For Christ’s Sake: A Pastor’s Response to the Parkland School Shooting

(Below is a revised manuscript of a message Pastor Mark delivered at First United Methodist Church Cocoa Beach on February 18, 2018.)

 Introduction

I want to begin by apologizing for not mentioning the Parkland school shooting during our Ash Wednesday service. As a parent of four kids, I just didn’t want to admit to myself that this had happened again. But as I read the names and ages of the victims this week, grief and anger washed over me, and I would be derelict in my duties as a pastor if I failed to say something about it.

Honestly, I’m a little anxious. While pastors are called by God to teach people how to apply the values of Jesus Christ to every aspect of life, many of us are reluctant to speak out when shootings happen because the surrounding issues have become intensely politicized. Nevertheless, part of being a leader is a willingness to speak from the heart, letting the chips fall where they may. This is especially true for pastors who follow a Jewish rabbi that was crucified by religious and political leaders for speaking truth to power.

I want to begin by honestly acknowledging that I don’t have all the answers. Although I have extensive training in interpreting the gospel and applying it to Christian life, I’m not infallible. I can only speak the truth as I understand it, humbly acknowledging that my perspective has limits and blind spots, just like yours. Second, I must admit that I sometimes fail to practice what I preach. In the recent past, I’ve encountered people with different opinions and reacted in ways that fall short of the ideals I long to espouse. However, if the precondition for casting moral vision is moral perfection, then we are all in serious trouble!

The Problem: Everything is Politicized and Polarized

From my perspective, the biggest problem we face today is the inability to talk to each other and collaborate to find lasting solutions to our most urgent problems. Everything has been politicized and polarized.

Some of our most influential leaders are professional politicians, and their jobs largely depend on two things: pleasing their financial donors and maintaining the support of their political base. To protect these things, some sacrifice their own personal identity for their tribe. Both political parties develop their platform, which is the framework for thinking, speaking, and problem solving. Staying within this framework is a sign of loyalty, and loyalty to the tribe promises funding and political protection.

The boundaries of this framework are clearly delineated by professional speech writers, who carefully craft talking points on every issue that could potentially alienate the political base or financial donors. When engaged in public discourse, politicians often protect themselves by parroting these talking points over, and over, and over again. This is one reason why they have a difficult time talking to members of the opposing party. It’s rare when a politician finds the courage to deviate from the party line and speak from their heart, and when they do it often results in marginalization and political attack. In this way, heart to heart conversations and collaborative problem solving are actively discouraged.

Unfortunately, our politicians are not the only ones who have this problem. The Bible says that human beings are fallen creatures, and one implication is our penchant for tribalism. Instead of embracing God’s vision of unity, peace, love, cooperation, and community, we try to secure ourselves by forming exclusive associations with people who look, think, believe, and act like us. Instead of crossing dividing lines to unify people around a common vision of compassion (which is what Jesus spent his entire adult life doing), we fearfully double-down on those dividing lines to protect ourselves from people who are different. In this context, we tend to gravitate toward black and white thinking in which the world is divided-up into insiders and outsiders, allies and enemies, which gives us a sense of belonging. Knowing who we are for and who we are against brings a sense of order, clarity, and purpose to life.

Knowing that we all have a penchant toward tribalism, politicians on both sides leverage this to their political advantage. They welcome us into their tribe and, working through their spokespersons on cable news networks, train us how to properly respond to any given issue. Again, being a valued member of the tribe means staying within the boundaries of the party platform and repeating the approved talking points. I know that I’ve struggled with this at times, and after reading through some Facebook posts in the wake of the school shooting, it’s safe to say that others struggle with this too. Arming ourselves with memorized soundbites and treating those who disagree as enemies to be defeated plays right into our sinful nature.

All of this comes together to create a hostile environment in which everything is politicized and polarized. The name of the game is divide and conquer, and winner takes all. Conceding anything to the other side, even the smallest point in an argument, is a cardinal sin punishable by exclusion.

Tragically, when we can’t talk to each other, we start thinking that there are no solutions to our problems, which tempts us to capitulate to the status quo—even when the status quo involves repetitive and increasing violence. Since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012, when Adam Lanza murder 20 first-graders and 6 adults, there have been 239 school shootings in the US, which resulted in 438 wounded and 138 killed. So, the most recent school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which resulted in 17 deaths, is simply one of many school shootings. In fact, studies show that going back to January 2014 there have been an average of five school shootings per month. (Jugal K. Patel, “After Sandy Hook, More Than 400 People Have Been Shot in Over 200 School Shootings,” The New York Times, February 15, 2018)

Working Toward Solutions

As complicated as this issue might be, we cannot accept this as the new normal, and the very suggestion that there is nothing we can do about it should make us all mad as hell. There are things we can do, and to throw our hands in the air as helpless victims is nothing short of sin. We can and must act. As an American, as a Christian, as a parent, as a human being with a conscience, I believe that we should do everything in our power to curtail this madness. And while we cannot place all the responsibility on the shoulders of our elected officials, they do have an important role to play as law makers. Everyone agrees, even Libertarians, that the most important job of government is to protect its citizens, and if our elected officials are not willing or able to set aside tribal politics to better protect our kids from gun violence, then we should throw them out of office and elect principled leaders who will.

Many argue that passing more restrictive gun laws will not eradicate school shootings. Pivoting away from the public policy debate, they say that gun violence is a “heart problem.” Since parents have the primary responsibility of teaching their children good morals, the solution is for parents to raise healthy and responsible kids.

There is some truth in this argument. Christians believe that children are a gift from God, and part of our responsibility as parents is to teach our kids about love, compassion, and respect for all people, including those who are rejected, outcast, or ostracized. We should teach them how to identify and process painful emotions like rejection, loneliness, grief, and disappointment. We should have ongoing conversations with our kids about bullying and conflict resolution and cultivate trust in the family so kids feel safe asking questions and sharing what’s on their mind. We should be attentive to red flags in their mood and behavior, which means limiting their privacy. We to know their friends and the parents of their friends. We need to know what they’re doing on their electronic devices: what apps they are using; what they’re texting, snapchatting, and instant messaging; what they are posting on social media sites; what videos they are watching, songs they are listening to, and video games they are playing. Do any of these things normalize, encourage, or glorify violence and killing? Does anything of these things violate our Christian values? If so, we have a responsibility to restrict their access and talk to them about our values. Parents also need to recognize signs of abuse, mental illness, and emotional trauma, getting their kids professional help when needed. And parents are wise to surround their kids with other spiritually and emotionally healthy adults who can have a positive influence by bringing them to church or getting them involved in sports, scouting programs, or other community activities.

However, simply focusing on better parenting will not solve the problem. We also need to make changes in our education system. The people who spend the most time with kids other than their parents are teachers. Since many school shootings are perpetrated by disturbed students (or former students), part of the solution will involve shifting our priorities in public education and better resourcing our teachers and schools. Many educators will tell us that the state has become so focused on standardized testing that they have little if any time to teach the kids anything other than what’s anticipated on the next test. But teachers need time for other important things.

They need time to share best practices on how to recognize signs of isolation, bullying, grief, anger, and mental illness in their students. They need smaller class-sizes, so they can get to know their students on a more personal level and better spot red flags. All schools need an efficient referral system and enough school psychologists on staff to triage and assess troubled students. Schools need resources and opportunities for effective bullying prevention programs, diversity training, conflict resolution, and character development. I also think that every middle-school and high school should have a resource officer on campus to deal with more serious problems.

But even this is not enough. Whether we like it or not, there are important public policy concerns regarding mass shootings.

Take for example mental health. Everyone agrees that when we see something we should say something. When someone notices a child exhibiting strange behavior or signs of abuse, trauma, or mental illness, they should try to get that child help. But counseling and therapy are not free. So, if we are going to talk about treating mentally ill or troubled children, then we must also talk about healthcare. It makes no sense to say, “Mental illness is a big part of the problem,” if mentally ill people don’t have access to treatment. It makes no sense for parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults to look for red flags, unless the family of the child can afford to get them help. So part of the solution is to make sure that every child in our country has access to behavioral health services (which will involve health insurance). No child in this country who is struggling mentally or emotionally should be excluded from treatment because of money.

Finally, we must find ways to put aside our tribal politics so we can have rational discussions about improving our gun laws to curtail gun violence. I hesitate to even say “gun control” because most people assume they know exactly what the phrase means and compulsively start parroting the prescribed talking points of their political party. But when we resist this knee jerk reaction and create space for genuine dialogue, we see a broad range of agreement in our country about some specific policy changes that would help reduce mass shootings. Recent studies show that almost 90% of both Republicans and Democrats agree that mentally ill people should not be able to buy guns. Over 80% of both parties agree that people who are on no-fly lists or terrorist watchlists should not be able to buy guns. Almost 80% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats agree on universal background checks (which would include closing the loopholes in personal and gun show sales), and a large majority of Americans agree on banning assault rifles, outlawing bump stocks, and limiting the size of magazines and clips. (Ryan Struyk, “Here Are the Gun Control Policies That Majorities in Both Parties Support,” CNN, Updated November 6, 2017.) With these broad agreements between a clear majority of Americans, we should be able to revise our gun laws to make it more difficult for bad people to get guns and commit mass murder.

Are gun laws a panacea? No. Will stricter gun control prevent all gun violence? No. But this is no reason to throw our hands in the air and say, “Well, then, there’s nothing law makers can do about it!” That’s like saying, “If I can’t lose 50 pounds on my diet by tomorrow then what’s the point in trying to lose weight?” There are things our law makers can do to help to help reduce the death toll and they have a moral responsibility to do so.

As you can see, people on both sides have part of the solution, but these parts are not adequate for lasting change by themselves. We need people on both sides of the political aisle to bring their part of the solution, so we can put all the pieces together for comprehensive reform. However, this will not be possible if money and tribalism render us morally bankrupt and destroy the possibility of collaboration.

 What About God?

While all the things mentioned above are important for addressing gun violence in America, there will be no lasting solutions with God. Human beings are not only physical and mental creatures, we are also spiritual beings. We are created in the image of God, and God desires an intimate relationship with each of us. It’s through this personal relationship with the divine that we find forgiveness and the overcoming of guilt; reconciliation and the overcoming of estrangement; joy and the overcoming of despair; peace and the overcoming of anxiety; unity and the overcoming of tribalism. It’s where we find healing and gain our true purpose in life beyond politics. It is where we learn how to love ourselves and others the way that God loves us. It is where we learn the true meaning of community, how to talk to each other and resolve conflict in healthy ways. It’s where the sacraments of baptism and communion erase all dividing lines and unite us under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

The church has an important role to play by creating communities of belonging, love, compassion, justice, and peace. Many people who perpetrate acts of violence feel misunderstood, isolated, and outcast. They don’t believe that anyone cares about them or that their voice really matters. If the church will create communities of love where people feel genuinely accepted and heard, a place where they can honestly share what’s on the hearts and minds, without judgment or ridicule, then it can play a unique role in healing some of the pain that drives people to kill. When considering school shootings, this is particularly true for our children and youth programs.

Going even further in this regard, the church could help by refocusing on the teachings of Jesus regarding compassion for the lonely, outcast, and rejected. Jesus calls his disciples to reach out in love to these people and offer good news of forgiveness, healing, love, and friendship.

Finally, as United Methodist Bishop, Ken Carter, suggests, we can repent from our participation in a culture of death, grieve with those who are suffering, and pray for the families of the victims. But as important as it is to repent, grieve, and pray, we must not neglect to act. For Christ’s sake, for the sake of the gospel, we must act.

Call to Action

Bishop Carter is inviting all United Methodists to write letters to our government officials, state and national, to insist that they prioritize the safety of our children amidst repetitive and escalating violence. You can find their names and contact information online by doing a Google search for “Florida Elected Officials.” If members will write letters and place them in addressed envelopes, our churches will cover the cost of postage and put them in the mail. The Bishop’s vision is for United Methodist Churches across the state of Florida to collect and send 5000 letters.

 

Further Reading:

Bishop Ken Carter’s statement on Florida school shootings.

United Methodist Book of Resolutions, “Our Call the End Gun Violence.”

Pastor Mark Reynolds, “Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?”

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Surfing, Yoga, Discipleship

Being an older surfer in Cocoa Beach can be challenging. While we sometimes get good swells, we also suffer through days, even weeks, when it’s flat. This means that you can’t rely on surfing alone to stay in good surfing shape.

Although I enjoy playing sports, I’ve never enjoyed exercising. I’ve tried weightlifting, jogging, and even “surfing workouts” in the gym, but eventually I lose interest and stop. When a good swell rolls through, I struggle to find my rhythm in the water because I’m out of shape. Winded paddling out, slow to pop-up, and sore to the bone after a two-hour session, I tell myself, “You’ve got to get back in the gym.”

Not too long ago, I remembered a conversation with an older surfer at The Longboard House. He said that, after turning forty, the best thing he did to improve his surfing was take-up yoga. While I tried yoga in college, it didn’t stick. But now I needed to do something to stay in shape between swells, and it seemed better than repping-out squats next to a guy flexing in a mirror while drinking water out of a gallon jug. So I started going to Infinity Yoga with my friend, Dan.

My initial logic was simple: Dan does yoga, and Dan rips. Maybe if I do yoga, I will rip too.

While I’m not as consistent in my practice as I want to be, I’m doing yoga more often and experiencing some real benefits, both physical and spiritual.

Before going to class today, I read Psalm 106:1-5 during morning prayer, which led me to meditate on mercy. When I got to yoga, the instructor (as usual) led us through some deep breathing, reminded us of the importance of remaining open and compassionate, and invited us to “set an intention” for the class. After silently saying the Jesus prayer in cadence with my breathing, I set my intention on what I had already been pondering, mercy.

As in all meditation, the mind wanders. In the middle of class, when twisted in a challenging pose, the instructor, Martha, said, “Notice in your body what feels good, and focus on that.” While this initially brought my attention to physical sensations that I would have otherwise missed, it also got me thinking about life. About how we often feel comfort and discomfort at the same time, and how we have a choice about where to focus our attention. It got me thinking about the benefits of to learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable positions, and how to relax under stress.

My wandering mind came back to the room when Martha reminded us to return to our breathing and refocus on our intention. After a couple of deep breaths, it suddenly struck me, “I’m praying.” In addition to exercising, my time on the mat was turning into an extension of my time with God in morning prayer. It also occurred to me that throughout the class my awareness of others waxed and waned. I noticed an inward and outward movement of attention; a rhythm of going inward to pray alone, followed by a going outward to pray with others. Which led to another realization: yoga is a kind of worship experience.

This was a joyful discovery because, as a pastor, I often feel like my responsibilities for leading weekly services leave me with little time to sink into the presence of God with others in corporate worship. But this is exactly what was happening on the mat today, and it’s exactly what I needed.

At the end of class, the instructor offered positive, loving, and encouraging words. She reminded us that we are full of light and that we should share that light with others. This warmed my heart because light has long been one of my favorite mediation images. While meditating during my devotional time, I often imagine breathing in light until my heart glows and then breathing out light as my whole body is illuminated. (Check out Matthew 5:16.) So the final words at the end of practice felt like one of many little confirmations that I’m on the right path in this season of my life.

What better way to stay in shape than to practice a form of meditative exercise that will not only improve my surfing but also make me a better human being.

Who knows, maybe this is a form of exercise that I will finally stick with, even if it doesn’t make me rip like Dan.

The Burden of Light

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

I recently heard these familiar words of Jesus at a clergy retreat, but in a radically new way that continues to gnaw at me.

In the past, when considering this passage, I understood Jesus to be saying, “If you stick with me, I’ll help you with your problems and make life more bearable.” Commentators explain that Jesus may have been referring to a double yoke in which two animals walk side by side, pulling the same load. The analogy seems clear: Jesus walks beside you, helping bear your burdens. This is a comforting message for people feeling burned out and worn down. Most of us need rest, and not just rest for our bodies, but also for our souls.

So, I thought I knew what this passage meant. But God has a way of breaking through familiarity and turning what we think we know upside down. Hear the words again:

“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

“. . . my burden is light.”

“. . . my burden is light.”

“In the beginning was the Word . . . . in him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1, 4-5)

“You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

With a flash of insight, I heard a still small voice, “My burden is being light in a dark world.”

Followers of Jesus bear the burden of light. In a world where people can no longer distinguish the truth from a lie, we are called to honesty. In a world that venerates the arrogant, we are called to humility. In a world that worships the wealthy, we are called to love the poor. In a world where people sell their souls for power, we are called to take up a cross.

And this is exactly why Jesus was killed. Evil empires operate in darkness and Jesus is light. As the powers of this world nailed him to a cross, what they were really saying is, “Turn off that light!”

Not much has changed in this present darkness, and for those trying to follow Jesus as light in a dark world, it can feel like a heavy burden:

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves . . . . they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me . . . . you will be hated by all because of my name.” (Matthew 10:16-18, 22)

If we embrace the alternative lifestyle of radical love, we will experience ridicule, rejection, and even abuse.

However, in the presence of Jesus we are promised that this burden will become light.

The burden is light because it’s a way of life characterized by surrender. Instead of constant grasping, striving, and achieving, Jesus says, “Let go.” Let go of control. Let go of expectations. Let go of trying to be good enough. Find ways to relax into the presence of God, to just be—be who you are and where you are, knowing that you are accepted by unconditional love.

This is where we find rest for our souls. This is where the burden is made light. This is where we become light.

But, paradoxically, surrender may be the hardest thing we ever have to do.

Learning to let go, to relax into the presence of God and just be, seems to run contrary to our very nature. The shift from a willful to a willing spirit is the very heart of conversion, and it cannot be accomplished by what often passes for prayer today—words carefully crafted to convince ourselves or others of what we already believe to be true. (Or, even worse, long, syrupy, cliché monologues intended to solicit approval from other churchy people.) No, a true renovation of the heart requires the kind of prayer that goes beyond words, the kind of prayer that helps us awaken to the presence of God, so we can relax into that presence and just be—be ourselves and be with God. A kind of prayer that puts us in touch with our soul, so we can listen in stillness, solitude, and quiet. Indeed, a difficult kind of prayer for frenetic hearts navigating a frenetic world.

So, while Jesus’ yoke might be easy, insofar as he helps us carry our burdens, the burden itself—being light in a dark world—is, paradoxically, heavy and light, hard and easy. And I’m not sure exactly what to do with that right now, except let it continue to gnaw at me.

Thank-You Lou Riley: An Unexpected, Powerful Spiritual Experience

“Are you Lou?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Pastor Mark, from First Methodist Cocoa Beach.”

“You’re the new pastor?”

“Yes.”

“Well, come in!”

Within forty-five minutes of this awkward introduction, I would have an unexpected, powerful spiritual experience.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I don’t like scheduling visits to shut-ins, hospitals, and nursing homes. Don’t get me wrong, when I’m actually spending time with people during visits, I’m always blessed, but it’s really hard to motivate myself to do it. It takes time to map out all the addresses, estimate travel times, and to call the day before to make sure they will be home when I’m in their area. Getting around to see everyone takes all day, and there are a hundred other things I would rather do. It’s easy to find excuses to put it off another week, and then another week, and then another week—saying to expectant family members and friends, “I really want to go visit your loved one, but things are just really busy right now.” Eventually, guilt and obligation motivate me and I drag myself out the door. Today was one of those days.

This is what brought me to Lou’s house.

Prior to this morning, I’d never met Lou. Our only contact was two months ago, when I called to set-up a visit. Despite my yelling into the phone several times, “I’M PASTOR MARK!” she couldn’t hear me and eventually just hung-up! Now I was standing at her door, wondering if she’d even invite me in.

Knock, knock, knock.

When the door open, I saw a reluctant elderly woman with obvious mobility issues. Although I too was a little reluctant, when I explained who I was, she immediately welcomed me in. My plan was to say up front, “I have many visits to make today, so I can only stay for about 15-30 minutes,” but she immediately began to talk and I didn’t have a chance to stage my quick escape.

Lou told me many stories about her life. I initially thought, “I’m going to be here awhile!” but as she reminisced about her life, I was drawn into her stories. She talked about her husband and children, proudly showing me pictures. She talked about her career, singing and dancing to entertain the troops during the Vietnam War. She explained how this provided her a chance to travel all over the world.

Excitement and joy bubbled to the surface as she reflected on her past, but then she looked at me and said, “Pastor, maybe you can help me with a question.”

“Why am I still here? I know that Jesus is keeping me alive for a reason, but I can’t figure it out. I pray all the time, but I can’t figure out why I’m still here.”

“I’m not sure, Lou. When the time is right, are you ready to go?”

“Why, yes! I want to go! But I don’t know why I am still alive. I can’t do anything anymore, other than walk around my apartment, touch all my things, remember the past, and say, ‘Thank- you Jesus.’ But I’m even a problem to my children. My daughter calls me a few times a day just to say something nice to me, and my son, Skipper, comes over all the time. But I don’t know why I’m still here.”

If you didn’t know, I’m well trained for these kinds for questions, so I started with good theology! “Well, Lou, the purpose of human life is a loving relationship with God. As we experience all of God’s good gifts, we grow in gratitude, and the more thankful we are the more we can praise Him. You have told me many stories, and I can see that your heart is full of gratitude. As you pray throughout the day, thanking God for all His gifts, God delights in you—your life is a blessing to God.”

I sat back in my chair thinking, “That was pretty good.”

She briefly pondered my points, talked a little more, and then repeated the question again: “Why am I still here?”

I leaned in to make another theological argument. “You said that you were a problem to your kids, but I think if they were here they would say that you are not a problem and that they love you very mu . . .”

“Well, yes, I know that!” she interrupted.

I jumped back into the conversation to complete my thought: “Well, maybe you’re still here because you bring joy to their lives and they still need you for some reason.”

While she was grateful for my efforts, my answers were not convincing. After an awkward pause, she abruptly said, “It’s probably your lunch time, so I should let you go.”

In that moment, I felt an opportunity slipping away. I took off my theology hat and said, “Can I tell you one more thing before I go?”

“Well, sure!”

I looked at her with complete sincerity and said, “You have really blessed me today. I didn’t know what to expect when I walked in, but listening to your stories has brought me joy.”

Her eyes welled-up with tears, and through a faint smile she said, “Well, maybe that’s why you are here. To tell me that I’m not worthless.”

I was stunned and broken hearted at the same time. “You are not worthless,” I insisted. “You are a bright light in this world, and you bring many people joy just by being here.”

“That’s it!”

She raised her hands in the air, slapped my leg, and look at me as if she had just won the lottery.

“Jesus sent you here to tell me that I’m not worthless! JESUS SENT YOU HERE! Jesus sent you here . . . to tell me that I’m not worthless! Thank-you Jesus! THANK-YOU JESUS! Thank-you Jesus.”

She grabbed my hands: “We have to pray now.”

“Thank-you Jesus for sending this young man to tell me that I’m not worthless. He is your messenger, and you have sent him to me today to cheer me up. I didn’t even know I needed cheering, but I did. Thank you for sending him to me. May his sweet face and gentle voice go and comfort others today. Thank-you Jesus.”

(Now I’m bawling like a baby.) She squeezes my hand and goes silent. That means it’s my turn.

“Thank-you Jesus for sending me to Lou. She has brought me so much joy in these few moments, and through her love you have reminded me of my calling. I didn’t know that I needed to hear it, but you have reminded me, too, that I’m not worthless. We are your children, you love us, and we have value. Thank-you Jesus. Amen.”

Still holding hands, we lifted our heads. As we looked into each other’s tear-fractured eyes, we both knew that we were beholding the face of Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit was so palpable in that moment that I felt the world shift under my feet. It was one of those rare times when eternity breaks through the mundane and grace floods into your soul. We both experienced resurrection.

The irony in all of this doesn’t escape me. While God may have sent me to tell Lou that she was not worthless, God was reminding me that I’m not worthless either, and that I have been called to be a messenger of love and hope, especially to the lonely and forgotten. God was reminding me that sometimes the biggest blessings come when we are doing things that we aren’t particularly excited about doing, and that Christ is most powerfully present when people share their brokenness in moments of honesty.

Thank-you Jesus for sending Lou to me!

(The picture above is of items that Lou gave me during our visit.)

Why Culture Is More Important Than Programs When Trying to Grow Your Church

If you want your church to grow, you need to focus less on programs and more on culture.

Effective marketing, strategic preaching, and good online ministries can help get people through the door. If newcomers experience warm hospitality and some of their needs are met in worship, they might even stick around for a few months. But if people don’t develop a sense of belonging in the larger community within the first three months of attending, they will likely go looking somewhere else. Most people crave life-giving friendships in a genuine community of love, and this is the main reason why people stay at a church.

This is why the first part of our mission statement at First UMC Cocoa Beach is so important to me. It reads, “Our mission is to learn and practice the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love . . .” In many churches, first, you are expected to believe certain things. Second, you are expected to behave in certain ways. Third, you finally get to belong, which is typically formalized in official church membership. However, if you are trying to grow your church, these priorities must be reversed. First, you should accept people where they are, so that from the beginning they experience a sense of belonging. Second, you should model how followers of Jesus treat each other when cultivating a community of love. Third, you should offer a lifegiving theology that can sustain and support deep spiritual transformation in the real world.

In growing churches, believe—behave—belong gets switched to belong—behave—believe.

The important point is that if people do not experience a sense of belonging in a community of love, then your odds of keeping them in your church will drastically decrease. And if you can’t keep them around, you will never change their beliefs or behavior.

 Communities of Love

What distinguishes a community of love has everything to do with the way that people treat each other. The New Testament is instructive.

Take for example Colossians 3-4. The author instructs followers of Jesus to die to self (ego), and to resist anger, rage, malice, slander, and abusive or critical language (3:8, CEB). He also tells them not to lie to each other (3:9).

After explaining what must be eradicated, the author goes on to say that we should treat each other with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (3:12). Followers of Jesus are called to clothe themselves in love, exercise tolerance, practice forgiveness, and be united in peace (3:13-14). Our attitude should be characterized by gratitude (4:2), our speech should be gracious (4:6), and everything we do should honor Jesus (3:17).

Likewise, the author of 1 Thessalonians says that we should live in peace with one another, respect each other, and build each other up (5:11-12, CEB).

Organizational Culture

How we treat each other over time creates a unique culture. Organizational culture can be a difficult concept to grasp, but it is like the water in which fish swim. Healthy culture is like clean water in which wildlife thrive, and unhealthy culture is like toxic water that destroys an ecosystem. Another helpful metaphor is that of eyeglasses. Healthy culture is like a good prescription that helps us see our relationships accurately, and unhealthy culture is like a prescription that distorts how we see ourselves and others.

If we are not intentional about eradicating attitudes and behaviors that destroy loving community, then our church culture will be dysfunctional and toxic. Paul describes the kinds of things that characterize toxic culture: hostility, strife, jealousy, envy, conceit, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and competition (Gal. 5:19-21). However, if we are serious about following Jesus, we can cultivate a healthy culture supportive of communities characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal 5:19-26)

Drawing from passages such as these, we can clearly distinguish between healthy and toxic organizational cultures.

COMMUNITIES OF LOVE COMMUNITIES OF DESTRUCTION
Positive Negative
Hopeful Despairing and Cynical
Optimistic Pessimistic
Joyful Disagreeable
Generous Withholding and Critical
Gracious Demanding
Gentle Harsh
Kind Dismissive or Nasty
Courteous Rude and Crass
Forgiving Unrelenting
Respectful Demeaning
Flexible Rigid
Helpful Obstructive
Compassionate Judgmental
Humble Arrogant
Patient Compulsive and Reactionary
Thankful Unappreciative
Builds-Up Tears-Down
Self-Sacrificial Self-Serving
Open to Feedback Defensive and Blaming
Direct, Respectful Communication Gossip and Backbiting
Peace Conflict and Anger
Unified Divided
Accountability Anything Goes

Who in their right mind would want to invest in a community characterized by the qualities in the right-hand column? A culture built around these kinds of attitudes and behaviors will run-off every single newcomer who has a modicum of emotional health. This kind of culture literally repels people.

In contrast, who in their right mind would not want to invest in a community characterized by the qualities in the left-hand column? A culture built around these kinds of attitudes and behaviors attracts people, because it creates safe environments where people can learn, grow, and change.

 Leaders as Cultural Architects

So, how do you grow a healthy culture? It starts with your leaders. The number one predictor of organizational culture is the way leaders treat each other and those they serve. If your leaders do not understand and seek to embody attitudes and behaviors that reflect the value system of the Kingdom of God, then you will probably never cultivate a culture in which communities of love can grow and flourish.

Consequently, if you want your church to grow then your number one priority should be discipleship. The pastor, staff, and leaders must seek to follow Jesus daily and be transformed in ways that make them more loving. Remember, you can’t share what you don’t have. If the pastor, staff, and lay leaders are not willing to treat everyone in ways that reflect the teachings of Jesus, your church will not grow. It’s that simple.

This means that a handful of people at the top who are left unaccountable to the gospel can poison your entire culture and keep the church from fulfilling its mission. The reason is because the attitudes and behaviors of your leaders are contagious and will create an invisible but pervasive presence that will either feel emotionally safe or dangerous. The former will attract and the latter will repel.

Since change is difficult, if you are working within an unhealthy culture you will need to do at least three things with your staff and leaders to accomplish lasting change: (1) clearly communicate the attitudes and behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable, (2) put effective accountability systems in place, and (3) regularly and consistently apply these accountability systems until the culture changes and you have the right people in place. (Not to discourage you, but some studies show that creating lasting culture change can take up to seven years.) Leaders must be firm and gracious, remembering that none of us follows Jesus perfectly. However, we should cast God-sized goals for our relationships, and when we fall short of our goal it should lead to repentance and renewed effort.

Culture > Programs / Maturity > Execution of Skill

The upshot of all this, is that churches should focus less on programs and events and more on developing a healthy, loving culture reflective of the values lived and taught by Jesus. In terms of hiring, managing, and disciplining staff, supervisors should focus less on talent and execution of skill and more on attitude, commitment, and spiritual/emotional maturity. This means that the primary job of the pastor is not to be a manager of ministries, but a spiritual leader making disciples that make more disciples. So, the order of importance in evaluating staff and leaders should be: (1) faithfulness in discipleship, (2) commitment to working cooperatively to accomplish the mission of Jesus, and (3) execution of skill and accomplishing mutually agreed upon performance goals.

Accountability Tools:

There are two resources that I have found helpful in discipling staff and leaders when trying to effect cultural change.

Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheets

Before a one-on-one staff meeting, I require everyone to complete a “Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheet.” The idea for this kind of worksheet came from Jorge Acevedo’s book, Vital. This is what we use at First UMC Cocoa Beach:

Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheet

Name: _____________________________

Date:   _______

  1. Faithfulness: How is it with your soul? Are you abiding with Jesus?

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4).

  • How is your personal devotional life?
  • How have you denied Jesus this week?
  • How have you glorified Jesus this week?
  • How are your most important relationships?
  • On a scale of 1-10 how have you lived into the following biblical values:

______    I have been positive, optimistic, and hopeful

______    I have been flexible and open to feedback

______    I have been gracious, generous, compassionate, and forgiving

______    I have been humble, respectful, kind, and polite

______    I have been joyful, thankful, and content

______    I have directly shared concerns only with appropriate people (no gossip).

______    I ‘m pursuing excellence while being encouraging to those I serve.

______    I’m working cooperatively with others to accomplish the mission of the church.

  1. Fruitfulness: How is it with your ministry? Are you abounding with Jesus?

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

  • Program and Administrative Staff: Where are you in your long-range strategic planning? (You should develop 3, 6, and 12 month SMART goals that will help accomplish the mission of the larger church.)
  • All Staff: What progress have you made in your work plan?
  • What do you need to Stop? Start? Continue?
  • What challenges are you facing and what do you need to be successful in your specific area of ministry?
  • How are you serving, nurturing, discipling, training, developing, and resourcing your volunteers? How are you growing those in your care individually and as a team?
  • How can I hold you accountable for your area of ministry?

 ____________________________________________________________

The day before a meeting, I ask the staff person to spend some time praying and reflecting on the questions outlined in the worksheet, writing-in short responses. At the beginning of our meeting, they give the completed sheets to me and we spend about thirty minutes on each section (totaling one hour). Every three months, I give them feedback on how I think that they are doing, creating change plans where necessary. Honesty is very important in this process.  The supervisor must be willing to initiate difficult conversations, and the leaders must be willing to receive feedback without deflecting or blaming.

Social Covenants

A second tool that is helpful in creating cultural change is the social covenant, which I learned from Rev. David McEntire. After making sure that your leaders understand and embrace the church mission, go away on a retreat and work with them to develop agreements regarding how you will treat each other. Importantly, the pastor should not write a covenant (or borrow one from another church) and impose it on their team. Rather, the pastor leads a discussion using the four questions below, which empowers the leaders to develop something that belongs to them. Ownership is critical if the covenant is going to work.

  1. How does the leader want to be treated by the team?
  2. How does the team want to be treated by the leader?
  3. How are the members of the team going to treat each other?
  4. How is the team going to resolve conflict?

Once adequate brainstorming has happened in a group setting, a couple of people from the team who are skilled writers are delegated to organize, distill, and write a rough draft. The draft is then brought back to the team for final revisions. Once a final draft has been written, all leaders sign it around the margins of the first page, which is then copied and distributed. The first ten minutes of every meeting is used to silently reflect on the covenant and publicly self-rate on a scale of 1-10. No one rates anyone else, and no feedback is given (positive or negative) unless the person sharing explicitly asks for it. If the covenant is not used in this kind of way, it will become a useless piece of paper.

Conclusion

These tools are not perfect, and there are many others you can use. But the main idea is that if you want your church to grow then you must focus on cultivating spiritual and emotional maturity in your leaders. You must help them develop the attitudes and behaviors necessary to create and nurture communities of love. Don’t focus on programs, events, and hiring a superstar staff. Focus on discipleship, spiritual maturity, and cultivating a loving culture that models the values system of the kingdom of God.

The Power of Weakness: How Attempts to Be Strong Lead to Impotence

No one likes to be weak. It’s one of our greatest fears. For most, weakness is something to be avoided at all costs because it’s associated with powerlessness, deficiency, and victimhood. We fear that even the appearance of weakness in this dog-eat-dog world will lead to exploitation and all kinds of injustice. While those rendered weak by age, infirmity, or disability mighty be pitied, more often the weak are scorned and derided.

There is evidence for this in every sphere of human existence. Politics at every level includes scathing critiques of “weak leaders” and endless promises to restore the disenfranchised to power. Currently, a significant group of people in America would rather endorse a xenophobic, egomaniacal strongman who promises to restore nationalistic power than candidates who demonstrate even a smidgen of honesty, respect, temperance, and intelligence. Western culture itself is based on a value system of success, and success requires the acquisition of personal power to overcome obstacles on the way to realizing our dreams. Indeed, all of our relationships (not excluding those with close friends and family members), are perpetually wounded by various kinds of power struggles.

Regardless of the situation, human beings tend to act on the assumption that the world is a dangerous place, and that individuals must act with great personal strength to deter potential threats and secure their own safety, reputation, upward mobility, and possessions. Conversely, we assume that if we are weak then we’ll be exploited, victimized, and left-behind to suffer misfortune. In many ways, we have reduced the essence of human life to gaining, cultivating, and leveraging personal power so we can secure ourselves and avoid losing anything of value.

This is why it’s so difficult for us to truly understand the gospel of Jesus, which is about God overcoming the world through the weakness of Christ. Even more difficult to understand is the idea that God continues to overcome the world, not through strongmen who exert top-down power with money, guns, and contemptuous rhetoric, but through the weakness of those who surrender to a crucified savior. Consider the Apostle Paul, who after having glorious visions and revelations from God was given a “thorn . . . in the flesh” to keep him aware of the true source of power. “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).

One of the hardest lessons that God continues to teach me is that the more I flex my muscles the weaker I become. My fear, insecurity, and vulnerability are proportionate to my insistence on securing and protecting my own interests. Why? Because real power does not come from me, it comes from God. When I exercise personal power in attempts to gain control and accomplish my own agenda, it forces the power of God to the margins of my life. The more I posture, position, and protect, the less space there is for the power of God to move in any given situation. But as soon as I acknowledge my weakness, surrender to God, and move my ego out of the way, divine power begins to work in mysterious and unexpected ways to accomplish greater purposes. This is why Paul says, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (v. 9b). These are strange words to people who are fearful of even the appearance of weakness and are hell-bent on cultivating a personal power strong enough to secure themselves. But even more difficult to hear (maybe even impossible without the Holy Spirit) is what Paul says next: “Therefore, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

If we don’t grasp this essential truth in the gospel, then the power we work so hard to attain will eventually destroy us. Jesus says that if we try to save our life we will lose it, but if we are willing to lose our life then we will gain it (Luke 17:33). Is it possible that in our very efforts to avoid weakness and exert strength that we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction? Can those who abhor weakness ever experience the true power of God? In all of this, we do well to ponder the power of weakness, because weakness has the power to get us out of the way so that God’s power can move through us to accomplish greater things.

If you liked this article, then you might like others by Pastor Mark:

“Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?”