Category: Church Stories (page 1 of 3)

Following the Light – A Christmas Story

When I was a boy, my dad would load up me and my younger brother in his Ford pickup on cold December evenings and we would go duck hunting in the swamps, sloughs and muddy bayous of Pace Bottom. It was only a few miles from my North Louisiana home, but to me, it was the wildest place on the planet. Pace Bottom was thousands of acres of unspoiled wilderness, ripe with stories of panthers, trophy Whitetail deer and enough ducks flying overhead to block out the winter sun.

My dad would walk us a few miles into these backwaters and position us next to a Cypress tree with my 20-gauge single shot. I was more of a duck terrorist than an assassin. Mostly, I fired at ducks that were flying by at Mach speeds and rarely did I touch even a feather. Once the sun went down, my dad would come back to me and whistle, signaling the end of our hunt.

My brother and I would fall into line behind my dad for the long, cold walk back to civilization. My dad had hunted these lands since he was a boy, so he knew the logging roads and pig trails, but invariably, we would wander off the path, finding ourselves lost. For some reason, we always had just the one flashlight that my dad carried. We would inch our way through the brush thickets as young boys, trying to stay as close as possible, because he was the only one who knew the way home.

If we followed too closely, my dad would forget we were right behind him and  he would let go of the small branches. The tiny limbs were like iced barbed wire strands and would snap back, whacking us across the face and neck. If we lingered too far behind, we could not see the path in front of us and we would stumble in the night. My dad had the only light and he was the only one who knew the way home.

 

Isaiah 9:2 NIV

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

 

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the son of Joseph and Mary, the world looked a lot like the Pace Bottom of my boyhood. Israel was cold and dark, and danger was everywhere. There was no light to lead the people home. Maybe it was God’s intention all along to provide only one light, hoping we would stay close to him and not wander too far away.  He never promised us a pain free journey or a world where we would not stumble. He did promise to lead us though, if we would walk right behind him.

 

Psalm 119:105 NIV

“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path.”

 

Jewish people knew this passage well. It had been their song, their want and their hope for a thousand years. In fact, John opens his Gospel story describing Jesus as the Word, becoming flesh.

 

John 1:1, 5 NIV

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

 

In this season of Christmas, let’s decide to follow Jesus more closely, to find our way home from the light he has provided. We live in a dangerous world that can easily cause us to stumble. His light is enough, and His light is for us. Jesus is the only one who knows the way home.

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Motion vs. Momentum

As a pastor, there is no busier weekend than the one we just completed, a weekend filled to the brim with Good Friday and multiple Sunday gatherings to celebrate the resurrection. There was a lot of motion and activity around special songs, added sermons, and preparations for new guests.

For most pastors, this weekend was the high attendance mark for the year. There were more guests than any other Sunday, and for some, this meant more services than normal. If Easter weekend went well, everyone who served is feeling a bit tired today, depleted from all the responsibilities.

There. Was. A. Lot. Of. Motion.

What we need is an appetite for momentum, which can look a lot like motion unless you peer deeper. Motion is busyness. Momentum is miraculous. Momentum feels like cycling downhill with equal forces of mass and velocity working in your favor. Motion is energy spent, but not always with dividends paid.

Holy Week has always been the means to awaken the saints, to encourage the weak, to confound the cynics and to welcome home the prodigal. The darkness of the cross, joined with the ephemeral hours in the shadows of death, followed by the joyous actualities of the empty tomb is a story that awakens hearts and pulls us toward the deep.

Momentum is a gift from God to us, the extra push to get us off our spiritual training wheels. Momentum is Spirit working with the frailties of our will to engineer a better blueprint for living. Momentum is a cold breeze that makes us more alert, a warm sun on our face pointing us toward vigor. Momentum is a force grueling in its genesis but near unstoppable at its apex.

Motion is our attempt at getting systems right, to make the path easier by preparing diligently. There is nothing wrong with these things as long as the goal is clear. Let us not be so busy doing good things in good seasons that we forget to plant and water the spiritual seeds that bring us real life.

On this Monday, post-Easter, my prayer is for the millions who heard the narrative of Jesus last week to find themselves in a bigger story than any they could have written on their own. My prayer is for all the planned motion to point us toward real momentum, following the Way with renewed passion and strength. May the truth of the resurrection story cause us not to live busier lives with more motion, but to live resurrected lives with legitimate momentum.

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The Miracle Story of New Life

This past week, Pastor Mark Driscoll resigned from Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Mark was certainly one of the most high profile local church leaders of the past decade and his resignation from the church he founded left another big scar on the American evangelical landscape. I’m writing neither to defend nor decry the actions of Mark Driscoll or Mars Hill Church. I was not involved in any of the decisions that led to his resignation and I do not know any of the leaders who remain at the church. However, I do believe both Mark and Mars Hill can have a very hopeful future.

In August of 2007, I became the Senior Pastor of New Life Church after the founding pastor resigned. The church was devastated and many people felt the best days of NLC were behind them. In the past several years, other local churches have lost their high profile pastors and some of those congregations are still struggling while others have found sure footing and and are moving forward with healing and new vision for ministry.

I am no expert on church transitions, but I am experienced. When New Life was experiencing its trauma and sudden change, a passage of scripture from Psalm 137 was really helpful to me as I led the church.

Psalms 137:1 NIV

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”

 

From this one verse, I learned three vital lessons.

1.     Admit there is a new reality.

“By the rivers of Babylon”

We are not in Jerusalem anymore and when we return to Jerusalem, it will never be the same. This was the lament of a people that had been captured and led away from their homeland. Everything changed overnight. When people suddenly lose their pastor, it seems everything in the church changes forever and nothing will ever be the same. As a leader, we must admit they are right; it will never be the same and that is ok. Change is difficult enough for some people when all the conditions are favorable, but traumatic, sudden change can be super painful. Do not ignore the pain.

 

2.     Take time to mourn

“we sat and wept”

Staying busy keeps us occupied, but it does not allow for mourning or grieving, therefore, any church going through a painful transition must slow down and permit people to mourn. There has been a loss, so people need permission to cry, to reflect and to receive extensive counseling if necessary. Do not skip this step because pain that’s not allowed to heal will resurface until it does heal. Hurt people hurt people, but healed people can help people.

 

3.     Remember the past

“we remembered Zion”

Talk about the past and recall the great times, the “remember when” moments. When we can honor the pastor who departed, we should.  This is healthy and necessary, even if the former pastor did something terrible that warranted his departure. Obviously, not all the details can be shared publicly because we want those who were hurt to have private space for healing. However, there are wise and honoring ways to have public conversations that give the congregation permission to talk and find healing. Celebrate past wins sincerely and learn honestly from the broken history.

In those dark days at New Life, following a scandal, we felt the sun would never shine again on our congregation. But it did! Today, our church is opening Dream Centers to care for the poorest in our city, planting new congregations, baptizing new believers, training hundreds in our leadership academy, supporting mission’s work in over 30 countries, and writing songs that are sung by churches everywhere. New Life Church is a miracle story.

Tough times are inevitable for all churches and the valley of despair can appear permanent, but our story is proof that dark days are not forever. When David wrote the 23rd Psalm, he realized that God had not abandoned him when all seemed lost and that was reason enough to dream again. Let’s pray for Mars Hill, Mark Driscoll and other churches who are in the valley right now. Let’s pray for grace, healing, unity and redemption. We know this is possible for them because we have seen this miracle firsthand. We have been given much grace and we surely want grace for others.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me …” Psalm 23:4 NIV

 

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More Than Songs and Sermons …

Recently, a well known Christian author announced that he no longer attends church because he claims he does not connect with God through songs and rarely learns from listening to a lecture. If that was all the church was about, I suppose many would follow his example and abandon the weekly gathering.

However, church is more than a one hour production highlighted by song and sermon. Church is a perpetual gathering of people who, together, are becoming the people of God and while hymns and homilies are still very important to me and others, church involves a huge scope of Divine activity.

  1. We help prepare couples for marriage.
  2. We meet with married couples who are struggling to stay married.
  3. We perform official duties at weddings.
  4. We help families plan the funerals for their loved ones.
  5. We speak and lead at funeral services.
  6. We equip leaders to go plant churches around the globe.
  7. We send teams to help missionaries around the globe, especially in times of crisis.
  8. We help take care of the poor in our city, especially the widows and orphans.
  9. We baptize and disciple new believers.
  10. We celebrate the Eucharist together.
  11. We pray for the sick and visit them at their homes and in the hospital.
  12. We prepare meals and help those who are going through a crisis.
  13. We help people who are struggling financially.
  14. We gather and pray for each other.
  15. We support families who have adopted children.

“We” is a synonym for the entire church body in the above list. While a handful of these activities are overseen by the clergy, most are not. I suppose some of these could be done alone or with a few close friends, but after two decades of following Jesus, I am still convinced that we are best when we gather often as a big messy family to serve Christ and others together.

This past Sunday, I counseled a young unmarried couple who want to follow Jesus, but are living together. I prayed with a single mom who has a struggling teenager, hugged a young widow who is still grieving the sudden loss of her military husband, encouraged a family who is returning to the local church after 20 years away, answered questions from a sad lady who was upset about a church decision and prayed for an elderly couple who are moving to retirement in another state.

I did not choose all of them for my community and they did not all choose me. Church is not just hanging out with our friends or the people we choose. We need people we have not yet met and people we have not met need us. Church chooses us.

Sure, it would be easier to isolate myself among a tribe of homogenous people, but church does not give us that luxury. Church gives us the privilege of loving people unlike ourselves.

 

 

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The Praying Church

Recently, I sat down with Pastor David Perkins, who oversees the prayer movement here at New Life, to talk about the practical steps churches can take to create life giving prayer meetings. We talk about planning the meeting, leading the meeting and empowering others to take ownership of these prayer gatherings.

Click here to watch the video.

What have you learned that works well at prayer meetings? Leave your comments below.

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FOMO -The Fear of Missing Out

Ten minutes into our requested breakfast meeting, I regretted having said yes. The young man who had asked for the get-together—he needed some pastoral coaching, evidently—was sitting across from me at the diner, and now, there at the restaurant, with my full attention pointed his way, he had the gall to check his smart phone what seemed like every sixteen seconds. He checked it while I was ordering my meal, he checked it just after he ordered his meal, he checked it while I answered his questions, and he even checked it while he asked them. Unless the guy was waiting on word of an organ transplant—which I quickly learned he wasn’t—his lack of focus was totally unacceptable.

The world of psychology has a term for this annoying phenomenon of neglecting to pay attention to the person or situation immediately in front of you, choosing instead to see who else is doing something interesting or what else is going on. “FOMO,” it is called, otherwise known as the fear of missing out. FOMO is what causes us to “text while driving … interrupt one call to take another … and check [our] Twitter stream while on a date [or at a breakfast meeting with our pastor].” In short, we do these infuriating things because “something more entertaining just might be happening.”

I’m convinced that some of us could experience a visit from Jesus himself—live and in the flesh—and yet still we’d brazenly stick an index finger in the air and say, “Hang on, Jesus. Let me just check my Facebook wall real quick.”

There is an underlying fear motivating all this craziness; we don’t just want to be “in” on other people’s excitement, but we want them to find us exciting too. We want to be seen and heard and recognized and admired; we so desperately want someone to care. But what’s interesting is that when we shout along with hundreds of millions of others who are shouting, still we cannot be heard; our voice is simply lost in the others’ me-focused cacophony of sound.

After having considered the pace Jesus lived by, I arrive at an early conclusion: Jesus didn’t know FOMO very well. Actually, I don’t think he knew it at all. What concerned him was not being included on all the right lists, being retweeted by all the right handles, being known by all the right names. What concerned him was being hidden away in the character of his Father, and from there living life at peace.

John 15 contains a fascinating metaphor along these lines. Jesus is talking here to his disciples and explains his relationship to them in agricultural terms. “I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer,” he says. “He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken” (vv. 1-3).

He then goes on to say exactly how this fruit-bearing is going to occur: “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me” (v. 4).

So, it’s not that we are expected to live the Jesus Pace alone; he is the one who will get us there. He is the band leader in our quest for a rhythmic life.

“I am the Vine,” the passage continues, “you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples” (vv. 5-8).

As it relates to our present-day plague of FOMO, here is what I think Jesus is saying in these verses from John 15: “You’re only missing out if you’re missing out on me.”

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The Ministry of Generosity

“In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.” 2 Corinthians 8:2-4

The local church is at its best when it is generous to others in tough times. Paul was bragging in the above text about the Macedonians, who even though poor, were excited about an opportunity to be generous to another congregation that was in peril.

Recently, the most destructive wildfire in the history of Colorado swept through the Black Forest area of our community, leveling over 500 homes and killing two people. Over 20 families in our congregation lost almost everything in the blazes, many left with only a few belongings and the clothes they were wearing.

Immediately our community rallied with food, shelter, and boarding for the displaced. This past week, our ministry team visited those affected in the congregation and hand delivered some monies that had been given. The stories that came from these meetings reminded me of this scripture. No one expected the gift that was given but they sure were thankful. For some, the money will help them get back home quicker and for others it will help ease the pain of recovery.

For centuries, Christ followers have been generous givers, both with their money and their time. This scripture also gives us a better definition of generosity. Often we think only large gifts are generous, when that is not the case. Generosity is the grace to give sacrificially no matter the amount. Generosity is an attitude that compels us to help, to bless others with whatever is in our hands at the moment.

Generous people are a reflection of our God, who is a generous giver, bountiful with all that He has. I am grateful to lead a generous congregation that has discovered once again the joy of giving as much as we are able in times of very real trials.

Because of the size and scope of the wildfires, the needs in our community will continue for some time. If you want to participate in giving to those in need, click on the “Black Forest” banner at the top of our our website.

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The Blessings and Challenges of a Young Team

We are really blessed to have a great team of young leaders at New Life, but a young team also brings unique challenges that not all churches are ready to face. In fact, most churches tend to lean toward more mature pastors and leaders because of these potential messes. While I value maturity and believe we should honor those with experience we cannot leave young leaders behind.

So, if you are committed like I am to working alongside a team that reflects every generation, including the college and 20-somethings, take note of the challenges and rewards before you start this journey.

1. Young leaders sometimes have poor work habits.

This is especially true if they have never worked outside the church in the “real world.” Even though the church is a family, there is still work to be done, tasks to be finished, deadlines to be met and communication to be made. To do all this requires time management skills which are difficult for most young leaders who tend to think only about an hour into their future.

2. Young leaders do not know the right questions to ask.

I have heard many mature leaders complain, “I could have helped them if they had only asked.” Most of the time we think young leaders are arrogant, but most of the time, young leaders simply did not know what questions needed to be asked. We should tell them upfront to come to us with questions. More importantly we should make it easy for them to come to us because we have earned their trust and they know we want them to succeed.

3. Young leaders mean more messes to clean up.

Yep! That is true, but some of the greatest discoveries in human history were made in really messy laboratories. If you only want to perpetuate the status quo, work only with people who think and act like yourself. If you want innovation, youth and messes are a part of the deal. Yes, we can do it quicker without any messes, but that does not mean we can do it better.

4. Young leaders need places to practice.

Young leaders need laboratories where they experiment. Classrooms are fine for discussion of data and facts, but at some point they must get their hands in the soil. Right now, young leaders are overseeing many of the 24-hour prayer meetings at New Life and are getting real congregational leadership experience. Are all the meetings being led perfectly?  Probably not. But they are all being led sincerely, which is more important to me. We will coach them and lead them, but better yet, we will also learn from them.

We want young leaders at New Life. That is why we invest staff and resources into the Desperation Leadership Academy and into our New Life School of Worship. Students from around the world are on our campus right now, learning, studying, and making messes. I promise, both of us are better because of it.

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How Many Weekends Should a Pastor Preach?

How many times do you expect your pastor to speak on the weekends at your church? I am assuming your pastor gets to take some time off for vacation and rest, but is he supposed to be in the pulpit each of the other Sundays?

When I became the pastor here at New Life, I asked my mentors, who were also pastors of churches, what was a reasonable expectation, considering all of the other resposibilities that go with the vocation and calling of pastor. I also asked my elders to weigh in. We all decided that I should teach at least 36-38 Sundays. For the past five years, I have done just that.

Typically, I am here at my church for long stretches in Janauary and February, during the Easter season, in September and October and always at Christmas. Those are priority times for the lead pastor, in my opinion. If I am invited to speak at other places, I schedule those trips away from the busy seasons so I can focus my attention at home.

I try to take time off during the summer months and during holidays like Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day. These are times I give my staff the pulpit. They are all great communicators and the church needs to hear their voices. I also try to schedule our Overseers to speak at least once a year so our church can hear from the men who give us counsel.

So far, this has been a healthy rhythm for me and for New Life. I have space once a month to read, study and decompress from the weekly schedule of sermon prep. It also gives me space to focus during the week on being a pastor to the people in our congregation and allows more time at work for key meetings. It makes the Sundays I am here much better and it keeps me far from the cliff of burnout.

What do you expect from your pastor? Are our expectations and demands actually harming the pastors we love so much? Will you come to church if “someone else” is preaching? Let the conversation begin.

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Dream Centers Colorado Springs – One Year Later

Today we are celebrating the one-year anniversary of our women’s medical clinic here in Colorado Springs. The clinic is the first Dream Center to open which was in response to a tremendous need in our city for primary medical care for women 18-64. The free clinic is run by a dedicated team of medical professionals and over 100 volunteers who have cared for over 1000 patients, many of them multiple times.

The stories we hear every week are remarkable. Women who are caught in the nasty cycle of poverty are finding hope once again because they can get the care they need to continue working and providing for their children. Almost all of the women who come to our clinic ask us to pray for them and many of them are deciding to follow Jesus. This past Sunday, we baptized an entire family at New Life because the mom found Jesus through the ministry of our clinic.

More Dream Centers are scheduled to open soon, including Mary’s Home, which is an apartment complex we are purchasing this Fall to provide housing and hope for homeless single mom’s in our city and county.  Stay tuned for more details on this and other Dream Center projects in the months ahead.

All of these ministries are big steps of faith for us. We believe the promises of Proverbs 19:17 and are praying and trusting for the funds to move forward. If you would like to donate toward either of these ministries, click here. I am so grateful for all the volunteers and staff who have labored with such love this past year. This is not easy work, but it is certainly rewarding to see lives changed and families restored.

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