Giving In Faith

you of little faith

If you were to ask any pastor the topics that are the most uncomfortable for them to address and preach on, I would be hard pressed to believe that money and giving would not fall in the top five. Despite the discomfort that pastors might have in addressing these subjects, Jesus seemed to have no problem whatsoever addressing these issues. After all, he said in Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

People in the United States give an average of 3 percent to charitable causes annually. If you look at Christians within the church, the same number applies. Yet, there are numerous references in the Bible for people to be giving back at least ten percent to God. Why the disparity?

Ryan Thomas has written a provocative book meant to challenge believers to give not charitably or out of obligation but out of faith. Rather than giving because it is commanded or because of an altruistic spirit, Thomas urges believers to give in faith with the expectation that God will give back.

Thomas defines a faith-based giver as one whom, “gives to God, and only to God, and not because of how the money will be used.” He tells his own story, sharing of how he and his wife gave sacrificially and how God returned the blessing to them. He shares that giving to God should be driven by the rewards that we know we will receive in giving. In fact, he claims, the idea of giving to receive a reward is seen throughout the Bible and he shares the various places where we see this.

After sharing his own story, Thomas lays out the four rewards that should come to us when we give in faith. We give in faith because it will strengthen our faith, it will free us from materialism, we will be provided for, and we will receive treasure in heaven. He spends time within the book supporting these rewards and how the Bible supports them as well.

When I picked up “You of Little Faith,” I was incredibly skeptical of the message that it seemed to be promoting. It smelled of a “health and wealth” gospel, a gospel that can often treat God like a genie in a bottle, ready to accommodate our every request and desire. As I read from the author’s own experience, there were certainly times that I squirmed, feeling uncomfortable with what he was sharing. But I began to ask myself whether my discomfort was because what he was sharing was wrong or because it was different from everything that had been traditionally taught about giving.

As I made my way through the book, I couldn’t help but see parallels between what the author was sharing and my own experience in life. Growing up the son of a pastor, I heard stories from my parents of how God had provided for them in the midst of very difficult times. As a pastor myself, I have experienced those same times, times when I wondered how on earth we could keep pressing forward as a family, only to have God show up in a powerful and mighty way, unexpected and miraculous.

While there are certain things within “You of Little Faith” that I don’t necessarily agree with, the overall message of the book was a challenge to me to step out further in faith, giving more than was rational in expectation of just how God would show his faithfulness in sacrifice.

Among the verses that Thomas shares within the book is Malachi 3:10, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” It’s a verse that most church-going people have heard around the matter of giving, but I wonder how many have written it off as irrelevant because of its location in the Old Testament.

If you want to be challenged to the point of wrestling and discomfort, you should read this book. While you might not agree with everything that the author shares and writes, you may be stretched in your faith, causing you to step out and test whether what he poses is true. If nothing else, it may cause your faith to grow in a way that you weren’t expecting.

(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.)

 

Raising Resilient Disciples

faith for exilesIf you spend any time at all around the church and pay any attention to what’s going on in the western church, you know that there is a trend of younger generations leaving the church. Not only are children not being raised in the church but those children who have been raised in the church are going off to college, leaving church and sometimes faith behind.

Over the years, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, one of America’s leading research companies, has written much based upon the research that his organization has done. Together with Mark Matlock, he seeks to tackle this topic head on that research in his latest book, “Faith For Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon.”

The authors pull no punches in speaking truth. I the introduction, they write that it is their contention, “that today’s society is especially and insidiously faith repellent.” While the history of God’s people has shown that they can resiliently walk our their faith, they also contend that the kind of resilient faith that lasts and allows one to walk through difficulties, trials, and antagonistic culture is tougher to grow today.

While that might seem like bad news for some, the authors speak of how faith can grow deeper and stronger in unsettled times and dark places. The current climate may cause some to head for the hills and hide, but the authors are offering this book as a challenge that resilient faith can be grown, it just takes intentionality and hard work.

The authors speak of the importance of culture and its influence. They use biblical examples of characters who have walked in direct opposition to the culture surrounding them, the culture in which they have been immersed. One of the greatest examples may be Daniel and his three friends who found themselves exiles living in Babylon, a culture dramatically different and even opposed to their Jewish homeland.

Complicating our culture is the medium of technology and how it pulls us and the next generations away from productive things, particularly spiritual things. Screens demand our attention, they call us to be their disciples. Jesus himself said that we can’t serve two masters, so how do we can we be disciples of him and screens at the same time?

Matlock and Kinnaman suggest that we are exiles living in digital Babylon. While we would like to go back to Jerusalem, our home and safe haven, we don’t have that luxury and we need to find a way to live out of faith in this somewhat hostile environment. Fortunately, the story of exile isn’t limited to Daniel and his friends, it’s a story that plays out over and over again in the biblical narrative. We see God’s people living as exiles in lands that are foreign and often hostile.

The authors propose that discipleship today has the goal of developing Jesus followers who are resiliently faithful in the face of cultural coercion and who live a vibrant life in the Spirit. They go on to reveal some of Barna’s research as they define four different kinds of exiles: Prodigals (ex-Christians), Nomads (unchurched), Habitual Churchgoers, and Resilient Disciples. Among 18-29 year olds today, 10% are resilient disciples, 38% are habitual churchgoers, 30% are nomads, and 22% are prodigals.

The book goes on to lay out five practices that have led to resilient faith. These practices are based on a decade of work and research. Not only are these authors experts in researching this material but they have also experienced this personally with their own children, experiencing how these practices make a difference.

The five practices that the research has shown build resilient disciples are: forming a resilient identity and experiencing intimacy with Jesus, developing muscles of cultural discernment, developing meaningful intergenerational relationships, training for vocational discipleship, and engaging in countercultural mission.

Intimacy with Jesus is about so much more than weekly worship gatherings. As the authors write, “we too easily mistake the starting point for the destination, oversimplifying Christianity to mere decionism.” This isn’t about merely following rules and habitually attending church and programs, it means creating an intimate relationship with Jesus, allowing young people to see that God speaks to us. Discipleship is growing in an understanding that one can hear and respond to the voice of Jesus in their lives.

Developing muscles of cultural discernment means combatting the easy and convenient teaching and learning that can be gained through technology.  As they define it, cultural discernment is the ability to compare the beliefs, values, customs, and creations of the world we live in (digital Babylon) to those of the world we belong to (the kingdom of God). It means we don’t bury our heads in the sand and we take a posture of learning and counterculturally speak. It’s not so much about protecting young people but preparing them for what they will face and how they will respond and live.

Developing meaningful intergenerational relationships  means being devoted to fellow believers we want to be around and become. It means mentoring and being mentored. It means to combat a culture of isolation and mistrust with deeper and spiritually significant relationships with those who have gained wisdom in experience. In digital Babylon, technology takes the place of real relationships, so those real relationships need to be forged in resilient disciples so that they won’t settle for cheap alternatives like technology.  These relationships are not forged by steamrolling questions and looking past legitimate doubts but sticking around long enough to work them out.

Vocational discipleship is about training up the next generation to know how to think about work and calling. It means finding meaning in what we do, not simply surviving. It means understanding talents and abilities, listening to God’s call, affirming those things, and being a church that enables and trains them to work this all out. Vocational discipleship does not mean full-time vocational ministry for all but it means being a full-time disciple regardless of your vocation, or even living out as a disciple through your vocation.

Finally, countercultural mission means living differently from cultural norms. We are privileged to be invited by God to join him in his mission to the world. This isn’t necessarily a safe mission, living in exile is not safe. Kinnaman and Matlock write, “Too many of our ministry efforts prepare people for a world that doesn’t exist, undercutting our witness and passing flimsy faith to the next generation.” The church needs to improve by focusing more on safe living than on faithful living. We need to help people believe and know how to express themselves and those beliefs in a spirit of love and respect.

Having read other books by Kinnaman, I was looking forward to reading this book. Much of what the authors share coincides with research that has come out of the Fuller Youth Institute as well. That kind of consistency should be encouraging for the church and should spur her on to the mission of raising up resilient disciples.

In order to fulfill this mission of raising up resilient disciples, we can no longer settle for a church that expects everyone to come to them, seeking good to be consumed and comfortable spaces to be coddled. Instead, we should be willing to venture into sometimes unsafe places, not just physical, in order that we might live out our faith resiliently, faithfully, and effectively.

If you care about the next generation and care about the church, “Faith For Exiles” is a book to be read with a message to be heeded. Matlock and Kinnaman offer not just problems but solutions. Their ideas are not some nebulous or fantastical theories but are based on thorough research. This book is a call to action, the question is whether or not the church will heed that call.

(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.)

 

Walk It Out

0925190909As someone who writes and speaks a lot in my life, it’s not uncommon for me to find myself at an impasse. Some might call it writer’s block. Everything I speak I will generally write in some form before it’s spoken.

When I come to those places of blockage, those seemingly impenetrable walls, I’ve got to find a way through. Sometimes it’s moving to something else temporarily to clear my mind and then returning to it to get a fresh look. Sometimes it’s a complete disconnection from thinking to something mindless like watching a movie or playing a video game.

Most often, I find myself looking for a space of inspiration. When you encounter a block enough, you begin to find the places that help the most in working them out. For me, the two places where those blockages get worked out the easiest are when walking and when driving.

I won’t say that they’re worked out the fastest, because that rarely ever happens. Mental blocks, to me, are more like wrestling matches, grabbing, grunting, pushing, pulling, rolling, tumbling, and so much more. The thing about those kinds of wrestling matches is that they rarely leave you untouched. They generally leave their mark on you, whether good or bad, but you rarely remain the same throughout the wrestling match.

I think best when I’m moving.

There’s a field that I go to in a park that has some great, wide open spaces. It’s almost as if that space represents a picture of what I am hoping happens in my mind. I want things open, free, unrestricted, and walking out these blockages in a place that’s unconfined seems to be one of the greatest solutions.

I generally know where I am going, both mentally in my writing or speaking, and physically, when I am walking or driving. I can see where it is I need to get to, I can visualize it in my head, but this isn’t the world of Harry Potter, I can’t disapparate and reappear at my destination. I’ve got to go on the journey. I’ve got to take the walk or take the drive. I can’t speed it up or fast track my way through it

And at the end of it, I find myself at an arrival of sorts. It rarely looks how I thought it would or should. Most of the time, it takes far longer than I anticipated or wished that it would. Oftentimes, it’s much more obvious and I realize that the arrival to which I have come was there all along, lurking right there in front of me, waiting to be discovered had I looked at things more simply than I had.

But it’s a journey. Everything’s a journey. Journeys rarely leave us untouched or untainted. Even when we try our best to ignore them and their impact on us, they still have a way of touching us, twisting us, changing us.

I’ve been on a lot of journeys in my life, some which I would gladly choose again, others that I wouldn’t wish upon myself or anyone else, for that matter. As I survey the map that shows those journeys, I can safely say that they’ve all made me who I am, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I am who I am because of those journeys.

I’ve heard it said that God doesn’t waste our pain. I think that’s true. But I think that God really doesn’t waste anything. His timing isn’t always our timing. His efficiency isn’t always our efficiency. But at the end of the journey, whatever it is has accomplished whatever he set out for it to accomplish.

Fearful

home aloneAs the day approaches when we will publicly launch out our new church, it’s been a journey of faith for me, my family, and the team of people who have joined us to embark on this new adventure.

I met with a friend yesterday, thinking, dreaming, planning for the future as we look at how we can collectively, with our two churches, press into the place where God has planted us. 1 John 4:18 came up in our conversation, a verse that I’ve quoted many times in years past. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

I told my friend that the opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s fear.

There have been many days along the way that I could easily have been gripped by fear. There will be many days ahead where I could be gripped by fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the inability to provide for my family. Fear of failure.

But there are also many times along the way that I have seen my faith multiplied and enlarged. In those moments when fear begins to creep in, slowly threatening to overtake me, God has allowed these small glimpses of what could be, propelling me forward with just enough hope to get me over the next hill, kind of like the little engine that could.

Fear tells us that we can’t. Faith tells us that God can.

Fear tells us that we aren’t enough. Faith tells us that God is everything.

Fear tells us that it’s impossible. Faith tells us that all things are possible with God.

I have refused to be gripped by fear in all of this, and every single time that I am ready to give up, to throw in the towel, to pack it all up and walk away, I am reminded that the driving force behind what I am doing has nothing to do with trying to be good or look good or succeed, it has everything to do with feeling called to do what we are doing.

There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear.

I believe that I am loved by the One who created me. I believe that he has given me the talents and strengths to do what he has called me to do. I believe that he can sustain me and that just as the author of the Book of Hebrews says, he can equip me with everything I need to accomplish his will.

Is it easy? No. Is it comfortable? No. Do I wish that I didn’t have to walk in faith? Sometimes. But the whole reason why I am at this place in my life, fifteen years away from a successful engineering career, is because I didn’t feel like I could make the same difference in the world around me as an engineer as I can as a pastor. That’s not to say that engineers can’t make a difference, just that as an engineer, I didn’t feel like I could be as effective as I can doing what I am doing now.

And so, we press forward in faith, not fear.

Many people tell me that this is what I was made for, to do this, to launch out. I can echo those sentiments and I see this as the culmination of years of being shaped and formed.

Only time will tell whether or not we are “successful” in the eyes of the world. But in the eyes of God, I would much rather be faithful and faith-filled than successful, because I think in his eyes, faithful and faith-filled actually amounts to success.

 

Something Like A Collision

car collisionThe other night, I was driving home from the hospital. I had just gone to visit a friend who has been struggling with health issues lately. Visits like that are always helpful to put things in perspective for my own life.

On the drive home, I was fairly pensive, pondering the existential questions of life as I drove up Interstate 95. My phone buzzed as a message came in from another friend asking whether I had a minute to chat. After my talk-to-text affirmative response, I spent some time on the phone with him hearing about the challenges that he is facing in his life within his own family.

When I hung up the phone with him, my mind raced to a handful of other friends and acquaintances whose lives have been a bit of a challenge lately. Marriages on the rocks. Childrearing challenges. Sickness. Crises of faith. It was a little overwhelming for me to consider.

My mind wandered to this church planting journey that I am on. I thought about the name of this church we are starting, The Branch. Our tagline has been, “Where life and faith meet.” I couldn’t help but think that sometimes that meeting of life and faith meet feels more like an abrupt collision than a cordial meeting.

Years ago, a mentor reminded me that when you embrace a name for yourself as a church, you had better be prepared to embrace all that comes in that name. I couldn’t help but hear his words as I thought about life and faith meeting. I’ve known from the start that this collision of life and faith would be messy.

I’ve never been one to tolerate giving messages or advice that I am not following myself. To think that any kind of meeting of what can sometimes feel like diametrically opposed things like life and faith would be a walk in the park would be naive, in my opinion. Collisions rarely are tidy.

But that’s the thing, as I thought about it, the reason why I am doing what I am doing. I’ve grown weary of encountering people who are hurting who run from the church rather than running towards it. I’ve grown weary of the stories of people forming opinions about Jesus based on his imperfect followers. I’ve grown weary of church sometimes looking more like an insider’s club that suspiciously eyes outsiders for fear of what they might have brought with them. I’ve grown weary of church sometimes looking more like a retirement home for the already convinced rather than a hospital for the sick who are desperately in need of attention.

Different. Everyone wants to be different, to establish themselves within their own uniqueness. I guess we’ve embraced that same notion. We want to be different. We want to be a place where life and faith meet so that God can break down barriers to his grace. So, when we begin to see barriers being broken down, I guess you could say that we can begin to measure ourselves against our goal.

I’ve been in a handful of accidents in my lifetime, nothing tremendously horrible (thankfully), but enough to know that collisions rarely leave us without a mark. Even if there is no physical evidence of a collision, it generally impacts us mentally.

I fully expect that the more and more we see life and faith meet, collide even, we will be impacted by those meetings, those collisions. We won’t be the same, and frankly, I think that’s what we’re going for.

 

Owning vs. Taking Ownership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flexing Your Muscles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Stop Telling Me, Just Show Me

show me don't tell meFor years, I had grown tired of what the church calls evangelism. It just didn’t seem right to me. It felt like an Amway session or a gathering to try to sell someone a timeshare. It didn’t feel genuine and, at times, it felt downright offensive.

Now, I know that Paul wrote in the Bible that the gospel is foolishness for those who are perishing, a stumbling block for some, offensive to others. But the offensiveness should come in the content, not the presentation.

Over the course of my life, I’ve done some of my best learning when I’ve been watching and paying attention to what’s going on around me. I learn better when you show me what to do.

My father-in-law is a contractor. When my wife and I lived close to him, I relished the times when I could work alongside him, learning new things, watching a master at work. The ease with which he would accomplish things was always astounding to me. I wished for the capability that he had and showed often.

While I was working alongside him, he wasn’t sitting there lecturing me about the different steps that he was taking. He would just go about doing the work, asking for the things that he needed along the way. As I watched and learned, questions emerged in my mind and I would ask them as they popped up. My father-in-law obliged to answer the questions, and my education continued.

As I’ve thought a lot about the church lately, I think we’ve stopped learning by doing. We’ve also stopped teaching by showing. Essentially, that’s what discipleship is all about. It’s not saying, “Let me teach you a collection of facts so that you can be smart and know how to be a disciple.” It really needs to be about saying, “Walk with me and I will show you what it means to be a disciple.”

In our errors of teaching rather than showing, we’ve also failed in our witness to the world. Instead of showing the world what it means to love Jesus and be his disciple, we’ve simply said, “You’re not living in such a way as pleases God.” Meanwhile, our lives don’t necessarily indicate anything different either. We say that Jesus changes everything and then we go on living our lives as if he makes no difference at all.

So what would it look like for us to stop telling people how to live and start showing people how to live?

Again, don’t get me wrong here, this doesn’t mean that we never share the gospel with those around us, it simply means that we earn the right to share and be heard by living in such a way that it actually matters to us. I won’t go so far as to say that we need to preach the gospel and use words if we must, but we need to let our actions model the words that we speak.

I was at a gathering not too long ago with some people who have been jaded by the church. They’ve been burned and hurt and they are slowly making their way back to faith. I had adopted a posture of listening to understand rather than listening to respond, so I was doing my best to keep my mouth shut (a fairly significant feat for me).

Finally, the hostess looked over at me and said that she was curious what I was thinking. I shared that I thought it was time for the church to remember that there is an important verse that Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:15. He said, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you for the hope that you have.” Unfortunately, I said, many people had left out some significant words in there……everyone who asks you.

The church needs to do a better job of living questionable lives, lives that cause people to ask questions. We need to do a better job to not only speak about the difference that Jesus makes in us, but also to show it and live it out. In so doing, I am convinced that people will see that difference and then we can live into Peter’s words as they begin to ask us why we’re different. In responding to their questions, I think it will look and feel a little less like a pitch for a timeshare and more like the reason for the hope that lives within us and has changed our lives.

Painful Growth

This month marks fifteen years in full-time ministry as a pastor. Having successfully navigated a career in engineering before becoming a pastor, I can say that engineering was much easier for me. I believe that pastoring is a calling, which isn’t to say that engineering is any less of a career, but rather that if someone thinks that they could do anything else other than being a pastor, they should try that first.

In those fifteen years of being a pastor, I have experienced lots of difficult times. I lost my parents. I experienced a church split. I sat through ordination exams….twice. Throughout those difficult times, I have seen myself grow. Of course, I would much rather have grown through simpler means than the ones that grew me, but that wasn’t the plan.

In my work as a pastor, I have experienced seasons or experiences of pain. Unfortunately, these seasons or experiences aren’t unique. I would guess that if you were to talk with other pastors, most of them would agree that they have had these seasons or experiences as well.

These experiences are mostly unavoidable. Sure, some of them could be avoided for a period of time, but if you live for any length of time, you will most likely face them all at some point.

Based on my own experience, these have been among the most painful things that I have experienced in ministry:

The pain of tragic loss

When my best friend from college lost his six month old to cancer, it was among the most difficult things that I ever had to face, and it wasn’t my child. I tried my best to be a friend who loved and cared without trying to offer cliche advice.

When my friend called to ask me to do the funeral, I knew that it would be one of the most difficult things that I would ever have to do.

Trying to wrap your head around the pain and hurt in this world without throwing out trite answers is tough. Yes, sin has tainted the world, but that’s not the most helpful answer that a grieving family wants to or needs to hear at the height of their pain. Helping families cope with loss is one thing, tragic loss always seems to make it harder, at least in my opinion.

The pain of people leaving your church

This seems so small in comparison to the point above, but as I’ve talked with other pastors, I haven’t met one of them who has said that they enjoy it when people leave their church. The more personally connected you are with the people whom you shepherd, the harder and more painful it is when they choose to leave. While I have never been divorced, I can say that having friends walk away from my church is the closest thing that I’ve felt to a divorce.

No matter how long I’ve been a pastor, it always feels like a shot in the gut. People tell me not to take it personally, but it’s really hard. When you pour your life into something and someone walks away from it, it’s kind of hard not to take it personally.

The pain of seeing someone waste their potential

Leaders should have a knack for seeing potential in people. I’ve seen this in good coaches, teachers, supervisors, whoever. When that potential is identified, a person is made aware of that, and that person just shrugs it off, that’s painful to me. I see that as a person embracing mediocrity, not being willing to do the hard work of growing but instead being content to remain as they are.

I wish that I could say that this was limited to those who are young and foolish, but sadly, my experience has been that I’ve seen it mostly in people who should know better, people who have even grown up in the church. There’s not much worse than seeing someone who believes that they are a mature and growing disciple of Christ with thirty years of experience when in reality they are just an infant who has repeated the same year thirty times over.

The pain of having people say things about you that aren’t true

I can fully admit that I am stubborn. I can also admit that I have a hard time letting go of things. But one of the most difficult things that I have struggled to let go of is when someone says things about me that aren’t true. It’s not just the saying of untrue things, it’s also the unwillingness of people to actually hear or learn the truth.

This has mostly happened when someone had a preconceived notion about me or when someone has generated an opinion about me based on a very limited experience. No matter how hard I’ve tried, there is no convincing them that they should take a second look and get to know me. I become a justice monster then I feel that injustice is being done to me.

There may be a lot more painful things in ministry, but a decade and a half into this, these are the top four experiences that have been most painful to me.

Like I said, I’ve seen growth come out of all of these experiences, but it’s been painful growth, growth that I would rather have come any one of a hundred other ways.

How about you? What have been some of your most difficult growing experiences?

Between Belief and Unbelief

When Faith FailsIf you’ve spent any time in the church, you may have grown uncomfortable with certain things that you see there. Aside from certain social issues that have emerged to the forefront in the recent past, there are other things that have irked people who find themselves struggling to make sense of what they know of God, what they read in the Bible, and what they experience in their daily lives. The juxtaposition of those three things is rarely as well-fitting as puzzle pieces but might rather feel more like the jagged edges of glass or pottery that were shattered and are now trying to be mended and put back together again.

Dominic Done steps into a difficult and sometimes controversial topic in his book “When Faith Fails.” He addresses doubt, a subject which has been avoided in some camps and embraced in others. Rather than taking the approach that it is bad, wrong, or sinful, Done instead recognizes it for what it is, “an opportunity for authentic and vibrant faith.”

Done divides the book into three sections: Far From Home, Exploring the Terrain, and Coming Home. Far From Home addresses how we got here to this point of doubt, wrestling with our faith. Exploring the Terrain seeks to find hope in life’s hardest questions. Coming Home deals with moving through doubt in pursuit of deep faith.

In the Far From Home section, Done is quick to correct those who may want to live or expect to live with complete and total certainty. He says that in seeking total certainty, we lose the beauty of mystery. As he puts it, “If all we value is explanation, we lose the joy of exploration.” He spends the section vying for a healthy doubt and trying to promote is as normal and an everyday part of life.

Doubt, as Done sees it, is living in the world in between belief and unbelief. It is a moment of tension, living somewhere in between. It is the place that stands in stark contrast to the Lego gospel which says that everything is awesome, because life is hard, tragic, and people sometimes suffer. It is the place you come to when everything you thought was supporting you and holding you up disintegrates.

As “When Faith Fails” unfolds in these pages, Done shares insights and wisdom, but he does it with care, compassion, and sensitivity. There are plenty of helpful phrases that he shares, none of which felt contrived or cliche to me. For instance, “God doesn’t demand that we understand him, but he does ask that we trust him.” And, “You can believe without doubting, but you can’t doubt without believing.”

The Exploring the Terrain section contains an apologetic for the Bible. Can we trust it? As he walks through this section, he helpfully tells the reader that we might need to change our approach and view of the Bible. Rather than looking at it through modern or postmodern eyes, Done suggests we see it for what it is, “an eccentric, weird, difficult, challenging, inspiring, inviting, paradigm-disrupting book that, page by page, story by story, culminates in the person of Jesus.”

Done also asks in this section whether science is the enemy of faith. As he sees it, faith and science are not enemies, but different sides to the same picture. He writes, “Science only tells us part of the story. It reveals and enriches our perception of reality; opening our eyes to the complexity and splendor of the world. But it cannot tell us why it takes our breath away.”

While many in the world of religion see science as the enemy and many in the field of science see religion as incompatible with science, there are others who live in the tension of both, scientists who are theologians and who embrace both sides.

Theodicy, the problem of pain and suffering, and the silence of God are also addressed by Done. He doesn’t throw trite answers at any of the questions he poses. He also doesn’t give packaged responses that fail to address what is at the heart of these questions and issues. If I could describe the approach in one way, it would be embracing the tension of the in between. So, if you are seeking a beautiful resolution like a thirty minute sitcom, you should probably go somewhere else.

As Done moves into the third and final section, one of the most memorable recommendations that he makes to the reader is to, “do the hard work to put yourself in a place where the truth can find you.” He recommends seeking out community because it is in community that we are shaped, formed, and that we learn. Rather than seeing community as a provider of resources to be consumed, we should see it as a family to invest in. Even as we look at Scripture, Done says, we should see it as active participation in the unfolding of a story that tells us we are all in this together. The community of the church is the place where broken people should discover that they are not alone.

Done does a great job of encouraging his readers to embrace doubt with purpose and intent. While some doubt dogmatically challenging anyone to prove those doubts false, Done recommends an approach that seeks to learn and understand, not completely, but adequately.

I have encountered a number of people within the church over the years who have been so adamantly against doubt that you would think they were afraid of the outcome had they embraced it. I wish that I had encountered a book like “When Faith Fails” a long time ago, I would have felt less awkward and much more affirmed when I found myself in that in between world.

The approach that Done recommends with doubt is very much the approach that is modeled by David in the Psalms. He started with his honest doubts, questions, and concerns, but he always came back to God, who he was, what he had done, and what he had promised to do in the future.

If you have wrestled with doubts and questions, this book won’t give you quick and easy answers, but it will help you to know that you are not alone nor is there something wrong with you. Instead, Done brings encouragement to his readers to embrace the tension and continue on the journey with expectation, anticipation, and mystery. If you can live with the tension, then “When Faith Fails” may just be the book to help encourage you through it.

(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.)