Nets and Lures

johannes-plenio-262531-unsplash.jpg“They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.  ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.'” (Matthew 4:18-19)

Jesus called his followers to fish for people.  His followers now, across America, largely gather on Sundays to watch a show that might, on a good day, relate to fishing, but which never obligates any of them to head for the shore.  We are not the sailors you would expect to find gathered around the teachings of a fisherman.

Fishing for the American church is in a big shift right now.  It used to be that if you wanted to attract to people to your church, you would just lay out a big net, and eventually some amount of fish would swim into it, you would be hailed as an evangelist, and you could write a book on church growth.  That system is dependent on a culture where

  1. A good deal of the population feels obligated to go to church, and
  2. Church exists in a culture that is generally friendly to and supportive of it

That day is over.  The American church is poised to fall like a domino behind the European and Canadian churches.

There are some decent churches which are shuttering their windows and locking jakob-owens-208995-unsplash.jpgtheir doors for the last time, and the people are baffled as to why it’s happening.  They’re such a nice congregation after all.  They have a nice facility.  They have history.  Those are all a net thrown where there are no fish.

The American church is now going to have to switch from net fishing to line fishing.  We’re going to have to cast to reach the fish.  We’re going to have to walk to new spaces.  Throwing out a net and waiting is a fruitless activity, because the fish aren’t swimming to church.  The Fisherman is teaching us a new skill, and we either learn or we go home hungry.

Specifically, any follower of Jesus must see themselves on a daily mission to share the good news of Jesus with a lost world.  At work, at school, and in line at the grocery store, faithful Jesus-followers and fishermen in training must remember that they are called to a mission.  The mission is not to sit in a chair on Sunday.



Melting Point

metal.gifMetals melt at different temperatures.  Gold, for instance, melts at a temperature of just under 2000˙.  If you wanted to reduce that gold cross around your neck to a liquid and recast it into a ring for your finger, you’d need an oven stronger than you have in your house. (Most people need to recast their wedding rings with the cross of Jesus, by the way.)

Human hearts are a lot like metals.  They come to church made of the right stuff but molded in the wrong shape. The purpose of preaching is to bring people to their melting point.  The gospel burns people down to their most basic parts – makes them focus on the purpose of life and consider shedding meaningless excesses.  Then, once we’re reduced to materials God can work with, he recasts us into the shape he means for us to be.

The purpose of preaching is to bring people to their melting point.

Worship, after the gospel, plays a cooling role.  We are reshaped by the gospel, and then we cool into our redefined shapes, a new and holy form that requires disciplined maintenance.  When we sing our response to God, it is an act into cooling into the form of a people of worship.  If you leave church a self-righteous, judgmental, gossip-filled religious person, you haven’t reached your melting point, and you’re definitely not cool(ed).  If you leave worship with a sense of humility, realizing you are only made right by the God who loves you, if you realize the only message you have for broken people is a message of love, you’ve been reshaped as you were meant to be.

See you on Sunday for worship.  God, melt us and mold us.


Magritte.pngHere’s a painting that’s changed the world.

It’s by Belgian surrealist Renee Magritte of a man in a hat with a green apple where his face should be.  You can tell it was painted in the 1960s, because when you look at it, you wonder, “What was that guy on?”

Magritte said that the painting was intended to capture that feeling that we all have that there’s something more than what we can see, something behind the visible.  We feel it every time we try to communicate and feel that we’re not getting our message across.  Know what that feels like?  If not, date someone.  You’ll experience it.

I was content to give the painting a quick glance and then walk away, but I saw the title of the painting: The Son of Man.  That’s a title that is distinctively Judeo-Christian.  Daniel uses it in a prophecy about a coming savior, and Jesus takes up the term for himself to refer to his humanity, which often veiled his divinity.  So then I wondered at the religious possibilities.  An apple has a well-publicized connection to the Christian faith.  Adam and Eve ate one and were kicked out of Eden.  The Bible doesn’t actually say that the

forbidden fruit was an apple, but the Latin word for apple tree, malus, is also the Latin word for evil, so the play on words contributed to medieval artistic portrayals of the garden.

The apple represents the Fall, the brokenness of the world.  And that is the thing that stops us from seeing the Son of Man.  His disciples missed it, his family missed it, certainly his enemies missed it.  God walked the earth and we couldn’t see him, because we were blinded by our own brokenness, by the Fall.


Coincidentally, Beatles’ member Paul McCartney bought one of Magritte’s paintings of an apple and named his record company Apple Corps (a play on “apple core”).  Another young hipster who loved the Beatles started up a computer company and named it after McCartney’s record company – Apple Computers.

So that little icon on your iPhone is courtesy of a Belgian agnostic who couldn’t quite find God, but had a sense that the brokenness of the world stood in the way of us seeing him.  Think about that when you see the Apple logo.  It sits over devices that are supposed to allow you to see most of the knowledge in the world.  And yet, because of human brokenness, we’ll never quite see it right.  It’s only because God breaks through our brokenness and saves us that we can ever see.


Forwards and Backwards


Faithful churches are looking forwards and backwards – forwards in methodology and backwards in creed.

Dying churches are looking forwards and backwards – backwards in methodology and forwards in creed.

Faithful churches exist for getting the gospel out and welcoming failures in.  We are always looking for new, creative, innovative, and box-breaking ways to do it.  Credally, we are ad fontes, back to the sources from which we sprang, back to Jesus, the Bible, the early church.  It’s an old story we’re retelling.  But the language in which we tell is is always new.

Dying churches do it exactly the other way around.  Methodologically, they say things like, “Remember how we did it 20 years ago?  Wasn’t that great?”  They go back to the same styles, the same sounds, the same vocabulary, and often the same (stagnated) leaders.  Theologically they may (or may not) then be open to wandering.  They have little left to be committed to than the way things used to be.  Going back as far as Jesus is a dangerous thing for them to do, because in him they’ll find a pioneer and an adventurer who will leave the religious people who feel safe at church to go looking for someone who is lost (Luke 15).  They tend to replace theology with tradition.

If you’re following Jesus, he’s only going forwards.  The front windshield is bigger than the rear view mirror for good reason.

Bibliophilology (or, What Kind of Book is the Bible?)

The Tianjin Bahai Library in Tianjin, China

I’ve listened to arguments about the Bible all of my life.  I’ve heard it mocked by literature professors and defended by fundamentalists like King Kong cradling Ann Darrow at the top of the Empire State Building (I suspect, if it had a personality, that’s about how much the Bible would want to be protected).  Usually attackers and defenders talk past each other.  Often, I’m not sure that either have read it.

In part, the confusion arises from the lack of clarity about what kind of book the Bible is.  There are different approaches.

A Math Book

Some people think of the Bible like a math textbook.  It is a book of brute facts reducible to logical certainty, and if any one of them is wrong, the whole thing is suspect.  If there is an error in the math book, we’re going to have to scrutinize every problem to make sure the authors didn’t do it more than once.  Aggressors like to point out discrepancies in the biblical texts (Mark 16:5, Luke 24:4), and say that they’ve found a fatal flaw.  Defenders foolishly agree to the argument and concoct desperate explanations about how Once Upon A Time there was a perfect Bible, but then there was a copying error.  This would be like claiming this blog was written by Tinkerbell, and then when someone presents a video of me typing it myself, I reply, “She’s very tricky, isn’t she?”

The mistake is giving in on the idea that the Bible is like a math book to begin with.  The authors had no intention of communicating ideas that work like mathematics.  The statement “The Bible is true” makes as much sense as saying “The tree is true.” That’s not a valid way to evaluate it.

A Novel

Some then say the Bible is like a novel.  It’s a fascinating collection of stories that might have moral points, but they are not grounded in history.  Here, there is immediately a problem – all the history.  The authors of the Bible at a number of points clearly think they are reporting historical events, unabashedly with their own opinions about the events – who was the greatest warrior, who was a liar, and why God did what he did.  The historical character of the Bible is inescapable.  Bart Ehrman, who is not a religious believer and who is deeply skeptical about religion, said of Jesus, “He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees.”

A defender of the novel thesis might argue then that it is historical fiction – a novel created out of historical events, but truly fiction.  However, from the earliest recorded events to the present, a growing and countless population have believed that some cross-section of the historical events recorded in the Bible actually happened as the Bible said they did.  The authors meant for much of it to be historical, even if inescapably biased, and most readers take that fact at face value.  That reduces the sorting out of the historical from the non largely to an act of bias.  It’s unsurprising that holders of this thesis usually say the supernatural elements are the fiction, regardless of what else might be historical, and that viewpoint comes from a predisposition to a certain ideology, not to a study of history.

A Compilation

Both of these approaches spring from a kind of fundamentalism that the Bible doesn’t encourage.  A better way to think about the Bible is as a compilation of various forms of literature.  There are within it long lists of names that were created specifically to be kept in a file cabinet.  They were not meant to be devotional material – they were meant to keep a paper trail of land owners.  There are poems which have no more truth value than a flower, which is still an infinite kind of value.  There are historical narratives that are brute facts – events that happened and which are recorded by eye-witnesses.  There are fabricated parables, stories created to make a point that don’t even attempt to pose as history, prophetic and apocalyptic predictions of the future, collections of practical advice, records of military conquests, virtue and vice lists, and more.

No two types of literature are the same.  They serve different functions, communicate in their own styles, and must be evaluated according to the norms of that style.  That, for any serious reader and serious believer is not a threat to faith.  It’s a challenging and thought-provoking invitation to a deep study of God.

Vitality and Vision

There is one key characteristic that distinguishes thriving organizations from dying organizations, and that is vision.  Tony Mayo, of Harvard, says “when initially describing someone as a ‘great business leader,’ the knee-jerk reaction is often to cite something about his or her strategic ability or vision.”1  Vision gives purpose to any business, team, or church, and without vision, an organization is rudderless.

The vision of any church should be to reach a lost world for Jesus, simply because it was His vision.  He himself said he had come for the sick, not the healthy and that a good shepherd leaves 99 safe sheep to seek the one who is lost.  Churches whose mission is to care for their own, or to preserve conservative ideals, or “to keep everyone happy,” have committed themselves wholeheartedly to rejecting Jesus’ call on their lives, even while they still talk about Jesus.

When a church has rejected Jesus’ vision, it picks a surrogate.  Leadership guru John Maxwell writes, “If your organization has a wonderful culture, but no vision, then you might really enjoy your time together, but you’ll never go anywhere.”2  Instead of reaching for a high-impact future, a church without vision turns to memories of the glory days and talks about how great it is because of how great it was.  It returns to the same leaders it has always had, the ones who provided it a vision in the past, because it does not realize that yesterday’s vision cannot be today’s.  I always read news articles about churches that have failed, because the quotes from the last remaining members are so revealing.  They say things like, “We used to have such great potlucks.  I don’t know what happened.” They hide behind claims like, “I guess people just don’t go to church like they used to.” What has actually happened is that at some point the church settled for life as usual instead of pursuing a mission to reach a lost world.  They traded vision for safety.

A vital church is one in which vision defines the church.  It decides what programs and activities happen and which ones don’t.  Vision defines the vocabulary, visual imagery, and public presentation of the church.  A vital church is ok saying “Good-bye” to those who reject the vision.  It’s not ok with saying “Good-bye” to vision in order to please the discontent.

Vital churches are churches that declare, “There goes Jesus!” and go chasing after him.  It’s a vision you don’t have to second-guess, rewrite, or pass occasional amendments to.  It’s his vision, and it works.



Transformative Leadership and Church Planting

There are a range of types of leadership.  I don’t mean styles, like authoritarian or laissez-faire; I mean contexts which call for different kinds leadership, like entrepreneurship, which is appropriate at the initiation of an organization, management, which is leadership for steady organizations with a charted trajectory, and rehabilitation, for organizations that are facing an impending closure.  You really need different kinds of leaders for different contexts, and most leaders are going to serve better in one context than another.

Something that’s fascinating about starting a new church is the kind of leadership it requires.  You are certainly an entrepreneur, but the first thing you have to do is to lead change.  That’s because the first people who usually come visit a new church are not people who don’t believe in God; they’re Christians who are looking for a new church.  They’ve decided whatever experience of church they had before wasn’t what they want or are called to, but they’re not giving up on church.  For that population, those who lay the groundwork for the for the future of what the church will be, leadership must be transformative.  The leader inherits the whole package of experiences and expectations that Christians already have, and then he or she must lead change from the start.  But unlike an established organization, there are no formal institutional traditions for anyone to lean on.  The leader has to lead transformational change specifically in the expectations of a people who have come looking for something new.

I’m new to this.  We’re a year in to our new church.  Here’s a few things I’ve learned so far about transforming expectations

1. You have to be clear about what you’re not.

Being clear about what you are is fun and exciting.  You can proclaim big visions for life-change and kingdom work.  But refining your mission into a specific task requires defining boundaries against what you are not.  For instance, megachurches from at least the 1980s have thrived on offering a buffet of activities for every demographic.  When you list them all, it looks like the menu at the Cheesecake Factory.  Effective new churches start with the idea that we’re going to do a few things well.  Specifically, a good church seeks to experience dynamic worship as a community, effective discipleship in small groups, engaging children’s programs, and absolutely nothing else.  That means all the favorite menu options have to go.  When they ask for a sports ministry, you have to respond the way Chick-fil-A would if you ask them for a cheeseburger.

2. You can teach what you know, but you can only recreate what you are.

RLC Service 082116-7.jpg

Telling people that they should talk to lost people about Jesus is great.  Giving them examples of people who have done it is inspiring.  Having seminars to teach them how to do it is thoughtful.  But if the leader isn’t doing it, neither is anyone else.  Want to hear your church talking about their conversations with people who don’t believe in God.  Tell them your stories about talking to people who don’t believe in God.  Some great stories that I’ve heard have come to me as I was standing at the door after a Sunday worship service, and someone ran up to me and said, “That story that you shared reminds me of something that happened to me this week….”  And if I’m paying attention, and if it’s relevant, I ask that person to share that story in church or on video the following week.

3. You have to repeat the thing you just repeated.

If you haven’t said it in 6 days, there’s a solid chance they’ve forgotten it or marginalized it.  If you sent your congregation out on a mission last Sunday, start this Sunday by asking them how it went.  If it slips away for you, it’s definitely gone for them.  Placing vision statements on your site, in your print materials, on signs, and in speeches is an essential form of repetition.  At about the time you’re sick of hearing yourself, someone is only just catching on.  When you’re transforming people’s expectations, this is an essential step to breaking old patterns.


If the pastor is the only person who sees the vision of the church, it’s not a vision – it’s a hallucination.

4. You have to switch from fulfilling goals to pursuing vision.

RLLA 20170416_100633.jpg
Send off after Easter baptisms this year

Good leaders know how to set goals and love doing it.  Youcan’t very well lead without a sense for what you want to achieve.  But pursuing vision means breaking out of the standard measurable goals inherent in your field and chasing after vision-driven goals that many people might not respect.  This week I talked with Ger Jones, the pastor of Vintage Church LA.  I went to his Alpha program where I ended up in a conversation with an atheist who had been invited to the church by another atheist.  Neither believed; both loved coming.  Ger noted that at ordinary churches you might count how many people attend.  At great churches you might count how many people are baptized.  But he wondered how many people count how many conversations your congregation had with atheists that week.  I myself would ask – how many churches have atheists who are not only attending, but are evangelizing others and bringing them to church?

Transforming the expectations of already churched people means changing the standards of measurement that most churches are using.

These are just a few of the early lessons that I have learned and am learning again.  Starting a new church was nothing I ever dreamed of doing, but in the end, it’s been more educational than college, but exhilarating than mountain-climbing, and more clearly Spirit-led than any ministry I’ve ever experienced.



Worship has been changing in America.  It’s been changing radically in the 20th century, and even more so in the second half of the second century.  The so-called “worship wars” of the 1980s led to the rise of contemporary worship styles and services.  “Blended” services were formed in order to allow contemporary worship and a variety of instruments into shrinking churches with the hope that the church would slowly evolve and grow.  By the late 1990s, most churches that had hope of having a future had already changed mostly or entirely to contemporary worship.  In the first decade of the 21st century, the American Church witnessed rapid church closures, the impending death of mainline Protestant churches that had refused to change what needed to be changed, and the rise of a massive church planting movement.  Church plants began from the ground up with contemporary worship styles, following on the successes of churches that first pioneered contemporary worship in the 1980s.

Today, churches that cling to traditional worship styles are among the few.  Most of them have designated a single service to traditional worship for those who still long for it, usually meeting in a separate room on campus while the main worship space is used for contemporary worship.

This is where we are.

For most people, this is not a surprise.  Most people have looked around the church culture and seen that this change is not only underway but is now pervasive.  The media has widely reported on the signs that traditional worship is passing from our culture.  Commentators have observed that traditional churches do not have a strong future.  In my own area, one church has recently cancelled its only traditional worship service, another church has removed its traditional elements from its largest, formerly blended service, and a nearby church plant that started with contemporary worship 3 years ago now has 2000 people attending each weekend.  But behind these facts are a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, and that’s where a pastor’s heart goes.


The most challenging part of this is that there is still a population, largely septuagenarians, who feel alienated by the change.  For them, the experience of modern worship is a lot like the couple of hours I spend playing with my kids in the afternoon: it’s noisy, it wears me out, it gives me a headache, and it’s not really fun for me, but I do it because I love my kids.  After my kids go to bed, I have “me time,” which is far more peaceful and relaxing, and is really what I want.  For that generation, a worship service that is “for the kids” wears them out, and they are left wondering where to find a space for themselves.  They feel disoriented and ignored.

The issues are obvious:

  • Everyone is valuable to God
  • Healthy churches are intergenerational
  • Jesus called us to take up our crosses and die to ourselves
  • Paul tells us to look to the interests of others rather than ourselves
  • Mature Christians should model self-sacrifice for those who are younger and newer
  • Mature Christians don’t act like customers at church, but non-Christians will
  • The church should do everything it can to reach the next generation, particularly in a culture where church influence and attendance are on the wane
  • There’s no way to create a worship experience that everyone likes
  • Traditional worship styles are waning in our culture


The disagreements are not new.  In the 3rd century, churches fought to keep instruments out entirely, because they were associated with pagan cults.  In the 15th century, John Wycliffe complained that the music was being written in a way that was too complex so that only the choir could sing, and everyone else just had to stare.  In the 17th century, Reformed churches fought to keep the organ out.  In the 18th century, a pastor wrote an article opposing the new music being written by Isaac Watts.  He said, “There are several reasons for opposing it. One, it’s too new. Two, it’s often worldly, even blasphemous. The new Christian music is not as pleasant as the more established style. Because there are so many songs, you can’t learn them all. It puts too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than Godly lyrics. This new music creates disturbances making people act indecently and disorderly. The preceding generation got along without it. It’s a money making scene and some of these new music upstarts are lewd and loose.” That was in response to “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” and “Joy to the World.” In 1903, Pope Pius X banned the piano in worship by papal decree.  Later in the 19th century, the founder of the Salvation Army quipped, “Why should the devil have the best music?” and then began writing far more enthusiastic church music.  In the 20th century, many Christians expressed skepticism at the early gospel radio broadcasts of the evangelist Charles Fuller.  Then in the 1970s, pioneers fused modern rock with Christian themes and started a furor of their own.  Sigh.


This puts pastors in a bind.  We have to align our people with our mission, our strategy, and our cultural context.  Usually these four things don’t line up well or easily.  We are left to disregard either the culture, making us irrelevant, or to disregard our mission, making us directionless, to disregard our people, making us insensitive, or to disregard strategy, making us look confused.  The pastor, who is more subject to public opinion (and consequent crucifixion!) than anyone else, has the burden of guiding this alignment and being resented for it, no matter the results.

At a former church, I approached a choir to have them sing less frequently.  I did so with the unanimous consent of our Elder board.  In the midst of the conversation with the choir, I was interrupted, then booed, then told that what I was saying “was a bunch of crap.”  The next weekend, a lone choir member came to me and said, “No one has the right to treat their pastor that way.”

Now personally, I don’t feel any resentment towards those who fondly remember and still prefer traditional worship.  For them, it was a feeling of home and a feeling of family.  Talk of “blended services” today is an anachronism.  Some think the compromise that they made in the 1980s to allow the band to meet in another room for a service for young adults was as much compromise as they needed to make.  And for those who have attended the same church for years, they don’t think that the massive changes that have already happened in our culture need to affect them further.  It’s painful and disorienting for them.

But this is the last chance for churches to live or die.


Today churches that can provide a separate space for a traditional service may allow it to go on in that space for a while.  For churches that have a single worship venue, effective ones will no longer maintain traditional or even blended services if they want the church to have a future.  Those that are trying to do so have by and large already seen their young adults leave for other churches.

That’s the state in which churches and pastors find themselves today.  There is not a quick solution for the population who does not welcome the change in styles.  They feel marginalized.  Nor is there a possibility that vital churches will go backwards.  That is a leadership failure of the highest order, and it will cost them their future.  We love each other and we keep moving.

The only viable way forward will come when people who love Jesus put the gospel and the kingdom in front of their own preferences to make way for those who don’t yet know Jesus.  It’s only when our hearts beat for lost people and for Jesus that the mission of the church will overwhelm our preferences.  This is not something that we can bring about by our own effort, because only the Holy Spirit has the power to change hearts.  At the end of the day, the best we can do is to cast vision, to pray, and to keep preaching the gospel for the salvation of humankind.

Disciples and customers

The critical decision that the modern church must make is whether or not to raise up disciples or customers.  The results will be very different.

You can have a very big church filled with customers.  Appeal to the expectations, calm every complaint, give the old guard what they want, and appease the donors.  This can generate a gathering of satisfied church-attenders who bring their friends, promising them a similar customer-satisfaction experience.

On the other hand, a church can create disciples.  This necessarily requires telling peoplehqdefault.jpg that they can’t have what they want, that Jesus’ call is to take up your cross and to die to yourself.  A church in a frenzy of attracting customers can never deliver a message like this.  A church that delivers a message like this will never attract customers.  But it is fundamentally the road to discipleship.  Churches that create disciples define their purpose by their mission, not by the whims of their shareholders.

The result of a disciple-making church is a most likely initially smaller but impassioned group of people who are truly committed to the mission of Jesus in the world.  But when a gathering of people takes Jesus’ mission to heart, they become an unstoppable force for the kingdom.

The leadership of the church just has to decide at the beginning, when the groundwork for the church is being laid: customers or disciples?