Saturday, January 26, 2013

It's not remedial!

My assistant Patti stepped into my office and showed me a Welcome Card from a recent weekend. The couple who had filled out the card wanted to "re-join" our church and were asking what to do. "Have them take the membership class again," I said. I could almost hear the questions as I said the words. "Why? They were members here before! We know about their spiritual journey and they know our church; why should they be forced to take a three-hour class?"


For full disclosure, the couple isn't young in their faith. He is seminary-trained, has pastored and has led a Christian non-profit in the past. They moved away some years back, but have decided to return to Yuma to be near their family. In addition, they have been our friends for about a quarter century. Why, then, would I require them to take our membership class?


1. Our church has changed. Though our messages are the same, our methods aren't. Over the years, we have stopped doing some things and started others. Our values are simpler and more direct. We have a process that is simple. We are larger than they remember, but less complex. We are fierce in guarding that simplicity! When a church does this, it changes the conversation! We spend most of our time talking about the important things and intentionally neglecting the things that don't matter.


2. They have changed. Hearing about their recent years will help us know where they will fit, should they decide to join. They bring incredible gifting and rich backgrounds, but we don't expect them to fit in just anywhere. We and they will want to find a ministry fit that will enrich them and be a great encouragement to those already in that ministry.


3. They will get to meet others who are connecting with our church. One of my great joys is watching people walk in to our membership class as strangers and walk out with new friends. These days we have people coming from about every kind of background, both religious and non-religious. People like this couple gain a huge insight as they hear some of the stories of others in their class.


Throwing a "One Way" sign in front of people whom I love isn't my favorite thing to do, especially if they reject it. However, it's the best way I have found to keep us all moving in the same direction.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

How Comfortable Must We Be?

The message she had heard changed her life. Like the hungry thousands who streamed from their villages to hear Jesus before He multiplied loaves and fishes for their dinner, she gave little thought to her physical comfort. Week after week she made her way from her tiny dwelling to the church where the message was being spoken. Her trip was unusual, to say the least: she had to cross an irrigation canal and the nearest bridge was a great distance away. She found it easier to wear old clothes, carry her church dress over her head and wade through the water...often up to her neck.


The church where the life-changing message was doing its work wasn't any more comfortable than her arduous journey. The group of dedicated, lively Jesus-followers met under a tree. In fact, Iglesia Bautista Fe Y Esperanza (Church of Faith and Hope) needed the shade of several trees to accommodate their growing tribe. Most of us have heard about climates where meeting outside can be tolerable -- even pleasant -- virtually every day of the year. This was not the case for "Church Under The Tree" (the name we still call it). They met under a tree in the Mexicali Valley, a place where 114 degrees is normal in the summer, 118 happens frequently and 122 was recorded a few years ago. The blazing summer heat didn't keep them from meeting and God kept changing lives with the Gospel.


I recently attended the dedication service in which Church of Faith and Hope became a full-fledged church. They now have a building; they even have air conditioning (whew!). However, it was their time under the tree that gave birth to a question which every church should ask: "How comfortable must we be?"


The easy way to approach that question came in the form of another query which I received from an attender of our church: "Why can't WE just meet under a tree rather than have to build expensive buildings?" On the surface it seemed so simple: Church of Faith and Hope was meeting under their trees at that time and their location is only about 15 miles (as the crow flies) from our church. "One problem," I answered, "is that Americans used to air conditioning are far less likely to attend church under a tree when everything else (houses, cars, offices) has AC. That's not the case in Mexico; many of the people have little to help them stay cool on the hot days."


The question of comfort, though, is relevant to every church everywhere. The moment a church becomes more concerned about their own comfort than about the needs of the people outside their walls, that church is dying. Local churches are always one generation away from extinction. I know about a church which has sent the clear message, "Don't ask us to change anything because we like the way we are and we don't have to change." In other words, "We're comfortable and we shouldn't have to face discomfort." It's no wonder that some within that church resist any attempt to reach the neighborhoods around their church building. After all, the people outside their walls are "different" and might want to change things if they come inside.


Every time I hear an anecdote about a newcomer sitting in the seat that a longtime attender invisibly claimed as their own, I shudder. How comfortable must we be? Isn't it time to forsake our own comfort to build relationships with those who most need to hear the best news in the world? If we do, we may be surprised at just how uncomfortable they might become in order to gather with our church!


Monday, January 21, 2013

Running or Rusted?

The old Jeep has sat there since I was a little boy. It has occupied the same fixed position on my grandparents' homestead ranch for decades. What once was a lively, powerful mode of transportation has degenerated into a decaying pile of rust. As kids, we played on it, pretending to drive on imaginary adventures. In that sense, it has fulfilled a purpose...but not the purpose it was designed for. You see, that old Jeep was once new. In a factory somewhere, people were putting the parts together with the knowledge that it would roll out the door and into the world of challenging hills and valleys. It was designed to meet those challenges and it did...until it didn't anymore.

The sad truth is that I have known many Christ-followers who ended their lives like that Jeep. Designed and built by the Master Designer/Craftsman, they started out with great hope to meet the hills and valleys of life. Something happened, though, and they ran out of spiritual fuel. With their engine no longer running and their gears no longer shifting, they stopped, doomed to rust in place. What a tragedy!