Day 21 of the Pray-May Challenge: Praying for all those who pass by the church

It’s Sunday: what about those we’re missing altogether? That question drives my heart and mind as a pastor. I care deeply for those who gather with us whenever we meet as the church, but I’m more haunted by the many who don’t. 

On any average Sunday morning, millions pass by buildings in which people gather to praise God, care for each other, receive healing and forgiveness, listen to God’s Word and be sent back into their week re-ordered around God’s kingdom come.

And they pass by because they don’t know the gathering is for them. They are either unaware, uninterested, or uninvited. “Church”, they think (if it crosses their mind at all), is “for other people, not for me.”

But I’m convinced that’s not true. In fact, I’m absolutely committed to helping people who think God is irrelevant and church is outdated move toward meaningful engagement in this life-giving community of faith. To put more of a point on it, I’m committed to helping Christians eliminate many barriers preventing others from gathering with the church, so that they can really hear about Jesus. Those barriers could be unhelpful traditions, unwelcoming practices, inaccessible language or inward-focused programs.  Or it could be that they’ve never been invited by Christians who care. In the words of Craig Groeschel, we should be willing to do whatever it takes, short of sin, to help people find Jesus.

Whatever the reason, I long for the day when churches provide welcoming atmospheres of exploration, even as they sing songs of praise to Jesus, receive life-transforming truth from Scripture, and offer pathways to follow Jesus, wherever people are at spiritually.

Day 21: Praying For All Those Who Pass By The Church

So, would you pray with me today, on yet another average Sunday, for all those who would pass by unknowingly? Our prayer is not that they simply “come to church.” We have a much bigger vision than that!  Our prayer is that those who are far away from the life-giving love of Jesus would receive the Spirit’s invitation, offered through his people, into the grace-and-truth body of Christ. And that in that community, they would discover the Father who loves them, the Son who died for them, and the Spirit who wants to bring them to life. Let’s pray for those who don’t know that we are for them.

And we need to pray for ourselves, too–for Christian churches. Let’s pray that we become relentlessly committed to doing whatever it takes to make the gospel available and the church accessible to people, wherever they are at. Lord, help us see people with your eyes,  and do whatever we have to do, short of sin, to help them find you. Give us the courage to give up comfort and convenience and safety for the sake of others.

That’s my prayer for today, and I invite you to pray along with me. May we, God’s people, make room in our lives, in our gathered communities, in our hearts and minds, for all those God is drawing to himself, by his Spirit. 

 

Prayer for Harvest Workers: Day 19 of the Pray-May Challenge

I want you to imagine a pre-industrial farmer checking his field, discovering that his crops are ripe earlier than expected. Harvest is needed now, but he doesn’t have anyone lined up to help for another two weeks. 

What does he do? He puts out the call immediately, trying to recruit workers early. And his main message? Come now, the harvest is ready. Let’s get to work!

When Jesus saw the great needs of the people around him, his compassionate heart broke for them. Seeing huge response to his kingdom message, he compelled his disciples to pray. Pray for what? For more workers to get in on what God was doing in the lives of people.  

“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”  (Matthew 9:35-38 NIV)

The same is true today. There are people all around us who need Jesus to heal them and begin his work of new creation in them.  And, contrary to what Christians often think, many people open to discovering who Jesus is, if they had people genuinely interested in them and willing to get into their lives for the sake of their healing. Rather than viewing those who are not yet following Jesus as somehow set against him, we need to see with the eyes of Jesus, who views the broken and hurting around him as signs of God’s harvest work happening. Too few of us do.

Today’s prayer challenge is to pray for more Jesus-workers in the lives of people who need his healing.

Here’s what I’m asking you to do today.

  1. Open with a prayer, asking Jesus to give you his eyes to see the people around you who need his healing and compassion.  Ask him to help you see beyond the exterior (be that grubby clothes or a shiny SUV), and by the Holy Spirit, to see the brokenness and the need that is present, so that you might have his compassion for them. We must start there, for people are not projects for ministry–they are people God loves.
  2. Next, let’s pray this prayer Jesus told his first disciples to pray. Lord of the Harvest, you who sees all and views our true condition with such compassion, send more workers into your harvest. Empower, equip and send more of your children into the lives of their neighbours, friends, and communities, so that they can be your healing agents, as you have called us to be.
  3. Consider, before the Lord of the Harvest, what is holding back the release of more workers. Is it apathy on the part of Christians? How must discipleship grow in our daily practice? What must be done, as the body of Christ, to equip more workers? How can we position ourselves to be more available to those God is healing? As you ruminate prayerfully, bring all your heart to Jesus and discuss this with him. What is he saying?
  4. And fourth, what must you do? We cannot pray this prayer without asking about our own role. Jesus, who are you calling me to love today? How can I be a more compassionate presence in the lives of those around me? Help me to move beyond my own concerns and into your mission to see lives healed and restored in you. 

You may want to mediate prayerfully on this story from Matthew 9:35-38. What challenges me as I do is how the cry for more workers comes from the compassionate heart of Jesus; it’s his compassionate heart that must inspire my own prayer and action. May it inspire all of us today.

We are surrounded by people desperate for the loving, healing power of Jesus, whether they are able to articulate it clearly or not. Can we see with Jesus’ eyes, and cry to the Lord of the harvest on the behalf of the world Jesus loves? That is our call to prayer.

May the compassionate heart of Jesus shape you today, as you see with his eyes and cry with his heart, and then follow him into the ripening fields. 

Why Billy Graham’s son is an Evangelistic Liability

It’s all over Canadian news: Franklin Graham isn’t being welcomed to evangelize Vancouver. And not just by some fringe folks who like to raise a stink whenever religious people dare speak publicly about Jesus. No, it’s actually Christians who are opposing Franklin Graham as the evangelism headliner.

And this is important to note: this is not some form of persecution. Rather, this is internal opposition, voiced by Christians themselves, ringing across the spectrum of evangelical, mainline and Catholic churches. And a mighty impressive group at that, with leaders representing over half of metro Vancouver’s Christians not often caught hand-holding in public.

Now why would they do that? Well, the simple, stated reasons are that Franklin’s public statements about Islam, the LGBTQ community, the election, and the use of weapons of mass destruction, among other things, has compromised his ability to speak authentically about the good news of our crucified and risen Messiah. Church leadership is worried that his political alignments will detract from our central message, even though he says he wouldn’t be making any political statements during his time in Vancouver. He’s become too aligned with worldly powers of our day to effectively witness to the One who died at the hands of the religious and political powers in his.

As the pastor of a local church far away from Vancouver, I am sympathetic to the opposition. Without attempting to argue about what Franklin Graham did or did not say, the fact remains that he has become more known as of late for his political statements than the good news message. Somewhere along the way, he chose to make headlines with messages other than the central truth of Jesus’ love for the world and his death to make things right.  

The great apostle Paul, even when given ample opportunity to do otherwise, kept the good news of Jesus central to his life and mission. He chose not to critique nor align with the political powers of his day, even when it may have been favourable to do so. When visiting Athens, Paul spoke respectfully and knowledgeably about their religious practices and texts, not because he did not think them wrong but because he knew overt criticism would bear no gospel fruit. You can’t win people over by smacking them around. In order to win them, he needed to keep the lines of communication open. And when he was done sharing about Jesus and the resurrection, some laughed at him but others wanted to hear more. Imagine if he’d decided to take his 5 minute opportunity to tell them what a disaster their religion was to Roman society. And while there will be times when we must speak truth to power, we must never lose our central, good news message of Jesus in the process.

Tasked with the responsibility of equipping local bands of Christians to represent Jesus in their lives and words, Christian pastors and leaders want to support events and speakers who will keep the main thing, the main thing–or more accurately, the Main Person, the Main Person. And whether he intended to or not, Franklin is now known less as a spokesman for Jesus and more of a mouthpiece of hate. Fair? Maybe, maybe not. But as a local pastor doing everything he can to make the gospel offensive only where it truly is offensive (the fact that we are sinners and need Jesus to save us), I would hate to bring someone in who would further ostracize some of the very people we are trying to win over with love.

In some ways, this isn’t even about parsing through the things Graham said, as I’m sure you’d find Christians opposed to his Vancouver gig who privately agree with at least some of his sentiments. Instead, this is a practical decision. Do you want to support an event with a speaker who will help people hear the good news of Jesus without extra distraction, or a speaker who could potentially alienate people from hearing the good news at all? And when put that way, I think the decision, though painful, is clear.  The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association should send someone else in Franklin Graham’s place, someone who has stayed closer to his father and their founder’s vision to preach nothing “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2 ESV).

Got Strings Attached? Then it’s time to rethink your service to others.

Can we serve with no strings attached?

Is that even possible? Can we meet the needs of others with no other agenda than showing them God’s love?

We’d like to think so, but it’s funny how hard that can be.

Truth is, it’s easy to get turned around when it comes to helping others. Without intending to, our service to others can become a way of making them behave properly, believe rightly, and act accordingly. We measure the effectiveness of our service by the desired response. We can even hold out whatever we are offering (from food to friendship) as a reward for certain responses rather than as a free gift pointing them towards God.

Jesus calls us servants who wash dirty feet, giving freely from what we’ve been given. We don’t serve and then demand recompense, be it in the form of gratitude, faith, or even life change. We don’t help just once, maybe twice, but no more should our service not invoke the expected response. We keep showing up, keep loving, keep serving–as we have been served by Jesus and by others.

It’s not that we don’t want people to experience life change. We do. It’s not that we aren’t hoping for some kind of response to the love of their Creator for them. Of course we are. But we are loving others as Christ loved us–unconditional, long-suffering, open-hearted, hospitable– inviting people to take a step toward love without smacking them if they are a bit slow to respond or rejecting them if they don’t come at all.

In the church space, it’s easy to get this all mixed up. We offer a program to help people, but people seem content to stay where they are. And we want results! We reach out to show love for a particular community, and we feel uneasy if we aren’t able to identify the specific effects we are having.

Now don’t hear me wrong: I do think as churches we need to think about how best we can help people move into a greater experience with the life, way and truth of Jesus. I think we need to get specific on our expectations and effectiveness. But I do not believe that means our love is limited to a program or a time-frame. Our love for others must reflect the ever-pursuing, always-inviting, never-giving-up love of Jesus Christ. And while we strive to be winsome and compelling in our invitation, we lean into love for each person without demanding that they meet our goals for evangelism or personal growth or life change.

We love, we serve, we invite, just as Jesus does for us. And we let the Holy Spirit lead us all.

 

 

Gospel Gone Viral: 3 Things Chewbacca Mom’s Video teaches us about the Good News of Jesus

By now you’ve all laughed along with the Chewbacca Mom as she shared her joy “with her friends on the internet-webs.” The boys and I heard Tennille shrieking upstairs as she watched it through her first time and we joined her for a second round of laughter.

Viral videos fascinate me. I love how they spread from friend to friend, network to network, moving from a few people to millions sometimes overnight. United Breaks Guitars, the Ikea Punster and the WestJet Christmas Miracle–to name just a few of my faves–always leave me wondering: what made this video go viral? And as I reflected on this latest explosion of Chewbacca mom–now the most viewed video on Facebook–I had to ask:

What does Chewbacca mom’s success teach us about the viral spread of the greatest news ever, the good news about Jesus?

chewbacca-mom-600First, by definition, viral messages are something you want to share. No, that’s too tame. Messages that go viral are messages that you just have to share. They can’t be kept to yourself. Even though we live in a media-saturated, YouTubed world, certain videos still gain traction because they are shared so enthusiastically with friends. Do I need to even make the connection with the news about Jesus, the greatest news that we’ve just got to share? There’s a reason the good news about Jesus swept the Roman world in the century following Jesus’ death and resurrection–it was viral news that spread from network to network, impacting everyone who heard it, because it just had to be shared.

The second thing, which comes out very clear in the Chewbacca mom original video, is how she is simply sharing her joy with others. Her infectious laugh, her delight in the big reveal, her irrepressible enthusiasm as she dawns the mask and then shrieks and roars into the camera is pure, unadulterated joy. She just loves what she’s got!! When we experience joy, we want to include others in the delight.

cewbacca-mom-facebook
There’s nothing quite like a bike ride with Chewbacca, courtesy of Facebook.

The third thing that really struck me is her willingness to put herself out there.  Now, I’m sure she had no idea she’d become an internet sensation overnight, and she’s likely reeling from all the attention she’s getting. But on that day, following her celebrated purchase, when she propped up her phone on the dashboard to share with her friends, she put herself out boldly and without reservation. That’s part of the charm of the video: it’s just her–normal, awkward, unscripted, bumbling, honest, and so, so thrilled that she wants everyone to get in on it.

So what can we learn from this? The good news of Jesus, the most viral message ever and continuing to spread, fans out through similar means. Based on these three observations, here’s how the good news about Jesus goes viral.

3 Ways Chewbacca Mom’s Video Shows Us How the Good News of Jesus Goes Viral

First, it’s irrepressible news: The good news of Jesus is so good, so delightful, so amazing that when people discover what they have, and really get it, they just have to share it! I’ve seen this over and over again, as the good news spreads unstoppably through friendship and family networks.

Second, it’s all about joy: And this good news is shared not out of duty or compulsion, but as an expression of pure joy. Lesslie Newbigin, the missionary-theologian, likened the spread of the good news of Jesus to an “explosion of joy.” And that’s what we see, down through history and into today: when people really meet Jesus, the joy explodes!

Newbigin

And third, it’s shared boldly: With the innocent boldness of a child, we put the good news of Jesus out there for our friends to hear. We simply want others to get in on what we’ve found, so we prop up the phone (metaphorically) and share it out on the inter-webs, to our friends, neighbours, streets and homes, not knowing where the message will spread. And though it often goes unnoticed, there are those times when someone else hears it and catches the joy, and shares it on. And from person to person, family to family, the greatest message of all time, the most truly viral news out there, takes hold, transforming whoever hears it and responds to its invitation to follow Jesus.

  • Did you notice any other connections between her viral video and the way the good news of Jesus spreads?
  • Why does the most viral message of all sometimes feel like “old” news and how can we change that?

 

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? 

 

 

5 Things I Love About Alpha

This week, the Alpha course starts again at our church.  We ran two in the fall (Youth and Adult), and now are offering another one.  I’m excited, as many of you know, because I love the way God uses Alpha to help people find Jesus.

Maybe you’ve never done the Alpha Course, or perhaps your church has talked about it but never pursued it.  Let me tell you why I love it, and hopefully you’ll check it out. Alpha

Here are 5 reasons I love Alpha.

First, the incredible conversations.  One thing that shines at Alpha is the quality of the conversation. Because people get to know one another over a series of weeks, eating a meal together (always eat at Alpha!) and hearing about one another’s lives, the level of engagement is fantastic. The content of the teaching inspires healthy, focused conversation on topics of real relevance. When we nurture a space for people who are new or exploring to safely ask their questions, the conversations are real and people feel heard.

The second thing I love about Alpha is the helpful teaching. Whether the talks are given live or on screen, the content of the Alpha talks are super relevant and well thought-out.  Covering the basics such as “Who is Jesus?” and “How Do I Pray?”, the talks move people closer to an understanding of the Christian faith.  The teaching on the Holy Spirit is often new for many Christians as well, inspiring greater levels of commitment to Jesus for everyone.

Third, the relationships formed. Probably one of the most significant results of Alpha are the new friendships. Men and women who might never have met grow to know and love each other, often staying together in some kind of small group following Alpha. And as Nicky Gumble relays in some of the Alpha training, these relationships are absolutely key to a person continuing to follow Jesus into the future.

The fourth reason I love Alpha is seeing life change. Trusting the Holy Spirit is at work, we simply walk with people through Alpha, listening, sharing, praying and learning together. And to see how God changes lives in that context blows me away. This is what Alpha is all about, and it’s so amazing to see change happen as people experience God’s grace and love in their lives.

And fifth thing I love about Alpha is the courage people show. Whether it’s the bravery of inviting a friend to Alpha or the willingness to come to a strange place (a church building!) and engage a group of unknown people, I am so impressed with the courage people show at Alpha. And on through the sessions, as men open up, as women share their stories, courageously asking deep questions, courageously admitting areas of hurt, courageously stepping out to follow Jesus–courage shines at Alpha.

We are looking forward to another great Alpha course, excited about the folks who are coming, expectant for God to work.

Find an Alpha course near you. Start one in your church. See what God can do.