Beyond Sunday School – Fostering Faith at Home

sunday_5908c   When I was interning at a local Pentecostal Church, we used to have little hand-outs to give to parents as their children were leaving the Sunday school class.  These hand-outs briefly identified the main themes in that week’s lesson and some ways to continue to build the conversation at home.  Yet week after week, faithful church attenders would turn us down.  They would simply say “no, thanks,” “I’m not interested” or hand us back the sheet once they read it and saw what it was about. There were likely other parents who took the forms out of courtesy, but then left them somewhere on a messy table and forgot all about them until next week.  I do not fault those parents nor do I think they lack the necessary skills to encourage their kids in their faith (who knows, maybe they are engaging with them in other ways), yet since then, it has made me curious about why more parents don’t think instilling Christian values is important in a child’s daily regime.

Nurturing and building Christian foundations is paramount for being able to create a long-lasting successful spiritual walk once the child hits adulthood.  Yet too many parents fail to see the importance of fostering these building blocks at home and instead relegate them to an hour on a Sunday morning making Christian education the sole responsibility of a dedicated Sunday school teacher or a trained children’s pastor.  And while I do value my role in children’s ministry and believe it is of utmost importance, I want to let you all in on a little secret – I can’t do it with my team alone.  And I definitely can’t do it just as one person even if I do have two theological degrees with a third on the way.

Here’s why: let me explain an average children’s event for you.  On a Tuesday evening approximately 30 kids, wild, excited, and full of energy walk into the basement of our church.  They are a lively bunch, inquisitive, and eager to learn – yet they are still kids.  And because they are kids, it takes them a minute or two or sometimes ten to be able to calm down.  And once they do calm down, their attention span lasts approximately 15 minutes and then we have to move on to the next thing.  In this group of kids, we have a mixed bag.  Some kids are being properly nourished at home (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) and others are in the midst of a painful home life.  Some of the kids grew up in church and others are just hearing about Jonah and the Whale or Noah’s Ark for the first time.  Some kids have already committed their lives to Jesus and others aren’t even really sure who Jesus is.  And then there’s the age range, the different learning styles, preferences, and personalities each person brings to the group, and the different attitudes parents have as their drop their children off.  And my goal (along with my wonderful team) is to find a way to reach each one of them.  To find a way to challenge the church kids and encourage the un-churched kids.  To find a level playing ground and a story that can relate to 5 year olds and 10 years old without the little ones being lost and the older ones feeling like they are being talked down to or ignored.  We run through the evening.  We start with a catchy song or two, move on to a craft, do a game, and tell a Bible story.  But when you factor in the movement time, getting kids quiet enough to listen, troubleshooting what to do about the fact that half the glue sticks you just bought yesterday no longer work, and wiping up juice spills, I’d say that in an hour long program I really only have 10 minutes maximum to instill any Godly wisdom into your kid.  And while there definitely is something to be said about the ministry of presence and reaching out to kids through fun, the fact is that 10 minutes really is not all that long if that’s the only spiritual instruction they will be getting all week.

But let’s say you not only drop your kid off at a midweek program, but you also have them in Sunday school while you are upstairs listening to a sermon.  That’s great, but the average Sunday school still only has about 20-30 minutes MAXIMUM of religious instruction for your kids.  Which means if the mid-week program and Sunday school are the only opportunities they have to hear the Word of God, we are still averaging less than one hour a week.  And when you think about all the other voices that are contending with the Gospel (be they advertisements, schooling, media, or friends) one hour a week is definitely not enough time to undue any negative belief structures imposed on your child’s young and impressionable mind.  This means, that the primary task of raising Godly children must belong to you – the parent, not left for a Sunday school teacher to pick up the pieces.

I’m assuming you’re a good parent.  I’m assuming you want what’s best for your child and would go to any length to ensure their health and well-being because you love them.  I’m assuming you make sure your kids have three square meals a day and that they are eating their fruits and veggies not just candy and chips.  I’m assuming you want them to play outside in order to get fresh air and exercise and I’m assuming you take an interest in who their friends are because you want them to hang out with the right crowd.  If you do all of these things to ensure your child’s physical well-being, then why should their spiritual state matter any less to you (after all, that is the only enduring and eternal thing?) You might bring your kid to a restaurant once in a while as a special treat or to celebrate a big occasion, but I’m guessing, most of the time, you nourish them with a nice home-cooked and balanced meal.  But you see, only relying on a mid-week program and Sunday school to feed your kid’s soul is the equivalent of trusting the local Montana’s or Swiss Chalet with all your child’s dietary needs.  These places are great when visited sparingly and everyone likes having someone else wash up the dishes, but going too often will make such times lose their specialness and depending upon them will likely make your kid discontent when one day you are in a rush and have to give him a peanut butter sandwich instead of chicken wings.

So, if you’re reading this and are convinced that you play a pivotal role in your child’s spiritual development, but are unsure where to being, let me give you some easy suggestions.  You see, you don’t have to be a theologian or even invest an hour a day to make a lasting spiritual impact in your kid’s life.  In fact, even if you only dedicate 15-20 minutes a day, you can help show your child what is truly important in life.

#1: The Long Ride Home

If you are like most church-goers, I’m sure there are things you don’t like about your home church.  Yet, I would encourage not to complain about them in front of your child.  Perhaps you can discuss them when the kids are asleep or when the grandparents are babysitting, but your kids look up to you and if they see you criticizing the pastor or the church, they are most often going to do likewise.  So during the ride home, ask the kids about Sunday school and what they learned or even tell them something interesting from the “grown-up” church if they ask, but refrain from critiquing the sermon or mentioning that anything was “boring” or “a waste of time.” Most kids are too young to understand complex theological concepts, so don’t get into a debate with your spouse about all the things the pastor said that might be wrong, but instead focus on what was shared that you really resonated with.

#2: Teaching Kids to Pray

Fun prayers with silly actions have their place – at a church camp, but at some point, kids also need to learn how to REALLY pray.  It is easy to give into the temptation to do a rote prayer such as “God is great and God is good, let us thank Him for our food, Amen” and there is an argument that they engage kids by their simplicity and being easy to remember, but I urge you not to let that be the sole extent of teaching your kids to talk to God.  Instead, find different ways to help your kid pray.  Don’t correct a child’s prayer (unless they are being incredibly silly) and when you pray demonstrate a prayerful and thoughtful posture because kids will pick up on genuineness.  Don’t allow silliness or jostling during prayer and don’t rush through it if the kids are getting restless.  Instead, teach the kids that praying is the most important activity of all.

TIP:
Because kids pick up on authenticity, it is important to be consistent in your prayer life.  This means that even if you go out to eat at a restaurant, you need to keep your prayer posture.  Don’t look around to see who is listening in or noticing because your kids will pick that up and make a connection that prayer is “uncool.”  Follow the same procedures regardless of where you might be.

#3: Find your child’s natural interests and run with them

Use your child’s natural talents and interests as a gateway to talk about Godly things with them.  If they are artistically inclined, what a great opportunity to discuss how God is a wonderful artists who paints sunsets and sunrises.  If they love playing with Lego, use it to illustrate how God is the Master Designer.  If they are athletic and enjoy team games talk about how God created our bodies to run and jump.  If they are naturally extroverted share how God is the expert relationship builder and formed us for community.  And if they are more introverted share about how they can begin to hear God in the silence.  There are so many ways to bring out spiritual conversations in day-to-day life and to be honest, not all of them require a Bible.

#4: Comfort Your Child Using Biblical Truths

When your kid is struggling with insecurities, and they most definitely will, instill in them that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and that God knows and sees them for who they are and takes pride and delight in them.  In fact, the Bible tells us that God rejoices over them with singing and jubilation.  If they come back after having lost a game or feeling like a failure, remind them that God sees our hearts and motivation and is just thankful that we tried to do the right thing and gave it our all.  And if their friends abandon them or leave them out, help them to find comfort in the fact that even Jesus’s closest friends forgot about Him when He needed them the most, but that God’s Word promises that He will never leave us or forsake us.

#5: NEVER Use Godly Activities as Punishment

 This may almost seem like a no-brainer to you, but you’d be surprised at the many times I have seen parents use the Bible or Christian activities as a means of punishment and discipline.  Two of the most common examples of this would be making your child repetitively write out a Scripture verse speaking about why what they did was wrong and revoking their opportunity to go to a club they enjoy.  It seems almost natural that when you have tried everything to get a child to stop their behaviour and they refuse, you revoke an activity they wish to be part of.  And oftentimes, because church is free and other classes might not be, church seems the logical one to get rid of.  However, I believe this may very well be the most spiritually destructive thing you can do to your kid.

Here’s why:

Church is already seen as being an “uncool” activity.  Our culture already pressures kids and teens to think that belief in God is ludicrous and childish.  Kids are already at a great risk of eventually losing their faith and statistically we have seen more and more kids drop out of church once they reach university age (if not before).  Therefore, we must do everything in our power to encourage church attendance and help our kids view it as a positive choice rather than as a negative one.  If you want to make a point and take away a privilege, take away the TV, the internet, their IPhone, or their time with friends…ANYTHING, except your mid-week Bible club.  And if you want your kids to write lines, than do the stereotypical “I will not tell lies” and resist taking Bible verses out of context.  This will help your kids know that you are serious but also help them realize that skipping church is not an option in your books.

CONCLUSION: Raising your children to be spiritual leaders is not an easy tasks and some days you might be tempted to compromise because you feel tired and worn-out, but I urge you not to.  It is during those very times when you want to quit, that you may actually be having the greatest spiritual impact in your child’s life.  Your kids look up to you.  They need to see how much of a priority the Gospel is to you in order for them to begin to apply it to their lives.  You wouldn’t skip feeding your kids dinner just because you were overwhelmed, so don’t skip out sharing Biblical truths with them either.

When I was a child I did not have regular “devotional” times with my family.  Not that there would be anything wrong with that, but we were not huddled around a Bible reading the book of John and deconstructing it.   But today I still have a strong faith and belief in God, attend church every Sunday and am even a pastor.  Why?  Because even though we didn’t have these formal times, my parents were instilling Biblical truths into me informally at every opportunity they could.  That’s why as an adult, I can still have meaningful and deep spiritual conversations with them and refer to them as my “favourite lay theologians.”

Almost every child sees their parents as their greatest heroes.  So use that opportunity rather than taking advantage of it.  At every juncture, find a way to share your faith with your child even if it’s as simple as going for a walk in the park, watching a sunset together, or packing an Operation Christmas Child shoebox.  The more opportunities you have to develop faith at home, the more well-rounded your child’s understanding of God will be and the more likelihood that they will develop into a strong Christian leader of their own home one day.  May God bless you on your journey of fostering and creating these deep spiritual links with the very people you love the most – your own kids and your own family.

The Five Greatest Enemies of Church Growth and How We Can Conquer Them

courageous-leadership-is-required-to-grow-a-church-the-growing-church  In my last article “To Make a Church Grow” I discussed various ways to evaluate church growth and likewise recognize symptoms of disease and dissonance. I then gave some practical resources for how to manage a church in distress and how to rebuild a dying vision. You can find that article here.

Now, I would like to tell you about some very specific monsters that can destroy a church regardless of how strong it originally was.

 

PLEASE NOTE: Like I mentioned in my last article, SIZE is not the only issue when determining whether a church is dying or thriving. Yes, in many cases a “growing church” will be having more adherents whereas a “dying church” likely will have more people leaving than coming in. That being said, there are many, many small churches with less than 50 members but where congregants are faithful and give financially and of their time. These small churches may take care of one another in some pretty incredible ways following the Biblical injunction of “loving one another deeply.” Conversely, there are some megachurches that while boasting over 5,000 members are very weak theologically and in terms of their commitment to each other. In these churches a pastor may seldom be seen and rarely heard from. Individuals may attend for a sense of “hype” but actually receive very little spiritual nourishment. It is for this reason that I would like to define a GROWING church as one that has potential to reach out to many and is giving adequate resources and support to its congregants; whereas a DYING church is one incredibly inward focussed without making an effort to connect to its members on a personal level or to the community on a wider level.


#1: Pride/Ego

The number one enemy to stunt church growth is pride and ego. And, when you really think about it, this is the same issue that permeates into the other 4 areas mentioned in this blog. Pride is deceptive and can take on many forms. Some potential roadblocks may include:

* A pastor who feels a need to do “everything” without handing over some of that leadership to lay people.                           * A pastor who feels a deep need to be a “people-pleaser” and is not able to say no or make hard decisions for fear of how it may affect others.
* A pastor who always needs to be “in control” and is over-powering in church meetings and other forums without properly listening and trying to understand what others are saying.

And while it’s always easiest to just “blame the pastor” for a sinking ship, there are a lot of ways that we, as congregants, also contribute to this problem:

* We may be too “insular” – too focussed on what sets us apart rather than on what unifies us as whole
* We may be judgmental and quick to point out that other churches in the area “just aren’t doing it right.”
* We might be incredibly hard on our pastor(s) because we think (s)he should be “perfect” and that (s)he can never measure up to what we ideally are looking for
* We might decide that we only wish to cater to a certain group of people (ie. Those who look, think, feel, dress, smell the exact same way that we do)

When taken to the extreme, I’ve even seen whole conferences doing this. For example:

* We try to “sheep-steal” (or rely on disgruntled members of other churches) too heavily
* We decide that we are eternal “gatekeepers” (having our word be the final authority on “who’s in and who’s out” including claiming that other groups are not really “Christian”)

As long as we stay stuck in the quicksand of pride, we will never be able to move forward. In fact, depending on how long this pride goes on for, we may never be able to fully recover.

The Bible speaks repeatedly against the abuse of power and the consequences of pride. We read that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).  We also read that “Pride goes before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18) The book of Proverbs even lists PRIDE as one of the emotions that God detests the most (Proverbs 16:16-19).

At first it seems incredibly difficult to grasp. If pride is so bad, why do most churches fall prey to it? The answer is because of our ego. We wrongly assume that:

* If we don’t have a certain number of congregants every week there’s no point to keep going                                                   * If we don’t have a certain number of programs we aren’t doing it right
* If we don’t receive praise every time we preach a sermon or put on an event, people just don’t care
* If an event didn’t go exactly as we planned (and if less people showed up) that it was a failure.

Here’s the problem with this mentality:

We are too short-sighted. We view success as competition, making the grade, and being the best. We focus on our initial feelings in the here-and-now. We don’t look for long-term consequences. We see FAILURE written in big letters, we don’t see the POTENTIAL written in the fine-print. We see people not responding to our call right now, we don’t see the seeds that are being planted and the underground work God is already doing.

And when we fail to receive instant gratification, we assume our church is DYING when in reality, this may actually be the most formative state of all.

In order for our church to grow, we must understand first and foremost that ministry is NOT a competition. It never was and it never should be. At least not if we are looking at the Biblical idea of what ministry is all about. Because in the Bible we have:

* Moses shushing Joshua, telling him that he wished everyone was out there preaching the Word
* We have John the Baptist saying that he never meant to be in the spotlight, he was just preparing the way for someone else
* We have the Apostle Paul stating that everyone has a different role (some plant, some water, but it’s always God who gives the growth)                                                                                                                                                                                   *And we have Jesus who said “quit yammering about who’s the greatest – instead be like a little child who is totally unconcerned with status and only focusses on where the next cookie is coming from.”

A church that is not competing doesn’t look like what I just describe earlier. They are not clamouring for the lime-light. Not advertising in order to be the best. Not hiring a marketing consultant just to get more people into their doors, because they know that while those things might be beneficial, they are not everything. They know that we are dealing with souls – with eternity, not just with something as trivial as numbers or a budget line.

Instead a growing church looks like this:

* The pastor is receptive to feedback. (S)he wants to know what others are saying and digs deeper to understand why they are saying it.
* When a new pastor joins a church, (s)he seeks to be a historian. (S)he wants to respect traditions that are already in place, but also wants to challenge his/her congregation to grow.                                                                                                    * The pastor seeks out opportunities to get others involved. They don’t fall in love with their own voice or ideas – instead they wish to draw out even the most shy and vulnerable of people and offer them a special place in the service so that they can truly feel welcomed and be their most authentic selves.

And the congregants:

* Determine to laugh, dream, share, and play together – laying theological differences aside in order to embrace true Christian unity and respect
* Recognize their own unique role, voice, and contribution in the church and seek to take “ownership” of its programs and amenities. They don’t place all the blame on the pastor. They are mature and honest enough to recognize their own short-comings as well.
* They don’t compare themselves to other churches that might be bigger, stronger, or more modern than them. They stay true to who they are and the unique role and vision that God has given to THEM at this moment, at this time, and for this location.

#2: Compromised Theology

The second greatest enemy to the church is compromised theology. What do I mean by this? Well, it should go without saying, but every church has their own unique theology. Theology is just a very fancy way of saying that:

* Every church sees God and God’s role over creation in a slightly different way, and yet we all serve the same God.
* Every church sees the role of humanity in a slightly different way, and yet, all churches are made of (imperfect) humans. * Every church sees its own role in a slightly different way, and yet recognizes that every church has something to offer.

Simply put THEOLOGY describes a specific WORLD-VIEW. A way of seeing God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Church in a certain way that affects our behaviours and our mindset. Our behaviours (the way we choose to respond or not respond) towards certain social issues, marginalized people groups, and even ourselves and our own families reflects this theology – this worldview.

Theology is the cornerstone of our faith, so how we work with it is a pretty big deal.

A church that has compromised on its theology may look like this:

* The pastor doesn’t preach the Gospel at all. He only says whatever he thinks people want to hear.
* The pastor doesn’t call out immoral, sinful behaviour. She is laisse-faire and believes this all falls under the category of “a person’s private business.”
* The pastor doesn’t even KNOW what the Bible is saying. He may know a bit, but his sermons are whipped together at the last minute and don’t reflect adequate scholarship and research.
* The pastor preaches a “good” sermon that theologically makes a lot of sense, but her life applications are weak. She is too focussed on what the Bible itself says that she fails to teach her congregants how to really live it out.

But, like I said, let’s not just place all the blame on the pastor. There’s also the congregants to keep in mind. These individuals may:

* Be too focussed on their own personal “feelings” that they aren’t capable of thinking logically and rationally.                     * Be too caught up in conforming to the world, that they fail to be transformed in the renewing of their minds
* Be unwilling or unable to grow spiritually for whatever reason

What makes an otherwise solid church fall prey to this type of compromised theology?

There are a few reasons that come to mind:

* The pastor may not have been adequately shaped, formed, or trained. (S)he may have “fallen into” the role or else been forced into it when the church couldn’t find anyone else to take on the role.
* The pastor may be a recent convert himself and not have had proper mentors. He may be enthusiastic and eager, but like Paul, he needs someone to pull him aside and explain the way of truth more accurately to him.                                               * The pastor may not fully grasp the importance of their role or how wide-reaching their influence is.
* Congregants may have been brought up in a strict family that didn’t permit asking questions. They may have been told their entire lives what to think and believe and so do not know what to do with their new-found freedom to really wrestle with Biblical texts and start thinking for themselves.
* There may not be enough movement within the church. If generations of the same people are attending with no “new blood” we risk not being introduced to new concepts, experiences, theologies, and realities.
* The church may be in competition with other churches. They may assume that because places like Saddleback or Hillsong are growing exponentially that they also need to follow that same format. They haven’t yet grasped that they are not those churches and that while those churches may be doing some pretty incredible things, God is only calling their church to be faithful with what it already has and where it already is right now.

So that’s what a church with “compromised theology” looks like. But what about a church that has good theology? A church that is truly in-line with Scripture and God’s unique calling on them will:

* Seek to be welcoming and accepting to all people, without caving into purely societal pressures
* Will seek to let “God be the judge” while also practicing discernment.                                                                                       * Will be gentle and peaceable while also having a firm, unshakeable foundation. * Will not be afraid to call sin out or discuss the “difficult” questions
* Will be comfortable living into the pain and discomfort of its parishioners (especially those who have been harmed by the institutional church or organized religion)

This will be reflected in:

* The way marginalized people groups are treated
* The way children are taught * The way sick people are prayed for (and over)
* The way outreach and evangelism is carried out
* The way sermons are preached  * The way people are included into other activities (especially people who don’t attend that church)

Theology is very important. A recent article in the Windsor Star about “What Makes Churches Grow” By: Dan Robinet states that after being welcoming and friendly and the likability of the pastor, theology is what makes or breaks the church. Robinet writes Growing congregations are like peaches – they’re soft on the outside and very accessible and easy to get into. But at the core, there’s a rock-solid theology. Declining churches on the other hand are like a coconut. They’re difficult to penetrate and when they do get in they find nothing solid.”

A lot of churches have gotten away from the academic discipline of theology and research into the original languages which is really to our shame. I’m not saying that every pastor needs a PhD or a DMin, but I am saying that every pastor should continue in his self-study and personal research. A pastor ought never to give up proper reading in the name of spending too much time planning the next big event. 

#3: Lack of Adequate Discipleship

Some of Jesus’s very last words to His disciples right before He ascended to heaven were that they should “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And He promised that when they did this, He would be with them to the very end of the age.

This is a pretty tall order and one that even the most evangelical churches can forget. You see, Jesus did not simply call people to stand on street corners preaching “repent! Turn and burn!” type sermons. Instead He called for something that takes much longer and that requires more careful attention – discipling. Discipling is not a one-off. Anyone who has worked with kids knows that. It’s not enough just to get people into the door (although that certainly would be a start), it’s about continuing that relationship and helping people to grow and move forward in their spiritual lives.

When a church doesn’t know how to properly disciple people they may:

* Initially see a large number of people flocking to their church, but eventually many of those same people will drop off.
* They may see people making a commitment to Christ, but that commitment will be shallow at best.
* They may see kids excited about Sunday school or VBS, but when asked, those same kids will say they are only excited about the crafts, games, or snacks.
* They may see parents who bring their children but only for “babysitting services.”
* They may see congregants content to just take in theology for an hour a week without doing any of the “hardwork” themselves at home.

In short, you’ll probably see lots of lazy congregants. People who don’t know the Scriptures and really have no intention to learn. People who aren’t able to defend their faith, but simply rely on their pastor to spoon-feed them everything.

I think we all can attest to how important teaching, training, equipping, and encouraging really are, so why don’t we do more of it?

* Our leaders may not have been properly discipled themselves so they may be clueless.
* Some leaders may be stuck in “old school mentalities” that really are not culturally connected to children in this day and age. They may assume that because they learned in a certain way when they were in Sunday school, this should still be the case now. They forget that we now have cell phones, endless demands, and the attention span the size of a goldfish to contend with. * Also, we have to remember that people are busy. That some people just don’t choose to carve this time out for themselves. It’s just not a priority. So for some people, church is the only spiritual nourishment they will receive all week. * And if you’re teaching kids you have to remember – they have been in school for the past 5 days. The last thing they want is for Sunday school to be as boring as learning algebra or multiplication tables. We have to ENGAGE them and allow them to THINK, CREATE, AND IMAGINE!

So we know that this is an easily neglected area, but what can we do about it?

* We can work on discipling ourselves first. This means, we keep up our own spiritual practices: we read, we study, we meditate, and we explore. It may mean that we meet with mentors or spiritual directors. It certainly means that we pray, fast, and participate in our daily devotional life.
* It means that we engage with resources and key people who actually know about this kind of stuff. If we’re in ministry it means we go out of our way to attend conferences and training events. That we put a line in our budget to buy new materials and curriculums on a regular basis.
* It means that we follow a faith formation process and learn how kids think and relate to this world. We ask them what they like and don’t like and we engage the parents. We try to instil in the parents that Sunday school is not an hour long baby-sitting service, but that it’s something more. When possible, we try to get the kids to bring home something tangible (a craft, a picture, a memory verse) to share with their families.

When a church is properly engaged in the ministry of discipleship we see:

* Kids who are passionate and excited about going to church (and even invite their friends)
* Youth who begin to “own” their own faith rather than just do what their parents tell them to
* Young adults who continue to attend services and be active participants in their local church even when they have moved away from home and no longer “have to”
* Parents who are willing to train up a child in the way he should go * Adults who are spiritual mature and have a strong faith that is not tossed about by the winds of hardship that come tumbling through * Single people who teach married people and married people who teach single people
* Where all are valued, treasured, and sought out regardless of age, gender, ability, or socio-economic status

Jesus’s call to go and make disciples was a pretty serious one. Yes, it can include short term service projects or long-term missionary partnerships, but it includes something far more. It includes a faith that begins at home and a home that is built on faith. More than that, it truly believes that it takes a church to raise a child.

#4: Lack of Community Presence

My aunt and uncle live across the street from a very large church, yet when my father asked them if anyone has ever invited them to this church before they responded “no.” He asked them if they would consider attending if someone invited them to a special event and they said “yes.” So why don’t they just go?

Everyone’s comfort level is slightly different. For someone who grew up in the church and feels connecting with others spiritually is a primary priority to them, they might seek out such groups. However, if someone is unfamiliar with church, they may be shy to just show up. What they are really looking for is a face-to-face connection. They are looking for an invite.

We all like to be invited to things. We like group invites on Facebook and mailed out invites on fancy paper for weddings. We like to know that people are thinking of us and that we are not being ignored. So it’s important for churches to get the word out.

When the community doesn’t even know the church exists or doesn’t know what the church is about:

* Their interest isn’t piqued. They just simply don’t care.
* They may be curious, but they don’t know when the events are on, so they don’t show up.
* They may even get the impression that the church itself could care less about whether they are there or not.

People want to know we care and as a church we need to care. So how do we communicate that caring?

* We make having an updated and easily accessible website a priority (more and more people these days are discovering churches because of an initial Google search. Just ask anyone new to your city how they found out about your church? If it wasn’t word of mouth or the random “walk by” it was probably through the Internet) * We make our bulletins accessible – we make sure everyone who walks in gets one handed right to them, we use a readable font size and type, and we stick other invitation cards right into the bulletin when necessary. When we host events we try to give as brief yet as comprehensible of a description as possible so people know what’s really going to happen. We include the event for a few weeks so that way if someone misses one Sunday they won’t be completely out of the loop. We also post it on our website and social media. * We welcome newcomers – we engage in small talk, direct them to their seats, and if there’s an upcoming event we invite them to it (we even offer to grab a coffee or tea for them after the service!) * We use a variety of ways to get our message across (Powerpoint, email, Facebook groups, MeetUps) * We ask our congregants and newcomers how they best would like to be in touch (Email, Facebook, texting – by the way, if you work with youth try using social media. Kids respond on Facebook far more often than they do with phone calls. Conversely, if you’re working with seniors a phone call or even mailing is usually the preferred method over Twitter). * When someone has missed several weeks in a row, we ask someone to check-in with them (If you have a medium-sized or large church “Friendship Rosters” can help significantly with this one because it may be difficult to remember who all was out) * We provide a place for prayer and the sharing of concerns one-on-one with a pastor or other ministry leader after the service and throughout the week.
* We ask other people for their input. We don’t assume what the people want, we ASK them what they want. * We are aware of various other services and resources in the area and we seek to make those resources available in multiple ways (posters, referrals, safe spaces). If you’re new to the area, this is also a perfect time for you to become acquainted with some of the services your area offers. Consider making a binder and including information and numbers for: local hospitals, mental health and addiction services, spiritual direction and counseling, foodbanks, halfway and transition houses, lawyers, banks, women’s and men’s shelters, the Children’s Aid, local schools, tutoring services, and more.

When people know we care, they:

* Come out to events and bring their friends and family
* Eventually might become curious enough to attend a service
* Speak highly of our church and feel like their needs are being met
* Feel like it’s a safe and “fun” place to bring their kids and grandkids to * Know geographically where we are and what we’re all about

Please don’t underestimate this one. You may think community engagement is not as important as theology or discipleship, but unless you first get people into your door, they’ll never hear your theology or get to the stage where they seek out discipleship. Churches that collaborate with their community and get to know their neighbours are churches which are more likely to be integrated with the city and more sought-out by newcomers.

#5: Lack of Leadership Formation in the Next Generation

Although I put this priority last, it is actually one of the most vital for ensuring the long-jevity of your church. There’s something that we all know is true, but none of us wants to admit it:

We will not live forever and when we die, we need the next generation to take our place. If we are a thriving and growing church right now but we have no children, youth, or young adults, when this generation is gone, the church will not survive. It will shut down. That’s a hard pill to swallow – but unless we look it straight in the eye, we are doing ourselves a disservice and living in denial.

Churches that do not place a high priority or emphasis on children’s and youth ministry:

* Either have no kids to begin with

* Or their Sunday school is all about crafts and games and their youth group is all about keeping kids off the street by “having fun” (which, of course, is good to a degree, but will not retain kids for the long-run)

These churches either:

* Are not concerned with their long-jevity

* Or else simply don’t know what to do to bring more kids in and may even be perpetually discouraged.

So let’s assume that the church truly does care and is worried about their future, but doesn’t know where to start.

Here’s what we need to do:

* We need to look OUTSIDE of our church walls and find ways to get other kids involved. We need to “advertise” and “get the word out.”  We need special family feature events, and not just for our own families either.                                                 * We need to balance out fun and faith and see that those two words are actually quite compatible. We need to teach kids about Christ in a way that makes them hunger and thirst for more, but also doesn’t scare them off.
* We need to encourage parents to find faith a priority rather than just another ditch-able option                                           * We need to help parents be the best parents they possibly can be
* We need to develop programs in our churches for children who have special needs and cater specifically to those who would not thrive in a “typical” church setting

When a church does this, here’s what we get:

* Kids eager and excited to keep returning. * Kids who tie previous lessons in with what they are currently learning              * Youth who begin developing leadership skills and are affirmed for them * Young adults who find they truly have a voice and are welcomed…and no longer treated just like kids
* A healthy generation of future leaders growing up learning what it means to take on the responsibility of the church so that tomorrow there will still be a church * People who truly feel like church matters

This is all a lot of information to take in and at first glance it can be very difficult to navigate or even know where to begin. But let me break it down for you:

WE NEED

* To make church a priority – not just another throw-away option

* To have good theology where people are clear about what we believe and why

* To adequately train people of all ages and equip them for real life service (not just behind church walls)

* To get out there and help the community put a face to a name

* To see the value of children, youth, and young adults and ensure that they have a special place in the life of the church (that they aren’t seen just as “mini-adults” but as people in a very important life stage RIGHT NOW)

AND THE PEOPLE WHO ATTEND (OR ARE THINKING OF ATTENDING) OUR CHURCH NEED TO:

* Know where we are and what we’re all about
* Know the basics of what we believe and why
* Know when big events are happening and feel included in those events
* Know that we are a safe place where they will be loved, accepted, and cared for no matter what
* Know that if they have children or grandchildren it will be a place where young ones are treasured, taught and trained in a way that affirms who they are already (not who they might become or who their parents “think” they should become)

And when this happens we will be a healthy church that grows, thrives, and is faithful to all that God has called us to be at this time, in this place, in this location, and to this generation.

To Grow a Church

church Yesterday I attended my first ever “Visioning Retreat” through a local church.  The retreat was an opportunity for us to gather together, dream, discuss,  and reflect on what makes a church and how the church can engage more people.  We all have been part of churches that were so vibrant, filled with joy and exuberance, and where we truly felt like we were part of something wonderful.  We’ve probably also been to a few churches where we’ve felt out of place, discouraged, and like we had to hide our true identity.  So what makes those experiences (both in relatively the same place) so different and how do we truly know whether a church is thriving or if it’s time for the church to radically reconfigure everything they have previously done?

SIGNS THAT A CHURCH IS DOING WELL

Different people have different measures of success and it is important to note that success does not always mean the church has hundreds of people attending it. A church can have 50 people on a given week and still be thriving. Likewise a church can have 500 people every week and yet not have a sense of cohesiveness or deep fellowship. My own personal definition of success is: a church which is faithful to the unique calling and vision God has placed in it at this time, for this season, in this geographical location, and for these people. My criteria for how one can measure this is as follows:

A church which is truly successful will:

* Engage with the people who are already there and encourage people who don’t yet attend to come in
* Work within the established traditions to create new, fresh, innovative ideas
* Seek a wide-range of voices and discuss a variety of relevant and interesting topics.

When a church is doing well:

* There is internal diversity and yet a sense of unity, peace, and calm

* People feel they can be their authentic selves and the fullest version of who God has created them to be (they will not need to put on a “mask” or a “false front.”)

* People in the community will know who they are, why they are there, and generally what they believe and why
* People will be excited to be part of this community and will want to draw others into it

 

Conversely, when a church is not doing well

* There is murmuring, complaining, back-biting, gossip, and comparing

* People keep referring to the “good old days” and cannot move forward

* People are unwilling or unable to change, to embrace new ideas, to be challenged, and to grow spiritually

* There are no (or very few) children, youth, and young adults within the congregation which signals in a very real way that unless things change and fast, this may very well be the last generation that will worship within the walls of this church

 

MY TOP 5 LIST

One of my only experiences of finding a new church was when I moved to Edinburgh. Although I’ve worshipped in many other communities, the majority of them were for university and seminary placements so I was essentially “told” where I would be going. The fact that I had to find my way around in Edinburgh really taught me a few things about looking for a church. Like I said, everyone’s priorities are slightly different, but here are my major priorities:

#1: I admit, theology is important to me, but it’s not the very first place I look. The first thing I looked for when I started “church shopping” was where I felt most at home. When I walked into the church I wanted to be noticed as an outsider. I wanted people to greet me, introduce me to the pastor, and tell me about all the wonderful programs being held. I wanted people to pick up from my accent that I “wasn’t from around here” and ask me where I was from (without assuming I was an American). For me a friendly welcome is important. I need a place where I can network and see friendships and relationships as being a possibility. I do not want to feel like an outsider or like the church is made up of cliques that I can never fully enter into.

#2: Once I feel comfortable in the church itself, the next step is to see what their preaching is all about. As a self-proclaimed nerd, I value a church community that makes me think, but also that allows me to feel. I like a church with a solid Bible study or other small group opportunities I can be a part of. I like to learn from the experience of others, but also want to share my own experience. In short, I am looking for companions on my journey.

#3: I look for a church where I can be my most authentic self. Being a woman with a very strong calling to ministerial leadership is seldom an easy task. I want a church that affirms this calling and can support me through it. I do not want to debate and have to justify myself every other minute.

#4: I look for a church that gives me opportunities to serve. In the second bullet, I mentioned how important it is for me to have a space to grow and develop as a young Christian, but now I need to mention that being an activist at heart, I need to keep busy or else I’ll turn restless. I like a church that has a proven track record for helping “the least of these” and that has many different opportunities to plug into service. I want a church where being Jesus’s hands and feet is a reality, not just a talked about idealized fantasy.

#5: Lastly, I look for same age peers. Although I believe it is important to have people from a wide variety of ages and life stages, we also need some people from our own situation. I can gain a lot of wisdom from elderly people (and typically I enjoy hanging out with older adults more than with people my own age), but still…as someone who is single with no children I want people I can discuss jobs, schooling, and the stress of #adulting with. Not just people who are raising three young kids themselves.

 

REACHING OUT TO OTHER CHRISTIAN GROUPS

Churches cannot be self-sufficient, they will only survive when they become more inclusive than insular, more aware than aloof. When I was in Edinburgh, I discovered a very different mentality for church growth, that I never really witnessed here in Canada. That’s because in Edinburgh I discovered that we’re all really on the same page. Our only mission and goal is to see lives changed and hearts transformed and we are willing to go to any length to see that happen. Thus, we warmly welcome people into our churches, but we also acknowledge that God may be calling different people to different churches at different times and that our church might not necessarily be the place they are called to be.

Here’s what I mean. It should never be about:

* Who has the biggest program

* Who has the biggest budget

OR
* Who has the best teaching

It should be about churches learning from one another and cooperating with one another in order to see the Kingdom Come!

When I moved back to Canada I became involved in a really wonderful Presbyterian church. I love many things about them, but what I probably love the most is the way they work with other churches. That’s why:

*Although we have no young adult program of our own, the leaders encourage us to join other local young adults groups

* Although we didn’t have a Christmas Day service, the pastors encouraged us to attend other local Christmas Day services (and even wrote where they were in our bulletin)
* Although we have a lot of cool programs, we’re also invited to take part in other cool activities at other cool churches

What do we get in exchange for this?

Well, in Edinburgh my church (which was Church of Scotland – Presbyterian) always “advertised” events that happened at the local Baptist Church. Theologically they were two very different churches. The “feel” was different in both. BUT when the Presbyterians spoke about a Baptist conference people went and that meant that when the Presbyterians had an event the Baptists also came. So instead of being two insular churches, we were really two churches that reached out to one another in love. I believe that if every church did this, we’d get a whole lot further rather than just being stuck in the mud.

 

MOVING FORWARD

Even the most established and thriving church must contentiously consider the issue of “visioning” from time to time. The structure of the church changes depending on the needs of the generation and the culture. If people do not feel like the church is “connecting” to them, they won’t come. Plain and simple as that.

A lot of people in my generation (20s and 30s) have already lost the value of church. And that’s why I think it’s important to reimagine what church has the potential to be. It doesn’t always have to be formal, we also crave the informal. We need to be pushed, but we also need to be embraced. We need to be taught, but we also long to teach. And most importantly, we long for a place of connection, where we can truly say “this is it. This is where I need to be. I’ve arrived.”

 

CONCLUSION

Growing churches grow because they are faithful to the unique vision God has given them at this time, for this people, and in this geographical location. Every church’s vision is slightly different which is what makes them unique. Yet, we cannot allow this sense of “unique identity” to tear us away from what is truly important – the saving of souls and the eternal destiny of all. We must cooperate with other churches in order to see our role in the larger picture. When we become more inclusive and less insular this is when we will truly thrive and that is, what I believe, Christ wants most of all.

 

 

courageous-leadership-is-required-to-grow-a-church-the-growing-church

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHY I DO NOT CEASE TEACHING OR WRITING

menno  In the 1500s, Menno Simons (an early Anabaptist leader and the founder of the Mennonite denomination) wrote a tract entitled “Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing.” In this tract, Simons unashamedly addressed the hardships Anabaptist Christians underwent at the hands of political authorities and yet the fervent joy of still maintaining one’s faith and spiritual standing regardless of economic or social pressures. Like many others in his day, Simons boldly stood against religious heresy or the abuse of power by a few select individuals in prominent positions of power. Instead, he urged for a simpler understanding of the faith which all were invited into, and contended for a church “without spot and blemish.” The concluding line of his tract reads, “Beloved brethren, do not deviate from the doctrine and life of Christ.”

 
Evangelism was a key tenant in early Anabaptism. Sometimes this evangelism took the form of a soft and quiet mentorship, but at other times it took on a more charismatic nature, even public outcries against preaching. People were willing to die and become martyrs for their faith. Yet, today, so many Christians in the West (the very place where our Christianity is the least challenged from a physical viewpoint) are the most timid and the least assertive.
 
Today countries like the United States that were originally founded upon God’s providence and even imprinted “In God we trust” on their currency, want nothing to do with a heavenly reality.
 
In Canada, while there is a growing rate of spiritualism, many churches are in decline and several have been shut down in recent years. Many young adults find matters of faith “boring” and “irrelevant” and others simply regard Scripture as “fairy tales.” Stories that may instil some good moral lessons into young children, but that mature adults must steer clear of. What is saddest of all to me, is not that the unbelieving world rejects and scoffs at Christianity, but that thousands of Christians helplessly stand by and watch it happen without intervening.
 
What does the Bible have to say on this matter? Speaking just to the Christians reading this post (for that is who this post is aimed at) no one is excused for sharing the Gospel. The Bible tells us repeatedly that as Christians our duty is not only to follow Christ in the private aspects of our lives, but to introduce Him in the public sphere as well. Jesus boldly declared that if anyone is ashamed of Him in public – before his or her friends and family, Christ will be ashamed of him when he enters paradise. This is incredibly powerful when you actually stop and read it. Jesus, the very One who is love incarnate and declared that He did not come into the world to condemn, but rather to save – draws the line when it comes to ignoring or outright rejecting Him when there are lost souls to be saved.
 
Lately, I’ve been giving quite a bit of thought to the topic of evangelism, exactly what it means, and what instructions the Bible gives us for going about and doing it.
 
I admit, I am not perfect, and at times, I also have fallen prey to “evangel-phobia.” But recently, I have realized just how dumb that really is.
 
Here’s what I mean. I work at McDonald’s. Everyday, a group of highschoolers with a voracious appetite come in at 11am and order their lunch. I have noticed that there is a group of girls where one is the pack leader. She orders a McDouble with extra ketchup, no pickles and no onions. She then requests small fries, an ice coffee, and finishes it off with a vanilla cone for dessert. After she places her order, the next three girls giggle as they order the exact same thing. I remember being a young teen once. At times I wasn’t confident enough to speak my mind because I thought “if I gave my opinion of that topic to others, they would think I’m uncool.” I used to be just like those girls who think that if they order nuggets or a Caesar Salad they somehow will fall out of step with the rest who order burgers. Today I know how ludicrous that really is. Today, now that I have grown and matured, I simply speak my mind. I order what I want from the menu. I am fully free to express my views – and hey, if people can’t accept that, they probably weren’t my true friends to begin with. Why? Because my true friends always love and cherish my opinions even when we disagree. My true friends may not always see things from my perspective, but we have enough of a relationship built that it honestly doesn’t matter.
 
This is a lot like our faith. In 1 Peter 3:15 we read “always be ready to give an account for what you believe, yet do so with gentleness and respect.” Pondering this verse recently has given me a whole new spin on the subject. First, notice what Peter says. He talks about being ready or prepared in order to give an account or an ANSWER. This means that there was a question asked. Of course, I am not saying only limit your evangelism to people who outright ASK, but I find this certain word to be a key. Someone asks, we give an answer. We should not be ashamed of the answer or even ashamed or flustered that a question was asked. We should just have something ready to say and it should come from the heart.
 
Think about the last question you were asked. It might have been a friend who asked you “what did you do today?” Or it might be a potential employer asking you in an interview “why do you want this job?” We could probably all think of several answers. Even a question like “so, where would you like to go on vacation next?” can elicit an enthusiastic remark. Many of us have been though interviews before. We generally don’t just “wing” our answers. If we truly want the position, we give careful thought and attention to what we might be asked, and we carefully think of our response so that when the question comes we can pounce on it and convince others that we are the most suitable candidate. When a man and woman fall in love and become engaged, the man poses the question “will you marry me?” If they truly believe they are right for each other, the woman has the answer ready “YES.” She has dreamed about this day for weeks, months, or years. She is almost never caught saying “hmm…I really need to think about that one, honey.  Can I get back to you with my answer in another day or two?” If she did, it would totally ruin the moment and kill the mood.
 
If we are prepared to give answers for all these important scenarios, how much more should we be prepared to give an answer when it truly counts for the long run? We have often heard it said “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” but I would really like to push back on that statement. The truth is, not only can what you not know hurt you, it can have long-lasting consequences – including an eternity we will not be able to erase. The least we can do is give our friends the truth. We cannot force or coerce someone to believe as we do, but we can at least share our faith – we owe them that much.
 
Now, look at the second part of the verse. It talks about giving that answer (which we’ve prepared before hand) with GENTLENESS AND RESPECT. This says it all. This shows the attitude we must all have when dealing with unbelievers. We ought not to be rude or obnoxious. It mustn’t become a game or an on-going debate or the chance to prove someone wrong. It must not include put-downs, insults, or intolerance of another’s views or religion (and yes, atheism and agnosticism are, in my opinion, religious viewpoints). Instead, it is done with respect for the other and a recognition of all they hold dear. It is a realization that changing one’s allegiance is not an easy process and that not all are ready for it and not everyone can accept it. We are not to push people past their limit with scare tactics or manipulation, instead, we are simply to share the truth – our truth and God’s truth in the form of an honest answer.
 
Another Scripture that has influenced my understanding of evangelism is Ephesians 4:15 which admonishes us to “speak the truth in love.” To be honest, this verse has been taken out of its rightful Biblical context so many times. Today, many Christians relegate it to little more than being tolerant and kind to one another. For example, when tempted to “tell a friend off” we remind ourselves to do so lovingly. Not to blow up at the person, but simply to state our case in a sandwich approach with some extra lettuce.
 
Yet, if you read the entire context of Ephesians 4, you will see that this alone is missing the mark. Yes, Ephesians does talk about unity and getting along, but that was between those who were already believers. WHY? So that the Body of Christ might be built up and the force for evangelism much stronger. The point of speaking the truth in love was to renounce false teachers because we love the person who is listening to them and do not want to see them come to a spiritual ruin. It is a difficult demand, but one that must be attended to if we are truly to foster a mature spirituality.
 
So putting these two verses together, here is the main point of evangelism: we are to be prepared to give others an answer for what we believe, but we are to do so in love and respect graced with gentleness.
 
You may now be convinced that we are to evangelize, but you might wonder how to start. Starting is the hardest part because once you start the conversation, it is more likely to naturally keep flowing. Here are some important guidelines to be aware of:
 
#1: You must first believe in the Gospel yourself and be passionate about it. Anyone who has spent time in the business field (myself included) knows that a product sells the best when a salesperson is absolutely convinced of the value of that product. If a salesperson is less than half enthused, people won’t care. It’s the same with our faith. We have to be genuine. People will see through the motions if we are simply doing something to appease God or because we feel like we have to. Don’t give Sunday school answers, give real life scenarios and stories. Be vulnerable. As much as you are comfortable, share accounts and testimonies of how God has brought you out of your own deep darkness and renewed hope.
 
#2 You must know the Scriptures. First-hand accounts are a wonderful way to build bridges, but in order to truly be prepared, you must know the key verses and themes of the Scriptures. It is important to know what you believe and why you believe it. If you are not already spending time in the Word, it is imperative if you are going to reach others for the Kingdom’s cause.
 
#3: Prepare the ground. The beginning work of evangelism is prayer. Pray for the people God is asking you to reach. If you are not yet aware of them, pray that God opens your eyes to those who are in your midst who you might be called to reach.
 
#4: Don’t compete with other groups. The Apostle Paul understood this as did John the Baptist and Moses. All these people recognized that the more people who were promoting the Kingdom, the more souls would be saved. Our churches should not be in competition with one another. In fact, I love seeing churches collaborate and promote one another’s conferences and activities. I love pastors who ask other pastors for help in leading events. We all have the same goal in mind – don’t let your ego destroy that.
 
#5: Don’t miss the opportunity. Remember, the average person needs to hear the Gospel anywhere from 6 to 8 times before they will make a decision. You have no idea how many times the person you are reaching out to has heard the message. It may be their first time or their 20th time, but don’t despair or give up hope. Even if the person is not interested now, you never know what seeds will be planted that may spring up at a later time. In his book “Engaging With Atheists” author David Robertson also mentions something I have found helpful – for too long we have made up other’s minds for them. We have decided not to invite our friends to church events because we thought they would not enjoy it. We have decided not to share our faith with others because we thought they would find it dumb. We have decided not to put a tract in a Christmas card because we thought that people would find it a waste of time and a waste of a tree. In reality, these are all ideas that we have brought to the table, almost always without actually consulting our friends themselves. Next time you are tempted not to invite a friend to something, why not just ask them. If they say no – well at least they would have been the one to say it. Please don’t say no for them and deprive them the opportunity to something they may actually have said yes to.
 
I hope these points help you as you seek to grow in your pursuit of evangelism. There are many wonderful resources (books, DVDs, training programs, etc.) that you can get your hands on which might prepare you for future endeavours. Some of the best resources I have read are books on Christian apologetics especially as they relate to atheists. Some of these books include: God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists (By: Ray Comfort), The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw (By: Norman Geisler), The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist (By: Andy Banister) and Engaging with Atheists: Understanding Their World and Sharing Good News (By: David Robertson). If you have a Christianity Explored or Alpha course in your area you might also enjoy attending one to help learn how to better share your faith with others. God bless you as you seek to draw others closer to Him.

How to Dwell in the Land and Cultivate Faithfulness AND How to Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land

540904586  There are two seemingly “opposite” verses from the book of Psalms that keep popping into my mind:

 
Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and there we wept as we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst of it we hung our harps. For our captors demanded of us songs, and our tormentors gladness saying ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ HOW CAN WE SING THE LORD’S SONG IN A STRANGE LAND?”
 
And
 
Psalm 37:3 “Trust in the Lord and do good. Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness”
 
We all have had our Babylon moments. We all have had our moments of doubt, confusion, and dread. Maybe you were in the prime of your life and you didn’t plan on getting sick and now you have Medicare to contend with. Maybe you were in the prime of your academic schooling and you didn’t anticipate failing that course and having to take longer to get your degree. Maybe you didn’t see that relational break-up, that depression, that addiction, or that emptiness coming. Maybe it caught you completely broad-sided.
 
There are many seasons in our lives that constitute a foreign land. How do we remain faithful when the very things that shaped our lives have been taken from underneath us? How do we remain hopeful when voices around us suggest that God is not in-control or on the throne?
 
There are no easy answers for this. Christian cliches seemingly mean nothing when in the deep and difficult stages of grief and loss. The only thing that remains in that flicker of light guiding us to all truth and wisdom. The recognition that in our sufferings, Christ suffers alongside us. The realization that Jesus Himself suffered at the hands of many who did not understand His kingdom plan.
 
Here’s another direction these verses currently take me in. When I came back from Scotland, I did a very short stint in Cape Breton. I did not have peace about the decision to move there, but I suppose my own desperation and listening to voices of others who suggested it might be “God’s will” and this wouldn’t have happened unless God wanted me there convinced me to do what deep down I knew wasn’t right. What I knew wasn’t the best for me. As soon as I got there, I knew I wasn’t meant to be there. I tried to make the best of the situation. I tried to believe that maybe God wanted to teach me something or mould me a certain way. Today, I believe the only reason I was there was to learn how to say no and to do what’s best for me rather than asking everyone for their opinion or believing it is God’s will for us to be in a situation that isn’t right for us. However, when I was going through this inner struggle, I sent a text message to one of my closest friends. I asked her a simple question “how can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
 
It seems so weird now that I’m writing it here. A strange land? Hey wait a minute! I just got back from Edinburgh, Scotland. Shouldn’t Edinburgh have been the strange land? After all, I am from Canada! How come I was able to sing so well and so clearly in Edinburgh, but not here in Canada? (By the way, that’s completely metaphorically. Everyone knows I can’t sing!)
 
Once I left Cape Breton and moved back into civilization (extroverts were meant for socialization and always being busy…we don’t do well in supreme isolation) things started to get better. However, there is still an element of being in a “strange land” even now. Being in Edinburgh was almost like taking a step back in time. It’s amazing how many people are still so conservative in their outlook. The churches there are not afraid to preach the Word of God with boldness and conviction. They do not walk on eggshells just to suit the needs of others.
 
Then I came to Canada where I wrestled with ultimate liberalism. I’m not saying that’s entirely bad, but I really wasn’t prepared for it. I had no idea because when I lived here I was all part of it. But now I feel my viewpoints have changed in many ways.
 
I am trying to live in a familiar place as an unfamiliar person. I am trying to live my past life as a completely new experience. And to be honest, it doesn’t always work out the way I want. It’s this beautiful tension. This glorious tug-of-rope. This push-pull mentality that is driving me to reconsider everything I once held dear.
 
And yet, somehow, in the middle of it, I hear this gentle whisper telling me to remain. To dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness. And I’m not sure what to do with it.
 
It’s this voice that’s suggesting Edinburgh was for a time in order to teach me how to be the most effective minister here in Canada. That Edinburgh was the training ground for my heart, the place that truly taught me how to seek out the Word, but now that the lessons have been learned it’s time to put it into practice. When you’re part of a vibrant and brilliant church community that feeds your soul it can be so easy to take-take-take, but ultimately our greatest desire must be to give. We receive that which the Lord has entrusted to us, in order to pass it on to others. In order to live out a life of full obedience to Christ and to walk in the life of His light.
 
So as I wrestle with this, I have these two questions in-front of me: how do I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land and how do I dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness? They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are one in the same. They are both part of the whole. To be faithful in the here and now and the position and ministry God has currently guided me to, is to learn how to sing. It’s to learn to pick up the harp again and play it. It’s to put on a concert.
 
The goal is not to mope. The goal is not to think of “what-ifs” or “i’d rathers.” Our mission is to give those around us what they want – allowing them to be our audience.
 
In the first Psalm, the tormentors and captors demanded a song. I get this image of teasing and bullying. “Ha! Where’s your great God now?” I can hear their scoffing! “We heard you used to be a record artist. Now you’re refusing to play chop-sticks.”
 
Yet, even though the captors probably said what they did with ill-intentions, I believe there might still have been a deeper motive. Perhaps deep down they truly wanted to see God come forth. Perhaps they were not convinced that He was as great as the Israelites said He was. When they were in Israel and everything was good, He was there, but in captivity He’s nowhere to be found.
 
Let me urge you today – if you’re surrounded by people who are begging for a song, there might be a reason for it.
 
Today at church, my pastor said “The world is hopeless without us. It’s not an egotistical statement. It’s the truth. Christ is the hope of the world and we reflect that hope.”
 
Who are the audience you need to reach this week? Who are the people demanding songs of you? Who are the people who are begging to see Jesus and having a hard time believing He’s real? We can reach those people by standing firm despite our own trials. By having an unshakeable faith even when things don’t turn out the way we expected. By continuing to walk in victory rather than defeat. By opening our minds to all possibilities rather than dwelling on our limitations and shortcomings.
 
I hope this week that God will be with you, guiding and directing you as you choose to walk in faithfulness, and in hope, dwelling in the land that He’s assigned to you and being all that you can be there.

What These Past 4 Years Have Taught Me

disability   4 years ago I started my journey with L’Arche (well, kinda. I got accepted as a live-in assistant, but didn’t start until July 8th). L’Arche has had such a big, formative part in my life, and if you follow me on social media/blogs you likely have read all about some of the lessons and experiences it has provided me with. Thanks to L’Arche I’ve had the opportunity to attend a regional Ontario-wide prayer partner retreat, serve on the spiritual and community life committee, live in Edinburgh for a year, go to Ireland, go cottaging with our core members, have “Holy Book studies”, cook spicy cinnamon chicken, find a fab salmon recipe, attend the National Speaking Group in the UK, have panda birthday cakes every year, and many other wonderful things. Some of my best friends are people I’ve met through L’Arche and we’ve been able to go on trips together or even just hang out for late night snack clubs.

In the past, I’ve written about the lessons I’ve learned during my stay in L’Arche, but I realize that I have only processed my experience while there, not after I left. I think it’s important now that I am starting a new chapter in my life as a children’s pastor, to take a few moments to reflect on all that L’Arche has taught me and meant to me. I’ve been out of L’Arche for nearly 3 months now, so it is the perfect opportunity to step back and look at it from the full-side of my humanity and inner spiritual life, not just as an employee. Here are some of the ways I’ve learned and grown as a person that have become apparent to me (and there may be other things surfacing in the next few months as I further transition):

#1: If you don’t really want an answer, don’t ask the question.

You know how our parents always taught us that honesty is the best policy, but if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all? Well, that’s not the case in L’Arche. We live together 24/7 and have made an intentional investment to be part of community with each other. This means that we are part of each other’s lives at a much deeper level than most other employment opportunities would provide. In L’Arche I have learned to accept honesty. Our relationships run deep, but be careful, if you ask if your dress makes you look fat, you very well might be told that it does

#2: Your feelings are yours to feel in whatever ways you choose to feel them.

No one has the right to tell you how you should or shouldn’t be acting or reacting in a certain situation. Prior to L’Arche I had no clue how to deal with the emotions of others. I find myself to be a very logical person, so I’m more into facts and figures and what needs to be done practically than I am with trying to assuage unpleasant feelings. L’Arche has opened this side of my brain up to me. Now I feel comfortable in most situations. I have learned to accept any thoughts or feelings I have. I don’t necessarily have to continue to dwell on them, but they are good to at least be aware of.

#3: On being a people-pleaser

My natural inclination is to get people to like me, but L’Arche taught me that I need to assert myself first. I need to live into the fullest example of who I am as a person and do what’s right for me. I can’t make decisions based on what other people THINK I should do or where they think I should be. I need to first and foremost follow my own heart’s path.

#4: On practising balance and self-care

L’Arche is truly a unique experience in that they are an example of an employer who truly cares about you as a person. L’Arche is a formative time for everyone and we have experiences like yearly assistant retreats, visioning meetings, assistant check-ins, and accompaniment (also called “coaching” which functions like spiritual direction/mentorship). There are very few other jobs I know of where your “boss” and “co-workers” are as patient as you work through your own life’s pattern.

Life in L’Arche is demanding and often difficult since we work long hours (most people I talk to who have never been in L’Arche are shocked to find out that I worked 55 hours per week on average and sometimes up to 70). But for seasoned L’Archers, we learn the balance. We learn how to say no to some things in order to say the best yes to other things. We learn how to use our free time wisely. Every free day is our opportunity to look for outside groups and social interactions. Even our 4 free ours of personal time are spent doing whatever relaxes us.

It seems odd, but those long, gruelling hours were some of my happiest times and in them I found more freedom than when I only worked part-time. L’Arche taught me to recognize the signs and symptoms of burn-out before it is too late and how to prevent ourselves from drying out and shrivelling up like a raisin. I’m sure the skills I learned in this regard are transferable to any other ministry or employment opportunity.

#5: On friendships

When you arrive in L’Arche, you have no idea what type of people you will be sharing your house with. Sometimes you will hit it off right from the start. You’ll notice a similar passion or interest and your friendship will fly. Others you’re a bit more unsure of. They seem so different at first. You wonder how you’re going to work alongside each other when you both see the world so differently, let alone become friends.

In L’Arche we are a professional organization, but also a family. Yet, there is no expectation to become friends with everyone. It should happen naturally over a course of time.

I regret that there were many people I would have loved to have gotten to know more, but since we worked in different houses our lives went on and we barely talked. Yet in many other cases, I’ve been completely amazed at who I’ve met and gotten to know. Prior to L’Arche all my friends were Christian and mostly white (you have to understand I spent my entire life in Christian schools and church groups…how was I suppose to know any differently). Suddenly I found my life being enriched by a wide plethora of ideas stemming from Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, and Jews. At first I wondered how we would possibly form strong-lasting bonds when our religious leanings were so opposite. But then I learned that this diversity is our greatest strength. That it is the best example of striving for a better humanity, and that it is possible to work together in ways that are life-giving. We’ve had so many interesting discussions surrounding faith and religion and it’s been wonderful because we aren’t out to “convert” anyone. We talk freely and openly and we know we are practicing global learning rather than trying to prove another person wrong.

Furthermore, I’ve had the opportunity to live with people from over 15 different countries. This is something I feel is so special and close to my heart. I’ve gotten to try Filipino spaghetti and Bavarian pancakes. I’ve eaten an Indian meal with my hands and cooked a full Thanksgiving dinner twice for my Scottish house. I also introduced them to Shrove Tuesday (pancake day) in exchange for them introducing me to proper fish and chips and haggis. I’ve danced the salsa and the ceilidh. I’ve picked up some Polish and Hungarian words and I’ve taught them some Canadian slang. This intercultural exchange will always be part of my life now. I never want my world to be completely white again 😉.

Living in L’Arche was the most formative 3.5 years of my life. Those years have given me so much self-confidence and global awareness. I know that you’re learning never ends when you’re in L’Arche, but I also know it’s important to take what I have learned and apply it to my new situations. When I look back on who I was 4 years ago I see someone who had a big heart and wanted to help but simply didn’t know how to. I see someone a bit shy with emotions, a bit clueless about the world, and a bit naive about global impact. When I look at who I am today I see someone who desires to not just do things “for” people with disabilities but alongside them. I see someone who strives to create a more just society where all can fully be themselves, and I see a young woman confident in who God has created her to be and trying to live into that reality, that goal, and that identity every single day of her life whether in L’Arche or out.

Thank you, L’Arche for all you’ve taught me. Thank you to all the assistants and core members who have patiently walked beside me as I’ve figured out where my life was headed. Thank you to my accompanier for asking all the hard questions. And thank you, God, for providing these 4 incredible years!

Permission to Feel

give-yourself-permission-to-feel-whatever-you-need-to-feel   This past Sunday I attended a local church where the sermon centred on finding light in places of darkness.  Since it was January 1st, it was quite appropriate for all of us to take some time and reflect upon what the past year brought us – both blessings and challenges.  Almost all of us can attest to the fact that globally 2016 was not the best year.  We received the sad news that many of our favourite actors and singers had passed away.  We saw on the news that the rate of homicides in Chicago was at an all-time high.  We continued to wrestle with the unrest in many Middle Eastern Countries.  And we asked ourselves how it would be possible to find peace in a time of Trump.  All of these global issues definitely can affect us at a personal level, but then there are also the challenges we ourselves face on a daily basis.  Between December 30th and January 2nd many of my Facebook friends posted statues claiming that they were ready to burn 2016 and embrace 2017, hoping for the best.  Many of my friends struggled with very serious health issues, unemployment, lack of job satisfaction, and academic distress this past year.  Many of them stated that 2016 might very well have been the worst year of their lives.

But not for me.  For me 2016 was probably THE BEST YEAR EVER!  Well, at least the first 8 months of it were.  You may have picked up from other blogs I’ve written on this subject, but being in Edinburgh, Scotland was pretty much the best thing that ever happened to me.  And I was naïve enough to think that it was a “forever” type of thing, not a “one year only” type of thing.

Even though things did not seem promising for my return, it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that everything came crashing down on me and the reality set in that I really wasn’t going anywhere.  This meant that although my 2016 started off beautifully, holding hands and singing Auld Lang Syne while watching the fireworks from the top of Calton Hill at midnight, my 2016 ended with me being sad and depressed about how the events unfolded.  To further complicate matters, I received a job.  But not just any job, a vocation.  I finally was called to a church that I feel is an absolutely brilliant fit for me.  I am excited to do the very best I can as a children’s pastor and I feel honoured that God has selected me for such a time as this.  After all, it is what I studied, and I feel thankful that I was able to receive a charge almost as soon as I started applying (when so many of my other friends have had to wait over a year to find a place).  Yet, as much as I look forward to this new opportunity of continuing to gain skills and professional development and hopefully ministering to the lives of many children and families, there is still a certain level of resistance and tension.  I am trying to run with my arms wide-open into another ministry possibility, but I am still holding back, unable to say goodbye to what I thought would be, but is not.  I am asking myself “how do I possibly deal with all this?”  I am wondering how to bring closure to a dream I feel has been dashed, while still maintaining a positive attitude so that I can bring new life to my new parish.

This experience has been a lot like playing with playdough.  Giving a lump to a young kid and asking them to make some sort of shape.  The kid doesn’t really know what to do with it, so they end up just turning it around in their hands multiple times.  I am that kid.  I’m still working with playdough trying to see if I can turn it into a wonderful masterpiece, but it definitely is a work in progress.  And because of that, I can’t offer you any cut and dry answers for how I have arrived at finding light in the midst of my turbulent time, but I will offer a few suggestions based on what I have learned, read, and talked with a mentor about in recent weeks.  I hope they will be helpful to you in your present circumstance and offer you a place of healing and hope even when you feel your dreams and deepest wishes have been shattered.

#1: Permission to Feel

In my mind, I have a picture of one of those old school computer games that I played when I was about 12.  Of course, kids these days, have much more exciting consoles than what I had, but I used to enjoy mission games where I was stuck in the middle of a tropical rainforest jungle and had to make it out with only 2 first aid kids, 3 pairs of clothing, a canoe, and a bag of food.  In this game, the character was able to ask for various things.  “Permission to speak, sir?”  And if the commander liked you, he may have responded “Permission granted.”

Our life is a giant mission.  And you will encounter your ups and downs.  Sometimes when you’re feeling down, it’s important to be able to validate your own emotions.  And sometimes, you need that added boost of having another person tell you it’s okay to feel sad.  That’s why if you’re asking me “permission to feel?”  I’d like to respond with “permission granted.”

One of the greatest lessons I learned in L’Arche was this: you have the right to feel whichever emotions come to the surface in whichever way they come about.  Even if your trial does not seem “huge” compared to what your other friends are going through, don’t downplay it.  Live into those feelings.  Don’t tell yourself a Christian “shouldn’t” feel a certain way.  In fact, as much as possible, abolish the word “should” entirely from your vocabulary.  Instead of saying “I shouldn’t feel badly about not going back to Scotland when I have such a wonderful job opportunity here” say “I am thankful for my new job and all it will entail, but I still sort of wish I was back with the Highland cows.”  This shows thankfulness and hopeful expectation, but it also acknowledges the challenge with moving forward.  Instead of saying “I shouldn’t feel sad about my breakup.  The guy was a jerk anyways” say “That person was not the right individual for me at this time.  I’m thankful for the times we could spend together, but also the protection God gave me not to further what wasn’t right for me.  But I will still miss hanging out with him (or her).”

I remember going through a tumultuous time in my teenage years.  For a long number of years, I struggled with severe depression.  I am thankful that God has since alleviated this burden and provided me with sound health for over 6 years now, but I still remember those initial days of bitter struggle and they have provided me with more compassion for those who currently suffer.  When I was 17, I met with a wonderful Christian doctor and told her what I was feeling.  I then rebutted my own emotions by saying, “I know I shouldn’t feel this way because there are so many people going through worse things in life.”  My doctor asked me “do you think you are suffering?”  I said “No.  Not compared to those kids who have no food and water.”  And she looked me straight in the eye and said “you ARE suffering.  Don’t let anyone tell you you aren’t.”  And that’s what I want to say to you right now.  It doesn’t matter how small or how big your trial is.  You are suffering and I am so sorry to hear that.  But I hope you won’t have to stay stuck in the suffering.  I hope you will be able to see that even in the darkness, little cracks of light are appearing out of nowhere and little birds are whispering messages of hope, healing, and encouragement into your ear even when the Devil is trying to fill your mind with despair and loss.

#2: Live Into the Questions

Over the past 2 months, I have been doing a book study on the wonderful devotional “Univited” By: Lysa Terkeurst.  In this book, Lysa addresses how to effectively deal with rejection (whether from family, friends, or being turned down from jobs or situations we had really hoped for).  One of the best pieces of advice Lysa gives is to ask WHAT questions instead of WHY questions.  Taking an example from my own life, I am tempted to ask WHY things with Edinburgh didn’t work out.  WHY God gave me a passion for a very particular city, country, and culture then took it from underneath my feet.  WHY God seemed to open a million and one doors, but when it really came down to it shut all of them.  Yet, although I am tempted, I realize that to ask such questions would simply be to run around in circles.  The truth is, that maybe God will reveal to me the answers to the WHY questions, but for now He is remaining strangely silent.

Instead, I have decided to shift my questions to WHAT.  WHAT lessons does God still want me to learn here in Canada that I couldn’t learn over there?  WHAT character traits does God want to instill in me that would make me a more effective minister if I ever did go back (minister here is used in the broad sense, not necessarily in the pulpit sense)?  WHAT can I do in the interim while I’m waiting to “dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness?”  WHAT can I do to effectively minister with the opportunities I have right here in front of me without daydreaming about what could be, but obviously isn’t?

I’m not saying it’s easy to come up with answers to all these questions or that it’s easy to retrain our minds to think differently, but I have noticed for myself when I shift my focus on WHAT I do have rather than on what I don’t have I become a much more content person.

Here’s another thing Lysa taught me.  When a door shuts we often assume that it will be closed forever.  When I found out that I wasn’t able to go back to Edinburgh for the next several months, I decided in my mind that this meant I was never going back.  However, to be fair, God didn’t actually tell me that.  The UK government didn’t actually tell me that.  L’Arche didn’t actually tell me that.  I told myself that.  It is possible that your disappointment is the result of God’s protection for RIGHT NOW.  For whatever reason, God isn’t providing you with a spouse, your “dream job” or the chance to go back to your favourite country, and there’s probably a reason for it.  I know, if you’re like me, you hate hearing those types of Christian clichés, but they are so true.  There is a level of protection in God’s divine plan for us, even when it seems like God is just being “mean.”  He’s not mean!  He’s the parent who withholds too many sweets from His kids because they also need some meat and potatoes.

#3: Being thankful in the moment.

My decision to resign from L’Arche Cape Breton was not an easy one.  I knew it was the right choice and the best way to respect both myself and the L’Arche movement, but still L’Arche was all I really knew.  I had worked with them for the past 3 years and loved living in intentional community.  I didn’t know what it meant to have to find my own place or go back to job searching.  Living into that transition was hard, so in order to curtail any sense of depression or anxiety for my future, I began posting three things I was thankful for every day on Facebook.  Forcing yourself to think of the positives in every circumstance (no matter how crummy) actually ends up being a double-blessing.  First, we train our minds to pick up on the positive so throughout the day we are subconsciously aware of the good things that are taking place.  Then, at the end of the day when we write them down, we are reliving those happy memories.  Thus, our serotonin (or happiness) levels spike twice, and thus we experience the positive not once, but twice (for more information on this read “The Happiness Dare” By: Jennifer Dukes Lee).

I first started this practice in Edinburgh after attending one of our Tyndale chapels where one of our students talked about her “gratitude journal.”  Yet, this exercise has ended up being a smile-saver in the midst of what could have ended in disinterest and disillusionment after my disappointment with Scotland.

I still wish I was near a castle and listening to Scottish brogues, but I started playing a game with myself to try to come up with some reasons why I am here. As of today, I have 195 entries (3 for the 65 days I’ve been home).  Here are a few of the blessings that could only have taken place in North America (not in Europe):

  • My brother is getting married and I was able to meet his fiancée’s parents and brother. I also don’t have to worry about how I could financially afford to attend their wedding and the complications of flying home and then flying back to Edinburgh to complete another term.
  • I was able to attend a local young adult’s group where I made some new friends. Since I haven’t lived in my hometown for about 15 years, I virtually had no one (except my parents) to come home to.  Now, when I come back for periodic visits, I will have lots of friends to meet up with!
  • I was able to work on “self-improvement” and had some down-time which I likely will never get another opportunity to have in quite the same way.
  • I was able to spend a week with my university friends in Toronto where I went to the Christmas Market, discovered the best burger place in all of Newmarket, and randomly ran into my pastor on the train ride home.
  • Although it was born out of pain, I was able to have many good discussions with friends who were also facing disappointment because of doors they felt God had closed to them. I am thankful that we were able to mutually edify and build one another up.
  • I was able to spend 2 months as an intern at a local church and this ultimately resulted in me getting a position as a children’s pastor at another church. I learned so much about kid’s ministry and was able to pour into my passion of working with kids who have special needs.
  • I was able to have more time for my writing
  • I was able to spend Christmas at home with my parents
  • I have developed a more spiritually mature view of God and have had time to wrestle with some tough and important theological concepts.

There are just a sampling of the many blessings and opportunities God has given me since I arrived home.  It doesn’t make the disappointment any less, but it does help me process my grief in a way that is more productive and less destructive.

If you have not taken up this practice for yourself, it is something I’d really like to encourage you to do.  Find at least one positive thing in every circumstance.  It doesn’t matter how big or how small.  If you can’t find at least one blessing or crack of light in the darkness, it might help you to word things differently.  In “Uninvited” Lysa suggests asking the question “what does not accepting this position free up for me?”  Yes, going to Edinburgh would have been great, but being in Canada has freed up my familial obligations that would not have been met in the same way if I were abroad.  Yes, being in Edinburgh would have been fun, but being here in Canada has protected my relationship with my brother and sister-in-law in a way that being over there wouldn’t have secured.  So when someone hands us a bouquet, we have to decide to not stare at the thorny stems, but to look up and see the beautiful roses.

Conclusion:

Oftentimes we are convinced that we know ourselves better than anyone else, but I’d like to suggest that is not necessarily the case.  Our Heavenly Father knows us the most intimately because it is He who made and formed us and He wants what is best for our future.  If you’re faced with heaps of disappointment right now, you may not be interested in mere proof-texting, but let me urge you to do this: find a quiet room, pour your heart out to God and allow yourself to FEEL all the feelings without rationalizing them.  Live into your hurt and disappointment, but then don’t stay stuck there.  Ask yourself what you can learn from the situation and move from being a victim to being victorious.  Challenge yourself to see the positive outcomes in the negative situation, and thank God for any hints of protection not receiving your wish will bring to you.  The healing may not come easily and it will definitely take time, but in the end it will be so worth it, because you will realize that for each challenge, there is a blessing, a rose, just waiting for you to take hold of it.