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.

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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.

Context Is Key

A few years back, a friend and mentor of mine introduced me to a concept that really made sense regarding the local church. He talked about the three C’s of church. Contents, Context, and Containers. The contents of what church is about is non-negotiable. If we are seeking to be faithful to the Bible, we will do our best to understand it and let the contents of what we do and say as the church be driven by what it says.

The containers in which that content is housed are negotiable, they can change. Another way of saying container might be presentation. How is the contents being presented? In which containers is the content housed?

But I haven’t really been thinking much about contents or containers lately. I’ve mainly been focused on context. This friend and mentor asked a question as he presented this idea of context. He asked, “How does God want to express himself through our church in our community at this time?”

As I’ve been on this church planting journey, I’ve been visiting other churches to get an idea of how they do things. I’ve especially wanted to observe churches that meet in non-traditional spaces, spaces that are not their own. Schools. Theaters. Rented spaces where they have to set up and tear down every week. We’ve visited a number of them.

As I look back over the past decade of my life in full-time ministry, I can see a progression of my thinking in regards to church. Ten years ago, I questioned why church planting was necessary. I also questioned why there are so many churches and why people feel the need to constantly change churches. It never made a lot of sense to me and it still doesn’t completely make sense, but I’ve begun to put some of the pieces together in my head.

You see, as I’ve looked around and seen these different expressions of the body of Christ, I’ve begun to understand that it makes more sense than I thought for there to be so many expressions. After all, we are a diverse people and that diversity is going to shine differently in different contexts and in different people.

But there are two things that I think need to happen in order for this to be more effective.

1)  Before you leave and before you commit, ask a different question

It seems that people choose churches like they choose an outfit in the morning before they leave the house, it all depends on what kind of mood they are in. I think that often people come to the local church and ask themselves what she can do for them, and I don’t think that’s the right question.

With all apologies to JFK, I think his statement about asking what you can do for your country may apply here as well. Instead of asking what a church can do for them or even asking what they can do for the church, I think they need to ask themselves, “How can I best fit into this community?” or “Is there a place for me in this community?” or even “How can I best use the gifts that God has given me in this community?”

I think that some people may ask that question but I wonder how many actually go through the due diligence of seeking the answer in earnest. It seems that people are quick to express their frustration with the inadequacies of the local church and quickly go find another one. I wonder what would happen if every pastor expressed the same frustration over those members and their lack of engagement and using of their gifts in that same local church. That would be interesting!

If we think about it in terms of the context question my friend shared, I think we might wonder how we might fit into this local expression as God expresses himself through us in this place and at this time. Are we seeking ways that we fit or are we seeking ways that we disagree?

If the church is to be about the Missio Dei, the mission of God, her people will need to ask these questions with the intent of finding out how to best be used by God. This doesn’t mean that God can’t accomplish his will without us, but it does mean that we should always be asking how can I use what God has given me to best be a part of his work?

So, before you take your toys and go somewhere else, ask yourself if you have really been seeking to use the gifts that God has given you where he planted you.

2) Come Together Despite Differences

The town in which I am starting a new church is a unique place. It’s fairly diverse in many ways and it’s been cool and interesting to see.

There are a number of churches that already exist there and I’ve already had it asked of me more than once why this place needs one more church. And what I am finding is that God wants to take a group of people who come together in community to allow him to uniquely express himself in this particular place at this particular time.

If you were to put all of the churches together, I think you would have a lot of differing opinions on a number of different topics. But, I also think that there would be a number of areas where you would see agreement, and frankly, I think that gets overlooked far too often.

For how far down the road we are since the church was established in the first century, I don’t know that there will ever be a time this side of eternity when we could move towards one local expression of the body of Christ. In the meantime, though, I think we can look for a taste of what is to come. I think we can look at the essentials and see if we align there. If we do, I think we can have some discussions on the places where we differ and see if those differences prevent us from fellowship together. If we are honest, I have a hard time believing that they will.

In fact, as I look around at the community and its needs, I think that God can accomplish his work through his church if some of the barriers that have been keeping us apart are removed. That doesn’t mean that we will all agree on everything. That doesn’t mean that there might still be some significant differences. Could it be that some of these differences exist so that we can work through them and in spite of them? What would happen if the world could see the testimony of grace in these local churches as they put differences aside and seek to be on mission together?

As I continue to go from church to church to see how God is expressing himself from context to context, I am beginning to understand that these separate churches aren’t a bad thing if we can just try to find ways to come together now and then. We can be unique, express ourselves in the ways that God is calling us to express ourselves, and still find ways to cross over the barriers that keep us apart to have a taste of unity, not uniformity, not full agreement, but oneness. After all, there is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all.

The picture that we see in Revelation 7 seems to be a “someday” picture, a picture that we figure we’ll get to after Jesus returns. I wonder what it would look like if we began to practice that now, every tribe, tongue, and nation coming together to worship the Lord. A foretaste of what is to come, and I don’t think it’s a pipe dream to think we can begin to experience it this side of eternity.

Soli Deo gloria!

A Legacy of Faith

I’m old enough to not only know who Billy was but also to have been to a few of his crusades. But I had a realization a few weeks ago when a friend mentioned a documentary on Netflix about the late evangelist. I realized although I was very familiar with Graham and even had played and led worship at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Asheville, North Carolina, my children didn’t even know who he was.

Now, that might not be so significant to some people, but it was significant to me for a few reasons.

First of all, I’ve introduced my children to a lot of pop culture, maybe more than I should have. It’s really a result of my own sheltered upbringing. We’ve been to Graceland. We’ve been to the Johnny Cash museum. We’ve seen Lynyrd Skynyrd. We’ve seen a few other groups as well. So, it seemed odd that the view of the world that I was presenting to my children wouldn’t have a sufficient balance to it.

Unlike my own upbringing, my kids aren’t being raised on only Christian music, movies, and books (but that’s a whole other blog post). I’m doing my best to raise my kids to know quality music and art. Sometimes we hit on the not so quality zone, but I do my best to steer them towards tasteful and good.

But the second reason for introducing my kids to Billy Graham is more significant. Billy Graham had his start in the late 1940s. In 1957, Billy Graham brought his crusade to New York City. For sixteen weeks, Billy Graham preached the gospel message to New Yorkers who came to hear. And that Spring, a 14 year old boy came and felt the call of God on his life to become a pastor. That boy was my father.

Billy Graham MSG

My dad would often tell the story of being called into ministry at a Billy Graham crusade, but I don’t think I thought much of it. He was always a big supporter of Billy Graham and his ministry. He seemed excited when I was in Asheville and he found out that I would be doing music over at The Cove. When he got more into counseling, he volunteered at crusades that were close by and also offered his services at a local call center that would receive calls from people who had seen the crusade on television.

Since I lost my dad nearly six years ago, there have been things that have helped me to feel more connected to his legacy. Some of those things were expected, while others were not.

I actually hadn’t thought about my father and his connection to Billy Graham. In fact, I think that I had even forgotten about the connection to the Madison Square Garden crusade until a few weeks ago when I watched the Billy Graham documentary on Netflix. As soon as I watched the short film, I realized that I was heading to Charlotte in a few weeks and I would have the opportunity to go to the Billy Graham Library.

Now, my kids are at an age where it can be hit or miss as to whether or not they like an idea that my wife or I throw out to them about an activity we are planning to do as a family. I’ve done my best to lower my expectations so that I won’t be disappointed when they don’t take to an idea that I’ve come up with for an activity. It’s been a journey and has taught me selflessness better than anything else.

I set my sights low and mentioned the idea to my wife and subsequently, to my children. No one seemed to balk at the idea initially but I knew that a five hour drive followed by a visit to a museum could easily be just a good idea on paper rather than a reality.

The Billy Graham Library is fairly inconspicuous. There are no huge signs pointing visitors to the property. If I hadn’t had GPS, I would probably have driven right past it. In much the same way that Billy Graham wasn’t flashy or showy, the library telling of his life and ministry wasn’t either.

But not flashy or showy doesn’t mean boring by any stretch of the imagination. It was a testimony to his ministry and the One whom he had served for his entire life. It was well done and engaging, not only for my wife and I, but also for our 12, 10, and 7 year old children.

As we walked through, I came upon a picture of Madison Square Garden from the dates in 1957 when he was there. A light bulb went off in my head and I remembered hearing my dad tell me those stories of being there, of being called into ministry, and of the change in direction of his life. I couldn’t believe that I had forgotten about it.

A flood of emotion came over me as my eyes began to tear up. I proudly pointed out the picture to my sons and told them about their grandfather. Whether they know it or not, they are part of this legacy too. They didn’t know my dad very well as they were only four and six when he died, but he is still making an impact on them, because he made an impact on me.

As I look at the legacy of faith in my family and in my wife’s family, I am struck by just how many people God has called to be in full-time ministry. Uncles. Great uncles. Brother-in-laws. Cousins. God’s fingerprints are all over our family and we are grateful to be part of the legacy as we hope and pray that we also might be purveyors of that same faith.

Trying to make a point about the importance of the smallest work, I recall pastors and Bible teachers tell me in the past that although we know the name of Billy Graham, most of us don’t know the name of Billy Graham’s Sunday school teacher or others who made significant impacts in his life.

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I don’t think my name will ever be anything great, and I’m completely fine with that. My only hope is that I can make the name of Jesus great as I continue to follow his leading, hopefully making an impact in my three children, but also others whose path I cross along the way.

Irresistible Faith – A Book Review

irresistible faithMany people are familiar with the quote attributed to Gandhi that, “I like your Jesus but I don’t like your Christians.” For centuries, it seems that one of the greatest apologetics against Christianity has been the body of Christ, who have misrepresented him and, “created a public relationship nightmare for the movement that he began through his death, burial, and resurrection.”

Into this, Scott Sauls brings his latest book, “Irresistible Faith.” Sauls is calling the body of Christ to be a better representation of who we are called to be in this world. If we begin to live in such a way that our faith is irresistible, perhaps the apologetic might turn around and instead of dissuading people from Christianity, they might see something in us so compelling that it will be irresistible.

Sauls splits the book into three parts: abiding in the Irresistible Christ, belonging to an irresistible community, and becoming an irresistible Christian. He calls Christians to seek out ways to distinguish themselves from the world in which we live. His call isn’t to completely sequester ourselves or hole ourselves up and practicing avoidance at all costs. Sauls points us to a place of savoring Christ rather than the things that the world has to offer.

He isn’t condemning the things of the world, he is simply condemning the loving and savoring them over Christ. He writes, “Possessing what the world has to offer only become problematic when possessing what the world has to offer starts to possess us.” Saul uses the example of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings books, a creature who had once been a simple Hobbit but who had been overcome with a lust for his “precious” that turned him into something like Hobbit-like.

Sauls also calls his readers to belong to an irresistible community. This has been a problem for many people as their experience of the church, the body of Christ, has been less than desirable. Rather than experiencing a place of welcome, warmth, and love, they have experienced a place of judgment, backbiting, and abandonment.

But we were created for community, Sauls writes, “not for isolation; for interdependence, not for autonomy; for relational warmth and receptivity, not for relational coldness and distance.” When God created Adam, he knew that it was not good for him to be alone. We also see that the community that existed from eternity past within the three persons of the Trinity has been extended outwards to those whom God has created in his own image.

There is acknowledgment of the imperfections of the church, but Sauls casts vision of what the church could be. “If all our Christian communities and churches were sold out to this one simple practice – to only speak words that make souls stronger – I wonder how many spiritually disengaged people would start wanting to engage. I wonder how many religious skeptics would want to start investigating Christianity instead of keeping their distance from its claims and its followers.” That kind of community would be compelling and irresistible to those who can encounter the opposite over and over again within the world.

Being in community means opening ourselves up to accountability and confrontation. Those things need to be done with loving intentions and humility. We are all imperfect, but that shouldn’t stop us from calling each other out with the right intentions. We should treat each others, “as fellow sinners who are on a journey right alongside us. We move together toward perfection, being animated by God who is faithful to complete the work that he began in us.”

Lesslie Newbigin once wrote that movements towards the new creation that God is seeking to create can only happe, “when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as a sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.” This is the beginning of Saul’s third section of the book, how we become irresistible Christians.

We move towards becoming irresistible Christians as we treasure the poor, as we embrace our work, and as we leave things better than we have found them. Sauls is calling his readers to the work of biblical justice, being about the things that God is about. He doesn’t mince words, telling Christians that if the only faith people see is a doctrinal skeleton without the flesh and muscle that carry that doctrine out, then we have a malnourished faith which is sick or dead.

Sauls encourages a work ethic that makes no sacred and secular distinction. He is not promoting an ideology that only those who find themselves employed full-time in some kind of ministry position or organization are the only legitimate ministers. Instead, he calls Christians to the words of the Apostle Paul who said that we should do everything, no matter what it is, as if we are doing it unto the Lord.

Finally, rather than embracing a twisted and distorted theology that “it’s all gonna burn up anyway,” Sauls encourages Christians to leave things better than they have found them. While many have claimed that we can attain perfection and create a better world apart from Christ, Sauls says that the only way that we can achieve this is through the power of God. He casts a vision for what could be if Christians were to live differently.

“Irresistible Faith” is a call to action. Sauls is not simply suggesting that right theology will get us to a place where we are on track to better represent Christ. He is calling Christians to let their theology be evident in what they do, what they say, and how they act in this world. He is really calling Christians to step up to be who we are supposed to be rather than who we have become.

If you want to be challenged and called to action, then you will appreciate Saul’s work here. If you want to continue to live a life that seems no different than those around you who have no faith to speak of, then this book is probably one to avoid. If we heed the call that Sauls puts out here, I think we could see a real “turning of the ship” when it comes to how the world sees and perceives the body of Christ who is supposed to be representing him in this world.

(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.)

Basics for Believers – A Book Review

basics for believersPhilippians is a fairly short and concise book. Yet in the four chapters of this book, Paul outlines much of what the basic Christian life is or should be about. In “Basics for Believers,” D.A. Carson takes a deeper look.

Carson distills the message of Philippians down into four key ideas that Paul emphasizes: put the gospel first, adopt Jesus’ death as a test of your outlook, emulate worthy Christian leaders, and never give up the Christian walk. Those are the chapters that Carson divides this book into as he walks the reader through Philippians.

Carson doesn’t dive into the  original languages or spend a lot of time academically expounding upon the text of Philippians. Instead, he takes a very practical approach towards this Pauline letter. He doesn’t get caught up using deep theological language but writes in a simple and understandable way.

The subtitle of this book is, “The core of Christian faith and life – A Study of Philippians.” For readers wanting to study Paul’s letter deeper than a simple reading of the text, this book would be helpful. It’s a good starting point but will most likely not satisfy the more academic readers who want a more in depth study.

Ultimately, Carson’s words regarding the last chapter of Philippians give a good synopsis of the book overall. Carson writes that this last chapter emphasizes, “integrity in relationships, fidelity toward God, quiet confidence in him, purity and wholesomeness in thought, and godliness in heart attitude.” Those are the basics that Carson believes Paul conveys to his early readers and the basics that Carson emphasizes to his readers as well.

(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.)

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.

I Will Follow

keyboardI am not a very good follower.

I like control. I like to see the steps that I am taking and just where my foot is gonna fall. I don’t trust easily and even when I trust, I still have to see enough of the road ahead for me to feel like whoever I am following knows what they’re doing, even if that someone happens to be God (as if he doesn’t know where he’s going and I do).

It’s a funny place to be when you kind of know where you are going but the details aren’t all ironed out. It’s like, you know what the destination is but you aren’t quite sure what the actual route you’re gonna take to get there looks like. The Israelites through the desert may be too vivid of a picture to better understand that.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life in full-time ministry trying to prove to people that I am more than a label, more than a role, more than the box that so many have tried to put me in. It’s been somewhat exhausting, to be honest. For how much I hate labels, you would think I wouldn’t use them as often as I do. Maybe I just hate them when they apply (or don’t apply) to me.

I’ve always been one who does more than most people know. Behind the scenes, there’s a whole heck of a lot more going on than most people will see and I generally don’t care whether or not everyone knows what I’m doing. As long as things are getting done and moving along, I don’t typically care who gets the credit.

The problem with this approach is that you can easily get pigeon-holed, people think that you’re more two dimensional than you really are and label you by what they see, not by what you really are.

My journey over the last few years has been a journey of pressing into the things that I know I’m good at doing. That doesn’t mean I avoid the things that I’m not good at doing, it means that I look to surround myself with others who excel in those areas. It’s a journey of living into strengths and relying on and empowering others in the places where their strengths lie.

As much as I don’t usually care what others think about me, when I’ve been labeled, especially falsely so, I struggle with that label. I don’t like to wear it when it’s either not true or only part of the story. It’s restrictive because it’s wrong or incomplete, not because I don’t like to wear it. But if we’re all honest, there are just some outfits that we don’t look good in, even if those outfits are metaphorical and not physical.

So, my tendency is to run away from the labels. If I know that there is more to the story, I want to tell the rest of the story rather than reading the same old section over and over. Why rehash on what you already know when there is so much more to the story to hear, to learn, to tell?

I’ve kind of been in that place of running. Not from everything. In fact, I’ve been running towards some things that are incredibly uncomfortable, that are taking an awful lot of faith. But I’ve been running away from certain things that have felt restrictive, that have felt confining and incomplete.

Sometimes, we have to do that. If we’ve got a healthy dose of self-awareness, we should know ourselves better than the ones who throw the labels on us. We should know if there is more to the story to be told and we shouldn’t really be afraid to tell that part of the story, regardless of the pushback that we might get from other people. I’m all about telling the whole story, no matter how uncomfortable that might make certain people, no matter how much they might want to dwell on their favorite part of the story (even when it’s not true).

A few months ago, I met a new pastor in the area. In our brief introduction, it sounded like we had some common interests and visions for the future. So, we connected over lunch and the story of that friendship is still being written.

In our lunch conversation, he said something that really stuck out to me. He had a similar musical background to mine and he told me that he had put it aside since he came here. I could relate, I had been trying to put mine aside for some time because it was the label that I had reluctantly worn. But, he said, when the people who had known him for and with that gift came back into town and saw him not using it, they asked him why he had put it aside, why he wasn’t using it.

When he said that, his words hit me right between the eyes.

I had been running from something that I was good at because it was only telling a portion of the story. But that part of the story was some people’s favorite part, and they weren’t going to let it go. That doesn’t really fly well with an Enneagram 8, the Challenger. Don’t tell me what to do or who to be, I will resist.

But God has a funny way of bringing you back around, especially when you don’t necessarily follow or trust well. He may bring you back to the very thing you’ve avoided just to remind you what he’s given you and what you’re supposed to be doing with it.

That’s kind of been what’s happened lately. I’ve avoided music, legitimately avoided it, because I was tired of being labeled by it, but God doesn’t care how others label me, he only cares how he created me. If he wants you to live into how he’s created you, it’s gonna happen.

So, in the course of ten days, I find myself not just playing music again, but playing a lot of music. Four times in a ten day period. Four fairly unique and different venues. Four different ways for me to use the gifts he’s given me and not avoid them anymore.

In the midst of using those gifts though, a funny thing happened, I realized that I kind of enjoyed using those gifts, I just didn’t want to be labeled by them. I found myself with new friends in a setting that I’d been in many times before, and everything clicked, it all fit together.

From a musical perspective, that doesn’t happen all the time. I’ve sat through plenty of rehearsals (led a ton of them) where things just wouldn’t click. Whether it was the timing or the harmonies or pitch, something kept it from getting to the place where everything fit together well. And those times are beyond frustrating, especially when you know how it’s supposed to fit together and sound.

But then there are those other times, when you pull pieces together that have existed separately until the moment you pull them together (God pulls them together?) and when you do, they just fit. And when I say they fit, I mean they fit well. The work is effortless, the results are beautiful, and when you’re done, you wonder just how you experienced what you had just experienced.

I’m still skeptical. I still don’t like labels. I still don’t want to be stuck in a hole in which some keep trying to put me. But I’m also seeing this through my identity in Christ. That identity isn’t defined by those around me, nor should it be heavily influenced by their myopic view of it. God sees me as I am, as he’s made me. As Brennan Manning wrote, God loves me as I am, not as I am supposed to be. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t see my potential and desire to move me there, but his love for me isn’t based on getting to that place, that would be a love based on my work, not his.

Yes, I’m a terrible follower, but I’m learning to follow God a little better every day. I don’t like following when I feel like there’s a better way, a more productive way. I’m not always crazy to take the scenic route, even when the scenic route involves being used more effectively than I might choose for myself. But I’m getting to the place where I care less about how people want to see me and I care more for how God sees me and the potential that he has for me.

It’s a somewhat unnerving and painful journey. It’s a loss of control, but who said that I actually had the control to begin with?

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!

Hope in the Dark

The Golden ThreadIn his note at the beginning of his wife’s book, Mark Zschech mentions the Japanese art of Kintsugi, a repair method that takes broken pieces of pottery and puts them back together with threads of real gold. This repair method and art form not only restores a piece of pottery that might have otherwise been rendered useless, but it also brings more value to the piece with these threads of gold. Just like this golden thread in a piece of pottery, so is God’s redemptive work in our lives through the various things that break us down and seek to destroy us.

Once upon a time, I was a worship leader in Asheville, North Carolina. Through various connections, I had the privilege of being part of a musical team that supported many of the conferences that came through the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Among the conferences that came through which I was privileged to be a part was a Hillsong worship conference back in the days when Darlene Zschech was still the main worship pastor there.

Spending a week with her and her team was a memorable experience. Many of the songs that I and my church had been singing for years had been written by Darlene and this team. To spend time with them and see their heart for Jesus and for worship gave me the opportunity to see that these songs were not just simply ways to earn a buck, but they were from the heart and lives of people who were earnestly seeking Jesus.

I say all this because I think that slight glimpse into Zschech’s world has shaped my perspective on this book. In that brief time spent with Zschech and her team, I could see how genuine and authentic she was, there was nothing contrived in her at all. She came across as so real and it made such an impact in me and my wife who also attended the conference.

So, as I read “The Golden Thread,” I could hear her speaking the words on the page to me. I could feel the emotion that she felt and I was inspired by the faith that I had seen up close and personal.

“The Golden Thread” is more than just Zschech’s story of being diagnosed with cancer and going through treatments to become cancer free. It is a story of faith and inspiration and while she shares personally in the book, she continually points back to Jesus throughout. What does it mean to want Jesus more than anything? How do you walk through the valley of the shadow of death and maintain your faith? What happens when God’s will and yours don’t seem to match and you are left with disappointment?

Above all, “The Golden Thread” is Zschech’s emphasis on worship through all the seasons of life, no matter how difficult. As she writes, the goal of worship, “should always be to see Jesus and to experience His presence.” While we often might try to make it about us, Zschech reminds us that we shouldn’t be the focus. Worship isn’t about what we do with our lips, she says, but what we do with our lives.

Zschech writes that her cancer treatment, “actually gave me a pass into some people’s worlds where I had previously had no authority.” The shared experience of facing the disease allowed her in relationships, but also in this book, to be invited into the lives of others who were struggling through the “Why” of a diagnosis or other crisis that had somehow arrived completely uninvited into what had been a fairly pleasant life journey.

As I read “The Golden Thread,” I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if one of Job’s friends in the Bible had actually been through difficulties themselves. Would they have come across more compassionately? Would they have sounded more like Zschech sounded in this book?

The message that runs through this book much like the golden thread for which it is named is about hope and the fact that while the world and everything (and everyone?) in it may seemingly abandon you, you are never alone or pushed away by God and you will never be abandoned. Hope in Jesus is the only thing that is sustainable throughout the difficulties of life that we face.

There are insights throughout this book that apply to so much more than simply cancer diagnoses and difficulties in life. Zschech speaks of forgiveness and the need to embrace it in order to be healthy and move on. She speaks of the holy discontent that boils up within us that we need to follow, always remembering that those around us are people to be loved, not problems to be fixed.

Having finished a book by another worship leader not long before diving into this one, I was skeptical of just how I would respond to it. I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged when I found myself wanting to keep reading rather than putting it down.

If you are seeking encouragement during dark times and difficulties, Zschech’s words may encourage and uplift you. While she shares out of her own experience, her insights and the application of them can be beneficial to far more experiences as well. “The Golden Thread” is a book filled with hope that points the reader to the only hope that is real and long-lasting, the hope of Jesus Christ.

(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.)