I Went For A Walk, That's All

I went for a walk, that’s all.
Feet bouncing with strength of youth,
Clothes neat and fresh on my back.
Scenery aging slowly
With years and fast with seasons.
Into the hills of heather,
Where trees are old and paths new.
Leaves crackle under my feet,
As I walk a path I know
Or at least I think I’ve seen.

Down a dusty dirt pathway,
A fond memory from youth.
Down the hillside of pebbles;
Slightly dangerous, but fun.
Down the scratchy forest trail
Through bushes best avoided.
Down the laughing ice-edged stream;
Getting wet, but what a tale!
Down to the valley in mud
Slickened by leaves and old rain.

Here I pause, just to take stock,
But going back is too much.
A walk must be a circle
Guided by vision and goals.
I won’t fail! And so proceed
With thoughts of stories well-told,
Faces lighting with wonder,
Hearts putting trust in my strength.
On for a new direction!
A pathway between the seas.

Tramping along valley floor,
No scenery, just boredom.
Tramping along valley floor,
Further and further from home.
Tramping along valley floor,
Aching joints and wet clothing.
Tramping along valley floor,
Wishing home were soon ahead.
Tramping along valley floor,
Maybe I’ll just live alone.

Then a cloud covers the sun.

And ankle twists on a rock.

And I just don’t like pancakes.

I plop into muck and sob.

Strange how hard it is to turn,
To leave wrong pathways behind.
We’d not believe it a strain,
Did not our lives display it.
I tightened wet shoes and belt,
Ignored the scrapes and blisters.
Allowed shame to take its course,
Till blood drained from reddened cheeks.
Wiping mud from seat of pants,
I turned.

The cloud still covered the sun.

My gait sported a slight limp.

My tears froze upon my face.

Tramping along valley floor,
Resolved not to live alone.
Tramping along valley floor,
Home still lying far away.
Tramping along valley floor,
Aching joints and wet clothing.
Tramping along valley floor,
Nearer and nearer to home.
Tramping along valley floor,
Still monotonous and cold.

Here I pause, just to prepare.
But staying is wholesale loss.
I recall each bush and tree,
Testament to backtracking.
Afraid I’ll break, I proceed,
With thoughts of bed and pillow,
Of hot meat and creamy milk,
Arms hugging around my waist,
Just happy we are both there,
A couple on an island.

Up the valley slick with mud,
Slipping on leaves and old rain.
Up the ice-edged stream, still wet,
The tale washed away by shame.
Up the thistled forest trail,
Warning before, scratching now.
Up the hillside of pebbles,
Knees bloodied and nothing fun.
Up the dusty dirt pathway,
New memories of wisdom.

Too dark to watch scenery
Along a path known too well.
Even so it is aging
Slow with years, fast with seasons.
Out of the hills of heather,
Where trees are old and paths new.
Home to my wife and children,
Relief flooding my tear ducts,
The pain of growth and wisdom.
I went for a walk, that’s all.


Outreach ideas at Third?

1. Always stay within Scriptural boundaries.
2. Continually pray for God’s guidance and blessing, for his will to be done and his glory to be shown.
3. Carefully assess what ministries the church is best prepared and equipped to do.
4. Strive for specific short-term goals and work to build toward certain long-term goals as well.
5. Be open to God’s guidance, whether it be through circumstances, clear calling, unexpected changes in people or resources, or new avenues to ministry.

These are the five tenets of the, “organizing principle for church outreach,” that I suggested in my last post. As promised, here are my thoughts on what this might look like in our church.

1. Always stay within Scriptural boundaries.
Our church is committed to this idea. Even when we debate each other, both sides have fidelity to God’s will as revealed in Scripture as their highest goal. Any discussions we have regarding outreach, then, will be continually checked for their faithfulness to the Bible.

2. Continually pray for God’s guidance and blessing, for his will to be done and his glory to be shown.
One struggle in any church is that a particular idea can take hold in people’s minds, and they assign it greater value than it necessarily deserves. For instance, a social worker might become very frustrated with a church for not having a developed domestic abuse response program. On the one hand, the social worker has a good point: domestic abuse is a serious and widespread problem and deserves attention and preparation. On the other hand, though, responding to domestic abuse is not necessarily the primary goal or role of the church. It is important that a church respond to various outreach ideas by prayerfully and biblically listening for God’s guidance, praying for wisdom, and praying for a clear direction. We are God’s sons: if we ask for bread, will he give us stones?

At our church, I think it would be good (and this may already be done, so I’m naming this as my thought, not a criticism) to be specific in praying for ways that we can do systematic corporate outreach. Sometimes it is a little too easy to lean on the idea of, “every member ministry,” and allow it to become, “every member a lone minister/ministry.” If we are in prayerful agreement about the primary outreach ministries of the church, we may be better able to organize ourselves in carrying out those ministries corporately.

3. Carefully assess what ministries the church is best prepared and equipped to do.
Assessment is hard, because there is a constant tension between what you WANT to do, and what you are best BUILT to do. To state it with a bit of absurdity, it does not really matter if the construction team wants to perform Swan Lake and the ballet team wants to build an office building. Organisms, be they individual or corporate, are best able to carry out the role they are best designed for.

At our church, sometimes I question how well positioned we are to do much neighborhood ministry in the short term. Most of our members are only here for a few years because they are in school, and then they leave. I think that if we are honest, we are not built to do much neighborhood ministry right now.

However, we ARE uniquely positioned to have a ministry of discipleship for future church leaders, and of outreach and discipleship for college students. We have a large seminarian population, and this population desperately needs the wisdom and criticism and correction of more experienced church leaders. Our church has several good things in place to work in this area, including sharing the evening pulpit, giving good feedback, and building mentoring relationships. We could probably make this even stronger, though.

We also have a growing number of college students. This population is extremely smart, and they are going through that exciting time of life when you ask all kinds of questions about who you were (your family, childhood, etc), who you are (your likes and dislikes and personality and character), and who you will be (what kind of man or woman, etc.). Our church is uniquely able to speak to them, because we have so many younger men and women who are strong and knowledgeable in their faith.

When we assess ourselves in this way, we start to get a picture of what we are best able to do. It is much like looking at my individual life and realizing that one piece of the way God expresses his purpose for me is through my gifts and talents. This is not to say that God cannot overcome weakness for his glory (for instance, did you know John Piper used to have serious stage fright problems?). However, those are special acts of God that are hard to prepare for. Responsibility demands that we do the best we can with what we have, like the servants given varying numbers of talents by their master.

4. Strive for specific short-term goals and work to build toward certain long-term goals as well.
If my assessment were correct (certainly open to debate), our short-term goals should reflect it. We might set a goal of getting a certain number of people involved in college outreach, or of starting a consistent and systematic program that will speak especially to college students. We might also look for further ways that we can be continually teaching and discipling each other in what it means to be a pastor. Our goal would be to develop wisdom and discernment for future church leaders to carry with them when they leave our church.

At the same time, we might have somewhat different long-term goals. We may not currently be well positioned to reach out the community, but that might change in the next 10 years. If several college students or young families form a core of local people living in the area and attending the church, they might eventually be well positioned to develop better outreach ministries to the local community. If our church sets this as a goal, we could support it by being intentional about helping people who intend to stay for the long haul in getting housing or jobs. We might also continue to encourage connections between those living near the church, to develop the sense of community there.

5. Be open to God’s guidance, whether it be through circumstances, clear calling, unexpected changes in people or resources, or new avenues to ministry.
Who knows what God can do! Even as we attempt to be wise in structuring strong outreach programs that express our church’s unique gifts and strengths, we should be open to new possibilities. Whether this includes new connections with overseas missionaries, or new uses of our space, or new members with strong gifting in an area not previously considered, we should always be flexible as we seek to spread the gospel as best we can using what we have.

Hopefully, organizing principles of this kind will help us be wise and discerning as we glorify God and seek faithfulness in our local church body.


Organizing Principle for Outreach

Learning about word definitions can be fun, but I especially like learning the definitions of phrases. Often you can communicate a more complex idea by combining words. Lately I have been thinking quite a bit about the concept of the, “organizing principle.”

An organizing principle is any concept or idea that helps guide decisions that you make. We all have lots of organizing principles, and they guide how we choose our favorite things, how we pick a job or career, or how we make friends. Even having an alphabetical filing system is making use of an organizing principle. Here are some other examples:

Every March, to the frustration of red-blooded males everywhere, the same thing happens. Millions of longtime sports fans, basketball lovers, and rabid favorite-team followers fill out their brackets based on careful observation, weighing the various factors of individual match-ups, and deep understanding of all the forces involved in college basketball. It is March Madness, baby!

Meanwhile, also every March, millions of mild-mannered, sweet-as-pie, reasonable and practical women who never watch sports on TV (why would you, when there are more productive things to be doing?) fill out their brackets. And of course, they almost ALWAYS beat the guys.

This drives men insane… but why? Is it because they dislike women, or are incapable of losing, or think that the college games were rigged by some nefarious female?

Of course not. It’s because men feel that they lost DESPITE having a superior organizing principle. Men make decisions about who will win games based on knowledge of the teams and knowledge of the game. Women make those same decisions based on whether they have good memories of being in that area (hm… I enjoyed Washington DC more than North Carolina, so I think Georgetown will win!), or which team has cooler uniforms, or which mascot is more imposing. Not sure you believe me? Here is the beginning and conclusion of this very thing straight from the heights of Christendom.

Here is another example. When you were a kid, this is how you decided what to wear: What do I want to wear today?

When you were in early high school, this is how you decided what to wear: What outfit will annoy my mom the most today?

When you were in late high school, this is how you decided what to wear: What will my friends think is cool, especially the cute girl who sits next to me in Western Civ?

When you were in college, this is how you decided what to wear: What takes the fewest seconds to put on? I’m late for class!

In all these cases, you were exercising different organizing principles to make your decisions. If you look a few posts ago, you can see how I am trying to do this same thing regarding which church to attend at different phases in my life. My organizing principle was this: What do I believe is God’s purpose for my church involvement at this time in my life? How can I best glorify him with this decision?

You might say that an organizing principle is a rule that helps you make a decisions.

Alright, that’s all well and good, but how do you make those same kinds of decisions corporately? In other words, how can this concept be applied in the local church?

A few friends have rightly called me out of late, because I have been lax in fulfilling my promise to share my thoughts regarding church outreach. So, here it is; my thoughts on creating an organizing principle for local church outreach.

1) Church outreach must submit to all Scriptural commands. Now, note that this does not mean that the principle must DO all things. Like individuals, individual churches cannot simultaneously conduct ministries in every possible realm of ministry. So, like individuals, they must make decisions about what they WILL do. However, they must fulfill Scriptural commands by not sinning, not compromising the gospel, and not creating unnecessary discord and disunity in the church. They must seek to proclaim the good news, and they should implement godly qualities and desires such as love for the brethren, compassion for the lost and for the poor, and productive use of the blessings God has given (people, money, time, talents, strengths, etc.)

2) Church outreach must be supported by continual prayer for guidance. It is far too easy to mobilize people through persuasive words and ideas that SEEM to line up with godly principles, but will be useless without God’s blessing. Like individual evangelism, it is not the program (or the individual) that brings about change in men’s hearts, but God. Prayer is needed to discern his will, to be affirmed of the rightness of his calling, and to be open to new concepts that he may bring forward.

3) Church outreach should begin with careful and thoughtful assessment. Mark Driscoll has said that it is useless to train someone to be a church planter if God has not given them the right talents and commitment and qualities, so his church-planting organization puts heavy emphasis on assessment. Our approach to outreach programs should do the same. We should carefully assess our churches resources (financial, talents, makeup, time constraints, location, strengths and weaknesses, etc.) BEFORE we lay out a plan for outreach.

Really, this is more intuitive than it sounds. Would you enter a NASCAR race driving a VW Bug? Would you try to enter the NBA draft if you were 5-5 and weighed 100 pounds?

However, sometimes churches have a habit of thinking that they have one particular mission when in fact it does not match an honest assessment of their situation at all. At my last church, we sometimes held on to the tired notion that we were going to reach the MSU campus for Christ, when in fact we did not have the right time, talent, money, or people to make that happen. However, we DID have an excellent ministry to many university employees and their families, as well as a few college students who appreciated family atmosphere more than big exciting programs. When we recognized that fact, we were better able to serve the ministry God had given us, rather than talk about a ministry that we just could not do. Instead of trying to put on big dinners for college students, we started focusing on small groups in family homes. We soon saw the benefit of this more realistic approach.

4) Church outreach should have a specific plan for short-term success and a constructive plan to achieve long-term goals. Once assessment has been done, a church should try to build a plan that is honest about what it can do in the short term. A 30 member family church in Ann Arbor, Michigan probably will not be able to baptize 1000 inner city kids in the next 4 months.

However, they may be able to set up a solid mentoring program for a few international students attending the University of Michigan. At the same time, they can be taking steps toward a larger goal- for instance, they could seek to have 70 members within 5 years, or something like that.

Whatever the individual case, a church should be realistic about using the resources it has for its short-term goals, and also thoughtful about what it can accomplish with long-term goals.

Sometimes churches feel bad about this, as though they are failing their responsibility by not doing EVERY kind of ministry. One member might call a mentoring program into question because, “we should be out saving souls,” or another might be angered by the lack of a ministry to the poor even though the church does not have the financial resources to do such a venture.

However, it is important to recognize, that we are all individual parts of the Body. This is not just individual, as if EVERY church should have EVERY part of the body. It is also corporate; each church has a limited individual role within the larger kingdom of God.

5) Finally, a church outreach program should be open and flexible regarding new possibilities and the providence of God. Realistically, a small church may not feel prepared to take on a major outreach ministry to the local university. However, what if God providentially brought in 10 new members to the church, all of whom were especially well suited to college outreach? A church needs to be open to the new things that God may do in the hearts and minds and lives of its individual members. This does not necessarily mean creating a new ministry every time someone has an idea, but it does mean being prepared to make midstream changes should God so lead.

These five things may seem intuitive, or even obvious! They may well be, but it still helps me to write it out. That way, I can take a proposed idea (like a new ministry) and line it up against these rules to see whether it fits.

So then, though there may be some considerations that I’m missing, I would at least suggest that a church outreach program should do these things.

1. Always stay within Scriptural boundaries.
2. Continually pray for God’s guidance and blessing, for his will to be done and his glory to be shown.
3. Carefully assess what ministries the church is best prepared and equipped to do.
4. Strive for specific short-term goals and work to build toward certain long-term goals as well.
5. Be open to God’s guidance, whether it be through circumstances, clear calling, unexpected changes in people or resources, or new avenues to ministry.

In my next post –which should come much more quickly than this one did!- I’ll try to apply this formula to my local church in a rough way. By that, I mean that I do not know the situation intimately enough to say anything with certainty (I trust the elders and deacons to do that), but it will at least give an example of how this sort of organizing principle could be carried out.


A Prayer in Times of Frustration

You may have noticed in my last post that Riley asked how we (meaning our church, Third Avenue) can be doing outreach in our local community. Well, Riley is my deacon, and therefore in authority over me! I would not want to face his wrath, so my next post will seek to answer his question. I have already been meditating on the topic and outlining my thoughts, but they are not quite complete.

However, before that is finished, I wanted to share something else I wrote. This was written for a good friend in the midst of a time of significant frustration, and it caused me to reflect on my own tendencies when everything seems to go badly. Maybe it will speak to you, maybe it will not. It was valuable for me, though. Till next time!

A Prayer in Times of Frustration

I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about times of frustration and struggle; they happen to me all the time. I suspect it has a lot to do with getting into tight spots because of my own weaknesses. Still, I know how hard they can be. Do you ever get that feeling like your stomach is being sucked out and you’re afraid that the world will see how weak you are? Yeah, me too.

Problems seem to come from everywhere. Not only is that homework assignment late, but that friend is hurting and in need of counsel. Not only is the bank account low, but I overslept and missed an important class this morning. Not only am I having a fight with my wife, but I hurt my shoulder and it is slowing my ability to work. It seems like the scales are about to tip and I am about to be humiliated by the mess I have made of a perfectly decent life. I wish I were dead, or that I were living in a simpler world, or that something would happen to free me.

I wish there were quick solutions, but there really are not. So when you face those times, these are my prayers for you.

I pray for you situationally: Each stage of life has its own frustrations. God will bring you through the problems of this context and life situation. I pray that you will learn how to deal with its unique challenges and issues in a way that honors him in thought and deed.

I pray for you practically: Each of us has weaknesses that cause practical problems. I often become overwhelmed by workload, and need to prioritize my work and finish it in bits and pieces. Whatever your weaknesses, I pray that God will help you recognize them and come up with solutions to help you overcome them efficiently.

I pray for you physically: Health often has a lot to do with our approach to life. Not enough sleep, sickness, injuries, and other physical issues can frustrate us and make everything seem a little bit worse. For me, headaches and lack of sleep are common problems. My prayer is that God will give you comfort, allow you to learn to work through those things, and bring healing.

I pray for you mentally: Deadlines and frustrations cause all kinds of mental struggle. We are filled with anxiety as we survey seemingly insurmountable problems. We grow tired as we try to process too much information in too short a time, and often we simply check out and let things slide. I have had many times when there was so much on my mind that the only thing I could think to do was take a nap and take the hit to my grades or relationships, because I did not want to spend the time and focus needed to work through them. My prayer is that you will be able to pray and have patience in those situations, fulfilling your duties and trusting God for the strength to get through. Also, I pray that you will have a godly perspective, knowing what things matter and what things do not.

I pray for you emotionally: When lots of bad things are happening, emotions run wild. We feel like failures, we even hate ourselves. We compare ourselves to others and find ourselves wanting. We can go from extreme anger to extreme lethargy in a matter of moments, neither of which is healthy. We are afraid or embarrassed to talk to God. My prayer for you is that you would learn to see yourself as God sees you. With a godly perspective comes calm, for He is in control. As Christians we should be filled with joy and gratefulness for Christ’s work on the cross, and love and wonder for the God who saves. By focusing on these things, I pray that you will be able to work through and overcome times of emotional hurt and frustration.

Finally, I pray for you spiritually: Many times the root of our hurt and frustration and anger and worry is that we are either missing God or running from God. By this I mean that in my life, my problems begin when I am struggling with a particular sin. It eats away at me, hurting my view of myself and making me too embarrassed to talk to God. It cultivates a sense of inadequacy, and affects other areas of my life.

Even if I am not in sin, many times I am not nourishing myself spiritually. When I fail to pray, or read and meditate on God’s word, or worship, or spend time with God’s people, I quickly tire out. I lose motivation to live faithfully with the life God gave me, and I stop fulfilling my responsibilities. The problem here is not just a failure of my usually-iron will, and the solution is not to just, “gut it out.” Instead, I need to see my problem as spiritual, and use repentance and prayer and listening to the Word to return to a place of being nourished by God. My prayer for you is that you will see this need in yourself when it arises, and that you will have the wisdom to defeat it by leaning on God through repentance, change, and recommitment to obedience.

I pray these things for you because they are problems for me; I pray them because hard times are common to us all. May we together encourage and pray for each other, learning to love and honor God more and more as we seek to speak his gospel, advance his kingdom, and glorify him by living faithfully in this world.