The Litmus Test for Any Church

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The Litmus Test: Can I bring my unchurched friends to this church?

Will I have to prepare them before hand or can they just show up?

Will I have to translate for them so they can participate without feeling like an outsider?

Will I have to apologize to them afterward?

Will they encounter Jesus when they come?

The apostle Paul said that the gospel is a stumbling block.  It sure is.  It always has been an anathema to the human condition.  It is bad news before it is good news.  But the church ought not be a stumbling block.

The church ought to be as welcoming as Jesus.  And people ought to be able to belong before they believe.  How’s your church doing on this litmus test?

Review of Donald Miller’s “Scary Close”

“Tell me the truth, but tell it slant.”  Emily Dickinson

I read Donald Miller because he tells it slant. His writing is vulnerable, witty, but most of all provocative.  Not so much in a controversial way (although sometimes….) but in the purer sense: Donald Miller provokes thought, engaging the reader to find themselves in his journey.

His latest work Scary Close chronicles his insight into his relationship habits, looking at friendship, parenting, dating and ultimately marriage.  The meat of the book revolves around his relationship with his now wife, Betsy, from meeting to dating to engagement etc, but also covers previous relationships, friendships and business dealings.  The book is vintage Donald Miller in that it contains hilarious moments and profound insights into human behavior. I highly recommend it.

My two favorite themes:

1) Too many people expect too much from another person and from God.  He told a hilarious story about his speech at his own wedding rehearsal dinner where he critiques the famous Jerry Maguire “You complete me” speech.  He told the crowd, “Betsy doesn’t complete me and I don’t want her to.”  He felt most of the crowd turn on him, wondering what sort of cold hearted jerk Betsy was hitching her future too.  I was laughing out loud at the idea of tanking your own wedding rehearsal speech, but he’s right.  He pushes the idea further when he also shows that even God doesn’t fill that longing this side of heaven. Loneliness is simply part of the human condition.  Two profound ideas from this:  “Betsy doesn’t fill my loneliness, but she’s the best companion for it,” and ‘the longing, loneliness and pain that humans experience is all fodder to produce character in me.”

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Soul Health Triggers

Most pastors I know dangerously blur the lines between their identity as God’s child and their calling as a pastor.  Consistently blurring these lines can be deadly to the soul.  For the record, I am one of the “most pastors I know.”

Here is a litmus test that my soul is on a unhealthy trajectory and I need to either take a break, work harder on my day off or reset my approach to ministry:

1) When church matters are the last thing on my mind before falling asleep and the first thing when I wake up.

2) When I fail the Dallas Willard litmus test, “Are you more irritable than usual?  Are you more impatient than usual?”  If I ask myself these questions and find myself getting angry at Dallas Willard, that’s a sign.

3) When for several weeks in a row, I’ve said to my wife, “wow, that was a big week!”   And by “big week” I mean: intense issues, or several nights of work.  Its amazing how easily I can forget that I’ve had 6 or 7 “big weeks” in a row.

4) When I cultivate a growing indifference to people’s problems and pain as a defense mechanism for my own heart.

5) When I can’t seem to read my Bible without thinking of a sermon thread, or talk to God without only talking about church matters and church people.  Whatever happened to enjoying God and His word instead of using both as a work tool?

6) When I fail the question, “Do I relate to God more as his employee or his adopted child?”

Care to share your litmus list?

I’d love to post more, but this week I’ve failed too many of these, so I’m heading outside to walk the dog and enjoy the gift of being alive.

(this post was first published in 2011 and dusted off for a redux in 2015.)  

Applying for a Job Part 1: a Heart for Unchurched People

Discovery is currently searching for an Associate Pastor of Preaching and Community.  We posted an ad just over one month ago.  We’ve received 130+ inquiries and 78 full applications. There are a lot of good people looking for exciting ministry opportunities.

Almost every candidate, in some way or other, lists that they have a heart for unchurched people.  But as we look through their materials, only 15% or so seem show that they have time for unchurched people.  (if any past or current candidate is reading this, no I do not have one specific person in mind! I’m addressing an overwhelming trend I’m seeing)

If you have a heart for unchurched people but not a calendar for unchurched people, you don’t have a heart for unchurched people.  

It would never fly to say you have a heart for your spouse or children, but never spend time with them.  Never listen to them, their desires, fears, interests. Never get into what they are into.  Never inconvenience yourself and what you want to do with what they want to do.  But somehow, in church leadership, we think we can do this.  And hey, I totally get it, ministry jobs can put you on a momentum away from unchurched people if you are not careful.  

But reality check time:  there is very little distance between heart and time in today’s world.  Got a heart for someone?  Show me your calendar and I’ll show you your heart.

This is a non negotiable for us at Discovery.  On any given week, between 15 – 30% of our attendance would identify as unchurched.  Three of the many reasons for this:

1) Our people know that if they bring their friends, they will not have to translate or apologize for what their friends experience.  They will be equally welcomed from the lobby to the communion table to the pulpit.

2) All our “upfront” communications assume a courtesy toward an “unchurched” person, albeit intellectual skeptic or reluctant attender.  Our worship leader does this, our announcements are shaped through this lens and so is our sermon.

3) Our preachers spend preparation time wondering how the message would hit a skeptic.  What would their objections be? What about this seems foreign, weird, crazy, stupid?  And we build these objections back into the sermon.

Tim Keller and Erwin McManus are excellent examples of this.

Let this passion for the unchurched escape your heart and find its way onto your calendar. And if it finds its way onto your calendar long enough and if you listen more than you speak. If you come with a posture to learn, more than a posture to convince, If you pay attention to what these people are saying:  their hopes, fears, annoyances, objections to Jesus….

Then this passion will surely find its way into your pulpit.  And then these people will find their way into the church.  And when they hear you preach, they will not so much feel preached to as much as they will feel listened to.   They will not so much leave your sermon saying, “this person is really convincing” as much as they will say, “this person really understands me.”

Craddock the Giant

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Fred Craddock died over the weekend.  He was 86 years old.

His influence belied his small stature, extending to tens of thousands of pulpits around the world.  I cannot overstate how much he influenced my approach to scripture, story telling and preaching.

I first encountered Dr Craddock when I was a teenager in Western Australia.  Our preacher’s son, David Timms had returned from his theological education in USA.  He preached at our church and I’d never heard any sermon like it.  Winsome, gentle, inviting, provocative.  I was hooked.  David’s sermon was “Craddockesque” and he closed with a powerful story authored by Fred Craddock.  That was the kind of preacher I wanted to be.

With David’s influence, I enrolled at Johnson University,  Fred Craddock’s Alma Mater.  Dr Craddock came through town to give a lecture on the synoptic gospels.  Our professor, David Reece, took us to spend a day listening to the maestro.  6 hours of content, no notes.  Ninety minutes each on Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.  Craddock was as fascinated by “why does Luke want us to notice this?” and “How does John arrange his stories?” as “what is Jesus saying here?”  I was fascinated by Craddock’s fascination.  That was the kind of Bible student I wanted to be.

To pay homage to my hero, here are a few lessons I learned from Dr Craddock:

1) Let the text work on you before ever opening a commentary.  If you begin by asking “scholar questions” you will end up with a “scholar sermon.”  First ask human questions before ever turning to the scholars.  Craddock, a world class New Testament scholar himself often said, “scholars can ruin a lot of good sermons.”  To be clear, he was pro scholarship and warned of the danger of a preacher going too far down his own path.  But his challenge was to FIRST ask the same sorts of questions of the text that the person in the pew would ask and to let that shape the message.  He was a PhD New Testament Scholar but he always came across as the fellow traveller on the journey of life.  He harnessed scholarship to serve every day people.

2) Preach in such a way to put the listener in a dynamic relationship with the text.  Dr Craddock was an early lone voice to shift preaching from proving a point to crafting an experience that gives room for the listener to draw his or her own conclusions.

3) 15 hours of prep, 30 minutes of resolution BAD.  To summarize Craddock: “why spend all that sermon preparation wrestling with the text, trying to figure out what it means, the implications, the challenges etc, only to resolve it for people in a 30 minute sermon?  Instead, structure your sermon to provide a framework for your people to wrestle 15 hours this next week.”  I wonder if this is why Craddock was so famous for crash landing his sermons.  In “What Shall I Do With The Gift” Craddock preaches for 26 minutes and doesn’t make his main point until the last 26 seconds of the message.  25 minutes in and Craddock is still cruising at 30,000 feet, when suddenly, within 30 seconds he’s done, sitting back down on the front row in silence while the rest of us are thinking, “wait, its not finished yet.” I have listened to that message over a dozen times and each time I ponder it for hours.

4) Effective preaching is as much about the audience as the text.  This isn’t pandering, it is connecting.  Craddock shaped preaching away from how it is spoken to how it is heard.  A subtle difference?  Craddock says it is all the difference and that is why people from all walks of life love Craddock’s sermons.  They fit as comfortably in Yale’s Chapel as they do in Appalachian Georgia.

5) A well told story never needs to be explained.   Craddock always advocated for the intelligence of the listeners, but too many preachers are heavy handed when connecting the dots.  When you attend a play, the director doesn’t come out at intermission and say, “Aren’t we all like the lead character, Daryl?”  Let the story do its own work and trust the intelligence of the listener to connect.  They will connect much deeper when you don’t try to hold their hand.

6) Not just “what does the text say” but “what does this author want us to notice?”  Before Craddock, I’d never thought much about the difference between Matthew and Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, but since Craddock, I always ask this vital question and it  brings the text more alive.

7) Find your voice and preach your way.  Craddock was famously short with a high pitched voice.  He came to influence in an era of 6′ tall baritone and bass preachers who’s very posture commanded authority.  Craddock said, “It would be ridiculous of me to try to barge in the front door of the heart.  With my size and voice, I have to climb in through the back window.”  He was a master at understanding the natural human resistance to a message.  We’d come in to listen to a sermon with the front door of our heart dead bolted shut.  Craddock would be rummaging around in our hearts before we ever realized we’d forgotten to lock the back window. He used what God had given him to a stunning advantage.

8) Finally, only preach what matters.  Late in life after a generation of teaching Homiletics and New Testament, Craddock retired and found himself planting a church in Georgia.  His pledge to them was, “I will only ever preach on things that matter.”  Too many sermons are too small for the gospel. They don’t match the burdens, wonder, excitement and fears of the listeners. Craddock says, “It is as if the preacher walked the whole way around God and took pictures.”  They have shrunk the grand mystery and power of the gospel down to their explanation.  They simply don’t matter.  Preach what matters to people and you’ll get a front row seat to spiritual hunger and growth in your people.

Thank you Dr Craddock for your profound influence on my life and the lives of tens of thousands of others.  I sit in my chair, about to continue sermon preparation for this week.  Your commentary on Luke is open and ready.

You have no equal in the pulpit, but I’m forever grateful for your influence.

Ask Anything: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

Another great guest post by Bev Green

If God can do anything why did Jesus have to die?. Couldn’t God have decided a different way for humans to be saved or to conquer death?

The simple answer for this question is yes, he could have and that just seems wrong to us sometimes. We as humans look at our relationship with our kids and know that would be an unbelievable decision to have to make. We would sacrifice ourselves in a minute but not our children that we have spent every ounce of energy to protect.

At the core of this question we have to be careful that we aren’t questioning God’s perfect plan for salvation. He chose this path because of how we feel about our kids. He wants us to truly understand the magnitude of the sacrifice and there is nothing we love more than our kids.

From the beginning scripture has been clear that there was only one way to get to heaven and that is through the shed blood of Christ, the perfect lamb that takes away the sins of the world.  We look at that and it doesn’t make any sense to us but God is so good to put things into a frame of reference.

We know and understand that when man was cast out of the garden that payment for sin required a blood sacrifice.  Early on a spotless lamb of bird was enough but ultimately God had a bigger plan, his Son.  He came to this world perfect, sinless and blameless, the only man who was born and lived his whole life that way.

God knew that while we would understand the pain and magnitude of sacrifice through a lamb or bird on a certain level, we would so much more understand the role and importance of sacrifice to pay for our sins by Jesus having to pay the price.  Essentially the payment for sins was for our benefit but so was what that payment had to be.

Ask Anything: If Satan has already lost…

This guys blog was written by Bev Green, our Local Outreach Co Ordinator.  Bev has been with Discovery since the portable days, has served in most of our areas and currently serves under resourced populations in Broomfield on behalf of Discovery.  She has a great passion to see women grow in their faith and pours much of her time into Broomfield‘s multi church ministry to Single Mothers.  She’s a great thinker, speaker and writer.

Q: If Satan has already lost, why does he still torment us?

A: It is likely that Satan was the highest of all the angels in heaven.  He was the most beautiful of all creation but he wasn’t content in his position.  He desired to be God.  As a result Satan was cast out of heaven by God.

Satan has been called the ruler of this world. When he was cast out of heaven God gave him dominion over the world. Since we are living our lives here on the earth we are living in the midst of his kingdom. This does not mean that he has any control over the life of the Christian. He is the father of lies and as a result he uses his powers of deception to create issues and problems in the lives of each one of us. I believe that the biggest reason that Satan torments us is because he knows he has ultimately lost.

He was created to have fellowship with God but because pride got in his way that fellowship/relationship was severed. God then created man, not only for relationship but in His image.  One can only imagine how that made Satan feel. I believe that Satan sees tormenting man, created in God’s image, as his way of taking revenge for being cast out of heaven. I used to believe that Satan did it just because he could. I think it makes a great deal of sense that his real goal is to cause harm to the thing that God lives most, us.

Ask Anything: What About ISIS?

This thoughtful blog response is written by Scott and Heidi Henkel.  You’ll see in their article below that they are ideally suited to address this challenging question.  Also, who else is able to reach out to their Afghan translator and friends as part of their research?  Finally, you’ll note that they first list the questions submitted before tackling their answer.  I greatly appreciate Scott and Heidi’s thoughts here.  

Questions:  

1.Should Christians protect other Christians in Iraq from Islamic radicals like ISIS?

2. With the recent slayings of innocent people with ISIS as the example:  What would/does the Bible actually say or delegate as our role and appropriate response to these more evil than normal people committing these heinous acts?  For example people involved in sex trafficking  and abusing other helpless people.  What should we, as able bodied Christian men, what action should we take?  What action is our duty to do?

3. Why don’t our Christian churches throughout the US address the grievous injustices that are being perpetrated against Christians around the world?  Persecution, violence, beheadings are becoming more prevalent (for that matter, Jews are being attacked relentlessly too.)  I believe it is of vital importance for US church congregations to be informed about this and led by church leaders in helping & supporting the persecuted.  Why do churches bury their heads in the sand?  I am not suggesting churches need to get political.  I am saying churches need to be our cultural.

Answer:  

Scott’s Rant Starts Here:  I combined these questions into:  What should be the Christian response to terrorism?

I had coffee with a close friend of mine not too long ago and as we discussed a multitude of topics the question came up about my thoughts and more importantly my feelings about Islamic State (ISIS).  In the interest of full disclosure I spent 362 days in Zabul, Afghanistan as an Army officer.  In that time I led hundreds of ground operations to every corner of that province and by pure statistical probability I’ve experienced evil up front, first hand.  So the question of what does a Christian veteran of war think about evil acts committed “in the name of God” makes sense.

I’ll give you my “non-Churchy” answer first; I was pissed off.  My most natural tendency is to react as a fighter to violence so hearing of the horrors in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other parts of the globe make me angry.  My suspicion is that’s how most people feel when they are exposed to violence. Compounding those feelings are no doubt feelings of helplessness as the violence is happening half way around the world and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.  While those are perfectly human reactions that’s also the problem.  Turns out Jesus is teaching us to react in a wholly different manner.  After searching scripture and talking with my Afghan brothers I’ve arrived at a few points.

1.      Pray for Islamic State: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” – Matthew 5:43-48:  I know, I know, this is the “Churchy” answer you were probably waiting for when you first read this blog.  And while rest assured, I want to punch myself in the face for writing it scripture truly does back it up. A quick scan finds the word “salvation” comes up 114 times in the Bible.  If word count matters this is a pretty important thing to God.  So our call is to believe in the power of God’s salvation. Saul was a terrorist before becoming Paul.  Through our concerted prayer there is hope.  We have to trust in God’s power.

2.      Overcome the community with good: Jesus makes it pretty clear by calling us out, “To love the Lord with all our heart, mind, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves.”  That’s the key idea.  The Church is not and should never be looked to for military or political validation.  Jesus didn’t suffer and die for an idea.  He gift on the cross was so each of us could form a relationship with The Father.  I believe if we truly commit to this commandment the world will become a better place and groups like Islamic State will cease to exist.

3.      Islam is not the problem“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”: Romans 12:21  After doing some research and talking with my interpreters from Afghanistan I have concluded that Islamic State are misled sociopaths using pieces of the Koran (largely out of context) to validate their activity.  Man giving wholly into sin is the problem.  The key takeaway from my research and conversations is the any violence endorsed through the Koran is for defensive purposes.  Similar to how we view defending our homes or families from people who would do them harm.  What is happening overseas is an abomination.

4.      Pray and do:  We see violence on the screen and then see the actors on the red carpet for awards shows without a blemish, all smiles.  Hollywood makes war look temporary.  The truth is war is a lifetime.  As Christians we can pray for current and past soldiers, sailors, and marines and the families they touch. We can volunteer and help fund programs designed to intercede in the mind boggling high suicide and homeless rates of veterans.  We can pray for our leaders to seek God’s counsel in their daily decisions.  We can support organizations like Samaritan’s Purse that is shipping aid directly to the people affected by the violence.

This isn’t a comprehensive essay on what our response should be to the Islamic State threat.  Just a few thoughts from someone who is struggling with the same mix of emotions most feel when they hear of the barbarism overseas.  So to me the bottom line response to the question. “What can we do as Christians?”  Be in prayer.  Be bold in acts of good.

To add, from his wife, Heidi Henkel-

  1. Some history- As a veteran’s wife, I still did not fully understand ISIS and how they came to be. They’re so violent that not even Al Queda would be associated with them and I wanted to dive in more to fully understand them. Here’s an easy look into the ISIS group so you can have some background and understanding about where they started and how they are moving. The link is often updated and well put together.

17 Things You Need to Know about ISIS and IRAQ

  1. Visit the question- Is it really US vs. THEM? The more violent ISIS (and other evil) becomes, the more Christianity’s truth is revealed. We have to be very cognizant of how we, as Christians, keep to our truth and, if we are only getting angry at the injustice caused to Christians, we have to revisit how Christ would like us to respond. Christians aren’t the only ones in jeopardy as it seems they are simply using the Koran to bully the minorities, no matter who they might be. They instigate crimes against all of humanity, including their own. So, we must align ourselves in the teachings of Jesus and take part in His truth that takes non-Christian lives in account because they are His children as well…and yes, that includes ISIS.
  1. Pray for them and for us: When we pray, we ought to pray for our own response, in particular, if it’s causing anxiety or depression by getting sucked into the news on a saturated level. Honestly, it’s taken me weeks to respond to this question because the research drained this empathetic soul and I had to keep myself in check. I was balling my eyes out when they spoke of their own children as young as 8 and teaching them daily violence, but if we are caught up in the Daily News vs. the Eternal News, we must realign with what is good and get consumed by it. That’s our best fight we can give and it’s more relevant than we think.
  1. Islam not the problem (we repeat)- In as much as we seem helpless, there is power in prayer and fighting the good fight as mentioned above in Scott’s statements with those who are providing help and aid on the ground. (That also made me cry, only tears of joy!)  I also want to reiterate that Islam is not the problem, evil is. If left alone on an island, it would consume itself. As humans however, we have traces of it left behind in our hearts, leading us the question the peace we strive to share with our families, neighbors, and strangers. In our world, largely led by fear, the sensational always trumps the important and what’s important is peace.

Ask Anything: What is Up with the Nephilim?

The Bible mentions the Nephilim twice:

Gen. 6:4 The Nephilima were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

Num. 13:33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anakb come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

The bottom line is we’re not sure who the Nephilim are.  Some conjecture that they are some sort of super human race, based on the phrase, “sons of God went to daughters of humans” but most likely, they were an unusually tall regional population.

Rather than rehash the discussion, I’d refer you to this excellent site that covers the 3 most popular understandings of this passage.  Click here.

Ask Anything: Why Did Paul Cut His Hair

Acts 18:18 tells us:

Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sistersa and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreaed because of a vow he had taken.

So he cut his hair because of a vow.  What kind of vow?  The Bible doesn’t say, but we can reasonably presume it was a vow to God.  Paul also refers to a vow that his travel companions made in Acts 21:23 and it is in context of their koshersness, so to speak.

So what is the vow and why did Paul make it?  We don’t know, the Bible doesn’t say and so any thought is conjecture.  Based on conjecture then:

— perhaps a Nazarite Vow which involves growing your hair out

— More likely a personal spiritual vow akin to fasting.

— And course, Acts 18 may simply be the first ever reference to “No Shave November!”

But jokes aside, it appears that the vow had a jewish root and partially showed jewish people of Paul’s orthodoxy, opening them up to his conversation about Jesus as Messiah.