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?

An Invitation to Walk with Dad

An Invitation to Walk with Dad

Tonight, my 10-year old son wanted to go for a walk but didn’t think he could keep up with my wife and I as we were walking the dog, so I told him I would go with him later. He spent the day at home with a headache and wanted to get some fresh air.

I know that these invitations from him to spend time together will eventually fade, but I hope that’s many years away. All the same, I want to take advantage of these opportunities as they come along and as I am able.

As I’ve been on a journey to find community outside normal, traditional religious structures, I’ve come to see the life we live in Christ as a continual invitation. He invites us to spend time with Him, to listen to Him, and to follow Him.

“Come, follow me,” is a continual invitation, not a one-time decision to escape eternal fire and damnation. We tend to replace this ever-present beckoning with a safe and secure structure where we don’t have to depend on God on a daily basis. Jesus never asked anyone to resurrect a monument in his honor or construct a building with his name on it. (In fact, he encouraged the disciples not to at the transfiguration.)

“Dad, will you go for a walk with me?” What if the language that my 10-year old used to ask me to spend time together is exactly what we should ask of our heavenly Father? What if it were that relaxed? That easy?

I can tell you that as I’ve walked this journey over the last couple of years, I tend to make it way too difficult. I knew God could speak anywhere, but I also felt that I had to be in a certain place or do certain things to get Him to do what I wanted – or even just to pay attention to me. A certain time, the right Scripture, the right atmosphere, or even humbling myself by kneeling at the altar or raising my hands in worship.

The truth is (and was) that God loved me despite those things, not because of them. The invitation is always open. God is continually saying, “Come, child, walk with me.”

“I’ll set up my residence in your neighborhood; I won’t avoid or shun you; I’ll stroll through your streets. I’ll be your God; you’ll be my people. I am God, your personal God who rescued you from Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians. I ripped off the harness of your slavery so that you can move about freely. [Leviticus 26:11-13, The Message]

The God that rescued the Egyptians out of captivity wants to walk with you through your neighborhood. He’s already there.

He’s waiting.

All you have to do is ask.

“Dad, want to go for a walk?”

Isn’t Christianity Just Another Self-Improvement Program?

Isn’t Christianity Just Another Self-Improvement Program?

Have you ever wondered if what Christianity “sells” is just another way to improve your self? To stop doing bad things and start doing good things?

After all the sermons and rhetoric, is it still just about me, me, me?

What if it were more than that? What if Christianity has nothing to do with that at all? What if it were more about entering a new reality, becoming a NEW person (not just a better version of yourself), and what if you could become part of a story – God’s story – that has been woven from the beginning of time. It’s a story that you’re invited into and one in which you have a role to play.

Have I piqued your interest yet?

I was sitting in a service at a local church not too long ago. Everything was normal and I was sitting there listening to the message. All of a sudden, it dawned on me. What I was hearing was almost the exact same thing that I had heard elsewhere – only, it wasn’t from a preacher, Bible study leader, or anything coming out of Christianity. The lesson and application from the sermon were almost identical to something I had either read or heard coming from a non-Christian, self-improvement guru. (I won’t share names because that’s not the important thing.)

It’s More than Principles

Something about living by principles, especially when we’re talking about the Church, has bugged me for a while. I’ve never jived with that train of thought because it all seems so trite and is still very much me-centered. You can try to use principles to get what you want out of both life and God, and you might even see some success (and that’s where the real danger comes in); however, in the end, it’s still about what you can get out of it.

Only, God didn’t create us to live by principle. He created us to live inside of a relationship. When we live by principle, we trust in the principle. We can say we’re trusting in God, have faith, whatever, but we don’t have to rely on God when we’re living by Principle X in order to get Result Y. There’s no need for trust when we live this way.

When we live by relationship, however, the full weight of the outcome rests with God alone. It’s not a principle that we’re trusting in – it’s a Person. You cannot predict the outcome when you trust in a person. That is out of your control. That is faith – following the One who is in charge of the results when all you can see is the next step.

At times, you can only hang on for dear life.

Failure IS An Option

When you’re learning to live by trust rather than principle, you will get it wrong. I know I have. There are many times when I think that there’s a certain direction I need to go in or something that God is telling me to do, only to find out that it was just my own voice I was listening to – not God’s.

So how can you tell the difference? At times, it’s not so easy – other times it is. God typically tells me to do things that are either outside my comfort zone or something I wouldn’t think do on my own. It’s usually requires me laying down at least part (if not all of) my “self.”

Christianity isn't a self-improvement program but rather a self-crucifixion program. Click To Tweet

When I was a good little Pharisee, I hated to fail. I needed to be right and point out others faults. The truth is, I failed all the time. I just hid my failures. It’s easy to overlook when you’re a Pharisee. That’s how we roll.

I’m still learning to let go of my fear of failure. I don’t like it, but I know my loving Father is with me smiling (not judging) and eager to help and encourage me. There’s no condemnation but a gentle nudging back to His presence where I can try again without fear.

Letting Go of Expectations

Letting Go of Expectations

This morning I received an email from a friend of mine who is a missionary in Mexico. I usually hear from him about once a week and we briefly tell each other how we can be praying.

He shared about his interns being too comfortable and needing to come to the end of themselves. He knew he couldn’t be the one to bring them to that point, but wondered at least how he could lead them down that road.

It got me thinking about our expectations for others, and the long journey it’s taken me to come to the end of myself. Every time I think I’m at the end, it seems Jesus is there tugging me forward saying, “That was just a resting place. It’s not the end.” Have you been there?

What Do You Expect?

Unmet expectations are the source of all kinds of conflict, whether in marriages or friendships or the workplace. This is especially true when the expectations are unrealistic. Much of the time, I believe they are.

  • We expect others to meet our needs completely, when there is only One that can fulfill us (and it’s not your spouse or significant other).
  • We have too high expectations of ourselves and get frustrated when we don’t meet those. (Come on, I’m not the only one am I?)
  • We have expectations that others need to be where we are spiritually and if not try to get them there. (Is that really our job? Check out 1 Corinthians 3:5-9).
  • We expect other people to behave like us, respond like us, and communicate like us. We forget that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made. We fulfill different roles in the body, and our uniqueness is from the Lord (Sometimes it feels like it’s from the devil, though, right?)

Often we feel that we have a right to lead people down the road to meet our expectations, especially when it comes to spiritual matters. I know from experience. I’ve felt that way before, and I shake my head when I remember some of those moments. (That was before my Phari-sectomy).

God Has a Process

Does God want us to come to the end of ourselves? Absolutely. Can He use my friend as a part of that process? I’m sure He will.

The danger, I believe, is when we try to take on that process ourselves. Very rarely does any good come from trying to short-circuit God’s timing. (Just take a look at Abraham, Joseph, and any number of Bible characters who tried).

When we try to usurp the activity of God in someone’s life, we reveal a lack of trust in God and His work and growth in that person. Yes, he can absolutely use us to be a part of that process. So what role do we play in that?

What is My Part?

According to 1 Corinthians 3, we plant and we water. We are not in charge of growth. That is God’s domain. What does planting and watering look like? There’s not a specific formula for each person, and I’m not trying to set forth principles to live by but ideas to embrace.

FORGIVE

When someone doesn’t meet your expectations, forgive them. When you don’t meet your own, forgive yourself. Extend forgiveness frequently and generously.

ANOINT WITH GRACE AND MERCY

Be willing to shower people with God’s grace and mercy. Let go of unrealistic expectations and ask God to show you those when they occur.

LISTEN

Above all else, listen. Listen to Father for the gentle nudges that can help you walk alongside your brothers and sisters. Listen to your fellow believers as they share their struggles and what God is showing them. Help them navigate and nurture their relationships with Father and fellow believers.

May we be rich in mercy and slow in our criticism of those who love Jesus and may not be as far along as we are or as far as we think they ought to be. May we learn to see the beauty in our uniqueness and value our differences.

Do you struggle with imposing expectations on others? How do you respond when others place those on you?

Is There a Better Way to Disciple?

Is There a Better Way to Disciple?

When I was in college, I went through a very well-known discipleship program. I met with my discipler once a week and we went through these huge notebooks of information. We would check off lists and tasks. A friend of mine was my leader. There were a couple of issues I had with the program. One, I began to dread going every week. I hung out with my friend weekly, if not daily. I enjoyed spending time with him, except the discipleship time we spent together was BOR – ING! There was no life in it – just going through a notebook and to-do items. (Snoozer!)

  • Did I read the passages and answer the fill-in-the-blank questions?
  • Did I memorize the scripture for the week?
  • Did I witness to at least one person? (The answer was usually NO – since I was at a Christian university, who wasn’t a Christian? 🙂 ).

There were 3 of these notebooks you had to get through in order to complete the program. These were not your ordinary 2-inch binders either. They were ginormous, 5- or 6-inch beasts that would put a large-print KJV Study Bible to shame.

My second issue was that it really didn’t seem to make a difference in my life or the life of my friend. We hung out together all the time, yet, his faith didn’t really seem to grow much during our time together. It just felt like something we did, checked off, and moved on. More life and relationship growth happened outside of that time – not during it.

I never finished the program. I didn’t even get through the second mega-manual. In some ways, I felt like a failure. Honestly, though, there was more life in a prayer time that another friend and I shared twice a week. I found his faith and trust in the Lord inspiring, and our time together wasn’t dry at all. I even experienced a major healing during this time. That was the kind of faith I wanted (and still want) to pursue. Not a checklist-based faith, but a living faith that learns to listen to and hear the Lord’s voice. 

That’s why many so-called discipleship programs are flawed. They are based too much on what we do, and not enough on hearing from the Lord and following His lead. I’ve tried a number of programs and read about a few more. They may have had life at one point, but many seem ineffective in creating life-long followers of Jesus. The issue comes when we try and box up what the Lord wants to do through His Spirit and His people and put it into a system of checklists and principles. He’s a living God that wants a living relationship with His children.

 I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.  So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)

It is not the system or structure we use (or even the person leading us) that causes us to grow in the Lord, but it is the Lord Himself. So why do we settle for a system created by a person to help us grow in the Lord? How about we connect with the source of growth first? And then share what Father is doing in our lives to help each other mature in the Lord?

What kind of discipleship would that look like? One that seeks to encounter a living God and to live where every day is a new challenge of faith and listening and learning both from Father and from each other?

What is your experience with discipleship? What have been the most encouraging times helping you grow in your faith? What funny stories do you have about attempts at discipleship?