I remember vividly the first Forge intensive I attended at BCV in Lilydale way back in 2002. I had just transitioned from being a youth pastor to a team leader in my church at Lesmurdie and I was grappling with how we lived out the missional calling both individually and corporately. Those 5 days rocked my world and I have never been the same since.
It was the early days of the current ‘missional’ movement and the word ‘missional’ itself was rarely being used if at all. Prior to discovering the Forge tribe I had been on a parallel journey wandering a lonely path and wondering if there was anyone else out there who questioned the way we did things and who saw the church as a community of missionaries rather than just a cosy family who studied the Bible, ran services and loved one another.
I was inwardly dissatisfied with so much of what I saw in church life – a lip service adherence to evangelism, but an every day avoidance. An inordinate amount of time invested in trying to get people to come to us, while all the time avoiding going to them unless it was absolutely necessary. I realized that even as the pastor, I didn’t want to go to church half the time and I sure as hell wasn’t about to invite anyone else to share the experience. The dissonance disturbed me and I lay awake at nights wondering what had gone wrong, wondering if it was just me.
The extent of our Christian sub-culture made me ill and I found myself revolting against it. Some of my critique was quite intentionally acerbic and incendiary – I had had enough of the nonsense we accept as normal – but some of it was also necessary and was my way of finding a different way of being a disciple of Jesus in a system that really didn’t like non-conformists. By and large conservative evangelicalism is a tradition that ‘tells’ often, listens little and questions even less. I found myself doing the things that made me ‘difficult’ and a little odd. I know some questioned if I had lost my way.
I hadn’t. I was just beginning to find it again.
Way back in 1996 I felt deeply that God had called me to be a cross cultural missionary and I thought I was going to end up in the Philippines, a place where I had completed several sports mission trips. But in a convoluted series of events my ‘missionary friend’ from the Philippines who I was supposed to meet with didn’t show up to discuss the next leg of the journey with me and my home church needed a youth pastor right at the same time. So I drifted into being a ‘pastor’ and my missionary calling became subservient to the pastoral role.
I began to change into who I wasn’t.
I led a youth ministry, ran programs, met with leaders and young people but my natural focus was always on those who weren’t involved rather than those who were. This continued into my next role at Lesmurdie. Parents sometimes complained because I seemed more concerned for the kids in the school than I was for the kids in the church. I knew both mattered but my heart was with the people who didn’t know Jesus – even if those who did happened to ‘pay the bills’. Those who had grown up in Christian families knew their way around, but some had chosen to simply rebel and leave their faith. I wasn’t interested in being the person responsible for cajoling them back even if some felt that was ‘why I was being paid’.
Throughout this time I used to have strange experiences whereby every time I would meet with a missionary and hear their story I would find myself choking back tears. The sheer mention of unreached people groups would cause a physical reaction in me and I wondered what was going on. I remember one morning I had reluctantly agreed to meet with a mission agency rep feeling that it was a waste of time, but just not being able to say ‘no’. As I sat with this relatively uninspiring man and listened to his dreary spiel I once again found myself moved by the sheer thought of someone giving their time to reaching the ‘unreached’. I shed some tears again as I thought of those who lived their lives far from God, but who were still seeking spiritually. I began to pray and ask God about what was happening to me and I had a kind of revelation. I felt like God said, ‘the way you feel about those people is the way I feel about them’.
Pretty simple really, but it begged the question, ‘what am I going to do with that?’
In leading a church I was busy with so much internal business that I didn’t have much time to connect with those who were outside that realm. My life had become consumed with my ministry and most of it revolved around the already convinced. They paid me well, encouraged me and supported me, but I began to realize than I was a square peg in a round hole.
Overseeing the day to day operations of a church was not where my heart was, nor was it what God had made me to do. It wasn’t bad stuff to do. It just wasn’t who I was supposed to be, but I had been assimilated into this role by circumstance, training and the fact that I could do it reasonably well.
I couldn’t conceive of a different way of being myself as a vocational Christian leader but I knew I needed to start.
When I ventured into Forge almost accidentally at first I had little knowledge of what I was exploring, but the further I went the more I realized I had found a tribe who intuitively ‘knew me’ and were like me. They ranged from the edgy and wacky to the plain jane middle class, but they all shared that same core missionary identity that I had unknowingly suppressed but was now beginning to listen to again.
It was a group of people who gave one another permission to ask questions – big gnarly questions that would get us in trouble in the wrong company. We were encouraged to experiment and learn without fear of failure – which is easier said than done. And we were challenged to ask what of our church upbringing we needed to keep and what we needed to jettison if we were to be faithful to the gospel and the missionary task.
The journey since then has been the focus of this blog – discovering what it means to be a ‘backyard missionary’. Were it not for my experience of Forge I would probably have never begun this journey and I may still be living in the dissonance of being a missionary in pastor’s clothing. Instead I have experienced the great joy of living in the centre of my calling and truly being the person I was created to be.
After 13 years of operation we have recently decided to make some significant changes to Forge in Oz, that involves a closing of some operations and a scaling back of others. These were big decisions and not made lightly. The official spiel is here and I won’t copy and paste it below as this post is long enough already.
Personally I will be taking a break from my own involvement in the organization after 7 years and focusing my energy on both my role as a missionary leader in Quinns Community Baptist Church and in my business. It will be interesting to see how my last 7 years of missionary learning shapes the way in which I lead within a church context these days. It’s a new adventure – again.
In case anyone is wondering ‘what really happened’ you should probably know that there isn’t much to say. There hasn’t been a split in the ranks or a loss of conviction about what we are on about. We simply felt the time had come, the context had changed and that was about the size of it.
So while the organization scales back the missional movement is very much alive and the same passion burns deep in all of us.
So, I give thanks to God for the impact Forge has had on my life and the friendship of all the crew who have shared the journey with me. The two best known names are Hirsch and Frost – two blokes who have inspired me greatly, but there have been plenty of others also who are not so well known, but who living faithful missionary lives in the places God has them.
I’m looking forward to seeing what the next chapter brings