Surprised by Rant

spiritual-depthLast week I posted “A Pastor’s Rant about Spiritual Growth” which became my most viewed blog. The volume of traffic surprised me, and I think it exposed a problem that has contributed to the church becoming a mile long and an inch deep.

The problem goes like this: the church implicitly or explicitly promises spiritual growth through it’s various programs, and when the church does not deliver on that unrealistic expectation, some feel let down and start shopping for a new church.

Now, there’s nothing wrong about changing churches. Sometimes that’s a good move. But when it’s precipitated by the expectation that the church is responsible for my spiritual growth, it becomes problematic on a number of levels.

For one, it displaces responsibility away from the individual and onto the church to “feed me” through… you name it: sermons, music, programs, socials, etc.  As such, it trains people to become consumers of religious goods rather than equipping people to become  disciples of Jesus.

As a Pastor, I’ve helped build active, highly programmed churches. I’ve generated lots of activity that has kept a lot of believers very active. And I’ve come to the conclusion that all that activity does not necessarily produce the kind of disciples or the kind of community that Jesus envisioned.

In short, we who lead the church must recognize that we’ve made the church too complex with layer upon layer of programs. We’ve prided ourselves on this “ministry development” even while we’ve lowered the bar for discipleship. We need, as Thom Rainer recognized in his excellent book, Simple Church, to make the church less complex and to raise the bar of discipleship.

All this leads to a question I’ve been pondering for some time: What facilitates spiritual growth in the life of a believer?  Is it prayer?  The reading of scripture?  The practice of generosity?  Serving others in the name of Jesus?  Yes, it’s all of that, and it’s also much more. And the “much more” is participation in a community that pursues those practices together.

In the Bible, spiritual growth is less about the moral efforts of an individual and more about the matrix of a discipleship community that engenders, encourages, and challenges a spiritual growth together. And the vision for the body of Christ is that participation in the body produces growth that is deeper and wider than any of it’s individuals could ever attain on their own.

Those thoughts about discipleship and community have been percolating with me for some time, and they’ve crystalized into this conviction…

I believe that one of the largest hurdles for the church today is to move away from producing more programs to producing more disciples by insisting that participation in a Jesus shaped community on mission for sake of world is indispensable for your spiritual growth.

At the church I serve, we’re figuring out how to put wheels on this conviction. We’ve paired back programs to the most important ones, while creating volunteer-led communities that gather for fellowship and reach out with tangible expressions of Gods love to people where we work, live and play. Our dream is to plant many of these community mission outposts, scattering seeds of the gospel in creative and compelling ways.

It’s a big goal, and it’s a big bet. Can the church reclaim it’s true calling as a disciple-making community? I believe we can, and it begins with the recognition that new wineskins are needed for the bride of Christ to reclaim her role as the light of the world, a cross shaped community, growing together, and serving others in the name of Jesus for the sake of the world.

 

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A pastor’s rant about spiritual depth

Every Pastor, including me, hears this comment once in a while: “Pastor, what I want are meatier, deeper sermons. I just want to grow deeper in my faith.”

spiritual-depthI get it. I love to learn, and I don’t like thin, superficial sermons either. And I’m concerned about a growing biblical illiteracy among believers. But I’ve learned that if you want to grow spiritually as a follower of Jesus, then you have to be willing to get humble, face pain, and apply what you already know.

Christian depth is not attained by the acquisition of more information about the Bible. The number of details I know about the bible in no way corresponds to my actual maturity. Depth is a byproduct of character formation. And Christian character formation very often happens through the crucible of suffering, a posture of humility before God, and by applying what you already know about God and scripture.

That pathway toward depth is hard. It’s easier to ask for depth through meaty sermons than it is to deal with one own suffering, pride and hardness of heart.

Ok that sounds harsh. But read about what Jesus said to the Pharisees (white washed tombs?). Jesus approach is instructive: On one hand, Jesus never showed anger to a sinner. Not once. On the other hand, he did get angry at self-righteous religious people who knew a lot about the Bible, but who were blind to matters that matter, like love for God, love for neighbor, compassion and justice.

A blog is a dangerous place for a pastor to rant. The possibilities for misinterpretation are many. But here’s what I’m trying to say about spiritual depth: Ten thousand heavy, meaty, verse-by-verse sermons will never accomplish depth–not without receptivity born from hardship, humility, and a real intention to apply.

Show me that, and I’ll show you depth.

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The one thing the church offers that the world cannot live without

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What’s the one thing that the church offers that the world cannot live without?  In a word, community.

As society becomes increasingly fragmented and as the family becomes increasingly broken, Christians have something to offer that the world cannot: true community.  It’s a community that is fundamentally different because it’s based in the nature of God who gathers people from every tongue and tribe.  It’s a community not based on economic, ethnicity, or any other social variable.  It’s a community of wide diversity sharing one common union: Jesus.

Some years back, Robert Bellah argued in Habits of the Heart that most people don’t experience community.  Most have “lifestyle enclaves” comprised of people who are similarly minded people who have similar socio-economic backgrounds.  These similarities are the basis for how many connect and experience community in the world.

In contrast, the church offers community based on only one common denominator: one’s relationship to God though Jesus.  We call this gathering “family,” but that’s a stretch of that word, because the blood of the church family that runs thicker than water is not the blood of the nuclear or extended family.  Instead, it’s the blood of Jesus, which unties wayward, diverse people into a great, global family, tethered together only by their union with Jesus.

There are many, many things the world does very well: technology, entertainment, innovation, the list goes on.  It’s tempting to compare those gifts to what the church offers, and to feel inadequate or irrelevant.  But the one gift the church offers the world that the world cannot replicate is true community.

What are the implications?

  • As the nuclear family continues to break down, the church provides a much-needed family for people, especially for those who have experienced a broken family.
  • As culture becomes increasingly skeptical and cynical about doctrine and belief, the church offers people a place to belong before they believe.
  •  And as society becomes increasingly polarized, the church offers a union of solidarity that is higher than political persuasion, socio-economic standing or ethnic heritage.

Now I understand that the church does not always live up to this high call.  Churches are often just as fragmented and segregated as society.  In spite of those shortfalls, we are called to to offer the gift of community.

It’s the one thing the church offers that the world cannot offer or live without.

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Missional Communities: what we’re learning

Community Groups Graphic_12x12Last year Redwood Covenant Church launched a bunch Missional Communities that we call Community Groups. The launch began with a bang. Over time, a few flourished beyond capacity. Others stabilized. Some contracted.

Over the past year, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Here’s three lessons we’re learning along the way…

 

 

Discipleship builds the core

Each Community Group is led by a volunteer we call a Guide. These Community Group guides are amazing, along with their leadership teams. We have found that Community groups lead by those who have been discipled, or are being discipled, and who are discipling others is the best way to form a strong core of a Community Group.

Effective mission happens where you work live or play

With summer transitioning into fall rhythms, our Missional Communities are finding their rhythm. Some meet monthly, while most meet twice a month. Several times a year, each Community Group focuses on serving God by serving people with tangible expressions of God’s love. We have found that the Communities that gained traction are those that have a mission focus where participants live, work or play.

It takes a while to shed a program mentality

For people accustomed to church programs that dispense information or offer entertainment, Community Groups can seem lackluster. After all, the “program” of a Community Group is the group. My experience is that authentic Christian community is more than enough to meet the basic needs we have to belong and to do something of significance. However, it takes time to foster connection and engagement among one another and with God.

We are just one year into a long-term commitment to foster Missional Communities. Entering our second year of Missional Communities, we will see more people discipled, more disciples discipling others, and more expressions of the gospel for people in the spaces where disciples live, work or play.

Think about it. Fourteen Missional Communities and growing; each one gathering people into an experience of Christian community and reaching out with a tangible expression of the kingdom.

It’s yeast among the dough. Its gospel infiltration. And it’s happening.

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Why faith gets dull

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I recently backpacked the Resurrection Pass in Alaska with some good friends.   Most of the time on the trail, my head was looking down at the trail in front of my feet, so that I didn’t trip on a root, twist my ankle on a rut or fall because of a loose stone.  Occasionally, I would stop and lift my head to take in the vistas, and each time I took time to see, the majestic beauty of mountains took my breath away.

Looking down to see so you don’t trip is not just a posture many take in life.  On the walk of faith, we often walk with our head down, our eyes set on the path just in front of us.   But as I was reminded on the trail, our eyes were made to see much more.

I’ve been preparing for a new message series called “Amplify” which will explore the worship scenes in the book of Revelation.  That preparation is prompting me to look up.

Revelation is an enigmatic book for a lot of Christians.  Some treat it like a time-line for end-time events.  Others avoid it because it seems so weird.  I happen to believe that it’s a neglected book that opens our eyes to Christ’s heightened rule and encourages our walk of faith by expanding our vision of God.

The book of Revelation encourages us to see that God is bigger than our mind and our feelings, our experiences or our challenges.  Full of hope, Revelation trains our gaze toward the resurrected Christ who rules above all other powers.  Written to a persecuted church, it offers profound encouragement to trust God for the challenges that are bigger than our ability to manage or control.  Revelation challenges us to walk in faith and to stay faithful, no matter what may come.

Too often our faith grows dull because our vision of the greatness of God gets drowned out by competing voices or grows dull through routine.  It happens.  And when it does, the best we can do is stop, lift our head, and seek to see a renewed vision of the wonder of God.

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Why am I doing this?

This weekend I will attempt to run the Tough Mudder at Lake Tahoe.  The TM is a half-marathon with twenty or so obstacles like this…

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I used to be able to hang and swing at recess, but I think I might be swimming on this one.

Here’s another obstacle with live electrical wires…Image

I hate getting shocked.  That one scares me.

And there’s more, like this plunge into ice-cold water…

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Those are real ice cubes.  Do they look like they are having fun?  They look like their heart just stopped.

I was the guy at the lake who waded into the water.  There no way to wade into this container because the people who designed this (British Special Forces) know that you would never go in if you had the chance to wade in.  And besides, they’re Special Forces, so “wading” is not in their vocabulary.

Did I mention that I have a fear of heights?

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And that’s just the beginning!   I’ll be climbing over walls and fences…

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…. and sloshing around in mud…

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…and hanging upside-down…

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… and running through fire…

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Did I mention that this event is run at altitude?  We begin at 8,000 feet and there’s a two thousand foot elevation gain.

What am I thinking?  Why did I sign up for this?

One day our family was talking about doing another adventure together.  We prefer adventures to vacations.  Anyway, someone mentioned the Tough Mudder.  Without looking into it, we committed to doing it together.  We should have looked into it first.

I’m told that the TM is not about nailing a personal best time, but about helping others and being helped.  That’s good.   I’m going to need help.   Maybe I’ll just clip a harness onto my son and let him pull me up, over and through the course.

Why am I doing this?  I bet each member of family is asking the same question.

At least we’re doing it together.

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Yellow is the Color of Hope

Yellow has never been my favorite color, but that’s changed, as Vincent Van Gogh taught me to see that yellow is the color of hope. 

Vincent grew up in a strict Christian home.  He studied for the ministry, but later moved away from God during a time of deep depression.  Bouts with depression marked much of his life. During his depressive periods, he painted pictures like this…

Starry-Night

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yellow stars and the sun illuminate the blues and blacks because Vincent felt that God could only be found in nature.  Tragically, the church, which stands tall in the painting, which should be a place of hope, shows no trace of yellow.

Years later, Vincent returned to God, and began paining pictures like this…

Raising-of-Lazarus-(after-Rembrant)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The painting is bathed in brilliant yellow.  The person in the painting is Lazarus, having been raised from death.  The face on Lazarus is Van Gogh.

The picture tells a beautiful gospel truth that Van Gogh discovered: life with God can begin again.  With God there is always the promise of a new beginning, and when we open ourselves to this God, our lives become drenched in yellow hope.

I recently moved from the grey drizzle of Seattle to the sun drenched land of Northern California.  I wake up in the morning to sun streaming though windows.  I am astonished by the golden hue that lights up the fields at dusk.

After we bought our home, we began paining the walls.  What color did we choose?  Did we choose either blue or green, two of my favorites?  Nope.  We chose yellow.  I suppose we wanted to capture the light.  Now we have three different shades of yellow in three different rooms.  I walk from room to room and can’t escape yellow, which seems right.

The seasons of our life reflect many colors.  Sometimes life is blue for sadness.  Sometime red for anger.  Yellow–the third primary color–is the color for hope.  With God you can’t escape it any more than you can escape the yellow sun, unless you live in Seattle.

 May your unfailing love be with us, Lord, even as we put our hope in you.   Psalm 33:22

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