God’s plan is a little muddier than you might assume
I’m not sure there’s a more destructive idea out there, with less biblical support, than the idea that God has just one plan for your life—just one woman you could marry, just one career, just one mission—and if you mess it up, you’re outside his will.
In Summoned to Lead, Len Sweet clarifies that instead of telling people “God has a plan” for them (and the necessary misquoting of Jeremiah), we should tell them they “are part of God’s larger purposes and design” for the world.
And what is God’s larger purpose? To heal the world.
God made Creation inherently good. But that goodness has been corrupted. He plans to come back and make it good again. Our task is to cooperate with God as he works to heal the world. We’re agents of reconciliation, called to steward the earth and to celebrate those moments where the kingdom of God already looks to be breaking into the kingdom of this world, replacing sorrow with joy. Every Christian is part of God’s long-term plan to heal the world. Any “healing” with which we can help—economic, emotional, cultural, physical, ecological—”counts” as part of God’s mission.
Our people at Westwinds love this idea because it gives them the freedom to come up with new ways to be faithful. They might not be able to confidently go door-to-door to hand out tracts, but knowing that any healing activity is important to God has spurred them to renovate neighbors’ bathrooms, clean up the local river, visit the elderly in care homes, prepare meals for new mothers, etc. “Healing the world” is a compelling meta-narrative, and it has allowed our people innumerable ways to shadow God.
We’ve got to stop telling people what to do and what to think. If, instead, we can help them figure out their role in the story of God, then the momentum of the Spirit will naturally guide their actions and thoughts toward a Finale. Good thoughts and actions will take us closer to the Finale. And the power of that Story will help people decide for themselves which thoughts and actions they want to cultivate.
We can no longer afford to expect thinking to be a function of those at the top and doing a function of those at the bottom. None of us is as smart as all of us.
Our role as shepherds has little to do with shepherding the health and wellbeing of our people (after all, most of our people are healthier than we are anyway—they don’t have to eat all the baked goods they bring to the church office), and much more to do with shepherding their dreams and noble ambitions. I remember asking Len once about some discipleship material. At the time, our people were very excited about Beth Moore’s highly successful Bible studies and Rick Warren’s wildly popular Purpose Driven Life. We didn’t offer classes on either of these books and were getting some pressure to do so. Len’s response made me immediately regret my willingness to capitulate.
“No—absolutely don’t do that,” he said
He sighed. “Because it’s not in you.”
“But it’ll grow the church.”
“Of course. It’s good material. But you’re not trying to grow the church. You’re trying to grow your people. And if they’re going to be healthy, you need to feed them home-cooked meals.”
That conversation reminded me that my task isn’t to grow the church’s platform but to use the church as a platform for our people to shadow God and heal the world. The church is at her best when she functions like YouTube. Everyone gets to “upload” their stories about healing the world. The church provides scaffolding and outlines basic codes of conduct, but the people are released to shadow God in whatever way seems best. To assist further, we developed our “Beyond 1000” initiative designed to help us become a G.O.O.D. church. Every quarter we award each department in our church (youth, kids, media) a $1000 grant to invest in the community. They’re required to come up with a plan that wins a Triple Bottom Line of investing $1000, earning back another $1000 to re-invest, and getting press coverage for the event. Some of our Beyond 1000 initiatives have included art fairs, car repair days, home renovations for under-resourced families, folk music festivals, free stores, poetry contests, after school programs, and a zombie walk (that one was my favorite). But all this activity necessitated finding a way to differentiate between charity and mission, since our people were growing very comfortable with doing good deeds but increasingly uncomfortable mentioning Jesus to the people they served.
We introduced a matrix we call our Kingdom Quotient to keep everyone’s attention focused on Christ. Now we coach them that every single thing we do needs to ensure the name of Jesus is elevated, that our church needs to be included as part of the story, that we need to understand the biblical foundations for why we do what we do, and that we need to invite the Spirit to change us as we do it. For example, when our people want to pass out baked goods at the InterFaith shelter, we tell them it’s a fantastic idea. Then we do a little role-playing with them so they get comfortable saying the name of Jesus in conversation without it feeling forced or overly religious. (It’s a lot more fun to say “I love Jesus, and he loves baking, so these are for you…” than it is to say, “I am doing this because I am a follower of Jesus Christ who, despite living a long time ago in a very distant location, still would approve of this seemingly random act of kindness in his name. Amen.”). We might take them through a short Bible study, anchoring their noble deeds in the New Testament (Ephesians 2.10, for example, talks about God preparing good works for us to do). We remind them to have some Westwinds literature or invitation cards handy, just so people can connect the dots.
We didn’t always value that, actually, but our church is so full of wonderful weirdos that people in our small town began imagining we were a cult. By connecting our church name with our good works, the community impression changed from “young punks with tattoos” to “punks who do what Jesus told them to.” Finally, we encourage all our participants to stay prayerful during the ministry time and have them invite the Spirit to change their hearts as they serve. Service is no guarantee of transformation—hence the proliferation of sour nuns and angry missionaries—so we need to be mindful that we don’t burn out or take God’s transforming power for granted. We tell our people they need to regularly ask God: what are you saying to me? and, what do you want me to do?
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com