This Sunday I preach my last sermon as pastor of SCC.
I have all the mixed feelings you might imagine.
I will have spent 605 Sundays as pastor here. With a few Sundays off each year, and two sabbaticals, I imagine I preached over 500 sermons.
It's amazing to think that when I became pastor of this church, I had preached perhaps seven. I'm pretty sure my "candidating" sermon was the eighth time I had ever preached. That's crazy to think about. I'm grateful that this church invited me to learn here.
Of course pastoring is about more than preaching.
Every Sunday has a Monday where it's not just about what to preach or what songs to sing. And each Monday has a Tuesday which, for most of the past 604 Tuesdays meant "staff meeting" where the pastoral and administrative teams prayed over and cared for the details of this church.
During that time we tried hard to implement one vision of becoming a multigenerational church for Sarasota. We made six key decisions toward that. A seventh decision was unable to gain enough support:
Leading a church isn't a business, it's ministry.
As much as the conventional model of church requires pastors to make business decisions about how to implement vision, etc., it's not primarily a business. At least it shouldn't be. The only reason we do any of this is to see the gospel become fruitful in people's lives.
It has always been my passion to reach dechurched and unchurched people with the gospel. During the past six hundred weeks we baptized 106 people, dedicated 23 children, and received 168 new members. We also laid 180 loved ones to rest.
This Sunday we'll take time to read the names of each as we commend them to the Lord in prayer. It will be a sacred moment. Then the overseers will commend me to my new call. In a couple weeks, Dennis will be installed as interim pastor. And my prayer is that wherever by whomever, and by whatever means, the gospel will be boldly preached, and that this next season will see even more people baptized and brought into maturity of faith. And as Dennis (and then his successor) lay to rest the people I have pastored here, may it be as a sacred testimony of their faithfulness. This is my prayer and desire.
Next Monday will be the first in 605 Mondays that I wake up without a call to SCC.
I will no doubt wake up Monday with enthusiasm for my new call to develop a network of microchurches. Of course it won't be the first I've thought about it. I will spend a bit of time resting with family, but then I will hit the ground running. And I imagine it will feel different to run without the call of SCC on my shoulders.
Like I say, I have mixed emotions about it. I am excited about what I will be doing next. I am so encouraged by so many at every turn.
So, if I have been sad the past couple of months, it's partly the disappointment of not being able to establish this network as a ministry of SCC as I had hoped. And it's partly because I always saw myself retiring at SCC. And I am also engaging the sorrow of friends who have poured themselves into ministry here but are now leaving with a sense that they no longer fit here. And I feel the sadness of other friends who feel called to stay at SCC and no doubt feel abandoned by their friends.
This makes me sad, but the new ministry makes me glad. Both emotions can be genuine concurrently. And I genuinely pray blessing over SCC with a clear conscience that I have done all I could to establish the gospel here, and have done nothing to undermine the transfer of leadership. And I am thankful to those who pray for me and speak words of encouragement to me. My choice is to give a blessing.
With gratitude, sincerity, and blessing,
Yesterday Mike Christner, as Chair of the Board of Overseers, announced that they have accepted my request to be released from my call as lead pastor of Sarasota Community Church. Then I got to explain why.
Since the ramifications of this announcement are far-reaching, and hard to digest if just hearing it for the first time, and since many of the people who relate to SCC were not here yesterday, I've decided to put in writing below what I said in person yesterday. (The same is available to watch here.)
The following is more or less a transcript of what I said yesterday.
This past week our church hosted a Q&A panel discussion with me and three other local pastors. Questions were submitted ahead of time and one was so insightful I couldn’t answer it because I knew I'd be answering it Sunday.
It read: “Pastor Roger has said many times that he believes God has a purpose in this pandemic and that God is calling us to new ways of being His followers and doing His work. He’s also said that his greatest fear was that we will all rush back to doing things as before. It now seems that we are quickly returning to things ‘as before.’ Have we missed God’s call for new ways?”
My sermons this past year have dealt with provocative and challenging concepts, and it almost sounds like I’ve been setting up something. Some pastors have a preaching calendar where they plan their sermons way in advance, but for me, I’m usually thinking two or three weeks in advance, but not settling on a topic until the week of. This means I’m usually speaking to what’s going on in the world, or in our congregation, or just about what God’s teaching me. So when you look back on my sermons, it tells a story of our experience together.
If we look back over the past year, some of the sermons are obvious: “Encouragement for These Last Days” or “Follower of the Way.” And in context, sermons like “Stop Doing Your Devotions” (and instead devote yourself to the four things the first believers did) seemed like just focusing on faith and discipleship — which it totally was. But when you add to it sermons that brought what I would call a prophetic critique or warning, a pattern emerges:
“What Most People Still Get Wrong About Worship”
“What's Wrong with the Church”
“What’s Wrong With Your Pastor”
“Is There Danger Ahead?”
“Surviving the Storm”
And for me, the question I spoke to five months ago has continued to stir me: “Would Your Faith Survive Underground?”
I have considered this for me, for us, for those under my pastoral care: If the above ground systems and structures that we rely on for the practice of our faith were suddenly taken away, would we know how to practice our faith?
I have been disturbed to see churches fighting to keep state-sanctioned gatherings as if they are essential to the practice of faith. Gatherings are — of course. But the Church doesn’t need to be state-sanctioned in order to be the Church. It certainly doesn't need church owned buildings with public worship services in order to be the Church!
So these things have been stirring in my heart. And I’ve been considering, “Is there another way to be Church?”
So it sounds like I’ve been setting up something, but really I’ve been actively contemplating something. And today I get to explain that “something.”
If it feels like I’m talking too much about me, that's just the context of what I need to say, so please bear with me. I know that not everyone listens to everything I say, or reads every word I write, so some may be surprised by what I say today. But if you’ve been paying attention, it’ll come as no surprise when I describe what I’m being stirred to. And especially if you were part of the six prayer meetings that we called in October, November, and December where we spent time just praying for the future of our church. And especially if you came to the January meeting where we talked about what we had sensed God telling us during those prayer meetings.
I talked that night about things that I’m gonna talk about this morning, and I’ve blogged about these things for many months — so if you’ve been paying attention, it won’t be much of a surprise when I explain my vision for “Another Way to Be Church.” But it may come as a surprise that today I’m not talking about another way for SCC to be church.
God has given me a vision for a network of microchurches meeting in people’s homes throughout Sarasota or as far as relationships can reach, designed around a very simple and reproducible, low cost model of being church — and I believe I’m supposed to give my attention to that ministry instead of to the lead pastorate here at SCC as I have for the past 11½ years.
Today I’ll explain the why, what, how, and where, but I can’t fully explain the when, other than that the transition begins today, but we just don’t know how long of a transition it will be or what it'll look like.
We have asked Dennis Bontrager to serve as a temporary pastor — an interim from within our congregation — who will take on lead pastor responsibilities while a permanent lead pastor is found.
Dennis has been here forever, he was on the elder board that brought me in as pastor, and has served on the pastoral team under my leadership for the past ten years. He's well loved.
We’ll transition at a speed that seems prudent and healthy, but we don’t know yet how long that is. Right now I still speak with positional authority as the pastor of this church, but after today, that relationship starts to change. What I do know is that the timing will either be too quick or too long, but probably not just right.
Our goal is to treat this as a transition, where I work with Dennis to hand off day to day responsibilities while remaining available as needed, and while transitioning into this new ministry. And even when I’m no longer teaching here, and even if the new model doesn’t have an auditorium with a stage, my heart is to continue teaching weekly online for as long as it’s helpful. (You can access that by clicking here.)
So that’s the announcement.
I want to describe what this new way of being church looks like, but most of what I have to say today is actually about saying it — and the tensions it creates for me to use this space to say it. But I believe that working through tensions like this is not only a witness of our love in Christ, but is also itself instructive about how to do such things in Christ.
So I want to name SEVEN tensions I have about this. And then I’ll tell you what this other way of being Church will look like.
1st Tension: What I’m doing right now doesn’t feel like a sermon.
When we decided to announce this on a Sunday morning, I realized that any sermon I preach will be a throw away sermon — unless I preach the announcement. But it doesn’t feel like a sermon.
My ministry verse is Colossians 1:28-29 “[I proclaim Christ], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.”
And 2 Timothy 4:2 says to “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.
I typically do that by opening scripture and studying it openly. I don’t like to replace worship with church business or sermons with announcements, so this just feels odds to me, and I’m naming the tension. But in reality, this is a practical sermon. And next week Dennis is going do the same with respect to what he sees continuing forward at this church.
2nd Tension: I don’t know if everyone has been listening.
In my preaching and teaching I have had to bring a prophetic challenge many times about the state of the larger Church.
1 Corinthians 14:3 teaches us that “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort 4 [and] edifies the church.” That’s my heart in any critique I’ve spoken, and it’s all online for anyone to listen to and read. So I'm choosing to not lay all of that out again this morning.
But I believe hardship is coming.
Some of it is just cyclical. There’s some indication that here in America we’ll be facing the transition of an 80 year institutional cycle, and a 50 year socio-economic cycle, all within the next decade, and it’ll probably be pretty rough, but it’s just sorta what happens. It just hasn’t ever happened at the same time before.
But some hardship will be inflicted on us by the world. Culture will try to control which parts of scripture we teach or preach. We may see the loss of government sanctioned places of worship and independent professional clergy which is made possible by tax exemptions. And at some point, we’ll have outright persecution. Most of us say it’s coming but we’re just not ready.
And I believe some of the hardship will prove to be self-inflicted. The wealth of the generation that sustains churches like ours is getting ready to be inherited by a generation that doesn’t support churches like ours. And immigration growth will continue to lull us to sleep thinking the church is growing when it’s really just unhappy Christians migrating for different programming.
I believe hardship is coming and I believe what I’m being called to do will help prepares us all for it. Even those who don't join in it. And yet I don’t believe it’s the only way to be prepared for it. I just hope everyone is listening and eager to respond well.
3rd Tension: I don’t know whether to soft sell this new vision or let my fire burn.
If I speak with passion, some will accuse me of trying to get people to follow me. It’s a good concern, but I’m not.
Hear me: What I explain today is not for people who are moved to be part of the conventional church model. I’m not trying to persuade anybody.
But if I happen to connect with someone whose heart has already been longing for what I’ll describe, then I believe this is a wonderful opportunity for that person. I have a special place in my heart for disillusioned and dechurched people — and that includes churched people who are exhausted by the prevailing church model, or who are just mailing it in each week because they don’t have another option.
But! I’m very aware that if I speak with too much passion today, some will think I’m just trying to take people with me.
On the other hand, if I just sorta float this out there as something I’d kinda like to try for a change, not only would that be dishonest, but you might conclude that this isn’t really about God’s call. You might conclude that I’m bored or burned out, and that would be misleading on my part.
Romans 12:11 says “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” So my choice is to just let my emotion be what it is, and let your interpretation be what it is.
4th Tension: I need you to know that I have not resigned, but rather have asked to be released from my call to SCC.
That may be a bit semantic, but it’s important to me, because I don’t relate to this as a “job” but as a call. I find it disturbing when a pastor sees himself as the CEO of a non-profit corporation that he can resign from to take another offer. In fact, that’s part of my prophetic critique of the Business-Styled Church, and this tedious need for clarification about being released rather than resigning is a lived out critique of it.
1 Peter 5:2-3 tells pastors to “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”
That’s my heart.
August of 2009 this church called me to come help revitalize it by bringing in young families, and by October I had moved my young family here from Oregon.
That’s how the call was stated to me: "To bring in young families" — because there were hardly any.
During the past 11-½ years we’ve been able to bring in many younger families, but almost all of them have left after awhile. We can point fingers if we want — at them, or at me, or at each other, or at God, or at the devil — and we could argue about which finger is correct. I'm sure one is.
But I always try to start with the finger in my own chest. I personally own that I was not able to turn this church into a multigenerational church like I had hoped to — like I was called to do. While I know I made changes that not everyone liked, I just couldn’t bring myself to really deprogram and reprogram this church around a young families model, because I honestly believe it needs to start with a heart that wants to do that. And if the heart is there the reprogramming happens naturally.
I sorta suspect that many here released me from that call early on, and would have preferred to even redefine the call if possible — but you need to know that I still feel the weight of the call I accepted, every day. And I think it would be healthy and appropriate for the church to release me from it, and to bring in a new pastor with a new call as determined by the church for this next season. You will need to decide whether that call is to bring in young families or be a church for seniors, whether it is to be a contemporary church or a traditional church. Those aren't moral or immoral decisions, they're just hard and necessary.
So, I didn’t resign but I did ask to be released to follow this new call.
5th Tension: I’m aware that some people are glad to hear this, and some people are sad or mad to hear this.
Some of you are no doubt thinking maybe you can get your church back, that maybe we can stop trying to do a blended thing, and go ahead and just be a traditional church for seniors. I think that’s understandable.
But others of you are here because we dared to do the newer music, and now you’re afraid it’s no longer going to include you. I think that’s understandable.
Still others are glad to hear about an opportunity to be part of a simpler way of being church. I think that’s understandable.
Whatever your emotion about this, take Philippians 2:3-4 to heart: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." And 1 Corinthians 1:10, "Let there be no divisions among you."
That said, enjoying something is not selfish, and neither is not enjoying something. Value others above yourself and God will give you understanding about this.
6th Tension: I imagine some of you are wondering what the “real story" is.
This is the real story.
There are no political games being played here.
If it feels fuzzy it’s because it’s not polished up.
This is not just a glorified dismissal or resignation.
No one is asking me to leave.
No one is forcing me to leave.
No one is tricking me into leaving.
I'm not leaving to escape anything, or because I'm mad or anything.
In fact, I don’t even see this as leaving. I see this as being sent — which is a real distinction. But I also understand that it is technically “leaving.” Just know that there’s no cover up of any kind of any thing.
And please know that our leaders are good and desire to follow God. Hebrews 13:17 tells the church to “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.”
Thank you to those who have done that under my leadership. You really do have the power to make leadership a joy or a burden. It's always to your benefit to make it a joy. Please continue to do that under the next leadership. If anyone gossips to you, set the record straight. If you don’t know the record, ask, don’t speculate.
7th Tension: While I believe the decision to do this separate from SCC is good, I was hoping it would be something we could do together.
I recommended it as a hybrid where SCC would serve the Sarasota Community through both a centralized experience here on this campus, and a decentralized experience via the network of microchurches.
I thought this campus could serve as a hub to train and encourage leaders of microchurches, and to house monthly praise and worship concerts, while also providing a conventional worship service on Sunday mornings.
I thought the people involved in the microchurches would be available to serve in various capacities, and we would create opportunities for fellowship between all the different groups.
I wasn't sure how that would work financially. My goal is that the new thing I’ll describe in a bit would be no cost or low cost, so I didn’t have a good answer for what it would look like financially. And I wasn’t sure if those in the centralized experience would wonder why those in the decentralized experience “don’t come to church.”
I knew that other churches have figured that out and I felt like we could too. I knew it would have its share of difficulties but I just wanted to try.
But as we sought counsel and conversation with various people in our church, people had no problem with the network I was proposing, but they couldn’t see the hybrid model working. The conversations rarely moved past why it wouldn't work to how it could work. And ultimately it seemed like there are enough who don't buy in to it, that we shouldn't attempt the hybrid.
That's a bit sad for me.
I accept it, and I even agree with it.
I believe it's the right decision.
I was just hoping it would work.
And yet, every time the overseers or others on the pastoral team asked me whether I felt God was calling me to this new thing, I said Yes, without ambivalence or equivocation — and that I need to do this even if not as a hybrid at SCC. So my request to be released within SCC to do the new thing became a request to be released from SCC to do the new thing. And while I’m sad for what that means to my relationship with this church, I know God is in this and I buzz with enthusiasm to see this new thing begin to develop.
And that is a good place to describe what I’m talking about.
The New Vision
This is still fluid — I’m not claiming to know what it becomes, but I do have a vision for what it is: A network of microchurches meeting in people’s homes throughout Sarasota or as far as relationships can reach, designed around a very simple and reproducible, low cost model of being church.
Many talk about this as a Disciple Making Movement, or a Multiplying Movement, or the House Church Movement or Microchurches or Simple Churches. Sometimes I say tinychurches but it’s all the same thing. It's not a small group ministry that you add on to church, it is church.
And it’s nothing new, but for some reason God seems to be breathing new life into it.
I know of five other pastors being called to leave conventional church models for this. There’s books and podcasts and even the national church growth conferences are now focusing on multiplication. And yet, there’s not just one way model for how to do it. So I've been chewing on this for awhile, trying to think what it would look like.
What catches me is the simplicity of it. It’s simple, relational, reproducible, flexible, sustainable.
And perhaps most intriguing is that it’s original — not with me, but it's closer to how the early believers gathered. So I think it’s a good pattern to go back to, to see what God wants to do in this new season.
As I’ve boiled this down in prayer to the simplest defining agreement of this network, I describe it as ONE PATH, FOUR DEVOTIONS and TWO LOVES.
We have ONE PATH.
We follow Jesus as Lord.
That’s our Faith.
We have FOUR DEVOTIONS.
We gather weekly in our homes, or at a park, or the beach or wherever, to devote ourselves to the same four things the first believers devoted themselves to in Acts 2:42 — the apostles teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and to prayer.
This is our practice.
And then we have TWO LOVES.
This is our mission.
The way we know we’re on mission is that we’re “loving God… and our neighbors...” And the measure of our effectiveness is not how God or people respond, but by how much we love.
This mission will lead us to help to meet tangible needs as well as spiritual. If loving God with all we are leads us to throw a worship service somewhere, we do it! We’re on mission.
If loving our neighbor with all we have leads us to buy groceries for someone, we do it. We’re on mission.
And if we discover that we have hope in Christ that our neighbor needs, or wisdom that we have from God, or even a challenge we might have from scripture, we "love them with all we have." We’re on mission.
So, what’s our plan? To love God with all we are and love our neighbors with all we have.
And what’s our five year plan? To love God with all we are and love our neighbors with all we have.
What’s our ten year plan? To love God with all we are and love our neighbors with all we have.
So that's how I think about it: ONE PATH, FOUR DEVOTIONS, TWO LOVES.
And I believe that’s enough for this to be more than enough.
And I suppose that’s also enough of a description for here. The other details probably belong in a meeting specific to that, but I wanted to explain to you what I’m being called to do.
Next week the interim pastor will explain what he hopes to see happen here while searching for a lead pastor.
Again, the timing of this transition is still being figured out.
I’ll close with these scriptures.
John 14:6, "Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.' "
Acts 2:42-47 "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer...All the believers were together and had everything in common...Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
Matthew 22:37-38 " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
May this be true of us wherever we’re found.
This Sunday we'll gather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. This single truth changes everything: Jesus is alive! That would be significant if he had never died. But it takes on a whole new significance when we realize that he did die.
It's one thing to never die but it's another to die and live again. Jesus died and came back to life.
So, on Easter we'll celebrate him coming back to life. But two days before that, at our Good Friday Service, we'll gather in memorial of his death.
I can't bring myself to say that we "celebrate" the death of Jesus (I spoke to that last fall in my teaching, "Body Broken For You.") but we certainly gather in celebration of what it accomplished. And even if for a moment we gaze uncomfortably at Jesus on the cross, we do it with the comfort of knowing that not only is it empty, but so is the grave that received him from the cross.
But let's not move too quickly through it. There is value in the remembrance part. In fact, as we prepare to "do this in remembrance of him," let's all take time to read again each of the gospel accounts that describe this holy week. I invite you to read one account each day:
Read it to remember the story so that when we all gather in remembrance, the story is near to your heart and familiar in your thinking. And I pray that the Holy Spirit will give you understanding as you honor him in this.
So, this is our observance of holy week.
Each day read one of the gospels.
Then, Friday let's gather in sober reflection, 7pm on site and online.
Finally, Sunday let's gather in joyful celebration, 10AM on site and online.
May the Lord be honored,
It's an odd question: Has God blessed you? How we answer it depends more on how we see life than what we have in life.
The other night as I was falling asleep I just began to thank God for all the blessings in my life: "Thank you Lord that I can breathe. Thank you that I can see. Thank you that I can hear... read... think... feel pain... feel pleasure... walk... speak..."
I thanked God for people I get to be in relationship with. I thanked God for people in my life who are easy to love, and for the people who exhaust me, who challenge me, who cause love to feel like a work out.
I thanked God for prosperity and scarcity at different times in my life -- sometimes both at the same time but in different sectors of my life. I thanked God for food on the table and a roof over my head and wheels between me and the road.
I thanked God for everything I could think of, even things I can't think of right now.
When we pause to thank God for everything, it orients our whole life in worship.
When we participate in offerings at church, we often set it up as a gift of thanks. And it is. But let's just admit that it's a weird concept to say that we give thanks to God for his gifts by giving some of it back. I mean, we don't do that with people. Why would we do it with God?
But when we talk about tithing,, we often say it that way. We talk about giving some of the blessings back to God as a way of saying thanks. I've said it that way often. I learned it somewhere along the line. But it's just weird, right?
I think there's a better way to say it:
The offering is how we share God's blessings.
Rather than just letting go of money, we should bless others with it.
Use God's blessings to bless others.
When we learn to live this way, we start to see how often the $10 we received is because someone else received $100 and gave some to us. And it came right when we needed it. And we counted it as a gift from God.
And we learn that the dozen roses were given as an expression of love from someone else who had just been encouraged. And the sandwich we just received is often 90% of someone else's sandwich who really didn't need to the whole thing to survive.
God has blessed each of us in various ways. And anything he has given us should be used to also bless others. This is the best way we can say thanks.
Bless God by blessing others with the blessing you have received from him.
The better question is this: "How has God blessed you?" And the extension of that is this: "In what way has God blessed you with enough that you can bless others?" This is the heart behind tithing, and participating in offerings. As scripture says, the goal is not that one person would receive too much and another person would go without, but that there would be equality in meeting the needs of the family of God.
On March 14 we'll collect a Generosity Offering.
We take up two generosity offerings a year as a way of supplying for the ministries at SCC. Our church is very seasonal, and this allows people who attend here during the winter months to help with the costs associated with it. Any help is appreciated.
So my appeal is this. If God has blessed you with more than you need, would you share it with the family of believers at Sarasota Community Church? Just bring a gift in keeping with the blessing we have received.
Yesterday I challenged everyone to read through James this week. Look for every occurrence of the word "brothers" or "brethren" or the phrase "brothers and sisters" and pay attention to what it says when it says it.
I said to write down what it says, then do what it says.
Now, to be clear, "brothers and sisters" is rarely the point. It's the context of the point. If you received a letter from me addressed to you personally, the point of the letter wouldn't be "dear you." The "dear you" would say how you're to hear it. Similarly if you received a letter from me addressed to "Members of Sarasota Community Church" it creates context about how to hear it.
In this we're reading things addressed (so to speak) as "dear brothers and sisters," or "dear family."
I'll walk through the first chapter, just to give an example of how I would do it.
Example #1: Verse 2
2Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
Just thinking out loud about that, I notice that James starts out his letter writing about trials. And when he does, he addresses his comment to us as "brothers and sisters." And then he says that not only do we need to persevere in trials, but there is value in the perseverance it produces for us. We can read that as a personal challenge or lesson, which it is of course, but we can also read it as family.
He is writing to us as family of his. And he is writing to us as family of each other. When we face trials, we do it as family.
What does it say to do as family? Persevere under trial. We might add "as family" or "together." So I might write it as this: "Persevere together under trial." And today I will do that with whatever I face.
Example #2: Verse 16
16Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
As I read that, it doesn't really sound like the gifts of God are a threat of deception, so I read what comes before it to see if the statement is referencing what has already been said. And sure enough, verses 13-15 help it make sense:
13When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. 16Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters...
How I think it through, James is writing about temptation, and the threat of deception, and he addresses it in the context of family. There must be value in recognizing and resisting deception together.
So what is he saying to do? "Make sure you're not deceived by temptation." And if I add the "family" or "together" emphasis, I might write it out as this: "Together, watch out for deception so that you don't give into temptation." And I prayerfully renew my devotion to do that today.
Example #3: Verse 19
19My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry...
Again, thinking out loud: When James writes to us about how to hear better, and how not to lose our temper, it seems obvious that he'd put it in the context of relationship. But I wonder how often we try to conquer these things on our own? What if we actually looked to each other as family to help each other do those things? What if we actually confessed our short comings to each other? What if we said, "I'm sorry, I was too quick to criticize," or "I should've listened to what you were saying before I answered." And what if we said, "I don't feel like you've really heard me. Can I have your undivided attention to really hear what I'm saying, and then I'd love to hear what you have to say about it." What if the family of believers was the context in which, not only are our shortcomings magnified, but where they're overcome?
That's how I think this through.
So what is James saying to do? "Don't talk over each other, and don't be so quick to perceive insult or lose your temper. Instead, take time to listen to each other as family." And so I take that to heart today, not just to study it, but to actually do what it says. This will affect how I converse with people. It should.
So that's how I do the first three occurrences in James. Read the rest of James for yourself.
Learning to study scripture is worth your time, and not beyond your reach.
Study not just to learn what it teaches. Study to do what it says. And in this week's lesson, learn to notice what scripture says about being "brothers and sisters" in Christ. And then put it to action.
Again, if you didn't hear yesterday's message yet, you can watch it here.
Your brother in Christ,
Yesterday, after the message, someone thanked me for the strong message. Another said it's the best sermon they've ever heard. Someone else thanked me for preaching the hard truth. But then a close friend of mine asked me: "But do you think people are hearing what you're saying?"
I live with that question.
Here's what I've been saying.
The times are hard, and hard times call for patient endurance. It may feel like the world is falling apart, but we should receive this as encouragement that we are in the Last Days. Just make sure that you're a Follower of the Way and not just just a follower of a spiritualized version of the American Dream. The American Dream is great, but it's not the gospel. The gospel is not about just having a better life.
In fact, if you want to grow your faith, devote yourself to these four things: the apostles' teachings, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and to prayer. That is the simplest expression of what it means to be Church! And yes, that highlights the fact that our larger view of church is pretty narrow. We tend to come to church for a worship experience that we enjoy. We get that wrong about worship: worship isn't for you, it's from you. Worshiping God is giving him our entire life.
But we tend to see church as something that helps us get better. And it does, I'm sure. But I think the way we've been doing church has, in some ways, made us worse rather than better.
I keep an eye on the Church. And as I see how attached we are to our above ground systems and structures, I wonder: Would our faith survive underground if it had to? That's a disturbing thought because I'm afraid it wouldn't. Like, I'm afraid that if any of the things we call "church" were taken away, our faith would feel very unfamiliar to us. If we ever had to abandon the sacred things we've made out of "stone, wood, and paper," I wonder if we would feel abandoned by God.
That thought burdens me because, for many, I think the answer is Yes, we would feel abandoned by God. And we just might abandon our faith.
So that's why I keep preaching what I'm preaching about why God has been shaking the Church. He's trying to show us a better way. He's inviting us to a better practice of our faith, and to (I think) a better imagination of what it means to be Church.
There's so much wrong with the Church -- meaning the way we do church. We have run ourselves ragged under a "church growth model" where we think that increasing the size of an organized body of believers with a mission statement, is the same as making disciples. (It's profoundly not.) And because of that confusion, we have become dependent on pastors and the programs they're able to produce, as if that's the solution to this world's problems. If things go bad, hire a better servant. And now we have weak (worn out) pastors and weak (lazy) parishioners to show for it.
I'm not complaining about you for me; I'm fine.
I'm "complaining" about us for God; we're not fine!
And so I believe that he has brought this shaking of our faith to show the quality of our faith. And much of the things that we relate to as faith are failing under the shaking.
I pray that we don't squander this opportunity to build faith well. Because I don't think the shaking is over. That's just my sense. I believe there is danger ahead. It's a storm that will cause the faith of many to slide off of the road, and the love of many to grow cold.
But, like I said yesterday, it's not a storm that's coming, it's a storm that's already here. It's up ahead, in the pass between here and where we're going. And if we keep on going like we're going, we're going to suffer loss for it.
I know it's a sober word.
When I read yesterday what Paul said in Acts 27:21-25, I had the sense that the same could be said for most churches in this season: "We are going to suffer loss to the structures and systems that have been carrying us, but God has graciously given us the lives of all who remain true to him."
I'm not sure how long I'll keep having to bring this message, or how long people can bear it. And I don't know if it's possible to "pastor" a church with a hard message week after week -- like I don't know if people will tolerate it for long. But I also don't believe it's possible to "pastor" a church without doing what I can to protect it from any danger I see.
And all I know is that, week after week, when I ask him to give me a message of comfort, he keeps impressing upon me to bring a message of warning. And so I do.
Am I claiming to speak as a prophet?
I'm not predicting the future. I'm speaking only as one who is looking into the sky and seeing evidence of a storm brewing. And who is looking up ahead and seeing that the storm is already here. Call it what you will. I think of it as discerning the scriptures, discerning the times, making observations, and hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches. And declaring what I believe is God's will.
These days it's a hard message. But it's not doom and gloom. If you have opportunity to laugh and enjoy life, do it! I'm able to find joy in many things these days.
But don't forget to be sober-minded about these things. We shouldn't be hyping each other up with a message that everything's going to be fun if we just believe. Our message is one of hope that, whatever God brings tomorrow, he will be faithful in it, and those of us who are faithful through it will see the day after "tomorrow."
So we live with sober concern about what we face, and a reasoned joy about what we will see.
We are not yet as we should be. I don't say that as an indictment as much as an assessment. We have been given everything we need for living a godly life. So let's do that. And let's toss off everything that so easily entangles.
Thank you for listening.
I take the responsibility very seriously, and am intent on not squandering your attention. I know that I'm one of many that you get to listen to. And I'm also aware that most people don't hear everything I say. And everyone forgets most of what I say.
This week would you take 5 or 10 minutes with each of the following sermons to refresh your memory? (They're the same as I linked to above.) They represent 12 messages that I want to make sure you've heard. Just listen long enough to be reminded of what I said. And if you realize that you haven't heard one yet, listen the whole way through. I believe this is developing a complete thought that we should all be considering personally and corporately.
If you didn't hear yesterday's message would you please take time to do so? It's important to the conversation we're having as a church. And it sets up things I need to say next.
Click here to watch the 25 minute version.
I had to say what I said because some of the things we have seen as essential to the practice of our faith simply didn't fare well under the shaking of the past year. The disruptions have been a test of our faith. But it's not only a test to see whether we will keep the faith. It's a test of the quality of our faith. It's a test to see if what we have built into our life survives the trials of life.
Some parts of our faith failed the test.
As I've watched Christians from various traditions and every walk of life respond to the disappointments of the past year, many have a faith that's pretty wobbly. It doesn't survive the shaking.
I don't mean that as condemnation, but as the grace of truth.
As human beings we're very resilient. When something falls over we stand it back up. When something falls apart we patch it back up. But some things shouldn't be stood back up. Some things shouldn't be patched back up.
And so I felt it necessary to name three things that should not be picked back up. At least, if you do pick it back up, let it be that you prayerfully considered the correction and determined that God wanted you to pick them back up.
To be clear, it's up to each of us to decide whether we do.
But I'm saying we shouldn't.
What do you think?
Did these things stay strong under the testing?
Did they fulfill their promise?
Were they elastic enough to not tear and strong enough to not shear?
And I guess the most telling question for any of us is this:
If anything about our faith failed the test, can we bear the thought of building something better that can't be shaken?
Again, listen to the whole teaching for understanding. But I'll tell you right now what the three things are. These were revealed by the shaking as not able to survive the shaking.
Now, I heard lots of amens on the first and second ones. I figured I would. And yet I'm sure some were offended. It may be that they heard me to say something I didn't say, or that they really do believe the first two are essential to our practice of the faith.
But the third one was pretty quiet. I expected it to be.
Let me clarify briefly for each of the three things. I want to make sure you know what I'm not saying, so that you can hear what I am saying.
1. I personally voted for the candidate whose policies most lined up with my moral convictions and fiscal sensibilities, and that's not what I mean by having "hope in earthly kingdoms."
I'm actively interested in politics, and have my own opinions about the next four years. I think it's good for Christians to be engaged wherever we have civil responsibility. That's not what I'm talking about when I say "hope in earthly kingdoms." We can participate in the political process without putting our hope in earthly kingdoms. But we must not put our hope in earthly solutions to address spiritual problems. We are already receiving an eternal kingdom. And it is not represented by any earthly kingdom even if there is a nominal association with it.
2. I believe God heals, and God provides, but not always.
Lazarus was raised to life the first time he died, but he wasn't the second time he died. We all die. That means that every single one of us will one day experience the finality of God's decision to not heal us of whatever fatality befalls us. (That is, if we're not still alive when he returns.)
God doesn't always heal. In fact, God always doesn't heal, at least once in our lives.
Likewise, the faith chapter (Hebrews 11) mentions heroes of the faith who went about destitute, living in caves, some of them never receiving what they earnestly believed for, and yet they are listed as exemplary of what it means to have faith.
God doesn't always provide the things we ask for.
So, I don't believe that when someone gets sick or dies or loses money, it is attributable to a lack of faith. And I'm sad at how this "prosperity gospel" has lulled so many Christians into an expectation that if we have enough faith we won't have to suffer for our faith. That's the exact opposite of what scripture says.
3. Buildings and programs serve a purpose, but they are not essential.
My family lives in a building, and has various "programs" that help us accomplish the things of being a family. We call the building a house, and our programs are jobs, and a budget, and schedules, and a commitment to mow the lawn regularly.
The house and programs serve a valuable purpose. But having a house is not essential to being a family. It's just helpful. If the house goes away, we are still family. If the jobs go away, we are still family. "For better or worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part."
When we consider this, it helps us to realize what it really means to be family. And it helps us to make better decisions about things like houses, jobs, budgets, schedules, and commitments.
It's the same with the church. Buildings and programs serve a purpose, but they are not essential. If the building goes away we are still church. If the programs go away we are still church.
Until we can openly consider this, and allow it as fully true in our thinking, we will make bad decisions about buildings and programs. But when we remember that without them we are still church, we will be able to make good decisions about buildings and programs.
I'd love to hear from you about any of the above three things, but I'm especially asking you to engage with me about the third one.
What fears and hopes do you have when you hear me talk about buildings and programs not being essential? I ask because three weeks ago I said that we were starting a conversation as a church about this. And I mean that. I want it to be a conversation.
If you weren't here for that annual meeting, or if you just want to be refreshed on it, email me and I'll send you a link to the video of it. This conversation affects who we are as a church, and what we attempt to do as a church. I'd hate to make such decisions without you in the conversation.
So, watch the video from yesterday, and comment below about any of the above. And yeah, I'll be saying more about this next week. :)
Our annual members meeting is Sunday, January 10, at 5pm in person and online. We'll present a budget for the members to approve. But not unrelated to that, we'll look at last year and make plans for the coming year.
Anytime we talk money, or facilities, or business at all, we're talking mission. And anytime we talk membership, we're talking mission together.
Membership means we're in this together.
Of all the additional meetings we might ask of you, the annual members meeting is the closest we get to "mandatory."
This Sunday night you'll be asked to decide the budget for 2021 (which you'll get by email this week). But more importantly, we are beginning an active discussion about what is and isn't working, and what changes we need to make or avoid.
Even if you haven't officially become a member, if you consider yourself part of SCC's core group (meaning if you care about SCC), you shouldn't miss this. I know it's tempting to just let others attend and then report to you what happened, but that won't be as accurate as you being part of it. It also cheats others out of your perspective.
For that reason, we're making it so that everyone can attend in person or online. If you watch online, the chat feature will be active and we'll have someone in person to give the people on site a sense of the conversation online as needed.
We'll do our best with that. You just show up ready. Deal?
But what is this "conversation" anyway?
The sermons I've been preaching are setting up a very important conversation that we're getting ready to have as a church.
My "2020 Hindsight" sermon from December 27 set it up. This week's sermon, "What's Wrong With The Church," continued it. In both of them I made strong statements.
This coming Sunday morning I'll add to the conversation with a sermon called "What's Wrong With Your Pastor." If you've ever had a grievance with your pastor, this is for you. If you've never had a grievance with your pastor, this is for you. It continues the thought about why we do church like we do, and how I believe God is calling us to do better.
But I want to be clear: While these sermons are addressing and challenging things in the larger Church that need to be corrected, I'm also trying to expose how we've been affected (and sometimes infected) by the same things. And so, this Sunday evening's conversation will build off of all three sermons, and will be frustrating to follow if you haven't come prepared. So make sure that you've heard all three teachings (Dec 27, Jan 3, and Jan 10) before next Sunday night.
I know I didn't answer specifically what this "conversation" is, but if you pay attention to those three teachings, you'll start to get a sense.
Leaving it a bit mysterious.
Just do your homework. :)
Please pray for your overseers and pastors.
The affairs of our congregation are vested in this board of directors that we call the “Board of Overseers.” They provide oversight of our spiritual welfare, as well as the fiduciary, legal and financial affairs of the congregation. And the pastors are are assigned with the ministry of it.
Several months ago, in September, while discussing a year of uncertainties and facing a new year of opportunities, the overseers and pastors decided to "fast" from business meetings for three months and devote ourselves to prayer. Thank you to those who participated.
Tonight we reconvene to look over the budget for 2021. It's about as "businessy" as it gets.
But it's also as "missional" as it gets.
Our budget lives as a description of what we think is the best way to fulfill our mission while living within our means.
Several years ago we started using the actual income and expenses of one year to create the budget for the next. This both creates and relieves tension for me.
Throughout most of my ministry, the budgeting process has been treated as a "visioneering" process, where we're encouraged to dream prayerfully about what we'd like to do. And then from that we create a stretch budget that's within reach if everyone digs a bit deeper. The unspoken assumption of this process is that ministry takes money, so if we want to do more ministry we need more money.
But that has always created tension for me.
The unavoidable truth we all know is that we can be church without spending any money on doing church.
Seriously, if two or three believers meet in a living room, they are church.
So to tie money to ministry and ministry to money, and then to try to get everyone to give a little more money, has always created some tension for me. And the process of simply carrying over actual numbers from one year to the next has relieved that tension.
But it also creates tension because it lends itself to decline, not growth. Things we once valued get dropped for lack of funds. And then they get forgotten for lack of perceived opportunity. It's harder to drop something than to put it back in. Without tension we don't grow.
Scripture clearly says that money should be collected and used for specific things.
If we really take our cue from scripture, it gets pretty radical. Honestly I wonder how many of us would vote for a budget prepared to fulfill the following:
We “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse” (Malachi 3:10), holding it “in common” (Acts 2:44) to cover the expenses of fellowship and worship (Deuteronomy 14:22-24), by putting it “at the apostles’ feet” to be “distributed to anyone who has need” (Acts 4:35), so that there are “no needy persons among us" (Acts 4:34), as we "look after orphans and widows in their distress" (James 1:27), and support those who “direct the affairs of the church” and “especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” so that they “receive their living from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14; 1 Timothy 5:17-18), even supporting missionaries to do the same for others (2 Corinthians 11:8).
How does that hit you?
We're okay financially.
Our expenses were covered for 2020. We'll bring a report on Sunday night. But by all indications, our needs were more than met this year. Hallelujah. Praise God. We're okay financially. And I am encouraged that God has seen fit through your generosity to sustain us. Amen.
And we don't have any big bombs that are waiting to drop. After a year of shaking, we are not facing great failures like some churches are dealing with. We're okay.
But we're not "okay" in other ways. Or maybe we are. It all depends on what we're trying to do and be. In fact, depending on what we decide, we might be way more than just "okay." We may be positioned to do something incredible.
That's what we need to start talking about Sunday night.
And I can't wait.
In yesterday's message I read extensively from a prayer that I prayed on July 19. I said that I would put it here in my weekly blog. You'll find it below. But first, some context.
I believe God wanted to use 2020 to prepare us for something better than what we had been doing.
You'll hear this reflected in my prayer journal entry from five months ago. But I don't think my prayer caused it. I think it recognized it.
I believe the Spirit of God is moving among many, fanning something to flame, and that it is going to be good, even if the burning up of what has been causes discomfort.
Tonight is our last of six prayer nights that we have devoted to discerning our future together.
We started it in October and have now spent five evenings praying silently together, guided by questions and statements.
This evening at 7pm we will open our mouths. We will pray as the Spirit leads. I want to hear how he has been inspiring you to pray. And I want you to hear how he has been inspiring others to pray. This is a vital piece to our discernment together.
So please, if you are at all able, join together for prayer, tonight at 7pm, either in person at the church or online. And let's expect God to move.
And now, how I've been praying.
On Sunday July 19, I wrote this in my prayer journal:
“Lord, I pray that this is a shaking.
"Shake the world. Shake your Church. Shake us so that whatever is poorly built crumbles. Let whatever of our systems and confidences that doesn’t belong, or that no longer serves its purpose — let it succumb to the shaking. Let the surface cracks form under the stress. Let the cracks run deep. May they fill with water and soften the mortar and dry rot the wood so that the failure is more than cosmetic, deeper than stucco.
“Yes Lord, whatever does not belong, let it give way quickly to this shaking. Cause the foundation to heave; let it rise and fall a second time; may it fall the third time before rising up powerfully, even rising to prominence on the global landscape. But not the prominence of castles and celebrities. Lord, cause the name of Jesus and the foundation of his authority to rise up suddenly out of the rubble. I wait for this Lord. I wait for this!”
I wrote out the words of 1 Corinthians 3:10-23,
“...Each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
"Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.
"Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become ‘fools’ so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’; and again, ‘The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.’ So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”
My spirit resonated in agreement:
“Yes Lord. Yes Lord!
“A castle is a fortified residence from which rulers rule, protected by walls [and] moats... A palace is a luxurious residence for royalty surrounded by plush gardens... But a temple is a building devoted to the worship of God, and regarded as the place of his dwelling.
“Yes Lord! 1 Corinthians 3:16. Yes Lord.
I prayed again with increasing focus, knowing the impact of what I was asking:
“Let the castles and palaces stand empty, in disrepair. Let them be shaken. Let their walls crack and crumble. May all who find shelter in them run for safety. May they take the scriptures and the doctrines and the gospel witness, even the testimony of your grace throughout the ages, clutching them close as they flee. And may those found wearing robes of ancient tradition not stop to disrobe. And may those found wearing the coveralls of knowledge and wisdom not stop to remove them.
"But let all who are decorated with the jewelry of self-interest, self-lordship, and the lording of themselves over others; and the costumes of importance and prestige; who carry the blueprints and maintenance schedules of castles and palaces; who are attended by servants conscripted from their brothers and sisters, having convinced them it is a means to worldly gain; who teach man-made doctrines and tolerate wickedness — may they rip the clothes from their body as if entangled by them! May they thrash in panic to free themselves from them! May they run naked into the streets to be covered in dust and repentance, to be washed by the water of your word, to be clothed in righteousness.
“Lord, by your decree, cause the castles and palaces to be shaken apart, to be revealed by the fire. Cause the foundation of Jesus to show itself without crack. And may the living temple of God be established on it without pomp and circumstance, but rather with an eruption of praise and devotion."
I finished my prayer that day with these three appeals:
“Restore your Church.
“Rebuild your temple.
“Renew our love.”
It's those same three appeals that I invite you to pray with me.
I have plenty of ideas about what God is calling us to. A lack of ideas is never my struggle. But to not run ahead of God in my desire to do something significant or to lag behind God for fear of disappointing people--this requirements discernment, and that invites the prayers of many.
And so I invite you to help discern our future together. What is God calling us to in 2021?
I ask you to pray this pray with me because I believe God is going to answer it. And when he does, those who have not seriously prayed it will perceive his answer as a devaluing of things they value. But those who pray it eagerly, even if his answer disrupts things we have enjoyed, will rejoice at how he is restoring his Church, rebuilding his Temple, and renewing our love--in ways we wouldn't have thought possible a year ago.
Sunday I called this the start of a conversation. It actually started some time ago. It starts with prayer.
It's all my children have ever known. For years and years, we have been part of hosting a Christmas Eve Worship Service.
We go to church, we sing songs, we hear from scripture, we light candles while singing Silent Night, then we blow them out and wish our church family a merry Christmas.
And for me, when I blow out my candle, it signals a shift in my thinking. At that moment I stop carrying ministry responsibilities and start simply being a husband, a dad, a grandpa, a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend.
The Christmas Eve service fills my heart with love, joy, and peace. But what my family does after that worship service was actually born out of exhaustion.
We go out to eat.
We started it when we had multiple Christmas Eve services that followed Christmas Concerts, and children's programs, and year end parties, and all that stuff. But even when we found a better balance in life, we still continued to go out to eat after the Christmas Eve service.
We've done it for years. We pick one of the two or three restaurants that are open, and there we slink cheerfully into our chair, waiting patiently for the overworked staff to prepare our food. We're usually a small crowd, but we make it a point to bless our servers as they bless us. Then we tip them generously and head home.
Once at home, we open one gift from under the tree. It's always the same gift but we pretend we don't know what it is. Then, we eventually head to bed to rest up for a wonderfully full time of family the next day.
That's how we do Christmas Eve. I love Christmas Eve. And I know I'm not alone.
We may all have different traditions that surround it, but for so many of us the Christmas Eve service marks a time of sacred remembrance about the Incarnation. Even for those whose faith doesn't order their life much at other times, the Christmas Eve candle lighting service is a religious rite that makes the season feel just right.
This year we're not going to do that.
This year we're not meeting at the church.
This year we're not going out to a restaurant.
And it was my decision.
I'm not a fan of my decision to not have an in-person Christmas Eve service. And I know I'm not alone. But there's a reason for it.
There haven't been many easy decisions this year regarding whether and how churches should limit gatherings to help slow the spread of the virus. And the fact that it's politicized complicates the decision.
We all have our opinions about whether churches should "be open" or not. My sense is that our church is pretty much in the middle about it. That's where I am.
We take the virus as a serious threat that is worthy of precaution and prudence. (We've lost friends and family to it.) But we also believe fellowship with other believers is worth some level of risk. So we try to strike a balance.
That's why our campus is open for worship services. But a month ago we were looking at an uptick in Covid cases in our area, and our crowds were starting to grow with the return of our winter friends from the north. (In fact, we're still not sure what to expect of our winter crowds.)
Christmas Eve is typically a large service for us. And I can imagine a scenario where we would have to turn people away when we still have physical seating available. And I can also imagine a scenario where we decide to offer multiple services (as some of my pastor friends are doing) and then hardly anyone shows up because they want to avoid the crowds.
It was a decision without a clear right or wrong. But it was still a decision that had to be made. And it wasn't all about Covid.
As I was considering it, I was also considering my conviction that, as Christians, we don't need to crowd into auditoriums to really worship God. In fact, this year has challenged our assumptions about that. And I believe that what's even more meaningful is the challenge of worshiping together in smaller fellowship groups.
Don't get me wrong. I love singing in a big crowd. And I'm aware that the presence of a crowd gives a sense of authority to the gospel as it's preached. I think there's a place for that. I also think it's easier to do that.
But I think learning to worship God in our living room is more important than learning to worship God in an auditorium. And so, part of my decision was to take advantage of this opportunity to help us grow deeper in the practice of our faith, and in our idea of what it means to worship God.
And so, I made the decision that isn't my personal favorite. But it's the one I stand behind because it has a reason bigger than Covid. In fact, it's actually using Covid to help us learn to worship in our homes. And to see worship as part of how we celebrate Christmas in our homes.
This year we're asking you to host the Christmas Eve service at your home.
If your family and friends are all believers, learn to be comfortable worshiping together when you're not at church.
But even if you're surrounded by people who don't share your convictions or passions, ask them to share something you find meaningful, even if just to be nice. And I'm not talking about tricking them into worshiping. (You can't do that.) I'm talking about you deciding that your living room will be a worship center in your life. And that it will be obvious to those you love that you don't just go to church; you have decided to live your whole life in worship of Jesus Christ.
The worship service will consist of songs and scripture, concluding in candle lighting while we all sing Silent Night together.
It will be hosted at 5, 7, and 11pm.
Pick whatever time works for you and gather your friends and family in your home. Or accept an invitation to their home. (Don't do more than you feel is prudent, but do as much as you feel is prudent.)
Setup your TV or other device to watch at https://sarasotacommunity.online.church.
I think the TV is best, but you can also gather around a laptop, or even meet in the same room together all watching your own phones. The goal is to honor God by gathering for fellowship and worship in a common place with your family and closest friends.
Turn off the lights and participate.
Sing along as the worship team leads us in "O Come O Come Emmanuel," "The First Noel," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "O Holy Night." Open your heart and mind to the scriptures as I read them. And then, as we conclude with "Silent Night," light a candle and pass the flame to the person next to you. As you do, pray blessing over them, that Christ would be formed in them, and that their lives would be filled with love, joy, and peace in the coming year.
Then do what you do to celebrate Christmas. And let it pour out of a heart that has worshiped the Lord.
My hope and prayer is that by doing this we will bring worship right into the rooms where we live, and right among the people with whom we do life. This is where worship belongs.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.