Tag Archives: Church

Church Addict

I confess, I am an addict… a church addict. I’ve been going since I was 16. Church didn’t save me: Jesus Christ did—and is. Although church people have been some of my closer friends, I’ve been hurt deeply by them. Church people have wrecked my reputation with rumor and gossip, judged me and assassinated my character in the community. Many more have simply turned away and treated me like a stranger. The reality is, although most church people would claim to believe in Jesus, they aren’t any more like him for the professed belief, and are no worse or better than anybody else in the world. Jesus had the most difficulty with the church people of his day (synagogue people, they could be called), but he still attended and participated every week.

I’ve been in church every Sunday morning for over 30 years. I think I’ve missed twice since I made a commitment to Christ and got baptized. That changes today. I’m not going to church this morning. It’s 6:15 A. M. and I thought I’d sleep-in today, but I’m wide awake, going through withdrawals at the prospect of not being in church. You see, I’m the pastor of our congregation, and I’ve challenged everyone to stop playing church, to stop (just) going to church, and to start being the church.

We are going to try something today, and throughout the summer. I’ve called it The UnChurch Experiment. I told everyone we won’t have church on Sunday morning this summer. Instead, I told them, be the church to the unchurched by shining your light where the unchurched go. Then we’ll gather Sunday at 5:30 P. M. to share our stories and worship.

Now, when we started our church, there was no morning worship service, but I still met with our most dedicated people for brunch and Bible study during that time. With this UnChurch Experiment, though, I won’t be teaching, preaching or even attending church. It’s unsettling. That’s part of the purpose. We need to take risks, shine our light out in the world, and be deliberate about sharing the Gospel with people who have less exposure to it. We need to bring Jesus to people who have less opportunity to hear and receive. Sounds good. I’m still going through withdrawals, though.

Here are the ten assignments I’ve given to our people for Sunday mornings.
1. Invite some unchurched friends and/or family to brunch, ask if you may pray for their needs.
2. Go somewhere fun and find an unchurched person to check out Lifewell Worship
3. Do a service project with your friends and/or family.
4. Relax and relate with your family: no electronic devices or TV, just face to face contact.
5. Read your Bible for one hour without interruption, then post to a social network about what you learned. Invite people on your network to Lifewell Worship.
6. Knock on a neighbor’s door and share something with them. Invite them to check out Lifewell Worship.
7. Make a video to share the Gospel, i.e., interview some people about a relevant topic that may be used as a catalyst for sharing the Gospel. Tell them it will be played at a Lifewell gathering.
8. Walk or ride bikes at a park near your house and meet others. Invite them to Lifewell Worship.
9. Walk the ROC neighborhood (an area where there are many apartments) and invite people to Lifewell UnChurch Worship at 5:30p.m.
10. Volunteer somewhere. Shine your light and tell everyone about Jesus. Invite people to Lifewell Worship.

So, it’s Sunday morning: time to be the church.

The UnChurch Experiment

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Lifewellchurch.com will be doing something different for the summer. Perhaps you can incorporate this challenge into your own church experience, or apply it in some way to your walk with God.

Beginning June 1st we will not meet on Sunday morning…   for the rest of the summer! 

Do not to go to church anywhere Sunday morning; instead, be the church to the unchurched by shining your light where the unchurched go. 

We will gather together each Sunday at 5:00 p.m. to hear your stories, then we’ll worship our God in Spirit and Truth at 5:30.

10 UnChurch Experiment Assignments.

1. Invite some unchurched friends and/or family to brunch, ask if you may pray for their needs. 
2. Go somewhere fun and find an unchurched person to check out Lifewell UnChurch Worship
3. Do a service project with your friends and/or family. 
4. Relax and relate with your family: no electronic devices or TV, just face to face contact. 
5. Read your Bible for one hour without interruption, then post to a social network about what you learned. Invite people on your network to Lifewell UnChurch Worship.
6. Knock on a neighbor’s door and share something with them. Invite them to check out Lifewell UnChurch Worship.
7. Make a video to share the Gospel, i.e., interview some people about a relevant topic that may be used as a catalyst for sharing the Gospel. Tell them it will be played at a Lifewell gathering.
8. Walk or ride bikes at a park near your house and meet others. Invite them to Lifewell UnChurch Worship.
9. Walk the ROC neighborhood (an older and poorer area of town densely populated with apartments) and invite people to Lifewell UnChurch Worship at 5:30p.m.
10. Volunteer somewhere. Shine your light and tell everyone about Jesus. Invite people to Lifewell UnChurch Worship.

Non-conformist Christianity

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Christianity in the West has, for quite some time, been about cultural conformity, and very little, if at all, about the life and teachings of Jesus. It used to be that growing up in the United States meant you were exposed to Christian values, even if you chose to ignore or rebel against them. Not so today. To conform with Western culture, more specifically the American version, is to be at odds with the values of Christ. Therefore, in order to be a Christian, the kind of Christian that lives according to values taught by the biblical Jesus, you will need to become a non-conformist.

There are still vestiges of Christian culture, and plenty of people who appreciate it— even if they don’t really live by following Jesus— so, you’ll have a few friends. However, genuinely following Jesus Christ’s teaching will put you at odds with the majority. Your lifestyle will appear strange, and many of your choices will alienate you, even from church people. This is okay… if you believe what Jesus said.

If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” (John 15:18-19, ESV).

Don’t assume that “the world” in Jesus’ statement refers only to secular culture. It includes the church and its culture too. Remember, it was the most religious and well respected people who were the architects of Jesus’ execution. These were the guardians of culture in a society founded on religion. It was they who failed to recognize that God had come to visit. They confused their system of ritual, liturgy and law with God. The Romans worshiped strength and their own power. These first century Jewish leaders actually worshiped their own religious power. Jesus threatened that; he made them jealous; they had him killed.

In our day I’m no longer surprised when priests and ministers are exposed as frauds or moral failures. There are too many who are in religious leadership for the wrong reasons. I would be more surprised if every high profile leader or celebrity pastor were actually as pure as they pretend to be. Freud had at least one thing right, there exist ego defense mechanisms employed by people to protect their public personae. Among these defense mechanisms, Sigmund identified what he called “reaction formation,” wherein a person comes out publicly against something that they are actually practicing (or at least are harboring).

An example of this may be observed in the 1999 movie American Beauty. Ricky is the son of a homophobe. Ricky becomes friends with his next door neighbor Jane. Jane’s father is Lester (played by Kevin Spacey), who has a crush on one of Jane’s female friends. One day Ricky’s homophobic father comes on to Lester. After Lester rebuffs the surprising sexual advance, Ricky’s father shoots and kills Lester. The idea, I believe, is not that the man hated Lester, but he was driven by shame to kill what he hated about himself. Reaction formation is what is behind the shooter’s public hatred of homosexuals. One wonders about the late Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church…

People are attracted to money, sex and power. When religion offers a way to obtain any of the three, there will those who pursue it for that reason rather than the purported spiritual purpose. So, the answer to non-conformity with the world is not conformity to a religion, denomination,or church’s cultural expectations. In fact, the conservative expressions of church in the U.S.A. may be little more than the conservation of an older iteration of American culture, which may have some values that derive from the teachings of Jesus, but some that do not.

We seem to have selective memory when it comes to our longing for a bygone era. Peruse the fiction aisles of a Christian bookstore and you’ll encounter many novels which are set in the pioneer days. This seems to be a golden era in the minds of conservative Christians. The women all have long dresses and bonnets on their heads, the men are strong, family oriented and honorable. However, an honest examination of history would find many non-Christian values and religious expressions, during this time period. Then there’s slavery and racism. The pictures on the covers of these books are of white people. People of color probably do not look back at the 1800’s with nostalgic longing.

It doesn’t matter if you attend church or fancy yourself an atheist, you cannot escape the influence of culture. Those of us who seek to follow Jesus, however, need to stage a rebellion. I’m not thinking about a new monastic movement, or withdrawing from society like the Amish. We need to change our thinking and change our ways. We need to eschew conformity to either the secular or religious cultures and have our minds renewed by the truth of God. We need awakening. We need transformation. We need a resurrection.

This all begins with dissatisfaction. If think you’re all you need to be, if you have all you want, then you’ll never change. Jesus said he came to cure those who are sick, not affirm those who think they’re well (Matthew 9:12-13). He is the light of the world, but those who think they see, never will. “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

Dissatisfaction with the world system, with our culture, may then lead us to a willingness to look elsewhere for happiness and fulfillment. “We walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7), so the ability to look elsewhere requires faith. Believe in the existence of a loving, almighty Creator. Trust him. Seek God by looking to the one who claimed to be his only born son. Jesus is “the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). No one has ever seen God, but Jesus has explained Him (John 1:18). He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and “in him all the fullness of God lives bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Jesus boldly proclaimed, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). If you want to know the truth and be free, then follow Jesus Christ and his teaching (John 8:31-32).

Our churches must become communities of non-conformity by virtue of taking the teachings of Jesus seriously and doing what the Lord commanded. Our lives must be consumed with love for God, rather than love of money. We must love one another the way Jesus loved us, rather than loving ourselves and seeking our own agendas. We must love our neighbors as ourselves, instead of loving stuff and envying those neighbors who have more than us. We must learn to be sacrificial servants, rather than self-seeking and self-serving consumers.

We must learn to worship and enjoy God’s presence in our everyday activities instead of constantly seeking to be entertained. We must reign in our insatiable and increasingly perverse sexual appetites. Pornography, fornication, adultery and homosexuality, all of which are practiced widely (even in churches), must immediately and completely stop in the lives of Christ’s followers. The love of guns, love of violence, bloodlust, all must become abhorrent to us. Guns are tools. I don’t love my shovel, my crescent wrench, or my blender.

We need to stop depending upon chemicals to make us happy or keep our moods positive. Alcohol, marijuana, antidepressants, energy drinks, cocaine or meth: it doesn’t matter, if I’m relying on the chemical instead of God, then it’s an idol and it has to go. “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12); “all things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up” (1 Corinthians 10:23).

If this is going to happen it will require a death. The death is the old me, my old self. That will not happen, indeed it cannot, through my own efforts. I don’t have the desire or courage to begin the process. Self-denial, self-discipline and harsh treatment of my body won’t change me on the inside. Faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus, however, will. “For I have been crucified with Christ and no longer do I live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

I don’t think a non-conforming community of Jesus should avoid the world or avoid the culture, though. We need to engage people who are enthralled with culture and inured to religion with a real and relevant and renewed counter-culture centered on Jesus and his teachings. I’m not sure how all this looks yet, but I’m seeking and getting a sense of how it feels. Anyone else interested in joining the non-conformist revolution? Start with a serious reading of Jesus teaching to his followers about what it means to live out life like a follower. You’ll find it in Matthew chapters five, six and seven.

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.