Monday, June 24, 2019

Compassion Has an Army: Reflecting on my Training & Ordination

Moments of joy shaken together with moments of terror. Two years ago God called me to Chicago where I would be trained as a minister. I didn’t know how I could possibly do such a thing. But God made it possible when it was clearly impossible. Having overcomed all the trials, all the ups and downs of the two years of training, the time was here. Having served in St. Charles, St. Louis, Albert Lea, and Rochester Minnesota, I had come to the end!

We had done it together, truly. We were messengers of compassion together. We couldn’t have done it apart. We had become a family, brothers and sisters.

We'd come to commissioning. Standing on stage in Milwaukee in front of five hundred people wasn’t the scariest part. It was stressful, don’t get me wrong. But what lay ahead was much more overwhelming. Soon we'd be going out as ministers! 

We all put on good faces. No problem right?  But the truth is it is a bit nerve-wracking. Most people don’t really have it all together, they just pretend to. Most people feel as weak and vulnerable as you do. That’s what I’ve learned. They may be able to play it cool better than you, but they’re just as afraid within.

Walking across the stage, to stand in front of the commissioners was like walking through a dream. I don’t know if you’re really sure it’s happening at the moment. Perhaps like Mr. Anderson from the Matrix we accept what we see because we’re expecting to wake up. But I think I accepted it because it was simply what was happening, and I had no choice in the matter. I couldn’t freeze time and go take a nap, as much as I wanted to.

They shouted my name over the microphone and I walked out. I was hoping I wouldn't trip. There I was, ordained, and about to be commissioned! What an incredible journey!

Fast forward to today, and I have to pinch myself and think, “I’m an ordained minister. I’m an officer. It really happened.”

What does that mean anyway? I thought of myself as ministering long before today. I served as a minister in many ways, this just gave the official title. The pride could be dangerous when considering such things! But it was real. Part of God’s call is an outward acknowledgement from the organization, the leaders, and the people around you that this is indeed a true call and commission. That says a lot. We can all have plenty of delusions, but it’s people around us who help reflect what is actually true.

I remember seeing some of my friends from my sister session a year later after they’d been ordained and appointed. Their faces looked chiseled. They looked like they’d aged a bit. They looked like they carried more concerns than in the past. That is the way of things I suppose. We wear our hearts on our faces. The rigors of ministry wear through to the physical.

We all hear the whispers of people leaving the work, and being overwhelmed and burnt out. But I always tell myself, like many times in the past, I’m not a statistic. I’m not a number. I’ve beaten the odds my whole life. 99 out of 100 drug addicts in the level of addiction I once carried never make it out. I beat the odds there.

But I always wondered, from time to time, will I be one of those number that can’t handle the ministry? When I’m really put under real daily pressure, for weeks, months, and years, will I crack like an egg? Will I show my true colors and run like a dog with my tail between my legs? That fear often lingered during my time at my internship and at training college. I wondered if I could really do it. And of course I know the answer to that: Nope. I can’t. But in Christ I can do anything. God makes it possible. We often imagine the future and catastrophize it. Why? Because we’re imagining a future without God.

My trust in the Lord had been somewhat shaken in the past. I was astonished to realize that I would be going out as a single officer. For some reason that was terribly shocking to me. I was so sure that I would meet someone in training. I was so sure God would line it up perfectly, so that we’d go out together. I dared to dream a beautiful dream that this would happen. But it had certainly not happened, no, not at all. And the dread realization came upon me in the closing months of training that I would indeed be going out by myself. And this fact troubled me greatly, until I simply came to accept it, and allow God’s will and not mine to be done.

The trick I played on myself was convincing myself that this idea was of God. But apparently it wasn’t. It sure felt right at the time. But feelings are not always accurate or correct. God is sovereign. That’s the truth. Any time that I’ve ever tried to impose a requirement, a caveat, or a restriction on what God does in my life, it’s always been quickly broken by God. This continues to this very day. We don’t get any input on what we do or don’t do for God. He’s the King, we’re the servants. And that’s OK, his plan has always been much better than mine.

The messengers of compassion were a wonderful session to be a part of. There are some really Godly people in our ranks. But of course we had our problems as well. We didn’t always get along. But much of the time we did get along. I became friends with several in my session. And I became friends with several in both my sister sessions. I had my own distinct niche’ in the session, just like many of us did. Scott the servant heart. Dena was the nurse. Nate the financial guru. Henry was the class clown. Josh was the studious esquire. Shannell was the cautious planner one. Karen was the outspoken photo-taker. I was the outspoken bookworm nerd. We all fit together rather well.

I will never forget first year bell ringing. It was a very very challenging time for me. Some people in my session really liked bell ringing, I can’t say I was one of them. But my session mates got me through all of that. During Christmas we did plays at the schools, a play called Pete the cat. I don’t think I’ve ever been so far outside my comfort zone as being an introvert in a blue Pete the cat outfit on stage in front of a hundred elementary school kids dancing and singing Christmas songs. I was so insanely nervous during the play that Scott and Dena had to whisper my lines to me.

My favorite class was theology of John Wesley with Captain Matt. We studied John Wesley's sermons and then got together and talked about the deep issues within them. It was all messengers of the gospel and me and one other MOC.  I loved it.  We debated and discussed a lot.  And we came to a point of discussion that is a classic consideration: Can we really be holy? And almost all of us came to the conclusion that we could not.  But the class made me re-evaluate holiness, and later on I came to believe that we can be holy.  It seems impossible, but with God all things are possible.  Fleshing it out in open discussion was amazing, and transformative. 

My holiness journey came to a head when Bill and Diane Ury came to campus and shared the word with us.  They described holiness as being yielded to Christ. That made a lot of sense to me. Being filled with Christ then naturally transforms us, and our actions and viewpoints are changed.  I met with a mutual mentor in the basement in the prayer room and we prayed and begged God for holiness in Christ.  It was a huge turning point in my walk with God.

Summer assignment at the St. Louis ARC was an absolute delight. I really fell in love with the drug/alcohol treatment stuff during the summer. The opportunities for ministry were non-stop, and the altar was always full with desperate men seeking hope and redemption at the feet of Jesus. I hope I can somehow find my way into that ministry in the future, it is beautiful beyond words. We went to a homeless shelter and handed out tracts and talked with people about Jesus. We got together in Bible study with guys desperate to learn more about God.  We traveled to recovery groups and brought men with to learn how to stay sober.  I loved it. So much ministry, all day every day!

The experiences of my second year were challenging and at the same time expressions of God’s refinement in my character. In fact the entire two years in seminary felt like a constant spiritual battle. Trial after trial came and each one brought new difficulties to overcome. But whenever one was overcome, I found myself stronger, more powerful in God, and more confident in Christ. That’s the main work of training, spiritual warfare, which is fighting to grow in Christ. We’re placed in the refiner’s fire for two years and forged like hot metal. It was very difficult but I was transformed. What made it much more doable over time was clinging to God in prayer. My prayer, devotional, and bible reading life was stretched by God to encompass much more time that it had previously. What had been 20-30 minutes, became an hour and more. That’s the only reason I survived, was through extensive prayer and study of the word.

My second year Christmas in Rochester was a really wonderful experience. It solidified my own understanding of why I loved what I did. It was tough and sometimes exhausting, but the joy in reward was far beyond any difficulty. We did the usual duties, nothing too fancy, kettles and more kettles, Christmas toys, feeding programs, community meetings, and so on. It helped me embrace the hard work and strategic financial realities of ministry. I was very blessed to have wonderful officers over my field training experiences, the Thielkes, the Muellers, and the Montenegros. It’s nice to have people that are experienced, and good at what they do. 

One thing that got me through training was playing basketball on mondays. We took that time very seriously, and it was a very special thing for all of us who played.  I loved it.  We loved it.  It was a sacred time.

As time passed we finally began to count down the last one hundred days at training. It seemed to drag on forever. But slowly and surely, the days disappeared until finally we had reached commissioning weekend. 

I had become a bit burned out by the last quarter. I was just ready for it to be over, and to go out and do what God called me to do. I could tell others felt the same way. I'd been praying for commissioning, and praying for the moves as they were being prepared. I just kept asking God to send us each exactly where we were supposed to be.  I was sure God's will would be done. 

I had family there in Milwaukee, including my mom, step dad, sister, dad, uncle, grandma, aunt, and others.  My crew from the home corps in Escanaba was there, ten of them all together. I kept randomly running into people I knew from the territory on the way in to the Friday evening meeting, and the Saturday morning sessions.  I realized I was no outsider to the territory, though I had occasionally felt like an outsider in Chicago.  

Bill and Diane Ury, quoting from the Seven Spirits by William Booth, talking about the desperate desire to have compassion for others, when we realize that we often don't.  Oh how guilty I am.  How often have I been so self-absorbed that I failed to really put myself into someone elses situation.  I was too focused on the selfie, my wants, my desires, my schedule, and always trying to find ways to make myself look good.  At the gym, on Facebook, in front of the boss, and so on and so forth. Meanwhile people are lonely, hurting, addicted, caught up in sin, and what am I doing for them?  Not enough, certainly not enough. 

I kept wanting so badly to evangelize in the community around the college.  I wanted so badly to share Jesus. Jesus changes everything.  And the truth is God gave me opportunities from time to time to do that, over the two years.  But those times were too few and far between. Going out with Chicago for Jesus street team, the Picasso event both years, talking with homeless, getting to know the people at Starbucks, meeting the guy by Wrigley, but those were such few experiences. And so many are in such great need!  

These were some of the thoughts in my head as I listened to Bill and Diane Ury speak.  The Seven Spirits is one of my favorite books. It was first recommended to me by a fellow officer from the eastern territory, Lt. Esker. It's about one hundred pages of notes from sermons and messages and lectures that William Booth gave to his officers, about how to be officers.  It's an absolute must read.  I love it.  I love how raw it is, and how theologically incorrect it is.  Theologically incorrect in that it doesn't mince words or try to make things seem fluffy, it talks about heaven, hell, mercy, wrath, and the desperate aching need for all to know Jesus before time runs out.  We need more of that desperation today. 

Of course I was just counting down until Sunday, the big day.  But it was all great.  It was perfect.  It was beautiful.  It was Spirit filled.  I felt God at work.  The Silver Star was amazing, as I imagined it would be.  So grateful to be able to connect with my parents and my mentor, and express my love, admiration, and appreciation for their support in this venture.  My Grandma was there to receive appreciation as my mentor.  I thanked her that Grandpa and her prayed for me, and shared the love of Jesus with me, and gave me my first Bible, and kept praying and praying when I was lost in addiction.  I thanked my Mom for praying for me, and inviting me to church, and continuing to reach out to me for all those years.  I thanked my Dad for being there through thick and thin, always willing to help, and drive me to rehab, and help me get through court and probation. My divisional commanders from WUM were there to show love and support. It was great. 

Then Sunday came... We marched in for the morning service.  It was of course very formal, sober, and reverent.  I enjoy that very much actually.  I enjoy the sacredness of those moments.  I loved watching the flag marched in by our session flag bearer Abby.  She did a fantastic job.  Greg recited that officer's covenant.  I was so happy in how we recited the doctrines, from memory.  It went really well.  One by one we walked up, being ordained and commissioned.  They gave me a scripture that fit me perfectly, everyone thought so.  It was Titus 2:1 which reads, "You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine."  Perfect, indeed. Everyone who knows me knows I love the truth of God's word so much, and I'm deeply committed to teaching the whole council of God.  I watch what I say and write and share very carefully, because I want to honor God in how I do it.  It's really important to me that I teach what is true, not what I like or prefer.  It would break my heart to find out that I hid away the parts of the gospel and the word of God that I found distasteful or contrary to my own personal preferences.  But the truth is, Titus 2:1 is not just a scripture that fits me perfectly.  It fits all of us perfectly.  Each of us must have an unbiased commitment to teach whatever is in the word, whether it rubs against our personal opinions or not.  Our job is not to teach what we prefer, or what we like about the gospel, instead our job is to faithfully preach all of the word, the feel good, the challenging, even the scandalous, and everything in between. 

The morning ordination service was really powerful.  It almost felt like it wasn't really happening!  It felt like a dream, standing backstage in line.  Is this really happening?  It must be happening, because I'm here.  We concluded the morning service, and went over for lunch and to change our uniforms. 

Me and my buddy Henry were joking around back stage. I was missing my buddy Anil. He couldn't make it because his son was being born. Valid excuse. I was closest with Anil, Henry, Joshua, and Jack during training. Anil was so sure that God was gonna line things up so him and Karen could be there, well, God threw a curveball, and that's how God rolls. He is totally unpredictable.  Anyway, me and Henry were joking around about where we might go. We were in our new red uniforms. J-Lo came and prayed with us. Diane Ury prayed with us.  It was beautiful.  It felt very meaningful to me.  

We had changed into our uniforms with the red trim. Next we planned to storm out in a high energy fashion, to some contemporary music with JT rapping. I was pretty nervous as we stood around back stage waiting for the whole thing to begin. We were talking about what our appointments might be. I was feeling the strain as everyone talked about where they might go. Of course our session had various predictions for the open corps.  I really had no idea where I might go.  People had their ideas, but I really wasn't sure!  A few session mates had narrowed it down for me to two possible corps, but given that I was a single, I knew there were many corps that could possibly get an assistant.  

We stormed out, and it seemed to be a big hit.  It was exciting, high energy.  It felt good to let out some of that pent up energy, and I felt some of the panic and apprehension slip from within.

The charge given by Colonel Janice was powerful, outlining the saga of Daniel in Babylon, and how he resisted conforming to babylonian culture, and instead boldly lived out his Christian convictions without compromise. That's exactly the message I needed to hear before going out into a troubled world to preach a transforming world shaking message of salvation! 

Then came the service of appointments.  We filed out, and went back stage, waiting in line patiently to receive our very first appointments.  I was so excited I couldn't hardly contain myself. I had all the predictions memorized, and one by one I realized as each couple went forward that our predictions were quite accurate.  Boatengs to Connor Creek, Bocks to Muscatine, Hubbards to Eagle Creek, Kumars to Farmington Hills, Shanell went to the Kroc, so and so forth, we had it all right.  When I went up I knew where I probably might go. But of course I wasn't sure. 

The commissioners gave me the scripture I had chosen, which God had given me for my time at training.  Hebrews 12:1 "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us..."

I recall the words of the commissioners quite well, when they said, "You're a man of few words spoken, but you are a man of many words, in writing, in which you have blessed many, many people."  I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea.  It was really a wonderful moment for me. I've been writing my blog and on social media for many years.  I've been rebuked several times for my writing, when I wrote something a bit too edgy or controversial, or when I was a bit too outspoken, or when I hurt someones feelings, but I've very, very rarely received any encouragement to continue writing, or been told that my writing helped someone, or blessed someone.  So hearing that was a great blessing for me. 

I was appointed at last, as the assistant corps officer to Flint, Michigan, with responsibility for Owosso, Mi.  I was shocked, surprised, and I really didn't know what to say except thank you to the commissioners for my first appointment.  Several of my session mates had told me previously that my skill set fit Owosso/Flint perfectly, but I had never really been sure of that.  But I'd heard many good things. And I'd heard many good things about the division as well, that it was a wonderful division with a lot of great people.  Many emotions filled my mind and heart as I marched out with my new division, met with my divisional leaders, and the connected with my family again.  Everyone was really excited, and happy for me, and I was shocked. As I drove back to college, for the last time, my mind was filled with many thoughts, and I had tears in my eyes.  It was amazing what I'd gone through over those last two years, and my emotions were surging after such an emotionally powerful weekend.  Much of it felt like a blur.  But I had made it through, all of us had made it through, and now we were officers, ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  We worked for Jesus now.  And that is amazing.  I can't believe Jesus would choose me for this. But I'm honored and humbled to be his servant. Truly, God chooses the most unlikely people to do his work.  What an honor, now I hope and pray that I honor God in every decision I make, and show myself to be a faithful minister! 

Two weeks later, as I wait at the airport, preparing to head to my first assignment a whole number of different emotions and thoughts fill my mind.  At one moment I'm filled with excitement, trust in God, and hope.  The next moment I'm filled with trepidation, a feeling of being overwhelmed, and a sense of not knowing anything about what I'm about to do.  But that fades away again, and I remember that God is faithful.  He has got me through everything. He has gone before me.  He has taught me what I need to know.  And though I know there will be struggles, and emotional upheavals, and difficult challenges, I also know that God is already in the future, He is already at my new appointment, and He will guide me through all of it, and make the impossible to become possible for me, as long as I stay connected with Him, love Him, live a pure life, and make decisions in His Spirit and His will. 

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Rule of Life: A Code to Live by as a Minister of the Gospel

It's interesting that we spend so much time attempting to live in a biblical manner, but how few of us have identified our game plan for living rightly? Here is the biblical code of ethics that I’ve outlined as my rule of life. I've borrowed ideas and thoughts from other codes of conduct for ministers and pastors in various denominations, but this one will apply directly to me.  What is your code of conduct for life?  Take some time and consider for yourself, how you ought to live your life.  

Personal and Family Life
I will place my devotion to God almighty as the number one priority of my life, above anything other concern (Luke 10:27).
I will diligently practice daily prayer, devotional reading, reading and studying of the word of God, and weekly deeper spiritual disciplines.
I will tithe a minimum of 10% of the gross of my income, with the goal of giving more and more, up to 25% in the future (Mark 12:41-44). Along with that, I will regularly give offerings as I feel led.
I will seek to live in a healthy manner, eating properly, not eating too much, while also engaging in regular exercise and weight-lifting, to remain physically healthy.
I will love my wife as second only to God. I will seek to live in mutual submission with her, submitting to each other, and not treating her harshly, but being fair and honorable in my conduct with her (Ephesians 5:25, 1 Corinthians 13).
I will love my children third, seeking to love them and discipline them in the ways of God. I will seek to treat them gently, but firmly, and respectfully and fearfully raise them up as Christians.

Congregational Relationships
I will endeavor with all my efforts to be a godly, humble servant leader of the church where I serve (James 4:6). 
I will faithfully preach the Bible as the complete revelation of God, not selectively preaching on only comfortable scriptures, or on only difficult scriptures, attempting to diligently preach and teach the entirety of the scriptures and the whole revelation of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I will faithfully teach biblical Christian principles, never compromising the truth of the scripture for the sake of cultural trends, or what is in vogue in society.
I will strive with all my efforts to add to the body of Christ with evangelistic zeal and passion to win souls for Christ (Matthew 28:16-20).
I will serve with impartiality, showing no favoritism, but treating everyone equally. I will not practice nepotism by favoring friends or relatives in ministry positions (James 2).
I will reject bribes of any kind, including gratuities, because my needs are provided from (Proverb 15:27).
I will never steal from the corps where I serve, and I will only access the food we provide once all others have had access to choose from it as they will.
I will honor my congregational members and treat them respectfully, even if they do not return my loving respect.
I will never violate a confidence, that which is shared with me in private, unless imminent suicide is mentioned, or if violence is imminent against another person (Proverb 11:13).
I will not engage in gossip in regard to the church body or the daily work place (Proverb 16:28).

Collegial Relationships
I will respect the sacred unity of other congregations and not attempt to ‘steal’ members from other churches already established. (In the case of cults or non-Christian religions, this rule does not apply)
I will not engage in any forms of competition with other pastors in the area, for the sake of glory or of appearing important (Luke 22:26).
I will not practice manipulation or political career climbing in The Salvation Army hierarchy.
I will refrain from speaking poorly of the officers who served before me, or came after me.
I will refrain from speaking poorly of the larger organization, unless these discussions exist in a spirit of reform and blessing to the larger organization.
I will not meddle in the affairs of appointments where I previously served.
I will be thoughtful and encouraging and respectful to retired officers in the local corps.
I will not gossip about other ministers.
I will consider all ministers, pastors, officers, and priests as brothers and sisters who serve alongside me in the harvest of God’s commission in the world.

Community Relationships
I will serve those in the community without discrimination, serving anyone who comes to the corps regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual identification.
I will carry the gospel faithfully in word and deed to any and all who are in the community, seeking to win as many as I possibly can to the cross of Christ before time runs out on the Earth (Ephesians 5:16-18).
I will not compromise my ethics and standards to appear to be a relatable person.
I will be a person to the community, not just a minister.  I will be a participant in the community during my off time, and a minister to the community while at work.
I will seek to meet needs in the community as led by God’s Spirit, realizing also my own limitations and the limitations of The Salvation Army in which I serve (Matthew 25:31-46).

Moral and Ethical Issues
I will uphold God's design for marriage, as between man and woman exclusively, despite cultural and social pressures to redefine marriage to include other relationships.
I will uphold the sanctity of human life.
I will uphold God's design for gender, as being male and female as recorded in the book of Genesis and affirmed by Jesus in the gospel of Matthew.
I will speak up against corruption in society and expose evil where I find it. 

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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Practice of Spiritual Direction: One on One Guidance in Faith

            The discipline of spiritual direction is defined by the classic work, The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun as follows: “to give caring attention to my relationship with God, accompanied by the prayerful presence of someone who helps me listen well to God” (Calhoun, 2015, p. 16). 
Essentially the practice of spiritual direction is one person receiving Christian guidance from another person.  This example is quite common in the pages of the Bible.  We see John the Baptist teaching his disciples and helping the lost to prepare themselves for the coming of Jesus Christ.  We see Paul calling himself the spiritual father of his young mentee Timothy. We see it in the Old Testament relationships like those between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro, where one seeks spiritual advice from the other.  We see relationships like those between Elijah and Elisha, Samuel and David, Jonathan and David, Ruth and Naomi, Moses and Aaron, Abraham and Lot, and Paul and Philemon just to name a few.  Of course the greatest example we see in the Bible in the practice of spiritual direction, comes from Jesus himself who actively mentors and advises his twelve disciples. 
One powerful example from the gospels is the example of Jesus as spiritual director to Peter.  Jesus tells Peter that when he falls into the hands of sinners, and is betrayed and arrested, Peter will deny him three times. But he encourages Peter, and tells him that he has prayed for him, and reminds him to encourage the other brothers and sisters after this happens (Luke 22:31-62 NIV). Jesus instructs Peter spiritually, by reminding him that though he will deny his savior, he will “turn again” and then will encourage the others.  The conclusion of this saga comes when Jesus is resurrected and talks with Peter, asking him three times: “Peter, do you love me?” (John 21:15-25 NIV). Jesus gently guided Peter back into right standing, encouraging his repentance through three declarations of faith and love for his savior, cancelling out his three denials.  This is the epitome and greatest expression of spiritual direction. If only we could all be so lucky as to have Jesus himself as our personal teacher and spiritual director.
The timeless classic, the Pilgrim’s Progress seems to picture the character “evangelist” as a sort of spiritual director helping guide Christian toward the fullness of God, along the pathway to the eternal city. Bunyan wrote in his classic, “Then said Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide field, Do you see yonder Wicket Gate? The man said, No. Then said the other, Do you see yonder Shining Light? He said, I think I do. Then said Evangelist, Keep that Light in your eye, and go directly thereto, so shalt thou see the Gate; at which thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.”  Christian could not quite see beyond the wicked gate, but evangelist pointed Christian toward the prize. He didn’t point to himself, or take any sort of direct authority, but simply pointed and guided Christian in the right direction.  That is the true task of the spiritual director, to guide the directee closer to the honest fullness of God.
“A spiritual director listens with one ear to God, and the other to the directee, always encouraging the directee to recognize where God can be found throughout the journey” (Calhoun, 2015, p. 133).  The idea is to help guide the individual seeking God even closer to God, and to be one whom the Spirit of God speaks through to help guide the individual. This is one of the reasons Christians are commanded to be engaged together in regular fellowship. One person can and does help another to grow closer to God, through various intentional practices. As the scriptures say, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverb 27:17 NIV). It’s interesting that in the pattern for church discipline described in Matthew chapter eighteen the first step is to go to the person directly, one on one, and seek the repentance of the individual in question.  Of course the spiritual director must be a mature Christian who is experienced in guiding Christians closer to God.  But it shouldn’t be understood as something that only a priest or trained lay leader is capable of doing.  All Christians can and should partake in spiritual direction.  Calhoun (2015) indicates the true and clear purpose of spiritual direction; the goal is to longingly drink from the waters of the river of life (Jesus Christ) and to partake in a deeper intimacy with the Trinity (p. 133).  Spiritual direction as a spiritual practice is quite popular in Catholic circles, though it has gained some popularity in protestant circles as well (Calhoun, 2015, p. 133). 
Historically the practice of spiritual direction goes back to the middle ages. It was seen as highly important and necessary to Christian faith and practice. “…not even the greatest saints attempted the depths of the inward journey without the help of a spiritual director” (Foster, 2018, p. 185).  Spiritual direction goes all the way back to the desert church fathers, many of whom were sought by travelers in the wilderness, just to receive a few words of truth or “words of salvation” as it known then (Foster, 2018, p. 185).  The Apophthegmata Patrum is one printed discourse illustrating some of the sayings of these monastic desert fathers (Foster, 2018, p. 185).  The practice of spiritual direction was also practiced by twelfth century English Cistercian laybrothers who were well known for their ability to help read and guide souls (Foster, 2018, p. 185).  The 17th century Benedictine mystic Dom Augustine Baker wrote that the purpose of the spiritual director was to be God’s usher, leading souls in ‘God’s ways’ (Foster, 2018, p. 185).  
The practice of spiritual direction can be as simple as meeting with someone weekly or monthly and sitting down in prayer, discussion, and listening that helps foster a union that draws both to deeper closeness with God.  It involves expanding one’s prayer and spiritual life to another person for the purpose of receiving help from the director to discern the voice of God and the will of God.  When meeting the two individuals involved should examine the life of the directee and help them to see where God is at work in their life.  They should pray together and ask for God to reveal His will for the directee.  The director should not set the direction of the discussion; both the director and the directee should seek to allow the Spirit to direct and control the discussion.  The director often will act as a voice that helps the directee to correctly interpret the experiences he or she is having, and how God is speaking through those experiences. This practice of spiritual direction can help the directee pay greater attention to the experience of God in their life, discerning the voice of God, mending any splits between the head and the heart, growth in prayer, finding closeness with God in the dark times, and in experiencing deep inner healing from past hurts and troubles (Calhoun, 2015, p. 132). 
            Today the practice of spiritual direction might be seen in some limited expressions within evangelical Protestantism. One could point to the practice of accountability partners who hold each other accountable in areas of sin and holiness.  Usually accountability partners will meet together regularly, or attend groups together, working to hold one another accountable before God.  This is not really a full expression of spiritual direction, but in a limited sense it does represent spiritual direction in some areas, like sin and holiness.  Another expression might be in the practice of pastoral care and pastoral counseling one on one. Often times individuals in the church will meet one on one with the pastor to discuss important spiritual concerns.  Often times we’ll see mentoring relationships develop in a more organic way between younger and older Christians who seek to help each other grow and develop in their faith.  But the truest historical expression of spiritual direction between a spiritual director and directee, prayerfully meeting together, and helping the directee to carefully discern the direction God is leading them in their life, and give words of prophecy/discernment, and prayer for the directee as they grow in their faith walk, has little expression in modern day Protestantism, though it does find some expressions in modern Roman catholic monasticism.  In these times when it is often difficult to discern the will of God, and live holy and free from sin, and find quiet time to draw closer to God, one can easily see how a renewed emphasis on spiritual direction could be a great and mighty blessing for present day protestant and catholic Christian communities.

Bunyan, J. (1678). The Pilgrims Progress. Boston: Judson Press.
Calhoun, A. A. (2015). Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.
Evans, J. (2015). Experience and Convergence in Spiritual Direction. Journal of Religion and Health, 54(1), 264-278. Retrieved from
Foster, R. J. (2018). Celebration of discipline: The path to spiritual growth. San Francisco: HarperOne.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Church Growth: How can we make sure our churches are reaching new people?

Church growth: How can we make sure that our churches are growing and growing and reaching new people? Now the goal is not simply to fill up the seats for the sake of filling up seats. The goal is to win lost people to the gospel of Jesus Christ so that they can have eternal life, and not end up in eternal torment. The urgency of this mission is exceedingly high. People die every day, and they need Jesus Christ for their souls to be safe after death. So how do we do this? How do win people to Jesus Christ, and bring them into the church, where they can learn to grow into the likeness of Christ, and maintain their salvation in Christ? I see three key approaches to building the church of Christ, they are street evangelism/door to door ministry, developing intentional relationships, and holding powerful worship meetings.

First of all, we consider street evangelism and door to door ministry. The church has sometimes struggled with simply ministering to strangers. But it’s amazing the number of stories we hear about people who got saved by strangers who came up to them and talked to them about Jesus. Some churches do very little with street evangelism, and I’d put The Salvation Army high on that list. But it wasn’t always that way. The Salvation Army started out on the streets, ministering to drunks in bars, on street corners, and at open air meetings. Yet we seem to think these methods just don’t work anymore. But I really question that assumption. I’ve seen amazing churches like Metro Praise International and their ministry “Chicago for Jesus” where they are engaged in street ministry almost every day of the week! They go out to communities throughout Chicago and set up and start talking to people about Jesus. I participated in this once, and I was amazed how the Holy Spirit moved, and how people stopped and talked to us, and were willing to listen to the gospel presentation. Research shows that the churches who do evangelism the best don’t have an “evangelism ministry” instead evangelism is “baked in” to everything they do. If they have a Bible study, afterward they go out and evangelize. If they have a meeting, afterward they go out and knock on doors. They come to their building, have a short devotional, some worship music, and then they go out. And that is exactly the purpose the building is supposed to have: It’s a launching out point to the community. We’ve sometimes become inwardly focused, trying to serve all the needs of the few people who come to the church. But instead we need to adopt a new mindset: This is our staging area for going out into the community. Street evangelism can be as simple as going to a local park or busy intersection once or twice a week, and handing out tracts, Bibles, and so on, while praying with people and sharing the gospel with people. Then you point them back to your church. But really encourage them to get plugged in at any local biblical church. This can be for as short as an hour or two. This is a great way to bring new life to a dying church. And as momentum grows one could have evangelism several times a week, like Chicago for Jesus.

Second, we look at the important church growth method of developing intentional relationships. This is a tried and true method. You train the people in the church to do evangelism with their friends and family. You have “outreach events” where you set up an event to draw people into the church. Families in the church invite their friends, and hopefully they stay with the church after the event. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. If you have a great godly congregation who is really energized to bring new people into the church, then this sort of thing can be great. But if you’ve got a sleepy congregation who’s used to things staying the same, you may find that no matter how many trainings, and seminars, and sermons you preach on relational evangelism, that very little will change. That’s why I would pair this approach with street/door to door evangelism. Both should work in tandem.

Third, we consider holding powerful worship meetings. Worship meetings can become very routine over time. It seems like nothing changes at all. It’s always the exact same formula. We have a call to worship, opening prayer, three songs, tithes and offerings, scripture reading, sermon, response song, and benediction. Now I’m not knocking those elements at all. Those are good elements to have in a worship service. But what if we reimagined what a worship service/holiness meeting might look like? How could it be done differently, to bring us even closer to God, and deeper into His word? Let’s consider some possibilities. Imagine holding times of personal testimonies, or having an entire testimony service. Imagine having a prayer meeting, or an open prayer time during the service. What if after the sermon message, we invited the congregation to break up into groups, just people around them, and then let each group share some of their reflections on how God spoke to them through the message. There are a lot of great ways to develop the service. I like to use short videos that highlight something about God, or something about the book of the Bible we’re studying. I like to use a good powerpoint with plenty of pictures and bullet points. I like to encourage people to take notes on the message. I attended a church in the past that had a quiet time of personal reflection. As an introvert I greatly appreciated this quiet time. What else could we do? Be creative! How could we reimagine the worship service? You know I don’t recall anything in the Bible that says we have to use this exact formula for every service. It says that nowhere in the Bible, actually. How could we adapt the worship service format to help fully engage current generations with the presence of God, the word of God, and the transforming power of God?

Another note on this: We have to make sure our services are of a high quality. Is that biblical? Yes it is. The Psalms say play the instruments with great skill. The music should be well practiced. The transitions should be smooth. The sermon should be well planned and prepared. And the presence of God should be felt in every aspect of the service. It’s so sad for me to see someone go up and read scripture like they’re reading a homework assignment. Read it with the presence of God, read it as the amazing word of God that it is. It’s sad to me when a worship leader goes up there and just starts the song. No, no, no! Guide the people into the presence of God! Help the people to realize they are not just singing a song; they are worshipping the creator of the universe! It shouldn’t be normal or routine. We have to feel the power and majesty of what we get to do! Then our people will feel it too. That is really what brings people to church. They don’t want fancy programs, they don’t want relationships, what they really truly want is to know God, experience God, and live out an authentic, real Christianity. We have to pray for our worship service throughout the week. I’ve been to worship services where you can tell not a word of prayer was prayed before it, because the presence of God is largely missing. We need to praise in worship songs where the worship leader has prayed throughout the week and before service for God to reveal himself through it. We need to hear sermons where the pastor has strained in prayer over the message, begging God to pour out his heart to the body of Christ through them. So overall we need innovative worship services, quality worship services, and prayerful worship services. The people will come because they feel the presence of God, and sense His Spirit at work. If they come to a dead spiritless service, well they may stay a while for the relationships and fellowship, but eventually they’ll probably move on. So bring God’s presence with you to every service. Amen.

In conclusion, I really believe that if we develop strong street evangelism, train our congregations in relational evangelism, and innovate and develop our worship services to be powerful, high quality, and prayerfully practiced, then we will see church growth. We will see lives changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. We will see God at work in mighty ways. But ultimately all this must be done by God. He is the one at work. He is the one who blesses us. So probably the most important thing is that we as leaders are praying every day, studying the word, and living in personal holiness. If we’re living empty lives of debauchery and carelessness, why should God bless the work of our hands? It’s amazing how much success or failure rests in the hands of one person: The leader. Be that Godly leader, and lead wisely, and you will see God at work through your ministry. Amen.

Borden, P. D. (2006). Direct hit: Aiming real leaders at the mission field. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
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Platt, D. (2011). Radical together: Unleashing the people of God for the purpose of God. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books.
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Southerland, J. (n.d.). Live on Mission – Evangelism Training. Retrieved May 10, 2019, from
Thompson, C. (2016, June 24). Train Your Church to Evangelize. Retrieved May 10, 2019, from