A Cold Rain and a Killin’ Frost

A frost lay heavy on the ground here this morning. After a longer-than-normal season of blooming plants, short sleeves and green grass, a sudden cold snap arrived. My grandfather would call it a “killin’ frost.” It will likely bring an end to many of the weeds that we combat regularly; ice will clear a field as surely as fire.

Though the seasonal temperatures have begun to drop to the lower ranges, the American church has seen a period of spiritual “hard freezes.” Estimates vary, but the sobering statistics as a whole should not be ignored. 1 in 5 churches may close their doors permanently due to the hardships of COVID-19. 20-30% of those who stopped attending church during the pandemic might not return when in-person services become the norm again. Add to these stressors the heightened negativity and decreasing involvement of some members, and you have a volatile mix at best. Spiritual complacency is more dangerous than a physical virus. 

I thought about these realities this past Sunday. We began meeting again in person after a long period of online-only services, then decided to return to virtual services for a short time due to an outbreak in our local community. Sunday was our first service back as a church family in a couple of weeks. The number of people in attendance on Sunday morning was around the anticipated amount, and many familiar faces were present.

Our Sunday evenings consist of meeting times for small groups, programs for children and students and a prayer service. When I walked through the doors for our prayer time, apart from a couple of staff members, there were only two people in the room. Our other ministries had a similar low attendance that night. Thanksgiving weekend, COVID fears, a dislike of masks, a cold, rainy evening and months of sporadic involvement all funneled into a single moment.

As I stood there, leading that half-handful of the faithful in prayer, I could not help but think of a quote from John Onwuchekwa’s book on prayer:

I know the idea of a prayer meeting doesn’t sound very glamorous. The trouble is churches and pastors feel the pressure of innovation constantly. Our society is obsessed with innovation, so the common and plain are regularly devalued. People want something fresh, new, and exciting. Pastors like me are tempted to think we need to create exciting events that people will want to attend. Yet prayer meetings are seldom exciting. People come into a room, share their burdens with each other, and together take them before God with eyes closed and heads bowed.

The truth is, we don’t need to innovate. We only need to be intentional. The prayer meeting isn’t meant to be a theme park. It’s more like a storage facility, and we are all cars without trunks. We were never meant to store up our concerns within ourselves. We were meant to off-load those things to God. The prayer meeting isn’t a place of attraction, but a place of necessity.

A consistently well-attended church prayer time is hard to find, even without a pandemic. It’s where the real battle occurs; that is one reason why it is not as popular as other events: warriors are always few. Though the vast majority of members have been supportive, encouraging and highly adaptable, the last few months have been especially revealing as people have grown weary of the fight and dropped their guard, not only in prayer, but in every other facet of church life.

I have heard people complain angrily that wearing a mask is contributing to a conspiracy, and others stated that failing to wear a mask is borderline attempted murder. A church member contacted me in want of a never-ending political commentary from the pulpit. Others voiced concerns that we were praying for all leaders, including those we did not agree with or support. Some people did not like meeting online for our groups and our virtual worship time, and others were strongly opposed with restarting in-person services again. Under the pressures of the moment, a couple of people revealed deep-set opposition to our mission, vision and strategy, and thus showed that they won’t be walking alongside us as God works here in the future. Individuals who wrestled with slow changes in times past now faced the difficult necessity of adapting rapidly to the changes required by shifting circumstances.

During this time, we lost some people who decided the way we approached this crisis was not to their liking. Some faded slowly, some found other churches and others just gave up on church altogether. One can’t help but hear the echo of Jesus’ words in these moments: “The love of many will grow cold…” (Matthew 24:12). Through all these ups and downs, I kept thinking, “If the American church cannot navigate a pandemic, it will never endure persecution.” You will never know how much fight you have left in you until something tries to take the fight out of you. This is just a stretching session that has revealed just how stiff and immobile we have become. It’s the warm-up before the game. If the trial run breaks you, what will happen on race day? Or, in the words of Jeremiah, “If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?” (12:5).

After our prayer time ended on Sunday evening, and everyone bundled up to head home, I walked outside and stood looking to the western sky. Night had already fallen, and the wind whipped the cold, stinging rain across my face and across the barren parking lot. I thought back to how things were last year at this time and the consistent involvement of those attending then.

It was right about this time that the solo invitation to the emotional wallow arrived in my mental mailbox. “Pity cordially invites you alone to attend a celebration in honor of all the things you probably did wrong. Please indicate your choice of entrée: cold comfort, humble pie or crow.”

But upon the heels on that thought came another voice, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much…” (Luke 16:10a).

Pondering this, another thought emerged: if one has been faithful in much, should not that same person be faithful when presented again with the very little? Faithfulness is just faithfulness; only the circumstances to which it is applied change. The ultimate audience of our faithfulness never grows or shrinks; it is always for God alone.

Faithfulness is being able to say, “This is the right response to God’s truth. This is how I will follow him, regardless of how others might respond (and regardless of how I might feel).” Fear says, “How others respond will determine if this is the right thing.” The lack of faithfulness in others must never shake our own faithfulness. The fear-based approach is rooted in customer satisfaction instead of warrior building.     

We can easily tailor our churches to consumer comfort instead of spiritual challenge. We begin to think more like business owners and less like shepherds. We try to create an experience instead of introducing people to the living God. We view the crowd as irrefutable evidence of God’s approval, and we despise the “day of small things” (Zechariah 4:10). When we approach worship with the mindset of a consumer, we become the ones who must be pleased and served by God instead of the other way around; this leads only to deeper discontent. As N. Allan Moseley reminds us, “Those whose goal is to please the self are never fully satisfied.” Yet we still try to force others to please us, and we still demand that all things bow to our idol of expectation.  

The pandemic has challenged and overturned many of our ideas of how church “must be.” In his article “If You Can’t Be With the Church You Love, Love the Church You’re With,” Jared Wilson relates:

Our preferences are important, but they are not sacred. They are not laws. Disappointing us is not a sin. Too many Christians join a church with a kind of relational legalism in play — I’ll attend, I’ll give, I’ll participate so long as you never challenge me, correct me, or disappoint me. In such cases, the object of worship is not the God who calls us through self-denial to sacrificial love of each other but is actually ourselves. Don’t deify your preferences. Don’t idolize your comfort. Maybe you can’t experience church exactly the way you want to right now. But what if the experience of church isn’t supposed to be all about you? What if it’s more about glorifying God through loving others, even denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Jesus into service of others for His sake?

If we view the life of faith as more of a transaction than a transformation, we will see everything spiritual as being up for negotiation. Faithfulness alone will cease to be the goal; the target will become being faithful in little so that we can get more. We will care less about being “faithful in much” and focus solely upon the “much.” We will desire the gifts over the Giver.             

Perhaps, for the consumer church culture, this season is the most-needed gift. It’s a cold rain and a killin’ frost that strips away everything that does not endure.

Back to the wet, windswept parking lot…

As these thoughts stirred in my heart and my spirit, I considered the reality of the evening: God was pleased with the faithfulness of this church staff. We ministered deeply to a small number of people, and God was with us as we prayed, studied and talked with each other. We did what God called us to do: to serve as Christ did, whether to many or few.

If we are faithful with much, we should be faithful with little.

Great Articles

I came across two articles that were very eye-opening and timely given our current season within American churches…

Five Types of Church Members Who Will Not Return after the Quarantine

If You Can’t be with the Church You Love, Love the Church You’re With

And a great podcast episode to help us understand what must change in our churches…

Five Reasons Why the Speed of Change Must Accelerate in Your Church in the Post-Quarantine Era

Hope Below the Surface

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They are called “hunger stones.”

Lying in certain Central European riverbeds, large stones bear messages chiseled upon them hundreds of years ago…

“If you see me, weep.”

“If you will again see this stone, so you will weep, so shallow was the water in the year 1417.”

“We cried – We cry – And you will cry.” Continue reading

An Old Dog, Malibu and the Nobel Prize

She named the dog “Mercedes.”

It’s an unlikely name, given the way he looked and where he was found. But I suppose that the name itself reflects the nature of the gift given. True mercy often runs contrary to the expected, and the greatest acts of grace always smell of scandal.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Continue reading

Muddy Water and Changed Hearts

We often miss what we need most because we refuse to see past the surface concerns of our lives. God will orchestrate events and allow pressures to come in order to expose the deeper issues and give us a clearer view of ourselves and our greatest need. Take the Old Testament character Naaman for instance (2 Kings 5:1-14).

Naaman was a great warrior and was held in high esteem, yet he suffered from leprosy. Hearing that a healing by the prophet Elisha might be possible, Naaman made a trip laden with riches to pay for a miracle. Upon arriving, Elisha sent a servant out with the message that Naaman should go wash seven times in the Jordan River, often-muddy and creek-like, for his healing. Continue reading

The Parable of the (Other) Sower

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”  – Matthew 13:3-9

But another sower watched the annual cycle of sowing and reaping with a sense of disappointment and despair. He saw the patches and stretches of soil where the seed would not grow and concluded that something must be done to ensure growth could take place in every place a seed might land. After gathering a team of other innovation-minded sowers, they began to implement targeted solutions to the perceived problem.

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How the Pandemic Panned Out

As the first stay-at-home mandates spread to our little town, I stood in the living room and looked through the blinds at the neighbor’s lawn across the street. On a pole in the yard a new American flag waved slowly in the spring breeze. Sipping my morning coffee (which mere days earlier would have been enjoyed at the office, but now at home), I stared at that flag and thought about how we were all seeing our nation in that way – through slatted sunlight from our couches as we watched a flattened version of reality on our various screens.

Over the passing weeks, our family did the things that became the norm for many of us… 

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A Paper Wasp, a Stoned Messenger and a Redeeming God

Sweet Pea, one of my mom’s horses, looked on with a placid stare as I growled, hissed and spat in the moments after a large, mahogany-colored paper wasp rammed its stinger into my lower eyelid. I was cleaning out the horse’s trough so I could feed her when the dive-bomb attack occurred. It was sudden, unprovoked and, all things considered, a dirty, sucker punch orchestrated in a brain the size of a pinhead. Continue reading

Lost Dogs, Wrecked Trucks and Hidden Stitches 

The massive dust cloud billowed across the highway as the eighteen-wheeler a short distance ahead of me left the road, plowed through the dry dirt and withered grass, crossed the ditch and buried itself in a pile of recently-cut pine trees.

This changed the tone of the Saturday drive.

Looking back, I am thankful for lost dogs who aren’t really lost.

I’ll explain what I mean soon, but back to the wreck… Continue reading

Two Words

By most standards, he blew it.

He seems to have been a bold one — charging ahead, seemingly without concern, the proverbial bull-in-the-china-shop with his own foot firmly in his mouth. Misspeaking was common, his overstepping of bounds was likely expected, and if one knew him, it seems that his generally-brash demeanor would come as no big surprise. Peter was quick to say exactly what was on his mind at any given moment. But then he went too far, even for himself. Continue reading

The 33 Most-Valuable Leadership Lessons I Have Learned

A while ago at a conference, I sat in a room with a group of other lead pastors. Some carried the unseen scars of many years of ministry; a few still showed a bit of the shine of idealism. The speaker in the breakout session addressed the things we needed to remember in order to make it in the “marathon, not the sprint, of ministry.”

He spoke warmly, sincerely and wisely. He encouraged, challenged and comforted us. As I looked around the room, I saw what I have seen so many times in gatherings of pastors: that worn-out facial expression. I couldn’t help but wonder if I looked as tired as the rest of them did.

When I got home, lying in bed, I stared at the ceiling in the darkened room and thought about what I have learned about being a lead pastor in the last year.

I had recently read an article that gave a very direct and honest list (and one that is perfectly accurate in every respect to my experience. You can find it here.)

Having held various church-related ministries at different churches for over a dozen years (and being involved with multiple other ministries for a decade more), there have been many lessons, but if I had to summarize things and convey them as concisely as I could to a person stepping into a ministry role, what would I say?

Though I know that the list would grow exponentially if I thought about it for any longer (because I already know many more things I could add), for now, I would give these thoughts as a primer I have gathered from moments in my own life and from watching other leaders in ministry. Some of those examples showed great leadership, deep wisdom and God-centered motives, and others I use as a self-test (when I think about possible actions to take, I think back on some of these leaders’ actions and consider what they might do in a given situation…then I do the opposite).

So, in no particular order, and as they come to mind, I humbly offer these hard-won lessons… Continue reading

The Foreword for the Chapters to Come – Day 90

We have prayed together for the last 90 days. Though I will continue to write and post, today we will be closing this season of daily directed prayer and devotions. When I started writing these, the plan was for 30 days of devotions and prayers. Looking back, I’m thankful that we stretched that original window to include more time.

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Justice and Mercy – Day 89

A writer once compared God to a judge who is sitting on the bench with a condemned sinner before him. As the illustration goes, God looks at this person before him who is lost and says, “I have no choice but to pass sentence upon you. I wish that I could change my mind, but I am bound to my Word.” The sentence is proclaimed, and God tearfully bangs the gavel. The writer related that in situations such as that, God is torn because justice won’t allow him to do what he wants to do; people perish because God holds himself to a standard that he wishes he could change. The only problem with that illustration? It is not a biblical view. God is not at war with himself. God does not regret his standard. God’s mercy and justice are linked without any contradiction.

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Settling Down – Day 88

Have you noticed how many products you must “shake well” before using? Whether it’s orange juice or stove cleaner, paint or salad dressing, many of our most-common solutions need to be shaken. The reason is simple: the contents settle. When the container is at rest, gravity takes over and the heavier parts of the solution collect on the bottom. A good shaking is needed before use.    

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Just a Scratch – Day 87

One of my high school biology teachers once took a trip to Australia and told us about a visit to the Great Barrier Reef. Her group went snorkeling and diving around some shelves of coral near the beach. When the group gathered at the end of the afternoon, one of the lifeguards asked, “Did any of you get scratched or scraped by the coral?”

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