Monday, February 20, 2023

Messy Churches are Growing Churches

When I first started going to church, I did not know the church culture or church etiquette. My lack of knowledge caused me to be extremely self-conscious and hyper-vigilant. I tried to dress like everyone dressed and tried to act the way I saw others act at church. I remember sitting in the little church near my house on one of the first hot days of the year. I was in night grade, and I remember getting so hot that my face felt flushed, but I was afraid it would be wrong if I got up and opened a window. I sat there until someone in the choir motioned for me to open the window. I opened the window because an adult said to, but I felt awkward and embarrassed, thinking I was being a disruption. 

Many years later, I read Mike Yaconelli's Messy Spirituality: God's Annoying Love for Imperfect People, which quickly became one of my favorite books. In it and some of his other writings he talks about the little church he pastored. He had a young gal in the church, who like me was not familiar with church culture, but she handled it way different than I did. If she had a question, she would not wait until the sermon was over, she would just blurt out her question. Mike said the first time she blurted out a question, he was taken back because we simply don't do that in church. But he grew to love her impulsivity, because it revealed her thirst for knowledge of God and he chose to give up his preconceived ideas of what his church "should look like." I admire her and wish I would have been more like her. I wanted to learn like she did, but as a youth I simply sat on my questions, afraid to even open a window to make the building more comfortable. 

My husband and I have been a part of a large church for over twenty years. Even though I am a small-town-girl at heart, I've grown comfortable in the church and know when to stand, when to sit, when to bow, when to sing, and when to listen. Because of its size and location, our church tends to have people that are a lot like me in it. I am short in stature, easily distracted, and a relational person so I have convinced my husband to sit on the second row so I can see the pastor and worship leaders up close, which helps me stay more engaged and to feel connected to what is going on. Over the last couple of years, several different people our age who claimed the chairs directly in front of us have come and gone.

When our church opened up after covid, we quickly reclaimed our usual spot, and soon a young man named Travis started coming and sitting right in front of us. Travis is an exuberant person who has a learning disability and because of that he is not like the others who have owned the seat before him. He sings loud and he dancers big during worship, sometimes requiring my husband and I us to take a step back to avoid his moving arms. He blurts out things to lets the pastors know when he loves what they are teaching about Jesus. And he has made some connections with a person he feels safe with and sometimes turns around when he hears something in the sermon that he likes and loudly state his excitement to his safe friend.  

I confess I was overwhelmed by Travis at first and have felt compelled to check my heart for the expectations I have of what I think church should look like. Thankfully, I have slowly developed an appreciation for our seat mate who sits so faithfully on the front row. I have grown to love his passion for the Word, His exuberant worship, his loud verbalizations where maybe Amen might be shouted from the congregation in a church more charismatic ours. I even appreciate his sweet desire to connect with his safe friend around the Truth because that is an eternal connection that will never die. 

A couple of weeks ago, Travis was there and participating as big as ever in worship, but after worship he got up and left. When he left, I realized I was sad that he left. I was also quietly proud of myself for having adjusted and being able to appreciate him. The thought that maybe I had learned the lesson God wanted me to learn from Travis crossed my mind, but just as Travis exited down one aisle another man entered and walked all the way to the front and sat down in Travis' seat. He was an older gentleman, wearing tattered clothes that a homeless man might wear. He had a baseball cap with what I had thought was a handkerchief underneath the cap to cover his neck like farm workers often wear to protect their skin. I was okay until I turned my focus to the pastor who was starting to preach and noticed the scarf on his neck wasn't a scarf. It had a waist band and was fully visible on the side of his head. Realizing the scarf was boxer shorts, made me uncomfortable like I was seeing someone in their underwear. I didn't know where to look, because if I looked at the pastor, the underwear on his head that were in my line of sight. So, I tried to keep my vision on the large screens so I could focus on hearing the sermon, not the neck covering. When the sermon ended, much to my delight, the man sang the closing songs much like our Travis would. Loud, passionately, with lots of hand motions that accented the words of the song perfectly, and his voice cracking as he sang about Jesus calling him friend caused my eyes to leak a bit. 

As I think about these two men James 2:1-6 comes to mind, "My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "You sit here in a good place," while you say to the poor man, "You stand over there," or "Sit down at my feet," have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and Heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love Him?" If Travis's and the gentleman's passionate worship and exuberant responses to the sermons is any indication of their faith, then they are both men who are way richer in faith than me! 

I am hoping God will continue to bring more people like Travis and the stranger who took his sit for that one mourning. They will challenge us in good ways to love those who don't look, or sound like us. It will teach us to appreciate passion that causes some to listen loud, sing passionately, and dance big, and vocalize amens in a lot of different forms. This will free us to give the gospel to people who don't look like our churches look. I believe God is moving in our big church and I want to be someone who grows as a result of His movement. I hope our church becomes more and more messy as a result of God's movement because it is the messy churches that are growing churches. 

Building a Life upon the Rock

In Matthew 27:24-27 Jesus tells us that everyone who hears His words and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock. That the house stood against the floods and the winds that beat on it. The house stood because it had been built on a solid foundation. He also tells us that everyone who hears His words and doesn't do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. And that house on sand was not able to stand up against the floods and the winds that beat against it. As I think about the times we are living in, I think Jesus words are significant and deserve some deeper contemplation. 

The foundation of our faith is built on the Word of God given to us through people of God's choosing. It includes history that tells us of creation and of our own origin. It tells us of the Fall of man and its consequences that have stretched down though all of human history. It tells us of God's promise to send a Saviour. It includes the Law of Moses, which continually pointed to a coming Messiah, who would save His people. That Messiah ended up being Jesus--the ultimate perfect, sacrificial Lamb of God. It includes the books of poetry that show how relational, how compassionate, and how loving our God is. It includes words of the prophets that pointed out Israel's repetitive failures that drew their hearts away from the very God who radically loved them. And sadly, we are no different than them. It includes the gospels that tell the story of a God who left glory, took on human flesh and rubbed shoulders with men and women in desperate need of grace and then who performed the ultimate act of love--the laying down of His life purchase our redemption. It includes the book of Acts which reveals what life looks like when God's people are indwelled, filled, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It includes epistles written to believers, who needed reminders of who God is and what He has done so they could learn how to trust and obey Him and to lean into Him in the hard as they are being purified and built into building of believers. The believers who are living lives of growth as they are continually sanctified by His blood. It includes the book of Revelation that reveals to us bits of Heaven, encouraging us to live with our gaze on Jesus and our hearts set on eternity.  

Lett's think about the foundation of a building for a minute. When builders lay foundations, they lay them to bear the full weight of all of the building materials. The ground must first be leveled and dug out so that footings can be spaced just right so that the building will not fall. There will be layers of rocks and wires and rebar placed in preparation for the concrete to be poured. With out these the foundation would not be strong enough to hold the building. Maybe the groundwork before the foundation could picture the Old Testament. 

Then after the concrete is poured, it will need to be spread, smoothed, and pressed down so that it fills every nook and cranny of the prepared foundation. This will remove any bubbles and thin spots that might weaken it. It will then be tended to for several days so that it can set up perfectly and not become crumbly. No construction will be done until the foundation has completely set. The foundation is a great picture of our Lord, Jesus. As He walked this earth, Satan tried to tempt Him, offering Him counterfeit kingdoms. Satan tried to discourage Him by stirring throngs of crowds to persecute Him and spew hatred at Him. Satan also tried to stop God's plan through discouragement, which sent the Lord to the Garden of Gethsemane with a breaking heart where He pled for another way but the cross, while at the same time yielding Himself fully to His Father's will. And it was Jesus' resolve to yield that makes the foundation of our faith strong enough to build upon. 

We sometimes forget our salvation rests solely on Jesus and His Word. Some of us think our good works, our kind words, our service has somehow helped us merit becoming a part of the house of God. But our good works are only as good as our worst work, our kind words are only as good as our most hurtful words spewed in anger, and our service...well that is only as good as the service we don't render to the one we didn't feel worthy enough to even glance at. A foundation built with any part of us in it is a shoddy foundation because we are a perfectly imperfect people. The foundation has to be built on Jesus and Jesus alone. He is the only one who perfect enough to have died and paid for sin--his resurrection proved that, and we enter into a relationship with Him by faith and faith alone.

The Word tells us that as we are saved so we shall live. That means we live daily, hourly, moment by moment by faith. If we, as individuals or as congregations, let stress, trials, temptations, business, hurt, or failure take our eyes off of Jesus it is like building a little shack on a massive, glorious foundation. But if we are intentional about keeping our eyes on Jesus, a glorious house will be built that will reflect the Saviour to a lost and dying world. 

It is important to think about what a life of faith looks like. When stress comes, it means remembering who Jesus is and holding on to that so He can dispel the fear and the hesitation that grows so easily in our hearts. When trials come our way, it means remembering that the God who endured and overcame every kind of trial we could ever face indwells us and can strengthen and empower us if we trust Him. When temptations come, it means holding on to Him as long as it takes like Jacob did as He wrestled with God and his own the personal weaknesses.  It means remembering that because of the sealing of the Holy Spirit, we are no longer slaves of sin, we are free to walk in victory. When business comes, it means spending time on our knees, asking Him to purify our hearts and motives and trusting Him to order our days so that the use of our gifts and passions are the most fruitful they can be. And when hurt comes it means, remembering that by Jesus' stripes we are healed. He sees what is done to us. He hears the things said to us. He notices the times we're overlooked, ignored, or pushed aside. And those stripes He bore in His body constantly remind us that He, too, suffered trauma in order to love us well. He is for us, and He is offering us Himself. And when failure comes (and it will because we are human) it means keeping our eyes on Jesus and leaning into Him through confession, knowing His blood alone is and always will be enough to cover our sin. The building will still stand in our imperfection because the foundation is perfectly strong--the foundation is a rock. 

As we learn to live by faith, we will learn to live fully in His grace and that will enable us to learn to we learn to love as He loves, which will enable us to come together to build our lives upon the Rock. 

Monday, January 23, 2023

You Are Essential to the Family of God

 I was given an opportunity to speak to a beautiful group of ladies comprised of women who have been widowed, gone through divorce, or who were singles who have never been married. Our church calls them the Cheerleaders. I have always viewed this group as a ministry of presence, caring, and perseverance as well as a ministry filled with great wisdom that comes from women walking with God together through really hard stuff. In this post I am sharing with you, some of the words I shared with them. 

A couple of years ago the world faced a pandemic that initially rocked us to the core. Because there was so little known about it, it was presented to the public in terms that would scare even the bravest of souls. People were only allowed to work if their jobs were considered essential by the government. This hit hard at the core need we all have of believing we are significant to our world. We were told to stay home and isolate from anyone not living in our home. We were told to wash our hands, to not touch our faces, and to wear masks if we went outside. We were told to socially distance at least six feet when we passed someone. That meant we were to follow arrows in the grocery stores and stand on little circles in lines to insure we didn’t contaminate one another other. We were also told to wipe down our groceries when we were putting them away, creating a fear around the very things we needed to survive. 

In the beginning, if we got covid we were told to go home with no treatment and only come back if we couldn’t breathe. Families weren't allowed in the hospital to be advocates for their loved ones and those who died in the hospital, often died alone. And those who had loved ones that passed away found that the normal healthy rituals of families gathering to bury their loved ones were prohibited. Many were left feeling like there was no closure, no final “goodbyes,” and there was no opportunity to share important memories with fellow grievers. 

The American Association of Christian Counselors has reported the pandemic caused a huge rise in people struggling with fear, anxiety, and depression. There are many reasons for this. One of the biggest reasons is that in our isolation our “friends” became the journalists giving us the crazy, scary news updates. Over the last couple of years journalists have also started sensationalizing stories to get more views. We no longer have winter storms, we have bomb cyclones or atmospheric rivers. And now news on social media is presents as, “Breaking News!” or news that "broke the internet." Experts have also found people who have had a history of trauma have been more negatively impacted by covid and its shutdowns. Many have started experiencing triggers and a resurgence of painful emotions from which they had previously found healing. I would not be surprised if this is also true for the women who are in a ministry like Cheerleaders. 

I spent some years working with a Christian counselor who asked me at one point what word I would use to describe how I felt growing up. The word “invisible” immediately came to my mind and we spent some time discussing where that might have come from. I realized the feeling of invisibility can come from many places. It can come from believing we are not being heard by God, because of seemingly unanswered prayers. It can come from believing we are not being heard by people who don’t listen to us, who don’t respond to what we are saying, or who don’t acknowledge the requests we make. It can come from believing we are being overlooked in the circles in which we live. It can come from not being seen in our distress and ignored. And it can come from believing we were not protected by God or others we viewed as potential protectors. And then think about all the things we each went through during lockdowns. These are things of which no one is aware. It just feels so lonely to think about it. 

As I was discussing invisibility with my counselor, I discovered Ann Spangler’s book, Praying the Names of God. In her book, Ann wrote a chapter that radically spoke to my heart about this issue of invisibility. She shared the story of Hagar that is found in Genesis 16. The Old Testament culture is so different from ours and it can be confusing to try to understand the stories we read there. But if we just look at these two ladies in this story as women who are just like us, we will see they both had reasons to feel invisible. 

The infertile Sarai came out of a country known for its worship of fertility gods. She was carrying the shame of infertility even in the face of God’s promise to give her a child. And when years passed, and her menses ceased and still she had no child. She may have thought God wasn’t seeing her or maybe He had abandoned her. So, she resorted to cultural ways of trying to bring God’s plan about, never considering the emotional toil it would take on her or on her servant, Hagar. 

Then there was the servant girl who would not have had any rights who was given by her mistress to a husband who was not her own to get pregnant with a baby that would not be hers. She showed contempt towards her mistress when conceived, resulting in her being harshly treated. So, she ran. She sat down in the desert all alone, feeling unseen. 

And God sees her and speaks to her, telling her to return and to submit to her mistress. He also promised her that her son (Not Sarai’s) would grow up and become a nation of many. She feels seen and, in her gratefulness, she ascribes to God the name El Roi. El Roi in the Hebrew Language means the God who sees, the God who sees me. As I began praying that name of God, I began to believe I was and always have been seen—seen in the good times, seen in the trying times, and seen in the hard, grief-filled times.

We may feel unseen in our circumstances, in our trials, in our relationships, in unresolved conflicts, in our ministries, and in our isolation. And those who have experienced the loss of a spouse through death or divorce or who never were married may also be feeling invisible because we are living in a culture that is both youth and relationship driven. Older women are often overlooked or looked down upon as they age. And those of you who have found themselves traveling through the messy journey of grief and singleness again are wondering where you fit in. I want to remind you that you are a part of an extended family, eternal family and that our Abba, sees you. He has not abandoned you and He is not done with you.  I want to remind you that your wisdom and your gifts are still valuable to the body of Christ. If you are still beathing, you are called to ministry. It may look different than it did once did and that is okay. 

I encourage you to monitor what you are listening to and what you are watching. If it causes anxiety or fear, turn the channel. I also encourage you to serve others by looking for everyday ways to love well.   Maybe a new widow needs your ministry. Maybe she needs you to go with her to a scary doctor’s appointment. Maybe she needs you to share how to navigate paying her bills and calling repairmen. Maybe she simply needs your ministry of presence as she cries. You, who have walked this journey, know better than anyone the pain and the longings she is experiencing, and you will have the wisdom needed to know when and how to encourage her to take a needed step in the grief journey without shaming her. 

Maybe you can do something like the lady in Shafter who was known as the “cookie lady.” She loved to bake cookies and met kids walking home from school at the sidewalk in front of her house with fresh-baked cookies on a regular basis. I have heard her funeral was full of people who remembered her and were touched by her loving kindness. 

Maybe you can be like the lady who was experiencing loneliness after loss who went to the college campus in her community and put notices on bulletin boards, offering free tea and conversation to college kids. Her home became a safe haven for many who passed through, sharing tea and gaining wisdom and comfort needed to navigate college years. Maybe you could contact the college director or youth director and see if they can connect you to young people who would benefit from knowing you.

Maybe you can do like the couple in this very church who used to invite a group of young people over regularly for dinner and board games. They built relationships with those young people and walked them into adulthood, discipling them through friendship. They were viewed as bonus grandparents by the young adults and every one of those adults would tell you today that they learned valuable lessons about life from their evenings with them. They are also using their wisdom in their marriages, in raising their kids, and in the ministries in which they serve. 

Maybe you can love by becoming a prayer warrior like the woman in the movie War Room. You have the power to defeat the enemy and his lies by praying Scriptures over yourself, over your family, over your church, and over your friends. You have the power to renounce the horrific lies being perpetrated by our culture on our children, our grandchildren, and our great grandchildren. Your voices are needed in the heavenly realms where your prayers will become sweet incense around the throne of God, lasting long after you and I are gone from this earth. A friend told me her mother and her mother-in-law decided to pray together every day. She said how blessed she was, knowing these two ladies daily bathed her family in prayer. You can do this in person or on the phone or facetime. A prayer partner can be a neighbor, someone in your church, or someone in your family. Set a time and be consistent. Together you can move mountains and gain a sense of being a part of something bigger than this physical world and your own grief.

As far as this age thing goes, you are never too old to disciple, teach, serve, or love well. The pastor I had as a young wife and a mom over 40 years ago was a middle-aged man named Nap. He had a small church but had a huge impact on the kingdom of God. I lost track of the number men and women who went to Dallas Seminary and/or became missionaries, pastors, elders, evangelists, teachers and servants because of his ministry. In his early years, Nap started a camp for children and teenagers called Ikthoos Christian Camp. He continued to have camp year after year. Over time some of the younger men came along side of him and began to shoulder responsibilities, but Nap refused to retire and continued to go and serve in the camp well into his eighties. The kids we knew as campers grew up to serve as counselors, teachers, rec directors, and worship leaders at the camp and now their kids are beginning to join their ranks. 

Every year when camp is in session, they post pictures and videos for parents and those of us who pray for them. A couple of years ago one of our friends posted a picture of a feeble Nap preaching and sharing a diagram he had always used to make the gospel crystal clear. His daughters who were there then walked their aged daddy back to his room and told him good night for the last time as Napper died in his sleep. How fitting that his last night on earth was doing what he most loved in a place he considered most sacred because it was filled with children. 

Nap was faithful until the end of his life and his life was not an easy life. No matter what happened, he kept on doing what he knew God called him to do. The next morning when the campers and counselors were in chapel talking to the students about his death, our friend took a picture of what her young daughter was drawing. It was the very diagram Nap had drawn on the overhead the night before. But this time it had added something new. She had drawn a little figure on the heaven part of the diagram and had added his name to it. Her mama was glad she had listened and understood his last sermon and that she was finding comfort in the truth he had presented in his last sermon. 

Nap and his gifts were essential to the family of God until the day He died. His wife and his daughters finished out the week of camp, knowing Nap would have wanted that. Just as Nap and his gifts were essential to the body of Christ, so are you and your gifts. God loves you with a radical, unending love. He has always seen you; He sees you now right in the midst of what you are going through today, and He will continue to see and care about you with what tomorrow brings. Don’t ever forget that each of you is essential to the Family of God!


Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!