We are all very familiar with the Great Commission and the challenge to Go. There has been much taught on the Great Commandment and the need to go with Love. But it is the last part of Jesus’ mission – in Jesus’ final prayer – that we have missed. It’s the Great Collaboration – that we are to go in love Together!
This article is a transcription of Michael Carrion’s main stage talk from Exponential 2020 in Orlando, FL. Michael is a church planter from the Bronx with over 25 years in urban ministry and now serves at Redeemer City to City.
I am a “blacktino,” which means I am both afro and Latino at the same time. So my family’s from Charlotte, North Carolina on my mother’s side, and on my father’s side, they’re from Manatee, Puerto Rico. And so that means I like arroz con frijoles and I like collard greens and ham hocks. If you’re a theologian and scholar, that just means I am comprised of the DNA of two oppressed people groups.
I’ve been coming to Exponential with our denomination for several years and I just want to say that this is the most diverse I’ve ever seen Exponential in the history of the Exponential gathering. Somebody give God praise for that! Come on, somebody give God glory for that!
I would also say that this conversation of the great collaboration is such a needed narrative today, because you need to own the fact church planter, network leader or denominational leader that we are doing church and planting church and doing ministry in one of the most polarized, segregated, divided times in history. And it’s only Jesus at the right hand of the Father through the Spirit that’s going to bring us together to be one holy catholic Church.
I never woke up one day and said, I’m going to plant your church. I was an executive director at a parachurch organization in the South Bronx. We were called to assist with adjudicated youth that were returning home from different and various infractions with the law. We had all of these young people coming back from the Department of Corrections, and they would come into our office and they would say, “You know the churches that you’re sending us to, I don’t think they’re going to want us.” And I’d say, “Why would you say that? They’re the church. The church is going to love you. The church is going to support you. The church is going to hold you down. You just show up and let God be God, and they’ll take care of this. Just go to it, just accept the referral and go.”
We sent hundreds of returning young adjudicated youth and young adults to churches, to 45 denominations we were partnering with in the Bronx. And every single church sent those young people back to us. And I got phone calls from superintendents and Bishops: “Pastor Mike, stop sending us these people.”
There’s only two responses to fallen humanity. The first one is the Yeshua. The second one is his church. You are the solution to fallenness. You are the reintegration. You are the satellite of mercy. You are the representation. You are the place where redemption and resurrection and reconciliation happen. These kids would come back, and you know these types of kids; tattoos on their necks; gang signs all over; they don’t have skinny jeans; baggy jeans down to their knees; bandanas; they walk funny; tattooed up. They walk in, aggressive and broken. Pastor Mike, “I’ve got children in my church and you’re sending me criminals and felons.”
You do know that you worship a convicted Jewish felon, right? (laughter, applause) Felon in the judicial context, we know it was a kangaroo court, but he’s a convicted felon. And the price that he paid was Calvary. And so now you’re going to reject the ones that Jesus is sending. You didn’t even have to do the evangelism, we’re sending them to you! And now you don’t want them because you’re doing church.
I don’t know what your church looks like, but I went through a great seminary and in my seminary they taught me systematic theology, hermeneutics, homiletics pedagogy and how to synthesize social cultural institutions and build bridges with the church. But my church plant did not look like pretty ministry. My church plant was filled with Yo, dude! They’re like, help me Lord. Help me Lord. Help me Lord. There was no systematic theology that could reconcile the narrative that would assist me to help them people. Jesus had to be at the center.
This young man named Leo walks up to me. He’s tattooed up from the floor, and he says, Pastor Mike, why can’t this be our church? We were a parachurch. We don’t do that. I went back to my house and I’m about to eat and my wife Elizabeth, she’s on the stove and she’s cooking rice and beans and pork shoulder, it’s a Puerto Rican thing. And we’re talking and I’m like, you know, I’m really burdened, this kid said this. And she said to me, well, you know, obviously God is calling you to plant a church and she kept on cooking. (laughter) I have three pit bulls at home – they just looked at me saying, I don’t know what your problem is; that’s the word from the Lord.
We started a chapel service that started very small, and then that blew up. Then we had to get another space and then another space. All these adjudicated youths started coming; all these gangbangers started coming; and then their abuelita started to come with them, their grandmother started to come with them, then their titis, their aunts started to come with them. Then other like folks started to show up with them into the service. Next thing you know, we’ve got 300 of those types of people in one room, and I’m saying, Lord Jesus, have mercy on me! Empower me. Lord, I need you. And I said, What’s going on? How are all these people coming? How do they know?
Because people don’t remember your theology. They don’t remember the three principles, the smile and the motivational theory you give them. They remember when you love them. They will never forget when you get close enough to them to just hug them.
I had one brother, he was 17 years institutionalized, and he came to the church. This guy was one of the biggest drug dealers in the South Bronx and he says, “I don’t have any skills, Pastor Mike, I can’t get a job. The man, the system is holding me down.” I said, “Brother, there is no man and no system that can move Jesus out of the way when he opens the door for you in your life.” He says, “Yeah, well, what can I do in the church then?” I said, “What did you do in the street, dog?” And he said, “Well, you know, I was into like pharmaceutical distribution. I had two and three corners that I had to watch. You know what I mean?” So what happens is that this guy turned around, and he organized our funding, he organized all the ushers, this brother was tight! As a matter of fact, when we put him in charge of the finances of the church – yes, we did do that – our tithes and offerings went up! Made me question what was happening before I had this brother in there.
I’ve got a mentor in Chicago at Northpark Theological Seminary. He said to me, “The best pastors, the most gifted pastors, smell like sheep.” What was he saying? He was saying to me that if you want to be influential and incarnational and missional then you’ve got to be among them. You’ve got to live with them. You’ve got to know their name. You’ve got to visit their families. You’ve got to be among them, and what happens in the process? All the professional masking comes down. All of your theological training goes into your back pocket, because you cannot use redactive criticism and textual criticism when you’re dealing with a heroin addict who wants to pull the needle out of his arm. Jesus says you have to have a heart. Be with them, love them, walk with them, live with them, embrace them because together you’re always better.
We started to scope and we started to scale and we started to dream and then we started planting schools. I never woke up and said we’re going to start Charter Schools, but because of the lack of education and resources, because of the challenges in our community, we needed to stop the pipeline to incarceration. So education will stop that. Today, we’re on our third School.
A Board of Regent, credentialed, top six percent of the state performing Charter School in the poorest congressional district in the South Bronx. To God be the glory! To God be the glory!
My Divinity degrees did not get me that. It was my hood relationships that got me that. Because I got close enough to understand what the social ill was.
I walked into a church in Santo Domingo with my supervisor, a catalyst, and a pioneer. He hadn’t been to this church in several years. As we walked in, I saw hundreds of impoverished, addicted, broken, indigenous people who were serving the Lord and the poor serving the poor, loving the poor, empowering the poor. And this woman with no legs, couldn’t talk her entire life, she’s had severe disabilities, and was born and abandoned on the street of Santo Domingo. And when I walked in with Robert, people are saying Robert, Roberto, they’re yelling out his name. And then I hear this cry, this lament and this woman pops up. And the tears come out of her eyes as she lifts her hands to reach the person that shared the gospel with her. I wept instantly, because I know this guy. I know his heart. And when I went through the entire ministry and the school, the best practice school that they have and all these different facets, I turned around and I said, “Wow, how did you do this?” He says, “All of these people are ex-drug addicts, homeless, ex-prostitute, ex-everything,” and he said, “Together we’re better.”
Pastors you have to be among your people. Pastors, you’re called to plant love and the gospel. You’re not here to start a Burger King or McDonald’s. We’re not a franchise. We are the Kingdom of God. When we come into prophetic proximity, we stay sharp. Remember this: your strategy can kill your community. Live with your people. Ministry is messy. We will always be better together.
Watch Michael’s full talk here: