Sunday, February 28, 2010


Theory: If people are to have a deep relationship with Christ it must be modeled for them. If they are to be able to give a testimony about what Christ has done in their lives, testimonies must also be modeled for them.

I remember learning a very important lesson as a young pastor: When preaching, you sound like the sermons you’ve heard, until you develop your own style. I believe that the biggest single human influence on my preaching is that I grew up and then worked in churches with great preaching. You preach like what you've heard.

The first coverts were (Acts 2) “devoted to the teaching of the Apostles.” What did the Apostles preach? They preached essentially two things: 1.) how Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies and, 2.) their own personal experiences of Jesus - what they “witnessed.” This is where the gospels come from. They are the testimonies of the men who followed Jesus. If people are to be able to give a testimony, it helps immeasurably if they hear the testimony of others.

We see it with people learning to pray. Few can start out and “know what to do” and pray well out loud right out of the gate. It helps if someone models it for you. You grow in hearing the syntax of prayer, the language of prayer, the imagery of prayer. That doesn’t in any way mean that God isn’t pleased with our early prayers, it’s just that the most comfortable in prayer are frequently the ones who pray the most and so have achieved an intimacy with God, a way of speaking with God that eventually influences others.

The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray and he modeled for them a prayer - what we call the Lord’s prayer.

Ultimately, everything we do ought to be modeled on Jesus and a reflection of him. It’s best that Jesus is the model we always defer to. Sometimes that just isn’t possible (i.e., Jesus wasn’t married, didn’t own a house, and didn’t pastor a church that a met in the same place every week with the same people). For those cases where we can’t directly model Jesus, we rely on the imitation of other followers of Jesus who have done what we consider to be an admirable job. “I want my marriage to be like so and so’s.” “Such and such a church gives visitors these....” And so on.

Modeling was the method that Jesus used to teach the disciples as well. He asked the disciples to follow him. To listen. To watch. And then he sent them out to do.

Discipleship is a type of modeling. The disciple models the behavior, attitude, speech, attitude of the heart, actions, that he learns from Jesus. At the same time, if he/she is a disciple, they are also in relationships with others and are themselves serving as examples for others. Be disciples. Make disciples. Jesus is the model. Paul said it this way, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

Thanks for reading. God bless. PJ

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Church of Sanctified Imagination

Pondering some random thoughts about the nature of church....

I see in many church goers a tendency to lead grace-less lives. It isn’t that they can’t tell you what the Gospel is. It isn’t that they don’t value church. It isn’t that they don’t know their Bibles. It’s just that they aren’t happy about it. They seem, except for a greater knowledge of Bible trivia, just like worldly people. Their faith doesn’t seem to impact their heart. It impacts their calendar and commitments; it impacts their bank account; it impacts their voting; it impacts their parenting; they are “doing” everything they are “supposed to do.” But there is no joy, seemingly little peace, and love seems more an obligation, another chore, than a way of being.

Is there something in the way that we do church that teaches people this? Is it hard for me to see this situation objectively because I think that the church is so very important and that when done right, it is alive, fun, vibrant, life-giving and sustaining and transformative?

I see also in many churches an amazing lack of imagination. There seems to be little creativity or ingenuity. I mean, come on, we’ve got the all time best story in human history to work with and we can’t be more imaginative than 3 songs, some readings, and a teaching? This, in my opinion, then leads to an amazing lack of fun. Oh, I know some people don’t think that fun is a proper value for church to have but I think if you asked Jesus’ disciples they would tell you that following Jesus was all these spiritually deep things and the most fun they’ve ever had too. All you have to do is read Justin Martyr’s history of the early church and you’ll see what I mean. The church was alive, faith was real, and miracles happened. They were forced to constantly innovate because their meetings had to be in secret and they always had to be imaginative in seeking ways to tell the story of Jesus. You were guaranteed that something would happen every week in church.

Didn't Jesus' death redeem human imagination as well?

What I wonder is whether the church intentionally or unintentionally stopped having fun and celebrating the imagination when Constantine made us legal. Since then, if appears, as if a sort of war has been waging between the cerebral and the playful. Luther’s reforms were, on the one hand, biblically grounded, and, on the other, rather innovative because his concern was in getting the message to the people. They weren’t “getting it” from the same old same old. He designed different kinds of services and used illustrations and humor in his amazingly long sermons. In fact, it could be argued that his sermons were his foremost innovation. Heretofore, the majority of priests taught very little from the pulpit. The focus of the mass was the sacrament. Luther’s huge innovation was to make both the didactic and the mystical of equal importance. Luther introduced “new music” into the church and also new ways of communicating - utilizing the printing press to put teaching aids like the Small and Large Catechism in the hands of parents as well as the Bible.

On the other side of the war is the type of “strict” adherence to doctrine which is suspicious of anything new, fun, innovative or imaginative because it isn’t strictly “just the word.” Of course doctrine is important and we should strive to teach and preach it in it’s purity. But I don’t for a moment believe that we can’t make the Good News interesting and relevant.

Those who master doctrine tend not to be the life of the party nor the most imaginative and are suspicious of those who seek to make doctrine understandable using any means other than preaching, which, as we saw, was an innovation itself. Something might be compromised in the process. Oh, and they may have to give up some control. Interesting how often disagreements can be traced back to human control.

I think there is a real lack of lack of trust between the theologically minded and those who seek to take the concepts and make them available to the masses through a process of imagination or innovation.

Case in point: the Puritan movement in England. When Oliver Cromwell was in charge, they shut the theaters, cracked down on minstrels, and outlawed much of what passed for contemporary entertainment. They regulated church services as well. Innovation, imagination, fun, was looked down on. You might say that Calvin accomplished the same in Geneva. Yet neither of these approaches worked. Because when all is said and done, if we in the church cannot captivate the imaginations of our audiences, we cannot expect to capture their devotion to our cause, either.

How do we create churches that are doctrinally sound and also creative, innovative, imaginative, and in a word, fun?

I suppose that one thing to consider is that one man’s fun is another man’s torment. There’s no accounting for taste. Some people will love your new song and some will hate it. So then we have to allow for the fact that not every church will be the same and people will congregate in congregations that best match their learning and personality styles. Which is essentially what we have today. And if we could learn not to judge one another on our styles but rather by the fruit on the trees, we might be even more effective at reaching our generation and perhaps the world with the message we’ve been entrusted with: salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone.

Jesus, by the way, a very innovative teacher. Used all kinds of object lessons. And the most visual speaker in history. He knew exactly how to stimulate not just the intellectual, but the imagination as well. Not suprisingly, he managed to appeal to every style of learning known to man. What else would you expect from God?

And this is where we leave it. Jesus captured people’s hearts but he also captured their imaginations as well. I would posit that is the sign of true devotion, when someone captivates your imagination as well as your intellect. We know that in all things it is the Holy Spirit who creates faith. But we also know something about ourselves. We tend to be more inspired and quicker to commit when the message is delivered to us in a way that so stimulates our heart and soul we cannot help but follow along. Let’s give them Jesus, every possible way we can imagine. Thanks for reading. God bless. PJ

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Life Well Lived

I have thought a lot this week about Captain Daniel Whitten, a 28 year old soldier killed in Afghanistan, who grew up in our church and left to fulfill his calling some ten years ago. I'm certain that I met him once, in the hall, between services, he and his sister, also a soldier, and their mother. Shortly after that, his Iowa family went to another church. If that was something I was responsible for, I grieve that.

But I'm thinking about Daniel Whitten, the son, the brother, the nephew, the grandson. I'm thinking of his parents and I'm thinking about losing my children. Because no matter how old they are, they are still your babies. Always. I'm thinking that during that same week, virtually the same day we came to know about Daniel's passing, we were also mourning the passing of an 89 year old, dearly loved father and grandfather and great-grandfather and also the death of a baby who was just 2 months in the womb. Jesus says, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! For I have overcome the world." Usually, whenever death comes it is painful. It is separation. It is the crushing of dreams and the ending of possibilities. But it is not the last word. There is more to come. There is another, better, final chapter setting us for the sequel of what will be a glorious eternity with God in heaven where he will dry every tear from our eye and we will behold him and he will be with us and we with him and there will be no more death, no more pain, no more illness, no more bombs, no more saying goodbye, but an endless stream of "Hello! It's good to see you again(s)."

I'm thinking of Daniel Whitten, a soldier, who gave his life in the fulfillment of a duty to something that was greater than he was as an individual. And I want to say to all the Christians I know, "See! Behold! Are we willing to lay down our lives, too?" Because Daniel lived and carried out his duty with passion and I wish we had more of that passion in the church. He gave his life for a cause and I wonder how many of us are willing to do that anymore? And because death is not the end but a mere doorway from the life that is to the life that is to come, why do we not live more boldly by faith?

I'm thinking of Daniel Whitten, the officier, who knew that his duty to his soldiers was to serve them - serve them by training them constantly to learn how to fight so that they could survive battle and live. And I think about our churches which should be training centers so that people could know Jesus deeper and build their lives on the solid rock and live and I'm wondering if we aren't failing miserably because we lack the stamina to truly make them training centers and because at the end of the day we'd rather just play church and maintain the status quo.

I'm thinking about Daniel Whitten, a young life, a short life, but a life well lived. Thank you, sir, for your service and for your example.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Marks, oops, Mark of a Great Preacher

Last spring I was blessed with some time away in another city for some rest. It was a wonderful opportunity to go and visit another church, one I’m very interested in, with one of the greatest preachers of our day. It was a real treat to see what God was doing in another place and how they were stewarding their blessings. It gave me so much to think about.

One of the things I pondered was the topic: What Makes a great preacher? I came up with two marks or qualities I thought were key in defining a great preacher.

A great preacher listens to God. I suppose that is somewhat obvious but I’m not convinced that all preachers do this. By listen I mean really, really listen. They take their Bible text deep inside them and listen to what God is saying. They have a healthy, deep, prayer life of devotion to the Lord. Then, somehow, God speaks to them and tells them what they are to say, and how they are to say it. And they have the courage to say what they hear God saying. A great preacher lets God speak about what He wants to speak about.
People listen to a great preacher. I don’t mean that he simply draws a crowd or has a fan club. This isn’t about being popular. What I mean is that people put into practice what they hear from God through him. In other words, people believe the preacher. They believe he’s telling the truth. For instance, when the elders of the great preacher hear a sermon on the importance of evangelism, they don’t come to the next meeting and say, “Great sermon as always, but we really aren’t interested in reaching our neighborhood with the gospel.” Rather, they seek to put into practice what it is that they have heard. The great preacher’s audience hears the word of God and believes that the preacher is a man of God with a vision from God. The preacher says, “Thus says the Lord,” and the people confirm this by the the way they live their lives.

Today, in reading over these old notes, I realized that I’m not sure there really are two marks. I think that perhaps there is only one mark of a great preacher: he listens to God. Whether or not people turn from evil or are inspired to follow Jesus is really the job of the Holy Spirit. The preacher simply tells what he has been told. People will do what they will. The prophets, all of them except Jonah, never saw the people put into practice what they were told to say. In the New Testament, audiences were much more likely to “turn and be saved,” but not in every case. Paul certainly was nearly killed on more than one occasion. All that being said, it could very well be the reality that the greatest preachers will never be famous. They will be marginalized or crucified and may never have a large congregation but they will always be faithful to speak the truth they have been given. Even if no one ever listens.

I recently found there is an excellent blog post about the signs of a "reliable" preacher by Billy Graham's grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, pastor @ Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida. You can see it at:

Monday, February 1, 2010

Disconnected Ramblings on Doing Discipleship Churchwide

Enjoying the transition from Christmas and New Years back to the "grind" of bleak, midwinter life. I have a lot of thoughts on my mind but not a lot of time to refine them at this point. But here they are, for what they are worth.

The Situation:

• The reason the church exists is to glorify God by "being" disciples of Jesus Christ and by making disciples of Jesus Christ. The reason the church in North America is in bad shape is because we don't understand our purpose: our churches are full of Christians who are not disciples of Jesus and therefore we've apparently few ideas about how to make disciples. Now disciple making might involve things and programs like Rick Warren's 5 Purposes, but I'd say that those are more to help us understand "how" to make disciples rather than why we exist.

• It seems like so much of what people are concerned about these days has to do with "playing church." Now I'm all for creative play, but we also need to incorporate a certain amount of results orientation into our methodology. Are we "making" disciples. How do we cure the feeling that we are just “playing church?”

• We need to move from "confirmation" to" Christ-formation" across the board. The old ways aren't working any more and the model of church we are pursuing (programming/modern) will be radically different in 20 years. This radical change is necessary. The status quo is no longer acceptable. It is a matter of spiritual life and death.

An observation for those who seek to address the situation:
When you bring the Word the kingdom of God will become more real to more people. You can count on two things:
a. The hungry sheep will line up to be fed and they will come from everywhere.
b. The devil and his allies in the world don’t like this and they will throw everything they have at you.

• True discipleship reflects the cruciform pattern (as does all Truth). All true discipleship reflects the experience of Jesus. If you haven’t been persecuted you must ask yourself the question, “Is what I’m doing really discipleship or am I just making peace with the world?” "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice..." Jesus’ invitation to us to “Follow me: live like me, die like me, lay down your lives like me.” Bonhoeffer once said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

• As you try to do kingdom work, those who run “the system” will try to crucify you.

Another Observation: Discipleship demands submission. The most pressing question for us in the church today is the one Jesus’ asks: “You call me teacher and Lord, yet why do you not do what I say?”
We’ve made church about us to the point that we don’t submit to the Holy Spirit. It's also difficult to submit to each other. Many in our midst are not spiritually mature in their faith. “No student is above his master.” Mt 10:24 ff. The reality is that in every existing congregation the need exists not just to evangelize the lost (Mt 28:19ff) but also to re-evangelize the already converted who have become "comfortable" or sleepy in their faith (Jesus' words to Peter, " ..;then turn and convert your brethren. "

“Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” When you preach the kingdom you will always gather a crowd, but that crowd is both good fish and bad fish.”

The nature of the church is that we are both wheat and weeds, good and bad fish, good seed and bad seed. As has oft been said, “Wherever the Lord builds a Cathedral, the devils builds a chapel.”

Winton Marsalis, Jazz University Program on XM/Sirius Radio - “A way to break someone’s spirit is to tell them that what they are doing is not worth it -- it’s worthless - and is of no value. So we seek to do the opposite. We seek to build up people.”

Vision for for the church (to amend what we have been and to enhance what we are)
The church needs to be...
1. A culture of praise to God. God is real. God acts in real ways in people's lives. Let's celebrate that more intentionally.
2. A culture of thanks to God and people. A culture of appreciation.
3. A culture of joy.
4. a culture of fun.
5. A culture of optimism (can do!)
6. A culture of welcome! Let’s get to know you!
7. A culture of generosity.
8. A culture of believing. Expectation of miracles. A culture where faith can flourish.
9. A culture of learning (perpetual).
10. A culture that values creativity and innovation without MacGyverising.
11. A culture of safety where discussion, repentance, forgiveness and change can occur. A culture that allows for mistakes and learns from them.
12. A culture of desperate love for the lost. A desperation for people to know and love Jesus. A culture that so loves others that it is willing to change and get out of our preferential comfort zone in order to create an environment where people can meet Jesus and be changed.
13. A culture of direct communication. No junior high games.
14. An environment where kids want to be here and it’s the best hour of the week for their parents.
15. A culture of grace. Quick to forgive, quick to put the best intentions on the acts and motives of others.
16. A culture without guilt or shame.
17. A culture where we focus on leadership development/discipleship.
18. A culture of truth where the gospel is preached in all it's purity, leading to repentance and transforming faith in those who hear it. A place where the Word, as Dallas Willard puts it, is proclaimed, taught, and made manifest.