Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas Vacation

I will be on vacation from Dec 22-29. Therefore, I won't be posting anything else on the blog for the rest of the year. Have a great holiday, and I look forward to sharing with you in 2009!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Give Me Something To Believe In

Last week, I blogged about accountability. I said that I'd be working with our leaders to establish goals for 2009, and once the goals are set, they would become the benchmarks, the standards, the scoreboard by which their leadership and their teams will be evaluated. And our leaders will be held accountable for achieving their goals. Accountability provides a clear measuring stick of what is expected. It provides a scoreboard that will tell us if we're winning or losing. It raises the stakes for our ministries and our leaders, and if we pick the right standards, it will be self-evident that these endeavors are well worth our best efforts.

It's this last idea that I want to explore a little bit more this week: Inspiring goals generate our best efforts.

You don't have to be around churches long before you hear somebody lament about a lack of commitment, a lack of people, a lack of workers, or some other version of the same thing. Churches are notorious for being long on need and short on supply. Part of that has to do with the enormity of the mission that each local church is engaged in ("Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation"--Mk. 16:15)--you're never going to have enough people for a job that colossal.

On the other hand, you'd think that we could at least staff the nursery, or find some people to be in a skit, or listen to kids recite their verses, or help out at VBS. That's the reality of most churches--they struggle to keep their basic programs and ministries operational.

But here's what I've observed: Churches that are effective in accomplishing their mission have people that are totally committed to the ministries they're involved in. I've seen churches where members would rip off their own arms and legs if they thought it could advance the mission of the church, and these churches are located right down the street from other churches that are busy lamenting their lack of committed workers on a weekly basis.

What's the difference? It's not the area, it's not the culture, it's not the gospel, it's not Jesus, it's not their kids' sports schedules. All that stuff's the same. The difference is in churches that communicate a compelling vision for service. I believe people are ready to commit... as long as they know that their commitment, their involvement, their investment of time, talent, and energy, is not going to be wasted.

I believe that churches too often simply assume that everything they do is worthwhile. It might even be true (although, usually it's not), but I guarantee that the average person in the pew does not make that same assumption. The average person wants to know, "OK, if I give my time to this thing, what difference is that going to make? What's the impact that my contribution is going to have?" And if we can answer that question satisfactorily, we'll find people lining up to serve because every single one of us has an innate, God-given desire to make a real difference with our lives.

Part of answering that question satisfactorily, however, lies in our ability to own up to the fact that we have in fact wasted people's time and efforts in the past. We have invested them in places that really didn't make any difference. We have created ministries that were not strategic, that were not well-planned or excellently executed. We have mis-shepherded the hearts and lives of our people and put them in positions where they were destined to fail, usually due to no fault of their own.

So we must commit to not doing that anymore. We must solemnly promise (and then, of course, follow through on that promise) to do our part in developing ministries that matter--ministries that really allow those serving to make an impact or an investment in the lives of other people, ministries that tangibly bring glory to God, instead of simply supporting our structure. And the best way to do that is to set clearly defined, concrete goals that spell out plainly what will be accomplished through any particular ministry.

One of my goals is to personally invite at least one unchurched person to an event or worship service at our church each month. Another goal is that our church would contribute to at least six adult conversions in 2009. These are inspiring goals to me, and they motivate me to give my best effort in a focused and concentrated way on what I have determined to be the most important facets of my leadership and ministry for the coming year.

As I work with other leaders, we'll be setting goals for each area of our church, and those goals will become our promise to each of you: If you invest yourself in this ministry, we're going to work together to do everything possible to achieve these outcomes. What outcomes? That will differ according to the various ministries of our church. But between all of them, we'll be working to produce:

  • Concrete expressions of God's love demonstrated to those who have given up on God;
  • More opportunities for people to begin a relationship with Jesus;
  • Excellent worship services that inspire, inform, and interact with Northwest Nick's daily life;
  • A relationship-centered faith community that is easy to penetrate and connect with others;
  • Growing trust in God, resulting from a personal knowledge of his purpose and his person;
  • Safe, fun, and faith-building environments for kids to come to know Jesus and grow in him.

In short, every single ministry in our church will strategically, specifically, and intentionally spell out exactly how it contributes to and advances the mission of our church--"To meet people where they are on their spiritual journeys and lead them to become fully devoted followers of Jesus." By defining a clear vision, we'll give you something worth investing in, something worth giving your life for, something worth our very best efforts.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Accountability is not one of the most popular words in our language; it often gets a bad rap and carries negative connotations for most people. Usually, when we think of holding people accountable, it means coming down on them for failures or shortcomings, lowering the boom, dropping the axe, rolling some heads, or whatever your favorite turn of phrase may be.

But accountability is actually a positive thing. God holds us accountable, and he uses that accountability to produce good results in our lives. As Christians, we live our lives conscious of the fact that we will one day stand before him and have to give an account of our lives--how we spent our time, how we used our talents, what we did with our money and assets, the way we treated people, and the manner in which we nurtured our relationship with him. That knowledge should motivate us to keep learning how to do better, how to be wiser, and how to bring more glory to God through our lives.

Looking forward to 2009, I've been thinking a lot about how we're doing as a church--how we spend our time, how we use our talents, what we're doing with our money and assets, the way we treat people, and the manner in which we nurture in them a growing relationship with Christ.

And one of the things I've been reflecting on is that our systems lack accountability. There are very few clear standards or expectations that we have for our minsitry teams, our staff, or our leaders. A lack of accountability has contributed to some unfortunate outcomes:

  • A ho-hum attitude that the actual results of our efforts don't really matter;
  • The assumption that "a good try" is all that is necessary for a ministry to be deemed a success;
  • Difficulty in involving others in ministry--after all, if the results of our efforts don't really matter, why should I put forth the effort?
  • Difficulty in generating excitement, passion, commitment, and buy-in among the congregation;
  • The "warm body" approach to ministry and leadership (i.e., if you're breathing, you're qualified!)

Accountability goes a long way toward eliminating these problems because it provides a clear measuring stick of what is expected. It provides a scoreboard that will tell us if we're winning or losing. It raises the stakes for our ministries and our leaders, and if we pick the right standards, it will be self-evident that these endeavors are well worth our best efforts. Accountability will sort out those who are competent and those who merely wish they were competent.

Perhaps, one of the most important aspects of accountability is that it must be applied consistently. Not only is it unfair, it doesn't make sense to hold one ministry or leader accountable to standards, while ignoring others. So I've told the elders that I want them to hold me accountable, first and foremost. I'm working on developing a list of goals for 2009--goals for myself as well as goals for the church as a whole--and I expect the elders to hold me accountable to reaching (or at least approaching) every single one of those goals.

In January, I'll be meeting with each of our Core Team leaders to establish goals for their areas of ministry. I won't be dictating to them what their goals ought to be; on the contrary, I'll be guiding them through the goal-setting process, offering coaching for them as they set their own goals. But once the goals are set, they become the benchmarks, the standards, the scoreboard by which their leadership and their teams will be evaluated. And they'll be held accountable for achieving their goals.

For truly effective leadership, three components are absolutely required--authority, responsibility, and accountability.

  • If you tell people that they're responsible for an area of ministry, but you don't give them the authority to make decisions, they are constantly undermined and can't lead effectively.
  • If you tell people that they're responsible for an area of ministry, but you don't hold them accountable, there's no motivation for them to lead effectively, and no mechanism for removing ineffective leaders.
  • If you hold people accountable for areas that they are not responsible for (or have no authority in), you're only going to frustrate them and create resentment.
  • If you give people authority without responsibility or accountability, they'll be prone to let the power go to their heads.

In the end, accountability isn't about punishing anyone or impugning them--it's about creating a system in which we are all highly motivated for excellence. It's about clarifying the rules so that we know what constitutes a "win." It's about raising the stakes so that we can become constantly conscious that everything we do matters for eternity.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

I Don't Have All The Answers

Periodically, people in the church will email me with various questions that cover a smorgasboard of topics. I try to give my best answers based on what I see in God's word. But I'll be the first to admit I don't have all the answers. Here's a (partial) list of stuff I just don't get:

  • Why God chooses not to accomplish anything in this world, except through people (especially since we're so undependable);
  • How people can make a conscious choice to reject the God who gave them life;
  • The unconditional love for me shared by my son (age 3) and my Father (The Rock of Ages). No matter how often or how deeply I disappoint them, they still just want to be with me;
  • People who attend church their whole lives, yet never change their lives in any perceivable way;
  • Why we make the automatic assumption that God agrees with all my opinions (of course!);
  • How anyone can find a lukewarm faith satisfying;
  • Christians who can't explain why they believe in Christ;
  • Why there's so much antagonism toward anyone in authority, simply for exercising that authority;
  • How anyone can look at a sunset and not believe in the existence of the Artist;
  • The depths to which sin can take people enslaved in its grasp;
  • How love, fear, anger, and hope can all feel nearly the same;
  • Why God allows so much to ride on our prayers;
  • The bizzare combination of innocence and evil in children;
  • How Satan makes wealth so seductive, even when we can easily see that so many wealthy people are miserable (although, to be fair, many poor and middle-class people are miserable too);
  • How God can make such a consistent universe that is still so rife with paradox (that, in itself, is a paradox... and yet consistent with God's pattern);
  • Why people expect the solutions for their lives to come from the government, instead of the God who designed them with a purpose they're not fulfilling;
  • The way God can bring good out of any evil. His powers of redemption are incomprehensible!
  • How I can learn so much every day from a kid who still can't pronounce his R's properly;
  • Why God chooses to use people who are totally unqualified for the tasks to which he calls them;
  • The simultaneous greatness and smallness of humanity.

This is a mysterious world. That doesn't mean that we are incapable of understanding it, but we are incapable of understanding it fully. That is why we must live lives of faith--accepting God's pronouncements, believing his promises, trusting in his goodness and justice, and yielding to his commands.

To remove mystery is to remove humility and therefore to renounce God's grace (Jas. 4:6).

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Juggling Christmas

Well, I can tell you, after being down-and-out with the flu bug on Sunday, it sure is good to be back to my old self again. Thanks to Pastor Brent for preaching for me--I hear he did an exceptional job.

Sunday's message was about "Thanks & Giving", and I hope everybody enjoys their turkeys on Thursday, but it seems like this week's holiday is almost completely eclipsed by the monolith that is Christmas. Already, there are Christmas displays in all the stores, door-buster sales, Christmas trees at Kroger, and a nativity scene at the BP station at Parnall & Lansing. Already, the news media is wringing its hands about the impact the soft economy is going to have on the "Christmas shopping season"--that is, the season formerly known as "fall". Today, I got my first, "Are you ready for Christmas yet?" (I told the asker that I was ready for Thanksgiving.)

On Thursday, after our meal-induced naps, many of us will pore over the sales papers, readying our battle plans to take on the stores on Friday. And despite the dire predictions, we will still buy digital cameras, flat-screen TVs, and entire seasons of syndicated TV shows on DVD. It will still be impossible to find a Nintendo Wii, and the traffic at Jackson Crossing will still be awful.

All of this is why we're starting our new series next Sunday called "Juggling Christmas." It seems that "the most wonderful time of the year" has actually morphed into the most stressful, chaotic, exhausting, expensive, can't-possibly-fit-in-one-more-thing time of year. Between the presents, the gatherings, the office gift exchange, the secret Santas, the parades, the candy, the expectations of family, the traffic, the weather, and the lines at the mall... well, it's tough to keep all the balls in the air.

Truth be told, our lives are probably already too complex, and trying to appease the beast of Christmas is a pretty daunting proposition.

The greatest tragedy of all is that all of this activity is meant (allegedly) to commemorate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ--a birth that was simple, quiet, and largely unnoticed. But in reality, most of the time the manger gets lost in all the hoopla. Oh, certainly, we trot it out as one of our decorations to adorn the mantle or the table or the hutch, and we may attend the Christmas Eve service, or read Luke 2 on Christmas morning. But is it really for Him that we rev up the Christmas machine? Or rather do we do it for ourselves? Or for other people who expect us to do it?

The message of this series is a basic one: SIMPLIFY. We have a month. What can we chuck? What can we dump? What can we unload to make this Christmas different, more meaningful, less a production and more an act of worship? Because if the frenzy of our Christmas doesn't center around Him, then why even do it?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Praying On Purpose

Last week, I talked about "Winning on Purpose," and I think a huge part of that (whether we're talking about all of us winning together as a church, or each of us winning individually in our spiritual lives) is rooted in praying on purpose.

So many times, our prayers are actually aimless. They lack genuine thought, conviction, or a clear objective. We say things like, "Bless them... be with me... help her..." and after that, we've pretty much run out of ammunition.

But if we want to win spiritually, we need to learn how to pack more power and purpose into our prayers. They are our main weapon for attacking the strongholds of our enemy, Satan.

To help us, I want to take a look at one of the prayers of the apostle Paul. If you want to learn how to pray for somebody--to really pray for them--he provides us with a great example. Here's what he writes in Colossians 1:9-12:

Since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.

Here are some of the important features of a purposeful prayer:

  • Persistance. "We have not stopped praying for you." For myself, I find this is a great weakness for me in my prayers. I have so many different concerns that are new each day, I often forget about what I have prayed yesterday or last week or last month. It just sort of slips off the prayer radar. But the Bible does instruct us to be persistent in prayer (Luke 18:1-8) and not to give up. Our needs are ongoing, the opposition of the enemy is ongoing, so our prayers should be ongoing too. If it continues to be important, it should continue to be included in our prayers.
  • Comprehensiveness. "fill you with... all spiritual wisdom and understanding... please him in every way... every good work... all power..." Many times, our prayers are too small, and we don't ask for very much. But God wants us to be bold and to be outrageously successful in our struggles against the forces of darkness. So let's lay claim to all the power of God, all the wisdom of God, all the faithfulness of God to be brought to bear in every situation, every relationship, every conversation, every decision, so that we can bring him all the glory possible through our lives.
  • Goal-Consciousness. "We pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way." There is a clear reason for the prayer, a specific aim that Paul has--something that he wants to see take place in the lives of the Colossian Christians. Truth be told, sometimes we can't even express what exactly we're praying for. We might say something like, "Lord, help Sam on his test today." And what does that mean? Do we want God to help Sam pass the test? Get an "A"? Do we want God to supernaturally help Sam get a better score than he deserves because he hasn't really studied that much? Do we want God to help Sam stay calm? Be intense? Undistracted? What kind of help are we looking for, and why? Probably, we can't even really say what we're praying for. But a purposeful prayer has a clear objective.
  • Kingdom-Focus. "worthy of the Lord... please him... bearing fruit... great endurance and patience..." This whole prayer is built around the idea of propelling God's kingdom forward. It's all oriented toward his glory, his cause, his plan. Notably absent from Paul's prayer are the sorts of things we often center our prayers around--make things easy for us, keep us comfortable, bless us, make it go smoothly, keep us safe. Instead, Paul prays for development of the kind of character that will help the Colossians be victorious through their trials and struggles, rather than praying that they could avoid them.
  • Eternal Perspective. "the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light." So often we get bogged down in the day-to-day stuff that we exaggerate its importance. Even small details become "urgent" and "critical" and "essential." But a purposeful prayer sorts out what is ultimately necessary in light of eternity. We relinquish our own desires and preferences, and we let God declare what truly matters. If we pray with an eternal perspective, we might find ourselves completely letting go of many of the things that keep us stirred up.

There's a ministry of our church called the Prayer Posse; it's composed of individuals who have committed to praying at least once a week for the mission, vision, and values of our church. I send each of those individuals a weekly email (we place a paper copy in the church mailboxes of those Prayer Posse members without email), asking for specific prayer requests. If you want to sign up, you can do so by simply sending me an email. It can also become a helpful tool for learning how to pray on purpose.

If we adopt a strategy of purposeful prayer for ourselves, our families, our marriages, our church, our county, our nation, and our world, not only will it change our lives, it could change eternity as well for the people we're praying for.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


Yesterday, I led a retreat here at the church for our leaders (elders & Church Council members). The main focus of our time centered around the idea of winning. Sometimes, in church culture, we get uncomfortable talking about winning. The reason for that reluctance is because so many churches are actually losing, and it's not considered "nice" to point that out, or to suggest that failure is not ok.

But the principle of winning is woven throughout the Bible:

There are many, many other passages I could have listed here. I'd encourage you to look through each of these, but I think the most significant ones are the first and the last. Genesis 3 is the point in human history at which sin enters the scene. Revelation 19-22 is the end of the Bible when God's plan is brought to completion. From the moment sin is inserted into God's creation, he declares his intention to win, to beat it down, to destroy it. The rest of the Bible is the unfolding of his plan, until its culmination in Revelation 19-22, when GOD WINS!!!

In the Old Testament, God is concerned about Israel winning wars. He is concerned about them being successful in taking the Promised Land. He is concerned about them being victorious over the nations that they are supposed to drive out.

In the New Testament, God is concerned about the church winning over the gates of hell. God is concerned about winning people to faith in him through his son Jesus. He is concerned about us winning the prize of the heavenly reward that is in store for us if we are faithful and fruitful.

God wins on purpose, and he wants his followers to win on purpose too. In his book, Winning on Purpose, John Edmund Kaiser writes: "Thinking of success in the church is neither an encroachment of corporate business culture nor an inherently modern fixation of Boomers. Even the sports metaphor in [this book] dates back as far as 1950--1950 years ago that is. See Paul fight. See Paul run. Run, Paul, run. The emphasis of this image in 1 Corinthians 9:19-27 is not on the discipline of training but on the purpose for the discipline, which is to win the race. Wait, doesn't God love losers? Of course! In moral terms, all of us sons of Adam and daughters of Eve are losers. But God doesn't love us because we're losers. And his love doesn't leave us as losers. God is the Ultimate Winner, and he makes a place for us on the winning side. The name of his team is not Losers Anonymous, it is Those Who Overcome. God has a redemptive purpose in the world and is serious about prevailing." (pp. 18-19)

As a church, we can never win unless we boldly declare our full commitment to winning.

  • Good intentions and good tries are not enough;
  • Purposeless, aimless busyness is not enough;
  • Thinking that winning is a nice notion is not enough;
  • Feeling that we compare favorably in some way to other churches we know of is not enough;
  • Continuing to pay the bills and keep the lights on is not enough;

Let me say it clearly. There is only one reason we exist as a church. There is only one thing that we do. There is only one thing we aim at. And that is winning--i.e., accomplishing the mission of the church.

Anything less or other is unacceptable. It is failure. It is losing. We cannot be content with losing. We play the game to win. Only, it's not a game. There is nothing more real, nothing with higher stakes, nothing more important. It is eternal, it is infinite, it is the center of what this life and this universe are all about.

Monday, November 3, 2008

UB Musings

Most of my posts here relate to our local church and the mission we pursue. But from time to time, I also like to share some perspectives on the goings-on in our denomination. Next June, the United Brethren in Christ will be having our bi-annual National Conference in Ohio, where we will elect our next bishop. Our bishop sets the vision and direction for our denomination and leads us to stay true to our heritage, our purpose, and our joint mission.

Our current bishop, Ron Ramsey, stated at the beginning of his term that he would not be seeking reelection; he took the job intending from the get-go to be a one-term bishop. On a recent bishop blog, we learned that Pat Jones, our current Director of Healthy Churches, who serves as the bishop's right hand man, will likewise not be seeking the office of bishop.

This announcement leaves a leadership void at the top of our denomination, and it leads me to wonder who might be qualified to take the reins of leadership for the United Brethren in Christ. In my mind, there are only two types of potential candidates:

1. A well-respected UB pastor who has demonstrated a high capacity for leadership and is currently leading a healthy, dynamic church that is successfully fulfilling the Great Commission. This person would need to be someone who has a proven track record and is adept at leading with gentleness and firmness (someone who is a velvet-covered brick).

Unfortunately, the list of qualified candidates in this first category is exceedingly short. Due to many factors, our denomination is composed of largely dysfunctional congregations led by dysfunctional pastors. An embarrassingly significant percentage of our approximately 200 churches in America had an average attendance last year of fewer than 30 people. With an average attendance of 125, we are in the top 25% in terms of size.

There are probably fewer than 10 people (and I think that number is optimistic) who meet the criteria I've set out here. And I'm not sure any of them would want the job. Why give up a rewarding, successful, exciting ministry leading a local church to take on a discouraging, frustrating one that brings endless attacks from pastors who do not want to be faithful to the Great Commission and who do not want to be led?

2. The second type of candidate is someone from outside the denomination who has experience leading a denomination or a district or some other group of churches. This person would preferably have demonstrated an ability to help unhealthy groups become healthy again.

In many ways, I believe this is the right choice.

  • It begins to address one of the main weaknesses of our denomination--a paucity of true leaders. One of the reasons we have so many unhealthy churches and unhealthy pastors is because instead of allowing leaders to lead, we have handcuffed them, and they have decided to minister in other denominations. We need to bring effective leadership back into the United Brethren.
  • A fresh perspective is certain to help us identify our blind spots and the weaknesses we have that we weren't even aware of. Such a person can provide us with other ways of addressing issues and tackling problems that we haven't heretofore considered or known about.
  • It is a quintessentially "UB-thing" to do. Our denomination is predicated on the importance of majoring on the majors and minoring on the minors, tearing down the barriers that separate Christians for the purpose of boldly advancing the kingdom of God. It is naive and arrogant to cling to a UB-only stance, as if God is incapable of using someone from outside our current circles.

I'm not opposed to choosing someone from the first category--if they truly are qualified, if they truly believe God is calling them to the position, if their church is truly supportive in surrendering their pastor for the sake of the denomination. But if those criteria cannot be met, I am opposed to someone rising to the bishopric who lacks the leadership abilities necessary for continuing to move our denomination forward.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Trunk Or Treat In Review

Well, folks, another Trunk or Treat has come and gone. This was our third annual, and there are a lot of great things to report. First, let's take a look at Trunk or Treat by the numbers:

We served approximately 300 kids (the number is approximate because only 260 registered--some families skipped the registration table and went straight for the first trunk, especially toward the end of the event). Of those who registered...

  • 121 unchurched kids
  • 124 churched kids (including 19 of our own)
  • 15 kids' registration cards were unmarked regarding church involvement

Those 260 kids come from...

  • 62 church-going households (including 10 PCC families)
  • 71 unchurched households
  • 9 undesignated households

Once again, we had fantastic support from our own people, although many came through (sometimes literally!) at the last minute, which made planning somewhat challenging. Altogether, we had 47 adult and teen workers, providing:

  • 14 Trunks
  • A Fun House in the church basement (first time we've done that)
  • Apple Bob in the Fellowship Hall
  • Refreshements (hot dogs, popcorn, hot chocolate)
  • A giant inflatable bounce house

Looking past the numbers, here are some of my thoughts and reflections:

  • This was our first year providing a Fun House in the basement. After collecting candy from the trunks in the church parking lot, the kids went down the back steps and weaved their way through the classrooms, which had covers over the windows to keep them dark. They were decorated with Halloween lights and glow-in-the-dark spider webs. Kids stuck their hands in various places (bowls of peeled grapes, cold spaghetti noodles, etc.), walked through wet yarn hanging from the ceiling, and (most importantly!) collected more candy. I heard lots of great comments about the Fun House and how much the kids enjoyed it.
  • Even though Trunk or Treat is an Outreach event and falls under the Outreach Core Team, the Fun House idea was developed and executed by the Community Core Team. I think this is a great example of our ministry teams working together, and it was really great to see such wonderful cooperation.
  • I got to look around at every part of the operation throughout the evening. It seemed everything was running very smoothly. About three trunks ran out of candy at one point in the night, but we were able to get reinforcements to them fairly quickly. Great Job, Pam O'Neil and the Outreach Core Team!! Great Job, Judy Wilkes and the Community Core Team!! Kudos to you!
  • In talking with several parents, they all were very pleased with the event. One mom I spoke with has five kids and told me that she needs to get connected to a church. She believes in God, but has been finding life difficult lately and feels something is missing. She was hoping to make it for the start of our new series next week.
  • We're going to be taking the 260 registration cards and entering the information into our PCC database. There is already a team of people put together who handles that. We use that information to follow up with the people who are unchurched to try to further develop the relationship that we've established with them. We'll especially be intentional about keeping them informed of other events and ministries their children might enjoy (Easter Egg Hunt, Soccer Camp, Awana, SPLASH).
  • Events like this are not a substitute for relationships. In fact, outreach is effective really only when it's relational. But events serve as an excellent forum both for establishing new relationships, as well as developing existing ones further. Some of the people who came were ones I recognized from Soccer Camp and SPLASH, earlier this summer. The more contact we can have with them, the more likely it is that they'll show up on a Sunday some week. In addition, Trunk or Treat and similar events provide an opportunity for us to invite our friends, family, and neighbors to come to something that's not intimidating, giving us an opportunity to develop the relationships God has already provided us. When we think outreach, we need to think relationships.

I think this event was a huge success, and I want to thank each person who was involved in making it so effective. Let's pray that God will keep using it to impact the lives of the people we saw last night, and draw them to him.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Persecuted Church

Yesterday, we had a special service that highlighted the suffering of Christians around the world who are persecuted for their faith. For those who weren't able to be there, I want to make sure you have access to the same information that was available to those in the service. For more, you can visit these websites, which are all run by various organizations that work on behalf of persecuted Christians: (send letters to Christians imprisoned for their faith) (helping kids understand persecution against Christians)

Persecution against Christians usually comes in one of two forms--either from governments or from practicioners of other religions. These two forms are fused in the case of Muslim governments that enforce mandatory adherance to Islam.

More Christians have been killed for their faith in the last 100 years than the entire rest of church history combined. Countless more have been beaten, imprisoned, tortured, impoverished, mutilated, burned, or maimed. It's our responsibility to stand by our brothers and sisters around the world, and there are three ways we can do that:

  • Defend. Be a voice for them. Visit the websites above, and arm yourself with information. Speak up for those who are persecuted for their faith, and plead the cause of the oppressed.
  • Encourage. Send messages to those who are in prison or to their families through the websites listed above. Give money to the organizations who work on behalf of the persecuted.
  • Pray. Pray regularly for those who are victimized because of their faith in Jesus. Pray that God would strengthen them, that he would comfort them and be near them. And pray also that their character would remain strong under suffering and would be a witness to their torturers, to the other prisoners, and to others who have contact with them, and that they would be an encouragement to one another. Pray for the families who have breadwinners in prison--they often suffer just as much.

During the service, I read a selection from an excellent book that I read this summer called "The Heavenly Man: The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun." It was one of the best books I've ever read. Much of the book focuses on the various trials that he underwent, but there are also many stories of deliverance and miracles. Through all of it, it is mostly about the power of the gospel to transform lives. I'd like to share a few more passages:

The next morning the guards took me out from the cell and practised martial arts on my body. They kicked and punched me to the ground and ordered several other prisoners to stamp on my chest and private parts. Blood gushed from my mouth. I was dizzy and in great pain. I was sure I was going to die. pp. 89-90

I cried out to the Lord and said, 'Jesus, I can no longer endure. Why are you allowing me to be tortured like this? Please receive my spirit now.' The guards travelling in the back of the van switched on an electric baton when they heard me praying and jolted me with shocks. The pain was too severe for me and I felt my heart and my brain were going to literally explode from my body. Again I cried to the Lord, 'God have mercy on me. Please receive my spirit now.' The word of the Lord came to me clearly, 'The reason you suffer is so you can partake in the fellowship of my suffering. Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth.' In my proud heart I'd been thinking that I was important to the church, that they needed me to lead them. Now, I vividly understood that he is God and I am but a feeble man. I realized that God didn't need me at all, and that if he ever chose to use me again it would be nothing more than a great privilege. Suddenly the pain and fear left me. p. 92

Since my escape from China in 1997, I've been responsible for the training and implementation of the Back To Jerusalem missionaries. When the first batch of 39 missionaries left China in March 2000, 36 of them were arrested. They didn't lose their vision, however. They went back home, prayed, and found another way to get across the border. Little more than a year later, the number of Chinese house church missionaries outside China already exceeded 400 serving in more than 10 countries... Each missionary receives training in several main subjects:

1. How to suffer and die for the Lord. We examine what the Bible says about suffering, and look at how the Lord's people have laid down their lives for the advance of the gospel throughout history.

2. How to witness for the Lord... under any circumstance: on trains or buses, or even in the back of a police van on our way to the execution ground.

3. How to escape for the Lord. We know that sometimes it is the Lord who sends us to prison to witness for him, but we also believe the devil sometimes wants us to go to prison to stop the ministry God has called us to do. We teach the missionaries special skills such as how to free themselves from handcuffs, and how to jump from second-storey windows without injuring themselves.

This is not a 'normal' seminary or Bible College! pp. 289-290

I can tell you, in my four years of Christian college and three years of seminary, I never once had a class on how to suffer or die for the Lord, but I think I probably should have. This is the normative experience for Christians around the world who want to follow Jesus. It was he who said, "They will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me." (Luke 21:12-27 NIV).

And we complain about being tired and busy.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Journey Classes

During today's services, we had our first recognition ceremony for our Journey 401 Class graduates. The 401 Class was offered for the first time in June, and we had nine participants. The journey classes represent a significant component of our discipleship ministry, so I thought it would be worth taking the time in this space to give a brief overview of each of the classes, how they work together, and how they help students experience spiritual growth.

The four four-hour classes are all meant to work together and to build on each other. Therefore, each student signs on to a specific set of commitments after each class before they can proceed to the next one in the series. The first class, Journey 101, is an introduction to the Pathway Community Church family, and the other three classes each relate to one of our Core Values, our Key Three. After taking all four classes, students are familiar with our church and have been given the tools they need to live out a life of full devotion to Christ.

Journey 101 Class
This class is required for church membership. Anyone is allowed simply to attend Pathway, but if you want to join, there are specific commitments that you need to be willing to live up to. We cover those commitments as well as talk about who we are and why we do what we do. This class gives an overview to what our church is about so that people can make an informed decision about whether they want to join or not. The class is broken up into four sections:

  • Our Salvation--what Christ has done for us (including symbols of our salvation, Baptism & the Lord's Supper)
  • Our Statements--what we believe to be true (Our Faith Statement, Our Mission Statement, Our Core Values, Our Vision Statement)
  • Our Strategy--how we go about accomplishing the mission
  • Our Structure--how we organize to accomplish the mission
The first section is common to all believers everywhere, but the other three sections are what makes Pathway unique from all other local church families. It's what gives us our unique and distinctive flavor as a church. When someone commits to membership, we encourage them to go on to the next Journey Class.

Journey 201 Class
This class covers the Core Value of Real Spirituality--our vertical relationship with God. In this class, students learn the four basic habits that are necessary for spiritual growth. Since these are habits, they should be ongoing activities for our lives. The Journey Classes are not primarily about acquiring knowledge, but learning how to perpetually live out that knowledge in our lives in a continuing relationship with Jesus. The four habits are:
  • Prayer
  • Bible Learning (through Hearing, Reading, Studying, Meditating, Memorizing, and Applying)
  • Stewardship
  • Fellowship (including getting connected to a small group)
The class is filled with practical advice about how to have a quiet time, how to get the most out of God's Word, how a small group can help us grow, and the emphasis that the Bible places on giving as an indicator of our spiritual maturity. When students commit to living out these habits, they can take the next class.

Journey 301 Class
This class covers how to discover your unique SHAPE that God has given to your life. He has made you the way you are for a purpose, and by understanding your SHAPE, you'll be in a position to live your life with maximum effectiveness. SHAPE stands for the five different components that make us who we are:
  • Spiritual Gifts
  • Heart
  • Abilities
  • Personality
  • Experiences
Each of those attributes of who we are are God-given and God-directed. In this class, we learn how to utilize all of them to be God-honoring. This class is great for gaining a better understanding of who you are and discerning God's thumbprint on your life. It will also help you find the ministry that is the right "fit" for your SHAPE. Providing loving service to others on a team of other like-minded servants is the main way we contribute to our Real Community, our horizontal relationship with one another. After taking this class, students fill out a SHAPE profile and meet with a SHAPE counselor to help determine the best ways that they can use their SHAPE for God's glory.

Journey 401 Class
The last class teaches people how to share their Real Story, the message of who God is and what he's done in our lives and in the world. We cover the basics of building relationships with unbelievers, how to treat them as people instead of projects, the five main components of the gospel message, and how to communicate that message in a clear and respectful way. We talk about the different styles of evangelism and how to find the style that best fits each person's SHAPE.

Even though we recognized our 401 alumni today, nobody ever "graduates" from the Journey Classes. In fact, students are encouraged to refer to their notebooks periodically and review the information they contain. Students are encouraged to re-attend the 101 Class periodically to remember the unique aspects of our church, and our vision to reach the 100,000 people in Jackson County with no church family.

These four classes represent the heart and soul of PCC--our philosophy, our theology, our culture, and our reason for being. They teach us how to be fully devoted followers of Jesus. We are always in process, we are always still growing. The four classes are not the end, but only the beginning of growing deeper and deeper in our pursuit of Jesus.

If you haven't taken the Journey Classes, I'd encourage you to get on board the next time they come around. If you have taken one or some, but got off-track somewhere, I'd encourage you to keep going! The Journey Classes provide us with the compass we need to keep pursuing Jesus on the Pathway of our spiritual journeys. To sign up for the Journey 201 Class on Oct. 19, click here.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Spirituality & Sports

This time of year is a sports lover's favorite. Baseball playoffs are getting ready to start. The NFL season is taking shape, with contenders soon to distance themselves from pretenders. The NASCAR chase for the cup is close to completion. The NHL preseason is underway. And the NBA is right around the corner.

It's been suggested to me before that sports are a waste of time, money, and energy that could be more effectively directed toward more spiritual things like ministry, evangelism, and Bible study. For example, if all the money that Christians spent on sports tickets, jerseys, gas, parking, concession food, and other sports parephenalia were redirected to the church or to missionaries, what would the kingdom impact be? Or if all the time devoted to watching sports on TV, discussing sports at work, and reading about sports in the newpaper and online were spent in prayer, Bible reading, and serving others, wouldn't that be better?

I understand the logic behind that argument, but I still find myself irresistably drawn to sports. I think there is something fundamentally human about watching the best athletes in the world competing at their sport of choice. In addition, I think there are things for us to learn about ourselves and about the spiritual life. So here's what I see as the spiritual value of sports.

1. Let's start with scripture (always a good idea). Paul uses the athlete as a role model for us; he says that sports give us a picture to inspire us to the kind of focus, determination, self-control, self-discipline, dedication, perseverance, and persistance that we need to nurture in our pusuit of Christ. He says, "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore, I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize" (1 Cor. 9:25-27 NIV). The author of Hebrews makes the same point: "Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us" (12:1 NIV).

2. Another spiritual value I see sports contributing to us is the understanding of teamwork. Although the Bible doesn't use the metaphor of sports in this precise way, it's clear that God created his church to function as a team (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-31). Perhaps no other element of our 21st century society demonstrates the aspects of teamwork that are necessary for the church better than sports--aspects such as recognizing the inherent value of each team member, each player's unique role providing a necessary contribution to the overall goals of the team, self-sacrifice as necessary for the team's overall success, recognition of the individual contributions, and the absolutely essential importance of communication, unity, and accountability.

3. Today, sports has become one of the main forums for learning about leadership. While leaders are certainly present (and even necessary) in the fields of politics and business, most people reserve a high degree of distrust of political and business leaders. Yet sports leaders are fairly well respected, and (perhaps even more importantly for this point) the leadership issues for a team become common knowledge through press conferences and public actions (such as benching a player, firing a head coach, making a trade, etc.). Effective leadership--both from above and below--is absolutely essential in sports; there must be good leadership in place in the front office (owners, general managers), in the clubhouse (head coaches, assistant coaches), and on the field (veteran players). If you are a sports fan, you know about the leadership issues in organizations such as the NY Knicks, the NY Yankees, the Oakland Raiders, and the Detroit Lions. You also know about the leadership successes of organizations like the Boston Red Sox, the Indianapolis Colts, and the LA Lakers. Amazingly, and against expectations, sports teams' successes are often due less to the talent of the players, and more to whether they are all completely committed to the philsophy and direction of the organization.

4. The high profile of sports celebrities gives a rubric for understanding all kinds of stewardship issues. Many athletes fail miserably with their money, showing the truth of verses such as Ecclesiastes 5:10, "Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income." We learn not to envy the wealthy and successful, as they demonstrate that their lives are often utterly empty. Yet many athletes use their money wisely, setting themselves up for lifelong generosity and philanthropy. They provide us an inspiration for how we might use money if God were to choose to bless us in that way (it's always wise to think ahead of how we might use any of life's circumstances to God's glory). But there are other stewardship issues to consider besides money. Many athletes misuse their success by believing that their lives are free of consequences; witness the tragic failures of Michael Vick, Roger Clemens, Darryl Strawberry, Ricky Williams, etc. Yet many athletes can inspire us with the great example they provide even under the most intense microscope--Tony Dungy, Mike Singletary, Albert Pujols, David Robinson, and Kevin Johnson. There is also the issue of stewarding the talents, gifts, and abilities that God has given us. While we perhaps don't have the same abilities they do, we do have different ones--and are we developing and applying ours with the same kind of focus and intentionality?

5. I believe the playing of sports, growing up, taught me many great lessons that have served me well in my life. And I learned these lessons as habits planted in my life, not as concepts or notions that seemed like good ideas. It was sports that taught me things like commitment and follow-through, how to deal with failure, the importance of encouraging others, the value of practice and preparation, the thrill of the prize, and the pride of pushing myself further than I thought I could go.

Now, admittedly, perhaps this is just my attempt to rationalize my love for sports--it's always nice to put a spiritual spin on your favorite pasttimes, right? And maybe we shouldn't spend quite as much time and money on sports as we do--it probably is wise to consider whether we should go to the race or use the money some other way. But on the other hand, I believe sports have much to teach us about life, about God, and the pursuit of his kingdom.

Now, maybe you don't feel that way--that's fine. Go ahead and spend your extra time and money for prayer and evangelism, and I'm sure you'll be blessed. Not everyone is wired the same way. But for those of us who are sports fans, let's raise our foam fingers in the air, give a loud cheer, and praise the God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (1 Tim. 6:17). I believe that all of life is spiritual, and we can find God and his lessons wherever we are willing to look.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hating Christians?

Our current series (The Top 5 Things I Hate About Christians) has generated more than a couple inquiries. What are we trying to say? Why are we lumping all Christians together? Why are we attacking "our own"? What do we hope to accomplish by being critical of the church?

I think all of these questions are understandable, but there are also good answers. Here's what I would say this series is all about:

1. Taken all together, the church in America is failing. There are exceptions, of course, but when you take all the good and all the bad in the American church, what you end up with is much more bad than good. This is not debatable. By whatever means you want to measure, the church in America is failing in its mission to make disciples. Attendance is declining, biblical knowledge is declining, virtuous living is declining, giving is declining, serving is declining. The church in America is becoming more and more anemic. We need to admit the reality that exists and take stock of ourselves--we do ourselves no favors to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that everything is just fine.

2. The church does not have to fail. We have every available resource (and more!) that other believers have around the world. We have the Spirit and power of God, we have millions of people ready to be mobilized for God's glory, we have a huge mission field around us (America represents the third largest mission field in the world), and we have tremendous financial and capital resources that God has blessed us with. There is no reason the church is doomed to failure--we need only rise up and give ourselves to the Lord and to the task he has given us.

3. By taking an honest look in the mirror, we can address our blind spots. I don't believe the church is failing because we intend to--we've just drifted off-course. We need to be confronted by scripture again to draw us back to what we're supposed to be, as God intended us. The Old Testament prophets routinely slapped Israel in the face verbally when they strayed away from God's commands; we need a slap to wake us up and help us see how dire our situation is and how far we've wandered from God's intentions.

The goal of this series is to help us be "a different kind of church."

  • If most churches are failing, we want to be different. We want to be purposeful, intentional, strategic, wise, winsome, honest, creative, and thoughtful.
  • If most churches are just continuing to do what they've always done in spite of the fact that it is increasingly ineffective, we want to be constantly ruthless in our evaluation of how we can be more fruitful for God's kingdom.
  • If most churches have grown comfortable with their failures, we want to nurture a godly discontent that insists our unfaithfulness is not acceptable.
  • If most churches have created an environment that is hostile to unbelievers, that denigrates them, and that makes them feel unacceptable to God, we want to welcome them and make room for them. We want to serve them and show them what it really looks like to care about people the way Jesus did when he was on earth.

I'm so sick of a Christianity that exalts everything else above Jesus--whether it's the Republican party, financial prosperity, membership in an "in" group, a self-righteous sense of superiority, traditions of men, or any other idol that would set itself up in competition with Jesus Christ. WE--evangelicals--have become those of whom Paul spoke:

There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. (1 Timothy 3:1-5)

And what should Christ-followers do? "Have nothing to do with them." That's why we're addressing the things I hate about Christians.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Who Are Northwest Nick And Nichole?

Last week, I promised you that I would share some stories of real people in our church who have found Pathway to be exactly what they needed--a church body that would come alongside them and provide guidance, encouragement and help for their spiritual journey:

  • This summer, we launched SPLASH (Single Parents Letting Another Supply Help). We had two single moms that took advantage of this ministry, bringing their kids here so that they could have some free time to do the things they needed or wanted to do. We also offered Soccer Camp to these families free of charge. One of those families brought all three of their kids every night of Soccer Camp, and all three prayed to receive Christ the last night of the week. The other family expressed great appreciation for SPLASH and what a huge help it was to them. We are attempting to build on this relationship by encouraging both families to get their kids involved in Awana and youth group this fall.
  • This spring, one lady accepted an invitation to attend a worship service. She liked it and came back for a second week since she was off from work (she was normally scheduled every Sunday). However, after sensing God's presence and being deeply moved, she talked to her boss and got her schedule rearranged so that she could be here every week. She says that when she misses a week here, she notices a huge difference in her life, and that the weekly worship service has become an essential time of connection between her and God. Now her teenage kids are regular in youth group as well.
  • One Sunday, a family came to visit our church. They enjoyed the services well enough, but what really impressed them is the quality of our children's ministry. They are so grateful that their children have a place to learn about God in a setting they enjoy with adults who truly care about them. After their first week here, they went downstairs to pick their kids up, and they found them praying that Pathway would become their church and that they would never leave.
  • One gentleman began attending this summer. He appreciates how the worship services make him think, and he's growing in his understanding of God. After being away from church for awhile, he has now recommitted himself to Christ, and is involved in serving in an area of ministry in which he has specialized skills.
  • Another man had gotten away from church after going through a difficult period in his life. But he recognized that he needed a community of faith in order to grow. He found great encouragement here through his participation in one of our small groups.
  • One couple had attended church for years, but after years of service got burned out due to constant overload. They stopped going anywhere for about a year. But they were invited to come to Pathway by one of their friends who attends here. The contemporary worship style was not what they were used to, but they were strongly attracted to the faithfulness of our message to God's word. They ended up staying because of the compelling presentation of truth.

Our mission is to meet people where they are on their spiritual journeys and lead them to become fully devoted followers of Jesus. That means we meet people wherever they are on their spiritual journeys. But people are in lots of different places. They have different needs, different experiences, different expectations. Wherever they are, that's where we're supposed to meet them, which means we have to meet lots of people in lots of different ways--Love-Motivated Service (SPLASH), Relational Outreach (Soccer Camp, personal invitations), Accessible Worship (worship services), Connecting Community (small groups), and Life-on-Life Discipleship (small groups).

That's why we have these systems in place, and I'm so encouraged to share these stories with you about how our systems are working--accomplishing the central mission of the church that they were designed to accomplish.

Our strategy now is to get as many people into the funnel as possible. That's why I'm so excited about Kids Hope USA, our mentoring program for at-risk kids at Flora List Elementary school. It's an opportunity to show the love of God with no strings attached by serving the kids and their families in our community who desperately need it, and we'll pray that it will lead to great relationships and an atmosphere of trust and respect that draws them further into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. That's the reason we exist.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Putting It All Together

Now that we've looked at Love-Motivated Service, Relational Outreach, Accessible Worship, Connecting Community, and Life-On-Life Discipleship each in detail, I want to come back out to the big picture once again. Why do we do what we do?

I think understanding this question and its answer are very important--crucial, even--to being an involved, invested, contributing, supportive member of Pathway Community Church. If we don't "get" what's going on here, we end up with lots of questions and perhaps even doubts about whether our strategies are the right ones for us to adopt.

Let's consider our mission--meeting people where they are on their spiritual journeys and leading them to become fully devoted followers of Jesus. That's why we exist. But how do we do that? What specifically do we do to accomplish that mission? Let's take it from the perspective of the people we're trying to reach--Northwest Nick and Nichole.

Northwest Nick commutes every day to work. He gets home at night. His home is his castle. He closes and locks the door, turns on Monday night football, sits down to watch it as he eats dinner. What if we sent somebody to his house—a stranger—at night and knock on his door, right in the middle of his meal and have this stranger say, “Come to church with a bunch of people you’ve never met before.” Would that reach Northwest Nick?

Northwest Nick & Nichole listen to contemporary music, so we want to use music that people understand, that their ears can relate to. They prefer the casual and the informal over the formal. That’s why I don’t dress up. I don’t wear a suit except at weddings and funerals. In fact, on Sundays, I often wear jeans, just like everybody else. Northwest Nick & Nichole don’t want to feel out of place by the way they dress, so we try to make them feel comfortable. They’re overextended in both time and money. That’s Northwest Nick & Nichole.

So how are they going to find Jesus? Do Northwest Nick and Nichole listen to Family Life Radio? No way! Do they watch Christian TV? Nope.

Northwest Nick gets to hear about Jesus by somebody getting close to him and becoming his friend. Somebody says, “Hey, Nick! You’ve gotta come to this church. It’s incredible! The pastor doesn’t wear a robe. You don’t have to wear a suit. The pastor doesn’t even wear a tie! They tell jokes. And the music isn’t hymns; it’s like contemporary pop music. The messages aren’t like ‘Who is the Beast in Revelation?’ It’s like ‘How Do I Handle Financial Stress in my Life?’ You’re not going to believe this church. Come on, Nick!” When people find good news, they tell it.

So how do we make that happen? We could all just develop authentic relationships with our neighbors, coworkers, family members, and friends--and we certainly encourage you to do that--but what we're finding is that most of us are either unwilling or just don't know how to do that. So we provide avenues for those relationships to develop through Love-Motivated Service. When you serve someone out of love for them and for God, it tears down walls of cynicism and makes them wonder what is behind our actions.

It opens up the door to begin a relationship with them, and help them begin to establish a connection to the church. It gives us the opportunity to talk about Jesus, what he's done for us, and how it's our goal to be people who look like him. In other words, love-motivated service paves the way for Relational Outreach, which draws people into our church. Most of the time, one of the first ways a person begins to explore this Jesus-thing is by deciding to come to a service on Sunday morning.

If we have Northwest Nick & Nichole in our service, then we'd better make sure that we have Accessible Worship. Because if they go to a church, they might be worried about being conspicuous--this is unfamiliar territory for them. Everyone's got the hymnbooks. They’re singing. They don’t know the words. They’re not singing, and everybody knows they’re not singing. And they know everybody knows they're not singing because they’re all looking at them. They feel very put on the spot. That’s why visitors go to the back. They don’t want to have a spotlight shining on them.

We don’t have a thousand people here, but we still want to create the environment where people can come and hide in the crowd. We welcome that. It’s ok. We want them to come in, sit down, get their feet wet, listen for a while, check it out, consider the claims of Christ. We don’t embarrass people before they become believers. We’re just glad whenever anyone is here for any reason. Northwest Nick is probably skeptical of organized religion. “I don’t mind Jesus and God. I just don’t like organized religion.” That’s great, come to Pathway. We’re disorganized religion.

Once they've decided that they want to keep coming, at least long enough to keep on considering what's being presented, then it's important that we get them plugged into a Connecting Community. We do this through helping them find a small group that will fit their schedule and interests, and by finding ways that they can serve and contribute on a ministry team that fits how God has shaped them.

Both of these connections will help them grow through Life-On-Life Discipleship because they're interacting with other believers who will teach them through their lives, their attitudes, their actions, and their words what it means to be a fully devoted follower of Christ.

This is a very attractive process for Northwest Nick and Nichole because it proceeds at their pace and with their consent and their involvement. It's respectful, personal, and gradual--we don't expect them to be mature Christians the first week they walk in our doors. We treat them with love, concern, care, and compassion as we encourage them to keep taking steps in their spiritual journeys, but it's up to them to take the steps. We don't force anything on people--they come to Christ through their own decisions, not through pressure, manipulation, or coersion.

Next week, I'll be telling you about some real people at Pathway who have found this process to be exactly what they needed to come to Christ. We're going to put faces on Northwest Nick and Nichole.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Life-On-Life Discipleship

This is the last in my series of posts examining our church's strategy, answering the question: "Why do we do what we do?" Specifically, we've been answering the question: "Why do we do things this way?" In addition to service that is love-motivated, outreach that is relational, worship that is accessible, and community that connects, we want discipleship that is life-on-life.

What do I mean by that?

Many churches utilize an approach to discipleship that is primarily informational or educational. They seem to believe that if a person simply has the right information, then they will know how to apply it and live it out in their own lives. They focus on doctrine and data, and figure the rest will follow. I believe this model is outdated.

In a former time in American culture, the structures, values, and institutions of society all worked together to encourage people to live a life consistent with biblical principles. In the worlds of business, politics, academics, and every other area of life, there were pressures and expectations for people to act honestly, to honor their word, to work diligently, to treat others respectfully, and to exercise self-discipline.

In this kind of a world, perhaps information was the great need--people simply needed to know how to place their beliefs and values in the context of living a life that glorifies God. They always knew that working hard was the right thing to do, but with more information they could understand why it was right, and how that related to God.

Today, these values have all but evaporated, and in every area of life, there is an expectation that people will probably lie if they can get away with it, will break their word unless there is a potential for a lawsuit, will do as little work as possible, will treat others as tools to be used, and will exercise self-indulgence.

In this kind of a world, the discipleship process starts with a disadvantage--the world is openly hostile to a life that's devoted to following Jesus. So there are actually three tasks for the disciple, instead of one:

  • A disciple needs to learn the definition of right living. There is no societal pressure that encourages me to abstain from sex before marriage--in fact, there is great societal pressure to dive right in. So, in the 1950s the question would have been, "Why is sex before marriage wrong?" Today the question is, "What? You mean this is an issue?"
  • A disciple need to learn how to demonstrate right living. There are many logistical questions that face a person who wants to change their life choices. How do I explain to my girlfriend I don't think we should be having sex anymore? How do I tell my kids that the cable we've been stealing is going to get cut off? How do I handle my boss who pays me under the table? What about the weekly lottery pool I participate in at work? You see, all of these choices involve relationships, not just the life of the Christ-follower. In a world that doesn't support Christian choices, many of these choices become tricky.
  • A disciple needs to learn how to defend right living. We have to learn how to develop not only the courage to make the right choices, but the ability to explain those choices to others who don't understand, and be ready to become the object of ridicule. Because the truth is that without a defense, people will naturally just "go with the flow."

A world that is hostile to the Christian life makes the process of discipleship much more complicated and difficult. Simply giving people information doesn't cut it anymore. We need help. We need people to come along side us and encourage us, support us, lead us, challenge us, stretch us, and hold us accountable. This is where discipleship often falls apart today--we don't surround people and equip them to make and defend the right choices in their lives. We simply tell them a bunch of information.

At our church, discipleship happens most often in small group Bible studies and in ministry teams. These are the places that we rub shoulders with one another. These are the contexts in which relationships are developed, where it becomes natural to share our lives with one another. We see what other people have done and continue to do. We learn about how they have made decisions in their lives--both good and bad, and what the outcomes of those were. We can ask questions about things we don't yet understand. We can ask for prayer. We can find a place where we feel safe to be who we are, which is essential for growing into somebody else.

Relationships are essental for growth. The Christian life is more caught than taught. We have to see it lived out in the people around us. That's why we have a strategy of Life-On-Life Discipleship.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Connecting Community

These last few posts have been exploring and developing the themes laid out in a post I made on July 13, Why Do We Do What We Do? (Part 2). In that original post, I talked about a "Welcoming Community," but I'm actually changing that terminology to a "Connecting Community."

In fact, this week's subject and next week's were the ones that I really wrestled with finding just the right words. I know what I want to communicate--it's a matter of applying the proper words that will transmit the idea.

On July 13, I wrote: As people come into our church, we want them not only to feel welcome, but to actually be welcomed--with open arms. We want people to know that this is a safe place, where they will be loved and supported in their pursuit of Christ, a place where they can be authentic, sharing their needs, their fears, their struggles, and their questions, along with their joys and hopes. We want people to be connected into a family.

But my fear is that "welcoming" actually conveys not the idea of deep safety and love, but rather a superficial smile and handshake. This is actually the opposite of what we want. A smile and handshake is a nice beginning, but if we stop there, we fail as a community that follows the path of Christ. You can get a nice greeting at McDonald's and Wal-Mart, but the church of Jesus Christ ought to be a place that truly welcomes people to come and join us on this path of becoming fully devoted followers of him.

A Connecting Community is one where we are linked and joined to one another with bonds of love, consideration, authenticity, and care. Moreover, we work hard to connect the unconnected--those who stand off apart from the community, who are fearful of rejection if they should reveal too much of themselves. We actively seek to attach ourselves to each other, knowing that it is God's will for us to hold one another up as we stumble together toward Christlikeness on our journeys of faith.

In searching for the right word, I considered many options:

  • Phrases like an "Open Community" and an "Embracing Community" not only had the same failings as a "Welcoming Community," but in some circles they signify an endorsement of a homosexual lifestyle, which is certainly not something we want to communicate.
  • An "Approachable Community" puts the responsibility on those who come--that they should approach us--when in fact we should be the ones seeking to incorporate others into the body.
  • I thought about an "Attaching Community," but it reminded me of a vacuum cleaner or some other machine with attachments. I thought of a Frankenstein-like monster, composed of various assembled parts, when we want to communicate something natural and attractive. The same goes with "Sticky Community"--Eeeewwww! Yuck!
  • I really liked an "Adopting Community"; it carries the idea of incorporating people into a family. But I felt it was unclear what we were adopting--people? ideas? babies?

It is important for a church to be a Connecting Community. If we are not connected in this deep-life way, we have no place to go with our questions, our doubts, our fears, and our struggles, and that void leaves us open to Satan's attacks. If we are not connected with others in our church, it becomes hard to grow spiritually because growth most often comes only when we are challenged to grow, and we are best challenged by those who really know us. Finally, when we are unconnected, it becomes very easy to simply drop out. After all, if no one really cares about me, why should I keep going?

So what makes us connected? How do we connect with one another?

  • We feel connected when we can identify friends in the church.
  • We feel connected when we have an important role or ministry in the church.
  • We feel connected when we grow closer to God through the church.
  • We feel connected when we believe in the mission and vision of the church.

How can we become a Connecting Church. Particularly, how do we connect the unconnected?

  • Identify those who lack friendships, who seem isolated, and befriend them. Or introduce them to others they might have something in common with.
  • Identify those who lack a place to serve, and encourage them to get involved in a ministry that fits how God has shaped them.
  • Identify those who are not in a small group, and help them find a group that fits their needs and schedule.
  • Continually communicate the mission and vision of the church in an attractive way.

When we remove the barriers to connection, we become a place where people feel they belong, where they feel comfortable to be themselves, where they know that there is a radical acceptance based on the unity that comes from the blood of Jesus Christ that gives us equal standing before him. We become a community that people cling to and will not relinquish because they find their deepest needs for purpose, acceptance, and encouragement met right here through the people of God.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Accessible Worship

This is the third in a series of five posts, examining our strategy more fully, understanding how we seek to meet people where they are on their spiritual journeys and lead them to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. We've already tackled Love-Motivated Service and Relational Outreach. This week, we explore Accessible Worship.

In our church, we offer worship services that utilize a variety of elements: skits, music, video, communion, the spoken word, giving, and other types of congregational response. We don't necessarily include every one of these elements in any given service, but these are the ingredients that we use in preparing each Sunday's worship gathering.

One of the things that we do that is somewhat unusual is to include both Christian and non-Christian elements in our decidedly Christian worship services. We have both Christian and non-Christian music, Christian and non-Christian videos, Christian and non-Christian skits. So what is the thinking behind this? Why do we design our services this way?

One of the assumptions I've often heard expressed (even by those who are involved in serving in the worship services) is that our worship services are designed to "attract" unchurched people or to "bring people in." But that's actually not the case. The only people who even know what our worship services are like are the ones who come to them. The people outside our church don't have any clue what our services are like, so how would they be attracted?

Rather, the services are designed to be intelligible and understandable to anyone who does come, whether they've never set foot inside a church in their lives, or if they've been a follower of Christ for 20 years. Our worship services are intended to be accessible. We want to do church in such a way that a person who's never been to church can "get it."

This means more than simply dropping the "Christian-ese" that dominates a lot of church-talk ("I felt so blessed to be justified by the blood and be filled with the Holy Ghost when God moved me to reach the lost. Hallelujah!"). It means communicating in a way that makes sense to the people we're trying to communicate with, giving them something they can reflect on and consider as they leave the service.

The ingredients we use that make up our worship services are effective for this in several ways:

  • Using music, movies, and TV shows from pop culture helps people make connections between their everyday lives and the Bible or God. It helps them see the spiritual dimensions of their everyday activities.
  • When they hear a song on the radio, or watch a TV show that was used in church that Sunday, it reminds them of the worship experience, reinforcing the message they heard.
  • Pop culture is often helpful for providing negative examples of how to handle life, which can then be contrasted with God's way, as expressed in the Bible. (In today's service, we had an example of that with the Hank Williams song, "There's A Tear In My Beer" and the Katy Perry song "Lost")
  • By using things that people are already familiar with (pop culture), it helps them relate to something new (the message of Jesus).

It would be right to point out that there are a few assumptions behind our approach, which the whole thing is built on:

  • All truth is God's truth, whether we find it in the pages of scripture or in a Jack Nicholson movie.
  • God is concerned with all of life--even addictions, crime, abuse, sexuality, or whatever else might make us uncomfortable--so all of life is up for discussion in a frank and honest way.
  • God is in the redeeming business; therefore, what someone in Hollywood intended for glorification of sin can be used for the glorification of God, when put in proper context.
  • Communication that is convincing is not just informational, but emotional as well. Since the arts have a tremendous power to persuade, it is wise to use them in our attempts to convince people.
  • Christians ought to be more considerate than non-Christians. We expect Christians to make the effort to accommodate the ones we're trying to reach, rather than the other way around.

In the end, we want everyone who comes to Pathway each Sunday leaving with a better understanding of what God wants them to do, and with a motivation to do it. But that requires a worship service that is accessible to everyone who comes.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Relational Outreach

This is the second week in this blog, where we're looking at the five strategies we have for being a more effective reconciling community (2 Cor. 5:18). Last week, we discussed Love-Motivated Service; this week, we're looking at Relational Outreach.

We, like most churches, have a few big "outreach events" that are scattered throughout the year: Chili Cook-off Booth (Winter); Easter Egg Hunt (Spring); Soccer Camp (Summer); Trunk Or Treat (Fall). Additionally, in the past, we've done other outreach events, such as a Dinner Theatre, a Car Show, and serving hot chocolate at events downtown.

Another approach we utilize for outreach is periodically printing postcards for series that we believe will resonate with unchurched people. Sometimes we hand these out at our outreach events, inviting people to return for an upcoming series.

I believe outreach events are a good idea, and we will continue to have them. However, the fact that we emphasize these events and call on the church body to be involved, has the unintended consequence, I think, of causing many of us to view our church's outreach strategy as being event-driven (whether the event is Soccer Camp or a worship service), rather than relationship-driven.

We do outreach events, but the truth is that our strategy is not to reach people with events, but to reach people with relationships. The events are simply there to serve as tools for the relationships. Let me explain.

Many unchurched people are uncomfortable with churches and church people. They've had bad experiences in the past, or they've heard plenty of horror stories from others, and they have their guard up. Northwest Nick's guard comes down as a result of someone getting close to him--a neighbor, a co-worker, a friend from the gym, a repeat customer--someone that he can see is 1) a Christ-follower and 2) different than his preconceptions.

Northwest Nick may still be hesitant to walk into a worship service--that can be very intimidating--but if his friend invites him to bring his kids to Soccer Camp, or to come to a Lugnuts baseball game, or some other event, that's often an easier step for him to take. Then, once he comes and interacts with more people, Nick is hopefully saying, "This church could be different. A lot of these people seem really genuine." The event has served to bring him one step closer to Christ.

Then Nick's friend invites him to come to a worship service. The friend gives him a postcard that has all the information on it--what, where, when, a website to check out. The postcard with all the information helps Nick know what to expect--it reduces the unknown and the anxiety that the unknown generates in our minds. He may or may not come this time, but he feels welcome and possibly interested. Eventually, Nick may choose to check it out.

This is relational outreach. The events and the postcards are not there to do the work all by themselves in a vacuum. They are part of a relational outreach strategy that depends on each of us to build our own relationships with unchurched people. Without the relationships undergirding the process, the events and postcards lose most of their effectiveness.

This last week, we had Soccer Camp. Normal registration costs were $15 per child for the week (a bargain for the personal attention, the snacks, the crafts, the T-shirt, and the picture w/ frame that each child received).

But we waived the fee for kids who have been involved in our SPLASH ministry this summer for single parents. First of all, we know that single parents often struggle financially, and we didn't want them to be excluded from Soccer Camp for financial reasons. But, more importantly, those are relationships that we've already established, and now we want to develop them. We want to expand their connection with our church. We want them to meet more people and get drawn into this community of Christ-followers. That's relational outreach.

We can't say we did outreach just because we had an outreach event. Events are great, but they don't often bear much fruit on their own. People who show up for an event, absent a relationship, are usually not interested in anything other than the event.

  • Parents who bring their kids to Soccer Camp just want their kids to have fun playing soccer;
  • Parents who bring their kids to the Easter Egg Hunt or to Trunk or Treat just want their kids to get candy and prizes;
  • People who come to a Dinner Theatre just want good food and a good show.

But people who already have an authentic, positive relationship with someone in our church are often interested in acquiring more authentic, positive relationships.

Now, there are exceptions to the rule, of course. There are people who just walk in off the street and pick our church at random. There are people who just moved into the neighborhood and are looking for a church. There are people who came to an event here 10 years ago, but now they're struggling with a divorce, and they're searching for something. Outreach can happen without a relationship, but it's often accidental.

We can't rely on accidents to reach the 100,000 people in Jackson County with no church family. We have to be strategic. Our strategy is to intentionally focus on Relational Outreach.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Love-Motivated Service

Whenever we serve, it's always for someone else; real service is inherently other-focused. Just think about all the ways we experience service in our everyday lives:

  • The mechanic in your local garage is there to provide service for your vehicle--not his. His garage doesn't exist for him alone, but rather to offer a quality service experience to you and anyone else who needs help with their car.
  • The server in your local restaurant is there not just to serve you dinner, but in fact to serve all your needs while dining--your needs, not theirs. Their job is to provide you with an exceptional dining experience (and the food is actually only one part of that service).
  • If you have trouble with a product that you buy, most of the time you can call their Customer Service department. Their job is to do everything they can to resolve your problem to your satisfaction--they're there to serve the customer... at least, in theory. If they don't do a good job, you will say you did not get good service.
In truth, self-service is no service at all. When you drive up to a gas pump, swipe your own debit card, fill up your car for an obscene amount of money, check your own fluids, wipe your own windshield, and oversee all aspects of your own transaction, you've made a purchase, but you have not given yourself a service. No one leaves a gas station remarking on how well they served themselves. Service is always for someone else. To serve is to direct your talents and energies to the benefit of others.

But why would we do that? What could possibly be our motivation for serving others? Our capitalistic economy is designed to reward good service with money. That's the motivation for the auto mechanic, the restaurant server, and the Customer Service department; their goal is to maximize their bottom lines. The better they serve, the more money they generate for themselves.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that. I think it's rather ingenious that we've created an economic system where people are actually rewarded for doing something they're unlikely to do voluntarily, but which everyone needs and everyone benefits from.

But that can't be our motivation at PCC for serving others. We don't serve so that we can get money. We also don't serve in order to see some pre-determined result. As much as we want to see people come to faith in Christ, give their lives and hearts to him, and experience the life-transforming power he offers, we can't hold that out as a reason for serving people. Because what if they don't? What if they don't become believers? Does that mean we stop serving them? How would we know when we've served someone "long enough"? Service can't be used as a manipulation tool--that would make it something other than service.

Additionally, we don't serve out of guilt, duty, obligation, to fulfill our own needs, or to gain recognition. If we serve for any of these reasons, our service is not truly focused on others, but on ourselves. We're really only serving for what we can get out of it--much like the server at the restaurant.

At PCC, we believe that there can only be one good motivation for serving, and that motivation is love--love for other people. We want everyone who serves to recognize exactly how their service benefits others, and to be motivated by genuine love for those they serve.
  • Our ushers greet people and make them feel welcome every Sunday. They provide them with a bulletin, which is the main communication tool for our church, helping us all stay connected with one another. They answer questions and help direct visitors to the nursery or the children's wing downstairs. Our ushers provide a tremendous service, motivated by a sincere love for everyone who walks in the door.
  • Our lawn crew keeps the grass mowed and edged. This makes it safe for everyone who comes, so that we don't have snakes and other critters taking up residence in some long, weedy hayfield that occupies the space where our lawn used to be. It also makes it attractive to the community that drives by the church, rather than making an unkempt property that repels people. This is a love-motivated service.
  • And more could be said about nursery workers, children's ministry workers, sound & video techs, small group leaders, youth group volunteers, worship musicians, and others.

Every ministry of our church meets one or more needs with love. All of our ministries are about loving people, and those who serve hopefully do so out of a motivation of love. If you are reading this, and you have a ministry in the church, I'd invite you to think about what needs your ministry meets for people, and how you can demonstrate love for them through your service.

This week, we have a great opportunity in Soccer Camp to give love-motivated service to our entire community, as dozens of kids (and their parents) come to us for a week of soccer and fun. If you haven't signed up yet to serve, just contact Pastor Brent, our Soccer Camp Director, and he'll be happy to find a way that you can get plugged in (no soccer skills required!!!).

In the fall, we'll be launching a new ministry in partnership with the Northwest School District, called Kids Hope USA. It's a mentoring program for at-risk elementary age children. The principal will select the children who qualify for the program; our church will supply the mentors who commit to spending one hour a week with their child at the school. This program has had a tremendous impact in schools around the country, and it's one more way that we can provide love-motivated service to the people around us.

Every person is a person created in God's image. Every person is a person that God loves. Every person is a person that God wants us to love. But let us not love people with words only and vague notions, but with actions that actually demonstrate that our love is real. Let us love with service.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Why Do We Do What We Do? (Part 2)

Last week, I wrote a post about why we do what we do--as Christians, as a church--looking at Paul's teachings in 2 Corinthians 5-6. And I said, "Everything that we do at Pathway Community Church is about becoming a more effective reconciling community."

But this week, I want to break that down a little bit. I want to move from the abstract and theoretical to the concrete and practical. How are we a reconciling community? In what way do these things that we do help us to accomplish the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18)? There are lots of ways to "do church"--why do we do things this way?

In essence, this is a question about strategy. If we agree that every church and every individual ought to be about the business of using the gifts of the Spirit to serve, reaching out to unbelievers with the good news of Jesus, worshiping God in words and actions, loving one another in fellowship, and growing in maturity and Christ-likeness--if we agree that those are our basic functions--then what is our strategy for accomplishing them? How do these things work in our church? Why do we do things this way?

I spent some time last week thinking about each of these 5 basic functions of the church, trying to encapsulate our strategy in a single phrase, and here's what I came up with:

1. Love-Motivated Service
There are lots of potential motivations for serving--guilt, duty, obligation, need, recognition. But we want our service to be motivated by love. We want everyone who serves to recognize the way that they are serving others, and to be motivated by love for the others whom they serve. We also want people to love the service that they do (not to feel worn out and burdened down by it), and that happens when they serve according to the way that God has shaped them.

2. Relational Outreach
I think there's a tendency to view outreach from an event-oriented perspective. But outreach events do not constitute outreach in themselves. Really, they act as tools to assist those in our church who are developing relationships as one more relationship-building opportunity. Our outreach happens as we get close to people in relationships and invite them to a relationship not just with us, but with Christ as well.

3. Accessible Worship
Our worship services are not designed to "attract" unchurched people or to "bring people in." The only people who even know what our worship services are like are the ones who come to them. Rather, the services are designed to be intelligible and understandable to anyone who does come, whether they've never set foot inside a church in their lives, or if they've been a follower of Christ for 20 years.

4. Welcoming Community
As people come into our church, we want them not only to feel welcome, but to actually be welcomed--with open arms. We want people to know that this is a safe place, where they will be loved and supported in their pursuit of Christ, a place where they can be authentic, sharing their needs, their fears, their struggles, and their questions, along with their joys and hopes. We want people to be connected into a family.

5. Life-On-Life Discipleship
We believe that the best way to grow closer to Christ is to do it in community, in the middle of a process of sharing life with other people. There are exceptions, but in general it is very hard to grow significantly as a Christian without deep and sincere relationships with other Christians. As we share life together, we get to see how others deal with their problems in a biblical way, we experience others praying for us as we face our own, and we have a network of support in times of crisis. The Christian life is more caught than taught because it's not about a list of doctrines that have to be memorized--it's about living a life under the direction and leadership of Jesus.

This is why we do what we do:

  • "No one serves alone" so that we can build relationships, welcoming people into the community and providing them with a place that they can contribute and share according to how God has shaped them.
  • We print postcards so that we can have an easy way to invite our friends (relational outreach), providing them with all the information that they'll need to come and experience an accessible worship service and a welcoming community.
  • We have small groups that gather regularly for Bible study and fellowship so that each of us has a place where we can share life with other people who are on the same journey toward Christ-likeness that we are.
  • We plan our services in themed series so that we can connect the Bible with everyday life, making our services accessible for as many people as possible, and providing recurring "on-ramps" for unchurched people to come and hear God's message for their lives.

It's really about making room in our lives for other people at every stage of their spiritual journeys. If it's our goal as a church to look like Christ, we need to be "other-focused"--his life was all about others, and our lives must be too. So we'll be exploring these five strategies in depth over the next five weeks in this blog.