Where Life and Faith Meet

The Branch Logo (4000 x 4000)I’m within weeks of launching out into one of the biggest adventures of my life. After being in full-time vocational ministry for the last fourteen and a half years, my wife and I are being sent out of our church to start another church in the next town.

I’ve been on a journey of growing and learning since I started in ministry all those years ago. I came into ministry through the back door, never having been to seminary when I started. Along the way, I got my seminary degree and learned through the School of Hard Knocks. I’ve been fortunate to have had some patient and gracious people along the way who put up with this Enneagram 8’s challenging ways.

I grew up in the church in the home of a pastor. I was at the church every time the doors were open and it really caused me to try to understand just what I was doing there.

My crisis of faith came in my sophomore year of college. I wanted to compartmentalize my life, keeping things separate in their nice and neat containers. But anyone who’s tried that knows that it rarely works and rarely lasts long.

I came out of that time like something from a crucible, a little more refined than I had been before. I had moved from living a secondhand faith to beginning the journey that moved me towards embracing a faith of my own.

In retrospect, that was probably the beginning of the journey that is finally coming to culmination in the weeks ahead. Twenty some odd years of trying to understand just how to live in that place where life and faith meet. How do I embrace my faith and live in the tension that culture and this world can sometimes (often?) provide?

I’ve not always been the easiest person to lead. There has been a restlessness in me since my engineering days (the career I left to come into full-time ministry). But part of the reason was because I’ve always felt this tension, this in between place in which I live as I embrace faith and yet walk and live in a world that can be so hostile towards those who do.

Compartmentalization isn’t really the way faith is supposed to work. Over and over, as I read through the Bible, I don’t see things that would indicate that faith should be relegated to one day a week. If we want to take seriously the words that Jesus said, we can’t put our Bibles on the shelf and dust them off on Sunday mornings or, worse yet, Christmas and Easter. Life and faith meet in the everyday moments that we live.

This is at the heart of this journey that I am on. The community that God has called me to be a part of is one where life and faith meet. It isn’t a place where we put that faith on the shelf for the times when we need it, because if we are honest, we need it every moment of every day.

This past week, I’ve had a firsthand experience of that. This week is a continuation of it. I will be a part of two funerals this week. One of those funerals is for someone who lived a good, long life. The other funeral is for someone who struggled and whose life was cut short by tragedy. But life and faith met in both of these lives.

As I met with families, sat in hospital waiting rooms, drove in my car, I wrestled in prayer, kind of like Jacob did with that angel in the Bible. To say that I’m walking with a limp afterwards would be appropriate. When we wrestle with God, it should change us. But we don’t always come out with satisfactory answers, and I really don’t think we are always supposed to, although we sure would like to have those answers.

In the midst of the collision of life and faith, pat answers don’t cut it. Explaining to a son why his father’s life was snuffed out can’t be done, at least not in my book. The Bible is a guidebook, a story of God’s redeeming love and just how that love intersects. In many ways, it’s a picture of the place where life and faith meet.

This will be an adventure, but more than that, it’s a calling. It’s a calling that’s probably been there for longer than I’d like to admit. It’s a calling that I needed to prepare for, and it’s not just the past five or ten or fifteen years that have been preparing me. It’s a calling that I’ve been being prepared for my whole life. God has been shaping and forming me to embark on this journey.

I’ve rarely met people who feel that they are completely ready and prepared for what is ahead of them. I find myself in the same boat, and that’s the way I think it’s supposed to be. If I felt like I could do this all in my own strength, where would faith be, where would my reliance lie? I wouldn’t be relying on God and I probably wouldn’t be dreaming big enough since I’ve always said that we need to dream dreams that are big enough that only God can accomplish them.

Here is what I do know. I know that the place where life and faith meet is a place that many people seem to be searching for. I know that this place is a place that needs to be defined by values.

So, here are some of the values that I’m discovering in this place.

When life and faith meet, there is unity not uniformity.

When life and faith meet, not every question has an answer.

When life and faith meet, relationships take priority over preferences.

When life and faith meet, Jesus meets us where we are but doesn’t leave us there.

When life and faith meet, we are brought to places of discomfort for the comfort of others.

When life and faith meet, ministry and service are not reserved for the “paid professionals.”

When life and faith meet, it can get messy, so we need grace.

I’ll be sure to let you know what I’m discovering along the way.

 

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Know Your Limits

I was sitting in a local coffee shop the other day and a couple came in looking for breakfast options. The guy behind the counter told them that their breakfast options were limited and then proceeded to tell them about a place down the street that had a more full breakfast menu. The couple thanked him and headed out the door to the little diner down the street.

As I sat there, enthralled with what had just played out before me, I couldn’t help but think about the wisdom in knowing your limitations, in knowing what you can offer and what you can’t. This played out before me in a small little cafe, but I wondered why it doesn’t play out more in churches.

In this church planting journey that I have been on, I’ve thought a lot about churches and what they can and can’t do. I’ve thought a lot about trying to be all things to all people. I’ve wondered what keeps pastors from being secure enough in who they are and who their church is to tell people who are looking for something that they won’t find there that it might not be the place for them.

It’s far more tempting when new people come into your church to do your best to woo them and persuade them that this is the place for them, even if they are looking for something that you can’t give them. It’s far more difficult to be honest and tell them that you know a place that might be a better fit for them. I know that there are pastors out there who actually do that, recommend that people find what they’re looking for down the street, across town, or somewhere else.

In the long run, knowing limitations, both personally and as a church, will help us be more effective. I’ve learned that over the past few years, improving in the area of delegation, not to get out of working but to free myself up to do the things that I do best. Why is it that pastors and churches struggle to do what this coffee shop attendant did? Why do we struggle to know our limitations, admit our limitations, and live into the things at which we excel?

As I embark on this journey, what are the top reasons why I need to follow the example of this coffee shop attendant?

1) It helps to solidify and cast vision

I have a friend and mentor who planted a church years ago. His church has grown to be one of the largest in the area. While it might all seem like it came easily, he can share war stories and show the scars that he’s earned to get to the place where he is at. The one consistent story he has told is of the “vision wranglers” who came to the church with high expectations of what they were looking for and what they thought needed to be offered. Listening to them rather than pursuing the God given vision that you have been given will lead to a distorted vision and a confusing pursuit of that.

If a decision making process is formed to analyze opportunities and offerings within a church to ensure that they are aligned with the vision, it will go a long way in not only preventing burnout but also enforcing, solidifying, and casting that vision. When people ask if you offer something and you answer, “That doesn’t really align with the vision that God has given us,” people might not like it, but they will know what that vision is and how it drives everything that you do as a church.

2) It allows you to focus on your strengths

I could write an entire post on strengths and my own journey in them, but for the sake of this post, I’ll keep it brief. Focusing on strengths is far more fulfilling than focusing on weaknesses. That’s not to say that God doesn’t call us to grow in areas of weakness and rely on him, but I firmly believe that we still need to lean into him even when we are operating in our strengths. Just because something is your strength doesn’t mean you do it perfectly.

Focusing on the things that we are good at helps us be more effective and efficient as individuals. It makes sense that when we take it to a more corporate and communal level to the church that the same should be true. If we know the strengths of our faith community, we should live into them rather than trying to be like the other faith community down the street or across town.

When we try to do the things that we aren’t good at, not only do we become less efficient and effective, we also suffer from an identity crisis. We fail to see who God has created us to be and long to be other than who he has made us. In our pursuit of another identity, we basically tell God that we’re not satisfied with who he made us and we’d much rather be something else.

3) It helps to appreciate the vastness and diversity of the body of Christ

If the body of Christ is as diverse as Paul seems to describe it as in his letters, then maybe we aren’t all meant to do everything. There’s something to be said about a hand doing things that hands were meant to do. Same can be said of feet doing things that feet were meant to do. But an arm was never meant to smell, a leg was never meant to taste, a foot was never mean to see. Likewise, the nose, tongue, and eyes weren’t meant to do the things that arms, legs, and feet do.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging our limitations. In fact, I think that when we acknowledge those limitations, we begin to see just how vast and diverse the body of Christ is and appreciate the gifts of others. While we may still long to be something other than we are, if we humble ourselves, I think God can bring us to the place where we gain more appreciation for the gifts of others, especially when we know how hard it is to try to live into those things.

At the same time, hopefully others come to that same place and begin to appreciate us and the gifts that God has given to us.

This is all fine and good in theory, in fact, someone told me last week that I had a lot of theories. That’s part of the beauty of this journey I find myself on, theories will be tried and tested. They will be proved or disproved. The nice thing is that this is one theory that I’ve seen played out for me by others who have gone before, so theory or not, successful or not in my case, it’s been proven before.

Ultimately, my heart is about being part of God’s kingdom work in this world. That’s not always easy, it’s not without challenges, but I think that it can go a long way towards removing some of those challenges when we begin to live in to who God has made us, both as individuals and communities, and let others live into who they are. If we find ourselves living into that, I think we will begin to see what many of us have prayed for over and over again, God’s kingdom coming and his will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Insider Outsider – A Book Review

insider outsiderIt’s never easy to hear criticism. It’s particularly hard to hear it when it’s something that you aren’t necessarily aware of just what it is that is being criticized. For some who pick up Bryan Loritts’ latest book “Insider Outsider,” it will be difficult to read, but difficult to read doesn’t mean bad and it certainly doesn’t mean unnecessary. In my opinion, if you are a white evangelical in America, Loritts’ book is a must read, no matter how hard it is to push through.

There’s a race issue in our country and from the vantage point of privilege, it’s difficult for those of us who consider ourselves to be white evangelicals to fully grasp just how significant this issue is. Just because we are 150 years from the Civil War and 50 years from the civil rights era does not mean that the steps taken and things achieved by both that war and that era have somehow miraculously vanquished every oppression, misstep, and sin committed against people of color. In fact, for whites to expect that throwing a law at something somehow makes it all better is just plain ignorant of us. In Loritts’ words, fairness doesn’t work, “if the system has been historically unfair to the point where we still feel its vibrations some centuries later.”

Loritts takes aim not at individuals but at the institution that has come to be known as white evangelicalism. For those of us who consider ourselves to be members of that institution, the connect point of the shots that Loritts takes may very well be our guts, and if he’s doing it right and speaking truthfully, that’s exactly where we need to be feeling it.

Loritts tells his own story outlining his experience with white evangelicalism. He talks of being invited in and being cautioned what to say or not to say. He shares of his experience of people responding to him differently depending on the context. He honestly describes the countless knocks that he’s gotten from both sides of the line, a line that in writing this book, I think Loritts is trying to eliminate.

In order for us to really achieve diversity in the Church, we need to be willing to submit ourselves to our black brothers and sisters and to make sacrifices in areas of power that have served us well. We can no longer invite our black brothers and sisters to come along with us and then conveniently throw them only the “scraps” from our table. Loritts writes, “Power and position are always synonymous. A powerless position is a token.” If we really want to seek out racial reconciliation, we need to invite our brothers and sisters to the table and give them an equal seat at that table.

“Insider Outsider” is an attempt by Loritts to dismantle not only the system that has been in place for centuries, but also an attempt to dismantle a system that he has found himself to be part of in some way, shape, or form over his years growing and learning as a pastor. And dismantle it will, if it is read with humility and a desire to listen and learn. Apart from those things, this book will fall on deaf ears and will only inflame those who are seeking to have their own viewpoints coddled and reinforced.

This isn’t an easy book to read, but it’s necessary for those of us who have been complicit to an issue which has not been completely resolved by the principalities and powers of our country. In fact, for any of us to legitimately believe that the issue is simply a political issue is for us to be guilty of the same idolatry that has been evident among white evangelical voters at the voting booth over the past few years.

As Loritts writes, “Love costs.” Anything that is worth it requires sacrifice, and even deep friendships, “have had to liquidate from their relational accounts the currency of love.” While we read in the Bible that love covers over a multitude of sins, we need to understand that love without actions supporting it is simply a clanging gong or banging cymbal.

“Insider Outsider” is a book that I would highly recommend to the right people. If the posture to which someone comes to this book is entitlement and defensiveness, all that they will leave with is disappointment and even anger. If the posture to which someone comes to this book is humility and the desire to be more Christlike, particularly in the area of relationships with our black brothers and sisters, then this book may be a dismantling of sorts. It may be painful, but what growth ever occurs without a significant amount of pain?

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

Pressing On, Pressing In

So, I’m learning a ton about myself, a ton about faith, and just a ton in general. There have been multiple times in my life when I’ve felt like I’m drinking from the firehose, this season is certainly one of them.

For anyone who has been following my story, my family and I are launching out and planting a church in the next year. It’s something that’s been on our heart since we left Asheville, North Carolina almost eleven years ago.

There are a number of reasons why it’s taken us this long to do it. To be honest, I think that God had a lot of work that he needed to do in me before I was ready to launch out. And honestly, I still don’t know how ready I am, which is probably a good thing. If I felt completely ready and capable, I would probably be relying on my own strength rather than the strength that God gives me.

Since we made our announcement about the plant, I’ve gone through all kinds of waves of emotion. There have been moments of joy, moments of sorrow, moments of doubt, moments of confidence. One thing that is consistent is my daily realization that I cannot do this alone. Not only as an individual, but also not without God’s help in all of this.

I was educated as an engineer. Two degrees. Some people are tired of hearing me say that, but I bring it up because engineers pride themselves in having the answers. In fact, I always prided myself on having the answers to questions that still hadn’t been asked. But where we are right now, this reliance on things that we can’t see, it’s totally out of my norm, I just don’t usually operate this way. I want answers. I want control. I’m not finding a lot of either right now, and I think I’m okay with that.

But this is a different season. I’m trying my best to press on and to press in. I am doing my best to trust and to have faith. I don’t have all the money that I need for the upcoming year. I don’t have all the particulars of what this church that we are starting will look like. I don’t even know for sure where it is that we will be meeting. And you know what? I’m actually okay with all that, and I think that it’s perfectly acceptable.

It’s actually a big step for me to be where I am and I didn’t get here on my own. Some may think I am being reckless. Some may think I’m hanging on to outdated beliefs. I have seen too much in my life, both good and bad, to not believe.

So, we’re pushing on and I am excited to see what God will do. While I may have some unique strengths and gifts, I know that none of this can happen without God. Like Moses in the wilderness, I stand where I am saying, “If you do not go with us, we will not go from this place.” That’s my sentiment. Exactly.

I’ll keep updating here. I’ll keep hanging on to the faith that I have. After all, faith is the assurance of the things that we hope for, the things that we can’t see. Here’s hoping and here’s faithing!!

Here we go!

ashlandFor those people who know me, being in full-time vocational ministry is a second career for me. Prior to becoming a pastor, I was an engineer, moving up the ranks within the company, getting licensed, getting trained, becoming a project manager. I kept doing what I was supposed to do and found that it was very unfulfilling for me.

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the work. It wasn’t that engineering was a bad field. It was really that it wasn’t what I was made to do. I’ve met lots of people who find fulfillment in the career that they were led to right out of college. I was not one of them.

Since my wife and I stepped away from all that was familiar to us back in the Spring of 2004, God has continued to do a work in me. Every few years, I can feel God stirring within me again. I ask myself a similar question repeatedly about whether I have begun to coast along, check the box, or phone it in. I’ve come to realize that life is far too short to do any of those things.

Losing both of your parents before you turn forty has a way of making you rethink things. I had two wonderful parents who were far from perfect but who taught me a ton about what it means to have faith and to live your life allowing that faith to inform who you are and how you live. While my father may have become a little more comfortable than he should have in some ways, he continued to be an example to me of living out his faith in a real and meaningful way.

Over the last year or so, my wife and I have felt the stirring again. It hasn’t been because of a frustration so much as just a stirring within us for something different.

I had gone to a conference which focused on racial reconciliation a little more than a year ago. As I sat and drank from the firehose, I realized just what a privileged life I had lived. I committed to knowing and learning more to see what I could do to be a part of seeing God’s diverse and multi-cultural kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

I connected with a pastor’s racial reconciliation group. I entered into conversations with others about my own complicity in the racial tensions that swirl around our country. I read book after book to try to gain a better understanding of where we are and just how I can get “woke” and help others get there as well.

I realized early on as a pastor that I could not be the guy who got up on a Sunday to preach a sermon that I hadn’t begun to live out myself. Every time that I stood in front of a congregation to preach, God had already been working me over to begin to embrace and try to live out what I was saying. As hard as I tried to avoid it, God continued to pull me back and stir my heart.

Not too long into our time in Virginia, I was introduced to a place called Ashland. It had hit the national media years ago when the D.C. sniper had ventured all the way down there to claim one of his victims in the parking lot of a Ponderosa located within Ashland.

Ashland is a different kind of town. Part Mayberry and yet also feeling like a small city, the down town area has a quaint and winsome feel to it. You take a stroll through the streets looking in the shop windows as the trains run right through the center of town. There’s no protection from the train, no fences to keep you away. In some ways, it feels like Cheers, it could easily be a place where everyone knows your name.

Randolph-Macon College is located towards the center of town, a small liberal arts college with more than 1400 students. Interstate 95 runs through Ashland, drawing travelers and drifters. The population is more mixed than some of its neighbors with approximately 70% of the population being white, 17% being African-American, 4% being Hispanic, and the rest being a mix of other nationalities. Ashland is a town that truly contains both those who have a lot and those who have next to nothing.

As the church that I have been a part of has made efforts to reach out in the Ashland community over the years, we gained little traction. As God continued to break my heart for the people of Ashland, I prayed and pondered over why our efforts seemed to remain mostly fruitless. I spoke with other pastors and people who had reach out to glean from their learnings and even from their mistakes.

The word that rang in my head through all my ponderings and prayers was, “incarnation.”

We usually hear the word at Christmastime as we speak of God putting on flesh and blood and stepping into time and space to become one of us. God didn’t do that because he was lonely or bored, he did it because this was his perfect plan. The way that God would achieve his perfect plan of redemption was to come and live among us, to move into the neighborhood and show God to the world.

I couldn’t help but think that God’s perfect plan was not only for his redemptive purposes but also to model to us just how we are to live. Just as Christ showed the Father to the world, so the Church is to show Christ to the world by living incarnationally. The Church is the bride of Christ and God’s plan to reach the world involves a tainted and imperfect bride who is daily being redeemed.

After months of wondering and worrying about next steps for my family, God was leading me to a place where he was calling me to step out in faith. The circumstances surrounding it all seemed to have made it nearly impossible to deny and impossible to walk away from what God had been setting up and doing. God was calling us to step out of the boat to do something different. He was calling us to live incarnationally by focusing on a community.

That’s where we are, at a place of faith and trust. While I’ve watched and encouraged others who have planted churches before, I’ve never done it myself. I am generally a quick study, but I’m also not afraid to make mistakes along the way. We’re stepping out to see what God will do.

Some have asked whether our church is splitting. That’s not the case at all. My lead pastor and I have spent countless hours praying and crying and talking about what God is doing. We are multiplying for the sake of God’s kingdom work. We are allowing God to do something different in us and through us.

For a recovering engineer, answers are important to have, but they aren’t coming as fast as I would like them. We are slowly moving to the place where they come into view. We don’t know where we will meet. We don’t know exactly when we will start to meet. We don’t know exactly how this will all be funded. But we trust that God has truly called us to this work and in trusting him, we trust that he will provide all that we need to accomplish what he has called us to do.

It will be different, like nothing I have done before. This needs to be a place that is for Ashland because God loves Ashland. I am terrifyingly excited about what lies ahead. I’ve said before that we need to dream dreams that are big enough that only God can accomplish them, I’m pretty sure that this is just the kind of dream that I’ve been talking about.

High Impact Teams – A Book Review

high impact teamsThere were two feelings that I had as I read through “High Impact Teams” by Lance Witt. The first one was as if I were drinking from a firehose. You know the feeling, feeling completely inundated with information, good information, that you didn’t know just how you could sustain it or where you would put it all. The other was the sense of understanding that comes when the conclusions that someone else has come to seem to align with conclusions that you have come to on your own.

“High Impact Teams” could very well have been subtitled, “A handbook for building and sustaining healthy teams.” The process of building and maintaining healthy teams in any organization is a challenge, but it seems that the effort within churches may be an even bigger struggle. In the business world, pushing forward can happen with little effort given to the feelings for the individual. Not always the most effective or intelligent approach, but it happens nonetheless.

Within the church, efforts to move forward can often be encumbered by excuses to not hurt people’s feelings or to give them the benefit of the doubt with second chances or third chances or beyond. But Lance Witt talks about having to say, “No” to people and programs. He talks of identity and finding it not in the programs and activities that we build, but in Christ.

Through eight separate sections of the book, Witt tackles practical and difficult topics in order to build and maintain healthy teams. He talks of emotional health and the need to be balanced in who we are in Christ to let our teams move towards a similar place. He talks of the relationships with people and the need to prioritize them before the goals that we are trying to achieve. He talks of conflict and just how important it is to hit it head on rather than walking around it and doing everything in our power to avoid it.

Over and over again, I found myself pulling out my yellow highlighter to whole sections of this book. As Witt spoke of organizational DNA and the things that both hinder and help it, I was taking mental notes. He shares with wit and wisdom his own experiences, humbly admitting the times in his life when he didn’t get it right as well. There may be times when his gleanings seem more like wisdom from the business world, but the organization of church can gain insights from those kinds of experience.

“High Impact Teams” will find a place on my bookshelf where I can reach for it and delve into the insights again and again. It’s a helpful handbook for those who are truly seeking to create a healthy environment where God can carry out his work. It’s not even necessary to read this book from front to back. I expect that everyone leading a team can benefit from at least one of the sections in this book, so even just reading the individual sections, this is going to be an asset to the bookshelf of any leader inside and even outside of the church.

(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.)

The Power of Vision – A Book Review

power of visionIf you have spent any time in an organization and have paid attention during that time, you can probably identify what happens when that organization is lacking vision. While it may not be evident at first that vision, or a lack thereof, is the specific problem, eventually, you will see the signs and know that something is wrong. The problem could very well be a vision problem.

George Barna has had a wealth of experience researching churches. His company, the Barna Group, has published significant amounts of data that show the trends in the culture today. He has shared those insights in the books that he has written. His book “The Power of Vision” is an exploration in the art, the process, the myths, and the benefits of vision.

Barna writes, “Although they are good people and have been called to ministry, most senior pastors do not have an understanding of God’s vision for the ministries they are trying to lead – and, consequently, most churches have little impact in their communities or in the lives of their congregants.” To the best of my knowledge, there is no required seminary class that teaches vision. Although we can clearly see evidence of God giving his vision to his people throughout the pages of the Bible, Barna makes it clear in his book that the process of gaining and discerning vision takes time. It cannot be entered into lightly or hastily.

Many churches will mistake mission and vision. Barna’s definition of vision is, “foresight with insight based on hindsight.” Vision is forward thinking, it concentrates on the future.

Barna does not belabor his description and insights about vision, the main portion of the book is only a little over one hundred and forty pages. But within those pages, Barna packs an incredible amount of information, not meant to confuse or confound but rather to bring clarity and insight to those who are truly seeking God’s vision for their church.

Too many churches get so caught up in returning to their glory days or maintaining the things that once made them great. Barna says, “We deplete the past to enjoy the present at the expense of the future.” While there is a place for looking backwards at where we have been in the process of vision, it needs to be coupled with looking ahead and moving there as well.

Vision will engage people if it’s the right vision and if it is communicated properly, clearly, and effectively. Barna says that communicating vision needs to be simple and if we are unable to communicate our vision, then it really doesn’t matter that we even have a vision. Without vision, people will become frustrated and will eventually leave. Vision will allow a church to filter opportunities and say no to those that will dissipate your resources.

“The Power of Vision” was a breath of fresh air. In a world where there is little to no loyalty among people, in which consumer preferences take precedence over relationships, Barna offers vision as a means by which the church can focus people towards something that matters. While a mission statement is a broad description of who you wish to reach and what you hope to accomplish, vision puts feet to the mission. Mission is philosophic while vision is strategic.

I cannot recommend this book more highly. Anyone who is in ministry or even who is part of a church and is seeking to allow God to use them needs to read this book. Barna speaks directly and honestly here. Considering his experience and the amount of churches his organization has worked with and observed, I would be hard pressed to believe that there is anything less than value in his insights.

(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.)

The Plague of Complacency

objects in the mirrorBack in my engineering days, I went back to grad school and got a master’s degree in environmental engineering. Among the various classes that I took for my degree was an environmental law degree. I had always fancied myself a hack in the area of law and imagined that if I hadn’t taken the career path that I had, I may very well have ended up in the law profession.

I don’t remember a whole lot about the class other than the fact that we talked about a mindset and way of thinking that was prevalent among people called “Not In My Backyard.” We abbreviated it NIMBY and I remember evoking NIMBY often for years to come as I saw the trend play out in land development and beyond.

The basic premise is that people generally don’t care about things until they directly impact or affect them. Something tragic, difficult, or unjust may be happening to other people in other places of the world, but until it directly impacts us, we can have a tendency to turn a blind eye and even move towards complacency.

To be honest, I’ve seen this played out in my own life and in the life of others in my peer group and older. We can be given warnings and cautions but we continue to act like I did while in my 20s, as if I were ten feet tall and bulletproof. We think we are invincible and that nothing can touch us and then after countless times of ignoring warnings, when the inevitable takes place, our jaws drop and with a dumbfounded look on our faces, we exclaim, “How did this happen?”

It’s the parent who constantly lets their child get away with more and more until the child finally pushes the envelope and injures himself or someone else. It’s the individual who continues to think that “that can’t happen to me” and tests the boundaries until the very thing that could “never happen” to her ends up happening worse than she could have imagined.

Complacency is a plague, but unlike the plagues of history where people were warned and mostly understood the imminent dangers, the plague of complacency is more subtle and the its lethalness is undermined and diminished. After all, it certainly can’t happen to me.

The worst part about complacency is that I just don’t know how to fight it. In our culture, in our part of the world, complacency doesn’t really look like complacency, and just like so many other socially accepted behaviors, we not only excuse it away but we sweep it under the rug, ignoring it, justifying it, or condoning it. When we finally realize it for what it is, the damage has been done and we pick up the pieces, wondering just how to put them together again.

Complacency isn’t something new. John the Revelator wrote to the churches in the Book of Revelation and talked about complacency, or being lukewarm. Be hot or cold, but don’t be somewhere in between. Spit is lukewarm and none of like that swirling around our mouths too much. We spit it out.

The only thing to do with complacency is to deal with my own. Break it up. Destroy it. Don’t promote it. Don’t condone it. Call it for what it is and then move on from there.

The problem with complacency within the church is that we can often mask it by doing a lot of things, often a lot of good things. We meet, we plan, we execute plans, but complacency is luring beneath the surface. Instead of evoking the power that has been given to us by the ever present Holy Spirit, we conjure everything up in our own strength and power, with seeming success.

Years ago, in ministry, I heard about an Asian pastor who was critical of the western church. In seeing just how much was accomplished, he exclaimed, “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish without the Holy Spirit.” That wasn’t a compliment.

I don’t know how to fight complacency, so I’ll do my best to avoid it myself. But I can’t do it on my own. I want to plan, but I don’t want to plan first and pray later. I want to pray before I plan. I want to act, not of duty and responsibility, but out of the beating of my heart which wants to love as Jesus loves.

Complacency may seem innocuous when it’s not in our backyard, but I think it’s kind of like the passenger side mirror on cars, objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear.

Ain’t Going Out Like That

abandoned-churchI’ve been asked before whether I hate Christians, which is kind of a funny question to be asked when you’re a pastor. Digging deeper down, I think the genesis of the question was because I have a tendency to speak my mind with a combination of my New York and New England roots.

Growing up in the church, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of the local church. I’ve seen people who claim the love of Christ but rarely show it. I’ve seen people who have been forgiven for much be stingy in offering forgiveness to others. I’ve seen the hypocrisy that flows freely behind closed doors, a stark contrast from the public face that some wear. And, if I’m totally honest, I’ve probably seen all of these and more in the mirror as much as I’ve seen it in other people.

The place of the local church in society has changed dramatically over the last fifty or sixty years. Once upon a time, the local church, regardless of denomination, was afforded a place of respect within our culture, but things have changed. People have run from God. They generally want him to care when their lives are a mess, even criticizing him and asking where he is in the midst of trials and difficulties. At the same time, when things are going well, they have no issue taking credit for how they’ve made themselves who they are and how far they’ve advance their own causes, giving no credit to God for the blessings they’ve received.

Within the church, it seems that many of us have been licking our wounds and lamenting this fall from grace for the church. How did we get here? Why did we get here? Why can’t things be the way that they used to be? Instead of adapting to this new normal, we’ve allowed panic and fear to drive us to find ways to regain the church’s place in society, mostly by thinking (like Israel) that politics is the way to make that happen, especially if we can just get the “king” (or president) to lead us to glory.

But the place of Christians in our society is not much different than the place of Christians in many of the societies where Paul planted churches in the first century. Corinth. Ephesus. Rome. Colossae. The Roman empire was not a “Christian” culture. Regardless of Constantine’s move centuries later (which I believe instilled a false sense of security into the Church universal), Roman culture was pagan.

Fifty years ago, the place that the church occupied within culture and society in America fostered an “if you build it, they will come” mentality. I call it the “Field of Dreams” mentality. People respected the church and pastors enough that just being there and offering opportunities was enough. You could draw people in with your programs if you made them attractive enough. Even if you made no concerted efforts to reach out to your community, people would inevitably find their way back to the church, right?

But those days are gone, and I can’t say that I lament them at all. As difficult as life can become without certain things at times, using crutches can give us a false sense of security that also removes our reliance on the muscles that we were supposed to be leaning on. But now that the crutches of false security have been removed, we need some major physical therapy in the church to begin to strengthen those muscles that we haven’t been using for so long.

Primarily, those are the muscles of outreach and evangelism. Because those things were so programmatic back in the day, we are dumbfounded in the church to realize that there is no magic formula or secret sauce that allows us to bring people into the church in droves.

Instead, it takes one conversation at a time, one relationship at a time, over a long period of time. It take intentional investment, not a one-time event that we can throw money at in hopes that it will somehow translate into a growth boom in the local church.

But, we just ain’t going out like that. Churches continue to struggle to do this.

I think there are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is our diminished ability to connect and relate well to other people. Our culture will generally respond to crisis, but when the crisis is gone, where do we go? Where do the relationships go?

I’ve seen some messy situations both inside and outside of the church. I’ve only seen few of those engaged by some very brave people who understand the messiness into which they are venturing. It’s not easy. There will be hurt. There will be pain. There will be joy. There will be celebration. There will be life.

Somehow, the Church needs to figure out a way to relate well to the world once again. It’s not done with picket signs and boycotts, it’s done through relationships, especially relationships with those we would consider to be the “other,” people who don’t look like us, act like us, or even think like us. Jesus’ instructions about the greatest commandment were twofold: love God, love your neighbor.

Unfortunately, we’ve diminished our definition of the word “neighbor.” Instead of defining the word from Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, anyone who comes across our path, those who are like us or not, we’ve limited it to those who we enjoy spending time with or who we can tolerate. I can tell you, Samaritans and Jews weren’t particularly chummy back in the day, yet that was the definition that Jesus gave of showing love to a neighbor.

This is a big ship to turn, one that takes time and patience. I’m running out of both. I’ve never been a patient person and when I feel urgency, my patience becomes even more limited.

Ultimately, reaching out to a world in need of hope and in need of a Savior can’t be about building a Christian empire or nation, it needs to be about building a kingdom. But this kingdom isn’t of this world and it certainly doesn’t have values that look like the values of this world either. When we lose sight of what we’re building, we become like those inhabitants of Babel, building a tower for our own glory rather than the glory of God.

I’m on this journey, learning more every day, becoming a little bit more willing to take risks every day. I want to see the Church succeed in her mission, but it’s going to take some momentum and synergy to move things forward. I’m hoping I find some others who are willing to take this ride with me, not for our sake or even the sake of our local church, but for the sake of a King and Kingdom that will reign forever.

Activate – A Book Review

activateOne thing I can say for certain about Nelson Searcy and the Journey Church is that they are incredibly generous in their distribution of the wealth of information that they have gained in becoming a church that reaches a lot of people. Having read other books by Searcy in the past, I was anxious to see what he had to say about small groups and the role that they play in the local church.

On page 27, I knew I was going to like their insights when he shared that, “Jesus designed the church to be an outwardly focused organism.” This plays out of Searcy’s first big idea, “Think from the outside in, not from the inside out.” He starts his discussion on small groups pointing to the fact that internally focused small groups result in stagnancy.

The material in the book is set up in a very logical and helpful way. The book is divided into two parts: the Activate Mindset and the Activate System. Searcy explains the mindset and paradigm shifts that have resulted in the Activate System by walking through twelve big ideas. Each big idea is set up by first identifying what “conventional wisdom” has said and then offering “Reality.” Then each chapter unpacks that, explaining what has led the Journey Church to adopt the methodology and mindset that they have regarding small group ministry.

The second half of the book, The Activate System, breaks down the approach of Journey Church into the four areas that they use to frame up and approach small groups. They label these the Four Fs: Focus, Form, Fill, and Facilitate. Part 2 of the book is divided into these four areas and Searcy walks through each area, giving clear guidelines and instruction on how they go about practically carrying out the system that has seemed to have been successful to the Journey Church.

While there may be times that the reader considers the approach that Searcy lays out and questions its validity in their own context, Searcy has an awareness of this. He fully admits that there may be certain factors in certain contexts which limit the application of some of the methods outlined in this book. He gives the reader full permission to abandon those when they don’t fit.

I found myself reading through “Activate” and wondering whether the ideas were valid. The discomfort that I felt at times was mostly a result of the paradigm shift that Searcy talks of in the book. Many of the ideas and methods that they have adopted directly oppose some of the familiar and adopted practices that I have seen in many churches who have embraced small group ministry as a means for connection and growth. My bristling at some of these methods doesn’t make them wrong, and I think that the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Searcy talks about the experience that they have had with these methods.

Searcy is also quick to point out that they have had to make course corrections along the way. They didn’t get it right out of the gate. There were failures and wrong assumptions that they’ve adjusted as they’ve refined the process more and more with every passing iteration of offering small groups.

Whether you’ve read a lot of resources on small group ministry or are just getting started, Searcy’s insights and approaches are at least worth a perusal. You may open the book and disagree with everything he lays out, but have an open mind, you may find that despite your disagreement, the things he says actually make a lot of sense when you apply them.

As I mentioned, I’ve read multiple books by Searcy. In being forthcoming with a wealth of information regarding how they do things at the Journey Church, he constantly points people to a website where readers can find additional information. He does the same thing with other books that he has written. On this website (and others connected with other books he’s written) there are some resources available, but the resources hardly seem to be as wonderful as Searcy makes them out to be in the book. Instead, the website seems to be more about selling additional resources for church leaders to use. I understand the premise and reason for this, but an honest depiction of them in the book would result in a much more realistic expectation by the reader once they get there.

Overall, I’ve appreciated most of what Searcy has shared in his books. He doesn’t feel arrogant to me in his sharing, he feels genuinely concerned to help others as they travel on similar paths in ministry. “Activate” is laid out in such a helpful way that a reader could easily move through the various sections, reading only the sections that seem to be most beneficial and useful. Even after a complete read of the book, the contents are extremely helpful to find the specific focus areas that he discusses.

(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.)