Launch Report

October 24-25 was Stephanie’s and my assessment retreat with the Launch Network in Atlanta. It was an intense two days of interviews followed by a couple “let’s see what you’re made of” challenges. I enjoyed it, but we got home exhausted late that Friday night.

Last Friday, November 1, we had our conference call to get our rating. The call was with Mac Lake from the Launch Network and George, The Cove’s Executive Pastor. Mac read the outline of my report and then gave me their recommendation. Launch’s recommendation is that I am “not ready at this time” to plant a church. The description of that recommendation is: “These are individuals we sense are early in their calling to plant. Also we sense there are developmental things that need to be focused on before entering our training or moving forward with a church plant.”

In short, they believe I’m a gifted communicator, but I need some development in my leadership skills – most specifically team building. They sent me a several page report that outlined their observations and recommendations for me. All in all it was very positive.

So what’s next? I’m not sure. I’ll be on staff with The Cove at least through the end of 2013 and I’ll start working with George on next steps. Launch made some great suggestions on what they believe is a good fit for me. Some of the suggestions were long term, and some were ways to get ready for where I’ll be long term.

I would definitely love for you guys to pray for Stephanie and me as we continue to pursue where God is leading us. Launch gave us some great clarity on what our next step is not, and some suggestions on what they may be. I firmly believe God has His hand on us, and we’re looking forward to seeing where He takes us.

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A New Journey Begins

Church HDR

Church HDR (Photo credit: I_am_Allan)

After service yesterday I announced that October 20 will be my last day as the campus pastor at the Catawba Valley Campus of The Cove Church. This has been in the works for a long time. Four years ago I sensed God calling me to plant a church … pretty much out of nowhere. After spending 6 months trying to talk myself out of it, and then trying to talk Stephanie into it, I can honestly say it’s a desire that Stephanie and I have been prayerfully pursuing ever since. After a lot of prayer and conversation with my leadership at The Cove, we believe it’s time to move forward with the next step of this journey.

This is definitely bittersweet. On one hand, Stephanie and I are very excited about what’s ahead. Church planting is incredibly difficult, but it’s also an adventure – an adventure where we will see enemies of God become worshipers of God. I have been completely unable to shake the desire. And I’ve actually tried.

On the other hand, Catawba Valley has been my church for 2 and a half years. I’ve been able to cut my ministry teeth. I’ve seen people meet Jesus and get plugged into church. I’ve seen leaders rise up to new levels. On a personal level, I had my third child while there. God has done so many good things in, through and for us during our time at Catawba Valley that I could never recount them all in a blog post.

All in all, this is a good thing. Stephanie and I are pursuing what we believe God has called us to do, and the campus is getting a great new leader – Michael Strickland. Not only is Michael a great leader, he’s also one of my best friends.

A lot of people have asked about what’s next, which is great. So I want to give an update. There are several things on the horizon, here’s a brief summary:

  1. Assessment – Stephanie and I are going to Atlanta on October 24-25 to be assessed by the Launch Network. I’ve already completed their online assessments, and I’m currently working on a packet of assignments to be completed before we go. The Launch Network’s primary role is to assess and train potential planters. Far too many men have planted churches because they believed they were called, but no one confirmed their calling, so they failed. Others may have been legitimately called, but they weren’t trained enough to be successful. Launch (as well as other similar networks) is seeking to change that and to plant healthy and reproducing churches.
  2. Recommendation - After the retreat, I will have a Skype call with a representative from Launch and they will give me one of four “grades.” Option A: I will be recommended to plant. This means they believe that I am indeed called to plant a church and I will move onto the training phase. Option B: I will be recommended with conditions. This mean they think I’m called to do it, but I need to read a couple books addressing some weaknesses they’re concerned about. Option C: They think I may be called to plant a church, but I’m not ready yet and I should assess again in 2 years. Option D: They do not believe I’m called to plant a church, but will make recommendations on where I may be a good fit.
  3. Residency - If I receive the recommended or recommended with conditions score, I will be placed in a church planting residency. This means I will go on staff with a church planting church for approximately a year as a resident. Once or twice a month I will go to a Launch “hub” for training. This will involve everything from choosing the city, developing a clear and compelling vision, raising funds, developing specific competencies, and more. The rest of my time will be completing that background work.
    I’m also being assessed for a church planting residency through The Summit Network with The Summit Church in Durham, NC. They are an incredibly gospel-centered church and a real leader in church planting. Their assessment and residency are separate from Launch’s, but those two networks have a great relationship with each other. They have 4 phases of assessment, and I was recently invited into Phase 2. Basically I’ve made it past the first week of American idol … Jesus style. If I make it through their assessment process I will go on staff with them for 9-10 months to be trained, and they will send me.
  4. Plant - Once the city is picked, I’ve been trained, the funds have been raised, and everything is ready … we will officially plant a church. This could be almost anywhere, but right now my desire is to stay in North Carolina. I want to plant in a college town, for a variety of reasons. Outside of that, I’m very open to wherever God puts us.
  5. Or … not - If I am not recommended to plant, that’s where it gets a little tricky. We know that our time at The Cove is coming to a close regardless, so we are getting backup plans ready as well. At this point, our most likely back up plan is for me to go to seminary. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my heart is in ministry, so my next step may be intensive training as I work on a Master of Divinity. I’ve already started my application for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary as well as a grant to help cover the cost.

If you’ve read this far, you obviously love Stephanie and me. I would really appreciate your prayers as we continue to pursue our calling. We know that God has his hand on our lives despite us, which is why we feel so confident in this pursuit. We have never been so unsure of where we’ll be going or when we’ll be going there. I’ve also never been so ok with being so unsure. So please pray for God to place us exactly where He wants us, to use us mightily, and to draw people to Himself through us. There’s a lot more to pray for, but that’s the big thing right now.

Also pray for Michael Strickland. He’s also stepping out on faith with a family in tow. Being a campus pastor is a great next step in ministry for him, but it can also be very difficult and discouraging at times.

Thanks for reading, I’m looking forward to updating you even more as our journey progresses.

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Who Do You Think You Are – Review

whodoyou300x250Seeking and defining our identity is a universal pursuit. Everyone wants to be viewed as hip or refined, mature or rebellious, trendy or classic, or any variety of adjectives and combinations. The point is that we all want to be defined by something, and we all want the right to determine that definition. That’s why we pursue degrees, careers, and reputations for the prestige of their titles – titles that ultimately disappoint or fail. This is exactly the problem that Pastor Mark Driscoll addresses in his newest book Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA).

Driscoll the Writer

Driscoll has a unique writing ability. He can quote the Bible, dead theologians like Martin Luther, and movies like Memento and Fight Club without skipping a beat. He also combines two different Christian writing styles in this book. WDYTYA is a plea for people to find their identity in Christ – non-Christians for the first time and Christians as a new habit. In that regard, it’s a great topical teaching. However, it’s also an easy-to-read expositional commentary on the book of Ephesians.

If you’ve read any of Driscoll’s other books you’ll notice that this one is significantly different. I’ve read almost all of them and have watched him progress as a writer. His earliest books are very raw, honest, funny, and Jesus centered. His next several books are thoroughly theological, yet practical and engaging, and still Jesus centered. The main similarity in WDYTYA to his other books is the fact that he illustrates his teaching with weighty, sometimes heart wrenching, stories of people from Mars Hill Church. It’s also definitely still Jesus centered.

Most of his books have had a very specific audience: church planters and pastors, victims of abuse and hardship, people who are curious about exploring Jesus, and married people – in no particular order. WDYTYA, by Driscoll’s own admission, was written to the broadest base of people of all his books. It’s definitely a book that a person with no biblical understanding could pick up and enjoy, and one that a seasoned seminary professor could benefit from.

Strengths

There were a handful of chapters in WDYTYA that I particularly enjoyed. Chapter 5, “I am Appreciated,” was one of my favorites. Have you ever told someone that they gave a great message, sang beautifully, or explained something particularly well at church only to have them say, “it’s all the Lord?” I have, and I find it frustrating, but always felt bad for finding it frustrating – which made it all the more frustrating.

Driscoll points out that Paul thanked the Ephesians for the work they did for God, and didn’t expect them to shrug off his gratitude. Driscoll says, “while it may sound spiritual to say that everything that happens is solely by God and that we can take no credit and deserve no appreciation for anything we do, it’s unbiblical and ungrateful.” He then goes on to say how important it is to appreciate people who work hard for the sake of the gospel, “It’s grievous when, out of the good desire to reserve all glory for God, we forget to also appreciate those through whom God works.”

Chapter 7, “I am Reconciled,” was probably my favorite chapter in the entire book. One of the goals of the chapter is racial reconciliation, so church leaders who read WDYTYA should pay especially close attention to this chapter. Despite many advances that the American Church has made, we are still very segregated. For the sake of time, I’ll leave you with one quote, “our cultural differences may distinguish us, but they do not define us and should not divide God’s people or allow them to accept the social structures and idols that wrongly divide people.”

Points of Contention

There are definitely parts of WDYTYA that will rub some people wrong. For instance, if you’re an Arminian, you won’t like a 4 paragraph section of Chapter 4, “I am Blessed.” If you’re a cessationist, or even a cautious continuationist, you’ll feel uncomfortable during parts of Chapter 10, “I am Gifted.” Finally, if you’re a die hard Driscoll fan (like I am), you may not find this to be his most engaging book. Sometimes that’s the downside of writing a good book that can reach a broader audience. That said, it’s an excellent book, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

By way of housekeeping, I should mention that I got a free advanced ebook copy of Who Do You Think You Are? as a member of the “Who Do You Think You Are? Street Team.” Writing an honest review of the book was an expectation for members of the Street Team – one I am glad to uphold. That’s enough of my thoughts, you should click here and buy a copy for yourself … now.

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Think Before You Blame

Shift + Blame

Shift + Blame (Photo credit: Cyberslayer)

The conversation about Newtown has continued. There seems to be a natural human cycle. The first part of the cycle is shock. We’re angry, scared, confused, and generally upset. The biggest question is “why?” Outside of the fact that the shooting at Sandy Hook School was evil, we may never know why. Evil, by very definition, doesn’t make sense. Which is why the next stage of the cycle is the most confusing – blame.

The commentators have begun. Some blame violent video games, despite the fact that there is no conclusive evidence that violent video games cause pe0ple to commit violent acts. Some blame poor upbringing, broken homes, excessive media coverage, weak consequences for committing crimes, and much more.

Misplaced Blame

Then there’s been a dangerous blanket evangelical response. Not everyone has issued it, but enough prominent evangelical leaders have to be alarming. It goes something like this: “We’ve turned our backs on God as a nation and now we’re reaping the consequences.”

I consider myself to be an evangelical. I believe the Bible is 100% true and inspired by God. I believe Jesus has been God for eternity. I believe that He entered human history for 33 years, lived a perfect life, died in my place for my sin, and was literally, physically resurrected from the dead. I believe we are born sinners and enemies of God and our only hope is to put our faith in Jesus for forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. However, I do not believe people are walking into schools, malls, and other venues to kill people because we have turned our back on God. Here’s a couple reasons why:

  1. Canada and Europe: Canada and Europe have similar media coverage as the US. They have similar access to violent video games. They also have weak broken families, and weaker consequences for most crimes than the US. Finally, those nations have “turned their back on God” for far longer and in a much more drastic fashion than the United States – yet they have fewer violent crimes. So you cannot say that God is allowing these violent crimes because we’ve kicked Him out. Canada and Europe have done it more than we have, and they don’t seem to be getting the same consequences.
  2. Moral Decline is Relative: Sexual sin, and a few other immoral categories, are much more socially acceptable today than in the 1950’s. However, the 1950’s were far from perfect. There may not have been a national push for gay marriage, but the way we treated minorities was reprehensible. If you were not Caucasian you were treated like a second class citizen – at best. That means that millions of people who are equal to me in dignity, because they are image bearers of God, were not recognized with equality. That’s the epitome of immorality. We’re not more immoral as a nation, we’ve simply exchanged acceptable sins.
  3. Violence has always been around: There has never been a time, in World or US history, that violent crimes did not occur. For example, during the “wild west” era of the 19th century violent crimes were far more prevalent than they are today. If anything, we are now living in one of the safest eras of US history.
  4. Following Jesus is Dangerous: Jesus told His followers to take up their cross, that means to live like you’re a dead man. Paul said, “I die every day.” While some of that was figurative language, the fact remains that becoming a Christian was one of the most dangerous things you could do for the first 300 years AD. All but one of the Apostles died violent deaths. The only exception was John, who survived being dipped in boiling oil. Early Christians were persecuted, shunned by families, exiled, and killed on a daily basis. Becoming a Christian was dangerous. So to suggest that putting your faith in Christ, even on a corporate level, is putting yourself in greater physical safety is absurd.

Just like everyone else who has watched from a distance, I’m upset about the tragedy in Newtown. I hate that people will kill innocent children. I want violence to end.

I’m also a Christian pastor who wants everyone I encounter to know and love Jesus. It’s an endeavor I’ve given my life to. But I want to reach lost people, not blame them for their influence on our country. So please, don’t blame Friday’s tragedy on a nation that has “turned its back on God.” People don’t turn their back on God, we’re born with our backs turned on God. It’s our job to point them to Jesus. Blaming people for a posture toward God that they are born with is not going to help anything.

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Reflecting on a Tragedy

Official seal of Newtown, Connecticut

Official seal of Newtown, Connecticut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What happened at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut yesterday was a tragedy. Parents of a 5-year-old should never have to kiss their child goodbye for the last time. As a father, my heart and prayers go out to those who woke up grieving a lost child this morning.

Whenever violence of this nature occurs we always want to know why. Why does someone take innocent lives? Why would anyone want to hurt children? Why? There are some reasons that we will not understand, like Adam Lanza’s motivation.

There are other reasons that can be understood. The deepest reason is that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9a). Left to ourselves we are wicked to the core. Our hearts are not pure, they’re evil. We know that to be true, but we don’t like to face it. This doesn’t mean that we all want to be violent, but we all have desires in our heart that are wrong. Tragically, Adam Lanza had violent desires in his heart, and he followed his heart.

Poor Reasons

On the other hand, this did NOT happen because:

  • God is not sovereign or good: It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but God did allow this to happen. He is completely sovereign, so this did not surprise Him. This does not mean, however, that He caused it or was glad it happened. He is still good. Evil grieves Him, and it will not last forever. There will be a day that He eradicates all evil forever. David was anointed King of Israel approximately 30 years before he assumed the throne. Jesus is the true and better David. He clearly proved Himself to be King of kings through His death, burial, and resurrection. When we see events like yesterday’s, we simply have to believe that Jesus has not assumed His throne in fullness yet.
  • The mental health system failed him: Lanza probably was mentally ill. But mental healthcare, even at its best, cannot fix evil. Mental illness doesn’t cause someone to kill innocent people, evil does.
  • Prayer was taken out of the schools: God doesn’t have elementary age children killed (or even passively stop protecting them) to wake our nation up from a court decision in the 1960’s.

Comfort

Typically verses like Proverbs 11:21, “Be assured, an evil person will not go unpunished” don’t offer a lot of comfort. Usually we like to focus more on God’s love than on His justice. Yes, I am glad that God loves me. There is no better news than that. But after days like yesterday, I’m also glad that God is angry at sin and evil. It’s good news that He is just and does not let evil go unpunished.

I obviously don’t have all the answers. But I do know that God is good, God is in control, we don’t always understand why things happen, evil will not last forever, and hope can only be found by putting your trust in Jesus. Even though we don’t have all the answers, He does.

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Celebrating Zimbabwe

I spent September 24-October 4 in Zimbabwe on my first foreign mission trip. It was a small team. I went with Denny St. Clair, a man from The Cove Church who goes on mission trips regularly. We had a small team of national pastors and other leaders from Bulawayo who made the event happen. They served as interpreters, guides, technical support, worship leaders, and much more. None of what we accomplished would have been possible without them.

It was a very fruitful trip. We visited an area of the country called Binga, which is very rural. It’s so rural, in fact, that it’s usually just referred to as “the bush.”

The trip consisted of three major events. The first event was a two day “pastor’s conference” where we hosted about 60 church leaders from surrounding villages on Thursday and Friday. It was the most casual conference I’ve ever attended. We met under a tree beside a soccer field at Pashu High School where everyone sat on the dust. The content of our teachings were decided the night before we taught it. Nonetheless, it was a great opportunity to pour into some church leaders who don’t have much access to Biblical Training.

The second event was an evangelistic “crusade” on Wednesday through Saturday night. We don’t use that term much more in the US because it’s developed a negative connotation, but in the bush of Zimbabwe they know it’s a big exciting event. Every night we had more people show up than the night before. They would sing for hours. They would start singing in the mid afternoon and were still going after sunset. Only after it had been dark for almost an hour would Denny or I preach. Overall, we had 340 decisions for Christ at the crusade. On Sunday night we showed the Jesus film in Ndbele (think “in-da-belly”) at another nearby school. We had at least 45 decisions there, but since it was just one night and had less structure we weren’t able to get a completely accurate count.

The third and final major event was a soccer tournament. 4 high schools from the area came and played in a soccer tournament. Many players played barefoot because they don’t own shoes. Before the tournament Denny shared the gospel with the players and we had several more decisions there. Again, we weren’t able to get an accurate count of the decisions. However, we know that we had over 400 total decisions for Christ.

On Sunday we also baptized 38 people. In retrospect, we realized that we probably should have done it on Saturday. By Sunday many people had walked back to their homes that were several miles away. However, we celebrate the ones who followed through with their first step of obedience.

If you supported this trip with prayer, finances, or both: thank you so much. God was very faithful and we saw a lot of fruit. Please continue to pray that God continues to work in Binga. The names of the 340 people who made decisions at the crusade have been given to church leaders who served as counselors. They have a huge task of follow ups ahead of them, so please pray for them. We also want all of them to follow through and be baptized.

There’s much more to say about this trip, and there are many more posts to come. In the meantime, I wanted to give a brief overview of the trip, and what we saw God do. Stay tuned for more …

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Why I’m (almost) Apolitical

Republican vs. Democrat 2012

Republican vs. Democrat 2012 (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

It’s definitely election season. Every other Facebook post and TV commercial is declaring the glories of one candidate and the atrocities of another. Some people love this season, others hate it. In college, I was fascinated by politics. I was a history major so it lined up well with my studies. The tension and the competitive nature of it was thrilling for a 21-year-old aspiring intellectual. However, over the last few years I’ve gotten less and less interested in politics.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me clarify. I care deeply about many of the issues politicians champion. I vote, and am glad to do so. I believe freedom is one of the greatest things America has going for us right now, even though I think we abuse it. The difference is that I put virtually no hope in the political process. There are several reasons why, here are 3:

1) Politics Makes Enemies out of My Mission Field

I have one overarching goal in life: to see lots of people meet Jesus. Any other goal in my life is simply a building block of that larger one. This takes building relationships with people who don’t know Him. Most non-Christians are going to disagree with my political views because they have entirely different goals. If every conversation with a non-Christian friend turns into a political debate, I’m wasting time that could be used building the relationship, or talking about Jesus.

Those debates would do little more than push away the very people I’m trying to reach. I’ve watched a lot of debates. I’ve watched politicians debate on TV. I’ve watched friends debate the merits of their favorite candidate. Never once have I seen anyone put their faith in Christ as a result of one of those debates.

2) Jesus Never Talked Politics

Jesus paid his taxes and said everyone else should too. Peter and Paul both said to obey the government, even the wicked governments they lived under (that sanctioned the murder of Christians). Paul even took it to the next level and said to pray for them. Peter once said “we must obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:29 ESV) but that was because they were ordered to stop talking about Jesus on their own time. So unless the government forbids you to talk about, and follow Jesus, that doesn’t apply to you. That’s about as political as the New Testament gets. If the New Testament doesn’t address politics anymore than that, I have a hard time doing it myself.

3) Jesus Wouldn’t Fit in any of the Political Parties

I grew up believing that the Republican party was virtually an extension of the church. To be fair, it was largely because Republicans were far more likely to be pro-life (a position I still hold firmly) than were the Democrats. It was an admirable move that many evangelicals made to stand up for the rights of the unborn. After all, aren’t we called to care for the least of these?

However, over time, an underlying belief that the Republican party was God’s party grew and grew. It may have been largely unstated, but it was there nonetheless. In the Old Testament, when Joshua was on his way to “attack” Jericho, he was approached by an angel. He said, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” The angel said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord” (Joshua 5:13-14 ESV).

This angel didn’t want to be associated with Israel anymore than the people of Jericho. Even though Israel was God’s covenant people, they were no more perfectly aligned with the nature and character of God than a pagan nation that did not know Him. If that’s how God responded to Israel as they began to conquer Canaan, why would he get anymore excited about a particular American political party?

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