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December 30, 2013, 11:15 AM

too many titles came to mind, so I'm calling it: "Part 2"


There was some good football on yesterday (12/29/13), with many teams needing to win or go home.  Unfortunately, I was distracted through most of my attempts to watch said football.  First, because family and friends... and it was an excellent afternoon of both.  Second, because I couldnt help but regret some things I wish I'd communicated clearer in my sermon.  This second thought was cemented in the commercials that blast us with their messages and sales pitches every few minutes during a game.  I found myself watching in a detached manner the unbridled joy the people in our commercials felt when using a product.  Cars could jump on trains, beer was the missing ingredient for a rock concert being truly epic and not just a run of the mill event, food helped families sit together around the dinner table and actually smile at each other without a single cell-phone being present.  

If all that were reality, oh how our spending would change (or would it??).  Cars would be purchased with grand adventures in mind; dinners prepared that pleased everyone; insurance would be purchased without any worries of denied claims; and money invested with reckless abandon in a stock market that makes everyone rich.  Deep down, I think we understand that we are being lied to and lead on because reality looks a lot different in real life than it does on TV.  Driving your truck over rocks and through streams of flowing water voids the warranty.  Those miracle drugs that will cure everything that ails you have side effects a mile long.  Any investment you make, despite the market outlook, is made at great risk and "results may vary."  And sometimes, the best part of waking up is not necessarily the fact that you have coffee, its that you were able to walk to the bathroom under your own power.  

So, as preachers are so apt to do, I draw our focus from commercial media and marketing to us, the church**.  If we were to fashion some commercials that advertised us, what would they look like?  We would be hugging our children (who were smiling and hugging us back after running and jumping into our arms); we would be handing out blankets and coats to the homeless in the snowy months; there would be shots of us raising our hands in worship corporately; For sure there would be images of people rising out of a baptistery being greeted by crying parishioners; And dont forget the images of a preacher delivering the most intense but beautiful sermon ever while "In the Arms of an Angel" plays in the background.  

Yes, we would build up the same expectations for the world that fast food companies do to us. We see images of skinny people eating Big Macs and thinking not a second thought of the aftereffects of eating a calorie infested, cholesterol raising monstrosity. The only aftereffect of eating a Big Mac in the commercial is smiling... and probably some beach volleyball.  We would hand the world the image of God's people in a commercial and invite them to join our community, promising life together, smiles, unconditional acceptance and love, the fruit of the spirit so ripe and overflowing in us that there would be no way to escape our joyous exultations.  Our homes would be portrayed as places where Bible study is central, not an afterthought.  Prayer was done at times not associated with meals or beds.     

If that is what we'd want the world to see, what are we delivering as those who follow Christ in the real world?  Do the Fruit of the Spirit make cameo appearances at the expected times only?  Are we living up to the expectations the world has of us?  I'm going to say no, because the "popular" opinion, or at least the one that gets the most airtime has us pegged as hypocritical, holier-than-thou zealots who are more apt to swing the hammer of judgment and condemnation than apply the balm of forgiveness and mercy.  

The product has to match the advertisements... otherwise we're just as guilty as your average fast food joint, promising the moon but delivering some rocks pulled from under the porch.  

 

**Now, lets be clear and define "church" because there might be some confusion.  One view makes it looks as though I'm really after butts in pews, and call that church growth.  No.  The church I refer to here is the Body of Christ, the Kingdom of God, the ekklesia (def. the whole body of Christians scattered throughout the earth; the assembly of faithful Christians already dead and received into heaven).  As one who works for an institutional church, my language lends itself to the jargon most closely associated with the position.  So, knowing that, we can look further than just church attendance as my end goal, but the reinvigoration of the individuals who constitute the Body of Christ globally.  




December 16, 2013, 11:38 AM

Where does Church Growth come from?


*Preamble to this blog series:  I am not an expert (at anything, really).  I am not offering a program, or formula for church growth in this series of blogs.  I am going to offer my opinions formed from 15 or so years of congregational ministry, and ideas formed from reading various books by "experts" and those who have successfully helmed churches to growth in number, effectiveness of ministry, and evangelism.*  

  It sounds almost childish to ask any question about where something comes from, doesnt it?  I recall both asking and hearing the "where do babies come from?" question, and the response was always the same:  "go ask your mother."  So when I ask the question of church growth, I cant help but be reminded of the innocence of a child genuinely seeking to understand something that eludes their ability to understand... and all I've gotten back in response is "go ask someone else (an expert)."  
  A popular movement in our group was the "church growth" wave of the 90's and 2000's.  Experts were brought in to evaluate and consult with leaderships, throwing statistics around and suggesting concrete rules to follow that will grow every church.  Some of that may have worked with your church, but the few that I've worked with that have been through that process (before my time with them) have either not seen the expected growth from following those principles, or have settle back into the habits prior to those statistic-led suggestions.    

  Lets converse on this concept for a few blogs, shall we?  Because if we're not in the business of growing, we are in the business of dying; And no one wants to admit that.  Quickly, let me define "being in the business of dying" because it sounds a bit too morbid for me to just leave hanging out there.  As individuals and as institutions, we must be active in growth or development, and breaking through the status quo of simply existing.  We can never be satisfied with having arrived at our destination when religion or spirituality is involved (whether that is relationship with Christ, with attendance numbers, or financial giving goals) while on earth, because nothing here on earth can serve as a proper destination for one seeking to follow Jesus.  Period.  If we feel like we have arrived, or are passing the torch on to someone else (younger, more energetic, or interested), we have settled into the business of dying.  

  Look around next Sunday and see if there are any signs of new life amongst your gathered group of regulars.  Most likely there will be some people whom you do not know personally because they are in a different age group than you, or because socially you havent mixed with them.  But those people, despite your unfamiliarity with them, have probably been around enough for you to at least garner some recognition.  Most likely what you will see when you look around is a group of people that you are very familiar with, and can share at least some of their story if asked.  This is not an attack, this is simply an observation on our communities that are intended to be growing, but have reached a level of stagnation.  

  Take the opportunity next to look at the leadership of your church.  Put aside disagreements or loyalties and ask yourself if you believe they honestly want the body of believers meeting where you are to grow.  I can speak with authority on this:  there is not be a single preacher, elder, deacon, or board member who desires their congregation to fail, be stagnant, or die off.  Every one of us wants growth.  There may be varying reasons for that desire (pride, financial security, empty pews, etc...), but the desire is there in every single one.  Peeking inside closed meetings, almost every conversation revolves around church growth.  "How do we get more people involved?"  "How do we fill empty pews?"  "How can we get our congregation to give more?"  All of these have a basis in church growth.  We need/want more people, money, participants, servants, volunteers, leaders, children, families, ministries, missions.  You name it, church growth is involved.  

  So where does this growth come from?  The obvious fallback answer is often:  "we pay our minister to do those things."  Is there any preacher out there who doesnt want their congregation to be healthy, growing, and thriving?  Sure, there are some exceptions, but lets dismiss those as sick or extraneous and talk your average preaching/lead minister.  We ALL want our congregations to be the best.  When we gather as preachers we brag about you, the best things about you, and we spin tales of how we are ALL on the brink of revival and explosive growth.  Stories and suggestions are shared with what works for this group, and that group.  We look longingly at those folks whose churches are growing, hoping some of that will rub off on us and our flocks.  Every preacher wants their church to grow, and they work hard to see that happen.  

  If we accept that fact (that your leadership wants and works for church growth), then why arent all of our churches growing?  Why arent all parking lots full on Sunday morning?  Why do we have empty chairs and rows unoccupied?  Let the excuses flow.  Let the well reasoned arguments of why things arent working right now fill in the blanks here: ______________.  We have buzz words like "we're not in a season of growth right now" to help us feel better about not growing.  "Maybe the congregation just isnt on fire yet for the message."  "We're laying the infrastructure for massive growth in the future."  It all comes down to this:  we're not growing, we're dying.  

  Church growth does not happen from the top down in 90% of churches.  There are some that will grow because of the presence of a dynamic preacher and people will be drawn to them.  Those mega-churches are the exception.  Much like professional athletes, those leaders are the minority, given singular gifts and intellect.  Church growth happens from the bottom up.  It happens in relationships formed outside the walls of our sanctuaries.  Our churches grow where life happens:  on the baseball fields, in the cubicles, when we treat our servers with respect and generosity, when we pray as a family at the table, when we smile when we are cut off in traffic... Church growth happens when the Kingdom of God shows up in the unexpected places...  And the population of this messed up world see the quiet love of a God shown in kindness, forgiveness, and generosity of those who believe.  When the fruit of the Spirit becomes how we respond to this world, we will begin growing the Kingdom of God the way it was meant to be grown.  Not with statistics, but through the character shown to us in the life of Jesus.

  Everyone expects the preacher to act holy all the time, sharing the Gospel in every circumstance and every conversation, and baptizing those people into active, giving participants on a regular basis.  If he's not doing that, why should I?  Yes, that is part of our calling, to share the Gospel.  But we also have to spend time in the office.  Preaching is not easy, and takes time to prepare.  Remember, more people are afraid of public speaking than they are of death.  Your preacher regularly tackles the #1 fear of our nation on a weekly basis.  I'm not offering an excuse, but hopefully showing you a glimpse into the time and effort that goes into making every Sunday something special and meaningful so we can do the same thing next week.  We are one person on staff, with only two hands, 24 hours a day to give to you and our families...  If its left to just me, I can only do so much and I will inevitably let you down.  

If we leave church growth up to the experts, or those paid to minister, we are limiting ourselves to the power of one or two people in the midst of a crowd.  Church growth is in the hands of the crowd, the mass of people who gather regularly to hear those one or two speak into a mic, but live and operate outside those special walls.  What are you doing to grow the church?  If all we have to offer is regular attendance and an occasional hour or two of service to a specific project, we are offering nothing more than a pittance to the growth of the Kingdom.  The civil rights movement would have died had it been left solely in the hands of just MLK.  He was amazing, but the power of his message was truly felt and realized when the crowds took it and ran with it.  The power of the movement came when everyone else took his message and demanded response.  If it were left to one, it would have failed...  

The power of your church's growth is in your hands.   

 

 




December 9, 2013, 11:46 AM

Running Scared (or a "White Knuckle Ride" part two)


I am afraid of the dark.  I am afraid of spiders.  I am afraid of what people think of me.  I'm afraid that every word I mutter sounds as stupid or is as stupid as I think it is.  

Now its your turn.  What are you afraid of?  Write it (them) down.  Really.  Do it.  For yourself to read only. 

 

Whew. Its nice to have that out in the open.  Lets me be honest:  I'm a little ashamed by those first two fears.  I'm 37.  I've been mugged.  I've seen cancer close up.  And yet being alone in the dark scares me.  Dont get me started on spiders.  There are two responses to seeing a spider:  it dies, or I leave.  We cannot coexist indoors.  

Be warned, this article spends a lot of time here at the beginning on me (chris).  If you arent interested in getting inside my flawed psyche, advance down to the "enough about me" paragraph.  

I work HARD to not let those two control me.  I've stepped up as a father into the role of "Chief Spider Killer."  I've used my bare hands to squish a few.  My heart races, yes... but I control the temptation to run and scream like a child.  Its become a little easier to control the whole dark thing,  too.  I simply work to avoid situations where I would find myself alone in the dark.  

But I cant control you.  I cannot tell you what to think of me, nor should I.  And that scares me.  It scares me so much that I let it control me.  If I think someone is unhappy with me, or that I will soon face criticism, I will worry and stress and start to shut down.   I am afraid that I have become a full-time representative of the "Easier Said than Done" department.  I have countless phrases, slogans, and speeches dedicated to how easy and plain it is to follow Christ.  Those get wrapped up into sermons, blogs, and the sharing of articles written by other people much smarter than I.  What purpose do those words have?  They are fuel for a life further built on the guilt of never living up to the standards set by millions of pulpits the world wide.  By the way, this blog is another one.  

Fear wins.  Fear hurts.  Fear hits me where it counts, which also happens to be the same places that hurt the most.  Do you know who gave fear this power over me?  Me.  

I let your thoughts rule my own.  I let your heart take mine hostage.  Sure, I can put up a brave front and act like it rolls off my back.  Trust me, it doesnt.  I think that every week will be different.  But its not.  Its the same drivel that sounds like last week's drivel.  "Do this, and you'll be more like Christ."  Forget the fact that life in between takes everything I explain so fluently and flushes it into the sewers.  

Enough about me.  Lets talk about what you're afraid of.  What controls you? Fear of the unknown?  Fear of failure?  Fear of rejection?  Fear of being alone forever?  Yes, we're getting to the meat of it now.  Fear wins.  Because we let it win.  Fear lets us ignore the world and focus inward, on that precious real estate of our egos, pride, and self-worth.  Why should we care for others when we have so much attacking us?  What can we offer anyone else when we cant even protect ourselves?  

Jesus, dont you care that we are about to die?  How can you sleep at such a time as this?  Surely you've noticed that you are SOPPING WET!!!!  The boat is half full of water, the other half is full of panicky people!  Fear won over the hearts of the Apostles in Mark 4.  Fear stripped away all that they had learned and experienced so far at the feet of Jesus and threw it into the wind and waves threatening their security.  

What was learned in the sunshine disappeared during the storm.  When threatened, the entire house built on the authority of Jesus, fell.  

What has threatened your delicately built house of cards?  I've witnessed first hand the power uncertainty (fear) has over long held beliefs and traditions.  Remove or challenge one piece and the house totters.  Fear enters and it is believed that everything else will follow suit and crumble.  Therefore, the grip is tightened and the slack taken up.  Grace is pushed aside for the sake of aggressive defensive positions. Forgiveness or peacemaking is shoved aside for shouting and desperate cries to the back of the boat.  Fear wins.  

We cannot be threatened by Truth sticking its nose into our delicately arranged lives.  For when Truth enters, what it replaces becomes solid ground, a foundation built on Christ and nothing else.  That cannot be shaken, no matter how big the spider, or how solid the darkness becomes.  If you are threatened by Truth, what you are holding on to is fear.  We ARE going to make it to the other side.  This storm WILL pass.  It may take us to the end of our days, but calm waters are ahead.  

The truth is:  spiders are more afraid of my bumbling size than I am of their creepy eyes and legs.  The dark is simply the absence of light.  Hitting the switch exposes that what I'm really afraid of is what the dark exposes in me:  fear.  

 




December 2, 2013, 11:30 AM

White Knuckle Ride


Revisit with me a topic from two weeks ago (11/17 - sermon audio on this site).  Lets talk about riding out the storm.  In Mark 4: 35 - 41, Jesus and his closest friends hop in a boat to "go to the other side of the lake."  Jesus himself declares that this trip will take them to the other side.  Read into this with me, reader:  HE TELLS THEM THEY WILL MAKE IT TO THE OTHER SIDE.  This is the word of God being declared in all authority, truth, and confidence.  "Gentlemen, we are going to land over there... but before then, I'm taking a nap."  Jesus takes a cushion with him, because he knows that the trip is going to be a success.  Let me be clear, THEY WERE GOING TO MAKE IT ACROSS!!!  There should be no confusion about what was going to transpire, which was a departure and landing of an intact boat with all its passengers. 

Enter the storm.  Boom.  Crash.  Flash. Gust.  Whoosh.  Splash.  

Exit any and all confidence, faith, belief, and trust in Jesus. 

The storm took away all ability for solid believers to apply what they learned in the sun to times in the storm.  Imagine a different scenario with me:  What would the ride have looked like if they accurately heard and interpreted Jesus' statement that they would make it to the other side and trusted in the fact that the Son of God was riding along with them?!  

The storm would have turned into a roller coaster ride and not a ride to certain death!  Sure they would have had white knuckles as they gripped the sides of the boat and held on for dear life.  But the confidence they had in the presence of Jesus would have turned terror into thrill. I'm betting Peter would have been screaming his lungs out AT the storm:  "Is that all you got?!"  Thomas would have been in the back saying: "I cant believe that guy..." and shaking his head disapprovingly.  The others would not have been as vocal, but I'm sure they would have been slapping each other on the back and yelling:  "That was a big one!!!" when the boat pitched and yawed.  Yes, this ride would have been scary and exhilarating and looked all together different with a small bit of belief.  

Lets apply this:  the storm is coming.  Maybe its already here.  Cancer stinks.  Divorce stinks.  Death stinks.  Finances in general stink.  Health Insurance (or lack thereof) stinks.  Watching a child rebel stinks. Walking into a dead end job morning after morning stinks.  Being sick stinks.  Homework stinks.  Dieting stinks.  Mortality and our failing physical bodies stink.  

The storm is here in all its glory and ferocity, and its called "Life."  Here's the challenge and question:  Are you holding on, white knuckled, eyes wide, mouth open KNOWING you are going to make it to the other side?  OR are you throwing your hands up in despair because the storm has masked all those sermons, online devotionals in your email inbox, and the truth of living a life in Christ spent mostly in the sunshine?  

Its not an easy ride, nor am I discounting the garbage this broken and fallen world has thrown at you.  But Jesus is right there in the boat with you.  He wont always calm the storm, but he's in the boat with you.  He has compassion and mercy to spare.  He has a promise hanging over us; the promise of eternity of a new Heaven and a new Earth.  Its a trip getting there, and its gonna look a whole lot like we're in the tiny, under-equipped boat that leaks... but we're going to make it to the other side.  Just hold on, keep your eyes open, and let out a scream or two along the way.  

 




November 25, 2013, 10:01 AM

It has become....Self Aware


Any good science fiction reader will understand the terrifying nature of the title of this blog.  There are countless stories of a dystopian future involving machines, computers, or robots that have become "self-aware" and want to eradicate those pesky humans.  Unfortunately, this is not a science fiction story, nor will it deal with angry robots or computers seeking ways to eliminate us.  For those of you looking for that, I apologize and give you permission to continue your leisurely internet browsing.  If you were hoping for something a little more meaty, then please keep reading.  

I'm a little worried about the concept in my title, not because of its fictional implications, but because of the power it has over our churches.  We are not self-aware, and its to our detriment.  For many, church is something so rote or routine that it takes little to no brain power to participate in.  We have the pieces down to an art, or worse: a habit.  We wake up at the same time, which we have worked out down to the second how much time it takes us to shower, tuck in our shirts, get the kids up, feed them breakfast while we gulp down a cup of coffee and make sure everyone gets out the door with both shoes on so we can arrive at church with it all together.  We allow ourselves those precious seconds and panic ensues if something goes wrong in that pattern of activity.  

But we make it... every week.  Walking through the doors with a smile (fake or real, doesnt matter as long as its a smile). We know where the bulletins are, we know where our friends sit, and we know where we sit.  The start time is always the same, and it usually means we begin by standing together.  Then we move into a reading, a prayer, and communion which means we put on our thoughtful face... you know, the face that means we are thinking about how hard it was on the cross.  We hear a sermon, listening for the cues that he's finally wrapping up, and we shake hands on our way out to our well thought out lunch location.  

We have this down to an art form.  Operating in the realm of "Christianity and Religion" without letting it mess with any of the precious internal workings of our lives.  This is the moment where, if you're satisfied with that level of belief, that you continue your leisurely internet browsing elsewhere because we are about to become self-aware. 

You had your chance!  We must wake up, church.  Religion has become a habit, one that we can participate in without even thinking about it anymore, much like our taking out the trash schedule, and commute to work.  We only wake up when things go wrong.  And then, when things go wrong, we pay attention until we're through the traffic jam and can get back to our regularly scheduled programming.  When God began this relationship with his people (yes, all the way back in the beginning) he courted a partner that would involve themselves in the dance.  He doesnt want someone who just stands there with slack jaw and blank eyes waiting for the song to end.  He was looking for someone who would dance.  

If we are going to be that partner in this life, we must become self-aware.  Has our pursuit of God become merely religion?  Meaning a habit, something we can pursue with mindless efficiency?  Or will be open our eyes, engage our brains and become aware of our surroundings and the deterrents we have put in place to encountering God in this crazy dance of life?!!!  WE must become the self-aware machines rampaging through the barriers that have limited us for so long... God is waiting to be re-discovered around every corner.  


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