Packing Up

office pack upAs I stood in my office, looking around at the boxes and empty shelves, I realized that it would be one of the last times that I would be standing in that space. The emotions that crept up on me surprised me more than I thought. I’m usually ready, or at least as ready as possible, for those not so unexpected feelings in moments like that. But not this time.

It’s not like I haven’t moved before, and as moves go, this one may be the shortest move I’ve ever experienced, literally right down the street. Even when I moved out of my office seven years ago, I don’t think I looked back at that office with the same amount of affection and emotion that I do this one.

Maybe it’s the growth that happened in there. Maybe it’s because I’m leaving that office different than I arrived. As I think back over the three years in that office, there are more memories that pop up about what took place there. Counseling appointments. Premarital counseling. Countless strengths conversations as I led people to discover their strengths and live into who God had created them to be. Brainstorming sessions. Hard conversations. How could one little room hold so many memories?

I’ve written before about the sanctity of space, about how we can tend to attach so much meaning to a place that has become near and dear to our hearts. The funny thing is that this space was never seen that way to me, I never cherished it, I hardly looked on it with affection. I never associated the space with the people there, who I love. It was just a space to me.

But as I pack up and move on, the moving on feels so much more significant than other moves. It feels weightier, not in a cumbersome or toilsome way, just in its own significance. I get the sense that I leave behind some parts of me, some parts that needed to be left there, some parts that are no longer part of who I am.

In some ways, as I look back at the last nine years, I feel as if more growth has happened in those years than in any other stretch in my life. If I were to go back and talk to myself from nine years ago, telling him what he would encounter, what he would become, I’m not sure just how he would take it. Of course, I think most of us might shy away from some of our future experiences if we knew just how hard it would be to go through them. In some ways, it’s a good thing that we can’t see as much as we wish we could, we might run away from the very things that shape us into who we become.

It seems that the older I get, the less time I spend in the same place, physically, mentally, spiritually. I grow, I move on. No matter how much of a change junkie I might become, moving on can still be hard and, if given the choice, if moving on means changing for the better and staying in the same place means remaining the same, if I’m honest, I think I would have to say that moving on is always the right thing to do.

And so it goes, and so I move on. There are memories waiting to be made, tasks meant to be conquered, relationships meant to be formed, and growth that needs to occur. In my mind, I hear the words of Paul, writing from prison, uncertain of the future but confident in God.

Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:13-14

The Vision Driven Leader – A Book Review

the vision driven leader“Vision drives everything,” Michael Hyatt writes in the first section of his book, “The Vision Driven Leader.” And so begins the journey through Hyatt’s attempt to convince his readers that without vision, the people will surely die. Vision drives everything and without it, organizations will find themselves meeting an untimely death, even when they could have saved themselves by simply taking the time to create and cast a vision.

Vision will inspire, it will beckon others to join and follow, it will cast a vision of a bright future. Vision, as Hyatt writes, “is all about painting a picture of an irresistible future. You’ll be on the right track if your vision is big and challenging enough to scare you a bit. It should. If it doesn’t, it’s probably too small.”

In “The Vision Driven Leader, “ Hyatt lays out ten questions that are necessary to ask within an organization to see whether or not you are ready to move forward with a clear and concise vision. Vision comes from leaders, Hyatt says, while managers simply execute the vision. Vision is cast by those who can see beyond what’s right in front of them, those who are not confined by the limitations, but see past them and through them. Vision enables the impossible to be possible.

So many books are written out of success stories, but Hyatt reaches into his past to pull out some of his failures, knowing that those failures have allowed him to become as successful as he is today. Those failures came from a lack of vision, from not taking the time to really invest in what could and would be Vision looks to the future rather than being stuck in the present.

Hyatt is honest about his failures but also highlights both his own successes as well as the success stories of others who took the time to carefully and thoughtfully develop a vision at some point in the process. By using what Hyatt calls the “Vision Script,” leaders can use a tool to develop vision for the future by focusing on their team, their product, their sales and marketing, and their impact. While the process may seem tedious and even a waste of time, Hyatt assures his readers that investing in this exercise will save them from pain and eventual failure in the long run.

“The Vision Driven Leader” is a practical and honest journey towards creating a vision for your organization that is compelling, practical, can be sold to others, and can face resistance. Hyatt pulls no punches in letting his readers know that resistance will come but pushing through that resistance is the only way to achieve success, no matter how difficult that resistance may seem. Resistance is best faced with tenacity, integrity, and courage, and these things will certainly be required if you want to lead your organization towards a captivating vision.

The ninth of ten questions that Hyatt poses is whether or not it is too late for your organization. In the chapter outlining this, he introduces the reader to the Vision Zag, the point at which a leader leads their team and organization away from the typical bell curve toward the promising future and vision. The various points along the vision arc are described as startup, rising, transitioning, mature, legacy, zombie, and dead. Hyatt gives examples of organizations that have zagged all along the curve to take their organizations away from what seemed to be impending death.

Michael Hyatt does a phenomenal job of convincing his readers of the importance of vision. He gives clear pictures and examples of those who have followed the very method that he lays out. He humbly admits his own failures and shares his own learnings from them. If you weren’t convinced of the importance of vision before you picked up this book, you certainly will be by the time you finish it. If you want to be inspired and move your organization towards a bright and successful future, check out “The Vision Driven Leader.” You won’t be disappointed.

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

 

Pulling Back the Curtain – Part V

Curtain-Pulled-Back-300x204As a church planter, I’ve been posting over the last few months about some of the things happening behind the curtain. The purpose is both accountability and demystifying it so as not to seem like the Wizard of Oz.

Church planting during a pandemic is interesting. In fact, the first service that we did online after the stay at home order was issued by our governor in Virginia was on our six month anniversary. What a nice anniversary present, right? But a lot has happened in the six months leading up to that and the month and a half since the stay at home order was issued. One of the most significant things is that in just a few days, we will be moving into our first space.

One thing that I’ve learned during this process is that holding your plans loosely is not only encouraged but almost essential. Things rarely happen the way that you would like them to and the sooner you realize that, the better off you will be. Rolling with the punches is a necessary occurrence on almost a daily basis.

After a few months of searching for a possible location prior to our launch, we were getting nowhere. Strip malls had told us that they wouldn’t lease to a church. This was the case with the strip mall that most fit our needs and was located within walking distance of the community that we had felt God calling us to reach. It was disappointing news, but a few pastor friends in town had offered their spaces as possibilities for me, so I knew that we would have a location somewhere, it just might not have been exactly what we were looking for to start.

Still, I couldn’t shake the sense that the Holy Spirit had given me that we would be in this strip mall. I couldn’t explain it, but after one of my administrative team told me the answer he got back from the property agent about not leasing to a church, I said something to the effect of, “If God wants us to be there, he will make a way. I’m not worried.”

Now, there are a handful of times in my life when I’ve said things that were fairly uncharacteristic of me, things that just didn’t make logical sense. The only way that I would say something like them would be if they came from a God confidence that was lurking somewhere deep inside. This was one of those times. The engineer in me has a tendency to NEED to know what’s happening and have all my ducks lined up in a row. When that doesn’t happen, I can have a tendency to freak out a little bit.

Still a chance conversation with a leasing agent in June before we launched eventually led to another phone call nearly four months later on Halloween while I was having lunch with a friend in the very plaza we had felt pulled towards. That phone call turned into more phone calls, emails, and texts as well as conversations with my team. It led to lots of prayers and even more phone calls to friends and colleagues.

The thing about the October phone call was that I had told the leasing agent in June not to contact me until after January 1st. While I was still a rookie church planter, I knew enough to know that we needed to establish ourselves before finding a more permanent location. I was probably a little annoyed at the agent for contacting me two months early, but I’ve come to realize that sometimes God drops opportunities in your lap that you need to entertain, opportunities that sometimes seem so outlandish, unreasonable, and even impossible that they almost might work.

Nearly two months later, as I was readying myself for a trip with my thirteen year old son to celebrate his 13th birthday trip from his grandparents at Universal Orlando and also preparing for Christmas, I was running around trying to find a way to make it work for us to actually get into a space that seemed to be twice as big as we needed but the exact same price as other places that were half the size.

As an aside, not only was this location in the VERY plaza that we had felt drawn to for the sake of our mission, but the space was 1000 times better kept than the other spaces in the very same plaza we had looked at. My team had talked about not wanting to move into a space that we would outgrow in a short period of time, this space remedied that, leaving us plenty of space to grow. In addition, my attempt to “beat the bushes” and find additional funds to help us afford this dream was met with incredible encouragement and not just one year’s partial support, but two.

Now I sit here, days away from moving into this space. This space that seemed impossible. This space that seemed too good to be true. This space that would act as a mission outpost in our community. As I think about all the pieces coming together, I am constantly reminded of dreaming dreams that are big enough that only God can accomplish. This dream is certainly that big.

We are stepping out in faith and, if I’m honest, there’s some fear in there as well. I feel like Peter in the boat, poised and ready to step onto the water when Jesus calls him. I feel like the Israelites on the banks of the flooded Jordan River, ready and waiting to step into the promised land but having no dry path to get there. Peter stepped out and took his eyes off Jesus, causing him to sink. The Israelites stepped into the flooding waters before they eventually parted, leaving them a clear path to the other side.

Faith rarely affords us a perfectly mapped out gameplan that we can see, as the Who sang, for miles and miles. Instead, the image of a lantern to our path, shedding light to the few feet immediately before us seems like a better analogy. I want to see more, but I can’t. If I could see more, would it really be faith.

I can’t take any credit for what’s happened up to this point. The only thing that I have been is obedient, and I haven’t even done that well. God has been driving this and I am grateful to be along for the ride. This is actually giving me the chance to model the very things that I have taught and preached and spoken of for years. This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road.

This feels like Christmas to me, or a first date, or the first day of college. It’s a bit overwhelming, scary, humbling, and exciting all wrapped into one. I know that God’s got this. I know that this space will only help us do the very thing he has called us to do, especially as I look at my dining room full of food collected to help the very neighbors who will now be within walking distance of this new space. This isn’t a space that we will be using on Sundays and then leaving vacant the rest of the week. This isn’t a space that we are relying on to establish ourselves in the community (although it won’t hurt), but rather an outpost that will allow us to have feet on the ground and be more effective at becoming a place where life and faith meet so that God can break down barriers to his grace.

It’s exciting and scary and I know that this wild ride just got a little more wild. Here we go!

 

Welcoming the Future Church – A Book Review

welcoming the future churchThey have been called the most influential generation, and yet Millenials are distancing themselves more and more from the institution of the church. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves, but they’ve not always found a place within the larger context of the local church, choosing instead to give their time to things that seem to be more effective.

In his latest book “Welcoming the Future Church,” Jonathan Pokluda shares his experience of watching a weekly gathering targeted at millenials grow from one hundred and fifty to tens of thousands. Pokluda shares in the introduction that, “If young adults aren’t joining and leading in your church, eventually your church will die. Or at the very least, it will miss out on an opportunity to impact and unleash the most influential generation the world has ever seen.”

Pokluda shares the things that he has seen effective at reaching this generation, things that might be surprising to those within the church who have thought that whistles and bells would be the draw that would bring Millenials into the church. He divides his book into three sections: Teach, Engage, and Deploy.

In the Teach section, Pokluda shares that drawing Millenials doesn’t involve a hiding of the truth. Instead, it involves preaching and teaching from the whole of the Bible, not just the comfortable parts. When there are areas that seem to lack clear direction, engaging in conversations about those areas, not shying away from them.

Pokluda shares his method of preparing messages and his approach to receiving feedback to be as effective as possible. He even admits that he has seen more life change come out of conversations than out of sermons, a fairly self-aware and honest assessment from a pastor. He encourages the reader to hear feedback often rather than just a few times a year. Constant feedback allows for constant change which leads to constant movement towards more effective communication.

There is no question that the church as an institution struggles with change. In the Engage section of the book, Pokluda encourages churches to hold loosely to traditions that might stand in the way of engaging the younger generation. Just as he encouraged an honest assessment of his own communication through feedback, he does the same in regards to the methods used within the church. When we base our methods on what worked then rather than what might be effective now, we arrogantly choose to idolize those methods rather than reach a new generation. It’s by design that Pokluda positions this section and discussion after his emphasis on the Bible so as not to be criticized by anyone who might suggest that he is pushing for a compromise in teaching doctrine or morality.

Pokluda encourages an environment within the church where Millenials can learn from other generations and vice versa. While they are open to instruction, they also want to be heard and valued. Relationship and authenticity are key. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver as so many churches have done. Don’t build your church on programs and attractional events only because you will soon lose those you’ve attracted through those things to another church that does them better.

One thing that Pokluda mentions that I particularly appreciated is the importance of discipleship moving beyond straight teaching concepts. If we don’t move from the “learning” aspect to the “doing” of discipleship, can we really call it discipleship? Discipleship means following and that can’t be in word alone, it needs to be accompanied by deeds.

In the last section, “Deploy,” Pokluda speaks of the importance of vision. Millenials (and everyone else in your church, for that matter) need to be given a picture of what can be. That picture needs to be compelling, energizing, and engaging. Expecting that they will come simply because you tell them it’s important is not enough. Pokluda writes, “give young adults a vision bigger than themselves. Don’t bore them by playing church, pretending to have it all together.” He goes on to say that a weak vision is the easiest way to discourage young people to live into their calling to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

Delegation kills two birds with one stone, it benefits the leader by not requiring them to do it all themselves and it allows others to step up to their own strengths and gifts to lead as well. Pokluda shares from his own experiences about how he has seen teams built together to the point of enjoying one another’s company. Shared experiences are essential for this team-building.

In another very helpful section, Pokluda shares his 5 “C’s” of vision casting: convincing, constant, celebrate, communicate, and call. While the section isn’t very long, it provides some good application for the way forward as you engage young people in the life and ministry of your church.

This is a good place to start for anyone struggling with how to best engage the next generation. There are other resources from places like the Fuller Youth Institute which give some additional practical and more in-depth approaches towards engaging the younger generations with spirituality and discipleship. Pokluda’s book provides some helpful measures that don’t feel too overwhelming for someone who feels like they just don’t know where to start. If you find yourself in that place, this book may be helpful to give you a boost and start you on your way towards engaging the next generation.

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

What’s Gonna Happen?

What’s Gonna Happen?

COVID-19 has thrown our world into a storm of uncertainty. The economy is in disarray as businesses have shut down, people have been laid off or furloughed, and the thought of reigniting it by slowly opening things up causes anxiety and anger.

I think we can safely say that the majority of the world has been touched in some way, shape, or form by COVID-19. It’s disrupted our lives and its effects will move far beyond the moment when stay at home orders are lifted and people can begin to cautiously emerge from their homes like groundhogs tentatively looking for their shadows. The world is not just untouched during this time, as we move ahead on the other side of the virus, the world will not be the same.

Nowhere has this felt the case more to me than within the church. As a pastor of a barely half a year old church plant, risk is something that I am well aware of, but moving to the other side of this will be an exercise in self-reflection that will only be achieved as we ask ourselves hard questions to which we give honest answers.

Here are five important questions that I think the Church needs to ask herself in this time:

1) Will we embrace change? 

Whether the church likes it or not, this time of separation has forced us all to embrace change on some level or another. I have said for years that the church is one of two organizations in the world that struggles to embrace change (the other is the educational system, who has stepped out during this time). Even when we think we’re good with change, we can generally open up our stable to reveal a host of sacred cows we’ve been hiding.

Change for change sake is never a good idea, but change for the sake of contextualizing the Gospel of Jesus Christ is essential. We see it within the New Testament as Jesus met people where they were as did Paul and so many others within the Book of Acts. It’s an essential part of communication to speak a language that those to whom you are speaking can understand.

The medium may change, but the message stays the same. Will the church embrace change in order to more effectively communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

2) Will we compromise or coalesce?

Changing does not mean compromising, and I believe that many within the Church don’t always get that right. Adapting does not mean conforming to the culture. Attractional ministry can easily lead us down a road where we compromise our values and shift our moral compass simply to appease people we are trying to reach.

I’m not one to harp on certain issues that have the potential to divide, but simply avoiding them is not the right approach either. Will we compromise who we are and who God has called us in order that we can become more “relevant”?

3) Will we focus inward or outward?

One of the reasons that I became a church planter is because, since I became a pastor sixteen years ago and even before that, I had grown frustrated with the inward focus of the local church. The Great Commission has not changed since Jesus spoke it. We are still called to GO and make disciples, baptize them, and teach them what Jesus commanded.

I believe that the local church can often get caught up in the last part and forget the first part: GO. While spiritual formation and discipleship is essential within the local faith community, I believe that we have created an unsustainable model that looks more like a spiritual daycare than a training ground for disciples of Jesus. If our people still look the same as they did five years ago, that inward focus isn’t accomplishing what we thought it would.

Outward focus allows us to put into practice the spiritual practices and ideals that we claim to be learning. It allows us to put hands and feet to ideas and concepts. It also allows us to constantly be changed by seeing those whom God has a heart for, those who have not yet begun to follow Jesus Christ,

If the church is to survive, we need to get back to the essentials of evangelism and discipleship rather than transactional and attractional ministry.

4) Will we build community or clubs?

Community is essential. I’ve told more than one person in the past few months that when I write a book, the theme will most likely be community. My own personal experience with community has shaped and formed me. I would not be where I am had I not been surrounded by a loving, caring, and giving community to help walk with me through some dark periods of my life.

I am well aware that there is an entropy of sorts that happens within churches, even the most progressive and creative churches. That entropy moves us from a place of intentionality of openness to a place of unintentional cliquishness (if that’s even a word). We seek to be welcoming and eventually can become so comfortable with who we have that we simply build a social club.

If the church is simply a social club, there is nothing there that can’t be replaced with a thousand other clubs or organizations. We need to be something much more than just a club, we need to be a community that seeks to change the world one person at a time.

5) Will we become extinct?

The church in America has been declining for decades. Denying that is not just foolish, it’s ignorant. Instead of lamenting that the United States is no longer a “Christian” nation, we need to get down to brass tacks and begin the hard work of evangelism and discipleship once again. If we are simply building local churches around our preaching, music, and programs, there will inevitably come along someone else who can do those things better than we can. We will continue to swap members until Jesus returns and I fear the rebuke may be equivalent to the one talent servant in Jesus’ parable.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18 were, “…and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The Church will not fail because the true church isn’t a building, a program, or a person. The Church is a movement of people, disciples, seeking to be kingdom-minded and be part of God’s kingdom expansion in this world. Building the kingdom does not mean adding some beautiful aesthetics to pretty it up, it means literally building and expanding it beyond what it is today.

Will the church become extinct?

I think these questions and many more are essential questions for every disciple of Christ to ask themselves during this time and beyond? The thing about hard questions is that they demand hard answers. While some may see my criticism as harsh, the more complacent we become, the harsher the criticism for us to move out of that complacency to a place of effectiveness.

May God give us the courage and boldness to ask the hard questions of who we are in the church. May we seek his kingdom first and deny ourselves the desire to build a kingdom of our own making. May we elementarily return to our original commission and seek to go and make disciples rather than simply making consumers of programs whose sustaining power is only as effective as the latest trend.

An Easter to Remember

GethsemaneFinalFor Christians, the week leading up to Easter has been called Holy Week. It starts on Palm Sunday and continues through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and culminates on Easter Sunday, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. It’s generally been celebrated with a mix of somberness on Thursday and Friday followed by elation and joy on Sunday morning.

This year will prove to be a very different Holy Week, an Easter to remember. One of the most significant holy days in the church calendar will be celebrated by watching worship services online and hunting for Easter eggs within the confines of our own homes and yards. Family dinners may very well be limited to the nuclear family for the sake of social distancing, if we even feel like that’s safe or a good idea.

When the possibility of Easter being impacted by COVID-19 moved from possibility to likelihood, I watched many in the church community go through the stages of grief. This realization caused all kinds of different emotions. What will we do? How will we respond?

Now, I’ve never been one to go crazy with the two big church holidays, Christmas and Easter. I appreciate their importance, but I think that there has been a tendency for us to overdo things within the church, putting on a show rather than worshipping and being grateful. I’ve also never liked the notion that churches should change things up so dramatically that the people who happen to attend on these two holidays should think that this is business as usual and that’s the way things are done every week.

A few weeks ago, when the reality about Easter being dramatically impacted by this virus this year began to set in, I read a social media post that made mention of it. As I read the post and began to think about it, my mind wandered back to that first Easter and the days leading up to it. It seemed somewhat ironic to me that we might be celebrating Holy Week more consistently with the way it had been experienced that first Easter.

As I thought about the emotions that those first disciples must have been experiencing in those days leading up to Easter, I couldn’t help but thinking that we may feel like we are in a similar place. Fear. Anxiety. Doubt. Loneliness.

What would happen if we put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of those early disciples and really made this a Holy Week like no other? What would happen if we imagined what it was like to be in such a place like they were in with the dashed hopes that seemed so palpable in those days? Could it be that experiencing all of these emotions might help us to relate and might inject some much needed meaning into our celebration?

It’s not ideal. We would much rather be gathering together in person, but sometimes we just need to learn from what isn’t ideal and make the most of it. Sometimes we have to take what’s in front of us rather than wishing for something else.

As we come to this Maundy Thursday, I imagine Jesus in the garden. Fully God and fully human. Wrestling with the task before him. Full of anxiety and maybe even fear, yet resilient and committed to carrying out the will of the Father. Obedient unto death, even death on the cross.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant,     being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 1 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 

Philippians 2:5-11

 

The Mind of God – A Book Review

mind of godHow do Christ followers make an impact on the world? Do we isolate ourselves by creating a false sense of security in a sequestered bubble in hopes that our influence might be felt from far away through the various means that we have? How do we exercise the wisdom that God has given us to make a difference in the world and culture around us?

Bill Johnson, pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California, looks at Solomon and his wisdom in his latest book, “The Mind of God.” Johnson introduces the reader to the seven mountains or spheres of influence: family, religion, economy, education, government, arts and media, and science and technology. He shares about how we can influence the world around us, our culture, by having an impact in these areas.

The church is not a building, we’ve probably heard it said at least once in our lifetime. Do those words resound in who we are and do they actually mean something when it comes to our actions as the church of Jesus Christ? Do we influence people so that they will come be part of our church or so that they can become part of the kingdom of God? Johnson shares his own church’s experience with meeting people where they are and influencing them for Jesus Christ. He writes, “Our job as believers is to excel as servants in realms of wisdom, that they world around us might benefit and see the kindness of the Lord drawing them to repentance and relationship with him.”

We are called to serve without agenda, as Johnson writes, the more we serve the city for the sake of the city, “the more the city opens up to the message we carry.” When we have ulterior motives or some hidden agenda, it won’t remain as hidden as we might like. Instead, we need to love people as Jesus loves them in order that our message might be compelling, not seen as a slogan or sale pitch, but rather as a true motivation that moves us and propels us with the love of Christ.

It is evident throughout this book that Johnson comes from a more Charismatic background. That’s not a pejorative statement, simply an observation. Anyone familiar with Bethel Church most likely knows the controversy swirling around it because of what some consider to be questionable theology. Reading this book, there was nothing that indicated to me that the divergence in theology was in any essential areas that would make me stand up and cry, “Heresy!” A few head scratching moments that made me wonder, but not enough for me to think that all of the criticism that has been heaped at Bethel is justified.

I read a lot of books and this book was tough to get through. I’m not quite sure why that is though. I don’t know whether it was the season in which I found myself when I read it. The subject matter was of interest to me, but Johnson struggled to hold my attention for long periods of time.

Johnson had some really good things to say about how the church can and should influence the culture in which it finds itself and the wisdom it takes to accomplish that. While there were great nuggets throughout the entire book, the overall book didn’t “Wow” me in such a way that I would highly recommend it to people. It’s a worthy read, but not an essential read. The nuggets that I did find and highlighted felt significant, just not as frequently found as I would have liked.

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

Roll With the Changes

Throughout the first two weeks of this whole COVID-19 experience, it seemed bearable. In some ways, it felt like an adventure. How can we be creative? How can we think new thoughts?

My wife and I have said that we can tolerate most anything when we know that there is an end in sight. After two weeks of social distancing and tightening measures to keep people from spreading this virus further, the novelty and adventure seems to have worn off and it feel like it’s time to buckle down and figure out how to acclimate to this new normal.

When 9/11 took place, I lived in the suburbs of New York City in Connecticut. Our commuter communities were majorly impacted because of the number of people who worked in New York City every day. In those days immediately after everything happened, there was a spirit of togetherness that occurred. People seemed to have been changed by what had taken place. They seemed gentler, more compassionate, more thoughtful. But it didn’t last long.

Once the novelty and immediacy of those initial days wore off, we went back to the way things had been, the way we were (cue Barbra Streisand).

I keep asking myself, will the changes that we are experiencing during this time stick or will we just go back to the way we were? What is the staying power of our changes?

I guess a more important question would be, how are we changing?

By the time this has all passed, I honestly don’t know how any of us will be able to say that we haven’t been changed in some way, shape, or form. If we are present with those we find ourselves isolated with, it seems natural that we would be changed.

From my own vantage point, the perspective of a pastor, I can see that churches have been struggling through these changes. One of the most significant holidays on the church calendar, Easter, is less than two weeks away and will be celebrated far differently than most churches are used to celebrating it.

I’ve never been a big fan of change myself. It’s not that I’m averse to it, it’s just that there are certain things that I like the way that they are and I’d rather keep them that way. But I’ve learned that life rarely affords us the option of staying the same. Change or die seems to be crying out to us as life rolls on.

I’m trying to be more sensitive to what’s changing in me as these days stroll past. How am I different? How am I acting?

I’ve got to say, I’m not winning any awards for how I’ve responded up to this point, especially this week. I’ve fallen short, embracing survival over excellence. I hit the proverbial wall.

But picking myself up again, looking ahead, I’m going to do my best to reflect on what is and what could be. How will I let this time change me? How can I be a different when this is all behind us?

Middle Man

middlemenI always find it fascinating in my life when two unrelated conversations happen to converge on some of the same subjects and material, especially when I wasn’t the one to have steered them that way.

I think that I can safely say that all of us continue to use words like “interesting” and “challenging” and “unprecedented” to describe the days in which we are living. I’m pretty sure that I would have been feeling that regardless of the situation I’m in, but the situation that I am in, being the pastor of a six month old church start up, has made all of those descriptors seem more apropos.

The other day, I was in desperate need of getting some work done, a need that was being elusively filled at my house. I still share an office with the church who sent us out to plant our new church. I decided to go to my office as I knew no more than one person would be there.

After finding myself more productive than I had been at home, I walked down the hall to poke my head in on one of the other pastors working in his office. As we talked about our own experiences and families from a safe social distance, he made a statement that stuck with me for the rest of the day. He said, “It seems like there are a bunch of pastors who are trying to justify their jobs during this time.”

He went on to say that he wasn’t feeling that at all but instead was feeling like this time, in many ways, was justifying and even demanding more of him. When he said that, it hit me right between the eyes as I realized he had articulated something that I had been feeling over the last few weeks.

I’ve been exhausted on so many levels over these past few weeks. To start, this is one of the worst times of the year for me and my allergies. While I’ve been getting allergy shots over the past few years and I take allergy medication, my allergy doctor has reminded me that there are always reactions and symptoms of those allergies. I’ve been feeling those big time.

I’ve been emotionally exhausted while five of us share the same space. While we all love each other, there is a new normal to acclimate to which is just different. That adjustment has been exhausting.

There’s the unknown which in and of itself is something to adjust to as well. That’s exhausting. My friend and fellow pastor described it best as going on a foreign mission trip and having to learn and adjust. All good things, but very tiring.

But my friend’s statement about pastors feeling the need to justify themselves and their existence, it struck me. I’ve seen it and it reminded me of a line from “Blazing Saddles” where Mel Brooks’ character tells his team of advisors, “We’ve got to protect our phoney baloney jobs.” I wondered to myself, how many pastors are out there right now who are feeling that same sentiment?

Thankfully, I haven’t felt that as much. What I have felt is that the needs of the people have skyrocketed. I’m not talking about people within my congregation, although they can be included, but the needs of people in general. People are scared. People are worried. People are depressed. People are angry. People are grieving. People are really experiencing the stages of grief as we journey through the unknown.

Those are the things that I’ve sensed in my reading, in my conversations, in my journeys through the community. If meeting people who are scared, worried, depressed, angry, and grieving doesn’t cry out for the presence of a pastor who can bring a message of love, hope, and peace, then I don’t know what does.

It was right around the time of this first conversation that another friend sent the lyrics to me from a song from one of my favorite bands, the Avett Brothers. We had a conversation here and there about it before, but she was pressing on me for my thoughts on the words.

The grandfather of the Avett Brothers was a pastor, so there is a deep faith rooted in them that they sing about often. On the song in question called “Me and God” they speak about a pastor who is a good man but express their belief that they don’t need a “middle man.” They can experience God in the various things of life, romance, music, work, and other things. They talk about going to church and even swearing when they pray, and the song concludes with them repeating the refrain, “My God and I don’t need a middle man.”

Why did this song hit me like it did when it did? Well, I agree with them, we don’t need a middle man. It kind of goes back to why the Reformation happened. Among the things that defined the Reformation was the priesthood of all believers, the fact that the only mediator we need is Jesus Christ, so we don’t have to pray or confess through anyone else (although there are commands to confess to one another in the Bible).

You see, I don’t see pastors as middle men, I see them as side men. There may be times when it seems like they’re leading the expedition and no one else can do that, but if that’s the position that they always find themselves in, then they’re doing something wrong. There is education and experience required for being a pastor, but the calling of a pastor is to discipleship, to teaching others how they can look more like Jesus and follow him more closely.

It’s kind of like parenting, when your children are young, there is a need for more guidance and instruction, but at some point, if they grow and mature the way they should, it becomes more of a growing with them, a walking with them, rather than a directing and guiding.

Maybe one of the reasons this whole season is uncomfortable for some pastors is because they’ve forgotten why they’re doing what they’re doing. Maybe they forgot that it wasn’t about always being in front but more being alongside. I don’t feel like I need to justify myself to anyone, instead, I feel like I need to lead in such a way that others will follow. And once they’re following, the positions and postures change and we find ourselves walking alongside each other on this journey called life, helping each other to become more like Jesus.