Will your community thrive or die?

I believe that the church can be described as a community.

The dictionary defines community as a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists.

The Church would most certainly describe itself this way. We are a religious group…whether we like that terminology or not…that is what we are. We have common characteristics and interests. And we most certainly perceive ourselves as distinct from larger society…although I am not sure society sees us all that different. They should, but in a very positive and good way, typically society sees this difference in a very negative light.

I have a couple of thoughts I hope to share over the coming days and weeks about community. I have started this already some, but am quite admittedly, a bad blogger.

Today, I start with a few practical thoughts about community and just some questions. I would love your thoughts.

There are three things that should be true of me as I exist within a community…
1. I consume.
2. I contribute.
3. I communicate.

If one of these three things is not true of me as I exist in community, I really mess up community life. I mean it is quite awkward and frustrating to try to serve the consumption needs of a person that does not communicate. (Ever tried to figure out if the baby needed a diaper, food, to burp, or to sleep?) In a healthy community we consume what others have to contribute and we contribute what others need and want to consume and in the midst of that we communicate with one another.

So here are the two questions as this community thought applies to church and life…

1. If everyone in your faith community (local church) consumed as much as you consume and contributed as much as you contribute, would your faith community (local church) thrive or die?

2. If every organization within your community (city or town) consumed as much as your organization (local church) consumes and contributed as much as your organization (local church) contributes, would your community (city or town) thrive or die?

This principle needs to apply to us individually within our communities…for my purposes as believers in the local church…but it applies to other communities as well. But the principle also applies to the bigger picture of our geographic and physical communities, our cities and towns.

If we all consume more than we contribute, our communities die. But if we choose to live beyond ourselves and contribute to this place more than we consume, the whole community thrives.

May the living Church of God be so filled with the life of Christ that it contributes a vastly greater amount than it consumes. My this cause our community, not just our church, to thrive and not die. May the source of this contribution be so obvious that our society would know that our God reigns…or As Jesus said, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Running in and into the dark

Last week, while at the Catalyst Conference in Atlanta, I got up for an early morning run twice. This teachings I heard there continued to speak into my life where God has been leading me for about a year now. It is an uncomfortable yet thrilling place to be spiritually. Hard yet light. Convicting yet life-giving. So I want to share a little story and where I find myself on the sidewalk of life.

The first day I left my hotel and took off down the sidewalks there in that area of John’s Creek, GA. It was a beautiful morning for a run and I enjoyed the hills and challenges, but there was one main problem. There was no consistency in their use of sidewalks. I would take off down one road on a sidewalk and get to the next corner…and no more sidewalks. I ended up in running dead ends. I simply did not understand the rationale behind certain roads having sidewalks and others not. It was a nice but frustrating run.

I did discover one area that seemed to have better sidewalks toward the end of my run and decided I would head that way the next day. Well, I was lazy the next day and slept in. So two days later I take off on my run into the darkness to an area I am confident in the sidewalks. As I turned off the main road and headed down the side street I had chosen the run before I was surprised at how poorly lit the area was, but no worries, there were sidewalks. So I continued down knowing I was keeping a good pace and burning off some much needed calories. As I ran along in the dark, I found myself suddenly on the sidewalk, falling and scraping my hands up and knee up as I caught my fall. The sidewalk was messed up in one place and in the darkness I could not see it. I almost decided to go home…being a big wimp and all. But I decided to get up and finish my run. So I ran down to the next corner. I had not gone this far the run before but had assumed there would be a sidewalk when I got there…but no. So I turned around and made my way back down the path I had fallen on but more carefully this time. I finished out my run and felt good for having gotten my exercise and glad my next run would be on familiar ground.

My question for those of us who are Christ-followers is, “How often is this the experience of those who experience our faith communities?” I wonder if the world ever runs along next to those who claim to live their lives by the power and mission of the Jesus Christ and wonder, “Why did the path end here?”

Our world knows more and more about the teachings and claims of Jesus yet they believe in him less and less. Why?

I wonder if it is because they see churches make good paths into the darkness but after traveling down the initial path they find a dead end where there should be a deeper trail. They have read about how Jesus cared about the poor and the hurting and down-trodden and they go to church and get involved and realize that no one there does. Some perhaps even take off running into the darkness in the name of Jesus but they get tripped up over the broken systems and structures in our churches and denominations. Some, choose to get up and keep on going, only to find the sidewalk ahead is a dead end.

What most of us have chosen to do is to turn around and run the same path we already have. We make more programs for ourselves and spend more of our money on bigger buildings and better lights and more staff. Our faith communities…our churches…too often decide that sidewalks are too costly and the darkness is too great. We don’t say it…we live it. We run in the familiar…afraid to forge into the darkness.

I believe it is why Casper in the book Jim and Casper Go to Church simply ask Sunday after Sunday (he is an atheist hired by a friend to tell him his reactions to some of America’s best churches), “Is this really what Jesus told you to do?”

He would ask the same question if he came to Fellowship…I know that. So this is no soap box blog. Instead I am a man picking himself back up after falling on a crack in the sidewalk and looking the dark dead end square in the eye and saying…

I will not turn back. I will not run the familiar. I refuse to find the easy and the already laid down paths of religion. I choose to honor and appreciate those who have forged the ones I have travelled this far, but I realize that we must go further into the darkness. We must choose to run where there are no paths and where darkness prevails, realizing that we will trip and fall…there will be scrapes and bumps and bruises. But down that path somewhere there is a crown…a crown of righteousness laid up for us. That crown will not be found by simply walking along the paths that are nice and easy. The path that God has marked out for you is not the one you want by your flesh. It is one that only the Spirit would cause you to run. It is found in the poverty-stricken communities of this world…it is found in broken messy lives falling apart in the most expensive neighborhoods in our community. Quite honestly, it is found where you have already been and where you have not yet gone…finding that path is not just about going where you have never gone but going everywhere you go with a different mission.

The hard part is I don’t know how to lay the sidewalk…which I feel is my responsibility as pastor. I don’t know where the broken places are…the tripping points. I am not sure how to lead my family into this lifestyle. I am not sure how to lead my church into this missional place. I have realized I can’t make it easy and I can’t cause it to be travelled without fear and, therefore, without faith. But that, perhaps, is what faith really is, and the true calling of a pastor is found…leading people into what they fear so they must live by faith. You see, faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see.

I do not yet see the church being what God has called it to be…but I am catching glimpses of it at Fellowship…and I have the faith we will see it more fully in the days ahead. I hope to be a man that lives a lifestyle that allows him to be generous and gracious in every opportunity…I am not there yet…but I am seeing glimpses of it…and I am confident we will get there.

You must understand, I am not standing on the sidewalk of life in guilt and shame but in hope and joy. God is allowing me as pastor to see what He is doing instead of what we are not doing. He is allowing me to see the masterpiece that is in His people and not just the mud in their lives. He is allowing me to see this in myself. Yet, he is also keeping me keenly aware of the mud and the shortcomings.

The question is…are you willing to stop and look at how you are living your life? Do you desire the comfortable and well-lit expensive sidewalks of cultural American Christianity…built for leisurely strolls to nowhere? Do you really enjoy that? Is it really all that fulfilling? Or do you desire to run a little deeper into the darkness?

I believe you do. You just don’t know how to do it and are afraid to go alone. So don’t…let’s go together…and let God light the way.

Are you GOOD TO GO?

P.S. I have turned the comments portion of my blog back on. I would love your honest replies. What do you think? Are you dealing with this tension? If so, what are you doing with it?

Also, I encourage you to read the book The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons.