Thursday, August 12, 2010

An Open Letter To Wesley King of the Willow Creek Association

Dear Wesley,

"It's about the church, capital 'C', not small 'c'." Those were your words at the very beginning of our conversation over nine months ago. The decision to become a "Host Site" took weeks of prayer and discussion among our Team, but I think that statement hooked me from the very beginning.

You didn't know it at the time, but I could remember a season when the Church in our region was working together extensively. Over a number of years we gradually drew apart. Without doubt, some have tried various ways to open the communication lines again, but I have noticed our churches throughout this area have been more like grain silos than like a continuous tapestry of varicolored fields. During this time, some of the churches (including ours) have grown. A few new churches have started and are making an impact. But overall, we became strangers to each other...

...until last week!

Bill Hybels began the 2010 Global Leadership Summit with thoughts about The Power of a Whisper: Hearing God, Having the Guts to Respond. It would be understatement to say that our journey from that opening conversation with you to the last Summit session was a veritable chain of "whispers." For instance, you opened the door to the possibility that we could find ways to involve the Hispanic community, both here and across the Mexican border, ten miles away. That one idea made it possible for approximately 25 people to attend the Summit.

Another "whisper" occurred when I sat down for coffee with a pastor whom I have known for years, but we had little real connection. This Lutheran brother was immediately gripped by what the Summit could mean in his portion of the faith community. His church signed on as an Assisting Church and he worked hard to reach some congregations we would never have reached otherwise. I wish you could have been in his church's conference room one morning when four of us sat down for a brief conversation and prayer. Hearing him pray for our community touched me in a deep way and has kindled what I believe will be a long-term bond as we face the future.

One way God whispered was through the many conversations I had with a variety of pastors about the Summit. Virtually every one of them has recently been burdened with the deep needs of our region and the impossibility that any of our churches can face them alone. Pastor after pastor, some who were unable to attend the Summit, said, "We want to find ways to work together with the other churches. Please tell us when we can meet with others."

During the lunch break at the Summit on Thursday, people sat around tables and began discussing some of the deepest needs in our region. They started forging relationships to see how we can work together. Just one example of the power of this was when a young mom in our church spoke about a pilot initiative we are beginning which will place adults in a local elementary school to encourage/mentor/tutor young students. She still needs a few helpers for this pilot project and was asked by a staff pastor at the local Episcopal church if some of his people might help. "Yes!" was her reply. In return, she (a classroom teacher herself) agreed to train others from his church so they can take the ministry other places.

Whispers from God, Wesley, over and over again. The last one I will mention was more like a shout to me. The final session had just concluded and I turned around. Pastor Raul, who shepherds two Hispanic mission churches we support, came up to me with tears in his eyes. In broken English, he said, "Thank you for doing this for us." We embraced and I emotionally acknowledged his gratitude. I thought he was about to walk away when he grabbed me in a bear hug again. This time he started sobbing. "Thank you for helping us!" he choked out.

During the break before the final Summit session, I was approached by pastor after pastor and leader after leader saying, "Thank you for doing this! Thank you for investing in us!" I echo those words to you, my friend. Thank you for investing in our church. Thank you for taking a chance on us. On behalf of all the churches that participated, we are eternally grateful!


Sam Norris

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Come As You Are

He had patrolled the blood-soaked streets of Mogadishu and endured the harsh desert of Iraq, but it was the pain of events back home that brought him to the brink of hopelessness.

I received a call one morning from a guy in our church; a call from someone who never called. "I have a friend," he said. "He's going through some pretty rough stuff and isn't sure he can go on with life. Can you see him?" I just happened to have an opening that morning, something that can be quite rare in my schedule. "Can he come right away?" I asked.

The man walked in, eyes downcast and shoulders slumped. He spoke of his despair and his longing to know that Someone could offer him hope. At least a sliver.

That man, who today is a leader in our church, was a living picture of our first value at Stone Ridge: Come as you are!

To contrast, I saw a family walk into one of our recent services. Parents and two or three kids, who looked to be in their young teens. As I noticed the relatively conservative clothes they wore (girls in dresses and boy in sport shirt and slacks) along with the somewhat stiff way they walked, I thought, "Uh-oh. They may be in for a surprise." Our Ignite worship band was leading that morning; the same band that leads Ignite for teens on Saturday nights. Let's just say that they aren't "traditional." The young man who leads them used to be in a touring band and has body art all the way down one arm. He passionately loves Jesus, but he ain't, er, traditional. At the end of the service, I noticed that the family quietly left and I don't think they have been back.

Please don't get me wrong; I have a deep level of compassion and respect for the family I just described, but they struck me as people whose whole view of attending church is different than ours. We seek to embody the value "Come As You Are." For most of us, the button-down, spit-shined version of ourselves is a person we like to be, but we would admit that looking good is in many ways just a veneer. In other words, our lives are marred by schisms, struggles and stresses that take their toll on us. Nearly every day.

Unfortunately, many of us took the admonition to "give your best to God" to mean, "Act like everything is great even though it isn't." In an era when our culture regularly grinds people up and spits them out, we have learned to walk into church with what I call our "plastic Jesus smile" on our faces. Most of us desperately need healing, but we act like we're the people who have it all together.

Stone Ridge isn't like that. I have dubbed my office as a "free-cry zone." We have boxes of tissues sitting at various places all over our campus and they are not primarily for allergy season. Jesus called the weary and those carrying a heavy burden to come to him. He said that He was here to rescue the downtrodden. One day He told the religious leaders that it is the sick who need a physician; they saw themselves as having it all together and He couldn't help them.

At our church we urge you, "Come As You Are!" It's the first step to becoming someone different.