Thursday, July 31, 2008

Interesting House Guests

So when the very random opportunity to host some people in our home presented itself this week, I figured I better put my house where my mouth is and use my stuff for kingdom purposes (a quote from a recent sermon i delivered). To top it all off - any hesitation I had in housing two Chinese folks traveling from Chicago to Niagra Falls - was trumped by the fact that all three of our kids were away for the night leaving three empty bedrooms available - OK God... I get it.

I thought they were missionaries, they weren't.
I thought they would speak English, it was pretty broken but we could still have a conversation.
I thought they were familiar with American culture and ideas, they were members of the communist party.

That's right. One guy was a mid-level communist government official in a northwest Chinese province. The other was his younger brother - a businessman in Shanghai. The older brother has been in the States for almost a year getting his masters degree in Business administration and the younger brother and sister had come to visit him and do some traveling before they all return to China.

We talked about everything from the free-market system, to physicalism/spiritualism/ dualism, to Taoism and Buddhism, to best practices in leading businesses and staffs of people, to family issues, to Jesus' love for the poor. It was a fascinating and mind-expanding few hours. Some of my favorite questions from them included:
  • how many children are you allowed to have?
  • how many square feet does the government allow your houses to be?
  • what career plans do you have for your children?
  • do you think people are only physical or do you think they have spirits?
  • who does the cooking in your home?
  • are 100% of Americans politically active because it seems like that's all they talk about?
  • how much did your house cost?
In the end we moved to spiritual matters - it was literally like watching the scales fall from someone's eyes. As we talked about Christianity as a world view and how it does a better job than any other world view in explaining the reality that we all live in, as we talked about the life of Jesus, and the principles of scripture the older brother (the government official) acknowledged the truth of Christianity. An amazing foundation had been laid by Chinese Oversees Christian Missions (COCM) with whom they were now traveling - but it seemed like our time reallyaffirmed in him the truth of Christianity and the trustworthiness of Jesus.

One of the more fascinating exchanges was between the brothers as the younger brother began to express concern over what would happen to the older brother if he began to talk about his new-found ideas in the workplace, etc. The older brother explained that Christianity is a better way - it influences the way you treat people and the way you make decisions and the way you go about your life, and that if he simply lived out his faith but didn't talk about it all the time, that his superiors would eventually see the truth and that it would begin to affect necessary change not just in his family, or in his department, but in China. It was amazing!

He pulled out a New Testament and asked for some guidance in how to go about reading it. I stayed up well into the night putting together some reading guides for him to follow and directing him to certain sections of Scripture that I thought would be helpful to him.

I asked if he had ever heard the story of Joseph - he said no. I told him that it would be a story of great interest to him because Joseph was a leader of his government and he had to walk the fine line of being a follower of the Most High God among people and systems that were unlike his own- he faced persecution and rejection from his family and others along the way - and still remained faithful to God and saw God's faithfulness expressed back to him. This gentleman could affect real change in China. I teased him that the communist government got more than they bargained for in that they had sent him to America for an education and he is coming back a Christian!

As we said goodbye early the following morning I realized that God had connected us in a sovereign way. The older brother expressed to me that life-change had occured in him because of our encounter. Same here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

5 Insights from Recent Tragedies

There has been plenty of tragedy around here lately. A mom and dad from Grace lost their 16 year old son in a horrific automobile tragedy while he was on a mission trip with another youth group. The depths of pain and grief were palpable around here. A young couple from Grace, after 3 years of trying, lost one of their baby twins. They're nursing a daughter along in ICU while mourning the loss of their son. Al has been brought in at some level to minister to the family who just lost their 18 month-old daughter after being mauled in her living room by the family dog. There is a distinguishable heaviness around our office here at Grace in the midst of tragedies like these.

I have not yet personally walked through tragedies like these that have hit close to my immediate home- though I know they are coming in the days and years ahead. How do we respond when tragedy strikes? A few thoughts:

1. Recognize that for all of us - our days are numbered. And God knows that number. None of this comes as a surprise to him. Man's days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed. (Job 14:5) The time of our birth and the time of our death are secure in God's providence and we have no control over either.

2. Recognize that God has marked out our time on this earth for a purpose. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10) Even if those days and those good works are very short - our time here was for a purpose. Recognizing that some good works (in the case of this three-day old baby) were very brief, completely selfless, and intended entirely for the impact of others. Good will come of his time on this planet.

3. Suffering is real and we should walk through the depths of it - with the understanding that Jesus will grant us peace and courage through it all. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have trouble and suffering, but have courage--I have conquered the world. (John 16:33)

4. Be attentive to all that God is teaching us as we walk through times of tragedy. CS Lewis has a great quote in The Problem of Pain, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

5. Be sensitive in the things we say to those going through tragedy. Having stood by grieving people in many a funeral home, I think I'm qualified to say that Christians say really stupid things to grieving people. We often play the role of Job's "friends" by being trite or presumptuous or insensitive in our comments. I usually try to say as little as possible to those who are grieving other than - "I can't imagine the pain you are feeling right now...." and then let them do the talking at their own pace. Be a listener, a hugger, a broad shoulder to lean on.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

National School of Leadership

I had a meeting last week with two leaders from our denomination - (used to be the Baptist General Conference now is...) CONVERGE Worldwide. Pamela Heim from the National Office flew in, and Gary Shroeder from our Regional office, and I met in Dubois on Wednesday to discuss the National School of Leadership. Grace is going to be one of the pilot sites for the school. We will be one of only a few churches from around the country to pilot the program.

The NSL is a leadership development program for people who aren't pastors or church staff. We'll be encouraging emerging and existing Grace leaders to go through the school. It is a one year program that will meet for a group learning experience 6 times (every two months). These times will be taught some by Grace Pastors as well as other experts that we'll be bringing in from around the region and around the country.

We are thrilled to be involved at this level in this program - we're aware of at least 5 other churches that will be sending folks to our site and the promotion of the thing hasn't even started yet! At this point it looks like we'll hold our first class in late January sometime. Keep your ears open. You can find out a little more info here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

5 Things I Learned During the Power Outage at Church This Weekend

OK - for those of you who don't know - we had a whacky church weekend. Definitely the whackiest I've ever been a part of in my 15 years! During the 9:15 service - mid-way through my sermon - the power just went off. Everything went down. Microphones, lights, screens, toilets, drinking fountains, sound system, band equipment, computers, copiers, everything off. Well the only things that really affected me were lights, microphone, and screens. It was a little crazy.

AJ (our audio tech) went in to high gear but to no avail - it was a bigger problem - the whole area lost power. So I just belted out the rest of the sermon without amplification and we made a bunch of adjustments - scaled back the 11:00 service - and went on. Electricity ended up coming back on right in the middle of my sermon at 11:00 - so neither sermon at either hour went un-interrupted. I learned some stuff from the experience.

1. We're really dependent upon electricity for how we do church. If the window shades hadn't been raised right before the electricity went out - we would have been "up a crick" because it would have been pitch black in the worship center.

2. Our team is amazing. They handled the set back with grace and excellence. Instead of panic or egos or short tempers or just freaking out - what I saw was a calm, confident, God-honoring, solution-driven experience. The few that I witnessed were awesome: Larry - gathering bottles of water for the nursery for drinking and baby cleanup, AJ calmly making contingencies if the power came back on during 11 (which it did), Brian and his musicians sitting in a circle hand-writing words and charts for the completely ad-hoc worship set, the skit actors going on as if nothing was wrong, Al easily explaining to everyone that today might be "a little different," Bill kicking into gear getting all the info he could from the electric company ... and there was obviously a bunch of other stuff that I didn't see...

3. We don't need electricity to worship God. While we're dependent on it - we don't really require it. The worship time was sweet - people were loving the spontanaity and having to figure out worship without any words. Brian did a great job picking out familiar songs and the team pulled them off so well in their little acoustic circle down on the floor. People totally got into it. It was awesome to hear just the voices rising up in the room. We need to incorporate some very simple worship like that from time to time in the future.

4. The acoustics in our room are pretty sweet when there is no amplification. I talked to people who sat all over the room and everyone could hear every word just fine without amplification (though the teaching pastor's throat would be a bit tender after a weekend of that.)

5. We should probably think of investing in some kind of generator at some point...

Was anyone at 9:15 or 11:00 this weekend? What are your thoughts?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Crazy Sermon Weekend

My day today and my weekend this weekend will be filled with crazy sermon stuff- I'm coming down the homestretch on my sermon for the weekend at Grace. I'll be preaching at all three services. I also prepared two sermon rationales for our Creative Team meeting this morning as we plan out August creatives. I'm preaching on the 10th and 17th of August at Grace. And also today I'm preaching at a wedding for a former youth ministry student who is getting married to a lovely bride (way over his head!) I absolutely love preaching, but preparation and study for it is hard, slow, and sometimes painful for me.

To be a conduit for the word of God is not a responsibility I will ever take lightly. I am very hard on myself (ask Brian!) and want to be at my very best every time. Please pray for the sermon this weekend- we are in a series dealing with what I believe to be the biggest idol in America today- our money - specifically this weekend I'll be touching on greed. Because money is an idol that is worshiped faithfully by so many, it is a somewhat sensitive and difficult subject to deal with. But if we don't preach about the greatest idol in a culture, have we really preached the gospel?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I Love the Church When it's Working Well

I've walked out of a couple of meetings this week just amazed at how God builds his church. It is awesome to see different people with completely different gift mixes come together as a team around a common vision and chase it down together. The meetings are revolving around the continuing development of ServErie (Grace's new initiative to stop the advancement of poverty in our region).

It is awesome to see leaders and organizers and IT people and web developers and creative thinkers and detail people and big vision people and vision casters and behind the scenes folks all come together and chase a common dream. The spirit and heart of this team is amazing. We're working on the two strategic next steps for ServErie:

1. Organizing our core team around the major departments that have presented themselves and
2. Getting ServErie web based.

Right now we are doing it the old-fashioned way with a job board in the lobby where people can sign up for a service opportunity with one of our smiling ServErie staff members. Getting to a web interface is going to open up a bunch of new opportunities for Grace folks to get involved. It is also going to be the first step in taking ServErie to a wider audience. We're dreaming about the day when other churches, and colleges, and businesses in our region have a centralized location at which they can sign up to serve alongside some fine organizations in our city that are working to alleviate the stranglehold of poverty. It's an exciting endeavor to be a part of and we're praying for the day when the statistics and percentages related to poverty, and teen pregnancy, and high school dropout rates, begin to go down instead of up. May our city be changed forever - and may the body of Christ continue to work in all her glory!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

You might be a metro-rednexual if…

Since my teen years I've lived in the suburbs. Protected from the harsh realities of city life and country life. My parents decided a number of years ago to move to Union City- for those of you from around here - I don't need to explain. For outsiders - Union City is the butt of many redneck jokes and worse. Anyway - I've teased my parents incessantly since their move because they don't seem to quite belong. They are attractive and always have themselves together and the whole bit. That's why I found this post from Tony Morgan so funny about a week ago. He lists the top 10 ways to know if you might be a metro-rednexual here

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Should the Church Set Goals?

During the years that I've been involved in the strategic leadership side of the church- we have set annual corporate goals. I understand that people have a variety of opinions about churches setting goals ranging from:
  • "of course we should set goals - all successful organizations set goals for themselves" to...
  • "we should let the Holy Spirit lead every step and he usually leads through spontaneity and not planning" to...
  • "goal-setting is too business-y and secular - the church shouldn't be getting caught up in secular methodologies."
Needless to say- I believe that setting goals is extremely important both for organizations and individuals - especially Christians who have the high calling of Jesus on their lives and are challenged to consistently self-reflect and evaluate their followership of the savior. A goal is an aim or objective intended to guide actions toward a desired end. I have been involved on enough athletic teams in my life to know that defining what a win looks like and then setting goals to get from here to there is essential to casting vision, and building momentum, and mobilizing people to chase it down.

2 years ago we brought in a local organizational expert to talk to our staff about the process of goal setting. She challenged us that one of the more effective ways to approach the goal-setting process organizationally is to frame it in terms of problems that need to be solved. At our recent staff getaway - we had an amazing time hashing out the major goals for 08-09. Our staff is currently working on their "success maps" - each department's piece of those bigger goals. I already leaked one - but will be leaking out some of the other goals in coming posts... I'm so pumped about what God has in store for Grace this year!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Human Mind is an Amazing Thing - Points to an Amazing God

This has been around the blogosphere for a while - but I find it fascinating...

Cna yuo raed tihs? fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a graet mnid…Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 cna.

i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

How to Keep the Church from Closing it's Doors

I viewed an advertisement for a church for sale the other day. It was a church much like ours. Large auditorium, mutli-media capabilities, beautiful children's areas. And it made me think, "what would ever cause us to put this new facility that we're in on the market?" (this is a horrifying thought for me after 5 years of intensive investment into this new facility!) We have tons of acreage for future expansion - so I don't forsee a space issue. The only reason to sell would be that Grace would one day die, board up the windows, close the doors, and throw in the towel (what an uplifting blog post Derek...)

A trend is already underway - in Roman Catholic Churches in Boston, Toledo, even Johnstown, PA, churches are boarding up their doors and windows, or consolidating 4 or 5 churches together into one because of dwindling numbers in the pews and dwindling financial streams. Mainline denominations are not far behind. United Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran... We at Grace are experiencing just the opposite - growth - life - vibrancy.

Now don't get me wrong, the Church - as in the universal church - will never die. Jesus promised that he would build his church and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. However, individual local churches are not automatically protected from extinction - as we can see by all the churches across America that are closing their doors every day. My prayer is that all types of churches who promote Jesus Christ would thrive and grow and be fruitful. I also believe that some churches need to die because they may be doing more damage than good for the cause of Christ. Churches whose vision does not match the vision of Jesus should just stop.

So how does Grace take steps to ensure vitality and life for many generations to come? In addition to maintaining an intense focus on our vision to reach out to those who are far from God, and to help those who are following Christ to follow him with more vigor and depth, in addition to consistently challenging people to invest their time and resources in kingdom causes, and hiring good staff members to champion the mission of Grace - we are taking an interesting step this year to insulate ourselves against extinction - or even worse than extinction - irrelavence. We feel so strongly about this - we have made it one of our 4 major church goals for the coming ministry year.

Here is the way we're phrasing the goal: "Begin the process of empowering younger generations to lead the church and influence ministry by assuring that we achieve 10% growth in the number of millenials (those born between 1980-2000) who are serving in each ministry department at Grace." One of the ways that the church can fight off extinction is to stay young and continue to reach and empower new generations to follow Jesus. We have modeled this philosophy by the way we have staffed at Grace (our last two hires are ages 20 and 29). But we need to assure that "young blood" is filtering in to each department and affecting how we do ministry.

The world is completely different for teenagers and 20-somethings than it was for this 37 year-old dinosaur and those older than me. Without compromizing the scandal of the gospel in any way- we must figure out how to reach out to them, and grow them in Christ, and connect them to the church, and empower them for ministry, and facilitate their worship to a Holy God. The way that we do these things will be different than the way we have done it up until now.

With the ministry staff that we have thinking and strategizing about this, I am confident that Grace will continue to re-invent herself for increasing effectiveness. Those in our church who are older will be called on like never before because the Scriptures command them to be involved in this process of training and investing in a new generation of Christ-followers. I'm convinced that Grace's best days are ahead.

What do you think are the most dangerous enemies to a local church's ability to survive and thrive?