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Correspondence from the Front

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : September 18, 2007

image Below is an email conversation I’m having with Jeremy Dowsett, the pastor of Blacksoil.  I think our conversation is one that reflects a larger issue–the question of sustainability.  At the end of the conversation, I pose a couple questions.  I’d really love your feedback.

Hey Mark-

Jeremy Dowsett from Blacksoil in Lansing, MI. We connected over a few meals at your consumerism conference. Just wanted to check in and see how Missio Dei is going. Are you realizing the vision? Growing numerically? How is IV treating you?

I see from one of your blogs you’re wife’s pregnant. Congratulations.

Grow,

Jeremy

Thanks for the email.  Missio Dei is doing relatively well.  Lots of great ministry happening, but we’re still struggling with sustainability.  It is hard work and often we are a few hands short.  And we don?t have enough money in the bank.  But we’ll keep plugging.

InterVarsity is treating me fine.  Still working at fundraising.  This year we officially launched and I’m trying to gather a solid core of students to get something started.

How are things at Blacksoil?

Mark

Similar story. We started a “public” worship gathering in January, which makes us more like a church than a movement or an order. We are about to multiply our neighborhood group, so technically we have grown. But we’ve done so primarily by adding Christians to our numbers. I have several good relationships with pagans, some of which are pastoral in nature, but I have yet to see any conversion.

We are also far from sustainable. Right now my salary is heavily underwritten with denominational church-planting money that runs out in 08. I think I contacted you because the sustainability issue has been discouraging me lately and I was hoping to hear a “success” story. Of all the folks out there doing things similar to Blacksoil, you seem to really have your head on straight and be going after it aggressively. (I.e., if you can’t do it, I wonder if it can be done–not to sound un-spiritual).

I wish you and Missio the best.

Jeremy

Thanks Jeremy,

I’m humbled by how you describe me and Missio Dei. 

I’ll be candid with you.  It has been much harder than I ever thought it would be…In the beginning, I had enough funding.  But I don’t get paid by Missio Dei anymore.  And Amy left a good job to take a underpaying job in our neighborhood.  Through it all, I remain convinced that God is with us and delights in our work.  But the soil is stony…

We’ve had more lows than highs.  It has been hard and we’ve received few rewards.  We’ve seen some converts, but most of the folks that pass through never come back.  And finding co-laborers (Christians) to make a commitment to our neighborhood has been difficult.

Nevertheless, I’d still say its worth it.  I believe that the Church in America is sick.  I believe that the people in the West Bank need to see Jesus enfleshed before their eyes.  If our labor will help remind the Church in America of who she is–even a little–I think its worth it.  And if the people of the West Bank can at least say “I’ve met people who have shown me Jesus,” I think its worth it.  I just wish that it wasn’t so hard. 

The issue we’re facing is huge.  I think there are a lot of people like us out there.  We’re struggling to embody the Gospel in a way that isn’t likely to bring in the masses.  It isn’t likely to bring in the $$.  Figuring out how to make it sustainable is a profound issue and I wish I knew some of the solution.

Mark

Thanks for your candor. And yes, feel free to post this conversation.No need to keep it anonymous, there are no secrets here.

I appreciate, too, your reminder about why it’s all worth it. I guess, maybe, at bottom–while we’re being candid–that’s the part that has me discouraged. That is, it’s not so much the financial sustainability issue that’s wearing on me, and the spiritual sustainability issue. If we are in fact “enfleshing Jesus” in our respective contexts and, moreso, doing it in ways that are hopefully more radical (read: faithful) than the church-at-large in America, why so little visible fruit?

I think I remember that you come out of a charismatic background. I do not. But lately I’ve been wondering where the power of the Holy Spirit is in all this. It seems that those who are most faithful to incarnate the gospel, most thoughtful about how to be and say good news in their context, most radical about shedding the accoutrements of American mammon-worship, would bear the most fruit. (Now that I’ve said it so hyperbolically, I don’t think I belong in that category, but you get my point.)

If communities like yours (and hopefully mine) are doing a good job of “being Jesus,” why aren’t we seeing the reign of God come more substantively?

Jeremy

Great question. I’m not sure how to answer.  Except to say that I have hope that the fruit is coming.  I’d imagine that this is why Mother Theresa was depressed all the time.  Perhaps Dorothy Day or St. Francis or other spiritual “heroes” were deeply discouraged when they were laying the foundations for their ministries. 

Mark

QUESTIONS:

What do you think?  If communities like these are doing a good job of “being Jesus,” why aren’t we seeing the reign of God come more substantively?

If you can resonate with this correspondence: How have you sustained yourself? Your ministry? Any words of advice?

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Comments

15 Responses to “Correspondence from the Front”

  1. Ryan Wiksell on September 19th, 2007 9:13 am

    I definitely resonate with this conversation. My wife and I are in our third year of a new non-denominational fellowship called “The Core”. We have admittedly done many things upside-down from the prevailing church-planting wisdom. We just opened a downtown “social venue” right in the heart of our college town’s night life district, and now we have a special little thing called “critical mass”. We have rent to pay (but not wages… we’re all still volunteers) and a nice big, cool space, and we need a minimum number of volunteers, financial supporters and, yes, people to minister to, in order to justify our current ministry capacity. But so much of our energy in the recent past was focused on getting this building opened up that I really feel like we’ve only just begun to see what kind of fruit we can reap. So far, the money has been there, but only just barely (and certainly nothing approaching a salary for me, the pastor) and everything else has been a roller-coaster. Sometimes I think it would be OK if the whole thing tanked, just as long as our marriage is preserved. That is one thing that I know is severely tested in situations like this, not to mention the strength of our faith in God himself. Anyway… thanks for letting me vent… and I pray that you, my brothers, would be encouraged by His peace.

  2. Makeesha on September 19th, 2007 9:20 am

    I have a few answers for your first question but maybe they’re just excuses….cuz as to your second set of questions…I do resonate, I struggle to sustain myself spiritually and emotionally and we rely on being bivocational for financial sustainability and the only advice I have is to surround yourself with others in similar situations and like mindedness.

    so back to my “excuses”.

    1. I think we ARE doing good but many of us are pioneers and as my husband says - we plow concrete with our noses and the progress is very slow. If we want quick progress, I think we need to stop being pioneers.

    2. those in the “super growth” segments of the church are the minority and they are largely reaping the harvest of the concrete plowing pioneers who have gone before.

    3. and as a follow up to 2, I think this church age we are in now with people leaving and disillusioned may in large part be due to quick growth with little depth and very little connection with the sought.

    4. many of us doing this thing in a radically different way come from the super growth past - we still, even subconsciously cling to the old expectations and definitions for growth.

    …now, does any of that make me feel better in the dark nights of the soul which come so frequently? no. But super growth didn’t always make mega church pastors feel better either…so I’m not sure vast expansion is really what we want anyway. But it would be nice to see a bit more “progress” wouldn’t it?

    our solution has come to be bivocational missionaries and see ourselves as such - we aren’t church planters. That approach helps us…even if just in our own minds.

  3. John L on September 19th, 2007 9:58 am

    Now finishing up a second book on early church practice and structure (”House Church & Mission - The Importance of Household Structure in Early Christianity” R. Gehring). It’s been eye-opening.

    If we assume that Jesus (vis Paul, etc.) had a healthy “ecclesial model” in mind for us, then we have drifted far, far from that flattened model of lay-led, all-body participation that flourished for roughly 100-200 years.

    Not suggesting we abandon 2,000 years of inherited wisdom, but we may want to rethink about 1,900 years of accumulated lay-clergy duality.

  4. Makeesha on September 19th, 2007 10:17 am

    Ryan - good to hear from you, I think of you guys sometimes and check on you - looks like you’re doing exciting stuff!

    I hear ya on sometimes being perfectly fine with the whole thing tanking - I feel that way about every month or so. hehe.

    but honestly - truly - in spite of it ALL (and ALL is a lot), I can’t imagine not doing this in some capacity….even when I hate it hehe

  5. Ben on September 19th, 2007 11:59 am

    I’m not in ministry in the way Mark and others describe (I’m still being a rich young ruler), but these questions intrigue me.

    1.) I wrote an answer to question 1, but after re-reading it I realized it was overly sophomoric. I don’t have anything useful to comment on #1.

    2.) Here, I wish I knew more about the ministry of Jesus and the apostles. It seems that they weren’t in as much of a hurry as we often are, and that they took time to relax, to spend time with friends, to put the pieces of their life together, to have a friend make them a meal while they dreamt on the roof. Then, when the time was right, the Spirit led them into a powerful and cataclysmic place. I wonder if our “full-time ministry” isn’t a little TOO full-time. At least for an introvert like myself, occasional extended time away from the challenges IS sustainability. Sometimes, the forest just has to grow; sometimes, the ground must go fallow.

  6. Ryan Wiksell on September 19th, 2007 4:47 pm

    And a hardy hey to you too, Makeesha. I miss having you around on my blog, but I’m glad to know you’re checking in every so often. I’ll have to wander back over to your blog and put it in my RSS. It’s amazing how long we’ve known each other without actually having met. What would you say it was? 9 years? And such similar life-paths in many ways.

  7. Makeesha on September 19th, 2007 5:13 pm

    Ben - I agree, I think our expectations are more cultural that scriptural in many cases.

    Ryan - yeah, probably 9 years. it is crazy. one of these days we’ll meet and can talk about the challenges of this crazy missional leadership life over drinks… hard cider for me if you please hehe

  8. Jon Kodet on September 19th, 2007 9:11 pm

    Mark and Jeremy,

    I have similarly felt discouraged at times in ministry. I have been encouraged during these times by the quote below:

    “This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capability.

    We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

    We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.”

    The words of Archbishop Oscar Romero who was martyred in San Salvador in 1980

  9. Makeesha on September 19th, 2007 11:30 pm

    beautiful Jon, thank you

  10. frank on September 20th, 2007 3:38 pm

    Mark,

    I think what the two of you are feeling is very normal. Paul experienced the same thing. He felt “fruitless” at the time, but look at the fruit from his life now. I realize that its thousands of years later and that may not encourage you at all, but it’s true. Fruit takes time. I have a friend who has been discipling guys for 30 years. He told us that over the years, there are about 8 that have devoted themselves to discipling others. Be encouraged brother, you are not alone.

  11. markvans on September 20th, 2007 10:17 pm

    Everyone,

    Thanks for the encouraging feedback.

  12. Jonathan Brink on September 24th, 2007 12:31 pm

    I don’t really have answers. I just want to encourage your fellow travelers. Some day we’ll look back on these days with fondness. “Remember when…” “Yeah, we didn’t have a clue but we were doing it.” “Yeaaaaahhh!” The stories we will tell will be ours. And that my friends, they can never take from us.

    The tension of the journey seems to produce a quickening for me that in hindsight I know I need. If it were easy, I don’t think I’d be taking this path. Fruit will come, but it will probably come in ways that let us all know that it was His hands, not ours. Because in the end I don’t think we want anyone worshiping us.

  13. amy on September 26th, 2007 12:37 pm

    thanks for an interesting post. both of you are good writers.

    our minds (thoughts, attitudes) determine how we perceive our circumstances. to feel better we can pray for God to change our minds.

    sometimes we confuse the fruit of the spirit with the (literal) fruit of man. maybe you’re more fruitful than you realize.

    mother theresa had a beautiful smile.

  14. amy on September 26th, 2007 12:39 pm

    p.s. patience can cure many many ailments.

  15. rrs on December 1st, 2007 12:20 am

    I have stumbled onto this discussion by accident, and do not have the background as many of you do…but can only share the following:

    What is the time frame expected for these fruits to manifest and how much fruit is enough? If we are truly the salt of the earth then your bringing flavor, preservation, and healing to your community is the fruit (however small it may be at this juncture.)

    I do understand, whole heartedly, that you wish the fruit was more apparent, more abundant and appeared more expeditiously but again in the words of Christine Caine “these fruits can not be manufactured or externally generated; they result only from soul transformation and an authentic relationship with Jesus.” And as we all know this kind of transformation can take years, and we not only had to retrain or reroute ourselves and even in some cases climb back from a relapse, and your congregation or your pagan students have to be afforded that time to create that authentic relationship with Jesus and strengthen their soul-muscle.

    It sounds to me as if you are experiencing true growth currently. Your church is growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus, submitting to His will for their lives, which is a church that is experiencing true growth. If your planting and watering are out of balance the church will not prosper as God intended. But your daily obedience and dependence upon the Holy Spirit should release his power in those who plant and water for Gods increase to come.

    I pray for your ecclesia that you are able to bring out the “God-flavors” in your community.

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