I was blown away by this song. And if you’ve got kids…I think you will be, too. Keep the tissues handy.
Our church will never grow.
Those were the words I heard over the phone from a pastor. “Because of the town where we’re at, and with it being pretty rural, our church isn’t ever really going to grow.”
It felt like the punchline to a joke that wasn’t funny. I unintentionally let an awkward silence hang over the airways while I caught my breath, hoping he’d fill the silence with, “Oh, you know I’m kidding.” He didn’t.
We were in the middle of a conversation about small groups, and how small groups can be a growth engine for your church as they help connect people into life-giving, discipleship-making relationships. I was trying to help him see how small groups can be an environment for people not just inside of the church building to connect and grow, but for those still on the outside. A chance for skeptics to “kick the tires,” if you will, not in an argumentative you-better-convince-me-intellectually kind of way, but in a way where they see the church in action. Where they watch love. Watch grace. Watch forgiveness. Watch confession. Watch growth.
Small groups are the Church. Alive. (Tweet that)
Small groups are ideal environments to invite your friends.
But he wasn’t buying it. And I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
Our church will never grow.
Basically I was being told, “Evangelism won’t work for us. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) is for everyone else. Because of where we live, we’re off the hook. Jesus couldn’t have meant us when he commanded
us them to make disciples of all nations. No way. No how.” (Tweet that)
to shape your community and grow your congregation, get out of the ministry. (Tweet that) Do something else. Anything else. The Gospel is too important to waste. Too powerful to keep confined to a small box.
Pastors, your community needs you. (Tweet that) It needs you to believe that there’s hope in the Gospel. There’s healing to be found in surrender. That marriages can be reconciled. That change is possible.
I’m done listening to my pastor.
All this talk on believing the Gospel. Trusting God through pain. Loving my kids with all of my heart. Believing God’s way is better than my way. I’m done.
Quit listening to your pastor talk about how much he loves you. About how God has a plan for your life. About how you need to link arms with other people and join a small group.
Quit listening to him when he says that it’s good for your heart to give generously.
Quit listening when he talks about turning your back on your sin. About trusting the God who loves you. About your need to repent.
And when he prays for you…stop listening then, too. Don’t listen when he encourages you to step up and serve others. Or to spend a week this summer at student camp. Or going overseas to share the love and hope of the Gospel.
Stop listening. Please.
Stop listening and start doing something.
Take what your pastor says and start living it. Let it resonate so deeply in your soul that it pushes you to action.
Listening alone is worthless. When the act of hearing Truth doesn’t end in some form of action, it’s not done you any good. As James puts it,
But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. – James 1:22
If we listen, and don’t do, we’re a fool. James goes on to compare us to the person who looks in the mirror to make sure everything’s straight…and as soon as they look away, they forget what they looked like. That’s dumb.
So let’s quit wasting our pastor’s time by listening. It’s not doing either of us any good. A storm’s brewing, and we’ve got to be ready. The question is not whether we will have enough knowledge or not. The question will be whether we can do anything about it.
But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete. – Jesus, Luke 6:49
Stop listening to your pastor. And start doing.
When I was in college, working on my undergraduate degree, I had a class in swine production.
I know, I know…sounds just like what you’d expect a guy who would end up as a pastor would study, right?
My path to full-time vocational ministry was not the one of least resistance.
A few times that semester, we got to visit a pig farm, and see the whole production. We’d help with the newborn pigs, watch a feeding time, see how research was conducted (on the research farm on campus), and meet with various workers. It was fascinating.
And made your clothes smell horrible.
There was no faking that you’d been to the pig farm. You had to change clothes and shower before your next class…every time.
One thing that stuck with me from that class was the way that nothing was wasted on the farm. Not even the pigs’ poop.
The poop was piled in a barn, and over the course of a year, the poop would compost, leaving a rich fertilizer that the farmers would use to fertilize the fields that other animals would graze. It was an incredible additive and boost to those fields, giving yields that greatly surpassed the non-fertilized fields. In other words, the poop made the crops grow faster.
Pig poop, though foul-smelling to us humans, contains nutrients that help crops grow really well. After it was harvested and composted (by which time it didn’t stink anymore), it was simply spread across the field in the spring, just before a rain, its nutrients used by the budding crops.
You’ve got poop in your life. Things you’ve done that you’re not proud of. Things that have been done to you that you wish hadn’t happened. Dreams that you lost, relationships that crumbled. Jobs lost. Marriages destroyed. Addictions that you’re ashamed of. You’ve messed up in a way that you’d hope and pray nobody would ever mess up. You’ve done things…or not done thing…that you never want to repeat.
We typically do one of two things with that pain and suffering:
Neither is healthy.
Option 1 leaves us judgmental of others who have real pain, ignorant of our own Pharisaical stench. We’re left with a shallow understanding of our sin and pain…and thus a shallow understanding of God’s goodness and grace. Acting like “poop” never happened wastes our pain.
Option 2 leaves us in a crying, heaping, depressed, self-depracating mess. All of the time. We get stuck in what “could’ve been,” what “should’ve been,” and “who I wish I was,” constantly making ourselves pay for our past mistakes over and over again. OR making others pay for our past mistakes by disengaging from those who love us, and who would love to help. Wallowing in our “poop” wastes our pain.
I’ve got a 3rd option, and I take my cue from the pig poop.
The way God brought you through the junk can help someone else who, right now, can’t see the light. They’re stuck. They’re in the middle of an addiction or the throes of suffering.
Live a life full of grace because you’ve been graced so much by the King. Live a life of love because you were loved first. Live a life of forgiveness because of the heaping amounts of forgiveness you’ve been given that you can never repay. Live a life of generosity because you’ve been given so much.
Your valleys can become great pastures that others can graze from as they see you living life to the full. (John 10:10)
No need to ignore the past. It’s purpose isn’t to hold you back. No need to wallow in it, either.
Let someone else graze from it.
If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. – 2 Corinthians 1:6-7
For a long season, churches focused on relevancy. They wanted to look cooler, sleeker, hipper, and funner than the options that the world had to offer. Take this world and give me Jesus…the cool one with gel in his hair, a tat on his left arm, and when he speaks, LED lights shine through the thick fog that billows around his feet. The one that speaks in catchy phrases, never offends anyone, and focuses on being slick rather than worshiping the King.
I wonder if that trend is over.
I hope that trend is over.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being slick. Or using LED lights (we use them at Grace). Or having gel in your hair. Please, Lord Jesus, tell me there’s nothing wrong with gel in my hair.
The problem isn’t those things at all. In fact, the Church should be the most creative, mind-and-heart-stretching gathering on the planet. The problem is when make our aim and end-goal “relevancy.” The problem is when those things become our crutch, and substitute for what my generation is really looking for.
If you aim for relevancy, you’ll be frustrated every time. As soon as you find the coolest lights, you’ll realize that the touring Broadway company that comes through town just smoked you. As soon as you shoot the best video, you’ll realize that Hollywood just released a blockbuster with a budget of $250 million. As soon as you print off the best-looking bulletins that the church world has ever seen, you’ll realize that the start-up A/C company down the road sent out 15,000 mailers that make your bulletin look like the preschoolers colored it.
Maybe relevancy shouldn’t be our goal. Maybe we shouldn’t rely on the “cool” and “wow” factor to draw my generation in. (and I’m thrilled that my church doesn’t rely on these things to be the hook)
My generation wants counter-cultural. Not relevancy.
The Gospel is relevant. It always has been. And as long as there is pain, frustration, disappointments, failed expectations, failed families, abuse, neglect, and a desire for a more beautiful reality, the Gospel will continue to be. But it’ll never be relevant because of the lights, sounds, and hipster tight jeans.
If we want to reach my generation, counter-cultural should be our aim. Not anti-culture. Not oblivious-to-culture. Not naive-to-culture. And not enmeshed with the culture. Jesus seemed to do this pretty well, living in culture among us (John 1:14), but he stood out because of his love and radical grace.
Lights, videos, and billowing fog are great. But don’t forget the weightier matters: justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23). That’s what’s going to hook my generation.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is —his good, pleasing and perfect will. – Romans 12:2
Normal is the enemy of a full life.
And for me, life was normal.
I was a sophomore in high school, and nothing was shaking.
But Washington, D.C. changed everything.
It was late summer, and I was knee deep in summer assignments. Normal.
Practicing hard for my team’s upcoming Fall season. Normal
Cutting yards for a bit of cash. Normal.
I had signed up to tag along with our youth group to go on Mission Fuge, a camp in Washington, D.C. I’d gone to summer church camp since I was in 5th grade. Normal.
When we hit the ground in D.C., planning our week out and scoping the work we’d be doing. We were going to be working with some local kids doing, basically, a “Vacation Bible School” with them for a week.
“I got this in the bag,” I thought. I’d done VBS stuff before. I could throw that hat on. And I could rock it.
The following 5 days, though, unwrapped poverty like I’d never seen it. And it wasn’t “poverty” asking for my money and looking a little creepy. It was poverty that looked like me. Poverty that wanted to play basketball. Brokenness that I could be going to school with. Brokenness that broke my heart.
For the first time in my life, “poverty” wasn’t a problem that was simply a nuisance sitting on the side of the interstate begging for booze money. It was a real person. These were real problems with real needs…and God used me, in a minuscule way, to meet those needs. And the Gospel I knew became the Gospel I lived. No longer was “compassion” just what Jesus did on the cross. “Compassion” was what I offered because my King led the way. “Love your neighbor” wasn’t simply the 5th point of a sermon on what I had to do…it was the compelling force breaking my heart and mending others’.
Turns out God used that week to shape the hearts of a handful of teenage guys, like myself. He used that week to drive us to search our own hearts and, over the course of the next two years of high school, God would solidify a small group of guys and prepare us for great work ahead. From that group, 4 would go on to full-time vocational ministry. All because we weren’t satisfied with the “normal” high school experience, the “normal” church experience, or the “normal” relationship with God.
You never know when abnormal is going to happen. Sometimes we choose it. Sometimes it’s chosen for us.
When it happens, thank the Lord. Because Jesus didn’t come to offer us a normal life. He came to give us life to the full. (John 10:10)
Time to embrace the abnormal.
Here are a few of my favorites from around the web this week.
Not too long ago, I enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate with a friend from seminary. He graduated not long after I did, and he was telling me about how involved he was in his local church. As we were reminiscing about our seminary days, he said something that stunned me:
“I regret seminary.”
Come again? I asked him to explain.
A disciple of Jesus is someone who learns the gospel, relates in the gospel, and communicates the gospel. This definition of disciple shows us that the gospel both makes and matures disciples. We see this in Jesus’s ministry. Jesus proclaimed the same gospel to the crowds that he taught to the disciples. He did not have the twelve on a special, gospel-plus track to study advanced subject matter.
When I look back at the life of the twelve, I can say with certainty that they failed in may ways. One of them sold him, others abandoned him, and Peter denied him. Those weren’t their only failures, but it was their biggest.
The beauty of their failures was that Jesus wasn’t looking for perfection from them. They were not capable of pleasing Jesus in all things, let alone in most things, but what Jesus was willing to do was work with fragile vessels so that He Himself is glorified through their failures.
Dearest Grubnat, my poppet, my pigsnie,
The reports of your progress warm my blackened heart. When you were assigned to one of the Enemy’s ministers ten years ago, his infernal Majesty and I knew you’d have a rough go of it. The zeal of one new to the pastorate can be a daunting challenge to even the most cunning of our comrades, but we also believed that time breeds all wounds and that your task would become easier the longer your patient remained. You now prosper from that sweet spot of pastoral fatigue and assimilation. The shine of newness is gone. And up pop the cracks in the ministerial armor.
Community is realized in story.
On the first night of our small group, I didn’t want to make things too awkward. I didn’t want to be the guy who dumped all of my junk on everyone…you know, the emo guy that just goes around with a rain cloud over my head, and shares dark things all of the time. You know who I’m talking about. Every time you talk to them you think, “How are you even still alive? You are so dark and mysterious…”
I didn’t want to pressure people too much, so I closed in prayer. I just laid it out there and said, “Hey, we’re going to close in prayer…please don’t feel the pressure to share anything…if you want prayer, please mention it and someone will volunteer to pray out loud for you in a moment.” There must have been something magical in those words. Because in that moment, the heavens opened up and it was glorious.
Our group gravitated towards each other’s stories. We could’ve gravitated towards a lot in that moment, but it was with each unfolding story that our group began moving inwards.
I didn’t ask for community to happen…it just did. Our group went from fragmented, broken individuals to a unified community in the matter of about 12 minutes. And I’ve seen this over and over again. Fragmented individuals come together more quickly and more tightly, forming the bonds of community, through the power of story. Stories reveal shared experiences.
I know that some of you right now are saying, “Nope, it’s not through story, you crazy liberal! It’s through Gospel. We’re aiming for Gospel-centered community, NOT story-centered community. Have you read Blue Like Jazz too many times?”
Community is not realized in a group simply when we find out that we all follow Jesus.
In the process of hearing your story, I hear mine. I make connections between who you were and who I was. I link who you’re becoming with who I’m becoming. And I see that the Gospel is strong enough. Scandalous enough. Generous enough. Big enough to transform my story, too.
Your story gives me hope.
Without your story, community isn’t found. “Bible study” may be found. “Fun” may be found. “Relationships” may be found. But genuine community is formed when I see and hear and feel and smell and hug and experience the Gospel in your life.
To choose to not share your story is to choose fear. And it’s choosing a weak, inadequate form of community when the Gospel offers much, much more.
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. – Romans 12:15-16
But did you know that you can choose how you’ll be defined? You don’t have to continue to wear the label you’ve been pinned. You don’t have to wear the hat that’s been forced on your head.
Those things don’t define you unless you let them.
I’m choosing my label. And my choice is “graced.”
Despite my past. Despite my failures. Despite my weaknesses. Despite my challenges and frustrations and “personality.”
For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by God’s grace I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not ineffective. – Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:9-10
*photo credit: John Ashcroft via Creation Swap