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Ministry Without Maps

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by Tim Thompson

How do you navigate in a time of change and chaos?

I have seen a lot of language around this time with words like agile, pivot, adaptive, responsive and flexible. There are great little maxims too, like “Fail fast, fail forward, fail often!” But wouldn’t it be nice, in the midst of these helpful words, to have a visual image that could pull it all together so we can actually see what we are talking about? Well, I have one for you:

The Asteroid Field

Navigation is a necessity. I think we all know that. And it is not breaking news to suggest that the Age of Maps has passed. Back in the days of Lewis and Clark, you could send people out for a few years, and they would come back, hand you a nice new map, and the map would work…because all the mountains and rivers were still right where they left them. But in our world there’s no such stability. There isn’t even any “land” to travel on. Instead, we travel through and navigate in an asteroid field where everything is in motion, including us. If you try to make a map in the asteroid field you won’t succeed, because by the time it is done, it is obsolete. Plus, you would probably just got hit by a rock anyway.

Rule #1 for Asteroid Navigation: Don’t sit still!

So, maps are out, but navigation is still possible. The way you do it is by constant course correction:

  1. Orient. Refresh yourself quickly on both where you are and where you’re going. “Where you are” includes being aware of all the nearby rocks in motion, especially those on a collision course. “Where you’re going” is what really matters of course, because we are not just out here dodging rocks for fun. We have a goal, a direction and a place we are trying to get to. But the key here is that you don’t need to know exactly where the destination is. All you need is sufficient clarity. You can fine-tune the goal as you get closer, but most of the time it is enough to know if you are trying to go right or left, up or down. 
  2. Act. Take any action that a) avoids catastrophe, and b) moves you in the general direction of the destination. This is both the challenge and the thrill of asteroid field navigation: recognizing the action that utilizes the immediate situation to move you closer to your goal. In the asteroid field, seeing a challenge as an opportunity isn’t a cliché, it is a way of life.
  3. Repeat. Every time you move, your whole context shifts. So it is back to step one, to start over. Orient, Act, Repeat.

Did you notice all the pivoting going on there? Notice the value of an agile craft and a navigator who knows how to respond to context and adapt as things change.

Personally, I love a good image and a clever metaphor in its own right. But let’s put this to use. Here is one of the ways that I have found this mental un-map a gift and a tool for doing ministry.

How to get sufficient clarity for making disciples.

The mission of the Church is actually a given: make disciples. As we navigate, that is our goal. So we need to be able to describe a disciple in order to tell if we are moving closer to that goal or not.  Now, we could say that the goal is for people to grow towards maturity, “the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). But that description is so broad, so general, that it doesn’t actually help you to make decisions about where to go next. At the other extreme, obsessive-compulsive people such as myself will gladly try to assemble a comprehensive and detailed list of the things we would want to see in a disciple. (True confessions: my list is seven pages outlined, nineteen sub-points at the second level.) I think we’ll just call that “oppressive clarity,” recognized by its ability to overwhelm decision-making with an excess of detail, which leads to…sitting still and trying to chart the perfect course forward until you get hit by a rock.

Thankfully, the asteroid field image reminds us here that all you need is sufficient clarity. And clarity is sufficient when it is actionable, when it enables you to make a decision. 

Here then are three examples of a sufficiently clear description of a disciple:

  1. Tending Three Relationships Towards Balance: UP with God, IN with other believers and OUT in the world.  
  2. Showing Six Marks of Discipleship: daily prayer, Bible reading, weekly worship, Christian service, relationships that encourage spiritual growth and giving in the spirit of generosity (from Mike Foss in Real Faith for Real Life).
  3. Living the Seven Practices of the Way of Love: learn, pray, worship, bless,  go, rest, turn. (Find more about this).

In the asteroid field, any one of those will work just fine in helping you make decisions and act in ways that move you towards the goal of mature disciples. So feel free to just pick one and start! As you move and progress, it will become clear whether a different description will serve you better, so you don’t have to worry about getting it “right” the first time.

For a visual aid for asteroid navigation, I recommend the scene from Star Wars of the Millennium Falcon showing us (and the empire’s TIE fighters) just how it’s done.  It’s daunting for sure, and you may not want your people to hear you say “They’d be crazy to follow us, right?” On the other hand, it is exciting, and it will get you where you need to go. On to the next adventure and a little bit closer to Kingdom come!

About the Author
Tim Thompson is a second-career pastor in Saint Paul and former molecular biologist with a passion for discipleship and a knack for imagery and metaphor. He’s currently serving at St. Stephen’s in West Saint Paul, leads discipleship huddles, and hopes to contribute to the microchurch movement. Find him on facebook as The Feral Pastor and his blog at FeralPastor.Blogspot.com.

Photo by merc67

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