Growing Pains

growing painsI pre-recorded my talk for last Sunday at ebc (I was live on Saturday) so I could join the elders on another field trip. All five elders, myself and some of our wives traveled to Lansdale to visit LCBC’s Branch Creek campus. They are a church very similar in size to us. We have been intentional to see as much as we can see and learn as much as we can learn as we pray and think through a number of very important issues for our church family.

We have some very important decisions to make. This summer our attendance is more than 20% higher than it was last summer. People are meeting God for life and our church is growing and that’s awesome! We still have a great deal of work to do and our best days are yet ahead. But, in order to continually improve and reach more and more people with the one thing that can save them we have some big decisions to make.
The number of people that use our building is way beyond what it was designed for. It is not uncommon for us to run out of water during peak usage times and some of our key equipment is in need of repair or replacement. Our worship, Kidz Zone and Student Ministry facilities are inadequate. Making the building what it needs to be for our future will cost several million dollars. That being the case, should we put that much money in our property or should we consider moving to a location better suited for reaching more of the Susquehanna Valley?
But there is more. As ebc continues to grow we need to put policies into place that govern our employees. We need to find ways to provide employee benefit packages which, at this point, we don’t do. Further, in order to reach more and more people we have to re-think the procedures that have been serving us for several years. We are basically still functioning with the procedures of a church with 500 attendees. That means our staff just keeps doing more and more, which is unsustainable long term.
I remember when my oldest son Jake was about ten years old. Often he’d come to me after being in bed for a few hours with tears in his eyes, describing knee pain or elbow pain. We had some special fun things we’d do to take his mind off of the pain and he’d go back to bed. They were growing pains. Growing is wonderful, but sometimes it includes pain.
The elders have been visiting other churches and welcoming the visits of other churches to our church to help us understand how best to continue to improve and more forward. It’s an exciting time.
The elders have identified three options for us moving forward.
First, we can get some help to restructure our staff and establish procedures necessary to continue our mission. This would include launching a capital campaign to raise funds to make our facility what it needs to be to reach more people.
Second, we can partner with another church that has grown through this stage and adopt their procedures and accept their help in moving forward.
Third, we could merge with another church of identical DNA to make us more powerful together than we could be apart.
There is one option that is not on the table and that is to continue as we are just hoping to be able to manage as best we can. Staying as we are does not demonstrate faith, nor is it a way to produce more fruit for the glory of God.
Given where we are as a church and the fact that we’re going to need to be intentional about pursuing all God is calling us to do may I ask you do join in the process with us?
Will you pray? The issues the elders are working through are exciting and complex. We have one goal. We want to produce as much fruit for the glory of God as possible. Which option seems to give us the most opportunity to do that? Please pray.
As we move forward we’ll be asking our family to help us think through these options. Will you take advantage of opportunities to get informed and then pray with the elders about which option seems best? Change is always hard, but change is necessary for us to continue helping more and more people meet God for life. Change always brings pain to some degree and all of our options will include pain. The goal can’t be to chose the path of least pain, but to find the path that seems to provide the greatest potential for creating fruit for the glory of God.
ebc doesn’t belong to any of us. It’s God’s alone. Our job is to steward it for his glory. It is a tool. God has chosen in his grace to bless ebc with more ministry. Our job is to pursue every opportunity we can to help people meet God for life.
I am sure of at least one thing. There is no place I’d rather be and there is nothing I’d rather be doing than working on this mission with you. Our best days are yet ahead and I’m excited to be a part of them.
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Why You’re Not Very Passionate About God

whateverLet’s be honest. The truth is that most of us aren’t very passionate about God. We have to try to muster up the desire to spend a few moments with God once in awhile. And, as long as we’re not walking through some kind of really bad crises, our faith is something we wear next to other things that have a place in our lives. If we’re honest we’re pretty apathetic about God and our faith is mostly a yawn.

Why?
The problem is two-fold. First, most of us feel like we’re really not that bad. We look around and we can easily find lots of people that are a lot worse than we are. Most of us don’t go to the doctor when we’re pretty sure we’re not very sick. If we’re religious we feel smug about the stuff we do in the faith. We might know the Bible and we take pride in that. We might be generous and volunteer our time and do other religious stuff and we feel pretty good about that.
If we’re not religious we tend to feel proud of the fact that at least we’re honest with ourselves about the fact that we’re not religious. At least we’re not hypocritical like all those smug religious people. The Bible calls that kind of pride, for the religious and the not-so-religious, self-righteousness. We tend to tell ourselves that we’re less proud than we used to be, but the point is to be humble, not less self-righteous. But our self-righteous pride is not the only problem. I said the problem was two-fold (Boy there are a lot hyphens in this blug huh?)
The second problem is our view of God. Most of us don’t relate to the God of the Bible. We relate to the God of our imagination. He’s usually sort of like a divine Mr. Rogers. We ask him to change traffic lights when we’re late. We ask him to give us more money when we spend foolishly. You get the idea.
So if I’m really not that bad, and God is really a big divine Mr. Rogers anyway it stands to reason that I’m not going to run to him with great passion. I don’t really need him all that much most of the time and he’s basically a cosmic grandfather anyway.
Our perceptions are broken.
The truth is that you suck. You are so desperately, saturated in putrid sin that you’d puke if you could see yourself accurately. God’s standard is not how much better than someone else you might be, but how perfect you are. He measures what you do, why you do it and what power source you use. That means that you only do what is loving, you do it for God’s glory alone and you are empowered by the Holy Spirit rather than gritting your teeth and toughing it out. Anything less than absolute perfection in all three spheres, all the time, and you’re sunk. Like I said, you suck. And, God’s no Mr. Rogers. God is Holy. Because of that holiness God can’t tolerate sin in any measure. His white hot wrath against sin will endlessly incinerate any unforgiven sin in any form.
May I be frank? If God’s holiness in response to your sin saturated self doesn’t drive you to God you’re stupid.
Fortunately God loves us enough to sacrifice his own, perfect, son. Jesus took your bullet. But until you feel the passion of death row, you’ll never enjoy the exhilaration of your pardon.
So go ahead and ask God to show you your sin. It’ll make you nauseous. But then, take a swim in mercy and grace, drink it in. All of it. Grace is not so much a concept to be understood as it is a pardon to be experienced.
See ya this weekend… thanks for the honor of being your pastor.
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Your Kids Won’t Just Avoid Porn; Deal With It

nopornWhen I was a kid we had a gang that ran around together. We were the “downtown kids” and we had a club. You could join if you could handle the initiation. We played football against the uptown kids and did all kinds of things together. We spent most of our summer days on the Dairy Field, a field comprised entirely of coal dirt about a block from my house. We played baseball, we dared each other to do stupid things and we fought with each other. It was great. To this day the movie Sandlot reminds me of those days. But, not everything we did was innocent. Some of it was really dangerous and some of it was harmful in ways we wouldn’t understand until later. We used to break into the wrecked cars parked behind the Chevy dealer to see what we could find. We found partially smoked cigarettes and we finished them. Sometimes we’d find porn. Mostly we found Playboy magazines and we’d take them to our clubhouse along Black Creek (we had another less gentle name for it) and keep them there. Then we started breaking into houses that had burned down and searching for whatever we could find. It was fun because it had some danger to it (although, our undeveloped minds had no idea how much!). Our porn stash grew. My first exposure to porn came when I was eight years old. I was sleeping over at a friends house. His dad was one of our teachers and he gave us his box of “special magazines” to look through. I told my parents the next morning and they were mortified. But it was too late. I was hooked. Through high school and college I had an on and off relationship with porn. Even after marrying the girl of my dreams I would occasionally look where I shouldn’t look. That is until one day in the 90′s, when I was a father of three small children and God strongly convicted me of my occasional use of porn. I confessed to Bren, I repented, I developed accountability structures that remain to this day. I’m free by God’s grace. And, I’m grateful for that.

About eight years ago I was on a Junior High football bus. I was the only coach on this bus and we had a no cell phone rule. We were coming home from a game in Williamsport. I saw a group of boys staring at a smart phone. They didn’t even notice me going back to them. It was porn. They told me about sharing porn in the lunch room. They told me about sending photos to each other in text messages. They acted like it was normal, and the scary thing is, it is. Porn has become normal.
I’m not going to take any space here to describe the layers of damage that porn does. I’m assuming you already agree that porn is damaging. I’m assuming you want to have a strong strategy for helping those entrusted to your care deal with it. And its not just a male thing any more. The fastest growing segment of porn consumers are female. First exposure to porn for most kids in our culture is around 8 years old.
The church’s response to the porn issue has been atrocious. First we ignored it while ostracizing the participants. Then we hammered people to just stay away from it. The problem is you can’t just stay away from porn. Sooner or later porn is going to find you. It might be on cable television, it might be on Youtube, or a pop up on your browser. Porn will find you and it will find your children. Here is what I think you should do about it.
First, talk to your kids about sex before they’re out of elementary school. And, talk in detail. You’re kids are going to learn about sex from other kids, or from porn or from you. If you feel uncomfortable do it anyway. I remember well the three walks I took with my boys before middle school. I talked about everything, all of it. I taught them slang words they’d be hearing if they hadn’t already. We talked about how “boobs” make them feel and how their bodies would respond. I told them what originally caught my eye about their mother. All of it. They each responded differently. But they were all relieved to have the information. Bren and I still chuckle about those conversations. God loves sex and he wants us to love sex and the only way to do that is to get in front of the culture and manage it for your kids.
Second, give your kids a strategy for dealing with porn. In our house it was simple. Secrets = Sickness. If you have to hide it; avoid it, then share it with me. You need to give your kids a clear plan for what to do when porn presents itself. Help them know what to say if a friend brings something on a smart phone to show them. Tell them exactly what to do on their computer if an image pops up that feels wrong. I’m guessing your kids know what to do if an intruder comes into your home. They probably have a plan if the house catches on fire. They need to have a plan in place for when porn enters the picture because if they try to make a good decision in the midst of those chemicals being released in their brain it won’t happen.
Third, display appropriate affection in front of your kids. Sure they’ll tell you to get a room. Tell them that’s a great idea! Hug your spouse, kiss… kiss long. Be affectionate so your kids have an idea what appropriate relationship looks like.
You can’t protect your kids from porn, but porn doesn’t have to win. You can help your kids successfully navigate the world they’re growing up in.
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Moving Forward When You Can’t See

indecisionYou might remember that I had Lasik surgery on my eyes in December. The results were not quite what I had hoped for so the doctors have been searching for a solution. It was decided that part of my problem is that my right eyelid (and perhaps my left) is “loose” and not effectively cleaning my eye when I blink. So I have a film over my eye that is hard to see through and I get a lot of “stuff” kind of leaking out.  So, now that I’ve grossed you out, the doctors decided to cut a chunk of my eyelid out to make it tighter on my eyeball. That procedure happened this week. All went well, but I look like I lost a UFC fight. I can’t see much of anything out of my right eye. During these few days of recovery I’m being reminded of the essentials of moving forward when you can’t see. Some of you are there right now. You have to make a decision, but you’re struggling. The future is cloudy. You’re trying to discern God’s will for your next steps but you’re stuck. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Do what you can to see clearly. My doctor told me to keep an ice pack on my eye for 20 minutes of every hour for the first three days. I failed. I just can’t do that and take care of some of my other responsibilities. But I can keep ice on my most of the time. The ice will cause the swelling to go down and lessen the pain. It’s the same for you. You probably can’t create an ideal circumstance to make your decision, but you can ask for wisdom (James 1:5). You can search God’s Word for insight. You can gather all the information you can that will inform your decision. We move forward best when we’re intentional.
Accept help. The evening of my little procedure I had some pain and I couldn’t see much of anything. I had to ask Bren to help me with some things that I’d normally do for myself. I don’t like that. But it was cool. She was more than happy to help and we got to laugh through some stuff together. Now we have another little shared experience together that is a part of our life. Jesus followers live in community. There is no room for solo Christianity. When you have to move forward and you can’t see what you need to see get some help. Ask for some perspective from believers you respect. Let your small group help you process your thoughts. A burden shared is a burden made lighter.
Remember its no more than a season. About two weeks from now my eye should be completely normal again. This is a minor inconvenience for a brief period of time. It’s the same for you when you have to move forward without all the data you’d like to have. It’s a season and it’s not going to make or break you. There is nothing that really matters about you on the line because everything that matters is already decided by God. If you’re in Christ, the rest really is just details. Relax in that and enjoy God’s protection for you.
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Is God Selfish?

isgodselfishWe’re making the point at the beginning of our new series, Big Stuff, that God is most passionate about his own glory. He created the world and us, he pursues us with outrageous love of another kind, he gives us new life with Him, all for his glory. God’s glory (his “spectacularness”) is the blazing center of all that exists.

But if God is most passionate about his own glory doesn’t that make him selfish? No. In fact, God is the only being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the ultimately loving act. The reason for that is because the one thing that satisfies my human heart more than anything else is the glory and beauty of God. God upholds, defends and preserves his glory because without his glory no one could be satisfied.
Think of it this way; the one thing I need more than anything else in any second of any day is mercy. I desperately need to be freed from what I deserve in my sin. I need to escape from the just results of my own decisions because my own decisions (my sin) require swift and severe punishment from God. Because God is holy, His wrath against sin is fierce. But God chooses to give me mercy, not because I deserve (it wouldn’t be mercy in that case) but because he is merciful. What God does for me is because of who he is, not because of who I am. That’s why Romans 15:9 says that the reason Jesus came into the world was “in order that the Gentiles would glorify God for his mercy.”
So when God chooses to give me what I desperately need (mercy) and what I desperately crave (grace) his glory is magnified because both mercy and grace are gifts that come from who God is. It is the most loving thing in the universe for God to preserve and protect his own glory because in doing so he gives us what desperately need. Something to think about as we begin Big Stuff!
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Why Collaboration?

collaborationThe elders and I went on a field trip this past Sunday. We traveled up to Wilkes Barre to attend Restored Church. It’s a new church plant in center city Wilkes Barre. In a few weeks we’ll be traveling south to LCBC Branch Creek, the newest campus of Lives Changed By Christ a church from whom we’ve been learning for several years. I regularly meet with other pastors to share what we’re learning and to learn from them.

After 30 years of ministry, much of it watching various churches and organizations try to go it alone, I’ve come to the conclusion that no church or organization can magnify the glory of God well without collaboration. In the same way that Jesus followers can’t grow without community, neither can organizations.
In fact, I’m ashamed, and have repented, of the more separatist thinking of my earliest days. Obviously collaboration has to be limited to those who embrace the same core truths that we embrace, but we have much to learn from those on mission with God who may be using other methods or reaching other places. We also have much to learn from those who are doing essentially the same thing we are. Collaboration helps us avoid mistakes made by other ministries and to learn from their successes.
The need for collaboration is hard wired into us as image bearers of God. God exists in relationship with himself, he collaborates with himself. In Genesis 1 and 3 God even refers to himself in the plural.
In Exodus 18 Moses gets some great advice from his father-in-law when he tries to bear the load of leadership alone. Jethro tells Moses; “This is not good.” And he was right.
Even the launch of the most powerful force on the planet was infused with collaboration. As the church launched and God used different people and gifts to accomplish different things in different ways the Apostles and others collaborated regularly to learn from one another and to hold one another accountable (Acts 11). As the church matured these times of collaboration were called councils (Acts 15).
The public letters (epistles) written to the church, which have been preserved for us in the New Testament are fraught with references to collaboration between leaders.
The reasons some of us don’t collaborate, if we’re honest, are rooted in pride and arrogance. An isolated church or organization, just like an isolated Jesus follower is going to become increasingly ineffective and dysfunctional (usually marked by bitterness and being judgmental).
Collaboration will play an increasing role in the life of ebc as we continue to pursue the mission that God has entrusted to our care. Our best days are yet ahead, and I’m pretty excited about that.
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How To Disagree Well

disagreeThere are times (this will surprise some of you) when my bride, with whom I am deeply in love, and I disagree about things. We’re different people with different skills and perspectives and we see things differently. Sometimes those disagreements get heated and feelings are hurt and we feel alienated from each other. Over the years we’ve become much better at disagreeing well. We’re to the point now where many times our disagreements are springboards for a deeper relationships because of what we learn about each other through them. These lessons don’t only work in marital conflict, but any kind of conflict. Try em and watch your relationship improve.

Agree on understanding before disagreeing on assumptions. James 1:19 says it this way; be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry. In practical terms that means that we’re not ready to disagree, or I’m not ready to criticize until I can state her position in a way with which she’d agree. Until I can say what she means the way she’d say it I have nothing to disagree with because I don’t really know her position, I only know the position I’ve assumed she has taken. My guess is that at least 75% of our disagreements would be alleviated if we used this simple rule.
As a pastor of a church like ebc I receive a lot of criticism. In some cases the person criticizing has constructed an emotional radical perspective that I don’t hold, but they assign it to me based on their interpretation of something they heard or read and then criticize it. Sometimes I’m a sloppy communicator and open the door to misunderstanding, sometimes folks read into what I say, either way, those issues could be easily resolved with a simple “is this what you meant to say?”
Recognize that being correct isn’t the most important thing. This is a tough one for most of us. Everyone agrees with themselves, so everyone thinks their perspective is the correct one. But here’s the thing, in most cases, unity is more important than being right (1 Cor. 1:10; 1 Pet. 3:8; Phil 2:2-3, 1:27; Col. 3:14; 2 Cor. 13:11; Rom 15:6, 14:19; Eph. 4:1-6). The Bible is abundantly clear about the priority of unity for sake of God’s glory. The problem is that most of us (myself included) are arrogant enough to believe that our perspectives are the ones that are so correct that they’re worth sacrificing unity for. Not true. We can hold our perspectives strongly and still be humble enough to come together for the sake of the bigger picture. One of the keys to the strength of my friendship with Bren at this stage of our partnership is simply that we concede things that just aren’t worth arguing over (even if we feel very strongly about them).
On what hills will you die? Think of the last relationship that died in your life. Was the hill you died on worth the cost? When you get right down to it there are very few things that are worth sacrificing relationships for. I don’t want to come to the end of my life and have a string of broken relationships because I was only willing to work and live with people who were just like me. In marriage, in parenting, at work, at church, what are the things over which you think Jesus would sever a relationship? Does your list match his?
The Bible tells us that we should do everything so that God’s awesomeness is magnified in us (1 Cor. 10:31). That includes the way we disagree with each other. Disagreements can be very healthy for relationships and organizations, but let’s disagree to the glory of God.
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Church Membership?

membershipI get this membership question a lot, and its usually phrased this way; “Why should I join a church when there is no membership in the Bible? It’s a great question, one that I’ve wrestled with a lot personally. And, its true, there is no local church membership, at least the way we do it in our culture, in the Bible. However, neither does the Bible have any tax deductions for donations, or church’s that are registered corporations with the government that own real estate and employ a staff of people. The New Testament doesn’t exist in a culture where there are numerous expressions of the faith in each community. And, the New Testament isn’t written in a culture where there was a very real risk of civil litigation as a result of living out biblical community and discipline.

The New Testament assumes something that we can’t, and that is that those attending a local church already knew they were under the authority of the leadership of that family and accountable for community life within it (Romans 12:4-5; Hebrews 13:17). So, yes, I think church membership is important. But, there are a couple things to keep in mind.
Joining a church has nothing to do with how much God loves you or whether you’ll go to heaven. There are lots of folks who hold church membership that aren’t trusting Jesus to save them. Church membership is eternally useless to them. Membership doesn’t get you more points with God. At the moment you trust Christ to save you, you are adopted into God’s church. Your local church membership is simply an expression of affiliation with a local expression of that universal family.
Join a church where Jesus is the head, and not just in name. Jesus is the leader of the church. He’s the owner (Colossians 1:18). Lots of churches talk like Jesus is in charge, find a church where Jesus is central to the decision making. At ebc we just formalized the role of our elders. They do one thing… they “represent the interest of the owner (Jesus).” In every conversation their job is to make sure that whatever is proposed or under discussion is a reflection of what we believe Jesus would have us do, the way he would have us do it.
Join a church where the Bible is the final authority. Enough said.
 
Join a church where the mission and methods energize you. The Bible says precious little about how to do church. There are lots of good ways to do church and God uses those different methodologies and strategies to reach lots of different kinds of people. You need to find a church that fits what God is doing in you and get involved in serving others.
Embrace the mess. Church is messy because its full of people. The leaders will make mistakes, some of the sermons will stink, people will say stupid things, the music will be too (loud, soft, modern, old, etc.). Sooner or later you’re going to be offended. The church is led by fundamentally flawed people who are deeply wounded who lead fundamentally flawed people who are deeply wounded. Some people are easily offended and others offend easily. Don’t be surprised by it, expect it.
The church is the hope of the world. God uses the church to change people. We see it all the time. Marriages are healed, addictions managed, new life is granted by grace and people are changed. The church is God’s singular strategy for the world, there is no plan B. At the end of the day its so worth it. You have no better opportunity to be a part of something so much bigger than you that will never, ever die.
Do it. Find a church. Join it. Pitch in. Enjoy the process and results.
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Uncommon

I’m giving this space away this week. In a world where life is reduced to 140 characters per tweet God is raising up some younger men and women who can communicate volumes in just moments. And besides…. this is the perfect introduction to what we’ll be talking about this weekend as we end our series “Uncommon Courage.” Hope to see you. It’s less than five minutes… His name is Clayton Jennings. Well said Clayton…. 

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Summer Parenting Priority

parentingOur college students have returned home for the summer. High school graduations are only days away, elementary field trips are underway as teachers wind down their time with our kids. Summer presents a golden opportunity for parents to accomplish big work with their kids. Even if you have kids that are over programmed, over scheduled and over committed you should still have a more relaxed overall schedule to connect this summer. Unfortunately most parents will fail, not because they didn’t want to connect, not because they didn’t try to connect, but because they don’t really know how to connect with their kids. As parents we have a tendency to think that most communication has to go from us to them. We have things we want to tell them, values we want to impart, maturity we want to cultivate so we end up talking at them rather than connecting with them.

In the same way that Jesus came to us to live in our world and experience our struggles as we do, parents have to understand that connecting with our kids begins not where we are, but where they are. Connecting and communicating are different things. Communicating works best after a connection has been established but most parents aren’t patient enough to let the connection happen.  The most we parents can do is create an environment where connections can be established. You have to find what works for your kids. It took me a long time to learn how to connect with my boys. I had to stop pushing. I had to stop asking questions that would set up the opportunity to say what I thought I needed to say. This will offend some of you, but what worked for me was building a camp fire and lighting up a couple stinky cigars and sitting and waiting. It has become a regular thing for my sons and I now. When we’re together we make a fire, and light up some stogies. Then I can listen, I learn what’s really happening in their lives. It’s a connection. From that connection I can encourage them, sometimes I can even give some advice (if they ask for it). The connection is what matters because you can’t do anything of value until you’ve connected.
This summer you have a rare and diminishing opportunity to really connect with your kids. Be intentional, go for it.
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