Friday, June 3, 2016

what to do when the church is at death's door


In 1996, my wife and I joined the staff of a mission organization called Christian Associates. In 1998 we moved to Europe where we spent 12 years working as staff to help start new churches in Spain.  I finally resigned from Christian Associates in 2014. My wife and I had spent 18 years on staff with CA (as we call it) and 16 years in active ministry with them. That is a significant chunk of time!

Flash forward to this weekend and I can honestly say it is an interesting time for me. Oasis Madrid, one of the churches we had the privilege of starting while living in Spain, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary…and at the same time closing its doors.

That sentence is hard for me to write.

Until now I have taken great pride in telling people we started a church that is still going strong. When I first heard some weeks ago that it was closing up, I was confused, sad, filled with doubt and humiliation, frustrated and angry at turns.

On Sunday a group of people who have been part of Oasis will gather to celebrate (in the words of someone who is living there now) “10 years of Oasis Transforming Lives.” Because I lack the time and money to attend (the celebration is being held in Madrid), I wrote the following reflection in hopes that some who are there will be encouraged.

Writing this felt like I was writing a farewell letter…bittersweet, sad and hopeful all at once.

I share it here because I hope it helps others in some way. I hope it reminds us that God is good, he can be trusted, there is enough hope and grace for each new day. God’s kingdom really is a wonderful place we can experience in the here and now. Receive it.

Love,
Troy

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transformation by death
by troy cady

Christians have peculiar beliefs. Here are some examples:
God is one essence in three persons.
Jesus is fully human and fully God.
The Bible is God’s Word but it was written by people.

Yes, Christianity is a faith of strange mystery. Christians do have peculiar beliefs.

From a human standpoint, I think the most peculiar Christian belief is that death can be transformed into something beautiful. In fact, Christians believe that unless something dies it isn’t transformed. In other words, transformation occurs not in spite of death but rather through death. In that sense, Christians believe that death is good. This belief runs against every human instinct.

This was the very thing the first disciples could not understand. Before Jesus’ death, Matthew’s gospel says: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed…” (Matthew 16:21, emphasis added).

After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples on the road to Emmaus wondered how it could be that the one they hoped was the redeemer of Israel would be handed over to be crucified. (Luke 24:20-21) They could not wrap their minds around the fact that the Messiah would need to suffer and die. So, Jesus explained it to them. (Luke 23:27)

What was he explaining? Simply, what he had tried to tell them before: that the Messiah must suffer and die …that the predicate of resurrection is crucifixion. You never get one without the other. That is what their eyes were opened to see.

Jesus told them this in a variety of ways. One word-picture he used is particularly evocative: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24-25)

In the parable of the sower Jesus tells us how seeds make more seeds by falling and dying. The parable is a story of a person who sows seed on four types of soil. The first piece of ground is a hard path; the second is rocky; the third is infested with thorns and the fourth is good, rich soil that produces a crop “a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13:8)

The Christian life is a fruitful life, but no fruit is produced without a seed falling to the ground and dying. But if the seed falls to the ground and dies, it breaks apart and there emerges the most wild, fascinating thing imaginable---life that gives more life that gives more life. A tree or plant grows from the seed that has broken apart and died. From that tree or plant, more seeds are produced. When those new seeds fall to the ground and die, more life emerges. In this way, life spreads in an uncontrollable fashion. But remember: this kind of wild life does not spread without those seeds falling and dying. Something good only comes through something hard.

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I believe that Oasis is a story of life, life and more life…from death, death and more death.

You might find it interesting to know that shortly after Oasis was born it died, in a very real sense. Some of you reading this may know that originally Oasis was part of another church we started in the suburbs of Madrid called Mountainview. Mountainview began in 2002 and by 2004 we referred to Mountainview’s ministry in the city center as “Mountainview’s Oasis” while the ministry in the suburbs was called “Mountainview’s Frontier.”

Our strategy was to grow Mountainview through multiplying leaders who multiplied community groups who multiplied congregations.  Our vision was so much greater than just Mountainview and Oasis. We envisioned more leaders and more community groups and more congregations, all over the greater Madrid area and throughout Spain. Just as we had established monthly gatherings of community groups for worship, teaching and fellowship, so I had envisioned that when the work spread to other parts of Spain we would host an annual retreat wherein all the congregations that were planted throughout Spain would gather for celebration and support.

At any rate, this reproductive ethos is how we ended up with a cluster of folks in the city center and a cluster in the suburbs. But over time it became difficult to sustain both, given many factors. So, we had a difficult choice to make: which one would die?

At the time staff members Kelly and April Crull were living in the city and Oasis was really their primary area of leadership. That is when they did something amazing: they let Oasis die. I remember the meeting well. We were seated out on the back porch of our colleague’s home (Richard and Riekje Wallace). With their eyes filled with tears, Kelly and April both said they were willing to let go of Oasis for the sake of Mountainview overall.

Shortly after that, the Crulls moved to Valencia where April studied peacemaking. They left Madrid convinced that Mountainview’s Oasis ministry in the city would no longer exist. That was in spring/summer of 2005. Oasis had died before it was even born “officially” in 2006!

Here is how the rebirth happened: through more death. Towards the end of August 2005 (at CA’s staff conference), me and my family were asked by CA’s leadership to hand over leadership of Mountainview in the suburbs to Richard and Riekje while we moved into the city to work with the small band of Mountainview folks who were living there. At that time, there were only about a dozen or so folks in the city who had been connected to Mountainview.

I remember being angry at CA’s suggestion. I had been dreaming of leading Mountainview since before we landed in Madrid. Really, it was 2001 that the first ideas for Mountainview were developed (in fact, in the spring of 2001 we thought of the name Mountainview before we even lived in Madrid.) Mountainview had been on my heart for more than four years at this point. We had invested blood, sweat and tears in it. So when CA said, “Let it go” I was pissed.

“How dare they ask that!” I thought. “It’s not fair! I shouldn’t be asked to give up my baby!”

I spoke with a good friend named Hud McWilliams about these feelings. Some of you know Hud. He used to be on staff with Christian Associates and is a psychologist. I pulled Hud aside, convinced he would understand my feelings and validate my thinking. I was sure he would see the lunacy of what CA proposed we do.

Instead, Hud poked me in some sore spots and asked some hard questions. As I spoke with him, I began to see he was not going to see it my way. This frustrated me once again. Instead of finding comfort from Hud, I found more annoying questions and observations.

Hud could see I was getting frustrated and, in his gentle yet strong way, challenged me to just calm down and let go of the outcome.

With that in mind, I spoke to my wife about it. We were in our room at the staff conference; Kelly Wills and the Crulls were there.  As we envisioned what would be possible if we let go of Mountainview, Heather and I had a peace about it. We had discussed the options and at a certain moment we just looked at each other and said, “Well…what do you think? Should we do it?”

We both said a simple, “Yes.” And with that…it was decided.

I remember Kelly Crull asking, “Wait. So…you just decided right now you’ll do it?”

Heather and I looked at each other and said, “Yeah.”

And Kelly said something like: “Holy crap! I can’t believe you just decided like that!”

I think we could decide like that because the seed had already fallen and our hearts had already broken. With that breaking, new life could emerge—and that is a good thing.

Shortly after that, we joined with the large group of CA folks for another plenary session. During our time of singing together they played a (now old) song with these words:

When all around is fading
And nothing seems to last
When each day is filled with sorrow
Still I know with all my heart

He's got the whole world in His hands
He's got the whole world in His hands
I fear no evil for you are with me
Strong to deliver; mighty to save
He's got the whole world in His hands

I remember bawling my eyes out all through that song. The assurance of God’s guidance filled me with joy and deep, childlike trust.  “Everything will be alright,” I thought.  “Things fade, but God has the whole world in his hands.”



So, in the fall of 2005 we planned the transition to (re)start Oasis and from January 2006 until the summer we gathered the small group of people in the city to discern fresh vision for Oasis. Thus, Oasis as we had come to know it was born—but it took two deaths before there was life.  In the spring of 2006, I remember speaking with Kelly and April (after they had moved to Valencia) and they commented how ironic it was that a year ago they had laid Oasis to rest and thought there would never be a ministry in the city, but now God had resurrected it.

Even then, the experience of leading Oasis felt like dying and rising again and again. I am grateful to those who were part of Oasis…for your patience with me as I sometimes stumbled and fumbled my way through pastoring the church and leading the team. On more than one occasion I blew it and came down hard on folks whom I felt needed to go deeper in their life with Christ. 

I remember a few instances in particular. The first instance happened after one of our Easter retreats: I had abused my role as pastor and was intent on “proving a point” to some individuals. Fortunately, the team asked me questions in our team meeting and through their gentle observations and quiet listening I came to see that I had done wrong. I had to apologize and ask forgiveness not just to certain individuals but also to the church.

I remember the night I confessed my sin openly with the church, the sin of abusing my position, the sin of acting rashly in anger…The meeting was in the student lounge of St. Louis University and we were having communion that night. The whole church was relieved to hear their pastor say, “I’m a sinner. Forgive me.” More tear-filled confession by Oasis folks immediately followed. The service took an unexpected turn and we just shared with one another our frailty and weakness, our helplessness. The confession was raw and honest yet grace abounded in excess of the sin confessed.

What we were witnessing was the seeds of faith being blown by the wind of the Spirit, souls falling to the ground pleading mercy. As each heart broke open, new life emerged that is still bearing fruit to this day.

But the process of dying and resurrecting is never over. Towards the end of our time in Madrid there were two other “deaths” I had to undergo. The first was another confession I had to make to someone in the midst of our Easter retreat. I had spoken harshly to a woman at the Easter retreat and had to ask her forgiveness. “How could I have been so stupid!” I thought. “Forgive me. I’m an idiot,” I said to her.

That was Easter Sunday morning. The theme that year was “Hope” and that is when I realized I wasn’t alone in my stupidity. “The disciples were all idiots, too,” I thought. “We’re all just idiots, really. That’s what the resurrection is for. Jesus rose for idiots. We needn’t wallow in despair. There is hope when we see how stupid we are.” So I decided to change my Easter talk. I called it: “Hope is for Idiots.” What a relief it was to admit I don’t have it all together. We don’t have to have it all together!  Jesus has it all together for us—and that is the point.

The second death towards the end of our time involved the birth of Decoupage, a ministry that emerged from Oasis…In the fall of 2008 it became apparent that it would be good for Oasis to commission a group of people to start a new church in Spanish. At the time I thought of it as another one of the Oasis “congregations” we had envisioned. After all, the new project would come out of our strategy to multiply leaders and community groups. This multiplication would involve crossing over into the Spanish language, but I envisioned we would figure out how to link the two ministries closely under the Oasis “umbrella”.

We had asked Kelly and April to consider serving as leaders of the new project. They graciously agreed and I was excited in part because it would mean Oasis would be multiplying her impact. But after praying and thinking for some time, Kelly and April came back to the team with a vision that was clearly distinct from the vision of Oasis. They didn’t want to plant a Spanish Oasis Madrid, after all.

You can likely guess my reaction. To be sure, I listened and tried to appreciate their ideas but I felt frustrated that their plans did not match up with mine!

As I let go of how I wanted things to turn out, however, I began to see that God’s way was better. I remember sitting down with the Crulls in Plaza Dos de Mayo asking their forgiveness for my attempts to fit a square peg into a round hole. That little bit of brokenness, that death to a dream, was necessary to truly give freedom to Kelly and April to lead in a way that was obedient to the Spirit in them. To be sure, the Spirit will have his way with or without our cooperation but it sure makes life better when we let our plans go and respond to God’s invitation to join him in his plan.

Because of that, I believe Decoupage is another story of life from death. I believe Kelly and April can tell you themselves how Decoupage’s own story reflects this theme. Similarly, I believe Amy and the team in Valencia can tell you how their story reflects this theme. And, don’t forget, with Kelly and April’s move to the north there is another story of life and death to be told. That is what I see happening here. Because a seed falls and dies, more life grows and that life will bear more seed that will fall and die and grow…to fall and die and grow some more.

When all is said and done the vision of a multiplying ministry is happening all over Spain, after all…just not in the way we had planned—and that is a good thing! In fact, because of lives transformed by even a short amount of time at Oasis the vision of a vibrant, reproductive expression of what it means to be church is spreading to other parts of the world, including Latin America (through former Oasis folks). But the truth is: this is not primarily because of Oasis’ ministry “strategy” but rather because of the Spirit of Jesus calling and sending, calling and sending, calling and sending. The story isn’t a story of Oasis; it’s a story of Jesus—and Oasis just got to be a small part of that.

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Which brings me to today…The funny thing is: I am still learning this theme of life-by-death today.

We never finally get it all at once that we don’t truly “get it”, do we? The Christian life is a life of repeated dying and rising again. Just when we think we are doing fine, the Spirit reveals to us one more area that needs to be crucified. When we become aware of our need, it stings at first. It always hurts, no matter how many times you’ve died inside, no matter how many times your heart has been broken. But the good news is: death does not have the last word. Resurrection is the end of the story, new life will spring up again and again and again if we will let it.

That is the trick: letting it happen, being open to it. To let something die so that it can be born again is to be the good soil wherein the seed produces a crop thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown. Too often, however, we are more like the hard path wherein we become embittered by God’s call to die to self. The rocky soil yields a similar result wherein the process of dying to self only goes so far; when the going gets tough, we lack the strength to go deeper in Christ. Our roots are shallow; we have a taste of the crucified life but it is more like being struck once on the cheek and then striking back instead of turning the other cheek and laying down to be nailed to the cross with Christ. The thorny soil is perhaps more common wherein we let the desire for money, fame or power choke out the life of God which is the death of self. In the thorny soil we put our own comfort first. We have the appearance of growing strong, tall and deep but because we do not tend to the weeds we will eventually wither with little or no lasting fruit borne of the process.

Oh, that we would be the good soil—open and ready to let the seeds fall and die deep inside, that we would allow the dream of what could be to break so that God can show us that his dreams are so much greater than ours! That is the hard part: the openness to be broken, to let our dreams die so God’s desires may flourish in us. And then to trust that, in God’s good time, what God wants to grow in us and through us will flourish without our incessant striving and wishing the crop were different than what it is…to trust that the soil only needs to practice being receptive, patient, drinking in the living water and the light of Christ, risen anew each morning…to trust that God wants to make our lives fruitful and abundant even more than we want it.

That is a challenge to myself and it is also God’s challenge to each of us. Practice being the good soil and do not worry or grieve too much when something dies. In the end, it is cause for celebration because in Christ God redeems that which dies, causing it to rise again, transformed and even better than it was before.

Who knows what will spring up because of this death? Who knows what future deaths and resurrections await? There are many more to come. Look for it. Welcome the process of death and resurrection. Be open to it, be the good soil. Do not become hardened. Do not spurn hardship. Do not become encumbered in the lust for power and fame. Be the good soil.

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I mention all this by way of reminding myself to practice being the good soil. So, here is a recent confession. Here is something that is dying and rising in me lately.

I am still learning to crucify pride. When I first learned Oasis was closing its doors I was upset because I felt like a failure. What made me so upset was not so much that I had failed at something but rather that the failure was public. People would now know that I had worked on starting a church that failed. Sure, it was around for ten years—and that is not for nothing—but at the end of the day I tried and failed and I am responsible for that. I would no longer be able to say to people, “I helped plant a church that is still going strong!” In short, I have had to let go of my pride to deal with the grief of Oasis dying.

But I am grateful for this death, too. Because when something dies new life emerges. The new life does not look the same as the old life, and that is good. I marvel at what has happened since 2010 at Oasis. Already there have been deaths and resurrections, even before this “final” death. And this latest death will surely bear fruit that none of us expect.

Always remember: in God’s kingdom nothing dies that isn’t replaced by something even greater than that which died. That is why death has no power in God’s kingdom. Stripped of its sting, Christians need no longer fear death. To die is to be reborn. Death is an ending that is also a beginning. Death gives way to life.

So, I wonder, what new uncontrollable life is waiting for you, for all of us? What wonderful, wild and beautiful life will spring up? Wait for it and be responsive to God’s work. Look for it and, even when the smallest green leaf breaks through the soil, celebrate it with a feast of firstfruits.  The new life is a promise of a greater harvest to come, a reminder that God will be faithful to tend the trackless fields of his dominion.

Do not try to mold and shape what God is doing too much. It is better to let God have his way. Celebrate the countless seeds that are being planted right now. They are breaking apart and something glorious and new will emerge. This is God’s church, not ours: he has been faithful to grow it for a season but now a new time has come. Welcome this new season. I am celebrating with you all today not because of what has been, but because of what will be.

I encourage you in these next days to pray, asking God: “Father, what new work are you doing in me? What needs to die so your life can spring up new and fresh in the soil of my heart?” Look for what will be, friends, and keep on hoping.

I love you,
Troy




3 comments:

Mary DeMuth said...

Thank you. I needed to read this today, especially as Patrick and I are experiencing the year of subtraction, which looks curiously like crucifixion at times.

Al Dyck said...

Hey Troy! Nicely written! You've always been a model of a leader who leads with a developmental bias to me - that's why I wanted to come work with you -- but you left :-( Seriously, you have invested so much in people and that bias has rubbed off on others. I'm with you in the mix of emotions as to some degree I picked up the torch and have had similar feelings of failure, frustration, questions, anger. It's hard. It's true emotion mixed with truly sinful pride too. I'm eager to see what God will do, though I'm truly sad these days about it. On the pride/flesh side, I wish we could truly grow up, but alas, we won't be grown up until we ironically die in this physical life. Hopefully we will have been growing up along the way so that this dying is merely taking a step from this life to the rest of eternity with our beloved Lord-- something I know Deela modeled for us well.

I would add that Communitas' church plant in Valencia has much to do with Oasis as the majority of the team were invested in by you and other Oasis leaders. Another new life out of it. There's many other stories people have shared on the event as well.

Lord please bring life to this apparent death. And, may your Spirit keep bring life to our mortal bodies!

Grateful to be your friend and companion in this journey!

Peace!
al

Susan Milauskas said...

Thanks Troy, Maybe you could think oF Evangel and pray for us along these lines.