Thursday, November 30, 2023

God's Reassurance

Most of us worry at some point in our lives that God is going to ask us to do some big thing that we're not prepared for, that we don't think we're equipped for. Maybe even that we're not all that interested in. And we're afraid that maybe God doesn't know us very well, or that maybe He'll be disappointed in us when He finds out we don't want to do what He's asked us to do. 

One of the things that I've discovered in my life is that God doesn't really ask us much for the big things. Not the kinds of big things that most of us are afraid He'll ask us for. He's not asking everyone to give up their comfort and move to a tribal village in a long-lost area of a never-mapped place. He's not asking everyone to sell what they have and give the money to the poor. He's not asking everyone to reach out a battered hand on a bloody arm and take one more smack in the face. We're afraid He's going to ask the "big" things, but most of us will live our lives having never been asked by God to do any of these things that keep us from praying too hard for His will to be done. 

(And actually, I think that the persons God does ask these big things from are somewhat prepared and equipped for, and therefore excited about, them. But that's another post for another day.) 

Rather, what I have found is that what God asks of us is something just slightly bigger than we think we can handle. That's it. Not some great, big, ginormous thing, but something just big enough to make us a little nervous. 

Something just big enough to require a little bit of faith. 

That's really all that God wants from any of us, isn't it? Faith? Trust. The act of believing in Him as more than just a mental exercise. The willingness to step out and follow, just a little detour in what we thought was our path. 

But the good thing about God is that He understands that even these smaller sorts of things sometimes feel like really big things, especially when we don't think we have enough faith to step out even that far. 

That's another thing I love about the story of Gideon. 

God calls Gideon to lead the people against the Midianites. Gideon, who has already done some radical things for God in his life, is a little nervous. That's understandable. But he keeps the conversation going. And as they talk, God says, hey, if you're scared, go down into the Midianite camp tonight and listen to what they're saying about you and this army of ours. 

So Gideon owns his fear, sneaks into the camp, and hears how absolutely terrified the Midianites are of God's army - the same army God is asking Gideon to lead. In fact, the Midianites already know they've lost; they just aren't allowed to turn around and give up. Their commander won't let them. 

That's all it takes to reassure Gideon that, just as God promised, He's got this. God's got him, and God's got this. So he goes back to his army, rallies the troops, presses onward, and defeats Midian with a confidence that he didn't have twelve hours ago. All because God knew that he needed an extra little boost. 

God's going to ask you to do some things. He's going to ask you to do some things that are just a little bit bigger than the faith you think you have right now. That's how our faith grows. 

But He understands that it's really not that easy. And that's why our God is a God of reassurances. If you need that extra little boost of confidence, He's got that for you. He'll give it to you. You just have to accept His invitation and go where you can see and hear for yourself - they're already talking about you. And they're terrified that you're going to take that step of faith. 

So go, listen, then come back and take it. God's got you, and God's got this. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

God Sits

If you know me, you know that one of my all-time favorite Bible stories is the story of Gideon. How can you not love a story where God comes to find a man who is hiding from his enemies, only to greet him with a hearty, "Hail, Mighty Warrior!"? 

There's really a lot to love in this story. 

And one of the things that struck me more recently about this story is the way in which God comes to Gideon. Yes, I have always focused on the "Hail, Mighty Warrior!" greeting, maybe because that seems the most cinematic. I don't know. But when you take the time to read through the story slowly, carefully, you discover - that's not the way that God comes in. 

God comes in...and sits down. 

That's what the story says - the angel of the Lord comes to Gideon while he's threshing grain in the winepress and sits down under the oak tree. That's it. He just comes and sits. Only after a short while does He speak. 

The same sort of thing is true when we look at the ministry of Jesus. We could call His ministry largely a ministry of "presence" - He's just there. He's in your house, eating at your table, walking in your streets. When He goes to the woman at the well, He sits down nearby before He starts talking to her. He sits in the boat with the disciples. He sits on the boat when He's teaching the crowds. 

Our God is simply a God who sits with us. 

When we really read the stories, this is hard to miss, but when we let our imaginations run away with us, it's easy to forget. We are a busy people, and we read stories with an eye for the busy. We read for the action. We play scenes in our mind and pay attention to what's happening, what everyone is doing, and we fast-forward past all the times when it doesn't seem like they're doing anything. 

But sitting is something. Sitting is doing something. Sitting and being is a hallmark of our God, and if we can't convince ourselves that when God sits, He is working, then we're missing something essential about who He is. He really is God with us

He delights to be in our presence. He rejoices when we are in His. He's comfortable with the quiet things. He doesn't have to come bursting onto the scene, making a grand entrance. Remember earlier in the book of Genesis when the angels of the Lord come and just hang out in the town square and maybe knock on a door or two? That's our God. 

That's the way that God comes in. 

And this has me thinking about my life, about my seasons of deep prayer, about my hope and confident assurance in a God who promises to be near. I wonder often as I've been waiting for Him to make some kind of grand entrance, He's actually already been here for awhile.

Just sitting. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

God's People

There's a very common word running through our English bibles when God is speaking and laying out His plan and His promises. That word is "you."

The trouble with English is that we are prone to misunderstand what this little word means. In our individualistic, self-centered culture in which we are praised for self-reliance and self-sufficiency and self-actualization, we read that word and believe that the Bible is talking just about us. Singular. Me. The individual. 

But the very common word that is running through our Bible is not "you" (singular). It is "you" (plural). It's "you all." It's "y'all." You, as a group. You, together. You, collectively. The people - the children - of God. 

And this is very consistent with the rest of God's story. 

Oh, sure, God made promises through individuals like Noah and Abraham. He worked through individuals like David and Solomon. He tells the stories of individuals like Job and Paul. But overwhelmingly, the Bible talks about the way that God works through His people - plural. As a group. 

He talks about the way that Israel - the whole nation - will be a beacon in the world. All of the other peoples will see something in them as a group that will draw them to God. Their worship and faithfulness, collectively, will be a testimony to His glory. His plan has always been to redeem the world through His people - not His individual persons, but His people as a group. 

When Jesus comes, what's the first thing He does in His ministry? He forms a group. A collective "we." A plural "you." He chooses 12 guys and tells them plainly, Y'all will change the world. It's not that Peter is going to change a little bit of the world and Andrew is going to change a different little bit of it and Bartholomew is going to impact this little section over here while Thomas impacts that little section over there. It's that the collective testimony and witness of this group, taken together, will change the world. It's that from these twelve men, collectively, the entire world will be changed. 

And that is something that we have lost sight of in our culture, in the way that we've been taught to think about "you." Because we hear messages about how we're supposed to be God's people in the world, and we think that means we're supposed to be God's individual persons. So we've taken on our shoulders this great big burden. We even preach in our churches about how many individuals we, as individuals, have brought to Christ. How many have you (singular) invited to church lately? How many have you (singular) prayed for? When you get to heaven, how many persons will be there to great you (singular) and thank you for your individual witness into their lives? 

Yes, we are really talking about this. 

But the story of God is not an individual story, and this is one reason our churches are struggling so much. Because we are not the sum of our individual persons; we are something greater than that - we are a people. And it is a people that God has always used to be a witness to the world. A you (plural). You all. Y'all. Us all. 

And if we ever want to see God do amazing things like He's done throughout this entire story that He's given us, we have to find a way to push back against our individualistic culture and recapture this sense of who we (plural) are. Because that is who God has always called us to be. 

Monday, November 27, 2023

God Keeps His Promises

We know that our God is a God of promises. And we know - or at least, we have heard - that God keeps His promises. Every single one of them. 

Then why does it feel like we're never going to see those promises come to fruition?

This is one of the things that we struggle with quite a bit. We are a people who have seen how long it sometimes takes God to fulfill His promises, so we have become a people who don't hold as tightly to them. 

God promised His people Canaan, the Promised Land. But it took them 40 years of wandering and many more years of fighting to ever take possession of that land. Moses, who made the promise to the people for the Lord, never got to see it. Joshua led the people valiantly across the Jordan and into the first part of the land, but he didn't get to see it all, either. In fact, when Joshua was preparing to die, he reminded the people that God keeps all of His promises and that they just have to keep pushing into them. 

Fast forward a little bit, and we have an Israel who has waited for hundreds of years for the promised Messiah. Hundreds of years. There are something even like 400 years or so between the end of Malachi and the beginning of Matthew, 400 years or so during which there was no act of God worthy to become part of our Scripture. No act of judgment. No act of mercy. No measure of grace. Nothing. There is just silence, then the fulfillment of the promise they had been waiting on for so long. 

We, too, are a people waiting on a promise. Well, we have the promise; we're waiting on its fulfillment. We have been promised that Christ is coming back. But we are a people who don't wait quite like Israel waited - we just assume, it seems, that we're never going to see this promise. Oh, we still believe God is going to do it. We just don't believe He's going to do it in our lifetime. And so, we believe that God does keep His promises, but that He is slow to do it and that His promises may not be for us. 

So let's go back, then, to what Joshua said to the people as he prepared to die. He told them, "Remember, God has kept His promises. Every single one of them." 

This is important. Remember, Israel had been wandering for 40 years. The people to whom Joshua spoke were not the people who received the promise from God in the first place; they were the next generation. (Not going back, of course, to Abraham, who was the first to actually receive this promise.) They had spent their entire lives wandering. Wondering. Living in tents. Eating manna and quail. Seeing shadows of the Promised Land. 

They had spent many years fighting. It probably seemed to them like every time they won a battle, there was another one waiting for them. They probably felt like they were moving from one war zone to another to another without any time to even really relish their victories...or even process them. It was one thing after another after another, and now, here's Joshua, about to die, and he has to refocus their vision for them. 

They are well into the Promised Land now. They don't have all of it, but they have a good portion of it, and Joshua, in his wisdom, pauses near his last breath and reminds them, "Look around. You're here. God has done it. He has kept this promise." 

Sometimes, we miss the way God has kept His promise because we get so caught up in the fighting for it. We get so caught up in our battles and in our own existence that we lose sight of the big picture and forget to look up and look around every once in awhile. But if we it is. We're here. This is God's promise. 

And He has been faithful to bring us this far. 

It's a reminder we all need.  

Friday, November 24, 2023

The So-Called Body

Perhaps one of the things that would help us to understand the nature of fellowship within the church is to look more closely at how, exactly, the New Testament defines us. 

It is most common for churches to think of themselves as the "body of Christ." Certainly, the body metaphor is well-expounded for us. It goes something like this - we are all members of one body, unique in our own way, gifted to serve in a way that complements every other part of our body. So we have come think of ourselves as elbows, as stomachs, as pinky toes, what have you. 

This satisfies something in our cultural selves. We live in a world that tells us how special and unique we are, how there is no one else like us, how we're supposed to "find" and "be" our "self" and "let others deal with it." And so, we come together in our churches as parts of a body. 

It is only natural, then, that when the elbow of the church decides to leave and find another congregation, we simply start looking around to figure out who else is equipped to serve as an elbow. We are a body, and we need all of our parts to function, and it's less important who fills that role as it is what exact role they are filling. So we spend our church lives performing these replacement surgeries on ourselves, swapping out an elbow here and an ear there, deciding we can live with perhaps one fewer finger for a season or that it's okay if we can't taste anything for awhile. 

But what if I told you that even though it's one of the most expounded-on images of the church in the New Testament, the body is not the most common expression of the church? 

Well, it's not. 

The most common expression of the church in the New Testament - throughout the Bible, really - is the image of the family. We are, as He says over and over again, children of God. We are brothers and sisters. We come together in the house of the Lord

We're a family.

And being family changes the way we have to think about the church. See, family is family, no matter what. And trust me, I get it - I have spent years as the black sheep of my biological family. I spent years going to Thanksgiving and Christmases in the house of the family where no one seemed to notice I was even there at all, where I spent most of the day in the corner by myself, but where, when I went to leave, a few voices would always pipe up and say, "Are you leaving already? I feel like you just got here." I have argued with family, more than I care to think about, but still come to lean on one another in times of trouble. I have shared great big belly laughs with family. My best - and worst - memories all come from family. 

Families...are complicated. 

But there's something special about them, and that's this: they aren't optional. It doesn't matter what you believe, who you are, what your status is in life, what you look like, how you speak, you are still part of the family, like it or not. Whether the family likes it or not. You don't choose your family; God puts you into it. And there's nothing you can do to change the blood in your body that eternally connects you to everyone else who has those same strings of DNA. 

And that means that when Bill leaves, we didn't lose an elbow. We lost Bill. We can't just go out and get a new Bill. You can't replace a person. There's a real sense of loss, a real grief. We know, forever, that part of us is missing from this gathering. It means that the older generations naturally take the younger under their wings, that the young are eager to learn from the old because there's something about passing the family story down. It means that we naturally come together and lean on one another in hard times. It means that we're here for each other, whether we always like each other or not. We argue, sure. We fight. We also have great big belly laughs with one another. Our best - and our worst - memories all come from this place of togetherness, but even the worst ones don't change who we are. 

We're family. Because we all share the same blood - the blood of Christ. And nothing can change that. Once we get that amazing grace down in our souls, we're connected forever to everyone else who carries those same strings of holy DNA. For better or worse. There's nothing we can do about it. God has given us this family, and we're part of it - no matter how much our world tries to tell us that if we don't like it, we can just trade it in for another one. That's not how God's family works. That's not how our biological family works. Family is forever. Our time together, then, is just a matter of us figuring out how to spend our time together. 

We think we're a body, but we're not. The body image is what keeps us fracturing. It's what keeps us swapping parts out over and over and over again until the church becomes some weird sort of Frankenstein's monster. No wonder the world looks at us in horror. 

The best churches are families. That's who God has called us to be, and it's the living testimony the world needs, too. We're not perfect, but we're here for it - together. Brothers and sisters. In the house of the Lord. Bonded by one blood. Children of God. For better or worse. 

And when we're doing it right, I'm telling you - it's overwhelmingly better.  

Thursday, November 23, 2023


The truth, even if we don't want to hear it, is that if we're not making fellowship a central part of our time together on Sunday mornings, then our people aren't getting it. If we're making them choose it on their own and work for it out of their own energies, they aren't having it. 

We've seen two objections to the notion of making fellowship central in our gatherings - first, that no one wants to come to a place where they are expected to be socially vulnerable and second, that if we spend our time on fellowship, we'll be diminishing the time we have available to "preach Jesus." 

Let's start with the second objection, because I cannot stress this enough: doing fellowship right is preaching Jesus. In fact, it's more preaching Jesus than anything we could do with straight-up words. The biggest attraction of the church has always been not its theology, but its community. 

The fact of the matter is that there's plenty of theology in the world. There are plenty of gods, each with their own story. And if you just take them at their words, there's not a lot of significant difference between them. That is, they all tell the story of a god who is bigger than us and who controls the world and who has some measure of cosmic power and some set of rules by which you get on his good side or bad side. For all practical purposes, most "god stories" are relatively the same. 

What makes the Christian God story different is His nearness, His presence, His incarnation so that He walks among us. And the God who walks among us set for us an example of how we're supposed to do it, by always being in relationship with the persons around Him. By establishing a core group of believers and disciples who completely changed the world. And this Christ-God told us, plainly, that the world would understand only when they see us loving each other. 

I don't know how that could be any clearer. 

So if folks walking into your church are getting a god story....*yawn*. God stories are a dime a dozen. But relationship is that thing that our human souls long for, and that's what makes our God story so dramatically different, and so wonderfully better, than all of the others. So maybe we aren't "preaching Jesus" with words, but I tell you with absolute confidence that love preaches Jesus better than words ever could. 

Now, as for the notion that no one wants to come to a place where they are expected to be socially vulnerable, I think we have to change our understanding of this. It all depends, really, on how we define social vulnerability. 

The overwhelming human ache, especially in our individualistic generation, is to know and to be known. It's to have a place to fit in. It's to have a place to be and to be welcome. Not just because you exist and you happen to be there, but because you are known and others are choosing to welcome and include you. We all want to be part of something; we all want to be connected to others. 

There are ways to do togetherness that don't have to be awkward. It all has to do with how you normalize it. 

We have a bit of a pressure in our culture toward "privacy." We think we have to protect the privacy of others, and in the church, this means that we've sort of tucked our needs away. No reason to name any names, no reason to embarrass anyone. No reason to call anyone out in front of everyone else. And for all practical purposes, this means that we have essentially stopped praying for one another as a body. If you want to know who to pray for, check the bulletin or read the weekly email or whatever, but we don't make it a habit any more of bringing the needs of our members before the body publicly. And even if our members have a need, they can respond privately to the invitation, pray privately with an elder, walk back to their seat alone, and everyone else waits for the email update. 

What if we normalize making the needs of our members public in our time together? What if we normalize having a gathering where addressing the real lives of those among us is our primary emphasis? 

The early church came together to meet the needs of those in attendance. They spent their time dividing up their resources and making sure everyone was taken care of. This wasn't something their deacons did after the assembly was over; it was part of their assembling together. And it wasn't that long ago that it was part of ours. It wasn't that long ago that no one thought twice for us to interrupt the assembly to pray for someone, for us to stop everything else and take time to hear a story, for us to break between worship songs to hear a testimony. It's only been recently that these things have been pushed to the side..for no other reason than that they aren't part of our very-scripted program

But church was never meant to be about a program, and there's not one single example of that in the New Testament. Not one. Church was meant to be about a fellowship. 

And if we're not using our time together for being together, we're doing it wrong. Period. We simply have to make fellowship central to our time together. We have to make our togetherness the thing. Even Jesus said so. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Wasting Time

The second objection that churches make when invited to renew an emphasis on fellowship is this: We can't waste our precious time together on that

Yes, that's the word - waste

Churches have become very invested in the emphasis that they put on preaching Jesus, on being seeker sensitive, on having the right invitation to "make a decision for Christ." Most churches run on a very tight schedule in their programs - there were even times when I was told exactly how many minutes I had to offer a Communion devotional. 

We have a lot of Jesus to cram into a very short amount of time, and anything that might take away from that time is, well, not welcome. 

We have to sing three songs, read a Scripture, have a prayer, pass the plates, listen to the sermon, and leave enough time for at least a few responses to the invitation (but not so much time that it's awkward if no one comes forward this week). We have rehearsed music, prepared slides, prepped speakers, written out devotionals, poured cups...if we don't get to all of that, if we don't get through all of that, then something essential will be missing from our Sunday morning. 


For all of our hustle and bustle, something essential is already missing from our Sunday morning. 

That something is fellowship. 

Oh, no, Aidan, I hear you saying - there's plenty of time for fellowship on Sunday. Anyone who wants to fellowship can show up a few minutes early or stay a few minutes late and hang out in the lobby fellowshipping with anyone they want to! Our members have as much time as they need to fellowship; we're not kicking them out right after the closing prayer. 

No. Just no. See, this goes back to what we were talking about last week, where the fellowship aspect of the church is something extra, something that the members are expected to do themselves, something that they'd have to commit to outside of the core time that you spend together as a body. 

What do you say to someone who shows up early to fellowship, but there's no one interested in talking? Not everyone who loiters in the lobby is interested in fellowship. Or maybe there's someone in the church this person would really connect with, but that person is a stay-later, not a come-early-er, so they keep missing each other. 

Well, Aidan, it's up to them to figger their schedules and make the time if fellowship is important to them and if they want to meet up with certain sets of folks. 

No. Again, no. That's not how the body is supposed to work. That's not how the body has ever worked. (In fact, in seasons in which this has been the primary model for the church, I am telling you - it hasn't worked. That's why our churches are getting emptier, not fuller. That's why more folks are walking away from us.) 

Having an opportunity for fellowship outside of your core time together, even if it's just fifteen minutes outside of that core time, is still putting the onus of fellowship on your people to do it themselves. To try to make it happen on their own. To build that if they want to build that...with other folks who want to build that. But not everyone. 

We keep saying we can't "waste" our precious, limited time on this fellowship, but I'm telling you - failing to make fellowship central to our precious, limited time together is already a failure. It's already a waste. It's killing us. 

Because it means we're not doing the one thing that Jesus called us to do above all other things, which, if you'll remember, was not to go and make disciples, but actually, it was to love one another.  

Tuesday, November 21, 2023


When we talk about making our Sunday mornings more interactive so that our members become more connected to one another, there are two immediate gut reactions from the church community. 

The first one is this: nobody wants to come to a place where they are expected to be socially vulnerable. 

And...I hear you. 

When I was a young kid, begging to go to church, my dad agreed to take me to a church, but only if I could find one that didn't make a spectacle out of folks who were visiting with them. Nobody wants to dare to come into a church building and be singled out and called out and asked to stand up in the middle of the sermon so everyone can gawk at them and know them for their newness. I get it. That's, as the kids would say, "cringe." 

But at the same time, we have to be honest about admitting that our people are missing something essential (and so is everyone else) when the church isn't person-focused. When the church is...information-focused. Or worse, church-focused. 

And that's what's happening - we've made our churches all about our churches instead of being about our people, and that's why it's so easy to 1) stay disconnected from the church and 2) convince yourself you don't even need the church at all. It's just a church. It's a place that asks you to make a commitment to it, but at the end of the day, it's a non-body; it doesn't have emotions, and it's not going to feel anything if you decide to walk away. 

On the other hand, if you're actually connected to the folks inside of that church, the pain of walking away is felt deeply. But then, if you're actually connected, why would you want to walk away?

So then, the question becomes, how do we get our people in our churches to continue coming to our churches if we try to shift the model from a program-focused/church-focused experience to an invitation to real community and connection? 

How do we engage a world whose motto these days seems to be "Ewww...people," and get them to buy into the community model of being God's people...together? 

It seems tough. But let's start by acknowledging that none of us is anything at all except what we are in relationship to others. Never. If you were to lock us away in a room by ourselves for any significant length of time, we would lose track of everything that we hold dear about ourselves because we are given a self only to interact with and engage the world. If we're not doing that, then we cease our being. 

Think about it. Are you kind? You cannot be kind unless there is someone to be kind to. Are you compassionate? There must be an other to feel compassion for. Are you smart? There must be a need for your knowledge. (We've all met someone who knows a lot of trivia and facts but is essentially useless in a real-life situation of need because none of their conversation starters is applicable.) Are you faithful? You have to have someone to be faithful to. Do you see the point? If you don't have a relational outlet for whatever you feel is essential to your identity as a human being, then you don't have those things any more. And if you don't have those things any more, you cannot be human. 

So the whole "Ewww...people" thing doesn't work. Not even for those of us who consider ourselves strong introverts. 

That, then, is a good place to start - by helping our people to understand that they already depend on the presence of others, that they already require relationships with others, that they exist only because of these relationships. Once they start to see how much their own heart depends on their relationships, then it's more natural to take the next step - teaching them to make those relationships more intentional. 

We'll pick this up on Thursday, but first, we'll talk about the second objection to creating an intentionally-interactive worship space tomorrow. 

Monday, November 20, 2023

Interactive Worship

Persons walking into our churches, members and seekers alike, should be getting fellowship on Sunday mornings. Period. If they aren't, we're doing it wrong. 

And I can hear you already saying, "But our Sunday mornings are so full already! We have to squeeze in the worship music and the Scripture reading and the Jesus talk and the invitation. How can we incorporate fellowship when we have so much information to try to pass on in a very limited amount of time?" 

What if those aren't the things we ought to be focused on? 

What if we created services that were more...interactive?

I come from a singing church. Our voices, for much of our history, were the only music we had. And when that was the case, everyone sang. Even the folks who couldn't sing. Even the folks you didn't want to hear singing. We all sang. We were expected to, but more than that, we wanted to. When we introduced instrumental worship, the congregational singing dropped off dramatically. Where we used to shout with joy at the end of a good song in our singing, now, we offer a round of applause. A dignified kind of round of applause. Just that one simple shift of the music being something offered to us instead of something we offer changed something about our church culture in a very powerful way. 

(And I'm not making a case for acapella worship or instrumental, nor am I making a judgment. I am using this as an example of how it shifts a church culture to have an interactive experience vs. an experience we are expected to show up and essentially watch.) 

It was the interactive nature of our worship that invited us to be present at church in a different way. 

For many years, we sat and listened to the sermon being preached. We took notes in our bulletin, following the outline that the preacher provided for us. Tucking away those little papers after the service. Some folks hung onto them for years; some probably still have them. And at the closing prayer, we'd pack up our Bibles and think, "That was nice." But then, some crazy Pentecostal snuck into one of our services and shouted an "Amen!" in the middle of the preaching, and the preacher chuckled and said, "It's alright. You can say Amen to that!" And now, it's not uncommon for us to hear congregational interjections during the sermon. "Amen." "That's right." "Hallelujah." And when the sermon gets going like that, you can feel the whole place firing up. 

Again, it's the difference between being a spectator and being a participant. 

It's little things like this that change the way we experience something. We're there, but when we participate, we feel like we've really been there. We feel a little more togetherness than we do when we're just a quiet mass of spectators all facing forward and paying good attention. 

There's more personality. You get to hear what folks' voices sound like. You get to hear what makes their heart leap. You get to hear what makes them cry. You start to understand a very real human dynamic in your body that you don't get if everyone is just watching.  And as for the singing, I don't think you ever feel more like part of a group than when you hear your own voice as part of theirs. I just don't. 

See, there have to be things in our Sunday services that make us more than individuals in attendance. There have to be elements that make us a body, humans in shared space, beings together. Engaged with one another even as we're engaged with the church. 

This is the first step to creating a body in our churches, a real fellowship - it's getting something interactive going. It's inviting, and expecting, those in attendance to participate. I'm not saying we all become Pentecostal congregations; that's not comfortable for everyone. But there are ways to be together without being necessarily so loud about it. There are ways to participate without all the things the more conservative among us are intimidated by. 

(And there are ways to really get this wrong, too.) 

But if your Sunday service is designed for folks to come in, sit down, pay attention, and go home, then you can't have a body. You have a group. A social club. But not a body. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

Empty Pitchers

It wasn't that long ago that the church was open a lot. Several days a week. In the mornings. In the evenings. Some afternoons. There was almost always something going on at the church. And when fellowship was an emphasis in the church, we were there for it. 

All of it. 

Because it was an opportunity to see our friends. To hang out with our brothers and sisters. To talk with one another. To know and to be known. To love and to be loved. 

Some churches have tried, in recent years, to start some of these programs back up. They have tried to offer midweek classes, Sunday night worship, game nights, fellowship meals, service opportunities. They are led by folks who remember the days when we were there for it. When we spent not just our Sunday mornings, but our entire week together. As a body. 

And many of these folks are saddened to realize that these days, only a handful of persons show up. Pastors and church staff start to panic. "We are a church full of the uncommitted," they think. Our people just really aren't that interested in Jesus. 

But that's not in at all. 

If your church members don't have real, meaningful fellowship with each other, there's no incentive for them to come and do your church thing. Whatever you're trying to do at the church, it feels like just one more thing on an already-busy calendar. And if it's the kind of thing they're actually interested in and might like doing, they are more likely to set it up themselves with the persons they already have relationships with. 

Maybe you set up a game night, and you have a couple in your church who loves to play cards. Seems like a match made in heaven, right? But if that couple doesn't have meaningful fellowship with anyone at the church, they are more likely to convince themselves they won't know anyone there and so probably won't have a good time, so they set up a game night with the friends outside of church that they usually play cards with. 

Want to plan a worship night? Great, but most families can turn on a worship station at home and sing together. What is the church offering besides worship? 

I know what you're thinking - they can't form those meaningful relationships if they won't come to events, but that's backward. That's the whole problem. Fellowship is not something the church is supposed to do on the side, as an extracurricular activity. It's supposed to be the heartbeat of the church. And if you're not getting it right in your core meeting together - on Sunday mornings - why should your people believe you'll get it right some other time? 

You're asking a bunch of empty pitchers to show up and telling them they can be filled up, but they walk away empty every time they're already with you, so why should they trust you'll fill them up this time? 

Someone shouldn't have to come to our church on Thursday night to develop meaningful fellowship with our body. They should be getting that on Sunday mornings. And if they're not, we're doing it wrong. Period. 

And again, I know what you're thinking...(to be continued next week)

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Sundays Only

As churches have turned their focus outward in what we can call the "seeker sensitive" movement, they've begun crumbling from within. The seekers come, but they don't stay, because all they are finding is information. And those who have been in the pews for a long time are dropping out, for a number of reasons. 

It was the fellowship that welcomed them into the church and gave them a place, but as the fellowship takes a backseat (or no seat at all) to the seeker-based model designed to impart basic information as succinctly as possible, there's really no reason to go any more. There's nothing at the church but the same boring message we've heard our whole lives, nothing new to challenge us, and no one to really talk to. There's no connection, and we already have the information. 

Churches have historically tried to combat this decline in two ways. First, they put the onus of spiritual growth on the members themselves. Our Sunday mornings together, they say, are not designed to take you deeper in your walk with Christ; you're supposed to do that on your own with individual prayer, Bible study, and quiet time. 

The problem with this is two-fold. First, we can think of the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. The eunuch was reading the Scriptures. We can assume he studied them frequently. He was faithful. Then, Philip comes alongside him and says, "Do you understand?" And the eunuch replies, "How can I?" The truth is there is a large number of the faithful who invest themselves in prayer, but never know if God hears them; read their Bible, but don't understand what it means; have quiet time, but never hear even a whisper. We were designed to help each other understand, so putting the burden on the faithful to disciple themselves is ludicrous. The Bible itself tells us this isn't how it's meant to be and it doesn't work anyway. 

So in response to that, the church has tried to set up small group models. Or other discipleship models outside of Sunday mornings. Want to grow in your faith walk? Come to church more often at non-peak hours. We can't spend our Sunday morning on discipleship, but we can create a bunch of other programs to help you do that, if that's what you're looking for. 

The problem here is that these programs are often, well, programs. They, too, are information-based, meant to help you learn more, study better, do better, live more faithfully. They are missing the relationship component that we're already feeling missing. Most of these classes and programs offer informational discipleship, not relational discipleship - they attempt to teach you how to learn or teach you how to teach yourself, but they are not usually designed for someone to take you under their wing and walk with you the way Jesus showed us it's supposed to be done. 

And it wouldn't matter anyway, would it? In the seeker-sensitive church model, what does being a super-disciple get you? You still sit in the same service on Sunday mornings hearing the ABCs about Jesus every week. You still have to pursue any deeper faithfulness on your own. You are still by yourself in a sea of persons. There's not a distinct role in most churches for mature disciples - they're still just part of the crowd, unless they were already part of the ministry team. 

So we end up with churches inviting a lot of folks in, but not getting many of them to stay and even the ones who have been here awhile are going away. Because if it's all about the ABCs, it doesn't take long to learn them. And if all it takes is a one-time commitment in baptism...check. And if that's all the church is focused on, and I've already accomplished those two things, then what's the point of coming back? The church, it seems, has nothing more to offer me. The church, it seems, is not interested in offering me more.

But they will invite - perhaps even expect - me to do more. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Seeker Sensitive

So what happened? The church, for many years, was a highly relational body, a true family of believers centered around fellowship who enjoyed being together and were woven into each others' lives. Now, it feels very different, but what changed?

What changed is that the church, fearful for its future, started to turn outward. We decided that the most important persons in our body were the ones who were still outside of it. We chose to start changing our services to be more attractive to those outside of our flock. The entire goal was to get more persons in the door. So everything that we did became a deliberate effort to appeal to those who do not already know Jesus. 

We'll call this the "Seeker Sensitive" movement. 

I'm not sure that I've met a church, to date, that has been untouched by this idea. But in essence, what this did was shift our focus from what we were doing in our church to what we are doing with our church. That is, how are we using our resources to best fulfill the Great Commission - to go and make disciples of all nations?

And in this shift in mindset, the persons inside our walls, the core of our body, the fellowship of our believers...became just a resource. Every person on our membership roll became one more person who could invite someone else to church. 

A lot of the long-time faithful have lamented this move for other reasons. Most significantly, it is often lamented because it turns every Sunday into a first-time introduction to Jesus and doesn't leave a lot of room for growing in discipleship, the way the old church model did. If every Sunday, you have to design your program around the possibility that someone might walk in who has never met Jesus before, then you can't go deep. 

You also can't focus on fellowship. 

Your events can't be relationship-centered any more. Because that feels clique-ish. That feels closed-off. It feels like an "outsider" wouldn't be welcome at your event. We're afraid that someone might walk into our churches, find a true family of believers, and feel like they are crashing Thanksgiving dinner at someone else's house. So we simply did away with dinner and made church more of a come-and-go kind of thing, so that no one could ever possibly feel left out. 


Those who came to the church for a family are no longer finding it. And those who have treasured being part of that family no longer have it. And as much as we're trying to focus ourselves on fulfilling the Great Commission - going into our community and making disciples and growing in numbers (which somehow became the metric by which we judge our churches) - the more we have lost the essence by which Jesus Himself said they would know us, and know Him - by our love for one another. 

Remember that? That's what Jesus said. They will know you are Mine by how you love one another.

Oh, how often we cut that verse short and use it to fuel our new seeker sensitive movement. Most Christians today, they only know the first part - they will know you are Christians by your love. Period. So we invest ourselves in trying to "love" everyone, especially the outsider. Especially the "unchurched." Especially the seeker. 

But that's not what Jesus said. Jesus said they will know we are Christians by our love for one another. By our fellowship. By what they see when they walk into our fellowship, before a single string is plucked on a guitar or a single verse is projected on the screen or a single prayer is spoken. They will know we are Christians by how we love one another. 

And what's happening is that the seekers we have sought to be sensitive to are coming to our churches. They are soaking in our programs. They are listening to our sermons and our worship. They are being fed everything that we thought would be important in getting them to know more about Jesus and maybe even know Him personally. But they aren't staying around. 

Why not?

Because we aren't loving one another any more. Not like we used to. Because we aren't a family; we've become a social group. Because we've lost that distinctiveness that we were supposed to be known by. As the church has turned outward to try to draw in the seeker, we have turned away from what was already inside us, the fellowship. And the truth is, we're failing on both fronts now. 

Seekers don't want us because they need something more than information. Members don't want us because we aren't loving them well any more. We've made clear that our priority is always "the next one," not the ones we already have. And it's killing us. 

Just look at what it's doing, by the way, to those numbers that we seem so massively concerned about... 

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Church Family

As we start talking about some shifts that have happened within the church culture in the past twenty years, it's important that we remember what things looked like not that long ago. To do that, it's important to tell part of my own story. 

I was born into the world, not the church. We were not a Christian family, and even now, I am the only member of my immediate family who attends church. I had a natural curiosity about Christianity and begged to go to a few services, but I was always taught what a "proper event" church was and how I should be on my "best behavior" and wearing my best clothes. My guess is that this is not a foreign description for many, inside or outside the church, in that day and age. 

For awhile, I went to church with my great-aunt, who would faithfully pick me up on Sunday mornings. The most important thing about being in church with her was listening quietly and learning as much as I could, including memorizing things like the names of all twelve disciples. Information was key. So were the two dollars in my pocket, which my mother insisted were necessary for attending church. 

Even with these early exposures, I found myself still curious about church culture and Christianity. It was neat, but there was something that I felt was missing, although I couldn't have told you what it was. It seemed a lot like school, like somewhere else to go to learn something. I was a nerd; I could learn with the best of them. But learning wasn't really what I was looking for. I kept going back, but I wasn't finding what I was looking for. Not exactly. 

Fast forward a few years to whatever counted as a social life for an awkward middle school student with very few friends, and I had this one friend who was super-connected to his church. We would work together on school projects, and he would take me to his church building to work on the projects because they had a fully stocked arts and crafts supply room and nobody seemed to mind us working there. 

What struck me the most about his church was the way everyone knew his name when he walked in. That just blew my mind. Soon, his youth ministers started visiting school for lunch and sitting at our table, bringing enough Arby's for everyone. Within one visit, they knew everyone's name. I went to a Wednesday night service, and everyone stopped to talk to everyone, including the kids. Everyone knew everyone, and the conversations were just natural. 

I attended a Sunday morning service, and it was the same - greeting everyone by name, hanging out in the lobby until the music started. Talking. Laughing. Hugging. What was strange was that even when I attended an interchurch youth rally, these kids came right up and started hugging each other and talking like they were old friends. (I would find out later that these youth groups ran into each other so frequently that there were, indeed, real friendships between them.) 

That was the thing I had still been looking for in church. And here it was. 

It's strange because in the early days of my church life, we had a church of over 500 members, and everyone knew everyone. They knew their extended family members. They knew where they worked. They knew where they lived. We did a scavenger hunt as a youth group once - as a bunch of middle and high school kids - that gave us clues to a member in the church, and that meant we were supposed to go to their house next. And this group of kids I was hanging out with - they got every clue right. Every single one. And when they figured out who they were supposed to see, they knew right where that person's house was. If any of them had had a driver's license, they could have taken us there themselves. 

We held church events all the time, and we went because of the opportunity to hang out with folks that we knew well and liked hanging out with. No one sat for very long in the same place at a pitch-in because there were too many families they wanted to visit with. We held euchre nights and switched up partners all night. We would look at each other and say things like, "Hey, I'm going to Byrl's house to rake leaves. Wanna come?" And we all knew it wasn't about raking leaves; it was about being with Byrl. 

It was this kind of family that I came into. It was this kind of community that drew me finally, fully, into the church. It was a very natural fellowship, and fellowship was the nature of the church. And the body was so interconnected that if, say, Debbie was missing for more than one week, we instantly knew it. If Bill was in the hospital, everyone knew it - it didn't take an announcement from the pulpit. When my dad died, even though I was new to this fellowship, this church showed up in massive numbers at the funeral home - they barely knew me, and they didn't know my dad at all, but they were here for it. They were here for me. 

That's the way that church was not that long ago. 

And then...the church culture changed. Church hopping/church shopping, yes, but something even more than that. 

Monday, November 13, 2023

Church Culture

A few weeks ago, I made a post on my personal Facebook page connecting my personal story to a story that I have heard from so many others over the years. And it's a conversation that really deserves more space than a small post can give it. 

Thankfully, I have a blog. (Ha.)

The post was about how, about seven months ago, I essentially disappeared from my church. Due to a medical condition (which I hope is temporary), I have struggled to feel safe driving to my church building, even though it's only a few miles, so I have been spending my Sundays at home. Now, I am a person who has been very visible in my church for many years - serving in a dozen different capacities, including several "on-stage" roles. So it was interesting to me that even after several months of not being in physical attendance, I could count on one hand the number of church members who had reached out to me at all. 

And the point of that post was not "my church sucks" (and my sincere apologies to any who might have taken it that way. From feedback that I have received, overwhelmingly most understood what I was trying to say). The point of that post was - if it can happen to someone as visible as me, how much more easily does it happen to someone less visible? 

The truth is, this is a story I have heard a lot over the past decade or so in ministry. I have heard it from patients in the hospital (pre-Covid, when hospitals were fully open) who have wondered why more of their church family isn't visiting them. I have heard it from hospice patients who spent their entire lives in a church only to have just a handful of visitors or even phone calls in their final months. I have heard it from seekers who have thought they found the perfect church for them, only to be hurt by realizing that no one really knows if they are there are not. No one seems to notice them at all. 

I have had several reach out to me after that post saying, essentially, this is why they don't go to church any more. 

It's heartbreaking. 

And the reason that I cited in my post for this happening - and it's a big reason - is the church hopping/church shopping culture that we live in. Persons and families move churches so often now that we just assume folks will come and go in our congregations. So many have already come and left us that it doesn't surprise us when someone just...disappears. We just assume they went somewhere else. That they moved on. That for whatever reason, they decided not to be a member of our church any more. And so, avoiding all of the awkward conversations that come with, "Hey, uhm..." we just mourn the loss of our friend and move on with the folks who are still with us. Such is the church culture in America. 

The more I have thought about this, though, the more I have realized that while church hopping is a big reason why it's easy to disappear from the church, it's not the only reason. There are other things happening in church culture that make it easy for someone to just drop entirely off the radar and have no one at all pick them up. 

And it's hurting the church. 

Not only is it hurting the church, but it's hurting the faithful. It's hurting all of us. It's hurting God's mission and glory in the world.

I fear that if we don't start taking a hard look at this, we're going to see a further decline of the church in America. I fear that we're about to lose the entirety of the essence of who we are supposed to be. 

So let's talk about church culture and how it is that so many in this generation are feeling a separation between themselves and their church, how many are wrestling with what they feel like is abandonment. 

Friday, November 10, 2023


The things that I call the evidences of God's love for me, the world has a name for, too: they call them "coincidences." Sometimes, they call them "accidents." (If they watch Bob Ross, they call them "happy accidents.") Sometimes, they call them "luck." The more destined among them might call them "fate." 

And...that's a lot of words. 

It's a lot of words that don't do anything to help you understand your place in the world, to help you feel secure about anything at all, to help you trust in anything. To have any real hope at all. 

If these things are coincidence, then they are essentially random. They just...happen. Which means they could happen or not happen at any given time. That's not helpful if you're trying to plan a life, trying to consider your options. "Gosh, I really want a nice coincidence to come along. I think I'll plan on that." You can't plan on that. It just...happens. 

If these things are accidents, then they were never meant to happen. They are random, just like coincidences, but they weren't intended. They occurred because someone or something somewhere got messed up and you just happened to have benefited from that. You can't count on an accident because you can't count on the world messing up in your favor. (And if you've lived long enough, you know that usually, when the world messes up, it's not in your favor.) 

But you can't even feel good about an accident because it literally means that no one and nothing intended any good or benefit for you at all. No one was thinking about you and no one was wanting to make your life better or easier. A mistake was made, and you happened to be there to catch it. That's all. 

If these things are luck, then it seems that it has more to do with where you are than anything. You put yourself in a position to benefit and the timing lined up just right. But how can you ever reliably replicate this? You can spend your entire life trying to put yourself in all of the right places and never get "lucky" again. Never. That's really defeating, isn't it? "I was always in the right place, but never in the right time." You can spend your life playing a slot, walk away for three seconds, and watch someone else hit the jackpot. There's nothing encouraging about that. 

If these things are fate, then there's some rhyme or reason to the universe that you don't quite understand, and usually, that means you end up judging whether you are a good person or a bad person based on how favorable the universe seems toward you. There's an inkling that, perhaps, someone or something is in control of all things, though you might not name it. But there can be no fate without a determiner. So you just assume that whatever determiner is out there approves of you (or disapproves of you) in some way, which is nice. But it's not really inspiring. 

By the way, a lot of Christians live this way. A lot of Christians equate God with "fate" - a detached, dispassionate God orchestrated things a certain way because He is either pleased with you or displeased with you. He determined what happens to you maybe before you even were born, so it doesn't depend on your goodness at all; it's just the life He picked for you. We have a lot of bad theology around this idea that comes in a lot of different forms, but it all comes down to the same basic idea - which doesn't look very different from the world's idea of fate. 

But if it is love...

If it is love, there is a Lover. If it is love, there is a beloved. (That's you.) If it is love, it is personal; it centers itself on your inherent worth and not on anything you've done or might do. If it is love, it's not random. If it is love, it's not about being in the right place at the right time or benefitting from some error somewhere. If it is love, it is intentional. If it is love, you can not only plan on it - you can count on it. 

Because God never stops loving you. 

Love is better than all of these things. It's better than coincidence. It's better than an accident, even a happy accident. It's better than luck. It's better than fate. Some say it's foolishness, to think that if there even is a God, He could love you at all. That He would love you at all. 

But I look around my life sometimes - okay, most of the time - and there's nothing that explains it better than the understanding that He does. He does love me. I am loved. 

That's the only thing that makes any sense at all. 

So...I am trusting God to love me. 

Thursday, November 9, 2023

For Love

We talk about what it means to trust God, how it can't be just some blanket statement that isn't attached to a deeper, relational meaning. In other words, we have to know what we're trusting God for, so that we can focus our hearts on what we know about His specific goodness in that particular area. And this still gets us really close to a place where details matter, more or less. 

But as I contemplated this question this week, even after rounding it out and filling it in with the specific thing I thought I was trusting God for, it became clear to me that I wasn't even trusting God for what I thought I was trusting God for. 

At the end of the day, I'm trusting God for just one thing: 

I'm trusting Him to love me. 

I'm trusting Him that, no matter the circumstances, He loves me. I'm trusting Him that, no matter what path I choose, He loves me. I'm trusting Him that, no matter what happens next, He loves me. I'm trusting Him that, if it turns out twenty years from now that I made the wrong choice, He loves me. I'm trusting not only that He loves me, but I'm trusting that He will actively love me in ways that I can't deny, in ways that will make sense to my heart, in ways that I can't even fathom at the moment in which I am choosing to trust Him to love me.

And my life is littered with examples of God loving me. Through every circumstance. Through every fear. Through every challenge. Through every victory. Through every doubt. Through every hope. Through every assurance. Through every mountain. Through every valley. 

I don't need to know any more specifics about anything when I'm trusting God to love me because no matter what happens next, I have a lifetime of God loving me to lean back on. To know. And to trust. 

I get that this probably sounds cheesy to some. Like a cop-out to others. But I'm not talking about a platitude. I'm not talking about a "Jesus loves me, this I know" kind of intellectual understanding of the love of God. I'm talking about an enfleshed, real-life, down-to-earth, brightest-and-darkest-moments kind of love. I'm talking about a love that has shown up so powerfully in my life that I could smell it. That I could taste it. That I could put my fingers on it and actually feel it. 

I'm talking about a love that has never let me down, even when it felt like things were slipping away. I'm talking about a love that has always worked good for my life, even when everything felt bad. I'm talking about a love that has swept in and answered every question with a deep, satisfying knowing at the moment when I was most sure that an answer was never coming. 

I'm talking about a love that has called me to all of the places that I now inhabit...and that has called me out of those that, by grace, I was able to leave behind. I'm talking about a love that has wrapped me in its warm embrace when I lay shivering on the floor, curled up into a mass of human brokenness and trauma. I'm talking about a love that has stood me up tall when my shoulders have slumped, so tall that I've gone home to measure myself because I'm certain I have grown at least two inches. 

I'm talking about a love I have lived because it's a love that lives in my life. 

And I'm trusting God for that

The Bible may have told me so, but this I know because God has proven it to be true over and over and over again: Jesus loves me. 

Because God is love. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Narrowing Focus

Whenever we decide that we're trusting God, we have to figure out what we're trusting God for - and that doesn't mean having all of the details. It means making a choice about who we believe God is and what we believe about His faithfulness. 

Yesterday, I narrowed a recent choice down to having faith now and trusting God for the future...or being courageous now and having faith for the future. Courage...or trust. 

Either would be pleasing to God. There's not a wrong choice between those two. 

Often, when there's not a wrong choice, we can find that paralyzing. Torn between two good things, how are we ever supposed to choose? 

But we're looking at that wrong. It's true that we could stay in limbo forever if we're waiting on some additional key piece of data that will make our choice clear, but if we would simply choose one or the other, then we get to start adding additional data that is key to leaning on our faith. 

See, once I decide that I'm trusting God for courage today and having faith for tomorrow, then I can start flooding my heart and mind with examples of God's faithfulness through courage. I can read the stories in the Bible where characters had to act before they had all of the information, where God was faithful to reward courage. I can listen to the stories of my friends and hear courage in them. I can remember times in my life, prior to this one, where I wasn't certain but acted in faith anyway and where God was good to provide. I can start to build a reservoir of encouragement within me that includes all of the stories of God's faithfulness to the courageous.

The same is true if I choose to wait now in faith and trust God with the future. (I realize that using the word "trust" here can be a little confusing; we could also call this hope...or confident assurance.) As soon as I make this decision, I can start flooding my heart and mind with examples of God's faithfulness to those who have hope deferred. Those who have had to wait. I can read the Bible and see faith in waiting. I can listen to stories of my friends who have had to wait. I can think of times in my own life where I have chosen waiting over instant gratification and found God's goodness in that. 

Once I make a choice, whatever that choice is, I can lean into not only a knowable God, but a known God - the God who has already actually shown up for His people (and for me) in the exact way that I am trusting Him for now. 

This steadies my quivering soul.

I confess that making the decision isn't easy. I confess that it's one of the hardest things to do. We don't want to be a people who move without having all of the details first. But that's the thing about faith - when we move without knowing all of the details, the details start to fill in. First with one story, then another, and then all of a sudden, we have a picture of the fullness of God's glory and we see it; we see what we were looking for all along. 

It's paradoxical, it seems, but then, God is a God of paradox. 

And just for the record, we can use this principle before we make our decision, too, if we must. If you're trying to decide between moving or waiting, you can start to fill your heart with the stories you know of moving and waiting and discover that God is faithful in both. You can start to build up your reservoir of faith when you recognize how these types of stories have played out in the past. And then, you can choose which God your heart can trust most in this season...or maybe you choose which God your heart needs to trust most in this season. Maybe it's a great season for building up a weak area in your faith; maybe you need the confidence that a stronger area provides. 

The point is, we base our decisions on something concrete, something solid that we definitely know about God because of the stories we've heard about Him, or the ones that we have lived ourselves. It's never this blind, "I trust God!" declaration; it's always rooted in what we know about Him. In why we can trust Him. In what we can trust Him for

This is real faith. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Trusting God

This all started for me this week as I was wrestling yet again with trusting God. I realized that trusting God was not enough; I needed to know what I was trusting God for, and that meant that I thought I needed Him to give me some more details. 

Actually - a funny story. I was walking my dog one morning, praying about the decision I was facing, asking God what He was doing, trying to figure out if I should just make the move now and trust the provision later or trust for provision now and put off making the move until sometime in the future. Just then, I looked down at the sidewalk and saw a stray piece of Halloween candy from trick-or-treating. 

The candy?

A "Now and Later." 

God thinks He's sooooo funny. 

But that moment was a turning point for me in the way that I was thinking about things. Because it was true. 

I realized I felt the same way a few months ago when I was trying to decide about my job situation. I had two really great offers on the table, and I was struggling to make a decision. Struggling to know what God would want me to do. And what made that decision so hard for me was that I truly believed there was not a wrong decision. That is, I knew that God would bless either decision, which meant it had to come down to more than just whatever details God might provide about the future course of my life. He wasn't going to give me the details. It was up to me to make a choice and determine the details. 

The same was true this week. I'm not convinced that, when it comes to God's blessing, there was a wrong choice. I think if I had chosen courage now and provision for the future, He would have blessed me. And I think if I had chosen provision now and trust for the future, He would have blessed me. I think that in the grand scheme of things, God was going to bless whatever step of faith that I chose. 

Now, that raises a difficult question. If God is going to bless whatever decision that I make, does He even actually care?

That's naturally where some folks' minds go. If it doesn't matter what I choose, then God doesn't care what I choose or why I choose it. God...isn't a factor at all. 

But that's not what I said. 

What I said was that what it really came down to was what I was trusting God for. Read that last long paragraph again - my choice was between courage and faith...or faith and trust. God desires both in my life - courage and trust. But not all of the choices in front of me require both in equal measure. So then, God cares. God doesn't care what I choose, but He cares how I'm choosing what I choose. That is, am I choosing in faith? Am I choosing a God-honoring thing? 

There's obviously a clear difference between, say, truth and a lie. Between forgiveness and condemnation. Between a kind word and a crude word. God clearly has a preference in situations like this. But if I'm choosing between courage and trust, and choosing in faith, then I think God is ready to honor either. Or both. 

And that's really the clarity that I needed. I didn't need the details; I just needed to decide what I was trusting God for because that ended up being the thing that shaped my thinking -and my heart - about the whole thing. 

That's not to say it made the choice any easier, but it made it more manageable. 

How is that? How do you make the so-called impossible choice between two good things, both of which would be blessed? 

A little more on that for you tomorrow.  

Monday, November 6, 2023

Wasting Time

What is faith?

It's the question we all want to answer. Whether we've been at this for five hours or fifty years, we all still seem to wrestle with knowing what faith really is. What does it look like?  How does it act? Are we doing it right?

Even in those moments when we're certain that we know what faith is, we still have questions about it. Which seems weird when I say it like that, but here's a scenario for you: 

Imagine that you are facing a big decision in your life. Whatever it might be. You've done all the research. You've agonized over all of the information. You've prayed, but there hasn't been a super-clear answer. You've made your pros and cons lists. You've thought long and hard about what you would like and what you would accept and what is non-negotiable for you. But at the end of the day, you realize that you really can't predict, let alone control, what happens next. So the only reasonable thing to to trust God. 

And this feels like faith. This feels like you're getting it right. You might even pat yourself on the back because you've come to this amazing place of recognition where you are putting God first. 

That's great. 


But what are you trusting God for

That is naturally the next question that we ask ourselves. What's interesting about this question is that it leads us into a sort of circular reasoning. When we ask what we're trusting God for, we go back into our data, into our lists, into our prayer, begging God to show us what we're trusting Him for. Which is...basically the same as what we did in the first place. When He didn't answer us the first time. 

Oh, no, Lord. I'm not asking You to show me what the answer is...I'm asking You to help me trust that the answer is coming, so I just need to know what the answer is so that when it happens, I will know that it was You. 

And we inevitably come back, slowly but surely, to the place where we realize that we can neither predict, let alone control, what happens next, so the only reasonable thing to to trust God. 

But trust God for what

And back we go again. 

See, we understand at the heart level, even at the gut level, that it's not enough to just "trust God." We understand that that is a phrase that has no depth, no meaning to it. It allows us to step back and take a completely hands-off approach to our own life. We'll call it "living in surrender," but very, very few of us have the ability to actually take hold of whatever God gives us because we've so "surrendered" our lives that we're afraid to even touch them any more. What we're actually doing is living a stoic kind of existence where we pretend not to care and pretend to have no legitimate connection to our own lives. 

This not only sucks all of the joy and depth and wonder and meaning out of our lives, but it's a faith-crusher. Yes, you heard me right - we can come to a place in our lives where we decide to "trust God" and it can kill our faith. Because it's all so detached from...everything. Including itself. 

But Aidan, I hear you saying, how am I supposed to trust God if I don't know what the answer is? How am I supposed to trust in the outcome if I don't know what it's supposed to be, what God desires it to be? What God has willed it to be? How am I supposed to trust God without the details? 

Well, let's talk about it. 

Because the way we're doing it now, all we're really doing is wasting time. Wasting holy time. 

Friday, November 3, 2023

A Sense of Community

So here we are, the end of Halloweek, and we've talked about engaging the world without entertaining it at a time when the world is more open than it is on any other day of the year. We've talked about the history of Halloween and how, for centuries, it was a sacred day (and in many circles, still is). And we've talked about how the world fell in love with the church's evolving model of engagement and came to copy us in the now-popular "Trunk or Treat" events. 

But there's one more thing. 

Because the world doesn't Trunk or Treat the way that we do, and we have to be mindful of that. 

What the church is really good at - or what the church should be really good at - is fellowship. That sense of community. That togetherness. In fact, that's been the hallmark of our Trunk or Treats (and "harvest festivals" for decades. It's about being together, worshiping, having fun. We have always made the fellowship central to what we are doing. 

The world...doesn't have fellowship at heart. It doesn't have neighborliness at heart. In fact, the world's events are largely void of this. 

When the world puts on a Trunk or Treat, it's really only the participants who have any sense of fellowship and only to the extent that they are putting it on together. Everyone who comes by is coming just to pass through and not really make connections. You can walk through an entire trunk or treat and not speak to another single individual, not let your kids stop to mingle, not make eye contact with anyone, not run into anyone you know. You can go to this "community" event and not have any sense of actual community at all. It's simply not required.

This is what the world is really good at. It's something we could really call "optimization." The world took our model, emphasized what it thought was important about it, threw everything else away, and established a new tradition that optimized productivity. For families who want to get a lot of candy with no work, it's great. 

But it's no community. 

And more than that, these trunk or treats actually take away from community that already existed. We talked about how open the world is on Halloween and how you can knock on your neighbor's door and chat even if you don't really talk to one another normally or you've never met until now. There's just something about it. 

As Trunk or Treat becomes more popular, however, fewer and fewer families go out in their neighborhoods. They've attended so many compact, optimized Trunk or Treat events in preparation for Halloween that they don't need any more candy, they don't want to go out in the weather, and they certainly don't want to walk around and exert the physical effort that traditional trick-or-treating requires. The kids have already had their Halloween experience with decorated booths or cars or whatever the setup is; they don't need any more of it. 

The world's Trunk or Treat is making the neighborhood obsolete on its most open day of the year. 

And that's not a good thing. 

That's why the church can't just let the world have this one. We can't just rejoice that the world has taken our model. Because it's not really our model. The world corrupted it and took out all the best parts. So we have to keep pushing and have to keep doing it the way we do it. What we have to offer is so much richer, so much more wonderful. We can never lose sight of that. 

Anyway...something to think about in the next 363 days.  

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Trunk or Treat

We're talking about engaging the world without entertaining it, about encountering culture, about celebrating Halloween - because it's the perfect example of all of this - and about the world being more open on this day than it is on any other day of the year. And yesterday, we gave a brief glimpse into the sacredness of Halloween, at least in the overwhelming majority of its history, until it took kind of a weird turn in the last century or so. 

I hinted that the world maybe doesn't have as much of a monopoly on this day as it might seem at first, especially now, and here's what I mean: 

The world has taken a page right out of the church's playbook. 

They call it the "trunk or treat." 

Trunk or Treat actually stems from the church tradition of trying to host "alternative" events for Halloween, something for their families to get involved in without all the demons and devils and witchcraft and so forth. 

So churches started hosting official "harvest parties" - opportunities for their families to come together and celebrate the fall season without all the entanglements of worldly culture. These harvest parties included a meal and fellowship and worship and fun, everything you could hope for in an evening. 

Unless, of course, you were a kid who attended public school and had to listen to stories about all of the candy your Halloween-celebrating friends were getting in this season. 

No problem. The church simply started adding more treats to its events. There's no reason we can't give out candy at the church. So the church kids got to go to the harvest party and be safe from the dark arts, but still have candy to pig out on and to talk about with their friends. 

Then, someone had the brilliant idea that we should open our harvest parties to those outside of the church. They then became fellowship and outreach events. They were advertised as alternatives to the world, for anyone who wanted to celebrate but wasn't really interested in the ghoul and the gore. And then, of course, we'd tell you about Jesus when you showed up thinking you were just here to have a little good, clean fun. 

But the world doesn't play that game. It knows when we're just looking for an opportunity to evangelize. It tends to avoid things where it believes we're going to "shove Jesus down their throat." So 30-ish years ago (roughly), the church really focused on moving its harvest parties to the parking lot, setting up an in-and-out good, clean, fun party with candy and treats. It was a way to get the world to come in without making them feel trapped. They never had to come inside our walls at all. Just visit our parking lot and see your holiday in a new, clean light. 

Eventually, we even dropped the overt evangelism. Early on, we had decorations that were still very Christian-y, but we dropped those in favor of more tame Halloween themes. Just to show that hey, we can have fun, too, and not everything has to be about shoving Jesus down your throat. So we made our harvest parties immensely more accessible to the general public by making them non-overtly-Christian (so non-offensive) and easily-engaged (in the parking lot). 

And the world was like, hey, this is a great idea! The more it caught on that families even in the world would drive through the church parking lot (even if it was just because that was an easy grab for a large amount of candy), the more the world started seriously looking at the church's model and, well, Trunk or Treat was born. 

Now, cities and towns and organizations everywhere are doing Trunk or Treat events. They have re-ghouled and re-gored them up. Made them more haunted and horror-filled, more bloody and dark. They have put the world's culture back into them. But don't be fooled - this model came from the church. 

Which means that even the world believes we were right about something and do have some good ideas. 

That said, there is an unfortunate downside to the world copying the church's model (as there always is) - they ruined something beautiful (as they always do). So tomorrow, we'll talk about what Halloween in the world is missing and how it is actually the most central reality of the church and how, perhaps, we can help bridge this void in our own engagement - but not entertainment - of Halloween.  

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

All Saints Day

Halloween is often considered "the devil's holiday" (or sometimes, the devil's "birthday"), but it's actually not as demonic as it seems on the surface - or as America influenced it to be. 

Before it was Halloween, this day was an old cultural holiday in another civilization entirely in which they celebrated the end of the harvest season and honored the dead, who had provided for them for another year by all that they established that made the harvest possible. It was believed that on this day, the space between this life and the next was thinner, so it was easier for the dead to be present. 

Now, before you get all bent out of shape, remember this: civilizations throughout time have always had their ways of understanding death and the afterlife, and every culture - including ours - has its ways of honoring the dead. So even if we don't agree with what this older civilization believed about spirit life, we can recognize that it was not specifically satanic; it was actually sacred. 

Then, the Catholic church came into its heyday and recognized the sacred celebration of the non-Christian folk and decided to piggy-back off of their understanding and created something called All Saints' Day. That's today. It's a day set aside to honor the saints of the church. (Duh.) Saints are always venerated. That is, they are respected. They get to be saints because of their goodness, their righteousness, their faithfulness. 

A little while later, the church added All Souls' Day. That's tomorrow. All Souls' Day is a chance to honor the faithfully departed a little closer to home - members of your own family or community or close circle. So you honor the saints of the church on All Saints' Day and the saints of your own story on All Souls' Day. And this was all wrapped around the sacred celebrations that were already happening culturally to honor the dead. 

When stuff like this starts to get established, it doesn't take long for someone clever to see an opportunity and, well, blessed are the poor. The poor, who had very little to offer in terms of sacrifices, figured out that they could essentially hire themselves out to the richer families and offer to honor their dead for them in exchange for some funding. And who doesn't like more persons loving on grandma? Of course I want you to offer something for my beloved. So poor persons started going door-to-door seeking from the rich for the opportunity to honor the rich's dead, which would leave some leftover to honor the dead of the poor. It was a win-win. (And this is how we got trick-or-treating.) 

But it's still sacred. All the way through this history, to this point, it's a sacred day. Honoring the dead. Revering the saints. Remembering the faithful. The only even hazy line is what different cultures believe happens to the dead, and the spirit, after this life. 

It wasn't until relatively recently - around the early 20th century - that Halloween started being associated with the dark arts - with devils and demons and ghosts and hauntings and possession and the like. And it didn't start in the spooky castles of the Middle Ages, which until this point were celebrated as cultural achievements; it started, according to everything I can find, in America. After we got hold of it, everything became "haunted." 

I don't know how it happened exactly. I don't know if it was someone who imagined a not-rosy eternity for their dearly departed or someone with a delusional mental illness or someone possessed by a demon (we do know, after all, that demons are real), but someone somewhere heard "souls" and "dead" and "spirits" and put them together into a possession and a spook and a haunt and convinced enough other persons to go along that slowly, but surely, we got to where we are now. 

I truly think that we hit the height of this a few decades ago when the occult was the thing, when everyone was interested in oiuja boards, when ghost tours first started becoming popular. But I think we're on a downward slide now. I think we're settling into a sense of just community fun, with these hints of hauntings but less outright intentional focus on the devil and demons and the like. We have embraced the "spooky" and left aside the "evil" for the most part. Oh, it still exists if you go looking for it, but as a whole, culture has toned this all down quite a bit. 

Unfortunately, through this relatively brief transformation from day of honor to day of horror to whatever you want to call where we are now, we lost the sense of sacredness that this day held for literally hundreds upon hundreds of years. We've lost the sense of honoring the dead in this season and gone more, oh, the route of Beetlejuice, let's call it. 

But that doesn't mean that the church doesn't still have any input on the so-called "spooky season." In fact, in recent years, the world has taken its cues straight from the church on this one and today, a lot of Halloween is built not on the world's fancies, but on the church's model. (We'll talk about this tomorrow.)