A family from the Real Life Church family contacted our Children’s Minister, Staci, to tell her that their house had been robbed. The thieves got away with some cash that the family had set aside to send their kids to Winter Camp with the church.
Of course the church was ready to jump in and cover the costs for these two kids anyway, but the family told Staci to save the money. The church might have to buy a new building this year – save the money for that.
This sweet family was about to sacrifice their kids’ opportunity to go to camp so that the church could continue in its mission.
What they didn’t know was that earlier the same day I had received a call from another member of the congregation who told me, “God is telling me to pay for a couple of kids to go to camp, in case anyone can’t afford it.” The same day the house was robbed, even before it was robbed.
So of course, the kids are going to camp.
Now a skeptic might suggest that if God was behind this, he could have just stopped the robbery, right? But think about that. The family isn’t losing out on anything – they’re still going to camp, and not only that, they also know that God is watching out for them. The donors aren’t out anything – they already wanted to give the gift. Now on top of that, they know how special their gift is. Even the thieves are not at a loss – they walked away with the cash, and, God willing, they are a step closer to finding out that money and theft will not lead to happiness. If God had stopped all this from happening, we wouldn’t have this story to tell, and we wouldn’t have a deep sense of God’s hand in our lives.
So this is our Christmas miracle this year, and it’s my Christmas miracle, because what pastors want to see, more than beautiful services and shining smiles, is the powerful hand of God intervening in the world. That is, after all, the story of Christmas.
There is a migrant train of over 7000 people walking north towards the southern border of the US right now, Honduran refugees fleeing a context of poverty and violence. It’s an exodus.
What’s walking towards America is more than that. An awakening and an ethical decision is approaching.
Americans have long thought of ourselves as the world’s good guys, using force to back up democracy and justice. We are the ones who landed on the beach at Normandy. Our first President couldn’t lie about chopping down a cherry tree. We stand for Jesus and family. Now that we’re the richest country in the world, it’s assumed that God has materially rewarded our spiritual and moral goodness like a parent reinforcing a well-behaved child with treats.
A 2007 report showed Honduras to be over 80% Christian. They’re praying as they come.
American Christians have for a long time voted for candidates who claimed to be Christian, or, at least, promised to support Christian values. Voters have rarely paused to consider the fact that that set of values has never been defined for them. “Christian values,” in public discourse, seems to include freedom of religion (especially its expression in schools), a general opposition to abortion, and opposition to gay marriage. They may include some nebulous affirmations like “Love thy neighbor,” but there is a sizable omission when it comes to Jesus’ very clear teachings about money and the poor. In the American suburbs, these are generally add-ons for the specially motivated.
“Christian values” in America don’t especially exclude values which seem to be at odds with the teachings of Jesus and the early church, like xenophobia and nationalism. Someone who is in an adulterous relationship would generally be seen as out of keeping in American churches, but someone who spends their money frivolously, doesn’t donate to charity, and doesn’t care what happens to the poor in other nations does not stand out.
What’s walking towards American Christians is a reality check. Jesus isn’t as obsessed with sex as we are; he is far more obsessed with the poor and the outcast. The package of values American Christians have accepted needs to be unpacked, separated, cleaned up and lightened up. Some of it needs to be thrown away. Self-identified evangelicals are overdue to face their baptized love of money and apathy for the oppressed.
What’s going to be ironic about the American Christian response to the Honduran exodus is that we have an Exodus in our own Scripture, and consequently in the DNA of our faith. God was on the side of the wanderers fleeing oppression for the sake of a land of freedom in that Exodus. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). What do you think Honduran Christians hear when they read that? Probably the same thing the first European immigrants to the US were hearing when they read the same scriptures – that is, the ancestors of a lot of Americans.
So, before the story takes over the headlines and the blogosphere, a word to Christian America: remember Jericho.
Jesus sat with a Samaritan woman (John 4) talking about life and eternity. For all the interesting aspects of the conversation, my favorite detail is this one:
“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’”
In a highly conservative culture, Jewish men would not be seen alone with a woman who was not their wife. People would talk; assumptions would be made.
Jesus sat eye-to-eye with a woman, on a flat, 180˙ plane, which was not the normal angle. Men looked 45˙ down to women. This was the Creator of the universe parenting all the boys of the world. If you want to be a good man, this is what it looks like. Eye-to-eye.
I love not only that he did it, but that the disciples had already given up trying to change him. They were surprised but surrendered. He’s just going to do it this way. We’ll probably just have to do it this way too. Eventually maybe all men will sit eye-to-eye with women.
Metals 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.
Satan has scattered a few toys across the face of the earth, and people keep picking them up and playing with them. Bitterness is one of Satan’s toys. Revenge, pettiness, gossip, slander. All the building blocks of revenge. When life is over, Satan gets to come back and take all his toys home with them. If you’re holding onto one of them, just realize you can get dragged down with it. You don’t want to be holding onto the toys when the creepy clown comes looking for them. So if you’re holding onto bitterness towards someone, you might want to drop it. It’s not that fun to play with now, and in the end, it will take you places you don’t want to go.
Grace is not just a nice thing to do or a duty to obey. It’s the lightening up of our souls by shedding the dead weight.
I knew a family in South Africa who took in and raised as their son the boy who had murdered their daughter. In the racially charged atmosphere after Apartheid, this destructive young man with evil in his heart tore apart this family. It was grace that allowed them to steal that victory from the side of evil. If that kind of grace can exist, can’t we practice its most simple forms?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I sat with a friend today who is not a Christian. She knows I’m a Christian and generally avoids the subject. Today, out of the blue, she said, “Have you always been a Christian?”
I told her my story of growing up going to boring, dead churches. I told her about rejecting the faith on rational grounds because of the wide variety of religions in the world and the painful exclusivity of Christianity. I told her about my return to the faith.
She grinned and looked away.
“What?” I asked.
“I don’t want to be a Christian,” she declared.
She told me about experiencing pushy Christians who tried to manipulate her to believe and who wouldn’t respect her disinterest when she said “no.” She talked about churches that made her fall asleep.
Listening to her description of what she had experienced from Christians, I couldn’t help but think it:
“I don’t want to be a Christian either.”
And by that I mean, I don’t want to be a Christian like the Christians she’s met.
I don’t want to be a Christian who disregards people’s feelings when they tell me they don’t want to hear or have heard enough. I want to be a Christian who talks about Jesus with people who are open to listening, usually because I’ve taken the time to listen to them first, and then respects them if they say “No thanks.”
And I don’t want to be a Christian who goes to or leads a boring church. Boring churches should almost unilaterally be closed. They should be shut down until the people who are called to lead them can come up with a meaningful vision for what it looks like to reach lost people with the gospel. And I don’t care if your approach is miraculous healings or one-to-one evangelism or an attractive megachurch or artsy alternative community, but if a church doesn’t have a vision, the church needs to close. If a church is boring, it’s already closed in every way except the literal way, and that’s only a matter of time.
I told her that the way Christians behave isn’t a measure of whether or not Jesus is God. And the real question is whether or not Jesus is God, which is irrelevant to how Christians behave. She seemed unconvinced and changed the subject. I let her change the subject.
In that exchange, I have to trust that God did what he wanted to do. God never forces himself on us. Christians need to unilaterally stop forcing themselves on anyone else.
But I do have one thing better than force, manipulation, or nagging. I can ask you to pray for my friend. Please do.