Monday, October 13, 2014

The new gospel vs. the old gospel

It's tempting at the beginning of a church plant to jump to the "what" questions: What will we do as a church? What will our services look like? What will our engagement with the community look like? It's tempting to jump to the tangible and practical and neglect theology and the "why" questions. But I'm convinced that we must spend considerable time asking questions that get to the root of motivation: What is God like? Why has God saved us? What is the gospel and its implications for our lives?

If, in our concern to meet practical needs and be relevant, we skirt around these questions, our gaze will slowly become less on God and more on man, and we will miss the purpose for which God saved us: his glory. As J.I. Packer explains so well:

“[The new gospel]... fails to make men God-
centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their
hearts because this is not primarily what it is trying
to do. One way of stating the difference between it
and the old gospel is to say that it is too exclusively
concerned to be 'helpful' to man - to bring peace,
comfort, happiness, satisfaction - and too little
concerned to glorify God. The old gospel was
'helpful', too - more so, indeed, than is the new -
but (so to speak) incidentally, for its first concern
was always to give glory to God. It was always and
essentially a proclamation of divine sovereignty in
mercy and judgment, a summons to bow down and
worship the mighty Lord on whom man depends for
all good, both in nature and in grace. Its center of
reference was unambiguously God. But in the new
gospel the center of reference is man. "
- JI Packer

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Sunday: Join the discussion for a gospel-centered, mission church plant

The vision is for a new church plant in the Stanwood-Camano area. We are starting a community group as the first step in that direction. The first group is this Sunday at 5 at the Fekkes home (text or Facebook me for address/directions: 770-714-3865). This group will serve two purposes:

1. A place to discuss the vision for this new church and invite others into the discussion.
2. A functioning community/small group where we seek to help one another live more and more in line with the gospel.

Although this is a community group through Communion Church in Mount Vernon (the sending church for the intended plant), you do NOT need to be a part of that church to be a part of the group.

* Come to hear about and discuss the vision for a gospel-centered, missional church in the SC area.
* Come to both receive from and contribute to the health of other believers.
*Pass on the invitation to others you think may be interested.

For more info, see my series of blog posts this vision.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Church planting: 5 specific steps (part 4 of 4)

This post is part 4 of 4 in a series explaining my vision to plant a church in the Stanwood-Camano community. Here are the other posts: part 1part 2, and part 3.

  1. The first step towards planting a church in Stanwood will be to start a community group in the Stanwood-Camano community (starting Oct. 5). This community group will be through Communion Church (a 3-Strand church in Mount Vernon), but will function slightly differently than the other community groups. The purpose of this group will be to start gathering a core group and begin discussing the vision for the plant.
This group may include people currently attending Communion Church or Damascus Road Church (a 3-Strand church in Marysvile) who live in the Stanwood-Camano area, and also people attending other churches or with no church home who are interested in being a part of the plant. People currently attending another church in the community are welcome to stay at their current church, but will be encouraged to check out Communion Church (the sending church) to get an idea of what the church plant will be like.

This community group will be a place to invite people to come and see if they’re interested in being a part of the plant. We will have small flyers for inviting people to the group, and also have a presence online where we can point people to more information.

During these group times we will study Bible passages and other resources relevant to church planting. We will discuss the purpose of a local church, what the gospel is and isn’t, what a gospel-centered church looks like, and distinctives of this new church. We will also analyze characteristics of our community, its existing churches, needs not currently being met, and what it looks like to bring gospel-centered ministry into this context.

During this time, I (Derek) will continue to go through eldership training at Communion Church, while also regularly meeting with Jim to discuss church planting. I also will attend at least one of the 3-strand monthly meetings to connect with the other 3-strand pastors.

This period will also be used for identifying and beginning to train potential elders of the church.

  1. We will aim for an official announcement of the church plant in January, 2015. This does not mean we will move to having Sunday services or find a church building at this point. Rather, it means we will have several things in place: 1) core beliefs and distinctives of the church, 2) a website, blog, or other online location to host this information, 3) a handout that includes brief description of the church with links to more information, 4) and a name for the church.

  1. Once the community group grows to more than 20 people on a consistent basis, we will either look for a bigger location in which to meet or discuss branching into two groups.

  1. Though it depends on many factors, we will look to officially launch the church, including moving to weekly services and finding a centralized space to meet, in the fall of 2015. Factors that affect this date include: finding a location, size of a committed core group, availability of a salary for Derek, and agreement/approval from Communion Church and the other 3 Strand churches.

  1. Once the church is officially launched, Derek will serve as the lead pastor, with the elders of Communion Church being the elders of the plant until other elders are established.
     Community groups begin Sunday, October 5 at 5 p.m. at the Fekkes' home. Come join the conversation!

Church planting: 4 points to the vision (part 3 of 4)

This post is part 3 of 4 in a series explaining my vision to plant a church in the Stanwood-Camano community. Here are the other posts: part 1, part 2, and part 4.

Although future discussions with the community group will help lay out the exact nature and core distinctives of the church, my vision for the church includes the following four ideals:

  1. Gospel-centered ministry. The central explanatory event of the Bible is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as God’s work to deal with sin and reconcile the world to himself. If this message is ignored or disconnected from other messages (however biblical), God’s ordained means to change lives and the world is forsaken. Thus, a gospel-centered church will include at least the following:
    1. Preaching that connects everything back to the gospel. The Bible does have important things to say about morality, the renewal of the world, social justice, etc. However, these things must be understood as responses to the gospel rather than the gospel themselves.
    2. Gospel-informed discipleship and counseling. A right understanding of the good news of the gospel brings freedom to acknowledge the depth of the bad news which made the gospel necessary. Thus, gospel-informed discipleship does not work from the premise that people are basically good and just need some advice or support (even church people), but that people are “desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9) and continually need the gospel. Gospel-informed discipleship and counseling encourages honesty over hypocrisy, confession of sin rather than keeping up appearances, and reliance on God and the church body rather than self-sufficiency. It fosters an environment where messed up people (all of us) are welcome, but also where there is an expectation that the gospel will leave no one unchanged.
  1. Intentional community. We live in the most individualized society in the world. We want to be self-sufficient and we cringe at the idea of letting others have any input into our decision making. Yet the Bible is clear that God calls believers to be in continual and close fellowship with other believers. God’s mission is not to create a bunch of isolated, individual Christians. Rather, his mission is to create the church, a term which has both local and universal implications.
The Bible uses the imagery of the physical body to paint the picture of what the church should look like. We are connected to Jesus as our head and ultimate authority, while also “members one of another” (Rom 12:5). Just as parts of the physical body are connected to and dependent on one another, so God orders the church in such a way that it relies on the contributions of every member to be a fully-functioning body.
God calls us to get involved in the often messy work of Christian community both for our health and growth and for that of the church body as a whole. Hence, the New Testament is full of corporate commands: “love one another,” “live in harmony with one another,” “comfort one another,” “submit to one another,” “speaking the truth in love” to one another, and many more. In other words, much of what it means to be a Christian can only be worked out in intentional Christian community. 

What, then, are the characteristics of a biblical Christian community of believers?

a.       People seek to be involved in each other’s lives beyond the regular church gatherings because they know that God works through these relationships.
b.      The “work of ministry” is not seen as something reserved for church leaders or staff. Rather, the advancement of the gospel both within the church and beyond the church is seen as the calling of every believer (Eph. 4:11-13).
c.       People encourage and support those hurting or in need, motivated by the grace and comfort that God has shown them.
d.      People are motivated by grace to confess sins to one another. A culture of grace AND truth means that sin is not ignored, yet grace is never withheld.
e.       Unconfessed sin is not ignored or covered up because people know the power of God’s grace to not only forgive sin, but redeem sinners. Unconfessed sin is also taken seriously because people care about the health of the church and its witness to the world.

  1.  Intentional engagement with the city and people of Stanwood-Camano. Although there is a high calling on the church to gather and live life as a community of believers, the church has ultimately failed at its mission if it does not also scatter and love those outside of the church. God saves people, in part, so that they can then proclaim his gospel and glory to others. God calls all Christians to join him on his mission to reconcile the world to himself, thereby spreading his glory.
Being a church that intentionally engages the Stanwood-Camano community involves:

    1. Seeking to understand the unique culture of the Stanwood-Camano community
    2. Seeking ways to truly love the community and people who call it home.
    3. Getting involved in existing community activities to connect with people where they are.
    4. Discussing how to communicate the gospel in a way that speaks into the unique ideals, fears, and idols of this community.
    5. Consistently teaching what it means to be a Christian not just in private, but also in public.
    6. Consistently teaching what it means to be a Christian in a secular society.
    7. Keeping to a minimum programs and activities “inside the church walls” so that believers can spend time engaging unbelievers.
  1. Theology-informed ministry. Every church has theology. And every church has particular ways of doing ministry. Yet not every church puts concentrated effort into connecting their theology to their particular ways of doing ministry. In many cases, a ministry model is chosen simply because of pragmatism or a current trend rather than as an outflow of beliefs about God’s character and ways.
A church with theology-informed ministry takes theology seriously. This is not because theology is the whole of the Christian life, but because the whole of the Christian life is informed by some form of theology, whether intentionally or not. What we believe is connected to how we live. Wrong beliefs about God lead to destructive patterns of behavior and thinking. Right beliefs about God lead to the life of grace and freedom that God intends. And where theology is minimized, the result is not a lack of theology, but the presence of bad theology. Thus, a theology-driven ministry seeks to understand all that God has revealed about himself, and then lets this understanding inform every facet of church life.

Of course, there is always a temptation to idolize theology, or to disconnect theology from godly living, or to use theology merely as a weapon to cause unnecessary division. Any pursuit of right thinking about God must also be a pursuit of humility and love to other believers. The goal is neither mere moral living divorced from right thinking about God, nor right thinking about God divorced from godly living. Right theology, when fully believed, leads to right living. This is the direction it always flows: right thinking to right living. The temptation to idolize theology does not at all diminish its importance for the life of the church. 

(Community groups begin Sunday, October 5 at 5 p.m. at the Fekkes' home. Come join the conversation!)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Why I want to be a part of planting a new church in the Stanwood-Camano area (part 2 of 4)

This post is part 2 of 4 in a series explaining my vision to plant a church in the Stanwood-Camano community. Here are the other posts: part 1part 3, and part 4.

I never wanted to plant a church. For most of my life, I’ve been keenly aware of the needs present in existing churches: in particular, of the power of comfort, wealth, and busyness to deaden believers’ commitment to the gospel (myself included). Because of this, I’ve always had a heart to get involved in existing churches and stir people out of their comfort zones. I saw that every church was full of brokenness and needs and felt that my calling was to serve amidst this brokenness.

However, through a variety of situations, conversations, and personal reflection over the past couple of years, my thoughts regarding the local church, and my role in it, have shifted.

First, the areas of church life that I found myself most passionate about began to change. I had spent several years serving in music and youth ministries, and really enjoyed those areas. I had preached once or twice and knew that I didn’t ever want to do that on a regular basis. I also didn’t have any desire to be in a leadership role over a church. I liked leading in the special areas of youth and music, but was content there.

But over a roughly 10-month period, God changed my desires 180 degrees. I’m not exactly sure how it happened. I went from not ever wanting to preach to not being able to sleep at night because I was mulling sermon ideas over in my head. I started looking for any and every opportunity to teach or preach so that I could get more experience.  During this time, I was also taking seminary-level classes on church leadership, as well as participating in my church’s elder meetings. These experiences started to develop in me a desire to be more involved in the leadership of a church.

As time went on, several factors combined to instill in me a desire to pursue greater responsibility in church leadership. My understanding of the role of a pastor began to develop. I saw the great opportunity pastors have to steer people towards God’s grace and truth, and what great hurt pastors can cause when they misuse or neglect their responsibilities. I began to feel a growing frustration with pastors not leading their churches well and not fulfilling, or even understanding, their God-given roles. I also began to have a better grasp of the gospel, and to notice when it was absent in a message or ministry. These and other factors bred in me a discontentment with the way things were in many churches and a growing passion to do something about it.

While I was thinking through these things, I spent a couple weeks in the Stanwood-Camano area (we were currently living in Texas). I had always had a heart for the community: I knew it well, felt at home there, and wanted to see the town thrive. But with what God had been doing in my life at that time, my thoughts towards the Stanwood-Camano community started to take a different shape. Namely, I wanted to see the gospel proclaimed and lived out in this community in greater ways than was currently happening. My newfound desire to be involved in preaching and leadership at a church was connecting with a particular community and people.

It took me a while to even consider church planting as a legitimate option. Like I said, it was never something that I saw myself doing. I had previously worked at two churches in the Stanwood-Camano community and was familiar with several others. I mulled over what it would look like to get involved with one of these churches. I had discussions with three different churches in the community about possible staff positions. While the idea of coming on staff at one of these churches was appealing in some ways, it didn’t feel completely right. As I mulled these things over and solicited advice from others, church planting slowly came to appear as the best option.

Though frightening and uncertain, I felt that planting a church in Stanwood was what I was supposed to pursue. One thing led to another, and we ended up leaving our church in Texas to move to the Stanwood-Camano area with the conviction to plant a church. I had been in touch with a small church network called 3-Strand that was involved in church planting in the north Puget Sound area and that also had an established internship for church planters. Upon moving, we got involved with the closest 3-Strand church, Communion Church in Mount Vernon, and I began the church planting internship.

One year into the internship and I am excited to take the first public step towards planting a church in Stanwood: we will be starting a community group on October 5 at our house to begin gathering a core group and discussing the vision of this new church plant. 

Go to part 3 >>

(Community groups begin Sunday, October 5 at 5 p.m. at the Fekkes' home. Come join the conversation!)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why the Stanwood-Camano area needs a new church (part 1 of 4)

This post is part 1 of 4 in a series explaining my vision to plant a church in the Stanwood-Camano community. Here are the other posts: part 2, part 3, and part 4.

It has always been easy for Christians to stray from what is central to what is secondary. The good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is known as the gospel and is the central message of Christianity. The unfathomable and mysterious greatness of God, the seriousness of our sin before this great God, and the good and necessary gift of a right relationship with God through the cross, THIS is the core of Christianity. When this is kept primary, everything else-moral living, right beliefs, traditions, religious experiences-is much more likely to be kept in its rightful place. However, the gospel often loses its position of prominence in one of two ways:

1) In some cases, it gets pushed aside for more practical and/or less offensive messages: “How to be happy,” “How to be a better spouse/parent/citizen/coworker,” “How to do great things for God.” None of these messages are wrong in and of themselves, but when they are not grounded in the gospel, when they are not presented as a response to the gospel, they confuse the Christian message. Many teachers and preachers speak as if the gospel is not very practical. People’s felt needs are idolized and thus become the subject matter of many sermons, blog posts, and books. The biblical message that our greatest need is to be made right with God is substituted with messages that, at best, focus on secondary needs, and at worst, are so man-centered they leave God entirely out of the picture.

2) A second way that the gospel loses its position of prominence is by being detached from all other aspects of Christianity. The gospel is presented only as the means of coming into a relationship with God, and then left out of all discussions of obedience, godly living, accountability, church life, etc. What God requires of believers is not presented as inextricably connected to what God has done for believers. Without the grace of God to us in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the call of God to think and act in a certain way is powerless, insufficient, and ultimately damning.

Interestingly, both conservative and liberal churches lose sight of the gospel in these ways. In liberal churches, the gospel gets replaced with social activism, community involvement, or vague mysticism. The church becomes little more than a community center and non-critical acceptance of the culture’s idolization of the individual means that sin is never confronted or dealt with. Hence, true life change rarely happens.

In conservative churches, the gospel either gets replaced by a call for personal holiness or personal happiness, or it gets presented as only the means into a relationship with God, and then left out of discussion of the rest of the Christian life. The emphasis on social goodness seen in liberal churches is replaced by an emphasis on personal goodness in conservative churches. This often merely comes down to emphasizing what TO do (liberal churches) and what NOT to do (conservative churches). In both cases, the commands of the Bible are detached from the central explanatory event of the Bible, Jesus’ death and resurrection. The work of man takes prominence over the work of God.

I provide this sketch of our tendency to stray from what is central because I see it currently causing lots of confusion and even harm across a broad spectrum of churches. In many churches, God and his work to secure our salvation are pushed to the side, and people and their actions or felt needs are given center stage. God becomes small and man becomes big.

Many cross-denominational trends can be partially blamed for turning churches away from a primary emphasis on the gospel: church-growth movement, seeker sensitive movement, me-and-my-feelings-centered worship songs, social gospels, political activism (in a way that outshines the gospel), relevancy, celebrity pastor/author/artist worship, uncritical acceptance of business models in the church, an overly-therapeutic view of God (where the main thing is me and my problems), and many others. Perhaps we get dissatisfied with the lack of “results”, perhaps we just don’t see the error in some of these trends; for whatever reason, many church leaders unknowingly push the gospel ever slightly to the side in favor of the latest “successful trend.”

In this situation, there is a great need for teachers and preachers to call people back to the centrality of the gospel. And there is a great need for churches where the gospel is not only preached, but evidenced in all other workings of the church and in the lives of its members. Churches where the gospel, over and above pragmatism, moralism, or a catering to felt needs, informs all of life, from song selection to church discipline to outreach.

This need for more gospel-centered churches is especially felt in the Stanwood-Camano community. In my observation, there is a great lack of both gospel preaching and gospel-informed ministry in this community. There is a lot of morality-focused ministry and preaching, which end up being more focused on man than on God. While Jesus and the cross may be spoken of, even frequently in some cases, they are not clearly and consistently explained as the grounds, reason, and motivation for worship, obedience, and church life. In other words, while some churches have gospel-centered preaching or teaching, the gospel does not seem to inform other areas in the life of the church such as discipleship, small groups, song lyrics, etc.

Stanwood does not need another church just to give people more options. For a community its size, Stanwood-Camano has lots of churches. There are many good things happening at these churches, things that I and people close to me have benefited from and still benefit from. Rather, Stanwood needs another church because, just as in many other communities, the message of the cross is often confused and overshadowed by secondary messages. Secondary messages that ought to flow out of the gospel are given prominence over or detached from the gospel message.

In such a community, planting a church is arguably the best way to support the gospel’s movement. The reasons that churches stray from a gospel focus are many, but most probably stem from a lack of trust in God and in the power and sufficiency of the message of the cross.  If the gospel is not intentionally kept as the main thing, every aspect of ministry and church life will slowly find other focuses and motivations. The result is that changing an established church is not as simple as changing the content of the preaching, rewriting the bylaws, or hiring a new pastor. Established churches change slow and begrudgingly. Taking part in this slow and hard change is a valuable calling for many, and one that I have felt for most of my life (and  it is still something I feel passionate about). Because of the ease with which we wander from what is central, church renovation is always necessary.

However, communities also need new church plants to assist in the gospel’s movement. Some of the long and uncomfortable (but necessary) change that existing churches attempt is accomplished with much more ease and fluidity at new church plants. Turning a cargo ship is much more difficult than turning a speed boat. Furthermore, new church plants often play a role in the revitalization and refocusing of existing churches. New church plants support the gospel both by establishing themselves with a gospel focus and by acting as a call or reminder to other churches of the centrality of the gospel.

By nature of their size and newness, church plants are able to accomplish many things that established churches find much harder to accomplish. Typically, the longer a church is around, the more inward focused it gets. This is understandable and not necessarily a bad thing: the needs of its congregants take time, energy, and resources. New church plants, on the other hand, are usually more outward focused, whether due to an intentional focus on the unchurched or simply because of a need (or desire) to grow.

Similarly, new church plants often spend more time trying to understand and engage the culture of their community. If only for one reason, church plants are valuable to a community because the area’s culture and people have changed and need to be spiritually reevaluated and reinterpreted. The process of church planting often leads those involved to ask helpful questions like “What aspects of this community can be affirmed, what can be redeemed, and what need to be rejected?” or “What demographics are not currently being reached with the gospel?”  This process of interpreting a community’s culture and people leads to a more informed and sympathetic engagement with those outside the church. 

(I'd love your feedback or questions regarding this. Post on here or message me on Facebook)

Go to part 2 >>

(Community groups begin Sunday, October 5 at 5 p.m. at the Fekkes' home. Come join the conversation!)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Truth and Meaning

I just finished reading a great new biography of C.S. Lewis by the always brilliant Alister McGrath. I've been really loving McGrath's historical theology work (see "Christianity's Dangerous Idea" and "The Twilight of Athiesm") so I was excited to see that he had put out a Lewis biography.

I find that one of the effects of reading biographies is that they remind me of the brevity of life. They help bring perspective. No matter how great a person was, no matter how great of a legacy they left behind, their life comes to an end.

I need to be reminded of this. I get so blissfully ignorant of the mortality of life. I like to pretend that I'll go on just as I am indefinitely. Those of us in our 30's can still hold on to some faint hope that our bodies aren't failing us. But they are. It's only a matter of time.

Most of us don't like to consider our own mortality. We put so much stock in things that death will take away. But remembering the shortness of life is a practice that brings needed perspective to our lives. It helps us to see which things are really valuable and deserving of our time and effort and which things we could probably stand to worry less about.

Reading biographies is one of those things that forces you to look at life through a different set of lenses. It's as if you were removed from your present location in time and space and given the opportunity to see part of the bigger picture. For a moment, the lesser concerns of life fade away and you are hit with the big questions: What the heck am I doing in this life? Is my life of any worth? To what ought I to devote my fading time, energy, and resources?

While C.S. Lewis was certainly interested in finding truth, he was more interested in finding meaning. In one sense, he devoted his life to finding the synthesis of reason and imagination. And that search led him to Christianity. He found that Christianity engaged both his mind and his imagination more convincingly than anything else.

In these times when we are forced to consider the mortality of life, I find it helps to consider, as Lewis did, the grand story of which our lives are only a small part. Lewis saw Christianity as the great, true "myth." Our lives find their purpose as part of a story, a great drama that is bigger than ourselves, but in which we are invited to play a part. Despite our inclinations otherwise, we are not the heroes of this story. Neither are we the creators of this story. But the wonderful news is that a hero and creator both exist. This means the story has both direction and resolution.

I have found that when I live my life in proper relation to the grand storyteller and his great hero, I discover both truth and meaning.