Happy New Year!
This past weekend, I gave my last talk at a church I have served for 22 years. It was an emotional day. But, as I was getting ready to work on this week’s blog, I realized that what I shared with the church, might have equal relevance for you as you think about what might be next for you. Just every time you read the word “church” you can substitute the word family, company, fraternity, or social service agency (whatever is most applicable for you)
Transitions are always tough. Our church has had a few of them of late. Transitions make things feel unsettled. Transitions evoke feelings of fear and anxiety. Therefore, the natural reaction in times like this is to take a step back; to wait and see what happens. If things go well and things come back together then you will re-engage again yourself. If not, than you won’t have wasted your effort on a dying cause. That is what seems right. That is what seems safe. But, I think that is a recipe for disaster for both you and the community you have grown to love.
It is true that transitions are always difficult, but at the same time transitions create space for God to do something fresh and new – both in you and the community you have been called to serve. And that fresh new thing happens because people – people like each of you – respond to his invitation to be who he has called you to be!
When you think about the stories of scripture that we love they often include the great heroes of the faith. Many of those stories were birthed out of times where circumstances were not ideal. Moses looking at the Red Sea in front of him with the armies of Pharaoh coming up from the rear. David listening to the taunts of Goliath the giant (three times his size). Daniel standing before the lions in the den. In each case, nothing about the circumstances gave any of them reason for hope. In fact, quite the opposite – those were the exact times, where the best “natural” option would have been to cut and run! But, they didn’t. They did something heroic and their own stories, as well as the story of their community, was forever transformed, because of the actual choices they made.
Many people could look back at the beginnings of their own career and recall thoughts of ambivilence. Not a lot of confidence. Not a lot of experience. But, you did something heroic. You got started. You overcame a significant disappointment. You walked into a rocky hand-off. Looking back, there was nothing about those circumstances that would illicit confidence in anyone’s mind that you were going to do well. But, people made choices then about the vision of your organization or initiative, which brought forth the courage to do something that didn’t make much sense at the time. People stepped up. They stepped in. And they stepped out!
And if there is to be a brighter future for your group, and if there is to be any adventure left in your own walk, it won’t be because you stood back and watched. It will only happen if you too decide to step up, step in and step out. I think that is the invitation being extended to all of us this year
And today, I would like to take some time to tease out what that actually looks like.
To step up
What I mean here is that this next season will require begin with a step up. This is about a volitional choice. A clear intent. If I have learned anything about ministry in these 35 years, I have learned that visions are fragile things. And our tendency is to under-estimate just how fragile they are.
I was born in Holland, and so I have been a student of the church in Europe. One of the great tragedies of the church in Europe is that one-time vibrant congregations built these lofty glorious cathedrals. Majestic works of art! However, these congregations apparently lost sight of an even more important dynamic of ministry and that was to keep their visions alive. But, because that got lost in the mix, the cathedrals now stand empty a haunting reminders of how quickly visions can be lost. Are organizational aspirations or personal resolutions any less vulnerable?
Part of the reason for the shortfall is that people get comfortable. People are used to things being done for them. People believe that once they are finished with one run they can sit back and let someone else do it for a while. But, that is not what God asks of us. Paul’s great testimony is that he ran the race all the way to the end.
I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith!
I Timothy 4:7
I cannot implore you enough to understand how much of this rests on your shoulders. It won’t happen unless you step up. Edmund Burke is famous for saying,
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing…
But, I’m not even talking about the triumph of evil, I am talking about the continuation of good. And yet, that same principle applies. Vision leaks. Organizational visions are fragile. Inertia works even on the soul – and unless there are people willing to step up and say this is what we believe in – this is what we have always believed in – we will step up and speak for it and fight for it, unless you are willing to do that you will turn around in a few short years and wonder what happened. And then it will be too late…
There is that memorable scene out of the movie Braveheart, where William Wallace stands before his army and says, “Guys, it is all about here and it is all about now. If we turn back today you may save your physical life, but who among you would not regret that decision for the rest of your lives? How many times would you come back to this day and wish you could have made another decision? These moments don’t come around that often – and when they do we have to seize them, because we don’t realize how important they are until much later in the game!” And at the risk of sounding overly dramatic this is our moment. This is your time.
To step in
To step up is essential, but there is also an action step associated with it and it is to step in. What I mean by that is that every member is a minister. Typically, we think of ministers as the professionals; the ones that are paid to be good. You all are good for nothing! OK, I didn’t mean that as it sounded.
The point is that we believe that one of the unique practices of Jesus is that he put ministry in the hands of ordinary people – fishermen, carpenters and tax collectors. Although we honor and respect those whom God has called us to serve full-time in vocational ministry that does not mean that the rest of us are off the hook. Paul said it this way,
A spiritual gift is given to each of us so that we can help each other…
I Corinthians 12:7
Everyone has a part to play and without each person doing their unique part the body of Christ is incomplete. Something doesn’t get done.
Now, one of the other realities of life is the dynamic of seasons. I believe that God calls us into and through various seasons in life. There is a learning season. There is a healing season. There is a resting season. There is a serving season. All of which is true, but one of the questions, we have to sort through is how do we know which season we are in. Who makes that call? I suspect most of the time we assume that is our call. But, I also think it is right and good for us to evaluate that question by discerning what is happening around us. Is this a good time for me to rest or learn (given what is happening around me)?
Sometimes God calls us into service before we think we are ready. Sometimes he asks us to serve long after we think we might be done. And if I may be so bold, I would say this is a time where your church desperately needs your involvement and investment.
In January of 1961, the country was about to embrace a new president. It was a time of significant unrest and lots of social change, and it was in that setting, John F. Kennedy uttered his most memorable quote.
Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country…
I think he knew, what all transitional leaders know and that is that if we don’t pull together (with everyone doing their part), we are sunk. So, this is the day, where we ought not be asking what the church should be doing for me – but what can I be doing for the church!
To step out
If Woodcrest has been about anything over these last two decades it has been a church that is focused outward. It is part of what we have said since the earliest days of the church. We are about impacting the community. We love the programs of the church that train children. We love the programs that teach people how to read and learn from the Bible. We also love the programs that turn followers into leaders. All of that matters. However, all of that is predicated upon this external focus. There are people in our community who need to experience the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Without that, nothing else matters!
Now, one of the interesting questions every church has to wrestle with is, “How does that happen?” How does a church have impact? Do we plan evangelistic crusades? Do we open a soup kitchen? Do we host concerts and conferences? There is nothing wrong with any one of those options. But, historically we have taken a much simpler and more personal approach.
We have said, that we are the church. The church isn’t the buildings, or the programs, or the core set of beliefs we hold tight. We the people are the church and the best chance we have to reach spiritual seekers is through engaging them in our normal everyday life – the people we work with, the people we buy our coffee/gas from, and the people who live next door. We love them and engage them in spiritual conversation. Then, at the right time, we invite them to a service that is relevant, creative and applicable. And our hope is that somewhere in that process they will come to know Christ as savior and lord.
It’s a simple strategy, but it hinges on full participation. And one of the things I have learned is that over time it is easy to fill your life with so much church activity and relationships that you lose touch with the outside world. But, again, the last thing Jesus said was,
Go into all the world…
The truth about living this way is that you can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. It means hanging out with people (on occasion) that are messy. Sometimes people won’t see things the same way as you do – but if we are going to be a church that remains faithful to its founding mission, we must take all three steps – a step up, a step in and a step out. That is how we continue doing and being all that God has called us to be as a church.
Now, in closing, I have been talking a lot about the church and what this community can accomplish together. And the thought you might have is that this is all about us (collectively) and not enough about me (personally). We probably wouldn’t say that out loud, because that sounds way too selfish.
But, in case you are asking that question let me make something really clear. Everything I have talked about is not just about what the church does together, it is absolutely about who you, as an individual, become.
One of the things I love about how God works is that we are best shaped into who we want to be when we join God in what he is doing. You could look at everything said today as something you do for the church. But, it is also the very best thing you can do for yourself! You will not experience any more adventure or life (at its best) than by stepping up, stepping in and stepping out.
This is for you!
So, will you have the courage and tenacity to start this next year fully engaged? Wherever you are and whatever you are doing it is more than likely that it will require a decision to step up, the action of stepping in and a willingness to focus externally by stepping out!