Pulling Back the Curtain, Part II

ПечатьA month into this church planting journey, I feel like I’m getting more insights every day. I’ve known since the day I left my engineering career to take a job in full-time vocational ministry that it’s a calling and not for the weak of heart. Church planting is no exception to this.

Last year, as I was in the pre-launch phase of the church plant, I told people all the time that I had never experienced more self-doubt than I had during that season of life. I’m not generally a person who struggles with confidence, but that season was rough for me. Rough, but good, as I realized that self-confidence should be replaced with God-confidence, knowing where my confidence should be rooted.

Ministry in general, especially in smaller settings, can be incredibly lonely. You’re busy running around and checking on the welfare of everyone else and not everyone is conscious of the fact that no one is checking on you. So, you need to be proactive and make sure that you’ve got someone who you can lean on in those times. Lone rangers in ministry rarely last long. In fact, I think the road of ministry is littered with the broken lives of those lone rangers.

In an effort to continue to pull back the curtain to reveal what’s behind it, I want to share some insights from this first month and a half (and all the time leading up to it as well).

1) Measuring, Not Counting

A few months ago, a friend of mine shared some insight with me that I couldn’t stop mulling over in my head. We were talking about the metrics by which churches answered the question of whether or not they were “successful.” I told him that I was tired of the “nickels and noses” model, where we count how many butts in the chairs and how much money we had raised.

He said that we needed to move to a place of measuring rather than counting. We measure life change and transformation in people. That’s not something that you can easily do if you’re just counting the people and their money.

Standing there in our worship space Sunday after Sunday, as the clock moves closer and closer to the time of our worship service,  my heart sinks further down when no one shows up. It’s hard not to take it personally. It’s hard not to wonder what I’m doing wrong.

But we need to move beyond just butts in the seats. Are we making a difference? Are the people who are coming being impacted for Christ? Would it matter if we were here or not? These are the more important questions, in my opinion. These are the things to measure, impact and influence.

2) Trends Take Time

The world is a very different place than it was when I was a kid. The church is also very different than when I was a kid. Assessing today based on yesterday is really hard. Solving today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions is downright silly (go read “Canoeing the Mountains”).

As much as I would like to see every person in a worship service every weekend, I know that expectation is unreasonable. Life happens. Stuff happens. While I think being part of a faith community is essential for spiritual formation, people need a reason to care and a reason to invest their time into something.

I don’t know how long it takes to see patterns and trends in data, but I can tell you without a doubt that it’s not six weeks. It’s like farming or gardening, you do the behind the scenes stuff and then just wait. We are doing our best to do that behind the scenes stuff, outreach, relationship building, consistently and persistently. We will watch the trends over time and see what we see.

3) Where Your Treasure Is, Your Heart Is Also

One of the best books that I read in preparation for this journey (other than the Bible) is a book by Simon Sinek called “Start With Why.” It’s a book that I think is an essential read, not just for church planters, but for pastors as well.

Churches have gotten really good at telling everybody “What” they do but have forgotten (or never even knew) how to tell people “Why” they do it. The “What” is not nearly as compelling as the “Why.” People rarely give to “What” but they may give to “Why.” People want to make a difference and they want to see that they are making a difference.

If someone is going to give their hard-earned money towards something, they want to make sure that it’s worth it. That makes perfect sense to me.

At the same time, this is one of those things that needs to be measured. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” When people give to a local faith community, the local expression of the church, it’s a pretty good indicator that someone believes in what’s happening. So, if they begin to give of their hard-earned money towards the vision, then it’s probably because they believe in that vision.

4) Vision Casting

Speaking of vision, it’s something that needs to be spoken of often.

I think that some pastors and planters get the idea that because they believe strongly in something and think about it all day, every day, that everyone else does the same.

Not the case.

People live busy lives. I don’t say that as an excuse, I say that because it’s true. I think that part of the responsibility of pastors is to continue to help people remember to be looking at their world through a specific lens, the lens of a Christian worldview.

They won’t necessarily do that on their own, they need help with that. They need reminders. Those reminders need to happen beyond just the Sunday worship service. When they walk out of your church on Sunday, it’s possible that they might not think as deeply about Christ again until the following Sunday.

Vision casting is about letting people see just how seeing the world through the eyes of Christ can impact them. It’s about letting them see God’s vision for the world, that Jesus cares for those in the world who are furthest from him as well as those who are close to him. This needs to happen often, otherwise people forget.

5) Culture Making

The same friend who I talked about measuring versus counting with also had a conversation with me about culture making. We talked about Andy Crouch’s book of the same name. Many people within the Church are critical of the culture in which we live, I understand that, but what is the Church doing to combat that? How does the Church combat that?

Crouch, in his book, talks about how the best way to change culture is to create culture. If we are dissatisfied with what we see in culture, are we creating a new culture? I won’t go through all that Crouch says, but this means so much more than just creating a “Christian” alternative to what’s already happening. 

Honestly, I could write a whole post (if not a whole blog series) on this, but the long and short of it is that we create culture in what we do. What kind of culture are we creating? People may be attracted to programs and certain offerings of the Church, but those things won’t necessarily make them stick. They need something more.

If I marry someone just because they are beautiful and there is nothing more to our relationship, that relationship will be short lived, because it’s based on something fleeting. But if I find someone attractive outwardly, get to know them, and find them even more attractive inwardly because of their character, it’s more likely that the relationship will have staying power.

What kind of culture are we creating in our local expressions of the Church? Are we just offering a place where people can run and hide from the big bad world that lurks beyond the doors? Or are we seeking to create a culture that engages the world beyond our doors, seeking to have conversations about what Jesus means to us and why he matters?

I’m far from done learning on this journey, but I will keep sharing as I go. I’m no expert and will make far more mistakes, but it’s in those mistakes that we can learn the most. I’ll keep pulling back the curtain for anyone who wants to see. Hopefully, the insights that I’m gaining might be helpful for even one other person in this journey.

 

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Myself 2.0

I had lunch with a friend yesterday. Nothing unusual about that. Among the things we talked about was the Enneagram, self-awareness, who we are, we were, and who we are becoming. Kind of deep for lunch conversation.

The last few years, for me, has been a journey of self-discovery, figuring out who I am, figuring out what I am good at, figuring out what I’m not so good at, and seeking to become better than I was yesterday. There are certain tools like the Enneagram and StrengthsFinders that have been helpful in that self-discovery.

But, as one who considers himself a follower of Jesus Christ, it’s more than a pursuit, it’s a calling. If Jesus is all that I claim that he is, then I should be changed by him. He isn’t some random stranger that I meet on the street who has no impact on my life. If he is who he says he is and who I believe he is, then like so many of the people who he met throughout the gospels, the collision between my life and him should have an altering effect.

As my friend and I discussed all this, he shared that he was struck by where I was in my overall emotional health. As I thought about it, I said, “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?” I mean, the big theological word that people throw around is “sanctification,” the process of becoming holy and set apart, more like Jesus.

Funny thing is, I think that some Christians miss the “more like Jesus” part of that. They’ve got the “set apart” part down pat, but when it comes to being different like Jesus, we don’t often excel. We’re set apart and different but in a way that makes an onlooking world scratch their heads or shake their fists. I have a hard time believing that’s what was meant by being different and set apart.

I have often said to friends and those around me that I don’t want to be the person that I was five years ago. In fact, if I am really in pursuit of being changed, transformed, and different, then I shouldn’t be who I was. As I look back over myself through the years, I see changes. Some of those changes are good, some are not so good. Those not so good changes are the ones where I probably haven’t fully given myself over to the work of sanctification in my life.

It’s like training at the gym. It’s not often pleasant when we are going through it. There may be pain afterwards, but hopefully, what we are becoming is better than who we presently are. I think about Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:8, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”

I have been blessed by a great cloud of witnesses around me. God has given me a lot of people that I call “rearview mirrors.” They act as aids for me to see those blind spots that I am unable to see on my own. But I’ve got to look at them and then heed what they say, just having them alone is not enough to make me better and to see the flaws that so desperately need to be changed and transformed.

Today is a new day and I am grateful for it. God’s mercies are new every morning. My constant prayer is that I will be just a little more different today than I was yesterday, that John the Baptist’s words can echo from me the way they did him, “I must decrease and he must increase.” It doesn’t mean that I lose myself, it means that I just become a more Christ-like version of myself. That’s what I’m going for.

 

Just Being Honest

This past weekend, my family and I had the chance to travel down to the church of a good friend of mine. He had asked me to preach for him and I was grateful for the opportunity to be with him and his church family. He and I have spent the last few years becoming friends. Now, I feel even closer to him as we ramp up towards starting a new church ourselves.

There were so many joys that we experienced in our time together. As we’ve had the opportunity to travel around to different churches, my perspective has grown and I have been humbled to see all the different expressions of the church in a variety of contexts.

One thing that struck both my wife and me was the authenticity of the people in his church. They were so open and honest, sharing things that surprised me considering that they had just met us. Nothing uncomfortable or awkward, just honest and real, appropriate.

This struck me so much because this doesn’t just happen, it needs to be nurtured. I know that my friend has nurtured it. As we’ve walked together in friendship over the past few years, I have had the chance to see him journey through some difficult seasons. I’ve also seen just how God has worked through those difficult seasons, how he has grown so much through them. I’m confident that God’s growth hasn’t limited itself to him but has spread throughout his faith community as well.

As I pondered on all that I had seen, I couldn’t help but wonder why it was such a surprise to come to a church and find such openness and authenticity. But isn’t the church the place where we should be encountering that kind of thing? Isn’t it the place where we should see Jesus’ words, “Come all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest?” Why is it a surprise when we experience that kind of honesty in the church?

One thing that I sure hope happens as God builds his church through us is that this kind of honesty and authentic atmosphere can be built as well. I hope and pray that people can come back to using words like “refuge” and “safe” to describe the church, and I know that a lot of that will depend on how I lead.

Honesty is only good if it leads somewhere. Our motivation for honesty shouldn’t be to just “get something off our chest.” If we are honest and have no desire for that honesty to help someone else in love, we probably need to rethink it. In fact, sometimes, we might need to withhold our honest thoughts and feelings as they just won’t be well-received by the people we feel burdened to tell.

I’ve been wrestling with this a lot lately, continuing to check my own motivations in speaking truth. Leaning into the Holy Spirit to guide and move. Holding my tongue when my motivation is wrong. Speaking even when it might be uncomfortable but doing it in love with purpose and hope.

My heart for people to meet Jesus is met equally by a heart that desperately knows that the Church has much of which we need to repent. We have not done things well in loving those who don’t look or think like us. We have not always welcomed well the widows and orphans. Pro-life has not always meant from birth to death for us. We have not always remembered that the history of the people of God includes exile, bondage, and times of wandering. We have forgotten that God’s people are immigrants, seeking solace in a land that is not their own.

I pray that the Church can begin to be honest with herself first. Once we begin to get honest about who we are, where we have gone wrong, and how we move forward, I think that kind of authenticity and humility will go a long way to letting people see beyond the Church and see Jesus.

What We Leave Behind

Last year, a family in the faith community that I was a part of lost their house in a fire. This family had experienced a significant amount of loss before the fire and it was heartbreaking to see them experience one more tragedy in their lives. It was even more heartbreaking because I stood with them watching their house burn.

It was one of those surreal moments where you scroll your social media feed and see something that stands out, kind of like “Which of these things is not like the others.” The wife had said her house was on fire. Before I knew it, I had a message from someone else confirming that it was true.

There have been multiple times in my life when I have felt completely helpless. Hearing my mom’s cancer diagnosis was one time. Knowing her treatments were done and her death was imminent was another. Standing with these friends in front of their house as it burned was another. I felt speechless and I doubted my presence there multiple times, wondering if they really wanted me there.

As the fire was brought under control, the firemen brought out personal items and it was excruciating. Family photos. Jewelry. Other items. The remnants of memories that had stood as markers were tainted. It was a hard thing to watch as it unfolded.

Last month, when news broke that Notre Dame Cathedral was burning, I had that same helpless feeling. It was hard to watch the flames uncontrollably lick the spire and roof of this centuries old cathedral, engulfing this sacred monument.

Through it all, I thought about legacy and what we leave behind. Buildings can burn, that became abundantly clear to me as I watched these buildings, but was that the limit of what was left? Memories are sometimes reliant on space, marked by some geographical location in which they took place. While those spaces and locations may change or cease to exist, the memories remain, they are imprinted within the very core of our being.

On a small scale, it begs the question to me, “What do I leave behind?” When I’m gone, returning to dust, what is left? Are there memories still burned on the minds of the people who are left? Did I make an impact, a mark, a difference?

I can’t help but think about this in the context of the Church as well. People were sad and heartbroken that Notre Dame was burning but I don’t think it was because a sacred space was gone or because they had experienced significant life change within those walls or even because hundreds of worshippers would now be forced to relocate. I think it was because a cultural icon was harmed, damaged, diminished (thankfully, not beyond repair).

When it comes to our local churches, what would happen if our buildings or meeting places were gone? What would be the evidence that we had once been there? Would we need to have pictures or a building or other tangible artifacts and remnants? Or would we find the evidence and artifacts on the hearts of the people whose lives had been changed by our presence there?

I want to be known for the difference that I have made. When I am gone, I don’t want people hanging onto only tangible things to remember. My hope and prayer is that the difference I made went far beyond the physically tangible and to the heart and soul.

Did I listen? Did I care? Did I love? Was Christ present in me? These are the questions that are significant to me, the ones that I hope can be answered in the affirmative.

What do we leave behind? My hope and prayer for myself and for the church that we are building is that what we are building goes far beyond a physical building. I hope and pray that we are helping to build a community with love, with listening, with care, and with Christ.

 

Here we go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Is Still There

As I drove home from spending the day with good friends yesterday, my phone began buzzing, indicating that there was a message for me. Someone wanted to get in touch with me.

I checked the message to find that tragedy had struck my community in the loss of a young man. A message had gone out from the principal of the school alerting parents of the situation and letting them know that the school would do whatever they could in the midst of this tragedy to accommodate and care for students.

I looked in the rearview mirror at my three kids. These situations always feel close to home when I look into their eyes. My wife and I carried on our conversation, injecting questions and thoughts as we went. It was hard to wrap my head around this kind of news. When tragic news strikes, I’ve always felt like there are more questions than answers. Who? What? Where? Why?

Why?

Three simple letters that seem to be as invasive as the surgeon’s scalpel. They cut deep but unlike the scalpel, they don’t always get to the heart of the issue. There is pain. There is sorrow. There is anger. The emotions run rampant and wild as we wrestle with a new reality as it begins to set in.

Late last night, I got a text from someone struggling with the news. Words of comfort seem trite to me in times like this. Even as a man of deep faith who has experienced his own losses, the freshness and newness of loss demands something so much more than words can offer.

This morning, I was reminded of the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” The context is important here. Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, has died. His sisters insist that if Jesus had been there, he would not have died. Jesus comforts Mary and Martha with words. He tells them that their brother will rise again and reminds them that he (Jesus) is the resurrection and the life, that whoever believes in him, even though they die, will live. Then Jesus asks where his friend has been laid. When he reaches the tomb, he is greatly moved by the mourners and by the heartfelt pain of these sisters, and Jesus weeps himself.

Jesus’ response in the midst of this tragedy speaks deeply to me. He knew that he was going to heal Lazarus and raise him from the dead. He knew that death would be averted for a little while. Yet he still wept.

Sure, Jesus pointed them towards truth in the beginning, but then he simply wept with his friends. Jesus didn’t get on his soapbox and begin to preach. He said what he needed to say and then he got onto the task at hand: mourning and weeping.

To be honest, I don’t really think that we do that well. I’ve experienced it on both ends of the situation, as the one who is seeking to comfort another and as the one who is seeking to be comforted.

On the day that my father died, I had two friends with me. As I loved on my father and spoke gentle words to him, one of my friends began to weep. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t offer any words. He simply wept.

Sometimes the best thing for us to do is to simply come alongside those who are suffering and experiencing loss and not provide answers, but weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. There will be a time for asking questions and a time for seeking answers.  

The great Scottish author George MacDonald wrote, “The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.” While we weep, we are not alone. In the pain, in the tragedy, in the heartbreak, God is still there. His voice might not always seem decipherable in the loudness of death, but his presence can be felt as he weeps with us. We are not alone.

 Yes, there will be a time for questions and answers, but in the freshness of loss, the best thing that we can do is to weep alongside those who are weeping. There may be a time when the answers that we’ve arrived at are appropriate to share, but that time is not now. May we practice the presence of Jesus alongside those who are grieving and mourning.

Jesus Journey – A 40 day journey

Jesus journeyThroughout the history of Christianity, there have been two ways that people have looked at Jesus. Jesus was God in flesh, incarnate, revealing who the Father is by the things that he said and did. He was seen as more superhuman than human and much more divine than just a man. This is a view of God from above.

The other way people have looked at Jesus was simply as a man, someone that we could relate to who happened also to be God in the flesh. His pain was experienced so that we could know we were not alone. The oppression he faced was faced so that those who are oppressed can relate to him and find comfort in who he is and what he has to offer. This is a view of God from below.

No one has ever existed before or since Jesus who was fully human and fully divine. Trying to find the balance between Jesus’ humanity and divinity can be problematic. Trent Sheppard sees the emphasis having been much more on Jesus’ divinity, which is why he wrote “Jesus Journey.”

In “Jesus Journey,” Trent Sheppard looks more at the humanity of Jesus. He doesn’t deny or diminish his divinity, but he draws from the stories of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to paint a picture of Jesus that helps the reader to see him more human than maybe they have in the past.

Jesus was hungry, Jesus got angry. Jesus was stressed. Jesus needed sleep and rest. It might be easy to gloss over the humanity of Jesus in a reading of the gospels, but Sheppard tries to accentuate the accounts that help the reader see Jesus more realistically. He also does a good job of reminding the reader that the way that we see Jesus, two thousand years later, is not necessarily the way that the disciples and others of his time saw Jesus. It was a stretch for them, a process of belief that they entered into, to come to the place where they saw him as the Messiah.

Sheppard also breaks up the book in sections to look at the relationships that Jesus had with his parents, his Father, his friends, his death and suffering, and his resurrection. Through personal stories and anecdotes as well as the accounts found in the gospel, Sheppard weaves his way through the life of Jesus helping the reader to see the humanity of Jesus.

While I didn’t find anything outstanding here, I appreciated what Sheppard wrote. Having grown up in the church, it’s too easy to look at Jesus as the superhero and forget about his humanity. Sheppard does a good job of not deemphasizing Jesus’ divinity while reminding his reader that Jesus went through all of the things that ordinary humans have to go through as well.

“Jesus Journey” was a worthwhile read and could be useful as a devotion. Sheppard lays out his book in such a way that the reader can go through it in 40 days. The chapters aren’t too long and this could easily be a book that someone could read through during the 40 days of Lent in preparation for Easter.

(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.)

A Disruptive Gospel – A Book Review

Ipier_disruptivegospel_wSpine.inddn the first chapter of “A Disruptive Gospel” Mac Pier shares his own experience of coming to understand and embrace the gospel. He explains the gospel and then lays out five specific matters which we should organize our lives around if we embrace the gospel and Jesus. The five matters are: the gospel matters, church unity matters, cities matter, millennial leadership matters, and movements matter. Pier spends the rest of the book emphasizing these matters.

Pier reiterates his point about unity multiple times through the book. He writes, “Division in the church breeds atheism in the world.” His reiteration of this is great that it’s hard to think there isn’t some kind of back story. As much as he emphasizes unity within the church, it doesn’t seem that he is overly promoting ecumenical ministries. The bigger issue within cities is the segregation that exists within churches. The lack of integration within churches can be just as great of a hindrance to the gospel as disunity.

“A Disruptive Gospel” also promotes an awareness of, care for, and raising up of millennial leaders. Millennial leaders are the church of today and tomorrow, to disregard or ignore them is to almost purposefully seek the death knell of God’s church, although I don’t believe anything can kill God’s church. There needs to be strategic movements and intentional plans to seek ways to transition the youth of today into leaders by discipling them and investing in them. One leader shares, “Young people desperately want a ‘third place’ to connect, and very few churches provide that space. There is virtually no transition from youth group to a larger church gathering on Sundays.”

The movements that have occurred and are occurring within U.S. cities such as New York and Dallas are the focus of many of the early chapters within “A Disruptive Gospel.” Movement Days have been started within cities with the realization that cities shape culture, gospel movements shape cities, and leaders catalyze movements. The idea behind Movement day was to create a convergence between the prayer movements that are taking place within the church as well as the church planting movement that is taking place in the church. As Pier says, “What our cities need more than anything is a maturing and deepening of relationship between diverse Christian leaders within the same city. Missional unity is the ball game.”

Education and information are key factors in seeing a gospel movement take off. Pier writes, “We can love only that which we know. The more we know about our community, our church, or our city, the more we will care about its well-being. Research compels us to act.” How can we reach people that we don’t know and don’t know about? If we fail to know them, we will fail to love them. We need to become more aware of the people who Jesus wants to be a part of his kingdom, not necessarily the ones who are already in the kingdom and the church, but those who may be the furthest away.

Pier goes on to share about what is taking places within cities throughout the world. The United Kingdom. Dubai. Germany. South Africa. The Philippines. God is at work throughout the world and there is much to be learned about what is being done and tried all around.

The subtitle for “A Disruptive Gospel” is “Stories and Strategies For Transforming Your City.” The first half of the book seemed to move along fairly well. There were nuggets of information and good insights that I thought were really helpful. As the book moved on, the information seemed repetitive and dry, less about story sharing and more about information sharing. My interest waned as it went on. So, I could almost give two different reviews for the two halves of this book.

Overall, there was good information in here. That information could probably have been shared in half the space that it took. If you don’t mind skimming a book to find the nuggets that lie along the way, you might want to read “A Disruptive Gospel.” If you are expecting a book that moves along at a decent pace, holding your interest at every page, you may want to read something by the guy who wrote the foreword of the book, Tim Keller.

(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.)

Hopes and Dreams

hopesanddreamsIf you follow the church calendar at all, you know that this past Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent. I had the privilege of kicking off our Advent sermon series called “He is greater than I.” Appropriately, the sermon was focused on Mary and her response to the news that she had received from the angel regarding her pregnancy.

As I weaved my way through Mary’s song in Luke 1, I couldn’t help but think about what kind of a disruption this might have been for Mary. Mind you, the place of women in the 1st century near East is not near where the place of women is in today’s society, but you still have to wonder what kinds of things Mary hoped and dreamed of for her future.

Regardless of those hopes and dreams, things turned out very different for the teenage girl. She had a lot of explaining to do and she probably had to put up with a whole lot of stares as she walked through town. Any chance of having been a wallflower was most likely lost as the world would eventually know her name and what she had done.

I wonder if Mary realized the full extent of what she was being called to do. Of course, that’s been speculated in the song “Mary, Did You Know?” The angel who appeared to her was pretty clear about what she was being asked to do and who Jesus was, so it’s hard to think she didn’t know. But then, what else she heard after “You will become pregnant….” might be somewhat questionable, considering.

Whatever Mary’s hopes and dreams may have been, they really paled in comparison to what she got. On a list of hopes and dreams, I’m not sure that anyone would consider “Mother of the Son of God” as one of the bullets, yet that’s just what she would become.

After my message this past Sunday, I was asked this question, “How do we reconcile God’s bigger plan with our own dreams or is it better just to skip them altogether?”

Although I gave an immediate answer, it’s something that I’ve pondered a lot since the asking. While immediate answers aren’t always wrong, I find myself continually asking myself questions long after answers to them have been given.

I had to think whether or not I had hopes and dreams for myself. If I did, what were they?

As I thought about it, it seems that my hopes and dreams as I have gotten older have grown broader than they used to be. While there are some specifics, I find myself looking at things more generally than I did before, when I was younger. My hopes and dreams center around my family, hoping for certain things for my children yet not living vicariously through them.

I want certain things for my children and my family. I want to experience certain things for myself. I want to be effective in what I do and even have some vocational hopes and dreams as well. But what happens if those dreams are never realized? What if they don’t align with God’s plan for me?

I think that I learned about disappointment before I even left middle school. So, suffice it to say that the fact that my hopes and dreams might be dashed hasn’t stopped me from still hoping those hopes and dreaming those dreams. If I’m honest, I think that I might even find that like Mary, my hopes and dreams actually paled in comparison to what reality became for me. That’s not to say that I haven’t faced my share of disappointments, struggles, and heartaches, but overall, my blessings have exceeded some of what I dreamed they might be.

As I have grown in my faith, I have realized that we can often get too specific in our asks from God. Don’t mishear me here, we need to ask God specifically for things, but I think we have a tendency to take it a little too far. I was the kid who had Jeremiah 29:11 as his senior yearbook quote, so I’ve had to grow into this myself. I think we get too hung up in whether God wants us to be an artist or an engineer, whether he wants us to have 2 kids or 4, whether we should rent a house or buy a house. I’m not saying that he doesn’t care, I’m just saying that when we ask those kinds of questions, we kind of miss the forest for the trees.

God’s got a much bigger plan and we are only a small part of it. When we get so focused on specifics, I think that we’re trying to make ourselves a much bigger part of the plan than we should be. We’re not insignificant, neither are our desires, but there are much more important fish to fry than some of the ones that I have spent my time frying in the past.

I probably dreamed of the wife and family that I would have, maybe obsessing a little too much on them before I had them, but now that I have them, I see that my dreams were tiny in comparison to what I actually got. I pursued one vocation for a decade until I stumbled into another one that I’ve been in for more than that. While I dreamed of what my career would be, I don’t think that I ever dreamed of what it has become. It almost seems as if my dreams have always fallen short of reality, although it might not have always looked that way to me.

I’m not going to sit here and mimic a certain Houston pastor who wants you to live your best life now. I won’t sit here and say that God will always let you have what’s best for you (although that may be true). What I will say is that God will always let us have what’s best for him, what will bring him the most glory. In mulling that over, we can’t forget that one of the things that brought him glory was also the thing that brought him pain, the sacrifice of his son, Jesus. If God’s glory is even costly for him, why should we think that it won’t be costly for us?

I think that what happens as we grow in our faith, our maturity, and our relationship with Christ is that our hopes and dreams align more with his plans for us. That’s doesn’t mean that we’re always aligned, but I think that we begin to want what he wants, making our hopes and dreams his will. Does that make sense?

I’m still hoping and dreaming, and I plan to until my dying day. The minute that I stop hoping and dreaming is the minute that I begin to give up, and that’s not something that I want to do.

I’m going to keep mulling this over, but for now, I’m going to go hope and dream some more! 

How’s Your Soul? – A Book Review

hows-your-soul“You can have millions in the bank, a Maserati in the driveway, and more Instagram followers than the pope, but unless your soul is healthy, you won’t be happy.” So Judah Smith writes within the first pages of “How’s Your Soul?” and then he spends the whole book talking through just what it means to take care of your soul.

As I dove into this book, I entered skeptically. I knew that Judah Smith had risen through the ranks to become one of the most popular hipster pastors of late. But was he for real? While I’ve read his book “Life Is…” the jury was still out in my mind as to where he stood. I’m fine with people writing encouraging and inspirational books, but I was wondering whether or not there was any depth to Smith. After all, there’s already one Joel Osteen in the world, I’d rather not see any more like him.

Judah Smith is the real deal. He’s funny. He’s quirky. He’s self-deprecating. He’s grounded. As much as he is all these things, he brings gospel truth, not compromising the message of the cross or the gospel and clearly laying out the essentials of the Christian faith. Smith writes with a winsomeness that allows for those who aren’t quite there yet in discovering who Jesus is. He’s not pushy or arrogant, but neither does he pull punches when it comes to the truth of the gospel. That won me over.

As Smith talks about the soul, he’s honest about the beginnings of our problems. He doesn’t shy away from the word “sin” and says, “…if we try to apply these…elements to our souls without dealing with the sin issue, it won’t work.” He’s also honest about the work that we do for ourselves and the work that God has done for us when he says, “Self-effort is noble and admirable, and it will carry you through some things; but a love birthed in self will never be strong enough for all things. We need a love that transcends human ability and experience.”

His words are reminiscent of Augustine’s words when he writes, “As our souls find themselves in God, our lives will find their purpose, place, and value in him as well.” We will not find rest in our souls until we find that rest in God alone. He speaks of living lives that are surrendered and surrounded. We surrender to God and surround ourselves with others with whom we can walk. Even if we don’t fully get it or fully believe, it’s important to belong as we enter the process.

I appreciated what Smith said about belonging before believing. Too often Christians can be guilty of asking people to clean themselves up and then coming to Jesus. Smith encourages us to seek ways to allow for people to belong first rather than getting all the behavior right. It is a journey, we belong, then we believe, and then we behave. To try to behave first without belonging and believing is not only counterintuitive, it’s contrary to what Jesus taught us.

“How’s Your Soul?” was a pleasant surprise to me. There is no deep theology here, but that’s not what Judah Smith is going for, he’s just reminding his reader of the importance of soul care for living. It’s a fast read with some worthwhile truth. Check it out!

(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.)