February 18, 2013

Vegetable Love: Part One

Had we but world enough and time

This coyness lady, were no crime..

Andrew Marvell’s  poem To His Coy Mistress –  written to the lady of his life who “won’t give it up” – is a great celebration/indictment of the impatient man who sees death getting closer and sex getting further away. “[T]ime’s winged chariot” is catching up, so the niceties of demure dating are foolish in the face of the “deserts of vast eternity.” In other words, so little time, so much to do!


Oooh err, he looks a right cad: shocked Ed

Now why is such a racy introduction being included in a family-friendly blog? And a blog that is to do with church and culture?  Now, gentle reader, bear with me, as this has nothing to do with anything untoward.  What I am more interested in is Marvell’s sense of urgency in the face of death, rather than his seeking of pleasure in order to deny death’s reality.  This is no time for games, he is saying, your coyness will cost us! You certainly get the feeling that his patience will run out if she holds out! The most memorable lines continue his argument that if time were of no consequence then:

My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than empires, and more slow

By “vegetable” Marvell is, in part, alluding to a turgid slowness, with “vegetable” in the 15th and 16th centuries referring not to an actual vegetable, but to vegetation, probably, in this instance a slow growing tree.

So here’s my segway: (deep intake of breath – Ed) – Marvell’s sense of urgency in the face of his mistress’s coyness on the one hand, and impending death on the other is a fantastic template for mission and evangelism.  It is especially pertinent to those of us who have taken a strongly “missional community” approach to church planting.  Let me explain why.

In a recent coaching session with one of our missional communities, one of our original core team ladies noted that she is finding it a struggle to make time to create new friendships for the sake of gospelling people.  Her reason was simply this: her “holding pen” of relationships was full!  She could count numerous families and couples that she and her husband had befriended, with the full intention of sharing Jesus with them over time, and praying that some would come to faith at some stage.  There have been numerous dinners together, play-dates with kids at the local park, and cafe catch ups.  And it is not as if they had never gotten around to sharing Jesus with these people – they had!  This particular couple is excellent at long-term low key relational evangelism. The problem was that no one had become Christian or even seemed close to being positively interested.  Now they had a large number of couples who they knew, who they didn’t want to simply “blow off”, but who were, to all intents and purposes, over a number of years, not interested in the “Jesus” part of the relationship. The question this raises is important: Is it ok to pull back from the friendship and start looking to fresh ones at some stage? Can the holding pen be emptied, and prepped up for new relationships? After all we only have limited time and energy, and limited relational capacity.

Now at this point you may be saying “Hold on a minute. We don’t make friends with people just so that we can share the gospel with them, do we?” Well, no we don’t, but yes we do.  A missional approach to church in Australia should unashamedly be able to say that it is encouraging its members to make time to make new friends outside the church in order to share the good news of Jesus so that they may be saved.  Once you can’t – or won’t – say that, then missional is off the radar. So by that rationale, it only makes sense that, in order for a group to be truly missional, it must be able to take tough relational decisions for the sake of the gospel. After all, most church plants start out that way, announcing that they are making tough relational decisions to leave the mother ship and plant out, knowing friendships with fellow believers will bear the cost.  I, however, firmly believe that the tough relational decisions have to continue – they are not once-offs. That is one of the costs of taking mission in the modern West seriously.

Godly urgency is not the same as franticness. When Jesus sent out the disciples – and the 72 – in Luke 10, there was a sense of urgency about it.  The setting was different; the disciples were mobile and going to a static target, whereas most of our day to day missional settings are static, as are our targets.  Jesus told the disciples to “shake the dust off their feet” from those who would not receive their word.  Our task seems a little more difficult.  How do you shake the dust off your feet among people you may see every other day at school, Coles and Woolies or the park, whilst at the same time “moving on” to the next group of people? What does that look like?  Is it literally cutting ties with people, or is it more losing a level of emotional investment in order to give you energy to seek out others who need Jesus and may be more responsive?

Part of it comes back to being clear about our agenda.  For many missional church plants the existential issue comes three or four years in.  What started out as a brave, radical step, where mission was on the front page, and where old church relationships were let go in order for the new church to be planted, has now become bogged down and “vegetable”.  None, or very, very few, have been converted, and the new “life-on-life” relationships are not proving to be receptive to the gospel.  It is at this stage the core group is faced with a dilemma: Continue as is? Or clear out the holding pen and call its people to seek out new relationships to share Jesus with, whilst putting the other relationships on the back burner?  Now please don’t hear me saying that we should simply cut ties with people, or that God can’t still work in their lives, but if the missional thrust in Australia is to get anywhere, and if new church plants are to be faithful to their original desire to evangelise then “vegetable love”, by itself, will not do it.

In part two (later this week) I will explore some of the ways we can do what I suggest with integrity, plus examine how leadership teams in missional plants can encourage and equip their people to undertake this difficult task.  I do not think there are easy answers, in fact some of them will be unpalatable to a fair few of you.  However, given the fairly recent nature of missional church among Australian evangelicals, it is a growing question, and one that needs to be met head on.

Perhaps we should leave the last words to the frustrated Andrew Marvell who, in an ideal world where time was at a standstill…

…would love you ten years before the Flood,

And you should, if you please, refuse

Till the conversion of the Jews.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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