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.

 

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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.

Reflections from the West Virginia chemical spill

When I lived in West Virginia, the only major weather incidents we had to live through were a few power outages and some really cold temps from time to time (Dec-March!). Recently, my WV friends and church family had the opportunity to experience life without clean water due to a chemical spill. After days of only using water for toilets, the “licorice” smell seems gone and water back to potable levels. Allegedly. It might take a little while before I trusted that declaration.

Facebook posts on my news popped up from time to time. The first came from my former (but currently supporting church) Redeemer Presbyterian. The words, “If anyone needs water, he can come to the church to shower or drink. Our water is clean.”

What an opportunity to simply invite people in and serve them? No strings attached, just meeting needs in the community. Very cool.

But the church also has living water, of which people also need to come and drink regardless of whether that need is expressed in the same physical way (feeling of thirst and really bad b.o. when can’t bathe). I think the same type of mentality should actually be present in thinking about this living water, which is one way Jesus describes himself and what he offers us (John 4). Christians are not better people, simply people who have realized their need and found that need met by Jesus Himself. Of course belief is perpetual and Christians have to continually come back to Christ in repentance and faith.

We have found a place where there is water without cost. There is a safe harbor, a community welcoming other thirsty people who have decided to stop one-upping themselves before God and others, and have instead drunk deeply of the head waters of grace.

I realize many folks reject Christianity because they don’t like the idea of someone being Lord of their lives, or they can’t get around a guy raising from the dead, or even because they think that it is narrow. But I think many still  reject a taste of what they think the gospel is.

The Christian cannot think of himself as better than another, primarily because he isn’t. If he or she can adopt the posture like this West Virginia church and say, “We have water here. Would you like to come and taste it?” I think a number of skeptics might be willing to at least give it a taste.

The church as it gathers should obviously be such a place. But the church as it scatters (individuals and families showing and sharing the love of Christ), should also reflect the corporate ethos. And I’m from afar West Virginians  open up their homes, inviting all who in need (even friends of friends) to take clean showers and fill up their water jugs.

That’s the kind of church many people want to either connect to or investigate. And that’s the kind which reflects its author Jesus. Upon meeting a skeptical man named Nethaniel who questioned whether anything good could come from Jesus’ hometown, he not only didn’t reject him but welcomed him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47). But before he met Jesus, his friend simply invited him to “come and see.” In other words, I met him, and why don’t you come and see if Jesus is who He says He is?

When you unintentionally scatter

I’ve been spending my morning devotional time in the book of Acts (thought it might be helpful in planting a church to look at how the church was born and grew) and today came across a familiar passage. But since we’ve been discussing as a church the importance of the church as a “gathered and scattered” called-out group of people united by common vision (more than a group united by a building and a Sunday service), I enjoyed seeing another example of “scattering.”

Sometimes, and probably more often than not, “scattering” is intentional. Christians aren’t to gather 24/7. We gather for worship, fellowship, discipleship, etc…But much of our time is spent at work, home, neighborhoods, hobbies, activities. When we do so, we are to be intentionally looking compassionately at people wherever and whenever we intentionally scatter.

But we see in Acts 8 that the early church didn’t intentionally scatter much until they were forced to scatter via persecution. Now they sure did have a “scattering feel” to their fellowship time. But it seems that few really scattered until they were forced to scatter. Or you could say scatter unintentionally.

In America, we don’t have to literally scatter because of persecution. Yet we do often scatter unintentionally. Sometimes it may be a job transfer or a loss of job, and as a result scattering may be literally, and largely,  a geographical change of scenery. And highly unintentional. The takeaway from this passage is that the early church seemed to preach Christ wherever and whenever they were unintentionally scattered. Despite being forced to different locations (unintentional), they intentionally looked around them. They simply saw who was there and who needed Christ.

But sometimes unintentional scattering may be less geographical. Sometimes God continues to put people in your path that you wouldn’t normally think about loving and moving towards. Sometimes you find yourself unintentionally in places like Teeball three nights a week (not sure there is need for practice when there are literally no rules; I actually do have fun but it is 100% about building relationships and not skill development for Connar). Or a baby comes and changes the schedule. Or certain people continue to invite you to do things and you don’t know why. Or you keep seeing the same person time and again. Or for time constraints or various other reasons,  you’ve been scattered to different places and spaces, among different people, or different kinds of people (sometimes not kind).

This is what I call unintentional scattering.

The application from this passage is to be on the lookout wherever you go. Whether you intentionally scattered or unintentionally scattered, the Sovereign Lord has put you there for a reason. Let us be looking, even if all around us is unfamiliar territory or unfamiliar folks. The gospel spread and continues to spread not only by intentional scattering but also informal unintentional scattering. Both are equally as important. The destination or how you got to that destination is far less vital than your “looking” when you get there.

Corinth: The Tampa Bay Bucs of ancient churches

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If you haven’t followed the Bucs this year as a fan, consider yourselves, “lucky,” or perhaps a more Calvinistic expression is apropos: “Providentially blessed.” It’s an absolute circus. A tough and reasonably (people have good reasons) disliked coach named Greg Schiano, who actually was featured in the Sports Spectrum magazine volume which I wrote devotionals for a number of years back. So yes, as much as I want the guy fired, and really don’t see the same Christian character we saw in Dungy, we will be forever linked together in the minds of the vast Sports Spectrum readership across the globe. A quarterback, once considered good for a season, has recently found himself out of the picture. Literally, he overslept and missed the team picture and has now been relegated to watching the game in the “inactive” suite. As we speak he is in stage 1 of some substance abuse program, because in his words, he tested positive for riddalin when he only had a prescription for Aderall. Maybe someone confuses Tylenol for Advil, but that sounds to me a bit silly and missing a bit of info if not truth.

The team has lost 3 games by 3 points or less, one on a penalty, another on missed field goal, and the third because of Napoleon Quarterback’s bonehead interception at the end of the game. I guess things could get worse, and probably will. The Lions 0-16 team will be watching anxiously for this team to descend to such a level.

As much as I want to rid myself of all Buccaneers’ association, I just can’t. They are a mess, but I’m still connected to them because they are my team. They are in some sense my mess, because I live in the area.

The church in Corinth was a mess. It was the Tampa Bay Bucs of churches. Bad, probably Schiano style micro-managing leadership. Locker room factions saying, “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos.” Then the super spiritual, overly proud non-denominational guy, said, “I follow Jesus.” People sleeping with in-laws. “Super-apostles” comparing themselves with Paul and finding themselves better, and then getting people to follow? Folks thinking that their gifts were better than the giftings of others. Dudes getting drunk at communion and then eventually “falling asleep,” and I’m not talking about passing out.

Yet, in all of the mess and dysfunction caused by sin, Paul has the chutzpah-I guess you could call it that-to address these jokers as “saints.”

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours (I Cor 1:2)

Jesus must have done something to make the Tampa Bay Bucs of ancient churches “saints.” They were saints not based upon what they did (duh!!!) but what Jesus did for them. He purchased and washed the church with His blood, and He is the one who declares her righteous. Of course the church washed and purchased, has also been redeemed from slavery. But just like a bunch of convicts set free, we’ll soon make a mess of the good He’s made for us. Unaddressed sinful patterns don’t change overnight, despite the fact we’re no longer enslaved to them. Yet he will take the mess and make something good. Jesus takes greedy people and makes them generous. He moves sexually immoral people toward repentance and restoration. He takes skeptical folks and increases their faith. He did this in middle of this mess. There were bright spots too: evidence of Jesus work in the mess.

You can give up on the Bucs. But don’t give up on Jesus’ church, more specifically its manifestation in a local body of believers. Jesus didn’t, and he still doesn’t. It has always been a mess, but in Jesus eyes, it is a “hot mess” and we’ll eventually see what we’ll become. Until then, keep taking a sneak peak at Revelation 21 where the church comes down from heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. Hot, but no longer a mess.

Church planting could be the best thing for your kids

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Planting a church is a privilege as well as a huge challenge. As I’m in the gathering stage right now, from time to time, I come across “the children barrier” in folks who might be otherwise interested in coming alongside such a risky venture. Even though some people may be excited about the vision, the problem may lie within the realm of this question: “what about the children?”  Christian parents, and probably even those with a merely moral framework, are concerned about their children being taught, or at the very least entertained, well. And the latter is a good concern.

I guess you could say, I believe the late Whitney Houston. Children in some ways are the future (the present too), so “teach them well and let them lead the way.” But how and where we teach them is also quite important. So is the “what! I really do think these are good questions to ask but I don’t think answering them the way they have been answered in the past 50 years is necessarily the best way to go forward.

I don’t think leaving to form a core group is detrimental for the child’s growth. In fact, I think, it could be much the opposite with some intentionality. Of course this isn’t only an issue with church planters, but for established churches where folks sometimes bolt for a “better” children/youth ministry.

Here are some things I’ve been mulling over in my head. Hopefully they make a little sense.

1.) Many people don’t recognize that the primary place for children’s Christian Education is in the home. Now of course, vital children’s ministries can and should assist parents. And I realize some parents just don’t take responsibility, so a vital children’s ministry is all that some kids get. God is faithful. Nevertheless, if a parent takes the time to disciple his/her children, the child will more often than not grow in his/her faith. Parents + Children’s Ministry + Adult Interaction/Service is not a secret formula but it seems to me more of God’s design for producing young disciples.

2.) If vital children’s/youth ministries were all that were needed, then we would see large percentages of kids connecting to a church when they leave for college. We don’t. The formula of solely running the kids through the grid of activities just doesn’t work. We Christians are a bit slow to recognize thing sometimes. So the lack of a vital children’s/youth ministry at the start-up of a new church will not stunt the growth of our children.

3.) Eventually, as the church gets “up and running,” children’s and youth ministries may take off. And parents then have the opportunity to play a part in their formation. This is one of the “fun” parts of starting new churches. It might just be a short matter of time before such ministries can supplement what you are already doing at home.

4.) Not everyone, and you could argue, not most people are called to form a core group to start a new church. But for those that do, here’s something to think about. Is it possible that leaving behind an existing church to form a new one could actually be a catalyst for growth in your children’s faith? One church planter’s daughter actually asked her Dad, “What’s that building?” It was a church. She just knew the church was God’s people gathered together. It was God’s people, not a building. Can’t put a price tag on that! For us, who left behind a great children’s ministry, we’ve seen our five year old’s faith grow.  We’ve walked around the block before and prayed with the kids that we would meet some new neighbors. When a church plant doesn’t have people or property, you simply have to ask God for just about everything. Things we never asked God for, we now have the opportunity to ask God for with our children. Don’t think that asking God for such things alongside of your children won’t have a big impact in their lives. Not only that, but we regularly teach our five year old that we are starting this church because many folks don’t know Jesus or have a church in this area. Teaching in the context of dreaming and doing.

5.) Before church plants can have fully developed ministries, existing churches can and do play a big role. Other churches may have children’s ministries that are fairly affective because they have the volunteers, the practice, and the facilities. I know of one which assists many parents in the area, yet many of those parents go to different churches. In the same way, such a church can partner and make the church planting process a bit smoother when folks desire such ministries. This may work for a season until something is up and running, or it may just continue to be a valuable asset for years.

In the end, starting a new church, because (not in spite of) it is such a faith stretching endeavor, is full of opportunities for your children to grow in their faith. Being a part of a core group is not for everyone. Please hear me say that. But for those whom God has called to join Him in a specific new work, it could end up actually being the best thing for your children. I’ve seen this time and time again with folks who’ve planted before me.

And that is why we are here……

After having been slightly let down by the first few episodes of Arrested Development, Amy and I were in the “market” for a new show. Since we’ve always been interested in midwifery, particularly during the 1950’s in England, we thought Call the Midwife would be a perfect fit. Obviously I joke, but I was in fact the one who questioned why there were no male duolas (I called them dude-las) in the field while going through our first birthing classes. Strangely enough the question wasn’t taken too seriously. 

We’re only one episode into the series, but I was impressed from the start. It depicted a privileged and unsuspecting midwife graduate taking her first job in a rough section of England. And to her surprise, and dismay, she gets saddled with a bunch of nuns. Nothing against nuns, of course. The main character is blown away by the rough conditions in the apartments, particularly after one of her patients has a huge syphyllus sore that she just “hadn’t gotten around” to checking out. 

She opens up to one of the “veteran” nuns, “I can’t believe people live like this.”

The nun immediately responds, “But they do live like this. And that is why we are here.”

What a beautiful scene! What is a local church to do with the sin, shame, and at times syphyllus in its surroundings? Should we be surprised? Should we bring more shame upon shame by distant judgments and telling people to simply change? Should we vacate the area and head for “higher” ground? 

Since we are all sinners, we certainly have common ground with non-Christians. Lots of it. I sure do. And my theology reminds me that I shouldn’t be surprised at any condition people live in; should I expect people who have not tasted the gospel to live as though they have tasted grace (regularly repenting from sin/self righteousness and resting in Christ’s performance for and approval of me)?

Now “living like this” may look like gross personal sin: syphyllus and shancre sores. Or it may look like poverty, crime, disease, and other affects compounded by personal and communal sin. Or it may look like good old-fashioned self-righteousness, self-sufficiency, and idolatry. Regardless, people everywhere, all over, “do live like that” and are in great need of the gospel (as are Christians too by the way-so we have that in common as well!).
 
Instead of running from them, a church and its people have an opportunity to run toward them. Shouldn’t we say, “That is why we are here?” That is why our church plant is here. “Living like this” is a result of disbelieving the gospel, and doesn’t that give us and others hope? Our answer to the surrounding world isn’t “live like us” or “live like Jesus” but turn and rest in Jesus. I suspect that many people who have rejected Christianity as a whole, reject moralism or self-helpism without really understanding the actual gospel message.

Why is this church here? To bring the gospel to both the needs of believers and unbelievers, for it is robust enough to provide rest for both types of sinners. On Sundays and in between.