Month: January 2017

What does the Bible say about vetting?

What do the Scriptures tell us about vetting? Is it ok to require people to pass some sort of character test in order to gain the privileges of leadership or citizenship? Should there be a thorough investigation into someone’s qualifications? This issue has been at the center of the immigration debate for the past few days and I’ve been asked if I believe in vetting.

Yes, I do.

At New Life, we have a thorough vetting process for every level of leadership, the most stringent test being the one for eldership.

An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. 7 Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. Titus 1:6-9

This is quite the list of requirements and should be taken seriously. Paul wrote this as a way of protecting the church from charlatans, immature believers and heretics. It was meant as a screening process to protect the fragile church from people who could harm them.

We also vet volunteers at New Life, especially those wanting to serve in our children’s ministry or with our students. The church should always be wise in who they allow to serve the most vulnerable.

Our government’s primary role, according to Romans 13, is to also make sure people who mean to harm others are stopped before harm can happen. It is both wise and prudent, therefore, to screen immigrants who wish to live in our country. This should be done thoughtfully, humanely and justly. We should hold everyone to the same standards and not discriminate. When the church sees injustice or policies that are not compassionate, we should speak up and defend those who are helpless.

Remember, many of these refugees have lost everything. They have no influence, no community connections, no money and sometimes are suffering from poor health. It’s not as simple as many have described and more  difficult than most of us have imagined.

We can be both safe and compassionate at the same time. As a pastor, I understand how difficult this task can seem. I want everyone to serve at our church, but not everyone is ready to serve. As the shepherd of the flock, I must stand watch against wolves. Our government should also stand watch, while not compromising our promise inscribed on the inside pedestal of Lady Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

 

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“Pastor, please preach on this …”

Each week, a congregation expects its pastor to preach the Scriptures, call people to prayer and salvation, administer the sacraments, pray for the sick, comfort those who mourn and encourage the saints. That’s a full and joyful weekend that every pastor enjoys. However, our vocation invites some unwanted pressures as well.

Because our culture is so divided and full of vitriol, a pastor is expected to speak out on a host of social concerns while also proclaiming the Good News. Pastors often feel like a referee in the pulpit, trying to calm fears, fire up the team and squelch tantrums, sometimes all at once. In the past year, I’ve had conversations, read social media posts or received emails asking me to:

“Preach more salvation messages”

“Preach more about politics”

“Preach less about politics”

“Preach more often about racial reconciliation”

“Don’t preach about immigration, unless you agree with my politics”

“Preach more about healing and miracles”

“Tell people who to vote for this year”

“Thanks for not telling us how to vote”

“You never preach on the end times. What about the blood moon and the earthquakes in Oklahoma?”

“You should honor grandparents more often”

I could continue. Seriously, there are more. What is a pastor to do? There are really two reasons we became a pastor – we love Jesus and we love people. Certainly, we want to be liked and respected, but our allegiance and alignment is to Jesus and even he rarely pleased everyone, nor did he try.

After almost two decades of preaching and teaching, I’ve stumbled upon some wisdom that’s kept my heart pure and my mind clear. These seven ideas have kept me focused and away from my need to please or my desire to perform for approval.

1. Preach the entire counsel of the Scriptures. Do not skip over the difficult texts or focus only on your favorite topics. With this as your guide, the Holy Spirit will help you cover all the significant issues in due time.

2. Love your people, but do not fear them. Criticism is part of the job, but so are the miracle stories of lives changed. Learn what you can from the critics, but celebrate the wins of ministry often.

3. Hang around smart, mature and positive people. We always need the encouragement and the wisdom.

4. Listen intently to opposing views, because that’s how we learn empathy.

5. Preach with boldness but not with anger. God is not mad at us, even when we’re wrong. We should not be mad, either.

6. Do not neglect the marginalized.  The widow, the unborn, the orphan and the stranger often cannot help or speak for themselves.

7. Preach Jesus. A lot. We need his words, his way, and his life in the church, more than ever.

 

 

 

 

 

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Loving People Not Like Us

If you’ve ever jumped from the high dive at a public pool, then you probably remember the courage you had to muster, to take that very first plunge. You remember splashing around in the shallow end, laughing with friends and family and relishing the comfort of that pool floor under your feet. You remember eyeing the diving board each time another brave soul leaped from its heights, curious about whether you could be that brave too. You remember making the decision—“Enough already. I’m going to do it.”

You remember climbing the ladder that felt like it stretched to heaven, it was so tall, and taking those six or seven steps all the way to the end of the board, the swimming pool now seeming much smaller than it had when you were down below. And then there was the leap—the brief, uncontrollable sensation of flying; the crashing through the water’s surface; the reemergence to breathable air; the wild awareness that nothing was under your feet, reassuring you, holding you up. You remember the exhilaration of having taken the risk and enjoyed it. Who knew the deep end was so exciting and fun?

Same sunny day. Same pool. Same water. And yet upon choosing that deep-end experience, everything was different now.

 

The Opportunity that Awaits Us

When it comes to our relational world, a similar dynamic shows up. Sure, we can stay in the shallow end with “our people”—those who know us, love us, support us, forgive us, and extend quick grace toward us whenever we screw up. But there’s a deep-end encounter awaiting us, if we’ll have the guts to just dive in.

If there are two groups of people today who are hopeful that you and I will take that plunge, they are the undocumented members of the Hispanic population who now make their home in the United States, and anyone who has immigrated here from the Middle East. By and large, we are told to fear and/or despise these people—What if they’re terrorists? What if they’re criminals? What if they take all of our jobs?

Having no real answers to these questions and more, we cave to the suggested suspicions and move through daily life casting an uneasy eye toward anyone cleaning a hotel room or wearing a hijab. What a tragic choice this is.

For the vast majority of the Central or South American and Middle Eastern immigrants who have shown up on U.S. soil, the sole reason they have come here is to escape violence and pain. Life in their homeland had deteriorated to the point that the only way to remain a resident there was to sell one’s children into slavery, participate in the trafficking of illicit drugs, and to pledge allegiance to rampant corruption—options they were unwilling to entertain.

And so they showed up here, in the U.S., products of terror and abuse. They didn’t come in order to harm anyone, which would simply be furthering the thing they escaped. They came to rebuild their lives. To find safety and a way to thrive.

 

Practicing Then, Now

“But what about the law?” you might say. “I get why they want to be here, but shouldn’t they have to follow the rules?”

The political issues surrounding this country’s ability to “welcome the stranger” effectively are myriad, multifaceted, and momentous, insofar as our choices today will affect how truly “melted” our melting-pot land will continue to be, for generations to come. But two realities seem clear: First, immigrants would not be able to hold down jobs in this country if this country weren’t offering them jobs. In other words: perhaps our Chambers of Commerce are just as flawed and broken as our border-protection system has proven to be. Our business leaders have grown accustomed to hiring immigrant labor, and so those laborers are lining up in droves. The jobs that our own citizens in many cases don’t wish to do are an absolute lifeline to the women and men settling here.

Second, if our primary residence is in God’s kingdom, meaning that our citizenship in heaven ultimately will eclipse our citizenship here on earth, then we ought to count it our absolute joy to practice heavenly principles here and now, even before we inhabit that future domain.

In heaven, there will be no borders. In heaven, there will be no segregation. In heaven, there will be no lines of division, no disparity, no left-out ones. Why on earth would we prize such things, when their tenure is so short-lived? Yes, there is wisdom in valuing borders in our present reality, insomuch as a country that allows anyone entrance anytime, under any circumstances, without properly vetting those newcomers opens itself up to senseless security risks that do nobody any good. But for the people who are already here, working hard, learning the language, supporting our Constitution, and obeying the law, our posture ought to be one marked by grace.

The vast majority of Hispanic workers living here illegally are not an issue, a problem, a drain—not spiritually speaking, anyway. They are invaluable souls created in the image of God, and as such deserve our love. Most refugees fleeing Middle East trauma and taking up shelter here are not a headline, a crisis, a threat. They are men, women, and children who’ve been indwelt with the very stuff of God. And as such, they warrant our compassion, our kindness, and our respect. God says, “To them, and to everyone, I’m asking you to show love.”

As followers of Jesus, we are called to invest in the hearts and lives of all people, including our world’s most marginalized. And today, there are no more marginalized groups than undocumented workers and immigrants. But how do we make that investment? What is the most natural way to begin?

 

A Simple Starting Point

Isaiah 35 offers some help here. “Strengthen the feeble hands,” verse 3 begins, “steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you” (vv. 3-4).

From there, a whole series of cascading benefits unfolds in the hearers of those words: The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will hear, those who could not walk will leap like a deer, those who could not speak will shout for joy (see vv. 5-6). Help will come to the helpless. Hope will come to the hopeless. Light will shine in the darkness. A path will make itself known, where there have existed only dead ends. “Gladness and joy will overtake them,” the end of the chapter declares, “and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (v. 10).

But none of these things will occur unless we who say we love Jesus have the courage to first speak up. “Say to those with fearful hearts,” the passage leads off, which seems to indicate that the first act in loving anyone is simply to open our mouth and speak.

Instead of fearing, judging, disparaging, ostracizing, or condemning those who are different from us, we can approach them. Welcome them. Engage them in conversation, if they’re open to that. We can say, “I love to travel, and I love languages, but I can’t place your accent. Can you tell me about where you grew up?”

Eyeing the name on their name badge, if they’re wearing one, we can say, “What an interesting name. Is there a story behind it?”

Noticing a Muslim woman’s hijab, we can ask about the significance the practice of wearing a headscarf carries for her. Noticing an Hispanic man doing his job with diligence, we can ask how he came by a work ethic that’s so strong. We can comment on a cheerful countenance. We can acknowledge a sparkle in someone’s eyes. We can offer up a simple, “Hello,” and then linger in their presence for a few beats. We can start with whatever’s before us, commenting on anything we happen to observe, and then see where God happens to lead us, once we’ve leaped off that high-dive board.

When we as Christ followers set aside stereotypes in favor of collecting as many stories as we can … preferably from those wholly unlike us as well, we begin to realize that we have much in common with those with whom we’re splashing around in this pool called life. We all crave security. We all long for love. We all want to protect our children. We all want to live a life that’s truly life. Each time we focus on the soulish things that unite us instead of on the superficialities that keep us apart, we see with increased clarity that the deep dive we’ve chosen to take wasn’t so risky after all.

If you want to read more about the power of our words, check out my latest book, Speak Life.

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The New Life I Love

New Life Church has been my church family for over nine years and together, we have weathered many storms, climbed many spiritual mountaintops, planted churches, served the poor in our city, sent thousands on mission’s trips, equipped scores of students, written songs sung around the world and baptized hundreds of new believers.

New Life was birthed by God, filled with the Holy Spirit and centered on Jesus in the beginning and we still carry the fire that was stoked in us 32 years ago. Like every congregation, we have changed our methods to reach people in the 21st century, but we still have our core values, the non-negotiables of our sacred Scriptures, and the steadfast belief that if Jesus is with us, that is enough.

This week, as I celebrated my 50th birthday, I began to reflect on why New Life is so special to me and so many others. It’s easy to find fault with any group of people, but instead, I am filled with gratitude for several reasons.

1. I love how we abandon ourselves to worship, with hands lifted high and our voices singing the anthems.

2. I love how we love each other in our section communities, our groups and in the informal conversations in the lobby.

3. I love how we take risks and are not content to just play it safe.

4. I love how generously we give, especially when we see urgent needs in our city and world.

5. I love how we pray in private and how we cry out together in prayer meetings.

6. I love how we go to all our city and not just the comfortable places that are familiar to us.

7. I love how we rally around the hurting and the sick, caring for each other when all seems dark.

8. I love how every generation sees the value of worshipping and serving alongside one another.

9. I love how resilient we are when we make mistakes, choosing to learn, forgive and go on rather than cast blame.

10. I love how our past has shaped our present while not preventing us from dreaming and imagining a hopeful future.

What do you love about your church? What is the clear mission for you and the congregation God has called you to serve and support? Use the hashtag #ILoveMyChurch and share your thoughts on social media this week. Let’s look for the good that is happening all around us, especially in the church that Jesus left us to care for and build.

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Discipleship and the Weekend Gatherings

It’s true that even the most committed believers are attending church less, but it’s also true that people are surrendering their lives to Christ at most churches where the Good News is proclaimed. The 21st century dilemma for the American church is discovering how to make disciples of people who are so easily distracted from attending the very gatherings that can help them grow.

I’m writing this on a Sunday evening after six weekend services that were all full, so this is not a rant from a discouraged pastor, but from one who wants to shepherd the growing flock entrusted to my care. Cultural norms are making us busier than we want to be and busier than we need to be. In my book Addicted to Busy, I explain how the chaos of our culture is making us less connected and of our need to slow down.

What does this mean for spiritual nourishment, biblical soul care, and making disciples? It means the weekend gatherings are more important than ever. The songs, sermons and sacraments that make up our weekly liturgies have to be more intentional toward new and emerging believers. We have to give attention to the basics of our faith and make sure we do not hurry past the simple tenets, under the assumption that everyone is up to speed.

Right now, we are in the playoff season for the NFL and the teams that are still competing for the Lombardi Trophy are the ones who emphasized the basics over and over and over and over. They can all block and tackle well. Their coaches did not assume anything in the preseason. When the players were complaining for something more complex, the coaches ran them through one more set of drills. Blocking and tackling led to more blocking and tackling.

For centuries, most church traditions have recited the Nicene Creed as a way of reminding the faithful of our basic beliefs formed around the Father, Son, Holy Spirit and church. It is not religious rote, it is a recitation rich in prayer and Scripture.

One more thing, I do think we must honor people’s time and there is certainly appropriate attention spans, but people are ok with services that last 80-90 minutes, especially if the service is compelling, thoughtful and full of the Holy Spirit. Looking at the average movie length of the ten highest-grossing movies of each year for the past decade, Hollywood blockbuster’s have gone from just under two hours to more than 130 minutes in length. Going back another decade, movies today are 1.2 times longer than they were in 1992.

The amount of time we spend is not as important as the content of our gatherings. People are coming to church to grow and to connect. Make the services rich with spiritual nourishment. Encourage the saints, compel the cynics and welcome home the prodigals. Awaken people’s spiritual appetites on the weekend and then work hard at providing classes and small groups. Discipleship is a long process and we must not be discouraged. It is a journey worth finishing well.

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Celebrate, Tolerate, Obliterate

Values – Important and lasting beliefs or ideals shared by the members of a culture about what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable.

When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.
Roy E. Disney

 

Every team has values, shared beliefs and convictions that guide its decisions and ultimately determine success or failure. There may be nothing more important than a team’s values because they help define the wins, develop strategies and steer us from distractions. Values are the non-negotiable creeds of our organizations, the unchanging True North.

Big Idea If our values are unclear or ignored, our teams will be ineffective or toxic. Great teams have shared values that are celebrated.

Most people on our teams celebrate the shared values. They will strive for unity and are not content with mediocre. They cheer for others who hit the mark and there’s a sense of shared responsibility for the group’s well-being. They’re honest with their struggles, true with their friendship and gracious when sincere efforts fail. Values are discussed, debated and agreed upon regularly. They really admire the team and what the team produces. Promote these people.

Some on our team are just tolerating the values. They’re not rebels, but they’re certainly not disciples. They seem like devotees in meetings, but they rarely champion the team in private. They’re generally peaceful, but seldom passionate which means innovation and proactive problem-solving are both rare. To be fair, this may be the fault of leadership. Maybe, the values have never been explained or consistently modeled. Spend more time with these people.

The third group obliterates the values. They do not admire the other teammates and do not love what the team is doing. They’re always the center of some drama and strife and they’re indifferent about budgets and missed deadlines. They’ve been taught, and taught, and taught, but they do not agree with the values and never will. They do not need to be on the team. Help these people transition.

Most teams can agree on values if we will slow down and ask more questions. Give your team room to debate and adopt the values. Make them clear and easy to understand. Allow the introverts to process and the extroverts to argue out loud.  Create a culture of honest debate and allow everyone to participate. Coach those who want to grow, and don’t feel awful when disagreeable people choose to go elsewhere. Great teams get great results because of great values that are celebrated.

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