Ordination - At Long Last!

Friends and family, June 17th will be a milestone in my life. Yes, I've already shared the news, but my ordination will be at 7:30 the evening of Tuesday, June 17th and you are all invited.

If you're nearby, the service will be at the Classic Center in Athens, Georgia. If you're not, or maybe you want to watch from your living room in your underwear, you can watch it here. It will be broadcast via live streaming. (If you have trouble with the link, copy and paste this address into your browser: http://www.ngumc.org/communications/annual_conference_2008/streaming/)

It's still two weeks away, but if I didn't tell you now, I might forget later. Thank you for your prayers and support over the past several years.


Where is Your House Built?

This Sunday, I'm preaching from Matthew 7:15-29. We've all read it before and we've heard some preacher tell us not to be hypocrites. I'm getting fired up about this Sunday though. Partly because the things that have come into my wheelhouse recently, and partly because I could easily preach six weeks on this section of the Sermon on the Mount.

Here are my thoughts:

I remember being hung up on this text the first few times that I read it, years ago. In verses 21-23, Jesus talks about who's in and who's out and suprisingly, there are those who performed miracles who are on the outside.


OK, I get that the text was about authentic discipleship and having a real relationship with Christ, but if you don't have those things are you really going to be performing miracles? I guess so.

Jesus makes an interesting point by the way he chose his words. Could it be that he's discounting the value of miracles because God will use even the most evil to bring forth good? Could he be showing that those are things that we actually don't do ourselves and their sometimes things that can happen in spite of us?

Once I began to understand the complexity of Jesus' words, I found freedom in them. I remember, as a teen and even during my college years, I would give things the old college try, only to be disappointed that I wasn't making the difference that other Christians were making. None of that matters though. Jesus wants us to see that being his disciples doesn't make us religious superheroes - it makes us durable, solid as a rock, and able to withstand any pressure.

On the other side, I have seen friends that had the Midas touch when it came to their faith who, when the first winds blew and the flood waters rose in life, their faith was shaken. You may have seen this, or perhaps experienced it - it's heartbreaking. I'm nervous for some of the people I'm around everyday, who like to share the resume' of their faith and let people know how long they've been members of their church and what kinds of things they've accomplished. They don't realize that in many cases, they're living in a house of cards. When you ask the question, "What is God doing in your life right now?" and get a blank stare, be very concerned for this brother or sister and please, pray for them.

When someone asks you about your faith, what's the first thing you tell them? Do you present your resume' and maybe some pictures from your last mission trip? Do you tell them when your Christian birthday is (this is a pet peeve of mine by the way)? Or can you tell them what God is doing in your life right now?

When the day comes that Jesus asks you about your faith, what's the first thing you'll tell him?
Will it be your accomplishments and the length of time that you've been a Christian? Or will Jesus even need to ask? Will he know you so well that there are no questions?

I've got a song for you: Casting Crowns' "Stained Glass Masquerade." (By the way, their lead singer is a youth minister here in McDonough)


Standing Strong

Some of you know that this has not been a very uplifting week and I'm grateful for your words of encouragement and your prayers.

Last night, I began reading Jeremiah. I hadn't really concentrated on the prophet in a while and Erin pointed out some things that seemed to be relatable to my situation. I decided to begin reading the book, beginning with the first chapter.

Jeremiah was called to be a barbarian for God. Here's why:

"...I will utter my judgments against [the cities of Judah], for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have made offerings to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands. But you (Jeremiah), gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land - against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priest, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you says the Lord, to deliver you." (Jeremiah 1:16-19)


Get ready for a fight and don't back down. I like what one version says, "Do not be afraid of them or I'll give you a reason to be afraid!" Don't mess with this God!

It's interesting that given the trials that Jeremiah did face, God continued to promise him that there was a bright future for him and the people of Judah (x).

What has God called you to stand up for? Are you backing down? I'm not.

Vision of Effective Evangelism (4 of 6)

For Mt. Bethel, effective evangelism must take place. You can call it whatever you like. I'm aware that the waters of "evangelism" have been muddied over the last several decades and has become quite profitable for the greedy and disappointing for the lost. So, whether you call it evangelism, outreach, witnessing, sharing, leading the lost, or prefer to let your actions do the talking, it needs to be done here and it needs to be done right.

That has a couple of implications for Mt. Bethel:

First, we must move our focus away from unfaithful members. They can join us in the mission if they want to, but they are not the mission and we must stop wasting energy. We have to turn our attention to the unchurched and new residents. Since my first week here, I have had several people present me with the names of members who had fallen off the church's radar that I was asked to call and invite back to church. Suprisingly, most of these names were the family members of the people that were giving me the names!

In ministry, I've learned that you can spend infinite amounts of time and energy trying to coax a wayward member to come back and never show fruits. I've also learned that a simple, gracious conversation with a total stranger, when I'm receptive to the Holy Spirit, can bear fruit too great to count. Our job cannot be to collect those who don't want to be there for whatever reason anyway - it's the ministry equivalent to herding cats.

The second implication and the tricky part will be the "how." We will need to establish "bottom shelf" methods for early and easy success for a group of people that haven't seen contemporary evangelism.

Last summer, I heard a sermon delivered by David Walters at the Lawrenceville Campmeeting. He shared with the congregation what he believed was a "bottom-shelf truth." He explained it by using his household as an illustration: Those of us who have small children who like to play with things they shouldn't, learn to place the delicate, complicated, advanced things on high shelves. Likewise, that which is left on the bottom shelf, within the grasp of a 2-year-old, is fair game and accessible to that child.

In our churches, we have to remember that not everyone has been a follower of Christ for 20 or 30 years. In fact, if we are making disciples like we should, most of the people in our churches won't have been Christians for long at all. We have to establish methods of ministry that can be effectively used by someone with a week of faith-experience, just as well as someone with a lifetime of faith-experience.

When we overcomplicate things and insist that people memorize lengthy scriptures or "rules" for accepting Christ, we limit who will do evangelism and where. Outreach doesn't have to be hard. It can be as simple as carrying someone's groceries for them or giving a bottle of water on a hot day and showing that you do these things out of your love for Christ.

One of my favorite ideals comes from St. Francis of Assisi: Preach the Gospel (be witnesses to the Good News) at ALL times - and when necessary, use words.


Collective Vision (3 of 6)

As the right leadership is put into place, it is essential to begin to share this vision for moving forward and gain the cooperation and passion of others.

This means a lot of prayer, creating buy-in and a sense of urgency within the congregation, and creating simple, logical, progressive steps for moving forward.

I talked some about vision in the first post of this series, but that vision is the vision that God has given me. It's a vision that is easy for me to take hold of, but not so easy for someone else. How willing would you be to follow someone based on word alone? Maybe someone out there is a member of a cult and might have no problem with that, but I actually expect people to approach my words and the words of any church leader with a bit of skepticism. They should expect what I say to gain creedence by producing evidence. It's called assurance.

Until it gets to that point though, I have to begin with this vision and work it into my leadership, who will (ideally) work it out to everyone else. Hint: That's why leadership came before collective vision in this series - it wasn't coincidental.

Since October, all of this has been represented in some way or another in every sermon I've preached, every Bible study I've taught, every meeting I've been in, and nearly every conversation I've had. It's slow going. Sure, some who have been looking for something or someone to follow for a while have jumped on board, but others are late adopters.

My hope this spring was to pull together a vision team to evaluate the current state of the church, determine where God wants Mt. Bethel to be, and make a plan to achieve that vision. It hasn't happened. Churches like Lawrenceville First and Dacula First and some of the others that I've been a part of are used to vision teams/committees and will fight each other to be a part. Not so here. Mt. Bethel is in a different league and of a different mindset.

It will happen though. Maybe not in the traditional way, but it is still possible.

Collective vision, though the second on the list, is just as important as the rest though. Without it, I am left to do the work myself and what good is that? Anything I do on my own stands to be wasted effort and simply futile. I will itenerate eventually. God's vision will not.


Vision of Strong and Transformative Leadership (2 of 6)

As I contemplate this vision and how to communicate it to the church, I see that there are options: the first is continued complacency and eventual death, the second is new methods and a new heart. Neither option is pretty, but God has declared that if we refuse to, he will make the rocks cry out instead. Basically, if we choose not to take on a new life as a congregation, God will make a new start without us. Our community is too ripe for harvesting for our self-centeredness to deny God's will.

So, for this vision: The first essential element in new life as a congregation will be establishing and equipping strong and transformative leadership. A protective leadership that is in survival mode will no longer do for this vision. Leadership must exhibit the hope and power that is found only in Christ.

This need for leadership is the hinge on which the entire vision is developed. Last year, we began making strides in establishing new leadership that will begin to look more objectively and optimistically at the future and current ministries of Mt. Bethel. In some cases, this has meant moving some of the old guard into new, unfamiliar leadership roles where they will use past experience to re-learn ministry. In other cases, it has meant retiring some of the old guard and bringing in new leaders who have never been considered for any leadership position.

My new Staff-Parish Relations Chair had to be convinced that he has leadership qualities and would be better than one of the six eligible veteran candidates!

Older members have asked me from the first day why there haven't been any younger leaders in the congregation since they were young and my answer to them is this: If you, as a leader, don't disciple someone and call them into those roles, they'll never have the confidence or awareness to do so. My challenge to all of my older members who want to retire from official leadership positions is to take 3 younger people, inside or outside the church - doesn't matter, and disciple them. Take some time and go for coffee or buy them lunch. Invite them into your life as you would a son or daughter and teach them what you know.

Compare the disciples early in the Gospels to the disciples as they ventured out in Acts and see the difference that discipleship makes. Read through Timothy and see what it takes to bring up the next generation of leaders.

Our strong lay-leadership is vital to setting the communal vision, and keeping focus on Christ as we move into the future. Without leadership, we are destined to wander in the wilderness and lose identity as a church. With key leadership, we fulfill the great commission and live the greatest commandments.


Vision (1 of 6)

In the fall, on my previous blog, I began to post about the vision that God has given my for Mt. Bethel. I'm not sure why I never finished the series of posts, but I've had several requests to finish it now. So, for the next week or so, I'll do my best to share it with you.

This is good timing for the church also. I will be meeting with my Staff-Parish Relations Committee next week - be praying for it now. It's a regular meeting, since the committee is supposed to meet a minimum of four times per year, but we'll be addressing some heavy subjects. I'll be sharing this vision with that group of leaders in writing. It's sort of a way to say that this is where I stand and this is what I believe and if you've pledged to support me as a pastor, this is what you are supporting.

Vision is important to any community. Biblical wisdom has something to say about it in Proverbs 29:18. I've read a lot on what vision is and how to create a shared vision for your church, but I have yet to find anywhere in scripture that God gave his vision to a committee...

What could that mean?

You see it throughout the Old Testament in particular that when God had something to say to a group or had plans to share with leaders, he always gives this vision to a single person (Moses, Elijah, Abraham, Noah) who then instills that vision in the people. This is the prophetic role of the pastor. No, I'm not saying that I've got the direct line to God, but if I am faithful as a minister, I will be the one that Christ will use.

In October, as I was praying over the leadership nominations process of the church, I had an unusual experience. God began to flood me with a vision for the next two years of my ministry here. I began scribbling on my little Black n' Red notebook as fast as I could and about a half-hour later, I put my pen down and just sat there, rather amazed by what had just occurred. Well, that weekend, I took my notes and began to type them up into something more organized and detailed since I know I don't have the best memory in the world (as my mother or my wife).

This is the start of what I wrote:

I believe the God's desire for Mt. Bethel in the next two years is to become a larger, younger congregation. By this, I mean that our reach should be farther and that we should be constantly bringing more people into relationship with Christ through their relationship with us (a.k.a. discipleship). I also believe that the congregation should become younger. This is not a discrimination against the older population, nor a selfish desire. The average age of active members at Mt. Bethel is in the range of 60-65, while the demographics of eastern Henry County indicate that the average age of residents, not including minors, is 41 years old. Our purpose is to grow under God's will in a way that correlates to the makeup of our community.

There are five primary goals that are essential for this vision. Number one is coming up next...


Homecoming, Part II

I've finally chosen a text for this Sunday's sermon. I'm used to choosing my text AT LEAST three months before preaching it, if not longer. This has been a little stressful, moving into this week, still not knowing what direction I would go on this upcoming big occasion.

I've got it now though. I'll be preaching from Matthew 20:1-16, commonly known as Jesus' Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. I think this particular story speaks well to a congregation with 175 years of history and tradition. My next concern is to make the sermon strong, but not too pointed. Here's why:

If you read the parable, Jesus tells a story about a vineyard manager who hired some workers (day laborers) early in the morning, more at lunch time, more in the mid afternoon, and again more close to the end of the day. When the day was done, each worker, regardless of time put in was paid the same. This is the parable that brings us the tagline, "the last shall be first and the first shall be last."

Mt. Bethel has some issues, as does every church I believe, with entitlement. Just like those vineyard workers, some of our most long-term members like to remind others of just how long they've been around - how many years they've sat in THEIR pew or how many times they've stayed out overnight to tend to the men's BBQ.

I've got a problem with this, especially when it makes some perfectly good Christians with tons to offer feel like outsiders. God has given us each an equal opportunity and when you're in, you're in. There's no waiting period, no neophyte year, just acceptance.

I'm finding that this is generally the problem with dying churches. When you find a church full of older people who have been attending since infancy and you notice that their children and grandchildren are nowhere to be found, you might have an issue. When it goes a step further and people in the twilight of life are still holding all of the key leadership positions and not passing that power off to the younger generation, you've got a church in the throws of death.

Likewise, you've also got those members that are never considered insiders because they might have a shadow on their past. Maybe they did something that they're not proud of. Maybe they were the Prodigal who took a little longer to return home. Those things never seem to be forgotten.

So what's with the hierarchy that we place on church? Jesus says pretty clearly that he's not down with that kind of treatment and it's really none of our business if God wants to treat each of us the same, whether we receive Christ early in life or in our last moments on our deathbed.

Have you left somebody out? Do you still treat someone as new or unworthy simply because they don't live up to your standards or they haven't been around as long as you?

What can we do to get past this?



This coming Sunday is Homecoming at Mt. Bethel. I'm told that it's a big deal every year, but this year is special. We are celebrating 175 years since the founding of the church. That's a lot of tradition and heritage that makes up the foundation of who we are as a church.

Typically, a past minister of the church comes and preaches that day, but because they're all either otherwise serving churches or too old to make the trip and occupy the pulpit, the honor has fallen to me. As I'm preparing my sermon for Sunday, a few things have hit me:

Homecoming is important. No, not the day each year that everybody comes to church and brings a casserole. Homecoming, as in Coming Home, is what's important. For Mother's Day, yesterday, I preached on the perfect parent and used Jochebed, Moses' mother, as the example. You can read the story here. To sum it up in a sentence or two, Moses' mother was the one who out of love for her child, was willing to let him go. Rather than control or manipulate the situation, she let the providence of God dictate the outcome. In the end, she was rewarded and her son was returned to her so she could be his nursemaid.

You find a similar story about a parent letting go in the New Testament. Read it here. When we read Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son, we tend to focus on the actions of the two sons - the one who wasted his inheritance and the other who was mad at his brother's return. What about the father? What were his actions in the story? What did he do when the younger son wanted to receive his inheritance early? Did he refuse and try to control his son? He may have tried to talk him out of it, or give suggestions on how to use it wisely, but he gave his child the freedom to make mistakes. He let him go.

This is what it means to be the perfect parent. It's not giving in to the ultimate desire to control the child - it's simply loving the child, providing a place for him (or her), and encouraging the child to live in a way that will foster love for God and love for others. It's up to God to soften and change hearts, we don't have that power.

This is also the role of the church. When we allow the desire to control those who are a part of the community, we will end up with more people rebelling and dropping out. Our faith must be of our own choosing and not something imposed or mandated. As the church, we have to provide a safe place for people to explore their faith, ask the tough questions, be encouraged, and "nurtured in the way that leads to life eternal." This is what it means to make disciples.

On the other side of the coin is the call to the child. As homecoming approaches, we are reminded that God is calling each of us to return home. Not to our hometowns necessarily, but to a relationship with God. The Prodigal Son had to return home in order to be received by his father. We have to experience a homecoming in order to be received by God. My prayer is that everyday would be a homecoming. Each time we stray from God, for whatever self-centered reason, we have the opportunity to return. Each time, we are welcomed with the love, acceptance, and celebration that the father showed for his returning son.

Do you need to experience a homecoming?
Do you know of someone else who needs to have that experience? What can you do to provide that opportunity to them?


Leading the Horse to Water

I think that's sometimes the best way to sum up my calling as a minister: I'm in the business of leading the horse to the water and praying that it will drink.

Now, I'm not calling anybody in my church a horse (though there are a couple I'm not certain about), but this is basically what I do. I've been in my current appointment for a little over 10 months, for those keeping score at home. God really began imparting a vision to me for Mt. Bethel once I knew I was coming here and solidified that for me around the middle of October last year. I have written down what I believe the future of this church to be, at least in God's design.

In the last week, I've had several conversations with people about the future of this church and where we are headed. I've talked to members about the effectiveness of the ministries of Mt. Bethel and some people have come to me to talk about my effectiveness. Granted, I recognize that there will always be someone telling me, as a pastor, that I'm not being effective because I'm not doing or being what they expect, for better or worse.

I have noticed that I'm not seeing the fruits I was hoping to be seeing by this point. I've preached, and visited, and supported old things while trying new things. I'm finding myself fatigued by the fact that after 10 months I'm finding very few people on board or excited about anything. I'm learning some things though...

I may be missing the mark on a few things. I may not be putting the right pieces together for some people. But I'm beginning to recognize that the problem may be systemic. I don't believe it's only Mt. Bethel either.

What do you think happens in a church lacking accountability and the freedom to share what God may be saying to an individual? In each church I've served or been a part of, I could identify for you a person or group of persons who "ran things." I can give you the names of the people who would substitute their desires for the vision of the pastor and church leadership and would do what it took to keep things from happening any other way. (I'm trying to say enough without saying too much)

I can tell you stories of times that a person caused non-sensible trouble for the pastor and it was allowed to go on, despite the fact that a simple "shut-up" or solid reproof could have ended the distraction. I've seen too many Christians with good hearts that stood by and allowed others to destroy the will of God in a church because they were unwilling to keep others in check.

I think I'm there. I'm tired of people telling me that they agree with me, but that they won't say that publicly. Are we going to play church or are we going to be the Church?

To all 4 laypeople who read this blog and will read this far down, take these words to heart: You are the best asset your pastor and church leaders have. Your voice is more powerful in many circumstances than ours is and it's certainly more free to say sometimes what needs to be said. You want to support your pastor? Don't send him or her a birthday card or keep them tied up on the phone all the time - be there to back them up, to run interference for the flak they'll catch otherwise, be outspoken in support of them, even in the face of potential persecution. If a pastor has no one to get behind them, then all they can do is lead the horse to the water time and time again, hoping that it will take that first sip and realize just how fulfilling and refreshing it is, until it returns time and time again to get it's own drink.