On Success and Failure

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I recently had coffee with a friend of mine.  He is a fellow church planter here in Hawaii. We met to discuss his recent decision to return to the mainland.  It was a somber discussion, for sure.  Church planters live on a wing a prayer.  Either a church grows and we become pastors of thriving churches, or we return home.  When we do the latter, we have to face all of those supporters that hoped for the former.

As we talked I found myself saying something about what makes a “successful” plant, but I found myself stumbling over that word.  Saying it naturally implied the other side of the coin:  failed church plants.  It felt as though I was suggesting that my friend’s efforts had failed.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Certainly, he will have some discussions about what could have been different or what should be done in future efforts.  Some people will try to calculate what aspects of his work resulted in a church plant that did not thrive.  With so much money and energy being put toward church planting, it is good stewardship to have such conversations.  However, it can be a dangerous habit to cast the outcomes of ministry in terms of success and failure.

I say it again, my friend did not fail.  He came to this island and devoted himself to making disciples.  He has proclaimed the good news.  He has taught people to follow Jesus.  There is nothing in the Great Commission that places the results on our shoulders.  If we truly want to see the kinds of things that only God can do, then we must let go of our control of the results.  We have to simply do as we are commanded in scripture and trust that God will further His kingdom as He wills.

In 1 Corinthians 3:6-7 Paul wrote,

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

When I read that verse, my mind wanders back to Kindergarten.  One day, each of us in the class got to put a little seed (a bean) in a wet paper towel.  A day or two later, it sprouted!  We moved them into little milk cartons full of soil and watched them grow.  Every day they were bigger.  This was very exciting.  Here in Hawaii, we grow pineapples.  I am told that it very easy.  Apparently if I simply chop the top off of a pineapple and bury it in the ground, I will grow a pineapple…in about 18 months.  That’s right.  Pineapples grow a lot slower than bean sprouts.

And trees grow even slower.  I have often used a tree as an explanation of Aloha Community Church.  I think of it as a tree, but I am only still putting seeds in the dirt.  It is all I can do.  It is all you can do.  Sure, we can manufacture all kinds of impressive things, but only God can make a tree.

That is why we must be careful when we cast ministry in terms of success and failure.  My friend has planted seeds.  One day, long after he is gone, those seeds may still produce.  I am confidant that they will.  Judge success and failure if you must, but remember this: we are seed planters, not tree makers.

The Lighthouse

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I found a lighthouse the other day.  To get to the lighthouse, I had to drive down an unfamiliar road, past a refuse incinerator, two recycling plants, and a scrap metal buyer.  I had to drive until I reached a dead end at a beach park that no one in their right mind would desire if they sought a beach or a park.  I then had to park and walk through the park, past a smashed and burned picnic table and no less than two hypodermic needles.  Reaching the water’s edge, I had to navigate a rough shorebreak, walking carefully between waves crashing against the rocks and the roped off property of a tourist show that’s location defies reason.  After navigating the tricky shoreline, I found it amongst the weeds.  A lighthouse.  It was automated.  No charming lighthouse operator that Pete’s Dragon had taught me to expect.  Just a locked tower with a whirling light on top.

I searched for a better path out of the place, but the Coast Guard has clearly let the surrounding land go.  The weeds are high and thick, with large rocks and old concrete blocking any possible path.  “What are they thinking?”  I wondered.  Do they not realize that people like to see lighthouses?  Do they not realize that they need to make it easier for people to enjoy the lighthouse?  In the past week I have mentioned this lighthouse to two friends who each live near it.  Neither had even heard of it.  What is the Coast Guard thinking?

Their website regarding this lighthouse says exactly what they are thinking, “The light is an active aid to navigation and is not open to the public.”

There it is.  The lighthouse does not exist for tourist to come and gawk at it.  It does not exist for picturesque landscapes or vacation photos.  It exists to navigate ships.  Big ships.  Serious ships.  Ships that without navigation will meet disastrous consequences.

Serious work and comfort seldom go hand in hand. The Coast Guard has chosen to ignore comfort and ease for the tourists and instead focus on navigating ships.  The Church must forego its own comfort for the sake of her mission.  Christian, you must leave your comfort zone and be about the work of the Lord.

You are a lighthouse, not a resort.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

Matthew 5:14

On Repo Men and Evangelists

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My presence could clear a trailer park. I would park the truck a block away. I would cover up the store logo on my shirt and hat (a corporate no-no, but those guys in the corporate office never did my job). I would try to look casual, but my face was recognizable. As I walked up the drive into the long row of single-wides, someone would make eye contact and sprint for their door. It was over. In less than a minute, the phone lines were hot all through the park. I was there. Don’t answer your door.

In reality, I only wanted one. One trailer had a big screen TV and a computer that the family was never going to pay for. Everyone else paid eventually, and I generally left them alone. Yet, their trailer park camaraderie enlisted them in the fight against me.

So, we launched a sneak attack. 8am marks the legal time for collections to begin. We were in the park by 7:45, walking carefully along the fenceline in the back. We walked through wet grass and weeds, avoiding the roads and the kids on their bikes and their moms who liked to smoke and gossip on their porches first thing on a Saturday. We waited.

8am, on the dot, and I sprint for the back door. Tony sprints for the front. Tony is nervous. This isn’t his route or his turf. He handled the projects, I handled the trailer parks. It was color-coded. Tony had reason to be nervous. I took the back door which worked. I caught Mrs. Big Screen stepping out to avoid Tony who was knocking on the front. She stepped back inside quickly and hoped she was somehow invisible that morning. Tony was on the front. We both pounded loud and yelled our standard greeting as loud as we could. The goal was to make a scene. And a scene was made indeed.

Minutes later, as we are still pounding and yelling, Tony is surrounded by about 30 people. Neighbors, all agitated that a black man is there. I race around to the front and relieve the pressure by asking Tony to go get the truck. He gladly leaves. I continue knocking while the crowd offers their views on my job. One man yells, “They don’t even got power, let ‘em keep their TV!” I’d love to address the logic of his argument, but it doesn’t have anything to do with my task that morning. My boss had made it clear, “If you get one thing done today, get that TV.”

I knock and knock (pound really, the door almost comes open). Tony brings the truck. The family finally surrenders. She storms out humiliated and furious. She carries a towel and shampoo in order to shower at the neighbor. They really don’t have power, or gas, or water. He waves us in then sits on his floor and cries. I sat down next to him on roach infested carpet and tried to remember who I was. I offered the best advice I could. I tried to point him in some good directions. Tony points to a flier on the table from one of the local churches. “That’s a good place to be,” he offers.

I hated being a repo man. Excuse me, Account Manager. It isn’t me. I have lots of interesting stories like this one. Some are sad, some are funny, some are scary. They are all true.

I don’t want to be a repo man. I’d love for my presence to be known. I’d love to wear the badge of my Lord in such a way that when I step into a community, they knew who I’m there for. I don’t want surprise attacks. I don’t want commotion. I don’t want to wage a war on dignity. Evangelists can do that too, just like repo men. I don’t want to. Instead, I want the larger, stronger, quieter life. I want the life where Christ is known by my actions, and heard in my words, and longed for because of the evidence of my own longing. That’s what I want. That’s where I’m headed.

Check out my adventure towards this larger, stronger, quieter life here.

Cowardly Christians and Brave Birds

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This afternoon, I mowed my yard. I love to mow my yard. I inherited my father’s cub cadet mower, and its pretty fun to zoom around my yard with that 24 horse power mower. Today, as I mowed I noticed a Robin that seemed unafraid of the mower. I would get within a couple of feet from this bird before it flew away, but it would return very quickly. It stayed with me the entire time I was out there.

It took me a while to realize why he stayed so close. Eventually, I got it. You see, my yard has been water logged lately. I haven’t been able to mow because it was so wet. So today, as I mowed the tall grass across soft ground, I was stirring up a lot of earthworms. The little bird knew this. He braved the mower because that’s where the harvest was!

Christians can learn a lot from my feathered friend. It seems we would rather stay away from the places and things in this world that frighten us or that may even be dangerous. We have plenty of places we won’t go and people we won’t talk to. The tragic reality is, those places are where the harvest is.

I pray I can become as brave as that little bird.

Book Review: Thabiti Anyabwile’s The Gospel For Muslims

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I was not sure what to expect when I picked up Thabiti Anyabwile’s The Gospel For Muslims. I think I expected apologetics. I wanted ammunition for good Christian – Muslim arguments. That expectation had always kept me from reading the book, actually. I didn’t feel it would be very practical. I live and serve in rural Missouri. There are no Muslims in my town, and any passing through probably don’t stop. I assumed that this book might be practical for someone else, but not for me.

I was wrong. Oh, was I ever wrong.

Let me say from the start that this is not an apologetics book. Anyabwile makes that clear from the introduction. The Gospel is the Gospel, thus there does not need to be a special presentation for this group or that group.

I once had the privilege to hear Anyabwile preach. His gentle demeanor impressed me, especially how it stands in sharp contrast to his own claims of once being an angry, racist, hateful man. He discusses his past a bit in this book. He refers to his anger, his conversion to Islam, and his conversion to Christianity. If nothing else, he is perfectly qualified to speak to the issue of evangelism to Muslims and is a testimony worth remembering.

Part one of this book focuses on the Gospel message itself: Who is God,? What is sin? Who is Jesus and what did He do? With each point, there is common ground, but Anyabwile is careful to point out the irreconcilable differences. These are the points that must be made.

The second part of the book is about the witness. Here, Anyabwile emphasizes those things that we too often forget. He reminds the witness to lean on the Holy Spirit, use the Bible, practice hospitality, and yes, even be ready to suffer for the name of Jesus.

Though the book contains very practical insight for sharing the Gospel with Muslims, I found that it is equally relevant for sharing the Gospel with any religious person. Far too often, I view witnessing to a person of another faith as a necessary battle. The only method considered is well-rehearsed arguments and counter-arguments. Too often, what is left out is the Gospel itself, both in word and spirit. This book reminds me that I need to focus more on presenting the Good News of Christ than I do on winning an argument and that by a Gospel-centered life, I can have opportunities for such conversations.

The information is helpful, but the gentle, humble spirit of Thabiti Anyabwile’s teaching is essential. I recommend this book side by side with J. Mack Stiles’ Marks of the Messenger, as must reads for evangelism.