an eye-opening lesson on biblical community

Sometimes I think I know a lot about church. On Sunday, I learned some very important stuff.

We visited a small church in central Minnesota on Sunday, they asked me to come and preach in the morning service and stay for the evening gathering.  There were only about 25 people in the morning service. The people were very nice, they welcomed us with open arms. We enjoyed ourselves.

Sometimes we assume that it takes a large church to do a good job at ministry. Sometimes we are wrong. After a long day spent with this lovely congregation, I was thoroughly impressed. After about seven hours spent with them (including the after service gathering at Perkins), we were convinced.

They are a small church, but…

They are committed. Nearly everyone who came in the morning returned in the evening.

They love the community around them. They feed about 40 families a month from their food shelf.

They support each other. They prayed sincerely for each other and followed up on previous needs.

They embrace new people. They were very interactive and supportive of a new family that has only been coming about one month.

They care about and for each other. I overheard discussions about offers to help with projects and checking in on the elderly.

They just loved being together. You couldn’t pry them away from the conversation, the laughter at Perkins was genuine and rich.

They don’t demand perfection. They were not distracted by less-than-superior performance in the worship service. They just focused on God.

The funny thing is, on Sunday morning, I preached about how the church must grow  warmer through fellowship. Little did I know that they were the ones who should have been preaching to me.

That church understands real, genuine Biblical community. They don’t have a fancy mission statement. They don’t identify themselves as missional. There is nothing “mega” about them. But they get community. I learned some things.

I love change (and that can get me into trouble)

I’ve always been the restless kind. I have spent a significant portion of my life with the strange feeling that the action must be happening somewhere other than where I was at the time – that I was somehow missing something. I tend to lose interest in routine, predictability isn’t attractive to me. And ruts are despicable!

All of this can create real problems, especially for someone who desires to be an authentic and credible leader. If I followed my desire for frequent change, I would never put down roots. Thankfully, God has helped me to harness my emotions and I have served long-term throughout my ministry career.

I had to wrestle with my restlessness during my recent decision to accept a new ministry post – I had to be sure that my wanderlust wasn’t driving my transition.

When considering a transition, here are some key questions to ask yourself:

Am I just bored with the routine of my current job?

Is the grass really greener over there? (you know the old joke that the grass is greener over the septic tank?)

Has something happened that may have caused me to become discouraged and consider quitting?

And the bottom line question: Is God driving my desire for a change or is it only human emotion?

My advice? If you are young and unencumbered, hit the road, see the sights, it’s OK to be a bit irresponsible. But if you are responsible for others, settle down and only move IF God is saying to move. If God is telling you to move, you really need to do it – regardless.

Embrace whatever God embraces – changing or remaining.

should I leave my net?

Today I am thinking that it is more difficult to follow Christ than it was back in the days when He walked the earth.

I read how, when Jesus called His disciples to follow Him, they dropped everything, “they left their fishing nets” and followed Him (Matthew 4, Mark 1) . This means they quit their jobs, without 2 weeks notice, and went after Him.

Letha and I are in the process of moving, we believe at the direction of the Lord. It is a PROCESS. Did the disciples have to contract a moving company, sell their homes, collect and pack about 100 boxes of stuff, close bank accounts?… You get the idea. I would be considered irresponsible if I dropped everything and moved to Minnesota. In fact, I would get into legal trouble if I left some of this stuff undone. But I believe that this topic may be more a matter of the heart than a matter of U-Haul.

Here are some important points about following Jesus:

-We must be ready to change direction, without a moment’s notice.

-Anything that we possess that would keep us from being obedient to Christ has become a false god to us.

-Our comfort and security outside of total submission to God is an illusion. There is no such thing as safe disobedience.

-Sometimes, God wants us to stay precisely where we are.

Your “net” may represent your career. It could be friends. It may simply be your comfort zone. Whatever it represents, your net must never take precedence over what Christ is asking you to do.  He may ask you to keep fishing – if so, fish away! But if He says, “let’s go”, leave your net.

380 sermons down, 2 left

I am in transition. As I write this post, I am supposed to be helping my wife pack for our move to Minnesota. I am leaving my post in Florida as a local church pastor, where I have served for seven years and eight months. We have two Sundays left before we leave.

I have recently made the switch from preaching with printed notes to preaching with an iPad. The picture you see are my sermon notes from day one to last Sunday at Cross Community Church. Approximately 380 sermons. Most of them were preached three times because we have three Sunday Worship Gatherings. When I got home from church on Sundays, I would put the outline on the stack and get to work on the following week’s message.

Unless someone contacts me very soon, these babies are going into the recycling bin. I can’t imagine anyone wanting them now, but they represent a lot of hard work and prayer. Blood, sweat and tears. I think they were all Biblically based. I hope they were all relevant to the worshippers. I pray they made a difference. I trust I was faithful to God’s call on my life to preach His Gospel.  They reflect my heart for the special people in this church family.

Famous preachers have their sermons published. Wannabe famous preachers publish their own. Mine will be recycled – literally.

A turning of the page, or a tap on the iPad.

the lesser blessing

God has the very best for us but most of us never get there. We settle for blessings like money or security or other things we can acquire. While these things are considered blessings, they should be considered as second-rate blessings. In other words, you can do better.

Let me explain. When most American talk about “being blessed”, they are talking about material things: houses, cars, boats, jobs.  Without doubt, these things are provided by God – and they are blessings. But sometimes the acquisition of these blessings has cost us something of much greater value. While it is not always the case, some lesser blessings cost us greater blessings. We have traded. If financial gain is the best blessing you have, you are not experiencing God’s best. According to Jesus, you can’t serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:24)

Plainly put: if you skip worship to go out for a day of relaxation, your relaxation is a more valued blessing to you than experiencing God’s presence with your church family.

If you make a lot of money on your job but you neglect your family in doing so, your money is a more important blessing than your family.

You have blessings, but they are lesser blessings. You have settled for second-rate.

Life has fooled us. Many of us have been duped into thinking that $ = blessing. Dig a little deeper and you get to real blessings, like: Relationships. Love. Eternal life. The Presence of God. These are first-rate blessings – Greater Blessings!

Jesus asks you a very straightforward question: “What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your soul?” (Mark 8:36) I think we know the answer: lesser blessings.

Don’t settle for the lesser blessing. Let God give you His very best!

take care of your body

On Sunday, Rich Whitter delivered a great message at Cross Community about how God has decided to making his living place within us, how we are the temple of God. We were reminded that God no longer lives in houses made by human hands (Acts 7:48). He now lives in us. I’ve been thinking about that ever since. He told us that we are the temple of the Living God.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to some meetings for pastors. We were visiting an unnamed city and state, but rest assured, the culture was a bit different that what we are currently accustomed to.  Our current location emphasizes, sometimes to a fault, physical appearance. I was taken aback by the number of overweight people present. I don’t mean to be cruel, but the average weight of the people in this group was well over average. Again, these were pastors and leaders. Without being too judgmental, I think this may reveal several problems. At least many people perceive this to be a problem. I don’t like it when people characterize Christ followers and especially pastors as lazy, fried chicken eaters. We may really be hindering our effectiveness in a world that is so health-conscious.

While some people have health issues that prevent them from losing weight, many people lack the discipline it takes to be healthy.

We are the temple of God, shouldn’t we take care of ourselves? We want to feel good and be strong and have good health because we are God’s house. We want to live long lives so we can accomplish more for God. Doesn’t it make sense that we should stay in some kind of reasonable physical shape? We can glorify God more through our bodies if they are healthy.

You only have one body – take care of it, because it belongs to God.

i go to church

I make a living in the church, actually through the church. Worship services usually happen in the church but they are only a part of what we do. I went to church before I was paid to go and should I lose my job in ministry, I would keep going to church.

I usually emphasize a missional expression of ministry, or carrying out in our culture what Christ tells us in the church. But today I want to discuss what I get out of worship services. In addition to the usual (worship, prayer, learning more about God, etc.), I find many personal benefits to regularly attending worship gatherings.  These things have nothing to do with my being a pastor. They have everything to do with me going to church services.

Here are some of the benefits I get out of church:

I encourage others at church. Many people don’t believe it, but their very appearance in a church service is an encouragement to other people. Obviously if you are not there, they will not get that encouragement. So I go.

I get to experience “the moment”. God’s Spirit works in unique ways while His people are gathered in a group. That moment cannot be recaptured or transferred. If I miss it, I just miss it. There is power in spontaneity. God might tell me to say something or do something for someone “right now”. If I’m not there, I will miss the spontaneous.

I get to use my gifts that are intended for worship gatherings. The Bible is clear that some of the talents given to people are given for the purpose of building up others while at worship. If I don’t go to church, I cannot use those gifts anywhere else.

I am made aware of the right-now needs of my church family. A simple look in the eye can inform you of someone who is hurting or frightened or angry. I can respond, on the spot, to that need. If I am not at church, I won’t even know of the need. So I go.

My fellow leaders speak into my life. Messages or sermons or teachings are the best counsel and advice that a pastor can offer. Watching on the Internet or on television or listening online is great, but it is not the same as in person. D. L. Moody (in the late 1800’s) said, “The difference between listening to a radio sermon and going to church…is almost like the difference between calling your girl on the phone and spending an evening with her.”

I am “in the know” with the immediate direction of our church. I don’t want to hear through the grapevine about something special that God is doing or a change that is taking place. I want to see and hear it first-hand.

I am able fulfill my responsibility as a member of my church. Among our responsibilities are: prayer for others when they need it, responding to crisis at the moment, providing support when it is needed, and participating in the forward movement of the church. If I am somewhere else, none of this can happen…until maybe later. Sometimes, later is too late.

These things cannot happen outside of the church, so I go. Often. I love going to church and my life would be incomplete without it. So I go. Whether or not I am a pastor, I go to church.

So before you decide to skip church, or before you allow something else to push your church service to the back burner, please know that your attendance and involvement is important.

Don’t miss something important. Go to church.

How about you? Why do you go or not go to church?

you may not like this but…it is truth

Living in south Florida is an adventure for a pastor. The people here are great, we love our church and friends are the best. But this is a very liberal place regarding issues of morality and sex.

I am responsible to tell people the truth, even when it hurts. At our church, we are finding, in increasing measure, that we need to say things to people that they don’t like, but that are necessary. Many of these episodes involve sex. It is common, I mean absolutely mainstream, for people to openly admit to having sex outside of marriage; cohabitation is the norm. There is no shame or guilt, and people are shocked when I share with them that this kind of behavior is not acceptable to God. And this happens very often within our church with people who know Jesus and study His Word.

I am so careful to speak truth in love. We try hard not to be condemning at our church. We are grace based and motivated by love. We are fully aware of the dangers of judging others – because none of us are perfect.  But I preach against sexual sins because it is covered thoroughly in the Bible. Heterosexual sex, homosexual sex (the Bible is against homosexual marriage), cyber sex, pornography – if you are not married – God forbids sexual activity. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how long you’ve been with your partner or the fact that you own a house together or have kids together. If you are not married, sex is wrong; the Bible prohibits it. I know that sounds like something from outer space in our culture – but it is truth.

Some people are shocked by this fact. They get offended. They get mad. They think I don’t love them. They think I am picking on them. And some of them leave, they walk away and continue with their lives. It is pretty easy in South Florida to find a church and pastor that will agree with them or ignore dealing with real issues. But most people just ignore what we say and go on about their lives. Please, if you are part of our church and are living with someone – we want you to remain as part of our church. But please listen to what God is saying to you. God wants to bless you and He will not bless a relationship that is outside of His will.

This all hurts quite a lot. It hurts to see people making decisions that are slowly destroying their lives. It is painful to lose friends because they think you are crazy for adhering to the Bible. I am troubled about this issue. It’s not going away, in fact it is becoming an even greater problem.

I have no choice. As a pastor, I have to navigate these treacherous waters. I will give an account to God one day for how I represented Him on these issues. I commit myself to tell the truth on these issues, regardless. I am not sorry for doing that, but I am sorry that it doesn’t always turn out well.

You will know the truth and the truth will set you free. (John 8:32) Be free!

kids go farther than their parents

I was witness to a great event today as a young girl began a ministry with the full support of her mother. Her mom has been in vocational ministry for many years – and this girl is only nine years old.  She feels called to help orphans around the world.  A couple of heroes, both mom and daughter.

Here is what I think: In many cases, kids do what their parents do, but they take it further. This can work for us or against is. Allow me to explain.

Whatever parents do in moderation, will be done in excess by their children. Parents who drink a little too much will possibly have kids that become alcoholics. Parents who model sharing in front of their kids have a good chance of raising generous kids. This is not a law and there are obvious exceptions, but I stand by my theory.

This is a very positive thing for us. Our daughter, Jessica was raised watching my wife and I do ministry. Now she does ministry way beyond anything we have ever experienced. And I want her to soar light years beyond where I am.

I felt inspired to tell the mother/daughter team this morning that the seeds planted by mom will come to fruition with the daughter. With absolutely no disrespect to the mom, I fully believe that the daughter will take it further.

You parents, what does that say to you?

learning to lead

An unbelievably large amount of material has been produced in the last few years on the topic of becoming a better leader. Some people are tired of the subject and others think they are excluded from the conversation because they don’t perceive themselves to be in a leadership position. Neither of these approaches are good because both of them will prevent us from accomplishing what really needs to get done in life. We cannot afford to get tired of studying leadership principles because they are ever-evolving. And yes, you are a leader! That simply means that someone is looking up to you, following you, watching you as an example.

So how do we learn leadership?

Most of us learn by reading. Good leaders are good readers. I think that if you are not perpetually working your way through some type of leadership material, you probably aren’t very serious about improving as a leader. Don’t know where to start? Try your public library. Walmart, amazon.com, and a thousand websites and blogs will provide a lifetime worth of decent material. Just start reading.

Leadership conferences are all the rage these days. I receive invitations to dozens of leadership conferences every month. Many of these meetings are great and offer world-class training. Others aren’t, in my opinion, worth the price of admission.  And I think the trap for some has become, being conference-active and leadership-weak. Eventually we have to stop running around the country listening to Chan and Hybels and Maxwell and we have to get to work. If you’ve been privileged to attend conferences, stay home for a while and use what you’ve learned.

Most people learn by experience. In every one of my leadership appointments, I wasn’t adequately prepared for the challenges that were ahead of me – I had to learn on the fly. There is nothing like trial and error to teach us what to do and what not to do.  This can be a painful experience for both the leader and the followers but it is a necessary element in individual and corporate growth. Don’t be afraid to jump into the deep end of the pool – just be sure you are in a culture that provides life preservers (systems and safety nets for a growing leader).

I learn most by watching a leader in action. Yesterday I was able to be in a lengthy meeting with a leader that I admire. We were wrestling with some tough issues, decisions that had to be made that required strength and courage and wisdom. A few times throughout the day, I watched his facial expressions and his body language.  I listened to the way he addressed his fellow leaders around the table. And I took note. We all observed how he worked his way through a difficult agenda. I think I left the meeting as a better leader.

I learn the most by watching a leader lead. I learn when I follow. Come to think of it, that is how the greatest leader of all time did His best leadership training. Jesus asked His disciples to follow Him. As they spent 3 plus years shadowing Jesus, the disciples learned how to lead, how to respond to critics, how to care for the hurting, how to make decisions. They learned how to live and how to die.

No matter what you are reading, regardless of the latest conference you’ve attended, no matter in what capacity you find yourself leading, my question is: from whom are you learning leadership? Who are you following, observing close enough to learn from? Watch them. If they are a good leader, get closer and emulate them. Lean in. If they are a bad leader, learn what not to do and keep on looking for a good leader to follow.

That’s how we learn to lead.

a missional pooper scooper

Our church has a problem. We seem to be serving as the designated dog-walking park for our neighbors. We are blessed with some nice acreage. It is a park-like atmosphere. And since we are not a public park, many people think they can walk their dogs without cleaning up after them.

I complain regularly about this. It bugs me to look out my office window and see dogs running free, fertilizing our lawn. Most mornings when I come to the church and usually in the evenings when I leave, I see cars parked on our back property with dogs running wild. One night on the way to my small group meeting, I saw a guy allowing his dog to defecate on our front lawn. I actually stopped my car in the street and yelled out at him, “Hey! You are going to pick up after your dog aren’t you?!”. He sheepishly said, “yea”. I think he might have been lying. The whole thing just feels disrespectful to me.

We have a problem. But the problem may not be pooping dogs.  The problem may be our attitude. No doubt, we do not exist to provide a public potty for neighborhood pets. But maybe we should be more engaging of our neighbors. It may be a compliment that they feel at home enough to visit us so frequently. Maybe we should view this as an opportunity to serve, to fill a need. These people love their dogs. Maybe there isn’t another place nearby that is suitable for this use. Could this be a chance to show our neighbors that we care more about them than we do our lawn? Is it feasible that we could better fulfill our mission to change lives for Christ if we engage people right where they are? I am trying to look at this from another angle.

Because it is not an option for our kids to step in doo doo, maybe I need to make a part of my weekly responsibilities the picking up of dog waste. Is it possible that one of our most effective missional activities could be poop scooping?

If this is what is required, I’ll do it. Whatever it takes to see lives changed!

why Easter is bigger than Christmas

Without launching into a theological debate, I want to address a little thought I’ve been having. I think Easter is a bigger deal than Christmas. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ while Easter commemorates his death and resurrection from the dead. Obviously you can’t have Easter without Christmas. If Jesus had never been born, He could not have been crucified or raised from the dead. But also, if Jesus had not died and resurrected from the dead, we probably wouldn’t celebrate His birth! I believe, pound for pound, Easter trumps Christmas.

One of the things I find interesting is that Easter doesn’t seem to get the backlash that Christmas does. Aside from the Jewish observation of Passover, Easter doesn’t have a lot of rivals (and the two are certainly connected!). There seem to be very few complaints about the religious nature of the day. Obviously bunnies and eggs have their supporters, but the animosity that comes against Christmas is pretty much absent at Easter. Sure, many public schools no longer observe Easter break, preferring instead to call it Spring Break. But think about the opposition to Christmas. Every year, I dread the same conversations – about how we need to keep Christ in Christmas. I don’t think it helps when Christians spend a lot of time complaining about the commercialism of Christmas. It’s a shame that we even have to have these conversations. Over all, people just seem to go with the flow of Easter, without a lot of pushback.

That’s not my only point. I am using impact as my criteria for assessment.

My observation is that Easter garners a lot more real ministry activity than does Christmas. At least in my circles, this season is massive for reaching out to people who don’t know Christ and who don’t go to church.  Christmas Eve has its punch but nothing equals Easter when considering the number of people who actually go to church services.  It simply has a greater impact. I know that tomorrow, over twice as many people will come to our church than who attend on any given Sunday. There is something to this Easter thing!

Now my hope is that the impact of Easter will last longer than one day, or one week. We are praying for an eternal impact in the lives of lots of people.  In churches all over the world, the truth of the resurrection of Jesus will be told. Let’s ask God to change the lives of everyone who hears the message!

Nothing against Christmas but Easter rocks! What say you?

where’s the passion?

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Holy Week, sometimes referred to as Passion Week. Beginning with Palm Sunday and extending to Easter, we recall the Passion of Christ, the road He walked that led Him to the cross. It’s a great time for Christ-followers to get re-focused on matters of faith and worship.

Leading into this season of ministry, there are many times that I ask the question, “where is the passion?” Obviously, Christ cared enough and was committed enough to do whatever it took to save us. But it seems, at times, that there is a lack of response on the part of those of us who have been saved. Allow me to explain:

On any given Sunday, during music and worship, I am amazed at how many people have no response. I mean they either just stand or sit there, expressionless, unmoved. They don’t sing, or in any other way engage in the music. I realize one can worship by listening but there is no getting around the idea that we are told in scripture to sing, clap our hands and worship God. Outward worship is simply a way to express love for God, it is a “spilling over” of what is in our spirits. I wonder, do these people sense anything in their hearts? Are they, in any way, moved in their spirits? Sometimes I preach about God’s love, His sacrifice, His intense desire to know us…and there are times when there is no response. In these times, I have to ask, “where is the passion?” This explains why the average Christian will not be in a local worship gathering at church tomorrow.  Recent research indicates that church attendance doesn’t mean what it used to for Christ-followers. Where is the passion?

The real issue isn’t with what is happening or not happening in corporate worship gatherings. I think Sunday is just a snapshot of the rest of life. I believe that the cares of life have acted like wet blanket on a fire. Stress kills passion. Pain has a way of burying it. Distractions prevent us from feeling and discouragement prevents us from expressing love for God.

One of the more disconcerting parts for me is, people don’t seem to hold back in their passion for other things.  Tonight’s NCAA Basketball Final Four will blow up Facebook and Twitter. This certainly is a season of political posturing – most people will gladly let you know where they stand on the issues. But spirituality has become taboo for many people in our culture – including those who have been saved from hell by God. It just shouldn’t be this way.

I am asking you to reconsider your approach and response to God, especially during Passion Week. He gave everything for you. How does that make you feel? Can you contain those feelings on the inside without outwardly expressing them in some way? God doesn’t need your passionate worship, but He wants it – and certainly deserves it.

Tomorrow, I will preach a message at Cross Community Church entitled: Pasión por la Vida. It will describe how passion for eternal life for you and me drove Jesus to the cross. And I plan to challenge the people of our church to be passionate in their response to the Passion of Jesus. Join us if you are able.

critics are a dime a dozen

Today’s post is a bit of a rant. Allow me to vent, just a little.

Again today, I saw some shining examples of people who get a kick out of shooting holes in the efforts of others who are doing God’s work. There seems to be a steady supply of “experts” whose sole purpose is to expose what others are doing wrong. I will use this as my format to request that unless you are doing something better than what someone else is doing, please leave them alone.

No, I didn’t get criticized today. But some good friends and organizations that I support did. Our efforts to reach the lost and minister to the hurting will ALWAYS be met with criticism. It happened to Jesus, I suppose we should be honored when it happens to us. But we don’t feel honored – we feel frustrated! My experience is, those who are always telling me a better way of fulfilling the mission of Jesus, do nothing to fulfill the mission themselves.

Here are some over-generalized statements on how I feel: Armchair quarterbacks are all talk and no action. People who tell guitar players they are too loud, can’t play one song. Those who tell preachers their theological mistakes don’t have the guts to preach even one message. Those who criticize the efforts of missionaries to spread the love of Jesus are too lazy to lift a finger for the Gospel’s sake. I know several who qualify for the above generalizations!

Elbert Hubbard said, “To escape criticism: do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” Kind of like our critics, huh?

I love how Jesus responded to the Pharisees when they criticized Him for healing the sick on the Sabbath.  He simply ignored them and got on with the healing. Awesome!

Anyone interested in personal and spiritual growth understands and embraces the value of constructive criticism. We all need that. But none of us need the aggravation that comes from perpetually negative critique.

Friends, don’t let some naysayer discourage you. Do what God tells you. And forget the knuckleheads who are doing nothing.

Ok, thanks for letting me get that off my chest. Oh, and if you disagree with me on this, keep it to yourself. We are too busy doing God’s work to care what you think! 🙂