5 Reflections on Verge Conference, & Links
Last week I attended the Verge Conference in Austin, TX. It was organized by the Austin Stone Community Church, and hosted by Hill Country Bible Church-Northwest. It featured a stellar lineup, including Alan Hirsch, Francis Chan, Neil Cole, Dave Gibbons, Matt Carter, Ed Stetzer, David Garrison, David Watson, Jeff Vanderstelt & Caesar Kalinowski, George Patterson and others.
I need to continue processing all that God was doing there, but for the sake of brevity in this post, I’ve abbreviated my lessons to 5.
1) Something happened there.
It’s easy to be cynical about conferences. I noticed some Twitter buzz before the conference, indicating “here we go, how many conferences do we really need?” I’m sure we don’t need as many as we do, but this was the first of its kind. And something was definitely happening. Hirsch called us “The Fellowship of the Freaks,” those who have been thinking about missional communities for some time, but lacked kindred spirits to share that with.
This conference was NOT self-righteous, self-congratulatory, faddish, or hip. We were called back to Jesus, again and again. We were called to the Bible as our guide. We were called to dependence on the Spirit.
The tone was humble, yet zealously burning to reach the lost.
God was glorified.
Our shared, centered-set identity in Christ, combined with fleshing out of what mission looks like in our Gospel-centered communities, led to the prevailing sense that this event could be a landmark, a turning point, a sea change moment in the North American church. I sure hope so.
2. Ecclesiology will very likely be THE issue in the American church going forward.
Take away the extreme fringes (high church/ultra traditional church on one end, syncretistic non-church on the other), and what you have is a growing center of people increasingly committed to taking the orthodox Gospel of Jesus to an ever-changing, post-Christian context.
The old Stetzerian emerging matrix of Relevants, Reconstructionists, and Revisionists still holds–and the conversation is increasingly being led by the middle group, that is, those who hold to orthodox doctrine, but are struggling to work out helpful ways of structuring church to do reach our context.
It was striking to see megachurch pastors like Francis Chan sharing the stage with micro/organic church leaders like Neil Cole. A great deal of alignment, even if differences in philosophy of ministry.
Megachurch, microchurch, organic church, house church, multisite church, parachurch, dying church–the lines are blurring and it all seems up for grabs. Much of this conversation will be fruitful as the church recontextualizes for a post-Christian west, but its also fraught with potential for remaking mistakes we’ve made in the past.
Some of the stuff I heard at Verge concerned me, like Dave Ferguson describing how he “ordained” 2000 of his church attenders for ministry. Now, I believe in every-member ministry and the priesthood of all believers, but we don’t need to relativize the biblical offices of elder (or deacon) in order to commission our people. This is the kind of conversation we’ll need to get used to having, and as Jonathan Dodson tweeted at one point, we probably didn’t have enough theological reflection, explanation, or underpinnings for statements like Ferguson’s.
3. Mission is Harder and Easier Than I Think
I was fortunate enough to sit in on a pre-conference session with about 40 people, facilitated by Alan Hirsch and Leadership Network. One of the things I took away is that I make mission too big, too hard, too intimidating for those I work with. The Hill Country-UT folks make it simple for their students. They ask, “What would be a win for you this week?” and they challenge their missional community students to 1) Engage (get to know the students they seek to reach); 2) Express (let people know where you’re coming from, initiate some spiritual conversations) and 3) Explore (take people deeper, moving to Gospel conversations). Pick 2-3 people, and focus on moving farther in one of those areas on a weekly basis. See? Simple!
But of course its also harder to do that, and to equip others to do that. The best model of this was described for us by the guys of Soma Communities in Tacoma, WA. Pay attention to these guys (above): Jeff Vanderstelt and Caesar Kalinowski (who generously let me pepper him with questions for about 20 minutes) are the real deal. I’ve been absorbing their stuff for months and implementing some of it here at PSU/in State College. Living everyday life with Gospel intentionality. Simple is not the same as easy.
A good summary of their talk is available from Missional Church Center.
4. If you care about college ministry, pay attention to Austin, TX.
It was the opportunity to soak up what’s going on at the University of Texas that persuaded me to pull the trigger on this conference, and I wasn’t disappointed.
I got to meet Todd Engstrom, Logan Gentry, Tyler David, and others from the Austin Stone Church, which is reaching UT with a network of missional communities. Great people and a great church. I love how they rip on each other in a very fraternal kind of way.
Hill Country Bible Church-UT A campus church in the Hill Country Association, I got to meet Denny Henderson, Heather Lods, and others from an awesome church doing a great job of reaching UT through missional communities
Campus Renewal–I met Justin Christopher and Raul from Campus Renewal, who have also had a great vision for saturating UT with missional communities. Seeing how these different ministries have worked hard together was inspiring for what I–and others–are hoping to see happen at PSU.
Collectively, “Renovate UT”–a partnership of about a dozen ministries/churches, and spearheaded by the 3 I just mentioned–have moved the number of professing & engaged Christians at UT from 6% to 11% in 5 years! That is huge! (At PSU, our number is 2.5%–we’d be thrilled with 6%!).
We organized (okay, Heather Lods organized) an unofficial Campus minister breakout that led to some good conversations. We also talked about convening again to continue working out what missional campus ministry can look like. This also felt like a potential sea-change moment for campus ministry to me.
5. Francis Chan is the real deal.
Read a summary of his first talk here. I had never heard him live before, and wasn’t that familiar with him. God used Francis to humble and inspire us. The guy just screams authenticity. Good communicator. Disarming humor. But more than that, utter humility, literally brought us to our knees. 2500 people loved Jesus more because Francis helped us to see Christ more clearly.
I could say much more, but I’ll turn to the accounts of others to round this out:
Jeff Vanderstelt lamented how many churches are serving “almost like containers” and holding people in rather than sending them out to spread the Gospel. “It’s almost as if we’re extracting people from the world instead of equipping them and sending them into the world,” he said Friday.
The job of pastors, teachers and apostles is to “equip the saints for works of ministry, not to do the ministry for the saints,” said Vanderstelt, a pastor at Soma Communities, a multi-expression church planting church.
“If you don’t structure your church in such a way that the saints are doing the ministry and you’re equipping the saints for ministry, what you’ll convince your people of is that they pay you to do ministry for them and they receive it all from you,” he warned…
“How do you know if somebody’s faithful? You have to see them live it out,” the Tacoma, Wash., church planter pointed out. “The only way to disciple is life on life in the midst of everyday life.”
“Let’s not put on a bunch of events or programs that extract people from life but rather, let’s equip people to live normal ordinary life with significant Gospel intentionality,” he said. “It’s a very different way to do church as far as I’m concerned because it says ‘now your life counts.’ Instead of us pulling you out of your life we’re just equipping you for life with one another.”
So much of the conference was about pursuing mission in community. So I would be remiss to give you only my thoughts. Here are some other great posts that I’ve culled from the blogosphere.
Jon McIntosh (who I also got to meet) gives his reflections on Francis Chan, Community, and whether we should still have large group gatherings.
Neil Cole (who I also got to meet) elaborates on his “Go Small to Go Big” point, which he made at Verge.
Benson Hines (old buddy) has some great follow-up questions for campus ministry in light of Verge. (This will likely be a separate post for me).