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Archive for the ‘Experiences’ Category

It’s all about Jesus.

Or maybe I should say its all aboot Jesus.  I’m still working through my Yankee accent.

As I’ve begun my ministry here in Toronto I find there is much I have learned and much more I will come to learn in the future in regards to culture and perspective here in Canada.  Beyond the Canadian culture there also lies the mosaic of cultures as immigrants from all over the world converge on our great city.  Each of these comes with different historical references, interests, values, and traditions that play a factor in how we relate to each other here in our new Maple Leaf home.

While the work of finding what makes each cultural perspective unique is somewhat challenging, the solution to what brings us all together is rather clear.

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Gal 3:26-29  NIV

It’s clear in God’s word that while we are all created uniquely in ethnicity, nationality, gender, and economic status, those who are in Christ Jesus are one in Him.  We are fellow heirs with Christ (Rom 8:17) when we are united under His authority.  Despite the current popular argument, Jesus is a great binder not divider.

The New Testament church gives an amazing picture of cultural walls coming down as churches formed with masters and slaves, rich and poor, men and women, educated and illiterate, famous and ordinary meshed together in the unity of Christ.  The gospel of humility brought all under the same understanding that in Jesus’ Kingdom the rules were turned on their head.  None was viewed as more important than the others but each looked at others as more important than themselves.

Jesus goes far beyond being a focal point of unity along demographic lines; he also unites the spiritually segregated.  There is a clear representation of two different spiritual types in the gospels.  The first group is the outcast group of worldly sinners.  Jesus is repeatedly confronted and criticized for his willingness to associate with such people as tax collectors (Luke 19), drunkards (Luke 7), and prostitutes (Matthew 21) and the spiritually “unclean”.  He offers salvation and healing to those who do not deserve it and seems to target those who deserve it the least.  The gospel in its purest form is always a transformational force among the humble, poor outcasts of society.

While the degenerates of this world are blessed to have opportunity for salvation, God does not close the door to the other spiritual group; the religious.  Let me say that again.  The second spiritual group to hear and receive the gospel is the religious.

Now I know for most this would seem like a disconnected statement.  After all, isn’t Christianity a religion? When we speak of the religions of this world, don’t we usually lump Christianity in with all the other major world religions?  To this I would say yes…and no.  Yes the world does refer to Christianity as just another religion, but I want to challenge you that the church never should.  Let me explain why I believe this to be the case.

First, Jesus didn’t really get along well with religious people.  In fact, when we see the gospel spreading throughout Christ’s ministry, it seems most hindered among the religious.  They are continually arguing over issues of morality and law and never truly hearing what Jesus is saying to them.  In the rare occasion a religious person actually listens to his teaching, it is under the shadow of darkness and away from the religious majority (John 3).

Secondly, the good news goes against everything religion stands for.  When it comes to religion, all religions operate under the same ideology.  There are a certain set of rules or social norms that make one righteous in the eyes of God (and the judgment of other religious people).  If these rules are abided by then one is considered exemplary and elevated to the highest esteem and prominence among the other religious people.  These people who excel at keeping the code are proud of their efforts and tend to look down on others who have yet to get their act together.  Meanwhile, there are those who have not been able to keep the code in an exemplary fashion and therefore feel the judgment of those better than them.  They have been unable to meet the standards that their god has set for them and they feel his disapproval through the attitudes and actions of the others in their religious order.

In Jesus’ day these religious elite were the teachers of the law.  It was the clergy of his day that received from Jesus a message full of rebuke and correction (Luke 11).   Religion at its heart does not produce the essence of the Kingdom which is love, humility, self-denial, sacrifice and perseverance.  Religion produces pride and self righteousness that does not lead to a realization of our dependence upon the grace of God.  Under the light of the gospel, you can see how some have indeed taken the good news of Christ and turned it into just another religion.

In light of these walls of spiritual and earthly separation that Christ has brought down in the Kingdom not of this world, we should be compelled to consider for ourselves the path that leads to unity.  For those of us who have considered our culture, heritage, ethnicity and values superior to others we must follow Jesus into humility (this is rich coming from an American I know, I am chief of sinners).  We must recognize that we are now heirs to a higher culture and kingdom that will never pass away.  A kingdom that is not limited to any one worldly nation.   It is to this Kingdom that our hearts should be faithful so that our forefathers in the faith might look upon us as the fruit of their labour.  We must also take a step towards humility, extending a hand to those who are outcasts, unable to measure up to the standards of this world and desperately longing for the joy we have found. It is for these the gospel has come.  And as for those of us who find ourselves in the self-righteous position of those who opposed the ministry of Christ, we must repent.  We must recognize the good work of Christ in our lives and like Paul consider our religion as rubbish (Philippians 3:8).

Each of us must consider how we must proceed as we follow Christ together.

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I came across a two legged dog a few years back and the image will be permanently imbedded in my mind.  It was while I was on a mission trip in Kentucky and the dog belonged to a relative of the family we were helping.  I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of seeing a two legged dog, but it has to be one of the most disturbing sites on the planet.  I’m not talking about a dog that has been helped through the miracles of modern technology.  This dog had no prosthetic replacements, no wheeled assistance.  It had only its front two legs to drag the rest of its body around.  The animal looked to be in terrible pain and several of the gentlemen on the trip were talking of putting the dog down.  The locals warned us against such action as it would be a source of conflict between us and the dog’s owner.  So we were left to watch this pitiful creature struggle to drag itself around the yard and into the shade, across the gravel road and over to get water, writhing in pain the whole way. 

 

As I think back on that trip it occurs to me that the church is a lot like that dog.  It is said that in the church 20% of the people do 80% of the work.  Having worked in the church for the last 10 years I would have to say these figures are accurate.  Most of the people filling chairs and pews out there on a weekly basis see no reason to engage their faith beyond their present efforts (or lack thereof).  In clearer terms, they are consumers of the gospel, of Jesus and His church.  This is in stark contrast to what is told of in the New Testament Church.   There seems to be among the people of the first century church a strong sense of responsibility toward one another.  These early believers meet and pray together daily, they share with anyone who has need, and they all feel a sense of calling to the mission of God’s people.  The glaring question in light of this contrast is, “why don’t we look like that?”

 

I believe the church is in the state it’s in not just because her people will not engage their faith, but because of the way her leaders engage her people.  We have created in the American church, a dependency upon leadership for the most basic of Christian life.  We rely upon our pastors and teachers to rightly interpret the scriptures for us, instead of allowing room for God’s people to discover Christ in the journey.  We depend upon a few to guide, pray, study, listen and then tell all the rest of us what we should be doing.  It is as though we are in a time machine, and we have found ourselves stuck in the middle of the Exodus story, and all of us look to Moses to go and talk to God for us instead of climbing the mountain and seeing Him face to face. 

 

If you don’t believe me just look at some of the examples of the few we have raised up to drag the rest of us along in the wilderness.  We put them on television and radio, and pick up their books to read instead of picking up the scriptures.  For most churches we rely upon them so heavily that without them our churches would quickly dry up and blow away.  The reality of this is seen when one of these men falls to sin and leaves the church in the wake of such poor example.  Often it becomes impossible to see Christ through the veil of their “success” in the church.  Humanity casts a shadow on the divine and we are dragged into the mire of their mistakes.  While not all of our leaders end in this type of tragic fall, these circumstances help us to see the real health of our churches.

 

We cannot simply blame the leadership for the current predicament we find ourselves in.  After all, they are the two legs that have taken it upon themselves to carry us forward, even though this task is a difficult one to say the least.  While they haven’t led us to engage our faith properly, most have laid down their lives in many ways and brought the heart of Christ in their service and teachings, but in order for the church to get back up on all fours, we are going to have to set aside some bad misconceptions we have about faith and life and leadership in the church. 

 

The first issue deals with faith: faith in a Christ who wants to walk with you and work through life’s ups and downs.  Faith and life must walk hand and hand if we want to see improvement in either one.  If faith is left to the Sunday sermon and your worldview, then you are missing out on the Kingdom that Jesus said is at hand.  We all need to shut of the TV preachers, audio sermons and put down the latest Christian best seller and pick up the Words of Life.  Stop reading about the adventures that others are having in their spiritual journey and jump into the journey with Christ today!

 

After we have set aside all the religious goods and services, we have to take serious the call that Jesus has placed on our lives.  I’m not talking about the call to hand out bulletins, serve as a greeter or a children’s ministry volunteer.  I’m not even talking about going on that next mission trip to South America.  We need to take serious Jesus’ call for us to come and die.  To deny ourselves and take up are cross is to adhere to the very basics of Jesus’ teachings.  Our faith is not about improving our lives; it’s about losing our lives!  This is contrary to the tone of most of our teaching today.  While this is not the nicest teaching to hear, Christ is clear that it is through dying daily that we will find life. 

 

After you have taken on a theology of death, you are ready to serve the people of God.  It is clear in the teachings of Paul and the example in the New Testament that God gives gifts to His people for the growth and equipping of everyone in the church.  We see that each of these servant leaders bring something for the benefit of the rest.  Early on in the church men like Stephen are appointed to hand out food to widows, but God gifts him in evangelism and uses his execution to scatter the church throughout the world.  We see everyone leading the rest on toward maturity and no one claiming authority over the rest.  Christ is seen as the ultimate authority in the church and all are willing to subject themselves to the rest out of love.  Just like the first century church, God has given us gifts for the growth and equipping of His church today.  We cannot wait for men to ordain us, but we must engage in the ways in which we are convicted.  The spirit orchestrates the body, the body doesn’t orchestrate itself.  It’s time to engage.  This may mean stepping outside of any known job descriptions.  It may mean being outside of the box.  It looks more like the example of Becky Covert with www.agapeart.org.  She is a young graduate from Bethel, working at Starbucks.  She has been hesitant to enter a career because she is afraid it would restrict her ability to follow through with what she feels called to.   Becky has felt a conviction to help an orphanage in the Philippines through art.  She and several other artists auction their photos, paintings and sculptures to help support the orphanage.  They also travel to the Philippines regularly to minister to the children and teach them art classes.  They return to the states with the art that the children have crafted and they auction off these peices to people who view compassion as the most beautiful art form off all.

 

When I look at lives around me, I am amazed at our inability to see the potential of what God could do in our lives.  It’s time for this dog to jump to its feet and run towards the finish line.  The Kingdom is at hand.  Will you be dragged across the finish line?

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I was able to catch the latest installment to the Pirate’s of the Caribbean saga. Here is my initial response.

“Dang this theatre is packed!”

“East India Company reminds me a lot of Exxon Mobile.”

“What’s with the giant nose and why does hell just seem to be freaky like willy wonka?”

“That voodoo chick made a whole lot of noise for nothing.”

“Will, think it through man!  She ain’t gonna be that hot in 10 years. Better stow your heart in the bilge locker.”

I can’t stop thinking about this concept of having your heart in a box.  The notion that you could lock it up and give it only to those you trusted is fascinating.  The biggest downside would be that anyone could steel your heart and destroy you.  It reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matt 6:19-21,
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The imagery of the heart being in a treasure chest is certainly appropriate.  The heart governs the will of a person and the will is what keeps us all from turning into Michael Jackson.

Could it be that the heart in a box concept is a valid metaphor for the way the human heart works? I have yet to meet the person who was totally heartless. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met cruel people, but their cruelty was  more a result of their heart being buried under the sand after years of pain or abuse. Even the person who seems to operate totally independent of others has their heart set on something. No one is without dreams and aspirations.

I was watching the season finaly of House last night. (I should read more, I know)  If you didn’t catch it, Doctor House had a female patient whose heart failed and she and her husband were praying that the problem would be solved and that she would survive.  House detested the notion of putting faith in God and ridiculed the couple for praying.  It was through this realization that House discovered that she wasn’t sick but “God screwed up” and she was born with a defect in her heart.  He had to go in and fix God’s mistake so that the woman would survive. 

The show was provocative and I suppose upset some of the conservatives in this country.  It made me think about the heart and how good God’s creation is and how much we have corrupted it. 

The character of House facinates me because he is a perfect illustration of the person of faith that thinks he doesn’t believe in anything.  His is perhaps the clearest religion, because he is so dangerously committed to it.  Science, reason, discovery and the powerof human ingenuity.  It’s cool the way he becomes like Davy Jones in the Pirate’s movie at the end of almost every episode.  They both are alone and miserable in their faith. 

If I could box my heart up I would take it and put it in a storage locker where it would never have to hear the hurtful words of a friend who betrays me.  I would have it hidden during the commercials of children starving in other parts of the world, begging for my help.  I would toss it in my trunk before my church gatherings so I wouldn’t be consumed by the things I need to change in my world.  In fact I would probably only take it out when I was spending time with my children, or on a date with my wife. 

And perhaps the best part of all…

I would never have to worry about my cholesterol.

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After finally realizing that our efforts were not effective nor being blessed, we decided it was time to stop cookie cutter plan and begin exploring different concepts of church in an effort to reach the people we were called to reach. We stopped pouring money into mass marketing strategies and began to take a more grass roots approach, building relationships with those around us and offering tools to help our people begin to think missionaly. We took the money we had been spending on marketing and began serving in the community and abroad with projects for the poorest areas of
Columbus. We provided food, clothing, heat and beds for those in need. We partnered with much larger churches around us to help funnel Gods resources to where they were most needed. Hurricane Katrina provided us the opportunity to take bottled water, baby food and cleaning supplies to those affected by the storm.

As we changed our focus we began seeing people slowly come along side us in these projects. Both Christian and non-Christians were joining us to help with this mission and those who had not been involved directly with our church began to engage in this capacity.

Aside form the change in focus of resources, time and energy; we began to refocus our community life. Through gleaning insights from others like Neil Cole and Alan Hirsch, we took a more organic approach to being the church. Over the past year we have focused more and more of our efforts on simplifying church and making it more easily reproduced.  A year ago we challenged our people to begin meeting as “households” to share in faith and life together. Our reason was to take Christ out of the weekend worship and into the fabric of our lives. As we have gotten out of his we have seen God do some amazing things. What started as three gatherings, has now multiplied to 11 with two more starting in the next few weeks, one of which is in
Indiana! We have had a vision to reach our community and God has a vision to reach the world. Apparently even
Indiana.

Today we are working to create a network for edifying, resourcing and initiating simple churches everywhere God wants to have one. We are trying to kill some of the old habits that die hard in order to keep from interfering with God’s amazing work. We want to challenge believers to serve with the gifts God has given them for the glory of the giver and to walk in a manner that sets us apart from the world. This is not simply a walk of morality, but a walk of love. A walk that is as close to the example of Christ as we can possibly muster. All this for His glory.

Have we made some mistakes?

Refer to the first part of the story and you will see we have. 

Will we make mistakes in the future?

Most definitely.

Has it all been worth it?

I have honestly come to the point in my walk where I must say I can’t judge. God is the investor, I am just the invested.

Where has He invested you?

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I set out three years ago to start a church with my now closest friend Doug Swan. With high hopes of changing the world in a little over 18 months (maybe two years tops if we got distracted) we launched using almost every church growth and marketing concept known to man.

Our first goal was clear. Try to convince every Christian we knew and a whole bunch we didn’t know, to leave their present churches and help us get off the ground. We spent several months attempting to round up our 300 mighty men, but we ended up standing in the corner of a big empty room feeling like our prom dates had stood us up. With no where near 300 mighty men, we had to figure out a new plan that would convince the dirty dozen to stay with us. These faithful twelve have proven their heart for Jesus is bigger than their heart for us as we have lead them into failure after miserable failure.

With twelve people we quickly realized our 18 month timeline might have to be extended by at least a few months, but still had high hopes. We recruited all we could and began taking fliers door to door and sending out thousands of dollars in mailers. After all our efforts the big Sunday came. All of the experts seem to indicate that our return from our efforts would end up drawing a minimum of 300 people. The signs were out and banners were up. We had volunteers ready to move chairs and help out in the nursery. We were prepared to face the reality of offering a second service for all those first time guests that were not early enough to get a seat. We purchased gift cards to Starbucks and decided we would tell these late comers that they could have a cup of coffee on us while they waited an hour for the second service to start. With sheer excitement our team stood in ready position, all prepared to face the masses that were to arrive at any minute. Finally at five minutes before the service was to start we began to realize that we were not going to get the return that the experts had promised. Finally, at two minutes till, a man showed up. One single man. He was gracious enough and sat through the whole service. We never saw him again. Thousands of dollars and hundreds of man hours were spent for him and he never came back.

One would think that after such a brutal experience we would have learned our lesson. 

 This wasn’t the case.

We went on to do a phone campaign that played a message from Doug, inviting people to come and check out this new church in the area. Those that were interested in hearing more about the church were supposed to press one and leave a recording with their information. A handful of people did this.  We then followed up with a phone call and talked to each of these folks who were interested. This proved to be only a couple people after we realized one was a local pastor from another church interested in hearing about the new competition, another was my father leaving a little note of encouragement and there was one message from a guy who threatened to call the State Attorney Generals office if we ever called him again. The rest were very promising because they were people that were new to the area and genuinely looking for a church to join. Despite the fact that we had four points of contact with all of these people, none of them ever showed up to a single service.

After this experience, we decided it would be best to try and engage the community a little more directly. We went around to children’s neighborhood parks throughout the community. We delivered thousands of invitations for people to bring their children to a “party in the park.” And this was no simple party! We had arts and crafts, face painting, water toys, a free drawing for bicycles for children of all ages and to top it all off, pony rides! It was an event to end all events! Surely not even the Ringling Brothers have had as much anticipation over a single event as we had in the days leading up to our first party. We had kids coming out of the woodwork!  Families would come and we would talk with parents while children enjoyed the festivities. It was awesome the number of people we got to know through those events. The only problem was that none of them came to our church. Not one!

I know by this point you must be thinking that we are weird. You must be thinking that we are in someway freakish to look at or be around. This is not the case. We all are normal people who have held normal jobs and have very healthy families. The people we met seemed to genuinely like us. We conversed with them for hours. We sent mailers out to all the folks we met and invited them to visit during our series on the family. Still no one came.

It was at this point that we realized it was going to be decades at best before we saw the global effect we were hoping our church would have and many around us began to ask us if we felt we should go on. It was at this point that we had to really get still and do some soul searching.  We decided that it had nothing to do with our performance and had more to do with our call. God had called us to do something different to reach unreached people and so far we had done everything the same as everyone else. We were competing for the same people that every other church in the area was trying to reach. It was at this point that we were able to get out of the way enough to see God do some pretty cool things around us.  

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