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.

Suburban idols: The grass really is greener, until its not

During the application section of my Memorial Day sermon “I just died in your arms tonight,” I shared a picture of a God-centered life by letting folks in on my personal idolatry and how it was exposed, dealt with, forgiven, and redeemed.

The idol was something I never thought about being an idol. Now of course, as Tim Keller reminds us in Counterfeit Gods, it was only a surface idol (such as money, sex, relationships, family which we use to get what the heart really wants like power, fame, respect, approval, comfort, meaning, hope, etc…..). But surface or not, I never thought that my yard could become an idol. I just have never cared about my yard before. At my first house, there just wasn’t any grass, so I couldn’t do too much about it. But now its different. The grass is literally greener on this side. At least most of it. The sprinklers became overtaken by the St Augustine grass and stopped popping up. By the time I got around to do anything about it, the luscious green turned to brown on my side yard.

But to me what is so surprising is not that I had fallen prey to a suburban idol (after all, we chose this area because we are more suburban than urban), but that something I put so little time into, had become an idol. Sometimes you can identify your idols by looking at how much time you spend on them (when it becomes inordinate or causes you to cut corners or sacrifice more important things/relationships), but simply looking at the amount of time spent doesn’t reveal one’s heart. One could spend much time on his yard and it not be a surface idol, a means to gain approval from others and so justifiy himself/herself. It could be a good passion. It could be way to love the neighbors. It could be a good stress reliever.

Idolatry isn’t always that easy to spot.

I had no idea that I cared so much about my yard. Remember I’d done nothing but have it treated, mow it, run sprinklers, and try to edge it every so often. After a stressful evening, I completely blew a gasket. Not pretty. My wife Amy asked me, “What are you really mad/worried about?” Several hours later the Spirit revealed to me that I was relying upon my yard for approval. Now that it didn’t look good, I could no longer neighborly approval as a means of justification. It was my anger (not the amount of time) that revealed the presence of the surface idol (yard), and then the Spirit via some reflection and prayer which  revealed the real and deeper idolatry (approval).

Now I’m still going to try and fix the sprinklers. I’m going to try to edge more often. So I will (I hope) spend more time in the yard than before. But the motivation now is to love my neighbors by doing the best I can to have a decent looking yard. But when the sprinklers go out, or a new chinch bug invasion happens, and it doesn’t look its best, I’ll know if the yard has become a way to serve and love others or if it is just a means to gain approval from others.  My reaction or rather over-reaction will reveal what I truly cherish.

Yet the trickiness of idolatry also reminds me of the beauty of the gospel. Not only is my sin covered, but I no longer have to operate in such a legalistic fashion based upon time but instead upon the heart. There is no magic rule for how much time I spend doing X. I really love the freedom in that.

 

Away from the worship performance

Harbor Community Church had its first official service on Easter Sunday this year. It was an exciting time for a number of reasons. First of all, Easter is like the Super Bowl for the Christian; and each year we win. So that’s cool. And it was our first official service, so that was cool as well. And we had a number of folks there. We prayed for 100 and we got close to 90, with a 4 or 5 from our core group who couldn’t make it. So not too bad!

Providentially I happened upon Jeremy Vanderloop, a touring and performing Christian musician. Since another church planter vouched for the guy, I pretty much secured his services sight unseen. We were not disappointed. But it wasn’t about his performance or skills as it was his humility, and you could say “ability” to lead us to Jesus’ throne.

I don’t believe that Sunday worship is a performance. That’s a loaded word. I know it. But I just mean that the attention of the congregation is intentionally and regularly diverted away from an individual or individuals and to The Individual. Folks who are musically gifted can sometimes respond with, “Are you judging me because I’m talented and want to play well?” You know, the kind of “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” mentality. But the skills of the leader don’t need to clash (and often don’t) with the leading of the congregation. Now they can, when the stage becomes a chance to showcase ones mad skills on the organ, or drum. Or the triangle or cazoo.

I probably haven’t been in the presence of a too many worship leaders as talented as Jeremy. And yet he did everything he could to point us to Jesus. He didn’t sacrifice skill or strumming patterns-I enjoyed those. And you could tell he practiced. But he intentionally did some things to put our attention on Jesus. Sometimes he would back away from the mic and go a capella for a bit. Sometimes he would just remind us to that we were singing to Jesus. Sometimes he would sing louder to raise our voices and then sometimes go quieter so we could better hear ourselves singing to the Lord. If there were 4 stanzas, they weren’t all done the same. And that helped grab my heart.

What would that look like for a full band? Don’t know. Not really my problem since we don’t have one. But it goes to show that the performance mindset has nothing essentially to do with talent or lack thereof, or lack of practice in perfecting one’s craft.

Now onto someone who can make a difference in the performance/consumer mentality. You. Me. Not just the heart of the musician but the heart of the congregation. Whether traditional or contemporary or whatever the heck the style of service a church has, the default mentality of the worshiper is that of a consumer. Do I like it?

Here are some thoughts which might help you move from consumer to worshiper.

When you leave, do you primarily reflect back upon how good or how bad the music was? Or do you reflect back on how you did?  I’m not intimating you shouldn’t declare,”Man that dude was off key” or “Wow that the guitar was out of tune.” But how much more of a worshipful environment would we see if people were to think, “You know what, I wasn’t engaged in the sermon or the singing or the confession” What if we graded ourselves?

Do you check your heart and mind throughout the service or put it on cruise control? I think we probably need to do all we can to put attention onto Christ instead of the Rays’ bad pitching match-up (which nowadays would be most everyday), or getting to lunch before “the others.”

Even though the song selection didn’t come from your personal I-pod playlist, could you think, or feel, or remember the love of Christ in the midst of it? Or did you just think that you’d wait till next week?

I honestly don’t do this very much. I need to though. And now that I preach each week, I do find myself paying even better attention during sermons. :-)

If you have any other things that can help move us from consumers to engaged worshiper, please share. I need them too!

 

 

Thoughts on the movie Ragamuffin

Last Friday, the Bradenton branch YMCA allowed us to host a showing of the movie Ragamuffin, the story of the late Christian musician Rich Mullins. Normally “Christian” movies are synonymous with “cheesiness” and bad acting. While the Ragamuffin actors may not ever see an Academy Award, I thought they did a fantastic job. Whereas with movies like Fireproof, you just have to give them a pass because its a “Christian” movie, I didn’t feel that at all with Ragamuffin. I could gladly show this movie to a non-Christian friend or neighbor and not be embarrassed.

While the acting was way beyond what I anticipated, the story-line gripped me and the honesty sucked me in. It was real. Rich was a real dude. He yelled at people, he was lonely, he was possessive, he cussed, and he drank. A lot.  The guy who wrote, “Sing praise to the Lord” and “Awesome God” had a drinking problem. He was a flawed human being, with feelings of emptiness, guilt, worthlessness despite a successful career in the music industry. As a fellow deeply flawed human being I resonated.

One takeaway from the film was the importance of a father’s love. Rich never felt loved by his dad. No matter how much he sought it, it just never came. And it stayed with him his entire life. His mother loved him, but his father’s love was as necessary as it was elusive. Dad’s matter. The words “I love you,” from a father are powerful and emancipating.

Still, we are reminded in this film, that we are not forever stuck in a bad-dad quagmire. An earthly dad’s love is not ultimate. While an earthly dad’s love is powerful, the gospel speaks hope of an even better Father. The journey is tough and slow, but the Christian can hear “I love you,” from the Ultimate Father. And that itself has the power to change.

Rich struggled his whole life. And so do we. The gospel is the power to save (Rom 1:16) us and change us, but it is first of all an announcement or proclamation that Jesus has already dealt with the problem of sin. We never stop struggling in this life. It might not be as visible as alcohol or drugs, though it just may be. The gospel is good news to all kinds of strugglers.

I think this film will make you cry. I cry way more now that I have three kids. I think with each one, I became more prone to this expression of emotion. I cried long before Rich died. And then when he did, I continued to cry, thankful for the dark room.

The most surreal experience was Rich’s brother Dave Mullins (who introduced the film and actually interviews the actor playing Rich in the film), standing next to me singing Rich’s song. I’m just a guy who knew little about Rich, yet was having trouble holding it together. And his brother who knew and loved Rich, was filled with joy, singing Rich’s song right next to me. Wow. Dave believed the gospel, and his singing called me to believe as well. Rich though he died, yet shall he live.

If you can’t find a showing on the tour, then you can purchase it in early May. I’m certain I will.

 

The relational pre-requisite to deeper understanding of gospel

At our last YMCA preview service I preached on one of our core values: gospel-centered. We looked at this passage from Colossians 2:1-5

I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.”

Because I only have a limited amount of time, and I try to have one major point for each sermon, I wasn’t able to discuss the relational component of the passage. Instead I’ll be highlighting that core value this Sunday when I preach on Ecclesiastes 4. But one aspect of this passage that struck me was the relational prerequisite if folks want to get to a deeper understanding of the gospel.  For instance, Paul’s goal that the recipients of his letter “be encouraged in heart and united in love” was “so that they may have full riches of complete understanding.”

You cannot get very far in understanding the gospel without healthy Christian community. In fact, what this verse tells us is that a Christian community who doesn’t love each other well, will miss out on understanding the riches of the gospel. If they are not united in love, they will miss out on experiencing love from each other and experiencing the love of Christ. Divisive folk get a little relationship and consequently only experience a little of Christ. Not that He loves less, but we may experience His love less.

The final goal of Christian community is not Christian community but Christ. It’s not less than a community united by love, but a community that is growing in love of its Savior. You can have a community that loves each other and yet does not grow in love of Christ. Relationships are not a gospel substitute but should point you to the gospel. If you demand relationships to be the bottomless treasure that only the gospel is, you will be extremely disappointed. You’ll think something is wrong with the relationship. Yet the problem is that you have made the relationship the main thing. You will become frustrated and angry. Relationships should point us to Jesus, who is the “lovely source of true delight.” If your relationships point you to Jesus, you’ll find satisfaction in both relationships and in Christ. If you use Jesus as a means to get relationships, you’ll find satisfaction in neither. If you value church community more than Christ, you’ve reversed the order. Many people taste and experience the community of Christ before they experience Christ. That is beautiful and we should expect any missional oriented community to expect this. But it is never loving to leave people in such a place.

Personal gospel study and prayer is required but is not sufficient in itself to fathom depths of gospel. In other words, you can’t simply go off and study the bible and other helpful books by yourself, and expect to go all that deep into the gospel message. It’s like having one hand tied behind your back. If you’ve ever been in a good community group, you know that others bring out riches that you had forgotten or didn’t know existed. More often than not I walk away from teaching and leading a group with greater knowledge simply because I’ve listened to people give different answers to my questions than I had anticipated.

 

Teeball, children’s ministry, and the next level

My 5 year-old son Connar is good at pretty much anything with a ball. He is especially good at baseball, or I guess I should  say, Teeball, aka “ruleless” baseball. He’s always been hands down the best player on the team, having never needed the Tee (they pitched to the kids in W.V.). But this year, after having to play his 2nd season on the Tee, there is nothing “hands-down” about his hitting. In the fielding department, no one can throw and catch as well as he can-though the coach’s kid is almost there. But in regards to hitting off the Tee, several other kids have actually hit better than him this year.

At first I thought we should probably practice on the tee at home. But then I thought “why?” Why even seek to make him excel and be the best “Tee-ball hitter” on the team. Is that really my goal? Obviously I want him to have fun too.

Nope, my goal is to get him ready for “kid-pitch.” After Teeball, comes the 40 mph machine pitch. And then then comes “kid-pitch” where kids throw it all over the place. We practice most every day by me throwing him fastballs inside, mixed with outside pitches, and even sidearm pitches too. My goal is not to make him the best Teeball player, but to get him ready for the next level of competition. That’s why we don’t work on the tee at home.

I think this is an important aspect of children’s and youth ministry. Our goal shouldn’t be to have the best Teeball player out there on the field, yet that is what I think many of us, at times, seek in children’s ministry. Instead of having the best behaved, most “programmed” kids out there, we ought to think about getting kids ready to play at the next level: when they leave the house.

The whole “what do you have for my kid to do” approach isn’t churning out “ball players” at the next level. It really isn’t. Kids become teenagers and then college students, and many leave and don’t come back. But many people simply refuse to evaluate and question that perhaps our goals are short-sighted. What do you call someone who does the same thing over time with same results?

I’m not saying to ditch programs. I’m just saying evidence (and the bible too) is showing us why we can’t rely upon them, or even make them the sole reason why you attend a certain church. While there is no magic solution to make sure kids are ready for the next level, there are some adjustments and changes we can all make.

1.) Parents: Mom and Dad have primary responsibility to teach their kids about Jesus. There are plethora of resources that help in this, and it honestly doesn’t take a lot of time. The New City Catechism doesn’t take long and comes with cool songs that the kids and I can dance to. Yes, the dancing is not pretty, but it gets the job done.  Plus how much of teaching is simply taking the time to sit down and discuss what’s going on life?

2.) Plugging kids into service of church. I have an 18 year old who told me he would love to train a particular 9th grader on how to do work with sound stuff. How cool is that? This kid gets it. He hasn’t been a spectator but one who has served over the years. My 5  year old wants to hand out bulletins. I saw a 6 year old stacking chairs this Sunday with our church plant. Kids who see the church as a place to serve instead of only as a place to receive, seem to be do better at the next level. Kids have gifts, so lets not wait to use them.

3.) Multiple Adult relationships. This is huge. The other day my 5 year old said, “We need to pray for Mr. so and so who is at the mission conference this weekend.” I forgot. He did that because this adult has shown an interest by simply talking with my son. I can’t wait to see what other adult relationships he develops over time. I’m not putting my hope in one rock star youth leader but hope for him to have several other guys he can look up to outside of the home. I relish that help.

4.) Children’s/Youth Ministry that thinks about the next level. At my last church, the nursery had a goal of getting kids ready to sit in church. The children’s church (4-1st grade) had as a goal to get the kids ready to sit through a sermon. Our youth Sunday School and youth group had specific rotating teaching goals to prepare them for the next level. At Harbor Community’s children church, we have as a goal to both teach them at an age appropriate level, and to prepare them for 4th grade when they’ll be “blessed” to listen to me for 30 minutes! Our goal is to get 5-6 teams of two, and over the years, see relationships with adults develop with these children.

5.) Distinguish gospel from morality. In our children’s church (4-3rd grade), we use The Gospel Story Book Curriculum. It helps teach the kids the redemptive story of the bible as opposed to seeing the separate stories as stand-alone stories without their place in the overall story of the bible. But in general, if kids can begin to grasp the uniqueness of the gospel, they’ll be able to at the very least know the difference between a church and club (or church’s that have become clubs). How is the gospel different than “be good” or “give peace a chance?” Kids have to know the difference.

There’s no magic formula. And I think you can ask too much from kids as well. I’m not trying to get my 3 year old ready for “kid’s pitch.” I want to get him ready for Teeball. That’s the next level for him.

Regardless of results (and many have documented a number of these common denominators in kids who walk with Jesus and His church after leaving the home), we’ll honor Jesus by conforming our efforts with His Word.