Pastor’s Blog

Raising and Lowering Bars

‘We want to lower the bar of how church is done and raise the bar of what it means to be a disciple .’ ~ Neil Cole 

I saw a reference for a mega-church I had never heard of recently so I took a moment to check out their website. Glancing at their staff, they have dozens of staff including a senior director of technical arts, a pastor of worship arts, a pastor of worship and an executive pastor of worship. They are a big church with laser light shows and smoke machines and a cool band. There is nothing inherently wrong with all those things, but they require a lot of time, energy, money and people power to make happen. Just thinking about it makes me tired.

It is not just big churches that require a lot of people and energy to make happen. Our church takes a lot of energy, too! From the praise team and sound teams to nursery and children's programming to ushers and greeters to coffee makers to youth teams to simply maintaining our building, keeping a modern established church running takes a lot of time, money, and energy. There is nothing wrong with church programming, it can serve a real purpose in helping people understand scripture, connect with God, and grow in their walk with Jesus. 

And, sometimes, all the energy it takes to keep an established church together can keep it from engaging in the actual mission Jesus gave us of making disciples who make disciples. It can also raise our expectations so high for programming and having our needs met that we make it more difficult to start new churches. These high expectations of the church "show" can keep us from even imagining simpler, cleaner, more efficient and effective ways of sharing life and mission together. 

Over the past few years as we have stepped into church planting, I have been struck by several realities. 1.New churches will unintentionally look like the churches from which they are born. But newer church do not have the capacity to be as program driven as most older established churches. 2. When you plant new churches, if you do it well, you send many of your best and most spiritually mature leaders. There will be a talent and energy drain from a parent church (like Zion). Unless... 3. The parent church becomes much more focused and intentional in both discipling their members and reaching new people in the community with the gospel. These realities compel us as a church to both simplify programming and more intentionally disciple and "pour into" our existing members.

Over the past few months, our Consistory has been making some difficult decisions regarding programming in order to create the space and energy to focus on making disciples and setting our members loose in their neighborhoods to be ambassadors of our king. At the same time, a new team focused on developing a reproducible process of discipling others has just started meeting. Based on some God created events at our first meeting, I am already excited to see how God will use this effort to further the life and ministry of Zion. 

Or, to put it more succinctly, as Neil Cole may put it, as a church we are intentionally lowering the bar of how church is done and seeking to raise the bar of what it means to be a disciple. 

Living More Slowly

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
~ Matthew 11:28-30

Following God in Jesus' day had become complicated. There were all sorts of rules you had to follow (over 600 + the 10 commandments). Not everyone agreed about how to apply those rules so you all had to be familiar with the debates and commentaries about the rules. The temple, the place where you should be able to encounter God, had become a marketplace filled with money changers and sheep sellers. It was hard to even hear yourself speak in the din, yet alone to hear the still small voice of God.

If anything, our world has grown more complicated, more chaotic, more noisy in the 2,000 years since. Text messages and e-mails constantly ping or buzz for our attention. Kids schedules are more full than ever with some sports commitments beginning in kindergarten or even earlier. And for the academically minded there are AP classes starting already in Junior High. There is a constant pressure to do more, be present more, respond more, engage more, until finally many collapse into bed exhausted at the end of the day or week.

Sometimes, rather than setting us free from the unrealistic and demanding burdens of our world, church simply piles on more obligations. Sunday morning worship. Small groups. Youth events. Service projects. With multiple opportunities for each of these. And all these things need volunteers to make them happen and suddenly church is no longer a place to connect with God, but a place to work. One more demand and obligation. We begin to do church rather than be the church.

Mike Breen, the founder of 3DM, teaches that believers need a balance of Up-In-and-Out in their lives. By that he means we need times when we connect with God (in corporate worship and quiet reflection), times when we connect with other believers and share our lives together, and times when we bless/serve others (think of Camp Zion, the PCP, Hand2Hand, and also Children's Ministries and Youth Groups). 

James Bryan Smith in his Good and Beautiful spiritual formation series starts by training people to slow down, get enough sleep, and spend time in quiet every day. Peter Scazzero in his Emotionally Healthy series over and over again comes back to the need for us to slow down if we are to grow in spiritual and emotional health and learn to live within the limits God has set. And everyone acknowledges that the most violated command God has given is to observe the sabbath. 

As I read and talk with the thought leaders around discipleship and how to follow God well in our modern world, one theme emerges every time. We need to slow down and give more time to our relationship with God and to the deep reflection and soul work real spiritual change requires. 

This is a part of Lent, saying 'no' to something (we call it fasting) so we have time and energy to say 'yes' to God. It is not a burden, but an opportunity to slow down, set aside the burdens we have placed on ourselves, and pick up the yoke of Christ and allow him to help us carry it.

What might you say 'no' to today so you have time and energy to say 'yes' to God?

Men, Women, and Alternate Realities

Growing up in a home with 2 sisters (and now 4), I learned early on in life how to be friends with girls. Throughout my early adulthood, I always had a mixture of close guy and girl friends. I thought this gave me a fairly good glimpse into the world of women. And then I got married. 

This is not one of those stories where a guy talks about how his wife is a mystery to him and thinks differently than he does. Instead, learning to see the world through Rachel’s eyes has forced me to recognize that men and women often live in alternate realities, especially when it comes to domestic violence.

I have been in numerous men’s groups and men only Bible studies and not once in the 20 years of these groups has a guy shared a story of being personally abused. (Though, stories of struggles with pornography are frequently shared, which is not often talked about among women.) Rachel has been in numerous women’s groups and in almost every one, someone in her group has shared a personal story of abuse from childhood, a previous relationship, or their current relationship. (This is not to say men do not experience abuse in their relationships. They do. But it is often minimized or ignored.) Men just don’t talk about this as much and women don’t often share these stories in mixed company. (I’ll let you come up with your own theories for why this might be.) Because of this, we men are often oblivious to the stories of violence and abuse in our midst or if we are suffering abuse we believe we are the only one.

That appears to have been the case for Gary Thomas, one of my favorite Christian authors, until he spoke at a women’s conference recently. He shares his reflections in a blog post entitled Enough is Enough. I highly encourage every man to read it. These are stories we need to hear. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. In a church our size, this means somewhere between 70 and 90 of us have experienced domestic violence in our lives. 

This is when I want to go on a rant about the injustice and horror of these numbers, but ranting doesn’t do much good. Offering space can. My desire is for our community to be a safe place for people no matter their past, no matter their struggles, no matter their burden. 

If you are experiencing domestic violence, we will listen. We will pray. We will believe you. We will not blame you. We will support you as you figure out how you want to move forward.

If you realize you are the one perpetuating violence, we will listen. We will pray. We will support you in counseling. But we will not condone or tolerate your sin. 

Resolution for the New Year

My health club has been a little busier this week than normal. All the New Year resolutions have been made and now people are trying to live up to them. We have vowed to lose weight, save more money, get that degree, go on that vacation. Or, as a friend resolved several years ago, we have resolved to eat ice cream every day. There is something inspiring about starting off the year with a clean slate and a new goal. Everything is new and clean and bright, like the fresh falling snow this week.

I like resolutions and new beginnings. I thought about comparing these new beginnings at self-improvement to the gospel and the repeated second chances God offers to us. But, when I wrote self-improvement and gospel, the two words don’t fit well together. Not that the gospel is not about making us into better 'you’s and 'me’s, but because our resolutions so rarely line up with the values and goals of God.

So much of what I resolve to do, whether it is losing weight or paying off a debt, exercising more or reading more good books, makes me look better in the eyes of our world. My goals often look awfully similar to the goals of someone who doesn’t know Jesus. My goals remind me how far I have to go to take on the mind and values of Christ. 

This is how Paul, the great evangelist, describes himself and by extension his understanding of the successful Christian life in 2 Corinthians 6:4-10:

Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Paul casts quite a vision of a beaten, abuse, rejected man. And yet, he knows he possesses everything that matters. This vision of the good life does not look much like the American dream or my usual resolutions. But, it fits well with the call of Jesus to take up our cross and follow him. If I have the courage, that is my resolution this year: each day, to take up my cross and follow where Jesus leads.

Christmas Cows and Living Like Jesus

Earlier, I had the joy of attending Eliana's Christmas program at Maple tree Pre-school. There is just something about the joy little children singing about Jesus and Christmas that brings a smile to my face. At one point, I had to make sure they weren't singing about a race car shining over Bethlehem (turns out it was a bright star).

The highlight for me, apart from watching Eliana, was seeing one of her teachers dressed up as a cow, udder and all. She as completely into engaging the students and helping them celebrate Christmas without any concern for what others might think of her. 

I think that's how Jesus lived too. He was constantly running into problems with the religious people and the authorities because he simply did not care about what they wanted him to do. He would hang out with tax collectors and party with known sinners if it would help those people come back to God. Ultimately, he was willing to go all the way to the cross, rejected by everyone, for the opportunity to bring you and me back to God.

Paul puts it this way in Philippians 2:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 

Who, being in very nature God, 

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness. 

And being found in appearance as a man, 

he humbled himself 

by becoming obedient to death — 

even death on a cross!

Jesus set aside all the glory of heaven for us. A teacher set aside a little pride to be a cow to teach children about Jesus. What might we need to set aside in order to reach one person with the good news of Jesus this Christmas? What risk are you willing to take to invite someone to church, to pray for someone, to tell someone about your hope in Christ?

Bottle Rockets and Discipleship

I am one of many coaches for the Jenison Jr. High Science Olympiad team this year. I get to coach the bottle rocket event. I am truly looking forward to spending time with Ethan working on this project. And, I am a little nervous and overwhelmed. I was reading up on Bottle Rocket design and trying to keep straight all sorts of different acronyms like CG, CLA, and CP along with other rocketry terms and equations for calculating where to put the fins and such. It is all a bit much. It feels a little like trying to take a drink from a fire hose, especially when I found some resources on line. Wow! People really care about making Bottle Rockets!

I imagine coming to church for someone who did not grow up in church can feel a bit like that, too. There are all sorts of words and phrases that don't seem to mean what we think or simply sound unfamiliar. Who else uses words like incarnation or atonement or propitiation and expiation (I am not sure I can explain the difference between those last two words easily either!). We talk about the Lord's Prayer, the Apostle's Creed, the Golden Rule, the 10 Commandments like people should know what these thing are. Most of those terms aren't known or used often by people outside of church. And none of this even addresses the bigger issues of how to follow Jesus and align your life with his commands in regards to money, marriage, parenting, sexuality, work, friendships, and so on. It can all feel like a bit much.

Thankfully, as the Bottle Rocket coach, I have been talking with last year's coach over the past few weeks and he has been sharing some pointers and explaining how things work. It's still a little overwhelming, but I know I have someone to help me out if I get confused or make a wrong turn.

I think new believers or people curious about Christianity probably need someone to show them the ropes, too. That's what discipleship really is. Simply showing someone what you know about following Jesus. You may not have all the answers. You may not get it all right. But, you can share what you have learned and point someone to the right resources. 

Who are you showing the ropes right now? How might you encourage someone in their journey with God, today? If you can't think of anyone, maybe a good way to start is by inviting someone to come to church with you Sunday to smile at the little kids in the program and show them a little of how you worship God.

Gilmore Girls, 30 Something Gang, and Church

Spoiler Alert Spoiler Alert Spoiler Alert Spoiler Alert Spoiler Alert Spoiler Alert Spoiler Alert 

Rachel and I finished watching the Gilmore Girls reboot on Netflix last night. For those unfamiliar with the series, it tells the story of mother Lorelei and daughter Rory Gilmore and their life in the small town of Stars Hollow. In the reboot, 10 years have passed since the show ended and Rory is now a 32 year old struggling free lance journalist. She moves home to live with her mom again. It is a difficult and humiliating transition for Rory. 

One of the ongoing jokes of the show is a group of young adults, called the 30-Something Gang, who have all moved back home and are unemployed or under-employed. At one point, we even meet their parents who have formed their own support group where they gather every week to review their kids resumes and talk about any job leads. 

I think the show was trying to find humor in the struggles of many young people to get their careers launched since the economic downturn in 2008. But, it didn’t work for me. There seems nothing funny in adults failing to become adults or adults struggling to support themselves. Sometimes, we need to laugh at the difficult times of life to get through them, so, maybe the joke worked for people of that age. But as someone a decade or more older, it just felt callous to laughing at the genuine struggles of others.  

In addition, the joke did not fit my experience of young adults in our church. We have many young adults burdened by school debts or working full-time while going to school. They are far from unmotivated, lazy, directionless, or childish. They are driven, hard working, often frugal by necessity because many jobs just don’t pay like they used to, and also drawn to community and relationships. 

Many churches are struggling to figure out how to keep or reach young adults in their communities. It can be difficult for us as well, especially among college age students. The transition from a youth group to adult ministries is significant. It requires moving from a “being taken care of” mindset to a partnership relationship with the church. I am so pleased with the way Pastor Jeremy has worked with our youth to develop a servanthood attitude already in middle and high school. I love seeing so many of our students serving throughout the year at Zion.

Kara Powell has a new book out called Growing Young that highlights six practices for churches to more effectively include and empower the young adults in their community. Her research on how churches can help youth stay connected to church as they transition to adulthood conveyed in Sticky Faith was very insightful and this book is no different. She says churches need to: develop young leaders by sharing power, empathize with young adults more intentionally, fuel community, take the gospel seriously, prioritize young people and families, and be good neighbors. We are trying to grow in these ways at Zion, too.

All of this is simply to say, I am very impressed by the young adults God has blessed us with at Zion. They lead in youth groups, teach Sunday school classes, play in the band, head up our nursery ministry, start small groups, serve in Children’s Ministries, and lead faithfully on our Consistory. God continues to raise up leaders for his church, may we faithfully empower them, send them out in mission, and never belittle or minimize the struggles of any stage of life. 

Christmas, Santa, and the Manger

During the first week of Advent, I have been thinking a lot about Jesus and Santa. Yesterday, I took a chance in my sermon by mentioning the mythic nature of Santa Claus. Every adult knows Santa Claus is not real, but many parents still long for their children to believe. (We have never told our children Santa was real, but I get the fun of it all for those who do.) I think there is something in us that longs for our children to live in a world where good is rewarded and bad punished. A world where right is honored and wrong is put down. A world of justice where even things done in secret cannot be hidden form the judge.

As I look around our word today, I long for that world too. A world where college students are killed on their way to class. A world where hospitals in Aleppo aren’t bombed. A world where children in Flint can drink the water. A world where Native American lands are respected as much as land where white people live is respected. It is undeniable that our world is not the good world God intended. It is broken in too many pieces to count. The hope that someone will someday set all things right and bring true justice into every corner of our world strikes a chord with the longing in every heart. The myth of Santa speaks to this hope. 

While Santa is not real, the story of Santa is true in a deeper sense. It echoes the true and historical story of Jesus. The promise of scripture is that one day God will come back, heaven and earth will be joined together, Jesus will reign over all, and justice will finally come. We rightly long for this day.

But if Jesus were simply Santa, judging good and bad, we would all be without hope. For if we are honest, each of us has violated the commands of God. Each of us has hurt and wounded other people. We have twisted the truth to fit our needs. We have objectified others for our own benefit. We have ignored the weak and powerless and used our power for ourselves. We have sought to be served rather than to serve. If Jesus is simply the one who brings justice, we would all rightly cower in fear for we all fall under judgment.

Thankfully, the baby in the manger is better than Santa Claus. Santa comes bringing justice, but Jesus weds justice to mercy. He suffers all the consequences of sin. He even dies the death all who sinned have earned and then comes back to life so that we who were dead and sin can live. Jesus will one day set all things right, but he will also forgive and make whole all who have been broken by sin. Including me and you. Truly, Come Lord Jesus.

Second Chances

The last couple of weeks, I have been binge watching The Flash. For the non-comic book fans, the Flash tells the story of Barry Allen who is given the gift of super speed after a freak accident. But, prior to that accident, his mother is murdered in front of him when he is just a child. As season3 begins, Barry is heartbroken over the recent murder of his father and longs to have the life he always wanted. The life other people had with a mother and a father. So, having super speed, he breaks through the space-time continuum and runs back in time (it's a crazy super hero show, bear with me this is going somewhere!). He goes back in time and saves his mothers life, creating a new alternate reality where he grows up with the parents he loves. But, nothing else is the same. In fact, lots of others things are worse. He decides to go back in time again to save unsafe his mothers life and try to put things back the way they were, but when he comes back to this new alternate reality, other things have now gone wrong. No matter what he does, he can't put things back together again. Life is always just a little bit less good than he would like it to be.

Have you ever had those feelings that you wish life had turned out just a little different? That you had taken that job? Asked that girl out? Gone on that trip? Made that investment? Or, as is often the case, wish you hadn't made some of the mistakes you made. Do you wish you could get back the time you missed with your kids, your spouse, your parents, because other things seemed more important at that time? Could undo that rash word you spoke to a parent? Take away the foolish decision you made when you were young that still lingers in your mind?

We all have regrets. We all have made mistakes in our lives. None of us can go back in time and change the past, but many of us spend a lot of energy trying to fix what we have broken, trying to undo the past, trying to make up for our mistakes. To make for ourselves the life we wish we had lived. But we can't. Once things are broken, they are not easily put back together. When we try to make things right by our own efforts, we simply break things in new ways.

The beauty of the gospel is that God says, "You don't have to have lived a perfect life. You can be screw-up. You can have a past. You can have made mistakes. I’ll still love you and give you second, third, and even 1,000th chance."

You can't make up for your mistakes, but you can be forgiven. And being forgiven, you can let go of the past and begin to live a new and better life by the grace and power of God. Not trying to make up for the mistakes of the past, but trying to live out the love God has shown you, moving forward into his new kingdom. No one can travel back in time to undo their mistakes, so God stepped into time for us, to pay the price for our sins so we could be made alive again and reconciled to God and each other.

Being the people of the second chance, God calls us to extend that same grace to others. I wonder what our thanksgivings would look like this year, if rather than trying to have the perfect family, we simply loved the broken people God gave us (our brothers and sisters, parents and children) as they are rather than as we wish they would be. Just like our God loves us. 

Finding Common Ground

As a pastor, the temptation in life is to try to fix everything for everyone. Maybe it comes with being the person who regularly stands in front of a crowd and tells them, “This is what God says.” When we seek to speak God’s words to people for long enough, maybe we can develop a bit of a god complex. So, I am resisting the temptation to try to make sense of this election, to rebuke those with whom I may disagree, or to comfort/encourage those with whom I agree. I do not have any answers to take away the fear or resentment many feel.

Instead, I have been looking at my own life. More and more, I am realizing that despite some of the diversity in my life, I often only hear one side of a story. The news shows and sites I read give one perspective and often peddle in fear and anxiety to keep the eyeballs coming. While this may be a fine business model for them, it is not good for my soul. I can begin picking up on their fear and anxiety. Rather than seeing a world filled with the work of God and the activity of his Spirit, my eyes drift toward the evil, the sad, and what offends my sensibilities. I nurse minor offenses and grievances and slowly feed the anger and resentment in my soul. Rather than nourishing the fruit of the Spirit, I find the fruit of sin secretly growing behind my perceived self-righteousness and moral superiority. In the process, my ability to love as Christ loves begins to atrophy.

Further, I can begin to see those who disagree with me through the lens of that fear rather than through the lens of God’s love and grace. I can stereotype their experience and worldview as a way to dismiss them rather than listening to their concerns and perspective. I can look to find their false beliefs as a way to demonstrate my superiority rather than looking to find the log in my own eye. 

I can’t fix a broken media. I can’t change the habits of others. I can’t undo the financial motivations for news organizations to play to their base and drive clicks and eyeballs. But I can choose where I focus my attention. So, I decided this morning, I am turning away from my favorite news sites that feed my sense of pride and superiority and instead looking to find news organizations that traffic more on straight up news than opinion pieces. So far, I am leaning toward United Press International and Reuters. Maybe more will come, maybe not.

And even more, I am committed to stop wasting my time reading news story after news story and opinion piece after opinion piece and focus more of that energy in prayer and listening to God’s voice in the midst of life rather than the words of partisans selling my eyeballs to the highest bidder.

   © zion reformed church 2012