Pulling Back the Curtain, Part II

ПечатьA month into this church planting journey, I feel like I’m getting more insights every day. I’ve known since the day I left my engineering career to take a job in full-time vocational ministry that it’s a calling and not for the weak of heart. Church planting is no exception to this.

Last year, as I was in the pre-launch phase of the church plant, I told people all the time that I had never experienced more self-doubt than I had during that season of life. I’m not generally a person who struggles with confidence, but that season was rough for me. Rough, but good, as I realized that self-confidence should be replaced with God-confidence, knowing where my confidence should be rooted.

Ministry in general, especially in smaller settings, can be incredibly lonely. You’re busy running around and checking on the welfare of everyone else and not everyone is conscious of the fact that no one is checking on you. So, you need to be proactive and make sure that you’ve got someone who you can lean on in those times. Lone rangers in ministry rarely last long. In fact, I think the road of ministry is littered with the broken lives of those lone rangers.

In an effort to continue to pull back the curtain to reveal what’s behind it, I want to share some insights from this first month and a half (and all the time leading up to it as well).

1) Measuring, Not Counting

A few months ago, a friend of mine shared some insight with me that I couldn’t stop mulling over in my head. We were talking about the metrics by which churches answered the question of whether or not they were “successful.” I told him that I was tired of the “nickels and noses” model, where we count how many butts in the chairs and how much money we had raised.

He said that we needed to move to a place of measuring rather than counting. We measure life change and transformation in people. That’s not something that you can easily do if you’re just counting the people and their money.

Standing there in our worship space Sunday after Sunday, as the clock moves closer and closer to the time of our worship service,  my heart sinks further down if no one shows up (thankfully, that hasn’t happened). It’s hard not to take it personally. It’s hard not to wonder what I’m doing wrong.

But we need to move beyond just butts in the seats. Are we making a difference? Are the people who are coming being impacted for Christ? Would it matter if we were here or not? These are the more important questions, in my opinion. These are the things to measure, impact and influence.

2) Trends Take Time

The world is a very different place than it was when I was a kid. The church is also very different than when I was a kid. Assessing today based on yesterday is really hard. Solving today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions is downright silly (go read “Canoeing the Mountains”).

As much as I would like to see every person in a worship service every weekend, I know that expectation is unreasonable. Life happens. Stuff happens. While I think being part of a faith community is essential for spiritual formation, people need a reason to care and a reason to invest their time into something.

I don’t know how long it takes to see patterns and trends in data, but I can tell you without a doubt that it’s not six weeks. It’s like farming or gardening, you do the behind the scenes stuff and then just wait. We are doing our best to do that behind the scenes stuff, outreach, relationship building, consistently and persistently. We will watch the trends over time and see what we see.

3) Where Your Treasure Is, Your Heart Is Also

One of the best books that I read in preparation for this journey (other than the Bible) is a book by Simon Sinek called “Start With Why.” It’s a book that I think is an essential read, not just for church planters, but for pastors as well.

Churches have gotten really good at telling everybody “What” they do but have forgotten (or never even knew) how to tell people “Why” they do it. The “What” is not nearly as compelling as the “Why.” People rarely give to “What” but they may give to “Why.” People want to make a difference and they want to see that they are making a difference.

If someone is going to give their hard-earned money towards something, they want to make sure that it’s worth it. That makes perfect sense to me.

At the same time, this is one of those things that needs to be measured. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” When people give to a local faith community, the local expression of the church, it’s a pretty good indicator that someone believes in what’s happening. So, if they begin to give of their hard-earned money towards the vision, then it’s probably because they believe in that vision.

4) Vision Casting

Speaking of vision, it’s something that needs to be spoken of often.

I think that some pastors and planters get the idea that because they believe strongly in something and think about it all day, every day, that everyone else does the same.

Not the case.

People live busy lives. I don’t say that as an excuse, I say that because it’s true. I think that part of the responsibility of pastors is to continue to help people remember to be looking at their world through a specific lens, the lens of a Christian worldview.

They won’t necessarily do that on their own, they need help with that. They need reminders. Those reminders need to happen beyond just the Sunday worship service. When they walk out of your church on Sunday, it’s possible that they might not think as deeply about Christ again until the following Sunday.

Vision casting is about letting people see just how seeing the world through the eyes of Christ can impact them. It’s about letting them see God’s vision for the world, that Jesus cares for those in the world who are furthest from him as well as those who are close to him. This needs to happen often, otherwise people forget.

5) Culture Making

The same friend who I talked about measuring versus counting with also had a conversation with me about culture making. We talked about Andy Crouch’s book of the same name. Many people within the Church are critical of the culture in which we live, I understand that, but what is the Church doing to combat that? How does the Church combat that?

Crouch, in his book, talks about how the best way to change culture is to create culture. If we are dissatisfied with what we see in culture, are we creating a new culture? I won’t go through all that Crouch says, but this means so much more than just creating a “Christian” alternative to what’s already happening. 

Honestly, I could write a whole post (if not a whole blog series) on this, but the long and short of it is that we create culture in what we do. What kind of culture are we creating? People may be attracted to programs and certain offerings of the Church, but those things won’t necessarily make them stick. They need something more.

If I marry someone just because they are beautiful and there is nothing more to our relationship, that relationship will be short lived, because it’s based on something fleeting. But if I find someone attractive outwardly, get to know them, and find them even more attractive inwardly because of their character, it’s more likely that the relationship will have staying power.

What kind of culture are we creating in our local expressions of the Church? Are we just offering a place where people can run and hide from the big bad world that lurks beyond the doors? Or are we seeking to create a culture that engages the world beyond our doors, seeking to have conversations about what Jesus means to us and why he matters?

I’m far from done learning on this journey, but I will keep sharing as I go. I’m no expert and will make far more mistakes, but it’s in those mistakes that we can learn the most. I’ll keep pulling back the curtain for anyone who wants to see. Hopefully, the insights that I’m gaining might be helpful for even one other person in this journey.

 

Raising Resilient Disciples

faith for exilesIf you spend any time at all around the church and pay any attention to what’s going on in the western church, you know that there is a trend of younger generations leaving the church. Not only are children not being raised in the church but those children who have been raised in the church are going off to college, leaving church and sometimes faith behind.

Over the years, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, one of America’s leading research companies, has written much based upon the research that his organization has done. Together with Mark Matlock, he seeks to tackle this topic head on that research in his latest book, “Faith For Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon.”

The authors pull no punches in speaking truth. I the introduction, they write that it is their contention, “that today’s society is especially and insidiously faith repellent.” While the history of God’s people has shown that they can resiliently walk our their faith, they also contend that the kind of resilient faith that lasts and allows one to walk through difficulties, trials, and antagonistic culture is tougher to grow today.

While that might seem like bad news for some, the authors speak of how faith can grow deeper and stronger in unsettled times and dark places. The current climate may cause some to head for the hills and hide, but the authors are offering this book as a challenge that resilient faith can be grown, it just takes intentionality and hard work.

The authors speak of the importance of culture and its influence. They use biblical examples of characters who have walked in direct opposition to the culture surrounding them, the culture in which they have been immersed. One of the greatest examples may be Daniel and his three friends who found themselves exiles living in Babylon, a culture dramatically different and even opposed to their Jewish homeland.

Complicating our culture is the medium of technology and how it pulls us and the next generations away from productive things, particularly spiritual things. Screens demand our attention, they call us to be their disciples. Jesus himself said that we can’t serve two masters, so how do we can we be disciples of him and screens at the same time?

Matlock and Kinnaman suggest that we are exiles living in digital Babylon. While we would like to go back to Jerusalem, our home and safe haven, we don’t have that luxury and we need to find a way to live out of faith in this somewhat hostile environment. Fortunately, the story of exile isn’t limited to Daniel and his friends, it’s a story that plays out over and over again in the biblical narrative. We see God’s people living as exiles in lands that are foreign and often hostile.

The authors propose that discipleship today has the goal of developing Jesus followers who are resiliently faithful in the face of cultural coercion and who live a vibrant life in the Spirit. They go on to reveal some of Barna’s research as they define four different kinds of exiles: Prodigals (ex-Christians), Nomads (unchurched), Habitual Churchgoers, and Resilient Disciples. Among 18-29 year olds today, 10% are resilient disciples, 38% are habitual churchgoers, 30% are nomads, and 22% are prodigals.

The book goes on to lay out five practices that have led to resilient faith. These practices are based on a decade of work and research. Not only are these authors experts in researching this material but they have also experienced this personally with their own children, experiencing how these practices make a difference.

The five practices that the research has shown build resilient disciples are: forming a resilient identity and experiencing intimacy with Jesus, developing muscles of cultural discernment, developing meaningful intergenerational relationships, training for vocational discipleship, and engaging in countercultural mission.

Intimacy with Jesus is about so much more than weekly worship gatherings. As the authors write, “we too easily mistake the starting point for the destination, oversimplifying Christianity to mere decionism.” This isn’t about merely following rules and habitually attending church and programs, it means creating an intimate relationship with Jesus, allowing young people to see that God speaks to us. Discipleship is growing in an understanding that one can hear and respond to the voice of Jesus in their lives.

Developing muscles of cultural discernment means combatting the easy and convenient teaching and learning that can be gained through technology.  As they define it, cultural discernment is the ability to compare the beliefs, values, customs, and creations of the world we live in (digital Babylon) to those of the world we belong to (the kingdom of God). It means we don’t bury our heads in the sand and we take a posture of learning and counterculturally speak. It’s not so much about protecting young people but preparing them for what they will face and how they will respond and live.

Developing meaningful intergenerational relationships  means being devoted to fellow believers we want to be around and become. It means mentoring and being mentored. It means to combat a culture of isolation and mistrust with deeper and spiritually significant relationships with those who have gained wisdom in experience. In digital Babylon, technology takes the place of real relationships, so those real relationships need to be forged in resilient disciples so that they won’t settle for cheap alternatives like technology.  These relationships are not forged by steamrolling questions and looking past legitimate doubts but sticking around long enough to work them out.

Vocational discipleship is about training up the next generation to know how to think about work and calling. It means finding meaning in what we do, not simply surviving. It means understanding talents and abilities, listening to God’s call, affirming those things, and being a church that enables and trains them to work this all out. Vocational discipleship does not mean full-time vocational ministry for all but it means being a full-time disciple regardless of your vocation, or even living out as a disciple through your vocation.

Finally, countercultural mission means living differently from cultural norms. We are privileged to be invited by God to join him in his mission to the world. This isn’t necessarily a safe mission, living in exile is not safe. Kinnaman and Matlock write, “Too many of our ministry efforts prepare people for a world that doesn’t exist, undercutting our witness and passing flimsy faith to the next generation.” The church needs to improve by focusing more on safe living than on faithful living. We need to help people believe and know how to express themselves and those beliefs in a spirit of love and respect.

Having read other books by Kinnaman, I was looking forward to reading this book. Much of what the authors share coincides with research that has come out of the Fuller Youth Institute as well. That kind of consistency should be encouraging for the church and should spur her on to the mission of raising up resilient disciples.

In order to fulfill this mission of raising up resilient disciples, we can no longer settle for a church that expects everyone to come to them, seeking good to be consumed and comfortable spaces to be coddled. Instead, we should be willing to venture into sometimes unsafe places, not just physical, in order that we might live out our faith resiliently, faithfully, and effectively.

If you care about the next generation and care about the church, “Faith For Exiles” is a book to be read with a message to be heeded. Matlock and Kinnaman offer not just problems but solutions. Their ideas are not some nebulous or fantastical theories but are based on thorough research. This book is a call to action, the question is whether or not the church will heed that call.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

 

Stop Hiding

hide-and-seekSocial media has been a gift, in some ways, to our disconnected lives. Despite living hundreds or thousands of miles away from friends and family, with a few clicks, we can stay up to date on significant events in their lives. We can watch kids grow up, see highlights from sporting events, witness, milestone achievements, and so much more. When we finally have the opportunity to see them in person, we can sometimes just pick up where we left off, carrying on with knowledge of some of the things that have taken place since we last saw each other.

That’s probably the best part of social media. But there’s always a shadow side to things, isn’t there? It’s almost like one of Newton’s laws of physics, to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. To every positive there is an equal and opposite negative.

While some of us will put up whatever we want on our social media feeds, others of us feel that we can only put our best foot forward. Why show the not so clean part of our lives? Don’t we want people to think that we’ve got it all together? Don’t we want to make sure that everyone knows that we are measuring up?

I’ve lived enough of life to be kind of tired of trying to measure up. I know that I never will. There will always be someone out there who is nailing it, doing it better. But I also believe that grace is an important part of life. It’s how I am saved. It’s what I need extended to me every day. It’s what I need to extend to others every day.

I look around at my house and realize that I haven’t been keeping up with certain things. Weeds grow. The grass gets higher. The limbs on the trees get out of control. Then I look over at my three kids and I realize that as fast as those weeds, that grass, and those limbs grow, they’re growing faster. Am I spending time with them as they grow?

I’m not Super Dad. My children have a way of both subtly and not so subtly letting me know that. I fail too many times to name. I am selfish. I react. I don’t always adult well. Sometimes, an onlooker might wonder just who the kid and who the adult is in the relationship.

I’m not Super Husband. I’m not always as helpful as I should be. Sometimes, my needs outweigh the needs of everyone else in my mind. I don’t always think of my wife before myself. I fail.

But just because I fail sometimes doesn’t make me a failure. It’s what I make of the failures that determine just who I am. Are those failures a series of events that lead up to a greater success? Do I let those failures define me? Do those failures act as stepping stones from which I learn?

I’ve grown so tired of feeling like we need to perform for people that we don’t like. I’ve grown even more tired of the fact that we try to measure up to standards that were meant for somebody else. I’m not going to go as far as the cultural meme and say, “You be you,” but I think there’s something to it. Even in Jesus’ parable of the talents, not everyone was given the same amount of talents, but they were all judged based on what they did with what they had been given. We’re not supposed to examine ourselves on what we could have done had we been given someone else’s skillset. We’re not supposed to examine ourselves on “what ifs” either. We have to look at how well we are stewarding what we’ve been given. Are we using what we have been given to the best of our abilities?

If there is one place where people should be able to come and acknowledge these imperfections and shortcomings, it should be the Church. Not the building but the body. The Church was never meant to be a building, it was always a people, a movement, at least from how Jesus seems to have defined it.

At the same time, the Church should be the place where people also realize that what they are doing isn’t in their own power. When we can admit our shortcomings, it’s so much easier to accept help from others. When we can admit our failures, it seems simpler to stop trying to measure up.

Can we stop hiding? Can we create a space where we feel comfortable letting down our guard? Can we find people whom we trust?

I’d like to think that we can, but it won’t happen overnight. Every fire starts with a spark or a small flame. Who will you take off your mask for today? Will you stop hiding and encourage others to do the same?

Don’t Blink

160610-zimmerman-bueller-tease_c2of7pI watched the skinny legs of my almost thirteen year old walk through the early morning haze as he made his way to the middle school gym. Morning isn’t his thing. Not really my thing either, but I’ve been forced to live in a world where it needs to be my thing in order to be productive and get more done.

As I watched him walk away from the car, waiting long enough to make sure that the door he pulled on was unlocked and he wasn’t stuck outside, I remembered a picture that Facebook had just showed me the day before. Eight years ago. A little fun run for kids at our church. Just weeks after the birth of my daughter.

There he stood, in that picture, straight up in almost military attention. Not sure where he came up with the pose as our family can’t really be considered a military family. Of course, what happens in that mind is certainly beyond me. I’m pretty sure he’s been smarter than me since he was five, which doesn’t say much for me, but I’m willing to concede.

If you listened closely, you could almost hear Jim Croce crooning away as he sang, “If I could save time in a bottle….” These moments are fleeting. We’ve reached that stage as parents where life is a blur. School. Meetings. Sports. Field trips. There are so many things to try to keep track of that it’s hard just to know how. It’s not like someone hands you a manual that gives you blow-by-blow instructions or troubleshooting options. Not sure exactly what the instructions might be for troubleshooting the passage of time.

I can’t think of a Fall where I wasn’t fairly introspective, this one is no different. The changing of seasons is almost palpable, in the smells, in the colors, it’s in the air. Being such a visual person, it seems that I almost need to live somewhere that I can visibly see the changing of seasons, to serve as a reminder to me that time is passing.

I always marveled at the time vacuum that is experienced in casinos. No windows. No clocks. You step in and lose time, only to find, hours later, that a chunk of your day has been sucked away from you. I think there are other places where this can happen, places where the climate never changes, where it’s sunny all year long (or rainy all year long too, I guess).

As I move into the home stretch when my son will become a teenager, the changing of seasons and time in general remind me not to blink. In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” How that quote resounds deeper and louder as time marches on.

Losing your parents has a way of sharing you up, if you are paying attention. It makes you think about what you missed, what you wished you had that you never did. It’s a wake up call to reassess and adjust the way that you parent. That’s pretty much what it did for me.

I try to give my kids opportunities that I never had, not to live vicariously through them but instead to broaden their horizons. I sometimes may accentuate that they’ve got those opportunities more than I really should, but oh well.

I try to get them all one on one as often as I can, sneaking off to do simple and mundane things, for it’s the simple and mundane things that really make up life. As much as we might like to live in the big moments, it’s the small moments in life that seem to have made the biggest impact on me, the ones that I remember all these years later.

I’m doing my best to take advantage of those small moments, accentuating them. That’s not to say that we don’t have any big moments, but I’m lowering my expectations on them, knowing that the impact they have may be long-lasting, but probably not as long-lasting as the small moments.

The old cliche that no one ever got to their deathbed and thought, “I should have worked more” is still true. Time doesn’t slow down, so we had better do our best to lasso it while we can. We can lament its passing or we can do what we can with the time that we have before us. When we live into the simple moments of life, I think we begin to seize them in a way that allows for grace to weave itself through those moments.

Here’s to not blinking and seizing the moments we have before us.

Pulling Back the Curtain – Part I

ПечатьI have been on a church planting journey unofficially for about a year. The decision to plant happened sometime in the summer of 2018. Throughout the Fall of that year, plans were being made, funds were being raised, a team was being assembled, and prayers were being prayed. In January 2019, it became official, we had received our 501c3 status a few months before and we were ready to begin the pre-launch process.

Growing up in the church, the concept of church planting was not foreign to me. But I definitely encountered a number of people who looked at me sideways if I used the term. It sounds kind of weird if you don’t have a church background. Most people just want to say that you are starting a new church, which is much simpler and probably leads to less staring.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve continued to strive for authenticity from myself and the people around me. Authenticity and transparency. I get a little tired of things being shrouded in secrecy. Maybe it’s a result of growing up in a pastor’s home where Mom and Dad were always whispering about something. Nowadays, even with my kids, I probably tell them way more than they should know, but secrets never helped me in my own formation, so why should I think it will help them?

All this being said, I know that some of the most powerful lessons that I have learned in life have come from two places: learning from the mistakes of others and learning from my own mistakes. Throughout this church planting journey (as I seem to keep referring to it), I’ve decided that I need to pull back the curtain to show what’s behind it. While there are multiple reasons for it, the two main ones that jump out are that it will provide some accountability and it will also demystify what’s back there.

Two weeks after launching the first public worship service of our church startup (aka church plant, The Branch), the big question I was bombarded with was, “How’s it going?” I knew everyone meant well, but it’s a far bigger question than a two minute conversation thrown out in passing at the grocery store. I’ve never been known for brevity in words, and this time is no exception, so asking such a gigantic question and leaving me limited space to answer is hard for me.

The answer that I consistently gave to those who asked was that church planting is a little like tracking your 401k, it’s more about the long game, the journey, the trajectory. If you look at it day after day, it’s easy to get frustrated, angry, scared, worried, nervous, anxious, and a variety of other emotions that are based on its instability. Church planting, like a 401k, is not about overnight success.

I’m not sure what everyone wants to hear when I am asked that question, but I have desperately fought to not simply throw out numbers. Telling people how many people were at our launch service and how many we have had every Sunday since is tempting but not a true indicator of what’s really going on. Unfortunately, that seems to be the way we count in the 21st century church. I call it “nickels and noses.” How much money do you have and how many people are coming?

If that’s what we’re counting, than we aren’t measuring something that gives a deeper indication of the change or transformation that is happening in the people who come, in our community, and in ourselves. I didn’t start a church from scratch to see how big it could get, I started a church from scratch because a) it was what I felt God was calling me to and b) I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. Despite popular belief, walking through the doors of a church and sitting in a chair or pew doesn’t automatically equate to life change and transformation.

So, I’ve tried to get into the habit of talking about what I am seeing beneath any numbers. I’m talking about things that some church planters might not be talking about. I’m walking with a high school student through depression, identity, and thoughts of self-harm. I’m visiting a recently graduated young man in prison, I’m spending time on the psych ward of a hospital with a friend, brother, and fellow sojourner. I dare say that you’re not going to see a ton of church planters doing these things.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to distinguish myself as different, outside the norm. I like to mess with people’s preconceived notions. It’s probably heavily linked to being an Enneagram 8, but I also think it’s because I’ve grown tired of settling for the status quo and the norms that are too easily passed off as prerequisites for success.

We don’t have tons of people coming to our Sunday worship service, but we are beginning to make a mark. We’re caring for people. We’re caring for our town in small ways. We’re doing our best to seek the peace and prosperity of the place where God has planted us. We are partnering with others whose heart beats with a similar beat.

So, if you run into me in public and you decide you just might go there and ask me how it’s going, be prepared, you probably won’t get a statistical resume of how wonderful of a leader I am (I’m not) and how amazingly successful we’ve been so far. Instead, I might just tell you a story, a story of how God is beginning to break down barriers one at a time. While others are doing their best to put up walls, we’re trying to break some down. If you want to hear stories like that, then go ahead, ask away.