I’m on my third attempt to start a new church.
Attempt number 1 was in 2006 when I was only 23 years old. Like a lot of things from that season of my life, it was haphazard and didn’t pan out. I tried a different approach in another city for a few years, and then returned to Austin for yet a third attempt in 2009.
The Big Questions
Our church community struggles with the transience that endemic to big, cutting edge cities like our own. 110 people move to Austin every day. Many of them were like I was—young, full of bright ideas and utterly unprepared for life.
It’s not surprising to find people struggling with the big questions. They are wrestling with where to go, where to live, which are just manifestations of the biggest questions such as “Who am I?” “What am I doing with my life?” “Where is this all going?”
A few years back I was having my own existential crisis I emailed my friend Sam for advice. He was living in country in Central Asia and was literally saving lives. His NGO was teaching women’s health in Central Asia.
If anyone I knew had a grasp on what they were doing with their lives, it was Sam.
Two weeks later he responded “I’m sorry it took me so long. I wasn’t ready to respond because the truth is that I have no idea what I’m doing.”
That made me feel a lot better, but it didn’t help.
The Commissioning Stories
Throughout the gospels, we see a few clear phases of Jesus ministry.
Teach about the kingdom.
Commission others to teach about the kingdom and heal people.
There are a handful of these commissioning stories, where Jesus hands off his mission to a few key people. If anywhere could answer our existential crises and tell us where to go, it should be there, right?
Mark is the Hemingway of the Gospels. Mark 6 concisely records one such commissioning story, where Jesus sends out the 12 on what we might call a short term mission trip.
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.
These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
Here, we see Jesus lays out three expectations that I wish I had understood when I was rearing to go at 23 years old.
I. Expect to Fail
It’s important to note that this commissioning story takes place early in Jesus’ ministry. He’s been at it a little while and had a fair amount of success—for the most part. Although people are following him and he’s doing miracles, something happens right before this story and right after it.
In the verses exactly before this story he stopped by his home town of Nazareth and regular stump speech. Except, instead of being won over, they said “Jesus, we changed your diapers! You can’t tell us how to live!”
Jesus responded with the famous words “a prophet is not without honor, except in his home town.” Mark goes on to say that he wasn’t able to do many miracles there, and he was amazed at their lack of faith.
It’s no surprise then that, a few verses later, Jesus explains to the participants in this short term mission trip that there will be places that “will not welcome you or listen to you,” and that they should simply leave and “shake the dust off your feet.”
This shouldn’t surpise us, because rejection is the story of most great women and men in the world.
A few years back, the Nobel Committee released some notes from their proceedings in 1961. C.S. Lewis nominated his friend J.R.R. Tolkien for a Nobel prize in literature for a little book you might have heard of called “Lord of the Rings.”
The notes from the Nobel Prize committee called it “sub-par storytelling” and “poor prose.”
Vincent Van Gogh sold only two paintings in his entire life (which ended in suicide.)
J.K. Rowling was told by 12 publishers not to quit her day job.
God’s messengers have never been known for their success rate. Noah spent years preaching to his contemporaries, but he couldn’t get them on the boat, and everybody drowns. Moses never convinced Pharaoh to let his people go. The prophets couldn’t seem to get Israel to listen.
Jesus story climaxes in a vicious public execution. History tells us it will be similar for the 12.
When Jesus sends out pioneers, he’s not so much concerned about where they go as he is about how they go. The first thing he want’s them to understand is that wherever they go, they can expect to fail.
For pioneers, the goal isn’t success.
The goal is to speak the truth in love.
II. Go in Community
Back in verse 7, we see that Jesus “began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.”
Jesus knew that the twelve had a hard time ahead of them, so he sent them out in pairs.
Pioneering in pairs is the opposite of our “lone cowboy” American Culture. Our heroes are characters like Howard Roark, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”. The uncomprimising creative describes himself this way:
Men have been taught that it is a virtue to agree with others. But the creator is the man who disagrees. Men have been taught that it is a virtue to swim with the current. But the creator is the man who goes against the current. Men have been taught that it is a virtue to stand together. But the creator is the man who stands alone.
Roark’s philosophy sounds so strong and powerful. We’re going to stand alone, make cool things and nothing will get in our way!
Compare Roark to one young woman named Kate in our church in Austin. Having experienced a difficult loss early in life, she felt called work as a hospice, providing comfort and spiritual direction to the dying and grieving.
But she didn’t stop there. Knowing that our church and neighborhood had grieving individuals as well, she gathered a few others who shared her passion and compassion to start a regular gathering called “lament night.” Lament Night is a safe space to tell the most devastating stories, with no fear of embarrassment or judgment.
Although this is a small, low key gathering, she’s had to train hosts and other facilitators how help people share. During the event, she is training participants in how to listen.
The result is more than just a single event. It’s a training ground for others to learn how to heal the wounds of grief.
Kate pioneered something new by inviting others to join her. Now, our church community has an entire cohort of women and men who share this passion.
When Jesus sends out pioneers, he sends them out in community, with a mission for building community as they go.
III. Travel Light
In Mark’s brief rendition of this commissioning story, there aren’t a lot of specifics, except for verse 8:
Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.
They may come across harsh, or even oddly specific. Don’t take anything. Except a stick. But nothing else.
It’s important to understand that Jesus’ pioneers weren’t the only itinerant preachers wandering around in their day. One famous group you may have heard of were the cynics.
Cynics were known for being severely ascetic, spiritualizing their hyper-minimalist lifestyle. They walked around almost naked. One famous cynic named Diogenes was known for his one worldly possession: a bathtub.
Are Jesus and his followers just a part of some hyper minimalist movement?
There is one major differrence. Cynics were known for taking nothing with them except a stick—and a bag. A bag can become coin purse. A bag can become a back pack. Someone can give you a gift and you can put it the bag.
Jesus makes it really clear that for this trip, you don’t get to take anything—a stick—but nothing else—even a bag!
Perhaps Jesus is trying to teach pioneers that the stuff we take with us gets in the way.
While we should each wrestle with the call a more ascetic life, we don’t need to go straight to Diogenes’ barrel. We all have stuff we carry that is hindering our mission.
One of the fastest growing industries in America is storage units—space for people who have more stuff than they know what to do with. Many Americans are overwhelmed by debt.
Millenials are known for not wanting to collect stuff, but experiences instead. But the constant sense of having to be somewhere, accomplish something and create an Instagram-worthy moment is a burden as well.
There are other intangibles many people carry. Perhaps it’s an identity adopted at a young age that doesn’t have much to do with our lives today. It could be baggage from past failures or a collection of toxic relationships.
All this baggage leaves us looking, looking ridiculous. We’re Naven R. Johnson, the iconic Imbecile for Steve Martin’s movie The Jerk. Even after he hits rock bottom, he can’t seem to get rid of his stuff.
When Jesus sends out the 12, he tells them that when they do, they need to travel light. Jesus knows that if they do, nothing can get in their way.
- If they’re hungry, God will feed them.
- If they’re without a place to stay, God will give them a bed.
- A pioneer who travels light carries nothing that can hold him back.
Where to Go
Jesus instructions to the pioneers passage ends this way:
They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
That’s all. They went out. They went out and did what they had seen Jesus do.
Maybe they just put their hands in the middle and said “go—metanoia!” Then they started walking different ways, two by two.
It didn’t matter which way they went. Because wherever they went, there was a place that was dark enough that Jesus message could bring some light. There were lives that were broken enough that Jesus could bring some healing.
I asked my friend Sam who was working with an NGO in Central Asia what he thought of this passage, and how he ended up where he’s at.
“As far as the particulars of my own sending, I heard about an opportunity to go and teach a short computer course. Immediately I said, yep, I’m in! I don’t know why, except for a direct prompting of the spirit.
I’ve been through a lot here. I’m finding that, simply put, Christ is alive here in a totally new way. It is my hope that he bleeds out of me in a way that my friends and my would-be enemies here can see, even if I can’t.
About preaching repentance, that sounds very judgmental, until you live in a world where, just as one example in millions, pregnant women are stabbed by their husbands, because their husbands suspect that the child will be female.
God is calling people to repentance. Not just the recitation of dusty doctrines, but to the changing of the way that they live on this earth under this sky in these conditions.
Only his power can affect that change. That brings humility and repentance, because he will not force it.
It requires people to acknowledge the evil of this world and of the self and embrace the God who wants to embrace them.”
Does God have specific plans for people like Sam to go to specific places at specific times?
I hope so.
But the answer isn’t to wait around to tell us where to go. It seems that he just wants us to go.
As Sam describes there’s a real darkness in the world that Jesus brings light to, and there’s a real brokenness where Jesus brings healing.
Jesus doesn’t tell us where to go because wherever we go, his message can bring light and healing. It’s more important how we go, expecting rejection, together in community, traveling light. And as we go, we speak the truth in love, telling those we meet that a better way is possible.
Chris Morton serves as Community Developer for Austin Mustard Seed, a new Church Community for North Central Austin. As his day job, he helps organizations like Fresh Expressions tell their story with Content, Email and Social Media Marketing. He blogs about getting life on track and the Church on mission at ChrisMorton.info.