Far from the City

cityFar from the bustle and concrete byways of the city lies a place of mystery to many people. Though geographically this place dwarfs the footprint of the cities, suburbs and exurbs, its inhabitants are but a fraction of their population. This place is known by many names, some derogatory and insulting, some more indicative of the labors that take place there…

The countryside, hinterlands, sticks, farm country,yokeldom and hickdom, the tall corn…

Those who live in this area by choice or calling are similarly caricatured. They are simple, unsophisticated, a bit rough around the edges and lacking the panache and polish of the urban and suburban brothers and sisters. Their tastes tend toward gingham, heavily laden plates, trucks and events involving livestock.

Of course, none of these are true and all of them are true.

People are people regardless of their proximity to the urban core. They live, love, sin and repent. They are theologically complex and in some cases, artless. Some have a desire to know the Shalom, the peace of a life lived in God, The Peace and others choose their own path to peace.

It is in this rural context to which I’ve been called to minister. The challenges are unique and complex despite the stereotypes and little in my formal training prepared me to engage this culture. Yet minister I do because these are God’s people and I love them. To be their shepherd is a privilege that I do not take lightly. They have taught me much and from their ovine counterparts that I pass each day I am enlightened.

Much is made of those with sufficient fortitude attempt a ministry in the inner city as though this is the ultimate ministry field, filled with dangers and challenges unmatched in any other ministry field. We rightly admire those whom God has called into these stations but we should also avoid denigrating those who God has placed in the suburbs as well. The tract home holds its share of unique problems as well.

God calls some of us into the countryside to minister. We worship with top-notch musicians and deeply spiritual people whose prayers move your soul. We preach with all the fervor and sophistication of our urban cohort. We marry and we bury and we equip His people to minister on their own. We are not here because we were unable to make it elsewhere or because we are running away from something, we are here because we are obedient to God’s calling upon our lives.

We are here because we love God’s people and His people are here.

The Secret … Again

The Blessed Church

The Blessed Church by Robert Morris

The simple secret to growing the Church you love; the subtitle sings that sweet siren song that lures so many pastors and church leaders to delve into the pages of books like this. In the era of often relentless pressure to grow the attendance of their church, leaders are always looking for an edge, one method or program that will bring more souls into the seats. Morris’ contribution to the literature is enticing, but the secret is absent.

That there is nothing new here is not Morris’ fault. The biblical path to a sound Christian church is well-trod ground. There are no secrets to be gleaned, only an obedient heart to be followed. Sound, God-given vision, check. Godly, devoted leaders at all levels of the church, check. A healthy pastor, check. Each of the elements that Morris highlights is rooted in Scripture and is supported by engaging writing. But new secrets? No.

Pastor Morris is relentlessly upbeat about the Church and the pastorate, and given the blessed success of Gateway Church, he has every reason to be. Reading the book is uplifting and encouraging and can provide some touch points for the pastor to hold their own ministry against. The one thing that should not happen (though it often does as a result of books/programs like this) is that a minister or leader should attempt to clone God’s work at Gateway. God creates every work for his specific purposes in specific locales to specific populations. Looking at the success or failure of other churches simply draws your eyes away the One leading you.

I am grateful to Waterbrook Press who provided this book for review.

All The Cool Kids Are Doing It

“Pastor, everyone thinks that…”

“Hey, everyone is going to …”

“Mom, everyone will be at …”

Everyone is an interesting pronoun. It is an indefinite form that doesn’t refer to a specific person or thing. While plural in its scope, it is treated grammatically as a singular. Everyone is the faceless mob.

Pastor, everyone dislikes the color of the carpet in the sanctuary!

Wow, you wonder, how could I have been so wrong? How can I be the only person who likes the [color of the carpet, the new sound of worship, the Children’s church, the youth pastor, (insert your current issue)]? This reflection should only last a second though as you recall your grammar. It represents the whole as a single entity, and since you don’t dislike (whatever) you recognize that the scope of its usage is necessarily limited.

Everyone is not leaving the church. Everyone does not disagree with the decision to name so and so as a ministry leader. Everyone is no one until you are included. Until then, the scope of the commenter is subject to challenge. When you do however, an interesting thing happens.

They almost never include themselves in ‘everyone’.

‘Everyone’ is a challenge or a test. The person using the term is poking and prodding to see what kind of a reaction they can provoke in you. If you take the bait and respond by asking what can be done about the issue at hand, don’t be surprised if the solution is deeply enmeshed in that person’s agenda. This isn’t necessarily malicious but it may threaten to derail the plans that God has laid before you for His church.

When I am confronted by ‘everyone’, I use a number of probing questions and statements to get to the heart of the issue:

  1. “Do you dislike …”: Often, this simply question helps to uncover the true nature of the speaker’s concern. Perhaps there was safety in posing the question as crowd-sourced and now they feel safe in speaking for the group even as they give their personal take on the issue.
  2. “Who exactly is unhappy with …”: This question can put a stop to agenda promoters as you indicate that you will speak to the other people directly, freeing her from the enormous responsibility of being the spokesman for the crowd.
  3. “You and I agree that … should be done, so it really isn’t everyone is it.” This is another statement that uncovers what really wants/needs to be said.

Grace and peace to everyone…

Four Chords and Seven Hours Ago…

imageThe progression itself wasn’t anything special—D Am7 C G. Guitar players have been fashioning  songs from those notes since the first neck attached to a spruce top and strummed. That the fingers naturally move from one tone to the next may contribute something; a natural abandon inhabits the musician when following the chart becomes secondary. The feet move, the neck is raised in emphasis and the voice finds its volume.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty

Who was and is and is to come

With all creation I sing praise to the King of Kings

You are my everything and I will adore you

Your eyes roam around the stage as you are caught up in the moment of worship being shared with your fellow musicians. The world truly fades away and an apprehension sets in as the last verse is sung and you know the end of the song is approaching but you don’t want it to stop. There are smiles and closed eyes as each person approaches the throne through their own music. Harmonies are heard, the drummer locked in and then filling with abandon. The Spirit heavy in His presence, descending in reception and encouraging us on. Laying aside the crowns of this world for a brief glimpse of heaven, this is the privilege of worship.

And then the realization that so few on Sunday will share this moment…the heart breaks.

Filled with wonder, awestruck wonder

At the mention of Your name

Jesus your name is power, breath and living water

Such a marvelous mystery

 

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Building on Bedrock

Dug Down Deep by Joshua Harris

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Contrary to the oft-heard sentiment among Christians that they “just want to love Jesus” and dispense with the wrestling with the challenges of theology, Pastor Joshua Harris says that “we can’t know him and relate to him in the right way without doctrine.” We know the redeemer, but through the study of doctrine we come to fully understand the contours of how God is working in His world. The study of doctrine enables us to understand “what he’s done and why he’s done it”.

Dug Down Deep is an unexpected joy. Having read and studied many of the lengthy, challenging theological treatises that he references throughout the book, Harris has produced a systematic theology that doesn’t read like the typical volume of this type. Dug Down Deep approaches the key doctrines of Christianity in the pastoral voice of your friend Josh. He swaddles the theological truth with personal accounts, showing over and over how different points of doctrine have a direct application to day to day life.

While Harris has gone to great lengths to make the book approachable for Christians who locate themselves nearly anywhere along the continuum of spiritual maturity, it has a depth that will make it a useful book to return to again and again throughout life. The reader can take away as much as their maturity enables them to understand within each chapter without getting overwhelmed. Repeated reads through the chapters will give new insights and scriptures to meditate upon enough for many years of fruitful study. This book belongs an many shelves where no doctrinal guides exist now.

Pastor Harris’ conversational approach would make this book especially useful for youth and young Christian study groups. He has a pastoral heart for people to know their Lord better and each topic is designed to invite you in and to understand Him on a deeper level. More mature Christians will find the quotes by Packer, Sproul, Stott and others and will gain the confidence to approach some their more challenging theologies.

I’m grateful to Multnomah Books who provided this book for review.

Of Pastors, Private Jets and Being a Watchman

imageI flew in to our prayer meeting this morning on my private jet. A car service whisked me from the airport to the doors of the sanctuary at 5:55, just in time to hear the first notes of the hymns that were raised by the choir before setting the day’s prayer concerns before the congregation. Two hours later I rose from my kneeling position, noting that I was the first to leave of the hundreds of souls gathered, convicting me all over again of my accountability for the spiritual welfare of those God has brought me to shepherd.

Okay, that wasn’t my reality, but it might have been some pastor’s morning!

The truth is I drove my 12 year old creaky pickup truck to the church, arriving at 5:30 to turn on the lights, open the doors and start the computer and projector to display the concerns of the church for the gathered. I don’t do this for my glory or to be noted as a servant. I do it out of love for my God and my church. (We, your pastor included, don’t do this for our glory or to be noticed. We do it out of love for God and Church.) We do what we do out of love for you.

imageThe book of Ezekiel can be a tough read, but it can be a convicting read as well. Turn to chapter 33 and read it with your pastor in mind. He is called to be the Watchman, accountable to God for your spiritual welfare. God has called him or her to warn you of the roaming lion or the sweeping sword.

But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes the life of one of them, that man will be taken away because of his sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for his blood.  (vv 33:6)

Few pastors who take passages like this seriously would do what they do, giving sacrificially of their lives for you in return for 30 pieces of lucre. One need only turn the page to the next chapter to see a warning against taking on the role of spiritual shepherd strictly for material gain or personal status. As the prophet records:

This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? (vv 34:2b)

Pastoring with love and humility, I wish you grace and peace.

Ted Haggard (mis)Interprets James

imageAfter doing immeasurable harm to the brothers and sisters of New Life Church, the members of the National Association of Evangelicals, and to the Church of Jesus Christ at large, Ted Haggard is again placing himself into a leadership position as he plants the new St. James church in Colorado Springs. The new body draws its name from the Epistle of James from which Haggard quotes verse 2:17 “..faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” and witnesses to the number of times in the past three years that he and wife Gayle have been the recipients of love in action. This is a noble application of the verse Ted, but what is the definition of faith? Is it to sin boldly so as to receive more grace?

Apparently he didn’t read any further in the book. Verse 3:1 of this practical letter says “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” There’s a higher standard Ted, a standard for those who influence the lives of so many others. “We all stumble in many ways.” (3:2) How true! None of us is sinless but we pursue holiness with a vigor that is unmatched.

And we do it every day to the furthest extent of our Spirit-led abilities so that when we step up to pulpit we have the integrity to look into the eyes of those that God has seated before us and to speak the Gospel into their lives…

…without having to worry about our hidden lives being revealed.

Are those who take to seats in St. James church going to know that Haggard has been pursuing holiness rather than drugs and sexual liaisons? What accountability will he have this time that he did not before? The nagging question that burns in the minds of many right now is whether or not the standards of holiness will be relaxed to accommodate the very behaviors that precipitated his previous fall. Will the standards be such that God will be present when the body is gathered?

As a brother in Christ I take seriously my responsibility to Ted. I love him and extend all measure of grace to him and his family and pray for nothing but redemption in his life. I believe that the Lord’s grace has blanketed and forgiven his sin and worked to knit together the Haggard family and make it whole. On the other hand, I don’t believe that he should be stepping back into the pulpit and leading a new body at this time. Had he placed himself under the leadership of another pastor and the accountability of another Elder board for some time to demonstrate a restored soul and measure of integrity this move would make sense but not this way. If God has called him back to the pulpit then I’m moving out of the way as fast as I can. If Ted has called himself back to preaching, it’s my responsibility to take his measure in accordance with the scriptures.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)

Confessions of a Public Speaker

imageI scrambled for excuses—I’m too busy (lie), I’m tired (lie), my feet hurt from the road test (bad lie)—but before anything good came to mind, he said these invaluable words: “The clutch is your friend.”

How could the clutch be my friend?

How indeed? For Scott Berkun this datum came out of the dark at just the right moment. It distilled a lot of information into a single memorable idea that was needed to be successful at a crucial task (learning to drive his brother’s beloved ‘84 Honda Prelude.) These memorable points, important as they are, are often buried or missing from the lectures, sermons, and talks that we hear (endure?). Should this come as a revelation? As people who communicate for a living it becomes all too easy for preachers, teachers, and speakers to forget the foundation of public speaking: conveying information of value to an audience whose lives will be enriched by receiving it. Everything we think about in terms of speechifying should swirl around this single ideal. To the rescue comes a new reminder in Berkun’s Confessions of a Public Speaker. 

Confessions is not a how-to book as in make three points and start with a humorous story. Instead, the reader gets the benefit of Berkun’s hard earned knowledge of what it’s like to stand up in front 5 or 5000 people and convey something in a meaningful fashion. He talks about the highs and lows with plenty of reality based examples that can aid any speaker willing to invest the time in improving their public speaking skills. There is much about the business of speaking in these pages but the most valuable paragraphs are those in which Berkun is willing to share the failures and their causes. Here is where we learn to improve.

If you are involved in any type of speaking, whether it is in front a church or classroom or simply presenting the TPS reports at a staff meeting, you need to ask yourself how much you have invested in improving yourself in this critical area. We tend to invest our time in learning the information we want to present but simply let the end product, the communication, just happen. The pages of Scott’s invaluable book remind us of the reality; unless we can effectively communicate that information to an audience all of our other efforts are for naught. Make the commitment to improve. Read Confessions and then spend the time necessary to think about the process of speaking. Practice, practice, practice. Then go out and make some noise of your own.

A Word for My Brother & Sister Pastors

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Prophetical-Priestly Ministry by Darius Salter

It’s fascinating how things fall into your lap when you least expect them. Serendipity is the word often used to describe favorable circumstances like this when you discover something grand has come your way unexpectedly. Christian sagacity trends not towards luck though, but instead, toward an understanding of the work of the Father and Spirit in concert. Salter’s book landing in my hands was just such an event.

Prophetical-Priestly Ministry was published in 2002 to little fanfare. A quick search for reviews of the book comes up short; it is ignored on Amazon and the single entry at ChristianBook.com is a restatement of the title. The silence is understandable. The book is not about how to grow your church, new ways of reaching post-moderns, or new secrets of the life of Jesus. These books fly off the shelves into pastoral libraries. Books that serve as correctives such as this are often ignored. And I believe, ignored at the peril of the pastor and their church.

Salter’s message to pastors is simple: return to your core responsibilities. Speak the prophetic word of God into the lives of your congregation rather than feeding them messages about how to have their ‘best life now.’ Stand as the priest for God’s people rather than their cheerleader or worse, their manager. He says “Prophet-priests specialize in diseases of the soul; sin, despair, depression, loneliness, alienation, anger, hostility, pride, greed, avarice, addiction and fear. The list is almost endless. Of course, these sicknesses eventuate in the systemic evils of ethnocentricity, nationalism, exploitation, oppression, and racism.” The message in this thin volume calls us back to the service of the congregation and gets us away from parading around selling books or conducting seminars on how to fill more seats in the sanctuary.

The author critiques the current ‘worldly’ ministry that he sees all around the American landscape (in 2002 and worsening since). The Church has gotten entrapped in the self-fulfillment culture and, in some cases, has moved away her first love. God is a second thought in the worst of these environments. The ministry has become enablers. We promise spirituality while allowing our people to remain in their materialistic, pluralistic lifestyle. The gospel becomes a casualty of the latest charity initiative or small group study topic.

I didn’t go looking for this book. It appeared in a weekly-specials email and something moved me to purchase it. Initially, it arrived and made its way to the book shelves to be read later. I picked it up after a time and was immediately struck by the message that the Spirit brought to bear through Brother Salter’s words. I was stopped cold when the Spirit brought my feeble ministry efforts up against those of Francis Asbury,

For the elect’s sake, Asbury ceaselessly uttered the Word through Scripture reading, prayer, exhortation, teaching, and family worship. Every overnight stay would involve spiritual examination of the residents and subsequent catechism. There would be no idle words. “My mind was powerfully struck with a sense of the great duty of preaching in all companies, of always speaking boldly and freely for God as if in the pulpit.” This included calling “the family into the room and addressing this pointedly one by one concerning their souls.”

One by one; when was the last time you (or I) sat even our immediate families down and questioned them concerning their spiritual welfare? Have we gone home by home and addressed these concerns with our faith families? Why not? Because we have succumbed to the Western individuality of the culture and we respect the personal nature of a person’s faith more than we do the calling we have received to be a priest and prophet.

Brothers and sisters, now is the time for a new awakening within the Church. Not the watered down awakening of “spirituality” in its myriad forms but for us to stand upon the walls ahead of our flock, intervening for them with God and speaking His word into their lives not matter how difficult. Find this book, read it, absorb it, and let the Spirit work it all out in your ministry.

E.V. Hill and the Soul of Los Angeles

imageThe city still cries for another like Pastor Hill to speak truth in the City of Angels. For over forty years he served the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and never drew back from proclaiming righteousness. To learn more about the heart of a true man of God, a good primer is the sermon he preached at his beloved Baby’s funeral. Set aside a few minutes and soak it in…you will be changed.

For the visual generation, here is a good starter link on Youtube: