Tag Archives: church

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.

What I Want for the Church

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As I have searched for a Lead Pastor role, I have been asked a lot of different questions. One of the best was this one: In what area or areas are you passionate about seeing the American church change or move forward?

I am passionate about seeing the American church grow in health, unity, and mission.

Health is primarily a local church issue. Unhealthy churches cannot produce healthy fruit (see Matthew 7:17-18). For a church to be healthy, it must have a healthy pastor and healthy leaders. This doesn’t mean everyone in the church needs to be healthy, for as Jesus also said, “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” But for the church to be effective, the church itself must be healthy.

Unity is one health factor at the local level. There must be unity among the leaders, and the congregation must be united behind them. But unity is also needed across the spectrum of Christian faith: local churches need to unite to impact their communities; denominations and other regional and national church associations need to unite to impact their regions, the nation, and the world. A divided church at any level will not accomplish the world-transforming mission of God.

Mission is possible when churches are healthy and united. The mission of the Church—stated even more simply than “make disciples of all peoples”—is to Love God and Love People. This mission is lived out both locally in our communities and globally as we partner with, serve, and learn from the church in other parts of the world.

Why am I passionate about this? Because I have felt and seen the great pain caused by the American church. I am passionate because for too long, the American church has been marked by division and a separatist attitude that have increasingly driven people away from Jesus more than drawn them to Him. We have complained about our nation’s moral nosedive but have been helpless to stop it—not because we have been unable to elect Christ-following political leaders (see Jeremiah 17:5), but because we have not loved our neighbors. When the American church recognizes and acknowledges its own sickness, it can take the steps needed to get healthy; and when the church gets healthy, we will be able to unite behind God’s mission…enabling a far greater Kingdom impact on our nation and the world.

The Faith of Community

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Directly across from me, leaning back against a tree, sat the family patriarch. He looked 75 but was likely 15-20 years younger. Around us sat his family – young children, teenagers, and a few perhaps in their early 20s. My hosts brought me a small stool on which to sit, and for the next 30 or 40 minutes we talked about my faith and theirs, the Bible and the Q’ran, about Jesus and Islam. Several times, the patriarch – I never got his name – told me, “What you say is good.” As we concluded our conversation he invited us to return the next day to talk more, but with regret I explained that this was our last day in the area. Repeating his affirmation, “what you say is good,” he added, “We will believe, me and my family. Not today, but probably in two or three days, we will believe.”

This encounter took place ten years ago this past week, in a village in southern Ethiopia. Two days later, the team I was with flew home, spending Easter morning on a layover at Frankfurt International Airport in Germany. My mind often returns to that village and the twice-translated conversation with the family. Did the life-giving resurrection of Jesus Christ take place in their hearts? If I were to return to the village today, would it still be dominated by Islam, or would the patriarch—or one of the children sitting with us in the shade of the tree—be leading a ten-year-old church? For a decade I have longed to return and to meet this man and his family again. Maybe someday I will.

Across the barriers of language, I learned something under that tree that has shaped my life, my faith, and my ministry as a pastor: faith is not a do-it-yourself encounter. We do not come to faith, profess faith, walk in faith, grow in faith, or live in faith alone. Faith is a community affair. It is conceived, born, and nurtured in community. It grows and matures in community. It lives and thrives in community.

This challenges much of what I was taught growing up, which centered on making a personal decision for Christ, a personal confession of faith. This notion of individualized faith, while not theologically incorrect, is at best incomplete. Scripture is filled with stories of households and communities that believed in Jesus…apparently as one, at one time. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at a well and told her everything about her, she believed; then she went back to her village and told them about Him, and they believed. (Read the encounter in John 4.) When Peter and a Roman centurion named Cornelius each had a vision directing them to meet, Peter shared the good news of Jesus and “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (Acts 10). Or read of the conversion of Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16) or Crispus in Corinth (Acts 18).

I don’t know all the implications of this community faith idea. It certainly doesn’t absolve any individual of confessing Jesus for himself or herself. Nor, I think, does it mean that children raised by Christian parents get a free pass into heaven. (These concepts of “fire insurance,” “ticket to heaven,” “get out of hell free” … they’re all really bad theology, anyway; they completely miss the point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But that’s a subject for another post.) Maybe this would be a good opportunity for you to share some thoughts. What implications do you see for yourself, your family, your church, your work, other people in your circles of influence?