*Editorial Note: Lisa Rodriguez-Watson, our National Director, gave the following keynote, entitled “Disruption and New Life,” during the first plenary of Awakenings 2023: ‘Disruption in the Life of the Church’ this past week. It was powerful, prophetic, and clearly laid out the pathway before us as an organization going forward. As a result, we are publishing it here, with light edits. ~CK
Sometimes in our rugged individualism we are fooled into believing we have arrived on our own.
Sometimes in our missional movement-making we make a similar mistake.
In our push for innovation, contextualization, and apostolic creativity, sometimes we can forget that even we ‘ministry innovators’ are a part of a stream of the Spirit’s initiative that is broad, and wide, and deep. I want to acknowledge that and express gratitude for all the ways that God has brought me – and all of us – to this point.
Disruption in the Life of the Church
Our theme for Awakenings 2023 is “Disruption in the Life of the Church.” If there’s anything we’ve all held in common in recent years it’s the experience of disruption. We could have just as easily had as our theme “Disruption in the Life of Life and the Whole World,” which is a more blunt way of saying, “Things have been kinda sucky for awhile,” but our marketing and social media folks at Missio found that less catchy. The hashtags were all wrong.
So…disruption it is.
Disruption comes from the Latin, ‘dis-rumpere;’ ‘dis’ which means ‘apart’ and ‘romper’ which is, not surprisingly, very close to the Spanish verb ‘romper,’ meaning to break, or to shatter.
In so many ways that’s what the past several years have felt like for so many – a shattering to pieces. An absolute breaking apart. Disruption comes from the Latin, 'dis-rumpere;' 'dis' which means 'apart' and 'romper' which is very close to the Spanish verb 'romper,' meaning to break, or to shatter. That's what the past several years have felt like for so many. Click To Tweet
Pandemics that broke apart bodies, and families, and left us isolated and distanced at a time when what we needed most was care, and comfort, and assurance. We weren’t able to see family members, celebrate birthdays or weddings, or grieve in funerals together. And many of us weren’t able to worship together for months…years even.
My home church in Washington, D.C. – like so many churches – could only gather virtually for a year and a half. We are now over a year into regular in-person gatherings and the church is so different because of the season of breaking apart – of disruption – that was thrust on us by COVID-19.
Add to this, the racial reckonings of the summer of 2020. Racial injustice and the resultant racial uprisings that took place all across the country in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbury ushered in a fresh wave of much needed disruption in our national and congregational conversations on race, justice, and God’s Kingdom.
The disruptions continued when the disciples of Christian nationalism arrived on the steps of the Capitol building on January 6th, 2021 and initiated a failed political insurrection but a successful display of the syncretism of Christianity and empire.
And church scandal after church scandal. Stories of toxic leadership, spiritual abuse, #churchtoo and #metoo, stories of pain and heartbreak all done under the banner of Jesus, leaving image bearers broken.
It has been as my friend Alan Hirsch has so aptly said, “a season of apocalypse, of exposure.” And I’d add – a season of disruption – of shattering and breaking apart. It has been as my friend Alan Hirsch has so aptly said, 'a season of apocalypse, of exposure.' And I'd add – a season of disruption – of shattering and breaking apart. Click To Tweet
The Death of Plants
Last year, I had a plant die on me.
I realize that’s such a small thing given so much that so many have lost in this season of suffering we’ve all been walking through. But the plant meant a lot to me.
I like plants, but I’m not like a ‘house-plant person.’ I recently spent more money than I want to share with you on fake flowers for my house after some lengthy remodeling we had done.
But this plant – this LIVE PLANT – was special to me.
It was a peace lily. Do you know what a peace plant is? It’s green. Kind of leafy. (I’m sure that helps, right?) It often has a white flower that sprouts out of it, though mine never flowered. They are quite popular because they are attractive plants and easy to care for. They are also prized because, according to NASA research (weirdly enough), as an indoor plant they are especially adept at cleaning the air.
Typically, a peace lily lives 3-5 years.
I had this particular plant 9 1/2 years.
You see, I got this plant at my father-in-law’s funeral. Someone sent it to the funeral home, and afterwards when we were divvying up plants, I took this one.
The funeral was in Dallas, so we carried it with us to Memphis where we were living at the time. Then when we moved to DC 9 years ago, I brought that joker with us.
Last winter, it started to get sick. We tried a few things, researched a bunch, went double time on the care of it, repotted it, and it still hung limp for nearly two months.
I had hoped it would spring back to life, but it never did.
Then, that was it. It died.
This constant reminder of my father-in-law, this strong patriarch in my husband’s family, this beautiful reminder that stood in the corner of my house and the corner of my mind for nearly a decade. It was gone.
I know it was just a plant. But for me…it wasn’t.
There’s probably a number of things that you’d hoped had gone differently in your life in this recent season. Some things you’ve had to lay to rest, with tears, and sadness.
The global and national disruptions that we’ve all endured is to say nothing of the personal disruptions that so many of you have experienced. Loss of loved ones, loss of dreams, loss of communities, ministries, and churches. I have no doubt that there is a sizable number of you that have arrived into this place with a sigh and a weariness at all that you – at all that we – have had to carry over this long season of disruption. I want you to know that I see you. As much as I’m able to, I see you. And I’m so glad you are here.
Your arrival here at Missio is your own act of courage and self-care. It’s your own display of prophetic hope in the midst of seasons of painful personal disruption and congregational disruption. You are here because you still believe despite it all, that the Church is the Bride of Christ, and carries within her the hope for the world. You are here because you still believe that the Church is the Bride of Christ, carrying within her the hope for the world. This is your own display of prophetic hope in the midst of seasons of painful congregational disruption. Click To Tweet
Disruption though, as painful and challenging as they have been, are not new and they are not new in the life of the church. Our spiritual foremothers and forefathers have had to face upheaval, disorientation, and crisis. And it is often in the contexts of disruption that the church finds its strongest missional footing and clearest theological sensibilities.
Rarely, if ever, does the church engage in its most faithful mission and best theological reflection in seasons of comfort and convenience, or while occupying seats of power and dominance.
Rather, the richest gifts are most often from the church occupying the disruptive places of the world and living through disorienting cultural moments. These can be the places where the church finds its clearest Christ-like voice, and Spirit-led action; it is often in places and seasons where the world has felt the shattering effects – the breaking apart effects – of the Enemy’s work in the world. It is often in places of disruption where the church is able to proclaim and display Jesus’ prophetic mission to be those that preach AND provide good news to the poor, healing for the broken, liberation for the captives, salvation to the world. Rarely, if ever, does the church engage in its most faithful mission and best theological reflection in seasons of comfort and convenience, or while occupying seats of power and dominance. Click To Tweet
Many summers ago, I had the chance to visit some dear friends in Alaska and do a bit a hiking. We were in the Denali Mountain range and on our hike they pointed out that there was a side of the mountain that had been devastated by fire a couple of seasons prior. I could see the place where the fire had cut through and burned by pines, leaving only charred, black stump-poles sticking up out of the ground.
The bushes were burnt, but some juvenile bushes were beginning to grow. And all across the hillside was this amazing flower in bloom. It’s called fireweed.
The thing about this flower is that it doesn’t come up unless there’s been a fire. If the meadow, mountain, or forest is undisturbed, you’ll never see the fireweed bloom.
It’s only after the chaos and destruction of a ravaging fire that you will see fireweed.
But the other thing about fireweed is that it’s the FIRST thing to show up. But it’s not the last thing.
When there is a fire, the dormant fireweed seeds are then germinated, making the fireweed the first heralds of new life in the soil.
And when they sprout it is as though they are announcing – the tragedy of the fire has ended. New life is on the way. The trees that were lost in the fire, they’ll return soon. The Johnson pines – they aren’t lost forever. The blackberry bushes – they aren’t dead. The poplars and birch will flourish again.
New life can be found on the other side of disruption. Sometimes disruption is the only way for new life to rise.
Formation, Justice, and Mission
As we move through, and surface from this season of disruption, there have emerged three areas wherein we want to focus at Missio Alliance – believing these to be elements of faith that will contribute to the renewal of the church in North America. These three are not the only elements, the best elements, or ‘the most righteous-God-ordained-Holy-Ghost-anointed-strategically-necessary elements.’ If there’s anything the church in North America needs less of, it’s histrionics.
But, humbly, these are the areas that Missio Alliance is called and equipped to speak to, and to celebrate most faithfully. They are formation, justice, and mission.
This season of disruption likely won’t be the last season of disruption many of us live through. And even if it is, in whatever season of fruit or famine we find ourselves in, we want to be those that are shaped by – that are formed into the ways of Jesus. So as to not ‘waste a disruption’ – we want to continually be renewed by the spiritual disciplines and practices that have shaped the church for millennia.
We will need to be a people that feast together and fast in solitude. We need to sing songs of joy and cries of lament. We need to pray words of our own, and recite prayers of older saints. We must memorize ancient Scripture and write new Psalms.
We must be drenched in the unrelenting commitment to spiritual practices and being formed in the presence of God toward the likeness of Christ. If we don’t begin here, we jeopardize the fruitfulness we long for. Jesus does not send us out without first calling us in. The work God wants to do through us is begun and sustained by God’s presence with us and God’s work in us. Until we are aware of the boundless love of God, our capacity to share that love is diminished. So we need time with God through prayer, through the scriptures, and through a variety of means so that we can be centered in God’s goodness and love.
What’s more is that we can’t just settle for our own individual formation. If we are to be signposts of the kingdom that has come and is coming, we have to also consider formation of our congregations, institutions or organizations – of the faith communities in which we reside. This is where the systemic work is done and how things that are malformed get to be reformed to represent the good news we profess. To be signposts of the kingdom that has come and is coming, we have to consider formation of our congregations, institutions or organizations – of the faith communities in which we reside. This is where systemic work is done. Click To Tweet
Being formed is foundational, but it is insufficient if it doesn’t also include an outward expression. This is where we come to justice. Justice is crucial to our witness in North America because so much of the story of North America is a story of injustice and oppression – much of it done in the name of Jesus and with the blessing of churches and denominations.
One of the ways we can bear witness to the beauty of God’s Kingdom is through the work of justice. As professor and author Dr. Cornel West says, “Just as tenderness is what love feels like in private, justice is what love looks like in public.” Saints, our work of justice becomes an apologetic for the gospel in the public sphere.
When we advocate for the end to oppressive systems and structures, what we are engaging in is an evangelistic endeavor that tells the world that a day is coming when Jesus will return to set right all that is broken, and make beautiful all that has been laid waste by the Enemy. When we advocate for the end to oppressive systems and structures, we are engaging in an evangelistic endeavor that tells the world that a day is coming when Jesus will return to set right and make beautiful all that is broken. Click To Tweet
And any place where we encounter the systems of injustice that seek to mar the image of God in people, and communicate to them that they matter less, or are worth less, then our work as those that follow Jesus must be aimed at dismantling those systems because Jesus died on the cross to communicate to everybody that they are somebody in the eyes of God.
Our faith compels us to ensure that children can read at grade level, because Jesus says that he values the littlest among us. Our faith compels us to care for immigrants regardless of how they arrived in our national neighborhood, because we remember that our Lord was also a refugee who fled his country of origin because of violence. Our faith compels us to welcome home returning citizens even as we remember that Jesus identified with the incarcerated. Our faith compels us to advocate for and seek solutions to affordable housing and the care of our unhoused neighbors in anticipation of the day when we arrive in the home that Jesus said he’s preparing for us.
Friends, our faith compels us to pursue justice, and our world needs for us to work for the things that make for a more just world. Beloved, our Lord demands it of us. Let us not be among those that neglect the weightier matters of “mercy, faithfulness, and justice” (as Jesus exhorts us in Matthew 23).
And lastly, mission.
It’s bound up in our name – Missio Alliance. Missio, from the Latin, meaning “sent” or “sent ones.” We are an alliance of those that are sent into the world for the sake of God’s glorious Kingdom.
The love we’ve received must not terminate on us. It isn’t only for us, but is meant to go from us to the world around us, to those that God loves passionately.
There is a tension here, though. For many of us, myself included, there’s some baggage tied to the ways that ‘mission’ has been wedded to empire and colonialism, especially from the 15th century onwards until today. Mission, missions, and missionaries have provided cover for brutality, cultural annihilation, and genocide, and has far too frequently shredded the reputation of the Church.
For Missio Alliance, one of the aspects of mission that is crucial to us is to listen to the ways that God has been moving forward in God’s mission in the world outside of the West, so that we might learn from the Global Church, letting their wisdom inform how we see renewal of the Church in North America.
As my friend, and author Brandon Washington notes:
Christianity was born at the nexus of Africa, Asia, and Europe. The second century saw it grow into a tri-continental religion. Christianity entered Africa through Africans and was spread by Africans for 14 centuries before colonialism.
We could talk about Tertullian, Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius, and even Augustine; they were all continental Africans – people of color – who shaped Christian theology and culture. We could do that, but we don’t have to go beyond the Bible to find an Ethiopian convert on his way home with a new understanding of Christ (Acts 8:26-40).
From it’s earliest moments, those that encountered Christ and began following him viewed themselves as ‘sent ones’ – as those on mission. And they executed their ‘sent-ness’ through word and deed, because God’s message of invitation and liberation was always meant to be seen and heard.
Our gospel proclamation must include our whole lives, both our words and our deeds. Our evangelism, our bearing witness, is not only a testimony to God acting in Christ, but our own participation in this redemptive act. It is why we preach and protest. It is why we admonish with hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs even as we advocate for justice. Word AND deed. Lest we find ourselves telling the good news of Christ to those who cannot hear us over the grumblings of their own stomachs or the cries of their own children.
As we move into a new season of life at Missio Alliance, and as we move through Awakenings 2023, you will be guided into these three interlocking themes of formation, justice, and mission.
I pray that as we spend this time together, your heart is stirred. I pray that this time is healing for you, even as it is inspiring for you. And I pray that what you received from here is also beneficial for your community that has sent you here.
By the way, regarding that 10 year-old peace lily that I mentioned: I found out later that in the middle of our attempts to save it, my husband Matthew cut off a tiny piece of it. He watered and nurtured it – and it’s actually begun to sprout again!
It’s not much. And it’s certainly not much compared to the large plant from which it came. But it is something. It sits in our windowsill, so it can catch the sun just right. It witnesses to us the reminder that life overcomes death. Sometimes new life starts off small. But it grows, and grows with a surprising tenacity.
Disruption doesn’t have the last word. New life does.
Amen. Mission. It's bound up in our name – Missio Alliance. Missio, from the Latin, meaning 'sent' or 'sent ones.' We are an alliance of those sent into the world for the sake of God's glorious Kingdom with the love we've received. Click To Tweet
Lisa Rodriguez-Watson, for nearly two decades, has served as an urban church planter, collegiate minister, seminary professor, international missionary and community development practitioner. Her heart to see people reconciled to God and to one another has led her to invest her life, family and ministry in places and people that have often been looked over by the world. Lisa served as co-founder of a grassroots organization in Memphis, TN that was committed to mobilizing Christians to love their undocumented neighbors, and consider an appropriate Christian response to our nation’s immigration crisis. In addition to her role as National Director of Missio Alliance, she serves as Associate Pastor of Discipleship and Equipping at Christ City Church. Educated at Florida International University and Golden Gate Seminary, she lives in Washington, DC where she is a mom to 3 fantastic children, Nathan, Elias, and Annelies, and a wife to her best friend Matthew, who serves as Pastor of Teaching and Outreach at Christ City Church.