Thursday, August 27, 2015

Fail Trying...

I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel…
2 Timothy 1:3-10

Paul is writing to his apprentice, Timothy.  Paul is reminding Timothy of the calling that God had given him as a pastor.  A calling to serve, to love, to lead, to be courageous in pointing to God’s purpose…and His grace in Christ Jesus.  This is a powerful text.  It is also one that I have been thinking about for a while now…
You see, I have been doing some serious reflection over the summer.  This summer we marked our one year anniversary together as pastor and people.  And it has been an interesting year to say the least.  We have studied the scriptures together.  We have been challenged together.  We have also cried together.  We have prayed together.  We have shared times of life…and death together.  We have shared the Lord’s Supper together and have witnessed God at work through the waters of baptism. 

We have shared life together and have sought to impact our community for the sake of the Gospel together.

It has been a crazy year together.  Not to mention…

We have hired Jared Tanz and Heidi Koehler to join our staff.  We will soon be joined by Kristin Schweain as Eric Coomer leaves his position here at St. Andrew to return to Michigan to be with his family before heading out on the next adventure with Jesus.

We began discussions about how to expand our worship capacity here at 804 N. Cape Rock.  We began discussions about the possibility of launching a multi-site worship location near the Southeast campus and will, soon, sign a lease (with a spectacular rate) on a strip mall location on Sprigg.  We continue to experience the joys and the struggles of change. 

But here is what I find encouraging…even in the midst of the change and the uncertainty.  It has all been…and will continue to be…all about Jesus!  It has all been about faithfully celebrating our baptismal identity.  It has all been about living out that identity by growing in what it means to love God, what it means to love others in His name, and what it means to make disciples of Jesus as we walk through life.  It has all been about the Kingdom of God.  In other words, it has all been…and will continue to be…all about Jesus!

One of our long-time members recently said, “Pastor John, this is what St. Andrew has always been about.  You are just helping us go out and do it in a new way.”  St. Andrew has always been about serving with Jesus as He is at work in and around us.  I appreciate that.  I find it comforting.  I find it refreshing.  It is what makes St. Andrew different from so many other churches.  We get it!

And so…

As we continue to move forward together, I have no doubt that we will stumble and fall.  We will fail at communicating effectively.  We will fail at planning.  We will fail at executing.  We will fail at appropriately responding.  We will fail at loving each other.  We will fail at receiving love.  We will fail.  BUT…we will fail trying.  Trying to love God.  Trying to love others in His name.  And trying to extend His kingdom in Cape County by making disciples.  We will fail trying together to be faithful…and then we will delight in the reality that Christ and His Church will not fail. 

As I reflect back on the past year of ministry together…and as I look ahead to the coming year(s), I am reminded of Paul’s words to Timothy.  “God did not give us a spirit of fear…”  As I reflect back on the past year…and as I look forward to the year(s) to come, I am thankful for the honor of pastoring such an incredible group of Christ followers.  Thanks…and let’s continue to fail trying together.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

6 Shifts...

"Change" is a powerful word.  It excites some...and terrifies others.  And yet...

The world has changed.

Is that too powerful of a statement?  I don't think so.  In fact, I think we (followers of Jesus) need to come to terms with the change that has already happened.  We no longer live in Mayberry (if we ever actually did).  We live in a postmodern, diverse, experiential, and mysterious world.  We live in a post-Constantinian world.  (If you want to read more about this change, you can read my previous blog post here).

So how are we, as followers of Jesus, to respond to the changes that have happened?  I'd like to propose 6 shifts that need to take place in how we think:

1)  Mission:
The mission of the Church is to go and make disciples by teaching and baptizing in the name of the triune God.  That is what Jesus set forth in Matthew 28...

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This mission has not changed.  However, how we think about fulfilling that mission must change.  We must move from thinking about our mission institutionally (for example, “St. Andrew’s mission is…”) to understanding it personally.  The mission of the Church in this new normal is realized when a group of Jesus followers seek to honor their heavenly Father and fulfill God’s redemptive mission in all they do.  Wherever they are.  Whatever they do.  Whomever they are with. 

2)  Discipleship:

This is a biggie!  Fundamentally, the shift in how we make disciples presses against our previous experience of “Church” and how we think about “Church life”.  We have been convinced that discipleship and education are one and the same.  To make disciples, we erroneously believe, means that we should teach intellectual truths.  If people believe the right ideas they will be “in” the discipleship club.  Here is the problem:  Right belief isn’t the same as following Jesus.  Education is not the same as discipleship.  The Pharisees knew more doctrinal statements and could quote more scripture than you or I can.  And yet…they didn’t believe in Jesus.  At the temptation of Jesus in the desert, Satan quotes scripture to Jesus…but he isn’t a Jesus follower.  You see my point? Education isn’t discipleship.  

What does that mean, practically?  It means we must move off of our classroom-based approach to discipleship.  One-size-fits-all programs that are designed for efficiency and uniformity do not produce disciples.  They may produce knowledge, but not wisdom.  They may produce the right answer, but they don’t produce Gospel transformation.  We must move from a program model of ministry to a relational/rabbinical model of discipleship coaching.  We must learn to walk together in real life situations, seeking to follow Jesus (and therefore to honor our heavenly Father) in all that we say and do.  This cannot be done in a classroom.

3)  Growth:

This one is tied to the previous one.  Simply stated, we must stop looking at the weekend attendance numbers as the indicator of our growth/”success”.  Churches around our country (and certainly in our community) are full of people who show up for an hour or so, do the passive “Church thing” and then go on with their lives – never thinking about how their new identity in Christ shapes their daily life.  Instead of looking only to weekend numbers, we must begin to evaluate the growth that happens when disciples multiply disciples.  Success is not just more people…but more baptisms, more transformation, more followers of Jesus who in turn share the hope they have in Jesus.

4)  Evangelism:

Have you figured out yet that all of these 6 shifts are tied together?  Just checking…

Our previous thought was that we existed to rescue people from the world and bring them into the Church.  We took this pretty literally.  The goal was to clean people up.  It was to teach them “Christianese”.  It was to get them to “Church”.  Instead of talking people out of the world and into the Church, however, we must push faith out of the pews, out of the private realm, and intentionally take it into the world.  Evangelism is not a program or a tactic.  Evangelism is what happens when God’s people live out their identity in Jesus and intentionally talk about Jesus with those around them in daily life.

Martin Luther said, “It is the duty of every Christian to be Christ to his neighbor.”  I think those are good words to live by…

5)  Finances:

I find it interesting how many of us fall into one of these two categories.  We either don’t give much because we see finances as private resources, or we give out of some perceived social obligation.  We must transition beyond this point.  We need to begin seeing everything as an extension of God’s grace.

He provides for us.  That is simply true.  He is radically generous with us.  We must begin to see finances as an extension of His generosity…and for His purposes.  We must begin to function with “whole-life trust”.  When we trust God with everything (including finances), we can begin to practice radical generosity.  With our time, with our finances, with our life.  We don’t give financially to an institution.  We trust God with our life and give generously to Him.

6)  Families:

This is another biggie.  For the past 20-30 years, we were led to believe that the way to grow the Church was to specialize the ministry.  We developed specialized “pull out” ministries for our kids, our youth, our older adults, etc.  We believed that as we developed these specialized ministries we could more faithfully make disciples of people from different generations.  However, two problems exist with this type of thinking.  First, this model of ministry has a tendency to be evaluated based on activities rather than discipleship.  As long as there is a lot going on/being offered to our youth (for example), we are convinced that we are doing appropriate youth ministry.  Busyness=faithfulness.

However, this is simply not true.  The second problem is that the body of Christ isn’t segmented.  It isn’t homogenous.  When we pull children or youth out for specialized ministry, they get a faulty image of the Church…and…it is more difficult to transition them back into the “adult Church”. 
Instead of segregated/specialized ministry, we must develop an integrated family model of ministry.  We must seek to develop ministry that functions as a unified Church family that shares life and works together for the Kingdom of God.  Children.  Youth.  Adults.  Older adults.  Each sharing life with one another and helping one another more faithfully follow Jesus. 

In the late 90’s, I was part of starting a new worship community.  It was targeted at people in their teens and twenties.  It was a good…but flawed…vision.  When we began, some of the older adults from our “mother congregation” wanted to come and check out what we were doing.  They could, but only if they stayed in the balcony.  We didn’t want them “invading” the space or the experience of those we were trying to reach.  Like I said, it was an honest mistake.  Shortly after, however, one of our high school students came up to me and asked what the deal was with all of the adults in the balcony.  I explained the “why” to him.  It was then that he said something that forever changed my idea of ministry.  He said, “John, I get why they are being asked to stay up there.  But here is the deal.  We need them.  We learn how to worship, serve, and live with Jesus by watching people like you and Jill.  We need more of you here to model following Jesus for us.” 

Ministry can no longer be segmented based on age.  There is no such thing, really, as children’s ministry or youth ministry.  There is only ministry.  God’s people.  Sharing life together.  Seeking to follow Jesus together and impact their world together.  We have to transition our thinking about the value of family. 


So there you go.  6 things that I believe need to shift as we seek to faithfully live out our new identities in Jesus…and our mission to make disciples of all nations.  I am sure I could come up with others, but these should be enough to get you thinking.  I certainly am…

*NOTE:  Though the specific comments and explanations are mine, the rough outline for this post was taken from Neil Cole's book, Church 3.0.

The World Has Changed...

We are at a pivotal moment in the history of the Church.  It is a moment that has not happened in the last 1700 years.  Let me explain... 
Constantine the Great
In 325 AD, something remarkable happened.  Constantine legalized Christianity.  Actually, this first "Christian emperor" went further and established Christianity as Rome’s official religion and intermingled church and state.  In one move, the followers of Jesus went from being a marginalized, counter-cultural group whose identity was determined by Jesus to a collection of citizen/saints.  Their new identity was defined by the state and religion.  But something else happened as well.  The Church became married to the culture.  Who would disciple children?  Who would teach care for the poor?  Who would instill a worldview that was shaped by Jesus?  These questions became increasingly cloudy as the Church and the culture both shared in the responsibility.  To be a citizen was to be a Christian (at least nominally).  The Church had lost its distinctive tie to the teachings and methods of Jesus.

This is the reality that most of us grew up in.  The highway of culture led straight through the Church.  Church and culture overlapped in such a way that one was inexorably tied to the other.  And the Church grew lazy.  We grew comfortable.  We competed with the congregation down the street to see who could offer better services to attract the most people.  Plan a good program and people would come (until the other congregation offered a better one, at least).  The key in this day and age was to offer good programs that people could invite their friends and co-workers to.  The best congregation was the one with the busiest and most attractive calendar of events.

This is no longer the case.  We no longer live in a "product economy".  It is no longer enough to offer good programs.  People don't come to them.  The Church is no longer seen as reliable partner in defining culture.  We can complain about this (which some do).  We can try to go back in time (which some would like us to do).  We can even try to hold on to our influence in culture (which many pursue passionately).  However...none of these are realistic options.  The marriage of Church and culture has already ended.  The divorce has been finalized.  It is over.  Church and culture have been torn apart.

And it is scary.  We don't know how to operate any more as Church.  Thus, we try to demand that prayer is kept in our schools.  If we do that, we subconsciously reason, then the divorce can be stopped.  If we keep plaques of the 10 Commandments in our courtrooms, them maybe we can save the marriage.  But we can't.  We are, for the first time in 1700 years, in a culture that is antagonistic to who we are as followers of Jesus.  Our "product" is no longer important to people.  "Christianity" is not viewed positively anymore.

But there is still hope.  While "Christianity" is no longer seen as offering value...Jesus still does offer value.  Jesus still matters.  Jesus still offers hope, meaning, purpose, passion, forgiveness, and life. 

Jesus still matters...and His Church can adapt.  We can adjust.  We can continue to faithfully proclaim God's timeless truth.  The message doesn't change, but the context has.

In my next post, I will discuss 6 shifts that the Church of Jesus must begin to wrestle through in order for the message of Jesus to continue being heard...

Monday, April 13, 2015

Cost of Following...

We know that grace is free, right?  Well, kind of...

First of all, grace was extremely costly.  It cost Jesus everything.  It was bought at a phenomenal price.   It was extremely costly.

"Ok," you say.  "Sure, John.  But it is free to us.  Right?"  Right.  God's grace if free.  Through faith, we receive God's grace as a total gift.  It is free to us.  It costs us nothing...and yet it costs us everything.  We are brought into God's family at no cost.  We are given a new identity in our baptism.  We are now God's kids.  Freely He has given us His grace.

How do we live out our free identity?  What do we do with God's free gift of grace? 

Ironically, answering questions such as these costs us something.  It costs us to follow Jesus.  It may cost us relationships.  It my cost us prestige. It may cost us the "luxury" of pursuing our own interests, our own agenda, or our own pleasures.  It may cost us our life.

Our relationship with Jesus is defined by His free gift of grace.  Through faith, we receive that gift freely.  But living in light of it is a costly journey...and a truly rich and blessed journey.

So are you ready to consider the cost of following Jesus?  Are you ready to take seriously your new identity in Christ and considering all of your life in light of that identity?  Your time?  Your finances?  Your decisions?  Your family?

This May, we are launching a new sermon series called "Cost".  We will be wrestling these questions.  We will dig into God's word to consider the cost (and reward) of following Jesus.  We will delight in God's grace.  We will marvel at the new identity that is ours.  We will struggle with how we are living...and how He desires us to live as His people. 

Are you ready to follow Jesus?  To admit that your life is no longer about you...but rather is about Him?  Then get ready...

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Belief Questioned...

This week (this morning, in fact), I was hit a couple of times upside the head by things that made me think about my faith.

The first was an article that someone from my congregation posted and commented on (you can read the article here).  In the article, the author shares what he proudly boasts as "Historical evidence that proves 'Jesus Christ' never existed."  What is curious, though, is that he doesn't actually share any actual evidence.  He makes a series of assertions, shows a couple of pictures, cites a couple of events from Church history, and then makes a couple more assertions.  Evidence?  Hardly.
Even  more fascinating is that he completely ignored the substantial amount of evidence that Jesus did actually exist (like Josephus, the Gospel writers, Thallus, Lucian of Samosata, Paul, and others).  Apparently making assertions and claiming that they are historical evidence is enough...even in the face of actual historical references.

But here is the deal:  I believe in Jesus.  By grace, through faith, I trust in the promises of God and the face of God that we see in Jesus.  I drank the punch.  I bought the line.  I am in.  In fact, I am all in!  That is what bothers me the most.  This article presents one of the worst arguments against Jesus that I have heard.  It is piecemeal.  It is academically irresponsible.  It is biased.  It is factually vacant.  

And yet, the subtle message is that Christians are ignorant people who have never done their homework.  We are simpletons who lack the intellectual capital to have informed opinions and so cling to faith and religious myths such as the existence of Jesus.  Did you catch that?  We, followers of Jesus, are the ones who are less intelligent.  And this argument has caused many to question their very beliefs and to wonder if maybe they are on the wrong side of the faith fence.  

This leads to the second time that I was challenged about ideas of faith and belief.  

Just moments after reading the article about why Jesus never actually existed (and the responses on social media to the article), I chose to take a quick scroll through my Facebook feed.  Here, I saw that Mumford & Sons had released their latest single called, "Believe".  Based on what I was chewing on mentally at that moment, I decided to give it a quick listen.  Here is the video:


The lyrics state, "I don't even know if I believe."  So again, we have people question their beliefs.  Now, to be fair, I have no idea what the band is actually singing about.  They might be talking about a relationship with another person.  They might be talking about their lack of belief in the American political system.  They might be referencing their lack of belief in whether or not hot dogs are actually made from meat at all.  I don't know....but that isn't really the point.  Belief is being challenged.

Was Jesus actually real?  Am I foolish for believing in Him?  What would my academic friends think if they knew that I trusted a "myth"?  Maybe...  What if...  Oh no...

I think questions are OK.  It is good to think through the implications for faith.  It is necessary to consider how our belief challenges and shapes our worldview.  That isn't the problem.  The problem is that we can far too easily get sucked into an intellectual debate where we allow some smug punk to set the terms for the discussion...and then we wonder why we can't get any traction.  Worse yet, we then allow this same smug punk to challenge the God's very existence based on the calculations and fabrications of his own peanut-sized-brain.  So what are we to do?

First, I believe that as followers of Jesus we must stand firm.  We must understand that these articles and these arguments are fruitless.  They are the meager attempts of a society in rebellion against its Creator to justify their own rebellion by claiming there is no one to actually rebel against.  In other words, they are trying to disprove God so that their crazy, self-concocted ideas can stand without opposition or moral challenge.  This is an extremely dangerous game...that the Church should refuse to play.

Secondly, we should remember that Jesus is not only real...He is hope.  He is peace.  He is loving.

In the bridge of Mumford & Sons new single, they cry out with these words: "Say something, say something like you love me."  Are you ready for it?  He has.  He has declared His love for you.  In Jesus, God has already declared His love for you.  And in His word, He has said a lot about it.  Trust God's proclamation to you that you are loved, that your faith is solid, and that Jesus was real.  He was...and because He was, you can know what it means to be loved.  Hang on to that promise.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Super Lutheran...Continued

This past weekend, I preached on Philippians 3 (you can check out the sermon here).

To try to effectively communicate the reality that resumes and pedigrees don't matter...Jesus does...I declared that I was a super Lutheran.  I talked about how I was raised in the church, how I went to a Lutheran university, a Lutheran seminary, and secretly have Luther's seal on my rear end (ok...that part isn't true, but you get the point).  I am a super Lutheran.  And yet...

And doesn't matter.  I consider it all rubbish compared to knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection.  Resumes don't matter.  Jesus does.  We need to be careful not to overlay a moralistic, "Jesus + anything" standard to our identity.  We belong to Jesus because He claimed us in the waters of baptism.  That is it!  Nothing else!

This message seemed to resonate with a LARGE number of people.  I have heard about it all week.  They appreciated the call back to God's grace (through faith).   They appreciated the simplicity of Jesus and the stripping away of that which demands obedience and thus competes with the gift of God's grace.  It (apparently) was a powerful word from the Lord.

But something about it has unsettled me all week...

This is not a blank check.  This is not a case of "Now that I have God's grace I get to do whatever I want."  Grace is a gift.  Jesus is all that matters.  However, I want to be clear, God does have something to say about how we should live as His people.  He does.  The key is understanding the order of things.

We do not apply a moral overlay to God's grace.  His grace is enough.  It is awesome, powerful, and sustaining.  It is also, transformative.  Our new identity in Christ allows us to realize that God's way is always better.  His plans for us are better.  Thus, we desire to follow His ways.  We study His law.  We reflect on how He desires for us to live.  We strive to honor Him.  We start with His grace and the identity as new creations that it bestows...then we seek to live out that new identity.  This isn't a blank check.  It isn't "cheap grace".  It is, however, powerful.  The key is in understanding the difference between our desires and our attempts to create an alternate morality...and God's will for our lives.

Here is a secret:  God's ways and His will for our lives are always better...

Thursday, February 12, 2015


"Pastor John, I don't know if I heard this from you or from somewhere else, but I have been thinking about it a lot lately.  'It doesn't matter where you are...the work is the same.  It is all about Jesus.'"  

The particular lady who shared this with me last evening then went on to share how, with her husband in the hospital, she woke up the other day dreading the day ahead.  She wasn't excited about going back to sit in a hospital room for another day.  She wasn't excited about the life interruption.  She wasn't excited to just sit.

And then it dawned on her.  "It doesn't matter where you are...the work is the same.  It is all about Jesus."  Whether she would spend the day at the hospital or doing something else, the "what" didn't really matter.  The work was the same.  Her day would be about honoring Jesus.

As I sat in the hospital with this incredible couple, I witnessed them both living out their identities in Jesus.  They warmly greeted visitors, doctors and nurses.  They read scripture.  They shared stories and talked of the hope they have...because of Jesus.  They didn't do anything extravagant.  They simply did what they would have otherwise done.  The difference that they tried to keep in focus what their lives were really about:  They work of honoring Jesus.  And was pretty amazing to see. 

It just makes me wonder...

What would the world look like if all Jesus followers thought of their days and their activities with the understanding that it doesn't matter where you are...the work is the same.  It is all about Jesus.  I wonder...