Echo

StartUp Church Planting

Since its first season, I’ve been a listener of StartUp podcast. As an entrepreneurial type, I’m always fascinated with the why and how of starting new projects. What began as an insider view of Cincinnati native Alex Blumbergs quest to start his own podcast company has expanded to a nontraditional media empire. ABC even tried to make a sitcom out of the story.

So when they announced that this season’s edition of StartUp would focus on church planting, I was pleasantly surprised—especially since they were covering an urban church plant by one of our Movement's organizations. I was curious how this would be portrayed; StartUp is not a religious podcast, so their observations of church planting from an outside (and even skeptical) perspective could have been awkward. Ultimately, I commend producers and journalists for a fair look at the modern state of church planting through the origins of Restoration Church. AJ, the lead minister at Restoration, reflected on the entire podcast experience in a two-part blog post at Christianity Today.

Since I helped start an urban church thirteen years ago, and since I think the content of this series has broader interest, I want to highlight three things I’m still chewing on from the podcast:

1. Identity
AJ was one of those guys who fell into church planting. He didn’t necessarily pursue it but took the mantle when the previous church planter left. What he soon discovered was something that all church planters (and nearly all lead ministers) realize: the lead person becomes the visible identity of the whole church. Even though newer church plants tend to emphasize the team approach to ministry (I find this much healthier), it doesn’t eliminate this identity issue.

While listening to the podcast, I empathized with AJ as he expressed this. It definitely gets in your head, as you feel compelled to “always be on.” Even though I’m an extrovert, there are times when I need to recharge; oftentimes there isn’t space for church leaders to do so without being perceived as being unwelcoming. Now that I am a church elder leading from the pews, I feel that one of my shepherding obligations is to create opportunities for our staff to breathe and be themselves. Ministers need to believe that the entire organization won’t collapse if they’re not superhuman.

2. Finance
Since I advise churches on financial strategy, I was keenly interested in the podcast’s revealing discussion concerning Restoration Church’s cash flow. StartUp used the church’s need for growth as a plot point in their storytelling—they explained that the church needed to grow in attendance in order to get enough offering to stay in business. This is perhaps the greatest source of discomfort for church planters: their desire to create new styles of ministry is directly connected to their ability to structure a fiscally sound organization. My impression is—the vast majority of new churches that fail do so because they never reach financial viability.

We started Echo Church on a shoestring budget; we were self-supporting week one, but we used a credit card to get there. Ours was a low-overhead approach that required my family to take responsibility for covering salary expenses. While I thrived in a bi-vocational setting, I can see, years later, that it was likely a hindrance to our church’s growth. While Echo still has bi-vocational ministers, we’re in a multi-year process of shifting our model. It will force us to talk about money more than many people will be comfortable, but I’ve grown to see this topic interlinked with discipleship. I’ve been processing this for years now and hope to formulate a more complete overview of discipleship and ministry finance in 2019.
 
3. Tension
The reason I resonated so much with AJ and Restoration Church is because urban church planting is a much different animal than suburban or rural planting. An entire episode of the podcast covered theology, and I’m sure it was the most controversial installment of the entire series. Generally churches in the city are the object of critique from those nestled on both sides of the theological spectrum. One of the most difficult things I’ve done pastorally is to maintain relationships with people on both sides of the spectrum while continuing to cling to a biblical theology.

Even though I’m a quasi-theologian, I don’t think I’m biased when I suggest that theology will become the most important issue in new church work in the decades to come. Our church planting organizations have done an excellent job of understanding entrepreneurialism and organizational growth, but this has often relied on marketing techniques. As culture continues to become more progressive, marketing efforts will be perceived with skepticism until “consumers” can determine exactly what a church believes. It’s a minefield, and the church is wading into it. This is another topic I’ve been thinking about that I’ll likely expound upon later.

Suffice to say, this past season of StartUp is compelling. Whether or not you’re a person of faith, I highly recommend giving this a listen.

Perfect Endings

I attended the funeral visitation of my friend Anna over the weekend. We met because she was a leader at the church in Walnut Hills where Echo originally started; we rented their building for services on Sunday nights. Though in her eighties at the time, she was still a spirited woman. In fact, she was likely the most passionate member of the congregation. When she was ill, I would check on her, yet I always left feeling like she was the one encouraging me. As her church struggled to stay afloat (and as we tried to get the building for Echo), she was supportive. Whenever we talked about it, should would tell me, “my only wish is to have my funeral in this church.”

She never got her wish.

For years now, I thought of writing about the pain of losing that building but never did. Saying goodbye to Anna today finally moved me to do so.

Echo Church met in that building for nearly six years. It was serendipity that we even ended up meeting there. When Aaron and I finally decided on a neighborhood in which to start the church, we immediately went for a drive to look for a meeting place. A wrong turn brought us to that church’s parking lot. After knocking at the door to no response, we started to leave when one of the church’s leaders was arriving. Within six weeks, we had secured an agreement to rent there.

The building was constructed just two years after Anna was born. It shared roots with Echo/CCU’s lineage. After peaking in the early 1950’s, the congregation struggled for decades to maintain shifting ground. By the time we showed up they had a mere twenty-five members, but still had sizable investments in bank. The endowment took major hits in the recession of the late 2,000’s, and with little offering income, the aging building became the church’s burden. They were struggling to stay afloat.

I worked closely with those church leaders throughout the time to try to preserve the building for ministry. We continually invested in renovations to improve it. Twice, our church wrote checks when their bills were getting tight. We assured them that, if they gifted us the building, we would be faithful stewards. There was an ebb and flow to those conversations; at times, the church was ready to shut it down and hand us the keys. Then, they’d commit to persevering and keeping the doors open. This lasted a few years. During this time, the church struggled to remain civil with each other. Decades of struggle left them angry with each other. Not Anna, though. This is one of the reasons I loved her. She was nothing but positive and faithful. But even though she had invested more of herself than any other person in the church, they never truly listened to her opinion.

Ultimately, they decided to close and asked us to put in an offer on the building.

The idea that they wanted us to buy their building, all while they were closing, was a little ridiculous. They claimed they needed the money to do ministry, yet our goal was to maintain the building for that very purpose. We submitted a humble but respectful offer, letting them know that we’d have to raise considerable money to keep the building functional. I had a fundraising plan and budget ready to go when they handed us the keys.

I remember the exact moment when they told me that a realtor offered to list the building at seven-times what we offered. I was frustrated, but optimistic; I was doubtful anyone would want a church building in the midst of a residential neighborhood. I never suspected someone would not only pay asking price but choose to flip it into a house.

The church building was sold after a divisive vote by the remaining members. It was purchased in cash by an affluent man who remodeled it into his personal mansion. Anna ended up attending a wonderful church in a neighboring community and that's where her funeral was held on Saturday.

We had a mere three weeks to move. We stripped out everything that we could that we contributed to the building. I asked the church if I could take the pulpit, and it now sits in my house.

Fortunately, God provided us a place to meet within those three weeks. But it was a difficult transition. The years following this move were tough for our church. We were growing, but after the move the growth ceased. We lost some beloved people over the years—from moving, disagreements, and even death. After being on the brink of owning our own place, our church was relegated to nomadic status until just this year.

I harbored bitterness about the whole situation for years. You see, I truly believed that this was part of our community’s story. Ten years ago, when we felt called to start a church in the city, I didn’t view us as missionaries breaking new ground. Instead, I felt like we were tilling soil that had at one time been fertile; that we were just building on foundations that others had built. I had studied the history of that church and we shared the vision of their earliest founders. If we could get that building for Echo, (in my mind), it would have been the perfect redemption arc. Our church’s story would have been intricately woven into the history of this 100+ year old church. For a guy who loves stories, this was gold. It would be the perfect narrative.

But it never happened for us.

And, sadly, it never happened for Anna either.

But in talking to her family and new church friends at her funeral, it was refreshing to see that she moved on with her life. Sure, Anna wanted her wish to have her funeral in that building to come true, but when it didn’t, she moved on with life. Hearing the testimonies of her new church family about her contributions there moved me. “She was the most passionate person in our church,” her pastor told me.

And that’s the last thing Anna did for me: she helped me move on.

It’s a lesson I know full well but struggle to display in my life. Sometimes the story doesn’t go how it ought to, but there’s still another story out there for you.

In the months (even years) after not getting that building, I was disappointed for our church and our ministry. But here, years down the road, I’ve seen what God has done because that didn’t happen. He brought us through the other side. Sure, we could have done some amazing things in that other building, but we now have a rental space with a long term lease in a community with few meeting options. It’s an immense blessing to see where the Lord took us.

The story’s still being written. Just not as I planned.

Since we moved this summer, we now live a mere three blocks from that original church building, I pass it often when I’m out running. It look at it now with a curious eye, but my bitterness is gone.

So when your story doesn’t go the way you planned, trust that God’s doing something, even if you can’t see it at the time.

That’s what Anna did. That’s what I’m trying to do.

_______________________

*I photographed all the stained glass of that building before we left. It was magnificent. You can view it by clicking here.

I Resign

Taking a stand can be fun. In the midst of this crazy global news cycle, people have used the interwebs to broadcast bold statements about a variety of political issues. Tonight I take a stand of my own. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not very controversial. But it’s kinda a big deal to me.

I changed my Linkedin profile. I officially ended my employment at Echo Church.

My church won’t be shocked, even though I handed in no official resignation letter; I didn’t announce it from the pulpit last week because I’m not going anywhere. I haven’t taken a paycheck in over a year now. Even when I was “paid staff,” I was bi-vocational (working another job in addition to my pastoral gig to make a living). It’s basically been like that since I started the church. I still continue to serve just as passionately and preach nearly every week at our church. I’ll continue in my role as an elder at the church.

The only thing really changing is my view of my relationship with my community. It’s been heading this way for years now. I just finally recognized it.

When we started Echo ten years ago, I was bi-vocational out of necessity. We wanted to start a church our way and raising funds would have meant having to live up to a donor’s expectations. Also, we knew of too many awesome works around the kingdom of God with which we had no desire to compete. So I did what I had to do to manage our costs and kept some side jobs: I started out working at a Panera, performed weddings and funerals, led worship, filled pulpits, and taught college classes all to make ends meet. Even when I originally took a job at Cincinnati Christian University years ago, I secretly desired to grow the church to the size necessary for me to be a full-time minister.

Like most things in my life, I found a way to mess up that plan.

Along the way, while aiming for that next level, I discovered something about my bi-vocationality: my role gave me a more prophetic voice. This wasn’t a “filled-with-the-spirit” kind of prophesying, rather an opportunity to speak the truth plainly. This is difficult to find in American pulpits. Many full-time ministers are forced to temper their messages so as not to blatantly offend others. But my position permitted me a blank check to be bold. When the fear of termination isn’t there, you say what needs to be said. The past decade has changed the way I view the pulpit. It might not be a great template for building a large congregation, but I believe it’s helped us build genuine community at Echo.

And our church has been the key to this. They’ve accepted this model and made it their own. They don’t treat me like some random employee but as a close friend. My leadership in the church is just as strong (if not stronger) because I can lead with total confidence. And the smaller staffing budget has allowed us to be generous with our missions support. In short, we’re a healthier church because of our pastoral relationship.

Honestly, the only thing it hasn’t been good for is my psyche. I always self-identified as a minister. I was fearful that if I strayed too far away from this goal, it would change who I was destined to be. Yet this journey brought me to new levels of acceptance. I’ve now come to the realization that I’ll likely never be a full-time minister again. And I’m totally OK with that. And I don’t feel any different about my role in leading our church. God still uses me, regardless of whatever title I put on my email signature.

When we started Echo, my desire was for us to create new models for ministry. I know of many amazing works sprouting up around American cities, but the money necessary to fund all these endeavors continues to decrease. I believe the future American church will be comprised of two kinds of congregations: megachurches with multiple staff people, each holding their own specializations, and smaller churches with bi-vocational (or volunteer ministers) that have modest budgets. My hope is that people facing this conundrum will see our path and realize it’s possible to go this way while doing some amazing ministry. The digital era has made the world smaller and has expanded the opportunities for effectiveness.

I feel more effective than I’ve ever been.

Not quitting. Just throwing away my business cards.

Christians and Trayvon Martin

I haven't been nearly as faithful in posting on the blog this last year. I'm in the midst of working on my thesis and the last thing I want to do is write for fun. Still, I felt compelled to pause from research and writing this afternoon to post this. In my role as pastor, I tend to steer away from divisive, political and current event issues. Doing so will usually attract the label of being weak or wishy-washy or a wuss.

I'd argue that it makes me something all-together different: it makes me pastoral.

You see, even though we don't like to admit it, many of the views about which we are most passionate are opinions. And our reactions to those issues are generated from our worldview. Often, this transcends our religious views and are derived from other ideologies, but we confuse them and view them as essential parts of our faith. For example, within my faith tradition, there's a natural assumption that you align yourself with a conservative Republican worldview. I have other friends from a mainline denomational affiliation whose Christianity is connected to a liberal Democrat persepective. Even though I follow politics and am amused by it, for the most part I really don't care what you believe unless you mesh it indiscernably with your faith and force others to submit to it.

In our church fellowship we have people across the political spectrum: conservatives, progressives, libertarians, vegans, Browns fans, etc.. So my pastoral role is to cut through these worldviews so that it's perfectly clear which ones are biblical and which are not. If those issues infringe upon the political realm, then, and only then, am I obligated to speak out.

I think about this a lot in my preaching and teaching because I recognize that I too own opinions on how the world should work. But despite my studies and thoughtful engagement on these subjects, I have blind-spots. And since I believe I'll be judged as a result of how I pastor (James 3:1), I still try to hold to an old adage within my faith tradition: "where the Scriptures speak, I speak, and where the Scriptures are silent, I am silent." My job, as best as possible, is to keep my opinions to myself.

So, what brought you in: about the George Zimmerman trial concerning the death of Trayvon Martin.

A young man is dead and another young man will never escape this deed as long as he lives. I, like many of you, spent the past weeks watching the trial and the media buzz surrounding it; I actually started tracking the case immediately after Trayvon died. There has likely not been a current event like this in the past decade that has left so much open to opinion. And I say that because of the perfect storm surrounding the tragic issue of this event: only two people know for sure what happened and one of them is no longer alive. As a result, we have relied heavily on our worldviews to interpret what happened on a rainy night when only two people knew for sure.

But you likely immediately knew who you sided with—Zimmerman or Martin—once you heard about it. And you probably haven't waivered from that position since.

The main issue that continues to divide us concerning this tragedy is that these two participants weren't polarizing enough to make our interpretations easy. If either of the two had exemplified pure evil or unquestioned good, we may never have even heard about this case. The trial exposed that Zimmerman had done things that showed he could have been either a racist vigiliante or an average Joe. We also saw that Trayvon was a kid who did just enough wrong to leave people questioning his youthful innocence. So, in reality, the two ideally represented how all of us actually are: beings capable of both grace and sin.

But when there is nothing left to go on, we will default to our preferred narrative. And then, we're not even arguing about this tragedy.

We're arguing about our worldviews.

So what now?

First, a story.

This past week, our church hosted our first ever Vacation Bible School—a mini summer camp for children. Even though I'm the minister, I had very little to do with it. Other people developed the concept, organized volunteers, did the set up and tear down. All I had to do is show up and do as I was told. I've been involved with numerous VBS's over the years but it was different than any other I had ever participated in.

Our Walnut Hills neighborhood claims diversity and it models it. Developed as a rich, white suburb, it became a landing place for poor black families whose neighborhoods were eradicated in the 1950's, 60's, and 70's to build the interstate system through the city. The neighborhood has "leveled-off" if you will, with black/white and rich/poor living side by side. Within a mile radius of the church building we rent, some of the richest and poorest residents of the city of Cincinnati area reside.

Any week of VBS is exhausting but the thought of this mix of kids made me anticipate greater challenges. But you know what? It worked perfectly. Those children had no problem being together, learning together, seeing together, playing together. During one snack time, kids had to make the snack for the child next to them and any racial or socio-economic boundaries were non-existent. I'm not sure we've we really acheived the post-racial society we were promised, but these kids made me believe that it could be coming. But for those older people like ourselves, we still grapple with the present reality.

These next sentences will offend some, but the more I labored over them, the more I realized that their accuracy is what makes them painful: if you grew up being profiled, it will never leave you. And you probably relate with Trayvon and his family. And if you grew up suspicious of those different than you, it's incredibly difficult to escape it. And you likely feel for Zimmerman. And that's why, as a white priviliged male, I am saddened today. These opinions are derrived from experiences and there's nothing that can be done today to heal them immediately.

So I now will give my opinion based from my current worldview. See, I have many friends who are minorities who have spent their lives in fear from authority as a result of history and experience. They are frightened by this verdict because they feel that the same thing that happened to Trayvon could happen to their children as well. You may not understand that fear personally, but it truly exists. And for them, rejoicing in Zimmerman's aquittal is akin to celebrating the idea that their kids lives are insignificant. And to witness that perpetuated from other Christians is devastating.

If your humanity will not permit you to grasp that concept, you need a new worldview.

So as I simplistically opined last night, this isn't the occassion to be witty or wise. This isn't the time to talk jurisprudance or discuss proper legal outcomes. This isn't the opportunity to speak in anger and prophecy the forthcoming vengence of God.

It is a time for sorrow and to reevaluate how we view those created in the image of God. No one won here.

Jesus wept, and so must we.

Striving For Perfection

I've found time to be astonishing; it either flies or crawls. And these past years have done both. It was seven years ago past week that we started Echo Church.

I vividly remember the early experiences we had when plotting to start the church like it was yesterday: the optimism of those first people who joined Kelly and me on the journey, the doors that the Lord opened in bringing us to Walnut Hills, the steep learning curve which followed that first service.

The weeks where we had seven people in attendance didn't stop us; the adrenaline pushed us past the fear of failure.

I've now spent half of my ministerial career at Echo. Dozens of people have come and gone through our fellowship over that time, but the Lord has continued to use Echo to make a difference. And that's what keeps me just as excited about what the future holds for our congregation as when we first started: there's more out there that God has planned for us.

It's never been easy. And it wasn't what I expected it to be. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. The blessings have been immeasurable.

During my doctoral residency, we had the chance to Skype interview Tim Keller, a minister in Manhattan instrumental in establishing a renewed approach to urban ministry. In his teachings on the subject, he often comments on people who are called to minister to cities, stating that many people do so because they feel the need to save the city.

[That was one of our main motivations for starting Echo]

But Keller continues that those who come to the city are often surprised to discover that the city saved them. And I understand what he was talking about. I am not the man that I was seven years ago. God has used the city to change the way I pastor, the way I love others, and the way I view the world.

And none of this would have happened without this church.

To my brothers and sisters at Echo, especially to those who weren't with as at the beginning, I hope you feel that this is your story too. And I'm thrilled at the thought if us continuing to live life together in the city for years to come.

Kathryn Ruth Baughman

The past two weeks have been difficult, for our family and for Echo Church. I've been thinking hard on how to best summarize this experience but decided to just start writing and see what emerges. Our friend Kathy Baughman passed away January 20th. She had been fighting cancer on her brain and her spine for almost ten months when she succumbed to the disease. Kathy was in her mid-fifties, a wonderful wife and mother of two grown children. And most cherished by the people of Echo, she was basically our church's surrogate mother.

I want to tell you about how exhausting this was, both mentally and spiritually. But to do so would be an embarrassment to how Kathy faced her end. You see, if anyone had a reason to complain, it was Kathy. Why such a beautiful woman could be stricken with a horrible disease is extremely difficult to comprehend. But never once did she gripe. Instead, she exuded joy, even in the midst of such hardship; her smile was infectious. She fought off death multiple times, and the faced it with absolute grace.

On multiple occasions, her husband Joe told me that, upon hearing her terminal diagnosis, Kathy prayed that God might use this disease for his glory. And, more specifically, that Echo Church might be blessed because of this cancer.

Our young church rallied around this family. We prayed fervently. And our people, especially the women of Echo—those in whom Kathy had already invested much—responded in a way I never could have imagined. They fixed meals, cleaned their house, drove Kathy on errands. They showed God's love to a woman who embodied it. I have never been more proud to be a pastor. I saw the church for what it's meant to be. And despite the numerous flaws of us within, God grace was visible in our midst through Kathy.

Last week, after she had passed, we used our Sunday worship at Echo for a time of praise to the Lord; we thanked him for blessing us with Kathy. We read Scripture, we sang, we wept, but we did it all in a posture of gratefulness. And as I looked around our congregation that night, I could see a changed people. God used this horrible experience to transform many of us. We're better servants now, better elders, better Christians. I'm not sure whether or not this would have happened without Kathy's struggle, but it's amazing nonetheless.

Her prayers were answered: her cancer was transformed into a blessing for us.

For me, this experience reinforces the Christian theme of redemption. Our fallen world is an imperfect place. While sin has direct consequences (prices we pay for our own sinfulness), it also has indirect consequences that affect us all, no matter how righteous we are. This is why the world's filled with unjust tragedies like disease, natural disasters, and even cancer. But God is able to redeem the byproducts of sin for the betterment of his people. For example, God can take an unplanned pregnancy and produce a beautiful being. And the more apt example for us would be that he can take a woman's cancer and make people rise to become better men and women for Him.

We'll never know why this happened, but I can accept it because Kathy herself refused to even entertain this question. She was a faithful woman, even to the very end. And her short life was dedicated to serving others. Perhaps the greatest testimony of her devotion to others was the presence of former students at her memorial service. I was struck by seeing so many young people torn to shreds at her passing. I'm not sure if I ever felt that way about any of my teachers growing up, but Kathy's investment moved them to tears. I'm so grateful to Joe, Meghan and Kyle for sharing their mother with us. I mourn deeply for them, but I know Kathy continues to live on through their lives.

Just one more thing, from a personal perspective: I was privileged to be Kathy's pastor. Because of the long struggle, where Kathy lost hearing, sight, and the ability to express herself well, it's easy to only think of her helplessness. But I'm blessed to remember her as being hopeful. She was the consummate encourager; she was a passionate believer; she was a phenomenal woman. My greatest relief in these past few weeks occurred just after her funeral service. It was by far the easiest funeral I've ever delivered as she gave me tons of great material (by the way, this was the first time I ever cited Facebook at a funeral [and I did it multiple times]). Despite this, however, I was stressed-out beforehand. I felt a huge burden to represent her well. Fortunately, quite a few attendees encouraged me afterward, saying that I summarized her life well. I'm so grateful for that. It would have devastated me to not truly honor this woman.

I'm linking here to a copy of the funeral message I delivered. It's basically a sermon, which is the way that Kathy would have preferred it. I share it for those unable to attend, so that you might get a glimpse into how amazing this woman was, and how amazing the Lord was to her.

And my hope is that we can all live more like Kathy. If we do, the world will most definitely be a better place.

If I Were A Rich Man . . .

I wish I was wealthy, but not for the reasons you think.

I was always attracted to the nobility of vocational ministry—having the privilege of making a living from the gospel. While it's a financially humbling endeavor (certainly not a gig one pursues for the payout) our family has been blessed never to have been in financial peril during any time of our 13+ years of ministry. Recently, however, I realized I understated a critical truth throughout my ministry: money makes things go. Kingdom work depends on funding and it seems there's just never enough cash on hand.

I wish I was wealthy, but not to better my family's existence.

There are so many amazing ministry causes I'm aware of but I can't assist all of them. Our family commits more than a tithe to support gospel efforts around the globe. And our little church is committed to the cause as well—with the first 20% of our budget going to mission works.

I wish I was wealthy so I could give more.

It absolutely rips my heart up when a missionary contacts me asking for resources, all so they can minister in God-forsaken places, and I have to refuse. Just thinking about it makes me ill. And, for some reason, it seems like I'm getting more and more calls for support. 

Do you share my desire for wealth?

Maybe you're not giving to causes beyond your own church community. Or maybe you're incredibly wealthy and just stumbled on to this post by a Google search. Can I encourage you to make a commitment to missionaries? Let me give you a few reasons.

1. They're not getting rich off this deal.
Dan Dyke, a professor at CCU, co-leads a small group with me. Last semester he told the story of a missionary who lived his entire life in poverty but continued to serve faithfully. So just because you see the pictures of the missionaries in some exotic place you'd love to vacation doesn't mean they're living a lifestyle above their means. I've rarely witnessed a missionary who had more than what they needed to survive. If you have an expensive hobby but are stingy when it comes to supporting missionaries, I think should recalibrate your priorities.

2. They're doing work that requires their full attention.
I'm a very big proponent of bivocational ministry (having a job while serving as a minister); I've been in doing it in some form since we've started Echo. But I know of some congregations that are now demanding that their missionaries have some sort of money-making endeavor on the side to help fund their own mission. While that's a strategic approach, it can be completely unrealistic in many missionary cultures. It's difficult to enter a business market as a foreigner and compete. These missionaries need to have the freedom to devote themselves fully to the ministry, and they can often do it at a much more affordable cost than ministers in the States.

3. They're where we're not.
Admit it: there are places in the world that you're glad you never have to go. Well, that's where missionaries are right now. They're committed to going there because it's a calling. If God hasn't called you to be there, the least you can do is support those who are paying the price.

I wish I was wealthy, but maybe I just need to be more generous.

Yep, this is all a massive guilt trip, but a little guilt can be good.

If you're a follower of Jesus, you're part of a global body that meets all over the world. And there's always things we can do to support our brothers and sisters around the globe. I'd encourage you to give of your wealth to support these efforts.

Whether it's people like Adam and Kristy Griffith in Thailand, Tracey and Christine Keitt in Chile, Tom and Suja Brane in Burkina Faso, Brent and Anna Fudge in Haiti, Wendy Wagoner in Tanzania,  Dawid and Justyna Wawrzyniak in Poland, Daniel and Buzi Mawyio in Myanmar, or Sam and Brittany Gill in Pakistan. They (and many more) could use your help.

Use your wealth to change the world.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Chapter Two

After six years in one place, Echo Church is finally having to move. For the past two years, we have attempted to purchase the building we were renting. Our leadership went back and forth in negotiations with the Walnut Hill Christian Church, holding dozens of meetings about the property. But in the end, it didn't matter: the building was sold to a private owner who will renovate the edifice into a residence. We were notified last week that we need to be out of the building at the end of the month.

The process of purchasing the building was more exhausting than anything I could have ever imagined; I know that some time soon I'll put into words how ridiculous everything was (it will take multiple blog posts to be sure). We could've had the building if we had offered the right amount, but we were unwilling to leverage the future of our congregation by paying more than it was worth. My greatest sadness is that, when all was said and done, a building dedicated to the worship of God was treated with disrespect by its stewards. The dedication and desire of people who served over decades in this community was dismissed in favor of dollars. But we can walk away with heads held high, knowing that our leadership handled ourselves professionally throughout the entire process.

But that's all in the past. A great future now lies ahead of us

Echo Church is totally committed to remaining in Walnut Hills, our target community for ministry since our inception. And we have been blessed in securing a new location: starting December 4th, we'll be renting the Cincinnati Church of the Brethren at 950 Nassau Street in Walnut Hills.

The CCOB is a fifteen-year-old congregation which moved from the suburbs to urban Cincinnati in 2008. My wife and I have had the pleasure of getting to know their pastor and his family and we're energized by their dedication to this community; in fact, our two churches hosted a joint movie night last summer to reach out to the community. The Church of the Brethren offered us a generous rental rate that will help stretch our ministry efforts. We look forward to continued opportunities to partner with this congregation who is also dedicated to ministering in Walnut Hills.

Our current plan is to meet here on Sunday nights at 6pm, at least through next summer. We're viewing this location as a lay-over—providing us ample opportunity to take our time to search for a more permanent solution. But this building is a definite upgrade on our current location, with recently renovated amenities throughout. It'll take no time at all for us to settle in to our new home.

My sadness concerning the move is eliminated by thoughts of what will happen next. I've never been more excited about Echo. This little thing that we started in 2005 is going strong. I'm thankful for all of you who have bought in to our vision for ministry in urban Cincinnati. I ask for your continued prayers in our efforts as we move on to the next chapter in our story.

Our Little (Town)House

Just a few months in to her public school education, we encountered our first parental objection to part of Kaelyn's curriculum. Kindergartners at Fairview-Clifton German Language School take part in a book reading program. Every day, Kaelyn brings home a library book that we are supposed to read together. Mostly, this has been an enjoyable endeavor; sure, there have been a few lackluster selections, but there's only so much you can do with a kids book. I'm starting to think that writing stories for children could be a great income source.

Last night, Kelly told me that she had previewed the book of the day and didn't want Kaelyn to read it. Curious of what kind of pagan ideology found in a kid's book could push my wife to advocating censorship, I took a look at it myself.

The selection was The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. It was published in 1942 (though I'm assuming it was actually written in 1941, before the start of the Second War World), but I can remember it reading it when I was a child. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Disney Corporation made it into a cartoon in 1952 [accessible by clicking here]. Although the cartoon isn't totally faithful to the text, the concept remains the same: it's the tale of a small house on a hill in a rural area where life is great. The house secretly wishes it could partake of city life, but little does the little house know, the city would soon come to her. As roads come her way, an imposing society builds up around her, leaving her cold and lonely. All seems lost until the house is relocated back to the country. The concluding page of the book reveals the house's lessons learned:

Never again would she be curious about the city . . .

Never again would she want to live there . . .

The stars twinkled above her . . .

A new moon was coming up . . .

It was spring . . .

and all was quiet and peaceful in the country.

And this is why my wife did not want my daughter to read this book.

Now I've got to give it up to Kelly. I absolutely love that she's so passionate about our family's urban lifestyle that her visceral reaction was to protect our daughter from views that could disappoint her. But Kelly's not really the censoring type, and I figured if Kaelyn's urban school offered it, it couldn't be that bad. One of the things about city living is that you can't really cover-up the real world, so I went ahead and read the book with her this morning. After we finished, I eagerly awaited her response.

She asked for breakfast.

It might seem like much ado about nothing, but we get paranoid about raising our kid in the city. Kelly's upbringing was suburban, and mine was practical rural, with some 'burbs and city on the side. Since we both cherished our childhood experiences, we want to make sure she's not shortchanged. And for the past sixty years, the American dream has been contextualized as a suburban abode. Burton wasn't starting a movement with her kid's book, but was reflecting a reality that took off after World War II. So it really feels like we're swimming upstream here.

But the beautiful thing is that Kaelyn knows nothing different. She's been a city girl her whole life— always surrounded by people and noise, her only yard a public park. But the benefits have been innumerable. She absolutely loves the city; she tells us all the time.

So our little townhouse might be crammed in the little of the city, but I don't think she's sad. And unlike that weepy home, our family's urban curiosity is far from being satisfied.

By the way: here's the shirt that Kaelyn wore to school this morning:

I think that settles it.

p.s. A kid's book that I loved about the city was one that Kelly found. It's called Rose's Garden, and was inspired by the life of Rose Kennedy. A little video introduction to the book can be found here.

Disrespecting Math

Six years ago tonight we held the first worship gathering for Echo Church. In some respects, it's been a difficult trek; after six years, we're still not where I thought we'd be after two years. If 29 year-old Steve knew the road that awaited him in this endeavor, I'm sure he would have taken another route. But that guy was a moron.

The vast majority of us pastors are egomaniacs. If we pursue a minister endeavor, we feel compelled to justify that our work is significant. I do this often times with Echo, attempting to quantify how well things are progressing. But I soon realize how pathetic I am. I solely need to take comfort in the fact that God is using this congregation for His glory; I should leave the evaluation to Him, and Him alone.

I discovered some affirmation of this in some of my recent reading. In the late 19th century, a Japanese evangelist named Uchimura Kanzo visited the United States. After encountering our society, including our very Western incarnation of faith, he made the following observation:

“Americans are great people; there is no doubt about that. They are great in building cities and railroads. . . . Americans have a wonderful genius for improving breeds of horses, cattle, sheep and swine. . . . Americans too are great inventors. . . . Needless to say, they are great in money. . . . Americans are great in all these things and much else; but not in religion. . . . Americans must count religion in order to see or show its value. . . . To them big churches are successful churches. . . . To win the greatest number of converts with the least expense is their constant endeavor. Statistics is their way of showing success or failure in their religion as in their commerce and politics. Numbers, numbers, oh how they value numbers.”

He's correct. And he wrote this 100 years ago.

I need to cherish the fact that our numbers just don't add up. And I do. I just need to remind myself of this. Constantly.

I absolutely love Echo Church. I'm blessed with the opportunity to serve as one of her shepherds. And I'm grateful for the people who have joined us in this journey—both those here now and those who have joined us along the way. Greater things are yet to come. Of this, I'm certain.

And I love the fact that there'll be plenty more of these anniversaries to come.

End of an Era

A little more than six years ago my friend Aaron and I were driving around Walnut Hills on a weekday afternoon, looking for a place where we could start a new church. While driving towards our first potential location I took a wrong turn and we came across a beautiful, old church building. "Let's try here," Aaron suggested.

I was doubtful. It was a Disciples of Christ congregation, a cousin denomination to our own Independent Christian Church; our movements split over differing theological convictions decades ago. But with nothing to lose, we pulled into the empty church parking lot and knocked on the church door.

No one answered.

But as we were leaving, a car pulled into the lot. We introduced ourselves to the driver as two ministers who were looking to start a church in the neighborhood. We asked the man, the chairman of the church board, if his church be willing to rent out their facility to us on Sunday nights?

He seemed open to the idea and let us inside. We were in awe of this facility. Sure, it was dated and in need of some improvements, but the location and amenities would work out perfectly. Long story short, the very first contact we made about renting ended up being the place where we've been for the entirety of our church's life. We are indebted to the Walnut Hills Christian Church for renting us the space where Echo Church was born.

Over the years, we've tried to express our thanks to Walnut Hills Christian Church— we've worshipped with them, held joint church events, and even made facility improvements. I've preached there at least one Sunday a year since we started renting from them.

But next week, the Walnut Hills Christian Church is closing their doors. After 130 years of ministry, a declining membership/bank account has forced them to make the difficult decision to shut down. The situation with the building is still up in the air. We at Echo have put in a proposal that their leadership is still weighing out. Right now, I have no idea whether we will end up with the 90 year old structure or whether we'll have to find a new location.

Regardless of what happens, we want to pay homage to this congregation that facilitated our beginning.

So this Sunday, September 25th at 11:00am, I'm inviting you to join us at Echo Church in worshipping with the Walnut Hills Christian Church one final time. Thirteen decades of service to a community should be applauded. If you're able, I'd love to see you there.

Yet Another Building Update

Friends, I apologize if it seems that all I talk about is our meeting space, but I want you to know the latest:

Since we started Echo six years ago, we've rented from the Walnut Hills Christian Church. They told us they were closing their doors and are trying to get rid of their building. Things are slightly complicated, however, as the church's pastor is trying to plant a new church out of this congregation and they desire to use the funds from the building sale to go towards the new church, so they will not gift us the building.

Last month we put in an offer. As the facility is in need of substantial repairs, our offer factored in these costs (this offer, by the way, permitted us to obtain the building without using bank financing). While our leadership firmly believes that our offer was fair, the Walnut Hills Christian Church feels that their property is much more valuable than we do. In a meeting yesterday, we were informed that they've decided to list the building with a realtor at a price $300,000 more than our offer. They plan to keep their church open for some extended amount of time (because the building is an existing liability that would need to be moved before closure) and suggested that they would keep it listed for at least six months.

We believe that market realities will make it very difficult for them to get anywhere near their asking price. There are multiple church buildings in our community which sit vacant not only because of the cost of renovation/maintenance but also because of the limited options surrounding them (zoning issues and peculiar layouts are a headache for transitioning use). And since the housing market has dried up, residential development on the plot isn't likely, so there is really no other use for this structures except for a church. And it's extremely tough to find a buyer because it's nearly impossible for churches our size to get financing.

Our leadership is more concerned with Echo's viability than with owning a building so we will not submit another offer. Our current offer will remain on the table so that, if nothing else materializes, we could still end up with the building. And we will be able to continue to meet there until it's sold so we probably wouldn't have to move anytime in the next couple of months. So, for now, it's business as usual.

We will continue to examine other meeting options in the neighborhood (something we've done throughout the past couple of years) to ensure that our congregation will have some place to gather.

So we're still in a holding pattern. We will keep you posted with any further developments. Thanks for your patience and your prayers. Again, Echo is and will be much more than a building. We'll keep ministering in the city regardless of where we meet.

Blessings,

steve

An Update About Our Church

This is an email I sent out to our church this evening. I'm posting it here because I know some of you on the outside might be interested as well. We'll appreciate any of the additional prayers you'd like to contribute. Dear Church,

For those of you who were unable to attend our gathering this evening, I wanted to share with you some news. Today Echo Church put in an offer for purchasing the Walnut Hills Christian Church building at 1438 East McMillan (the facility in which we've been meeting since our beginning in 2005).

A few weeks ago, we were notified that WHCC would be closing their doors at the end of September and are actively looking to dispense of their property. There is another congregation with whom they're negotiating and our offer is much less than theirs; this is purposeful, as we intend to purchase it without outside financing. We believe ours is a fair offer as there is quite a bit of repair and upkeep necessary to get the facility up-to-date. Our leadership will engage with WHCC leaders in the next week or two to discuss our proposal further.

As of now, everything is up in the air. But I'm asking you to pray. And, if possible, I'd like for you to head over the building this week to pray. Go with others if you like or go alone. Take a lap around the premises (or just sit on the front steps) and pray over this property.

I firmly believe that God led us to this location for a purpose. If we were to obtain this building, our presence in Walnut Hills would be cemented for decades to come. Real estate in the city is difficult to come by, especially for congregations like ours. So let's bathe this opportunity in prayer and see what happens.

Finally, understand this: as much as we love this building, it's only brick and mortar; our church will continue regardless of where we meet. We eagerly anticipate what God holds in store for us. So let's entrust him with it and see what happens.

Blessings, friends. I love serving with you in our ministry to the city, steve

Season's End

With sundown this evening, the day before Resurrection Sunday, the Lenten season concludes. It's been a fascinating few weeks.

From a "surrender" perspective, I did not consume any Diet Coke throughout the Lent. It wasn't nearly as hard as I imagined it would be, finally proving to myself that I could go on without it if I had to. Developing new patterns was the most difficult thing for me. My daily routine (a stop at the Mt Adams UDF for a 44 ounce Diet Coke) was completely altered; additionally, during this time, two of the regular employees with whom I developed relationships no longer work there. I'll have to build some new relationships there.

On an editorial note, I'm not sure I feel any healthier. I've been drinking tons of tea, both caffeinated and caffeine-free, so I'll welcome more flavor in my beverages. I should admit that I'll cautiously ease back into my Diet Coke habit since I'm one week out from the marathon and I don't want my system to go haywire.

From a spiritual perspective, I thoroughly enjoyed this season. More so than any other time I can remember, I fasted and prayed with intentionality and I desperately needed it. During the past forty plus days I have had numerous friends and family members encounter illness and tragedy. While I always pray, I felt my prayers were more focused during this time. I thought more about kingdom issues during this time. I'm in the midst of an incredibly busy and stressful time in life, but practicing Lent seems to have perfectly offset the chaos of my life.

And as for our congregation, I think Lent was a blessing. Many people at Echo took up this challenge and I believe all benefitted. I've seen some amazing growth in our church recently. Again, I'm not sure if we can attribute it all to Lent, but I truly saw the Spirit work through us during the past few weeks.

Tomorrow is a day of celebration so we fast no more. The tomb is empty. Jesus is risen.

Praise the Lord.

Are You Missing It?

"Church is boring." You've heard it. I've heard it. Heck, we might have even uttered it ourselves.

That simple phrase has served as motivation for the 21st century American church. As a result, numerous churches have buildings with high tech sound, lighting, and video. The concept spurs people to "church shop," in hopes of finding the next best thing. And many a new, hip church has advertised their congregation as, "not your grandmother's church."

But I have news:

That ain't church.

And if this is what you think church is, then you're missing it.

You're really missing it.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been privileged to witness the church firsthand. And it isn't boring.

It's inspiring.

I've witnessed a church pull their money together to help a parishioner with medical bills. I've observed a church spring into action when a family had multiple deaths within the course of weeks. I've watched a church gather to plead to the Lord for a woman plagued with cancer. I've seen a church's elders gather around a stroke victim and pour out prayer.

The church is a blessing from God. For 2,000 years, it's united complete strangers and forged families. In our moments of greatest grief, the church envelopes us with the love of God. From birth to death, the Lord has provided the church to sustain us. It's really an unheralded miracle.

And we complain when the keyboardist flubs a note . . . or when the preacher makes me feel guilty . . . or when the coffee is cold.

To my Christian friends, both clergy and laity: if you're enamored by the surface presentation, or the sermon bumper, or the worship band, then your understanding of church is misguided.

It's more than that.

So. Much. More.

And I don't want you to miss it.

And I Just Can't Hide It

I am very excited about Sunday at Echo Church. "Very," I say.

After more than five years of Echo ministering in our community, we will be officially ordaining spiritual leaders for our church. As a congregation of the Independent Christian Church tradition, we're dedicated to autonomous church rule under the authority of elders (that's technical talk, meaning that we have no denominational structure to which we respond; our church governs our own church). Even though we started Echo without elders, we made sure to keep multiple levels of accountability in place to ensure that the church functioned well. On a personal level, I have a group of ministers with whom I meet monthly that keep me in check. And as a church, we've maintained a leadership team who oversee the important aspects of congregational life.

A couple of years ago, we restructured our leadership team to prepare to install an eldership. We looked carefully at the New Testaments texts concerning elders (specifically 1 Timothy and Titus 1) and were able to identify men who could fulfill this role at Echo. Over the past 18 months we studied theology and talked philosophy of ministry to make sure we were on the same page. And after all this time in meeting and studying, we will finally set apart these men on Sunday as our new elders.

There are numerous reasons why I'm thrilled about this. First, I'm excited that our church is continuing to grow up. Even though we're still a relatively young congregation, we've made it five years now. Even though a numerical growth hasn't been dynamic, I see how our people are growing/serving/connecting and I know we're moving forward. And with a more solid leadership structure, it'll display that we're not a fly by night operation.

Second, I'm excited for these guys. I've known Aaron and Larry for awhile, and David and Josh more recently. But during the past couple of years I've gotten to know all of them closely. We all have different personalities that all mesh together to bring a distinctive flavor. I wholeheartedly believe that the Lord brought them to Echo so that we will be a better church. It's crazy to think that over the next decade(s), we'll have the opportunity to lead this Echo for the glory of God. It's a re-beginning for our continued journey.

Third, I'm excited for the people in our church. Each of these men are amazing people with diverse giftedness. As charming as I am, I can't be all things to all people. So if someone in the church is struggling, and they don't feel like engaging me, there are other people with whom they can relate. As a church, we're spending the 24 hours before the ordination in prayer and fasting for what God is going to do through us in our city. It's the passion of the people at Echo that continues to make it a beacon in a dark world.

Finally, I'm excited for me. Yes, I'm self-centered, but this makes my life even better. As much as I love Echo, I'm always fearful that, as the main voice, people associate the church with my personality. Even though I'm always upfront, there are many valuable people that drive our church. And with the ordination of these leaders, it will become even more evident that this is a team effort. I'm so blessed to be a part of this church. And I'm even more blessed to be surrounded by people who love it as much as I do.

Hence, I am so very excited about Sunday.

If you're available, I'd love to invite you to our Ordination Service. It's this Sunday night (March 13th) at 6pm at the Walnut Hills Christian Church. There'll be a reception after the worship gathering.

Join us as we continue to grow up.

Ash Wednesday (sans ash)

Here's a note I sent out to our church about tomorrow. So tomorrow it begins. Lent is here. I hope you're excited as I am.

Tomorrow is the day known in Christian tradition as Ash Wednesday. Perhaps you're familiar with this but, if not, allow me to explain. The palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday were supposed to have been burned and the ashes kept. Then, on this day, the church would gather together at an early morning worship service. The minister would take his fingers, dip them in the palm ashes, and affix an ashen cross on the believer's forehead (many say the tradition is derived from the Genesis 3:19 text, "For from dust you are and to dust you will return”). Christians wear those ashes on their foreheads until they wear off.

Obviously, Echo Church isn't gathering tomorrow morning for a service; as a church that meets at night, I'm not sure what we'd do that early anyway. So while it might be disappointing that you won't get an ash cross on your forehead, I'll admit I'm a little relieved: I have a business meeting tomorrow night where it would be difficult for me to explain my markings. So if you see another Christian wearing ashes tomorrow, you might feel inferior. But perhaps there are other ways that you too can keep the cross on your mind throughout your day.

As for me, I plan on marking my palm with a miniature cross. This might sound like a weak substitution but this way, as I'm using my hands, I'll remember that this is the day we begin to look forward to the resurrection. Maybe you have a better idea or suggestion of how to replace the forehead ashes. I'd be interested in hearing it. Again, our point in this isn't to be mired in ritualism but to refocus on our faith. So do what you need to do to remember.

Regardless of how you do it, tomorrow we focus on the cross, and what Christ has done for us. Pray that God will transform you through this experience. I'll be praying for you.

Blessings, Steve

Lent: Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

Last week, Kelly and I saw the musical Fiddler on the Roof downtown at the Aronoff Center (big thanks to Julie Keyse for watching our daughter so we could attend). The story of Tevya, an impoverished Jewish family man in a small Russian town, centers on his transitioning faith. The entire show is encapsulated by the driving song of the musical: “Tradition.” Will Tevya continue to live within the framework of tradition or will he cede that some things change and that life can go on? Christians, at least those of us within the "evangelical" tribe, are the antithesis of Tevya. While we too are uncertain as how to engage both modernity and the faith of our past, we choose to eighty-six the tradition without a second thought. We are especially leery of those practices connected with Roman Catholicism, dismissing the lion's share of them as having been tainted by its hierarchy. This is precisely why many of us refer to ourselves as "New Testament Christians," claiming that this is the only tradition that has any value.

Within the spectrum of “tradition,” two extremes emerge: either we WORSHIP tradition as if it's biblical, or we WIPE IT OUT altogether like it's paganism. As with most positions, extremism is rarely healthy, but it tends to unify adherents so we acquiesce. As a result, many of us are cautious of moving away from the pole, fearful of being identified as "one of them." But at Echo Church, where we continually unite believers from various backgrounds under the banner of biblical authority, we're able to indulge in certain aspects of tradition while clarifying its place within our faith.

And that's precisely why, this year, we're observing Lent.

Lent isn't Catholic, it's Christian, dating back to the second century. The word "lent" is derived from an old English word meaning "springtime,"* and the Latin adverb "lente" means "slowly," providing us the opportunity to downshift our lives in anticipation of Resurrection Sunday. The length of Lent, approximately forty days, correlates with Jesus' desert temptation in Matthew 4. We observe the season with a renewed emphasis on prayer, giving, and (the most popular discipline) fasting. Most people use Lent as the opportunity to fast from something particular that they love.

We just need to remember why we're giving it up. We're not fasting to flex our powers of self-control; if you're trying to prove you can deprive yourself, this isn't the time. We don't fast because we're trying to merit God's approval; nothing we can "do" will get us saved—Jesus did that on the cross. We're preparing our hearts for Easter. Really, Lent is a lesson you get to re-learn. Through the experience you recognize that you love the Lord more than any one thing. Yes, you already know this, but it's a helpful reminder.

"So what are you giving up?"

Ah, the popular Lenten question. So here's my answer: Diet Coke.

In the summer of 1995, I switched over to Diet Coke from regular soda. I've always loved drinking pop, but couldn't keep the weight down will absorbing mass quantities of it into my system. So almost sixteen years ago I switched over and it's been a part of my life ever since. I’ve likely not gone two days without drinking it since then. Even when we were in Israel, I was able to locate Coke Light, the Asian/European equivalent. I've become known for my Diet Coke addiction, so it's the perfect thing to temporarily abandon.

Of course, in the scheme of things, this isn't a huge deal. All over the world people suffer and I'm going without a beverage? While it's not impressive, it will force me to alter aspects of my life. When I get a morning longing for a Diet Coke, I’ll remember why I don't drink one. And hopefully those moments of unfulfilled desire, I can focus on my faith.

So what about you? Maybe it's a food or a beverage. Maybe it's some kind of media (Facebook, the internet, Twitter, or television). Maybe it's a hobby like reading or sudoku or the crossword puzzle. Just ask yourself: what do you love? And is your dedication to it comparable to your love of the Lord.

As our church observes Lent, I'm going to write some thoughts on it to send out to people. I'll post some of them here.

The journey towards the Empty Tomb begins Wednesday. What can you give up?

__________________

*Yes, Lent is likely another pagan ritual that was Christianized and, therefore, isn't necessarily biblical. But if you've ever touched an Easter Egg or exchanged Christmas gifts, don't take the religious high ground and call this unbiblical.

Church Struggle

Things have been going well at Echo. I feel like we're in a much better place than we've every been. This church is growing up, and it's going to last. That's about all I can ask for. Still, I'm continually anxious to see what we're becoming. But there's always a fire to put out. Currently, it's the status of our rental facility. While the relationship with our lessor hasn't necessarily deteriorated, they are becoming less logical. We're almost left to wonder if we'll suddenly be forced to find a new facility. Being the Boy Scout that I was/am, always anticipating possible scenarios, I'm pushing for preparedness in case it happens. I've kept a list of alternate meeting sites for awhile and, recently, I've been going through the list—exploring other possible meeting spaces within our neighborhood.

I visited one such space last Sunday morning. It is an aging church in midst of our inner-city community with a pretty large facility. It's indicative of many churches in today's cities: they were a good size church in the 1940's and 1950's but they were unable to adjust to the cultural changes that accompanied urban renewal. As a result, many of its congregants fled to the suburbs and the church began to decline. Left behind was a group of locals (unable to sprawl) and church devotees—themselves no longer in the community, but harboring an obligation to the urban church. These churches are struggling to stay in business. And when the fire is finally extinguished they close their doors and the building is razed or becomes an Urban Outfitters.

What's interesting as that the base experience does not necessarily differ from a thriving congregation. As I walked in the church this morning, I was greeted warmly. You could tell that the people love their church, while wanted things to go better. The worship wasn't professional quality, but it was sincere. I was pleasantly surprised when one of the ladies performed a song that she had written herself. And the message the pastor preached was as passionate as those in churches I had seen at much larger congregations.

But there were twenty people in the pews—average age 68. In a few years, they'll shut the doors. It's a very typical story in the city, highlighting the importance of churches like Echo to engage these communities. These communities will last but the churches will not. So we need to continually focus on adding new churches to the landscape.

But in my discussion with this church, I was pleasantly surprised. Even though they're struggling financially, they've recognized that their building is an incredible asset. They are currently renting it out to five different organizations throughout the week. Not only have they sought the additional revenue, but they're renting to groups that are positively impacting the community. They admitted, "we might not be here much longer, but we're trying to do what we can now to make our community a better place while we can."

I'm always thankful for people who see the big picture. Nothing's going to last forever, so you have to think beyond yourself. It's the mindset I'm trying to think of when working with our young congregation. I'm sure we can build something that will last forty years, but I'd prefer something that could last for forty generations. For this vision to become a reality, we need to make sure we're wise enough to adapt to the changing culture around us.

It's a struggle, but the stakes are too high to ignore.

Five

I call them "rah-rah" moments. There are times when you just need to take a break and celebrate.

En route to Echo Church last Sunday night, I passed two churches celebrating anniversaries—one over 50 years, the other 100 years—and I felt somewhat inadequate. Five years of existence seems minuscule compared to those other congregations. But I like to think the humble beginnings of Echo makes us a true underdog story, so we continually need to reflect on how much God has blessed us.

I've always thought the cards were stacked against us:

  • We started in the midst of an urban neighborhood where new churches go to die.
  • We started with a core group of about ten people (four of whom had other opportunities which drew them away within the first year).
  • We didn't fundraise to start the church.
  • As minister, I've always been bi-vocational, from bread-making to supply preaching to teaching to college recruiting.
  • And we broke virtually every church planting rule I knew of when we started.

And yet, we've lasted five years.

I'm happy. And Sunday night I took some time to share that with our church.

By the numbers, I listed the many things that has happened as a result of our church:

  1. 250 worship services (featuring 250 Scripture readings, 800 songs sung, 1,213 bad jokes by me)
  2. Over 100 different people who have called Echo their home at one time or another (not including all our visitors)
  3. Almost $50,000 of our offerings directed towards benevolence&missions (that's over 20% of our total offerings)
  4. Three community festivals sponsored.
  5. Five (soon to be six) Halloween Trunk N Treat outreaches.
  6. 2,000 meals served at the Walnut Hills Soup Kitchen.
  7. Investing in the message of Jesus being taught not just in Walnut Hills, but the Cincinnati communities of Lower Price Hill, Westwood and Northside, as well as the nations of Poland, Pakistan, and Burma.

Numbers are nice, but I prefer to focus on all the different people God has brought our way. That's what we're about: connecting people with the God of the Universe. It's good work if you can get it.

And for that, we partied.

When we were nearing the completion of our first year of ministry, we took a group picture on the front steps of the church we rent. It was a great group of people. Here's Echo Church in 2006:

This past Sunday night, we tried it again. Even though there were some well-wishers in the crowd that aren't regulars, we were missing a quite a few people who were unable to attend. At the very least, it gives you a sense of how God has grown this vision.

And now that we're sufficiently motivated, we take down the party decorations and get back to work.