Does the Church Matter? 3 reasons it does, with links to past posts

What’s the big deal about the Church, anyway?

Does it matter?

Is it relevant?

Should I care? 

In some form or another, these are questions I get asked almost weekly. So, I thought I’d offer you three posts from my past writing, specifically on the topic of the Church.

I encourage you to read the one that intrigues you the most. Let me know what you think by commenting below, or on the original post.

1st Post: We Gather AS the Church, not AT the Church.

The first post gets at the way we speak, and therefore think, of ourselves, arguing that when we gather, we gather AS the church, not AT the church (read post here). By rethinking our language, it can help us be the church wherever we are–gathered together or scattered throughout the week.

2nd Post: When we say we love Jesus, but don’t care for his Church.

It’s always struck me that Christians don’t get the deep connection Jesus has with his church. If they did, they might speak more carefully about his bride. Rather, we will say we love Jesus, and then proceed to insult, berate and disregard the one he loves most. It’s the equivalent of saying, “I love you, Jesus, but I can’t stand your wife.” (read post here)

3rd Post: Why I haven’t quit church (and you shouldn’t either)

The church is a mess. There’s no denying it. But where is Jesus? Right in the middle of that mess. In a reflection from Revelation, I was challenged by this picture of where Jesus was standing, and where we need to be standing as well. (read post here)


The Church of Jesus Christ is broken yet beautiful, filled with the Spirit of God and desperately in need of grace. I’m thankful to be counted among them, because of what Jesus did for me. And I’m excited to be in on Jesus’ plan to heal the world through us! (Here’s a bonus link to one more post about that!)

Question for comment below: How has your understanding of the Church changed over the last few years? Why?

20/20: 20 Lessons From 20 Years–Lesson #1: Good Mentors Matter

On May 1, 1996, I walked into the Grande Prairie Church of Christ to begin my first full-time ministry gig. I was 21. The ink on my pastoral degree from Peace River Bible Institute (PRBI) wasn’t even dry, nor were the spots behind my ears.

It’s been 20 years since then. No fireworks went off, and as it was Sunday, I worshiped and connected and preached in our church just as I normally do.

But this two decade mark got me thinking. What have I learned? How have I changed? What has defined my ministry journey so far? So many things rushed to my mind that I thought I’d try something different: I’ll post 20 lessons I’ve learned, over the course of May. (I may intersperse others posts, too). By breaking it down, I’ll keep things shorter and not overwhelm one post. 🙂

So, here goes.

20 Lessons I’ve Learned from 20 Years of Vocational Ministry

Lesson 1: Good Mentors Matter.

From my earliest days growing up, through Bible school and into vocational ministry, I have been blessed with terrific mentors. Alan Jones, as my first vocational ministry leader heads that list, but there are others who’ve significantly impacted my life and ministry. Gerald, Waldie, Al and Duff, all who have walked with me “in the flesh” as it were. But, as I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve been shaped by good dead mentors, too, such as Hudson Taylor, Lesslie Newbigin, Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen. I also have high regard for ministry mentors I’ve happily accessed through books, teachings and podcasts, such as James Houston, Eugene PetersonBill Hybels, Andy Stanley and Carey Neiuwhof.

Whether they be dead or alive, close-up or influencing me from a distance, mentors have made me who I am. These mentors have:

  • Challenged my character
  • Shaped my skills
  • Given me opportunities
  • Pushed me to step up
  • Showed me what truly matters
  • Kept me focused
  • Believed in me
  • Brought me back to the basics
  • Alerted me to pitfalls
  • Taught me God’s Word
  • Cut through the confusion
  • Led me toward health and strength
  • Made me more effective as a minister
  • Nurtured my relationship with Jesus

In fact, many of the lessons I’ll be sharing came from my good mentors.

Mentors have sharpened me, helping me become who God wanted me to be.
Mentors have sharpened me, helping me become who God wanted me to be.

Good mentors matter, not only for how they have shaped me, but also for how they have then helped me mentor others. As I have been led, so I have led. We know that’s how it goes. As I’ve learned and grown, as I’ve been challenged and shaped, what I have experienced I have passed on.  The influence of my mentors continues to extend to those I mentor. May their influence continue.

I’m challenged by this lesson because it reminds me of how vital mentoring is for the church today. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it were not for great mentors. Nor would they.

So who is around me now that needs my close attention?
Who is around you? 

Coming up in my next post: Ministry Happens Best in Teams

 

6 Common Ways We Erode Trust

Trust is precious.

You can’t parent without it. You can’t lead without it. You can’t love without it.

And when it’s eroding, nothing matters more than rebuilding that trust. Here are 6 common ways we erode trust in those we love and lead.

6 Common Ways We Erode Trust

Birling Gap Cottage Begins Demolition Process
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

#1. We Make Weird Decisions. When I make decisions inconsistent with my vision, faith or character, it causes people to wonder what’s going on and pull back in mistrust. This strikes at the heart of integrity, and undermines our influence. Trust is built through thoughtful, informed decisions that grow out of God’s vision for us and are consistent with who we are.

#2. We Fail To Listen. If people don’t feel heard, they won’t trust you. I hear this complaint from people all the time. I hear it from my own kids! And it stops me in my tracks. Trust is built by parents who listen. And leaders who listen. And friends who listen. And spouses who listen. If you aren’t willing to understand what is really going on, you can’t be trusted. But if you’ll listen well, trust will grow.

#3. We Offer Lame Explanations. The opposite of poor listening is poor explanation. Like when we refuse to divulge why we are doing what we are doing, or going where we are going, or changing what we are changing. Trust grows through good conversations offering helpful explanations, inviting people into the process and the “why” of our decisions. But if people are being asked to accept direction without good explanation, trust erodes.

#4. We Pull Rank. When being pushed for explanation, pulling rank is the worst thing we can do. It suggests that we either don’t know what’s going on (and are afraid to admit it), or what is going on is questionable (and we are ashamed to talk about it). Either way, shutting down questions because “I am the boss/parent/leader” is a sure-fire way to erode trust even further. We influence through trust, not position.

erosion_control
Erosion control is needed, be that for soil or for trust. 

#5. We Are Unreliable. Trust quickly erodes when we fail to follow through, never show up on time, don’t complete our tasks, or gossip.  If we are always late, always forgetting, always stuck, never reliable, people can’t trust you. Reliability–faithfully doing what you said when you said–is key to building trust.

#6. We Betray Our Commitments. Taking unreliability to a whole new level, trust is eroded when we betray our commitments to love, to support, to forsake all others, to be at that special event, to serve in the ways we promised we would.  Obviously this applies to the biggest areas of our lives: our marriage, kids, work, friendships and faith. When we betray our most fundamental commitments, trust is more than eroded — it’s smashed. Can it be rebuilt? Yes, it can, but it’s going to be a long haul. More insidiously, we can betray our commitments in smaller ways. In marriage, by failing to put the other person ahead of our needs. Do that, and you’ll erode trust without having an affair.  In leadership, failing to seek the best for the people we are serving, opting instead to serve ourselves.

Trust is everything. Without trust, we cannot lead or love. Without trust, we have no influence.

Considering the ways we can erode trust challenges us to be people who work to build trust instead. That’s the kind of leader and father and husband and friend I want to be.

Why do you think trust is so crucial?

How have you seen trust rebuilt after it’s been eroded?

 

 

 

Want to invite your friends to church? Here’s 5 things you should know about them

Believe or not, you’ve got friends who’d come with you to church. You have only to ask.

And the #1 one way to invite others to your church is . . . wait for it . . . to simply ask them to come with you to church. That’s it. Yes, sometimes there’s a special event, such as Christmas Eve or Easter, making invitations easier.  Other times there might be a specially tailored program, such as the Alpha Course. But for most weeks of the year, we gather as a church with startling regularity, and you can invite your friend to come with you.1186739_512177192197671_802218542_n

Here’s how you can do it: “I was wondering if you’d be willing to come to church with me this Sunday?”  It’s that simple. And you’ll be surprised how many will come with you.

Because here’s 5 things you should know about your friends.

  1. You’ve got friends who’ve been waiting for your invitation (and they might not even know it). Recently, a friend of mine invited another friend, out of the blue, when they ran into each other in town. The invitation was exactly what was needed, and this friend is growing in their faith, connected into community. Beautiful.
  2. Your friends value your invitation. It really means something to them. Because they love you and respect you, your willingness to invite them to anything carries weight. Your relationship makes your invitation compelling. We often forget this: just the fact that you want them to come with you is an expression of friendship.
  3. Your friends might need time to respond but that doesn’t mean they won’t ever come. They might give reasons (wash the dog, walk the llama) for not joining you, for a while. Don’t be discouraged. Go light, make it easy. Zero pressure, just a simple invitation. A friend who puts you off might still be considering it, and there will come a weekend when they will suddenly (Holy Spirit work!) text you that they are coming. Life is busy. Things take time. And above all, they need to know that saying “no” to you doesn’t harm your friendship.
  4. Your friends will not be offended by your invitation, even if they don’t want to come and won’t ever come. This is a big one. We often shy away from a simple invitation because we are afraid of “offending” them. Really? You are their friend, so I’m assuming you invite them to your parties, your home-based business ventures–heck, you’ve probably even asked them to help you move. Do you think they’ll be offended by an invitation to something you love, prioritize, find consistently meaningful, and think they would enjoy? Very unlikely. The worst thing that will happen is . . . they’ll say “no” and you’ll get the signal that they aren’t ready. Worst case scenario. Think you can handle that? I know you can.
  5. Your friends want to know why you make church a part of your life, even if they think it’s strange. Okay, so they might not ask it like that, but if you are truly friends, then knowing each other’s loves and hates and passions is just part of the package. We know our friends who constantly run, or have a thing for chocolate, or love old cars, or never miss a hockey game — that’s part of being friends. Wouldn’t it be weird if you never mentioned your love for church, never invited them to come with you, even if for no other reason than so that they could know what you love about it?

What did I miss about your friends?

Who’s waiting for your invitation?

Want to make people feel included? Drop insider talk

Make people feel included by dropping insider language.

One of the most important ways we include people is by dropping insider language.

Within any particular subculture, such as the medical profession or among sports fanatics, insider talk makes sense. Jargon is a kind of short-hand that makes conversation more fluid. I get it. Everyone is on the same page, speaking from the same dictionary, and that works.

But what about when your group exists to include people who are not part of your group? That is the case with the church of Jesus: we have been given the job of including “outsiders”–people who have not previously identified as following Jesus–in the life of our community. If we actually want to include outsiders, then we must include them from the very start by dropping insider talk, or (second-best) at least taking the time to explain the meaning of the short-hand words we are using.jargon

I’ve learned this through failure. I remember sitting with a friend years ago, trying to mentor him and encourage him, when he finally said, “Tom, please be patient with me. I don’t get half of what you’re saying. You use words I’ve never heard and don’t understand.” Folks, that was my fault, not his. All my theological and Christian jargon, comfortable to me, was not helping me do what Jesus had told me to do. So I started breaking down the big words and simply stating what they mean in ways that outsiders, or new insiders, could understand. I don’t do it perfectly, but I do try to make my language more understandable to the people I’m passionate to reach. And it’s not about dumbing down the message; it’s about actually conveying one.

My everyday conversations have become more accessible, but it’s my preaching that I’ve worked the hardest to change. Believing that our worship gatherings are a crucial time when outsiders (non-church people) begin to be included, I use everyday, common words in my preaching. I avoid Christian cliches (sometimes called “Christianese”, which is itself a “Christianese”!), long theological terms, terms that have a long Christian history but are no longer known culturally, as well as words known only to the literate few.  Sometimes I can’t avoid it. For example, I’m currently preaching through the book of Revelation, and while I’ve managed to avoid the word “eschatological” (meaning the study of last things), I’ve had to lean into the meaning of the word “apocalypse” (meaning “revelation”, not some catastrophic event) because of its centrality to the book and because of its helpfulness in explaining the Revelation . . . er . . . the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. When I have to use a word that is longer or lesser known, I take time to explain it.  I don’t always succeed; I know that. For example, I’m fairly confident I used the word “Messianic” last Sunday without explanation, and I know there’s people who didn’t know what that meant!

A few days ago, in a group conversation reflecting on people’s experience in our church, I heard something encouraging. An elderly man, who is himself a new insider who came to trust Jesus within the last year, said, “I like how this church uses everyday language so I understand what’s going on.”  That’s a win, folks.

While I know that there are people who will defend the importance of theological terms and their use in our common gatherings, I think others who agree with the need to drop these terms in certain contexts face one particular challenge: we’ve used these words so often and for so long that we are no longer aware of them and how foreign they are to most people. Growing in our awareness of our insider talk takes work and self-reflection, as well as candid conversations with others in our church about how we can become more welcoming to new people among us. Remember, it’s all about including people and helping them find and follow Jesus.

So let me ask you:

What “insider” words do you tend to use without thinking?

What ways have you made your language more accessible without sacrificing depth of conversation? 

 

 

Why I haven’t quit the church (and why you shouldn’t either)

The church of Jesus is a marvelous mess, filled right up to overflowing with sinners and saints.  As a pastor, I hear my share of criticism about this mad collection of the Jesus-bought. Maybe you’ve heard it, too.

The church is . . . too inward-focused,  too liberal, too conservative, too spiritual, not spiritual enough, too performance-oriented, too shoddy and backward. Hypocritical, fake, needy, imperfect. Sinful. Broken.

Sigh. 

It’s all true. And believe me when I say that I ache over the mess.  The mess that eats away at people’s lives, the mess that happens when sinners forget their dearly won sainthood, and the saints forget their status as grace-covered sinners. But it’s in the midst of the mess of the church that I also worship Jesus. It’s in this messy, beautiful mix that I pray and give and serve and love and learn. It’s among these people I experience forgiveness, joining in wonder and worship, bearing for each other the burdens of life.

 

Why don’t I give up on the church? Why don’t I just quit?

Because Jesus refuses to give up on the church. Jesus loves his church — broken, sinful, beautiful and alive. Blood-won, Spirit-filled, lurching in grace toward God’s good future.

At the beginning of the book of Revelation, we receive a compelling vision of Jesus.  With vivid imagery, Jesus our High Priest stands with the white hair of wisdom and the bronze feet of strength, face shining like the sun and a voice like a waterfall. The focus is all on him, standing in splendor and wisdom and strength and love.

But, if you can stand back for just a moment, ask yourself: where is Jesus, when he first reveals himself to John in this vision? Where is he located, exactly?

I’m very struck by this fact: Jesus, in all of his brilliance and grace, is standing right in the middle of his church.  He’s not standing off to the side, he’s not somewhere in the distance, not on the outside looking in. Jesus is standing right in the middle of the church, depicted here as lampstands. And he’s not standing in the middle of some generic “church universal” either. Jesus is standing in the midst of the local church–seven local churches to be precise–churches with an identifiable address, meeting in a house just across the way, embedded within a city with a history, a mix of cultures, steeped in idolatry, with a story of where they’ve been and where they are going. A church made up of an odd menagerie of real and imperfect people, sinners and saints, people like you and I.

Lister Fun
Photo credit: Meme Prier

As the Revelation unfolds, Jesus has some challenging and comforting words for these particular churches, each message crafted for each unique congregation. Some of these churches are severely compromised; others are barely holding on. Some are affluent; some, poor. Some are well-known; some, backward and unfamiliar. And as Jesus speaks to his church words that are sometimes difficult to hear, let us not forget where he’s located when he speaks: right in the middle of the mess.  He speaks from the centre, not the periphery, of his people.

Jesus knows his church, situated in each community, each city, each block in the world. He knows my church; he knows yours. And he loves his church, and when he speaks to his church, he speaks right from the middle.

Jesus hasn’t quit his church.

I’m not either.

3 Questions to Ask of Every Sermon

Have you ever heard a message from a preacher and wondered how it connects to life?
Ever been confused about how to respond to what you’ve heard?
Here are three great questions to help define what you’ve heard and determine your response. And while you might not ask each question every time, one or two of them is bound to help.

1. The Who? Question. Identity

Who is God and who are we? The first question to ask is about Identity. Based on this message, what am I learning about who God is and who we are as people created in God’s image? The identity of God and human identity are inter-related, forming the foundation of Christian knowledge and practice.  So, as you listen to a message from Scripture, be attuned to identity. How is this message challenging or reminding me about God’s true character?  How is my self-understanding being shaped or refined? What am I hearing that makes me uncomfortable? Where am I being encouraged?  Identity is primary.

  2. The What? Question.

InsightWhat am I learning? The second question is about Insight. Now, obviously the “who” question will yield fresh insights, but the question “what new insight am I learning?” broadens our focus.  Perhaps the message really opens up a new way of thinking about your work. Or maybe you realize you’ve been viewing irritating people as enemies and your attitude needs to change. Could it be that 15 minutes of Bible reading a day could really change my life? And so on.  Simply ask, “what did I learn today?” and see where that leads.

3.  The How? Question.

How should I live? Question three moves us into Action. How should I respond? How should I act, based upon what I’ve heard from God’s Word? This is absolutely crucial. Jesus said that people who heard his teaching and put it into practice were like houses built on solid foundations. Identity and insights must become actionable. If they don’t, we are in danger of thinking we are growing as Christians when we are actually hardening our heartsTime for action. Stopwatch on white background. Isolated 3D imag  We must always ask: Based upon what I am learning about who God is and who I am, based upon the new insights I am gaining today, how should I respond? To whom do I need to go to and ask for forgiveness? How will I love my wife more sacrificially? How will I respond differently to criticism? And so on.  As James says, “. . . don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.” (James 1:22 NLT) Drive yourself to ask this action question every time. Raise it among your friends or at your small group. Don’t let yourself off the hook–do what it says.

Truthfully, good communicators raise these questions to their listeners, challenging us to grapple with identity, insight and action.  But often we are listening to people who are growing as communicators, or are struggling to make sense of things themselves. Whatever the scenario, these three questions will help us glean much from even a little, when asked with ready minds, hearts and hands.

Let me ask you: What questions help you connect preached messages to your daily life?

Bonus feature! Listen to a message I gave titled: How to Listen to A Sermon, (and actually get something out of it). (It features different content than this post.) It was divided into two parts: get part 2 here.

 

I love you, but I can’t stand your wife

Do you think you can love me and hate my wife?

Yeah . . . right.

Our friendship stands little chance if I hear you’ve been trash talking the love of my life.  If I hear things like:

“Tom’s a great guy, but why does he insist on bringing her?”

“I love hanging out with Tom, but his wife just bugs me.”

“I like Tom, but I can’t stand his wife.”

If I knew you were saying (or even thinking) that about her, do you think our friendship would grow? Do you think trust would develop between us? Do you think I’d invite you into my inner circle and allow you to influence my life?

Fat chance.

Lady Mary from Downton Abbey
Mary may be “damaged goods,” but Matthew’s love for her covers that as he plans to build the future of Downton Abbey with her as his wife. Matthew’s love for Mary is an image of Jesus’ love for his bride, the church.

But lots of supposed Jesus followers do exactly that when it comes to the church, the bride of the Jesus they claim to love.

You’ve heard it. Heck, maybe you’ve said it.

“I love Jesus, but I can’t stand the church.”

“I follow Jesus, but I don’t do the organized church thing.”

“I like you, Jesus, but I despise your wife.”

Good luck with that.

Let me be clear. I know many of you have been hurt by churches. I am truly sorry for the ways the bride of Jesus may have mistreated you or disregarded you or made you feel awkward or ashamed. The church has much to repent of, and I’ll be the first one to tell you that and line up to join the confessional booth.

But here’s the deal: As nasty and unlovable and wrong as we’ve been, Jesus hasn’t divorced the church. The church is still his, and he’s got a plan that involves the church in the restoration of the world. It may be hard to believe, but that wife you can’t stand is the very means through which God is restoring relationships and renewing righteousness in his creation (Ephesians 3:7-11).

Don’t dis the church if you want to hang out with Jesus. They come as a package deal.