Imagination: How to Beat the Fear Factor
Tulsa workshop 2015
Every time I have the opportunity to speak with a church, eldership, or a congregation I always like to ask the same question, and I wanted to start this morning by asking you: If you knew you couldn't fail what would your dreams for your congregation be?
I have been asking that question for 15 years and in that time I have heard a full range of responses: we would like our members to show up on Sunday nights, to we would like to have the building paid off, to we want everyone in our community to know Christ and give their lives completely to Him.
I would imagine that we all take seriously the call to go out and share the redeeming love of Christ. But often times we are left with more questions than we have answers. There are times when I come to places like Tulsa and I hear all of these wonderful things that churches are doing and instead of inspiring me it causes me frustration. Let me unpack that a little bit.
Dave Clayton works with the Ethos Church in Nashville and he tells a wonderful story about their ministry to strippers. Some of their older ladies approached their leadership and wanted to go to the strip clubs so they could encourage and mentor these women who are working at these clubs. They wanted to provide a hot meal and a sympathetic ear since no little girl dreams of being a stripper when they grow up. When Dave told that story the folks around me were saying, “That’s wonderful! Praise God!” I was thinking, there is no way our ladies will be going into downtown Port Arthur to spend time with strippers.
Now I am thankful for Dave and the Ethos congregation in Nashville. I am thankful for the Hills congregation in Fort Worth, the Metro Congregation in LA, the Mayfair congregation in Huntsville, the Fairfax congregation in Virginia, and your congregation. But I realize that God has blessed each church family with their own set of gifts and the struggles. So when we try to copy what other churches are doing without their gifts we oftentimes end up with a huge mess. I truly believe that if we are going to be effective, we are going to have to figure out what works for us.
I desperately want to share some of the things that we do and talk about how we got there. But I want to be completely honest with you. And I want you to be completely honest about your family and yourself. If I were to ask you, Do you really want your church to grow? I am sure you would say yes. I mean you have given a week of your life to come to a soul winning workshop, you have spent your hard earned money and given of yourself to be here. But do you really want your church to grow?
What I have learned is that growth is scary, and hard to control. When a church grows the power brokers lose control. When a church grows folks show up that don’t know why we have to be quiet or not take a whole communion cracker or that texting is frowned upon during the prayers. When we grow folks who look different, sound different, and act different show up and take my pew. In my life I have noticed that church growth is always accompanied by chaos; which leads to fear.
I say always, because it’s a problem that we see again and again in the early church. After Jesus ascended into heaven there were approximately 100-200 disciples who were trying to figure to where to go and what to do next. Then in Acts 2 The Holy Spirit shows up and we read that 3,000 souls were saved. Then 5,000 souls, then multitudes, and then the church multiplied greatly. I used to read these texts and think that church growth was so easy for the church in Acts. They endured persecution, and the church grew. It was Tertullian who beautifully said that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church. But often times we miss the internal strife and fear that the early church had with growth.
Yes the book of Acts records the growth of the early church, but it also is honest with her fear. Look how Acts 9 starts: In Jerusalem Saul was still threatening the followers of the Lord by saying he would kill them. So he went to the high priest and asked him to write letters to the synagogues in the city of Damascus. Then if Saul found any followers of Christ's Way, men or women, he would arrest them and bring them back to Jerusalem. So Saul headed toward Damascus
Saul was not a symbol of peace and comfort for the early church. Ananias struggled with his fear and didn’t want the church to grow if Saul was the next to be added. Look down in verse 10: A disciple named Ananias lived in the city of Damascus. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
Ananias answered, “Yes, Lord.” The Lord told him, “Get up! Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street, and ask for a man named Saul from the city of Tarsus. He’s praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias place his hands on him to restore his sight.” Ananias replied, “Lord, I’ve heard a lot of people tell about the many evil things this man has done to your people in Jerusalem. Saul has come here to Damascus with authority from the chief priests to put anyone who calls on your name in prison.
Can you imagine how overwhelming it would be to have God appear to you directly? For God to come to you and say I have something that I need you to do. There have been so many times that I wished, and prayed that God would make His will apparent to me. If I just knew, without a doubt, what God wanted from me, I would be chomping at the bit, ready to spring into action. Ananias get’s a personal invitation to join God in the work and he wasn’t excited when he realized who God wanted. His fear had overcome his desire.
It wasn’t just Ananias, but the whole church was struggling with fear. Let’s keep reading in Acts 9, verse 26: When Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to meet with the believers, but they were all afraid of him. Saul had a reputation that was appalling and the truth couldn’t have been much better. He had hurt or helped kill their brothers and sisters and he was gaining more power every day. I completely understand their fear. There are some folks that I am a afraid of and not sure that I want to be a part of our church. I believe that there is a bit of fear in your church and your life as well.
Rabbi Edward Friedman said: “In moments of anxiety… the focus shifts toward pathology rather than strength, safety becomes more important than adventure, adaptation is toward the dependent and empathy becomes more important than responsibility.” A lot of us are afraid of evangelism, not so much the act of evangelism but who we will bring in and safety becomes more important than adventure.
Are there folks who would not be welcomed, or wanted in your church family?
Can you think of folks that if they walked in the door would give you pause, or even worse scare you? There are all different types of broken folks who could walk into your door on any given Sunday: a prostitute, a man who was convicted and served time for violent crimes, a woman who was dying of Aids, a drug addict? Homosexual? or a Homeless family?
Usually when we think of church growth we think of the Doctors family that has three well behaved kids and can make large contributions in the work of the church. What we find is that there are a whole lot of Zacchaeus’ out there. Broken folks who desperately need a Savior.
That's the heart of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 9 when He said "People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. Go and find out what is meant by the scripture that says: 'It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.' I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.”
I am intrigued that the Good News translates the word hamart?los (har-ma-to-las) as outcasts. That word outcast makes me uncomfortable. I mean from the very first day of Kindergarten we live our whole lives trying to be on the inside, to be one of the accepted and popular kids. At 41 years of age I can tell you there is still a strong desire to be one of the respectable folks. But in this upside down kingdom that Christ invites us to be a part of, we are called to go out and find the outcasts and bring them to the foot of the cross. And for many of us that is so uncomfortable we seize up in fear.
Randy Harris said, “We have gotten so comfortable on the inside we don't know how to function on the outside.” As much as it pains me to say, he’s right. At least in my life and in the churches where I have worked being uncomfortable has become a cardinal sin. As a mater of fact according to Thom Rainer, eight of the most common complaints heard in America’s Churches have to do with our comfort level in everything from music, to order of worship, to the church building.
So while we talk about growth, and the desire to fulfill the great commission of going into all the world, we first have to figure out how uncomfortable we are willing to be for the kingdom. We get uncomfortable by thinking about Jesus and then using our imagination. When you start to think about how you follow Jesus and you do that in imaginative ways, then all sorts of interesting things happen.
God has blessed everyone of us with the gift of imagination. I understand that some of us have fostered that gift more than others; but it’s a gift that can be used in His kingdom. If we are truly sons and daughters of God, made in His image, then it stands to reason that we have some of His characteristics.
Paul writes to the church in Ephesus Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than you can ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:20). We look at the world around us, we tend to search for comfort and ease. When God looked at the vast dark deep earth that had no form, He imagined the beauty of this life. God imagined you, and He imagined not only the penalty for our brokenness but the payment of Christ’s blood on our behalf. That’s why I believe our imagination is vital to our work and commission.
When my family moved to Texas and started working with the Park Central family, one of the deciding factors of moving was that we had Shepherds that were imaginative. When I arrived I was I was basically turned loose to do whatever I wanted. I would approach the elders with ideas for outreach and I was always given a green light. And we did some pretty imaginative things.
We contacted one of this companies that makes these fund raiser coupon cards. We told them we wanted to give them away. So they sold them to us at a reduced price, put the church information them and we told our members to give them away. Were ever you were: Walmart, or HEB, or your place of business, or the gym, if you had a conversation with someone we wanted you to give them this card. The idea was that they would use it for a year, and every time they used it they would see our information.
We made QR Codes leading folks to our website that would invite them to our church and tell them about the love and grace of Christ. I put a thousand of these little cards all over Port Arthur.
We had bottles of water with our information printed on the label. During the hottest part of the summer we would go to the parks and hand out bottles of water and ice pops to families.
We had parties for Firemen and police officers. We had block parties for the government assisted apartments that surround our buildings. Where we would cook hot dogs and hamburgers and set up tables for folks to come and eat a meal with us for free.
We had Trunk or Treat, complete with hay rides, giant inflatables, and hot chocolate. We had over 1,000 kids bring their parents and walk through our parking lot.
We made blessing bags, that had a toothbrush, deodorant, a disposable razor, granola bars, and a little card telling them about God’s love.
We adopted the local High School and every month we would take every teacher and staff member a candy bar and a little encouraging letter. We did a prayer walk around the school and would take homemade cookies during their teacher meetings.
We hosted a Thanksgiving meal for the families that had no family. We took folks who were struggling financially Christmas shopping.
It was wonderful for us, but there was something that just wasn’t right. We were doing all of these ministries but we were not making the impact that we had hoped to. Instead of people coming and learning about Christ we gained a reputation of that church who will pay your bill, or give you a bag of food, or that eats on Sundays and Wednesdays. We had become a place instead of a people. When people talked about Park Central they talked about a building with stained glass where folks gathered on Sundays from 9 - 11 on Sunday Mornings. Or worse, we were reduced to a landmark, go down Jimmy Johnson and pass Park Central then take the next left.
We were doing all of these wonderful things but we weren’t having the type of influence on our community we had longed and prayed for. That’s when I went back to the ministry the Ethos Church was doing with Strippers. When I first heard Dave talk about the ministry, I saw one more program. I imagined what it would be like to approach the widow women in our church and try to encourage them to go into the seedy parts of town every week and meet with some women that were broken in some of the most devastating ways. I imagined what it would be like to encourage these women who raised their families in a little house with a white picket fence to go into some sleazy places for Jesus.
In this period of introspection I realized that I had missed the whole point of their ministry. By using their imagination, these women in Nashville were not seeing strippers, rather they were seeing folks who were created in the image of God. These ladies were using their imagination to see who these women that had fallen on some difficult times and were forced to sell themselves could be. Their reason for going into these clubs was to give these women someone who would listen and care about them. Someone who would show them compassion and love. I don’t believe these ladies though they were starting another program; they were interested in being the living breathing church that was a light in a very dark place and not afraid of imaging what could be.
That got me to thinking; what if Park Central was not a building, a meeting time, or a way of worshipping? What if we didn’t see people by their worst decisions or mistakes? What if we saw everyone as an opportunity to be salt and light in a world that is crying out for a Savior. What if instead of coming up with a ministry and thinking about funding, logistics, and finding people to plug into those ministries just stopped and gave people the freedom to use their gifts to be Christ.
What if we asked our folks to stop seeing folks as they are, and start imagining them the way that God sees and created them to be. We asked them to imagine how they lives would change if they were the representation of Christ at their places of business, schools, neighborhoods, the grocery store, and their homes.
We got out of the program business because ministries and programs have so many logistics to figure out. You rate a ministry and program by the numbers they serve or bring in. Is this ministry still cost effective? Are we still getting the best bang for our buck? After all we need to be smart with the Lord’s money; does any of that sound familiar?
What we realized is that Jesus didn’t come to to establish programs and ministries, Jesus came to allow us the freedom to imagine how life will be in Heaven. Then we have the freedom to share that vision with those trapped here in this broken world. Isn’t that what He meant when He prayed, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven?
When we allow our imagination to run wild we stop looking at why it won’t work and focus on what God is calling us to. If your church was a place where all broken people were welcome; what would that look like?
The Church was designed for the single mother who works two jobs to support her kids.
The Church is for the drug addict who can’t stop his habit.
The Church is for the young person who struggles with self esteem.
The Church is for the young couple who lives together and has never been exposed to the best way to build a home.
The Church is for the man who does not respect his boss, so he steals from the company and from his coworkers.
The Church is for the housewife who goes out searching for some excitement in the arms of a man that belongs to someone else.
The Church is for the alcoholic who is ready to admit he needs help.
The Church is for the boy or girl that is really struggling with homosexuality or gender confusion and they just need someone who is willing to show them some love and kindness.
The Church is for the person who is always there, always contrary, and just drives you crazy.
I am often drawn to Ezekiel 34:16 where God says He will, “Search for the lost, bring back those that stray away, put bandages on those that are hurt, and make the weak strong." Those of us who claim to be followers of Christ are the ones who God sends out to bring the lost home. God has given us the personal responsibility to reach these hurting people. We need to understand that the church above all else is a place for people who have problems.
Let me take a moment to share where my imagination has taken me, and maybe make a suggestion that will pay huge dividends in your personal life and in your churches life. As I was thinking of a place to find broken people I ended up at our local shelter. I walked in the door and told them I wanted to do whatever I could to help out. I work the food line as we feed 120 folks every day, I wash dishes, sweep the floors, move tables, and do whatever I can just to be there because in my mind that’s what the church is supposed to be. And what I have found has changed me deeply.
Homeless folks are not very guarded. Some of them show up wearing everything they own in this world. Some of them are covered in tattoos and others of them smell like an old smoke stack. Some of them are dressed nice, because they have a job, but no money to buy food. And everyone of them is vulnerable. There is no pretense, nothing to hide, so they tell you about how they ended up on the street. Some of them are there because they are addicted to drugs and have hit rock bottom. Some of them are there because they made bad choices that cost them their families and their homes.
There is a culture in this environment that is much different from what I expected. I thought that because these folks were hungry, they would push to the head of the line and steal whatever they could. I thought there was a me first attitude, and fight over who was the greatest in the kingdom. But that’s not what happened. My time in this shelter has taught me what the church is supposed to be.
Every day the doors open at 10:30, and the folks who are handicapped come in first and sit down. The other folks wait behind them and after a group led prayer, folks go and get food for those sitting in the handicapped area. After they have served the others then the rest of the group files through to get their only meal for the day. We only have so much of each item, so you might get a piece of chicken and I might have to get a hot dog. But everyone is willing to trade or share and sacrifice so that their fellow struggler can have their needs met. They clean up after one another, offer one another the remaining cake or bread or soup. It’s a community of broken travelers showing love to their fellow strugglers.
These men and women own virtually nothing, and yet they are willing to share what they have if it will help you on your journey. For the last few weeks it has been cold, and I have seen folks share their socks and jackets, and blankets. Not because they are expecting something in return, but because that what love does. Love provides comfort, and gives grace to those in need. In this community of struggle and brokenness people find love, encouragement, and acceptance. That’s what I imagine the church to be, a place that is only concerned with outdoing one another in love.
Our imagination helps us figure out what kind of church we are going to be. And by that I mean who we are going to welcome. We started by asking the question, If you knew you couldn’t fail what would your dreams be for your church? I believe the way we will answer that question is by figuring out what type of church we want to be.
I have an old article in my files that unfortunately I don’t know who wrote the article or when it was written. My friend Jerrie Barber would say since I don’t know where I got it from, it must be original with me. This article outlines three types of churches I want to use to offer some different options for you to deciding what type of church you want to be.
First we can be a Native Church
These are the churches that have allowed fear to choke out their ability to imagine. These churches have allowed fear to make them comfortable with their own culture. They aren't very interested in anyone else's culture. In fact, they think they are normal and everyone else is strange. The only people a native church is going to attract are people who embrace that cultural norm and the language, music and ministries that express it.
You know immediately when you walk into a native church. It is obvious that they aren't used to visitors and, in fact they are afraid of them. They talk a lot about change agents. Change is a tool of the devil and anyone who espouses it is an enemy of the truth.
Native Churches will tell you that you are not wanted here not by what they say but by the way they act.
Screening – This has to do with your body posture. You will turn your body away from someone who you do not want to associate.
Exclusion – This is a little less subtle. We do this by inviting someone to a function (out to eat, over to play cards, to a movie) but not another person standing right there.
Family Secrets – Family Secrets rule the world. There are little things that are taboo in every congregation. Often family secrets are unconscious, unspoken, but understood. That means we rarely think about the rules, usually don’t discuss them, but people pay a price when they disobey them.
For example we worked with a church once that had these flowers placed on a ledge in front of the baptistry. Every season a dear Sister would change the arrangement just as she has done for the last 100 years. While we were working there we had a new family place membership and wanted to be involved with the work. I was excited, but the church wasn’t really sure about these folks from out of state. For their 10th anniversary the husband gave his wife 2 dozen roses, which she thought she would share with the church by displaying them on the ledge infront of the baptistery. Before Bible class that morning she removed the flower arrangement and placed her roses on the ledge. Between Bible Class and the Morning Service the regular flower lady accidentally pushed the roses into the baptistery and returned her flowers to their rightful place.
Don't’ touch the flowers was a family secret. And like all family secrets it wasn’t written down, it wasn’t covered in the new member meeting, but everyone who was on the inside understood it. Because they are trapped in their fear, native churches grow almost exclusively by membership transfer.
Maybe you are more loving than that. So you decide to be a Conquistador Church. While these churches are different from Native Churches they are not much different.
A Conquistador church recognizes the mandate of Matthew 28, that Christians are to go into all the world and preach the gospel. And they pursue that mission with zeal. But in their fear they insist on taking their culture with them. The gospel according to the conquistador Christians is, "Repent and accept our version of Christianity as the only true way. Come on in, take a pew, but don't touch the stereo. When you look enough like us, we'll let you think that you belong."
Conquistadors accept you only after they've conquered you. In these churches differences bring fear and uneasiness. You have a different idea or a different interpretation on a Scripture you are suspect. If you do anything that deviates from our normal, and we don’t care how you did it in your last church, then it’s wrong. We can only have comfort when we all look, dress, talk, and act alike. It’s sort of a Stepford community of believers.
Conquistador Churches come up with a lot of programs and outreach ideas. They bring a lot of folks into the front door, but when those same folks don’t fit into the mold of the church then they are allowed to walk out the back door of the building. After all we know who were are, and we want you to change to be just like us. The idea of us changing shuts us down in fear.
Or we could be an Immigrant Church; these churches still deal with fear, but they see broken folks and imagine what they can be because they are focused on where home really is.
Immigrant churches, and Christians, recognize that there is a difference between their own religious culture and the gospel of Jesus. They realize that there are certain things they are comfortable with, certain ways of expressing their faith that they like and are familiar with and even long cherished. But they are willing to relax or even let go of those things if it means accepting someone who is different.
Helping people feel welcome and accepted is more important than suiting your own tastes. Immigrant Christians know that. They know that Jesus had to do a lot of gagging when He immigrated from heaven to earth. And when you are seized by Jesus, you follow in His steps, no matter where they take you.
Immigrant churches see broken people and imagine wholeness. They imagine what can we do to make Christ available to strippers, single parents, gender confused teenagers, convicted criminals, drug attics, and normal folks. We understand that in the body of Christ everyone is different, and we not only accept those differences we use them to draw us closer to Christ.
If we want to be a New Testament Church then we need to take a long hard look at what we have done outside our comfort zone to reach someone else for Christ. The Great commission compels us to take the pure and simple truth of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ to the masses. To reach out to the outcasts in our community and share with them the good news that there is a place that they can be accepted. We are called to imagine a place where everyone is welcome.
The Gospel calls us to see people as human beings. If we are going to be effective in meeting the needs of our community we need to focus on building relationships not programs. We need to work at being present where we are and helping people where they are.
People do not want to be invited to a building, to come in sit and look at the back of someone's head. What people are looking for and what Jesus called us to do is to invite people to be part of our family. Evangelism is when we take someone and invite them to come along this journey with us, to walk with us, to be involved in life with us, to be involved in happiness and sadness in rejoicing and pain.
The early Christians had a difficult time figuring a lot of this out, but they understood community. They imagined a relationship that had Christ on display. The early church lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person's need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved. (Acts 2:44-47 The Message)
One of the greatest gifts God has given us to His work is our ability to imagine what can be. We can beat the fear factor in our churches and in our lives, all it takes is a little imagination and a desire to be Christ in a world that desperately needs a Savior.