Clearing the Soil

bradford-pear-400x533When we moved into our house nearly 12 years ago, I was introduced to a tree that I had only been mildly aware of in the past, the Bradford Pear tree. We had five of them on our property when we first moved in. The branches of the tree spread out far and they grew fairly tall. Aesthetically, they looked pleasing to the eye, but looks can be deceiving.

When Spring came around, the tree would bloom and the blooms would smell like someone had let air out of the tires of their car. They stunk. The blossoms would fall all over the ground and make a mess of the yard.

As the years went by and we experienced some significant storms in our area, I became more aware of the structure of the tree (once an engineer, always an engineer). The trunk of the tree remained fairly short while the branches extended far out. The problem with this structure is that the branches can’t handle excessive stress, when the winds flow and the rains and snows fall, they grow weaker and weaker until they finally succumb to the weight and collapse.

Our first Bradford Pear tree broke in the middle of a storm late at night. The next morning, as we were leaving very early for a trip up north, we drove down the street to encounter our tree blocking off one lane of the road. In my haste to remove the tree, I threw my back out and was miserable for the ride north and the first few days of our trip. Needless to say, we had the tree removed.

Years later, just after a storm, our second Bradford Pear tree fell over, nearly hitting the house. We proactively removed the rest of it with its brother tree which was right next to it, thankful that it hadn’t done more damage.

Our final tree lost a branch onto the front of our van, scratching it slightly but not as bad as it could have been. We had the rest of the tree removed and I honestly thought that I was done with Bradford Pear trees. Little did I know.

While the tree company had removed a significant portion of the trees, some of the root structure was left intact and continued to grow and grow, invading the ground and sucking the nutrients from the soil.

What was interesting to me was that in the places where the other trees had been in the yard, the plants and bushes around that area began to flourish and grow. They were no longer stagnated by the Bradford Pear but instead were able to take in what was necessary for their own growth. Soon, some of these plants which had been fairly small in the presence of the Bradford Pears began to show their capabilities for growth. They were no longer hindered by this large presence which somehow made itself look so looming and large, all the while being frail and fragile.

I’ve thought a lot about those Bradford Pears over the years, especially as I’ve worked in churches the whole time. You see, I’ve noticed that there are some people who inhabit churches who are very much like Bradford Pear trees. At first glance, they look looming and large, healthy and mature. They seem to have staying power and they appear to be beneficial to the environment. But then, in the midst of storms, you begin to see what they are really made of, that they are not as strong and sturdy as they came across.

In fact, just like the Bradford Pear trees, they took the nutrients from the soil, stunting the growth of everything and everyone around them. And as soon as they were removed, the environment changed. People who had once been overshadowed were now able to grow and flourish. They were no longer hindered.

Within the church, we sometimes go into panic mode when people leave. We begin to fear and think that there might be something wrong. We might wonder how we will survive without these people who, like the Bradford Pear trees, have given off an air of belonging and mightiness, all the while they are sick and diseased beneath the surface. They aren’t seeking to get healthier, they just want to suck the life away from everything around them.

I’ve witnessed what has happened when they’ve been removed (in some way or another, but usually by their own choice). While some might panic, the end result generally becomes addition by subtraction. Their absence is also an absence of negativity, of controlling behavior, of domineering, of an unhealthy presence. As soon as that is gone, there is room for growth.

But again, like the Bradford Pear tree, the root system can run deep and wide and if you aren’t careful and vigilant, the remnants of that unhealthy growth may linger for a long time afterwards if you don’t do the necessary work of digging deep and removing every last bit of those horrible roots.

In the many churches that I’ve worked in over the years, I have seen this time and time again. In my friendships with other pastors, I’ve heard their similar stories. Over and over again, the removal of unhealthy people was necessary for the church to grow in ways that had been stagnated by the unhealthy presence of those people.

Now, before you criticize me and tell me that this is graceless and unforgiving, consider some of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples when they would encounter unreceptive people. They would make efforts but they would eventually wipe the dust from their feet and move on. We can only do so much before we need to walk away and trust that the Holy Spirit will do the work that only he can do if it is work that he is supposed to do.

In my yard, I am done with Bradford Pear trees. I will never plant one in my yard. I continue to struggle with the root systems that lie beneath the surface, invading my yard and sprouting their life-sucking branches all over. But I’m pretty sure that I will continue to encounter people who act very much the same way within the church. I will continue to pray through my experiences with them, trusting that I will extend grace when I feel least like giving it. And when they leave and are removed, I may mourn their presence briefly but I will ultimately rejoice that in their absence, there will be room for good and healthy growth, something that was near impossible while they were still there.

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Owning vs. Taking Ownership

I had a conversation with a good friend last night about all that’s happening in my life right now. As we get ready to start this brand new church in a matter of weeks, so many different things are coming to the surface.

Having grown up within the established church, I’ve got my fair share of stories. Despite the fallibility of people, I realized a long time ago that my faith wasn’t supposed to be in them but rather in Jesus. People will disappoint you, discourage you, let you down, and sometimes stab you in the back. We encounter people like that within the church and we are surprised but I don’t think that it should be any more a surprise to us than when we find sick people when we go to the hospital.

It’s not the surprise of finding them in church, it’s the surprise that the behavior is tolerated and sometimes even encouraged. Yes, Christ came to heal because it is the sick who need a doctor, but doctors generally give some direction on a plan of health and wellness to be on the road to recovery. If patients fail to follow that, they can’t be surprised when they don’t get better and feel better.

Over my years within the church, I’ve heard the statistics that 80% of the work of the church is done by 20% of the people. I’m not sure how accurate those statistics are and, frankly, I’m not sure I care because anything less than 100% of engagement means that we still need to be working so that people can not just attend church but be part of the church.

It makes me think about the difference between owning something and taking ownership of something. You see, I think that there are some people in the 21st century who believe that they own the church but they don’t want to take ownership OF the church.

Owning something means that you paid a price to possess it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you take care of it once you have it. It might mean that you pay someone else to take care of it. It may mean that you don’t take care of it at all.

But taking ownership of something means that possessing it isn’t the main goal, it means that you take responsibility for it. When it succeeds, you rejoice. When it fails, you lament. As it goes, so you go. You don’t abandon it when things aren’t going well. You stick by it.

A few years back, a phrase became popular to utter, “I love Jesus, but I hate the church.” The thing about that phrase is that the church is the bride of Christ. So, if you say that you love Jesus and hate the church, that’s like telling your best friend that you love him but you think his wife is a……well, you get it.

As we launch out with this new church, I want to allow God to build us into a place where people take ownership. I don’t want people to feel like because they have given money towards the ministry of the church that they somehow own the church and get to call the shots. If anyone owns the church, it’s Jesus, she is his bride, but I don’t think it’s about owning, it’s about loving and committing to her.

No, the church is not perfect, but neither are any of us. Abandoning her when she shows her imperfections is no better than abandoning your spouse the moment he or she begins to show that they are human.

I hope and pray that when people come to see what God is building through us, the specific local expression of his body, that they will see people taking ownership of the church rather than owning the church. I hope that they see beyond the flaws of the people who are there and instead see the flawless head of the church, Jesus Christ, who we are all seeking to be more like every day.

Loving Well

Too often, it seems, we can get caught up in the day to day routine that we forget about the quick passing of time. Then, when we experience the loss of someone special, we realize that we took for granted that they would always be there and never really said the things that we wanted to say to them.

When my wife’s grandmother turned 80, we celebrated her with a special birthday weekend. Five years later, we were celebrating her again and the decision was made that we would celebrate her every year thereafter. In my opinion, it was a brilliant idea. We would celebrate this incredible woman while she was still here rather than waiting until she was gone.

Having just celebrated this matriarch again a few weekends ago, the poignancy of the weekend remains. Why do we wait until someone is gone to celebrate them and let them know just how much they mean to us?

I have attended and presided over many funerals, it seems like a prevailing sentiment at each and every one that people wish that they had expressed themselves, their appreciation, and their love to the one who has been lost. They wish that they had more time and had said the things they had thought about before they had lost their loved one.

The brilliance of what my wife’s family has done over these last years is that there has always been some intentional sharing of what we appreciate about my wife’s grandmother the most. Imagine the scene with children, children-in-law, grandchildren, grandchildren-in-law, and great-grandchildren sharing about their love for this woman who has impacted each and every one of them. No waiting to share after she is gone (which I assume will still happen someday years from now), the day to share becomes today.

How often do I share with the people around me how much they mean to me? Am I intentional about telling them I love them now, or will I wait until they’re gone and regret that I didn’t say it more?

Loving well means that we let people know how much we love them now, not once they’re gone. Let them appreciate how much they are appreciated. Let them understand their value now. Let them know just how important they are to the people around them.

Long Sighs and Deep Breaths

mom and jon 1987Last Friday marked eight years since I lost my mom. As with so many significant dates since her death, the day was marked with long sighs and deep breaths. While I didn’t shed any tears, there was an ache in my being that will remain until I see her again.

On days like that, my mind is running full speed, remembering, wondering, grieving. My mind generally parks on a few memories that make their way to the top of the assortment that’s whirling around in there. That day was no different and I found myself remembering two moments that my mom and I shared in those last six months together.

The first moment was after a doctor’s appointment where a treatment plan was laid out for her. She had already received her bleak diagnosis and was doing her best to break out of her default mode of realism (some would call it pessimism) and find some bright spots and hope in the midst of the darkness.

As we drove in the back of my aunt and uncle’s mini van, I could see the fear and sadness in her eyes. I reached for her hand, grasping it and holding on, as if hope could be transferred in a squeeze or a touch. Somehow I hoped that I could muster up enough of that for the both of us.

I looked at her face and saw the tears rolling down her cheeks. As I looked at her and asked, “What?” she just told me that she was scared. Those words naturally made me clasp on a little harder, squeeze a little tighter.

I honestly don’t know what else I said in that moment, but I remember thinking to myself, “Hell yeah you’re scared! I’m with you.” Words that I would never dare to utter to my squeaky clean mom whom I had never heard swear in my life.

But I admired her honesty. I was grateful for her showing me her vulnerability at that moment. That was a marker of our family though, being transparent and not hiding what was going on inside, something that I’ve prided myself on and desperately seek to pass on to my children as well.

The other moment was after she was released from the hospital for the last time. We all knew that she would be going home to die. Family gathered around in the small living room of their Williamsburg townhouse. Any conversation was a distraction from the reality of the situation, a detour to avoid the inevitable that was staring us in our faces.

I had already begun to write my mom’s eulogy, that was my way of processing things. I needed to mentally and emotionally prepare for my goodbye with words, my own therapeutic means of dealing with what would be the greatest loss in my lifetime to that point.

In my quiet moments of reflection and writing, I had come to the realization that it wasn’t every day that mothers and sons enjoyed the kind of relationship that my mom and I did. Some might poke fun, others might laugh at the awkwardness, but I rested in the fact that what we had was special and significant.

In her weakened state, my mom had simply closed her eyes as she sat up in the loveseat of their living room. I put my face so close to hers that our noses touched and I whispered, “You know, what we have is special, Mom. Not every mother and son has this.” She just replied, “I know.” As our noses met, I rubbed mine against hers in an Eskimo kiss, something that I’ve passed on to my daughter. It’s a moment that I feel like I not only share with my daughter but also that my daughter somehow shares with her grandmother whom she never had the privilege of meeting.

After that night and that moment, very few words were exchanged between my mom and I, not for lack of desire but for lack of strength on the part of my mom.

It’s moments like these that are eternally burned into my brain.They don’t only come to mind on command but can rush in like a torrent when I least expect them. But I welcome them, maybe not as warmly as I would welcome a trusted, old friend, but I welcome them nonetheless.

Long sighs and deep breaths, even as I write. As I push towards the decade marker since her loss, my mom continues to live her legacy through me and my family. She would be proud of where I am and what I am doing. She might not agree with everything, especially some of my brash and forthright ideology and language, but she would love me just the same.

In those moments between sighs and breaths, I choose not to live into moments of “What could have been” but rather “What can be.” I choose not to lament what was missed, but instead embrace what was and press into my own moments with my family, letting what could easily be swallowed in regret be formed into memories that will last a lifetime for me and my children.

Inevitably, when I share thoughts like this, people say the usual, polite things to me. They are sorry for my loss. They are praying for me. While I appreciate all of these things, writing about these does not mean that I still haven’t gotten over this loss (although I don’t think anyone ever completely gets over a loss). Writing about it keeps the memory alive, at least it does to me. Writing about me honors the time that I had and hopes to utilize the lessons learned for the way forward.

Yes, I miss my mom, but honoring her memory is best done in embracing what is before me rather than lamenting what is behind me. One day, when I see her again, I can tell her that and I expect that she’ll just give me that knowing look and say, “That’s my boy!”

It’s a…..baby!

This process of starting a new church that we are in, it feels a lot like waiting for the birth of your first child.

A friend and I spoke the other day and he brought this up to me. Since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. The analogy is so spot on.

When you and your spouse are expecting a baby, you go through the procedures of eating right, caring for yourself, regularly visiting the doctor, and everything else that’s necessary to ensure a healthy baby.

As time marches on and you get closer and closer to the due date, the anticipation, excitement, and terror can be overwhelming. You can’t wait to meet this baby, to see his or her face, to hold them, smell them, cuddle them, just look at them. There is excitement over what it means, this new human being who will charge into your world, disrupting it and making it perfect all at once.

But there is also the terror. Not sure how many first-time expectant parents didn’t think at least once along the way, “Oh my goodness, can I do this? What kind of parent will I be?” If we all waited to have children until we were ready, we may never ever have children.

Waiting for a church to be born has felt similar, but I could never quite find the words to describe it until my friend introduced this to me the other day.

In less than two months, a baby church will be born. We are preparing for it. When it comes, it needs to be nurtured. We wait. We anticipate. We get nervous.

Ultimately, we follow the direction and leading that God gives us through his Holy Spirit. We trust. We pray. We plan.

And to be honest, as much as I thought and planned and hoped along the way before my first child was born, when it came down to it and he was born, most of those things fell away. The only thing that I cared about the most was that he was healthy and growing. The other things were just bonuses.

In much the same way, if things don’t look exactly like I thought they should with this church, I think I will have a similar approach, my number one desire is for a healthy “baby.”

Myself 2.0

I had lunch with a friend yesterday. Nothing unusual about that. Among the things we talked about was the Enneagram, self-awareness, who we are, we were, and who we are becoming. Kind of deep for lunch conversation.

The last few years, for me, has been a journey of self-discovery, figuring out who I am, figuring out what I am good at, figuring out what I’m not so good at, and seeking to become better than I was yesterday. There are certain tools like the Enneagram and StrengthsFinders that have been helpful in that self-discovery.

But, as one who considers himself a follower of Jesus Christ, it’s more than a pursuit, it’s a calling. If Jesus is all that I claim that he is, then I should be changed by him. He isn’t some random stranger that I meet on the street who has no impact on my life. If he is who he says he is and who I believe he is, then like so many of the people who he met throughout the gospels, the collision between my life and him should have an altering effect.

As my friend and I discussed all this, he shared that he was struck by where I was in my overall emotional health. As I thought about it, I said, “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?” I mean, the big theological word that people throw around is “sanctification,” the process of becoming holy and set apart, more like Jesus.

Funny thing is, I think that some Christians miss the “more like Jesus” part of that. They’ve got the “set apart” part down pat, but when it comes to being different like Jesus, we don’t often excel. We’re set apart and different but in a way that makes an onlooking world scratch their heads or shake their fists. I have a hard time believing that’s what was meant by being different and set apart.

I have often said to friends and those around me that I don’t want to be the person that I was five years ago. In fact, if I am really in pursuit of being changed, transformed, and different, then I shouldn’t be who I was. As I look back over myself through the years, I see changes. Some of those changes are good, some are not so good. Those not so good changes are the ones where I probably haven’t fully given myself over to the work of sanctification in my life.

It’s like training at the gym. It’s not often pleasant when we are going through it. There may be pain afterwards, but hopefully, what we are becoming is better than who we presently are. I think about Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:8, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”

I have been blessed by a great cloud of witnesses around me. God has given me a lot of people that I call “rearview mirrors.” They act as aids for me to see those blind spots that I am unable to see on my own. But I’ve got to look at them and then heed what they say, just having them alone is not enough to make me better and to see the flaws that so desperately need to be changed and transformed.

Today is a new day and I am grateful for it. God’s mercies are new every morning. My constant prayer is that I will be just a little more different today than I was yesterday, that John the Baptist’s words can echo from me the way they did him, “I must decrease and he must increase.” It doesn’t mean that I lose myself, it means that I just become a more Christ-like version of myself. That’s what I’m going for.

 

Just Being Honest

This past weekend, my family and I had the chance to travel down to the church of a good friend of mine. He had asked me to preach for him and I was grateful for the opportunity to be with him and his church family. He and I have spent the last few years becoming friends. Now, I feel even closer to him as we ramp up towards starting a new church ourselves.

There were so many joys that we experienced in our time together. As we’ve had the opportunity to travel around to different churches, my perspective has grown and I have been humbled to see all the different expressions of the church in a variety of contexts.

One thing that struck both my wife and me was the authenticity of the people in his church. They were so open and honest, sharing things that surprised me considering that they had just met us. Nothing uncomfortable or awkward, just honest and real, appropriate.

This struck me so much because this doesn’t just happen, it needs to be nurtured. I know that my friend has nurtured it. As we’ve walked together in friendship over the past few years, I have had the chance to see him journey through some difficult seasons. I’ve also seen just how God has worked through those difficult seasons, how he has grown so much through them. I’m confident that God’s growth hasn’t limited itself to him but has spread throughout his faith community as well.

As I pondered on all that I had seen, I couldn’t help but wonder why it was such a surprise to come to a church and find such openness and authenticity. But isn’t the church the place where we should be encountering that kind of thing? Isn’t it the place where we should see Jesus’ words, “Come all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest?” Why is it a surprise when we experience that kind of honesty in the church?

One thing that I sure hope happens as God builds his church through us is that this kind of honesty and authentic atmosphere can be built as well. I hope and pray that people can come back to using words like “refuge” and “safe” to describe the church, and I know that a lot of that will depend on how I lead.

Honesty is only good if it leads somewhere. Our motivation for honesty shouldn’t be to just “get something off our chest.” If we are honest and have no desire for that honesty to help someone else in love, we probably need to rethink it. In fact, sometimes, we might need to withhold our honest thoughts and feelings as they just won’t be well-received by the people we feel burdened to tell.

I’ve been wrestling with this a lot lately, continuing to check my own motivations in speaking truth. Leaning into the Holy Spirit to guide and move. Holding my tongue when my motivation is wrong. Speaking even when it might be uncomfortable but doing it in love with purpose and hope.

My heart for people to meet Jesus is met equally by a heart that desperately knows that the Church has much of which we need to repent. We have not done things well in loving those who don’t look or think like us. We have not always welcomed well the widows and orphans. Pro-life has not always meant from birth to death for us. We have not always remembered that the history of the people of God includes exile, bondage, and times of wandering. We have forgotten that God’s people are immigrants, seeking solace in a land that is not their own.

I pray that the Church can begin to be honest with herself first. Once we begin to get honest about who we are, where we have gone wrong, and how we move forward, I think that kind of authenticity and humility will go a long way to letting people see beyond the Church and see Jesus.

Flexing Your Muscles

Strong male arm shows biceps. Close-up photo isolated on whiteAs I’ve grown in my faith as I have gotten older, I’ve realized that faith can be a lot like working out. When you are trying to get stronger and build muscles, you have to add more weight, do more repetitions, be persistent. If you simply just lift the same thing day after day, you may remain somewhat strong, but you will never get stronger. You certainly won’t grow and gain additional muscle.

Faith is similar, it’s like a muscle. If you continue to limit yourself in your faith-stretching situations, your “faith muscle” will stay the same, it won’t grow. But if you allow yourself to step out in faith further than you have done before, you will see growth and you will get stronger.

Throughout the last fifteen years of my life, I have reminded myself (and those around me) of this time and time again. Fifteen years ago, I left behind a successful career in engineering to pursue a career in full-time vocational ministry. It was a step of faith. It was scary. It was a sacrifice. But if all I did over these last fifteen years was point to that, it would be like lifting the same amount of weight day after day, it wouldn’t make me stronger, it wouldn’t make me grow.

Instead, I’ve had to step out further and further, grab a little extra weight to grow and get stronger. I can’t keep relying on faith stories and faith leaps that happened a while ago, I need to allow God to grow me as I stretch further and further.

In Christian circles, people will talk about sharing their testimony. Growing up, that came to mean telling the story about when a person first met Jesus. Those stories were always great to hear, but I also wanted to know how that decision that had been made years ago was impacting them today. In other words, did it make a difference?

Where were the stories of God working now? Where was the evidence that what had happened so long ago was still having a profound impact on the present day?

That’s what I am constantly striving for. I want to make sure that I’m telling current stories of what God is doing. I want to make sure that I’m lifting a little more weight today than I did yesterday. It’s gradual and I think there can be a danger of getting excessive with it, doing it for the wrong reason or motivation. I don’t want to flex my muscles for my own glory, to win accolades and attention for me.

So, what kind of stories are you sharing? Are you still telling stories of years ago, about what God did a long time ago? Or are you adding on some additional spiritual and faith weight, letting God grow you in new ways so that you can share current stories of what God is doing today?

 

How Are You Different? – The Parish Model

Have you ever had someone give you language to describe something that you’ve known or sensed for a long time but could never describe? For me, it’s happened a few times.

One of the most significant cases of this for me was with StrengthsFinders. I always sensed that there were things that I was really good at and things that I was really bad at, but I never had the language to talk about it and describe it.

The Enneagram is another example of this, giving me language to describe my personality so that people can understand me better. It’s been helpful to describe myself in a way that people can see, hear, and understand (hopefully) that it’s something deeper than me just trying to offend and tick off as many people as possible.

A month ago, I was speaking at my denominational meeting, giving an update about what we are doing in the area of church planting and casting vision for where we are headed. I’ve been known to be passionate when I speak and this was no exception. Couple that with the fact that it’s been quite some time since I’ve preached in a church (going on five months) and I was probably pretty fiery.

After I got finished, I headed to the back of the auditorium where I was promptly approached by a gentleman I had never seen before. We made our way out into the foyer and began a conversation that started with him asking me what my dinner plans were that evening.

As we began talking, I was captivated by the ideas that he was throwing out. He was one of the keynote speakers for the afternoon and I was disappointed to have missed most of his talks because of another meeting that I had. But we talked long enough that afternoon (and then again at dinner) for me to fixate on one idea and concept that he shared.

He said that the new model of church was a parish model. Well, I had heard similar concepts before, but his concept was different. The idea of a parish church is hundreds of years old. The Episcopal Church still uses this idea in naming some of their churches. I grew up in a town with St. Luke’s Parish and I’ve seen that multiple times. Churches function in a geographic area as a parish, ministering to the people within that specific area.

But my new friend cast a different idea. He said that  today is different than it once was. He ministers in blues bars and other places where the people to whom he ministers may never darken the door of a church building. At the same time, the people who come to his church on a Sunday may never darken the doors of these blues bars and other places. It makes for separate ministry spaces with the understanding that there may never be overlap between the areas.

As I’ve been ministering in the community where we are planting, I’ve had this underlying sense more than once, but I could never quite articulate it the way that my new friend did. There are countless new people that I am meeting. I’ve enjoyed these new friendships. I have no hesitation to invite them to come once we launch out this new church, but there is no expectation that they will all be there. So what do I do with that?

It’s amazing to me how often it seems that we embrace the notion of a Triune God in evangelical circles and then live as if only two of those three persons of God are legitimate and real. Francis Chan wrote about it in “Forgotten God.” We talk a good game about the Holy Spirit and then we proceed to live as if he doesn’t exist or as if the same power that raised Christ from the dead is unavailable to him.

If I really trust that some plant seeds, some water seeds, but only God makes them grow, then I need to rely way more on the Holy Spirit than I may be willing to admit. Yes, I need to be faithful to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, I need to teach people the ways of Jesus. But I also need to trust that behind the scenes in ways unknown to me and outside of my own control, God is at work through the Holy Spirit doing a work that I could never do on my own.

I believe that community is important. I believe that being part of a community significantly impacts the way that I live my life. I believe that there are benefits when I give myself fully to community. I can’t make everyone believe that same thing. I can earn trust. I can share when asked about what I believe. But I can never make them embrace this for their own. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.

There should always be an urgency in those of us who confess Jesus Christ as Lord. That urgency can often spring up in us in a way that ignites our passion to see others come to that same acknowledgement and confession. But if I don’t let the Holy Spirit do the work that he needs to do in them and simply try to argue them or convince them to that conclusion, then I can’t expect good things to be the outcome.

I said it earlier in this series, the church is the only organization that exists for those who are not yet part of it. Am I okay with spending time and ministering to people who will never darken the doors of my church? I better be, because if I’m not, then I probably shouldn’t say that I believe in the Holy Spirit and the work that he is capable of accomplishing.

Read the previous installments: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

 

How Are You Different? – Trust Matters

The place of the church in American society has significantly diminished from what it was 50 years ago. Where once churches held central places in cities and towns, not only geographically but socially as well, they no longer hold that same place of esteem that they once did. The process of this fall from esteem was not a fast one. Tim Keller, in his book “Center Church,” describes this societal change.

The problem is, the church’s response to this societal fall has been more complaint than correction. Instead of saying, “What can we do to adapt to this fall?” the church has instead said, “How do we get back to our place of esteem and glory?”

This fall from esteem has helped the church to garner a look of suspicion from most of society, not just from those who are not a part of it but also those who are or at one time have been a part of it. Because of its stance on various issues, the church has been labeled as prejudiced, bigoted, and closed-minded.

It’s really easy to lament this change and wish for the golden days when the church was respected and esteemed, but what will that lament change? Will it be helpful? Or the church can do the hard work of building trust in its community, seeking to build relationships with people who have become skeptical and calloused towards the church.

In this day and age, I am constantly reminded of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:15, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (bold and italics mine)

I’ve heard this verse quoted many times and it seems that many people have neglected to include that bold phrase, “to everyone who asks you.” I’ve heard people say, “Always be prepared to give an answer,” and then they do just that, giving everyone around them an answer to their hope without building a relationship or earning their trust. They just launch into answering questions that are never asked.

We live in a day and age of skepticism where people are not as trusting as they once may have been. Taking that into consideration, trust is something that is earned, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long and slow, cumulative process. It can’t be microwaved, it needs to simmer and soak through interactions and conversations.

This has been one of the major growing areas for me during this church planting journey. I’ve written before about my personal journey of listening to understand rather than listening to respond, this is part of it. If people think that I am only listening so that I can get a word in, there will be no trust built. But if I listen to understand and hear what others are saying, if I show genuine concern for them and the things that they are concerned for, trust is built.

The last thing that I ever want someone to think is that I’m just a salesman who is “selling Jesus.” I’ve seen this happen all too often, Jesus becomes a bargaining chip for people. Come to be part of our party, but first you need to listen to our “Jesus pitch” before we let you enjoy yourself. Worse than this is when people come to have some of their physical needs met and we tell them, “We’ll give you what you need when you listen to what we want you to listen to.”

Treating Jesus and the gospel like a bargaining chip cheapens the message of grace behind it. If we don’t earn trust and earn our voice, why should people listen to us? If we simply listen so that we can get our moment in the spotlight, people will sniff out the disingenuousness of our listening and we will be even further from gaining their trust or earning a right to be heard.

Trust matters and this is a part of the process that can’t be skipped or fast-tracked. It needs to be entered into authentically, organically, and with the utmost patience and care.

As I’ve been building relationships within the community, this is forefront on my radar screen. I want to hear about the things that people care about. I want to hear their hearts, know their fears, know their joys, know their passions. I don’t want to know or hear these things so that I can use them as collateral to negotiate, I want to know and hear these things so that I genuinely care about these new friends I am meeting. If I don’t care about these things, then I am just a salesman, selling Jesus, doing my best to convince people of something.

Jesus said to love my neighbor, and it seems that one of the most loving things that I can do is to listen, care, and build trust with people, letting them know that I’m for them and about them, not simply wanting to tell them what I need to tell them and then move on.

Building trust leads to the last significant difference which is also the newest one for me: establishing a parish model of church. We’ll talk about that in our next and final installment of “How are you different?”

Read the previous installments: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3