Category Archives: church

The Long and Winding Road*

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With both apologies and gratitude to Sir Paul McCartney and his mates in the Beatles, the long and winding road is an apt description of the journey my family has been on for the past four years. What began as a somewhat uncertain yet anticipatory search for a Lead Pastor role melted into a desert meander through loss, death, grief, depression, questioning, doubting, and more. Yet milestone after faded milestone seemed to confirm two things: first, we were on the right path; and second, that path was leading to a pastoral role. Specifically where the path would lead was an unanswered question.

When God leads people on a journey, there’s always a purpose. Sometimes the purpose, or the path, or both, seems harsh, as with Jonah’s three days living as seafood or the ancient Israelites’ forty-year wilderness sojourn. Sometimes the purpose is simply to train, sometimes to discipline, sometimes to strengthen or transform. Sometimes God uses the journey to refresh and restore, as with Elijah after his battle-to-the-death with the prophets of Baal.

During our journey these past several years, God has been doing some hard work in my life, chiseling off rough edges, testing my commitment to his purpose, leading me from pride toward greater humility (a journey nowhere near complete). One of the most profound shifts I’ve seen in myself is a desire to love—really and simply love—whatever community he might call me to lead. That desire hasn’t always been there for me; so often, I’ve looked more at what I can change in a church than what I can love.

This weekend I stood before the congregation of a small, 150-year-old church in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. After my message (from Colossians 3:12-17), they were going to vote, as all good Baptists do, on whether it was God’s will for me to be their next pastor. With the ten new members being received that morning, the congregation stood at about 50 people – three-fourths of whom are over 65. I could count the children’s ministry on one hand…maybe with a finger to spare. The youth group was doubled in size by my daughter’s presence.

As we were getting ready for church that morning, my wife asked me what percentage I was looking for if we were to say yes to the church’s call. The number in my mind from the start had been 89%; I don’t know why, that’s just what came to my head and planted itself there. Eiley wondered if that was too high; What if it’s only 85%? Or 80?

The vote was overwhelming and humbling: unanimous! That is so unlike my past experience with churches, especially Baptist churches (my tribe). I have heard people say they always vote No just on principle! (I’m not sure what principle that is.) But this small body of hope-filled followers of Jesus is united in their desire to have me as their pastor and to lead them into the next phase of their life—of our life together.

And so, our journey takes a new turn. With a church called, ironically (and appropriately), The Journey. I wonder where this long and winding road will lead.

 

*Photo of Paul McCartney’s High Park Farm in Scotland copyright and owned by Stuart Brabbs. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:High_Park_Farm._-_geograph.org.uk_-_434107.jpg

Worship Together

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There is a transcendence in coming to God in his throne room, something far bigger than us—something bigger, indeed, than all of creation, all of history, all of time—because God is bigger: God himself transcends creation, history, time.

Yet there is an intimacy in worship, as well, a closeness to the father that is warm and secure and comforting. It is as if we are sitting at his very feet, or even curled up as a child in her daddy’s lap.

Corporate worship, the body of Christ coming together to worship, has the difficult task of bringing a diverse group of individuals into both a transcendent and an intimate relationship with God. Worship leaders are charged with this task, which they seek to accomplish through music, prayer, the Word, and service: heart, soul, mind, and strength. Yet these are not incongruous or even distinct elements, but each serves and enhances the others. When we make them distinct, we do a disservice to ourselves, our churches, our congregations…yes, we even do a disservice to God.

As interdependent as these elements are, however, I want to address just one of them: music. 

Music touches the heart, the emotions. But far from merely touching the heart, music actually leads the heart. And a key role of music leaders is to lead the heart—and the hearts—of the congregation either into the transcendence of God’s throne room or the intimacy of his lap … or sometimes both, for even in the closeness of an embrace we get a sense of the Father’s bigness; and in that, we gain a sense of protection and security.

And yet so often, in our culture-driven desire for bigness—big concerts, big sounds, big lights—we lose the sense of God’s transcendence which is so much bigger than anything we can manufacture. The amplified sounds of the band’s instruments and voices fills the auditorium, deafens the ears of the congregations, mutes their voices. We sing in silent syncopation with the band, unable to hear even what comes from our own lips. We are awed not by the Seraphim of Isaiah’s temple vision, but by the percussion of the bass and drum.

Even in songs of would-be intimacy with our Savior, the electronically-boosted voices of the band drown the gathered song of the worshippers. We find ourselves yelling about the quiet place of rest.


Worship in all its forms and voices should be focused on and directed to God alone. When Christ’s body comes together, no leader ought to take the place of the One whom we gather to worship. Yet all too often, those called to lead the congregation—whether in music, in prayer, in the Word, or in service—do exactly that, and so steal the rightful place of God.

Help! My Church is Closing!

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I recently learned that my church was going to close. Well, my church campus, anyway—one of three campuses the church has around the city.

It doesn’t look much like a church in the traditional sense. We meet at a middle school: the main service gathers in the Multi-Purpose Room, while the youth and children fan out to classrooms and the library around the campus. But for many, this middle school is the only church they have ever known, and they have come here at 10:00am every Sunday morning over the past four years. For these, it might as well be the whole church that’s closing.

Others moved from the main campus, which has met for more than ten years at a high school eighteen miles away. They made that move for a variety of reasons: to be part of something new, to support the leaders of this new work, or simply to attend church closer to home.

Whatever brought each person to this location, each will feel its closure uniquely; each will navigate the change in his or her own way. Are there right and wrong ways to navigate? Probably. More helpful, though, would be to speak of healthy and unhealthy ways. I want to help us navigate healthily.

Sit on the ash heap
It begins with recognizing this for what it is: Change, but not only change. It is a loss—a death in some respects—and loss and death are traumatic events. They are to be grieved and mourned.

In the Bible’s epic story of suffering, a righteous man named Job loses everything of value to him in a matter of hours. His tremendous wealth—crops, flocks, herds, and servants—is wiped out or stolen by marauding bandits; and all his children—seven sons and three daughters—perish in a great storm that collapses the house they were celebrating in. But that’s not all: soon he is afflicted with “loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head;” they are so devastating that his friends scarcely recognize the man. Even his wife, reeling from her own loss, tells Job to “curse God and die.”

In his great pain and grief, Job—who had been honored as one of the greatest in the city—goes out of the city to sit on the ash heap, where garbage and dung were burned. On the ash heap he nursed his wounds; on the ash heap, he cried out to God and tried his own heart.

Of course, there is no ash heap for us to sit in today. (I suppose you could trek out to the local dump!) Still, we need to get alone, reflect on the loss, and name the hurt, as one of our pastors said. What am I feeling – anger? hurt? betrayal? sadness? shame? On the ash heap, journal in hand, we can silently name these emotions. We can cry out to God knowing, from Job’s experience, that God can handle all that we feel and say.

Sit with friends
Learning of Job’s great loss, several friends came to sit with him. I love how the English Standard Version says it: “They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him” (Job 2:11, emphasis added). Those are friends we need: people who are aware enough to recognize our hurt and care enough to sit with us – even going so far as to make an appointment together to come together. One of my mentors called these our “3AM friends”: the ones we can call at three o’clock in the morning and know they will pick up the phone!

Sitting in silence. Job’s friends sat with him in silence for seven days and nights. They just sat. No words. Just silence. Henri J.M. Nouwen describes this type of friend:

The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.1

Nouwen emphasizes that care must precede cure. Indeed, “cure [without care] can often become offending instead of liberating.” And silence is often best—and usually the first—evidence of care.

Sitting with questions. Here we need to move away from Job’s friends, for after a week, the silence and stench must have gotten the better of them; when they opened their mouths, little grace came forth. Friends who care will ask more than state. It’s not as easy as it sounds; for even questions can condemn, and tone of voice can betray an inner judgment.

(Want to try an experiment? Read the following question out loud four times, emphasizing a different word each time: What are you thinking? Read it once more, emphasizing both the first and last words. Do you notice any difference?)

Good questions are hard work. They probe beneath the surface, get beyond circumstances, express concern. What are you feeling? is often better than What are you thinking?, for loss and hurt are, by definition, feelings. But we also need help thinking right, for great grief can bring about a spiritual vertigo in which up seems down and right seems left. Yet thinking and feeling cannot be divorced: we can think all the right things, but still feel completely out of sorts. We can feel alone in the midst of the most loving community; feel lost while staring at a map; feel numb even as our heart experiences the deepest of pain.

Sitting again with silence. Nor are answers critical, at least in the moment. Sometimes the best question comes at a time when the heart (or the head) cannot provide an answer; but the question nonetheless sits and simmers, waiting for the best time to be answered.

Someone asked our pastor’s wife how she was doing with the decision to close the campus that had long been part of her and her husband’s dream for the church. When the question was asked, she was in the midst of caring for others’ hurts; but later, in the quiet of her own thoughts, she realized that she, too, was hurting – that she, too, needed to sit on the ash heap.

Face God and worship him
For 37 chapters, God is silent in the face of Job’s complaints and his friends’ condemnation. When he finally speaks, we hear little gentleness in his voice. He answers none of Job’s plaintive questions. But he also does not chastise Job for asking. He simply and convincingly emphasizes the vast difference between himself, the Almighty Creator God, and Job, the created. Deeply humbled, Job confesses:

My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.

Job got his wish: an audience with God. But it wasn’t what he expected. Indeed, it was so much more: he gained a new understanding of God; he saw God anew. And in the seeing, he was brought back to the place he’d started: to worship (see Job 1:20).

In my own seasons of loss, I have moved away from the self-pitying question, Why? and sought new revelation of who God is. It’s not easy, and I don’t make the shift easily or consistently. But it’s much more satisfying to look for God in my hurt than to wait in vain for the because that I may not like. And God is so big, so multi-faceted, that there is always a side to him I haven’t yet seen. Indeed, Jesus suggests that knowing God will take an eternity (see John 17:3).

Back to church
Yesterday was our last Sunday at the middle school. It was a time of tears and celebration, of remembering and looking forward. We recognized, thanked, and applauded the dozens of men, women, and children whose labors made “church happen” for the past 200-plus Sundays. We thanked—and were thanked by—the school staff whose facilities we borrowed and cared for. Then we folded the chairs, packed up the room dividers and sound equipment, and loaded the trucks one last time. And then we ate pizza and tacos together.

Next week will be different. Some will go back to the high school campus, but not at 10:00am. Some will visit other churches, wondering if they will find a community anything like what they’ve had these past few years. Others will waken to a hole, a vacant space they’re not quite sure how to fill.

Each heart will be smudged with just a bit of ashes. But ashes can be good fertilizer. Where death and burial are, Jesus offers resurrection.

1 from Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life, by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Ave Maria Press, 1974. 38.

Prayer Requests

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jesus statue kneelingTwo or three times a week, I volunteer in our church office and type up the prayer requests from our weekend services. During that hour or so, I get a glimpse into the deepest, most vulnerable spaces in the hearts of men and women, young and old. I read of great joys – the birth of a baby, a son’s turning to Christ, a new job; and I feel the depths of despair – a miscarriage, a child diagnosed with cancer, a death too young.

Prayers are asked for job interviews, school exams, struggling marriages; for safety in war, peace with finances, release from fears, faith.

Only a few of the prayers come with a request for follow-up from a pastor or a volunteer. Some clearly want guidance in how to deal with the situation; some may just want to know that someone—anyone—has heard and prayed.

A number of weeks ago I came across a prayer request that spoke of violence in the home, abuse the writer didn’t know how to handle. They didn’t mark the “follow-up” box; I don’t remember if they even wrote their name or contact information, or if this was one of the several anonymous requests we receive each week.

It’s not my place to respond in those situations, and I trust our church’s pastors to act even when no action is requested. But that was one of the many times I’ve taken my hands away from the keyboard and lifted them to God in brokenness and empathy, and asked Him to intervene.

Other than the cries from deep pain, the hardest thing about these prayer requests is that there are so few, and so few seem to want anyone to come talk. On a typical Sunday, we receive maybe 20-30 prayer requests; that’s less than two for every hundred people in church. That’s staggering. Do we not believe in prayer, or that God answers? Do we not know that a team of people is waiting every week just to pray for those in our church? Or do we think that no one cares enough to want to read our burdens?

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, New Living Translation)

So many of our prayers are looking for peace – in families, in finances, in work situations. God tells us to pray about it and thank him for what he’s already done, and then peace will come. Peace that doesn’t make any sense. Peace in the midst of the struggles, the questions, the radiation treatments.

Jesus prays for us (John 17) and the Holy Spirit prays for us (Rom 8:26); God also says we ought to pray for others (James 5:14-16) and to let others pray for us (1 Thess 5:25, Heb 13:18).

Today, pray for the people in your church, in your neighborhood, at your school, in your family. Let someone know that you prayed for them. And let them pray for you.

Prayer is not reserved for the “professionals.” It is what we do. It is how we live as family, as community, as church.

Smart Minds & Big Words

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2016_annual_logoI spent a recent weekend with a 350 really smart people who use really big words. Most, it seems, are PhDs or in the process of earning a PhD. They come from and have ministered on every continent of the world, with the possible exception of Antarctica. They are pastors and missionaries and university professors; anthropologists, sociologists, linguists.

I felt … not out of place, but out of my league—like a weekend soccer player taking the field with  the likes of Lionel Messi, Rolandinho, Neymar, and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Evangelical Missiological Society gathers these academicians and missiologists each year to share research and practice around a central theme. This year’s theme was Missions and the Local Church — a matter close to my heart as a pastor, a missionary kid, and a missions practitioner and advocate.

Truth be told, I went for my own fifteen minutes of fame: I was invited to present a paper I had written about how a church I pastored sought to shift how and what we did in missions. But I have to confess: I also went with low expectations of the weekend; academic researchers are not always known to be dynamic presenters, and their papers are not always compelling subjects for guys like me who just want to lead a church to make disciples at home and somewhere around the world.

My low expectations were vastly exceeded. So much so, in fact, that I needed to take a break from the presentations that have greatly encouraged and challenged me in order to put some thoughts down on paper. (Or a computer.) A sampling:

In The Burden of Healing: How Pentecostal Believers Experience and Make Sense of Chronic Illness, Shelly Isaacs shared the stories of men and women suffering from chronic illnesses, whose burdens were made heavier by the unfulfilled promise and expectation of divine healing. The stories hit close to home, as I could relate each one to my own friends who also hoped, prayed, and had faith to be healed … yet never received the expected and desired answer.

Steven Weathers, a PhD student, shared research about ideologies that inform evangelical perceptions around Black Lives Matter. His words were often hard, and challenged me (as a white evangelical man) to again confront my own implicit biases—that is, those that I am not even aware of lurking sometimes deep in my heart and sometimes just under the surface. A couple statements worthy of noting:

Evangelicals are not countercultural, but call for personal change that leaves systemic cultural norms in place. [from Emerson & Smith; source unknown]

Black Lives Matter won’t matter to white evangelicals if we think individually; we need to think systemically. [Weathers]

These are particularly damning statements. They suggest we are willing to change ourselves just enough to be comfortable, but we won’t fight against the cultural realities that lie at the root of Black Lives Matter (or the civil rights fight of fifty years ago).

Some final thoughts from Ed Stetzer’s keynote address on Priorities for Churches in Missions: the decline of denominationalism and the rise of non-denominational churches has not been a neutral influence on cross-cultural missions. Historically, missions had a voice at the table with denominational leadership, and there was a clear and intentional pathway to missions through denominations. With the growth of non-denominational churches (400% since the 1980s—and now the largest evangelical bloc), “innovation is now a higher priority than missions awareness and engagement.”

Within evangelicalism, “missional” has grown while “missions” has declined; gospel demonstration has increased (a good thing), but gospel proclamation has taken a back seat (not so good).

We must no longer merely give lip service to balancing demonstration and proclamation; we must actively practice both.

In my own paper about engaging the local church in global missions, I included this statement from a book by three missiologists: “the center of gravity in missions has moved from the agency to the local church.” I think that’s a good thing; but Stetzer brought a tempering perspective: Churches are vexed about the nations, but don’t have the connections, training, or constructs to engage well and effectively.

The great charge to the Church is to make disciples of all peoples, everywhere. One of my great burdens is to help local churches do that well and effectively … whether it means engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement, offering hope and healing to the chronically ill, serving refugees, rescuing victims of human trafficking, or preaching Jesus where His name has not yet been heard.