Ministry

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

About Preaching

In planning my transition to full-time employment, I've had to determine what tasks are critical for me to perform in my ministry at Echo; more specifically: what jobs can I give up so that I can be released to do those things that only I can do? The most critical thing for me to do each week is to prepare my sermon.

This is somewhat peculiar to verbalize, but it is very true: the most important task I perform every week is the forty minutes of teaching I deliver in the pulpit. It's here that I instruct, inspire, and pull-together our church so that we can be all that God needs us to be. It's a job I take very seriously, a craft I've been developing over the course of twenty years.* It's never easy, but it's something I absolutely love. That's why I try to stay up-to-date on the latest trends in preaching.

The state of preaching in the Protestant Church has changed greatly in the last two decades. A more "seeker-sensitive" approach has transformed the way that most pastors teach from the pulpit. Gone [for the most part] is in-depth biblical exploration, replaced by elongated metaphors, personal stories, and needs-based instruction. The result of this shift is that preaching has become less about content and more about delivery. Basically, if you are a good storyteller [even if the story has nothing to do about anything] then you can be anointed a good preacher.

Another trend that's emerged in the last ten years is the elevation of a certain core of speakers to the status of preaching superstars. Now this trend is nothing new, as there have always been certain preachers who have received national attention. The difference now is two-fold: 1) popularity is directly connected to church size, not necessarily content and giftedness; prevailing wisdom dictates that if you can draw a large crowd then you must have something important to say. 2) The iPod era has allowed churches to disseminate their sermons/resources with great ease. Add this to the fact that most pastors are bloggers, and these pastors name-drop other "cool" pastors, and an entire network of hip preachers are lauded for their contributions.

Finally, the megachurch era has proved that church expansion can be an incredibly costly endeavor. Constructing a building that seats several thousands is not entirely practical as the expenses are astronomical. With the development of better video technology, churches decided that they could simulcast [or multi-site] their services for the masses and the people would still show up. Since many larger churches used some video technology to zoom in on the speaker anyway, what difference would it make to watch an entire sermon on video? Video venues are the "it" thing among growing churches now, and it has enabled megachurches to grow much larger than they could ever have imagined. My prediction as a result of this video venue revolution: there will be an 100,000 member church in the USA in my lifetime.

While progress is usually great, it is sometime detrimental. These trends are transforming the act of preaching, raising the performance bar to a level higher than it has ever been. This, I assert, is not good. Preaching is an incredibly intimidating act: spending the week preparing a message that people need to hear [as opposed to what they want to hear], standing in front of the church and delivering it while some obviously couldn't care less about what you're saying, waiting after the sermon to hear feedback, and then receiving the random email the following week questioning your assertions, then doing the whole thing all over again the following week. It's a tough gig. While there will always be type-A personalities who are up to this challenge, some people who should be preaching are discouraged, feeling inadequate, and choose an entirely different vocation.

And this new era of superstar preaching has made this inadequacy even worse. Now, to hear an incredible speaker, I don't necessarily have to live anywhere near him to do so; I can just go to the nearest "campus" and eat it up.** And since people in the pews can go online and hear the best preachers from all around the country, they're better informed as to what "good preaching" sounds like. When the local preacher doesn't measure up, some will claim that they are not "being fed" and will go elsewhere.

This might sound like sour grapes, but I'm not convinced this is a good idea. And this is best illustrated by the recent unveiling of videoteaching.com. This website will provide free sermon videos of some of the best preachers in the country to be downloaded and shown in churches. They have a list of reasons why this is a great things for churches, but it's merely spin. I propose that, while it might fill the preaching time on Sunday morning, this is a horrible idea. A few reasons:

1. It restricts the act of preaching to a precious few. And the fewer people that are able to work on the craft and preach some terrible sermons, the less likely that they'll ever preach a good one. Preaching is trial and error; you don't become good at it unless you practice as you go. If we only let the superstars play, the minor league system will dry up.

2. It eliminates the important contexts of location and life. A friend of mine pastors a church that only shows videos of another preacher during the sermon time. He's criticized his "video preacher" for including information that could date the sermon he's preaching [ex: what if the minister remarks about a snowstorm that week but they don't show the video until summer?]. Additionally, a guy preaching to his church in a suburban city in the Bible Belt isn't necessarily going to be able to speak to our church in urban Cincinnati. One of tools that the local preacher can wield is a story from the headlines of the local paper— capturing a thought for Christ. This cannot happen over video.

3. It downplays the act of preaching. In 1 Corinthians 1, the apostle Paul discusses the foolishness of preaching. Yes, it seems odd to give so much importance to this act, but God definitely works through it. If we who pastor are content to pass off the responsibility to someone else, thinking that we can "put more energy into reaching [our] community by freeing [us] from weekly message preparation," then we have essentially given up on something God believes in. Sure, we might be horrible at preaching, but it's not about our skill anyway. It's about elevating Jesus so He shines above everything.

Unfortunately, it seems there's nothing we can do to stop this superstar/video movement  . . . for now.

Eventually, people will be overloaded on video preaching. One day it'll be novel to listen to an actual person preaching a real sermon that they themselves wrote. Things always come full circle.

So while popular preaching is headed in a direction much different from that of my own, I'm going to hang out and do my own thing. Plus, I have an amazing church who absolutely "get me" and always come back regardless of how harsh I can be while preaching.

And for you in the pews, cut your preacher some slack. When he lays an egg in the pulpit, show some sympathy. Try encouraging him a little. Let him know when he says something that challenges you. As I've previously stated, it's a tough gig. Before you run off to the next hippest thing down the road, be a little patient and see what God is saying through your very imperfect pastor.

That said, I really need to get my sermon for Sunday finished . . .

_______

*Yes, I delivered my first sermon at the age of 12. I'm not saying it was very good, but that's when I got my start. One of the blessings of growing up in a smaller church was the ability to hone my preaching even before I went off to seminary; by the time I went off to college, I had probably preached fifteen to twenty times. This opportunity gave me a head-start, allowing me to feel incredibly comfortable speaking in public as well as increasing my efficiency in preparation.

**Multi-site churches are starting to really take off, even outside of a church's city. There's a certain church in Texas that opened up a new campus last year in Miami, Florida.

***Think about how dedicated Christians were in former eras. For centuries, people weren't nearly as transient as they were today. In most cases, you never left the town that you grew up in. And since denominational loyalty was firm, you'd get a preacher and be stuck with him. And back then, preachers stayed with a ministry much longer than they do today— sometimes for life. So if you're preacher was bad, there was no church-hoping. Of course, because you'd rarely hear another preacher, you might never know how bad your preacher truly was.

Additionally, the whole "being fed" excuse is incredibly ambiguous. It's the church equivalent to "it's not you, it's me."

Wrapping Up '08

You know you're getting old when you leave a New Year's party at 10pm. Getting a sitter on New Year's Eve seemed too much of a task and Kaelyn had a good time anyway [thanks Melissa and Emily!]. But this extra time allowed me the opportunity to squeak one more post out of this year.

Overall, I loved 2008. As Frank would say, it was a very good year. I had the opportunity to travel to Dallas, St Louis and Louisville a couple of times. I caught a foul ball, had someone pay for my photography, made it on ESPN.com and even redesigned the blog. Great times.

I will also remember 2008 as the year I crammed my brain with more information than I thought I was capable of consuming. I'm wrapping up this Masters degree at X [will graduate in May] and started teaching at my alma mater. Although I read fewer books, I gleaned a ton of new material. This is transforming me; I actually feel like I'm starting to get a feel for my ministry style.

And speaking of this, I feel like I had a great professional year. At the beginning of the year, we knew some key people would leave Echo and it would be difficult. Even though this was scary, we knew God would provide for us. And He has in big ways. We made our [increased] budget and have some new people who are really energizing our congregation. It is very cool. This past fall, we eclipsed two personal milestones:

1) Echo is now the longest ministry that we've held. Surpassing three years doesn't seem like much, but this is where we plan on spending the rest of our lives. Also, we really "feel" this ministry. There is not the slightest doubt in me that if someone offered me the "perfect ministry gig" [high pay, little work, national acclaim], I would turn it down. This ministry is perfect for me. We feel completely at home.

2) We've lived in the same place longer than we ever have in our marriage. We discussed maybe upsizing here, and finding a house in the neighborhood, but there's no good reason for it except to maybe give Kaelyn a yard. But we've realized that she has everything she needs to make her a normal, healthy little girl. And we love our neighbors. And since I finally changed my drivers license yesterday to our current address, I think we're pretty settled.

So while I'm sad to close the door on such a good year, I'm sure there's another one right around the corner.

Happy New Year!

Half A Man

I wasn't satisfied with my weight gain over the winter. It really wasn't that much, but it was enough to make me angry. Desperate times call for desperate measures: I'm running the Flying Pig Marathon.

Well, sorta.

I'm actually running the half marathon.

Normally I'm an all-or-nothing type guy; if I'm going to do something, I'm giving it 100%. But running a full marathon was just out of the question.

For starters, I didn't want to start training in December to run. Although I occasionally run on the machines over at Xavier's Athletic Center, I do so reluctantly and only go about six miles [actually, until I started training, I'm not sure I ever ran more than six miles at a time]. Plus, our friend Angie is training to run a marathon and spent last Saturday doing a long run that lasted four hours.

Four hours. Just to practice. No way I could do that. Especially considering the biggest roadblock to me running the marathon:

I really don't like running.

Sure, if I'm playing a sport where running is just a part of the equation, I'm there. But I get bored easily and spending weeks running long distances [for practice] is not fun. I wouldn't be able to get by with the limited training I'm doing now if it weren't for an mp3 player.

But I'm getting excited about it. The race course is right in our area. In fact, the half marathon runs right in front of our condo. So I'm hoping homefield advantage will come in handy.

So two weeks from tomorrow I'll be up early to do some racin'.

But it's only half-impressive.

We Don't Care About The Young Folk

I was just downtown moving some overhead projectors and checking on our church's registration for the National Missionary Convention. The well-intentioned registration person engaged me in the following dialogue: Her: "Hi, how can I help you?"

Me: "I'm just checking on our church's registration for the convention."

Her: "Did your church register you?"

Me: "Actually, I registered our church. I'm the minister."

Her: "You're the youth minister of a church?"

Me: "No, I'm the real minister and I am checking on our registration."

Her: "You mean for the Teen Convention?"

Me: "No, the one for adults."

Ugh. I know what she was thinking: "there's no way a church let's this kid be their minister." Of course, considering that I started Echo, I'm not sure a church actually let me be their minister.

Does it say something that if I'm not wearing khaki's and a button down shirt [I was sporting denim and a zip-up sweater], or if I'm not in my 50's with a little gut, or if I'm not balding while totting a cellphone clip on my belt, that I don't appear to be an actual minister? We wonder why we're having problem attracting young guys to ministry. Could it be that we prefer our ministers to look . . . well, geeky?

Perhaps I've said to much. I'm in no way the epitome of cool [proven by my use of the word "epitome"] but I'm just calling this one like I see it.

Truth be told, I almost always enjoy it when someone says, "you don't look like a minister." Because, usually, it's said in a good way. postscript: That song referenced in the title of this post is my ringtone. If you're unfamiliar with it, familiarize.

iTeach

I received a piece of mail today addressed to "Reverend Steve Carr." I'd never call myself that but I still get a kick out of seeing it in print. I mean, who would ever consider me as being revered? My wife knows the truth. I was asked a couple of weeks ago about my title. All of our publications list me as being a teaching pastor. I chose the title myself, and I did it rather intentionally. I did so because it best expresses my position in our young church.

First, I am a pastor. Do a Greek word study [or perhaps a geek word study] and you see the terms elder, pastor, presbyter, overseer, and bishop are used interchangeably; they all refer to a shepherd. That's my role at Echo: I'm supposed to pastor our flock. Currently we only have two pastors, but we plan on developing a larger group of shepherds over the next few years.

Second, the part of the job I'm more passionate about, I am a teacher. I guess I get that passion from my parents who both love to teach. It is my role to instruct our church concerning the Word of God. I take this responsibility very seriously. I spend hours each week in study so I can share a message each Sunday. You might not think this is much work, but presenting fresh and relevant information every week forty-plus times a year ain't easy. I love the challenge; there's nothing else I'd rather do.

One thing I've discovered since we started Echo is that I'm teaching much longer than I used to. I used to feel constrained when I spoke in previous ministries, afraid I would go over on time. Now, since our services last as long as we feel like, I teach until I'm finished; when I'm finished, I stop. This means I speak anywhere from forty minutes [my average] to just shy of an hour like I did yesterday. I suppose now that this info is out there, some of you won't be visiting Echo anytime soon.

You may reason that's why we've not experienced huge growth: because I preach way to long. I've found this to be untrue. Actually, people keep coming back despite my long-windedness. I believe people are more apt to embrace this longer preaching because of two things: 1) I do prepare a lot and strive to keep it interesting and 2) I teach straight out of the Bible.

People today are extremely curious about the Bible but know very little about it. This recent Time Magazine article verifies this, claiming that more public schools are offering Bible classes so kids will be familiar with the book. As a church that values depth, we take advantage of this. Echo is committed to unpacking the mysteries of Scripture every week. We might go deeper than some people prefer, but we'll never be able to get everyone up-to-speed with basic Christian theology in just one week. So why bother trying? There's nothing wrong with making people think hard about their faith, even if it takes weeks, months, and even years to develop.

I teach the only way I know how. And I'm having fun doing it.

Invisible Children Screening

In 2003 three guys at a Christian college in California went on a trip to Uganda, an African nation in the midst of a civil war. They took along some video equipment looking to record their trip. While there, they discovered that Ugandan children were being abducted in the middle of the night and forced to fight in the resistance army. The only way the kids could stay safe was to walk over two miles every night in order to sleep in a safe village. The guys were convicted enough that they wanted to expose the plight of these kids to the American public. The result was an independent documentary called Invisible Children.

I became exposed to this film a couple of years ago when a young lady in our college ministry exposed us to it; she actually went to Biola University with these guys. Since then, Invisible Children has spread virally and has made a huge impact in Uganda. While much has been done, there's much more to do.

Echo is hosting a team from the Invisible Children organization this Thursday night at 7pm at the Walnut Hills Christian Church to screen the film and explain their ministry. You could help us out by 1) attending or 2) encouraging anyone you know that would be interested to come. There is no charge for the event. Just come and see how you can make a difference from across the globe.

For more information check out the Echo website as well as the Invisible Children site.

Bob And Me

So this past week I was at a camp in southeastern Indiana for a minsters retreat. It was a little more than a camp, as it was the Country Lake Retreat Center- a first class facility. And it was a little more than a ministers retreat as it featured some exclusive mentoring time with Bob Russell. Bob recently retired as minister at the Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, a congregation with a weekly attendance of almost 20,000 people. More impressive than that staggering number is the way that Bob led the church towards such extraordinary growth. While many churches today are able to grow large with flashy multimedia or various programming, Southeast grew because of solid Biblical preaching. They're still rather traditional in their methodology, but God definitely blessed their efforts. I believe it was due to the humility and holy approach that Bob brought into that pulpit.

Their were only eight of us there this week, all of us church planters. This gave us incredible opportunities for personal interaction with Bob, a chance to see sides of him that few get to witness. The staff assisting with the retreat were amazing; first class in every aspect. And everything was paid for- food, housing, and recreation- because of the generosity of a man in California. We talked about leadership and had the opportunity to take behind the scenes tours Churchill Downs and the Louisville Slugger factory [at the bat museum, we were guided by the CEO and grandson of LS's founder, Jack Hillerich]. One night we ate at one of the swankiest restaurants in Louisville. Best steak I've ever eaten.

One of the surprising blessings of the retreat was the camaraderie that developed between us ministers. I had the chance to meet some guys from all over the country in all kinds of situations. Despite the differences in our backgrounds we had a great time of interacting, both joking around and encouraging each other. I know I'll keep in touch with these guys, looking forward to how God will work in their ministries.

I certainly had a great week of introspection. More than ever, I feel confident that Echo was what God needed from us. I'm actually reenergized and ready to get back to the work of our church.

It was very, very good.

Bibliography

I'm a reader. I read recreationally, but do so in search of factual information. I'm preparing to be a contestant on Jeopardy in 2019. If they cancel the show before then, I guess I've been wasting my time. In previous years I was a book-hound, plowing through literature like it was Diet Coke. I've cut down on my literary consumption because I'm getting cheaper [I've never liked library books. Guess I'm a snob] and I'm more selective about what I'll read. I still read a ton, making the most of our internet connection; I get my money's worth absorbing voluminous information online. So I can feed my factual fixation without having to buy books.

In addition to my Biblical studies, I've read only two books this year. One was a book on church planting that testified that most of what we've done with Echo is wrong. The other was a book my mother-in-law got me for Christmas about the Crosley brothers that I finally finished today. Entitled Crosley, it was a 500-pager full of historical notation about the lives of these two influential Cincinnatians.

Powel and Lewis grew up in the College Hill area. Powel was the visionary, Lewis made the dreams a reality. They were responsible for innovations in radio, automobiles, refrigeration, and aviation. They're perhaps most well-known for their ownership of the Cincinnati Reds. If the Crosleys hadn't owned the team, it could very easily ended up in New York or Houston. It's a fascinating read for people interested in the shaping of Cincinnati during the first half of the twentieth century. The more you know . . .

Echo Pub

The latest issue of CCU 514, the quarterly newsletter of Cincinnati Christian University, includes an article about Echo. You can download the PDF here. They asked me to write up some words about our endeavor, so I sent them a few paragraphs. I assumed they'd do a rewrite to make it third person, but they pretty much published it as is. My only regret is that there's a sentence in there that begins, "When I started Echo Church . . . "

Makes me cringe just thinking about it.

I read a lot of blogs by church planters that detail their ministries. Honestly, a few of them make me want to vomit; they come off like online tributes to these pastors' greatness. That could very well be me, so I'm always trying to keep my ego in check [Kelly does her part quite well]. Don't get me wrong: you do need to be pretty confident to start a church from scratch, but not too confident.

That's why I'm embarrassed I wrote the word "I." I didn't start Echo Church. There's a incredible group of people that God has called together to do this thing. Without them, it wouldn't have happened. They're some of my favorite people in the world. They deserve all the credit. I have no earthly idea how I could've written that.

Yet despite that inappropriate pronoun, I don't think it's half bad. Check it out.

What My Alma Mater Doesn't Understand

This might come off as harsh, but it's about time I start being more forthright about Cincinnati Christian University. I love the school immensely; I have two degrees from there, was employed by the school for 2.5 years, and was President of its Alumni Association. Despite any disagreements I might have with certain aspects of the school, I continue to be dedicated to its ministry and mission. That being said, let me show where they're not getting it right.

As I opened up the Enquirer's webpage this morning to check out what's happening in the city, this is what I see:

Nice little banner ad at the top there. As my wife was driving to work on Tuesday, she got behind a bus with a CCU ad on it [sure, it was a lame reference to "Deal Or No Deal" but noticeable advertising nonetheless]. There are also numerous billboards located around town selling the merits of our humble Bible college.

This is a huge step up. When I worked in recruiting there, our advertising budget was limited to what I could photocopy on a 8.5 x 11 piece of paper. I constantly had to tell people that we weren't a seminary for priests. So the branding effort enacted over the past few years is working. Enrollment is at an all-time high.

But what do you do once you get the people enrolled and on campus. How do you treat them?

Seth Godin had an interesting post about this today, reflecting on an experience he had with his small town's city council. The part that stuck out to me was this assertion:

"People don't renew or cancel their cell phone service because of the ads (the ads that might have gotten them to sign up in the first place.) They do it based on the service and the way it makes them feel. And people don't vote to re-elect a candidate because of her debate performance or speeches."

Back to CCU. Enrollment is up and that makes it appear that things are better. But I've heard of many horror stories from current students that they don't have the support staff to handle the increased number of students. They can't get access to their financial aid or registration info. So while more people are coming to campus than ever before, does it help the overall image of the school if they have a horrible experience? Of course not. Actually, it's even worse because you've opened up new avenues in which you name can be defamed.

My solution: I'd prefer that they now scale back the advertising campaign and use the remaining funds to work on infrastructure. Add enough staff to facilitate the enlarged student body in order to give them the best college experience they could imagine. Then you create happy alumni base that will do your advertising for you. That's where long term success is built.

I don't write this to open up a bash fest on my college. I know such a post will invite many people to unleash their "CCU sucks" rants. I'd rather you not. While the school does have its flaws, its still a great place that God is using in a powerful way to affect the world. I just have to call it as I see it.

Anyone can put butts in seats, especially if you dump enough money into advertising. But its what you do once you get them there that makes all the difference.

Introspection

Since the Bengals don't play until tonight [gotta beat the Colts, Marvin] there is nothing to Monday morning quarterback about. So, instead, I'll make it personal and critique my Sunday teaching performance. While I've been preaching for almost twenty years now [delivered my first sermon at the age of twelve] this past year at Echo has been my first prolonged week-to-week preaching experience; I had stints where I preached for a few months in a row, but never consistently over a year. I'm not really feeling the pressure of coming up with new material each Sunday as I can almost always find something to run with. I do, however, get lower when I bomb now than when I used to when I just occasionally preached. It probably has less to do about my subject matter or style and more about where we're at as a church.

Despite trusting God to take care of Echo, I feel like a lot of our "success" comes down to me. If my preaching sucks then we don't have much of a chance; the reality is there's not that much else going on around here to offer people. So each week I try to prepare something that's relevant, Biblically deep, and engaging. I try not to suck. But sometimes, despite my best efforts, it just doesn't work out.

Last night, as we continued examining different aspects of the Christmas story, I wanted to illustrate the role of Herod in the birth narrative. We have many extra-Biblical references to Herod that usually aren't discussed around Christmas time. As you put Herod's paranoid, self-serving persona against that of Jesus, you get a very different idea of what it means to be a King. Sounded like a good idea, I just don't think I made it work. I got bogged down in the facts and don't think I was able to make them "come alive." I also taught much shorter than I usually do, which is indicative of me not feeling a good flow. Fortunately I didn't try to make-up for it on the spot and strech it to cover the space. It was what it was and that was the best I could do.

It's tough to walk out of the pulpit feeling like you just laid an egg. Like a bad athletic performance, you're left to dwell on it and relive it over and over in your mind. But then you realize that you can pick yourself up and do it all over again next week. If you dwell on it too long, it can really start to mess with your mind, so I give myself Monday morning until lunch to get over it; I'm almost there now.

A couple additional thoughts:

First, I just love the chance to try something out. Some preachers are fearful of failing so they refuse to take risks in their teaching. Echo affords me a great luxury: the opportunity to experiment and not sweat it if I fail. I tried to pull off something different last night and it didn't flow well. That's cool. I'm all the more wiser this morning.

And I do need to share this interesting tidbit: sometimes when I feel like I've bombed with my preaching people get something out of it. So while I beat myself up for sucking, someone claims that something I said really clicked with them. It's absolutely maddening, but it once again proves that this whole preaching thing is more than just my capabilities.

God is good. And my job is to tell people about that.

That'll take away the Monday morning blues.

Doctor Who?

Story time, kiddies. When I was in college I tried to get a scholarship for preaching students being awarded by a old school church planting organization from southeastern Ohio. I heard about this group because they were popular in the Maysville, Kentucky area where my grandparents resided. In order to interview for this $1000 scholarship I had to drive to Portsmouth, Ohio to interview for it. It was a five hour round trip, coupled with an hour interview about my theology and career aspirations. Low and behold, I didn't get the scholarship. It's a Saturday from my life that I'm still bitter about losing.

The head of this group had an interesting name: Hoyt Allen Jr. I only met him that one time, but I had difficulty forgetting that name, perhaps because I forever linked him to that scholarship snub. While online today, reading a news blurb about my grandparent's church, I saw that they invited good ole' Hoyt to come speak to their gathering. I normally would've passed on this article but noticed that it referred to him as DOCTOR Hoyt. I don't mean to be judgmental, but I couldn't buy that this guy had earned a doctorate; I'm certain that the closest he got to legitimately claiming this title was by downing a Dr Pepper [sorry, I felt that lame joke was necessary].

The article said that Hoyt earned his Master of Divinity and Doctorate at a Lake Charles Bible College in Louisiana. Having never heard of Lake Charles I looked up their website where I perused their intensive academic offering. You can check it all out here, but I would like to cite their rigorous requirements for attaining a doctorate at their prestigious institution.

DOCTOR OF MINISTRIES This course consists of four sections, all comprehensive and discussion questions. You will use your own library for research. The total course cost is $500, payable in four equal installments.

This, my friends, in case you were wondering, is not a fully accredited academic institution. I have to include this advertising gem from their MDiv description:

MASTER OF DIVINITY Our Master Of Divinity is a comprehensive program that requires one textbook, The textbook consists of four sections, all discussion questions. In other words, there are no completely wrong answers.

How refreshing! For somebody. I have no idea how someone could drop $1000 for these two pieces of paper and then, with a straight face, have someone address them as Doctor.

Unfortunately, the background of our movement of churches is extremely anti-intellectual. This sentiment developed as a stand against the highly-intellectual liberalism that rampaged Protestant churches in the early twentieth century. As a result, we've not been able to overcome this past and embrace the idea that we can be both intelligent and Biblically conservative. Hence, you get a degree mill like the Lake Charles Bible College where there are no wrong answers.

We still need some work if we're going to become the movement we need to be.

Honestly, I'd like to get a PhD someday . . . especially if I could get someone else to pay for it. Not that I want people to call me Doctor, but that I could specialize in a subject and become an authority. But if it never happens, I'll be OK. I'd rather it not happen than me to get a cereal-box-top degree not worth the paper it's written on.

Lessons From A Sunday Night

Just a week ago I wrote about how awesome the Sunday experience was. Of course, I had to open up my big mouth as that was followed by one of those not so great nights this week. All in all, I'm sure everything went well [props to Scott Duebber for being awesome and filling in while Tye was gone]. I had a message I was excited about and was just ready to hit the home stretch when a guy came in off the street.

Readers note: Whenever I refer to said "guy came in off the street," I define it as an individual who is merely looking to for money. Before I proceed I should also explain that this may come off as calloused to some of you; and it might actually be.

In the past year plus I have yet to encounter someone requesting funds from us who have honestly been in severe need. In Walnut Hills there are not many homeless people. It is an area where many of the needy are on various of forms of government assistance and live in Section 8 type housing. So if someone is able to get money from you, it's an icing on the cake type deal.

This being said, we have yet to refuse someone a first time asker; we believe that if you're willing to lie to Jesus' church just to get some cash then it's on you. That doesn't disqualify our need to be benevolent. And since the majority of monetary requests are accompanied by an offer for remittance, we usually never see the people ever again.

Sorry about the sidebar. Back to the story.

So guy from the street comes in about two thirds of the way through my message I notice something happening behind me. The sanctuary at Walnut Hills is set up that there's a hallway at stage left that leads to the back entrance. This guy is now standing in the doorway just checking out what's happening. I stop speaking and ask, "can I help you" and he says something about he's just waiting to ask for help. I'm a tad annoyed that he thought a doorway at the front of the church was a good place to wait, but Tim Tucker went out to talk to the guy. Tim tells him he'd have to wait until after church and that he's more than welcome to stay. The guy agrees and comes in to have a seat. Fine.

As I'm talking about the virginity of Mary, guy from the street thinks it's a good time for Q&A and stops me to ask a question. I'm not too thrown off about it because it's not the first time that this has happened while at Echo; it has, however, been long enough that it broke my flow and I struggled through the rest of the message. No biggie there, except that I'm disappointed that I didn't recover well; the minute you start letting the little distractions affect you, you're Kramer yelling racial slurs into the audience.

After the service I go over to talk to Kevin [he did have a name] and find out his story. It's the same as most stories: ambiguity concerning every facet of his life except that he needs funds. I decided in advance that he'd get some cash [he did help me preach my sermon] but he insists on finishing his spiel.

This is the point in the conversation that many guys from the street go for the gold: they try to assure me that I was helping a Christian guy out so that talk about faith or the Bible. I always laugh at this, as if it makes a difference to me whether you're a believer or not. But it happens very frequently that someone asking for money will try to convince me that they're incredibly spiritual.

Kevin tries to accomplish this by asking me a theological question. He just stopped at a church up the street to ask them for money [admitting to me that he's working all the neighborhood churches but he has cash in hand so he's feeling pretty good now so he hits the gas] and he met the pastor there. He looks at me straight-faced and says, "It was a WOMAN pastor," as if I should be shocked. Kevin then proceeds to tell me of the trend in the city of black women pastors and can't comprehend how these woman have the gall to go against Scripture and try to preach. He now wants to know my perspective on the matter.

Now perhaps you don't fully appreciate this but I wanted to laugh out loud. Here's a guy who obviously grew up in church and had a decent knowledge of church-ese. And instead of wanting to discuss the ways that he could correct his own life he wants to rant about how unBiblical churches with women pastors are. Classic.

I told Kevin that perhaps these ladies are in communities where the men haven't stepped up to lead in the way that Scripture commands and that these ladies have recognized that if they don't step up, no one will. I was subtly trying to suggest that he should be part of the solution. At this point, Kevin was no longer interested in playing hack theologian. What's more ironic is that very subject he talked about was part of my message; but Kevin, instead, decided to ask a question about Mary's virginity.

So trying to deconstruct last night, I have a few thoughts this morning I want to write down. In no particular order:

Dialogue preaching is dumb. It's now cool and hip to interact with people during your sermon time. This is derived from the understanding that everyone in your worship gathering has something applicable to add to conversation. While it sounds like a good idea I just can't buy it and last night was the perfect example why.

I've been called to be a pastor. I've spent the past week [or even longer] struggling through a text or an issue to teach on a Sunday. And I've dedicated years of my life in study and preparation to lead a church and teach Scripture. Why, then, are you just as qualified as me to give your two cents? Preaching, as seen in the Bible, is authoritative.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying I know everything, nor am I saying that I'm perfect by any means. And I'm not implying that other opinions aren't important. But when it comes to teaching, this is what I've been called to do. And my butt's on the line if I screw it up. So I'm perfectly fine with being the guy who does all the talking.

Your lifestyle should reflect your theology. Before we feel fit to criticize other issues such as female pastors, perhaps we should make sure the rest of our beliefs are in line. This was the whole plank and sawdust issue Jesus addressed in his sermon on the mount. Kevin felt empowered to critique the way someone else was practicing their faith but he is part of the problem contributing to it. If we're going to be critical, we should critically examine ourselves first. It's a good reminder to me to "chiggity check myself before I 'reck myself."

There's always next week. I do my best not to live for Sundays; it's how I keep my sanity. This last week didn't turn out the way I planned it, but there are now six days until we do it all over again. Every day is a new day. That's why I was up at 5:30 this morning to get a jump on things.

Never a dull moment at Echo.

Echo Rocks

I enjoy our church. We're having the time of our lives. We had five more first-time visitors tonight. And our core group rocks, working incredibly hard to get things set up and running smoothly. Slowly but surely we're getting there. For some reason Kaelyn shines on Sunday nights. She constantly smiles at everyone and loves to sing along while Tye leads worship. She's still not getting the words right though.

And then there's me and my mastery of the English language. Tonight, in the midst teaching on some of the sexual melees in Jesus' family tree, I transitioned to the life of Rahab the prostitute. Trying to tell where it was located in the Bible, I misspoke and said, "Joshua tapped it, too" instead of "Joshua chapter 2." I guess Jericho was a happening place.

Good times.