Religion is a broken ladder

busted ladderI’ve had countless conversations with people from a wide variety of worldviews. Through those conversations covering a myriad of topics including God, spirituality, Christians, the Bible, etc. I’ve come to realize that there is (in the minds of most non-Christians I talk to) an inseparability between the concepts of “God” and “religion”.

Big problem. Here’s why.

Most people are open to the idea of God or at least a God. But most people hate and I mean hate religion, religiosity, and religious-acting people. And remember, “God” and “religion” are inextricably intertwined for most “non-religious” people. In other words and to use that age-old adage: If the idea of God is the baby, its being thrown out with the proverbial bath water. Why? Because religious people have come across as religious. As in mindlessly following a dry ritual that leads to nothing more than more ritual. To the mind of someone not inside that worldview, its a complete waste at best and diabolical at worst.

But the non-religious have been by-and-large quite polite about their disdain for the religious. They’ve tucked the religious among them into a box and put one of those “COEXIST” stickers on it.
Fair enough.

Here’s the deal. Religion and God were never meant to be put together, let alone conjoined like two babies sharing vital organs. Religion is OUR attempt, OUR faulty efforts to reach a God that has no interest in being reached. This God is in fact the One doing the reaching. This God is the One who has from the very beginning been the initiator of any contact between Creator and Creation. Meanwhile, we’ve constructed this rickety, busted, woefully short, broken ladder in an effort to get to God. That ladder is religion. Religion is man’s attempt to reach God. Grace through Jesus is God’s statement that He’s reaching us.

Jesus paintingSo, please don’t think I have faith in religion. The word itself is in the Bible only a handful of times and not in the way we currently use it. No, I don’t cling to religion. Religion as a broken ladder could never save me. Ritualistic ruts could never do the trick. I cling to Jesus. Jesus never seemed interested in religion and yet somehow many of His followers have found themselves steeped in it. I don’t go to a particular building on Sundays because I have religion. I go because I have friends there who love Jesus too and some who are searching and I want to encourage anyone I can. I don’t read the Bible because God loves me when I do, I read it because God loves me unconditionally and is speaking through the Bible. I don’t pray because I think I’m better than anyone. I pray because I know I’m a scoundrel in need of a Savior and this Savior has embraced me into a loving relationship with Him. Like any relationship, it grows through constant, authentic communication.

So if you’re not a Christian, please understand that its entirely likely that the Christians you know dislike the connotations of “religion” as much as you do. Please understand that its Jesus we’re after because we found out that He’s after all of us. And we know how much we and the world need His love, forgiveness, and grace.

And if you’re a Christian reading these words, how have you perpetuated the concept that God and religion are inseparable? How can you replace ritual in your life with zeal, with passion, with love, with selflessness that simply loves all people the way Jesus does?

The Mechanics of Ministry: A multi-part inspection of how Church works

Welcome and thanks for stopping in to think with me through some questions that I believe need to be asked. Let me start off by saying I’ve been in fulltime ministry for over 20 years so I’m not talking from theory, from conjecture, or anecdotally. I’m talking from real life observations and insights born in real life ministry experience. I hope you’ll find things here that’ll entertain you, some things that’ll offend you, some things that’ll make you question what you hold as conviction, and some things that’ll kickstart conversation with the people around you. Part 2 (Spiritual Spectacle) and Part 3 (Ministry Hustle) will be coming later and directly connect to this one.

Part 1: That Vision Though

I’m currently in the last week or so of a 5-week sabbatical. This is only mostly irrelevant to the issue of vision, but not entirely. As I’ve been in ministry myself and seen a wide variety of ministries over the years, I can see where vision is and where vision isn’t. Or at least where it isn’t obvious to the outsider.

I recently had the opportunity to visit two well-known “mega” ministries: North Point Church in Alpharetta, GA with Lead Pastor Andy Stanley and NewSpring Church in Anderson, SC with Lead Pastor Perry Noble. Both were dynamic in different ways and both had electric atmospheres in different ways. Both experiences were enjoyable and both were experiences I’d love to repeat if given the chance.

20150802_102918When I walked into North Point, I was immediately in awe of the sheer size. Driving in, we were directed to an open parking spot by several different traffic-directing volunteers. We walked in along with a horde of other worshippers. You probably couldn’t go 15 feet in any direction and not see another volunteer in a Northpoint shirt. 20150802_104037I even commented to one of them how striking that was. Another one of them showed me around after I asked about the student ministry. He clearly loved his church and was happy to help me. It was seriously impressive, it really was.

As the service got underway, I had (at least at first) a slight feeling like I was watching the recording of a television show. As if I was part of the studio audience for something ultimately for far more people than were 20150802_103859in the large auditorium we were in. And we were; there’s no question that North Point is a global ministry. It was unmistakable, at least to me. We enjoyed the service, the worship music, and the message by Clay Scroggins. (I happened to see Clay in a hallway before the service and had to deliberately “play it cool” so I didn’t totally geek out.) The service ended, we made our way out of the sanctuary auditorium, helped myself to another eyeful of the student ministry area, snapped some pictures, and walked out of the building. Great time, great teaching, great ministry, and a great Starbucks gift card given to first-time visitors. Overall, great. If you want to see the service I attended for yourself, click here.

20150808_124334The following Sunday I attended NewSpring Church in Anderson, SC. Let me preface this by saying while I had never been to NewSpring, I do have a friend named Joel Tippitt on staff as Group Director. So, I came into the building and already had someone specific to look for. Not sure if that taints my objectivity, but I don’t think so. Keep reading.

Backstory: I actually arrived in Anderson on Saturday even though I told Joel I’d be there Sunday morning. With a rental car and nothing much to do (my family had dropped me off on their way home to VA from vacation time in GA), I decided I’d go to NewSpring to see if they had a Saturday night service. Turns out they didn’t, but it also turned out that I got way more than the potty stop I had planned for. As I drove up to the mostly empty parking lot, I could see one of the many front doors propped open. I’m not shy so I walked right in. I immediately saw 10-12 adults setting up for baptism the next morning. I spent about an hour and a half talking with them. What struck me most was their passion for what was happening at their church and how that was so clearly connected to the vision of that church.


18 people celebrated baptism during this one particular service!

20150809_111456So, back to Sunday morning. I met up with Joel and he showed me all around the church facility, introducing me to people and continually connecting every area, every effort, every role to the vision of the church. Ultimately we ended up in the “VIP” room where first-time guests are welcomed after the service. While first time guests certainly ARE Very Important People, the “VIP” actually stands for Vision, Information, and Prayer because these are 3 things NewSpring Church wants to communicate to new visitors. You see, when you come to NewSpring, you’re not leaving without being crystal clear on the vision. I was struck by a large floor-to-ceiling mural in the VIP room that displayed the 5 points of the vision of the church. From the countdown intro video that kicked off the worship service, to the response/invitation at the end of the service, to nearly everything you saw and experienced there, the vision was integrated and articulated. If you want to watch the service I attended for yourself, click here.

North Point is an incredible ministry doing incredible things being led by God’s incredible Spirit. No doubt about it. And my personal connection to a staff member at NewSpring afforded me a unique perspective that wasn’t there at North Point.  Both excellent, both used of God.
Both seriously awesome.

So, what is the deal with vision? Is vision unique to an individual pastor/leader? When a pastor/leader transitions from being a pastor/leader of a particular ministry, do they take that vision with them? Does the new pastor/leader bring a new vision? Where does vision come from? How is it born? How is it cultivated and communicated in such a way that it invades every square inch of the heart of each person and every square inch of space occupied by that ministry? Can vision be overstated? Can vision be made overly complicated? Can vision be uncompelling? Is uncompelling even a word?

The matter of vision must first be a matter of Scripture. The Church doesn’t need a dynamic visionary pastor as much as it needs to understand its God-given mandate. No hyped-up, slickly-rehearsed, creatively-contrived presentation based on human ingenuity is necessary. The vision: Make disciples.

I love that. I love how those 2 words completely level the field between mega-ministries like North Point just north of Atlanta, GA and small-town single-room churches like the one I grew up in in North Cape May, NJ. No matter which one you’re at, we’re partnering with God to do the same thing: Make disciples.

The matter of vision must secondly be a matter of prayer. Our two-word mandate is a given. But every pastor/leader possesses a unique personality, character, charisma, humility, and –ahem— even “style” all their own. In other words, the methodology between two pastors who lead the same church can be wildly different indeed.

What is the vision exemplified by the pastor/leader of the local church you’re a part of? How would you articulate it? What does he seem to be trying to accomplish? And why? You see, when vision is based on prayer that leads to submission, the vision of a particular pastor/leader can take on a variety of complexions. That is why I can pray for, meet with, and support a small army of fellow pastors in my community because I know that my ministry “style” may not be (and certainly isn’t) everyone’s cup of tea. So I’m thankful when I see people connecting to Jesus and His Body across town because I’m part of Jesus’ Body too. I learned from my dad (the lone pastor of that small church in North Cape May) this incredible truth: “Genuine ministry is never jealous.” Maybe you’re a pastor/leader reading this and you need to stop right there with that statement, take it to God in prayer and confess your jealousy of other ministries and leaders. I’ve had to do that very same thing on more than a couple of occasions.

Finally, the matter of vision must be a matter of white-hot passion. And that passion must be translated into pinpoint clarity. If not, it won’t translate to those who aren’t already part of the excitement. People will observe the passion but come away with, “Boy those people were pumped! About what, I’m not sure but they were definitely excited!” Excitement is great, but excitement clearly communicated in connection with spiritual, eternal, life-giving realities is the best kind of excitement that exists. (No offense, Nascar.)

Okay, so that we can do something with all this talk…

  • So, what is the vision of YOUR local church?
  • Does your pastor know you’re as excited about the vision as they are?
  • Is the vision of your church communicable to those who aren’t yet a part of it?

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Over Do It.

jump off boatI’m just past dead center of a 5-week sabbatical that was offered to me by the ministry I work with, Southside Church on the south side of Richmond, VA. I’ve been here nearly 11 years and after 10 years we say, “Take a break. 5 weeks should do it.” Believe me, I’ve enjoyed just about every second of it. It’s given me time to breathe, to rest, to reflect, and to look some of my entrenched perceptions square in the face and say, “Really?”  I’m already calculating my re-entry into the atmosphere of the church and it is all-at-once exhilarating and unpretty. But unpretty in a way that testifies to the fact that the sabbatical is working. I seriously doubt this sabbatical was afforded me with the hopes that I’d return exactly the same person I was when I set my auto-response on email and voicemail and walked out nearly 3 weeks ago.

So during this time I’ve thought about lots of things and observed even more. I’ve visited places and talked with people and challenged preconceived thoughts. I’ve thought about my former self and how he went about student ministry. I imagine that guy getting canned, me knowing all the details of his years in that role, and taking up and taking on this student ministry with all that in mind. So, without further adieu, a few thoughts so far.

Excuses: I can concoct any number of excuses as to why the ministry I’m a part of isn’t what burns in my heart as the vision* I sense God has given me. Not enough leaders, not enough students, not enough money, not enough support, not enough time, not enough buy-in. Too many obstacles, too many entities vying for resources, too many opinions mucking up the progress, too many hands in the pot. But you know what? Not one of those excuses has proved its worth. They’re all a fog that fills a space but is easily walked through as if it weren’t there at all. And they’re laughing at me.

*I once heard this definition of “vision”:
“The mental picture of what could be, fueled by the conviction of what should be.”

Question: What excuses do you concoct? Are any of them valid? (Hint, if they were you wouldn’t have identified them as excuses.)

Laziness disguised as caution and thoughtfulness: I’m a slow processor. I’ll move slower than you want me to, I can nearly guarantee it. I would be prone to apologize for that, but that would be like a crockpot apologizing for the flavorful meal it provides after doing its thing all day. Sure it takes a while, but you’re glad for the results. Right? I don’t know. That’s just what I tell myself. But anyway this form of laziness is so sneaky because its not overt. It doesn’t look like someone sitting around doing nothing. Quite the opposite actually. This laziness might be feverishly busy, but doing the wrong thing(s) because tackling the right thing(s) is too risky. I’ve got to be careful not to be busy in activities but lazy in what matters most.
Bonus: Laziness is Selfishness. Let’s not kid ourselves. Lazy people are selfish people. When I’m lazy its because what I want has trumped what you need.

Question: What matters most to you? How close to center is it?

Over Do It or Do It Over: I was thinking about this idea two days ago when I looked at our neighbor’s yard. My teenage son had mowed it the day before. He did a great job, but because of the length of the grass and the engine getting bogged down due to the amount of grass, he opted to switch to the side discharge attachment rather than the bagger attachment. That left the cut grass strewn about in a thick layer on the lawn. In other words, it looked like a hay field the next day. I called him out and we looked at it together and agreed this was no good. We couldn’t in good conscience leave this lawn looking like that. So we essentially re-did the lawn, this time with the bagger attachment. A couple hours later, 100% better. Side discharge: easier. Bagger: better.

When a task is at hand–and I mean any task–I want to keep this mantra drumming in my mind: Over do it or do it over. This is really about understanding the full capacity of excellence and not readily settling for less than what’s possible.

Question: Where are you using the side shoot when you know you ought to use the bagger? Where can you apply the “Over do it or Do it over” concept?

I freely admit that my last blog post was longer than I imagine most people would read. So I’ll stop here and get back to my radical sabbatical. More later. Maybe.

So I went to a Rotary Club meeting…

rotaryI’d never been to a Rotary Club meeting. I’ve been invited several times and politely declined.

Until yesterday.

I’m on vacation in GA and two of my relatives are Rotary Club members. One lives here and the other is an out of town “Rotarian”. Apparently Rotary Club members are expected to attend Rotary Club meetings even when they’re on vacation. So with two invitations from two relatives, how could I say no? Especially when the meeting was being held at the local swanky country club and lunch was included?

I observed some things about Rotary Club that I’d like to share with you. Whether these things propel you toward Rotary Club or repel you from Rotary Club is something I’ll leave between you and Rotary Club.

I went into this experience with little to no expectations except for the aforementioned lunch. Upon entering the foyer of the country club, I saw a table with two pleasant-faced ladies (I’d guess in their sixties) and a case full of large, round, pin-style name tags. The case reminded me of something that would have been handed off to a spy in the middle of a bustling town square crowd in Eastern Europe in some 1960 spy movie. Had the case been closed, I would have immediately thought, “Good Lord, what could be inside that?”  Turned out, they take the protection of their nametags pretty seriously.

IMG_20150805_130511But since I wasn’t a local member, that nifty case held nothing for me. I instead got a hand-written sticker-style name tag. To be fair, it was the most substantial sticker I’d ever seen. Stiff, stout, and customized just for me.

After being introduced to the nametag table ladies by my cousin who was a local Rotary member, I moved left through a doorway into view of a beautiful spread of salad, sides, succulent roast beef, and dessert. Since the lunch was free (to me), I piled my plate high and moved to the next room: the official meeting room.

Upon entering I immediately noticed what I surmised as the average age of the crowd. More on that later. We found a table to sit at which was already occupied by a couple of “Rotarians” but with plenty of open seats left. I sat down and started in on my salad.

My cousin introduced me to those around the table. She’s the type of person who loves connecting people. I have the feeling that she probably didn’t need the nametags to know the names of those already at the table. Those I was seated with were smiley, pleasant, friendly, and smiley. Smiles all around. That was pretty much the perceived theme of the entire meeting, in fact.

I was just a few shovelfuls into my bleu cheese dressing with a hint of salad greens when I heard a very faint sound of a bell. It was a single tone that triggered a singular response from the crowd, with me a few seconds behind. Before I knew it we were on our feet. I looked longingly at my salad and quickly decided it would be inappropriate for me to try and continue eating while standing.

A well-dressed, happy man strode to the podium in the front of the room, introduced himself with some niceties, and commenced the Pledge of Allegiance.  Oooooh, THAT’S why we were standing. Patriotism. Cool. I’m down with that. (I personally like to give the words “Under God” extra punch when I recite the Pledge.) After honoring the flag, there was an invocation. Turned out it was given by a gentleman at my table. He drew a folded piece of paper from his sport jacket pocket, read his prayer, Amen’d, and returned the paper back to the same pocket. “Hmm.” I thought. “Prayer at Rotary Club. I’m DEFINITELY down with that. Even if it is read.”

After the invocation we took our seats again. This time for good. Well, for most of us anyway.

The next order of business was to introduce all visiting guests. The instruction was given to stand when your name was read and remain standing until all the guests had been introduced. Thankfully, I was last on the list. We received our applause and returned to our salad.

The same gentleman who led us in the Pledge called to anyone who had “Happy Dollars” while patting a globe on the table next to him.  As soon as that invitation rang out, a man across the room headed to the front and toward the globe. Turned out, the globe had a hole in it and as the man put in his “happy dollars”, he gave an explanation as to why he was giving those (five) “happy dollars”. I don’t remember the reason. He was immediately followed by another gentleman who also had five “happy dollars” to give, along with a reason for giving them. Again, I don’t recall his reasoning. I just remember thinking, “My dollars are happy in my pocket.” (I’m still unsure what that was for.)

After all happy dollars were collected that were being given, the speaker for the day was introduced. He’s the head coach of the local college football team. Knowing beforehand who the speaker was, I imagined that his talk would be generically inspirational; something for everyone, so to speak. A halftime locker room talk full of passion and purpose, rousing the crowd to excellence in their respective roles in the community. Oddly enough it was about football. His half hour came and went and while I wasn’t necessarily “wowed” by this pigskin orator, I absolutely appreciated his obvious fire for football and leading his players with excitement and drive. He finished his talk, took a few questions, and was thanked by the crowd of businessmen and retirees with a hearty round of applause.

At that, we rose and exited.

Okay so here’s my advice for the Rotary Club, coming free of charge from a guy who just visited one of your meetings. And since I’m someone who dwells in the world of fulltime ministry, people like me need to listen up as well. Why? Because its all relatable.

Don’t just know who you are, say who you are. And more importantly who WE are.

This is just my opinion and maybe I’m off, but I think the words “Rotary Club” convey exactly zero about the Rotary Club’s purpose. Being among all those Rotarians, I got the sense that members know why the Rotary Club exists, but there was no clear articulation of that purpose. So I was left wondering why we had gathered and based on my experience I think the purpose is for mostly older, well-off citizens to have lunch, network, give donations to something, eradicate polio, and pledge our flag. All good things for sure.

Business owners, community organizations, and churches alike: IF you’re going to have insider knowledge, don’t let anyone not be an insider. I wasn’t offended at all by the fact that everyone around me seemed to be clued in. I just would have loved to see something somewhere that helped me understand why we were all there eating salad and giving happy dollars to a globe with a hole. I know there was more to it all, but I don’t know what else that “more” includes.

Be a connector.

My time at my first Rotary Club meeting was as good as it was because of my cousin’s ability and willingness to connect people. Connecting people seems to often get relegated to those who are deemed “outgoing” or “extroverted” or just “people kind of people”. But I’d dare say that it doesn’t take much at all to say,

  • “Hi, my name is ______. What’s your name?”
  • “Do you live nearby?”
  • “What do you do?”
  • “What do you like to do when you don’t have anything to do?”
  • “Do you have any kids?”
  • “Are you reading a book right now? Would you recommend it?”
  • “I’m from out of town. What should I see before I leave?”
  • “I just saw (insert movie title) and thought it was (insert opinion). Have you seen any good movies lately?”
  • You get the idea.

Any one of those questions might likely lead to another question. And none of them are rocket science, but if you ever need help just return to this blog, read one of these questions and recommend jerrythinks to them while you’re at it.

Business owners, community organizations, and churches alike: That person who walks into your business, club, or church service is wanting one thing before all else. They want to be noticed and welcomed. If you fail at that level you don’t deserve them to return ever again. Smile. Say hello. Introduce them. Connect.

Multiply before you die.

As I looked around the room at that Rotary Club meeting, I couldn’t help but notice that 75-80% of those in attendance were 60 and older. Now, I’m not saying that the Rotary Club is knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door but unless this organization is intentional about bringing in younger Rotarians, and doing so continually, its a biological fact that Rotary Club can’t survive. But then again, it was founded in 1905, so 110 years (so far) is none-too-shabby a lifespan. I sincerely doubt that the Rotary has any plans on going anywhere anytime soon. So, let’s just chalk this white-haired-lunch up to this particular local chapter. Still, you know by now what’s coming next.

Business owners, community organizations, and churches alike: Unless you are engaging the younger of the generations along with the older, you too are looking at a very limited timeframe. I can walk into a church service and within a few minutes get a sense of how much time that local church body has left. Are there younger faces around? Is the heart of the people to reach out and connect with those who aren’t quite as far down life’s path? What is being done to engage them?

  1. Have you ever been to a Rotary Club meeting? How was is different from my experience? Was it similar at all?
  2. Which of these 3 observations resonate with you and where you are?
  3. Read this quote Rotary’s founder and think about how it relates to those of us called “church goers”: “Whatever Rotary may mean to us, to the world it will be known by the results it achieves.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

(In case you’re like me and didn’t know much at all about Rotary, here are some tidbits I learned through looking for myself.)

  • pharrisphotoStarted in 1905 by a Chicago attorney named Paul P. Harris.
  • Began and continues as a “service” organization.
  • Harris wanted a place where professionals from diverse backgrounds could exchange ideas and form meaningful, lifelong friendships.
  • The name “Rotary” came from the beginnings when the location of the meeting would rotate among the offices of the members.
  • A couple notable Rotarians: James Cash Penney (see it?) and Manny Pacquaio (world champion boxer and congressman) Also, presidents, senators, and astronauts.
  • Approximately 1.2 million members worldwide.