Tag Archives: Church

People Pleasing Pastor

I’ve never been one to overtly seek to people please, but I certainly do like to be liked and would love to be loved. I just don’t want that to be a part of my reputation. Let me tell you a secret that’s not really much of one, though. We pastors have to be people pleasers to a degree or our churches will be empty. We have to be political. We cannot always, or even usually, be candid. Why? I don’t know why I’m telling you what you already know. People don’t want the truth, even the ones who say they do. They want an image. They want their existing beliefs and prejudices reinforced. The speaker who can do that well will have a large listening audience.

I have tried to please people. I have tried to please everyone in my church. I have done a bad job. Our church was started to reach people who don’t go to church. That can be young or old, but early on we had a ministry to youth, largely. As the church has matured we have attracted older people, and I’ve sought to make this an environment to, well, please them.

Our band can be loud, so I sought to control the volume by building a room for the drummer. I led our church to purchase nice carpet to replace the old, chairs to replace the ancient theater seats that were once bolded to the floor. I’ve tried to have services at various times: early Sunday, Saturday evening. We’ve done campaigns by Rick Warren, which some of the people I was trying to please disliked. Nothing works. The people I’ve sought to keep happy aren’t and do not stay. I just don’t have what it takes to keep them.

I’m not from the South. I’m not a Texan. I’m not married. I don’t have kids. I preach too long. I don’t know, but, obviously, when we keep losing people to larger and/or established churches (ironic since our church is nearly 15 now). There are times when I’m ready to move back out West. Start another church. Leave the ministry altogether. I don’t know. I just want to do God’s will, and I’m tired of trying to please these people!

Stuff happens. In any human community, and that includes churches, there are conflicts, issues to resolve, feelings to assuage. What gets old is the tendency to blame the pastor for all of it. We do this with leaders. Look at how people seem to believe that the President of the U. S. A. is somehow to blame for all of the nations problems. You might be surprised at how little the man can actually do. As leaders we must take responsibility, however. We have to try to solve problems, but that doesn’t mean we are the problem. Now, that doesn’t mean I have no issues or am not a contributor to difficulties. I try not to be. I want to help, not cause or exacerbate problems.

I have come to the conclusion that I cannot please everyone. There are people who are intractable, incorrigible, and implacable. There are also great people who just don’t agree with me, or like me, or who perpetually take me the wrong way. I have to accept that and love them anyhow. I have to allow that some will join our church and then will eventually chose to go somewhere else.

Now, will that conclusion (that I cannot possibly please everyone) stop me from trying? I hope so. I’m not giving myself permission to be unkind to people, nor am I validating a self-centered approach to relationships. Love must be the basis for every human relationship. I will seek to love people. However, love doesn’t mean I must always try to do what makes others happy. Love means doing what’s best for others, even if I don’t like it: even if they don’t like it. “Love rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6), so I must be willing to tell the truth to others, although that’s painful to them and to me at times.
“I am what I am by the grace of God, and his grace toward me was not without effect” (1 Corinthians 15:10). I’m not Super Pastor. I’m just Pastor D. I’ll be me. I’ll let Christ do his work through my personality. I’ll keep learning and growing and changing where I need to become more Christlike. But I’m going to stop trying be someone or something I’m not, even if that means my church never gains MEGA status.

 

American Samsara

The ruins of my civilization

are burning,

and I am bleeding

from wounds inflicted by friends

and sons, and sons of hell

who sit in church pews and pray

for things to go well.

It is Jabez’s prayer

for them to prosper and be in health,

even as their souls

that long for worldly wealth.

They sing praise to their gods

Mamon, Baal and Ashtoreth,

and they mate

with the perfect mate

to make beautiful offspring,

whose spirits will be fed

to the gods that led

their parents to copulate.

Then the cycle of American samsara

begins again…

But I have found Nirvana:

no, not heaven,

not even paradise,

but in truth.

I have seen the Matrix,

and I have escaped to reality.

I was blind but now I see

the picture within the gaudy frame.

It is the perfect speciman

of a man who stands

confidantly upon a rock

overlooking the sea,

a multitude of this Prince’s people

all gathered in a valley.

Waves of orgy undulate

as these noble cannibals mutilate

and consume one another raw,

while the Prince of light

peals back his lips to bare his stunning white

teeth in a brilliant smile.

(written circa 2001)

Vindication, Part 8, Popularity and Brokenness

This is the eighth chapter in a series about 21 years of overcoming conflict and opposition as I’ve tried to learn how to minister and speak the truth in Garland, Texas. You can read the first seven parts at www.deorl.wordpress.com or in my notes on www.Facebook.com/deorl.

 

I don’t want to sound jaded or cynical, but so much of what I see in regard to church and ministry may be explained by the politics of the playground. You remember elementary school, right? Actually, this applies to school all the way through college, but the playground is a seedbed and an accessible example. Starting in kindergarten there are popular and unpopular kids, as well as many in the middle. Those in the middle determine who is popular by virtue of whom they decide to follow. 

 

There was a game that was often played when I was in grade school that illustrates this. A group of kids would join hands and walk shoulder to shoulder through the playground chanting, “Hey, hey, get out of my way, I just got back from the USA!” The group grew when other kids joined it by taking the hand of a member at either end of the chorus line. If the kids at both ends thought you had cooties or something, then you didn’t get to join that group. There were usually competing groups marching around and chanting loudly. Sometimes two groups would stand opposite one another and battle by screaming, perhaps bumping each other. A kid or two might join an opposing group, usually because it was larger, or had more popular people in it. The larger groups gained members quickly, while the smaller groups grew more slowly or simply disbanded (some or all of their members joining a larger group).  Many people like to be a part of something big.

 

None of these groups was spontaneous; someone started each one by recruiting the first members, then marching and chanting to advertise for more. I’m sure you’ve already jumped ahead to my intended application. Churches are really no different than these chorus lines on the playground. Although, I would hope a church has higher aspirations than merely gaining more members. If the main point of a church’s existence is increasing numerically, then how is that church any different from, say, a gym, a restaurant, or a store? All of these are striving to gain more loyal customers.

 

The word for church in the original Greek means “called out.” I have always believed the New Testament teaching about church: it is a community God has called out from the world to worship him, support one another, learn to follow Christ’s teaching, and offer the Gospel to the world (see Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 2:42-47 & 4:32-35). As we proclaim the resurrected Jesus and live out his love in the world, God calls people to become a part of his Kingdom and join our communities. “And he added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

 

Therefore, the big difference between playground politics and church membership should be the God factor. We (pastors, teachers, evangelists, every day Christians) broadcast the Good News and those who receive it are called by God to be part of a community of fellow believers. That call happens when God’s Holy Spirit draws or compels a person to become part of a local church. Here is where I get negative, perhaps you would say skeptical (hopefully not cynical). I don’t think most people are paying attention to the Holy Spirit’s leading. Many misconstrue their own feelings as God moving. The reality is, a lot of people are just following the popular impulse to attend a particular church because others like them are there. Many seek to identify with an attractive brand, or affiliate with what appears to be a trustworthy institution. The pastor and his family look like our kind of people, so we want to be a part of their group.

 

The “why” of popularity has been a source of consideration and consternation for me since first grade (I never went to kindergarten). Why am I not popular? I remember running for class office in fourth grade. I spent all night putting together packets with candy to bribe class members into voting for me. I got two votes (yes, mine was one of them). In high school I would never have dreamed of trying to run for office, but in government class my senior year there was an election for some office. I ran on a platform that included legalization of marijuana (a transparent attempt to get the stoner vote), and lost. In college I started a Bible study at the Baptist Student Union. I put up flyers all over campus. I had one freshman who kept attending, and that was it. I tried to get on the BSU steering committee and was denied by the BSU director. He said that my efforts at personal evangelism would somehow be hindered by having a position on the committee. In the end he just didn’t like me (not hostility, just simple rejection). Why don’t more people like me? 

 

We started the church I lead the same year as two others in our region. Both of these churches are large, ours is not. I’m sure that there are other congregations that started the same year which don’t even exist any longer. Reportedly, 32% of all new church plants fail within five years (NAMB report http://www.namb.net/namb1cb2col.aspx?id=8590001104 ) I know of one congregation in our city that started several years before ours, became quite large, then folded. Perhaps focusing on our continued survival could be a source of consolation for me, but it isn’t. I always thought if God led me to start a church, it would grow large. I was saved in a large church. I know the importance of evangelism and preach the Gospel. I once ran a ministry that introduced thousands of people to Christ (House of Judgement was used to lead over 10,000 people to pray a prayer of salvation). So, why in heaven and earth has the church I lead not grown beyond a hundred or so (at times a few more, at others, many less)?

 

Perhaps it is because I am not married. People are looking for a pastor who is a family man, for a father of children, for a husband of a lovely wife. Sorry, that’s not my call. God hasn’t shown me anyone to marry, and I will not jump into a relationship to make other people happy with me. Perhaps it is because I do not have an appealing appearance. I have crooked teeth and don’t smile as often as I’d like to because of self-consciousness. I guess this is my fault by now. If I spent money on the dentist like I have Apple products, I’d have a beautiful smile. But wait, I thought the church was, well, supernatural, a community of people who have been called out of the world, not a social group who have decided to cluster around a handsome, charismatic leader. As a reminder, last Monday (11-19-2-13) marked 35 years since 900 people committed suicide at the command of cult leader Jim Jones.

 

Is it my sin that keeps the church from growing? Yes, I sin. No, I’m not smoking meth and seeing prostitutes (as the prominent pastor of a large church in Colorado was discovered doing several years back). I’m not stealing from the church or manipulating people to give money (there are plenty of ministry leaders who have been caught doing so). I’ve never had sex outside marriage. I don’t even look at porn– I cannot say I never have, but it’s been a very long time and even then it was quite brief. I do get angry. I do use some obscenities on occasion (usually when alone and yelling at some piece of errant technology). I do have to exercise constant restraint on lustful temptation. I’m sure I’ve offended people by saying or doing the wrong thing. I usually to make this right in the end, though that doesn’t always result in the person or people continuing to be members of our church. I do keep writing honest exposés like this one, and some people would prefer to have a fairy tale pastor. There may be some in my community that which I’d just get over myself and stop writing like this. Maybe I should heed that perceived advice.

 

Is it my lack of personal evangelism that keeps the church from increasing? Perhaps. I do know how to share the Gospel with people. I am simply uninterested in appearing like a salesman. I’ve also lost a lot of confidence in recent years. I feel like people will not want to listen to me, so perhaps I don’t share when I should. I lack urgency in this area, but I don’t believe in the dictum: “if it is to be, it is up to me.” I’m not a Calvinist, though. It’s just, God doesn’t need me. Heck, sometimes I don’t even feel as though he likes me. I’ve told God recently that if I got it wrong and I’m not supposed to be in ministry, then show me something else to do. I’d probably be unhappy, but I’m miserable when our attendance and offering is low. I take it personally. I mean why am I here? There are worthy men and women in my church whom I’d love to pay to do the work of ministry. They need the money. We cannot pay them because I cannot get enough people to attend and continue supporting this ministry. It is one thing to fail yourself; believe me, it is a devastating to fail others.

 

Sometimes, I become tired of trying. I’m tired of preparing for a Wednesday night Bible study where five or six people show up. I’m tired of fluctuating Sunday worship attendance: one week 80 or 100, the next week 45-50. I’m tired of people who refuse to continue living for Christ. Half the people I’ve mentored over the years are not living for Christ with any passion, and probably half of those aren’t actively following Jesus any longer. Most of the leaders I looked up to over the years have shown cracks in their armor, and some failed morally. If I look at all of this, it makes me sad and depressed. In fact, I’ve evaluated myself, and at times over the last 15 years I’ve shown signs of clinical depression. I’m beyond burned out; I’m sick and sad and in need of a miracle. This is exactly where God wants me to be so that he gets all the credit and all the glory.

 

I’ve come to the conclusion that this life is all about being broken. Self-confidence is deceptive. Pride is original sin. When I trust in me, there is little room for God. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). There is a huge problem with narcissism in our nation. People have been brought up to believe they need to love themselves in order to love others (a gross misinterpretation of Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” but that’s a topic for another blog). Many of us are inveterate self-promoters. I need more followers on Twitter, more “likes” for my page or my post on Facebook. Indeed, I have to be careful that my desire for higher attendance at our church is not motivated by selfish ambition. Maybe that’s the problem. Don’t worry, I’ve been evaluating that possibility for some time. God’s purpose is not to raise me up and give me glory. My purpose is to worship him, praise him, give him glory, and to lead others (by word and deed) to do the same. In order for that to happen, “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30). “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God that he may raise you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:6). Jeremiah the prophet was led into the potters house where he watched the craftsman make a pot, then break it down to remake it because it had become marred on the wheel (Jeremiah 18). I am marred. He is remaking me.

  

I still believe. I still love Jesus. I still love my people. I’m still in ministry. I’m still trying. I continue clinging to the promises that brought me to Garland, Texas 21 years ago. If you’ve been reading these articles, you are a trooper. They are pretty negative at times. However, God has not left me. Even though I complain, quarrel and test him like Israel did, he remains my rock. I wrote these eight reflections on ministry as a way of reminding myself that the scripture God used to bring me to this city was prophetic and necessary to keep me from failing and falling. I’m still looking for vindication. I’m still believing God. I’m still trying to change. One thing is for sure: no weapon formed against me shall stand; no scheme against me shall prosper. Yes, I still believe. “Though he slay me, still I will serve him.” Here is a final reminder of the prophecy I seek to (re)establish in my life. 

From Isaiah 41

8 “But you, O Israel, my servant, 

Jacob, whom I have chosen, 

you descendants of Abraham my friend, 

9 I took you from the ends of the earth, 

from its farthest corners I called you. 

I said, ‘You are my servant’; 

I have chosen you and have not rejected you. 

10 So do not fear, for I am with you; 

do not be dismayed, for I am your God. 

I will strengthen you and help you; 

I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. 

11 “All who rage against you 

will surely be ashamed and disgraced; 

those who oppose you 

will be as nothing and perish. 

12 Though you search for your enemies, 

you will not find them. 

Those who wage war against you 

will be as nothing at all. 

13 For I am the Lord, your God, 

who takes hold of your right hand 

and says to you, Do not fear; 

I will help you. 

14 Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, 

O little Israel, 

for I myself will help you,” declares the Lord, 

your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. 

15 “See, I will make you into a threshing sledge, 

new and sharp, with many teeth. 

You will thresh the mountains and crush them, 

and reduce the hills to chaff. 

16 You will winnow them, the wind will pick them up, 

and a gale will blow them away. 

But you will rejoice in the Lord 

and glory in the Holy One of Israel. 

17 “The poor and needy search for water, 

but there is none; 

their tongues are parched with thirst. 

But I the Lord will answer them; 

I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. 

18 I will make rivers flow on barren heights, 

and springs within the valleys. 

I will turn the desert into pools of water, 

and the parched ground into springs. 

19 I will put in the desert 

the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. 

I will set pines in the wasteland, 

the fir and the cypress together, 

20 so that people may see and know, 

may consider and understand, 

that the hand of the Lord has done this, 

that the Holy One of Israel has created it.

 

AMEN.

Vindication, Part 6, Losing People

This is the sixth chapter in a series about 21 years of overcoming conflict and opposition as I’ve tried to learn how to minister and speak the truth in Garland, Texas. You can read the first five parts at www.deorl.wordpress.com or in my notes on www.Facebook.com/deorl.

 

It is not possible to make everybody happy, especially when you are called upon to challenge people and speak (all too many times uncomfortable) truth. It is also not possible to be perfect in this life. Sometimes we hurt one another, intentionally or unintentionally. I’ve made mistakes and offended people. Forgiveness is essential to any lasting relationship.

 

It hurts a pastor when people leave his church. At least, it hurts me. Sometimes difficult people leave. I should breath a sigh of relief when this happens, but still I feel a loss. Over 14 years as pastor of the same church I’ve seen people come and go. It is difficult to let people go when they have become like family.

 

I’m generalizing because I hesitate to tell the stories of people who are still out there. People whom I still love. Many of these live nearby. Some who have departed expressed a desire to remain friends. I have tried. Honestly, that’s a lot like dating someone, getting close to them, and then breaking up. We say, let’s just be friends. Yet, even without animosity, the friendship is nominative. We drift to become acquaintances at best. They might as well be in a different city. In fact, that would make it easier.

 

I’ve had leaders in my church leave. This doesn’t just hurt me, it hurts the whole community. They continue to maintain relationships with members of our church, while they are serving enthusiastically in a church down the street. This only leads people to question why. What is wrong with our ministry? It leads others to resent them. What is wrong with that former leader?

 

In two prominent cases, young people who had been in my youth groups in the past were involved deeply in our church, met their spouses at our church, had children whom I blessed, then left our church for larger ministries. Ironically, when you consider how they established their families, both of these former leaders cited a weakness in our children’s ministry as their reason for leaving.

 

I have a former student who is now the pastor of a church in another city. He posted on Twitter and I reposted what he said. It was something like, “When you leave a church for the sake of your children, what does that teach them about church?” The obvious answer is, it teaches them that church is all about “me”. I didn’t state the latter, just posted his quote. A prominent couple left when one of them saw that post as a last straw. I believe church (and family) should be focused on Jesus Christ, not on children… or youth… or single adults…. or any other group.

 

One of the reasons some pastors are reticent to have small groups that meet in homes is due to the possibility of the group going rogue. A cell group may have a leader who teaches bad theology. A small group may attract people who complain about the church, the pastor, or another leader. The group becomes a meeting of the discontented. The result may be that they all stop attending, or go to another church. We’ve experienced the latter several times in our history. Two of these groups were headed by leaders who had once been in an accountability group with me. In the most recent instance, every member of that group left our church in about a one year period.

 

Are we doing something wrong? Am I doing something wrong? Did I offend? I ask myself these questions each time someone leaves. I care about them. Why don’t they care about me and this body any more? What more could I have done. I beat myself bloody, and it does no good. I used to go after these people. I mean, that’s what a good shepherd does, right? Go after the lost sheep. Except, most of these people are not lost. They’ve simply moved to another shepherd and another flock. Most importantly, the Good Shepherd is Jesus. I’m just his helper.  It seems to entrench people in their decision when I try to dissuade them. So, I take a different approach now. When they leave I hope for the best and concentrate on those over whom I still have charge as a shepherd.

 

Divorce is rampant in our society. For too many people it is the go-to solution for marital problems. Why do people get divorced? Adultery: understandable. “We grew apart,” or “I don’t love you any more”: unacceptable. This is symptomatic of our unwillingness to work out our problems with each other. It’s easier to move on and start over. Sadly, if you haven’t worked out the problems that caused the previous marriage to fail, the next one may face the same challenges, and could end the same way. When you leave a church because you had a problem you wouldn’t work out, you are taking at least part of that problem with you to the next church. Relational problems always have at least two sides, and you are on one of those sides. Leaving, divorcing, doesn’t solve your side of the problem.

 

People’s relationship to a church is somewhat like a marriage. It is a commitment to a community rather than an individual. People are going to disagree, offend one another, fall short of expectations, and we must learn to work through it.  We have to learn to communicate with one another before the breaking point. The alternative is lost friendships, and lost love. People who move from church to church are demonstrating restlessness within themselves. When we shop for a church, rather than pray and let the Holy Spirit lead us to commit to one, then we’ve turned Christ’s community into a consumer commodity. Why are we are seeking to affiliate with an institution and identify with a brand, rather than joining ourselves to a spiritual family? Church is people, not a building, denomination, institution or brand. We are called out from the world, and we are called together in communities to help one another to follow Jesus, and take the Gospel to into our world.

 

There is no perfect church. You will never find one. We are imperfect people gathering together in communities, and we are perfected day by day as we encourage one another to become more like Christ. I pray that I may encourage our people to realize this, and stay until the Holy Spirit calls them away.

Vindication 5 Who Is Deaf Like My Servant?

This is the fifth chapter in a series about 21 years of overcoming conflict and opposition as I’ve tried to learn how to minister and speak the truth in Garland, Texas. You can read the first four parts at www.deorl.wordpress.com or in my notes on www.Facebook.com/deorl.

In the early years of our church’s existence we were seeking an identity and a home. I thought we knew who God had called us to be and to whom he had called us to speak and serve. We were refugees who had been called to the rebellious who didn’t like church. We started out meeting in a rented house in Richardson, Texas, as well as hotel ballrooms. Regarding the house, there was some conflict with neighbors and the City of Richardson over our Bible studies and band practices. We were told by the city that we couldn’t have worship services in the house. Well, we were only doing Bible studies there, but there were complaints about that. We had two neighbors that liked us and two that didn’t. Complaints get the attention of city officials and they use zoning laws to limit free speech and free exercise.

We found an old movie theater in Garland, Texas and moved everything there. It was large, which would work well for our dramatic productions, but it had been unoccupied for at least 10 years. Many things had to be done just to bring it up to code. We took out a loan to do the necessary renovations. I really thought we’d be able to grow enough to pay the loan back quickly. However, as it turned out, the age of the building and an uncooperative owner kept us from having an inviting facility where people would worship.

We spent a lot of money getting the air conditioning to work in the building, but when the first winter hit we discovered the building did not have working heat either. This was something an unscrupulous leasing agent had kept from us. When we requested help from the owner, he offered to loan us money to fix the heating in his building. The payments for this five thousand dollar loan would conveniently be added to our rent. Even if this were fair, it wasn’t feasible for us. We were already struggling to pay the rent.

So, our little community froze through two winters in the old theater. During one of those winters I and our worship leader were living in the building as a cost saving measure. It was shortly after the movie Fight Club, and we saw this as our version of the dilapidated old house in which Edward Norton’s character lives. Did I mention it was cold? If you’re from a Northern state, then you probably think Texas cannot get that cold, but living in a building without heat in 30 degree weather is still harsh.

Worship services during these winters were interesting. We did a noon Bible study with brunch, and that happened either in the lobby or outside in front of the building. Our main worship time was at 6:00 P. M. Sundays. We tried various portable heaters, but the ceilings were 34 feet, so it really never got that warm. The few intrepid youths who came to worship huddled around those heaters and tried to pay attention to the service. This was not the best environment for worship attendance growth.

To compound the heating challenge, we also got flooded several times. Once during a drama production, it rained and a drain behind the building failed. Several of our scenes were flooded and we had to cancel the show that night. Neither the owner or the leasing company was willing to take responsibility for this. They did dig out the drain, but wouldn’t compensate us for lost revenue. At this point a little relief from the rent is all we were seeking. It would have even been financially wise on their part because it would have helped us remain in the building.

We had a three year lease, but there was a six month opt-out clause, which was put there by the owner, who was seeking to sell the building. After two years, and two cold winters, we had had enough. We gave our six-month notice in July, which meant we would be out of the building by December 31st.

On December 1st of that year I spoke about spiritual warfare during our Sunday evening worship time. I remember that it was a long message, and sitting on the floor to my right was a young man who would soon be shipped off to the war with Iraq. Warfare is primarily spiritual, even when it appears to be against material foes.

The next morning dawned a beautiful day; the sun was out, temperature was mild. Life, it seemed, was great. By mid-morning my perception of the day changed dramatically. The hearing in my right ear suddenly began to diminish. If I could make a visual analogy, it was as though I was inside a cave with bright sun coming in through the entrance. Then a door began closing like the iris on a camera, and it grew dark. As it got darker, I became more deaf. By 1:00 P. M. on December 2nd, 2002 I could no longer hear in my right ear.

To be deaf is a challenge. However, it was a shock to me because I’d always had good hearing. I do have tinnitus, loud ringing in my ears. This was the result of listening to a youth garage band years earlier. It was cold that day, so the teenagers in the band closed the garage door and turned up the amplifiers. I left with my ears ringing and they’ve never stopped. Up to this point, however, this affliction had not been overwhelming because outside noise usually drowned out the ringing.

Now my right ear was completely deaf to outside sounds. Complete deafness on that side would have been hard to take, but ironically I could still hear ringing in the ear, constant shrill ringing. Imagine if you were in a room where a loud smoke alarm is going off next to one of your ears, but you cannot stop it, or leave the room.

As I grew deaf, I also grew dizzy. I experienced a severe case of vertigo. I had to lay down to keep from vomiting. For a week, whenever I moved my head the room spun in the same direction. This was hell. In fact, as I lay there, perfectly still, I had time to think about hell, and what many Christians say it will be: eternal conscious torment. I could not imagine something so horrible. It changed my perspective. Something I may write about another time.

Thankfully, I believe in a good and loving God who hears prayer. I complained. I cried out. I begged God to help and heal me. I went to the doctor and received minor relief in the form of anti-vomiting medication, but the vertigo continued. I read the Bible and believed God directed I apply a promise from Revelation 2:10. It was originally a promise for the church in the ancient city of Smyrna. It reads: “Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. The devil will throw some of you in prison to test you. You will suffer for ten days. But if you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.” I was surely imprisoned by this strange affliction. I came to believe that the torment would last no longer than ten days. By the tenth day the vertigo was barely noticeable, so perhaps this was an accurate understanding of what the Holy Spirit promised me through the Bible. However, I wasn’t completely healed.

To this day I am almost completely deaf in my right ear. The ringing is loud and incessant: every waking hour, every single day since December 2, 2002. Thankfully, God grants me sleep and I do not hear the ringing then. I often have to strain to hear what people are saying during a conversation because the ringing is as loud as most people speak. When I try to play music or direct sound into that ear through headphones it irritates something and the ringing will become briefly louder.

On several occasions tinnitus in my left ear has flared up and become so loud that I have been terrified the same thing might happen. That would be for me the realization of hell on earth: not just deafness, but constant torment because of unimpeded ringing in both ears. I am trusting God not to allow something so horrific to happen. When I fear the other ear may close up, I cry out and trust my good and loving Father

The only thing that keeps me sane in the midst of constant affliction is the hope that God is good, he loves me and does not intend to harm me. He will not permit evil to overcome me. I remember his promises. I cling to them. I hold God accountable to keep his word.

” So do not fear, for I am with you; 

do not be dismayed, for I am your God. 

I will strengthen you and help you; 

I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. 

“All who rage against you

will surely be ashamed and disgraced;

those who oppose you

will be as nothing and perish.

Though you search for your enemies,

you will not find them.

Those who wage war against you

will be as nothing at all.

For I am the Lord your God 

who takes hold of your right hand 

and says to you, Do not fear; 

I will help you.”

(Isaiah 41:10-13, NIV)

Vindication Part 4

This is the fourth installment in a series about 21 years of overcoming conflict and opposition as I’ve tried to learn how to minister and speak the truth in Garland, Texas. You can read the first three chapters in the series at deorl.wordpress.com or in my notes on Facebook.com/deorl.

 

It has been a financial struggle to keep ministering to the population to whom I’ve been called. Most are young, none are wealthy, many are learning to be faithful when it concerns giving. When we started the church our denomination provided generous financial assistance. After two-and-a-half years that stopped. 

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I had always thought that our dramatic productions could help with money. That is, if we could make them profitable. Up to this point it had not occurred. We typically brought in just enough revenue to pay the bills for the event. After 1998’s huge House of Judgment I was deeply in credit card debt. Although many people had attended, the show cost much more than our ticket revenue.

 

In the year 2000 we moved the church into a previously abandoned movie theater in Garland, Texas. The building provided us with the necessary space to do our unique Halloween walk-through play, and to try some other things as well. For example, we did an original Christmas play called Emmanuel. Guests who came to the show walked from scene to scene and ended up in the main auditorium where they were privileged to hear music from a young, gifted musician named Chris Megert. You may have heard him sing on the radio. He is now known as Chris August.

 

In 2001 we performed The Ransom, an original Easter production. This one was performed on multiple stages, but in the same room. Later that year we decided to try something new for Halloween and produced a contemporary dramatic interpretation of Dante’s epic poem The Inferno. These events were well attended, but the numbers were nowhere near what we had experienced in the mid to late 90’s. So, my plan to use the profits from our dramatic productions to pay the bills for the church didn’t work.

 

When there are financial problems, family members may struggle with each other. Instead of mounting a unified attack against the problems they are facing, the house becomes divided. Jesus said, “a house divided will fall.” That almost happened to us.

 

During the production of The Inferno in 2001 there were struggles and misunderstandings. It started when I introduced the concept to our production team. They were less than enthusiastic. However, they were willing volunteers and worked hard to bring the vision to reality. I was working with a young man at the time who showed promise as a communicator of the Gospel. I allowed him to present the invitation at the end of The Inferno. He spoke to numerous audiences and there were many who indicated that they prayed to receive Christ. Then this potential preacher began to show signs of resentment, a reaction that was quite different than I would have ever imagined. During my early years of volunteering in ministry I would have been overwhelmed with the privilege of presenting the Gospel so many times with such success. This goes to prove, capability does not necessarily mean a calling from God is present, or, at least, a calling has not been heard and surrendered to.

 

There were almost always people who wanted to videotape our shows, usually amateurs. This particular year a man with a video production company wanted to use scenes from our show to put together a DVD series to market to youth groups. I scheduled actors and staff to come in for filming on a Tuesday evening. This was a night we wouldn’t be performing for a live audience. I was excited that our show was going to be seen by youth groups all over the country. I thought everything was going well.

 

After the taping was finished, one of the volunteers told me that I was needed at the front of the building. What I walked into was a secretly called meeting. My most trusted leaders were in attendance. I had been ambushed. The elder in the group was my associate pastor. He accused me of authorizing a transfer of money from our dramatic production to the church. I was guilty as charged, but this shouldn’t have been a problem for anyone. We needed to pay the church bills and we had earned the money from our production to do just that. In fact, as I’ve indicated previously, this was exactly what we wanted these productions to accomplish financially. The transfer was made to sound shady somehow. It was as if I  was being portrayed like a TV evangelist diverting donations from widows to put gold faucets in my Florida mansion. 

 

I reacted strongly; perhaps returning to the elder speaker the disrespect that this meeting and its silly accusation represented to me. There was nothing to the accusation that was being made. It was a thinly veiled effort to unseat me as president of our non-profit, and probably remove me as pastor of the church as well. I saw it as a hostile takeover attempt. It was certainly not professional or Christ-like. They had nothing to say when I presented the facts. There was no more discussion or debate. When I concluded my speech to the group, three key individuals bolted from the room and sped out of the parking lot with screeching tires. One of them was the young man I spoke of earlier to whom I had given the responsibility of presenting the Gospel to our audiences. He and the elder who initiated the accusation never returned to our church. The last man and his wife stayed for awhile, but several years later his family left.  I’ve heard about deacons doing this sort of thing in Baptist churches, or a board of directors doing it to the president of a company (ie. Steve Jobs and Apple), but these people were like family to me.

 

I sought to reconcile. I even invited the elder man to return to present the Gospel at other productions we did, and he acquiesced. Things were never the same after this, though. We had to leave our building in 2002 because there was no heat and  because we couldn’t afford the rent any longer. We continued to do shows through the mid-2000’s but have not done anything dramatic since 2008. Perhaps it’s time to begin again. I have to remind myself of God’s promise of vindication, and I need to hear his call once more to proclaim the Gospel via the theatre.

Vindication Part 2

This is the second installment in a series about 21 years of overcoming conflict and opposition as I’ve tried to learn how to minister and speak the truth in Garland, Texas. You can read the intro to the series in my notes on Facebook.

I began ministry in Garland in November of 1992. I had just finished the fourth and most well attended year of a Halloween production I started in The Colony, Texas. It was called House of Judgement. I had no idea at the time how big this Christian dramatic alternative to the traditional haunted house would become.

In my last year in The Colony 2,000 people came through the house. In its first year in Garland, we exceeded that number when 2,250 came through. There was great support from the new church. A wonderful lady, who has since gone to be with the Lord, donated magazine quality flyers to publicize the event. Even still, during one of the performances one of the older volunteers seemed amazed at the number of people who were coming through the House. He confided that he had believed no more than a few people would be interested.

In 1994 people waited in line for hours to witness our Halloween drama and 4,650 came through. We had certainly outgrown the church facilities. Some church members complained: “How big are you going to let this thing get?” Every year many people prayed to receive Christ as the result of what they had witnessed. By this time hundreds of people had responded to our dramatic presentation. So, were we supposed to limit the number of people who heard the Gospel?

The following year was 1995 and the church graciously allowed us to use a recreation center it owned. Over 7,000 people came through the House. More than 10,000 attended when we held it at the same facility the next year. Our final year in this venue was 1997. We had the longest lines in our history, performed into the wee hours of the morning, and well over 11,000 people came through. I don’t believe we could have accommodated more.

Each year I wrote a different script for the production. If you are unfamiliar with House of Judgment, it is a morality play performed on multiple stages. An audience, typically of between 40-50 members, enters the House every 20 minutes or so, and watches the play by moving through a maze from stage to stage. House of Judgement stories were about the lives of teenagers who faced the earthly and eternal consequences of their choices. The story changed every year, but one thing remained the same: teenagers made choices that resulted in their deaths; those who believed in Jesus Christ went to heaven; those who rejected Jesus went to hell. We had some amazing, dramatic representations of heaven and hell!

We had stories about teenagers in gangs, boy-girl relationships gone bad, racism, drugs, suicide, and other issues faced by young people. Sadly, some in our church felt that these stories, and the language used by the actors was offensive. They wanted to edit the scripts. In 1997 I submitted my script to the pastor, who had others look at it. I received it back with portions circled in red, which reminded me of getting a paper back from the teacher at school. One of the memorable offenses I was supposed to remove was the following. A young person is at a party talking about another kid, whom he doesn’t like much. He explains why the other teen is late in coming to the party: “Yeah, he’s a trainer. Always stays late after games and kisses coach’s butt.” I was supposed to edit the phrase “kisses coach’s butt” because of how offensive it was. Thankfully the pastor saw how silly this was and the phrase stayed in the script. This is just an example of a problem that had been brewing for years. We were experiencing resistance and the erosion of support for a ministry that was reaching more and more people with a real and relevant Gospel.

The recreation center had its own board of directors, and they were not always happy with shutting the facility down for this production. Additionally, we probably didn’t return the facility to the condition they expected. I take responsibility for this. My only excuse is the extreme weariness of our key volunteers by the end of a production. We had plenty of people who wanted to be in the show, but few volunteers who wanted to clean up after. A little understanding would have been nice, though.

In 1997 we paid the recreation center for the use of the facility (even though it was owned by the church for which I worked). That year many, many people prayed to receive Christ because of our event. I remember going to the board meeting one night after the event concluded. I was very tired but excited to report the phenomenal number of people who attended and, more importantly, the large number who had responded to the Gospel in the counseling room. There was no enthusiasm from the board. None. I handed them a check for the rent and the treasurer took it without comment or commendation. They opposed us doing House of Judgement there again.

That was the last year House of Judgment was done under the sole authority of the church where I served. A wise woman at the church, who had founded a crisis pregnancy center, recommended that we become a non-profit organization. HOJ, Inc. was born.

In 1998 we encountered more opposition and difficulty than any previous year. We were essentially on our own. We had no building. We had no money. We did have many young people who were interested in acting, and plenty of volunteers ready to work. I had written a brand new script based, in part, on actual events and real people. It promised to be a powerful show. We began rehearsals in August of that year, even before we had a building. The recreation center was kind enough to permit us to use their facility for auditions and rehearsals. This was also the facility where I did youth ministry each week. By mid-September we still had no building in which to perform. The church that I served was too small and would not allow us to perform in their building in any case. We were also still not permitted to do it at the recreation center, even in an emergency. What to do? Where to go?

I searched and searched for a building large enough to accommodate the show, and which we could afford. Finally, we discovered an old shopping center in Richardson, Texas with an owner who was willing to rent it to us for a month. It would cost us far more than we would have had to pay the recreation center of my church, and it had been abandoned for a decade or more. However, I believed we could use it. There were no walls, so we could build our maze and scenes however we wanted. This was going to cost a fortune compared to previous House of Judgement productions. Where would the money come from? Not from my church, which had all but abandoned the project. I decided to open multiple credit card accounts and pay for it that way.

The biggest problem immediately facing us was time. We couldn’t get into the building until October 1st, but the show was scheduled to begin on the 12th. We were going to allow parents of our actors to come through that day as a kind of live dress rehearsal. So, we had 12 days, and three or four credit cards for capital. From this we would create the largest production we’d ever done. Thanks in large part to the leadership and hard work of two professionals who were in the construction industry we met the deadline… sort of.

Ceilings in the old grocery store were over 20 feet. Most of our scenes required a ceiling of less than half that height. Problem was, the fire marshall informed us that we couldn’t create a lower ceiling unless we also lowered the emergency fire sprinklers. This was cost and time prohibitive. As the result, all of our sets were left open at the top. This would present a significant noise challenge. Audiences in one scene would hear things going on in other scenes around them: dialog, music, screaming, gunshots. It was going to be a nightmare. I just hoped people who came through would be able to hear the dialog and get the message. Honestly, I was so discouraged that I never went through and watched the show that year. I was kept rather busy trying to get audiences through, anyhow.

When the first audience of parents and volunteers came through to test us out on October 12th, the final scene was still under construction! In House of Judgement the last scene is always hell. Our hell in 1998 was simple: it consisted of crosses that the condemned would be chained to, symbolic of their rejection of Jesus’ death on the cross. They would have to pay the penalty of their sins by suffering eternal death on crosses of their own. The first several audiences that entered could probably hear a chain saw cutting the telephone poles, which were being used to construct those crosses for the final scene. Construction finished before the first audience got to the scene, but it was certainly not what I’d planned, and I’m sure it wasn’t a terribly scary hell scene… yet.

The House was finished by the following weekend and we opened to the public. We began to see a response we’d never seen before. An average of one in every four people who came through House of Judgement 1998 indicated on a card that they prayed to receive Christ. In spite of all the difficulty and imperfection of the production that year, 13,500 people experience it.  We had 1,800 come through in a single Saturday night!

That year a videographer approached me about taping the show and turning it into a movie. The movie is called Dark Persuasion and can be viewed online at www.youtube.com/deorl

Vindication Promise 1

This is the first installment of a muliti-part story about 21 years of overcoming conflict and opposition as I’ve tried to learn how to minister and speak the truth in Garland, Texas.

 

Twenty-one years ago at around this time of year I was seeking God about the call to a new church. I’d been the youth minister for one congregation while I attended seminary. Now the time had come for me to graduate and move on. I made my resume’ available through the seminary placement office and several churches showed interest. My plan was to move back toward Arizona or California, but a church just 45 minutes away in Garland, Texas pursued and interviewed me. I spoke there in view of a call. They voted to call me as their Associate Pastor and Youth Minister. 

 

Now, I had said to myself, maybe to God, that I wouldn’t serve there unless the vote was one-hundred percent in favor. I’d already experienced drama related to a church that was not entirely behind their pastor and I didn’t want to be part of a divided church situation, especially over me. Trouble is, many churches with congregational forms of government do not agree one-hundred percent– on anything. When the pastor called with the news that they wanted me to serve, I asked about the vote. He said there were three or four people opposed. I declined the offer. The pastor wisely asked me to think about it and let him know by the following Wednesday evening.

 

Wednesday came and I sat in my office at the old church. I was planning my message for our weekly youth event called Fusion. I prayed about the new church and whether it was God’s will for me to go. I asked the Lord to speak, and I read my Bible to seek an answer. I don’t know how I arrived at the passage, but the words from Isaiah 41:8-20 jumped off the page. Here’s the text to verses 11-13 in the midst of the passage.

“All who rage against you 

will surely be ashamed and disgraced; 

those who oppose you 

will be as nothing and perish. 

Though you search for your enemies, 

you will not find them. 

Those who wage war against you 

will be as nothing at all. 

For I am the Lord, your God, 

who takes hold of your right hand 

and says to you, Do not fear; 

I will help you.”

 

What this said to me at the time was: it doesn’t matter what a few nay-sayers vote; you will be vindicated. God had my back, and he wanted me to serve at the new church. If you look at the passage, it speaks about people “who rage against you… your enemies… those who wage war against you.” That would be too strong if it referred only to a few people who voted not to call a future associate pastor and youth minister. As it turns out, this passage has been an essential promise to me during a generation of service in this community.

 

Time and again I’ve encountered opposition. At first this came from older people who didn’t understand my relational style of reaching teenagers, or why we wanted to do a Sunday night meeting for youth at a recreation center instead of attending church with the adults in the sanctuary. One Sunday evening before our youth moved to the rec center an older gentleman approached me and pointed out that one of the teenage young men was wearing a hat in the sanctuary. I turned to see who the offending youth might be and witnessed the boy’s mother directing him to remove the offending headgear. He complied (probably grudgingly). I courteously responded that it appeared the situation had been taken care of. The man never spoke to me again. This is a minor example of a growing rift between the old and the young. It happens in many churches: traditional expectations versus innovative methodology. I cannot say that everything I did was wise, nor can I say that I did enough to communicate with the older generation in that church. I do believe that everything we did fulfilled the church’s mission of reaching the unreached.

 

Understand, this was opposition to my method of ministry, not warfare. A critic is not the enemy. In fact, there can be healthy criticism if it is intended to edify and encourage. We can agree to disagree on some points. The real warfare is spiritual in nature, and the real Enemy is called Satan. His name comes from a Hebrew word that means adversary or enemy. This Enemy was preparing deeper harm to me and to my ministry than I ever imagined.  

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By the way, let me pause to affirm that this is not unique to me. Anyone who makes the effort to pursue God’s call and do His will is going to be opposed by the same Enemy. This is the one about whom Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10a).