No longer interested in church growth

I am no longer interested in growing the church.

For one, I don’t think that is my responsibility. I think it’s God’s. But theological perspectives aside, I am not sure how helpful the language of “growing the church” is, and frankly, I am not that interested in it.

I find myself in a wonderful, confusing, exciting, and anxiety producing situation. I pastor a numerically growing church. We are approaching a couple of different growth barriers regarding size and pastoral capacity. All this means we have to do something different. We have to expand seating capacity in the sanctuary, hire additional staff, and possibly go to a second service. In reality, we probably need to do a combination, if not all of, these three things.

As we consider the options and the practical aspects of these changes I have read countless articles and books on church growth. Many cups of coffee with those who have “grown” the church have been had trying to pick their brain and learn from their successes and mistakes. It is all good stuff, it is exciting to be in this situation, but early in the morning over a cup of coffee I have this nagging thought…

I’m not really interested in growing the church.

Don’t get me wrong. I want to see people come to Christ and I understand people coming to Christ means there will numerically be growth. I want to see the church impact the community to such a degree that it is seen as a resource and refuge to those in local proximity. I want the church to have, not just a local impact, but a global one as well. So please don’t hear me say I don’t want these things to increase or grow. I do.

Church growth, or “growing the church”, conjures up an image of people concerned solely with numerical growth. While there are instances where this is true, in my experience I have found this to be mostly a stereotype. There are many people who pursue church growth with very kingdom minded concerns who are not egotistical or just concerned with building a kingdom to themselves. But because the language of church growth has become associated with strict numerical growth I find myself having to constantly explain what I mean by church growth. So I think I will abandon it altogether.

Here is where I find myself. I am interested in strengthening the church.

Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep.” In other words, “Keep the sheep healthy. Keep them strong.” To be a shepherd and to be successful is to work for the strengthening of the flock. Yes, that includes growing it numerically, but it is so much more. It is increasing the unity of the church so that manifold wisdom of God is proclaimed to the universe (Ephesians 3:10). It is discipleship, which moves people towards deeper obedience so that by the work of the Spirit they are transformed from one degree of glory to the next (2 Corinthians 3:18). It is the equipping of the people to live into the purpose God created them for from the beginning of time (Ephesians 2:10).

Which, as pastors – better yet as Christ followers, is what our work as the church should be about.

So what do you think, is the language of church growth helpful? Is there a better way to describe this work?

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Dream life of Angels

Sometimes poetry allows you to say things more clearly by giving the reader more space. My feeble attempt in describing faith-driven growth.

I want to get up and move                                                                                                more.  The comfort of this                                                                                               couch seems to have shackled                                                                                           me down, not allowing me

to go where I want.                                                                                                                   I struggle against these                                                                                               shackles not for first time,                                                                                                    not for the last, but every day.

I want to get the key                                                                                                                to the shackles, I want                                                                                                      them removed, to get out                                                                                                    and live life, but I’m afraid

my legs will break when I stand                                                                                            for the weight they need to hold                                                                                              is heavy, not changing, constantly                                                                                  forced down by the pull

of an incessant force.                                                                                                        even if I could stand,                                                                                                                 I doubt I could move.                                                                                                            my legs may hold the

unbearable weight, but                                                                                                           to pick them up, balancing                                                                                                    for a brief moment on                                                                                                          just one of them, should surely

cause them to buckle.                                                                                                              I can’t face that, tears roll                                                                                                 down my face, running                                                                                                      from the thought of failure.  I want

that key.  I can see it,                                                                                                                I know what it looks like,                                                                                                      and in my mind,                                                                                                                        I know what it feels like.

I turn away, and look out                                                                                                          a window past myself, past                                                                                                  the consciousness of the shackles.

I am a bird.

I go where I want.                                                                                                             There is no doubt                                                                                                                    in my mind where I will go                                                                                                        I just don’t know where it is.

I don’t really care either                                                                                                             I just want freedom,                                                                                                          going from place to place                                                                                                  flying to get there, watching

the world move below                                                                                                         with nothing to hinder me                                                                                                  here.  I want to open the sky                                                                                               with a key that leads to an adventure                                                                                  and freedom.

I am music.

There are rules so I sound                                                                                                right, so that I resonate with                                                                                                 the one that plays my key.                                                                                                   We become the same and have a

synergy of all other strings played                                                                                          in our key.  I make up the sounds                                                                                          to the dream life of angels.

I am a business man.

The keys to my success are                                                                                               laid out in successive order.                                                                                      Following each one leads                                                                                                       to a satisfying life that doesn’t                                                                                        involve second hand clothing.

I am out of Eden,

shackled to my couch,

ready for life

holding the key.

Following Jesus means giving up EVERYTHING

Luke 5 records Jesus calling his first disciples. In both instances, in the calling of Simon Peter and Levi the tax collector, Luke notes they “left everything and followed him.” That jumped off the page when I read it. Jesus extends them an invitation to follow him, and they drop everything and follow. Right there, on the spot. It is recorded in another place in Luke’s gospel that others wanted to take care of their affairs before they followed Jesus and Jesus basically told them they could take care of those things or follow him. But they couldn’t do both. And they weren’t insignificant things. It wasn’t like they wanted to go check Facebook one last time. No, one person wanted to bury their father, and the other wanted to say good-bye to their family.

But Simon Peter and Levi dropped everything.

Everything.

Most of the time when we read that they dropped everything to follow Jesus we picture them leaving their boats, their nets, their tax collector booth, and their other possessions. And that’s all true. But they also left their families, their houses, and their careers. That doesn’t mean they never saw their families again. We know they stayed at Simon’s house as Jesus healed his mother-in-law. But they were willing to. Those who followed Jesus turned their lives upside down for three years to be near him and learn from him.

Those who followed Jesus gave up everything.

Everything.

They gave up their expectations, understanding, and hopes about what the Messiah would do. We see them struggle with this even after the death and resurrection. In Acts 1, after spending time with the resurrected Jesus they ask, “Are you now going to establish your kingdom?” They still believed Jesus was going to build an earthly kingdom like they had grown up believing. But they had to give this up to really follow Jesus. In order to live into the mandate they were given to make disciples, they needed to give up trying to build an earthly kingdom.

The disciples had to give up their desires for success. We see an argument between James and John about who is greater and who will sit at the right hand of Jesus. When Jesus confronts them about this conversation, he turns their understanding of recognition and privilege upside down by saying the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

Over and over again the disciples had to give up their prejudices. Prejudices against the poor, the righteous, the Samaritans, children, prostitutes, religious leaders and themselves. When we follow Jesus we are called to give up everything.

Following Jesus is one of the most difficult things I have done with my life. And the reason it is so difficult is precisely this idea of giving up everything. It is one thing to give up possessions, but giving up the prominence my family gets in my life is difficult. Many in ministry make a commitment, and rightly so, to not sacrifice their families on the altar of ministry. Far too many families have suffered from being treated as second fiddle to a pastor’s ministry. But at the same time, to follow Jesus, and to be willing to leave family means that one cannot sacrifice following Jesus on the altar of family. Personally, I find this a difficult, but good, tension to live in.

Many of us have worldviews that are based more on political ideologies than the teachings of Jesus. Many of us live our of our self-protections rather than our trust in a sovereign God. Too many decisions are made because of idols we cling tightly to rather than making decisions out of a decision to follow Jesus with everything. But following Jesus means we give up everything. It means we give up our world views, our ideologies, our desires, our idols, our insecurities, and whatever else we give authority to in our life. If we are to become like Jesus, which is what following Jesus is all about, then we must give up everything.

Everything.

So what are you holding on to?

What have you not given up to follow Jesus more closely?

What we do

This past weekend I spent a lot of time playing with my son.  Sarah had to work, met with some friends and took sometime to herself (which mother’s deserve!) and that meant I got to spend time with my son.  Let’s be clear, in no way am I complaining.  I thoroughly love spending time with Luke.  We play with tractors, we (he) goes down the slide we brought in the house during the winter months, we listen to a lot of music, we dance (in case your wondering he inherited my Dutch dancing ability), we wrestle and read books.  As his ability to learn has begun to match his curiosity the world, for both he and I, has become a lot of fun to explore.  I relish these times because I know this season will lead to another season.  That season will be good and full of joy, but it won’t be this season again.  So I will drink deep of this one now.

But that’s not what I want to write about.

As I was reflecting on my time with Luke I was struck with this thought.  For all the activity we did this week, none of it made me a father.  Playing tractors with Luke, hiding under the covers of the bed with a flashlight, reading books and changing diapers; none of it made me Luke’s father.  A babysitter could have done all that just as well.  And they would have been a babysitter, not a father or mother.  I am Luke’s father, not because of what I do, but because God saw it fitting that we should be blessed with Luke.

In the same way, I am not a Christian by what I do.  I am a Christian, a Christ follower, a disciple, because of God’s divine love towards me and the Spirit’s softening of my heart to be stirred with affection for Christ.  And that shapes what I do to be the things a Christ follower does.

This seems so straightforward, and yet, for all it’s simpleness we continue to return to the idea that what we do determines who we are.  If I stay away from rated-R movies, don’t drink beer, don’t cuss, don’t cheat on my spouse, don’t listen to certain music then I am a Christian.  Or maybe we should say it in the positive.  If I do go to church most Sundays, if I do volunteer and serve at church, if I do give some money to church, if I do go on a missions trip then I am a Christian.  But what we do (or don’t do) doesn’t determine what we are.

This isn’t to say that what we do is of no importance.  The reality is that if I am a follower of Christ, then I am going to do and not do a lot of those things.  But outward actions are not determinative of my heart’s affections for Christ.  Rather it is reverse.  My heart’s affections for Christ are determinative of my outward actions.  This is what James was getting at when he says, “I will show you my faith by what I do”  (James 2:18).  So the truth is that what we do is of extreme importance as it is evidence of our saving faith.

For some, this means they need to stop trying to become something by what they do.  Still for others it means they need to start doing.  And then for many it means we need to stop trying to judge who is in and who is out.  Because here’s the thing, I can’t see the heart.  Which means the only thing I can see regarding someone’s faith is their outward actions.  And sometimes those actions are done because of the heart’s desire for Jesus.  And sometimes those actions are done because they are trying to earn approval from Jesus.  But I cannot tell the difference.

I can only give grace.

Which is exactly what has been given to me.

 

Rediscovering the leaf pile

I love fall. I love the cooler weather, the changing the leaves, the smell, and most of all, the fact my allergies are over. I have fond memories of fall as well. Growing up we had a big backyard out in the woods which meant we had some spectacular leaf piles. Our yard would get so many leaves on it that we would use a leaf blower to make these piles. And when I say leaf blower, I’m not talking about that little thing your neighbor plugs in to blow the leaves out of his bushes, I am talking about an industrial blower on wheels.

Yeah, it was fun.

But I haven’t played in a leaf pile in about 18 years.

There is something about having a young child that helps you rediscover those simple joys.

The other day there were enough leaves in our backyard that Luke, my 18 month old son, and I got a rake and made a leaf pile. And yes, he helped!

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So we raked up the leaves into a pile and then put his little plastic slide in front of the leaves and sent him down the slide into the pile. Luke’s thought in a word: epic. He loved it. And for the next 45 minutes this is all we did. This face made it all worth it.

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I am finding that one of the joys of being a parent is rediscovering how beautiful and fascinating this world is. Under every stone, behind every bush, in every leaf pile there is something to discover.

And as Luke discovers, I rediscover.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that eternity has been placed in the hearts of men and women. Deep within each one of us there is longing for something more in life. We feel it when we are sitting around the table with good food and good drink and people we love. There is rich conversation that is deep and meaningful as we share our lives together. We tuck our children in at night and without prompting they reach up, hug us, and whisper “I love you” without prompting. All of us have felt something like this at some point in our lives, and deep down, we hope it could go on forever.

So we pursue.

We chase.

We begin to think if I could just get that one thing, money, house, success, recognition, family, or kids then that ache in our souls would be satisfied. But it doesn’t. So we come up with a new pursuit and lay chase hoping we discover our souls longing.

As I have followed Jesus, I have found my soul discovers, or more accurately rediscovers, the thing it has been longing for. Our souls will not be satisfied by something new, rather, our soul remembers eternity as Ecclesiastes says and so will only be satisfied in rediscovering.

At one time we were known. Intimately. By the one who breathed life into us. We were known by others without shame, guilt, or feeling the need to hide. And we knew. We knew God. We knew others. We knew life without pain, wounding, oppression, and injustice.

We long for that.

One of the most attractive thing Jesus offers is an opportunity to rediscover what our soul longs for. Jesus offers exactly what our soul hopes for, pursues and chases after. The invitation of Jesus is to begin to experience that now. As Paul says, “we shall know, as we are fully known.”

Would you follow you?

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  Matthew 28:19-20

“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”  1 Corinthians 11:1

“Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put into practice.  And the God of peace will be with you.”  Philippians 4:9

It is evident from the scriptures that, as Christians, we are to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ.  For most Christians this is a given.  What is not a given is how we are to fulfill that command.  It has been startling for me to read passages like 1 Corinthians 11:1 and Philippians 4:9 where Paul calls others to simply do what he does.  Paul is literally saying, “Do you want to follow Jesus?  Do you want to know him more?  To you want to experience more grace in your life?  Then do what I am doing.  Live like me.”

Which isn’t all that revolutionary.  It is exactly what Jesus told us to do in The Great Commission.  “Go and make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  In John 14:12 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.”  For three years Jesus showed the disciples how to live and what it means to be human, and then he commissions them to go and teach others how to live.

Discipleship modeled for us by Jesus and Paul is simply calling others to follow what we are doing in our pursuit of Christ.

The question that looms is, “Would I follow me?”

I answer the question very tentatively at first.  The answer I give says a lot about how I view myself.  Answer “yes” and I look a little arrogant and probably disqualify myself from being someone worth following due to an under developed sense of humility.  Answer “no” and, outside of the obvious “you aren’t worth following because you don’t think your worthy to be followed, you might not be worth following because a lack of confidence and/or  false humility.  It is a tricky question.

So let me as honestly as I can answer the question.  Would I follow me?

No….

….but that’s a qualified ‘no’.

Here’s why I say it is qualified.  I don’t say ‘no’ because I think I lack character, or vision, or that I would be ashamed to have people see how I live.  The reason I would say ‘no’ is altogether different.  Looking at the lives of those who I wanted to follow and who have discipled me, I see a characteristic in them that is absent in me.  Those to whom I have sought to model my life after have been people who push me.  They ask me to do things I didn’t know I could do.  They ask me to examine myself and stretch myself.  At times in ways I don’t want to stretch.  And it is always hard to say ‘no’ to these people because I see them doing the same things of themselves.  They push.  The desire.  They ask for more.

The reason I say, “No, I would not follow me” isn’t because I don’t think I’m not a person worth following.  I say ‘no’ because I have not been a person who asks something of others.  And this isn’t just limited to asking things of those who have followed me, but asking in general.  I typically don’t ask for help.  A few months ago I wanted to ask someone to be a mentor to me, and it scared me to the core.  I had to be forced to ask for what I want.

As I reflect back on those relationships in which I was discipling someone, I have to regrettably admit that I didn’t ask well.  I didn’t ask them to push themselves.  I didn’t ask them to do more than they thought they could.  I didn’t ask them to make bigger steps in obedience to Christ.  I didn’t ask them to consider more of the Kingdom of God.  I didn’t ask them to follow me.  Consequently, their growth as followers of Jesus wasn’t what it could be.

Neither was mine.

There are a lot of reasons for this.  Okay, there is one reason expressed a lot of different ways:  fear.  I feared I would be seen as demanding asking people to push themselves.  I feared I would be seen as seen as arrogant because I “knew” what someone needed to do to step into the kingdom.  I feared the accountability that kind of relationship fosters.  I feared if I explicitly asked them to follow me, they would say no…

…so I didn’t ask.

One of the more paradigm shifting ideas I am learning is that it is okay to ask.  In fact, as a leader it is necessary to ask.  Learning how to ask someone to be better than they believe they can be is the essence of what being a good leader is all about.  It is the essence of making disciples.  Jesus asked fisherman to follow him so they could be more than they, or anyone else, imagined they could be.  Who thought a bunch of fisherman from a small village could change the world?  But he asked.  He asked Nicodemus to stop trying to wrap his mind around the idea of being born again and step out in faith.  He asked the rich young ruler to sell everything.  He asked Zacchaeus to lunch.  He asked a young boy for his lunch in order to feed five thousand people.  He asked John to care for his mother in his absence.  He asked the disciples to lose their life.  He asked.

If this is what Jesus has done, then this should be what I am doing.  So I am learning how to ask.

So for my first ask…

Would you follow you?

Lady Gaga, irrationality, and leadership

A friend once gave me some great leadership advice. Leaders need to spend time trying to understand how the world occurs to a person in order to make sense of their actions. Why? Because no one ever wakes up in the morning and thinks to themselves, “Today I am going to act in a way everyone else would think was irrational.” Rather, people act in a manner that is completely rational to how they view the world. If leaders understand how others view the world, then they can understand their actions.

I think this is great advice. Its insight is brilliant because of it’s simplicity. But it has me wondering…is there a singular rational way to live?

We live in culture that loves irrationality. Chance, collage, anarchy and deconstruction are things we adore. These are so ingrained in us as a culture we have no problems swimming in the incongruity enabled by them. For example, Lady GaGa could easily be considered the poster-child for post-modernity and irrationality. She crosses gender, sexuality and race boundaries seamlessly. The art of her performances seeks to display the role culture plays in constructing our identities. At the same time she sings, “I was born this way…” This seems completely irrational and paradoxical. How can one claim that gender, for example, is a social constructed label while singing that the way one is established at the time of birth long before society has a chance to construct something?

Back to my friend’s statement.

How do people view the world? If they see the world as paradoxical in nature and devoid of any absolutes then perhaps, the irrationality makes complete sense. Who is to say whether we are socially constructed or if we are born a certain way? What if it is a combination of the two? Perhaps it just arises out of living in a world that seems full of contradiction and irrationality. We live in a world that is beautiful and ugly, complex and simple, full and empty, hopeful and despairing, blessed and tragic. A world where at times all events seemed to be threaded together by a single narrative, and other times is seemingly individual events occurring in chaotic randomness. Surrounded by all that, how does one keep themselves from becoming irrational?

In light of this, I believe the advice my friend gave me is spot on. Admittedly, I often judge the behavior of others to be irrational. But it irrational to me.  Which is simply to say that based on how I perceive the world I have determined there to be a singularly rational way to operate irregardless of the circumstances and forces impacting another persons perception of the world.

As a leader, taking time to listen and understand why they do what they do provides many opportunities to lead.  Listening communicates a concern for the person and builds relational capital.  It allows the leader to learn and gain a broader understanding of the world and how it impacts those around them.  Finally,  it provides a place for the leader to facilitate greater change.  If a leader can understand how one acts based on how the perceive the world, they can help change, not only the action, but the perception of the world.  Which is absolutely transformational.  It is the type of change that affects the whole life of the person.  It changes how they think, how they act, their attitudes, and their relationships.

And as a leader, it changes me.

Captivated

I am captivated by extreme skiing.  I have skied my fair share of steep mountains, but when I watch skiers bomb through a narrow chute from the top of a mountain, or ride off the edge of a 30 foot rocky cliff I become memorized by what these people do.  The courage it takes to point your skis down the mountain.  The trust in your ability to hold an edge on a 50+ degree slope.  The reckless abandon necessary to launch yourself in the air.  All of this captivates me.

There is a big difference between being captivated by what someone can do, and by being captivated by someone.  I am captivated by what these skiers do.  But I have never once been captivated by them.  What I mean is, I have never sat and watched footage of a guy bombing through a chute and thought, “I wonder what makes him tick?”  “I wonder what drives life?”  “I wonder if his parents loved him?”  “I wonder how he treats others?”  These questions never enter my mind.  And the reason is simple, I’m not very interested in the person, I’m interested in what the person can do.

So here’s the question for us Christians, “Are we captivated by God, or are we captivated by what God can do?”

If we were able to get very honest with ourselves, I think many of us would have to admit we are more interested by what God can do than in God himself.  We are taken by the idea that God can save us, but we aren’t so taken about what that says about God.  We are in awe of God’s power, but aren’t interested in learning why he uses it the way he does.  We love that God saves us, but don’t really care about knowing him.

I think of the quote by John Owen.  “O to behold the glory of Christ. . .Herein would I live; herein would I die; herein would I dwell in my thoughts and affections. . .until all things below become unto me a dead and deformed thing, no way suitable for affectionate embraces.”  I don’t know that I have come across an expression of deeper longing for Christ himself outside of the psalms.  Owens quote forces me to examine myself.  Am I more captivated by God himself, or what God can do.  This can be measured if we use the quote.  “Until all things below become unto me a dead and deformed thing.”  What Owen is saying is that he desires his longing for God to be greater than anything here in this life, no matter how good those things are.  So when I examine my life, has my family, my success, my friendships, my house, my experiences, my sitting on the back deck watching a summer storm roll in, my standing on a mountain top, my enjoying a glass of wine become a dead and deformed thing in comparison to knowing Jesus more intimately.

Let’s be clear, those things are not bad.  In fact they are very good.  Blessings given by God to be enjoyed.  But they are not better than him.  And to be captivated by them is to be captivated by what God can do for me and not be captivated by God.

Psalm 63:1-4

1 You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water.

2 I have seen you in the sanctuary
and beheld your power and your glory.
3 Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.

Sustaining Tension

Just a couple of years ago our church was in a financial situation that was forcing us to have some difficult conversations.  Giving had been trending down over the last few years, and money had been taken out of savings to make budget.  Now it was the time of year to create a budget for the next year.

There were two major philosophies at the table regarding how we should put that budget together.  One idea was to trust God would provide what we needed and to keep the budget the same.  This meant we would budget to take a third of what we had in savings out to make budget if things didn’t go as hoped.  The other philosophy was to cut budget enough to not have to take money out of savings.  As you can imagine, it was a spirited discussion.

We finally decided to trust God and budget to take the necessary money out of savings to maintain the budget as is.  Two years later it was evident this was the right decision as we have yet to take money out of savings and actually increased our budget last year.

But this post isn’t about how that happened.  This post is about where we find ourselves now.

Morale is high in the church.  People are excited about a new mission and vision statement presented last year.  Unity among members is greater than before.  Functionality of our leadership is higher.  Attendance is up.  Giving is up.  There is more ministry happening now than there has been in a long time.  Honestly, things are going very well.

So well I feel I need to disturb the peace.

The situation with the budget created tension with church.  Tension equals energy.  And energy makes things move.  Without energy, nothing moves.  What our church leadership did well with the budget situation was direct the energy towards creativity and away from negativity.  We presented the congregation with two stories.  The first story was a story of decline and slow death.  Truthfully, it was the path we were on.  The second story was a story of change and growth.  It is the story everybody said they wanted for our church.  By very truthfully presenting the two stories that would define us, our leadership generated tension that energized people to be creative.  And that creativity led to new ministry.

Now, with all the good things happening that urgency we felt two years ago is waning.  In some regards it is reason to celebrate.  We can celebrate God’s goodness and provision.  We can rest in knowing God is moving in our midst.  But I can sense a coming complacency.

If tension is necessary for energy, then a lack of tension results in a lack of energy.  And without energy nothing moves.  Another way to say this, “if there is no vision the people perish.”  My role as leader is to sustain the creativity and energy we have generated in the last two years.  But how do I sustain it?  It is simple, by creating more tension.  This does not need to happen through a crisis (and I really hope I am not creating that!), but can happen by constantly holding up before us the call God has put on us as a people and as a congregation to make disciples of Jesus Christ who impact the world.  For all the good things happening, we have to admit we aren’t there yet.  Nor will we ever be.

I realize this takes courage.  It takes courage to purposefully create tension.  It takes courage to intentionally rock the boat.  It takes courage to accurately and truthfully reflect current reality to people who may not want to see it.  For me personally, it takes courage because I have to face into my fears of failing, not being competent, and wanting to be liked.  If I don’t face these fears, then what I do will be dominated by me and not by God’s will for me.  What I mean by that is this; if my fears dominate what I do or don’t do, then what is driving my actions is not my pursuit of Christ, but my pursuit of protecting myself.  I’m serving me.  And if this is true, then I have to be honest and assume that even the good things I am trying to accomplish are done to serve me.  To make me look good.  Taking time to actively reflect on motivations, fears, and self-protections are essential to this process of creating tension.  So let’s be honest, generating and sustaining tension with in any organization is not for the faint of heart.  But we need to ask ourselves this, “Is the possible pain worth the possible gain?”

My answer is unequivocally, “Yes!”  People transformed by Christ, healed by him, restored by him, redeemed by him, and saved by him.  And the same for families and schools and communities and nations.  So yeah…its worth it.

So I am on the look out.  I’m actively looking for and thinking of ways I can create some tension.

And let’s be honest…this could be fun!

The stories we tell

*This is post is based on a sermon I preached a few months ago. To hear that sermon in its original form go here (itunes) or here (church website – see sermon titled “Heart”)

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? -Jeremiah 17:9

This verse can be difficult for a person to accept. Especially in this day and age. We live at a time when our emotions are often valued over our thoughts. Some even argue that our emotions are more real than our thoughts. It seems that this emphasis has caused us to become unable to distinguish between our emotions and thoughts. As a result we hear people say, “I feel this is wrong.”  No, you think it is wrong.  But we don’t know the difference any longer.  Feelings dominate and shape our reality.

Given the emphasis on our emotions (heart) it is no wonder that this verse from Jeremiah is troubling. Perhaps the most unsettling consequence of this verse is how it undermines our reality. If we let our emotions shape our experience, but if our emotions can’t be trusted, then is our reality real?  Here’s a simpler way to say this: “Is what I am feeling appropriate to what is really happening?  Or is my heart deceiving me to feel something that I don’t need to feel?”

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  I often call my wife in the middle of day.  Sometimes I need to speak to her about something, but sometimes I am just calling to check in.  Of course there are times when I call that she does not pick up.  Both of us keep our phones on vibrate nearly all the time so it should be no surprise that she doesn’t always hear/feel the call.  When she doesn’t pick up the phone the first time I call I don’t think anything of it.  But, when I call a second, or heaven forbid a third time, and she doesn’t pick up, well….now she doesn’t respect me!  She never considers my feelings or what I may need.  I feel this deeply.  But should I?  No.  There are a thousand things that could be keeping her from the phone.  She could be in a store and doesn’t hear it, she could be in the other room playing with our son, she could be outside, or she could be taking a nap.  But my heart, my emotions tell a very different story…loudly.

We all do this.  In their book Crucial Conversations, Patterson, Grenny, et al. outline three stories we typically tell ourselves.  These are victim stories, villian stories, and helpless stories.

Victim Stories

These stories are framed in such a way that we come across looking like innocent sufferers.  We completely ignore the role we played in the situation and place all the blame for why something happened the way it did on the other person.  So our motives are pure, well-intentioned, noble, and altruistic but because of the system or other person involved, we suffered.  So it might sound something like this, “I was just trying to make it the best it could possibly be, but they didn’t think it was important,” or “They just don’t value excellence.”  These two statements are intended to make your actions seem honorable and the other person to look like someone victimizing you.

Villain Stories

Villain stories are told by turning a normal, decent person into an evil mastermind.  All of their actions stem from a motive devoted to doing ill to others.  So a boss who is committed to excellence is seen as micro-manager.  A spouse is seen as inflexible and stubborn because they want things done a certain way.  The story I told above of my wife not picking up the phone was an example of a villain story.  She doesn’t respect me is a villain story.

It is important to note the difference between the victim and the villain story since they are so similar.  The victim story exaggerates our innocence.  The villain story exaggerates the other person’s guilt.

The real danger in the villain story is how it dehumanizes the other person.  If I label them a bonehead, a jerk, or whatever else I come up with it becomes easier to abuse them.  No longer do I have to treat them as a person, but I can talk about them with whomever I want as I am protecting people from the harm they may cause in the future.

Helpless story

Helpless stories create a narrative where we are powerless to do anything.  We believe there is nothing we can do to change the situation or person.  This enables us to do what we have been doing, or to do nothing at all.

All of these stories may be based on some fact.  Take the story of me trying to call my wife.  The story was based on fact.  I called and she did not answer.  But the interpretation, the story, that came from those facts is what was false.  My heart deceived me.

The True Story

As Christians this is an important idea.  It is so easy to be taken by the stories of our hearts and defined by them rather than being defined by the true story.  It is the story of God who comes when we least deserved it.  While we were still sinners Christ died for us.  When we least deserved it Christ on our behalf.  Through the cross of Christ, through the resurrection and the empty tomb God redeems us and calls us sons and daughters.  So when the stories of our hearts creep to our consciousness and begin to define us and our actions remember, this is not who you are!  You are a redeemed son!  A chosen daughter!

Christ choose you.

Christ did not choose you to be a victim.

He did not chose you to be a villain.

Jesus did not choose your brother or sister to be a villain either.

You are not helpless, but you are a co-creator with God.  Called to live out heaven on earth.

So here’s the question: Which story dominates your life?  What story does your heart truly believe?  Which story informs your actions?