Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Bible in 90 Days

I plan to be off of this blog for a while so that I can focus my efforts on our church-wide journey through the Bible in 90 Days.  That doesn't mean I won't be blogging.  I will be posting over at  This time, I won't be alone.  University's Directing Pastor, Charles Anderson; West Campus Pastor, Adam Knight; North Campus Pastor, Laurinda Kwiatkowski; and Shepherding Pastor, Leslie Tomlinson will all be blogging through the series with me.

Stop by and check it out and considering joining us for the journey.



Monday, September 12, 2011

We are working on that

It has been a while since I have actually tackled the topic of discipleship on this blog about discipleship.  It is that time of the year when I tend to tackle some difficult questions.  Fall is generally the time of the year the we ask people to commit to some of the longer term growth opportunities including Pathway to Discipleship options like Disciple Bible Study.  If I am counting correctly, this is my ninth year through Fall registration time and I think that it gets harder every year.  There is a clearly a culture shift that was well under way when I started and continues to move.  People are busier and busier, schedules are crazier and crazier and long-term commitment is harder and harder to come by.  The following statement/question is made up but it reflects a bunch of similar questions that I tend to hear.

"I am looking for an in-depth Bible study but I really don't have a lot of time.  I need something that meets for under a half-hour and my calender is crazy so I need something that doesn't go more than 3 weeks and I might have to miss some.  But I want to go deeper.  I don't want another superficial study. Oh, it would be great if there was no homework. Do you have anything like that?"

Of course!  We meet for fifteen minutes every third week for three weeks on your schedule and if you can't come, that is fine too!  There is no homework but be prepared to go deep!

Now this is hyperbole, but it is not too far off.

Here is where the difficult line of thinking comes in.  There is one school of thought that says we need to meet people where they are and offer things that reflect the busy world we live in.  There is another school of thought that says that we need to encourage people to push back on the business of their lives, revisit their priorities and make time for what is important.  There are other schools of thought that say that the answer is in between and others that say that the answer is both.

What do you think?



Wednesday, September 7, 2011

9-11-11 - Updates

This Sunday marks ten years since the world changing events of September 11, 2001.  I, along with many other preachers around the country, have spent a lot of time discussing what exactly to do this Sunday.  My initial thoughts when we started thinking about here at University were, "I think a lot of people may come to church that Sunday but they might not know exactly why."  I am not sure we know what to do with this day now much more than we knew what to do in the aftermath of the tragedy.

I am grateful to my sanctuary worship team.  They are much more creative than I am.  They thought of something to mark the day that I believe is profoundly appropriate.  When we didn't know what to do in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 so many people did the only thing they could think to do.  They helped.  They helped in small ways, the helped in big ways.  They helped in simple ways, they helped in courageous ways.  People lined up to give blood, people sent money, people prayed, some people with specific skills stopped everything and went to New York to bring skills and machinery and rescue animals.  When people didn't know what to do, they reached out to their neighbors.  So as we remember ten years later and still wonder what to do, we are going to help.

This Sunday, as part of our time of worshiping and remembering we are going to reach out to our neighbors in need.

Update: Due to the extreme need related to the devastating fires in the Bastrop area, this Sunday we will be collecting supplies for the families displaced by the fires.  We will continue our support of CAM including during our upcoming Thanksgiving Food Drive. 
  • water and gatorade
  • personal care essentials (like feminine hygiene products, toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoo, soap, etc.)
  • packaged snacks and nonperishable canned goods.  homemade snacks CANNOT  be accepted at this time.
  • $20 gift cards for HEB or Walmart
Bring them right into worship with you.  On the South Campus we will be bringing them to lay at the altar.  You can bring them forward when you arrive.  We will have a time at the end to pray over them and pray for the victims and those fighting the fire. Our North Campus and West U worship congregations will be collecting items as well.

 I hope you will join us in worship, remembrance and this chance to respond by reaching out to our community.



Tuesday, August 30, 2011

And we are back...

Today I am ending my two month, unannounced, self-mandated blog sabbatical. It started around my vacation and I just decided that it needed to continue. I am not exactly sure what brought it about. I didn't really think it through. I just stopped and continued to decide to not start again. Does that make sense? Looking back, I don't think that it was because I didn't have anything to write. In fact, I have many notes in Evernote where I sketched out an idea for a new blog post. I just never finished them or posted them.

This isn't the first time I have stopped blogging but this is really the most intentional I have ever been. I posted my first blog post on July 28, 2004 on my blog at Oak Hill UMC in Austin. I have run in waves of consistency and inconsistency. I think I have finally (took me long enough!) learned something. The idea of writing and posting something on a regular basis with no planned break from it is pretty crazy for a normal person. I think I need to just pick a couple of times of year where I will plan a self-imposed blog sabbatical. If I am correct, the rest of the time will be much more fruitful.

This isn't new. This biblical concept of sabbath and sabbatical tell us that God wants a rhythm for our lives, a rhythm of work and rest. That idea should flow through every part of our lives if we want to be productive in a way that honors God and honors the life and creativity God gives us.

Is there an area in your life that might benefit from some sabbath?



Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Some References from Sunday's Sermon

I was moving pretty fast on Sunday morning, so I thought I would post a list of the scriptures I referenced and information about some of the other things I spoke about.


Ephesians 2:8-10 (I also referenced some other parts of that chapter, beginning in verse 2.)
Romans 3:23
Romans 7:15-20
Romans 6:23

Books I quoted:


John Wesley, Sermon 43, "The Scripture Way of Salvation" - Available in numerous forms including free, online at:



Monday, June 20, 2011

The Sunday Homework

I mentioned during Sunday's sermon that I would post a place to reply to the four questions I offered to begin writing down your own faith story. I hope you might consider sharing them in the comment section below. You don't necessarily share your answer to every question though you are welcome to. In sharing some of your story, you might help others to better connect with their own.

Here are the four questions:

1. When was the first time you saw Jesus?
2. When was the most meaningful time you saw Jesus?
3. When was the most recent time you saw Jesus?
4. Where do you already see Jesus in the person you are praying for?

If you missed Sunday (or don't live in San Antonio) and want the context for the questions. The sermon will be posted later this week at



Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Honey, shouldn't we be packing?

This week, I officially begin my fourth year under appointment at University United Methodist Church, San Antonio. I am really excited that I get to continue my ministry here but it feels a little strange. Although I worked part time on staff first, my clergy appointment at Oak Hill in Austin only lasted two years. I spent the next three years in Corpus Christi at Grace before being appointed here at University. For the first time moving into year four, we are actually started to get settled in.

Thinking back, this might be the longest I have lived in the same house since I was 17. When I first felt called to ministry, I was warned that one of the hardest things was itineracy - that pastors under the authority of the bishop can be and are moved from place to place on a regular basis. I asked "how often?" The answer was - usually only as often as every three years and sometimes pastors stayed in the same place for decades. I said, "Sounds like stability to me." Now the radio business, that is itinerant. I just pulled up my resume from my days in radio. From 1991 to 2001 (when I left the business) I worked for six radio stations and one programming company. That included living in one village, one borough and three cities and stretched across three states. In that time, I lived in (about) eight different houses/apartment/rooms, etc. So, just saying, this all feels kind of stable.

Without stirring an entire debate about the value and cost of itinerant ministry, let me just say, as a pastor, there are pros to staying and pros to moving. Right now, staying seems to hold a lot of value. University UMC is a large, complex church. It took me a couple of years just to find my way around. I think it tool me longer to hit my stride here than it has in other churches. I also hit the ground here with a big project before me: The Pathway to Discipleship. It took most of the first couple of years to really get it launched and we have much work still to do.

This is all a long way of saying thank you to Bishop Dorff for seeing fit to appointment me to University for another year and thank you to University for agreeing to keep me.



Saturday, June 4, 2011

Books from this week's sermon

I mentioned a few good books in this week's sermon. I thought I would post them all now in case you are interested.

A book I quoted from without mentioning the title:

Also, in you would like more information on my upcoming class, Invitation to Prayer, here it is:

Mondays June 20th and 27th - 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

This two-week course covers obstacles to prayer, takes a biblical look at prayer, and offers practical methods to help you begin or deepen your conversation with God. This is an elective course in The Pathway to Discipleship.

The course is free. To register, contact Elizabeth



Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review - Why? Making Sense of God's Will

In my last review of an Adam Hamilton book (When Christians Get it Wrong) I wrote,

I really like Adam Hamilton’s books for one main reason: while Hamilton is not one to break much new ground, he has the gift of writing with exceptional clarity. I rarely read his work and think “I had never thought of that.” Instead, I read it and think, “I never thought to put it like that.” I have to think that this is what has made him such a successful pastor; he has the ability to take complex and controversial ideas and clearly and lovingly explain them.

I share that again here because Adam Hamilton's latest, Why? Making Sense of God's Will, has hit that mark again. In Why? Hamilton takes on one of the toughest issues of our faith, something we call theodicy, our attempt to reconcile our belief in all-loving and all-powerful God with the fact that there is still evil and suffering in the world.

This issue of theodicy is complex. Hamilton has found a way to frame the issue and open the discussion in a way that is understandable but not simplistic. He runs through four main topics in four chapters (it is a short book): Why Do the Innocent Suffer? Why Do My Prayers Go Unanswered? Why Can't I See God's Will for My Life? and why God's Love Prevails.

Here are two reasons you might want to read this book: One, you are struggling with these topics in your own life. Perhaps you are struggling with things and wondering where God is in the midst of your suffering. Maybe you want to see God as loving but can't see his hand in your life right now. This book might give you some hope and direction. Two, you might not be in a place like that right now, but you do encounter people who face questions like this. This is most of us. This is why most of us should read this book: too often, when we encounter people who are facing suffering, loss and other things that make them struggle with the role of God in their lives and world, we are tempted to offer shallow, unhelpful answers. In my journey as a Christian, in the midst of loss, I have heard some of the worst, unhelpful, unbiblical, theologically tenuous words of "comfort" come from the mouths of Christians. Why? can give us some better vocabulary, or better yet, the ability to say, "I don't know."

I am sure someone will try to poke some holes in Hamilton's theology of suffering. When they do, I will try to remind them that this is not a systematic theology book. It is an attempt to take a complex topic and put it in the hands of the people who most need it. In that attempt, I believe it is a success. I am told that some group study materials to go along with the book are forthcoming. It would make a great topic for discussion in small groups and Sunday schools.

If you are around our main University campus, we have copies of Why? in The Word Store.



Sunday, May 22, 2011

Just One More Thing

I grew up on Colombo reruns. Detective Colombo was famous for finishing up questioning someone and then turning back to ask "one more thing." That thing usually had to do with some sort of bombshell evidence that showed that someone to be guilty.

Well this isn't likely to be that dramatic but I had "one more thing" that I thought of about last week's sermon before I moved on to this week. You may want to go back and read my last two posts to catch up because this is on the same subject.

Jesus says to us in Matthew, 5:21-22:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

For good or for bad, last week's sermon, "I Forgive You," hit a nerve. I am glad about that. The Gospel tends to do that. I always worry though because there is a fine line when proclaiming the Gospel in a way that unsettles us. Have I represented the Gospel in such a way that it unsettles us or was it just my representation itself that was unsettling? Whenever there is a lot of feedback from a sermon I think more about that sermon in the light of this question.

As I have read scripture this week I have seen some clarity that the Gospel really wants to unsettle us about this. Whether or not I did scripture true justice in my representation this week, only God can tell me. But I do believe that, on this subject, we all, me included, need some unsettling.

Well that is enough about that. This morning, we finish the sermon series with something a little lighter, "I love you."



Wednesday, May 18, 2011

More on Sunday's Sermon

I mentioned in the post yesterday that sometimes when I am preaching I am still working on the sermon. Actually, often I am still thinking about it on Sunday and Monday. That was especially true this week, especially in light of some comments and emails about the sermon. If you didn't get a chance to hear the sermon, you might want to listen, otherwise this may not make sense. It should be available soon at:

The number of comments and emails this week have been about the invitation I gave. We offered people cards to take and write the names of people that they needed to speak the words "I forgive you" to. There are people in our lives that we hold grudges against and we need to forgive them to release them and, perhaps more importantly, release ourselves from the baggage of not forgiving. I warned people that this work is often strange and wondrous. When you call someone up and say "I forgive you," the response is often, "For what?" Often they have no idea what you hold against them. Maybe they don't remember any more. Maybe they never knew they offended you. Maybe, in retrospect, they never really didn't anything to offend you.

This seems to be exactly where the hang up is. Someone walked up to me during the closing hymn and asked "Isn't this sort of arrogant?" Someone else asked in a little more subtle way, "Am I being judgmental to that person in assuming the discourse was their fault?" My answer, yes and yes. BUT... that doesn't let us off the hook. There is something larger going on here. If we are holding onto a grudge, if we haven't forgiven someone, it really no longer matters whose fault it was. Let me try it this way: Yes, to offer forgiveness to someone who hasn't asked for it may be arrogant but that sin may not be as grievous as having an unspoken grudge against them.

Matthew 18:15-16 gives us scriptural guidance for dealing with people when they have offended us or sinned against us,

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses."

But, realistically, we don't often do that. Most of us don't like conflict so we just let it pass and sometimes that seems to work but sometimes it just grows inside us. We can, at some point, decide to let it go but, if we never go back and address the person, is it really taken care of? Maybe. But I am not so sure. I think there are a lot of cases where we need to care of the messiness of admitting we held the grudge in the first place. We may need to work through the issue, especially if there is any hope of restoring a relationship.

Isaiah 43:25

I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.

The note for that verse in the Wesley Study Bible reads, "God not only declares forgiveness and willingness to forget, but declares that it is "for my sake." Forgiveness is not a favor done for the other but is needed by the forgiver as well to restore wholeness to relationship." (Wesley Study Bible, Abingdon Press, p. 867)

As I said in the sermon, forgiveness is tough stuff. It is sticky and messy.

Have you taken the invitation? Has it been messy? Are you still struggling with the idea? I would love to hear your comments below.



Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Preaching and the Spirit

More often than not, as I am preaching, I am still thinking. I am still hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit and the echoes of scripture in my head speaking to the topic at hand. There are some preaching opportunities when it is appropriate to just go with this, follow the Spirit's leading and diverge from what I had planned to say. However, it is not always appropriate. Let me suggest two reasons. One is very practical. In preparing a worship service, I work with a team of people who have together prayerfully prepared a lot of different pieces . We have planned the musical and liturgical elements to bring the scriptures alive and praise our creator. If I, on a regular basis, just "followed the Spirit's leading" is would have the potential of dishonoring the Spirit led work they had done. Sometimes it is just an issue of time. "Sorry, we won't be hearing that anthem you prepared." Sometimes it is an issue of special elements of worship. We may have a planned response to the word but I so changed the message that it doesn't make sense anymore.

For those who wouldn't want practicality to get in the way of the Holy Spirit, there is another reason. I believe that the Holy Spirit is present in every aspect of sermon preparation. I have a chance to contemplate scripture, read it in the community of my fellow preachers and in the community of theologians both modern and ancient. I get to test where I think the Spirit is leading me against other voices to be sure it is the Spirit and not just my own imagination. In the moment, there is no device to do that. So, while it might feel good to "Just go where the Spirit leads me," there is always the danger that was is leading me in the moment is not the Spirit at all.

Okay, I said two, let me add another. When one stand to preach in front of a congregation, there is a great responsibility. Sometimes, when I am preparing a sermon, I go down a certain line of thinking. Sometimes when I get to a point on the line, I realize it is the wrong line. Sometimes, in reading and reflecting and praying, I realize that it is a dead-end perhaps even one of those dangerous dead-ends that ends with a cliff. If I am leading a small group or sharing thoughts in a Bible study, sometimes those are interesting paths to travel together that we might discover together where the wrong turn was. However, I don't think that works in congregational preaching. "Forget everything I just said, that was wrong. Let's back up." Some may be thrilled my that sort of u-turn but I am afraid it would leave many lost and confused.

This post is a sort of preface to another post I hope to write later. It was going to be part of this one but the preface got to long. Since Sunday, I have been having some additional thoughts on the sermon that may be worth sharing. I will try to post them soon.



Sunday, May 8, 2011

Unfinished Business

There are a number of steps in my process of sermon development. I often translate the passage from its original language. I read it a number of contemporary translations. I read and consider other theological voices that have interpreted the scripture through commentaries and scholarly journal articles. One occasional part of my process that I likely wouldn't mention to my seminary preaching professors is the time I spend on Google. I am not sure they would be upset. It is not like I am doing my biblical or theological research there. This is what it looks like: often in the creation of sermon or series a theme comes to the surface. Sometimes this is in my own work or the work we, as pastors, do together when working on the common sermon calender. Sometimes, I like to throw that theme out in the pop culture of cyberspace to see what I might be missing in how the theme relates to the world.

Let me be honest, this is not the most fruitful part of my overall process. However, it probably takes about two minutes unless I get sucked down some rabbit hole. This is a long way of explaining how I stumbled on the book Unfinished Business by Lee Kravitz. The sermon title for Easter Sunday was "Easter is Good News for Unfinished Business." I googled "unfinished business" and there it was at the bottom of the page under the listing for books. Thinking I was actually teetering on the edge of a rabbit hole, I clicked on the link. Finding the descriptions and reviews compelling, I found myself buying the Kindle edition and, on the day I was supposed to be actually working on my Easter sermon, reading a book I had never heard of from an author I had never heard of. Cue the white rabbit.

Kravitz book is about a journey, both mental and geographical. Upon losing his job, he feels
called to pursue a quest to attend to the major loose ends of his life. He writes (in a paragraph that actually made it into my Easter Sunday sermon,)

There are acts and nonacts that prosecute you from within. They trouble your soul and cast aspersion on your character. They tell you that you are callous, small-minded, less than you want to be. Isn’t it strange how small these things can seem on paper, yet how large they loom in your head?

These things that we wish had done or not done end up being heavy burdens that we carry around and we become enslavesdto them. The author found much freedom by attending to the sometimes messy work of going back and tying up loose ends.

What starting out looking like a rabbit hole for me ended up being quite helpful not just for Easter Sunday but as we launched into a new sermon series. We are now in the midst of a series called "11 Words" based on Leonard Sweet's thought that there are eleven words we all yearn to hear before we die. It occurred to me that, if Easter is good news for unfinished business, the words that we need to hear and the words that we need to speak are some of the most important unfinished business we need to take care of. Through that lens, the "11 Words" series became the perfect follow through for the Easter sermon and I became more thankful I stumbled on the book.

In my sermon for the Sunday after Easter, I shared,

I have been fascinated by this book that I starting reading right before Easter, Lee Kravitz, Unfinished Business. In it, he finds himself on a journey of trying to finish up all the stuff he has left undone. It has made me rethink unfinished business. I guess I used to think of it as though there were certain things that I wanted to do before I die or someone else dies that I would feel guilty if I didn’t accomplish. And there is a certain truth in that. There is a lot of stuff I wish I had said to my Mom before she died. But there is more to it than that. In the book, the author realizes that it is more than freedom from guilt. There is a great joy and restoration in taking care of these things that we inherit now. As he reconnected with an beloved Aunt that he hadn’t spoken to in 15 years, as he finally made a condolence call that he should have made 3 years ago, as he repaid a debt from over thirty-years ago he found great joy in restored relationships, new beginnings and rekindled memories. Kravitz writes, "My psychologist friend gave me another way of looking at it: 'Our unfinished business isn’t about resting in peace,' he said. 'It’s about moving forward. It’s about optimizing our potential as human beings.'"

This unfinished business is big stuff, Kravitz also writes,

The items on my list of unfinished business were linked to my deepest feelings of helplessness, disappointment, and fear. It’s ironic: We consign our most essential business to the bottom of our to-do list because we lack the time and energy to do the things that matter most in our lives well. It makes sense: The most important things take the most time and energy and we have only so much time and energy in a day. You let things slide. But I would also discover the corollary to this in the coming months: that, if one can attend to these things, great rewards will follow.

Maybe it is a reflection of my own baggage that I am carrying around, my own need to attend to some things of my past, but I really thought this book was amazing. It brought into focus just how life draining it can be to hold onto unfinished business and how rewarding it can be to reach back to some things in the past to sort them out.

Two little cautions I give in my review: 1. Kravitz is not, nor does he claim to be a mental health professional; neither am I. Some of us have some unfinished business that we need help sorting out. Some self-awareness might be a helpful tool before trying this at home. 2. This is a not an explicitly Christian book. In fact, Kravitz is a fairly non-observant Jew. I don't see this a stumbling block to the power and purpose of the book. I just have to write it because some people who read my blog assume because I read it and wrote about it that it must be Christian.

You can read more about the book, the premise and the author at



Wednesday, May 4, 2011

So, How Did it Go?

I have been offering lots of challenges in worship lately and forgetting to provide a place for people to share their stories. That is too bad because I love to read the stories. This week in worship, I challenged us to think of some people who need to hear the words from us, "You have mattered in my life. If you were gone, I would miss you."

If you missed the sermon, you can hear the podcast here: 11 Words, I'll Miss You

If you took my invitation this week, I hope you will consider sharing a little in the comment section below.



Thursday, April 28, 2011

Just some stuff

I remember remarking to someone last Easter that Easter wasn't really my busy time. So, things have changed a little bit. For pastors of churches with large Holy Week and Easter services, the days surrounding Easter can be exhausting. If you are an associate pastor in charge of discipleship and adult education, any additional work is offset by the fact that most classes take the week off are are already wrapped up in anticipation of summer. That was me last year. Me this year: primary preacher for our South Campus. That meant leading worship and preaching Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and three Easter Sunday services. Please don't read this as a "poor, exhausted me" complaint. I had the opportunity the lead alongside amazing musicians and worship leaders in outstanding traditional worship and to worship with with more people than I ever could have imagined. In other words, a lot of work, but fun! As I have written about before, I am still in the midst of transition to full-time preaching and Easter was a picture of that transition in fast-forward.

I have finally found time again for reading. If you look on the right side of the blog you will see that I have found my way into three books at once. I am fascinated by a book I mentioned on Easter Sunday and again this past Sunday, Lee Kravitz, Unfinished Business. I have just finished it and will post a review soon. I am also loving Eugene Peterson's, The Pastor. You may know Peterson as an author and the man behind The Message paraphrase of The Bible, but I have been moved by his experiences as a pastor, how his pastoral identity was formed and the struggles he faced in his pastoral ministry. I hope I will have time to post a review soon.

I have about three blog posts in some form of "unfinishedness." I hope to get them posted soon to continue the conversation.



Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Small Groups... Again.

If you search my blog for "small groups" you will find quite a few keystrokes dedicated to the subject in my short time at University. My last post on the topic, How does one declare a moratorium? actually caused a couple of my colleagues to react as though I declared that there is no hell. My position for a while has been that small groups are good in theory. However, if they are not done well, not only are they not of a lot of benefit, they can also be a detriment to the body.

Anyway, here I am again. Someone recently forwarded me a short post by Craig Groeschel called "Why I Still Believe in Small Groups." I agree with the points that he makes in the post but I want to continue to push back. Go to and read the post in its original context. But here I want to discuss each of his points. His points are in bold. My thoughts are in italics.

Groeschel's First Point: They follow the early church model of meeting in homes.
I totally agree. However, if we look at the book of Acts, there were some specific things that they were doing. If we look at the writings of Paul, there were some specific bad habits that they got into right from the start. A church of healthy small groups has a way to keep groups doing the right things and keep them from adopting bad habits.

Groeschel's Second Point: They are a tremendous tool for discipleship.
I agree that they can be, if the above is addressed. I will warn that, if there is not an intentional way to make this happen, small groups can actually get in the way of discipleship. If people commit to participate in a small group at the invitation of the church, they may assume that they are being given what they need to grow as a disciple. However, if the group is a completely inward focused group with no real accountability, no real learning, no real intentional discipleship, how can we expect them to grow?

Groeschel's Third Point: They get more people involved using their gifts of hospitality, teaching, exhortation, etc.
Totally true - especially if the church is doing things to help people identify their gifts and put them to work in the group.

Groeschel's Fourth Point: They engage the body of Christ in pastoral care.
Again, they can, if given the tools. If not, this can happen and I have seen it happen: the group gathers to bemoan the fact that one of their members was ill and no one from "the church" reached out to them.

Groeschel's Fifth Point: They build leaders.

Groeschel's Sixth Point: Done well, they become a tremendous tool of retention.
Here are my thoughts on the "done well" vs. "not done well." First of all, to be done well, the groups need to be intentional in their shepherding of the group. Some groups just do this naturally, other don't. Here is the other concern that I have: sometimes groups are tremendous tools of retention - retaining people in the group, but not the church. Someone might argue this with me saying, "who cares, as long as they are staying in a group they are still connected to the body." They would be correct, IF the group was a fully functional house church. Otherwise, people connected to the group and not the church would be disconnected from essential aspects of what it means to be church, things like worship and outreach. This is one that could certainly involve some interpretation based on denomination and people's understanding of church.

Groeschel's Seventh Point: They have unlimited meeting space.
That is a really good point.

Groeschel's Eighth Point: They have unlimited meeting times.
Amen to that. The church still has the problem of only serving people with 9-5 jobs. There are a lot of people out there who are willing to grow but just can't do Tuesdays at 6:30.

Groeschel's Eighth Point: They have changed my life.
Well I just can't argue with that. And he is not the only one.

I am clearly not making any points that Craig Groeschel hasn't already considered and likely addressed in his small group plans. I don't write any of this to debate him for he clearly knows how to make this work. I am reflecting on his thoughts simply in my continued attempt to avoid the "small group band aid," that temptation to remedy any limitation of a church by throwing together a small groups program. Trouble with pastoral care? Try small groups. No discipleship going on? Small groups. Not growing? Small groups. Lots of people leaving? Small groups.

Meeting together in homes, in coffee shops, in churches to pray, to study scripture, to hold one another accountable, to walk with each other through life, this is a part of our Christian tradition and part of the Wesleyan heritage of the United Methodist Church. I just challenge us to consider the why and how of small groups that we can implement and support them in ways that further the kingdom.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


During Lent this year at University, we are inviting the congregation on all three campuses to join together in spiritual disciplines. This week's discipline is solitude. Everybody was challenged to spend one hour a day alone or take a half day during the week alone. In the south sanctuary, I invited the congregation to use that time to listen for the will of God in their lives. As I expected, I got a number of responses. Some people told me about what that already looks like in their lives and thanked me for the invitation. Others responded as though I had asked them to have some sort of unnecessary elective surgery. There is some truth to the idea that we are all wired a little different. Some of us naturally enjoy solitude. Others see it as punishment.

I can actually see why some might see it as punishment. I don't know about you, but when I got in trouble as a child, what did my parents tell me to do? Go to my room. Alone. "And don't make a sound." What my parents didn't realize was that, even as a child, I was an introvert. These two things aren't always connected but I also realized later when I became a Christian that I am a contemplative. So, my parents never realized it but, that punishment was not at all punishment to me. I loved and still love being by myself. As an introvert, time alone recharges my social batteries. As a contemplative, it is how I best connect with God.

When I was single with no children finding solitude was exceptionally easy. Now that I am married and have two children in my house, it has become a discipline for me. So my time of solitude comes early in the morning. I awake between 5 and 5:30 almost every day (even my days off) for a time of quiet, scripture reading and contemplation. Around 6:30 the time is comes to a natural end by the need to feed a baby or get a little boy dressed for school. These days, other than vacation and retreats, that is all I get, but it is enough for now.

So how about you? Are you engaging in the discipline of solitude this week? Or, is it already part of your life? Post a comment below and let us know what this looks like for you.



Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My non-review of Rob Bell’s Book

I have decided not to review Rob Bell’s latest Love Wins, A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Which means that this should be a short post. But it is not. My reason for not reviewing it might not be what you expect. It is not because I think Bell is a heretic or a false prophet or anything like that. Actually there are two reasons. One, it is because this is likely one of the most reviewed religious releases since The Shack. (I know that I will get an angry email for calling The Shack a religious release or lumping it in with Rob Bell or even mentioning it. So, go ahead. Just be gentle, I am prone to cry while under attack.) Second, there are some people who are angry about Bell's book. So angry that they are attacking, not just Bell, but any reviewer that has anything nice to say about him or his book. (Again, I tend to cry when under attack.)

If you want an in-depth analysis of Bell’s theology, how it stands alongside or against orthodox Christian doctrine, help yourself, you will find plenty. If you need a place to start head over to the website Jesus Creed: They look at some reviews from every angle.

So, instead of a review, I just have a few thoughts. There has been a lot of controversy about this book. But let me say, if you are a United Methodist, you have nothing to be afraid of reading this book. Some of my UM colleagues could disagree with me, but I would think you would be hard pressed to prove that Bell falls outside the flaps of the tent that we call United Methodist doctrine. (Pretty good for an author who is not a United Methodist.) This is to say that you don’t have to agree with everything he writes but it would probably be a stretch to label him a heretic. If you did, you would likely want to add some more reading to your list and offer the same tag to some United Methodist pastors, authors and theologians. Besides this, Bell is not asking anyone to agree with every point he makes. He is doing what he does well, starting conversations, opening up dialogue, especially with people who feel that Christianity has nothing left to say. He has been doing this for a while, so this is nothing new. With this said, if you don't agree with what he writes, you are also in good company. There are a number of United Methodists who will disagree with the theology represented in the book. That is fine. It is not the point of this post to engage Bell's theology. It is to say that it is okay to debate theology. We don't have to label one a heretic or label a book dangerous because we disagree with it. We can use it to continue a theological discussion that has been going on for 2000 years.

Okay, something that I didn’t find in many of the reviews that I read. The author does a great job of talking about atonement. A little review: atonement (or at-one-ment) – that thing that happens in the death of Jesus on the cross the restores us into right relationship with God. Okay, that is what it is, but how does it work? I think Rob Bell does a decent job of getting the idea across that any theory of how the atonement works is just that: a theory. They are all just ways of trying to explain the unexplainable, ways of using what we do understand to try to explain what is beyond our understanding. He writes,

For these first Christians, something massive and universe-changing had happened through the cross, and they set out to communicate the significance and power of it to their audiences in language their audiences would understand. And so they looked at the world around them, identifying examples, pictures, experiences, and metaphors that their listeners and readers would have already been familiar with, and then they essentially said:

What happened on the cross is like . . . a defendant going free, a relationship being reconciled, something lost being redeemed, a battle being won, a final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again, an enemy being loved.

This is the same sort of thing I share in a lot of my classes (though Bell does it better) - that most Christians have one viewpoint for looking at the atonement. That is fine if that view helps them begin to understand what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The problem arises when they try to share that view with someone for whom it isn't helpful. It is good to be able to look at the unexplainable from a number of different viewpoints, to be able to help others begin to see what God has done and is doing.

One other thing. There have been a number of comments in the twitterverse and blogosphere accusing Bell of being controversial just to sell books. I cannot know Bell's heart but there is another possibility. Rob Bell and I share the view that a lot of people that God loves have been left behind by the church. Especially here in America, it isn't that people have not heard the Gospel proclaimed. It is that they have heard it or think they have heard it and said "no thanks." Bell has a relentless desire to share the Gospel message in a way that people can hear. This is not to be confused with changing the Gospel message to make it more palatable. This is explaining the unchanging universal truths in ways that speak the ever changing culture. Sometimes when people think they already know what you are going to say, you have to shout a little louder.



Friday, March 11, 2011


Yes, I have been writing about worship more than discipleship lately. Fortunately, worship is part of the journey of discipleship. But don't worry, I am working on some posts about systematic discipleship. Stay tuned.

Today I am writing about pulpits. I am writing specifically about the pulpit I will be standing in Sunday. I preached from the pulpit on Ash Wednesday and decided to leave it out for a while. I normally preach from the chancel right in front of The Lord's Table. To talk about the "why," I need to talk about the theological and liturgical significance of the pulpit. The pulpit is not just a fancy lectern. The pulpit is a piece of liturgical furniture that represents something more than its function. We have a baptismal font that is more than just a place to keep water. It is a permanent part of our worship space to remind us that baptism is at the center of our life as Christians and the entry point into the community of faith. Ours is fairly significant but some churches have giant, permanent water features to allow for submersion and to keep the sacrament even more visible. We have an altar-table, The Lord's Table, a place to set the elements of Holy Communion but also to remind us of the centrality of that family meal we share as Christians.

We have an odd relationship with these pieces of furniture. They are just things. But they are things that we have set apart. When we use the world holy, we usually mean just that, set apart. These are things that we have set apart for the worship of the Lord. Which brings me to the last thing, the pulpit. We believe that Christ himself, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is present to us in the reading and proclaiming of the Holy Scriptures. It doesn't take a special place for that to happen, however "if the reading and preaching of God's word is understood as a fresh theophany each time the people of God gather, then we need physical testimony to that belief in the form of a pulpit." (James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship, Nashville: Abingdon, 2000, p. 88) In other words, if this is important, it should be visibly important.

Often people think the pulpit to be about the preacher, but the pulpit is about the Word of God. The reason pulpits became so ornate (and often high off the ground) was to elevate, not the preacher, but the word of God, a central part of our worship and life of faith.

However, not everyone likes the use of the pulpit. I have heard countless stories of people who connected with a preacher "because he came out of the pulpit." Sometimes we feel a better connection with a preacher when she or he comes closer, when an apparent barrier is removed. I think connecting with the Word is important as well. I think we often need to connect with the preacher in order to connect with the Word. However, we always need to remember that it is about the Word.

This is sort of a liturgical experiment. Especially if you worship with us on the south campus, I would love to hear your thoughts on the use of the pulpit. Let me be so bold as to direct the comments. I am less interested in the "I like it" and the "I don't like it" and more interested in the "why?" Given the background of why we would use a pulpit in the first place, how does it enhance or detract from the hearing of God's Word to us?



Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Little Adjustment

I shared last month in the post Preaching is like riding a bike... on the transition back to preaching full time. I thought it might be time for an update. The transition has been both joyful and nearly overwhelming. Joyful in that I love preaching. I love preparing. I love thinking and praying towards preaching again. The congregation has been extremely graceful. I am having a blast. Overwhelming simply in a workload sort of way. I have added, at minimum, ten hours to an already tough workload. But I am adjusting. Temporarily, it is cutting into blogging time, reading time and thinking time. But, that too will change as everything adjusts.

So, keep your eye on the blog. More to come.



Friday, February 25, 2011

Everyone loves reruns - The Work of Worship

I have been a little behind in just about every aspect of life since I started preaching again. So here is a repost. Yes, it is a rerun from August 2009 but it is appropriately timed as we are talking about worship this week. Give it a read and then join us for "Worship is a Matter of the Heart" this Sunday.

The Work of Worship - August 24, 2009

One of the peculiarities of being a pastor is sitting backwards in worship. This isn’t the case in all churches but at University, in both of our worship spaces, the pastors sit up front looking out at the congregation. This means that, throughout the worship service, anyone who wants to can see my face. If you sit in worship, you can’t see your fellow worshipper’s faces, but you can see mine. My every smile, frown, etc. is right there for you to see.There is a flip side to this. From my perspective, at least in our south sanctuary, I can see your face too – every smile, frown, etc.

Only the worship leaders and choir have this perspective and our choir doesn’t even usually have it for the whole service so they miss the most interesting part: the sermon. In some Christian traditions, the congregation really takes responsibility for the sermon. Perhaps you have experienced this at a church where the congregation is visibly and even audible praying for the pastor, encouraging the pastor, calling upon the spirit, that the word might be heard. One of my esteemed colleagues told the story at my service of ordination of delivering a sermon early on in his career where a woman in the front row rocked back and forth as she prayed, out loud, “help him Jesus” through his whole sermon. (He admittedly needed the help.)

Our church word "liturgy" comes from a Greek word that literally means, “the work of the people.” When the pastor is praying, presiding over the Lord’s Table, giving thanks over the waters of baptism or preaching, she or he is representatively doing the “work of the people.” The pastor’s role is representative. The pastor is leading the people in the worship that we do together. As I have looked out over the last few Sundays during the sermon, while Pastor Charles has been preaching, I have seen a number of faces that appear to get that. They have seemed actively involved in the sermon – listening, reacting, even visibly encouraging the preacher. But there are many other faces that don’t express that. Lots of folks look bored, disconnected, distracted, sometimes even perturbed. Now I can not know what is behind those faces. I cannot judge their thoughts or even how engaged they really are, but if they are engaged, if they are rooting for the preacher, if they are praying that the word may connect, they are not, in their expression and demeanor sharing that with the preacher. Now, it is always possible that there are some folks that are bored, disconnected, distracted, tired, even perturbed. However, my guess it that most people just aren’t thinking about how their expressions, reactions and demeanor can affect the preacher. We are used to being anonymous observers. Television news people, sitcom starts and talk show hosts don’t see us. They just see the camera. (Those that do see people, like late night talk show hosts, have studio audiences that have been selected, warmed up and even coached to react to and support the hosts.) We don’t owe them any support. They don’t need it. But our preachers - they are doing our work; they are leading us in the worship of God. We need their words and they need our support, we are working together to praise our creator and hear a word back as the ancient scriptures are incarnated in our setting. Every smile, nod, frown, laugh, tear, wink and amen make that work a little better. It takes a little work, but our God is worth it.



Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Preaching is like riding a bike...

I love the phrase "it's like riding a bike." It is a good analogy in some ways. Once you learn to ride a bike, you don't need to learn again. However, if you have ever gone a couple of years without riding a bike you will remember that there is a certain "break in period" when you start riding again. Most of us, when we get back on, stay on a little too long the first time and need to raid the medicine cabinet the next morning to soothe all those muscles that aren't used to that sort of activity.

So with that, preaching is "like riding a bike." I wrote a post least year called: The Rhythm of Preaching (or lack thereof) where I discussed the difficulty I was having preaching on a non-regular basis. While now I am facing a different challenge. This week I begin preaching on a regular basis. Starting Sunday, I will be preaching just about every Sunday for the foreseeable future in our South Sanctuary. This is great news for me. I love preaching and I love traditional worship. However, preaching every week is more than an additional assignment, it is a life change.

There is something about having that opportunity to share the word every week that becomes part of nearly every other part of your life. As soon as you say "amen" at the last service on Sunday, the clock resets and you are thinking and praying about next week.

In a totally non-spiritual way, the change in this dynamic takes me back to my radio days. When I was on the air five days a week, I was always thinking toward that next show. Every show I watched, article I read, experience I had got filtered through the lens of "can I use this on my show?" When I moved off the air and into the production room, it took my brain a while to stop collecting and sorting that data. When I moved back to the on air booth, it took me a while to get that filter back.

Well this is a very different filter and lens but a filter and lens just the same. One of my preaching professors in seminary taught me the habit of printing out that week's scripture and carrying it around in my pocket. This creates and opportunity to think about it more and be on the lookout for how God is speaking about it in the world and in your life. So, I am back to doing that. I just need to remember it is there.

This morning to took a run at creating a sermon for Sunday. I apparently have one and it seems to make sense. Fortunately I have a few days to keep thinking and praying. And I may be sore in the morning.



Thursday, January 27, 2011


I said goodbye to a good friend this week. Bodhi, my Labrador Retriever took his last breath on Tuesday afternoon after about 16 years of life. I cannot begin to express the hole in my heart. I can't really remember what it felt like to not have Bodhi in my life. Bodhi's story is so much part of my story that it is going to take me some time to reconsider my own narrative without that gentle, loving dog.

Bodhi is as much a part of my spiritual journey as any person I can think of. I live my life now as a pastor, and ordained leader in the Church of Jesus Christ. But when Bodhi entered my life, I was not - not a pastor, not a Christian, not a shadow of the person that I now am. Because I am a Christian and a pastor now, I have access to a vocabulary, words to try and explain what God was doing in my life. I now know that we were all created for a relationship with God. I also know that God reaches out to us through what we refer to as prevenient grace. That prevenient grace is God's unconditional love reaching out to us, calling to us, even when we don't know what it is or have any interest in responding to it. I believe that it was that prevenient grace of God that called me to make the most absurd decision - to get a dog. Getting a dog is not an absurd decision, unless you are a twenty-something, overachieving, self-centered, radio disc jockey who was more likely to be working an extra shift, locked up in a production studio or doing a midnight appearance at a bar than to be doing the sort of things dog owners do. In fact, I wasn't really sure what dog owners did, but it probably made sense that they were home sometimes.

With this clear thinking in mind I got the perfect dog for someone with limited time and misaligned priorities - a Labrador Retriever. Ask any lab owner, they will tell you that they take very little time and effort, once they pass age 7 or 8 or maybe 9. Going from pure bachelorhood to being charged with caring for a pure-bread, high-drive bundle of love and destruction was more of a shock to my system than becoming a father.

Bodhi changed my life. Bodhi completely changed my life. For the very first time, I had no choice but to look outside myself and learn to love and care for "the other." I had been in relationships. I had friends and girlfriends. But this was different. With friends and girlfriends, I always selfishly chose how much of myself I wanted to offer. I could alway retreat when I didn't feel I was gaining anything. But now, there was something other than me that needed me. My choices could no longer be solely based on what I wanted. There was a life that depended on me for food, exercise, training and love. If I failed to provide any of these things in a proper manner, that life would let me know in loving ways like barking, peeing on the floor, eating the leg of my table, or somehow gnawing through the drywall in the kitchen.

I didn't realize in the midst of it, how profound a change was occurring within me. Maybe Bodhi did. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, "Lord, let me be as good a person as my dog thinks I am." I don't pretend to know what really goes on in the minds of dogs. I cannot speak to what their level of understanding or "love" is. But what we receive from good dogs is a feeling of unconditional love. So, as God was reaching out to me with that prevenient grace, that unconditional love was being demonstrated to me through Bodhi. Bodhi was the all the best that a lab can be. He was fun and crazy and sweet and snuggly. In my twenties, as I was trying to understand my life and its purpose, as everything in life that I thought could bring me joy was failing me, as I was searching and searching for something I couldn't seem to find, I would get to come home to this dog who seemed to believe that the news that my returning to the house was the greatest thing that ever happened! Just the idea of getting petted, taking a little walk and throwing a Frisbee was celebrated everyday as a grand celebration. I learned years later, as I read the parable of the prodigal son that Bodhi was showing me a glimpse of the love of God and the celebration that occurs when we finally respond to God's calling to us.

Bodhi also caused, or maybe forced me to open my eyes to the world that God created. Sporting dogs like to walk. So, walk we did. We walked for miles in the woods behind the house that I moved into just before I got him. (My apartment building was a dog-free zone.) I learned the art of hiking. Bodhi and I hiked hundreds of miles together in parks and forests, streams and mountains. He introduced me to a slower way of living that allowed me to look around and take in the wonder. That walking and that wonder caused me to ask bigger questions and seek new answers.

While Bodhi forced me to reconsider my life, he was quite patient to go along for the bumpy ride of my journey. When I decided to move to Texas to figure out the next phase of my life, Bodhi hopped in the truck. When I decided that might not have been the right choice, Bodhi climbed in again and joined me for a two-week cross-country camping trip. When I decided to head back to Austin, he was right by my side. When I came home from my baptism, he greeted me with the same tail wag and famous bunny hop that greeted me every day. When I first felt a calling to full-time ministry, he joined me for a week in the woods of the back country of New Mexico as I sorted through what God was doing in my life. So are dogs just incredibly resilient or do they just see the big picture?

As I consider the events of my life since my twenties, I can picture where Bodhi was. If he wasn't next to me, I can tell you where I had to leave him - in the kennel at the house while I was at work, in the boarding kennel if I had to fly away, at my sister's house for my first semester of seminary. It is going to take me a while to get my brain not to leave that bookmark. As I write this in a hotel in Dallas, I am catching my brain checking in... he is in good hands, but I can't locate him.

In the second half of his life Bodhi got a new job. He was still my dog but he took to a different role. When I met my wife Alisha, Bodhi was crazy about her, like she was supposed to be there. Just after our marriage, Alisha had major surgery. I think Bodhi decided that his major work was done with me and I am pretty sure he spent most of the rest of his life taking care of her. I know some people doubt exactly how far the intelligence and sensitivities of dogs goes, but dog experts make a pretty good case for the power of canine instincts and perception. Ask the owner of a good dog, dogs like to have a job. Bodhi glued to her side. Bodhi was part of changing who I was and when it became necessary, he changed to take care of the one I love. As his bones grew older, he was much more suited to snuggling and napping than running and hiking.

When I preside at funerals, I almost always begin with a prayer asking God to help us to move beyond our regrets surrounding the one we have lost. I ask God to to remove the regret for things we wish we had done for or with the person but didn't. I ask God to remove the regret things we said or did that we wish we hadn't. I just regret that I didn't offer Bodhi back as much grace as he offered me. Not just for his sake, but for mine. I could have stopped on our walk to let him smell one more thing. We could have taken more trips to the lake or ocean. I could have spent hours and hours more rubbing his ears. He would have enjoyed it and I would have been a better human being. But the love of Bodhi reflects the grace of God, he didn't love me more or less because of who I was or what I did.

I am so grateful to God for Bodhi. It will take a long time to fill that space in my heart, in my mind and in my life. But I was truly blessed to have such a friend.

Monday, January 24, 2011

More on Small Groups

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about our need to really clarify our language surrounding the concept of "small groups." (See How does one declare a moratorium?) The post, curiously, caused someone to accuse me of being arrogant. I say curiously because, by the standard used, the entire blog should cause one to think me arrogant. The blog is my place for clarity. I tend to be a lot more nuanced in conversation. Anyway, that is beside the point. I was talking about "small groups." Brian Jones has taken the discussion a step further over on the blog In his post "Why Churches Should Euthanize Small Groups" he doesn't claim it be be a language or clarity issue. He just thinks church initiated small groups don't work. I guess there is a place for clarity here. He is not saying that small groups of people can't get together and walk together on a journey of discipleship. He is just saying that planned and programmed and measured and controlled by the church, this isn't a viable way to make disciples.

I will need to reread and digest the entire post before I say that I agree with everything the author says but I heartily agree with this paragraph:

"The Achilles’ heel of the modern-day small group movement is simple: Small groups don’t create disciples; disciples create disciples. And modern-day small groups are led, for the most part, by people who have attended the church, had a conversion experience, led a reasonably moral life, and can read the study-guide questions, but are not disciples themselves."

Head over to the post and read it for yourself and let me know what you think.

Why Churches Should Euthanize Small Groups at



Wednesday, January 19, 2011


It is time for my annual January "Oh my! Why did I agree to do all this stuff this month?" post. (See last year's "Whew!" post.)

It does indeed happen to me every year that I get through Christmas only to get crushed by the January calendar. I will eventually learn to answer the question "what if we just wait until January?" with "NO!!!"

The hard part is that all of this stuff is great stuff and I enjoy almost all of it. (Almost - really, there just are parts of the job that aren't fun.) Here is some of the cool stuff I get to do in January.

I recently got back from two days at Mt. Wesley. I am a Liaison Pastor for the final year of our Covenant Connection process. It is the final year for this group of ordination candidates and the final year for this version of the process. It has been replaced by something called Residency in Ministry. You can read all about Covenant Connection in an earlier post: Covenant Connection... from the Other Side. Long story short, I get to hang out with some of the folks who may be ordained this year as Elders and Deacons and they are gifted and talented pastors who have so much to add to our Annual Conference and the Church Universal. The Liaison pastors are part of the process of mentoring and evaluating them but we also get to learn a lot from them.

On the subject of ordination, this week I will also lead a small group interview team to evaluate some ordination candidates in the area of theological understanding. Every candidate has to submit written answers to some significant theological questions. We are talking about around 35 pages of answers to questions on doctrine and theology in The United Methodist Church. It includes theoretical and practical application on issues like atonement, christology and sacraments. If you happen to be a theology geek, this is fun, but still difficult stuff. My group has five interviews tomorrow. The interviews are fascinating and include a little pressure. The recommendation of this group is one of the components the Board of Ordained Ministry looks at in its final decision on ordination for each candidate

With that behind me, I get to head to Dallas for another meeting with the Leadership Network Leadership Development Community. It is always a blessing to get to work with Leadership Network and the amazing churches they pull together for these learning communities. This one has already been exceptionally fruitful as we consider how our Pathway to Discipleship is part of our overall plan to help raise up Christian disciples and leaders.

Oh, and there is more. This Sunday is the launch of Confirmation Classes. With Pastor Ryan Barnett heading out on sabbatical, I will be leading the class this year. Again, fun! But a little daunting. I have taught plenty of individual confirmation classes but this will be my first time through leading the charge. Fortunately Pastor Ryan has left behind his time tested curriculum and pattern. Nobody panic.

January also means the launch of a number of things in our Pathway to Discipleship. The Forum, our online Message Phase offering begins with orientation this evening and a new semester of New Testament Survey begins soon. My staff is working hard on another u|connect this Sunday as well as the launch of Alpha and our first West Campus Jesus 101.

But, as it always does, January will come to and end. But then in February, I will be again preaching every week. Again, what of my favorite things to do. But, I'll need to pace myself.

So, I will see you around the church. And, if I haven't returned your email, you may want to send it again. I am a little behind.



Wednesday, January 5, 2011

How does one declare a moratorium?

I don't quite have the status within the Church or even within my denomination to declare a moratorium on the use of a term, but perhaps I can suggest one. I would like to recommend that we stop using the term "small group" especially without further clarification. Here is why. I have no idea what anyone is talking about anymore. I see in blogs, on twitter and in numerous other sources of endless wisdom, quotes like this:

"Small groups are essential for building community in your church."
"Discipleship development is most effective in the context of small groups."
"Small groups are the key to church growth."
"The only way to create relationships in a large church is through small groups."

Here is the problem. Any one of these statements may contain truth. However, without knowing what exactly is meant by the term "small group," these statements could mean a lot of things.

Is the focus of the group fellowship, faith formation, Bible study, accountability? Is there a focus at all? Is the group self-driven or is there a facilitator? Is the facilitator trained? Are we talking about a self-selected group, a group generated through random sign ups, something created through a complex computer system? Are these open groups or closed groups? Is there an expected life-span for the groups or do they go on indefinitely? Are they based on geography, or life-stage, or hair color?

Don't get me wrong, in asking for a moratorium on the term, I am NOT asking for a break from the concept. There are churches doing some amazing ministry with small groups. But, there is an essential element involved. Churches who have effective small groups have identified the purpose and designed them to accomplish that purpose. For instance, if the purpose of a small group is to deepen member's level of discipleship, a church would have to ask some questions? Are the leaders of the groups disciples themselves? Have them been adequately trained and given adequate resources to lead? A church successful with this model would know that small groups don't make disciples, it is what happens within those groups. What if the purpose of a church's small groups was simply to create new relationships? The church would have to ask, do we have leaders who are good at helping people to get to know one another? Do we have a way of connecting people to these groups? (Otherwise it is likely they will be made up of people already in relationship.) Do we allow these groups to remain together for a long time or, for the purpose of creating new relationships is this a dynamic process?

What can get confusing about small groups is in the difference between products and by-products. We use this distinction in evaluating the effectiveness of different ministries at University. The products are the intentional output of a ministry. The by-products are the other things that might happen, that might be great but aren't the central purpose. For example, if we were to have an evangelism event at the church, the product (main purpose) might be measured on how many new people we go to meet and talk to. The by-product might be that be that we have a really great time with the people we already know. When the event is over, it is really easy to measure the wrong thing. "Well, we didn't meet anyone knew, but is sure was fun. We should do it again next year."

If the intended product (main purpose) of a small group is disciple formation, its success needs to be evaluated in terms of that. I realize it is hard to quantify growth as a disciple, but we can certainly ask questions related to how people are growing in their Christian journey. However, just looking at the narrative and accepting "we have all become really good friends" as success is measuring the wrong thing. It is great that people have become friends but was that what you were trying to do?

I think a lot about this because University does not have a "small group" program. However, people do meet together in small table groups throughout our Pathway to Discipleship; people do gather on Sunday morning in groups for Sunday school; and we do have a fairly decent number of organic small groups that organize and meet on their own. These groups have different purposes and the ones that we do organize are organized around those purposes and measured based on the intended purpose. In our Pathway to Discipleship, we are attempting to evaluate whether or not the program is helping people to "look to Jesus and look like Jesus." That is hard to quantify but there are questions we can ask. The overall goal of the Pathway is to connect people to their Jesus Mission. We can ask, are people serving in the Kingdom and using their God given gifts?

There is now another dimension to this discussion at University. In launching our west campus, West U, there is another need and another purpose for a small gathering of people. In the launch of a new church, there is a need to create community. This is especially important and challenging because you are basically creating a community of people from scratch. At West U, The Pathway to Discipleship will remain the primary way we develop disciples. Under the direction of West U's lead pastor, Adam Knight, we will use small groups primarily for community building. With this purpose (product) in mind Adam is forming groups in a particular way. There is a need to be intentional. They are not going to be based on Bible study or discipleship, we do that in other places. They are going to be designed around leaders and activities that build community. The initial plan includes meeting twice a month - once for simply fellowship and the other for some form of community building mission endeavor. This is new ground, so we don't know how it is going to work. But, we do what were are looking for, so we should be able to figure out how to measure effectiveness.

Okay, so you can keep using the term. But, in doing so, also tell us what you are talking about. What is the purpose? What is the intended outcome? What does it look like? And, how do you know if it working?



Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Reading the Bible in a Year

I have recently seen lots of tweets and posts and yielded a fair number of questions on the topic of reading the Bible through in a year. It is a common resolution and one likely a little less successful than weight loss or watching less television.

If you are setting out to read Genesis through Revelation this year, I suggest a visit to Jon Acuff's SCL website and read:

Already being behind on your read through the Bible in a year plan.

If you have indeed already fallen behind or if you have decided to put it off until next year or if you have decided it sounds like a good idea but is never going to happen, here is another thought: What about an opportunity to read the grand, sweeping narrative of the Bible and to experience the the stories and chronology of the work of God and of God's people in the words of scripture? What if you could do that in about twelve weeks? What if you could do that in community so that you could hold yourself accountable to get it done plus have a chance to learn a little bit more of what is behind the words, share your thoughts and questions and discuss new insights? What if there was only one meeting at the church and the rest of the course could be done online on your own schedule?

Well then... join us for The Forum a core course in the Message Phase of the Pathway to Discipleship. There is one required meeting at the church on January 16th at 5:30pm or January 19th at 7pm. The rest of the course will take place online for 12 weeks starting the week of the 26th. The cost of the course is $15 which includes a copy of The Story, the text we will use.

You can register online (soon) at or email Elizabeth at