Missional Discipleship w/ Jon Ritner Part 2

Check out part two of our bonus video episodes of the GC Podcast with author and church planter, Jon Ritner. In 2023, we will be sharing content on the process of discipling and developing our ministry workers.

We hope these episodes will lay the foundation for our denominational focus next year. Jon will also be the keynote speaker at the GCI Denominational Celebration in July 2023, and this episode is an excellent opportunity to get to know him.

Listen in as Cara and John discuss best practices for team-based ministry.

Jon pastored locally for 20 years, serving a “mega-church” in Williamsburg, Virginia, planting “micro churches” in Brussels, Belgium, and then re-missioning an existing church in Hollywood, CA around missional incarnational paradigms and practices. Today, Jon coaches church and non-profit leaders looking to adapt their organizations to a post-Covid and post-Christendom culture. Jon is part of the Forge America tribe, a missional training organization that equips churches and individual believers to engage as missionaries in the places they are already doing life. He also trains leaders with the V3 Movement and Fuller Theological Seminary. Jon serves as Vice-Chair of Communitas’ Board of Directors. Jon graduated from The College of William and Mary in Virginia (B.S. 1997) and Trinity International University (M.Div. 2002).

Resources: Check out John’s book, Positively Irritating

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Program Transcript

Missional Discipleship w/ Jon Ritner, Part 2

Welcome to the GC Podcast, a podcast to help you develop into the healthiest ministry leader you can be by sharing practical ministry experience. Here is your host, Cara Garrity.

Cara: Hello friends, and welcome to this episode of the GC Podcast. We are all about exploring ministry practices in the context of Grace Communion International churches.

I’m your host Cara Garrity, and we are welcoming back for today’s episode, Jon Ritner. As a reminder, Jon Ritner has been a pastor for 20 years across different contexts. He is the author of Positively Irritating, Embracing a Post-Christian World to Form a More Faithful and Innovative Church. And today, he works with pastors and denominations all over to help them imagine and discern their innovation journey as they adapt to a post-Christian world in their own context.

If you haven’t listened to our previous episode, don’t miss out. Go on ahead and check it out before you dive into this episode because you don’t want to miss it. It was a fantastic conversation.

Welcome back, Jon. Thank you so much for taking your time again to be with us today.

Jon: Absolutely, Cara, looking forward to continuing on here.

Cara: Absolutely. And in the last episode, we talked about what it means, what it can look like for us to respond to the reality of post-Christian context and what it means for the church to do that in a posture of mission and being the church and discipleship in that context.

And for me, I’m the development coordinator at this particular moment in GCI. And I really like to think about things and look at things through the lens of development, the formation of the church and people, and even from the perspective of leadership.

So, I’d really love to dive a little bit into that today. What does this mean for us in terms of leadership, development of people, discipleship?

I just want to start with – if it’s alright – there is one particular quote from your book that I want to pull that really stood out to me from a development perspective. If I have permission to please read it, to tell some of your words back out at you.

Jon: Read it.

Cara: All right. So, you said when you were talking about some of the background of how you got to where God’s bringing you in this journey, and you said that in a crisis of leadership, that

I confessed that my enjoyment of being on the platform on Sunday mornings and my personal fulfillment from large group teaching led me to perpetuate a form of church where some gifts and some disciples were elevated above other. Rather than equipping every person to help others encounter God for themselves in his word, I encouraged them to invite those people to church, to hear our pastors speak. Church members with ideas for new initiatives were often buried in bureaucracy by leaders who needed to approve every step, rather than being encouraged to discern how God was calling them to join his work in the world.

This really stood out to me as I think about leadership development, the development of people for participation in ministry and mission, because – what did I go to seminary for, Jon?

I’d love to talk about this even through the framework of GCI, our process of development. We use the framework of engage and equip and empower and encourage. And so even just through that framework, how do you engage so many people in developing missional engagement?

What does that mean? What does that look like? Or even just dig a little bit deeper into this idea of equipping many to participate in what God is doing.

Jon: Yeah, I love that. I love that development kind of pathway or process of engage, equip and empower, encourage. And honestly, I kind of contrast that to the way I think most disciples in the last 30 years were trained in their local church.

Which is that their key role was not to do any of that, but it was simply to invite. It was to invite their community onto the church property on a Sunday to hear the professional, to maybe be part of a program, and that if they did that they would be discipled.

But the analogy that I use in my book that really resonated with me, in kind of the way that we had reduced the role of the disciple down, was this idea of a timeshare recruiter. If you’ve ever been to Las Vegas or to Daytona Beach, or for us, it was back in Williamsburg, Virginia, there’s always somebody working the parking lot at the local Denny’s or IHOP, whose job it is to try to invite and recruit someone to sign up for a timeshare tour.

And if you’ve met that person, they’re very charismatic and persuasive. They might have a little invite card and they walk with you from your car to the door and they say, hey, where are you from? We’d love to, would you like to go to Bush Gardens? You want free tickets to Disney? We’ve got this cool adventure for you. All you have to do is take a timeshare tour. (And if you’ve never done that, it’s worth doing once, just to learn your boundaries and whether or not you can actually say no to a timeshare salesman.)

But that person’s job – they’ve really only been trained to do one thing, which is to invite someone to sign up for a tour. And then another process takes over where, you as the invitee, you go to another place and you get a little hospitality, and then you get on a tour. And then eventually someone, a trained professional behind the final curtain, is the one who tries to close the deal and to get you to sign up.

And you would never trust the guy in the parking lot or the woman in the parking lot to close the deal. They’re different skillset. And I realized one day, this is how the American Church operates.

We tell our ordinary disciples, hey, closing the deal, so to speak, someone really deciding to be a disciple, that’s a skillset that you don’t have. All you can do is invite people in. So, you go out into the parking lots, into the neighborhoods, and you meet people. And you give them an invite card, or you send them a link and invite them to come to church on Sunday, and then we’ll take over from there.

And that is just such a disempowering way of forming a disciple. And honestly, it’s become a very ineffective way of making new disciples and post Christianity because people aren’t interested in coming to a church anymore. And you have to find a way to say, that person in the parking lot needs to have all of the skills necessary to make a disciple in the parking lot.

To stick with my analogy, do they have all the tools necessary to sell a timeshare right there on the spot? And that’s a different level of training. So not only can they engage someone out there, but are they equipped and empowered to actually do the disciple making in that space? And are you encouraging them amidst all the failure that takes place, living this modern disciple making life.

The analogy of the passage from my book that you read was my own realization that I wasn’t actually empowering anyone to be disciple makers. All I was doing was giving them the tools to invite people to come hear me, and I would take it from there.

It was a very professionalized version of ministry. And like you said, it’s in my mind, why I went to seminary. I went to seminary to be the guy who gets to do the ministry. But it was actually a mercenary model that we were perpetuating where the average Christian, they just paid me to do the ministry.

Like in the old days where, mercenaries were hired soldiers that didn’t give a rip about your specific cause, but you paid them money and they went out and did the fighting for you, so you didn’t have to do it. And I realized the American Church, in some ways, all we tell people is, hey, you pay the salary, you pay for this building, you pay for the programs, and we’ll do the ministry.

And the problem with that is, again, not only is it becoming less effective, but ministry is God’s gift to us. It’s not our gift to God. And so, what you’re actually doing is robbing, you’re stealing that experience from the individual follower of Jesus who doesn’t get to be in the action and to participate in the life and ministry of Jesus out in the world.

And it’s selfish, if anything. And this is what I was all of my own kind of deconstruction, repentance. Man, what I’m doing is it’s not good. And I actually need to find a way to think of myself, not as the chief ministry doer, but as the chief equipper of disciples who can do the ministry themselves, and so stop being a top the pyramid, so to speak, the hierarchical structure, and instead turn that thing sideways and think of myself as equipping and empowering and sending others out into the world. So not a mercenary mindset, but a mobilization mindset, to train people up and then release them out into the world.

Cara: I love what you say about this idea of robbing followers of the participation in the life and ministry of Jesus. Because when I think about what discipleship means, what it looks like holistically, a robust discipleship participating in who Jesus is, what he’s doing in our midst is part of that.

And like you said, to just leave that to the professionals, I think allows us to be satisfied with an incomplete discipleship. And so, as leaders, that’s almost an irresponsibility, right? To allow ourselves to be contented with that. To think that’s the more responsible model while convincing ourselves sometimes that we’re doing that out of responsibility.

Because I joke that, why did I go to seminary? But I think often that is the thought, we’re the trained professionals and so we should be the ones that are responsible to do all of these things, right? Because maybe somebody might exegete the passage wrong when they’re talking to someone about Jesus or something like that.

And so out of this idea of being responsible, we’re actually, I think, sometimes being irresponsible with the discipleship of people and our church communities.

Jon: Totally. I remember about five years ago in Hollywood, a young female actor was in our living room talking to my wife and I, and she said, I think God is calling me into ministry.

And I thought, Okay, what do you mean by that? And then she started saying I think I need to go to seminary. And I was, okay here’s the problem. I said, if you, I said again, you can clarify what you mean, but I believe every one of us is called into ministry. And if you go to seminary and then try to take a job at a church, you’re going to be sitting right next to me on a church staff, and we’re going to be strategically trying to figure out how to reach actors in Hollywood.

But right now, you are an actor in Hollywood. You are embedded in the industry. You have friends who are actors. You know the rhythm of that life. You’re an expert. Why would I want to extract you from that culture to have you come work on a church staff?

How about this? How about you stay an actor in Hollywood, and I work with you to equip you to have a ministry mindset to try to reach fellow actors in Hollywood? How about I train you to be a missionary, a disciple making missionary to other actors?

And it was like you could see a light bulb in her mind. Go on. Oh, could I do that? Is that a thing? For so long, if you’ve grown up in the church if God put a call on your life to go into ministry, you just assume that meant pastoral ministry, right? To be on a platform because that’s how we defined it.

And so, I think more and more it’s trying to, number one, help every individual disciple realize we’ve all been called into ministry. We all have different expressions of that ministry. It might be my ministry, which is an equipping of others’ ministry, or it might be a frontline disciple making ministry of people in the missionary context that I’ve been sent to as an actor or an athlete or a mom. But it’s a huge mindset.

The other, you used the word irresponsible or unfair. I almost wonder sometimes as a pastor, for me personally, if it was even more devious than that really. I use the analogy in the book of a medical term called Munchausen by Proxy, which is a term in the medical community for a parent who has a sick child and gains so much identity and value and significance in life for caring for that sick child that even when the child begins to get healthy, the parent finds a way to poison the child, to keep the child sick.

It’s a way of saying, my value comes from you being dependent on me, and if you are no longer dependent on me, I won’t have value. So, I basically force you to be sick. And it sounds like a horrible reality, but it happens. It happens because of mental health.

And I remember hearing a friend of mine describe it and I thought, oh my gosh, the American Church is performing spiritual Munchausen by Proxy. We are, in many ways, our lead pastors are. I wonder if we’re actually keeping the community malformed, keeping them sick so that they need us to do the ministry rather than getting them fully healthy, fully equipped, fully mature, and fully mobilized so that they actually don’t need us anymore.

But that would require a whole new mindset for me. And if I’m getting my identity and my value, my belonging from them needing me, I’m going to be in trouble when they don’t need me anymore. Now what I would say is, don’t worry, there’ll always be people who’ll need you. And the more you equip others you’ll never be without a job.

But it definitely changes your mentality to say, my job is to like a good parent to bring you to a point of maturity and release you so that you don’t need me anymore. And I think that’s the call on the American pastor today is to be more of an equipping, releasing, sending pastor and sending organization than creating an organization that is dependent on you and your skillset.

Cara: Yes. As you say that, I think about our model of leadership in GCI of Team Based–Pastor Lead. And that’s really what that speaks to, that we don’t need to be so pastor centric where it’s all about the pastor or all about the professional or vocational minister, but it’s really about how can the vocational or professional be equipping others, building teams so that we’re all able to, in our unique ways that we’ve been gifted by Jesus, to participate in his life and ministry and to be stronger as we do that together.

Because I think that theologically we reflect who God is better when we participate in his ministry together. And then there’s even the practical side that a team is always going to, a whole community is always going to, be able to participate and connect and disciple more than if just one person is doing those things.

Jon: Yeah. That’s the incredible reality of the Trinity is that the essence of God exists in relationship. The essence of God is unity amidst diversity. It’s three distinct, separate personhoods that are in perfect unity in relationship with each other.

And to represent a God on earth, there has to be relationship there. It’s very hard for one individual missionary, one individual person to be able to represent the fullness of who God is. This is why Jesus said, he created a body and his body as many parts.

And often when I work with people who say, I feel like I’m the only one in one setting, I say, man, start praying that God will reveal to you others. It may not be from your local church, but others who follow Jesus who are in the similar spot. And that’s another thing in a post-Christian world is getting out of the tribalism of my church, my denomination, my body, and just saying, man, I will work with anyone who names the name of Jesus; I’ll partner with anyone who wants this environment to flourish.

They may not even be a fully formed follower Jesus, but if they care about justice or love or grace or beauty, I’ll work with them, partly because our relational connection is going to express something to others that is more powerful than just what I can express as a sole person.

Cara: Absolutely. I’d love if you could speak a little bit more to maybe the hearts of our pastors who are listening and speak to that challenge of making that shift from maybe a more professional pastor centric model of ministry to more of a role as an equipper and what that journey is like, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Because that’s, I think, a huge shift in many ways.

So, could you speak a little bit more to that and the heart of a pastor who may be listening?

Jon: Yeah. Every pastor’s different in terms of what their sense of calling was and what their gifting is.

I know there are some pastors who were really drawn into pastoral ministry from an academic point of view, from a love of studying God’s word and original languages and thinking about how to communicate and teach that in a Sunday morning. And there’s a joy in 10, 15, 20 hours a week of personal study and then presentational preaching on a Sunday morning. There’s a fear that if all of a sudden, they become equippers, they won’t have time for that.

And then I think for others there’s just a challenge of trying to figure out how do you get access to the lives of people to engage with them, right? I’m in a church office five days a week, seven days a week, and my people are out there in the world and the only time I see them is on a Sunday morning and, how do you turn Sunday morning into an equipping environment?

So, I recognize there are a lot of challenges in all of this. I think one of the key philosophies that has been essential for me when I think about equipping others is just looking at the life of Jesus and realizing that Jesus did very little alone. The only time he is alone is when he’s breathing in the life of God, his Father.

He takes times for rest, for Sabbath, to pray, but other than that, Jesus is always including others in his life. And as a pastor, I think one of the best equipping things you can do is constantly make space for someone else. Don’t do anything as a pastor alone.

You’re studying the word. Who would benefit from studying with you? You’re going on a pastoral call to visit a widow or someone in the hospital. Who could benefit from you modeling that skill in front of them? You’re getting ready to lead a strategic meeting. Who would benefit from being part of the planning and preparation for that, and then sitting in on the meeting?

And that could look like a formalized internship program, but honestly, I think it looks more like opportunities for people to be in your life and to be very generous with your time. As a pastor, I often would think, anytime I had an opportunity, I’d think, who can sit in the seat next to me?

I’m speaking at a conference. Who could come with me? And that life-on-life opportunity to process some of the things that I’m doing and to discuss it and to debrief it, is essential. That’s one of the mindsets that I try to work with leaders on, is just to make space for modeling, that the skillset that you have is important for others.

And then I think the other is to embrace a posture of curiosity towards your people. And to say, what are the challenges for you as a mechanic, an actor, a store clerk? What are the challenges for you to live the life of Jesus in the places where you live, work, and play? What sort of equipping do you need?

How do I make a student centric form of disciple where I’m aware of your reality, your needs? And start with that rather than starting with my assumptions of what does it mean to be a disciple. It’s amazing to think about the unique ethical challenges, the unique contextual challenges that a lot of our people have out in the world every day.

And one of my favorite skills even here in Hollywood was actors who would say to me, they have a hard time discerning what roles to take when they’re offered a job, as they look through a script and they decide. I know I’m pretending, but I’m also maybe there’s a level of spiritual darkness. Maybe there’s some acts of sexuality. Maybe there’s just something I’m not comfortable with. How do I discern how to do this?

And I remember thinking I didn’t take a class on that in seminary. I don’t know, but let’s talk it through together. Let’s figure it out, and so we would have conversations.

How do you listen to the spirit and discern, right and wrong, these sort of things? And how do you express that even to a director or a producer who might want to hire you in a way that is not condemning or weird, but in a way that is potentially winsome, and builds a relationship and actually represents Jesus in a positive way?

So, there are a lot of skillsets that I wasn’t trained for as a pastor that the average disciple making missionary needs in their day-to-day life that I would never think about unless I ask them, what do you actually need to be equipped in to succeed?

Cara: Yeah. Both of those things – actually taking somebody along with you in everything that you do and having this posture of curiosity about what the people that you’re pastoring or leading actually needs to be disciples, to be missionaries in their context – that sounds like it takes a lot of time. Just a lot of time, a lot more than just going ahead and doing things on your own and doing things how they’ve always been done.

What would you have to say on a practical level? In your experience, has it been worth it?

Jon: Yeah. I think that ultimately any individual person who feels a calling into kind of pastoral ministry, equipping ministry, someone listening to this podcast who has that job as a pastor who’s feeling the burden of a Team Based—Pastor Led church and going, well that’s me. I’m the pastor. I’m the one who’s leading.

I think the reason they get in involved in all this is because they have a heart, a passion to see kingdom transformation. They want to see new disciples made. They want to see people and places flourish, look more like the kingdom of God. They want to see individuals surrender their life to Jesus.

And I think that there’s a way of tapping into that motivation and getting back to that and saying, Lord, this is what you called me to, and I want to always keep that – your calling, your nature – at the center of who I am. And say, anything else – the tactics, the strategies, the approaches, even my daily practices – that I surrender all of that and that may need to change. But I’m going to keep this calling centric.

And I think when you really focus on that calling and willing to say, Lord, I’ll do anything. I’ll do anything to be more effective at this thing you called me to, it helps you surrender maybe your established ways of doing ministry.

Maybe you realize I’m not going to have 20 hours a week to study the Scripture. Maybe I’m going to have 10 hours to study the Scripture, and I’m going to have to be okay with that sermon and trust the Spirit to fill in the gaps, because now I’m spending 10 hours a week investing in everyday people or visiting them in the places they live, work, and play to be curious about that.

One of my mentors, Dave Gibbons, said to me that after a sabbatical he had, he felt like God said, you need to cut your preaching time in half because it’s not an effective way of discipling people anymore in this culture. What you need to do is take all the extra time and actually spend it in their context, one-on-one or in small groups with them, contextualizing God’s word more.

And I remember being like, Did your preaching suck? Like you’re Dave Gibbons, bro. You’re a platformed communicator at big conferences, and you’re telling me that you’re spending less time. I don’t have any of your skills. I need to be spending even more time.

And he said, no, here’s the thing. It made me more dependent on the Spirit. And he said, even in the moment of, I sense the Spirit speaking more to me, guiding me more, directing me more than I ever had when I brought a fully formed, prepared manuscript up there.

And he said, I learned that God was just, he had my back. And I thought, that’s beautiful. Even as I was trying to do that in the last seven years or so, where I really did. I was more intentional about my teaching time and spending less time in preparation and more time in actual, practicing with people.

I just sensed that miracle of the wedding of Cana where I would say to the Lord sometimes, Lord, I feel like I’m about to get up in the pulpit and pour out some water, and I’m trusting you’re going to turn it into wine. Because I got a pitcher full of liquid, man, and it just looks like water on the paper right now. But I believe that you’re the one who led me to this practice of investing more in people and less in a sermon.

And sure enough, I’d have moments where people come up and say, Oh my gosh, God spoke to me so much through what you said. And I realized, yeah, I couldn’t have planned that if I wanted to.

I think the heart of every pastor is to want to see that gospel-centered transformation in people’s lives and trusting that the skills that lead to that may be different, but Jesus is still doing that same work.

Cara: Yeah, that’s a good word. And to be open that maybe it will look different. Maybe how you spend your time will shift a little bit and to be open to following how God may be leading in that and in this season of your leadership of his members of his church.

That’s good. That’s good. And so, speaking a little bit of or speaking more into that idea of equipping and being in the role of equipper as a pastor or as a leader, even as an Avenue champion (we think of those as primarily being equippers and team builders as well.) What does that equipping look like to you? What are the things folks need to know? How do you go about equipping folks to be active participants in ministry where they live, work, and play?

Jon: Yeah. In our context, in our previous podcast, we talked a little bit about the reality of post-Christian culture and how in many ways the culture that we are living in as Christians, we no longer have home field advantage. Most, many of the people who live around us, especially in urban centers, on the coasts, they don’t have a Christian worldview.

They don’t necessarily think in terms of Christian ethics or Christian values. There’s a lot of terms in Christianity that they don’t use. They may not know the Bible implicitly, like people did a hundred years ago. And so, in many ways, to be a Christian and try to make disciples of Christ in this culture is a cross-cultural reality.

It’s actually a lot more similar to, let’s say, being an American and being sent as a missionary into a foreign country, being sent to Indonesia or Africa or just pick any country where you might be sent as a foreign missionary. And there’s a skillset that you would be trained by to go live as a missionary in a foreign country.

And in fact, this was part of my training going to Europe. Again, Western. And English was actually a very acceptable language in Brussels because it’s the spoken language of the European Union. But still, when I went overseas as a church planting missionary, I was trained in a set of skills. And I realized in coming back to the US, the way they equipped and trained me is actually the same sort of equipping that our people need today.

I think of missionaries having six primary skillsets, and so how do we equip our people in these skillsets? The first thing a missionary does is they join a social group; they embed into a local place. For us, it was moving to Brussels.

Here, living in Los Angeles, I ask people all the time, what is the neighborhood or the network that you’ve been placed in? What is your social group? I live in Burbank. I play basketball at the Y [YMCA]. I volunteer at a local golf course as a marshal. My wife is active at a local hospital. These are our social groups where we encounter others. And when we enter into that space, we want to enter into it with intentionality in the same way across cultural missionary enters into that local environment.

And once you identify those spaces in your life, and we sometimes call them first, second, and third spaces – the places you live, work, and play. Play is like social gathering spaces, anywhere from a bar to a gym, to a library, to a music class you might be taking.

But once you engage, the second practice then is to learn that the customs and the language and the culture, to be a student. When I go to the gym, I’m intentional and try to learn everyone’s name. I meet a new guy – I have an Evernote file, I put their name on here because it’s important for me to try to learn who are the regulars in this space.

And in many ways a missionary in a cross culture would learn to dress a certain way, act a certain way, speak a certain way, adapt the language of that new culture. You can do that as a follower of Jesus, without sinning in this culture. You can understand, what’s the lingo? How do I fit in here, so to speak?

What does it look like to adapt and to incarnate? This is what Jesus did. He came speaking the language of the people; he came eating the food that the people ate. He didn’t show up like an alien. He showed up like a man, an ancient Near East, Middle Eastern man.

And then the third skill is, how do I add value to the community? So now that I’m embedded in the community, I’m incarnating in the community, how do I add value? How do I bless those around me? How do I discern what is good news to the people to whom I’m sent? What would feel like a win here?

Is it an act of generosity? Is an encouragement? Is it some form of love? And what could I do to tangibly bless those around me?

And then the fourth practice is, how can I display the kingdom of God in word and deed? Is there some way in which I can identify that there’s something broken about this place that doesn’t reflect the kingdom of God?

And that if I express beauty here, it’ll actually feel more like God? What’s lacking? Maybe it’s, man, this place is dirty. If someone picked up trash around here, it would look better. Or this place is super competitive. If I was more encouraging, it would be a better environment.

Or there’s so much gossip here, so I’m going to be one who says, hey, let’s have a talk about people when they’re not around. Because in my mind, in the kingdom to come, we’re not going to trash each other behind each other’s backs. We’re going to encourage each other, and so that’s what I’m trying to embody.

And I think as you do that, as you begin to add value and display the kingdom of God, what you’re really doing is the fifth skill, which is helping people learn to live like Jesus. You’re basically saying there’s a better way to be human. It’s the way of Jesus. And as I model that for others, I think it’s it provokes curiosity.

There’s a great line of that Michael Frost used where he says, part of the goal of modern Christianity is to live a questionable life. Now he doesn’t mean a questionable life in terms of oh, that’s a questionable choice you made, but he means more of a life that evokes questions.

A life where someone’s like, Why do you do that? That’s unique. I’ve never seen anyone do that before. How do you live a life that evokes questions for which the answer to the question is because I follow Jesus?

I noticed the way you treat your spouse. I noticed the way you parent your kids. I noticed the way you take care of a neighborhood that no one’s paying you to take care of. Why do you do that? Actually, it’s because I’m a follower of Jesus and Jesus came to serve others. And I’m trying to pattern my life the same way. Is there a way in which your life can point to Jesus? And I think that’s the fifth skill of missionary.

And then the final thing is how do you establish communities that are equipping people to do this together?

If I sent you overseas to be a missionary to Indonesia or somewhere, this is the training you would go through, is join a social group, learn the local customs, begin to add value, begin to discern how to make this environment more like the Kingdom of God, model life of Jesus for people, and then train up a community to do that. So that skillset is honestly what every disciple in our church needs today.

Now, the skillset we’ve given them in the past is invite people to church. Maybe host a small group. Give me your tithes and offerings, volunteer on a Sunday morning. Those skillsets were important in Christendom with the way we used to operate churches, but they’re pretty irrelevant in the future.

It’s a whole new skillset that we need, and part of it is just embracing that there’s going to be some new tools that our disciples need in order to be able to make disciples in a new culture.

Cara: Yes. I love that for a couple of reasons. Again, I come back to this just the reality and the beauty of incarnation. And this idea were we’re living the good news, right? That’s the skillset of a disciple, living the good news as we’re transformed by it.

And sometimes that doesn’t even mean – I think, in my experience sometimes the thing that is a barrier is I don’t know all the fancy words. I don’t know how to exegete this thing of scripture. I don’t know. I don’t have the seminary degree.

But incarnating living, putting flesh on the good news, as we ourselves are transformed in relationship with Jesus in community with one another as his church, that’s beautifully simple. You don’t need a degree to do that.

And it’s also mysteriously complex at the same time. But the idea that it is because of who God is, it’s actually accessible to all of us. We don’t need to gate-keep that. These are skillsets that we really can be equipping, as leaders, all members of our community for.

And as members of the community, that we’re “in Christ” qualified for, right? We don’t need to say, oh, actually I can’t do that because I don’t have a seminary degree. No, you can live your life that is new because of who God is.

That’s an incredible way to think about what it looks like to be equipped to participate, to live missionally in the spaces where we already are.

And that’s the other piece – oh, go ahead. Go ahead.

Jon: No, I was going to say, Cara, your gate keeping line. I love that image and I think that is often one of the challenges. There’s a sense in which, the keys to the kingdom all lie within those who have power and the professionals.

And it made me think of, there’s two guys out here in LA who are regulars at a pub that’s near their neighborhood. And they’re big fans of an Irish band that plays on a regular basis. And so, the Irish band was going to play, and they invited me to come join them. So, I hung out with these guys. And I kept remarking, I said, you guys have done an incredible job embedding here.

And they’re like, what do you mean by embedding? I’m like, you’re regulars. You know all the wait staff when they see you, they smile, they laugh, they’re glad you’re here. I said, you’re good news to them. The band loves that you’re here because you’re big supporters and you’re bringing in fans to hear the band.

So that’s good news. I said, You guys have become kind of locals here. And then I said, what’s your kind of strategy for actually going to the next level and making disciples? And they said we invite people to church. And I said, okay, now wait a minute. I said, so let me get this straight.

You have an incredible relationship with all these people. You’re good news. They trust you; they respect you. And then you invite them to come hear me on a Sunday who they don’t know, in a space that’s foreign to them to probably use a language they’re not familiar with. And you think that’s the most effective way to tell them about Jesus.

I said, they don’t give a rip about me. I said, you’re here. I say, why are you bringing them to church when you’ve already brought the church here? I don’t want to be the gatekeeper! Here, you take the keys. I don’t want it.

And I remember saying to them, how about I work to equip you to make disciples right here, to figure out how do I display the kingdom of God? How do I talk about Jesus in a way that resonates? How do I offer to pray for people in a way that feels appropriate? What would it look like to have a spiritual discussion or even a Bible study in this place? How do I invite others to join us as missionaries in this space?

And you could see their brain just be like, ah, yeah, that would probably be more effective. I was like, yes, it would be. And I was like, it’s not your fault. You’ve been in churches for 30 years that have not validated that as an authentic way to make disciples because the gatekeepers have said no, your job is to build a relationship and then invite them to us and we’ll do the work from there.

So, flipping that script, inverting that directional impulse from into Sunday to out into the world, the sent-ness that we were talking about is so key.

Cara: Yes. And I love how you say the church is already here, right?

We don’t need then this idea of we got to invite folks back into church. The church is here. So equipping folks. What does that look like to live that and the fact that it can be just part of the everyday, right? This is just in your regular life rhythms where this can happen.

That’s why I love that phrase, where you live, work and play. Because this can just be within the things that you already have interest in. Or I think sometimes when we think about mission or evangelism, we have this idea that we have to become people that we aren’t already instead of who God has already made us to be.

But if you like Irish music at the pub, then why don’t you be the church at the pub that has Irish music? Or if – I don’t know – if you like dance, why don’t you be the church there? We don’t have to become people that we’re not. We can be who we are in Christ and be the church in those places of our neighborhoods and our communities.

And because we already know the language of those people, because that’s who we are. Even that example you said of the woman who was an actress. She already knows the language of Hollywood because that’s who she is.

Jon: Yeah. Yeah. Jesus needs people in every nook and cranny of culture in society.

In our culture today, there are so many unique tribes, people who have found each other on the internet who are interested in something similar. And God needs to — he wants a gospel witness in all those places.

We have neighbors who we met recently who we learned were followers of Jesus, and we had lunch with them, and we ended up hearing a little bit of their story. He’s the CEO of a company that builds all the obstacle courses for reality shows. So American Ninja Warrior, The Floor is Lava. And I said, how’d you get into that? And he said actually, we were elite-level rock climbers, he and his wife. And so, for basically 10 years, they lived on $25,000 a year in a van traveling around rock climbing.

And he said, we saw ourselves as missionaries to the rock-climbing community. And he said, it’s a tight knit community, elite-level rock climbers. And everywhere we’d go, we’d live in our tent for a week and climb all day and sit around the fire at night and have spiritual conversations.

And I just said, that’s incredible. And he ended up sharing a story. He said, there’s one guy, atheist, never into anything, didn’t want to talk to us about stuff, thought we were weird wacko Christians. He said, and then one day we’re hanging off the side of El Capitan in Yosemite, which is one of the pinnacle climbs that you ever want to make.

He’s like, we’re literally on a ledge, sleeping in our sleeping bags, staring up at the skies. And all of a sudden, he starts opening up about his spiritual questions. And I thought, man, this is incredible. We spent years investing in this guy and right now on the side of rock face, he’s finally ready to talk about God.

And I was like, man, that’s the win. That’s the missionary life that I think everyone needs to embrace. That guy was never coming to church, but you and he had a little moment, an encounter with Jesus right there on the side of a mountain because you met him in a place that he loved to play. A third space. And so how do we get more missionaries into those spaces to have those meaningful conversations that only take place sometimes in the middle of the night on a rock face?

Cara: Yeah. And are we convinced that Jesus is already in those spaces? And at work in those spaces? Or is he only at work in church? Is the only ministering in church buildings? I think that’s beautiful.

Jon: And Cara, I know we have to wrap up. I think that’s a great truth because you asked earlier about how do you encourage pastors?

I do think that one of the old paradigms of Christendom was that God exists in the church, like God works in the church spaces. He exists in sacred spaces like sanctuaries. And we have to get people there to experience him. But when you recognize that there is not one square inch of all of creation that Jesus does not declare, this is mine.

And that God is, Jesus is already at work in the lives of every person around us. He cares about them more than we do. He’s the great evangelist. One of the things we’ve talked about a lot in this training of missionaries is you are not going and meeting someone and initiating a spiritual work in their life.

You are meeting someone, and you are saying to the Holy Spirit, show me how you’re already working in their life. Even Jesus said, I don’t do anything that the father’s not already doing, meaning I’m just joining my Father’s work in the world.

And I think for us as Christians, we’re just joining Jesus’ work in the world. There’s not a burden on us. If we resisted, Jesus doesn’t go, oh, I guess I can’t do it. He keeps working. He says I’ll get someone else.

And when I meet people and start having spiritual conversations, I’m like, Jesus, show me how you’re already at work in this person’s life. What avenues are you taking to try to reveal yourself? And then let me be part of that. And that takes so much burden and pressure off of you to feel like it’s all on me to break through this person’s heart. That’s just not how God works.

Cara: No, that’s good. I do have one more question for you as we do look at wrapping up.

I think this idea of equipping and mobilizing or engaging everyone and then equipping and empowering them to participate in ministry can seem all well and good. But then maybe we can get scared, like it can also seem like it tempts chaos because oh, there’s a lot of folks doing a lot of things all over.

And if we’re the leaders, maybe the ones responsible, we can’t control all of that. Can you speak a little bit to that and what it actually looks like when a community of followers are equipped and empowered to participate in what God is doing in their midst, in this way?

Jon: Chaos. Yeah. That’s beautiful. There is a little controlled chaos to the kingdom of God sometimes.

I tend to think in pictures and analogies, right? The analogy that I found most helpful to think about the way churches were traditionally structured, and the way we need to lean into restructuring them is just this analogy of a restaurant versus a food truck.

Most American churches for the last 50 years have operated like a restaurant where you had one owner, and a general manager. And you had employees who each had individual jobs, but it was a brick-and-mortar location, nice signage, good advertising. You invited people to come to your restaurant and you provided them a high-quality meal. You had a menu for kids, a menu for older people.

And the experience was the key. If people had a good experience, if they liked the food, they’d invite other friends into this space. And you always fed them in this place. And if it got successful, maybe you grew, you built a bigger building or maybe you franchised and put a bunch of these restaurants all over town.

And successful restaurants, sometimes the chef became a celebrity. They got their own cookbook, so their own TV shows.

But it was very controlled. It was very top-down structure. And this is how the church has operated. You’ve had a board or a pastor who is the CEO of this restaurant and maybe the chef and trying to hire people to do one specific job that ultimately still allows them to do the main thing, which is cooking the big meal.

And you said to people, you’ve got to come to us if you want to get fed.

There’s a whole other paradigm of feeding people. And it happens in cities, which is, that there’s a whole fleet of food trucks that are present in Los Angeles right now that are going to where people already do life. They’re not saying, you’ve got to come to us.

And I think for the future, church is going to look more like a fleet of food trucks, where you actually give away power. And you encourage and embrace people to think creatively in small teams about, what meal, what food delicacy could we create that would resonate with the people in the place that we love?

So, we’re going to go down the beach and we’re going to do fish tacos. Or we’re going to go over here and do Korean wings, because that’s my specialty. That’s part of my heritage. I’m from Korea. Korean spicy wings are a delicacy, so we’re going to go serve that.

But something that originates out of the passion and calling of that team. And then, is honestly much more nimble and flexible and can drive around and find people where they are. And yet can still provide a meal that satisfies the hunger.

And I will say that a fleet of food trucks feels a lot more chaotic than one restaurant where everyone comes to me, and I can close the doors at the end of the night. And I can shut down the business.

I don’t know what’s happening if I was empowering a fleet of food trucks. But if you look at the early church, that is controlled chaos. Paul’s doing his best to try to stay connected. Some of these itinerant apostles, but man, they’re writing letters back and forth and there’s a lot of crazy things happening in the church in Corinth and church in Ephesus.

And yet the Holy Spirit is ultimately working through all of that. And I think the command-and-control mentality that we have, has to be released. We have to surrender more of a Spirit-empower chaos. That God is going to do something new and that he’s okay with it. There will be more mystery and wonder, I think, in the future of the church than the industrialized control and command structure that we’ve had.

Cara: So maybe we’ll have to give up a little bit of that control. Oh, wow. Just a little bit. Just a little bit of chaos. I really like that image of the restaurant versus food truck model. So, thank you for sharing that with us.

So, as we go ahead and wrap up, as is our tradition, we’ve got some fun questions lined up for you.

So, are you ready?

Jon: I’m ready. I’m ready.

Cara: Perfect. All right. If you could take credit for one invention, any invention, what would it be?

Jon: Wow. If I could take credit for it. I’m trying to think of a great invention that I love right now.

I think air conditioning. I’d love to be the guy who invented air condition. Yeah, that’s a good one. So, I’m not sure that the net effect of air conditioning has improved the social relationships in our lives. But as someone who lives in Southern California, there’s nothing better than walking into a house with air conditioning and immediately feeling the comfort of that, and nothing better than a summer nap in a good, air-conditioned room as well.

Cara: Yeah. That’s a good one. That’s a good one. This one’s tough and there’s only one right answer. Are you a dog person or a cat person?

Jon: Oh man. Neither. I’m allergic to cats and I never had dogs.

My son turned 14 yesterday. And my wife and my 16-year-old daughter, my 14-year-old son all went to a cat cafe without me on his birthday. That just goes to show, they’re like, no, dad, we’re not bringing you.

If I had to choose, I’d say a dog person probably. So, there are some cute dogs in our neighborhood that I enjoy, saying hi too.

Cara: For the record, that’s not the right answer.

Jon: That’s not the right answer I could tell.

Cara: No. Okay. What is the worst job that you’ve ever had?

Jon: Oh man, I was 19 and I got a job – I had to join a union and my job was climbing into air conditioning duct work. And vacuuming them out on the inside. And so, if you can imagine literally like a duct box that was just big enough to fit in, my job was to climb into it and then shimmy along it with a full respirator on my face and vacuum it out from the inside.

And one of the locations was a gymnasium in Minnesota that had a lot of fire damage, and the gymnasium was like three stories high. I had to climb into duct work that was suspended from the ceiling, three stories high, and go all the way along the roof of the gym. So, the entire time I’m vacuuming, I’m thinking, if this thing breaks loose, I’m dying.

So yeah, that was pretty intense.

Cara: It sounds pretty intense.

All right. I’m a 90s kid. So, what’s your favorite thing about the 90s? I’ve got to know.

Jon: Neon. That’s more 80s maybe. I’m trying to think. But I do love green, yellow neon. I like people who play neon golf balls.

I like neon shirts and stuff.

Cara: Yeah. That early 90s fashion. For sure.

Jon: Yes. Absolutely. That was my high school days. I’m class of 93.

Cara: Ah Yes. All right. And last one, I’m going to give you another shot at your best joke – maybe second best.

Jon: That’s right. Second best.

What is Beethoven’s favorite fruit? Ba na na naaaa!

There you go.

Cara: Very good. Very good.

Jon: I snuck in two banana jokes on my two podcasts. That’s all I got.

Cara: Fruit’s good for you. It’s good for the soul.

Oh Jon, I really appreciate your time again, and I thank you so much for sharing. And my hope and my prayer for our listeners is that we would be open to what God is doing, what he’s saying and maybe some of the opportunities that he’s inviting us to, some of the things that he’s inviting us to say yes and amen to.

And maybe that’s even a food truck versus a restaurant. Everyone loves a good taco truck, right? So, thank you so much for sharing out of your experience and out of your journey with us.

And friends, don’t forget to go on ahead and check out his book, Positively Irritating, to learn more.

And I would love to offer up a word of prayer to close us out today. So, let’s pray.

Lord God, we thank you so much that you are good and that you are pleased to be our God, that you are present and active in our midst. And we thank you that you are a dynamic God, that you’re not stagnant, that you are alive and well.

And we thank you that you invite us into new things and new opportunities. We thank you that you don’t give up on us or leave us behind. We ask that you would help us to discern what it is that you’re doing in all of our contexts. We asked that you would help us to discern what it is that you’re doing in each of our neighborhoods and communities and each of our personal lives.

What is it the giftings that you’ve given us? The passions, the things that we love to do the communities and niches that you have made us to belong to. All so that we can spread the good news of belonging in you, God.

And as leaders, particularly, I pray that you would help us to become equippers of your saints. That we could become carriers of your word and your good news to every nook and cranny and corner of our neighborhoods, of our communities, of our world.

I pray that you would help us to trust you and that you’ve got this even when it seems chaotic to us. And help us to be able to say yes and amen to what it is that you’re doing, to let go and repents of the things that make us comfortable when they are not in step with what it is that you’re doing.

And we know that it’s hard. We confess that it’s hard, so we ask for your help. We ask you to guide us. And God, I thank you for just the bright future that you have for your church. I thank you that you are faithful to us, that you continue to restore and to draw us in and to make us into the people and the community that you’ve always meant this to be.

And that in your very own body, you have made it so that you can never leave us behind. And we thank you for that truth. And that reassurance. We thank you and we praise you, and we ask you to make us better participants in your mission, your life, your ministry, all for your glory. We pray this in your holy and precious name, Amen.

Jon: Yes and amen.

Cara: Folks, until next time, keep on living and sharing the gospel.

We want to thank you for listening to this episode of the GC Podcast. We hope you have found value in it to become a healthier leader. We would love to hear from you. If you have a suggestion on a topic, or if there is someone who you think we should interview, email us at info@gci.org. Remember, healthy churches start with healthy leaders; invest in yourself and your leaders.