Paying for School

My ongoing adventures in life and the pursuit of more...

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Church Planting Magic 100% Guaranteed to Work Every Time

You know how magicians supposedly get really mad at magicians who share the secrets behind magic tricks?

I’m going to tell you a secret, as a pastor, that is behind every successful church plant.

This is THE secret behind every successful church plant. And I’m not going to charge you anything for it.

This is a freebie.

I’ve been in vocational ministry for over 30 years now. I’ve been involved in church plants, established churches, para-church, the whole deal. I’ve been able to hang out with some pretty well known people in vocational ministry – people who cover the gamut from apostle to teachers.

I’ve spent time with people who have planted and led mega-churches and others who have planted and led churches of less than 100 people.

And everything in between.

Today I want to reveal the secret of successful church planting.

This secret is the only 100% foolproof tip that exists for planting new churches. It always works. ALWAYS. 

And it’s the only one that works without fail. Others will sell you a course, give you tips, offer you a package of messages or produce yet another book that promises to take you from zero to mega (or at least a respectable number for your particular denomination).

None of these are as accurate, reliable or as honest as the secret I am about to reveal to you.

Now, I need to be clear, I’m not talking about someone like Rob Bell who leads the Sunday night service at one church that grows to 1000 people and then moves across town to start a new church with that 1000 people. That’s something different. It’s not bad but it’s not a church plant the way most people who plant churches have lived it.

I’m talking about moving to a place you’ve never been, gathering people and becoming a self-sustaining congregation of Jesus followers.

There’s a danger in giving away this secret. Some of my fellow pastors will get mad at me. Like the magician’s lore, they won’t take kindly to me giving away this secret. And there’s another group, that curious group of experts with no real track record who sell secrets and the magic that reportedly goes with them to eager, hopeful pastors looking to plant and grow their own mini-mega. They will take exception with me just giving this info away to you.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Are you ready? Have I teased this out long enough? Are you anxious to discover this secret that can lead to you too becoming the planting pastor of a soon to be mega-church?

If you’ve ever watched one of those shows where the magician gives away the secrets of magic tricks you will know this to be true – once you know the trick you will be very disappointed.

The thing is this, we want to believe in magic. Even when it comes to planting churches, we desperately want to believe that it’s magic.

A magic spell. A magic formula. A magic system.

We want assurances and certainties that some people – like David Copperfield – really can make that plane disappear. We want assurances and certainties that some people – purpose driven people – really can make a church appear and grow because they aren’t just doing a trick. They ARE magic.

And we can be magic too.

We tried this once in the denomination I am a part of. We went to people who had planted churches and whose church had grown to a great size and we said, “Obviously you have the magic. Please resign your position and turn over what you’ve built and go do this again. Because you’re magic.”

The buy in was, well, pretty much what you would expect. It wasn’t overwhelming.

But some pioneers, some real craftsmen (and women) stepped up and stepped out and went to plant again.

And WA-LAA! PRESTO! They did it again.

And sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes the magic didn’t go with them. Sometimes the same magic words that worked the magic in their old location just – well – didn’t.

Of course, this didn’t stop people from selling the magic tricks to new people starting out who felt their own inner call to the world of magic and church planting.

And conferences and consultants and books and recordings have been, are being and will be sold that offer the secrets of lightning in a bottle.

And because 1 out of many many planters actually come up with the bottle of lightning and their plant makes it – and sometimes even goes mega – this fuels the imagination of all of us that the only difference between one persons success and my own is that they learned the magic correctly and I can too.

Hopefully we never stop to think about the kingdom ethics of charging people to tell them how to plant and grow a church. Planters are generally too busy for casual contemplation.

O.K., I’ve stalled you long enough and I feel badly about that. After all, there’s a church, probably another mega-church, just waiting to be birthed once this secret falls into your hands – because I GUARANTEE this will work. It ALWAYS works, every single time – and it’s the ONLY ONE THAT DOES.

There are three ingredients to this trick and you HAVE to have all 3 in place or it won’t work.


The right person, in the right place at the right time.

Guaranteed. Foolproof. 100% certain to produce every single time.

Once in a great while the right place and the right time will make something happen but sustainability of the trick requires all 3 eventually come together.

And that’s a freebie, you can thank me in the comment section. Everybody else, well, they’re selling dreams and that’s not bad, everybody needs a dream. But what I just told you, it’s the only thing that actually works.

So enjoy, my friends, and let me know how it’s going for you. 

To all my fellow magicians, I apologize but some secrets should not be taken to the grave. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Being Better Together - What Does It Take?

We are about half-way through our series on being better together - a fellowship of differents, at our church.

In these days of intense polarization we are staking out Galatians 3:28 for this whole series and the big idea Paul unpacks for the Galatians and eventually the Romans. Being in Christ changes the narrative geography we inhabit and the relationships we share with those who share that piece of mystical real estate.

Bonhoeffer wrote, “Life Together” and gave the Church in his time and place some guidance on what that should look like for all of us sharing this home in Christ. It’s guidance nearly completely stands the test of time and the shift in cultures. We would all be better off for having read it, even better for having applied it to our everyday lives.

In this post today I want to quickly offer a few thoughts for our current time and culture – a little guidance for my friends – on what being better together and living as a fellowship of different takes today.

To live successfully as a fellowship of differents, the beloved community, the outpost of the kingdom of heaven, we need to practice self-awareness.

Self-awareness is not self-consciousness or self-centeredness. It means regularly, honestly and fearlessly taking a look at the man or woman in the mirror. And almost all of the time, the mirror for having a look at ourselves is in our relationship with other people.

Other people are the gift God gives us to discover who we really are.

I’m quite good at fooling myself. I can very easily focus on my intentions rather than my actions, my most noble thoughts rather than my more perverse ones. And on another day I find it very easy to condemn myself and find no good thing in me, wretched man that I am. Community reminds me that the truth is somewhere in between. I’m neither angel nor devil but something more like the way Brennan Manning describes himself, “When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.”

Life before the mirror of community, authentic community, sharing life together, help me see myself in all my glory and all my imperfection. And this is good.

To live successfully as a fellowship of differents requires all of us sharing this home in Christ to be self-aware enough to recognize our incredible tendency to be wrong about things.

Do you know the difference between how you feel on the inside when you are wrong about something and when you are right about something?

There is no difference. 

Until you know you are wrong you feel exactly the same on the inside as you do when you are sure you are right. We need each other, this fellowship of different to help us discover the places and ways in which we are wrong – BUT STILL LOVED.

I am biased. So are you. It’s our broken default setting. We need to practice self-awareness by being willing to admit we all have bias, we all listen through our bias and speak through our bias and that’s dangerous only when we are unaware of our bias. Life together helps uncover our bias. It helps us recognize that our “normal” setting actually looks quite different from the “normal” setting of others and we might need to actually contemplate what “normal” really is.

These are two big ideas, two major practices for doing life together as a fellowship of differents, that I have seen profoundly lacking in the church today. Not just the church I attend but THE Church. I’ve seen the absence or lack of these two aspects of self-awareness tear up families, workplaces and churches.

The Red Green Possum lodge prays this simple prayer, “I'm a man, but I can change, If I have to, I guess.” Maybe it can be a starting place for us and our capacity for self-awareness.

Within the fellowship of differents, our greatest need when it comes to self-awareness is our awareness that we are in need of grace. God’s grace and the grace of God extended to us through other people, especially our friends. As followers of Jesus we often talk about grace and reference grace, even expressing appreciation for grace and maybe even acknowledging our dependence on God’s grace.

And then we promptly walk away and act like had it covered.

Jesus told this story about a guy who needed grace.

Like a billion dollars’ worth of grace.

And the guy was given grace. A clean slate. And then he came across someone who owed him some pocket change and demanded immediate repayment.

In the story as Jesus told it, God does not take kindly to those who gratefully receive grace but do not willingly extend that grace to others.  This wasn’t a “get to heaven” parable, it was a story about how you and I are supposed to get along together, as different as we are.

Because here’s the deal. You need grace.

We're both the first guy in the story AND the second guy in Jesus' story.

You don’t just need God’s grace, you need grace from the people with whom you are doing life. 

Here’s an exercise – think of someone you know in your own little world who bugs the crap out of you. Someone you hope isn’t at the meeting, meal or get together. Someone who doesn’t even have to speak before you are already on edge around them.

You are that person for someone else. Someone close to you. Someone you think of as a good friend. Some days you are that person to many people. 

I promise.

If you don't already know this it is because people around you don't feel like you can bear hearing it, worry what hearing it would do to your relationship with them or you have power of some kind over them and they fear reprisal.

But the truth of doing life together is that people you love sometimes think you stink and some people you're doing life with who you feel like you or are with you ALSO think you stink. Doing life together with love and mercy at the center can bear this.

I have a friend who killed someone.

He was driving downtown in a heavy downpour and had several more drinks than anyone should have when they are behind the wheel of a car. On the road ahead of him a young man tried to run in the rain as quickly as he could from one side of the street to the other. My friend saw him, but didn’t react quickly enough – and there was plenty of time – and hit and killed him.

My friend turned himself in and did time and on his release he sought out the father of the young man he killed. He sought grace. He was looking for forgiveness. The father of the young man showed mercy and extended forgiveness and grace and even reconciliation so that he became a guiding influence in my friend’s life.

But here’s the part of the story that I need to get to – this friend of mine practiced grace in the most irritating relationships he found himself in after that because he was self-aware enough to know that he had killed another man and that a father had given him grace and forgiveness for what he thought could never be forgiven.

My prayer would be that we all catch the revelation of how much we have been forgiven, you and I. May we all have the self-awareness to see how much grace we need and more freely extend that grace to the people we know and don’t know. I would ask God to expand all of our capacities to walk humbly with one another and gracefully with one another and instead of judging we might extend a hand of mercy.

After all, mercy does triumph over judgment. When we practice self-awareness we will embrace mercy as a way of life together.

Brother’s Keeper
by Rich Mullins

Now the plumber's got a drip in his spigot
The mechanic's got a clank in his car
And the preacher's thinking thoughts that are wicked
And the lover's got a lonely heart
My friends ain't the way I wish they were
They are just the way they are

And I will be my brother's keeper
Not the one who judges him
I won't despise him for his weakness
I won't regard him for his strength
I won't take away his freedom
I will help him learn to stand
And I will, I will be my brother's keeper

Now this roof has got a few missing shingles
But at least we got ourselves a roof
And they say that she's a fallen angel
I wonder if she recalls when she last flew
There's no point in pointing fingers
Unless you're pointing to the truth

And I will be my brother's keeper
Not the one who judges him
I won't despise him for his weakness
I won't regard him for his strength
I won't take away his freedom
I will help him learn to stand
And I will, I will be my brother's keeper

…to be continued…

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Being Better Together

The church I’m a part of is about to begin a new series that is meant to be an invitation for us to think and feel and discern what it means to be a fellowship of differents.

What does living that out look like?

The old story goes like this…you can build a better and bigger church by making as much as you can of the principle of homogeneity. Like draws like and the more you are the same the more comfortable people will be gathering together. It’s a kind of “path of least resistance” to getting the maximum number of people under the same roof.

There are a few problems with that story but not least among them is that this bears no resemblance to the kingdom Jesus came to build.

Martin Luther King Jr. called the church out when he observed, "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." We’ve segregated ourselves. No one did this to us. And that is the most appalling part of it for me.

We segregate ourselves by ethnicity, by culture, by age, by socio-economics, by theology, by politics, by a multitude of preferences so that we can gather together to convince ourselves we’ve got something everyone else needs.

The thing is, we’ve been at this for 2000 years and counting. Wouldn’t you think we’ve had sorted this out by now? Am I the only one that thinks our will to segregate negates our authority to speak to the dominant culture?

Scott McKnight, in his book A Fellowship of Differents, writes, "The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together are designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a family."

I don’t know if anyone has ever been given an “F” for show-and-tell but we definitely deserve one.
If our churches – no, if our lives – don’t reflect the diversity of our community, we are not living like Jesus.


The early church didn’t take to this like a fish to water either. This is hard work. Read James or 1 Timothy or 1 Thessalonians or 1 Corinthians or the Didache. Doing something new means doing hard work. There have been some bright lights, some hopeful communities, some tastes of what this beloved community can be like but we struggle to sustain it.

Because it is hard work.

Because it is costly.

Because it is the path of the most resistance.

But it is the good life.

Can I be offensive and suggest that I’ve seen as many or more people who are not Christians living this good life than I have seen Christians who embrace it?

Can I risk being offensive to tell you that the evangelical system of the last 100 years has taught us to be partisan in the worst ways and called “holy” our bent towards division?

There is a movement of churches of which I am familiar that published a resource for their churches on how to have difficult conversations. It’s a key practice for anyone who wants to be in the beloved community, a fellowship of differents. But here’s the deal, as a movement of churches they kind of suck at having difficult conversations. I’m sure they happen. I’ve heard they happen. But I’ve also heard from more people who didn’t get invited to have them than I’ve met people who did get invited to have them.

Why bring that up? Because historically we, as Christians, are great at telling everyone how they ought to live, what’s wrong with them, the way things out to be done, but when it comes down to us doing it – being better together – embracing each other in a fellowship of different – we kind of suck. 

But we don’t have to.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Thoughts on Worship to Alienate More Friends

The other day I received an email that offered to help me up our game when it comes to stage lighting.

Quoting lighting and worship leaders from various churches, the article extolled the virtues of being able to set mood, adjust the lighting temperature for video cameras, use LED panels for dynamic backgrounds…generally to create a vibe.

One hard-working lighting pastor even spends part of his work week contemplating how to use the lighting to enhance the preaching pastor’s message.

The other day I was messaging with a pastor friend who was displaced by a recent hurricane and moved his whole congregation of 300 people under a big top to worship together in a parking lot.

And then another hurricane came through and shredded their “tent of meeting” and left them, I guess, with just the parking lot to worship in.

The juxtaposition of these two situations got me thinking about what we’ve made of worship through technology.

I’m not a Hutterite. I’m not against technology. I love electric guitar, amplification and bass that I can feel in my chest. I even like lighting, especially when it helps me see what’s going on. I prefer projected lyrics and I use powerpoint and video clips when I preach.

But there comes a point when we have to ask whether we are using technology appropriately for our worship context and even whether we are using it ethically.

I’ve watched over the last 30 years (wait, what? Am I really that old?) as the “vibe” has changed. I’ve embraced most of that change, even lobbied for a lot of it.

But if I’m honest, I have to admit that there are some unintended consequences.

People sing less and watch more. Not all people, not everywhere but as I travel I have noticed in the various places I go the congregational singing that happened as we held onto our hymnals has become more spectator and less participant as the lights have gone down and production value has gone up.

I don’t mind saying the worship team is performing or even that I am performing when I preach. But I think we’ve rigged the game with the amount of technology we use and created an atmosphere, a concert vibe, that affects both the worship team and the worhippers in less than helpful ways.

Years ago I was leading worship and we were approaching a moment when the electric guitar would carry the song through a time intended to be reflective. As we came to that moment I caught, out of the corner of my eye, my young, electric guitar player doing “the walk” until he reached his stage monitor, put his foot up on it and proceeded to bang his head during one of the slowest rock n roll solos I have ever heard.

We all loved him but I knew then that we had created a sort of Christian Karaoke out of our worship. Some folks like Karaoke. Some folks are bored by it. Some are just mystified by it. Some look for another bar.

There’s also, I think, an ethical nature to the kind of production this article talks about. The word “manipulation” isn’t used but it’s really at the heart of the article. We have the technology to manipulate people’s emotions and through their emotions we can manipulate their wills.

I get that worship does that on a natural level. The words and music have their effect on us. But like the old preacher who would start his invitation for salvation at the end of his message by telling a dead dog story, a story to elicit strong emotions, we are using technology in our worship that elicits a strong emotional response which people are confusing for the Spirit. My hope is that as followers of Jesus we can agree that manipulation is wrong.

Here’s where I need to bring up the beard.

How many whiskers does it take to make a beard? Two? Four? Twenty-four? It’s difficult to say how many whiskers make up a beard. And yet we know a beard when we see one.

I bring up the beard because someone will inevitably ask, “How much technology does it take before it becomes manipulation?” or something like that.  We don’t have to come up with percentages to know manipulation when we see it. And we need to avoid manipulating people.

“The way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that comes.”

Back to my friend, Lucas, in a parking lot without even a tent to meet in. I suspect that they will find a way to worship and their worship will not be harmed by the lack of LED panels to control the lighting temperature for live streaming nor would it be enhanced by the same. Worship is not in our production, it’s what we bring in our hearts and heads when we gather.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far way called California, some hippies started a revolution. Some of them plugged in. But it was simple. It did not require fog or haze. Follow spots did not help enhance the mood. LED tape did not elevate people. There was no auto-tune to make it sound just right.

Technology has always come with this promise of an easier lifestyle. I think we’ve embraced this in our contemporary worship here in North America and used it to create “vibes” because that’s a lot easier than a lifestyle of worship that carries its own “vibe” with it.

My hope is that we discern the difference between worship and manipulation, between production and producing and between the end and the means. The juice is worth the squeeze, as my friend Jason says. Worship offers us a better promise than technology can ever deliver on.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go watch my Facebook friends count go down.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

When a Pastor Eats Roast Lamb

I am introspective by nature.

Ask me what I think and I will take a few minutes to answer. Ask me what I feel and I will have to get back to you in a few days.

Turning inward is my “go to” move.

As a pastor of a local church I know that I disappoint, hurt, confuse and frustrate people all the time. John Ortberg said, “Leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can stand.” I lean into that.

But the events that have transpired at Willow Creek and the stories of the women who have been used and abused by their former founding pastor are stories of another kind.

I’ve read articles and listened to a podcast and the gist of these has mostly been “pastor, look inward for there but for the grace of God you too will go…” and the more disturbing, “the only person who can sit in judgment of Billy Hybels is someone who has risen to the same level of responsibility and authority…”yada yada.

And while I think we all need to look inward more – well, most of us, some of us probably need to pull up because we spend so much time down that well – this is not a “there but for the grace of God…” situation.

Unless your thing is to be a serial user and abuser. A predator.

I know people who have had a slip. I know people who have become involved with someone who was not their spouse through work proximity or a counseling session that broke boundaries. I know people who have strayed one click too far on the internet.  I can relate to all those scenarios. I am capable of all of those scenarios.

But setting women up, over and over and over again, multiple women in various situations, in and out of the local church in order to use them for my own gratification or need to feel powerful? That’s not a slip.

That is called a pathology.

That is a person who is locked into a compulsion that is destined to wreck lives, eventually including their own.

This week a report was released from Pennsylvania that details in over 900 pages the abuse of over 1000 individuals by Roman Catholic priests over a period of 70 years.

In Pennsylvania. Six dioceses in Pennsylvania.

This should not be read as a call to introspection. It should be read as, “If you are abusing women or children, sexually or otherwise, get the hell out of pastoral ministry.” You are caught in a pathology of sin, not a victim of ordinary temptation.

Get out. Confess your sins. Get help. But stop hurting people through your position as a pastor.

Paul warns the leaders at the fledgling church in Ephesus, “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders. I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following.  Watch out! Remember the three years I was with you—my constant watch and care over you night and day, and my many tears for you.” (Ac 20:28-31 NLT)

Someone reminded me that this passage is about guarding against false teachers, not serial sexual predators. My thought is that if we don’t think that abusing the sheep teaches them something false about the gospel, and doesn’t do damage to their faith, then we don’t understand teaching or the gospel or both.

As leaders and pastors we’re supposed to protect the sheep, not eat them. Roast lamb is never supposed to be on the menu.

Jesus told his followers, “But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Ma 18:6)

I think we need to take this as seriously as Jesus does. I think that’s what followers of Jesus do and I think it’s what the watching World needs us to do.

The World, I think, can tell the difference between a pastor who makes a bad choice and sinfully wrecks his own marriage and family and a pastor who preys on women and/or children in a series of manipulative and abusive encounters.

Sesame Street taught us that one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong. If we treat serial abuse the same as or equate it with a pastor who has fallen into temptation to embezzle funds, have an affair or get charged with a DUI, we are communicating something to the victims of these serial perpetrators that is not true and will do harm to their souls. We also communicate something false to other pastors that we believe that at any time they themselves will start down this path of serial abuse which will create unintended consequences for those who become consumed with fear.

I have read articles suggesting that accountability partners are the answer.  Not lying to people is the answer. A serial abuser will look at you and lie to all your accountability questions because they are lying to themselves and everyone else already.

I have read articles that point to all the good that Bill Hybels has done. “We can’t read all those books and see all those people who have come to Jesus and throw it all out!” This response has made me question who we think is really behind all these good things. Did God build Willow or did Bill? Did God speak truth to us through books written by Bill and his ghostwriters or was it dependent on Bill’s “anointing?”

Bad people can do good things.

Good people can do bad things.

But we cannot respond to serial abusers the same way we respond to people who slip and fall, own their stuff and get back up again.

Finally, please do not say that the only people who can speak to someone who has done the things Bill has unless they have the same life experience that he has. That’s precisely the kind of thinking that perpetuates the environment and culture in which this kind of abuse takes place. I heard the same tripe with Mark Driscoll and it was old then.

Predatory sexual manipulation and abuse is wrong. Period. Full stop.

A six year old has all the authority he needs to tell you or anyone else, king or queen, that one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong.

 So, Jesus doesn’t love Bill and God’s grace can’t redeem him? Neither I nor anyone else I know is saying that. But being the object of God’s love and the work of his redemptive love does not give us a free pass to eat other sheep. We should not react to predatory behavior in leaders the same as we do another brother or sister who sins – or another leader who sins.

 So what do we do?

We co-create healthy systems with God by his empowering Spirit.

We avoid dysfunctional systems that perpetuate this kind of serial abuse.

Here are some of the rules dysfunctional systems live by – avoid these, run from these, confront these:

·       Don’t talk about problems. 
·       If you must talk about problems, never talk about the real problem.
·       Don’t talk about your feelings.
·       Never talk to another family member directly.  Always go through another person.
·       Do as I say, not as I do.
·       Don’t rock the boat. Ever.
·       Don’t tell people outside our system about our troubles.
·       Don’t trust people outside our system.
·       Keep our family secrets.
·       Resists outsiders from entering the system to observe, interview or critique.
·       Unclear personal boundaries.
·       False loyalty to the family system.
·       Members are never free to leave the system.

To my brothers and sisters in pastoral ministry, things just keep getting harder but don’t let that keep you from caring for the flock of God of which you are a part. We need each other, now more than ever. We need to share our burdens with each other and stop buying the success illusion. Be faithful and don’t give up on your amazing calling to shepherd and protect. May we have the courage to dismantle the unhealthy systems we have created together that have turned the flock of God into ground lamb and may God empower us to say, “No.” to the  opportunities to take advantage of our role whenever and wherever they present themselves to us.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Reflections on SVS 2018

A week ago I spent a few hours in Wilmore, Kentucky. The time went by so quickly for me that I still can’t believe that I was there for two and a half days.

Vineyard Scholars is as nerdy as it sounds but not as academically upscale as you might think. Being rooted in the Vineyard, we have a high value on making conversation accessible to everyone and if anywhere “everyone gets to play” is true in the Vineyard, it’s among the Society of Vineyard Scholars (SVS).

I’ve been reflecting on the experience I’ve just come back from and I want to share some of my thoughts with you. I’d like to tell you about it in 3 parts: 1) the things that I have a problem with about SVS, 2) the things I love about SVS and finally 3) some awards, some unofficial SVSees I'd like to award.


First on this list is how quickly it all went. I still cannot figure out why this SVS went by so quickly and seemed to be almost a whole day shorter than past conferences (this was my fourth). Being together with other people with Vineyard roots and thinking and talking through the issues we covered (and didn’t covered) is, for me, more important than the time we have. Given the pace of life, I don’t have much of a solution for this other than to attempt to cultivate mini-gatherings in our respective regions at another time during the year in order to encourage and provoke each other.

The second of my problems is that I worry about the nature of SVS within the Vineyard USA (VUSA) system. We were admonished one morning by Eleanor Mumford with a message that sounded to me a little like the old children’s Sunday School song, “O be careful little mouth what you say /O be careful little mouth what you say / There's a Father up above / And He's looking down in love /So, be careful little mouth what you say.” The implication seemed to be that we need to be careful, as people doing theology, not to tell everyone around us what we’re thinking and working through as our thinking out loud has the potential of being equivalent to a spiritual drive by shooting.

And for God’s sake, don’t Tweet it.

But that wasn’t my problem. My problem is that Eleanor has a very different impression of SVS than I do and I’m not sure which of us has it right.  My problem is that I am afraid that SVS exists primarily as a distraction. A little bread and circuses. As much as I’d like to think SVSers have some impact in our Vineyard Movement, I’m not sure where or how that happens. Theological position papers come out but they haven’t been discussed and vetted first (or second or third) by SVS members. SVS does not discuss or discern the theme for the National Conference or important issues to be discussed at Regional conferences. We don’t vote or come to a consensus on “the Vineyard position” or create papers for the Movement on aspects of theology. And sometimes I get the sinking feeling that SVS has just become a very convenient pressure release valve for those who like to drink deeply from theological wells and drink just as deeply from wine barrels (one in moderation, the other not so much).


The worship. Songs of substance. Hungry hearts. Loud voices raised in adoration and devotion. Seeing the inclusiveness of the worship team from GCF, our hosts (more on them to come). Seeing some of my favorite people from Campbellsville (who I most know from their legendary status) leading two sets that made my heart explode (in the best way). I loved that we were singing songs that came from the early days of the Vineyard and one of the newest songs in the Vineyard and our common story is woven together by the songs with which we worship.

The opening panel. A great way to begin our time together. Provocative thoughts from across a spectrum of specialties and interests on a single theme, “Entangled in Babylon, Free in Christ.” Powerful insights that were, alone, worth the price of admission. For me, this session set the table for how good it was going to be.

The babies.  There were babies at SVS this year. It might be my status as grandpa now but I was deeply encouraged that the parents of these little ones felt comfortable to bring their babies to sessions.  It was, for me, a simple example of what makes this gathering so beautiful. Theology is for everyone and babies keep us rooted.  I think all papers need to be delivered from now on WHILE holding a baby.

GCF. Great Commission Fellowship in Wilmore, Kentucky, were amazing hosts. They treated us very well, brought the best coffee, showed great hospitality and made us feel very welcomed. Jason Duncan is a star and is pastoring an amazing Vineyard.

Heroes. I was in close proximity to two of my theology heroes. One, Craig Keener, has been very influential for me in both Bible study and in pastoring. Sadly, I didn’t get past my fanboy paralysis to talk to him. Some day.  Getting to listen to him and his incredible wife, M├ędine, live and in person, was brilliant. On Thursday morning I got out of my own way and introduced myself to another theology hero, Howard Snyder. Dr. Snyder has been an influence on my life through his writing since I became a Christian and has shaped my vision of what the Church can and ought to be. His session was very encouraging and thought provoking as well.

Friends. Old and new, connecting with both was a beautiful gift. Meeting people in the real world – at least the ones you like – is deeply satisfying and something I hope everyone does more of. It was not enough of a good thing but I feel richer for it nonetheless.

Papers. Papers are presented and while I appreciate everyone thoughtful and brave and kind enough to prepare and share one, here are some favorites I was able to hear presented. 1) Communities and Spiritual Maturity: Rooted with Wings by Walter Thiessen. 2) Theology from Below: What Do the Oppressed Owe Their Oppressors by Donnell T. Wyche. 3) Speak Truth to Power: God’s Kingdom People Against Empire by Nick Fox. 4) Living Liturgies: Embracing the Liturgical Tradition as the Vineyard Movement by Kyla Young Morgan. 5) The dueling paper presentation of Being Vineyard, Being Evangelical: An English Perspective by Tom Creedy and ‘A Parting of Ways’? The Future of the Vineyard within Conservative Evangelicalism by Steve Burnhope. I loved these two friends staking out opposing positions in the kindest, most polite and friendliest way possible. Tom made me glad to be an evangelical and Steve made me want to never use that term again.  6) Quadrilateraling in the Vineyard by Luke Geraty.  All of these papers and presentations have given me a lot to think about, some things to change and a reason to hope moving forward.  There were many more papers that were great, these are just some I heard and some I heard that meant the most to me.

Caleb Maskell.  Caleb heads up the SVS and did a fantastic job pastoring this gathering. Caleb not only embodies good scholarship but he also embodies the very marriage of head and heart, mind and spirit, that I think we are looking for, not only in SVS, but the Vineyard as a whole.


Can I give out some unofficial SVSee Awards for 2018?  Most quotable theologian of SVS 2018, Tom Creedy.  Best presentation given under pressure with our National Director sitting 8 feet away, Luke Geraty. Best insights saved for Q&A time that deserve their own papers, Mike Raburn. Most provocative but also right, Steve Burnhope. Best and Most longsuffering host, Thomas Lyons. Best lunch company who kindly listened to an old man (me) ramble on and on, Dan and Katie Heck.

As I have said in other places, SVS represents the best of the Vineyard movement to me for all the reasons above. I am grateful for this group of people - that they exist and that they gather and that they are so deep and wide.

If you attended SVS, any awards you’d like to give out?

If you didn’t attend SVS, why not go next year?

Thursday, June 7, 2018

A Very Modest Proposal

Jeff sat in his office staring at his door. He had been sitting and staring like this for twenty minutes.

In the past he had told people something “blew my mind” and he had shared things with people that would “blow their minds.” Now he knew what that felt like for the first time.

An hour ago two men had stopped by his office in the small church building where he worked as a pastor.

Jeff pastored a normal sized church of 100 people, give or take, and he had been pastoring at this church for 5 years. He’d seen and heard and experienced a lot of strange and wonderful things in the 25 years he had been a pastor but none, he realized now, had actually blown his mind.

Until today.

An hour ago.

Two youngish men in golf shirts and khakis had stopped by and asked is they could have a few minutes of Jeff’s time to share something they thought he would be very interested in. “A kingdom opportunity” is what they had called it.

Jeff had learned to smell an Amway presentation from a long way off but this didn’t seem to be that and so a little curious and always hopeful about connecting with people who might start attending his church, Jeff invited them to sit down and share their story.

Or to be more accurate, Jeff agreed to jump down the rabbit hole and see where the White Rabbit was going with Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum as his guides.

Over the next several minutes the two fit young men leaned forward and explained to Jeff the purpose of their visit. For a long time they talked about the struggle to grow churches, the potential for the kingdom in their city, how much they admired Jeff and other pastors who struggled with pastoring small churches, and they told Jeff they were there representing the pastor of a very, very large church in the city with a vision for taking things “to the next level.”

These eager young men explained to Jeff how their pastor had led their church to be one of the largest churches not only in their area but in their whole state. “But,” said Tweedle Dee, lowering his head, “our growth had leveled off. We add new people but we lost new people and we can’t gather the number of giving units we require to achieve pastor’s vision.”

He lifted his head and met Jeff’s eyes. “This is where you and your church come in. You can help us achieve God’s dream for our city and reach our kingdom goal.”

Jeff’s head was spinning by this point in their “presentation.” All he could get out was, “I…I…I…”

Then Tweedle Dum jumped in. “We realize you are probably both excited about this opportunity and eager to hear how you can help. Let me explain.”

And explain he did. It was simple, a very modest proposal.

They explained how it just came down to math. The charts and graphs and spreadsheets on their iPad illustrated their point. After serious cost analysis, it was more economical for their big church to purchase smaller churches by making deals with the senior pastors, first in their own denomination and then other churches that looked and smelled enough like their denomination to be an easy fit. “It just makes good dollars and sense!” said Tweedle Dee as if he'd just made that up.

Jeff would become a part of their pastor’s vision by leading the small church he pastored to become a part of the big church. Big youth group, big missions trips, big worship, big espresso bar, big outreaches and a whole upgrade to Jeff’s profile as a pastor to one of their prospering satellite campuses. “Bigger is better, am I right or am I right?” Tweedle Dee asked. Jeff would be listed on their staff page, “Totally good for your resume,” said Tweedle Dum. And Jeff would receive a salary boost, more vacation time and, of course, a signing bonus.

“But…but..but…” Jeff was now pretty sure he was being punked but these two young men seemed as serious as a heart attack – which Jeff was also pretty sure was about to happen to him.

Tweedle Dee jumped in, “But why would you join the big church just to keep doing what you were doing as a small church pastor even though you would be getting more pay and more vacation time? I understand your question…let me explain the rest of our proposal.”

After a year or two at the most, Jeff could decide to retire – actually he should decide to retire. The senior pastor of the big church would then absorb everyone from Jeff’s current church into their main campus. They were projecting a 20% loss but felt very confident they would retain 80% of Jeff’s current members as well as any new members who joined prior to absorption. “These giving units,” explained one of the Tweedles, “already give so we don’t have to spend time getting them up to speed on tithing.” The building and property, the office where they were currently discussing this very modest proposal, would be sold and Jeff and his wife would receive the full amount of the sell, less 10% as a pre-tithe to big church.

Jeff would then be free to do as he pleased with a very sizeable nest egg as well as the income from one to two years of the salary boost and signing bonus for joining the big church. After he signed the non-compete agreement that would bar him from starting or joining the staff of another church within a 100 mile radius of their current city.

 “It’s what we call, win/win, Pastor Jeff. You want to be a winner don’t you?” Said one of the Tweedles. Jeff really was not sure who was talking to him anymore, his eggs were scrambled and he was starting to think he’d actually fallen asleep at his desk and was dreaming all this. It was at this point that the Two Tweedles mistook Jeff’s mind blown silence for a tough negotiation tactic.

“Look pastor,” Dee said a little more aggressively, “there are 10 other pastors to whom we are making this same offer and the first 3 to say, “yes” will come onboard. You don’t want to be one of the ones who get left behind do you? Let me tell you what happens here. First place is inking this deal and becoming a winner because there is no second place, Jeff. Pretty soon the people coming to your church will finally be won over to our big church, it’s inevitable, especially when they see other churches joining us and becoming part of the amazing things we’re doing in this city. Everyone wants to be a winner, Jeff. Everyone. You can join us or you can watch your people join us.”

“We have our own Starbucks and Chick-fil-a inside and ours are both open on Sundays,” added Tweedle Dum, leaning back and crossing his arms.

“What do you say?” asked Dee with a smile that struck Jeff as being disproportionate to his head.

“I. Have. No. Words.” said Jeff.

“We understand,” said Tweedle Dee, glancing at Tweedle Dum as they stood in unison, “We will give you some time to pray about this very modest proposal and get back to us. But don’t forget,” leaning down and lowering his voice, “the clock is ticking.”

“Tick, tick.” Said Tweedle Dum, smiling.

And the two men walked out the door of Jeff’s office.

Jeff didn’t move.

Possibly couldn’t move. Until twenty minutes later he picked up his phone, called his wife and started the strangest conversation the two of them had ever had.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

That's Not How This Works, That's Not How Any of This Works

One of the things that fascinates me most is our tendency to disregard the things the Gospels and the Epistles teach in order to embrace or accommodate doing things just like the dominant culture around us.

I think the root of this is not biblical illiteracy but rather a conviction (conscious or unconscious) that the Bible, for all that it is, is not practical.

Back in my Bible College days, right after John finished writing Revelation, a good friend of mine was interning for the summer at a Colorado church. In his first staff meeting the senior pastor asked if my friend could recommend any good books on leadership. My friend suggested a book we had just read for a class the semester before, A Theology of Church Leadership, by LarryRichards. The senior pastor replied, “No, I mean something practical.”

A little part of me died when I first heard that story.

One thing that seems clear to me is that kingdom leadership has only one Lord and we’re not to have any “lording” going on in the kingdom.

First, there’s this troubling passage in red, Matthew 20:25-28 “But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (NLT)

And then Peter seems to be drawing on that when he writes to church leaders and says, “Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example.” (1 Peter 5:2-3 NLT)

Jesus demonstrates his approach to leadership in the Upper Room by washing his disciples feet and punctuates the experience with these not so cryptic words, “I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” (John 13:15 NLT)

I’ve been with church leaders who, with a very straight face, have told me, “The way I wash people’s feet is by telling them what to do. I serve the church by exercising my gift of leadership and giving them direction.”

In heaven, Jesus does a face palm every time someone says something like this.

The primary problem with this is: “The way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that comes.” 

If we lead like bosses, we’re bringing a bossy kingdom but not a foot washing kingdom. If we, as leaders, lord our position over people rather than becoming their slaves, we’re bringing a lordly kingdom but we’re not bringing a servant of all kingdom. Our tendency is to be like Peter and tell Jesus he has more important things to do than wash our feet but Jesus still reminds us that if we don’t let him serve us, we’re not going to make it into the kingdom. And we can “release” other people to do the foot washing, but if we’re not humbling ourselves and cleaning toilets, stacking chairs and giving someone a lift, we’re building a kingdom but we’re not bringing the same kingdom that our foot washing king calls us to bring.

But this isn’t practical. And it’s messy. And people might not know you’re the boss when you lead like Jesus.

In North America, it seems to me that we are challenged to strive to arrive at a level where you’ll never be mistaken for a slave again. The level where people ask for your endorsement, where they bring you water bottles in the green room and they stop asking you to pick up after yourself. It seems to me that we’ve inverted Jesus’ plan for kingdom leadership in favor of creating a celebrity class and a boss class where your behavior can no longer be questioned and your success is not measured by feet washed but by finances and followers.

“We’re too big to fail.” Isn’t just said about financial institutions and big business. It’s also said about some churches and some Christian celebrities and this is not and has never been the way of the foot-washer King.

Recovery, I think, starts with rejecting celebrity culture, particularly within the church.

Second, while I believe Christian leadership is a form of martyrdom, we must not turn a blind eye to the bad behavior of our brothers and sisters, particularly in leadership roles. We're all human, we all mess up, we all need to be called on our stuff. We all need a Nathan to step up - which starts with leaders who welcome "Nathans" and the confrontation they bring.

Third, we need to filter our practices through this lens, “The way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that comes.”

And finally, we need, like Israel, to stop insisting on human kings so we can be cool like the other nations and just let Jesus be Lord.

I’m not arguing for anarchy, necessarily, but I am very sure that we have by and large adopted pragmatism as our ethic – if it works it must be God – when Jesus called us to entirely different kind of kingdom where leaders are recognized by their service and not by their status.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Dear VUSA pt 2

Dear VUSA,

Hey, it’s me again.

I wanted to finish sharing my feelings with you. (part one here)

Before I get to that, I want to tell you why I’m writing you like this, I’d like to tell you why I am not writing this and then tell you about how I’m feeling.

And then I’ll just leave this with you and won’t bother you again.

VUSA, I love you. I believe in you. I really do. That’s the main reason I’m writing. If I thought you permanently sucked and I hated you, I’d just slip away.

VUSA, I’m writing like this because we have no ombudsman, no party that I know I can reach out to who will listen and will sit us down and help us listen to each other. As a system, you seem both impenetrable and impervious.

But I love you, I believe in you and I have a dream of how our relationship can be, therefore, I write.

I am not writing because I’m lonely or sad or going through a particularly hard time in my local church. I’m not writing you, VUSA, because I have no friends or I’m on the verge of a breakdown. I’m not writing you because I like to complain and want to be “that guy” that causes everyone to inwardly groan when they see he’s in the meeting.

I’m not writing to criticize people, the parts of your sum, VUSA.

This is important because 32% of our population will personalize what I am writing even though it’s not written about them or about any person. I am writing about a system. About VUSA.

You are a system and you have developed a mindset, an attitude, a personality, an existence that lives beyond the individual parts that make you up. You are a system that influences the people who live inside of you every bit as much or more than they influence you. That’s what a system does.

A wise person once said, “The way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that comes.” Systems are not neutral. Your nature will produce fruit after its kind. They way you do things shapes the future as much or more than the words or values you speak, no matter who the people are that are plugged into your system.

I’m not writing with the illusion that I can do a single thing about that, but I do believe that I am my brother’s keeper and if you see a brother, or system, that causes hurt feelings and you don’t speak up or try to speak up, you’re complicit. I don’t want to be complicit.

So this is the part where I finish telling you about how I feel about our relationship.

Once upon a time I went to work at a store and met some great people. Right away one guy invited me and my wife over for dinner. We were new to town and I was excited about the possibility of establishing new relationships.

We had a great meal, good conversation, funny stories but then after the meal the couple asked me and my wife to have a seat on their couch while they set up a white board on a stand. The warm hospitality suddenly felt awkward.

For the next hour we listened to their multi-level marketing presentation and heard about the incredible opportunity to be one of their “legs.” There were upline people at various levels from diamond to emerald but the goal, as they explained it to us, was to get our own legs and become uplines to others from whom we would eventually collect money off of their work.

VUSA, for me, this is how I feel about our relationship. I feel like my worth to you is in my potential as a leg in your multi-level church planting movement. I feel like I’m a downline. I’m a leg. I feel like my worth to you is based on my ability to produce and to purchase, to get more downlines, more legs planted, more resources flowing upwards to feed you. I’ve watched people diagram you VUSA, I’ve seen them use their hands to demonstrate the multi-levels of your system. I left a system like that in order to join the Vineyard.

And now it’s starting to feel to me like we’ve become what I left.

I’m not mad at you, VUSA, we are what we are and perhaps this is the way that all systems are eventually bound to develop.

I just have this dream that we will have a different sort of relationship where I don’t feel like I work for you but with you and that when you are making decisions that affect me and the church I’m in, you’ll drop us a line and ask for some feedback before it actually happens. I have a dream that our kingdom theology will influence you, our system, as much as it influences our local churches and our every day relationships and that it will influence me because God knows I need it to.

The hard thing is for those who are inside the system to be able to see or relate to what I am talking about. Place influences perspective and there are people who enjoy a connection to your system that can’t possibly relate to how I feel. I acknowledge and accept that. It’s part of the complex nature of family systems – we’re all in ‘normal’ families until we start to hang out with other families because we don’t know what we don’t know.

Our relationship with the couple who invited us over for dinner and a presentation didn’t develop very far because my wife, who has an aversion to multi-level marketing, said we weren’t interested.
And then they weren’t.

And VUSA, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit worried that telling you all this will make you despise me. But I would feel much worse if I never said a word.

I’m one hundred percent sold out for the kingdom and for the Vineyard. The Spirit has used Kingdom theology to shape me and how I fulfill my vocation. I’m not going anywhere. That might be good news or bad news to you VUSA, but I really couldn’t carry on without telling you how I’m feeling.

So I offer both parts of this letter up to the interwebs with a prayer that the Spirit is at work in people AND in systems. I pray that there are better days ahead for us and that we can develop a healthy system that will facilitate our vocation into the future. I hope the same system that produced a booklet for guidance on having hard conversations is willing to embrace sitting down with downliners like me and having some of those hard conversations because the way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that comes.