A Note From Pastor Scott

2014-01-11 10.13.11ebc is a gift. It is a trophy of God’s grace. That means that we don’t deserve to be the growing, vibrant church family that we are, but God chose to make it happen for his glory.

As a leader, working with the elders, it’s my job to constantly look toward the future and ask the question “What do we need to do now so we’re ready for what will happen down the road?” All of our easy growth and impact has happened. Our building is serving far more people than it was designed to serve. Our staff is doing an incredible job serving our family through systems that were designed for far fewer people. For well over a year the elders have been praying through our options as a family for our next steps. One key event that I now see as hinge point in our discussions happened through a mentor that God provided for our elders. His name is Bernie May Jr and he is a missionary kid who recently retired as a Vice President of State Farm Insurance Company. Bernie is a gifted organizational thinker who has helped a number of Christian non-profits. He loves the Lord and graciously volunteered his time to serve our elders. He even paid his own travel expenses from his home in Ohio to come on a few occasions to spend time with our men. Bernie challenged our elders to think of their organizational responsibility as representing the interests of the owner. What outcomes does the owner desire? What policies should be in place that guide how those outcomes would be achieved? What key personnel need to be in place and what authority do they need to accomplish those outcomes? What kind of monitoring and accountability structures would the owner want?
One thing that can be very hard for church leaders is balancing the tension that exists between the various constituencies that are served. Long term members have different needs and desires than those yet to be reached. Volunteers make everything happen and have different needs and expectations than employees on staff. Balancing the tensions can cloud the decision making process. With the new clarity afforded by the priority of representing the interests of the owner the elders were able to begin to see more clearly. They established three distinct options which I blogged about here.
No decisions have been made. And, over the next two weekends we’ll be talking about our future and the issues and options that we’ll face as a family. We’ll be starting a conversation. I hope you’ll be able to make it. Our best days are yet ahead and you’re here for the launch of a very special chapter in the life of our ebc family and the Susquehanna Valley.
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On Ferguson and Talking Too Much

fergusonThere has been no getting away from the events of Furgeson, Mo. this week as a young black man was shot and killed during an encounter with a police officer. Riots and looting have consumed the narrative of our country while our culture becomes increasingly polarized. In spite of the reality that the facts of what actually happened during that encounter have not been uncovered or released everyone from the talking heads on news shows to regular folks on facebook have been trumpeting their opinions as if somehow they have the last and final word on the tragedy.

How can we as followers of Jesus charged with reflecting his glory navigate situations like this without becoming part of the problem?
First, James nails it when he wrote (1:19) be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry. Isn’t it amazing how loudly we can express strong opinions without even knowing what actually happened? I’ve been purposeful to watch news coverage from a few different organizations as they report about what’s happening in Ferguson and I’ve been amazed at how radically different perspectives can be based on personal bias.
So first, be quiet. Our opinions are not as important as we think they are. In fact, our opinions just add to the polarizing of our culture and accomplish essentially nothing else.
Second Listen. We are horrible listeners. We’re too busy talking, and when we are listening we’re usually listening to someone we agree with which emboldens our perspective even more. The truth is I’m a white middle class male. I have had opportunities that have come to me because of that. I just have. All three of my sons were raised as white middle class men. Partly because of their cultural heritage, they all have college educations and one of them is a police officer in a metro area. There is no way I can look at the events surrounding Ferguson objectively. I don’t need to saturate myself with more of what I already know. I need to try and empathize with what it might be like to grow up as a poor African American in the inner city. The truth is that these situations are never as cut and dried as we want them to be. Reality is always messier than the polarizing arguments we use to describe it.
Justice really matters to God. He invented it. Pray for it. But in the midst of praying for justice, show mercy to everyone. You can’t take a breath without mercy from God. Every second of every day you exist you drink deeply of mercy because God has chosen not to give you what you deserve. We have an opportunity to bring much needed refreshment to our culture by being merciful in the midst of a emotionally charged circumstance.
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Wedding Dresses and Being Missional

refuse serviceI’m breaking my own rule again. I’m going to address something that is far too complex for a short blog post, but heck, rules were made to be broken. There has been much in the news in our area lately about the owner of a bridal shop who refused to sell a wedding dress to a lesbian couple. Not surprisingly, the outcry has been loud and polarized as we tend to have a really hard time talking to one another when we feel strongly about things. The engaged couple just wants to get married and the couple that owns the bridal shop just wants to be faithful to how they understand their faith. I know that the couple that owns the bridal shop has received vicious communications and threats (I don’t know them personally). That’s probably true of the engaged couple too. We’re really good at demonizing people rather than talking to them.

As followers of Jesus, how do we navigate issues like this?

The Apostle Paul was a guy who hated Christians until he became one. He was a very well educated and bright man. He wrote a letter to a church that gathered in a place called Corinth. They were having huge problems. People were getting drunk at communion, they were discriminating against poorer people, and there were some major sexual sins going on in the church. Here is a section of what he wrote (5:9-12): When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. 10 But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. 11 I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people. 12 It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning.

There is a place for holding people to biblical standards and that place is the church. There are people to gently, graciously and patiently hold accountable to biblical standards and those people are Christ followers. I affirm that a business owner ought to be able to do business with whomever they want. That’s a business decision and if a company is privately held the owners are free to make those decisions and to live with the consequences whether they’re profitable or not. But to deny service to a particular group because of a particular sin is a very difficult thing with which to be consistent. Should a Christian restaurateur refuse service to a glutton (sheesh, most churches I know don’t think anything of gluttony)? Should a bridal company owned by Christians sell to divorcees?

Peter gives us a very succinct principle for how to navigate the complexities of society (1 Peter 2:9b) …you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. He then goes on to say (v.12) Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.

 The truth is that we can’t impact people with whom we refuse to be in relationship. Jesus was constantly in trouble with the religious leaders of his day for hanging out with those who really needed him. As the church we need to be really careful about asking people to behave like we think Christians should behave when they may not even be Christians (truthfully, we don’t behave like Christians very much either).

So maybe we can take a breath and remember our purpose for being in the world as Christ followers in the first place. 

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Can’t We Get Over Being Missional?

missionalOur church is a missional church. To us, that means that we don’t exist for ourselves we exist for a mission that is outside of ourselves. We exist not to satisfy our own theological curiosity or to supply a pleasant social life with like-mined Christian people. We exist to introduce the communities we serve to God and to help them live life in response to his revelation of himself.

Fundamentally, that’s what is different about us. Often, churches drift toward being about themselves. They’re about pleasing the people that are a part of the group by giving them what they want (that’s why churches fight so much, it’s hard to agree on what everyone wants). I’m not saying that is necessarily a bad thing, it’s just not us. It’s not what God is asking us to do. And it’s certainly not something to which I’m willing to give my life. My guess is you’re not either.
So, why are we a missional church? Or maybe a better way to say it is why must we be a missional church? Or still better, why can’t we be anything but a missional church?
The short answer is this: It is inappropriate to separate the mission of God from the study of God.
Far too often the church has separated theology (the study of the character and nature of God) from missiology (the study of God’s mission).
God has revealed himself in his Word. Through the Bible we know that God is holy, sovereign, all-knowing, omnipresent, gracious, just, loving and all-powerful. Knowing those truths about God is important. Having a sense of the vast, perfect nature of God is vital to following him. It’s a good thing to study God’s revelation about himself and we should do that.
However, it’s worth asking why God chose to reveal himself in his Word. Is God’s desire that his creation be able to have some intellectual understanding of who he is, or is there something deeper involved?
Here’s the thing. The Bible doesn’t just present a God that is. The Bible presents a God that is on a mission. The Hebrew Bible (OT) and the New Testament alike reveal that God’s revelation of himself is for the purpose of inviting us to a relationship with him (Duet. 6:5; Luke 10:27). The invasion of earth by God himself in the form of Jesus shows that God is not only on a mission, but that he is willing pay dearly for that mission.
God reveals himself to invite us to love him, to find, in him, new life. Better life.
A missional church refuses to separate what God reveals about himself theologically from what he does missionally. In fact, our theology gets wacky (that’s a technical term) when it’s separated from the mission, and our mission gets soft when it’s separated from our theology.
When my goal is simply to learn God becomes an abstract figure to be studied. When my goal is only to help people I have nothing of substance to offer them that has any real hope for them (except just becoming like me and who would want that?!).
But, when I learn about God in the context of his passionate mission to save me I become consumed by a relationship that changes me as I offer a hand to others who need the same thing.
That’s why we’re a missional church and we refuse to be anything but a missional church.
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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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