Don’t call it an “office”

There are a couple things in life that I’m passionate about. Hills upon which I am willing to die. In no particular order:

  • One does not put two spaces between sentences; the computer will space it appropriately for you.
  • One does not grind one’s coffee until it is time to brew said coffee.
  • North Carolina is in no wise “first in flight”; Ohioans commandeered their beach and wind.
  • The bottom button of one’s blazer, suit coat, or sport coat is to remain unbuttoned.

And, more recently, a new rule:

Don’t call my study an “office.” It’s a study

Nomenclature matters, folks. Our words create the worlds we experience and the quality of our experiences therewith. John Culkin famously said that “we shape our tools, and afterward our tools shape us.” Names of things are human-shaped tools, which thereafter shape us. They shape our expectations and our realities.

I don’t have a classroom of my own. I instead have a tiny room at the end of a hallway. I love this arrangement. I get lots of privacy and in turn I get lots of things done. And, by “things done”, I mean principally “thoughts thought” and “learning learned.”

That’s because my room is my study.

When I tell a student to come see me in my study after school, I am indicating to them that we are going to learn together. Whatever problem they may be having with their grade, the paper they’re writing, their attendance record, their behavior, their language acquisition process, or their mastery of the course content will be approached in a specific way: it will be approached with the conviction that we are, together, learning.

Consider the alternative. I could call my room my “office.” What experience can a student, a colleague, a supervisor, or a parent expect to have in my “office”?

They can expect to have their problem dealt with administratively. They expect their problem to be solved like the unclogging of a procedural bottleneck. They show up to get a grade fixed, a paper corrected, an assignment postponed or a concept explained. People who come to an “office” expect bureaucracy, and they pray that maybe this will be the one time in a hundred when that bureaucracy actually works efficiently, achieving the results desired. They expect, though, to be processed like any other data input that might come into that space, whether through paper and ink, email, telephone, or flesh and blood.

As for me and my study, we shall serve the learner. The learner inside me, and the learner inside student, teacher, administrator, and parent. I want people to come into my study–myself included!–with the expectation that both solitary and collaborative learning takes place in this sacred space. The sofa and armchair, the bookcases, the coffee station and the aroma that regularly makes it into the adjoining hallway, the round table (as opposed to a desk, aka bureau, hello!), and the natural light coming through the windows–all of these things help indicate what this space is for.

But especially the name of the space. Don’t call it an office.


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
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.

A Guest Church Planting Proverb from Steve Jobs

As far as I know, the legendary Apple innovator never spoke at an Acts 29 Bootcamp or the Exponential conference. And yet here he is,  affording us a posthumous pithy planting proverb.

“It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.”


Silly Surveys

Some say that the way to decide what sort of church to plant is to ask un-churched, de-churched, or meh-churched people  what kind of church would resonate with them.

What programs should we offer? What kind of music should we play? What time should the service be? The customer is always right. Right?

A Sort of Fundamentalist

My sense from the conversations I’ve had with people in our church plant is that most of them didn’t know exactly what they longed for until they began experiencing it. Further, not everyone likes everything. And yet the people who feel thrilled with what God is doing among us are not (or are no longer) persnickety about what we do in all its detail.

Instead, they have sensed that life lived as a family, drenched in the gospel, with a face toward our neighbors, is what church is fundamentally all about. The rest really is just details.

Take note, but don’t take orders

Forget the focus groups and the surveys. Ignore the unsolicited advice of the disgruntled.

It’s your job to discern what church Jesus is calling you to plant by listening to his heart as you lead and practice gospel neighboring. Listen to people’s pains. Observe the barometer of their brokenness. Glean from the grumpy.

Take note, perhaps, of people’s preferences.

Take note, but don’t take orders.

Plant the church God has planted in your heart. You’re the church planter, after all.

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Find Yourself a Paul

When I finish writing this, I’m going to hop in the car and head an hour northwest to the edge of the Smokies for my first day of fly fishing–with my good friend Casey, whose fly fishing credentials include fishing the trout streams of Alaska and Montana.

I’m inspired, having listened to a good chunk of the audio book A River Runs Through It last evening. And having read the book and seen the film about 10 times in the last 5 years.

The great fly fisherman of Western Montana is Paul Maclean. You watch him and listen to him when he fly fishes. You don’t always like the things you hear and see because they implicate you as a lame fly fisherman by comparison. Tough.

You’re going to pastor or plant a church? For the first time? You better become a Timothy and find yourself a Paul. What you learn and receive and hear and see in him, practice those things.

Practice them before you hit the water for the first time. Not for 10,000 hours, of course, because the fish are in the river and not the meadow.

And then go into the river with him.

Watch Your Mouth

I love old hymns. I love old hymn texts. I love traditional tunes. I love new tunes with old hymn texts.

New-Old hymns is one of our church plant’s Zags.


Photo by Sara McAllister

But New-Old is part of our overall missional strategy. It’s not just about music. We want to be crusty-fresh. We aim for ancient-future. We want to be so traditional that it’s cutting edge. We want to be so different that you have to go back at least a couple hundred years to trace our vintage.

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 5.21.28 PM

When Matthew Smith posted his query to Facebook, he immediately got tons of curmudgeon-ified responses. They went something like this:

  • Let’s throw away Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the Holy Scripture, then, too, since no one talks like that anymore.
  • Why don’t we just swap out the thees and thous with emoticons?
  • Not singing things in ways that nobody talks anymore is chronological snobbery.
  • Unless something has stood the test of time, it’s not worth singing.

I think Mr Lewis should probably set us straight here.

[The New Testament] is sort of ‘basic’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language.

Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense, an incurably irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion.

In my reckoning, it is a good thing to pull confessions of faith from the 4th, 15th, and 16th centuries. It’s salutary to have a thick crust of thees and thous in our 18th- and 19-th Century hymns. It’s instructive to sprinkle our sermons with insights from people with names like Chrysostom and Basil. It’s a good kind of awkward to trace the work of God’s grace in the life of a polygamist from several millennia ago. These things remind us that we’re not making things up. They keep us cognizant of the fact that the gospel is vintage awesomeness.


For every nod to the past, we need to give a super-obvious wink to the present.

For every tongue twister from the 17th Century, we ought to entangle our liturgy with some 21st-Century street slang.

For every carefully chosen archaism, we need to speak the truth in today’s vulgar.

Go ahead and sing some thees and thous. But never, NEVER plant a church in order to become a worship connoisseur or an archivist. Draw on ancient and early-modern sources to draw out the faith once delivered to the saints, never to draw our eyes from the object of our faith to the media that transmits it.

Watch your motives.

And watch your mouth.

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Think, Prepare, and Preach Beyond Tim Keller

It feels awkward disagreeing with your heroes. Even when that disagreement only comes 8.5% of the time, it still feels awkward.

On Monday afternoon, my hero Tim Keller did a Q&A on Twitter:

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I get what he means. If you’re hoping to have lots of people in your worship service who are outsiders to Christianity, then you’ve got to think hard about what they’re thinking—in fact, you’ve got to think harder about what they’re thinking about than they themselves think about those things. And as Keller says, you can do this best by having as many lunches and coffees with non-Christians as possible.


However, Keller’s assertion that preparation takes more time in a post-Christian society, not less, is predicated on the assumption that we are operating with a Redeemer NYC-like ministry model. That model emphasizes Sunday worship and especially the sermon as the location where most of the church’s conversions are expected to occur.

Other assumptions are also at work: that the audience of the sermon is large, and the outsider can experience the sermon as a passive observer, apart from a rich, interpersonal, communal experience of the church body. “Corporate” worship in such settings is not usually very communal. The outsider can come with the person that invited them, file in, observe, and file out.


A growing church does not have to create file in / observe / file out environments for worship. If you’ve got a big auditorium and a big stage, and you hope to consistently fill the auditorium with skeptical people, then of course you’d better prepare killer sermons with tons of careful application to outsiders. But a growing church may actually elect to entirely eschew the auditorium / sanctuary / stage / pulpit environment if it wishes. It can intentionally avoid the possibility of a file in / observe / file out experience for the cautious skeptic.

If the corporate worship environment is thick with community, feasting (lattes and scones do not constitute a feast), spontaneous prayer, a literal, physical gathering around the Lord’s Table, and even the assumption that “visitors” would help stack the chairs and take the trash out afterward, then suddenly the sermon is not the make-or-break moment when it comes to the outsider’s experience.


Now, do I think that preaching is important? Absolutely. Do I think and hope and pray and expect that people’s lives would be changed and that others will be converted on the spot during the preaching of the word? Absolutely. Do I believe that it takes much more work to exegete the culture in a post-Christian society than before? Indeed.

But we also need to imagine a corporate Christianity for the post-Christendom age in which the gathering of God’s people, with skeptics mixed in, feels less like a lecture or a concert or a TED Talk and more like a family feast. Without the pressure of a weekly TED Talk looming over his head, the preacher can take 10-15 hours of what used to be his preaching prep time and spend it over coffee with skeptical friends and over fettucini and merlot with non-Christian neighbors.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Never Say “Volunteer”

“Brothers, we are not professionals.”- John Piper

The obvious corollary to this dictum is, “Brothers and sisters, we are not volunteers.”


We’ve struggled in the first 18 months or so to set up some rhythms in our church life so that we are sharing the ongoing tasks like childcare, set-up, and especially kitchen clean-up.

We have a pot luck before each of our evening services. Since we’re one of those environmentally-conscious communities, we don’t want to throw a bunch of serviceware away week after week. So we bought mismatched plates, silverware, and cloth napkins from the thrift store, along with several boxes of mason jars from (gasp!) Walmart. That means that somebody has to wash and store those things every Sunday night from about 8:30-9:15pm.

How do you get people to volunteer commit to serve in this capacity? One of our most quiet, awesome young gals came up with the following solution:

Hello people of Jesus.

I am in charge of putting together the kitchen cleaning-and-break-down schedule for July.

I’m trying something new. Instead of frantically asking a handful of people at the last minute (which is what it always ends up being because I’m either an extraordinary over-preparer or a deadline-breaking slacker), I’m making the whole month’s list beforehand.

Now. You may have noticed that I may have not asked you but I am, rather, telling you that you are on the schedule for a certain time and day. This is easier for me than waaaaaaiiiiting for people to get back to me. …

If you wish to unschedule yourself for out-of-town reasons or previous-commitment reasons, or kid reasons, or whatever reasons, it will simply be your responsibility to find a replacement.

That’s all. No judgment, no questions asked. If you actually have a need to step down, please ask! If you only have a want, try observing the amount of work that goes into each Sunday and how much others have done and do every Sunday and beyond for us, and examine yourself. Can I say that? I guess I’m going with “email first, ask forgiveness later.”

Thank you for serving the bod of J.

Ok. There’ve been a handful of super-proud moments for me as a church planter. This is definitely in the top 5. It might be #1. I literally got misty-eyed and jumped for joy when I read this email.

Note the conspicuous absence of a certain V-word in this gal’s email. Note the conspicuous presence of gloriously gospelicious words and phrases like “People of Jesus”, “bod of J”, “examine yourself”(!), “observe”, “others”.

To the degree that you, as a church planter, de-professionalize yourself, you de-volunteer the body of Christ. In fact, you re-empower the body to call one another to personal, active ownership in the kingdom endeavor for which you are all yoked together as co-laborers with God (1 Cor 3:9).

Never, never say “volunteer”. Retweet after me: Never, never say “volunteer”.

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Answer Questions

“Answers come after questions, not before.” – Rosaria Butterfield

A bigmouth like me has had to learn to listen. Like an Aspergers child who has to be taught how he would automatically respond were he able to naturally sympathize, an extrovert like me has to learn what it’s like to be a “sociotypical” person who waits for the question before providing the “answers”.

I thought I’d share with you this interview. It’s ironic that they removed the questions from the published interview format, because now it looks like I’m just providing answers to no questions at all! But I assure you, they supplied questions, and I answered them in their order. Ha.

They asked me about Ellie’s business The Cordial Churchman, about what I wear, about how I got interested in clothing, about what it’s like to have a small business, about where I’ve been educationally and vocationally, and about what really gets me going.

I hope you enjoy. Read here.

(And if you need to practice your Finnish, you can read the interview in that elegant Northern European language when you’re done with the English interview.)