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One Sunday…

Not long ago I found myself navigating yet another church visitor card as my weekend work of church consulting was fully underway. This, like so many congregations I’ve encountered, seemed like a nice gathering of nice people who wanted me to have a nice time in their house of worship. Lots of smiles, warm handshakes and even a quality cup of coffee had greeted me in the hallway. Since I was to eat this day’s lunch with the pastor, I’d already been forced to turn down one lunch invitation from a family that had no idea why I had come. As I said…nice.

As I perused the guest card that I knew I’d soon be compelled to complete, suddenly the lights flickered and then found their lowest setting while a large clock on a large screen began spinning what appeared to be a 30-second countdown toward the likely start of music played and performed by the people hurriedly assembling on the platform. In an actual half-minute, I found myself joining that small collection of smiling saints in some of the latest of the burgeoning praise music industry. Worship was underway.

I have to be honest, I was a bit shaken at how the room suddenly changed. Once warm and friendly, it now was neither. Somewhere in the darkness I imagined folks were still smiling, but I couldn’t tell for sure. Spotlights were more focused on the band of developing musicians before us, talented and trying, as they sought to reproduce songs like Michael W. and various California groups made them sound. Really good people, these worshipers, but it seemed someone had given them a less good idea.

Now, before you begin thinking that I’m a “get off my lawn guy” when it comes to modern worship, please know that I’m not. I’ve never met a worship set or song service where I wouldn’t join in. I’ve praised God in so many varied settings, I don’t know if I’d know my favorite song or style, even if we started singing it.

And I’m not anti-mood lighting either. As long as we’re engaging Jesus with sincere and hungry hearts, I’m not concerned if we invite General Electric into the moment or not. But what I realized that morning is that this wonderful congregation was trying to be some other congregation. And I knew hundreds of others were simultaneously trying and failing to be that other congregation too.

Here’s the issue: there are various church models that help shape how we “do” church each week, models with different designs and purposes to chase. I could tell the minute I walked into that little church that they were tailor-made for the relational model. You know, the church where everyone knows your name, cares about your week, serves-Jesus-side-by-side-while-growing-old-together kind of church. They’re not one of those family churches where one family dominates the rest, but they’re the church that becomes like family after only a few weeks in their house. It’s who they are and they’re really good at it.

What they’re not good at is turning off the lights where those friendly smiles and that sense of worshiping together is traded for more a bit more of a concert-like environment–where quality of presentation tends to draw folks in. That’s called the attractional model–a valid church approach in itself. the attractional model has been the wheelhouse of America’s largest churches for more than a decade. It seeks to connect people to platform in a meaningful manner, seeking to make the church’s first impression from up there. Attractional model churches draw people with their excellence, whether in worship, communication, or children’s facilities, and keep them with their well-oiled systems of effective people management.

Now my intent isn’t to paint such a model in any negative tone, it’s just that the congregation worshiping around me had little chance to succeed with that model. At this church, people genuinely filled with Jesus were the attraction. They will likely never have the level of musical talent one would find at the three mega-churches within ten miles of their building. Their sound guy did a good job managing the 24-channel board at his fingertips, but those other churches have at least twice the channels and more than twice the number of people to run them. And those spotlights, well, they were highlighting sincere but average efforts, causing their few visitors to recall the superiority of their experience across town last week.

Here’s the point: If you’re leading a relational church, align EVERYTHING your church does around those relational gifts. If you want to soften the lights a bit during times of worship, go ahead. But don’t lose the critical realization that I’m worshiping alongside some people who really look like they love Jesus. Give people time to greet and warmly welcome one another–it’s your best thing! Keep growing and encouraging your musicians in the development of their gifts, but don’t make them the only thing people can see in your sanctuary. You’ll either magnify their weaknesses or encourage pride to swell (or somehow manage to actually achieve both).

Be who you are! That’s the church Jesus has designed and gifted you to be. When you find the path you were meant to walk, that’s when your church will look most appealing to your community.

Being the Church (Part 3)

I’ll never forget the conversation I had with a young man while at the church I pastored for a decade. He was pretty new to the whole idea of church, the Gospel, and, well, just about everything we did as a community of faith.

The memorable conversation began with his phone call–a quick and simple request that made me smile. “Pastor Mike, my grandmother is near death. Would you be able to stop by the nursing home and save her?” As you might guess, it was the last line that brought the smile. I knew what he meant and I was familiar with such requests coming from my congregation, so I agreed and prepared to jot down the address.

But before he gave me the details, he paused to reflect on a scene unfolding in his head. “You know, she probably won’t want to talk with you. She doesn’t like preachers.” I smiled and assured him that I had met such folks before and usually found a way to avoid offending them while attempting the assignment given by a loving family member.

“Actually, she probably won’t even let you in the door.” Now that one seemed to raised the wall I was about to scale a bit higher. “I’ll bet she won’t talk to you at all.”

There it was. The request had turned the full one-eighty and now turned into a saddened, “Sorry, I shouldn’t have bothered you with this.”

“Wait!” I almost shouted, hoping to avoid the inevitable click on the other end. Calling him by name, I asked, “Do you think she would talk to you?”

“Oh, Pastor, I’m her favorite grandson! She’s always glad to see me.”

“Then,” I began carefully, “why don’t you tell her about Jesus.”

His next statement rocked me a little bit. “I can do that?” Somehow my friend had sat through a few dozen Sundays in our church and still believed that only his man of the cloth was qualified to lead life’s most essential transaction.

Over the next few minutes, I helped shape their upcoming conversation. I showed him how just explaining to grandma what he had experienced was the best possible approach. After all, she had apparently commented multiple times about the change she saw in her grandson. “Just tell her what Jesus has done for you,” I remember instructing.

With a restored enthusiasm, He said goodbye and was off on his first evangelistic tour. The following Sunday my friend was beaming with the news of grandma’s salvation–and a new habit of sharing his faith was clearly underway. Over the next few months, he would go on to reach several coworkers and family members. In fact, he was soon one of the most prolific at such efforts in our entire congregation.

But I was left with the question of how he came to think that such life-change could only be found at church or in conversations with me. Sure, he was pretty new to such things and there’s plenty of room for some misunderstanding in the earliest days of one’s journey with Christ, but I knew I needed to look deeper.

Is the way we do things painting this kind of picture for our congregations? Do people think the goal is to get people to church, where the “professionals” can deliver the goods? Do people live their Mondays with a sense that they carry the Spirit’s power with them, where they are? What would happen if that awareness came alive in our people as powerfully as it did for my friend?

When our good efforts of ministry become too Sunday-focused, we create an environment where people start treating God’s house as His principle residence. When we maximize Sundays at the expense of living powerfully all week long, we reinforce ideas such as my friend’s that only certain people in certain places can be a part of kingdom work.

Being the church means impacting people’s lives no matter where we are or what day it might be. It’s the “out there” that matters most. That day, I started rethinking everything we did through the lens of its impact on those Mondays, their following Saturdays, and every day in between. Let me encourage you to do that too.

Being the Church (Part 2)

For as long as I can remember, I have heard the Sunday challenge to be a world-changer on Monday. Somehow my pastor knew that I (and apparently others) could be tempted to separate those two days, Sunday and Monday, as though one was for God and the other could be guided by my agenda. Over time, I would even hear about people who did that–who somehow seemed to be different people at church than they seemed to be the remainder of the week.

I suppose that temptation is understandable on some level. After all, Sundays aren’t like Mondays. We do very different things. Sundays we gather in buildings that can be left dormant every other day. Sunday we sing, and in many cases they are songs we never find on our car radios on Monday. Sunday we face challenging messages that few would take time for on a busy Monday. Sunday is a day to be among a very different crowd than what Monday offers too. In fact, even if we still sacrificed farm animals in our worship, I’m not sure Sundays could be any more different from Mondays than they already seem to be.

Some churches have accepted this faith and maximized it. They seek to make Sunday an extraordinary experience–a once in a lifetime moment that carries its participants to an extraordinary escape from the mundane realities that await them on Monday. And such remarkable efforts often yield the desired result, a church building fuller than most as hundreds of religious consumers do their Sunday thing before the Monday that gets here all too early.

Now, don’t read cynicism into that last paragraph. There’s no eye roll and my tongue isn’t “in cheek” as I reflect on such things. It’s just that I wonder at the disconnect between some of our ideas of the Church and what I seem to see in the New Testament. You see, the Early Church didn’t seem so quick to separate their acts of worship from their daily lives. Maybe that’s because they gathered almost daily in the temple to learn more of the apostles’ teaching. Or maybe it’s because they knew that theirs was a marketplace assignment, that perfect Sunday attendance pins weren’t the ultimate goal. It seems that the Church was originally designed for powerful Mondays, Tuesdays, and the four or five other days that showed up each week on their Franklin planners.

A couple of years ago, in the middle of teaching a group of church leaders about healthy church behavior, the thought struck me, “If Sunday is the week’s most powerful day for your local church, then you might not be a healthy church.” Yeah. That seemed to capture what I’d been trying to say to those friends and several other such groups over the previous few years. Christians shouldn’t just be the same folks on Monday as they are on Sunday, like I’d been taught since childhood. Christians should be greater, doing those “greater things” that Jesus talked about, on Monday through Saturday. Frankly, if we get more of God’s work done on Sunday than any other day, aren’t we a bit off target?

Imagine the potential of our entire church family spread out across our city in offices and factories and grocery stores and neighborhoods, all demonstrating the love we’ve been given and the power it packs for life change in places other than the church building. We hear Jesus say that we would do “greater things” than He did and we decide that He must have meant quantity, rather than quality since its tough to top raising the dead. But how valuable is such a promise if we wait for Sunday to try to live in it?

Truth is, Sunday should be about two things–equipping us for the life we’re called to live on Mondays and celebrating the remarkable things Jesus did through us during the past week. Sundays shouldn’t be our primary “harvest” moments, but the time when what’s been harvested all week long is brought together for rejoicing. Now there’s something to sing about!

So the question we’re left with as church leaders is, “do you see Sundays as the centerpiece of your church’s week or is it a training ground for the real days of impact in the week ahead?” My fear is that as long as we are all about Sundays, we will teach our people to compartmentalize their relationship with God until the “big day” too. Yes, God changes us on Sunday. He speaks into our lives and gathers our responses to His challenging word. But it’s Monday through Saturday where we can really change the world.

Notes from the Journey with the Disciples – 365

December 21, 2016 Leave a comment
  1. “…witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

When my story intersects God’s story, the emerging result is an amazing story to tell. And telling that story is the mandate for every disciple. Much has been made of these four locations. From this original vantage point, we can see their targets as urban and rural, different and distant. There’s more intended here than simply an “everywhere” Commission. The list demonstrates that the call is to every type of place, even those that don’t fit within my comfort. Fishermen in the halls of government; city boys on country lanes; Jews with a pure pedigree among the “mongrels” of Samaria; simple country boys with passport stamps to places they never imagined. It’s your story, but it’s written for them–all of them. And the Spirit’s power is promised for those who ready themselves for such adventure.

Notes from the Journey with the Disciples – 364

December 9, 2016 Leave a comment
  1. “But you will receive power…” (Acts 1:8).

Wonder what He meant? Jesus was sending His disciples across the map with the message of His Kingdom. Not unlike the time He sent them into the nearby villages, with the directive to “heal the sick, raise the dead…” He now launches their mission with the promise of power. I wonder if we truly understand the moment He describes. “Our Pentecost” is it just for the ability to witness or are we promised power too? Is this miracle-working power? Is this the power Peter demonstrated on the temple steps in Acts 3? Surely Jesus means something more than fortitude here. And if so, where has that power gone in our day? Pentecostals insist that this moment is for us too, so what did Jesus mean when He said we would receive power?

Notes from the Journey with the Disciples – 361

November 30, 2016 Leave a comment
  1. You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5).

Here is the promise Jesus has been pointing to for weeks. Some see transition in these words as Jesus is “handing off” the revelation baton to the 3rd of the Trinity’s persons. Of course, we can’t draw such distinct lines as such a moment will also provide the necessary power for completing the mission Jesus, himself, has assigned. Regardless of how we might characterize this promise, it is clearly marked by the command to “wait” until the promise is fulfilled. “You will” is not “You can” as though such a moment would be optional. “Be baptized” is not “get baptized” as though the moment is yours to obtain. Our only role is to demonstrate our desire for such a moment and we do that by waiting with the expectation that His promise will be fulfilled in us, just as it was in a few days for them.

Notes from the Journey with the Disciples – 352

October 14, 2016 Leave a comment
  1. “…when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18).

Peter will die. This is the difficult truth Jesus lays before His gregarious disciple. Peter had pledged to die for Jesus and then crumbled at first sign of threat. But he will die. Like a shepherd, he will sacrifice for the sake of the sheep. He will die feeding them. And he will die, much in the same manner that he saw his Master die. In this moment, Peter’s place among the disciples is clearly restored, but restored for a darkening future. He’s not alone either, for every man tasting breakfast on that beach that morning will taste a similar fate.