A Different Kind of Christmas

Christmas 2018As we gear up and move into our pre-launch stage for starting a new church, it has kind of been like the calm before the storm. While I’ve been in full gear building relationships, looking for service opportunities in the community, raising funds, and doing all sorts of various things related to the new church start-up, I’ve also stepped back in some areas.

I started playing piano for my dad’s church when I was about 15 years old. This was the first time in 30 years that I had no church responsibilities on Christmas Eve. That meant that my family and I drove to church together on Christmas Eve, that we sat together during the entire service, and that we were able to spend the entirety of Christmas Eve together without me being pulled in one direction or another.

Even before Christmas Eve, the season felt different to me. Usually, I pull out my Christmas music in July and start the planning and preparation. My mind is thinking about Christmas long before the calendar turns to December 1st. But those responsibilities were not on my plate this year. I’ve been focusing on the church plant since September and I knew it was coming before that, so a lot of the responsibilities that I would normally have held had been passed off.

I’ve always struggled to maintain focus, the Advent season is no exception to that. As much as I try to move gently into the season, slowing down and deliberately entering into it, the pace always seems to pick up and before I know it, the season becomes harried and hurried.

While December started out somewhat calm, it quickly turned when there were a number of deaths to people close to me. Funerals followed and before I knew it, I had forgotten what Advent was all about My focus was still on Jesus throughout those funerals, but it moved from his first Advent to his second Advent, when he will come again. The same themes of Advent, hope, love, joy, and peace, were still there, they just seemed to be focused differently.

But that’s life, isn’t it? The same lessons lie beneath the surface, we just apply them a little differently depending on the circumstances.

The one thing that felt lacking for me was wonder. That’s always been the thing that has captivated me most. Christmas has always been a wonder-filled time of the year to me. I’ve always approached it with a childlike wonder, getting caught up in the magic and wonder. Sleep was elusive to me because of the excitement that I had.

But this year was different.

As I stop to think about what it is that made the biggest difference, I think it has to do with expressing my hope and wonder around the season.  I wasn’t leading musical worship. I wasn’t preaching a lot. I was blogging a little. But overall, the usual avenues to express my hope around the Advent season were lacking for me this year. I think that’s what made it feel so different. I didn’t anticipate that.

Christmas and Easter have traditionally been the most well-attended days that churches experience. To not have significantly participated in one of those just felt incomplete.

As incomplete as it may have felt, it was also an incredible gift. There had never been a Christmas Eve since I’ve had children that I haven’t had to do something. My children had only known a hurried father on Christmas Eve, not one who could focus on them.

In general, full-time vocational ministry can feel like way more than a full-time job. It’s hard to contain everything to a nine to five time frame. Tragedies, births, and other significant life events into which pastors are called seldom take place within allotted hours.

To have a breather at the busiest time of the year to gear up for the adventure ahead was truly a gift. Yes, it was a different kind of Christmas for me, but different isn’t a bad thing.

As I gear up for what is ahead, I am certain that there will be a whole lot more different things happening in the months ahead. I am excited to see what happens and just like this Advent season has been a time of waiting for and anticipating the celebration of the birth of Jesus, there will be a lot of waiting and anticipation as we gear up towards launching a new church in the Fall of 2019.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas. I hope that your day has been filled with the things that make this day special. Regardless of whether it’s the same as it’s always been or it feel different this year, I trust that the true meaning won’t get distorted as we celebrate the greatest gift that God could ever give us.

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Breaking Down Barriers

The Branch White Logo 1Last week, I posted about the adventure that my family and I are undertaking in starting a brand new church. While I’ve never done this exact thing before, I’ve grown up in the church my whole life, I’ve worked in a church in some capacity for nearly thirty years, and I’ve been employed by a church for the last fourteen years.

Growing up in the church, it took me quite some time to come to the realization that the church is not a place. While we talked about “going to church” and would ask people “what church they attended,” I didn’t realize until years later that the church was a movement, a mix of people who were charged and empowered by God to accomplish his work on the earth. I’ve heard it said that the church is the only organization that primarily exists for the sake of those who are not yet a part of it.

As I’ve studied and observed over the past decade or so, I’ve seen that there has been a significant shift in the culture of the United States. Half a century ago, the church held an esteemed place within the culture. The church was respected as were members of the clergy. People saw the value and importance of faith and there was not a great need to convince them that the church was important.

Fast forward to today, the church has become a place to avoid. Rather than being known for what they are for and what they promote, the church has become known for all the things that her people oppose. The message of Jesus, if you based it on perception and public image, seems more like one of prohibition and judgment rather than love and freedom (that’s a whole other post in itself). In fact, I try to avoid the inevitable question from new people that I meet of what I do for work as I know that it will be an almost automatic shutdown and wall that immediately exists between me and the other person.

There are barriers everywhere. Some of those barriers are man-made (church-made?) while others seem to have been put up by our culture. Not only are there barriers around the church, but there are barriers to faith and to even exploring who Jesus is, what he did, and what that has to do with us.

This idea of barriers has been on my radar for number of years. The church that I have served for the past five plus years has had vision pillars that have defined our values. The lead pastor and I have talked often about how one of our unspoken values could be seeking to break down barriers to God’s grace. It always resonated with me and has taken a front row seat as I embark on this journey.

Like I said, barriers come in all shapes and sizes. Some of these barriers are constructed by our culture and society. Some are self-constructed. We can hide some of them, keeping them hidden from those around us so that they remain unaware of them. Other barriers are too easily seen by those around us, whether we try to hide them or not.

As I’ve ministered within churches, I’ve always thought it odd that the one place where people should be able to run to avoid barriers is the church. There should not be fear of judgment there. There should not be the need to put on masks and construct additional barriers. I always appreciated the way that Brennan Manning said it, “Jesus loves you as you are, not as you should be.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean we stay as we are, it means that he loves us as we are but once we meet him, we are changed. These barriers that exist, the ones that keep us from seeing, knowing, and embracing the grace of Jesus Christ, they can only be pulled down by him.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a part. Sometimes, in order for things to happen, you need the right atmosphere. Sometimes you need to do your best to clear a path and make space for God to do the work that he has to do. It’s not like we are helping him, we are just getting out of his way and doing our best to tear down the things that have hindered us and others from meeting him.

This is at the heart of my vision for this new church that God has called us to start. I want it to be a place where life and faith meet and where God breaks down barriers to his grace. I want people to be able to meet Jesus there, and once they meet him, I want him to break down the barriers that keep us from seeing him, experiencing him, and knowing him the way that we need to.

Breaking down barriers won’t happen overnight, and it certainly won’t happen with flyby serving and ministry. It means getting down and dirty, being incarnational (to use a theological word). It means that we come alongside people to let them know they are loved as they are. It means that we do our best to build relationships and friendships, pointing people towards Jesus, the very same Jesus that has hopefully made a significant impact in our lives.

It all sounds good on paper, right? But how does this play out practically and realistically in our context?

To be honest, it’s gonna be messy. We won’t get it right all the time. I was reminded by a relative whose been down this road before that learning from the mistakes of others doesn’t necessarily mean that I will avoid my own mistakes. So, I’m entering into it not with the intent of making mistakes, but with the acknowledgement that mistakes will probably be inevitable.

It’s an exciting, exhilarating, and terrifying prospect. We’re looking forward to it knowing that part of the faith required of the Israelites when they entered into the Promised Land was stepping into the floodwaters of the Jordan River before God parted them and made a way for them to pass through.

Here’s to stepping in the floodwaters!

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.

 

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.