Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Becoming Awesome

Product DetailsI bought a self-help book. Start is the title. John Acuff is the author. He wrote it with wit, a wry grin behind every key stroke.

The dust jacket of Start tells me to "Punch Fear in the Face. Escape Average. Do Work that Matters." I'm a pastor: there's nothing average about my daily diet of coffee talks, mass emails, grammatical outlines, and youth group grocery stops.

But to call myself awesome is a stretch.

My blog readership remains low. My self-promotion leveled out in high school. My batting average in D-League church softball continues to decline. My only stupid human trick is the ability to stick out my stomach so that I look pregnant.

Awesome alludes me.

My hope, however, is that a focused read of John Acuff's book will begin the transformation. More readers, better self-promotion, increased batting average, and the ability to juggle flaming torches while reciting the alphabet backwards. Hebrew alphabet, that is.

The good news is this: Change does not happen over night (pg. 28). In fact, it starts in the morning. At 5:30. My alarm goes off. I seize the day.

Awesome begins with an incredibly average routine: Bible reading and prayer; typing and jogging; making the coffee and walking the dog; rousing my children and kissing my wife. If I can set a good tone for my home before leaving for the day, I feel like I'm ascending the path of awesome.

Awesome husband and father may not result in a pay raise or keynote speaker slot at the National Awesome Conference in Atlanta, GA, but it pleases God, honors my family, and instructs my church. That's worth losing a little of sleep over.

Monday, May 20, 2013

I Might Be the Antichrist

I was having a crisis of faith. Most of us do—it’s not entirely novel. Either we question the fact of God or the sincerity of our belief. We don’t want to be fools and hypocrites. My crisis of faith, however, was different: I had reason to believe I was the antichrist.

I aced Bible college, stomped my seminary colleagues, and collected more honors than livestock at the county fair. Success fed my spiritual ambition. I wanted to build a mega-church, run for office, end war, alleviate poverty, cure cancer, star in a reality show, and walk on water. These were lofty goals, but in my mind, I had the spiritual charisma to achieve them.

I had grown bold, smart, strong, and which fed my antichrist inklings. The pieces seemed to fit.

What would the folks in my church think? I have a few announcements this morning. The Pierced Hands ministry will meet this afternoon. The Swollen Knees prayer meeting on Tuesday is moved to seven o’clock. And I am the antichrist. There might be a mass exodus, but, more likely, I predict an influx in our weekly attendance. Fanatics always draw a crowd. My better judgment told me that subtlety was a more effective strategy.

As I pastor, I manufactured smiles. Charm was my predominant quality. I laced sermons with humor and conversation with wit. I could get kids to giggle and old ladies to snort. Perhaps this steered from the typical caricature of the antichrist—the Russian tyrant, the Middle Eastern terrorist, the US president—but I was convinced the affable evangelical was a more likely candidate.

Subtlety is the mark of the beast. The antichrist is a con artist, not a carjacker. He is a magician, not a bully. He uses slight of hand, turn of phrase, and sustained eye contact to deceive. And he smiles.
I could mask a wicked heart with morality and bury a lie in the deck. I could preach the gospel of self-improvement, self-fulfillment, and self-actualization. Preach cheap grace—shallow friendships, minimal sacrifice, euphoric worship—and tickle people’s ears. The gospel of the con-Christ, the slight-of-hand Jesus.

The foolproof route to apostasy is to skirt the topic of Jesus altogether: speak solely to the Self. Use phrases like Reach YOUR full potential; Chase YOUR dreams; Embrace YOUR destiny. Strip people of the word obedience, and fixate on improvement. Show people how to smile. The antichrist’s job would be easy in America. Our culture is ready for such a time as this. Perhaps I’m the man to lead it. Then again, I may just be an average, self-possessed Christian.

NOTE: I wrote this several years ago after mixing up my pronouns while singing worship songs. Instead of singing "Thy will be done," for example, I'd sing "My will be done." It worried me. I submitted the article to a few online magazines. No one took it. Yesterday I resurrected it for a sermon on testing the spirits (1 John 4:1-6). When I read it to my congregation, the silence was eerie. I hope I didn't get myself in trouble!

Monday, May 13, 2013

More than Lip Service

I take Sunday mornings for granted. I won't deny the fact. I spend my week studying Scripture, consuming podcasts, highlighting books, and conversing with other people about their faith. For me the weekly worship service has become a rallying point, not a recharging station.

But for the masses who spend the week folding laundry, spreading sheets, filing papers, mailing invoices, cutting trim, answering emails, cleaning carpets, and grading tests, Sunday mornings take on a different meaning. For church service we settle mostly for lips: a little teaching, a sprinkling of songs, and some pleasant interchange with familiar faces.

The world wears us down.The daily grind can feel godless. Netflix, little league, and coffee breaks don't sustain our souls. We are starved by Sunday. So Sabbath rest sounds satisfying.

Unfortunately, church services often fail to satisfy. The unmarked sermon notes and empty sign-up sheets scattered about the building serve as a metaphor. We deliver content without an opportunity to practice. We collect tithes without catalyzing mission. We pay lip service, but our hearts and hands are far from the God who ransomed us.

This is the story of Israel repeated in the modern day church. This is fallacy that worship is for me and my needs, not God and His mission. This is church as a recharging station.

To expect the majority of Christ-follower to study Scripture, consume podcast, highlight books, and converse with others about their faith is far-reaching. However, as a pastor I must call others to practical application (i.e., maturity) and collective action (i.e., mission).

This is the story of the Pentecost repeated in the modern church. This is the truth that love is not merely word and tongue, but deed and truth. This is church as a rallying point.

Below are a few idea to make Sunday morning a platform for mission and maturity.

  • Dedicate several Sunday mornings a year to service projects.
  • Send out random groups to prayer-walk around the community during the sermon.
  • Go two hours past the regular "closing time" to interact with questions, prayer requests, or impromptu singing. (Don't ask for permission from the nursery workers, but beg their forgiveness afterwards!)
  • Move singing and preaching to a public location and invited people to join us.
  • Send out a group of people to pursue a prodigal from the church.

NOTE: In the past year, I've seen a few of these things happen at our church. Sunday became a rallying point. It was beautiful.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Thin and Noble Core of the Local Church

Adults scattered themselves about the library. They sat in little chairs waiting for the students to arrive with their lunch trays. For an hour the adults and students would interact over carrot sticks, chapter books, and board games. This was the Reading Buddy program at Leesburg Elementary School.

The librarian resurrected the program after a two-year hiatus. The school had changed locations and a new business arrived in town. A fresh pool of volunteers was ripe for picking. She made the call; several showed up.

As I scanned the tables, I noticed something interesting: several of adults were the same ones who volunteered at their church, organized the community parade, and served meals at the community fish fry. They were the thin and noble core who came to everything. Without them, little would happen.

A few months later my own neighborhood started a program to build a sense of community. Meetings and picnics crowded our calendars. The same thin and noble core came to every event. The pattern held true at concerts, PTO meetings, church events, and other social gatherings.

Twenty percent of people come to everything. Twenty percent of people do everything. Eight percent of people come and do few things.

The thin and noble core holds things together. The thin and noble core makes things happen.

In a world of endless opportunities, limited loyalty, and declining energy, it is more and more challenging to motivate the masses. Worse yet, our technologies give us the illusion that the masses are a click, post, tweet, or text message away from gathering, organizing, and making a great name.

But we would be fools to disparage the core to corral the masses.

In the world of local church ministry, leaders must celebrate the thin and noble core. And invest in the core. And strengthen it.

Questions to Consider:
Who constitutes your core?
Who thinks they are in your core, but you know they are not?
How strong is your core? Where is your core weak?
How do you intentionally invest in your core?