How Are You Different? – A Redefined Mission

During this church planting journey that we are on, I’ve been doing a magical mystery tour of some of the other church plants that meet in non-traditional locations around the Richmond area. I’ve been taking note of the things that I have liked, the things that I haven’t liked, and doing my best to remember what stands out the most that I think would fit well in this new community that we are hoping that God builds through us.

A few weeks ago, we visited a church where the pastor spoke as they segued into their offering time. For those not familiar with this, most churches have a time set aside to gather up funds in what they call “the offering.” Some pass offering plates, others pass baskets. Some invite people to the front. Others have boxes at the exits for people to deposit donations to the church and its mission as they leave the worship service.

This pastor spoke of how they give 20% of their offerings to better the community of which they are a part. As he talked about the joy it gives him to contribute to these missions, I couldn’t help but think of Jeremiah 29:7, “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

As he talked about these missions, I wasn’t completely sure that all of those missions were “Christian” missions. Now, I could write a whole blog post or series about what that actually means, but for the sake of brevity, let me just say that it has to do with the mission and vision and whether or not there is some importance given to an evangelistic focus. In other words, is it a concern for an organization that people’s physical needs alone are met or is there emphasis given to people’s spiritual needs as well?

All that being said, it really got me thinking about how important this is.

While this is a significant part of who we will be as a church, I don’t think it means that the mission of God cannot be accomplished through people who don’t have that same focus. Seeking the peace and prosperity of the community, if we are really thinking holistically, involves physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being. It’s possible that missions can be supported who do this better than the local church does.

This really plays into the next significant difference which is that partnership is key.

We’ll talk about that in the next post of “How are you different?”

This is part 2 of a 5 part series. You can read Part 1 here.

 

Advertisements

Painful Growth

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

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

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

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

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

The pain of tragic loss

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

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

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

The pain of people leaving your church

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

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

The pain of seeing someone waste their potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, Dad…

cell phoneNext month will mark six years since I lost my dad. My healing and grief process has been a journey, a journey which has changed and shaped me. People are right when they say that you never recover from a loss. You are never the same, a piece of you is gone, but you put one foot in front of the other, slowly beginning to live again, discovering the “new” normal and rhythm of life.

I lost count of the number of times that I grabbed for my phone to make a phone call to my parents in those six years. To be honest, their phone numbers are still programmed into my phone although they’ve most likely been assigned to someone else by now. I can’t bring myself to get rid of the numbers or the voicemails that I have. On occasion, I’ve listened to them again just to hear the sound of my parents’ voices.

While there have been countless times I’ve wanted to pick up my phone to call my parents just to call them, there have been plenty of other times when there has been something specific that’s been on my mind that I’ve wanted to pick their brains about or just glean their wisdom and experience. That’s been especially true of this church planting journey that I’m on and my desire to just talk with my dad.

“Hey, Dad, I’ve got a question for you.”

“Hey, Dad, tell me about the time when you…”

Hey, Dad, I’m really wondering about how you handled…”

No, my dad wasn’t a church planter, he was a pastor, but there have been multiple times when I’ve felt as if my own experience has paralleled his. The town in which I am planting reminds me in some small ways of my own hometown. They share some of the same characteristics and quirks while also having some stark contrasts. My dad also found himself in friendships with those who held opposite political, ideological, and spiritual views than he did.

It’s funny because there were times when his stance and voice made me uncomfortable. There were multiple times when I know that he angered people in voicing his convictions and yet, he still managed to engage in conversations with those with whom he disagreed.

I’ve not had many regrets when it comes to my relationship with my parents, but I’ve felt a little twinge of guilt in these times, wishing so longingly to have been less selfish than I was so that I could have seen and appreciated the value of their experience. Once they were gone, I thought of a million questions that I wish I had asked them.

I’ve been blessed with a handful of other mentors during this time. I am grateful for their collective wisdom and experience as well as their willingness to share what they have with me. No offense to any of them, but there’s just nothing like the conversation between a father and a son.

I’ll continue to enjoy and take advantage of those great mentors and their voices. There’s a plethora of information and resources that I enjoy that my dad just never had access to (or he avoided because, let’s face it, he wasn’t the most technologically savvy). My faith tells me that I will see my dad again, and I’ll continue to wait for that day, when I’ll recognize him from afar and run to him as fast as I can and say, “Hey, Dad, I’ve got a lot to tell you!”

 

Love People, Solve Problems

As I’ve been on this church planting journey that I’ve been on, I’ve tried to surround myself with some quality mentors and leaders from whom I can learn. I’ve done enough life and ministry at this point that some of the arrogance that I once had in my twenties has been rubbed away and I’ve come to a place of acknowledgement of my own limitations and inadequacies. I have been incredibly blessed to have a few mentors around me who have spoken truth, life, and encouragement to me.

Last week, I met with one of those friends and mentors for lunch. I was updating him on where I am in the process and telling him some cool God stories that had taken place. God stories are the ones that you know could only happen by God’s power and hand, not by my own talents or abilities.

As we shared stories and caught up, he felt led to share some insights with me. He told me that he wanted to share something with me that had been helpful to him which he thought would also be helpful to me.

He said, “Remember, love people and solve problems.”

As the words escaped his mouth, he let them hang there for a minute. I’m sure that the look on my face hinted at the activity in my brain at that moment. I was trying to wrap my head around just what that meant.

When he had seen that I had struggled long enough to decipher his saying, he launched into his own experience of embodying those words. He said that he had at one time tried to solve people and love problems. But he realized that was fruitless and just led to frustration.

You see, ministry in general can be frustrating. Heck, any occupation that deals with people can be frustrating, so who am I kidding. If you deal with people, you will find yourself at times angry, frustrated, and wanting to give up. You will see them as problems to be solved rather than people to be loved. The achievers among us will want to fix them, to solve them, to help them reach their full potential and forget all about one of Jesus’ greatest commands: to love them.

I can be very task oriented. I can easily see a problem and move to fix it rather than trying to understand why it’s there. In my effort to move to solution, I forget that there is flesh and blood before me, someone to be loved and not fixed.

This friend and mentor knows me well enough by now to know that this same lesson that had proved some monumental and crucial to him was also something I needed to hear and embrace.

You see, focusing on loving someone and solving the problem pits me against the problem rather than the person. When we see the problem, even if that means there is conflict between us, we join together to do our best to find out how we solve the problem together. If we look at each other rather than the problem, all we will see is each other as the problem and then try to fix each other to accommodate our own preference or mindset.

It’s too easy to get caught up in looking past people to solutions and completely forgetting how valuable and important those people are. Loving people takes time and compassion. It takes empathy and care. Loving them and solving problems means investment. If we fail to love people and solve problems, then when we fail to solve a person, we simply discard them or walk away, excusing this abandonment as necessary because of the lack of growth and movement we saw.

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that somewhere along the way, someone loved us rather than trying to solve us. They took the time and invested in us, seeking a solution to a very real problem but seeking that solution through us rather than in us.

There is only one person who can solve and fix people, and that is God. I can’t do it. You can’t do it. The more that we try to do it, the more frustrated we will find ourselves becoming.

What will happen if you go into your day seeking to love people and solve problems. I know that in just the few short days since this truth was hammered home to me it has made a significant impact in me. It’s hard to rush towards solutions when you are simply trying to love someone.

 

Where Life and Faith Meet

The Branch Logo (4000 x 4000)I’m within weeks of launching out into one of the biggest adventures of my life. After being in full-time vocational ministry for the last fourteen and a half years, my wife and I are being sent out of our church to start another church in the next town.

I’ve been on a journey of growing and learning since I started in ministry all those years ago. I came into ministry through the back door, never having been to seminary when I started. Along the way, I got my seminary degree and learned through the School of Hard Knocks. I’ve been fortunate to have had some patient and gracious people along the way who put up with this Enneagram 8’s challenging ways.

I grew up in the church in the home of a pastor. I was at the church every time the doors were open and it really caused me to try to understand just what I was doing there.

My crisis of faith came in my sophomore year of college. I wanted to compartmentalize my life, keeping things separate in their nice and neat containers. But anyone who’s tried that knows that it rarely works and rarely lasts long.

I came out of that time like something from a crucible, a little more refined than I had been before. I had moved from living a secondhand faith to beginning the journey that moved me towards embracing a faith of my own.

In retrospect, that was probably the beginning of the journey that is finally coming to culmination in the weeks ahead. Twenty some odd years of trying to understand just how to live in that place where life and faith meet. How do I embrace my faith and live in the tension that culture and this world can sometimes (often?) provide?

I’ve not always been the easiest person to lead. There has been a restlessness in me since my engineering days (the career I left to come into full-time ministry). But part of the reason was because I’ve always felt this tension, this in between place in which I live as I embrace faith and yet walk and live in a world that can be so hostile towards those who do.

Compartmentalization isn’t really the way faith is supposed to work. Over and over, as I read through the Bible, I don’t see things that would indicate that faith should be relegated to one day a week. If we want to take seriously the words that Jesus said, we can’t put our Bibles on the shelf and dust them off on Sunday mornings or, worse yet, Christmas and Easter. Life and faith meet in the everyday moments that we live.

This is at the heart of this journey that I am on. The community that God has called me to be a part of is one where life and faith meet. It isn’t a place where we put that faith on the shelf for the times when we need it, because if we are honest, we need it every moment of every day.

This past week, I’ve had a firsthand experience of that. This week is a continuation of it. I will be a part of two funerals this week. One of those funerals is for someone who lived a good, long life. The other funeral is for someone who struggled and whose life was cut short by tragedy. But life and faith met in both of these lives.

As I met with families, sat in hospital waiting rooms, drove in my car, I wrestled in prayer, kind of like Jacob did with that angel in the Bible. To say that I’m walking with a limp afterwards would be appropriate. When we wrestle with God, it should change us. But we don’t always come out with satisfactory answers, and I really don’t think we are always supposed to, although we sure would like to have those answers.

In the midst of the collision of life and faith, pat answers don’t cut it. Explaining to a son why his father’s life was snuffed out can’t be done, at least not in my book. The Bible is a guidebook, a story of God’s redeeming love and just how that love intersects. In many ways, it’s a picture of the place where life and faith meet.

This will be an adventure, but more than that, it’s a calling. It’s a calling that’s probably been there for longer than I’d like to admit. It’s a calling that I needed to prepare for, and it’s not just the past five or ten or fifteen years that have been preparing me. It’s a calling that I’ve been being prepared for my whole life. God has been shaping and forming me to embark on this journey.

I’ve rarely met people who feel that they are completely ready and prepared for what is ahead of them. I find myself in the same boat, and that’s the way I think it’s supposed to be. If I felt like I could do this all in my own strength, where would faith be, where would my reliance lie? I wouldn’t be relying on God and I probably wouldn’t be dreaming big enough since I’ve always said that we need to dream dreams that are big enough that only God can accomplish them.

Here is what I do know. I know that the place where life and faith meet is a place that many people seem to be searching for. I know that this place is a place that needs to be defined by values.

So, here are some of the values that I’m discovering in this place.

When life and faith meet, there is unity not uniformity.

When life and faith meet, not every question has an answer.

When life and faith meet, relationships take priority over preferences.

When life and faith meet, Jesus meets us where we are but doesn’t leave us there.

When life and faith meet, we are brought to places of discomfort for the comfort of others.

When life and faith meet, ministry and service are not reserved for the “paid professionals.”

When life and faith meet, it can get messy, so we need grace.

I’ll be sure to let you know what I’m discovering along the way.

 

Know Your Limits

I was sitting in a local coffee shop the other day and a couple came in looking for breakfast options. The guy behind the counter told them that their breakfast options were limited and then proceeded to tell them about a place down the street that had a more full breakfast menu. The couple thanked him and headed out the door to the little diner down the street.

As I sat there, enthralled with what had just played out before me, I couldn’t help but think about the wisdom in knowing your limitations, in knowing what you can offer and what you can’t. This played out before me in a small little cafe, but I wondered why it doesn’t play out more in churches.

In this church planting journey that I have been on, I’ve thought a lot about churches and what they can and can’t do. I’ve thought a lot about trying to be all things to all people. I’ve wondered what keeps pastors from being secure enough in who they are and who their church is to tell people who are looking for something that they won’t find there that it might not be the place for them.

It’s far more tempting when new people come into your church to do your best to woo them and persuade them that this is the place for them, even if they are looking for something that you can’t give them. It’s far more difficult to be honest and tell them that you know a place that might be a better fit for them. I know that there are pastors out there who actually do that, recommend that people find what they’re looking for down the street, across town, or somewhere else.

In the long run, knowing limitations, both personally and as a church, will help us be more effective. I’ve learned that over the past few years, improving in the area of delegation, not to get out of working but to free myself up to do the things that I do best. Why is it that pastors and churches struggle to do what this coffee shop attendant did? Why do we struggle to know our limitations, admit our limitations, and live into the things at which we excel?

As I embark on this journey, what are the top reasons why I need to follow the example of this coffee shop attendant?

1) It helps to solidify and cast vision

I have a friend and mentor who planted a church years ago. His church has grown to be one of the largest in the area. While it might all seem like it came easily, he can share war stories and show the scars that he’s earned to get to the place where he is at. The one consistent story he has told is of the “vision wranglers” who came to the church with high expectations of what they were looking for and what they thought needed to be offered. Listening to them rather than pursuing the God given vision that you have been given will lead to a distorted vision and a confusing pursuit of that.

If a decision making process is formed to analyze opportunities and offerings within a church to ensure that they are aligned with the vision, it will go a long way in not only preventing burnout but also enforcing, solidifying, and casting that vision. When people ask if you offer something and you answer, “That doesn’t really align with the vision that God has given us,” people might not like it, but they will know what that vision is and how it drives everything that you do as a church.

2) It allows you to focus on your strengths

I could write an entire post on strengths and my own journey in them, but for the sake of this post, I’ll keep it brief. Focusing on strengths is far more fulfilling than focusing on weaknesses. That’s not to say that God doesn’t call us to grow in areas of weakness and rely on him, but I firmly believe that we still need to lean into him even when we are operating in our strengths. Just because something is your strength doesn’t mean you do it perfectly.

Focusing on the things that we are good at helps us be more effective and efficient as individuals. It makes sense that when we take it to a more corporate and communal level to the church that the same should be true. If we know the strengths of our faith community, we should live into them rather than trying to be like the other faith community down the street or across town.

When we try to do the things that we aren’t good at, not only do we become less efficient and effective, we also suffer from an identity crisis. We fail to see who God has created us to be and long to be other than who he has made us. In our pursuit of another identity, we basically tell God that we’re not satisfied with who he made us and we’d much rather be something else.

3) It helps to appreciate the vastness and diversity of the body of Christ

If the body of Christ is as diverse as Paul seems to describe it as in his letters, then maybe we aren’t all meant to do everything. There’s something to be said about a hand doing things that hands were meant to do. Same can be said of feet doing things that feet were meant to do. But an arm was never meant to smell, a leg was never meant to taste, a foot was never mean to see. Likewise, the nose, tongue, and eyes weren’t meant to do the things that arms, legs, and feet do.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging our limitations. In fact, I think that when we acknowledge those limitations, we begin to see just how vast and diverse the body of Christ is and appreciate the gifts of others. While we may still long to be something other than we are, if we humble ourselves, I think God can bring us to the place where we gain more appreciation for the gifts of others, especially when we know how hard it is to try to live into those things.

At the same time, hopefully others come to that same place and begin to appreciate us and the gifts that God has given to us.

This is all fine and good in theory, in fact, someone told me last week that I had a lot of theories. That’s part of the beauty of this journey I find myself on, theories will be tried and tested. They will be proved or disproved. The nice thing is that this is one theory that I’ve seen played out for me by others who have gone before, so theory or not, successful or not in my case, it’s been proven before.

Ultimately, my heart is about being part of God’s kingdom work in this world. That’s not always easy, it’s not without challenges, but I think that it can go a long way towards removing some of those challenges when we begin to live in to who God has made us, both as individuals and communities, and let others live into who they are. If we find ourselves living into that, I think we will begin to see what many of us have prayed for over and over again, God’s kingdom coming and his will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

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.

12 Faithful Men – A Book Review

12 Faithful MenIf you are in full-time vocational ministry, chances are pretty good that somewhere along the way, someone has given you the speech about your calling and the difficulties of ministry. When individuals have come to me with the prospect of going into full-time vocational ministry, I have counseled them that if there is anything else that they can do and find fulfillment, they should do that. Ministry is not for the faint of heart.

In “12 Faithful Men,” Colin Hansen and Jeff Robinson have compiled the stories of twelve faithful men who have endured many difficulties in ministry. From the Apostle Paul to Charles Spurgeon, from John Calvin to John Bunyan, and eight others, the editors compile these stories chronologically and share snapshots of their lives to see all of the things that they have experienced in their lives.

The stories range from the Apostle Paul and his imprisonment and shipwrecking. They cover the subject of John Bunyan’s writing that blossomed while he too was imprisoned. They describe the losses of a child and a spouse that Andrew Fuller experienced. They chronicle the congregation that was vehemently opposed to Charles Simeon and who wanted him to be replaced with someone else.

Reading through these accounts, it brings some perspective to those of us who may get upset when a member of our congregation criticizes our sermon or when an elder looks at us cross-eyed. The pain and suffering that the authors of these stories describe are true difficulties. It would be hard for any of the subjects of these stories to be questioned if they claimed trial and affliction.

But the authors make it clear that suffering and affliction has been a pattern that has built the church. In fact, Robinson writes that, “one certain indicator that God has called a man is that he stands firm and perseveres in ministry after he has been thoroughly buffeted by a hurricane of affliction.” These difficulties that are persevered in ministry shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a detractor or even a sign that someone isn’t where they are supposed to be but instead that they are in exactly the right place.

Ministry is hard and the authors of these stories paint that as a clear picture for the reader. But it’s hard to get the full picture in the brief chapters that touch on these twelve individuals. So, this book may be seen as an appetizer or buffet of the lives of these twelve men. These stories can whet the appetite of the reader and then he or she can choose to dig deeper into the lives of these men if they so choose.

While there were familiar names in here such as Paul, John Newton, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, and Charles Spurgeon, there were also unfamiliar names, at least to me. Names such as John Chavis, Charles Simeon, Janani Luwum, and Wang Ming-Dao. These chapters were a great introduction to these men, their lives, and the difficulties that they endured.

I thought it was well worthwhile to read, especially for those in full-time ministry. Even for those who are simply church members, this book can be a sobering picture to the average person of some of the difficulties that may be endured by those embarking on the journey of full-time ministry. If you want to get a taste for twelve men who experienced difficulty, tragedy, and hardship, this book is a great wade into that. If you read it, you just might find that you want to read deeper into the lives of these men and others who have followed the call of God even through trial and trouble.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

The Power of Vision – A Book Review

power of visionIf you have spent any time in an organization and have paid attention during that time, you can probably identify what happens when that organization is lacking vision. While it may not be evident at first that vision, or a lack thereof, is the specific problem, eventually, you will see the signs and know that something is wrong. The problem could very well be a vision problem.

George Barna has had a wealth of experience researching churches. His company, the Barna Group, has published significant amounts of data that show the trends in the culture today. He has shared those insights in the books that he has written. His book “The Power of Vision” is an exploration in the art, the process, the myths, and the benefits of vision.

Barna writes, “Although they are good people and have been called to ministry, most senior pastors do not have an understanding of God’s vision for the ministries they are trying to lead – and, consequently, most churches have little impact in their communities or in the lives of their congregants.” To the best of my knowledge, there is no required seminary class that teaches vision. Although we can clearly see evidence of God giving his vision to his people throughout the pages of the Bible, Barna makes it clear in his book that the process of gaining and discerning vision takes time. It cannot be entered into lightly or hastily.

Many churches will mistake mission and vision. Barna’s definition of vision is, “foresight with insight based on hindsight.” Vision is forward thinking, it concentrates on the future.

Barna does not belabor his description and insights about vision, the main portion of the book is only a little over one hundred and forty pages. But within those pages, Barna packs an incredible amount of information, not meant to confuse or confound but rather to bring clarity and insight to those who are truly seeking God’s vision for their church.

Too many churches get so caught up in returning to their glory days or maintaining the things that once made them great. Barna says, “We deplete the past to enjoy the present at the expense of the future.” While there is a place for looking backwards at where we have been in the process of vision, it needs to be coupled with looking ahead and moving there as well.

Vision will engage people if it’s the right vision and if it is communicated properly, clearly, and effectively. Barna says that communicating vision needs to be simple and if we are unable to communicate our vision, then it really doesn’t matter that we even have a vision. Without vision, people will become frustrated and will eventually leave. Vision will allow a church to filter opportunities and say no to those that will dissipate your resources.

“The Power of Vision” was a breath of fresh air. In a world where there is little to no loyalty among people, in which consumer preferences take precedence over relationships, Barna offers vision as a means by which the church can focus people towards something that matters. While a mission statement is a broad description of who you wish to reach and what you hope to accomplish, vision puts feet to the mission. Mission is philosophic while vision is strategic.

I cannot recommend this book more highly. Anyone who is in ministry or even who is part of a church and is seeking to allow God to use them needs to read this book. Barna speaks directly and honestly here. Considering his experience and the amount of churches his organization has worked with and observed, I would be hard pressed to believe that there is anything less than value in his insights.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

5Q – A Book Review

5QIn the early days of the Christian church, the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus laying out the various roles of those in the church. He wrote in Ephesians 4:11-13, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors (shepherds) and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” This description has come to be known as the fivefold ministry of the church.

In the introduction of his new book “5Q” Alan Hirsch writes, “It is sobering to consider that, as far as we can tell, Christianity is on the decline in every Western setting…” This decline of which Hirsch speaks of is due, in his opinion, to the abandonment of the bulk of this fivefold ministry of which Paul wrote. He says, “As for the church’s ministry, the historical church has largely opted to exclude apostolic, prophetic, and evangelistic frameworks and has viewed ministry through the now severely reduced categories of the pastor (shepherd) and the teacher (theologian).” Using the acronym APEST to describe this fivefold ministry, Hirsch claims that the Western church has done a good job of eliminating the APE ministries and accentuating and even overemphasizing the ST ministries.

Hirsch asks his readers to read through this book with soft eyes, doing their best to let go of the ways that they’ve looked at things in the past in order to see more clearly what we’re missing by excluding these crucial elements of ministry for the body of Christ. Hirsch goes so far as to say that, “the fivefold ministry is the way, or mode, by which Jesus is actually present in the church, and by which he extends his own ministry through us.”

Hirsch proceeds to support the idea of fivefold ministry with a biblical foundation. As we live into our own gifting and encourage others into their gifting as well, we begin to fulfill the purpose for which Christ left the church on the earth as his ambassadors and representatives. We move towards the fullness of Christ as we live into this ministry. The church has been sorely lacking by not living into this paradigm and ideology. This lack has led to a “fatal and degenerative dis-ease into the body of Christ.”

Jesus epitomized this fivefold ministry in his own life and the church has been called to carry out and continue to use this paradigm to accomplish his work on the earth. The cultural mandate to which the Church has been called should fulfill this purpose through these ministries. This fivefold ministry of the church Hirsch terms 5Q. As Hirsch writes, “Once we have identified 5Q as perfectly exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus, we can then see how he grafts these into the foundation of the church.”

Hirsch lays out the five ministries: Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Shepherd, and Teacher. He gives descriptions of the various characteristics of each, also giving examples of how these gifts may manifest themselves in both sacred and secular environments. Hirsch says that these fivefold archetypes can actually be found throughout creation and history, giving them ontological weight.

Hirsch then moves from Christ to the church, describing just what it would look like if the church should embrace 5Q and live into this fivefold ministry and archetypes. He also describes just what happens when there is a deficit in these areas, giving examples of just what that would look like within the church. To live into this paradigm is to move towards a much more functional means of doing things. The apostle Paul described the church as a body and Hirsch agrees. Just as the parts of the body work together with their strengths and functions, so should the church follow suit. To neglect an area is to be deficient. “To remove one is to undermine all the others. We need all five to mature.”

Over and over again while reading “5Q” I found myself nodding my head in agreement with all that Hirsch lays out. The APEST model is something that he has spoken of in his other works as well, but not to this same depth. It makes sense. It’s logical. It’s biblical. In theory, it seems like it should be successful, in a biblical and spiritual sense, not necessarily in a worldly sense.

In order for the 5Q approach to really work, there needs to be a paradigm shift within the Western church. That shift may be easier for some local communities and harder for others. That shift may be easier for some congregations and harder for some pastors. Egos can’t get in the way because they will surely short circuit this approach in a heartbeat. The purpose of a body is shared ministry and experience, if personalities who can’t handle being the center of attention or the primary focus can’t step aside to embrace a fivefold ministry, we can expect that the Western church will continue the decline that we have already been experiencing.

5Q is not a new idea. It’s as old as Christianity itself, but the focus and shift within the church has moved away from a more balanced approach towards ministry and placed the emphasis and weight on a select few. Should we then be surprised when we see some of those crumble beneath the weight and when we see so many longing for something so much more significant than they have experienced? I think not.

I’ve been a fan of Alan Hirsch for years. I had the pleasure of sitting down with him in a little Irish pub in Long Beach, California a few years back. There was no pretense about him in person and his writing reflects the genuine personality that he possesses. He writes not with a pretentious confidence but with a loving desire to share the knowledge and wisdom that he has gained through his own experience, seen both personally and second hand.

If the Western church were to shift back towards this fivefold ministry which Hirsch is encouraging, I think we would see a significant change in effectiveness and in staying power. Of course, if we instead choose to embrace the things that we have always done, we shouldn’t be surprised if we see history repeating itself.

There are plenty of resources in this book for local communities to use to help more towards 5Q. I look forward to exploring them myself to see just how the community of which I am a part can move back towards ministry the way that Christ intended.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from 100 Movements. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)