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 Some may think I’m hanging on to outdated beliefs.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!!

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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.)

Be Who You Are

I was listening to a podcast a few weeks ago by the organization from whom I received my StrengthsFinders training. The main topic of discussion was team values.

As the hosts talked, I felt myself nodding my head over and over again like a bobblehead doll as they talked about looking at their organization and having this sneaky suspicion deep inside that what they said were and what they really were did not agree. The head of the organization said that as they looked at their values, at least their stated values, they began to realize that that was all that they were, stated values. They weren’t bad or wrong, but they weren’t who they really were. Deep inside he could tell that there was a discrepancy and the stated values did not necessarily represent reality.

In other words, the things that they said they valued were not necessarily the things that they really valued. What they said they valued may have represented the best of intentions, what they wished that they were, but they were not reality and it was that which had caused the unsettled feeling within the head of the organization. It evoked a discussion about what the organization valued based on observation rather than desire or intentions.

It resonated with me because I can relate. There are times that I may claim one thing or another about myself, but those claims are false, not representing reality. Instead of claiming what is real, I sometimes claim what I WISH to be real. For instance, someone may say that they are charitable, giving when not asked, being generous always, and rarely being selfish in what they have, but the reality may be that they are patronizing at best, reluctantly giving when asked, self-serving at worst.

I don’t suspect that I am the only one who deals with this. If we are all honest, I wonder how many of us would say that the values we claim are actual reality. Is there good alignment between what we say we are and what we wish we were?

Within the church, I feel like this is a major point to ponder. Churches may put forth their vision and mission statements, they may tote values that align with the teachings of Jesus, but how many times are the values that are trumpeted the actual values that are exhibited? Are we being consistent in our language or are we simply saying that we are something that we are not?

It lends itself to a thorough questioning and soul searching if we truly want to get to the heart of this issue. The church aligns itself with the teachings of Jesus, in theory, but I think that there are times when we are selective about to which teachings of Jesus we adhere, often casting out the difficult or problematic ones. If we lack consistency between what we say we are and how we actually behave, then we are really guilty of false advertising, saying we hold to the teachings of Jesus but only embracing them in theory rather than in practice.

I fully understand that a vision is something to which we aspire. We set up visions in order that we would progress towards them, promoting forward movement towards something. A vision is something that gives us a picture of the future, of what could be. But what happens when our pursuit of vision seems endless? Is that the purpose?

As followers of Christ, we are constantly being reformed and transformed, at least we should be. We will not reach full perfection or Christlikeness (to use a recurrent term) until we meet Jesus face to face. So where do we set our vision? Should vision be constantly changing?

I am growing weary of the self-realization that what I say I am ends up being more like what I wish I were than what I really am. The journey of self-awareness will lead us to this reality if things are off. My hope and prayer is that I will constantly be asking myself how aligned I am with what I say I am and what I really am. If I can’t get this right myself, I certainly can’t expect those whom I lead to follow suit.

 

A Frank Conversation About Sex

sex and jesus isomHistorically, the church has been fairly good about clearly defining and even broadcasting the things that she is against. Boycotts. Picketing. Writing letters. If you would ask the average person what it is that the church is against, you would most likely get a laundry list of items repeated back to you.

But how about the things that the church is for? Has the church done a good job of framing up the things that are beneficial? Has the church put such an overemphasis on the prohibitions that there hasn’t been any room (or time) to spend on the things that should be encouraged?

Mo Isom believes that the church has dropped the ball in clearly having conversations about the “whys” of sex because the church has been so focused on the “whats” of sex. In her latest book, “Sex, Jesus, and the Conversations the Church Forgot,” Isom shares her own background and experience and talks about the many things that she has learned regarding sex since having gone astray and making choices that altered her journey.

There were multiple times in this book that I wondered how many other readers might blush at the level of candidness with which Isom shares. She pulls no punches at not only describing her experiences but also explaining what she wished that she knew. She describes her struggle with pornography and how the things that we see shape our view of sexuality and sexual expression. She describes how she held her virginity high up as a banner all the while treading as dangerously close as she could to doing everything but giving it up, realizing and admitting her own hypocrisy.

Isom shares of her year of a sexual fast, a year where she focused on her relationship with Christ and her journey towards finding fulfillment in him rather than in the experiences that she was having or the way that she would feel through those experiences. And in that year, she met her husband and began the journey with him. She shares freely even about the struggles that she and her husband experienced and how her tainted past negatively impacted their own sexual encounters even within the boundaries of marriage.

My experience of a lack of good conversations within the church about sex was very similar to Isom’s experience. I was raised with such prohibitions and the simple statement that God wants us to remain virgins until we are married. What was lacking was a deeper conversation about just how God sees marriage and this sacred act that should be reserved for marriage. God’s holiness and desire for our own purity was not emphasized nearly as much as our own need to remain chaste simply because.

“Sex, Jesus, and the Conversations the Church Forgot” is a book that I wish had been written when I was much younger. Isom’s unabashed sharing may be shocking (she is not graphic or explicit in what she shares) to some, but compared to the world in which the youth of today live, it’s a walk in the park. Our society is emphasizing sexual encounters divorced from emotional attachments. Isom explains all the reasons why she believes that is impossible and even shares just how detrimental those encounters will be to the future of everyone who enters into them.

If you have children who are moving towards becoming teenagers or if you work with teenagers or even if you just care about teenagers, this book is worth picking up, if for no other reason than to get a glimpse into the real struggles that exist. Isom’s approach and all that she shares just may encourage someone who has been barraged with prohibitions to understand the rationale and reasoning to view sex much more sacredly than they ever had before.

(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.)

Fusion – A Book Review

fusionIn the introduction of “Fusion,” Steve Stroope, senior pastor of Lake Pointe Church, writes that Nelson Searcy is a practitioner, not just a theorist. He also says, “unless God is involved and his Spirit is blowing across our lives, no amount of structure in the church will produce spiritual growth.” So, whether or not you agree with anything else that is contained within this book, it’s hard to be uber critical of Searcy for two reasons: he practices what he preaches and his sole desire is to point people to Jesus. Both of those reasons are evident throughout this book.

As I was reading this book, every time I would find myself doubting Searcy’s methods and even questioning some of his motives, he would continue to point his readers to the fact that his primary desire isn’t to grow his church but to point people to a relationship with Jesus Christ. While it can sometimes feel as if the method used by Searcy’s Journey Church is too calculated and idealistic, everything he shares comes from what they have practiced, all of which has been found effective.

So much of what is shared within “Fusion” has to do with intentionality and purpose. If you don’t have a plan in place to draw and keep visitors, then you shouldn’t be surprised when first time visitors quickly turn into last time visitors as well. Searcy even challenges his readers that it is our responsibility as followers of Christ to show hospitality to everyone that God brings us.

Some people may grow uncomfortable with treating the church like a business, but Searcy says that businesses actually do a better job than churches of showing hospitality. Searcy writes that visitors will decide within the first seven minutes of their visit whether or not they will give your church a second chance.

Everything that is written here is practical and able to be practiced. Intentionality and strategy seem to be the name of the game as Searcy freely shares many resources that are used by his church. There is an appendix including many of the tools and resources that Searcy’s church uses. He points the reader towards a website where they can gain access to additional resources. Searcy seems determined for people to succeed at assimilating people into their churches.

It could be easy for someone in Searcy’s position to come across as arrogant or pompous, but I never got that sense from him in this book. He writes as someone who genuinely wants to share with others the success that he has experienced. I never felt like there was anything other than a humble tone from Searcy in this book, which is what makes it that much more compelling, at least to me. It’s hard not to read this book and feel encouraged, invigorated, and ready to go and tackle the awesome task and responsibility of assimilating visitors into the life and service of your church.

If you and your church have struggled to get visitors to stick and stay or even if you just want to find some additional tested and tried methods of making this happen, “Fusion” is worth your time. I would be very surprised if someone who really wants to implement a system of assimilation into their church didn’t find this book incredibly helpful.

(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.)