Planting the Church or Planting the Gospel?

This post originally appeared on The SendSFL Blog. Cross-posted here by permission.

We didn’t mean to plant a church. In 2008, when our family relocated to the suburbs of Raleigh-Durham, my concept of church planting was pretty conventional. It involved the need for funding, a core group, a place to meet, etc. My conversations with other planters and some experience with church planter assessments had convinced me that I wasn’t wired with the entrepreneurial skill set to be successful as a church planter. If this is where you have found yourself, keep reading.

Photo Credit: c_ambler via Compfight

As with all transitions, our move gave my wife and me an opportunity to reevaluate our values and behaviors. One of the things we wanted to do well in our current setting was to order our everyday lives around Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God with everything we were and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). We wanted to see a new culture emerge in our community—a disciple-making culture. We believed that the missionary pattern of the Apostle Paul was foundational to creating this culture. Particularly gripping was what we read of Paul’s life with the people of Thessalonica: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8, ESV).

[Read more…]

Have Our Memorials Lost Their Meaning?

Memorials are built to remember something. Today we remember the men and women in our armed forces who have give the ultimate sacrifice to preserve our freedom. We thank God for them. Last week I had the privilege of giving a talk about biblical memorials and generational discipleship. My thoughts on the subject follow…

And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” Joshua 4:21-24

Petoskey Stones
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Beth via Compfight

The idea of remembering and memorials is important in the Bible. In Joshua 4 we find Joshua and the people of Israel crossing the Jordan and setting up a memorial for a very specific purpose. The text helps us understand the biblical mandate for generational discipleship with great implications for those of us who are parents. Joshua 4:21 gives the purpose for this memorial – When your children ask their fathers in times to come, “What do these stones mean?” The memorial was for instruction. This is not new to God’s method of transmission of the faith from generation to generation.

This is a theme repeated throughout the Bible. Consider these memorials and God’s instruction to parents:

• Of the Passover: “You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. And when you come to the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped. (Exodus 12:24-27 ESV)

• Of the Feast of Unleavened Bread: “And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:14-16 ESV)

• Of the giving of the Law: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.’”(Deuteronomy 6:20-25 ESV)

There is a consistent idea in these memorials that parents should pass faith along to their children. The question that the children were to ask in Joshua 4 in the text is, “What do these stones mean?”

Memorials without Meaning

Today, I believe many children in our churches have the memorials without the meaning! In other words, the church and Christianity surround them while they have no personal ownership of their faith. You see, Joshua 4:6 adds an important qualifier to the question children will ask, “What do these stones mean to you?” The idea is a personalized faith on the part of the parent. But the state of discipleship today is such that Southern Baptist pastor Brian Haynes in his book The Legacy Path, comments, “The greatest obstacle that parents have to overcome in leading their children spiritually is their own mediocre or morbidly religious relationship with God accompanied by a juvenile understanding of his word.” This underscores the point that parents must be disciples first.

I am convinced this dearth of parental discipleship exists in large part as an unintended consequence of our stellar church programming for youth and children which is relegating parents to the backseat when it comes to delivering faith to our children. Notice I said unintended consequence. We are, as it were, victims of our own success when it comes to ministry to children and youth. We have given parents a “drop-off” mentality in which they perceive their role in spiritual formation ends when the child is transported to the church. Haynes continues, “for a very long time parents have depended on children’s pastors or youth pastors to disciple their kids. This is a great partnership but it does not take the place of parent-to-child faith training.”

It is no exaggeration to say that there is a crisis in discipleship of the next generation. We have all heard the alarming dropout statistics from the church after a child leaves for college. The National Survey of Youth and Religion showed that between graduation from high school and what is the equivalent of the end of the young people’s sophomore year in college, from 60-70 percent of those in-church youth left the church and became inactive. The study showed that those dropouts were not actively a part of any church of any denomination by that end date.

The solution to this is not better programming at the church. The solution lies in discipling parents to disciple their kids. Strong homes will make strong churches.

Memorials with the Wrong Meaning

But, as tragic as it is that our children may see memorials with no meaning, I believe there may be an even more dangerous implication we can draw from Joshua 4. Many children have the memorials with the wrong meaning! In other words, they have been told what the faith means to their parents, but it is a kind of Christianity that falls short of the commands of Christ.

Notice the true meaning behind the memorial for the Israelites in vv. 22-24. Parents were to recount the mighty acts of God so that ALL THE PEOPLES OF THE EARTH MAY KNOW THE HAND OF THE LORD IS MIGHTY AND THAT YOU MAY FEAR THE LORD YOUR GOD FOR EVER – the meaning behind the memorial was mission and worship! tThat is why we disciple our children. We disciple them to fear the LORD and proclaim His glory to the nations.

But the Western church in the 21st century has lowered the bar. As a result of the study noted above, a term has been coined that has gained popularity among many in the blogosphere and in the seminary classroom – moralistic, therapeutic deism.

Moralistic, therapeutic deism, according to the researchers has replaced biblical Christianity in many homes and churches. It is the belief that Christianity is to make us be good (moralistic), feel good (therapeutic), and to keep God at arms length until one of those first two goes wrong (deism). In her book, Almost Christian, flowing from the research already noted, Kenda Creasy Dean, notes “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a sense of a divine mission in the world. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, helps solve problems, and lubricates interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to do good, feel good, and keep God at arm’s length… Moralistic Therapeutic Deism makes no pretense at changing lives; it is a low commitment, compartmentalized set of attitudes aimed at “meeting my needs” and “making me happy” rather than bending my life into a pattern of love and obedience to God…We have received from teenagers exactly what we have asked them for: assent, not conviction; compliance, not faith. Young people invest in religion precisely what they think it is worth—and if they think the church is worthy of benign whatever-ism and no more, then the indictment falls not on them, but on us.”

In short, the lie that parents and teens have bought is making the Gospel too small. The solution is to teach the true biblical meaning of the “memorials” to parents who in turn teach their children.

The issue lies in the church, yes, and there are challenging questions we must ask about our effectiveness. But more so, the issue must be addressed in the home. We must champion a return of parents to their God-given privilege of discipling their own children. We must resource them, train them, and involve them in the spiritual nurture of their children.

We must challenge them with their own understanding of the memorial. We must call parents back to proclaim the Gospel so all the peoples of the earth will know the might hand of the Lord and that they may fear the LORD forever.

There is indeed more to do, and it begins with raising the bar for generational discipleship!

So, what about your homes? Have you built a memorial? Not with stones, but with sound spiritual practices that teach your children the glories of God and His mission to the world?

Would you do one thing this week and challenge the families of your church to do one thing to explain to children what these stones mean to you?


How family discipleship can make your job easier

The not-so-subtle assault on families in our time is real. This should drive us to be intentional in making disciples of our children so they can know biblical answers to the moral questions they will face. For decades Christians have looked to the church as the primary institution for instilling faith and values into our kids. Here’s a simple question: How’s that working for us? A solid family ministry strategy that is intentional can help parents and church leaders be effective at making disciples of the next generation.

Timothy Paul Jones is a major voice in creating a new culture where churches are more intentional in partnering with parents. The second part of my recent conversation with Timothy is now up at I hope you’ll take time to listen. There are take-aways for parents and church leaders that are super-practical and encouraging. Here are my top 10 (5 for parents, 5 for church leaders):

As Parents:

  1. Take your own discipleship seriously.
  2. You don’t have to be perfect. Be genuine and sincere.
  3. Start a Family Faith talk at least once a week. Keep it simple and gear it to the age of your kids.
  4. Don’t see the church staff as the main disciple-maker, but see them as partners to help you take that role.
  5. My favorite: Consistency matters more than content! Your kids will remember the time you spend with them more than the teaching itself.

As Church Leaders:

  1. Ask your leaders, are you doing this in your home?
  2. Start a family ministry team.
  3. Don’t blow up the bride of Christ. Love people to change, don’t try to force change.
  4. Re-culture the church. Create a new culture, not just a new strategy.
  5. Provide the tools. Give parents simple resources they can use to do family faith talks at home. This can simply be a take home question or two from the sermon.
Recently, I encouraged some friends to start spending time in prayer together as couple. The husband said, “When should we start? The wife said, “How about tonight?”
The same question is a good one for family discipleship. When should you start?
How about tonight?


How to Help Families Focus

Family values always get lots of attention, especially in the church. The only thing that is clear about family ministry is that there isn’t a lot of clarity! I have spent over 20 years in ministry to families in one way or another. I wish I’d had access to a book like Family Ministry Field Guide when I started. The author, Timothy Paul Jones, recently joined me for the Church and Family Connect Podcast with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.

Here are five big take-aways for me:

  1. We shouldn’t focus on the family, we should help families focus on God and the gospel.
  2. Most parents know they are responsible for discipling their kids, BUT most parents aren’t doing anything to fulfill that responsibility.
  3. Churches know that parents are responsible for discipling their kids, BUT most churches aren’t sure how to help parents.
  4. Busyness does not mean effectiveness. Churches need a strategy for family ministry.
  5. Youth and children’s ministries CAN be structured to help train, involve, and equip parents.

Listen and share your big take-aways:

Timothy Paul Jones, Part 1


This Easter, Make Jesus the Main Attraction

Easter is the most sacred of holidays in the Christian year. It is traditionally the Sunday with the highest church attendance in the year. It is the day during the year that more non-Christians or de-churched folks are likely to attend church. Many church plants strategically launch on Easter Sunday because of this fact. More churches do mass marketing campaigns and pithy postcards for Easter than any other Sunday. Churches will work hard to be attractive this Sunday. Churches will do their best this Easter to put their most talented musicians on stage, show their best video, have the nicest greeters, display the prettiest flowers, and have the most manicured lawns. Preachers will prepare to preach their best sermon. It’s the Sunday where, for mama’s sake, families will suck it up, don the seersucker, and pack a pew. It’s a day when churches are so passionate to get people in the door they might even give away an iPad or two.

Cross-in-Chimayo-AreaCreative Commons License Photo Credit: Glen Van Etten via Compfight

And oh yeah, it’s the day when we celebrate that there is hope for humanity because Jesus was victorious over sin and rose victoriously from the grave (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)! It’s the day that we remember that he who knew no sin became sin that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). It is a day, above all else, to worship the King of Kings and lift Him high so that He will draw all people to Himself.

There will be lots of reasons people gather this Sunday. There will be thousands of invitations to people and tactics that, though they may be done with the best of intentions, cross the line into gimmickry and even manipulation. There will be lots of attractions at church this Easter, but I pray that for your own life or the life of your church you will make Jesus the main attraction. As Ed Stetzer said on this topic: “Let’s not lose focus of this: no show, stage dressing, egg drop, or speaker should eclipse the one who conquered sin and death.”

A.A. Milne, of “Winnie the Pooh” fame, wrote a poem about Christopher Robin going to Buckingham Palace. Christopher Robin sees the sentry houses and the changing of the guard and hears of the grand parties hosted on the palace grounds. He is fascinated by all that he sees, but Christopher Robin doesn’t see the one he hoped to see–the King!

It’s quite tragic, you see, to go to the palace and not see the King.


When the Church Loses Her Zeal

The handsome Moldovan couple had been married for 52 years. Upon meeting them you wouldn’t know they had been persecuted for their faith. Despite being raised in then-communist Moldova, both Mikhail and Olga were raised in Christian homes and came to a personal relationship with Christ as children. As a young man serving in the Soviet army, Mikhail faced ridicule and beatings from his comrades because of his faith in Jesus while two of his brothers spent time in prison for their roles as pastors.

Olga’s English was excellent, and during my recent visit to Moldova I was able to talk with her about the old days before the Iron Curtain fell when the church was persecuted. Every day, she said, they lived with the prospect of the KGB coming and taking them away. Every day, she said, they would ask God to bring freedom to Moldova. Olga went on to tell me how excited they were when independence came to Moldova in 1991.

After twenty years of freedom, Olga said she still thanked God for delivering them. Nevertheless, she did say that freedom had one negative effect for the church. She struggled for a moment to find the right English word to express her thoughts, but then it came to her. She said, “we have lost our zeal.” Olga explained that when the church was persecuted they experienced the fire of the Holy Spirit constantly. They had to rely on God when social ostracism, prison, or even death were potential realities. Now, however, a real consequence of freedom was apathy in the church.

Olga’s story stuck with me. I was convicted because I don’t know that I have ever had the same kind of “zeal” as an American Christian that Olga missed in the Moldovan church. I’ve never had to live daily with the prospect of punishment or persecution because of my faith.

In Titus 2:14 we are told that Jesus Christ gave Himself to redeem us and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. The idea behind being “zealous” is to be eager or enthusiastic. As a disciple, being zealous to do good works is the only fitting response to the grace of God that saves. It shouldn’t take a totalitarian regime and an underground church to make us zealous. Zeal for Christ ought to be the normal mindset of the disciple.

Flying home, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean a question came to my mind. When, I wondered, did the church in America lose her zeal? But then I asked myself, did we ever really have it?

So, are you “zealous” for good works? Are you eager and enthusiastic to live out the life of a disciple? What would it take to drive you to depend daily on God’s grace? Pray for revival in the American church. Pray for a spiritual awakening that will restore that same zeal back to Olga’s church, too.

Read more about the NC Baptist partnership with Moldova.


Do Your Church and Family Connect?

I have an intense burden to see parents grasp a vision to make disciples at home. That burden extends to helping churches do a better job of equipping families. I believe we in church world have unintentionally communicated to parents that their role in discipleship begins and ends with getting their kids to church. In their sincere efforts to minister to families, churches have created stellar programs and sophisticated curriculum offerings that seem to do a much better job at discipleship than parents could ever do. Notice that I said seem to do a better job. To depend on these church solutions alone to disciple kids is unbiblical! Scripture is clear that faith formation must begin at home (see Deuteronomy 6). The larger faith community–the church–has a role to play as a partner with parents, but parents must see themselves as the primary disciple-makers of their children.

The good news about family discipleship is that many voices are emerging that are championing this idea of connecting church and home. They share my conviction that the institutional church must resource, train, and involve parents as disciple-makers. Churches simply cannot continue just offering a litany of good programming for children and youth and call it discipleship. They must discover ways to equip and empower parents to take the lead in discipleship.

Re-envisioning family ministry in this way can be a daunting task. That’s why I am excited about the Church and Family Connect Podcast. This podcast highlights thought-leaders in the area of family discipleship, giving practical ideas to churches and parents on how we can better make disciples of the next generation. In the latest episode, pastor and author Brian Haynes offers practical advice on how churches and families can use natural family milestones as opportunities to build faith into children and teens.

It’s my prayer that you will subscribe to this podcast and use it as a resource to help you re-think the way your church and family connect. Don’t forget to tell your pastor and children’s/youth pastor about it too. New episodes from pastors, authors, and practitioners are on the way!


5 Sins of the Church

From time to time I come across stories that, though not out of my own experience, need to be told. Consider the case of Fellowship Bible Church in Jonesboro, AR. I don’t know much about the church, but I was impressed with a document I ran across last year regarding the church’s decision to start over in 2008. This is where the story gets interesting.

Image: Dan /

For several months the church leadership sought God’s direction to answer the question, “Jesus, how would you evaluate Fellowship?” This period of prayer and reflection led them to the cold reality that they were not effective at making disciples.

So, they repented. That’s right. They confessed their sin of ineffectiveness. Sounds harsh in our day. Fellowship decided the most obedient thing they could do was repent and relaunch with a focus on the Gospel, discipleship, and mission. Specifically, they confessed sin in 5 areas:

1. We planted programs before planting the gospel.

2. We taught our people great Bible content without calling them to follow Jesus on the mission of the gospel (i.e. discipleship).

3. We equipped people for our world (the “church” world) and NOT for their world (everyday life).

4. We assumed people knew more about the gospel than they really did–beginning with us as leaders.

5. We were more concerned with filling our services than filling our city with people who live and love like Jesus.

When I read their list I was brought to great conviction myself. Many churches–too many churches–are guilty of the exact same sins. Somehow we’ve taken our eye off the ball in the life of the church. We have traded Gospel goals for institutional ones.

I have a ton of respect for Fellowship. They had the courage to get to the heart of the matter. Unfortunately, I believe many churches would be more inclined to talk about a “new vision” or “new purpose” rather than confessing their lack of attention to God’s design as sin. But that kind of spiritual brokenness is the only place where real awakening can start.

So, what about your church? This post is not just for pastors, it’s for whoever is a part of the Bride of Christ. If you were intellectually honest about your church’s effectiveness at making true disciples what would you say? Do you have the courage to ask Jesus to evaluate your church’s ministry?

Read the whole story of Fellowship.


This is Discipling

I love the picture this video paints of a disciple-making culture:

Some questions for you:

  1. Does the message align with Scripture?
  2. Do you identify with some of the tension between event-driven ministry and a sending-type ministry as portrayed?
  3. Where did the video make you uncomfortable?
  4. Which picture of discipling looks most like your church?
  5. What are you going to do about it?

Missional Church: Simple

While I’m away for a few days, I’m posting some of the videos that have helped me think about what it means to be the church. Enjoy…

  1. How can we reconcile current church culture with missional church culture?
  2. What steps can you take at your church to be more on mission?