Sunday, June 22, 2008


We just finished Summer of Service '08 here. SOS is a four day/five night serving-oriented experience for middle school and high school students. This year over 800 students came from all over the Midwest from sixty-five different churches and nearly twenty different denominations. Each day about twenty school buses would pull up and take students to eighty-five different outreach locations and for the next four hours students served in a myriad of ways, from painting murals in the inner city to giving free water bottles away at intersections to cleaning restrooms in businesses to framing four houses for Habitat for Humanity and on and on. Some special teams (The E2 Project) that were overseen by our prayer leaders prayed together for an hour and journaled any impressions or pictures they had. Then they put those together like a puzzle and took off in vans for some “treasure hunting”…with amazing results.

It takes about seven-hundred volunteers to make SOS work. It humbles me to learn that people take vacation time to serve the students. In the end, over 90,000 people were touched in Greater Cincinnati in some way.

In the mornings and evenings we blew the roof off with high-octane worship. To see hundreds of students worshiping Jesus and giving thanks for another day of serving is terrifically moving. We finished Friday night with nearly seventy baptisms.

How did we miss the power of servanthood in the Church? I’m convinced it will be the most attractive thing about the Church in America in years to come. Not our rightness. Not our politics. Not our arguments. Not our numbers. Not the volume of our voice.

Just servanthood.

I’m convinced this is a prophetic word from God.

I met with a guy at the Vineyard who grew up in a legalistic church background. He was shocked the first time he came. After a few weeks, he emailed me and wanted to grab a coffee. When we got together he said: “Dave, I feel like I’ve been born again again.”

I said, “Uh, I have no idea what that means.”

He went on to say that when he gets there at the 8:30 celebration, there’s hot coffee—and even decaffeinated—waiting for him that he can take into the auditorium and relax with. Then he said it hit him one morning: someone got up really early and made that to serve people who would be coming in. And then he noticed all the people serving others with smiles and then began to hear stories of simple outreaches of people serving others outside the walls. Then he totally shocked me when he said, “I just never put ‘the gospel’ and ‘serving others’. I never put together ‘church’ and ‘servanthood’. It’s changed my life…and now it’s all I see in the Bible—the servant-heart of God. I feel like I’ve been born again again.”

And that was just serving in the church. Think what happens when that’s turned totally outward. Beyond the walls.

Paul the apostle wrote to the church in Philippi and said, “Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a servant and appeared in human form. Philippians 2:5-7.

How did we miss that? How did we end up with a church in America that whines about its rights and what the man is taking away from them? Please.

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” ~Jesus…the God of the Universe.

Yeah. That God.

Monday, June 16, 2008

baggage drop

This final segment of the Baggage series on unforgiveness made it tough to actually watch the faces of some folks sitting in the auditorium. I can watch people drop their heads as the subject unfolds. Forgiveness is dicey. Sometimes I’ve gone through the forgiveness process (both asking and offering it) and the cancer in my soul seems to slip into remission.

But something triggers a memory and pain sears my psyche as the cancer flares up again. I inexplicably remember when I hurt someone, or the act that hurt me. Forgiveness is slippery on either side of the hill.

David Augsberger paints a classic story in his book, “Caring Enough to Forgive”. A friend divulges:

“‘I called home to see how my father was recovering from his heart attack only to discover that my mother was now in the hospital. At first they wouldn’t tell me what was wrong; finally my sister let it out that she was in the psychiatric ward after taking an overdose. ‘We didn’t call you or tell you because you don’t care about the family anymore, you’re too good for us now.’

“‘I have never been cut so deeply in my life. I didn’t sleep for two nights. My sister doesn’t know I’ve been sending a fourth of my paycheck home each month to help cover the expenses for Dad’s hospitalization. She doesn’t know how often I call home, so what she said is not just unfair, it’s really untrue.

“‘I prayed about it a lot, all night, in fact. I decided I’d never say another word about this to her. After all, she’s been carrying quite a load at home. I’ll just forgive her.’

Augsberger writes:

One-way forgiving seems generous, thoughtful and sacrificial. It’s generous, but not truly genuine. It’s thoughtful but not thorough. It’s self-sacrificial, but the sacrifice is seldom sufficient to restore the relationship.

. . . Any view of forgiveness that focuses primarily on getting release fro one’s own conscience (‘It’s obviously not my problem, I’ve forgiven him’), escape from guilt (It’s clearly his attitude that separates us, I’m forgiving’), freedom from responsibility (‘There’s nothing more I can do than what I’ve done, he’s forgiven’), is too easy, too cheap. The goal is community restored, not private perfection maintained.

When ‘forgiveness’ ends open relationships, leaves people estranged, don’t rush to it, it’s not forgiveness; it’s a face-saving, self-saving, time-saving escape.

I would like to have spent more time on the weekend talking about the actual process of forgiveness. I’m an old guy; sheer life-experience as an old-guy-pastor gives you lots of opportunities to ask for forgiveness for everything from things said in a message (the power of the microphone is, uh, intoxicating sometimes) to difficult interactions with a large church staff. I should be an expert at this.

Like Augsberger, I’m suspicious of quick forgivers. I don’t think they’re really in touch with their anger or pain. I think they’re just in “religious mode”. But don’t wait too long either. Don’t let anger fester into bitterness. Pray seriously. Ask God to help you with the timing. But do it. Forgiving a deep wound is like the layers of an onion—you forgive and peel off a layer. Later on, you discover something a little deeper, and forgiveness is experienced at a greater depth. It’s not really repeating as much as it is deepening.

But no matter what your level of expertise is, it still doesn’t make it easy.

It makes sense why Christian writer Philip Yancey would write, “The only thing harder than forgiveness is the alternative.”

Hope you were able to drop some baggage.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

planet willow

I thoroughly enjoyed speaking at Willow Creek this past weekend. It was their “ministry fair” weekend where they hope to get people plugged into serving opportunities. They asked me to speak on servanthood. That’s like crack to my soul. They even used The Outward Focused Life book cover for their program.

I think the talk went well. People seemed really engaged…and they laughed a lot. Bill Hybels seemed particularly pleased. I took a couple of videos: the $1 Car Wash and The Good Sam Run footwashing. Both were hits.

For what it’s worth, here are my quick observations as an outsider.

First, the obvious: this is an extremely focused church…in everything they do. Bill Hybels and team have created an environment that has a high regard for excellence. But it’s not excellence for excellence sake, like some cranky perfectionist. They clearly are not about putting on a good show for the “church”; it’s to shake the preconceptions that not-yet-believers often have of Christianity and Christians. They’ve been at it for twenty-eight years and have never moved off their core mission of “turning irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus” and a key component to that has been the way they use the weekend service. What a great credit to your organization to stay true to your mission over several decades. I love intentional and missional churches.

Second, they are way unappreciated for what they do for the under-resourced with both charity and systemic justice stands. A lot goes on behind the scenes; it’s easy to take potshots about brick-and-mortar and make assumptions, but Willow doesn’t trumpet all the massive good they do. I’ve never understood the raking they take in cyberspace…while rarely hearing about all the good that’s been done by them globally. Not to mention the huge resource they’ve been to the church-at-large, simply in the area of leadership alone.

Third, I experienced extremely warm hospitality. Heck, I’m a nobody—and yet I was treated royally. It was easy to sense a servant-attitude in the staff and tech folks. My respect goes through the roof when any organization treats outsiders well. When I’m getting to know someone who may be a potential hire for VCC, I like to take them to a restaurant to talk and watch how they interact with servers. It can be a deal-breaker for me. It actually fascinates me how little eye-contact people make with their servers. It must be a subliminally Victorian hangover: don’t acknowledge the servants. That’s a tell-tale clue that I won’t work well with them. I want a servant-hearted staff. Period.

Last, it seemed as though a number of changes were being experimented with. I love that in churches. When honest effectiveness trumps methodologies, I get excited. “We’ve-never-done-it-like-that-before” is the death-knell for churches. It’s not about scrapping routine for the sake of scrapping routine. But it is about questioning your current effectiveness as it relates to your bottom-line mission. Author Daniel Schaeffer tells the story of a young couple with a new pup who chased and barked at a baby squirrel trapped in a tree. When the squirrel jumped to another branch, it missed and fell right into the mouth of the very happy dog. The couple reported that for the next fifteen years, the dog would sit underneath that same tree looking up waiting for another squirrel to drop out of the sky, which, of course, never happened. Psychologist Gary Oliver’s definition of crazy is “to find out what doesn’t work and keep on doing it.” Sometimes I think we function like that in churches.

I don’t know how long they’ve been experimenting with this, but Willow did a full 20+ minutes of worship in the front end of the service. That’s a move away from more performance-oriented message-themed music presentations. Their midweek New Community (believers gathering) is going away to be replaced by classes that fit different spiritual lifestages. Most of what we do in churches runs in cycles; but hopefully because we’re exploring new avenues for spiritual development and evangelism. I applaud them for trying different things.

And don’t even go to: “Gee, we’ve been doing that for years.” How effective have your outreach efforts been? How many people have found Christ through your church’s services? Maybe we need to challenge the status quo of our own methodologies regularly.

Anyway, it was quite a weekend. My wife and I had a spirited talk on the six-hour drive home, comparing notes and thanking God for opportunities that sneak up on us.

Hats off to Bill and the gang for being fearless, taking the heat when the rest of us slip under the radar or are still staring up at the tree branches, and for displaying big-time missional, personal and organizational integrity over all the years.

Keep the faith, Creekers.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

more baggage

Amazing weekend this weekend. If you weren’t here, it wasn’t just because of the life-changing message (uh, yeah…). Or the great worship set (love that classic Brown/Baloche song “Praise Is Rising”). Or the funny Closet Tuba Player video (even though our creative crew had the police called on them…). Or even the late great Johnny Cash singing the beautiful Trent Reznor (NIN) song “Hurt” over the pictures of Frank Warren’s PostSecret postcards (he changed a few choice words).

Yeah, that was all cool. But that’s not what made it amazing.

It was the preview opening of The Healing Center.

Wow. What an amazing thing God has done. A crazy multi-million dollar facility for the poor and poor in spirit. That should pretty much include anyone. I mentioned it in a couple of the celebrations, but the best line of the weekend was from one of our Healing Center staff members on Saturday night. “I can’t wait for our ‘regulars’ to see this,” she said. By regulars, she meant the families who are going through tough times that come in and both receive services and volunteer and have become part of our community. She went on, “I know what they’ll say. They’ll look around and say, ‘You built all this for us?’ And I’ll say, ‘No, God did.’”

Dignity. Kindness. Acceptance. Hope. Warmth. Grace. And the inexhaustible power of God. That’s what we want people to experience.

We have a week to move in, train, get settled in, finish up construction, and then open. It’s God gift to this city.

I had so many people ask this weekend, “What’s it feel like to see your dream realized?” It sounds like I’m trying to be cool and humble when I say this, but I really don’t see it like that. It really is God’s thing. I really believe it would have happened no matter who was sitting in my chair. He had already spoken to others similar things. And honestly, without the plethora of different teams at VCC who worked on it, it wouldn’t have happened.

Any one of us can have a Big Idea; you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to have a Big Idea. And there’s no shortage of Big Ideas. But when an idea lights up people’s eyes…then you know you’re surfing a God-wave. Bigger than us, bigger than one guy’s thought, bigger than a church. Seriously, more than once I’ve wondered how God feels? Is He excited?

Anyway, I was actually pretty numb this weekend. Not sure what that’s about. It’s funny, but over the last year I’ve walked through that building by myself several times and started crying. But this weekend, I was just kind of numb and a little tired.

But it happened Sunday night when no one else was around but my 81-year-old mom that I picked up in Kentucky and walked her through. As we passed through the assessment area, I began to cry again.

I can’t figure out how this works.

Don’t miss Joe this weekend talking about The Disillusioned Family. I’ll be up at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago speaking…talking about you guys and your hearts to serve. Life is filled with surprises, eh?