Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Book review—Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity

Since the time I was a young boy, stories and tales of adventure and heroic commitment to a greater cause have stirred something deep within me. Those stories—whether heard in a tale, read in books, or seen on a screen—touched something in me, something deep and elemental and not entirely explicable. And those tales would cause a transformation in my inner being. For a time I would carry myself more erect, I would look at the world with a keener eye, I would observe with clearer vision. The elemental forces stirred my heart to beat faster and my life to live louder.

Primal is such a book.

It’s not that Primal is a theological masterpiece or the concepts that Mark Batterson proposes are supreme examples of finely honed propositional truths. It’s not that Mark exegetes the Scriptures with grander precision than scholars of Hebrew or Greek. It’s not even that he has captured something new and different truth of Christianity to speak about. In fact, if you asked me for a book that exemplified any of those things, I would not recommend Primal to you.

But if you desire a book that touches off an elemental stirring within your soul, a book that breaks you and challenges presuppositions and brings you to repentance over a passionate zeal for God you once had but now have lost, a book that stirs up your heart with God-sized passions, a book that reinvigorates your vision for doing God’s mission in the place where He has placed you . . . then Primal is a book you want to read.

You want to read it because Mark Batterson does a splendid job bringing to paper the grand, visionary scope of the words Amo Dei . . . “Love God.” Loving God with all your heart, and your soul, and your mind, and your strength. Those concepts are so large that sometimes I have forgotten how elemental they truly are, and how world-transforming they can truly be. That’s where Primal shines. It rekindles those loves, awakening them from a cold, ashen slumber and fanning them back into living flame. Primal stirred me in just such a way.
You can purchase Primal for yourself at Amazon.com

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

10 ways to stretch your gift-giving dollar this Christmas

Do you want to save money this year, and still make Christmas meaningful?

As I've studied and thought about worshipping fully, spending less, giving more, and loving all (inspired by http://www.adventconspiracy.org/), I came up with 10 easy ideas to stretch your gift-giving dollar this Christmas. If you're not done shopping yet, may I suggest the following?

Cut costs by making gifts or regifting:
1) Give freshly baked goods as a gift. Give warm, fresh bread. Give Christmas cookies.
2) Give a homemade blanket or quilt
3) Give your friend an item you own that they admire.
4) Give a family member a specific item for which they have expressed a sentimental value.
5) Give a friend a cherished but broken item that you have taken and then repaired for them.

Give a gift that multiplies value:
6) Give a pair of TOMS shoes. For every pair you buy, they give a pair away. One for one.
7) Give a bottle of Cherry Creek Winery’s “The Winds ‘07 Cabernet Sauvignon”. Not just the profits, but the FULL PRICE goes to provide sponsorships for the Jackson, MI School of the Arts
8) Give a gift that helps a friend serve others: a gas gift card to a person who is always taking other people to the doctor, yarn to a person who knits mittens for children, etc.
9) Give a gift in their name to an organization that serves others such as the Hudson food pantry, Compassion International, or the LCMS World Relief water project.
10) Give a Bible

Monday, December 14, 2009

Of Tyrants and Hirelings

You can’t describe the full spectrum of pastoral ministry with one single word. It’s impossible. But I think you can do it with one hyphenated word: servant-leader.

In the Scriptures and in church history there is an astounding record of men who have led the church. These are bold, passionate men who have led both the local church and the church at large with vision and a committed zeal. They were often misunderstood at the time, but history has exonerated them.

The church MUST have leaders like this! We desperately need men who are willing to speak truth even in the face of opposition. We desperately need leaders who have a passion for carrying the timeless truths of God’s Word into the future. We desperately need pastors who boldly lead their churches into a fuller realization of disciple-making.

But if history shows us good leaders, it also shows us “leaders” who were little more than self-centered narcissists intent upon using others to broaden their own fame. That’s why it’s so important to remember that while a pastor must be a leader, he also must be a servant. A pastor can’t just go his own way, but must do the bidding of God, for Whom he works. But what’s more, the pastor does God’s work for the benefit of others. The pastor is servant of both God and man.

It’s hard, at times, to find the right balance in applying servant-leadership. I’ve seen pastors lean too much upon “leader” and become petty tyrants, ruling their little empires with absolute domination. I’ve also seen pastors lean too much towards “servant” and become little more than people-pleasing hirelings. Neither is pleasing to God. Neither benefits people.

But when a pastor hits that balance, everything clicks into place! The Gospel is proclaimed. Sinners are comforted in Christ's forgiveness. Members are empowered to do ministry. The church moves forward, an unstoppable juggernaut, a barbarian horde, a disciplined army, a finely-tuned machine, a primal force. It is a loud, bold, private, humble, frantic, focused, wildly exciting free-for-all that is as unparalleled in sheer historical weight as it is in sheer weight of paradox. It is life-changing and world-transforming. It is history in the making. It is service. It is leadership.

It is one hyphenated word: servant-leader. That’s what being a pastor is all about.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Small-town pride of a different sort

A little, pesky sin found me again this past week. Our small community puts on a top-notch Christmas cantata every year. Beginning at the end of October, people from churches all around the area come together on a weekly basis to practice. And because we’re all church people, the director (who does an AMAZING job, by the way!) will always ask one of the participating pastors to close us in prayer. There’s where that small, pesky sin begins to bite at me. That pesky sin is pride. Honestly, I like to be asked to stand and pray.

Ugh. There, I said it. I like to be noticed. I like to be honored.

Being in a small Midwestern town is probably one of the few places left on earth where a pastor receives some automatic honor and community status. The manager of our local grocery store greets me with “Good morning, Pastor!”, even though he’s not a member of my church. Every so often I get a phone call from a community leader, “Pastor, we’d like for you to come and do the opening for _____.” If I ever need a calling card to get me in a door, it’s “I’m the pastor down at the Lutheran church, the one by the schools.”, and I’m in. It’s bizarre. It’s like being a mini-pope. I half expect someone someday to kiss my ring.

. . . and I like it that way. Which makes me feel really, really gross.

It’s one of the few times in Scripture where I can hear Jesus speaking directly against me. In Mark 12:38-39, Jesus warns his disciples, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.” And I think of myself, in my Lutheran clerical garb of flowing robes, and my fleshly desire to be known and respected . . . and I weep. I weep for what that pesky sin twists and warps inside of me.

So I make choices to combat that pesky sin. I choose to be the anti-pastor. I’ll live like the common man. In my time off I’ll go around in jeans and my warm and worn flannel shirt. I’ll talk like a normal human being. I’ll be known around town by my first name. I’ll smoke my pipe in public and even unashamedly buy some good beer at the store. And ultimately, I’ll live out my faith in simple, quiet ways. I refuse to live a life of loud piety, broadcasting it with flowing robes and important-sounding titles.

Because in the end, I want to be known for Whose I am, not what I do. I want to be known for the character of Christ that causes me to love others, not my office that demands I preach to them. I want people to know that I am just a servant. That I must decrease so that the One I serve may increase.

I want Christ to be known . . . not me.

And then, just every so often, a person pays me a compliment higher than all the deferential treatment combined. Every so often, a person I’ve known for a while will say in a very complimentary way, “I didn’t know you were a pastor.” And then, more often than not, they’re ready to hear about the One I serve. Then He increases . . . and I decrease . . . and I rejoice that Christ has been made known.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Deliberate communication in a small church

My philosophy of pastoring an established, smaller, rural church is simple: Honor the past, look towards the future. A church like ours has a rich heritage that spans several decades. Traditions have been established and certain notions have been set in stone. But we’ve also got a good future ahead of us as we look ahead and try to discern how we can continue to carry the Gospel out into our community in the 21st century and, God willing, beyond. That’s why I believe it is so important for a church like mine to communicate using a variety of different mediums.

For instance, on the one hand, we look towards the future, so Our Saviour is a digital church. The newsletter is delivered in .PDF format. Church members and church council can exchange ideas and information on an internet bulletin board. We podcast sermons and email prayer requests and follow Tweets. Some people stay connected throughout the week by texting. Many of us use Facebook for our friendly “water cooler” time. These people expect—and, I think it safe to say, need—digital communication.

But because we also honor the past, we’re also a paper church. Paper bulletins. Actual hymnals. Hard copies of newsletters for those that want them. Hard copies of church council minutes. A phone prayer chain still makes the rounds every so often. We make verbal announcements after church and have a coffee fellowship so that people can share thoughts and ideas and friendship.

There are some days that I think it would certainly be easier if we could stick to just one type of communication. If we had a different sort of church we could probably do just that. But precisely because we are what we are—an established, smaller, rural church—we have a group of people that vary in age, in technological savvy, and in communication preferences. And so we deliberately communicate across a variety of different mediums because we want to keep as many people as possible connected to the life of the church, to each other, and ultimately to Christ.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Heck yes I'm tired of being a pastor! . . . or am I?

When faced with the routine (and some not routine) challenges of being a pastor, a certain pastor friend of mine is fond of saying, "Ministry is a grind." And he's right. Ministry is a long-haul vocation. It's not one that tends to provide immediate gratification. And it tends to weary you, to wear you down and tire you out over a period of time.

Let's be honest and up-front: people are sinners. Their lives are messy. They deal with each other in messy ways. Even the best people still struggle with wanting to do good but choosing evil (or ease) instead, and they get weary. And since pastors are people, too, that means pastors are subject to messy lives of their own. Add to that the burden of an intense vocation that is often relationally enmeshed, and the weariness that dealing with messy lives and messy people produces is magnified. Pastors just plain get worn down.

But another friend of mine has a saying, too. He likes to say, “I’ve read the end of the Book, and I know how it all turns out.” He means that we can cling to God’s promises, because He is faithful and true and what He says, He does. So the church will prevail in spreading her message of grace and salvation in Jesus Christ. God’s Word will continue to work repentance and faith in the hearts of those who hear it. Sin and messy lives will one day no longer wear us down. I know this is true, because God has promised it. So I don’t worry about what may happen in the future. I know how the Book ends.

So, yeah. Ministry is a grind. Pastors get weary. For that matter, I’m weary right now, this moment. But I’m not worried. God has promised good things, refreshing things, eternal things, both to me and to His Church. He will deliver on those promises in His time. There’s no doubt in my mind.

And I just discovered something: In the knowledge of that promise, I’ve just found that I’m not nearly as weary as I thought I was. God is good . . . all the time.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I heard the voice of Jesus say . . .

I just re-learned something I've known for quite some time: There is truly power in God's Word. His Holy Spirit really does speak through the Scriptures.

There's no doubt in my mind that when I skimp--or skip!--on my Bible reading that I get further away from God. My thoughts are less focused upon Him and His Work, my choices become more selfish than serving. I lack clarity and purpose and . . . and, well, vision.

It's not that life gets easier or better when I'm getting fueled up by God's Word. It's not that I get richer or healthier. But what I get from God's Word is what His Spirit gives. I receive enlightenment to God's ongoing work. I receive clearer vision to do what He leads me to do, to choose the things that bring glory to Him and blessings to others. And I receive strength to stand and endure to the end.

And for someone like me, that's far better than a wealthy life, a comfortable life, or an easy life.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Wired to be a reshaper

Just a few days ago I received the exciting news that my blog had been approved to be part of Mark Batterson’s blog tour for his new book Primal. Equally exciting was the news from a few weeks ago that I had been accepted into Thomas Nelson’s book review blogger program. Simply put, this means that with both of these I get a free books in exchange for reading them and posting reviews (actual reviews, not just flattery puff pieces) on my blog and on commercial sites.

Getting free books is great, but the real reason I’m pumped is because this fits exactly into how God has wired me. By nature I’m a receiver and reshaper. I tend not to create ex nihilo (fancy Latin phrase meaning “out of nothing”), but instead I take in thoughts and ideas from all manner of sources (in this case free books!), inspect them, take them apart to understand them, and then rebuild them again to fit the unique setting of my own church.

Sometimes I feel bad about this, because I feel a bit of pastoral peer pressure to be a creator of new ideas, to be a cutting-edge innovator. I get the impression even from some pastors that being a reshaper is at best a second-rate Kingdom occupation. But honestly, when I stop trying to emulate the gifts of others and instead start working in the way and manner that God has gifted me, there is no better feeling in the world! Things just click. It’s almost effortless. And confidentially, it’s a serious rush. So I’m learning to embrace the way God has wired me and learning to love working from within my gifts rather than struggling to appear to have gifts that God in His wisdom didn’t give me, but that others somehow still think I should have. I’m learning to love being a reshaper, a rebuilder, and I’m laying down the idol of being a pure innovator.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Where are we headed . . . and why am I wearing this hat?

I’m a small-town pastor, so let’s face it: on any given day you’ll find me wearing a number of different hats. Some hats—like the preacher hat or planner hat—are hats that fit me well. They’re hats I love to wear, because they match my personality and how God has hard-wired me together to do certain things well. Other hats, though . . . well, they just aren’t the best fit and wearing them makes me uncomfortable. If I wear those hats for too many hours in a day and too many days in a week I find that I’m fighting against my God-given nature, and so it wears me down and makes me unproductive in all aspects of my work and ministry.

So what’s a small-town pastor to do? Money is severely limited, so adopting the mega-church practice and doing specialty hiring for a “Minister of Assimilation” (or for that matter, even a lawn maintenance guy!) is out of the question. Equally unattractive is just sucking it up and performing as best I can in areas that I was never equipped by God to really excel in, all the while having my spiritual and emotional batteries drained dry.

There’s a third option, though. It takes time. It takes patience. And it takes relying heavily upon God. But it is an option:

Trust God to bring somebody forward, train them to take on an area of ministry as their own, and turn it over to them.

Trusting is difficult because while I wait for God’s timing, I either must continue to work against my nature or simply let some things not get done. That’s unappealing to most people. Training people and turning over ministry is also difficult because there’s always the reality that they’ll end up doing ministry in some way other than the way I would choose. That’s a mighty big pill for some people to swallow.

But in the end . . . isn’t it the best way? Wouldn’t it be the most amazing, rewarding thing to see a desire for a certain ministry birthed in a person’s heart and to see them learn and grow and then go on to impact others in a way that I never could?

And wouldn’t it be great to thank God for doing something I could never do on my own?

You bet it would be. You bet it is.

So what am I—as a small-town pastor—to do? Just what I said: trust God, train people, and turn ministry over to them. Makes life difficult at times and challenging at others . . . but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Book review: Derailed: Five lessons learned from catastrophic failures of Leadership

As a pastor, I appreciate reading good books on developing and maintaining healthy leadership. I believe such books help me in the important task of leading my congregation on a relational human level while doing my main work of shepherding them in Christ on a spiritual level. “Derailed” has found a spot on my shelf of valuable leadership books.

In “Derailed” Tim Irwin has brought a compelling format to a well-known topic. There is no doubt that leadership books are full of exhortations to character as being the bedrock of leadership, but Tim’s format of first profiling six highly visible leadership failures brings a new, gritty twist to the subject. The profiles served as a fun-house mirror, enabling me to see my own failures magnified to a grotesque level. The stories allowed me to see exactly how such failures cause a leadership derailment even before I got to the main content of the book. As such, Tim’s profiling in the first half of the book serves the second half (where he blends information with personal application) exceptionally well.

But without a doubt, it’s the second half of the book where this book earned its spot on my shelf. Tim’s understanding of the dimensions of character (authenticity, self-management, humility, and courage) bring what is normally a vague, ethereal quality down into measurable, quantifiable bedrock that a leader can actually stand on. And then, when he finishes up the book with simple instructions on developing specific “heart habits” in order to avoid leadership derailing, he puts that all-important factor of personal application to good and practical use.

All in all, Tim Irwin has a solid and readable leadership book in “Derailed”. I recommend it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How to confess your sins to another, part 3

Thanks for your patience for the long interval of time between my last post and this one. I’ve been distracted by ministry concerns, attended a pastors’ conference, had a personal bout with the flu, and now am ministering to my family in their time of illness. But during the month or so since my last blog post, I’ve also had time to put private confession into action in my own life, and have learned more of its benefits in the process.

Last time I mentioned how to establish and use categories as a framework for self-examination. Measuring yourself by examining your life and conduct to identify where you have fallen short and fallen into sin is a difficult—but vital—step in the confession process. But it is important that you choose the right standard to measure yourself by.

Now, here is the reality of human nature: There’s not a single one of us who doesn’t consider ourselves as somehow being better than other people. I’m not sure why that it, exactly. I suspect it’s a kind of coping mechanism: if we can convince ourselves of our moral superiority over others, we can manage to convince ourselves that we alone are unique and special (and thus important) in God’s economy. And so each of us tend to magnify certain sins as being more heinous than others, and rarely (if indeed ever) will those sins be something that we personally struggle with. Conversely, the sins that we do harbor in our lives we tend to minimize, believing them to be merely part of human nature or a natural, human, and perhaps even beneficial reaction or response to our upbringing or current life situation.

What this means is this: We tend to measure ourselves and others by our own standard; a standard we create in our own minds and is as inherently favorable to our own lives as it is unjust to others.

Let me offer an example. I recall talking with a work acquaintance once who was complaining bitterly about the drivers on the interstate during the morning commute. As people do, they would get in a hurry and in an effort to not be late for work, many would regularly break the clearly posted speed limit of 55 mph. That particular morning, he had had several drivers tailgating him, trying to push him to go faster. But he refused to change his speed. As he said, “I’ve got my cruise control set to 62, and I don’t think you need to be going any faster than that.”

You see what my friend did, right? He created a standard and made himself the judge of what speed was safe and reasonable. But the standard was arbitrary. It didn’t reflect what was actually right or wrong, on what speed would actually break the law, but only what he thought was good enough for himself, and thus good enough for everybody else. Anyone who wanted to exceed his personal speed limit was labeled reckless or dangerous, but he himself (who was nevertheless breaking the law) was okay.

And this is what you and I both do naturally inside our heads all the time. We rationalize that our standard is good and people who exceed that are bad. We determine the relative value of others by what we have chosen to use as a measuring tool. We make value judgments based upon our own standard. In other words, we set ourselves up as God. And by the way . . . when you’re God—when you’re the judge and jury of what is right and wrong—it’s not likely that you’re going to see a need to go to confession. You will miss out on God’s amazing blessing of hearing the words, “You are forgiven” because deep down you don’t believe that you really need them.

So how do you avoid that? The answer is simple: measure yourself not by your own standard, but by God’s. Measure yourself according to the 10 Commandments.

When you measure yourself by God’s standard, the false pretenses tend to fall away pretty quickly. You realize that you’re not quite as good as you thought you were when you were busy measuring others according to your own worth. But what you see as you look in the mirror of God’s standard is a sinner. A law-breaker. Peer into the mirror of God’s law and you will see that the verdict “guilty” applies to you. To you yourself.

Now I admit that’s not really all that great in and of itself. But think about all we’ve talked about so far. When you readily see your sin (and this is true sin, sin that you can clearly see has failed to live up to God’s standard), you can bring it out in the open in confession. You can take off the false mask of self-righteousness and openly acknowledge that you are a sinner in need of grace. And you can hear that those sins, those sins that have made you guilty of breaking God’s standard and therefore make you worthy of death . . . you can hear that those specific sins are truly forgiven.

You can have a life free from a false standard. You can learn to take great comfort in the fact that others don’t have to measure up to you and that you don’t have to measure up to others. And even when you fail to measure up to God’s standard, you can still know through confession that in Jesus Christ your very real sins are very truly forgiven.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

How to confess your sins to another, continued

God intends confession to be a gift for you. A gift whereby you can be comforted in knowing that a specific sin has indeed been forgiven. That truth alone should help encourage you to confession! But when you get there, how should you begin? What should you confess? You are probably already going to be just a bit nervous, so how do you even begin to identify which of your sins has burdened you enough to drive you to confession?

There of lots of times where lots of Christians are content with saying, “I am a sinner.” They will say it by rote, knowing it is true and yet not examining the depths of what that means. Looking too closely at one’s own sin presses the already uncomfortable truth of the rote statement into the realm of the concrete . . . the actual . . . the measurable. Self-examination proves to them that not only are they generic sinners, but that they can actually name real, true, gross, and all-too apparent sins in their lives. Lots of Christians don’t like that, so they don’t do it.

But not you. You’re still reading this blog series on confession, so you want something more. You’re not content with the status quo, a generic faith, an unexamined life. You have purposed in your heart that you will bravely look into the dark shadows of your own soul and drag the ugliness you find there wriggling and fighting and biting into the open and kill it through confession. So . . . how do you do it? How do you examine yourself to find that sin?

I like to suggest that you first approach confession by establishing categories that you can use to examine your own conduct. Establishing some categories will benefit your self-examination by making it more methodical and less generic. You want to get to specifics, but remember that neither do you want to get bogged down in extremely minute details. So in general the broader the categories are, the better. You might consider categories such as “work, world, and family.” I personally grew up using the categories of “thoughts, words, and deeds.” If you’re troubled by a specific a personal sin, however, you might consider getting a little more specific with that one sin and develop some categories such as “avoiding temptation, resisting temptation, and thinking rightly.”

Whatever categories you choose for your own use, what you should do with them is reflect on how well (or indeed how poorly) you exhibited the character of Christ in each of those categories in the past week. This means not only did you actively resist evil, but did you actively pursue what is good? At your work, for instance: Did you refuse to join in the slanderous office gossip? And if so, did you slink away or did you make a specific effort to speak well of the person who was the target of such talk? Remember: It is just as much of a sin to omit good as it is to commit evil.

This process of actually looking for sin in your life will not be comfortable, I’ll admit. But it will be beneficial. As you examine more and more of your life, bringing the sin you find into the light where it can be seen in all its true ugliness, you will also see more and more of the cross of Christ. You will come to treasure the cross more, to more fully understand just how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. Confession will be God’s gift to you.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

CUTTING school budgets???

Please allow me to interrupt my regular blogging series with a plea for the education of the children. Below is a letter I composed to Senator Cameron Brown, Michigan State Senator, 16th Senate District. I urge residents of Lenawee County to contact him immediately and plea on behalf of the children.

Senator Brown's contact information can be found on his web page: http://www.senate.michigan.gov/gop/senators/brown.asp?District=16

Senator Brown,

If the article in the Adrian Telegram is correct (http://www.lenconnect.com/news/x576521365/Schools-could-face-steep-funding-cut), I understand that up to $218 per student could be cut from the Michigan state education budget.

I find this proposal unacceptable. The education of our children is an investment in the future. A solid future for Michigan?whether we consider health care, economics, even public safety?depends upon the solid foundation of a sound education. Imperil that foundation by stripping away much-needed funds and we guarantee a bleak future for all of Michigan.

My wife and I homeschool by choice, but I know many families and children in our little community that rely upon our local public school. Our local school system already struggles financially to provide the education that they do. How can we make it harder on the schools and still say we want Michigan to have a bright future? Please do all that you can to ensure our schools have all the money they need to teach our precious children.


Troy Neujahr
Hudson, Michigan

How to confess your sins to another

It seems a silly question. Something that when it is brought up, the word “no-brainer” comes to mind. But still, the question is a very real dilemma for most (if not all!) Christians: “How do I confess my sins?”

Now almost immediately a well-intentioned Christian will jump into this discussion and say, “Oh that’s simple! Just say, “God, I’m sorry that I _________.” But recall . . . we’re not talking about the relatively easy task of confession before God. We’re talking about confessing your sins directly to another Christian. And therein begins the difficulty for most Christians. “Which sins do I confess?” “You mean even those really nasty ones?” “Do I have to name them ALL??”

What about that? Is it necessary to name every single sin before another Christian? Must you keep a detailed log of your sinful activity so that you can confess fully? Should you spend hours preparing your list of sins so that when you come to confession you can be sure to get it right?

Oh heavens no! Trying to name every single sin in confession changes it from a grace-centered into a law-centered work of righteouesness. It overshadows a rich gift of God and threatens to turn it into a self-righteous work. To paraphrase a good friend of mine, “Confession is made for man, not man for confession.”

So, no. Do not agonize over every single minute sin in confession. Do not rack your brain and try to invent sins that you have committed in order to confess them. If there is nothing particularly troubling you, if you have not committed any heinous, gross acts in the past week or so . . . well then you may feel free to name whatever sin you can recall. Don’t further burden your conscience and turn confession into a difficult chore; let it be the gift of God intends it to be: for you to be comforted by hearing that a specific sin has indeed been forgiven.

Next week: More on how you confess your sins to another Christian

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Can't I just confess directly to God?

Can’t I just confess right to God?

Whew! It’s been a long time since I last updated the blog. Too long, in fact. I confess that I’ve allowed other concerns of ministry and life to overshadow this important discussion.

Which, incidentally, brings me to the next topic in this blog series on confession. When teaching or preaching about the churchly practice of confession and absolution, I routinely hear the same argument. I get asked, “Yes, I understand what you are saying about confession, pastor . . . but why can’t I just confess right to God? Why should I confess to anyone else, pastor or not?”

Strangely enough, this is a variation on the oldest copout for not attending church: “I can worship God on my own just as well as I can in a church!” It’s what I call the “This is just between me and God” argument. And the thing of it is . . . it’s true.

Sure, it’s true. You can worship God alone in a field or on a mountaintop just as well as you can worship alone in a church. And it’s true that you can confess your sins privately to God and receive His forgiveness through Jesus Christ. These things are true because Jesus Christ comes to each of us personally and offers His gift of life and salvation to us as individuals. Intimacy with God, salvation from God, is an intensely personal thing.

Yet exceedingly rare is the person who can live privately without any need for community. People tend to seek people out for friendship, for partnership, for the blessing of togetherness. People are inherently social animals, and so they will join clubs founded upon their unique interests. They will form casual groups at water coolers. They will seek ways to be with other people or they will pine away without interpersonal contact.

Community is especially important to people. And nowhere on Earth is the sense of “community” stronger or more firmly grounded in a bond of common experience than it is in God’s church. For there are two fundamental realities that bond me as a church attender to every other single church attender: the reality that I myself am a sinner and the reality that I am forgiven in Christ.

Therefore, I suggest that the last place on earth that you would want to hide your sins away from another person would be in the church! Rather, the church should be the safest place in the world to be able to confess to weaknesses and failures and frustrations and struggles and temptations and yes, even sins . . . because our sin is one of the only two good reasons there are for going to church, and the other is because we are forgiven of them.

When you force yourself to verbally confess to another Christian (or, again, especially your pastor), you are actually receiving several gifts—each of great value—from God:

To begin with, you receive the gift of obedience. God’s own Word says in James 5:16, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” It is a simple command with profound implications. In that passage James indicates that everything from personal physical health to the vitality of the spiritual community could be negatively impacted by unconfessed sin. God therefore commands that we not try to hide away our sin and thus let it fester, but confess our sins to one another.

A second gift from God in confession is that confessing a particular sin has a way of killing off that sin. There is something about the nature of sin in that is like a nasty fungus or a mold: it thrives in the shadows, unobserved in the corners, it lives best when it dwells in secrecy and darkness. When sin is hidden away and not talked about, when it is not openly confessed, it has a tendency to grow stronger. But when it is dragged into the light and revealed for what it truly is it tends to wither and die off (For a Biblical reference, see I John 1:5-10 as John explores this connection between light/darkness and righteousness/sin.).

Openly and verbally confessing your sin to another individual drags your sin into the light in a way that privately confessing to God simply does not. Of course, that’s probably going to be very uncomfortable for you, at least at first. It means that somebody you know will know your specific sins. That will feel risky to you and more than a bit dangerous to your carefully cultivated mask of holiness and good works. But that mask hides the reality underneath that sin nevertheless exists in your life! Confessing your sins to another takes off the mask, brings sin into the light, and allows you to live under the cross and not behind a mask.

The third gift in confession is directly related to the second. It is the gift of humility—both for the one confessing as well as the one hearing the confession.

Paul speaks highly of the virtue of humility, saying in Philippians 2:5-8, “5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!” Jesus Christ did not falsely exalt Himself, but was willing to be numbered among the sinners. This was humbling for Him, and a great departure from the way the world operates.

Humility is a virtue worth cultivating in your Christian life simply because it is Christ-like and un-worldly. And there is no better method I know of by which a right view of oneself (read: humility) can be actively cultivated than by the regular, routine, and habitual confessing of personal sins to another person. It is a regular reminder that I am not holier than others, that I am not superior to other, that it is as impossible for me to please God apart from Christ as it is for me to touch the sun on Icarus’ wings. And so I begin to think not more highly of myself than I ought, but think of myself rightly, and thus depend upon Christ, His grace, and His cross all the more. And what a blessing that is for a Christian to do!

But even beyond that, it is an extraordinarly humbling experience to hear the confession of another. The temptation even of the father confessor (the fancy name for “one hearing the confession”) is to keep the lie of the sinner’s mask of false holiness intact and let the other’s sin remain in the dark. It’s easier that way because it’s difficult to know a person’s deepest failures and sins without looking at them differently. It’s more comfortable that way because, after all, hearing the sins of another confessed out loud tends to make one squirm. But the mask is a lie, and the father confessor would rather see sin brought into the light of God’s truth, and so he listens and is humbled.

But the single-most humbling thing in hearing confession is not actually the hearing, but the proclaiming. No Christian confession is complete without Christ’s forgiveness being proclaimed! And when the father confessor proclaims that forgiveness it feels to him presumptuous. It feels like as though it smacks of pride to dare speak those words of forgiveness. “After all”, he thinks, “who can forgive sins but God alone? How can I dare stand in God’s place and speak words that only belong to Him?”

Yet it is those words, “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven” that are the very words that the confessor’s brother or sister in Christ need to hear. They need to be comforted with words of grace and mercy and Gospel. And so the confessor swallows his pride, wraps himself in the clothing of God’s servant, and humbly serves his brother in Christ by giving him the words he needs most. He may tremble at the responsibility of offering Christ’s forgiveness, but he nevertheless does so that his brother’s conscience may be salved with the soothing balm of pure Gospel.

And there we have it. The benefits of confessing sins to one another are benefits for the whole community of Christ: benefits of a humble walk of faith, lives lived without masks, and mutual dependence upon God’s Word and Christ’s cross. Yes, it is true that you can confess to God and God alone, but in doing so you rob yourself and the church of Christ of a rich and yet humbling act that brings God’s blessings to the entire community.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Confession is not counseling

Confession is NOT counseling

I’ll say it again, confession is NOT counseling. To get the most out of confession, the distinction between the two needs to be understood. The two are different things with different purposes that are even done differently! And yet I perceive that the average churchgoer doesn’t understand that difference, tends to consider confession and counseling as being very, very similar, and thus robs themselves of the special blessing God has for them in confession. So let’s talk about the difference between the two things for just a minute and hopefully, in the end, we’ll appreciate confession for its unique contribution to our daily lives in Christ.

First off, let’s defuse any potential argument by agreeing where confession and counseling (in this case, specifically pastoral counseling) are similar. 1) When done correctly, they both rest on the foundation of God’s Word. God’s Word offers guidance and direction for us as we live this life, and we should recognize that and allow our pastors to speak God’s Word to us. 2) When done correctly, both confession and counseling are done with a pastor’s heart that seeks to heal brokenness and bind up wounds. And 3) Strictly speaking, it is the duty of every Christian—and not just the pastor—to both hear confession and offer Godly counsel. It is, of course, nevertheless something that the pastor is specifically called to do as part of his vocation of ministry.

So yes, confession and counseling have some similarities. But as I can imagine my grandfather possibly saying, “Just because it has teats, tail, and teeth doesn’t mean it’s a cow!” Similarities do not mean that two things are identical. And though I’m in danger of belaboring the point, confession and counseling are NOT one and the same.

Pastoral counseling is in order when a crisis of any form shakes up a person’s life and they need Godly assistance sorting and arranging the various bits and pieces back into a meaningful, healthy whole. This sort of counseling can range from dispensing Biblical wisdom in a single session (what I call the “church-member drive-by”, it begins with a parishioner popping their head in my door and asking, “Got a minute?” and ends anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours later!) to wrestling with a complex set of interrelated issues over multiple sessions (as in premarital counseling, for instance). Such counseling t is what 2 Timothy 3:16-17 looks like in action: “16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In other words, pastoral counseling is in my estimation mostly useful for rebuilding or establishing a Biblical worldview that will serve to guide an individual in the path of righteousness.

Not so with confession. Whereas the primary usefulness of counseling is in rebuilding, confession’s main point is reconciliation. It is the simple understanding that one’s own sinful choices have strained or even perhaps broken one’s relationship with God and the desire to have the comfort of being right with God once again. That understanding leads them to confession, where the full truth of God’s Word will be pronounced upon them: the truth that while sin does separate, Jesus Christ nevertheless forgives and reconciles.

This means that the beauty of confession is that it does not require a crisis in order to function as a valuable part of the Christian’s life! Imagine how weary you would be if every week you had to endure yet another crisis that required counseling, and yet adding regular confession to your spiritual disciplines of prayer, study, and worship gives the rare combination of being both easy and rewarding.

The reason is this: confession’s words of forgiveness are just as valid for monumental moral lapses as they are for life’s small daily sins. The confessor does not need to have committed atrocities or feel an incapacitating burden of sin . . . they only need to know that 1) they have indeed sinned and 2) in Christ, God stands ready, willing, and able to forgive them for that sin!

Counseling offers guidance and hope for the future, but confession grants peace and comfort for right now. Counseling offers a plethora of Scriptural advice, but confession needs no Scripture other than 1 John 1:9, “9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Counseling is training for righteousness, confession declares one righteous.

No, confession and counseling are NOT the same. Both are good, but when it comes down to it, while counseling might be good guidance, confession is pure Gospel.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What is confession?

As we begin in earnest this blog series on the churchly practice of Confession and Absolution, I believe it makes sense to answer the basic question first:

What is confession?

There are probably enough people who have enough familiarity with the practice of confession to answer that. "Oh, confession! That's where you go into a little box in the church every so often and confess your sins to a priest.? And to that I say "No, it's not." What's just been described is an action, not the essence. A mental picture of a physical deed, but not what confession is.

What is, fundamentally speaking, confession? What is its essence? What is the thing that makes confession what it is?

When we dig deep enough down we can begin to properly understand what confession is. Confession is, at its heart, a Godly sorrow over one's own sins. It is not a sorrow that indulges in self-flagellation, a constant and bizarre psychosis which believes that somehow heaping enough abuse on one's own ego will be sufficient to cure sin. Neither is it a self-centered sorrow that mourns only the negative effects that sin?s consequences have brought into one's own life. Confession is a Godly sorrow: a sorrow that is compelled to seek out the cross and Christ's forgiveness there offered. In that aspect it is much like the distinction we tend to make between remorse and regret.

When a particularly heinous crime has been committed and the perpetrator caught, people begin to watch him very closely. They want to see whether or not he feels truly sorry for what he has done. And if he does not, it is almost inevitable that when his trial has come and he is about to be sentenced the prosecuting lawyer will argue for a stronger sentence and claim, "Never once has this man shown any remorse!"

Now contrast that with an event like a nationally known politician who has been caught in a scandal of some type. With his shameful conduct exposed for all the world to see, he quickly arranges a press conference in which he reads a prepared statement that more often than not goes, "I regret my actions . . ."

Typically, we see a person expressing regret only after they have been caught with their hand in the cookie jar. The person in question regrets the damage that he has done to his career. He regrets ever having made such a bad choice in the first place. In short, he wishes that things could be different in this aspect: he regrets that he ever got caught. It is primarily self-centered, self-occupied, and self-preserving.

Remorse, on the other hand, is typically viewed as being true sorrow. Not just sorrow over being caught, not even sorrow over the destructive consequences of an action, but sorrow over the action itself. It is an other-centered lamenting over an injury (be it emotional, verbal, or physical) that cannot be taken back or undone.

When it comes to confession, then, remorse is a type of sorrow over sin that the world does not understand or, in fact, feel. Remorse is Godly sorrow. The Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 7:10, "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death."

In confession, Godly sorrow seeks out a confessor that will hear of my sins, will hear my acknowledgement that I have injured others and sinned against God, will hear my cry for mercy, and will pronounce God's judgment upon me. Godly sorrow seeks out God's judgment, because by faith it already knows what His verdict is: "Guilty of sin, and yet forgiven in Jesus Christ."

Godly sorrow leads to salvation! It leads to salvation because it trusts in the cross of Jesus Christ above all else. Godly sorrow knows that even the reality of my own sin, my own disregard for God?s holy commands, cannot separate me from God, because the blood of Jesus Christ, dripping down from the cross, has already earned forgiveness for me! It knows the sting of the verdict of "guilty" but does not fear it, because it also knows that the true words "and yet forgiven" will also be spoken. And so Godly sorrow seeks out confession.

Wordly sorrow, however, fears God's judgment so much that it would rather hide from it and instead judge itself. And so it flees from confession and consoles itself with the words, "I'm not as bad as some others." It lies to itself by saying, "None of this would be a problem if I hadn't been caught." And strangely enough, worldly sorrow often fears God's judgment so badly that it would rather condemn itself, saying, "I'm worthless. I'm an idiot. I'm unlovable."

Worldly sorrow leads to death . . . because it leads me away from God?s judgment. It leads me away from confession. It has no hope, it has no trust. It only knows fear and deceit. It is a lying trap that flees the hope and forgiveness offered by the cross of Christ.

So what is confession? Confession is, at its root, Godly sorrow. A sorrow that acknowledges the reality of sin, and yet trusts in the reality of the cross all the more. It is a sorrow that knows the path to salvation and trusts in it enough to follow it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Confession has two parts . . .

The church's ancient practice of private confession has much to offer God's people, and yet I see that it is frequently misunderstood and consistently underused. I wonder why that is?. Why, when the practice of confession has a Biblical foundation, solid theological backing, and enormous personal benefit, is it so often dismissed?

The Lutheran fathers themselves encouraged private confession and strove to retain it in the church even after their break from Rome, and yet modern-day Lutherans shun the practice as being "too Catholic." Evangelicals often place great stock in person-to-person accountability, but yet they frequently dismiss the churchly practice of private confession as being entirely unnecessary. In my experience even Roman Catholics--the very group most people would expect to practice private confession--are uninformed of the practice and generally consider it an antiquated practice belonging to a bygone era.

I'm thinking that's really too bad. It saddens me to think that private confession has, for many--probably most, actually--Christians, gone the way of the dodo. It's not just that private confession seems strange. After all, fasting is awful strange, too, and there are no end of books on that subject. For that matter, fasting even seems to achieve fad status once per decade or so. It gets to the point where you can't invite 1/2 of the church out for after-worship lunch as they're all fasting for one thing or another!

So I've come to the conclusion that the reason private confession isn't done much anymore is not just that it seems odd to people, but it must be something more. Perhaps it's misunderstood. Perhaps it has a certain stigma. Perhaps people just plain don't understand it. So what can I do? If only there were some way that I could write about confession and instruct people on just how fine and wonderful it truly is. If only I had some avenue, some way of reaching out via an electronic medium to untold numbers of Christians . . .


Yes, you've guessed it. I'm starting off a blog series on the practice of private confession. Why? Because I think it's a valuable practice, and I'd like to encourage you to think about it and try it out, no matter what your denominational stripe may be. It is valuable because of what it does and what it offers: conviction and forgiveness.

You Christians know from personal experience how those two things go hand in hand, but have you ever wondered how they are worked out in practical, actual ways? Have you ever struggled with doubt over whether your internal battles with lust or greed or coveting had crossed the line and spilled out into your life in the form of actual sin? And did you ever wonder, "Is this something I need to confess to God?" And have you ever been so burdened by a sin that you longed to hear God Himself declare to you, "Your sins are forgiven" just so that you could know that you know that you know it was really, actually, true?

If you've ever struggled with doubt, asking yourself the question, "Yes . . . but how do I really know I'm forgiven?", then I invite you to come along with me as together we explore the ancient and beneficial practice of private confession. It is my hope that our explorations will both challenge and edify you, but it is my certainty that they will not leave you disappointed.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A review of Matthew Harrison’s, “It’s Time: LCMS Unity and Mission”

Although it was written nearly one year ago (October of 2008), I have only recently been made aware of Matthew C. Harrison’s paper addressing the woeful divisions of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod entitled, “It’s Time: LCMS Unity and Mission”. Knowing Matthew to be a man possessing both conservative, sound doctrine as well as a genuine heart for seeking and saving the lost (as evidenced by his lengthy and excellent work with LCMS World Mission), I immediately set out to read it and e-publish a review, and I must say from the outset that I’m extremely glad that I did.

Matt opens with a compelling illustration; an ocean-going ship that is occupied by a crew that is one small part bitterly opposed to her course, one part radically committed to her course, and a large majority that are apathetic as regards to the ship altogether. What can be done?

Immediately, upon the first page, Matt’s paper has won my respect. For he acknowledges that while simply putting the matter to a vote and accepting the will of the majority may be fine for an actual ship, it nevertheless is destructive and divisive when the metaphorical ship is in actuality the church. Or perhaps the crew majority could simply rid themselves of the impure influences of the losers? Ridding ourselves of opposition by jettisoning all mutineers and extra baggage through force is acceptable upon the high seas, but it is the very antithesis of the redeeming and reconciling truth of the Gospel that we hold to in faith. The answer, Matt rightly points out, is not coercion, but consensus.

It is this point of consensus and not coercion that he expands upon, revisits, and in some ways revises throughout the rest of the paper. Matt takes the historical and present challenges of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod along with a refreshing splash of respected Reformers (such as Luther and Chemnitz) and an explicit reliance upon the Scriptures as the rule and norm of faith, and wonderfully and expertly weaves together into a tapestry that reveals that the fundamental problem we face in the LC-MS today is not one of structure nor of power and control but, as Matt says, a “lack of faith in the power of the Word to unite even us.”

And BOOM! . . . Matt nails it. Look at the divisions that persist in the LC-MS. Look at the things we argue over. And then look at how we try to resolve them: Through vilifying one another in internet forums and blogs, through campaigning for the “right person” to be elected into Synodical office, through resolutions that seek the full compliance of other parties and factions . . . in other words: through coercion. We have long since stopped believing that the Word of God is living and active and able to bring about the good and pleasing unity that God desires.

Matt’s answer is as radical as it is simple: That we first repent of our own sinful divisiveness, that we actively listen to the Word of God for guidance, and then that we actively listen to one another. Simply put, Matt Harrison dares to offer the radical, unheard of suggestion that we actually rely upon the Word of God, and in particular His Gospel, to be our rule of faith and life at home, in our churches . . . and even in our Synod.

That, my friends, is profound. It is provocative. And it is the very reason why I’m heartily recommending Matt’s paper to you to read for yourself. His is a clarion call back to what matters most: Christ at the center of all.

What if we were to embrace that notion? To really, truly embrace it? To repent of our own lack of faith in the transforming power of God’s Word, to repent of our own feeble and weak attempts to fix Synod through restructuring, through programs, through solicitation of financial support . . . and instead say with radical, uncompromising, unfaltering conviction that Jesus Christ IS at the center of every single one of our decisions, and that we will heed His Word in every aspect of our lives together?

I’ll tell you what would happen: exactly what Matt suggests will happen. That we will come to be missionally doctrinal and doctrinally missional. That both active mission endeavors and pure doctrine will be held in high, high regard. That we will be able once again to express our given unity in Christ to one another and for the benefit of the world that looks on.

“It’s time for us to be united in doctrine and mission, doctrine for mission in order “to seek and save the lost.” It’s time to be about mission and mercy. It is tme to tend the fellowship (koinonia) we have been given in Christ, and to care for one another. Christ is with us, and the world is before us. It’s time to face the real problem and to address it once and for all. “Let’s go!” (Mark 1:38). It’s time!”—Matthew C. Harrison

Matthew C. Harrison’s paper “It’s Time: LCMS Unity And Mission” can be viewed and/or downloaded at http://www.itistime.org/

Thursday, July 02, 2009

On social media and virtual relationships What I've learned to value in them

Are so-called "virtual relationships" valid? I have a good number of internet-only friends (friends I've never met in real life, but nevertheless whom I've associated with for several years online), and I value their friendship immensely. I've been thinking a fair bit recently about the validity of online relationships and the value I place in them.

It began while I was on a vacation recently. Traveling away from home for me meant no internet access unless I happened across a Wi-Fi hotspot. This provided an opportunity to disconnect from the ubiquitous curse/blessing of Microsoft Outlook and the friendly chime alerting me to an incoming email, but it also forced me to disconnect (partially, as it turned out) from my circle of online friends. No pastors forum. No Facebook. No Old Lutheran. None of those regular and expected channels of communication were open to me for a period of about two weeks.

I noticed a few things. One, I didn't experience the withdrawal symptoms of an internet addict. I felt no compulsion to stop at a trendy Starbucks to get a double fix of caffeine and 'net, nor the need to haul out my laptop just because the interstate rest stop advertised free Wi-Fi access. It was good to break away from everything that was "back home" and focus a bit more on the here and now of traveling and seeing family.

But I also noticed a distinct difference in the make-up of my Twitter tweets (you can follow me @troyneujahr). Whereas normally I'd confine a tweet to a work-related ministry question, something that was perhaps intended to start a conversation or give insight into a pastor's day, on vacation my tweets started to take on a new flavor. With no possibility of entering into a discussion with my online community, I started to view my tweets as a sort of mini-postcard. I'd think of my online friends as I typed out 140 characters of "What I'm doing now", and in my mind there?d always be a little additional tagline of "Wish you were here." A Twitter update became my way of thinking fondly of my online friends for a few moments and expressing (albeit obliquely) a longing for the coming day when we could freely converse once again.

I can only think of one possibility for my behavior: in my mind, the relationships I've formed online are genuine relationships that mirror person-to-person relationships in every way. I have casual acquaintances in real life with whom I can pass a few moments of pleasant conversation, and I have the same type of acquaintances online. I also have a select, limited number of deep personal friends in real life whom I rely upon for advice and support, but I also have the same type of online friends, as well. One friend in particular is a man that I have NEVER met in real life, but I nevertheless have no doubt that if I were to show up at his home unannounced I would be welcomed as a cherished and long-time friend . . . because that is what we are, despite the limitations of online, virtual communication.

What's more, I have also recently learned that a virtual friendship can actually create a bond that, when brought into real life, is almost immediately transferable. At our recent LC-MS Michigan District convention, for instance, I bumped into a few folks that I have connected with on Facebook. In each instance, I saw them from a short distance away, recognized them from their online profile, and introduced myself saying, "We're friends on Facebook." Without fail there was a second or two of visible mental processing followed by an "Oh yeah! Good to meet you!", and then a few pleasant and enjoyable minutes of conversation. Not the awkward sort of first-meeting conversation, either, but rather a continuation of what we knew of each other from the virtual world. Virtual friendship transferred quickly and easily into real-world friendship.

Can virtual friendships entirely replace real-world face-to-face contact? No, I'd never suggest that it could. In the case of the church worship service, for instance, there is a necessity of a flesh-and-blood gathering of human beings meeting consistently around Word and Sacrament. "Virtual worship" remains, in my mind, a self-defeating term. Likewise, the relationship of me to my best friend (save Christ), namely my wife Stephanie, is something that could never be replicated online.

But consider what true friendship really is: two people learning to understand and appreciate one another for who they are. Seeing each other in a variety of different contexts, seeing each other through a variety of life events?both crises and celebrations. Two people interacting in friendly banter, in arguments, in difference of opinions, in requests for prayers, and in mutual consolation. Two people supporting one another, loving one another, and befriending one another.

Through the blessing of the internet, God has given me such friendships. Some in real life, some online. It's a blessing for which I'm extremely thankful. And I've learned that, when it comes to friendship, there is no such thing as a "virtual friend" . . . there are only friends that I've met in person and friends that I have not.

Thank you, Lord, for those friends.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

If the city prospers, you will prosper

I've found myself in deep thought lately over my church's current financial crisis. And not surprisingly, I've focused a lot of attention to what changes we can make here to get back on track money-wise and get back into the game of outreach.

But then I realized something about myself . . . something that I didn't like. What I had done was fall prey to the classic trap of inward focus. Not that I lost a heart for the unchurched and lost, no, not that. But what I had done is treated my church's financial ills as being isolated from the ongoing woes of my community. The Lord turned my mind to an important passage from Jeremiah, where even as He told the Israelites that He would be carrying them off from their homeland and into exile, He also instructed them to pray for the peace and prosperity of the city to which they were being taken . . . for if the city prospered, they too would prosper. I realized that even though He had to discipline the Israelites for their sin, He still had a heart of compassion for them that sought their greater good.

I liked that verse so much that I printed it up and stuck it on my office door. For to me it was a important reminder that the financial problems of Our Saviour Lutheran Church are directly connected to the troubled economy of Hudson, and indeed of all lower Michigan.

And then I repented for having a heart of love for my city, but hands and feet that had been idle and not done all that they could do for my city.

So today I got on my battle armor. I put on my clerical shirt and collar and drove out to the local industrial park and walked right into three of the big manufacturers out there, announced who I was and that all I wanted to do was talk with somebody who could tell me specifically how to pray for them.

And all three gave me something to pray for. Not just one, but all three. Each business said, "Pray for _________ for us and the people who work here."

That amazed me, honestly. I knew the local situation was bleak, but I hadn't expected a three-for-three acknowledgment that the situation was beyond their control and that they needed Divine intervention to get through not just the months ahead, but this very day.

I want my church to prosper, because if it prospers we keep on gathering to hear the Gospel week in and week out. We continue to be a mission outpost that offers the unconditional love and mercy and grace and favor offered by God and given through Jesus Christ.

And for the church to prosper, I need my city to prosper, as well. Major local employers are in incredibly vulnerable positions right now. Jobs are on the line. Familes are hanging in the balance.

So today, I begin daily prayer not just for my church, but for my city. Because if it prospers, so will the Gospel outreach of this church.

Join with me in prayer. Pray that my prayers are effective and powerful. Pray that God enables the city of Hudson to prosper, and that as the city prospers, so does His church.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Church idolatry--literally

Lately I've been reading from the book of Ezekiel; an intimidating book at the best of times and at the worst just flat-out bizarre. But today something struck me full-on in the face: the Israelites idolized a building.

In Ezekiel 24:21, the Lord says, "21 Say to the house of Israel, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am about to desecrate my sanctuary-- the stronghold in which you take pride, the delight of your eyes, the object of your affection. The sons and daughters you left behind will fall by the sword."

And there it was: it's the building that the ancient Israelites trusted in . . . the building that they loved. Not the God who dwelt there, who came close to His people through the building . . . but the building itself.

It's not that I have a problem with buildings. They are useful and convenient. But the thing that got me to thinking was how easy it is to confuse bricks and mortar with mission. To confuse the building where God's people gather with God's church. These are NOT the same things.

The ancient Israelites had come to a point where they loved the building more than the God who dwelt there. I understand how it happened. After all, the building is rich with tradition and history. It's something you can touch and see and enter into. God, on the other hand, is somewhat nebulous . . . always hiding His face . . . always working through mysterious means.

But in the end, it didn't matter. Because the Israelites had loved the earthly building instead of what it was truly supposed to represent, the only merciful thing God could do was to take it away from them so that they would know that He was The Lord. So that they would be reminded once again that He, and not a building, alone was to be worshipped.

I wonder . . . does God look into our hearts and wonder "Should I take away their building, as well?"

And what would happen if He did?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

(Dare to) Disagree with Driscoll

Let me preface what I'm about to say:

I love Mark Driscoll and admire his ministry. As a preacher, I admire how the man pulls no punches when he speaks. As a pastor, I listen closely when he speaks on effective pastoral leadership. As a Christian, I thank God for the man's podcasts and Bible teaching that feed my life (sure, there's the issue of Driscoll's Calvinist theology that I strenuously disagree with, but hey . . . no one's got absolutely perfect theology, right? Except perhaps Luther. And LC-MS Lutherans. But I digress . . . :) )

But in this article from FoxNews, I think Driscoll's got just one thing--one rather small thing--wrong.


Driscoll, in my opinion, is spot-on for his region of the country and where he routinely ministers. In those places (and in others), the long-useless brand of nominal, culturally-influenced "Christendom" (his term) is indeed dead. Where Driscoll serves, I believe that there is a strong distinction between authentic Christ-followers and people who formerly would have been mere church-goers . . . people who have not had a life-transforming relationship with the living God

But that's not quite as true in rural mid-America.

The Scriptures speak of people who are hearers of the Word, but not doers. In other words, people to whom the Word is preached, people who are in church regularly, but people for whom (for one reason or another) the Word has just not made a transforming impact on their lives. They consider themselves Christian, but in their minds the word means something other than what it is intended to mean: One who follows Christ. Who learns from His words. Whose life is constantly being shaped and molded, day in and day out, to resemble His.

It's these "hearers" that Driscoll calls "Christendom America." And he--rightfully so, in my opinion--rejoices over the fact that the number of people in that category are apparently diminishing nation-wide.

But again, it's a bit different story in rural mid-America. Here "Christendom America" is far from dead. Coughing, wheezing, and spluttering perhaps . . . but the beast is far from dead. Here in mid-America, far removed from cultural and urban centers, Christianity-as-culture still lives on.

There's good points to that, of course. It means that terms like "traditional morality" still mean something. That one-man, one-woman marriages for life are still kind of expected, that we're all still kind of shocked when our teens experiment with sex and/or drugs, that a good, honest day's work is still viewed as the best way to get a good, honest day's pay. Rural mid-America still has solid echoes of the simpler, easier times of the USA.

But where "Christendom America" fails, it does so completely. Because "Christendom America" uses religion and morality to innoculate people against the genuine repentance and faith of the transformed Christian. It believes that because it has the former, it can substitute it for the latter . . . and, in fact, it tragically sees no difference between the two.

So where Driscoll has the blessing of proclaiming the risen and ascended Christ to a proud and willfully pagan people, here in mid-America the pastors often fight a different battle. We fight the battle of apathy. We fight the battle of a lack of urgency. We fight the battle for souls that casually say "Lord, Lord" on Sunday, but who are woefully inadequate in Biblical knowledge, in spiritual growth, and in Christian maturity. All because they still believe that the religion and morality of "Christendom" and the transformational new life of "Christianity" are one and the same.

Yes, of course even in rural mid-America we see some of the same cultural shifts that Driscoll talks about. The fruits of the god "tolerance" and the shifting sands of relative truth impact us, as well. We do see signs that "Christendom" is dying off and that perhaps one day soon we'll be able to minister to people who at least know they are not Christian. Soon, perhaps, we'll also have the blessings that Mark Driscoll enjoys: we can stop trying to convince the casual church-goer that there is real power to be had in Christ's name and instead boldly proclaim His offer of life and salvation to those who sit in the darkness.

And I, for one, hope that day comes soon.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

How come Saudi Arabia understands what we don't?


Okay, so this story is about a Muslim beauty pageant and adherence to Islamic morals. Okay, so I'm not just a Christian, but a Christian pastor. Okay, so obviously I'm not suggesting that Islamic morals are the definition of beauty. So just let all that drop for a moment and think about this, okay? This isn't about one religion over another, it's about an underlying truth: beauty has far more to do with what's inside than what's on the outside.

This pageant in Saudi Arabia undertands that truth. Not only understands, but celebrates it! Now contrast that with American beauty pageants. Evening gowns. Swimsuit competitions. Perfect teeth, perfect hair, bodies that are judged on whether or not they have perfect proportions . . . and just a nod--just the slightest nod--to whether or not the woman in the swimsuit has a brain or not.

In America, we celebrate outward beauty . . . but doesn't that beauty fade after a while? I mean, sure we find more and more ways all the time to stave off the inevitable, to hang on to the image of youth and beauty. And sure, as a result, we've got far more aging Hollywood stars than we've ever had before--both men and women--that are just plain knockout attractive even into their 40's, 50's, and 60's. But outward beauty alone is really not worth celebrating. A beautiful woman can still be a shrew. A ruggedly handsome man can still be angry and abusive. Despite their outward beauty, their treatment of others belies an inner ugliness that no amount of plastic surgery could ever fix.

Let me tell you something: My wife is crazy gorgeous and (if you don't mind me saying, and frankly even if you do) hotter than ever. You want to know why? Because she's beautiful on the inside, and that inner radiance shines forth. I've never met a woman who's been as dedicated and loving to her family as my wife Stephanie. I've never met a woman who's always so ready to give of herself and build into the lives of her kids. To build into the life of her husband. She's so beautiful inwardly that yeah, like that silly pageant, you could stick her into a full-body burkha and even then her beauty would still be unmistakeable.

I wish more Americans understood the value of inner beauty. I wish more men would judge women by more than their cup size or about the junk she got in her trunk. I wish more Christian women cared less about how they looked in a bikini and more about the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.

So yeah, right now? I wish we could learn a little something from the Saudi Arabians. Something that God's been telling us all along, but we've been a bit too preoccupied with our outward appearance to actually listen.

Proverbs 31:30-31 30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. 31 Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hugh Hefner's regrets

Foxnews recently did a story on Hugh Hefner and his feelings of regret over certain choices in his life. You can read the full report here: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,518219,00.html

While just the notion of "Hugh Hefner" and "regrets" is certainly enough to cause the typical American male into a veritable tailspin of soul-searching angst. After all, if Hugh (who is what many consider to be the very pinnacle of male achievement: the eternal frat party combined with a healthy dose of Never Never Land) . . . if Hugh has regrets over HIS choices . . . then what chance does Joe Average have in achieving the perfect life?

But pushing beyond that riddled philosophical question, the thing that most interested me was this quote. "[I'd] like to find out what [Jesus Christ] was all about." Separate the reality from mythology. Find out the roots of what has become a major religion of my time. I was raised in a good Methodist home and I had questions about organized religion, and I would love to have the answers."

Hugh Hefner has money. He has a steady parade of beautiful, naked women. He does not just have power, he has an empire. He does not just have a legacy, he has influenced the course of entire generations.

And still . . . that pesky question of "Just who is Jesus, anyway?" remains.

"Who do you say I am?" is what Jesus asked. The answer to that question is still as crucial today as it ever has been. And, apparently, not even living the American Male Dream diminishes the burning need to answer it.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Yearning for life

As yet another Lenten season comes to a close, I find my mind is far too distracted. Despite knowing their magnificently huge importance, I feel unprepared for the three days that lie ahead.

And yet I know that tonight Christ will help me to focus my attention where it belongs: on His Body. For tonight He speaks to me once again from the Upper Room, saying, "This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . given and shed for you." Tonight He humbly prepares to serve me as only He can. And yet not just me, but "we"; Tonight He unites all believers around His body and blood, and Him we have unity. Unity in sin that confesses our own frailties and faults, yes. But also unity in forgiveness and redemption from the hand of Jesus Christ Himself. I will proclaim His death with my fellow believers, and I will be neither greater nor lesser than any of them, instead I will be their servant, and they mine. Because our attention will be on Christ's Body, and not on ourselves.

Tomorrow He will, once again, draw my attention to Himself. And as I stand in the shadow of His cross, I will be reminded of the awful reality that my sins caused the death of my faithful friend Jesus Christ. And yet He will remind me that this is the way it had to be, that He had to go to this extreme so that there would be no doubt as to His love for me. And I will not like that truth . . . but I will rejoice in it nevertheless, because my focus will be on Him and not on myself.

And then Sunday . . . glorious, glorious Sunday! He will again draw my attention to that wondrous and utterly inexplicable event: His resurrection! I will stand in wonder, dumbfounded not only that such a thing could actually happen, but also that through it I am given the same gift: the gift of a fresh, new eternal life with Jesus Christ. An eternal life where my focus will no longer be on my own self, my own needs, my own wants . . . a life that, in thankfulness and praise, is entirely focused upon Christ.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On Faithfulness and Fruitfulness: Part II

On Faithfulness and Fruitfulness: Part II

A week or so ago I wrote upon the importance—perhaps even the necessity—of faithfully working at that which God has called you to despite the lack of fruit generated from it. At that time, I had intended to write a second post on the subject just a few days later. But in an interesting turn of irony, my efforts to do so proved unfruitful. So here it is about a week later, I’ve had a few more days to dwell on the subject, and I believe I’m ready to shed some Godly wisdom on this.

Before we get any further, I want to take a ½ step back and talk about fruit. I made a pretty big deal about working even when you don’t see fruit last time, but I realized something important: Fruit’s not always what—or where—you think it is.

Picture that you’re a farmer or a gardener: You begin with a hope, a dream—some might even call it a vision—to grow a certain kind of fruit. To make those hopes into reality, you develop a plan. You begin to work that plan; cultivating the soil, planting the seeds, giving the seeds nourishment and sunlight and just the right amount of water. You’re attentive to the needs of the plant as it begins to grow, but you’re careful not to smother it. In short, you’ve done everything a good leader—whoops! I mean farmer or gardener!—should do to ensure that you get some good fruit at harvest time.

So, you’ve done your preparatory work and you want to see fruit. What are the possibilities that could happen? What might spoil your perfectly laid plans for fruitfulness?

1) You could be looking for long-term fruit in a short-term timeframe.

When I was a teenager, my family lived on an orchard for a period of time. I learned a good deal more about fruit trees than I knew existed! And one of the things that I learned is that a brand-new fruit tree will not produce fruit for 3-4 years.

If you planted a peach tree, that news would be a BIG shock if you expected to have fruit in the fall, wouldn’t it? Similarly, in your ministry you could be looking for fruit that takes a long time to develop (like discipleship, changed attitudes about giving, hearts radically committed towards mission), but you’ve only allotted a short span of time in which you thought you’d see it. Think a little more deeply about what kind of fruit you want to see, and then ask yourself, “How long did that change take to produce fruit in my own life?” I think you’ll find that you’ve most likely underestimated the time it takes for a particular fruit to develop.

2) You could be looking for the wrong kind of fruit.

Most ministry leaders know very well that the old, old warning to not compare apples to oranges also stands true in ministry. But I know that I myself have been duped on a number of occasions into looking for oranges when what I truly planted in the first place was apples!

Let me explain: Specific ministry actions are intended to produce specific ministry results. No doubt that you, as a ministry leader, have specific results—or “fruits”—that you want to see from a given ministry. But have you done the work to ensure that what you want to harvest is actually the thing you’ve planted?

Take, for instance, the worship leader who sets out to rejuvenate and enrich the worship service. His grand vision, the one constant imperative that drives him constantly forward, is to make the service a place where God’s people can grow deeper, broader, and richer in worship. He comes up with a number of—let’s admit it—flat-out fantastic ideas to enrich the worship service. And then, to justify the changes he’s made, he commits to the church board to faithfully tracking worship attendance.

Now what’s that ministry leader just done? He’s decided that the best way to confirm to himself and others that he’s accomplishing what he wants to accomplish (deeper, broader, richer worship lives) is by looking for a different kind of fruit, namely counting rear ends in the chairs and pews. While worship attendance is a good thing to know, it won’t tell the worship leader (or church board!) anything meaningful about whether or not the goal of rejuvenating and enriching worship has been met! In short, he’s planted apples but counting oranges. The worship leader will continue to work hard at his new, exciting worship services, but until he learns to look for the kind of fruit he expects to harvest, he will be almost always disappointed.

3) You could be missing the fruit because you’re always looking at weeds.

One time, many years ago, my wife wanted a vegetable garden. The trouble was, she was pregnant and didn’t believe that she’d be able to keep up with the work such a garden would require. So I, being young, foolish, and a rather na├»ve romantic to boot, declared my undying love for my wife and to demonstrate, I would plant the garden and care for it myself.

Well, the garden was indeed planted, and if I recall correctly it was weeded . . . for a time. I lost interest, however, and very soon after that the weeds began to grow, and grow, and grow! When harvest time came I looked sadly at that garden—a thick, overgrown, patch of 3 foot tall weeds—wishing that I could undo the damage the weeds had done and mourning the loss of fruit.

But some sense of duty prompted me to dive into the weedpatch and see what I could find. And in the thick, dense, cover of weeds I began to find tomatoes. Small cherry tomatoes. Larger Roma tomatoes. Beefsteak tomatoes. So many tomatoes, in fact, that because of our garden’s abundance I was forced to give many away to my neighbor, who eventually even came and begged me to stop! The fruit was there all along! All there, all growing, all ready to harvest . . . but because I only had eyes for the weeds I could not see it, and therefore I could not rejoice in it.

Weeds are ugly. They are distracting. And they are even (regrettably) Christ-like; they are with you always even unto the end of the world! But although weeds can and do choke the life out of some fruit, they cannot kill it all. Learn to look past the weeds, find the fruit, and rejoice in it.

So, there you go. I hope that what God has been confirming to me brings some benefit to you, as well. But with all that God’s been teaching and showing me on fruitfulness and faithfulness, it appears that I’m going to have to write a third part of my two-part blog posts. Look for another post soon on knowing when fruitlessness means it’s time to move your ministry elsewhere.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The pastor's cat

--Found this old story in my computer files, got a chuckle out of it, and figured I'd share.

A pastor had a kitten that climbed up a tree in his backyard and then was
afraid to come down. The pastor coaxed, offered warm milk, etc. The
kitty would not come down. The tree was not sturdy enough to climb, so
the pastor decided that if he tied a rope to his car and drove away so
that the tree bent down, he could then reach up and get the kitten.

That's what he did, all the while checking his progress in the car. He
then figured if he went just a little bit further, the tree would be
bent sufficiently for him to reach the kitten. But as he moved the car a
little further forward, the rope broke. The tree went "boing!" and the
kitten instantly sailed through the air-out of sight.

The pastor felt terrible. He walked all over the neighborhood asking
people if they'd seen a little kitten. No, nobody had seen a stray
kitten. So he prayed, "Lord, I just commit this kitten to your keeping,"
and went on about his business.

A few days later he was at the grocery store, and met one of his church
members. He happened to look into her shopping cart and was amazed to
see cat food.

This woman was a cat hater and everyone knew it, so he asked her, "Why
are you buying cat food when you hate cats so much?"

She replied, "You won't believe this," and then told him how her little
girl had been begging her for a cat, but she kept refusing. Then a few
days before, the child had begged again, so the Mom finally told her
little girl, "Well, if God gives you a cat, I'll let you keep it."

She told the pastor, "I watched my child go out in the yard, get on her
knees, and ask God for a cat. And really, Pastor, you won't believe
this, but I saw it with my own eyes. A kitten suddenly came flying out
of the blue sky, with its paws outspread, and landed right in front of

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On Faithfulness and Fruitfulness: Part I

Every pastor I know has struggled with these twin issues. Every seminary professor I’ve talked with and interacted with has had trials with this. Every committed church member in whom I’ve seen God birth a passion and zeal for a new ministry I’ve also seen struggle with the same form of soul-searching, gut-wrenching angst.
It’s the issue of faithfulness and fruitfulness. In essence, it’s the struggle between being faithful to what God has called you to do and the nearly all-consuming desire to see fruit produced through it. And it can eat God’s people alive.
I want to devote this first of two “Faithfulness and Fruitfulness” posts to encouraging faithfulness even in the absence of fruitfulness. Why? Simply because faithfulness—in this case, especially faithfulness to God’s calling—is a prince among virtues. Enduring faithfulness embodies courage, steadfastness, unyielding commitment, and far-reaching vision. It acts in the moment, looks for tomorrow, and lives rooted in eternity. Faithfulness is a product of having clearly heard God’s voice and responding with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength. It is nothing less than life-transforming.
The Scriptural examples of faithfulness to God’s calling even in the absence of fruitfulness are numerous and span both the Old and New Testaments. But the one story that caught my attention earlier this morning was the story of Joshua and the fall of Jericho as it is told in Joshua 6:1ff. If you would, please take a few minutes right now and review that story before you continue reading. I promise I’ll be here when you get back . . .

. . . Now that you’re back, I want you to pretend something. I want you to pretend you’re just another Israelite army grunt. A member of the rank-and-file. And you’re on your 4th day of marching around Jericho. You know nothing of God’s promise to Joshua, you’re just following orders. And those orders are beginning to sound pretty . . . well, pretty dang stupid by this time, aren’t they? You have no victory in sight, just what has become the day-to-day grind of marching around in circles. So what are you going to do?
It’d be easy to cut and run. Give old Joshua the finger, pack up your bags, and leave muttering under your breath about the lack of leadership, the questionable battle tactics, and even whether or not God’s promise of a land for Israel was true. What’s more, it would be perfectly logical to do so. It’d be human nature. And you’d probably even convince a few to leave with you.
So why stay? I’m not even going to try and use the “because you’d miss out on the victory in the end!” argument. Remember . . . you’re only on Day 4. There is no victory. So why stay? Why keep at it? Why should anyone keep faithfully working when it’s not producing any fruit?
1) Keep at it because sometimes faithfulness is a matter of character, not convenience. It’s convenient to leave because things aren’t exactly as you dreamed. But character—good character—demands sticking to task even when it seems logical, or easier, or even better to just ditch it. In a culture that absolutely fawns over convenience, character boldly stands out against the status quo.
2) Keep at it because faithfulness is catching, and others are watching. People everywhere are looking for two things: a reason to quit, and a reason to keep going. They want to know if there’s an easier way out, but they also want to have inspiration to keep walking the path. And nothing, N-O-T-H-I-N-G, is as inspiring to watch as a person of unquestionable character sticks faithfully to task. You keep at it, and they’ll be inspired to follow.
3) Keep at it because faithfulness is its own reward. You want praise? You want accolades? You want huge crowds of followers hanging on your every word? Then—and hear this very well—you’re working for the wrong reasons. You’re after glory, not ministry. You want to impress, not to bless. Seek after those things, and you’ll sometimes get them . . . but you’ll be disappointed and disheartened when you don’t. But seek God first, endeavor to be faithful to Him and His calling, and you will always have the reward of knowing a job done faithfully and to the best of your ability.
4) Finally, keep at it because you can. If it was just your strength you had to work from, then when your strength failed so would you. But “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The incomparable, immeasurable grace and mercy of God given to you personally through Jesus Christ carries with it a promise: God will never leave you nor forsake you. He is with you to the very end, through thick and thin, forgiving your shortcomings, loving you as you are, and empowering you to do that which is good in His sight.

You know . . . there’s one more thing yet to add, and that’s this: The “fruit” end of the deal? That’s not your business. Never has been, never will be. It’s natural to want to see fruit grow as a result of your faithful work at what you’ve been called to do. There’s nothing wrong with you if you desire to see people’s lives impacted, to see hearts and minds transformed, to see entire communities and regions and even nations shaped and molded and reborn through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You want to see people changed and grow in Christ. I commend you for that.
BUT . . . the thing about fruitfulness: it’s not your business. It’s God’s. You’re the sower that plants the seed. You’re the farmer that harvests the grain. But the One who causes the seed to grow, who makes the plant shoot forth and bear glorious, wonderful fruit? That’s God . . . and God alone.
Working for God involves what is, for many, a terrifying truth: He births an idea in your mind, a passion in your heart, calls you to work faithfully at that idea and passion . . . and then demands that you leave all the results up to Him. That takes an enormous amount of faith, for He may choose to never grow fruit in others from your work. It takes an enormous amount of trust to work faithfully and still believe that it’s not all in vain. But what I said above is still true: God is with you. In Christ He strengthens you to put your hands and heart into your work, and gives you the faith that can still entrust the results to Him. In Christ, you can be faithful even in the face of a lack of fruit.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Check out my friend Dave's blog post on the recent news story regarding the imminent demise of Christianity in America:


Dave says, "This is why, after all the calamities proclaimed in the articles I linked to yesterday, I am not afraid for the future of the Church. The future of the Church is not dependent or locked in a cause and effect relationship with the culture.The future of the Church is completely dependent on the power of God. And He is able. Exceedingly abundantly able. To do. To do more. To do more than we could ask.To do more than we could ask or imagine."

That deserves a BIG amen. Dave, thanks for the reminder that the Church shall remain according to God's promise and power!

Momentum and the speed at which it can be switched

When I read the big-name church leadership or church transitioning books, one thing that seems to stick out in my mind is the concept of momentum. You know, the concept borrowed from Newtonian physics (there called inertia: “a body in motion tends to stay in motion”) that insists once an organizational structure gets moving down a path it is almost certain to stay on that path. The leadership books then pick up on that and counsel that if you put the church on the right path, it will not only stay on that path but also pick up steam and speed and begin to grow. Something like a snowball rolling down a mountain. They make it sound so easy.
I had a recurring dream as a kid. Well, more of a nightmare, actually, because (for some reason I’ve never understood) it was intense and frightening. That dream was always the same: A dark and shadowy background with me on a rocky ledge. I would push a huge, heavy, tar-like ball. Constantly rolling it slowly over and over and over. My hands would stick into it and threaten to trap me in it. My body would strain against the ball unceasingly but I would accomplish almost nothing. (As an aside: if you’ve seen the movie “The Incredibles” and recall the part where Mr. Incredible is captured by the guns shooting the black, viscous, expanding goo, then you can almost understand my dream. I very nearly freaked out when I saw that.) My dream was the opposite of momentum.
Every church has some form of momentum. But I am recognizing more and more that each church has its own natural speed of momentum, as well. That speed has very little to do with size, a fair bit to do with structure, and a lot to do with the church’s own culture. Simply put, some churches can switch momentum fairly quickly. My friend David likes to brag that his church can “turn on a dime and still give nine cents change”. There’s a church that can speedily switch their momentum and head in a new direction quite quickly! Other churches, like my own, are just as able to switch, but the process is slower, and so every step becomes more obvious to leadership and the congregation as a whole and yes, like my dream, that process can be frightening.
To any pastor, the practicalities of this should be obvious: Genuine change only comes at the maximum speed allowed by the individual church’s culture. Try to make broad, sweeping, fast changes in a slow-momentum church and the church will by its nature not respond to those changes. It will reject them. Not because the changes are bad or unnecessary—in fact, oftentimes the church recognizes the need for the change!—but simply because the culture of the church is not equipped to handle change at that speed. In contrast, implement a five-year plan of slow change in a fast-momentum church, and they will get bored and—you guessed it—reject the change.

One more word for the especially inquisitive and insightful: You’re now asking, “Yes, but can’t I change the culture of the church to switch momentum at a different, more healthy, rate?” The answer is, of course, yes. Even church culture can be shaped and influenced and, over time, the rate at which momentum is switched can be changed. The caveat, however, is that changing the church culture is a slow and deliberate process. I personally think that a good rule of thumb would be to take your church’s normal rate switching momentum and cut it at least in half, probably more.