Serving Millennials on the Journey Toward Significant Life
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On a Boat in the Middle of a Storm

The older I get the more I see today’s culture validating toxic behavior, making this world a toxic environment to live in. The anti-thesis of the Gospel is the accepted norm: you are what you do; survival of the fittest; the hardest and most conniving worker wins the day. Stress is something only kept at bay for the two weeks of vacation a year.

Rembrandt_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Lake_of_GalileeIt is this environment that produces the anxiety we have all come to give into, living with it, instead of pushing against it.

A year ago I read Mark Sayers’ latest book Facing Leviathan. At the time I was impressed and I wrote an endorsement for the book that reflected the feeling. I’m going through the book and finding it to be a prophetic voice for the church so obsessed with un-Jesus definitions for leadership. I rarely call any book a “must read,” but if such a thing exists, this book is one of them.

In the book he describes leaders as individuals who have retreated from the toxicity of the world, gaining critical distance, then choosing to re-enter, “to command a non-anxious persona in an anxious environment” (134). What I appreciate about this understanding of leadership is that it has nothing to do with personality, skills, or tactics. Instead it is wholly focused on a God who speaks the gospel into individuals, allowing them to lose their cultural anxiousness.

This brings to mind Jesus sleeping, withdrawn, on a boat, in the middle of tempestuous lake. Chaos surrounds, he sleeps. No anxiety in the God who spoke the creation into existence.

About this, Sayers adds:

To survive and effect positive change the leader must learn to separate from the toxic environment and ultimately learn how to emotionally withdraw and return. By gaining emotional distance the leader can return, embodying a posture of peace, which although initially resisted will eventually heal the environment.

These leaders are not fully embraced within our society. They typically are given two types of responses.

1. Acceptance and Embrace.

Many within an anxious culture are looking for gospel truth to shift their lives away from following the culturally accepted anxiousness. Throughout the book Sayers uses Jonah as an example. He (albeit, not by his own decision) disengaged from his anxious worldly environment, and only after gaining critical distance could he speak truth to the Ninevites. Jonah was not prepared for it, but the people of Nineveh were looking for a leader to speak the hard truth critical distance gave Jonah.

The acceptance and embrace can produce its own toxicity, where leaders get lulled to sleep through a desire for consensus and harmony, losing their prophetic role. This leads to the second response.

2. Rejection and Sabotage.

Often a rejection rocks me to my core. It causes me to question the validity of what I’m doing, even when this rejection comes in invalid forms. The non-anxious leader who has done the work of withdrawal is not thwarted by the rejection of sabotage, they expect it.

In fact the rejection fuels the non-anxious leader more fully into their role as the withdrawn, now initiating leader.

In 2007 Stanley Friedman published A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, his examination on our state of constant stress and anxiety. In it he outlines how those overcome with over anxiousness look toward others in similar situations to validate their own. Together these stressed out individuals unite against the leader trying to shift the paradigm.

To this we come back to the idea of withdrawal as the key for leaders. Giving space for God to speak gospel truth into individuals, breaking the bonds of 21st century anxiety and stress, showing others that life is not defined by cultural standards, but through eternal joy in Christ.

This is the kind of leader needed.

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Interview with Barnabas Piper, Author of The Pastor’s Kid

the-pastors-kidBarnabas and I have interacted together for a few years, mostly over our tortuous love affair with Minnesota sports teams. However, we also share another thing in common, we are both pastor’s kids; he being the son of a well-known pastor, John Piper, and me being the son of an unknown pastor who has been faithful to the call.

A few weeks ago Barnabas and I talked about his book, about growing up as PKs, and about how churches can better understand the situation pastor’s kids face.

You can pick up a copy of Barnabas Piper’s new book (it releases today), right HERE. You might even see a line or two from me in there.

TB: You are a pastor’s kid (PK) of one of the most well-known pastors in the world, but you’ve interacted with a lot of PKs who grew up in much smaller settings. Do you see differences between the PK of a mega church pastor, and the PK of a small church pastor?

BP: For sure there are some distinct differences. Most PKs can escape the shadow the church to some degree when they go away to college or branch out on their own. For me, especially working in an evangelical context like I have, that can’t really be escaped. I hear about John Piper pretty much every day.

On the other hand, every PK shares some distinct experiences and challenges. The pressures and scrutiny fit to scale, so they feel the same for the PK in a church of 100 or 10,000. The church I grew up in was mid-sized when I was young (300-500) and grew to over 2,000 by the time I graduated from high school. It’s now over 4,000. This has given me the chance to experience some of that sliding scale.

TB: In my experience, people tend to assume the worst when they find out someone is a PK. What often overlooked, but positive aspects of being a PK would you highlight?

BP: The biggest thing that gets overlooked with almost every PK is their uniqueness. God made us to be something, to be good at things, to have proclivities and tendencies. Too often all that gets ignored because people only see through the filter of “PK”. We get seen in that particular light, and breaking out of it can be hard.

The other big positive, I think, is that PKs are uniquely suited to serve the church (if they want to). We were raised in a ministry-intensive environment. This means we know the ups and downs of ministry, the variety of people and challenges the church houses, and the awesomeness and terribleness of vocational ministry. We have absorbed far more Bible than the average kid just by proximity, if nothing else. In all, a PK with a heart to serve the church is in a fantastic position to do so.

TB: In writing this book you interviewed a lot of PKs, including me. Did any of their experiences of growing up as PKs surprise you?

BP: The thing that surprised me most was the number of PKs, including you, who have gone on to serve in the church. That was part of what opened my eyes to all those unique blessings PKs have (see question 2). I expected to hear from a lot of jaded PKs who were washing their hands of the church, and there were plenty. But SO many have turned around and are devoting their lives to God’s church as pastors or committed servants.

On the negative side, nothing really surprised me. I heard from PKs with some horrible stories, and it was what I expected. Sadly, I was aware of how bad it could be for some PKs. I am just thankful those stories were not the norm.

TB: You’ve mentioned twice that PKs are in a great position to serve the church, and many go on to do so for much of their adult lives. My experience is that church members often want a PK to follow in those same footsteps as mom or dad. How can churches do a better job of giving space for PKs to serve within the church, without placing expectations that they follow the same path as mom/dad?

BP: I think that churches should put NO expectation on PKs to serve vocationally in the church. The ideal is for PKs to be seen as any other member of the church who has a desire to do what God has gifted him/her to do. That may mean a lay level of service in the church or a vocational role, but that should be somewhat that God brings out in the PK, not something he or she is pushed toward by members of the church. Rather than expecting the PK to serve at every service day, in the nursery, at VBS, and in door-to-door evangelism because he is the PK he should be invited to serve as a church member.

PKs are part of the church family, but not a special part with their own set of rules. They should have the same space that everyone else has so that God has space to draw, prod, lead, and call. And He will call some to pastor, some to marry pastors, and some to be business people, craftsmen, and artists.

TB: What is one thing pastors can do to provide a better environment for raising their kids within the church?

BP: Since you asked specifically about “within the church” I would say this: be a bold advocate for your kids. Fight for them. Don’t let people make PK jokes, heap expectations on them, or hold them to an unfair standard. Be vocal about it, and expect the same from your fellow pastors.

Your congregation needs to be led in this way, and your kids will appreciate it. It will open doors for you to connect with your kids at home too, because they’ve seen you go to bat for them and they know you are aware and care. It might ruffle some feathers and cause some friction, but all good leadership (especially leadership toward change) does that. In the end it will be better for your church and your family.

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Do You Condone Same-Sex Marriage by Photographing the Wedding?

This past Sunday I shared what I believe to be my most important message (you can stream the audio of that message here, as well as download the audio and notes), two years into my pastoral role. The subject was how Christians should respond to a culture increasingly accepting of same-sex partnerships and sexuality.

Someone asked me how long I took to prepare the message, and I responded by saying 8 years. This is a subject, with various nuances, that my generation has dealt with first-hand over the past decade. I continue to seek God’s guidance on not only what truth from His Word is, but also how to take that truth into the public square.

wedding archwayAfter establishing some big picture ideas of how Jesus dealt with those outside the religious community, I posed a question many have wrestled with due to a well-known lawsuit in New Mexico:

If you are a Christian photographer should you take pictures at a same-sex wedding ceremony?

(I also addressed this subject more briefly on this post)

My response was simply that religious liberty should allow you to act on your beliefs, so I disagree with this particular photographer getting fined for her actions in New Mexico, but I believe the Christian thing is to take the pictures.

Why? In this case the photographer decided her beliefs allowed her to build a wall between herself and this gay couple. With Acts 15:19 as a foundational verse, Christians should do everything possible to maintain relationship with those who are outside of the Christian faith, without causing themselves or others to sin. Don’t be the reason someone is kept far from Jesus.

My response to this specific question has received a few comments of disagreement and concern from people within my church body. I’ve engaged those conversations but I thought I would extend those concerns here, so as to help all of us weigh these issues together.

The concern from many who believe a photographer should NOT take the pictures is two-fold:

  • By taking the pictures, or extended from that, attending the wedding, taking part in the ceremony in some way, etc, you would be violating your conscience.
  • By taking the pictures, attending the wedding, etc, you would be condoning the sinful act of homosexuality, and condoning gay marriage, which is outside of God’s design.

Conscience

First let’s look at this issue of violating conscience. Most often people pull from 1st Corinthians 8:9-10, where Paul is speaking about food sacrificed to idols. In response to this issue he says,

“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?”

It is a fair argument (conscience). After all many Christians would agree that a same-sex wedding ceremony isn’t even creating a marriage because God designed marriage in a specific way. Notice, however, that Paul is focused on the conscience of others, not your own conscience. Certainly Christians must use discernment, relying on God’s Spirit to help them understand whether their presence in a sinful ceremony is pushing others to also pursue sin.

On the flip side, the presence of Christians at a same-sex wedding ceremony communicates a love and care toward the individuals in the ceremony, whereas the absence of those same Christians says to the couple, “I can only befriend you until I get uncomfortable.” This is not what Paul had in mind in 1st Corinthians 8.

When it comes to conscience, the question we must pose is whether we want to have a posture of protection or love for neighbor?

Condoning

Does a Christian condone same-sex marriage by attending such a ceremony, or by taking pictures at the ceremony?

I would turn that question around by asking, does a Christian condone alcoholism by going to a bar?

God is strong enough and powerful enough to judge and condemn sin on His own. He does not need us to go around making our own judgments toward those outside of the Christian faith.

I have conversations with people inside and outside of my church week after week, many who are choosing to continue walk in sinful choices. My time with them over coffee and conversation is not a stamped approval for their choices, it is an acknowledgment that part of my role as a Christian in this world is to continue reaching beyond myself.

Even the thought of whether this would be condoning puts the action in the negative, rather than seeing the potential good a pursued friendship can do. Paul said he desired to “become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).

I think most Christians would agree that Jesus was a relationships over rules kind of guy during His earthly ministry. Let’s stop making this the hill we die on, when so many others are worth fighting over. This is an ant-hill among mountains in the Alps.

How would you engage the question of whether a Christian photographer should take part in a same-sex wedding ceremony?

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The Allure of Parish Pornography

megachurch stage lightsEugene Peterson says that many pastors fall in love with ecclesiological pornography—fake pictures of church ministry—filtered so ministry becomes a glorified endeavor of glamour. Taking cues from the surrounding culture, we begin to desire something that does not exist. The snapshots we see of the ministry of glamour aren’t real.

Upon starting seminary I worked as a janitor at a large church in Portland, Oregon. I served in the college ministry, and after six months found a job on the creative arts team. A few years later I was hired to join the student ministry team as well. At this point I was helping run four different weekly programs, only two years after taking out the trash at the church. All my ministry partners called me the rags to riches story. That worked for me.

My quick ascent to leadership had a small piece of me wondering what my ascent would look like in another five years. “If God’s divine favor has me playing a key role at a large church in the sexiest post-Christian city in America, just imagine what a decade from now will look like!” or so I would think.

I had started to equate my own ambition with God’s mission.

Two words have been a theme in my life for well over a year now. They’re simple words with dramatic implications.

Faithfulness and stewardship.

Beyond fame and glamour, and the pictures of parish pornography we tend to view as real life, God calls us to faithfully steward what He has placed at our feet. Even as I say that it feels easy, and overly simplistic. But my life over the last five years has taught me that embodying those words is a challenge of immense proportion. Writing them is easy, living them is the stuff of struggle.

Don’t mistake your ambition for mission. This is something Aaron Keyes said, and weeks later it still has me shaken up, because it describes my tension over the past half decade. I left the large and more glamorous, for the small and un-noteworthy. And I’ve been happy. Fulfilled. It doesn’t add up.

The allure of parish pornography grabbed me, pulling me toward a version of church ministry that never existed. It’s only easy if you’re doing it wrong. It doesn’t hurt if you aren’t actually invested in the people. The parish porn spoke to the sin in me saying I could make something of myself, all the while the gospel became a tool for my own benefit.

You might have seen the link last week that my wife is pregnant. And I’m taking this as God’s direction to lay down roots—to ignore the parish pornography of so-called ministry success to place myself in the ordinary. So we’re in the market for a house. We’re calling ordinary Salem, Oregon home. Instead of playing the wait and see game where we see how things fit, we’re just diving in.

It’s not tweet-worthy and it doesn’t sell more copies of my book, but it’s an opportunity to raise up the gospel in dark places. It’s not ministry in the quirky weirdness that is Portland. But it’s where God has placed me, where God is leading me, and where God continues to root me. I’m not going to run from that anymore.

Faithful stewardship. It’s God’s calling for all of us. I’m just going to listen to my own advice this time.

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Does This Need to Have a Title?

Someday I’ll stop blogging. Tomorrow? August 17th, 2036? Maybe.

When I first started writing in this space nearly seven years ago I posted something new six days a week. Then I transitioned to five, then three, and now typically two days a week of new posts.

Nearly all the bloggers I know who’ve been at this online web-log writing for more than three years either make a lot of money through their blog and turned it into a job, or they aren’t married, or they don’t have kids.

My typical work day usually includes an item on my to do list of “writing.” It’s the first one to go once things start piling up. Just a few days ago I came home after a full day, and had dinner with my family. After we put the little one to bed I went to the kitchen to do the dishes. After I had finished my duties I grabbed the computer to do some writing.

But then a family member called. An hour later my one free hour of writing had disappeared. I look at my computer. Then I looked at my wife. 2 years ago I would have said to myself, “your longevity in blogging is 100% due to your discipline, get on it.” But that particular night I said to my wife, “I wanted to write tonight, but I haven’t seen you all day and you deserve more devotion than online ink.”

These days writing is a struggle. I ponder quitting. Nothing in my job description says I need to write consistently, but I still feel this urge within me. The problem is that the urge is squelched by more pressing and more important things.

I know I’m living well when many of my decisions reflect a theological principle. Writing for me is a reflection of the Creator God who spoke all of life and matter into existence from nothing. Writing is much the same. It is an act of creation where something is birthed from nothing. And it is hard. It takes time and effort and inspiration.

I may not write with the same veracity as I did 5 years ago, but I will continue to write because all of us are called to speak light into the great expanse of nothing, with the hope that redemption will follow suit in some capacity.

Thanks for sticking with me, even though my patterns have continually adjusted to match life’s demands.

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A Church For the Community

covenant-church-buildingIn days long ago churches were built within neighborhoods, and were placed strategically as a unifying place and focal point for those within a certain community. As cars and mass transportation were introduced our understanding of a neighborhood has expanded greatly, and our church-going habits have changed along with it.

Instead of walking to the church down the street, now we have the ability to choose any church in town that fits us. Extrapolate this into the internet-age and we can get our church needs met by listening to podcasts, worship albums, and live online services. This is obviously a weak understanding of church, but that doesn’t make it uncommon.

Two years ago a church in Indiana changed the way they refer to their church building, taking the word “church” out of the title. The church still exists, but the building exists for the community. The church just happens to use part of the building for offices and weekend gatherings.

When I first heard of their decision I thought it was incredibly misguided. “If you’re going to be a church, be a church. You don’t need to hide it,” I thought. But as I provided time and space for my thoughts to continue growing on the subject of the connection between a church and the building(s) where churches gather, I had another thought:

Church exists within a specific community, but rarely exists as a blessing for all within the community. Most churches are a blessing to those who call it home, but quite often the community would be unaffected if the church disappeared. Church exists as a beacon pointing toward the Kingdom of God. It does not exist to build itself.

In a small way this church in Indiana was voicing their desire to do more than gather on Sunday, but to open their space to the community at large. The community helps the church grow into their God-given role. Most churches don’t have the kind of space that community groups can take advantage of, but this specific shift represents a mindset shift that all churches can and should adopt.

My church operates a monthly food bank, and just this summer we’re trying our hand at a community garden where we can grow foods to add to the food bank during harvest season. Both are a small example of our desire to not insulate the Christian community that calls our church home, but to be a church for the community at large. What being a church for the community looks like in your context may differ, but the calling is a given.

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