You Think Your Church Has Problems?!?

So you think you have problems getting along with people? Do you have issues avoiding disputes and squabbles with people in your life—family, friends, neighbors, coworkers? The good news (or maybe it’s bad news) is that you are not alone.

A major theme of my trip to the Holy Land was just how easily humans are able to disagree. Learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the many empires who conquered this geographical area over the centuries, and seeing all the walls that have been erected to separate people are just some examples illustrating the disputes in this area.

There are also some silly (subjectively characterized) examples of people not getting along. Take, for example, the “immovable ladder:”


This is a picture I snapped of a ladder sitting below a window above the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulture in Jerusalem. I know that I will not get all the facts right here, but this is a great example of our humanity on display.

Apparently this ladder was placed beneath the window so that monks who lived in the church hundreds of years ago could come and go after the doors had been locked. (A Muslim family who holds the keys to the church locks and unlocks the doors.) Nobody uses the ladder any longer, but the reason why it remains is hilarious.

There are six different groups (or denominations) who lay claim to the church. They are Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Syriac Orthodox—quite the diverse group actually.  So the clergy from each of these groups perform their rituals, one behind the other, throughout the day. You can also see the way that each tradition decorates (or does not decorate) their particular space as you move from one area to another. Notice how one section is plain and then the next is ornately decorated:




The problem is that for any part of the shared areas to be changed, all six groups have to agree to the change. This never happens; which leads us back to the ladder. It was placed there well over a hundred years ago-possibly several hundred-in a shared space. Even though is has no use and looks goofy (again, subjective), the ladder remains because humans can’t agree.

Not only does an unused ladder randomly remain, but there have also been occasions of fist-fighting between the different denominations within the church. And we’re talking about THE LOCATION WHERE JESUS GAVE HIS LIFE FOR US. (That’s the first time I’ve ever used-all-caps-to-yell in a post—and I kind of liked it.) Yes, even those who occupy the very space where the Prince of Peace gave up his life can’t get their shtuff together.

So if your church does not have six or more squabbling factions, is not cared for by a Muslim family, and does not appear to have an identity crisis as you move from one room to another, then maybe you don’t have it so bad after all.


What do you use to filter your decisions? How do you determine the “right” (or at least the best) idea from an abundance of really good ideas? The answer is values. Whether we acknowledge this phenomenon or not, we use our values to filter our ideas and determine what motivates action in all areas of life. As far as the local church goes, we tend to talk about vision, mission, and beliefs. Although all of these are beneficial and should be stated, none of them are as helpful as values when filtering ideas. Sometimes these values are stated and there is a formal process through which ideas are filtered. Many times, there are “ghost values;” which go undocumented and unspoken, but are fully understood by those who make decisions. For example, an organization can have a stated mission and vision, but everyone understands that “keeping the right people happy” is the ghost vision driving the way decisions are made.

We made sure to repeat our five key values this past Sunday at our second 801South Launch Team Party:


As we make decisions, we ask ourselves questions, such as, “How does this connect people in relationships?” Or we might ask, “Is this too complicated? Is there a way we can make this simpler?” One of the more difficult questions we will ask is, “Does this program or event really just provide something to do for people who are already connected in church?” We will make some decisions that might cause tension within churched people, because we value reaching those who are currently disconnected above providing for those who are already connected. For example, we might sponsor an event at a local bar, rather than hosting it at a church. Will church people have an issue with this? Yes. Do I as a pastor struggle with the fact that it might look like we are promoting the use of alcohol? Yes. But we value being in an environment with those who are more likely to be disconnected more than we value the pastor being comfortable with every decision made. It’s a little dangerous and definitely messy.

We also shared the initial 801South leadership structure:


We believe this structure will give us the greatest opportunity to create a culture that continually reproduces leaders from the beginning. As we evaluate according to effectiveness moving forward, we will tweak the structure as needed. Notice that this is mostly a servant-led structure. There is very little room for paid staff in this initial model. The plan is for future staff to move up the structure organically-from servant to apprentice to leader to coach to staff.

Lastly, we shared what’s next as we near the public worship experience launch in April of 2014:


Those who have been trained and equipped as small group leaders will be launching new small groups in January. Also, I am asking for a nine month commitment from the launch team. This allows for people who jump on board and focus intensely on getting 801South off the ground, but then desire to drift back toward their current environments and commitments to do so after nine months without any hard feelings.

So what questions do you have?

What are the stated and the “ghost” values that drive decision making within your organization?

Do you see yourself being led into the movement and structure of 801South?

Two Continuing Trends

Do you spend time wondering if you are on track with all your efforts in life? Are you moving forward and making a difference or just chugging along doing the same ol’ thing? Is it time for a course correction?

If you’re like me, then you spend lots of time on this train of thought. (That’s two train metaphors already; which is what happens when you’re the father of two young boys.) One way that I check my current thoughts and actions is to keep an eye on what others are doing–not everyone–but a chosen group of people who appear to be thriving.

As to my role as a leader in the local church, I follow a few organizations to see if there are any particular trends that might demonstrate how God is at work in our world today. Recently, I took advantage of the opportunity to quickly survey almost 100 churches and faith-based organizations through an event called The Nines. While listening to how these other leaders are working to advance the mission of the church, I was able to discern two continuing trends that have been around for awhile. (I suppose they’ve actually been around forever in one form or another.) These two continuing trends are “leadership development” and “missional living.”

The local mainline church in America has fallen into a routine of training (or begging) people to fill volunteer slots according to pre-determined programs. There is a recent course correction toward developing the individual person for a leadership role according to his or her own particular skill set and passions. This is really just an intentional form of small group, or even one-on-one, discipleship. Mike Breen of 3DM Ministries uses Jesus’ own words to remind us that we are commanded to grow people and then let him grow the church, rather than simply trying to grow the church. “If you make disciples, you will always get the church. But if you build the church, you will rarely get disciples,” he often says. “Leadership development” is the current buzzword language for more intentional, focused, and personal discipleship. Build the person as a follower of Jesus. Don’t build the organized institution.

The concept of “missional living” breaks down the classic model of mission as a program. Instead, every follower of Jesus is continually in mission within her or his own context. I am in mission in my own household. I am in mission in my own neighborhood. I am in mission in my own workplace. Always. What does that mean for how I speak and what actions I take toward others in those spheres of my influence? A missional disciple is always looking for opportunity to serve others and share his or her story. He or she is always inviting used-to-be-strangers into his or her life, house, etc. At the same time, we do not dismiss the more typical modes of mission; such as short term mission trips and community partnerships. This is very much a both/and scenario.

I am encouraged to see that these trends are continuing as an illustration of how God is at work in the world. I think we are on track with both of these trends. Actually, we will soon have the reverse problem than that of most ministries. Rather than a surplus of volunteer positions and a deficit of people to fill those roles, 801South will feature more trained and discipled leaders than there are opportunities for them to actually lead. What an awesome problem to have! As we continue to push the reproducing culture through apprenticing, this will be a longstanding problem for the ministry.

So how do you try to spot current trends in the world?

Do you agree that these are two current trends within the innovative local church today?

The Three I’s Of Launching

The launch team of 801South experienced a great event this week as we gathered to eat, pray, talk, and laugh (a lot!). The food was awesome and the energy was high. Special thanks to Beth Marshall and the Williamson family for their hard work to make the night such a big success!

We played games and focused on the importance of hospitality and evangelical urgency through role playing a few potential “critical moments” that may occur in the ministry of 801South. Members of the launch team gave their best effort at winning the coveted Turkey (rather than Oscar) from the named Academy (made up of other launch team members who judged each role play for the most impressive actor or actress). We laughed hard and everyone gave a great effort to convey the importance of understanding the vision for 801South.

Brian Zehr, my personal coach and consultant to Matthews United Methodist Church, was in town and able to attend the launch team party. He shared the importance of the three I’s on which every launch team member must focus in order to see 801South be at its best: Invitational, Inclusive, and Intense.

Every person on the launch team must be intentionally Invitational. We all know people who are disconnected from God and from church. We work, we live, and we even participate in recreational activities with these people who are not at peace. Those of us who make up the launch team must model what it looks like to extend the invitation to these neighbors, coworkers, and other acquaintances. We have to make a shift in the way we think from floating through life to always having the question, “Who can I invite?” in the front of our minds. It is a transition from an internal focus to external focus.

We are Inclusive with exactly those people with whom we want to be inclusive. The shift we must make is to be inclusive with those who are not already a part of our clique. Ridiculous hospitality is one of the most important aspects to creating the culture of inclusion necessary to reach those who are currently disconnected.

Finally, the notion of Intensity centers around our ability to focus. As Brian said, we can only focus on a limited number of aspirations at one time. We can intensely focus on even fewer. The launch of 801South will require intense focus, therefore, how can we shift our limited focus onto this new initiative? Perhaps we will have to make some changes to our current commitments, schedule, and priorities.

In my opinion, the coolest concept that Brian shared with us is the idea that we will never grow more spiritually than in this season when we focus entirely on the growth of others. How counterintuitive is that?? We would assume that to grow, we have to focus on our own growth. But the truth is that when we focus on meeting the spiritual needs of others, serving people who are disconnected, and leading ministry in new ways, we actually grow exponentially more so than if we were focused on ourselves.

Who Cares?

First of all, Happy Halloween to all my ghost and goblin loving peeps! I have been so impressed (and also rather disturbed) by my neighbors’ love of halloween being displayed through their “decorations.” It has provided for some very interesting questions and conversations with every trip in and out of the neighborhood, especially as we pass the yard fully transformed into a graveyard complete with an impaled baby doll.

On to the point of this post:

One misconception that many of us hold while of serving on a large church staff is the assumption that people care. I came to the realization several years ago that no one outside of the room will care nearly as much as those around the table. So we sometimes get our feelings hurt, because we have poured so much of ourselves into planning only to have people we love reject the best laid plan (in our minds anyway).

Here’s the reason why sometimes people seem not to care: people actually have real lives. You know, as in spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, children, jobs, sports, hobbies, deadlines, etc.; all of which take precedence over my “great idea” for ministry. My biggest fear is that we will spend a disproportionate amount of our time and energy discussing the details of a service, program, or event about which no one else really cares.

So how do we plan as the local church in a way that does not compete with the real lives of those who we serve. Here are a few questions to consider:

Who else can be around the table? Those of us in “professional ministry” need to have as many people with real lives and real jobs around the table to make sure that what we are planning is helpful. We are not in ministry TO the rest of the church. We are in ministry WITH the rest of the church TO the world. When the only minds around the table are church staff, we can come up with some really wack ideas. (Of course we also develop some of the most beautiful ideas at the same time.)

Is what we are planning actually being helpful to everyone or causing more stress for the sake of just doing something? Many of the things we plan compete with the regular rhythms of life in our particular context and culture. (Sometimes they even compete with other ministries within the same church that target the same group of people!) This just adds unnecessary burden and stress on people who may feel guilty about not being able to participate.

Are we being cute, rather than competent? Our ideas are our babies and, although everybody thinks their baby is the cutest, not all babies are so adorable. Too often, we feel the need to come up with clever names and acronyms, but we end up just being confusing and adding a space that outsiders must traverse just to be involved.

As we continue to develop 801South (this post was meant to be an update on everything we have going on within the new ministry, but has devolved into a rant—a hopefully helpful rant) these are questions that we need to consider for the sake of simplicity and providing the most helpful use of time for everyone involved—those on the inside and on the outside.

In what ways do you sometimes see the church being more cute than competent and how can we work to plan ministry that is helpful to those outside of the room?

801South Values: Unchurched

Established churches are great at saying that we want to reach unchurched people and then doing absolutely nothing toward that goal. Honestly I don’t think churches know what we are saying when we state we want to reach unchurched people. We are obviously well trained to satisfy church people. This is our sweet spot. This is in our wheel house. What does it even look like to create a church that is entirely for people who are not even there? First of all, the people that are there probably won’t like it.

I am currently reading an incredible book by Andy Stanley, titled Deep and Wide. The subtitle for the book is Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend. I have read several of Andy’s books and they have all had an impact on my faith and my approach to ministry. This book, however, is my favorite. This may sound arrogant, but Andy puts pen to paper for many of the thoughts that have swimming around in my head for the past several years. Here are just a couple:

“The moment a church, or even a group of leaders within a church, catches a vision for capturing the hearts and imaginations of those who consider themselves unchurched or dechurched, environments take on new significance.” If you were to ask leaders in my previous appointments, they will tell you that I have preached over and over about the need to create environments into which people actually want to enter as they walk into our churches. Not programs, not spaces, not events, not services, but environments. In fact, just this past Sunday, prior to reading Deep and Wide, I spoke to the congregation here at Matthews UMC about the church providing Experiences through Environments that Encourage relationships. Through 801South, rather than begging people to come be a part of what we are doing for ourselves, we hope to create environments into which unchurched people will actually want to enter.

In explaining providential relationships as one of the five key faith catalysts; which North Point Community Church has always used to develop their ministries, Andy writes, “While it’s beyond our ability to manufacture any type of relationship, much less one characterized as providential, what we can do is create environments that are conducive to the development of these types of relationships.” (I promise that I did not read this statement before delivering the message this past weekend.) The problem with creating environments in which unchurched people would want to participate is that you have to think like someone who is unchurched. Apparently, when the Holy Spirit takes residence withus us, his (or her or whatever) first action is to disconnect the unchurched brain through which we previously interpreted the world. This hurts us as we try to reach those whom at one time we were just like.

It will be important for those who sign on to be a part of the launch team for 801South to understand that many of the decisions we make will not make sense to church people. In fact, many of the ways we try to reach, teach, praise, and serve could potentially be interpreted as offensive to good church people. But 801South is not for churched people.

Andy Stanley, through the written word, is inspiring and solidifying my vision for the rare opportunity we have through 801South. Despite the constant tension and natural drift to become an institution for those already in the church, my hope is to provide more than lip-service toward the mission.

801South Values: Exiles

A couple years back, I had the opportunity to attend David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me Live event at National Community Church in Washington DC. Everyone who attended the event received a free copy of Kinnaman’s latest work You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith. As I quickly read through the book following the event, I discovered the perfect language to describe my feelings toward the established church. The key metaphor Kinnaman uses is the Babylonian exile of which we read in Scripture. The fourth chapter of the book is titled Exiles. I was so excited about coming across this metaphor that I photocopied the entire chapter and emailed it to the leadership of our denomination. I was essentially saying, “This! This explains my predicament (and others like me) perfectly!”

I don’t want to leave the established church, but there is a strong temptation and the establishment is making it more and more difficult to stay. Therefore, I am torn between two worlds. I am part of a disconnected world who clings tightly to methods and nonessential convictions that are driving it further away from those on the outside. At the same time, I see God moving outside of this disconnected world and I am drawn to be a part of his movement. Rather than leave, I want to be a part of bridging this gap.

Kinnaman defines an Exile as “those who grew up in the church and are now physically or emotionally disconnected in some way, but who also remain energized to pursue God-honoring lives.” Later in the chapter, he writes that Exiles are, “trying on new ways of Christ-following that make sense to their communities and careers.” These ways of Christ-following, however, may not make sense to the established mainline church. Kinnaman also shares that Exiles are, “caught between the church as it is and what they believe it is called to be.”

Part of my dream that has led me to develop a ministry like 801South is providing a safe space into which Exiles can bring people about whom they care. The established church needs entry points that allow for a friendly reception–not simply superficial smiles and coffee, but also for ideas that are very different from (and even counter to) what has been accepted as “normal” in our current context. My hope is that all three focuses of 801South–worship, discipleship, and service–will provide that safe space so people who yearn to live a life of Christ-following are not apprehensive in including people from their own spheres of influence.

Your Authenticity Relies On Your Community

Your community matters. Those with whom you socialize, work, live, and play are key to your decisions. They are, however, even more important to your follow through on those decisions. In the typical day-to-day of life, we do not even realize the role our people huddles play in the accountability of our decisions (especially the decisions we communicate to them).

In 1964, over 1,000 college students from northern universities applied to be a part of a program named Freedom Summer. These students would spend their summer registering black voters in southern states, such as Mississippi. Of the many students who were accepted and invited to participate in Freedom Summer, several hundred decided to back out of the program. Two decades later, a sociologist at the University of Arizona, Doug McAdam, wanted to know why. Why did these students decide to not get on the bus when it was time to head south?

McAdam had several hypotheses on why students would opt out of their commitment, especially considering the political climate of the country in the mid 1960’s. He supposed that there was a correlation between students declining the invitation (despite the lengthy application process) and family obligations or perhaps religious convictions. However, in his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that, “when McAdam looked at applicants with religious orientations–students who cited a ‘Christian duty to help those in need’ as their motivation for applying, for instance, he found mixed levels of participation.” This finding is particularly discouraging for someone like me who spends a good deal of time encouraging people to act out of their “religious convictions.” I would hope that those who claim a motivation of faith would be the very ones who follow through to action, but McAdam found that it is not the belief itself that truly motivates people to hold to their conviction. Duhigg continues, “However, among those applicants who mentioned a religious orientation and belonged to a religious organization, McAdam found that every single one made the trip to Mississippi. Once their communities knew they had been accepted into Freedom Summer, it was impossible for them to withdraw.”

Not only is the company with which you surround yourself important, but even more vital are the expectations of that company. Do they expect you to keep your word? Do they expect you to exhibit a bias for action when you are describing your passions? Does your company already have in place certain behavioral patterns in which you currently participate to demonstrate your stated values?

Or does your community know that you simply share your perspective on what is wrong with the world today about which you have no real intention of actually pursuing a behavior to address the problem?

There are lots of groups with whom we associate throughout our lives who sit around and talk about what should be done. My desire, however, is to be a part of leading people who expect you to follow through. When the local church is a place of high expectations and strong accountability, we begin to see the world around us change, because action (not word) is the only indication of true conviction.

Why We Do Church The Way We Do Church

There is a vital concept that you must grasp in order to appreciate a ministry initiative like 801South.

Here it is (totally for free):

Those who participate in modes of church (worship, discipleship, outreach, missions, evangelism, etc.) that are different from your own are NOT inherently wrong.

We have an innate push within us to express animosity toward that which is simply different. But different does not necessarily equal wrong. The motivation of those who do things differently may or may not be biblically based. They may or may not be effective. The key point of coming to this understanding is realizing that the masses who do church a particular way do so because we were TAUGHT to. More than likely, you do church the way you do because you have been trained to do so.

Occasionally, one (or two or three) from within the masses stops to analyze current methods and the world around her (or receives a new revelation from God) and realizes that the current modes will not effectively perpetuate the never-changing gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. John Wesley did this very thing. He determined a need for new methods by analyzing the Anglican church and the culture of the day.

On the flip side, when new modes are deemed necessary, this does not mean that current modes are inherently WRONG. Those who maintain an appreciation for the ways in which the gospel has been perpetuated in the past will have the greatest ability to provide fresh expression in the future.

You do not do church the way you do church because it is right. Rather, you do church the way you do church, because you were apprenticed to do exactly that. I am looking for new apprentices who will one day receive a new revelation and realize a need for change when the 801South modes are no longer the most effective for the mission.

Beautiful Service

Today I had the incredible pleasure to witness the church at work. The Rainbow Express camp began this morning as an army of Jesus’ servants began tangibly displaying God’s unconditional love to children and their families from our community.

The church’s website explains, “Rainbow Express is a weeklong day camp sponsored each summer by Matthews UMC Youth Ministries. It is a camp that serves children and youth with special needs and provides support for their families. This is a special week full of energy, fun and joy as we embrace all of God’s children.” This unique camp was born out of Laurie Little’s (the youth director at Matthews UMC for over 20 years who has a son with special needs) passion to serve individuals with special needs.

From young elementary-school-aged “buddies” through teenagers and young adults, all the way up to older adults, servants of all ages spent the first day caring for the campers who were having the time of their lives. I got to enjoy watching the recreation and music stations especially. Smiles and laughter were in overwhelming abundance as life was shared among “all of God’s children.” Just look at what is possible when a local church is willing to resource, equip, and make much of an individual’s God-sized dream!

As I witness the joy on the faces of the campers and their families, I know that this experience is bringing joy to the heart of our God as well. The church may get a bad rep (deservedly so at times) for many affairs, but this ain’t one. Rainbow Express is the type of ministry that changes lives (of campers and the servants). These are the stories that need to be told. This is the opposite of the typical nonsence for which church has become known. This service of love is what can turn the outsider’s view of the church back around to seeing the body of Christ as beneficial to society even if the outsider chooses not to be a part.

Surely Rainbow Express is a picture of the Bride of Christ in all her beauty and splendor.