“Unt Dat!”

I’m sitting at a booth in a well-known local cafe’, having just witnessed something that prompted me to write my thoughts down.  Hope you don’t mind.

I walked into the cafe’ and took my place in line to order, waiting patiently.  A few minutes after coming in, a young woman and her son (I’m guessing 3 years old) come in and take their place in line.  Without stopping, the young boy makes a bee-line to the front of the line where the pastries are displayed just-so behind a piece of glass, goes directly to the monstrously sized cinnamon buns, and begins to yell ever-so-loudly while pointing at the cinnamon buns:

“Unt Dat!”

“Unt Dat!”

“Unt Dat!”

“Unt Dat!”

Unt Dat!”

Unt DAT!”

UNT DAT!”

Unt DAT!”

“Ma!  Unt DAAAT!!!”

As humans, we “unt dat”, don’t we?  It’s a different “dat” for each of us.  Just as an example, lately I’ve been fixated on a new TV (which is preposterous because we don’t even have cable).  I’ll take any excuse to saunter through local big box stores and just stare crazily at the wall of flat screen wonderousness.  Sales people approach me, “Can I help you, sir?”  With a silence that clearly says, “Just leave me alone with my precious”, I don’t even bother to look their way.

And I suspect that if you’re honest–I mean with the honestly of a 3-year-old in a bakery–there’s a “dat” for you, too.  I suppose “dats” are harmless in and of themselves; the harm comes when we give too high a priority to those “dats”.  When we pay mental, emotional, and even financial wages to obtain our dat, to the detriment of other things and even ourselves.

Here’s the thing about that dat.  It’s only dat because you don’t have it.  Once you have it, it’s not “all dat” anymore.  I can nearly guarantee that if I had a 60″ flat screen TV in my family room, it would hold that awe-inspiring-wonder status for no more than a half an hour.  After that time, it’d be nothing more than my TV in the family room.  And my mind would have to conjur up the next “dat”.

So, I need to be careful what glass I run up to, press my face against, and yell “UNT DAT!”  Because that dat might become more than I bargained for, stealing away my joy from what really, truly matters.

Jesus once told his followers not to run after those “dats” that rust and decay.  Instead we need to keep our eyes on the dats that DON’T rust and decay; those things that CAN’T be stolen away from us no matter what.  He went on to say that we should “lay up treasures in heaven”.  The idea here is that we live our lives depositing into an eternal account that cannot and will not be hacked into, depleted, or suffer loss.  An account that is untouchable, permanent forever, and eternal.  And when you leave this world (and all the dats with it), you’ll receive from that account what you have stored up.

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Ministry Happens Here.

As a very young boy, I vividly recall standing on a step-stool next to a rickety wooden table on which a mimeograph machine sat.  My task? Crank that handle like nobody’s business while my Dad (a step or two away) fed the blank bulletin sheets into the end of the machine.  So like a circus monkey paid with peanuts and applause (minus the peanuts and applause), I’d stand and crank the handle, turning the inky drum as it churned out bulletin after bulletin after bulletin in preparation for the upcoming Sunday’s worship service.  This was my first memory of my introduction to ministry.

I grew up in the shadow of a church.  And I mean that literally.  It wasn’t until my early 30’s that I didn’t live in a house or apartment that wasn’t directly next to or across the street from the church building I worked in and worshiped in.  For most of my life, I’ve been a mere stone’s throw away from a church building.  Where I sit now, typing these words is as far as where I live has ever been away from my church, where I work/serve/minister/worship; not more than 15 minutes.

I had lunch with my senior pastor yesterday.  I’ll start off by saying I LOVE this guy.  Jerome is someone who is as sincere as they come and a genuine lover of God and people.  He is immediately embracable and approachable and has an uncanny ability to remember your name even after only meeting you once.  He has a heart for leading with integrity, vision, passion, and fruitfulness.  He’s been the senior pastor at Southside for nearly 25 years.  You’d be hard pressed to find a pastor who lasts much longer than 25 months at a church, let alone 25 years.  I love Jerome and in every conversation we have, I become more and more convinced that Jerome loves me and my family.  So naturally I love any time I get to spend with Jerome, especially when its one-on-one.

We were discussing ministry-related issues among other things and through our conversation, I began to think about where and how ministry happens.  And just to have a common understanding, let me explain what I mean by “ministry”.  Ministry is any forward movement of God’s Kingdom, to put it one way.  Ministry happens in a wide variety of ways, not the least of which is at weekend worship gatherings.  Ministry happens not through pastors alone, but through every person who names Jesus as Lord and allows His Lordship to flow through their life into the life of another.  Ministry is me listening to a grieving friend as he tells of the end of his marriage, despite his uttermost efforts to save it.  Ministry is you taking food, clothes, or other supplies to the homeless of your area.  Ministry  is the teaching and preaching of God’s Word to God’s people.  Ministry is two Christians sitting in a cafe’ discussing and encouraging one another with Scripture.  Ministry happens when I’m present in your pain.  Ministry is you visiting someone in the hospital or nursing home.  Ministry is walking next door to your neighbors who just had a baby, carrying a casserole and package of diapers.  Ministry is you speaking to God on someone else’s behalf.  Ministry is bringing food to the hungry, clothes to the needy, water to the thirsty, compassion to the hurting, and God’s love in God’s name to any other human being in any context.  THAT’S ministry.

But I’ve got to make a confession.  Like my early days as a mimeograph handle cranker, I can sometimes view pastoral ministry as happening predominantly inside the four walls of an office, and sitting behind a desk.  And I wonder how many other pastors feel and do the same.  But here’s the thing that stings:  Jesus didn’t even have an office.  Or a desk.  And by all Scriptural evidence, I don’t even see anything about a chair.

Of course I realize that Jesus was in an extremely different ministry context.  Of course I realize that things were different then, some 2,000 years ago.  And of course, I realize that HE’S JESUS.  But still, Jesus spent way more time in the fields than in the temple.  An honest look at Jesus’ ministry approach reveals He focused more on reaching than preaching.  After all, if you haven’t reached out, then who exactly are you preaching to?  I know they’re not mutually exclusive, but I also see that in most situations, there’s a natural progression of one to the other.

But I’m awfully comfortable at my desk.  Not physically really, but in a personal security sense.  At my desk, I have a sense of domain.  I know what I’m doing and I’m good at those things.  I can email like a banshee and get replies from people within minutes and a have a sense of progression.  I can stand up, walk to the whiteboard, and plan out a year’s worth of sermons and socials.  I can sit down at my computer and pound out a spreadsheet, a devotional book, or a flyer promoting our next event.  But when I walk out the door, any one at all is liable to come up to me with a question, or a request, or some other need that I might not know how to handle.

And the longer I’ve grown in ministry, the more I believe that the vast majority of real ministry often happens far from the church building, from my office, and from my desk chair.  It happens in conversations with teens via text or social network while I’m sitting in a restaurant booth somewhere, it happens in homes where small groups meet, laugh, share, cry, and love God by loving each other.  It happens downtown where physical needs are met before spiritual needs are broached.  It happens suddenly when I get a message from someone asking “Can we talk?”.  It happens just as often in the unplanned chaos as it does in the planned routine of daily life.  As a pastor, I recognize that life in ministry seldom (if ever) leaves the trenches.

So God help me (a measly pastor) to live a life that prioritizes people over projects, “out there” more than “in here”, adventure over security, cold water in your hand over hot coffee on my desk, serving over being served, and Christ-like sacrifice over me-like comfort.

Getting Up Right

I’m a pretty good waker-upper.  I might lay in bed for a minute or two after opening my eyes, but I’m not a grouchy, leave-me-alone, just-another-five-minutes, for-the-love-of-Mike-I’m-gonna-kill-that-alarm-clock kind of morning person.  For the most part, I’m an up-and-at-’em kind of person.  And while genetics might play some part of that, I really don’t think they do at all.

I’d like to suggest that today is the only day God is interested in.  So when I wake up every morning, I want/need to see it as one more opportunity to participate in something God is intimately interested in.  I look at my day as a one-day extension of my time in the mission field.  I look at my day as one more day to enjoy the mystery of having a relationship with the Creator of everything I see, while still understanding that I can’t see Him…yet.  When I open my eyes and I’m still alive, I consider this a message from God that essentially says, “Okay Jerry, let’s do this one more time. From the top.”  In reality, each day is gifted to me to do with as I wish.  To squander, to waste, to destroy, or to benefit from–and hopefully to benefit others in.

I typically have several things in my mind that are effective at getting me up and out of bed.  Here they are in no particular order:

  1. The coffee is on.  Even having given up sugar long ago, I still enjoy a morning cup ‘o joe.  There’s just something about it.
  2. Along with my coffee is my Bible reading. Lately I think I’m “o.d.”ing on devotions.  I’ll start off with Dennis Kinlaw’s “This Day With The Master”, follow it up with John MacArthur’s “The Quest for Character” (a study on the Beattitudes), then a healthy dose of straight Bible (currently working my way through Genesis & Job again).  After that, I’ll head into the New Testament and just go where the wind blows (usually the epistles somewhere; they drip with practicality).
  3. Thoughts of what must be done today.  Like I said, I think God is only interested in today.  Given His eternality, how can he be anything but?  God doesn’t plan for tomorrow.  God doesn’t even have a tomorrow.  Not only that, but Jesus warned about looking too far into the future because tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone.  Matthew 6:34 is a great example of Jesus’ teaching on this.  2 Cor. 6:2 is also a great verse that emphasizes the “now”.  So, I try and keep my thoughts to what must be accomplished TODAY.  Does that mean I don’t plan for the future?  Does that mean I’m not thinking about the details of next week, next month, or next year?  Absolutely not.  I simply keep my focus on what’s directly in front of me.  It’s ALWAYS plenty for the time I have today.
  4. The simple yet profound joy in my life.  I am a guy who is blessed beyond measure and who knows it.  My wife is smokin’ hot and is in love with Jesus which makes her even hotter.  My kids are by no means perfect, but they’re perfect for me.  I can’t describe how blessed I am that they call me “Dad”.  Everyday I get to do exactly what I love–student ministry–the thing that I feel I was born to do.  And the people I serve with and minister to seem to like having me around.  I know it more than anyone else: I’m unbelievably fortunate to live this life I’m living.  And I don’t take it for granted.  But that sense of joy of life is like a springboard that flings me out of bed.

What are YOUR first morning thoughts?  Do you utter a prayer?  Do you wake up joyful or stressed?  Do you have a routine that helps set your day?  I’d love to hear from you about what your waking moments (and what follows) look like!

Stop singing or start dancing.

I’m a stickler for integrity.  Not that I’m perfect, I just have it as a goal.  “Why?”, you ask?  Well, for starters, God told me to be perfect because He’s perfect.  Actually, that’s the starter and the ender.  I know perfection is a lofty goal, but He’s a lofty God and He tends to say lofty things.  Before I get too far down a side road, let me get to why I’m writing this time.

If you’re a Christian (a follower of Jesus who thinks about Him, talks to Him, sings to Him, listens to Him everyday), do you REALLY know who you’re thinking about, talking to, singing to, and listening to?  Based on my life experience so far, I’m going to say that you don’t.  Don’t get upset.  Neither do I.

Theology is a silly idea if you think about it.  We get the word from the Greek word “Theos”, meaning “God” and “ology” meaning “the study of”.  The idea that we can “study God” is kind of ridiculous, isn’t it?  But I do think that we would be far more passionate, far more revolutionary, far more unashamed, and far more in love with Jesus if we really thought about who God is.  Call it theology if you want, but I’d rather use the term romance.  You didn’t choose to love God because the set of rules looked good.  You chose to love God because at some point, somewhere, somehow, He wooed you.  He called you.  He chased you.  He found you.  He bought you.  He saved you.

But our worship looks more like a visit to the oil lube joint more than a reflection of the romance that is held between ourselves and our Creator.  We get far more excited for football, bar-b-q, shopping, our favorite tv show than we do about who secured our eternity.

There’s a song we love to sing at the church I serve at called “I could sing of your love forever.”  Its not a new song per se (as if new is good, but that’s for another blog post); and its chorus has words that go something like this: “And when the world has seen the light, they will dance with joy like we’re dancing now.”  But here’s the problem: when we sing those words–out of a few hundred people in the room–not ONE person dances.  Nobody even shoots a hip out.  Not one head bob, not a sliding foot, no twist, no shuffle, no nothing.  So, here’s what I think we should do: we should stop singing it or start dancing it.

I know its just a line in a song, but its a glaring example of our lack of zeal for Who’s in the room, Who’s on our mind, and Who’s in our heart.  He’s the One who is also sustaining the galaxies by His mere thought, keeping the sun lit by His will, and Who has taken my place on a Roman cross.  But to us, its an oil change.  Oh, that we would recognize fully Who it is that receives our worship and more than that, how absurd it is that He actually allows us the unspeakable privilege of coming into His presence, calling Him Father, and communing with Him tenderly.  Oh that we would stop treating God like He’s “getting up in age”; like He’s a resident at a nursing home that we shouldn’t get too excited or loud around.  Oh, that the indignity of David would invade our staunch and stoic charade of worship and obliterate it with messy, joy-dripping, glory-shouting, I-know-whom-I-have-believed passion for the One who is in the room.  Let’s dance.

The Slipknot of Fairness

I heard something said by someone yesterday that I can’t forget. It’s caused unsettledness in me for a variety of reasons. First, its because I love and respect this person immensely. Second, what was said was said quickly and its context passed by before I could really engage it. Third, from all appearances I seemed to be the only one in the room who got hung up on it.

I won’t share with you who said it or what it was specifically, but if you keep reading you’ll see those specifics aren’t very important.  The jist of what was said would indicate that a particular doctrine couldn’t be embraced because (it seemed) it couldn’t be made sense of.  The person speaking couldn’t understand a particular possible characteristic of God and therefore couldn’t agree with a doctrine that I know many wonderful, good, and Godly people embrace.

The reason? Because it didn’t seem “fair”.  And that has always been the word that stops me in my tracks; in my mind’s thoughts and in my heart.  The idea that we can’t be open to a particular truth that scripture supports because it doesn’t seem fair to us is an idea that has birthed countless splinters among Christians, divisions among churches, and fractures in the Kingdom of God.

To reject anything God does (or has done, is doing, or could do) on the basis of our handle on fairness is a precarious place to be to say the very least.  As humans (and even Christians), we have this incredibly egotistical idea that the Creator of all the galaxies (we’ll never have the technology to even see) somehow owes us anything, let alone any explanation or understanding of anything He does.  That my theology is fenced in by what I deem as fair puts me in control and puts God in a box.  Maybe you’ve heard someone say (perhaps in the midst of a difficult situation), “Well, one day God will explain everything to us.”  First of all, I dare you to find scripture to back that up, and second of all even if He did explain things to us we’d be far too beneath Him to understand it.

So, don’t get caught settling for a God that fits your view of “what’s fair.”  The truth is that God would be completely within His right to strike me with an aneurysm while I type this.  Or better yet, to simply stop thinking the thought that I should be living because when He stops thinking that thought…guess what?

Oh don’t become so comfortable with a convenient view of God that you only allow your view of Him to include those things that gel with your sense of fairness.  Instead, embrace a view of God that invokes a trembling wonder at the magnificence of this God you’ll never fully understand.  I dare say that taking that view will fling your heart closer to His than anything else, especially as you realize that this universe-speaking Creator is intimately interested in speaking with you.

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I’ve been on staff in a fairly large church for nearly 7 years now.  The average weekly attendance is 1200-1300.  (By the way the average stay for a youth pastor is 18-24 months.)  Before coming on staff at this church, my ministry “backdrop” was in the smaller church setting.  I grew up in a church that rarely saw 100 people in attendance at worship services (the average church in America is 70-80 people).  When I stepped foot into the lobby/atrium of my current ministry location, I must admit to a rather unspiritual thought: “Wow. I’ve made it. This is the big time.”  I actually thought that moving from a medium-sized church (avg. 300-350) to a large church was some type of promotion; some type of message from God that “you’ve been faithful in little, now be faithful in much” kind of thing.  I naively thought that stepping into ministry in a large church setting would be an exhilarating joy-filled euphoria.  Well, not really all that, but you get the idea.  Simply put: I felt great about “moving up”.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned since that first day nearly 7 years ago:

1. A bigger church means a bigger budget.

While that might sound great at first glance, I’ve learned that that’s not the end of the statement.  It really goes like this: A bigger church means a bigger budget which means more pressure to meet that budget which means you’ve got to get people in the door to help support that budget which  means you need to keep people coming and happy and giving.  All this leads naturally to the tendency to rely on gimmicky flash rather than the power of the Holy Spirit.  It also leads me to care more about progress charts than I do about people’s hearts.

2. A bigger church means a bigger crowd.

Again, this one sounds nice at first.  Few and far between are the pastors/preachers who wouldn’t prefer to speak to a larger crowd than a smaller crowd.  Most pastors/preachers are a-ok with a “standing room only” kind of Sunday morning.  Most pastors/preachers would prefer full chairs/pews to empty ones.  That’s because most pastors/preachers are human beings.  But I want to make another gruesome confession to you as a pastor on staff at a larg(ish) church: I have no idea who many of the people in our church are.  I mean that literally.  Every Sunday I get plenty of greetings from people as I walk through the church building and I must admit that I very often have no idea of the names of those greeting me, despite my desire to know every one of them.  This leaves me feeling disconnected and if I’m honest I feel shamed as well.  After all, we go to the same local church.  Shouldn’t I know them? Their name? Their situation?

Another danger of the larger crowd is the ease in which people can find places to go unnoticed. While our church does do a fantastic job of connecting people in small groups, the nature of the large church gives plenty of opportunity for people to attend the church for weeks, months and even years and never establish good solid relationships with anyone.  I realize this has much to do with the desire and determination of the individual, but its still a reality.  Have you ever been to a pet store that was selling goldfish or guppies? Go to the crowded fish tank that holds them and try and keep your eye on one particular fish.  Pretty tough.  Next, spin around one time (this represents the many responsibilities/activities of the pastor) and try and find that one fish again.  That’s sometimes the feeling pastors/leaders of large churches have.  Despite their deepest desire to gather, connect, identify with, and serve every person who attends, it often seems so very difficult.  As a result, some go unnoticed; lost in the crowd.   And many of those will leave.

A bigger church can more easily lean toward “corporate” than toward “community”.

Let’s not kid ourselves.  When Jesus called His followers to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19), He wasn’t calling us to create an organization, an institution, or a manufacturing entity.  He called us to “make disciples”.  But by nature of the sheer size of the crowds of people, the building(s), the resources, the board, and the budget, we can allow our default setting as a large church to be more corporate than community.  And who wants to cuddle up with a corporation?  What Jesus meant as organic and organized (the first chapters of Acts show that organization has its place), we have morphed into something organized with little semblance of a living organism.  As a pastor on staff, I must constantly repeat in my mind, “People over policy”.  After all, its much easier in a church this size to chant “Policy over people” because that keeps things tidy and neat rather than messy and disheveled.  But organisms are messy.  Even as well-meaning as I am, I can fall into the trap of making what the policy or protocol says outweigh the caring of the person God has entrusted to the ministry I lead and serve.  Yikes.

So, what about some principles that might protect the large church from itself?  Let me take a crack at it.

1.  Spirit-led above all else.  We all desire it, but often times our decisions reinforce our yearning for the control that rightly belongs to God.

2.  Preach the Word.  No gimmick can do what God Himself can do through His Word, the Bible.  But when we want/need crowds, we’re tempted to turn the weekly worship into a spectacle of flashiness.  Trust that God won’t let His Word down…because He won’t.

3. People. People. People.  And not for the sake of tithes, but for the sake of eternity.  God and His people are the only things that will live eternally, so it stands to reason that we not become consumed with things that ultimately will not last.

I need to wrap up this post with a declaration that I am pleased, and (can I say it?) proud to be on staff at the church I serve at.  It is by no means the perfect church (which doesn’t exist anyway) but what we do is follow the Spirit of the Living God wherever He leads us.  That confounds some, unsettles some, and even pushes some away but I’m glad to say though that it exhilarates most.  We declare the infallible Word of God to any size crowd that shows up to hear it.  And we LOVE PEOPLE.  God helping us, we just LOVE PEOPLE.  I can tell you that I stand with those on staff in full conviction and surrender to the God who loves me enough to allow me the highest privilege of “Loving all people into a community of Christ-like disciples.”

Here’s to at least 7 more years.