Church buildings are a polarizing possibility. Some people love buildings. Other people hate them. Having been mobile now for 13 years, most of Coram Deo’s congregation is bullish about the potential of permanent space. But in earlier years, our church had a strong “anti-building” sentiment. And both points of view are always present within any congregation. So when it comes time for a church to pursue property, leaders must lead wisely and strategically, grounded in theological conviction. Here are five cautions I’ve had to learn along the way.

Be careful of half-truths. “The church is a people, not a place.” This phrase has been a mantra of ours for years at Coram Deo. And theologically, it’s downright true (see 1 Peter 2:9, Colossians 1:24). Here’s the problem: by using this mantra over and over, we subtly communicated that place doesn’t matter. And as J.I. Packer puts it: “A half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes an untruth.” So we had to clarify: the church is a people, but that doesn’t mean place is unimportant.

Be careful of simplistic trade-offs. It’s tempting to justify a fundraising campaign with simplistic appeals: “The less we spend on mortgage interest, the more we can spend on church planting and missions.” Motivationally, that’s powerful. But missionally, it’s nonsensical. It reinforces an unbiblical dichotomy: “missions good; real estate bad.” The fact is: we need real estate to do mission. Every church planter I know spends a good portion of their budget on rent – that is, unless they’ve found an established church who owns a building and is willing to generously share it. Pastors need to train God’s people to see property ownership as part of a long-term mission strategy.

Be careful of short-range thinking. “Why spend $10 million on a really beautiful space when we can spend $2 million on a basic and functional one?” (The $10 million and the $2 million are just placeholders here: insert whatever numbers you want). Wise stewardship is good, and sometimes the less expensive option is the better one. But not always. And especially not when we’re thinking about the flourishing of the church and the city two or three generations from now. We Bible-believing Protestants tend to have a poor theology of beauty and a bad habit of trying to do things fast and cheap. There’s obviously an opposite extreme to avoid – ornate, lavish, decadent (St. Peter’s in Rome comes to mind). But it wouldn’t be crazy to aim for something in the middle.

Be careful of “early-church nostalgia.” Critics of building programs tend to idealize the early church, when the church met “from house to house” (Acts 5:42). But again, this is only half the story. The (mega)church in Jerusalem also gathered in the Temple (see Acts 2:41 and 46). And church history shows us that throughout the world, when new churches outgrow homes, they build buildings. The Christian home is crucial to the flourishing of the church – would that every Christian saw their home as a frontline of hospitality, ministry, and mission! And it’s true that the Gentile churches in Acts started out in homes (descriptive). But this does not mean that the church must always meet in homes (prescriptive), nor does it imply that churches may not own property or build buildings.

Be careful of excarnation. “Excarnation” is Thomas Howard’s word for an overly spiritualized view of the world that neglects the implications of the incarnation. Jesus took on flesh and blood. He became material, corporeal, physical. When Christians see building ownership and maintenance as a “less spiritual” use of money than missions or mercy ministry, we are guilty of excarnation. It’s exactly the physicality of a church building – that wall that needs to be painted, that toilet that needs to be repaired, that HVAC unit in the children’s ministry wing that needs maintenance – that most vividly reflects our Christology. Because God became man, Christians care about parking lots and elevators and HVAC units. A good pastor will not let his congregation pit “spiritual” concerns against “less spiritual” ones, but will help them see the entire world as the arena of Christ’s redemptive activity. If you wonder why the Catholics own most of the beautiful church buildings in your city, it’s because they’re less Gnostic than Protestants on this point.

BUILDING A THEOLOGY OF PLACE

During our initial fundraising effort, I wanted the people of Coram Deo to know this pursuit wasn’t driven by sheer pragmatism (“we need some money”), but by a theological vision for ministry in the city. So I spent five weeks during our Sunday morning liturgy framing out a theology of place. These short mini-sermons were 3 minutes in length, but they helped to give our fundraising campaign a broader biblical framework. Here are a few excerpts.

December 4, 2016

During Advent, we remember the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the incarnation reminds us of the importance of PHYSICALITY. Christianity is not an abstract, disembodied religion; rather, it is concerned with the real, the material, the concrete. Because of the incarnation, matter… matters.

One of the early heresies in the ancient church was the heresy of Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that matter was evil. The spiritual was pure and good and real; the physical was corrupt and tainted.

We’re in the midst of a campaign to raise funds with the goal of purchasing a permanent building. And perhaps even in your response to this campaign, there is some latent Gnosticism. A tendency to de-emphasize physical, tangible things like buildings. Buildings aren’t spiritual. Prayer and preaching and worship… these things are spiritual. But not real estate. Why does a church need a building?

Well, a church doesn’t need a building… as we’ve proven for the last 11 years! But if matter matters… then the physical affects the spiritual, and vice versa.

Imagine in your mind for a moment what you feel when you walk into a historic church building. As you enter, you sense: transcendence. Stillness. Beauty. That physical space creates a spiritual response. It is a concrete refutation of Gnosticism.

Now think about walking into this room on a Sunday morning. Not the same effect, right? Not bad; but not necessarily transcendent either.

As Christians who understand the connection between physical and spiritual, we are seeking a building of our own…

December 11, 2016

If you turn on the radio during this Christmas season, you’ll hear songs like “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” This season stirs in us the LONGING FOR HOME. And that longing isn’t just holiday sentimentalism… it’s one of our deepest human aches. It’s the hunger for Eden, the desire to get back to a place where everything is RIGHT.

Now we know that as God’s people, our ultimate HOME is heaven. But knowing that doesn’t erase our longing for an earthly home. Abraham was looking forward a heavenly country… but he still journeyed to the promised land. David said his soul would be satisfied in God alone; but he still longed to build a house for the Lord. Nehemiah trusted in the Lord… but he still rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. It’s because of our heavenly home that our earthly homes have meaning. They are signs to us that remind us of our True and Eternal home.

And so it is good and fitting for us to long for an earthly home for Coram Deo Church. It’s good for us to pray with earnest hope and expectation that God will provide the building we desire. If we place our hope in that building alone, we may be guilty of idolatry. But if we hope for it as an earthly foretaste of our heavenly home, we are in good biblical company. And we can know the Lord welcomes our longing.

So let’s go before the Lord and talk to him about our LONGING FOR HOME. Will you pray with me?

December 18, 2016

At Christmas, we celebrate this fact: God loves broadly by loving specifically. God manifests his love for the world by focusing his love on one couple, Joseph and Mary, in one little town, Bethlehem, on one Holy Night that we’ve sung about for 2000 years since. God loves broadly by loving specifically.

Now: we are to love as God loves. Which is why we love the whole city of Omaha. We want to see the gospel change every zip code and every school and every neighborhood. Not only that, we want to continue planting churches across our region.

But in order to love that broadly, we must first love specifically. We have to narrow our focus in order to broaden it. And one thing that means for us right now is narrowing our focus to pursue a particular piece of real estate. A PLACE from which we can minister to the city at large.

And so, we’re in the midst of this campaign to raise funds so that we can purchase a church building…

Since we planted Coram Deo Church twelve years ago, I’ve worked relentlessly to eliminate “insider language” from our vocabulary. I desire for every gospel community within our church – as well as our public worship on Sundays – to be free from Christian jargon that unnecessarily alienates and confuses non-Christians.

What are some examples of insider language? Consider this representative list of “Christian jargon” from Tim Keller’s book Preaching (New York: Viking, 2016, 105-106):

  • “Lukewarm”
  • “Backsliding”
  • “Seeing fruit”
  • “Spiritual warfare”
  • “…in my walk with the Lord”
  • “I’m praying for an open door”
  • “I’ve been released from that”
  • “That was such a blessing”
  • “That preacher really brought the word”
  • “It was a total God thing”

You’ve used some of these phrases, haven’t you? Me too. It’s so easy for Christians to slip into this alternate language without even thinking about it.

When we do, it’s a failure of hospitality. And the problem runs deeper than just using the wrong words. Keller goes on to explain:

The issue is far more important than generational or regional preferences or some sort of marketing-based concern that such vocabulary doesn’t test well with non-Christians. Language like this is used as a boundary marker, a way to tell others that you are in the tribe and they are not. Newcomers certainly get that message, whether you consciously mean to send it. Insider language is frequently also an enabler of hypocrisy, as it offers a shortcut to sounding spiritual without actually having a heart filled with love and delight.  

 We’ve all been on the other side of boundary-marker language: in high school, in our vocational endeavors, or in our social circles. Inevitably, we feel like outsiders: “These people all have something in common, and I don’t fit in.” That’s exactly what many non-Christians sense when they’re around church gatherings. And that’s the reason many churches and small groups aren’t meaningfully attracting non-Christians.

Occasionally I’ve stopped a gospel community gathering, or pulled someone aside in private, to challenge them about insider language. And the response is usually the same: “But we all know each other. There are no new people here this week. So why does it matter?”

Answer: because the way to get skeptics to show up is to talk like they are already there.

Imagine a woman in your gospel community – we’ll call her Sarah – has a skeptical friend from work who’s been asking questions about God. And Sarah is wondering whether your gospel community might be a good place to invite her friend to process those questions. If Sarah experiences your gospel community as a place where you have to “know the language” in order to fit in, she probably won’t invite her friend from work.

But if Sarah experiences your gospel community as an intentionally hospitable people… if she knows that every single week, the group expects non-Christians to be present (and talks like it)… if she knows that you care enough about outsiders to show it in your language… then she’s much more likely to bring her friend. And that’s how non-Christians find their way into meaningful Christian community – and eventually into the church.

So, if you’re serious about creating community that engages skeptics and outsiders… can I suggest you take a “language audit?” Which of the above phrases have you heard in your GC? Which have you heard yourself saying? What if you committed together to call “time out” every time you heard one of these phrases, for the sake of growing more aware of your speech habits? It’s a simple way to become more intentional about gospel hospitality.

I recently spent a couple days with four pastor friends. All of us are in our 40s. All of us planted churches in our 20s and 30s. And all of us have been leaders in the Acts 29 Network for over a decade.

We love what Acts 29 stands for, and we love the history and the sense of brotherhood we share because of it. But as we reflected on the past decade, we observed that the early years of Acts 29 were marked by an energy and momentum that the later years have lacked – especially in North America. The question is: why?

Statistically, the “boom years” of Acts 29 were 2007 to 2012. During that five-year period the movement grew from 140 churches to 424 – a stunning 200% growth rate. Over the most recent five-year period (2012-2017), the movement’s growth rate has held at a much more modest 45%. Now, by any standard, a 45% growth rate is still a stunning success! But compared with the boom years, it represents a three-quarters reduction in the rate of growth, as well as a reduction in the actual number of churches planted (284 vs. 195). The data affirms our intuitive discernment: momentum has slowed.

Certainly Acts 29 has seen its share of organizational challenges during these years – most notably Mark Driscoll’s descent from leadership and all its attendant chaos. But in spite of this, Acts 29 today is more structurally sound than it’s ever been. And Acts 29 churches are more tangibly committed to church planting than ever. All Acts 29 churches give 10% of their internal giving to support church planting efforts, and many of them either host or support regional church-planting residencies. Organizationally and logistically, the movement is on firm footing.

So what accounts for the slowdown? Here’s my hypothesis: Acts 29’s boom years were fed by a leadership pipeline that no longer exists.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, church planting was not the vocation of choice for young leaders. Most men who felt a calling to ministry looked for opportunities as interns, youth pastors, associate pastors, or campus ministry staff members. That all began to change through the influence of two men: Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll. Though many other voices were sounding the call to church planting, Keller and Driscoll were the ones gaining the attention of younger leaders. Keller’s call to urban renewal resonated with many who were troubled by the megachurch’s suburban captivity. And Driscoll’s sanctified irreverence challenged the saccharine sentimentality of the evangelical subculture. Both men blended Reformed theology with missional innovation in a way that resonated with young pastors everywhere.

The church planting candidates that flooded Acts 29’s boot camps and assessments in the mid-2000s were youth pastors, college pastors, and church staff members – in other words, men with real church ministry experience. They’d preached sermons, done evangelism, discipled new Christians, and learned to submit and serve under someone else’s authority. In a sense, these leaders were ready-made church planters: they were already committed to God’s mission, they were experienced and fruitful in ministry, and they felt called by the Holy Spirit to step out on their own and lead missionary church-planting efforts. They didn’t need to be trained, equipped, and prepared; they just needed to be sent.

No longer is that the case. Are there still youth pastors and associate pastors mulling a call to church planting? Sure. Some of them are reading this post. But they are not nearly as plentiful as they once were. Ready-made leaders who are theologically mature, missionally fruitful, self-aware, and ministry-experienced are harder and harder to find. No longer is there a glut of church staff members and campus ministry leaders who have put in 5 or 6 years in ministry and are starting to dream about church planting. Now, church planting has become a first option for many seminary graduates. Denominations and agencies and networks are pushing church-planting much more aggressively. The guys who used to aspire to youth ministry or campus ministry now aspire to be church planters. And many of them lack the patience to serve on a church staff for five or ten years before launching into church planting.

The surge of interest in church planting is a great thing. But it comes at a cost: a longer gestation period for potential church planters. In the boom years, Acts 29 spoke of planting 1000 churches in 10 years – and that seemed realistic based on the surge of ready-made leaders pouring into our ranks. But as my investment advisor always says, “past performance is not indicative of future results.” Turning a seasoned youth pastor or college pastor into an effective church planter is a two-year project; doing the same with a young seminary graduate is more like a ten-year project. The pace of church-planting must slow accordingly.

In one sense, Acts 29 is already adapting. During our re-organization in 2012, we realized that we had basically been an “attractional” movement, using events and podcasts and platforms to attract young leaders toward church planting. What we hadn’t done well was to grow our own leaders from within. Our marketing materials spoke of “churches planting churches,” but in reality we were more like a fraternity of church planters. So we began to build residencies and training programs and new initiatives that would develop leaders from within, enabling our existing churches to plant new churches by raising up leaders internally.

In my opinion, our rhetoric still needs to catch up with reality. Sometimes the rhetoric of church-planting movements (not just Acts 29, but others also) can create the expectation of continuous exponential increase. Acts 29 speaks of “planting churches that plant churches that plant churches” – and indeed, that is what we want to be about! But underneath this rhetoric, we need to acknowledge that this may be a ten- to fifteen-year process. Statistically, only 26% of existing Acts 29 churches were planted out of another Acts 29 church, and only 7% are third-generation plants. My own church, Coram Deo, has finally reached “grandfather” stage – having planted a church (Providence Austin) that has planted another church (Trinity Church Austin) – but even that was by attracting leaders from outside and then developing them. If we’re talking about real missional church-planting… if we’re talking about moving a man “from pagan to planter…” then we’re talking about a decade or more of discipleship, spiritual formation, and leadership development. The conditions that spurred the growth of Acts 29 in the boom years simply do not obtain anymore. We must adjust our expectations and our methods accordingly.

In my opinion, the ongoing flourishing of missional church-planting in North America will require three important shifts:

  • A shift in strategy: church planting networks need to slow down the pace and expectation for church planting. They need to focus on slow growth rather than exponential growth, and on long-term leadership health rather than short-term results. To say it another way: planting 100 churches this year does not guarantee 100 healthy churches 5 years from now.
  • A shift in rhetoric: church planting networks need to speak honestly in order to create appropriate expectations. Americans are addicted to “vision,” and in the evangelical world, vision often means hype. Church planting networks should resist this temptation and instead cast a realistic vision focused on long-term influence. Keller’s wisdom is instructive here: for years, he has spoken of moving New York City from 1% evangelical (1990) to 15% evangelical (still a distant hope – right now it’s at 5% evangelical after almost 3 decades of work). This kind of long-term vision builds an expectation of slow, steady progress rather than immediate results – and it encourages seeing church-planting as a lifelong calling.
  • A shift in aspirations: young leaders who think they want to be involved in church-planting need to aspire to work on a church staff for 5-10 years as a first step. Most aspiring church planters I meet are impatient. They don’t know who they are; they don’t have an accurate assessment of their gifts; and they don’t have the wisdom and seasoning that comes with maturity. Moving men like this into church planting too quickly is a recipe for instability. I tell young leaders they should expect to serve in ministry for a decade before they’re ready to plant a church. Data from Fellowship Associates reveals that the best church planters are in their early 30s, with 7-10 years of ministry experience and some type of theological training (seminary or equivalent). There’s a reason for that.

Local churches need to adapt as well. Most of our church-planting residency programs within Acts 29 have been designed as one- or two-year “finishing schools.” Which is to say: they’re still designed for the kind of leaders we were attracting in the mid-2000s. They are built for leaders who are theologically mature, missionally fruitful, self-aware, and ministry-experienced, and who require only some final preparation in order to plant a church. In addition to these sorts of residencies, we need diverse theological and leadership training initiatives within the local church to equip leaders at all stages of maturity. We can’t expect ready-made church-planters; we need to pray, work, and labor to move people from pagan to planter.

Today (29 Jan 2017) I preached a sermon titled “Politics in Exile,” from 1 Peter 2:13-17. Below are quotes and links to the sources I used in this sermon.

Quote from Tacitus, Roman Historian, 55-117 AD

Yet no human effort, no princely largesse nor offerings to the gods could make that infamous rumor disappear that Nero had somehow ordered the fire. Therefore, in order to abolish that rumor, Nero falsely accused and executed with the most exquisite punishments those people called Christians, who were infamous for their abominations. The originator of the name, Christ, was executed as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius; and though repressed, this destructive superstition erupted again, not only through Judea, which was the origin of this evil, but also through the city of Rome, to which all that is horrible and shameful floods together and is celebrated.

Therefore, first those were seized who admitted their faith, and then, using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted… they were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses or set aflame, and, when the daylight passed away, they were used as nighttime lamps. Nero gave his own gardens for this spectacle… people began to pity these sufferers, because they were consumed not for the public good but on account of the fierceness of one man.

Source: World Civilization reader at Washington State University, accessed here

Quote from Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law… That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.

Source: University of Pennsylvania African Studies Center, accessed here

Sermon Recap: Because of the gospel, we are…

  • Free to Submit (v. 13-14)
  • Free to Subvert (v. 15)
  • Free to Serve (v. 16)
  • Free to Honor (v. 17)

Listen to the entire sermon here

As I develop leaders and church planters, I’m jealous to help them cross the line from teaching to preaching. Most aspiring church planters can teach. But many struggle to preach. Being an intuitive person, I sort of just “know” preaching when I hear it. I’ll often tell guys, “You taught that passage well, but you didn’t PREACH.” They usually ask, “What should I do differently?” And I stare at them blankly. So this week I spent some time trying to clarify, in my view, the concrete differences between preaching and teaching.

First, let’s consider what preaching & teaching share in common (when done properly):

  • They are both content-driven
  • They are both concerned to create insight in the hearer/learner
  • They both require a certain type of authority & confidence
  • They are both forms of rhetoric, and so benefit from good training in the classical rhetorical arts (ethos, pathos, logos)

Now, let’s ponder some of the ways preaching is distinct from teaching. This list is certainly incomplete – and you’re welcome to add to it in the comment thread. I’m merely sharing some of the intuitive filters I use to determine when a man is PREACHING and when he’s just teaching. I see teaching as a step on the way to preaching. You’ll never be a good preacher if you’re not first a capable teacher. But not everybody who can teach can preach. Effective pastors move beyond teaching to master the art of preaching.

1. Preaching is more forceful and weighty in tone. One of the guys who mentored me in preaching taught me to always ask the question, “What’s at stake in this message?” Good preachers always communicate with a sense of angst, of urgency, of forcefulness. Something is at stake. People need to HEAR this. At Coram Deo we refer to this as the “pastoral burden” of the sermon. If you’re not burdened, you can’t preach effectively.

How can I grow in this? 1) Spend time in prayer asking the Spirit to burden you with His own longings for His people. 2) Spend time querying the text. Talk to it. Ask it questions. Figure out what the burden of the TEXT is, and then allow that to become your burden. 3) Ask: “Why does this matter?” Your job is to communicate not just what it SAYS, but why it MATTERS.

2. Preaching requires more compact phraseology. Teaching seeks to convey information, which can be done without careful attention to sentence structure. But preaching seeks to create transformation and provoke change – a goal which is helped by short, powerful, memorable sentences. Good preachers state things simply. They cut words. They craft short sentences. They use periods, not commas. They seek clarity.

How can I grow in this? Spend more time on your manuscript. And ask relentlessly: do I NEED to say this? Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Verbosity is easy. Precision is hard.

3. Preaching requires stronger vocal dynamics. Good preachers play their voice like an instrument. They vary their volume: sometimes almost-yelling, sometimes barely whispering. They vary their vocal pace: sometimes fast and excitable, sometimes slow and thoughtful. They pay attention to inflection and timing and delivery. Like a good singer, they learn what their voice can do, and they use it to make music.

How can I grow in this? 1) Get more reps. Take every speaking/preaching/teaching gig you can. There’s only one way to grow in delivery, and that’s by doing a lot of it. 2) Listen to yourself. Record and listen to every sermon you preach. Pay attention to where your voice was flat; where your pacing was too fast; where a careful pause or better inflection could have helped drive your point home. When a preacher says, “I hate listening to myself,” he’s really saying, “I’m too proud, too self-pitying, or too lazy to get better.”

4. Preaching leverages a key phrase or phrases. In politics, they call it the applause line. In comedy, they call it the running gag. One of my preacher friends calls it “the horse” – as in, the mount you’re going to ride through the whole sermon. Good preaching circles back to one key line, theme, or idea. When done well, this creates a strong association that “sticks” in the hearer’s mind. When done poorly (usually by some ham-handed youth pastor) it sounds something like: “If you guys only remember one thing from this talk, remember this…”

How can I grow in this? 1) Watch a lot of comedians and a lot of politicians. Pay attention to the stock lines they use, and how they use them. 2) Listen to more African-American preachers; they do this especially well. There’s a reason the phrase “I Have a Dream” is famous… 3) Land on this phrase early in your sermon prep, and don’t move forward until you have it. J.H. Jowett famously said: “No sermon is ready for preaching until we can express its theme in a short pregnant sentence as clear as crystal.”

5. Preaching seeks to create an experience – a “rhetorical moment.” Good preaching is captivating. It catches you up. It pulls you in. Good preachers know how to create a moment. And this is perhaps the key difference between teaching and preaching. Good teaching makes you go away saying, “I learned something.” Good preaching makes you go away saying, “I experienced something.” This is why the best preachers – Whitefield, Spurgeon, Moody – always drew large crowds. They were masters of stewarding the moment. Of course the Holy Spirit plays a huge role here – but so does the preacher.

How can I grow in this? Honestly, it’s really tough. For young preachers, this can easily become prideful and self-focused. It’s tough to “create a moment” without making it about you. So you’ve got to get on your knees, ask the Lord for revival, and pray yourself out of the equation. Get low, get humble, and get your identity grounded squarely in Christ. Only then can you work on this in a self-effacing and God-honoring way.

Leadership in the local church requires both good teaching and good preaching. But let’s not confuse the two. If you’re called to the ministry of the Word in a local church, learn to preach, not just teach. And if you struggle as a preacher… have the wisdom to invite feedback, the courage to face reality, and the humility to seek mentorship and growth.