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.