Archives For Church

“From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view…Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. -Paul in 2nd Corinthians 5

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Two weeks ago today, I had the privilege to go with 10 black preachers and 10 white preachers in Churches of Christ on a bus ride all over the South to see where some of the most historical Civil Rights events had happened.

It was one of the highlights of my life.

We worshipped in Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, we spent time in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (where four little black girls were killed by a KKK bomb). We saw where Rosa Parks got on the bus, we marched over the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, and we got to spend several hours with Dr. Fred Grey, a life long preacher in Churches of Christ, who also happened to be the lawyer for Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

 We got to see and touch (and pretend to preach behind) the very pulpit Dr. King used. It was the pulpit they used when filming the movie Selma, it was a piece of history and it was just standing out in the open in the church basement Bible Class room.

In one of my favorite moments from the trip, someone asked our tour guide/church member “Why don’t you have Dr. King’s pulpit in a case or behind plastic protection?”

She said ‘Because were going to be using it Sunday at 9:30!”

In other words, “We are a church, we were just doing church work then, were doing it still and we’re going to keep doing just good local church work.”

That’s what impressed me the most about this trip, all these churches were so, well churchy.

Did you know that the Deacons of Dexter Avenue Baptist fired the next preacher after Dr. King? Like any church, they have argued and fought over everything from paying utility bills to what kind of songs they would sing. They are a regular local church, warts and all.

But looking back through history, we know now that weren’t just that.

They were living the dream.

But I’d like to ask who’s dream?

Paul the Prophet

The classically trained scholar Sarah Ruden, tells a story in her great book “Paul Among the People” about being in an ivy league class talking about classical literature when the subject of St. Paul came up. And one of her peers began to rail against Paul for his condemnation of sorcery.

Her classmate said that to her sorcery meant “just the ability to project my power and essence.” And just about everyone in the class nodded their head in agreement. Yes, Paul was such a repressive brute.

Sarah said she would have sighed too, except that suddenly an image flashed into her mind of just what kind of world St. Paul lived in and just what sorcery would’ve meant in his Greco-Roman context.

She remembered reading the Roman poet Horace’s story of a small boy buried up to his neck who had been left to starve to death while staring at food, so that his liver and bone marrow, which must now be filled with his frenzied longing, could serve as a love charm.

They would change the meal out 3 times a day, with the most delicious of foods so that the starving boy would be driven out of his mind with longing as he slowly died from starvation.

And then a rich man would buy his bones as a love potion because he thought some girl was cute.

Reading that probably bothers you, but I want you to see the world that Paul was actually planting churches in, so you can see that Paul isn’t just railing against Harry Potter. He was taking on something that we can see clearly now as evil. But only because we have been given his Christian imagination.

Paul spent his life taking on some of history’s most institutionalized systemic evils. He was taking the truly good news of the Gospel to the entire known world, and changing people’s imagination for how things ought to be.

He was giving the world his dream about the Kingdom of God.

The problem we have when we talk about Paul is that we take cruise ships to see the cities that he walked months to get to. We watch videos or look at pictures to see where he, as a middle aged man, backpacked and bled to be at.

The problem we have with Paul is that we aren’t bleeding for these truths, we are bored with them. And we forgot just how deep, radical and beautiful they really are.

You may see Paul as some oppressive, sexist, pro-slavery and anti-freedom guy who talks too much about sex because he’s single and doesn’t get to have any.

But every category that I just mentioned is one that Paul gave you, and spent his life fighting against.

Before MLK had a dream, Paul had a vision and it’s one that we need more than ever today.

Racism and the Kingdom of God

These days we talk a lot about racism. We say things that sound so obvious, like “You shouldn’t be racist.’ But I’d like to ask why? Because for thousands of years no one really thought that was a problem. Of course, you would consider your race to be better than others, it was your race after all.

20 Church of Christ Preachers with Preacher and Civil Rights Leader Dr. Fred Grey

20 Church of Christ Preachers with Dr. Fred Grey (Preacher and Civil Rights Leader)

We say things like all people are created equal like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. But why would anyone think that? It’s not obvious, in fact, the exact opposite it true. The equality of human beings is actually anything but self-evident.

The senior in the wheelchair doesn’t strike anyone as equal to the virile young man. The boy with Down Syndrome is anything but equal to the young winner of the recent beauty pageant. Unless…

You have in someway been shaped by the story of the Bible, a story where the image of God is in everyone, no matter their age, gender, appearance or status in life.

The problem with today’s world is that we have these revolutionary ideas but we don’t know where we got them. It’s not just a part of being a good human being to be kind to the people you disagree with, mercy isn’t the default nature of mankind, and justice isn’t the default state of the universe.

The problem with the Western world is that we have just enough Christian roots to know the problem, but we’ve forgotten the solution.

Did you know that the word kindness comes from the word kin, as in your family. This is because we tend to like people who are like us.

But Jesus had a different vision.

His people were, His family would be a family of a thousand different backgrounds, races, statuses nationalities and kinds.

Jesus had this radical idea that because of His work on the Cross we wouldn’t try to build their identity on who they were better than, but by the overwhelming, overpowering love of God.

This is what Jesus started and Paul planted. The Church is a city within a city, a church of different’s that can make a difference.

A Diverse city of people.

A Church of a Different Kind.

If you are in Abilene, we’d love to invite you to join us at Highland on Sunday mornings at 8:30 (a capella) or 11 (instrumental) this fall for this series, if you don’t live in West Texas you can check out the podcast here.

As always, we must persuade [others] with love… And we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts.” – Mother Teresa

UnknownI want to talk today about the incredibly controversial Supreme Court Decision that has changed and is changing the face of morality in America. It’s the decision that has Christians talking about America losing it’s way and turning it’s back on God.

I’m speaking of course, about the SCOTUS decision in Roe Vs. Wade

I’ve never known an America where abortion wasn’t legal. I’ve never known a Christianity that didn’t care deeply about this and often in ugly ways.

And by the way, I get it. I hate abortion, I rarely speak out on it, like many people in my generation because I’ve never seen a productive discussion come out of the quickly escalating shouting matches.

But strange as it may seem, I believe that the Roe vs. Wade decision and the recent SCOTUS ruling in favor of same sex marriages are tied together (not that same-sex relationships are in a same category with abortion, but) because the real underlying point of disagreement between the Church and modern Western culture is the purpose of our sexuality.

In many ways, Christians in the West are still trying to work out all of the implications of the Birth Control, and our recent ability to sever the connection between making love and making babies.

Mary Eberstadt in her book “Adam and Eve after the Pill” writes that this is the defining cultural event of the 21st century:

Time magazine and Francis Fukuyama, Raquel Welch and a series of popes, some of the world’s leading scientists, and many other unlikely allies all agree: No single event … has been as consequential for relations between the sexes as the arrival of modern contraception.

I believe Christianity is more liberating for women than we can imagine, and Jesus calls us to work toward gender equality, but one thing I’m growing more skeptical of is our cultures great promises for a correlation between greater freedom and greater happiness.

I think it’s indicative that for all our progress we’re not getting happier, actually we are losing our joy

Christian Homes and Modern Families

Historically, a Christian theology of marriage and sexuality says that God designed this relationship of total self-giving, in which each spouse gives of him- or herself to the other, remaining open to the blessing of children “when it is God’s will”-the Book of Common Prayer

In other words, for 3,000 plus years, the ideal vision of human sexuality was a means of getting us outside of ourselves. It was literally about making something other than you, When a man and a woman came together they created a soul, a new world, they made love and they actually made a little person.

I love the way Rob Bell once said this:

Is that where the phrase “Making Love” comes from? An awareness that something mystic happens in sex, that something good and needed is created. Something is added to the world, given to the world. The world is blessed with something that it desperately needs. The man and this woman together are in some profoundly, mysterious way good for the well-being of the whole world.

or in the words of Diedrich Bonhoeffer:

Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which he wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom.

Bonhoeffer, wrote this from a prison cell as he was waiting to die. He was executed as a single man who would never be married. But he saw marriage as a temporary arrangement(!) And as a way of linking generations together. Once that is divorced from our sexuality than the story of our sexuality has fundamentally changed.

But this isn’t a blog about contraception, it’s a blog about the relationship of the Church and the State.

I have never known a world where Abortion wasn’t a fundamental point of disagreement with the culture and Christians around me, Even while making exceptions, Christians and Christianity for a variety of reasons, and across the conservative/progressive spectrum seem to be against abortion.

But I have known Churches that have been refused to let politics set the agenda for what it means to love and sacrificially live out the way of Jesus.

For example, at the church I currently serve. 50 years ago, we started a ministry called Christian Homes. Where they took in those at-risk single mothers, housed them, protected them, covered over their (at the time very real) shame, and set up foster and adoptive homes for their children.

Christian Homes protected the dignity of these women back when it cut against the spirit of a 1950’s hyper-moralism, and then they protected the dignity of unborn children when the tides of culture turned toward a more permissive version of sexuality.

I don’t talk regularly about this issue, and maybe I should. But I’m so proud of my home church for their vision, sacrifice and compassionate way of living out the way of Jesus. They just intuitively knew that what it meant to be a good local church involved protecting and serving the least of these.

And that’s why I wanted to do this series on the Church and the Court as a way of laying some ideas out for a better way to handle a controversial SCOTUS decision this time around.

Make Love Not War

Did you know that in 1995, Norma Leah McCorvey, the famous “Jane Roe” of the Roe vs. Wade case became a Christian? In 1995, she was baptized and eventually became an outspoken opponent of abortion.

In his book, Vanishing Grace, Phillip Yancey tells that the most surprising part of the story was how the person who influenced her the most was her greatest enemy, the director of “Operation Rescue” the Anti-Abortion group. The director changed McCorvey heart when he stopped treating her like a villain.

McCorvey's baptism in 1996 (from CNN)

McCorvey’s baptism in 1996 (from CNN)

The director publicly apologized for calling her a “baby killer” and started spending time with her as a person. The pro-abortion forces had washed their hands of McCorvey because of her past history with drug addiction and promiscuity she was not exactly the poster child for any public movement, but thank God Jesus followers didn’t.

McCorvey went on to write a book appropriately titled “Won By Love” that detailed how her heart had changed not by lobbying but by the relentless love of God and the people who finally began to see her as a person and not as an issue.

I realize that the world is not what it ought to be. For some of us it can feel scary and threatening. We’re watching the societal mores and norms change at a breakneck speed. But remember that the world Jesus started His church in was filled with infanticide, Jesus would’ve known all about it, and as far as we know, He didn’t preach on it. Instead he created a group of people and commanded them to “let the little children come to me.”

And they did.

This group of people captured the world’s imagination by adopting the discarded babies that had been previously unwanted. These first Christians pioneered a new ethic of love for children.

Previously children weren’t named until they were older because the parents didn’t want to get attached in case they died or decided they didn’t want them. But Christians began to give them names at birth. That’s where we get the idea for children’s “Christian names” The term God-Parents was coined for Christians who cared for children who weren’t biologically their own.

Remember in Ancient Rome all kinds of sexual relationships were celebrated and even worshipped, and in that world the movement of Jesus not only thrived…it won especially those people over. Women flocked to this new Jesus movement because they were finally in a group that didn’t reduce them to their bodies or sexual usefulness.

I think it’s important to remember there is a difference between the Church and the world. Because the Church at her best is good for the world by not being like the world. We are a counter-culture for the good of the culture.

And in order to be that again, I think internally, we Christians have some work to do. We’ve got to work out the ways that we’ve been complicit in the bigotry against people with same-sex attraction and confess it and repent of it. We’ve got to revisit our theology of sexuality/body/marriage and repent of our idolatry from where we’ve made the good gifts of God into little “g” gods themselves.

I believe that this is real opportunity for Christians in America to learn again how to be disciples of a man who lived in 1st century Roman occupation, and who changed the world not by accumulating power but by laying down His life.

I believe this is an opportunity for American Christians to become more like Jesus…To Make Love not War.

Because people aren’t won by war, but they are by love.

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After this past month’s historic ruling by the Supreme Court, I’ve hesitated to write anything. Not because I don’t have convictions, but because I don’t want my words used as a weapon, sparking more inflammatory shouting between groups that are growing further and further apart.

I’d like, if my words can do anything, for them to serve as a kind of medicine for people who are confused and anxious. I’d like for them to serve to heal those who have been, or are being injured by the subsequent, widening social divide (a divide that I think we are going to continue to see grow).

And if that resonates with you, than please read on, I think I have some good news for you.

The Suffering of Shame

Three months ago, at the Q conference Dr. Michael Lindsay, the President of Gordon College (who was recently at the center of a discrimination controversy between LGBT rights and a Christian college) gave a talk where he brought up the famous ASCH social conformity experiment.

You’ve heard of this experiment before. It’s where a test student is brought into a class and shown a picture of 3 separate lines all with differing lengths.

An Original Card in a ASCH Experiment

An Original Card in a ASCH Experiment

The teacher then asks the question “Which one of these lines is longest?” And each member of the class verbally responds with their answer. The catch is that everyone in the class has been coached to give the wrong answer, and the real experiment has nothing to do with a person’s ability to measure lines. It has everything to do with a persons ability to not conform to what everyone else around them is doing.

And the answer was shocking. About 75% of the test subjects wrote down that the answers that were obviously wrong but conveniently popular.

Now we don’t need a social experiment to tell us that, it’s something that we all experience everyday. We all have a strong need to conform, to be liked, and to be like the people we like. But while this is a very strong pull on the human heart, conformity has never been a Christian virtue. In fact, from the beginning it was assumed that Jesus followers would be a different kind of people than the rest of the world.

But that involves some level of discomfort. In fact, I would argue that what most of my Christian friends are calling persecution these days is not persecution (In light of the very real persecution that our Middle-Eastern brothers and sisters are facing at the hands of ISIS, using that word shows a lack of global awareness).

We’re not struggling with persecution, we’re struggling with popularity, and the loss of privilege…a very real struggle to be sure, but not quite persecution. And that’s a struggle that the LGBT community is already very familiar with.

For hundreds of years, to be gay, closeted or not, was to live a life of great shame, either internally or externally. I certainly have plenty of gay friends stories that come to mind as I write these words, I’ve sat and cried with them and I’ll bet some of you reading this have too.

I’ve found that people who have known suffering often are very empathetic, compassionate people. In my experience with gay friends, that’s certainly been the case. It will be easy over the next few weeks and months for us to focus in on the louder, more shrill voices of cable television or articles designed for clickbait.

But there are better stories than those, and today I’d like to highlight one.

The very next presenter at the Q conference was the popular blogger and prominent LGBT activist Andrew Sullivan. And he said some of the most wonderful things to a room full of Jesus followers. I found him deeply empathetic and articulate as he responded to Michael’s talk:

“I found what Michael had to say very moving., and the spirit that he offered it in more moving still. And the personal hurt that he clearly experienced, I want to ask his forgiveness for. It really pains me to think that people would stigmatize, demonize, and attack people for the sincerity of their religious faith, whatever that religion would be. And I think that the Gordon College thing was a clear step beyond anything we’ve seen before. There is an element of intolerance…I think the experience of feeling out of sync with the culture, and being demonized by it is a terrible feeling to have.”


Watch the video and notice how gracious and compassionate Sullivan is. And then listen with just as much of an open heart as you can to his next statement.

A Church for the World, Not a Worldly Church

“I would just ask in return, that people understand that for centuries gay people were thrown out of their own families, their own churches, put in jail, hanged in this country, executed around the world. That the gay people went through an unbelievable trauma in the 80’s and 90’s in which 300,000 people died. Which is 5x the number of people who died in the Vietnam war during the same period of time…and where were you all?…The experience that many people here (at the conference) are now having was the core and total experience that gay people in many Christian societies experienced forever. We were jailed, we had hormones inflicted upon us…the number of young people killing themselves (within Evangelical communities) is real.

Now I’m accountable to a tradition, and to a people who believe that the greatest joy a human being can have is found in discovering the pleasure of God.

On our better days the reasons conservative Christians have drawn a line in the sand here is because we believed the pleasure of God is worth giving up everything else for, and we, perhaps mistakenly, have tried setting up a society that reflected (and at it’s worst imposed) that.

I come from a tradition that follows a celibate man who I happen to believe was the happiest man who ever walked the face of the earth. But not everyone comes from that tradition, and so those outside of it are now asking for, and receiving, the very things I would probably ask for were I in their shoes.

They’ve done the work of changing the culture by creating culture. Something not to be dismissed. The LGBT community has entered into and worked hard in every arena of society…from entertainment, politics, education, religion and literature.

They’ve exerted an inordinate amount of influence in a incredibly short amount of time and that’s something that any group of people who is interested in shaping the world should learn from.

Being counter-cultural is the call of Jesus for His Church. Hearing from my friends across the world Christianity is doing better than ever, it’s just not taking the form of Christendom anymore. There’s a vibrancy that happens to the church when Christianity is not assumed in the host culture.

As the British Christian Mark Woods pointed out recently in Christianity Today:

The immediate consequence of this ruling, then, is an invitation to do some theology. One of the painful things for observers of the evangelical scene on both sides of the Atlantic has been the reluctance of ‘pro-marriage’ (= anti-gay marriage) campaigners to distinguish their idea of the Church from their idea of the state, as though the two were coterminous…Evangelicals (and others) have got themselves into a knot because they think the state is trying to define Christian marriage. It isn’t; it can’t, and it never could. But the long history of Christendom has allowed Christians to think that the two are the same. Most Americans have always been keen on the separation of Church and state; well, now’s the chance to find out whether you mean it.

I agree wholeheartedly. The Church is a kind of way of being in the world that is different than the world. At our best we are a church for the world and not a worldly church.

At our best we try and build bridges between injured people and help represent Jesus in the most accurate way, and to do that we’ve got to remember to love the person right in front of us. To do that we have to apologize for some stuff we shouldn’t have done, we have to search our hearts for bigotry that the Bible never supports in order to correctly articulate what it does.

At our best we realize that God gave us these stories/doctrines/ideas not for harm but for health and healing. At our best we remember that truth is not designed to injure, and we suffer along with and bear the burdens of brothers and sisters whose discipleship calls for greater sacrifice.

May God forgive us when we forget that. And thanks Andrew Sullivan for forgiving us too.

Intergenerational 3 Reasons

The first time I walked into the 10 person church I grew up in, I was terrified. It was obvious that we weren’t members, we didn’t know any one, and we weren’t late, we were a few minutes early, and they were long minutes.

I still remember the church smelled like dust and old songbooks and everyone was just slightly older than Abraham Lincoln…and then there was me.

Growing up, I was by far the only kid in the church, I was the youth group.

And yet, when my parents were going to ground me from something, they’d ground me from Wednesday night church. And I would weep, because those people were my life, they literally made my life.

And I’m a preacher today, heck, I’m a Christian today because of those older senior saints investing in me.

I grew up in an intergenerational church. I wish everyone could. In my opinion, the only reason churches aren’t anymore is because it’s a lot easier to have a church where everyone thinks/acts and views the world a certain way.

But there is a cost to this (did you notice the generational divide two weeks ago on your Facebook feed over the SCOTUS decision? or when we talk about racism or really any social issue?)

But these kinds of conversations don’t belong on Facebook, they belong at a potluck.

And because this is such a hard thing for churches to do. I’d like to give 3 brief reasons about why this is such a big deal, and why our churches need to put in the effort to make it happen.

1. The Bible & Jewish/Christian History Commands and Celebrates It

Have you ever noticed how much time the Bible spends telling us to pass this story off to the next generation? In the Jewish faith, this is not just a requirement, it’s something that you are indebted to do.

In Jewish history, telling the next generation the story of God is something like the discharging of debts. And the younger generation has a religious obligation to not just listen, but to place themselves in the story. To really feel like they are Abraham or Sarah or Hannah or David.  They have to know this story, after all one day they’ve got to pass it on too.

Did you ever wonder why the Bible spends so much time on genealogies? While they may be the most boring parts of the Bible, there is a reason they are in there. With every name, they are celebrating that these are people who served the purposes of God for their generation. They passed the story of God from their parents on to their kids.

Have you ever noticed how much Jewish people have shaped and blessed the world, and how thought they are such a small group they have such a disproportional amount of influence? Sociologist have pointed out that the major contributing factor for the Jews ability to create culture and influence society is that each generation doesn’t have to re-invent themselves. They know who they are. They don’t have to bear the crushing weight of constructing their own identity.

it’s so simple, but very profound. It’s that they do generational life together. In every festival, in their most sacred moments, the youngest child will ask the oldest man questions like “Why is this night different than all the rest?”

And they will pass the story off from one generation to the next.hands-216982_1280

Think about how much time Paul spends in his letters (written often from jail) telling the churches he planted such practical things like “Older women need to teach the younger women how to do these things…”

Paul basically invented Pintrest from prison because he knew that it was vital for older generations and younger generations to be in fellowship with one another.

This is certainly true in my own life.

Growing up, the people who made the biggest difference in my life were much older than I was.

They taught me how to preach, and how to be kind to one other when we disagreed, they taught me how to be married, how to be a widow(er), and how to die.

I taught them how to program their VCR’s.

But we’re not very good at this these days, and it’s starting to deeply affect us.

2. It’s Vital to the Health of the Church

Patheos blogger Tim Wright points out that about 40 years ago, the Baby Boomer generation started walking away from almost every institution that their parents had built. And in an effort to win them back, innovative church pastors and leaders began starting churches that, for the first time, were geared for one specific generation.

Sometimes we talk dismissive about “Seeker-services” or “Seeker friendly” churches, but in my experience that comes from a really good desire to be welcoming and hospitable. The problem is that these churches were targeting Boomers during their parenting years, and so in order to create Seeker friendly churches, they also created environments specifically for their kids.

At first, it was just during Bible Classes, but then they started to create entirely separate church times and gatherings for the children. Again, this was all done for noble reasons, trying to evangelize the de-churched Baby-Boomer population, and it was very effective. It only had one really big downside:

We raised the largest unchurched generation in American history.

Here’s how Tim Wright says it:

“By segregating our kids out of worship, we never assimilated them into the life of the congregation.  They had no touch points.  They had no experience. They had no connection with the main worship service—its liturgy, its music, its space, its environment, and its adults.  It was a foreign place to them.  And so…once they finished with the kids/or youth program, they left the church. With good intentions we attempted to raise kids to be Christians, but we didn’t raise them to be Churched Christians.  And perhaps that, in part, is why so few of them attend a church today.  We’ve essentially “Sunday-Schooled” them out of church—because we never assimilated them into church.”

An institution exists to pass on a way of life from generation to generation, and one of the great tragedies of our day is that we are investing huge amounts of resources, and some of our most creative people are giving their lives to create Churches that will only last for one generation, because we’ve failed to think past the immediate moment.

3. The Church is the Family of God

A few months ago, Christianity Today did an article on what happened after all those Baby Boomer Christians grew up. Not the majority of them, but many of them, across all the different denominations started leaving church after their kids became adults.

And when CT started asking them why, they discovered that these Boomers had grown up with the dangerous notion that church was something that was for people with a nuclear family and after you had put in your time, and raised your kids, it was time to move on.

But that fails to realize this one large thing, early Christians baptized Eunochs (Didn’t see that coming did you?)

Remember what a big deal the Bible makes about when they baptized Eunochs? That probably confuses most modern readers, but remember a Eunuch was someone who couldn’t have kids.

Unlike what you may have heard before, a eunuch wasn’t a marginalized, oppressed person. Generally speaking, they were pretty big deals in the kingdom they were associated with, because a eunuch was someone who had thrown in his lot completely (and I mean completely) with the royal dynasty. By, ummm, doing what he did, he had forfeited his right to ever having a family. He was giving his future over to the kingdom he was in.

There’s a time in Matthew 19, where Jesus mentions this. Right after He finishes a pretty strong teaching on divorce, Jesus endorses celibacy by saying:

For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Live like Eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And then, do you know what the very next verse in Matthew is?

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

Do you see what’s happening here?

Jesus is saying the Eunuchs are welcome into the family of God, the children are welcome into the family of God. Jesus is saying that for parents without children and for children without parents, you have each other because you both have me.

The Church isn’t for families, the Church is a family. 

That’s the institution Jesus started, that’s the family Jesus created

And It gives you great life, but it first requires that you lay yours down.

One Generation at a time.

It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

– Martin Luther King Jr. 

Photo from Miami Herald

Photo from Miami Herald

On the night before he was assassinated, Dr. King stood up and preached the Gospel.

It might sound strange to Americans living in 2015 that Dr. King didn’t see himself first as a catalyst for political change, but that he thought talking about Jesus and the Kingdom of God was his highest calling.

In his own words:

“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.”

Dr. King knows what many Christians today have forgotten. The Gospel is the best news the world has ever heard, and the reason someone like Dr. King would devote himself to achieving excellence in Christian ministry is because he knows the Church isn’t just supposed to tell good news, She’s supposed to be good news.

And last week, in the middle of all the tragic, bad news, She was again.

Bullet Proof

Last Wednesday night Dylann Roof walked into the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in

Roof entering the Church

Roof entering the Church

Charleston and murdered 9 devoted disciples of Jesus in cold blood. Roof would later say he was hoping to make a symbolic statement to spread his hate, and bring division. He wanted to start a race war.

In many ways, Roof got what he wanted, but he has no idea how foolish his actions were.

Roof gave the world a symbol, but not the one he was hoping for. He started a war, but not the one he was expecting.

See, in the Bible, murder doesn’t silence the voices of the murdered. In the Bible, their blood cries out to God, in the Bible murder only amplifies the sound to God, and I’ll bet that God’s ears are ringing.

In the Bible, war isn’t murdering people, according to the New Testament God’s kind of war operates at a level of attack on the principalities and powers of our world.

Reverend Goff, a pastor at Emmanuel Church, said that by how the Christians respond to these evil acts will “serve as a witness to every demon in Hell and on earth,” I think he’s exactly right.

For the past few days, every news source has been flooded with stories of family members going to Dylann Roof’s arraignment and confronting him by saying the most radical things, things like “We forgive you”

That’s a holy war according to Jesus.

That’s the war that Dylann Roof started and lost.

In the words of the Charleston Mayor:

“This hateful person came to this community with some crazy idea that he would be able to divide, And all he did was make us more united, and love each other even more.”

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the Church shines in moments like these. This is when we put the Gospel on display. And so the Emmanuel Church  re-opened it doors on Sunday with both tears and laughter. They began their service with a standing ovation as the pastor read “This is the day the LORD has made let us Rejoice and be glad in it.’

They clapped and celebrated as a way of protest in the face of death… because that’s what Jesus people do.

A Baptized People

On the night before he was assassinated, Dr King said that the one mistake Bull Conner made when he released the water hoses on those unarmed church members marching in Selma was that he forgot that he was spraying people who had been baptized.

“We were people who weren’t afraid of water, because we know water is something you pass through…we know that there is a certain kind of fire that no water hoses can put out.”

There is a certain kind of love, a Gospel kind of love, that no hate can put out. There is a certain kind of person who you just can’t kill, because they’ve already died. There is a certain kind of community that you can’t divide with a race war because they belong to a New Humanity.

And on some days we forget that, to be sure there are days that the Church forgets the Gospel.

But not today and not now.

Today we are reminded that we are a baptized people, and so there is neither Jew nor Gentile, Slave or free, Male or Female, Black or White, Southern or Northern, we are all a part of the body of Christ.

And when one part of the body is hurting, we all hurt with them.

You know what I find so inspiring about all this? Last Wednesday night, when these Christians were gunned down, they had gathered around to study Mark 4:16-20, the parable of the Sower. The story where Jesus talks about the God the Farmer, who generously is planting seeds everywhere.

And some of those seeds fall on concrete, some of them fall on shallow soil, and some of them fall on ground that produces a harvest of 30, or 60, or 100 times.

The Garden of Flowers Outside the Church (courtesy of Ron Allen)

The Garden of Flowers Outside the Church (courtesy of Ron Allen)

I wonder if as these faithful Christians were dying, if it crossed their mind  how much they were acting like the God they had just read about?

I wonder if they realized that by inviting this disturbed young man into their fellowship and praying and spending time with him they were being exactly what Jesus pictures God like…throwing seed carelessly even on the concrete, even in places that look hopeless.

I wonder if as these faithful Christians were dying, if it crossed their mind that they were the seed? That what Satan would use for evil, God was going to use for good.

I wonder if they had any idea that people all over the world were going to revisit the Gospel because of them. I wonder if they had any idea how many people would be blessed by their faithful lives, and deaths?

I wonder if they knew that their blood, like the martyr’s before them would be once again the seed of Christianity.

I wonder if they knew that in the very place where evil would do it’s worst to them, hope would begin it’s good work.

I have no idea how God is going to use the tragic events of last week, but I don’t doubt that He will, I believe He is already using them.

I believe wholeheartedly that God calls us to be people who are not overcome with evil, but who overcome evil with good.

I mourn the victims of evil attack. but I don’t pity them. I greatly admire them. They followed a man who called them to pick up a Cross and they followed Him well.

So this Wednesday night, at the Highland Church of Christ, we, along with the Southern Hills Church of Christ and several other churches in town are hosting a city wide prayer meeting for the Christian brothers and sisters who have suffered loss in Charleston.

We will be praying for the exact opposite of what Dylann Roof was trying to accomplish. We will pray for God to bring racial reconciliation to the world, specifically by bringing it to His Church. We will be praying for the Church to live out the Gospel and to be the good news in the world and for the world.

If you are in Abilene, we invite to join with us, on Wednesday from 7:30-8:30 (the time of the attack last week) as we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters across this city, country and world.

Because their story is our story. And it’s a good story.

“Busy is a drug that a lot of people are addicted to.” -Rob Bell

“The only really happy people are those who have learned how to serve others.” -Albert Schweitzer

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I get it. You’re busy. You probably don’t have time to read this, much less give a few hours a week to the homeless ministry at your local church. Life is speeding by, you’ve got deadlines and mouths to feed, and between your job and family and kids sports leagues there’s just not enough hours in the day.

If that describes you, I’d like to invite you to reconsider for just a moment something crucial.

What if our hectic lives aren’t a product of a lack of time but a lack of wisdom?

Last year, one of the most disturbing things I heard about was the increasingly popularity of a bedtime storybook for children, each story was carefully selected based on one specific criteria.

That it could be read to children in under a minute.

The 1 minute bedtime story book, is a real thing, that parents actually use. As a parent of 4, I get it, there are some nights when you’re tired and ready to be done. But as a minister, I see the other side of this. I can’t tell you how many people I know who would pay any amount of money just to go back and read their child another bedtime story.

I think that telling people “I’m so busy” is our culture’s new, acceptable way of saying “I’m important.” It’s socially unacceptable to be seen as someone who’s not constantly moving, But this constant way of life is destructive to your soul.

So today, I’d like to write to the busy people. The ones who couldn’t possibly cram something else into their life, and give you my best shot at giving a few reasons why something as simple as volunteering at your local church is more important than almost anything else you can do.

1. You aren’t that Important

I think one of the great symptoms of a bad relationship with time is that we take ourselves too seriously. We are tempted to think that we are going to change the world, that if things are going to change, if the world is going to get better, than it’s up to us.

And in the process we lose the joy of just receiving life as a gift.

I honestly have this conversation with my peers a few times a month, and it tends to be with my successful friends who are in the same season of life as me. We grew up on a diet of self-esteem and being told that we were a cause-driven generation that was going to put a dent in the universe.

We believed the hype and it’s killing us.

So I’ll often ask my friends, “What did your great-grandfather do for a living?” If you don’t know the answer to that, chances are neither will your great grandkids. You’re not as important as your cable television leads you to believe. And one of the best places you can learn that is by serving alongside people who don’t buy your hype, because they are recovering from believing their own.

I’ve seen this time and time again, the great antidote for loneliness in the church is serving alongside brothers and sisters for a common goal. And the great antidote for an overstuffed schedule is getting outside of ourselves and realizing how much of what we do isn’t as important as fool ourselves into believing.

2. Your Time Isn’t Your Time

Have you ever considered just how delicate life is? No matter how stacked your resume is, or how successful you are in your field, you’re not even in control of your own pulse.

One of the most repeated commandments in the entire Bible is “Remember The Sabbath” and it’s telling to me that most Christians never really talk about this. Chances are If you’ve heard a sermon on the Sabbath in the past year it was probably how Jesus was against it.

But that’s not true, Jesus was never against the Sabbath, he practiced it! He just didn’t idolize it.

Just like any good Jewish Rabbi, Jesus would have gone to the Synagogue every Saturday and rested to Remember that God was in control of the Universe.

When the earliest Christians began to realize that Jesus was God, they didn’t abandon the Sabbath, they just changed the day they celebrated it on. Because of the Resurrection, early Christians began to honor the first day of the week as Holy. This was the day of the week that was set aside for God  (Some of you may remember an earlier time when shops and restaurants were closed on Sunday’s)

The problem Western people have these days is exactly what you’d expect from generations raised on a philosophy of Henry Ford and the neglect of a day of rest.

We’re always busy, and we’ve forgotten that this is a vice and not a virtue.

3. It Helps Clarify What’s Important (and what’s not)

A few years ago, I stumbled across a haunting question that I started asking myself a few times a year. It’s a life changing question if you take it seriously. ‘

The question is simply this:

 “Do my commitments match my convictions?”

John Ortberg points out that most of us worry over the big decisions…like who we will marry, or what our vocations will be, or where we should live.  But it’s the routine that drive our lives. It’s those habits we develop that look so small at first, but add up over time. And if we don’t pay attention to them, we don’t notice the gap that is slowly growing between what we say matters most to us and with what we are actually doing with our actual lives.

The Bible talks about sacrifice in terms of first fruits, or giving the best to God first, not just giving God what happens to be left over after you’ve watched everything Netflix has to offer, or put in your 70 hours at the office, or taken the kids to their 10 different team practices.

The problem is that we are over-committed. We make commitments without thinking about their hidden costs. Sometimes we buy a house because it’s bigger without thinking about all the hours away from family the extra hours of work will cost. Or we start another hobby even though it means that we won’t be as regular in a ministry God called us to.Unknown-1

And those might be the right decisions, but God wants you to pay attention to them.

Because we should never underestimate the power of routine.

Routine commitments look mundane, but they have great power to shape our life and the life of those around us.

If you are already living out the mission of God in your life, than maybe you don’t need to volunteer at your local church. I’m certainly not suggesting that we take away time of serving in a soup kitchen or shelter, but I don’t think that’s most of our struggle.

I think the problem most of us have is that we don’t honestly audit our time.

Pastor Bill Hybels says that the most holy thing we can do is sit down with our calendar and a submissive spirit before God. I think he’s right.

Because some of us have unspoken commitments like watching TV, and while we’d rarely say this, what we are telling our hearts and our kids hearts is something like “I’m deeply committed to entertainment and escaping reality.”

I’ve been in ministry long enough to see the dark side of routine. I’ve sat on the couches and cried with people who wish they would’ve paid attention to this decades ago, before their kids checked out of church or stopped believing in God or before a spouse left the marriage.

It wasn’t bad parenting or an affair or anything malicious, it was just the slow erosion of a gap between what we say is important and how we fill our lives.

4. Your Time Is Your Testimony

I love my family too much to love my family too much. Leslie and I have intentionally made decisions to not let our world orbit entirely around our kids.

When I go guest preach at other churches, I take one of my kids with me, not just for the travel but for my kids to know what matters, what really matters, not something that’s just a job, but how to live.

We go to church when we are on vacation, not because God’s gonna zap us if we miss a Sunday, but because we know that our kids are not listening to what we say as much as they are learning from what we do…and just as importantly choose not to do.

Now, I’m not trying to present myself as the perfect parent (I recently stormed out of a room on account of losing a game of Go-Fish), and this post is not for those of us who are over-involved at church. The last thing you need is to feel guilty because you only volunteer 20 hours a week. But it is a post for everyone who belongs to a church.

Because Church is not done by the professionals. It’s not done by ministers, it’s not done primarily by elders, it’s done by the people. If something is going to happen, if a church is going to bless a city, or the world, it doesn’t primarily depend on any one person. Every church rises and falls, the vision and mission of every church rises and falls, on the people who are willing to give a little of their time to serve in ordinary ways and be a part of something extraordinary.

One of the great joys of my life as a preacher is watch God transform people’s lives. I get a front row seat to things like marriages being restored, natural enemies becoming friends, fractured relationships being reconciled and people waking up to a real, meaningful, awe-filled life.

And the majority of times that this happens, it has had little to do with the sermon or the programming. People might credit those things, and to be sure, I know God uses it, but the biggest thing that I’ve seen transform people’s lives time and time again is the power of serving others for a cause bigger than yourself.

And if you are too busy for that, chances are you’re just too busy.

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A few years ago, I saw one of the funniest and disturbing things on the internet. Someone had put together a collection of different reviews of all the wonders of the world, places like the Grand Canyon, the Pyramids of Egypt, and Niagara Falls, and the reviews all had one thing in common.

They were all written by people who gave these majestic wonders only 1 star.

As in 1 out of 5 stars.

Go look at some of these reviews People left 1 star reviews for the Pyramids complaining about being inconvenienced by not being able to leave out the same gate, someone referred to Stonehenge as “just a pile of rocks” and someone gave Sequoia National Park a 1 star review because, and I quote “I lost my keys in the restroom and nobody helped me out.”

These are people who are standing in front of some of the most mysterious breathtaking wonders that we know about. They are standing in front of things that when people first discovered them they were speechless. Imagine the first time a Native American stumbled across the Grand Canyon, imagine the amount of wonder and awe that they would’ve had.

But in 2009, one Brad M. saw the Grand Canyon and said this in his Yelp review:

“as amazing as the views are it is really kind of boring. Every 500 ft a new vantage point of the same thing: a really big hole in the ground.”

The Grand Canyon is a boring, big hole in the ground?!!

An Actual 1 Star Review of Yosemite Park

An Actual 1 Star Review of Yosemite Park

I know this is funny, but it’s a sad kind of funny because this is actually something I see in our culture and in the mirror a hundred times a day.

I also believe this is happening in the way American Christians are approaching worship. I think we need to start reconsidering why we worship, and also why we don’t.

This is at the heart of why this past Sunday at the Highland Church I preached on how important it was for Christians to engage in worship, specifically by singing together, and today I’d like to follow that sermon up by giving 3 Reasons Why I think Christians need to re-discover the habit to sing in church.

1. Worship is For God

Every week I see some article that someone shares on social media on their opinion on what’s wrong with the worship in the church these days. These articles range from: “There’s not enough Hymns or Hillsong or Tomlin” to “the music is too loud” and “the men don’t sing.” Sometimes they are saying “we should do high church liturgy” to “we should definitely not do that.”

And I get all of that feedback, I honestly do. But you should know that every week, your worship leader has a thousand problems and preferences that they are having to navigate as they plan out a corporate worship. But here’s the one thing I’d like to point out about most of the conversations I’m seeing about the churches worship.

It’s about me.

I like Hillsong, and the banjo and the Book of Common Prayer (all of which are true, and would be an awesome combination for some Sunday), but sadly most of our talk about worship preferences leave out a central idea that can save our shrinking souls.

Worship is, and has always been, for God.

I think when we forget this we become like the person who went to went to Niagara Falls and left a review saying it was just a “waste of time.” They were there, but they couldn’t experience what was right in front of them.

Do we realize who we are singing to each week?

Do we realize what story we are singing about each week?

How in the world did we lose that breathtaking vision that Heaven is leaning over the rails listening to what we have to sing?

Do we honestly realize that when we sing, it actually pleases the God of the universe?

How did we start to approach this moment, as if it had anything to do with our preferences?

2. Worship Makes us Honest

I think that the real reason we don’t sing, is because singing makes us vulnerable. Where else in life do you normally sing out loud where others can hear you? Singing puts us out there in a way that can leave us feeling exposed to others, and I think that’s the reason we’re tempted not to do it..

I think we come up with all kinds of reasons after the fact, but the truth is that we don’t like feeling so uncovered. So we protect ourselves and we lose the very thing that drew us to church in the first place, the joy of feeling the pleasure of God.

This dawned on me back when I did jail ministry in Ft. Worth. Every week, I would worship with a group of 20 guys in a 10×10 room singing along with a CD, and every week these men, facing shame and years of incarceration, were singing with great joy, at the top of their lungs. We sang off key, we clapped out of time, and it was the best worship experiences of my life.

Because it was real worship done by people who had come to the end of themselves and had nothing left to hide.

There’s a reason that Paul, the earliest church planter, would write back to the churches he planted (often from jail) reminding them to sing together. Maybe that’s also the reason he had to write so much to churches to mediate arguments. Because when churches gather not everyone is going to get their way.

And not getting our way, is a really good thing for most of us to experience on a regular basis. Because I’m not sure we’re experiencing it in many other places. If you watch enough cable television and consume enough advertising, you will fool yourself into thinking that you are the center of the world.

I think corporate singing, is still a really good way to remind us of how small we really are, and where we really fit in the universe.

Inside of the Durham Cathedral

Inside of the Durham Cathedral

This is the very reason that The Church made huge Cathedrals in the Medieval ages, it wasn’t because they didn’t care about the poor, (they were the ones who taught the world to care about the poor). They made these huge Cathedrals, because they were, for most people, the largest things that they would ever walk into. They were the Grand Canyon of those people’s world.

They made the Cathedrals because the Church has always known that one of the deepest needs of the human soul is to feel appropriately small…To get outside of ourselves.

3. Worship Changes Our Heart

The Church has always known what the New York Times just stumbled across last month, that wonder and awe leads to service and justice and compassion. This is why the largest book in the Bible is the Psalms, because God knows that the Psalms can do what the Prophets cannot.

When we worship, it softens our heart and makes us more susceptible to the strange ways of the Gospel. I’ve seen this time and time again, the biggest lever to changing the human heart isn’t a sermon, it is what we hear ourselves sing.

I believe that the way Jewish/Christian ethics were woven into most of our hearts, wasn’t primarily from that Bible class, but from hearing our grandmother sing things like “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother” or our dad singing “Each day I’ll do a golden deed, by helping those who are in need.”

Our songs have shaped the way we view the world, and how we think about things like justice and mercy toward other people. They have given us courage to resist the status quo and to live in counter-cultural ways.

I like the way Richard Beck says this in his book Slavery of Death:

[Remember} how central and vital singing was to those involved in the American civil rights movement.  Singing is what drove the movement.  People would gather in churches and sing freedom songs before going out to face angry mobs ready to curse at them, spit on them, even violently beat them.  And then they sang in jail.  These civil rights activities never stopped singing.  Why?  For the same reason Paul and Silas sang.  For the same reason the early Christians sang in the catacombs. For the same reason we need to sing.  To find our courage.  Singing is a way to resisting despair and fear.  Singing is an act of resistance.

Now I don’t know what style of worship your church has, and maybe it does need to change, but I don’t think a church’s style matters as much as we think.  What really matters is that we learn to engage worship, not as an individual, but as a community, for the pleasure of God.

Corporate worship can’t be judged individually, because it can’t be done individually, and it’s never, ever done for the individual.

It’s done for God.

And while it may not look like much, and often has sounded like even less, it has changed and blessed the world.

So for God’s sake, for the sake of the Church, for the sake of the poor, for the sake of the world, let’s stop giving 1 star reviews to our church’s worship, we are the Church, let’s start singing along.

On May 5, 2015

Bringing Heaven to Earth

So I wrote a new book! Actually we wrote a new book. I co-wrote it with my good friend and preaching buddy Josh Ross, and it comes out today! As in you can buy it on Kindle or iPad and read it right now. And if our mothers haven’t already bought all the copies, you can actually go into your local Barnes and Noble and buy it today.

I always thought that if I was going to have a book in a Barnes & Noble it would be because I walked in there and left it. But it’s there, hiding between Joel Olsteen and The Shack is a little book that came out of how the Gospel changed and is changing both of our lives. The book is called “Bringing Heaven to Earth”

Let me tell you about it.

Heaven & Earth

This is not another book that offers Proof That Ninety Seconds in Heaven Is for Real. Enough trees have been killed to make the point that sometimes people have near-death experiences. And sometimes they see things that would confuse even the writer of Revelation.

This isn’t one of those books.

14213-Bringing Heaven to EarthRather than try to describe heaven in detail, this book looks closely at what heaven has to do with earth. The world we live in matters. And what we think about tomorrow impacts how we live today.

About 10 years ago, I was starting to become disenchanted with what it meant to be a Jesus-follower and what it meant to belong to a Church. I had too small of a view of the Gospel and what a Church could do in this world. And then, partly because I read Surprised by Hope and partly because of a series Rick Atchley did at the Hills Church, I found myself calling all my old friends and telling them something like, “The Gospel is bigger and better than we thought it was”

This book is what those phone calls were trying to say. Josh Ross and I are very excited about this. This is more than a book for both of us, it’s written from a local church and to local churches.And our hope is that local churches will engage with this and put skin on it in their own local communities.

I have a hunch that there are lots of people where I was 10 years ago and we want you to know that the Gospel is bigger and better than most of us think. We wrote this book because we think God made this good world and hasn’t given up on it and neither should God’s people.

Good News for a Change

We wrote Bringing Heaven to Earth because we are Christians who are concerned about the church’s witness. Many Christians care a lot about saving people’s souls. We care about that too. But we’ve noticed that often people who want to introduce more people to Jesus find themselves at a loss when it comes to living a robust life of discipleship.

We don’t believe the primary purpose of following Jesus is to enjoy the gift of heaven. Rather, it is to be united with Christ in His love and mission. The call to conversion in the New Testament isn’t a decision for salvation, but a decision for Jesus. It is more than a change in status; it is a shift in allegiance, passion, and calling.

Some Christians care a lot about justice and mercy ministries. They want to change the world by serving the “least of these” but often find themselves angry at those who don’t see things the way they do. There are a lot of people who set out to save the world—for a few months or even years—but oftentimes they eventually grow bitter and weary. We think they need a bigger, and far better, story to enter into.

We wrote this book because we are convinced that it’s time for some good news for a change. And we believe that the real good news leads to all kinds of change in this world.

Here’s what some people (who aren’t related to us) are saying about this book:

“Oh, the difficulty of balance in this walk of faith. We tend to lose it. At least I do. I find myself on the side of the path, entangled in small issues and controversies. This book calls us to keep our eyes up. To keep the big things the big things. The authors offer a much needed and much welcomed reminder.”

— MAX LUCADO, pastor and author

“For many Christians, heaven is just some place we fly away to. But Ross and Storment clear the clouds to reveal the ways in which heaven matters in the here and now. Earth is full of heaven, they say, but you have to know where to look and how to participate in it. Finally, a concept of heaven worth believing in!”

— JONATHAN MERRITT, author and senior columnist for Religion News Service

“It’s about time someone dismantled the view that Christianity and the church exist to be God’s waiting room until we make it to heaven. Jonathan and Josh dismantle the fairy tale of heaven being a place of naked, winged babies playing harps on clouds. They replace that with the vision that Jesus and the New Testament both expect heaven to burst forth out of the church.”

— TIM HARLOW, senior pastor of Parkview Christian Church, Chicago

“We live in a world that faces innumerable challenges, and the authors remind us that faith in Jesus gives us the power to be his holistic witnesses to the restoration and reconciliation work found only in Christ. You will be inspired and equipped by reading this book.”

— DANIEL HILL, author and senior pastor of River City Community Church, Chicago

“Christians need to get past all views of the future that do not impact the pres- ent. That is how Jonathan and Josh help us; they call us to a view of ‘then’ that matters ‘now.’ Bringing Heaven to Earth is a timely challenge to a church in need of a new way of telling time.”

—Rick Atchley, Senior Minister at The Hills Church of Christ, Fort Worth, Texas

“In Bringing Heaven to Earth, Storment and Ross show us that how we think of heaven truly matters only when we are able to see how it impacts the way we live, day in and day out. This book doesn’t disappoint.”

—Colt McCoy, NFL quarterback and coauthor of The Real Win and Growing Up Colt

“For believers and nonbelievers alike, the idea of heaven often seems sentimen- tal, escapist, and irrelevant. But in this powerful and inspiring book, Jonathan Storment and Josh Ross make heaven and earth collide. The good news is that heaven is a party already in full swing. So pull up a chair to the banquet table and be sure to bring a friend.”

—Richard Beck, blogger, author, and professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University

If you’d like purchase a copy, you can find it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million and wherever books are sold. If you’d like to download the first chapter for free, you can click on this link: Bringing-Heaven-to-EarthSneakpeek And if you’d like to disagree with anything you read in it, please feel free to talk to Josh.

Thanks for reading and to God the Glory!

Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” -G.K. Chesterton

Un-Cool Desktop

For the past few weeks I’ve been writing a series on the problematic relationship that I think Christianity has with our desire to be seen as cool. And today I’d like to lay my cards on the table for my biggest problem with why I care about this, and why it concerns me.

It’s because the Church that called me to Jesus was anything but cool.

Chances are if you’ve read this blog for long, or have ever heard me preach, you’ve heard me talk about this little 10 person church before. It was for me a slice of Heaven on earth, it’s what I picture everything I hear the word church, and who I think of when I write every sermon.

Our worship leader had down syndrome, our preacher was mentally unstable, and our record attendance was 36 people. As much as I loved these people, I was still your average teenager prone to lots of insecurity and whenever we had guests I was often embarrassed by belonging to this group of people.

Every Age Has a Spirit

Often I would go to my other friends churches, and they didn’t look anything like the one I belonged to. They had people who were actually paid to preach or lead worship, they had gone to the trouble of printing bulletins and graphics for their the new sermon series and they had youth ministries, heck at my church, I was the youth ministry! And sometimes at these youth groups that I would hear the people talking about following Jesus in a way that was dismissive of the way their grandparents did.

They might talk about how Jesus was the original rebel and he certainly didn’t care about all that old crusty doctrine the way their Aunt Betty did (which ironically enough was a doctrine itself).

I learned that Jesus loved D.C Talk concerts and when true-love waited or when Christians kissed dating goodbye, He loved lock-ins and Christian athletes and could cause touchdowns for those who were confident that they could do all things through Him who gives them strength.

I know I’m being pretty sarcastic here, but I’m wanting to make a point. The great temptation of every age is to assume a level of superiority, a chronological snobbery that we’ve somehow been able to evolve past all the sin of previous generations. But today go to any church with a youth group and you’re likely to hear the very things I just mentioned as examples of how wrong we used to be in the very same dismissive spirit that people used in the generation before them. 

But the problem I had then is the one I still have today. I couldn’t write off the older generations because I was sharing life with them, I saw them wrestle with how to be faithful disciples in the world while trying to hold onto the tradition that they had passed on from the generations before them.

And this is my biggest problem with Cool Christianity…in order to exist, cool has to rebel against something, and the main way Cool Christianity thrives today is by rebelling against the Christianity of the previous generation.

In an article for the New York Times a few years ago called, “Ideas & Trends: Alt-Worship; Christian Cool and the New Generation Gap,” John Leland talked about how the the younger generations of Christians are rapidly reinventing church to be something far from what their parents’ and grandparents’ generations experienced. Leland ends his article by posing this question:

“If religion is our link to the timeless, what does it mean that young Christians replace their parents practices?”

I think that’s a great question. How does a historic faith (a faith based in things that we believe happened in history) rebel against the faith that we inherited without changing the very nature of what that faith is? Cool is rooted in the moment, the way of Jesus is rooted in a tradition passed down from generation to generation.

Re-Generation

Think about how many times early church planters like Paul tells the churches to organize themselves in a way that helps widows and senior saints pass on their way of life to younger Jesus-followers. Paul will go from these super theological statements about the God who gives grace to all people and who has loved us from the beginning of time to saying things like, “Make sure the older women are teaching the younger women how to love their families and live holy lives.”Jesus loves you Hipster

Paul has this idea that church, like Jewish synagogues before would be a place where younger people and older people would be sharing life and offering generous critiques and wisdom for how to follow Jesus well.

In every healthy church I’ve seen that’s still the case, and those churches are rarely cool.

I like the way that the pastor Jonathan Martin talked about this when he was planting his church a few years ago. He said from the beginning that the church they wanted to plant wasn’t trying to be cool, it was trying to be faithful. Here’s his words:

“We are your grandmother’s church. And your great-grandmother’s church. And your great-great-grandmother’s church. I had grown weary of the clichéd church advertising that said, ‘We aren’t your grandmother’s church.’ I understand what they mean by that. It’s a way of saying that our church has electric guitars rather than pipe organs. I didn’t grow up in churches with pipe organs, so I have no reason to be defensive about them now. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be annoyed with the careless language. The desire to cut ourselves off from those who came before us is no virtue. Even when we are flatly, and perhaps rightly, embarrassed by the behavior or the history of our churches on some level, we still exist in continuity with them. We are forever tethered to our grandmother’s church, and this is as it should be. Our grandmother’s church has given us many good gifts. But even when it has been very wrong, it still belongs to us.

This is at the heart of Christianity and the problem facing churches today, cool lives in the moment, the church lives through the centuries. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and linked to the generations who have gone before us, we must be faithful to the purposes of God for our generation, but we must also remember we belong to a tradition. We belong to the Kingdom of God and a democracy of the dead.
On February 26, 2015

UnCool: The Church Is For God

Un-Cool DesktopChristine Frost never set out to attract the attention of the entire world. The 77 year old nun had no interest in that kind of platform, she was just serving the LORD by serving the poor.

For the past forty years she had worked to get poor, disenfranchised people into better housing, she and her abbey devoted themselves to serving people in what we call “the projects.” For four decades she had served these people no matter what faith they had or didn’t.

And so when she Christine Frost saw the black flag of ISIS flying over the entry of the apartments she’d spent the better part of her life serving she did what was only natural. She took that flag down.

The flag had already been flying for two weeks, and when journalists approached to take pictures they were threatened with bodily harm, people had complained to local authorities, who were trying to figure out what to do. And that’s when Christine Frost, the nun, known for her ability to organize bingo nights and speak on behalf of the marginalized, stepped up.

Christine Frost (photo from the International Business News UK)

Christine Frost (photo from the International Business News UK)

This plucky senior saint just walked up to the building with a step-ladder and took the flag down.

At first, no one in the British press knew what to make of this act of bravery. Some assumed it was a Christian vs. Islam thing, but it wasn’t, it was woman who had been faithfully serving her community in the name of Jesus for decades and she had no idea that what she was doing would be so very cool, she just knew it was right.

Getting Hugged by Strangers

I spent this past Saturday night hanging out with Kent and Amber Brantly for a fundraising event. I had the privilege of getting to interview Kent about his experience with serving West Africa and having Ebola. They were really incredible, humble people who have given Jesus a good name. But the one thing I wasn’t expecting is how many people wanted to hug them.

We ate dinner at the Macaroni Grill before hand and total strangers just came up and hugged him and walked away without saying a word.

Amber told my wife, “This has been happening a lot lately.”

Think about that, these aren’t people who are asking for selfies or autographs, they aren’t wanting to get anything, they are just wanting to say thank you.

If you know Kent, you know that the best word to describe him isn’t cool, he’s not edgy or image-conscious, he’s the furthest thing from a hipster. He’s not cool, he’s more than that, He’s trying to be faithful.

And this brings me to the problem with the American Christian’s preoccupation with being cool. Cool is built on rebellion, and it’s easier to sell rebellion than holding on to some kind of tradition. I like the way Paul Grant puts it in his book, “Blessed are the Uncool”

Was Jesus really a rebel? Yes, but Jesus didn’t rage against some abstract machine; he called people to an old way, the way revealed in the prophets. . . . Jesus rocked the boat, and defied the status quo, modeling courageous resistance of the prevailing winds. But in our contemporary culture, rebellion is considered a good in its own right—and a thrilling one at that. We’re out to transgress. But we don’t really have any agenda beyond rebellion itself.

It’s so tempting for Churches to fall into the trap of pursuing cool, we use words like relevant or cultural engagement, we want to show the world that we “get it” and that we don’t believe in dragons or elves, but when we pursue this, it quickly becomes where we spend our best energies and resources.

David Wells makes this point well in his book “The Courage to Be Protestant”

“the miscalculation here is enormous…The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God. And the further irony is that the younger generations [are not impressed, they] often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.

Instead of battling to be relevant and cool, churches should be doing is engaging their communities and cultures by trying to be the most faithful version of themselves for God and for the world.

Our chief goal isn’t to be relevant, it is to be the people of God.

Who is the Church For?

A couple of years ago I read the great book by Andy Stanley “Deep and Wide” where he asked the insightful question, “Is the Church for members or non-members?” He’s asking the question because of the tendency that churches have to bend toward being internally focused, and Stanley very convincingly makes the point that the church exists for the people who don’t belong to her.

So I went to Jeff Childers, a member at Highland and a good friend, and I asked him that question “Who is the church for?” And in one sentence Jeff exposed a huge gap in my faith and view of Church.

He just said, “Short answer is the Church is for God.”

Immediately, I was like “Oh yeah, that’s the right answer.”

I realized that this was the missing piece in my theology, I still believe that the Church is the only institution in the world that exists for the people who don’t belong to her, but not first, She first exists for God.

Do you realize the great pleasure it gives God when we forgive people who are difficult to forgive? Do you realize when we reconcile racially/economically/politically we give God great joy because we are acting like His Son? We don’t’ do it because it’s popular, we do it because it’s who God is.

I don’t know of another reason that would cause someone to serve Ebola victims at the expense of their own health, or could cause an elderly nun to take down a flag at the cost of her own safety.

Sometimes the faithfulness of the Church catches the world’s attention and people are reminded that it is good news that Christians follow Jesus. And that may put an elderly nun on the front page of the Guardian, or it may get strangers coming up and giving you hugs at a Macaroni Grill.

But that’s not why we do it, the Church exists for the world, but not first, she first exists for God.