Monday, June 28, 2010

Advice to Young Leaders #5 of 10 - Woo Your City

This is the fifth post of ten in my series of advice for younger leaders. Here's the working list:

5. Woo your city.
6. Decide whom you will offend before offending them.
7. Get serious about a hobby.
8. Influence.
9. Be part of your own church.
10. Don't let people need you too much.

Advice #5: Woo your city.

87% of Americans now live in a city or suburb. God still calls people to rural areas, but this post will focus on the roughly 9 out of 10 of us who live in a metropolitan area. Your city is is your first mission field.

At the beginning of this series I wrote about the fact that all Christians are ministers. Here is another, similar truth: all Christians are missionaries. You were sent by God to your city because God wants you to be there so that you can proclaim the availability of the Kingdom of God to her people. Some of us never left the city where we were born. There is a Biblical pattern of God calling people to stay in their city and love their own people. (I think of James the brother of Jesus who stayed in Jerusalem as the other apostles spread through the ancient world.) Some people are called to leave home and go to a city or people far away. Some of us are more like Paul - on the move every few years to new cities. Some are like Thomas, who according to church tradition left Judea and went farther than any of the other apostles - all the way to India, staying there.

Regardless, most of us live in a city right now. I live in Cincinnati. It is my first and primary mission field. I lived in Las Vegas for exactly ten years, longer than I have lived in any other city. Las Vegas was my first home - my first love. I used to get choked up when flying home into the airport at night and seeing the lights of the Strip. (I still get a little weepy when I see her on TV.) I knew every street and alleyway in that city. I knew her people. I became a Las Vegan. I loved Las Vegas. I miss her.

I accepted a missionary transfer to Southern California in 2005. I loved LA/OC for different reasons. It was only 300 miles from Las Vegas, but the people and culture were different. They were more diverse. I lived in a neighborhood that looked like the United Nations. My son was one of only four or five kids in his kindergarten class who spoke English as their first language. I lived a few miles from Kobe Bryant in Newport Beach and a few miles from the gangs of Santa Anna. I loved California, too. I miss it.

Then came the next transfer. It was a completely unexpected call to the most unpredictable mission field of all: Home. I was born a few hours from Cincinnati in Ashland, Kentucky. I grew up 100 miles north in Columbus. I spent four really great years in Cincinnati in college. I never, ever thought I would be back when I pulled that tiny Ryder truck out of my Price Hill apartment complex in 1995 with my smokin' hot twenty-one year old wife and a pocket full of dreams. Now I'm back...and I get to love Cincinnati again. To dream for her. To pursue her and fantasize about her.  To fall in love all over again.

I think the best leaders in a city are the ones who have fallen head over heels in love with their city. I see it more akin to a romance than anything else. For me, Las Vegas was sexy. She was easy for me to love at first. Then I saw her underbelly and her true nature. I had to fight through the reality that she was a very abused and abusive city who needed my constant love and forgiveness.

Cincinnati, at first glance, is a little rusty. Historians will tell you that she peaked 100 years ago. She needs a facelift in places, but the more you get to know her to more you love her. She has many hidden jewels. She has a future. God is going to breathe life into the dead places and bring healing to the generational wounds. I don't know if I am going to be in Cincinnati for the rest of my life, but it is a very real possibility. God called me here. My story is now embedded in the story of my city. I am  now a Cincinnatian who loves Cincinnati.

I think that as evangelicals, we tend to understand the idea that God loves people. He pursues them and wants to love them, forgive them and be a loving Father to them. We get that God loves people as individuals. But, I worry that - at least historically - the evangelical movement hasn't fully understood how much God loves cities. I think of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, longing for her to allow herself to be loved by him. I think of Paul's prayer walk through Athens before his speech at Mars Hill. I think of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation. I find it interesting that Jesus would give prophetic blessings and warnings to cities and not to individuals. It makes me believe that God loves cities. He loves your city so much that he sent you there to proclaim the Kingdom and live within the reality of his coming reign there. He wants to redeem your city - to turn all of the emptiness and pain and violence around. As others have cleverly noted before me, the story of God begins in a beautiful garden but it ends in a beautiful city - the "new Jerusalem" where God himself is the King of the new perfect city made of equal parts heaven and earth.

Maybe you find yourself in a city you don't love...or one you don't even really know. Your job is simple...pursue her. It's not much different than when you first noticed that cute girl in Algebra class on the first day of school. If you had any game, you pursued her all year long. (I didn't have much, but I watched other people do this quite effectively.) You wrote her notes or strategically lingered by her locker between classes. You noticed when she said that she loves Skittles and happened to show up with some the next day. You wooed her. You got to know her so that you could someday earn the chance to love her.

Woo your city. Pursue her like the girl (or guy) of your dreams.  If you aren't that into her yet, read Hosea and ask God to turn your heart to her. Weep for her. Pray for her. Serve her. Forgive her. Help her. Tirelessly pursue her heart everyday. Woo her. You're a missionary.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Advice to Young Leaders #4 of 10 - Preach the Right Gospel

This is the fourth post of ten in my series of advice for younger leaders. Here's the working list:

4. Make sure you are preaching the right gospel.
5. Woo your city.
6. Decide whom you will offend before offending them.
7. Get serious about a hobby.
8. Influence.
9. Be part of your own church.
10. Don't let people need you too much.

Advice #4: Make sure you are preaching the right gospel.

I hope that this has and will be a very practical series for those of you following along. I can tend to live in the world of philosophy and theology more than day-to-day reality. This series is forcing me to communicate how my beliefs have actually worked into the fabric of my life. For that, it has been an unexpected personally rewarding exercise.

This bit of advice, though, is squarely theological: you should fully know the gospel you are preaching. I spent my early years in ministry assuming that I understood the gospel of Jesus, but I can confidently say that I did not. At best, I knew the gospel partially. That is a rather remarkable statement considering my life story. My family was converted to an evangelical church when I was eight years old. I grew up never missing a church service. My early childhood memories revolve around church. I can clearly remember the first time that I heard the stories of the patriarchs in Sunday School as a second grader. I was enthralled. I had a quick mind as a child and memorized Scriptures easily. As I grew up, I found greater community and acceptance at church than in middle and high school, so I practically lived at the church. I became a student leader in my youth group and was allowed to even teach Bible classes and sermons to the adults from time to time. I had entire books of the Bible memorized by the time I was 15 years old.

It only made sense for me to go to Bible College and pursue vocational ministry. I went to Cincinnati Christian University and began my studies there. At the time they had every incoming student take a Bible trivia test to get a handle on their knowledge. They had us take the same test after graduation to see how much we had learned in our time there. A faculty advisor pulled me aside after I took test as a freshman to tell me that I had scored the second highest marks of anyone since they had started administering the test. Basically, I knew a lot of Bible stuff before I officially started learning Bible stuff. You'd think that a kid like me would have clearly understood the gospel of Jesus...but I was relatively clueless. (For the record, after four years of college I actually dropped two points on the trivia test. That might have been a positive sign, though.)

I graduated with honors and went off to work as a pastor and church planter in Sin City. I hit the ground running - preaching 50 plus "sermons" per year my first three years in ministry. Despite all my "knowledge" and my near prodigy status as a pastor, I was more or less preaching the exact same gospel that I remembered hearing when I was eight years old. My gospel went something like this: "Every individual is a sinner bound for hell. Jesus died for your sins. Repent and give your life to God so that you can go to heaven when you die."

You have no doubt heard that gospel. The problem with it is not so much that it is a false gospel. The problem with it - according to the testimony of Jesus and his disciples - is that it isn't the whole gospel, or even the main point of Jesus' message. Individual eternal bliss and/or damnation is to the gospel what a celebration parade is to the Lakers or Yankees. It's a small ultimate experience of a much greater, broader reality.

I have written about this here time and time again, so I won't go into deeply now. But the gospel of Jesus is the gospel of the Kingdom. The good news is the Kingdom. The good news is not simply that there is now a solution to your personal individual sin problem. That's like saying this coming October, "Good news! The Cincinnati Reds are having a parade!" Well, it is good news I suppose. Parades can be fun. However, the really good news would be that the Reds are World Series Champions. The result would be a parade to celebrate the reality of a championship season. The reality is that a championship has come. For Christians, the reality is that the Kingdom has come. Your afterlife is a significant, happy result of the Kingdom come. Not the other way around.

So why is this such a big deal? Isn't it just semantics? I don't think so. A gospel without Kingdom centrality leads to a highly individualized, human-centered gospel...which leads to a highly individualized, human-centered church or ministry. A gospel that is all about you (your sin) will remain all about you (your happiness). If you find yourself in situations where you are teaching others, always teach the Kingdom. Don't teach anything that cannot submit to the grid of the Kingdom. Show your people what it looks like when God reigns on planet earth. Teach the selfish to pray, "thy Kingdom come" until they really mean it. As a student, devote yourself tireless to understanding and experiencing the reality of the Kingdom of God. If, like me, you had previously accepted a human-centered gospel, then repent and run with passion toward a gospel rooted in the the good news of the coming Kingdom of the Trinitarian God.

I found an email in my inbox this morning from a government employee who recently attended an event at our church. Last night we hosted a party for 1,000 adults with special needs in our city. We do this a few times per year. The idea came from the heart of one our pastors, Harmony Hensley. Harmony is a leader who understands the gospel of the Kingdom and desires more than anything for the Kigndom to come to those who are forgotten and unloved by the Kingdom of this world. I have removed the person's name and agency below, but I wanted to close this point with one example of what happens when the gospel we preach isn't about us...but about God and his desire to reign in our city:

I cannot thank you enough for the extraordinary ways you go overboard to demonstrate genuine respect and dignity towards individuals with disabilities through events like last night’s Luau.

We had 30 staff at the Luau last night to help and we could have had 60. I was turning them away up to the last minute because we had all of the roles filled. And then I was shocked at the hard-core, seasoned staff who were moved to tears watching people they’ve supported for years having the time of their lives side by side with “typical” junior high and high school students. It is the stuff of our dreams. I had to hold tight to my professional face myself more than once.

We feel like we have fought long and hard to have people with disabilities respected and accepted by society with limited success, and what you all at VCC are doing has already surpassed our efforts by light years. So, thank you, even though those simple two words do not even begin to express the depth of our gratitude.

In my opinion this is one answer to the prayer, "...thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven..." 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Advice to Young Leaders #3 of 10 - Tricky Big Dreams

Advice #3 - Big Dreams are a Tricky Thing

I am a dreamer. I love to imagine what could be. I'm almost always involved in a few projects or ideas that could blow up into something unprecedented. I'm wired to go for big things. What's the point of all this otherwise, right?

But I am also a realist. (Some might say I am a pessimist, but I don' t see it that way.) Most people's big dreams simply don't happen. For every Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods there are a million people who wanted their dream just as bad and ended up flipping burgers or selling used cars. (Plus those guys have had some pretty dark areas of life to wander through themselves. Achieving your dreams normally has nothing to do with the core issues of life. Not to pile on those guys, but we see it time and time again with our heros.)

So I live in this tension. I believe in dreaming big...and I also believe that, through no fault of my own, my big dreams may not be realized. This is enough tension to deal with on its own. Then you mix in all the faith stuff and it gets even more confusing. You may say, "but my big dreams are God-sized dreams or God-given dreams." That may be true. I fully believe that God gives us dreams that are otherwise impossible to attain apart from his intervention. I also believe that he sometimes gives us those dreams knowing that they will not become a reality. Here's a hunch I have that I can't even misappropriate a Bible verse to prove: God uses your dreams to get you to places where you would not otherwise go, but most of the time he isn't all that concerned about the dream itself.

Follow my own story:

Age 22: I had the dream of starting a church for my generation that would attract seekers and grow huge - influencing the entire world for the gospel. That's a God-sized dream for sure. And I believe it was God-given as well. It also had a ton of youthful ego and naivete worked into it. That dream lead me to Las Vegas. It started to become a reality...but before I knew it God changed my big dream.

Age 27: I started to question "church" as I knew it. I rejected the attraction model that was actually working quite well and went toward an ecclesiology that was more relational and organic. My new big dream was to see a simple church (a group of people on a mission who love God and each other) within walking distance of every person in America, starting with Las Vegas. This dream felt more real than the first one. It felt more humble in some ways - more about God and less about me. And as I pursued it, it began to happen in small ways until I decided to leave vocational ministry. I saw the very fact that I was getting paid by the church as a hindrance to the vision becoming a reality. So I quit for the sake of the dream.

Age 29: By my 30th birthday I had lost my life savings, my job and some friends. It wasn't a great time. But through a strange series of events I had a new big dream. I wanted to become a legitimate professional actor and screenwriter in Hollywood while still pursuing the dream detailed above (at age 27). And, then again, it started to happen...I worked for nearly three years in Las Vegas as a professional actor. My family moved to LA and I pursued my dream with all I had. God seemed to be in it. "Finally," I thought...he was going to make sense of it all.

Age 34: Then I was ambushed by a curveball dream. I was suddenly face to face with a new/old dream that had resurrected itself in a new way. I began secretly dreaming about being a pastor again. How would I do it differently? What sort of church could I help to lead that wouldn't drive me totally crazy and vice versa? And then in a matter of two months I was called to move back to Cincinnati and work with The Vineyard. Compared to the other incidents that seemed to meander over years, this one was a violent shocking change - beautifully scary and obviously divine. God gave me the dream of loving a church again and being rooted in a community. He also gave me the dream of creating a mosaic of my past dreams - what if I could do a little bit of everything all at once? That's where I am today - pastoring, leading a church, launching simple churches, acting, writing, producing. I'm in the middle of living my latest dream. But it isn't at all the dream I had at first (or at second or at third)....and I cannot say it will be the last dream I will ever have. I will say that if I had never had the any of previous dreams there is no way that I would have had ears to hear God's calling to VCC. It is all connected. It is how God has made me who am and brought me to where I am.

I have big dreams these days too. I want to see the Vineyard grow deeper and wider. I want to see our artists at VCC make movies that will stand alone in the film industry and change the landscape of American culture. I want to live in a Cincinnati that is no longer carrying the curse of "Rust Belt," but has a new forward-looking identity. I dream big, huge unimaginable things for my church and my city. I believe my dreams are God-sized and God-given. And I know full well that in ten years I might be a ranch hand in Idaho. God will do what he wants. He will use my dreams to direct me where he wants me to be.

So this particular bit of advice is rather oxymoronic: Dream huge God-shaped dreams, but be prepared to accept that they may not be realized. God cares more about you and your city than he does your dreams. But he cares about your dreams because he cares about you. Hold your big dreams loosely, but don't let them go. Love them, but not too much. Know them down to the slightest detail, but be willing to trade them in a nanosecond when God says, "It's time to move on."

My next post in this series will deal with the gospel. I preached the wrong gospel for the first five years of my ministry. I'd hate for you to make the same mistake.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Advice to Young Leaders #2 of 10 - Career vs. Calling

Advice #2: It's a calling, not a career.

Here is how vocational ministry works in my mind:

1. Every Christian is a minister. Period. End of story. A minister, by definition, is a servant or a slave. We are ministers to God and the church. I am no more or less of a minister than any other Christian in my church. When I was not receiving a paycheck from a church, I was still a minister.

2. Some ministers become leaders. In the Kingdom, leaders are those who serve other people the most. If you continually serve God and the church as a minister, you will eventually become a leader - a person of influence within a Kingdom community. Some leaders are given official leadership positions and some are not. (And some people who are not leaders are given leadership positions in our flawed systems.) But the truth is that if you are serving and influencing the people you serve, then you are a leader.

3. All ministers (and leaders) have special gifts given by the Holy Spirit for the building up of their local community of faith. Some of us were created to teach or organize or pastor or faithfully pray or whatever else. Ideally, ministers serve primarily in their areas of giftedness. (Though like in any family, we all do things we aren't great at if a need arises.) The idea is that within the church, it is normal for Christians (ministers) to serve within the areas of giftedness and passion.

4. Every Christian is called by God to a local church. I should say that I believe this to be true most of the time. There may be seasons in your life where God has you between churches, but the normal way things work is that Jesus builds his church by sending ministers to a local body. Sometimes he sends new converts to a body who bring special gifts needed for the church. Sometimes he sends Christians from other churches to build up another one that is struggling in some area. In the book of Acts, this was done purposefully and always under the apostolic mission and guidance of the Spirit. Every Christian is sent by a church to a church to serve the church.

5. In a church (or a system of churches) it may become obvious that certain ministers need more time to perform their "calling" or function within the body of a local church or within the larger community of churches. This may result in that minister leaving their career to accept a paid position within the church. Maybe a church grows to a point where a teacher is needed more than a few hours a week. Or maybe an administrative leader is needed to spend 40 hours/week to organize the rest of the volunteers in a local church. Or perhaps a church has someone who is called to start a new church or go to a new area of the world, but needs to devote as much of their life as possible to the task. When this happens, it is Biblical for the other ministers in the church to financially support one of their own so that the supported one may focus more time on their joint ministry. In many ways, this is how Jesus, Peter and Paul survived for seasons of their lives. They were supported by others within their community in order to give full attention to the spread of the gospel.

6. When a minister accepts this gift from his or her church, he or she accepts a wonderful gift, but also a weighty responsibility. The minister truly works "for" the church in the sense that the church financially sacrifices because they are a better witness to the world when that particular minister is free to serve more hours per week. In accepting the support, the minister (in my opinion) should not see this new "job" as a career, but rather as a calling to fulfill. (Literally, this minister has been "called out" from and by her own church for a specific task.) Jesus was a carpenter. Peter was a fisherman. Paul was a tentmaker and a lawyer. They already had their careers. They sacrificed their careers to accept their calling. Success is measured differently for a calling than for a career. A minister should be willing to sacrifice their career before accepting a full-time calling.

7. A specific calling is rarely for a lifetime. A financially supported minister should always be willing to lay down their position (and paycheck) if God ends their particular calling. Ministry isn't a career. God didn't create the church to pay your bills. If you are currently supported by a church or para-church or denomination, then you should feel no guilt receiving your salary. God has you there for a reason...but he also tends to like moving parts. He is the great strategist moving his chess pieces around the board as he sees fit. He may have someone else who, for the sake of the Kingdom, needs to receive the dollars you are receiving now. Or he may have something else for you to do in the years to come outside of vocational ministry. Remember, you will always be a minister. If you serve, you will always be a leader. Getting the paycheck only means that the church sending/supporting you sees unlimited access to your specific gifts, talents and temperament as crucial to their particular mission.

I am unique among many of my friends in that I have lived within all of the options within vocational ministry. I've been in full-time vocational ministry, part-time bi-vocational ministry and "volunteer" ministry while working within my career. I have lived within each of the realities for at least three years over the last 15 years. Each has its own joys and struggles, but I thank God that he has allowed me to experience them all. If you are a younger leader hoping to work full-time for a church or mission organization, I would encourage you to also immediately devote yourself to a career other than ministry. You may never need to use it, but you probably will want to at some point. Having a career makes you normal. Not having one makes you a professional religious person...a real career is a missional necessity except for the rarest of disciples.

Of course, I didn't really believe any of this when I was younger. When I graduated from Cincinnati Bible College I intended to be a pastor and church planter for my entire life. And when I said that, I meant that it would be a career. I felt like a failure when I took my first job outside of the church. I felt like I should have been able to make "ministry" work. I felt like I had less faith because I had to take a job outside of the church to support my family. This is all a symbol of how broken my understanding of ministry was. Looking back on it, my three years working in Las Vegas as a performer were some of the best ministry years of my least in terms of relational impact with many people who did not self-identify as Christians. From there I moved to southern California and worked ten hours/week for a great church in Costa Mesa. It was hard to manage at times with my new focus on my career. But overall, it was beautiful to have a foot in both of my worlds. Now I am a full-time minister again. I understand why the position God has called me to at The Vineyard demands full-time attention. The great irony is that my current job was my dream job when I viewed church work as my career in my twenties. Now that I see it as a calling, it is just humbling. I accept that God has given me influence here. I don't know why he has chosen to have me here at this time, but it is my calling. And a calling is a bigger deal than a career. Always.

Here are some parting thoughts on this topic:

1. If you are currently in or pursuing church work as a career, please schedule a time this summer to seriously consider your motives. Be fearless. Go on a three day solitude retreat and ask God how he views your ministry. Deal with your pride issues that make you want to be known as somebody within the church. Deal with your fear issues that make you feel like you can't do anything else for a living. I have met many of the "famous" pastors and church leaders out there and they come in two categories for the most part - the "successful" ones who seem desperately egomaniacal. And the truly humble ones who have never forgotten that they are, first and foremost, a minister - a servant leader. You want to be the me.

2. If you are a "volunteer" minister, you are a 100%-as-real-as-it-gets Christian minister. You don't need a paycheck or a title or a position on an org chart. Serve with all your heart and support those paid ministers in your church who serve along side you.

3. If you aren't sure what church you are called to serve, throw yourself fully into the one where you are now. Callings are a tricky thing to discern sometimes. My last one was obvious, but others have been more trial and error. Callings are a reality more than a feeling - like being married or being a parent. I am always both whether I wake up feeling like a husband and father or not. I am called to teach, pastor and tell creative stories with The Vineyard in Cincinnati right now. That's my daily reality regardless of what I do or do not feel like today. It is also true regardless of how much I agree or disagree with the rest of the leadership on any particular topic. I genuinely like VCC, but even if I didn't, that wouldn't matter either. Sometimes we are called to a church we don't like very much. How else is God to change a church (or change you) if he never puts us in places where we feel a little uncomfortable?

I'd like to devote my next post in this series to the idea of "dreaming big." I do it. I love having big dreams. But I also have learned that God doesn't always give us our big dreams. Sometimes he prefers to give us something different than our dreams. Stay tuned...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Advice to Young Christian Leaders #1 of 10

Over the next few weeks I will be writing a ten-part series addressed to younger church leaders. It will include some of the things that I wish people had told me when I started vocational ministry 15 years ago. (I should say that I was probably told these things when I was younger and simply didn't listen.) I tend to not be very didactic on this blog. I am much more comfortable processing aloud with you than assuming the position of an expert. I am not an expert on these matters, but I have spent a decade and a half living a unique life with various expressions of paid and non-paid Christian ministry. It feels like a good time to talk about my learnings.

Once we get into this, my list might grow beyond these, but here are ten things I would want all young leaders to know. I'll list them for you here and then dedicate a post to each one this summer:

1. Prepare to struggle.

2. It's a calling, not a career.

3. Big dreams are a tricky thing.

4. Make sure you are preaching the right gospel.

5. Woo your city.

6. Decide whom you will offend before offending them.

7. Get serious about a hobby.

8. Influence.

9. Be part of your own church.

10. Don't let people need you too much.

Advice to Young Christian Leaders #1: Prepare to Struggle

This was a daunting list to create. It was especially difficult to know what to write about first. I really wanted to start off with a nice dose of positivity, but I am not sure that would be the most honest place for me to begin this discussion. From my perspective ministry has been, more than anything else, a marathonic struggle. That doesn't mean it hasn't had amazing moments of joy and fulfillment. It has very much so. But I have also wanted to give up time and time again. Sometimes it has been hard to pay the bills. Sometimes it has just been good old fashioned hard work. I can deal with those hardships when they come. For me, the real hardship is that ministry is consistently emotionally overwhelming. Everyone is different, but my "cross to bear" is a constant unshakable heaviness and sense of ineptitude that can be paralyzing. It is a struggle sometimes to simply continue. We will talk more about this in the next post, but ministry as a career choice is a death wish. It has to be a calling or it will end very badly. The calling is what sustains me.

I have noticed that people either young in years (in their twenties) or young in their faith (newer Christians) have an amazing amount of energy to devote to serving the church. I think this is a gift from God. Embrace it. Go for it! But just know that you will someday grow tired. Right now you probably see being tired as a weakness. You think that you have enough faith, love, and determination to push through any future season of exhaustion. "It is, after all, a life and death struggle we are in," you say to yourself. "I have to keep going."

But someday you will simply not have the willpower to push through. If you are like me, you will wake up one morning and question everything. The people your ministry was changing for the better will revert back to being the same hot messes they were when you met them. Your partners in ministry will give up or move onto a "better" opportunity or simply emotionally shut down. Your mentor or hero will be suddenly exposed as an utterly flawed human being. God himself will seemingly fail you. He won't necessarily reward your sacrifices the way you thought he should. You may even question his character...or even his existence. You will see all of your previous efforts and sacrifices as either misguided or meaningless. This day must come. This is the day when God truly invites you to share with him in his way of ministry. For some of you the day will come quickly - mine did. I was "burnt out" in my mid-twenties. For some it will come later. But it will come.

Think for a split second about Jesus. His ministry was a roller coaster of "success" and "failure." After three full years of ministry he had grown his church from 12 to 11 people. Then he was murdered. Ministry is a daily reminder of The Cross. The Cross will begin to loom over your life as a daily shadow - a future reality to bear - not just some bit of ancient history that set you free centuries ago. Your cross is coming. So, like Jesus, set your face like flint to Jerusalem and embrace the journey of The Cross.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the transformation of Jacob to Israel. Jacob means “deceiver.” Jacob was not a good guy. He was a jerk and a con artist, but God loved him and pursued him. The story goes that Jacob met an angel and wrestled with him all night long. Jacob refused to let go until the angel blessed him. The angel touched Jacob’s hip and wounded him. Then he changed his name to Israel, which means “struggles with God and man but overcomes.” Jacob walked with a limp the rest of his life, but he was a transformed man and a different kind of leader. There is no transformation to Israel without the struggle of Jacob. I firmly believe that every follower of God has to struggle through  his or her own wrestling match and overcome. You can recognize us ex-wrestlers by our limps.

My earliest ministries were quickly successful. Then a time of struggle came. I learned more in the struggles than in the successes. At this time in my life many might say that I am "successful" again. To be completely honest, I never ever think about that. I don't care if I am or am not successful in anyone's opinion, including my own. I had to learn to think that way when I was a failure. God loved me then. He loves me now. If God calls me to "fail" again, I will follow him. It is all about him and what he wants.

You're only real job is to be faithful. Being a leader doesn't mean that you stop asking hard questions about God and life. It means you ask more of them. Being a real leader means embracing the struggle. And the best leaders in my life have been the ones who have been brave enough to struggle in front of me...and allow me to struggle with them. This is why Jesus invited his disciples to the garden to weep with him. I have a theory that you aren't really someone's disciple until they have wept with you.

I hope this little experiment of mine proves helpful to some of you. My next post will deal with an issue that is rarely discussed. I will explain why viewing vocational ministry as a career is a sure recipe for disaster.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Fox 19 Interview

Here's a piece on my book from the local Fox affiliate from this morning. It mentions the two upcoming book signings, including tomorrow's at Joseph Beth Booksellers in Oakley.

The Power of Practice

I started running about two years ago. I had no real training or equipment. I still don't have the right shoes or a fancy GPS system that tells me my route and heart rate. I don't subscribe to Runner's World. I don't have much of a desire to run a competitive 10K or anything like that. Much like Forrest Gump, I just started running and running and running. And I accidentally became a runner.

Last night I ran farther than I ever have before - just under 8 miles. I had been running about 4 or 5 miles lately and just decided to go longer. It wasn't hard. I just did it. Because I have been doing it for a while, it was relatively easy. I thought back to my first few runs around my neighborhood two years ago. I couldn't run a half mile without walking. I can remember when I first ran one mile without stopping. It was a big accomplishment.

Lately I have wondered how many other things I could just start doing. Maybe if I picked up a harmonica or a unicycle or whatever I would be able to use them in a few years. Maybe I could do both at once...then we'd be onto something.

Or maybe if I practiced patience or kindness or self-control everyday it would be easier to be the sort of person I want to be. Practice and repetition are powerful things. They can transform you from a guy who can't run a half mile into a guy who can easily run a quarter marathon. I accidentally became a runner. It just makes me wonder what else I could accidentally become if I just started practicing.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Narrative Christianity

I have started working on what may become my next book. I've wanted for a long time to rather clearly and methodically spell out my understanding of the gospel. For now at least, I'm calling the book Narrative Christianity. I'd like to share some early thoughts with you today because they also tie into the new series called "Go" that we are launching this weekend at The Vineyard. This weekend I will be telling the story of God from beginning to end. I'm very excited about here's a sneak peak of my early thoughts from Narrative Christianity:

I want to change the world. I’m obviously not alone. Protestors, politicians, pastors, parents and beauty pageant contestants – we all love to talk about changing the world. Just stick a microphone in front of one of us and we’ll gladly poetically drone about change and hope and the power of possibility.

Except for a few fringe extremists, everyone I know genuinely desires world peace. We want to see the hungry fed, the endangered children saved and the abandoned elderly dignified. It isn’t too hard for us to imagine a better world without slave traders, child abusers and hate mongers. We want love and respect to replace racism and selfishness. We want the world to change. Most of us are even willing to change it. The only problem is that we simply don’t know how to do it.

As a result, some of us have decided to become more political. But is government – any government - going to change the world? Are we to believe that we are only a few well-crafted pieces of legislation or a new messianic leader away from heaven on earth? Throughout the entire human experiment, how have the governments of the world succeeded in bringing peace or preventing poverty or creating selfless people? Not very well at all. History unveils a clear, stark realization: we can’t govern ourselves well enough to save ourselves from ourselves.

But at least we can trust education to rescue us, right? We just need better teachers, better facilities, and better academic standards. If there is anything that G.I. Joe cartoons taught my generation it is that, “knowing is half the battle.” Surely a more educated society could find a way to analyze, theorize and organize us out of this predicament. Of course, the irony is that we already live in the most educated society to inhabit the earth. We are the wiki-generation toting around the entirety of collected human knowledge in our iphones and Blackberry’s. Yet, remarkably, the world remains as broken as ever.

Once we dismiss government and education as the hope for all humanity, we easily find ourselves romantically sentimental for the “good ole days.” After all, isn’t it really a simple matter of right living – of being good people? If we could return to those happy days and rediscover that Utopian Judeo-Christian America, then everything would be better: God fearing. Church going. Value loving. Praying before meals. Marriage before sex. Nation before self. Returning to our Leave It To Beaver roots has to be the way to change the world, right? Possibly for the Cleavers among us, but my African American friends might disagree. We tend to forget that the “good ole days” were hell on earth for some of us.

Or maybe, in contrast, the post-modern existentialists have it right.  Maybe it’s really just about you finding the courage and freedom to be you.  Simply embrace your inner journey to discover who God made you to be. Claim your freedom and don’t judge others. Live and let live. Don’t impose. After all, nothing says “change the world” quite like a liberal dose of extreme tolerance.

Maybe you are like me. You’ve spent a good chunk of your limited life on this planet trying to change things. And maybe you have discovered what I have. Namely, that you can’t change the world by being political or piling up PhD’s. You can’t change the world by being religious or trying harder to be a better person. You can’t change the world by finding your deepest inner calling. Not by getting rich or gaining power or becoming famous. You can’t change the world “one person at a time.” (It sounds good, but it takes way too long.) And you can’t change the world by being a Christian.

Because you can’t change the world at all.

You aren’t that good…or talented or influential or intelligent. I hate to pile on like this, but somebody needs to say it: you and I are not the hope of the world. Somebody bigger, better and smarter than us needs to take over this sorry operation if change is going to come.

The Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich was once asked, “What is the most revolutionary way to change society: Is it violent revolution or is it gradual reform?” He gave a careful answer: “Neither. If you want to change society, then you must tell an alternative story.

There is an alternative story. And it isn’t about you. It is about a living, eternal one-and-only creative Being. His name is unpronounceable, but when pressed He asks us to call him “I Am” or “The One Who Is.” His name is I Am, because before you were…He is.

We think that our personal individual stories are significant - that they really matter. But compared to the story of this I Am, your story is laughably short and insignificant. You are the fruit fly – born to die on the same day. He is everything. You are next to nothing. But here’s the game changer: He made you. Therefore, He – get this – loves you. More accurately, he loves all of us. If you are a parent, then you know his kind of love. The love you have for your children is a diluted carbon copy of the way He loves you. He created parents to love their kids so that they could better understand how He loves us.

He loves us so much that He invites us to abandon our lonely pitiful stories to join his better one. At some point, each of us must answer this foundational question: Do you want to continue starring in your own torturously bad amateur one-act play or would you rather exchange that part for a better role in the single greatest story ever written? That is the alternative story. Countless people throughout history have traded their story for a better one. To put it in the words of Jesus, they “took up their cross” or “became least” or “died in order to gain their life.” By surrendering your story to the one-and-only I Am, you are introduced anew into the next chapter of his masterpiece. And you aren’t the first to do so. The alternative story is as old as time...