Bill is a young dad, divorced, and an MMA fighter.  I met Bill on an airplane flying from Omaha to Las Vegas.

I am not usually a chatty person when on a plane.  I am focused on the job at hand, I have a task to accomplish and that task is to get through my time on the plan and get to where I am going.  Sometimes, for me, it's not about the journey but the destination and in so doing I forget to pay attention to people.

I have determined that I will not go through life heading toward destinations, but to slow down and pay attention to people.  I believe that God is at work in every human heart.  He is furiously pursuing everyone you and I know with his endless love in Christ.  God wants to bring all people to himself, and graciously partners with us to do it. That in and of itself is an incredible mystery!

Upon boarding the plane, I was tired from a week at PLI Missional Leader seminars and really just wanted to be left alone.  The very first row was occupied by a large woman sitting in the window seat, so I took the aisle seat hoping that no one would be adventurous enough to sit between the large man and the larger woman!  As the flight attendant was closing the door for our departure, this guy sat down.  Dang!

As the flight got underway I noticed that Bills fingers looked like large sausages and his hands appeared hard and calloused.  So I asked Bill what he did for a living.  Turned out he was an MMA fighter.  Pretty cool, I've seen these guys on T.V. but I've never talked to one in real life. 

I have learned that the best way to build rapport and engage people in conversation is to ask them questions about themselves, their jobs, their family, their passions.  As I showed interest and asked probing questions, Bill loosened up and began to spill his whole life story into my lap.  He has two kids, he loves his kids, his ex-wife is a psycho and he believes in the "spirit" of Mother Earth.  As I showed interest and asked Bill questions, while praying in my mind that God would work through our conversation, the discussion began to turn to spiritual things.  Bill had never been to church, except for a funeral and didn't want anything to do with religion.  This was my opening, I teach our people that a relationship with God through Jesus is not about rules or religion but about relationship.  I agreed with Bill that religion was a problem, then told him about this rebel named Jesus who had a problem with religion too.  We talked about what Jesus said and did, Bill had never heard about Jesus in this way.  I shared as compelling a story as I could, as winsomely as possible, about the Jesus who came not to condemn the world but to save the world.  

Bill wasn't ready then and there to profess faith in Christ.  But by listening and asking questions God had opened him up to the possibility.  I gave Bill my card and told him to call me whenever he wanted to talk, no matter what he wanted to talk about, I'd be there.  I pray every day for Bill and his two children.  I trust that God is pursuing Bill and his family and that I was just one positive touch along the road that God was walking with Bill.

For many the word "Missional" is vague, misunderstood, and even misused.  I've gone to conferences where the word "Missional" was used to describe a new program for the church.  I've also been to conferences where the word is used to mean house church type communities often called "Missional Communities".  Yet others describe "Missional" as a lifestyle.  Whose right?  Alan Hirsch, one of the pioneers of the "Missional" movement, has some important things to say in this article from Christianity Today.  Please click on the link then come back here to let me know your thoughts.
The best time to sow seed in your community was 10 years ago, the next best time is right now.

It takes time for anything you plant to take root and grow.  The truth revealed in Scripture is relevant to us today in that not all seed you sow will take root and grow.  Those seeds that do root and grow produce an abundant harvest far beyond the individual seeds potential.   But in order to have a harvest, lots and lots of seeds have to be sown.  If your congregation hasn't been sowing seeds for years, no matter how hard you pray, you won't reap a harvest.

During seminary I served a congregation that at one time had 450 members and had dwindled down to just 32 elderly people.  They lamented the decline of their congregation.  Many of the elderly had raised kids and grandkids in that church.  As the kids and grandkids moved away, the congregation began its long decline down to 32 elderly souls.  This congregation had been planted 60 years earlier down the street from their current location in a small converted house that had a maximum capacity of 65.  As they grew they moved up to the middle of the block and built a small building that could seat 120, then finally they moved up to the corner and built a lovely sanctuary that seats 200 with a large two story education wing and a large fellowship hall.  Their first church building was purchased by another church and is bursting out the seams.  The sanctuary that seats 65 is packed with people having to stand in the narthex.  The church in the middle of the block was purchased by another congregation and it too is bursting at the seams.  The once large Lutheran church with its large sanctuary, education wing and fellowship hall sits almost empty.  Why?  The answer is, they stopped sowing seed in their community years ago.  Though they lament their decline, and pray regularly for God to revive their once lively congregation, they continue to long slow decline toward death because they refuse to engage their community and sow seed.

I talk to pastors and leaders of congregations who question God's faithfulness because instead of growing they are declining and dying.  Often I hear pastors say that they are faithful to the Word and sacraments, then ask why isn't God blessing their congregation with growth.  The truth of the matter is, if you are not out in the community sowing seeds you will not, you cannot, expect a harvest.  Being faithful to Word and sacraments inside your church on Sunday is only one part of faithfulness.  The other part of faithfulness is faithfully following Jesus out of your church building and into the community where He is actively seeking and saving what was lost.

Pastors have to follow Jesus out of the church building and into their community first before they can lead God's people to follow.  St. Paul said, "Follow me as I follow Christ."  This would be a good thing for pastors to learn.  Get out of your office, get into the community.  Volunteer one day a week with a local organization that is serving your community.  Rub elbows with people in your community, get to know people who don't go to church.  You will be amazed at how easy it is to get out of your church building and into your community.  Then, after you have learned how its done, you can begin to lead God's people in your flock out of the building and into the community.  

The best time for you to have done this is 10 years ago, the next best time is right now.

If you need suggestions on how to get out into your community, I'd be glad to help with some practical suggestions. 
 Use the contact form to connect with me.

It might take years for the seeds you plant today to grow and bear fruit.  You have to plant seeds in order to reap a harvest.  Get busy planting seeds of the Gospel wherever you go!
The moral of the story is to never, ever, not ever under any circumstances give up on people, and God is powerful to save:

I first met Jerry about 7 years ago when his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor brought him to church.  Jerry was a meth addict trying hard to get his life on track and beat the demon of meth addiction.  Jerry is the kind of guy that you like right away.  He had an easy way about him and his piercing blue eyes twinkled with excitement like a kid at Christmas.  Jerry left that first Sunday morning in tears.  The love of God had smacked him slap dab all the way down into his heart.  Over the next few Sunday's Jerry came to worship and joined one of our small groups.  He was growing in faith, love and was totally accepted by the people in our congregation.  It wasn't long before Jerry wanted to be baptized into Christ and his church.  I talked with Jerry and asked him to invite as many of his friends and family as possible to be there for his big day.  We planned a party for after worship to celebrate our new brother in Christ, and give us an opportunity to rub elbows with his family and friends.

Sunday morning came and Jerry showed up 30 minutes early for worship dressed in his finest duds, black jeans, white dress shirt and a black sports coat.  On his arm was his not yet Christian girlfriend and mother of his two little daughters.  Soon his family and friends began to show up excited and yet aprehensive of being in a "church".  His mother, whose every other word was a curse word, was introduced to me along with his 19 year old daughter dressed in her best skin tight dress complete with overflowing cleavage and 3 inch high heels.  Most of his friends looked and talked like bikers, and a few had the tell tell signs of drug addiction.  Every single one of Jerrys family and friends was welcomed, accepted and loved by our congregation.

The worship music was great, and I preached as clear and as compelling a sermon on salvation as I was able to muster.  My preaching is not your usual "churchy" kind of sermon.  I talk to people in language they can access, understand and relate to.  I talked about where Jerry had come, how he felt afraid and alienated from God.  How he said the message he got from the church was a message of condemnation and judgement because of his failings and life choices.  I then talked about a God who loves broken people.  A Father who seeks for and chases down broken sinful people in order to love them and restore relationship with them.  I talked about how Jesus came, not to condemn the world, but to save the world.  I then asked Jerry to come up and take 5 minutes to tell his story.  When he was done, there wasn't a dry eye in the place and even his biker looking friends were moved, smiten and afflicted by the palpable love of God in that place.

After the sermon, I had the privilege to proclaim the Gospel through water and the Word.  Jerry was born again, a new man who had died with Christ, been buried with Christ, and rose again to new life with Christ.  As he stood there grinning the biggest grin you've ever seen, with water dripping off his head and running down his face, Jerry shinned with the light of glory like one of those old paintings of the saints.  After the service we had a party to celebrate our new brother in Christ where we rubbed elbows with his family and friends, many of whom did not know Jesus.  

Soon after his baptism, Jerry fell back into addiction and stopped coming to church.  He got back on the wagon and fell off again numerous times over the next 7 years.  During that time, God used Jerry's story to bring his mom, ex-wife, eldest daughter, and three friends to faith in Christ.  His ex-wife was baptized with her adult daughter and son and younger son.  The ex-wife had the gift of gab, and started telling everyone she knew in her mobile home park about Word of Grace and Jesus.  Soon we had 22 people from the mobile home park regularly attending worship with many being baptized.

Jerry touched base with us, dropping into worship from time to time, while continuing in his struggle to get his life on track.  Finally after 7 years away, Jerry has reconnected with us and is now once again attending worship regularly.  He is staying clean, working a regular job and is bringing members of his family with him each Sunday and to one of our Life Groups. 

We have found that as we reach out into the community God brings us into contact with broken people he wants to love, redeem and restore.  Rubbing elbows with hurt, broken and sinful people is messy, chaotic and fraught with set backs and crisis.  Rubbing elbows with hurt, broken and sinful people is where Jesus is.  As we get outside our "churchiness" 
and follow Jesus out into the harvest where he is loving, saving, accepting, redeeming and restoring hurt, broken, sinful people we are blessed to be more and more like our Lord, Jesus Christ who came to seek and save what was lost and calls us to follow him in unconditionally loving, accepting and serving all people, not just the ones who look and act like us!

Am I a Pharisee?

Growing up I heard lots of Sunday School lessons about the mean old Pharisees.  They were always baiting Jesus.  Looking for anyway to discredit the Lord, the Savior, the Messiah.  The Pharisees argued with Jesus.  Eventually they wanted to kill Jesus.  Yet, for all our preconceived ideas about the Pharisees, good and bad, they were the good, solid, dedicated church going people of their time.  The Pharisees said they loved God and did all they could to protect the holiness, sanctity, and true worship of God.

But the Pharisees had one fatal flaw, they loved their religion with its rules and laws more than they loved God and people.  You see, God cares more about people than he does about rules and laws.  God is about relationship, not rules and religion.  Jesus said to the good church people of his time, "Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy not sacrifice."

Today we, the good church people of our time, are in danger of being Pharisees.  Oh, we talk about Law and Gospel.  We proclaim that we are saved by grace through faith, not of works that anyone should boast.  We believe we are the defenders of the cross, the followers of Jesus.  We study the Bible, we proclaim biblically and theologically correct sermons about the objective truth found only in Christ.  But in so doing, we often times forget to love God and love people.  Let me give you an example.  Some years ago I was invited to preach in a little country church.  This church had been built by German immigrants in the late 1800's.  It was a picturesque building with beautiful tall white walls, a steeply pitched roof and a tall steeple with a cross on top.  The outside was surrounded by a meticulously tended rose garden in full bloom.  Inside the sanctuary was an ornate altar and a large pipe organ.  The sanctuary was small and intimate with a maximum seating of about 65 individuals.  The pulpit was raised up about 10 feet over the sanctuary, the first raised pulpit I had ever preached from.  Being 6'3" standing in a ten foot tall raised pulpit, I towered about 16 feet over the heads of the 12 faithful old people gathered for worship that morning!  After worship we were standing around chit chatting when suddenly a violent clatter assailed my ears, my eldest son, about 4 at the time, wailing at the top of his lungs.  He was standing in front of the altar, with his left ear firmly in the grasp of an old German farmer.  I moved quickly to intervene, only to discover that such rough treatment was perfectly called for due to the fact that my 4 year old son had dared to touch the accouterments atop the church altar.  I retrieved my son and stood there humbly while this kindly German Pharisee lectured me on how to raise a polite and properly religious son.

Let me share one more brief story with you.  I was raised on a cattle ranch in the hills of northern California.  Going to town, population 5,000 was a big deal.  When I graduated from high school I joined the U.S. Coast Guard.  After bootcamp I was stationed on a 378' cutter stationed in Honolulu, HI. When I got there our cutter was out of commission for major repairs at the dock for 3 months.  I was an 18 year old country boy in a strange place surrounded by strange people and I was homesick.  One day, wallowing in my pity, I thought to myself, "Self, why don't you go to church?"  I began to have found memories of church and thought that connecting with Godly people would help cure my homesickness.  I began to day dream about showing up at church with my dress uniform on, the people would warmly welcome me and one kindly family would invite me home for a good home cooked meal.  I set off to church the next Sunday with my dreams of acceptance fresh in hand.  I got to church about 15 minutes early.  As I entered the narthex I saw a couple of older people talking.  No one greeted me, or even really acknowledged I was there.  I made my way into the mostly empty sanctuary, found a seat about midway and made myself comfortable.  Soon people began to gather and stand in the doorway of the narthex on each side of the sanctuary and in the middle.  They all stood there looking sheepishly at me.  I heard one elderly lady ask, "Who is he, does anyone know who he is or where he came from."  After that people began to find seats in the pews, no one sat by me, but soon two elderly ladies sat behind me and promptly began to complain that I was sitting in their seats!  They groused and fussed through the whole service about me sitting in their seats.  They never talked to me directly, but they made their feelings known loud and clear.  After service I got up and left as quickly as possible.  I didn't go back to church for more than 3 years.

Jesus said, "Go, learn what this means, I desire mercy not sacrifice."  Perhaps today you might go back and read Matthew chapter 9 with an open heart and see if there be any Pharisee in you and the people you lead.  If so, pray to the Lord to deliver you and open your hearts to the hurt, broken, sinful harvest that is dying for the church to stop being Pharisees and once again be people that follow Jesus.  People who love God and others, people who know that following Jeus is not about rules and religion but about relationship.  Relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ, and relationship with other people that flows from our relationship with God. 
Religion, Rules, and Relationships

Recently I spoke at a memorial service.  Bob, the man being memorialized, had been a rugged individualist and lifelong avoider of church.  He was baptized as an infant and spoke often of his relationship with our Heavenly Father as he passed on a legacy of godliness to his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  While a baptized and confessed Christian, Bob had little use for organized religion and the church.

At Bobs memorial service I spoke about his feelings regarding the church and "religion".   I pointed out that Bob was probably in line with Jesus regarding his feelings.  Bob, and lots of people outside our churches, believe that religion is about rules and control. I struck a nerve when I spoke of how Jesus came to tear down the walls, fences, and gates of religious rules that had for centuries been barriers that kept people from God.  True religion is not about rules, but about relationships.  First our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, then flowing from that all important relationship to our relationships with each other.  I was surprised at how many people responded positively to this message by moving closer to God.

We Lutherans are rightly serious about our Christo-centric/Gospel centered doctrine and theology.  We proclaim that Law (rules) lead to death and should point us to our need for Christ and his Gospel of unmerited grace, forgiveness of sins, and restored right relationship with God.  But have you ever noticed how sometimes there seems to be a disconnect between what we church people believe, teach, and confess, and our actual behavior? While we believe, teach, and confess a Gospel of grace and mercy, our "religion" often seems to be practiced as if it were about rules and law.  Think about this for a moment.  Try to look at our practices with the eyes of an "outsider".

For a variety of reasons we too often build walls, fences, and gates as a form of control and create rules that effectively regulate who may and may not enter in to find Jesus.  In order to reach many outside the church we need to be brave and ask how may our walls, fences, and gates, though well intended, actually become barriers to those we desire to reach?  If we were really, really brave we could ask ourselves whether or not we have rules, traditions and history that blind us to those outside the church. 

You know what?  Let's do it. Let's be brave enough to set aside our defenses and ask ourselves if it is possible that maybe, just maybe, at least judging by our behavior, that we love our rules, traditions and history more than we love our un-churched neighbor. Ouch!   If we are brave enough to ask, and humble enough to confess our sin, then perhaps we will receive grace to allow the Gospel to inform our behavior so that our actions flow from God's love and amazing grace through us to our un-churched neighbor.  I know from personal experience that something magnificent happens when we surrender our walls, fences, and gates to Jesus.  He actually uses us to reach lost, hurting people and bring them into a loving and living relationship with God and with his church.  I have seen Jesus do it over and over again as he uses us to reach people and bring adults, young people, and children to himself through the waters of baptism. 

A magnificent thing happened at the reception following Bob's memorial as I made myself and Jesus available to people.  People responded to the message and wanted to talk about religion, church, and Jesus.   I sat and talked with 6 different people about what I had to say regarding Jesus' idea that true religion was not about rules but about relationships.  People turned off to church opened up about their desire to be in a relationship with God.  Several, who lived out of the area, said they wished they could find a church that was not about rules but about relationships.  One man, with tears streaming down his face, confessed to me his need for salvation.  After listening and talking for just a few minutes, we made arrangements to bring him to Christ through his confession of faith and the water of baptism.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about all of this is that it all happened outside the walls of a church.

Below is an interesting article about people who come to church twice a year. I find the thoughts about Barna Research interesting, fewer people are coming to church and fewer Christians are inviting people to church. One of the things we struggle with in the emerging post-church culture is how to engage people with the Gospel. The number of people who go to, and support church, are dwendling. Those who are life long church goers are getting older and dying, while many people simply do not find church to be relevant to their lives. Whatever the cause, church attendance across all denominations and non-denominations is dwendling. The old order of things is passing away, a new order will emerge. We are living in a time of historic shift, a time not unlike the Reformation. Society and church are in upheaval, change is rapid and it can be scary. We have hope.r. The church belongs to Jesus, he is leading us in these times of rapid change and fear. Let us keep our eyes on him, follow him where he goes and not be afraid of the future; our future or the future of the church!  He is Risen!

Chreasters, By Craig Cable

"Church leaders and volunteers all over the country are once again scurrying to prepare for the big day-Easter-the single most celebrated day by Christians all around the world. In a matter of days, church attendance will swell by 40 to 50 percent as people make their token appearance at church. This phenomenon will be repeated at the end of the year as those same people emerge from their homes to grace the doorways of churches all across the country to celebrate Christmas. I like to call these seasonally influenced Christians "Chreasters."

However, churches may be seeing less of an influx than in years past. Barna Research recently published a study that stated, "Less than one-third of born-again Christians are planning to invite anyone to join them at a church event this Easter season."
Regardless of who shows, we in the church roll out the red carpet and welcome these guests in the sincere hope they'll return and join us every week. Unfortunately, most won't be back regularly.

Some may contend that America is losing its faith or that most Americans just aren't interested in a growing relationship with Jesus. According to another Barna study, however, 64 percent of the population is completely open to pursuing their faith in an environment or structure that differs from that of a typical church. And 75 percent of the population believes that God is motivating them to connect with him through different means and experiences than were common in the past. Given that, I'd like to suggest four ways you can capture the Chreaster crowd.

Go to them. You've heard it before: location, location, location. Retail-user studies show that, on average, people will drive three miles or less to get to a grocery store. Why? Because anything outside of three miles is inconvenient. Rather than expecting people to drive to your church, why not create ministry intersection opportunities on their turf?

Offer times that fit people's schedules. Weekends are busy. Between soccer games, grocery shopping, laundry, and house cleaning, there isn't much time for anything else. Rather than forcing people to fit their schedules around your service times, why not offer times that don't compete? Who knows? Maybe lunch time would be the ticket.

Recognize that there's such a thing as too big and too small. A common complaint I hear from Chreasters is that they feel invisible at church. They feel they're nameless, faceless people in the crowd and no one really knows them, their struggles, or their needs. On the flip side, they're not exactly beating down the doors to be in small groups where they can build more interpersonal connections. It's time to explore formats that offer a welcoming environment, small enough to allow people to be known without seeming exclusive or "clubby."

Practice listening more than speaking. Regardless of where people are on their faith journeys, they're going to have questions. Even Jesus' disciples had significant questions, and Jesus took the time to listen and respond to them. Why have we created environments that require people to listen passively and keep their questions to themselves? What's more, only a third of our people are auditory learners, which means that two-thirds of our audience may not be listening at all. Let's create opportunities for people to respond and be a part of the conversation. It will help us build relationships with them, and it will help them grow in their faith."

I just got off the phone with a friend whose life has been totally wrecked, some of it his fault, much of it not.  He has been struggling to put his life back together after a terrible divorce, loss of his career job, financial, spiritual and emotional ruin.  After talking with him, I meagerly offered to keep him in my prayers.  Big deal, I'll pray to an invisible God who I am not always sure listens anyway.  But I can't do anything else.  I can't fix his problems, I don't have a magic wand.  All I have is the promise to pray.  So I prayed. I went outside and began to walk and talk to God.  My first question was, "Where are you?"  My friend is a child of God, sure he has his problems, but he doesn't deserve to be in this two years, so far, of constant downward spiral and destruction.  

I know all the almost trite quotations of Scripture, but quotes do little in the midst of real despair and struggle.  My friend wants to die. I know that Christ says he will never leave my friend or forsake him.  I know that God has plans for my friend, plans for a future and a hope.  In fact I preached on God's plans this past Sunday.  But faced with a friend who has endured two years of despair and destruction (actually a life of despair and destruction starting as an abused child and continuing on through addiction and incarceration) my Sunday sermon seems somehow without power.  So I ask, "Where is God?"

The answer is simple yet totally convoluted and almost untenable.  God is here.  During the dark ages, writers called this life a "veil of tears".  Life was so hard, so devastating that the only hope the masses had was the hope of the final resurrection where those who belong to Jesus would live forever in the new heaven and new earth, with immortal bodies void of sorrow and pain.  In the Revelation chapter 21, John gives us a picture of that new life when he says, "I saw a new heaven and a new earth, because the first heaven and earth had disappeared, and the sea was gone. Then I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, dressed like a bride ready for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “God lives with humans! God will make his home with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There won’t be any more death. There won’t be any grief, crying, or pain, because the first things have disappeared.”

There is our hope.  Our hope in Christ is not just for this life, which is fleeting, but for eternal life.  Not a life lived on clouds, playing harps, but a life lived forever in a resurrected unsoiled body.  A life lived forever with our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  A life lived forever with each other.  No more tears, no more sorrow, no more hurt or abuse or struggle.  God will wipe away every tear we've shed in this life.  Where is God?  He is in every struggle, every hurt, holding our hand, lifting us up, working his life into ours. God is active through his Son, Jesus, to work his eternal life into our temporary, crappy, earthly one.  While I hurt, and I hurt for my friends, I have this un-shakable faith that God is at work and the reward of a new life is worth all the hell we endure now.  I don't know why God doesn't just fix all our problems, I sure wish he would.  But I do know, without a doubt, that God is at work even, or probably especially, in our most horrible circumstances to bring about good in our lives now and forever.

We have to be real and recognize the hurts, the struggle, the crappyness that life often throws at us.  At the same time, we have to keep faith that our struggles are temporary and that God will, in the end, overcome all our stuff and give us the life he intended us to have from the beginning.  Where is God?  I don't have all the answers, but I do know he is most definitely here in the middle of all the junk, doing the work only he can do. 

Sometimes people ask, usually church people, why we don't we have a building, why worship in a school auditorium?
Here's one reason why.  I was talking to the pastor of a congregation that is trying to get a mortgage for a building. The mortgage would cost them $12,000 per month. I suggested they rent an auditorium like we do, or if they have to have a building they move into a storefront warehouse for $3k/mo and use the extra $9k/mo ear marked for the building to invest in their community and reach out with God's love instead. Can you imagine how many leaders we could train, how many people we could invest in through serving them with God's love, how many people we could feed, how many Saturday mini-vbs's we could do, how many at risk kids we could reach, how many broken familes we could help restore, how many struggling single moms we could bless, how many people with hurts, hang-ups and habits we help in recovery, how many people we could share the hope we have in Christ with, etc. if we had an extra $9k/mo to invest in the community? And church folk want to put their money into a building? It just hurts my head how some can be so blessed and yet so short-sighted and unwise.  In this new post-church world we have to rethink how we use, how we steward, the gifts God has given us.  Rethinking the use of our resources will challenge and stretch us in way we haven't imagined.  If your church is going to reach your community for Christ, you will be stretched and challenged to use your resources differently

I look forward to your comments!