Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Disappointment vs. Discouragement (how we keep going)

I have a good friend named Ashley.  In high school she was very athletic, enjoying full participation in several sports - basketball, cheer, softball... and a great player on the church volleyball team!  Then she blew her knee out.  It was bad.  I remember having conversations with Ashley, and while she had a lot of pain and disappointment, she seemed to never become totally discouraged.  Eventually, her knee healed up and she was able to be involved in athletics once more.

It's been several years since then, but the memory of Ashley's persistence in pushing through disappointment, and not falling prey to discouragement still awakens hope within me. 

Because, I'm a lot like you, I'd guess.  Disappointment happens.  Things don't go the way I expected.  People let me down.  I let people down.  Failure and frustration are a part of the journey.

Disappointment is to fail to fulfill one's expectations or wishes.  It happens.

I've known many people though, who, unlike my friend Ashley, become discouraged.  Literally, they lose the courage to continue with whatever path, relationship, event, whatever, that led to the disappointment.  Their knee blows out, and they quit.

Discouragement is akin to depression, despair and hopelessness.  It is being deprived of courage, of hope, or confidence. 

The reality is there will be disappointments in life.  The challenge is to not let disappointment become discouragement.  With failure, there is still hope!  With failed expectations, there is still courage and confidence to continue!

Where do you find this hope? ...this confidence?  Ultimately, I've had to find it outside of myself.  I have found that no matter what life throws at me and mine, there is One who is constant in hope.  A passage from the Bible writings of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:7) keep this hope in front of me: Blessed are those who trust in God, and have made God their hope and confidence.

For me, the key to facing disappointment, and not slipping into discouragement, is to trust in God.  No matter how good I think I am, or how amazing the team is that I have around me, disappointments will come.  Keeping my identity in Jesus, not in my abilities - no in the performance of others - keeps me filled with courage and hope!

How do you handle disappointment and keep from being discouraged?
Ashley encouraging others to keep going.

Monday, July 11, 2016

5 Things Thriving Churches Have in Common

In the weeks immediately following my last Sunday as Lead Pastor with Oaklawn Church of God, Hot Springs, AR, my family had the opportunity (a very rare one for us for the past 18 years) to visit 7 churches.  Each of these congregations seemed to be doing better than "just surviving."  I would say that each of them is a "thriving church."

I'm defining thriving as "growth by the addition of numbers of people, and a spirit of focusing outward instead of inward." With this in mind, there were some things that I (and my lovely wife) noticed they had in common.

5 Things Thriving Churches Have in Common

1) Jesus is the subject!  In each church, there was no doubt about why they did what they did - Jesus.  Jesus was the center of what we experienced, and the diversity of celebrating Jesus was refreshing! While there were numerous activities and projects mentioned in each one, not one single time did it appear that anything other than Jesus was the main thing.

2) Children are a priority.  Every children's ministry experience was as different as the churches.  But in each case, children were much more than tolerated or ignored.  Whether a large children's ministry in a separate area of the facility, or if they remained the worship gathering with parents, children were an obvious priority.  As parents, the more prepared & safe the children's ministry seemed, the more we were able to engage in corporate worship ourselves.

3) Men are visibly engaged. Some of this may be due to different views on "women in ministry leadership," but in each congregation, men were very visibly engaged and involved.  Women were also visibly engaged (as is the case in just about every church I have ever been in), but the involvement of men really captured our attention.

4) A spirit of JOY!  In each congregation, there was an overwhelming feeling of joy.  People seemed genuinely glad to be there - much more than a sense of duty, or "this is what we do, so I'll tolerate it."  There was authentic joy and it was contagious and invigorating!

5) Celebrating the ministry of "others."  In the Church of God, we have a famous catch-phrase that comes from one of our heritage hymns: "we reach our hands in fellowship to every Blood-washed one."  2 of these 7 churches were of our tribe; the others were Lutheran, Baptist, Church of Christ, and non-denominational.  While recognizing our new mission to Natchitoches, LA, was a part of the "program" in 3 of these churches, EVERY church recognized my family and shared about our new church plant, and PRAYED over us! We've experienced great unity and support!

Receiving the "Sword of the Spirit" at LakePointe City Church

What have you observed that thriving churches have in common?

Monday, June 13, 2016

Orlando and I have issues

I love Orlando. Definitely a great city to visit, and one of the top places that I would like to live.  Yesterday (June 12, 2016), I awoke as the rest of the world did to reports of a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.  50 dead, another 53 hospitalized.  My heart is broken.  But not simply for a city that I love... but for all of us.

The details are still coming to light, as the media and politicians and special interest groups spin it around and around and around... like a record, baby. Who am I supposed to believe?

The shooter allegedly made a 911 call pledging his allegiance to ISIS, a radical extremists Muslim group.  The target was allegedly the LGBT community, as Pulse is known to be a gay bar.

Now, before I briefly address each of the issues this brings up (for me, anyways), I feel I need to begin with the an important reality about who I am.  I am a follower of Jesus. I'm not perfect, but I am being made more and more like Jesus as I surrender to Him.  I have opinions, methods and a personality that, often at the same time, seem conservative to my liberal friends and liberal to my conservative friends.  I tend to try my best to not judge the spirituality of others, unless it blatantly flies in the face of the teachings of Jesus - the ones that He said everything else rides on:

Love God with all of your heart, mind and soul. (Matthew 22:37)
Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:39)
Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)
Love each other.  Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. (John 13:34)

One of the ways I define love is willingness to help someone, to pray with someone, to encourage someone, to meet a need that I can... regardless of whether I agree/approve of their lifestyle or not.  Loving someone isn't the same as agreeing with them. An unfortunate social result of the past couple of decades is the rise of a prevalent thought that if I dare to disagree with someone's lifestyle choice, political affiliation, stance on issues, religious preference, etc., then I obviously don't love them.

Disagreement is not hate. Standing by one's beliefs is not intolerance. It is possible to not love what someone does and still love who they are (which I believe is a person, created in the image of God).

Maybe it's just me, but it often feels like we're being manipulated.  Divide and conquer. From my point of view, we have never been this divided - not even during the Civil War. And now the public outcry is "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!" and we want real answers!

Gun control.  There are those who are adamant that the answer to the tragedies such as Orlando is stricter gun control.  I personally am not much of a gun guy, but I have my doubts that those who commit such crimes would be deterred by stricter gun laws. Criminals still obtain things that are illegal to obtain - firearms... drugs... human trafficking.  Most mass shootings have taken place in schools, churches, and nightclubs - all places where firearms are generally banned already. Plus, if guns were taken away from the general public, the only ones with them are those who disregard the law... and the government.  Do we want that?

Radical Islam. I've tried to educate myself on the different aspects of Islam. I read a lot of things published by people of that faith who certainly know it better than I do.  When I step back and look at the media from a non-spinned perspective, it appears obvious to me that we are supposed to be in fearMasses motivated by fear is never a good thing.  To judge all Muslims by the actions of radical Muslims is the same as judging all Christians by the actions of a group like the Westboro Baptist Church (please don't do that).  The real problem in this area is that your average American can't tell the difference... even when attempts have been made to learn.

Immigration. I'll keep this tied to the issue at hand, as this is the spin I've seen - some are of the opinion that we need to keep all people from Muslim countries out of the United States. I'll simply just point out that it seems that majority of these acts of terror are executed by those born and raised in the United States, as U.S. citizens.  This country has always been known as the great melting pot.  The thing with melting pots is that everything that goes into the pot affects everything else in the pot - often that's good, sometimes it is not.

Gay rights.  Of all of these things, this is the only one that I've really spoken about publicly in sermons, articles, this blog, and other settings. Did you know that it is possible to not accept the new normal and still love those who do... and have intelligent conversations... and eat really great food together?  Maybe the culture has changed, or maybe we're being manipulated and conditioned. None of that matters to me today... because people were murdered.  Today and tomorrow and for years to come, the loved ones of those who were gunned down in Orlando are wrecked with grief and anger and confusion.  While some are feeling the need to publicly stand by the LGBT community, I feel the need to stand by the families and friends of each person... PERSON... no labels... who died in this hate crime of terrorism.

I've never been much on conspiracy theories.  However, over the past several years mainstream media has been teaching us to fully accept the LBGT lifestyle... and to fear radical Islam... and to argue about gun control and immigration.  There is an election at hand that is one dancing monkey shy of being a full-blown circus.  And the timing of this mass shooting in Orlando just feels too ominous for me to overlook.

And all I really want to do is pray for those who lost loved ones in this horrible event.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

In Limbo: 5 Things to Do While You Wait and Wait... and Wait

The limbo is a dance where you keep moving under a pole to see "how low can you go?" The limbo is fun and actually good exercise, and often makes for a great party game.

This post is not about that kind of limbo.

I love to fly when I travel.  A couple of hours sitting on a plane, for me, is far more preferable to multiple hours (and days) driving.  But a couple of times I have experienced the bane of traveling by flight: the "circle the airport as we wait to land."

Is there any greater feeling of powerlessness?

Oh waiting in the airport gate area for a delayed flight stinks for sure, but you can occupy your time pretty easily, take a walk, buy an over-priced ATL t-shirt, or possibly get a different flight. 

And who likes to wait while on hold on the phone?  But you can always choose to just hangup and try your call again... or call a different office or department... or just forget the whole thing and pay the extra $20 on the bill that doesn't make any sense.

How about the Doctor's Office? You've probably had experiences like I have many times - arrive a few minutes before the appointment to sign in and do any necessary paperwork. The wait. And wait. If my appointment is at 3:00, why am I waiting until 4:30 to go in? You could (usually) choose to reschedule (or not) and leave, though... unless, after 45 minutes in the waiting room, they've moved you to the second waiting room, because now you're waiting in a small room by yourself (or with a hyper toddler), and the doctor could come in any second... for another 45 minutes.  Once you reach the second waiting room, you feel stuck. You have to stay now no matter how long it takes.

The second waiting room experience is the scenario most like the "circling the airport, waiting to land the plane" experience.  You're in a space that seems to be getting more and more confining, you really want it to be over, but it's not and it feels like it may never be. Frustration. Anger. Fear. Panic.

The real problem: you're not in control of the situation.

Been there?

Currently, I am in one of these "holding patterns." My family is in the process of moving to Natchitoches, LA, from Hot Springs, AR, to plant a new church - Awaken Church.  We're selling a house and we're buying a house.  The process has been go-stop-go-stop-wait-wait-wait for over a month. I'm ready to be in our new home in our new town. I want to be there. I need to be there.  But, we're in limbo. There's paperwork. There's inspections. There's paperwork. There's approvals.  There's paperwork. There's... well, you get the point.

Here are 5 Things I've learned to do while I wait and wait... and wait:

1) Let God lead! I've been known to try and "get out in front of God" when I have a clear vision from Him.  I want to see it become reality, because in my heart and mind it already is reality.  Jesus is the destination, and Jesus is the path.  I'm learning to trust Him to guide my shoes. Know this: He's going before you, preparing the way, so let God lead!

2) Increase prayer!  Over 18 years in full-time vocational ministry, I've battled the beast within and discovered the joy of freedom from being a work-aholic. However, when you're suddenly not doing all the things you conditioned yourself to do, it can be frustrating and even discouraging.  You may even feel like you don't know what to do with yourself. And you may entertain thoughts that others are judging you because you don't feel productive. Forget what you think others are thinking (because they're probably not anyway), and realize the best use of your time is to increase prayer. Talk to God more. This will keep your spiritual tank full, which will fuel your mental and emotional health.

3) Make great use of the time! Choose wisely, and intentionally, how you spend this time in limbo.  It is a good idea to get suggestions and advice for how to spend this time from someone you trust such as a mentor or coach, or good friend who has been there. Making great use of your time will look different for each and every one of us, but I can tell you this - time well spent is not time spent worrying! This is a season of waiting, which you can't do anything about, but you can choose how you spend the time.  Focus on your loved ones/family.  Read.  Journal the journey. Learn something new. And return to #2 above -- pray!

4) Be patient!  I heard this fantastic quote last Sunday, as I visited Encounter Church: "God does not birth a dream in you, only to let it die.  He births a dream within you to give you a glimpse into the future He has for you - so you will be patient in the process of that dream coming to life." Also, here's a Scripture that helps me: Hebrews 10:35-36, "So do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the reward it brings you.  Patient endurance is what you need now, so that you will continue to do God's will.  Then you will receive all that He has promised."

5) Open your eyes! God is doing things all around you. Amazing things. Shiny things. God has not forgotten you!  My good friend, Linvel Arington, used to say, "God is just giving Heaven away! You just have to open your eyes, you will see it."  Open your eyes, open your heart, open your mind, and awaken to what God is doing all around you!

What do you do in times in limbo?

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

We're planting a church Pt. 6: YOU Can Be the Difference!

"Awake, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light."  Ephesians 5:14

We're planting a new church in Natchitoches, LA - Awaken Church.  In case you've missed previous posts that share the initial vision God has given us & the thoughts on strategy to get there, you can catch up in Parts 1-5 by clicking here:
Part ONE
Part TWO

We are convinced that no one should plant a church alone!  God sends leaders & gatherers (Apostles) to do this kind of work, but He always has them build a team.  We are blessed to have a great support team with Louisiana Congregational Ministries of the Church of God.  Also, we are thankful for the great resources available to us through the Healthy Growing Churches Network!

The truth is, in order for us to see God's vision for Awaken Church become reality, we need a team and we're praying that YOU will pray about what it might look like to be a part of this team.  Our hope is that YOU will come alongside us, and partner with us in this new mission adventure in one (or all) of the following areas:

Everything we do is to be birthed out of prayer, and bathed in prayer.  Please become a prayer partner for this new church and our family.  We cannot do this without the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us.   The Support Circle is a group of friends and family committed to praying specifically about our needs pertaining to Awaken Church.  From time-to-time, the Support Circle will receive specific requests to pray over for us.  If you would like to be a part of our Support Circle, please email me (shinypastorsteve@gmail.com) with “Support Circle” in the subject line, and you will be added to the email list.

Tell as many people as you can about our vision and mission.  The more people who know, the more prayer and support we can get. Share and Retweet (RT) posts about Awaken Church on social media!  Even a simple "I heard about a new church plant coming to Natchitoches, LA," on your Facebook wall would help!

Who do you know in the Natchitoches, LA, area? What students do you know at Northwestern State University?  Who do you know that God may be calling to relocate and join our team on this mission?  The Launch Team can be made up of people who help get the church launched only, as well as people who are committed to the long-term vision and mission of the church. We love both! And we're definitely seeking those who may help us birth Awaken Church, and then be sent out to plant new churches!

This is one of the most important pieces in launching a successful new church.  One of the most common mistakes that church planters make is to plan for every other area of their church while pushing the money issue to the back burner.
We are seeking churches and individuals who God is calling to be the difference.  We would love for you, or your church, to come alongside us financially in one of two ways.  First, we ask that you consider a one time financial gift to help us get going on this journey.  Second, and most importantly, we ask that you consider becoming a monthly financial supporter to the mission in front of us.
We want you to have the opportunity to be a Church Multiplication Partner.  Your impact will be indescribable (but we will try to describe it through regular updates)! We are anxious to see what God is going to do in this next big adventure, and how far this new ministry will reach! Please be a part of it with us.
Thank you and may God bless you richly!
Send your financial gifts to:
LCMCOG (Louisiana Congregational Ministries of the Church of God)
c/o Ham Benson
1125 Melanie St.
Baton Rouge, LA 70815

Make donations payable to:
LCMCOG, with “Church Plant Natchitoches” or "Awaken Church" in the subject line

Friday, May 27, 2016

We're planting a church Pt. 5: A Multicultural Church

Part ONE
Part TWO

The vision God has given us for Awaken Church in Natchitoches, LA, is for awakening people to a life-changing relationship with Jesus, and equipping them to awaken others.

The snapshot we're beginning with is that Awaken Church will intentionally be a...

Why is being a multicultural church so important to us?

A part of this vision God is giving us is that this new church plant will reflect the beautiful reality of the Kingdom of God.  In the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus said that it was to "be a house of prayer for all nations." (Mark 11:17)  We've found, lost in the translation, that "all nations" is more clearly understood as "all people groups." Awaken Church will be a house of prayer for all people groups, reflecting the beauty of the Kingdom of God.

Also, this vision is that this new church plant will reflect the community, and its richness of diversity.  Natchitoches, LA, is a very culturally diverse community. The racial/ethnic diversity in the area is extremely high. African-Americans account for 49.5% of the population, and Anglos make up 44%.  Historically, Native American and Creole cultures also play a big role in the community. Lifestyle diversity is extremely high with 28 of the 50 U.S. Lifestyles segments represented.  The area can be described as extremely non-traditional due to the below average presence of married persons and two-parent families. (2016 stats provided by Percept Group, Inc.)

Interesting as well, is the cultural diversity at Northwestern State University (NSU), which is a big part in the vision God is giving us for Awaken Church.  Because of the International Student Exchange Program, students from all over the world are attending NSU.  Students are: 57% Anglo, 28% African-American, 4% Hispanic, and the rest Asian, Native-American, and International. (Stats from Niche.com)

We are really looking forward to gathering our launch team soon and collaborating how to creatively and intentionally be a multicultural church! We are thankful to be planting with LA Congregational Ministries of the Church of God (LCMCOG), which is leading the way in multicultural diversity in ministry in the church of God! LOVE this pic from our commissioning prayer service (March 4, 2016)!

Monday, May 23, 2016

We're planting a church Pt. 4: Multiplication in the DNA

Part ONE
Part TWO

As my family is in the process of finalizing (prayerfully) the details to make the move to Natchitoches, LA, to give birth to a new church plant - Awaken Church - we're keeping God's vision for us in the forefront of everything we do: awakening people to a life-changing relationship with Jesus, and equipping them to awaken others.

The vision God is showing is for Awaken Church to intentionally be a...

What exactly does it mean to be a Multiplying church?

"Church Multiplication" seems to sound like something new to the "growth by addition" mindset ingrained in today's church culture. However, this is actually how the church of God grew in the New Testament narrative. Yes, "each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved (Acts 2:47)," but when we look at how the Lord added people to the fellowship of believers, it was through disciples making disciples who made disciples who made disciples... the church of God was multiplying! Disciples of Jesus reproduce & the church multiplies!

Confession: I've been in the same boat as the majority of Pastors (and Christians for that matter), and been so focused on church growth by adding numbers (people & finances) that I have completely ignored that spiritual health isn't best gauged (if it really can be gauged) best by how many people are added to the membership, nor how much $$ is added to the budget.  Could a better gauge be: how well are we multiplying disciples? How many and how much are we sending out?

A healthy church produces disciples, not more consumers. 

Recently I read a fantastic book about this called, Becoming a Level 5 Multiplying Church, by Todd Wilson & Dave Ferguson.  From this excellent resource, I learned that today in the U.S.:
* 80% of churches are declining or plateaued
* 16% of churches are growing but not reproducing or multiplying 
* 4% of churches are reproducing but not multiplying 
* essentially 0% of churches are multiplying.

We believe God's vision for Awaken Church is to use a different scorecard for health, based not so much on addition growth, but more on discipleship and multiplication.  As we look forward to brainstorming what this might look like with the team God brings around us, we're prayerfully seeking to...

Intentionally MULTIPLY disciples!  It's no secret that over the past several decades the church in general has dropped the ball of making disciples. Making church members is not the same as making disciples.  Jesus pretty much defined discipleship in Matthew 28:20: "Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you." This really doesn't happen on Sunday mornings. This happens in smaller groups (or 1-on-1) where God's way is learned by reading, discussing, then doing.  Awaken Church will begin with small groups who intentionally multiply: disciples making disciples who make disciples who make disciples...  We will develop a system which will allow for what happens best organically when people journey together.

Intentionally MULTIPLY congregations! In short, we intend to be a church that plants/births churches.  We intend to raise up disciples who become leaders, spending time to equip them to be sent out.and multiply: to plant churches who plant churches who plant churches... As we gather our team, we will prayerfully brainstorm what a leadership pipeline might look like for Awaken Church, where ministry staff team leaders (associate pastors, etc) each have an apprentice, who will eventually be sent out to plant a new church, or as revitalization missionaries to existing churches.  In this way, we envision Awaken Church stepping out boldly as a part of the church planting movement of the Church of God in Louisiana (and beyond!)!

We reproduce who and what we are, what we know and what we value. Multiplication is in the DNA of Awaken Church from the very beginning. I've even asked a couple of different folks to pray about what it might look like for them to relocate to Natchitoches, LA, to help us give birth to Awaken Church, then send them out to do the same in another community. By the way, more on the "Launch Team" coming soon, but if you feel like this might be for you, shoot me an email: shinypastorsteve@gmail.com