You Are Free — To Serve


It looks like I’m going to stop wandering around so much to different churches and start attending Flint River regularly with Heather and the boys, so I’m discontinuing my regular “Another Sunday” series. If I end up visiting somewhere new, I may write another entry, but, right now, it just doesn’t work for where I am. Instead, I’m going to try starting a new series, “You Are Free,” focusing either on teaching about how Christians are free, or riffing off teachings that give false perceptions of that freedom. This is the first part of that series.

God wants you to serve.

Have you ever been told this in church? Hopefully so. Because it’s true.

Have you ever been told that you’re not serving right, or serving enough? That’s a common one to here, too.

But what does God want?

Maybe you’ve been told that people use “doing the family stuff” and “doing life” as excuses not to serve. They say they’re too busy because of the new baby or the kids’ ball games.

Or maybe that coming to the church service on Sunday doesn’t count either. That’s “worship,” not “service.”

Likewise Sunday School or other small groups. Those are “discipleship” or “Bible study,” not service.

Things like being a good parent, being a good spouse, honoring your parents as a child are “good qualities to have,” but aren’t service.  They’re not what God expects from you.

But what does God expect? What does He want? What is service?

If you’re a slave, a servant, service is doing what you’re told. If that’s to work in a field, or clean a house, that’s service. If it’s being told to sing, or to play with a child, that’s service.

We serve God when we do what He tells us.

When Jesus on Earth, there were three things He said to do that were so important they were called “great.” Two great commandments. One great commission.

Love God. Love others. Make disciples and teach them to obey.

Worship. Relationships. Discipleship. Study. These are the things that God asks us to do. And if we do them because He asks us to, they’re service.

That doesn’t mean that those are the only things you should do. Maybe you’re called to teach Sunday School. Or to help the homeless. Or to be in the choir. Or to go on a mission trip. If you are, that’s what God’s asking you to do. And doing it because He asks is service.

But maybe the thing God most wants you to do right now is to be a better spouse. Or to be the best parent you can. All of these things are under that “Love others” commandment. Paul spends a good bit of time breaking down the details on these things in his letters. And if that’s the big thing God’s asking you to do right now, then that’s what you should be doing it. And if you do it the way He asks, that’s service.

There’s no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach for what serving God looks like. Nobody else can tell you. Nobody else should make you feel guilty; not if you’re asking Him and trying to do what He asks of you.

When He was on Earth, Jesus didn’t teach Sunday School, or join mission trip teams, or serve on committees, or sing in the choir. He went around talking to people about God, and helping people He met with problems. That, certainly, can be service. All we know about his mother Mary is that she did what God asked her to do and tried to be the best mom she could. That’s service, too, because that’s what God wanted.

This isn’t about liberty; it’s about freedom. It’s not about saying you don’t have to do anything; God does want you to serve.

It’s about being free to ask God what how He wants you to serve, and being free to do that out of love for the Father, regardless of anyone else’s expectations.

Another Sunday — Flint River Baptist Church III


This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

The last time I saw Steve Bell, he was in handcuffs.

This is the third Sunday morning I’ve visited Flint River Baptist Church with Heather recently, but the last two were special programs. No sermons. So this week was the first time I’ve heard their regular pastor preach for about two and a half years.

The last time I saw him, he was in handcuffs, as an illustration for his sermon series about breaking free of spiritual prisons. To be honest, while I thought the sermon was good, I thought the handcuff bit was rather gimmicky.

This Sunday was about spiritual “hoarders.” There was, as with last time, a flashy introductory video, and the stage was covered with junk as an illustration for the concept. To be honest, I thought it was all a bit gimmicky.

All of which would be fine, except that the sermon dealt with wrong attitudes Christians have. They don’t prepare before coming to church, and they expect to show up and be the audience. They fail to understand that church isn’t where you come to catch up with God, and that when you come, He is the audience for your worship.

And the problem I have with that is, sure, it’s easy to say, but you can’t be surprised that people feel that way when that’s what the church trains them to do. Rather than a New Testament model where everyone comes to church to participate, today’s church turns most members into an audience, mostly watching quietly and still as the preacher and worship team perform. And here’s a preacher, on stage, complete with big screen videos and set dressing, like a concert, chiding his audience for acting like, well, an audience.

This is one of the biggest problems with the church today — you cannot create a structure based on complacency, and then be surprised when it produces complacent Christians.

In his defense, he was preaching, generally, the right things. I agreed with almost everything he said. I just wish the medium didn’t outweigh the message.

That said, this past Sunday was unusual for me for another reason — it’s the first time in almost two years that I’ve been to Life Group or Sunday School or whatever name it happens to go by. And it was good. The lesson was somewhat pro forma, but that’s OK. The real great part was the people. It was the first time I’d been to Heather’s class with her. I’d met many of the people before in other contexts, but I was still a little worried about what it was going to be like going to her class with her, how people would accept me, how they would accept the change. And everyone was wonderful. In addition to having met some of the people, Heather has talked about them a lot, and how they’ve supported her, in myriad ways, over the year. And being there, it’s easy to understand. This are good people, this is a good group.

And that, to me, more than preachers and sermons and worship leaders, is what a good church is about. (And, again, I think Steve Bell wouldnt’ completely disagree.) It was a pleasure to be among them.

Another Sunday — Sojourn VIII


This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

This past Sunday I was back at Sojourn Kids, teaching about Moses, which I’ll get to in just a moment. First, however, I wanted to link to this post that Heather wrote on her blog about visiting Sojourn while the boys and I were in the kids groups. She did a good job at capturing that my “journey” series is about; the experience of visiting a new church and exploring what makes it unique.

Sojourn While David the kids were in kids church Sunday I went to Sojourn’s “big church.” It was the first time in … ever? that I’ve gone to a new church, for the first time, all by myself. That, in itself, was liberating. The church is small — 40 or 50 people in worship, I guess. It meets in a brewery, which initially the smell got to me, but I kinda got over that after a while. I’ve had strong opinions in the past about holding church in a place that … Read More

via Calluna

Now — like I said, while she was there, the boys and I were at Sojourn Kids. The lesson was about Moses, covering from burning bush and the plagues. I prepared by reviewing the lesson materials and the scripture and some Moses mood music — The Plagues from Prince of Egypt, a “Let My People Go” bit that in my opinion rivals the Charlton Heston bit.

It’s hard for me to say for sure, but it felt like one of my better performances teaching at Sojourn Kids.  Aided by some great acoustics, I did a pretty decent retelling of the story.  The crossing of the Red Sea wasn’t part of the lesson, but the kids wanted to hear that part and the Passover, so I added those in. My Red Sea crossing, and the encore performance the kids asked for, got applause.  It felt like a week that I made good use of everything I brought to the table, from understanding of scripture to improv acting skills. I’m biased, but I feel like I’ve made some progress over the past year.

So that complicates the decision as to whether to continue or not. I’ve been doing this for a year, and so it’s sort of a logical time to move on. I started doing it on an open-ended basis, but didn’t think it would be permanent. To be honest, I really believed I would be so bad at it they would have asked me to stop by now, but was willing to “put my ‘yes’ on the table,” as Heather would say, and be used if called to serve. I plan to start going to church with Heather and the boys more, so that’s a factor; the boys like hearing me teach, so that’s a factor; but they also don’t like going back and forth, so that’s a counter-factor to the last factor. There are also some changes in Sojourn Kids leadership coming, and I think that may be the deciding factor; while I like the new people, I started as largely a personal favor to the outgoing leader, so that makes this a logical time to move on. I wouldn’t teach again until next month, so I may have a little time to decide, but I think that may have been my last lesson.

It was sort of an appropriate lesson for dealing with that; it’s easy to forget just how reluctant and resistant Moses was when God called him to service at the burning bush.  I’m nowhere near that set on quitting this, so if He wants me to keep going, I’m sure He’ll let me know.

Another Sunday — Flint River Baptist Church II


This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

This past Sunday took me back to Flint River Baptist Church with Heather and the boys. For the second time in a row, there was a musical program instead of a sermon, which included a couple of songs with a children’s choir that included Finn, which was cool. But, as a result, I don’t have a lot of content notes, just a few random thoughts.

• I like corporate music. A lot. And I like the freedom to truly enjoy it. I forget this. If I’m not in a Sunday morning service in a couple of weeks, or if I’m in one where the music doesn’t engage me, then when I go into a service with good music again for the first time in a while, I’m consistently surprised by how much I like it. And I like to be able to lift my hands if I feel moved to, and don’t like being in a situation where I feel constrained to not. Sunday, for example, was wonderful. The music was good, the congregation was singing, and I wasn’t the only one lifting my hands. I talk a lot about having a small group or home church be my primary congregation, which has basically been the case this past year with my Sojourn Journey Group, and then I’m reminded of how much I would miss good worship through music.

• I don’t care much for spectator music. To be fair, this is a big part of why I am interested in having a small group or home church be my primary congregation — I don’t care much for spectator anything. I don’t like having “church” were a large number of people are sitting quietly and still watching other people perform the service. No wonder we have so many Christians who leave the church on Sunday morning and are unengaged in their beliefs the rest of the week — that’s what they’re trained to do on Sunday morning. What is the point in having the congregation NOT sing? Why would you have a choir or worship team singing, and not let the congregation lift up their voices to the Lord also? The funny thing is, I’ve never enjoyed this part of the service; I just never knew why before.

• I like being in a church where people read “For God so loved the world…” and actually believe it. I’m a little overwhelmed with the idea that what John really meant to say was that “God so loved Himself …” I try to respect people’s beliefs, but it just seems sad to me.

• OK, a standard gripe, along the lines of the second point. The preacher, at the end of the service, gives the prayer of decision, inviting people to pray to accept Christ, and asks people to raise their hands if they prayed the prayer. And he says, “I won’t call out your names; I don’t even know your names, probably.” Now, granted, some of these may be people that were there for the first time, and it’s a little more understandable that he wouldn’t know their names. But it’s not uncommon for people to visit a church more than once before making a decision like that. More importantly, in a small group or house church congregation, even if its your first visit, people are going to know your name. Your pastor should know you. To be a pastor to you, someone should know you, be accessible to you, know what you’re dealing with, be there for you, support you. If a preacher can’t do that for his flock, he’s not really their pastor. It’s sad to me how many Christians are trying to make their spiritual life work without having a pastor, and who don’t know that they don’t have one and don’t know that they should.

• That said, those are kind of universal gripes that I wanted to get out of my system. I do like Flint River. A lot. And the pastor did, in fact, come shake my hand and introduce himself to me before the service. I look forward to hearing him preach again, and I imagine my opinion of the church would also evolve if I become involved in a small group there.

Another Sunday — Sojourn VII


This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

With Christmas approaching, the lesson I taught the kids this past Sunday at Sojourn was about joy, in honor of the third week of advent, and about Gabriel appearing to Mary, and about the fact that, with God, all things are possible.

Heather’s boys, Finn and Caden, came to hear me teach for the first time this past Sunday, and that was really cool. I think it may even make me better at doing this. When I started doing Sojourn Kids storytelling, I struggled with being able to read my audience. Doing improv or giving lectures, I’m pretty decent at reading the audience and reacting accordingly. When I started working with kids, it was like a blank wall; I couldn’t read them, so I couldn’t tailor what I was doing. The boys have given me a better feel for that, and having them there Sunday was a great metric. Renae, the Sojourn Kids leader, commented that she thought I’d really been doing better lately as well.

But, getting back to the actual lesson, there were some entertaining parts, like when one of the kids and one of the teachers acted out Gabriel’s appearance to Mary — angels run around in circles more than I would have expected — but, for me, the biggest take-away was in the part about how all things are possible with God.

To help engage the kids, I made signs saying “It’s Not Possible” and “It IS Possible” and then asked the kids if different things were possible or impossible. I started with general stuff, and ended up asking whether they thought it was possible or not for me to do certain things, picking some unlikely-sounding examples, like floating in mid-air. Almost all of the kids picked “not possible,” even though they were all things that I’ve actually done. I used it to make the point that we can do things that we may thing are impossible.

But it drove home just how blessed I am; how many things that seem, particularly when you try to explain them to little kids, like they should be impossible that I have had the opportunity to do. God’s let me do some awesome stuff, and it’s easy to overlook how blessed I am. And, in part, it gets back to what I wrote last week about children’s perspectives — they help us see how amazing things are that we take for granted.

How about you? What things that a pre-schooler would think are impossible have you had the chance to do?

Church of the Red Pill


red pill and blue pill from the matrix

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no going back. You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” — Morpheus

“I know what you’re thinking, ’cause right now I’m thinking the same thing. Actually, I’ve been thinking it ever since I got here: Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?” — Cypher

I was having coffee this morning with my discipleship partner, Dave, and we were talking about church. He told me about a church plant that he was involved in when it started almost 20 years ago.

It was, he said, for the time, radically different. In an era when people still wore their Sunday church clothes to Sunday church, people went to this church dressed in their everyday clothes. At the beginning of the service, you could tell the visitors because they didn’t believe it when they were told they didn’t have to wear a tie to church. When hymns were still de rigueur, the church focused on worship music that was more accessible to the congregation. Everything about the church was designed to be more user-friendly. Today, a lot of those things are pretty common, but, again, at the time, they were very much the exception.

The church was different in one other major way, too — a big part of its focus was on breaking people out of a spectator mentality when it came to church. Rather than church being something you got up on Sunday morning and watched for an hour or two, it was something you were involved in, and not necessarily just inside the confines of the church building. It was about making church a lifestyle.

And that’s where some people ran into problems. They enjoyed the different atmosphere of the church, were more comfortable in the different atmosphere. But they just couldn’t break free of the spectator mindset. They didn’t want to. They could go so far in embracing the church, but no further. And because of that, many of them gradually became uncomfortable and left.

The problem was, they also didn’t want to go back. They couldn’t go forward to fully embrace the new church, but after experiencing the atmosphere there, they also couldn’t be happy at their old churches. Dave said the pastor once commented to him that it would have been better for a lot of people if they’d never come to his church. Rather than moving them forward in their spiritual walk, it essentially broke them. After a taste of that, anything else becomes unappealing.

In a lot of ways, Dave and I are broken also. We didn’t reach a point where we personally couldn’t go forward; in our cases, what we had been doing fell apart from underneath us. A major change at the last church he was at changed the entire atmosphere and flavor of it. The house church I was involved in stopped meeting. Neither of us could stay where we were, and we’re beginning to find that it’s hard to go back.

When you’re part of a community that is open to exploring God without agenda, it’s harder to be in conversations where you’re expected to not deviate from the “proper answers.” To me, it’s like a child walking past the most incredible playground he’s ever seen, but not being allowed to leave the sidewalk. God’s too big and too awesome to let somebody else decide what you can think about Him. And He’s more than good enough to withstand the scrutiny, ya know?

When you’re part of a community that rejoices in sharing each other’s walk, in being there for each other spiritually and emotionally, in supporting each other, in learning from each other, it’s harder to go back to having the people in your church just be the people you set next to you while you’re instructed. Church shouldn’t feel like a second-grade classroom, but without the fun.

When you’re part of a group that realizes that God is awesomely huge and mind-blowingly complex, it’s harder to go back to being part of a church that wants to boil him down to right answers. Is God divinely sovereign or lovingly allowing of freedom? Is He a God to whom no sin is too big to overlook, or for whom no sin is too small to condemn? Is He defined by His own glory of His love for His creations? To all of those things, yes.

When you’re part of a group that samples and explores the diversity of conflicting viewpoints on God and evaluates each for its merits, it harder to go back to being part of a church that only drinks one flavor of Kool-Aid.

The problem becomes that the latter types of churches are the most common. The flavor of Kool-Aid may be different, the small view of God may be different, the decorations in the second-grade classroom may be different, but the result is the same. Too often an invitation to “rethink church” is really an offer to replace one church’s thoughts about church with another’s. Actual rethinking is OK, as long as it’s what the church thinks. You don’t get to be free of an agenda, you only get to pick the agenda you want, and how serious the church is about it.

And for most people, that’s fine. Because they’ve never taken the red pill. They don’t even know that it exists. They don’t understand that there’s an alternative. They don’t know what it is to go to church and not be told what they should think. They don’t know what it is to go to a church without an agenda. And so they’re content.

And, yes, sometimes I envy them. But I’m not sure how I can go back.

“You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.” — Morpheus

“I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world … without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.” — Neo

Another Sunday — Flint River Baptist Church I


This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

sanctuary of flint river baptist church in harvest alabama

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” — T. S. Eliot

When I left Whitesburg Baptist Church over two years ago to begin my journey of exploration of the church, my first step was a baby step — Flint River Baptist Church. I would eventually visit different denominations, non-denominational churches, Catholic churches, a brewery, a movie theater and so forth, but my first step was to go from one Southern Baptist Church to another.

I went back then at Heather’s invitation. I had told her what I felt called to do, and she invited me to come to her church first. So I did. I went maybe one other time back then; ironically, the way it ended up, Heather’s family was never in the service when I went. I went to her church, but never went to church with her. I went back one more time earlier this year, to a Christian Passover Seder observance they hosted.

This past week, she invited me to come again, and I did.

The service was a special program — kids from “Children of the World” came and sang to raise awareness of humanitarian efforts, specifically the need for water in third-world villages. There was little procedural or doctrinal for me to evaluate, which was fine, since for me the experience was more about going to church with Heather and the boys for the first time. It was weird being back in the same place, but in a very different circumstance.

To be honest, it was nice going to church with somebody I’m in a relationship with again, it was nice that somebody being her, and it was nice other somebodies being the boys. Heather says I’m supposed to mention that I drew Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the boys during the service, but I assure that’s utterly irrelevant and was done purely for very important doctrinal reasons that I haven’t made up yet.

I wrote last week about missing community, and about other issues I’m dealing with regarding church, and I’ve wondered what that would look like if I end up with Flint River being my new home congregation. And, yeah, Sunday, I realized it all looks very different if you have the right community you bring with you.