Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What I learned from Church: Part V, the Family Unit

After leaving our failed church plant, we embarked on our Church Field Trips. We learned a lot during that year. Had our boundaries expanded even more. Throughout this time, my wife was always employed as a teacher at the school run by the Mega Church that we had attended since 2001. So it was by default, that after our sabbatical of field trips, we returned to the Mega Church.

But something had changed. The Mega Church had evolved in that time into an even more Mega Church - which should be expected. But more importantly, we had changed. We ourselves had evolved to a place where the fit was just no longer right. When my wife stopped teaching to stay home with our two young children, that was the end of our Mega Church experience.

For the past two years, we have not been attending church on the weekends. (I'll pause to give a moment for the "church-crowd" to tsk, shake their heads, or otherwise disapprove of our choice.) No baby dedication. No dropping our babies off at the church nursery.

We've discussed going back to church. For the past two years, we've been discussing going to an Acts 29 church plant in Knoxville, TN called Legacy Church. Knowing that we are leaving South Florida has made it hard to take seriously the idea of trying to find a church family in South Florida for a temporary basis.

We've discussed taking the kids to a local AWANA program now that they are of age. We've discussed popping into a worship service from time to time. We pray together (watching my kids pray is a wonderful experience). We read the Bible together. We discuss charity, theology, Jesus, good and evil, making right choices, etc. We've taught them the classic children's Bible songs.

At this point, I really have to say that we are living the "Revolutionary" lifestyle laid out by George Barna in 2005. It is not a life-long choice. It is a temporary choice. But neither do I feel that we are floundering in our faith. On the contrary, I think that we are still growing in our faith and maturity. Through all of these different "church" experiences, we have continued to grow. I don't feel like stagnation has ever been a part of our lives these past ten years.

Things I've learned from the Church by the Pool (aka The Family Unit):

1. While at the Church Plant, our pastor used to criticize a Homeschool Family that had 6 children for not "showing up to church every Sunday" and "not committing more of their family resources to the church". Now, I totally understand and have a much better appreciation for that family of 8. They were a more tightly knit fellowship than our church congregation would ever be. To them, family came first, and church came second. Sadly, many pastors put their church before their family and then behind the scenes, the pastor's family falls apart which sometimes leads to the church falling apart.

2. We've looked to a family like the Duggars for inspiration in this area. We are not like the Duggars in their fundamentalism or their sheer size, but still, there is something to be learned by the way that they manage their humongous family and steer them in the direction of Jesus and His Word.

3. For now, I would rather not go to church than go to a church that doesn't fit.

4. Our pastor used to make references to "Lone Ranger Christians" who didn't attend church. There is nothing lonely about a family of four.

5. Evangelism consists of building relationships and theological/cultural discussions rather than simply "inviting someone to a church service".

Monday, January 7, 2013

What I learned in Church: Part IV, the Church Plant

While at the height of our involvement at the Mega Church, we were told that the youth pastor was going to start a church plant nearby. We had grown close to this youth pastor and to the youth ministry at the church so we were left with a choice - stay with the ministry, or leave with the pastor.

We chose the pastor mostly because it offered a new opportunity of unbroken ground in our church experience. Starting a church from scratch was scary stuff, but also fun, and exciting and very genuine. The experience was very much a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, but it was also an experience that would "grow" us beyond our limits in a short amount of time.

The fellowship that we had with this small church family was the most genuine, intimate, enjoyable fellowship that we've had with other Christ-followers. The people around us were real, broken, and simply wanted to come together to worship and grow. Our fellowship started with about 40 people, peaked at about 175 people, and petered out to about 75 people. Once again, the national church average attendance is in this ballpark, so having 75 people come together on a regular basis is by no means a "failure".

The lead pastor - a father figure, mentor, close friend - was a "broken" pastor. He had lived a hard life, had a few setbacks personally and professionally, and had had a couple failed opportunities as a pastor. Because of this, he was able to draw in other people who were "broken" - myself included. This created a congregation that, for me, set the bar for expectations of congregational worship and fellowship. This "church planting experience" has shaped much of our growth as Christians (for better and for worse).

Things I learned from the Failed Church Plant:

1. Church planting is not easy. More money is not the answer to getting a church off the ground and running. Vision and Mission Statements and Statements of Belief are also not the answer. A good business sense is not the answer.

2. Baggage that people bring from previous church experience (especially the pastor), has the potential to undermine the church planting effort from the very start. Along the way, more and more people will show up with their own baggage as well.

3. Drawing people out of the community into a church plant is a great experience. Not drawing them from other churches, but directly from the community.

4. I will always miss this failed church plant that was once our family. (and think on what might have been.)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Annual Reports

I love that this church puts out an annual report at the end of each year. I love the style and I love the transparency. I think every church should do this.

2012 Annual Report

2011 Annual Report

2010 Annual Report

Friday, January 4, 2013

What I learned in Church: Part III, the Seeker-Driven Mega Church

Right before we got married in 2001, my wife gave her life over to Jesus Christ, unbeknownst to me. She had been reading her Bible in private, while hiding in her closet because she wasn't going to give me the satisfaction of knowing that she might actually be interested in Jesus or His Word.

When we got back from our Honeymoon, we were baptized together. Someone had invited us to a church of about 1200 attenders that was supposed to be energetic and modern (at least compared to the standard traditional church of our upbringing). At the time, we were simply blown away by it all.

They played movie clips in church. Sang songs with a more modern upbeat twist. The preaching was easy to understand, entertaining, and stylized. And it was loud. The congregation was very mixed both in age, class, and race. And everyone seemed pretty enthusiastic about being there each week. You had to arrive early just to find a parking space nearby, and also arrive early just to find a place to sit in the congregation.

We plugged in almost immediately: helping with the parking chaos, helping with the youth group, helping build a singles ministry, connecting with other young, married couples that we could easily call peers. In every way, we fully devoted ourselves to the forward motion. In the time that we were there, the attendance grew from 1200 to more than 5000. Ironically, the church actually "outgrew" us, or we "outgrew" the church. But, nonetheless, somewhere along the way we actually managed to disconnect from the church that had basically lit our fire for the idea of church to begin with. We still have strong friendships with the people but the act of actually worshiping in this environment got lost in translation over the years.

What I learned from the Seeker-Driven Mega Church:

1. Bigger is not always better. It is louder (which is cool), but it is also a lot more complicated and impersonal. The budgets are bigger - way bigger. The crowds are bigger. You can have your choice of 8 different services, which is great for flexibility - and you might not ever see the same people at those services (a relational bummer).

2. A church like this was at least temporarily necessary for us - to show that church can be modern, and relevant. The church doesn't have to be steeped in tradition and history. Change can be a good thing. Evolution can be a good thing.

3. The most important people in the church aren't always the "people in the church", sometimes they are the people who are not in church at all. As a matter of fact, like the lost sheep, they probably aren't in the church. Unfortunately, the seeker driven mega church expects them to come to the church like a magnet. And when they do show up, there's no guarantee that they won't just "consume" the service that is offered to them and then go home. These aren't shortcomings of a mega church, but rather challenges that must be met.

Friday, December 28, 2012

What I learned in Church: Part II, College Para-church student group

When I was 24 years old, in March 1999, I reached the bottom of my downward spiral and prayed to God for help and a new beginning.

I found a church that was pretty big in size, with a preacher that spoke in a strong Scottish accent (bonus!), but there was simply no way that I was going to realistically connect with anyone at the church in a meaningful way.

Before I had left for college, my father had told me to look up a group called The Navigators, which was a ministry group that he had found while in the military. On my college campus, there were a dozen such ministry groups and some were pretty popular and had large gatherings of students. The Navigators were only a couple dozen college students, but I found them to be genuine and down to earth. Exactly what I needed as a new follower of Christ.

The leader of the group met with me once or twice a week for one-on-one discipleship lessons which were invaluable and have stuck with me to this very day. With him, I was building a firm foundation from which I would never waiver.

I have to admit, that my life was still somewhat compartmentalized with this group. They were not my closest friends, and though I had turned my life over to Jesus, turning it over to other people - even those who clearly loved Jesus - was something that I was not quite ready to do wholly and completely.

My early years as a Christian were very much spent in solitude - reading the Bible, study materials, prayer, journaling, etc. Communion and fellowship were not a priority for me at that point, something that would have also probably done me a world of good at that point.

What I learned from this college Para-church ministry:

1. There are actually genuine, down-to-earth Bible believing Christians in existence. And they are really nice, and very welcoming.

2. You can "go to church" every single week, but if you are not building real relationships with real people then you are missing out on the big picture.

3. These relationships aren't always found within the four walls of "the church" and they don't always happen between 11 am and noon on a Sunday morning.

4. To this day, I've always felt bad that I wasn't a better friend to these people during this time. But as a new Christian, there was only so much that I could tackle at the time. And giving of myself wholly and completely to these people was not in the cards.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What I learned in Church: Part I, The Small Traditional Church

I grew up in a small traditional church in Southgate, MI. It was an American Baptist church with about 80 people in attendance each week. (80 is actually the national average by the way.)

My parents went to this church. And my Grandparents went to this church. I suspect that this was probably the case for most of the attenders at this church. We sang hymns while a choir sang and an organist and a pianist played along. The preacher was down-to-earth and low-key, and 30 years later, he is still preaching there today. I attended this church for my entire childhood, until I was 17 years old, and my family moved away from the area.

This church specialized in tradition and family. There were numerous potlucks, musicals, and other social functions which served to strengthen the familial bond of the church family. Evangelism was not a strong priority and moving forward with the "times" was also not a priority.

Looking back, I can appreciate this church now more than I may have back then. Nothing much ever changes at that church. But in some ways, that can be a good thing.

Growing up in that church, my family was about as involved as we could be. This was a good thing sometimes, but other times it was not a good thing. My friends at church were not my friends at school, and my friends at school were not my friends in my neighborhood, and my friends at church were not my friends in my neighborhood. So my life as a child and as a teenager was very compartmentalized:


Ironically, it was my friends in my neighborhood who bore the most influence over me and to this day, they are my closest friends in life. There was never any crossover between these three worlds of mine and I'm convinced that that was never a good thing. Some crossover might have done me some good.

So what did I learn from this church?

1. I learned that your church family is exactly that - a family. You can take the good with the bad. This was a wonderful support group for our family, but as a teen I began to see the hypocrisy in some people at church and it rubbed me the wrong way.

2. While my father had some close relationships with other men who were Godly men, my family really didn't connect with other full-fledged families at the church, and I didn't really connect with any of my peers at the church. These men were great to have around our home (as friends of my father), but I would have been better off if my parents had become closer to other families that would have had a greater impact on me than just a bunch of single guys.

3. A simple church has a lot less problems. Things are easier. They are slower. Budgets are much smaller. Worship is simpler and therefore easier to pull off. And people don't tend to come and go through the front door like it is a revolving door.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Small Groups don't work?

saw this quote somewhere today:

"Small groups are things that trick us into believing we’re serious about making disciples. The problem is 90 percent of small groups never produce one single disciple. Ever. They help Christians make shallow friendships, for sure. They’re great at helping Christians feel a tenuous connection to their local church, and they do a bang-up job of teaching Christians how to act like other Christians in the Evangelical Christian subculture. But when it comes to creating the kind of holistic disciples Jesus envisioned, the jury’s decision came back a long time ago—small groups just aren’t working.”

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Parenthood - Part 4: The Problem with South Florida

The Problem with South Florida

We came to visit my wife's Grandfather every year in South Florida. It was always a dream to move to the warm weather of South Florida. After finishing college, we made that dream a reality and moved down from Michigan to enjoy the weather and to keep Grandpa company. When Grandpa passed away, my wife's parents actually moved into his place, and a few years later, her brother also moved down to the area.

Our first place, in Coral Springs, was across the street from a high school. Hearing the marching band practicing from our balcony, I remarked to my wife that we should go see a high school football game for fun. To this day, ten years later, I'll never forget what an eye opening experience that was to the horrors of South Florida culture - or rather a lack of culture.

Two area high schools can have as many as 3000 students, while being located only a few miles from each other. I was shocked the first time I saw the stands at a football game between two of these over-packed schools. The stands were empty. The culture down here doesn't care. 3000 students; 6000 parents; 12,000 grandparents - empty bleachers.

My family moved to a small town in Southeastern Michigan during my junior year of high school. I attended a football game for our school and I was overwhelmed by the community attendance at the football game. The high school had about 400 students and the town had a population of about 4000. It seemed as if the whole town showed up for every football game. My dad didn't believe me. He had to see it to believe it. He learned the hard way that it was standing room only for late-comers.

South Florida, despite being a salad bowl of cultures from all over the world, is actually totally devoid of a culture of its own. Maybe a culture of selfishness; of meanness; of greed; of indifference; of business; of materialism. There is no community here. It isn't just the high school bleachers that are empty.

The professional hockey arena across the street is empty for most games. The professional baseball games are mostly empty. The professional soccer team is expired. Fairs and festivals are laughably irrelevant at capturing the community.

I've heard people throw around statistics about South Florida, but I prefer to simply show the absence of culture through ten years of experience living down here. Nowhere is it more painful and obvious than in the neighborhoods.

When looking for a home, we went out of our way to avoid a gated community. The reasons should be obvious and self-explanatory. Our non-gated neighborhood has been nothing but a disappointment. (I've alluded to this in past posts.) We've gotten to know most of our neighbors within a 5 house radius. This is a major accomplishment in South Floridian terms - most of these neighbors don't know each other.

These neighbors have come to parties/dinners at our house and remarked that, in 25 years, no one else has ever invited them over. At Christmastime, most homes are devoid of decorations/lights. At Halloween, most homes are dark and "closed for business". Its depressing. Everyone pays a lawn crew to take care of yard work. Everyone pays someone to come and wash their car. Many pay someone to come in and clean the house.

Neighborhood kids are rarely seen, and if so, its usually loitering under a basketball hoop that is set up in the street. And the speed limit on our streets is 30 mph.

Should I go on?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Parenthood - Part 3: Homeschool and Preschool

As a first grade teacher, my wife is uniquely equipped to raise our young children. I'm an educated, fairly smart guy, but I couldn't begin to know how to teach a kid how to read. My wife, on the other hand, is more than able to teach them how to read, among other things.

To homeschool or not to homeschool?

I've told my wife that it is up to her. If she wants to homeschool our children until about third grade, that is perfectly fine with me.

I'm not sure how keen I am on the homeschooling ideology as a whole, but I do feel that my wife is uniquely qualified to at least homeschool our children in the beginning stages. Our garage is a veritable library of reading materials, school materials, crafts, etc. etc. etc. It is overflowing with materials that my wife has collected (because of her love for her students) that could easily be to the benefit of our own children.

To preschool or not to preschool?

I've been substitute teaching at a private elementary school for the past several years. Occasionally, I'd sub in for the P.E. teacher. At these times, I actually had access to the pre-school classes. This is exaggeration of course - but handling a dozen toddlers is almost impossible. It seems to me that each of them brings to the table their own bad habits. To be fair, each of them probably only has one or two bad habits. But put 12 children into a room (or a playground) for 40 hours a week and they'll pick up each other's bad habits/behaviors. So each child goes home with about 25 bad behaviors/habits when they went into it with only one. By the time they're in kindergarten, they've probably picked up close to 40 or 50. And for what benefit? So they could learn their ABC's? So they could learn to count to ten?

To me, its not worth it. The trade off is terribly uneven. This isn't a knock on particular preschools, other people's children, or anything else. This is simply my justification for why I don't want my children setting foot inside a preschool. Especially for 40 hours a week.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Parenthood - Part 2: The Second Child

My wife went back to work when my son was a little more than 4 months old. Up until this point, we had never even considered the option of her staying home with the children. My wife has always been a strong, independent woman (she plans to pick a fight with the Apostle Paul when she sees him in Heaven.) It never occurred to us that either one of us would want her to stay home from work.

Almost immediately, we realized our mistake. Going back to work was going to be very painful for her. Despite the fact that she loved her job. She loved being a first-grade teacher. She loved the kids, as if they were her own. But every day at work, she was missing valuable time at home with our son. Not to mention the fact that after giving 11o% every day at school, she simply had little energy left to expend while at home.

When she went back to work after the birth of our son, we also found out that she was pregnant again (she was craving chocolate milk - which was the telltale sign.) This changed everything. Having already made the mistake of sending her back to work after the birth of our son, we weren't about to repeat the mistake.

Prior to the birth of our son, there was no way we could know how important it would be for her to be there for them at all times. Its funny, because both of our own mother's were home for us when we were young children, but in the generational gap, the importance was lost.

Secondly, we couldn't burden Grandma with having to watch two children at once. During the first year of parenthood, we relied heavily upon Grandma, but it would have been unfair to her to expect her to keep up with the Irish twins - a full time job for three adults.

Thirdly, the expense of childcare/daycare/babysitting almost cancels out the benefit of a two-income home. Beyond cost, there are a variety of reasons why I don't want my children spending their formative years in the midst of 10 other children and one adult who may or may not be able to keep up with them all - if they are even trying.

It quickly became a non-decision to have my wife step-down from teaching a dozen children that belonged to someone else, and give all of her energy and time to raising our own children. If and when she returns to "work" remains to be seen.

To be continued.....

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