On Ministers and F.O.M.O. (Part 5)

I was watching a movie review of Woodlawn, a movie that came out not too long ago. In the review, they cut to a clip of the director discussing how they wanted to instill a sense of F.O.M.O. among the non-churched group. It was then that I learned what F.O.M.O. actually means: Fear Of Missing Out.

A couple months ago I was driving to Ohio and began to listen to Catholic Radio (or All-Catholic Radio… I don’t remember what it was called). The hosts were discussing how our culture is built off of two primary emotional reactions: fear, and hype. Fear comes into play a lot in consumerism. We are fed ideas that we need to have something, or need to live a certain way, and this incites a sense of fear that drives us to make really ridiculous and illogical decisions sometimes simply because we have been taught to fear certain things. Credit Card companies are great with this, by the way.

The other reaction is Hype, and it plays out in a similar way to fear. It causes a drastic level of excitement out of acquiring or the possibility to acquire something new, revolutionary, or unique. It could be an idea, a product, or an experience. Hype works pretty well. This is a big reason why a lot of people spend upwards of $600-$700 a year on a phone they’ll use mostly for calling, texting, and a couple apps until the next model comes out.

The hosts went on to explain that these two emotional reactions are what many American’s go through every week (if not every day). We have a fear of missing out on the next big thing, or we are overly excited about participating in it.

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Unfortunately, this bleeds over into ministry as well. I have seen pastors guide churches on this principle of F.O.M.O. They develop programs, copy mega-church paradigms, and go to drastic measures out of a sense that they would otherwise have their church miss out on some new church fad that God is using to change people’s lives (or increase buildings and budgets… it’s hard to discern the two sometimes). Sometimes, I have even seen churches run themselves into the ground because they were changing so drastically and so often that they became victims of an ultra-consumeristic approach to ministry and they simply couldn’t sustain it.

Although many of those who are entering into the ministry may not have an opportunity to fall victim to the”Fear Of Missing Out” on that scale, it is still a great temptation that ministers face. A new church opportunity in a growing city. A possible promotion in a bi-vocational position. A much better paying full-time job. Or even just the opportunity to pastor in a church at all.

I lament the fact that no one really prepared me for the temptation that comes with this “Fear Of Missing Out”. It was expected that once I graduated from college I would be the pastor of a church that God clearly called me to within a month or two. After all, this is pretty typical if our attitudes about entering into ministry are accurate.

But for me, and for many others, this isn’t the case. We wait, and we wait. And at some point we would be happy to be a janitor in a church or at least have a paying job. So, out of fear, we jump at the first opportunity that comes our way without a second thought.

Or, and what is probably more accurate, we see our friends taking on churches of their own and doing well. We see them living their lives, getting married, having children, and then we look at our own lives and realize that our situation hasn’t changed in years. In fact, for some, it has even gotten worse. We are less sure of our calling, less stable in our life situation, less confident of our abilities, and less in love with the Church than when we started this journey. Add to that a ticking clock as we need to fill our “years in pastoral ministry” requirements for ordination within a certain amount of time, and you have a recipe for a “take whatever you can get” attitude that can lead to a lot of pain, and a lot of burnout.

Waiting for God to do his work in his time isn’t easy. Believe me, it’s not even close to easy. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to jump-start something or open a door myself only to have it beat me down and leave me worse than how I was. However, and I know this is similar to the previous post about patience (but I felt it was needed to look at it from a different angle), but sometimes the best thing you can do for your ministry and for the future God has called you to is to wait.

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On Freedom and Inability

“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” -1 Corinthians 26-29

For the last 5 years, I have been a part of a preaching program at my school; the Preaching Ambassadors. A few months ago we had an informational meeting and anyone who was interested in joining the program could come and find out what it was like, and hear from veteran Preaching Ambassadors (which I was). There came a time during the meeting when the potentials could ask questions. One of them asked me, “How do you come up with an idea for a sermon? / how do you prepare a sermon?”

For most of my time in the Preaching ambassadors I had that same question – and it’s a very frustrating one, because almost every other weekend you would be going to a place you’d never been, meeting people you didn’t know, and living with families you’ve never met, and you were expected to prepare a message that meant something to them. After a while that wears on you! Every week you sit with your Bible and you just wait for an inspiring idea for a sermon to hit you, and you try to become super-sensitive to the spirit who knows what those people need to hear. Needless to say, it’s stressful.

Somewhere along the way, when I was going through a rough time in my life and couldn’t focus on anything (but was still expected to preach), I stumbled on something that I still stand by, and it was an answer to that same question that I had for myself: How do I prepare a sermon/develop a sermon idea?

It hit me: preach where you are. What is God teaching you in your life right now? Share that! What are you wrestling with? What are you going through? Make that your message, and allow your current place in life to communicate God to someone.

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I think that we, as ministers (whether by vocation or by the fact that we’re Christians) put a lot of pressure on ourselves to always have these profound thoughts or deep insights whenever we meet people. Or we think that, in order to speak into someone’s life, we need to be at this ideal spiritual level. So, what sometimes happens is that, when we meet with people – whether strangers or friends – we feel like we don’t have anything to offer them unless we’re running on a spiritual high or we become emotionally charged during the conversation.

This is something that I really appreciate the passage in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. There is a lot to be gained from these verses, but one thing that sticks out to me is that God doesn’t need us to be in some super-Christian place in order to touch someone’s life or be used by God. He uses us right where we are. I think there’s a lot of comfort in that – I think we need to give ourselves permission to be ourselves, and to say, “who I am is okay.” Instead of trying to constantly reach this new level while saying, “Oh, I would love to do more, if only [this] were different,” or “if I could be more like [this] instead of where I am now.”

That’s why I love our Wesleyan view of holiness. I forget which sermon it was, but John Wesley says that the moment we become a Christian, and the spirit of God enters into our being, that is what makes us holy. So the Christian life/sanctification is not this linear progression towards holiness that says, “someday I’ll reach this Christian ideal, but I’m not there yet”. The Christian life is about accepting that we are already holy, and then sanctification is the process of working that out and discovering what it means to be holy now that we are holy.

And it’s true that God is continually working in our lives, but that doesn’t mean we’re sub-Christian or less useful today than we will be tomorrow. Go wants to use us wherever we are. So the question is: are we allowing ourselves to be where we are, or are we too distracted by where we could be?

I’ll give you an example: I struggled a bit with coming to Kenya as a minister. I felt like 4 months was far too short of a time for me to be here. How could I possibly learn enough about the culture, language, and all the conversational nuances in 4 months to be able to minister to people? I was operating under the assumption that God couldn’t use me where I was. The truth is, if God wanted me to be an expert in African philosophy, culture, and language right when I got off the plane, then I would have been an expert right when I got off the plane. But, I wasn’t.

I wonder how many of us wrestle with thoughts like that. We think that we need to be at some other level in whatever before God can use us to be his hands and feet. I’m sure we’ve all heard the adage that “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.” I think this statement deserves some articulation, because it seems to promote the idea that when God calls us we are not yet qualified to do ministry. But, the truth is that God calls us where we are for a reason; because he wants to use us where we are.

As long as we are honestly, earnestly seeking after God and desiring to be more like Christ, then we need not be concerned with our ability to ministry. Tomorrow we will be someone else, because God is constantly developing us. But today is not tomorrow. We need to be who we are today, and that is acceptable. After all, God is the one who makes us who we are, and God is the one who does most of the work.

Do we really believe this?

On Congestion and Vanilla

This past weekend was very interesting.  I experienced my final Preaching Ambassador trip ( a program at my school where students go out and preach on weekends for ministry experience).  It was such a simple thing, but it represents a major shift in focus for me because now my focus of ministry is changing from ‘travelling preacher’ to ‘pastor’.  It will not be much longer before I take on my first pastoral position.

I’m not sure how I should feel about this, and so many things are going on right now that I do not even know where to begin with a blog post.  I thought that buying myself a couple extra days would help clear my mind, but it looks like I won’t be posting anything super interesting this time.  I’ll try again for my next post on Friday, but this just goes to show that I’m just as limited in my abilities as anyone else.

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I will say this, though.  Every single one of us is constantly being used by God whether we know it or not. What looks like our mundane actions or our uninteresting conversations become tools that are used to build His Kingdom.  It amazes me how the simple things others have done (that many don’t even remember doing) have made such a strong impact on my life.  Rarely have the big events, the influential people, or the emotionally-charged moments been life-changing for me.  No, it is in the ordinary and the everyday that makes the biggest differences in our lives.  After all, Jesus was born to a peasant and placed in a feeding trough. 

Rejoice the typical, and celebrate the ordinary.  

On Revelation and Assimilation

I remember the first interaction I had with my ex-fiance.  We didn’t really know each other personally, but we would engage in conversation and do some activities together. A few months and several interactions later, we began to date one another.  Still more months and interactions later we got engaged.

Woman Receiving Engagement RingThis is a fairly typical story.  Two people meet, get to know each other, and then after a time they continue making deeper and deeper levels of commitment to one another.  Engagement, as well as marriage, are two moments which solidify a certain depth of commitment between two people.   It is odd for us to think that two people would meet for the first time, chat for a few minutes, and then immediately commit the rest of their lives to one another.  Even in arranged marriages there are people who  understand the individuals well enough to know if that kind of relationship will work, and there is still a ‘leading up-to’ time where the two people are at least aware of what is going on.

Why is it, then, that we tend to see evangelism as a ‘blind marriage’ occasion?  We think it’s crazy for two people to get married if they have only know each other for a few hours (or even days), and yet we impose that kind of perspective on our un-saved neighbors.  I would like to propose that we rethink our understanding of evangelism.

To be perfectly honest, I never felt comfortable inviting my friends to church with me.  While I was in youth group, we would be asked several times to bring our friends to church for special occasions or for Wednesday night Bible study or whatever.  I would always feel awkward about this.  It’s not because I didn’t think God was important or that salvation didn’t matter, but it’s because whenever I did invite my friends I would hear the messages they were hearing and it would unsettle me.

“You’re an outsider.”
“You don’t know what’s going on here.”
“You don’t know who God is.”
“You need to dedicate your life to Jesus tonight!”

My friends were seen as outsiders, as strangers, and in order to feel truly welcomed they needed to get with the program and convert.  Then, and only then, could they be a part of the community.

Now, I know that this was not the intended message of the youth leaders or laypeople.  However, these were the messages that were communicated through what was said, how people acted, and what people said about our friends when they weren’t there.  And I am as guilty as everyone else for sending these messages.

Now I have another story to tell:

when I was about five, I remember coming home from church and climbing into the top of my bunk-bed and asking Jesus into my heart.  This is my conversion story, and it is entirely made up.

The truth is, I don’t know when I was saved.  I can’t point to a calendar and say, “here, on this day, I became a born again believer!”  I do know that at some point I did, but I don’t remember how.  I remember something about a Sunday school teacher talking with me about it, so maybe it happened then?  I don’t know.  I do know that I invented a story because people kept asking me about my conversion experience and when I came into a relationship with the Lord, so that’s where the bunk-bed conversion story came into play.

Honestly, I don’t know when Christ became my savior because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Jesus was.  I grew up hearing about him all the time.  I would pray to him before meals with my family, and I would hear about him at church.  I never had an opportunity as an infant to not know who he was.  And this is why I believe there is a big weakness in how we do evangelism.

One of the biggest assumptions we seem to build off of when talking about evangelism is that people who are not Christian do not have a relationship with Jesus.  I think this is one of the most harmful and, frankly, ignorant assumptions we have.  There is rarely anyone in the United States who does not know who Jesus is.  You can ask anyone, “Who is Jesus?” and I believe most people will give you an answer.  Everyone knows who Jesus is.  Everyone has feelings about who Jesus is.  Everyone has some sort of a relationship with Jesus, even if that relationship is simply an acquaintance.

So why do we approach evangelism as if they don’t?  Why do we talk to non-believers as if Jesus is some total stranger to them?  Why do we treat them as if they couldn’t tell the difference between Jesus and George Bush?  And why do we assume that he is not already working in their lives?

The problem with not recognizing a relationship that is already there is that we then set up all kinds of persuasive arguments aimed at getting people to like Jesus. We talk about his character, what he did, what he does, and what he is doing as if Jesus were on a blind date with this person.

But what if evangelism became more declarative than persuasive?  More acknowledging that coercing?  More about revealing a God who is already there than introducing a completely foreign concept?

If we are to take this perspective seriously, then evangelism isn’t about trying to get someone to marry a complete stranger they just met.  Instead, it is about helping someone develop a relationship that is already there.  I didn’t get engaged the first moment I met my ex-fiance’.  That didn’t happen until months into our relationship.  Similarly, expecting someone to surrender their entire lives to a being whom they hardly know is expecting too much (and I would contend is ultimately damaging in the long run).

What does this say about that moment of ‘conversion,’ then?  Maybe when someone becomes a born-again believer it is not a moment when they first enter into a relationship with Christ.  Instead, it is simply the moment when Christ went from being ‘some guy I know’ to ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior.’  I am not trying to say that the salvation experience is not important, but we ought to consider the implications of suggesting that Christ is completely unknown to people who aren’t saved.

I sense that our views of others, and creation as a whole, could benefit greatly is we seriously begin to open our eyes to the work that God is already doing in our world and in the lives of those around us.   Maybe we would begin shedding ourselves of an ‘us/them’ mentality and simply see ourselves as being on a different stage in this journey. No one is a stranger to God, and who are we to take people on blind dates with a ring in our pocket?

On Memories and Hope

About five and a half years ago I was sitting in Dr. Allen’s office talking about how I felt called to ministry and how I would like to go out and preach at churches while I attended Olivet Nazarene University.

A few months later I’m sitting in Ludwig with Mr. Tony Fightmaster – the head of Church Relations at Olivet, along with a fellow freshman Jake Goodspeed and some other person who I only saw that one time.  We talked about the possibility of going out to preach that following weekend up in Wisconsin and Jake and I jumped at the chance.  Tony seemed excited, and he handed us some information while walking us through what the weekend might look like.

Days rolled by and on a chilly Saturday morning Jake and I load our stuff into Tony’s car and start driving.  We stopped at a Culver’s and had some light conversations as we got to know each other a little better and asked each other what we were expecting for that weekend and what we were preaching on.

Flash forward a few more months and Tony calls me again to see if I’m available for a second trip in the Spring semester.  Naturally, I volunteered.  This time, along with Jake and I, Jake Gregory (who would be my future roommate) and Jameson Forshee all jump into ‘Big Brown’ and head off to Michigan for the second preaching trip of the year.

Flash forward to now, and we have a 35+ member Preaching Ambassador program fully funded by at least 4 main donors and about 20 other private donors.  Before the 2013-2014 school year is over, we will have been to over 200 churches in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana.  We have a strong support group among the Olivet faculty, and a Student Leadership team that is both passionate and wise (collectively).  We’ve branched out beyond pulpit preaching and now send out Music Ambassadors and well as Youth Ambassadors.  It’s truly an incredible time for the PA’s.

However, after 39 trips in the program, I am waving my goodbyes in a few months.  It’s a sobering reality to face.  I poured five years of my life into this amazing program.  I spent so many hours talking with other students and faculty members expressing ideas, talking through challenges, and sharing my passion and vision for this program.  And now I am about to leave.

Although it is sad to think that I will be walking out of my last PA meeting after a short while, I am so hopeful for the future.  We have a strong leadership team, a great group of PA’s, and a solid vision that will carry the PA’s as far as God will take them.  And all of that was due to everyone else.

It’s true that this program is the brain child of myself and Jake Goodspeed (even though we always give each other credit for it and try to take none of it ourselves), but if it were not for God’s calling on my fellow ministers we would never be where we are today.  The long trips, the great conversations, the many awkward moments, the laughs, the tears, and the angelic look on people’s faces after they preach for the first time and share what an incredible experience it was are all things I will treasure forever.  All of those are due to those around me.  I am merely a blessed recipient of the amazing work God has done through all these years.

I also learned an incredible life lesson throughout all of this: Invest in others.  It may be a fact that we can accomplish great things by ourselves, but sharing ourselves and our experiences with others leaves a mark on the world that no individual achievement could ever mimic.  I can confidently walk away from this program with my head held high because I know it is in good hands.  And I know it is in good hands because I gave everything I could to it.  Granted, I made plenty of mistakes, but by investing in the next generation of preachers I can rest easy in the knowledge that God has taken my feeble offering of service and used it for his purpose.

I love the Ambassadors.  I love the people I’ve met through the program.  I love the experiences I’ve had (both good and bad).  But God is calling me on to something new, and the future of that program is now in his hands.  I’m nearing the completion of my part of this story, and my ministry has been deeply enriched through the PA’s.

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Take-Away:  Discipleship isn’t done just in a classroom.  it’s done in the car rides, the talks over Culver’s Butter Burgers, and in the church foyers.  We disciple where we are, to whom we are around.  The question is: are we being intentional about it? Or are we letting these opportunities slip us by as we focus more on what everyone can do for us?