Friday, September 29, 2023


We've been talking this week about rest - physical rest and spiritual rest - and even though we haven't been talking about sleep specifically, we have been able to draw some helpful comparisons between sleep and spiritual rest. As much as we've said that rest is so much more than sleep, we have to be clear about one other thing that leads to a common misunderstanding: 

Rest is not idleness.

Rest, real rest, is not "doing nothing." It is also not refusing to do anything. Too often, we see someone who is claiming to try to rest who says, "I can't do that right now. I'm resting." But resting is not idleness; it is a movement. 

It is a movement toward the goodness of God, which is known powerfully through stillness. It is a settling of the soul into an active rhythm of engagement. 

We'll go back to sleep again because it's just so easy to do when we're talking about this subject, but what are you doing when you sleep? To many of us, so driven by our go-go-go-and-accomplish culture, we're not doing anything when we sleep. We're not getting anything done, so we must not be doing anything. We go to sleep, and all of the things that we needed to do before we laid down are somehow still there when we get up, untouched. Our to-do list seems exactly as long after a nap as it was before it. Because sleep doesn't do anything. 

But just because it doesn't do anything doesn't mean we're not doing anything. It doesn't mean nothing is happening. Actually, a lot is happening while we sleep. 

While we sleep, our bodies are putting themselves back together. They are creating new cells, fighting threats, restoring us to our solid baseline - and that's not nothing. Our brains are processing all of the things that we've experienced since we last slept, sorting out memories into keepers and those than can go in the rubbish bin, creating new pathways to solidify the things that we have learned over the past few hours. 

Sleep doesn't look active, but a lot is going on. A lot is being accomplished, even if it's not things that we could check off a list. 

The same is true with rest - it's not idle. A lot is going on. Rest is a restorative and a building process, a time when we are putting ourselves back together, creating new cells, building new pathways, storing new memories. We're processing a lot when we rest, putting the pieces together, and it's not nothing. 

As such, we have to remember that even at rest, we are active beings, and we need not be afraid of having our rest "interrupted" by movement. It's just that whatever movement we engage in at rest must be purposeful movement. It must have at its center the emphasis on rest. 

Monks have written about this for centuries, but we don't seem to understand it the way most of us are wired. There are ways to restfully wash the dishes, to restfully mow the yard. To be at rest while accomplishing that next thing, whatever it is. We're so wired to think that rest requires nothingness, but the contemplatives have always known that rest is a state of being that can accommodate nearly anything, as long as we are restfully intentional about it. 

To that end, here is a good question to ask yourself in seasons or periods of rest: if someone were to interrupt your rest, would you be prone to fly off the handle at them, start yelling and screaming or holding a grudge, maybe curse a little, tell them that you can't be bothered right now and push them away because you're "resting"? Well, gosh, that doesn't sound very restful! In fact, I would say that if this is the case, you are not really resting at all. 

What would it mean to you if your rest was more than idleness? If when you were at rest, you were doing more than nothing?  

Thursday, September 28, 2023


As we talk about rest, we're still not talking about sleep, but there is something else about sleep that helps us to understand the importance of rest. And that is "dreaming." 

Science has long been interested in the idea of dreaming, and for a long time, the field believed that humans only dream during REM stages of sleep, when our brains are active but our bodies are not. but in more recent years, science has found that we actually dream during other stages of our sleep, too, but what and how we dream in each stage is unique. 

In REM sleep, as was first discovered, our dreams are typically more vivid. The deep rest that our bodies have entered into allow our minds to do complex work while our bodies remain inactive, which gets some major heavy-duty processing done. But if we're sleeping more lightly, we might be more prone to fitful dreams. Or surface dreams - without the deeper meaning we're used to thinking of with dreams because our deeper processing centers are less involved. 

No one wakes up from a light sleep dream and is tempted to ask the internet what it means. We know what it means. But those REM dreams.... 

And the same is true about spiritual rest and dreaming. 

When we enter into deepest spiritual rest, we dream more vividly. We dream more vibrantly. We start to have these grand visions, and understandings, about what God can do in the world and what our small part in that might be. We dream with courage and complexity and a heavy investment in processing because our entire being can be engaged with the process of dreaming. 

But for someone who never enters into deep spiritual rest, someone who dabbles with their spiritual eyes closed for concentration from time to time, dreaming is harder. It's always surface-level. It's always small and practical and simple. It's always the most basic thing. 

For a long time, these simple, small dreams are enough to keep a person afloat. In fact, many Christians go through their entire lives with nothing more. These small dreams are the kind that confirm our faith without demanding too much of it. They are the kind that remind us of the goodness of God without necessarily requiring it. They make us feel good, make us feel like we have our eyes on the bigger things, but they're surface-level. There's not a lot of substance to them. 

Because they aren't deep enough in our soul to get our complex processing systems involved. 

This kind of dreaming often helps us live a "nice" life, that really the goal? Is that really what you want for yourself? It's certainly not what God wants for you. 

The kind of life God wants for you requires deep-processing dreaming. It requires big, crazy, audacious dreams that, if you weren't in such a solid, profound state of rest, you'd be tempted to run out right now and get yourself in trouble with. They're the kind of dreams you have and you have to spend some time figuring out what they mean, lest you just start shaking your head and thinking you might be a little bit crazy. 

And that deep-processing dreaming requires a certain depth of spiritual rest. 

Let me ask you something, because it's what I was asking myself when the idea for this post popped into my heart: 

When was the last time you really dreamed?

If it's been awhile, when was the last time you truly rested? 

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Spiritual Rest

We looked at how rest - or lack thereof - affects us when it comes to sleep. And we know this. We all know someone who doesn't get enough, or doesn't get good enough, sleep and they're unhealthy across a wide spectrum of criteria: they're cranky, overweight, out of shape, depressed, with high blood pressure and so on and so on. We know that. 

Did you know that a lack of spiritual rest does the same thing to us?

Yes, it's true. A lack of spiritual rest - a lack of soul rest - can make us cranky or depressed or anxious. It can cause us to overeat and underexercise, leading us to become overweight. It can raise our blood pressure from stress alone. And so on and so on and so on. All of the things that a lack of physical rest can do to us, a lack of spiritual rest can also do. 

And perhaps most distressingly, a lack of spiritual rest can cause us to lose our spiritual passion. It can numb us to our spiritual ache. It can take us to a place where, in search of rest, we end up disconnecting altogether because we just can't do it any more. 

If you have one worship leader in your church, I guarantee he or she is feeling this. If you have one preaching pastor, I guarantee you that he or she has felt this. 

Many years ago, I was a high school student/young adult in my church, and I fell into the audio/visual ministry (by virtue of initially volunteering, but then I got stuck). For nearly six years, I was running audio or video or both every weekend for our Sunday service. These were the old days - PowerPoint and an analog mixing board. None of the fancy stuff that we have now. And I didn't think that it was affecting me. 

We also had one guy running the front-of-house production - in other words, leading worship. And I'll never forget the first time he came to me and said he and his family were going to a different church on Sunday. "Sometimes," he said, "You have to have a chance to be a worshiper and not lead the worship all the time." 

That really stuck with me. It prompted me to take a Sunday off and get out of the sound booth and go sit in the sanctuary with the rest of the congregation, and I'm telling you - that Sunday hit me hard. It was an entirely different experience than I'd had in nearly six years. It revolutionized the way that I thought about church and service in the church. (And some reading I've done in the past year or so has revolutionized it again, in an even healthier way, I think.) 

Not everyone knows how to break away like this, though, and get some of that balance - some of that spiritual rest - built in. And the result is that a lot of persons end up leaving the church because of it. If not leaving the church altogether, they are leaving their church, the one they have poured their heart into for many years. 

It's because they come to our churches, they plug in, they pour out, and they aren't being filled up. You can't fill something up if you're actively pouring out of it. Go try it. It doesn't work. You cannot put a pitcher under the faucet and pour stuff out of it while running the faucet into it and expect it to fill up. There has to be more stillness in it than movement, more rest than motion. Otherwise, it will never fill and before long, you'll have an empty pitcher. 

Our churches are full of empty pitchers. And there just comes a point when that emptiness becomes too much to bear and church becomes just one more thing to do and all of life feels frazzled and what was that that Jesus said about the yoke being easy? Ha! 

So spiritual rest is important, too. We need it.  

Tuesday, September 26, 2023


We're talking about rest. And we established that even though we're talking about rest, we're not really necessarily talking about sleep. But...

Let's talk about sleep for a minute. 

Because it's the easiest comparison that we have for rest.

Have you ever met someone who doesn't sleep much? Or who doesn't sleep well? Are you the kind of person who runs yourself ragged and only has a couple of hours a night to lie in your actual bed? There are all kinds of reasons that we might not sleep well - stress, anxiety, workaholism, medical conditions, our external circumstances (like not having a safe space or something sufficient to sleep on), daylight saving time leaving the sun out until almost midnight, dogs barking next door, and on and on the list goes. 

Have you noticed what happens when we don't sleep well, though?

We become irritable. We become cranky. We start to eat more, which affects our blood sugar and metabolism and waistline. We start to require naps during the day, cutting into our productivity. We develop high blood pressure, put ourselves at risks for strokes and heart attacks. Our bodies start to deteriorate. Our minds start to deteriorate. Our hearts start to deteriorate. Our attitudes start to tank. We slowly but surely lose recognition of ourselves in the mirror. And those around us can tell that something is wrong. We can't hide our lack of sleep for very long. 

I remember my dad passing out asleep on the floor most afternoons. He was always exhausted and suffered from extremely high blood pressure most of the time I knew him. I have another relative who works, consistently, more than 100 hours per week and had an aneurysm extremely young. Someone else I know has been in numerous car crashes, most due to exhaustion. Yet someone else sneaks into their office for some "quiet time" each afternoon because he's just too tired to do anything else at the moment. Since I had Covid three years ago, I think I have had at least one nap every day. 

We are a people who are not getting quality sleep. 

On the other hand, do you know folks who suddenly developed a little pep in their step? Whose entire countenance changed since the last time you saw them? Who suddenly seem like the person you always thought they were, except they used to constantly be clouded by a shadow of exhaustion? When that shadow lifts, others can notice a big difference. And so many times, that big difference is that that person figured out how to get some better sleep. 

They started sleeping in a different room from their spouse, to get away from the snoring or to accommodate different waking schedules. They cut out coffee after noon and are falling asleep faster. They talked to their doctor about chronic pain or shortness of breath or acid reflux or whatever it was that was waking them up at night and found a solution that allows them to fall asleep and stay asleep. When we make a change and start to sleep well, we feel rested, and it reflects in every other part of our life. 

This is what rest does for us, too. And again, it doesn't have to be sleep, but we can see it really easily in sleep. Rest changes everything. 

Monday, September 25, 2023

An Unpopular Command

God is famous for having given us ten commandments to follow, ten simple rules that God believes will help us establish a life not just of righteousness, but of goodness. And for the most part, the list seems doable. Almost naturally doable in most cases. 

For example, I have never coveted my neighbor's donkey. (I have admired it, but never coveted it.) 

Seriously, though, most of us would not consider killing someone else. Most of us would not consider stealing. Most of us at least acknowledge that we are meant to honor our parents. (This gets complicated when parent actions are not necessarily worth honoring, and it makes the line really hard. I will also confess that our current culture seems to applaud rejecting parents as all horrible and trauma-inducing. That makes me sad.) But the point is - the commandments make sense, and we can follow many of them without even thinking too hard about it. 

But one that we seem to struggle with comes actually very early in the list - it's rest. God commands us to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy by resting

Rest is not a word that comes naturally in our culture. The lives we live are packed full from one minute to the next, and it's hard for any of us to squeeze a breath in edgewise. This is only all the more true in our constantly-connected world, where we hold our primary communication devices in the palm of our hands even when we're not communicating with anyone. It's no wonder that we're answering work emails off-the-clock, interrupting our dinners to respond to that friend, stopping in the middle of the grocery store to search for the answer to that question that we had. Our lives are constant, or so it seems, and we have almost completely lost the art of rest. 

When we talk about rest, I'm not talking about a quick nap in the middle of the day to recharge our juices or a full eight hours of sleep at night, although those things can definitely be part of it. I'm talking about slowing down and unplugging for long enough that we can feel the actual stillness in the depth of our soul and take one breath, even one breath, that isn't hurried into the next one. 

God actually gives two reasons in the Bible for our rest, but both are in remembrance of Him. When He first gives the commandment, it centers on the seventh day of creation, when God Himself rested because everything was "very good." This is the one we usually go back to when we talk about Sabbath and rest. But later, when God repeats the commandment to rest, He says it is because He led His people out of slavery in Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land. In other words, we rest because we aren't slaves any more. (Except, of course, that we have made ourselves slaves again to the world that we live in.) Slaves don't get rest; children of God do. 

Still, we're tempted to think that rest is less important than the other things God commands us to do. We tend to think that it's a little more optional, that rest is something that we do when we need it and we're thankful to God that it is there as an option, but in the meantime, we continue to go, go, go, go, go. IT's the same way we talk to the doctor when he prescribes a medication for something we think we ought to be able to will ourselves through - we don't want the medicine, thank you anyway. We'll get through this without it. 

So, too, we say that we'll get through our lives without rest. But...we don't. 

We are one of the most exhausted, depressed, anxious, worn-out, worn-down, defeated generations to have ever walked the planet, and one big reason for that is because we are a generation who just doesn't rest any more. We don't let things go on without us. We don't believe the world can spin unless we are running in the hamster wheel. We think others will think less of us if we insist on rest, as if we are weak or something. Or fragile. So we're paying the price for our lack of rest and instead, we're talking about all of these other things, trying to find solutions to our exhaustion, depression, anxiety, wornness, defeat. 

But the answer is simple, and God's been telling us all along: it's rest. 

Let's talk about rest, then. 

Friday, September 22, 2023

What We Need

I ended yesterday's post by saying something that strikes most persons a little hard - that one of the justifications we use for doing things we feel in our hearts God doesn't want us to do is because we "have" to. Because "that's the way the world works." We might even say things like, "I don't like it, but it's necessary." 

And what I said yesterday, it's not. It's not necessary. 

That probably hits some folks too hard. I can hear you right now. "Yes, it is. That's how the world works, and I live here, and I have to make a way to live in this world." In fact, there have been persons in my life who have called me naive for holding to this idea - that we don't have to live the way the world works. Naive. "You just don't understand. Maybe when you're older." In fact, when I continue to hold to this idea, they look at me snidely, a little condescendingly. "How can you be so smart and so stupid at the same time?" 

It's a gift. 

But listen, I'm not immune to the way this world works. I don't have some kind of magical power that lets me live without the consequences of such a perspective. Actually, I sometimes pay a high price for holding to this conviction. 

And that's really what folks are saying. When folks say that they "have" to do something they wouldn't otherwise do because it's "necessary," what they are really saying is that it is infinitely more convenient. It's easier. It lets them go with the flow instead of spending their life swimming upstream. 

Remember when God said we would be fishers of men? Well, fishermen back in those days weren't using poles; they were using nets. And the only way to really catch a fish using a net is to move it in a different direction than it's trying to swim. In other words, the only way to really catch a fish using a net is to go against the flow. 

And here we are.

The world doesn't know the glory of God when they think it looks just like them. They don't understand the love of Christ when it doesn't look any different than the love of the world. They don't get that there is a better way unless someone is out there actively living it. And that means that we are a people called to live against the flow - against the way that the world says that it works. Against the way that seems "necessary." Against the things we think we "have" to do. 

Is it easy? No. Is it terrifying? A lot of the time. Do I have nights where I just weep with an overwhelming feeling of insecurity because I am trying to work within the world's structures without using them to actually structure my life and it feels like I don't have enough and won't ever have enough and am completely incapable of acquiring and/or securing the things that I think I "need" (though most are truly just strong "wants")? Yup. Quite a bit. 

But has God ever let me down? Not once. Never. 

Call me naive. Go ahead. But it's not because I don't understand. 

It's because I do. 

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Along for the Ride

So, then, if sin is not relative and if it's true that we have a common standard for living well together (that may or may not be based on our understanding of sin), then what are we to make of an idea like the Amish riding in a car with an English when the Amish believe it best in God's eyes that they don't drive cars?

Isn't this really just letting someone else do our sinning for us and tagging along for the ride? 

As I started to think about this post, I couldn't help but think of Adam and Eve. Remember their story? They are wandering in the garden, and the serpent comes along and tells Eve about this amazing fruit that she knows she's not supposed to eat. She picks some, eats it, and gives it to Adam, who also eats it. Then, when God comes along and asks what happened, Eve says it was the serpent and Adam says it was Eve and everyone is basically saying, I didn't sin; someone else sinned, and I just happened to be there and it rubbed off on me. 

I didn't drive the car, God. The English was already driving it, and I just got in and went for a ride. 

In our secular law, we have statutes that say that it doesn't matter. If you are sitting in a car parked on the street and your buddy runs into a house real quick and shoots the homeowner, you can be charged with murder. Just by being there. If you are hanging out on a street corner and your friend goes and robs the gas station real quick, guess what. You can be charged with the robbery. Because you were there. 

I don't think God is impressed when we try to find loopholes in the doctrine of sin. And hear me - I feel like I need to say this again: this isn't an indictment of the Amish. We're not really talking about them. We're talking about us. Because we do the same thing. 

We put ourselves in situations that we say we would never walk into on our own. Maybe in our regular life, we don't drink alcohol. But then the team from work decides to hit the bar after hours, and we join them. All of a sudden, we're not just drinking; we're drunk. We are doing things we know in our normal life we would never do. 

Then, we come home full of remorse, and we start to tell God that we didn't really do that. It just happened because these other persons took us some place we would never go on our own. We aren't drunks. We don't have a problem with alcohol. It was just a thing that was totally out of our control. 

But it wasn't. We went to the bar. We put ourselves there. It was no one's fault but our own. Still, we say that we "had" to go because our reputation at work or our eligibility for a promotion or whatever depended on it.

And therein lies our other justification: it was "necessary." 

Back to the Amish, just for example. They don't believe they should have telephones, but some of them have telephones in case of emergency. They don't believe they should have telephones or be connected to the world in certain ways, but some of them have taken to carrying cell phones because it is important for the way they conduct business in the English world. 

In other words, they have said they "have to" have phones in some situations. 

But if they were living consistently with what they say they believe, they wouldn't really be able to justify this. They don't really need phones. In case of emergency, they could simply deal with the consequences of the emergency and trust God no matter what happens, but they want the comfort of knowing they can call a rescuing human if they need to. It might slow down their business to not be able to be contacted except by showing up at their house, but they did this for centuries - the cell phone is not a necessary tool of conducting business in the English world; it just expedites the process. In other words, they've convinced themselves that "convenience" is "necessary." 

Haven't we all? 

We do this all the time. "It's not what I wanted to do, God, and I know it's not what You would have wanted me to do, but I 'had' to. That's just the way this world works." 

Friend, it's only the way the world works if you buy into it. Believe it or not, this world doesn't work any way that we don't allow it to - or convince it to. If we decide that's not how our world works, isn't. And we find a different way to do things in the world. And guess still works. It might not be as easy, and it might not be as convenient, but it still works. 

We need to stop being children of our first man father and mother. We have to stop saying someone or something else made us do it. They didn't. We chose it, and then we tried to justify it. And there is just no justification for doing something we know is not pleasing to God. 

Even if we're not the ones driving the car. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Live and Let Live

Even if it's true that sin is not relative - that sin is sin regardless of who is doing it - there's a notion in our world that we can't hold others to a standard they don't agree to. That is, we can't make anyone else live by our convictions. So, then, the Amish might say that if the English want to live on the grid and drive cars, then so be it. The actions of others do not reflect our own righteousness.


Except that God has always held His people to a communal standard, not a personal one. We are tempted to think that since Jesus came and the Bible says things like, "each man will pay for his own sins," then the communal nature of being God's people is gone; all that matters now is what individuals do and that individuals come together to worship. 

But I don't think it's that easy. So much of what God calls us to do has to do with how we treat one another. And if God's emphasis is on one anothering, even in the time of Jesus, then it's foolish to say that He's done away entirely with the communal ethic. And, of course, we know that we still hold to a communal ethic when it comes to our churches. We talk about our church as one body and decide who we, collectively, want to be in our community. 

And the truth is that everyone holds others to a standard set of convictions. In our "secular" culture, we call these "laws." (We call them laws sometimes in the Bible, too, but that's not an accurate reflection of what they really are.) The truth is that we have come together as a people and decided what we believe is right and what we believe is wrong, and we have put what is wrong into a codified body of law and we hold one another accountable to that standard. 

If you break that standard, you are subject to punishment. Correction. Justice. Whatever you want to call it. 

There is not a time when we look at a case and decide, "Well, we said that it is wrong to rob someone at gunpoint, but that was something that we decided for ourselves. Since you aren't us, it might be okay that you robbed someone at gunpoint." No. We said it's wrong to rob someone at gunpoint. Period. No matter the justification you want to put on it. No matter whether you believe in our gun laws or not. No matter whether you would call yourself a believer in our system of justice or not. If you rob someone at gunpoint, you're going to jail. That's all there is to it. 

So this idea that we think there is some kind of righteousness in saying that we don't hold others to our's baloney. We do, as a people, hold others to standards because we know that standards are important. 

Yes, you say, but we can't hold them to our religious standards. This is an argument we're hearing a lot in our day, and we've talked about it in this space before. "Stop trying to legislate your morality. Stop trying to inject your religion into politics." But the truth is that everyone in politics brings their morality with them. Everyone in politics brings their religion with them, even if their religion doesn't have something called a "god." 

We are all guided by a belief system, by what we believe in, and it's not at all possible for us to ever leave that at the door. Nor is there such a thing as a "generic" non-biased belief system, some foundational thing we all believe just because we're human. As much as science and humanism want us to believe that humanism is the default - that it is what we would all naturally believe if we were not "clouded" by religion - humanism and science are religions in an of themselves. They are belief systems established on a fundamental trust in the object of their affects - science or humans. 

Thus, we would be liars if we said we never have a standard for others to live by in our society. The truth is, we always have a standard for others to live by in our society. If we choose not to make that standard for others our own religious standard, that just means that at some level, we don't actually believe that our standard is the best possible one. 

That's something else entirely to think about. But we won't do that now. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Is Sin Relative?

So as I was thinking about sin in the context of the Amish, I confess first that "sin" might not be the right word. That is, it might not be the word that the Amish themselves use for the things they aren't allowed to do. It may just be the idea of how God desires for them to live, as opposed to how He doesn't desire for them to live. 

Of course, we're splitting hairs here because isn't any way that God doesn't want you to live a sinful way? 


The first question I want to ask when I'm thinking about this is: is sin relative?

The Amish believe they should live off the grid. They should not be tied into utility lines. Should not have televisions. Should not drive vehicles. For the purposes of our conversation, we can ignore every theological foundation they have for these beliefs - that's not important. 

What's important is that as much as we see the Amish embrace a life that rejects all of these things in their own homes, we also see them riding in cars, going into towns, using these things to their advantage without using them for their personal comfort. They form friendships or working relationships with the English who are able to do these things, and then, they let the English do these things for them. 

The question of whether sin is relative is basically this: if God doesn't want you to do that, is it okay for someone else to do it? (Yes, I understand there are multiple layers to this scenario, and we'll get to some of them, but we're starting simple.) 

It's not just the Amish that raise this question for us. Our culture does this all the time, too. Especially in a postmodern "what's-true-for-you-is-true-for-you" mentality. There are Christians now who honestly, earnestly say things like, "Well, I don't think God wants me to engage in that sort of behavior, but I don't know what He wants for you." 

In other words, it might be a sin for me to dance, but it's okay if you dance. It might be a sin for me to curse,  but it might be okay for you to curse. We could say this about nearly anything - and we do. We're really good at justifying human behavior - our own and everyone else's. We're really into this idea where we're not allowed to judge someone else's life because we don't know all the details and because we can't hold them to our standards. 

Okay. So. Is sin objective or subjective? Is it constant or is it relative? Does God have one idea about how men are supposed to live or does He have 9 billion different ideas about how men are supposed to live? 

The trouble with saying that sin is relative is that it means that God is a little...shifty. It means that God has different standards for some than for others, and if that's true, then it means that God is not constant in and of Himself. And if God is not constant, then that's a problem for a lot of other things that we believe about Him. 

If we say, for example, that it might be a sin for me to lie but it might not be a sin for you to lie, then what we're really saying is that God doesn't always value truth. Or really, that God isn't always truth. Sometimes, He's truth; sometimes, He's not. Do you see why that's a problem?

See, everything that God says is sinful is sinful because it does not measure up to the character of God and the example that He's set for us in His Word and His Son. The minute we start saying that we can't really define sin in any objective way - in any way that applies to everyone universally - then what we are really saying is that we can't define God. We can't know Him. We can't depend on His unchanging character because it might actually be changing. 

So no, I don't think we can say that sin is relative. I think we have to say that what is sinful for me is sinful for you is sinful for everyone because sin is determined by the character of God alone. 

Maybe you agree at this point, but you see another shade of grey arising in the scenario of the Amish and their relationships with the English. Maybe you're thinking right now, okay, sin is sin, but we can't hold others to our definition of it; we can't make them believe what we believe. 

So we'll talk about that tomorrow.  

Monday, September 18, 2023


Life is strange, in the way that you can suddenly have reason to think about something that you already know - or think you know - and suddenly, something new strikes you about it. 

Such is the experience that I'm having right now with the concept of "sin."

We talk about sin fairly frequently, and some churches define it differently than others do. Some talk about sin as the things you do that you know you shouldn't do, the times when you fall into old habits and treacherous traps and turn your back on what you know is right. Others talk about sin as missing the mark, as anything you do that doesn't measure up to what God wants from you, whether you do it intentionally - or even know about it - or not. Still others say we're nothing but sinners, born sinful and will die sinful and there's nothing we can do about it but to thank the Lord for the sacrifice of Christ that covers all those sins for us. 

No matter what vein of Christianity you come from, sin is part of your theology. How we deal with it is an act of faith.

What started me thinking about all of this is a recent interaction that I've had with the Amish community. 

The Amish are pretty well-known in my area of the country, though not as well-known as they are perhaps just a couple of states away. Nonetheless, we live adjacent to the Amish folk and a bit of understanding rubs off. 

The Amish are known for living disconnected lives. They live off the grid. They don't connect their houses to the electrical lines or plumbing systems. They don't drive cars. Without electricity, they don't, of course, watch television or surf the Internet. Theirs is a simple way of life, and they believe this is the way that God would have them live. 

A few Amish folks have telephones. Not all of them, but a few. And those who don't know who does, just in case of emergency, I suppose. The Amish develop close friendships with the English - what they call those of us who aren't Amish, and it's not uncommon to see an Amish person catching a ride in an English car to get to the next town or to the big city, when necessary.

And the Amish frequently sell their wares in English shops. They work on their farms to build furniture or manufacture soaps or weave cloths or whatever, and they tote them to town in their buggies (or hire an English to pick them up in his truck) and then take the profits for whatever they need, although they don't really have many bills to pay (since they don't have utilities) and they don't have much need for English goods. 

It can be hard to keep up with all of the rules - what is okay and what is not okay and why it is or is not okay and how God conceives of all of it. 

My recent contact came through a man who claimed to be basically a broker for an Amish good. He explained that he was the English who did the dealings in this world for the Amish guy, who we could not contact because he is Amish and thus disconnected, but...but...this guy told us that this particular Amish man does text. "Some of them will text," he said. "Not all of them, but some." 

And, well, this just has me thinking about a lot of things related to how we conceptualize what it is God desires of us. Things like how easily our concept of sin turns into a slippery slope as we consider what is okay and what is not okay and try to justify what might be "necessary" or "advantageous." Things like whether or not sin is relative - if it's not okay for me to do it because it's not what God desires, is it okay for you to do it for me? Things like whether I am sinning if I let you do what I'm not allowed to do, but I participate anyway.

Fun questions, right? Sounds fun? Good. Buckle in. We'll look at these questions this week.  

Friday, September 15, 2023

Branches and Seeds

One last post on growth, and then we're going to move on.

We've been talking about growth for several days, about church growth and about how we're called to branch out like a family tree. The whole conversation stems from a thing that likes to make its rounds on social media, lamenting how the family seems to 'fall apart' after grandma dies and we all stop going to her house for Christmas. But the truth, as we've seen, is that this is how families grow - and for every generation that mourns the loss of grandma's house, what they often don't realize is that they have become grandma's house for the next generation. And on and on and on it goes. This is how a family tree branches out. 

Yesterday, we looked at the way that encouraging our church members to pursue their passions helps us to establish some really strong, firm, old branches low-hanging on our Christian family tree. And today, I want to expand a little bit on what that looks like. 

For example, take youth ministry. Some churches have youth ministry as a fundamental program in their church. It's something they build themselves around. So much so that many churches believe that youth ministry is not a branch of their family tree; it's part of the trunk. 

But imagine, for a minute, if it was a branch.

If youth ministry is a strong, firm, old low-hanging branch on your church family tree, then it has a lot of time to grow. As it grows, it develops branches of its own - the growth of every single youth your ministry has invested itself in. These smaller branches sprout off the main branch and start filling in the tree. 

Then, every youth your ministry has invested itself in invests in someone or something else - maybe youth ministry of their own, maybe something else. But that branch starts making twigs, which become branches. And those branches make twigs that become branches. And after even just a few generations have passed, you have this really full, well-developed, amazingly beautiful tree that becomes a haven for the birds and the squirrels and the bees and all sorts of other parts of creation that want to come to it for nourishment. It also becomes shade for the weary, who are just trying to get out of the heat of the day for awhile. 

Sticks don't do that. When we grow our churches straight up and try to keep everything as close to the trunk as possible, we don't become that kind of haven. We don't provide shelter or shade or nourishment or a place to rest. We're just...a stick. But branches....oh, branches give life. 

And not only do they give life in what they themselves have to offer, but they give life another way. Because on the ends of those branches, on the tips of their twigs, sprout these little buds that as time goes on, start to bear little seeds. And those little seeds fall onto the ground. Some fall on the ground nearby; others are carried by the wind to faraway places. But no matter where they go, they settle on the ground and start to sprout and to grow their own new thing - their own new thing that carries the DNA of the very old thing that sprouted them to begin with. 

This is church growth. This is exponential growth. This is disciples making disciples making disciples, church family trees planting church family trees. 

This is how it's meant to be. 

And we're using youth ministry as an example here, but it could be any ministry that your church is operating. If you let it become a branch, instead of part of the trunk, you start to see how it grows and multiplies and becomes something more. It's beautiful. 

Aspire for your church to be beautiful. 

And stop worrying so much about what happens when grandma dies. 

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Church Decline

Whenever we start talking about church growth and branching out our family tree, some folks are quick to hold up their hands and say, wait a minute. If we do all this branching out, what happens to the church that we've established? What happens to our building and our name and our pastoral staff and our structure and our programs? 

It's the same as the folks who are asking whose house we're going to have Christmas at when grandma dies. 

Too many churches are afraid of losing the way they've done things for so long. They're afraid of having to move buildings, of having to downsize what they do inside their walls, of having to look outside for fundraising, of all kinds of things that might signal a church in decline. 

Oh, no! A church in decline. It's the one thing that churches seem to fear the most. Are we dying?

And churches will often do a lot of desperate things to keep from dying, or from looking like they are. Ironically, it is in trying to save themselves that most churches end up putting the final nail in their coffin. They lose their entire sense of who they are, of who they've always been and try to become something they're not...or they cling so tightly to things that need to change that they end up going down with the ship. 

There also comes a point when a church feels like it's dying that you can tell that it is more concerned about itself, really, than it is about Jesus. If your church disbanded tomorrow, the question you really have to ask yourself is whether your community would lose more than just a place to worship on Sundays. Would your collapse pull on the little threads of Jesus that you've woven into your community...or have you even woven any? And if you've woven those threads, as He called you to do, won't those threads stay strong in the tapestry even without your building? 

The "death" of a church building isn't always a bad thing if the folks inside it have done what they were called to outside of it. It just spreads Jesus around a little more and takes Him to new places...instead of bringing new faces to an old place. 

But most churches aren't really in danger of dying in this way. Most churches - okay, healthy churches - can do a lot of branching out and growing without ever posing a significant threat to their core.

Because churches invest themselves so much (so often) in their structure, they have a solid foundation. They have a solid root system. At least, they should. As such, a healthy church can support a lot of branches. 

When we talk about the passions that persons in your congregation have, we have to understand that not all of those passions take them outside of our walls. And we're thankful for that. That's how we have our pastoral staff in the first place; it's also how we continue to operate most of our programs. Some of the hearts of our folks are going to draw them deeper into the church, and that's going to make sure (ideally) that our church continues to function and to grow and to branch out and to support those branches for a long time. 

Sometimes, we even find that someone whose passions look like they are burning outside the church has an even more fruitful ministry when we work it inside the church. You think, maybe, you're starting up a program for single parents, whatever that ministry looks like for you, and suddenly, you realize the overwhelming number of single parents in your own pews who are using that ministry and it doesn't take much to shift that ministry from the bulletin board at the community center to the inside flap of the church bulletin and suddenly, it becomes another really strong branch off your core that is able to support a lot more branches. 

So don't fear church growth because you think it might lead to church decline. In some cases, it does, but that's okay - it was never about our churches anyway. At least, it wasn't supposed to be. (It's always about Jesus. Right?) But in most cases, our churches - healthy churches - are strong enough to do both: stay and grow. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Guardrails for Growth

While a big part of church growth - branching out as God intended us - is to encourage our members to pursue their passions and go after the things God has put on their hearts, we have to have some guardrails in place that determine how we grow. Without them, we risk losing the shape God has given us. 

So here are some things that I think are important. 

First, whatever we do - whatever we encourage - has to be God-honoring. It has to be God's idea. It has to be something that Jesus Himself would do if He were walking the streets of our community. You would think that this point would go without saying, but it doesn't take a very long look at the world around us to see how easily Jesus gets twisted and turned into something He would never be in the name of persons' pet projects. So no matter what it is, we have to ask if it's consistent with the character of Christ as given to us in the Gospels. If it's not, take a pass. 

Second, we need to make sure that there is a need for that kind of ministry in our community. Every community has its own shape and thus, has its own challenges. To be good stewards of our resources, we have to make sure that what we're investing in is going to have an impact where we're investing in it. So if you're a church in a community with a bunch of gated neighborhoods and finely manicured lawns, you're probably not in the best place to open a soup kitchen in your auxiliary room. (I guarantee you that even in communities like these, there are persons that are hungry, but your gated-neighborhood church might not be the best place for a kitchen.) Maybe you open that soup kitchen in a neighboring community that's more accessible to those who need it, but you just have to be real about who you are and where you are. 

Third, and closely related, we need to make sure that another church in the area (or churches in the area) aren't already tapped into that ministry. One of the greatest traps that churches fall into is trying to copy the success of the church down the street. But not every church has to be good at the same things. That's why God has formed us the way that He has. And if you try to build a big children's ministry like the church down the street, 1) you're going to have trouble getting kids into it because they already have a church that's meeting their need for that and 2) you're going to put yourself in competition with that church. We are not in competition. We are here to complement one another. Find a need that isn't being met - trust me, there are plenty of them. Don't waste your resources trying to copy someone else's success. (And if your people are interested in that kind of ministry, help them plug into the one that already exists. It's okay if we work together instead of trying to stay inside of our own fences.)

Fourth, make sure everyone in the congregation has the opportunity to participate. A lot of times, what happens is that someone comes up with an idea for a ministry that is heavy on their hearts and they try to get things rolling and all they are really interested in is funding or support. They don't want others to actually participate in the ministry, but they want them to donate to it. Time or money. Few details are given, but a notice is put out that anyone who wants to come help paint classroom 7 for the new ministry that's going into it should come out and paint and anyone who wants to fund it should donate, but no one is allowed to know what's going on or how it will work or be part of actually running the ministry. This is a huge red flag. If your church is not invited to participate in the ministry, they should not be expected or pressured to simply invest in it. 

Fifth, make sure that what you're looking at is an actual ministry and not a private business venture. Do you remember five or ten years ago when you started getting friend requests on social media from persons you hadn't talked to since high school, only to find out they still don't really care about you but they are now in the business of selling something and thought you might make a good target? Persons use churches in the same way. They get into a congregation and plug themselves in because to them, that increases their customer base fairly quickly. And it doesn't take long before they start dragging their wares into church meetings and small groups and it kind of takes on this tone of "we support so-and-so so we buy their product because this is us loving one another." No. Get the moneychangers out of the Temple. A personal, private business venture is not a ministry. Period. Your members should not be using the church to pay their bills. It compromises not only the integrity of the church, but the safety and dignity of persons in it. We cannot be vulnerable with and truly love one another if we're nothing more than targets.

This is also true, by the way, about members who maybe don't show up on Sunday morning for business, but still want to use your building to make a profit. Your church becomes associated with everything that goes on in it, not just the services it puts on, and you take on a liability for anything that happens inside your doors/on your grounds. Be careful about who you let profit off your name - it may come back as a bigger debt that you intended to pay. 

These are a few good guardrails to start with. I'm certain there are more. But these are also the biggest traps for churches who dare to try new things. Being mindful of these few things will help you to be more confident that you are growing in God-shaped ways when you do branch out. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Encourage One Another

Yesterday, I said that church growth is a matter of branching out and that one of the greatest areas in which churches struggle when it comes to growth is in the area of encouraging their members to go for it. 

Most churches, as we've discussed, have an established system and their model of growth is to plug new persons into those systems in various pre-existing positions in order to make the programs run smoothly. Most churches aren't interested in doing something new; truth is, they have enough trouble just doing what they're already trying to do. (See my previous post on burning persons out.) 

The truth is that every church has a personality, and every church has a niche. Churches have established themselves to the best of their ability by who they are or who they think they are or who they want to be, and they really commit themselves to that. Some churches want older folks to feel comfortable, so they keep the piano and the organ and the hymns. Some churches try to attract middle-age families with young children, so they invest in their children's ministry. Some churches work to be welcoming to the hurt-by-church refugees who need a new place to try to love Jesus. Some churches center their ministry on the poor, so they have a ton of outreach events and try to fundraise outside of their pews. And on and on and on we go. 

And it's true that bad things often happen when a church tries to act outside of their personality. Try to put contemporary worship in a traditional church for traditional folk, and there's backlash. Try to carve out a space for seniors or for the disabled in a vibrant, middle-age families with young children church, and it's hard to get anything started. What ends up happening when a church tries to act outside of its personality is that it ends up wounding someone. You have to know who you are. 

But part of knowing who you are is knowing who you're made up of. Knowing who is in your pews, who is giving to your ministries, who is showing up, who is serving. It's knowing who is loving Jesus in your building because...hear me...that is who you are. 

You can plan to be whatever kind of church you think you want to be all you want, but at the end of the day, every church has the personality of the folks in its family. 

So when someone comes to the church with a new idea about some crazy kind of way they want to love their community, a lot of churches are really quick to shut it down. We don't do that. We haven't done that before. That's not who we are. But...that is who you are because look! This person is you. This person is your church. 

I can't tell you the number of persons I've talked to who have become discouraged, and in some cases, left their church or even left the church altogether, because they had a ministry opportunity resting heavily on their heart, directly from the Lord, saw a need in their community and had the passion to meet it...and their church shut them down. Point blank. Wouldn't hear of it. Labeled them a troublemaker. Started pushing them to fringes so that they wouldn't start spreading their crazy ideas too far around the congregation. 

And I can't tell you the number of churches who have missed incredible opportunities, perhaps even missed their calling, by turning their own members away from real ministry in favor of established programs. 

Now, that doesn't mean that we, as a church, just jump on board with whatever ideas come up. That doesn't mean we do everything that anyone suggests we take up. It goes back, again, to knowing who we are and what we're really equipped to do. And it requires having some safeguards in place about how that looks for us.  

Monday, September 11, 2023

Branching Out

Even if I could get you to believe that the best model of church growth is branching outward like a family, I know what you're thinking - Aidan, we can't even get folks to do things inside our church; how are we supposed to get them to do things outside of it?

And that is kind of exactly the problem with our ideas of church structure and church growth.

So often, we start with our church. We start with our programs and all of the things that we think we need to run our programs - all of the volunteers and man hours and resources that it takes to put together this thing that we call "church." 

We spend our time trying to convince our people that we really need them in such-a-such ministry. We need them to teach a Bible class. We need them to teach a children's class. We need them to supervise the nursery. We need them to pass the plates. We need them to greet visitors at the door. We need them to man the welcome center. We need them to run the audio or video or lights. We need them to make the coffee. We need them to collect the attendance cards. We need...

Sound familiar? We need, we need, we need. All of these things that we think we need to run our church, to even have the basic foundation of a church in our building. 

And what's happening here is actually two things that are preventing church growth. 

First, we're establishing such a tight church structure and a hierarchy of programs that we're teaching our people what ministry means. We're teaching them that this is what it looks like. We're trying to plug them into our stick somewhere and help it be strong, but we're not really teaching them to branch out at all. We're teaching them only to fit into our structure. 

And second, we're burning them out before they even get started. Burning them out and, weirdly, filling them up. Our people are so tired from serving in the church that they don't have the energy for the ministry opportunities that present themselves in their day-to-day lives. Or, if they do, they convince themselves that it must be someone else's problem because they are already serving so much. Certainly, God couldn't want them to be serving more than they already are.

Yet somehow, we're still stuck in this space where most of our churches don't have enough volunteers for the work. So how do we branch out - how do we grow - how do we become disciples making disciples and shift the ministry to a new grandma's house - if we don't have enough folks to fill our current needs and the folks we do have are glued into our structure and burned out?

The answer is delightfully simple: you don't. 

Branching out isn't a program. It isn't a structure. It isn't something you design and try to implement or put into motion. Branching out just happens naturally - the way the tree just starts reaching in new ways for the light. Nobody tells it to grow that way; it's just what happens. 

Your people have passions. They have a heart for something. There is something they can hear in this world and not ignore. So the idea behind church growth, real church growth, is that you just have to teach your people how to take those opportunities when they come...and encourage them to do so. 

This is where most churches are struggling in the area of growth. 

Friday, September 8, 2023

Church Growth

If we think of the church as a family - and we should - then that necessarily has to shape how we think about church growth. 

Most of the time, when we ask the question about whether or not a church is growing, we get numerical answers. Yes, we're growing; we have increased our attendance by 20 families per week! We're definitely growing; we just hired a new staff member! You bet we're growing; we're about to launch a third campus!

While these are the metrics that churches seem to think that we're interested in, these aren't really the mechanisms for actual church growth - not when we think of the church as a family and consider growth in the model of disciples making disciples or families establishing new traditions in new generations at a new grandma's house. 

It's entirely possible to increase your attendance without increasing your growth. This would be the equivalent of adding a bunch of roots to a tree, but not a lot of branches. Your numerical growth helps to stabilize, you think, the structure that you already have in place, which is nothing more than a sapling or...a stick. If you have a hierarchical church structure where the leadership is centered into a few - such as the model that keeps a board of elders and trains others only to take over those spots in the eldership as others age out - it doesn't matter how many families you spread around the base of the tree - you're still just a stick in the mud. There's no branching out. No growth. 

It's possible to hire a new staff member and not actually grow your church at all. If you take that new staff member and plug them into the system you're already operating and expect them to function and to work entirely in that system, you're really only asking them to make your stick taller - not broader or wider or more capable of reproducing and stretching out on its own. 

And the same is true if you have twenty campuses for your church. Having your church in multiple locations doesn't mean your church is growing. You might just be planting a bunch of sticks next to each other and still not making any new branches. 

Do you see what I'm getting at? 

Churches are families, and they are meant to grow like families. Branching out. Forming their own things. Taking their own shapes in spreading directions. Disciples making disciples making disciples making disciples. 

This causes a little bit of panic in some church folk. If we're always trying to branch out and giving our people permission to grow, it seems, away from us, how will we ever survive as a church? 

But your cousins are still your cousins even if you don't meet at grandma's house any more. 

That's what we don't seem to be understanding about all of this. What most of us are trying to do is to establish a permanent gathering place, but that's not how families work. That's not how generations work. And I don't love my cousins any less because I don't see them all the time any more. Rather, there is somehow even more joy on those occasions when we manage to get together in spite of the way that we have all grown and branched out. 

Have you been there? Have you gone to a family reunion after so many years have passed, then you walk away with this beautiful little peace in your soul and all you can think is, "That was nice"? That's what's supposed to happen with the church. We're supposed to grow and branch out and make our tree - and His tree - bigger and become the kind of church family under which our community finds shelter. And sometimes, yes, that means we don't see each other all the time any more, but it doesn't mean we don't see each other at all. What it means is that when we do, our joy is increased

It's just something to think about. 

When I ask you if your church is growing, I'm not asking you about numbers. I'm asking you to think about whether you're making your stick taller or if you're actually branching out. 

If you're not branching out, you're missing something really beautiful about being the family of God. 

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Disciples Making Disciples

In case you need more evidence that the model of most churches is flawed (the idea of creating leadership offices and just plugging various men and women in as matriarchs and trying to keep things fundamentally the same over time), look no further than the disciples themselves. 

To be fair, it looks like the disciples are starting out with our model: one of their first acts of business is to replace Judas Iscariot with a new disciple, someone who has established himself with the group and demonstrates the kind of leadership potential they are looking for. This is, essentially, moving someone else into grandma's house to try to keep the tradition alive. 

But the disciples don't stay there. Rather, once they have re-established their core group, they start branching out. Philip is talking with an Ethiopian eunuch. Peter is starting to visit regions near and far. A bunch of new guys are starting to come alongside - Silas, Paul, John Mark. We're starting to see names that we haven't seen before, starting to see new groups forming. New traditions building. New generations are coming to a new grandma's house. 

Imagine if that's not what we saw. Imagine if the disciples had decided that they were just going to keep their core 12 forever. They were just going to invest in a few guys, build them up, help them establish themselves, and replace the other disciples as they aged out or died so that there was always one good, solid council of 12 available in Jerusalem for teaching, edifying, leading, etc. Imagine if the disciples had never decided to branch out and build new pockets of Christianity in the region, let alone in the world. 

Imagine if Paul had worked his entire life to establish himself with their group but never got voted in. If he never gets voted into the 12 and the 12 control everything, Paul doesn't get any opportunity. No Paul, no letters of the New Testament. No Corinth. No Ephesus. No...nothing. We have so very little without Paul. Imagine if Paul never got that shot because the disciples were so busy trying to maintain "the way we've always done it" that nobody ever got a chance to grow. 

Thankfully, that's not how it happened. Thankfully, the disciples immediately decided to take Jesus seriously and to go out and make disciples of all nations. 

This is the model we were talking about that necessarily happens when one generation moves on. 

The disciples spent their whole lives meeting at Jesus's house, to say as much. But then, Jesus leaves them and instead of continuing to try to meet all the time at Jesus's house, the disciples decide to start hosting some gatherings at their own places. They bring in a new generation of disciples to grow and to establish new traditions with. Now, we have twelve guys who always met in one place who have grown and branched out into twelve places that we meet. Twelve places with their own traditions and memories and relationships and foundations. 

And the guys who met in those twelve places branched out and suddenly, we had one hundred twenty places to meet. And the persons who met in those hundred and twenty places branched out you see how it happens? As one generation moves on, the next generation branches out and more disciples are made. And more disciples after that. And suddenly, the church...well, it isn't grandma's house any more. Not like we remember it. But it's bigger. Broader. More fruitful. It's full and still growing. Its family tree is branching out. 

That's how we got to where we are today. And it's how we keep growing into the future. It's how it's meant to be.

We are a family. The family of God. This is our family tree. This is how we grow it. 

Disciples making disciples making disciples. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Matriarchs and Patriarchs

When we talk about the structure of the church - the family of God - what we often see is what we talked about yesterday - that desperation to hold onto nostalgia, to hold onto the way we've always done things. This is nowhere more reflected than in our patriarchs and matriarchs. 

Our patriarchs and matriarchs are the men and women who are well-established in our churches and around whom (or through whom) all things seem to go. Because of the way most churches are structured, at least in America, the patriarchy is fairly easy to follow - men come into the church, establish themselves, become formal elders in leadership positions, then are replaced by other men who have come into the church and established themselves once these original leaders age out. The church is a revolving door of patriarchs, always trying to ensure it has a new generation of men to step up and sit in the same chairs as those who are aging out.

The goal of this is to maintain smooth operations of the church. We have a board (or a group) of elders. These elders are essential to the organizational operations of what we do. Thus, it only makes sense that no matter who occupies those seats, the relative structure remains the same over generations. 

The matriarchs are a little more complicated. Kind of.

The matriarchs are the women who have established themselves in the church, but these are usually more relation-oriented establishings. These are the women to whom others in the church turn for wisdom. For counsel. She may or may not lead a formal ministry, but make no mistake - everyone in the church knows who she is. She seems to know everything about everything...and everyone. She is the authority on all things that we're doing, even if she doesn't hold an official leadership position. She usually teaches a Bible class (at least one), and she's always, it seems, trying to instill the model of her own journey into others.

When a matriarch ages out or passes on, the church feels the void immediately. Members tend to feel lost. No one knows any more who to introduce guests and visitors to because, well, we always introduced them to the matriarch. If you ever needed to get to know anyone in this church, it was her. And as a result of her relationships and relational authority, everyone feels a little lost without her.

This is the equivalent of that moment we were talking about yesterday when everyone used to gather at grandma's house, but not any more. 

Now, here's how it's different in the church: in the church, when our matriarch passes away or moves on, what we often try to do is just move someone else into her house. We make an agreement with the new owner of the house, after the estate sale, that our family is just going to keep coming for Christmas here and they have to be willing to accept that. We leave all the furniture in place, refuse to repaint the walls. We try to keep things just as they have always been. It's just that now, our matriarch has a new name. It's someone new, but the "office" is still the same. 

And then, churches wonder why they aren't growing so much any more. 

They blame it on the fact that their matriarch is gone. Shaking their heads, they say, "Without her, we just can't keep going on." But that's not it at all. What's really happening is that the church is determined to just replace Janet with Mary and to go on pretending that nothing's ever changed when, in fact, everyone knows that everything has changed. 

When you shift the family gathering from grandma's house to your aunt's place, it's not the same. It can't be. Something of the fundamental essence of it has changed. And if you don't allow for that change, you're going to stifle everything. It's going to become stagnant. It's not going to take long before everyone realizes it's not the same. It's not as life-giving as it used to be.

This is why our churches need to look more like our families and less like our corporations. See, our corporations try to do this same thing - create offices and structures so that when one person pulls out, you can just replace them with someone else and keep going. But churches aren't corporations; they're families. And they're meant to grow like them. 

Churches have to understand that when grandma can't do it any more, it's time to start branching out and growing the tree.  

Tuesday, September 5, 2023


There's this thing that goes around social media from time to time. It's about the idea that when we were younger, we used to all get together at grandma's house, but once grandma dies, we don't get together like we used to. 

It's meant for nostalgia and a little bit of that wishing for the way things used to be. And certainly, I understand what it's talking about. 

But it misses the bigger picture of the way things really work. 

For us, our lives are formed by these early experiences. We come to think they are normative, that they are normal. We spend holidays at grandma's house with the aunts and the uncles and the cousins and that's the way it's always been. Except that's not the way it's always been. 

When your grandma was little, everyone didn't come to her house for the holidays. No. She went to her grandma's house for the holidays. She had relationships with her extended family there. She saw her aunts and uncles and cousins all the time. And she, too, probably mourned when those days came to an end. 

But when your grandma became a mother herself, the family get-togethers started to shift. All of a sudden, the grandparents' house was not her grandparents' house, but her parents' house. Mom and dad became the new grandma and grandpa and the whole make-up of the get-together changed. Now, your grandma's brothers and sisters were the aunts and uncles. Their kids were the cousins. 

And by the time you came along, the focus had shifted once again to, well, your grandma's generation. 

Then, when your grandma passes on, it will shift again and your parents, who are likely by now grandparents to your children, become the center of the family universe. A different shape of the family - different uncles, aunts, cousins, but family nonetheless. 

This is how the family tree works. This is how it gets all of the branches that it has. As time passes and generations come of age, groups break off and start to make their own branches with new places of gathering. Certainly, it's still a blessing when you can get together with the great- or great-great-generation, but the norm itself is still in place - there's still grandma's house. It's just that "grandma" is one generation younger these days. 

As it's supposed to be. 

Some families, at these points, feel like they're falling apart. They grieve what they're losing, those moments that are becoming just memories. Some try to cling to them. Some rant and rave. Some try to organize to keep things going and prevent the natural, necessary spread that is coming in the next generation. But this is the way things work, my friends. This is how we are meant to grow as time passes and as generations...generate. 

One day, your kids will grow up and they will be in that in-between generation where they miss the days they spent at grandma's without ever even realizing, perhaps, that those are the very days their own kids are living right now - days at their grandma's. 

I think about this every time I see that sentiment making its rounds on social media. I understand the nostalgia, but...this is the way things are supposed to be. 

And right now, as I reflect on this yet again, I find that I am also thinking about the church....  

Monday, September 4, 2023

For the Lord

You've probably heard it said (or read, since it's biblical) that whatever you do, do it as though you're doing it for the Lord. Whatever it is, do it for the glory of God. Whether you change tires or toilet paper, invest in banking or diaper stocks, teach or learn, everything you do is a work of God. Thus, your attitude, work effort, work ethic, discipline, etc. all reflect your faith. 

The world used to have a similar saying, something that meant basically the same thing - "anything worth doing is worth doing right." I think in a lot of ways, the world has loosened its grip on this idea and changed it to something like, anything worth doing is worth doing cheap. But in some places, the sentiment is still there.

It certainly should still be there for us as Christians, since it's still God's Word and God's desire for us. 

This is something I have really taken to heart. No matter what I've done in my life (and I've done a lot of weird stuff), I have always tried to do it to the best of my ability, with the fullness of everything I can give it. So that anyone who watches me knows that something drives me that is greater than myself and that they might see, in some small way, the glory of God. 

I have received a lot of comments on my work ethic and discipline and commitment to excellence. Most of them have been favorable, a few have been snide. "Why do you care so much? It's just ______" whatever it is. But it's because I understand that everything that I do is a demonstration of who I am, and every demonstration of who I am is a demonstration of who God made me to be. That means I reflect Him with every breath.

Which is why it bothers me so much when I do things that aren't my best. When I do things that aren't excellent. When I struggle, especially when all eyes are on me. On the days when I can't give any more and can't reach that standard of excellence that I've set for my life, I can really come home and beat myself up. I'm disappointed. I can usually think of at least 2-3 things I could have done better, times when whatever the situation was turned in a direction that it could have - and should have - gone the opposite way. I start to get angry with myself. Sometimes, I start to think I'm nothing but a failure. 

I have let myself down. I have let others down. I have let God down. 

Most of the time, the problem isn't really my attitude, though. Or my discipline. Or my drive. Or my desire. Most of the time, on the days that I have failed - or think I have - what has really held me back is my humannness. Something broken in me. Something broken in my life. Something broken in my body. Something broken in my heart. Something that keeps me from having any more to bring, even when I know that under normal circumstances, my well would have been deeper. 

So for moments like these, which come often in my life, what I'm learning - or trying to learn - is grace. 

If you brought your whole self, that brings glory to God. Even if your whole self wasn't quite enough. If you gave everything you had, you brought glory to God, even if you really needed to have more to give. If you did everything to the very best of your ability, that brings glory to God. Even if the very best you have to offer today is only a shadow of the best that you might have to offer on another day. 

We don't live perfect lives. We don't. We don't have the kind of consistency in our broken beings that God has in His. Not every day is going to be our best day. (But thank God that not every day is our worst day, either.) We have to stop beating ourselves up - I have to stop beating myself up - when the best that I have today isn't as good as I want it to be. It's still my best. And if I bring that to whatever I'm doing, that is glorifying to God. 

That is what He wants.

Friday, September 1, 2023

But No

If your Christian spidey senses were tingling yesterday as you started to put together the titles from this week's blog posts, you either are familiar with Paul's letter to the Corinthians or you've sung the song - you know that no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind can know what God has in store. 

So where does that leave us? 

Right where we are.

There is no contradiction between a God who has given us eyes to see, ears to hear, and a mind to know and also confessing that none of us has seen, heard, or known it all. 

Our eyes see little glimpses of God, little hints of eternity, but there's so much more that we haven't seen. And that's okay. 

Our ears have heard what God has to say, the Word He has spoken from the very beginning into the formless and void, and yet, there is so much we haven't heard from His voice. And that's okay. 

Our minds know quite a bit about Him. In fact, I would say that we're capable of knowing everything that we need to know to build a solid faith, but there are still things we just can't know. Not here, not now. Not today. And that's okay. 

Listen to me; this is important - it's okay that God is bigger than we can comprehend. It's okay that God is more than our senses are able to grasp. In fact, it's necessary. If this weren't the case, He wouldn't be God. 

God is what we can think of as a knowable mystery. We are able to know just enough about Him to be confident while at the same time being exactly as confident that there is more to Him than we know. This is also truth. 

What we can't do is let ourselves be fooled into thinking that because we can't know everything about God - because we can't see everything, hear everything - then we can't know anything. That's not how this works. God has given us more than enough to know to fall head over heels in love with Him and to start to grasp His glory and His goodness, even if we only ever get it in part. Remember, the same Paul who wrote those words to the Corinthians also told us that we currently see as though in a mirror, but darkly, but that one day, we will see it all clearly. 

That's what we're talking about when we talk about faith. We're talking about seeing what we can see, hearing what we can hear, knowing what we can know...and knowing there is more even beyond this. Then, we put our trust in even what we know we do not know because of what we do know. Because of what our eyes have seen, what our ears have heard, and what our minds do know. 

So what say you, then? Do you have faith?