What I learned about the church from Hickory Hollow

The other day our family went to eat at Hickory Hollow, a local BBQ joint in Ellenton. We were meeting our in-laws in order to hand over our kids for the weekend, and assumed the place to be kid friendly enough. While they didn’t have a problem eating, we did run into a little problem ordering.

At most establishments, even in areas known for their elderly population (most of Florida), you can easily find a kids menu. Most of the time, I’m not down with paying for adult sized proportions when kids can end up having, well, kid sized appetites. So we had to regroup, order a few unhealthy sides, and we were back in business.

But why not have a kids menu? There were kids there, and there often are kids there. Aren’t you shooting yourselves in the foot? And then why not take credit cards? Why only take cash, when that is so inconvenient (and yes I do know the real answer to this one) for the customer? And they close for a few weeks every summer for family vacations. And printed on the front door is, “If you are in a hurry, this is not the place for you.” Wow.

Don’t they consider the customer? I thought about these questions for about 45 seconds and then realized that they were not stupid. They were consistent. Consistent with who they were, consistent with their vision, and consistent in knowing their customer. In about 30 minutes, the place filled up. We were early birds at 5 pm. They didn’t lack for customers, even though they didn’t pander to every customer. Or to perhaps any customers with kids. Yet they are always busy.

Hickory Hollow is just a mom and pop place, family run. It’s a true family business.

They are consumer aware, but they certainly are not consumer controlled. I’m sure many consumers want to pay by credit card and have a kids menu, but they keep coming back for more. I do.

Hickory Hollow is on to something here. When it comes to the church, I still don’t feel comfortable in calling prospective members and visitors “customers” as Andy Stanley does. But that is not to say churches can’t learn valuable things from businesses. Particularly family businesses.

Hickory Hollow is consistent with their vision and consistent with who they are. They don’t let the “customer” move them away from that. Some angry parents demanding a kids menu shouldn’t make them introduce a kids menu. Is a kids menu really what those parents need anyway? And then at some point, how can you expect the parents not to think its really all about them? You could easily end up reinforcing the consumer mindset. The customer isn’t always right. Of course, neither is the church for that matter! But if a church isn’t consistent with its vision and simply tries to change to cater to what each person wants, it has lost its vision and will eventually head nowhere. I’ve been so encouraged at Harbor when folks have caught the vision and lived consistently with that vision. When a visitor said to several members and me, “You need to put up an American flag in here,” I knew I didn’t have to do anything about it. Our vision is to be gospel-centered, not “founding-fathers centered.” And people know it. They don’t want to sacrifice it because they have become enamored with the gospel and its freedom. Just an FYI, there are “founding-father’s bibles.” For real, I saw hers.

Hickory Hollow is customer aware. People are coming. If people weren’t they could re-visit their vision and who they are. But why, for they are aware of what people really do need. They are feeding the “regulars” AND feeding new ones as well. In other words, they are reaching people. Old people, kids, and everyone in between. Sometimes churches, and especially from my particular tradition are customer clueless. We unnecessarily put barriers up because we want to be consistent with who we are-even though we might need to let the gospel change our vision and who we are! Pastors like myself will do well to learn from those outside of our tradition, as well as those within it who are consistent and aware. Perhaps many (church planters like myself are not immune) have been consistent and yet culturally clueless at the same time.

Hickory Hollow is old school AND innovative. I’ve shared some ways in which they are old school. But in some ways, Hickory Hollow is quite innovative. How many barbecue places have an extensive list of really good beers?  I think churches need to be both old school AND innovative. The church is somewhat old school. We have a message that hasn’t changed from the beginning, really. The message has always been centered on God bringing a redeemer forth from a women to trample the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). The gospel, communion, membership, preaching are old school; they’ve been around a while. But are we not also to be innovative? What is the best form, the best terms, the best setting, the best kinds of relationships to advance the gospel in our particular community? We have great opportunities for innovation, as we seek to be consistent with not only the gospel message, but each church’s specific vision for its community.

Just some thoughts from a local BBQ joint.


What I learned from from praying for the persecuted church

I had the privilege of praying for the persecuted church the other day at a local Baptist church. I look forward to the next time the local churches gather and pray for our brothers and sisters in the faith who face much greater hardships than we often care to admit. Here are some things I learned from my experience.

1.) Planning precedes preference. I planned for several weeks to go to this prayer meeting, and I told another church member I would join her in this prayer. This happened to be the same week I baptized my daughter and had family over to our house until 5:30 pm. It started at 6 pm. I was exhausted. The weeks leading up to the gathering, I had been “all about it,” but when the time came, I had very little left in the tank. It was only because I had planned and told another I would be there, that my exhaustion didn’t get the best of me. And of course, when I got to the church, the energy level immediately rose.

2.) Don’t judge a Jew by his yamaka. I got there and I saw a number of yamakas. I assumed they were old school Jewish folks, which sometimes can be a safe assumption. And in the mind of some church folks, they really are no different than Christians, except they get a pass on the whole needing Jesus thing. But at the end of the prayer time, much to my surprise, I found out they were Messianic Jews. Very cool. Jews who believe Jesus was/is actually the Messiah.

3.) Gathering to pray for the persecuted church doesn’t mean you will pray for the persecuted church. As soon as we broke into 4-5 person groups, we began with some personal and corporate repentance. But then we were supposed to pray for each nation or group of nations mentioned from the front. Each nation had a little blurb on what is happening there and what needs they have. But what I continued to hear from several folks was a prayer for “our nation.” Each time the prayers cycled around, it quickly turned into how bad America was and how we needed to return or repent or whatever. It’s amazing how quickly we can gather to pray for those whose Persecution is physical and violent, and then pray for the persecution we face in our nation. Some people here are persecuted more than others, and I get that. But, I went home and relaxed with my family. Many people whom we were praying for had no home anymore, or perhaps no family. That’s different. They were why we gathered. It is hard to pray for others. It really is, and that’s why having some sort of a prayer plan, schedule, or praying through the Lord’s Prayer can be so helpful.

4.) Persecution means we’re in the end times. At least, according to one prayer I heard (but didn’t say the “Prayer Hmmmm”), “we know” we are in the end times now. Well I would agree to some extent. We are in the “latter days,” but we’ve been in them since Jesus rose. And there has been persecution since Jesus rose (since it was there even before he died-John the Baptist lost his head), and unfortunately could be until Jesus comes back. But that doesn’t mean he’s coming back tomorrow. Or the next day or year or many years after that. Revelation was written to strengthen people going through persecution, not for people who aren’t persecuted to predict when that special day will come.

5.) It’s good to pray with those different than you. People were definitely different, and definitely had different theologies, which they clearly expressed in prayer. And as I thought to critique a woman who talked about getting to reign a 1000 years, I just realized (as I was writing this) that my theology of the church, Revelation, covenant, God’s Sovereignty, grace certainly came through in my prayers as well.  So we can let each other pray consistently with his/her theology and know we are praying to the One, the only One, who can and will clarify our theologies in time. When faith becomes sight. Until then, its good to pray with other believers of a different persuasion and not to hold arrogantly to our positions. Nor to act like those differences don’t exist as though we could simply pray without theological biases. That’s impossible, for we can’t help but pray our theology. Yet, on the bright side, such awareness gives us a real opportunity to love each other.

Someone else also pays the cost of your discipleship

Last week I felt inspired by what happened after I left our men’s breakfast bible study. This week I was inspired again by our discussion, but equally encouraged and challenged by what happened at home during our discussion time.

Crap happened. Literally crap. As I walked in the front door and then headed to the kitchen I saw my wife, my daughter and a crap filled towel. Apparently just before my wife was planning on bringing my 6 year old son to school, my 10 month old daughter Charis decided to go. Really go. Unfortunately it was one of her more messy episodes.

I can only imagine the difficulty of getting three kids out the door, particularly with an infantile bowel eruption. And I had been gone since 6:50 am, so I was no help that morning.

It reminded me that discipleship opportunities are costly, but not in the normal way we think of them as costly. Yes the requires getting up early, or staying up later, or skipping out on something. Discipleship opportunities only happen if we say “no” to certain things in order to say “yes” to them. But it often costs someone else his/her time, effort, energy, frustration, and I’m not talking about the leader. Today I was reminded that someone else was/is my wife. She dealt with crap at home so I could help disciple away from the home.

Husbands should be sensitive and thankful (until today I really wasn’t that much of either) for ways in which our discipleship literally costs our spouse. Discipleship is a team effort. In turn, as husbands, we should be willing to take crap off of our wives’ hands, so that they have the same discipleship opportunities we are afforded.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us there really is a personal Cost of Discipleship. But today my daughter Charis helped remind me that the cost is not only mine to bear.


When it feels good to be left out

Friday is the day some of the guys from Harbor Community Church get together for breakfast, fellowship, and some study of the New City Catechism. Today we didn’t get to spend much time on the question regarding Hell, and instead dialogued mostly about a few current events and specific needs. I had to leave a little bit earlier than usual to take my 6 year old to school, and was bummed to miss some of the conversation. A new question had been raised just as I was leaving, and yet I didn’t even have time to share any thoughts. While I would have loved to be there to offer input, what was happening needed to happen without me. Members were ministering to other members, and that’s one of the goals of pastoral ministry. Not to minister to everyone, but to equip people to minister to each other. One major takeaway from the book The Trellis and the Vine, was to consider the natural tendency to overlook “simple” member-to-member ministry of which individual church members are to be equipped. Instead the tendency is to say,”We need someone in this area…..” Serving in an “area” of the church, or a “team” or “teams” such as we have at Harbor is a vital part of church membership. But its only a part of it. So much ministry can go and should go on “behind my back” as individuals see needs, field questions, and opportunities arise. Paul reminds us that God uses pastors don’t build up the body but instead equip people to build each other up:

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.-Eph 4:11-13

There was plenty of wisdom already at that table without me because there was plenty of Holy Spirit filled men. They didn’t need me. And sometimes it really does feel good to be left out.


A Harbor vision



This has probably been the longest I’ve ever gone with posting on my blog. Vacation, summer, church planting, and just lack of ideas has kept me from updating it. So hopefully there won’t be too much rust. I had a good friend and now fellow P.C.A. pastor in Jacksonville ask me a great question that deserved a little reflection and elicited in me a desire to pass it on. He asked me a slow pitch softball type question: an easy one to answer because I’ve thought much about it.

It was something to this affect: What’s next for Harbor Community Church? Are you just wanting to get to a sustainable giving level and critical mass, get a building and then simply grow a bigger church?”

You have to head toward something as a church, and it’s good to consider what we are moving toward. Someone told me in a car ride the other day, “If you ever want this to become a mega-church, I’m out of here!”

I laughed. I just don’t have the hair to be mega-church pastor. Or the gifts. Or the desire. Or the vision.

Our vision statement took me much prayer and thought, and it is one in which I used to raise money and gather a core group of people who could be committed and excited about it. So it is a vision which more than just me, the core, the presbytery, but even those giving have backed.

Vision: To glorify God by multiplying a gospel-centered, city-blessing, missional and maturing community in West Bradenton.

Multiplying is key. At every level. Individual, community, and congregation. The vision was never to get one great church to come into existence, but to plant a great church which would be involved in planting great churches. Multiplying a community. What that looks like, remains to be seen, and perhaps will for some time. We have community groups that need to multiply and leaders to be trained, a mercy action team that is forming, a membership class, mission team, eventually elders and deacons installed, etc….(and I’m probably missing a bunch along the way)

Multiplying takes growth at all levels. Individuals coming to faith, individuals growing in faith, discipling their families and friends. Multiplying requires depth, not in people growing past the gospel, but the gospel roots growing deeper and producing a sturdier more robust love that the world hasn’t much seen. But it is not growth for growth’s sake, nor is it grow for Harbor’s sake. It is growth for the sake of God’s invisible will done in Heaven to come more and more to Earth. Everything has to start with “Our Father, Hallowed by thy name.” Growth for His glory.

And we will need to be at some point self-sustaining (where all of the giving comes from inside the members). Currently we have a network, folks and a few churches giving to our work. We’re not yet self-sustaining, but we are heading in the right direction. As we grown in size and giving, we will have more opportunities to fulfill our vision. I do envision a bigger and growing church, just not only a bigger and growing church.

Multiplying could simply be giving money to church planting (we’ve been given money to plant this church, so kind of a no-brainer), it could be giving people, it could be letting a church plant borrow musicians (once we add a few more :-)) or it could mean planting a daughter church some day.  But the vision is in some way to be involved in the process of planting more churches WHICH plant churches WHICH plant churches. So in order to even move toward this vision, we need to be multiplying individuals through evangelism, invitation, ministry, and of course community groups.

Our God is too glorious, His grace too amazing, His majesty too vast, His power too great, His will done in heaven to0 necessary for Harbor to simply, safely exist and maintain.

I’ve seen churches that plant churches and have seen this process have an even greater impacter than one growing church.  I’ve tasted this and just can’t go back to the vision of a church stopping with itself. The ones which send tend to grow bigger anyway. :-)

I’d love to have a building some day, and hope we may at some point have one. Will we have “arrived” if we have a building some day? No. Kind of a trick question, because you can never arrive until Jesus returns. But will that be success in my book? Nope. What if we never have a building, but instead use resources to help others, to reach others, to glorify God? God may lead us to a building-and I will praise Him for it-but again that is not necessarily the primary success we are looking for.

Success for us will be a church planting church which makes new disciples and in some way helps plant church-planting churches who make disciples. That’s the vision I pray people want to be part of, because Jesus is just too good only aim for one church.

Special thanks to my friend and fellow Harbor man Steve Cobb for helping clarify and flesh out this vision.



Thoughts on seeing the Unfinished Church finished, the book that is…

My friend and fellow pastor Rob Bentz (I’m not really sure I like to use the term “colleague”), has recently published his first book called Unfinished Church. As I read it again, I’ll be putting out a review here on this blog. I say “read it again,” because Rob sent me each chapter as he finished them, requesting honest feedback and interaction. I remember last year before I moved down from West Virginia, literally trying to edit a chapter while the movers were literally taking apart my bedroom. In this book writing process for Rob, I learned a few things I’d like to pass on to you.

1.) Getting a book published is hard. I actually knew that, but I have only known the hard part of getting rejected by publishers. While in seminary I tried to see if I could get the book of memoirs (with Dave Barry-like storied embellishments) of my time as a humble youth director living in Clinton, South Carolina. My favorite seminary professor Steve Brown read a chapter or two and told me that I was a good writer, but I wasn’t famous and probably needed some more recognition before anyone would show interest. I’m still not very famous (though I have an every other month religion column for the Bradenton Herald) and will soon (thanks to Rob) be featured on a national blog for pastors called PastorServe.

But should I ever get to the point where a book publisher says, “Yes,” I learned there is much work yet to be done. I’ve seen the tedious process of re-writing and editing and getting feedback from folks you trust. That includes folks in different, and some not so different, theological circles. It’s a lot of work.

2.) Thanks. One of the coolest parts for an unfamous (seriously I’m ok with it, and would much rather be an unfamous than infamous, right?) pastor/wannabe-writer is that my name is in the “Thanks” section. That is really cool. I don’t know how much I really offered Rob, but I did do my best to help. I did spend a decent amount of time. Being appreciated is important. Seeing your name on paper is special. Who knows, this may be the last time my name is on a book? Or maybe not. Regardless, its the first time and it meant a lot. Thanking people is powerful.

3.) Seeking Feedback. There were times when life was just plain busy. Amy was pregnant,we were were transitioning to move down to Florida, raise financial support, deal with house fiasco after fiasco. So I didn’t respond to emails in the typical way that I normally pride myself in. I should say past “used to pride,” because I’m not nearly as quick anymore. Thanks church planting….Yet Rob continued to email me, “Have you read chapter 6 yet? What did you think?” Rob taught me that writing a book involves not only one’s own ideas, but discerning if one’s own ideas are actually as good or as clear as one thinks. And I learned to that feedback needs to be sought, even at the risk of pestering. :-)

4.) Prayer. Rob had a team of us commit to helping him edit. But he also had a team of folks praying. I definitely did not do all that I wished I would have in this area. But should I ever write a book, I will be soliciting prayer for it. Just as Rob did.

These are a few things I learned along the way as I was invited into this journey my friend Rob Bentz. I’m thankful for him and thankful for this book. It’s solid.



Unwritten Rules in baseball and church

About a week and a half ago, the Tampa Bay Rays swept the Boston Red Sox, handing them their 10th straight loss. After being up 8-3 in the 7th inning, Yunel Escobar stole third base because no one was holding him on. Apparently that’s not kosher, as a Boston Red Sox player yelled something to him. Yunel, who doesn’t speak English, must have picked up a few words here and there because he responded, calling out said Sox player to fight. So the benches cleared and several were thrown out of the game.

Fast forward to last Friday night when David Price hit David “Big Sloppy” (I refuse to call him Big Papi) Ortiz in the his ginormous rump with a mid 90’s fastball. Ortiz didn’t like that and we almost saw another bench clearing. That would happen after the next hit batter in the 5th inning. To the casual fan, it appeared Price was not happy with the way the Red Sox took issue with Escobar stealing third. But in reality, Price was not happy how “Big Sloppy” admired the home runs he hit off him last year in the playoffs.

Several sports talk show hosts began to ask a the question about “unwritten rules.” Is it showing up a team to steal a base in the 7th inning when only up by 5 runs? With the Rays bullpen pitchers, I would say no. They’ve already given up 5 runs in an outing this year. However, I don’t get a vote. Some of the Boston players felt the Rays broke an “unwritten rule.”

When Big Sloppy admired his home runs-as he often does-did he break an unwritten rule? The Rays David Price thought so (along with a host of other pitchers who congratulated him on it). Again, I’m biased, but I think he did. I tell Connar that’s not how you play the game, and that someone who does it, should expect to get hit. Yet most people don’t hit Big Sloppy, so did he really break an unwritten rule? Yet how long is too long to look at a home run before you start your trot? How many runs do you have to be up before you should NOT try to steal even though the other team isn’t hold you on? And in what inning? One of the problems with unwritten rules is that they open to interpretation. We have enough trouble interpreting written codes and laws. You can imagine the unwritten ones are even harder!

There clearly are unwritten rules in baseball. Just what those rules actually are, and when and how they are enforceable, is quite unclear.

Sometimes churches can have unwritten rules as well. They shouldn’t, but many often do. How do you know if your church has unwritten rules? The same way you know in baseball. Look at the reaction from others. When the scriptures are silent or unclear on an issue, and you’ve received counsel, and you are convicted that God has freed you to follow Him down a path that others haven’t traversed as much, then pursue it. If  you get push-back, then you know what unwritten rule you’ve broken. Perhaps another has some wisdom to offer-for not everything that we’re free to do is necessarily good or wise. Or perhaps he/she/they are simply trying to make you follow man-made rules like an evil Home Owners Association. Of course evil HOA is redundant. People will often try to make you bend to their unwritten rules, and will “punish” you the way the Red Sox and Rays have done to each other.

Just remember that the body of Christ comprises Red Sox and Rays. Jews and Gentiles. Rich and poor. Young and Old. Former enemies of all kinds. There are bound to be “unwritten rules” that will be broken. That happens. The good news is that the same gospel which brings people together frees people to worship and serve God in different ways, with different gifts, with different styles, with different pre-suppositions and differing theology. Instead of fleeing, stand firm and remind the rule upholding party that the gospel frees us from following all unwritten rules. In Steve Brown’s Scandalous Freedom, he reminds us that people only have power over us when we give in to them. So wear what you want, school how you feel is best, worship with arms raised high or hands in your pockets. Let your church be the place where the gospel is hid so deeply into our hearts that we can’t help but show grace and let others trample over our own “unwritten rules.” Jesus has already triumphed over the only rules that count and has set us free to follow His.