Superheroes on Mars Hill - Engaging the Comic-Con Culture With the Gospel

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." Acts 17:22-23 (ESV)

The story of Paul's engagement at the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, reminds us that the message of the Gospel is not just to be held privately, but strategically taken to those in need of redemption through Jesus Christ.

While there have been many advancements regarding technology and industry in the centuries since Paul spoke to these ancient people near Athens, not much has truly changed. Humanity remains depraved and in need of rescue and redemption. The Gospel remains true. God's church continues to move forward under the mandate of the Great Commission as we go through life to engage others with the message of truth.

Comic Books and Superheroes

When I was a boy, I loved reading and collecting comic books. When I had saved up enough change (from that quarter a week allowance) I would ask my parents to stop by the 7-Eleven on the way home from church in Montgomery, Alabama so I could peruse the comic book stand for the latest issues featuring my favorite heroes. This was no comic book shop. There were no plastic bags with acid-free boards for storing the magazines. The rack was metal, spun, and sat near the door.  Most of the comic books were bent as children like me would bend them down to see which issues were hidden behind. I remember when they were 25 cents, then 30 cents and 35 cents and then "Still Only 35 cents." I normally would go home with two or three issues. These would be read numerous times and added to the stack I was accumulating.

Of course, like most people my age, I would get the first issues of new comics hoping that one day they would be worth thousands of dollars like the first "Action Comics" and "Batman" issues of old. Nevertheless, most of the magazines my generation bought were stored safely and because our parents didn't throw them out like those from previous generations, we now have a plethora of books that are "Fabulous First Issues" which aren't worth much because supply (in those plastic sleeves in cardboard boxes) is so high.

8015843393_6701ed8039_b
Photo credit: Sam Howzit via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Resurgence of Superheroes in Comic Books

In case you haven't noticed, after a time when comic book sales tanked and superhero films and television shows seemed to be fading, a renewal of interest in these heroes with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man has occurred. 

The Golden Age (1936 - early 1950s)

Since the Golden Age of comics (1936 - early 1950s,) heroes with brightly-colored spandex have attracted the interest of children and teenagers. During the 1940s, superhero comic interest waned. Magazine publishers began to produce books with different themes such as westerns, romance, science fiction, crime, and horror. In fact, many superhero titles were cancelled at this time. Of the dozens produced in the early 1940s, the only ones featuring superheroes to continue production by DC (the industry leader at the time) through the decade were Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Detective Comics, Batman, Superboy, Superman, Wonder Woman, and World's Finest Comics.

5690970467_349b246448_z
Photo credit: Terry McCombs via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC

The Silver Age (1956 - 1970)

Many changes took place in the world of comic books following the Golden Age. Controversy developed over the alleged connection between comic book themes and juvenile delinquency. In 1954, the comic publishers implemented a self-regulated Comics Code Authority and a shift from crime and horror themes led to a reintroduction of superheroes. The introduction of a new Flash from DC Comics launched this era and soon upstart Marvel Comics launched the Fantastic Four and a new wave of fans was born.

7887317012_0bd2a7bb8b
Photo credit: Michael Vance1 via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

The Bronze Age (1970 - 1985)

This next age of comic book production moved Marvel Comics to the forefront. It was during this time I was collecting those books sold at the 7-Eleven. While many of the mainstay heroes remained, newer ones were introduced and a return to darker plot lines emerged (e.g. racism, alcoholism, drug abuse, urban poverty, pollution, etc.). Many of the heroes introduced in this era became the models for newer television shows like "The Incredible Hulk," "Wonder Woman," and "Spider-Man" and movies like the Christopher Reeve helmed "Superman: The Movie" and Michael Keaton's "Batman."

6954733666_f1a3c17ceb_z
Photo credit: Brian Wilkins via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC

The Modern Age (1985 - present)

As generations shift, so too do the heroes they admire. While comic sales dropped, new business models were implemented. Character licensing was sold and plans for new films have been made. It is during this era when many comic book characters were redesigned, creators gained ownership of characters through independent comics, and publishing houses became more commercialized.

Some call this the Dark Age of Comics due to the influence of writers and artists like Frank Miller and Alan Moore. Anti-heroes (like Deadpool, the Punisher, and even Batman) became more popular.

3944029615_5430dd451f_z
Photo credit: Asbestos Bill via Visualhunt / CC BY

The Cinematic Universes

When Christopher Reeve first put on the blue tights and red "S" a new era of marketing comic book heroes developed. The "Superman" movie from the late 1970s stated that fans "would believe a man could fly" and based on ticket sales, they did. When Tim Burton introduced a darker "Batman" to the big screen in the 1980s, many fans thought it would fail, primarily because Michael Keaton was cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman and the campiness of Adam West's Caped Crusader was the prominent screen image known. When Burton's film became a hit, it seemed like superhero movies would soon take over the multiplex. Nevertheless, sequels didn't fare as well and other films like Dolph Lundgren's "The Punisher" and David Hasselhoff's "Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D." proved that Hollywood hadn't quite figured out how to move the comic heroes en masse to the big screen.

Then Tobey Maguire became Spider-Man and soon thereafter Christian Bale moved under the cowl of the Dark Knight and, as they say...the rest is history.

Marvel and DC have created effective (at least financially) cinematic universes that have proven to connect with audiences.

33628362851_d96e8de340_z
Photo credit: junaidrao via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND
33313992044_49c1ae32bc_b
Photo credit: junaidrao via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

More Than a Weak Sermon Series Theme

Apparently there are many fans of superheroes in our communities. These run the gamut from stereotypical fanboy or fangirl who knows intricate details of multiverses to the casual fan who just saw Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and watches Sheldon and Leonard on "The Big Bang Theory."

In recent years, with attempts to capitalize on pop culture with catchy themes, some have preached sermons or themed kids events at churches with pseudo-superhero concepts. I'm guilty of having done this in the past, but the truth is as Dr. Timothy Paul Jones stated in a blog post from earlier this year:

For many Christians, the temptation seems to be to engage in what I would identify as a “thin reading” of these cultural artifacts (comic books and superhero films,) hunting for surface-level connections between the Bible and our favorite superhero tales. Pastors who become caught up in such thin readings may construct entire sermon series out of the latest films or feel compelled to drop references to movies into their messages—all to achieve a perceived sense of relevance by linking Scripture to culture. This is not authentic cultural engagement, however. In most instances, it’s closer to uncritical cultural appropriation. Full-fledged Christian engagement with the culture digs deeper than surface-level links and wrestles with the conflicting worldviews that undergird these artistic artifacts.

Jones' article goes deeper and is well worth your read. Read it here.

Engaging on Mars Hill

What is it about these heroes that not only connects generations and draws fans, but gathers groups together at Comic-Con and movie premieres? The religious undertones are not always subtle and the fact that most early superheroes such as Superman were rooted in Judaism (ever wondered why his name is Kal-El?) reveals many Old Testament themes woven into the histories, especially from the Golden Age. 

Yet, even anti-religious sentiment and humanistic worldviews aside, there is a sense, for the most part of good, evil, truth, justice, and other such things that at the core are religious concepts.

Many of the fictional heroes and heroines either find their root in Greek and Roman mythology or at a minimum are influenced by some of these types of stories. It is my contention that the culturally popular fictional heroes are not much different than the false gods and goddesses worshipped and adored by the ancient people of Paul's day.

Paul engaged those who were far from God strategically. He went to Mars Hill for this purpose. He did not remain silent, but talked intelligently and not condescendingly to those in the crowd. 

What If?

After reading numerous articles and studying God's Word on living sent as his church to a lost and dying world, I thought of Dr. Jones' postings about worldviews as revealed in comic books and the cinematic universes of Marvel and DC.

What if the church engaged this affinity group through story-telling in ways that centers on the Scripture and the Gospel? What if rather than just continuing to add programs and events to reach the already reached, we went to this "Mars Hill" in our culture today? I have talked to a few teenagers specifically about this. Some attend church, but always seem to be on the fringes. Others have no place for church in their lives and basically have denied or ignored the message of the Gospel. I asked if they would consider joining me for a study called "The Meta-narrative of the Gospel as Revealed in the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes?" Yeah - that's what I named it, based on Dr. Jones' articles. However, I may shorten it to "Superhero Sunday Nights."

Their interest was piqued.

I asked, "Do you have any friends who may be interested in something like this?" 

The answer was yes and they began to rattle off names of students I do not know. Most have no connection with a church and no relationship (or desire for a relationship) with Christ.

I am not sure what this will even look like - The Big Bang Theory meets the Bible? I hope more than that. It's just that we (the church) have done much over the decades to connect with students through affinities like athletics, drama and theater, dance, and music, but I have yet to hear of an intentionally evangelistic effort (more than a gimmick event) that seeks to connect with those whom many categorize as nerds and geeks, but most likely think deeply and love and understand the intricacies of story. Ultimately, the Story is what they need.

Some will mock. Some will ignore. Yet, I believe some will be drawn by God to Himself. It's been done before.

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. Acts 17:32-34 (ESV)

 


Playing Games & Calling It Ministry

I have heard the comments throughout the years, but it seems that over the past few months they have grown with regularity. I wouldn't really file these away as gripes, but they are close. Maybe it's a sign that there's a holy unrest among a generation seeking more? At least, that's how I define it. The common thread is that I am hearing from members of a certain generation who are tired of being a part of a ministry that is content at remaining shallow.

Some of the things said in passing are things like. . .

"I really want to be a part of a ministry that is more than just focused on fun."

"I don't think just getting together to play games constitutes ministry."

"I love being with people, but shouldn't we be doing something for the Lord rather than just talking about it?"

"The trips are fun. It's just that they're only trips. We don't do anything related to God, the church or ministry."

"All we do is eat."

Holy discontent?

Sounds like young adults who grew up in a youth ministry that was built on pizza parties, trips to the beach or amusement park and maybe game nights. As a veteran of student ministry and student of the culture, this is one of the reasons many teenagers leave church when they graduate. They were never invited into ministry, never given significant tasks within the church and eventually they either desire more or see church as frivolous.

The thing is, the comments I'm hearing now are not from the younger, Millennial generation. These comments are coming from senior adults.

Lightstock_138010_small_david_tarkington

I don't categorize them as gripes, but as honest questions from men and women who have more chapters read in their life stories than I do. Most desire to finish well and do not see empty "ministries" as allowing them to do so.

It's funny, they're not saying they don't want to play games, eat and fellowship together or even take trips together on the big bus somewhere. Their frustration is that these activities alone are called "ministry" and yet, should not be.

In other words, if the church only offers activities for seniors that the local community senior center can, there is a good chance that what is offered is not ministry at all. 

It is offensive to me when pastors and leaders who serve senior adults treat these seasoned saints as if they're little more than old versions of preschoolers.

We live in a culture that does not value the aged. This is evident in how many view senior adults. There is a treasure of wisdom available, but many just walk on by and never experience it, destined to repeat the mistakes of previous generations by ignoring wise counsel.

Now, just because a person has lived long on the earth does not mean that person is living holy, redeemed and wise. These attributes are Spirit-given and often choices of the individual. Nevertheless, the church in the United States that rightly seeks to reach Millennials and young people with the Gospel must also discover ways to not push aside those who still have much to offer the Kingdom.

Intergenerational ministry is key. . .and it's not defined by games, meals and bus trips.


God Shows His Glory Through a Little Boy

It is amazing how much can change in just one week. This is true for things we watch on the national news, but also in our families and the small circle of friends that we all have.

Last week, the Wood family was at Sea World, braving the Florida heat and enjoying beauty of God's creation, not to mention Clyde and Seamore (bring back the pirate theme, please) and Shamu. Within a matter of days, Orlando was in the rearview mirror and Wolfson Children's Hospital in Jacksonville replaced the hotel room.

11737812_1184421944914420_1013288043990846656_nJon Wood serves on the Leadership Team at the church I pastor (First Baptist Church of Orange Park.) He leads our young adult small groups as well as leads in other areas. He and his wife, Mandi are faithful members of our church and precious members of our family. They have three children, Brady, Drew and Grace. 

A couple of years ago, Drew was diagnosed with a form of leukemia. He began treatment at Wolfson Hospital and though there have been some serious ups and downs, he has been no less than a warrior and has done so well. In fact, he is scheduled for his final chemo treatment soon. Over this time, his health has been monitored, even more than a typical child's would be. There have been overnight stays at the hospital on occasion, but through it all, God has strengthened him and his family.

Drew is like many young boys. He loves to play. He loves his friends and siblings and family. He loves coming to church. As many of you know, he loves super heroes. His favorite for quite some time has been Robin, Batman's sidekick. I asked him why he liked Robin so much and he answered, "Because he has an 'R' in his name and so do I." Seemed logical, though I didn't bring up that Superman, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and a few more super heroes also have an "R." He was content that this justified Robin being his favorite, so that was good enough for me. The more we talked, it became clear that all these other heroes were liked as well. 

Last week, while on vacation with his family, a cough that he has had for quite some time (and had been monitored) was growing worse and his breathing became more labored. It was clear that this was getting serious.

Upon arrival at the hospital, X-rays were done. Drew was admitted to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) where he has been for the last week. Each day's X-rays showed a progressive worsening in his lungs, but due to his age, size, medical history and current weakness, great concern was shared regarding intubating him. Therefore, the best treatment at the time was to give medication and observe to see if the common treatments would work.

Unfortunately, the treatments were not making headway and Drew was worsening.

Friends and family members began sharing updates on social media. By the way, social media has its detractors and rightfully so. There is much shared through social media outlets that is far from edifying and God-honoring, but this story has shown how God can redeem all things and through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+, thousands of believers throughout the world have joined together in prayer for Drew. The #PrayForDrew has trended locally and among our faith family. I cannot figure out whose Facebook profile I am seeing, in that many have changed their picture to the same "Pray for Drew" icon.

Critical Day

Monday, July 20 was one of the most difficult days for the family. A decision was to be made that day that would be critical. Drew's health was not getting better and Mandi, Drew's mother posted this on her Facebook page. . .

One of the toughest days of my life. This afternoon I bolted to the hospital for what I believed was my last goodbye to my son.

The decision had to be made by Jon and Mandi on this day regarding next steps. Doctors gathered with them and gave them insight into all scenarios. There were basically four options available:

  1. Do nothing other than what was currently being done and hope Drew's body strengthens on it's own.
  2. Do a bronchoscopy to gather fluid from his lungs to determine if its an infection or virus or some other ailment so that treatment could happen.
  3. Do a lung biopsy at some time later, following the bronchoscopy.
  4. Do both the bronchoscopy and biopsy in one procedure.

These may seem like easy options, but none are without risk. The risk intensifies with each one. Jon shared with us that he felt they were in a "Catch-22."

At this time on Monday, a group of family and friends had already gathered at the hospital. By God's providence, there was a PICU room empty right next to Drew's. The hospital staff allowed friends and family to gather there in this makeshift waiting room. It became clear we had been gathered for one purpose - to pray.

We prayed together, interceding in the name of Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, seeking from the Father that which we have been invited to seek. We asked God to give Jon and Mandi wisdom and clarity. We asked that God would direct their decision-making and that which was chosen of the available options (or even if a previously unknown option was available) would be clearly God's will.

The decision was made to proceed with option 4 and surgery was to be done Monday afternoon.

The Anointing

I then met with Jon, along with his brother Jeff, and read him a passage from James 5. I asked him if this would be his and Mandi's desire - to have the pastors, elders (in our case, associate pastors) and even deacons present to pray over Drew and anoint him with oil. To be honest, in Baptist life, the anointing of oil is not something we hear much about, but we affirm the veracity of Scripture and know the symbolism of the anointing and power of God to heal.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. James 5:13-16 (ESV)

Jon and Mandi agreed this was right and asked for the men who had been set aside by the church and ordained to lead out in this way. I was honored to lead this time of prayer and anointing. The oil was not poured over Drew, as is the case in some biblical accounts, but we did anoint him with oil and prayed over him. The men of God, along with family in the room, offered to the Great Physician the one before us. We hallowed God's name, declared his Kingdom to be revealed in each of us, confessed our sin and sought the face of God. We even prayed that most frightful part of the prayer - "Your will be done" knowing that sometimes His will is not fully revealed to us in the moment. 

This prayer time was no gimmick.

It was no religious routine.

It was no prewritten, overly scheduled gathering. 

It was fresh, vibrant, humbling, and powerful. The Spirit of the Lord, who is present with Christ-followers always, was . . . well, there's no other way for me to describe it. . . very real and experienced at that moment.

10371947_10207412458091889_1429643501158913346_n

Then, We Waited

Dozens of family members and friends waited together in the hospital. Literally thousands more waited for word throughout the world. Seriously - just one posting on our church Facebook page had over 44,000 hits. Believe me, we NEVER get 44,000 hits on a post. These hits were from numerous states, not to mention nations as far away as Canada, Wales, South Africa and Germany, just to name a few.

While we waited, anticipating the doctors to wheel Drew out at any moment, Jon came into the room and shared how humbled he was by the grace and mercy of God. He declared how God was revealing such great truths to him through all of this and offered that Romans 8 was where he kept finding himself.

Jon then went back to Drew's room, joining Mandi who perpetually sat with Drew, talking to him and praying over him, leaving us waiting. Jeff, Jon's brother, began to read Romans 8 and everyone pulled out their Bibles to read along (mostly on cell phones - it's a generational thing.) As Jeff read, the Spirit of God affirmed His presence and the power of His inerrant Word.

11737912_1184337291589552_2127885865885814235_n

When Jeff finished Romans 8:27, I stopped him. I said to the group that the next verse, though very popular was one of the most difficult ones to read. To know that the father of this young boy had been reading and dwelling on this was powerful. I shared that often I will not share this verse to family members in such circumstances. This is not because I feel it to be a bad verse. What Bible verse could be bad? It is just that if this verse is offered apart from the prompting of the Spirit, it can be received wrongly. Timing is vital.

Nevertheless, as Jon and Mandi have been journeying through this, they have been able to go to this verse for comfort and direction. So, we continued on.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28 (ESV)

God bless the reading and believing of His Word.

Surgery Delayed

We, the friends and extended family members, moved to a larger waiting area. After about an hour, Jon came down to inform us that Drew's surgery had been delayed. This was a surprise in that we were told earlier that it wouldn't be delayed unless something very serious was happening with another child or unforeseen circumstances occurred. In this case, it was apparent that something was happening with another child or with the surgical team. So we waited.

At first, this caused frustration for Jon and others. Then, we focused on the reality. We had asked God to reign supreme throughout this story. He was doing so. Therefore, it is clear that the delay was not man's design, but God's plan.

The delay was then extended to the next day.

Surgery Day - Tuesday

Yesterday, July 21, Drew's surgery happened. Prior to surgery, he recorded this video. Under his breathing mask, and able to just say a few words, he asked for prayer. This little one had told his father that he believed in God, believed in Jesus Christ and asked Him to forgive his sins and save him. This child of God, with child-like faith, believes God loves him and believes prayer is what Christians are supposed to do. His faith may just be stronger than most of us older, seasoned Christians.

 

Surgery took place Tuesday afternoon. It was long - over three hours. The bronchoscope showed "normal" results and the results of the biopsy are pending.

There was concern over the rigidness of Drew's lung tissue and details regarding that were shared with Drew's parents.

Drew is now in the PICU at Wolfson Children's Hospital. It was shared that he will likely feel sick for a few days due to the surgery. He remains on a ventilator.

Prayer Continues

The doctors, nurses and technicians at Wolfson continue to work and they are doing a wonderful job. We continue to work as well, praying for Drew's healing. We pray for Drew and for his entire family during this process.

Look What God Has Already Done

Jon shared with me that through all of this, his prime desire is that God use this to bring people to Himself. I was humbled immediately to hear this. Jon's honesty and vulnerability in this is clear and this desire is not religious God-talk or just saying what others expect to hear from a church leader. Jon believes this and seeks to live this out.

May God be glorified.

We know that God has already answered our prayers. To be at this point IS an answer to prayer. To see how denominational and church lines have been dropped and those who claim the name of Jesus Christ have unified in prayer is amazing. 

In a culture that causes great distress among Christ-followers, He has shown Himself to be sovereign through this.

The faith of those whose Christianity is little more than attending a service every now and then and maybe praying over meals has been challenged. 

Young families who are so busy and seeking to provide multiple opportunities for their children (sports, bands, cheerleading, dance, clubs, etc.) which are all good have been forced to stop and focus upon what is most important. I am seeing parents looking at their own precious children differently. God has reminded and is reminding them of these gifts. 

The young church has stepped up. There are surveys and statements throughout the culture about the millennial and Gen-Xers who are abandoning their faith. What we have seen is a resurgence of young believers, centered around the need for community and desiring to do something that matters and realizing that prayer and service to their friends (watching the other kids, mowing their lawn, taking care of their home, providing hotel rooms near the hospital, bringing meals, etc.) are vital and important and needed. 

Jon and I texted late last night before I finally told him to get some sleep. Here are some of the words from a father seeking to lead and love well, who is himself being used by God, as well as his wife, for His glory.

Screenshot 2015-07-22 09.47.51

Screenshot 2015-07-22 09.47.25

Well Done Church

Jon asked a question I hear in hospitals all the time. He asked, "How do people who don't know Christ and don't have a church family get through times like this?" I answered, "They don't. They just fake it."

We don't have to fake it.

God's church has numerous purposes, but primarily we exist to bring Him glory. By loving Him and loving others, we do so. The Great Commission and Great Commandment have been being fulfilled through this journey. 

Keep praying.

Keep believing. 

Keep the faith.

Be strong enough to pray "Your will be done" and know that God determines that.

For continued updates on Drew's story, "Like" my Facebook page or our church's page.

As you share your prayers and thoughts on social media, use the #PrayForDrew hashtag, please.


A Look Back at Predicted 2011 Church Trends

On January 1, 2011, church consultant and founder of Auxano, Will Mancini posted and article on his blog titled "Vision and Strategy Church Trends for 2011 and Beyond." Mancini's writing is always challenging and in most cases he's been right regarding trends and church and culture analysis.

Will-manciniI thought it would be interesting to look back at his predictions and see how many of these items have truly trended (not from a statistical analysis viewpoint, but from a totally unscientific view based on my opinions.

So, here are Will's trends, as he listed them with my 20/20 hindsight:

TREND #1: Expect Increasing Diversity of Opinion on What Good Vision and Strategy Look Like. 

Over the past few years, I have attended conferences and viewed webcasts featuring authors, pastors, leadership consultants, denominational and corporate leaders all focused on the same thing - vision and leadership strategy. In each case, the information gathered was helpful, but as Will stated, there are so many diverse opinions and plans, that it is easy to be overwhelmed with the options. Therefore, it seems that the danger many pastors face is hitching their vision and strategy wagon to one idea and then changing gears after the next book or conference has come out. There are many opnions on how to cast vision and develop strategy. This reminds me of the story (maybe true) when D.L. Moody was asked which translation of the Bible was best and he responded "The one you read." In this case, it may be the best vision and leadership strategy implemented in the local church is "the one you use."

TREND #2: Articulating the Biggest Picture will be the Leader’s Greatest Asset Like Never Before.

For years, even under my leadership, church members and staff members have made statements like "We're not even sure who we are or why we do what we do." That can be a hurtful statement if one keeps his feelings on his sleeve. However, beneath this statement was a declaration of frustration that I needed to hear. Unless the church (and especially the leadership team) understands the big picture - the "why" of what we are doing, the ministries, activities, events, community actions, etc. become little more than things that keep the church looking busy and eventually leads to burnout and shallow service.

TREND #3: The Digital World and Social Media will Open New Possibilities for More Churches.

Churches are behind in this area, and always will be. However, that doesn't mean that we must remain disconnected and refuse to utilize the tools available online and through digital media. At one time, cost of equipment and fear of technology kept many churches out of this realm, but with the advent of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites, there are no longer any excuses for churches to not have an online presence.

We now have a Director of Social Media who is responsible to continually keep communicating through social media sites as well as seek new venues to help the church find an online presence.

Just having a presence on social media isn't enough and the technology keeps changing. Who knows what the next five year holds, but the church needs to be prepared to step into this realm, not just to be trendy, but ultimately to fulfill the BIG picture vision (TREND #2) of reaching people.

Our church members and attenders are already engaged online. We now have wifi throughout the church and use the YouVersion Live Bible for notes during services. Our app is available free online, but as with websites, unless there are regular updates and new options, these will not be regularly used.

Online giving used to be a no-no in our church, but once instituted, it has consistently grown as a viable option for giving tithes and offerings and especially for registering for camps, mission trips and events. I believe in the next five years most of our giving will be online. 

TREND #4: Visioning and Spiritual Formation as Disciplines will Merge More Visibly.

I have begun to see this develop in our network. There's still quite a bit of the corporate visioning in place, and with value, but the focus has shifted.

TREND #5: Small Will Continue to Be the New Big

It's interesting that within the last ten years or so, at least two churches in our county sought to reach more in the community by using a 1980s "Field of Dreams" strategy where "If we build it, they will come" became the apparent theme. As of this writing, each of these churches faced dramatic downward spirals in giving and attendance (due to various reasons beyond just entering a building program) and ended up with newer, bigger buildings, mounting debt and ultimately merging or partnering with other churches just to survive.

While this isn't always the case, (Celebration Church Jax) new, bigger buildings don't seem to impress people as they apparently did decades ago. 

At the same time, we have seen a dramatic increase in our network of church planters and new starts. Some of these new churches are meeting in homes, in schools, workplaces and even in other church's buildings. Some would be described as "ethnic churches" (which, I believe we will eventually see the end of the racially divided church designator soon) but most are multi-ethnic, designed to glorify God by connecting with the unchurched. 

Through multiple, smaller plants, we are seeing more engagement in the community and local churches (at least, that's my perspective.)

Within the church, we are seeing a growing increase in small groups that meet off campus, in homes or restaurants. Rather than begging people to come to the church, we are seeing a greater trend of the church going to the people.

Overall, I'd say that Will Mancini is right. These trends continue to impact the church in our culture. May the church continue to be as the men of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32) and know the times and impact the culture for Christ.


THE SIN OF OUTSOURCING: How "Good" Ministries Are Robbing the Church

Not too long ago, I wrote a post about the danger of buidling silos in ministry within the church. It garnered a number of hits and created some talking points among other ministers, ministry leaders throughout the world and members of the local church.

As a local church, we now find ourselves at a place of decision regarding ministry roles and purposes.

Over the past few weeks, I have had some one-on-one meetings with ministry leaders and church members regarding the future of the church in our community and culture. We have had numerous pastoral/ministry leader meetings where vision-casting tempered with cautious optimism about next steps reigned. Most recently, I had the privilege of sharing with our Deacons and then our Children's Ministry Leaders about the future of ministry and programming.

A few weeks ago, our Associate Pastor of Discipleship & Students preached in my stead a message that reaffirmed the role of parents as being the spiritual heroes in the lives of their children.

GOOD IS THE ENEMY OF BEST

Like most evangelical churches in the west, we have grown and developed ministries based on the very same metrics every other church has used over the past forty years or so. It's not that those metrics were wrong, but over the long haul, the good ministries established have become what every long-standing ministry becomes when the bigger picture is blurred or never clearly defined - ministry silos.

In other words, we have built some incredibly good ministries over the years (i.e. children's, student, collegiate, single adults, married adults, women, men, senior adults, etc.) but the "goodness" of these programmed ministries have led to an inability to experience and offer the "best."

OUTSOURCED DISCIPLING

We are a culture that outsources everything. I do. If there's a plumbing issue in my home and the 2 minute YouTube video cannot help me fix it, I have to outsource the work to a professional. When we had carpet installed in our home years ago, I outsourced the installation to a professional. When I need work done on my car, I have to call a professional. There are skills I have and am comfortable with, but in many cases, I must find an expert to help.

The problem in the Christian family and in the church is that we have borrowed this "outsourcing" from our culture and implemented in the church. Therefore, when our children have spiritual questions, most parents feel ill-equipped to respond and answer and must call the "expert" which in many cases is a deacon, minister, pastor, small group leader, etc.

While it is a good thing to gain wisdom from others who have journeyed a similar path, the truth is that parents cannot outsource the discipling process to others for their children and be obedient and effective.

We must live out the truths of Scripture. 

You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. Deuteronomy 6:7 (ESV)

This is a command to parents and to God's people. Ultimately, it is our responsibility to lead our families in faith. The church then is to come alongside the parents and the families and give encouragement, offer helps, pray for and give moms and dads clear handles of leadership. In those cases where parents are not believers, or there are no parents in the story, the church stands in the gap. It's an incredible model. In fact, it's best.

Our Associate Pastor of Discipleship, Dave Paxton, will be spearheading our strategy shift to this biblical model of family discipleship. He will be overseeing the full model and implementation with ministry leaders and families.

While there is nothing new under the sun, sometimes we need to be reminded of the basics. In that moment, it seems that the old is new again. 

6a0105360968fe970b0168e67020b4970c

CELEBRATING MILESTONES

Over the years our church, like many, has offered numerous studies and resources for families and for personal growth. However, it seems that never have we connected all the strategies as they should be for an overarching movement and ministry. It has been like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without being able to see the cover of the box. In other words, all the "good" ministries and resources were just that, but not best because the end was never clarified.

If the goal of the church is to make disciples and develop fully devoted followers of Christ, which it is, we must realize that everything we do must be evaluated and judged by this criteria.

A sister church in Texas has been developing a strategy for years and under the theme "Legacy Milestones" has been fruitful in connecting these dots. We have communicated with them about their strategy and have been given permission to use what they have developed as needed.

The truth of the matter is that what works in the south Texas culture will be different than what will work in the northeast Florida culture, so understand clearly. . .our framework is still being built.

Once the framework is built, we will then be free to staff positions as needed in these areas of ministry to lead families forward and to ensure that all within the church are engaged in the process.

Some of the milestones that must move from being just "age-graded celebrations" to full-church body events and celebratory moments are:

  • Parent/Child Dedication (more than just a photo op with the babies and a gift of a certificate and a keepsake Bible that will never be read.)
  • Salvation & Baptism
  • Preparing for Adolescence (a strategy for pre-teens as well as their parents)
  • Pathway to Purity (leading students to live biblically pure before & after marriage)
  • Rites of Passage (an biblical event for those stepping into manhood and womanhood, rather than a culturally-defined passageway such as getting a driver's license, getting to vote, or being legal to buy liquor)
  • High School Graduation (more than just a photo op with students wearing the caps and gowns and receiving a gift book they'll never read.)
  • Disciple's Life (the lifelong journey of faith as defined by Scripture and enforced through our Grow, Serve and Engage groups)

At these key times in a person's life, moms and dads speak Truth into their lives clearly. Effective and proper handles, or next steps, are provided for families and the church as a whole walk through the journey as well. 

WHAT ABOUT SINGLE ADULTS, SENIOR ADULTS AND OTHERS?

This is not a ministry strategy for a specific ministry, but is holistic discipleship where every person is led to understand their role in the story. Parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, friends, mentors, grandparents, etc. all play vital roles. 

It is the responsibility of the church to give the handles, walk the path, keep the focus on the Gospel and Christ and make disciples.

That means. . .everything that's "good" must be put on the table. Change will happen. It will be worth it, eventually. 

WHAT IF NOTHING CHANGES?

More to come regarding how this will work at our church. In the meantime, consider your church, your ministry, your area of service. Are you settling for "good?" 

In other words, if your church does everything exactly how you're doing it today and never adjusts, what will you look like in five years? Ten years?

The Gospel is never-changing. 

The Truth is never-changing.

The strategies are always changing.

Live like a missionary. Study your culture. Don't compromise your faith. Don't compromise the Gospel. Go. Make disciples.


When a Black Woman Walked Into Our "White" Church

Last night we hosted our small group in our home. Our group is growing - over 20 in attendance. This is a group primarily made up of millenials (college students and young adults between ages 18-29.) 

We meet together on Sunday evenings and have some snacks. Then, we dig into the study of the evening, told in "storying" format.

Last night the teaching was titled "Jesus and the Ten Sick Guys." It was based on the Luke 17 account of Jesus healing the ten lepers near the village between Samaria and Galilee.

3139733986_48214e6367_bAs we discussed the story and went through our Q & A time, it became clear that there were many teachings and truths in this short passage of Scripture. Here are some of the good things and things that raised questions in this passage for our group:

  • God is healer
  • God has power over incurable disease.
  • Jesus always finds the teachable moment.
  • Faith brings hope.
  • Faith brings healing.
  • Jesus observed and fuflfilled the Old Testament law.
  • Bummer that nine out of the ten didn't come back to thank Jesus.
  • Were the nine who didn't come back to Jesus being obedient? Jesus did say, "Go to the priest," and they did.
  • Was the one who came back being disobedient because he didn't make it to the priest?
  • Jesus affirmed the one healed man's faithfulness.
  • Jesus pointed out that the one who came back was a Samaritan (a "foreigner.")

A five minute lesson lasted an hour and a half as discussion and more questions developed. Amazing how just a small passage can elicit so much discussion. And, as you can see, this group isn't afraid of questions.

It was good.

Then, I posed this question, "Was the point of this story to squelch the racism of the Jewish followers around Jesus?" It was agreed that this was a point, even if not the main point. It was, in fact, one of many, but definitely one of the major reasons for the healing of the Samaritan.

Our group last night was a mix of culture and races. So, I asked this question, "What about church? Is there still a sense of discomfort or racism within the church in the west?"

For the millenial generation, this is a BIG DEAL and the discussion was healthy and powerful. 

These young adults spoke up, gave their opinions and agreed that we have come far, but have far to go as the American church. What I found exciting was that their opinions on this issue were biblically-based and not just culturally-defined.

THE COLOR-BLIND GENERATION

This generation, which may be as "color-blind" as any in our American history, truthfully shared their realities.

A BI-RACIAL MAN

A bi-racial man shared how when first invited to our church as a teenager, he was hesitant. He wanted to know if there were any people in our church like him? I asked "What do you mean 'like you?'" He clearly expressed that he was referring to race. He said, "I didn't want to be the only black man in the room." He explained that he was seeking to come, but not be stared at or looked down upon because of his biracial culture. (BTW - He's one of our worship leaders now.)

A HISPANIC WOMAN

A Hispanic girl shared how some friends of hers just cannot understand why she would attend a "white" church. She eloquently explained that to her the church wasn't "white" but was solidly teaching the Word of God and serving Him well. 

A HISPANIC MAN

A Hispanic man shared how he is proud of his heritage and though English is not his heart language, it is what he speaks most often now and since he went to public school in our community ever since he was six years old, he has been "Americanized" (his term) and feels most comfortable in English-speaking churches.

AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMAN

An African-American woman in our group then spoke up. She began with this phrase, "I don't want to offend anyone. . ." to which we said collectively "Go for it. Speak the truth."

She explained how she was first invited by her friend to come to our church and the fear that welled up inside her. She wanted to attend, but was afraid that she would be ostracized, stared at, looked down upon, etc. because this was a "white" church and she is black. Her candor was refreshing and opened up dialogue within our group about this very real issue.

The Jesus story of healing a Samaritan was used by God to lead this group of young adults to speak truthfully and authentically about the issues that are often ignored.

WHAT WE DISCOVERED TOGETHER

Here are some points that were agreed upon (in no particular order):

  • No one can say to another "I know how you feel" unless you've walked in their shoes. In other words, a white man cannot say to a black man "I know what you're going through regarding race and acceptance." It's offensive to pretend to fully understand.
  • The church has been called the last great segregated entity in America. It's a stereotype that unfortunately is built upon truth of the past.
  • Our "white" church isn't as white as some think, yet it is predominantly so and the perception of many in the community is that we're a "white" church. That has to change. There really shouldn't be "black" church, "white" church, "brown" church, "red" church, "yellow" church, etc. There's just CHURCH. It seems that God addressed this on the Day of Pentecost. (No one was debating the veracity and beauty of different cultures and worship styles, so don't hear what we're not saying.)
  • Fear is perhaps one of the greatest tools of the Enemy. However, love always defeats fear. Jesus showed love to the Samaritan and expected his Jewish followers to do so as well. In our day, Christ-followerrs are to do the same (and the "Samaritan" to us is anyone not like us.)
  • Millenials value authenticity. Regardless of skin tone, heart language or cultural identity (which are all good things) just "be real."
  • As the old pastors used to say "The ground at the foot of the cross is level." We're all sinners in need of rescue, regardless of race or cultural background.
  • Heaven is not segregated, therefore the church cannot be.
  • Loving people is not easy. We're not called to the easy.
  • We have come far as the church, but we have far to go. 

Oh, and as discussion continued, it became clear that skin tone and cultural heritage weren't the only elements that lead people to fear coming to church. It seems that many fear being ignored or worse yet - looked down upon. Sometimes these fears are based on other factors than race, like economic status, chuirch heritage, personal reputation, etc.

The enemy has used the weapon of fear often. Therefore, we must fight bravely and strategically.

As we closed out our study and prepared to finish off the rest of the snacks, I asked "So, what made you come back and stay?" 

The answers were reassuring and hopeful.

"Jesus Christ."

"I realized you accepted me."

"I felt comfortable."

And at that point, it seems that we discovered how "Jesus and the Ten Sick Guys" was a story for our day, not just a good history lesson from the Bible.

Oh, and apparently the oneness of the church was experienced last night because they all stayed for quite some time, just talking, laughing and sharing stories with old and new friends. . .and the smaller groups weren't segregated!


Rites of Passage & The Church's Role

Our leadership team at church is strategically preparing an overarching strategy for family discipleship. This is an exciting, yet troublesome journey as God is revealing areas in ministry where we have unintentionally built "silos" of ministry, believing the model to be best only to wonder where the disciples are. 

Families are the primary disciple-makers and the church fellowship is to come alongside parents and children to encourage and sustain the walk.

Blackdadandteenageson1One such area of familial discipleship that I feel strongly about, though admittedly have failed to fulfill due to circumstances beyond my control, is that of walking one's son into adulthood. The rite of passage is a missing piece in our culture and therefore, we often end up with children wearing adult bodies with empty looks of wonder and confusion in their eyes. 

We Have Failed

Not everyone, but by and large, as a culture and even as the church, we have failed in this process. 

The strategy God is leading us to develop is multi-faceted and powerful and will be revealed church-wide later this fall. However, one element of the strategy is the "rite of passage."

As my son was growing through adolescence, I dreamed of having a celebration such as the one described below and had even put into motion the plans for such. However, through certain circumstances and situations in our journey, God led me to shelve the event. 

Nevertheless, I am adament on leading fathers and young men out of the fog and into a story that is large, powerful, life-changing and Kingdom-impacting. A life-long journey of discipling leads to a moment such as this:

A pastor at a sister church had a son who was entering his last year of high school. When the boy was age 17 or so, this father had met with some men who knew his son and had played significant roles in his life. His youth pastor. A coach. A mentor. An older friend. A grandfather. Uncle.  

The meeting with this pastor and these men was designed to prepare them to share in a moment of significance with the boy. He gave them instructions on where to meet. They were told to stand, hidden behind trees until they heard him call to them. They received their instruction and were prepared as the day arrived.

On the day in question, this father and his son traveled to a piece of property outside the city where the father had already set up a fire pit and a couple of chairs. This was a familiar place to the boy as they had spent many days here in the past as a family. 

The fire pit and seats were in an area accesible via a pathway through a wooded area. 

The father and son walked the pathway, talking and sharing thoughts along the way.

Once they made it to the fire pit, they sat down and the dad began to share with his son how proud he was of him and what it meant to be a man, an authentic, biblical man of God. These were not new revelations, for the father had been pouring into his son for years truths regarding God and identity.

There is something very powerful to hear your father speak words of truth and love to you, especially as a boy.

At the appropriate moment, when the father had shared that God had brought many men along the way to journey alongside them and to help the son understand the reality of God's love and His plan for him, the father said, "Okay, gentlemen, you can come out."

At that moment, the men stepped out of the woods, into the clearing and moved toward the boy.

With tears flowing down his eyes, the young man was beginning to understand the power of the blessing.

These men who had loved him as a young man, mentored him, poured into his life and stood alongside his father to help lead him into manhood, spoke into his life at that moment. They shared encouraging, challenging and truthful words to him.

They prayed over him.

Then, they left the father and son to continue their discussion.

There's more to the story and it grows in power.

The father blessed his son that day and welcomed him into adulthood.

A Rite of Passage

That, my friends, is a rite of passage.

It sure makes getting a driver's license or a voting card pale in comparison.

This is just one example. There are many other elements to be put in place for families, parents, grandparents, children and young people.

Can you imagine when events such as have been described above are more than just things some do, but are actually part of the fabric of the local church?  

Ministries that are so segmented they can stand alone, with no input and connection with other ministries within the church lead to broken models, tired volunteers and busy members, but not disciples.

That's why it is true that "greater things have yet to come" as we follow God's lead into this strategy.


You Mean That If I Ask Someone To Come to Small Group. . .They Likely Will?

It seems crazy doesn't it? 

Small groups (i.e. Life Groups, Sunday School, Home Groups, etc.) are foundational for potential community development and growth for the church. Yet, in most churches, growth has stalled or negative growth (also known as death) is happening.

What's the problem?

Is it the curriculum? Well, the Bible is the curriculum, or at least should be, and it's proven to be pretty effective over the centuries. 

Is it the teaching? Could be. Unless the leader is continually learning and striving to grow deeper himself/herself, the group can stall.

Is the group welcoming? That depends. Often the familiarity of our groups makes it feel welcoming to regular attenders, but, to be honest, most of us have forgotten what it is like to be the newcomer. 

There are dozens of factors and reasons as to why a small group isn't growing and reaching new people. However, here's today's challenge. Perhaps one reason is because we (the group members, the church) have stopped inviting others.

Not everyone will respond positively, but sometimes our fear of rejection keeps us from even asking.

Check out this recent data from LifeWay Research:

Small-groups-attitudeMaybe, just maybe, we need to be asking and inviting (for real, not in a blanket social media announcement.)