In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 Paul writes,
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Over the last six months the desire to share Christ’s power found in our own weakness has been transformational for me. At the Port Orange Church of Christ we present ourselves as “A Church for Messed Up People.” This is a key factor in engaging with people who don’t attend a church. Even those who aren’t even looking for a church resonate with how we have begun to view ourselves. We are not saying our church family is designed to meet the needs of people society deems “messed up.” We are saying that WE (the Christians who gather at Port Orange) are messed up. We are having victory as Jesus leads us through our weakness.
Viewing ourselves in this way has made us aware of issues with how we have traditionally done things. One of those areas is involvement. When someone decides to serve a local congregation they typically identify areas they would like to serve that match their strengths. While this is a great way to plug people in the problem is that as they mature in Christ this approach may limit their ability to experience God’s perfect power. I have recognized over the years that God has gifted me in areas of relational reconciliation, sales, motivating others, and story-telling. It hasn’t mattered if I was living in rebellion, working for a brokerage firm, coaching, or as an Athletic Director, those skills have always been present. Now there is no doubt I have experienced God by serving him in those areas, but I know in the back of my mind that I am good at those things. The result is being forced to battle pride.
A second weakness I have also found with this approach is that for me creates a tendency to appear strong even when I am privately struggling. Or not asking for help as quickly as I should when I am struggling. I have an incredible accountability network, but it seems like I lacked congruency with being my authentic self and what I projected at church. Now I have always been very transparent about my past but I have not always been honest about my present.
I used to follow the model where, if I focus on my strengths enough, then my weaknesses would become diminished as the Holy Spirit transforms me. As if my strengths would become so developed through God’s power that my weaknesses would be more than compensated for. I have seen player development that follows this model in athletics. If an athlete has a weak spot in their game, they focus on perfecting what they are naturally good at. By developing those areas as a priority, their weaknesses become diminished by comparison to their strengths. Now a part of that process is spending a small amount of time addressing the athletes weaknesses but only to the point where they are no longer a hindrance to the players strengths. So the coach accepts and accommodates that player and puts him in a position that covers his weaknesses. As a result, a player’s weaknesses and strengths can coincide without much detriment.
We know that this is not the case with sin. It doesn’t matter how productive you are for the kingdom, you cannot ignore your consistent struggles. Even though we are intentional about walking in the light, those sins will eventually emerge. It seems to me that once Paul discovered that Jesus’ power is made perfect in weakness, he immediately shifts to his weaknesses as his primary power source for ministry. He writes his new paradigm, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” A statement that I have always taken to mean that if we are dependent on Jesus, we will have his strength. Much like an athlete accepting and acknowledging that he needs the coach. That is a good and true statement, but my recent experiences from looking at this passage again have transformed the way I experience God, the way I approach people in our community, and the way I view my weaknesses. The fruit has been undeniable which has reinforced this theory.
Staying with our athlete analogy, I would never consider drafting a player for his other weakness. I wouldn’t list my greatest struggles first on a resume. If anything we do the opposite. We inflate our strengths. This way of viewing this had carried over to the way I talk to people about our church family. I would say we are a place for messed up people. I would tell them about my recovery from addiction to defuse any negative comments about churches being filled with hypocrites. But beyond that, I would share things that I thought revealed that we are a great church because of the things we are so great at. Given the unique nature of our congregation and where we meet (in a school), I would name careers of members in our congregation, money saved, etc..due to an inferiority complex about us not being a “real church” and overcompensating.
This approach didn’t yield very much growth for me or our church family. Since there is nothing about our congregation that would attract anyone outside of the Church of Christ, I did an inventory of the local seekers that have visited and continued visiting. The entry points for 8 of the 12 were directly through personal weakness. Not in them, but in me. One couple contacted Amber after hearing our story on the radio. Her husband had the same issues as me and they have been coming at least 3 out of 4 Sundays for over a year. The other is a neighbor whose kids would come over and play, but their father never wanted to talk about church. Eventually I decided to go and ask him if he could help me get back in shape (he is the neighbor who cant wait to take off his shirt picking weeds. Ripped at 44). Asking him was so hard due to my pride and my body was now 39 % body fat per the doc. He was willing and I joined his gym. Within 5 months his family decided to visit. Now they are regulars when they don’t have a conflict.
Was it my vulnerability/weakness that opened the door…that I asked him to be the teacher first, so God could shape is view of me and allow his word to gain credibility through our interactions?
After realizing that, one of my mentors was led to revisit 2 Cor 12:9-10. Could it be that I have denied myself greater access to Jesus’ perfect power? What would happen if I began praying that God would use my deepest shame? The fact that I didn’t use to be an addict, I am an addict and deal with the impulse to use every day. That shift is huge, even for people who are closest to me. It makes things so much easier and people feel so much safer if I allow everyone to think I am “cured.” Not that I ever said that, but it was absolutely implied and I never protested. So as I decided to be more aggressive regarding what I considered my greatest shame I began to attend NA and AA meetings. The opportunity came up for me to share something I heard in an AA meeting during Bible class. I revealed that I start my day with AA meetings at least 4 days a week. I do it because I want to address my greatest struggle head on. As my wife asked, “What are you willing to do to make sure you never have a relapse?” The truth was that until 6 months ago I had accepted the impulse would always be present which did create anxiety, doubt, and fear within myself. So I began to focus on accepting that I am an Addict, not someone who got addicted to drugs several years ago.
From that point until now the fruit in my life and our church family has been nothing short of amazing. Almost 70% of the community contacts I have are now through my addiction in one way or another. Relationships with strangers have been accelerated by attending meetings that address my struggles. And amazingly we’ve already had 42 people that we consider to be in our “Seeker” category (individuals who are local, are not affiliated with any Church of Christ, and have been coming at least 2 out of every 4 weeks) the last 6 months. This is after having 2 families in that category the previous 18 months.
We have made a lot of other changes too, but operating through this approach allows me to have dialogue that shifts power to them. Now I thank them for encouraging us. They are serving by coming and it is our job to make them feel welcome, not their job to earn our welcome. By communicating personally that we are so thankful they came, they seem to become more invested and don’t feel like they are being judged. I could go on and on but this change has altered my relationship with God, myself, marriage, personal life, and has begun to take hold within our church family. One example is college student who decided that porn should no longer be an acceptable struggle for him just because he is a guy. He identified that he and his peers at school are powerless over it. This is his area of greatest weakness. So we went to a Sex Addiction Anonymous meeting. It was interesting battling my own prejudice going in. However, once I started hearing the stories then I realized I belong in there too. Personally we are being proactive in areas of weakness instead of waiting until it may cause crisis. These meetings are a great supplement to the other components we use in personal spiritual warfare.
I realize the social ramifications for this, but it is amazing the way people in those meetings become attracted to the Spirit’s presence in you. And relationships develop quickly since our connection is common weakness. When they hear about my marriage, personal growth, etc..they cant help bur want that too. Then I just point them to Jesus. We are now considering these groups as an essential part of our walk. Like they say in AA, the meetings aren’t to help you get sober, they show you how to live sober.
In my experience God is using our greatest weaknesses as the most effective tool we have. But that dynamic does not work unless people know you aren’t there with hidden motives. It has to be because you share a common struggle and also want help. We are always praying for God to let you join him in what he is doing in people’s lives and our city. In time He prompts people to ask what I do for a living. Or they can tell I attend church from what I share and will ask where I go to church. Most of the “unchurched” in our area don’t really care about doctrine. They want to go to a place where they can understand the language, feel welcome, the children don’t hate it and get something from it immediately. I know that many are looking for a reason not to come back, but if they get a sense that they can be their “authentic self” that is a unique trait that sets us apart.
We are a place for messed up people and if you think you’re in the wrong place just stick around and you will realize you belong. We share that we are honest seekers of truth. We acknowledge that we have the ability to be wrong and not know it. This is key because it is congruent with the personal interaction/relationship that prompted them to come. We make it clear there is no hierarchy. Our leaders are but trusted servants. I had one man through AA who brought his family and didn’t know I was the preacher until I got up to preach. They have been coming faithfully. This approach was not planned intentionally but God has molded us as a congregation.
A year ago I don’t think we were healthy enough as a congregation to be a place where seekers would stay. I know they weren’t even coming so staying wasn’t an option. We are more intentional now about speaking Millennial language. At this point the key elements seem to be congruent. Seekers ask to visit or I ask if they could visit to provide much needed feedback on our “visitor experience.” I know our culture is so different from what they think church is, once they experience it, it will stay with them.
Almost everyone who has come once since January has come back. When they do come they meet people who are so glad they are there and have accepted the term “messed up.” A worship service that blends old and new heart languages. Hopefully a practical, simple lesson from Gods word. And get the sense that these people love each other and really want to be there.
I am not sure where it is going and this is even the first time I have tried to communicate what we are experiencing on paper, but at this point I am so blessed. His blessings have been flowing…One day at a time.