Can You Have Church Without an Agenda?

Can You Have Church Without an Agenda?

A couple of weekends ago, I participated in a men’s retreat. It was one I helped coordinate, and we had invited Wayne Jacobsen (founder of Lifestream Ministries, co-host of The God Journey podcast, and co-author on The Shack) to come and be with us.

I’ve never experienced a men’s retreat like this before. For one, we decided to run the retreat without an agenda. I had heard Wayne talk about this before, and it sounded like amazing things could happen. However, it also scared the heeby-jeebies out of me. Being a good ex-pastor, I always had a plan or agenda for things like this. After all, God’s not a God of chaos, so we shouldn’t be either, right?

Wouldn’t not having a schedule lead to utter chaos?

I decided to trust in the process that God has been leading me in over the last few years, and trust that it was God who was nudging me to have an agenda-less retreat. I ran it by my friend who so graciously offered up his lake house where we hosted the retreat. He obliged to the request.

I’ve seen and been part of retreats that fill up every moment of time, not really allowing you to connect with God, or others for that matter.  I’ve been to others that have a light schedule but also provide room to hear from God. I enjoyed the ones that didn’t fill up the whole time and so I wondered, “What could Father do if we don’t fill up any of the time, but turn it over completely to him?”

There were still doubts and fears, even at one point the first night of the retreat. I kept wondering, “Is this really going to work?” After that first moment of panic, I decided (again) to surrender the schedule to the Lord. We had one dinner planned with the wives on Saturday night; other than that, we left conversations, gatherings, and agenda to Father.

At the end of the weekend, as I reflected, I couldn’t have planned and orchestrated everything any better than what happened. There were deep conversations, there was time spent alone or in groups of two’s or three’s. I got to know new brothers and fellowship deeply with others that I hardly know. There was laughter and joy. There were moments where I was deeply satisfied and

It was, in a word, more.

I felt more community.

I felt more connection.

I felt more “church” than I have in a long time. All without an agenda – and all without planning much of anything.

I used to think that you needed a plan or schedule to make things happen. I really didn’t trust that God would show up without needing a bit of help. Now I know that a schedule isn’t necessary. Father can handle it. Much of the time, we limit God by our own agenda. We read into what He wants, instead of simply surrendering our agenda and plan to Him, because we ultimately don’t trust that He can do things without our assistance.

It doesn’t mean there is not room for a plan, on occasion. However, I think we (I know I did) have a tendency to over-plan and plan God right out of most of what we do. I’ve heard people ask, “Couldn’t God break into [our plan] if he wanted to?” I guess he could, but wouldn’t it be better to let Him lead from the beginning? Trust him with the program and the results.

Try it and see what happens. And when God shows up, I bet you’ll be glad you did!

Where can you create more space for God to set the agenda in your life or ministry? What fears do you have about leaving the results and schedule to Father?

Shadow, Substance, and the Lego Vatican in Philadelphia

Shadow, Substance, and the Lego Vatican in Philadelphia

In recent days, the pope made a historic visit to the United States. One of his stops was Philadelphia, where a Catholic priest had built a replica of the Vatican out of Legos. If I took you to Philadelphia and showed you the Lego Vatican and said, “Look! It’s the Vatican.” You might reply by saying, “Well, it’s a model of the Vatican.”

“No, no, no! This is THE Vatican. See the courtyard and the columns? The dome, the piazza, and all the people? The nuns? And look – the Pope is here and he’s even waving to the people.” If I said that you would know that I was either delusional, lying, or maybe a bit of both.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing a deep-dive of Colossians. I’ve taken a slow and Spirit-led (and also very non-linear) approach to studying this book. It has long been one of my favorite parts of the New Testament, and I am finding a vast richness and untold treasures as I have dug in and allowed the Holy Spirit to reveal things to me.

One of the more significant passages in Colossians 2 has struck me recently:

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

With the things of God, there is shadow and there is substance. These themes run throughout Scripture:

  • The temple was a shadow of the reality of heaven and eternal life (the presence of God in and around humanity).
  • The Old Testament high priests were a shadow of our great high priest, Jesus Christ.
  • The Sabbath is a shadow of our eternal rest found in the work that Jesus did on the cross.

There are many more, but I think you get the idea. Now, if this is unfamiliar to you, please bear with me and hopefully it will become more clear.

The Shadow Points to the Reality

The things of God which are a shadow point to the reality. The shadows themselves are not the true things; however, they are often mistaken for things which have true substance. This was the problem with the Pharisees. They took the things of God which were shadows and built a religion out of them. Their understanding was limited and much of what they saw was not the true reality.

Take healing on the Sabbath, for instance. It was forbidden by the Pharisees. Why? Because it was considered work, and God had told them that the Sabbath was a day of rest. There was to be no work. When Jesus came, he healed people on the Sabbath. Again, why? Because he understood the reality of the Sabbath (that it was a shadow of things to come). God is for His people and He is working to restore all things back to Himself (See Colossians 1:20).  This is just one way that Jesus demonstrated that truth.

As impressive as the Lego Vatican is (it does have a waving pope, by the way), it is not the real thing – it’s merely a representation of a greater reality. That’s what the shadows are as they relate to the things of God. The shadows are a representation of a much grander reality, and we must come to know the reality, or we will be left (like the Pharisees) holding up the obscure things as those with substance.

The Substance Belongs to Christ

These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:17).

Because Christ dwells within us, we have a vast wealth of resources at our disposal.  I have said before that although we have an inheritance of princes and princesses, we often live like spiritual paupers. That’s because we live by shadows and forget about the true substance. (The reality is that many Christians have been taught more about shadows than substance. It likely isn’t even your fault.)

The things which have substance are Christ’s alone. Colossians tells us that the great mystery of the ages is not just found in Christ, but it is Christ Himself. If that’s not enough, the mystery is also referred to as “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Can there be a greater mystery? How Christ could dwell in us? It is almost unthinkable. But that is the greatest reality. Christ dwelling in His believers.

One of the most challenge things for me in my spiritual journey has been to sift through the shadows to find the true substance. It is a journey that God is hammering into me at this very moment, and it is one of my favorite times in all my years of following Christ.

Leave the shadows behind and follow what’s real. You will not regret it.

What other things can you think of that are mere “shadows” of things to come? What are you holding on to that’s merely a shadow of the truth? (Feel free to share in the comments below.)

What God Sees: Empty Shell or Beautiful Butterfly?

What God Sees: Empty Shell or Beautiful Butterfly?

I had to make a quick trip to Austin for work last week, and since it was last-minute and within driving distance, I decided to skip the flight and hit the road. Within the first hour and a half, I saw the first of a number of things that would not only catch my attention but begin one of two patterns that would continue throughout my eight hour drive (and, yes, that is driving distance in Texas!)

I noticed a large manufacturing plant that had shut down a few years back. It was now just an empty shell of a place. A number of buildings, both small and large, once bustling with people and movement, now sitting silent and motionless.

“What a shame,” I thought to myself. A waste of resources, space, and material. Who knows what will become of that place? It’s especially a shame because of the hundreds of men and women who struggled to find jobs after it had abruptly closed its doors, a number of whom I have met.

One man, Martin (name changed), told me how he had worked there since his teenage years (he was now well into his 60’s), didn’t have any degree or certification and wasn’t sure what he would do or even how he would pay his bills. The local Workforce organization was offering assistance to a lot of these individuals, including paying for education programs, and Martin was supposed to begin one of those in Amarillo, but he never started.

Driving by, I wondered what had happened to him.

As I continued my long drive, I saw a number of houses and buildings that had been abandoned over the years. Gaping holes where windows and curtains used to fill. Overgrown grass and weeds jutted through loose boards and cracked brick.

One town had even re-purposed a building and put up a sign on it welcoming people to their town.

But how do you resurrect something that’s dead and gone? Lifeless? Worthless?

And that’s when it hit me. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

Because I want to share with you the other pattern that I began to notice.

I had been listening to a couple of podcasts as I was driving, and after turning them off, I just began to pray, “God, show me what you want me to see today.”

I started to notice butterflies. Lots of butterflies. I’ve driven a lot in my lifetime, and I have to say that I can’t remember a time when I’ve noticed more.

Most of them were flying right in front of my car (and no, no butterflies were harmed in the making of this post).

My daughter loves butterflies and so I thought of her and knew that she would love seeing all of them.

After a couple of hours, both the abandoned buildings and the number of butterflies stood out, so I knew God was trying to tell me something, but I just didn’t make the connection right away.

What could empty houses and abandoned buildings have to do with butterflies? You might already see the connection. I didn’t at first.

I thought about transformation, about metamorphosis. How a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, emerges from its cocoon and flies away. Only to leave what?

An empty shell!

That was the connection. The cocoon. What happens to it once the butterfly leaves?

It’s empty. Hollow. Lifeless.

What once held life is now motionless and silent. Abandoned.

That’s when God began making the connections.

When we put our faith and trust in Jesus, we become a new creation. We’re the butterfly. At least that’s how God sees us in Christ.

Yet, so often, we still see ourselves as the empty shell. Ugly. Worthless. Barren.

Only those are not God’s thoughts toward us.

9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2)

What we’re seeing when we look at the empty shell is what Scripture refers to as the Old Man.

What the devil tells us is that is who we still are. God sees so much more.

He sees a new creation because we ARE a new creation. The old is gone. It was crucified with Jesus.

So then why do I still struggle with…

Pride?

Lust?

Porn?

Anger?

Depression?

Self-hate?

Poor self-image?

Imagine a butterfly once emerging from the cocoon trying to re-enter it and live there. You would think the butterfly were a bit off.

That’s exactly what we do, though, in our Christian walk. We receive this new life in Christ only to try and live it out in the empty shell.

The other thing we do is to try and “earn” being a butterfly. It would be like this same butterfly going to sleep in the cocoon every night praying that he would become a butterfly the next day.

Of course, that illustration is ridiculous. If we could see that butterfly and talk to that butterfly (and they could understand us of course), we would tell that butterfly, “But you are a butterfly. You can’t change what you already are! There’s nothing you could do to make you any less of a butterfly or any more of a butterfly. Why are you praying to be a butterfly? You are a butterfly! Now get out of that cocoon and be a butterfly!”

Believer, are you beginning to see?

You are the new creation. You have been transformed. Morphed into a new creature.

So, start living as a butterfly. Believe that’s how God sees you because that is who you are.

Nothing you can do will make you more of a new creation, and nothing that you can do will make you less of a new creation.

Stop trying to live out of the cocoon.

Stop seeing yourself as the empty shell (that old self is dead and buried).

Stop praying to be a butterfly.

You are a butterfly.

You are not worthless and lifeless.

You have Life living inside of you.

Believe.

Have faith.

Be the butterfly.

Is God Really In Charge?

Is God Really In Charge?

I hear this saying quite often. In fact, I just saw a comment on a friend’s Facebook post where someone commented:

I know God is in charge. Some days I get human and get impatient.

Understandable, isn’t it? To know God is in charge but also to become impatient wondering what He is up to.

That statement got me to thinking. What does it mean for God to be “in charge” and what is my view of God in that regard?

When I think of the phrase, God is in charge, a picture not unlike a boss comes to mind. If you’re like me, you’ve had good bosses (that you would work for again in a heartbeat), and horrible bosses (who you couldn’t get away from fast enough.)

It conjures images of a task-oriented, directive, Type-A personality who sits aloof from his workers, barking out orders and people scrambling to do his bidding from his corner office, away from the cube-farm subordinates. [Now you also might have a better image of what I think of human authority and my rebellious nature. :)]

God is not aloof and distant.

The true character of God’s in-charge-ness is the epitome of a shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep. leaving the ninety-nine.  (Luke 15:1-7)

It is the story of the Creator of the Universe leaving his throne, descending into a world ravaged by sin and darkness, and ultimately showing us what it means to be human.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2: 5-11, ESV)

It’s the narrative of a Father who loved His children so desperately that He ultimately gave them the greatest gift of all.  Restored life with Him.

And, it’s the account of a God who not only worked to set the universe and His redemptive plan in motion but continues to work in and through and with His people to this day.

Our God is not just “in charge” but He is in-volved in every single aspect of your life, of my life, and in the lives of those around us.  Even when we can’t see it or know what He’s up to.  He is working.

He gives us life through His son and lives that life through us by His Spirit who indwells us. (see Romans 8:11; Ephesians 3:16

For God, this is what it means to be in charge.  Not far away on His throne on high, sending others to do his bidding, but actively working by His Spirit to move in your life, to grow you and shape you and mold you to His likeness, and to use you to bring others into the same kind of relationship with Him, all for His glory and His eternal purpose.

He is a God worth following to the ends of the earth.

When you hear the phrase, God is in charge (or say it), what does it mean to you?  What image comes to mind?  Share in the comments below!

First Church of IKEA (i.e., Designer Church)

This week I returned to my old stomping grounds in Dallas, Texas.  My wife and I lived in Carrollton and Arlington while we were still dating and for the first few years of our marriage.  It’s amazing how things have changed just in and around our old apartment complex where we used to live in a relatively short amount of time.  We also visited an area of town known for it’s high end shopping and stores and restaurants.  I had my first experience in an IKEA store, which upon entering, my wife declared, “Welcome to the mother ship of shopping!”  Boy, was she right!  Rows and rows of things that you never knew you needed until they were displayed in an oh-so-friendly manner.  And, there was room after room of all kinds of things for your home.  We wound in and out of the aisles and I realized that they were herding us in one direction like a cow heading towards the branding chute.  But, I was so amazed by all the products and displays that, hey, I didn’t really mind all that much.  And, I have to say, the prices were really good on a lot of things.  And, there was all kinds of furniture and closets and kitchens that you could design on your own or with the help of one of the associates.  Closet systems, tables, entire kitchens, even entire homes could all be designed to your liking.

As we were leaving, I thought about how our churches have become much like my experience at IKEA.  We try to offer something for everyone.  We try to offer the slickest, coolest kids program in town.  Our youth program is second to none – complete with video games and their own worship experience.  We have every kind of small group imaginable.  Our programs reflect our culture much of the time, and dare I say it, maybe even more than they reflect the heart of Jesus?  We want to reach people and think that by offering all these programs and a “build your own church experience” mentality that the people will come and we’ll be able to speak to them and share the Gospel.

We tend to ask the questions, “What do people want?  What will bring them into the building? What can we offer them to keep them?  How can we draw people into our building?”  But, how many times do we stop and ask ourselves, “What would Jesus want?  How can we go outside of the building to reach people?  How do we meet people where they are like Jesus did?  What will make the people want to go out of the building and share the Gospel and serve Jesus and the community?”

To be fair, I believe that many of these pastors and people running these programs have great hearts and want to do the right thing and want to reach people for Christ.  But what Gospel are we presenting to the people who walk through the doors?  Are we presenting a “Choose your own Gospel adventure…” Or are we presenting the way of the Cross?  Are we presenting the “Lay it all down because that is what Christ has asked us to do” Gospel?  Or do we continue to present a “Come to church, give more money, and bring more friends” because that’s what a good little Christian does kind of Gospel?  Much of the time, though, it seems we continue to ask the wrong questions.  How would our experience of church differ if we started asking different questions?  Maybe some of it would look the same.  Maybe a LOT of it would look very differently.  But, the first step is to start asking different questions.  

And leave the design-it-yourself experiences to IKEA.  Because, let’s face it, they do a great job at it!