Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Importance of Partnership

From our sendoff weekend (11/09) at the Kenner Vineyard Church.  Our sending pastor Phil Jeansonne and his wife Deborah... true partners in the gospel of which we are very grateful.

Two weeks ago I launched into a series on Philippians.  I am enjoying it immensely and amazed at just how relevant I am finding this material to things I am experiencing today.  One central concept that Paul mentions in the opening verses of Philippians is that of partnership in the gospel.  Paul had a special relationship with the church in Philippi that was built around being partners in the work of the kingdom.  While understanding this concept of partnership is hugely important in understanding the letter to the Philippians I am also finding that it is so crucial in the life of a church and particularly when it comes to church planting.

It’s been a little over a year since Dina and I were sent out from the Vineyard Church of Kenner to plant Northshore Vineyard in downtown Covington.  I am very much aware, as we continue through the various stages of church planting, of just how important this idea of partnership is for us.  I truly don’t think we would have survived this first year without the support (relationally, spiritually, and financially) of our sending church or without such dear companions in this work who have joined us. 

It is quite scary to step out into church planting because you are leaving your comfort zone and stepping into a new place that you can only imagine in part with various trials that one has never imagined.  However, one of the scariest aspects of church planting that I have seen all too often is when a couple or a church planting team are basically going it alone without any support, connection or partnership with others outside of the church plant or when they fail to develop partnership within the church plant. 

In the opening words of Philippians I see how Paul, imprisoned far away from Philippi in what would seem the bleakest of circumstances, had his spirits lifted with incredible joy because they had sent him a gift to take care of his needs in prison.  They were truly partners in the work of the gospel.  But more than the financial gift (which was hugely important) Paul’s spirit’s were lifted because the gift was evidence that they had his back, that they were in it with him, that they weren’t going to let him go it alone. 

I started off this week feeling very stressed and overwhelmed by all of the stuff on my plate.  These days I frequently feel like I am being stretched in many ways to do things I’ve never done.  While I feel the grace and peace of God to do these things, this grace and peace isn’t coming simply in my own individual relationship with God but in my connection with others who are partnering to do this work of the kingdom.  In the midst of my stress I have had a few conversations with people in our church that have blessed me tremendously, people who bring me the same kind of joy (on a smaller scale) that Paul must have felt in that Philippian prison, folks who I know are with us not because I have pressured them or guilted them or even asked much of them but because they have been compelled by God to join with us in this work.  The various people I have talked with this week likely don’t even know that anything profound was taking place in those conversations but I have truly experienced God’s grace and peace moving towards me. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

You Are Not the Point but a Point

Several years ago I had a conversation with a missionary who was working in Nairobi Kenya.  She mentioned how everything was going quite well until Christian television began broadcasting in that country.  The problem is that much of the Christian programming that was being broadcast in Kenya was of the prosperity gospel variety and was threatening to undo much of the work of faithful ministries that had been laboring there for years with its message of God wanting to make people healthy, wealthy and prosperous as evidence of their Christian faith.  She told me of how the pastor of her church went from being a simple devoted follower of Christ to a person who would rail on his congregation weekly telling them that they needed to give more money so that he could drive a Mercedes like the pastor down the road.  She even showed me an article from the newspaper in Kenya that noted that the most lucrative job in the country was being a pastor.  Recently I have heard similar reports from others who have been doing missions work in Zambia.  I would venture to guess that what these missionaries are reporting in Africa is no doubt happening on mission fields around the world as this very Americanized perversion of the gospel makes its way through numerous TV and radio stations making inroads in to the developing world.  When I hear these stories I can’t help but think of how easy it is to miss the point of the gospel.  

What if God's blessing wasn't meant as his approval of our faith, or even as an end in and of itself?  What if there was more to the Gospel then just being healthier, wealthier (materially speaking), than having whiter teeth and fresher breath?  If we can step back a moment from this cultural lens of viewing the Bible I am convinced we will find a completely different story.

When God Launches a Rescue Plan
Way back in the book of Genesis we find the beginning of God’s rescue plan for the world.  How does God start this plan?  By initiating a relationship with Abraham that, like leaven in bread, will eventually permeate the world.  When we look at the call of Abraham we see a window into how God blesses and how he intends blessings to work in the grand scheme of his rescue plan. 

Genesis 12 states
 1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
 2 “I will make you into a great nation, 
   and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
   and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you, 
   and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
   will be blessed through you.”

In my years as a Christian I have heard many a pastor talk about the blessings of Abraham as a way that God wants to bless us:  God wants to bless you!  God wants to prosper you!  God wants to make your name great!  Yet unfortunately many pastors miss the underlying idea that God was blessing Abraham so that he could be a blessing.  In other words, the blessings of Abraham were not to simply end with Abraham but to continue through him and (in Jesus) to bless all the people of the earth.  When we fail to realize this core concept of blessed-to-be-a-blessing then our spirituality becomes self-centered and selfish because the blessings stop with us.  One need only look at the narrative of the Old Testament to see that this was the error that Israel frequently made.  Though God had wanted Israel to be a nation of priests that would lead others to God, they often mistook God’s blessings as simply a validation of their special relationship with him.  This frames the understanding of Jesus' words on being salt and light  in Matthew 5:13-16.  Salt is no good sitting in a shaker on the shelf.  It must be poured out to do its work.  The same is true for a lamp.  A lamp hidden in a closet will do the room no good at all.  Jesus' words were an indictment of Israel's failure to stick with the plot and purpose.  Yes God blessed them and wanted to continue to bless them but it was so that all the nations of the earth could get in on those very blessings of being reconciled to God. 

While I am a firm believer in God’s blessings I can no longer go along with believing that God’s blessings are an end in and of themselves.  When God blesses you or me it is not simply about showing us he loves us but rather intended to make us into a blessing so that others might experience God’s love, mercy, compassion, generosity, etc. 

I’ve prepared the following diagram to demonstrate this idea:

I don't know how many times I have heard the line "if you were the only person on planet earth Jesus would have died for you!'  While I agree with that line it seems to leave things in a very individually focused place as if you or I are the point of all of this.  The truth is that God offers us salvation, love, peace, healing not only so we are reconciled to God but so that we can then become part of the rescue plan; the rescued become the rescuers!  If we forget the second half of this principle on blessing then we may experience  the blessings of God but we will never grow into the fullness of life that comes through participating in the mission of God.  One of my favorite New Testament scripture that demonstrates this you-are-not-the-point idea is when Paul talks about his own becoming an apostle:

1Cor 15:9-11 
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

Paul, was a guy who encountered the grace of God in a profound way.  In the midst of persecuting the church, ripping apart families of Christ-followers, and consenting to the death of none other than Stephen, he bumped into Jesus.  When he ran into Jesus, he did not run into wrath or judgement but overwhelming and unfathomable grace.  And though it must have felt amazing for Paul to be forgiven of such massive sins he didn't just sit on his forgiveness as if that was the point.  What we see in these verses is that Paul was not only saved by grace but driven and compelled to do amazing works by grace.  Paul understood that Jesus didn't simply die to forgive his sin but rather so he might get in on the good work of bringing Christ's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  This is why one will consistently find loving God linked to loving people.  

You are not the point, but a point in the ongoing story of redemption that God is continuing even now.  Help us Lord to not forget that!  May His story continue to us and through us this day!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Former Terrorist Becomes Christian Leader

I’ve been reading quite a bit this last week of a religious fundamentalist terrorist who abandoned his life of terrorism after having what he describes as an encounter with Jesus.  This terrorist was notorious for terrorizing Christians in Israel, Lebanon and Syria.  His most famous act of terror came when his followers publicly stoned a Christian relief worker who was heading up a ministry to feed poor widows in the Jerusalem metropolitan area.  Oddly enough though, his conversion to Christianity came right in the middle of one of his terror campaigns when he describes bumping into Jesus himself.  Whatever happened the churches of the area were not quite ready to welcome this “former” terrorist into their midst thinking that it could be yet another one of his ploys to persecute Christ followers.

Though the above story reads as if it could have come from recent headlines it is in reality based on the conversion of the Apostle Paul.  Too often we read the words of Paul without reading his story, without understanding just how scandalous it was that this former religious fundamentalist terrorist became one of the greatest missionaries of Jesus in history.  When one first gets acquainted with Paul’s story before reading his letters, one will find an experience of God’s grace deep in the core of his being.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 (NIV)
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
I find it interesting that when Paul bumps into Jesus while on a mission to persecute Christians he doesn’t face the wrath, anger, or judgment of God, though quite deserving of it, but rather faces incomprehensible and utterly scandalous GRACE.  This experience of the grace of God would go on to permeate every letter Paul ever wrote and would compel him to go to the greatest lengths to tell anyone about what God had done. 

Paul’s story shows us that the same Jesus who died for the very ones who were persecuting him is still reaching a hand of mercy out to the ones, like Paul, who seem to be the furthest away.  That grace, that mercy, when received leaves an indelible mark upon one’s heart from which there is no recovery, ever… it is truly AMAZING GRACE!

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Why "Why" Matters

I revisited a talk that I heard a few weeks ago from TED Talks by Simon Sinek.  In the talk Sinek explores why certain people and businesses succeed while others that may seem even more funded fail.  As examples he uses the Wright Brothers, and Martin Luther King Jr.  Sinek makes the point that what set both the Wright Brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. apart from many of their contemporaries who were trying to do the same things is that they kept the "why" ahead of the "what" meaning that they consistently stayed aware and communicated why they were doing what they were doing above and beyond merely what they were doing.  As a result, people who were driven by the same core convictions gathered around them.  As Sinek states in this talk, "Martin Luther King said 'I have a dream' not 'I have a plan'"  In essence King was always communicating the why up front as opposed to many in the political world who simply offer a 15 point plan.

I suspect this phenomenon is why Barack Obama won the presidential election because his whole campaign was primarily about the "why"--hope, change.  While I would consider myself a conservative (or at least libertarian) on most political issues I have to admit that I could not get very excited about John McCain during the last election.  Perhaps this was because he failed to resonate with the core passions of people.  I suspect that this too is why George W. Bush was elected as well because compared to many of the others he came across as someone who was authentic, caring, and uncompromising--intangibles that resonate with the "why" part of people.  Further, this valuing of the "why" over the "what" is probably partly why the same ones that voted for Bush and Obama become disillusioned so quickly when the "why" doesn't come to pass.

So, my takeaway is that I agree with Sinek on most of what he is saying because I have noticed the same tendencies in my life.  Yet, I don't think it is healthy or productive or redemptive to have a "why" without a "what" (reason for doing things but no meaningfully thought out plan as to what you are going to do and how you are going to do it.)

Check out the talk and leave some feedback.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Walmart Christmas Commercial I Referenced in a Recent Blog

The Connected Church

I have rarely posted links to messages that I have delivered at Northshore Vineyard but today I want to toss up some material from my message from last weekend called Love in All Directions .  I wanted to post about this message because in many ways it has been a development of ideas I have wrestled with in the last few years on this blog.  I recommend listening to the message when you get a chance (also find it on the Northshore Vineyard Podcast on iTunes).

I developed the following diagram for understanding various different expressions or philosophies of church.

This diagram gets at the vertical an horizontal aspects of the Christian faith.

 The vertical axis deals with a person or church's relationship with God at the top and then the depth of that encounter in the heart (which can also be thought of in terms of transformation).

The horizontal axis is about our relationships with others.  On one side I have the church signifying the community of faith and on the other side I have the culture.  While culture here includes the stuff of culture such as music, movies, etc. I am using this word also more generally to refer to the community outside of the church.

 When you put the vertical axis and the horizontal axis together then you can plot different types of churches based on what their philosophy of ministry is.  There are no doubt sociology and religious studies professors out there who have come up with ideas that might be more scientific but this kind of diagram has really sprung from my years of wrestling with church (much of it on this here blog).  I will now turn our attention to some various types (or should I say stereotypes) of churches as plotted on this diagram.

The subculture church exists in the quadrant of Christian Community and God.  This type of church is defined by very tight community.  Much of this is due to seeing the outside culture as something to either retreat from or battle.  A subculture church will be markedly different from the culture, so much so that a person who has not grown up around the subculture will have a very hard time connecting.  For instance a church's worship may be composed of songs which were all written hundreds of years ago and are played on a pipe organ (while I am using a more traditional example the same could apply to a very wild and less traditional service as well).  Though the music may be beautiful and the lyrics quite meaningful a person outside of that subculture will have no grid for that kind of music in ordinary life because it is not common in the culture at large.

When I was on staff as the worship pastor of the Kenner Vineyard I would find myself frequently hanging out with two or three sound guys at a time after our worship band practice.  While I know a little bit about running sound, I don't have much technical understanding so when the conversation would inevitably shift to technical matters I would feel cut off from the conversation.  Though I was sitting right there with these sound guys their use of the terms decibels, megahertz, signal path, compression thresholds, noise floor, diodes, and capacitors would create distance between myself and them.  Immediately I became an outsider.  In the same way a subculture church creates distance with a use of terminology that is very hard for outsiders to comprehend from using the King James version of the Bible or simple insider language with words such as sanctification, lost, or hallelujah (without any attempts to define them for outsiders).

The strength of the Subculture Church is that it forms tight community and yet this is also it's weakness.  Subculture Churches are bound to whither and die because they have no meaningful connection with the outside culture.

In the early nineties Willow Creek Church in Chicago emerged as a pioneer of a whole new way of doing church that didn't seek to retreat or battle the surrounding culture but rather to connect with it in a meaningful way.  Throughout the nineties many churches adopted this approach as they realized the weakness of the Subculture church model.  Seeker churches have become the largest churches in America in the last 20 years fueling the whole mega-church phenomenon.  A Seeker Church takes great care to connect with the culture.  This means that the worship service in a seeker church will not sound all that different from the kind of music people tend to listen to in everyday life.  Seeker churches also make a point to steer away from insider language that might alienate those who have no grid for church or Christianity.  The strength of seeker churches can be seen in their results as some of the largest churches around the country are of this philosophy of ministry.  The downside of the seeker model of church is that while it is great at connecting with those in the culture it often is not so great at making disciples or bringing folks into authentic Christian community.  

This church exists in the quadrant of the culture and the heart.  A good example of a gathering that might exemplify this philosophy is Alcoholics Anonymous.  While I do know of very Christ-centered AA meetings, many AA meetings give little more than a nod to God (in terms of admitting that there is some nebulous higher power out there).  While AA does a great job on connecting with the culture and dealing with the internal issues that fuel addictions there is not typically much emphasis on relationship with God or growing in Christian faith.  

The hospital church lives in the quadrant of the church and the heart.  Hospital churches have sprung up to help heal those who have been wounded both in the church and in the culture.  Years ago I found myself in one such church after having gone through some really rough times in church.  I came in bruised and beat up and ready to give up on church but I found a place of healing.  A hospital church is big on grace, low on expectations, and genuine in their relationships, which is their strength.  As most hospitals, they are not so concerned with connecting with the culture but rather taking care of the ones who show up.  The weakness of the hospital church is that it has very little sense of mission or outreach outside of healing the wounded and once people get healed up a bit it doesn't make much sense for them to keep sticking around (this would be like coming to a hospital after being in a car wreck, getting treated for your injuries, going through rehabilitation, and then wanting to keep staying in the hospital once you were healthy).  

As I have wrestled with the type of church I wanted to plant and as I still work to direct our fledgling congregation I would say that I want to be a connected church.  A connected church is marked by its connections to the Christian community and the surrounding community, to God and to the heart.  I desire that Northshore Vineyard would be a place that connects with people right where they are but begins to bring them into meaningful community around Jesus.  I want this church to be a community that takes the inward journey seriously as well, a church that sees the healing of internal emotional issues as a part of discipleship.  I want our church to be a place where those who have been beat up and battered by religion could not only find healing but also be mobilized into mission to bring that healing to bare on the broken world around us.  

Being a connected church is much harder than living in any of those 4 quadrants because it means living in tension.  It is much easier to live in the black and white world of the subculture or to just flat out rebel against Christian community altogether but we will endeavor to live at the intersection of God, heart, church and culture.

  • Have you experienced any of these types of churches before?
  • What do you think about being a church that lives in the tension, the intersection of these lines?

Monday, January 03, 2011

Jesus is Not a Control Freak

Last week as I was preparing for my weekend message at Northshore Vineyard I came across a passage I have read hundreds of times and of which I have even heard countless sermons in my years as a Christian.  Yet this last week as I was reading the verses of Jesus’ Great Commission I caught some things that I had never noticed before.

Matthew 28:16-20 (NIV)
 16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

There were two main things that stood out to me in these verses.  First, I had never noticed the line in verse 17 “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”  At first this seems kind of crazy.  Think of it, these disciples had been with Jesus for 3 years—the healings, the teachings, and not to mention the death and resurrection of Jesus himself… and still there were some of them struggling with doubts.  The second thing that got my attention is that even in spite of some of them doubting, Jesus still handed over the ministry to them.  Remember that those were the last moments of the earthly ministry of Jesus as he was just about to return to heaven.  This picture in Matthew 28 gives some amazing insight into Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus spent 3 years with 12, mostly uneducated, fishermen, a tax collector and one guy who ended up becoming a traitor (Judas).  Jesus brought these guys into his life and ministry through both the good and bad and then simply turned it over to them and encouraged them to continue in his ministry of the Kingdom.

While Jesus was many things—a great teacher, a healer, a prophet, and God incarnate, one thing we can see in these verses is that Jesus is not a control freak!

  • What do you think?
  • Do you ever struggle with doubts?  Does this perhaps give you a little hope in your own spiritual journey?
  • What does it communicate to you about God that He gives entrusts his ministry to normal people, many of whom don’t even have all of their doubts worked through yet? 

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Hymn for a New Year

I wrote a song last night in the final hour of 2010.  Lyrics under the clip.

Hymn for a New Year

It’s an arbitrary marker
But hope nonetheless
A new year, a new beginning
Another chance I guess (2x)

Will I stay the same
While everything around me is changing
Will I stay the same
While it’s swirling, turning…
Like a river carrying me

I don’t sing the same songs
That I used to sing
My words don’t mean the same
As my words used to mean

Though I resist
These trials have shaped my soul
This man in the mirror
Ain’t like that child so long ago

Will I stay the same
While everything around me is changing
Will I stay the same
While it’s swirling, turning…
Like a river carrying me

I see redemption
And I see the scars of sin
I see the kingdom
And I want to walk on in

I know the healing of these wounds
That ran so deep
But I know the brokenness inside
That makes me weep

Will I stay the same
While everything around me is changing
Will I stay the same
While it’s swirling, turning…
Like a river carrying me

It’s an arbitrary marker
But hope nonetheless
A new year, a new beginning
Another chance I guess