Thinking Out Loud

April 15, 2012

Brandon Cox: Five Cautions

Brandon Cox is a Pastor, planting Grace Hills Church in northwest Arkansas. He also manages Pastors.com and Rick Warren’s Pastor’s Toolbox newsletter. Grace Hills Church is only eleven weeks old but Brandon has some cautions he wants to share.

If you read what follows, you’re joining the article in the middle, so I suggest you read this at Brandon’s blog, where it appeared under the title, Why Grace Hills Church is in Jeopardy.

If we fail to intentionally be the church, we will unintentionally just do church. And that’s true, no matter how much we say we’re going to “be the church.” Doing the Sunday gathering thing is what we’re good at, and even though we spend a lot of time and money on it, it’s still easier than scattering to be the church in our community.

If we fail to intentionally make disciples, we will unintentionally just make fans. I believe in making Jesus famous and bringing people into the enjoyment of His glory, but our mission is more than increasing the popularity of the church. The mission is to help people become reproducing, sold out Jesus-followers.

If we fail to intentionally be authentic, we will unintentionally just perform. I’ve performed before. In fact, I’m a recovering performer and have struggled with an addiction to the approval of others, so admitting my weaknesses is tough, but essential. I no longer trust my autopilot to lead me into genuine authenticity. Being real takes effort, and if we aren’t real, nobody heals.

If we fail to intentionally embrace all people, we will unintentionally play favorites. And the apostle James warned us about the danger of insulting the cross by picking and choosing those with whom we want to do ministry. Rather than hanging out with only the “churchy” people, of our color, of our political persuasion, of our cultural background etc., the gospel itself demands that we purposely break free and seek out new friendships for the gospel’s sake.

If we fail to intentionally be generous, we will unintentionally consume everything. By default, we spend it all, and we tend to spend pretty much all of our resources on ourselves. Churches tend to fall into the trap of sustaining their institutional machinery, maintaining their buildings and budgets, and begging for more volunteers and bigger offerings to keep the snowball rolling. Generosity requires purposeful sacrifice (if we can even use that word in light of the cross).

~Brandon Cox

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December 16, 2011

Overheard Conversation

A conversation between two people in a retirement home:

Person One: I pray to Jesus all day long.

Person Two: Pray to him? I don’t even think about him.

The reason for quoting this is that Person Two is an elder in a local church. A rather strange thing for a person to admit who has been given a leadership position in a Christian organization, right?

Or is it more common than we think?  I know I don’t always make right choices in the course of a day, and I also know there are times I am just rushed off my feet. But there is a constant awareness that Jesus is always nearby; that the Holy Spirit is present even if I am not consciously aware of it, or even if I am screaming inside for guidance and direction; that God is watching, and not, as the song says, “from a distance.”

Person Two’s statement is also a very candid admission that their faith is not an active reality or active force in their life. It’s somewhat dismissive and perhaps even defiant (“Jesus who? I don’t give him a thought…”). It means the faith system that forms the central core of their church’s beliefs, and the Person who both embodies and teaches those beliefs just doesn’t impact their thoughts at all during an average day. Rather shameful for a ‘spiritual’ person identified as a leader in a ‘spiritual’ institution or ‘religious’ organization.

I might as well go to work and forget that I’m married from the minute I close the front door. (“My wife? I don’t even think about her.”) I might come home at the end of the day because there is a meal waiting and a bed to sleep in, but otherwise I’m not giving her a single thought in the intervening hours. That’s just nuts.

Scripture tells us to “be in conversation with God without ceasing.” That’s my paraphrase. It means the lines are open. The link has been clicked from my waking moments and the page is open. The call is on speaker-phone. The intercom has been pressed. The instant-messaging has been activated.

And Person One, by the way, is very concerned that Person Two could spend a whole life “in church” and miss out on the central reality of a living relationship with the Creator and Sustainer of the world; missing out on the central reality that eternal life can begin right here, right now, today.

So, how often do you think about Jesus?

October 15, 2011

Craving More of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit

Last weekend we were on a retreat at a Christian camp, and I suddenly had this strong desire to take off my clothes.

We’ll get to that in a minute, but first something completely different…

“Some of you have had to have a medical procedure where you’re told that 24 hours beforehand you’re to stop eating solid food.  You may be a light eater generally, but once you’re told that can’t eat something, you find yourself really craving it.

“Then, they might tell you that for the last three hours prior to the procedure, you’re not to drink anything, either.  You’ve probably gone longer without quenching your thirst, but once you reach that no drink  stage, you suddenly find yourself aching for something in the beverage category.

“But the real kicker is when, five minutes before the procedure, they ask you stop breathing…”

And with that, several years ago, I introduced the song “Breathe” by the group Passion, reminding our church that while the first two situations — being denied food and drink — are achievable in the short term, we all need to breathe.  (Actually, Need to Breathe would be a great name for a band.)  We simply can’t live without oxygen, and so also we should be hungry and thirsty for God.

This is the air I breathe
This is the air I breathe
Your holy presence
Living in me

This is my daily bread
This is my daily bread
Your very word
Spoken to me

And I, I’m desperate for You
And I, I’m lost without You

I relate this because this week we were at a Christian camp, and if you’ve ever been on the grounds of a Christian retreat or conference facility, you know there’s an unwritten rule that if you’re a guy, unless you’re swimming, skiing, windsurfing or water skiing, you’re supposed to keep your shirt on.

But Ontario experienced record high temperatures on the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, with temperatures hovering close to 30 ° Celsius all three days, which for our metricly challenged American friends is around 78 ° Fahrenheit.  Beautiful sunshine.  No black flies, mosquitoes or bees.  No humidity. Reduced risk of sunburn in October.

I was craving maximum sunlight.  So I climbed up a hill to what the kids call “the mountain” and doffed my t-shirt and stretched out on a rock in nothing but shorts and let the sunshine vitamin soak in; in the process becoming a human solar panel, absorbing the rays at just the right angle.

And I started thinking about the warmth of God’s Spirit that we’re supposed to experience as part of what the Bible considers normal Christian living.

the warmth = the comfort of God’s spirit
the sunshine = the spiritual ‘nutritional benefit’ of God’s presence 

In a previous century, the songwriter talked about “Heavenly sunshine, flooding my soul with glory divine.” We express things differently today, but the principle is the same; food, drink, oxygen, the light of the sun; all these analogies in nature exist to remind us of our need for God.  A craving that is intended to be natural.

Just like a deer that craves
streams of water,
my whole being craves you, God.

Common English Bible Psalm 42:1

But none of this would have struck me, and my Vitamin D fix would not have been fulfilling had I not first climbed the mountain… but we wouldn’t want to add another metaphor, would we? 

In our culture, we really don’t know what it is to be physically hungry or thirsty.  There’s always a snack bar just around the corner.  Do we know what it means to truly be spiritually hungry? Have you ever experienced true spiritual hunger or thirst?

August 28, 2011

Seeing and Hearing Grace for the First Time

You could call it “elder brother syndrome.”  It doesn’t matter what you call it; I just keep thinking that those of us who’ve been around church for a longer period of time are sometimes working from a distinct disadvantage. I don’t mean to minimize the years of things God saved us from, but I’ve had two experiences within about two hours of each other:

  • The first one was sitting in the morning service behind a couple who are new to our church having started coming about a year ago. The worship leader chose some pieces which we haven’t sung in awhile, and the thought struck me, they’re hearing some of these choruses for the first time. I imagined the freshness of the music and lyrics to their ears and compared it to when I heard some of them initially.
  • The second impression was just an hour ago. I’m reading a manuscript for a counselor who is writing to other counselors on dealing with issues like forgiveness and healing, and twice in four pages he noted that people who have amassed a head knowledge of God over the years will find it will actually prevent them from hearing directly from God; hearing a message that reaches into their hearts.

This is why I believe it’s so important to invite friends, neighbors and co-workers to weekend services; so we can see what we do through fresh eyes.  It’s also good to get connected with people who are new to faith, so we can rejoice with them at the discovery of the different aspects of God’s grace as He reveals it. Finally, we need to constantly “come as a child,” with the sense of awe and wonder that happens when people “taste and see that the Lord is good” for the first time.

March 15, 2011

What Are Your Spiritual “Numbers?”

We don’t have a high “comments-to-readers” ratio here, and it would probably easier just to give up, but I want to take a run at this anyway, and if we only get a small handful of replies, that’s fine.

Since this is about numbers let’s number the question(s):

  1. C. S. Lewis, among others, advanced the idea of salvation more as a “process” experience more than a “crisis” experience, but for most Christians — especially Evangelicals — emphasis is placed on remembering specific cathartic moments when we “crossed the line of faith.”  So as you think to that time, what age were you when you, depending on the type of language used, “accepted” Christ or acknowledged him for the first time??
  2. Churches impose other spiritual “rites of passage.”  While we don’t have confirmation in the tradition that I grew up in, believers baptism by immersion was the norm.   What age were you when you really (a) went public with your faith, or (b) affirmed or confirmed a commitment you may have made at a younger age??
  3. Spiritual formation doesn’t always follow a straight graph line, and doesn’t always conform to the age at which we participated in certain church experiences.  Was there a later time where through circumstances or some other “ah ha!” moment things crystallized for you spiritually??  A time that Jesus went from being ‘savior’ to being ‘Lord’??
  4. It’s not about numbers.   What do you make of the numbers you responded with?? Perhaps your spiritual walk is more characterized by a “new every morning” kind of journey.  Are there things we can learn by looking back to see how far we’ve come, or by sharing our story with others??
  5. Are you moving closer to the cross??  Do you see yourself maturing spiritually, or do you long for the experiences or zeal or joy you had as you reflect on previous days?

Comment moderation Tuesday will be mostly after 6:00 PM EDT

April 18, 2010

Seeds, Roots, Branches, Fruit

Today’s post is a simulpost with the blog,  Christianity 201.

A guy I knew locally, Paul Kern, is now pastoring the Highland Park Wesleyan Church in Ottawa, Ontario the capital city of Canada. I decided to see what he was up to by checking the church’s website and got more than I hoped for.

This chart shows their purpose as a church. The third horizontal section is about their particular ministries and won’t make a lot of sense to you and I, but I left it intact, since it shows how a theoretical purpose is played out in practical ways through their weekly programs and special events.  Here’s what it says:

“Our purpose at Highland Park Wesleyan Church is simple: We want to be disciples who go out and make disciples.

“Many people are at different places on their spiritual journey and the design of our ministry is to meet your spiritual needs where you are and help you along on your Christian path. We believe God wants us to be consistent in our growth and maturity as Christians.

“Our plan is similar to many good churches, and is taken directly from the journey Jesus invites us to in the Bible. These are the milestones of our Christian Journey that Highland Park endeavors to help us through as we hear Christ inviting us to:

March 20, 2010

Unfit to Serve: Issues Raised

Today’s post is a continuation of my wife’s guest post yesterday.   I promised I would return to some of the issues raised to look at them objectively.

1.  How long does a person attend your church before they are considered for service?

Andy Stanley’s Fortune 500 survey company found that in the first five weeks at NorthPoint, newcomers are already trying to “discern next steps,” and possible areas of active involvement.   On the other hand, when 60’s rocker Barry McGuire came to Christ, his pastor suggested the famed composer/singer should take a seat in the back row to grow and nurture his faith — for a full year!   Some say that in a small town church, “Once a visitor, always a visitor.”   Where’s the balance?    Of course, in my wife’s case, she wasn’t exactly a newcomer, which brings us to…

2.  When someone who was a former member of your church returns, does their past experience count for anything?

Clearly, some churches expect you to jump through all the hoops as though you’d never been there before.   One woman who wrote us off-the-blog put it this way, “It’s when your motives are questioned and you had thought you had enough “capital ” in years of service to be trusted…”    Churches will have “Celebration Sundays” to revel in their glorious past history, but if someone who is part of that history should return, that experience, even if it involved some tough pioneering, isn’t always respected.   For my wife to be classed as a “visitor” is simply too much to swallow.    Which brings us to…

3.  Is someone who has only been part of a church for ten years truly fit to reprimand, discipline or judge someone whose history with that church goes back twenty years?

Part of the problem in the body of Christ is that we really don’t know each other.   But it gets even more complicated when people who have given years of service are being judged — or spiritually abused — by people who, despite their convictions otherwise, don’t know all there is to know.   (Or worse, have been given short ‘debriefs’ by a departing pastor about individuals in the church, not unlike those student files kept in the school office.)   Sometimes, this problem manifests itself where a church member finds themselves being rebuked by someone half their age.   There may be Biblical precedent for that, but it’s still unnatural, and can be avoided by appointing a different mediator.   Which brings us to…

4.  Are the elders in your church really “elder,” or were they chosen by some other standard?

Some churches really need to bring back the concept of elders and deacons.   (See the story in Acts 7 on the choosing of Stephen for the nuances.)   Some elders are on the church board for the wrong reasons, like, for example, their wives talked them into it.   Some elders truly “represent” the congregation in a democratic sense, while others see themselves as a sub-priestly class of elite members.   Again, another comment received this week; “…as I think you sense, the leadership there is like a team of soldiers walking through enemy territory with the rank and file members and adherents being ‘the enemy!’   It feels as if there are the leaders and then there are the rest of us — the leaders being a select group of others who think alike  and run the show.”   Which brings us to…

5.  What about Church leaders who will look you right in the eye and lie through their teeth?   Is that ever justified?

The conversation my wife had two weeks ago revealed a number of statements which, at the very least, were absolute non sequiturs.    They told her that she was unfit to lead because people in the congregation didn’t know her, yet just three weeks before that, I had to ask four different people to find out the name of the woman who had led worship that week.   My wife was baptized there.   Our children were dedicated there.   Her husband served on paid staff there for four years.   And nobody knows her?   Maybe what this is all about is really…

6.  Is the elders’ board of a church really where the heart of ministry is taking place?  Or even in touch with the real ministry happening?

I doubt that.   In fact, if you really want to see corporate life change (aka spiritual formation) take place and they ask you to serve on an administrative board, run as fast you can in the other direction.  “Run, Forrest, run!”    Just wanting to serve on one of these boards is like wanting to run for public office.   And being involved in service is just as political, where you do everything you can to keep your reputation ahead of actual service.    And just as in politics, these people will do everything they can to keep people off the stage who might, through raw authenticity and transparency, challenge their carefully developed status quo.  People like that are, simply put, a threat.   This is not where organic leadership is taking place.   Which bring us to…

7.   Do people in your church get hurt or wounded or abused?

My wife was told that placing herself in profile ministry meant she was leaving herself open to hurt.    Was this an admission on their part that this is a church that hurts people? The church leadership should bear ultimate responsibility for any hurting, wounding or abusing that takes place within their province.   Furthermore they should be strive to make their church a place of healing; a place of grace.   Decisions taken at the board level which are simply leading to further hurt should be considered a worst-case scenario. But this is likely to happen because…

8.  Can a church leader be doing “the Lord’s work” and at the same time be about “the Devil’s business?”

Absolutely.  People are flawed.   They are going to get caught up in what “may seem right,” but actually take perverse delight in stabbing someone and then twisting the knife.   Any high school student who has studied Shakespeare knows enough about human nature to know that these personality types are out there.  (As Mark Antony says, “These are honorable men.”)     It’s all about building their kingdom and especially their desire for power and control. So the obvious question is…

9.  Why do we keep coming back?

Small(er) towns don’t offer people the advantage of packing up and moving to another church.   The mix of evangelism, teaching, worship, doctrinal slant, demographic composition; combined with an individual’s history in a place; plus a blind optimism that someday things will improve;  all these things sometimes mean that there is literally nowhere else to go.   (And trust us, we’ve done the church plant thing, too; it was a great experience; but the plants died or got put on hiatus for other reasons.)   Besides, this church is our HOME.   Figuratively, those are our kids’ height marks on the back of the door; that’s our kids’ artwork on the refrigerator; not so figuratively, that’s the corner where I prayed with that woman for a dramatic healing; that’s the song my wife taught the congregation just a few years ago; that’s the weekly group that we started.

10.   Is it possible that it’s just time to step aside and let another generation have their turn?

If that’s the case, the people working so hard to evict us from active ministry have only four or five years left themselves.   And they are perpetuating a system which will truly come back to haunt them.    But then again, many of the people doing worship service leadership in Canada are much older than their U.S. counterparts.   So while a part of me is lamenting my wife’s loss of opportunity to do the thing she loves, and the thing she’s most gifted to do, I keep watching the horizon for that young, unshaven guy with a guitar over his shoulder who is going to bounce this crowd off the stage and, with his peers, bounce this particular collection of elders out of the church boardroom.

I guess that sounds a bit mean spirited, but honestly, things can only get better.   Things can only improve.   Of course I’ve said that before…

Related post:  April 4, 2008 – Growing Deep RootsSometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name… and they’re always glad you came.

Related post:  May 1, 2008 – Choosing a Church – This post is where I came up with the phrase, “a place where you can be comfortable being broken.” and the footnote, “When you have true spiritual family in various places, they don’t mind it when you crash!”


March 23, 2009

Greg Boyd and Spiritual Maturity

Filed under: Christianity, Faith — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:45 pm

Increasingly over the last couple of years, we’ve been endeavoring to download the weekly sermon by Greg Boyd at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN.   You might not agree with Greg’s take on a variety of issues, including things like open theology or rapture theology, but I guarantee that Greg will make you think (and re-think) about things differently.   I am a huge fan.

For the last couple of weeks, Greg has preceded the sermon audio with a request to visit the website and take part in a survey.   They want to know a little bit about the people like me who are part of their podcast audience, or what Greg calls “podrishioners.”   (Why is spell-check not freaking out over that one?)   (Okay, now it is.)

So I took the survey — 28 or so questions — and one of the questions really blew me away:   On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest, what is your level of spiritual maturity?

scale-of-1-to-5

I think that in the Christian pilgrimage, the more we learn, the more we know how much we need to learn.    And of course, there is the verse that says, “each one of you ought not to think more highly of himself…”   (Or herself.)  So a “5” is out of the question.   Waaaaaay too arrogant.    Humility is the order of the day.

But I’m not a “1” either.   Hey, I’m a blogger.   When I get to them Pearly Gates and Saint Peter asks me why he should let me in, I’ll say, “Back on earth, I had a Christian blog.”    [Note 1:  The “why should he let me in” question is part of Evangelism Explosion, started by the late James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church; whose position as senior pastor, as of a vote just held, will be taken over by Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham; but you can read about that here.]  [Note 2:  Greg Boyd would hate the whole Saint Peter / Pearly Gates story, yet on another level, I can just hear him saying those exact words.]

So that leaves rating myself as a “2,” a “3,” or a “4.”    Because the question is self-evaluative, it gets past the other question, “How would your friends, family and acquaintances rate you?”   That’s a whole other issue though, because I know all those people who would give me low marks and they’re just a no good bunch of  “negative 1″s.   (Do you see my maturity coming through so clearly in that last remark?)

But in a way, it raises a question that is fundamental to the whole exercise.   The fact is, I know there are people who don’t think that highly of me in a spiritual sense, and in fact, they are indeed people whose own spiritual wisdom and maturity I have come to greatly question.    So much depends not only on who is doing the grading, but what benchmarks are used as the key indicators.

(If you want to do your own spiritual report card, II Peter 3:18 is a simple place to start:  Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.    Grace and knowledge.   But Colossians 1: 9-12 gives you a much more detailed performance standard.)

Anyway, without room for fractions, I chose “4.”  I am a “4” so you had better listen to what I have to say here.    I am wise.   But humble enough to not say I’m a “5.”    Okay, why is everybody laughing…




If you’re interested in downloading a sermon of a different kind altogether, you might enjoy this one from Andy Stanley, entitled “Asking Big.”   It encourages us to look for the giant-sized, macro-sized things that seem impossible, and boldly bring those requests before God.   Only $1 US to download.

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