A Call to Irrelevance

One of the qualities of the western evangelical church I admire is its pragmatic consumeristic philosophy. Churches are willing to do whatever it takes, assuming it is not unbiblical, to reach the lost. A fervor for evangelism combined with religious freedom are two reasons why the western church has been successful.

Churches incorporate new forms of worship music, building designs, multi-site congregations, and a host of innovative programs to be more effective in accomplishing their mission. This is good. There is nothing wrong with identifying what people are looking for in a church and meeting those felt needs, such as helping couples develop healthy marriages and families, providing sound biblical teaching, or offering safe children’s ministries that teach Christian values.

However, (you knew there was a “but” coming), in our efforts to be successful, pastors and Christian leaders often succumb to doing what the church down the street (or across the country) is doing because that church is successful. Church growth strategies become the flavor of the month. Nearly every week my inbox contains an advertisement for the newest and greatest book on church growth: the healthy church, the sticky church, church for the unchurched, the unlearning church, and the lite church (everything you wanted in a church, but less). Leaders can be easily seduced by what’s hip and trendy, rather than what’s right for their congregations.

Elders are in, deacons are out. Sunday School is out, small groups are in. Teaching is in, preaching is out. Calvinism is in, Free Will is out. “Lost” is out, seekers are in. Smart watches are in, wearing no watch is out. I hear young ministers say they are leading a different church, with better preaching and better music, yet they are but another version of the church down the street: a music set and a 30-minute sermon with a closing song. The strategies are defended as biblical–God is up to something new.

Culture and our love affair with success seem to dictate our choices. So, we go through seasons. Young ministers shave their heads, grow beards, take up drinking beer to be like Luther, imbibe wine to compete with the Catholics, wear suits, dress casually, take the denomination’s name off their signage–all in the name of being relevant so we can reach more people. In my early years, it was leisure suits. Wish I still had mine. More importantly, I wish the suit still would fit. It was cool, the bomb, or whatever word is hot today for being cool. News flash – the lost are not impressed with our superficial attempts to be relevant. They are not enthralled with smoke machines, colored lights,  the quality of the music, or the untucked shirt of the preacher.

Before you dismiss this as the ravings of an old man, hear my disclaimers. I’m not against change, or strategic decisions about how to meet the needs in our communities, or new means to proclaim the good news of Jesus. I’m glad God is always up to something new. I like new. I have several untucked shirts. Nor am I saying we shouldn’t learn from other churches on better ways to park cars and assimilate members into our congregations.

I like variety in preaching styles. I like new music. I’d like the music better if it weren’t 110 decibels. I have an app on my smart phone that measures decibel levels (I’m so OCD I alphabetize the acronym as CDO). Why is it city ordinances regulate decibel levels in public meetings, but many churches ignore the damage inflicted on their worshippers? “We care about people.”  Evidently, we don’t care about people’s hearing loss. Maybe we’ll swing back to acoustics and unplugged worship and bell bottom slacks. Probably not on the latter.

To my point, Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant when he was asked to turn stones into bread. Think of all the people he could have fed. His antidote to the temptation to be relevant was being with the Father in prayer. There is nothing wrong with new when the newness is from a sacred nudge, the result of a season of prayer, soul searching, and time with God. Are we doing this because our ego wants this? Are we doing this because it worked at another church or because this is what God wants of us? Surely, with all of the diversity in the world and his diverse creation, God doesn’t want cookie cutter churches that all look alike.

We should incorporate new music, new programs, and new strategies. We should jettison programs that are no longer effective in accomplishing our mission.  However, “Every word spoken, every advice given, and every strategy developed (bold mine) can come from a heart that knows God intimately.” (Nouwen) Strategies should be God-breathed. I conclude with these wise words of Henri Nouwen:

. . . I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish (bold mine), but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the source of all human life. (In the Name of Jesus, page 17.)

Some churches cannot compete with the glamour and the extensive variety of programs of the large church across town, but they can be an authentic community of believers who offer nothing but broken, vulnerable lives that are being radically changed by Jesus Christ. And leaders may discover that this type of church, regardless of its size and form of worship experience, is what people are truly looking for.

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Kelly Walter

Kelly Walter founded Rock Brook Church in Belton, Missouri with a vision to help others find and fulfill God’s purpose for their lives. Rock Brook began in 1997 with 92 people.  During Pastor Kelly’s 20 years as senior pastor, the church has grown to over 1000 in weekend services. He is an encourager and a friend.

Pastor Kelly is a modern-day Moses. There are many similarities between these two leadership giants.

First, they grow remarkable facial hair. While not a prerequisite for a leader, a grey beard suits a wise elder.

Second, both are shepherds. The word “pastor” is derived from a term meaning sheep herder. Pastors are shepherds of souls. A lot of young people today want to be platform speakers and don’t want to shepherd the souls of their flock. Pastor Kelly is an effective communicator, and indeed he feeds his members through his powerful teaching. But, you can’t guide and minister to sheep from a distance. A shepherd lives among the sheep. They love and care for the health of their flock. They show up when sheep are hurting and rescue them from danger. Shepherds smell like sheep. People in his church attest to how Pastor Kelly and his wife Katie have been there for them through thick and thin.

Third, Pastor Kelly would have been successful in other vocations. Moses managed a large livestock enterprise. For a brief time, Kelly was a manager in a large corporation. He aspired to be a seminary professor and he would have excelled at that, but God had other designs for Moses and for Kelly. They followed the call of God.

Fourth, Pastor Kelly and Moses have been steadfast. Last year, he had some complications from surgery that affected his voice. He couldn’t talk for weeks, but that didn’t stop him from shepherding his flock. Through his surgery, the loss of his voice, and many other challenges, Kelly stayed faithful.

Fifth, these men didn’t fold in the face of criticism. The Hebrews griped and complained to their leader. They criticized Moses’ decisions. Though Moses got exasperated with his people, he didn’t give up. He didn’t turn and run, he didn’t quit.

Kelly and Katie planted a Purpose Driven church in Omaha, but it didn’t work out.  They moved to Belton to help a church transition to the PD model. He faced criticism for the Purpose Driven Church model, but criticism and hardship didn’t deter him from creating a healthy church.

Sixth, Pastor Kelly, like Moses, is a humble servant leader. I enjoy being with this quiet, gentle man.  He is a servant leader and not a self-serving leader, full of the Spirit instead of full of himself

Seventh, Pastor Kelly surrendered his talents, all his unique tools, to God. The shepherd’s staff, sometime also referred to as a rod, was a common tool among nomadic shepherds like Moses. It was used to guide, protect, and rescue sheep.

Moses didn’t cling to his abilities, nor let his weaknesses deter him from following God.  Instead, he turned his life, all of it, over to God. God did remarkable things with this surrendered life. We can also see the miraculous hand of God on Pastor Kelly and Rock Brook in the following ways:

  • What began with a handful of people at Rock Brook Church has now grown to a church with an attendance of 1200 on the weekends.
  • All the ministry staff at Rock Brook were hired from within the congregation, many of whom Pastor Kelly led to Christ, baptized, discipled, and trained for ministry. Kelly empowered his people for ministry.
  • He has made numerous PEACE trips to North India and the Philippines, and has served an unreached people group in Nepal.
  • Rock Brook Church received the Purpose Driven Church Health Award.
  • Kelly and Katie’s three children are all believers and serve in the local church. They have 7 grandchildren.

Pastor Kelly Walter’s faith and leadership is worth imitating.  Recently, Pastor Kelly stepped down as senior pastor at Rock Brook Church and was succeeded by his son, Ryland. This faithful shepherd will continue to serve the church and mentor young ministers.  Like Moses, his life will impact generations to come.

God uses the ordinary to perform the miraculous. Moses didn’t think he was the right man to lead the people of Israel. He had all kinds of excuses. He was too old, not an eloquent speaker, and by his own words, “a nobody,” just a lowly shepherd living in the desert. I am inspired by men and women like Moses and Kelly Walter, who surrender their life and become a Rod of God.

 

 

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Ken Medema

While attending seminary in the mid-70s I was introduced to Ken Medema.  Ken has a marvelous gift for creating fresh interpretations of life and the Christian walk. His lyrics and music provide a commentary on social issues while simultaneously stirring hearts to follow God’s call.

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I first heard Ken at a conference on ethics, where he interpreted a speaker’s message. As was often the case, his musical interpretation was more moving and meaningful than the speaker’s exposition.

I inquired into having Ken do a concert at our church. We were a small congregation and had little money to pay for Christian musicians of his fame, but I wanted our people to experience his life. I fully expected his honorarium to be out of reach, but Ken graciously accepted our invitation for the small amount we could pay. He rocked our world with not just his music, but with his humility and compassionate spirit.

Based on one of Ken’s improvisations, “Christian is as Christian Does,” my wife and I wrote a play for the youth in our church.  His composition served as a musical refrain. The play called Christians to not just carry the label of “little Christ,” but to live in such in a way that the lives of others are impacted. We had t-shirts made with that title. I

wish I still had the shirt and my blue leisure suit.  Better yet, I wish they still fit.

Followers of this gifted musical prophet cannot forget his composition of Moses. Just like this hero of our faith, we all have felt inadequate to do the task before us. Our false self tells us we’re too young, or too old; we’re not ready, or not competent enough; or we’ve made too many mistakes for others to follow us. God speaks into Moses’ life by asking the old man to pick up a snake by its tail.  When he did, the snake turned into a shepherd’s rod.  Ken sings,

Do you know what it means, Moses?  Do you know what I’m trying to say, Moses? The rod of Moses became the rod of God. With the rod of God, strike the rock and the waters will come. With the rod of God, you’ll part the waters of the sea.  With the rod of God, you will strike ol’ Pharaoh dead. With the rod of God, you’ll set my people free.

His lyrics conclude with these personal questions: “What do you hold in your hand this day?  To what or to whom are you bound? Are you willing to give it to God, right now?” His final line offers this encouraging challenge, “Give it up, let it go, throw it down.”

As I enter my last chapters of ministry and I reflect upon the life of Moses and the challenge of Ken Medema, I pray that I will not allow the voices of fear, insecurity, or inadequacy keep me from completing the tasks before me. Thank you, Ken Medema, for allowing your gifts to become the rod of God.

 

Leadership is Movement to Improvement

How do YOU define leadership? Blanchard describes leadership as “influence.” Leaders do influence, and so do friends, family members, talk show hosts, and advertisements. I would add, “Leadership is influencing people to work toward a shared goal.” Alan Keith expressed it this way, “Leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen.” Leaders create movement to improvement.

This means that leadership is fundamentally about relationships on a journey to a destination. Effective leaders are not out in front pulling people to go to a place they don’t want to go, or pushing people from behind to do what they don’t want to do. Leaders walk alongside others and work together to make the world a better place. The goal may be making widgets that improve the quality of life for others, digging wells to provide water to impoverished towns, or providing jobs for parents that make it possible for parents to provide for their children–leaders make things better.

Great things can’t be accomplished alone. Generals need an army to fight a war. CEO’s need skilled workers to create a product. Pastors need a congregation to share the Good News. Extraordinary accomplishments are the result of a group of people who share the same vision of the future. It’s not the CEO’s vision, the stockholder’s vision, the superintendent’s vision, or the pastor’s vision; it is OUR vision for the future.

I’ve never met a person who wants a mediocre school for their children, who is fine with a below average marriage, or who wants to work at a meaningless job with people who don’t give a rip about what they are producing. People want the best for themselves, their family, and their community. Leaders listen to the dreams of people and say, “Together, WE can make this happen.” Fundamentally all organizations, whether for profit or not-for-profit, are composed of volunteer workers. Each worker, paid or unpaid is volunteering their will and commitment to help the company or organization accomplish the extraordinary.   I’m grateful for the coaches, parents, teachers, bosses, and pastors who taught me, “Servant leaders serve others, who together serve a vision to make something extraordinary happen.”

 

 

 

Pillow Talk

There is a well-known Christian couple whose wife is famous for teaching women that you influence your husband best through pillow talk. While my first reaction is to gag, I’d have to agree. My wife loves pillow talk. While I’m in a relaxed and vulnerable state of mind, she ponders firm vs. fluffy, king vs. regular, pillow talkor classic vs. contour. Then there is a discussion of memory foam, adjustable, latex, feather, polyester, or gel, and of course, anti-snore pillows. Then there are pillow accessories, pillow protectors, and pillow cooling.   And how could I forget the art of pillow scrunching and pillow cleaning. Our conversation is pillow science at its finest.

After decades of marriage, she is still looking for the perfect pillow. There must be a deep longing in our souls for PC (Pillow Correctness); that perfect fit of our cranium in the slumber sanctuary. This month, she stayed at a Doubletree Hotel and found their pillows to be the pillów de la pillów.   She called the manager.  We have 10 on the way. Can you really have two many pillows? Save that for another conversation. I’m a pillow minimalist.

Who knew there is actually a “Better Sleep Council?” I just hope we’re not sent to jail for cutting the tags off the pillows. There are even certified pillow coaches advising people on what pillow is best and how to get the most out of your pillow. Amateurs. There is no one better at pillow talk than my wife.

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What are we repenting of?

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15, NIV, italics mine.)

Our small group was studying this passage and Mike asked, “What are we repenting of?”

For those who grew up in the church, our immediate response to that question is “from our sins.” And certainly there are ample number of scriptures that call for us to repent of our sinful thoughts and actions. But could repenting also include turning from our idea that God is bad news, and believing instead that God is good?

Good-News-7025551For many, unfortunately, God is bad news. They have been taught that God is an all-powerful tyrant who is not a big fan of mankind. God watches our behavior and when we cross the line, he beats us with his rod. Others view God as scorekeeper. Our eternal future is dependent upon our good deeds outweighing the bad. Another view is that God is distant and aloof, the creator who set everything in motion then removed himself from any interaction. Others explain crises, illnesses, oppression, hurricanes, or tsunamis as acts of God, the punishment for our sinful rebellion.

I grew up in a tribe known more for what we were against than what we were for. As a consequence, God’s name was synonymous with “no fun.” In trying to make a decision about what to do, we simply asked, “Would I enjoy this?” If we were going to have a good time, it must be wrong. We believed in a God that doesn’t throw parties. Whatever the religious flavor, God often comes across as bad news.

I confess I’m a bad news junkie. There are news channels specifically devoted to feeding my addiction 24/7. They provide up-to-the minute news about such things as the failing economy, the coming global outbreak of a deadly disease, the moral decline of this generation, attacks from another axis of evil, or the incompetence of our nation’s leaders. It’s easy to see all of the bad in the world and translate that bad news to God. As Anne Margaret sang, “I sure could use A Little Good News today.”

Humanity delights in drawing boxes around God. We want to name our deities, describe their character, personality, and what they are for or against. We develop elaborate explanations of what is righteous behavior, how old the earth is, or what heaven and hell are like. Movements, philosophies, and religions that become “isms” draw boxes around God. When we draw boxes around God, we make the great “I am” smaller.

Jesus proclaimed the good news of God to a culture that believed the reason for their oppression was God’s wrath. They expected a Savior to overthrow the occupiers and reestablish an earthly kingdom. The religious leaders put heavy burdens on the people. They couldn’t imagine a God who would leave his throne in heaven and dwell among them. They saw themselves as special: the elect, the righteous. They made God bad news.

The good news is that God loves mankind—not just some of us, but all of us.  The good news is that God forgives us, regardless of how badly we’ve messed up. The good news is that God doesn’t play favorites. The good news is that God wants to be present in our lives, to comfort and cheer us on. The good news is that God wants the best for us. While religions put heavy burdens on people, the good news is that God’s burdens are light.

Jesus came along and said, “Repent and believe the good news.” Jesus challenges us to rethink how we view God. What do you believe about God that is bad news? What do you need to repent of?

Resilience

For some the colloquial saying, “You play the hand you’re dealt” means there is nothing you can do about the tragedies in life; you passively take what’s been handed to you, play along or fold. If your spouse walks out on you, you lose a business, or you are diagnosed with a rare illness, that’s just life. Accept it. That’s your lot.

A skilled poker player looks at cards differently. After players pick up the dealt cards, they make choices about which cards they will discard or exchange from the deck. Each decision is strategic. Good players are not passive.

Those who don’t know my daughter would say she has it all. Great husband, two beautiful kids, a master’s degree, a good job, and a home in a nice part of town. But many don’t know her backstory. At the age of 29, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s had numerous surgeries and several more to come. Through her cancer, we discovered that she and I have a genetic mutation called BRCA1. This gene results in ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer and other cancers related to the endocrine system and hormone production. So, while her breasts are gone and she’s “cancer free,” the gene in time will allow cancer to attack other parts of her body.

Melinda is resilient. She doesn’t let a circumstance define who she is. She bounces back. Resilient people are realistic optimists. She is not oblivious to the challenges facing her, but she doesn’t moan and gripe about the cards she has received. She is joyful. She is also active. Rather than passively accepting that she could not have children because of chemotherapy, she held off chemo treatments to harvest her eggs so they could be implanted at a later time, resulting in those two beautiful children I mentioned. She watches her nutrition, works out, and is cautious about any carcinogenic substance in her environment. She gets regular exams with her oncologist. She can’t alter her DNA, but she can play her cards with skill. She’s no drama queen. She’s grateful to live each day on this earth.

In his song, “Tough,” Craig Morgan describes a resilient faith-full woman who was told she had cancer:

She’s strong, pushes on, can’t slower her down. She can take anything life dishes out. There was a time, back before she was mine, when I thought I was tough . . . Never once complained, refusing to give up, and I thought I was tough.

The Bible describes faith as “the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.” (Heb 11:1, Msg) I’ve heard some describe faith as “keep on keeping on.” People of faith don’t fold. They find a way to keep moving forward. They handle setbacks with grace and confidence and hold firmly to their belief that going through things together with God is better than facing life alone. They have enormous trust in God’s goodness.

Resilient people know that if their cards are skillfully played, they can win the game. Weak cards in the hands of skilled players beat better hands all the time. Regardless of the future cards she will receive, I’m confident Melinda’s resilient character will face each new challenge with grace and hope. That’s who she is.