Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ground Crews and Flight Crews

I'm leading a team of five to the Philippines in March. I'm pretty excited about the opportunity! My wife and I were there in 2005 when I presented a couple seminars to train pastors and church leaders. As a result of that trip, we sent an Alpha "starter kit" with a few books and a set of videos to one of our friends there. He has been leading Alpha ever since, and asked us to come and train people there to lead Alpha more effectively.

So five of us from Central, from our Alpha leadership team, are planning a ten or eleven day trip. We'll be presenting Alpha to almost five hundred people in three different venues. Each of us will be speaking and leading various parts of the seminar, plus we'll have opportunities to interact with church leaders from that part of the Philippines for the whole time we're on the ground there. I can't wait to see what grows out of this trip!

For example, we have almost five hundred people coming from a wide variety of churches in the central Philippines. The people at Alpha USA say that on average, each training (they call them "GAT" for Global Alpha Training) gives birth to 23 new Alpha courses. Let's say each of those Alpha courses, on average, has 30 participants in the next year. Statistically, about half the people who come on Alpha make either a first-time commitment or a recommitment to Jesus Christ. Do the math, and we're talking about over a thousand people in the first year coming to know Jesus in a way they hadn't before. Then they start talking with their friends and family, and ... Wow!

One of the things I've realized in preparing for this trip is that every mission trip requires not just people who are willing to get on the airplane and go, but also those who are willing to stay behind and support that "flight crew." If we don't have a good "ground crew" who are helping us prepare, praying with us and for us, and supporting us financially, this trip will have a lot less impact.

Would you consider being part of our ground crew? We will be finding ways to communicate specifics of the trip, prayer requests, and sharing what God is doing as we go. If you're willing to be part of the prayer team, please email me -- wrdhuntr@yahoo.com -- and let me know that. I'll make sure you receive the communications about prayer needs for this trip, as well as some of the triumphs along the way. Some of that information, no doubt, will be shared on this blog, but there will also be more detailed information that we'll only share in our prayer request emails.

Also, this trip will require significant dollars to make it happen. Each person on the team is putting forward a large sum of money just to cover air fares, etc. The pastors and church leaders in the Philippines are often living in very difficult conditions. Many, in fact, have to choose between paying for transportation to our seminar and paying for food that day. So as part of the training, we are also providing a simple lunch. Because so many church leaders will be coming, and two of the three seminars we're offering are two-day affairs that involve two lunches, total cost for the participants' lunches will add up to nearly $3,000. (That averages a little under $3 per lunch.) That is just one of the expenses we'll need to cover to provide this training. Others include the cost of ferries from island to island, lodging in the various areas where we'll be presenting, and meals. We'll be working hard while we're there, and we are hoping to maximize the impact we have on this trip.

If you're able to donate toward this mission, please visit the online giving page of Central's website. You can donate online by choosing the "other" category on this page, and filling in "Philippines" to the right of the amount you want to give. These donations are tax deductible. Any amount, small or large, will help us make a significant impact on the lives of people in the central Philippines.

I hope it goes without saying that if you donate, or if you sign up to pray for us, that is the only way your information will be used. You won't receive other emails and that information is kept totally confidential.

Thank you so much for considering being part of our ground crew! Your prayers and your financial support are incredibly important as we get ready to fly out in March.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The temptations of peace

I've never had a riot near my home. When I hear gunshots in my neighborhood, I assume it must be hunting season. Soldiers have never kicked in my door. I've never been shot at by a sniper.

I live in a relatively peaceful place. Most Christians in the western world can say this.

We know that not all Jesus-followers live this way. Some gather weekly in fear of arrest or violence. Churches explode in flames. Villages are destroyed because of the name of Jesus. In my part of the world we hear these stories and shake our heads. Maybe we pray.

Is there more? What is the proper stewardship of peace?

The fact is, churches in North America are tempted by peace. We are tempted specifically in three directions.

First, peace -- the relative lack of conflict, lack of persecution -- tempts us toward sloppy thinking. We drift away from our biblical foundations. We begin to buy into the views of the world around us. The other "isms" in our world begin to infect our faith. Many churches no longer talk about the Bible being God's Word -- they are embarrassed by the literalism this implies. They are quick to define terms, using pious sounding quotes from great church leaders. One of the most popular quotes in this regard is from Martin Luther, who said that the Bible cradles Jesus like the manger cradled the Christ child. We do not worship the manger, nor do we worship the Bible. So churches that want to distance themselves from the Bible as some kind of literal word of God march out this statement from Luther and use it to duck under the hard sayings, the life-and-death words, the difficult readings of the Bible.

They don't realize the cost. It seems so reasonable to say that the Bible is a human book that contains Jesus, that we read it through the filter of the Great Commandment to love God and love our neighbor, and that everything not fitting these two commandments must be discarded.

In the relative peace that reigned in Germany in the 1920's -- peace consumed with recovery after Germany's defeat in World War One, peace focused on trying to rebuild a nation and rebuild some sense of trust in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles that punished Germany severely -- in this relatively peaceful time, biblical scholars made statements like these. We cannot accept the Bible as God's literal word, they said. We study the Bible to know what happened to the Israelites in ancient times, to know the infancy of that great institution, the Church. We don't treat the Bible as though it was some magical, supernatural book that is actually God's vehicle for speaking to us. That's ludicrous and childish.

It was this way of thinking that paved the way for the next steps -- for pastors and theologians to say that Christianity must rise above its Jewish roots, that all things Jewish must be discarded as inferior, including the Old Testament. These thoughts were not considered dangerous in those days, but rather progressive and exciting and freeing. A new vision of Jesus, freed from the wooden literalism of the Bible, began to emerge. This Jesus was a bright spot of Aryan light breaking into the darkness of Judaism. This Jesus -- fabricated out of thin air by biblical scholars and theologians who no longer considered the Bible as God's word, who laughed at what they began to call "fundamentalists" -- this Jesus paved the way for the extermination of six million Jews in places like Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

Peace tempts us to be sloppy in our biblical thinking. Peace tempts us not to trust in, not to rely on the Bible as God's Word. Peace tempts us to trust ourselves rather than to trust God's Word. In times of peace we read a verse like Proverbs 3:5-6 ("Trust in the Lord with your whole heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight") and we think, Yes, that's beautiful. And I'll do what makes sense to me.

In times of peace Jesus' followers must cling for our very lives to his Word. We must see in the Bible God's very words to us. We study to know what these words meant to their original hearers. We do the hard work of scholarship in Hebrew and Greek. We read beyond simple surface understandings. But at the same time we cling to these words as life itself, because Jesus clung to them in this way, and he told us to do so as well. God help us if we ever begin to think that this or that part of the Scriptures don't apply to us.

Second, peace tempts us toward laziness. We are tempted to become lazy in our mission, lazy in our disciple-making, lazy in our own personal spiritual formation. "There is time," we think, as Pink Floyd sang so articulately:

"Tired and lying in the sunshine,
Staying home to watch the rain.
You are young, and life is long,
And there is time to kill today;
And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You've missed the starting gun."

So we get lazy in our mission. We lose any sense of urgency and other priorities begin to take over. Mission is important, yes, but we have to have balance in our lives. The needs seem far away. We don't want to rush into things. How can we know the best way to allocate our time and our energy, anyway? There are so many choices. It's best to take the long view.

Thoughts like these keep us from ever getting off the dime and doing something that can make an eternal difference. Instead of taking a chance and getting involved with a mission agency that might not be perfect, we become more and more self-focused, more and more concerned about our own needs. Churches that once sent their dollars and their children to the mission field spend their annual meetings, their budgets, and their sweat trying to maintain the church building and pay the pastor.

While it is certainly true that the face of missions has changed in the last century, and there are many needs close to home, we have lost something critical here that we don't often recognize. One of the greatest facets of our mission-focus a century ago was that our young people often saw and heard an appeal to give their lives to the mission of Christ. When a missionary came from deepest darkest Africa to share harrowing tales of bringing the gospel to the heathen, the sermon or slideshow often ended with an appeal for some of the young people in the crowd to consider giving their lives to foreign missions. Who will tell them if you don't? This was not a cliche but an honest appeal for the most urgent of tasks.

Today we may think about a week-long mission trip to build houses across the border in Mexico (preferably over Christmas break, when it's cold here and warm there). But very rarely do we hear an appeal for radically giving your whole life to missions of any kind, either here or abroad. Our young people, at an age when they are seeking an adrenaline-filled challenge, don't hear the call to give their lives to Jesus Christ and his kingdom. Our peaceful context makes these radical appeals seem like an overreaction.

Many who might give their all to Jesus end up going into teaching, or social work, or business. All these are honorable callings, no doubt, but the heart that is looking for a challenge somehow never considers following Jesus in a radical way. The call to be a pastor in Germany in the 1920's was an honorable calling, but not a radical one. Shortly after Hitler came to power the German church convinced or coerced the vast majority of its pastors to swear an oath of loyalty to der Fuhrer as the head of the Church. How could these pastors, who took the job because it was a respectable calling where they could help people, now be expected to discern the need for a radical stand against the leader of their country? They could not. Only a very few troublemakers had the foresight to stand against Hitler and accept the consequences of their actions.

Third, peace tempts us to get swept up in the culture. When there is no urgency in our lifestyle choices, when there is no solid Word from God to shape and direct our lives, we naturally begin to drift with the current, like salmon that have spawned and now drift lazily downstream to die. We go with the flow, not realizing that there are other possibilities. We don't recognize that Jesus is headed somewhere else. So we begin to believe the billboards along the interstate and the banner ads on our favorite websites. Advertisers preach to us a message of self-fulfillment we begin to accept as truth. We begin to believe the movies and games that occupy our leisure hours. All of these media carry a message, and many of these messages stand in direct opposition to the call of Christ. But in peacetime each bit of entertainment seems like a harmless diversion. We forget the Bible's call not to be conformed to this world (Romans 12:1-2).

Is this really a big deal?

Peacetime in the church presents us with many temptations, but it also offers a great opportunity. If we can keep our foundations, peacetime gives us the chance to develop hard-edged leaders with clear spiritual sight and effective training in God's Word and in the practical matters of following Jesus. Perhaps these leaders will be called to go into those places where Christians are persecuted. Perhaps they will be called to offer training to local leaders who've never enjoyed the luxury of a Bible class. Or perhaps in this radical life of discipleship they will discover a mission field full of lost and drifting souls all around them. Perhaps they will discover that their own peaceful culture is headed for the edge of the cliff and needs saving.

The tragedy is that the church may well sleep its way through this lazy, peaceful time.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Where have the men gone?

Why does the church culture seem to be dominated by women and unmanly men? (I know this is not totally true, but admit it -- by and large across the church, these are the percentages.)

This blog post is excellent and thought-provoking. Well worth reading.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Unique Contribution

Well, I had my conversation with Terry last week. (This is the guy who is in a three-year coaching relationship with Central's program staff. Check out Terry Walling's Leadership Breakthru pages -- great stuff!) The conversation was both easier and more profound than I expected.

The most significant comment Terry made to me went something like this: He said, Jeff, you've reached the stage in life where you no longer have to prove what you can do. From here on out, there are many things that you can do -- more than you'll ever finish. From here on out, the question is rather what you should do.

This was a revelation to me, though I have been pushing up against this question for a long time. As we talked I started to feel a freedom. Just because I am capable of something, that doesn't mean I should do it -- even if it is something that needs to be done.

Now, according to Terry, my work is to begin to figure out what my "unique contribution" is. The exact means toward this goal is to develop a statement that defines my role, my passion, my function, in such a way that I can use the statement as a tool to help me decide whether to take on a new project or a new assignment.

This certainly doesn't mean that if I'm not passionate about taking out the garbage, someone else will have to do it. Some things you just do because they're your responsibility and you love the people you live and/or work with. So I will continue to take out the garbage and a thousand other things. But when it comes to the big stuff, I'm excited to have a filter that helps me decide where to put my effort.

I'll keep you posted.

Friday, January 20, 2012


I have commented many times in the past on this blog about my excitement about pastorates. For newer readers or those who, like me, forget stuff -- a pastorate is a mid-sized group of Jesus-followers who meet in a home for fellowship, worship, scripture, sacraments, and common work in mission and evangelism. In short, it's much like a house church but is rooted within the life of a larger congregation. The model (and the name) comes most recently from Holy Trinity Brompton, the Anglican church in London that is best known for starting the Alpha Course.

Mid-sized in this case means a group of about 25-35 people, which might seem large. I constantly tell potential leaders whose eyes widen at that number to stop counting the chairs in their house. So many of us think that crowding is a bad thing -- but if you've ever been part of a worship gathering in a home, you know that if everyone has a chair, it's pretty awkward -- but if you've got people sitting on the stairs, the window ledge, the living room floor, and the arms of the couch, it creates a kind of energy that can be exciting!

The reason I'm so excited about pastorates is two-fold. First, I have always been passionate about wanting the church to live up to its calling to be God's redemptive agent in the world (see Romans 8) -- in short, to live in intimate connection with Jesus through his Spirit, to care for its participants, and to overflow in love for all creation in tangible ways. As I have worked in traditional congregations, I have rarely seen any indications that the church can live in this way. Every time I've seen the church approach this level of mission and community life and spiritual vibrancy, it has been in home-based, home-sized groupings of some kind. I long for the church to become what Paul describes in Ephesians 3:10 -- God's vehicle to proclaim his many-splendored wisdom to the spiritual powers and authorities.

The second reason I'm excited about pastorates is that Central Lutheran, the church where I have served as an associate pastor for close to nine years, is putting a ton of energy and effort into creating pastorates within our congregation. I have been advocating this change for five years, and right now we are seeing it happen. As we have prayed and talked and read scripture and studied for the last three or four years, trying to "discern God's design for the body of Central" this is the door that God has opened.

Our hope is that within three to five years we will have dozens of pastorates meeting in homes, studying God's word, worshiping and sharing in the sacraments, and giving themselves away in some kind of tangible mission together. Newcomers to the church will be encouraged to participate in pastorates. Pastorates will give birth to new pastorates as leaders are trained and equipped through a natural, relational mentoring process. These communities will provide relationships across generations, much like an extended family.

Rest assured that you'll see more in the coming days on this blog about pastorates. Right now Central's pastors have been meeting with the first round of potential leaders, and it is so fun to see how God's Spirit has been preparing these conversations, laying groundwork in people's lives to prepare them for a leadership role.

If you are a praying person, I encourage you to pray for this adventure. Pray especially for these potential leaders, for their training and the people who will be led to participate in this fledgling round of pastorates that will form. Undoubtedly we will make many mistakes, but as the Bible reminds us, "Love covers a multitude of sins." We will certainly need that! I can't imagine moving forward with these pastorates if we weren't utterly convinced God is leading in this direction. Thanks for your prayers!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Alpha Sunday

This Sunday, January 22nd, will be "Alpha Sunday" at Central. I have the privilege of preaching, and much of the traditional sermon time will be given to testimonies -- some live, some on video -- of people from Central whose lives have been changed as Jesus met them in the Alpha Course.

In addition we'll have a table in Central's lobby where people can sign up for Alpha. We haven't had a large group go through Alpha since the fall of 2009, so many people at Central have never had the opportunity to try Alpha. We'll also be encouraging people to plug in as volunteers in a variety of roles.

Also, (and this is exciting) we'll be promoting our Alpha Philippines trip coming up in just a couple months. We're sending a small team to the central Philippines to do a "GAT" -- Global Alpha Training -- to train and equip church leaders in the Philippines to lead Alpha. I believe God is going to do great things through this trip, both for the churches in the Philippines, and for Central!

If you're in the Elk River, MN area, come to Central this Sunday! If you've never done Alpha, this is a great opportunity to find out more. If you're not in the local area, you can still check out Alpha -- there are Alpha courses meeting all over the world. Check this page out to find an Alpha course near you.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Community with accountability

For years at Central we've been using this phrase: "Community with accountability." So often churches try to be Nice Places and we think (mistakenly) that this means never holding people accountable, never talking about the hard things. Not true. So for the last several years Central has been making strides -- first among the staff, then working out into relationships within the congregation -- to live in community, bearing each others burdens, caring for one another, being part of each other's lives. And we've tried to do this with accountability, so that each person who is part of that community recognizes that our own actions and attitudes impact others.

It's a good way to live.

It's good even on days like today when I'm faced with more accountability than I would like.

You see, two things are hitting me in the brain and the heart this morning. First, this is Friday, and I have been trying for several months now to take Fridays as a sabbath day, a day of rest. Today isn't going to be one. There are just too many "have-to's" on my list today, and that is the quickest way to wreck a sabbath day. Oh, I'll take some rest time here and there -- a couple hours -- but it's not going to be the sabbath practice I have set as a goal and really come to love. So I know there are people who will call me to task for this. In fact, anticipating the way this week was going, my wife has already asked me when I'm going to get some rest time. She's asked this several times. Community with accountability.

The second thing that is on my brain and my heart this morning is a conversation I had with Terry several weeks ago. Terry is a coach we've brought in to work with our staff at Central. He's good stuff, even if he is a Dodgers fan. He knows how to comfort and encourage, and he also knows how to ask the hard questions. So just before Christmas he asked me if I had to give up everything on my plate work-wise except one thing, what would I choose? He gently pointed out that I have way too many plates spinning, that this is a sure recipe for burnout, and that when I'm trying to keep so many projects in the air I won't do any of them well. (My assignment prior to this phone call was to come up with a list of three goals for 2012. Terry read my goals and pointed out that I had included three numbered paragraphs, but in those paragraphs I had eight goals. Ouch.) So my assignment these last weeks has been to think about -- not necessarily make any drastic decisions -- what I would do if I could only do one thing.

In some ways I think it would be a relief to only be doing eight things.

I am supposed to talk to Terry again on Monday. I haven't come up with any solutions -- just trying to keep the plates spinning. I'm not sure I'm going to like the accountability end of our conversation.

The trouble is, most of what I do I really, really love. And I think it's really, really important. And if I don't do it, it won't get done. Then there are other things that other people think are really important, and I kind of think so as well, so I'm doing them because ... well, because I think I should. Then there are the things I'm doing just because they sound like fun, and then I get into the middle of them and realize that I'm not at all excited about them because I'm just too overcommitted, and I wish I could back out but I really can't.

Any of this sound familiar? I don't think I'm alone here.

What's the answer? Not sure. Hopefully I'll figure it out in the next 48 hours, or else maybe Terry can clear that up for me on Monday.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

How to boost your energy level

I follow Michael Hyatt's blog, and today he posted an excellent list. So often we live down in the dumps when we really don't need to. Click here to read more.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


In college I acquired a book called Wishful Thinking by Frederich Buechner (pronounced beek-ner). It was a wonderful and amazing theological dictionary. It included many prosaic gems like this one:

I love it.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Wiped out

Just got home from a freshman Confirmation retreat. All I had to do was speak three times over Saturday and Sunday. Not too difficult, though I always try to take these things seriously. We talked Saturday morning about the truth of Jesus' resurrection; Saturday evening about the trustworthiness of the Bible; and Sunday morning about Jesus' call to follow him into the world. Confirmation ministry -- and any kind of youth ministry for that matter -- is such a critical thing. The opportunity for God to work in these students' lives at this age is amazing.

I watched Central's student ministry leaders (Ryan & Kaycee) do an amazing job of leading their team -- but the most impressive thing about this retreat was the team itself. College aged leaders managing program and tech issues; a couple of great music leaders; and most important, a dozen or more adults who are invested each week in the lives of a small group of students in what we call a "journey group." By the time we get to this retreat halfway through the program year, these adults already know the students and the students have begun to trust the adults. These journey group leaders are the key to all of it because they are invested in relationships on a personal level with their students. Over and over I watched the connections between students and leaders. I heard over and over again the concern from adults for "their" kids.

I'm quite confident that every one of those adults is exhausted this afternoon. I was at a seminar a few months ago where I heard the following statement: "God's Spirit moving through a physical body puts tremendous demands on that body." It is so true! I'm totally wiped out this afternoon, and legitimately so -- but the amount of energy and effort those adult leaders expended is far more than what I did. God's Spirit was moving through their physical bodies in powerful, powerful ways. I hope they sleep well tonight.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Traffic patterns

I drove my daughter into the Cities this morning and coming back on Highway 10 I thought about traffic patterns. You rarely see a uniform density of cars spread out along the highway. Instead, they seem to travel in clumps. There's a rare loner out there, but most of the time on multi-lane highways you see clusters, clumps, gaggles and herds of cars.

Schedules are like that, too.

Strangely enough for me as a pastor, December is almost always a "light" month for me. It's not supposed to be that way for pastors, I know, but due to a few different factors my December is almost always a light month. It's a little like that long stretch of highway where you only see two or three "loner" cars. (Partly my December is like that because I resist the temptation to say "yes" to every Christmas / Advent / Winter event I'm invited to.)

I enjoy a quiet week after Christmas, making sure I get out bowhunting a few days. (No venison this year, by the way. Sad, but we'll make do with beef.) New Years tends to be the get-together for my side of the family, and this year was no exception. So we had the large but laid back gathering at our house on New Year's Day. Good stuff.

Then comes the first week in January, and it's like you just hit one of those herds of cars blocking all conceivable lines of traffic. There are more vehicles, all of a sudden, than you can reasonably explain. It's like coat hangers -- they just come out of nowhere and suddenly your closet is overpopulated.

That's how my schedule in January is. Every year. So I'm looking at my calendar for the next four weeks and thinking, "How on earth ...?"

To top it off, today I had to cancel a speaking engagement at the local high school's World History classes -- one I was really anticipating -- on the Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. My perfect record of no colds this season just went down the tubes, and I don't trust myself to put in six hours of speaking, even if it's over two days. So we'll bump that to next week. (Thankfully the teachers had some leeway and were able to reschedule.)

The effect of this, in terms of highway traffic, is like the guy in the one-ton truck with the duals and the acetylene torch on the back hitting his brakes at the front end of the glut of cars. Everybody slows down and tries to change lanes at once. And you ask yourself, why did he hit his brakes? Was there something in the road I missed? Did he think that was his turn? Maybe he had a fit of coughing (more my speed today with this cold) and felt the need to slow down.

Hard to say.

But now traffic patterns are slowed down, frustration levels are higher, and blood pressures are bouncing off the dome lights. Rescheduling those two half-days into next week's schedule will be a little like throwing a big rock into a shallow, muddy pond. (Could I possibly mix any more metaphors in here?)

I try hard to make sure I've still got a day here and there when I can just rest -- put my feet up, read a good book, take a nap. But for some reason, those days are a lot harder to find in January than they were a month ago.