Thursday, December 1, 2011

User Agreement

   Epiphany. Our English word is made up of a preposition (upon) and an infinitive (to appear) and is used of a “flash of insight”. While I wrote previously about the relationship between inspiration and perspiration, sometimes this insight occurs when we are sitting still and simply watching and listening.
   It was in such a context that my recent ones occurred. I must confess: I like being the outsider, the observer, the critic without a dog in the fight. It gives me a definite advantage of being emotionally insulated from otherwise uncomfortable issues and consequently having a vantage point ideal for an epiphany. But a certain degree of knowledge and experience in a given discipline provides the fertile soil from which insight will occur.
   There we sat in a circle, a group of men ranging in age from 30 something to 60 something with an assignment of assessing the first plenary session. The questions were quite simple: What had we heard and what did it mean? Everyone there was currently engaged in ministry at some level serving in either the northeast US, Canada or Alaska. I was the only pastor whose income is derived entirely from my church. They, on the other hand, were denominational employees, held accountable to a system for their support. The denomination had declared a new emphasis on church planting with an elevated requirement on the existing employees. No Grandfathering was considered.
   It was in this context that the complaining began. It struck me as odd. Here were men who, no doubt, were committed to the kingdom, loved the Lord and wanted to share the gospel, yet they were getting seriously worked up over a new set of expectations that fell well withing the framework of their spiritual commitments. Such contradictions stimulate my mental juices. Then, it happened. I got it! Eureka! The epiphany of that moment not only explained what was happening then, but what happens in marriages, businesses and churches and is at the heart of the dynamics of change.
   It’s been reported that the lie most frequently expressed in America is that associated with the use of computers. Before we can access the benefits of a new website or software there appears that annoying “User Agreement”. You know how it works. A page appears with a checkbox at the end which says something like, “I have read this and agree to comply”. We have to check the box before we can proceed. I am guilty along with millions of Americans of seeing the page, checking the box, then getting on with the program without reading the contents. I lie and so do most of you. I have just “signed off” on the agreement because it costs me nothing to do so. It is the difference between “signing off” and “signing on”. Were those men in that circle Grandfathered in, they would have been glad to sign off on all of the change because it would cost them nothing. Isn’t discipleship, spiritual leadership and church planting about knowing the cost, counting the cost and “signing on” to paying the cost?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Spiritual Perspiration

  I confess, I love watching “House”. I know that she will deny it but, my wife Sarah is who introduced me to it. I’m a real hard sell on new programming, so she got me past my normal firewall. I honestly believe that she liked it then because the main character, Gregory House, MD, reminded her of me. I also think that she doesn’t like it now because the main character, Gregory House, MD, reminds her of me. I’m not sure whether to be flattered or offended. What does that possibly have to do with you, me, us, this blog? There is always that moment, when as a diagnostician, the otherwise self-absorbed doctor has an epiphany. It always seems to occur when he least expects it, but we always know when that is because he “gets that funny look on his face”.
  I know that most people believe that vocational ministers and preachers in particular live from epiphany to epiphany. Oh, that it were true! On behalf of all of the other shamans in the world, “inspiration is 90% perspiration”. I, for one, sweat a lot! But then there is that other 10% (I think mine is more in the 1% category). It does happen and more times than not, it comes when I least expect it. Such was the case recently while I was attending a Church Planting Catalyst Conference at a BWI Hotel. Much of the irony in this is the very fact that I’m not a conference type personality. Sitting all day for consecutive days in meetings is not my idea of fun. Yet, it was in that context that I had not one, but two epiphanies.
  The conference was for denominational employees, at all levels, who are responsible for overseeing the planting of new churches. I was the odd man out (a role that I relish). I was there by invitation because I planted NAC and we have had above average success for our region of the country. It’s not a suit that I wear well, but this is one quarter in which I have a good reputation. Scary thought that normal denominational people hold me in high regard! The conference was an attempt at assisting everyone through a shift in direction and procedure within denominational life who hope to continue receiving a paycheck. There were representatives from the northeast US, Canada and Alaska.
  Before I completely run out of space, let it be noted that I had my epiphanies as a result of seeking God’s mind and will through prayer and the Word. I had already done the simple things and was seeking the higher things, that while listening to others struggle with change, it happened. I’m certain that I didn’t “get that funny look on my face” but it was nonetheless real. Want an epiphany? Try spiritual perspiration. More to be revealed later....

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Test of Influence

  Having spent the better part of two decades pastoring five traditional churches before launching a new plant was a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing in that I had time to discover who I was, including but not limited to my strengths and weaknesses. I also had time to refine my theology, ecclesiology, eschatology, along with communication and leadership skills. All of these are critical issues for a church planter. It was a curse in that I spent many of those years laboring and suffering under antiquated systems and methods, spiritual inbreeding, myopic mindsets and a lack of authority to implement needed change, to name only a few. That all changed eighteen years ago.
  I have recently heard church planting described as “sexy”. As easy is it might be to tie the high rate of moral failure among planters to this expression, that is not what was meant. Twenty five years ago I heard a missionary describing the difference between a stateside and an international missionary (in our denomination). While they both serve the same purpose in different cultures, an international missionary gets a halo and a furlough. It was always more “sexy” to be a missionary in China than Chicago. Whether that sexiness is associated with the adventurous and entrepreneurial nature of planting or the perception of how attractive or appealing it is as opposed to traditional ministry, I’ll leave for others to debate.
  When my travel bridges a weekend, I like to visit relatively new churches. I do so not just in the  hope of learning something new, but because there tends to be an excitement, freshness, enthusiasm among the people. Without exception, they are meeting in temporary facilities in which setup and take-down are a weekly challenge. They will always be dreaming about a more permanent home in which to spread the excitement and expand the kingdom without the weekly headache. When they do, a funny thing happens.
  Last week a planter of six year shared with me that he had transitioned from planter, to pastor, to shepherd. It is in those kinds of shifts that the sexiness wear off. Unless someone is going to simply be a church planting Johnny Appleseed, the test of influence will not be in the starting power, but the staying power. Much like a marriage, the most exciting years are the naive ones (the honeymoon), the most challenging years are the birthing, raising ones, but the most satisfying years are the mature ones where you get to see the spiritual offspring of multiple generations.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Amending Scripture

  At the heart of evangelism and church planting is the Canon of Scripture. It should be what provides us with motive and method for everything we do and should not be subject to a vote. But it appears that like our United States Bill of Rights, the church has felt the need to correct its deficiencies with amendments. Now while they may not take the technical form of such, they end up functioning as such.
  Prior to my leaving the mainstream to plant a non-traditional church, I served in five traditional ones. As verbal as each was in declaring its allegiance to the Bible, every time I attempted to lead in creatively fulfilling our purpose of reaching the unchurched, I was confronted with either “we’ve never done it that way before” (better known as the last seven words of the church) or “we can’t do that because our Constitution and Bylaws says, ‘blah, blah, blah.’” It was never about Scripture! While it is necessary to have some agreed upon documents to satisfy the laws governing legal incorporating as a church, going too far beyond that by canonizing culturally attuned methodologies is akin to amending the Bible.
  In my last effort at leading a traditional church into evangelistic productivity, the legally required Trustees had assumed a governing role in all matters. The Chairman carried around a notebook with a newspaper article about a church fight that had pitted the Trustees against the Deacons regarding the disposition of the Pastor. It ended up in court where it was ruled that the Trustees were the legal guardians of the corporation and as such were in the position of final authority. I was frequently reminded of that article. In most cases, whether it is Trustees or Deacons, they are normally waving a copy of the church’s Constitution and Bylaws saying, “we can’t do that because it says here, ‘blah, blah, blah.’”
  While a particular governing municipality may require certain officers in forming the corporation, they do not stipulate how they are placed into that position. If the only spiritually binding document is Scripture, then great care must be exercised in creating assumed amendments that bind the hands of present and future leaders. Successful pastoral leadership requires the right to make decisions within the framework of Scripture. If pastoral leadership isn’t in a position to make a mistake, it isn’t in a position to lead.

Monday, August 15, 2011


  Last night my wife and I, along with another couple from our church, attended a Chicago concert at a waterfront venue known as Pier Six, in Baltimore. Pier Six is an open air, large tent arrangement that sits at the Inner Harbor of Charm City. On this particular 80 degree evening, as we were enjoying the music of a great band from the 60's & 70's, I had a church planting epiphany.
  I became an adolescent in the 60's and an adult in the 70's. While not sheltered from the prevailing cultural environment of sex, drugs and Rock’n’Roll, I was nonetheless separated from it by my personal faith. I was somewhat familiar with the popular bands of that era but not immersed in them. I did not attend a single ‘secular’ concert during that period. Fast forward a few decades and here I am, a church planter, attending and enjoying a ‘secular’ concert with thousands of ‘heathen.’
   One of my church planting influencing texts is 1 Corinthians 9 where Paul talks about his own transformation from a ‘good Jewish boy’ to a ‘color outside of the lines’ Jesus promoting missionary. He was obviously driven by the incarnational principle of ‘becoming.’ Just as Jesus became flesh that sinners might be reconciled to God, so Paul felt compelled to become ‘barbarian, slave, free,’ etc. for the same reason. I am convinced that he went through a serious learning curve respecting what that meant since those were places, people and cultural practices foreign to his experience. It became obvious at the time that the traditionalists of his day felt like he had crossed the line. Thank God, he stood his ground and proved them wrong.
  Church planting has to be about right motives. I have known some who were in it for other reasons, like those who so wanted to be known as ‘Pastor’ that they saw planting as the way of achieving that distinction. What they fail to do was connect with the culture that didn’t share their personal need for recognition. Because I knew my calling was to reach a ‘Rock’n’Roll’ generation I find myself sitting at a Chicago concert in 2011.
  The incarnational journey has been interesting. I have been attending ‘secular’ concerts now for the last 18 years and have seen Journey, Lynyrd Skynyrd, 38 Special, Stray Cats, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, ZZ Top, Dennis DeYoung (Styx), Hank Williams Jr., Crosby, Stills and Nash to name a few, plus a Pink Floyd tribute band. In these venues I have been groped, hit on, flashed and offered a joint. How has that helped in church planting? I invariably run into people I know who need Jesus and in that moment and venue I become real to them and they, in turn, tell their friends who they saw at that concert. In Paul's words, "I become..... that by all possible means I might save some."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Back Roads

    As a passionate motorcyclist I not only love to ride, I particularly love back roads. I’ve been from Key West, Florida to Bangor, Maine. You can have the interstate, give me the “less traveled road.” And as much as I look forward to a road trip every year with my wife where we can chase endless curving, two lane stretches, I don’t wait for that once-a-year event. I try to take the “scenic route” no matter the destination.
    One of the many hospitals that I have visited in the Baltimore area is GBMC and it happens to be on the other side of this sprawling metropolitan area. Between my home and there is a not-so-appealing ride through a concrete city. On one of those ministry excursions via motorcycle I took the most direct route in getting there. It was efficient, but not particularly enjoyable. Upon the completion of my visit I decided to take the indirect route home without any idea of where it would take me. I knew that I was inside the Beltway and would somehow wind my way west, then south, eventually running into that band of pavement surrounding the city.
    The first area of adventure just happened to be a neighborhood of old, stately mansions with gorgeous lawns and huge mature trees. It was breathtaking. It wasn’t long before I found myself on a winding, two lane road surrounded by cornfields! It was surreal. Had I not known where I was, I would never have guessed where I was; inside the Baltimore Beltway. Even though it has been a several years since that ride, it has left an indelible impression on my mind.
    When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman, introducing her to faith, His disciples, upon returning from town, exhibited some confusion in their subsequent conversation. While He wanted to talk about spiritual food, they kept thinking caloric food. It was in that context that He uttered those now famous words, “don’t say there are yet four months until the harvest. Look upon the fields, they are white already unto harvest.” While His disciples were left scratching their heads about what He meant, I get it. There are more ministry opportunities than we have eyes for. All we have to do is look!
    Church planting is about seeing the unseen, be it north, south, east or west. Leaving the familiar church paths with open eyes, we are likely to find those white fields and more than a few Samaritan women....

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Occupational Hazards

  Occupational hazards: we assume to know what that means. We normally think of workplace safety like falling materials, bulletproof vests or crash helmets. Being in vocational ministry, having a title and a paycheck, is no exception. I know that it ranks high on the “most admired, trusted or respected professions” unless your trying to get a loan. Then, for some reason, we rank with used car salesmen. Among the ministerial are more than a few bad apples which is only a part of the occupational hazards of planting a church.
  My generation has viewed “soul winning” as the be all, do all and end all of Kingdom life. We have the gospel that sinners need, limited time/opportunity for getting the job done, haste makes waste, find ‘em, tackle ‘em, convert ‘em, build a church out of ‘em. That may have worked in the past, but no longer. My understanding of advancing the kingdom and particularly of church planting requires planning, patience, planting, watering and stealth. I hate just as much being labeled “preacher, pastor, minister, clergyman, reverend” publically as I did being the “preacher’s kid” growing up, because of the stigma (occupational hazard). I don’t know many sinners who really like hanging out with “God’s spy.”
  When I began the planting venture, I got into boating. Living on the Chesapeake Bay inspired some of that. Being given a boat took care of the rest. Because of my obsessive nature a little boat quickly became not enough boat and I found myself at a local dealership that was family owned. It looked a lot like a boat wrecking yard; my kind of place. Yes, I bought a bigger boat which exposed me to the family/employees and it was immediately evident that I was not on Holy Ground. As a customer, I began hanging out there, building relationships while concealing my identity. After some months, the owner having discovered what I did, asked, “What am I supposed to call you? I’ve never known a Preacher Man before.” Friendship gave way to ministry. (By-the-way, he still calls me “Preacher Man.”) Plant, water and expect a harvest, just not overnight. Bridge building takes time.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Under The Sword

  In hindsight, I have become convinced that I have done my best work in ministry “fighting the good fight.” In the mid seventies I dutifully adopted the traditional approach to church work. At best, it was simply good for no other reason than we just didn’t know better. In the eighties we began reading about innovative ministries that were breaking the mold for doing church, coloring outside of conventional lines. At first I was suspicious, then became curious and finally convinced. It wasn’t how we did church that was important, it was why.
  While there were struggles in the traditional context, it was normally over earth shaking issues like the color of the carpet or whether to buy the newest Hymnal. Those were the days! The real kingdom struggles came with altering the program in order to reach the unchurched. I had found my calling! It was a Great Commission battle cry for which I was born. Every issue, every change, every step was incendiary. I, in effect, was attempting to “bust the union” of the denominational franchise. I hated every battle and loved every victory! Under the restraints of tradition I fought unrestrained. Then came the church plant. A funny thing happens when the restraints are removed. Like trapeze artists who swing without a net, caution becomes the watchword.
   Welcome to the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse. According to the legend, Damocles was a courtier who was smitten by the thought of being king and expressed so. Dionysius offered him the opportunity to switch places which he accepted. Having donned the crown and regal robe he sat on the throne at which time it was arranged to have a huge sword suspended over his head by a single hair of a horse’s tail.
    The Sword of Damocles; such is the glory of church planting.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Risky Business

    Two of my current female members took a trip to California, rented a van, visited Rick Warren’s church and saw the sights. Somewhere along the way they encountered an unexpected traffic jam. If you’ve ever been anywhere close to LA, traffic jams are to be expected, but usually they are traffic related. Such was not the case. As they inched their way forward, curiously scanning the road as to some reasonable cause, there it was. It was not the product of rubber necking (the bane of those of us with somewhere to be), or of an accident, or of a road hazard, but of a helpless creature with its head stuck in a Yoplait cup wandering in circles on the road. Thousands of motorists, if not tens of thousands, were stopping and inching their way around this hapless and helpless creature. Leave it to two from NAC to be the compassionate duo.
    Before you begin condemning Californians for being calloused or indifferent to one of God’s little creatures, you really need to know one more thing: it was a skunk! Need I say more to explain the lack of mercy? Our dynamic duo was determined to deliver Pepe Le Pew from his imprisonment. While Kim stopped the van, Linda eased around from the passenger side intent on a quick snatch-and-run maneuver. Linda succeeded in the snatch part, then fell in her hasty retreat. Fortunately for her, the skunk, surprised by its sudden deliverance but still rather upset, decided to deliver its gift of gratitude to Kim. Thankfully, she was able to roll up her widow in time while Linda returned to the safety of the vehicle. I’m guessing that traffic didn’t begin moving very fast as other drivers were recovering from their fit of hysterical laughter at this scene.
    Church planting is risky business and it does require that we exit our comfort (and safe) zones for those incapable of helping themselves. While some make church planting sound like a walk in the park to the road to becoming a spiritual celebrity, make no mistake, it is not. Thank goodness, at least some of the time, we can get the window up.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Secret Covenant

   My wife loves children’s literature. Even though she is a trained educator with a couple of degrees, her love for it grew out of her exposure as a child. She is able to cite author and title from the obscure. I, on the other hand, can’t even recognize the most famous! My taste and interest in literature couldn’t be more different, yet we have managed a happy marriage for 35 years. While she loves the sense of security that reading children’s literature gives her, I thrive on the adventurous, hazardous, dangerous. Strangely enough, these patterns emerged in our church planting experience.
   While the contemporary church planting strategy includes healthy financial backing, such was not the case for us. When we embarked on our adventure in 1993, we did so with a handful of people and a lot of faith. While our motley group was abuzz with the excitement of escaped convicts, freed from the fetters of traditional church politics and trappings, I was living the reality of reality. I wasn’t looking for a leisurely and secure walk in the park. I wanted to climb mountains, but I was not delusional enough to assume that I was doing what God wanted. I embraced the risk of potential failure by entering into a secret covenant with God that went something like: “Lord, if we do not exceed 100 in regular attendance the first year, I’ll pack it in because I will know that You are not in it.” God wasn’t out on a limb, but I was prepared to be.
   Five locations, eighteen years, 600+ baptisms and two campuses later I think I got my answer. Yet, what it turned into was never what I expected. While my previous church experience had been more akin to children’s literature meets Freddy Krueger, it had nonetheless been lived out within the framework of the familiar, the common, the traditional, the secure. How God answered that secret covenant was not unlike His taking an overqualified Pharisee named Saul and making him an eminently qualified ambassador to Gentiles. Talk about adventure!

Monday, May 30, 2011


  I just completed reading "Between a Rock and a Hard Place" and as usual there were things in Aron's story that resonate with me. First, he writes about being raised in Ohio and his fear of moving with his family to Colorado. He had been led to believe that Colorado was buried under snow all year. It was only after moving there and discovering the truth that it all changed. He not only began skiing, but the outdoors became a passion. It was a life transition for him. Second, having earned a degree in mechanical engineering, he began working for Intel. Nothing should have been more rewarding and secure vocationally than working  at one of the great corporations in America. It was not enough. After only five years, his avocation trumped his vocation, his passion trumped his career. I get it.
  Having been reluctantly drafted (or so I felt) into ministry to preach, I embarked on the proper education. While doing so, I envisioned a lifetime serving in an established county seat church. Over time, reality paid a cruel and unwelcome visit. I discovered that my passion for the kingdom was not shared by that county seat church crowd. Consequently, I ended up moving to an unfamiliar region of the country and it was there that my transition found expression. I discovered a gift for reaching unchurched people, which strangely enough, did not square with the establishment. Much like Aron Ralston, I had to decide: security or passion?
  "So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which my appear to give peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endless changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun." (John Krakauer, Into the Wild) Oh, I so get that too!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Uncertain Seeds

     At 57, I have a lot to think about. While there may be another 30 years in front of me, there are 57 behind. Mathematically, that's almost a two-to-one ratio. More importantly, what is behind is certain while what is ahead is speculative. But it's that speculative that drives the desire to reflect on the certain. In this case and for the purposes of this blog I feel compelled to begin by probing the origins of the present.
     It's rare that I find anyone who knew in childhood what they wanted to do in life that actually did it. Unfortunately, I think that most perhaps simply stumble along into the next opportunity that presents itself based on family history and geography, which would account for the high percentage who never live far from where they grow up and carry on some family vocational tradition. And while it might appear that I have met a part of that criterion, nothing could be further from the truth. On the other hand, I have encountered a few who at age 40 were still trying to determine what they wanted to be when they grew up. They have bounced around through several vocational experiences never quite able to find one satisfying or lucrative enough to want to embrace as a career. I've done my own share of bouncing which has contributed no small part to the success of the last two decades.
     Somewhere back in the 60's there was a friend of the family who was doing what was known as "Church Planting." It seems that they had chosen to butterfly their way around the country, landing ever so briefly to gather a new group of people together, organized them into a church, then fly to the next location. I can remember thinking to myself, "that doesn't sound like much fun!" Of course, my perspective was being shaped by my own desire for roots. My father had begun preaching in the late 50's and was well on his way to maintaining that national average for church tenure: 18 to 24 months. We had and were never to stay anywhere very long. By the time I graduated from High School there had been twelve different schools.