Exploring the Intersections of Faith and Life

Pick Up Your Cross


Pick Up Your Cross

Many of you celebrated the joy of confirming young people into membership over the last few weeks, or you may have a class joining the church on Pentecost. Reflecting on that and on our recent Easter celebrations reminded me of one exercise I used to do with my confirmation classes. We took a 6 foot length of 6×6 hardwood, and had the kids one by one pick it up, put it across their shoulders and walk up and down the aisle of the sanctuary. It was a significant experience for those kids, as I asked them to think about what Jesus went through as he walked to his cross, carrying his crossbeam, feeling the wood cutting into his already-wounded shoulders, and to think about Jesus’ words to his disciples – if any would come after me, let that one pick up his/her cross and follow me.

Easter is a wonderful time in the life of the church – my favorite part of the year. But after Easter comes the hard work of being followers of Jesus Christ, and the hard work of being the church. Picking up our cross and following, bearing the load, and yes, sometimes bearing the pain.

We are coming into the season of Pentecost – a time to focus on who we are as a church. I want to invite you to take these coming months to really wrestle with two questions.

First, “what does it mean for me, personally to take up my cross?”
What are you asked to bear personally, for the furtherance of God’s kingdom in this world?
What role are you asked to fulfill? What are you called to sacrifice?

Second, “what does it mean for this church to take up its cross?”
As a church, what are we being asked to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel?
What burdens has God placed before us that we can be a gospel response to?

Think about your community and the needs of those you pass on the street. Think about the resources you have available (keeping in mind the joke that the church has all the resources it needs – it’s just that most are still in our pockets!). Explore where God is calling you to stretch yourself and the church to be true Good News for others.

As we approach Pentecost and beyond, may you reflect on these, talk about these, and finally, take action for the sake of your Lord Jesus Christ, and the world that he died to reach. Who knows – if we can do that, then we too may experience the kind of growth the church did that first Pentecost.


Bibles with a Twist

I’ve been checking out a few bibles recently that you might be interested in checking out.

The first is called Bible Illuminated: The Book: New Testament. What is different about this is it looks like a magazine. It is a very different reading experience. The cover is literally “eye-catching” with a closeup of an eye on a black background. When you open it up it is the Good News Translation, four columns to the page. I noticed two things immediately. First – there are no chapter and verse numbers, which, I don’t know about you, but I find VERY refreshing. My brain is much more ready to read it like a story and not parse it by verse. The second thing I noticed was the pictures. Throughout the bible are modern photos interpreting scripture verses. The pictures themselves become a conversation piece challenging us to think about what pictures from today’s world we would use to illustrate the scriptures. Click on the link below to go to the book on amazon.com and you can read more about the thinking behind this format. We’ve also got a copy of it at the presbytery office if anyone wants to borrow it or come in and look at it.

The second bible is called The Green Bible. It is a much more traditional type bible – nice size to carry, New Revised Standard Version, and it does have your chapter and verse markings. What makes it different is that it is made out of 100% recycled material, and verses that relate to the environment are – yes – in green. You’ll find a link to this one below too.

Another Bible you may want to check out is the new Discipleship Study Bible. This also is the NRSV translation. Like many study bibles, it has some scholarly background on the various books, although if you read the reviews some like it and some don’t. What I like about it is in the notes it raises questions that prompt us to think more concretely about how what we read speaks to our own socio-political situations, as well as to our own spiritual growth. In other words, the comments grow out of our 21st century society, not the mid or early 20th.

Each is very different, each was published with different goals. If you’ve found other bibles you use that you’ve found helpful or thought-provoking, please share them with us.


Fresh Expressions – Does it open any doors for us?

I’ve been spending some time exploring a ministry called Fresh Expressions – a ministry of the Church of England the the United Methodist Church in England. It is an effort focused on creating what it calls ‘Fresh Expressions. We might call it church planting in a post-modern world. As I browse the site, though, I see lots that can be applicable to existing churches too, or at least existing churches that are trying to shift from having an inward focus to an outward focus (or “missional”), and to more empowered and committed ministry by church members.

For example, here is the general outline it has for anyone interested in starting a “Fresh Expressions” church:

* Get together with at least one other Christian. As you check whether your expectations are on the same page, hopefully a sense of shared call will emerge.
Getting together → a shared call

* Explore the possibilities through ‘360 degrees listening’ – to the people you may be called to serve, Christians you are close to, the experience of the wider church and to God directly in prayer and Bible study. Hopefully a vision for what to do will be confirmed or emerge.
Exploring possibilities → a shared vision

* Think ahead. Imagine how the venture might become church. What are the really important things you would need to do to make this happen? Might these become a statement of values?
Thinking ahead → shared values

* Organise support – prayer support, from the people you are called to serve, permission-givers and the wider public (eg, through good child protection and health and safety).
Organising support → a shared venture

* Nurture the team through appropriate training, making sure everyone is clear about their role and so on.
Nurturing the team → shared leadership

As you browse the site you’ll find lots of helpful information, ideas about process, and even some free training courses that you can use in your own church.

Check it out at:


Other blogs sites to check out

Here are some other conversations going on online that you may be interested in:

  • One website I’m finding very refreshing and good is deepandwide.ning.com. This is a place for conversations growing out of the denominations efforts to help the church grow – deep and wide.
  • The new denominational website focused on sharing resources and stories about church transformation, redevelopment and new church development:www.presbygrow.net/.
  • Another really good resource for anyone interested in what is happening in the church is www.mod.reyes-chow.com/. Bruce Reyes-Chow, the Moderator of the General Assembly, is the most accessible moderator we have ever had. He blogs regularly and sends out regular emails sharing what he is seeing and hearing around the church. And he always welcomes feedback. Even though he is from the more liberal end of the spectrum of the denomination, he has made it a point to attend gatherings of groups that span the theological spectrum, the right, left, and everything in between, with the simple goal of listening, learning, understanding, and conversing. He regularly shares what he is hearing thru his emails. I highly encourage everyone to check out his website and subscribe to his blog (you’ll see the subscription box in the upper right corner of the page), and feel free to email Bruce with your questions, thoughts and comments.

There’s lots of good conversations going on on the internet. Check it out! And then be a part of the conversation!!! And if you know of others, post them here so the rest of us can check them out.


Patents for Sheep?

I’m reviewing notes I made in a book – Jumping the Curve: Innovation and Strategic Choice in an Age of Transition, by Nocholas Imparato and Oren Harari. I just have to share with you a great line about mid-way thru the book – “there is literally no way for a company to seize opportunities if it is saddled with an overly layered, overly centralized, and overly functionalized structure…. As former 3M CEO Lewis Lehr has said, ‘If you place too many fences around people, they can easily become a pasture of sheep. And how many patents are assigned to sheep?'”

We may be “the sheep of God’s pasture,” but somehow I don’t think God intended the people in the churches to be the sheep of the congregation’s pasture, or the sheep of the presbytery’s pasture.

One thing that we’ve been looking at in Minnesota Valleys is the level of layered, centralized structure we have, and asking the question – does it help or hinder the creativity and calling of individuals (and churches) to follow where God leads, or to do things that need to be done? There needs to be a balance, but there needs to be freedom too.

As a local church pastor, one question I would ask whenever someone had an idea of something they’d like to try was “how much permission do they need to go ahead?” I firmly believe that checking in and keeping people in the loop of what you’re doing is necessary. I also believe that we don’t need to be all doing the same thing – even in the church. The reality is in many of our churches and presbyteries, if someone has a passion to do something, by the time they jump thru all the hoops of permission granting, either the passion has died or so many barriers and objections are raised that they opt out or move on to other churches.

We need people who have passion, who are willing to try new things, and leadership in churches and presbyteries who are able to let go of enough power to let people learn how to fly. So what if not everything works. I can guarantee that will be the case. No one hits a home run every single time. Or even gets a hit half the time. (Let’s not be afraid of failure!) But if we can’t encourage people to discover and follow where God is leading them, and support them, aren’t we missing something?


The Two Most Important Things…

Recently I have been cleaning out files and old emails, and was reading thru a bunch I’ve accumulated around the theme of transformation. Over the course of the last three years I’ve read countless books and articles on the subject, attended events where we’ve focused on it, and picked up skills in specific tools for transformation efforts in churches. It comes in handy when I am with some of our church members and they ask for help.

The answer, though, isn’t a particular tool or strategy plan. Now don’t get me wrong, I think tools, such as Natural Church Development, the Acts 16:5 Initiative, and such, are very helpful – when we don’t know where to start, they give us direction. But in every example of a church that has made a successful transition and shown sustained growth and vitality, there were two key factors present:

1. They began with a spiritual base. They were intentional about developing their prayer life, Bible study, discernment, and spiritual practices. Pastor, elders, deacons, members all. Let’s not forget who we follow and who calls us! First and foremost, we are followers of Jesus Christ, who calls us into an ever deeper and richer relationship with God. God is also our source of strength in every endeavor. The though of trying to do anything of substance in the church apart from God is sheer folly. Churches that are meeting the challenge of being relevant and thriving in this changing world are building a strong spiritual base.

2. They showed courage. They were willing to risk. More importantly, they were not only willing to risk doing things they’ve never done before, they actually stepped up and did them! They had courage to try things that scared them. Let’s be honest – we’d love it if we didn’t have to go outside our comfort zone for the church to thrive and be relevant in today’s world. But the reality is, that is exactly what Christ calls us to do, and that is what it will take for our churches to make a turn-around.

As I said at Tuesday’s presbytery meeting, we are in the season of Advent, when the angel Gabriel said to Mary, “Don’t be afraid.” Of course, when the angels say that, I have to wonder – is there something I SHOULD be afraid of? There must be! But what follows “don’t be afraid” is “I will be with you.” God will be with us. We are not alone.

Encourage your churches to build their spiritual base, and to step out in courage and take some risks. Not only is there really no other way, but when they do, they will discover a new strength and joy in serving God and sharing God’s grace with others.


What message are you sending?

Below is the intro and link to an article from a recent Alban Institute email. It is well worth reading. But what I want to talk about is something Lynne said in the first paragraph – “people involved in a congregati0n are shaped by what they hear about that congregation.” I know first hand the truth of that statement!

I know I’ve told this story before, but I think it bears repeating. At one of my churches, EVERY WEEK we made sure we had something in the local weekly paper – whether it was an announcment in the local events section about an upcoming event, a paid ad (professional ad with “kick”), or a news story with photo. We were not doing anything different than we had before – we were just telling the community about it. The ‘buzz’ in the community was fascinating – people started talking about us! They would say “you sure are doing a lot at that church!” And people IN the church started feeling proud about being a member of the church. That was also the year we decided not to do a stewardship drive. Giving went up dramatically (over 30%), there was a lighter spirit in worship and meetings, there was a noticable decrease in conflict in the church.

The next year when we let our publicity slip. so did giving, and conflict rose. I can’t help but believe there was a direct connection.

People are shaped by what they hear about their church. What are message is your church sending it’s members (and community)

Myths about Communicating Congregational Identity
by Lynne M. Baab

Conveying a congregation’s identity and values clearly and through a variety of means of communication will help the congregation connect to the community around it. At the same time, clear expressions of values and identity will also have a deep impact on the congregation itself. The people involved in a congregation are shaped by what they hear about that congregation. Their expectations for the life of faith and for their involvement in the community are influenced by the ways in which the congregation talks about itself and its values.

For decades congregational leaders have been making decisions—both consciously and unconsciously—about identity and values and how they are communicated. The nine myths below lay out some of the underlying issues that may influence these choices and their effectiveness.

Opportunity to Meet People Where Their Need Is

I was just reading an article by Don Nations, of DNA Coaching, that had a great suggestion for how our churches can really meet people where they are at today. This is what the newsletter said:

“In the local church: People in the church and people in the community are reassessing where they are financially, they are reconsidering some of their expenses, they are working to make ends meet and they are looking for assistance. This may be the perfect time for a church to begin offering programs such as Good Sense, Financial Peace University, Crown Financial Ministries, etc. Help people better understand their finances and take control of them. Help people better understand stewardship and grow spiritually in this area.”

This is a great idea – especially since it is hard for people outside the church (and sometimes inside the church) to see how the church can be relevant where the rubber hits the road in everyday life. This is one area where the church can really reach out and offer an opportunity that no one else is offering. I am a little familiar with Crown Financial Ministries – you can find their info here: http://www.crown.org/financialwisdom/church/startcrown.asp. I know of one church that used that and had very good results with it. I’m sure the others are also very good.

One of the keys for doing this well is to do something different than we usually do when we offer a new program. Most of us typically announce it in the bulletin, newsletter, on Sunday, and maybe in a notice in the local paper. And then we’re typically disappointed with the turnout. The church I am aware of that used the Crown Financial Planning program did something different – the leaders committed to being a part of it, and then they called EVER SINGLE MEMBER OF THE CHURCH, whether they were “active” or “inactive”, and invited and encouraged to sign up for a small group. The way it reaches out into the community is then for the people who have signed up to invite their friends and acquaintances, being sure to say why they are going to attend for themselves.

That particular church had a HUGE response – I have forgotten the exact percentage of participation, but I think it was something like over 75% of the members. Whatever it was, it was a significant majority of the congregation. Who of us wouldn’t die of joy to have that level of participation?

Remember these days people are thinking a lot about money, how they save, how they spend, what they can do, what is wise use of it, etc. As I’ve already said – we, the church, have something to say to people to help them navigate these times. And that is no matter what size church we are. How can your church offer an opportunity to your members and your community to talk and learn about faithful ways to approach, view, and use money these days in a safe environment?

from November 5, 2008
A leader or a follower be…

You might have noticed that the name of this e-news has changed. It was “Transforming Leaders of Transforming Churches.” Now it it “Transforming Followers for Transforming Churches.” And this is why the change:

About a week ago, wehad our first “Biblical Advance,” with author Leonard Sweet as our teacher for the event. The title of the event was “From oranges to apples: coming alive to the living Word,” and we had just about 100 people attend, half adults, half youth. If you have not heard Len Sweet, he is a dynamic, thoughtful teacher and theologian, who has a real gift for helping people see the Bible in a new light.

One of the things Len said really caught me – he was talking about our tendency to read everything we can get our hands on about leadership, to study the leadership models in society, to study all the “habits” of successful leaders, so we can be good leaders in the church. Well, this is what he pointed out – read the Bible and notice how many time God calls people to be leaders, vs. how many times God calls people to be followers. Of course we can all think of the many “follow me” scriptures in the gospels. But even Moses, whom we think of as a great leader, was really called to follow – after all, he didn’t set the direction in the wilderness – it was the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day! Even Paul stresses not his leadership qualities, but his followership qualities, as he follows Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in his ministry.

So let me just ask you a question, and let you sit with it for a while – how does it affect your ministry, whether you are a pastor, elder, deacon, or lay person, to see yourself primarily as a follower of Jesus Christ, instead of a leader of God’s people? What does it mean for you to lead as a faithful follower?

from November 5, 2008
Do you take Sabbath time?

This is an interesting question – we recently did a survey of our pastors to see how many days off a week they took, how much of their vacation and continuing education time they used, and how many hours a week they typically worked. The results were somewhat surprising, specifically the number of pastors who did not even take one full day off a week, many of whom also did not regularly use all of their vacation time. (I could also talk about the extraordinary number of hours some of the pastors worked, but that’s just too depressing!)

On one hand, this is a concern because as pastors, we are supposed to be spiritual leaders (followers? 🙂 ). When we get so busy working, one thing that many pastors says quickly gets left behind, is time to nurture their own spiritual life. It’s hard to do that when you’re working 60-70 hours a week and not taking regular time off. But it’s also a concern because, like many in our congregations, we are tired. We have so many demands on our time – work, family, the chores that don’t seem to get done by themselves, and should we actually want a social life – well, good luck on finding time for that!

What is even more important to realize,though, is that this problem is not limited to pastors. Many of our working church members face the same problem – they too are overworked, over-scheduled, and facing too many demands on their time. Many may have two days off a week, but other demands fill that time – family, some have second jobs to make ends meet, other commitments.

As an executive presbyter, my concern is the pastors – how can I encourage them to adopt more healthy work habits and lifestyles, so that they can stay refreshed and thrive in their ministry and be effective pastors of churches? But as leaders of churches, you would do well to ask that same question about the people in the pew – what can the church do to help them stay refreshed and thrive in their work, which is their ministry? Most people can’t take a three month sabbatical. Even taking a full day to rest, relax, and nurture their relationship with God is a challenge. So how else can the church provide moments or spaces for Sabbath that will work for people? Keeping in mind, of course, that those who need it most probably won’t be the first to respond to an invitation!

Some churches provide prayer booklets, some churches have a prayer room that is always open. Some add time for silence in worship – significant times of silence. Others have an annual retreat of a day or two for spiritual renewal. I’m sure there are many other ideas out there too.

As we approach Advent, a time of holy waiting, this might be a good time for us to find ways to provide that space and time for people to “wait upon the Lord” and rediscover the center out of which we find our life.