Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Avoiding the deadly Worm In A Jar of Horseradish Syndrome

"To a worm in a jar of horseradish, the whole world is horseradish". This Yiddish proverb paints us a very vivid picture of a major predicament, a sort of "ignorant bliss" people and many Christians find themselves living in.  The worm has limited horizons because all it knows is a jar of horseradish and doesn't realize that there is another world outside of the jar. So it is with many Christians who live in their own small world isolated from the surrounding culture.  And this condition leads to a significant portion of believers failing to understand and interact with the dominant culture around them. Just like the worm, many Christians don't even realize it because they are content with living in the jar.  And when a large proportion of believers are not interacting with the world around them, being the "salt and light" of the world, then Christianity begins to decline and has less and less of an impact on the world.
All humans are susceptible to the worm in a horseradish predictament, some by choice, others because of circumstance. Christians seem prone to this as much or more than others because we think we are called to be separate from the world. But Jesus instructed us just the opposite, to be the salt and light to the world, to be in the world but not of it.  He instructed us to be an influence not only in our own neighborhood (Jerusalem) but to neighboring areas (Judea), and to cultures that are very different than ours (Samaria) and even to other countries (the ends of the earth) Acts 1:8.

I recently was reminded that I was the worm in that horseradish jar. During one of my early visits to a high tech company in Austin for which I'm a chaplain, I sat at a table in the break room getting to know a group of the young employees. One of the employees turned to his fellow worker next to him and said, "I'm so sorry they kicked your friend out of the clan. I guess he wasn't ready for war". They proceeded to talk about wars and stuff that I had no clue about. It was as if they were speaking another language. Then one of them turned and looked at my perplexed expression. He chuckled and explained, "we are talking about a video game". I admitted I was very confused and was afraid to even ask what they were talking about. We all had a good laugh. Then they began another discussion about role playing games and some movies I'd never heard of. I quickly recognized how far from their world I was. I don't have plans to take up playing Warcraft but It may serve me well in this culture to at least become familiar with their world. 

My point is the world is changing rapididly and we all can begin to wall off ourselves from the people we are called to serve, if we allow it.  Pastors are even more susceptible to this because they spend so much of their time tending to all of the demands of their members. Their whole world is their church and most of their time and energy goes to the church.  So a pastor can easily become that worm and their church, the jar of horseradish, losing touch with the world around him. Ministry can become stale and lose its relevancy. The church can easily turn inward and isolated from their own neighborhood. The church then loses any potency to be salt and light to a world in need.

I saw this first hand while on staff at a large church. Once a vibrant church that reached out to the community and wasn't afraid of doing innovative ministry, the church slowly turned inward and began to isolate itself from its own neighborhood. It's members seemed to live in a church bubble thinking that they had a patent on ministry and their way was the right and only way to worship. They would dismiss anyone who spoke about a different way or changing anything to minister better to the changing culture.  As the world and ministry methods changed, the members dug their heals in and created an "us vs them" mentality and soon became the worm in the jar of horseradish. Over the years it has lost half of it's membership and its potency and impact on the surrounding community.

To avoid the worm in the jar dilemma, here are 7 suggestions:
1.  Take a mission trip every year.  You don't have to go oversees every year, but go some place that you are unfamiliar with (a Samaria). A mission trip, especially one that works closely with the indigenous people, will give you a totally different perspective on life and culture. You can receive some benefit by just vacationing somewhere different, but doing a mission will give you a much deeper experience with the people and culture.  My pastor, Will Davis Jr. said it well, "no one gets a better view of God doing the same thing over and over again from the same place." 

2.  Read historical, cultural and educational books 
I've had pastors and other Christians say they don't have time to read. Then there are others who refuse to read anything that is counter to their values or theological and political beliefs. Yes, most of what we read will be books that we are aligned with, however, if this is all we read, we will never walk in the shoes of the non-believer and understand his or her thinking and belief system.  Just reading alone is critically important for leaders as Michael Hyatt's blog points out so well, but we all need to throw in a book now and then that stretches our thinking. 

3.  Office in a Starbucks 
You'll find most pastors of church plants hanging out in coffee shops every day because they have no office. But even when they get an office, many will still set up shop in a Starbucks because they know the value of being in a public space and meeting people.  Find a place that gets you into the world where you can meet non-believers. 

4. Occasionally visit a church that is different than yours
Pastor, when you take a vacation or go on a sabbatical do you take the opportunity to go to other churches beside yours?  I don't mean speak at another church, just go and be an attender and feel what it is like to visit a church. If you visit one that is somewhat different than yours, you'll be able to learn a lot about this church and your own as well. 

5. Mentor a young person
Find someone that is at least one or two generations younger than yourself and mentor them. Discover their values and aspirations. Learn how they see the world differently from you. Talk about your differences.

6. Get to know your neighbors
Even if you live in a gated community, your lifestyle and worldview will probably be different from many of those living around you. Our neighbors in San Antonio included an Iranian family living on one side, a family from Mexico across the street and a black family on the other side of us. We didn't have to travel but a few feet to get out of our jar of horseradish. I've had pastors admit that their home is a sanctuary from the world and they don't want to engage with their neighbors. I wonder about someone's calling to pastor if they have no desire to reach those who are closest to them. 
7. Befriend a non-believer
Intentionally build a relationship with someone who doesn't know Jesus. Ask a lot of questions and do more listening than talking. Resist the urge to judge or argue about your differences. Look for opportunities to share your story and in no time you'll have long discussions about faith and will understand more about those who don't believe.  Being the salt and light to the world is not conforming to the world. The apostle Paul is a great example to follow in that he knew the value of understanding culture to address it and win people to Christ.  We too must avoid the "Christian bubble" to be salt and light to our world. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Is Your Story in God's Story?

God's story of the creation of the earth and His purpose for his children is being written as you read this. If you are a child of God, you are in the book God is writing and you have your own chapter. You are writing that chapter now, and the experiences you have gone through are in that chapter and they are there to prepare you for the rest of the book, yet to be written. 
Why is this important?  Because the story of your life and how God has reconciled you is unique and significant. People need to hear your story because it represents the power of Christ, of what He has done and what He will do in the future. 

You may have grown up with two Christian parents like me and you think your story of becoming a follower of Christ to be rather boring. But I would bet there are some significant events that shaped your faith that are unique to you.  From the victories to the trials and heartbreaks of life, each experience has probably had some kind of relationship to your faith. Even though my story does not include a spectacular conversion, I look back and see significant events that chronicle a relationship with Jesus.
For me, I grew up with a thorough understanding of God's law because I had Christian parents but I had no clue about God's grace. It wasn't until I was invited to church by a high school friend that I began to learn about the grace of God. It was at this small church in West Covina, California that I would accept God's grace, become involved in the church for the first time and develop a passion for ministry. I vividly remember exchanging my life for Christ on a mountain side during a weekend church retreat. These four years radically shaped my understanding of God's grace and my purpose for living. Over the years, through my many mission trips and involvement with all kinds of people in ministry, my understanding of God's grace and truth has grown. It's like discovering the universe.  The further you go and the more of it you discover, the deeper it gets. You realize that you have just scratched the surface. 

I remember telling my story to a man from Scotland I was sitting next to on an African Safari. He and his mother were on a vacation of a lifetime and this safari was the highlight. The context of my story was that this Scottish man had been trying out the Mormon religion for a couple of years. I used my story to explain the difference between Christianity and Mormonism. It was a surreal experience because we were on this incredible photo safari, seeing amazing animals but he was more interested in hearing about the grace and love of Jesus Christ. He prayed to receive Christ the following day and I baptized him in a small pool attached to our lodge.  You never know how and when God will use your story to impact someone's life for Christ. 

What is your story?  How often have you shared it with others? There is someone who would benefit from your experience. When given the opportunity, ask someone about their story.  Give them a prompting to share and then share yours also.  You will both be blessed. And if you are not a follower of Jesus yet, God wants to include you in His book of life. Let Him write your chapter by giving your life to Him today!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

God's amazing personal love

I must admit I feel uneasy talking about my "personal" relationship with God. Someone once told me, "John, you would never say when talking about your earthly father, 'I have a 'personal relationship' with my Dad". You'd just say, 'I have a relationship with my Dad'. So why would you need to add 'personal' when describing your relationship with Christ"?  Yes, I guess it is possible to fixate on the personal aspect of our relationship with God to such an extreme that it becomes selfish and possessive. And yet what separates Christianity from the rest of the world's religions is that Christians believe that God is involved intimately with every individual believer. As Galatians 2:20 says, I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. This is what makes God so incredibly great, that our triune God, (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit) has the power to answer individual prayers and work in the lives of every single believer to redeem, transform and glorify them.

I've experienced just how deep and personal God's love for me and others is during my walk with Christ over the years, I've encountered God's love in so many different ways, in every area of my life, all in ways very unique to me. When I needed comforting during a time of grief, He was the great comforter. Time and time again, when I needed strength to make a decision that required risk and courage, God provided inspiration and power.  When I needed words to say to comfort and encourage someone else, God gave me just what to articulate. When I needed to crawl up in His lap and be loved, I felt his presence through scripture, prayer and worship. His love runs deep, to meet our individual needs in every situation. And when a miracle is needed, yes God provides those too.

I remember a time when God provided miraculously during a mission trip to Mexico. Our mission team was working at an orphanage for special needs children run by a pastor in Piedras Negras. During a devotional time, I read a letter written by one of our missionaries overseas that shared how God seemed to always provide exactly what they needed at exactly the right time. I then talked to our team about the sacrifice that this pastor was making and how he had shared with us that this had been a very difficult time financially for his family and the orphanage.  I was about to pray that God would provide for the pastor when my cell phone rang.  I seldom received a signal in Mexico but somehow I had service at this time.  I didn't recognize the number so I thought I'd better take the call and I asked another member of our team to pray while I answered it.

The person on the other end of my phone introduced himself by saying, "you don't know me, but my wife went on one of those mission trips to Piedras Negras with you last year. She was so impressed with the pastor and the orphanage that we committed to giving money to the orphanage if we ever sold our business.  Well, we have just sold it and we want to send you a check for the pastor in Mexico." I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I seldom received a phone call in Mexico and had never ever had someone call and say they wanted to provide for this orphanage. But here was a call answering a prayer at the exact time we were praying for it! 

When I returned to the team and told them, we were all totally amazed and in awe of God and spent the rest of the night praising Him.  God's love is so personal that He knows our every need and provides for us in our very unique ways at just the right time!

For more amazing stories about the miracles of God that I've experienced go to: Miracles on the Mission Field.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Finally a movie Christians can be proud of

I think we all understand the power of the media and entertainment industry has to shape culture.  
So it is not surprising to see more and more movies coming out today with a strong Christian message. We have finally come to realize the potential and started putting money into projects and movies but many faith-based movies are still made on limited budgets and are not accepted by the mainstream critics or attended by much of anyone but believers. Most of those that I've seen, the message was just too in your face or the production way below the multi million dollar standards of the major movies today. Many seem to do the cause of Christ more harm than good.

That is why I was blown away by one movie that is now showing.  Woodlawn is definitely the exception, by far the best movie I've ever seen in a long time.  It is a well produced "Christian" movie without any compromise on the quality or message.  And guess what? The critics actually like it! Over 90% of critics and 91% of audience give it a thumbs up on Rotten Tomatoes.  When has a movie with a strong Chritian message gotten high marks from the mass critics?  

There are several reasons why this movie may be a model for future Gospel centered films.
  • Woodlawn is very well done, a quality production, well acted with well known actors including Jon Voight as Bear Bryant and Sean Astin (Lord of The Rings).  The money was spent to produce a movie that would rival top box office films knowing that if they could produce a movie that was in the top 25 of the year, it would be seen all over the world and thereby its message would be communicated to hundreds of thousands of people.
  • Its message is one that is very relevant to today (Overcoming racial violence and hatred).  Woodlawn sheds light on the turmoil during the integration of an all white high school in Birmingham, Alabama in 1973. It tells the story of how a football team and a chaplain helped unite a team, school and city.  We see history through the eyes of Tony Nathan, a young black student struggling to overcome racism to prove himself on the school's football team. (Tony goes on to become a successful running back for the Miami Dolphins.)
  • The drama is compelling and the story is uplifting.  Woodlawn will move you, inform, entertain, but most of all inspire you, because it is a story of how a team, school and city united to overcome racism and bigotry in the south.   
  • Although Gospel centric, it avoids taking any particular political side.  It tells the story and lets the events speak for themselves, trying to portray historical figures accurately. Therefore it does not alienate half of its potential audience. 
  • The story is true.  The movie is directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin. Their father Hank Erwin was the team chaplain portrayed by Sean Astin in the movie.  The characters are real and the story is factual and often times in God's kingdom, truth is more amazing than fiction. That is the case with Woodlawn. 
Take your family and friends (older children), go see it with your Life group, and take an unbeliever. It's message is one that we all need to hear, one that can transform our hearts and heal our nation!  

Watch the trailer here. http://woodlawnmovie.com/

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Real God-sized Vision Coming To Fruition

I've met and read about many Christians who have accomplished amazing things like starting a church, opening an orphanage, bringing the Gospel to and transforming a neighborhood, many in the most difficult of places, wonderful deeds that could have been accomplished only with God's power. But this vision, to bring a source of clean water to every man, woman and child in an African country, along with the Gospel, within a few years, now that is a real God-sized vision! And not just any country, but to one of the most corrupt and impoverished countries in the world at that, by an outsider with little or no connection to the country, any government agency or large source of funding. Sound crazy?

But guess what, this wild, implausible God-sized idea is on the verge of being fulfilled! What most people thought a pipe dream, a crazy idea of a idealistic Christian, is close to halfway to becoming a reality and should be realized by 2020.

Liberia, a country on the west coast of Africa, established by Americans in the early 1800's, is the country.  Todd Phillips, a Texas pastor, is the man with the vision of bringing "living water" by the year 2020 to this African country plagued by water borne diseases because of internal wars, poverty and corruption.
I attended the premier of a movie entitled Thirst: Mission Liberia, Sunday night in Austin that documents Todd's vision and the incredible story of how this is being accomplished through Todd's non-profit organization, The Last Well. I'm especially excited about the project because of my connection to Todd, which goes back to 1994 just after he committed his life to Christ and moved from Colorado to Austin. I was the Minister to Single Adults at Hyde Park Baptist at the time, and had the privilege to mentor and disciple him during the first years of his Christian life.
A couple of years after Todd moved to Austin I was working with other Christian leaders in the area to get a singles city wide weeknight gathering started in Austin. We needed a speaker but could not settle on anyone. I saw something in Todd, a passion for Christ, charisma and a drive. He was a young Christian so there was a hesitancy to hand him the leadership. But he had started a Bible study at Dell and had grown it to over 40 people, so I thought we'd give it a go with Todd as our speaker. We began on a Thursday night with 12 people and within a couple of years with Todd's leadership and speaking, grew to over 700 single adults meeting every Tuesday night. 

Phillips went on to pastor a young adult church for several years in the Washington D.C. suburbs where his God-sized vision of bringing water to a whole nation was birthed. He explained that these young adults were inspired by the movie Amazing Grace and wanted to achieve a "William Wilberforce accomplishment" - something akin to ending the slave trade in England.  So with prayer and inspiration they came up with the idea of providing clean water and the Gospel to an entire nation, one that is on the list of the most needy countries in the world.
I was truly inspired by Thirst: Mission Liberia following the trials, obstacles and setbacks that Todd and his organization have had to overcome and the incredible victories. Through it all, you can see the hand of God every step of the way as they have already provided clean water wells (over 1,000 to date)  and the Gospel to almost half of Liberia and are well on their way to bringing "living water" to the entire country by his goal of 2020.

Besides being amazed at the scope of the task, these are some of the takeaways I received from the film: 
  • I often settle for good when God can accomplish much greater things through me. Ephesians 2:10
  • You can not accomplish great things without God and without others. You must make connections and develop relationships. 
  • God uses the most heartbreaking and discouraging events to help us accomplish His tasks. When you get discouraged, take heart that the trial you face may actually be the path to victory. 
  • Don't get distracted from God's calling. There are a lot of needs in the world and Africa, but Todd has stayed firm to accomplishing the two things he feels called to do in a specific place, knowing many other good things will follow if these are accomplished.
  • You never know the impact you will have on those whom you mentor and disciple. The one you lead to Christ might be the next Billy Graham. 
Watch the trailer here. Thirst: Mission Liberia 


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Cost Of Wearing The Pastoral Mask

photo from the-love-compass.com
Pastor Steve was on the brink of an emotional and physical breakdown. His health was not good and as he lay in a hospital bed after going through some tests, his mind traveled back to that first interview, fresh out of seminary, sitting nervously in a small church. Steve had heard that the church had been on a slow decline for the previous 5 years and had been searching for a pastor for over a year. He recalled how he sat wearing his best suit, displaying his super pastor image for a search committee of 7 elderly members, the remnant that held the church together. 

During the meeting, the committee had laid out their expectations: They wanted a man who could preach great sermons that would bring in lots of new converts. He was to lead the church in creating ministry opportunities, pastor the flock by visiting the sick and burying those who pass from this world. He was expected to bring in money to get the church out of debt. They counted on him to be a great teacher and administrator and of course, be above reproach and the example of what a true Christian should be and do. Steve convinced the church he was their man in that meeting and the church wanted to believe that this young man was God's choice and therefore would meet all of their expectations. 

For the past 7 years Steve had been wearing that same image. Looking back, he now wished he would never have put on the super pastor mask. He was worn out trying to live up to all of those expectations and felt foolish that he really believed he could do all of those things well.  He was ashamed and felt guilty of living a lie for the past 7 years as their pastor.  He felt like a failure in so many areas.

Steve was a good preacher and worked hard to please his members and to grow the church but it left him little time to handle the rest of his responsibilities.  Pastoring an elderly congregation, there always seemed to be a need to visit someone in the hospital or prepare for a funeral. He was a terrible administrator, he hated details but the church didn't have the budget to hire someone to handle the financial and business aspects of the church. 

Steve's family and marriage suffered because he just didn't have the time to give what they needed. He was working 6 days and 5 nights a week and there always seemed to be an emergency or meeting on his supposedly free nights. His spiritual life was running on fumes also. He knew things needed to change but what could he do? Admit that he was a failure, that he was a poser all this time as a pastor?
Coaching pastors, I find that Steve is not unique, unfortunately his situation is more of the norm. *This is the time most pastors begin to look for a way out, either leaving the pastorate all together or finding another church where they often begin the cycle all over again.  Steve was different. He broke down on a Sunday evening service and shared about his health and that he needed a break. He came clean about his feelings and guess what?  The congregation stepped up and agreed to take stuff off of his plate.  They seemed to understand and encouraged him to take a sabbatical in order to get healthy before returning.   
The problem is not all the fault of pastors. The American evangelical church has created the notion of super pastor that comes with unrealistic expectations and job descriptions. The truth is that most believers expect their pastor to have all five ministry giftings of the Holy Spirit; apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher. But very rarely does any one person have three of the five much less all of them.   Most pastors excel in one and they try to manage the rest as best as they can. But before long you'll begin to hear the chatter among members, "Our pastor is a great evangelist but he is such a lousy pastor." Or, "our pastor is such a great shepherd but I wish he could preach!"

So how do we address the problem? What could Steve have one differently from the start?  Here are seven ways that may help a pastor avoid Steve's problem.  I'd love to hear any other suggestions also.  
  1. Squelch the perception that the pastor is a super Christian. Two issues here are pride and expectations.  If a pastor never puts on the super pastor mask, he won't have to live up to it. There may be pressure to impress a church to get hired, but if you have to be "Jesus" to get the job, you don't want that job.  Be yourself from the start by being authentic and showing vulnerability. Talk about your strengths and your weaknesses, your struggles and failures. Remind the members over and over that you are not a "super Christian" but a human who sins and fails from time to time. I can only grow and succeed by the power, mercy and grace of Jesus. Stay grounded and resist the urge to be put on a pedestal.  
  2. Take the ministry seriously but don't take yourself too seriously.  Joke about yourself and the boneheaded mistakes you make. Help others identify with you.  
  3. Lead by casting a vision of unity and teamwork. Constantly remind the members that the church (members) should engage the world as a team.  The pastor usually plays the role of quarterback but unless everyone functions in unity doing their part, the church's goals and expectations will not be met.  
  4. Set firm boundaries with your time for your own devotion, your family and free time. Communicate up front with your leadership the importance of those boundaries. Call on your leadership to hold you accountable to keeping those boundaries. Stand firm!
  5. Work together with your leadership team to define your church's specific values.  Post those in a lot of places, preach about them, recognize and reward those who live out your values.     
  6. Delegate, delegate and then delegate some more.  Give as much ministry away so that you as pastor can focus on leading, casting vision, and using whatever ministry gift that God has given you.
  7. Don't isolate yourself.  Find a group of pastors from other churches that you can meet regularly with to play, pray and discuss your common problems. Make friends outside of your church that will allow you to get away from the business of your church.
*Average tenure for pastors at any one church is 5-7 years. http://www.gbjournal.org/8-82/
Here are other blog posts concerning this issue:

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Miracles Continue at Honduras Orphanage

Living Water Children's Ranch, Honduras
This is an update on my post on my blog, Miracles on the Mission Field, about the miracles God has provided as we tried to build an orphanage in Honduras. You can read the fascinating story of its beginning here.  Since I wrote that blog, God has continued to bless our efforts and bring the ministry in Honduras to fruition and it has been fascinating to watch and see the hand of God in the process. 
Teresa Devlin, the missionary who helped find and secure the property and get the building built passed away in the fall of 2012.  She had suffered from scleroderma for years and became very sick in June of that year and had to be flown back to San Antonio.  She never fully recovered and went to be with God in October of 2012.
Teresa had been concerned for years about who would succeed her and be the one to oversee the orphanage. Two weeks before Teresa became ill, a young woman from Arkanas, Jennifer Zilly who had been referred to Teresa by a friend, flew down to Honduras to spend some time with Teresa in order to get a feel of the ministry and to see if working along side of her was a possibility.  
Jennifer, Darwin and 5 of the children at the ranch
That plan quickly changed while she was there, as Teresa became sick. With the timing of her visit, and Teresa having to leave Honduras, Jennifer was suddenly faced with a decision. Do I return to the states and forget about this opportunity or do I stay? She felt as if her timing was God's and that she was left to further Teresa's ministry. So instead of flying back home like most would have done, Jennifer stayed in Honduras and began to adjust and learn the Honduran ways. This young American, right out of college, found a job coaching girls basketball in La Ceiba, Honduras and made herself part of the community (that there was even a coaching position open is a miracle and another story).  Fairly quickly Jennifer adapted and over the year she began to pick up Teresa's ministry.
Today Jennifer is married to a wonderful Honduran young man, Darwin who was Teresa's main instructor at her music conservatory. They now live at and oversee the Living Water Children's Ranch, the orphanage we had been working to establish for several years. 
It hasn't been easy but they have 7 children living at the home now. The process of securing children for the orphanage is difficult and sometimes drawn out because they have to work with and through the Honduran government. So they take the children that God provides and wait for the next one.
Doing their schoolwork
What has been incredible is all of the ministry that they have started for the children and the neighbors around them.  Not only are they raising the orphans, but they have also started a school on the property for children in the neighborhood.  Darwin continues to teach music to children and oversee the music conservatory. And they have recently started a weekly Bible study for the families in the neighborhood with a surprising number attending. 

Jennifer is a prolific writer and she chronicles in a real and personal way their struggles with these very difficult children in this third world country.  She doesn't gloss over the ministry and you'll get a great up close and personal view of life as a missionary by reading her blog.
The interesting thing about the transition from Teresa Devlin to Jennifer Zilly was that I along with a mission team from San Antonio, met Jennifer that spring in Honduras during Jennifer's initial visit to meet Teresa. We didn't know how serious Jennifer was about moving to Honduras and working with Teresa, but most all of the team members did not think that Jennifer would be the permanent replacement for Teresa.  
However we were not in a position to make that decision, thank God, and a few weeks later we suddenly needed a person to fill in for Teresa and Jennifer was there.  We realized that she was God's choice!  
Darwin directing his choir
Jennifer is completely different from Teresa, in age, personality, life experience, etc., but what each have in common is a heart for God. Jennifer has turned out to be an incredible self starter, who has stayed as close to the word of God in her words and actions as most anyone I have ever met. She needs our prayers every day to continue the incredibly difficult and demanding work in Honduras. She has fought illness, difficult living conditions, an apathetic, uneducated and Godless people in which to minister.  In spite of all of this, Jennifer and Darwin are committed to reaching this community for Christ, and raising children with the knowledge of Christ so that they may choose an eternal home in His kingdom and may live productive, fulfilling and Godly lives as an adult.  
It is beyond my comprehension how God has provided every time we hit a wall with this project.  And not only did He provide, but God gave us more than we even imagined every single time.  So yes, I'm learning to accept God's will, wait on His timing and not try to control the process. He is infinitely wiser than his children.  Go here to read about the first children at the orphanage.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

How Katrina dramatically changed a Texas church

10 years ago, Austin Christian Fellowship, a large congregation in an affluent area of west Austin, had big plans.  Their big vision was to raise enough money to build a 4,000 seat worship auditorium on a hill, the highest point in west Austin.  It would face Austin and the congregation would have a beautiful view of the hill country and the skyline of Austin, making it the premiere church of Austin, Texas. 

But a hurricane changed all of that. Hurricane Katrina came nowhere near Austin, but Austin felt the impact as hundreds of the New Orleans residents that were displaced from their homes by Katrina were bused into Austin. Most of those sent to Austin were housed in the Austin convention center, and churches all over Austin began to offer aid. AFC Pastor Will Davis, during a sermon this summer, told about how Austin Christian Fellowship responded and how it radically changed him and the church. 

ACF was one of several churches that worked with the city and state officials in a coordinated effort to provide basic essentials for those displaced by Katrina. But Will explained that he felt God telling him to become personally involved.  So he went to the convention center and found a displaced family from New Orleans and took them to dinner. The encounter moved Will to such an extent that ACF not only helped the family find housing but assisted 20 other families also.  The whole experience radically changed the pastor, the leadership and the congregation's mindset for missions and passion to serve. 

At the time of Katrina, Pastor Will explained, ACF was giving about 1% of its budget to missions, local or global. This encounter so changed the mindset of the staff, leadership and congregation that the "big vision" of building a giant auditorium now seemed very small. That goal of building a massive worship center was replaced by a vision of serving their community and planting churches. Instead of growing vertically, ACF would make its impact through missions and growing God's kingdom horizontally. Since the encounter with the refugees of hurricane Katrina, the church has increased its giving every year to where they now give over 50% of their annual budget to local and global missions. They are planting churches throughout the city and sending mission teams all over the world. 
Isn't it amazing how God uses many things, events, people, and even a hurricane, to change hearts, minds and attitudes? Whether you are a pastor, deacon or member, perhaps the greatest way to change yourself and your world is to take a step of faith and join God in what he is doing.  When you "go" incredible things happen.  Go here to watch Will's entire sermon as he shares the story of how Katrina changed him and the church.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

How Do I Smell To Others?

I happened upon a new reality TV show the other night while channel surfing. I admit I gravitate to the competition reality shows the most and this was a competition to see who would be the next weather personality. Don't laugh, this one episode actually was pretty entertaining for me because one of the contestants was a young pastor.  I was curious to see how he performed and how others perceived him. 
It turned out that the young pastor was the central figure of the show as his over-the-top personality irritated all of the other contestants. The contestants were divided into two teams for a competition and this young pastor just took over the team acting as self appointed leader. It was as if he had taken an intense course in leadership the day before and he was going to use every leadership quote, inspirational charge and team building concept he learned all in one setting. But his manner was way too contrived and he ended up looking like some sort of a cartoon character.

I could understand his motive but the way he went about it was akin to what the apostle Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13:1if I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.  This is a great description of how the pastor sounded to his team members and sure enough when they lost the team competition, the pastor was chosen as one of two competing to see who was going to be sent home.

In an interesting twist, the pastor chose not to compete, actually volunteering to go home and sacrificing his opportunity so that the person he was competing against could keep his dream of becoming a weather personality alive. It was an admirable decision but left everyone scratching their heads. Because the pastor seemed to try so hard, it came across as contrived and insincere and he lost whatever he was trying to accomplish.

The Bible tells us in 2 Corinthians 2:15 that we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  Verse 17 says, Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.  

I've always thought that the most important self check is to take a sniff of our own aroma from time to time. Unfortunately, too often Christians' odor is more of a stench than the fragrance of Christ. How do you smell to other non-believers? Am I giving off a sweet aroma of sincerity and love or do I come across as a self-serving jerk, sounding like a loud gong or a clanging cymbal to others?  It's hard to know unless you ask your friends or fellow believers to give you a true assessment. You probably will never get a chance to see yourself on television and make that assessment yourself like this pastor.  
We may all be taken more seriously if we lived our lives with sincerity and love. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Big Kingdom vs little kingdom vision

Joe is a young adult pastor of a large church overseeing small groups and discipleship of adults. He has been on staff for five years and seen steady growth in his ministry in numbers of new members and numbers of small groups. He has felt God's calling to pastor a church since he gave his life to Christ and the desire to plant has been percolating for a couple of years. 
He decides he needs to share his feelings about planting with his senior pastor. Joe is exited and nervous about the meeting. He believes the pastor will be glad to hear that he will be starting a new congregation and believes the pastor will support his decision because he has often preached on the great commission.
However, when told, the pastor is very disappointed that Joe is considering leaving the church to plant another church. The pastor begins to distance himself from Joe and then tells Joe he must be gone by the end of the week saying the elders had come to this decision. He gives Joe no support to start another church, either money or emotional.  Joe now is heartbroken, angry and feels guilty about leaving and taking any close ministry friends with him.  So he starts one of the most difficult tasks there is, planting a church, somewhat disillusioned with the church and having little to no support.  

As a coach for church planters I have had numerous pastors share experiences much like this.  What is behind this attitude of pastors?  Why would a pastor or elder board not support someone on their staff that feels God calling them to grow the kingdom outside their own church?  It boils down to a little kingdom vision instead of having a vision to grow God's Kingdom.  When a pastor has a limited vision it leads to several negative traits.
  • Possessiveness  (My church is all that matters, so we must not let anything distract us from growing our church)
  • Control (We don't want our members going outside of our church for information or inspiration because we have all the answers)
  • Limits spiritual growth of the pastor, staff, leadership and members of the church.  
  • Limits numeric growth of the church (It's God's economy, the more you give the greater you will grow)
  • Limits mission involvement outside of the mother church (The cost is too great to send people and do missions overseas)
  • Limits opportunity to multiply 
When everything in your world is only about your church, losing a staff member hurts, especially one that is popular and does a good job. It is natural to want to keep good talent, just like any business would hate to lose a good employee. But if we have an interest in the individual and a big kingdom mindset, we will encourage our staff to grow and expand wherever they feel God calling them to serve.  

Even some businesses have a less possessive attitude about their employees than many churches. The San Antonio Spurs are a great example of an organization that is not possessive and only concerned about their team. They consistently encourage their best and most talented coaches to step up to better coaching positions on other teams. I blogged about the Spurs management style here. It should not be all about my church. It's about God's Kingdom and helping people become all they can be in Christ. If that means you have to search for a new staff member, so be it. Our purpose is to grow people and thus grow God's Kingdom to glorify Him.  

All it takes is a change in one's perspective from small kingdom to large Kingdom. When your purpose is enlarged, you can start to intentionally train church planters and start churches. You can train missionaries and celebrate when church members move away to serve on the mission field, start a new church or serve another church.  You'll be able to unburden yourself with "closing the back door", and not be so disappointed and hurt over families that leave your church.  Yes, when you start giving your members away instead of controlling and holding on to them, you will be surprised at how your church will grow people, your church and the Kingdom of God.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The life cycle of a church: Is your church a movement, monument, museum, or morgue?

James Shupp has recently published an interesting and informative novel, Who Killed My Church, about a dying church and its pastor's last efforts to turn it around. This is a fictional story yet you'll recognize the problems as the plight of hundreds of churches across the country.  And Shupp writes from his own experience as a pastor of a once mega church trying to reclaim its glory and significance in the community. 

With humor and great storytelling, Shupp takes the reader through the fictional Green Street Baptist's struggle to reclaim its purpose and mission.  If you have been involved in a church for any time at all, you'll probably swear Shupp used members of your church as his characters and just changed their names. 

In the story, the church hires a consultant to help the leadership come up with a plan to revive their church.  Shupp lays out the seasons of a church, starting as a movement, slipping into a monument, then becoming a museum and finally dying at the morgue stage. As the consultant cleverly explains this to the leadership of Green Street Baptist,
"All churches that began as a movement have a way of getting stuck in a moment.  When this occurs, they transform into monuments that do little more than honor the past.  Nostalgia can roll through a house of worship like a heat wave on a summer day.  A church that collects too many of these monuments ultimately becomes a museum.  There are pastors and staff all across America who feel more like curators of a museum than men and women of God with a fire in their bones.  If this trend isn’t reversed, these churches will ultimately become morgues.  The frozen chosen are always the last ones to turn out the lights.  Don’t let this happen to you.”

I've experienced the slow transition from movement to monument while on staff of churches and have coached churches that were in the museum stage. So I can attest that although the book is fictional, the the story is relevant, compelling and inspirational.

Check out the chart from the book, Who Killed My Church? See if you can identify which season your church is in.  If your church is a monument or museum can you return to being a movement?  If so, how?  See how it's done in this wonderful book, Who Killed My Church?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The "Out Of This World" Spurs Way

There is a lot of buzz about how the San Antonio Spurs can get their players to sign contracts that are well below market value.  Danny Green, the Spurs sharp shooting 3 point and defensive specialist, was asked why he made the decision to sign such a reduced contract with the Spurs. He replied calmly that he didn't think he took less, that he believed he signed for what he was worth. One analyst commented that he thought the Spurs brainwashed their players. 
Although he said it tongue in cheek, the commentator is right that the Spurs' way is totally contrary to most NBA teams. Obviously the Spurs are a first class organization and many players relish the opportunity to play for coach Pop. And having the opportunity to get a championship ring is also a real sugar stick. But I think the Spurs culture is the real driving force for those who have chosen to play for the Spurs at a reduced salary. It takes an athlete with certain principles and values to sacrifice millions of dollars. And the Spurs don't have to brainwash players because they find players who have the character and values that are compatible with the Spurs ways. So you won't find prima donnas and chest-thumping, trash-talking Spurs. And yet maybe the best test of whether a player would fit the Spurs is if they are willing to sacrifice millions to play for them.  

Walking away from millions of dollars like Tim Duncan, Danny Green and David West is almost unheard of in most any profession today. Granted, these guys have still made their millions but it takes a very special person to basically say that making millions more is not the driving force in their lives, that there is something greater and more valuable than money.  That's difficult for most athletes because the media, fans and peers measure them by the amount of money they make. Most get their significance by comparing their salaries with other players, and demanding compensatory salary. 

I'm reminded of someone in the Bible who sacrificed untold riches also.  Hebrews 11:24-26 describes how Moses refused the world's riches and chose to be a Jewish slave instead of Egyptian royalty. Moses refused the world's value system, the same value system that we now have.
1.Power and prestige
Instead of all of these, Moses chose his Hebrew heritage and slavery.

Now I'm not comparing any of the Spurs players to Moses. But it is refreshing to hear anyone putting the team, others, or family ahead of the almighty dollar. It seldom happens but when it does, you know that the player has a very different set of values. Moses was able to say no to royalty because as verse 26 says, he was looking ahead to his reward. Moses' goal, purpose, and vision were "counter to this world". David Robinson and Avery Johnson set the "out of this world" Spurs culture.  Then Duncan and Popovich cultivated and refined that culture to what now is the Spurs way.  It is different and so refreshing. I'm proud to be a Spurs fan!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Doing it Jesus' way the counterculture path

I always find it interesting to hear celebrities speak out in public about their faith in Jesus Christ. Many avoid getting too deep into their lifestyle. Russell Wilson is one athlete who does not shy away from his personal life and how he puts his faith into practice. The Seattle Seahawks quarterback shares a lot about his faith in this interview at a church in San Diego and how he lives it out, including his his relationship with his girlfriend.  
Wilson declares that he is taking the lead in their relationship and doing it "Jesus' way." I find it ironic how counterculture his stand is today when just a few years ago we were promoting the "just say no" campaign.  Go here to watch the whole interview. His discussion about his relationship with his girlfriend is about the 25 minute mark in the interview. 

Christians need to get used to the idea that our lifestyle as followers of Christ will not be the popular way.  We will have many decisions to make along the way, choosing between the righteous way or the popular choice. When we make the choice to live the "Jesus way", the Bible says we are living by faith, exercising our faith and trust in that way.  Hebrews gives us the examples of those who lived by faith, making the decisions to follow God and not the world.  

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Reaching The Millennial And Why This Millennial Stayed In The Church

Millenials gather for a game at Topgolf 

I had a great conversation recently with several young pastors who have started churches that are reaching Millenials. These church planters were either of the Millenial generation or just a bit older. I wanted to hear how they were reaching the Millenials today and what it is that motivates the Millennial to seek after God.

The pastors all agreed that the Millennial craves community. A large portion of twenty-something adults have not had great, authentic family experiences so they want to experience family and community. These pastors agreed that for the church to reach Millennials, it must provide community for them or they will not stick. The problem voiced by one pastor is that often when the church tries to create community it comes across as fake or inauthentic. For Millenials, community happens naturally.

A good example of a business that is thriving because it is reaching Millenials is Top Golf. They have taken the traditional game of golf and put it into a structure that is more conducive to groups that create community much like bowling. Where golf has been more of an individual sport, now through Top Golf it becomes a group experience which appeals to the Millennial.

The young church planters went on to say that churches must also allow Millennials to question why we believe and why we act the way we do. Millennials need to be able to ask questions without fear or rejections. Their world view is not a biblical world view like ours. They have been taught a secular world view so we must be patient and listen to them and understand their perspective. They tend to be more liberal so if the church focuses a lot on politics and trying to persuade members to be more conservative, instead of focusing on the Gospel, the Millennials will drift away.

They can be biblically illiterate also. We can't assume they even know the basics of Christianity. One pastor commented about how he had to explain where Christmas originated to a young girl. She did not even know that it was a holiday celebrating Jesus' birth.

Millennials also want their faith to be practical and integrated into their everyday life.  That is why the Missional model appeals to them. They will accept a challenge and respond well to activism. They won't stay long at your church unless they are challenged to put their faith into action. Coming to worship to be entertained will not sustain them. 

This is a quote from an excellent blog post by Ryan Cole on why he stayed in the church,  Statistics show that Millennials are are not interested in work and life balance; they are interested in work and life INTEGRATION. The same is true about their faith. They don’t just wanna show up on Sunday if they have not integrated their LIFE >> WORK >> and FAITH together as one!
So a church must do these three things to reach the Millennial, 
  • Provide authentic community
  • Give a solid explanation of the Good News and how and why it changes the way we live our lives 
  • Focus on and involve them in the mission of God
I suggest this should be the goal for every person attending your church, not just Millenials. But it is especially essential to reach the twenty-something's. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Are the church wars coming to an end?

In the four decades after WW2, religion in America resembled more of a horse race than a dynamic disciple making force. At its peak in the 70's and 80's, churches competed and battled each other to see who could be the biggest and most influential church in the city.  Blame it on the good old American competitive spirit, but today many Christians would look at this competitive motivation as sinful, selfish and off base. It's interesting to look back and see what brought on all this competition between churches.

After WW2, soaring birth rates, economic good times and a focus on normalcy and family converged to create a religious culture in America. Most Americans identified as Christians and so as new neighborhoods sprang up in suburbs all over America, new churches were in high demand. Denominations began building churches and adding the believers to their roles particularly in these suburbs. The process was simple, sort of the "you build it and they will come" method. You found land in a new area of growth, built a building, put a pastor in place, promoted your church brand, opened your doors and waited for the folks to come. The idea was that the better you advertised and better you did church, the larger your church would be.

Churches were in essence, a business and we were in the business of getting people in our church and money to meet our budgets. We operated like businesses and other churches were our competition. Ironically, churches within our own denomination were our biggest competition. I was on staff of one of the largest churches in the city during the 80's when we heard that a pastor of another church in our city had proclaimed that his goal was to bury us! His motivation for ministry was to have bragging rights as the biggest church in town. There was even a constant bantering by the pastors who openly criticized other churches and pastors from the pulpit.  And these were pastors from the same denomination!  Church wars were in full force.  

Evangelism was our cry but what really drove us was our desire to win the church wars and rise above all other churches. Some strategies were less subtle than others. My church had a high attendance day three times a year. Something just didn't set with me that we would be motivated to bring our friends to church to set a record!  Yet it seemed to work because we always had a big attendance on those days. 

This competition between churches seems to be coming to an end but as recent as three years ago I still noticed an almost paranoia about churches taking members away. I coached a pastor who had a great church facility in a prime location in a fast growing bedroom community of a major city. He had a declining attendance for three consecutive years and pointed the blame on the other churches in town. He bemoaned that it was difficult to grow because there was a new church plant in almost every public space in town. I asked him if he did a house to house survey of the neighborhood, how many of those families would be going to church on a regular basis. He admitted that probably one in four or five at best would be church goers. So I asked him, "What if you focused on those who weren't going to church, wouldn't there be plenty in that pond and more than enough to go around?"  I had to convince him that the other churches were not the enemy.  

As our religious culture has changed resulting in fewer Americans going to church, churches are focusing more on reaching the "nones" rather than competing with other churches over Christians. Part of the reason new churches are planting as non-denominational or without the denomination in their church name is to reach those who have been alienated from church.  Our enemy is not other churches who steal our members but the evil one who is drawing people away from God and the church!

So now as pastors have set their sights on the real enemy, instead of looking at the churches in their city as competitors, pastors are beginning to see other churches as partners in the real battle to restore faith to the next generations.  Sure there are still a lot of Christians who church hop and churches are still concerned about "closing the back door", but there seems to be an authentic spirit of cooperation now much more than competition.  

One great example is the Christ Together movement, networking with other churches of all denominations in their city to reach their city for Christ. In Christ Together Austin there are over 300 participating churches of all denominations working together ao that every man, woman and child multiple opportunities to see, hear and respond to the Gospel.  i wrote about it and some other examples of churches working together in my post about the new church culture.  Maybe churches are taking Jesus' pray for unity in John 17:20-23 to heart.

Go here to read about the Christ Together Austin movement of God to unite the church for a Kingdom purpose.  

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Yes, I too changed my identity!

Identity- Who Am I?

With so much of the buzz about Bruce Jenner, one of America's greatest athletes choosing to become a woman and Rachel Dolezal, a white female who says she identifies as a black female, identity change is a hot topic. During all this discussion, I was reminded of the day in which I too changed my identity.

It happened when I was a teenager. I was pretty much consumed with self and my identity was in baseball and other things until I gave my heart and life to Jesus and exchanged my identity with that of Jesus'.  As Galatians 2:20 says, "My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."  

I can't address the morality of one who chooses to change genders or the rationality of trying to identify with a race in which you are not. These are serious psychological and maybe physiological issues for the experts to debate. I do know that what becomes our identity, including ideologies, people groups, past failure or material things, can determine our lifestyle and actions.

When I became a follower of Christ, I became his child and my identity changed and with that my lifestyle, actions, and the way I saw the world. My identity is made up of many things, gender, race, vocation, marriage, family. But above all of those is my identification with Jesus Christ which sets my purpose and course for life. May I always choose to live from that identity before anything else.  Maybe in all this discussion about identity we can include what identity in Christ is all about.
Click here to view a short video that explains very well identity in Christ.  Identity in Christ

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