Hey friends, greetings from Austin.
It’s been six months since I last wrote, so it’s high time I catch you up, both on a personal and church/work level. You might want to grab a cup of coffee or a beer (I’ve got mine).
First, Malachi is doing extremely well. You may recall that he had two major surgeries this past summer – first in May to remove his colon, then again in July to reconnect the new “semi-colon” that doctors had fashioned from his small intestine. Not what you look forward to as a 28 year old. And he’s still got autoimmune hepatitis, celiacs, and PCS liver disease to deal with. But he no longer has colitis! He has recovered remarkably well, and he and Jordan are neck deep in the life of the church again (more on that in a moment).
Right now, however, he’s taking a month-long sabbatical to hunt and fish in the wilds of Montana, and he texted me this morning to say that he had already spotted some elk. So clearly he’s feeling better. I hope to join him later this month for a few days of fishing on the Missouri (November is when the browns run). Thanks to all of you who have prayed.
Second, Rebekah had her own scare this past August. She passed out on a Sunday night and hit her head (hard) on the bathroom floor. AJ rushed her to the hospital, where in addition to a really bad concussion, they discovered she’s got a condition called Neurally Mediated Syncope. The gist: the nerves that fire your heart get over-stimulated, so your body says “whoa, chill out!” and when they do, your heart stops working too (hopefully just momentarily). The good news: they know what it is, and it’s easy to treat (“If you feel like you’re going to pass out, lie down and put your feet up…”). Plus she should outgrow it by the time she’s 30. Still, she’d probably appreciate your prayers too.
Third, Micah and Sarah are expecting their third child now, and we couldn’t be happier. Grandkids are amazing, and Marilyn is actually back in Billings for a couple of weeks to drink them up and re-charge. The past few months have been a strain (with the kids’ health, plus her mom passed away Oct 1). So this will be a much needed break. If you live there, look her up.
So what about the rest of life? (Lazarus, All Souls, etc). I’ve been thinking a lot about what we’ve learned here…
We landed in Austin some 7 years ago, almost to the day. We moved here from Missoula, because we felt God calling us to pursue two things – starting a brewery, and planting another church – both from scratch, both at the same time, in a world class, culture shaping city (you don’t have to be crazy, but it helps).
Since then we’ve watched all 3 kids get married, and start to build families of their own (that part has been amazing). But we also lost a lot of friends along the way too (very few folks in Missoula stuck with us – that part has been hard).
But there’s a brewery now (with another on the way). And a tiny little church, too (that has continued to meet [safely!] and grow throughout COVID). There’s a bit more financial stability (God has provided). And there are many new friends, who have become like family to us.
More than anything, we have seen God’s hand.
If I have learned one thing over the last 7 years, it’s that God still speaks, and when he does, you’d better listen and respond. Even if everyone thinks you are crazy. Even if it’s possible you might fail. “The righteous will live by faith” says Paul (not just be justified by it – hear! respond! LIVE!). Learning how to lean into that has been the best thing that has ever happened to my faith.
I have also become convinced that God is deeply interested in ALL the people in this crazy, mixed-up world (not just those in our churches). And that he wants those of us who follow him to be as serious about wading out into that mess of humanity as he was. I’ve come to think that he cares about our jobs, our joys, our politics, our poor, and especially about our neighbors.
And I think that he just might be up to something NEW in our churches (in a way that looks a lot like something ancient and old)…
At the heart of this Austin adventure lies my conviction of a bi-vocational calling – that God has called me (ME!) to pursue two things at once, both church and vocation – not simply because it’s expedient (means to an end), but because God cares about both, and because it is good for me (and the people I serve) to learn how to do both things well. That it’s possible to do both things well.
And I think that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I believe that people in our churches must come to share in this sense of bi-vocational calling – that God has built them (THEM!) to pursue these two things too – to find divine purpose in their work (it’s for HIM!), and to discover that he has also built them to be spiritual builders (forming Christian community wherever God plants them). That’s it’s possible for THEM to do both things well too.
So how has this played out in All Souls?
When we planted All Souls in Missoula, we started in our home, but we quickly moved to meeting in public space. Sure we connected with the un-churched and de-churched, but what we created looked a lot like a traditional American church (heck, we wanted to BE a traditional American church – we wanted to get out of our living room as quickly as possible, because we wanted to grow and get big and be respectable.) But in a traditional American (Christendom) church, pastors and staff do most of the work and people mostly just show up. There’s a fatal flaw in that. And I think that’s what we created, even if it wasn’t what we intended.
So when we planted All Souls 2 here in Austin, we started in our home as well. But somewhere along the way we took an unexpected turn, and it turned out to be extremely fortuitous. We weren’t in a hurry to outgrow our living room (maybe I was so focused on getting the brewery off the ground that I didn’t try so hard to get the church off the ground… we just started trying to BE the church, to one another, and we figured God would have to take care of the growing).
Now in the process (developing a spiritual life together in our living room), I think we all discovered that it was surprisingly rich and deep. Organic. Authentic. Lifegiving. And our folks started saying, “Hey, we don’t really want to outgrow the living room. We like it this way.”
But the thing about the Gospel is that it just keeps inviting folks into the party (and a lot of them are mixed up and messy and don’t know the first thing about acting like church folks… which is refreshing, but soon you don’t all fit into one living room!) So just under two years ago we made the decision to stay small and start meeting as one church in two houses – morning and afternoon.
It was wonderful (albeit a bit exhausting), but I’m sure you can already see the problem coming. That pesky Gospel just keeps on inviting, and eventually, you start running out of room in two houses. And the question becomes (for the pastor leading each service), “Good grief, how many of these can I do? Three? Four? Hmmm…”
That’s where we were when COVID happened last March – and as my daughter-in-law Jordan told our group last night, “COVID has been the best thing that ever happened to this church!” Here’s why…
Like most churches, COVID forced us to go virtual. But because we were so small it was actually relatively easy to pivot. We learned how to use Zoom. And people started dialing in. And some people kept showing up physically too… and because it was small groups, we could spread out, maintain distance, and be safe. (In the process, we started to realize just how important physical proximity is to our spiritual well being.)
Now what I COULDN’T do was continue to connect with every single person in the church. I used to see just about everyone, every single Sunday. So I couldn’t “read” how people were doing, whether they needed a phone call or a lunch meeting, or maybe just a hug. And that’s almost impossible over Zoom. Even for a pastor.
So we grabbed a handful of “leaders”… (we have a pretty low bar here: Are you willing to take responsibility for checking in with a handful of people every week and letting me know how they’re doing? Of being my proxy back to them? Great. You’re in!”)… and those leaders started gathering, calling, meeting with, shepherding small handfuls of people.
We started calling them “clusters” and they started meeting together physically, and dialing into worship together. And then wrestling with what they heard over lunch together after. And each week those leaders report back up the chain – here’s what people are thinking, asking, wrestling with…
So here’s where we are now:
Each week, we have a service in my living room. We still broadcast that service to clusters and individuals (and it’s still fairly interactive). But each week a different cluster rotates into my living room, while all the other clusters gather / dial in from their living rooms. And each cluster has a discussion afterwards over lunch. And those discussions have become electric. People are processing, wrestling, responding. And eaders are starting to assume responsibility for other people’s spiritual care; they are starting to lead.
It seems that without realizing it, we actually stumbled into a model of church with many small clusters (distributed), all meeting in homes at the same time (still one church), where – and this is the part that never really happened in the first church plant – ordinary people are starting to take ownership of the pastoring / shepherding, and where I spend my time mostly coaching / shepherding cluster leaders.
They are learning to BE disciples, while at the same time learning to MAKE disciples. As Paul says, “Follow me, as I follow Christ.”
So right now we have 30-40 people meeting in 3 different homes (“clusters”) all at the same time (one church, one service). But this model actually scales. We could have clusters meeting in 10 homes (possibly more). And it’s not exhausting. In fact, it’s actually probably the most vibrant, refreshing, dynamic church community I’ve ever been a part of.
And (I think) it probably looks a lot like the ancient / early church.
And (I think) it probably looks like what we’re going to be doing even after COVID goes away and life returns to normal.
And I’m extremely excited, because our folks (ordinary people!) are learning how to gather / form / build Christian community wherever God plants them. And like I mentioned up above, Malachi & Jordan are neck deep in this process and doing an incredible job (they lead one of our clusters).
So that’s where we’re at, and I think that’s where we’re headed for the foreseeable future.
Lot’s more to be said, but I’ll save it for future emails. I’m beginning to think about writing… to start to try and capture some of the lessons we’ve learned, so that maybe others can learn from our mistakes (and successes).
Again, more on that in the future.
For now, please pray that God will give us more cluster leaders. This is a very specific need. We’ve got some folks that still need to re-enter, to connect with a cluster. I need God to provide someone capable of gathering those folks, and shepherding them. I would greatly appreciate your prayers in this regard.
As always, thanks for reading these hideously long emails.
We really appreciate your friendship and your prayers!
Much love in Jesus,