Sunday, July 26, 2015

What I did on my sabbatical: The Ark Church

Today, my family and I visited The Ark Church in Conroe.  I wasn't familiar with The Ark, but I had heard that it did a great job of welcoming newcomers.  Since that is certainly something I want Westbury to do, I decided it was worth a visit to see what I could learn.

First of all, the reputation is well-deserved.  We attended the 9:30 service; they also have one at 11:15.  When we drove up, the first sign we saw said, "Visitors, please turn on your flashers."  We did so, and this alerted the parking lot team.  These guys were all over the huge parking lot.  And every one we approached saw our flashing lights and helped guide us where we needed to go. The man nearest where we parked came over to introduce himself and to ask our names.  He walked us to the worship building and got the attention of a greeter, then introduced us to her by name.  This woman handed us a welcome packet, showed us where to return the visitor information card in order to get our free gift, and told us about their life groups.  She then escorted us to the sanctuary, where a network of attentive, well-trained ushers were there to help us find the best possible seats for four people.  The entire process took five minutes.  Although we'd never been to The Ark before, we never once felt confused about where to go.  It was impressive, indeed.  Only one other church I've attended had as well-crafted a system: Oak Hills Church in San Antonio (founded by Max Lucado).  As a pastor, I thought about how many volunteers, and how many hours of training, it takes to produce such an experience.  To make things even more impressive, my wife decided ten minutes into the worship service that she needed a jacket and returned to our car; the parking attendant who had first met us saw her and said, "Are you already done, Carrie?"  Clearly, these volunteers take their jobs very, very seriously.

Once we were inside, the experience was pretty common to suburban megachurches; Same predominantly white, upper-middle-class, casually dressed crowd; same fan-shaped interior; same lighting scheme (dark, rock-concert feel during music, lights up during preaching); same driving beat to the music.  The Ark had around ten people on stage during the music; half were singers.  They started with two congregational songs (Open Up the Heavens and God's Great Dance Floor).  Then one of the worship leaders invited people to come forward during the next two songs if they wanted someone to pray with them.  Many people did so.  Those two songs were Forever Reign and Bless the Lord, O My Soul (the first of the four that was a little slower).  The Executive Pastor came out and led a "greet your neighbor" time, then the Community Pastor gave a short sermonette that led into the offertory.  He talked about different ways we show honor and respect to people, then quoted Proverbs 3:6 and said one way we honor God is by giving Him our tithes (while this was going on, the screen listed different ways you can give: cash, check, credit card, online, direct deposit, text message, etc).  He then prayed and--I thought this was pretty cool--prayed for other local churches, mentioning one of them by name.  As the offering baskets were passed, instead of music, they showed announcement videos on the screens.  Then the five singers came back out and sang It Is Well With My Soul as a special.

So far, I am 0 for 2 as far as hearing Senior Pastors preach.  Today, the Executive Pastor preached. His sermon answered three questions: What is the soul?  Why is it important?  How do we care for our soul?  He answered the last question with the acronym SOS: Slow down, Observe, and Seize the moment.  It was a well-researched sermon, and he was very well-prepared.  I prefer messages to be a bit more expository, but he did a good job.  At the end of the sermon, he had us bow our heads.  He asked anyone who might be interested in following Jesus for the first time to raise their hands.  He then led us through a responsive prayer that was basically a prayer of salvation.  He then said, "If you prayed that prayer for the first time, please let us know.  There's a "Yes!" card in the pew in front of you; fill it out and take it to a booth in the lobby that says "Yes!".  Or just text "changed" to the following number..."  And like that, the service was over.  No closing song, no benediction.  The entire thing was 1 hour on the nose.

On the way out, I visited the booth with my visitor card (I am eager to see how they contact me) and received a very nice coffee mug with the church's logo (Carrie has already claimed it).

Overall, I liked the invitation to prayer, and of course was awed by the visitor welcome.  Everything at The Ark is well-designed and well-rehearsed.  Nothing is left to chance.  I had to borrow a pen from someone near me in order to fill out my visitor card, but it seems they thought of everything else.

Sabbatical Diary: The First Week

I have a few goals for this sabbatical:
1. Visit churches with a reputation for reaching people, and see what I can learn from them.
2. Get a good start on writing a year-long devotional book.
3. Read some good books.
4. Spend a little extra time with my family.
5. Get a bit more sleep than usual.

So far, so good.  I've visited two churches so far (more on the second church in my next post).  I've done some reading, although I'm a little behind on that goal.  My family time has been great...even if a good portion of it was spent in the summer heat planting new landscaping (and naturally, chopping right through a sprinkler line.  Hello, Mr. Plumber).  And as for sleep, it has been quite nice.

The book I'm writing is tentatively titled Finding Jesus.  It's going to be a 365-day devotional look at the life of Jesus.  The goal is that Christians can use it in their daily devotionals or (even better) give it to a friend who doesn't know Christ.  This week, I managed to come up with Scripture texts and working titles for each of the 365 readings.  I also wrote an introduction and the first ten readings.  It was enough to show me this is going to take awhile; I certainly won't finish before my sabbatical is through.  But if I can get a good chunk written, I can finish (hopefully) later this year by writing a little every day.  I've pasted the intro below.  Let me know what you think.  

            Lieutenant Dan Taylor: “Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?” 
            Forrest Gump: “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for Him, sir.” 
            Why do I think you should read this book?  I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is different from other great men and women of history.  Studying the lives of figures like Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, or Mother Theresa can be inspiring.  But when people strive to know Jesus, it changes their lives for the better.  The very act of seeking Him improves the seeker; I can’t think of anyone else, alive or dead, like that.  If you are already a follower of Jesus, I hope this book can help you know Him more fully.  You’ve probably discovered this by now, but time spent with Jesus--even time reading familiar stories--is always time well spent.  But I am hoping this book will enable you to see aspects of His character you’ve never considered before.  If you so choose, this book can be read as a year-long daily devotional guide.  Within the twelve chapters are three hundred sixty-five readings, each containing a Scripture reference and a paragraph or two of commentary.  The readings are undated, so you can start any time of year.  As you read, pray for God to help you know Jesus better than you ever have before.  Keep a journal of any new insights you gain.  And consider passing the book along to a friend who needs to know Jesus, too…or even reading it along with them.
            I wrote this book with non-Christians in mind, as well.  In the movie Forrest Gump, Lieutenant Dan, having lost both legs in combat, has no use for a God who seems either unaware of his problems, or impotent to help.  He especially resents the pat answers and manipulative language of religion, with its promises that He can “walk with Jesus in the Kingdom of Heaven.”  (Of course, Lieutenant Dan later makes peace with God…and he does walk again.)  Perhaps you’ve experienced the same frustration with religion.  Maybe your experience with Christians can be summed up by words like “Hateful,” “Self-righteous,” “Overly political,” “Homophobic,” “Anti-Science.”  The goal of this book isn’t to make you any of those things.  In fact, if you get to know Jesus, you’ll find that He wasn’t any of those things, either (But the people who conspired to kill Him were).  Could it be that the impressions you have of Jesus are based on false assumptions?  Wouldn’t you like to know what He was really like?
            Or perhaps looking for Jesus has never really occurred to you.  You’re not particularly religious, and you can’t think of any good reason to change that.  Somehow this book has landed in your hands (Maybe one of your pushy religious friends gave it to you).  Do me a favor: Read the first chapter, and see why I believe Jesus is the most important and influential person in human history, whether you believe the Church’s claims about Him or not.  Then consider the fact that this man-- a man so influential history is literally divided into everything that happened before Him, and everything that has happened since--this man didn’t claim to know truth, He said He WAS Truth.  He didn’t come to teach us new facts about God; He said He WAS God.  Either this was the most successful con artist ever…or the key to life as we know it.  Shouldn’t you make an informed decision about such a person, just in case?  Wouldn’t that be the most responsible thing to do?    
            One thing to note: I believe we can’t truly know Jesus without studying the Bible; In other words, I assume that the Jesus of Scripture is the Jesus of history.  (I realize that’s a counter-cultural assertion, so if you’re wondering why I assume this, read Appendix: Why the Bible is the most reliable source of information about Jesus). There have been many books written about Jesus over the years, all claiming to reveal the “true” story.  But I believe the true story of Jesus was completed 2000 years ago.  My book is simply an effort to help guide you through that story.  Please don’t skip the Scriptures I reference; take time to read them carefully.  

            So come along on a journey with me.  No matter who you are, I pray you’ll find Him.  I’m confident you will.  After all, He said it Himself:  Everyone who seeks, finds(Matthew 7:8).

Here are the chapter titles:

1. Who was He?  His impact on the world.
2. The expectation of a Messiah
3. His birth and early life
4. Jesus the Teacher--His parables
5. Unimaginable power--His miracles
6. A new way of life--The Sermon on the Mount
7. Jesus and the people--His relationships
8. His enemies
9. His death
10. His resurrection
11. The promise of His return

12. Who do you say that I am?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sabbatical Diary: Ecclesia

Each Sunday during my sabbatical, I plan to visit growing churches.  I am, of course, eager to be fed spiritually, but I also want to see how they do things.  I'm taking notes on each one for my own sake, but recording them here in case anyone else is interested.

For my first visit, I chose Ecclesia, located in Houston's historic First Ward arts district, near downtown.  Ecclesia has long been known for effectively reaching the Millennial generation and people of all ages who come from non-Christian backgrounds.

As we drove up, men in orange vests helped us find a parking spot--always a nice touch for a newcomer.  The building itself looks like a warehouse from the outside; inside, the feel is converted warehouse/coffee shop/art gallery/small conference venue.  The "conference venue" is the worship area, with seating on three sides of the stage, and screens all around.  We got into the worship area a bit late (I encouraged my family to try the coffee bar, and the line was long), so we had to sit near the back of a packed room--not my usual seating preference.  The crowd was young and racially diverse, although white folks were in the vast majority. I would say the average age in the room was 25-28.  People were well-dressed but casual; it looked like a catalog for American Eagle or some other popular clothing brand.

The worship service went as follows:

  • Opening song: an upbeat version of Amazing Grace.  
  • Standard stand-and-greet time
  • An infant baptism; it was much like our parental dedications, in which the parents pledge to raise their kids in the faith and the church promises to do all they can to help; except with a baptism, and anointing the baby's forehead with oil.  The leader encouraged us to write a note to the baby and his family, to encourage them; I thought that was a neat idea.
  • Two more upbeat worship songs: My Lighthouse and All the Poor and Powerless
  •  A slower worship song, with which I wasn't familiar.  The chorus was "I can't help myself."
  • The offertory was introduced by a responsive reading, then baskets were passed as the band played another song.  The kids left at this point for Children's church.
  • The sermon was entitled Generously Good, based on 2 Corinthians 8.  Founding pastor Chris Seay is in Rwanda, so the preacher was introduced simply as "Gideon."  The basic question of the sermon was "How is generosity a path to good news?"  Gideon talked about how most Christian generosity produces pride and a sense of entitlement in the giver (as in, "I've given so much, I deserve something good in return").  Whereas true biblical generosity comes from a motive of gratitude which leads to abundant joy.  It was a highly biblical sermon, very challenging and very effectively presented.  The graphic presentation on the screen was well-done and helped us assimilate the information in the message.  The sermon lasted about 40 minutes.  My only complaint was that I had a tough time hearing everything Gideon said. 
  • Communion was introduced by a responsive reading of confession and a prayer to bless the elements.  Church members sign up for the opportunity to serve Communion; at the appointed time, they left their seats and walked to the front, where they stood in a cluster, holding pieces of bread or cups of juice or wine (both were available).  There were also gluten free breads at other places in the room.  The band played while we streamed forward to take a pinch of bread and dip it in the juice/wine.  People who wanted prayer could approach prayer leaders during this time; people who wanted to join the church could do so as well, by filling out a card and lighting a candle.  This all took around 10 minutes.
  • The service closed with a benediction.  It was just short of 90 minutes long.
Worship at Ecclesia was an interesting mix of the new and the old.  The dress was stylish casual (Gideon wore a white T-shirt and denim jacket), the music was strictly contemporary (with a five-piece band, including a steel guitar, giving it more of an indie-folk feel than the Hillsong driving rock beat that is so popular in many churches) and very well-done, and the sermon was delivered in a conversational, authentic style with plenty of humor and self-deprecating testimonial...and content fitting for any truly evangelical church.  However, elements like Baptism, anointing with oil, Communion, responsive readings, and ending all prayers with "In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit" were reminiscent of more liturgical churches.  I thought the mix worked.  

As I waited for my family to get their coffee, I was standing at the back of the worship area when I was approached by a young man named Andre.  He asked how long I had been attending Ecclesia.  He had been coming there for 6-7 weeks.  We had a nice, friendly conversation (it turns out we have a mutual friend).  After a minute or two, he excused himself to close the partition that separated the worship area from the coffee area. I found it remarkable that a guy who has been attending for less than two months has already found a volunteer role, and feels a responsibility to greet newcomers.

I was impressed by Ecclesia.  If I were looking for a church home, I would go back.  

Sabbatical Diary: Mission Trip

My sabbatical officially began when this mission trip ended, but the trip was the perfect lead-in to a time of personal refreshment.  Although it was physically exhausting, it was so spiritually uplifting, I feel ready for whatever God has in mind for me over these next five weeks.

The week got off to a rather rocky start; several members of our mission team experienced health issues on the first day.  A couple had to drop out, while others were able to soldier on.  I arrived on Monday, the 13th, in mid-afternoon, just in time to join the team for the evening VBS.  Our schedule was as follows:

8:00--Breakfast at Valley Baptist Mission Education Center
9:00--Depart for Edinburg (about 40 minutes away)
10:00-11:45--Lead Vacation Bible School for kids at community center in Edinburg
1:00--Lunch back at VBMEC
4:00--Pray and load up for trip to Donna (about 45 minutes away)
5:30-7:30--VBS at Iglesia Vino Nuevo in Donna
8:30--Supper back at VBMEC

Other members of our team had a completely different schedule; the construction crew had breakfast at 6:00 each morning, and ate lunch at the Donna mission (fed by the church members).  During the course of the week, they built a wheelchair ramp and several other important additions to the church building.  They would arrive back at VBMEC each day around the time we were leaving for Donna.  Tired as they were, some would shower, then join us in Donna for VBS.  While VBS was going on, Stephen and our youth were leading teenagers in sports clinics, with games like soccer, volleyball, and dodgeball.  At Donna, there were also craft classes for ladies.

The Church in Donna has only been around for a year and a half.  It was planted by New Wine Church in Harlingen in the middle of a Colonia.  The poverty near the church is like nothing we see in Houston; the spiritual poverty is equally as palpable.  Pastor Ivan, the administrator at a trucking company. and his wife Ruth lead the church.  On our last night there, we helped the church host a block party, with hot dogs, music and other entertainment, and a message from an evangelist.  Kids received free backpacks full of school supplies.

For me, the highlights were:

  • Mornings at the VBMEC, where I would have my devotions in their small prayer garden, watching the sun come up.
  • Finding out that our VBS at Donna, which was expected to draw 40 kids, actually drew 90-115 kids each night, and far more on Friday.
  • Hearing that, of the ladies who participated in the craft classes, 35 had never been inside a church before.
  • Personally praying with ten 10-11 year olds who accepted Christ as their Savior.  In addition, 12 adults received Christ as Savior at the block party.  That means at least 22 people began following Jesus that week.
  • Betsy, one of the 11-year-olds in Edinburg, who asked me on my last day, "Could you give me a prayer I can use every day?"  I wrote down the Scripture reference for the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), and "...but you can tell God whatever is on your mind, any time!"
  • Watching co-workers like Randy Mitchell, Hope McNeil, and Leanne Isenhower, who never seemed to stop moving.  Randy organized the entire trip, and Hope was in charge of VBS in both locations.  Everyone on this trip worked hard, but their efforts were inspiring to me.
  • Seeing people from my church of different age groups get to know one another.  
  • Getting to know people I didn't know well, like the Carillo family.  
  • Laying down in my own bed on Saturday night (sorry, it's the truth)!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Relationships in the Real World: Taking Jesus to Work

The Berger boys; that's me on the right, holding my BB gun right-side-up.

I’ve shared this story before, but when I was a kid, my dad would sometimes leave my brother and I with jobs to do during the summertime.  One day, he told us to dig a trench at the end of the garden in our backyard.  The garden area sloped toward the house, and Dad didn’t want water from the garden trickling down to the house.  So Bill and I decided to start in the middle and dig in opposite directions.  This way, we wouldn’t kill each other.  My philosophy on this sort of task was very simple: The objective was to get finished as quickly as possible so that I could move on to the stuff I really wanted to do.  So there I was, digging as fast as I could.  My brother, on the other hand, was moving very slowly.  He was using two shovels, a big one to scoop out the dirt, and a flat-bladed one to make the sides of his trench nice and uniform.  He was being extremely precise, making sure the trench stayed perfectly straight.  I began to tease my brother.  “Don’t you see how much time you’re wasting?  It doesn’t have to look pretty, it just has to catch water.”  Soon, I was done, but my brother worked quite a while longer in the hot sun.  Meanwhile, I sat in the AC and laughed about how hard he was working.  When my dad got home, he saw an interesting-looking trench.  One side looked more like it was the result of random seismic activity than human effort.  The other side looked like it was designed by a civil engineer…and in fact, my brother is an architect today.  Then—and anyone who has ever had a little brother will understand how painful this was—he shocked me by praising my brother and reprimanding me for my sloppy work.  He said something to me that I’ve never forgotten: The work we do, even if we don’t think it’s important, tells the world what kind of person we are.  When I did a sloppy job on that task my dad had given me, I was telling him and the whole world, “I don’t care about this.  I just want to do the minimum required to be done.”  For years into my adulthood, that trench was still there, a silent reminder that I should do everything I do to the glory of God.

This Sunday, I close out our series, Relationships in the Real World. Being a Christian doesn’t just mean we go to church and pray and avoid certain vices.  It means we relate to people in a way that is distinct, that shows the world there is something different in us.  That applies to the way we relate to the opposite gender, to children, to people of other faiths, and to people of no faith at all.  But it also applies to our relationships at work.  Specifically, workers and bosses should have a distinctively Christian way of relating to one another.  What does it mean to take Jesus to work with us?  We'll look at Colossians 3:22-4:1, a passage originally addressed to slaves and their masters.  We'll first deal with the thorny question of whether the Bible affirms the institution of slavery (spoiler alert: It doesn't.  But I'll prove that Sunday).  Then we'll talk about what this passage says to workers and bosses about how a Christ-follower should behave while on the job.  See you Sunday.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Christ and the Unbeliever

I’m in a series right now called Relationships in the Real World.  There should be a distinctively Christian way to treat people, and we’ve already talked about how God’s people should relate across the genders, how we should see children, and how we should treat people of other faiths.  But what about people of no faith at all?  As you surely know by now, that is the fastest-growing segment of our country today.  In the old days, every town had its village atheist, who the local pastor would doggedly pursue, like Ahab hunting his white whale.  But nearly everyone else was either a church member, or had an innate respect for religion.  Today is different.  An increasing number of our neighbors have no religious affiliation at all.  They fall into a number of categories.  Some grew up in religious homes, but have drifted away for a variety of reasons. They still believe intellectually, but simply don’t have any tie to organized religion.  Some have no faith background at all.  They come from a legacy of unbelief that is one or two generations old, or more.  Most aren’t hard-core atheists, but those who are have an exponentially louder voice in society today.  This means it’s very common to read articles or hear statements or see presentations on TV or the movies which question, ridicule, or even reject the core tenets of our faith.  Many others may not be actively hostile to Christianity; they just never give it a thought. 

 These people are our co-workers, our neighbors, our friends and our relatives.  They are people for whom Christ died, precious children of our Father, whose heart weeps for them, whose Holy Spirit pursues them tirelessly.  And if our Scripture is true, none of them will experience life as it was meant to be lived, and all of them will spend eternity apart from God, unless someone introduces them to Jesus.  And that won’t happen without us doing something.  They won’t come to our worship services--unless one of you invites them.  They won’t watch a religious TV program (except to make fun of it) or randomly start reading a Bible.  The Jesus they see in you and me is the only Jesus they will ever meet or hear about.  I want you to think about one of these people.  Say their name in your mind; picture their face.  What are we supposed to do?  Colossians 4:5-6 tells us.  This is Paul’s final instruction to the church at Colossae; after this, the letter is made up of personal greetings to his friends there.  And Paul was writing from prison, so he was measuring his words carefully, not knowing if he would ever have a chance to say these things in person.  What would Paul say to us about relating to unbelievers?