Faith

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.

The Limits of My Patience

At the end of the year, I held my arms high in the air, as if in victory.

At the beginning of the year, I had embarked upon a spiritual pursuit of patience. Throughout 2017, I spent a retreat day in contemplation of the practice and revisited it throughout this year. I've never been the most patient individual, likely because my belief in the Protestant Work Ethic pushed me to value progression more than pause. 

While I definitely wouldn't claim to have mastered patience this year, I certainly made some headway. This past year was the first time as an adult where I wasn't in full pursuit of a larger professional goal; of course, I dedicated myself to my job, but I wasn't looking beyond it. Rather than creating an arbitrary target to fill the void, I used this journey of patience as an opportunity to recalibrate my perspective. What difference does it make if I'm moving someplace as long as I'm focused on using my talents for the kingdom of God? It doesn't mean I've become complacent. I'm simply inching closer to living as the apostle Paul advocated.

So I couldn't help but laugh as I spent some of the last hours of my years with my arms extended high . . . not in victory, but in defeat . . . with a hairdryer in my hand . . . painstakingly trying to de-thaw a frozen drain line.

Owning an old house is a perpetual lesson in patience. Subzero temperatures and our absence during Christmas led to our kitchen sink/dishwasher drain to freeze up. I know enough about plumbing that I knew I could solve the issue; I just vastly underestimated how long it would take me. I first tried reaming it out with a plumbing snake, and later pumping hot water into the drain for a couple of hours. It took me a day and a half to finally accept that my best course of action was to grab a hairdryer and warm up the uninsulated part of our crawlspace. 

As I stood there monitoring the slow drip from the drain gradually increase, I couldn't help but smile thinking this was the most apropos way for me to wrap up my year. I had no idea how long it would take for this hairdryer trick to work. And it just so happened that this mini-crisis took place on my vacation, so the intermittent dripping were a constant reminder of my plans placed on the back-burner. I was forced to be patient.

It took an hour for my efforts to be rewarded. The ice finally melted. If I had taken my medicine and devoted myself to an hour of patience at the beginning of the ordeal, I might have saved myself a full day of time.

I have no idea what 2018 holds for me, but I'll remember this past year fondly. My patience has its limit, but at least its borders are expanding.

A Better Rule for Christian Men

A Better Rule for Christian Men

With barrage of men-behaving-badly stories hitting the press, a lot of attention is being paid to the Mike Pence rule—the vow for a married man to avoid being alone with a woman other than his wife. When I was in seminary, it was better known as the Billy Graham rule (and that’s how it’s listed on Wikipedia). The origins of this rule can be traced back to one of the oldest stories in human history. 

Compassion Fatigue

There are times I get frustrated with our local newspaper, but every once in awhile they get something right. As much as we lament the heroin epidemic, my heart goes out to those whose very professions make it impossible to escape. Here's the link to the Enquirer article about first responders and heroin.

I want to offer a few thoughts on what the article terms "compassion fatigue," as it’s very real. We’ve nearly completed 12 years living in the urban core, in addition to the first 22 years of my life spent in an urban church. With every passing year, my heart unfortunately hardens. I’ve neither lost faith in the gospel, nor have I abandoned the mission. Still, I’m increasingly disillusioned when ministering to the down-and-out (this applies to the up-and-out as well, but that’s a different topic altogether). 

Even the best among us can become jaded when constantly exposed to exaggeration and half-truths. 

  • I’ve witnessed a man briskly scale two flights of stairs, only to be leaning on crutches while panhandling just hours later.
  • I interacted with a woman who invented a dead child in an attempt to scam our church for funeral expenses.
  • I had to kick a guy out of church who created a diversion and stole money from the offering plate. 

Ask urban workers about the lies they’ve been told and story-time will go on for hours. I’ve known dozens of vibrant servants who fully invested time to city ministry, only to burn out years later. When you’re viewed for your provision, it’s natural insulate yourself from that exposure.

Dwelling among those in need has the potential to negatively impact one’s walk in faith. When my Christian friend joined the Peace Corps, I encouraged him to use the opportunity to focus on spiritual growth. In the third world country where he worked, however, he was unable to connect with any indigenous church there; whenever he visited a new church, they saw he was American and treated him less as a brother and more as a financial resource.

I struggle to bring up these negative issues, as they can be used to defend our disconnect. Instead, we must view our compassion fatigue as yet another spiritual hurdle to be cleared. It's happened to me, friends. And if I don’t overcome it, it has the potential to lead me to sin.

Rather than offering three solutions to combating our cynicism (be slow to judge, be honest in your conversations with those in need, pray more), I want to lean into one that has helped me the most: surround yourselves with the hopeful. 

Right now, I’m incredibly thankful that our church has young leaders who are passionate about serving the least of these. Even though I want to gently dampen their passion with a dose of reality, I try to shut my mouth. I’m giving them space to try things that turned out poorly for me. I don’t want them to experience pain (although she is a good teacher), but I’m reminding myself that every situation is different. Just because someone I attempted to help lied to me doesn’t mean that everyone in need is pushing a scam. I’m letting this generation chart their own path while soaking up their enthusiasm. And then, years down the road, when they experience the fatigue I now feel, I’ll trust that the Lord provides them with the inspiration to persevere.

The apostle Paul advised us, "as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" (Colossians 3:12). He added no caveat here. I’m trying to live up to this.

Be compassionate. Encourage others to persevere as well.


Photo by Roland Denes on Unsplash

Bites of Patience

This is a series of posts surrounding my goal of focusing on patience in 2017, specifically my retreat day of patience on January 5th. To read more in the series, click on the "patience" tag at the bottom of this post.

One could argue that fasting could be a poetic way to learn patience. Today, I’m not inclined to believe it. I’m hungry. I want to sit for awhile and contemplate so more. This would be the ideal time to search for an international restaurant, where the meal is served in courses over a few hours.

I opt for a chain sandwich shop.

Once again, the snow has kept people from going out and it’s empty. But people are still hungry and the staff is buzzing along filling a full slate of carry out orders. Even though I’m the only person in line, I’m forced to wait—to place my order, to select my condiments, to pay for my meal. I grin because I cherish the added irony. The manager apologies for the slowness and asks if I’m doing OK. “Just fine,” I respond. “Thanks for asking."

When I sit down, it’s just me in the dining room. Well, it’s me AND the live lunchtime performer in the corner. He’s not playing yet, but he’s tuning his guitar, so I know it’s coming. I’m still convicted not to put my headphones in, so I know I’ll be forced to listen to whatever folk music he produces. But he leads out the gate with Simon and Garfunkle’s the Boxer. I’m a sucker for it; it’s one of my favorite songs of all time. The musical interlude will act as a metronome forcing me to slow my pace.

I eat fast.

I chalk it up to my childhood. Mealtime in a big family is all about pace. If you don’t eat quickly, you may not get enough of the food you want; no kid wants to be stuck with a second helping of vegetables. I’ve continued the habit for, as much as I love eating, it’s something I need to do for sustenance, so even when it’s enjoyable, it’s about utility. This is heightened when I’m eating along. I could always sit and read my Twitter feed, but I’d rather get in and out. At the very least, over the years, I’ve tried to stop eating in my car. Again, though, that decision wasn’t about patience; I was tired of losing lettuce between my car cushions.

For the day of patience, I’ve convinced myself to eat slowly. I take little bites, trying to savor my not-so-fast food. My soup is a willing participant. The steam continues to rise from my bowl for a good fifteen minutes. If I eat any faster, I’ll lose a year’s worth of tastebuds. As the lunch crowd begins to stream in, I can finally recognize that I indeed slowed down a bit. People who hit the dining room after me are leaving while I’m still nursing my sandwich. The performer in the corner is working his deeper cuts of folk music (chasing Bob Dylan with the Counting Crows); I actually drop him a tip, which is something I rarely do for musicians. The pause to listen makes me appreciate the craft more.

I’m not sure I’ll eat more patiently in the future. But at the very least, I’ll try to digest forgettable moments more deliberately in the future. 

The Slow of Snow

This is a series of posts surrounding my goal of focusing on patience in 2017, specifically my retreat day of patience on January 5th. To read more in the series, click on the "patience" tag at the top of this post.

 “We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name.” Psalm 33:20,22

The city is an enemy of patience. It’s always moving and part of its success demands that it must continue on quickly. There is no time for idleness, for movement is the key to urban prosperity.

All that changes on a snow day, however. The city comes to a crawl. It projects a peacefulness that is rarely seen. The roads are less traveled on. While the traffic lights continue to change, sometimes no one is there to notice.

Up the street from our house, there’s a little coffee shop on the corner of the major road. It’s only a ten-minute drive from my house, but I’ve never been there. I decided that it would serve as the first stop on my day of patience.

This isn’t your typical hipster, third-wave kind of coffee place. It sits on the corner of an economically distressed community. This storefront sat vacant for decades until recently revived by a grant. It employs local residents. I felt a little bad because, for over an hour, I was the only person sitting there. 

Normally at a coffee shop, I make sure my headphones are at the ready to hide the noise around me. But on this day, as I grapple with what it means to wait, I’m trying to listen a little more intently than I normally do. And even though the hum of the ancient Gatorade drink cooler next to my chair is loud, it’s not significant enough to mute the noise of the adjacent interstate. 

The employees sit at a table by the door and chitchat about life. They look out the window and make occasional comments about a passing pedestrian or the make of a vehicle driving by. Their conversation meanders from one place to the next with absolutely no direction. They are fully content to talk about absolutely nothing.

Every few minutes one of them gets up to perform a simple task around the coffee shop but they’ve already accomplished virtually everything they can think of. I know this because they talk about it and make a list of everything they’ve done so far that morning. Again, the conversation continues to go everywhere but nowhere. And it bothers me a little bit.

Don’t get me wrong: I love to grab a cup of coffee and chat with a friend for an hour. But my framework of time and productivity leave me wanting conversations to “go” someplace—to produce some sort of take-away that makes it all worthwhile. This doesn’t mean I don’t love and value the people with whom I’m talking, but I want things to be further down the road since the last time we talked.

I know very well that life doesn’t work like this. But I secretly want it do.

And even though one of my greatest strengths is building deep relationships with people, my lack of patience negatively affects it in some instances. The lesson learned is continue to work on what I did in 2016: I need to continue to listen better. Rather than to use my silent time in conversation to craft my next comment, I’d still do better to ruminate on the words of the person across from me.

The Road to Patience

This is a series of posts surrounding my goal of focusing on patience in 2017, specifically my retreat day of patience on January 5th. To read more in the series, click on the "patience" tag at the top of this post.
 

“Whoever is patient has great understanding, but one who is quick-tempered displays folly.”
Proverbs 14:29

A few years ago, when I was working for the university, I bought a scooter. It wasn’t about making a statement; it was about utility. My work commute was minimal—a mere four miles each way through city streets. The scooter’s 90mpg was extremely attractive when I owned an insatiable gas-guzzling SUV and petrol prices were out of control.

Driving the scooter actually helped me become more patient: the bike maxed out at 65 miles per hour and it wasn’t robust enough to drive on the interstate. It was slow and steady transportation, a drastic change from my default posture while on the road. 

I drive fast.

I value my time and driving fast permits me the opportunity to save time. So I speed. I hang in the fast lane on the interstate. I race to make it through a changing traffic light. I weave back and forth between lanes to gain the spatial advantage. In my current job, I drive all over the tri-state. When trying to make three to four appointments a day, spanning hundreds of miles, you tend to drive aggressive and at a considerable rate of speed. 

In the past months, any good driving habits formed during my scooter days have fallen to the wayside.

Unfortunately, this makes me a different person when I’m behind the wheel. I’m angrier. I talk about other motorists. I saw uncouth words. My rage is greatest when I observe drivers that pay no attention to their surroundings and show no courtesy to other motorists around them. It’s crazy because I’d normally give the benefit of the doubt to obliviousness if it takes place elsewhere, but it sets me off when I’m driving. The only explanation I can provide for this is that the car obscures the human behind the wheel so I’m less gracious.

Yes, if I’m truly to improve in my spiritual walk and my patience, I need focus on the way that I drive.

On my day of patience, I really have no other option but to drive slow. The snowfall of that day dictated a slower pace. I was immediately aware of this when I left my house and reached the top of my street. While the major roads were plowed decently, the side streets hadn’t been touched. I hit the breaks and skidded an additional five yards. When driving in the snow, I’m forced to keep my attention focused just 100 yards ahead of me lest I get in an accident. I stopped looking farther head to the pattern of traffic lights and I just focused on driving deliberately.

And it’s a good thing.

On my day of patience, I catch nearly every red light. I even get stuck at a train crossing (I had no idea that they still ran trains on those tracks). While tempted to switch lanes to pass the slower driver in front of me, I held back. I even paused to allow some people in crosswalks to cross the street. This kind of driving is against my nature but I’m embracing it.

It’s another lesson for me on this day of patience: there’s no massive benefit for me to drive fast. I waste enough time in my day and eliminating those distractions would be a much better timesaver than ten additional miles per hour.

I’m going to drive a little less quickly moving forward. It’s a good thing to do. And I was just pulled over for speeding last week. 

Nobody’s perfect.

Accumulating Patience

This is a series of posts surrounding my goal of focusing on patience in 2017, specifically my retreat day of patience on January 5th. To read more in the series, click on the "patience" tag at the top of this post.

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’” Lamentations 3:22-24

On the day of my patience retreat, Cincinnati welcomed it’s first significant snowfall of the season. Even as I type that, I’m laughing at the word, “significant.” Years ago, this kind of snow would have been labeled a dusting. But in today’s world where people are more calculated, the city retreated to safety from the snow.

Of all days for a snowfall, it had to be this day. But I wonder if it was providential that it fell on a random date I picked over a month ago. It made me think how my thoughts on snow transformed over the years. While I loved snow as a kid, I’ve grown to hate it as an adult. When I was a child, snow meant no school and a lazy day bookended by sledding and hot chocolate. As an adult, snow means slow work and a complex day of managing to make up time.

This change of perspective can best explained with my experiences in my previous role working at a university. I was the guy responsible for publicizing when our school closed for inclement weather. I didn’t make the actual decision, mind you, but it was my job to get it communicated to the masses.

Quite a bit of thought goes into cancelling classes for snow days. On nights before a possible snowfall, school leaders would begin to exchange a flurry of emails about the potential accumulation, analyzing what each local meteorologist was be predicting. This lasted late into the night and then, hours before I’d normally wake up, the communication turned into texts and calls. When the decision was finally made, I had to really get working.  

I would send an email out to faculty, staff, and students; I accessed the text alert for all those who subscribed for the notice; I updated the website; I posted it on all our social media venues; I contacted the local media. All of this was completed by 6:00 in the morning. By the time I secured my day off, I was exhausted.

And it was a lot of work with nothing to show for it.

I place high value on time and planning. I want to know exactly what the day holds and what I need to accomplish. I fully invest in maximizing my daily impact. Snow renders plans useless. It creates obstacles, as simple transportation comes to a crawl, walking becomes treacherous, the easiest of tasks and errands become complex, and my productivity levels drop precipitously.

And maybe most notably, snow spawns the need for increased patience. Perhaps that’s why I hate it so.

I think of my daughter and how she reacts to snow. She cherishes it. While she loves school, a snow day means an unexpected pause when she can go outside, sled down the hill and build a snowman. She’s not yet chained by her expectations of accomplishments so she can just BE for a little while. She has no issues with pausing to watch the world go by.

I need to reclaim some of this. This is why I wonder if God gave us a little snow on my day of patience. One lesson I learned as I result it I must not to curse the snow, but to see it as an opportunity to slow down. I need to view it as a reminder that my existence is not completely determined by my work output.

Snow reminds me to be patient.

My Pursuit of Patience

This is a series of posts surrounding my goal of focusing on patience in 2017, specifically my retreat day of patience on January 5th. To read more in the series, click on the "patience" tag at the top of this post.

For nearly all my professional career, I’ve worked for faith-based companies. One benefit of this is that they usually take a holistic approach to organizational success, uniting employment (secular) with the calling (sacred).

Last year, our company studied the Fruit of the Spirit. The nine-word list penned by the apostle Paul two thousand years ago in his letters to the Christians in Galatia could be easily memorized in one sitting; I remember doing so myself during VBS in 1984. But to truly master these fruit is something that few accomplish within the scope of a lifetime.

At the conclusion of last year, our president asked that my colleagues and I dedicate one day in early 2017 examining one of those fruit and its potential impact on our year. It was a fascinating assignment and I looked forward to making it my own. As I glanced at the list, there were plenty of places where I needed improvement, yet only one word screamed out to me to make it my own.

Patience.

I have always struggled with patience.

In his book, From God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer, teased out the fruit aspect of patience. He observed, “Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten. It wants to break open the ripe fruit when it has hardly finished planting the shoot. But all too often the greedy eyes are only deceived; the fruit that seemed so precious is still green on the inside, and disrespected hands ungratefully toss aside what has so disappointed them.” I don’t buy the fruit in our household, so that metaphor isn’t quite as powerful to me as it could to be. Still, I resonate with Bonheoffer and admit that I am too impatient.

So how does one go about structuring a day to contemplate on patience?

While some wax romantically about spiritual retreats, they’re just not for me. My response would quickly resemble Jack Nicholson in The Shinning if I was holed away at a secluded cabin. I feed off the energy of being in public and do my best thinking when surrounded by others. And I highly doubt that patience is best developed in silence and solitude, but rather when dwelling among the masses That’s why I decided that, in order to grapple with patience, I needed to be in the company of humanity.

Since I dwell in the city where I’ve lived my entire life, I had endless locations from which to choose. And since choosing a singular location seemed limiting, I structured my day around a journey of reflection from my past. See, my entire adult life is connected by one long one road which stretches from the city center to our farthest suburbs; four of the five places where we’ve lived while married are located right next to state route 3.

I decided to take a drive, makes a few stops along the way, and go nowhere in particular. I’d blindly drive up the road of my life to see what I’ve learned about patience, and what’s left to discover. I wrote my reflections from that day down and the following posts will detail my thoughts and reflections about patience.

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.

Invest In Others

Today I lost a mentor. Bill Bravard started investing in me when I was a young boy. I clearly remember a sermon he preached when I was ten and telling my mom, "that was good. I'd like to do that some day."

He and his wife Betty always supported me, showing up to hear me preach in high school, college, and even at small country churches in recent years. When we decided to start Echo Church, I immediately sought his insight and he continually delivered. He'd call me at random times just to see how the ministry was going. We even had the opportunity to team teach a class at CCU a few years ago. He was the most relevant elderly person I've ever known.

I'll always remember him but I'd do better to emulate him. I pray that during my remaining years on earth I can pour into those who need the encouragement just like I did. His life surely made a massive difference in the kingdom.

Prayer for Education

I was asked to give a prayer for this year's Hamilton County National Day of Prayer Event on behalf of Cincinnati Christian University. My topic was education. Below is what I prayed. O God:

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached that the true goal of education is to teach students to think intensively and to think critically, to instill in students both intelligence and character.

So Lord, for the hundreds of institutions throughout the Greater Cincinnati area that devote themselves to guiding students through their studies, we ask that you guide them students to think intensively. We today are the beneficiaries of the generations of Cincinnatians who invested in institutions of education that were created to increase the knowledge of our youth. Those places of learning transcend brick and mortal but serve as bastions of hope for the future of our society and we pray their devotion to the greater good be met through our young people.

We ask your blessing on our schools

And for the thousands of educators in our region that serve tirelessly to ensure that the next generation have access to the opportunities of tomorrow, we ask that you work through them to move our students to think critically. An ever-evolving world demands a diverse minds yet our differences and strong opinions often keep us from considering the perspectives of others. Be with our teachers who must traverse these lines so that our children may be truly analytical. And we acknowledge, Lord, those not at the front of the classroom who also make the difference. For without staff administrators, bus drivers, crossing guards, lunchroom staff, janitors, and many others, our kids would not have this opportunity.

We ask your blessing on our educators

For the thousands of students who, even now as we pray, are in their desks learning, we ask that they may grow in intelligence. For them, O God, we pray mightily as children are precious in your sight. We ask forgiveness for our failures in not helping them all that we should. Despite well-intentioned efforts there are far too many children in our city who live in poverty, whose learning is relegated in exchange for their mere survival. The obstacles that many of these kids have to overcome seem insurmountable, but we ask that you work through our societal intellect so that theirs may be nurtured.

We ask your blessing on our students

And for all those previously mentioned as well as all of us who remain that play a part in education: parents, guardians, family members, volunteers, clergy, community organizers, and taxpayers—we ask that you increase our character. Inspire us to invest in who our children will become, acknowledging that even though they might never share our personal ideology, they will still grow to become our brothers and sisters. Allow us to set-aside our differences: differences of denominations, differences of religion, and even differences from those of us with no religion, to recognize that wisdom is not just ours alone.

We ask your blessing on us all. Amen.

CCU and Me: A Kingdom Perspective

I didn’t choose Cincinnati Christian University to be in my life. It chose me. As a young boy I wore a navy blue T-shirt of my mother’s. On the back it had written in a collegiate font, "Cincinnati Bible Seminary, Class of 1968."

I had no idea what that even meant. But it was a comfy T-shirt, so I wore it.

Whenever my parents talked about things over at the Seminary, I couldn't help but think they were talking about a place for corpses. (Later, I would come to understand that it was not actually a cemetery.) I heard about it frequently in their conversations, recognizing its importance to our lives.

You see, back in 1957, a few professors from Cincinnati Bible Seminary started the Price Hill Church of Christ in the school’s chapel building. When starting the church, Daniel Eynon called on neighborhood families to convince them to join the young congregation. Professor Eynon met Genevieve Carr, who immediately joined the church; her husband, however, refused to let his children attend. One day Eynon confronted Garrett Carr on this issue and apparently challenged him, saying something to the effect of, “just because you want to go to hell doesn’t mean your family has to.” The logic of the statement registered with my grandfather: he let his kids go to church.

Thus my father became a Christian as a result of Cincinnati Bible Seminary.

While a student at the Cincinnati Bible Seminary, my mother worked her way through college serving as Lewis Foster's secretary; she had the opportunity to type pages that were later included in the NIV translation. During this time, mom engaged in Christian service, volunteering at that same Price Hill church, where she met my father.

So my parents married because of Cincinnati Bible Seminary.

Because my home church was in the shadow of Cincinnati Bible Seminary, I grew up reaping the benefits of proximity. Professors of the school were essential to our church's growth and development. I had the opportunity to be around CBS legends such as George Mark Elliott (whose wife Kathryn taught me piano lessons), Dan Eynon, Jack Cottrell, and Bill Bravard. Seminary students often attended our church, and I terrorized a number of them who dared to volunteer as Sunday School teachers.

I’m one of the youngest people with ties to the school who remembers what it was like to worship in the old chapel building. I attended the very last service in that building before it was torn down.

As I grew into my teenage years, I had absolutely no interest in (the then renamed) Cincinnati Bible College. In fact, I almost feared it, boldly declaring that there was no way I would go to college there. I always envisioned attending a big state school to study law.

But at the end of my sophomore year of high school, I finally discovered something I was not only good at, but something that I loved: preaching the Word of God. Once I decided that I wanted to pursue this vocationally, my college decision became a no brainer: it had to be CBC.

It was the only school to which I applied. And I still have my college acceptance letter.

The past twenty years of my life—the majority of my existence—is linked to Cincinnati Christian University. I played soccer for (and later coached) the Golden Eagles. I was both the President of my class and of the student body. I met my wife at CCU, proposing one evening before the whole student body at Family. All of my siblings (even ones who didn’t attend) found their spouses on campus. I served as President of the Alumni Association. I teach classes as an adjunct professor. Twice now, I’ve had the privilege to serve as a full-time employee of the school.

Some of the best and worst times of my life have occurred on that little piece of real estate in Price Hill.

And I’m sure that some of you reading this now could proclaim the same thing. Whenever I meet with old college friends, we swap stories, some of which I had completely forgotten. (Recently I was reminded that I used to convince freshmen that there was a pool on top of the library.) And even though many of us have experienced frustrations with the school, if you're like me, they wither away when I think of the blessings I’ve encountered because it exists.

I love CCU.

I owe everything to this place.

And I can never repay it.

But I can continue to love it.

As many of you have heard, CCU is yet again facing some financial difficulties. While our fiscal position is still redeemable, this situation has prompted leadership to engage in conversations with Johnson University near Knoxville, Tennessee, about a potential merger. Johnson is a fine institution, serving a powerful need in the kingdom of God and I mean it no disrespect in addressing this subject. But even though these conversations are merely exploratory, I believe them to be unnecessary.

CCU can still stand on its own.

I am confident that the leaders of these institutions are ultimately motivated by a deep love for the Lord and for their respective schools; the conversation is being framed within the context of what’s best for the kingdom and for Christian unity. But let’s not think that a singular perspective is capable of holding the only solutions for what best benefits the kingdom of God. While the Scriptures repeatedly speak of the unity of believers, we see numerous examples our kingdom’s diversity. It’s these different voices and perspectives that make our Movement what it is today.

The voicing of CCU is distinct from that of Johnson and, regardless of how delicately we approach this, a voice will be sacrificed. Is this truly best for the kingdom of God? Maybe, but maybe not. While some gains could be achieved in the short term, ultimately our Movement could lose out.

The concern driving these talks is for the survival of CCU. If these talks progress towards execution, the newly-created institution might bear some similarities with CCU, but our history, tradition, and heritage would be forever transformed. If we love the school enough to explore a merger, why don’t we love it enough to try a new trajectory? The assets for a successful turnaround to free CCU already exist. Have we truly explored every possibility?

I love CCU—so much that you might feel my apprehension is merely passion blinding any objectivity. My life was transformed because multiple generations of women and men believed in that school—and they provided a place where people could learn to love the Lord and teach others to do the same.

Too many people have given too much to have it end like this.

That little boy in the navy blue Cincinnati Bible Seminary T-shirt would agree.

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

Why Did I Write That?

I recently wrote an article for the Christian Standard, a church magazine affiliated with my Restoration Movement religious tradition, entitled Counting Sheep. The point of the article is that churches should beware of only using worship attendance as a measure of success. Since it's written in a more authoritative tone, I thought I'd go a little further here explaining why I wrote the article in first place. I've always been inquisitive and find myself continually questioning why things are done in a certain way. I'm not sure it's merely due to my rebellious nature; I'm not just trying to question authority. It's just that too many times we assume that certain principles are universal, rather than just contextual. And if our rubric is skewed, we'll never arrive at a truly healthy place.

This is my critique of the church growth movement: it was born out of an American post World War 2 society where unchurched people were looking to establish a faith foundation. It was appropriate to rely on a body count at the time, when people were coming to church for the first time. Now, almost three generations later, the nation's percentage of Christians is in steep decline. Churches are finding it more and more difficult to reach the growing unchurched population, so we find ourselves in direct competition with other churches to attract consumeristically-minded believers.

It makes sense. This culture lends itself to larger and larger congregations and everyone wants to be a part of something successful. And the numbers are amazing. Just twenty years ago, a church of 7,000 was absolutely prolific. Now, there are more than 70 churches in the United States with over 10,000 people in attendance a week. As a result, systems enabling such large structures are becoming the norm among church practitioners. But if you question why we want churches to grow this large, the undeniable answer has been to claim that it's biblical.

And that was the major issue I wanted to deconstruct: I truly believe that church size is not a biblical issue. It is well within the parameters of biblical permission to have a very small church or a very large church. But using the Bible to suggest that we MUST have large churches is poor hermeneutic and, perhaps, an abuse of Scripture. There are many things that we do in the church that have no prooftext. We shouldn't assume to pull out some Bible verses to try to deflect criticism. What I hope happens is that, as our churches grow, we continue to ask ourselves if our growth is truly healthy.

In the article, I mention that part of my arrival to this position is what I've experienced this with Echo. I've been blessed to see some amazing things in our congregation, things absent in all of my previous ministries. I'm not trying to insult those churches, as all of them were numerically superior than Echo is. But if I held to only a quantitative formula of success, we would have shut this thing down a long time ago.

And my fear as that other church leaders will not be as discerning as they do ministry. But pastors' egos are a fragile thing; if they don't see an assumed yield, they could easily interpret it as a failed calling. So it's critical that we identify this well. Not every congregation will experience phenomenal growth, but that doesn't make it any less significant.

So this article wasn't bathed in bitterness, but motivated by hope and encouragement. I hope all believers can take pride in their congregation, no matter how big or small. There's plenty of room in the kingdom for all of us.

The N.A.C.C. And Me

This week is the culmination of thirteen-month labor of love. From July 5th through 8th, the North American Christian Convention will take place at the Duke Energy Convention Center in downtown Cincinnati. For those of you unfamiliar with that of which I speak, I wrote up a brief explanation of what our (un)denomination is all about. Check it out here. A little over a year ago, I was asked to serve as a Local Arrangements Coordinator for the N.A.C.C. Another minister and I partnered with the convention staff to oversee the nearly 1,000 volunteers required to make the convention happen. I knew it would be a bit of work, but I was somewhat naive as to how much work it would require. I've attended a slew of meetings, had to call in a gaggle of favors, and almost maxed out my email inbox. But there's a light at the end of the tunnel now. We're a couple of days away from the convention and I'm looking forward to seeing how it will go off.

If you're curious, I'd invite you to attend. At least you can peek in on the main sessions. You can learn more about this year's convention at their website: 2011.gotonacc.org.. And if you can't make it downtown, you can watch it online. Click here for a link.

I'd love to see you there!

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.

Love Wins and Me (Part Two)

For part one of this series, click here. It's not been a month since Rob Bell's new book started a firestorm and publishing a review of it now seems almost dated. The interwebs are scattered with thoughtful reviews (I'm too lazy to hyperlink), so this one might not even merit a second glance. But having finally read Love Wins, I feel that I have a better understanding of what he is trying to accomplish with it. That said, I'm still not sure I still understand exactly what he is trying to say.

And I think that is precisely his point.

WHY DID HE WRITE? First, allow me to speculate concerning Bell's motivation.

I don't believe that Rob wrote this text in order to start a controversy. He's no dummy; he obviously knew that his thoughts would be the subject of debate. But I suggest that rather than seeking out the heretic label, Bell honestly believed he was doing something noble. He believes that Christianity has been hijacked by believers who do not practice love of Christ. These people may have beliefs, but they cling to these thoughts more religiously than they do the practices that ought to spring out as a result of it. Basically, they believe in Jesus, but they don't look any different as a result.

And he has a point, doesn't he? How many times have you read/seen a news report citing the words of some Christian leader and become irate? There are many people who cling to a Christianity that emphasizes the negative approach of salvation, a.k.a. acquiring fire insurance. "Believe in Jesus or you'll go to hell," some Christians proclaim. Even those of us who believe this to be true are squeamish of such a gospel presentation. It doesn't project the fullness of what God accomplished through the cross and we're embarrassed. We too want a more complete view of what it means to follow Jesus.

This is the world in which Bell dwells—with people from diverse, non-Christian backgrounds. Hence, we begin to understand his use of the driving anecdote behind Love Wins. In the opening chapter, Bell describes an art show at his church where one of the paintings was of Mahatma Gandhi. Someone decided to leave a note concerning the painting which alluded to the fact that Gandhi, as a Hindu, was in hell. Bell was repulsed by this commentary, asking, "Really? Gandhi's in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?" Bell's contempt is flamed by the thought that a Christian would simply dismiss a person's entire life in in the name of Jesus. If that's how we treat those who are dead, how does it speak to the living who still have a chance to embrace Christ? Bell is driven by compassion and empathy as he pens this book.

HOW DID HE WRITE? Bell uses various techniques in order to establish his position (whatever position that is). The most dominant one is the personal story. Littered throughout Love Wins are narratives that force introspection. This is a powerful approach because nearly all Christians who read this book will be able to relate to the tales Bell tells. For example, he speaks of a trip he took to Rwanda (a "hell on earth") in order to affirm his belief in a literal hell. This story empowers the readers to formulate a belief system based on how they feel. This experiential track is a popular one because this is how many people form their theology—"if it feels right, it must be true."

Bell goes to the Bible to deconstruct popular Christian theology concerning hell. He cites selected Scriptures in order to prove that the way mainstream Christianity views hell isn't biblical. Honestly, this approach bothered me the most because Bell was incredibly lax in the presentation of his systematic theology. He selects Scriptures at random, does a Greek word study of one word (and a poor word study at that), and rarely engages the many texts that present a counter position. Still, by merely dabbling in the Bible, he's able to convey a feeling that the Scriptures aren't very clear about hell.

Finally, Bell's go-to methodology in writing this book is to merely ask questions. As the father of a five-year-old, I can appreciate human inquisitiveness. I too am curious about the universe that God created, and continually ask questions of myself and others as I work out meaning. But Bell's questions are constant and are presented to create division concerning long-held Christian beliefs. While it is true that many questions have no definitive answers, the Scriptures do provide guidance for many an inquiry. For the lion's share of questions that Bell poses, he provides very few answers.

WHAT DID HE GET RIGHT? There are some powerful statements in this book, many things that, if said by another person in another context, would elicit "Amen's" from a congregation. Bell rightly observes that many Christians are so focused on our eternal destination that we're ignoring the power of the gospel to make life better in the here and now. He appeals for an attitude of graciousness from those who tell the good news. And Bell really understands people. Even in the written word, you can sense that magnetic pull of his personality.

WHAT DID HE CITE (POORLY)? Among the things that irked me about this book, Bell's lack of understanding the historical position of the church concerning hell is utterly perplexing; perhaps I judge him too harshly here, as many believers neglect to acknowledge the role of church history in our faith. Bell makes multiple citations to history, including a poor interpretation of Martin Luther. To me, the church's position on hell throughout the centuries is impossible to ignore when wrestling with this issue. In order to get a better grip on this issue, I'd invite you to read what's been written over the past 2,000 years by clicking here.

Also (and apologies if this seems minor, but I don't believe it is), Bell's selectivity is revealed even in his recommended resources. In Love Wins, he spends a good portion of the seventh chapter retelling the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15; he uses it as yet another prooftext to show that God will ultimately redeem all people. In his list of resources at the conclusion of the book, he proclaims that the book The Prodigal God by Presbyterian minister Tim Keller was inspirational in his understanding of the parable. But in Keller's book, The Reason for God, he devotes an entire chapter on how to help intellectuals grasp the concept of a literal hell. By citing Keller's The Prodigal God, it seems as if Bell is trying to imply a relationship between the two men's thoughts, but they couldn't be farther apart. To read Keller's thoughts on hell, click here.

WHAT DID HE REALLY WRITE? So what IS Bell trying to say? It depends . . . on how you read it. Even in his interviews promoting the book, Bell is ambiguous concerning exactly what he believes about hell.

I don't believe that Bell is a true universalist, or one who believes that all people will go to heaven. He allows a framework for the punishment of evil that doesn't jibe with universalism. He most likely holds a position of inclusivism, that the grace of Christ saves people who have some kind of pseudo-faith.

What Bell espouses in Love Wins (and he freely admits this) is nothing new. But while he would claim that it falls within the parameters of mainstream orthodox Christianity, it is actually a mere recycling of 19th century liberal European theology. This belief system incited a war in the American church during the early 20th century (a conflict that eventually led to the establishment of my alma mater, Cincinnati Christian University). Bell attempts to sell inclusivism as orthodox Christianity, but it is not. And it never has been.

Still, I have no idea exactly what he believes. So why didn't he clearly define his position? Because there's too much a stake.

Bell's primary audience/readership is young, hip, mainstream evangelical Christians. My opinion is that, while Bell is definitely an inclusivist, he fully recognizes that staking such a position would alienate him from a more conservative Christians. So he chose to publish a book that merely alludes to his beliefs in hopes that he could have his cake and eat it too. But you can't have it both ways. I'm not sure he anticipated this kind of controversy, but he held to ambiguity in those public interviews in hopes of weathering the storm. For years, Bell was able straddle the line between orthodoxy and liberalism successfully but Love Wins, even if it is a literary success, will signal a loss to the Rob Bell brand.

With this book, and the position that Rob Bell (kinda) takes here, his influence will begin to diminish. He will never again publish with one of the big Christian publishing houses. His invitations to speak at conferences will begin to die down. People will most likely throw away their vast library of Nooma videos in protest. The rising star of Rob Bell will begin to fall. I'm not convinced that Love Wins will have any significant historical influence beyond today.

WRAPPING UP Beyond the theological implications, is there a lesson here? I think so.

This current culture is one that values pluralism. We want to be free to believe whatever we choose, and change those beliefs from day to day. So we embrace fuzziness in all it's glory, with a multiplicity of escape routes to maintain our widespread appeal. But we neglect to realize that in taking no position at all, we make a statement with our silence. No matter how you frame it, Jesus' message is divisive. We might not like it, but it is not ours to choose. The broader community of believers, especially in this age of digital connectivity, will always police those who try to induct fringe beliefs into the mainstream.

If Rob Bell can't get away with it, can anyone?