Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Press Releases for Churches

Hey, I recently participated in creating a podcast with Chris Walker of www.evangelismcoach.org on the subject of using press releases to bolster your church's image and visibility in the community.  You hear the podcast by clicking here.

I hope you'll find it useful.  I had fun doing it.

(P.S.  Chris emailed me to say that someone actually picked it up from his twitter feed and posted it here.  As much as I use the Web for info, I'm always surprised when someone else does.)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Atlanta: Circles of Excellence and Passion City Church

In my last post I mentioned how impressed I was by this morning's preacher at Buckhead Church, Jamie Dickens.  As I tried (and mostly failed) to get more info about him, Google turned up this link about "the TED commandments."  As a huge fan of the TED conferences (they bring together the best minds in every field), this list caught my eye and it's must reading for any speaker.

This blog turned up in Google because the author wrote "As I type this Jamie Dickens is bringing the heat on the Buckhead Church stage" ... and he wrote this last year.  But then I noticed whose blog it was: Carlos Whittaker, a fantastic musician and worship leader.  I saw him perform at Catalyst West this year and bought his CD, "Ragamuffin Soul".

This made me think about how all of these people are connected.  Andy Stanley founded the Catalyst Conferences.  Buckhead Church basically sprang forth from 7|22, a singles-oriented ministry of North Point Church that was located in Buckhead.  The popularity of 7|22 demonstrated the viability of putting a North Point satellite campus there, and finally 7|22 went away.  The lead preacher at 7|22 was Louie Giglio, who also headlines the Passion Conferences.

Louie Giglio, less than two years ago, started Passion City Church.  They aren't even meeting every week, but tonight I visited there (more below).  He recruited Chris Tomlin to be his worship leader - who would've even thought that someone of that caliber would do this?  Furthermore, Chris was living with his family in Austin - he moved them to Atlanta to get this church going.

Tonight, there were about 2,000 people in worship.  Chris Tomlin was awesome, and then I saw that Christy Nockels (formerly of Watermark) was on stage with him.  Turns out that Christy moved her family from Nashville to be a founding family of Passion City.  And then you know who else was in the band?  Matt Redman!

So I started thinking: sure these superstars all know each other.  Excellence wants to be around excellence.  Those who excel are willing to take risks to support others who excel - because they know that excellence is a habit.  How many of us are holding ourselves back because we're choosing to associate with mediocrity?  We know that we don't want our children hanging out with kids who make lousy grades - neither should we.  And taking it a step further, could it be that this is one of the reasons why non-denominational churches are flourishing?  Because denominations certainly aren't hotbeds of excellence - but they are organizations of forced association.  But non-denominational churches don't have forced associations.  They can choose to only affiliate with the best and the brightest - the ones who are doing it right.

So maybe if we want to strive for excellence we need to do more than start within us; perhaps we need to start by choosing to place ourselves where excellence will surround us.

As for Passion City Church, they met in the Cobb Energy Centre, a 2,750 seat concert hall that was mostly full.  I arrived 10 minutes early and had to sit in the highest balcony.  The overall event was far, far too long (2 1/2 hours!) The music was, of course, great; how could it not be great with Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and Christy Nockels!  The night began a few minutes late with Louie introducing himself and we read Revelation 4 in unison, leading into the opening song "Revelation Song" (Kari Jobe).  The rest of the set was "Holy is the Lord" (Chris Tomlin), "Expectation" (unreleased yet Chris Tomlin), "Where The Spirit of the Lord Is" (Chris Tomlin/Christy Nockels) and "A Mighty Fortress" (Christy Nockels).

Louie spoke for an hour.  This was just too long.  We were at the 2-hour mark when he finished, and then we still had a ways to go.  His talk was inspiring, but it made me think that he was used to the Passion Conferences, which target youth.  I don't necessarily need a message that is just about how special I am and about how God can do miracles.  It's a great reminder, but as a middle-aged adult I need a little more.  He had one memorable line for me: when God does something miraculously great in your life, would God be happier if it shocked you or if it didn't?  Shouldn't we expect God to be the God of miracles?

He then announced that they had signed a lease on a permanent worship location: a vacant former superstore of 135,000 square feet (!) that will take millions to renovate.  The capital campaign began tonight! :-) If you can see the yellow dot in the map they were showing on the right, that's the location of the new facility.

From a lot of the comments I heard around me, and given Louie's background as a speaker in parachurch settings, it seemed as if this was almost a parachurch-church.  There were church buses parked outside.  I heard people talk about their own churches, and it seemed that everyone knew the songs and already loved Chris Tomlin.  So I wonder if they're actually growing their base or taking it from other churches (but to be honest, if you're doing it better than someone else, if you give people better opportunities to connect with God, then they ought to leave their present churches and come to yours).

And my main takeaway is this: excellence wants to connect with excellence.  And excellence is what leads to going from startup to leasing 135,000 s.f. of space in two years.

Atlanta: Buckhead & North Point Churches

This morning I had a fantastic experience at Buckhead Church, one of the sister campuses to Andy Stanley's North Point Community Church.  Their facility is located in Tower Place, a business/retail complex in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood, so you don't drive up to a sprawling campus, you drive into what feels like the parking garage of an urban mall.  However, the "host team" volunteers are everywhere, helping you find your way.  Upon entering the church area, I was greeted - and greeted and greeted and greeted.  I loved it.  I also loved that the greeters are labeled as "Guest Services."  They make it very clear.  It's about welcoming the guests.

The auditorium seats 2,000, and seeing as this was the 9:00 a.m. service on a July Sunday, I wasn't expecting a very large crowd - yet there were probably 1,000-1,200 in attendance.  It was nicely attended without being crowded.

This weekend starts a three-week series called "More" - about how our "appetites" try to control us by constantly crying out for more - and these appetites can be for food, sex, material things, success, etc.  So the band launched the service with a stirring cover of "Satisfaction" (Rolling Stones).  It was rockin'!  The worship song set began with an upbeat version of the hymn "How Great Thou Art", followed by two top current worship songs, Our God (Chris Tomlin) and You Alone Can Rescue (Matt Redman).

After the offering and the obligatory title package, the message was brought by Jamie Dickens, who really brought it.  It was a slammin' sermon.  He even looks like a young Andy Stanley (down to wearing a blue dress shirt with the sleeves pushed up to the elbows over blue jeans).  I couldn't find out much about him, but he's an amazing talent and I doubt he's over 30.

As it turned out, he was preaching essentially the same sermon as would be preached at North Point later this morning by Clay Scroggins.

After worship I attended their "Next!" session - an orientation for people who've started to attend the church and are wondering "What next?"  They hold these once a month.  They showed a short video and distributed a 3-CD audio set that describes their mission and vision.  What really impressed me was the extent to which they were truly sharing their mission strategy with relative newcomers.

They talked about how everything was thought of with the metaphor of three parts of a house: the foyer, the living room, and the kitchen table.  "Foyer" experiences include things like worship.  In the foyer of your house, it's all about being welcoming.  "You don't abandon your values, but you're sensitive to theirs."  The "living room" environments are where people meet and get to know each other.  Service teams are examples of living room environments.  The "kitchen table" is where people become family.  These, of course, are small groups.  Overall, it was a great introduction to how they think and how they position themselves to be a church of influence.  And "Next!" is for people who haven't even considered membership yet.  (Next! is where you find out about membership classes.)

From there I made the 30-minute drive to the parent campus, North Point Community Church.  The first auditorium (now called the East auditorium) seats about 3,000.  When they outgrew it, they decided to build a second auditorium back-to-back (West) that seats about 2,000, rather than enlarge the main auditorium.  The message is video simulcast from the East aud to the West using a very cool technology that makes it feel more "live."  Despite it being a beautiful July Sunday, the East auditorium was standing room only! I meandered over to the West auditorium, which was about 2/3 full (I wanted to see the video system in action anyway).

I was late because of trying to find a seat, but caught the last worship song ("Cannons" by Phil Wickham). In keeping with the difference in campus styles, they didn't do "Satisfaction" here; instead, the thematic song was Carolina Liar's "Show Me What I'm Looking For."  The preacher here, Clay Scroggins, preached the same message as Jamie Dickens - same theme, same basic structure, same opening example - but in his own way.  Clay, for instance, was as folksy as Jamie was dynamic.  And I wonder if it was their personalities or the difference in audiences (Buckhead is much more singles-oriented, while NPCC is suburban families), but in discussing "appetites" that control us, Jamie spoke a lot more about sex than Clay.

The video system uses a cool technique of a large, high-def (but not 3D) static center shot that approximates the look of the "real" stage - including the fact that the preacher is "small" (life-size) - while the two side screens receive the same simultaneous angle shots that you see in the live auditorium.  The net effect (see right) is that it looks like what you would be seeing in the other auditorium.

Overall, though I liked North Point, I loved Buckhead Church.  And I'm pretty sure that when Andy Stanley is preaching at NPCC, they use the same video technology to simulcast him to Buckhead.  I could see going there every week, if I lived in Atlanta and had a different occupation.  Maybe that's what I'll do when I retire.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Atlanta: Saturday visits

First stop: FUSION Church, a startup of the Seventh Day Adventists.  Meeting at a rented facility called The Defoor Center, the worship space was simple and sparingly appointed.  They had a little pre-worship cafe setup, but it wasn't conducive to meeting people (and no one introduced themselves to me).  The space was set for about 75; perhaps 50 were in attendance.

The band was not the best; two men on guitars and a third playing a conga drum.  The opening set was Your Love Oh Lord (Third Day), Beautiful the Blood (Steve Fee), and All Because of Jesus (Casting Crowns).

The sermon was the start of a two-week series called "Dirty Gospel"; today's text was Mark 7:14-23 (Jesus being criticized for his disciples' unwashed hands).  The preacher was a guest who is not really a preacher; he was identified as a soon-to-be Ph.D., and it showed.  He was very didactic in his delivery.  I learned one thing about being interactive: it matters how you do it.  Usually I hear preachers become interactive by asking: "Are you tracking?" (if the answer is 'no', it's the preacher's fault, right?) or "How many of you ever..." (where there's no right or wrong answer).  This preacher asked factual questions such as: "the Pharisees were criticizing... what?" - things you would ask a student (who could get it wrong) but perhaps shouldn't ask a congregation (I was uncomfortable - and I knew the answers!)  The core message was that the holiness of God is evident in God's connection to the world, not God's separation from it.

They were very earnest, and I pray for their success, if for no other reason than the fact that there aren't too many contemporary ministries in the SDA denomination, and I fear that if this fails, they'll be reluctant to try too many more such experiments.

In the evening I visited the Perimeter Church.  They are large and polished.  Established in 1977 by the Presbyterian Church in America (a conservative denomination that does not ordain women to offices), they are attracting several thousand each weekend in worship.  As you might expect in the Atlanta suburbs, there wasn't much racial diversity.  However, the guest preacher was an African-American named Leonce Crump, who is planting a church for the PCA elsewhere in Atlanta.

Friendliness did not abound.  I arrived five minutes late thanks to an accident on I-85, and no one even handed me a bulletin.  There were perhaps 400 in worship.  However, the worship was extremely well-done.  When I saw the band, I was less than impressed - everyone looked to be under 25, and my experience with "church garage bands" has not been good.  But this band was fantastic.  The ensemble consisted of lead acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums, and piano (full grand, not electric).  The worship leader was identified in the bulletin as Laura Story Elvington, and she was excellent.  Whatever it was - good sound mixing, acoustics - they were as tight as any worship band I'd heard recently.  They were so good that when I got back to my room, on a hunch I Google'd her name (which I didn't recognize) only to learn that as "Laura Story" (http://www.laurastorymusic.com/) she is the songwriter who penned "Indescribable" - one of the most beloved worship songs of today, popularized by Chris Tomlin.  I had stumbled upon hearing an amazing worship leader by accident.

The opening songs were "All Because of Jesus" (Casting Crowns) and the hymn, "Blessed Assurance."  They had some concessions to liturgy, including a unison prayer of confession, which led into the song "Lift High" (Steve Fee).  The pastor then introduced a mission project for the church: the distribution of backpacks (provided by the church), one per family, with the expectation that the families will fill them with school supplies and return them for distribution to underprivileged children.  The video they made to encourage this featured, of course, an African-American child as the recipient of aid from this very white congregation.  I thought that was a bit too stereotypical.

For the offering the band played "How He Loves" (John Mark Mcmillan).  Leonce preached on Colossians 1:15-23.  He was totally expositional - verse by verse.  (Why is it that African-American preachers feel compelled to point out every time in the sermon where a black congregation would have shouted 'Amen!'?)  His sermon was entirely focused on the divinity of Christ.

They celebrated the Lord's Supper.  I was surprised that the pastor did not employ the words of institution, but simply prayed over the elements.  The distribution was interesting.  They use a "stacked cup."  Using the disposable communion cups, a tiny wafer is placed in the bottom cup.  Another cup is placed on top of it and filled with grape juice.  So you get both bread and cup at the same time.  You are supposed to disassemble it, partake of the bread yourself, then wait to consume the cup together.  The band then closed us out with "The Stand" (Hillsong United).  There wasn't a lot of fellowship visible, but it was a very satisfying worship service.

Visiting Churches: Atlanta

I'm in Atlanta on study leave for the purpose of visiting churches.  Why do I do this and which churches do I visit?

My professors in college used to say that it didn't matter what you studied; any subject could prepare you for success in the world because what you really need to learn is just two things: how to analyze a problem and how to communicate a solution.  So you could be an English major who becomes an investment banker or a history major who rises to be a CEO.

That's the approach I take when studying churches.  I'm not looking to blindly replicate what they do.  That's futile - their situation is not my situation.  At the same time, just as one can study Lincoln's decision to replace Gen. McClellan in the Civil War and learn from it, even though I'm not fighting wars and not leading cavalry, I can learn from observing the issues churches are facing (publicity, encouraging discipleship, lighting, sound, children's ministry) and try to discern how they've analyzed these problems and developed solutions.

How do I pick churches to visit?  I tend to visit only two types of churches: highly successful churches and startups.  Why?  Because I believe that these are the churches most likely to be actively engaged in problem solving.  Too many mainline churches are basically coasting.  They are not confronting their problems realistically or with any sense of urgency.

My weekend plans call for me to visit five churches; two on Saturday and three on Sunday.  My Saturday churches are FUSIONChurch, (http://www.fusionchurchatlanta.com/) a startup of the Seventh Day Adventists, and Perimeter Church (http://www.perimeter.org/) a congregation of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America that was founded in 1977 and now attracts over 2,000 families per weekend.

My Sunday morning visits will be to two of Andy Stanley's campuses: the parent North Point Community Church (www.northpoint.org) and Buckhead Church (www.buckheadchurch.org); I can't wait to see their high-def videocast of the preacher's message.  Sunday evening I will visit the high-powered startup: Passion City Church (http://www.passioncitychurch.com/).  This startup is the first time noted speaker Louie Giglio has tried to be the pastor of a church - and he recruited Chris Tomlin to be his worship leader.  They aren't even holding worship every week yet.  I can't wait to see it.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Catalyst West 2010: Wrapup

Well, it was great conference.  At the end of these gatherings I come away with a diverse array of sentiments: first, it is really exciting because I believe that I'm watching the future of the Christian Church in the U.S.A.  This conference (like its larger Atlanta counterpart) is attracting thousands of people between, say, the ages of 25-40 and grooming them to lead their churches boldly.  But it is also a little depressing to grasp the relative insignificance of my own ministry on the larger scale of things.  It's not that the people aren't important - after all, what is the church if the individual becomes insignificant? - but it's also natural to want to play a role in the movement as a whole.  Our church needs another zero on its numbers just to be on the team.

For my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), what's clear is that we haven't even begun to do what it will take to stem the decline.  First and foremost is the development of leaders who have the core competencies that it takes to lead churches forward.  Our pastors often just don't have a clue.  Then we need to vault newer leaders into key positions and protect them from being marginalized by old-school leaders.  We're a denomination where moving a congregation to email puts you in the forefront, when most of the rest of our society is increasingly seeing email as passe.  We're a denomination that likes to do things one step at a time, which won't work if you're starting two steps behind the world. 

So I'm ever more convinced that the PCUSA denominational structure as it exists is toast.  Some of the congregations will thrive, more will continue to simply (barely) exist, and many will end their ministry ("fail" is the wrong word, just as our own death isn't failure - it's the end of our appointed time).  It will survive in name, but the various departments and agencies that we created for a different time will continue to be shut down.  And this is a good thing in the overall scheme of things.  The thriving congregations will drive the rebuilding of the denomination, and who knows what that will look like?  But I suspect that it will follow Andy Stanley's statement that our goal should be to do what only we can do.  Our presbyteries, synods, and G.A. should strive to do what only they can do.  If it can be done by congregations, it should be left to congregations.

The most important part of the conference was seeing the extent to which they are driven by social justice.  And it was fun to see them use the phrase so often that this entire conference would have been shunned by Glenn Beck.  A few good Web sites:

www.giftcardgiver.com - combines unused balances on gift cards and gives it to charity.  Who doesn't have a gift card with $2 left on it - too small to use but you don't want to throw it away?  Even better, maybe you have a gift card for a store you don't shop at?  Send it in!  10% of all gift cards are never used - but someone in need can use them.

www.adventconspiracy.org - inspire your congregation to spend less at Christmas, make it less commercial, make it about Christ, and then help the world.

www.potsc.org - "People of the Second Chance" - can we be people who learn to see that "broken is beautiful"?  Excellent videos available for download purchase.  Watch the one about the artist Stephanie.  It's intriguing.

www.drinkcoffeedogood.com - okay, if your church isn't serving Fair Trade Coffee yet (?!) then maybe this would motivate them.  These folks sell Rwandan coffee where all of the fair trade principles are observed (or exceeded), but the proceeds directly benefit particular villages that were ravaged by the Rwandan massacre.  Their stuff allows you to tell a particular story that might motivate people to make the switch away from exploitation coffee to something that benefits the people.

www.143million.org - 143 million is the number of orphans in the world.  Are there people in our churches who will prayerfully ask whether they are being called to adopt?  If only one family for every four churches in the U.S. would adopt a child, every American child in the nation's foster care system would have a family.

On to Catalyst West 2011: From talking to folks, it is clear that they will be moving from the Mariners Church venue, not because it isn't an awesome venue, but because they sold it out and will be looking for larger digs.  Having spent a fair amount of time attending conventions, and knowing their announced plan to stay in Orange County, Anaheim is the only reasonable destination.  There is everything from the Anaheim Convention Center to the Honda Center (home of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim hockey team).  A Catalyst team member told me that they are negotiating various locations next week (makes sense) and may move the date from April to February.  Since Easter is extremely late next year (April 24, 2011), this late April time doesn't work.  I think February would be fantastic, as I can imagine many of us taking a week off before Lent begins.

Catalyst West 2010: Day 2

The second day is off to a great start with Donald Miller, author of the classic memoir Blue Like Jazz, whose latest book is A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  He started with a funny story about playing with a metronome in the band room in high school, and watching how people would subconsciously walk in step with the beat - so he could actually control their walking tempo.  He said that narrative controls us in a similarly unconscious way: that people become the character they play in the story they believe.  So what is a story?  He defines a "story" as "a character wants something and overcomes conflict to get it."  If our story is boring, maybe we need to want better stuff, and as leaders, we need to proclaim a better story.  He (bravely, for this audience) disclaimed the idea that God has a specific plan for everyone (for some, not all) - rather, "God gives you a big piece of butcher paper and a box of crayons."  He then said that he was taught that if you get stuck writing a story, just start asking "what if?" questions - "what if the character got married?" - and challenged us to ask "what if?" questions about our own lives ("what if we adopted a child?") that might help us realize that there's a beautiful story waiting for us to live it.  Teach your people to want good things - and understand that the natural next step in the story is conflict.

Next up was Scott Belsky, CEO of Behance, and author of the just-released book Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality.  Scott posits that we reach a "project plateau" after coming up with a great idea, and the temptation when we hit that plateau is to come up with a new idea before finishing the last one.  He gave a simple framework for dealing with the plateau: divide the project into increments of time (he recommends two weeks in most cases), enumerate milestones for each time increment, then devise tasks to achieve each milestone.  Pretty basic stuff but good, esp. for those who are lousy planners.  He also said that because of the never-ending stream of data inputs into our lives, we tend to develop a reactionary workflow, and that we should create "windows of non-stimulation" so we can focus on what's important rather than what's urgent.  Finally, he encouraged us to publicize our ideas so we become accountable to acting on them.

Just before lunch we were presented with a strong emphasis on adoption and helping children around the world.  A strong and emotional presentation was made by Kay Warren (Rick 's wife) and Wess Stafford of Compassion International.  We were encouraged to visit Catalyst's site: www.143million.org for encouragement.  Kay pointed out that if one family per every four churches were to adopt, we would take care of every child in the foster care system in the U.S.!  She said that adoption is not for everyone (she hasn't), but argued that we should prayerfully ask God whether adoption is for us, for how will we know the answer if we don't ask the question?

After lunch we were treated to a comedic routine by Michael Junior, who has a documentary coming out about taking his Christian comedy routine to prisons.  My favorite part of the routine was when he spoke about Christians who are "over-saved."  Yeah, we know them.  The kind of people who, if you ask them if they're thirsty, answer, "yes, for living water!"  See www.ComedyRLT.com.

We then had a nice musical interlude with performances by Zach Williams, worship leader at Community Grace Church in Brooklyn, and Mariah McManus (Erwin's daughter).

Erwin McManus was next up.  He recounted the story of how Mosaic developed their winning commercial for Doritos, and how many, many Christians criticized him for somehow betraying the gospel.  (I couldn't help but think that McManus' critics are among the "over-saved.")  McManus critiqued the church as unwittingly conveying the message that what people do during the week is meaningless; that unless they are engaged in ministry, their lives are meaningless.

Andy Stanley closed us up with a good talk about working to our strengths and delegating our weaknesses.  His key point is that our goal should be to only do what only we can do.  He pointed out that because we have authority over everything, we choose to exercise that authority even in areas that are not our core competencies.  (He reminded us that in the church world, if you're the best speaker in the organization, you become the leader of all of it - why does that even make sense?)  Andy said that stress is more often related to what we are doing, not how much we are doing.  He challenged us to always ask: what will I let  go of this year? - and he encouraged us to compose the ideal job description for the job we currently hold and then work toward it.

Great conference!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Catalyst West 2010: Day 1

Well, Day One of the full conference is here.  They never really tell us who is speaking when (I wonder if it's to make sure we don't skip out?) and today is going to be a LONG day.  The opening session is at 8:30, runs until 5:30 (with a lunch break) and then they've added an evening session with Louie Giglio speaking (I'm ambivalent about him) and Chris Tomlin leading worship (I love his music, so I'm excited about that).

Opening worship was vibrant and loud.  I love it.  The theme of the conference is "Unusual Tomorrow" - the core message seems to be that we are being summoned into a future that is designed by God.  The opening speaker is always Andy Stanley, who is a terrific speaker.  He begins by reminding us that as leaders "we deal in the currency of tomorrow."  He then warns us that our "picture of the future will never be bigger than what [we] think is possible."  He tells a story of possibility that stems from a visit he had made to the Roman Coliseum (if you subscribe to his sermon podcast from North Point church, you heard this story not long ago), where he talks about seeing a cross in the Emperor's entrance to the Coliseum - who would have ever imagined that Christianity would outlive the Roman Empire?  I liked these quotes: "The older you get - the more obstacles you face - life has a way of shrinking what you think is possible; the realities of today crush our dreams for tomorrow."

Eugene Cho, pastor of Quest Church in Seattle (www.SeattleQuest.org) spoke about a mission initiative of his to combat extreme global poverty.  Called One Day's Wages (www.onedayswages.org) they challenge people to give one day's pay to combat poverty - esp. among the 3 billion people who subsist on less than $2 per day.

He was followed by Charlene Li, author of Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies who spoke about social media and the leadership style that it takes to embrace its power.  She spoke of how traditional leaders are often fearful of the power that shifts to the people of a "groundswell."  She proposes a new concept called Open Leadership: having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control, while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals.  She then gave examples of companies that have embraced the real potential of social media: creating open dialogue between company and customer to discover new ideas and build customer loyalty.

Lunch is being provided compliments of Chick-Fil-A, a company famous for embracing Christian principles and supporting Christian leadership.  There were some cool exhibitors: my favorite was www.giftcardgiver.com, which accepts gift cards with unused balances (don't we all have a gift card lying around with $2 left on it - not enough to use, but we won't throw it away) and combines them into usable amounts that are donated to local charities.

After lunch came Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle.  Mark is a bit of a controversial figure, in that he claims the Calvinist label (rare for an evangelical) and preaches an extreme Calvinism that borders on determinism.  He was surprisingly engaging (I've seen some YouTube videos of him where he's pretty surly) and self-effacing.  His topic was "finishing well", referring to colleagues who had "blown up, burned out, or given up."  He reminded us that "ministry is not what you do for God, ministry is what God does for you, in you, and through you (sometimes in spite of you)."  He had a cute line about Jesus being the true "senior pastor" of the church, so the pressure is off of us.

Then came John Ortberg interviewing a legend, Dallas Willard.  Willard's main point was that the kingdom of God is now, and the Gospel is the Good News that it is possible for us to live in the kingdom now.  He said that the church too often taught that the Gospel was about proclaiming the minimum requirement for getting into heaven (which Willard said was like passing the written portion of the driving test).  He had a good line about how works were compatible with grace, that "grace is not opposed to action; grace is opposed to earning" (effort is action, "earning" is attitude).  On the subject of spiritual disciplines he said that there is a difference between trying to do something and training to do something.  Effort (trying) is no substitute for focused preparation.

The afternoon concluded with Reggie Joiner, a founder of ReThink and author of Think Orange: Imagine the Impact When Church and Family Collide....  Reggie used the parable of the prodigal son to say that the one thing that is the difference between being a leader/church that has influence or being one who does not, is the resolve to treat every prodigal the way a loving father would treat his son.  He put forth the following hypothetical: imagine if the first person the prodigal encountered upon returning home was his brother?  He said that "loving fathers throw parties, elder brothers throw fits."

After dinner, we were treated to some powerful worship led by Chris Tomlin, who led us in a number of his classic hits: "How Great Is Our God", "Your Grace Is Enough", and "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)."  Louie Giglio was the speaker, and though I haven't liked his DVDs, tonight he was really good (maybe because he was passionate without going all emo).  He spoke reflectively about how he is finally serving as a pastor of the startup Passion City Church in Atlanta (www.passioncitychurch.com).  His point was that church planters today think about what kind of church they are starting: a "seeker" church? A "missional" church?  Or even an "Acts 2" church?  Then he posed the question: what kind of church did the people in Acts 2 think they were starting?  They didn't (couldn't) know what an Acts 2 church was supposed to be?  So what did they have?  Louie said they had three things: they were witnesses to the power of the resurrection, they had the teachings of Jesus, and they had the presence of the Holy Spirit.  And what they had was all we need.

Well, a day that started with registration at 7:30 a.m. ended with the conclusion of worship at 9:15 p.m.  A long but energizing day.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Catalyst West 2010: Labs

I'm sitting in the Community Center of Mariners Church (www.marinerschurch.org), which is again the host site for Catalyst West.  It is a remarkably well-kept and elaborate campus, with an enormous student center, skateboard park, and assorted amenities.  I wish they would have scheduled the start of the day for something earlier than 10:30 a.m. (PDT), especially since the day won't conclude until 6:00 p.m. and we have two very full days coming, including an evening session tomorrow night.

First up will be worship with Aaron Keyes.  Aaron is the worship leader (www.aaronkeyes.com) at Grace Fellowship Church outside of Atlanta, and he likes to disciple young worship leaders.  He was pretty good, though I'm not a huge fan of the guitars/bass/drums ensemble that I associate with Southern rock; I prefer having a keyboard in the mix.  He also talked a little more than I am comfortable with, but his songs were good and he got the folks involved.  

Choosing the speakers to listen to today is difficult.  The conference itself is all plenary, no breakouts, but today we have to choose.  Gender is a factor in my choice, because the gender bias in evangelicalism is fairly evident in that there is almost no female leadership in the main conference, but there are a few today.

So I decided to see Susan Isaacs in the first breakout.  The audio from all of the sessions will be available, but I wanted to support the idea that female speakers can draw interest even at an evangelical conference.  She is an actress and comedienne (www.susanisaacs.net) who wrote a book entitled Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir.  Her talk was on writing your own spiritual memoir, which is different from a faith timeline, in that it is truly a memoir of your life which you then view through a faith lens.  She asked a really provocative opening question: "if you died without writing your memoir, what stories would the world be poorer for not knowing?"  She then led us in some interesting exercises and viewpoints that would help us compose such a memoir.  My reaction is that this would be a great summer seminar to have at my church, because seeing your own life story through the eyes of faith would make it easier for us to share our faith.

Next I'm watching Dan Kimball of Vintage Faith Church (www.vintagechurch.org) and he had one good quote to start but now he's annoying me.  His good quote was "Shepherds don't make sheep.  Sheep make sheep."  But his talk was centered on three things he thinks the church needs to be teaching more forcefully, and it devolved into a defense of the institutional church, a defense of "traditional" teaching on sexuality, and an admonition that we should be careful not to get so involved with professing the gospel by deeds of social justice that we forget proclaiming the gospel with words.  I was surprised at his explicit defense of the church's stance against LGBT persons because my experience of Catalyst has been that it shies away from the social issues stance of older evangelicals (in two years I haven't heard anything about abortion) out of respect for the diverse (and even mildly progressive) social views of younger evangelicals.  A real disappointment.

The last speaker in the breakout portion of the day is Margaret Feinberg.  I love her latest book, Scouting the Divine: My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey, which I discussed a couple of months ago here.  She uses actual experiences with shepherds (actually, a shepherdess), beekeeper, and vintner to gain insights into these oft-used Biblical metaphors.  She is a polished speaker, but it feels too polished - and she is basically speaking her book.  And I already read the book...

Yet to come is a final plenary session led by a person whose teachings haven't inspired me, John Ortberg.  He pleasantly surprised me.  Again, like so many speakers, he was really pushing the theme of his latest book, The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God's Best Version of You.  He's presently at Menlo Park Presbyterian, having gone there from Willow Creek.  I think being in a Presbyterian church has gotten to him; his speaking style feels a bit "old school."  He was basically pushing what sounds to me like a basic Reformed understanding of sanctification, though he never once used the word "sanctification."  My favorite quotes were "God is more concerned with you reaching your potential than you are" and a good reminder that somewhere along the way "grace got reduced to the forgiveness of sins"; John's core point was essentially that sanctification is also grace. He then reminded us that "spiritual growth is hand-crafted, not mass-produced" - that God, in the Bible, treats people very differently.  He called on churches not to treat spiritual growth as if they can just put people "on a Christian assembly line."  He scored points with many of us by asking: "how many of you can't stand journaling?" (I never keep a journal and don't understand why I should) and saying that spiritual practices are not the same as spiritual growth; after all, he pointed out, "if they measured spiritual growth by spiritual practices, who would win?  The Pharisees."

Day 1 of the full conference is next.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Blogging Catalyst West Coast

Well, I've just arrived in Irvine, CA for the Catalyst West Coast conference.  The "labs" sessions are tomorrow (Wed, April 21) and the full plenary sessions are Thursday and Friday.  Check back here for personal reflections on the presentations from a progressive, mainline, Reformed perspective.

In preparation for the conference I've been reading Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies; Charlene Li will be one of the speakers at the conference.  I'm looking forward to hearing her apply "groundswell" thinking to churches.  It has long been my feeling that churches struggle and struggle until they achieve a certain critical mass at the local level.  I've referred to this as becoming a "top of mind" church - being the church that everyone in the area - whether Christian or not, whether an attendee or not - mentions when someone asks about churches.  I think that's a micro-level variation of a "groundswell."

Check back starting tomorrow...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Rob Bell's Resurrection

Well, after shutting down his Nooma series, Rob Bell is back with a new film for Easter.  Entitled Resurrection, you can view it here, although I'm not sure for how long.  It is short (under 4 minutes) and features Rob who has clearly been green-screened onto a light-show type of background.

I'm not sure he's saying much new here, and I miss the intriguing visual backstories that were present in the Nooma films.  I hate to say it because his work has meant a lot to me (particularly his book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith) but it seems as if he's running out of fresh perspectives.  Perhaps with Shane Hipps taking much of the preaching load off of him at Mars Hill, Rob will be able to work on developing his theological work.  Personally, I think he needs to take his theological insights and go deeper with them.  He has a wonderful, novel way of expressing base-level faith, but eventually people need more depth.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Emerging Civil War

Just as the mainline is catching up to the idea that there is something called the "Emerging Church", the so-called Emerging folks have been experiencing something akin to a civil war over defining the post-evangelical church.

On the one side are the Emergent folks, namely Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt (A Christianity Worth Believing).  On the other side are folks who originally identified as "Emerging" but who seem to believe that the Emergent Church movement has strayed too far from orthodoxy; the best known of these is Mark Driscoll.    Here are some decent links to read up on the argument: a noted blogger bids farewell to Emergent and Scot McKnight (author of The Blue Parakeet) calls out Brian McLaren.

What these "post-evangelicals" originally had in common was a dissatisfaction with the state of the evangelical church, which they saw as too fixated on the building of institutional megachurches, over-emphasizing salvation in the next life, lacking any real concern for the mission of Jesus to proclaim good news to the poor and the oppressed in this life.  Both retain a concern for serving the least among us.  But the central debate is about the core doctrines of Christianity.  The "Emergence Christianity" folks seem to be willing to put everything on the table doctrinally while the neo-Reformers (see The Gospel Coalition) want to retain the core doctrines of the church while rethinking how we "do" church.

It's an interesting battle.  

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Free Book (for two weeks)!

A quick notice that is time-sensitive: one of my favorite pastors, Mike Slaughter of Ginghamsburg Church, has a new book out that is available for two weeks (from the date of the book's release) as a free Kindle download: get "Change the World" here.

Don't own a Kindle?  Neither do I!  I have Amazon's free Kindle for PC software that allows your PC to act as a Kindle.  Better still, you can have several copies on different PCs.  Get the Kindle software here.

Catalyst West Coast

Looking for a conference to attend?  I'll be heading to Catalyst West Coast, which is conveniently timed to occur a couple of weeks after Easter (April 21-23) in Irvine, CA, which is about an hour south of L.A.  Tomorrow, Feb 18, marks the "Super Early Bird" deadline registration fee of $249.

The main Catalyst conference takes place each October in Atlanta.  It just finished its 10th year, and draws in excess of 12,000 people.  Started by Andy Stanley and his North Point Community Church, Catalyst targets younger church leaders (mostly 20-somethings).  Last year marked the first year of its West Coast version, and I enjoyed it very much.  Conducted as all-plenary sessions (no breakouts), each day is a pretty intense succession of speakers.  The setting at Mariners Church in Irvine is very comfortable (and lunch was provided by Chik-Fil-A!)

This year's lineup features Andy Stanley (always), plus such speakers as Don Miller (author of Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality), and Erwin McManus.  I'm looking forward to hearing Mark Driscoll, even if I expect to disagree with him a lot.  Catalyst always has at least one interesting "secular" speaker.  Last year it was Guy Kawasaki (venture capitalist and key player in the development of the Macintosh) at the West Coast conference and Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference) at the Atlanta conference.  This year's "secular" speaker is Charlene Li, author of Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, a book that sounds really interesting (and I'm sure I'll read it before heading out there).  Let me know if you're going!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Shane Hipps (part 2)

To continue the discussion about Shane Hipps: just last week he spoke at an event hosted by Dallas Theological Seminary called "The Electronic Gospel."  The event was streamed online.  Unfortunately, the video streams are no longer publicly available, but the audio can be purchased for download at this link.

During the Q&A, Hipps brought an interesting perspective to the "war" that is brewing within the so-called emerging/emergent church movement.  From the outset, many evangelicals have derided people like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell as heretics, but within the past few years, some pastors who originally associated themselves with the term "emerging church" have vociferously attacked the likes of McLaren and Pagitt.  (More on the emerging church "civil war" soon.)

Anyway, Hipps, who is now clearly cast on one side of the aforementioned "war", asserted that he doesn't see the problem as a theological one; rather, he believes the root of the problem is one of brain hemispheric difference - that is, a left-brained view of theology versus a right-brained view.  He said this as an answer to a question about the question of "heresy":

"The category called 'orthodoxy' only exists in the left hemisphere of the brain. The category of 'saved' and 'unsaved' only exists in the left hemisphere of the brain. ... The right hemisphere has no category called 'heretic'; it is purely an immersive, experiential way of being in relationship with the divine and it scares the left hemisphere tremendously."

As a very left-brained person, I agree with his conclusions: heresy is real to me, McLaren is often on the wrong side of the line (in my opinion), and the idea of doing theology in a purely "immersive" way scares me tremendously.  However, I thought that his analysis of a theological divide by looking at it in terms of brain hemispheres was intriguing.  Is the "civil war" in the emerging church a matter of left-brains versus right-brains?  Hmmm...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Shane Hipps (part 1)

Not long ago I became aware of Shane Hipps, a former advertising executive who became the pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church in Arizona.  Hipps is the author of Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, an interesting book that presents a new perspective on media.  Rather than being just another book about how churches can use media, Hipps presents an analysis of how visual media is shaping our faith itself.

Hipps is quite enamored of Marshall McLuhan, who he claims is "the greatest thinker you haven't heard of" - or more precisely, the greatest thinker we don't know much about, since almost all of us have heard of one thing - McLuhan's famous statement that "the medium is the message."  Hipps unpacks what that means for faith - if the medium is the message, how does the medium become the gospel?  How does the medium change the way we do theology?

What struck me as being very useful is his insight into how words work versus images.  Hipps says that words unleash the imagination.  For example, if you mention "an old man" - everyone reading those words forms a different image.  But he then tells us that images hijack the imagination.  If someone shows you a picture of an old man, now everyone has the same image in mind.

Is this good or bad?  Neither, says Hipps.  It all depends on what you are trying to accomplish.  If you want to unleash imaginations, use words.  If you want to create a shared experience, use images.  (BTW, he points out this is why the book is always better than the movie.  The movie can't live up to the different ways millions of readers imagined the book.)  Hipps challenges us to understand the inherent power in our media choices.

Hipps concludes that the very way we do theology is shifting as we move from a word-driven to an image-driven culture.  Media "repatterns our brains" according to Hipps. It's an interesting premise and one worth reading about whether or not you use media in your churches, because the media of the culture is still changing the way your parishioners think about theology.

BTW, Shane Hipps has recently announced that he is leaving Trinity Mennonite Church to become "teaching pastor" at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids.  Apparently Rob Bell will be cutting back on his preaching load.  More on Shane Hipps is forthcoming...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Did you know...

A brief morning tidbit: according to my friends at Ginghamsburg Church, the most frequently viewed page (except for the home page, of course) on a church Web site is the pastor's bio.

If you think about it, this makes sense.  They don't need directions (yet) or a full calendar of events.  They want to know whether they are interested in visiting at all.  One of the key factors is whether they feel some connection with the pastor.  In my experience, an increasing number of visitors to my church have already listened to one of my sermons online before deciding to attend.

I don't really want to get into arguments about whether this is good or bad, or whether this is an artifact of the celebrity-driven culture we live in.  It is what it is.  Think about what you want to say about you - because people will be reading it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Scouting the Divine

God has always tried to relate to us through the real world – to come down to our level and communicate with us in a way we could try to understand.  The stories of the Bible were told in terms that ordinary people could understand. 

Unfortunately, as times changed, the ordinary experiences of ancient times became the extraordinary experiences of modern times.  I’ve been reading an interesting book titled Scouting the Divine: My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey by Margaret Feinberg.  Margaret decided to embark on a journey of discovering truths in the Bible that have been hidden from us by a changing culture.  She did so by seeking out and spending time with a sheep farmer,  a vintner, a beekeeper – just to learn more about sheep, wine, and honey.

She writes that her book is “an intentional search for ways to move from reading the Bible to entering stories that can be touched, tasted, heard, seen, smelled and savored.  Scripture is sweetness and sweat, bitterness and blood, tremors and tears.  Scripture is life – and we are called to live it.”

In her time with a sheep farmer, she learned what it meant to know each sheep by name, and what it meant for the sheep to know the shepherd.  She learned about the vulnerability of sheep who lack a shepherd.  She felt the softness of first-shorn wool, and the difficulty of raising an unblemished lamb.  She experienced the need to discipline a rambunctious sheep, and how necessary this was to protect the flock.  The “drawbridge lowered” (as she put it) to help her cross the chasm between her life and God.

I don't think it is intended to be a work of great theological depth (and sometimes I wonder if "depth" isn't just a polite way of saying "obscure") but I'd be surprised if you didn't get a sermon illustration or two out of it - and maybe some insight as well.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Branding Faith

Not long ago I stumbled across a Christian media guy named Phil Cooke.  He has written a couple of books, most notably Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Nonprofits Impact Culture and Others Don't (along with his most recent book: The Last TV Evangelist: Why the Next Generation Couldn't Care Less About Religious Media).  Phil speaks very persuasively about the need for churches to think about their "brand", which he defines succinctly as: "what do people think of when they think of you?"

He shares a couple of insights into branding, such as "visibility is just as important as ability" and "you can't brand a lie."  He then goes on to present the idea that branding is simply a matter of telling your story - except that you need to know your story.  His four "branding questions" are:

1.  What's the point?  (Why are you doing this?)
2.  Who exactly are you?
3.  What are your gifts and talents?
4.  What makes you different?

I think the last question is one that we often overlook.  In most densely-populated areas there are actually an incredible number of churches (my town of 28,000 has 60+ identified worshiping communities of various faiths and we're in the secular Northeast), yet very few churches spend time distinguishing themselves from one another.  I don't view distinctiveness as the enemy of unity; rather, distinctiveness is the basis of diversity.  The body of Christ is best served by communities of faith that carve out distinct niches that meet different needs.

By the way, here's a link to an example of Phil's work, a Snickers commercial that someone uploaded to YouTube.  He gave an excellent talk at the ECHO Conference in 2009, a conference for church media teams that was held in Dallas.  You can buy the DVDs of the conference here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The End of NOOMA

Over the past few years many of us have used Rob Bell's NOOMA DVDs to great effect. However, Rob has announced that the NOOMA series has come to an end. In this conversation with David Crumm, Rob mentions that the new series is scheduled to debut free and online on Easter. Elsewhere, Rob mentioned that the title of his new project is "Build Your House On That."

I'm looking forward to his new series. I have to admit that I was less than impressed with the last couple of NOOMAs (Whirlwind and Tomato come to mind) so we'll see what a fresh start looks like.

Getting Started

Well, the point of this exercise will be to share things I've been reading, watching, learning, or attending - with particular attention being paid to what seems to be working in the world of churches. Hope you'll check back.