Sharing the Gospel With Un-Churched People

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Lately my ministry has taken a new and notable turn.

I suppose if I wanted to pick a “start date” to the whole thing it would be a couple months ago when a man from our neighborhood walked into our church and decided to start regularly attending.  He and his wife work in law enforcement.  He grew up religious but she did not.  Neither one of them had attended a church in years.  But he was starting a new business venture and his mentors were religious folk who argued that you must have a proper relationship to the Almighty if you are going to succeed.  So he decided to give us a try.  I have been meeting regularly with his family since then and we have become fast friends.

Awhile after that, I received an email that a woman from a sister church had been electrocuted and was now in the burn ward here in town.  I found myself down by the hospital one day so I decided to drop by and say “hi.”  I discovered a rural couple who worked as farmhands and lived, or rather died, from paycheck to paycheck.  Their faith was brand new.  They had only been baptized on Easter Sunday, mere weeks before the accident.  As such, their faith was also fragile and an electrocution had provided an incredible challenge.  I walked out of the hospital that day vowing to see them as often as I possibly could.

Shortly after I got an email out of the blue.  It was from a family who lives 50 miles away from our church’s building.  They were both bookworms and very heady thinkers.  They grew up religious but had since walked away.  Now they were feeling called back so they did what bookworms do, which was a survey of all religious sects ranging from atheism to Islamic fundamentalism.  Somehow the Church of the Nazarene won and they now wanted to meet a Nazarene.  She had read everything on Nazarene.org!  I haven’t even gone to Nazarene.org in the last year.

Then last week I received a phone call from a woman who had just moved to town.  She was young and had been an addict for the last decade.  She met a pastor who introduced her to Jesus, after which she moved here to start a new life.  She needed a church.  She had moved in with some friends who were also former addicts starting a new life and now the group of friends wanted to make church a go, something about a higher power who wanted to freely give to them the self control they needed to live better lives.

So suddenly I am an evangelist, talking to people about Jesus who know nothing about him, or at the very least are very suspect of him and his followers.  Here I am explaining elementary truths of our faith to the unlearned and trying to defend our faith to the unsure and this twice weekly!

But I don’t feel like an evangelist.  Only one of those above groups are in anyway a product of my church’s ministry.  There was no program, no sermon, no outreach event, no bible study that drew these people in.  Instead I did something far more profound.  I answered my phone and replied to emails.

So too, I found that I have not done much of the talking with these four brand new Christians.  Instead I have tried to listen.  That is not always easy for me but it has come more natural in these times.  They all have incredibly different stories and backgrounds but all of them need a listener.  They needed someone to listen while they tried to figure out this new thing called, “faith” and what it meant for their families and lives.  In one conversation, I spent an hour just nodding my head, only saying the occasional, “oh interesting.”

I have walked away from these four groups thinking about ministry programs and practices.  I have all kinds of ideas about how to help their fledgling faith.  There are bible studies we could plug them into.  There is money we could give.  There are programs and outreach events and even church plants that will help connect them and their family members and friends to the work of the Nazarenes.

And yet, whenever I play those ideas out in my head they all end bad.  There is a certain powerlessness to my daydreaming, like imagining nightmares.  After all, I have been in this game long enough to know that church programs are most often the worst thing for a young faith.  In fact I worry that introducing them to more church people would destroy what little faith they had.  Good church people are just not understanding or compassionate enough to new Christians.

But deeper than that is the reality that people don’t need programs.  They don’t need events and they certainly don’t need to be a church’s, or even a Pastor’s, project.  In fact as I have entered hospital rooms and shared a meal with these people, I am all the more convicted that they just need presence.  They need someone who will show up in their hospital room, someone who will drive 50 miles to honestly try to tackle their questions, someone who will invite them over for dinner and games and tell jokes and laugh with them.

When I do that I think I am evangelizing.  I think I am representing the good news that “God is here!”  By showing up I am a parable of Jesus, who himself showed up to tax collectors and sinners.  I stole that idea I stole from Brian Hansen, by the way.

And the good news I share by showing up is, as John Wesley put it, “Best of all, God is with us!”

God is with us in our hospital beds.

God is with us in the depths of the despair of addiction.

God is with us when we start new business ventures.

God is with us when we ask tough and hard and deep questions.

God is with us when we sit around a campfire and make s’mores.

God is with us when we sit around a table and eat dinner together.

God is with us wherever we go and I hope that by showing up I can at least preach that great news.

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What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A Very Stupid Book

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I had a college professor that always assigned one lousy book a semester to read.  He claimed we needed to read stupid books so we don’t become stupid people.  The reasoning was that stupid books teach critical thinking in a way good books never will.

Under his thinking, I grew a lot yesterday afternoon.

You see, every year I get a free book in the mail from a forgettable organization that specializes, I assume, in giving pastors free books.  This is now the 4th book I have received from them and the other three were worth reading.  They weren’t ground breaking but they were practical, helpful stuff.

This new book was a step lower.  It might have been the worst book I have read in some time.

It was called “Growing God’s Church” by Gary L. McIntosh.  Apparently Gary McIntosh led a research team that interviewed a bit over 1,000 new Christians and new church members.  Their questions focused on how and why these people had come to Christ.  The book was published to help pastors reach people better.  On that premise, this should have been a book worth flipping through for an hour on a sunny afternoon.

However, very strangely, the book didn’t begin with the results.  Instead McIntosh spent five chapters trying to argue that evangelism should be the only goal of the church.  He retold the four gospel stories and Acts as if they were 1950s gospel tracts.  McIntosh wanted his readers know not to be fooled by what Jesus actually said and did but to know that Jesus really just wanted to get us into heaven and recruit us to preach the 4 point Romans gospel.  He even argued that the only reason Jesus showed compassion was because it was an incredibly effective evangelism means, not for the sake itself of compassion.  Don’t be fooled.  God isn’t love.  God is evangelism.  God only loves to dupe us into praying the sinner’s prayer.

His exegesis of the gospels was more the eisegesis type.  Eisegesis is the frowned upon practice of taking your preconceived ideas to Scripture to find proof texts.  McIntosh seemingly all ready knew that getting people into heaven was the most important thing and he did not want to be bothered by what the gospels actually say, just to know that Jesus agrees.

His most blaring example came from Luke.  In Luke Jesus begins his public ministry in Nazareth by proclaiming that he will “make blind see, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hear and to proclaim good news to the poor.”  (Luke 4:22)  Then Jesus goes out and does almost exactly that to real life blind, deaf, sick and poor people.  Later Jesus even sends a message to John the Baptist, pointing to the actual miracles he had accomplished as proof that he was the Messiah.  Gary McIntosh brings this up and uses it to argue that Jesus only came to help the spiritually blind, lame, sick, poor and that Jesus didn’t actually care about actual blindness, this despite the fact that Jesus actually made blind men see.  But McIntosh decided it was just metaphorical so it is.  This is just one example of many I could cite.

The research was questionable too but, to be fair, all research is.  For one, his sample size was too small and limited to a few denominations.  He made some wild generational claims that I don’t think will hold true throughout lifespans.  He points out gender and generational differences that were statistical ties but uses the fact that one was .5 higher to argue that everybody in that demographic are that way.

His main assertion in the second half of the book is that family members make the best evangelists.  He argues we should nurture and use that.  Ironically I do wholeheartedly agree and think his research does validate that.  More than that he has some okay ideas about how to go about it.

Also, even though I loathed McIntosh’s eisegetical interpretation of the gospels, he still referenced a few verses that I had not thought of in quite some time.  I have been studying the use of the word “glory” in John’s gospel and McIntosh quoted one of the “glory” verses I had not yet noticed and that verse at first glance does seem to support his thesis and not my own.

But those random useful snippets are not what made the book worth my time.  It is incredibly easy to get stuck in the rut of only reading things that fit my preconceived notions.  Most of my books come to me from the suggestions of colleagues in my own tradition.  Those books are good but I sometimes wonder if it is a waste of time to read things that tell you everything you all ready knew.

In turn, it might not be a waste of a Monday afternoon to read a book from someone in a completely different theological tradition.  He quoted verses I hadn’t noticed and suggested things I would not have thought of.  Even though I disagreed with him, at least I now know why and how his tradition sees things.

In the end I might take a chapter or two to my outreach team to help them think critically about evangelism in our local community.

In my professor’s thinking we might have McIntosh’s stupidity to thank for the elimination of our own.  Or maybe I am wrong about everything and he is right.  We only find out when Jesus comes.

Until then, have a great Valentine’s Day!

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Renovation of the Church by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken

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In order for you to understand what follows I will, very regrettably, have to do a bit of recent USA church history with you.

We are now emerging out of a rather short era in US church history that I have dubbed the “relevancy era.”  The now way over used cliche that drove the “relevancy era” went something like this, “The church of the past was too insular and exclusive.  So we should be super inclusive and relevant to the modern times.”

They sought to accomplish that goal by changing everything about the church, from worship styles (from hymns to rock), to pastoral expectations (from a thinking listener to a noisy vision caster), to when and why we gather (from bible studies to bowling nights).  Hence the end product of the “relevancy era” was celebrity pastors (see Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Mark Driscoll), diverse and ever changing worship styles and much fewer but much larger congregations.

While many of the changes were good and even necessary, there is now a sense that we threw the baby out with the bathwater.  Some of the “relevancy era’s” breakout stars seem to have woken up and realized that even though they call themselves “church” they have very little to do with the Biblical Jesus or the historical Christian tradition.  In fact, some have admitted that if they succeeded in producing any new Christians at all, those Christians were very shallow, biblically illiterate and quite ignorant of the ancient traditions of our faith. As an example of that last one, it greatly humors me that the “traditional” songs in our hymn book are all less than 150 years old.  It seems to me that if we wanted to sing “traditional” Christian songs we should figure out what Augustine and John Chrysostom were singing!

With that aside, we are now seeing a movement away from mega churches with hip rock bands and celebrity pastors.  This is a movement towards small group discipleship, smaller congregations and liturgical forms of worship (that sometimes do sing what Chrysostom was singing!)

And I could not be happier about all those things.

But in case you are not happy about it or still confused by all that above, Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken have written a wonderful narrative about their own transition from a pastor as an entertainer CEO model to a spiritual director model.

Click to buy!

They tell their story beautifully and succinctly in “Renovation of the Church.”  They were seeker sensitive pastors of a large suburban church that boasted over 1700 attendees per Sunday.  Gradually they began reading about spiritual formation and eventually found themselves at a vision casting retreat admitting that though they had 1700 people coming, they did not have many people who showed up on Sundays who cared about Jesus.

They came home from the retreat and over a course of a few years changed everything about their ministry model.  They switched up the worship style, the discipleship structures, the times and places the church met and their expectations of leaders.  .  .and lost 1000 attendees.

As if to offer proof that their 1700 laity were not good disciples, one group of laypeople, angry about the changes, wrote a long, mean and painful letter detailing everything they hated about the new church.  They wanted it “their” way and when they weren’t getting their way any more it made them bitterly angry.  The sad part of the letter was that they had been attending the church for over 5 years and still it had not occurred to them that writing hate mail is against the expectations of Jesus.  The church had catered to their needs so well, they thought they had a religious “right” to have their wants met.  This was the type of attitudes that Carlson and Lueken found they could no longer tolerate as Christian pastors and why they gladly took 700 disciples seeking Christ over 1700 consumers seeking entertainment.

Amidst stories like this, both writers take time to write beautiful chapters that highlight why they had to make the changes they made.  Kent Carlson offers particularly poignant chapters about the harmful effects of pastoral ambition and how we should worship.  Lueken provides great primers on the gospel and spiritual formation as it pertains to a church’s structure.

Together they both tell a great story that gives substance and emotional heft to the current trends in US Christian culture.  And just like the current Christian culture the story is both heartbreaking and full of God’s amazing grace, a grace that will always meet us where we are and insist we return to or stay on God’s straight and narrow path.

Therefore, “Renovation of the Church” is a must read.

Wile E. Coyote Ministries: Vacation Bible School

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This post is the recent in a periodic series on failed outreach ministries.  The intro post is here.

I should warn you from the get go that this blog post is going to consist of a series of educated guesses about your local congregation.

My first guess is that your congregation did a VBS this summer.

If only those lousy pagans loved it as much as we do!

My second guess is that after it was over, everybody hailed it as a crazy success.

My third guess is that some kid probably “gave his heart to Jesus” or maybe you had many.

My fourth guess is that sometime in the next year a family whose first connection with your church was at VBS showed up for one or two Sunday morning worship services.

My fifth guess is that your VBS cost a lot of money, required a lot of human power and consumed a great deal of time, more so for the one “lead” person who planned the whole thing.

Oh all those cartoon characters are happy, wearing the same shirt and raising their arms in some weird exercise posture. That is just what is missing in kids’ lives!

My sixth guess is that VBS is so encoded into your DNA, (aka your hidden curriculum), that nobody even bothered to ask “why” you were doing a VBS.  However, if those involved were asked “why?” they would probably give some vague answer like, “to reach people for Jesus” or “to show the church of the future that Jesus loves them.”

I would further imagine, though not guess, that if someone in your church did ask, “why are we doing this?” they were probably laughed at, but not a jovial laugh, the judgmental kind whose hidden threat was, “we banish people who dare call into question VBS.”  I am further assuming, though once again not guessing, you are giving that laugh to me right now and are not reading this any more but typing your judgment in the comments below.

Aren’t these the kids from the last picture? Let’s put them in a boat. That will really convince those heathens to come.

My seventh guess is that most, if not all, of the kids who showed up were kids from Christian families.  I would further assume (though not officially guess) that a great deal of the “new” faces were the kids from other churches who were camp hopping all summer so their parents could take advantage of all the free babysitting.

My eighth guess is that there was almost no follow up with the unchurched and non Christian kids who did show up.  You probably hoped they would get connected but I am guessing they didn’t.  Furthermore, nobody probably even bothered to take them out to coffee or ice cream or whatever people are drinking and eating these days.

What is with the arms? Seriously, picture google vacation bible school and you will see the worst insults to graphic design every designed.

If I am right about all this, and trust me, I mostly am, than your VBS was an epic Wile E. Coyote type failure.  You spent tons of time, money and energy and burned out your poor children’s director to reach all ready reached kids and further alienate the unreached people who dared to show up.

But hey, at least you provided free babysitting.

More than that, you got five extra discipleship times with your church kids, which is dang difficult to do these days.  And you probably did a lot of good team building with your laypeople which will increase your congregation’s “friendly atmosphere.”

So VBS isn’t all bad (which I am going to say to all the people who comment on this).  But its purposes need to be stated.  You are not going to reach un-reached families with a fifty year old ministry model based off of flannel graphs and silly props and costumes.

However, you are probably going to reach them if you follow through on all that contact information in a non-confrontational, friendship evangelism type way, like over ice cream.  Here I do offer a warning:  It won’t take just one follow up ice cream.  Prepare to buy a bigger belt because you are going to have to meet with them once a month for a year or so before they darken your church’s doors.

But if that is going to work you need your follow up strategy figured out before you even buy your curriculum.  You need to encode that strategy into every aspect of VBS.  You need to plan every part of it, right down to, “Who is going to take who out to ice cream after all this is said and done?”

That brings me to my ninth and last guess.  I am guessing some of you have figured out the follow up strategy and seen great results with your VBS.  Please do share those success stories in the comments below.  The rest of us Coyotes need to hear them.

When We Confess Our Sins. . .

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When I was in junior high people began throwing around the word, “hypocrite” like it was free candy.  It was an especially popular concept in Christian circles as we used it to judge anybody who held any sort of ethical standard for us.  All being sinners ourselves, we knew that any legalist who gave us a “thou shalt” could not live up to any ethical standard themselves.  So we dismissed any ethicist with the word, “hypocrite.”

It was at that time that I realized it was almost impossible for a true Christian to actually be a hypocrite.  My thinking went that if the central confession of our faith was that we are all sinners in need of a savior, then sinning did not make us hypocrites.  It made our message truer.

That is a fairly dangerous thought process from an uneducated middle schooler.  It runs us really close to antinomianism, the idea that we should go on sinning so that grace may increase.

But I still think there is a shred of truth there.  After all, we are not the sinning community but we are the confessional community.  One of our pillars has always been confessing our sins, airing our dirty laundry for all to see.  This does not mean we are the most church when we go on sinning.  But we are the most church when we confess our sins, hanging them out for all to see while we pray for the God of forgiveness to deliver us.

There have been those this week who have suggested that having honest discussions about our church’s shortcomings are hurting our witness to the world.  They seem to be caught up in the 1950s mindset that the church can only be effective in mission if we are sinless and conflict free.

They want us to hide behind vague cliches like, “You are hurting the church” and “You are making our witness less effective.”

I disagree.  First the church is all ready hurting.  We are hurting not because of the actions of any one person or the existence of any one crisis but because we are the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus.  Our scars and bruises and pain only magnify Christ that much more.

Second, our witness does not rest on our own power or might.  If you read Acts 1:8 Jesus does not say, “Go and try to witness.”  Jesus issues a promise, “You WILL be witnesses” whether you like it or not.

I write all this to give us hope.  If our faith rested in our own deeds and sinlessness than this would be a time of despair.  But as our denomination confesses some of our dirty laundry, I am buoyed by hope, hope in a God who will make us witnesses, a God who will reveal God’s nature and self through these trying and hurting times, a God who uses situations like these to draw us all closer to the cruciform lamb, standing as though slain.

I am reminded of the closing words of Charles Dickens, “Tale of Two Cities” and they are my sentiments and prayer today:

“I see a beautiful [church] and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives.  .  .peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy.”

Keep on fighting for transparency and justice and know your toil in the Lord is not in vain!