Please (Church) Don’t Return to Normal

Coronavirus feels like when the school bully ran around the corner of the building and stuck a broomstick in the spokes of your bicycle tire. In one cruel stroke, all forward momentum was abruptly and violently stopped.

The church has felt this stoppage keenly. I’m certain God is doing many things right now (he’s the ultimate multi-tasker!). I can’t help but think that one of those things is a weird Year of Jubilee-ish season in the church. In the Old Testament, the Year of Jubilee happened every 50 years and acted as a divine reset on the whole nation of Israel: people returned to their ancestral lands, sowing and reaping ceased (i.e., major economic activity), slaves were released from service, and properties were redeemed (see Leviticus 25). If Saturday’s Sabbath provided a brief weekly rest and refocus rhythm for God’s people, Jubilee provided a sort of generational Sabbath, a “Sabbath: Extended Edition.” This was not just one day, but a whole prolonged season of stopping, resting, resetting, considering. No, the church isn’t the nation of Israel, but maybe we’re getting our own Coronavirus Jubilee. We just didn’t plan for it.

Church, if this is so, what might the Lord be asking us to stop, consider, and reset? Maybe there is divine mercy in this hardship we face. Maybe we should not seek to get through this as quickly as possible so things can go back to normal. Maybe some of what would be considered “church as normal” needs to be forsaken…for good.

We can look at this from many angles, but in this article I’ve chosen to focus on some norms that we as leaders of American churches might do well to repent of and release in our Coronavirus Jubilee:

1. Placing more attention and spending more resources on producing quality services rather than connecting people to a vibrant relationship with the Living Christ.
2. Not teaching a robust theology of suffering, loss, and lament.
3. Communicating that biblical living looks like winning, living your best life now, or claiming your blessing.
4. Acting threatened by other churches: being quick to talk about their troubles, being slow to celebrate their successes, being suspicious of them in general.
5. Stinking of theological arrogance on non-primary doctrine that keeps us from fellowship and collaboration with other churches for expansion of God’s kingdom.
6. Giving more attention to inward organizational stability than on an urgency to equip, resource, and deploy our folks as sent ones in their communities.
7. Not stewarding the clarity of the gospel, but allowing it to get syncretized with Republican or Democrat ideologies (whichever way the leader and/or congregation leans).
9. Using church attendance as our primary indicator of people’s discipleship.
10. Not creating a culture of relational discipleship.
11. Wrongly hoarding leadership when others could be mentored into new roles and exercise their gifts.

If you know me, you know that I absolutely love the church. So please do not take this post as ammo for church-bashing; it isn’t, and please don’t. This is a call for humble evaluation and a plea to hear the answer to what may be the most important question of our time: What is the Spirit saying to the churches (Revelation 2:29)?

Grace & peace.

Heart Trends

I’ll admit it: my emotions have been topsy-turvy during this global crisis. Have yours? Some days I have felt strong and brave and other days I’ve felt vulnerable and anxious.

Now more than ever we would do well to pay attention to the trajectory of our hearts. Yes of course you and I can get different readings on the emotional levels of our hearts depending on when we take a peek under the hood, so to speak. But are we keeping track of any larger trends going on in there? Are our fluids trending lower and lower? How are we purposefully refilling and replenishing our hearts?

We are told to guard our hearts with all diligence (Prov. 4:23)! We would all do well to take some quiet, honest time before the Father and examine the trends in our hearts right now. Maybe these questions will help spur some helpful introspection:

1. In general, is this crisis leading me to seek God more than I was seeking him before I even knew the word coronavirus? Am I taking my worry to Jesus?
2. When I feel the desire to escape the pressures of stress, what am I doing with those desires?
3. Am I growing in my ability to mourn with those who mourn?
4. How am I honoring the rhythms of sabbath and stillness as a means to rest in God?
5. Am I spending more time on political blame/intrigue or conspiracy theories than on seeking God and serving others?
6. Is my heart becoming calloused and hard towards those I disagree with?
7. Am I growing my appetite for entertainment more than my appetite for spiritual nourishment?
8. Am I letting stress or boredom drive me to an unhealthy relationship with food, sex, alcohol, or media?
9. Am I becoming more closed off and emotionally distant?
10. If dark, scary, despondent, or self-harming thoughts occupy my mind, am I taking those thoughts captive to the obedience of Jesus and seeking help from trusted friends?

Good news: even if we are seeing trends going the wrong way, Jesus is available to renew and restore; call out to him! By grace, let’s trust that this will not be a wasted season of life, but instead a time of immense growth.





Church, You’re Up

While the world around hunkers down in uncertainty, the church must rise up to bless.

Here are a few ways we and our churches might showcase the character of our Father in times like these. After all, he is “a very present help in times of trouble…therefore we will not fear” (Psalm 46). (I’m curious: what other ideas do you have? Please comment after the article!)

* Practice being a non-anxious presence in whatever space you’re in. There is no need to contribute to panic, fear, and anxiety. Christian, your very presence, when rooted in the unchanging love of Christ, can turn down the volume of panic and usher in a brand new experience: peace that can’t be explained but can certainly be felt.

* Listen with empathy. Maybe you don’t feel as worked up about the situation as someone next to you. That’s ok. Meet them where they are. Validate their feelings. Listen to listen, not just to formulate an answer back. Imagine yourself feeling what they are feeling and enter their experience. They are not projects to be fixed, but people to be loved.

* After listening well, be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within you (1 Peter 3:15) when you are asked for your perspective. If you are finding your hope and anchor in Christ, share about that. Don’t just give a fuzzy, vague picture of what brings you hope. Name him: Jesus.

* Consider prayer one of your first and best lines of care. After listening, ask people if they would mind if you stopped and prayed for them right then. If that makes them uncomfortable, don’t force anything. Just make the offer. It’s amazing how many people who don’t even share our faith in Jesus understand that being prayed for is being cared for.

* Be vulnerable and share what you’re feeling, too. Let yourself be cared for. You are not ministering from a lofty space above your neighbor, you are ministering side-by-side. Humble yourself and receive the care and concern of others as well.

* As a church, consider setting up a neighborhood emergency fund. These funds could be used to buy food and household goods for families out of work and kids who are not getting meals at school. Take cues from existing ministries and government organizations about the best ways to distribute aid. If the church doesn’t already have an “in” in the affected community, it’s probably better to augment an existing outreach program than to scramble to create a new one in an emergency.

* Personally offer to get groceries, run errands, pay bills, or drive people to appointments. It’s not weird to knock on your elderly neighbor’s door and ask how you can serve them. It’s Christlike.

* See if there are any college students who need a temporary place to stay. Because of quarantines and cancelled flights, they might find themselves without a home, and what better place to stay than yours. Fancy spare rooms are not required; a spirit of hospitality is!

* Look for gaps and disruptions in basic services. Are schoolchildren missing meals because school is cancelled? Does a single mom need temporary childcare while she goes to work? Does a recently unemployed family need a loan or cash gift from you, or maybe a tank of gas? Does the foreign-born family in your apartment need reassurance and explanation of new government and school district policies? If you can’t meet a specific need, I bet the members of your community group can pull something together. If that’s not enough, bring the matter to the wider church.

* As households or community groups, invite neighbors to gather with you for a neighborhood check in, meal, and even a time of prayer and reflection. (NOTE: Defer to health memos by local authorities on what size group gatherings are allowed or if eating as a group is recommended or safe.) Read Psalm 46. Exchange information, start a text group, begin checking on one another regularly. Download the NextDoor app.

* Don’t hoard. Share your toilet paper.

* Take care of your own soul. Spend some time alone with the Father. Turn on worship music and sing along. “Cast your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Pray with your children, too.

* Remember that as the church, we stand in a long line of faithful followers of Jesus who endured all sorts of trouble in their generation, too. It’s our time now. Let’s honor our Father and the sisters and brothers who went before us by clinging to our faith, being more generous than ever before, singing, grieving with hope, and caring for our neighbors.

Church, you’re up.

About Churches

Christmas Eve service at my home church in Richmond, VA

I spend a lot of time thinking about churches. As a pastor, I guess this isn’t all that surprising. But still, I really like thinking about church strategy, church trends, church health, church planting, church theology, and church discipleship. I like visiting church buildings, too. Almost everywhere I go in the world, I try to spend time in local places of worship. I have had the privilege of worshiping in house churches, praying quietly in grand cathedrals, absorbing the pulsating bass of modern worship in a concert venue, and joining hands with brothers and sisters in church plants meeting in school cafeterias.

I love the church. Sure, I have strong theological and doctrinal convictions. Sure, I have stylistic preferences in worship. But within the bounds of what I’d consider the major, non-negotiable tenets of biblical, historic Christian faith, there is a lot of diversity to be had and enjoyed.

At times, though, the church gets me riled up in anger or cast down in sadness. The church – a faith family chosen by God to be a force of his grace and redemption in this world – sometimes falls far short of her purpose. She has sometimes lost her way under the leadership of men who use religion as a means of attaining power and control, hurting and abusing others in Jesus’ name. Her assets of money, buildings, and monuments could often have been better invested in serving the poor and marginalized. She has shown herself gullible to business ideas and success schemes in an effort to attract and entertain. She has sometimes preached a “gospel” of moralistic and even political ideals instead of the true, liberating gospel of Jesus and the kingdom. In our modern age and in the generations before us, she has shown herself faulty. Clearly, there will always be a need for the prophetic call to deep repentance and a humble orthodoxy.

But I still love the church. This is my adopted family. This family is quirky but irreplaceable, sinful, but being sanctified. Jesus died for the church, the “bride” for whom he is preparing a great wedding feast.

Sometimes when I’m in church – whether sitting on the rug in a house church or on a centuries-old pew in a cathedral – my heart fills with wonder and awe. I get to be part of this. This is a global movement and little old me is among those who by the insane privilege of Jesus’ blood am a full, participating member. And when I sing, I’m joining my voice with a chorus of sinners-now-saints who will one day be all in the same place, singing and worshiping before the throne of God. I can’t wait.

Unlikely Traveler

I grew up in South Texas in a large, working-class family. My childhood recollections are filled with memories of our family trying to survive financially, looking for ways to make extra money, and being surprised when and how God provided. As a young boy I (along with my brothers) helped my dad with his second job of mowing lawns and picking up trash. A couple years later, we added another makeshift industry to our family income: woodworking. This is not a bad childhood I’m describing. I learned many things about trust, hard work, and prayer for which I am certainly the richer.

We didn’t travel or vacation much. (Shout out to my fellow Texans – even if you did want to travel to another state or country, you could spend an entire day in the car before you left the state lines.) There simply wasn’t the time, money, or bandwidth to “go exploring.” OK, I did get to do a few things as a youngster: went to Big Bend National Park and crossed the Rio Grande into the Mexican village of Boquillas, drove “far north” into Colorado, and later went on a teen mission trip to the Caribbean island of Dominica. But in the end, I was no world traveler. I didn’t have a global perspective. My world was pretty small, and I never really thought I would live anywhere other than my native Texas.

Cringy teen photo of me at Scott’s Head, Dominica

Little did I know the life to which God would call me. I left Texas as a teen to live in Seattle. I never planned to permanently relocate, but for the next 23 years, Seattle would be my place of residence. I hated living there and had trouble adjusting for at least a full year. Finally, Seattle became my home-both in reality and in heart. There I met the woman who would become my wife, and together we enjoyed our first seventeen years of marriage and the addition (more like multiplication?) of our six children.

But back to travel. In the last few years I have been blessed to see some interesting places, both for ministry and occasionally for recreation. These forays, combined with our recent call to relocate across country (that’s another story), awakened in me and Corrie a larger, global perspective and what I’d like to call a “geographical curiosity” we’d never had before. Far removed from the small-world of my Texas youth, I began to engage in a global community. Believe me, no one was more surprised than myself: I wasn’t ever supposed to leave Texas! Tell that to my growing, kitschy collection of Starbucks “You Are Here” mugs.

Experiencing more of the world changed me. Here are a few of the ways:
-Humbled me to be on the receiving end of hospitality to the “stranger.” I was the stranger.
-Gave me a glowing love for the global Christian church
-Jarred some of my narrow thinking loose and let me hear from God in fresh ways
-Awakened an inner-explorer in me I didn’t know was there
-Sparked my curiosity about how and where the gospel is spreading (or not)
-Caused me to cherish beauty and marvel in the creative handiwork of God and people
-Made history come alive
-Changed my idea of what “home” was
-Made me resolved to take my children with me whenever I could

Who knows where God will take us next.

I’d love to hear how travel has shaped your head and heart, too!

Dangerous Alliances

We assume so much about one another. I think because we lack the empathy and time it takes to really get to know one another’s hearts, we look for quick markers by which we can bracket each other. One tweet or one post, and voila, I know all I need to know about you. I’ll assign you a Dewey decimal number and file you under an assigned category. (Yes, I know I just dated myself.)

In ministry, I’m constantly building networks, scouting resources, partnering at various levels, learning – whatever I can do to help equip and mobilize people into the great big mission of God. I’ve been blessed to learn from and serve shoulder-to-shoulder with some incredible people, only a few of which would have any name recognition whatsoever. I thank God for the imprint of many diverse men and women of faith who have had a hand in shaping my character, spiritual growth, missiology, and passion for Jesus.

I wish having so many friends wasn’t so dangerous.

There are factions of thought and practice that don’t always get along, and I’ve learned from and become friends with people who don’t always wish to network with one another. I can sometimes feel the suspicion in the sideways glance: So where do you stand on X issue, Jared? Clarity – especially clarity around gospel issues – is fantastically important. But sometimes suspicious questioning is simply bracketing. Whose camp do you belong in? Whose flag do you waive? There’s a difference.

I’m here in the middle, not waving any flag, wondering if I have to belong to either camp. Can’t I just learn from both?

Herein lies the tension. There are some things you’d do well to learn from me. (I don’t mean this pridefully.) Other things you’d be better off learning from someone else with more experience, practice, thought, or learning. That’s OK. You don’t have to align 100% with me or anyone else to learn something. Keep what’s valuable and set aside what isn’t.

Does this just boil down to spiritual pragmatism then? No. Let’s continue to call one another to love and good deeds and faithfulness to the Word we claim to hold so high. Ministry partnership is not a free-for-all; there are hard lines and guardrails around essential theology. That being said, I’m going to keep learning from and working with people from various tribes of thought and practice so long as the gospel is not compromised.

If this causes confusion about where I stand on issues really important to you, I hope you’ll sit down with me instead of filing me away with Dewey. I will do the same with you.

On Not Being Omniscient

I sometimes wish for a break from making decisions. It seems like my wife and I have had one big hairy decision after another this last year. From saying goodbye to our family, friends, and ministry in Seattle, to selling a house, to relocating our family from the West Coast to the East Coast, to buying a house (sight unseen!), to making educational choices for our growing kids, to deciding how and if Corrie could finish her counseling degree at another school, etc. We often wished we had the benefit of just a tiny peak into the future. Each decision was like a domino affecting the others; we wanted to get them right.

Yet each time, we had to make decisions with less than all the facts.

That weighed on us. It still weighs on us. For some strange reason, my wife and I got it into our heads growing up that God would bless us if we got everything right. This warped theology (which thankfully we’ve renounced) often added an extra burdensome overlay to our decision making. Not only could the next bad decision screw up our lives practically, it could also provoke God’s anger and withhold his blessing spiritually, too. This, friends, is a burden too heavy to bear. (Note: our decisions do have consequences and sinful decisions displease God. But we aren’t talking about making decisions about whether or not to do something sinful here.)

Just this morning, we found ourselves fretting at the kitchen counter over some new decisions. Again, we realized we didn’t have all the information. We didn’t know everything we wanted to know about the situation. But we reminded each other that we were doing the best with what we knew to do.

With that, all we could do was lean back into the grace of a God who knows the end from the beginning.

I’m so glad God is omniscient. Not only does he have all the facts, he has the perspective to make sense of the facts, wisdom to apply them, and impeccable timing. The crushing weight of “getting things right all the time” is for his shoulders. Friends, Corrie and I are still in the kindergarten class of God’s grace! We’ve barely begun to plumb the depths. But we can tell you this: even when we make what prove to be dumb decisions, God’s grace is there.

The best decision we’ve ever made is to trust that God’s grace will hold us up in uncertain times. We can go back to being humans and let God be the omniscient one.

Bridge People

Railroad trestle along the James River, Richmond, VA. Photo by author.

I love ministry.
My kids asked, “Dad, if you had to change jobs what else would you want to do?” I honestly couldn’t think of anything else. This is my calling.

I also hate ministry.
Plenty of times over the years I’ve wanted to quit and do a clock in/clock out job with regular hours. Some seasons of ministry have left me and my wife gut punched and gun shy.

So why the schizophrenic response? One reason was that early on – unconsciously – I thought I had a lot more influence, charisma, and wisdom than I actually did. I knew ministry was going to be hard, but c’mon, I was built for this. I wouldn’t have told you I had something to prove, but deep in my heart I certainly did. Lovingly, God used the fires of ministry to bubble my insecurities to the surface. More on that in a later blog post.

But another reason is this: I, like many other pastors, missionaries, and ministers did not fully understand the role to which I was called. I was called to be a bridge person. To represent the message and character of a loving, reconciling God to a (sometimes) hostile, skeptical audience. To stretch into the void between the kingdom of God and the context of my mission. To build trust between alienated parties. To change my culture and lifestyle in order to become a person of peace. To do the work of racial and spiritual reconciliation. To change so much from my home culture as to be unrecognizable to “my people,” yet never enough to truly be “one of us” to the culture to which I was sent. To be a bridge.

TO GET WALKED ON.

No, I’m not suggesting that I reconcile people to God; Jesus ultimately and only does that. But I bear the message of reconciliation (which incidentally, if you’re a believer, you do, too). See 2 Corinthians 5:11-21. This isn’t just a job for vocational ministers.

I confess that I sometimes hoped to get more enjoyment out of connecting worlds – maybe even be celebrated for it. Being a bridge felt more like death.

And yet, death was what I most needed. It was where personal ambition was crushed and new identity with Jesus was formed. For Jesus was not only reaching people across the chasm, he was reaching me.

Jesus is a Ladder Person. In his famous dream, Jacob saw the heavens opened and angels of God ascending and descending on a ladder. “Surely God is in this place!” he cried (Genesis 28:10-22). Generations later, Jesus shed light on Jacob’s vision in a conversation with Nathanael in John 1:43-51. Jesus told Nathanael that he would see “greater things” – the heavens opening and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Jesus is the ladder. Jesus, the ultimate reconciler, forgiver, substitute, and mediator was the ladder bridging the Father’s heart to the world he loved. The angels – those sent to do God’s bidding – walked on Jesus. The angry crowds walked on Jesus, too. This didn’t just feel like death, it was death.

Nathanael, you, and I are seeing greater things. God is doing his reconciling work through the death of Jesus: bringing the far, forgotten, and written-off into the fold of grace. And he’s sending bridge people to bear the message of the Ladder.

This is ministry.



A Simple Yes

I over-complicate what it means to follow Jesus.

Exploring a national park this summer on our family’s road trip and relocation to the East Coast.

Funny, I used to think that the longer I followed Jesus the more nuanced, complex, and comprehensive my theological framework would become. In some ways that is true, but mostly it’s not. I’ve noticed something odd about this life of following Jesus: maturity sometimes looks more like simplicity than complexity.

Why am I surprised? Jesus said we must become like children.

My youngest children are not the most complex thinkers. They are whip-smart, but not complex. If I tell them to do something, they usually give me simple answers such as yes, no, or why daddy? They don’t think ten steps ahead. They do or don’t do. They don’t question my love or my motives as they calculate whether or not they can afford to do what I said. They assume those things, then respond.

When I sense my Heavenly Father telling me something, I have this weird compulsion to help him think through all the eventualities. My mind races. If I do this, they will do that, and we won’t be able to do this, and they will feel this way, and eventually check mate. I’ve talked myself out of the simplicity of following God as a trusting child.

At times I’m scared of God. Scared of what he’ll ask of me, scared of what he’ll allow in my life to test me, scared I won’t have a grandiose-enough theological answer for what I might face in life. I’ve “matured” myself into a questioning, cautionary, advisory role that God never asked for and I wasn’t designed to have. I was designed to be a son. A child. A little one.

What if next time I sensed the Father telling me to do this or that, I just said yes daddy? Has my perception of maturity kept me from enjoying the simplicity of a relationship like this?

Maybe a simple yes is the most mature response I can have. Along the way, as I’m holding his hand, I’ll ask my questions and express my fears.

But I’m determined to start with a simple yes.
Help me, dad.