A solid vision in a changing world

Each of us has hopes and dreams.

Congregations do, too.

It’s neat when a group of people come together with a common vision. There’s power when many people pursue a plan with one voice.

A rural church near Oberlin, Ohio, had dreamed and prayed for a new home for almost 20 years, since their decades-old site no longer served them well.

Eventually, their prayers were answered.

The 50-member Christian and Missionary Alliance Church congregation purchased a 5,000-square-foot empty former private home “in a serene place tucked away from the machinations of modern-day life,” according to the Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio.

“It was the very church they’d dreamed of all those years.”

A new church, of sorts

In a similar way, the much larger, multi-campus church my wife and I attend has dreamed for many years of opening a campus in Lorain, Ohio. The Church of the Open Door operates campuses in Elyria, Avon Lake (where we attend) and Vermilion. The three sites surround Lorain. (If you’re checking my geography, Sheffield and Sheffield Lake stand between Lorain and Avon Lake to the east, and Lake Erie is the fourth boundary, to the north.)

It’s finally happening.

The church hired a Lorain campus pastor earlier this year. Prayer teams, small groups and community outreach have already begun, even before the Lorain building opens.

Unlike the Oberlin church’s dream, our Lorain campus vision is urban.

Our senior pastor offered this explanation for the Lorain vision:

 

Jesus said to the followers, “Let us go to the towns near here so I can preach there also. That is why I came.”

Mark 1:38

 

When the Lorain pastor shared his vision for a multi-ethnic, multi-racial congregation that serves the city, including the immediate community around the new building, I – and several dozen others – caught the vision.

In a way, I’ve been down this road before.

Reality re-shapes a vision

We raised our three sons in Saginaw, Michigan. We were active at Ames United Methodist Church, an inner-city church in the middle of a West Side neighborhood.

One day, when our children still were very young, the denomination did some census-type research for us, and we discovered the average church member was a 65-year-old woman. This was not unusual for a mainline church that had thrived in its community for more than a century.

We were faced with some crucial decisions. We could continue as is, which many churches choose to do. When that 65-year-old woman dies in the next couple of decades or so, the church would fade into history, as many churches have done.

Or, we could take some specific, intentional steps to not only survive, but thrive.

More research revealed that the vast majority of members – including my family – commuted to the inner-city church from the suburbs. When Ames was built in the 1870s, everyone walked. Over time, adjacent houses were torn down and a parking lot was built. The church grew and thrived, topping 1,000 attendees in the early 1960s. By the time my family arrived, attendance was more like 350 to 400 at two Sunday services.

The neighborhood changed; so must the church

And the congregation was aging.

  • Our first decision was the most crucial: Do we move the church to a suburb where many members lived, or do we continue in the city?

God could have used the church either place, but what did He want us to do?

The vote was more divisive than we anticipated: 55 percent to 45 percent. We voted to stay in the city, but not for the right reason. Many longtime members wanted to continue “church” as is. In a world of rapid change, the church was the one solid foundation that stayed the same.

But it couldn’t.

The church would eventually die.

That wasn’t an option.

Even though the vote was close, our pastor at the time took the decision as a mandate to re-connect with our neighborhood. We did a door-to-door survey to assess needs (my wife participated in that).

  • We hired a full-time youth director, even though we had very few active youths at the time.

Why hire a staff person when we didn’t have hardly any young people to attend?

That’s why, actually.

We hired a man to build a youth program from scratch, reaching “church” kids and “neighborhood” kids. In general, the “church” kids had a basic understanding of the Bible, while many “neighborhood” kids did not. That made for – and still makes for – a unique opportunity for ministry, with many successes and failures.

  • We changed the church leadership structure to emphasize ministry and evangelism, and not so much sitting around tables debating issues.
  • We did one more thing that proved to be the most controversial decision of all: We changed the traditional 11 a.m. worship service to a contemporary service. With drums and guitars.

A drum set on the altar is sacrilege to some folks. When you’ve used a hymnbook and organ your entire life, that’s what you’re comfortable with. We kept the 9 a.m. service traditional for them, but some older folks had trouble getting going that early in the morning.

We lost some members over that.

Changing the style, not the message

While the worship style changed, we made one thing clear: The message of the church would not change.

Jon M. Dennis, a pastor in Chicago who helped lead a conference on urban ministry I attended recently, puts it this way:

 

When urban churches are not flexible (usually ending up in decline or closing), it’s often because we’ve confused that which is permanent with that which is transient …

One thing that absolutely doesn’t change is the person and work of our Savior and Lord, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Christ + City, p. 178

 

Most of our elderly members bought the vision. They understood that if the church was to survive and even thrive, we had to change our style. We had to connect with a younger crowd. We had to reach out to the transient, lower-economic, multi-ethnic neighborhood that surrounded our building.

The contemporary service worked. The goal wasn’t to bring 1,000 people into the pews, but to do ministry that matters, to develop relationships and connect with people.

Committed to the vision

Some time later, a predominately African-American church in our denomination in Saginaw closed its doors – and merged with ours. Overnight, our congregation became multi-racial as well as multi-ethnic. We welcomed them, not only as members, but as leaders. Several African-Americans took leadership positions in the church. They brought their gospel choir with them, and the Sunday morning music program was greatly enriched as it rotated with the chancel choir and the bell choir (plus the children’s choir).

Sure, there were bumps. Our pastor was 100 percent committed to the merger, and many of us on all sides bought in.

Some didn’t. We couldn’t get discouraged. Those who stayed were committed.

These things happened a decade or two ago. Ames continues to evolve, seeking God’s will in the neighborhood. People have left (including us, due to a job move) and new folks continue to come in.

When our Lorain church opens its doors sometime this spring, we will have the backing of a multi-campus congregation. But Elyria and Avon Lake attendees won’t determine whether the Lorain campus thrives or not.

How committed are we to our neighborhood, to the city?

At least a dozen of us pray on Tuesday mornings for the new church and for people connected with it. That’s just one thing that we’re doing.

We’re off to a great start, even before the building opens.

Urban ministry gets messy, but it also can be extremely rewarding. We’ll see where God leads us.

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A litmus test for evangelicals that shouldn’t be

Honduran migrants cross the U.S. border wall to San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 16, 2018, before turning themselves in to U.S. border patrol agents, standing at the top. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

President Trump, along with Republican and Democratic U.S. representatives, have forgotten that immigrants, legal and especially illegal, are human beings. They have turned the immigration issue into a political football.

They threaten a partial U.S. shutdown later this week over whether to pay for Trump’s border wall with Mexico (which, by the way, during his presidential campaign Trump promised that Mexico would pay for). Trump wants $5 billion for it. Democrats are offering $1.6 billion for border security.

Those numbers are peanuts compared with the trillion-plus-dollar budget that Congress oversees.

The stalemate has nothing to do with dollars and budgets.

It’s all about the politics.

Worse, for many Americans, it’s become a litmus test of evangelical Christianity. Many outspoken proponents of the border wall are evangelicals who support Trump’s for-the-most-part conservative social agenda.

https://www.vox.com/2018/10/26/17989084/christopher-maloney-in-god-we-trump-evangelicals-trump

Many staunch opponents are “social justice” Democrats who see the immigrants’ “caravan” in Mexico, heading for the U.S. border, as displaced Latin Americans fleeing poverty and, especially, violence in their home countries.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/fleeing-poverty-and-violence-central-american-women-explain-why-they-join-caravans-1543947664

I am an evangelical Christian who supports the Democrats on this issue.

Why?

Because Jesus would.

The kingdom of God has feet

Jesus’ primary mission on Earth was to introduce us to the “kingdom of God.” He offered us a personal, one-on-one relationship with his Father. In the Old Testament, God came and went, offering support to specific individuals for specific events or short periods of time. In the Gospels, Jesus said God would come and remain with us at all times, not come and go as he did previously.

To do that, Jesus did not require us to get our act together spiritually or socially before we could let God into our hearts full-time. No. God met – and still meets – us right where we are.

In other words, Jesus Christ was – and still is – the “social justice” God as well as the “evangelical” God.

Very few Christians understand this, even though the message is obvious throughout the New Testament.

Jesus called several fishermen as his first disciples (Matthew 4:18-22). Not exactly upperclassmen. He also hand-picked a hated tax collector (Luke 5:27-28), who left a lucrative job to follow a charismatic leader and his band of nomads. His other disciples were not exactly household names or community leaders when Jesus called them (Mark 3:13-19).

Jesus the social activist

Once he had his chosen twelve, Jesus did some surprising things. He visited Samaria, which no self-respecting Jew would have done, and talked with a woman who had been married five times (John 4:1-42). He acknowledged her past but didn’t condemn her for it.

Same with a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). And a mentally disturbed caveman (Mark 5:1-20). And an inquisitive political leader who met him at night because he didn’t want to be noticed (John 3:1-21).

He healed numerous disabled people, including several who were blind and others who had physical deformities (read the gospel of Luke, for example).

All of these folks were outcasts. Yet Jesus met them right where they were, healing them and encouraging them to “go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

Jesus the leader

Jesus also interacted with the religious and political leaders of his day, who were the Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees (Mark 12:13-40). Those religious leaders also were the local political leaders, serving the oppressive Roman government in return for keeping the peace in their communities.

They tweaked Jewish laws and customs to keep themselves in Rome’s good graces, picking and choosing Scriptures to fit their agendas.

To put it mildly, Jesus didn’t like that. He called them blind guides and hypocrites (Matthew 23:13-36).

Jesus didn’t attack the Pharisees and Sadducees on a political level, but on a spiritual level. On politics, he said: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

On Palm Sunday, the crowd thought they were hailing a political king who was entering Jerusalem to overthrow the hated Roman government (Matthew 21:8-11). When Jesus didn’t do that, they deserted him – and crucified Him.

What does all this have to do with immigration?

Jesus the servant

For people outside the church, Jesus was compassionate and gave them the benefit of the doubt every time. For people inside the church, Jesus spoke harshly for their judgment and hard-hearted attitudes, because they knew the Scriptures and should have known better how to treat people (including Jesus Christ himself).

If Jesus walked across the United States in the flesh today, he would give us the same message. We still haven’t learned it.

Immigrants need us. They are fleeing for their lives, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

In contrast, many Americans are richer than we think we are. Globally, if your wealth (assets minus debts) is in the $100,000 to $1 million range, you are among the 7.3 percent of the world’s population that has about 40 percent of the world’s wealth. If your wealth equals only $3,210, you are wealthier than half of the people across this planet.

https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-richest-people-in-the-world-20160121-story.html

Our response

What are we afraid of? That we might lose political influence?

Blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups already are gaining influence in this country. So are women. Are we truly worried about immigrants who have nothing materially, but who just might have the gifts, talents and work ethic we need to make this country run?

Is there not room for all?

I recently attended a conference in Chicago on urban ministry. One speaker pointed out that white Americans will not get involved in any project or event unless they lead it. That means whites will not allow any minority individuals to lead whatever they are involved in.

Whoa. That’s an eye-opener.

Are we afraid that a minority person might actually have leadership skills? As white people, are we not willing to submit ourselves to a black, Latino and/or female supervisor or other type of leader?

In the words of a decades-old slogan, what would Jesus do?

Jesus’ response

Jesus hand-picked a group of outcasts and under-the-radar people to train as the leaders of his future church. (If you read the book of Acts, there are women and couples who are leaders in the early church, as well as the more well-known Paul, Peter and James.)

No one is an outcast in Jesus’ eyes. Not disabled people. Not mentally disturbed people. Certainly not immigrants.

In a dispute between outcasts and church leaders, Jesus sided with the outcasts every time.

The “unchurched” often understood Jesus better than the church folks did. They certainly connected with him in a more real way.

We forget this at our own peril.

The real Christmas story (hint: it’s not warm and fuzzy)

red-dragon.jpg (1280×1024)

I first published this post in December 2015. Worth repeating. Enjoy!

 

The true and accurate Christmas story isn’t the serene manger scene with the nice shepherds and the friendly barnyard animals surrounding a sleeping baby Jesus with one big star in the sky and three wise men looking on.

No. That’s not how it happened at all.

I’ve never heard the true Christmas story in a Sunday sermon, or in a Christmas Eve service. It’s too controversial. And violent.

The true Christmas story is found in the Bible, of course. But not where we expect to find it. The Bible works that way sometimes.

To find the real story of Jesus’ birth, we must read Revelation 12. Yes, a chapter in the last book of the Bible, a vision that God gave to the apostle John.

The vision is very real. It takes place in the spiritual dimension – which we ignore at our own peril.

Here we go.

The pregnant woman meets her enemy

“A great portent (omen) appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth.”

Here is the mother of Jesus, bright and beautiful, ready to give birth.

“Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems (crowns) on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth.”

This great red dragon is Satan – he will be named in a minute – and he’s in attack mode.

“Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born.”

Why? What’s going on?

Satan had rebelled against the living God, hoping to overthrow him one day. But he knew that once this child was born and grew to adulthood, his days would be numbered.

God was declaring war on Satan with the birth of this child.

Giving birth

“And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.”

As soon as the male child was born, God protected the baby from the red dragon. The new mother fled to a place of protection as well, but a different place – in the wilderness, for 1,260 days, or 42 months, or 3.5 years.

I can’t say what the specific meaning of that number is, except that it also is mentioned in the chapters before and after this one. In Revelation 13, the red dragon is allowed to exercise authority on earth for 42 months.

Are we living in this time period now? I think we are.

War in heaven

“And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”

Not exactly a silent night, is it? The multitude of heavenly host that freaked out the shepherds when Jesus was born in Bethlehem were praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14)

And for those whom he does not favor …

I do not want to be on the wrong side of this battle, on the side of the red dragon.

This revelation is frightening. And encouraging.

War on Earth

Satan was defeated and cast out of heaven; the battle between God’s angels and Satan continues on Earth, even today. A glance at the nightly news reveals this war being waged on numerous fronts.

Yes, today’s news events are spiritual battles. There’s no doubt about it.

How is this encouraging? For two reasons that I see:

  1. Satan is not God’s equal. He is a fallen angel, on the same level as Michael. God is much stronger than the Devil is. We cannot forget this.
  2. The red dragon was given authority on earth for 42 months, or 3.5 years. This means his time here will end at some point. Satan knows his reign is finite; that’s why he’s stepping up the pressure, making the battles increasingly intense, to take as many of us with him to hell as he can.

Back to the Revelation vision:

“Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God …’ ”

Jesus is born. The battle ensues.

Satan will lose, guaranteed

Next, the apostle John describes what will happen to us:

“… Rejoice, then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

When the dragon saw that he could not kill the child – Jesus is protected by God’s throne, and the dragon was cast out of heaven – he went after the child’s mother:

“So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.”

When Satan realized he couldn’t reach Jesus’ mother either, he turned on us:

“Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.”

Do you wonder why God allows evil in the world? It’s because of Christmas.

God declared war on Satan with the birth of Jesus. Satan is returning fire. But only for a time.

Don’t be surprised. This is the way God planned it. The red dragon is having his moment now. But his clock is ticking.

Merry Christmas.

The circle of life in one day

A young couple I know announced their first pregnancy.

A (slightly) older couple celebrated their anniversary.

A friend’s son is hoping to get into an addiction detox center.

Another friend’s younger brother died from complications of a stroke.

I received word of all four events on the same day.

The circle of life.

Birth, anniversary, struggle, death.

I received word of those events in that order, ironically.

The first two were announcements of joy.

Birth

New life is a miracle. It happens the same way every time, but it’s still a miracle. One cell becomes two, then four, then … a living, soon-to-be-breathing human being.

I still remember the birth of our first son. I held a camera in my hands to take photos of the new arrival.

I was so in awe of the moment of David’s birth, I froze. The nurse shaped her hands like a camera and pantomimed taking a picture. I snapped out of my reverie and took a few frames.

Our lives changed forever.

New birth does that.

Anniversary

Anniversaries are special, too, as the couple celebrates thriving through the inevitable ups and downs of marriage – hopefully more ups.

Long-lasting marriages tend to stand out in today’s society, don’t they?

Marriage is not easy, and involves plenty of compromises. But if husband and wife are both committed to the relationship, it grows and deepens.

That’s the ideal, anyway.

The second two events were presented as prayer requests.

Struggle

My friend has prayed for years that her son would overcome his addiction. Apparently, the severe side effects have finally forced him to seek help.

Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we can get better.

I’ve thought about that every so often over the years. Do I have to hit rock bottom before my life can truly change? Why else would I ask Jesus Christ to change me, if I didn’t realize I needed changing?

I’ve never had a chemical dependency (except for the caffeine in coffee, I admit it) or faced a crisis for which I see no way out.

Or, have I?

When my family moved out of state before my ninth-grade year, I was afraid. Since I knew no one in my new school on the first day of class, I searched for something or someone to lean on – and found nothing. The following summer, I was introduced to Jesus in a very personal way, and that began a lifelong process of getting to know Him as my Lord as well as my Savior.

In a sense, then, I did hit rock bottom. I reached a point where I knew I needed something I didn’t have. This is not envy or jealousy. No material possession was going to answer my deepest need.

My friend’s son is at that point too, whether he realizes it or not. If he eventually comes clean from his addiction, that would be a wonderful answer to prayer. But then what? How would he fill that vacuum in his life? The answer to that would determine whether he relapses or not.

That’s down the road for him. Life is a process, not a one-time-decision-live-happily-ever-after moment.

Our pastor, in his current sermon series, calls this “discipleship.” It’s the lifelong process of growing ever closer to God after making the decision to follow Him.

We find our purpose in life through that process. The end game is very real, but so is the journey.

Where are we going?

Addictions are extremely difficult to break. You and I both have seen this over and over.

Experience is not always the best teacher. Not all experiences are worth having. Why can’t we learn from the mistakes of others?

Death

Eventually, we all die. It’s inevitable. Our bodies will wear out sooner or later, unless something unforeseen takes our lives suddenly.

Strokes happen to many people, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept. My father-in-law suffered a heart attack followed by a stroke in his mid-50s that incapacitated him. For a man who owned a business and was a leader in his field, that was a difficult pill for him to swallow. He lived for about 15 years after that.

My friend’s brother survived only a couple of days after his stroke.

Either way, life is not fair, is it?

Every one of us can lament something. Perhaps it’s physical health, a relationship that didn’t work out or is causing us pain, a job loss, family issues … something traumatic and/or something chronic. Each of us can identify something that we’re lamenting.

Choices

How do we handle such struggles? With grace and optimism, or with anger and blame?

Do we seek help when necessary? Or do we fight through it, unwilling to even admit our issues? Frequently this is my problem. I am not good at asking for assistance, even though there are a number of people in my life I could turn to if I truly needed them.

But it’s hard to admit need, isn’t it?

Which brings us back to the baby our friends are expecting next summer.

So pure, so beautiful, so dependent … that’s what babies are.

What kind of a world will he or she be born into? Will that baby know joy, or sorrow?

Probably both. The soon-to-be parents know Jesus as their Savior and Lord, so their child will get off to a great start. He or she will be loved and will learn to love in the deepest sense of that word.

As the child grows, he or she will learn the struggles of life, and hopefully how to overcome them.

There will be anniversaries, and eventually death.

The circle of life continues.

Is your circle bright, or is it gray like the rain – or worse, black?

The night is blackest as it nears dawn. Sunrise is coming.

Eventually, the rain will stop, the clouds will disappear and the sun will shine brightly.

In these days of partial sun and plenty of clouds and rain, I’m preparing for full sunshine. Are you?