Moving Into the Neighborhood

Christmas is winding down. We’ve crossed the threshold into another year and Epiphany arrives on Sunday. I enjoy the rhythm every year of being reminded of the reality of the incarnation. One of my favorite phrases to describe this comes from Eugene Peterson’s Message translation of John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

Peterson has been one of my mentors in life. Even though I only met him briefly in person on a couple of different occasions, his writing and teaching for pastors has had more influence on my understanding of what it means to be a pastor more than anything else outside of scripture. Today, I read an article in Christianity Today with a fairly recent interview with him. I was stuck by the following question and answer:

Q: As you know, community has become something of a buzzword in the church today, yet in some ways we have less of it even though we talk about it more. Why is that?

A: Probably because many people in churches today don’t have a sense of community, and in order to get a sense of community, church leaders start gathering people up and giving them jobs. We’ve lost a talent for relationship and showing interest in the other person. We don’t have community because we skip over the critical part: being in relationship with the people, knowing their kids, knowing their jobs, knowing the neighborhood.

As I get older, and as I get more experience in pastoral ministry, the more that I recognize the importance of truly getting to know people, getting to know their lives, and getting to know the community where God has placed me. I can now recognize that when I was younger I often treated people as commodities – something that I could get something from. People were valuable to me in as much as they could offer me something. It was easy for me to move on from relationships once they ceased to be valuable to me.

The truly disturbing thing is that it is possible have this same attitude under the guise of “ministry” or “Christian service.” We can fall into the trap of serving people because we know that we need to serve someone. The particular person doesn’t matter as much as the fact that we need someone to serve and they are available to us. I suppose the classic modern example of this would be American Christian short-term mission trips that are totally disconnected from any kind of long-term relationship.

Of course, this kind of people-as-commodity thinking is compounded by living in a highly mobile society. We can move on from a job, move on from a school, move on from a church, any time that relationships become difficult. We can move halfway across the county if we wish and “start fresh” with a clean slate of relationships with no prior history or baggage. I increasingly hear from older Christians something along the lines of this: “At my age, I have no time for toxic relationships.” This becomes an excuse for dismissing those that are hard to get along with in favor of those whom you enjoy being around. I sure am glad that God did not have this attitude with us!

Jesus “moved into the neighborhood,” and he didn’t exactly pick the best neighborhood!

So I think about this often these days. What does it mean to put down roots and truly get to know and care for my “neighborhood.” This, of course, includes those in my congregation, but it includes so much more. One of my greatest joys these days is going into a local business in the Stanwood/Camano Island area. It is rare that I don’t end up sidetracked and having a long conversation with someone that I know. Sometimes this is someone from my congregation, but often it is not. Usually it is someone that I genuinely want to know better because they are my “neighbor.” For many years one of my ongoing prayers has been this: “God, give me your heart for people.” This prayer emerged out of the awareness of what I described earlier about how I approached relationships with others, and God continues to answer it in surprising ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Church Planting Reflections

background-beautiful-blossom-268533I was inspired to write today after reading an article on CT’s The Exchange called Reflecting on Church Planting in the Aftermath of Being on the Startup Podcast, Part 2. In the article, A.J. Smith, pastor and church planter, is responding and reflecting to some of the feedback he has received after being on a podcast called “Startup.” Apparently their latest season was all about church planting, and as you might expect, Smith received a wide range of responses after his episodes aired to the 1,000,000 viewers (the podcast is secular and reaches a diverse audience). I appreciated his reflections because it reminded me of some of the important lessons that I have learned along the way. In fact, I immediately shared the link with my brother, who is at the very beginning of planting a church and recently told me that he welcomes any advice I might have. While I plan to listen to the podcast, I have not done so yet. I suspect that will lead to some more reflections once I do. I did read “part 1,” and I’ll likely write an entry around that soon.

The three areas that Smith is addressing specifically come from the three areas he identified as getting the most responses from the podcast. Those are vulnerability, money, and identity. I’m also going to reflect on these, using a quote from the article on each of these areas as a primer.

VULNERABILITY

Regardless of the reasons, I came to a point in professional ministry where I decided that I was only going to do this if I could do it while truly maintaining my integrity. If I couldn’t be honest about my issues, doubts, and struggles, then why would I be a spiritual leader for others?

Growing up in the church, the pastor was someone that I put on a pedestal. I realize that sounds cliché, but that phrasing has always worked well for me since the pastor was often up front and above everyone else on Sunday morning, and usually standing behind something very pedestal-like! And because of this, I had a real hard time ever considering myself a serious candidate for “pastor.” While I won’t share that journey here, it took an immense amount of grace, a strong and unavoidable calling from God, and some minor miracles for me to accept that I could, in fact, be a pastor. Nevertheless, venerability and pastoral ministry were two things that I didn’t readily associate with each other.

Throughout my undergraduate work in theology and my time in seminary, the message I received over and over again was a message about setting healthy “boundaries” in ministry. And while I still think that is good advice, I now realize how often setting boundaries is actually just code for protecting yourself. And lets be honest here, it is hard to both be vulnerable and protect yourself at the same time! And in fact, it is hard to find Biblical support for this kind of language. Rather, we often find the opposite. If we are going to truly love others, then we are going to have to risk injury to ourself, and injury to our family. Jesus is our leadership model and the cross is our standard.

So I came to a similar conclusion early in church planting that A.J. Smith did. I was either going to be honest about my own life, failings, doubts, etc., or I wasn’t going to do this work. We knew that we could not open our home week after week to those both inside and outside the church and somehow put on a show that our life was somehow perfect. That would be exhausting and ultimately self-defeating. And while I still struggle with where those boundaries need to be drawn (because they do), I have tried to err on the side of vulnerabiblity.

MONEY

“We’re nothing like Silicon Valley startups” is a funny thing to say when we use demographic studies, marketing tools, social media, websites, merchandise, and investors to start churches. Moreover, we run churches like businesses with budgets, salaries, and insurance packages. The parallels are striking!

During my life I have had a strongly negative reaction to churches that smack of the corporate world. Whether it be the pastor as CEO mindset or the church growth movement strategies. I’ve discovered that this is, in general, a common reaction among my “Gen X” peers. And yet, starting a church has made me realize just how much business knowledge is needed to get things off the ground!

Beyond budgets, salaries, and insurance, when you are starting a new church you have to figure out things like incorporation, non-profit law, worker’s compensation, taxes, land use restrictions, building codes, opening business banking accounts, etc. And starting out in a denomination like the PC(USA) has both advantages and disadvantages in this regard. On the one hand, I had plenty of people to go to for advice and help, and we were able to wrap ourselves under the protective umbrella of our Presbytery and parent church when we needed to for insurance and non-profit purposes. On the other hand, this also means we had to navigate our denomination’s Book of Order, Board of Pensions, and Presbytery councils.

I can now say unequivocally that if you want to be a church planter and have no desire to ever run a business you are probably in trouble. While the church is not a business, it often requires many of the same skills and work on a day to day basis. Either that, or you need to be willing to find others who will do that work for you from the beginning and be prepared to still spend a lot of your time having conversations about these business-like issues. And surprise, surprise… seminary does nothing to train you for this!

IDENTITY

Unfortunately, before [church planters] know it, their happiness is directly connected to the success of their church. I’ve learned that in order for me to stay sane, my role as a pastor cannot be my identity. If the church is doing great, it shouldn’t mean that I’m necessarily doing great. Likewise, if the church is failing, it doesn’t mean I’m failing.

This is hard. Whenever you create something, you have a bit of yourself tied up in it. If people dislike it, you feel a bit disliked. If people love it, you feel a bit loved. Theologically, I think it is safe to say that nobody every really starts a “church.” All we are doing is participating in a new expression of the Church started by Jesus. And yet, it is hard not to blur the lines and begin to have your self-worth wrapped up in the success or failure of your new expression! This is especially problematic when some of the statistics list church plant “failures” as high as 2 out of every 3 (failure being defined as a congregation/organization that doesn’t continue).

Early on in my work with Tidelands I was fortunate to attend the “Soma School” in Tacoma with one of our other leaders. Jeff Vanderstelt was doing a lot of the teaching, and he reminded all of us that there is a temptation in pastoral ministry to try to justify and prove ourselves through our preaching and work in ministry. We don’t think of it this way, of course, but we may find ourselves feeling miserably spent after a morning preaching. Or we my find our spirit in the dumps when we work hard all week and only a handful of people show up at the worship gathering or small group meeting. I have been there a thousand times! And it may just be that we were expecting that doing this great work would somehow prove us worthy of God’s love and acceptance. But if we truly believe that God is gracious, then we do not have to prove ourselves (thank you Jeff and Tim Chesterton for the reminder). Our worth is not based on the perceived success or failure of our church plant, but rather on the unconditional grace of Jesus and the unconditional acceptance of the Father. I have to rely on the Holy Spirit to remind me of this daily.

A wonderful thing has happened in my ministry as I have learned to trust my identity in Christ more: I am less concerned about what others think of me, I am less anxious and busy in my ministry, and I am more present with those around me. Of course, this runs the risk that others may feel that things are moving too slow, or that we are not “driven” enough. But ultimately I want to know that I am being faithful to my calling and obedient to the Holy Spirit.

I’m grateful to A.J. Smith for his article and I look forward to listening to his podcast. These reflections have been helpful for me to put into writing and I hope that they just might help others out there at some point as well.

Genuine Love

paper-romance-symbol-valentine-159526We are coming up quickly on Valentine’s Day (which also happens to be Ash Wednesday this year) so it seems appropriate that my scripture reading this morning began with “Let love be genuine.” From Romans 12:

9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I’ve probably read or heard this scripture read hundreds of times in my life. But as a pastor, this hit me in a new way this morning. I found myself wondering: What if a church (meaning a community of Christians) actually lived like this in all of their life? I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a part of something like that?

I feel like I could do an entire year of preaching out of this passage alone! I suppose, if nothing else, it could give us kind of “litmus test” for the health of our church. Do we see these things being lived out among us? Are we the kind of people who would be willing to extend hospitality, peace, and welcome to those who are different from us, or only those who are like us? What about our “enemies?” Would we be willing to sit down and eat with them? Would we be willing to prepare a meal for them?

Well I certainly don’t want to claim to be wiser than I am! I know that, personally, I have a long way to go to live this out in my own life. Of course, as a North American Christian, I have become accustomed to applying scripture primarily to my own life – taking responsibility for my own actions. But perhaps that is exactly the problem? What IF I began working to see this lived out among those who are part of my church community? What would I do differently?

God’s Reassuring Presence

I’ve just wrapped up preaching a four-week series on the “4 G’s” (originally from the book by Tim Chester entitled You Can Change). These four truths are:

  • God is Great… so you don’t have to be in control
  • God is Good… so you don’t have to look elsewhere
  • God is Glorious… so you don’t have to fear others
  • God is Gracious… so you don’t have to prove yourself

Every time I preach or speak about these four truths I am reminded of just how much energy I put into trying to take control of my life, satisfy my desires, look good in other people’s eyes, and prove myself (both to God and others). But I don’t feel guilt over this, rather I feel drawn to enter more fully into the life of God’s greatness, goodness, gloriousness, and grace. I find myself reassured by God’s presence.

Today I read from Psalm 139. Verses 1-6 in the Message translation read:

God, investigate my life;
    get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you;
    even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
    I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say
    before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
    then up ahead and you’re there, too—
    your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful—
    I can’t take it all in!

In one sense it can seem terrifying to ask the Righteous Judge to “investigate your life!” After all, no one can stand guiltless in such an investigation. But then the Psalmist immediately reminds us that God knows it all already, and God’s presence remains. God knows it all, the good and the bad, and through Jesus we are accepted as beloved children!

sea turtleIt is too wonderful for me as well! So my prayer is simply that I may continue to release control, be content with all that God has given, listen for God’s voice, and be reassured by the grace offered richly in my life. This is my prayer for you as well.

History and Place

IMG_0083

Reading the 110 year-0ld minutes from the Stanwood First Presbyterian Church – originally recorded in this place where I now sit reading on my Mac.

I’ve always loved history, and recently I’ve been captivated  by the history of the Stanwood and Camano Island area. There is a fabulous three-volume collection called the Stanwood Story that was published by the Stanwood-Camano News back in the 1970’s. I bought copies of it when I first moved to Stanwood and read through the first volume. I have finally gotten back around to reading it and I’ve made it all the way up to 1935. The pictures alone are captivating! The Presbyterian Church building makes a cameo in a few of the pictures over the years. But what is most intriguing to me is realizing that simply by moving here I am now part of the story of this place!

Of course the story within, under, and over the history of any place is the story of how God is working. So as I read, I love seeing the passing mentions to Reverend so-and-so being involved in something of sinificance. Usually it is mentioning the way a pastor helped out with a particular social need in the community or was a key member to start a new organization. Of course, the construction of a church building makes it into the narrative as well, but the “Church” is much more present throughout the story. And now, all these years later, we get to be a part of this as well.

Then there is the sense of connection to the Stanwood First Presbyterian Church. The building that we use now as our worship space is the same as theirs. And even though I came into the Presbyterian Church through the back door (so to speak – since I was not raised as a Presbyterian), when I find out about their history I feel like I am finding our more about my family history. So I find myself sitting at my laptop, reading the notes that were scrawled into the minutes of the first meetings of the the Stanwood First Presbyterian Church by the light of a lantern. It turns out that we had communion this month on March 5 – almost exactly 110 years since they had their first communion (March 3, 1907).

 

 

New Church, Old Building (Part 3)

We’ve moved in! June 7 we had our first worship service in our new building. Mountain View Presbyterian sent a worship team to help us launch. Having a violin in the building really makes the music soar! I haven’t posted for awhile because it has been a lot of work getting everything set up and ready. Currently we only have an occupancy rating of 49, but after we make some more changes to the doors and exit signs we can increase that to around 180.

IMG_1438

There is still a lot of work left to do. Like any church that owns a building, we will probably have an endless list of projects that need to be done, but we are pushing forward. Our guiding goal is to be good stewards and leverage what God has given us to bless the community. We already have a couple of community groups lined up to use our space for some events and we hope to continue in this direction. We are beginning to make some good connections with neighbors and look forward to getting to know our neighborhood better. It is a lively and fun part of town to be in!

Tidelands Sanctuary3
Our biggest concern about purchasing a building was that it might end up being a distraction from our goal of building a congregation of missional communities. Yet even with all of the time, work, and expense of moving through the purchase process and moving into the building, we continue to see positive movement with our missional communities. Perhaps the biggest change has been that we are now hosting a small, informal worship gathering in the Senior Center at 10:30 AM on Tuesdays. Our goal is to provide worship for those that are not able to travel to come to worship on Sunday morning. We also want to continue with the relationships that we have established there and hopefully build new ones. It is going to take some flexibility and creative thinking to establish a missional community around those that live at the Senior Center, but this seems to be a step in the right direction.

Tidelands Sanctuary 2I’ve posted some pictures of how we have arranged the building currently. Adjustments and some new equipment will be necessary to make it all come together for our needs. Our biggest challenge at the moment is that the acoustics of the building create a lot of bounce and echo. As nice as it would be to hire an acoustical engineer, we are going to have to try out some more creative solutions. Having chairs and some soft couches in the main sanctuary help somewhat, but it will obviously need more sound diffusion and/or absorption.

You may also notice that we don’t have a formal office space set up. Right now the plan is to keep the building open and flexible and create a cafe-type feel where possible. Once we get some cafe-syle, bar-height tables we will have plenty of available space for myself and any volunteers to work on projects – which is all we really need at the moment. We also have plenty of available space for small or large meetings.

Tidelands Sanctuary 4It is wonderful not to have setup and takedown these past few Sundays. It isn’t like we had all that much to setup to start with, but it was still quite a bit of work. After 2 1/2 years of setup and takedown I almost don’t know what to do with myself on Sunday morning! It is wonderful to have a “home base” in Stanwood. I will continue to use my office at home on Camano as my “study,” but I am already spending more of my day in and around Stanwood – this has always been the goal.

Tidelands Room

Yes, that is the pastor’s kid lying on the floor!

 

 

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!

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.