Adventures in missing the point

missing the pointdon’t you find it fascinating when you learn an unexpected lesson?

especially when it’s ugly…?

i can’t guarantee you that the lesson i learned today is actually a genuine bit of truth…or a private message from god’s mischievous side…or simply an obvious reality that i somehow continue to overlook.   no matter.  it surely came through loud and clear!

as soon as i got up and rolling this morning (sunday), i started to get pretty pumped about the message i had prepared. i seldom get overly excited about preaching.  it’s not that i’m not convicted.  i usually am.  it’s just not my personality to get all worked up over my own sermon.

and i’m not really a natural extrovert.

but this morning brought a pretty high degree of anticipation.  this sermon series on love has been good for me.  today’s text was john 8:2-11…the story of jesus and the woman caught in the act of adultery…and the message of love, repentance, and forgiveness found in the interaction the two of them had.

it’s simply one of the most powerful and life-giving stories in the bible.  it is one of those stories that must be taught again and again..not because it is difficult to understand, but because we can find ourselves so vividly in the flow and context of the first-century screenplay.

and i couldn’t wait for people to come and hear the story.  my expectations for a full house built all morning.   when i heard the band practicing a new song before the first service, i was moved.  it caused me to rethink the plan for how the services would play out.

it only heightened my hope for a full house.

i just knew in my soul that this was an experience that nobody in our church family should miss.  and i was sure they wouldn’t.

so much for my prophetic giftedness.

we had one of the lowest attendances in forever.  i worked hard to cover my disappointment and stay focused on teaching the text diligently and accurately.  but deep in my heart, there was a sadness.  i soooo wanted our people to walk through this story with me.

but here’s the thing:  during the singing time following the message in the second hour,  it hit me.  this sermon was for me.  not for others.  not for all the people who weren’t there.  not for the small crowd who joined us.  for me.

so glad i didn’t completely miss the point today.

My love-hate affair with church attendance…part five

these words come a little harder tonight.   i want to be careful.

we are all products of the families we grow up in.   some have wonderful,  warm and healthy memories of childhoods full of love…full of great experiences…full of large extended families.

others have memories of family life that is not so good.   dysfunction.   neglect.   fighting.   separation.   abuse.   empty promises.   overreaction.   apathy.

and everything in-between.   the family dynamic is huge.   for all of us.

the family i grew up in shaped me.   i am an only child.   my mom and dad had siblings that lived in other parts of the country.   i met my cousins when i was young,  but had no real relationships with any of them.   i only met one of my grandparents…and she lived 1500 miles away.   the other ones died before i was old enough to know them.

we never had family reunions.   there were no cousin camps.   there were no trips to see grandma and grandpa.   there were no family vacations to see the relatives.   there were none of those cool family pictures where everybody’s colors are coordinated.   there was no extended family for me.   nada.

both of my parents were gone pretty early in my kid’s lives  (my dad held on a little longer,  but we had moved away).   both of wanda’s parents died when our boys were really little.   our boys have almost no recollection of  trips to grandma and grandpa’s house.   

almost from the very beginning,  family  was just the four of us.   and our church family always meant everything to us.

admittedly,  i have a totally different perspective on church and church attendance  than most.   my most significant mentors and examples were church leaders.    church activities were seldom ever in competition with family events.   older couples in the church were functional grandparents  to our boys.

our closest friends and ministry partners were written into our early wills to take care of our boys,  in the event of our deaths.

the four of us were never insulted  from life in the community or neighborhoods that we lived in.   we were always active in youth sports and school activities.   probably more active than most.   we even had to make a few hard decisions about which events we would participate in…and those we wouldn’t.   but that never happened very often.

but our extended family never competed for our time or allegiance.   because we had no extended family.

we have always been free to invest ourselves in the lives of others.   our hearts and calendars have never really been pulled in different directions.   we always made time for our church family…because,  if we didn’t,  there wouldn’t have been any family.

our church family has always provided our deepest and most profound relationships.   it is where we have found accountability and teaching and healing and profound life experiences.   for wanda and i,  family reunions happen every sunday.   for us,  family dinner  happens every sunday at whatever restaurant we find ourselves in with friends.

oh…wanda and i still have special times with our boys and their wives and the great holden.   in fact,  they don’t happen nearly often enough for us…and we always make time and whenever we get together,  it means more to us than anybody knows.

but our lives have always been bigger…waaaay bigger…than just the four (and now seven…and soon-to-be eight)  of us.   “blood”  has never been  “thicker than water”  for me and wanda.   there has only been “blood”.   family  has always meant the people we share life with…and not just the people who live under our roof.

this is why church attendance  means something more to me than it does to most others.   it’s never about counting noses and getting bigger and proving my worth as a leader.   it’s about connecting and relating and being near people.

attendance just means we’re all home.

My love-hate affair with church attendance – part four

there have been massive changes in the ways families have functioned over the course of my lifetime…and they have had a huge effect on how life in a church family  looks.

when i was growing up,  i played little league baseball.   it was the most sacred and enjoyable eight weeks of my year.   it always started the middle of april and ended mid-june…except for the year i made the all-star team.   that year we squeezed another week or two out of the season.    when i was twelve years old,  my team played 22 baseball games.

when corey was twelve years old,  he played ten months and about 100 games.   (god bless texas.)

…and that was thirteen years ago!   i don’t really have the time or space to write about the culture children are growing up in today.   sports…dance…gymnastics…cheerleading…band…school… school…school…pressure… competition… fear… anxiety…stress.

total craziness.

no wonder church is reduced to just another activity to pencil into weekly schedules that already have no room to breathe…no room to rest…no room to re-create.   attendance  at church activities is often seen as an intrusion… impositions that are begging for apologies,  instead of invitations.

and i get it.   i totally get it.

i don’t think anyone…not the planners,  nor the participants…believe that church programs are pointless exercises in time-wasting.   i believe people see the value in church programs.   i believe people see the value in christian education and corporate worship and shared service.

i believe that,  deep down,  most people desire authentic friendships and spiritual accountability.   i think most people even feel a certain amount of remorse when they choose not to attend…for whatever the reason.   most people sense a responsibility as part of the whole and know they are missed when they are not present.

but for most,  family events…especially activities for the good of their children’s education and personal development… will always trump church activities.

this discussion is difficult.   there are no easy answers.   the value of home life and the value of church family life are not to be mutually exclusive.   they should support and honor each other.   they should exist for the growth and development of the other.

but,  the kingdom of god lived out in our families…and the kingdom of god lived out in lives of people we don’t share a roof with…should be the same kingdom.   sadly,  for many,  they are kingdoms at war with each other.

what’s it like for you?

My love-hate affair with church attendance…part three

years ago,  i created a table that reflected what i really believed about church attendance.   i’ve taught it to my youth ministry classes over the past three decades.   it was pretty specific to youth ministry in those days,  but looking at it with fresh eyes today,  i think it applies to any age group…in just about any context.

here’s how to interpret it:   in this discussion,  there are four “levels” of spiritual maturity when it comes to participating in church programs.   the lowest level of spiritual maturity are people who don’t come to our programs for all the wrong reasons.   lame excuses like,  “i don’t have the right kind of clothes”,  or  “so and so hurt my feelings”,  or  “i’m going to a movie instead”,  or  “i stayed up too late last night”.   i think you get the picture.   people who don’t come and their reasons don’t hold water.

the next level of spiritual maturity is reserved for people who come to our church programs,  but for all the wrong reasons.   guys who show up because there are cute girls to hit on…or girls who come to get out of doing chores at home…or people  who show up hoping to impress god with their attendance or to work off guilt from the night before…or men who want to get their wives off their backs.   sure…it’s attendance.   but there’s no heart…no passion…no integrity.   it’s generally better than not coming at all,  but only slightly.

the next level is where we want most believers to find themselves.   these are people who come for right reasons… for study or fellowship or commitment to serving or ministry responsibility or relationship building or worship or personal growth.   it’s all good.   they are coming to our programs for healthy and honorable reasons.

but here’s a curve ball.

i think the highest level of spiritual maturity might be reserved for the unlikely…for people are mature enough to make decisions to be somewhere other than our church programs.   even on a regular basis.   these are people who don’t come…for right reasons.

these are people who take personal responsibility for their own spiritual growth and development…so they can spend their time investing in others.   especially in those who don’t regularly darken the doors of our church buildings.

maybe it’s a teenager who decides to spend wednesday nights at home with her parents…eating dinner,  handling the clean-up and dishes,  and then sitting with her folks and talking or watching television…in order to develop a deeper relationship with them and show them the love of jesus in a tangible way,  simply because they need it.   instead of going to the youth group bible study.

or maybe it’s like the guys in my youth group years ago who intentionally developed friendships with some mormon guys at their high school.   based on those friendships,  the mormon guys invited these boys to join them for basketball on the same night as our weekly high school bible study.   so they came to the next bible study,  told the group what they were going to do and asked us to pray for god to use them to help these other guys see jesus.   it was incredibly cool.

or maybe it’s a mom or dad who need to put food on the table in a difficult economy and the only job they can find requires them to work on sundays.

…or any number of legitimate,  honest and purposeful reasons to miss church programs to meet a greater need for the  good for the kingdom.

it’s not a perfect way to evaluate attendance,  but understanding these four types of people has always enabled me to keep the bigger picture in mind…and the greater goal  in front of people:  the goal of forgetting self and offering our bodies as living sacrifices for the good of others and the honor of god and his kingdom first.

just sayin’…

My love-hate affair with church attendance – part two

i think one of the places we go all wrong with this church attendance thing is how we have elevated the importance of the “sunday morning” meeting to heights that were unimaginable in the first century.

historically, i’ve never really been able to find exactly where the whole church “event” mentality first surfaced. i’m sure some will try to build a case for what happened on the day of pentecost in acts 2, but that doesn’t wash with me. different purpose and design altogether.

the melding of the church and state in rome during those first 200-300 years after the resurrection of jesus certainly did much to establish the idea of hierarchy in the church and the formalization of meetings and structures. we definitely see the long-term effect of that movement throughout church history…all the way up to the present.

somewhere…somehow…the elevation of church leadership as a profession and the church program as the design for kingdom business replaced the concept shared life as the primary method of discipleship and reaching the world with the message of hope through christ.

going to church became the methodology. being the church wherever we go got lost in translation.

old testament sacrificial offerings to earn god’s favor and restore fellowship with him got resurrected in the form of church attendance, putting money in the offering plate, and being busy with church programs five nights a week, in order to make us right with god.

legalism and phariseeism lives on with a modern twist: mature believers are busy with church activities…those that aren’t are looked at as immature and self-absorbed, if they don’t come to the things we offer.

somewhere along the line, the idea that a bad saturday night of partying could be negated by dragging your behind out of bed and into the pew on sunday morning became the default strategy for god’s faithful who couldn’t get their spiritual act together.

i can remember the endless theological debates in my bible college and seminary days…where we beat around the question, “could somebody really be a christian without attending sunday services?” i haven’t had that debate for 25 or 30 years, but i imagine it’s more complicated now with churches doing services on other nights of the week….

here’s the point: going to church and being the church are two completely different concepts. certainly, being the church involves some level of commitment to “attendance” at church functions. but it is so very much more. and i’m afraid that in our effort to elevate the importance of our church activities…and the accompanying attendance expectations and requirements…we might have neutered the call for whole life discipleship along the way.

i think we have generations upon generations of “church people” who made commitments to sunday morning attendance who really believed they were doing what was required for kingdom living…and completely missed the life that jesus died to give them.

tragedy.

there’s more to this story…

Monday Morning Quarterback…on Wednesday afternoon

my experience from this past sunday has filled me with mixed emotions as i reflect.  some say that reflection is cathartic.  i suppose i would agree, especially this week.

we had at least 60-70 of our regular church family missing on sunday.  quite a few more, if i include some faithful shoppers and good folks that have been a little sporadic in their attendance over the past six months.  for most of the people who were missing, i could chalk it up to family commitments, illness or travel.  even so, it was still a difficult  sunday.

here are a few of my personal insights:

  • i grew up in a church environment that left me with the habit of feeling overwhelmingly guilty whenever i had to miss “church” on sunday mornings.  those times that i missed, i always felt like i was letting god down and not being the kind of christian i was supposed to be!
  • in the past 15 years, i have repeatedly repented of that way of defining my discipleship.  i have preached more about the grace of god and the freedom we have because of the cross in the past six or seven years than i did in the previous thirty!!
  • when i came to north point years ago, one of the major items on my job description was to make sure that i taught our people to place the building of healthy marriages and family lives ahead of church programs and activities over the long haul.
  • i have worked hard to model this priority…even as the head honcho of north point programming.
  • i have faithfully taught that the old system of law and the incessant effort to prove our worth and acceptability to god was cancelled at calvary. good works are fruit that flow from our love for god and our response to his mercy…not our ticket to heaven.

with that as the back drop, one of the things that people have consistently said to me over the years is how grateful they have been to find a church that didn’t constantly make them feel guilty for missing on a sunday or beat them up for saying “no” to things that placed undo pressure on already hectic family lives.  i love being a church that lives out the freedom we have in christ.

it’s just a tough pill to swallow when so many people choose to enjoy their freedom on the same sunday morning.

that’s what i’m thinking.  what about you?  how do you respond to this?

It’s not church…

in case you weren’t at north point yesterday, here’s my sermon.  it’s short and to the point.

(make no mistake here…i am not disrespecting, undermining, undervaluing, or underestimating the power and purpose of personal, intimate, and life-changing moments of individual time with the lord…those moments in the prayer closet or transcendent worship, or transparent communion that only happen between me and jesus.  without these times, our spiritual lives will dry up and we will become as barren as the west texas desert in the middle of summer.  with that said…)

  • if it’s not drawing us deeper into relationships, it’s not church.
  • if it’s not drawing us deeper into service, it’s not church.
  • if it’s not causing us to evaluate and redefine our personal priorities, it’s not church.
  • if it’s about what I am getting, it’s not church.
  • if it causes us to extol the virtue or talent of the pastor, it’s not church.
  • if we don’t give our money to it, it’s not church.
  • if we are entertained by it, it’s not church.
  • if we can hide at it, it’s not church.
  • if it creates co-dependency, it’s not church.
  • if you think you don’t need to be there, it’s not church.
  • if you evaluate the church experience by how it makes you feel, it’s not church.
  • if church is an event you attend, it’s not church.
  • if it’s about sitting and watching, it’s not church.
  • if you look for a good seat, it’s not church.

church is not a meeting.  church is not an event.  church does not have hours or meeting times or schedules.  church is not a spectator sport.  church is not a service, a performance, a show, a presentation or a routine.  church does not have stars.  church does not have performers.  the only audience in a church meeting is god.

church is the body of christ.  no one in the body of christ is more important than anyone else.  there are no pedestals.  there are no positions of honor.  there are no special parking spots.  there are no marquees with the names of pastors. no one is more valued, more special, more needed, more exceptional.

in the church, every body has a role.  we exist for the benefit of each other.  one person does not exist for the benefit of all.  if you are not needed, it’s not church.

just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function,  so in christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.  romans 12:4,5

now to each one the manifestation of the spirit is given for the common good.  1 corinthians 12:7

if it is not resulting in deep, long-term, friendships with people on days other than the day of your “big event”, it’s not church.  if it is not compelling you to draw new people into your life, it’s not church.  if you spend the majority of your “church time” soaking it in, it’s not church.  church is about squeezing you out.

whether it’s at north point, or somewhere else you call your church, you better make sure you are defining “church” properly.

church is a group of people who live life together, serve a fallen world together, grow deep in fellowship and maturity together, share their resources with each other, need each other, and sacrificially live in a way that brings glory and recognition to god through jesus christ…and extends the kingdom of god to a lost and broken world.

remember…we don’t go to church…we are the church!