The Journey Towards a Better Death (and life)

architect-architecture-black-and-white-1537008The better game is one we all play even though it never promises a return.

We pay for the next better, move cities to find the next better, cheat on a spouse to experience the next better. There really is no end in the quest to find this psychological sasquatch.

One of the ways it has shown up in my life over the years is with church and employment.

Southerners are especially skilled in playing the better game with churches. The perfect one is out there. I’m going to find it. The one where the pastor preaches a strong, theologically rich sermon with hilarious stories, poignant illustrations, priceless application and all in 30 minutes or less, like an episode of that new Netflix show, F.R.I.E.N.D.S.

In my mind, there was always a better preacher. A better worship experience. A better atmosphere. There had to be. This could not be the pinnacle of church.

And I carried that same mentality and quest for better into my graduate education and professional career.

So by 2013, after 7 years of marriage, we’d moved 11 times (a couple of which were in the same city to a different living situation, but my wife still counts those as moves). Granted, at least I didn’t say I was feeling “called” to Nowheresville. We set up camp in Savannah, Los Angeles, St. Louis–all great cities.

My graduate transcript was a registrar’s worst nightmare. It probably looked more like a word search than a transcript.

After all my searching and gypsy-like moving, where did we end up? Daggum Bluff City, TN. You have to say daggum in a sentence with Bluff City.

That’s a very generous use of the word City, by the way.

But there I was. There we were.

I went from megachurch to megachurch in search of better and ended up being most satisfied pastorally and professionally working in this little, out of the way church and at a Christian school.

At Bunker Hill Christian, there was nobody waiting to be wowed. They wanted to be loved. I didn’t hit a home run with that one, but I grew. Oh so slowly. But they were kind, patient, and gracious.

That season was refining in the sense that it exposed the prideful dross that covered every inch of me. That pride kept me from living a Hebrews 11 life. It would keep from dying a Hebrews 11 death.

Even when I thought I was seeking first God’s kingdom, I was very much at home here. I was an earthly citizen through and through, ALL about the tangible, measurable, and quantifiable.

From childhood to adulthood, the next achievement, next girl, next church, next city, the next better was supposed to make me feel like I’d arrived.

My grand realization? Fundamentally, these were all things I could manipulate. All I had to do was say, Well, God’s calling me to California. Calling me to St. Louis. Calling me to break up with you (best.line.ever).

It doesn’t take faith to manipulate. It takes faith to live and move toward that which you do not control.

Hebrews 11 again

10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

There’s only one truly better city, better scenario, better whatever. The city of God.

There is a future that will only be fashioned by faithfulness in the moment. The Architect has the plans drawn up. But He is also the Builder. So what’s our part?

It may sound like this conclusion to Hebrews 11

32 And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, 33 who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the raging of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength in weakness, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead, raised to life again. Other people were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. 38 The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. 39 All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us.

What better epithet could you ask for than verse 38?

    The world was not worthy of them

Only a person who has lived for a better world will have that said of them.

But like the folks in the text, I can’t sit idly by and dream of the better place.

So, a word to the dreamer like me who can’t get no satisfaction.

Pastor Darrin in Pooler, GA said something one Sunday while we were visiting. I can’t shake it. Keep your eyes fixed on heaven, but get your head out of the clouds, he said. Mind your business, I thought.

No, it really did hit me. Translation for my life? Stop being a critic without bringing a contribution. I’d made a living doing that. The pay is terrible.

I’m asking God to do something with my imagination other than have it be an idol factory that spawns discontentment and petty thoughts. I want to bloom where I’m planted as those flowery journals at Target quip.

But part of our spiritual journeys is smashing face first into the transcendent reality that the lasting satisfaction and fulfillment we seek won’t be found this side of forever. No thing. No one. It won’t happen.

That realization should be even greater fodder for the fire of exhausting all resources in this life on the journey towards what matters most. And it’s probably not the latest facebook fight or Twitter mud slinging contest.

I have a finite amount of time, energy, and resources, and this is what or who God has put in front of me right now, and I’m going to catalyze those resources to make the most and best of my actual life right now—and by faith it will produce a better life and death.

Eyes on heaven. Heads out of the clouds.

I’m going to cultivate the very ground in which I’m presently planted to see the fruit that God wants to grow in me and through me, for my good, the good of those around me, and for His glory.

Selah.

Healthy things do grow, but perhaps differently than expected

Monday’s post was about the prevalent church growth mantra “healthy things grow.”

After seeing firsthand and hearing other eyewitness stories of church growth, I decided to maintain a shred of suspicion towards anyone who says that.

My somewhat over the top response is, cancer grows–is it healthy? Moreover,  Poison Ivy. Wildfires. Discord. Rumors. Bitterness. These  things, generally agreed upon as bad, grow. And usually at a rapid pace!

The first post was to suggest that perhaps growth (numerically) isn’t the best indicator of a church’s health. It can be. But not necessarily.

So to follow up, let’s ask another question , namely, what kind of growth are we talking about?

Those who employ the healthy things grow rhetoric have in mind quantitative growth. In other words, that which is measured via tangible metrics such as nickels and noses.

  • How much money is coming in?
  • What’s our budget this year?
  • How many people showed up Sunday?
  • What was our count for Easter?

So to flesh it out more honestly, “healthy things grow” could better read “healthy things increase in number.” More people will attend and more will be given. If more people aren’t attending, then what you have, dear friend, is not healthy. Nobody ever tells you how many people have to attend and at what pace that number must grow in order to remain healthy.

I’m a bivocational pastor of a church that rests in a rural town with a population less than that of a suburban Wal-Mart at 5pm. There is no reason to suspect that our city or church will experience an influx of people any time soon. That isn’t to say our church cannot experience quantitative growth, but if I measure my success or effectiveness by sheer numbers, depression is the only logical destination.

In order to continue in ministry and not be eeyorethe  Eeyore of east Tennessee, I’ve been pondering more deeply qualitative growth—quantitative’s lesser known and somewhat marginalized third cousin twice removed.

A dear friend and mentor (we’ll call him Mike because that’s his name) advised me how to answer the inevitable pastor question, ‘What are you runnin’?

  • So you know, how a pastor answers that question  tells the questioner nearly everything they need to know about you.
  • Pastors young and old feel the need to explain why the numbers are lagging or aren’t as high as others; this I know from experience. Some even lie.

So should I be ashamed to answer 100? 110? 120?
Because that would be my answer every week.

Mike suggested I give them a real number (not the preacher count) and then nuance it like this: “We have 130 who call our church home, but we have 10 people who really get it.”

      Say what?

In other words, there are 10 disciples of Jesus who truly believe that Jesus demands all and are willing to give all. So however many that may be in your particular context, that’s more of a qualitative measure.

–> Now you can go about figuring that out in different ways. Perhaps you measure a combination of how many folks serve on Sunday and in their community, how many are in a community/small/life group, and so forth, charting those percentages over a specified time. 

Somehow you’re trying to ascertain whether people are becoming more rooted and built up in their faith. And is that rootedness bearing fruit–such as a life of gratitude (Colossians 2:6-7).

Whatever measures we use, let’s fight viciously against the long-standing notion that more equals better and therefore healthier.

There are very sick churches with lots of people coming on Sunday.

-conversely-

There are very healthy churches with few people coming on Sunday.

Numbers are not gospel. It’s nearly impossible to quantify soul-growth. That growth is only proven over the long haul and becomes difficult to boast of. It also makes it harder to decide who should speak at all those conferences (too snide?).

“You’re just bitter because you have a small church!”

That could be a fair retort.

But, as the apostle Paul said, God will look at our labors, not our results. Only He gives growth that matters (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).

Unlike some, I do not think that a small church has somehow been more faithful to the gospel and the Bible thus resulting in their smallness. In the same way, I don’t think that because a church is large it is healthy or more faithful.

With all of these things in mind, one thing I’ve resolved to do this year is to be far more FOR churches of various flavors (provided they aren’t heretical). So churches I wouldn’t necessarily attend or pastors I wouldn’t gel with on all matters…I still want to maintain a posture of support and cheer them on in gospel-true faithfulness and fruitfulness. Join me?

 

Tear Up Your Contract Already

The Village Church in Texas is currently doing a series called “The Dearest Place on Earth.” Believe it or not, this is referring to the church (and drawn from a quote of CH Spurgeon–linked above). I believe it. But many don’t. If you’ve been to a church on a regular basis, you’ve had an experience contrary to anything dear or pleasant—if you’re at a church and haven’t been disappointed or disgusted, just wait.

Although there are a myriad of factors that contribute to toxic situations in churches, the main factor is people. The church is a people, after all, not so much a place. So if your church is toxic, it’s because you have toxic people. If you have toxic people, you have a toxic church. I forget in math what it’s called if a formula works both ways, but this is whatever that is.

Now as for the mindset that causes toxicity and the like, it’s hard to pin down just one, but if I were forced to name a single one it would be that of the “contractual” Christian. Breach-of-Contract

Matt Chandler of the Village Church points out that we live in a web of contracts today. You have a contractual relationship with your energy provider, cell phone provider, cable provider, mortgage company, car lien holder, etc. It’s actually crazy to think about the proliferation of contracts by which we live.

But one place you have not entered a contractual relationship is with the church. And the reason for that is that God didn’t call you into a contract but a covenant. Covenants don’t have clauses that make the relationship null and void. Nobody goes to a wedding and gets teary-eyed over a bride and groom exchanging a series of contractual obligations and conditions for their marriage.

Marriage is a picture of Christ’s love for the church and, as such, is never-ending. Christ has never stopped loving His bride regardless of her repeated infidelities (have a listen to Derek Webb’s song Wedding Dress). Christ remains and pursues regardless of how distant and adulterous we become. So if your relationship with Jesus isn’t contractual, neither is your relationship with the Church of Jesus.

In other words, there is no clause that says the church you joined must do the kind of music with the exact instrumentation that you prefer or else the contract is void. There is no particular clothing which the pastor must wear, lest he nullify your contractual agreement to be there each Sunday. Moreover, your giving money to the church in the form of an offering does not earn you any more privilege or ‘voting power’ at said church.

Why? Because there’s no contract. You are in a covenant relationship that mirrors marriage, which mirrors Christ’s love for His bride.

And thank the Lord there’s no contract. If a contract did exist, the contractual Christian would’ve broken it already ten times over with his sorry attitude, selfish actions, and souring words. We should thank God that He didn’t make us sign a contract. Rather, when HE put our names on a dotted line the top of the form read COVENANT.

And when you, church member, live with the covenant mindset, you’ll start thinking about how to serve the body and contribute to the greater cause of God’s kingdom rather than getting your preferential itches scratched.

So tear up the contract already. There’s no fine print to read with God, and that creates immense joy as we learn to follow Him.

What if Pastoring Looked Like This?

The following are quotes from page 278 in Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor. It is everything I’ve thought but never said, including much that I didn’t know how to put in words. After 50 years in ministry I guess one finds the words. This is Eugene responding to his elders’ question, “So what do you want to do?” Eugene had walked into the elders’ meeting that night to resign after 3 years in ministry. He felt it necessary because he had been in meeting upon meeting and didn’t feel like he had time to read a story to his daughter. “So what do you want to do?”

“I want to be a pastor who prays. I want to be reflective and responsive and relaxed in the presence of God so that I can be reflective and responsive and relaxed in your [the elders and congregation’s] presence…I can’t do that on the run…I feel too crowded.”

“I want to be a pastor who reads and studies. This culture in which we live squeezes all the God sense out of us. I want to be observant and informed enough to help this congregation understand what we are up against, the temptations of the devil to get us thinking we can all be our own gods…It demands some detachment and perspective.”

“I want to be a pastor who has the time to be with you in leisurely, unhurried conversations so that I can understand and be a companion with you as you grow in Christ—your doubts and your difficulties, your desires and your delights. I can’t do that when I am running scared.”

“I want to be a pastor who leads you in worship, a pastor who brings you before God in receptive obedience, a pastor who preaches sermons that make scripture accessible and present and alive, a pastor who is able to give you a language and imagination that restores in you a sense of dignity as a Christian in your homes and workplaces and gets rid of these debilitating images of being a ‘mere’ layperson.”

“I want to have the time to read a story to Karen [daughter].”

“I want to be an unbusy pastor.”

That’s what I want.

The Card up Every Pastor’s Sleeve or Robe or Tunic or Suit

If you survey a wide enough spectrum of pastors and ask the question, “Why did you become a pastor?” I suspect the most common answer would be along the lines of, “I felt called by God to ministry.” After all, if I say I’m called by God to pastor, what are you going to say? “No you aren’t.” You see, when played, the calling card (pun) is unbeatable. It’s the Joker of ministry. This is where it all begins for so many men and women.

I remember my calling like it was yesterday. I was suited up on Sunday, literally wearing a suit and tie cause that’s how I used to roll. I was 15 at the time and had a love for the church. I also had a love for the ladies, but that didn’t feel as much like a call from God as becoming a pastor did. My pastor was making the traditional and somewhat predictable invitation following the sermon. “If you want to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, come on down. If you want to join this church family, come on down.” I always wanted to shout, “BECAUSE YOU’RE THE NEXT CONTESTANT ON THE PRICE IS RIGHT!!!” But I didn’t.

On this particular Sunday morning, however, the pastor added a line I’d never heard before and wouldn’t have expected to hear in a thousand years, or as it’s known in the biz, ‘a millennia.’  He opened up invitation time to a third category of folks: “And if there is anyone here who is feeling the call to ministry and haven’t told someone about that, I’d like for you to come forward.” What! Ministry! Call! He’s talking to me. That’s what I thought. I felt my face get flush. When I’m nervous, angry, or socially uncomfortable my face turns red. Luck of the Irish I suppose.

I felt my heart beating faster and more heartily than ever before. This was it. The Lord had spoken. I was going to become a pastor. I thought I’d become a lawyer. I actually took the LSAT several years later when trying to run away from ministry. But I knew at 15 that I would become a pastor. I didn’t go forward though because someone might of thought I wasn’t saved the first time or that I had sinned since then. So instead I made an appointment to talk with the pastor.

From that moment on everything in life would be used to shape that calling. After all, every pastor has to have sermon illustrations, so even experiences that weren’t significantly formative could make for a good story. To this day though, if you ask me why I’m a pastor I’ll give you the answer, “Because I was called to be a pastor.” There are plenty of questions that I have about that calling. Is the calling permanent? Does the calling come with a contract? Is there free-agency? Do I really understand what being a pastor means? Was I called to be a different type of pastor than I’ve become?

I get the sense that my calling is ever evolving. In other words, I’m not sure a calling for everyone is a static thing, a once and done type of experience. What do you think about the calling card? Do you ever consider what God’s call on your life may be?

Eugene Peterson is Ruining my Life

I have been reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor for a couple of weeks now and am approaching the end. Previously I had read a couple of his pastoral/spiritual books and knew he penned The Message, but I didn’t know much about him as a person. My plan is to write several posts on what I’ve gleaned from the pastor and his experiences. But suffice it to say for now, he’s ruining my life.

That is to say, he is further ruining the tidy picture of pastor I had framed and sitting on my desk. The work of pastor is not tidy. It’s not clean. It’s not boxable (new word). For years I have been growing weary of the American church and the consumerism that has so pervasively overtaken the bride of Christ. If I were an Old Testament prophet, I would say that many in the church have prostituted themselves out rather than being faithful to Christ, but I’m not a prophet so I won’t say it.

Peterson does not have much validation in terms of having grown a megachurch or headlining innovative conferences. I resonate with Eugene there; for I’ve yet to receive my speaking invitation at any conference, and I’m not the pastor of a megachurch. Peterson’s words have been like kindling on a fire of re-imagining the call of pastors and the community that is the church. Perhaps I am alone, but I have a hard time reading this book and being satisfied with the status quo of how we ‘do church’ in the states and the way pastors see their roles. I look forward to sharing more in the coming days and weeks.

Until then, if you’re a pastor please read it. If you don’t like pastors, you too should read this and see if it’s pastors you don’t like or the kinds of pastors you’ve experienced. If you aren’t a pastor but you like pastors, I would also encourage you to read it. I wonder if it would help you understand what your pastor probably feels week in and week out. Peterson is a pastor for pastors–that is, for pastors who will bravely disassociate with the status quo of pastoring a successful church, whatever successful is.

What if Your Church Disappeared?

I’ve heard this question asked before numerous times. The follow up question is this: “Would the world know it was gone? Would the community miss it?” While I’m sure plenty of ‘good’ stuff happens on a weekend at many churches, I think the most honest answer for most of these same churches would be: “No and no.” That is to say, the community has not been radically altered because of the dedication and commitment of the members of said church. The world has not been influenced in the least because the Christians coming out of our churches are so radically different than the world.

That’s not to say some communities wouldn’t miss your Christmas program or Easter cantata. But what would be lacking if your church vanished? How would that affect the local government? Homeless shelters? Food banks? Foster systems? Orphanages? the elderly? Homes for the mentally disabled? etc…

So, what if your church disappeared? Any considerable, noteworthy reason for panic on behalf of the people around the community, city, world?