What NOT to say when inviting your friends and neighbors to Central Church for Easter Services.

This Sunday is Easter, which is a great time to invite friends, neighbors and family to church services. People are inclined to attend on Easter if invited. The easy method is simply this: 

“Hey, this Sunday is Easter. I love Central Church and know we are going to have a great service. I’d love for you and your family to join me.” 

(Bonus stars given if you add: “And how about coming over for lunch following the service.” In a moment of full disclosure, “bonus stars” are referring to nothing in particular. Not jewels in your heavenly crown or anything at Starbucks, it’s just nonsensical fun.). 

 Here is what NOT to say when inviting friends to Easter Church:

1. Easter at Central Church is like eggs sunny side up with grits and gravy. (What does that even mean?)

2. If you come to Central Church on Easter Sunday you are entered in a contest to win a giant Easter basket. (Umm… no one will win an Easter basket—large or small–  for coming to Central Church).  

3. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir? The Beatles? Pavarotti? Adele? Tin-voiced, amateurs in comparison to our choir, band and singers!  We do have wonderful singers and musicians, but it’s not a competition. Those others can sing a little too.

4. Four out of five dentists recommend Central Church (that’s Dentine gum). 

5. Our pews are like lazy boys, only with no foot-rests; and they don’t recline or swivel; and there aren’t armrests unless you are on the end. OK… our pews are nothing like Lazy-boys, but come anyway.   

6. Get a picture taken with the Easter Bunny. Photo Booth? Yes. Easter Bunny present? No.

7. If you come to Central Church on Easter, Tax Day is delayed until Monday. (Tax Day is Monday whether your friend comes to Central or not).

8. If I fill a pew with friends on Easter, I get a giant Easter basket. (I thought we already established that no giant Easter Baskets will be given out for any reason).

9. Come to Central Church, our pastor is more hippity and hoppity than Peter Cottontail (I don’t believe that is true at all) 

10. Easter Sunday—if you ain’t at my church. You ain’t my friend. (Friends might respectfully decline your invitation. That’s OK. They are still your friend. Be kind, respectful and please don’t use the word “ain’t” in your invite.)

Ok… this is pure silliness. 

Inviting friends to Central Church for Easter Services is not silliness. Who knows? Your friends might join you, discover Jesus and be forever grateful that you cared enough to invite them to Easter Services.

The Results Are In (see declining church numbers): The Church Growth Movement and the Church Leadership Development Movement have failed. What’s next?

The Church Growth Movement didn’t produce lasting growth (the Church is in massive decline in America). The Church Leadership Development Movement hasn’t produced effective leaders. (See the aforementioned parenthesis about church attendance tanking and think of the vast number of ineffective “leaders” that you know). We need a new, effective model, if we want to build back the body of Christ.

Maybe, I know this sounds wild and crazy, maybe we should be putting our emphasis on disciple making. Isn’t that what Jesus called us to do in the Great Commission?  “Go and make disciples”? I almost wish Jesus hadn’t said the second part of the Great Commission (please don’t throw rotten tomatoes at me for even suggesting such a thing). I wish Jesus hadn’t said the “teaching them to obey” part, because I think that’s where the disciple making hits a major snafu. 

Every believer knows we need to make disciples, the problem is how are we going to make them? Most Christian folks hear “discipleship,” and think “Teach them the Bible.” That’s what Jesus said, “Teach them to obey…” Fill their brains with Bible teachings, then they will be better disciples. That’s the thinking of most Christians, but is it correct? Is head knowledge, knowing the “dos and don’ts” of Christianity, the main thing? Is sitting in a class or memorizing mountains of scripture (as important as that can be), what “making disciples” is all about?

I suggest it is not (again please keep the rotten tomatoes to yourself). I am not opposed to learning the Bible. We need to read God’s word and get it deep in our bones. But I’m not sure head knowledge alone will make the kind of disciples we are after. Who were the most learned men of Jesus day?  Wasn’t it the teachers of the law, the high priest, the religious scholars?  They knew the Torah, like the back of their hand, but they missed Jesus. Could the same malfeasance befall us?

John in his first letter wrote this:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:16-18

Putting John’s advice into practical disciple making terms, the discipleship method we should strive for is not with words or speech (read: head knowledge alone) but “actions and truth.”  

Actions = serving. 
Truth = personal experience with the Truth (Capital “C”). 

How do we make disciples?  We serve with people. Some Christians. Some not. The far-from-Jesus people see and hear through serving (read: love with actions). They see and hear the Truth lived out through the relationships built into serving alongside one another. Over time, prayer and the prevenient grace of God, these far-from-Jesus people will be drawn to and encounter the Truth.

This approach is not down playing the importance of the Bible. The Bible, following serving, reinforces the Truth that people have encountered. The Bible is the word that points us to the Word. The Bible strengthens our resolve to serve more and better. The Bible is essential. But let’s start with serving. It’s being a living example of the Word and Truth, before anyone reads the word.

Serving leads to making disciples. Continued serving makes better disciples. How are we going to bring God’s Kingdom on earth? It happens through serving, not teaching, not preaching. Serving. We don’t need “servant leaders.” We don’t need to use the word “servant” as an adjective. We need “servant” to be a noun again. The next big thing needs to be the old, old thing: Making Christ-like servants. 

The Week Before Holy Week Job Description: Pray and Invite

Easter is less than two weeks away. Most generally, a pastor will tell you that Holy Week is one of the busiest weeks of the year. There are three extra services (Easter Jam, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday) and of course, every preacher wants his/her Easter sermon to be a “home run.” We want everything to be perfect (as perfect as can be). The week is hectic, tiring, and demanding. But this week (the week before the week of Easter) is just as crucial. This is the week for prayer and invitation.

We need to pray. Pray for the services. Pray for the pastors, office staff, facilities crew, singers, musicians, tech people, ushers, greeters, (did I miss anyone? If I did, pray for them). Pray that everything we do is pointing people to Jesus. Pray that we are prepared to welcome and show our guests love. Pray that when people enter they will sense the Holy Spirit is at work and when they leave they will not be the same person that entered. That prayer, by the way, is not simply for the newbies walking through the door, that prayer is for all of us. Me included. Pray for a Jesus-led transformation! 

We need to invite. Lately, I’ve written a few blogs about the “rise of the nones” (those people that claim no religious affiliation); the increase in “de-constructionists” (folks walking away from the church or faith) and decline of the church in general. But here’s a secret: most people (even the aforementioned groups) are curious about Jesus. Most people like Jesus. (It’s hard not to like Jesus). What better day to invite them to hear about Jesus than Easter? It is the most Jesus-centric service of the year (every Sunday should be Jesus centered but Resurrection Sunday for sure must be).  

I’m convinced that God is not done in our world. I’m so ready to see some of our loved “none” friends flip into becoming “Jesus followers.” I’m dying for revival. TRUTH ALERT: God wants revival even more. As such, I’m convinced that God will give each of us opportunities to share and invite folks this week. So pray for God to open doors to invite people to church this and next week, then boldly walk through those doors with the love of Jesus. Make the most of the opportunities that God’s prevenient grace provides. 

Be a part of God’s redemption plan for our world. May his Kingdom come and His will be done in Flint (on earth) as it is in heaven. And may he use you and me to accomplish this goal!

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Colossians 4:5

I’m Staying in our Church. I love it! Absolutely love it.

Last Sunday, I talked to a first-time visitor to our church. In the conversation, I said, “I am incredibly biased… so take what I am about to tell you with a grain of salt, but I love Central Church. Absolutely love it.” I wasn’t lying.

You’d want your pastor to love his/her church. Not all do. I know pastors who hate going on Sunday mornings. They look forward to Sunday morning about as much as getting a root canal. Maybe that’s why so many pastors are walking away from their calling (You can read a recent report about pastors exiting their churches here). This week I blogged about the exit of people leaving the church. (You can read that article here). Having written all of that, I love Central Church. Absolutely love it.

I hesitate to state all the reasons, because I don’t want to sound braggadocios. Central Church can be better. We have issues. We aren’t perfect. I tell folks, “I know Central Church isn’t perfect because y’all let me pastor here and (excuse my poor English) I ain’t perfect.” We aren’t the greatest gathering since Acts 2. There are other great churches too. I get all of that, still I love Central Church. Absolutely love it.

People are leaving churches (as I wrote in the blog), but our church has new folks showing up every week. I’m so glad they are coming. Some “newbies” first started watching on-line; a few church shoppers have finally found a home; others heard “Central Church’s “In Flint” mission emphasis and agreed churches should be concerned for what’s happening outside its walls; and a few folks just kind of wandered in, found Jesus and said, “Wow-what-a-church!” These new folks are quickly getting their own “Yippee-Yahoo,” biased opinion about Central Church too. I love it! Absolutely love it.

I am biased. Hear me. Super biased. 

Our music is great (I’d put our choir and our praise team up against any other church). Our pastors are great (while I was “sabaticalling,” Central Church never missed a beat. We have such a godly team of pastors). The facilities crew, office staff, you name it are all fun, faithful people. Our children, students, young adults, middle-agers, senior citizens are so engaged. Our Church Board is a blessing (Did I tell you our last board meeting was more “camp meeting” than board meeting?). I love it! Absolutely love it.

Central Church believes the Bible is true. We believe Jesus calls us to love God and love others. That love is then expressed in our neighborhood (hello Central Park); in our city (Thanks Mr. Mayor for giving Central Church the “Key to the City”); and to the entire world (We’re coming back Panama! See you soon!!). I love that Central church is fulfilling the Great Commission. I love it! Absolutely love it.

It’s all true. Some pastors and people are leaving their churches. Not me. I love Central Church; our old-timers love it too and the new folks are discovering why. Central church is a great (not perfect) church that loves God and loves people in Flint and around the world! That’s why I’m staying! I love it! Absolutely love it.

The “Great Exit” (from our churches) is upon us and What to do about it

Church attendance among those who identified as evangelicals is plummeting in the United States.

In 2008, 29% of people who identified as evangelicals stated they attended church only yearly (or less). In 2021, that number was 42%. These aren’t the “nones.” These are not the people who say they are agnostic, atheist or have no affiliation (that number also went up from 22% in 2008 to 36% in 2021).  I’m talking about the people who say they believe in Jesus. They identify with tribes similar to mine but for the occasional Christmas or Easter have stopped going to church. Moreover, less than half (47%) of self-identified evangelicals are weekly attenders. It was 59% in 2008. (See graphs below)

What do these numbers tell me?  We are losing. We are losing those who have given up on faith and we are losing people who are still (currently) verbalizing faith– but will probably be stepping out soon with no faith community to surround and encourage them. We are witnessing a massive decline in Christianity in the United States. Unlike the Great Awakening, this period of United States history will be known as the Great Exiting. It’s happening under our watch. Right under our noses.

Here’s the deal: People still need Jesus. The Christ-shaped void in people’s lives is more evident than ever. People are lonely. Suicides are up. Violent crime is up (in most cities). Anger is up. Morality is sinking into new lows. Right seems wrong. Wrong seems right. Ministers are walking away at a greater number than ever, and fewer young people are sensing a call into ministry. People are in trouble while discouraged pastors are leaving their pulpits and empty churches are closing their doors. 

What are we going to do about it? 

Here are our options:

1). Throw stones at those who exit or are exiting. (Probably not a good strategy);

2). Keep our noses in the hymnbook (figuratively) and pretend that everything is OK (Also, not a good strategy);

3). Blame the media, politicians, the left, the right, hypocrites, megachurch failures, the pandemic, the Russians, the music, the boogeyman, bad pastors or youth pastors, this article (and ones like it) and/or everyone but ourselves for the decline. (Probably need a mirror not a slingshot). 

4). Become disgruntled and join the Great Exit (please don’t);

Or… 

5). Get out of our pews and into our neighborhoods. Pray. Make friends with non-believers. Try new things. Change methods, not the message. Keep trying. Preach Jesus. Pray some more. Focus on children and teenagers. Try harder. Pray harder. Stop judging. Start loving. Did I mention prayer? We need more prayer.

We are losing, but we can’t quit. We must keep trying. Jesus is still Lord. We are still His disciples. The world still needs Jesus and His Bride. The Great Exit is upon us, let history show that we did not take it twiddling our thumbs. Instead, let’s keep proclaiming Jesus in our actions and words.

Where the Wild Things Are and the Rise of the “Nones”

We all know the “nones” are growing. This week I saw the latest statistics. Those people who say they are atheist, agnostic or have no religious affiliation went from 22% of the USA population in 2008 to 36% in 2021. We all know these numbers are true. You, no doubt, have family and friends who have walked away from faith. We are seeing the biggest decline in Christianity the United States has ever experienced. It’s happening under our watch. Under our noses. Forgive us Lord!

Yesterday, I read books to children at Dillon Elementary school. I read in three different classrooms and I took three different books: Where the Wild Things Are (the children informed me, they had read that one before); Alexander and the Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (a book I would read to my Alexander after a horrible, no good very bad day in his life); and Nicolas Cricket (a favorite of mine)I read all three in each classThe children settled on their spot on the carpet. The rest of the carpet must have been lava, because they didn’t move off “their” spot. They were very well behaved as I read. It didn’t take long. I was in and out in less than an hour. I wish I could have been there longer. 

What does reading children’s books (they weren’t even “Christian” books) and the rise of the “nones” have in common? We’ve got to love the generation growing up. I had a mentor who once told me, “You gotta play with them to pray with them.” He was right. To reverse the avalanche of “nones,” we’ve got to be involved in people’s lives. Not just hammering them over them over the head with a Bible or listing off the “Four Spiritual Laws.” People need to first know we care. It’s baby steps before leaps of faith. So I read at Dillon Elementary School, call it a baby step.

Getting involved in the community; showing people you care is the new evangelism. It’s takes more time and energy than handing out Bible tracts on the “Roman Road.” It’s a longer process. People need to see the love of Jesus in us, before they invite the love of Jesus into their lives.

Listen, the rapid rise of “Nones” is alarming. The pandemic pushed the accelerator on this trend. Look at Europe to see where this is heading. NEWS FLASH: It ain’t good (pardon my poor English). What am I saying? Get involved in your community. Volunteer at elementary school. Get to know the kids in your neighborhood. Be the nice neighbor. Let them roll all over your lawn. Hand out the best candy on Halloween. Follow Jesus’ example of the time when the disciples tried to shoo the children away and he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”(Luke 18:16). 

We’re blowing it. We’ve got to own this bad news, confess our failure in the “Rise of the Nones” and be proactive in stopping the trend. It begins with loving our neighbors. Even (especially) our youngest neighbors.  

How My Sabbatical is like Wordle

My sabbatical is over tomorrow. I’m ready for the questions:

Was it restful?
Are you moving?
What did you learn?

Sort of.
No.
It’s Complicated.

The best part of my sabbatical was that it was a change of rhythm. It wasn’t particularly “restful.” I was flying back and forth to Florida for family time and conferences. (American Airlines flights were delayed every single time. Every. Single. Time. They were five for five. On my last trip home, my bag was lost. It’s still missing. My one Delta flight was perfect). I was writing a book on battling cancer and my friendship with Lisa Faulkner (37,000+ words written). I was dealing with a few health issues of my own. I bought a truck (I like it. Karla hates it.) It’s been busy. Restful? Kind of. Sort of. Maybe. Oh and I started playing Wordle.

Maybe Wordle is the best summary of my sabbatical. In Wordle, the player guesses a five-letter word. Correct letters in your first guess are shown in green. If the letter is in the word but not in the correct position, it’s yellow. Misses are grey. The player then makes another guess and another guess. Six attempts are allowed. Once I’ve been lucky to get the word on the second guess. Never the first. That’s pure luck. So far, it’s never taken me six guesses to get the word.

Why is Wordle like my Sabbatical? Like in Wordle…

1) My Sabbatical has been thought provoking (I’ve read 18 books. Some good. Some not so good). 

2) My Sabbatical has used words (I told you 37,000 words). 

3) My Sabbatical has been fun (seeing my boys and their wives; catching up with friends). 

4) My Sabbatical has been consistent (every morning I play Wordle; write a one or two sentence summary of a story from the previous day; have devotion/scripture reading/prayer time; write in my journal, and write in the book). And,

5) My Sabbatical has been new every morning (Like God Almighty and the Lord’s faithfulness, God has shown to be faithful throughout this time. No earth-shattering messages from on High. No lightning bolts of inspiration. Just a daily faithfulness. Maybe that’s the reminder I needed most. God is faithful and will be faithful whatever challenges the future might hold. 

Tomorrow my sabbatical ends and I will be in ministerial credentials meetings for most of the day. Nothing says, “Welcome back to the real world of ministry,” like hearing a bunch of newbies explaining the Articles of Faith.

Moving into the home stretch of ministry, like my sabbatical and like Wordle, I hope to be consistent, thought provoking, use words, have fun and most importantly daily trust in the faithfulness of God Almighty. Wouldn’t it be ironic if tomorrow’s Wordle word is TRUST.

A Eulogy for the American Church

Dearly Beloved, we are gathered today to celebrate what once was. 

Don’t look at today as an ending, think of it as a beginning.
Life is not over for our dearly departed, it has just begun.

Oh, things will be different now. They certainly will be.
You won’t see her as you once did.
She won’t hold the sway over you like she once did. 

Let’s be honest in this moment of bereavement and remember that there were fights. Every family has them. Somebody got mad at somebody else and stormed off. It happens. Excuses were made for bad behavior. Guilt and shame were part of the modus operandi. Those with the biggest smiles too often had the longest fangs and the sharpest daggers. It was “us” vs. “them.” She didn’t always know how to love those that doubted or questioned or walked way. She disappointed us (sometimes more times than not) and tried to sweep things under the rug. She was so frustrating at times. 

Nevertheless, we have happy memories of times gone by: Potluck dinners and Sunday School drives. Singing songs. Revival moments. Making friends. Being there in good times and bad. She wasn’t always horrible. She was good. Mostly.

Things are different now. They always will be. 

Indifference, busyness, neglect, money, factions, misplaced allegiances, politics (both in Washington and in the family), disillusionment, faithlessness all were part of her demise. The pandemic will be blamed. But it wasn’t the pandemic. Covid didn’t destroy her. We did. When we took our eyes off the Prize, we killed her. Little by little she died.

We will miss the church we once knew. 

What’s the cliché?  “Good things come in small packages.” Could this be true?
Maybe.
Just maybe.
If we who remain start doing what we weren’t doing. John’s advice is still relevant:  
Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:18). 

Not words. The world has heard too many words. 
We need actions (plural). Truth (Singular).
Love constantly with actions. 
Hope continually in the Truth. 

Life is not “us” vs. “them.” It’s “us” and “us” journeying down the same road. We aren’t all in the same spot. Look ahead and you’ll see some of “us.” Look behind you’ll see the rest of “us.” It’s recognizing it’s just “us” on the road and all of “us” need more Jesus. 

It’s different now. Will it be better? Only Jesus knows.

Good bye old friend. 

When Historians write on the demise of the church in 100 years, who will they blame?

Should Jesus tarry (and I see no reason why he won’t tarry. If Jesus didn’t return when Hitler, Stalin, Mao or the Rwandan massacres were happening, why come back now? He could, but maybe not…), then what will historians say about the demise of the evangelical church in the 2020s and 30s? Will they blame Christian nationalism? Progressive liberalism? Trump? Disunity? Prosperity Gospel preachers? Deconstructionists? Millennials? Gen-Z? Boomers? What will they conclude the problem was?

Living through the troubling days one could argue that I am too close to the issues to make an unbiased opinion. With that in mind here it goes:

We’ve forgotten who we are. We have made boogie men out of those with whom we disagree rather than like Jesus sit down, listen and laugh with even those considered far from God.

We look as much like Jesus as a pot hole looks like the Grand Canyon. We are more like the villains in the Bible than the heroes.

We are more like the Pharisees with rule based “holiness” rather than love based holiness.

We are more like Cain viciously attacking our brothers (and sisters).

We are more like Saul building monuments to ourselves rather than altars to God.

We are more like Demas who deserted Paul because “he loved this world.”

We are more like Jonah in the fish’s belly or under the once-big-leafy plant, disobeying God or disgruntled with God.

We are more like Judas selling out Jesus for a few pieces of silver.

We are more like the serpent convinced that we can go against God for we “won’t certainly die.”

What will historians say about the demise of North American Christianity? They will say we no longer looked like Jesus.

They will be right.

Who is Influencing Your Church??

Was Marx right? Does money drive people to do what they do?

Was Freud right? Does sex make people to do what they do?

Was Nietzsche right? Does power influence people to do that they do?

Was Jesus right? Does loving God and loving neighbor inspire people to do what they do?

The answer to each of the questions above is: “Yes.”  Moreover, the church world is not exempt from the dominant philosophies and teachings of the world.

When denominational leaders refuse to speak into current issues (even when the church desperately needs to be a voice of justice and righteousness) for fear that their opinion might upset major givers, then money not morality is piloting the ship. If Amos took a similar stance, he would have continued quietly growing figs; his bank account would have been bigger; and the book that bears his name would have never been written. If the bottom line is more important than the mission of God and righteousness, then maybe Marx was right.

When pornography is just as rampant in the church as it is in the world, then maybe Freud was right. When a pastor defrocked over sexual misdeeds (same with singers and musicians) continues to be offered speaking engagements at churches across the country, even though there has been little repentance or consequences over his/her misdeeds, then there is a Freudian problem. 

There are many little ones aspiring to be a big fish in our little denominational pond. Power trips are everywhere– from credential boards, to district offices, to the GMC, to factious partnerships. Social media has given a platform and promise to the little fishies. “Shout louder, Little Fish and you’ll be a Big Fish soon!” Maybe Nietzsche was right.

Why are so many deconstructing their faith? See the above examples. Those deconstructionists see the influence of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche more than the evidence of Jesus. I get it. If money, sex or power are the driving factors in a church, then it needs to be deconstructed. It’s not the church of Jesus Christ. 

Thankfully, I’ve seen pastors and laypeople serve Jesus and love their neighbors too. It’s not for money, sex or power. They’ve been driven by a deep desire to be a faithful witness in trying times. The true Jesus followers press on. Maybe their bottom line is not as impressive as those driven by money. Maybe they are not as flashy as those in the Freudian world. Maybe they remain a small fish for their entire lives with no apologies to Nietzsche. But they are the ones who will hear: “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

Let us strive to love God and love our neighbors. Let us be driven by righteousness and justice. The world’s pursuit of money, sex and power leads to an emptiness. Could it be that’s why are pews are likewise empty? The pursuit of Jesus leads to the abundant life. Could it be if we displayed more of the compelling love of Jesus, our pews would be full?