Monday, October 5, 2015

It's 11:30...

This year, Saturday Night Live celebrates it's 40th anniversary.  For forty years, almost as many years as I have been alive (I am 43), SNL has brought live comedy sketches to late Saturday night television screens around the country.  The list of comedy luminaries and creative geniuses to emerge from SNL through the years are too numerous to count: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, Phil Hartman, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Amy Poehler, Chris Rock, Julia Lous-Dreyfus, Darrell Hammond, and Will Farrell are just a short list of those who have come from the show.  Literally almost anyone who has every been anyone in comedy in the United States has been on SNL.

What is amazing to me about SNL is that they produce such a fantastic show every single week, week in and week out.  Sketches that we can still remember and laugh at many years later (Motivational Speaker, Weekend Report, Church Lady...) comedic classics, were thrown together in less than a week.  How did this happen?  How were they able to corral the talents of so many people into a crystalized show so often for so many years?

This past week, I heard an interview with the Executive Producer of SNL - Lorne Michaels.  He was asked how they got ready each week.  He said that it definitely was not easy.  That corralling so many talented people to produce creative material is a huge challenge.  Part of the goal is to be less creative and not more.  He said, "I often see my job as the killer of creativity at SNL".  The challenge is not to come up with new ideas, but to focus on the ones that you have.  As a new church developer, I can relate with this.  In a more traditional church my goal was to get new ideas forming (which is almost impossible).  In a new church development, my goal is to stop so many new ideas from forming and focus on the ones we have.

It was a comment that Michaels made about the production of the show that has remained with me, however.  Michaels said, "Each week we say, we are going to 'air' not because we are ready, but because...

It's 11:30

Very often a sketch will not be completely ready, or a set of lines will not be totally memorized, or a particular routine won't really be working, but that show still needs to go on the air.  You go with what you have got each week, not what you wish you had.

I can relate to this notion in preaching as well.  Each week, I sit down with my staff and talk about preaching concepts on Tuesday.  Then, I write an email "Mission Blast" to the entire database which hones in on a key concept or idea for the message.  Then, I write the message on Thursday (usually 4 hours of focus and writing).  Then I let it ferment for a day.  Then, I spend another hour writing on Saturday, and practice the message.  Practicing is really a way of figuring out whether a particular idea will work rhetorically.  Often a concept will work on paper, that does not work rhetorically.  Then, I offer the message on Sunday  morning.

I can relate with Lorne Michaels' sentiment.  Each week, I go to the congregation with a message, not because it's ready, but because...

It's 9:30

What I love about this sentiment is also the freedom that this gives a person's soul.  It's not really up to you, as a preacher, or a worship leader, to determine or mandate the direction of a particular message, song, or offering.  All you can do is offer it up, and see what happens.  And in this way, a large measure of Holy Spirit is also involved in worship and preaching.  You do your best, you work as hard as you can, then you give it to God.

All For Now,


Monday, September 28, 2015

Creativity and Fear

I recently heard an interview that has captivated my thoughts for over a week now.  It was an interview with the writer Elizabeth Gilbert (not the one from House on the Prairie).  Elizabeth Gilbert wrote the wildly best selling novel, "Eat, Pray, Love" which was later turned into a major motion picture - featuring Julia Roberts (which as usual, did not hold a candle to the incredible book).  "Eat, Pray, Love" sold over 10 million copies, and is one of the most popular works of fiction written in the last 50 years.

Even though the book, "Eat, Pray, Love" does not deal with any overtly Christian themes, I have quoted from it many times in my sermons through the years.  My favorite scene in the book is at the beginning when a couple are arguing and things aren't working out, and the main character, a young woman goes to the bathroom, and while she is kneeling by the toilet says a prayer [paraphrased], "Dear God, I don't know if you exist, I'm pretty sure you don't, and I am just talking to myself right now.  But I feel a need to talk to you now.  I am lost and I have no idea what I am doing..."  After the prayer, the main character goes on an Odyssey of self understanding and growth.

Among Gilbert's recent insights are the fact that she probably might never write another book that is quite as successful or well reviewed as "Eat, Pray, Love".  And so, she muses, I have the option of just starting to drink every morning at around 9:00AM, or move to the country to "raise Corgies" or to return to that thing which has brought me the most amount of love in my life - writing.

But it is Gilbert's ideas about:

Creativity and Fear

which are the subject of my blog this morning.  Gilbert says that as a writer, fear has always been a regular companion of hers.  Each day she sits at her computer and writes, and often says to herself, "This will be an awful book, just fact, it may not only be awful, but the worst book that has ever been written", "I might be the worst writer that has ever lived", "my career will most likely end in failure" - But she keeps on writing.  Because writing is her core love, it is her vocation, it is why she was placed on the planet, it is the thing that she loves to do even more than she loves herself, she must continue to do it.

Gilbert has come to terms with the fact that:

Creativity and Fear

are actually siblings.  They are brother and sister.  They live with one another all the time.  You cannot find a creative person anywhere in any genre (art, music, food, architecture, writing, poetry...) that does not experience a regular amount of fear.  And so, whenever Gilbert begins a book, she knows that if she wants creativity in the book, which all good books must have, she must also have fear.  Fear comes along for the ride.  Fear sits in the backseat, as creativity sits in the front seat.

In my own life, I have experienced the conjoined quality of creativity and fear.  My seven year old daughter asked me yesterday if I ever got nervous when I had to stand up in front of a church and give a message.  I said, "Yes, all the time".  Each new church that I have started has been an expression of creativity, and along with it comes a regular amount of fear.  "Maybe this won't work", "Maybe we won't get the money we need to keep this thing going", "Maybe my ministry will end in a flaming ball of fire, actually worse, maybe like the universe it will end with a whimper (J. Alfred Proofrock...TS Eliot....)"

Creativity and Fear

I find it interesting that arguably the most creative person ever to live - God - also talks about fear more than almost any other subject.  The same God that set the planets in motion, and that separated light from darkness, and water from dry land - creativity - must also have experienced fear.  God tells us - creative human beings - not to be afraid around 365 times in the Bible.  To Abraham and Sarah, beings that God placed creative life inside of, God said, "Do not be afraid".  To the disciples who think they see a ghost upon the lake of Galilee, Jesus said, "Do not be afraid".  To the women at the tomb on Easter Sunday, Jesus said, "Do not be afraid."

Perhaps God Himself knows the double bind of this life.  If you want to be creative, if you are creative, if you are human, then fear will be a part of your life.  But we should not be afraid.  For God is with us...

All For Now,



Monday, September 21, 2015

There's the church!

Each morning, I drive my two daughters to school from our home in Oxnard, to their school in Camarillo - about 30 minutes away.  To get there, we take Highway 101, which is the major thoroughfare that the Edwards Movie Theater is on.  On Sunday mornings, Mission Street Church, the new church that we started less than a year ago, meets in the Edwards Movie Theater.  And each morning it is the same, as we pass the Edwards Movie Theater, both of our daughters yell at the top of their lungs...

There's the church!!!!!

I'm afraid it's unalterable.  My two daughters' associations with church will always be a movie theater - pink neon lights, movie marquis, the buttery-salty smell of popcorn, and comfortable chairs with cup holders.  For them, church is a movie theater, and the energy inside of it.  They love running in the huge atrium lobby and shouting out loud as their voices echo on the vaulted ceiling in the entry way.  They adore watching Veggie Tales in their Children's Program on a 100 foot screen.  They love the bright colors of the movie banners, and the glitzy layout of the candy counter.

There's the church!!!!

When they say this, I beam on the inside with pride.  What it means is that for the rest of their lives, my two daughter's associations with church and God and religion in general will be not with a hallowed sanctuary of mystery.  They will not think of church people as different than the people they meet with throughout the week in other settings.  They will not associate church with a certain way to dress or perceive the world.  Nor will it be with a particular mode of behavior or moral code.  Neither will they associate church with a group of insiders or power brokers who wield control over the hearts and minds of their congregants.

In a very real way, they will see church as very much a part of the world that we live in.  Church will not be a separate entity but a connected manifestation of God's love for the world that is so fallen.  They will understand in a very real way that Christ came into the world to live in the world.  Christ was not separate from the world but took the world into himself, even as he hung on the cross.  There's not an "us" and "them" when it comes to Christians and non-Christians.  We are all God's people.  Christ came to be in the world, to save the world.

There's the church!!!

And maybe their associations with church will not end with a movie theater.  Maybe when they pass a fast food restaurant, they will say:

There's the church!!!

Maybe when they go to college some day, and stroll the University campus they will say:

There's the church!!!!

Maybe when they go shopping in a gargantuan shopping mall, where people are spending money that they don't have, and making purchases that they don't need, they will say:

There's the church!!!

When I was a kid, we used to sing a song in Sunday school, that you are surely familiar with:  "I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.  All who follow Jesus all across the world, yes, we're the church together."

Pass the popcorn!!
There's the church!!!

All For Now,


Monday, September 14, 2015

David and Goliath

Many of the Bible's stories don't ring true.  While they are often accounts of incredible feats of bravery, miraculous intervention, God's total sovereignty, it is sometimes hard to believe that they actually happened.  Whether it be a talking donkey, a fish that swallows a human whole, a coin found in the mouth of a trout, water turned into wine or a grown man walking on water, these stories just seem so far from the realities of our own world, that they seem like things of fiction.  I don't mean to suggest that these events didn't occur, it's just that it is hard to believe them sometimes.

However, a sports tournament that took place this past week in the United States points to the probability that one of the Bible's miracles actually happened.  In Queens New York, the site of the US Open Tennis Tournament, on a humid blue tarmac tennis court, a match between the world's greatest tennis player ever, Serena Williams, and a come from nowhere player from Taranto, Italy, Roberta Vinci, was nothing less than a modern day story of:

David and Goliath

Now, before I begin the comparison, I want to say that Serena Williams is an incredible individual with a wonderful heart.  She has received mounds of unfair criticism throughout her career.  So, any comparison I make of Serena with Goliath in this blog is purely about strength and ability, and not any other moral or character besmirching quality.

First, to Serena.  She is simply the best women's player ever to hold a tennis racket.  She is one of the few players ever, male or female, to have held all four major singles titles simultaneously.  She has 21 gland slam titles.  Serena simply plays at a level heretofore unheard of in women's tennis.  During her tennis match with Roberta Vinci, Serena actually clocked an ace serve at 127 miles per hour.  Prior to her loss to Roberta, she was set to win the vaunted calendar Grand Slam (three major titles in one year).

Now to Roberta Vinci.  Before her win against Serena last week, Roberta was ranked 43rd in the world.  The daughter of an accountant and a housewife, she was born in rural Italy - Taranto.  The odds of her winning against Serena, by some estimates were 300-1, and by others 657-1.  While Serena regularly hit serves to Roberta at over 120 miles per hour, Roberta's more ordinary serve was around 79 miles per hour.  Her advance to the finals at the US Open (a game which she actually lost) was her first major grand slam final.

But it was Roberta's post-game interview after beating Serena which sent shivers of appreciation down the spines of all the viewers; [In broken English with an Italian accent] "I try to enjoy it...I try not to think about Serena...I didn't expect that I win...I just think 'put the ball in the court....don't think about Serena'".

David and Goliath

I wonder if on a windy, wilderness battlefield in the foothills of Western Israel, in about the year 1,000 BC, David didn't say the same thing about his foe; "I try to enjoy it...I try not to think about Goliath...I don't expect to win...I just think..put the rock on the forehead....don't think about Goliath."

David slew the giant, and Roberta (an equally mundane name for a champion) slew the giant of tennis.  From time to time, now and then, the Bible proves that it's stories, though hard to believe, are true.

All For Now,


Monday, September 7, 2015

People Know What They Want

Every week it's the same.  At about 9:30 when worship begins at Mission Street, I look out on the congregation that are meeting in the movie theater, and there are only a handful of people there.  On a holiday weekend like last weekend, the numbers can be in the low digits at the beginning of service.

Then, all of a sudden, magically and as if tele-transportation, room will fill up.  Usually by the time the second song begins at the start of the worship set, I look out and I see that the room is almost totally full.  Where did they all come from?  Why did they come 15 minutes into the service, rather than at the beginning of church?

I have actually witnessed this same phenomenon in so many of the churches that I have lead that I have come to expect it.  People arrive about 15 minutes into the start of worship, rather than coming right at the beginning.  As I have thought about this interesting dynamic, there are several reasons that come to mind.

First, Sundays are hectic times for families, and traffic can, even in California, be a bit unpredictable. Loading everyone into the car can be a challenge.

Second, sometimes the welcoming team gauntlet in a church can be daunting.  Especially when you are feeling a bit tender or depressed, the last thing you want is to encounter a zillion people before church.  If a person knows that they have to make their way through three greeters, a smiling hand shaking pastor, and then another set of greeters at the front door, they may say to themselves, "What I really want is to worship God, not be glad handed on the front step, so I will come late."

Sometimes people like the anonymity of coming late to a  church service.  There is a certain joy in being able to just slip in late and leave a little early.  I will never forget one man who came to the movie theater in Paso Robles for worship.  He would arrive just before the message, and he would leave just after the message.  He sat in the darkest corner of the church, so that no one could see him. I will never know his name, but I will also never forget him.  From that man's experience I developed a theory about outreach - Anonymity is the key to evangelism, not friendliness.

But as I have observed people coming late to church for many years, I have come up with another basic theory.

People Know What They Want

A person coming on Sunday knows that, most of all, they want a personal connection with God.  They want one on one time with God.  They want:

*  A message that is concrete, clear, meaningful and helps them in their lives
*  A time to connect one on one with God in prayer/song
*  A communion time that is a personal connection between them and God

What they don't want:

*  To meet a lot of strangers who seem overly friendly
*  To drink mediocre coffee
*  To sing praise choruses or hymns from a choir that sometimes seem redundant
*  To hear a lot of announcements
*  To be told by a congregant, "I haven't seen you in a while, everything ok?"
*  To have to sign up for an activity that makes their already busy week more busy
*  To sign a welcome pad or a card

People Know What They Want

This isn't to say that worship music isn't important.  It's also not to say that announcements and welcome cards don't play an important roll.  Also, people need community with one another, it's just that that can't be manufactured in any kind of artificial way.

If you are leading a church where people tend to come late to worship, I encourage you to see it as a good thing.  Don't beat people up for coming later.  Don't change the time of worship to meet their needs.  They are coming for the important parts of worship - parts that are important and helpful for their lives.  And hey, at least they are finding something real in your church

All For Now,


Monday, August 31, 2015

The Five Pound Note Theory

When I was about nine years old, we took a family vacation to visit my Scottish grandparents in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The wonderful "foreignness" of how Scotland was, compared to the "ordinariness" of my life in Boise, Idaho made such an imprint on my bourgeoning young soul.  The bakeries filled with sausage rolls, cherry-red double decker busses, televisions that were still powered by vacuum tubes, baths that had to be filled with kettles of hot water from the stove, have remained with me through these many years.  And yet, it was a lesson that my grandfather taught me that is the topic of my blog post this morning.

Each morning our family would have breakfast in the sunroom just off the kitchen.  The chairs that flanked the breakfast table were all rickety, creaky, fragile things from the turn of the century.  My brother, who was just four at the time, sat on the most squeaky of them.  Every tiny move that my brother made, caused the chair to squeak.  The relative austerity of the personality of my Scottish grandparents, mixed with the regular interruption of a squeak on his chair, was more temptation than my brother could bear.  And so my brother squeaked.  Squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak.  "Please stop that Jamie," said my mother.  Squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak went Jamie.  "Jamie, that is not polite," said Dad.  Squeak, squeak, squeak.  It went on for some time, annoying the entire family to no end.  Then, my Scottish grandpa made a developmental breakthrough, that is the subject of this week's blogpost.

In a broad Scottish accent, my grandfather said, "Whoever squeaks their chair next will receive a Five Pound Note (equivalent to a 10 dollar bill)."  There was all of a sudden an uneasy silence in the room.  What was grandpa saying?  Was this some kind of trick?  Was this reverse psychology?  About thirty seconds passed, before Jamie, made another squeak, then, grandpa handed over a Five Pound Note and said, "Congratulations, young man!"  And here's the incredible thing.  The squeaking stopped for the rest of the morning.  Without the tempting fun of doing something that he shouldn't do, Jamie must have decided that squeaking his chair wasn't so much fun anymore.

All of these many years later, I have utilized this same technique to varying effects and levels of success in many different settings.  I have used it so much that I have come up with a name for this psychological technique.  I call it;

The Five Pound Note Theory

The theory goes something like this.  Most aberrant human behavior occurs because of the relative pleasure that is derived from doing something that is socially unacceptable.  When the social un-acceptability of that behavior changes, the pleasure disappears, and the aberrant behavior loses it's ultimate power and temptation.

Often in my years of ministry, I have seen kids who grew up in relatively sheltered homes, begin to go through times in rebellion in their teenage years.  This often takes the form of nose piercings, and hair color change (red mohawks, purple mullets).  Whenever I see a kid go through one of these changes, and knowing the parents were appalled at the rebellious behavior, I have sometimes said to a kid, "Wow, I like that orange hair, you might want to go with more magenta next time though, I think it would work better for you."  With a deep level of shock, I have sometimes found that that kid decided that, now that the social acceptability of that rebellion no longer existed, that it wasn't so much fun to color their hair, and so they went back to normal hair color.

Not long ago, I had a man in my office who was contemplating getting a divorce, and having an extramarital affair.  This man was convinced that when he told a pastor about his plan, that I would be utterly appalled and repulsed by this plan and that I would scold this individual scathingly.  Of course, I would never condone or encourage or think positively about such a course of action in a person's life.  Extramarital affairs are very destructive experiences for couples, families and communities.  However, I was convinced that this man was actually searching for someone to be upset with his planned action, which in turn would propel him to the very action that he was thinking of doing.  So, after he told me about his plan to leave his wife, I said, "Well, sounds like you have thought through this plan quite clearly, and have thought through all of the implications.  Yes, I think you are correct, getting a divorce sounds like the right thing to do."  Startled, the man said, "What? what do you mean, how could you say such a thing."  The man began a course, not long after that, of recommitting to his marriage, and deserting his very destructive plan for his life.

Through the centuries, the Christian church has fallen into many, many traps regarding the decrying of a certain behavior or "sin" and finding that that approach has only created more of a desire to engage in that behavior.  In a sense, Christians have created a level of social unacceptability that creates a pleasure center for aberrant behavior.  If Christians would, on the other hand, be less focussed on creating these social boundaries, and more focussed on loving the individual at hand, they might find it easier to guide people into healthy decisions about their lives.

Now, don't get me wrong.  There is such thing as right and wrong.  Sin exists, and is not something that should be lifted up.  The Bible is clear about what areas of life are healthy and what are not.  The church should stand, in the midst of a world that is lost and in chaos, for Biblical values, and Christ centered living.  However, in the approach to the world, we might find that we get further down the road of healthy living, and righteous behavior, if we employed with a little more frequency and a little more thoughtfulness;

The Five Pound Note Theory

All For Now,


Monday, August 24, 2015

It's All Pioneer Ministry

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet with some fellow pastors in a rural valley glenn in Central Colorado.  The valley, just outside of Salida, had been settled sometime in the mid-eighteen hundreds by farmers and gold prospectors.  Stone ruins of the ancient settlements could still be seen poking out of the tall wild grass.  The original settlement was long gone.  But if you listened close enough, you could still hear the yoked oxen grunting as they plowed boulder strewn fields in the heat of the day.  You could still hear the metronomic stamping of a hammer down on an anvil in a barn where horse-shoes were being made. These were true Pioneers who lived here just a few generations ago.  They worked land that had never been worked, created a settlement where no settlement had ever been before, they eked out of nothing an existence that in some measure, still exists.

I have been thinking lately that all ministry these days is Pioneer Ministry

It's All Pioneer Ministry

I have a friend who is leading a large church in the ECO denomination (Evangelical Covenant Order).  When he talks about the challenges of his call setting, he speaks of the loneliness of decisions that have to be made, and the sheer magnitude of work involved in each day at the church.  It's on his shoulders, and it will succeed or fail because of his work and providence alone.  In many ways, he's totally on his own.  It's Pioneer Ministry.

My father is now an interim pastor in a small church outside of Sacramento with the EPC denomination (Evangelical Presbyterian Church).  Ironically, it is actually called, "Pioneer Presbyterian Church".  Each day my Dad goes to work and thinks about how to get some momentum in this once vital church.  He is trying to build a new settlement where there is no church settlement.  He's on his own.  It's Pioneer Ministry.

Another friend is a youth pastor in a nearby, neighboring church.  His youth program is thriving, but his support networks are very thin.  His senior pastor is away on extended leave, and his Presbytery within the PCUSA (Presbyterian Church, USA), is without an Executive Presbyter.  He's on his own. It's a Pioneer Ministry.

I am now one year into my third New Church Development at Mission Street Church within the PC (USA).  It's hard work.  My muscles are still aching on Monday morning from the heavy lifting that I did at 4:30AM yesterday of speaker systems, folding tables and musical instruments.  We meet in a movie theater because we don't have a building yet.  It's often lonely work.  There's very little support from the Presbytery, although there are masses of committee meetings to attend on a weekly basis.  I'm on my own.  It's Pioneer Ministry.

But here's the thing.  I just left a very large church in the ECO denomination (by some estimates, the 10th largest Presbyterian Church in the country).  But it was also lonely, hard work.  The denominational support was scant, if all but non-existent.  Each morning when I went to work it was like hitching up a set of oxen to a yoke and a hoe and plowing a field.  Large boulders, that would impede ministry growth, would often be in the way of a good harvest, and these would have to be removed in the heat of the day.  It was Pioneer Ministry.

What am I getting at.  Simply this.  If you decide to do ministry in this day and age, if you decide to serve God's people in an effective and dynamic way, you will be doing Pioneer Ministry.  It doesn't matter what denomination you are a member of, or what size of church you lead, you will pretty much be on your own.  There will occasionally be a pastor who sits beside you and lends an ear to your particular problem or challenge, but you are on your own.

It's All Pioneer Ministry.

But there is a beauty in being a Pioneer.  To be able to start something somewhere where no ministry has ever taken place before is a powerful experience.  When you read the Bible about other Pioneer Ministers like the Apostle Paul, or the disciples, you can actually say that you can relate to their struggles.  Paul was on his own in Asia Minor, and so are you.

I LOVE Pioneer Ministry.  I want to underline this, I LOVE PIONEER MINISTRY.  Pioneer Ministry makes me so excited, even writing this blog post, I get a happy feeling.  And as I look back, the biggest mistakes I have actually made in my ministry were to rely on denominational or other structures that were in place that gave a false sense of assurance or support.  It's better to hoe your own hoe, row your own canoe (to mix a metaphor).

And I'll tell you what, when you are sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch of your church equivalent to a small log cabin at the end of a hard day of work, with a corn cob pipe in your mouth, and you look out on the field and see what the oxen of the Holy Spirit and you were able to do together in the heat of the day, you feel a deep sense of pride and honor.  Instead of the sound of horse shoes being stamped out in your ear, you can hear a strong but steady voice from the Holy Spirit in your ear, saying - "Well done! Carry On!"

Be a Pioneer!  Build something that people generations from now will remember and appreciate.

All For Now,