AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

If an alien from outer space landed in your driveway and asked, “What are all those buildings in your town with pointy spires and crosses on top? What is that about?” Could you answer accurately?

That’s the question C.S. Lewis—author of the Chronicles of Narnia—and Oxford College Chaplain, Walter Hooper, knocked around one day. “We wondered how many people, (who did not flee) apart from voicing their prejudices about the Church, could supply them with much in the way of accurate information. On the whole, we doubted whether the aliens would take back to their world much that is worth having.”

Hooper and Lewis were speculating because at that time, in the mid-twentieth century, several autobiographies of former bishops and preachers had flooded the market explaining why they could no longer accept the faith. Lewis believed that much of the ignorance of true Christianity was due to the flood of “liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel.”

Nothing much has changed. Today, many people reject Christianity because of prejudice. They’ve been disillusioned by a bad Christian or injured by a fraudulent one and rejected the faith out of anger. And a spate of recent statements and books by former evangelicals such as the late Rachel Held Evans, and former pastors Rob Bell, and Joshua Harris contributes to confusion. “If professionals can’t follow it, how can I?”

But as Hooper writes in his preface to God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C.S. Lewis, “…it is impossible to decide whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about.” Spiritually hungry skeptics must ask themselves, “Am I rejecting something I fully understand? Or am I using negative examples as an excuse not to investigate it?”

If you are ready to learn what Christianity is about, Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, is a good place to start, as is Lee Strobel’s, The Case for Faith. But if you prefer talking it out among friends you would enjoy the Alpha Course. It’s a ten-week introduction to basic Christianity that’s designed to encourage questions and build friendships with others on the same journey. Our church is hosting its ninth Alpha Course this year. If you come, we promise to feed you well, treat your questions with respect, and above all, not treat you like an alien from outer space.

WHY ALPHA?

WHY ALPHA?

If you long for meaningful community you know that social media only goes so far. People long for real connection. That’s one of the reasons we run the Alpha Course. It brings people from all walks of life together and builds friendships. For eleven weeks we enjoy a meal together, watch a very interesting presentation on some aspect of the faith, break for coffee and desert and then have discussion groups for about 30-40 minutes. Even people who are not Christians enjoy it because of the relationships that are built.

Most Americans have a smattering of knowledge about the faith, but a surprising number don’t really know the basics.  Although there is no test and no college credit, Alpha is educational. Anyone attending Alpha will come away with a much better, more comprehensive understanding of Christianity. Guests can ask any question they like, express any opinion they have, and they will not be ridiculed or scolded.

Another plus about Alpha is that the whole thing is very relaxed, encouraging and fun. I think that’s because the developer, British pastor Nicky Gumble, started out as an atheist and is very sensitive to the feelings of people who have a hard time with faith. The new videos, hosted by Toby Flint and Gemma Hunt, are all available online here, and are phenomenally well done. Alpha does present the basics of the faith and encourages people to believe, but there is no pressure.

Alpha has been around for over thirty years and is a worldwide phenomenon, so it feels like you are part of something big with lots of support and you are. Alpha is a way for the whole congregation to get involved in sharing their faith with their friends without putting them on the spot or asking them to act like salespeople or expecting them to be experts in the field of apologetics.

That’s how Christianity grew in the first place, not through crusades and revival type events, but small groups of friends discussing what they’d learned about Jesus. The Alpha Course builds on itself. People come on the course, find out about Jesus, become believers and get excited about sharing what they’ve learned. Then they naturally want to bring their friends to the next course.

The first group that attended Alpha at our church was very diverse. One African American lady saw a bumper sticker on my car and asked me about it in the grocery store. She came and brought her sister. One man said, “I came to the course thinking I was already a Christian. But I had terrible anxiety, and anger, and depression issues. I couldn’t sleep at night. On the third week of the course I prayed along with the guy on the video and a huge burden lifted off me. I’ve not had those troubles since and I sleep like a baby. I believe I became a real Christian that day.” Another lady attended the course with her husband. Her understanding of Jesus completely changed, and she was baptized. Her husband, who had never attended a church, began to believe that not all Christians were nuts, and started attending regularly.

So, if you’re looking for something deeper and ready to explore life with good friends, try Alpha.

7 SIGNS OF GREAT FAITH

7 SIGNS OF GREAT FAITH

In the last eleven months I’ve traveled over forty thousand miles to meet three of the most remarkable men of faith you’ve never heard of. These men, with the unfailing support of their wives and co-workers, lead some of the largest church planting networks in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. For their security and the safety of the people in their ministries they will remain anonymous, but I can assure you they are quite real.

Luke wrote of Barnabas, “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.”[1] These men fit that description, indeed go beyond it. They are small “a” apostolic leaders. While they do not speak with the authority of Paul or Peter, they are men whose gifting, vision, faith, and energy enable them, like the late Billy Graham or Bill Bright, to bring others together to accomplish amazing expansion of the church in difficult parts of the world.

As I recovered from my last bout of jet-lag, my mind began cataloging the common threads woven into each man’s persona, seven signs of great faith. Perhaps they will encourage you as much as they have encouraged me.

First, they are full of cheerful positivity and optimism. All three men had powerful encounters with Christ at an early age, one as young as six. Now in their sixties, they have experienced enough loss to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. Yet they remain confident that God has yet more amazing things to do in their ministries.

Second, they are willing to sacrifice personal comfort. All three are successful professionals who could have had trouble-free, upper middle-class lives. But they chose to take on ministries that grew exponentially and now consume most of their waking hours as well as put them at great personal risk with their governments.

Third, all have experienced deep personal brokenness of one kind or another yet continue to trust and walk with God. One, whose childhood friend and fellow minister was murdered by an Islamic regime, experienced a break in his relationship with God. “It was as if my prayers were turning to ice blocks and falling on my head.” When he asked why the Lord replied, “You must forgive the murderers.”

“I shouted and screamed at God for what seemed like hours,” he said. Finally, he said, “I can’t Lord. I can’t! I don’t have it in me to forgive them. I want you to judge them!”

“I know you can’t. Ask me and I will help you,” said the Lord.

“It was the most difficult thing I have ever done,” he said. “But the moment I spoke the word I was set free.”

Fourth, all of them are relentless in “seeking first the kingdom,” in their spheres of influence. They are bold, headstrong men, impatient with limits and excuses. But they are also humble and sensitive to the Spirit, willing to receive counsel from others as dedicated as themselves.

Fifth, they are innovators in their professions and carry that spirit into their ministries. If something isn’t working, they aren’t afraid to cut it and start something that will. If an opportunity appears on the horizon, they have the vision and courage to risk big resources to pursue it.

Sixth, they deeply love their countries and want nothing more than to see them set free from spiritual darkness. And they are deeply loved by the people they lead in return.

Finally, they are all men of deep and continuing prayer. But I bet you knew that.

As we travel through the rest of 2019 together, let’s imitate their faith and see what God will do.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ac 11:24). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

ON BEING A NO-PRESSURE FRIEND

ON BEING A NO-PRESSURE FRIEND

“I can’t be part of something I’m not sure I believe,” said Sam, “but thanks for inviting us.” Sam, his wife Shelley, and his daughter Chelsey were our new neighbors. Our kids were friends and they seemed open, so I had invited them to church.

I appreciated Sam’s honesty and integrity, so we just prayed, built a great relationship, and looked for opportunities to introduce them to Jesus. But then Sam’s career path took them to Memphis. We were sad when they moved, but we kept in touch via email.

A few years went by until one day Sam pulled into my driveway. He was in town for a few hours to check on his house and tenants. We talked for an hour. The sun was setting and the mosquitoes biting when Sam said, “I just thought you’d want to know that we’ve been attending a church in Memphis.”

I said, “That’s great! But I’m curious. You said when we were neighbors that you couldn’t be part of something you weren’t sure you believed. What happened?”

Sam’s reply was instructive. “The first month we were in South Boston we were invited to four different churches. Before people even got to know anything about us, they were inviting us to church. I wasn’t sure about any of it at the time. It felt like a lot of pressure.”

“What was different about the church in Memphis?” I asked.

“It had a lot of things we needed. It’s speaks to people who haven’t been to church in a long time or at all and aren’t certain about anything spiritual. We needed to be anonymous for a while, to have time to process what we were hearing. They let you do that. We needed relevant messages. Their basic theology is conservative, but they speak to issues we face every day. We needed contemporary music and informal style. They are committed to that too.”

“Wow, that’s great!” I said. “Sounds a lot like what we try to do albeit on a smaller scale.” (Sam’s church hosts three thousand on Sundays).

“We still haven’t joined the church,” he continued. “But we understand now the need to take a serious moral inventory of our lives, order our priorities and when it is time, make a 100% commitment. We’re going to do that soon.”

I couldn’t have been happier to hear what the Lord was doing in Sam’s life. I’m convinced He can do that for our neighbors today. After all, it isn’t the first time He has led his church to adapt itself to the needs of people far from God. As the Apostle Paul wrote: Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law…I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor 9:19-23 NIV).

Sam’s church ‘became like Sam in order to win Sam.’

Maybe you know someone like Sam. Let me ask you to do three things. First, pray for him and his family all summer. Ask God to heighten his curiosity about spiritual things. Second, love him. Spend the time to get to know him. Third, invite—but don’t pressure him—to attend the Alpha Course with you (www.alphausa.org). The course is designed for people who are seeking but just not sure yet what they believe. It gives people time to process what they’re learning within a supportive, no-pressure, community.

You never can tell what God might do if you’ll be a no-pressure friend to your neighbor.

TAKING CHARGE: 3 Keys to Leadership Success

TAKING CHARGE:  3 Keys to Leadership Success

Former Air Force officer Perry Smith Received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and served as Commandant of the National War College in Washington D. C. The War College is the professional school for our nations’ military and civilian leaders. Dr. Smith developed its leadership program and wrote an excellent book: Taking Charge. His chapter on stepping into the CEO role lists 15 steps to do it well. He encourages his readers to make the transition from ‘new boss to leader fully in charge’ in three months.

Nehemiah, one of the most effective leaders of his or any era, did it in three days. Here, as recorded in Nehemiah 2:9-20, are three of his secrets for taking charge in a crisis.

1ST EFFECTIVE LEADERS START FRESH

Start fresh physically

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” said Vince Lombardi, and he was right. Everything looks bigger, every problem magnified, every opportunity minimized, and creative energy is low when we are fatigued. It pulverizes courage and elevates anxiety.

Nehemiah had been on the road from Susa to Jerusalem for approximately eight months, camping out at night, moving out at dawn, making maybe ten miles per day. He was exhausted upon arrival. He had the good sense to rest for three days. Then he went to work.

No one is inspired by an exhausted leader. Whatever we’re trying to do in life – raise a family, teach a class, lead a business or a church – we need to take our humanity seriously and give our bodies, minds, and spirits the right kind of rest.

Start fresh organizationally

Effective change agents seek all the information they can get but they don’t take reports at face value. They go and see for themselves. Nehemiah did it after hours, when few were watching.

He was also selective when sharing his plans. Proverbs teaches, “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.” And “… A babbling fool will be thrown down.”[1] Babbling fools don’t inspire confidence. Sometimes God gives us visions of change. But there’s such a thing as forcing the vision. We need to learn to wait for God’s timing to share it.

2nd EFFECTIVE LEADERS DON’T PRESUME, THEY PREPARE

Nehemiah took care with preparations in three problem areas: Strategic, Technical, and Morale. It’s refreshing to see faith like this coupled with hard-headed realism. Almost every problem we face as leaders will have the same three elements: Technical, Morale, and Strategic.

The Technical Problem

Jerusalem was built on two parallel hills with a valley in between. The hills were very steep on the west side and originally had terraces built in. When the walls were knocked down the terraces were destroyed, and the big blocks tumbled all over. Nehemiah had to figure out how to get them back in place.

One of the reasons Nehemiah didn’t ‘force the vision’ was that he needed to solve this puzzle. He believed he could solve it. But he needed time. And just as important, the people he was going to lead needed to know that he had analyzed it. He prepared himself to preclude this argument: “Are you crazy? Have you seen the size of those blocks?”

“Yes, I have, and here’s how we’re going to get them back up the hill…”  Solving technical problems before tearing into a project inspires confidence. If we’re going to be effective leaders, we need to know what we’re talking about.

The Morale Problem

These were deeply discouraged people. Thirteen years had passed since the last attempt to rebuild the walls had been squashed by the opposition. What if they cause trouble again? The Hebrews were suffering from psychological inertia.

What is the morale of the people you want to lead? What will help boost it? First, we must find the source of discouragement. Part of it is the engineering problem. But Nehemiah has a plan for that. What’s left was the political opposition.

Nehemiah, with the king’s authority, took them on: “This is God’s business, he has called us to it, and we break ground tomorrow. You have no past claim on this place, no present right to it and no future in it. So, scram!” Can’t you hear Jerusalem cheering in the background? Nowadays we would say “They got served!”

“If you want to turn morale around, get the authority, go to the source of the discouragement, and speak with authority when you get there. The people will love you for it.”

The Strategic Problem

The Apostle Peter wrote: “Be of sober {spirit,} be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”[2]

No matter how often scripture says things like that, and it does so repeatedly, we forget. Opposition to good works in the world – God’s works in the world –is a given. Outmaneuvering the opposition is not. It’s strategic, a matter of gathering intelligence, resources, and allies and controlling the flow of information and timing your moves without giving your game away before the first whistle.

Jerusalem in 445 BC was not a safe place for a man like Nehemiah. Plots and intrigues abounded. His enemies had spies. One of the secrets of his success was that he prepared well and in secrecy. He started so fast and moved so quickly that the wall was half-way done before the opposition could catch up.

We think that God does not operate this way. It all seems too organized, too calculating, too business like. But God isn’t opposed to planning and strategy. He opposes people who put all their hopes in their own plans and strength. But he blesses leaders who plan well and commit their ways to him.[3]

3rd EFFECTIVE LEADERS SPEAK THE VISION

Nehemiah knew what all good leaders eventually learn. The most powerful motivations come from within. And they can only be tapped by a direct challenge.

The Jews weren’t only worrying about the financial risks or the political instability that came from having no walls. It was the spiritual disgrace of God’s city. Nehemiah said, “We are in great trouble and disgrace. Let’s fix it! This is a spiritual matter, a matter of the honor of our God.”

A speech like that leaves no doubt about the issue. There is no straddling the fence. It’s a challenge wrapped in a vision and anchored in hope. That’s what Nehemiah did. That’s what all leaders do when they want to build confidence. They make a direct call to the faith and hope of every man and woman. They speak the vision crystal clear and call for commitment. It is a beautiful thing.

Arnold Toynbee, the great English historian, said, “Apathy can only be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things: first, an ideal which takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.”[4]

Effective leaders, leaders that build confidence, start fresh, survey the need, and speak the vision.

[1] (Pro. 15:2 & 10:8 NIV)

[2] (1 Pet 5:8 NAS)

[3] Proverbs 16:3; Proverbs 21:5; John 7:1-6.

[4] James M. Boice, An Expositional Commentary on Nehemiah, pg. 35

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY: Why We Do Disaster Relief and Other Good Things

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY: Why We Do Disaster Relief and Other Good Things

“If it hadn’t been for the Christians—all the churches that showed up—we’d still be mucking out,” said the man, a Casino worker in Biloxi, Mississippi. This was October 2006, a little over a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of Biloxi. A crew of about ten men from our church, partnering with Samaritan’s Purse, were in Mississippi to help a family rebuild. I had taken a break to do some man-on-the street interviews with my new video camera.

“My house didn’t get destroyed like some of my neighbors,” he said, “but it was full of mud and water up to waist high. I’m not a churchgoer, but as soon as the storm stopped this group of kids from a church showed up and asked if they could help me clean it out. I was ready to start the rebuild within a week. No way it would have happened without their help.”

That, in a nutshell, is why we’re taking a team of 13 people to Pearland, Texas, next week, to partner again with Samaritan’s Purse and help another family rebuild after Hurricane Harvey. And the thing is, no one is surprised that a small church group from Virginia is traveling on its own dime to help people in Texas. Americans just assume that is what people do, but it wasn’t always this way. That ethos came from Christianity.

Followers of Christ have, since the beginning of the church, shown up to serve when the rest of the world was headed for the hills. When a pandemic broke out in ancient Rome, Christians, including key leaders, stayed to help the sick and dying. When the plague took hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe in the middle ages, Christians stayed to serve while others fled. When the tsunami destroyed Banda Aceh, Indonesia in 2004, Christian missionaries already in country rushed to help the Muslim population there. When the Ebola epidemic hit Africa, Christian missionary doctors and nurses stayed to fight it. That service ethic, based on the individual’s value as an image-bearer of the living God and Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan, changed the world. Now, American’s just expect it.

Some people are wondering out loud these days what it would be like if we could just get rid of Christianity, or somehow limit its cultural impact. Nikolas Kristof, of the New York Times, reported in 2015 that, “In liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly.”[1]

This is especially true when Christians, who are called by God to love their neighbor as themselves and to stand for truth in all things, speak and act on their convictions regarding human sexuality, gender, marriage, abortion, and religious freedom.

But, historian and theologian Jeremiah Johnston, who along with his wife and five kids had to evacuate his home near Houston during Harvey, says, “It was the Christians, the people of faith, who immediately mobilized and invaded this city to help saying, ‘I love Jesus. I believe people are made in the image of God. We’re not going to sit here and let you suffer alone.’ I live in the most diverse county in America … but I never saw an Atheist tent anywhere, or an agnostic society tent, I never saw the ‘Free Thinkers’ helping people whose lives were destroyed. There’s a real world-view reason that is behind that.”[2]

Kristof concurs, it’s “true that there are plenty of secular doctors doing heroic work for Doctors Without Borders or Partners in Health. But I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests.”[3]

The faith that causes Christians to serve disaster-stricken people is the same faith that causes us to provide free marriage counseling, speak up for the unborn, encourage adoption, help women with unplanned pregnancies, advocate for traditional marriage, fight porn and sex-trafficking, provide free meals, tell the truth about transgenderism, advocate for prison reform, and stand up for freedom of conscience and religion in the market place. The same Lord that calls us to serve tells us to speak truth in love to all who will hear. It’s why we do what we do

[1] nytimes.com/2015/03/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-a-little-respect-for-dr-foster

[2] Warren Cole Smith interview of Johnston on the Listening In podcast, December 21, 2018. See also Johnston’s book, UNIMAGINABLE: What Our World Would Be Like Without Christianity.

[3] ibid

PARTY WITH A PURPOSE

PARTY WITH A PURPOSE

It was a muggy fall evening in 2000 and our youth leader Marty, and I were almost finished. We’d been at the county fair all afternoon conducting surveys to learn the spiritual needs of our community. Among the questions we polled: Do you attend a church? Why or why not? What attracts you to a church or turns you off?

The replies varied on all but the last question: What do you think the county needs most?

Ninety percent responded with, “Something for the youth.”

I was already leading a small outreach to Christian kids on Wednesdays at the middle school, but, frankly, I wasn’t very good at it. Marty was doing a great job with the kids from our church, but they were already “churched” kids and besides, he had a full-time job at the power plant. He was doing as much as he could. A local pastor’s group, of which I was a member, considered opening a youth center downtown, but funding and leadership were insurmountable hurdles, mostly leadership. We knew that anything effective would need a dedicated leader, called to minister to kids, with plenty of time on his or her hands.

Nine years went by and though I prayed about it from time to time, nothing happened. Then one day I got a cold-call, “Hi, I’m Dave Snyder and I’d like to talk to you about a ministry called Young Life.” I had known a Young Life guy in seminary and was impressed so I listened. “My kids are grown, but I feel a burden from God to get something going for the youth. I think Young Life is the way to go. Would you be willing to visit one of their camps and think about serving on a startup committee?”

I visited two camps that season and was so impressed I’ve been involved ever since. Here’s what I learned.

Young Life was founded in 1941 by Presbyterian minister Jim Rayburn. It is known for its high-quality youth camps—they study Disney World for ideas—and enormously fun club nights. They call it a party with a purpose. But it isn’t about the camps, or the clubs, or the party. It’s about the kids.

Teens have tense, pressure-filled, lives. Well over half live in broken homes. Smartphones and social media make escape from peer pressure impossible. Drugs and alcohol are everywhere. The sexual revolution is steam-rolling them into porn addictions, unwanted pregnancy, STD’s, abortion and emotional emptiness. Dave Snyder got involved after attending a law enforcement seminar on growing gang activity in our community.

Young Life starts with concerned adults who are willing to go life-on-life with teens on their turf and in their culture, building bridges of authentic friendship. That takes time, patience, trust, and authenticity. Its leaders go to their games, and hang-out with them at Bojangles to build real relationships. And not just with churched kids, Young Life specializes in developing innovative approaches to reach uncommitted, disinterested teens. It is the most sociologically intelligent outreach organization I’ve ever seen.

Young Life’s mission is simple: Introduce teens—all teens, black, white, Hispanic, everyone—to Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith. They don’t wait for the kids to come to church, they go where the kids are and earn the right to share the gospel with them.

Most pastors are generalists by default. We do not have the training or the time to invest in teens effectively. Most church youth pastors also play multiple roles for their congregations and can’t spend the necessary time with unchurched kids.

Our county launched Young Life when local teacher, Sarah Reaves, after responding to Dave Snyder’s invitation to attend a camp, volunteered to lead it part-time without pay for its first year. Many kids began relationships with Christ under her leadership. Last year we took a financial risk and invited Matt Rich to lead full-time. He’s been doing great work. Last weekend, twenty-five teens from our community attended fall weekend at a Young Life camp. Eight began relationships with Jesus Christ. I’ve been in ministry over twenty-five years and never seen that kind of effectiveness. That’s why our church has Young Life in its monthly budget.

I hope you will put it in yours.

For more information, or to give online, visit http://www.younglife.org.