“In the eyes of a disrupter, no one company is so essential that it can’t be replaced and no single business model too perfect to upend.”
In January 2016, during the same week, two very different denominations invited me to speak to pastors and ministry leaders gathering for their annual national conferences.
I traveled first to Southern California to be with the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO) at the invitation of Synod executive Dana Allin. ECO is a relatively new denomination, formed in January 2012 by pastors and churches formerly aligned with the Presbyterian Church (USA), those who had grown “concerned by the declining membership within their denomination . . . [and] worried that growing denominational disputes over theology and bureaucracy stole focus from their pastoral calling of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and equipping a new generation to lead.” Ultimately, the denomination formed to “find new ways for churches to connect, grow, and multiply.” At the conference, Dana asked me to speak to the future of the American church and, more specifically, to raise awareness, encourage commitment, and inspire his denomination to plant, grow, and develop healthy multiethnic and economically diverse churches for the sake of the gospel.
Then and now, Dana would be the first to admit his new, predominantly white denomination is at the very beginning of the journey to any such understanding and progress. Nevertheless, he is committed not only to the conversation but to taking intentional steps. For instance, at this same conference, he introduced Matthew Lee as the denomination’s first non-white hire to its executive staff team. Matthew, an Asian American, has an extensive church planting background as well as a PhD in intercultural studies from Biola University. By empowering diverse leaders such as Matthew, Dana is putting the denomination’s money where its mouth is and promoting a spirit of inclusion from the very top. In time, he hopes that such thought and action will permeate the whole and better position the denomination for future impact in a rapidly changing culture.
At this conference, then, I felt no need to share anything beyond the fundamentals of multiethnic ministry, truths I had long ago mined, written about, and spoken about on numerous occasions in other settings. However, in looking ahead to speaking at another denominational gathering later that week, I sensed a need to share something more profound: to go beyond mere fundamentals and to look much farther into the future in order to similarly inspire my peers. Here’s why: According to its website, “The Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) is a rapidly growing multiethnic denomination in the United States and Canada with ministries on five continents of the world. Founded in 1885 by Swedish immigrants, the ECC values the Bible as the word of God, the gift of God’s grace and ever-deepening spiritual life that comes through a faith with Jesus Christ, the importance of extending God’s love and compassion to a hurting world, and the strength that comes from unity within diversity.”
Notice first that the ECC is over 125 years old. That alone commands a moment of pause and wonder! More than that, I know many of the outstanding leaders that are a part of “the Covenant”— men and women who would be in the room, would later watch online, or would have spoken themselves at that gathering. That, too, was intimidating on a number of levels. But what was most challenging for me was that the ECC describes itself as a “multiethnic denomination” that finds and values “strength that comes from unity within diversity.” In other words, the ECC is at the opposite end of the continuum. Whereas ECO was just beginning the journey toward ethnic and economic inclusion, the ECC has long been on the path. The denomination was actually founded by Swedish immigrants who recognized the need early on and moved to minister in both English and Swedish from the outset. Today there is perhaps no other denomination in the United States as well positioned or experienced in multiethnic ministry as the ECC. The list of credible voices—multiethnic church pioneers and current practitioners—who are aligned with the ECC is long and strong.
In preparing to speak at the ECC conference, I wondered what, if anything unique, I could contribute to this group, one that in so many ways has been there, done that, and continues to do it with excellence. Thus, in the weeks leading up to the event, I prayerfully considered my message. Sure, I had a general idea of what to say, but I was unsure of the specifics. Something was missing: the hook, a metaphor, one word or phrase to tie my thoughts together. Finally, while scrolling through the news just thirty-six hours before my scheduled Friday morning session, I stumbled upon it: an article that provided the very direction for which I had been looking.
In an opinion piece for CNN, Mel Robbins, an expert on human behavior and motivation, wrote about people and organizations known in the business sector as disrupters. “The disrupter,” she wrote, “is someone [or collectively an organization] whose entire ‘brand’ is . . . to turn the way we do things on its head. . . . [Disrupters] break the mold, change our thinking about the mold and then hand us the new rules for how things work.” By way of example, Robbins cited companies such as Amazon, Uber, Apple, and Facebook that completely changed the game in their respective industries from the way we think about retail and online shopping to how we catch a ride, use our cell phones, and connect relationally on the Internet. Disrupters such as these, she wrote, “don’t fix what’s broken because they don’t innovate from inside the system.” Rather, they operate outside conventional wisdom, turning systems upside down to effect systemic change.
Stated another way, disrupters can both see and sense what lies ahead, around the corner, long before others have even arrived at the intersection of present and future. Because they are out front and ahead of the curve, disrupters first define, then refine, and ultimately create new realities by changing the way we see things, think about things, and get things done. And once disrupters gain momentum, they don’t merely envision the future; they create and establish it. They frame the questions, shape the narrative, and influence the conversation. In so doing, they challenge what is and inspire what is yet to come.
That night in my hotel room, reflecting further on the concept of disruption, I soon recognized that Jesus Himself was a disrupter. In fact, you might say that He was and remains the disrupter of all disrupters! Think about it:
• He disrupted darkness and gave us light (Gen. 1:2–3).
• He disrupted the law and gave us grace (Gal. 3:23).
• He disrupted sin and gave us salvation (Rom. 10:9).
• He disrupted death and gave us life (Rom. 6:23).
• He disrupted time and gave us eternity (John 1:1–2, 14; 3:16).
If Christ is a disrupter (and He is), surely He expects His bride, the church, to be one as well; that is, a disrupter with Him in heart, mind, and purpose. More specifically, He expects believers to walk, work, and worship Him together as one, in and through local churches, beyond the distinctions of this world that so often and otherwise divide (John 17:20–23). To the degree that we are willing to do so, collectively, we will become disruptive by advancing the common good, influencing systemic change, and redeeming entire communities along spiritual, social, and financial fronts.
But therein lies the problem.
Due to the systemic segregation of local churches today and in the eyes of an increasingly diverse and cynical society, the vast majority of pastors in the United States have virtually no credibility when attempting to resolve the most pressing concerns of our time: race, class, and culture. Therefore, at a most critical moment in our nation’s history, when demographic shifts are bringing change to America, most churches and the pastors who lead them are not framing the questions, shaping the narrative, or influencing the conversation beyond their own insulated audiences. The fact is this: Christians are as painfully polarized as the society in which we live. Moreover, the people in our communities know it. They see it. Our message is undermined, and we are marginalized because of it.
Today, the typical local church is not disruptive; rather, it has been disrupted.10 In what should otherwise be the church’s finest hour, our collective witness has been undermined by a lack of thoughtful, proactive, and holistic engagement on matters of race, class, culture, and community. More often than not, our words are spoken too late, only after problematic situations of real or perceived injustice arise or receive widespread attention. Thus, when we do speak, our words ring hollow, inauthentic, and self-serving, whether spoken from the pulpit, on social media, or in the streets. Thus, in the eyes of secular society, in what some refer to as a postChristian era, we have lost the right to speak, to lead, to be heard, and more significantly, to offer a Christ-centered, biblical perspective in moments of sociopolitical concern, confusion, or crisis.
Is this not what it means to be as noisy gongs and clanging cymbals (1 Cor. 13:1)?
No wonder the anointing grows dim. While the American church continues to fawn over all things missional, our country remains painfully polarized by all things racial. Having lost credibility, pastors and churches can only react to events and conversations as they play out or as they are otherwise framed, shaped, and influenced by those who do not share our values, by people whose understanding of faith, hope, and love is rooted in humanity’s will to get it right in government, legislation, and education, but not in a God who is Himself right and righteous, merciful and just, forgiving and holy, full of grace and truth. And because we are not framing the questions, shaping the narratives, or influencing the conversations, we are left only to choose one side or another, drafting like cyclists on the words and passions of others. Such debate is not moving believers toward one another but further away from one another. This in turn complicates our ability to advance a credible witness of God’s love for all people and to advance the common good along spiritual, social, and financial fronts in our communities—that is, to be disruptive.
THIS SHOULD BE OUR FINEST HOUR.
• Drawing near to one another in and through the local church beyond the distinctions of this world that otherwise keeps us apart, so that the manifold wisdom of God will be displayed to our communities (Eph. 2:11–4:6)
• Lifting up Jesus through the local church and in such a way that men and women of varying races, classes, and cultures will be drawn to Him, compelled to come (John 12:32)
• Advancing good works in our communities so that even unbelievers see and benefit from them and consequently glorify (Greek, doxazo) our Father in heaven, whereby His dignity and worth is made evident and acknowledged (Matt. 5:16)
• Establishing peace in our communities so as to be called the sons and daughters of God (Matt. 5:9)
The sad reality, however, is that we have left our first love—not so much a priority love for Jesus, but more exegetically correct:
• A prior love (Rev. 2:4–5)
• A love for all the saints as that which existed in the earliest days of the church (Eph. 1:15)
• A love for those very different from us (our biblical neighbors, as Christ explains in Luke 10:25–37)
• A love that does not appropriate race, class, or culture but transcends such things and unites us as one for the sake of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly—together as one—with our God (Mic. 6:8)
• A love for and desire not only to see individuals redeemed but entire communities redeemed as well
To assess your church honestly in this regard, take a moment to consider these five questions:
• Is it “rooted and grounded in love . . . [together] with all the saints” (Eph. 3:17–18, emphasis added) or just the ones most like one another?
• Is it walking “in a manner worthy of the calling with which [we] have been called” (Eph. 4:1) or in ways that are most comfortable and convenient?
• Is it maintaining “the same mind, . . . the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (Phil. 2:2) in spite of past experience, personality, or preference?
• Is it prone to regard some as more important than others; that is, looking out for personal interests and the interests of others who like “the way we do things” more than the interests of others often overlooked or undervalued in our communities?
• Is it following in the footsteps and example of Christ, who set aside position, privilege, and power to live among and serve others in obedience to the will of His heavenly Father (Phil. 2:5–8)?
Given that 86.3 percent of churches today fail to have at least 20 percent diversity in their attending membership, it seems we are not at all united in a common mission, vision, and purpose. In other words, local churches by and large are not taking up the full armor of God but only part of it. No wonder we are having a hard time standing firm against the schemes of the devil rooted in and perpetuated by division (Eph. 6:10–13).
Similarly, some today seem bent toward justice at the expense of the gospel and vice versa, as if the two are mutually exclusive. Let me be clear: they are not. As we’ll explore later in this book, justice is not peripheral to the gospel; it’s intrinsic to it. What’s more, very few churches today seem to understand the importance of helping to stimulate their local economy in ways that are good both for the community and the church as will be necessary for many reasons in the future. Indeed, despite otherwise good intentions, far too many pastors and churches have yet to develop a holistic approach to redemptive community engagement, one that gets beyond rhetoric to results for the glory of God.
Over the last twenty years I’ve come to understand the need, hope, and promise of local church disruption and how to repurpose a church to redeem its community. More specifically, since planting Mosaic Church in Little Rock’s emerging University District sixteen years ago, I’ve seen what a determined church can do regardless of its size and demographics, without a quality facility to call its own, and without what many others consider the income necessary to make a significant impact on its city. Certainly community transformation on the scale I am describing in this book is not something that can be accomplished overnight, without mistakes, or without the requisite growing pains. Nevertheless, by exercising faith (when God said believe), listening (when God said learn), and staying the course (when others said quit), we have discovered transferrable truths and promising practices that are intrinsic to effective church planting and community engagement in the twenty-first century.
And that’s what this book is all about.
Disruption is a practical guide that will help you to rethink church and repurpose it to advance spiritual, social, and financial redemption in your community for the sake of the gospel. Whether your church is currently growing, plateauing, or declining, if you are a church planter, pastor, or denominational or network leader, this book will help you understand why conventional wisdom must today be challenged, what new practices must be established, and how current metrics largely informed by affluent, majority-culture evangelicalism from the past cannot be the primary measure of church health and effectiveness in the future.
In chapter 1 I’ll further explain the concept of disruption and what led me to a place of understanding and praxis via the local church. Also in that chapter I’ll introduce a three-legged stool as a metaphor for repurposing your church along spiritual, social, and financial fronts in pursuit of community engagement and transformation. In chapter 2 I’ll challenge common assumptions by addressing three critical questions: what is the gospel, who is my neighbor, and how do we measure success, before discussing the why, what, and how of each leg of the stool in chapters 3–5, respectively. In chapter 6, you’ll be introduced to other pastors around the country who are advancing such concepts through local church disruption. And in chapter 7 we’ll explore the concept of peacemaking and how to reclaim our identity as sons and daughters of God in a painfully polarized society desperately in need of faith, hope, and love.
Speaking at ECO’s denominational gathering in January 2016, Dana Allin shared that in his conversations with pastors of existing churches he often hears the following refrain: “The way that we’ve always done things isn’t working; I wasn’t trained or equipped for ministry in a radically different context.” While this may not be true for some, the fact is, there is a better, smarter, more efficient and sustainable way to position our churches (whether existing or newly planted) for future effectiveness in the years ahead.
Yes, America has changed. And make no mistake: more change is coming that will affect the church. To position ourselves for that change, and in order then to advance a credible message of God’s love for all people, the way we see and do church must change too. I’m not talking about the church being changed by culture but rather the church bringing kenotic change through the culture in a way that will be noticed, welcomed, appreciated, and embraced by those who do not yet know Christ as we do.
I’m talking about repurposing the church to redeem the community.
I’m talking about disruption.