“You are So Young”: Patience, Ambition, and Mentoring

When Eugene Peterson, the great contemplative pastor, died last Autumn, I found as many interview videos of him as I could, and watched them all. What impressed me about his latest interviews was this:

Whether he was asked about his life, his ministry, about the counsel he would give young people in ministry, his response was always a variation on the utterly simple but elusive quest to just be yourself. 

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Near Rapperswil, Switzerland

One can tell through these videos that the joy in which Peterson reveled in his old age was precisely this: the increasing pleasure of merely being himself. For Peterson, this second coming-of-age was not a growing disregard for sources of personal and moral formation outside of himself. Nor was it a quest to discover some hidden “self” within himself. It was rather a gradual—though quicker than for most!—and at last triumphant loosening of the fetters that bound his soul to what we might call juvenile ambition. 

I have tended to go on spurts of great ambition myself. And to champion ambition against its naysayers. And I would still defend it today, if what we mean by ambition is intentionality, deliberateness, zeal, and even something so crude-sounding as goal-setting. No one thinks of novelist and writer Annie Dillard as a paragon of American “Ambition,” but she nevertheless has grabbed hold of thousands of wandering attentions with her sage counsel: “A schedule is a net for catching days.” And “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

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Eugene Peterson. NavPress.

My instinct is that Peterson learned to catch days. Not by pursuing “achievement” or “progress” in the American industrial sense of those words. Rather, I think he learned to shut out the world in order to hear particular people. When asked about his magnificent paraphrase of the entire Bible, he said that he spent the first years of the project simply pastoring his congregation, learning how they used their English language, and recognizing that plain folk, normal folk who aren’t pastor-scholar-nerds, speak the English language much more plainly, effectively, naturally, and with greater feeling than academic lexicographers do.

Peterson was, as the Christian approach to culture is too infrequently summarized, against the world for the world. In order to contribute, he had to shun “achievement.” In order to speak through and beyond the noise and clamor of the American Christian trinket-and-publishing industrial complex, he had to ignore it and focus his attention on his little church in Bel Air, Maryland. By the end of his life, his very congregation had taught him how best to be himself. The real Eugene. He didn’t rush it. He knew that, by and by, the real Eugene was destined to develop and emerge. But first he had to be deliberately, almost monastically, local. Intentionally contemplative, prayerful, and hopeful.

Earlier in my own ministry, I too often caved in to juvenile ambition. Propelled and justified by a dubious earnestness and urgency to “make an impact” and “start a movement,” I indulged in the rush and hurry of church planting, even as I formally renounced all the industrial metaphors. I made fun of those who “launched” churches and insisted that we “plant” them instead. But despite my organic vocabulary, I was a manager, ambitious at heart and impatient in spirit. 

As our congregation enters upon an initiative to pair mentors and mentees in relationships designed to foster support and growth in grace, I have been enjoying our leadership’s consensus that we aren’t going to programmatize things. That we aren’t going to churn out disciples on a conveyor belt. That, instead, we are all going to commit to pursuing growth in grace, to supporting one another’s growth. I am enjoying a certain feeling of liberty, rather than managerial unease, as we pursue this together.

I am among the late-bloomers when it comes to the blessed substitution of patient intentionality in the place of juvenile ambition.

Paula Modersohn-Becker of Rilke

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Portrait of Rilke

The great German poet of a century ago Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, says of art and artists what I think can be said about ministry and ministers; about Christian growth and Christians; about human development and human beings:

Being an artist means: Not numbering and counting but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconscernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the so-called 10,000-hour-rule. The idea that to become great at something, you’ve got to put in 10,000 hours. I bet Rilke would say “fine, but don’t count the hours.”

Ten years into my pastoral ministry, I find myself repeating myself, particularly as I try to bring my sermons to a close. Two of the things that I keep saying are, “Isn’t it such a wonderful thing to be a Christian believer?” and “Remember: in Jesus Christ, your best days are always still ahead of you.”

Or, as Rilke tells his young poet, whom he mentors patiently with his tender letters:

“You are so young, and so much before all beginning.”

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10 Things to Love About Luther

Luther Slide.001He wasn’t perfect. He said nasty things to a lot of people. And while he at first held great hope that European Jewry would be swept up into the evangelical movement of the Reformation, he later uttered a lot of bigoted things against Jews.

I still love Luther. And here are my Top 10 Reasons to Love Martin Luther on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation:

10. Luther believed that God didn’t need him to reform the church.

I believe Luther, despite his bull-in-a-china-shop temperament, honestly didn’t want to split the church. And I have no reason to doubt his sincerity when he says:

“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.  And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip [Melanchthon] and my Amsdorf [Nicholaus von], the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.”

9. In fact, Luther believed that God didn’t need him at all.

I am in a phase in which I am beginning to greatly appreciate the monastic traditions, especially those of the first few centuries. Luther was a monk, too. But by the time he was leading the Reformation, he didn’t have a lot of great things to say about monasticism. He felt that cloistered monks and nuns made two mistakes: thinking too much of their service to God, and thinking almost nothing of their neighbor. So Luther said:

“Who needs my good works? God doesn’t need my good works. But my neighbor does.”

When we realize that God doesn’t need us, it takes off all kinds of unnecessary pressure to be awesome for God, and releases us to let God be awesome by the Spirit at work through us. We are chosen and privileged to get to have God attract glory through our loving service to our neighbor.

8. Luther was a monk, and married a nun.

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Sorry, but that’s just awesome.

Better, she was 16 years younger than him! He married when he was 40 and Katarina Von Bora was 24.

Luther wrote that some people are called to a life of celibacy in singleness, and most to marriage–but that both were holy callings. The Medieval church had ranked celibacy over marriage and said that monks and nuns were the real servants of God, while everyone else was mired in the world and couldn’t really serve God fully. 

Luther was like, um … no.

He said, reflecting on his own potential to remain celibate: “I am neither wood nor stone.”

Thankfully, once he deconstructed the medieval notion that God needed monks and nuns at all, and that they certainly weren’t more holy than married people, his honesty about not being a block of wood or a stone, sexually-speaking, made some monks and nuns wonder about their own vocations.

The rule had been that once you made a vow of celibacy, you could never go back. You had to be celibate for life. Luther recognized that there could be seasons of life. God might call you to celibacy in one season, and then to marriage. And perhaps again–after a spouse’s death–to celibacy once again.

Nowadays the world values singleness (sans celibacy) as the “best”. Meanwhile, the church seems to value marriage and disparage singleness, as though singles were lacking something.

Luther’s teaching–and his bold action!–are instructive for us. There are seasons when God calls us to chastity, and in which we may be given God-glorifying and (especially) neighbor-serving work to do and the freedom from spousal constraints to do that work. And there are seasons when God calls us to serve a spouse and maybe some kids as our “first neighbors.”

Luther helps us think clearly about singleness and marriage. And he certainly catches our attention when he marries a nun!

7. Luther was a jerk, but at least he knew it.

It’s at this point that we’re going to need to visit the Luther “insult generator.” I’ll wait. 

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Look, there are plenty of times that Luther’s jerkiness was uncalled for, when it harmed the neighbors he was meant to serve. Plenty of times when his proneness to ad hominem attacks showed that he had an insecurity that wasn’t in concord with the gospel itself.

At the same time, Luther was no fan of himself. Listen to his advice:

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’”

Being honest about how disappointed we are in ourselves is not in itself humility. It won’t in itself turn us from those who curse to those who bless. But it’s the essential first step.

6. Even though I’m nicer than Luther, Luther’s prayer life dwarfs mine.

Luther famously said:

“I have so much to do today that I’m going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done.”

What a jerk.

Time wasn’t the ruler of Luther. He had lots to do, but he was not busy like we’re busy. And that allowed him to say something annoying like the above.

But Luther also thought of prayer like breathing. He wanted to pray without ceasing in that way: for the need for God to flow out of him at every moment, so that he was in a constant spirit of prayer. And to me, this is even more convicting. After all, I can think of the last time that I sat down and prayed. But I can’t think of the last time that I moved through a day with prayer breathing out of me all the day long.

5. Luther’s message was not complex, or easy. It was–like most true things–simple and hard.

Legend has it that a member of Luther’s church came up to him and asked, “Why do you preach the gospel to us week after week?” Luther reportedly responded, “because week after week you forget it.”

This message is simple, though it’s hard. 

Luther’s message was basically: “You cannot do nothing at all to make God love you, to earn his favor, to merit your salvation. You do not justify yourself. God justifies you by applying to your record the perfect life of Jesus. You can’t suffer enough to atone for your sins. God atones for your sins by applying to you the suffering of Jesus—the very proof that God loves you.”

At first we feel liberated by this news and say “Amen.” But then we proceed to think, act, and feel as though we must impress God with our good deeds rather than allow our service to our neighbor to be energized by God’s love for us. And so we have to hear it again.

The gospel that Luther recovered is not complex or easy. It’s simple and hard. 

4. Luther talked about farts. A Lot.

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Even with the Headmaster gone, the only quote I found that I could share with my colleagues in staff devotions on this topic was this one:

“Almost every night when I wake up the devil is there and wants to dispute with me. I have come to this conclusion: When argument doesn’t help, I instantly chase him away with a fart.”

It’s good to know that a world-changing theologian not only talked about farts around his kids and his congregation, but frequently talked about farts in his voluminous published theological writings.

3. Luther was a practical theologian.

I grew up on Luther’s Small Catechism. Answers in the catechism about a point of doctrine are followed up with another question: What does this mean? And every answer to that follow-up question started with “We should fear, love, and trust God so that we …”

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In other words, Luther recognized that the gospel finds its home in our hearts, in our affections, in our emotions, in our countenances, in our dispositions: not just in our brains, but in the most human and touchy-feely parts of who we are as people.

This or that biblical truth is true, and it means that we should fear God, love God, trust God. In other words, every truth from the Bible calls for an “amen” not just in our thoughts, not just in our words, but in our feels.

Any truth that’s worth believing belongs in your gut, Luther catechizes us: you must let it shape your fears, loves, and trust in ways that make you more human and thus more like Jesus at the core of your being.

2. Luther suffered physically, mentally, and spiritually, but savored and treasured the simple, good gifts of God.

One of the reasons Luther talked about farts and in general had such a potty mouth is because he spent so much time on the potty. He suffered his whole life from constipation. How bad was his case? Well, in 2004, German archeologists discovered the toilet on which Luther wrote the 95 theses. 95. Great find!

But he also suffered spiritual slumps and depression both before and after his discovery of the gospel. Knowing the gospel, and even believing it, doesn’t necessarily cure spiritual slumps. Neither does it automatically cure depression. We can grow in our fear, love, and trust of God even while we are in a dark night of the soul.

But despite all these ailments, Luther was known as a jolly fellow who loved simple things: a good pair of shoes sold at a fair price; a good stein of beer with a few buddies; a good carafe of Corsican wine; a good laugh; a good meal.

Luther was a model receiver of God’s good and simple gifts. He knew that they were from his loving Heavenly Father, who loves to give good gifts—both simple and profound—to his children. And he was thankful for the gifts and for the neighbors that worked hard and skillfully to bring them into being.

1. Luther shows us that, when all is said and done, it’s all about Jesus.

Let’s end with this prayer of Luther’s, meditating on how astounding it is to be called a brother of Jesus.

O gracious God, I am fully aware that I am unworthy. I deserve to be a brother of Satan and not of Christ. But Christ, your dear Son died and rose for me. I am his brother. He earnestly desires that I should believe in him, without doubt and fear.I need no longer regard myself as unworthy and full of sin. For this I love and thank him from my heart. Praise be to the faithful Savior, for he is so gracious and merciful as are you and the Holy Spirit in eternity. Amen.

Dulcis Loquela, Dulcis Oratio, or Un-Umming Your Speech

‘If you’ve done your homework you’ll know when one of your credibility killers is just about to escape from your mouth. Then, all you’ll need to do is to keep quiet. I know, easier said than done. At first you’ll have awkward pauses in your speech, but that’s still better, actually far better, than speech peppered with “likes” and “ums.” Eventually the pauses get shorter.’ – Lisa B Marshall in Business Insider
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I once interned under Sinclair Ferguson, one of the great preachers alive today. In one of the few chances I got to sit down with him and really talk about ministry and preaching, he charged me to eliminate “umm” from my speech. He insisted that in order to get rid of it from my preaching, I would have to get rid of it from my everyday conversation. I worked hard at it, and made a lot of progress.
Lisa B Marshall calls “um” a “disfluency” and a “distraction.”  I think that might be a little harsh. They are natural from a linguistic perspective. As she says, every language has them. And perhaps 20% of our utterances in casual conversation are of this variety.
But it is true that in certain contexts these space-fillers can be “credibility killers.” They call attention to the fact that you’re still trying to form your thoughts, and maybe even your beliefs, on the fly, in your head. On the other hand, the elimination of disfluencies will make it sound like your opinions and beliefs have taken shape over time, and that you are confident in them.
I think the tricky part is, what if you actually are not sure what you think? The reason we give a negative connotation to “rhetoric” these days is because so many people have waffled back and forth, forming their “beliefs” at the drop of a hat to suit the occasion.
It’s important to make sure that one’s public speaking doesn’t project false confidence. The key, as far as I can tell, is to confidently state that we are less than certain about the things we are less than certain about. (See what I did there?)
If I had to guess, I’d say our world contains roughly:
  • 5% smooth talking and successful purveyors of empty rhetoric
  • 15% honest, quite intelligent people with unfortunate rhetorical habits, who utter lots of ummmms and leave a lot of us bored, distracted, or unconvinced
  • 30% people who are blustery, cocky, and who darken counsel with all kinds of crummy ideas and logical fallacies spewed with inarticulate garbling passed off as persuasive speech
  • 40% people who are not likely to try to persuade others, simply because they’re not disposed to leadership

That’s 90%, which leaves 10%, I suppose, who have something valuable to say to people who need to hear it, and can speak with confidence, elegance, and persuasiveness, and who probably don’t distract from the content of their thought by habitually resorting to disfluencies.

My experience, especially during this election cycle, is that the hot-headed 30% are not going to lose their unsavory rhetorical tendencies soon. It seems to be a matter of the heart, and while the heart can change, it usually takes time. I know, because I used to squarely belong in that 30%.

However, I would be difficult to overestimate the difference that could be made in our world if some of the 15%, whose voices we need to hear, would make themselves better-heard. In their case, change can begin to take place immediately. If you’re one of them — part of the 15% that ought to move into the 10% — then start small, but start today. Drop the “umm.” Embrace the silence left in its place. Gather your thoughts but keep your mouth closed while you do it.

Let’s all give up “umm” for Lent.

Risk a Challenge

“Some of the people we’ve ministered to the most still aren’t showing up consistently.”

Thus writes one of the young church planters I am coaching. Below is my reply.

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Oh man. You’ve put your finger on the most frustrating and perpetual struggle of church planting. My counsel in the face of this issue, which will not go away, is threefold:

1. People Can’t Be ‘Church Plant Fodder’

You have to determine in your heart that you will resist valiantly the temptation to use people as “church plant fodder”; to minister only or primarily to those who can reciprocate by fueling your mission and aligning with your vision.

2. Discern if Someone is a ‘Person of Peace’

You have to, at the same time, employ the “person of peace” strategy, which is actually less of a strategy and more of a matter of spiritual discernment. [The “person of peace” is someone who, whether already a believer or not, seems to be open toward you and ready to serve you in one way or another.]

Even though we don’t want to reduce things to “butts in the seats”, people’s attendance is one indication of their spiritual temperature toward you and toward the things you’re committed to spiritually and missionally. There’s a sense in which you do need to be choosy about who you invest in. You are a finite person. You have to choose how to use your limited time, talents, and treasure.

Invest in the people who know, like, and trust you. Use that relational leverage to challenge them to kingdom faithfulness, and to invite them into your communal process of walking with Jesus in day-to-day life alongside you and the community that is forming around you. In other words, when you discern that certain people are in your sphere of influence and that your invitations and challenges will matter to them, invite and challenge them further, and further, and further.

3. Risk a Challenge and Invite them In

If you aren’t sure where someone is at with you, take the risk of a challenge. This is something that is hard for me to do. I’d rather people start to know, like, and trust me in obvious, ego-stroking ways, merely on the strength of my charisma, charm, and intellect. But that’s all vanity.

If someone is showing some receptivity to your ministry, but a lack of commitment to the mission God has given you, take the risk of looking them in the eyes and say: “I think the next step for you is to make a commitment to what God is doing among us. Don’t stay out on the edges of our extended spiritual family forever, taking from us what you need, when you need it, but never pressing your own gifts and value into our family’s mission. Instead, get in on what God is doing here.” This is a spiritual version of “poop or get off the pot.” And I believe in this challenge. Some will rise to it. Others will go away. It’s worth it.

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What’s your perspective on this perennial ministry frustration? How do you strategically and missionally deploy your finite energies and competencies so that your mission moves forward, while at the same time you are not reducing human beings to “church plant fodder”?

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Fear the Cash, Wear the Crash Helmet

“As many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” – Acts 4:34-35

Keep your hands off that cash

This would freak any of us out, if we were the Apostles. “Who put me in this kind of position?” They say that pastors should keep their hands completely off the church finances, and especially never come into contact with cash money. Keeps us honest, above reproach, un-scanalizable. These folks dumped a whole pile of cash money at their pastors’ feet and said “you all figure out what to do with this. The Spirit of God freed me to give this, and to release control over how it’s precisely used.”

Yikes.

But if you’re planting a church, and the Spirit of God is moving among his people, you’re going to have these moments.

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Wombs and wee preachers

I remember the first instance of this, when I was first learning how to preach one summer at a country church in Virginia. I mentioned off-hand while preaching through the book of Ruth, that we should notice that it was the Lord who opened her womb, and gave her and Boaz conception. I didn’t grind and axe or get pontifical. I just mentioned it, pointed it out.

Well, 2 of those country folk, who happened to be married with a good bit of offspring already, and not much cash flow and not much square footage … they had to go and get “convicted”. They decided to trust the Lord with their family size. And of course, they got pregnant. And then pregnant again. One of those kiddos was named “Ruth”.

Oh gosh! Did I do that? Yikes. Not really. Kind of? No. Oh wow.

Don’t turn your life upside down, I’m just preaching

Then there was our church plant’s emphasis and sermon series on hospitality. Hospitality. Seems innocuous enough. Being friendly, inviting people over, feeding people, maybe having someone stay for a while so they can get on their feet again. No big deal.

But after 12 weeks of preaching on gospel hospitality from creation to New Creation, all of a sudden there’s a pile of money laying at your feet. One couple in our church felt the Spirit of God call them, through the preaching of the word, to take guardianship of a 13-year-old girl whose home-life had deteriorated. To raise a teenager. Teenager. One laden with beauty and brokenness.

Wait, hold on. Don’t do that. Let’s make sure you’re not just hallucinating or having a warm fuzzy moment. This is serious business. Don’t sell the farm just because I preached about Jesus and his generous welcome to us.

Crash helmets for seersucker

You’re not in charge. You have the authority to minister God’s word. It’s not a coercive and physical authority. It’s persuasive and verbal. And you—if you’re like me—hardly think of yourself as a grown-up, much less as in some ways analogous to the Apostles who led the first churches in the New Testament. You want Jesus to move among your people, but you don’t want to feel responsible for the weird things people do as a result.

Maybe Annie Dillard is right when she says that we really ought to be wearing crash helmets, and not big flowery hats and seersucker trousers, when we enter the presence of God in corporate worship. There’s nothing cute about the Spirit using his Word to flip someone’s life completely upside down in an act of radical, joyful obedience to something you certainly didn’t explicitly suggest anyone should actually do.

I still don’t know what to make of all this. I could be trite and say that it makes me humble. I could be sagacious and say that you should be warned and prepared. But I don’t think I’ve gotten past the PTSD of seeing the pile of cash laying at my feet, so as of yet I have nothing really to say. Except yikes.

Yikes indeed.

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6 Three-Quarter-Baked Arguments for Becoming Church Members Even if You’re About to Relocate

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I thought I’d pseudonymously share an exchange with a dear couple in our church about church membership, especially since they thought, as Dustin Hoffman says in The Graduate, these ideas were fully baked rather than half.

This couple is planning to relocate for a new job, after having leaned into the life of our church increasingly in the past year.

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Dear Andy,

We appreciate the personal email asking about membership and where we’re at with it.

In light of our current life situation, we weren’t considering membership. If we were staying in Rock Hill, we’d be first in line to become members of Hill City. That’s a no-brainer. We love the church, consider it our home, and are committed to it. However, it’s clear to us that we’re not staying in Rock Hill, and we will be moving this summer. It didn’t make sense to us to become members and make that level of commitment if we’re leaving four months later.

As we look at our future and the coming move, the biggest regret we have about moving is leaving Hill City. Hill City has been a great fit for us, and we have felt more loved, wanted, and appreciated here than at any other church we’ve been a part of. We hope and pray that when we move, we can find something that approaches what we’ve found here with you all. You love Jesus and live life for him with an authenticity that is rare. You avoid pretense and aren’t afraid to live in a messy reality of brokenness and grace. You all are awesome!

In our remaining time in Rock Hill, we want to be fully engaged (and used!) in the church in any way we can. We want to make the most of the time we have left with you all.

If you have any feedback for us or a different perspective on this, please feel free to share.

-Joe & Judy

—————-

Dear Joe and Judy,

We’re of course so sorry we’ll be losing you and your gifts in our church, but obviously we want what Jesus wants for you and for his kingdom, and so we are thrilled that you’ve been given clarity about your next steps.

May I suggest a couple half-baked arguments for why you might consider going ahead and becoming members anyway? Either way, of course, we support your decisions.

1. Ellie and I were 90% sure we were moving away from Ohio when we found Grace Church in Hudson, OH. We found an unfathomably rich community and the restoration of our spiritual sanity, along with some robust Bible teaching that challenged us in our walk with Christ. We joined 2 months after beginning to attend. We moved 4 months later to SC. They baked us a cake and had a commissioning and send-off for us after the service on our last Sunday. It was moving, and we never regretted joining for a second.

2. When you arrive in your new context and settle into a church family, you’ll be able to have your new church contact us and we can commend you to them and to their care, so that there is a continuity in your care and in your membership. I know church membership and ‘transfer’ is taken more seriously in the Presbyterian tradition than maybe in others, but it was really neat to settle into our new church family in Columbia and have their elders contact our old elders in Ohio and have them commend us to their care. Weird Presbyterian idiosyncrasy, but I think it’s cool-weird, and meaningful.

3. If you were engaged to be married, because you had found your dream-spouse (or something finally close enough!), and then, 2 weeks before the wedding, found out that you only had 4 months to live: what would you do? I’d get married. You said “it didn’t make sense to … make that level of commitment if we’re leaving in four months.” The only level of commitment you’re making is to love and serve your heart out for the four months you’ve got with us before God calls you to your new home.

4. Obviously we’re not grasping for numbers, numbers, numbers, or we’d have a very different way of “doing church” (or “playing church”). But at the same time, it will be very meaningful for our church and for our supporting presbytery to see that we gained you two as members, even if for a short time. Especially the fact that you’re a generation more senior than me and Ellie makes a big difference and says something important to our supporting presbytery and to our rather young church body.

5. Four months is way too short a time for you to get in trouble for all your quirky views. You’re safe. 🙂

6. If in some measure God has restored your hearts to confidence in what the local church can be under the grace of Jesus, then consider your membership vows a testimony to the goodness of Jesus for what he’s done here in this place, and in your hearts while you have been among us.

You all are such a blessing to us, and your support and encouragement to our church is a huge vote of confidence that God is really at work among us. For a young, relatively less-experienced leader like myself, it’s both incredibly humbling and a massive encouragement to me that you all would affirm what Christ is doing within Hill City’s body. Thank you for that. Even if you still feel like membership is not the way to go, that’s okay for sure. It’s really no personal slight whatsoever. Either way we’d like to have the chance to lay hands on you and commission you in your new kingdom deployment when you are getting ready to leave for your next assignment.

Yours in Jesus,
Andy

————-

This couple found these reasons compelling. Maybe you will too?

My man Daniel also wrote a piece today on the beauty of church membership, which is worth a read.

Be Vulnerable. And Prepare to Have it Thrown Back at You.

I’m working on my promised posts about how I believe a Sabbath / Neighborhood / Vocation ecclesiology can and should give evangelicalism’s Donald Millers no need to quit going to church. Truthfully, it’s been challenging to think through why exactly I believe what I believe on this issue. Hence, the delay.

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In the mean time, another standard church planting proverb.

I remember in seminary and during my several pastoral internships, I received a particular challenge and an accompanying caution.

The challenge

The challenge was not to set myself up as the unreachable paragon of spiritual maturity in my congregation. People needed to hear, in my preaching, teaching, counseling, and family, that I knew I was a sinner. That I had abiding idolatries that needed to be pulled from my heart’s embrace. That I was prepared to be the Lead Repenter. That I was in the same spiritual battle for holiness by grace that they were engaged in.

I believed what my professors and pastors said concerning this challenge. I committed myself to struggling for holiness by grace in the context of my community, just as I called others to do. I exhorted people to holiness by grace in my preaching and teaching, all the while sitting under my own preaching (and, thankfully, that of others in our community), and often made my own struggles plain to my congregation. I believe, fundamentally, that a pastor’s first identity is that of a plain, ordinary Christian. And I believe that emphasizing this helps people in their pursuit of holiness by grace.

The caution

In the very next breath, however, my profs and mentors would caution me. “Andy, whatever you say to people about your own struggles and sins, your own propensities to idolatry and your own inadequacies, these very things will be used against you. You can guarantee it.”

Really? People are that big of jerks? Yessir. And of course I’m one of those jerk-people myself at times.

And, in fact, this is just what has happened. 95% of my self-effacing references to my own hang-ups and inadequacies are at least somewhat effectual in enabling people to think more honestly about their own, and about the gracious Savior that is intent upon making us holy. But 5% of my disclosures are being gathered as intelligence data against me, and will be thrown back upon in a moment of fury.

Just recently, I suggested to someone that they could stand to imitate me in one respect: I have learned, relatively speaking, to bridle my tongue. The person had been setting forests ablaze with their torch of a tongue. I pointed out that I have a lot of relationships with people, many of which have been intact for a number of years, and that I’ve had much sweetness, a fair amount of authenticity, and very few fallings out. And that the individual, on the other hand, had burned bridge after bridge.

This individual replied that the only reason I have intact relationships is because I’m a people pleaser. I had fireproofed my relational bridges not because of growth in grace, but because my relational bridges were lacquered in idolatry.

This person must have been reading my blog or something.

The counsel

What did my profs and mentors say? They said to be vulnerable. They said to expect your vulnerability to be used against you. What else?

They told me to do it anyway. It’s worth it.

In fact, one of my mentors told me that the people who are most angry at their pastor, who use his shortcomings against him, are often the people who are in a spiritual jam. They are often the ones who are uncomfortable with the God of grace who seems to be an inescapable, claustrophobic presence surrounding them. They are those who take out their frustration with Jesus on someone other than Jesus. And so they are those whose outbursts and condemnations you cannot take personally, because it’s not about you; it’s about Jesus. Unlike the people half asleep during the sermon and half asleep through most of their spiritual lives, these people are miserable.

So I’m simply here to reiterate what my teachers have said: Stay vulnerable. Know that it’ll be thrown back in your face. Don’t take it personally.

What’s at stake

What’s at stake here is not your self-esteem or your career or your emotional equilibrium. You probably are a people-pleaser on some level, even if it’s not to the degree that I am. But it’s not about you and it’s not about me. It’s about Jesus. It’s about the culture of gospel-drenchedness you’re hoping to cultivate. It’s about the unabashed pursuit of holiness-by-grace and the culture of loving challenge that must develop in order to provide the right environment for that pursuit. It’s about abiding in and with and under Christ Jesus. Yes, it’s about Jesus.

So don’t lose heart. Make yourself the bond-slave of your people for Jesus’ sake. Work on your idol of people-pleaserness, and trust that Jesus is more determined to get rid of it than even you are. But don’t quit being vulnerable, and don’t take it personally when that vulnerability is turned into condemnation by a few. Pray for these people: they’re miserable and their hearts are going to be restless until they find their rest in Jesus.

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The Churched Disciple: When ‘Going to Church’ feels like a Distraction

In my last post, I suggested that many of the Donald Millers of the Christian world would be re-engaged with the local church if our churches gave them a compelling story about why their particular church exists.

photo: Sara McAllister. saramcallister.com

photo: Sara McAllister. saramcallister.com

Now, I’d like to suggest that a church’s broadened, compelling why calls for a integral and tightly-aligned, but diverse, multi-faceted, and sprawling how. If “going to church on Sunday” provokes a blasé response from passionate Christians, then it may be that the church has abandoned some key dimensions of its corporate calling.

Why leads to how

If your church believes most deeply that Jesus wants more than anything else to assemble his people for worship and instruction, and that its corporate calling is therefore to gather people to worship God and instruct them in Christian doctrine, then Sunday for 120 minutes or so will probably do the trick. That will be its how. 

On the other hand, if your church has a more expansive belief about spiritual reality, and a corporate calling as expansive as “the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus for the flourishing of Rock Hill”, for example, then your church is going to have to gather, bless, challenge, equip, and deploy its people across a number of different spheres of kingdom reality.

Worship, or ‘every good work’?

In our case, that means Sabbath, Neighborhood, and Vocation. Because we believe that Jesus is Lord over all, and because we believe that he has entrusted the mystery and power of the gospel to the church, we know that we’ve got a much larger job than providing worship and Sunday School. We need to gather the people of God so that we can open the word of God, teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training one another in righteousness so that every one of us will be fully equipped for every good work. Every good work. That’s what the church is responsible to help the people of God with.

And that’s partly what Donald Miller is grieving over as he looks at the ecclesiastical landscape, and at his local options. He has learned to worship God through his work! He gets something that many Christians never get. And yet he isn’t graced, challenged, or equipped by the church for what he is called to do with roughly half of his waking hours.

We need grace and truth, warm invitation and robust challenge, not just for the good work we’re called to do on Sundays “at church”, but for the pursuit of our neighbors and our networks, and for faithfulness in our spiritual, spousal, familial, educational, and occupational callings.

When ‘going to church’ is a distraction

What I’m suggesting here is this: If our beliefs are too narrow and our ecclesiastical missions are too truncated, our Donald Millers may end up becoming too ‘distracted’ by the glorious expansiveness of their personal kingdom callings to take even 2 hours a week to “go to church on Sunday.”

And I find it difficult to blame them.

In the next few posts, I’ll outline what I believe what a more expansive approach ministry looks like. I’ll discuss what I mean by Sabbath, Neighborhood, and Vocation, and how these or similar ecclesiastical hows can more fully equip God’s people for every good work.

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Find Yourself One of These, Now.

Back when I was writing up the core values and vision of Hill City Church—what dorks church planters can be with all their visionizing!—I came up with something cool. I thought it was original, and of course it’s not. It was about discipleship. I wrote that, ideally, everyone in the church would be both a Paul and a Timothy. Every Paul would have a Timothy, and every Timothy would have a Paul. Everyone would seek out someone less mature than they are, and pour themselves into them like Paul poured himself into Timothy. Everyone would also seek out someone more mature than them, and insist that that person pour themselves into them.

Pretty cool, huh?

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I forgot at least one big role that we all need. I forget who it was that brought this to light for me. But I experienced it last night, and it struck me afresh how vital this role is in the life of any Christian, and especially church planters.

Barnabas. Everyone needs not just a Paul, and not just a Timothy. Everyone also needs a Barnabas.

Barnabas was the encourager. Not the disciple. Not the discipler. Of course, he himself was both of these. But his overwhelming contribution to those around him—especially the ‘apostolic’ types who are always starting new things, taking risks, and getting disappointed when those ventures don’t cash out in the way they imagine—was to be an encourager.

My Barnabas eats frozen pizza with me. He meets burns the midnight oil with me in order to burn away my discouragement. He preaches the authentic gospel to me when I’ve been preaching phony gospels to myself. He grabs my identity by the scruff of the neck and slams it (gently, of course) back into Jesus Christ when it has become parasitic on the applause of others. He drinks beer with me even though he doesn’t like beer. He has a well-tuned BS Detector, but he wields it kindly.

You can’t afford to not have a Barnabas.

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Know Your Role

Just as a snowpocalypse is heading for the Southeast, I’m heading into a new work week. (I take Mondays off.) I want this work week to be apocalyptic. I’m realizing that I let The Mundane have an uncontested victory too many weeks.

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What I’m going to do to try and make this week apocalyptic will itself seem ironically mundane. I am going to spend 45 minutes in the morning reviewing my roles and establishing my goals. Sheesh. Even typing that last sentence feels boring.

My biggest takeaway from my most formative personal development book (Stephen Covey’s First Things First) was exactly this. I want to quit floating through my work week looking for the next least-boring thing that I can still justify as ‘work’ to do. I want to move the needle on my life’s work in a significant way by the time the week is out. And so I will sit down with my roles and goals.

Know Your Roles

What are they?

In more-or-less their order of importance, my seven personal roles are:

1. Husband.

2. Father.

3. Pastor-Church Planter.

4. Disciple-Maker.

5. Gospel Neighbor.

6. Community Group Leader.

7. Entrepreneur.

A couple of things to notice:

  • I’m entering a “work week”, but only one of these 7 roles—number 3—is actually my paid vocation. All 7 are my vocations, but only “Pastor-Church Planter” generates income.
  • My callings are life-specific. There may be 5,000 other Americans with the exact same vocational breakdown. That’s not many out of 315,000,000 Americans. Yours is probably different.
  • My callings are overwhelmingly relational. Most people’s probably are too, even if they don’t recognize them as such.
  • Most of my roles don’t immediately suggest obvious key actions that would move the needle in each calling. Most don’t seem to set me up for an apocalyptic week.

Know Your Goals

The only person who can discern what key actions in each of your roles will make for a well-worked work week is you. Ask yourself: “What’s next? What one action in each role, if tackled with zeal and followed through to completion, would enable me to say, at the end of this week, that I was faithful and fruitful across all my callings?”

The answers to this question are your goals for the week. Simple as that.

You will still have all your tasks, which are pressing and urgent. These aren’t your goals themselves. Your goals are the non-urgent, super-important things that will get lost—if you’re not vigilant—among the next-least-boring tasks and the distractions. Commit to these goals.  Schedule them. What block of time are you going to be working on it?

Reckon

Before you start the next week, sit down with your list of roles and the prior week’s goals. Evaluate yourself ruthlessly, and honestly. What kept you from moving the ball in the way you intended to? Were you faithful? Were you vigilant to schedule your goals and stick to your schedule?

Plan

Here’s where the work week gets apocalyptic. Working on the goals in each of your roles reveals what the next goal really ought to be. The apocalyptic boon of charting a clear course is in the fresh view afforded you as you arrive at the end of the charted course.

Adjust. Regroup. Make your goals more realistic, more achievable, more concrete, more measurable. Build on the momentum of what was achieved the prior week. Set aside this 45 minutes at the beginning of every week and make sure the prior week’s work reveals where you really are, and what’s really next.

_______________________

Look. I’m not speaking as an expert. I’m speaking as a church planter who floats and seeks distractions, who feels too often that his energy is not being channeled into the things that matter most. I post this not to lecture you. Mostly, I post it to keep myself accountable.

I’ll follow up in the days to come with some insights I gain as I actually commit myself to the task of seeking an apocalyptic work week.

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