So, Despite My Best Efforts . . .

February 18, 2013 at 11:55 pm

My oldest three boys were part of a “Harlem Shake” here in Glendale, AZ:


Living On Mission Means Throwing Parties For Things You Don’t Care About

February 4, 2013 at 9:10 am

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul talks about how, though he has personal spiritual freedom, he is willing to lay that freedom down for the sake of others knowing Jesus better. In 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 se goes as far as to say: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” Though the context is that of “Christian liberty” and the role of a stronger and/or weaker conscience, it presents an interesting question.

If Paul is willing take up or lay down his own freedoms for the sake of other people knowing Jesus, how far should we be willing to go to live on mission. If we keep the context simply at liberties as Paul here does, then it simply means that I will not mention that I occasionally partake of beverage alcohol to the glory of God (who gave us wine to gladden the heart according to Psalm 104:15) and I will not force my libertine friends to be teetotalers.

But what about when applied to the broader context of living on mission in the everyday life? If left to my own devices, I would want to live as a missionary to people slightly sarcastic people just like me who like music, grew up skateboarding and who don’t care at all about team sports; much less “professional” sports. But God, because of the great love with which He loved me, placed me in Suburbia. Not the cool suburbia where gentrification has set in and the worn out strip mall has been brought back to life with cool coffee shops and eateries. No, I live in Target, Red Lobster, Chili’s Best Buy, cookie-cutter subdivision suburbia. Don’t worry, if the Red Robin is too crowded there’s another one a mile down the road. And rest assured, there will be a major league sporting event on every TV in every corner of your favorite chain restaurant.

Professional sports is part of American life. And I live as a missionary in an American context. That means, that, though my personal preference would have been to watch Groundhog Day on repeat all day yesterday, we threw a Super Bowl Party. I had to look to find out who was even playing, but I did. And we had a great time. We made a new friend who just moved here and had no plans. We reconnected with an old friend prior to his upcoming wedding. We got to spend some time with one of our missional community family members who is leaving the country soon. And it was all under the pretense of a football game.

Living everyday life with gospel intentionality means investigating and investing in the regular rhythms of the surrounding culture. If they gather around sporting events, then I should probably at least be conversant in said sport. I don’t have to lie to people and say I really care who wins, but I should be willing to sit next to someone for a while who does enjoy football. Living on mission means throwing parties for things you don’t care about. It means trying to learn to put others wants and desires before my own. It means sacrificing time and energy, it means opening our home for an event I really don’t care about. Because I do care about the God who put these people in my path and for the people He has put there.

Just don’t expect me to buy season tickets any time soon.

Get To Know Yourself: Have People Over

January 7, 2013 at 12:47 am

Though I’m not sure he does justice to the distinction between “hospitality” and “fellowship,” I have been tremendously convicted by Alexander Strauch’s little book The Hospitality Commands over the years. He does a great job of showing us that “hospitality” is not optional. It is actually commanded in Scripture.

Likewise, I have been encouraged/convicted by Joseph Hellerman’s powerful book When The Church Was A Family. In that book, Hellerman forcefully (and I believe) convincingly argues that:

“Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community. People who remain connected with their brothers and sisters in the local church almost invariably grow in self-understanding, and they mature in their ability to relate in healthy ways to God and to their fellow human beings. This is especially the case for those courageous Christians who stick it out through the often messy process of interpersonal discord and conflict resolution. Long-term interpersonal relationships are the crucible of genuine progress in the Christian life. People who stay also grow. People who leave do not grow.”

It is a simple but profound biblical reality that we both grow and thrive together or we do not grow much at all.”

Though it might feel easy to write Hellerman off on the grounds of hyperbole, I don’t think he’s over-exaggerating. Time and time again, Scripture seems to simply assume that, though we may be “saved” as individuals, the context in which we grow is gospel-centered community. Consider Ephesians 4:1-3:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Or, think about the “fruit of the Spirit” found in Galatians 5:22-26:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

When do we most need “patience,” to “bear with one another,” to “maintain unity” and demonstrate “self-control” – when there are other people involved. It’s almost as if God expects that we will learn to become more holy, not in isolation but in community. That’s why I believe it is so important for those who follow Jesus to regularly and sacrificially open up their homes to others. Though I do think Strauch misses the nuances between “hospitality” and “fellowship,” our current understanding of “hospitality,” is primarily that of simply “opening up your home for others, often including a meal or a party” (paraphrase my own), so I’m going to simply continue with this understanding.

I’ve begun to wonder if God simply doesn’t expect “community” to be the context in which we are often challenged, but specifically that of “hospitality” (which we are here simply defining as: “opening up your home for others, often including a meal or a party”). Let me try to explain:

Is Your “Refuge” Your Home Or Jesus?

In the “American” context in which I write, we are often told (even within “Christian” circles) that we need to “protect” our home. This can be as drastic as arguing for gun ownership to as “benign” as keeping our homes “private” from others (because, after all, home is where we’re safe, right?). Though there may be kernels of truth here (we are often most comfortable with family/family is often who we are most comfortable being “ourselves” with and we can feel like we can let our guard down and relax), the idolatry is that our “home” is our refuge rather than Jesus.

Regularly opening our homes forces us to realize that our furniture might be broken. Our glasses may explode all over the tile floor. Our precious wooden stairs might get scratched. That painting by the “master of light” might be knocked off its hinges. People may outstay their welcome. People might eat more than we wanted them to eat. Someone may fall asleep on our couch. That jig-saw puzzle we’ve been working so diligently on may end up once again puzzled on the floor.

In what do we truly find our refuge and rest? When we regularly open up our homes, the place where we feel most “comfortable,” we are also regularly becoming vulnerable. We are opening ourselves up to the possibility that the things we think we love might get broken, leaving us, really, only with what’s of lasting value. Is that Jesus? Hospitality just might give us a clue to the answer.

Hospitality Reveals Our Idols

Closely related to the first point, hospitality reveals our idols. Are we OK if our couch gets ripped if we got to point someone (at any stage in the process of discipleship) was pointed to grow closer to Jesus? If the answer is no; it is entirely possible that we love our couch more than we love Jesus. Or maybe we’re just not willing to give up that “me” time. It is entirely probable that we love ourselves more than Jesus.

Regularly and sacrificially opening up our homes and holding our possessions with an open hand helps us understand, spot and release what we might currently love more than Jesus.

Hospitality Can Be A Powerful Tool for Self-Understanding

In his book Introverts In The Church, Adam McHugh helped me understand the true difference(s) between introverts and extroverts. For a long time, I’ve believed that since I don’t have any problem standing in front of a large room full of people and talking for 40 minutes that I must be an extrovert. However, as McHugh helped me understand, when I am in social settings (not just preaching) with large groups of people, I find myself drained. I sometimes have to sneak away just to “recharge” (yes, I know it sounds silly). If we have a party and I am gone for a bit, my wife will sometimes ask me if I was hiding in the bathroom. Sometimes I do. It’s not that I don’t like people. I do. I love them. But being in large social settings absolutely tires me. This means I’m probably in introvert by nature. This isn’t good or bad. It just is and the regular practice of hospitality has helped me discover this and try to make efforts towards dealing with this tendency.

So, if you ever come to a house show or dinner party or get-together at our home and I am absent for a short period of time, please know that I still love you.

In the end, “hospitality” is not just about blessing other people, it is about finding where we need to cling that much closer to the cross of Jesus.

The Gospel According To The Bones Brigade

December 18, 2012 at 2:47 pm

I grew up identifying with skateboard culture. Remember, I’m old, so this was in the 1980′s. It wasn’t like it is today when you can turn on network television and see the Mountain Dew tour of professional skateboarding as part of mainstream America and everyone knows who Tony Hawk is. It wasn’t mainstream. And that’s one of the things that attracted me.

I’ll be honest and I’ll be the first to tell you that I was never very good at skating. But I loved it nonetheless and I’ve been wondering recently why that was. Why did I love to do something I didn’t excel at? One of my favorite skaters growing up was Lance Mountain because he was good, but he just didn’t seem as competitive as some of the other guys. He seemed to truly love skating for skating’s sake. I watched the Bones Brigade videos (especially Animal Chin) incessantly and they became woven into my psyche (for good and bad!).

Last night I finally had the chance to watch Stacy Peralta‘s documentary: Bones Brigade: An Autobiography. Even if you’re not interested in skateboarding, it’s a great story of finding meaning and belonging in a world that doesn’t seem to want you. That was one of the themes throughout each of the skaters’ recollections: they just didn’t feel like they fit in until they found skateboarding. They weren’t sure about life’s meaning until they found skateboarding. I deeply resonated with that sentiment growing up. I could play sports but I just had no interest in organized sports. In fact, I really didn’t like them. I could do well in school when I tried but it just wasn’t important to me. It wasn’t until I found skateboarding that I really felt like I had found an outlet that not only provided personal growth and expression but community.

Now, many (many) years later, as a Christian, I have a deeper understanding of what I was looking for and I have found more than I ever could have hoped for in Jesus. But I’m left wondering, especially as a pastor; does the way we practice “modern-day North American ‘Christianity’” fulfill those deepest desires that we all try to fill in various ways? We all want to be accepted for who we are and the freedom to express our individuality in community that accepts us. Skateboarding has offered that for countless young people.

But I struggle with the way that so much of our practice of Christianity tends to isolate us from those “who aren’t like us.” We withdraw from culture and build our “Christian” baseball fields, football fields, bowling alleys and tennis courts, believing that we can offer a “safe” alternative to people. Yet, in practice, we’ve asked people to “become like us,” to cross a cultural boundary before they can be part of our community. We use belief to exclude people from community. Yet, Jesus flipped this on its head; he used community to draw people to belief. Christians are the worst about asking people to fit into preconceived notions and become monochrome when we should be the most beautiful of tapestries, made up of all kinds of people who preserve their differences in love instead of water them down in conformity. How is it that skateboarders can practice community and acceptance better than those who have been accepted forever by God?

Bones Brigade: An Autobiography reminded me of a time in life when I truly felt free to be myself and felt completely accepted at the same time by others who were truly being themselves. Now, many years later, I’ve come to realize just how rare that is. May our “version” of Christianity be a better treasure than a skateboard.

Watch a trailer for  Bones Brigade: An Autobiography:


Some Thoughts On Short-Term Missions

November 6, 2012 at 10:32 am

I recently had the chance to travel to Hungary with my good friend Justin Southwick, pastor at (Mosaic Community Church in Peoria, AZ) Justin pastored a church in Miskolc several years ago. Since then, he has gone back to encourage, equip and sometimes train local pastors there. In other words, he has done a great job at building long-lasting relationships with the indigenous people.

As a pastor of a “missional” church, I have gone back and forth on the idea of short-term missions over the years. In our church family, we place a high emphasis on equipping one another to live everyday as missionaries, living everyday life with Gospel intentionality. As I’ve struggled with all that that means, I have sometimes soured on the idea of Americans going to foreign countries to plant “American” churches. As a result, I have also wrestled with the idea of short-term missions; people traveling to another country for two weeks or so on some sort of “missions trip.” I mean, after all, isn’t everyday our primary mission field? Why should we travel to another country to do what we should be doing everyday? And, if we’re not doing it in the everyday, what business do we have going somewhere else?

This past trip to Hungary was a great time to process some of these issues through a missional hermeneutic; not just of Scripture, but all of life. I mean, if our church family is trying to equip, encourage and challenge our people to live everyday life as missionaries, then why in the world do we need to travel to another country to live that out? But then again, perhaps being taken out of our everyday context is just what some of us need to remember how to redeem the everyday.

So, in no particular order, and mostly because I like to write to sort out my thoughts, here are some thoughts prompted by my recent trip to Hungary:

  • Sometimes We Need To Be Taken Out Of The Everyday To Appreciate It

Do you know the saying, “A fish doesn’t know it lives in water”? For anyone striving to live everyday life as a missionary, traveling to another context can be quite valuable. We are forced to consider and sometimes participate in other customs and ways of life. We are immersed into another world. Lord willing, this causes us to examine our everyday context through a new lens.

We marinate in our everyday and we become numb to the very people and cultures we are called to reach. Traveling to another culture can help jar us awake again and force us to consider the cultures and customs in which we live but we must pay attention, asking questions that we should be asking of the everyday.

  • Ask Lots Of Questions

A good missionary strives to understand and engage the culture to which they have been called. That means they ask lots of questions. What is the “story” of that culture? What is their history? What do they celebrate and why? How do they view family? What are their afflictions? Where do they gather and why? What do they value? What is their pace of life and why?

This goes back to the first point. When you are placed in a culture you’re unfamiliar with, you will naturally ask these questions. Lord willing, you’ll be reminded to ask them of your own culture as well.

  • You’re Not There As A Tourist

OK, this one could be up for debate. But, if you’ve traveled somewhere on a “short-term missions trip” of any sort, you are not there to be served. You are not there to be entertained. You may have the chance to see some things, but that’s not why you’re there. You are there for other people and not yourself.

We had the chance to see some amazing things while in Hungary, but I was continually convicted that, though I personally wanted to make the most of our trip, I didn’t travel that far so that I could see old buildings and cool rivers. That was just an added bonus that we fit in when we could. I was constantly reminded of how we live everyday for ourselves rather than others. It’s sad that I had to travel to another country to be reminded of this, but it is what it is. We live everyday as tourists, wanting to be pleased, but that’s not why we’re here.

  • Practice What You Preach

So many of us Christians are good at compartmentalizing our lives. I know churches that are great at overseas missions that don’t encourage, equip or challenge their people to walk across the street. They will spend thousands of dollars sending people to other countries without challenging people to invite their neighbors over for dinner. Short-term missions is a great way to challenge ourselves to the everyday task of living as missionaries. But, if we’re not doing it at home, do we really have any business going to another country in the first place?

  •  We Are Not The Hope And We Don’t Have All Of The Answers

One thing I sometimes worry about with Americans doing foreign missions is that we tend to believe that because God has blessed us with some money, that this can fix people’s problems. Not only that, we are notorious for exporting our “way of doing church” in the name of missions. A church family in Glendale, AZ shouldn’t necessarily look the same as a church family in Nairobi. We are not the hope and we don’t have all of the answers. Our job, when we go is, to equip “the saints for the work of the ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-13). Jesus is the hope and He has all the answers. Our role is to equip local people to figure out what that looks like in their everyday, not to make them like us.

What are your thoughts on short-term missions?

An Introduction To (GCM) Missional Communities: Considering Contexts For Change (1)

June 11, 2012 at 8:04 am

I seem to find myself having variations of the same conversations a lot. I’m not complaining, it just interests me. More often than not, the conversation is with other pastors who hear about “missional communities” and want to hear more. Church of the Cross, where I serve, organizes itself around missional communities (or, we also call them Gospel Communities on Mission) so I find myself explaining this quite a bit. This is great because it has forced our own church family to be clear about what we mean and what we don’t.

Part of the problem, though, is that “missional communities” has become sort of a “junk-drawer” term. Lots of homes have that drawer (we actually several) where you throw everything you can’t seem to find a place for. It is common for words and terms to take on similar status, adopting definitions (sometimes even contradictory definitions depending on who you talk to) along the way until no one is quite sure what the term means. This can be quite frustrating for someone who just wants to understand.

So, I want to take a few posts here and explain some of the things that we mean when we talk about organizing ourselves around gospel communities on mission (missional communities). I am not pretending that these are the only ways to undertand these terms or that we speak for everyone using the terms, just that this is what we mean.

The first thing to consider is the expectation of Scripture that God’s people will grow. This seems rather self-evident but consider the reality: we understand and accept the notion that: “oh, he’s just a baby Christian” and that someone can remain a “baby Christian” for a very long time. My wife and I have four boys. If any of them didn’t grow, we would be extremely worried and we would take drastic measures to make sure that they started growing as expected.

The Bible talks about salvation as a “new birth,” (John 3:1-15) as being “born again” from spiritual death (Ephesians 2:1-11). Peter says that, “like newborn infants,” we should long for that which will help us grow (1 Peter 2:2) and Paul says that we should not stay like children forever (Ephesians 4:1-16). This is common sense. People grow, they change, they mature; and the Christian life is no different. We are expected to grow, change and mature.

This means that part of the role of the local church is to create a context in which growth and change in the Christian life are most likely to occur. By this I am not saying that we can guarantee anything or even that we can make people grow in the Christian life. But I do believe that we should encourage growth as much as possible.

Another way to say this might be that we are called to make, mature and multiply disciples of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20). An apprentice sits under a master, watching, learning and doing until it is time for them to go do it on their own, hopefully taking another apprentice along with them. We call this process of helping each other change, helping each other “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13)” discipleship and if it is not at the center of our churches, something else will be.

I can’t find anywhere in Scripture where we are commanded to plant churches, but I can find where we are called to make, mature and multiply disciples. So we must ask ourselves: how well have we done at discipleship, at helping people grow, change and mature more and more to reflect Jesus and, if we haven’t done all that well, what (if anything) might need to change in order to place people in contexts where they are more likely to experience the change the Gospel (the good news about who Jesus is and what He’s done) expects of us.

We believe that people are more likely to experience Gospel change as the events on the church calendar are stripped away and the Truths we discuss are applied in everyday life and people are equipped to help each other (Galatians 6:1) experience God’s change in their lives. So we have intentionally cleared much of the traditional church calendar and focused on our Gathered Worship, our Missional Communities and what we call DNA (Discipleship/Nurture/Accountability) Groups and tried to move away from our Gathered Worship being the engine that drives our life together as a church.

This does not mean we don’t preach or value preaching. This does not mean that Sunday is not important or that we don’t strive to do it well. It just means that, it is common for churches to use Sunday as the thing around which they organize and energize people and we view Sunday as a gathering of people who have tried to live out the Gospel scattered throughout the week. It means that Sunday is a family reunion rather than a performance. It means that we believe that change is more likely to happen when people are asked to really live out what the bible says rather than simply learn more.

I realize that I haven’t defined or described much about missional communities yet. But it’s important to see that we organize the life of our church family this way, not because it’s a new fad but because we are sincerely pursuing the growth, change and maturity that God has in store for us. Your church may do it differently and that’s OK as long as the goal is spiritual maturity and multiplication rather than a big church.

Over the next few days, we’ll flesh out more of what a missional community is and isn’t. For now, I just want to say that it is the organizational principle for a local church that we believe is most conducive to seeing real, lasting change in people’s lives.

Church Planting Things I Wish They’d Told Me (4): Don’t Plant Out Of Opposition

April 24, 2012 at 7:24 am

I continually marvel at where God has led me in life. I never planned on going to seminary, much less becoming a pastor. In fact, when God finally did take me to seminary, I kept thinking about how good I would have it after I received my M.Div, got my Ph.D. and got to teach people all of the cool stuff about God without having to deal with anyone’s real problems like pastors do. Then God broke my heart for the Church and for discipleship and changed the course of my life forever.

Not only did I never set out to be a pastor, I never expected to be a church planter. I don’t fit many of the models I’ve always (rightfully and wrongfully) attached to church planters. Now, nearly four years in to planting Church of the Cross, I’ve had lots of time to reflect, react and consider what I wish I had known while planting. So I decided to write a series on things I wish people had told me while church planting. First, we considered the need to start with discipleship, then we looked at the need to define yourself quickly and stick to it and yesterday we were challenged by the fact that most of us will never be mega-church pastors and not only is that OK, most of our churches will grow slowly.

Today, I want to share one that’s haunted me personally over the years. I have come to realize that I can tend to be a bit cynical, oftentimes framing things in a negative light rather than a positive one. I’m not making light of my tendencies, just sharing them with the world wide webs for all to know and judge. But honestly, I have come to realize that I am more prone to introduce a point by criticizing others than finding points of agreement.

This, of course, is a primary danger facing many church planters and will probably have to color the way you read this post (along with all of the others in this series). This may not be true of other church planters, but I know that one of the reasons I felt compelled to plant a church was because I could see where others had gone wrong. This, of course wasn’t (at least I thought) out of pride but biblical conviction. I saw what I felt to be the errors of those on both sides and I was sure I would plant a church “in the middle.” In our area of the country, there are churches that pride themselves on “going deep” into the Word who don’t even know the names of their neighbors, or there are churches that are thousands of people large who will openly admit that they don’t publicly teach anything above a seventh-grade level. So, we were going to model our church plant after the song we teach our children: “Deep and Wide.” We were going to openly and honestly people challenge people to go “deeper” into the Word and “wider” out into culture.

While I still believe in that vision, I have come to realize that I was planting out of opposition to the mainstream mega-church mentality as much as planting for the right vision that I believe God gave us. In other words, it was natural for me, especially in the early days, to frame our church plant by what it would not be; by what we would be against, as much as what we would be “for.”

I wish someone had told me in those early days to search the Scriptures, to understand the Gospel’s impact and implications for the Phoenix suburbs positively more than just pointing out what was wrong with other churches. This isn’t to say that church planters may not be able to accurately point out where the “mainstream” church has gone wrong. Instead, it is to say that we should not plant churches based on what we’re against. If that’s the motivation, then all we ever have to do is not be the other guy. If you plant out of opposition to mega-churches, you will probably be a small church. If you plant out of opposition to shallow churches, you will be quite intellectual. If you plant out of opposition to program-driven churches, your church will probably not have enough structure.

If you spend a lot of time and energy defining yourself by “what you’re not,” then you are creating an “us vs. them” mentality and the church already has more than enough of that. Plus, love believes the best about others. You may have significant differences with other churches, but chances are, they’re still family. You may want to consider them distant cousins rather than brother or sister, but they’re still family. Church planting should further the Kingdom, not drive deeper wedges.

I wish someone had told me to plant out of an overflow of the Gospel, to clearly be shaped by Scriptural convictions and to learn how to communicate those convictions regularly, clearly and humbly. This way, people will see the differences themselves. They don’t need you to always point out why you’re right (more on proving yourself in an upcoming post).

If you plant out of opposition, then all you have to do is not be the other guy and that is never enough. The Gospel reveals where things need to change but it also provides us with the positive motivation for change rather than just the negative. I wish someone had told me to plant out of an overflow of God’s work in my own life and community rather than just understanding (rightly and wrongly) where others were wrong.

  • Read Church Planting Things I Wish They’d Told Me (1): Start With Discipleship
  • Read Church Planting Things I Wish They’d Told Me (2): Define Yourself Quickly And Stick To It
  • Read Church Planting Things I Wish They’d Told Me (3): You’ll Probably Never Be A Mega-Church And It’s OK To Grow Slowly
  • Read Church Planting Things I Wish They’d Told Me (5): Don’t Plant To Prove Yourself