Knowing the Needs

In our small city of 65,000+, there are multiple places to get food assistance if you’re hungry.  From the giant non-profit to the small neighborhood church, resources seem abundant.  Even with all that, there are still those struggling to get by.  The pandemic and the economic crisis have driven many people to food pantries and other distribution centers.  The need is real, but it isn’t the only need.  

Recently, the small church I pastor took up a clothing and food collection to be distributed to partner ministries.  What I discovered was that while there were plenty of places to take food, no one was taking clothing.   Our city no longer has a Salvation Army or St. Vincent de Paul thrift store.  Both closed years ago.  A tiny thrift store benefiting shelter animals and the resale shop Savers is all we have left.  The homeless drop-in center collects and distributes clothing, but has been closed due to COVID.  One of the places we normally would donate clothes to is no longer taking anything but new baby clothes.  So, currently, if someone is in need of clothing and have little or no money, our city has very few options.  

When things started getting desperate, every church and concerned citizen opened up some kind of food ministry or outreach.  On one hand, it’s beautiful and encouraging to see the response.  On another, it creates a decentralized distribution system that is confusing and overlapping.  No one really knows if all the needs are being met, or if the focus is on the same population.  In essence, there is more competition than cooperation in an effort that shouldn’t have any winners or losers.  And none of this answers the question of where to get some pants, shoes, sweater, or a coat.  

Here is the thing I’m driving at: know the needs in your community.  Do the work of researching and asking questions.  Find out who is doing what, where, and when.  Look for the gaps and fill them.  Be flexible and adaptable as needs change.  As we look at Jesus’ ministry, He wasn’t just about one thing.  He met needs as they arose and entered into various heartbreaking situations with grace and compassion.  Imagine if Jesus passed up lepers, blind and lame beggars, the possessed and persecuted because He was fixated only on addressing one particular need.   Find the gaps, the holes in the net through which people are slipping.  If it’s collecting and distributing food, great.  If the need is different or more difficult, don’t shy away from addressing it in whatever way you can.  Chances are, you’ll find Jesus already at work in those areas, just waiting on some of His people to show up.


Ugly Church Stories: Hope in a Church Basement

Church basements can be places of transformation.  Just think about all the AA/NA meetings, community meals, clothing closets, food pantries, and support groups–not to mention Bible studies and Sunday Schools–that meet in church basements.  Both my own youth group as a teenager and the first youth group I pastored had our rooms in a corner of the basement, converted into fun hangouts with hand-me-down furniture, wild paint, and eclectic decor.  I’ve sometimes felt the presence of God more clearly in church basements than I have in their sanctuaries.  It’s often in the basement that things get real.

For the Church, it’s been painful to see congregations shrink and large buildings go empty and unused.  For many, however, they have leveraged their unused space for new and different opportunities to love those in their communities.  Fellowship halls become warming (and cooling) centers, soup kitchens, and community centers.  Some have been converted to housing for the homeless.  Some become whatever they need to be in the moment.

When my parents moved to Arizona to take on a new pastorate in a small mountain town of 5,000 people, they found a church with a great basement.  It had been recently renovated with an updated kitchen, carpet, and paint.  It was a source of pride for the church.  But it became clear very early that this had been done solely for the enjoyment and benefit of the church members.  When a church plant asked to rent the basement, the church board flatly said no.  They worried what might happen to the new carpet.  The church plant would not be the last group to be turned away under the current leadership.

Fast forward a few years and several board members later, and you see a completely different story.  The church’s basement is home-base for outreach to the poor, hungry, and homeless, including two men who temporarily call the basement home.  It took time, perseverance, and overcoming resistance to shift the conversation from protecting the carpet to caring for the destitute and desperate.  In that time, also, the church’s reputation changed.  Through partnerships and collaboration with like-minded churches and individuals, they have an outsized impact in their community.  When one of the men who now lives in the basement was taken to the local Salvation Army, they were immediately referred to this little church for assistance.  That’s a big change, and as far as I know, no one worries about the carpet anymore.  

Their story isn’t unique, but it’s a reminder that even small churches in small communities can have a big impact if they’re willing to leverage what few resources they have and partner with other churches and individuals.  Churches like these won’t have stories written about them in church growth magazines, but they will transform their communities and the people that live there.

Of Water and Wifi

Poor communities face a lack of internet connectivity, which is of particular concern when it seems that every kind of interaction has gone online.  Work, church, and schools have been virtual for months and even with the return of some in-person gatherings, we are still heavily reliant on our internet connections.  But what if you don’t have access to the internet?  On the news the other night, there was a story about a mom trying to get her four kids connected to their classwork by using her phone as a mobile hotspot.  If you have had any experience with this, you know that it’s like trying to force Niagara Falls through a drinking straw.  Situations like this are too common, and the learning gap between the haves and have-nots continues to grow, particularly affecting people of color.    

I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ words, “when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink” and how it applies to so much more than water.  If you have water, wouldn’t you share it with the thirsty?  The same with food, clothing, and shelter.  But what about your wifi?  Hear me out–just about every church, regardless of size or resources, has an internet connection.  Many if not most have wifi.  Why not open up the church a few hours a day for those in need of an internet connection for school work?  Maybe have a different area for adults looking for work?  With a small investment in additional equipment and a little technical know-how, a church’s wifi signal could be extended throughout the building and even into its parking lot.  For those unable (or unwilling) to open their facilities, they could still offer wifi to their neighbors.  With a few calls/emails and some neighborhood signs, the schools and community could learn of this essential resource, this cup of cold water to the parched.  

The perception of many outside the Church is that it is a place for people interested in personal piety, without having anything to say about social ills or issues of the day.  As long as we continue to be self-absorbed and self-centered in our Christianity, we will be self-righteous and ineffective.  God has given us the resources to reach beyond our walls and make a positive impact in the everyday lives of our neighbors.  Wouldn’t it be great if those outside the Church could reliably look to their local churches as sources of innovation to help meet their communities’ needs?  We have so many blessings and resources to share that we take for granted, wifi being just one of them.


Listening, Learning, Lifting Up, and Laying Down

When I took over management of a homeless shelter, I had never stayed in a homeless shelter.  I had never slept on the street.  As a young man I had experienced homelessness, sleeping in my car and surfing couches, but my life was not impacted by addiction, mental illness, or the myriad other contributing factors that lead to not having a place to live.  Furthermore, I had family I could fall back on if I chose to, which is rarely the case for the person sleeping rough.  

In order to understand how to help the men in my care, I had to understand their situation and know their stories.  Whatever I thought about homelessness or those who experience it, I had to set that aside to be open to new knowledge and the possibility and probability that my opinions and views needed to change.  It was the same when it came to understanding addiction, mental illness, abuse, or trauma.  And regarding racism in our country, I have to assume that as a middle-aged white man I might not understand what it’s like to be impacted by it as a person of color in America.  

So, how do we move beyond ignorance and complacency to effecting change for the hurting and suffering?  I think there are four essential steps:

  1. Listen to the hurting: The first step is the most important one because it requires openness and humility.  We tend to listen to the voices that reinforce what we already think and believe.  We’re most comfortable in our echo chambers where we aren’t forced to reconcile conflicting information or form new opinions from new data.  So, listen to the experiences and stories of people who may not look like you, think like you, talk like you, worship/pray like you, or vote like you.  Listen without casting judgment.  Listen without interrupting or interjecting.  Listen without getting defensive or argumentative.  Their story is theirs, just as your story is yours.  
  2. Learn from the hurting: Don’t hold your opinions to be so perfectly formed that they cannot or should not be changed.  If you have made a sincere effort to listen, you will have learned something.  What will you do with that new knowledge?  Will you tuck it away and compartmentalize it? Or will you do the hard work of modifying your existing worldview, even if it means admitting ignorance or simply being wrong?  It takes humility to honestly assess oneself.
  3. Lift up the hurting: While the first two steps are more passive, the last two are active.  In the Christian world, we generally equate “lifting up” as a reference to prayer.  And it is.  But it’s also more than that.  When the Samaritan found the man beaten in the ditch, he didn’t stop at listening to the man and learning about the dangers of the road.  He could have taken the new information for himself, thanked the man and left him in the ditch.  Instead, the Samaritan lifted up the man from his position and situation.  He took it upon himself to see that the injured man was safe and cared for.  
  4. Lay down yourself for the hurting: If we continue in the story of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan takes a vested interest in the man’s well-being.  He places him on his donkey while he himself walks.  He takes the man to an inn and uses his own resources to see that he is cared for.  The Samaritan even goes so far as to leave a blank check with the innkeeper.  This is money he could have used for a vacation, a bigger TV, a fancy dinner with his wife, or any number of other things.  But his concern for the “other” was greater than any concern for himself.  This is where the rubber meets the road.  How much are you willing to sacrifice on behalf of someone else?  During this pandemic, we’ve stayed home when we wanted to go out.  We wear masks in public places even when it’s uncomfortable.  We do it because we don’t want to get sick or make others sick.  But what if you knew you’d never get sick even without a mask, but by wearing a mask you could keep others safe?  Would you continue to wear a mask?  Would you continue to stay home?  

The value of lifting up the hurting is directly related to how much you’re willing to lay down your own rights, privilege, and pride so that the hurting can be healed.  Jesus emptied Himself so that He could walk in the frailty of humanness, eventually laying it all down for the sake of a broken world in desperate need of healing.  This is the example set for us.

When it comes to understanding racism and my place in it, I’m listening and learning as much as I can.  I’m looking for ways to lift up my sisters and brothers of color beyond praying for them and praying against the sources of their hurt.  And I’m willing to lay down myself for their sake, however God leads.    

Preserving the Mission

In the wake of coronavirus/COVID-19, there has been a lot of contemplation, concentration, and consternation around preserving our churches in the pandemic.  Anything that could be reproduced digitally has been, regardless of the size or expertise of churches.  Services are streaming from empty sanctuaries, living rooms, and outside spaces.  Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Zoom, Google and numerous other platforms are being used.  Some churches have even set up FM transmitters to broadcast music and messages into their parking lots so parishioners can remain in their cars.  This is all brilliant stuff.  

Texts, emails, social media, video chats, phone calls, and even traditional postal services have been used to keep connected with each other.  Drive-by visits, parades, and “hellos” from afar have replaced handshakes, hugs, and high-fives.  We’re managing  to adapt for the purpose of preserving our churches.  

As we’re forced to be separated, it’s important that we’re not so focused on preserving the institution of the Church, that we neglect preserving the mission of the Church.  In the words of Reggie McNeal, “The church was created on purpose, for a purpose–to partner with God in his redemptive mission here on earth.”  The mission hasn’t changed, regardless of the changing circumstances, challenges, and context.  While it may feel like the mission has been put on hold in this season of uncertainty, nothing has transpired that is a surprise to God.  He must have a plan, even now.

In some ways, it’s an exciting time of innovation and discovery.  Complacency and the status quo have been left on the curb like an old TV.  We’ve willingly or unwillingly become learners of unfamiliar subjects.  We’re being stretched and reshaped for a future none of us expected.  But are we preparing ourselves for this new future or clinging to old forms and methods, hoping that once the pandemic is past we’ll just go back to how things were before?  Most importantly, are we preparing ourselves for a reshaped mission field that looks very different from the one we left behind?  

Every day is a whirlwind of questions and conversations with precious few answers.  There are no blanket solutions so every church/missional outpost has to come to their own conclusions.  But this is where I want to remind us that God is not surprised and that He has a plan.  His love for the least, last, and lost hasn’t diminished.  His passion for the redemption of the world has not been put on pause.  So, if you’re hunkering down waiting for all this to blow over, I want to encourage you to lift up your heads and see what God is doing and where He’s going.  I want to encourage you–and all of us–to relentlessly seek His plan for our churches as part of His mission.  Ugly churches are needed as much as ever, even as our methods and modes of getting ugly have to change. 

Staying Ugly in a Pandemic

In the ugly church we talk a lot about physical presence in messy lives, situations, and circumstances, modeling our ministry after that of Jesus.  We want to be about the business of touching “lepers” and breaking bread with “sinners.” With the coronavirus pandemic, our usual modes of connection have been cut off.  Visits to the prison, outreach at the rec center, recovery meetings or any other face-to-face gathering are off-limits. So, how do we minister under these circumstances?

Technology connects those who are connected to technology.  Worship services, Bible studies, and prayer meetings have moved online.  There are even AA and NA meetings available, if you have the ability to connect to them.  But what if you don’t? What if you find yourself cut off from the Church and the supports she provides to the community?  

This is the wrestling match going on inside my head: how do we practice social-distancing and self-quarantine while still meeting needs and sharing the love of Christ?  One of our Ugly Church partners, Daniel’s Table in Framingham, MA, is providing more food than ever to the hungry in its city. This means face-to-face interaction and close proximity to others.  But without it, bellies are empty and hopelessness creeps in. Some risk has to be incurred even as that risk is mitigated as much as possible. The same goes for the cashier at the grocery store and the relief staff at the homeless shelter.  Without some risk, everything comes to a screeching halt.

I would like to say that I have an easy answer or some simple guidelines for ugly ministry in a pandemic that doesn’t either isolate people or exacerbate the spread of the virus–but I don’t.  As I ponder and pray, I’m led to a middle way between fear and foolishness. If we all give in to fear, suffering increases. If we all disregard wisdom, suffering increases. What that middle way looks like depends on your  context. But what I believe with all my heart is that we can’t disengage from the suffering around us. We must be creative and careful to look after our neighbors, to provide for those without, and offer community to the isolated.  

I’m encouraged by the creative risk-takers and collaborators who are stepping into the gaps so that the forgotten don’t slip through.  I’m encouraged by the acts of generosity that overshadow those of greed and selfishness. I’m encouraged that the things we learn during this pandemic will serve us in finding new ways to love others in the future.  In the meantime, I’m praying we all find the middle way.  

We would love to hear your thoughts and stories of how you’re staying “ugly” in the new normal.  I’m praying that you stay safe and stay ugly.  


The Funnel of Love (Not a Typo)

I’m naturally a visual person, which means I tend to think in pictures. As I was thinking about the way the Church typically approaches outreach and evangelism, it struck me as, well, backward. And the picture of a funnel came to mind. Based on what I understand about Jesus’ ministry and the way the modern human functions relationally, I drew the “amazing” picture you see above. It depicts the way I think the Church ought to engage those in need of Jesus.

John 14:6 lays out the exclusivity of Jesus’ claim as Savior, for He declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” If we take Jesus as His word, He is the truth. As we read throughout the Gospels, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit again and again as the guide to truth, which is found in Jesus. The Holy Spirit does what we cannot; He convicts and corrects on the deepest spiritual level, drawing people to Christ. While our words and actions may be effective, the conviction of the the Holy Spirit is a far greater motivator.

The description of the early Church is that of love, self-sacrifice, community, and fellowship as they grew in the truth of Christ. When we read Acts 2 and the description of the early Church, it isn’t their claim on truth that led to more being added to their number every day. Love was the wide-open access point. They sought to know Jesus (i.e. truth) through the Scriptures, the teachings of the apostles, and prayer in the context of the loving fellowship of the Church.

Somewhere, somehow, the funnel got flipped upside down. Instead of casting a wide net of love, the evangelical Church too often seeks to love only those who pass a “truth” test. Pass the test and your reward is love and acceptance; fail it, and you find yourself on the outside looking in. When Jesus went to Levi’s house and ate with all the “sinners,” He led with love so that they would have an opportunity to find truth. Had Jesus done it the other way, He’d be eating by Himself!

Hopefully, our churches are funnels of love, wherein all people are being drawn ever closer to the truth and life found in Christ. For those of us who have been in this process for any length of time, we know it can be challenging and even painful as the Holy Spirit points out our need for continued repentance and surrender. And it’s a different experience for each of us, so we ought not look across the funnel at others and condemn their journey to Jesus because it looks different than ours. Instead, we should rejoice that we’re on this journey toward Christlikeness together. Remember, the disciples had unfettered access to Jesus for three years and still struggled to get things right!

Love first and always. Trust the Holy Spirit to move in the lives of those seeking truth as you love, encourage, and guide them toward Jesus. When speaking, do so from deep humility and grace, because we are the recipients of much grace. If your convictions are rock-solid, use them to build bridges, rather than barriers. Learn to listen to the stories of others and learn from their stories. This is the beauty of the Church, that we have been loved into the Kingdom and are being guided into truth, not so that we can guard the door, but so we can help others find Jesus, too.

Prayer for a New Year

 “What do you want for Christmas,” my wife asks me before Christmas.  My mind goes blank. What do I need? What do I want? I need to lose (quite) a few pounds.  I need to call my parents and my brother more often.  I want to slow down and be more present.  These aren’t things that fit easily into a stocking.  

What material things do I want for Christmas?  Well, that’s not any easier because the first things I think of are previous gifts that I haven’t managed to fully enjoy.  There’s the mandolin that sees too little practice, the multi-track recorder that hasn’t recorded a single full song, and the journaling Bible that has far too few scribbles and notes in it.  There are books on my shelf that still need reading.  

I’ve found Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 to be true, that if you seek after the kingdom of God and His righteousness He will take care of you.  As disappointing as it may be to the “health and wealth” crowd, it’s not necessarily luxury or extravagance by Western standards, but I’ve got no complaints.  The thing is, the more I’m willing to surrender, the less I want to cling onto and the less I want to acquire. If I could have anything, it would be to see His kingdom come, His will be done right here and now as it is in heaven, not just in part but in full. 

As I spoke with a man wrestling with the demons of alcoholism, his eyes wet with tears, I wanted nothing more than to grant him sobriety, to instantaneously remove the deep seated desire for the bottle, to remove the many, many years of drinking and the chaos it has wreaked upon his life.  I want to grant the same to those shooting up and overdosing in rented rooms, homeless shelter bathrooms, and cold alleyways.

I want to guarantee that my brother’s or my mother’s cancer won’t come back.  I want to assure the same for every person that has had to face that uncertainty in their lives.  I want to eradicate the need to choose between food and medicine, between paying rent or keeping on the heat.  I  want every hopeless soul to know that they are extravagantly loved by their Creator, so much so that He came to this earth in flesh and blood and  died so they can have full, abundant, and everlasting life.  

And so I’m okay with an empty stocking if that means a full life for someone else.  As Christmas has passed into a new year, and all the hopes a new year brings with it, this is my prayer–that the words of Isaiah 9 would come to pass in every darkened heart:

The people walking in darkness

have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of deep darkness

a light has dawned.

May it be so!


Lifestyle, interrupted…

“Giving isn’t really giving until it interrupts your lifestyle.” unknown person wiser than me

I have a history of gaining and losing weight. Clothes are bought and then donated as they become too large or (usually) too small. It feels good to bag them up and give them to a local concern or ministry that can distribute them to those in need. What I’ve done hasn’t interrupted my lifestyle; in fact it facilitates it. It creates space in my closet, a vacuum that cries out to be filled. The same can be said for any other unwanted thing in our homes which we clear out to make room for new wanted things. I end up benefiting from the giving as much as the person receiving.

Jesus makes an observation (check out Mark 12: 41-44) as He sits across from the place where folks drop offerings into the temple treasury. The wealthy give great sums which amount to no great sacrifice. In contrast, a widow with a couple copper coins to her name drops them both into the treasury. Jesus points out that these two coins are all she has to live on, yet she still gives them. In so doing, she out-gives the wealthiest donor.

When we read this story our thoughts naturally go to financial giving, but aren’t we called to lay everything on the altar, to hold nothing back from Him? It seems we do a lot of mental and moral gymnastics to get around the kind of service, sacrifice, and even suffering that comes with following Jesus. Our time, treasure, and talents are too precious to us. We’re willing to give only as much as won’t actually change anything. The lifestyle we’re so worried about being interrupted needs to be interrupted!

When I was a freshman in high school, I served as a camp counselor at a church camp during the following summer and I worked with a young man who would become one of my closest friends. The following week of camp was for high school students and I wanted my new friend to come with me. But he couldn’t afford it. His mom was a single parent with two voracious teenage boys and simply couldn’t afford the fees. So I asked my parents if they could help, even though at the time my dad was struggling to find decent-paying work and we were surviving off my mom’s salary. To this day I don’t know how my parents came up with the money or what sacrifices they made personally, but they made it possible for us to go to camp together. It was a week that would shape our lives going forward, and was only made possible because they were willing to have their lifestyle, poor as it was, to be interrupted.

We are blessed so that we may bless others. Personally, I find that I’m the most blessed when it costs me the most, when the blessing of someone else requires a meaningful sacrifice on my part. It’s when we learn to live, love, and give like Jesus that we truly walk in His footsteps. And that’s the lifestyle I want to lead.

Haunting Questions

Two questions haunt me, and they’ve been haunting me for a long time. I read them early on in my ministry preparation, and despite the incredible volume of reading and studying in the years since, these two questions have never faded. One was posed by Matt Casper in Jim and Casper Go to Church, and the other by K.P. Yohannan in The Road to Reality.

Matt Casper is an atheist hired by Jim Henderson to visit and evaluate churches with him to get an “outsider’s” perspective. When visiting a popular church in a large city, as Casper took in the concert-style worship service with laser lights and fog machines, he looks at Jim and asks, “Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?” When I first read that line, I stopped short. My mouth might have fallen open a little bit. How much of what we do in the Church is in direct response to what Jesus told us to do? Laser lights and fog machines aside, how much isn’t?

In The Road to Reality, K.P. Yohannan provides an outsider perspective to the North American church as a pastor and evangelist from India. His wonder and awe at the prevalence of Christian churches in the United States is deflated by the prevalence of complacency and shallowness that he addresses bluntly by asking, “Since when has obedience to Christ and His Gospel become optional to Christianity?” The question hits me hard because I’m as guilty as anyone of trying to rationalize away or soften the hard edges of what it means to fully follow Jesus.

We do a great job at playing church but do everything we can to avoid the “lifestyle of sacrifice, service, and suffering for the sake of our Lord” to which we’re called. With all the activity and busyness of our churches, are we doing what Jesus told us to do? Are we treating the commands of Christ as directives to be followed or just suggestions to be considered? The truth is revealed in our actions and attitudes.