Monday, March 31, 2008

School Adoption Update

I drive past an elementary school near our church every time I go to our local YMCA. When I say "near our church," I mean that most of us could easily walk to the campus from the doors of Westbury. This past Sunday, the Houston Chronicle printed their annual "School Report Card," and I looked up this campus. Overall, the school was rated "Academically Unnacceptable," the lowest possible rating. Over 96% of the kids in this school are listed as being from low income families.

Not long ago, I shared with the church my own belief (and I believe this is from God) that our church should take responsibility for the condition of our community. As such, we should not settle for a failing grade on a school that close to us. Now, of course I know that such an idealistic attitude overshadows some real questions. We cannot erase all of the problems in our community. But at least we can do something. And I believe a great way to start "doing something" as a church is for us to adopt a local school. When I first shared this with WBC in a sermon last month, the response was incredible. People are excited about the possibilities of such a program. Obviously, this ministry effort won't be for everyone, since we all have diverse gifts, passions and callings in the Body of Christ. But I believe adopting a school will mobilize quite a few of us...and that those who join in this effort will see other needs in our community, which will mobilize still other WBC members, and so on, and so on...

Since that Sunday, I have been researching the best way for us to proceed. There are many groups that offer good adopt-a-school programs, so there is no reason for us to re-invent the wheel. Three such groups are:

Mission Houston, which is starting a bold new Whole and Healthy Children Initiative in the coming school year. More info can be found here.

Kids Hope, which offers a nationally recognized program. Find out more here.

The Urban Alternative, which has offered its National Adopt-a-School Initiative since 1985. TUA is led by Dr. Tony Evans. A video and other info are here.

As you will see if you visit those websites, all three programs are good. They each have their advantages and disadvantages in our particular context. My plan is to meet with representatives of all three groups and to find out all I can, and that we can adopt a school in the coming academic year (2008-2009). Join me in praying that God would lead us to the right program, and that through this WBC would more effectively transform our community for Christ!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Beware Counterfeit Faith

All this year, I am preaching about the difference it would make if we really tried to follow Jesus, instead of merely being religious. So far, we've focused on one particular aspect of that theme: responding to unbelievers as Jesus did. I hope you got as much out of that sermon series as I did out of preparing it.

But now, let's move on to another part of what it means to follow Jesus: We should really know God, not just know about Him. We should experience a real relationship with a real God which brings us real joy, real purpose and real transformation...instead of just having a set of doctrines we believe, rules we try to follow, and rituals we perform. Ever heard the old cliche, "Christianity isn't a religion, it's a relationship?" That's the general idea, only I don't think many Christians really experience it that way. Relationship is harder than religion. It takes more work, more self-sacrifice. But it is so, so worth it.

Our text for this series (much shorter than the last one; this series will only last four weeks) is Phillipians 3. This week, we'll start by looking at vv. 1-3, as Paul shows us a counterfeit form of faith that can easily distract us from a real relationship with God.

Hope I see you there!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Feedback on our Easter service

This Easter Sunday was definitely something different. We worshipped in the auditorium at Johnston Middle School, ostensibly because during our renovation we can only seat around 500 people in the gym, and we wanted more room than that. But truth be told, we (the ministry staff) have wanted for some time to do a worship service someplace other than our church campus. We hoped perhaps some folks who would feel intimidated coming into our big, beautiful worship center might feel more comfortable coming to a service in a non-churchy setting. This renovation simply gave us a good reason to try it out.

As for me, I thought things went exceptionally well. The crowd was not overflowing, but it was too large to seat comfortably in the gym. So, so many people worked hard to make this all happen, including the people who addressed invitation cards to the community (I had a lady sit behind me at the service who came because of those cards), people who stayed here at WBC to keep the nursery, ushers, choir members, sound team, and so many others. All the work really showed, in my opinion.

But I'd love to hear from you about it. What can we learn from this service? What could we have done better? What about this "worked," in your opinion? I look forward to reading your comments.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Proving Easter

In seminary, I learned apologetic arguments for the existence of God, the veracity of the Bible, and the reality of the resurrection. This was all in a class called "Philosophy of Religion." In that class, we also learned basic tenets of other major world faiths, and how to interact with them biblically. I have to tell you, I loved that class. I found the material fascinating. My professor was Dr. Steve Lemke, and I enjoyed him so much that years later--after he had moved to New Orleans Seminary--I asked him to be faculty mentor on my Doctoral Project. I made an A in Philosophy of Religion. I still have the class notebook--all tattered and dogeared--and I occasionally refer to it.

Since I'm armed with this useful information, would you like to guess how many atheists, agnostics and members of other faiths I have successfully argued into Christian faith? If you guessed "zero," buy yourself a Reese's Easter Egg. You're right. Fact is, all of that apologetic information is fun to learn, and helps strengthen my faith, but unbelievers don't find it very compelling. Nor are they convinced by the reasons you and I first chose to believe in the empty tomb: Mostly summed up in the old hymn...

He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today.
He walks with me and talks with me along life's narrow way.
He lives! He lives! Salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!

Today's irreligious people will respond to that testimony by saying, "That's nice for you. But it's not for me."

So how can we prove to unbelieving people that the resurrection of Jesus--the most important historical event in history and the foundation of our faith--really happened? We should take a cue from the first Christians. They faced obstacles to belief that make ours seem like a preschool Easter Egg hunt. Yet they persuaded thousands to believe in the risen Christ in their generation. How did they do it? Read Acts 4 this week, and come Sunday for our Easter service. We'll talk more about proving Easter to those who need most to hear it.

Easter is upon us!

As followers of Jesus, this week is the high point of our year. I wanted to encourage each of you to make the most of it. Pray that God would draw you closer to Him this week as you remember the last week of our Lord’s earthly life. Spend some extra time in prayer and in study of His word. If you can get away for a time of private solitude and spiritual reflection, this is a great week to do it. And of course, look for opportunities to invite someone to our Easter service this week.

As you hopefully know by now, we will be meeting at Johnston Middle School this Sunday. There’s no Sunday School this week, and the worship begins at 11. Childcare is available at our church campus for kids birth through 3. Please call the church office to let us know if you will need to leave your kids with us.

Parking should be fine if we all work together. If your family ordinarily brings more than one car to church (like mine), please try to consolidate. Some of you might even consider meeting at WBC and carpooling to Johnston together. If you can, please park on the street near the school (You can park on either side of Wigton or Manhattan) and leave the school parking lot for guests, the elderly, and those with mobility issues.

It should be a great worship time. We have already seen (in our time in the gym) how refreshing it is to get out of our comfort zone and work together in doing something different. This Sunday should be even better! Please keep this service in your prayers, especially for the worship leaders, sound team, ushers, children’s workers, and the many others who will be working hard this Sunday.

I can’t wait to see you there!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jesus and the Dying Person

I once heard a preacher say, "The thought of dying brings extraordinary focus and clarity to one's life. If you've ever spoken to a person who knew he had only a short time to live, it's amazing how different that conversation is. They don't want to talk about sports, the latest movie or fashion trend, or what's going on in the news. They just want to talk about what's most important."

Are we as God's people equipped for those kinds of conversations? Most people rarely think about death, but at certain times--at the funeral of a loved one, when they've had a bad report or just a "scare" from their doctor, when a catastrophe like 9/11 occurs--people are suddenly given that gift of clarity I talked about in the preceding paragraph. They need someone they can trust, who can walk them through the most important questions of life: How can I make up for the mistakes I've made up to this point? What lies ahead after this life is through? How do I make sure I'm headed for heaven?

In our current sermon series, we've looked at different encounters Jesus had with particular unbelievers. We've talked about getting out of our Christian "bubble" and developing relationships with these same kinds of people, about maximizing every day we're given to live in a world that needs Christ's love, and how to lead someone across the finish line of faith. Sunday, in the last message of this series, we'll look at Jesus' final encounter with an unbeliever, a man who was only hours from death himself. It's found in Luke 23:39-43. Afterwards, we'll celebrate the Lord's Supper together.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Missional Church

Yesterday, I attended a seminar at the Union Baptist Association on the topic of "The Missional Church," led by Ken Shuman, pastor of Wellspring Church in Tomball. The idea of Missional Church is a hot topic in ministry circles over the past ten years, with plenty of books, articles and seminars devoted to it. But what really is a missional church? Let me just start by sharing Ken's list of the four different kinds of churches:

The Attractional Church: Tries to attract people to its building so that they can hear about Jesus, be converted, and then discipled. Assumes the best way to do this is to offer a wide range of high quality programs that will attract (and satisfy) a maximum number of people. Success is measured in attendance numbers. Almost all of the church's resources (money, prayer, work hours, planning) are spent on internal ministry to the church's own members.

The Mission Minded Church: An attractional church that wants to help change the larger world. A significant portion of their resources are spent on ministry to those outside the church, but the bulk of the resources are still internally focused, and the emphasis on missions is mostly in terms of giving money to someone else (ie, the Cooperative Program, special missions offerings). Note: In my opinion, this is the category WBC would most resemble.

The Externally Focused Church: An attractional church that expects its members to be involved in ministry outside the church walls. This kind of church doesn't simply measure success in terms of attendance, they also measure it in terms of impact on the community. Therefore, one-quarter to one-half of their resources are focused outside the church.

The Missional Church: This is a very different kind of animal. A missional church isn't concerned about how many people they can attract to their campus. Often, they don't have a campus at all. Instead, their emphasis is on training their members to live like missionaries, studying the culture of unchurched people and finding new ways to translate the Gospel story into their language. This is different from the "seeker-sensitive" movement that became popular twenty years ago, led by Willow Creek Church. A missional church would be extremely simple. Ken Shuman, for instance, left a life as a successful pastor of a traditional Baptist church to become leader of Wellspring, which meets in a coffee shop and has no full-time clergy. Ken works as manager of the coffee shop in order to support his family and plays in a weekly Poker league in order to build relationships with unchurched people (in order to reassure us uptight Baptists, Ken promised that the poker games aren't for money). They measure success in terms of stories, lives changed, not in terms of raw attendance numbers. Because missional churches don't have the high overhead associated with church buildings, paid clergy or high-quality programs, they can focus nearly all of their resources on the lost.

So what did I get out of this seminar? Well, don't worry. I have no desire for Westbury to sell its buildings. I'm not even planning on growing a goatee or preaching with my shirt-tail out. But there is a lot we can learn from this missional church movement. For instance:

We can strive to become an externally focused church. I have a feeling that when we adopt a school, it will be just the beginning of a new focus for Westbury. Many of our members are going to get involved in the lives of local kids and their families, and we'll see numerous heartbreaking needs that have been going on un-addressed right under our noses. That will lead to other new ministries, and within a few years, this church will offer numerous opportunities for its members to be involved in community transformation. Soon, that will become the expectation of every member: "I go to worship, I have a small group Bible study for fellowship, and I reach the community through ministry." At least, that's my dream.

We can learn to look at our ministry in a missional way. Here's a really great quote from yesterday's seminar: "The church is supposed to be the visible representation of God's Kingdom in the real world, not a purveyor of religious goods and services for the religious clientele." That resonates with me, but how do we become that "visibile representation of God's Kingdom?" It's going to take work to change our mindset. We have to learn to see our own ministry through the eyes of unchurched people. Here's a disturbing question: If our church suddenly packed up and moved out of this community, how many people would even know we were gone?

We can pray about planting a missional church. What if we sponsored a missional church in the same way we have sponsored many ethnic missions? The idea would be the same: We would be starting a mission in order to reach a group of people we cannot reach...only this time it would be unchurched post-moderns, not a different language group.

We can teach our own members to be missional. Conventional church wisdom has taught us that if we live good lives and offer great programs at our church, unsaved people will come to us. That's not happening anymore, if it ever did. Ken said, "We earn the right to share the Gospel with people by being in relationship with them and by doing good works in the community." I think he's right about that: People would be more eager to hear our Good News if they actually knew us as real people and saw the positive changes we were making in the world. We have to train our members to see this as their responsibility.

Moving blues

Sorry I didn't blog last week. I have a commitment to you to put at least one thing on here a week, including a preview of the week's sermon so that you can pray in advance and comment afterward. My excuse is that we moved on March 1, so last week was consumed with unpacking boxes and all the other fun, fun, fun stuff of moving. In almost sixteen years of marriage, Carrie and I have moved WAY too many times. I have already told her that I intend for my next move to be to either the nursing home or the funeral home...either way, somebody else is moving me. Sunday morning, Jerry Cook asked me, "Is there anything worse than moving?" Good question. Aside from the obvious, totally unhumorous things like the death of a loved one, here are some events I have experienced that were worse than moving:

1. An IRS audit.
2. A stomach virus.
3. Oral surgery.
4. College Algebra.
5. College Physics.
6. A bladder infection.
7. Stuck in a small room with a salesman working on commission (with apologies to all you salespeople).
8. Watching the movie "Beaches" (with apologies to all you Bette Midler fans).
9. Accidentally smashing my cell phone/PDA in the car door the day I moved.
10. My favorite football team losing its coach to Baylor...grrrr.

Any others to add to the list?