Tag Archives: Church

Why I Write My Sermons In A Bar

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One of my “insider” interests is learning how other pastors handle sermon prep. What I have discovered is no two pastors are ever exactly the same except that all have a process, every step in the process is intentional and the whole thing begins with with an initial Monday morning panic, “Can I make a message out of this by Sunday?”

My process isn’t terribly novel. In general terms, I prefer to preach either expositionally (through books of the Bible) or theologically (some people call this “topical” and yet my focus is more on the theology of a theme than merely good advice giving). Where I may differ from many of my fellow preachers is that my prep is sliced into two distinct environments. It begins in the lab of my study and ends in the field that is a bar.

In The Lab That Is A Study

I recently read an article that said pastors should not have offices, but studies. I like that. So I have a study. My study is like a lab; a controlled environment with everything I need for the task of research. I begin in the lab by copy-and-pasting a double-spaced version of my biblical text for the week into a Word document. I then read the passage over and over, identifying patterns, scribbling notes, logging insights and asking random questions with each pass. I would guess I scan and scribble through the passage around 20 times, usually finding that the most valuable insights hit around the 15th pass. From there I do my exegetical work. For those unfamiliar with our hip clergy nomenclature, exegesis is when we seek to understand the meaning of a book of the Bible in its original language, culture and context. It may sound dull, but for Bible nerds this is the biblical peanut butter to our theological jelly. Once that is complete, I pile my desk with books and read till I feel I need to unbuckle my mental belt like its a post Thanksgiving Day dinner.

As the above process unfolds I regularly shake out the cramping in my right hand. I’m feverishly jot down informational aggregate on my narrow rule TOPS white legal pad, using my Pentel 0.7mm mechanical pencil and rotating through my pile of Ticonderoga Emphasis highlighters (shameless product placements) to mark varied themes with various colors (yellow is technical, green is illustrative, pink is pithy, orange is for us today, blue is transitional and purple is key points). Finally, I figure out the key breaks in the passage that will act as transitions through the sermon and I put each of those sections into a PowerPoint build. By the end of my time “in the lab”, I have logged around 20-30 hours and piled up anywhere between 10-20 pages of notes. With my lab research done I grab my ESV Bible, research notes, TOPS pad, Pentel pencil and head to a bar.

In The Field That Is A Bar

Labs are pristine, antiseptic and protected. That gives us the ability to research in ways that are ideal, controlled and precise. Field research is messy, inconvenient and unpredictable, yet true to life. A local bar (a cantina technically) is my field research. It is the last stage in my process and the location where I put the majority of my sermons together.

As I walk in, the familiar Latino bartender greets me with our customary ritual, “Amigo! Mac and Jack?” Mac and Jack’s is hands down the best African Amber on the planet and is brewed just over the hill. I give him my usual thumbs-up and find a place to sit down. My table is the far back corner. It gives me the best view of the room.

On this day there are two middle-aged women at the far booth. Each has a margarita the size of a kiddy pool. They are loud, animated and angry – at a man. The one on the left is mad at her man. The one on the right is mad at the same man, but only as a show of solidarity for the friend across from her. Hell hath no furry like two angry women with a gallon of margarita between them.

I smirk and think, “I’m glad I’m not that guy.” And I write.

Further to my right, two men sit at the bar. One is retired, has a cane, wears a veteran hat and is eager to initiate a conversation with anyone who sits within three seats. A couple seats down is a young guy, blue collar, no wedding ring and looks like he came straight from moving a mountain of dirt with his bare hands and then used his face as the wash cloth. He’s sipping Fireball, watching the soccer game and riding that fine line with the vet of being just polite enough to keep conversation at arms length without being disrespectful.

I’m like the younger guy. I’m sad for the older guy. And I write.

Closer to my immediate left are two young women in their 20’s. I can hear how the one feels betrayed because she just found out her boyfriend has a porn issue. Her friend seeks to console her, assuring her of how the boyfriend in question doesn’t deserve her. Suddenly one of the the two loud margarita ladies unexpectedly shouts, “Men Suck!” and the consoling 20 something responds, “Amen!” (Yes, you would be surprised how much “Amen” comes up in a bar). The laughter and camaraderie cuts away the anger and betrayal for a few brief seconds before reality returns, and with reality the conversations.

I grieve. I pray. And I write.

Behind me around the corner is the restaurant area. Just within earshot I can hear a family. The newborn baby is crying and big brother (who may be all of 4-5 years old) is repeating, “I’m bored! I’m bored!” Dad must be lost on his phone because of the terse female voice that comes next, “Are you going to deal with your son?”

I remember. And I write.

After a few minutes a third man appears at the bar. I’ve seen him a few times before. White collar, wedding ring, never really talks. He sits at the bar for one drink in a small glass and leaves. It seems to be his soft space between stressful worlds.

I look. I ponder. I pray. And I write.

It is in this immersive environment where I begin to construct my final thoughts; pushing what I have studied through an ether vastly different than the atmosphere of my study. As I do my mind bends toward various questions as the message unfolds:

How would people in a bar understand this?

Would people in a bar know what to do with this?

Do people in a bar even care about this?

What biases might the two younger women have about the importance of this?

What words or ideas would the unmarried dirt covered guy be unfamiliar with?

What questions would the married business guy and his one drink have about this?

What confusion might be stirred up for the worn out parents with their two young kids?

What objections would the loud margarita ladies have about this?

What conclusions would the retired veteran have about this?

What humor, illustrations, word pictures or pop culture references can I use that most of the people in a bar would instantly understand?

What religious clichés are so loaded that they might sabotage what I believe people need to understand regarding this?

How can I do all of this and still ensure that Jesus, above all else, is honored and pleased with what I say?

Now obviously I don’t systematically walk through these questions after every point. They are more the natural consequence of the environment as I compile the sermon. Completing my message in a bar forces an awareness of and sensitivity to people in real life. It unlocks the questions in a way far more authentic than anything I might duplicate by just imagining people in the isolation of my study. And I do this, not in the hopes of understanding the “lost”, but so as to understand people; not the least of which being the “saved” ones. The bar is a transparent microcosm of the same realities, challenges and conversations “saved” people face. A bar is filled with the same kind of demographic diversity that a church seeks to create. And ultimately a bar is popular for the same reason a church; because people are looking for a safe place in which some seek to hide, others want to connect and still others invest to belong.

Mind you a bar isn’t a perfect place, but neither are people. Praise God that His Bible, His Gospel and His Grace always is.

 

The Supreme Court, Idols and The Ruining Grace of the Friday God.

MB PostsThe original Good Friday was not so good. In fact it was downright a punch in the gut followed by a brisk boot to the head. By the end of the day a pagan government flanked by a corrupt religion had managed to kill God’s Son, instill fear in God’s followers and give the illusion that God’s plans were buried in the dirt. As night fell on the angst-ridden apostles they found themselves lamenting the end of their movement along with the inevitability of their demise. Yep, it wasn’t exactly a Good Friday from anyone’s perspective: except God’s. For on that Friday many things yet to be seen were transpiring and one easily overlooked reality is that more than one “god” was slain that day.

Part of the angst of the Apostles on that Friday evening was rooted in a problem they were unwittingly blind to at the time. The problem? They had the right God, but they saw Him in selectively wrong ways. They thought Jesus was to be their partisan judge in an earthly court, their commanding general in a Roman invasion and their kingly monarch in a not-really-so-new-but-at-least-Jewish global empire. In short, they believed in a politically empowered messianic idol more than understood Jesus the Messiah who stands outside yet over all human rulers. Therefore when things fell apart, their idol – by way of God’s ruining grace – was slain. So while every part of it looked like a really bad Friday, it was the beginnings of the first truly Good Friday.

In thinking about this, as it pertained to the SCOTUS decision this last Friday, I couldn’t help but run through some parallels of how we too as Christians may have idolized certain things within our country. For a while I have noticed how we have slipped into a form of idolatrous doublethink regarding political powers. In one sense we have generally affirmed that government is not the solution to our problems, but then every election cycle we roll into sounding like politicians or parties are the key to curtailing the very problems we are certain government can’t fix. Now in saying this please don’t take my words further than I intend. I believe that every American Christian has an important public responsibility to be involved in the political process and some even running for office, but my suspicion is that we have gone further than mere civic duty; we may have set our faith and fear in it. We appear to have gone beyond casting our vote to placing our hope and trust and anxiety and distress in the outcomes of the civic arena; making idols out of platforms, methods, legislation and their aftereffects. Some idols we feared so greatly we made a point to desecrate them as often as possible, alarmed that they will rise up and overpower our rights. Other idols we opted to venerate in the hopes they would stem the tide of the idols we feared. Hence we played a game of “my idol can beat your idol,” and now we sit dismayed at the fact that “their” idols are shoving “our” idols butts in the cultural dirt. Yes, the political arm of Christianity is getting a beat down, but oh what a glorious beat down it will be if we are willing to endure it.

In relationship to times of opposition the Apostle said, It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God.” While some may speak of the need for God to judge America, we must remember that Peter here says judgment comes first to us. The difference however is that for the Christian God’s judgment is not to dole out sinful penalty, but to forge spiritual maturity. In light of this…

Perhaps the events of Friday, and the feared future consequences of those events, are actually the beginnings of a spectacular grace designed to filter out the worldly contaminates that have inadvertently mixed with what is to be an other-worldly faith.

Perhaps God is stripping us of our power, our privilege and our position specifically so all that remains is living by His Power, His Privilege and His Position.

Perhaps the best way we were ever going to love others selflessly was to be stripped of our ability to resist others socially.

Perhaps what our prayers most required, what our faith most desired and what our thankfulness most needed was being socially humbled so as to display Spirit-filled humility.

Perhaps because our idols have fallen, all other idols will eventually follow in suit so that Jesus reigns in the lives of an eternal multitude secured specifically because of the witness of our temporary discomfort.

Perhaps we will find a new found anguish for people who are estranged from God’s grace more than be agitated that they break God’s rules.

Perhaps by not being as focused on winning the culture wars for Jesus we will now be more focused on winning a war worn culture to Jesus.

Perhaps because we gladly pass through the fires of reviling with only blessing on our lips the embers of revival will settle around our country.

Perhaps we will be freed from the fear of all earthly calamity and rejoice in certitude of our eternal certainty.

Perhaps we will now know with steely assurance that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Perhaps what we least wanted we most required to be holy as God is holy.

Perhaps with less and less we will realize more and more Jesus meets every need.

Perhaps with all our idols broken down that is when His Cross, His Gospel, His Church and His Glory will be most lifted up.

Perhaps what feels like a very bad situation will be the beginning of a very good opportunity. It wouldn’t be the first time world changing things sprang from the ruining grace of the Friday God.

 

 

Dear Church, We’re REALLY REALLY Leaving You Because You’re Too Sinful And Not Worthy Of Our Grace.

MB Posts

This article will be a bit barbed, but I do this when defending a woman that is being mistreated.

Over the last several days the article “Dear Church, Here Is Why People Are REALLY Leaving You” has repeatedly cycled through my sprawling array of social media feeds (Oh Ryan Howard where is WUPHF.com when I need it most?). I have seen people I love “Like” it and people I like “LOVE” it, but I have contemplated it. Now if I were simply mining the article for anecdotal nuggets I would say there is much to be mined, but taken on the whole I feel like it’s giving me the shaft without any real gold in the mine – and yes, the double entendre is implied.

In the big picture the thrust of the article appears to be saying – as far as I can surmise – “Yes Church I’m leaving you. And yes it’s me, but it’s more you because you don’t accept me for me like you should.” Now I’m not going to argue for a minute that this doesn’t happen (though I actually think a whole lot less, or a whole lot less dramatically than articles like this make it should). However, my bigger concern is that the article itself is an exercise in the very thing criticized, and brazenly so. For as much as some churches out there may not take people where they are at, there are far more people who don’t take churches where they are at. Every week people leave a church for innumerable reasons, but the commonality is some element of “this church isn’t doing it for us.” It’s a break-up with that particular church because it lacks or does something that causes them to “find another” a bit more worthy. However, in the case of this article it appears the rejection is so deep it’s “The Church” that is left, not just a church. And at the core of that issue is far more than merely calling the kettle black, it’s sinners calling sinners sinners for sinfully not loving sinners, sinfully. Yes, read it five times and it will fall together.

So then the innate question, the “what would Jesus ask?” question is, “Who is prepared to love first, to love selfless and to love someone or a group of some ones right where they are at?” The low truth is that there is no red-letter high ground in saying, “I’m rejecting you because you are more broken than me and don’t see it.” Those who think they can love better, judge less and care more should actually model the solution for a broken church in the church. This is particularly true in light of the reality that at the deepest level, people who reject church for rejecting people are inherently rejecting people themselves. Churches are not computers run by algorithms and automation. When people leave churches they are leaving swaths of individuals. Every time people have left our church because they were hurt, I deal with others whom are hurt by the hurt people leaving. And no wonder, people who leave are not just leaving an organization. It’s people who design the programs you deem shallow, it’s people who have the attitudes you consider hypocritical, it’s people who set the priorities you reckon as greedy, it’s people who get bogged down in the biases you hold as judgmental, judgmentally and yes, might I actually say it’s people who struggle with same problems of sin as you, the more enlightened sinner, who advances the broad brushed intolerant narrative that the real problem with “The Church” is that it isn’t as tolerant as you.

  • You, the self admitted sinner who fights for the worth of other sinners you deem worthy, by condemning sinners you find to be undeserving.
  • You, who restrict your illuminated grace because you believe they express only institutional grace.
  • You, the one who has exchanged an eye for an eye, hurt for hurt and rejection for rejection by feeling slapped, slapping back and then accusing The Church of not turning the other cheek.
  • You, who stand in an ebony tower of judgment, condemning those in their ivory towers for being judgmental.

Perhaps most problematic is that the only one who is truly grieved in all of this is probably Jesus. He is working with eternal grace to present His Church – His Girl – without spot or blemish, but you keep pointing out all her flaws and inadequacy. You breed her insecurity through your criticism. She chases after new, flashy and shallow because you remind her she isn’t beautiful. Don’t keep telling her she is shallow, broken, unattractive and bitchy. Stop shamming her for not being the perfect 10. Woo her, esteem her, meet her where she is at and respect her for the sole reason that Jesus loves her and rescued her as His most treasured possession.

Yes, the Church is a Gomer, but she is Jesus’ Gomer. So start treating her like the lady Jesus endures with, not as an establishment you rate on a five star system and then tack on a review.

7 Reasons Evangelicals Must Become The Most Tolerant Group In Culture.

MB PostsIn the current lexicon the word “tolerant” is about as loaded as a pub-hopping Irishman on St. Paddy’s Day. It’s the brave new litmus test that discerns whether one is an enlightened and understanding citizen, or an outdated bigot who deserves to be branded with an “ic” or “ist” tacked onto the back of some culturally untouchable word. Because of this, I need to take a moment to unpack how I’m using the word. I will do this by differentiating between new and true tolerance.

The “new tolerance,” as DA Carson christened it, is the pervading cultural pressure to affirm the beliefs and behaviors of others, provided those beliefs and behaviors are legal, consensual and/or harmless to the majority. Now, much of this definition I am prepared to live by, with the exception of the pivotal word, “affirm”. See, I expect my culture to engage in things that I sometimes find to be wrong. Equally, I expect my culture to look upon some of my beliefs and behaviors the same way. That is the nature of a democratic and multicultural society. But to impose the added requirement of affirmation is a game changer.

Lexically the idea of affirmation is an artificial addition and has nothing to do with the “true tolerance.” The Oxford Dictionary defines “tolerant” as, “Showing willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” Based on this, tolerance is actually what is required of a person when they specifically do not support something. At best, tolerance asks us to respectfully co-exist with differences we do not affirm for the sake of civility and discourse.

Thus for the evangelical, true tolerance does not require unfiltered affirmation of beliefs or behaviors the Bible calls sinful, but it does require a relational acceptance of all people in the hope that the transforming grace of the gospel will penetrate their lives. In this sense evangelicals must rise up as the most truly tolerant group in culture for seven reasons:

1. Because We Must Compensate For Our Crazy Drunk Uncles.

Do you have a crazy uncle? He shows up at Thanksgiving wild-eyed, outspoken,a bubble off center and guzzling Pabst Blue Ribbon like a camel on empty at a desert oasis. In the media it seems they often manage to find evangelicalism’s crazy drunk uncle to give airtime to. The result is that many who are not evangelicals think the crazy evangelical who made it as a sound bite on “The Daily Show” is how all evangelicals think and act.

I recently experienced this firsthand when a group of people automatically assumed that since I am an evangelical pastor I hate the president, despise the gay community, watch Fox News, listen to Rush Limbaugh and carry a gun. That last point is true; the rest is not. I don’t tune in to Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. I believe the president to be a well-intended man in a very difficult position. I care about the gay community as I do the rest of my culture. And as to the gun I carry, I don’t do it to make a point at Target, and I am not a member of the NRA. This doesn’t mean I agree or disagree with everything on Fox News, from Rush Limbaugh, by President Obama, in the gay community or about gun rights, but in the spirit of true tolerance I don’t need to. Rather I need to know how to graciously relate Jesus to all the views that swirl around me even regardless of whether I agree or disagree.

Only by going out of our way to establish caring friendships, so as to show people something beyond one-dimensional caricatures, will they begin to see real life evangelicals differently than our crazy drunk uncle TV pundits.

2. Because We Are To Be Tolerant, Just As God Is Tolerant.

Romans 2:4 says, “Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that His kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” (NLT). Every day that Jesus does not return is another massive global tolerance campaign. If it’s good enough for Jesus to be tolerant it’s good enough for those of us who follow Jesus. And the reason for the tolerance is profoundly missional; it’s intended to see people turn from their sins. Therefore, sitting on the other side of a cultural fence lobbing condemnations and frustrations will never be as effective as crossing the fence in the spirit of godly kindness in the hopes of seeing someone we love come to repentance.

3. Because We Need To Be Understanding To Reach The Unbelieving.

I think about Paul at Mars Hill. His first reaction upon reaching Athens was nothing short of disgust. It says in Acts 17:16 that when he saw the sheer scope of idols flocking the city “his spirit was provoked within him.” (ESV). The word “provoked” really doesn’t cut it here. The original Greek word paroxyno is where we get paroxysm, “a sudden attack or violent expression of a particular emotion or activity.” When people looked at Paul that day he had a gag reflex kicking in with a nervous twitch flapping over one eye. That is, until he recalled that this city didn’t know any better. They were doing exactly what they knew how to do because no one had shown them anything different. From this Paul downshifts and begins to relate to the people of the city. He begins to compliment them, speak their cultural language, and even quote from one of the very altars that caused him to flip his phylactery a few days earlier. In doing so he has no intention of selling out (as verses 31-32 eventually shows with the words such as repent and judgment), rather he is pressing in. Ultimately Paul chose suffering long, in the hopes of seeing others rescued from suffering forever.

4. Because We Have To Model What Actual Tolerance Is.

The new tolerance is as hypocritical as a chain-smoking dad busting his kid for sneaking a cigarette. It’s a selective acceptance that tolerates only what it affirms and stands rigidly intolerant to those who disagree. And those who advocate the new tolerance are not spending a great deal of time encouraging one another to love those who disagree with them. Just follow some of the recent trends in the media and you will see exactly how the new tolerance treats those who hold a different vision of the world. The exercise of true tolerance is branded as intolerance, which in turn solicits, even demands, banishment or shaming as the appropriate response.

For evangelicalism, however, part of our core command is to love our neighbor. We are reminded perpetually of the need to love people right where they are. To invest in those whom we may disagree with, to turn the other cheek when provoked and to even do good to an all out enemy. I realize we have not always done this well. Far too often we have slipped into imposed morality or personal offense, but we must continue to encourage one another in what the Bible commands of us toward those who don’t believe or behave as we do.This is true tolerance; it is the tolerance that evangelicals are the best at displaying and we must continue to model this more than ever in a culture that is losing the spirit of true diversity.

5. Because We Already Acknowledge Our Own Sinful Short Comings.

Evangelicals believe they are saved, grown and completed by gospel grace alone. It is a faith of walking shoes, not work boots. Thus when evangelicalism begins to sound chiefly like a religion of morality, we missed a turn somewhere. We know we don’t earn our standing before God; rather we follow the One who earned that standing for us – Jesus. Because our salvation is only by the grace of God, we should humbly be aware of our own sins, our various faults and our continued weakness. This is exactly why tolerance is necessary. Paul himself even says in Colossians 3, “12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (ESV). True tolerance doesn’t excuse sin, but it understands the struggle with sin, comes alongside in gentleness and points to the grace that can free and refresh. A good, honest look at the sinner in the mirror, coupled with gratitude for God’s grace, helps us to love the sinner across the street in true tolerance.

6. Because We Are The Ones Who Can Maintain The Importance Of Both Tolerance And Repentance.

The new tolerance seeks to free people from their sins by telling them their sins are not sinful. It is humanities’ attempt to save itself from its sins through the gospel of anesthetization. Yet the only road to abundant life passes through the door of repentance and grace. This is where evangelicals have the perfect combination. In true tolerance we can connect with people in a way that displays legitimate acceptance and love, but not at the cost of sharing the enduring message of God’s love that can forgive people of their sins and produce in them the life that excusing sin will never produce.

7. Because We Believe Only The Gospel Can Change People.

Culture wars are not for evangelicals. Every culture war has a deeper root that is the real war, and that root is sin. Not sins, but the actual cause, the nature of sin itself, Original Sin. Therefore to think that culture is the war is like battling the fever to cure the cancer. The real conflict is internal, supernatural, generational and trans cultural. It is a war that invades every layer of life in every person’s life, thus nothing done through the means of this world can change our deepest problem. Only an invasion from outside this world can change the sin of this world…

Which is why God sent Jesus.
Which is why Jesus received the Cross.
Which is why the Spirit raised Jesus.
Which is why Jesus sent the Spirit to testify of Himself and God.

God invaded our broken sphere in the person of Jesus to bring true transformation through the Spirit. Therefore…

Only the Gospel can confront our cultural sins.
Only the Gospel can restore our cultural soul.
Only the Church carries the Gospel that can change the culture we are called to love in the true tolerance of God.

The Best Way To Create A Family Friendly Church Service Is To Stop Having A Biblically Committed One.

MB PostsYears ago I was on a return flight from a conference in California. I was early onto the flight so I buckled up, settled in and popped open my Bible. It was a risky move in that it opened up the possibility for conversation, something I very much wanted to avoid on this flight. A Bible in 8B can act as a beacon of invitation for a sweet older Christian in 8A who sees your Good Book as a good opportunity to bend your ear about church potlucks and her quilting for Jesus club. Or even worse, you might end up with a Dispensationalist in 8C who wants to know what you think about blood moons, the Trilateral Commission and Nicolas Cage starring in “The Left Behind” movie. It was risky, but I had some things on my mind and needed to do a little cross checking.

As I read, a distinguished older gentleman hoisted his bag into the compartment above and then settled in next to me. I could sense his head tilting to glance over at my reading material. For roughly 5 minutes he did this until his eastern European accent cut the air, “You are reading a Bible, yes?” Hoping to maintain a cone of silence and dissuade any further conversation I simply nodded. “I’m Jewish. I know this book. It is a dirty and vile work.” With those words the cone of silence evaporated.

“Really!” I thought. “Of all the people you could have placed next to me, Jesus, you put a Nazi-era Jewish European who thinks the Bible is ‘dirty’ and ‘vile’.” At a slight loss for an opening sentence, I simply burped one of those awkward chuckle-coughs and mumbled, “Really?”

“Oh yes, it is the darkest least moral book in the world.” Now at this point I figured he was going to elaborate on how it has started wars, fostered slavery, blamed his people for the death of Jesus or segregated people groups. Instead, I found that his thesis was a bit more content driven.

“It opens violent. The world is chaos. Then God tears everything apart to make day and night, land and sea. He then makes people where sex and domination are their first commands. It starts with violence and sex. It’s dirty.” I confess this was not the answer I saw coming. In fact, it’s an answer I had never even considered before.

“Interesting… I’ve never seen it that way.”

With a kind sincerity he looked at me and said, “How could you miss it? It keeps going like that. They are naked in a garden. Their son kills their other son. After that God destroys the world due to wicked people. All those animals die because of people. It’s very very violent. God telling people to kill men, women, children and even the pregnant women for land. You see men having sex with their slaves and grotesque animal sacrifices. Even Solomon writes a book on how to have sex – it’s a pornographic book.”

Awkwardly I responded, “Well that’s why I’m more of a New Testament guy.”

“Oh, the New Testament! I’m Jewish; I do not know it so well, but I do know it says Jesus was crucified for sins. That is a very violent way to forgive. I also know Jesus said He will send people to eternal torture if they don’t believe in Him. That is both violent and cruel.” He then paused for a brief moment, leaned in and said in a whisper, “The Bible should never be taught to children. It is not for kids. That is why Christians change the stories so much, to make them friendly for their families.” With that he simply patted me on the forearm and said, “Thank you for the talk. I think I will rest. Enjoy your book.”

This 15-minute interaction happened over 20 years ago, but I never forgot the importance. While I didn’t agree with this man’s extreme articulation, I did agree that the Bible is not exactly a family-friendly book and to make it so does violence to what God has revealed. Think about it. Even the “kids’ stories” of Adam and Eve, Noah and The Flood, David and Goliath or Jesus and The Apostles are at some juncture R-Rated stories if accurately and fully told. Even the moral parts that would be construed as most family friendly are usually set against a backdrop that is not. For example, if you want your kids to memorize the 10 Commandments you are going to have to get into swearing, murder and sex. Aside from these popular examples, the entire narrative of the Bible is dealing with the problem of sin, rebellion and wickedness and how God solves that through Jesus, the Cross and His Word.

From all of this I see that the only way to be truly family friendly in a Sunday service is to redact much of the R-Rated Bible in order to make the whole experience more acceptable for a G-Rated expectation. Yet this fails our commission. Our calling is not to decide what we think is appropriate in the Bible, but to communicate the full council of God. We are not free to be editors, but proclaimers. We don’t possess the authority to write or erase the mail; we merely deliver it as it is. Now, I know that sometimes God’s mail makes us squirm, gets uneasy or even downright feels offensive, but not nearly as much as the sin it’s combating. Sin makes the Truth, even the ugly Truth, necessary. And as Christians move forward in the hopes of reclaiming a family-friendly world I pray it begins by embracing the fullness of the not so family-friendly, though always family-preserving, Bible.

Don’t Mistake Liking Church For Loving Jesus

MB PostsI recently met with a colleague who was sharing with me the focus of their church. With enthusiasm he said, “We’re not like most churches. We’re going after the people no one else is going after by creating a church that the unchurched love to attend.” The strategy he espoused wasn’t particularly novel. It reminded me of a time years ago when a buddy of mine invited me to attend  a meeting of “World Wide Dream Builders”. After 5 minutes I asked, “Is this going to be an Amway thing?” “No” he said, “It’s totally different. It’s Amway 2.0.” In talking with this pastor it felt like that conversation. I was hearing how it was unlike most churches, but it sounded like Willow Creek rebooted. In that sense it didn’t really seem to be unusual at all. Aside from this I know of a number of churches in the area that are employing the same strategy since it’s documented in a popular book that bears the same subtitle. In fact, as the discussion unfolded, he pointed me to that very book as the source of their philosophy. I have not had the time to make my way through the entire book and so my thoughts here are in no way those of a reviewer. Rather it was the premise alone that has bounced around in my head like a hyperactive 8th grader jacked up on NoDoz and Red Bull.

Initially I was intrigued by the idea of creating churches unchurched people would love to attend. After all the church should have a burden to reconnoiter its surroundings with the intent of embedding the message of Jesus and His Bible. In fact, I would go so far as to say every church should be unapologetic when it comes to leveraging whatever tools, tendencies or familiarities necessary to connect Jesus’s Message to the surrounding Culture. And yet as I continued to work over the implications of “creating churches the unchurched love to attend” my initial warmth chilled to a Fargo January dressed in brass boxers.

Now, to be fair, I believe we should seek to utilize culturally familiar ideas in order to bridge biblical concepts to the unchurched. For example, in the church I’m a part of we occasionally use secular music, video clips, props, humor and other socially familiar forms to help communicate the biblical message. We do this so that the unchurched can better understand whatever section of the Bible or theological topic we are going through, but in a way that is culturally relatable. In this sense our focus is, “creating a biblically centered church the unchurched can understand.” There is no guarantee they will like or agree with what is preached since we strive to preach whatever the text is saying regardless of its potential receptivity, but we call it “a win” if they understand what is being proclaimed.

If, however, the ideology of “creating a church the unchurched love to attend” is the top tier purpose of our strategy, the net effect may be a model that considers the interests of hopeful attenders above the instructions of the Founding Initiator. For it appears that inextricably laced within the premise is the idea that success is measured directly by how much people – who don’t like church – begin to love church.

So to grapple with this for a moment let’s strip it down to a more general concept. Generally speaking, how do we usually get people who don’t love something to love it? One method is to give them more of the thing that is loved (Example: My step-mom kept giving me eggplant until I learned to enjoy it.). The other method is to remove what people don’t love and replace it with something they do. The difference between the two is night and day; the former teaches people to love the thing that you love, while the latter loves people at the cost of the very thing you want them to love. Now plug this back into our church philosophy premise. When it comes to a church creating an environment “unchurched people love to attend,” the first casualty will be anything that they say is an impediment to them loving to attend. Therefore, at the root of this ideology is the need to remove themes, messages or expectations the unchurched may not love and in their place incorporate themes, messages or expectations they enjoy. It’s the ultimate case of the unchurched tail wagging the church dog.

For now, it appears that the model is successful since there are a handful of good themes the unchurched enjoy. Many people who may be cold to church are nonetheless warm to self-improvement regarding marriage, family, communication, conflict resolution, sex, money and occupation. As a result, such themes can be marketed and deployed by churches year after year because they are inoffensively therapeutic. But what are we to do if the day comes where the Bible’s message on good themes is frowned upon by the unchurched? Does the goal remain figuring out how to create churches they love? And how far are we to go in accommodating unchurched expectations? Some practitioners will answer, “We would draw a line if we needed to start denying what the Bible says.” Really? I would like to bank on that, but in all candor it seems that a soft form of denial has already been underway long before it was imposed. It began the day a church willfully embraced selective censorship for the sake of unchurched appetites. If a church proactively adopts an omission mandate when it is merely concerned that the unchurched may be turned off, what will it do when it is altogether guaranteed?

My deeper concern however isn’t that this model may be pacing itself into a biblical showdown. Nor is it that it may mistake the concept of becoming numerically successful with the mandate to be biblically faithful. The real kernel of my apprehension is that it may foster an attitude by which it’s assumed by all parties, “If people like church they love Jesus.” In reality however, there may be a substantial disconnect between who Jesus is and what makes a church loveable to the unchurched. For example, many of the themes churches are using to help the unchurched love attending church are not anchored directly in the core message or subsequent messages of Jesus.

The “7 Themes ‘A Seeker-Focused Church’ Knows The Unchurched Love To Hear” are typically:

  • Marriage
  • Parenting
  • Communication
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Sex
  • Money
  • Occupation

Many churches that are focused on leveraging Sunday as primarily an outreach venue will see these seven as the wheelhouse. Yet the content of those seven themes is not often rooted in what Jesus actually said in relationship to them. It’s more often 35 minutes of soft psychology (where a specialist, therapist or author is referenced more than Jesus), a moving story, a homework assignment for personal improvement (create a date night, have sex twice a week, try giving 1% and see what happens, etc) and perhaps three loosely invoked verses so as to maintain the title “sermon.” It is just enough of the Good Book to feel like church, but not so much that the unchurched would feel too confronted by the Bad News that gives them a need for the Good News. From this, one could, in all reality, love church because it’s “relevant” for their life, but then resist Jesus when they realize what He really says and seeks.

Think about the simplest form of the Good News in the four Gospels. Jesus’ “Big Idea” of relevant life change was like swallowing a horse pill with an Arizona case of cottonmouth.

“23 If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Luke 9:23-26 (ESV)

That is the unequivocal Gospel of Jesus in less than 100 words. And from that the question becomes, “Is this the message the unchurched hear when they attend churches they love?” It should be, because that is the only message that saves. And notice it’s not just, “Jesus died for you.” Letting people know that Jesus died for them is only half the Gospel. The message of first importance is, “Jesus died for sinful you. And to follow Him means you are dying to yourself and embracing who He is and everything He says.” In other words, to love Jesus means to love the truth that:

  • Jesus is God who came, died and rose.
  • Jesus is the only way to heaven and apart from Him there is only the separation of hell.
  • Jesus invites us to die to ourselves by repenting of our sin and self-focus.
  • Jesus warns us of a life that will bring more challenge than ease.
  • Jesus calls us to love Him by obeying everything He has said regardless if it is personally helpful or hurtful. (Note: Jesus did speak to all 7 Themes above, but His message on those does not promote well in a land where the great idols is “personal happiness.”)
  • Jesus expects that everything He said we will protect, promote and pursue.

If people only love the loveable words of Jesus, they don’t actually love Jesus.

If pastors only preach the loveable words of Jesus, they may never know if people have been given the opportunity to love (or reject) everything Jesus loves.

If leaders seek to love unchurched people only by creating churches they love to attend, we may be failing to love them fully by failing to cultivate a church that above all else – Jesus loves to attend.

 

The 10 Things I Try To Do To Be Sanctified By The 10 Things I Hate To Admit.

MB PostsRight now I feel a bit like the final season of Seinfeld. I started this blog a month ago and now its peaked. I should drop the mic and walk away since it’s all downhill from here.

I am blown away by the viral nature of the previous post. When I decided to put it out there I figured at best it might receive a couple hundred views, not 165,000 in a week. It struck a deeper cord than I could ever imagine. From this I have now heard from countless pastors (along with spouses or kids) who feel a sense of silent solidarity. To know you’re not alone is a powerful counter-force to the isolation the Enemy labors to impose on those called to pastoral service.

Reflecting back on the post I was reminded of how articulating a problem is much easier than offering solutions. Perhaps this is why even the dumbest dude in the room can still effectively play “The Devil’s Advocate.” Critique is always easier to produce than clarity since the latter requires reflection while the former is shot from the hip in about the same amount of time it takes a frat guy to slam a Bud Lite and belch.

The other difficulty is that sometimes the solutions offered come across as Sunday school platitudes without a practical map for very real challenges. In comments to the post there were a few individuals who were quick to remind me, in some variant form, that, “It’s Christ’s Church NOT YOURS so you should get out of the way.” Thanks Sherlocks for Jesus! We know that. In fact we can go a step further and say, “It’s Jesus’ Universe and we should all get out of the way.” In reality however we all seem to perennially get in the way with fear, worry, anxiety, pride, fatigue, bitterness, control, idolatry and the like. We live a bipolar existence where the Spirit leads in one direction and the flesh snaps our head around. It’s this spiritual whiplash that is the essence of our fallen plight.

Therefore while I would love to title this follow-up, “The 10 Solutions To The 10 Things Pastors Hate To Admit Publicly.” the reality is that only the Resurrection will accomplish that task. Now does that mean we just throw our hands in the air with an apathetic, “Well that sucks!”? We can, but it’s not a very fruitful way to move forward: for while we may never eradicate every insecurity in life, we can be sanctified through every situation of life.

So with a more personal perspective here are “The 10 Things I Try To Do To Be Sanctified By The 10 Things I Hate To Admit.”

#1. When People Leave I Try To Remind Myself Of What I Know.

Early on in ministry people would leave the church and it would hit me for weeks or even months. This was especially the case when it was people who were particularly close to me or mission critical to the church. But what I have learned over the course of time is that those feelings always evaporate. Therefore now days when someone leaves I just say to myself, “Matt… down the road you know this isn’t going to bother you, so how about you just take that bridge right over there and get over it.” I know that may sound a bit trivial, but it really works for me. Now days when someone leaves for what I perceive to be a lame reason (and honestly some are unequivocally lame reasons) it only bothers me for about a day. When it happens I remind myself, “You won’t be irritated by this tomorrow so just get through today. Look at everyone who is still here and focus on reaching those who are yet to be here.”

#2. When Feeling Pressure To Perform I Try To Resist The Chase.

Now days I can discern when this lure is slipping through the water because I feel a sudden urgency to ramp up for wrong reasons. As soon as I start thinking we need a newer, bigger, louder, cooler, funnier (fill in the blank) because the church down the street just introduced something – I intentionally slow down. I kill the chase on the spot because I know the chase will be a waste of resources fueled by ego. If however I think we need a newer, bigger, louder, cooler, funnier (fill in the blank) so we can advance the Kingdom for Jesus – I proactively ramp up. The difference is an honest look in the mirror to see whether I’m chasing to compete with men or creating to please Jesus. The latter fills me up and makes ministry exciting, the former stresses me out and makes it exhausting.

As a side note: If the church you’re in sits in the shadow of a mega-church, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to match up (unless Jesus has specifically called you to that style of ministry). I say that because Chucky Cheese is cool, until it’s next door to Disneyland and then it’s just cute.

#3. When Struggling To Get My Worth From Ministry I Try To Elevate The People Around Me.

Sin at its core is a deep lustful gaze upon the self. Thus when I am not experiencing a sense of worth from ministry I have two options. The first is to get everything around me to make much of me and perform to my expectations. The second is to look away from me and to make much of those who are around me. It’s much harder to focus on my own disappointments if I’m attempting to celebrate others’ accomplishments.

#4. When I’m Seriously Thinking About Quitting I Try To Quit For A Couple Of Weeks.

I don’t literally submit my resignation, but I step back and take a 2-3 week break. My reasoning is that if after a couple of weeks I’m dreading going back, then I may need to seriously consider an occupational change. The team around me nor the church will be healthy for very long if I don’t really want to be there. In my case what I have found is that my love of pastoral ministry begins to outweigh the hardships or frustrations I may be experiencing. After a week I become antsy without an outlet. I begin to tinker with a sermon idea, ministry issue or some other pastoral curiosity. In other words I find I can’t do anything else because I don’t want to do anything else.

#5. When Tempted To Be Transparent I Try To Remain Opaque.

Yes you read that right. I believe opaque is healthy for pastors and their families. We are called to a higher standard and because of that we automatically face higher scrutiny. This was no secret going in and to resent that fact may invite more burden than we want or need. Now we don’t have to like it. We can think people are critical for it. Some individuals are demonically abusive with it. But we still need to accept it.

Aside from this is the reality that we are – by the nature of our calling – leaders. This anticipates that we show no anxiety even when fearful: display strength even when worn. It’s simply part of the job that shepherds remain composed so sheep feel secure.

Ultimately I seek to be genuinely transparent to the degree that people know my life is very much like theirs, but also opaque enough so that they don’t wonder if the craziest guy in the asylum is running the joint.

What this doesn’t mean is that we should seek to be opaque with everyone. I am very transparent with a core of friends, all of whom are actually in the church I’m a part of. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, I have opted for the deepest transparency with the people I spend the majority of my ministry time with. I’m not saying that is a great rule for everyone, but I have been blessed to be a part of a church that is remarkably receptive regarding pastoral humanness while maintaining a clear biblical expectation of leaders.

#6. When Driven By The Numbers I Try To Stop Counting.

Since it’s birth our church has taken weekly attendance. I have not looked at the totals once in those 2 1/2 years. At one point numbers became my idol, so I dethroned the idol by ditching the metrics. Others on our team keep track of these things because that is not their idol, but they kindly don’t share that information with me. Now can I tell generally when things seem to be on the incline or decline? Sure. Does that general perception still mess with me from time to time? Absolutely. Right now we are in a growth phase so I’m in a “good mood.” When it seems like we are in decline I can get discouraged (for both godly and ungodly reasons). But not being bound to the numbers is personally liberating.

On the same front I want to stress that to not care about numbers is as potentially sinful as being motivated by them. Dr. Luke was all about celebrating the numbers as was Moses and Nehemiah. If the numbers are Jesus’ numbers, I should rejoice. If the numbers are my numbers, I must repent.

#7. When Feeling Discouraged I Try To Hang With A Pastor Who Has It Tougher Than Me.

In my opinion no pastor has it tougher than a solo or bi-vocational pastor. In that situation one must serve as a spiritual Heptathlete; mastering preaching, visiting, counseling, budgeting, marketing, marrying/burying and inevitably cleaning the church as well. It’s a lonely service, requiring a ton of output, often with minimal return on investment. These are my hero pastors and the kind I try to spend time with when I’m down.

I do this because sometimes when I’m discouraged it’s a grave case of “first world problems: church edition.” I get bummed because I wish…

  • we could hire a fourth pastor to strengthen our small groups.
  • we could have our own building for better control over environment.
  • we could have $400,000 of surplus in the bank since $135,000 is just not enough flexibility for our current “needs.”

Boo-Flipp’n-Hoo right! Then I go and spend time with a hard working faithful Heptathlete for Jesus whose tireless investment probably brings a bigger smile to Jesus than anything I’ve done in a decade. After that I am remarkably grateful for what Jesus has allowed me to be a part of.

Obviously there are other times where discouragement is far more legitimate and deep. In those circumstances I find a seasoned pastor (65+) who is active or retired with at least 40+ years of ministry under his belt. Those dudes have weathered it all. Three hours with a Jedi Master like that offers a perspective unmatched by a conference or leadership book.

A final aspect to this one is that I immerse myself in the Psalms. When I see how jacked-up David’s life was and yet he still managed to praise God it always makes me feel better.

#8. When I Worry About What The Church May Think I Try To Pray For Them More Than Myself.

There has been more than a few times where I have given an announcement I didn’t want to make, preached a passage I would have desired to skip or released a pastor that many would prefer we keep. Every one of those circumstances makes me uneasy. Therefore in those times I pray for strength, not for myself but for the church since they are the ones who suddenly receive something without warning. It would be terribly self-absorbed if my deepest concern is having the courage to say the hard things. My greater concern should always be that the church would have the strength to receive and I would have grace in the sharing.

#9. When I’m Feeling Competitive I Try To Worship With The “Competition.”

I hate to admit that it was only a couple of years ago when I casually viewed every evangelical church within a 10-mile radius as competition. They were brothers and sisters in Christ, but it was a sibling rivalry. Then something unexpected happened, a couple of other pastors approached me about the idea of having a citywide worship night for the evangelical churches. At first I was about as interested as Ted Nugent being asked to join PETA. Then one of the pastors, a man named Randy, said to me, “I feel like God called me to try to start this because, well to be honest, you have been the competition and only the Devil wins with that attitude.” Wow, he said it out loud. He said what most of us don’t have the courage to admit to anyone. With that admission the Spirit confronted me and Randy won me. Within weeks an evangelical worship night called “One Voice” was born and with it a brotherhood of once jockeying churches. In worshiping with the “competition” I fell more in love with what Jesus is doing with His Church and thus I wanted to pray for these churches far more than contend against them.

As a great byproduct I have found that this also helps with #1. When someone from the church I am in goes to one of those churches I’m actually cool with it because I love the people who are there.

#10. When I Feel Like I’m Failing The Church I Try To Preach More And Think Less.

When I was in high school my teachers would say, “Use your brain Boswell.” Well I finally started doing that and I have regretted it ever since. As a natural pessimist thinking often drives me to notice the worst in a circumstance or how something is problematic. My solution for this: think less, preach more. Not longer Sunday sermons, but out loud confrontational preaching directed at myself from the Bible. For example:

  • When I’m dealing with an angry person and I start thinking about all the ways I could cut them off at the knees in an argument, I stop thinking and start preaching “Love your enemies and pray for them – Matt” Matthew 5:44
  • When I’m beginning to feel irritated by the angry person and I sense a bitter preoccupation with them, I stop thinking and start preaching “Let no root of bitterness spring up and cause trouble because many will be defiled by that – Matt” Hebrews 12:16
  • When I’m thinking the church isn’t going right and the wheels are all going to come off the wagon any day, I stop thinking and start preaching “Upon this rock I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it – Matt.” Matthew 16:18
  • When I’m beginning to listen to the Enemy and feel like I’ve failed, I stop thinking and start preaching “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved – Matt.” Ephesians 1:3-6

You get the idea. I preach the Word with the deepest conviction possible – directly to myself – because at the end of the day only what God has said has the power to override and heal any justification I have created to maintain how I feel. What I know is that only Jesus, His Gospel and His Word can effectively engage and alleviate “The 10 Things Pastors Hate To Admit Publicly.”

Last Thoughts

What I have not sought to offer up in this list is a formula to fix our problems. We are chock-full of formulas in the church today. In fact it’s sometimes the formulas themselves that have exacerbated the problems. Yet my intent was simply to remind us that sanctification isn’t the implementation of more tactics, but the avoidance of the things that tempt us along with the desperate pursuit to find the real us in Jesus. As C.S. Lewis wrote:

The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. There is so much of Him that millions and millions of ‘little Christs’, all different, will still be too few to express Him fully. He made them all. He invented— as an author invents characters in a novel—all the different men that you and I were intended to be. In that sense our real selves are all waiting for us in Him. It is no good trying to ‘be myself’ without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. In fact what I so proudly call ‘Myself’ becomes merely the meeting place for trains of events which I never started and which I cannot stop. What I call ‘My wishes’ become merely the desires thrown up by my physical organism or pumped into me by other men’s thoughts or even suggested to me by devils. Eggs and alcohol and a good night’s sleep will be the real origins of what I flatter myself by regarding as my own highly personal and discriminating decision to make love to the girl opposite to me in the railway carriage. Propaganda will be the real origin of what I regard as my own personal political ideas. I am not, in my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call ‘me’ can be very easily explained. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.

Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis

Thank you Peter Svensk for reading me this quote yesterday. God has perfect timing.