The Sweet Spot

Rachel and I got our start in church planting in the later half of the last decade. I was in the process of graduating from Seminary, we did not really find any cushy church jobs to take (I am NOT a youth pastor), and I connected with a church-planting group in Virginia. We talked, we prayed, and we planted. We experienced the ups and downs that most every plant walks through; we navigated some well, and some not so well. We had a ton of fun, and we had a ton of sorrow. After three years, our church was no longer viable. We had no money, no staff, and most of our team had transitioned out. This is a common thing in the church-planting world. Churches start, and churches fail. We fell into the “ran out of time” failure reason: like a baby with a critical disease, we just didn’t have enough life behind us to fight off the problems we faced.

We are almost a decade removed from that time, so I probably have a better view now. One of the things that I have struggled with is the statistic that we learned before we planted, and experienced: over 50% of your team that you planted with, will not be there 1-3 years later. It seems to me this is a gigantic problem. The people you are on mission with, suddenly no longer feel like the church they poured their blood, sweat, and tears into, is for them. I have put some effort into figuring out why this is. When I look at my first planting experience, I notice an almost duplicitous aspect in my actions. In order to start our church, we recruited friends, and friends of friends. We spent time talking, dreaming, planning. We spent time together doing life. We were on a mission and we were excited about. Then something changed. We had to launch a church. Those sweet times where we invested in each other were gone, and replaced by the church grind. Once that happened, the times that I cherished most were gone. I wish I had known that  time spent planning was the most authentic church I have ever experienced. Now I don’t know that this was the reason that our team moved on, but I do know that when we launched it never felt the same as when we were together in my living room. I wasn’t mature enough then, I hadn’t seen enough or lived enough to know that WE HAD CHURCH right there. (Let’s be honest, no planter goes out and dreams of planting a church of 20 or 40 with all the dang kids we had J). There are many, many things I wish I could do over again, but pushing and moving our team into “church” eats at me more than most.

As planters we are always told that more is better. We need to recruit more people, raise more money, have THE BEST worship experience; the drive is always more and bigger. I disagree strongly with this idea at this stage of my ministry. What is the best is to be on mission with a team; a team you can pour into, be real with, and love doing life with. Let me encourage the planter who may be where Rachel and I were so many years ago with this thought: Jesus loves you, and He wants your ministry to be successful. Remember though: He defines the ministry; He defines success. It may not look like you want it to; it may not be the envy of all your friends from Seminary, and it may not ever get you on stage at Exponential teaching. Take it from me, no matter what the sweet spot is, it is better than living with the “I wish I would have’s.”

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Theology Matters

I read a tweet today that said this is the season when people are most likely to come to church, so invite them. I think this is something we hear at Christmas and Easter every year. When we hear this, I think our response is usually, “yeah, that makes sense.” I mean, nothing screams the need for repentance like investing a small fortune in the commercialization of our faith OR believing that bunnies lay eggs.

When I read that this year, I started to think “NO.” I hate that we have begun to view every new season as an opportunity to grow the church, buying into the marketing schemes of people who have successfully manipulated the masses into attending their “big push” services. This focus isn’t new. We used to have “Friend Day” or “High Attendance Sunday.” Now we have the attractional sermon series, or giveaways to get people to church so that they can get Jesus!

The problem I have with that is an ecclesiological one. What we believe about the church is off. We believe that church is a place where something magical happens. People have to come inside to meet God. The New Testament, however, never views the church as a place, but as a people. I would agree that exposure to the church should be how most people find God, but the church is you and I, not a Sunday morning “experience.” We continue to perpetuate this false equivalence and the Christ-Followers in our churches begin to act myopically “WE MUST GET THEM TO CHURCH.” Like little robots, the people who should be the transformative agent in their friends and families lives, seek only to get them to where the magic happens. Instead, we should be teaching our people that they are the church. They should be speaking the truth of the Lord into their people’s lives. They should be the ones who get to experience the joy of seeing their friends coming to Christ through their own influence. They should be the ones who get to lead their people through breakthroughs in their faith. I know, I know, it’s difficult to “count” those things for our church growth to be “real,” but those are the situations that matter. That is where true, New Testament discipleship happens. I have read the New Testament a hundred times or more, and never seen a thought like “get them to church [a place] to find God.”

Theology matters. If we have incorrect views of what the church is, the way we operate (based on those beliefs) will be incorrect. Sometimes those incorrect methods will reap some rewards (like when we buy a horrible stock that goes up anyway), but most times it won’t. If you don’t believe that we are doing this church marketing thing all wrong, think about this: we spend more money on marketing than the church has ever done in the United States and our impact into the culture is continually declining.  We have tried the seasonal focus. We have tried the seeker-sensitive rock concert / dog and pony show. Isn’t it time to get back to what the Bible teaches about church, and train our people to view themselves as the change agent in people’s lives? The church is the most powerful force in the world, because it operates in the power of the Holy Spirit; but the church isn’t an organized fiefdom, it’s the collection of believers working on mission for God.

The Acquiescing Church?

I did not grow up in church. The only times I really went to church when I was a kid were when someone died, or at Christmas, or if Mom got on a kick to hit church for a bit. It was boring, and I am reasonably sure I fell asleep every time I went. When I started going for real, I was 18, and I went to a really conservative church with my fiancé. I vividly remember being in church and standing to sing the hymns each Sunday morning, and not knowing any of them. I mean, I probably knew that a song called Amazing Grace existed, but I wouldn’t have known it if I heard it. After a month or so, I started to recognize a few of the songs. One day, I was coming home from playing basketball, and I heard a church bell arrangement of a song, and I knew it!

Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling for you and for me.

At this moment I felt like I might be getting a handle on this whole church thing. That hymn was a favorite of mine from that moment forward.

Fast-forward a few years, I was in seminary studying the idea of God’s sovereignty, that a God who was to be worshiped and that I would devote my life to, was by necessity a sovereign Lord. He had to be in charge, and powerful. If He wasn’t, what kind of God was He? I remembered this song, and the second verse, the one where Jesus is described as a school girl pining over a boyfriend who won’t come to her and do what she wants. Jesus pleading, with the implication that He isn’t powerful enough to get what He wants accomplished. I had a real struggle at that moment to believe the Bible (which I believe teaches God’s sovereignty), or this song that I had sung and enjoyed for years.

Music is a powerful tool for the glory of God. It helps make God tangible, and experiential. We are able to connect to God in a way that many of us do not experience apart from the musical expression of worship. The worship gathering is enhanced exponentially by the inclusion of music. However, we also have to be very careful, because music can be insidious. If the songs that are sung in worship teach or suggest a theme contrary to Scripture, we may set our congregants up for failure at rightly discerning truth. There are a lot of songs out there that have a great beat, have great lyrics, but have heretical undertones (or outright heretical lyrics). Too often we see these songs show up on the church playlist, and the words and themes make their way into our minds, corrupting the Bible’s teachings. Music, like anything else, can be an idol that we love more than God. Even music that is supposedly about Him! True worship music should be pleasing to the ear, stirring to the soul, but also must reflect what the Bible teaches.

I am personally at a quandary with much of what we see in the modern American church. We exalt form over substance, we exalt catchy over transformational, and we exalt “sings good” over “soul good.” When I think about my old song Softly and Tenderly I don’t really want to throw out the whole song, because I really love it. It was something that I could latch onto as a non-believer, a foot in the door to the church magisterium if you will. At the same time, I know that I don’t want people thinking that Jesus isn’t powerful enough to take care of their needs, and that we mortals can thwart the plans of an Almighty God. What do we do? How do we bridge the gap between form and substance? There is a tension between good poetry, good life experience, and sound theology. I tend to think that there isn’t a hard and fast rule, but more of a negotiation. You see I know what the author of my hymn is trying to communicate: the deep love and care that Jesus has for His people. How much freedom do I give him to do that, to connect life experience to catch people’s attention? I have usually erred on the side of freedom in this area in my ministry, trusting that I can explain or address unresolved tension in the words of songs and sound biblical teaching. Lately though, I hear the words of 2 Timothy 4:1-5 constantly, and I wonder if we need to be way more selective in our relevancy when it comes to the musical beast. What a great and powerful gift, but we have to be so careful with!

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.  But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

What Did That Say?

Interpreting language is one of the more difficult things that we as people do.
We read words and processes those words to discover the meaning that someone is attempting to communicate. The problem can be that we read and understand language the way we think, not necessarily how they are thinking.
This can lead to mis-understanding, or a failure to communicate. That problem is exacerbated when we consider translation from language to language.
The goal of the translation is not to generate the right words to correspond to the words written, but to translate the thoughts of the author to the hearer.
This may or may not be a literal translation, depending on many factors including culture, idiomatic expressions, etc… The problem is even worse when the words we are reading are very old. Not only do we have to get the translation of thought correctly, but it has to be the translation of thought in the proper time context. Words change meaning over time in all languages.

Good translators take all these things into account when trying to determine the original intent of an author. This is just one facet of hermeneutics: understanding what is being said. There are many others, any of which can radically alter the meaning of a text. This is why it is so critical to listen to educated people on what translations of bible texts mean.
It is very easy to go wrong, and without thorough, thoughtful, and correct study; we will very easily go astray. A good rule of thumb is: if what you are reading is radically new, or super culturally hip, or something that no one ever thought of before, its probably wrong.

If you are serious about understanding Scripture, I mean really understanding it, the people whose opinions you listen to, the people who teach you, the people who preach to you, who you read and study have to know what they are doing. Education is a great way to make that happen, study hermeneutics, and validate the credentials of those voices you let into your head!