Category Archives: Church Life

3 Errors to Avoid with Missional Life Transformation Groups

This is part of a series of posts on what a missional community is – check out the others and let me know if you have any thoughts or questions.

In case you were wondering, I was indeed trying to see how many Christian buzz words can fit in one title with this post.

As we talk about how Life Transformation Groups can be used for mission, it’s important to once again question how we view mission. As we talk about mission, we are mostly speaking of helping the entire individual conform to the life of Jesus Christ spiritually, physically, socially, and psychologically. Mission doesn’t just happen in one setting or in one meeting but throughout all of life.

When we grasp that, we see every arena as an opportunity to know God more and extend the gospel of Jesus Christ to others. This includes the joy from hanging out (Christianese translation: fellowship) with one another, enjoying a meal (Christianese: breaking bread), and sharing about your faith impacting your life (Christianese: outreach).

Most people think of Life Transformation Groups as a holiness endeavor for Christians, but seeing it as part of the Christian and non-Christian’s process of being more like Jesus expands our views and aims. We are ultimately creating space for anyone to explore God, see how He affects our lives, and actively pursue this change.

Jesus’ Life Transformation Group

When I look at Jesus’ disciples who followed Him for 3 years, Jesus was constantly on mission to them and with them. He was over-explaining his sermons, reminding them again of things they had forgotten, and inviting people who didn’t truly believe in Him to be near Him. He enjoyed time with them, laughed with them, mourned with them, spoke hard truths in very challenging ways, prayed with them, and taught them truth.

I want Jesus to lead my Life Transformation Group (and Community Group and church, ok, all of life). He’s the perfect leader.

His life is an example for us, but also the very thing that gives us and empowers our salvation. We can trust God like He did and be concerned with others knowing God even as we try to get to know God more ourselves.

We have to get this mentality before we ever try to be missional in Life Transformation Groups.

3 Errors to Avoid & The Way Forward for Missional LTGs

We will commit errors on the mission of God, but there are a few errors we must avoid in Life Transformation Groups for them to be a space where someone exploring Christ will want to be there.

1)     Don’t Act Holier Than Thou

The aim is not showing off our morality and confronting others lack. The aim is to acknowledge that we don’t match up to Jesus and that makes Jesus look awesome. Confessing your faults, errors, and sins is essential to making a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The Way Forward: Show that Jesus is Awesome for You.

Share how you struggle, where the Bible confronts your lack of faith and ways you want to change. Show that Jesus is the way forward as the only One who was perfect.

2)     Don’t Give The Answers

The learning is in the struggle. Let someone explore what the scriptures say about God without you giving them all the answers. They must learn to be a disciple of Jesus, not dependent on you.

The Way Forward: Ask Questions, Listen, and Fill in the Blanks

Most people will begin to explore their own beliefs and come to some conclusions. You become the facilitator of their exploration of God. Listen and remember your own journey in exploring faith. As necessary, fill in the blanks with other verses and thoughts. At this point, you’ve affirmed the value of their questions, thoughts, and you now provide them more context to understand.

3)     Don’t Ignore the Tension

At some point in your Life Transformation Group, you will come to a belief for followers of Christ that confronts the beliefs of someone who doesn’t follow Jesus. In the awkwardness, we all want to run and hide, downplay the tension, but you can’t ignore that Jesus confronts people. We also can’t ignore that he confronts the religious and irreligious, not just one or the other.

The Way Forward: Compassionately Align with Jesus

We must side with Jesus and take His positions on what is true, but we must also adopt His posture of compassion and understanding. Jesus engaged the tension humbly, but also confidently aligning with God in popular shared ideas and even in the unpopular. We must do the same.

As I’ve seen people be missional with their Life Transformation Groups, their vulnerability, honesty, and passion for Jesus is what provides the best opportunity for people to know God in Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ frees us to acknowledge that we all have flaws, are imperfect, and that our sin caused Jesus’ death. But we also see that Jesus forgives us, invites us by faith to have a relationship with God, and that we are no longer defined by our flaws or sins.

This gospel is our freedom and we have the opportunity to invite everyone to know this freedom.

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Wisdom from Weakness

Weakness is not touted in our culture. We are taught early on of the importance of strength, performance, and reputation in our society. We learn to hide any and all measure of weakness because it will affect our ability to seem strong. The weight of this can be crushing and your weakness, whether it’s personal or professional, becomes the thing you fear the most.

If it is exposed, what will people think of me? How will I ever be respected? So we hide. We fear failure because of its destructive nature to our psyche and our reputation. We also watch as the strengths of other people are magnified and exalted so we long for similar strengths or for our strengths to be magnified.

No doubt our strengths are important and we need to identify where we excel as part of living a fulfilling life, but we should never fear or avoid our weaknesses.

Strengths are helpful, Weakness can be powerful

I’ve read plenty of books written by people touting their strengths and accomplishments, I’ve been to plenty of conferences where the best of the best share about their methods and how you can do it (usually for a fee to the speaker or buying their book).

I’ve learned much from people’s strengths, but I’ve been deeply impacted when people share about their weaknesses. There is something powerful when someone humbly shares about the wisdom and lessons they have learned from “failing” in certain areas or “failing” to live up to expectations, whether it’s personal expectations or other’s.

It seems to be in this humility of someone else that we are invited to be weak ourselves, to be set free from the façade of strength that we feel we must put up to be accepted and promoted. It is powerful in its countercultural nature.

Wisdom from Weakness

On top of its invitational nature, there is so much wisdom with those who walk through their weakness with humility and transparency. Paul in his 2nd letter to the Corinthian church is very transparent about his weakness, longing for it to be removed (don’t we all want that), but then recognizing that God’s power is perfected in our weakness.

I’ve learned a ton from people that have opened up about their weaknesses in financial management, parenting, leadership, teaching, evangelism, and friendship. Likely, more than I have learned from the experts and I’ve seen people thankful from learning from my weaknesses even though I find in myself a wishing for people learning from my strengths.

Paul even goes so far as to say he would boast in his weakness. This makes me and many of us cringe, wondering what would happen if we would so boldly proclaim our weakness. How did Paul get to this place?

Strength in Identity, not in Activity

Paul cared more about Jesus and his relationship with God than he did about his own reputation. He pleaded with God for his weakness to be taken away, but seeing God’s work in it, he became all the more concerned that people who care more about Jesus than they did about associating with Paul.

In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, the invitation of faith is to admit weakness and need to God first. Faith sets us free from reputation management, self-promotion, and fear. It’s a freedom to forget about yourself and be most concerned with the benefits of others. My failures, past and present, my weaknesses and mistakes become a way to serve and bless others, giving them freedom to be weak and wisdom to walk through life.

It’s ok to be weak, to fail, and to make mistakes. We don’t have to hide them, but in Christ we are able to acknowledge them. No more shame in weakness or failure, and no pride in success or strength. Freedom.

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Life Comes Before Blogging

It’s been 6 months since I’ve blogged and most of that has been the result of life happening. It’s been a really busy season and I’ve missed blogging, but I am also thankful to have a 6 month break from it.

Blogging didn’t used to be a thing. Not for me, not for anyone, but it has become a somewhat healthy and sometimes unhealthy outlet for people’s thoughts and opinions. If you’re not careful and blogging becomes your thing, writing a blog can be similar to Instagram, presenting a snap shot as reality when life doesn’t match it. It’s not always the case, but it’s a perpetual temptation. In truth, most of our life is lived by presenting images and snap shots as the whole. Whether at work, at church or elsewhere we can present a picture that doesn’t match the reality of our hearts and real lives. Not everyone gets the grainy Instagram video version, but I do think life would be better if they did.

As life has gotten busy for me and I’ve had many things to process in the midst of it, blogging has taken a back seat. The interesting thing is that my January blogs were all about being present with my marriage, my kids, and my role as a pastor and friend at our church. As excess time became more limited and energy was spent to be present elsewhere, I had to drop something and that was blogging. If I had continued blogging, I would have been expressing incomplete, unprocessed, and unrealistic ideas and thoughts because life needed to happen and change me in the process.

I may not blog as consistently as I would like going forward, but here’s an update of all that has gone on this year as I attempt to re-enter the blogging world.

Transitions, Transitions, Transitions

In June, our church’s founding pastor, JR Vassar, announced his resignation and his move for all the right reasons. He loves his family and ministry and wants both of them to flourish. It’s a great reminder to put first things first.

That means we are and have been in a season of transition as a church. The beauty of it is that we are not changing directions as a church, but drilling deeper in the vision God has been cultivating for many years. We are moving even further into being a network of neighborhood congregations worshipping Jesus, engaging in gospel-centered communities on mission to love our neighbors and extend God’s grace to them, and plant new congregations on the back of these communities to meet the needs of our city.

In a few weeks we will launch Apostles Brooklyn as the fruit of God multiplying communities and providing local leaders to communicate truth and model the love of Christ to others. I’m excited about the future of Apostles Church, praying that continues to grow us a community that loves Jesus and loves others well.

It has been busy though during the transition, as I’ve taken on more responsibilities. I’ve preached more consistently than ever and I’ve actually enjoyed it more than ever before as well. I’ve had the privilege to be more involved with the talented members of our staff and working to grow together as a healthy team. But the best part of these last 6 months job-wise has been interacting with the amazing people of Apostles Church more. I’m amazed at God’s gift to our church in the people and community that He has brought and formed here. They are a huge gift.

I started a Coaching Business

What is coaching? Coaching is coming alongside people and leaders as they navigate through decisions, plans, and vision for their life and work. The aim is to empower people through coaching to achieve their goals and their growth.

It is something I’ve been doing informally for a while, but have recently made it more formal for a few reasons. I want to see God’s people and Jesus’ church flourish wherever it is and by God’s grace I have been able to help pastors, leaders, and Christians explore how that will look in their context. I love being a resource to our church and other churches to empower the spread of God’s love and mercy through Jesus.

This also provides an opportunity to bless my family and church by earning some additional income outside the church. Our church takes care of us well, but I also don’t want to be a burden on them in an expensive city as my family grows up here.

My Wife and Kids are Awesome

Speaking of my family, I have awesome kids and an amazing wife. The last 6 months has been amazing to watch them grow up even more into their own unique personalities. Calvin tested into the Gifted & Talented Program (way to go Cal!) in the NYC public schools and will start Kindergarten this fall at Eli’s school while Eli starts 2nd grade. They are too old! Mya continues to be too cute and is growing into a beautiful and outgoing little girl. She has yet to meet a stranger.

Our summer has been amazing. We fell in love with upstate New York this July with two small vacations and took the train down to South Carolina to enjoy time with extended family. The city during the summer is a dream as well and we’ve almost enjoyed everything on our summer bucket list from the beach to the various water playgrounds, the public library and the parks. It’s been incredibly refreshing.

Life will always come before blogging for me, but I do enjoy this being an outlet of my processed thoughts on life, the church, missional communities, and family. We’ll see if I can find adequate time for it.

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2013 Resolutions: The Fourth of Four

Recently I read the book Dangerous Calling by Paul Tripp. He openly discusses the culture of the church that typically views the pastor as having it all together all the time and how this pressure can be challenging on pastors. While God has called qualified people to be pastors, they are still people, flawed and in need of a Savior. Their character, convictions, and competencies are those of a leader, but no leader is perfect and expectations must change.

My last resolution is to be a faithful shepherd, pastor of my church, but also to be a fellow brother in Christ with my church. The fourth of four resolutions is simply to be a friend and to be a friend in need. 4a & 4b if you will.

To be a friend & a friend in need

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a powerful thing, powerful to save anyone from a life bent away from God’s desires, transform anyone, and empower all who embrace it by faith to meet the needs of others. Throughout the scriptures, God speaks about blessing people with Himself in order that they would be a blessing for others.

Part of this reality is that I am have been given certain gifts and a certain role in the body of Christ, for me it is to be a pastor. This involves studying the word of God, praying, counseling people in the scriptures, dialoguing about Jesus and His gospel with anyone regardless of their beliefs or background, and cultivating communities that do the same. If you were to boil it down to one idea, it’s to be a true friend to anyone I meet, to love them with the love of Christ that they might know about a relationship with God.

But the gospel of Jesus Christ is also powerful enough for me to confront my weakness. This brings freedom to acknowledge that there are times when I am a friend in need and that God has provided people in my life, from all background or beliefs and especially in the church that share my beliefs to help me when I am in need.

The perception that the pastor has it all together all the time is an impossible expectation because no one does, except for Jesus. We are all in progress, constantly learning and growing, and the gospel of Jesus Christ brings freedom to walk in this reality. This allows me to sit down with a friend and be honest. I can let people know that there are times when I’m tired, times when I’m not as happy as I wish I was or had been last week and that I need their help to change. That there are times when I’m not fired up about reading the scriptures or talking about the Lord, but I don’t want to feel this way and many times it is the help of other people in our community, using their stories and their gifts that God provides a path toward change.

Use My Gifts and Benefit from the Gifts of Others

This also provides me perspective on how I’m gifted and to celebrate how others have been gifted. It takes the pressure off to always have the solution, to be able to say I don’t know, and to honor how God has uniquely gifted other people. God’s design was to gift all of God’s people to serve all of God’s creation.

When all gifts are celebrated, honored, and embraced by the church, the church truly begins to embody Jesus Christ who possesses and exercises all of the gifts perfectly. The church would like everyone they interact with to experience Jesus through them, but it’s only possible when individuals are introduced and invited to experience the entire community of Christ followers.

I hope this year involves helping people identify how they have been uniquely designed and gifted by God to serve others, to equip them and empower them to do so and to see those gifts be used to love others well.

These are my resolutions and I hope that I can look back at the end of the year having been fully present to enjoy my marriage, love my kids, and serve the city we live in by empowering and serving my church. Here’s to 2013.

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Soccernomics & Church: British & American Cultural Influence

(This is post 6 in a series of blog posts on how a book on soccer, Soccernomics, can teach us much about the American church. I took a couple of weeks off, but hope to finish the series soon.)

One of the most interesting chapters in Soccernomics focused on the difference between American football and British football (Americans call it soccer). Soccer has become the global sport, but American football remains America’s favorite sport with little influence throughout the world. This chapter forced me to reflect on the church as it seeks to influence the world for the good of the entire society. The approach of the church has largely mirrored the American approach to influence around the world, while it could follow and learn much from the British approach.

The spread of soccer as the global game also can be attributed to relational influence the British tend to use as the means for creating culture.  The church has often aimed for positional influence in the culture and often finds itself on the losing end. There is much to learn from the British approach. The authors began describing the different approach of the British and Americans in fighting wars and colonization by quoting John Gray, a professor at the London School of Economics.

“The United States has rarely even aspired to vast cultural reach. The country fought wars, but mostly tried to avoid creating long-term colonies… In Vietnam and Iraq, for instance, the aim was to “go in, do the job, get out.” Unlike Britons, Americans generally didn’t want to be in the business of empire.” Soccernomics p. 160

The authors went on to describe the British & American Army’s use of different tactics in working with local officials in the Green Zone during the Iraq war. These tactics reveal the different approaches to influence.

“We know an American lawyer who spent a few months working for the British government during the occupation of Iraq. In the “Green Zone” in Baghdad he noticed a difference between the way Brits and Americans operated. When American officials wanted an Iraqi to do something, the lawyer said, they would generally call the person into the Green Zone and if necessary “bawl him out.” Sometimes this strategy worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But the Americans summoned Iraqis only when something needed fixing. British officials worked differently, said the lawyer. They were always inviting the Iraqis in, for parties or just for chats, even when there was nothing in particular to discuss. This was exactly how the British had operated both in their colonies and in their “informal empire”: they made long-term contacts.” Soccernomics p. 161-162 Emphasis mine

Positional vs. Relational Influence

The contrast is in using positional influence vs. relational influence in culture shaping. The church is famous for culture wars, seeking positional influence to primarily legalize morality. It rarely works, when it does it alienates people and places a judgmental label on the majority of the church. It seems to be an inherited trait from a time where the church played a vital, and in many cases, helpful role in society. The church no longer finds itself in this position, she finds herself on the margins of society.

There has been a lot written about the culture wars and the majority written from my generation is tired of it. The next question is how to move forward. There continue to be faults in the response to culture wars and much seems to be a pendulum swinging in the opposite direction. Many seeking to have a voice in the culture compromise aspects of the Christian faith that have been held to since the beginning. In doing so, they sacrifice the benefits to society of Christianity they are trying to bring into mainstream culture. Still others dig their heels in and maintain the core tenets of Christianity, but adopt an us-against-the-world posture continuing in the war on culture despite poor results.

There’s another way forward for the church and there are great examples of people pursuing it. It seems to match the British approach to colonization and long-term influence.

Creating Culture that is Attractive

Before describing the Green Zone differences, the authors of Soccernomics discuss British colonization, specifically how sports and culture were shaped by the British for centuries in countries they no longer occupy.

“From about 1850 until the First World War, Britain was the sole economic superpower. As late as in 1914, Britons still owned about 42% of all the world’s foreign investment. The British expats who inhabited the informal empire represented the empire’s economic might. The men tended to work in the railways (like Charles Miller’s father in Brazil), or as businessmen (like the Charnock brothers, who set up Russia’ first soccer club for their mill employees outside Moscow), or as school-teachers (like Alexander Watson Hutton, the Scottish teacher who in the early 1880s introduced soccer in Argentina).

These people only had “soft power”: the wealth and prestige of the British gentleman. That was enough to spread their games. Men like Hutton taught foreigners to see sports as an upper-class and hence aspirational product. If you were a young man like Mandela who wanted to become a British gentleman, one of the things you did was play soccer… Soccer conquered the world so fast largely because the British gentleman was such an attractive ideal. A century later a new British archetype, the hooligan, in his own way probably added to the game’s glamour.” Soccernomics pgs. 159-160

The “attractive ideal” was so compelling that it created a long-lasting culture. The church has lacked in presenting an attractive ideal, but Jesus was very much the attractive ideal of his day. People traveled to find him, to be around him, to learn from him, and many to follow him.

The church today has a massive opportunity to create culture that aims to benefit society, enhance current cultural beauty, but also to redeem and heal the brokenness in our society. Only the church has the tenets, grace, and wisdom of God that shapes a culture for its full joy, concern for the collective over the individual, and sacrificial generosity of time, resources, and energy to long-suffer in caring for the poor, needy, impoverished, and orphan.

Now some may say, the British empire has lost its power, why should the church mirror it? Christianity was never about power or about creating a Christian political nation. It’s an informal empire that moves beyond boundaries to the entire world.

How Does the Church embody Jesus as the Attractive Ideal?

First, the church must shift its method of engagement with the culture. Similar to how the British army engaged in dialogue with the Iraqis, the church must engage in dialogue with the culture with and without an agenda. This type of engagement creates relationships and relationships are the context for influence and change.

Relational influence carries more weight, but the aim must be the relationship over the influence. Aiming for influence only is engaging as the American army, only when it’s time to fix something, but aiming for relationship allows for influence and cooperation to seek long-term benefits for all in a contextual manner.

Secondly, the church must begin creating good culture, not settling for a knock-off subculture. The Christian subculture has become a Christian ghetto walled off to the outside world, turning inward which leads to foolish battles. Creating culture is seeking to provide an alternative way in which society as a whole, not just those of similar beliefs, benefits.

The early church humbled the government in its care for the poor, sick, and those without a voice. The government would then ask them for assistance when interacting with this sector of society because their influence was about relationships and caring. The church must embody a holistic gospel that matches the lifestyle of Jesus and the actions of Jesus, returning to the consistent practice of church history.

When we do this, we create culture worth participating in and a great example of this can be found in artist known as Lecrae.

This month, Lecrae, a hip-hop artist who happens to be a Christian, released his latest CD Gravity. It currently sits at #3 on the top hip-hop albums two weeks after it was released and has been number 1 for the majority of these two weeks. It’s quality hip-hop/rap music and Time Magazine published a bio of him online and an interview in their latest print magazine in the culture section. The reason was that his music was really good while also contrasting the prevailing culture in hip-hop. It presented attractive ideals for culture and people responding by listening, praising it, and telling the world about it.

When the church creates a good culture, the world will listen. We follow the most attractive ideal in Jesus and when we live like Him in the world, our workplace, our neighborhood, and our city will benefit. They most likely won’t beg us to lead or give us power (remember that they did kill Jesus), but our aim is to bless others not ascend to earthly power.

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Soccernomics & Church: Lack of Innovation

(This is post 5 in a series of blog posts on how a book on soccer, Soccernomics, can teach us much about the American church.)

From hiring practices to game strategy, soccer clubs love to do what has always been done which leads to unprofitable and unsuccessful soccer. The church is also notorious for lacking innovation in methods and this lack of innovation would be foolish in a culture that is changing the way they interact, plan their lives and engage with the wider society.

Lack of innovation in soccer

Soccernomics highlights the glacial pace at which most soccer clubs embrace new ideas and innovation. Often the ideas do not come from within a soccer club, but from an outside observer. One example was the Taylor Report in 1990, which simply evaluated the benefit that teams would receive from investing in their stadiums. The outside report led many soccer clubs to consider this for the first time resulting in growth in crowds and popularity. It’s as if soccer clubs discovered the world was filled with consumers for the first time. The authors also highlight the often foolish, yet ingrained way “things have always been done” in soccer clubs.

The hiring practices for a new manager for soccer clubs is often based on perception of his star power. This aim leads to managerial hiring that is often quick, lacking a thorough interview process, not assessing qualifications, but looking for immediate availability and making a media splash. Then when he fails, the cycle repeats because it was not the process that failed, but the specific manager.

The soccer clubs are often so concerned with the immediate fan reaction that they make foolish decisions about players, thinking a big signing will generate fan interest immediately rather building for a long haul and we’ve already addressed the suspicion of outside ideas about soccer strategy.l

Lack of innovation in the church

The way it’s always been done is not only cherished in soccer clubs, but in the local church. It is often unquestioned and off limits for being challenged in most churches.

One thing is certain for churches, theology does not change. We are a modern expression of an ancient faith articulated extremely clearly and well in the scriptures. Culture would like much of it to change, but changing God’s words are impossible since they originate from the unchanging, eternal God. We embrace the fullness of God in Jesus letting His truths shape our life, ministry practices, and the mission to meet the needs of others with the message and mercy of Christ.

Theology doesn’t change, but methodology must be evaluated and this is where the glacial pace of embracing change is so easily seen. I’m no stranger to this myself, as I once hated the idea of changing of a method of small groups to missional communities. Sunday services, Mass, and gathering mid-week at the local church only are not enough. This has become clear from declining numbers that churches aren’t the most welcoming places for people who are far from God. If the mission of the church is to help people who are far from God grow near to God, why are we waiting for those far away to stumble into a church?

Away From Programs & On toward Mission

There are too many churches that are filled with programs. There’s a pre-school ministry on Sunday morning, another one (Awanas) on Monday night and a Mother’s Day Out program during the week so your child can overdose on church meanwhile the rest of the world takes their kids to the local playground. There’s a men’s ministry, women’s ministry, singles ministry, marrieds, retirees, pre-retirees, and the list goes on. For every affinity, the church has adopted the Field of Dreams “If we create a niche ministry, they will come.”

The church is meant to be a community on mission and over-programming a church leads to death of the mission for outsiders at the embrace of a mission for insiders. In churches that are under-programmed it can be difficult for people to feel involved because this mentality of over-activity at the church has become so ingrained over the last few decades.

The Widening Gap Between Cultural & Church Norms

I am not advocating for any kind of aim toward cultural relevance, I’m asking that we as the church evaluate whether we place unnecessary burdens and barriers towards encountering our culture to provide a complex dialogue about faith and life. Are the activities of the church normal to our society or have the methods become so abnormal that they are uncomfortable to those outside the church? Think about the ways churches gather as small groups or form for mission.

These small groups often meet in a local home, gathering in a circle to discuss the bible and the challenges of life. Where does the rest of the world gather? Local restaurants, pubs, playgrounds, school yards, PTA, and sports clubs to discuss how their worldview is shaping their experience of life. They might not describe it as their worldview, but their frustrations at home, work, or in relationships are because of their aims in life (i.e. worldview).

Looking at the life of Christ, it is easy to see one who is confident in God, freed to enter into every arena of life, risking reputation, to demonstrate the goodness, strength, and love of God to those far from God. Those who claim to represent Him are called to do the same. Our methods of church are not the silver bullet to seeing people come near to God, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God to see people be reconciled to relationship with God. But our methods can have a way of distracting from the gospel, of bottling the gospel, and hindering it from being demonstrated and declared.

Preaching to the Choir or those who aren’t there?

As this gets demonstrated in soccer clubs at matches where the team with foolish practices doesn’t do well on the pitch, Sundays demonstrate the culture of the church. Music, sermons, and whether a people are welcome demonstrate if we are preaching to the choir or preaching to those who aren’t there.

Are we simply gathering to comfort and enjoy our fellow Christians or are we hoping to bring a friend, neighbor, or co-worker? If we did would they hear preaching that is aimed at the long-time Christian or aimed to exalt Christ for Christian & non-Christian alike? Our Sunday gatherings should be a reflection of our community life outside Sundays. If neither reflect a desire to connect with the people of our culture to engage in a complex dialogue the way Christ did, our methods are failing our gospel.

Since the gospel of Jesus Christ never changes, we should be ready, willing, and quick to evaluate and embrace new ideas in methodology rather than write them off because they don’t fit into what we are used to. The mission of God was made to enter into any environment with grace, love, and power. Innovations in pursuing this mission without compromising the truths of the gospel are a gift from God rather than a diversion from Him.

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Soccernomics & Church: The Wisdom of Crowds

(This is post 4 in a series of blog posts on how a book on soccer, Soccernomics, can teach us much about the American church.)

Decisions can often be made in a vacuum in business, professional sports clubs, and churches. They lack information from a variety of sources that allows them to make appropriate decisions.

The authors of Soccernomics highlight the French soccer club Olympique Lyon, a club that in 1987 was unknown and unloved even by local residents, but now consistently finds itself competing in the Champions League as one of the sixteen best teams in Europe. The rise of this soccer club is largely attributed to their management over their coaching and Soccernomics highlights their use of the wisdom of crowds in decision-making when choosing their players, which is large part of the success of a soccer club.

“Lyon’s method for choosing players is so obvious and smart that it’s surprising that all clubs don’t use it. The theory of the “wisdom of crowds” says that if you aggregate many different opinions from a diverse group of people, you are more likely to arrive at the best opinion than if you just listen to one specialist…If you ask a diverse set of gamblers to bet on, say the outcome of a presidential election, the average of their bets is likely to be right. (Gambling markets have proved excellent predictors of all sorts of outcomes.) The wisdom of crowds fails when the components of the crowd are not diverse enough. This is often the case in American sports. But in European soccer, opinions tend to come from many different countries, and that helps ensure diversity…

At most clubs the manager is treated as a sort of divinely inspired monarch who gets to decide everything until he is sacked. Then the next manager clears out his predecessor’s signings at a discount.” Soccernomics p. 68-69

Lyon’s stability of leadership and method of incorporating a number of voices when selecting a player provides a consistent strategy that leads to success regardless of the manager.

The wisdom of crowds involves incorporating team leadership and cultivating a collective vision. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth the challenging process for guiding people toward a common mission.

Could the American church benefit from using the wisdom of crowds?

The church tends to lack this mentality and can often operate like an English soccer club, where one or two individuals are the divinely inspired voice to make each and every decision. The result for the church is often copying the latest trends, adopting someone else’s methods, and doing little in the way of applying biblical principles to the local community of God.

The Bible speaks to a different way that actually precedes the theory of the wisdom of crowds and speaks to the value of seeking counsel and plurality of leadership. Proverbs 15:22 says “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisors they succeed.” Proverbs 20:18 “Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war.”

In the New Testament, the church in Acts, the instructions of the authors of the Epistles, and the method of Jesus was a plurality of leadership. It was 12 apostles that Jesus sent out, it was different gifts that Paul pointed to in Ephesus as the equippers of the saints of the church, and elders were always to be appointed to lead in the church. The wisdom of crowds appears to be God’s idea and design.

While the American church agrees with this, it has adopted the CEO model of the business world pointing to the idea of ‘first among equals’ in leadership which tends to place final authority in the hands of one. 9Marks, an organization focused on building healthy churches, has some good thoughts on this here.

While there is inevitably a first among equals that has to make the final decision, does that authority come from the teachings of scripture or from the position? While there can be a specialist on a church staff in community, preaching, mercy & justice, counseling, and even vision, that does not negate the wisdom from other members of that staff and church. The specialist actually improves their ability to lead by listening to other voices, diminishing their pride in their own ideas to let the wisdom of crowds shape a better path going forward.

Sounds like a great idea, but how would this practically function in a church, a small group, or other ministry?

Develop a Collective Vision: Come with a Plan & Open Hands

I can speak to how I’m seeking to incorporate this into my leadership and in leading a small group. I’m a internal processor who likes to think through every aspect of a plan, develop a strategy and assume it’s bulletproof, but as I’ve come to find out (shockingly) my ideas are not always comprehensive, complete or perfect.

So as we enter into a new season of Community Groups, I’ve chosen to solicit feedback and create environments to utilize the wisdom of crowds. I still have a plan, a rather thorough one, but I come with open hands to listen to how the plan may shape out in a particular area or to see what holes I may be blind to.  This is kind of a first draft of a vision if you will. Effort is put into it, but I’m not holding it so tight that it cannot evolve to the ideas and wisdom of other invested members and leaders.

On our church staff, I’ve become known as someone that develops lengthy documents on ideas because I want the document to be the beginning of a brainstorming process. From there it’s been a hard, but good process to let my ideas be shaped, critiqued, and molded by the wisdom of others.

For our community groups, I’ve set up a community group roundtable dinners with different sets of leaders to allow them to ask questions, solicit feedback on what they hear when the vision is set before them, what areas are unclear and how they see this vision being accomplished in their local community. These are often refreshing times for me to listen to what is going on in each community, hear their questions and challenges to incorporate these ideas in shaping the final direction of the vision.

In our community groups, I encourage our leaders to think through how to incorporate our core values of Gospel Enjoyment, Intentional Community, & Prayerful Mission practically in their local neighborhood. After they think through this, I encourage them to discuss these ideas with their community, invite their feedback and form a collective vision and understanding going forward. This collective vision process creates ownership and momentum towards the entire community being on board to implement their vision and not the dictated vision from above.

Do we believe God has gifted every believer or is that just rhetoric?

For the American church, and likely the global church, we have to confront whether we truly believe what the scriptures say about the gospel of Jesus Christ. The New Testament clearly states that every person who has placed their faith in Christ and seeks to live their life following His ways is empowered by God the Holy Spirit with gifts that are used to build up the body of Christ. Every church leader cognitively believes this, but not every church leader practically believes this.

The professionalization of the ministry and mission of God tends to lead to a separation between church staff and church attenders. The staff has been given by God to spend their energy listening to God and forming a plan, but incorporating and empowering the members of the local church to shape, finalize and join the mission of God to love, care for, and speak into their neighborhood with the gospel.

The wisdom of crowds is not merely a sociological idea, it’s the design and gift of God as He gives the church a community to establish their collective vision for extending the good news of Christ to their city. When the church moves beyond rhetoric and begins listening to the empowered believers in their church, it will benefit greatly. It does not negate the value of church staff, but rather enhances their leadership.

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Soccernomics & Church: Relocation Assistance in Moving People to Mission

Soccer clubs in professional leagues often spend millions of dollars purchasing the rights to players from other teams. This results in the soccer player often moving countries and adapting to new cultures. While they spend millions to get them there, they spend nothing to help them adapt to their new environment.

The transfer market is largely a gamble and a rather costly one at that. The transfer market is different from the free agent market that we are used to in American sports where a player chooses where to take his talents. At the end of the season, soccer clubs make players available for transfer, letting the league know he’s available and then soccer clubs pay each other for the right to sign the player. Most teams are awful at the transfer market, but Arsenal seems to have figured it out (Go Gunners!).

Soccernomics highlights that Real Madrid paid $35 million to Arsenal for Nikolas Anelka in 1999. Chelsea paid $44 million to Olympique Mareseille for Didier Drogba in 2004, then a record. Both of these players are cited in Soccernomics as being transferred to a new team, a new city, a new culture and given no assistance in helping them or their families adjust. Drogba succeeded despite the challenges his family faced, but Anelka struggled tremendously and was quickly moved to Paris Saint-German.

Soccernomics highlights that these players and many others face significant challenges off the field when they relocate and that influences the way they play on the field. The authors argue that simply hiring one employee to assist players in relocating would increase the success of these players involved in the transfer market. This assistance would include helping them find housing instead of a hotel, learn about school options for their family, and generally being available to new players. Nike & Adidas seem to agree because they send assistants to players they sponsor when they transfer to insure their investment is a success.

The Church & Relocation Assistance

Teams that provide relocation assistance often see the greatest benefit from transfers. The issue for the church is that we live in a transient society as people move jobs, churches, and try to adapt in transition. The church not assisting people in transitioning from what they are familiar with to their new context and environment hinders the mission of God in churches. This is largely because of false assumption and lack of effort from the church.

False Assumptions

“What if you had a clean slate?”

At an Acts 29 Regional back in April, I was asked how I would lead a missional community if I had a clean slate, meaning starting from scratch with people. It’s a nice idea, but a terrible assumption.

No one comes in with a blank slate about church and God’s mission. Everyone has a preconceived or imagined idea unless they are hearing the gospel for the very first time and even then typically have a stereotype of a Christian. Some people come from a highly programmed church background and feel as if there is less for them to do in a missional community church leading them to feel less connected. Other people assume what they have come from is missional and do not assess what needs to change to join the mission of their new church.

While this is happening with current Christians, there are newcomers or those exploring Christianity who can gather an unclear picture of the overall mission and direction Christianity and the church. Insider jargon, lack of communication, and not expecting to come alongside people in transition is unhelpful. We have no choice but seek a better way to assimilate and care for new people in the church.

“They just need time in our church”

This is the assumption that learning must take place by osmosis in being around the community, but nothing can or be done to teach it. Ultimately, this provides the depth of understanding, but assumes too much of the culture of your organization’s ability to communicate without direct language.

People feel comfortable enough connecting on their own

Most churches have a connections environment and a connection card where people fill out their information. It connects with some people, but not everyone feels comfortable putting themselves out there and connecting with people. The church often puts it on the visitor to figure everything out rather than providing environments and encouraging people to help a new face understand how things go.

Here was Anelka’s situation on day 1 that can mirror a newcomer’s experience at church.

“On Day 1 the shy, awkward twenty year old reported to the club, and found there was nobody to show him around…As he said later, all Real had told him was, ‘Look after yourself.’”

This can sound similar to someone new to church that is never greeted by anyone or never invited to have a conversation beyond hello. The Sunday gathering has become too comfortable for Christians to focus on being taught and not enough on Christians seeking to welcome people into the loving family of God.

What can the church actually do?

While the answer for soccer clubs is simple, spend less than 1% of the transfer fee and hire a relocation specialist, the churches solutions are a little different.

Churches that I have seen do this well provide consistent early entry environments to give people specific information about the church and next steps for them to be engaged with the church’s mission. They also have some sort of membership process to allow for more depth than the early entry environment.

Mark Dever, the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in D.C., advocates for an intensive membership process including an interview to confront any assumed agreements so that long term agreement and understanding is established. While lengthy, it does go through the hard work of clearly articulating the unique culture and methods of mission of his church.

What about going a little further to help people with God’s mission? What if the transition for the entire family or outside influences of the cultural context affect the ability to be on mission? How can a church address those?

Relocation Assistance: Moving People to Mission

Manhattan is 60% transplants and is constantly seeing new people come to New York. There are unique benefits, challenges, and quirks to living in Manhattan, especially if you have children. The space is different, the school system is unique, and the pace of life is different. Until people move from transplants to residents and begin calling New York home, they will never care for the city like Jesus does.

While every city, town, or neighborhood doesn’t have the transient nature of New York, each has their own unique issues that both highlight the beauty of God and need the gospel of Jesus Christ to heal the brokenness.

What is the church provided contextual assistance, listening and learning from their neighborhood, and provided an overview of the area to newcomers?

A relocation assistance brochure or class on the city/neighborhood/town would communicate about the purpose of the church, the concern and the enjoyment of the neighborhood.  People need to be shown how they could generally live in an area if they are ever going to be on mission there. In addition the church can highlight the ways they are seeking to benefit and bless the neighborhood.

As much as we assimilate people into the church, we need to assimilate them out of the church and into the mission of God to care for their neighbors.

Is it about the church or about people?

In Soccernomics, a relocator was quoted as saying of the soccer clubs “I guess it comes down to the fact that they see the players as merchandise.” The players are merely pawns in their game to make more money and win more games. Despite this reality, soccer clubs don’t see their value increases through concern for the players through assisting them be better on the field.

The church has to confront that they may be more concerned with numbers inside their church than helping the people attending the church care for their neighbors. The church can become a place where people are merely cogs in their machine of religion, rather then equipping them to be bearers of God’s love on mission. God’s mission is about people and He’s chosen to use people to accomplish it.

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Missional Communities Should Have the Most Fun

My wife loves to tell the soccer ball story. We both remember being around Christian communities growing up and in college that were really intense. They were intense because of a view that Christianity was about being serious because there was a mission at hand and if we “wasted time” having fun, we would miss the mission of God.

One of the men we knew in these communities would pray for countless hours, read his bible as often as he could and sought to evangelize as much as possible. These are things that are honorable and can truly demonstrate God, but he also refused to have fun, there was too much to do and he was serious about making sure he avoided wasting time. This prevented him from engaging with people as friends, extending his life to them along with his doctrine.

On one of his prayer walks there was a soccer ball and he haphazardly kicked it and in kicking it he remembered how much fun and joy he had while playing soccer with friends. It was a liberating moment for him because he realized that joy in soccer was not incompatible with joy in God. He could participate in activities that weren’t designated as Christian and still enjoy God and extend his joy of God to others.

I watched many of these people grow weary from this duty based and serious-all-the-time focus on living the Christian life. By no means am I saying that Christians shouldn’t take God and His mission seriously, but a joyless, duty-based Christianity is not the picture of Jesus or the Christian faith the scriptures present.

In fact, it could be argued that missional communities should have the most fun. They should be communities that enjoy life to its fullest because they can enjoy life as it was intended to be enjoyed.

A Fun Community Displays Jesus Best

Jesus described salvation as the place of greatest joy. He used parables to describe how people would be willing to sell everything to experience the joy of knowing God. Jesus Himself feasted and attended parties while he was on earth, even blessing a wedding with his first miracle of turning water into wine.

A community full of Christ followers will truly display Christ when they have fun and enjoy one another. This is the freedom of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus saving us into a community that places value on each other not based on personality types, myers-briggs tests, wealth or lack thereof, or even life stage. Our value is based on the dignity and love bestowed on us from God that is proclaimed through the perfect life, forgiving death, and life-giving resurrection of Jesus.

A missional community should throw the best parties and be the ones that every party wants to invite. This is the freedom of the gospel, that it shapes Christ followers to be a blessing in every situation, as opposed to a killjoy. This is how Jesus is described and seen through the gospel accounts that follow his life. He breathes life into every community because He isn’t concerned with himself, but concerned with loving others.

A missional community shaped by the gospel should be the most hospitable because they have received hospitality from Jesus, being invited to His table of salvation and they hope to experience his great hospitality in heaven. Christ followers did not receive a pre-requisite list from Jesus in order to be accepted and we have no need to make a list of our own in welcoming people into our homes and to our celebrations. We don’t often think this way, but the grace of Christ in the gospel confronts our false ideas and invites us into a new way of life.

Why can’t Mission be Fun?

When we think of fun events in our lives, the nostalgia alone can bring us joy because the moments themselves were so joyful. If the measure of fun is joy, then mission itself can be fun. The word mission often brings to mind a duty and activity that requires focus, but to view the mission of God like this would be to highjack God’s desires.

Jesus healed, fed thousands, ate with many, and taught challenging and beautiful truths. All of these were the mission of God and you never get the sense that he was a joyless individual going through the motions.

A missional community can enjoy the recreations of this life and have fun in them, but they also find great joy on the everyday mission of God.

Making Your Missional Community Fun

A missional community that displays the joy of knowing God through enjoying creation, one another, and God’s mission happens over time. It’s part of the life cycle of a missional community and then becomes a regular rhythm of the community.

This is the result of finding joy in God first, seeing gospel enjoyment become rooted in the community frees them from depending on joy in one another. A missional community can cultivate a joyful community by directing most of the attention finding joy in God.

Beyond that, as much as we’d like a missional community to be fun organically, there must be an intention to display the joy of God through planned and unplanned meals, recreation, and random get togethers. A leader of a missional community can create this environment by initiating this culture through inviting people into their life and pursuing others in the community.

Over time there will be people in the community that stand out as a core committed to building the relationships of the community through social events. The leader of the missional community can empower these people while also directing the community towards extending the gospel outside of one another in order prevent become inward focused.

A kingdom demonstrated through joy

Jesus often described His people as a new kingdom not marked by borders, but by lifestyle. When God’s people form a missional community that displays Jesus through enjoying God’s creation and recreation while also participating in God’s mission, we display the kingdom of the most joyful King. This is also the greatest invitation into our joyful salvation, to experience the community set free by Jesus to enjoy life as God intended.

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The Class of ’08

What every incoming freshman at Texas A&M doesn’t realize is that they, along with their entire freshman class, have been prayed for during the entire year before they come to College Station.

In 2003-2004, I was the director of Impact, a retreat for incoming freshman aimed at connecting them to Christian community and God’s mission at Texas A&M. Every Monday night that year, from September 2003 to August 2004 when we had the retreat, hundreds of counselors took a little over an hour to pray for these future freshman. They would be known as the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Class of ’08 (their graduating year).

We prayed for what they were experiencing their senior year in high school and we prayed for them to be used by God in extending the gracious message of Jesus Christ to the world. This time taught me more about prayer that I can remember, and it prepared us to care for and love these freshmen before we ever met them.

An entire year spent preparing logistically and spiritually for two 4-day retreats. In August that year, 550 freshmen participated in Impact. I was the director that year so I had very little actual interaction with these freshman and in the span of a week, everything I had been praying for (or so I thought) was finished.

I was left wondering about the true value of my prayers and effort, knowing cognitively that God answers prayers how and when He wishes, but wanting desperately to see the immediate tangible results of my planning and especially my prayer. I assume that I wanted proof that prayer works.

Fast Forward 8 Years

A little over a month ago, a good friend of mine was married here in New York. All of his family and friends descended upon the city and I was able to interact with many of them. Many of them attended Texas A&M, loved God, and continue to invest in God’s church and God’s mission.

There was one point where we were discussing A&M and what class everyone was when I discovered that many of these were members of the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Class of ’08. As they recounted their days at A&M in ministering to one another and their friends on campus, along with the days since spent wanting to see God do great things in their lives and through their lives, I was struck by the goodness of God.

Here I was, 8 years after Impact, seeing people that I had spent an entire year praying for. Did what they were sharing about their Christian lives prove that God had specifically heard my prayers? I don’t know, but in that moment I was so encouraged about prayer and the goodness of God. In the month since, it has led me to be reminded of 4 simple truths about prayer that I want share.

1)   Prayer can be too focused on the Immediate

When we think of prayer, too often we are concerned with the immediate needs and wanting immediate responses. Our view is so finite that we lack trust in the infinite God.

As I reflect on that year of prayer for the class of ’08, I remember praying and hearing prayers that transcended the immediate and focused on shaping the future lives of people. It encourages me as a leader in the church, but also as a Christian in general.

Even when I don’t see the immediate result, as if prayer gets placed in a microwave, it doesn’t mean it will not have a long-lasting affect.

2)   Persevering in Prayer is Hard but Worth It

I wish I could say that I continued every Monday night praying for the class of ’08, but I moved on. I’m challenged as I consider who I am persevering in prayer for on a regular basis, seeking great things for people I love that I might not see the results of those prayers.

Jesus speaks of the persistent widow in Luke chapter 18 who consistently asked for her desire from a judge who did not like her, but granted her request simply because of her persistence. It’s a parable to encourage Christ followers to not lose heart because we can ask persistently of a God who loves us and wants to see our prayers answered.

The only way we will persevere in prayer for long-lasting affects is by believing right things about God.

3)   Prayer is to the One who is Powerful

Why do we pray? We pray because we acknowledge that we can’t accomplish the things we long to see. It is recognizing that there is a God who is powerful and good that we can ask to accomplish things we will never accomplish in our finite power.

The counter to this is that we don’t pray because we believe more in the power of our efforts. That somehow, in some way, we can accomplish more than an all-powerful God.

We can be confident in our prayers not because we ask for the right things or say it really eloquently, but because the One we pray to is the most powerful God who created the entire universe.

4)   Prayer Changes the one Praying

Lastly, I want to share that prayer changes the one who prays. God is powerful and answers the cries of His people, but our prayers do not change His character, but it impacts our character. How does it work that way? I don’t know, but I recognize in the scriptures and in my life, that prayer moves me to a love for others that I would not normally have.

Spending an entire year praying for people I’ve never met made me excited to meet those freshmen. It made me excited to run into members of the class of ’08 so many years later and even today, I find myself more concerned and seeking to care for those I pray for most often.

It may simply be that I am considering these people more, or that I am becoming the answers to my own prayer, but whatever it may be, prayer changes me when I pray. It’s a result of interacting with the One who is far greater and more majestic than I.

Instead of finding myself anxious to see change, I have been encouraged to bring my requests to God asking Him to do more than I can imagine myself. I continue to be thankful for the class of ’08, they have unintentionally taught me more about prayer than I will ever know.

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