Category Archives: Church Leadership

SERMON: Church Road Trip

I preached this sermon in the summer of 2012 to rally the congregation of  to make a deeper commitment to MainStreet and invest financially in our building campaign to move into our own space at Stonegate Plaza. 

A ROAD TRIP TO REMEMBER

It was spring break of 1998—my senior year of high school. Several of my best friends and I had our bags all packed and were about to embark on the trip of a lifetime.

We borrowed my dad’s conversion van, decked out with a tv and playstation, and drove across the country to Fort Pierce, Florida, where we spent some nights in a condo on the beach. Then we spent a day experiencing all the wonders of Disney World together. Disney highlights include: John getting pooped on by a bird and thereby earning a free t-shirt. Graham getting food poisoning at Mozarello’s. I tried flirting with a foreign vendor girl we called Anastasia…it was awkward! And we almost died when our van nearly collided with a tour bus going 75 mph on the Florida Turnpike. We already had enough shared memories to last a lifetime, but this trip was only just beginning.

Next, we drove to Miami where we boarded the Carnival Cruise ship The Ecstasy. I’ll leave out the story of blowing a tire in Miami rush hour traffic at 70 mph and nearly crashing into the center concrete divider. (For the sake of my parents’ reputation, I should add at this point the fact that we did have Dan’s parents chaperoning this trip in case you’re picturing a van full of unsupervised teenagers crossing the country.)

We finally boarded the ship and spent the rest of the week hopping the Caribbean islands, visiting the ruins of the Mayan civilization in Tulum, Mexico, experiencing the night life in Cozumel, and trying our best to snorkel in Key West where I almost died and ended up in the infirmary of the cruise ship with deep cuts and bloodied bandages up and down my legs.  (If you want more details, ask me later.)

Now if you ask any of us who shared this trip, we’d all agree it was a defining experience in our lives. Many years later we still share stories, quote funny lines, share inside jokes, and long to recreate the experience someday with a reunion cruise together.

So, what trips have you taken? What places have you explored?  What adventures have you shared with your family or a group of friends?  How have these trips left permanent marks on you? If we had time, we could spend hours sharing stories together—stories we would tell with great passion, excitement, shared experiences, nostalgia, emotion, joy and longing to do it again.

Now, what if these same adjectives, these same emotions, this same kind of passion, excitement and sense of adventure could characterize our shared experience as a church? What if joining a church was like joining a high paced, action packed adventure with a group of people who were set on “going someplace” together?

But if we’re honest with ourselves, many of us would never describe our past church experience in such a an exciting way.  Church has been a place we go to each week.  A building to enter. A set of rituals to observe or a club we belong to and to which we pay our dues. Church is often a static, motionless experience, a meaningless going through the motions out of a sense of duty.

But hopefully not at MainStreet.

A CHURCH THAT IS GOING SOMEWHERE

We hope that every Sunday you get the sense that we are a people who are determined to go certain places together. We want our Lifegroup gatherings and Sunday worship experiences to feel like a quick pit-stop to refuel our tanks and check out progress on our spiritual maps, and then we’re off again together to blaze a new trail, or scale another mountain, or cross another bridge, and reach another destination or goal in our mission in Mound. God help us to never become static. Stuck. Circling the wagons, maintaining church programs, and no longer going places together — both physically and spiritually.

Every church should be able to answer the simple question: Where is your congregation going together? What hopes and dreams, mission and vision are you moving toward together?  How much progress are you making toward reaching this destination?

Sadly, if you asked many churches that question, they would give you a blank stare and have no clue. They are just doing church. Going through the motions. Circling the wagons, and getting deeper and deeper in the rut as they repeatedly spin the tires and go nowhere.

When we open up the Book of Acts, it is exactly that—high octane, adventure filled activity, or acts. Its a travelogue of sorts, detailing the early apostles’ action packed road, off road road trip across the Roman Empire. The early church was a missionary tour bus, carrying the mission-minded apostles into unknown lands, unexplored terrain, encountering all kinds of new people and places, with a very clear but open ended itinerary.

In Acts 1 Jesus kicks the tires on the apostolic bus, and hands them a road map saying, “Start out in Jerusalem, then visit the outer skirts of Judea. After that, cruise out into the unfamiliar regions of Samaria, and finally, I want you to head west all the way to the ends of the Earth!”

Next the apostolic bus needs fuel to carry it across the entire known world, and so in Acts 2 the Holy Spirit is poured into the tank of the early church movement. And off they went—the little band of apostles, following Jesus’ itinerary and fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit with a message to the ends of the earth! It was the cross country road trip the world is still talking about 2,000 years later!

Now, let’s be honest. Some of you are here this morning visiting this brand new church because maybe you have grown frustrated with other churches you have attended that may have lacked a clear sense of direction and mission. Something deep inside you longs for a faith experience with harder edges, a spirituality with teeth, an experience with God that is even more exhilarating  than your last trip to the ocean or your vacation in the mountains. If Paris or Hawaii or the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls or the Egyptian Pyramids excite you more than God, I assure you that you have yet to come to know and encounter the True and Living God of the Bible!

We hope MainStreet will serve to help us all get swept up in the adventure of God, to foster regular life-changing encounters with Him in worship, through the preached Word, by serving others, and by fostering deeper Christian community.

A PIONEER’S FAITH IN A CONSUMER CULTURE

Before we move on to explore this “Church on the move” motif further, let me offer a slight detour. I have spent much of the past year reading some histories of pioneers. I have read a lot about the Swedish immigrants who came over to America in the late 1800s to put down roots and plant a new life in America.  I have read of the Swedish pioneering pastors who started the Mission Friends movement in America that gave rise to the Evangelical Covenant Church we are now a part of. Story after story plunges us into the experiences of adventure, grave sacrifice, hard work and perseverance in building towns and churches from nothing.

As many of you know, this summer we celebrate  the City of Mound’s centennial and I am helping plan an outdoor centennial worship celebration at Surfside Beach on July 22. I have the honor of giving the message at this historic occasion, and in preparation I have been reading up on the history of all of Mound’s churches.  In each case, there was a brave group of people who set out on a shared adventure, investing much and sacrificing dearly to bring into being these communities of faith to reach people with the love of Christ. They were pioneers who by necessity were either going somewhere, chasing a dream, building something new, or they would die trying. The pioneers were often driven by a very basic survival impulse. The pioneer family facing their first winter on the frozen shore of Lake Superior needed to find a way to survive. They had to build a shelter or freeze to death. They had to chop wood to burn or freeze to death. They had to find a way to grow crops or starve to death. They had to band together and form a community or live and die in isolation on the prairie.

These same pioneers brought the pioneer mentality and determination to the way they lived out their faith.  They pooled resources, sacrificed greatly and built and maintained little church houses with congregations of only 30 or so people. The pioneers and the couple generations after them were notoriously faithful to supporting their church. That’s how so many little country churches were able to build churches, and support a pastor’s salary with only a handful of members.

But, alas, we have come along way from the Pioneer faith of both the men and women in Scripture, and the men and women who immigrated to America in the 19th century. The challenge we now face is trying to live out a pioneer’s faith in a consumer culture.  

What is a “consumer culture”? Instead of sacrificing and building, we now shop around for the cheapest buy at the lowest personal cost. Whether its shopping for shampoo, finding cheap airfare or a new church, many people will choose the easiest, most convenient option that will cost them the least. This is fine when it comes to groceries or back-to-school shopping bargains, but presents a huge problem when we bring this mentality to our sense of church community and commitment.

American churches are all too often filled with people who act more like costumers in relation to their church than committed members. As long as the church provides a pleasing product each Sunday with great music and entertaining sermon, we stick around. But as soon as the church down the road begins to offer a better experience, we’ll take our “business” (or tithe) elsewhere.

Plus, we are bargain shoppers by nature, and many prefer a place that will cost them least and ask little of them. The preacher whose message is most appealing gains the most listeners, and the pastor who faithfully preaches the hard, often times offensive truths such as “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” and “go sell all of your belongings and come follow me,” this pastor’s congregation is growing smaller and smaller these days.

So many of us find safety and comfort in the back of a large auditorium at a megachurch where we can remain anonymous, show up when we want without being noticed, give occasionally as we’re able, and avoid being held accountable in our faith walk.

Where is all of this going? As we set out on this new adventure together as a church, and prepare to raise money and buildout our new worship space in the Stonegate Plaza this fall, I want to challenge MainStreet to resist the tide of the culture to approach our faith as consumers looking for the cheapest, most convenient church experience that is mainly about satisfying your desires and costs you little. We are want to call forth a pioneering spirit that has characterized so many giants of the faith—both in the Bible times and in our own times.

We are a pioneer church breaking new ground in Mound.  We are a people on the move, going somewhere together, and the destination is worth sacrificing to reach. We need to see this church as absolutely vital to the wellbeing of this city—just as the log cabin was vital to the survival of the pioneer family on the frozen tundra.

Now back to my senior trip in the spring of 1998.

BUDGETING FOR THE TRIP OF A LIFETIME

The only way I was able to experience that trip of a lifetime was to begin budgeting and saving for it months before we left town. For many months, even years, I worked and saved and put money in my vacation account. So when the time came, I was able to afford the trip and no miss out  on the adventure.

While every metaphor eventually breaks down, I want to simply invite all of us to ask the question: Do you want to be part of an amazing, life-changing, faith-stretching adventure at MainStreet in the days ahead? Do you want to be part of a church that is on the move, going somewhere together?

Do you want to help raise up a people who overcome obstacles, break through barriers, leap over walls, cross over bridges, scale mountain peaks, cross oceans, touch the sky, ride the moon, taste eternity, see heaven kiss earth?

Do you want to impact schools, transform neighborhoods, serve the poor, bring light into darkness and relieve suffering?

Do you want to outgrow meeting spaces, build new buildings, expand ministries, bring hope to the hurting, and see schools ignited on fire for Christ?

Do you want to see little home-based LifeGroups popping up in every neighborhood in town where people share a meal, laugh together, find encouragement, raise kids together, learn to follow Jesus better, and go out and serve together?

If this sounds like an adventure you don’t want to miss out on, then are you willing to invest financially in making it possible?

My Name Is Lucky: The Tale of Eutychus

Here’s an imaginative first person narrative sermon I prepared and performed back in April of 2013 about the strange story of Eutychus in Acts 20:7-12. Enjoy!

I remember it was early spring and unseasonably warm. It was just after Passover. I can still smell the warm, salted breeze coming off the Aegean sea, and hear the squalk of seagulls circling above. We stood on the hill overlooking the harbor and waited for the ship to appear on the horizon.  The ship was carrying the Great Apostle we had heard so much about.

The stories were unbelievable. In every city he visited remarkable things took place.  A cripple was healed in one city. A slave girl was freed from an evil spirit in another. He was worshiped as a god one moment and nearly stoned to death the next. Nothing matched the stories told about his time in Ephesus.  There his preaching upset the entire economy and started a riot in the theater one day. Another day his preaching led local occultists to burn their expensive books of magic spells in a large bonfire. The most remarkable rumor of all was the claim that peope were being healed of various diseases just by touching Paul’s hankerchiefs!

Well, who in their right mind can believe such fanstic fairytales like these?  I certainly couldn’t….that is, until the incident.

My name in Greek means “Lucky.” I’ll let you decide if the name fits after you hear my story.  I was a teenager at the time. I prided myself in being an intelligent, rational person who was not going to believe everything I heard — especially regarding these traveling preachers and so-called wonderworkers. I had seen enough charltans and frauds in my short life to keep me suspicious of such people and their claims. Continue reading My Name Is Lucky: The Tale of Eutychus

Hope for Moody Pastors (Mark 3:3-6)

One reason I resisted being a “pastor” for so long was all the stereotypes I had in my head for what pastors are supposed to be like. My image always looked something like Mr. Rogers in a sweater and khakis. Warm, personable, emotionally steady, gentle and never, EVER moody.

I don’t know where I picked up that image of the pastor, but it certainly wasn’t in the Bible where God’s leaders are all over the map with their varying personalities and wild mood swings.

Moses’ temper tantrum (striking the rock) cost him the Promised Land. Jeremiah was depressed. Elijah withdrew and almost quit ministry. Peter was impulsive and often put his foot in his mouth. James and John had a violent streak earning them the nickname “Sons of Thunder.” John the Baptist was loud and abrasive, maybe wore a camel hair sweater but definitely not Mr. Rogers’ khakis. Paul was prickly and at times butted heads with others.

Ok, even admitting this diversity of characters, I at least thought I could count on Jesus to be the perfect picture of the unflappable, zen-like pastor who was always calm and collected. Or, could I?

Today I noticed and appreciated the little episode in Mark 3:3-6 where Jesus going about his ministry….and we see him breaking my Mr. Rogers-like pastoral mold. For fellow church leaders, its refreshing to see that even Jesus faced some very irritating ministry moments and difficult people. (I have a perfect church, but I’ve heard other pastors have difficult people.)

Let’s take a quick look and I’ll offer some off-the-cuff leadership insights at first glance. Continue reading Hope for Moody Pastors (Mark 3:3-6)

Nic @ Night 4: Talking about “New Birth”

This Sunday I have the honor of preaching a message on one of the most significant truths and experiences in all the universe: God’s supernatural work of New Birth in the human heart. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again/from above” (John 3:3).

How do you talk about something that is necessary to experience firsthand?  It’s like describing a Mozart piece instead of listening to it.  It’s like talking about a Rembrandt painting rather than looking at it. It’s like trying to describe love to someone who’s never been in love.

These sermons drive a preacher to his knees, and bring him to the end of himself. I can only invite people to follow Nicodemus into that face-t0-face, personal encounter with Jesus, and pray that the Holy Spirit will come among us and open people’s eyes and transform hearts.  Come Holy Spirit!

Here’s a good quote from Gary Burge’s commentary on The Gospel of John:

“Religion is not necessarily a matter of personal knowledge or ethical behavior. Nor is it fidelity to religious traditions, no matter how virtuously they evoke higher ethical, religious behavior among us. Jesus is claiming that true spirituality is not discovering some latent capacity within the human soul and fanning it to flame. It is not uncovering a moral consciousness that is hidden by sedimentary layers of civilization’s corruptions. It is not a “horizontal” experience that takes up the materials available around us in the world.

Rather, Jesus claims, true religion is “vertical.” It has to do not with the human spirit, but with God’s Spirit. It is a foreign invasion, sabotage of the first order. True religion unites humanity with God’s powerful Spirit, who overwhelms, transforms, and converts (in the full meaning of the word) its subject. Our role in this transformation is belief(3:16,18), and yet is is a belief that is aided by God’s work within us since we live in the darkness and have our spiritual capacities handicapped with sin” (Gary Burge, Gospel of John: New Application Commentary, 126).

Come Holy Spirit!  Invade our presence, and sabotage our hearts! Blow mightily among us at MainStreet this Sunday and every day!

Relax Pastor, God Saves!

Christmas Eve is a great opportunity for churches to share the good news of the gospel with many unbelievers — sometimes hearing it for the first time. Pastors should give a clear invitation to respond in faith to the message of the gospel.

I plan to do this. I can’t wait to do this!

But there are many church leaders who place far too much pressure on themselves at their Christmas Eve services to get a good response. Each year I receive emails essentially urging me not to “blow it” at this big “super bowl” service of the year. One email I received from a godly leader whom I admire said:

My heart breaks when we lead people right up to the line of faith and then leave them hanging there.  They need your help, so boldly help them put their faith in Jesus this Christmas.  Finally, make sure people know what their next steps are.

Yes, true, I hear you…but are we forgetting something, or Someone?

I believe this way of thinking betrays a woefully low view of God and an inadequate view of the Holy Spirit’s role in our worship and preaching. The truth is they need God’s help to cross the line of faith and put their faith in Jesus. They need the Holy Spirit to show them what their next steps are. I have confidence that God knows each person’s heart and will not “leave them hanging there.” (Pastors: God doesn’t need us as much as we like to think. He just graciously allows us to play a big role sometimes.)

With a big view of God and a belief in the active role of the Holy Spirit, I don’t need to lose sleep over whether I botched the invitation or fell short in my follow up with people. I trust God is at work in the hearts of my hearers. He can lead them to take the next steps. God will plant a longing in someone’s heart and the Holy Spirit will draw them back next week for more. 

Again, I’m not arguing against bringing people to a point of decision, and offering clear follow up steps. I plan to. But I am arguing we need to relax, keep a proper perspective, and trust God more with the results.

To make my point, let’s have some fun and apply such thinking to the first Christmas sermon ever preached at that first Christmas Eve service unexpectedly held in that Judea field. Let’s look at the clear planning and follow-up work that first Christmas. Warning: Snarky satire ahead.

[Attendance: 2 or 3 shepherds, an Angelical Preacher who kept his sermon to less than a minute, and a kicking’ choir (really? sounds a bit traditional and boring…)]

The Christmas Story According to Some Overly Anxious Pastors

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger….that is, if you’ll take the proper next steps found in the bottom of the bulletin you received when you walked into the field tonight.

[It’s truly a miracle the Shepherds even heard the gospel that night since they had foolishly neglected to attend any of the scheduled worship services at any of the available synagogues in that region. Its hard to believe God could actually reach anybody outside the walls of an official place of worship. This is why all responsible heralds of the gospel will spend thousands of dollars on advertising, newspaper ads, hanging colorful banners by the road, and placing yard signs all over town making sure people know how to get to the one certain place where God is most likely to show up and “bring good tidings of great joy.” Or so we thought.]  

13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
    and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other“Now what should we do? The Angels didn’t give us clear directions or next steps. Oh, well. I guess we’ll just stay here in the field tending our sheep. Dang it!  I really thought I experienced something divine a few seconds ago. Bummer.” Continue reading Relax Pastor, God Saves!

God’s Gourmet Chef

 

Today I want to share a personal update of sorts.

Pastors wear a lot of hats.

For example, today I was negotiating a lease with our landlord and consulting with our architect for our building project when I received a call from a person in rural Minnesota asking me to pray with him for his estranged family that lives in our area. Now I’m researching 1st century socio-political realities in light of our current political situation for a sermon, organizing a window washing project, and catching up on some admin tasks.

Yet, my favorite hat to wear as a pastor is what I’ll call a “gourmet chef of the Word.” You’ve heard of “Hell’s Kitchen”? Well, I serve in Heaven’s Kitchen cooking up a fresh variety of truth-saturated appetizers, soul nourishing meals, and irresistibly delicious desserts from God’s Word. With each recipe I try, my greatest hope is that you will “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps. 34:8)! For I am all too aware that “Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from God”

The weekly sermon is probably the “main dish” that I spend most time preparing. But Apostle Peter would be quick to say that in order to “grow up” in our faith we need more than one meal a week! We need to drink daily of the “pure spiritual milk” of God’s Word (1 Peter 2:2-3). A baby will die without multiple feedings a day on momma’s milk. Why do we try to get away with a one or two feedings a week in our spiritual growth?

So, I have begun preparing other smaller snacks for my congregation to nibble on between our Sunday gatherings. I share these goodies at my Daily Illumination blog. I am  currently offering deeper reflections on our 1 Peter study along with many other devotional writings. There’s nothing more rewarding than feeding others a good meal; and there’s nothing more disheartening than preparing a lavish dinner and having nobody show up.

(By the way, that’s how pastors sometimes feel when people don’t show up for worship: “Wow, I slaved away in this kitchen/study all week to prepare this tasty sermon just for you, and you don’t bother to get out of bed for it.”)

Let me tell you about a new dish to check out!  As you may have seen, I am experimenting with a new 5-minute “audio devotional” called The Mailbox Podcast. These are fun, spontaneous spiritual thoughts I share on my 1,000 foot walk to my mailbox and back. Its a chance for you to overhear my own thoughts as I attempt to find God’s truth penetrating the everyday moments of life. Its another way I’m trying to bring “Reports from the intersection of faith and life.” Listen to a sample here.

Now, let me share the more personal reason behind all my dishes I’m cooking up for you to enjoy. I discovered this summer that I had neglected my own soul’s cravings this past year and was not nourishing my own spirit. I was empty. Parched. Exhausted. Stressed. Burnt out. Distant from God.

In July and August the alarm bells were going off and I needed to re-evaluate my own life-rhythms and pastoral priorities. I stopped beginning my days by opening the laptop and answering emails. Instead I have devoted the first part of my day to quiet time with God and His Word. I am carving out larger portions of my weekly hours for study and prayer. As your pastor I cannot lead you places I’m not already going.

So, I have been seeing the big difference my daily quiet time or walks with God are having on my soul. I find myself inspired, hearing from God, seeing lessons in nature and my daily routine, and I just want to share them. That’s the real reason for the Mailbox Podcast….because even if nobody else listens to them, they are fueling my spirit and the process of making them is feeding my soul!

Do any of you journal? These are very much my “audio journal.” My grandkids will get ahold of them when I’m dead and gone, and hopefully enjoy a window into my life with God.

So, I do hope you’ll  subscribe to Daily Illumination and listen to the podcast as you drive to work, do the dishes, exercise, etc. Many of you have other places you go for spiritual nourishment each day — YouVersion reading plans, sermons, podcasts, etc. That’s great! I just invite everyone to find your own way of letting “the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16).

Regardless, I’ll keep my chef’s hat on and keep cooking up goodies for whoever wants to stop by for a snack or a meal!

Bon appetit! 

10 Spiritual Legacy Conversations

In Paul’s letter to Timothy, his young apprentice and “son in the faith,” Paul mentions 10 important things that Timothy knows full well about Paul’s own life and faith journey. So, I’m very excited to share a guide to help others have 10 spiritual legacy conversations based on 2 Timothy 1:5, 3:10, 14 (see below).

How many of these things have we talked about with our children? How many of these things do we know about our parents, mentors and spiritual influences? I hope my kids will “know all about” such things when they are old enough. I also want to spend this next year having weekly lunches with my dad and asking him about these 10 things.

This guide is perfect for mentor/mentee relationships, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandkids and grandparents, or any other spiritual friendships. You may need to use this guide for some self-examination or introspection. You might want to journal through the questions in this guide. I trust these “Legacy Conversations” will help “fan into flame the gift of God” and grow your faith!

This guide was inspired and based on a sermon preached by Pastor Colin Smith. 

1:5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. 6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands…. 3:10, 14 You, Timothy, know all about my teaching, and how I live, and what my purpose in life is. You know about my faith, my patience, my love, and my endurance. You know how much persecution and suffering I have endured…[and how] the Lord rescued me from all of it...Continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it.”

DOWNLOAD GUIDE: 10-legacy-conversations.