We learn best when outside our comfort zones. At Metro Community (Willow Park Church) in the core of Kelowna, B.C., the distant cultures of “normal” and “street” cause one to be suddenly off-balance. Serving here, my wife and I discovered early on that our best teachers were broken, addicted, sometimes only a few days along the road to recovery.
We discovered that it was indeed possible to form community with “the least of these.” We discovered perhaps the most profound lesson of brotherhood: we form community around shared weakness, not around our strengths. In that way, we confirmed the words of Jean Vanier: “the poor are a gift to us – they call us back to simplicity.”
For the past three years, my wife’s involvement has been up close and personal: working with women who are homeless, and working with women in recovery. My own involvement, having just finished a doctorate in leadership and spiritual formation from MBBS, has been one level removed: teaching, imagining structures that will serve our community, and providing some mentorship for younger men.
One of the first times I taught at Metro, I recalled the work of Henri Nouwen. In Lifesigns, Nouwen speaks of true hospitality, quoting the Jerusalem translation of John 15:4: “Make your home in me as I make mine in you.” He affirms Jesus’ invitation to intimacy, which leads to fruitfulness, which leads in turn to joy. At Metro, I have learned that there are not two types of people in the world: those with homes and those without. I have learned that there are only two houses in the world: the house of fear and the house of love. Many who have homes live in fear; many who are homeless live in peace.
Discipleship in a missional community
Living and sharing among the urban poor, our goal has been to form one community. We have hoped to avoid dividing our community into helpers and helpees. So often those who offer us the richest gifts seem to have little to give. But what they offer comes from a deep place. Their blazing honesty and eagerness to give of themselves challenge us profoundly. We have discovered that we “normies” have no closed market on love or hope or faith. When there are needs, some of the first to step up to the plate are those who are poor in the eyes of the world.
Metro is what could be known as a missional community. We did not plant a church and then attempt to find a mission. We planted a mission and then discovered the life of Jesus among us. That is the first lesson about discipleship. Apart from a mission, discipleship may be a label that obscures a deep dualism. God is a God of mission. To be a disciple is to follow him into the places he goes.
Becoming missional has to do with where we place boundary markers as we define the church. What is in-bounds? What is out-of-bounds? Who is included and on what basis? The boundary markers for the church should be determined by where the gifts and callings of God’s people take them. In order to impact the world, we need to be in the world.
Our classical equipping paradigms have been primarily informational and only secondly formational (see James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom). They have tended to be individual and only secondly communal. They have tended to be spiritual while neglecting the physical. Yet, it is bread and wine that God uses to get new life into us: broken bread and poured-out wine. There is no spiritual formation apart from the surrendered life. When we gather at the table at Metro, we are equal before God: equally broken and equally beloved. The body of Christ becomes a living sacrament: a sign and foretaste of the kingdom. In the 1970s, Jim Wallis wrote,
The renewal of the church will come not through a recovery of personal experience or straight doctrine, nor through innovative projects of evangelism or social action, nor in creative techniques or liturgical worship, nor in the gift of tongues, nor in new budgets, new buildings, and new members. The renewal of the church will come about through the work of the Spirit in restoring and reconstituting the church as a local community whose common life bears the marks of radical obedience to the lordship of Jesus Christ.¹
Discipleship barriers in the western church
If it were simply a matter of following Jesus on mission, the challenge would not be so great. But this is not where we are as a church in the West. We have baggage we cannot carry on this journey (see the sending, Luke 10:1–24).
Through modernity, “believing” has been conceived as the starting point. Our faith has been highly cognitive: information- or content-oriented. Sometimes we have equated discipleship with a change in worldview. Moreover, our primary concerns for inclusion have been boundary markers, measured mostly by belief; secondly, by behaviour. When these first two qualities are met, we allow people to belong.
“Belonging,” then, has been important but has tended to follow believing and behaving. Believing relates to the big story; belonging relates to the people on the journey.²
The traditional church makes it quite difficult for people to negotiate its maze of cultural, theological, and social barriers in order to get “in.” At Metro, however, we are “low-barrier” in terms of belonging. We include people in most aspects of our corporate life, wherever they are on the journey. If someone has a good voice, they may be asked to do backup vocals at a Sunday gathering. If they can cook, they may be flipping burgers when we gather in the park or for an outreach event. When people are invited into a family, when they feel loved and accepted, they begin to drop the barriers that hide their wounds, and suddenly there is an opportunity to be healed.
7 discipleship practices at Metro
Metro exists in a rhythm of inward and outward life, community and mission, around seven practices: prayer, meals, worship, justice, hospitality, mentoring, and vulnerability. For us, the weakest of these seven is probably prayer. While we practice prayer in many settings and as a gathered community every second week, we need to expand with teaching and practices of silence and contemplation. We are a needy and highly activist group, and many of us are at risk for burnout.
Meals and hospitality are at the heart of our community. We don’t gather without eating together. We share a breakfast every Sunday, and we eat together before we pray every second Tuesday. Moreover, we gather at the table of the Lord every Sunday morning. Jesus is more than a memory; he’s a living presence among us. Around the table, we are equally needy and equally graced. The table becomes a reminder that the dividing walls are broken down; it is a protest against and an alternative to the world’s use of food. Luke ends his account of the formation of the church at Pentecost with a reminder that “there was not one needy person among them” (Acts 4:34).
The way we gather is also critical to forming an alternative culture. We take universal priesthood seriously. A highlight of our gathering is an open mic. We don’t censor, and we don’t limit access. It’s surprising what we have heard – but also what we have not heard. The invitation has rarely been abused. An open mic decentralizes preaching and often sets the tone for the gathering. With this format we say “everyone has a voice” and “everyone can contribute.” 1 Corinthians 14 comes to mind as an order of service that early Anabaptists approved.
Our practice of justice takes the form of advocacy. Our community is very needy, with high unemployment and many on welfare or disability pensions. We are increasingly aggressive in advocacy. We have developed relationships with civic officials and our MLA, as well as key persons in government agencies and the non-profit support sector. We have learned that most people in supportive and caring agencies mean well, but some have not taken the time to really hear a story. And members of our community sometimes carry the kind of pain that can make them abrasive or angry; they need advocates who can mediate or help them be heard.
Mentoring is becoming a critical practice for us. People who have spent years on the street have usually lacked good parenting, and some have been bounced from one home to another through their growing years. Still others have been more actively abused. They have not had the time to develop basic life skills. Where they do bring some of these, they have lacked stable and consistent caring relationships. They need teachers, friends, and mentors who will instruct, nurture, and guide them along the way. In The Mentored Life, James M. Houston writes,
When we are looking for help from the right kind of people, “teachers” are not enough…. We forget that the nurturing and caring relationship is inherent in effective teaching. Wisdom, after all, is more than data processing. Activism that is devoted to a cause can also be a poor substitute for relationships, because it is too busy to cultivate friendship. The Greek philosophers were wiser when they stated that “thought is not meaningful without action; and action is not meaningful without friendship.”
Since January, I have formed friendships with two younger brothers who have been on the street. I’d like to report that our friendship has transformed them – but it is more honest to report how their courage and faith have challenged me. Watching those who have not had the advantages I have had take on their giants and overcome has been a powerful tonic.
We all need friendship, companions on the journey. And we all need mentors, those who are further along the road, who can offer perspective. We require that staff and key leaders not only find someone to mentor, but that they also locate a personal mentor or soul friend. Our hearts can deceive us. A mentor is both a teacher and guide, and can help us sort through the layers of our emotional and spiritual lives. They can help us guard against burnout or inappropriate boundaries, and they can point us to timely resources in our own growth process. Leaders who stop learning and growing are poor guides in times of increasing complexity. Mentoring thus requires a networking component that is larger than the particular community, since senior staff invite role confusion when they attempt to mentor those who report to them.
Vulnerability is the final practice, and it relates both to the task of mission itself and to hospitality, the heart of the gospel. In both sendings in the gospel of Luke, Jesus says something like, “take nothing for the journey” (Luke 9:3, 10:4). Vulnerability – as we practice it – has three components, outlined in the Great Commandment in Mark 12:29–31: mind, spirit, body. We are intellectually vulnerable in that we come with open minds as learners into our context. We are emotionally vulnerable as we admit our own brokenness. We are physically vulnerable when we come with our own needs, and when we invite into our homes people who might have just begun their recovery. Most of our core team at Metro have given temporary shelter to people who have fallen between the cracks. We regard hospitality as a gospel imperative (Isaiah 58).
Discipleship as finding a home
At Metro, we have observed that it is possible to have homes, yet not belong anywhere. It is possible to have lots of stuff, but feel empty inside. On the other hand, it is possible to be HIV positive, and yet trust God for tomorrow; it is possible to have Hepatitis C, yet experience deep joy and rich fellowship. Our old and comfortable divisions between good and bad, in and out, have broken down as we have walked the road with Jesus. We have formed community around the gift of new life in Christ, not around the common cultural measures that foster prejudice and division.
Our goal is to love God with all that we are; this is what it means to come home to the Father. To come home is to belong. We all long for a safe place where we are welcomed and accepted as we are. We long to be loved, and to love. We are not Jesus followers because we think God is a good idea. We are lovers and poets who have seen a transcendent vision and have been ruined for all else.
In our Christian culture, worship connotes bending the knee, but not always action in the world, and not always intimate connection. Smith has it right when he says that the goal of spiritual formation, or discipleship, is love. Only love sustains us.
—Len Hjalmarson is a writer, teacher, and software developer living in Kelowna, B.C. He is co-editor of Fresh + Re:Fresh: Church planting and Urban mission in Canada in post-Christendom and author of An Emerging Dictionary for the Gospel and Culture: A Conversation from Augustine to Zizek. Len is director of spiritual formation with FORGE Canada.
2. In particular, see Joseph R. Myers, The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005). Myers describes four types of social space.
3. James K.A. Smith, interviewed by Mike Dagle. Woodward Theological Society, February, 2010. http://woodwardtheologicalsociety.org/interviews/2010/02/james-ka-smith-desiring-kingdom.