Christian Living

The Community – Individual Continuum

Theologically, we all know that you can’t experience the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus without community. Jesus invites us not to merely partake in communion but to live in communion with one another. (A throwback to the Garden of Eden)

Sociologically, we live in society built around the individual. We live in single family dwellings. We have our own rooms and our own stuff. We drive cars instead of taking the bus. We eat in individual pods of friends or by ourselves. (This individualism knows no boundaries and is the opposite of Jesus’ life in community.)

The way we experience church in our society is intimately and inseparably syncretized to our culture, even in direct opposition to the model given to us in Acts. (See Pate’s Communities of the Last Days & Jones’ Teaching of the Twelve for a scholarly look at the practical implications of life in community for the early church.)

Plotting my walk with Jesus on the Community – Individual Continuum

In the last 24 hours I’ve been wrapped up in this simple drawing above. In fairness, it’s just a device to explore some assumptions I have vs. realities I live. So if you stretch it too far it falls apart. At the same time I can’t get away from the teachings of Jesus. Jesus’ very life is an invitation to walk away from Satan’s desire to separate us from communion with God. To walk with Jesus is to walk in communion with his people AND with God.

Some examples:

  • Daily Bible reading (Mostly individual, though I often share what I’m reading with friends or here on the blog.)
  • Prayer  (90% of the time prayer is individual)
  • Small groups (A few hours per week, and we haven’t met since winter, so I suck at this one)
  • Attending church (I’ll generously put this near the middle. It’s communal, even though there’s almost no interaction with others.)
  • My home (We’ve had people live with us, stay with us, etc. But if I’m honest it’s way more about our family than community living. Nothing like in Acts)
  • My work (This is getting better and worse at the same time. Thus, the life of a freelancer)
  • My service (I do a lot of stuff, but it’s all “what I do” and not “what we do.”)
  • My kids education (I’d love for this to be a community effort, but it’s not. It’s all individualistic.)

My challenge to you would be to take 30 minutes and plot out your day-to-day life along this continuum for the sake of discovery. If you want to get really dangerous, after you do that read the first 5-6 chapters of the book of Acts.

I don’t know where this is going. But I do see the need to reject the individualism of my society and further enter into communion both with Jesus & his people.

What about you? What are practical ways you are living in communion?

Christian Living

Keep it simple

DiscipleshipOne of the most straight-forward concepts in Christianity. Instead of keeping it simple we turn it into a complicated mess. How hard is it? A person comes to you and wants to grow in their relationship with Jesus. Cool, tell them to find a Bible, read the book of John, and lets meet in 3 days. In the process of trying to make it easy (with a process) we make it hard.

Bible studyAnother straight-forward concept. To lead a Bible study you need a couple of people, a Bible, and maybe a notebook. Pick a starting point, any starting point, read a section and ask the text… who, what, how, when, where, and why? In the process of trying to make it easy (with tools) we make it hard.

Community – We are hard-wired to form community in our DNA. It couldn’t get more simple than following your instincts. Share life with some friends, be open to making new friends, and take care of one anothers needs. The only thing hard about it should be the relational stuff. You don’t need a pastor to teach you how to do this, or a program at church, or anything else. You just need to do it.

Sometimes I wonder why we make things so dang complicated?

I know one reason: Making simple things complicated keeps people busy/employed/powerful/empowered.

When in doubt– keep it simple. 

Church Leadership Culture

Rejecting the rejection of community life

In the mid-20th century architects like Mies van der Rohe envisioned simplicity and wholeness in urban centers. Into the chaos of the city their residential designs sought to bring wholeness and community. (For reference, see Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.) They attempted to convince residents that an amazing community life could be had within just a short walk or bus ride from the office, the market, church, or anywhere else you’d need to go.

This sense of urban holism was central to the phrase van der Rohe is now known for, “God is in the details.” In the chaos of our daily life, when we slow down to notice the small things, we notice God everywhere.

Urban holism was largely rejected in the late 1960s and 1970s. When racial tensions, riots, crime, and violence increased in urban environments most population centers like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia experienced a new residential phenomenon– suburbanization. (Or the more loaded term, white flight.)

Suburbanization completely changed the landscape of American culture. It was a rejection of community life and an embrace of individualism. Explore just about any 1970s suburban development and you will see the contrast from urban life. Instead of communities built around common spaces like parks, markets, and clusters of people who knew one another, homes were constructed like fortresses and oasis for the individual family. The front porch became a façade. The double garage doors became a gate. The home itself was designed for privacy and experiences of the outdoors lead to a fenced backyard. Words that sold these houses were privacy, seclusion, safety. The master bedroom overlooked a spacious backyard of grass. The kitchen window looked into the backyard where mom could watch her kids play on their very own playset in the safety of their encampment, in complete opposition to the community life they experienced as children.

You had to get into the car to go to the market, to school, to church, or just about anywhere. No longer did city planners include mixed-use development zones, it was Residential zoning on one side of the freeway and Commercial on the other. At the same time, people greatly increased their travel time to work. Instead of a walk or short bus ride, people took to newly created expressways to travel from newly formed suburbs named after forests in England to the dangerous, cold city for work.

Instead of God being in the details our cars became our gods. As people spent hours and hours alone commuting to and from work or driving our kids from one activity outside of their neighborhood to another. The American Dream was reshaped from opportunity for a better life to opportunity for a better car or bigger, more private home.

The net result was a complete rejection of life in community with one another. For centuries humans formed community with those they lived near. Now we form communities with people we like and are like us. The acquisition of things overtook the desire to acquire friendships or do what is best for our community.

It was a dramatic demarkation from van der Rohe’s philosophy.

Enter new urbanization. Through the 1990s and into today, children raised in the suburbs have stumbled upon centuries old principles of community living.  There is now a reinvigoration of urban living and a rediscovery of community life. (And even adaptations like urban farming.) Initially, this movement wrought havoc on urban communities, bringing gentrification. But in recent years more careful planning has largely kept money-hungry developers from gobbling up cheap property to flip from the urban poor to the yuppy.

It’s a form of a rejection of individualism. (Or some would say a fulfillment of individualism.) As they seek community in the city they want to affirm their individuality by placing themselves into a complex ecosystem of community where their skills, passions, and ideas have value. The mainstream, suburban-focused, marketing-driven mindset of their parents struggles to understand why their children reject a comfortable, safe life in the suburbs for the chaos of the city. The news media looks at the increased ridership of public transportation and double-digit sales increases of bicycles and blames this on the price of gas. In their eyes, it could never be that people don’t want to have their own cars that they sit in for lonely hours on their way to offices full of people they don’t like.

That’s exactly what it is. One generation looks at the failure of the generation of their parents and choses another path. That’s the nature of pendulum swings. We go from one wild extreme to the next. And in the process power (and the money that follows) swings wildly from corporate megacenters of suburban idealism to mom/pop shops where community-feel and small town ideals leads to parting with dollars.

Questions for church leaders:

  1. Do you agree or disagree with this premise that people in America are shifting from a suburban mindset to more of a community mindset?
  2. How are you seeing this trend play out in your area?
  3. How does this impact your church?
  4. What are areas of the church where people currently say, “God is in the details?
  5. How does this impact your definition of community life within your congregation?
  6. Where do you find fear in this trend? Where do you find hope?
San Diego Living

You know you’re becoming presbyterian…

… when you recognize the dive bar in the background image of a slide during the worship service and snicker with your friends at the newfound irony to the words.

Certainly, the Tower Bar is a visual landmark in City Heights. It’s essentially a historic place in the city of San Diego. But it’s also a central meeting spot for folks in our church. We meet there to walk around the corner to Bravo’s Taco Shop. (Best burrito in City Heights) Or maybe to plan a small group outing. Or even to debrief a rough night at youth group.

And the joke is always that if someone has too much to drink they can get a tattoo in the upstair tattoo parlor aptly named, Tower Tattoo Parlor.

The connection between the words from the song and slide being a favorite place we meet was delicious.

I have a feeling that will become the official proper response for a meeting at the Tower from now on.

Where You go, I’ll go
Where you stay, I’ll stay
Where you move, I’ll move
I will follow You

San Diego Living Sports

Why you should watch SDSU vs. BYU on February 26th


Church Leadership

Exit Strategy

Huffington PostOver the weekend it was announced that the Huffington Post was selling to AOL for $315 million. The press release will reassure fans that the change in ownership won’t change the core of the business. But it will.

The only party who really believes that nothing will change is AOL.

From now on a line has been drawn. There will now be three audiences. Those who loved the Huffington Post before the sale. Those who became fans after the sale. And those who have transcended their love of the Huffington Post through the transition.

And things will change among the team there, too. They have played their card. The exit strategy now lives in their bank account.

Why? Its tough to go back to a job in the same way and work for thousands when you know you have millions in the bank. Certainly, they will go back to work. And they will try their hardest to work in the same way as they always have. But everything will slowly change as the fight changes from “beating the man” to “becoming the man.”

People in ministry know exit strategies, too well

We live in a low-trust, highly transient culture. Everyone has a price and everyone has dreams that include not working where they work or living where they live. (Some will shake their head and swear it isn’t so. But deep down we all know its true.)

The dirty little secret of the American Dream is that it implants a deep seeded dissatisfaction with our current situation and a heads-up mentality that to succeed you might need to go where the grass is greener.

And people in ministry are quick to make moves. I rarely meet a staff person who isn’t willing to at least feel out another opportunity somewhere else.

Let’s be blunt: This kills your ministry.

While people who are in your ministry don’t know that you are passively looking, you exude a mentality that people pick up on but can’t quite articulate. It’s like they walk into your office and smell something but can’t quite put their finger on what it is.  But if they looked under your desk they’d see boxes ready to be shipped off somewhere else.

And then when you play your exit card… it all clicks. They knew you were a fake all along.

What people need

2008-2010 taught people that the American Dream is largely a lie. We learned that you can’t mortgage your way to wealth. We learned that companies have no loyalty to employees. We learned that more education doesn’t guarantee you lifetime employment. We learned that corporations can steal houses from hard-working families. And we learned that the next generation will likely not be wealthier or more educated than their parents.

This has knocked our country off its equilibrium. It has forced Americans to do very un-American things like reject the notion that all people are equal. (Core to the health care debate) Or the central theme that our nation is built on accepting immigrants. (Rejection of the DREAM Act and all forms of immigration reform) I could go on… but it’s not the point of this post.

We need bedrock. We need leaders in our community who have hitched their horse in our neighborhood. Who declare that they won’t leave our community. We need the talents, voice, intelligence, passion, and tenacity of church leaders who see themselves as ministers to the community at-large and not just the few who pay their rent.

We need activists. We need leaders who will stand up for the rights of the minority in our communities and hold their hand in the public arena in Jesus name. We need people who have stood the test of time and been the pain in the neck of the good old boys for long enough to see real change.

We need retirement parties. We need leaders who are willing to stick it out for their career. Who aspire to have a street named after them more than a book with their name on it. We need leaders who recognize that long-term ministry means good times and bad times. We need leaders who recognize that their role may morph. We need leaders who dream that one day they will be recognized for 40 years of service with a cake and a party. (And maybe we won’t be, and that’s OK, too.)

That’s where church leadership will be in 20 years. The question for you is simple: Will you be here in 20 years or will you be doing something else? It’s up to you.

Christian Living

Let Grace be our language

Is grace enough for you?

Maybe I’m a cynic but I don’t think grace is a hallmark of a lot of Christians. We’re too busy having unrealistic expectations for one another and then wallowing in the disappointment of failed relationships.

I’m too busy judging you for judging me for grace!

Let’s get past this oddity of evangelical culture and descend into the heart of what we believe.

We’re all perfectly imperfect. We need to expect imperfection from the people around us while individually, through the power of Jesus, trying to make our live more like Jesus. Not to celebrate it. But build it into our expectations for one another.

I sin. I am messy. I hate things about my nature. Loathe even. I sadden myself with my sinfulness. Sometimes I disgust myself.

Failure is a part of our walk with Christ. Some would say it is the beginning of our walk with Jesus. It’s part of being a leader. It’s part of maturing. It’s part of learning.

You simply cannot walk with Jesus in a state of false perception of yourself, your mess, and your unique ability to do the wrong thing at the wrong moment.

Think about it like this…

The whole reason God created Eve was not for a sin bringing playmate. It was because the Father looked at his creation and said, “Its not good for man to be alone.”

There is no more alone place than in a broken relationship. Conversely, there is little more powerful on this world than a grace-filled relationship with two people.

Here’s my encouragement

Every day you are given the choice between grace and judgement. In all things, chose grace.

Church Leadership Social Action

No more country clubs

Photo by Elliot Brown via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Quick facts

Cumulatively, the American church is likely the largest private land owner in the country. Most zip codes contain at least one house of worship. In my zip code alone there are more than 30. In many communities around our nation the church occupies some of the prettiest property in town. It’s square footage competes with all other public buildings in girth and consumption of natural resources.

Cumulatively, the American church is likely one of the largest private employers in the country. Each of those congregations in my zip code employ at least one individual. But when you include secretaries, janitors, and associates, the number goes up. Nationwide hundreds of thousands of people are employed by churches.

And yet…

  • Churches pay no property taxes
  • Most church staff do not pay full payroll taxes.

Think about the fiscal crisis your state is going through… not taxing churches and their staff comes at a pretty high cost, right?

Why is that so?

Have you ever thought about it? Why don’t churches pay property taxes? And why are clergy taxed differently than other types of employees?

The best I can tell there are two main reasons for this:

  1. In the last 70 years, there has been an increasing desire to keep church and state separate. The Supreme Court has, again and again, affirmed a desire to not sniff around in the churches business too much. Collecting property and payroll taxes would probably require audits which the federal government wants no part of.
  2. Historically, there was an understanding that the local church was the primary provider of social programs. It didn’t make sense to tax the entity taking care of the sick, feeding the poor, and often providing meeting space for the community.

(More on this from the L.A. Times)

Closed to non-members

If I were to walk to the front door of most churches in our country today and pull the handle of the door I’d find it locked. (And not because it’s a holiday, it’s locked nearly every day. Even if unlocked I don’t have access to use the space.) I’ll quickly be told it is private property.

The simple truth is that the church is one of the largest private land owners and largest private employers, but it is generally closed to the public. The possibility of its existence is financed by 100% of the community whereas the benefits of the property, staff, and resources, are functionally only available to the 5% or so who attend.

For years I’ve heard the local church referred to as a country club and scoffed. But largely, it is true.

The public is not welcome.

My dream for the church

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I will watch the speeches. (And make my kids watch them, too.) I will remember the effects of his ministry. And I will be inspired by the quotes on Twitter.

More importantly, I am empowered by Dr. King’s message to keep dreaming.

When I close my eyes these are the things I dream about:

Photo by Brian Hawkins via Flickr (Creative Commons)

One day, the churches facilities will embrace the implications of its tax status. It will be a place truly separate from the world because it serves the world. So separate that people coming into her doors will wonder if they are in an alternate reality. I dream of a church who flings it’s doors open to the public Monday – Saturday from 6:00 AM until 10:00 PM. It’s a place the poor are served. A place the sick go for healing prayers. A place the elderly use as a resource. A place high school volleyball teams practice. A place kids go for tutoring. A place of civic debate. A place the arts are celebrated. A place local business people use for meetings. And a place where people go to find out how they can serve their fellow neighbors.

One day, the churches staff will see themselves as employees of the community. The skills Paul talks about in Titus 1 & 1 Timothy 3 will be used not just to run programs attended by the faithful but cast upon the community for the common good of all people. Sure, there will be sacramental duties performed by the staff. But they will be kept in focus by the needs of the community. The pastor will see himself as not just the pastor of the people who come on Sunday morning, but as the pastor of the community he’s been called to serve. (Using “he” in an inclusive mode, my egalitarian friends.)

The church will no longer be dictated by fears of lawsuits. They will rise above the desire to protect its assets in realization that the assets came from and belong to the community in the first place. The church will no longer be stricken by a separation of church and state because it is too busy embracing the needs of the state’s citizens. You want to sue us? Then sue us because we have made our property open to all. You want to close our doors? Then you are closing the doors on the place of refuge for refugees and the place of stability for those lacking the stability of a family. Let our good works be our best defense.

The church will be a physical manifestation of the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit. The church will be a continuation of the ministry of Jesus. It will be a place every person can both be served and serve in the fullness of their spiritual gifts.

What will we see than? We will see Jesus at work. We will see the irresistible draw of our Savior on the hearts of the community. The church will cease being a place for the 5%-10% on the fringes and regain its place as the centerpiece of our communities. We will see that the church will be the waypoint when giving directions to people around town. We will see that the community will look at offering tax breaks to churches and clergy will be a bargain and a burden its people happily bear for the greater good of the community.

This won’t wallow in a social gospel. Instead it will embrace that the Gospel is social. It’ll be the embrace that the Gospel isn’t just about renewing of our hearts but also a renewing of our community.

Let the religious among us be skeptics of what can happen when we embrace our role in society. In the meantime, when we step into these things, we will see today’s skeptics give their hearts to Jesus when they finally see the Gospel alive with their very own eyes.

Blog Highlight Church Leadership Good News

Being Good News

Today’s video post is a synopsis of about 10 conversations I’ve had in the last 60 days. All of them get to the question, “Adam, something has changed inside of you. I like it sometimes and I don’t like it sometimes, what is it?

One thing I’ve learned to get comfortable with in the last 10 years of ministry is people asking me hard questions, diving into my motivations, and even offering critical responses. I can handle it. I am not intimidated by it. In fact, questions like this actually encourage me.

Christian Living Church Leadership

5 Steps to Finding Family in Your Community

Divorce. Single parenthood. Extended singlehood. Living away from home. Broken relationships. Loneliness.

None of these are surprises. None of these are ideal. All of them are our reality and bond.

All of them are (by design) normative in the body of Christ. (James Dobson’s ideals are great. But they aren’t our reality.) We are a people tied together primarily by our brokenness. The church is the only institution on the planet where everyone is on the same playing field. We are all sinners. We all admit that left to our own devices we’d screw it up so we have a desperate need for a community that can help us screw it up less. That’s our bond as believers. We need each other because we are busted.

And yet– sadly, working in a church is one of the loneliest jobs in America.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Without sounding like a 5-step program too much– here are 5 hard steps you can take to find community (and, ultimately contentment) while working on staff at any church.

Step One

Admit you aren’t perfect, can’t be perfect, and are lonely. No really. It starts with a healthy understanding of who you are and your lot in life. One of my frustrations with making pastors look like celebrities is that too many pastors start to believe that their poop doesn’t stink. (Conversely, to aspire to be a “great pastor” you have to pretend that you fell from heaven onto a community and you have no needs and you somehow embody a perfection that you really aren’t.)

You aren’t bulletproof. You need friends. You need accountability. You need people your own age in your life. Admit it.

Step two

Find people your own age. This one makes people’s head tilt 10 degrees to the side when I say it. “My youth group is like my family.” No, they aren’t. They are adolescents and you are an adult. Not only is it really unhealthy for your long-term health for you to consider the youth group your family because they graduate and go to college– it’s creepy for an adult to depend on a bunch of students to be his family. Creepy with a capital C.

Find people within 10 years of yourself. (On average) Honestly, common interests are cool but not really primary.

Note that I’m being careful to say that you don’t need to find this in your church. It’s great if it can happen there. But I’ve worked at smallish churches my whole life and I know that there might actually not be a group of adults in your age range. But every community has people your age. You might just have to do something outside of your church. Join a softball team or a golf league or something going on with people your own age and go there. (Just don’t go dancing, that leads to sex.)

Step three

It’s better when you aren’t in charge. I don’t know why… but for us the magic mojo of our finding family/community in San Diego has been that I’m not in charge. The joke has been, “we’re just the hosts.

I think the truth is that we, as pastors, like to be in charge a little too much. We want to set the agenda. We want to be the center of attention. We want to be the expert. We love it when everyone looks to us. In short, we have a validation problem. We hide behind the persona and expectation because we like it and feed off of it.

But you will never feel like part of a community if you are walking around thinking that you are the man on the white horse who has come to save the town from itself. All you are really doing is walking around with a false view of yourself and leaving yourself on a very lonely island. (And I know too many pastors readily fired who have made themselves entirely expendable at their church by living on a very long island.)

Step four

Develop inter-dependency. A false presentation of who we really are (see above) leads us to think we don’t really need to depend on our community of friends. (And elevating our need to develop dependencies on our work. Raise your hand if you’re a work-aholic.)

It’s OK to be a pastor and have needs that you have to depend on others for. It’s OK to admit that in the safety of your community. In fact, what you will discover is that once you level the playing field and admit that you need to depend on people– you’ll actually be a seen as a much stronger leader. This goes beyond just depending on people to do stuff for you. This means that you’ll need to join and participate in being part of a family as an equal. You know, be a servant to your friends and allow them to reciprocate. Just as you need to lean on other they need to be able to lean on you.

The question being answered by every single person over and over again about you (and behind your back) as a pastor is, “Is that person for real?” When you become part of a community of people (aka– a family) that really knows you, where you can just be Adam and not Pastor Adam, then those people will help answer that question in a way you’d like it answered. “Yeah, Adam is a legit guy. He and Kristen have their struggles, but they are just like anyone else.” That’s a whole lot better than, “All I really know about him is what he’s preached. He keeps to himself.

Step five

Relax, you’re with family. The goal is simple. You know you’ve arrived when you’re just a dude (or dudette) with a job. (And people aren’t saying, “I’m in the pastors group.“)  It will hit you when you get there.

And you won’t be healthy in a community until you find a group of people who look at you as such. My goal every time our community group (our real family in San Diego) gets together is to shut up and listen. Literally, that’s what I’m telling myself over and over again as I prepare for Monday night. “Shut up Adam, no one cares.” But these people really do care about Kristen and Adam– the family that hosts us on Monday nights. That’s how I know we’ve arrived.

This is more important than any job you are doing

Everything you do as a pastor depends on your health emotionally and spiritually. If you don’t have this, stop everything! Your ministry will not succeed until it flows out of a healthy life.

The simple reality is that you need a place to just be instead of being the pastor. And I think I’ve shocked people when we sit across the table for coffee and I tell them this has to become their #1 priority.

Yes, I’ve even told people they need to stop being a pastor if they can’t make this happen.

It’s that important.