New Church, Old Building? (Part 1)

The other day I received an unexpected phone call from a local realtor. He said, “the old Stanwood Presbyterian Church building is for sale or lease and I was wondering if you might be interested?” It took me a moment to process this revelation before letting him know that I would indeed like to take a look at it. You see, I was under the impression – I think all involved with Tidelands were under the impression – that there had never been an official Presbyterian Church congregation in Stanwood before! It turns out, that not only was there a Presbyterian Church founded early in the life of the Stanwood community (1906), but there was one founded on Camano Island as well (1915). I had to do some digging, but found this information listed in volume I & II of The Stanwood Story by Alice Essex. According to this same source, the Stanwood Presbyterian Church building was dedicated in July 1909 and the Rev. Mark Matthews of Seattle was involved (you can read more about his life in the book The Reverend Mark Matthews: An Activist in the Progressive Era by Dale Soden).StanwoodPresBuilding1

Before I say more about the building as it currently stands, let me share a bit about the journey that God has been leading me on. A few years ago, I did some interviewing for various pastoral positions in the PC(USA). One congregation I visited had an historic church building in a small, Washington community. The building was in constant need of repair and was surrounded by old downtown homes. After my visit I remember telling my wife, “That church wants to grow and expand but they have a building that is no longer functional for them. They need a pastor that will help them move out of their 100 year-old facility and organize a building campaign – but they don’t realize it! I don’t think that I am that guy.” At that time I still couldn’t conceive of a healthy, growing, congregation that wouldn’t need a large, modern facility with lots of rooms for all the programs. That has all changed since starting Tidelands.

IMG_1246 IMG_1247 IMG_1248In fact, two months ago at our board meeting (we call it our “Core Team” since we do not yet have an official session) I tried to share my “vision” for the kind of space that I could see us in. We have always known that our current worship space at the Stanwood Community & Senior Center would be temporary, and there have already been some Sundays where things have gotten a bit crowded. We want to have permanent office space in the community too, and ideally the two would be together in one place. However, we define ourselves as a congregation based on the missional community model. This means that our primary mode of being the church here is lived out in small, neighborhood, missional communities. This means that we don’t need a huge space with a lot of rooms for programs. We also don’t want to get sidetracked or impeded in our mission with a facility that requires a lot of time or money. So what might that space look like?

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I wrestled to find the right words as I talked with our Core Team, trying to explain what I felt in my heart to be the kind of space that would mesh our mission with this community and our identity. I didn’t do a very good job! Our clerk recorded this in our January minutes as she tried to capture what I was saying: “…looking for a space with a ‘grandmotherly’ feeling like the Social Room at the Senior Center has. A space that doesn’t feel commercial and cold, feels natural and authentic, a functional space in Stanwood possibly.” While I’m pretty sure I didn’t say “grandmotherly,” I know what I had in my mind. And what I had in my mind is exactly what I saw when I visited the old Presbyterian Church building!

So back to the building: Why would we even consider an historic church building in the old downtown part of Stanwood? If you take a look at the pictures in this post you will notice that the building itself has a small entry area, one large sanctuary area, and one side-room with a small kitchen on one end that would have to function as a multi-purpose room. There is one bathroom (handicap accessible), and a small raised platform area on the side of the sanctuary (original choir loft?). That’s pretty much it. There is no property to speak of outside. The building has been beautifully remodeled (we were told that the current owners found hand-written notes in the walls from the first members of the congregation). The floors are all hardwood and look original. You can even see an outline on the floor of where the original pulpit/chancel would have been.

IMG_1252As I mentioned earlier, it is not the most practical building for running a lot of programs simultaneously. But, at least for now, our “programs” are our missional communities and our worship gathering. It is in our missional communities that discipleship, Bible study, prayer, fellowship, children’s ministry, outreach, and so much more take place. The beauty of this is that this only requires wiling hosts to open their home (we also have a MC starting at the Senior Center utilizing their available space). This building would give us a functional office space in the side room, but it would need to be a shared space. I could see us setting up some simple workstations by the wall, thus keeping the bulk of the room open for children’s ministry or other activities. This would create a base for volunteers and a place for me to get administrative work done. I would maintain my “study” at my house (my current office). In the sanctuary we could utilize folding chairs and tables and a folding stage. This would give us the ability to keep the room open for community events or as a rental space to earn extra income (it was most recently used as a dance studio).

IMG_1265Obviously, this is not a new, modern space. While that would undoubtedly create some challenges, it also does something that we have been striving for from the beginning: it would root us into the story and fabric of this community and place. And what a story! With all that is being said about the demise of the church in our society, how wonderful it would be to be able to reclaim this historic church building as a house of worship and prayer! That, in itself, proclaims the gospel in a culture where new is often better and old is easily cast aside. Thus we could proclaim a new work of God for today in an old place.

I don’t know what happened to that original Presbyterian Church. I hope to eventually be able to do some more research and dig something up. I also realize that this building might not seem “old” to those of you living on the East Coast (and especially not to those living in Europe), but in this part of the county this is an “old” building. In the meantime, it is fun to dream of what could be.

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When the Church Looks Biblical

As I get older I find that very little of what I say or teach originally came from me. Sometimes I can remember where I read or heard something that I am saying, sometimes I can remember that it was not my idea but I cannot remember where it came from, and often I suspect that I forget altogether and take the idea as my own. Those are probably  the best ideas. They hold so much truth that I “own” them.Bible

Such is the case when it comes to one of my favorite things to say in response to those who want to start or reclaim a “New Testament Church.” I know this isn’t my idea, but I now claim it as my own. My response is this: “Which of the crazy, sinful, messed-up New Testament churches do you want to be like?” The reality is that most of Paul’s letters were written, in part, because there was a major problem in a particular church community. Even if we go to the earliest, and claim the first church in Jerusalem that we read about in the beginning of Acts as our ideal, we have to stop short in our reading. Otherwise we find racial tensions, people deceiving the church, and administrative problems.

Such has always been the case with the church. It isn’t a perfect community, but it is a community formed around the worship of a perfect God. Currently I am re-reading Eugene Peterson’s book, Leap Over a Wall, about the life of King David. In it I am finding a lot of inspiration for my current preaching series on 1st and 2nd Samuel, following the life of David. While reflecting on the story of David at Ziklag, Peterson writes this:

Every time I move to a new community, I find a church close by and join it–committing myself to worship and work with that company of God’s people. I’ve never been anything other than disappointed: every one turns out to be biblical, through and through: murmurers, complainers, the faithless, the inconsistent, those plagued with doubt and riddled with sin, boring moralizers, glamorous secularizes. Every once and a while a shaft of blazing beauty seems to break out of nowhere and illuminate these companies, and then I see what my sin-dulled eyes had missed: word of God-shaped, Holy Spirit-created lives of sacrificial humility, incredible courage, heroic virtue, holy praise, joyful singing, constant prayer, persevering obedience. I see “Christ-for Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/ To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

The phrase “biblical through and through” grabs me! A “biblical” church, if it reflects what we see in scripture, is made up of a thousand stories of sin and redemption, failure and hope. To be “biblical” in this sense is not to be moral, or to have good exegetical preaching, but rather to be in relationship with a Holy God that continues to work through the messy community of redeemed people that we call “the Church.” I wonder if all those “Bible” churches had that in mind when they put it in their name? Hmm… “Tidelands Bible Church.” That has a nice ring to it!

Halloween Grinch

I have long considered myself a Halloween “grinch” – if there is such a thing. I don’t like dressing up. Answering the door every few seconds and pretending to love costumes is exhausting. I’m not a huge candy fan. And I hate anything that glorifies evil. “Bah Humbug!”

It hasn’t always been this way. My mom was a master at creating elaborate Halloween costumes. I still remember the year that she sewed full zip-up E.T. body suits for my brother and sister. Amazing! Somewhere there is still a box full of custom-made superhero capes from my many years of Halloween dress-up. But this all changed as I aged, and I grew to despise the holiday and all that came with it.

This became a huge challenge when I took on the role of youth pastor at a church. How do you talk about and guide youth through Halloween? In my early years I simply went with the Halloween alternative: a costume contest/party at the church facility complete with candy and tons of messy games. It was a huge hit with the youth, but not so much fun for me as I tried to navigate the murky waters of appropriate vs. inappropriate costumes (it didn’t help that these were the years when the Brittany Spears midriff-baring look was all the rage with young ladies). After awhile I simply gave up trying to create the alternative, and instead focused on using it as an opportunity to teach about All Saints Day and the power of Christ over evil.

Then my own children were born. As much as I despised Halloween, I also felt that it hadn’t negatively effected me spiritually or otherwise (I never had cavities as a kid). And since my wife loves any excuse to celebrate any holiday (an endearing family trait), I grudgingly did my duty hauling the Halloween costumes to daycare, and then school, and taking my turn walking through the neighborhood and knocking on doors for candy.

Eventually, we connected with a couple of other families from our church with kids our age that wanted to go “trick-or-treating” together. We came up with a fabulous plan of gathering every year over pizza, hot cider, and usually a football game on TV. Better still, we alternated each year between dads taking the kids out and moms taking the kids out – giving everybody a year off. This was our tradition up until last year when the Holy Spirit turned everything upside down for us.

As we established our missional community we focused intensely on putting more gospel intentionality into everything were doing. So when it came to Halloween, we knew that there was a golden opportunity (and one of the families we have always gone trick-or-treating with is part of our MC). I also read an article on the Verge Network last year called “Ways to Be Missional This Halloween” that challenged me further. So we decided to do three things: First, even though there are almost no trick-or-treaters on our part of Camano Island, we decided to stay in our neighborhood even if it meant less candy for the kiddos. We recognized that Halloween was an excuse to knock on people’s doors and introduce ourselves. Second, we decided that no one gets to stay home – we all went together with the kids through the neighborhood. Third, we decided to invite other families to join us.

creeperandfighterAs we went trick-or-treating around the neighborhood there were many people that were surprised to see us since they rarely get visitors even on Halloween. And while I’m sure we annoyed a few Halloween grinches (I get it – I really do!), we also made the night for a lot of retired folks that rarely have neighbors come knocking and were thrilled to see the kiddos dressed up. Best of all, it was on that night last year that we met a family that has now become some of our closest friends on Camano Island. Before Halloween we didn’t know them, but after trick-or-treating with them we made plans to get together again. It wasn’t long before they joined us at our missional community, and now they join us in worship as well (did I mention that they had no church background to speak of). So with one stroke Halloween has been forever transformed for me!

Before I tell you about our plans for this year, let me address the elephant in the room (or the “witch” in the room in this instance): Halloween has a lot of troubling elements associated with it that make it tough for us Christians. There is a great article out by Seth McBee and Verge Network this year called 3 Tips for Discipling Your Kids Through Halloween directed at Christian parents wrestling with this issue. Here is an excerpt:

To most families in America, Halloween is a fun time to eat candy, dress up, and have fun with friends. Yet because some choose to use this holiday to celebrate evil and its effects, it also can be a dark holiday.

With such a complicated mixture of influences, it’s important for each family to use discernment and wisdom in determining if and how to celebrate this holiday. I believe that there are sinful ways to participate in Halloween, just as there are with any holiday.

However, I also believe there are many aspects of this holiday that we have freedom in Christ to participate in. Regardless of how you choose to engage in this holiday, I urge you not to miss out on all the opportunities to disciple your kids that the Halloween season provides.

For me the key word here is “discipleship.” Whatever we decide, we want our kids to know what it means to follow Jesus on Halloween. For me, this means that Halloween is another opportunity to bless others in the name of Jesus, to connect with those that don’t yet know Jesus, and proclaim that light has triumphed over darkness. No amount of evil will keep us locked up at home with the lights off and curtains drawn! So this year we are planning to do things much the same as last year with a couple additions: We are going to invite more people to join us for a bonfire and food after the trick-or-treating, and we are going to have our kids give out $5 gift cards to everyone that gives them candy (I can’t wait to see how that goes!).

I’m sure I still have a lot to learn about what it means to live missionally, especially in light of something like Halloween. However, it helps me to think about it in terms of mission. For example, I imagine myself being a missionary in a foreign land to an unreached people group. Undoubtedly these people will have cultural celebrations that have nothing to do with the gospel and perhaps even conflict with it. So what is my response as a missionary? I certainly wouldn’t sit at home and pretend that nothing was happening! No way! I would see it as an opportunity to engage people right were they were. I would celebrate where appropriate, always looking for opportunities to proclaim the good news while also clearly drawing a line against anything contrary to the gospel. Ideally, aspects of the celebrations would be redeemed for the purposes of Christ.

What I like about the article I referenced above is that Seth gets right to what I see as the root of the problem: fear. There certainly isn’t a one-sized-fits-all approach to Halloween, but I do know that there is no reason to fear. Light has overcome darkness, Jesus has triumphed over evil! Whatever we decide to do may it be motivated by our identity as missionaries of this good news!

Reflections on General Assembly

Most people that I work with at Tidelands Church are new to the Presbyterian Church (USA). Even those who are already Presbyterian members may not have a good understanding of something like General Assembly. This being the case, I have been to thinking about how to give direction to those of you who may be interested in knowing more about some of the recent decisions that took place at General Assembly. I recently ran across the following blog that is helpful because it has many relevant links for further reading as well as a well-written pastoral response: “AN OPEN LETTER TO MY CHURCH…” While I do not share all of the same opinions as Rev. Lindsley there are some points I want to echo:

  • My door is open. (No, I don’t have a literal office door yet, but I would be happy to meet and talk)
  • I’m thankful to be part of denomination that is wrestling with very difficult issues instead of pretending like there is no room for discussion/debate. Whether we like it or not, these issues are not going away and it is better to be talking about how scripture addresses these issues than ignoring the major cultural shifts taking place.
  • If you are unhappy with any of the decisions, take some time. Steve suggested six months, I would suggest at least 12. The reality is that we live in a consumeristic mentality most of the time in our culture and want instant gratification or we “take our business elsewhere.” This is not the model we follow in the Church. We also tend to believe that we as individuals (whether pastors or lay leaders) have it all figured out while others are messed up and/or wrong. Hopefully, like me, you have changed some of your previous views as the result of the Holy Spirit working through scripture and leading you to a more faithful understanding. While I think my current interpretation of scripture is accurate, I would be a fool not to be open to the corrective work of God in my life and to assume that I have “arrived” at a perfect theology. Yes, it is hard to be part of a large group of Christians that often disagree on how to interpret scripture, but it is better than being a lone ranger or sole authority where alternate opinions are stifled.

Bait and Switch

In the video below, Dallas Willard talked about how the biggest danger to Christianity is the attitude that it is a statement of belief rather than a life of discipleship. I was particularly struck by his comments about pastors being accused of “bait and switch” when they try to do intentional discipleship. I have heard similar comments from those that are farther along in developing missional communities than we are at Tidelands. Longtime “church” people can struggle with the idea that they are being asked to be part of a group that is focused on following Jesus in all aspects of life. Sometimes our focus on church programs and sunday morning performance results in immature Christians that want to be “fed” rather than disciples capable of leading others in being disciples of Jesus.

Perhaps this is why I often get quizzical reactions from other Christians leaders when I talk about our missional communities. I have even fielded questions asking whether we are a “cult” or a “commune.” Why would a description of people living on mission in their neighborhood result in those kinds of labels? One possibility is that I am simply not being very articulate in describing what we are doing (I’m working on this). The other possibility is that a life of following Jesus as a disciple sounds foreign to them. If the latter is true, it begs the question: what kind of “Christian” doesn’t feel comfortable with discipleship? I believe this is the kind of thing that Dallas is addressing in this video. If discipleship sounds like a “switch” then what is being used as the “bait?” Certainly not the gospel of Jesus!

Link

“Evangelism is not sharing certain facts about Jesus as if we have no obligation before or afterwards. But actually evangelism takes place in the context of a relationship – that is called discipleship – that can go a whole lifetime.” – Alan Hirsch

Great short video talking about evangelism and discipleship that makes it clear why this can’t simply be a program of the church or the job of church professionals.

The New Guy

This past week I had lunch with a group of amazing pastors from the Stanwood – Camano Island area. This is a group that has been meeting about once a month for many years. Pastors have come and gone, but many of them have been serving in their current congregation for a very long time. And just to be clear: these are NOT Presbyterian pastors (there are no other Presbyterian churches here). These are pastors from a number of different denominations that gather to talk and support one another.

After we had lunch this past week I left marveling at their humility and genuine concern and support for one another (not for the first time). I reflected on how they so willingly allowed me to join them when I came to the area 18 months ago as the new church planting pastor. Not only that, but every time I meet with them I go away feeling encouraged, supported, and connected with the larger Church. I’ve often wondered: Would I be as supportive and caring to a new church pastor in our community if they were starting a new church?

When I think about this question I think back to when I was in staff in Marysville. When I search my heart honestly I have to admit that whenever I saw a sign or advertisement for a new church I often felt threatened and competitive. Why? Ok, sometimes their advertisements were basically saying: “We are way better than any other church! Come here and see what you are missing” (not in those exact words – but not far off). In other words, their advertising was clearly being directed at those already connected to other churches and offering the “new and improved version.” However, sometimes the advertisements were nothing more than a sign with a new church name, service time, and an invitation. Why would I or any other pastor/church leader feel threatened by that?

There are perhaps many different ways to answer that question, but probably the #1 reason this happens is when a person’s focus is not on Jesus and the Gospel but rather on the institutional church. Institutional focus results in the need to produce results and the measuring of success revolving around “butts, bucks, and building” (attendance/membership, money/budget, facilities/survival). Focus on the Gospel and on Jesus results in the ability to say (with the Apostle Paul) “…Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). The truth is, there are many people that have not yet believed the gospel and who do not have a church community. There is no reason for competition unless our goal is to get everyone already connected to a church to come to profess the same doctrinal statements and to leave their church and come to us.

So I am humbled and grateful for the many pastors that already serve this community and their friendship. I know that God has called us here to participate in what the Holy Spirit has already started. We know that we have a unique role to play, and that we are being called to disciple a unique group of people, but we are all part of Jesus’ body – the Church. My prayer is that as I continue in ministry that there will be more unity among church leaders and that I will be as humble, kind, generous, encouraging, and hospitable as the pastors of this community have been to me.

 

I Want to be a Pastor When I Grow Up

Bailey BoysRecently my youngest son, Calvin (8 years old), made a comment about wanting to be a pastor someday. I don’t exactly remember how the conversation began, but it had to do with something at school where he had to answer that dreaded question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The conversation happened with both my wife and I present. With a mixture of pride and concern I asked, “WHY do you want to be a pastor?” His response: “It doesn’t take much energy.” My wife and I tried to hide our reaction as we both looked at each other wide-eyed.

My wife’s look said it all, because she knows exactly how much “energy” being a pastor requires of me. She sees me lying on the couch in a gelatinous pool of emptied humanity every Sunday after worship. She gets woken up on those nights when I can’t sleep because an important issue with a certain person is keeping me awake. She sees all the hidden hours of work that will never make it onto a timesheet – and so much more! Fortunately, I was able to keep my thoughts to myself and give him a generic response equivalent to: “That’s nice honey.”

Not much energy!? Where did that come from? I could’ve taken his meaning to be: you don’t work very much or very hard. But I have a sense that there is more to it than that. Let me explain.

Recently I was with some other pastors and we were talking about this very issue of “energy.” One woman shared a story about how her young children once explained her work as a pastor to others as “going to a bunch of meetings.” Another person shared that their child once described themselves as “living” at the church building. Unfortunately, these stories aren’t that uncommon.

When my wife and I were newlyweds, I took a job as a youth director at a church. It was our first time being exposed to what full-time paid ministry work looked like from the inside. Like many people we naively assumed that it would be a somewhat “easy” job. After all, I had spent seven years working in wildland firefighting where it wasn’t uncommon for me to put in over 1000 hours of overtime between June and September! 21 days on, 2 days off during the busiest times. How hard could ministry be in comparison?

I quickly discovered that not only was I putting in hours that well exceeded my expectations (including stretches extending at times to multiple weeks without a full day off), but many of those I knew in ministry were even busier. So busy, in fact, that my wife and I made a vow to each other that we would never allow our life to get out-of-control busy for the sake of ministry. Not that we weren’t willing to make any sacrifice to follow Jesus, but we didn’t believe that God desired for us to be burned-out casualties, with neglected children and a broken marriage, all for the sake of running church programs.

That brings me back to my son’s comment about wanting to be a pastor because it doesn’t “take much energy.” Does he think that my job is easy? I hope so! When we started Tidelands we had people questioning the wisdom of starting a church with a core team consisting of families with young children (I’ve questioned the wisdom of that myself many times in the past year as well). But we believed, and still believe, that if we couldn’t start a church while as the same time practicing self-care and raising our children well, then we were starting something that we didn’t want to be a part of anyway!

The truth is, I do work from home a lot right now since we don’t yet have an office in the community (we have a room in our shop that I use that is separate from the house). Even as I type this I am working from home with my kids around (they have a half day today from school and my wife is still working). So part of this probably has to do with perception: my kids see me a lot. I drop them off at school every morning. I pick them up from school every afternoon. But I also coach their soccer and help with their baseball – and that is intentionally part of our mission. Also as part of our mission, we have our missional community at our house every Sunday night for dinner and a meeting where all the kids are included. Last Sunday we went and worked as a missional community at a neighbor’s house that needed some yard work done with the kids’ help. Tonight we will be doing our monthly dinner out at a restaurant with our MC (including kids). So I believe that part of what my son means by, “it doesn’t take much energy,” is that he knows that I am very much a part of his life and the life of our family. I’m not locked away in an office somewhere running off to meetings every night of the week in order to keep programs up and running. I hope that is what he means.

I also hope that part of what he is trying to express is that he can see just how much joy is in my life because of Jesus. Despite being physically, emotionally, and even spiritually drained at times, I hope that he is noticing that because I am doing what I am called to do by God that I still have joy and energy left for him! I have peace rather than exhaustion when the day is done.

I recognize that all of this may come across as unnecessarily sanctimonious. I hope that it doesn’t. Just a couple of weeks ago my kids were complaining about me being at too many meetings because I had two nights in row when I had to be gone. So for them, even one meeting a week is too much! But I do hope that we as pastors (and parents in general) take the time to question whether we are modeling what life in Christ and life in the church community is supposed to be about. Are we converting people to Jesus’ way of living or something else?

Follow Up: 

The conversation came up again, and this time my youngest son told me again that he wanted to be a pastor. He said that my job was better than “mom’s” (she is an elementary school teacher). When my older son challenged him, he explained that my job was best because it was so important. It was important, he said, because I get to go out and tell people about Jesus that don’t know him yet. I was driving them home from school at the time, and I was so overjoyed that this was how he defined my work as pastor that I had tears in my eyes and almost had to pull over! I didn’t have the heart to argue with him, because I actually believe that telling people about Jesus is the job of every person in the church. For the record: I also believe that, in terms of impact for God’s kingdom, my wife’s job is much more important than mine. Someday, I hope he’ll understand that as well. In the meantime, I’ve tried to prove to myself that all that I’ve written here is valid by taking the time to blog in the midst of a day when my “todo” list is long enough to justify 1,000 hours of overtime!