Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Recipe for Transformation

In the days after 9-11, someone published a cartoon that showed two men talking. One said, “I sure would like to ask God when He’s going to do something about all the evil in this world.”  The second man said, “I’m afraid He would ask me the same question.”  We’re in a series called What the World Needs Now.  We believe that what the world needs is Jesus Christ, and they will only meet Him when they see a Church where God is fully in charge.  Like it or not, that’s how God chooses to do His work: through His people, the Church.  Last week, we saw what it looks like when a church does that.  They saw God do amazing things, they loved people in an extraordinary way, even giving up their own possessions to help others; and they multiplied constantly. Today, we live in a time in America when most churches aren’t multiplying.  The experts tell us that the only churches that are growing are megachurches, and the only reason they’re growing is that people are leaving the small and medium churches to go where there’s a better show, with nicer buildings and cooler programs (that’s not the whole truth, but it’s true in many cases).  Meanwhile, the group of people who have no religious affiliation at all, the “nones” as they’re called, is growing faster than any religious group.  This has led many people, religious and non-religious, to proclaim the impending death of Christianity in America. Personally, I am optimistic, for many reasons. But here’s the main reason: The same God who changed the world through the tiny, under-resourced, fearful church in Acts is still God today. He still loves people just as much, and He still can do the impossible.  In fact, He loves doing that.  So today, we’re going to see how one church transformed a community in a single day.  We’ll be looking at Acts 3-4.  And here’s a spoiler: We’re going to see a man get miraculously healed, the apostles get arrested, 5000 people get saved, and the church pray so hard, they cause an earthquake.  How did it happen?  And what does it teach us about what it would take to see our own community transformed?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

What the World Needs Now

This Sunday, I return to the pulpit at Westbury Baptist Church for the first time in five weeks.  I am so very grateful for a church gracious enough to offer her ministers a sabbatic leave every seven years.  I have enjoyed this time of refreshment so much.  I've gotten off to a good start on my next writing project: a 365 day journey through the life of Jesus.  I've read some great books.  And I've visited some churches that are doing an amazing job of reaching people for Christ.  (If you'd like to read more about what I've been doing and experiencing, check out the last several blog posts).  In these last couple days before Sunday, I am trying to assimilate all I've learned and come up with a list of action steps I want to apply at WBC.  But I am also looking forward to worshiping with my church family again.  And I am excited about the new sermon series I'll be starting on this Sunday, What the World Needs Now.  And no, the answer isn't "love, sweet love."  Here's a preview: 

In a little more than a year, we will be voting on our next president.  I can’t remember an election with so many candidates; it’s going to be interesting to watch how this all shapes up.  (I have some thoughts on how Jesus would choose who to vote for: click here)  I think we should be thankful that we have the opportunity to choose our own leaders, and I urge each of you to take that responsibility seriously.  But I must say, none of these men or women can fix what is wrong with our country, much less the problems facing our world.  If you are putting your hopes on a politician to make things better, you will be disappointed.  What the world needs now is not a Democrat, a Republican, a Libertarian or any other human leader.  It needs a true Church. No, the Church can’t fix everything that’s wrong with our world, either.  But the Church represents the group of people through whom God does His primary redemptive work on Earth.  I’m not saying we need to convert our nation into a theocracy; the Church has never done well when endowed with political power.  I am saying that politicians can only do so much; what people truly need is reconciliation with the God who loves them.  And that happens through the work of His people on Earth, the Church.  So what the world needs now, more than anything else, is for the true Church of Jesus Christ to show up and do its thing.  All this year, we’ve been talking about what it means to follow Christ in the real world. We’ve talked about spiritual disciplines, finding your role in God’s work, and relationships.  But following Jesus isn’t something you do on your own.  It is supposed to be done as part of a community, His Church.  Over the next several weeks, we’re going to look at what can happen in a society when a true Church does its thing. And what is a true Church?  Not a particular denomination or worship style; a true Church is one where God is totally and completely in charge. In the book of Acts, we see the story of a congregation where God was totally, completely in charge.  This small, under-resourced group of people literally changed the world forever.  Sunday, we'll start the series with a look at Acts 1 and 2, and discover what transformed them from fearful, confused, and insignificant to an unstoppable force for good...and what it would take to see the same transformation in us.  

Monday, August 17, 2015

What I did on my sabbatical: Menlo Park Presbyterian Church

For the last church visit of my sabbatical, my daughter Kayleigh and I went to Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.  Menlo is just a mile and a half from Stanford University, and less than an hour from San Francisco.  I was actually born in San Francisco; my dad was stationed at the Presidio in the year following his service in Vietnam.  I was born, then a month and a half later, mom and I went back to Texas.  I had been back once since, when Mom and Dad took us on a huge car trip through the West, including a couple days in San Francisco.  I was looking forward to taking my own daughter back there, and the trip did not disappoint.  They had a heat wave while we were there; temps were in the high 80s Saturday and Sunday.  People who found out we were from Houston accused us of bringing the heat with us.  We would have gladly traded our weather for theirs!  We took a boat ride through the bay, rode bikes over the Golden Gate Bridge and into Sausalito, saw redwoods at Muir Woods, ate ramen in Chinatown…we wore ourselves out, but had a great time. 

Would you believe Kayleigh and I met a couple of fellow UH grads on our ride to the Golden Gate Bridge?  We took one another's pictures.  

            I didn’t choose to visit Menlo just to see Northern California.  The Senior Pastor at MPPC, John Ortberg, is in my opinion the best preacher of the Gospel alive today.  Of course, he wasn’t there Sunday.  I ended my sabbatical 0-5 in seeing Senior Pastors preach; a perfect shutout.  That’s alright; I didn’t actually come to see Ortberg--I can podcast his sermons anytime.  Menlo Park Presbyterian is doing an amazing job of reaching a highly irreligious region for Christ.  I wanted to see how they do things up close. 
            Our bodies were still on Central Standard Time, so it wasn’t hard for  us to make it to the 9:30 service.  In fact, we made it there just before the 8:00 traditional service had ended.  MPPC is the only church of the five I’ve visited that still has a traditional service.  The first thing I noticed is that MPPC doesn’t look like a megachurch.  I suppose that’s because it didn’t start off that way (naturally).  The church has been in that community for over 140 years.  When it became large, the leaders chose not to do a massive tear-down and rebuild (or relocation) to more modern, trendy environs, as is common among megachurches.  Instead, they’ve put their money into ministry, including starting numerous other campuses around the Bay Area.  The sanctuary itself is a very pretty, quite traditional worship space--with actual pews!--except up front, where they have the modern contemporary worship setup.  The space itself seats around the same amount as WBC.  Outside, they have numerous tents with coffee, lemonade and donut holes.  As the traditional service ended, the worshippers stayed around those tents for a long while, catching up with each other (this could only work in a place that has year-round good weather).  There was also an easy-to-locate welcome center, and greeters just inside the front doors. 

A traditional sanctuary retro-fitted for contemporary worship.  Sound familiar?

A look at the nice stained glass windows

            Of the five churches I’ve visited, this is the first where the average age was older than me, although quite casually dressed.  There were plenty of younger people in the packed sanctuary, but they were outnumbered by the gray (or bald) heads.  I wondered if the average age was lower at the 11:00 service (It was certainly a lot older at the 8:00 traditional), or at the Saturday night service.  
            The service was hosted by the campus pastor, Charley Scandlyn, whose job it was to tie everything together.  He came out briefly to welcome us, and invited us to sing along with the band. The worship team was very young and very talented, although the congregation didn’t seem engaged in the singing.  We started with two very upbeat songs, “By Your Grace I’m Saved” and “You’re the Lord Our God,” then transitioned to a slower, more contemplative song, “Your Praise Will Ever Be On My Lips.”  Charley came back up, spoke briefly about the privilege we had to worship God, and invited us to greet one another.  After the handshake time, he reminded us of Pastor Ortberg’s sermon from last week and the new directions it signaled for the church, including a new website and goals to start new campuses, then briefly introduced the new series that was beginning today.  The series is called “I Quit,” about four toxic habits we need to eliminate from our lives in order to live the way God wants us to.  The sermon started after that.  We had been there for 18 minutes.
            The preacher was Scottie Scruggs, Executive Pastor and frequent speaker at MPPC.  It was about quitting the habit of constantly being in a hurry.  That may not sound like a very deep spiritual topic, but he did an effective job of showing us that hurry can be toxic, both spiritually and emotionally, and that God’s Word urges us to slow down.  He cited the story of Mary and Martha, and Jesus admonishing busy, hyperactive Martha to sit down with her sister and hear the Master teach.  He quoted Matthew 11:28-30 (“Come to me all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest…).  He pointed out something I have never considered: Jesus speaks of taking His yoke upon ourselves.  A yoke bound two oxen together.  They would have to walk at the same speed.  Jesus, Scruggs said, was inviting us to live life at His speed. And Jesus never hurried. He always had time for people.  He never got impatient (aside from His impatience with injustice and spiritual stubbornness).  I found it highly convicting.  Scruggs urged us to build time into each day when we unplug from the world and practice slowing down.  Take advantage of moments when we have to wait.  Schedule extended time alone once in a while.  Learn to say no to demands on our time. And practice the Sabbath weekly. 
            The campus pastor came back at the end of the sermon and gave a brief introduction to the offertory, including the point that visitors shouldn’t feel compelled to give anything.  The song during the offertory was “You Lead Me,” a very pretty song based on the 23rd Psalm.  At the end of the song, the campus pastor invited us to come forward after the service if we wanted prayer, reminded the church of a “Healing Prayer Service” that day at 12:15, and dismissed us with a benediction based on Psalm 23.  The service took about an hour and five minutes.
            There are several things that stood out to me about MPPC: First of all, there was nothing particularly Presbyterian about the worship service.  There was nothing that seemed artificial, overly formal, or intentionally "hip."  It was low-key and natural, while still being meaningful. I would gladly invite a non-Christian friend--or a friend who had grown up in church and felt "burned" by religion--to MPPC.  Second, the campus pastor did a great job of tying things together.  Elements in the worship service which may have otherwise seemed randomly placed were instead part of a cohesive whole: This was a worship service designed, from start to finish, to convince us to slow down and find rest in God.  None of the other worship services I’ve visited has done such an effective job of being this intentional.  Third, the preaching was excellent, and I cannot over-emphasize how important that is in making a worship service meaningful.  Fourth, I think MPPC’s key trait is its emphasis on small groups and support groups.  We received a bulletin with the sermon title, a few announcements, a place for notes, and a tear-off card for us to place in the offering plate if we wanted prayer, counseling or other information.  But we also received a card listing the small groups on one side and the support groups on the other.  These include: Divorce recovery, AA, Narcotics anonymous, a support group for people in debt, and another for people in job transition (and a couple others I can’t recall).  It also includes a support group for those who suffer from mental illness and their families.  I had read about this ministry in Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, by Amy Simpson.  One thing I’ve learned on this sabbatical: Effective churches these days offer people more than songs, a sermon and a Sunday School class.  There are also programs to help people with the problems they face.  As I look down that list of support groups, I realize that I don’t know a single family that isn’t touched by at least one of those issues.  Of course, most churches aren’t large enough to offer all those groups. But we must at least know how help can be found in our communities, and have a plan for supporting people as they struggle.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How Would Jesus Vote?

If you know much about me, you know that I don't talk politics.  It's not that I lack political views.  And I am not particularly afraid of controversy.  I avoid talking about politics publicly for two reasons: First, as a pastor, I realize people aren't going to take things I say as "strictly my opinion."  To many people, I represent--at the very least--the church I lead, if not God Himself.  That's a huge responsibility, and one I take seriously.  I do have opinions about politicians and political issues, but they are just that--opinions.  I don't want anyone to mistakenly believe that my views are God's views.  Second, I think it damages the Church's ministry when it becomes identified with a specific political ideology.  Non-Christians get turned away from Christ, thinking that if they follow Him, they must also adopt the political views being championed by the members.  The Gospel gets obscured. as people know what we stand against, but not what we stand for.  Christians get more excited about attacking political opponents on social media than they are about loving their neighbors as themselves.  That has happened in my lifetime, and frankly, I think it's a huge part of why we as Christians have lost cultural credibility.  I don't want to be a part of it.

So with that disclaimer, here is all I will say publicly about the 2016 election:

How would Jesus vote?  It's an important question, since everything we do should be done in His name (Colossians 3:17).  That's another way of saying we should do everything in a way that reflects His character; "What Would Jesus Do?" should be more than a cliche.  And let's be clear; Christians should vote.  We are part of a tiny minority of humankind: People who have the opportunity to choose our own leaders, to have a direct influence on the laws that rule our society.  We cannot forsake that responsibility.  So, again I ask, how would Jesus vote?

First of all, you might be wondering if Jesus would vote.  Wouldn't He instead run for President Himself?  Wouldn't He make the best leader?  Of course, but let's be honest: Jesus could never be elected President of this country.  Elections are won by people who play to the base, pay attention to the polls, adapt their views to fit the popular consensus, and spin the truth in a way that is advantageous to themselves.  Jesus, in contrast, refused to do anything that would bring Himself popularity.  He healed people, but would usually tell them to keep their healing secret.  He would periodically say incredibly harsh things that would cause the crowds around Him to thin; sometimes, He would disappear from the crowds entirely.  He could have easily gained followers by attacking unpopular groups like the occupying Romans on the cultural right or the "sinners" on the cultural left, but instead, He relentlessly spoke out against the most popular people in the nation: The patriotic, morally upright Pharisees and teachers of the Law.  In His closest brush with political power, standing before King Herod and then Pontius Pilate on Good Friday, He refused to play ball;  He wouldn't perform any miracles or give any soothing answers that could have saved His own life.

If Jesus were voting today, I believe He would reject any political leader or ideology that changed the law to fit shifting moral standards.  Jesus lived in a nation that had followed a strict moral code for centuries.  He knew that the people in power had misused the commands of God to prop themselves up and oppress others.  If we had lived then, we might have expected Him to say, "Forget the commands of Moses and the prophets.  We're living in a new day now."  But instead, in the Sermon on the Mount, He doubled down.  You have heard that it was said, "Do not commit adultery."  But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:27-28).  Over and over, Jesus takes the commands of God in the Old Testament and says, "Not only should God's commands still stand, we should take them even more seriously than our forefathers did.  Don't just obey the letter of the Law and seek loopholes for your own benefit; live to please God in everything you do: Sexually, financially, relationally."  Jesus wouldn't be concerned with being "on the right side of history."  As the coming Judge of the living and the dead, and as ultimate King of Kings, whatever side He is on is automatically the right side.

If Jesus were voting today, He would prioritize the socially marginalized.  During His earthly life, He spent most of His time with the sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors who were despised by the people in charge.  People often think Jesus was different from the God of the Old Testament; that Jesus was compassionate and gentle, where God in the Old Testament was stern and wrathful.  Not true.  Jesus said quite a bit about judgment and Hell; there are plenty of sayings of Jesus that we never put on bumper stickers or write in calligraphy in frames on our living room walls.  And God in the Old Testament continually takes the side of the widow, the orphan, the poor and the alien.  In fact, the Law He created to establish Israel was heavily weighted on the side of people who were poor.   When the Israelites lost their nation and were exiled, the prophets made it crystal clear that God judged them because they didn't do all they could to help those at the bottom rung of society.  Christians sometimes rationalize their lack of concern for the poor by saying, "Jesus said the poor you will always have with you, so it's no use trying to eliminate poverty."  But that's a classic case of taking Jesus' words out of context to fit our own purposes.  Jesus championed the cause of the poor, the sick, the persecuted and the imprisoned.  He said that at our final judgment, we will have to  account for how we treated them (Matthew 25:31-46); any good thing we do for those who are lowly, we've done for Him.  When God created Israel, He told them that if they faithfully followed His commands, there would be no poor people at all (Deuteronomy 15:4).  I think it's obvious Jesus would vote for the candidate whose ideas would do the most good for the people who had the least.

Mostly, I think Jesus would refuse to vote for any candidate who appealed to people's fear and anger. The opponents of Jesus specialized in that kind of approach, dominating society by intimidation, prejudice against outsiders, labeling opponents ("sinner" "unclean" "uncircumcised dogs"), and stirring up anger.  Was Jesus sometimes angry?  Yes.  Turning over tables and thrashing merchants in the Temple Courts was not performance art. He was legitimately, violently angry.  But here is the crucial point: He was angry at injustice.  He was angry on behalf of people who were being denied the ability to worship, so that people in power could make money in the name of God.  He wasn't angry because He felt His own rights were being infringed upon, or because He didn't want to pay taxes, or because people who were "different" were gaining power, or because "it just doesn't feel like my country anymore."  Friends, when you support a politician because he or she stirs your emotions, ask yourself, "What emotions is this person inspiring in me?"  If it's fear about the future, or anger at people you don't like, admit to yourself that those emotions don't come from the Spirit of God. If, on the other hand, he or she inspires you to higher thoughts and hopes, inspires you to want to do more for others, inspires you with realistic, credible ideas to address real might be on the right track.

The best news is this: The King is coming.  And even if our nation would never elect Him, someday He will reign nonetheless.  On that day, all the problems our politicians are powerless to face will be no more.  Amen...come Lord Jesus.

Monday, August 10, 2015

What I did on my sabbatical: Book reviews, part 2

Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, Amy Simpson

            Mental illness is the invisible plague of our times; according to Simpson, around 25 percent of adults in our country suffer from some mental illness, more than the number of Americans who suffer from cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS and diabetes combined.  Yet very few churches have any ministry to people who suffer from mental illness, or their families.  It’s rarely, if ever, talked about.  Simpson calls mental illness the “no casserole” disease: We rush to the aid of people who suffer physically, bringing them meals, mowing their yards, sitting with them in the hospital.  But we don’t know what to do with the mentally ill and those who love them.  We fail to show them the love of Christ.
            Simpson writes from experience.  She is an editor at Christianity Today magazine, but she experienced her own mother’s schizophrenia, and the lack of response from her church, as a teenager.  She tells her story in the first chapter, and it is eye-opening and heartbreaking.  She describes a day when her mom drove her to a dental appointment.  When Simpson was done, she went back to the waiting room and found her mom catatonic, having suffered yet another psychic break.  The other people in the waiting room merely stared at her, offering no help.  When she asked the receptionist if she could use the phone to call her dad, she was told to use the pay phone outside.  This was a microcosm of her life in those days; facing a confusing and terrifying situation, and feeling no support from anyone.  Simpson’s mother, the wife of a pastor and a woman who led Simpson herself to faith, became so delusional she rejected faith in Christ and turned to the occult.  She later ran away from their home and was found months later in a homeless shelter. She then was sentenced to prison for a crime she had committed during this period.  Reading Simpson’s story helped me understand what it really is like to have a mentally ill person in one’s family, and the struggles that presents.  Simpson also tells the stories of many other mental illness sufferers and their families, bringing into reality the difficulties they have faced, as well as churches which have struggled with how to help them. 
            I was drawn to this book because I increasingly encounter mental and emotional health issues in my ministry.  I am at a loss as to how to help.  I refer people to professionals, but is there more I--and the church--can do?  Simpson believes there is, and tells the stories of churches which have started groundbreaking helpful programs.  In the next-to-last chapter she lists things churches can do: Church leaders can get help for their own mental illness struggles and tell their own stories; get educated about mental illness; make a determined effort to remove the stigma of mental illness in the church; talk about mental illness in sermons, lessons and prayers (and never, ever joke about it); encourage supportive relationships and small groups for the mentally ill and their families; ask what you can do to help; be present for them; radiate acceptance by refusing to make them feel ignored or rejected; be patient--many mental disorders are chronic, so helping them will be long-term; help with practical needs (including using benevolence funds to cover the cost of treatment and medications); confer with counselors when you refer someone, to find out what more you can do; draw boundaries and stick with them (helping the mentally ill doesn’t mean overlooking inappropriate behavior); know when you are in over your head; use the available resources (many hospitals have support groups); consider starting a support group in your church.  Simpson says most successful support groups are led by people who have experienced mental illness in their own lives or their families. 
            In short, this is an important, helpful book for Christians today.  If you take the time to read it, it will change the way you look at the “difficult” people around you, and make you determined to help families who struggle with mental illness.  Hopefully, it will help change the way we relate to mental illness in the Church today.

The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, James Emery White.

            “The Nones” is the confusing label given to people who, on surveys gauging religious affiliation, mark “none.”  As has been widely reported, this group is growing faster than any religious group in America, and is largest among young people. Clearly, this is a cause for concern for the Church.  I have read numerous blogs and magazine articles about the causes of this trend, and what the Church should be doing about it, but nothing as comprehensive and effective as this book.  White is a former seminary president and the long-time pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, a fast-growing church in which 70% of new members come from non-religious backgrounds.  Most churches I am familiar with these days--including my own--rarely see conversions from no faith to commitment to Christ; most of our growth is biological (the children of members getting baptized into the faith), transfer (people from other churches joining) or prodigal (people who have wandered, then recommitted to Christ and the Church).  So White’s research bona fides and his experience in reaching this group give his words here a powerful credibility. 
            The first half of the book describes the Nones (most of them still believe in God and consider themselves “spiritual,” but rarely think about spiritual things; nearly half say they never wonder if they are going to Heaven when they die).  It also details the reasons for the rise of the Nones.  Among them: Disillusionment with the politically charged “culture wars” much of Evangelicalism engaged in for the past thirty years, a drastic change in public morality (White does a good job showing how this took place), and the failure of churches to find new ways to appeal to new generations, without changing the core tenets of the Gospel.  As White says, almost all evangelical churches say they want to reach non-Christians, but most are unwilling to adapt the way they do things.  In his words, “We say we want them in Heaven, but we act like they can go to Hell.”  This wasn’t exactly new information to me, but it is stated so well, I wish every Christian who has ever grumbled about our country “going to Hell in a handbasket” would read this and see the responsibility we all bear. 
            The second half of the book is far more hopeful, though just as challenging.  White crafts a tested roadmap for reaching irreligious people.  There is too much good stuff here for me to effectively summarize, but here are some highlights: Learn to think like missionaries (since we now live in a post-Christian culture), learning the language and priorities of our neighbors, loving them as they are instead of trying to force them to live the way we think they should.  Change the way we share the Gospel (We can’t begin with the assumption that people want to know what the Bible says; we have to first show them why it matters).  Engage in righteous causes, and give unbelievers a chance to work alongside us in changing the world for good, before they ever make a commitment to Christ.  Love each other (nothing turns people away from the Gospel more than Christians fighting amongst themselves).  Invite them to church (82% of unbelievers say they would visit a church if a friend invited them).  And make sure that, if they come, they will experience something they’ll want to experience again (That part is mostly the responsibility of leaders like me, but all churches should hold their leaders accountable to that standard). 
            Here’s the best endorsement I can give White’s book: I am strongly tempted to buy enough copies to give to every member of my church.  That’s how important I think this is. 

What I did on my sabbatical: Book Reviews, part I

Note: On my sabbatical, I am visiting churches, working on a new devotional book, and catching up on some reading.  Here are reviews of two books I've read so far.

            All the Places to Go: How Will You Know?  John Ortberg

            Ortberg is the Senior Pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, and is one of my favorite preachers and authors.  This book is about capitalizing on opportunities God places before you.  In many ways, it is a book about making good decisions.  However, Ortberg says early and often that God is not a crystal ball, who exists simply to help us choose the right path and avoid pain.  In fact, he insists sometimes choosing a more difficult path is exactly what we need.  And sometimes God’s answer when we ask, “What should I choose” is “Whatever you want.”  God knows that the act of making decisions helps us grow, so sometimes He lets us choose, and no amount of praying it through will help us discern the right choice.  The book is full of statements like that, that turn conventional wisdom about hearing God’s voice upside down.  Throughout, he uses the concept of open doors (from Revelation 3:8, where Jesus tells the church in Philadelphia “I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut”) to represent the opportunities God engineers for His people. Ortberg wants us all to be “open door people,” who are constantly ready to walk through the doors God has in mind for us, even though most of us would rather stay where we are. 
            As he puts it: “God is doing something magnificent in this world.  When a door is opened, count the costs, weigh the pros and cons, get wise counsel, look as far down the road as you can.  But in your deepest heart, in its most secret place, have a tiny bias in the direction of yes.  Cultivate a willingness to charge through open doors even if it’s not this particular door.”  Ortberg acknowledges all doors are not the right ones for us.  My favorite chapter of the book is chapter 5, “Door number 1 or door number 2?”  In this chapter, you read some of the best, most biblical and practical advice on making decisions that I’ve ever read or heard.  He also has an excellent chapter on how God’s closing a door is often the best, most merciful thing He can do for us.
            The title is a riff on Dr. Seuss’s book All the Places You’ll Go, and Ortberg occasionally writes like Dr. Seuss, particularly (and hilariously) in his chapter retelling the story of Jonah.  Mostly, however, he uses Scripture, plus stories from his own life, from the Bible and from the world around us to illustrate his points.  He is an excellent writer, and this book will appeal to a wide variety of readers.  It is inspiring, often funny, sometimes poignant, and difficult to put down. I would recommend this book to people who struggle with decision-making, young people who haven’t yet learned how to make good choices, older people who have gotten stuck in the mud of never taking risks or trying anything new, impulsive people who tend to leap before they look, and people who simply need a kick in the pants to get them moving again.  So…basically everyone.   

            Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

            If you’re an avid reader, you’ve heard about this book, the publishing story of the Century.  It’s a “lost” manuscript for Lee, the woman who famously wrote a classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, and then wrote very little since.  Lee is elderly, but still alive, and allegedly gave permission for this book--written in the 1950s and thought to discarded--to be published.  I had it on pre-order, and started reading it the day it appeared in the Kindle app on my phone.  The book has been pitched as a “sequel” to Mockingbird.  It features most of the main characters from that book, twenty or so years later, in the 1950s.  As such, the big news about the book is that Atticus Finch, the heroic small-town attorney who defended an innocent black man--Tom Robinson--accused of rape in a small Alabama town and refused to let his children use the “N” word, is by the mid-fifties an old, arthritic man who is concerned about racial unrest and the NAACP and has joined the local white citizens council to stop racial agitation from changing the status quo.  In other words, Atticus Finch, a hero of racial equality in this country for over fifty years, has himself become a racist.  The book is about Scout Finch, the narrator of Mockingbird, now in her twenties and living in New York, coming home to Maycomb, Alabama for a two-week vacation.  She weighs marriage prospects with her high-school sweetheart, clashes with her old-fashioned Aunt Alexandra, and finds out, to her shock and horror, about her father’s activities in defense of segregation.  Scout feels betrayed that her idol has turned out to have feet of clay.  She has to decide what to do, now that the one sure thing in her life--her father’s moral perfection--has turned out to be false. 
            This would all be depressing--and it has indeed depressed many readers and reviewers--but for a couple of factors: First, this isn’t actually a sequel.  Lee wrote Watchman first.  It was rejected by her publisher, who urged her to write another story about the same people from a different viewpoint.  That’s what led her to write Mockingbird.  Why was Atticus so flawed in her first writing, and so outstanding in the second?  There are theories.  Lee admitted long ago that Atticus was based on her father, a small-town attorney and good man.  However, Lee’s father  was a segregationist who, late in life, changed his mind and began to work for racial equality.  Perhaps Lee wrote Watchman when she was disillusioned by her real father’s racial views, and wrote Mockingbird after he had been come over to the side of integration.  Or, perhaps since she chose to write Mockingbird from the perspective of a little girl, she chose also to present Atticus as an ideal man, the way many a little girl would view her daddy.  Second, it is a reminder to all of us that good people are still flawed people.  Good people can be very wrong.  Most of my own ancestors of that same generation took racial segregation for granted, and believed that the best thing for all races was to keep everyone “in their place.”  This was an evil belief, and they bought into it.  Yet these were also gracious, genuine Christians to whom I owe a legacy of faith and love.  I am who I am in part because of them.  Atticus Finch in Watchman is still the same kind, wise man he has always been.  He’s just terribly wrong about an incredibly important issue, like my own departed relatives were.  We have a hard time seeing things with that nuance; we want to believe that anyone who agreed with segregation was fundamentally evil.  We want to believe this because we want to believe we’re not capable of such evil ourselves.  But when our own grandchildren look back at us, what horrid attitudes and destructive habits will they remember?  We are all sinners in need of grace…and in need of someone courageous enough to tell us we’re wrong.

            Go Set a Watchman (the title is based on Isaiah 21:6, the text of a sermon Scout hears in her childhood church) is not a great book, but it is a very good one.  Ironically, a manuscript that was rejected is better, in my opinion, than most of what passes for writing today.  And the thing that brings me the most joy when I remember this book is that rejection.  If Lee’s editor had not turned down this book, she might never have written To Kill a Mockingbird, and the world would be a much poorer place.  It amazes me how God can use a closed door to bring about something wonderful. 

What I did on my sabbatical: The Village Church, Dallas

This Sunday, Will and I visited The Village Church in Dallas.  Their pastor, Matt Chandler, came to the church in 2002, when it was still known as First Baptist, Highland Village, and had fewer than 200 regular attenders.  Today, Chandler preaches 45-50 minute sermons every Sunday (I podcast his sermons each week); they are highly biblical and brutally honest, and young adults stream in by the thousands to the Village and its several satellite campuses.  We chose to visit a satellite campus, the Dallas Northway location.  This was formerly Northway Baptist Church until they merged with the Village in 2009, so the location is a very traditional-looking facility, nearly as large as Westbury’s.  We arrived early for the 9:00 service.  There were guys in orange vests helping us park, but otherwise, we were on our own to find our way to the sanctuary; fortunately, this wasn’t difficult.  Inside, we saw a table with several people in green T-shirts that said “Connection.”  I approached one and said I was a first-timer.  He told me that their job was to answer any questions I might have before or after the service; clearly, they didn’t have a pre-packaged spiel. 

The crummy camera on my iphone doesn't do the sanctuary justice; this was twenty minutes before the 9:00 service.

            The sanctuary looked like a traditional Baptist worship area after the pews have been removed and replaced with padded, movable chairs, and a large screen installed in the front.  It was very attractive.  There was no bulletin, no designated first-timers area. There was a Bible, several “Connect” cards, and a pen in the rack in front of me.  I filled out a card and checked “first time here,” although I was never asked to do so. 
            I would say the room seated around 500, and by the time 9:00 arrived, it was packed with mostly very young adults.  I would say at least half the crowd was in their twenties.  Upcoming events were shown on slides on the screens before service started, but the minister who welcomed us began the service with almost ten minutes of announcements.  Home groups are a big deal at The Village, as are mid-week classes on big topics like The Apostles Creed; these were getting started again in coming weeks.  Also, the Church was planning a big annual event (“Transform”) next Saturday at Thomas Jefferson High School (right next door), and he wanted to be sure we were there.   The minister did a good job with these announcements, but it was definitely a departure from other churches I’ve visited, who tend to get the service off with more of a “bang.”  After a prayer, he turned things over to the worship band.
            The music was good, as upbeat and skillful as the previous two churches I visited (North Point in Atlanta and The Ark in Conroe), but with a difference that I appreciated.  Whereas those two churches used their screens to show close-ups of their worship leaders and musicians along with lyrics to the songs, The Village simply projected the lyrics.  The former feels--to me--more like a concert than a worship service.  I appreciated the focus on the words we were singing.  After our first song, we read together a collective prayer of confession from the screen, then sang another song (A contemporary version of “Grace Greater Than Our Sin”).  We then read together from Romans 8, prayed, and 24 minutes into the service, it was time for the sermon. 
            On most Sundays, Matt Chandler preaches to all the satellite campuses on the screens.  I really wanted to see how the logistics of that worked.  But alas, Chandler wasn’t preaching on this day.  Yes, I am now 0-4 on getting to see Senior Pastors preach.  Instead, the campus pastor preached a message from Nehemiah 1.  The point of the message was that we as God’s people should have a compassionate vision for our city, like Nehemiah had for Jerusalem.  The preacher was around my age, dressed in jeans and an untucked button-down, but his style was pretty old-school…in other words, he was intense.  He paced, shouted at times, gestured, sweated.  I grew up in the days when that was expected from an evangelical preacher (I remember one preacher who would sometimes fill in at my boyhood church, whose gestures and tone of voice reminded my brother and I of an umpire emphatically calling balls and strikes).  I just haven’t seen that in a while.  My son Will had never seen it, so his reaction was pretty entertaining.  About ten minutes in, Will leaned over and whispered, “Why is he so angry?”  Later, the preacher fervently declared that God loves all the people of Dallas, and Will murmured, “Yeah, but I don’t think you do.”  When we left, Will said, “I thought he was going to pick up his stool and fling it into the crowd.” He found this more amusing than frightening, thankfully.
            But the congregation, young as they were, was on board. I can’t remember the last time I was in a church with so many people who had Bibles on their laps, taking notes and audibly engaged in the sermon.  His message was challenging, and one got the distinct sense that the 500 or so people in that room were ready to rise to the challenge.  The sermon took about 35 minutes, and the minister who had opened the service came back out to lead us through communion.  Just like with Ecclesia in Houston, communion at The Village can be administered by any covenant member, male or female, so as soon as this minister stood up, several members went straight to the back of the room to get the elements.  They passed them down the pews, then we took communion together. 
            That’s when I got my next surprise: the past two churches I’ve visited ended the service as soon as the sermon ended.  But The Village still had plenty to do.  We sang two more songs, then closed with an acapella version of the Doxology.  The worship leader then invited us to come forward to speak with a counselor if we needed prayer or someone to talk with, and dismissed us.  In all, the service lasted an hour and twenty minutes, the longest of the four churches I’ve visited.  As I walked out, I noticed a wooden box on the wall that said “offering,” and that’s when I realized we had no offertory in the service.  I made a point to visit the Connection table on my way out.  I dropped off my card, and they asked if I had any questions.  I asked about the Transform event, since we also have a school adoption program.  They said each year, they help teachers at the High School set up their classrooms.  They also donate school supplies and backpacks to neighborhood families, as well as offering free haircuts and other services. 
             Every church I’ve visited gives off its own vibe.  At Ecclesia, the vibe was, “This is a place where you can be yourself and learn how to follow Christ.”   At the Ark, it was, “We want to do everything we can to make you feel welcome.”  At North Point, it was, “This is a safe place for you and your kids to discover what Christianity is all about.”  Here at the Village, the vibe said, “We’re a church for people who are ready to radically commit their lives to the Kingdom of God.”  There was never any attempt to persuade people to join the church.  I got the sense that, in spite of the young, stylish congregation and slick worship service, this is a church that sets the bar high for their members; if anyone wants to join that movement, they are welcome, but they have to take the initiative to do so.
            I got a wonderful surprise on our way out: We ran into a young man named Caleb Jentsch.  Caleb grew up in my parents’ church in Victoria, and sustained a traumatic brain injury a couple years ago in a skiing accident.  He nearly died, and spent significant time in a coma.  The last time I saw Caleb, he was in a unit in TIRR in Houston.  Sunday, we caught him on his way to serve as a greeter in the 11:00 service.  Many of you prayed for Caleb back when he was recovering from his injury; it was exciting to see him doing so well.  I thank God He brought this great young man back from the brink of death.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

What I did on my sabbatical: Atlanta

My tour of churches continued this weekend with a visit to North Point Community Church in Atlanta.  The staff and I read Deep and Wide, Andy Stanley's book about how churches can do a better job of reaching unchurched people.  We found it incredibly challenging, so I decided to see this church up close.

Carrie came along, and we saved some time for fun stuff before Sunday.  Neither of us had ever been to Atlanta, but we came away impressed.  We visited the College Football Hall of Fame, took a bike tour of the city, walked through Centennial Olympic Park, and ate some great food.

Landing in Atlanta.  One of us was a little nervous about flying.

On our bike tour, we stopped at Ebenezer St Baptist, once pastored by Martin Luther King Sr and Jr. 
North Point is actually in Alpharetta, a suburb which is about 30 minutes north of downtown Atlanta, although they have campuses all over the city.  We decided to drive out to the main campus, and arrived early.  We got our first surprise as we pulled up.  In contrast to The Ark Church (which we visited last week), North Point is much more hands-off towards first-time guests.  If there is special "visitor's parking" we didn't see it.  Instead, there is a large special parking area close to the building for parents of preschoolers: Obviously reaching young families is a priority.  We had no problem finding a parking place or finding the entrance (it's where everyone was headed).  But the contrast with The Ark--where we were guided and accompanied from the moment we drove onto the parking lot until we sat down in the pew--was striking.  There were tons of people inside the church with T-shirts that read, "I'm glad you're here."  So obviously, North Point figures that if you need help, you'll take the initiative to approach one of these volunteers.  I did so, and he guided us to a seat in the first-time guest area, close to the front middle of the auditorium.

The sermon series was called "Bottom of the Ninth."  To go with the baseball theme, there was a shot of a baseball game on the screen, volunteers were walking around handing out peanuts, popcorn and cracker jacks, and they were playing songs you'd likely hear at a Major League Stadium; I heard "Sweet Caroline" and "Glory Days" (but not "Centerfield," alas).

Just before worship at North Point.  Note the baseball graphic on the screen.

A young woman started the service by welcoming us.  There are actually two auditoriums in the main campus; we happened to be in the one where the preaching is live rather than on video.  So during this welcome, they showed a split screen with a host in the other auditorium.  The two hosts talked for a while, then threw things to another host in "The Studio," where first-time guests were invited to visit after the service for more information and a gift.  This third host also talked about some upcoming events.  Then we came back to the young woman who was our host.  She explained that we were about to sing; she said, "If you don't usually go to church, this may seem a little weird.  We just encourage you to lean in and enjoy this with us, even if you don't know the songs."  The welcome and announcement time was very different from anything I've seen in church before, but it was really well-done, funny and engaging.  It was obviously aimed at unchurched people.  It took about five minutes.

Music started after that.  We sang three songs: Here For You, Never Once, and the bridge and chorus of One Thing Remains.  The music was very well done, although a little more loud and showy than I prefer.  I love contemporary worship music, but I'd like to be able to hear my fellow worshippers sing--but loud and showy has become the standard in most big churches (Ecclesia a couple weeks ago was the exception).  One of the worship leaders led us in a prayer for the offering, then they were done.  As the bucket was being passed, they played a video to introduce the sermon.  I checked my clock: At 11:20, twenty minutes into the service, it was time for the message.

I'm now three for three in visiting churches when the Senior Pastor isn't preaching.  The sermon today was by Clay Scroggins; it was the last message in the Bottom of the Ninth series.  It was an excellent sermon, based on the story in Mark 2 about the four friends who did whatever they had to do to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus.  The point of the baseball imagery was that everyone eventually has their "bottom of the ninth" moments, when we're up against an impossible barrier and need someone to come through for us.  Today's message emphasized that faith is best expressed through actions; instead of telling someone going through hard times, "I'm praying for you," we should do something tangible for them.  He ended by asking us to pull out our phones, think of someone we know who is having a tough time, and set ourselves a reminder to do something for them.  It was biblical, at times quite funny, and very challenging.

At the end of the sermon, he prayed, and the service was over.  This is the second church in a row we've visited that ends things on the sermon: No invitation hymn, no benediction or closing song.  It's a bit jarring at first, but I'm starting to see the advantages of it.  Instead of thinking to ourselves, "When is this going to end?" we walk out with the message still ringing in our minds.

I made a point to visit "The Studio" since I was a first-time guest, and here's where I experienced my only real disappointment with North Point.  The room was attractive and inviting; there was a nice rack of brochures, and a table with some tasty-looking cookies, but no one was there to meet me or tell me about the church.  I saw a volunteer at one of the tables talking to someone, but that was it.  I grabbed a couple brochures, noticed that inside one there was a gift card for a free drink at Starbucks, waited around for a few moments to see if someone would approach me, and headed home.  I was never asked to fill out anything.  As far as North Point knows, I never visited, so I will not be contacted by them.

I suppose North Point's strategy is this: We do things really, really well here.  We're going to present church that's more engaging than what you're probably used to, and if you have young kids, we're going to try really hard to help you feel you can trust us, but we're not going to do anything to make you feel uncomfortable or on the spot.  If you have questions, we're going to assume you'll approach one of our volunteers.  If you want to join the church, accept Christ, or get involved in one of our ministries, we're going to make sure that stuff is listed in the bulletin.  But again, we're not going to pursue you; if you want to take the next step, that's your decision.

I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I can see that this approach would work for a lot of unchurched people who already feel awkward enough about being a church.  They don't want to be glad-handed.  They just want to check things out anonymously, and decide for themselves whether or not to come back.  But for people like us, who are used to having churches go overboard showing us how much they want us to come back, it was a very different approach.  Clearly, church folks like us aren't the target of this approach.

It's obviously an approach that works.  The huge building was full.  There was a terrific diversity of races and ages in the room, although overall the crowd skewed younger than most churches.  And to think there are several other campuses...If I lived in Atlanta and was looking for a church home, I would absolutely visit North Point again.