Category: Local Church

Watch Your Step


Psalm 1

[1] Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
[2] but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

[3] He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
[4] The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

[5] Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
[6] for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. (ESV)

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the psalms lately. A friend of mine mentioned a couple months back that one year he set a goal of writing out the psalms as a spiritual discipline, and for some reason, that stuck out to me. I’m not doing it on a daily basis, but the first thing I do when I get into my office is sit down and write out at least a part of a psalm. Sometimes, the psalm is long, so I spend a couple of days on it.

It’s been a good practice for me so far this year.  It helps bring some focus to my day as I start my work, and, more importantly, it gives me an opportunity to slow down and listen for God’s voice.

I recently started reading Working the Angles by Eugene Peterson.  I can’t seem to get enough of his writing, having read A Long Obedience in the Same Direction last year.  It’s deep.  It’s challenging.  It makes me stop and think about my role as a pastor, and my role as a follower of Christ.

In Working the Angles, Peterson makes the case that the psalms were the most important part of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that we have treated them more like an optional add-on. In the psalms we see worship. We see anger.  We see joy.  We see sorrow.  The psalms run the gamut of human emotions, and they show us that worship is not all about good feelings, happiness and joy.  It’s about being our true selves before the Lord, and allowing God to work in, and sometimes in spite of, us.  It is when we spend the time meditating in the psalms that we see this.

One of the most important roles that I have as a pastor is to be the one who is intentional about hearing from God on a regular basis.  Some people may say that it’s nice that I’m writing out these psalms, but I’m not getting any work done while doing it.  I would argue that I’m getting the most important work done.

Psalm 1 tells us that the blessed man is the one who is rooted in the law of the Lord. His righteousness comes from where he spends his time. His time is not spent walking, standing or sitting with those who have no interest in the Lord. He is firmly planted in the Word, and the Lord is with him.  Now this doesn’t mean that his life is going to be smooth sailing either.

Many of the, especially early, psalms have a similar theme of the wicked and the righteous.  And, often, it seems as though the wicked are doing quite well for themselves. But the psalmist reminds us again and again that the Lord is with the righteous.  And then we come across this in Psalm 37:

[23] The steps of a man are established by the LORD,
when he delights in his way;
[24] though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
for the LORD upholds his hand. (Psalm 37:23-24, ESV)

The language here is reminiscent of Psalm 1, but here is the part that stuck out to me the most: “though he fall…”  The righteous, whose ways are known by the Lord (Ps 1:6), will still fall along the way – even when his steps are established by the Lord.  Righteous does not mean perfect.  It means that the Lord is with them.

As a pastor who, at times, struggles with perfectionist tendencies that can lead to paralysis for fear of making the wrong decision or doing things the wrong way, these are freeing words.  It doesn’t mean that one has a license to fall, or that one shouldn’t be intentional about avoiding said fall, but that when the fall happens, it will not serve to destroy, and one will not be alone “for the Lord uphold his hand” (Ps 37:24)

Who establishes your steps?  With whom do you walk?  Do the important work of meditating on the Word of God, and allow him to establish your steps.



Well, that’s an awful title…

Maybe I should entitle this: Why Your Wedding Doesn’t Matter As Much, or Why Your Wedding Doesn’t Matter As Much As You Think.  Meh, too late, I’ll just stick with that title.  It got you this far, didn’t it?

One of the great joys that I have as a pastor is being able to walk with a couple for one of the most important events in their lives.  To date, I have had the privilege and honor of officiating 11 weddings, with three more on the calendar over the next year and a half or so.

Weddings have become big business in today’s American society.  The wedding industry generates an estimated $40 BILLION in revenues every year, and some believe that number will only go up with the legalization of gay marriage in the United States.  The average wedding costs around $28,000.  That’s insane, right?

At the same time we live in a society where it is not uncommon to hear about a divorce rate hovering around 50%.  There seems to be some indication that the 50% is a gross over-generalization, and that the divorce rate is actually on it’s way down over previous decades.  This is good news.

I think some of what we have seen in a society with a booming wedding industry, and the proliferation of Pinterest-inspired insanity, is that for some, the focus is so much on the wedding that the marriage is put on the back burner.  And here’s where I come back to the title of this post, and this is something that I want to emphasis to the couples that I walk with during this time in their lives, your wedding is a great occasion.  It is a beautiful day.  It will be memorable, and it will be a ton of fun.  But… it’s only one day.  It’s an important day.  But it’s only the start to your marriage.  The wedding is not the endgame; it’s the beginning of something more.  In the grand scheme of life, your wedding doesn’t matter… nearly as much as your marriage.

As I work with couples and we plan the ceremony, one thing I tell them is that something will probably go wrong.  You may stutter when you speak.  You may feel like you are shaking from the nerves.  You may say the wrong words, or forget what you were supposed to say.  The reception hall may burn down (or, as happened last summer, a giant tree may fall down on the outside of the reception hall).  But…

At the end of the day, no matter what goes wrong, when everybody goes home, or stumbles to their hotel room, when all the decorations are down, when all the food and drink are consumed, no matter what went wrong, at the end of the day, the couple will still be married.  Husband and wife, embarking together on one of life’s greatest adventures.  And that’s what is really important.

When I meet with couples about their wedding, we only spend a couple of hours planning the ceremony itself.  We spend a lot of time talking about their history, handling conflicts, managing finances, hopes and dreams for the future because those are the important things.  Those are the details that make or break a marriage.

When it comes time for the dress rehearsal, I have three rules for the wedding party:

  1. Anybody that is under the influence of anything – drugs or alcohol – may not take part in the ceremony.  They do, however, get to tell the bride why they thought the drugs or alcohol were more important than her on her wedding day.  If somebody can’t hold off on drinking for a few hours before the wedding, then they have a problem that needs to be addressed.  Also, if it’s the bride or groom, there’s no wedding.  I can’t legally marry a couple when one or both are under the influence.
  2. If anybody besides the bride or groom have an idea of how the ceremony can be better, they should write it down and come talk to me about it on the following Monday in my office.  You may be surprised to hear that I haven’t had a lot of well-meaning, meddling people disrupt the flow of a ceremony that has already been planned with the bride and groom.
  3. From this point forward, what the bride and groom need more than anything is support from their family and friends.  Marriage is hard enough as it is.  There need not be any outside forces making the relationship more difficult.  If you have a problem with their relationship, keep it to yourself.  Nobody cares what you think.

That third rule is really the most important one.  The wedding is one day.  The marriage is for the rest of their life.

What if we paid as much attention to detail in our marriages as we did on the wedding plans?  What would the landscape of marriage in the United States look like?  What if we emphasized the relationship more than the event?  Because at the end of the day, one is far more important than the other.

It could be, when we focus on the relationship and not the event, some people would discover they only wanted the big party, and not the work that comes with the relationship.  That’s fine.  Throw a big, expensive party.  Don’t get married.

It could be, when they really think about it, that marriage isn’t the right next step in the relationship.  And that’s okay as well.  Don’t marry somebody because you feel stuck in a relationship, or because you are too scared to go out on your own once again, or because you think that’s what you should do.  Some relationships go as far as they can, and it becomes clear that marriage isn’t necessarily the next right thing to do.  If that’s the case, don’t get married.

In order to make a wedding work, people will pour hours and hours into the details of the wedding over a certain period of time.  In order to make a marriage work, people need to put that same kind of focus and attention to detail into everyday life with their spouse.

Your wedding doesn’t matter as much as your marriage.  So put the time, effort and resources into what really matters.


I’ve been working on some sermon prep this week on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Consequently, it’s been on my mind quite a bit this week.  There are a lot of directions to go with this passage, and they are all good.

We could talk about the question “who is my neighbor?”  That’s a key question in the passage from Luke 10:25-37.  It’s the question that sparks the parable in the first place.

We could talk about what it means to love God and love one’s neighbor.  There’s a lot of rich material in it.

We could talk about the importance of breaking down barriers, of being aware of the barriers that we have in our lives in the first place.

But, for whatever reason, Jesus’ emphasis on action is what caught my eye this time around.  “Go and do likewise.”  That’s the charge that he gives to his audience.  The charge to go and show mercy to those in need.  You see, the lawyer that asked the question in the first place wanted to know what he must do to inherit eternal life.  He wants to spend eternity in the kingdom of God.  Who doesn’t, right?

He knows the right answer.  He knows that one must love God and love one’s neighbor in order to inherit eternal life.  I guess he is one of those people that asks questions even when he is already confident of the answer.  But then he goes one more step; a step he probably regrets by the end of the story.  He wants to know, “who is my neighbor?”  That’s when Jesus hits us with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Needless to say, the lawyer was a little less enthusiastic about Jesus’ response when the Samaritan turns out to be the good guy in the story.  And then he throws down the challenge to “go and do likewise.”

Faith is more than just right thinking.  It’s not just about knowing correct theology.  It’s about doing the right thing.  It’s about living out that faith that we like to keep tucked away in our heads and hearts.  It’s about living it out.  And that’s the hard thing about this story.

The Good Samaritan did the right thing.  He didn’t just think, “Ah, man, somebody should help that guy.”  He got down off his donkey (or whatever his mode of transportation was) and helped the guy.  And he did so at great personal risk.

It could have been a trap.  The man on the side of the road could have just been waiting for some poor sucker to stop and try to help, and then his buddies would jump out from behind the rocks, beat the tar out of him and take everything he had.  But that didn’t deter the Samaritan.  He stopped and helped a man who was in need.

And the truth is, I think most people want to be like the Samaritan in this story.  We want to help people.  We want to do the right thing.  But we don’t want to be too inconvenienced by it.  We don’t want it to mess with our schedules, our plans.  We want to help people, but we want to do it on our own terms.

When you watch the news at night, read the paper in the morning, or catch up on what’s going on in the world via social media, do you sit back, shake your head and wonder, “What is this world coming to?  Somebody should do something about this.”  What if that somebody is you, but you don’t want to get up and do anything about it?  What if we went from thinking that somebody should do something to actually getting up and doing something?

I think this is something we struggle with in the church.  Churches are full of people that want to help somebody, but think that somebody else should be taking care of the bigger issues.  Churches do a great job of collecting things.  Just this year at Smith Valley UMC, we have collected groceries for the food pantry, combs for health kits at Annual Conference, and we are currently collecting school supplies for kids in Johnson County.  And these are all good great things!  They are things that need to be done in order to help support those in need.  It’s one way that we can give back from what God has given us.  It’s one way that we can be involved.  But is it enough?

What if churches started addressing the societal structures that cause the need for food pantries?  What if we took seriously the need to look at economic inequality in our society?  What if we began to address issues of poverty from a structural level?  What if we began to work on issues of fair wage, unemployment, job training, financial responsibility?  What if, instead of collecting items for health kits – or, rather, in addition to collecting these items – what if we sent a team of people to help those in need directly?  I mean, really, do the people in West Virginia who have lost everything in flooding want a comb or help rebuilding their home?

I’ll be the first to admit that I have no clue how to go about addressing such issues.  I don’t know what organizations are already doing something like this.  I don’t know how to get involved and help on a very practical level.  And so, I go to Target, buy a few extra groceries, combs or school supplies, put them in a collection box and make sure they get to where they need to go.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with doing this.  It’s is an entry level way to help those in need.  But, sometimes, I think that we think it is enough.  It’s easy.  It doesn’t challenge us.  It fits into our schedules and comfortable lives.

Are we imitating the Good Samaritan with this type of thinking?  Or are we settling for being the Good Enough Samaritan?  Again, I don’t have all the answers.  I just have some questions that I’m wrestling with, and an invitation for you to join me in the ring.

I want to begin this post by sharing what I wrote in Smith Valley’s weekly newsletter this afternoon, and then go a little further down the road with the discussion.

In many ways, this has been a very difficult week.  As I mentioned in last week’s newsletter, members of the United Methodist Church from all over the world have been meeting in Portland, OR for General Conference, the meeting that is held once every four years to determine the doctrine and polity of the United Methodist Church.  Hundreds of petitions have been discussed – some have passed, some have been altered, some have been set aside.

Every time General Conference rolls around, we see demonstrations from people on one end of the theological spectrum who are hoping to change the position that the UMC has held regarding human sexuality, in particular, it’s official stance regarding homosexuality.  By the end of the General Conference, most of their fights and demonstrations result in no fruit, and the UMC has retained its stance.

This week, the topic once again came up.  It has been increasingly clear that the far left and the far right are not going to budge.  There is no desire to find a way to meet in the middle, and it seems as though this is the General Conference where everything has come to a head.

Yesterday, after some very intense debate, a motion to hold off on any discussions on human sexuality and refer it to a special commission to be formed by the Council of Bishops, and to call a special session of the General Conference in 2-3 years to find a way forward for the denomination, finally passed (after a similar motion failed just a couple hours before).

What does all of this mean for Smith Valley?  Frankly, right now, it doesn’t mean anything.  It means that some serious discussions and recommendations are going to be made, but nothing of substance will change for the next few years.  And, as I said last week, regardless of what happens, we will still be here, the Church in the Valley, welcoming, following and changing lives and the world.

I couldn’t help but think, as I watched all of the proceedings unfold, that somehow the United Methodist Church was looking a whole lot like the United States of America.  People, who stand on polar opposite sides on issues, bickering and fighting to get their way.  Laying out ultimatums, convinced about how right they are.  Whether they are trying to “Make America Great” or “Feel[ing] the Bern” or… whatever Hillary’s slogan is, people feel very passionately about “their” candidate.  I think the violence and protests at some of the Trump rallies have put that on display for us quite well.  Passion, when unchecked, can easily boil over into something else entirely.  In the same way, people, who are very passionate about their perspective, seem willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that their point of view becomes/stays the dominant point of view – to the point that they aren’t very Christian about it.

One thing I have noticed about the Council of Bishop’s proposal which finally did pass is that there are a lot of people who aren’t certain.  I’ve seen people on the left and people on the right express some trepidation, which tells me that it was perhaps the right move to make.  Any time you can get both sides to express some uncertainty, then perhaps there is a way to move forward.  And, I guess we’ll find out.

What does the future of the United Methodist Church hold?  Honestly, I have no clue.  It’s possible that there would be a way forward that would focus on the unity of the Church – sure, everybody may get upset by it, but maybe that’s a good thing.  Because one thing that I have seen over and over again is people saying things like, “my church wouldn’t…” or “my church would…” and I think we’ve lost an important perspective – it’s not “my” church; it’s God’s.

Two Languages

When I was in high school one of the language options was Chinese.  I ended up taking it for two years… for no particular reason (other than the fact it sounded better than German or French).  To be honest, I don’t remember most of it.  I do remember that it is the only class I ever fell asleep in while I was in high school.  (To be fair, who has you listen to a boring audio tape right after lunch!)  One thing that is interesting about Chinese is that there are actually two major dialects – Mandarin and Cantonese.  Note: there are many other dialects, but those tend to be the two most common; with literally billions of people, there are bound to be various dialects.

From what I have read, Mandarin is the dialect that has been getting the most notoriety, mainly because it is the language that is being pushed by the Chinese government.  It is also the easier of the two to learn.  Both are tonal languages, meaning tone and inflection are important in speaking the language, but Mandarin has four tones, whereas Cantonese has between six and nine different tones.  Let’s put a pin in this part of the discussion.  Don’t worry, we’ll come back to it.  I know, riveting.

This week, delegates from all over the world descended upon Portland, Oregon for the quadrennial General Conference of the United Methodist Church (#UMCGC if you’re interested in checking it out on the Tweeter… er, um, I mean, Twitter).  The main focus, if you listen to the media, of this event is to decide the United Methodist Church’s stance on homosexuality.  Now, of course, there should be much more than that going on, but it’s the only story that you’re going to hear for the most part.

The official stance of the United Methodist Church is that homosexuality is incompatible with the witness of Scripture, and, as a result, “practicing, self-avowed homosexuals” are not to be ordained, and UM churches and pastors are not permitted to participate in same-sex marriages.  Maintaining or changing this stance has been the primary function (so it seems) of General Conference for quite some time.  In fact, it’s an argument that has come up every four years since the inception of the UMC in 1968.

The left claims it is a justice issue.  The right claims it is a matter a faithfulness to the witness of Scripture.  Both are right, and the other is pig-headed in their insistence on maintaining their stance.  In the end, the loudest voice doesn’t necessarily get their way, but the majority voice does.  Then we hit the reset button, and start it all over again.  They are both speaking English, but two very different dialects.

There is Mandarin.  There is Cantonese.  Each one wants to speak their own dialect.  Are they willing to learn the other, and become fluent in both?  I guess that remains to be seen.

I was working on my sermon this week, and I am going to share a story from my life that I haven’t really shared with a lot of people.  I thought it would be a good story to share here as well.  (So, if you read this before the sermon on Sunday… no spoilers…)

A couple years ago, a friend told me about the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program that is offered through Wabash College.  It sounded like a great program.  Pastors from across the state were selected to take part, and many of the sessions tackled practical issues that clergy have to deal with on a regular basis.  They brought in top-notch presenters and speakers, leaders in their field.  It also included a couple of trips – one national, one international.  She encouraged me to apply for it, and I decided to go for it.

I’m always looking for ways to improve myself as a pastor and leader, because I feel like I still have a long way to go.  I applied for the program.  A couple months later, I received a letter saying that they received a lot of great applications for the program, and unfortunately, I was not selected.  I read it: we got a lot of great applications, and we got yours as well.  I still struggle with self-esteem issues from time to time.

I was disappointed to say the least.  I wasn’t hinging all my hopes for the future on this program, but it would have been nice to be a part of it.  A couple of my friends are in it now, and I’ve heard more good things about it.  At the time, I just couldn’t understand why this particular opportunity was not going to be available to me.  I got over it quick though.  I’m happy for my friends who are taking part in it.

Then something unimaginable happened in my life: my wife was pregnant.  Now, those that know my story know that the pregnancy wasn’t the unimaginable part – we’ve already had four of those that ended in miscarriage.  The unimaginable part was that she continued to be pregnant.  To be honest, neither one of us was too excited when we first heard the news.  We were in the adoption process.  We hadn’t been selected by a birth mother yet, but we were on the list, and had been for several months at this point.  We decided to put the adoption on hold and focus on the pregnancy – which we were sure wasn’t going to last.  However, it did… for the most part.  Our little girl came along at 25 weeks and 4 days.  Just, you know, 14 weeks and 3 days early.  And that was after 12 days of hospitalized bed rest for my wife.

We spent 117 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), watching our baby girl grow strong and healthy, and finally brought her home on August 29, 2015 – just a couple weeks after her due date.  We went up to Castleton (a 45 minute drive) every single day during her 117-day stay.  And you know what never crossed my mind – the Wabash program.

During this time in the hospital, I would have had to leave home three or four times, including a week-long trip across the country.  I don’t know if I could have done it with my baby girl in the hospital.  In fact, it was a relief that I didn’t have to figure it out.  Turns out, not being accepted into the program was the best thing for me at that time in my life.

I guess that’s the benefit of hindsight.


In Plato’s Republic there is a story referred to by Glaucon, the brother of Plato.  It’s a myth about a man who finds a golden ring, which gave him the ability to become invisible.  In the myth, the character uses the ring to seduce the queen, kill the king and name himself king.  The question that Glaucon raises is if a person could have enough virtue to resist the temptation to commit immoral actions if there was absolutely no chance of it being discovered.  Is morality merely a social construct?  Do we do the right thing simply because we are afraid of what would happen if others would find out?

It’s a question that people have wrestled with for centuries.  Some have taken to film to explore the question, like in 2000’s Hollow Man starring Kevin Bacon.  Others have had the discussion in terms of what superpower would they like to have.  Still others have pondered it on their own, or in philosophy class, or sitting around the bar.  I’m not much of a philosopher – I’ve taken a few classes, read a few books and spent some time thinking… maybe that does make me a philosopher, I don’t know.  Regardless, is it possible for a person to maintain morality in a situation in which there are no consequences?

The question was posed to Socrates in Republic, and, ultimately, he concludes that it is not social constructs that should help us maintain our morality, but whether or not we remain in control of ourselves on a rational level.

What role does guilt have in the church?  There are some who would argue that the church plays on our guilt as a way to pacify us.  In fact, there’s even a term “Catholic Guilt” to described the supposed excess of guilt felt by Catholics and lapsed Catholics.  But is guilt a worthwhile enterprise for the church?  I don’t think so.

Clearly, there are times in our lives when we do something wrong.  Guilt is a way of bringing us back on track – whether we see it as a social construct or as a result of our religious background.  However, there are some who would play on guilt as a way of getting what they want – that’s called manipulation.  You know what I’m talking about – the commercials that show the sad, shaking dogs at the shelter, the ones who try to raise money for their organization with sad pictures and sob stories.

Unfortunately, we do see some of that in the church, but there’s something that the church has to offer that goes beyond guilt; it’s called grace.

Grace is not a free pass.  Grace is not the ring of invisibility that helps us get away with things.  We can’t go about our lives doing whatever we want and then run back to grace when we get caught.  Grace goes beyond that.  Yes, grace is there when we fall short.  Not as a safety net, but as a reminder of God’s love for us.  Guilt should not compel us to do what is right; grace should.

So, if you could be invisible and get away with whatever you want, what kind of life would you lead?  Would you be reckless and do the things that you couldn’t get away with otherwise, or would you live a life full of grace?


The Purpose of the Church


At the beginning or March, our church had a Vision & Values workshop to jumpstart the conversation regarding our vision as a church.  Vision is so important because it gives us an idea of where it is that we want to be – or, more accurately, where it is that God is calling us – in the future.

So, for the last few weeks, I’ve been sharing in our weekly eNews some of the discussions that we had during the workshop.  Below is what I shared in today’s newsletter, and I’ll add a few more comments afterwards.

What is the purpose of the church?

That was one of the questions that came up during our Vision & Values Workshop at the beginning of March.  In a survey that was shared with the group, there were four possible responses.

  1. To Teach the Golden Rule
  2. To Be the Moral Backbone of Society
  3. To Make Disciples
  4. To Provide Fellowship and Love One Another

Those all seem to be good responses, and I think there would be people that could make an argument for each one.  In fact, here’s how it came out:

  1. To Teach the Golden Rule – 3.4%
  2. To Be the Moral Backbone of Society – 4.1%
  3. To Make Disciples – 35%
  4. To Provide Fellowship and Love One Another – 57%

That’s right, 57% of the responses said that the purpose of the church is to provide fellowship and love one another.  Now, nobody is going to object to a church that does that, right?  But that wasn’t the question.  The question was: what is the purpose of the church?

As I read through Scripture, I don’t see anywhere that Jesus tells his disciples to get into little groups and just care for one another.  That’s because he doesn’t.  So, why do we do it?  Because it’s safer that way.

It’s safer to stay in our little group and not be intentional about making disciples.  We don’t have to fear rejection or the occasional snide remark about faith when all we do is take care of ourselves.  But that’s not exactly the life to which Jesus calls us.

Like his disciples in Matthew 28, we are called to make disciples.  To be intentional, to reach out because we have something that the world lacks – the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ.  That’s the purpose of the church.  Any other group can provide fellowship and love one another – get some friends and go fishing if that’s all you want.  But if you want a life-changing encounter with the living God, and to share that experience with other people… well, that’s what the church is for.

I think too often, we forget that the church doesn’t exist for itself.  I’ve heard it said that the church is the one institution that exists for those outside of it, and there is so much truth to that statement.  So, what happened?

I’m not an expert, so let’s just clear that up right away.  I’m just a guy who does some reading, thinking and observing when it comes to churches.  But I think what happened is that we got lazy in the church.  There used to be a time when Sunday morning would roll around, and seemingly everybody would get up and go to church.  Nothing else happened on Sunday morning.  It became part of the routine, and we forgot why we were there in the first place.

We had a conversation in Bible study last night along these lines.  The staggering statistic is that as many as 80% of youth (maybe more) drop out of the church after high school.  And look around – how many college-age people have come to church in the last month (and don’t count Easter, that’s cheating!)?

Is the problem that there are atheist professors in college who influence people into dropping out?  Is the problem that they spend too much time partying in college that it doesn’t seem like church matters any more?  Is the problem that there are no “cool” churches around their campus for them to attend?  Or is the problem something else?  Is it because we have, for far too long, left ministry to “the professionals”?

“I don’t have to be involved with the youth because that’s why we hired a youth pastor” – that’s the mentality that I have seen from some people.  Somehow, we have decided to specialize and “professionalize” the church to the point that we aren’t making disciples any more.  Pastors are expected to be little more than chaplains – be there when I’m sick or going in for surgery, do my grandson’s wedding, and make sure I have a nice funeral… oh, and make sure you put on a good show this Sunday too – entertain me.

The picture I put at the top of this post was shared for a reason.  Notice: there’s a graveyard outside the building.  It’s actually very nicely kept.  I do wonder, though, what’s the inside of the church like?  Is the graveyard the only thing that is well-tended?  Or is it a place where the dry bones are coming to life?  Where God is glorified?  Where disciples are being made?

We no longer live in an age where people automatically come to church on Sunday morning.  There are a hundred other things vying for our attention.  And, you know, I’m okay with living in this new era.  It reminds me of another time when people didn’t automatically just go to church because it was the thing to do on Sunday morning.  In fact, calling it a new era isn’t really all that accurate.  It’s simply a revival of an old era – the era that started when Jesus told his disciples to go and make disciples.

If we, as the Church (notice the capitalization), return to our main purpose of making disciples, then perhaps we’ll see something special once again.


A couple weeks ago, Smith Valley UMC hosted a Vision & Values workshop to begin the conversation on who we are and what it is that we are called to do/be as a church.  We have a mission statement that is more than a few words on paper.  It helps to shape us, but now it’s time to take some more steps forward.

I invited Ann Handschu to lead the workshop.  Ann has done a fantastic job helping churches all over Indiana, and was gracious enough to work with us in this process.  Before the workshop, she and I had a great conversation on discipleship.  And one of the things we talked about was how everything we do should be about making disciples.  After all, that’s what Jesus tells us, right?  “Go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Fair warning – I’m going to geek out for a minute here – in the Greek of that text, there is something important that we don’t necessarily catch in the English.  How many verbs do you see there?  If you said four – go, make disciples, baptizing, teaching – you would be mostly right.  What if I told you that “make disciples” is only one word – μαθητεύσατε (matheteusate), and the rest of the verbs are modifiers of that verb?  Does that change your understanding of what Jesus is saying?

Essentially, to make disciples, we have to go, baptize and teach.  That is what the disciple-making process looks like, according to what Jesus says in Matthew 28.  So, how does this translate to the local church?  If it’s all about discipleship, then everything we do should fall into those categories.  But it should also reframe how we see what we do.

For example, at Smith Valley, we have a couple of big outreach events each year.  We’ve done each of them three times now, so it’s not like we are the experts on how to make this happen, but we are trying to learn.  Our Trunk or Treat at the end of October and our Easter Celebration have been some of the largest events we’ve done as a church.  The conditions were perfect for our second Trunk or Treat, and we actually had over 600 people show up that night.  We are a church that averages 85 in worship right now.  As you can imagine, it was a crazy night, and it was awesome.

Our Easter Celebration doesn’t draw quite as many people, but it is still a good-sized event.  Just last week, we had over 100 people show up – even though it was about 45 and raining outside.  We had to call an audible and do it inside, but we made it work.  Most of those 100 that showed up were kids, who were excited about the Easter egg hunt.

But here’s where we have a problem: inevitably, the comment comes from a well-meaning person that it would be nice if we could get some of these people to come to church on Sunday.  And, they’re right.  It would be nice.  However, some maybe less well-meaning people have criticized these events in the past, referring to them as a waste of time and resources because it doesn’t draw people to church on Sunday morning.  This is where I have a problem.

It’s all about discipleship.  Even big, community-oriented outreach events are about discipleship.  It’s not about roping people in; it’s about serving our community.  Service does not come with conditions.  Now, we do try to follow up with people who attend these events.  Some of them even ask for information on the church, and some people have come to worship because of these events.  And that’s awesome.  But what should our mindset be when we do these events?  Should we be focused on getting them in to worship on Sunday morning, or should we focus more on being obedient to God’s call to reach out to our community?  If it’s about discipleship, then the latter should be where we focus our attention.

If nobody comes to worship on Sunday morning, but we are being faithful – connecting with those who come, serving selflessly and following Jesus in what we do – then it was a win.  Anybody who does come as a result is a great joy and bonus.  But they don’t come because of our efforts; they come because the Holy Spirit prompts them.

In everything that we do as followers of Christ, we need to be thinking about ways to make it about discipleship.  And in doing so, we are faithful to God’s call in our lives.  Discipleship is a lifelong journey, and we just need to take a couple steps at a time.  As long as we are following Jesus, the rest will happen as it will.


As you would imagine, I spent yesterday evening watching the MLB All Star Game.  This year was particularly special for some because Derek Jeter, longtime shortstop for the New York Yankees was making his final appearance in the game after announcing that this would be his final season as a player in the sport.  Certainly, the spotlight was on him last night.

Jeter has had an amazing career.  He will be retiring as the all time hits leader for the New York Yankees.  It’s one thing to be a hits leader for the Mariners, Rangers, Rockies or Marlins, but it’s another thing altogether to lead the Yankees in that category.   Some of the game’s greatest players wore the pinstripes, and Jeter is the one who leads them all in number of hits.  He was voted to start the game by the fans and hit in the leadoff position for the AL club.  In his first at bat, he smacked a double into right field off of Adam Wainwright of the St. Louis Cardinals.  This morning, I woke up and checked on the trending topics on Twitter.  One was “Re2pect” and includes a lot of tributes to Jeter (who wears #2).

Jeter, while he has drawn quite a bit of attention off the field for his dating life, has never really been a flashy, selfish player.  He shows up to the park, does his job and does it well.  In fact, during the in game interview last night, it was pretty clear that he didn’t want to spend a lot of time talking about himself.  He is one of the most respected players in the game today because of his approach and love of the game.  As I was going through the readings for this morning, I came across a passage in 1 Thessalonians that I thought was very fitting for Jeter’s attitude about the game.

Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before.  Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).

Jeter is an example of a sports star who doesn’t live in such a way as to draw attention to himself.  Sure, he gets plenty of attention, don’t get me wrong.  But I don’t see him as a guy that seeks it out.  It seems to find him.  Chances are, if he played most of his career in a city like Milwaukee, Phoenix or Cleveland, he wouldn’t be getting as much press – all while still being an outstanding player.  New York seems to have that effect.

So, how are you living your life?  Are you living in such a way that people respect you for the way you carry yourself?  Do you try to deflect attention or draw it to you?  I think it’s important that we take a look at what Paul has to say here, and learn that there is a way to live that will earn the respect of those around us.  It is the path to which we are called as followers of Jesus.