Dressed for Heaven

-excerpted from “It’s Like This: Visions that Help and Hurt the Church”

I discovered that the work of justice still needed to take place in my life when I was questioned by a Black friend of mine.  “What’s the experience of being White in America?” he asked me.

I shrugged.  “I’ve never thought about it.”

“That’s the experience of being White in America,” he told me.

320px-Martin_Luther_King_press_conference_01269u_edit.jpgI can now answer the question.  The experience of being White in America is comfortable apathy.  It’s not necessarily malice or stereotyping.  It’s the mere disregard for the fact that you are benefiting from a system which disadvantages others.  The sense of nonchalance in the face of the struggle of a minority, the passive negligence of the other who must work against tougher odds, is the modern face of racism.  We may not have separate bathrooms, but we still have separate possibilities.

Justice is that outward movement of love from a simple compassion for others towards a determination to create compassionate systems and structures.  Love seeks to build a home for the homeless.  Justice seeks to stop future generations from experiencing homelessness.  The blueprint of heaven is not merely for an individualized faith that makes one a better person.  It is a plan for a better world.

Justice means living as though by a set of laws no one else has read.  Becoming a citizen of a new kingdom means living by the laws of that kingdom, even it if is still only a kingdom to come.  It is when employment is free of gender bias, when education is free of political slant, when relationships are founded in respect, society is awash with civility, and classism gives way to abundant generosity that it becomes clear the kingdom of heaven is infecting the kingdoms of this world.  Jesus told us to look for signs of it – that the lame would walk, the blind would see, and the deaf would hear.  Is it any less supernatural when unjustly shackled are free to run, the prejudicially blind are awakened to clarity, and the apathetically deaf become compassionate?  These are the signs that the kingdom under construction is coming to be.

The call of Christians is to begin to live by the rules of the kingdom that is to come instead of by the rules of the kingdoms we’ve inherited.

Standing in the Chicago airport, I was bundled in multiple sweaters, coats, and undershirts.  I had been summoned to be a groomsman in a frigid January wedding (for which I never forgave the groom).  I couldn’t wait to get back to my home in Hawaii.  Standing across the terminal from me was an older couple dressed in matching aloha wear, which, in Hawaii, is the equivalent of writing “tourist” on your forehead.  I couldn’t resist walking up to them and asking, “So where you headed?”

They almost shouted, “We’re going to Hawaii!” Of course they were, and everything about them said that they were, from their audacious outfits to their beaming smiles.  They knew where they were going, and they couldn’t wait to get there, so much so that they had already dressed for it.  They dressed themselves in such a way that no one could miss what they were doing, even if someone might be prompted to make fun of them.  And making fun of them wouldn’t have dampened their spirits, because their destination was just that appealing.

Shouldn’t it be that way with the people of heaven?  Shouldn’t we be so dressed for our destination that no one could miss it, so excited about our travels that it just oozes out of us?  The kingdom of heaven is so compelling that we can’t wait till we get there; we have to start living it here.


My book is available!

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My new book, It’s Like This: Visions that Help and Hurt the Church is now available by ebook at Amazon.  For everyone who cares about the church, It’s Like This is meant to be an essential step towards a God-sized vision.

Churches languish for lack of vision, and pastors often blindly misunderstand the way their congregations already think about the church’s vision.  Everyone has a governing metaphor by which they think about the gathering of God’s people – some think it’s a country club, and some think it’s a battle ship.  Some think it’s a circle of wagons, and some think it’s a kingdom under construction.  Identifying the metaphor you think best for the church is critical to casting a vision for the church’s future.

It’s my hope that any church attender, church leader, pastor, or visionary will find the book of use.  Enjoy the book and pray for your church!

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.

1 https://hbr.org/2007/10/the-importance-of-vision

2 http://www.johnmaxwell.com/blog/culture-vs-vision-is-it-really-either-or

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.

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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.

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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.

When Christians Do Vegas

Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal published an article I wrote about our church staff’s new experiment in leadership training.

Conference on Wheels

“Our Conference on Wheels”

James W. Miller

It was not when my staff first posted a Facebook picture of me napping in a megachurch stadium chair that I realized my Christian-conference-going days were numbered.

It was when I realized they had a whole album of these pictures.

I love conferences. In my early days of ministry, The National Youth Workers’ Convention changed the direction of my ministry and my preaching. I marveled the first time I stepped onto Willow Creek’s campus for a Leadership Summit, and I grew because of my first Purpose-Driven Church conference. I still love Catalyst and Orange. Reading this, I think I almost needed a conference intervention.

While I’d still recommend big conferences for ministry development, my staff and I have gone in a new direction. This year we loaded up a caravan of cars and drove four hours into Las Vegas….

Read the article here.