Shortly after giving up the dream of becoming a lawyer, I was completing my second year of a three-year graduate program in theology. Over summer break, my wife and I spent three weeks in Japan, and we considered joining a church development team in Tokyo. In the span of three years, my vocational trajectory changed drastically, we got married, we moved to a new city where we knew no one, my wife’s mother died, and we contemplated becoming career missionaries in a foreign culture.
During this, I took Dr. Richard Pratt, a mentor and my Old Testament professor, to the airport some fifty times. On one of these occasions I shared with Richard how very afraid I was of making a move like this, how it terrified me to think that I, with no church development experience, would start a church in a foreign culture. With common-sense ease that could only be formed in the crucible of long experience, Richard responded to my anxiety: “It sounds like you are thinking in terms of signing your life away on the dotted line. Barring a big earthquake, Japan will always be there. Why don’t you take a position in a church here in the States, cut your teeth, get some experience, discern your calling, and then make a decision like this in four or five years. Japan is not going anywhere!”
Perhaps you have had one of those moments when the clouds of anxiety and uncertainty part, and a glimmer of light bursts forth? In one conversation with one trusted, respected mentor, the trajectory of my life would be changed forever.
Moving into the city
After this conversation, I spent the next five years at a very large church in the suburban South. There I learned who I was as both a person and a pastor, what role the American church could play in global mission, and where I might best fit into this enterprise. Being convinced that community development, justice advocacy, and educational reform abroad would more than likely include the work of marketplace missionaries, I learned that church development might be better accomplished by those indigenous to the homeland. Thus, my role in a foreign culture would more than likely include coaching pastors rather than pastoring parishioners. It was this realization that caused my wife and I to conclude that this missionary endeavor might very well be a second career. But in the interim, we wanted to forge new territory as church developers in a part of our country that was both globally influential and largely unchurched. The Bay Area fit those parameters.
In 2006, we helped to launch Christ Church in Berkeley, California, a city located in the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area, a metroplex that 8 million people call home. I like to say that it is only in Berkeley where one can sit in a cafÃ©, observe a man walking by wearing nothing but a pink tutu, observe another man walking by carrying a Bible, and then hear the customer sitting next to him remark, “Was he carrying a Bible?”
Both the university and the city of Berkeley were named for Bishop George Berkeley of Cloyne, Ireland. The only real connection between this city and the good Bishop is a snatch of a line of the bishop’s poetry that one of the first trustees of the university recited in the late 1800s while standing upon a westward leaning rock and gazing out over the San Francisco Bay. An intrigued onlooker inquired of the poem’s author, and upon hearing the name, Berkeley, proclaimed that there would be no better name for this city by the bay.
These men would not realize then just how befitting the name would become for this enriching university and enchanting city. When Bishop George Berkeley was not preaching sermons he was writing philosophy, becoming known as the father of immaterialism (or subjective idealism). He was the first to posit the now timeless philosophical question: “Does a tree make any noise if it falls in a forest when there is no one there to hear it?” While the question befits the esoteric nature of both the college and outlying city, it is George Berkeley’s philosophical dictum that captures the city’s persona: “To be is to be perceived.”
Berkeley is people who seek to be by being perceived, or more precisely, who seek to be by being known. People here are like people anywhere: we are desperate to be known! The process of being known is sought at the lens of a microscope, in writing the last bit of code for a new piece of software, on the cutting room floor of an animation studio, upon passing out a political petition on the street corner, or in putting the finishing touch on a gourmet entrÃ©e.
At Christ Church, we talk about five types of people we find in our community. We speak of natives, refugees, pioneers, pilgrims, and sojourners. While each is distinct from the other, what they all hold in common is following the dream of being by being known.
The native might be here because of a parent or grandparent’s dream, but for the other four, the dream is personally nurtured. The refugee is seeking the safety, the anonymity, and the diversity of the city. They may be leaving a bruised and battered life fraught with family dysfunction, political unrest, or intense suffering. They follow the dream of a fresh and new start. The pioneer arrives in the Bay Area as an innovator, a forerunner, one who seeks to create and develop something new, to explore terra nova of her particular field. The dream is that great moment of “Eureka!” Pilgrims flock to our city on a quest for self-actualization, enlightenment, revelation, or any combination of the three. They dream of the moment when questions are answered and meaning is realized. Finally, the sojourner is here only for a stint—to earn a degree, gain some experience, or complete an internship. The dream they follow is to leave our fair city with more than they came with—to get a leg-up on the competition and to leverage experience for a successful next step. These five distinct pursuits are each a form of the restless grasping and fidgety groping to be by being known, a pursuit that ironically often leads to loneliness and isolation.
I set out for Berkeley and the Bay Area as a combination of all of these types of people. In an effort to understand each, I read everything that I could get my hands on. I read the history of California. I subscribed to every local Bay Area paper, surfed local bloggers, and scoured the census data to ensure that my knowledge was not merely historical, but contemporary as well. I also read mentors like Tim Keller, Harvie Conn, Ray Bakke, and I read heroes like the prophet Jeremiah or Augustine of Hippo, seeking to comprehend God’s heart for the city.
The contemporary readings and data presented a culture that was awash in secularism. But the historical writings grounded this spiritual malaise in the robust Christian mission of the early pioneers and settlers of California. This reminded me that I was not the first to come nor would I be the last to leave. Finally, the theological works reminded me that whether I succeeded or failed, whether the church rose or fell, my efforts resided in the plans of a God as secure in Himself as He would promise to be good to His people. Whatever the outcome of this “journey, quest, or thing,” in the words of Frodo’s hobbit friend, Pippin, I could be confident that God would win, and I could look forward to a “city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
Help along the way
By profession, I came to the city as a church developer. But by calling, I came as a Christian who desired to redeem the city by living in the city without being of the city. As God builds His city, His people are called to be the tiniest seed in the garden, the treasure in the field, the dusting of salt, and the pinch of yeast in the bread batter. Make no mistake: being a dissonant, minority force in an urban centre is not easy. The city is not a tame place. It is not a safe place. One must have great respect for the colossal nature of the city in the face of one’s finitude.
Perhaps it was this knowledge that prompted Jesus to send his disciples into the city with these words: “I am sending you out into the world as sheep among wolves. Be as innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents” (Matthew 10:16). We forever live in this tension, remaining innocent and undefiled by the world, while developing wisdom and discernment by engaging the world. To lean too far into the first dynamic is to live the reclusive, sectarian, over-protected life. To lean too heavily into the second dynamic is to live the assimilated, over-exposed life. Living in this tension alone (Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs) devours people, for the city can easily destroy people. I meet young professionals nearly every week at our church who say, “I have been in the city for a couple of years, living alone, detached from church, and it is devouring me.”
How then should we live? How do we escape our tiny, self-actualizing dream of being by being known and enter, instead, the grand, God-honouring dream of being in the city without being of the city in the attempt to live for the city? In our congregation, those who are not bleeding in the pew are those that have attached themselves to heroes and mentors. I have noticed that when I have failed, it is mostly because I have failed to follow heroes and mentors. When I have succeeded, it is largely because I have recognized just how significant each voice should be in my life.
Your greatest pursuit in the urban setting should be to find a hero and a mentor.
Who are heroes and mentors, and how do I find them?
How do I discern between a hero and a mentor? “Simple.” One is dead and the other one is not. Good heroes are dead heroes, for they can no longer disappoint. Show me a living hero, and I will show you a heap of dashed expectations. While some urban pastors approach hero status, I work hard to keep them off of the pedestals.
What I have noticed about those few, living who approach hero-status, men like John Stott and Tim Keller, is that their voices echo the voices of those who have gone before us—people like Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and C. S. Lewis. Stott and Keller recognized the dictum of Bernard of Chartres that “we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they.” Heroes remind us that our past is a reservoir of wisdom that secures our hopes for the future. This is why we need heroes, but we also require mentors.
We need working models, visual aids, construction projects that we can engage in the rigorous task of grounding our dream of being by being known solely in the Triune community of our Living God. We need the flesh and blood—the sweat and spit—of a mentor. Some mentors spring to life from printed pages and digital MP3s, but the best ones sit across the table and look me right between the eyes, hug me and cry with and for me. I wish I could tell you that these special people are mass produced in factories or farmed in fields, but they are not.
How do you find them? Ask two questions when considering a mentor: Do I trust her character? Do I admire her accomplishments? If you can answer both with a resounding “yes,” then pursue them. Take them to lunch (because they are usually older they will usually buy!), and tell them what it is that you admire about their accomplishments, and why it is you trust their character. Ask them if they would consider meeting regularly with you, and then envision together what that time could look like.
Before you admire their accomplishments, be as sure as you can that you can trust their character. For they must be a person who has grounded their own dream of being by being known in the identity of who they are in Jesus—a child of the King. It is only then that they can impart the words of approval and acceptance from God for which we are all so desperate. C. S. Lewis describes this acceptance as the divine accolade: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” The divine accolade tells us we are known and accepted by God.
The city is a loud place. The city can drown out this truth. Our plights as native, refugee, pilgrim, pioneer, or sojourner send us in pursuit of fanciful dreams that are deaf to the divine. We need a mentor to turn down the volume, so we can hear the divine accolade.
Mentors help us overcome the deafness to the divine in three, stand-out ways. When I am stuck in a fit of failure, and life and ministry seem to be crashing down, a mentor with both experience and humility will say, “Don’t worry. I remember when.” When following a sandal-clad Jewish rabbi with a carpenter’s worn hands seems irrelevant on good days and farfetched on bad days, a mentor will say with great resolve, “Remember, you are not alone.” And when church work seems to lack any sort of resolution, when people only change subtly and never drastically, when there is no Petri dish that can quantify or qualify success, a mentor will say, “I am proud of you.”
In the wisdom of mentors, hear the echoes of the reassurances of a Hero who longs also to be Mentor . . . “Don’t worry about tomorrow” . . . “I will be with you always” . . . “Well done, my good and faithful servant!”