibility to deal with it, BUT…” he also leaned across the table. “The existing group would have already agreed on the direction of the group, so he or she would be speaking on behalf of the group, not just on their own authority.” And he settled triumphantly into the creaky bench seat once again.

The Elder raised his eyebrows. “So, would we then have to assume that the original ‘vision’, if you will, of the first members of the group is binding on all who come later, and that none of the newcomers could possibly have something meaningful to contribute?”

The Younger opened his mouth to reply, thought better of it, and glanced around the booth, the nearby well-imbibed patrons, and the dimly-lit bar. Finally, with a rueful grin, he said, “I hate it when you do this.”

The Elder sighed and slumped his shoulders ever so slightly. “I’m sorry, that was more harsh than I intended. I’ve had some good friends really burnt in this area, and sometimes, like now, that affects how I say things. Forgive me?”

“Of course,” the Younger immediately replied. “I guess when it affects real, live people, it’s different than when we’re just discussing theoretical possibilities, eh?”

The Elder nodded. “We need to probably look at the impact of ministry among the poor, and how it affects the dynamics of flattened leadership as well, but let’s leave that one for later.” He smiled knowingly. “I have a feeling that might be a ‘live round of ammo’ kind of discussion as well. I’ll buy next time, of course,” he finished with a wink.

“Sounds fair,” agreed the Younger, glancing once more around the loud environs. “By the way, what are we doing here? This place is nothing like our usual spot.”

The Elder took an appreciative glance around the somewhat-less-than-trendy drinking hole. “Oh, several thousand millenia ago, when I was a college student, I used to come here after a long day at a summer job with my co-workers. This place is a good yardstick for me, whenever I start taking my ideas and myself perhaps a little too seriously.”

“How’s that? A yardstick? Are you going pre-Metric System on me again?”, asked the Younger, feigning a puzzled look as he shrugged into his jacket.

The Elder favoured him with a withering look before leaning across the table once more, his eyes now taking in the scene around them.

“Look at the people who would call this their ‘regular third place’. Do you suppose any one of them gives a rat’s patookus about modernity, postmodernity, or even calling a tavern their ‘third place’? That’s what I mean. This place reminds me not to create yet another layer of Christendom between myself and Joe Average or Jane Anybody.”

The Younger took another look at the regular patrons of the tavern, with a new sense of appreciation. “Well, at least we’re being ‘incarnational’, by being here, eh?” he quipped, as they got up to leave.

The Elder chuckled as their threaded their way back to the outside street, under the quickly-descending light of dusk. “Yes, I guess we’re more ‘authentic’ this way, but as long as our conversation in this place is on another plane of existence from the rest of the patrons, I’m not sure we're really all that much closer. But we’re getting there. Bit by bit, I really do believe we’re getting there.”