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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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?

Deeper than Weezer: Opening up a redemptive Pandora’s box

One of my prayer requests for the “core group” of our church plant (obviously including me) is for a deeper personal conviction of sin. What I mean is that we would be aware of, and regularly repent of our particular sins. Not just that we engaged in sin like gossip, lust, jealousy, envy, selfishness, self-righteousness, or didn’t engage in what we were called to (sins of omission), but why we did the things we did. Why chose to gossip (to tear down instead of considering how Christ builds us up) to lust (failure to see Christ as worthy of our gaze) or selfishness (failure to heed Jesus promise that there is more joy in giving life away). Why would a pastor pray for something like this for himself and Christ’s sheep?

If that seems like a strange request, I promise you it is a prayer that will bring praise to Christ, joy to the believer, and blessing/opportunity to neighbors/co-workers/friends. To repent of particular sins and recognize personal sin in general opens up the opposite of pandora’s box: the deep treasures of the gospel to you and others.

1.) For your neighbors benefit: The more you are aware of your own personal sin, the less self-righteous you become. You become the biggest sinner you know. You don’t look down upon someone else for doing _____. Instead you look sideways, seeing them as a fellow sinner, also in need of grace. The difference is…you have received grace, not that you’re a “better” person. Often you’ll find you aren’t! You become a better neighbor when you realize God doesn’t need your good works but your neighbor does (a la Martin Luther).

2.) For your benefit. Obviously you have to turn to Jesus, but if you have a constant recognition of your own sin, then you have a constant rest, appreciation, and joy that God’s love for you is grounded not in your performance but in the person and work of Christ. That is freeing and makes you want to make a joyful noise to Jesus. The flip side is also true: if you have little understanding of your own sin, you have little need for Jesus. Maybe you needed him back a few years ago, but now, not so much. What happens? You’ll find yourself becoming more and more self-righteous, angry, and bitter. Remember the “other prodigal son?” If not, check out how his self-righteousness made him and angry SOB (Luke 15:11-32). We miss out on joy and become more self-righteous by ignoring our sin.

We don’t repent from personal sin regularly so that God will give us more stuff (health and wealth gospel), but so that God will give us more of Himself. On the other side of the cross there was joy for Jesus so that on the other side of repentance, which is faith, joy will abound to us.

3.) For the sake of the Commission. A deeper understanding of sin led Isaiah into volunteering for a mission done got himself killed (Isaiah 6). And he volunteered for it! In the presence of God’s Holy throne he came undone (no it wasn’t because someone pulled the thread of his sweater as he walked away a la Weezer) because of a deep recognition of his own sins of the tongue. Once God cleansed and symbolically atoned for his sin, he said, “Here I am, send me.” His own sin, and the forgiveness by God, moved him toward mission. It moved him to sacrifice even his life for his neighbors. It move us to sacrifice comfort and convenience when we recognized that Christ has atoned the sins of our tongues (among a plethora of other sins). In contrast, a lack of personal sin is what led Jonah to self-righteously and unwillingly preach the gospel, and then actually, angrily hope for the worst (Jonah 4). Notice the difference?

4.) For the sake of Christ. One of the reasons we have been saved is so that we would praise God for the glorious riches offered to us in the in person of God the Son, with those promises sealed to us by God the Holy Spirit (Eph 1). Instead of morbid introspection where we spend time thinking how bad we are, we quickly turn from looking at our personal sin for the day or sin in general, and immediately cast our gaze upon Him who is already looking down from Heaven with a smile. When our countenance meets His, we burst forth in song, praise, and possibly dance (depending upon denomination or skill level). Regular, albeit brief glances at our sin leads to a panoramic view of Christ and His work.

The TV show Breaking Bad, probably better than any other show I’ve seen, reveals the cosmic affects of personal sin. But the gospel message and power invite us to live within a different narrative. Personal sin has/has had cosmic consequences, but personal gospel dynamics also have a cosmic redemptive affect.

If you’ve read this and think of someone else who needs to take sin more seriously, you’ve missed the point. If you’ve read this and think I’m writing this about YOU in particular, well there’s a Carly Simon song you might remember called “Your So Vain-I bet you think this post is about you.” But if you read this and have begun to recognize how messed up you really are, and then how perfect, righteous, gracious, satisfying, loving, merciful, powerful, holy, giving Jesus is, and that he offers all He demands, then you’ll have read this post correctly. 

If you begin with your goodness, you’ll love Jesus and your neighbors a whole lot less. On the contrary if you begin with your sin, Jesus will be honored and your neighbors blessed. They may just thank you-even if they don’t understand exactly how such sacrificial love was kindled.

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.