Religious but not Spiritual…and Phone Booths

It is very popular today to say that you are “spiritual but not religious.” It is one of those over-used phrases that I am not sure has a real meaning. I think it means that people want to have experiences with the Divine, but they don’t want to have those experiences in a structured religious settings.

This is a dynamic that churches need to get their heads around. I heard a lot of church people who claim that the world is not spiritual at all. In fact, there is a narrative in the church that the world is becoming more secular. In fact, the opposite is happening. The world is becoming more sacred. In fact, everything is sacred. People talk about their pets, their sexuality, their gun rights, and their conservativism as holy. And people are more open to spirituality than ever before, they just find it in other ways. Continue reading

Disneyworld Church

I took a few weeks off from the blog for some much needed vacation and some much needed focus on my dissertation. I spent vacation with my family at Disney World in Orlando Florida. We avoided Hurricane Matthew and had a wonderful time. As I was there, I was caught up in the magic and wonder of Disneyworld. I have been reading a lot about Walt Disney since being down there. He was a total genius.

I was inspired by the way Walt Disney and his company understood the centrality of story. Disney started out by going back to old stories and retelling them in a new way. We forget how forward thinking this was when Disney created Snow White. No one thought cartoons could do more than make you laugh. Disney thought they could make you cry and tell a story. Everything in Disney is about the stories or creating new stories. goofy Continue reading

The Challenges of Being a Church Today Pt. 4- Fear and Lack of Confidence

I have been blogging about how much of a struggle it can be to be a church today. It is based on a “State of the Church Address” I preached earlier this year. After an introduction I have talked about our struggle to know what to change and how much to change. I also talked about the financial struggles that many churches find themselves in today.

The questions of how much to change and the financial concerns have exposed the bigger problems that we as a church are working to overcome in our quest to thrive. The deeper problems are issues of fear and a lack of confidence.

old church new castleCan we afford things exposes the deeper question- are we good enough? Are we worth fixing? Are we strong enough to make investing in our church worth it? Can we grow? Will our church die off when those currently over 60 years pass away? Will our church be here in 10 years?

One the one hand, we are encouraged by the scripture that Jesus will build His church and that the gates of Hell will not stand against it. We know that God is bigger than the trends, the culture, and the current attendance and offering numbers. But it is another thing to truly believe that about ourselves. That our church can be vibrant again. That we have a future.

What do we feel this way? There are many reasons. There is a sense that what we are doing now worked in the past. When you had a church people came and when you needed volunteers they stepped forward. I am not sure that is actually true in all cases. We often remember our past either better or worse than it actually was. But reality does not matter. We feel as though what used to work doesn’t work anymore.

I am also a big believer in momentum. Momentum is the term in physics for the reality that objects in motion tend to remain in motion and objects at rest tend to remain at rest. I think this is true for churches too. When a church is not moving it takes great effort to get anything going. Any change or any action will be difficult.

This is the area where pastors and church leaders need to focus the most. We need to help churches trust God and believe in themselves. We need to help our churches see the good things they are doing. We need to teach our churches to celebrate small wins so that they can lead to bigger wins.

The Challenges of Being a Church Today Pt 3: Church Finances

This blog series is based on a sermon I did at Westminster titled  “The State of the Church Address.” You can listen to it HERE. In the first blog post I talked about how challenging it is to be a church today. In the second blog post I talked about how hard it is to know what to change and what to keep the same in the church. Now I look at the challenge of church finances.

Church finances are one of the big challenges in many churches today. Or, at least, it is one of the most felt challenges today. Church buildings are looking very worn because there is not a lot of extra money to keep them up well. More mainline churches are cutting staff and moving to part-time ministry. Churches that used to have financial reserves are looking in the bank at empty accounts.


Why is my church struggling financially? There are lots of reasons. There are less people than the church used to have. People have more debt and therefore less “disposable” income. Many of those who were big givers are on fixed income in retirement, paying medical bills, or supporting kids and grandkids.

It is also important to note the radical increase in nonprofit agencies that are also vying for charitable contributions. This includes hospitals (like St. Jude’s), relief organizations (like Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse), colleges and seminaries, and environmental and animal causes (like the Humane Society). These organizations depend on giving to support their work and are highly motivated and skilled at getting donations.

The church needs to understand that we have let a lot of these other agencies begin because we have not done our job of caring for the poor and the disenfranchised. We have let the government do part of that work, too. So people support these other non-profits and pay taxes for things the church should be engaged in. I am not hating on or disapproving of these organizations. I am simply trying to explain that this has an impact on church giving.

The church, on the other hand, is not very good at talking about money. I have done a previous blog about why people make choices to give charitably. We avoid talking about money. It has become, like sex, appropriate to talk about anywhere but the church. Compare that to Jesus, who talks about money all the time and makes it a part of many of his parables. We preach it timidly on stewardship Sunday or ask for it when we need more.

The church has also had a poor relationship with money. We have tended to live on our reserves and find our hope and security in our money. Reserves are a good thing. They allow a church to respond to emergencies and to have time to make decisions. Unfortunately, they also allow churches to take time and avoid dealing with issues that really need dealt with.

Many churches have lived off their reserves. They have not learned how to be a smaller church and live within their means, and they have instead try to continue to live in “the good old days.” I am seeing a number of churches that are now running out of reserves and are being forced to have very scary conversation. Many of these conversations should have happened years ago. In god we trust

The answers to such a complicated problem are not likely to be simple. Here are a few ideas to start.

  • We definitely need to better define and attack our mission in the world.
  • We need to talk about money in a healthy way—as spiritual significant and not just for keeping the lights on.
  • We need to teach our church people how to look at and relate to money personally.
  • We need to learn to be small churches. That means having less staff and more volunteers, simplifying our buildings, and becoming nimbler as churches.
  • We have got to put our hope in Jesus and trust Him to sustain and provide for our ministry.

The Challenges of Being a Church Today Pt 2: How Much to Change

This blog series is based on a sermon I did at Westminster titled  “The State of the Church Address.” You can listen to it HERE.

In a previous blog post I talked about how challenging it is to be a church today. Now I continue to talk about one of the most challenging parts of being a church today.

I think it is challenging to balance how much to change and how much to stay the same. We are a church based in tradition and history. We are God’s people and live a very old story. At the same time, the church has always changed to fit its culture, the way the church is spoken in the language of the place where it exists. German churches speak German and Spanish churches speak Spanish. So to churches in Western culture in the year 2016 need to speak like a Western church in 2016.

Many mainline churches face the same obstacle. While the world around them has changed dramatically, the church has been the one place that has stayed the same. It is the one anchor in many of our lives. Our world has changed. Our kids have moved away. Our parents are gone. Our work has closed down. But at least our church is the same. It is our safe haven. The last bastion of hope and stability in our radically changing world.

SwingThis is why when a church makes some changes they are sometimes met with overly emotional responses. People are responding to more than the change in carpet or the paint color. They are responding to all the other changes in their lives. If you change the music in the church, you are changing one of the things that has helped them cope with the changes in other areas of their lives. You stir up feelings not only about the music, you also stir up feelings of anxiety and grief about all those other changes.

Pastors and church boards are sometimes blindsided by these reactions, but they are understandable and should be expected. But the church cannot stay the same. We are a church of multiple generations. That means that people have different personalities, preferences, and needs. We are a church for all those people. A church that still looks like it did in the 1950’s and 1960’s is simply not being faithful to God’s call and plan.

We have probably felt this tension the most in music. Some people only want to do hymns on the organ. Some people want more praise music and a band. Sometimes we blend those styles so that nobody is totally happy.

But this is one of the big questions for the church—how much should we change and how much should we stay the same? Some people are fighting to change nothing in the church. Others are arguing for a total rethinking of what have been call the essentials of the faith. What do we need to hold on to tightly and what do we need to let go in the church moving forward?

The church has always had the tensions of looking forward and looking back. The early church debated the issues of circumcision and dietary laws. The reformers debated the mass and theologies like confession, communion, and indulgences.

Len Sweet says that the church needs to be like a kid on a swing. We need to kick our feet both into the future and into the past if we are going to keep the ride going. That is not always easy to negotiate, but we are working in that tension.

The Challenges of Being a Church Today Pt 1

This blog series is based on a sermon I did at Westminster titled  “The State of the Church Address.” You can listen to it HERE.

How many of you have heard or said the following about life and church today?

  • What happened to our church?
  • I can remember when the church was full. When Christmas Eve was packed.
  • I remember when the parking lot was full.
  • I remember when people dressed up for church and were quiet during the prelude
  • Why don’t my kids or grandkids come to my church? Why don’t my kids or grandkids go to church at all?
  • Why is technology changing so fast?
  • Why are so many people going to such large churches instead of small churches where they can know everyone?
  • People asked what church you went to instead of if you go to church. You were expected to go to church.
  • People used to care about their denomination. You were Presbyterian because you weren’t Methodist.
  • I think we are going to close. Just trying to keep the doors open.
  • Don’t spend any money. We might need it someday.

Churches that used to thrive are now surviving. Certainly the world around the church is a challenge. It is not an easy time to be a church. Many are shrinking. Some are closing. The reasons for this are complex and multifaceted.

The rate of change today is astonishing. The technology we have in our pockets would blow away most scientists of 50 years ago. Our thinking is changing. What we believe is not based anymore on the testimony of authority figures but more on our own experiences. Tolerance used to mean that we could agree to disagree. Today it means that everybody’s beliefs and ideas are equally true. We have multiple generations in the church and these generations are very different from one another. Churches, like people, also go through natural life cycles. Like a Bell Curve, churches grow, plateau, and decline. Many churches are in the decline portion of their life cycle.

One of the biggest challenges for the church today is a major change in the expectations over church attendance. It used to be that you were expected to be in church. The stigma of not going to church is no longer around. It also used to be that regular church attendance meant being in the church building 2-3 times a week. Now a regular church member comes 1-2 times a month. People get sick. People have to work. People go visit family. People have trouble leaving the house. It is understandable, but it makes the church feel more empty.

These external challenges have led to some difficult challenges inside of the church. I think that, in our quest to be a healthy and thriving church, we have face 3 big obstacles.

  1. How much to change and how much to change the same.
  2. Financial Struggles
  3. Fear and a Lack of confidence.

I will explore these issues in my next few blogs.

The Church and the Wealthy

The church has been tough on the rich. We have loved preaching texts about the Eye of the Camel and the Rich Man and Lazarus. We hang onto passages where the rich are the bad guys.

Certainly there are warnings for the rich. Having wealth can make you self-reliant and make it harder to humble yourself before God. Wealth can be earned at the expense of others or used to abuse others. The prophets rail against this.


But we need some better perspective. I Timothy 6:10 says that the love of money is the root of all evil. It does not say that money is evil. Proverbs shares a lot of principles for money. Sometimes the wealthy person was the good guy in the parables. The father in the Prodigal Son had lots of wealth. The Good Samaritan had to be people of means to spend the way he does on this hurt man. The Vineyard Owner in the Parable of the Vineyard had to be wealthy to pay even the later workers a full day’s wages.

Jesus’ ministry was supported by some wealthy people. Lazarus and his family had a home big enough to host Jesus and his disciples often. Martha could cook for the whole group. Joseph of Arimathia gives Jesus a tomb.

Wealth may have challenges for Christians but it also has opportunities. Ministries need funding. The poor need help. Sometimes people are given gifts by God to be fruitful with money so that they can also be generous.

In ministry we love to be with the poor. We love to do ministry to people where they are. But we don’t think this way if people are wealthy. We want their checks, but do we shepherd their hearts toward generosity? Do we give them opportunities to give to things they feel are important? Do we only invite them to serve by giving money?

Today our churches are struggling financially. Perhaps part of the problem is they have not cared for those with financial means as we should have. We have made them feel guilty for God’s blessing to them and God’s calling for them instead of encouraging and supporting it.

The Past and Future of Christian Weddings

The tradition used to be that when a couple got married the father of the bride would give money or property to the groom called a dowry. This was a great way to help a couple getting started in their lives, but it also created a problem. Cheapskates would move from town to town getting married, collecting dowries, and then leaving their brides to collect money in another place.

Memchu_weddingAs a defense against this, weddings would happen in two stages. First, the couple would be betrothed—normally on the steps of the church. Then there would be a waiting period as people in the family sent letters or visited friends and family in neighboring towns to see if that person had previously been married. They may also talk to the groom’s hometown to verify his references. Then, at the wedding proper, families would report on their findings.

We still see evidence of these traditions in our wedding services today. First, when the couple comes forward, there is often part of the service that happens at the steps of the sanctuary. Have you ever noticed that the questions of intent are very similar to the wedding vows? That is because our service today is a blending of what used to be 2 services—a betrothal and a wedding.

Second, the pastor will sometimes as something like, “If anyone has any reason why these two should not be married then speak now or however hold their peace.” This is a holdover from the process of checking up on the groom. This is the point in the service where people could stand up and report back on their investigation of his background.

Over time, the need to track weddings has become more important for the government to be involved in. Things like pensions, social security, life insurance, and custody battles require clearly delineated legal marriages. Also, the means to track marriages has developed. When a couple wants to get married they get a marriage license where the state confirms that they are both eligible for marriage (i.e. not currently married to anyone else). All of this is tracked on computers today.

So there was a time when the government did not have the systems in place or the need to track marriages so closely. Now they do. We are left with a process where pastors work for the state when they do weddings.


This leads us to an important question: why are pastors still working for the state as part of the wedding process? Pastors are not presiding over a legal agreement. Pastors are presiding over a covenant agreement. There is no other area where we work for the government in this way.

Now we are in a situation where many Christians are upset that the government is changing the definition of marriage, but too few are asking why the church is in a position where the government gets to define how we look at marriage. A government cannot be expected to define marriage the way conservative Christians do.

I wonder if it is time to separate civil marriage from Christian weddings. What would it look like if people, when they went to get their marriage license, actually got married in the eyes of the state? Then the wedding covenant could be made separately before God and the church if people wanted that. This would allow churches to define weddings in their context the way they see fit and would allow government to define legal marriage the way they see fit.

What problems do you see with this idea? Do you have alternative ides?

Timid and Complacent Christianity

We have a timid and complacent Christianity. We work to fly under the radar. Don’t offend anyone. Don’t get labelled as one of those “Jesus Freaks.” Keep your personal views out of your public life.

But if the story is true and Jesus comes back tomorrow then our all posturing and political correctness is going to look very foolish.

Someday I believe I am going to stand before God and answer for my life. I will be asked specifically about the churches I pastor in my life and I am going to have to answer for the way I led my family. I am responsible for those things. I steward those things.

You too will stand before God someday and answer for the things he put in your care.

Did you lead your family in a way that equipped them to find and follow God’s will?
Did you have friendships where you really added strength and grace to others?
Did you go to work every day and try to bring God praise with how hard you worked and what your produced?
Did you steward your money in a way that was wise so that you could be as generous as possible?
Did you make your church a place where people were cared for and God was glorified?
Did you take care of your body as if it really was a temple?
Did you develop your gifts, passions and abilities?
If you had a heart for something did you cultivate that passion into action?

The American church has been in a very comfortable place. We have had the privilege of being the dominant voice. But no more. The world has changed.

The world of tomorrow will demand a more resolute and devoted church. It will require Christians to take seriously the holy task of stewarding their lives. I think this may be jarring for some in our churches.

New Metrics for the Church

The church has measured itself for years on “nickels and noses.” What is your attendance and how big is your budget? These are not great indicators of church health. I know big and wealthy churches that are not very faithful to the Gospel. I know small and struggling churches that are very faithful to the Gospel.

This got me thinking: if finances and attendance are not good indicators of church health, then what metrics can we use? These are very unscientific and need to be evaluated alongside of the usual metrics. Here are some questions that a church can use to think through their effectiveness.

  • How have individual congregants show spiritual growth in the last year?
  • When someone in the church gets sick or is in the hospital, how many church members respond with visits or cards?
  • How many meals did your church share together last year and how deep was the conversation at those meals?
  • Can you tell a story that exemplifies the essence of God’s call for your ministry from the last 6 months?
  • How many non-Christians did you interact with last year?
  • How is your community better because your church is in it?
  • How many church members have shared a meal with their neighbors this summer?
  • If someone asked a person in the community that does not go to your church where it was and what it was like, what response would they get?
  • How many things did your church try and fail at in the last year? How can you try things so that you fail more in the coming year?

The Great Cloud of Witnesses

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.    —Hebrews 12:1-2

The book of Hebrews is written for Jewish Christians who are being persecuted and under pressure to give up their faith in Jesus. In this passage, perhaps the most recognizable of the book, the author encourages the people by referring to this Great Cloud of Witnesses. The image of a cloud was often used for crowds or throngs of people. The word witness refers to those who see and confess something, but in Greek it the word from which we get the word Martyr. The early witnesses died for their faith.

The author of Hebrews is saying that because we are surrounded by these great heroes of the faith we can find strength to lay aside the things that hold us back and have endurance in following God’s will. We do not worship these saints. The text clearly states that Jesus is “the founder and perfecter of our faith.” And they are not present with us as ghosts. They are, however, present with us by their example and because we are standing in the church and in the tradition that they built. Part of them is with us because of what they poured into our faith

I started to think about this differently in my recent visit to England. I visited a number of churches there and was astonished by the presence of the Christians who had gone on to glory. Many Christians were buried in the actual floor of the sanctuaries. Some were memorialized with statues and with plaques on the wall. You had to pass by graves to get into most of the churches. Everywhere you turned there was a reminder of those who had gone on before being there with you.

We Protestants don’t do that kind of thing. Admittedly, there can be problems with this kind of approach. In some of the chapels I saw in England it was not altogether clear who was being worship—God or these graves. But I also wonder– is there a strength that can be found if we, like Hebrews suggests, remember this great cloud of witnesses?

So I decided to represent this in my own congregation. On June 28 in worship we created a Cloud of Witnesses. It is a wooden cloud on which we are writing names of people that have died who have poured into our faith. It might be parents, grandparents, a child, a pastor, a Sunday school teacher, or a person from your church that mentored us in the faith. Many of my own mentors have not joined the cloud yet because they are still alive, but I have been influenced by writing and stories of great figures like CS Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Calvin, and Martin Luther. Maybe there is a particular Bible character or historical figure that has inspired our faith. It might even be a person like a camp counselor who we don’t remember their name but they had an impact on our faith.

Over the next few weeks the cloud will be available for more names to be added. It will eventually be displayed as a reminder of those who have gone on before us. My prayer is that it will inspire us to live our faith with endurance.

Do you think the protestant church has missed something? What are the dangers of talking to much about those who have gone before? What other ways might we represent this cloud of witnesses?

Why You Can’t Afford to Ignore your Church Building

I am a firm believer that our lives our like stories. We tend to embody the story that we see ourselves in. In other words, we tend to dress, live in homes, and drive cars that fit our story about ourselves. We see this in people who are really depressed. Often they do not take care of themselves. They are disheveled and unkempt. They don’t shower as much or pick up after themselves. As people get healthy and come out of depression they tend to physically look healthier.Church Front

Our appearance not only reflects how we feel but it can also change how we feel. If we are feeling down, we can dress up. Or if we need to relax we can put on comfortable clothes. If people want to get in shape they often go out and buy athletic clothing. This is not only important for exercise, it also helps us play the part we are wanting to play in the story of us being physically fit.

When I look at many of our church buildings, I see that they perfectly reflect how many churches feel. The buildings look depressed and broken down. They often smell funny and have firmly established cobwebs and decade old dust piles. There is junk piled not just in every closet but in every corner and on every shelf. The front of the sanctuary is so cluttered that it shouts out—“We are disorganized and random.”

The effect for fancy churches can be just as troubling. These churches can tell the story that we think we are important and we care a lot about people’s opinion. The resulting insight is that only people who are wealthy and clean can come here.

You may not realize or think about the story your building is telling, but your visitors will. So it is time to get intentional about your buildings.

  1. Your building can give you clues about how your congregation feels about itself. Try to look around your church property and ask what story your building is telling. This might give you insights into where your church is struggling. Is the nursery dirty? Are offices neglected? Or is everything in need of help?
  2. Your building can help teach people to care about visitors (or not). I am a firm believer that the church exists primarily for the people that are not there. Your building can get in the way of that, or you can use the building to help create that value. Ask your people to start thinking about the building from the perspective of someone who does not already go there. This can help people be aware of the world.
  3. Your building can help change how people feel about themselves. Just like dressing up can make you feel better, changing your property can make your church feel different. Can you clean things up? Paint? Add some banners to plain walls? Any little thing can built momentum for your church.
  4. Your building can improve (or hurt) your ministry. For example, well over half of communication is non-verbal. Clutter communicates that we are disorganized, unclean, and unprofessional. If you declutter the front of your sanctuary your music and preaching will probably sound better and be well received just because people can and will pay more attention. Also, do you have a social hall that an outside organization or ministry would want to meet in? Could improving your meeting space help create partnerships in your community?

One other areas that I see churches hurt themselves in the area of temperature. Many churches, to save money, try to use the temperature controls as little as possible. That means that the church is freezing cold in the winter and roasting hot in the summer. This is a mistake. It tells the story that your church is cheap and unwelcoming. It may save you some money immediately, but it also costs you money. What people will end up doing is avoiding coming to church when it is too hot or too cold. When people miss church, they often do not make up their giving later. That means that you are costing yourself attendance and giving in order to save a few bucks. Turn your heat up in the winter. Put in window air conditioners or good fans in the summer. Tell the story that you care about the people more than the dollars. It will pay off for you.

In the last year at my church we have done a lot of little things to make our building look better. A new roof and a new boiler was costly, but most of the other things we did cost little to no money. We added banners, had some cleaning days, got rid of a lot of stuff, added window air conditioners, and did some painting. I have been surprised how much these little things have impacted the feel of our church. What might you be able to try?


People often want to grow. They want to be better or different. At least they say that they do. I want to lose 20 pounds…until I have to pass up a piece of cake or get up early in the morning and run. I want to be closer to God…until I have to read a boring piece of scripture or God answers my prayer in a way that I don’t want.

So often we create beliefs and habits that keep us the same. We start to believe that we have always been the way we are or were meant to be the way we are. We do little things so we can feel that we are making some progress but really we are avoiding the big changes we need.


Henri Nouwen reflects at our hesitancy to change and grow. He said: “Do you really want to be converted? Are you willing to be transformed? Or do you keep clutching your old ways of life with one hand while with the other you beg people to help you change?” (The Inner Voice of Love pg 6) Nouwen points out that no longer do we hold back when we have to change, but we often ask others to help even as we are still hanging on to staying the same.

Churches can be like this too. Every church says that they want to grow but they are not always willing to pay the price for change. We want visitors until we have to give up time talking to our friends. We want people to come and give money until they also want to give opinions. We want new leaders until they feel led to change our worship or our building.

So in our churches we also create beliefs and habits to stay the same. Most of these we do not even realize. We don’t realize how unwelcoming we really are. We don’t understand how using particular church language makes outsiders feel like outsiders. We don’t see how we subtly reward things that keep us the same or put down things that would push us to grow.

What is the way out? A few immediate things come to mind. Pray for God’s help and direction. Get perspective of someone outside of your life or church that can show you your blind spots. Be honest and don’t try to explain it away. Above all 2 things are necessary for growth when it is wanted and unwanted at the same time. First, you have to trust that God has you where He wants you to be and is working for your benefit. Second, you have to have the courage to march right into the heart of the struggle and relentlessly wrestle with it.

Change and growth are messy. There is a reason that we resist them. My encouragement to you: wade into the messiness because you will find God there in a special way.

Leading with Story Pt 4: Leading with your own Story

This is Part 4 of a blog series developing the idea of Leading with Story in churches.

I have been developing the idea that story is not just a part of preaching but could also be thought of as the essential material of leadership. Here is a key to doing that: Leading with story begins with your own story. You will always have trouble being a Story Pastor if you do not understand your own story. Your story not only shapes who you are and how you approach things, but it can also help you develop other stories. Let me explain how that works.

the story of my life

As a Story Pastor you are always crafting and working with lots of different stories—the church’s, the individual members’, the community’s, God’s… There is always a danger that you can lose sight of your own story in the midst of these other stories. You can lose your own distinct calling, passion, conflicts, and successes. This can be dangerous for a few reasons. Your identity can become too tied to that of those around you. If this happens then it will warp how you feel about yourself and your work and how you find and follow God’s call for your own story. As Christians, we believe that our jobs are never just our jobs but also they are callings. They are part of who we are and part of our stories. Yet we must be careful that they do not consume our story. Our calling is a part of us but it is far from the whole of us.

Not only can you lose your story in all these other stories, but if that happens you will lose one of your best insights into understanding the other stories around you. The story of the church has to be discerned and written as a community since it is a conglomeration of the people. It is much easier to discern and follow your own story because it is simpler. If you can understand your own story, then you can have clues as to the larger story of your organization. You can begin to ask questions that help you compare and contrast what you are feeling to what is going on in the larger story. What excites you about a new idea? Why don’t you like this person? Where do you feel that you are on purpose or not on purpose in your organization? These kinds of questions can be hints as to the larger story and how to write the next chapter, but they can only be discerned if you have enough distinct understanding of your own story to compare the stories and know the differences.

It works well when your story and your church or organization’s story are at least parallel. Sometimes, however, the plotlines begin to separate. This could be a sign that one or both of the stories are not right and need to be written. The point where your story and your congregation’s story begin to diverge can also be a sign that God may be calling you somewhere else. You can only see this if you have a clear picture of your own story.

One of the other images that I like for the Story Pastor is the idea of a story-weaver. I think that pastors and leaders weave all of these stories with God’s story to create a tapestry of a Church’s story. I think that God’s story and your story form the base of the pattern. As a pastor, I live closest to those stories. The other story-strings take a lot of time and group input to develop, but I can study God’s story and reflect on my own story daily.  I am not saying that you have to be constantly telling your story to your people, though you should sometimes.  But you do need to know your story and use it to inform your storytelling.

If you have lost your personal story in your work then I suggest a few things:

  1. Answer some reflective questions: What stories of your life have defined you? If you wanted someone to know you, what stories would you include in your bio? What is most important to you in your life?
  2. Dive into a pastoral biography or a Biblical character and see what of their story resonates with you.
  3. Ask a good and honest friend from outside the stories you are consumed in to help you. Find out from them how they see you and what from your story they see as defining for you.

What other thoughts do you have on leading with your own story? Why is it important? What makes it difficult? How do you do it consistently?

3 Reasons Why Every Pastor Should Study (and tell) Their Church’s History


UP Church Before FirePresbyterian Church-2Fire Picture Fire Department Calendar

Last year I told the history of Westminster Church as we celebrated 50 years in our current location.  The church where my long term members grew up burned to the ground in 1963 just as we were planning to move locations. We planned a great Sunday to tell the story of the church.  We also kicked off a capital campaign for some much needed improvements around the church.  It was a great and exciting Sunday the likes of which my church has not had in a long time.

The best part for me was that I was able to dive into the history of the church.  In the process of my research I found the combination to a safe in the church basement that no one had opened.  I also found records that had been sent to the Presbyterian Historical Society and forgotten about. This was history that was almost lost and that even my most senior members knew little to nothing about.

The work on that history was very rewarding for me.  In fact, I wish I had studies my church history earlier in my ministry at Westminster.  Why?  Here are 3 big reasons for studying your church history.

1. The Church’s history helps reveal why the church is where it is.Steeple Going On

Think of the Church history as a book.  If you read the previous chapters it can give context and motive for what is happening in the current chapter.  You can see the obvious decisions related to the location, the name of the church, the ministries, and the finances.  But more than that, you get a glimpse of the spiritual DNA of the congregation. We have always been a caring church that was primarily middle class and hard working.  We like to do things ourselves and have always had some financial challenges, step up at certain times. It was interesting to me to see how much the personalities and values of the people that have more recently come to this church fit neatly into the mold of its history.  They don’t have important last names, but they still fit.  Do we attract people that fit us, or is that marinated into new people.  I don’t know?  But what I have really learned is that the future of an established church is often through their past

2. The Church’s history helps reveal the mission and purpose that God has for this church.

Every church was started and was developed for a purpose or a mission.  I don’t mean the general purpose of the church.  I mean that a church has a distinct and specific purpose for that congregation in that location.  In my experience, this mission or purpose does not change much over the years.  What changes is how much the church is in touch with its purpose.  Churches drift and come back to their reason for being.  In my own church’s history, I found that this church has always had a priority for education and missions.  We had an elaborate Sabbath school as well as a missionary school.  We are working to find these centers again.

3. It can help move the church forward by looking back.DSC_0591

In many churches the road to the future is through the past.  They need to find their purpose again.  They need to rediscover their traditions as a strength moving forward.  They need a bigger sense that they are part of something bigger than themselves. Further, I think that churches don’t get stuck in the past generally but instead tend to get stuck at a particular point in the past.  By looking at the full history of the church, the pastor can help people realize that “the way we have always done things” is not the way we have always done things.  A grand telling of the history can be like WD-40 and free up a stuck church.

I would suggest this historical research as an important early step for any pastor in a new place.  If you haven’t told the story of the church then do it.  You won’t regret it.

40 Advent and Christmas Sermon Ideas

Advent and Christmas come every year. No one knows this better that pastors who have the challenge of preaching the same stories and ideas every year. I am learning that one of the keys to keeping life in these stories is understanding the value of symbol, Biblical context, and cultural background. To get my own creative juices flowing (and hopefully yours too) I have made this list of 40 Advent and Christmas sermon ideas. These are not sermons- they are ideas for sermons- like seeds that could grow into a sermon if you take one and run with it. Some may be a sermon series in the making. Other may just be a point to be made. Whatever the case, I hope that something here gives someone an even better idea. Please let me know how any of these go for you as well as other ideas you might want to add.

  1. One key word in Advent hymns is longing. What are you longing for? What were the prophets longing for in the Old Testament? How does Christmas answer those longings?
  2. Why are Advent songs in minor keys? A lot of people have lost connection with the historical understanding of an advent spirituality. What should the tone, disciplines, and thought process be for Christians in Advent? How is that different then December today? (See The Advent Conspiracy by Rick McKinley and Chris Seay)
  3. Advent comes from the Latin meaning “to come.” We celebrate Christ coming in past as a baby, in the present to us personally, and in the future at the Second Coming (or in this scheme the Third Coming). How can we think about Advent more broadly?
  4. Compare the understanding of Advent in #3 with the names for communion- Eucharist (gratitude for the past), Communion (communing with in the present) and Lord’s Supper (looking forward to the heavenly banquet).
  5. Jesus is from the stump or shoot of Jesse (Isaiah 11). What does that image mean and why is it important?
  6. We use the term Immanuel but fail to realize its meaning. In its original context (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23) there was a huge question looming: is God with us in exile? Is God with us still today in what can feel like exile?
  7. Take a look at any one of many verses about the incarnation in the New Testament outside of the gospels. Could even make for a series Here are some key ones- VERSES
  8. The Bible has a rich tradition of the terms “Son of God” and “Son of Man.” Explore those terms. How are they related? How are they different? How is Jesus both of them? Why is He talked about sometimes as one or the other?
  9. Jesus becomes flesh at Christmas but that is not the beginning of his existence. He is even talked about as taking part in creating the world. How does that change your view of the Christmas story?
  10. Bethlehem has an interesting back story. It is small but it is where David was from. What is named Bethlehem? What was the town known for? It raised sheep for the sacrifices. How does that context color the Christmas story.
  11. Bethlehem is a very different place than Nazareth. Compare these two formative cities in Jesus’ life. What do both portray about Jesus?
  12. Talk about the geography of Christmas. Where were things? How far are the distances? What where the roads and the means of travel like? What happened at those places and on those roads historically? Did Jesus visit any of those places later in life?
  13. Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola note in Jesus: a Theography that lambs born around Bethlehem without blemish had to be protected when they were newborn and clumsy. Often they were wrapped I swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. That means that these particular shepherds had seen this scene before. What connections would they have made?
  14. Jesus is wrapped in a swaddling cloth here and wrapped in a burial cloth later. How are those clothes connected? Talk about the journey from one cloth to the other.
  15. Talk about Christmas from the Shepherds perspectives. Tell your sermon the way one of them would have told their grandchildren about that night.
  16. We don’t know that much about Joseph but what we do know paints him as a faithful and honorable man. What would the story have been like told from his point of view?
  17. I am a protestant but I still have a ton of respect for Mary. What did she know about this child in her womb? Would she have thought about that night as she watch Jesus on the cross?
  18. We are not stuck totally guessing Mary’s mindset. We have an amazing song that Mary sang often called the Magnificat. What would our Christmas celebration look like if we used this song as our guide?
  19. Angels show up several times in the story. Spend Advent going through the angelic appearances in the Christmas story. Where else had angels showed up in the Bible? Why was this night so special?
  20. Much of what we think about with the Christmas story is not from the Bible but is actually from early renditions of the story. For instance, there was probably not really an inn in Bethlehem, Jesus was probably born in a house, Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem a while before Jesus is born, the wise men don’t come until later…  If many of our details are wrong, what makes it so special? The work of Kenneth Bailey is a must read for the Christmas story.
  21. Preach with a big light up nativity set like people put in their front yards. Contrast the light up set with real life.
  22. Give the background to weird Christmas stuff- candy canes, mistletoe, trees in our homes, lights, Saint Nicholas… If you are a more exegetical preacher then do your Children’s sermons on these. Check out books by Ace Collins for great info on this stuff.
  23. One of people’s favorite parts of Christmas are the songs. Talk about the stories behind the hymns and songs. Who wrote them, what was the context of their writing? What are their Biblical roots? Ace Collins is great here too!
  24. The genealogies of Jesus are really fascinating.   Why do we have 2 different one? Why are women included? Who are the really important names? Who are some of the nobodies on the list?
  25. How about preaching the Christmas stories by just simply telling the stories. Go back to the stories themselves and tell them without interpretation or meaning. Let them speak for themselves.
  26. What would Jesus’ birth look like today? What kind of town would Bethlehem be today? What would the census be in 2014 that made people travel? What would the manger be in Pittsburgh or Orlando or Seattle?
  27. Martin Luther said, “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” What might it mean that the Bible is a manger? What about if our heart is the manger? Our lives as a manger?
  28. Take an unusual perspective for a sermon like the animal whose manger that was, the next door neighbor, Jesus’ younger siblings, the people whose home or stable it was… Tell if from their perspective.
  29. Talk about the smells of Christmas and compare today’s smells to the smells of that first Christmas. You might even ask your congregation what smells they think of when they think of Christmas. Think about it: animals, animal poop, hay, sweat, childbirth…
  30. If you don’t like the idea of smells, what about the messiness of Christmas, the soundtrack of Christmas, or the photo album of Christmas.
  31. Preach about the feelings of Christmas. People have lots of different feelings. Some feel the usual happy, joyful, and hopeful. Other feel greedy, angry, or sad. Some churches even have Blue Christmas services for those who have lost someone and feel the sting of an empty seat at Christmas dinner. Is there a right feeling for Christmas? Poll your congregation: What color should Christmas feel like? Perhaps you could come up with the Seven Dwarves of Christmas.
  32. Why wasn’t Jesus born as a king? Why such a lowly birth? Heralded by smelly shepherds and the animals in whose feeding trough he was laid. Why not more?
  33. Christmas was put in December over a secular holiday. Jesus was probably actually born in the spring when Shepherds would watch their flocks by night. Defend why we should even celebrate it. What does that mean for us that those before us tried to redeem a secular holiday?
  34. Christmas is full of pressure to buy the right gifts. Many people buy things they cannot afford. It is really important that pastors sometimes speak into this reality. Jesus was right. Your heart follows your money.
  35. Was Jesus a perfect baby? He was sinless, but do we imagine Jesus scraping his knee, wetting his pants, or eating too much at a family meal? How human was Jesus? Why is it important that He really be human?
  36. The story of Elizabeth and Zachariah gets passed over a lot but is actually a cool story with lots of implications for the Christmas story. Explore that with your people, but make sure to read the story with them. While the rest of the Christmas story is over-familiar, this one is normally only vaguely remembered.
  37. Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for a Census. This was the way the oppressing rulers (the Romans) could determine how much you owed in taxes. Everyone had to travel so they could be taxed and they would not have been happy about it. This was a time of great upheaval and frustration in Israel. How does that backdrop tint the birth narrative?
  38. Who is this Baby? Tell the story of his life. I would suggest you start at the foundation of the world and go all the way to His eternal rule. (See Sweet and Viola Jesus: a Theography as a model)
  39. Was Jesus really the Son of God? Perhaps the best evidence is the radical lives of the followers of this baby born in a manger and the lasting historical impact of this man. See John Ortberg’s Who is this Man? for some great ideas here. This makes for a great apologetic (defense of the faith) or evangelistic sermon on Christmas Eve.
  40. Use the great Christmas movies and stories to talk about Biblical aspects of Advent and Christmas. Examples: The Grinch, Charlie Brown, A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Polar Express, White Christmas, Elf, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street…
  41. Bonus sermon idea for after Christmas- When all the Bows are Put Away- What does life look life after Christmas if the stories are true?


World Communion Sunday Ideas and Liturgy



World Communion Sunday has become one of my favorite Sundays of the year. On the first Sunday of October Christians all around the world from all kinds of denominations partake in the sacrament and remember other Christians around the world. The practice began at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA in 1933.   Here are a few ideas that I have tried to emphasize this day:

  1. Use a variety of breads for Communion. I like to use bread of different colors, textures, and types of bread. The plate or basket then becomes a neat representation of all of the different kinds of people eating different kinds of bread for communion on that day. My experience is that my church (and others) often eat the white bread first, but the visual is still cool
  2. Wear vestments fitting for the day. Last year I made a special stole out of burlap. Burlap now comes in a roll like ribbon so it is easy to make a stole with it. I also wore a wooden cross from the Holy Land. Think of a way that your appearance can portray both the importance and the global nature of this special Sunday.
  3. Give a special children’s sermon. I give children’s sermons as much for adults as I do children. Talk about what it is like to go to church in other places around the world. Teach the kids about a missionary that your church partners with. Teach them words in another language. Whatever you do, use that as a time to share about that day.
  4. Pray for other Christians around the world. Most pastors shape the theme of the service through the liturgy, the hymns, and the sermon. I have found that the pastoral prayer actually anchors the theme as much or more than any other thing in the service. For World Communion Sunday, pray for Christians around the world. I would suggest you use Voice of the Martyrs to note a couple of very recent instances of persecution. (
  5. Try a creative communion liturgy like this one that I wrote last year:

It began last night- as you were going to bed—World communion Sunday.

Asian Christians shared the bread and the wine. Churches in China met in secret so that they would not be arrested. Christians in the Middle East, some of whom were saved only by having dreams of Jesus, met under the watchful eye of the government as they celebrated the Eucharist. In Europe, Christians gathered in churches that used to be much fuller and celebrated the Lord’s Supper. In African the sacrament was celebrated in great numbers by a growing number of Christians, many of whom bare scars of persecution as they Commune together.

Those celebrating today include Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Baptists, thousands of other denominations, and even those without denominations.

Christ followers met both in public and in secret. Some met in freedom while others gathered under threat of persecution and death. Some take the sacrament today with organ music, others with simple singing, and still others in quiet so as not to be arrested.

In wealthy churches and in desperate poverty the sacrament is observed. In churches, homes, huts, and in God’s creation this seal of the covenant was experienced. The bread is given to people that could overeat all day and to people who had no idea what they would eat or where they would get it today.

The one thing in common- We all come to the same table of our Lord.

In many different languages, by ordained clergy and volunteer pastors, something like these words of institution were given.

On the night He was betrayed Jesus took bread. And when he had given thanks and blessed it, He broke it and gave it to His disciples, saying, “This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way after supper Jesus took the cup and gave it to His disciples, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Drink you all of it.”

The bread is many different types and colors and from many places. Some created primarily from wheat, others from rice or other kinds of grain. Some will have bread left over. Some with very small pieces that could barely give every Christian there a morsel. Still- it represented the body of Christ broken and sustained the body of Christ around the world today.

(Break Bread)

The juice around the world will be different. For many it will be wine, some will have juice, some will celebrate with water that had to be carried from a dirty well some miles away. Some will use individual cups, others fancy goblets, still others have been passing around whatever cup was in the home where they were meeting Still- it represented the blood of the covenant in their place and in their communities, just as it does in ours.

(Pour Cup)

Let us pray, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we thank you for this sacrament of communion shared with Christians around the world. Pour out your Holy Spirit on these elements and on those who partake—that we may be your body and the representation of your covenant in our lives and throughout the world. Amen.

Today, as you see the bread come around, you will see many different colors and types of bread. Remember as you see the plate all of those around the world with whom you share the table today.

What other things have you used for World Communion Sunday?


Wednesday Recommendations: 5 Helpful Books for Changing a Church

turn aroundThe church today is in a difficult position.  Many churches are at a point of no return where they must change the will die.  Many mainline churches are declining and need a major comeback if they are going to exist 10 years from now.  With that in mind, here are 5 helpful books about turning around a church.  There are many that could be listed, but these are the 5 I would recommend that pastors/leaders start with.

     Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can, Too– Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson did a study of churches that were “comeback churches.”  These were churches that were in serious decline and have turned their numbers around.  I like this approach because so many other book are almost exclusively diagnostic.  In other words, many other books are about what is wrong.  This book finds best practices of churches that are doing what many of us would like to do.  It is a wealth of information about small places to get some leverage in the church.

     Taking Your Church to the Next Level: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There– Gary McIntosh has written a number of books that could be on this list, but this book is my favorite.  This books helped me understand why churches decline.  He talks at length about church size and how churches change with their attendance numbers.  He also goes into the church life cycle that churches natural follow and explains how turnaround happen at different points on the bell curve.  The book should be required reading for pastors in seminary because it explains so much.

     Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change– Mark Lau Branson uses appreciative inquiry (AI) to church transformation.  If you are not familiar, appreciative inquiry is an organizational development theory that is based on building on what is working.  AI asks people in an organization to tell stories of best practices and best memories to discover core values and practices.  It then encourages organizations to dream about what they could be and design a process for getting there.  This book is a great resource to lead some leadership team meetings or even congregational meetings.  It is especially helpful if your church is really negative.

     Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture– Aubrey Malphurs has several books that could be on this list.  He book on strategic planning is a major contribution to church leadership.  I recommend Look Before You Lead here because it deals with an area that few other books deal with.  It is one thing to change programming or processes at a church.  What is often needed, however, is a culture change.  The way people think, talk, and act all need upgraded for the church to go anywhere.  This book deals with how to change a culture.

     Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard– This book has nothing to do with the church.  It is a business book about making changes that last for both individuals and groups.  It has profoundly changed how I approach church.  It is based on brain science (though the book never talks about the technical neuroscience).  It talks about the elephant (emotional part of the brain) and the rider (the logical part of the brain).  Most of the time when we try to make a change ourselves or our churches we use one or the other.  The key is to use both and to shape a path that is easy to follow for others.  This also had an impact on how I preach.

5 Reasons Young People Don’t Go to Your Church




I am a Presbyterian minister and, like many churches, my church is trending older on the average age.  Some of my members have watched their children and their grandchildren find church unimportant in their lives.I am asked every once in a while why young people do not go to church anymore.    I think what they are also wondering why young people do not come to their church.  Here are a few thoughts if that is your church:

young people

1. Young people aren’t going to church very much.  I have seen different statistics on this, but for those under 30 it seems to be about 2 in 10 are in church.  That is a lot lower than previous generations.  I lead off with that not to depress you but to help you understand that it is not just your church.  Believe me, you church is pretty messed up.  It is a church so it cannot be perfect.  Just understand that this is a trend bigger than your particular church.

2. Your functional mission is not compelling..  Most churches have a mission statement or a vision statement about worshipping Christ, serving one another, and reaching out into the community.  In other words, most churches have worthless mission statements.  The real mission in most churches (especially mainline) is to stay open.  When we make decisions and talk about our church that is often the heart of the conversation.  Beyond that, we may say we want to grow, but if we were honest we only want to grow as much as needed to stay open.  After all, we want to know every church member by name.  Here is the truth–young people are not compelled in any way, shape, or form by organizational loyalty and survival.  They can get passionate about doing important things and even trying for impossible things.

3. Your 1950’s style worship service is not cutting it.-  Don’t get me wrong.  Young people are not just about contemporary worship.  In fact, a lot of millennials are attracted to high church worship.  What they value is authenticity.  If you are worshipping in a style because you have intentionally decided that is the best way for you to connect with God AND YOU CAN EXPRESS WHY then by all means stick with whatever style works.  Many mainline churches are exercises in nostalgia and young people won’t do that.

4. Your programs are outdated. If your programming was cutting edge in 1930 then there is a pretty good chance it is no longer  cutting edge.  If your church has a ladies association that meets for tea, an early morning men’s breakfast, or a quilting club then I am not sure you are going to get a lot of young people there.  These programs fit the people that are currently in them.  If some people are not there then there is a reason some people don’ t come.  That does not mean you should stop those programs–just understand that they are not geared for young people.  Also, young people tend to like less programmatic, less structures and more relational activities.

5. You are not talking to young people. The church has lots of sayings that it likes to use: God never gives you any more than you can handle, true love waits, you can’t take it with you…  Young people are not satisfied with short statements and sentimentality to life’s complicated and difficult situations.  Here is a rule of thumb: if you can put it on a coffee mug then it is not really valuable to young people.  My experience is that young people long for answers and are willing to talk and study to find the answers.  They will even take coaching from older adults.  But they will not accept short pithy statements that oversimplify both the problems and the answers of life.  They want to go deeper, but Church often wants to stay shallow rather than wade into the deep of real life.

If you want young people, go talk to them. Listen to their questions and struggles.  And, for the future of your church, start to look in the mirror and what can you differently.  If you keep looking at your past, eventually you will not have a future.


Wednesday Recommendations: Favorite Brennan Manning Books

There are so many Brennan Manning books and none of them are anything but life-changing. With that said, here are a few of my favorites if you are new to Brennan’s work.

The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out– This is Brennan’s key book.  I think that most of what he says in his other books is basically found here.  His other books just dive deeper into certain elements of this book.  The heart of the book is the heart of Brennan’s work–that God loves you like crazy.  We are all ragamuffins before God.  We are sinners desperately in need of God grace and able to do nothing to gain God’s grace.

Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God– In this work Manning talks about the defining characteristic of a Christian faith– trust in God.  This is not just an emotional reliance on God but a total dependence on God’s grace for everything.  What does it mean to live a life of trust?  To live without anxiety?

The Importance of Being Foolish: How to Think Like Jesus– This is a book about changing the way we think.  This may make us do things that seem foolish to the world.  Power becomes unimportant.  Wealth becomes unimpressive.  In the end all that matters is the love of our Fathe

Reflections for Ragamuffins: Daily Devotions from the Writings of Brennan Manning– This is a daily devotional with clips from various of Brennan Manning’s books.  Get ready, because Brennan had a way of saying something even in a paragraph that could make you chew it all day long.

All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir– Brennan Manning died in 2013.  After his death I got his memoir on audio cd.  I found it so inspiring.  Manning was mistreated as a child.  He was an alcoholic and fell back into drink a number of times.  He tried to get to God by living in a cave, living with the poor, and teaching in college and seminaries. Through all the ups and downs he came to learn of God’s radical love and grace for him.


There are so many other good books by Brennan Manning.  Start one soon.