This month: 189 - Freedom in Christ
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Archives for February, 2021

God is moving many of his people into transition. Much like Acts 8:1-8 something has arisen that has scattered our gatherings…it has pushed us out of our comfort zones and given us the space to reevaluate what we know as church. It isn’t persecution…it is pandemic.

Sometimes it is hard to have proper perspective on something you are enmeshed with. With many churches taking 9 months away from corporate gatherings, many Christians have gotten the space they needed on two fronts: first to get a clear picture of the limitations of the big gathering that weren’t apparent when you were in the middle of it and second the benefits of trying something new.

Limitations of Big Church
Big church gatherings has limitations in several areas that have only become more apparent over time away:

1 – Very few people do the work for all rather than the priesthood of all believers where everyone does their part. Church displays the 80/20 rule at its finest – 20% of the people do 80% of the work (the pareto principle). People are at their best when they can be involved. Many went home to worship and led worship in their home and won’t go back to the “old way” (you know, the way we did it in 2020!).

2 – A high degree of professionalism is involved in many churches where some roles are only for people with specific training. How many people in your church would be asked to preach on a Sunday, for instance? It is far easier to delegate that in a home environment where people may discover gifts they never knew they had because it was always done for them.

3 – Money is often spent inefficiently – We heat and cool buildings that are empty 90% of the time, among other things. We rely on social media for advertising and advertising dollars rather than word of mouth and the most effective form of advertising – personal invites of those you have relationships and rapport with already.

4 – Decisions are made inefficiently – Committees and multiple levels of decision making with unclear boundaries on authority often make big church decisions. Those decisions can take weeks or months to roll out and even then sometimes nothing actually happens as a result. Seemingly obvious decisions can get bogged down and decisions never made.

5 – Anonymity is easy to pull off in “big church” but that was never God’s intent. We were made to know and be known by others. In a church of 400+ it is easy to go largely unnoticed and fly under the radar.

People are discovering the benefits of trying something new because they were forced to try something new and have something to contrast with the traditional model of church from first hand experience.

The Benefits of New Approaches

1 – Everyone gets involved so everyone is invested and grows in maturity.

2 – Anyone can do the work. When you simplify things and make it less formal even the children can do the work in a way they didn’t have opportunity to do in “big church”. We have experienced this in Backyard Church and it is beautiful!

3 – Money is spent more efficiently – need to help someone with their light bill? Take up a collection for it from those who are attending. Then everyone gets to celebrate and involve themselves in the actual assistance rather than giving week to week into a big pot that you never see where it actually goes or get to celebrate much of anything.

4 – Decisions can be made at a much faster pace – less red tape and less bureaucracy. What used to get bogged down in layers of decision making and weeks of review can be made in real time.

5 – Everyone is known and knows others on a deeper level in a house church. You cannot be anonymous in a backyard or living room. We can develop a real sense of community. The small group ministry you are already used to and all the blessings that come with that kind of ministry becomes the church as a whole.

We may finally have found a time when churches have launched out into the neighborhoods and communities that needed them…where the Christians lived. No more commute to church, driving past thousands of people who need Jesus along the way. Welcome to the new reality of community-based churches where everyone can be involved and grow to maturity!

In this time of change may our eyes be open to the opportunities and the possibilities that God is breaking down barriers and starting something new among us and we get to live through it to see the change! How blessed are we!

None of this is to say “Big church” is inherently bad or evil. I believe it will exist a long time into the future because it has positive advantages that smaller gatherings will not be able to take on or accomplish. More on that another time. I just want you to know this isn’t about bashing the old way of doing things.

If you are having the conversation about how to start a church in your home or neighborhood I would love to connect with you – matthewdabbs@hotmail.com.

McKnight & Barringer have gifted us with a needed and wise book.

This is a magnificent book. Read this book. Honestly, more than once, I had to put the book down and reflect on my own ministry.

A Church Called Tov is not so much about the latest trends on leadership. Rather it is about cultivating a congregational atmosphere where life thrives and toxicity is excluded. The first part of the book, in 80 pages, looks at how toxicity invades churches. Particularly the culture of leadership.

The second part of the book is called “the Circle of Tov” (tov is the Hebrew word for “good”). This is just good pastoral theology on display and perhaps one of the best books on what “church culture” ought to look like. In the circle of Tov (a culture of goodness in God’s church) we nurture empathy, grace, put people first, we tell the truth (resisting false narratives), nurture justice (resist loyalty culture) and nurture service. This book is needed in Evangelical Christianity. I even (a few times) thought how this is talking about our current political situation but that was not its purpose.

A Church Called Tov is a response to the wave of pastoral failings from Willow Creek to the myriad of Roman Catholic priests accused of abuse and preying upon children and women (and sometimes men). The authors remind us several times, though, it is not the size of the church that matters but the size of the ego involved.

McKnight and Barringer suggest these problems are not mere individual failings. Rather they are part of a culture that enables, or at least in some sense fosters, abuse. This certainly does not excuse individual behavior, but a “culture of Tov” helps the community to be on guard against wolves in sheep’s clothing.

At the same time the authors offer hope to the wounded. Chapter 4, False Narratives, is in part one of the book. This chapter is filled with truth telling. As James Baldwin writes, “Whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it … unable to assess either his weaknesses or his strengths.” Churches of Christ are hardly immune to toxicity that explored by McKnight and Barringer. We have our celebrity pastors, we have our model churches, we have good old boy systems that wound women (and men) and often leave shattered lives along the way.

Finally this book is not just about ideas. It is filled with practical suggestions to help congregations to become a culture of goodness. Telling the stories of women. The Yom Kippur congregational prayer is breathtaking. Learning to recognize justice.

As a side note, the principles in A Church Called Tov often speak to the issue of racial justice within Christianity as well.

I actually bought this book at the beginning of December but did not get around to reading it until yesterday and today. I should have read it. It is a book to give to fellow staff members and elders. I cannot think of anything I dislike about this book. Near the end of the book, Eugene Peterson and his writings, are held up (pp. 207ff) as an example of a pastor who resisted the latest “technology” for church leaders but held to the notion of “spiritual directors,” I say “Amen and amen.” The vision in the second half of A Church Called Tov could be used as a sermon series on “Identifying Marks of the Church” (to use old CofC lingo). It is rich. It is very biblical. It is very sound in the true Pauline sense.

Tolle Lege

My first instinct was to write about a specific model or expression of church.

And then I recalled something I heard Brian Sanders say in an old dilapidated Dillard’s department store that had been repurposed into a training center for missionary leaders. Sanders is the co-founder of Tampa Underground, a network of more than 200 “microchurches” in Tampa, Florida. 

Sanders shared a framework from Roger Martin’s book, The Design of BusinessTruly innovative forms begin first by exploring mystery — the mystery of a particular context, with all its problems, challenges, and assets. As that mystery is engaged, heuristics emerge: these are the principles or rules of thumb about how that context functions. Heuristics lead to algorithms, repeatable best practices for responding to a context.

The problem, Sanders said, is that most church leaders are interested in algorithms — the “how to,” the best practices — when those algorithms may not actually fit the varied contexts in which church leaders find themselves. What church leaders need, instead, is to explore the mystery of their own contexts and out of it develop principles (heuristics) and practices (algorithms) that fit their context.

In other words, when it comes to thinking about new wineskins for the church in our time, we’d do better to be contextually-responsive instead of model-specific in our approach to mission. 

I learned this the hard way. When I began church planting work in Dallas in 2008, my imagination had been captured by simple / organic / house church models for mission. I entered my context committed to a certain set of algorithms, and despite the counsel of wise mentors to listen deeply to my context, I thought to myself, I know my context and I’m going to implement these strategies because I like them. The results were mixed: parts of our approach connected, and parts of it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong: I still love small, simple expressions of church, but I often wonder if the church we planted in those early days was more a response to church planting books than it was a response to our context.

Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity, describes how the early church grew exponentially in a span of 300 years from 1,000 believers to nearly 34 million — more than half of the population of the Roman Empire. The early church did not invent the wineskin that facilitated such rapid growth. Instead, the church grew and spread through an existing structure in Greco-Roman culture: the oikos (household). Households were the economic backbone of the Roman Empire, consisting of both extended family members, slaves, neighbors, and business partners. Christian missionaries planted seeds of Christian community within these household structures in their context rather than inventing some alternative structure and seeking to attract people to it.

What if we don’t have to invent the new wineskins of the church in our time? What if they already exist? 

Already emerging are neighborhood churches, business-place churches, yoga churches, cycling churches, kayak churches, dinner churches, board gaming churches, bar churches, virtual churches, social service non-profit churches, and more — all of which are growing up out of structures already present and widespread in our contexts. Established churches are serving as anchors of stability and resourcing for these new expressions.

The truth is that Churches of Christ have trained global missionaries to respond to their contexts for decades. A context-responsive posture represents the basics of missiology, anthropology, and contextualization. 

It’s time for us to respond to our various North American contexts in the same way: to engage the mystery of our surrounding cultures and to participate with God’s Spirit to give birth to new expressions of church — hospitable, just, inclusive, and healing expressions — that make sense for our context.

If you’re interested in a longer-form discussion of these ideas, check out Elaine Heath’s presentation, “A Third Great Awakening,” where she describes the institutional dynamics of the United Methodist Church, which I believe are very similar to the current dynamics within Churches of Christ.

“This is the time you invest in the future; it is in tough times that you build to bring you to a better future,” affirmed Paul Goldburger consulting on the over-haul and refurbishing of New York’s Penn Station train hall. [i] In June of 2019 New York State Senator Brad Hoyman wrote an op-ed in the Gothan Gazette entitled, “Penn Station Needs a Complete Overhaul. We Must Start Now,” where he asserted,

   “Transit experts have spoken extensively about the serious safety concerns within Penn Station—from overcrowded platforms, to a lack of accessible exits and signage on what to do in the event of an emergency…there are a host of other improvements that should also be considered.” He went on to say, “We need to look at Penn Station and the surrounding area in Midtown West comprehensively to solve this problem in a way that makes sense for commuters, residents, workers nearby, and New York as a whole” and concludes, “If we don’t get to work to fix Penn Station now, it won’t ever happen. It’s time to act.” [ii]

What if we applied the same sentiments, enthusiasm and drive to bring the church to a better future during these difficult times? Over the past couple decades, we’ve heard the ominous language used to describe Christianity in America as well as to the churches of Christ, “steep declines, plateaued, and downward trends.” Culturally, we have witnessed growing hostility towards Christianity; a rise in those who are churchless; and increased disengagement among younger millennials and GenZ. These unsettling trends have not abated but continue to intensify. My fear is that if we do not get to work these disturbing drifts will worsen and we will have made ourselves inconsequential to the mission of Jesus (Luke 19:10). It’s time to act.

Over the past decade the warning shots have whizzed over our heads, “American churches of Christ have lost 200 people every week for more than ten years running. For the last ten years, every week in America, a church of Christ goes out of business and closes its door forever.”[iii] The alarms continue to sound forth: “The fastest growing religious group in the U.S. is that of the ‘Nones,’ those who claim no religion. By 2018 42.7% of all millennials were religiously unaffiliated and GenZ, born in 1995, are currently right there with the millennials at 42.3% unaffiliated.[iv]

If these few statistics are not alarming enough, there are the recent polls conducted by Barna’s research group in mid 2020 that carry their own threatening voice in the midst of the pandemic:[v]

32 percent of practicing Christians have dropped out completely.

50 percent of Millennials have stopped attending church or viewing online.

57 percent of Generation Z are unchurched.

So, it is time for action. If we truly want what God wants for this lost world, we must act. God wishes none to perish, but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Do we wish the same? God works to fill the earth with his knowledge and glory (Hab. 2:14), and wants all to recline at the kingdom table (Lk. 13:29). Do we yearn for the same? Jesus wants us to go forth and “make disciples” (Matt. 19:20) and glorify his Father by bearing “much fruit” (John 15:8). Do our desires align with Jesus’ desires? We are not just talking about doing something novice, something distinctive or something unconventional for the sake of being different, but rather fitting ourselves to align with our missional God and our incarnate Christ for the sake of the lost.

While the Coronavirus has brought its own challenges, this is not a time to sit back and watch as already-in-motion downward trends continue to move the church to decline. So, what are we to do? After all, things have been tough during this pandemic. I get it. Many have already adjusted, innovated, and launched into totally new areas to keep members connected. We just want to shout, “Can things just get back to normal!” Yet, when all is said and done, normal is not where we need to end up. If normal means keep doing what we were doing, we will find ourselves less relevant to the lost world around us. If we are to meet and respond to the needs of a post-Christian and post-pandemic culture then now is the time to act. Now may be the best time to rekindle, refocus, refurbish and renew ourselves towards a better future. Two areas in particular stand out providing a spring board to leap us forward.

First, PARADIGM SHIFTS. Our basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology need revision:

Location-based to Body-based. Shifting from being building-centric to being body-centric. The church is bigger than the building. Our focus on the church building has made us like our weekly giving, we’ve become “separate and apart” from those we are trying to reach. We need to move to an Acts 2:42-46 rhythm that reflects living on mission daily. This could include prayer-walks, lunch/Bible studies, impromptu “join me for dinner” gatherings, Life groups connecting daily through common scripture readings and prayer, and conducting smaller group Bible studies or worship out in public places rather than at the building. We need a permeating sweet-aroma presence (2 Corinthians 2:14-17) out and about in our communities allowing others to see Jesus where they live.

Event-Oriented to Lifestyle-Oriented. Shifting from attractional, asking people to come to us and our events (mostly at the building) to missional, sending our people out to be missionaries in the marketplace. Making the transition from event-focused to daily-mission-focused brings Jesus to people. Events planned by the church often rely on people coming to us, lifestyle-oriented evangelism allows us to join people where they are: coffee houses, restaurants, workplace, neighborhood, or recreations. In addition to being a gathering people we need a renewed sense of what it means to be a scattering people, taking the message out to the masses.

Inward-focused to Outward-focused. We need to come to the realization that the church itself is not the mission, but that the church is God’s mission for the world. We’ve done pretty good at creating ministries and events that solely serve the body, but how are we doing at serving and reaching the lost around us? Where does your community need to be served? What niches need to be reached? Who are the over-looked and often-forgotten individuals that need a helping hand? A turn to mission mindedness in our local context with the view to share the gospel and make disciples will lay the foundation for bringing us to a better future.

Second, NEW METRICS. We must move away from having our sole measurements of spiritual health being: attendance, building size, and budget. What metrics would Jesus use to check the spiritual pulse of the church today? If not the “big three” then what? Here are a few healthier and more Christ-centered metrics to consider:

  1. Are disciples being made?
  2. Are disciples being equipped to share the gospel?
  3. Is there an increase in gospel conversations with non-Christians?
  4. Are new missional niches being reached and established?
  5. Is there increased ownership of mission/vision by members?
  6. Is leadership being developed?
  7. Are non-Christians in Bible studies and being baptized into Christ?
  8. Are members actively sharing the message of Jesus?
  9. Is there an increased percentage of individuals involved in Discipleship Groups?
  10. Is there an increased percentage reaching out in tangible ways to the community?
  11. Are guests entering and connecting with members?
  12. Are we partnering with God’s work in people allowing giftedness?
  13. Are we learning the language of people outside the church?
  14. Are we listening to God, our local community, and one another?
  15. Has fasting and prayer become part of our reliance and rhythm?
  16. Are we living abundant missional lives where we live (being salt and light)?
  17. Are our ministries designed with the lost of our community in mind?
  18. Are we growing to become more like Jesus?
  19. Where have we’ve seen the power of the Holy Spirit at work?
  20. Where have we’ve seen Jesus breaking out in our lives?
  21. How many languages/ethnic/cultural backgrounds are represented as we gather?
  22. How often are we sharing and celebrating stories of God’s work in the world?

The burdens of the pandemic have been great. Many congregations are struggling at times to keep their head above water. Yet, the shifts in our daily rhythm have also given us time to reevaluate, reflect, and ask “What is church?” Hopefully we have realized that the church is bigger than the building, at least that is a start. Let’s continue the journey of rediscovering our mission realizing this is not the time to wait things out, this is a time for action. We cannot remain the same or go back to normal if we truly desire to turn the tide on what are increasingly troubling trends. We can resist needed changes and become more isolated and removed from those we ought to be seeking and reaching, or we can engage the changes needed making ourselves more approachable and accessible to those looking for Jesus.

It was in the middle of the pandemic, that the renovation and expansion of Penn Station finished on December 31 of 2020. New Yorkers had waited decades for Penn Station to be reimagined. New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, stated,  

“This monumental accomplishment is a shot of hope as we come out of one of darkest periods in our history and sends a clear message to the world that while we suffered greatly as a result of this once-in-a-century health crisis, the pandemic did not stop us from dreaming big and building for the future.”[vi]

I also hope that the pandemic does not stop us from dreaming big and building for the future. Paul S. Williams concluding charge in his book, Exiles on Mission, speaks to the task before us:

“It is time to face up to the missional challenges of our generation; to sharpen our focus, perception, and prayer lives; to resolutely seek awareness of what God is doing so as to follow him; and to harness our resources as if we mean business. It is time to move out and once again become a people of the Way.”[vii]

Amen! I don’t believe the church can wait any longer, pandemic or no pandemic, the time to act is now.

Andy Miller
Church Planter
Orlando, Florida


[i] Paul Godburger, a Pulitzer prize winner architectural critic, interview by Jeff Glor of CBS This Morning Saturday, January 2, 2021.

[ii] Hoylma, Brad. Gotham Gazette, “Penn Station Needs a Complete Overhaul. We Must Start Now.” June 07, 2019.

[iii] Young, David M. New Day, Restoring the Revolutionary Mission of Christ’s Church, p.42.

[iv] Burge, Ryan P. Christianity Today, “The Possible Decline of the Nones Isn’t a Boost for Evangelicals,” March 3, 2020.

[v] Barna.com Research, State of the Church 2020. 

[vi] Shahrigian, Shant. New York Daily News, “Penn Station Expansion set to finish Dec. 31, Cuomo says.”

[vii] Williams, Paul S. Exiles on Mission: How Christians Can Thrive in a Post-Christian World. Dec. 27, 2020.

“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:1,4).

__________________________________

Our journey to plant a church called North End Collective just outside the city of Atlanta, GA began late in the summer of 2018.

I was coming up on my 20th year in full time ministry, and I had been thinking about what it would look like if the church were less tethered to a physical location and more embedded in the actual neighborhoods of its city. This would require a significant shift in the way I had led and served churches over the past 20 years. It was something that was both exciting and terrifying all at the same time!

So, after months of prayer and countless conversations with a trusted circle of friends and mentors, my wife and I stepped away from a loving congregation in the summer of 2019 that blessed us in our pursuit to start this kind of church.

In the fall of 2019 we began inviting those in our city to join our launch team – a relatively small group of people who are committed to helping get our church up and running. We had believed all along that if God was calling us to plant, then he would be calling others to join us. We just didn’t know who they were yet! We did not take a single person with us from our previous church, so you can imagine our excitement after we began inviting neighbors and friends to join us, that some of them actually started saying, Yes!

We spent those early days and months prayerfully asking God how we could best love this city and then attempting to faithfully respond in obedience by making plans and developing a strategy for how North End Collective would go about doing that work.

Then, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, COVID-19 came along and upended all of our plans. Our entire launch sequence had to be scratched. What had seemed so clear a year ago, would suddenly become shrouded in a fog of uncertainty so dense we could barely make out the silhouette of our not-yet-church. It all felt so fragile, and if I’m completely honest, so unattainable in that moment.

We weren’t experiencing the Great Persecution like those in the early church, but we were experiencing the Great Pandemic – and with it, a significant disruption in how most people thought about “church.” Any hopes of consolidating the church’s gathering and activity into a single place fueled by a list of programs was DOA!

But here’s the surprising thing (for some of you) – we actually came to celebrate that! Yes, many of our plans had to be altered, but our overall vision was still in tact.

In the earliest days of our planning, our imagination had been stoked by two ideas. The first idea came from working through the Book of Acts together and paying special attention to the ways in which those early Jesus followers lived out Jesus’s mission starting first in Jerusalem.  That is, before they took the Gospel to the nations, they started in their own neighborhood. Then we couldn’t help but notice how the church throughout Acts, even though it was being broken apart and scattered about all over the Empire into smaller and more local expressions, did not lose any of its power or influence. Instead, the church’s influence seemed to only increase!

Something about being small actually served to increase their impact.

The second idea came from several women and men, all who were leading churches in the United States, that revolved less around a place or a program and more around their people and their sense of passion. These churches were already doing incredible things that had informed many of our plans for North End Collective because their missional ecclesiology, and their less-centralized model of church, had allowed for them to effectively navigate many of the challenges that come in a post-Christian culture.

What we began to see was that the pandemic not only gave us greater permission to press more deeply into this way of being the church, but we discovered it was also increasing the imagination of those in our city to do the same.

From March 15, 2020 – the day thousands of churches closed their doors to December 2020 – at the height of the “second wave” we launched 3 Missional Communities (with a 4th getting ready to launch next month), saw real life transformation taking place, actively worked to mend broken hearts in our community, fed many who were hungry, started a weekly digital worship gathering, and then launched an outdoor once-a-month in-person worship gathering. And then, we actually grew by 112%. We had no building or program sheet, but we did have a church full of people passionate about being on everyday mission right where they lived.

Here’s the best part of it. We are just one such example. I could tell you story after story of churches all over this country who are innovating in small and similar ways.

So many people are hand-wringing these days about the future of the church. Many of those leading churches fear the future is not bright – that the church will be smaller, less powerful, and therefore less effective in the days ahead. I read earlier today that 1 in 5 churches will close due to the pandemic.

Maybe.

Or maybe, just maybe, we will be able to look back on the Great Pandemic of 2020 and see it was only the beginning of a new chapter for the North American Church. One that begins to envision a smaller way forward. That while some larger churches shrank in size or closed their doors, other churches were planted and birthed out of this Pandemic.

Perhaps, much like Jesus’ parable of the seed that fell into the earth and died, for every 1 church that closes in this country, many smaller ones will be born.

Taylor Hammett, February 2021

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:7-8

Start in Jerusalem. Start with where you are. Reach this city…then God will send you elsewhere…even to the ends of the earth!

The mission of churches in the U.S. has largely gotten this backwards. Look at the missions budget and see where the money goes. See where the missionaries go. We start with the ends of the earth rather than right at home. I am speaking in broad generalities here…there are exceptions, of course.

What complicates things even further is even with things out of order…we never work backwards to our city.

It would make sense that we started in a church placed so we put our effort elsewhere…but as the West becomes more unchurched it would also make sense that we would take all we learned from the foreign mission field and apply those lessons here.

What does being faithful on mission look like for the local church? What happens if you start at the ends of the earth with foreign mission work but make little impact at home? What if you send missionaries all over the world but don’t know your neighbors…don’t know your community…move your church to a nicer part of town because the demographics changed. Was there an effort to reach the new demographic…the new neighbors? To get to know them?

I hope this doesn’t sound too heavy handed, arm twisty or guilt trippy…but I think we need to take a close look at the mission of the local church and get back to the order of Acts 1:8 – start at home and go from there. Be faithful to your neighborhood and community and see where God takes you from there.

In politics we talk about “flyover country” – places in the middle of America some people never visit – they only see from the air. We have that in the religious landscape and mission of the church.

We fly over the lost to reach the lost.

It isn’t either/or. It is both/and…and we need to start where we are…pay attention to who God has put us in proximity with and go from there. I am not saying cut your foreign mission budget and start over. I am saying…let’s make sure we don’t miss who is right next door!

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” ~ John 17:20-21

I in them (He prayed)
And Thou in Me
That they may be perfected as one

My Jesus
You have been
The answer to my every prayer
May I be
The answer
To Yours?

Jesus came to this earth with very few requirements. His birth was humble, his parents simple people. He never owned a home. At the time of His death He only had one change of clothes. People were always helping Him out—with food, with a bed, even with carrying His cross and providing a loaned tomb. Only from an outcast, half-breed woman and from one of His executioners did He ever ask even for a drink of water. What He wanted from people was not their things, but their thoughts. It’s true that a church is exactly what you think of it. If you look at it as a group of show-offs and hypocrites, you’ll hold yourself above them. If you try to see others as fellow-strugglers, you’ll help—and be helped by—them.

And when you stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. ~ Mark 11:25 (KJV)

Ought Against My Sister
They’re passing the communion bread now.
We must break from the same piece.
It is as if we have been given the same piece of Flesh;
And like wolves with our teeth on opposite edges,
We can only see each other’s eyes
Across the meat of this matter.
Like loaves that reproduced themselves for the five thousand,
Like grace that multiplies itself to infinity:
Love, beckoning and irresistible,
Molds us together
(the eye cannot say, “I don’t need you”
the hand cannot say, “I don’t need you”
We cannot hurt
Our own bodies)
Sister, my sister,
I love you
As myself

A recent attempt to memorize from Matthew the so-called “Lord’s Prayer” in Koine Greek brought me to a shocking discovery. I had always thought that it was quite equitable that I should forgive those who trespassed against me because God had forgiven my sins: a sort of theological tit-for-tat where I’d try to play catch-up for what He’d done for me. But what a surprise to discover that the Greek said something quite different altogether! It actually says, “Forgive us our sins as we have forgiven those who sin against us.” In other words, Jesus invites us to see the implications of not forgiving others in terms of not being forgiven ourselves. That makes a grudge the most expensive thing our souls can buy.

The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. ~ 1 Peter 4:7

It is not communion
But the clutter of things
That is here.
It is the clamor of the
Voices of musts
That cloud this place.

Resolutely, I do what
Must be done.
I clear the table of my mind
And set it simply with
Wine and bread.
Now,
Now the Guest
Can come.

That first Communion service must have been a study in contrasts. The disciples still had fresh in their memories the excitement of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem a few days before, but Jesus was talking as if something bad was about to happen. Even the group there was a strange combination of personalities and backgrounds: among them uneducated fishermen, a thief, a terrorist, and the modern equivalent of an IRS agent. John reclined on one side, his head on Jesus’ chest, hearing His heart beating. And since Judas took the sop from Jesus, he was probably just behind Jesus. Did Jesus hear Judas’ treacherous heart beat faster when He told him, “What you’re going to do, do quickly”?

Dr. Latayne C. Scott is the recipient of Pepperdine University’s Distinguished Christian Service Award for “Creative Christian Writing,” and is Trinity Southwest University’s Author in Residence. Her newest book is Talking with Teens about Sexuality: Critical Conversations about Social Media, Gender Identity, Same-Sex Attraction, Pornography, Purity, Dating, Etc. with Dr. Beth Robinson (Bethany Books.) The author of over two dozen published books, including Passion, Power, Proxy, Release (TSU Press) in which these poems appear, she lives and writes in New Mexico. She maintains two websites: Latayne.com and Representationalresearch.com.

It can be a scary word, “innovation,” particularly for a fellowship that prides itself on sticking with Scripture as its core anchor—as it should. But COVID has thrust us—many of us kicking and screaming, some of us quite happily—into a very new world of how we do church. Thousands of Christian leaders across all stripes have had to look down the barrel of 2020 and make some bold decisions about how their church will go forward in its worship, discipleship, community engagements, and so on.

And we just can’t shake the feeling that all this streaming and ‘online footprint’ is not the type of church leadership for which we signed up when we were writing our term papers and translating Hebrew in grad school. New skills notwithstanding, some of us have learned the hard way that what COVID really did was expose decades of poor stewardship and church leadership. The best livestream gear in the world can’t save boring preaching and teaching. No amount of social distance will solve an ugly room and bad (non-existent?) discipleship methodology. Your congregation might settle for it, but the ones we’re trying to reach online won’t. And when there are so many great lectures, sermons, and podcasts out there in which to find encouragement, the implication of why more people don’t watch our live stream can be ego-crushing.

So now it’s 2021, and we find ourselves in the unenviable position of recognizing that we must innovate but being unsure whether we’re equipped to do so effectively, having used those muscles so seldom pre-pandemic. We’re not even sure what “effective” means in a post-pandemic landscape. Should we be happy with 70% of our pre-COVID numbers? Should we keep the live stream or stop it? Should we hire an ‘online pastor?’ Innovate how? Our theology? Our practice? What have we held onto that is radically obsolete now? Bigger: What must we jettison that will sink us if we don’t?

Enter Luke 5, quite possibly the most innovative chapter in all of Scripture. Let’s take a quick little survey of all the fresh ideas emerging, all the sacred cows slaughtered, and all the ossified notions of ‘how things are done’ being shattered like a cold mirror in this gem of a chapter. 5

1 One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the
people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God.
2 He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen,
who were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one
belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then
he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

Innovation #1 – Change the where and the how of your preaching. As it turns out, sound carries further over water than land, so Jesus was using physics to allow more people to hear. He was adapting to his surroundings for the benefit of the crowds. And he was still preaching the Word. The message didn’t change, only the method. So go preach in a boat. Have a worship service on the lake. Or in the lake! “But we already livestream our sermon, Duncan?” Yes, you do. In a room. With walls. And probably fluorescent lighting. What if you did the sermon while hiking? Spelunking? Scuba diving? Or a man-on-the-street sermon? Or a sermon at a touristy spot?

4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep
water, and let down the nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered, “Master,
we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because
you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done so, they
caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help
them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to
sink.

Innovation #2 – Go where you’ve not yet gone and fish in a way you’ve not done before, despite objections from the ‘experts.’ Because—spoiler warning—this is all new territory for everyone. There are no experts in a post-Covid church landscape. Peter is the professional fisherman here. Jesus grew up a carpenter. It would have been well within Peter’s right to say, “Jesus, I appreciate the sermon, and if you’d like to show me how to make a dovetail joint for my cabinets, I’m all ears. But why don’t you leave the fishing to us, ok, bud? Thanks.” No, Peter was courageous enough to break the conventions despite no evidence that it would work. So, what if you did a two-man sermon, with one of you at HQ and the other out in the field? Hmmmm. Interesting.

Innovation #3 – Create the infrastructure now to prepare for the massive catch. Peter and co. were not ready and consequently their methods were insufficient, i.e., their boats began to sink. Boats are made not to sink. That’s like the number one thing boats have to do: not sink. And these were sinking. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean build a new building and saddle the congregation with debt. But it does mean asking the question “what’s our plan for when double this many people show up?” Because asking that question is a step of faith, like praying for rain then grabbing your umbrella. How long has it been since you’ve prayed an outrageous prayer?

8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go
away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all his
companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken,
10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s
partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you
will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left
everything and followed him.

Innovation #4 – Have the courage to go with the better goal/method and dump the old goals/methods as the situation arises. It would have done Peter zero good to leave his fishing business, follow Jesus, but still carry the net with him. Yes, this might mean leaping out of your comfort zone. Welcome to leadership. It might be high time to give some space to that voice in the back of your head that’s been saying for months ‘we really shouldn’t do _ anymore because it doesn’t work.’

12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 13 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. 14 Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”

Innovation #5 – Hurting people need your presence, not your distance. Your care will become their witness, which makes your care a bit of discipleship. Practically, can we please figure out something worthwhile to do with our nation’s assisted living residents? I don’t care how nice the facilities are, they live in a suck hole devoid of joy. Prove me wrong. So what if we flipped the script and honored them instead? What if we got them on camera telling stories from when they were teenagers? Or how about those who are abuse survivors? Maybe not put them on camera if they aren’t up for it, but surely we can think of some ways to communicate acceptance and safety?

15 Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Innovation #6 – Offset the viral-content chasing culture by aggressively pursuing alone, solo communion with the Father. This will likely mean innovate the places you go to pray.

17 One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. 18 Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. 19 When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. 20 When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

Innovation #7 – When taking the message of Jesus is important enough to us, we will come up with and execute hole-in-the-roof ideas, despite the reasonable objections of the We can’t do that crowd. Yes, we can. Yes, it will likely be messy. So are omelets. Get on with it. Block party for the streets surrounding your church, with a dunk tank and live music? Yes. Backpack trip to climb a mountain? Yes. (That’s a built-in sermon series right there, by the way.) Church at the beach? Yes. Painting? Yes. Skateboards? Yes. Competition Day? Yes.

21 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? 23 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 25 Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. 26 Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”

Innovation #8 – Like Jesus, speak to people’s hearts, not their arguments. Look deeper. Jesus said out of the overflow of the mouth the heart speaks. So listen to people’s words and let that inform our preaching and teaching.

Innovation #9 – Let go of the old ways of doing things once the new thing starts to get some traction. In this passage, there’s no reason in the world why the healed man still needed his mat. Yet he took it with him. Why? You know the answer: habit. But what used to be a necessary tool was now just extra weight he had to carry. What are our mats? What’s our extra weight?

27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.

Innovation #10 – Don’t let a person’s secular job scare you from asking them to serve in ministry. They might just surprise you. The fact that you even ask will do wonders for their faith.

29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Innovation #11 – Have a dinner party for the regular folks in your community, no strings attached other than just to get to know them. Getting them to rub shoulders with people in whom dwells the Holy Spirit is always a good thing. Most of us don’t do banquets very well or very often, and they can be stuffy and intimidating. But what if you invited a dozen food trucks to set up shop in your church parking lot? Once a month?

33 They said to him, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.” 34 Jesus answered, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? 35 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.” 36 He told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”

Innovation #12 – Finally, the passage from which this publication derives its name. There are new things and there are old things, and according to this passage, each has a place in God’s economy, and each may be useful depending whether they complement each other and the gospel. The trick is discerning which is which. The innovation here is more of a summation of common sense leadership: If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. Your system is perfectly designed to get the result it’s getting. So if you don’t like the result, the solution is do things differently. That is waaaaaay easier said than done, I know. But remember, it’s not a choice between doing something and doing nothing, because…even doing nothing is doing something.

There might still be a place for doing things the way they’ve always been done, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of how our message engages a new culture. The reality is culture is never static. Ever. But good news: one of the geniuses of the church is the ability to adapt to any context to share a message that is beautifully timeless and eternally relevant.

This is a sensitive topic. It is one that often goes unmentioned because no one is supposed to talk about it.

The eldership decides to fire the preacher and instead of firing the preacher, offers the preacher severance in exchange for a peaceful resignation. The preacher didn’t want to quit the job…but it is resign or lose your severance.

The preacher is tasked with the dishonest role of breaking the news to the congregation that they have decided to move on to “greener pastures” but don’t have anything lined up!

Whenever I see a minister say they are no longer ministering I PM or email them to make sure they are okay. Many of those times I hear, in private, that they were actually fired but had to resign in order to protect their family financially. It can take 6-9 months to find another ministry job and most ministers don’t have that kind of cash lying around.

Can we call this what it is? Dishonest. Cruel. It’s a total wimp out. Those in the position of authority who actually made the decision align everything to give themselves the easiest path out…to undergo the least amount of scrutiny.

The fact we even know this happens is that someone had to “lie” to tell me because to tell was to jeopardize their severance.

This happens far more often than you know. It is a big elephant in the room in elder-minister relations.

What troubles me just as much is that in the majority of the cases I have known about there was never any effort made to remediate. The first time the minister hears there is a problem is them being forced to resign. Many were even told weeks before they were doing a good job…had a favorable job review!

This is just crazy. It is sinful. It has to stop. This is done by the most “mature” among us but it is absolutely spiritual abuse.

To find out what to do when your minister is fired you can find out here…

A call to action as it relates to disciple making

           Three years ago this month I stood at the base of Mt. Harvard, one of Colorado’s Collegiate Peaks, and looked up into the snowy distance, wondering if I had what it what it would take to climb to the summit.  Mt. Harvard is located in the center of the state of Colorado, and due to its elevation, spends much of the year covered in snow.  Many hike this peak, and the other Collegiates, during the summer months, but few choose to do so in February.  I was attending a conference in Colorado, and other than having traveled with my ski jacket and a good pair of gloves, I was totally unprepared for a climb like this.  I’ll give you a quick glimpse into my true state of unpreparedness by making the confession that I was wearing blue jeans and a pair of Adidas tennis shoes…not wintertime mountain-ascent gear by any stretch of the imagination.

           I have never been one to let my potential lack of qualifications or preparedness stand in the way of giving something my best shot.  It’s just part of who I am, I suppose.  This is a trait that has landed me in some trouble at times, but also one that has allowed me to experience some things in life that others would never have attempted.  How many people can say, after all, “I hiked nearly to the summit of Mt. Harvard in sometimes waist deep snow wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes?”

           “But Paul,” you may rightly ask, “was it actually worth it?”  If I’m being honest, probably not.  When I returned to the lodge I was freezing cold, soaked to the waist, and had a splitting headache because of the exertion I had made at an elevation my body wasn’t acclimated to. 

So what does this have to do with discipleship?  What does this have to do with idea of embracing a culture shift within a church that helps facilitate disciple making?  Everything.  Give me a minute to explain and I think you will see why.

           For many I have talked with over the past year, the idea of making disciples is an appealing one.  We even respond well to the vision of a church that has come alive to embracing the mission of Jesus to be disciples who make disciples.  It’s a vision that reminds us of scenes from the first chapters of Acts.  It sounds exciting!  But when we turn the corner to talking about the shifts that will need to take place within our church cultures, and our personal cultures as well, the excitement begins to fade.  I think the target, the destination, is one we find compelling, but the journey and what we foresee may lie along the way, fills us with anxiety.  And probably rightly so.  Making the move from the attractional model of church (come and see), to the relational discipleship model of church (go and be), will require a cultural transformation.  Change is hard.  There’s no way around it.

           Many of us stand at the base of what looks to be an uphill climb.  The slope is steep.  It’s covered in snow.  And to make it worse, we look at ourselves and conclude we aren’t properly equipped for the journey.  And we are probably right.  How’s that for motivation?  Don’t check out on me yet, however, because I do think there is good news for those of us who feel this way as we contemplate some needed changes in the way we “do church.”

           It has been said that even the greatest journey begins with a single step.  When standing at the beginning of a long and challenging journey, it is natural to become focused on all of the things that could go wrong – or even all of the reasons why backing out is the safer, and likely wiser thing to do.  And in many situations, especially if you find yourself looking up a snow-covered mountain in February, choosing the safer option is undoubtedly wiser.  But not when it comes to embracing discipleship and disciple making.  Let me give you a few quick reasons why.

           First, as Jesus’ Church, the journey he calls us on, is the journey we should be packing our proverbial bags for.  When Jesus gave his disciples the Great Commission, Matthew 28, he told them to go make disciples of all nations.  He didn’t say, go into all the world and build a bunch of super attractive churches.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I hope my church is attractive to those who don’t know Jesus, and I hope yours is too.  That’s just not the mission, even though by looking at some of our churches you wouldn’t always know it.

           Next, I’m afraid of what we end up with when we choose another mission than the one Jesus gave us.  Here’s what I mean by that.  When I look at the churches I have worked with over the years, and even the ones I have visited, a common theme has emerged.  We have been fairly good at making church members, but we have largely failed at making disciples of Jesus.  Here’s what that leads me to conclude – attractional churches don’t by nature make disciples.  It’s not that the leaders of those churches don’t want to make disciples.  The model just doesn’t match the mission.

           Finally, I know that for many of us, the journey ahead looks to be a challenging one.  If we choose to embrace a shift within our church cultures, we will likely find out just how difficult navigating change can be.  I’m here to tell you, however, that for many reasons, including the two I just gave you, it will be worth it.  Yes, it will be a challenging journey.  Yes, you will also likely feel unqualified or unprepared along the way  (If you are anything like me, you weren’t raised in a context that placed a high value on being disciples who make disciples.  Most of us, after all are products of the attractional church cultures we were raised in).  All of this is true.  But…and don’t miss this!  It is only when we commit ourselves to the mission of Jesus as he defines it in Matthew 28, that we hear his promise, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  That’s right.  When we say yes, to Jesus’ mission, he promises us his presence.  This is not a journey we will make alone.

           So what am I challenging you to do?  Take a step.  Do something that moves you, and maybe others in your church, closer to embracing the mission of Jesus.  Find someone to disciple.  There’s lots of low hanging fruit within our churches, as most of us have never been discipled.  If you haven’t been discipled yourself, you could find a friend who will work to disciple you, while you disciple him or her in return.  Make the choice to start somewhere.  For far too long we have been standing at the bottom of the mountain, looking up.  It’s time to remember that even the greatest journey begins with one step.  I’ll be cheering you on, and praying for you as you go.     Paul