Keeping the Apes at Home

(or, why we should hold vision loosely)

Yesterday, I sat down over coffee with an “Outreach” Pastor and friend from a local church as he sadly told me that his frustrations in his current pastoral position were forcing him to leave the church. As some backstory for you, he had spent the past several years building a non-profit in the city which mentored youth in underprivileged neighborhoods, gave out free shoes to whole elementary schools, and served the margins of our city in practical ways. God had equipped and gifted him to display the Kingdom life-on-life and face-to-face, expressed in the purity of loving your neighbor.

Reluctant Partners

However, his church’s leadership team, through the years, has been resistant to join him in these efforts as partners. Over time he has perceived that they see his non-profit’s efforts as a threat to the efforts of the church. It appears that they desire to continue steering financial resources to the official programs of the church-whole. To give his non-profit some stage time and visibility would mean to risk steering those resources outside of their vision and organization. 

The ending solution? He feels the call of God on his life is more important than his position, and so he is planning his exit from the church. 

Go and Do Likewise

So, we sat over coffee planning his fund-raising for ministry efforts and collecting people he trusts, like me, to join his board and launch out to expand the Kingdom of God in very hands-on ways. Jesus’ mic drop statement at the end of the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Go and do likewise…”, is an actionable mission statement to my friend, and so he is going.

What this man has done in a few short years, building relationships with schools, civic leaders, and neighborhood families is nothing short of amazing. I wrote about him in my book, and I marvel at his ability to always live as a Kingdom agent in everything he puts his hands to, especially in places that are hard to reach.

Kingdom Assets

Yet the church sees him as a competitor of sorts. Why is that? Why would we not all be fighting over this guy to get him on our staff so that he can mobilize our people to mission? What is it that keeps us from seeing the missional movement of people, whether from our ideas or one of our congregants, as our greatest asset to expanding the Kingdom and growing the breadth and voice of our church community?

Shepherds, Teachers..

His story is not uncommon. When one looks at the gifts of Ephesians 4 (Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Shepherd, Teacher), it is noted by many that the church institution is often built around the Shepherd and Teacher gifts. These are the giftings that draw people to a place, make them feel safe, build their knowledge about God, and don’t require as much legwork or risk.

I’m not discounting these two giftings, as they bring unity to the body and inspire us as Jesus people. They connect us as one, teach us about our God and our faith, and can give us the foundation of our identity as a differentiated Ecclesia. They are very important indeed!

..And the APEs

Yet, by design, they don’t sense the urgency to call people away from the pulpit and into the streets. God gives us these Apostles, Prophets, and Evangelists (APEs) to do just that. They are wired to call us to boots-on-the-ground efforts of bringing wholeness and justice to a broken world. They want to call others into a good Kingdom, with a good King, by calling us that are already in the church, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Yet over and over, APEs are discounted, under-resourced, and pushed outside of already-formulated church vision. The result? They leave.

The Para-Church

The landscape is full of para-church ministries. I live in Colorado Springs, which is seen as the capital of para-church organizational headquarters. On every street, it seems, there is another ministry headquarters. Why do all of these exist, these quasi-church institutions? I mean, we call them “para-church” for a reason. Are they churches or are they not? We can’t seem to decide.

Now, I don’t want to be arrogant or pretend to know all of God’s plans, but I often wonder if many of these were started because the church wouldn’t resource some APE in their congregation? If the church were mobilizing people into missional practice and sentness, would all of these organizations exist?

“Soldiers” of Ministry

Often these para-church organizations are seen as the “soldiers” of ministry. One definition I saw of parachurch stated that they were, “Organizations that work outside of church oversight, doing the work of social welfare and evangelism.” I’m just rhetorically wondering, isn’t the church proper called to do those things? Why do our much-needed parachurch efforts and our much-needed shepherd and teaching efforts exist in two different locales?

It seems we’ve divided to conquer instead of being unified in these giftings as Ephesians 4 so plainly teaches. And now my friend will join these organizations as one more APE pushed outside the walls to do what God has called him to do. I’m left wondering, what might this church community have accomplished if they instead fanned the flames of my friend, joined him in his work, utilized his gifts to reach their neighborhood and city, and mobilized their people into mission?

Holding Vision Loosely

It occurs to me that we, church leaders and planters, often write our organizational vision and dreams in concrete. Behind closed doors, along with our Elders or leadership teams, we formulate what God has sent us to do as a community, then relate those plans and dreams to our community congregation, hoping it matches up with their heartbeat. What if we held that vision loosely? What if we allowed that vision to be co-written and shaped by the APEs in our midst? Might God actually reveal his plans to us through the gifts he has brought into our church “to equip the saints for the work of service,” as Paul writes so strategically? Might we discover our most strategic movement from the heartbeats of APEs rather than from strategic plans sketched on our conference room white-boards.

Missional Gifting

This particular church that for now has my friend on staff, has at their finger-tips, a gold mine of gifting and connection to the city and neighbors around them. In their efforts to protect their own kingdom, they are giving up a perfect way to join God in his missional work around them, with the side-effect of probable church growth as they bring wholeness to people’s lives. The effect of loving your neighbor is that they naturally want to be with you and hear more about the King and his kingdom. And so, as they hold tighter to their own vision, so they can keep what they have, they ironically give up a harvest field of future growth.

Go and Be

The point of all this? We need to listen to and include our APEs! At V3, movement is a primary goal. It’s not enough to plant something where people “come and hear”, we are in the business of planting something that can “go and be” the church. Incarnational movement into the neighborhood is our target, and these APEs have been given the vision to see that. It is human nature, I think, that we build organizations and then protect them. However, this is counter-intuitive to a model where we take the announcement of the Kingdom into the margins of our culture. We cannot risk and protect at the same time.

We cannot seek risk and self-protect at the same time. – Rowland Smith Click To Tweet

And so, I would suggest we SHOULD meet with our Elders and leadership teams. We SHOULD formulate a path and direction, being smart about leading a community to follow Jesus. I would simply submit and add that we should hold that vision loosely, allow it to morph, allow it to be shaped, not just by our great ideas that come in the middle of the night or in the board room, but by the voices of those gifted to call us outside the walls of the church…the APEs.

About the Author

Rowland Smith

Rowland serves as National Director of Forge America Missional Training Network, is a staff pastor of missional culture at a church in Colorado Springs, and directs The Pando Collective, a micro-church and missional expression network that was launched from his local church. He also teaches as affiliate faculty at Fuller Seminary. He is the author of Life Out Loud: Joining Jesus Outside the Walls of the Church, and most recently, was lead editor and organizer for the multi-author book Red Skies: 10 Essential Conversations Exploring our Future as the Church. He is married and has four adult children.

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