Thursday, July 31, 2008

At the Name of Jesus...

I was sitting at my desk not long ago when a phone call was transferred to me from someone who wanted to speak with a minister. It’s not all that unusual for me to get such calls… we have a lot of people who call the church office and want to talk with a minister. What made this caller a bit out of the ordinary was that the first words out of her mouth to me were spoken with such urgency: “I want you to tell me what you believe about Jesus!”

Now, I love to talk about Jesus. And this woman seemed really interested in what I had to share... so I spent the next twenty minutes telling her about Jesus.

The more I talked, the more excited the person on the other end of the phone line seemed to become. She said a couple of times that it was almost as if she was coming out of fog and finally realizing that she had been searching for God all of her life. The words she used to describe what she was hearing about Jesus were “thrilling” and “refreshing.”

She wanted to know how she could find out even more about Jesus, so I pointed her to the Bible and the books of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. It was too cool hearing her excitement grow as she heard, for what she said was the first time, the good news about Jesus.

As I hung up the phone, I prayed a prayer of thanks to God for His incredible grace and unbelievable love. I asked God to touch my heart and revive the awe that comes from hearing the thrilling and refreshing news of Jesus.

There was just something so clear

and beautiful

and true

and unique

and powerful about Jesus

that old rabbis would marvel at his teachings,

young children would run up and sit in his lap,

ashamed prostitutes would find themselves

weeping at his feet,

whole villages would gather

to hear him speak,

experts in debate of the law

would find themselves speechless,

and people from the poor

to the rugged working class

to the unbelievably wealthy

would leave everything… to follow him.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Speedy Oil Change...

Katie Lea and I were using Susan’s car for an errand the other day, and I decided to be a nice husband and get her oil changed. At face value this would seem like an easy thing to accomplish… as fast oil change locations are found throughout our city.

The first place I stopped had me pull into the oil change bay. The attendant then pointed Katie Lea and me to their waiting area, and told us they’d let us know when they were finished.

I’m carefully studying the varieties of car air fresheners available for purchase in the waiting area, when the oil change guy motions me to the door. He tells me that they can’t get the plug unscrewed from my car’s oil pan and they don’t want to break it trying. So, they can’t change my oil… but the guy says I can get a free car wash if I want it. Thanks… but I’ll pass on the car wash.

Katie Lea and I get back in the car and drive a couple of miles to another fast oil change place. As I started to pull into the oil change area, I almost ran over the attendant who was lying on the floor while talking on the phone. This should have told me that I was not entering a tightly run operation. But I was on a mission, so I pulled on in. (But not over his body… since he did move... finally.)

Once again, Katie Lea and I head to the waiting area and I start counting car air fresheners. Two minutes later, the oil change guy presses his face against the window and I am again beckoned to the door. I’m told that they are out of the oil filters that fit my car… so, they can’t change my oil.

I told Katie Lea to get back in the car. I’ve now entered that zone where it’s no longer about getting an oil change--this has become a quest… a mission. I drop Katie Lea off at the house, telling her that there are some things that a man has to do alone.

Five minutes down the road and I’m pulling into another speedy oil change location. This place has three bays for cars… but only one bay is open… and there’s a car in it... and everybody who works at the place is looking under the hood of this car. There are two other cars waiting to pull into the bay, so I pull in behind them. What was wrong with this picture?!

All the employees who were looking under the hood of the car seemed to be in a state of suspended animation. I noticed the guy in the car in front of me had cobwebs on him. It was time to leave this place and search out another fast oil change option.

As I pulled in, the attendant at this, my fourth oil change stop of the day, waved me and my car right into a bay. He told me I could head into the waiting area, but I had seen enough car air fresheners for one day. Thanks, but no thanks, I told the guy... I’d stay close.

I expected to be told that they’d run out of oil… but they hadn’t. In fact, they were actually speeding through my oil change. And as I stood there amazed, the attendant said, “I see you have a Bible in your back seat, so let me ask you a question.” He pulled a book out of his desk that dealt with God’s plan for your finances. He asked me if I believed God really did have a plan for the way we used our money… because he was trying to get out of debt, and thought God’s plan might work for him.

Standing there listening to the oil change guy speak, God reminded me that my day’s path was always in His hands. And I could be useful to Him… even when I was looking for a speedy oil change… if I would just keep my eyes and heart open. It took me almost two hours to get the oil in Susan’s car changed that day. But that was okay. Because I’m thinking God needed me to be someplace that day… and it took me almost two hours to get there.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Clearly Seeing Clearly...

An airport in Berlin, Germany posted a job opening recently for air traffic controllers. One of the job's requirements: applicants must have 20/20 vision. That seems like a reasonable requirement for someone in that line of work.

Interestingly, those offering the position also wanted applicants to know that the application for the job was available in braille.

Clearly, somewhere along the line, the method of communicating, the history, how they have done it before--got in the way of the message and the job. You'd think someone would have caught this oxymoronic discrepancy.

Here's what I'm pondering....

Churches spend a great deal of time and resources delivering a message. We know what we want to say, how we want to say it, what technologies and tools we will use to drive home our point.

But what happens when our delivery methods become outdated? What do we do when the questions we are answering are not the questions people are asking?

The challenge is to ask the right questions to the right people at the right time in the right way. Churches must test their delivery methods to make sure they pass through a filter of relevance to the lives of those who will be the recipients of the message.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Failing, Failed, Failure...

I was sitting in a planning session with several SoHills' leaders recently and the question was asked, "Are we prepared for this effort to fail?" That question got me pondering my perspective on failure.

Failure can be viewed as a to-be-expected possibility in any endeavor, as well an avoid-at-all-costs killer of initiatives.

I'm thinking we'd agree that there are different types of failure— some that are necessary for success, and others that can and should be avoided.

It's been suggested that there are three different types of failure:

+ Failure to try

+ Failure to execute

+ Failure to succeed

What has been your experience with failure?

How has failure changed your life... or has it?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Leading by Committee...

Okay... what comes to your mind when you watch this clip?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

I Scream, You Scream...

It's hot in Abilene-land! And what better way to beat the heat than with ice cream... especially since July is National Ice Cream Month (so designated by President Ronald Reagan in 1984).

According to those who track such things, vanilla remains the most consumed flavor of ice cream--pulling in 29% of the market share.

So... what's your favorite flavor of ice cream?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Delivering the Message...

I encourage you to take the time (4:02) to watch the following clip. The speaker is Mark Beeson, senior pastor at Granger Community Church. Mark shares a great story illustrating how people often can't hear what we're saying... not because of what we're saying, but how we say it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Running the Numbers...

Chris Jordan is a photographer, and he has displayed on his web site an interesting series of photographs that represent a collection he calls Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait. Running the Numbers looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something.

For instance, you have this photograph:

Followed by this photograph:

The above photographs are one and the the same. Both depict 426,000 cell phones, equal to the number of cell phones retired in the United States every day.

Interesting pictures of the "wake" we create as consumers.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rid the Yard of Sticks...

The following story from David Crowder smacked me in the face. David and his band recently won four 2008 Dove Awards, including Worship Album of the Year for Remedy, and Rock/ Contemporary Recorded Song of the Year for "Everything Glorious."

It is a Saturday afternoon in Waco, Texas and I am at home sitting on the couch with my wife. The television is on and it is displaying a golf tournament and we are observing this through half-opened heavy eyelids. It’s rather lovely.

I feel the need to point out that I live in one of the more economically depressed sections of town, as in, seriously, two of our neighbors call themselves the Rockstars because, they sell “rock,” (as in crack cocaine) – they do a brisk business. So, again, this time with context, my wife and I are sitting on our couch on a Saturday afternoon watching the “sport” of golf with lots and lots of Fidelity and Buick commercials.

Abruptly, I am jarred from this, my privileged slumber, as, “David! David!” is yelled at loud volume from somewhere behind me. I now feel the need to point out that we do not have any curtains on our windows. We’ve been in our house 6 years and curtains have held only occasional importance, like now, with, “David! David!” being shouted from the street at the window located directly behind my head, which is again causing me to think, “Seriously, we’ve been here 6 years? We need some curtains.” I turn and peek over the couch. It’s John. I say this to my wife, “Oh, man. It’s John.”

John is an elderly black man who has no home. He is one of Waco’s homeless. He is my neighbor. He comes around and wants to pick up the sticks in my yard. He says, “David, I’ll just get these sticks out of your yard if you can spare a few dollars.” We do this often, rid the yard of sticks. It’s really helpful – you can imagine – the ability to move about your yard without the obstruction of sticks. So, here is John, standing in the street outside of my window, watching us watch golf, when he decides he needs to tell me something. Peering over the couch, my eyes meet with John’s and I am left with no choice outside of meeting John at my back door.

“Hey John.”

“Now, David. I don’t mean to disturb you. I see you and your wife in there just relaxing, watching the TV, the golf I see, my apologies.”

“That’s quite all right. What’s going on John?”

“Well, like I said, I don’t mean to disturb you, I just wanted to say congratulations.”

I pause. I’m not sure what my line is supposed to be. I had all of my lines ready. I had formulated them on my walk from the couch to the door. I have no idea what he’s talking about. I think to myself, John is genius. This is a new angle. I’m trying to anticipate his next move and I’m forming fantastic pieces of discussion that will totally make John get a real job and stop living on the street and asking me if he can pick up my sticks. I respond, “Uh, thanks.”

“Yep. You’re gonna do it. We’ve all talked and we know you’re gonna bring ‘em home. Just like last time. Yep, congratulations. We’re all pulling for you.”

“Uh, OK. Now what might this be regarding?”

“Those Dove awards. You’re gonna win ‘em! We all prayed and we know you’re gonna do it, you’re gonna bring ‘em home you hear me?”

I pause. I have no idea where to put this. John has basically told me that the homeless population near my house is: 1) aware that there are such things as “Dove Awards” and 2) that my band and I have been nominated for some, and, 3) seriously? (!) The homeless had some type of meeting, or assembly, or whatever, and are praying we win?

What on earth! That is the most ridiculous thing ever, and – what, seriously? Thoughts like this are in my head: David, you make assumptions that are wrong. You need to repent. You are evil.

To carry the story of God in a way that makes a real, tangible difference to those we live among can be really frustrating at times. I think the only way to not become paralyzed by the task, is, to get close enough to these issues for them to turn into names and faces that walk up to your fence on a Saturday; who lean in and yell your name and give you something that leaves you smiling and tearful and repentant and a little more in love with the people God has made.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Waitress Is Watching...

One of my favorite bloggers is Anne Jackson. Anne writes with passion and purpose. Anne is on the staff of the Cross Point Church in Nashville, Tennessee... and she's just finished writing a book called Mad Church Disease that will be available in February, 2009.

Here's a recent post from Anne's blog that really spoke to me:

Evidently, this little freestanding building was the place Nashville’s best comfort food called home. Tucked away in a residential area with limited and awkward parking, my husband Chris and I decided, after several recommendations from friends, to explore what this cozy little café had to offer. We moved to Nashville at the end of June, and finding delectable hole-in-the-wall restaurants is one of our favorite hobbies.

A waitress with frizzy blonde hair appeared. She seemed older than her fifty years, with deep wrinkles and a posture of a woman who has spent most of her life carrying food to hungry customers. Her southern accent was thick as she took our order. When she returned with our rolls and butter, she grinned as she asked us a question that caught us completely off guard.

“Do y’all mind if I ask y’all how long y’all’ve been married?”

We looked at each other a little surprised, but I turned and answered her.

“We just passed our five year anniversary a few days ago.”

Her smile got bigger as she told us she assumed we were newlyweds. “It’s just the way y’all look at each other and act. I just thought you hadn’t been married very long. You seem so in love.”

Surprised, we thanked her as she turned to wait on another customer.

“That was weird,” I told Chris. “But I guess that’s a good thing, huh?”

He agreed, and we returned to our baked squash and fried okra.

I couldn’t help but think more about what the waitress asked us about. Now, I’m certainly not one to claim I have a perfect marriage. Chris and I have had our fair share of issues and problems and fights. We are definitely past that newlywed phase and our guards are down, tempting us to take each other for granted and let our selfish nature win over serving each other.

The thing that struck me most was the unexpectedness of the conversation. Here we were, in a small unassuming restaurant, simply having dinner.

But someone was watching.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been meditating on a familiar verse.
The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:12, “Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.”

Regardless of if our name is ever in lights, someone is always watching. It’s your supervisor. Your pastor. Your spouse. Your child. Your volunteer team. Your church members. The waitress at the restaurant.

You are setting an example, whether you know it or not.

Oswald Chambers wrote,
“The people who influence us the most are not those who detain us with their continual talk, but those who live their lives like the stars in the sky and "the lilies of the field"— simply and unaffectedly. Those are the lives that mold and shape us.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Wake-Up Call...

It's time to wake-up, church. Here are some sobering realities to which we must open our eyes.

We're losing influence:

“The primary reason outsiders feel hostile toward Christians, and especially conservative Christians, is not because of any specific theological perspective. What they react negatively to is our “swagger,”how we go about things and the sense of self-importance we project.” UnChristian - David Kinnaman

When asked to evaluate group in terms of respect, non-Christians rated Evangelicals tenth. Only prostitutes ranked lower. The Fall of the Evangelical Nation - Christine Wicker

We're losing young people:

One in four adults ages 18 to 29 claim no affiliation with a religious institution. AP Poll

They think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind, that Christianity in our society is not what is was meant to be. They admit they have a hard time actually seeing Jesus because of all the negative baggage that now surround him. UnChristian - David Kinnaman

I'm convinced our great God stands ready to equip His people to respond to this great opportunity. We must trust Him to lead us... and then be willing to follow His lead.

How do you sense God's call on your life in response to the above?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Snake Bitten...

Speaking of snake handling, Todd Rhoades had this post on his web site recently:

The pastor of a Kentucky church that handles snakes in religious rites was among 10 people arrested by wildlife officers in a crackdown on the venomous snake trade.

More than 100 snakes, many of them deadly, were confiscated in the undercover sting after Thursday's arrests, said Colonel Bob Milligan, director of law enforcement for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.

Most were taken from the Middlesboro home of Gregory James Coots, including 42 copperheads, 11 timber rattlesnakes, 3 water moccasins, a western diamondback rattlesnake, 2 cobras and a puff adder.

Which brings up this ethical question...

Is it morally wrong to break the law to smuggle illegal snakes to use in your church service?

I mean, really… wouldn’t a regular old rattlesnake do? Do you really need a giant puff adder?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Why Didn't I Think of This...

Man... why didn't I think of this?! These cups are just too cool.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The World As We See It...

"It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see." ... Anaïs Nin

I'm constantly praying about, and struggling with this as a spiritual discipline in my life. Let's just say I never seem to run out of real-life situations that challenge me to look at things from the point of view of someone else. Sometimes I'm intentionally seeking it out. And sometimes, it's a hard life-lesson I'm running into face first.

Anaïs Nin quote smacked me with a God-sized challenge for SoHills and other churches: What are we doing to learn about people that don't see things the way we do? Do we see the world as it is, or the way we are?

As a Jesus follower, would we be willing to:
+ go to lunch with an atheist?
+ eat dinner at a smoky, local bar with people who curse like sailors?
+ listen to some alternative secular music and learn what the lyrics mean?
+ read The God Delusion (currently ranked #194 on Amazon's bestseller list)?
+ go to a tattoo parlor and browse through the portfolio books?
+ make friends with people who are very unlike you?

None of these would be easy. And they're all uncomfortable. And somewhat controversial.

Let's agree we won't shut down these possibilities due to an anxiety attack over what "the church" might say about it. Instead, let's think about the way Jesus told us to live... and how we are to be his ambassadors who bring his light into the darkness.

I'm just asking... what are we willing to do to learn about people who don't see things the way we do?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Church Building Factor...

Rick Warren, Senior Pastor of the Saddleback Church, points to six physical factors about church buildings that affect a worship gathering. I found Rick's factors interesting... but I'd also like to hear your thoughts, pro or con, regarding these six factors.

Here's a summary of the six physical factors that Rick believes affect any worship gathering:

1. Lighting

Lighting has a profound effect on people’s moods. Inadequate lighting dampens the spirit of a worship gathering. Shadows across a speaker’s face reduce the impact of any message.

2. Sound It doesn’t matter how persuasive the message is if people can’t hear it in a pleasing manner. A tinny, fuzzy sound system can undermine the most gifted musician and incapacitate the most profound preacher. And nothing can destroy a holy moment faster than a loud blast of feedback!

3. Seating
Both the comfort and the arrangement of your seating dramatically affect the mood of any worship gathering. The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure! Uncomfortable seating is a distraction that the Devil loves to use.

4. Temperature The temperature can destroy the best planned worship gathering in a matter of minutes! When people are too hot or too cold they simply stop participating in an assembly. They mentally check-out and start hoping for everything to end quickly.

5. Clean, Safe Nurseries If you want to reach young families, you’ve got to have sanitized and safe nurseries. There should be no mop-buckets in the corners and the toys should be cleaned each week.

6. Clean Restrooms
Visitors may forget the sermon, but the memory of a foul smelling restroom lingers on… and on … and on! You can tell a lot about a church's desire for excellence by checking out the quality of the restrooms.

Without question environment and atmospherics influence people’s behavior. But it is also worth noting that the quality of environment needed for a church to effectively reach someone is largely dependent on the average quality of life to which that person is accustomed.

In Third World countries, people rarely are bothered by the quality of a sound system, and just having one is impressive enough. In Africa, hot temperatures are expected. In Peru, strange restroom smells were considered normal. In these circumstances, less than ideal environments did not affect the impact of ministry because they were expected.

It comes down to the expectations of the people you want to reach. Although the United States has its share of poor areas, most U.S. churches are trying to reach people with high expectations compared to the rest of the world. And if your church is trying to reach people who are accustomed to clean restrooms, there is a good chance that anything less than clean will turn them off.

The bottom line is:
know who you are trying to reach and create an environment one step above their expectations.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Lift Up Your Eyes-Part 2...

This post is a summary of an article written by Glenn Drysdale titled, "Addressing the Inwardly Focused Church Culture." Due to the length of Glenn's article, I've broken it up into two posts.

Picking up where we left off in yesterday's post:

First, as usual, a different perspective begins with the leadership. Once the leadership team has turned over the work of the church to the church, elders can do their real job: shepherding. They are to shepherd the people and, in cooperation and coordination with the ministry staff, the mission of the church. These are our marching orders, our central purpose for existing: to lead others into a relationship with the living God. That is the mission of any Christian church. Discipleship is secondary; you can’t mature people that you haven’t first brought to faith!

If maturing the members becomes the central purpose of the church, evangelism won’t happen; if evangelism isn’t the main thing, it won’t be any thing! Elders and ministers must decide that the central vision and direction for the church will be to reach people for Jesus, and that all significant decisions in the life of the church will be made with this central purpose in mind.

If today, your leadership team would not embrace this as the church’s most central reason to exist, then your team must convene to align your church’s mission with God’s. Bring in someone from outside your congregation to coach your leadership team and to say the difficult but true things that current leaders might have difficulty saying. But realize that controllers will look for reasons not to do this, and will be threatened with a perceived loss of control; this is why leadership style issues must be addressed first.

Second, once your leadership team commits to align the congregation’s central purpose with the mission of God, elders and ministers must not allow decisions to be made that conflict with the mission of reaching people. Everything is to be evaluated in light of the mission: what ministries exist, how money is spent, what facilities are built, and what energies are expended.

Of course at this point the disclaimer must be made that we are to stay within the bounds of Scripture—but clear Scripture, not someone’s wrongly trained conscience. While it is certainly true that just because you can (Scripturally) do something, that doesn’t mean you should do it now, the goal is to create an environment where the mission is primary. What you emphasize is what you will do.

I once heard the dean of a Christian university say that whenever the advancement of the Kingdom is not given equal status with the needs of the members, then balance becomes the course of least resistance—not courageous forward progress. Elders are to shepherd the people as well as the mission.

Yet elders are often afraid to make the hard decisions (or to support the staff ministers in making them) that could result in a more outwardly-focused church because of the reactions of church members. Such decisions must be implemented with wisdom, excellent pre-teaching, and advance communication—but members who have been patiently waiting for leaders to embrace God’s mission need to see concrete changes, or they will eventually leave. If you lose those who can best help you implement the mission, the congregation can move into rapid decline.

Third, once these decisions are made and communicated to the church with conviction and determination, leaders must evaluate everything. Programming can be streamlined to eliminate pet projects that use church resources but don’t result in reaching unchurched people or maturing them (Matthew 28:18-20). New approaches directed toward serving and connecting with people in the community can begin.

Churches typically have more ministries than they can effectively sustain, and most of them serve church members. Church leader: Are you willing to spend as much money on programming that reaches out to your community as you do on programming for church members?

Fourth, look at your worship services. Run statistics and find out who is attending. Determine who God is bringing to your church, and who he is NOT bringing. Ask the hard questions: Who is welcome at your church, and who is not? Singles? Divorced? What is the typical age of newcomers? What percent of your guests are unchurched or formerly churched people? Invite an in-depth study of your congregation. Be approachable, and encourage others to tell their stories; the truth might surprise you.

In one large congregation, 97% of numerical growth in recent years has come from transfer membership. Said another way, they are primarily a caretaking ministry. The Great Commission includes delivery of care for our people, but is secondary to first reaching them. In this same congregation, several stories of newcomers being asked to move from their pews became known. Guests would enter the worship center, find seats, and then be asked to move by a church member. “Uh, my family usually sits here,” one guest was told. Some felt banished to the balcony; others never returned.

Such an inward focus on the part of church members should be addressed. Members should be taught the church’s primary mission and told that this mission is not about their comfort and convenience. Jesus talked about those who wanted the best seats.

This large congregation won’t be able to turn its focus quickly, but its leaders are attempting to make changes, and are actively supporting missions elsewhere. The leadership is finding ways for the congregation to participate in the mission of Jesus. Yet I believe that each individual Christian is to participate in the mission, and that it is the task of leadership to call everyone to embrace the mission of God in the world.

In The Externally Focused Church, Robert Lewis, who wrote the forward of the book, told the story of his own congregation’s efforts to remodel a number of schools in the urban neighborhoods of his city. One teacher’s reaction to their community service was especially telling: “If this is Christianity, then I’m interested.”

This is why we must turn our focus outward. Today, churches must establish trust and credibility with their communities before many people will listen to their message. It has never been truer that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Today, we must show the truth. And, it is difficult to do that while we remain focused mostly on ourselves.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Lift Up Your Eyes-Part 1...

It's my sense that one of greatest opportunities facing almost any church is turning its gaze outward. Still caring for and nurturing its people, but calling church to be church by embracing the genius of God's plan to grow as disciples as we go and make disciples.

Some time ago I laid my hands on an article written by Glenn Drysdale which he'd titled, "Addressing the Inwardly Focused Church Culture." I felt Glenn hit the nail squarely on the head in this piece, and I wanted to share his thoughts with you. It's a fairly long article, so to make it a bit easier to digest, I'm going to break it up into two posts.

"The question that sometimes drives me hazy— am I, or the other, crazy?"
--attributed to Albert Einstein

This question has been pondered by many church leaders in the midst of struggling with an issue. Sadly, the issues are usually all about us. In my previous article about turning a congregation’s focus outward, I discussed the transition to a permission-based leadership style, where leaders decide to let the work of the church be done by the church. One final story will illustrate the importance of this.

A new member in our congregation recently told this story about why he decided that this was the church for his family. One Sunday while he was talking with one of our shepherds, a member of the congregation asked him where the thermostat was located and how he could adjust the air conditioning. This elder said, “I don’t have a clue.” He asked two other elders standing nearby, but they also did not know where the thermostat controls were located. It simply wasn’t part of their job as shepherds.

After listening to this discussion, this new member said that given his background and what he had seen elders do in previous churches, he knew this was the church he wanted to be a part of. This story reaffirmed for me that our new ministry system is doing exactly what it should; it defines our leadership roles and releases us to do what is most essential. On occasions when I have assisted leadership teams in implementing this permission-giving ministry system, the results have been joyful and effective.

In one recent study of church conflict in various churches, 85% of conflicts involved control issues. This is no surprise to most church leaders. In the same study, 64% of all conflicts involved the vision and direction of the church.

This is a related issue, since control-based leaders or members often desire to control the direction of the congregation. Those who seek to exert undue influence in furthering their own agendas are controllers, and a permission-giving ministry system will neutralize their controlling tendencies. Only then is it time to take the next step of addressing the self-focused church culture, a subject to which we now turn our attention.

It has been said that the greatest obstacle to the coming of the Kingdom of God is the church, preoccupied with her own existence. Consider these six basic spiritual needs of Americans:

* The need to believe that life is meaningful and has a purpose

* The need for a sense of community and deeper relationships

* The need to be appreciated and respected

* The need to be listened to and to be heard

* The need to feel that one is growing in faith

* The need for practical help in developing a mature faith.

Since these spiritual needs are present in our community, here is the question that we must ask: why are so few of our discussions about church matters focused around meeting these needs? It is no wonder that church is often seen as irrelevant by non-attenders today. Our focus is typically inward. The following true stories illustrate the problem. In one congregation on a Sunday morning before Christmas, one elder arrived early to display a Christmas tree on stage in the worship center. Christmas is a time when church attendance often increases, and guests would appreciate the festive spirit, he thought. He saw no need to communicate about this with the other elders.

When another elder arrived that morning and saw the Christmas tree, he promptly moved it from the worship center. Other elders, as they arrived, were pulled into the dialogue, and tempers flared. Some said it was a biblical issue; others felt it was a matter of wrongly trained consciences. In the end, the festive spirit turned into something much darker.

In one congregation, a man commonly known as “The Jesus Painter,” who portrays Christian themes in his paintings, left a couple of his works of art for the church after participating in an event. One elder hung the paintings in the worship center, and when worshippers arrived the next Sunday morning, the paintings generated considerable discussion. A few wondered if the paintings were idolatrous. The paintings were later taken down after intense discussion among church leaders, and relocated to a classroom.

While a few believed the paintings involved the sin of idolatry, none admitted to worshipping the paintings or the objects depicted in them. Others felt disappointed, confused, and hurt. Some wondered if they could stay in a church where such internal issues seemed so central in the life of the congregation.

We won’t all have the same opinions about the above incidents—but the issue is often not the issue at all. In the above cases, I believe that the greater issue was the inwardly-focused nature of the leaders and members. Instead of seeking ways to be a blessing to their communities, they expended inordinate amounts of energy addressing internal issues. Certainly, maturity and sensitivity are important in decisions about congregational practice, but no one was determined to have fallen away from faith as a result of the above conflicts, while the inwardly-focused nature of these churches might have kept some from coming to faith and certainly did not make the Gospel attractive or, as the KJV puts it, did not "adorn the doctrine of God."

Just as in decorating that Christmas tree, we are to decorate the Gospel by our lives. That didn’t happen in the above events.

Paintings, Christmas trees, whatever else aside: how can we move our people away from a focus on internal issues and toward our mission of reaching people in our communities? Here are some suggestions. (To be continued)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Susan's Blog...

My lovely wife has jumped into the blogosphere with a blog she's calling Lila's Journey. Susan is a talented writer, and her beautiful heart really shines through in her writing.

I thought Susan married me for my body. She didn't.

This skinny boy found the love of his life, and there's not a day that passes that I don't thank God for the gift of Susan in my life.

Check out Lila's Journey... it will be well worth your time.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Communication Challenge...

Communication is the key... but it's always a challenge to communicate well.

I'll let the above picture suffice for the proverbial "thousand words."

Friday, July 11, 2008

Deaf Interpreter Demands Less Greek...

We have a terrific team of interpreters at SoHills who use their giftedness in sign language to engage the hearing impaired in more meaningful participation in our worship assemblies. With great appreciation for these gifted servants, I share the following "news story" from

REDLANDS, Calif. — Maria Sanford, a volunteer deaf interpreter at her church, used to play the piano, knit and paint with watercolors in her spare time. Now she spends most afternoons icing her hands.

The reason: the new pastor at her 3,000-member church uses "an unnecessary amount of long words and foreign words" each Sunday, says her furious husband.

"Does he really have to say ‘metamorphosis’ twenty-one times and ‘Thessalonica’ eighteen times in the same sermon?" he says. "Multiply that by four services and you understand why I’m upset."

Sanford noticed recently that his wife could not do simple tasks like fold the laundry or open a jar of his favorite horseradish after Sunday services. She would never mention it to the pastor, he says, so he decided to take up her cause.

"I don’t know if big words make him feel smarter, but it’s hurting someone I love," he says.

He submitted a list of fifty words to the church he wants the pastor to avoid, including "transformational," "eschatology," and "most names of ancient Roman cities."

"Ask yourself when writing your sermon: do I really need all those syllables?" her husband wrote in his letter.

If the pastor continues using lengthy words, he will disallow his wife from volunteering for the deaf ministry.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sheep Issues...

Is there a clever caption just waiting for this picture? Your suggestions?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Highlighted Reading-Part 3...

Today's post is the final installment of what me and my highlighter found meaningful in the chapter titled "Our Building Project" in Life After Church: God's Call to Disillusioned Christians by Brian Sanders.

Mission. Finally, church is church only if it engages in the mission of God. Just as we were called and created to worship and for community, we were created for mission.

God gives gifts to his church to equip it to accomplish the mission of making disciples. This is our reason for existing. God's heart is for the expansion of his kingdom and the increase of his glory.

Delivering good news to our lost friends by proclamation and demonstration is the core purpose of every worshiper and every community of God. By adding this purpose to our worship and our gatherings, we become church.

Worship, gathering and mission--all three functioning together in any form represent the church of Jesus on earth.

A group of men who meet in a bar after work to talk about living deeper, more surrendered lives in which they take time to pray for their families and invite their non-believing friends to share a meal and the gospel would be church.

A Sunday morning service where the music and preaching move thousands of unrelated people, who return the next week to have the same experience, never engaging the mission or each other--this is not church.

A group of mothers invite other mothers to the park after school and builds relationships with them and their kids, hoping to share Jesus with them. They also meet to pray for each other, listen to struggles, cry together and recommit to the goal of living for Jesus. That is church.

The church softball team plays in a church league, worships together on Sunday and even enjoys good fellowship before and after the games with Christians from their own team and from other churches. This is not church.

Generally, if you break down why people have left or should leave churches, it can come down to one of these three areas: (1) God is not honored, (2) people aren't in community with each other, or (3) they aren't reaching anyone.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

My sister...

During our recent vacation, Susan and I spent some time with my sister and brother-in-law, Greg and Andrea Butcke. Here's a picture of me and my baby sister taken during that visit.


I have a confession to make: I'm locked in an on-going battle with pride. Yep, it seems like about the time I feel I've got the pride issue licked... it rears its ugly head again.

Here are some pride suppressors I'm prayerfully attempting to practice:

* Pass along the great idea even when you know it won’t be traced back to you.
* Give credit to others without mentioning your level of involvement.

* Stop worrying about your position on the org chart. Instead, focus on adding value.

* Allow anonymity to be an act of worship.

Is pride something you struggle with? If so, what is God teaching you as you wrestle with pride?

Highlighted Reading-Part 2...

In yesterday's post, I mentioned that one of the books I'd read during my recent vacation was Life After Church: God's Call to Disillusioned Christians by Brian Sanders. I'd pointed out that if you were to pick up my copy of Life After Church, you'd notice the passages I'd highlighted. This post will provide the second installment of what me and my highlighter found meaningful in the chapter titled "Our Building Project."

Community. Church isn't church if it isn't done in community.

What makes us the bride of Christ is that we are something together that we are not alone. For this reason, church, if it is to be fully church, must involve some level of community, people relating to other believers in light of the other two components of church: worship and mission.

You can have a group of people who worship together but never really interact. In fact, it can be a very powerful and beautiful experience, one that enriches everyone involved and brings glory to God.

But it's not church. It's worship.

Likewise, you can have people gathering in community, like a sitcom cast or sports team. Those relationships can be very real, rich and meaningful, but they're not church.

People leave churches in part because the force of life on a church without deep community is centrifugal. Any pressure, disagreement, conflict or philosophical difference can end in "divorce" because the bond isn't there. We have to build churches where people can really know each other, where they are connected in a deeper way than a loose commitment to a certain style of music or a pastor.

Here is the irony of community: you as an individual will never reach your personal destiny, fulfill who you are, use your gifts effectively or unlock your potential until you're in community. The personal and the communal are inextricably bound, because God is found in his body.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Highlighted Reading-Part 1...

One of the books I read during my recent vacation was Life After Church: God's Call to Disillusioned Christians by Brian Sanders. I'd started the book prior to leaving on vacation, and had shared some of my initial impressions of it in an earlier post.

If you were to pick up my copy of Life After Church, you'd notice the passages I'd highlighted. This post will serve the same purpose as your reading over my shoulder, and seeing what me and my highlighter found meaningful in the chapter titled "Our Building Project."

Acts 9 tells the story of the conversion of a religious zealot named Saul. Saul spearheaded a wave of persecution against those who would later be called Christians. All that changed the day Saul had a blinding vision of the resurrected Jesus calling him to worship, community and mission.

Saul was being called into the church. These three things (worship, community and mission) are what Jesus calls all of his people into, and they are the three essentials of what it means to be church.

Worship. This is the first element of the minimum for church: the worship and acknowledgement of the one true God and his incarnation Jesus Christ. I don't mean worship in the sense that we commonly understand it, as a time of thinking about God and his worth, but rather the offering of one's life to God in total surrender in proportion to the revelation of his worth. This is worship.

Unconsciously we have thought of church more as a building or weekly gathering than as a living, breathing being known to God. Gathering just to worship, while important and good, isn't enough to be called church. It is worship. Just as gathering believers to worship and even for deep relationships, while important, is not church if those same people don't participate in some way in the Great Commission.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Gator Tale...

Florida resident, Leslie Strickland, said she had nothing but good intentions when she loaded a badly hurt six-foot alligator into the back seat of her car and took it home.

Leslie had hit the alligator with her car on a Friday night and went back to rescue it the next day… but wound up spending a night in jail, charged with possession of an alligator, a felony in Florida.

Strickland said she drove the gator home, wet it down with hose and then tried unsuccessfully to reach somebody with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

After neighbors told her it was illegal to have the alligator, Leslie loaded it back into her car and drove off in search of a pond to release the alligator into.

But the alligator started to thrash its tail. Distracted, Leslie veered off the road and hit a mailbox. Witnesses told police she tried to drive off, but her car got stuck in the ditch. So she got out and walked away.

Police arrested Leslie at her home nearby, adding a charge of resisting arrest after she struggled with officers who tried to handcuff her. She said she "freaked out" at the prospect of going to jail.

The game commission finally removed the alligator from her car… it died later.

There's a moral in that tale somewhere...

Friday, July 4, 2008

Enjoying the Holiday...

I know this is an old clip... but having spent so many great 4th of Julys nearly blowing my fingers off with fireworks, I'm taking vicarious pleasure in this kid's painful predicament. (I will duly repent.)

Enjoy your holiday!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Future & You...

Vacationing in the pleasant environs of North Georgia, I discovered a copy of the February 1989 edition of LIFE Magazine... an issue in which the editors turned on their crystal balls in order to give their readers a glimpse into "The Future & You."

I found LIFE's gaze into the future interesting. Here's their preview (from the vantage point of 1989) of the coming revolution in telephone service:

* Video will be added, allowing callers to reach out and see someone.
* Portable phones will shrink to the size of a tie clip-and may double as such. (Seen any cool tie clips lately?!)
* Distinctive ring tones will reveal the identity of the caller.
* Simultaneous voice-simulated translations will permit callers to converse with people speaking different languages.
* At-home medical examinations will be conducted via the phone.

What's your picture of the future twenty years down the road?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Time To Think...

I'm loving being in vacation mode. It's been great having an unstructured week of reading, walking, thinking and praying. A big downside to leaving vacation mode is that it becomes much more challenging to find time to just think.

I found the following on as a part of a larger article titled Innovation: How To Stay Creative. I'm thinking the creative team at BrightHouse has provided us with a bright idea.

"The five last bastions of thinking are the car, the john, the shower, the church or synagogue, and the gym," says Joey Reiman, CEO of BrightHouse, an Atlanta-based innovation consulting firm whose clients include Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines. Note the absence of office from that roster.

In addition to nearly five weeks' vacation, BrightHouse's 18 staff members get five Your Days, in which they are encouraged to visit a spot conducive to reflection and let their neurons rip. No mandate to solve a particular problem. Just blue-sky thinking -- often under actual blue skies.

Reiman believes this unstructured cogitation is just as important to a project's success as time spent hunkered down in client meetings. Or as he puts it: "I think; therefore, I am valuable."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Make Us Dangerous...

I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Mark Batterson, the lead pastor for the National Community Church in Washington, D.C. I have heard Mark speak at a couple of conferences, and I read his blog frequently. My impression of Mark is that he practices what he preaches... and he's a straight-shooter. Here's a recent post from Mark's blog with the kind of challenge that keeps a God-fire lit under me:

Jesus didn't die to
keep us safe. He died to make us dangerous! The will of God is not an insurance plan. It's a daring plan. In fact, the will of God doesn't get easier. God gives us more difficult, daring, and dangerous things to do! Read Hebrews 11.

In the words of a daring twentieth-century missionary, C.T. Studd: "
Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell."

The church needs more Studds! And you can quote me on that.