A Very Dangerous Question

If you’re like me, you like questions. And ministry leaders should be great at asking questions. When we stop asking questions–or if we stop letting others ask questions–then we and the ministries and churches we lead will become stagnant. However, there is one question that is very, very dangerous. Chances are, someone has recently asked you this questions in one form or another in the past month. On the surface, it’s an innocent enough question. In fact, it’s usually asked by someone in your church or ministry who has a great heart. However, this question has the ability to quietly but systematically swallow up your impact as an organization.

So, what’s the question I’m talking about? Here it is: “Why don’t we…?”

Yep, that’s it. I bet I can guess what you’re thinking. Benjer, what in the world is wrong with that question? It’s harmless. It’s cute. It’s not even a complete sentence–you left part of it out!

Sure, it seems harmless enough, but let me show you why it’s so dangerous by using an example. Imagine you’re getting ready to plan your summer calendar, and someone asks you, “Why don’t we take our high school students on a trip to Kenya to serve impoverished orphans next summer?” In all likelihood, the person who poses this question to you has a big heart for orphans in Kenya. This person probably even believes that such a trip is the best thing for the high schoolers in your church to do next summer. But unless this is a huge Holy Spirit moment, you probably already can come up with several legitimate answers to this person’s question–reasons why you shouldn’t take your high schoolers to Kenya next summer. We already have a trip in the planning stages. It would be too expensive for all but a few of our high school students. I don’t think your group is ready for such a trip. Of course, the person who really wants your high school students to go to Kenya next summer will have an answer to each of your objections. And if you run out of additional objections, you just might find yourself planning a short-term mission trip to Kenya, even though you don’t think it’s what God is leading your high school students to do.

The reason any “Why don’t we…?” question is so dangerous is that there are endless good trips, programs, initiatives, service projects, retreats, camps, and mission trips you could plan for your church or ministry. And when someone asks “Why don’t we…” in a passionate way, you might feel as though by saying “No,” you’re saying that you don’t care whether your teenagers hear the gospel or not, that there are impoverished orphans who need to be cared for, or if the local food bank is able to stock their shelves next month. What is difficult to remember when someone asks us “Why don’t we…?” is that when we say “Yes” to one opportunity, it necessarily requires us to say “No” to something else. And that something else just might be the thing God is really leading you and the people you serve to do.

Now that you see how dangerous a “Why don’t we…?” question can be, how should you answer it? Just about every leader has felt the tension between wanting to affirm a person who cares enough to bring an idea to you and wanting be discerning about which ideas you say “Yes” to and which ones you say “No” or “Maybe down the road” to. Chances are you’ve given the green light to an idea that began “Why don’t we…?” that you realized later was a mistake. How should you handle it when someone asks, “Why don’t we open a pregnancy care center at our church?” It’s a great cause and an important ministry, and many faithful people and churches engage in caring for women who find themselves in unplanned pregnancies. But how do you answer the question if you’re pretty sure it’s not something God is asking your particular church to do?

When you hear a question that resembles “Why don’t we…?” try not to address the question head-on. As I’ve mentioned, if you’re talking to someone who is very passionate about their idea, they will have an answer to almost any objection you might have to it. Instead, give this person a glimpse into your planning process. Share the vision of your ministry, church, or organization. Put down on paper the direction you believe God is leading you and the people you serve. (Note: This only works if you have actually done the hard work of developing a vision and discerned where you think God is leading. If you haven’t, “Why don’t we…?” questions will eat you and your organization alive until you do.) Explain that while it might be a really good idea, it’s just one of the many roads you believe God is asking you not to take so that you can travel the road he is asking you to take. The person who brought the “Why don’t we…?” question to you will either understand and be on board with where you’re leading and be satisfied with a “no” “not this year, but maybe in the future” answer, or they will continue to be push their idea, no matter the cost.

The bottom line: your church, ministry, or organization can’t do everything. “Why don’t we…?” questions are dangerous because the question itself assumes that if it’s a good idea and a worthy cause, your church has to act on it. But that’s just not true. If you asked everyone in your church to take 60 seconds to write down every cause or initiative your church should be involved in, you would end up with far more ideas than your church could possibly handle. Your job isn’t to chase every good idea that you hear. Your job is to lead the people you serve to do what God is asking them to do.

Cussing, Making Out, and Teenagers Who Don’t Know Jesus

Last week, one of our leaders let me know that she had heard from a parent that the behavior of some teenagers in our during our large group time had made their kids–and the parent–feel a bit uncomfortable. Most of the reported behavior had to do with foul language in our student café and talking during the message, although one issue had to do with the fact that two teenagers–who are dating–had gotten a little too friendly with each other during youth group. (Side note: I’ve caught a lot of kids sneaking off to make out as a youth pastor, but to my knowledge, this is the first time someone had the guts to try it in the youth room–while one of our student pastors was giving the message.)

The parent (who was encouraged by our leader to talk to me directly, and I hope they will) had some valid points. Two kids making out in the youth room during youth group would concern me as a parent as well, and so I addressed the issue with the two students. And yes, when I hear a student throwing out a cuss word every other sentence, I’ll ask him or her to tone it down. But as I was thinking about the parent’s complaint, a thought came to my mind:

If we’re doing our job as youth workers, then we’ll always have some teenagers in our church that some folks might consider “disruptive.”

For a while, our team has been working really hard at making our youth ministry a place where people who might not know Jesus feel welcome. This school year, we’ve seen a lot more guests than we have in previous years. In addition, there’s a small subset of our group who make it clear every week that they disagree with me about this whole Jesus thing, not to mention most of the things I teach about sex and marriage. But still they come and listen (even if they do wander out of the room about halfway through my message). I recognize that such an environment will create some very uncomfortable situations from time to time. But if you’re dealing with some “disruptive” teenagers in your church, that might be a sign that things are headed in the right direction. (Never mind the fact that we all know “church kids” who have a tendency to get into more trouble than the kid who came for the first time with his girlfriend last week who wanted to know where he could smoke a cigarette.)

In a way, I was a little grateful to hear of this parent’s complaint.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to start using “Number of kids making out on Sunday morning” as an indicator of growth anytime soon. I’m also not saying that I think we as a youth ministry have arrived or that we have it all figured out. If you followed me around for a week, you’d know that was far from the truth. But if there is ever a day when all of the teenagers who attend our church do exactly as their told, sit nicely in rows through a whole sermon, and don’t cuss or smoke (or go with girls who do), then I’ll know I’m not doing my job as a youth pastor.

Of course, there will be people–probably some parents–who might be uncomfortable with some “questionable” language and behavior in your youth group. And now that I’m a parent, I get that. However, part of our job as ministry leaders is to help people understand why we want teenagers who are far from God in our churches and our youth ministries, and what exactly that might look like. It’s also our job to cast a vision for a church that’s safe for all teenagers–a church that might be a bit messy at times. It doesn’t mean that anything goes or that we overlook behaviors that really shouldn’t be going on because they are unsafe or keep others from being able to experience God in a meaningful way. After all, one way that we love teenagers is to set healthy boundaries for them. But if our churches and youth ministries are places where teenagers who may not know Jesus feel at home, then our churches and youth ministries may not be as neat and clean as we might be tempted to want them to be.

Video of the Week: Promo for "Fresh Start" Course

This is a video to promo a course at our church we call “Fresh Start.” Though the course is designed in part for those who might be coming out of the “local religious culture” here in Utah, you’ll notice that specific terms and labels are avoided. A part of our philosophy of ministry is to avoid an “Us vs. Them” approach to evangelism, but instead to build bridges through loving relationships and teach biblical truth where we have the opportunity, as Judi does. From time to time I get questions about what it’s like to serve and minister in Utah, and perhaps Judi’s story might provide a small glimpse:

Judi Abdulla, Fresh Start from The Heights Community on Vimeo.

Important Thoughts on Grace from Mike Yaconelli

I re-read Mike Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality this week, and these paragraphs just jumped out at me:

According to his critics, Jesus “did God” all wrong. He went to the wrong places, said the wrong things, and worst of all, let just anyone into the kingdom. Jesus scandalized an intimidating, elitist, country-club religion by opening membership in the spiritual life to those who had been denied it. What made people furious was Jesus’ “irresponsible” habit of throwing open the doors of his love to the whosoevers, the just-any-ones, and the not-a-chancers like you and me.

Nothing makes people in the church more angry than grace. It’s ironic: we stumble into a party we weren’t invited to and find the uninvited standing at the door making sure no other uninviteds get in. Then a strange phenomenon occurs: as soon as we are included in the party because of Jesus’ irresponsible love, we decide to make grace “more responsible” by becoming self-appointed Kingdom Monitors, guarding the kingdom of God, keeping the riffraff out, which, as I understand it, are who the kingdom of God is supposed to include).

Messy Spirituality, p 47 (bold emphasis mine)

I worry that Christians have a habit of making grace “more responsible.” I remember once when I served in a previous church, a teenager in our church brought her boyfriend to church on a Sunday morning. This young man may have never been to church, as far as I know, and I was glad he was there. Our church had two services, and we had a “fellowship hour” between services where we would all enjoy snacks together. While I was enjoying a snack that morning between services in the fellowship hall, a man (who was also on the church board) pulled me aside and sternly instructed me, “Tell that young man to take his hat off!” I was taken aback and explained that it was his first Sunday here, and that he was a guest. “I don’t care,” the board member huffed. “He needs to learn that you don’t wear a hat inside the church.”

The conversation ended when I informed the board member that I was glad the young man was even in church–hat or no hat–and that I was not going to ask him to remove his hat. The exchange still bristles against me years later, but it also makes me a little fearful. Sure, I held my ground about a simple hat, but I wonder: In what ways have I had a habit of making grace “more responsible”? As a youth pastor, do I allow teenagers to come to Jesus as they are, or do I stand at the door as a self-appointed Kingdom Monitor?

I’ve got a pretty sizable library of books on youth ministry, leadership, and philosophy of ministry. I read a lot of blogs, listen to a lot of podcasts and sermons, and I try to add my own voice to the mix. Much of the stuff I read (and write) has to do with how to run programs, how to counsel students, and how to be a ministry leader. But I have a growing hunch that none of those things really get to the center of where churches often fall short. If we could just learn that Jesus’ “irresponsible love” is open to anyone who would accept it–and really live that out–I believe that the programs we run, the way we “do” ministry would just be secondary and increasingly unimportant details. Wouldn’t it be great if our churches were so dripping with Jesus’ irresponsible love and prodigal grace that it wouldn’t matter how good our programs or worship were–people would just want to be a part of it because they had never heard of or experienced that kind of love before?

Just some thoughts for your Thursday morning.

Roy Gruber Interview in Church Executive

Roy Gruber (Twitter) is our lead pastor where I serve. Recently he was interviewed for the September issue of Church Executive on what it’s like to serve in Utah, where so many people belong to the LDS church. I’ve learned a ton on what it means to be a missionary from Roy, especially when it comes to building relationships with people for the long haul and being bold in our witness for Jesus, not just with our words, but with our lives as well. It was cool to see this interview–his perspective is a unique one since his mindset of moving to Utah eight years ago was as a missionary. Here’s an excerpt, but head over to the Church Executive website for the rest:

Do former members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) move to evangelical churches?

Many folks who grow up Mormons and leave their faith move into the growing group of those who have no contact with any church due to feeling “burned” by their experience. Many of those who are not connected to any faith grew up in a church and have not given up on God, but they have given up on their church experience.

What approach works in evangelizing Mormons?

Event evangelism does not work in Utah, whereas a relationship found in community provides the ideal environment for people to discover who God really is and what it means to know Him. What does work on a practical level are relationships with neighbors and coworkers. This relational reality exists around the world, but what is true in Utah is this: Without relationships there is no outreach impact. The starting of new churches also makes an impact. Right now there are a record number of church planters in northern Utah and that is a wonderful and welcome development.

What doesn’t work in reaching Mormons?

What does not work is debating over quirky doctrines of Mormonism. Many LDS folks feel embarrassed by some of the previous or current beliefs of the church. It does not make an impact to win the “sprint” of momentary debates, but impact comes on the longer road of relationships. By definition, outreach through relationships is not a strategy but an everyday way to live out faith.

Spiritual conversations happen easily in Utah. In those conversations, speaking the truth in love helps us examine the differences in faith. Our Mormon friends sacrifice much to leave the LDS faith. A good amount of that sacrifice often includes relationships.

Dr. Pepper, Evolution, and Engaging with Culture

Let’s say you’re on Facebook one idle evening, and you come across someone who has “shared” Dr. Pepper’s Facebook page, so you click on the link and check it out. When you get there, this is what you see:

Dr. Pepper/Facebook

Upon seeing and digesting the ad, do you…
1) Chuckle a bit to yourself at the cleverness of the ad?

2) Find yourself suddenly craving a Dr. Pepper and drive to the nearest 7-Eleven?

3) Immediately (and very smart-like) identify the underlying anti-God agenda within the advertisement and vow never to drink another Dr. Pepper again, thereby vanquishing once and for all the foe of evolutionary thought and those who believe evolution ought to be regarded as fact?

Several Facebook users opted for number three and left comments about the ad indicating so. These comments reveal a very disturbing trend of Christians responding to ideas that contradict a biblical worldview with unjustified anger, offensive one-liners, and sometimes even hate. Rather than engage with these ideas that are in the “marketplace of ideas” and therefore inevitable for us to encounter, many followers of Jesus instead opt to respond in varying degrees of unhelpfulness, from ridicule (if you were smart, you’d love Jesus!) to boycott (you’ll cry when you go out of business because you didn’t love Jesus!) to lawsuits (I’ll pretend to be persecuted by you, when really I’m just angry!).

The Dr. Pepper example is tragic because 1) Commenters who vowed to boycott Dr. Pepper immediately shut down any possible chance at conversation and gave those who think Christians are clowns just one more reason not to give Jesus a second look, and 2) The nature of many of the comments are just plain sinful, because of their antagonism and lack of love.

Instead, followers of Jesus need to learn how to lovingly and intelligently engage culture and foster conversation. There are plenty of people who would be interested in having a lengthy discussion about Intelligent Design and its implications on scientific thought if we would perhaps stop arguing with people on blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and be simply be willing to present our ideas and listen to others’ ideas. There is a time to stand together with righteous indignation when there are people who are being hurt, taken advantage of, or murdered. A Dr. Pepper ad with a funny take on evolution is not one of those times. We would do well to learn how to have kingdom-minded, God-honoring conversations with people about issues which–if resolved–might allow them to take another look at Jesus.

Sermon by Stuart McCallister: By All Possible Means

Stuart McCallister of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries is an annual favorite at our church. No matter how many times he visits, he is always challenging and convicting, preaching on the importance of apologetics and the biblical mandate to reach people for Christ by all possible means. Here’s the sermon he preached this past Sunday:

“By All Possible Means”_Sept. 9, 2012 from The Heights Community on Vimeo.

Are We Known By Our Love?

While working on a sermon I preached last week, I came across a study Lifeway did back in 2005 on “The Top 10 Issues Facing the Church Today” (As of right now, you can access a summary of the study here, but the study is no longer available on Lifeway’s site). Lifeway polled 1,300 pastors from the West (Europe and North America)on what they believed were the most pressing issues facing the Church today. Here’s the top ten list:

10) Abortion
9) Homosexuality
8) Relevance
7) Marriage
6) Apathy
5) Doctrine/World View
4) Evangelism
3) Leadership
2) Discipleship
1) Prayer

Let me first say that I believe all of the issues here are valid issues, and were I making my own list, at least a few of them might make my Top Ten as well. However, the results of the study and the issues that made the Top Ten really concerned me, and here’s why: as followers of Jesus (and especially those of us who are church leaders), we have allowed ourselves to become known more by the issues we are for or against than by how we love.

(As an aside, loving others didn’t make the Top Ten. Is it because we’re already so great at loving each other and loving those in our communities? Or is it a gross oversight by the 1,300 CHURCH LEADERS who were polled?)

In the sermon I preached, we opened up John 13:35 and read Jesus’ words in what was kind of his final address to his disciples:

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Just imagine the scene: when Jesus says these words, it’s during the Last Supper, right before he is going to be arrested and crucified. And his disciples don’t quite understand everything that’s going on, but I think they do understand that this is a significant night, because Jesus is kind of giving a farewell address. And in the midst of this, he says, “By this, all people will know that you are my disciples…” I wasn’t there, and I may be reading into the text here, but I imagine that there must have been a significant pause after those words. You know, we read it like “By this all people will know that you are my disciples… (long pause) if you love one another.”

Maybe after that pause, there was a sense of expectation in the room. What’s he gonna say? Jesus, how will people know? What should we do so that people know we belong to you, that you’re the Messiah, and we can change the world?

Let’s take a quick minute here and imagine some of the things that Jesus could have said, but didn’t:

“By this, all people will know that you are my disciples…if you vote Republican.”

Just to be fair…

“By this, all people will know that you are my disciples…if you vote Democrat.”

What about…

“By this, all people will know that you are my disciples…if you covereth thou car with Jesus fish and traditional values bumper stickers.”

or

“By this, all people will know that you are my disciples…if you show up to eat at Chick-fil-A on a certain day.”

Let me be clear: those things that I just mentioned, in and of themselves, are not bad things (unless you’re a staunch Republican or a staunch Democrat, I suppose). The problem is that we have allowed those issues to define who we are as followers of Jesus. But THIS is what Jesus said: “By this, all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” That’s how we’re supposed to be defined as followers of Jesus: as people who love one another. But it is not so, at least as far as I can tell.

So, how are we doing on that? Is it something that resonates with you? Or did I just really, REALLY rub you the wrong way?

The Difference Between Results and Fruit

If you’re in any kind of ministry, you probably understand the pressure to produce “results” of some kind. That pressure might come from external sources, such as a boss or a board. Or, the pressure may come from within your own self, perhaps from a drive to succeed or a lack of self-confidence searching to be fulfilled by praise from others, accolades, or attendance numbers.

Here’s the problem: When you were called to ministry, you weren’t called to produce results. Many of you will read that and object that God loves it when results are produced, when many come to know Jesus, and when more and more are simply showing up to be told of Jesus’ work on the cross. That’s true. God throws a party whenever one sinner repents and turns to him. However, those occurrences are simply statistics that indicate a movement of God’s Spirit. Yes, God often uses faithful leaders in those movements, but we begin to walk down a dark and lonely road when we start to think that the goal of our ministry is to emulate others’ impressive results.

Instead, you are expected to produce fruit.

But what’s the difference? Here are some things you need to know about fruit:

Fruit might be an external or internal sort of thing. Not all fruit that grows as a result of being changed by Jesus is something people can see. In fact, I would argue that when we are faithful, most of the fruit that grows is something that happens inside of us, not around us. Paul’s list of the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 all are internal qualities that reveal a life changed by Jesus: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control.

Fruit can certainly appear in the form of statistical results, such as lots of people coming to know Jesus. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea that visible signs of fruit in the form of big stats are a bad thing. For a few years, many of the people I hung out with in ministry through my denomination were very, very distrusting of large churches. The prevailing sentiment of most of these friends I did ministry with was that large churches or ministries just used gimmicks and money to lure people into being part of their Super Impressive and Shallow Church. I don’t want to play psychoanalyst here, but I would guess there was a bit of envy at the root of this. As I’ve already said, we should celebrate when God does impressive things that involve more people coming to Jesus than we can count on our fingers and toes. Sometimes, God grows someone and the fruit that is borne is the reaping of a huge harvest (John 4:35). Praise God for that!

Fruit is the result of being rooted in Jesus. This might be the most important one. Clever people can produce results for a short period of time, but real fruit is grown when a person is rooted in Jesus. There is no real fruit apart from Jesus. And this is the real danger in striving for results rather than fruit. When we strive for results, we may get to a point where we want results at any price. When we strive for growing in Jesus, we get to a point where we want Jesus no matter the cost.

Fruit may grow, but it may not be the fruit we wanted. We’d all like to be a Paul, plant churches, see ministries, grow, and witness God do some amazing things. But maybe you or I have been called to be a Jeremiah. Maybe no matter how faithful we are, we will despair for a lack of tangible results in ministry. Even in these times, let us rejoice and praise God for the fruit that he is growing inside of us. It is no secret that we grow in our relationship with Jesus the most during difficult times, not good ones. When we cannot see the fruit being produced in the form of ministry successes, let us pray God would continue to produce fruit within us.

What do you think are some of the important differences between fruit and results?