A Q&A with Exponential President and Community Christian Church Pastor Dave Ferguson
For the last two years, Community Christian Church has taught five simple missional practices rooted in how Jesus carried out His earthly mission. In the free eBook, Discover Your Mission Now: Five Simple Practices to Change Your World, author Dave Ferguson (with Jon Ferguson and Tim Sutherland), fleshes out these practices, sharing inspiring stories of how people–as they have carried out Jesus’ mission–have discovered their own mission in the process. In this interview, Dave offers a synopsis of the five practices and a look at how these practices have played out in both the Chicagoland church and his own life.
Dave, what’s the premise of this eBook?
Bottom line, it came out of this conviction that when God births us in this world, He has a mission in mind for us. And in Discover Your Mission Now!, we try to just make real crystal clear what Jesus’ mission is and then, also, give an understanding of the five consistent kinds of missional practices that He lived out in His life. And we point out that when we use these practices that are real simple to understand, but still challenging to live out, we begin to bless the people and places around us. And in the process, not only will we begin to change our world, we’ll also discover our own mission.
Take us through these five practices and give us a brief understanding of each one.
Basically, the eBook is six very short chapters. The first chapter kind of lays out the framework of it, and the last five cover these five practices. We back up to Genesis 12 and talk about how from the very beginning God’s people are always blessed to be a blessing. We lay out these five practices using B-L-E-S-S.
The first practice, the “B,” stands for Begin With Prayer. One of the first things Jesus did in His own earthly ministry was spend time in solitude and prayer. When He was ready to go out and select the disciples, He spent time in prayer.
We felt like foundationally, the very first thing that needs to happen for any of us as we begin to try to discover our own mission is to reconnect with God and ask Him, “Who are the people, where are the places that you’re sending me?” And just get really, really clear about that. In some ways, it’s just kind of, again, getting really clear about your calling. And I think it usually does fall into one of those two categories: people and places. Either the particular people God’s put in your life, or the particular places to which God has sent you.
Then the “L,” the second practice, stands for Listen. I think as Christ’s followers, and quite frankly, as Christians, we have a reputation for talking more than we listen. We need to be able to actually listen to the people and places God has sent us.
How do we listen to the places?
I can tell you some cool stories of how we’re seeing that play out. One of our most recent sites has done a brilliant job of listening to their neighborhood. The campus pastor there, Rich Gorman, was sitting in a café in the neighborhood, just looking out the window praying and asking, “God, open my eyes. Help me see what You see.” He noticed this mass of people just walking to the train stop to go to work, and everyone of these people was just walking with their heads down, almost robotically, kind of just going through their day without emotion, grinding it out. They just didn’t seem to be alive at all. As Rich was praying, it just kind of hit him, “If there was only some way to get the Gospel to them on the sidewalk, since that’s where everyone was looking.”
He had this idea: What if we started writing simple phrases of encouragement and hope on the sidewalk? So one of the things this campus has started doing is this thing called Chalk the Block. They took simple sidewalk chalk and every Tuesday night, this growing community went out to write these simple messages on the sidewalks on the way to the “L” station, at the bus stops and different places throughout this North Side neighborhood. They’ve been doing it for about a year.
Now they’re seeing people who have started coming to church for the very first time in their lives as they discover who’s behind these messages. People are finding their way back to God and getting baptized. We actually had the Chicago Tribune do a story on it. And now other churches are starting to do the same thing. It’s just amazing. So Rich began with prayer and then began to listen. If you listen, you’re going to observe what’s going on in a neighborhood. They started using these simple practices to reach their community.
In some ways, it’s really the whole idea of incarnation. It’s what you see in the life of Jesus, too. Think about the blind man in Luke 18. The guy’s obviously blind. But it’s fascinating. Jesus still asks him, “OK, what do you want me to do?” He doesn’t assume the guy wants to be healed from his blindness. It seems like a no-brainer question, but maybe there was something else.
I think a lot of times in our efforts to reach our friends and neighbors–or even when we start a new church–we assume that this is what the community needs. But Jesus gives us a great example when He asks the blind man the question and then listens.
And that goes back to what you’ve talked about before—planting the Gospel first. How do we bring good news to a community? First, we have to discern what good news would be to that community.
I think you’re exactly right, if I can agree with myself.
What’s the third of the five practices?
The “E,” which stands for Eat. This is the one that is really kind of counterculture, because it actually slows us down, especially Type-A people like me and a lot of church planters. If I have these five practices to do, my instincts are to ask, “How do I check these off so I can move on to the next thing?” But Eat says, “Now you need to invite them into your home or to a restaurant.”
Back to Jesus’ life. Over and over again, He was accused of eating with sinners and tax collectors. You have the whole story of Zacchaeus. In my own experience, this is the one practice—if you’re praying for and listening to people—that’s really pivotal because this is where it goes from acquaintance to a more substantive relationship, where you actually start to develop a friendship. That’s how relationships begin. When we start to date someone, we usually start out by asking them to eat with us. It’s really the gesture of friendship. It’s not just a project.
Are you beginning to see that happen in your church as people eat together?
One of our small groups, our missional groups, started doing that in their neighborhood. Every Tuesday, they just invited everyone in their neighborhood over to their house to eat. They were planning on doing it just for the summer. They got to Labor Day, the big grand finale gathering, and started saying, “Hey, it’s been a great summer having you guys over,” and as people were leaving, they started saying, “We’ll see you tomorrow.” When the group asked, “What do you mean?” their neighbors said, “Well, we always eat together on Tuesdays” and so they came back over the next night. All of a sudden, you start to discover that there are people in your cul-de-sac who are having real marriage problems or they’re facing foreclosure. A number of things start to come out when you begin to pray, listen and share a meal. You begin to build friendships.
The fourth practice, the first “S,” is Serve. After praying, listening and eating, you should have an idea of how to serve the people you’re called to. Through spending time with them and asking God to show you what they need, you start to discover how you can best serve them. I really think that when you do these first three practices consistently, people will start to subtly tell you how to serve them. And it’s not how you want to serve them but how they want to be served, how they want to be loved.
The last practice, the second “S,” is Story. And this is where proclamation is important. We get the chance to talk about what Jesus has done in our life because by that point you’re sharing meals and serving them, they’re going to want to know your story.
So those are the five simple practices we see played out in Jesus’ life. We encourage people to begin to try to do one of these every day.
How do these practices relate to the premise of this book: discovering your mission?
That’s the fascinating part. It’s actually in doing the mission of Jesus that we discover our mission. So far, we’re seeing some remarkable things happen. I think of a couple in our church, Rudy and Amber, who would say that nine months ago they just really didn’t get it when we first started talking about being on mission. You’d talk to them and just get these blank stares. But they started walking and praying for their neighborhood. Then they started having conversations with some of the people on their block, eventually inviting them to eat with them every Tuesday night. They now say, “My neighborhood is my mission. These are the people God has called us to.” And they would say they’ve grown spiritually as well.
How are these practices playing out in your own life, Dave?
I talk about this a little bit in the book, too. Sue and I have lived in the same house now for more than eight years. And I’ll confess that part of the reason I started doing these practices was because I just didn’t feel like I could challenge other people to do them unless I was doing them. That was really the impetus for me: Okay, if I’m going to challenge everybody else, I’ve got to start doing this. And we did that with all our leaders. Since we started doing this as a church, just the number of times our family has shared meals with our neighbors has dramatically increased. For the last two years at Halloween, we’ve made a big pot of chili and have just camped out in our driveway. Instead of each of us behind our doors passing out Halloween candy, we’ve gotten together as a neighborhood.
I’d say for the first time—and I hadn’t thought about it until just now—but for the very first time since we started the church, almost every day in my journal I have a line that says B-L-E-S-S and there’s a few people I pray for every day, which includes my neighbors. I don’t feel like I’m doing as good a job as Rudy and Amber (not that it’s a contest), but I do feel like there’s a definite intentionality about who I’m praying for, who I’m listening to, who I’m eating with and hoping to serve.
In fact, I even had something happen last winter where one of my neighbors stopped me. She had gone through some real serious health issues and I’d been praying for her and her husband. Almost out of the blue, she asked me, “Hey, did you ever write that book about finding your way back to God?”
To be honest, I didn’t know she even knew I wrote a book. I said, “No, I never did. I do want to write a book on that some day.” But more importantly, I said, “Why do you ask?” She said that she felt like she needed to find her way back. Then I asked, “What’s going on?” and she looked around to make sure no one was around and said, “I think I’m afraid of dying.” I don’t think that conversation would have happened if I hadn’t been praying for her. God can orchestrate whatever He wants, but it just feels like if I hadn’t been praying for them and hadn’t been listening and building that relationship, it wouldn’t have happened. I’ve still got a long way to go, but it is definitely changing me.
Are there specific practices that you and others are finding more challenging to live out than others?
I’ll pick two of them: Eat because again, it’s difficult for Type A people who want to just check off a list. The other one is Story. In some ways, it’s because we’ve only really been at this with our leaders for the last two years and with our whole church for the last year, So we need to have patience because all of this takes time. But I think when we start to get this practice really right, we will see dramatic numbers of people making commitments to Christ. And while we have seen some of those, it’s not like there has been a dramatic increase. And I think that’s because, like my story with my neighbors, it’s going to take some time. But even if it takes time, we’ve got to make sure we do it–that we’re looking for the opportunity to tell our story.
Are you equipping or training people to tell their story?
We have done some of that. We haven’t been doing workshops. We actually went through these five practices in a message series. The week of Story, we coached people on telling your story. And we do a little bit of that in the book, too. I think teaching people to tell their story is important to the potential impact.
How did the B-L-E-S-S acrostic originate?
Well, for over the last probably five years or so, there’s been a whole lot of conversation about mission and the church needing to be more missional. And people needing to be more missional.
And I think people like Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost in their books like Alan’s Forgotten Ways and Michael’s Shaping of Things to Come have really articulated a strong theology for why the church needs to do that. But I think one of the things they didn’t have were real simple, easy to articulate missional practices for implementing this stuff. And after Alan and I wrote On the Verge, that was one of the things that came out: We need to give our people some real practical handles to help them grasp what this looks like in their lives. I started looking at all the different practices, and I thought, you know what, BLESS. So every day I’m going to bless somebody in one of five of these ways. And then we also began to see how each of those ways were expressed in the life of Jesus. Really, we just kind of pulled it together as a team. We’ve done other stuff like this and have seen that giving people these kinds of handles makes it easy for them to grab on and run with it.
This might be encouraging to some church leaders. We spent about a year and a half to two years working with all of our staff, our leaders and our coaches just trying to get them to the place where they really were buying into this and were beginning to implement this kind of stuff.
Once we got to the place where–and we noticed some clear indicators–they were really starting to buy into and live it out, we actually began to teach this to the whole church last January . And one of the things that really excited us happened at the end of that series. We asked every one of our groups to have a clearly articulated, written out (we gave them a template) mission statement of the people and places they felt called to, where they would begin to implement these practices. And then the second thing was that they would be commissioned.
Basically, we anointed them or ordained them in front of the whole church. So we had about 75 percent of our people in small groups, and 73 percent of our small groups write down the mission statement they had committed to live out.
Can you imagine the impact If everybody who’s in a missional community or small group worldwide wrote down their mission statement and said, “Here’s my mission and I actually want to say it out loud in front of the church and have them pray for me?”
Sometimes it seems that the small group system a church sets forth can be a hindrance to actually reaching out to a community because you’re huddled in community with each other. How have you navigated that at Community Christian?
Absolutely. Yeah, for a lot of the churches, if you’re trying to make this shift, it depends on what kind of groups you have. One of the things that was true for us from the beginning is that our groups have been reproducing groups. So that’s always been part of the mission. Also, all of our groups are always open. We never close any groups. And they’ve also been overtly evangelistic. This last year, we probably had 400 people get baptized. Of those 400, I bet 85 percent to 90 percent were baptized by someone in their small group.
So for some churches where their groups are more like holy huddles, a more significant transition has to happen. We always said, “OK, we need to make sure that not only are we reproducing and we’re open, and we are evangelists, we are we also being clear about our mission as a group, and who are the people that we’re called to, or the places that we’re called to. So it wasn’t as big a transition for us as some churches face. The issue for any church is how do we get people thinking outward instead of inward.
Dave Ferguson and four friends from college launched Community Christian Church, which to date has grown to 700-plus leaders with more than 6,000 in attendance at 12 sites every weekend throughout Chicagoland. Ferguson serves as Exponential president and provides visionary leadership for the NewThing Network, a catalyst for a movement of reproducing churches. He is the co-author of The Big Idea: Focus the Message, Multiply the Impact, Exponential: How You and Your Friends Can Start a Missional Church Movement and On the Verge: The Future of the Church as Apostolic Movement, all with Zondervan.
To download the free eBook Discover Your Mission Now! Five Simple Practices to Change Your World by Dave Ferguson (with Jon Ferguson and Tim Sutherland), click here.