Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Intentional Hospitality (From The Stainless Steel Soapbox, 3/18/2013)

One of the essential ministries of any church is hospitality. Making people feel welcome, whether they've been there for years or are first time visitors, needs to be a focus of every congregation. If people are not feeling as though we want them to be there when they come in, they are much less likely to see Jesus when they come in our doors.

As we prepare for the church to start, a decision to be intentional in our hospitality and creating a warm, inviting atmosphere so that anyone who comes through the door will immediately find something of the love of Jesus to hold on to before the service begins. Some of what we feel lead to do should be obvious to anyone who cares about the mission of the church but not all of it. Our hospitality takes a long term approach to not only welcome visitors but help them build relationships that will help them grow in Christ and remain with us.

Relationships, more than anything else, keeps people attending church or drives them from it. One of the most common complaints I hear from people coming through our doors is that they've been in a church for weeks/months/years and don't feel like they have any friends or relationship connection to the congregation. While some may take the responsibility on themselves to integrate themselves into a congregation, most people do not have the personality or networking skills to do that effectively. It's not comfortable for the majority of people to come into a new social situation and make themselves part of a group. It's our job to recognize that and take deliberate steps to help them make the transition and find relationships.

Hospitality starts the minute people pull into the lot. If parking lot attendants are in use, they need to be the most upbeat, positive people available for the job. A smiling face directing traffic is important. Also, they are the first line of greeters anyone will see on a Sunday morning. Cheerful "Good Mornings" as people walk from their cars to the building can start to break down the walls visitors may have erected before arriving.

In the doors, carefully picked greeters are the front line in the "love offensive" we are going to undertake. Mature Christians who ooze the love of Christ are the best choices. Most churches start new people on the door, but this can be a mistake. Willingness is fantastic, but usher and other behind the scenes ministries are better opportunities for new converts and new members. Greeting is too essential a ministry and needs to be considered a position of honor. Elders, deacons, pastors, and ministry leaders are actually great people to fill these roles. People will feel important if the leaders of the church are the ones to welcome them when they walk in. It also keeps the leaders humble and helps connect them to the congregation they lead.

Of course, everyone is greeted exactly the same no matter what. Appearance, clothing style, and even foul language cannot shock or offend the greeters. Love is the rule of the day every service, every time. People in suits need to be treated with the same respect as someone with piercings, tattoos, and outlandish clothes. Avoiding favoritism toward any group is a Scriptural mandate. God is no respecter of persons. Everyone, and that means everyone, is a unique creation of God that He longs to bring into a relationship with His only Son, Christ Jesus. Talk to people on their level, but treat them all with respect and love. Let the Holy Spirit do the changing if you disapprove of their lifestyle. It might be you who He changes.

One important statement that cannot be expressed strongly enough. There will be NO hand sanitizer at the doors. PERIOD. Germiphobes do not need to be at the door. Old fashioned, common sense like washing hands before and after greeting people is enough for anyone. We lived for centuries without trying to kill every germ we might encounter as soon as it might have hit our hands.

The reason that it's banned is very simple: it will offend people if you shake their hands and immediately reach for the sanitizer. It sends a clear message that "I'm telling that we're happy to have you here as long as I don't have to touch you." We might as well be shouting "UNCLEAN!" every time we hit that pump. I get offended when someone does it to me and I'm willing to bet that I'm not alone. It really is offensive and anything that might create a barrier between someone and coming to Jesus needs to be removed. Let's not give the enemy a foothold right at the beginning. If you're a hand sanitizer devotee, remember, Jesus and the early church touched lepers and lived. They didn't even have an antibiotic wipe. Love and common sense trump all. However, if they pull out the sanitizer, we can't be offended. We're there to serve and love them, not the other way around.

I also like the idea of a free coffee bar. Coffee, tea, hot cocoa, and other similar beverages along with lemonade, water, and other cold drinks available when people come in is a great way to help them feel welcome. It is essential that most of what's available is free. There are churches out there that have Starbucks or a similar coffee chain in their foyers or their own in-house version that charge for their drinks. I understand the thinking behind it, but I don't share it. Everyone deserves the opportunity to have a drink whether they can afford it or not. A lot of people, especially as the economy continues to turn south, simply do not have the money for a cup of coffee. There is also something to be said for the smell of fresh brewed coffee in creating an open, welcome atmosphere. Only baking cookies or bacon are better.

Our intent goes beyond that just the welcome at the door.  Building relationships is absolutely essential for the ministry. The book of Acts is full of examples of thriving communities of believers. They were marked by their love for one another and their generosity towards their brethren. The fact that they were able to help those in need meant that they knew who was in need. That meant relationship.

Small group leaders are the best people to accomplish intentional relationships. However, inviting people to a small group is not the first step. For some, that would be a fairly intimidating situation. If the visitors do not know anyone, the leader can invite them to sit with them or, if there are no openings, introduce them to someone they can sit with. Even a brief conversation on the first couple of visits can make someone feel a connection to the congregation. Again, love is the rule of the day.

After service is over, that leader touches base with them again. Don't trap them, but have a conversation. Offer them a phone number. Being willing to share contact information even if they never call shows a level of trust not common in this modern age. Put that first contact in their hands. If they continue to come, the leaders can begin to introduce them to other people and start a relationship with them.

Getting to know new people and visitors and helping them know us is so basic that we should do it automatically. But, just as it can be difficult for a visitor to open up and meet people on their own, it isn't really natural for us to reach out in the ways I intend to do. Most people either pounce and scare visitors off or offer an awkward handshake or head nod. Prayer for wisdom and for the ability to love people not only with the depth of Christ but with His wonderful ability to talk to anyone. The Holy Spirit is there for us if we allow Him to be.

In all of it, love trumps all. We need to remember that Jesus delights in us even when we are in out sin and His delight only grows as He cleanses us from all unrighteousness. When someone enters Hell, He weeps. Hospitality in our churches will help open hearts to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and pave the way for eternal life. It's a seed that we can plant and water. If we are privileged to harvest, then the Lord has once again provided the increase. It's His church and kingdom and He will build it. We just get to be a part of what He is doing.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Great Challenge (From The Stainless Steel Soapbox)

This was originally posted on The Stainless Steel Soapbox on 9/18/13 as the work for Freedom Church was getting in to full swing. It speaks to the challenges we're still facing and are a matter for prayer at the upcoming gathering.

I knew this wasn't going to be easy. In fact, I expected an enormous amount of work and difficulty starting a unique church like Freedom Church. The vision the Lord gave is very different from the norm of the mainstream church. Opposition and criticism are to be expected. Finding people who understand and are mature to help was expected to be difficult. I didn't know just how difficult it would be. It is turning out to be the biggest challenge of starting up.

I freely admit, we need help. Between my wife and I, we have a lot of gifts and experience we bring to the table for a variety of ministry roles. However, there are a lot of things we just can't do. Trust me when I say this, you really don't want to hear me lead worship. The experience would be horrifying enough to inspire a Roger Corman film or Stephen King novel. We wouldn't even make it to the end of the first song of the first service. Not a good way to start.

We've had more than our share of setbacks. Those are to be expected. We've had a number of people we'd hoped would help that have backed away or felt lead to engage in other ministry activities. Some of them have expressed that they would be on board for months and even years that have backed off. Granted, a few of them are not right for the changes to the vision the Lord has given but some could adapt. However, The Lord's will must be supreme, not mine.

Finding leaders is extremely hard anyway. One of the challenges is dealing the accusation of "stealing sheep." I have heard that accusation leveled against several prominent pastors and larger churches and, ironically, used by many of those same pastors. I have to admit, the statement has never entirely made sense but I understand the sting of it. It hits at the need for acceptance and approval from authority figures that almost all of us deal with to one degree or another. The problem is that no one can actually "steal" anyone (unless of course there's kidnapping involved). Asking someone to help with a church or ministry puts the ball in their court. If the Lord leads that the question be asked, it is up the Lord and the person asked to make the call. People have free will and it's the Lord's will that matters most.

It's hard to build and keep a congregation together. Any departure can affect a pastor, some more deeply than others.It's especially true when that person or people are in key positions or actively serving. I believe it is this sense of loss along with an out-of-balance approach to leaving a church (see Leaving a Church in the Jesus' Outsider Archives) that contributes to the accusation. Again, I understand it but fulfilling a vision from the Lord and obedience to His word outweigh injured feelings or fear of loss.

The greater problem is born out of love. As I look at the people and pray about who to ask, they are all serving in a variety of capacities in churches and ministries I have great love and affection for and do not want to see them short-handed. Loyalty to beloved congregations and their leadership is a far greater hindrance that I could have ever anticipated. While I do not fear the sheep stealing accusation, I do struggle with feelings that I am raiding churches for their best, their mature, and talent. It has kept me from approaching a number of people over the last several months that I should have.

Most of those whom I've talked to about leadership are ones who've been cast-offs from other churches. Wounded leaders shut down by circumstance, politics, or, in some cases, their own shortcomings they have yet to see. My reasoning was that since the Lovely Bride and I are outcasts in many regards, that's where we should look. The results have been something less than spectacular. It's left us at essentially ground zero with leadership.

The ones who have come to us are not in any capacity ready to lead. Most are seeking a position for the sake of the position, have serious doctrinal issues, or are not yet in a place in their walk to lead. The latter category we can work with and help them mature, but the others are ones whom we cannot risk taking on at the beginning. For leaders, we need mature disciples of Christ ready to hit the ground running.

Shaking this handicap off is very difficult. Only recently have I approached someone who is actively serving. The Lord led them elsewhere, but I was able to overcome my hesitation and make the ask. I don't want to leave any church hurting for leadership, helpers, or musicians. The latter is particularly difficult because there is a small pool of musicians and vocalists able to pull off the type of music we'll be doing at FC and all of them are playing worship in one church or another. Love is getting in the way of the ask.

I am praying about taking a different approach. Thus far, we have kept the vision in house and only made it available to advisers and those we have asked to help. The Lovely Bride is feeling led to just put it out there for all to see. Her belief is that as we make it more public, we will inflame the passions of the right people and they will find us. There will still have to be a vetting process but it does seem like wisdom especially since I'm not sure who to approach at this point.

So, very soon, I will be putting the whole framework online. I don't know where I'm going to post it yet, but I will get make it available as soon as time allows. In the meantime, I have begun converting the Christ's Embassy Facebook page to Freedom Church. Over the next couple of days, I should get most of that process finished. To stay on top of things, please "like" the page. I will post there as often as possible.

Your prayers are appreciated and, if I may, solicited. God is leading and He is taking us on a path apart from all the well-laid plans. I'm nervous and a little scared, but I have to trust that He knows better than I ever could.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Music

When it comes to music, substance matters but so does style. Not that there is a genre of music that is more acceptable to the Lord than any other, rather the type of music must fit the people that are to be reached. I do not intend to open a debate on music in the church but rather to state plainly the leading of the Lord for the direction of Freedom Church as to how we are called to worship and reach the lost. The call of God is unique and our path does not diminish in any way that upon which you walk.

For the people we are to reach, we are going to be playing a rock music worship. Imagine the common contemporary worship ramped up several notches. There is a burning desire in my heart to see musicians able to fully worship God with all their skill on their instruments. For those we seek, that means finding musicians and a worship pastor that rock (and maybe a little blues once and a while for good measure) is their preferred style who may feel constrained by what they consider tame music. Not long ago, in a worship service at Rock Church, I had tears come to my eyes when the lead guitarist threw all of his skill into worshiping God on his electric guitar. In the midst of my tears, one thought came to mind, "This is how Freedom Church is to honor God with music."

For many, contemporary worship styles or hymns are a full expression of their worship. This doesn't mean they're lesser musicians but that they are called to a different style. A difference of genre and call are never to be considered a lack of skill or earnest in a desire to bring glory to the name of Jesus. Those we seek are only cut from a different cloth. We're not looking for the disgruntled but for people who desire to honor the Lord through a unique worship experience.

The conclusion that has been reached is after a lot of prayer and observation. I have spent a lot of time with the types of people Freedom Church is being planted to reach. I pay attention to what they listen to on the job and at home. Rock is the dominant style I hear with country coming in a close second and that with more of a rock flair. I hear both classic and newer styles being listened to in nearly equal measures. After much prayer and wise counsel from trusted men and women of God, this is the direction we feel the Lord is calling us to go.

To that end, we need the right people to lead the music ministry and work to build it. Within the guidelines we have to work with, albeit loose ones, the worship pastor will have a great deal of freedom to design and build the program from the ground up and recruit musicians, singers, and the sound techs. As more money is raised, better resources will become available. Ultimately, what we need is someone who can lead people into worship in a with music that reaches the people we need to reach.

The music we feel called to is a blend of old and new rock styles. Old school stuff like I grew up on will draw in some while music from bands like Skillet, Day of Fire, and Red will connect with the rest. My own heart has been touched often my these and several other modern Christian rockers. I've also experienced the great joy of lifting up Jesus with more familiar songs arranged with a harder edge to the music.

The power of music to move hearts and minds and draw them closer to Christ cannot be minimized. For the unchurched and dechurched, communicating the Gospel and worshiping in a style of music they're already comfortable with helps to break down the barriers life and the enemy have put into their hearts. It worked for me. It was the music that morning so many years ago that the Holy Spirit used to first grab my heart. It was familiar in style and genre but the words and the intent of the musicians was different. Jesus was in their hearts and minds as they played combined with a genuine desire to lead the crowd into the throne room of God.

This is going to be a great challenge. Honoring Christ through music is central to the ministry. In everything, it must compliment prayer, the teaching of the Word, and building community. There are going to be difficulties and even some resistance. For the sake of the lost, it will be worth it for each soul snatched from the fires of hell.

If you're a musician reading this, please prayerfully consider whether this call is for you or for one you know. We are seeking the right people with all of our efforts. Before we can proceed, this is the one position that must be filled. We're seeking referrals if you are not led to join us. A great and challenging adventure lies before us. The Glory of God and His Word will go forth!