Focused On The Wrong Times

Our churches idolize the past and yearn for the future… So pastor, if your people are not diligently working for today, you’ll always be reflecting and planning yet never doing.

We naturally celebrate the past. Our holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and ceremonies celebrate what was or what was introduced. We look forward to the future by casting vision, dreaming, and the all too popular; wishing. Wishes and celebrations do little for the present. We fool ourselves into thinking we are making a difference today with all the festivities we create around the past and the future. Those festivities are exciting, fun, and sometimes worthwhile, but they suck up time and resources. They create busyness with no end result aside from warm feelings and a shallow sense of accomplishment. These celebrations and dreams can polarize a church’s progress. The congregation can’t move forward without setting aside the past and yet the past creates their only reason of celebration. The future can’t be attained because the resources are being spent on the celebrations of the past. The church is now captivated with what was and what is to come. What is to come never arrives because what was robs the resources of the church. The church ceases to grow because new comers aren’t emotionally attached to what happened in the past. They have not bought into what is to come. They’re only concern when visiting the church is “What is happening now that will benefit my life today.” To the ears of church leaders and members, that sounds selfish and shallow and yet we all came to Christ under selfish pretenses. We didn’t want to accept Christ for what we could do for the Church. We accepted Christ for what He could do for us now. As our relationship with Him grew, we realized we can make a difference. Thus began our own journey into ministry.

The past is important. The future is vastly important. But, the present is the reason we grow, thrive, and gain wins to celebrate in the future. How active we are in the present determines if we will have a future. A church must spend the lion’s share of resources and time on the present. Be careful to honestly asses your present ministry. Things may seem great, when in reality they are not. You can be busy and yet ineffective at the same time. If you are caught in a cycle of celebrating the past and wishing for a bright future you almost certainly must let go of the past to freely grasp the present.
God Speed to you as you progress towards a brighter future by engaging in a bright present!

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Volunteers Churched vs UnChurched

The shameful honest truth is – The unchurched are sometimes more compassionate volunteers than the churched.

It’s been six weeks since I started supervising a homeless shelter in North Seattle. All day the homeless are shunned, ignored, and treated as human trash while walking the streets. Our shelter relies upon volunteers to interact with guests and restore within them a sense of community and worth. It is a priority of mine to create community, safety, and a place of restoration within the walls of the shelter. When volunteers arrive I strategically give them duties that force them to interact with guests. Why? Because the homeless don’t receive a sense of worth when you slap some food on a plate and offer a rehearsed comment on how they should have a nice day. Their day truly sucked and when we stand behind a counter and “serve” them it does nothing for their self esteem. What does help them is sitting down and eating with them. Taking the time to validate their humanity and offering friendship leads them to believe that some truly wants to help.
When volunteers come in, they want to stand safely behind a counter and serve food. That way, they can do something for the needy without getting dirty. They can offer a smile and not be in danger of getting caught of guard by a conversation. Many of my volunteers leave early. They say things like, “I was hoping I could actually do something here.”. What?!? Yes, you can do something here! Talk to the people and invite them to share their story and build a relationship with someone you can possibly help!

The dirty, shameful truth is (in my experiences) church people have proven less likely to engage with the homeless than the unchurched volunteers. Why? Maybe it’s because churched people are used to clean sanctuaries, Sunday school rooms, and pleasing aromas. Maybe because they are so used to “ministering/serving” people that are open to the Gospel they get caught off guard by people that are angry and closed to God. Maybe because their idea of ministry is equal to offering handouts instead of a hand up.

Nevertheless, I grow frustrated at what I’m witnessing. The lost are often better at true servant ministry than the Church.
If you’re a Christian and come to my shelter you better put your latex serving gloves away, pull up a chair, and be ready to Disciple.

On a side note: There’s not a lot of work to do at the shelter I supervise. I believe in giving the guests an opportunity to serve the community. The guests clean after themselves and are encouraged to serve each other. I don’t allow them to sit around waiting for the next wave of volunteers to come in and do all the work. Oh, and the guests often tell me this shelter is the best thing that ever happened to them.

Hold your hand or hold your ear?

In the last couple weeks my children have tried to walk around the busy city streets of Seattle without holding our hands.  This would be fine if they were a little older and didn’t have the impulse to chase bugs and random objects into oncoming traffic.  When their mother or I instruct them to take our hands they try and escape our extended grasp.  Last week I started asking the question, “Do you want me to hold your hand or your ear?”  When they hear this they look at me with a half smile half quizzical expression and then extend their hand to me.  I am not sure if they don’t want to be embarressed by their dad holding their ear or if they know it would be a painful proposition.  Either way I am glad they relent.  After a few times of this scenario, I wondered why God doesn’t just grab us by the ear and drag us into His perfect will.  Certainly God has the power and the means to do such a thing.  I am sure that many would argue that He does, but seriously… why then do we repeatedly do the stupid things we do?  He gave us free will and He allows us to express that free will.  He may make things uncomfortable, but He never forces us into following Him. That is why we need to seek discipleship from someone that will!

I have a couple people in my life that have the permission to grab me by the ear and lead me back to sanity if the need ever arise.  I trust them, confide in them, and follow their collective advice.  I protect myself from biased opinion or direction by asking more than one person for direction.  I share what the others have said and press for a honest and clear opinion of the major decisions in my life.  If I ever steer into “oncoming traffic” they have the permission to say, “Would you like me to hold your hand or your ear?  Either way you’re coming with me!”

If you don’t have someone in your life that can do the same for you, find a respected Christian leader and position yourself into their life.  Volunteer to serve them and take heed to their instruction.  Leaders worth following are busy people, they sometimes don’t realize you are serious about desiring their discipleship.  They may already have a group of people needing, expecting, and demanding their time and initially you may just look like another addition to that group.  If you believe this leader is the type of person you need to follow then make sure you get their attention and relentlessly pursue their leadership.  When they do speak into your life listen to their words even if they don’t fit your plans realizing they have the respect of their peers for reasons you may not understand.  Discipleship is many things, but it is certainly not easy.  Sometimes you have to grit your teeth and let someone lead you out of a danger you do not see.

The Big Reveal – Jesus and all that comes with Him

There is a continuing decline of signs and wonders being made manifest in our Nations Churches. Why? That is a question that can be answered many ways. Perhaps one reason is many churches are afraid of what comes with the signs and wonders. When God moves people get excited and when people get excited they do some exciting things! We laugh when we see people win money on television. They get all crazy and dance around screaming, shouting, jumping on people, even loosing all humility. Sometimes they pass out due to the enormity of their excitement. We laugh at them and talk about how silly they are, but we keep tuning in to see some drama. The show “Extreme Home Makeover” comes to mind when I think about people getting excited. At the “big reveal” the families never stand still and express their thanks in a very dignified way. No, we would assume they were ungrateful if they didn’t get excited. We love to see them weep, laugh, pass out, dance, and shout until it becomes ridiculous. It is their authentic expression of excitement that proves they were deeply touched and that they recognize that their quality of life has just been transformed. Well, it should be all that and more when our Heavenly Father touches our lives. When someone is delivered from oppression they ought to be excited. Joy should overcome their lives and they should do a little dance and celebrate how great God is. When someone is healed their sense of gratitude should be overwhelming! We have seen, through media, people pass out at the thought of winning a new car. Imagine the emotional rush when someone has just been touched by God Himself. If people pass out for a car why do we expect them to be all bottled up when God deeply touches their life?  When healing flows people ought to dance because health is worth more than any car.

I encourage you to be open to signs and wonders and the emotional release that follows them. People will get excited and things will happen, but let us look at it with open minds and open hearts. If we can laugh at someone on TV, then we can surely be blessed by one of our fellow Christians. Be careful to not allow yourself to be judgmental. Imagine how you would feel if your life debilitating sickness, addiction, or curse had just been broken. I think it would be cause for celebration. Next time you see someone being healed, delivered, and transformed imagine that they just got their “Big Reveal!”

Break The Wagon Circle!

If you’re a fan of Westerns, a history buff, or from the West you have probably heard the phrase, “Circle the wagons!”  This phrase was coined as settlers moved to the West passing through hostile territory.  They traveled by covered wagon in large groups, or at least they tried to travel in groups.  Whenever they fell under attack they would form a circle with the wagons and gather on the interior of the circle.  They would then use the large wooden wagons as cover from enemy fire.  This proved to be an extremely effective way of preserving life.  As they fought off the attackers and things settled down, they would break the circle and push further West, towards their goal.

Awhile ago I visited a church that has all the signs of health and a bright future, a truly good church.  At the end of the service, an opportunity to come forward for prayer and encouragement was given and people began to go to the front.  Their friends and family quickly followed and began praying for them.  I don’t know why, but a picture of a circle of wagons popped in my head.  I began to see how the people were gathering around praying for one another, then in my all too often over analytical thought process, I wondered how long they have been “circling the wagons.” I wondered if the people that were seeking prayer and encouragement would be brave enough to break the wagon circle and press forward?  Would they be able to face their fears and risk another attack of the enemy for progress or would they just settle into the circle seeking perpetual refuge.  I then began to realize that many people and churches have been “circling the wagons” for years!  They have suffered attacks, discouragements, and setbacks causing them to do the right thing and circle around each other.  The circle provided reprieve and a time of rest.  It gave an opportunity to reflect on the dangers at hand and develop a plan of defense.  However, many became dependent on the circle and failed to remember the reason for the journey.  Here they sit praying for one another, encouraging one another, and comforting one another from an attack that has long since passed.  It can be easy to forget the purpose of the journey when there is no visible horizon, no tangible promised land, and no clear vision.  Remember the settlers we mentioned earlier?  Many of them gave up their dream and settled short of their goals.  They never made it to California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska to find gold and opportunity.  They traded their wagons for supplies to build homes and settled for “far enough.”  I ask you to reflect and answer this question for yourself, “Have I settled for far enough or am I courageous enough to BREAK THE CIRLCE and press towards the high prize?”  Remember the West was not won by Circling the Wagons; it was won because they pushed forward without giving up or selling out.  They achieved their dreams because they broke the comfort of security and risked everything for their dreams.  I encourage you to do the same.

So how do you begin to break the circle?

Find someone that has done what you desire to do and follow them!  Find a coach, pastor, mentor, or (my favorite) a discipler and ask for and follow through on their instructions.  Set small, medium, and big picture goals that will take you to your goals.  Then set up an accountability program with your new encourager so that you won’t succumb to the temptation of getting back into a circle.

If you are a church leader and you feel that your church has been stuck in circle, contact me and I’ll either walk you through the steps or direct you to someone you can trust and follow.  Either way, don’t wait. Now is the time to move towards your goals.

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Church Territorialism; or is it a fear of competition?

Disclaimer – I probably won’t win any friends with this blog.

It’s no secret that churches and their leaders can be annoyingly territorial.  I’ve had the displeasure of witnessing this territorial attitude first hand and let’s just say it was very… off-putting.  At first glance, territorialism in the church world looks as though the pastor or church is trying to protect the congregation from would be “sheep stealers” or proselytizers when it could be something totally different.  In the animal kingdom dominant males and females mark their territory to warn would be intruders. As they get older they spend more time marking and try to avoid competition at all costs.  You have probably heard that the older lions are the lions that roar the most.  They are trying to drive away the competition because they fear they will lose the battle.

Is it not the same for churches and their leaders?  We tend to fear competition encroaching upon our perceived territory.  Now, before you start throwing stones at me for de-spiritualizing this very hot topic, let me remind you that the Apostle Paul regarded competition as a good thing. He used the notion of competition to describe how we should live our lives and how he had lived his. While going through a hardship he compared his life to a battle and a race in the same verse:

2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NIV)

 6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

You may say at this point, “But he was not talking about churches competing against each other” and you would be right! So then, what’s my point?  It’s this: can any church that is healthy and growing truly compete against another healthy and growing church?  No!  We are not in competition with each other.  Are we competing for how many pews we can fill or are we competing against the enemy for souls?  The truth is, the competition is not against each other we are competing against the enemy for the sake of Jesus.  So, if a church wants to build next to “mine” so be it.  You may say, “that’s easy for you to say” (as people tend to create excuses for their poor behavior) at which I would say, “You’re right” it is easy to say and hard to live through.  Competition brings out our flaws and weaknesses.  Competition makes us take a hard look at our shortcomings and we seldom like to do that very thing.  But, if we face the competition we can grow and increase in our effectiveness essentially making ourselves better leaders, pastors, and churches.  Don’t fear competition.  Instead make the most of it and become better at your calling.  People change churches all the time and until they are willing to stick with a church family there is not a lot we can do to stop them.  Transitional growth is not the fault of the growing church, it is a symptom of a bigger issue in the hearts of Christians all over our Nation.  Why not celebrate the victories of others and push forward for our own?

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They are not sleeping in . . . they just don’t want to go to church.

In generations past anyone who didn’t go to church on Sunday was considered sinful and lazy.  Our society had a respect for the local church and expected all good citizens to gather and pay homage to God.   Back then Blue Laws were fully enforced and kept the business and recreational world from competing with our sacred Sunday morning services.  Most Blue Laws have either been repealed or are no longer enforced giving an array of opportunities for people who choose not to go to church.   There was once a National sense of respect for Sunday as a day for worship and rest.  Today, that respect no longer exists in the hearts of the majority of our American society.

I am currently living in a neighborhood that is the second most densely populated area in Seattle proper.  Every Sunday morning I hear people milling around, cars taking off, and families giggling as they go on their next adventure.  The parking lot around our apartment complex is mostly empty, but so are many of parking lots surrounding the local churches. Why? Because the vast majority of the people are not getting up to go to church, they are getting up to go celebrate life as they know it.  They don’t feel guilty for skipping church, because church is not and has never been a part of their life.  Let me say, these are not horrible people who go out and party on Saturday night (as we Christians have been taught to believe).  They are responsible adults that contribute to society and many are raising well-balanced children.  I am afraid that many of our churches still have the “Blue Law” mentality.  A mentality that suggests people are supposed to go to church.  We rely too heavily on a feeling of guilt that no longer exists and our church attendance is dwindling.  If a parent wants to invest in their children, they don’t automatically take the family to church they log on the Internet and find a park, zoo, or other activity that they can do as a family.  Church leaders need to wake up and realize there are more options for the modern family than church.

So, what now?  I don’t claim to have the answer.  I don’t have a plan to present to you in this blog.  I do know this; if someone is presented with a viable and relevant reason to go to church they will probably give it a try.  We just can’t afford to wait for them to fill the visitor spaces of our church parking lots.  They are not going to come out of guilt, but they will likely come if they see value in coming.