Sometimes, I think ahead. Early last year I realized that October 10th would take place on a Sunday. I knew that my preaching schedule called for me to teach through the book of Exodus in 2010, so I planned the series so I could begin the Ten Commandments on 10/10/2010. Pretty smart, eh? So on Easter we started studying the book. Now, starting Sunday, we're poised to look at each of the commandments a week at a time. But what I neglected to recognize then is that next week would also be the fifth anniversary of Echo Church. So a special day became even more special-er.

Please consider this your official invitation to join us at Echo Church at 6pm this Sunday as we complete our fifth year of ministry in the city. We'll be having a little pot-luck after the service and, rumor is, there will be a birthday motif in play.

God's been good to us. Let's party.

Telling Our Story

A little over five years ago, I entered the Walnut Hills Christian Church for the second time. While the first time was just a momentary opportunity to check out the facility to see if our new church could rent it out, the second time was a more thorough examination of the building. And this time I had my camera with me. I snapped quite a few photos that day, but one of them stood out among the rest. It was this one:

It might be difficult to recognize what this is, but it's a baptistry— a pool in which people are baptized; at the time, it was being used by the church for storage. I transformed that image into a visual allegory for our young church: that we were called to come into this neighborhood, shake off the spiritual cobwebs, and call people to repentance. The goal I articulated for our new church was to redeem this scene and put that baptistry to good use.

Throughout those earlier years, I would bring out that baptistry photo a couple of times a year to remind people of its place in our story. "We are here," I declared, "to see this baptistry get used again." It became a sort of unofficial mantra of our church. But an interesting thing happened throughout those early years:

We baptized no one.

This is not because we did not teach the gospel. This is not because we were an insular congregation. This is not because we don't care about lost people. This is because many of the people who came to us over the years were renewing their faith—having once devoutly followed Jesus, they were returning to the church once again.

Unfortunately, for my church tradition, the litmus test for church success is baptism—if you're not baptizing people, then you're not being faithful. As a result, I've been involved in situations where the M.O. was "baptize first, ask questions later." Over my ministerial career, I regrettably baptized some people that I shouldn't have; they were in a rush for a cleansing rather than a complete transformation. As we started Echo, I assured myself that I would never again cheapen baptism. So I refuse to coerce people into doing it. Obviously, I teach it from the pulpit (it's impossible to engage the Scriptures and not come face to face with baptism), but I'm not going to scare someone into doing it just so I can feel like we have a successful church.

All of this brings me to this year. Since January I have been thinking about this topic even more. We've continued to add more people over the past couple of years and I'm sure some of them might never have been taught about obedience to baptism. Perhaps this year, we would finally fulfill that mission I captured in a picture years ago. I knew I'd be preaching through Exodus and that in 1 Corinthians the apostle Paul used Israel's Red Sea crossing as a metaphor for baptism. I imagined we'd have a general baptism day where we could celebrate baptism and see it fulfilled before our eyes. We had that service this past Sunday.

We baptized no one.

But God used all of this for a valuable lesson.

A couple of months ago, Kathy approached my wife to talk about baptism. Although she had grown up in Christ, and had even attended a Christian university, she had never been challenged with baptism. Something I said in a sermon resonated within her and she decided she wanted to be baptized. On a weeknight this summer, we had the baptistry filled with water, and my wife, my daughter, Kathy's husband and I witnessed her baptism. Yes, without any fanfare, Kathy became the first person baptized at Echo.

But the interesting thing is I do not believe that Kathy wasn't saved before this moment. She had lived a faithful life before the Lord but she had never been fully exposed to this understanding of baptism. Her decision was one of obedience. And that is what we at Echo are attempting to do in our ministry in the city: call all of God's children to obedience, which includes baptism in Him. We might only have one baptism under our belts, but our church strives to daily live in godly obedience.

One other thing: I asked Kathy to share her baptism with our church on Sunday. I even suggested, since she is quite the artist, that she make a work of art to express what happened through this process. She did and her is what it looks like:

And a new allegory is born.

We're going to get this picture framed and hang it somewhere in the building. That picture of a baptistry used as storage space will now be replaced with this image of art by a person who embraced obedience to the Lord. It's a powerful image.

I'm thankful that it's now part of our story.

The Complexities of the Queen City

This quote from a former Cincinnatian speaks volumes about my hometown:

Sure, there were troubles in Cincinnati, but it also felt more alive in some way. Cincinnati is an edge place. It’s a meeting of red state and blue state, of urban and Appalachia, black culture and white culture, industry and environmentalism.

Everyone should visit Cincinnati.  It’s an important touchstone for understanding the complexity, the challenges, and the hope of America. A perfect place to hone our elemental media, and practice En’owkin, the Okanagan concept that translates as “Please give me the viewpoint most opposite of mine so I can increase my wisdom."

I have to agree with this perspective. There's obviously a distinct beauty to our city, but it's incredibly challenging to build cohesion among our residents because of divergent perspectives. It's yet another reminder for me that doing ministry in our town will continue to be challenging.

HT: City Kin

An Echo Update

I sent the following message to our church this evening. I know some of you outside our congregation might be interested as well. Church,

In early January, Echo was approached by Walnut Hills Christian Church leadership to inform us that they were looking to shut down their congregation by the end of 2010. In order to maintain our current meeting space, our leadership put together a proposal to take ownership of the church building. We met with their church in late January and laid out our options, offering our desire to work with them whatever the outcome.

Earlier this evening I had another meeting with the leadership of WHCC. Their response is to continue to meet as a congregation and maintain possession of the building. They are exploring the possibilities of renting out the space during weekdays and applying for some possible grants to keep funding their ministry.

The question that you're probably asking is, "what does this mean for Echo?"

First, it means that we'll continue to meet at 1438 East McMillan, at least throughout the rest of this year; our leadership has decided that, as long as we can maintain our location, we should do so. The building suits our needs very well and our relationship with WHCC remains positive. Tonight they affirmed this relationship and, as long as we can keep this going, we plan on continuing to meet there.

Second, it means that we will again negotiate with WHCC for a Sunday morning meeting time. We are setting up meetings with their church to have the logistics settled by Memorial Day. This will give us a morning worship launch date of this fall. There is still much to hammer out here, so I urge continued continued patience and prayer.

Finally, understand that this is a very good thing. We are blessed with a low cost meeting space that is beautiful and convenient. Our effectiveness in Walnut Hills and the city continues to grow. We are finding more and more people that buy into our vision of resonating the voice of God throughout the city and to the ends of the earth. And we're able to give more than 15% of our offerings to missionaries throughout the world. Do not be mistaken: God is most definitely good.

So we continue on, serving the Lord and embracing our future. I'm thankful for your commitment to the ministry and I'm looking forward to worshipping with you on Sunday night.

Believe me, Christians: the best is yet to come.

Blessings and love, Steve

Taking Back The City

I feel really good about the church in Cincinnati. During the past few months the overall vibe at Echo Church has changed. There's an energy that's growing and other people are feeling it too.

And maybe some this excitement surrounds some potential changes with our young congregation.

At the beginning of this year, we were informed that the church from which we rent is contemplating closing their doors. Since this building has been the only home that Echo Church has known throughout our existence, this puts us in a predicament. We had a couple of the meetings with the church [our landlord] and submitted a proposal to take over the operation of the building. This would be a significant move that would change the way that Echo does ministry, that would take a considerable financial investment. But as we are committed to the Walnut Hills community and the surrounding neighborhoods, we embrace the opportunity to plant even deeper roots here. If our proposal is rejected, we will be forced to find a new meeting place by this fall.

So something's gonna change.

No matter what happens, our church is up for the challenge. We're doing some great ministry, both locally and globally. We're growing beyond our time of being a "church plant" and becoming an established congregation. And regardless of what becomes of things, a building won't define us.

And it's not just what's happening at Echo that has me feeling good. There are also some great things are happening at churches throughout the city. Just to highlight a few of them:

  • Christ the King Church finally launched in January in a nearby neighborhood and looks to be gaining momentum.
  • State Avenue Church of Christ and our friends at Hope Inner City are seeing record crowds at their inner-city congregation. And we at Echo are working with H.I.C. to investigate the possibility of planting a hip-hop church on the westside.
  • I finally met Josh Lenon and some of his team who are preparing to plant Red Door Church in northern Cincinnati.
  • Legend Community Church made it through their first year and continues to reach out to the Oakley area.
  • Covenant First Presbyterian Church, one of our city's oldest churches, continues to thrive under the leadership of Russell Smith.
  • And there are these churches called Vineyard and Crossroads that are doing some cool things too.
  • And I could spend all night listing the dozens of other churches that are doing great things in the Queen City.

To repeat: I'm feeling really good about how the people of God are embracing this city.

The Time's A-Changin'

When we started Echo, and knew that we would be a church that meets at night, we debated the start time. We picked 6:30, thinking that it would give people the opportunity to eat dinner either before or after the service. What we've discovered is that our younger crowd prefers to eat afterward. And if you go out to a restaurant in a group after our church on Sunday, there's a good chance that you're not getting home until 10pm. This is killer for those who have to wake up early Monday morning and get into the office. And it's tough to miss out on after-church-eats because it's become an almost perfect fellowship time.

So our leadership decided on a time change. Starting tomorrow night (February 14th) Echo Church's Sunday gathering will begin at 6:00pm. We've been prepping the church for this move for over a month now, but I wanted to put something up on my personal blog in case some of our well-wishing friends ever wander by.

It's funny because our family will have to readjust our Sunday rhythm; we have been doing it this way for about four-and-a-half years. But I think that, in the long run, it'll be a great thing for our church.

Hope to see you there.

I Still Believe

I really like maps, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because they help me realize exactly where things are. Since we started Echo, we take one worship service early in the year to reflect on the past year and look forward at what lies ahead. I'll call it my "mapping" sermon. It's always one of my favorite messages because 1) it doesn't take nearly as much research as a regular sermon; I just make an outline and share what's on my heart and 2) it's a reminder to me where God has brought us.

Tonight was the night of that service. And I enjoyed myself profusely.

I continually forget how amazing these past five years have been for us. In the spring of 2005, the plan for a new church in urban Cincinnati started to take root in our lives. Quitting my job, selling our house, moving downtown were all part of the plan and now I'm finally willing to admit that those were some of the most frightening things I've ever had to do. If I'm really being honest, I didn't want to take those risks. But looking at life on the other side, and I can assert that those were the best days of my young life.

It's all because I had no idea. I didn't know what would be. But I believed.

You see, there's belief, and then there's unadulterated, burning your bridges, downright stupid belief; it's the kind of thing that makes no sense on paper, and even less sense in real life. Although I like to think that I'm a visionary, I had no idea how this thing would look. In fact, the only thing I knew is that it had the potential for becoming a life-defining failure. But even though we really haven't "made-it" even yet, just looking in the past makes me optimistic about the future. God was there yesterday. He'll be there tomorrow. That's my happy place.

And here's the truly inspiring part: tonight, as I was being encouraged while recalling from whence we came, I was surrounded by people who were owning it too. They weren't there with me when I was in seminary, as the DNA of our church was being formed. Neither where they there during a dinner when Kelly shed tears acknowledging that we needed to plant this church. Nor were they present as Aaron Burgess, I, and our wives prayed in a suburban shopping mall for what Echo would mean to our city. But even though they weren't there, they've bought into it; it's all their history too. They've taken possession of this past and will undoubtedly shape Echo's future.

So tonight, I'm thankful for belief; for faith, for patience, for the journey.

Speaking of journey, tonight, as Kaelyn headed off to bed, she sang some lyrics from her father's childhood.

"Don't stop believin' . . . " the three year old belted out.

And her daddy smiled, because he hadn't.

You Should Be There

Four years ago this month we started Echo Church. I never imagined it would be like this, but I'm eternally grateful that God has allowed us to venture on this journey.

One of the unexpected blessings was to rent out the same building for the past four years. The Walnut Hills Christian Church is a beautiful building, the kind of structure you just don't see anymore. Echo has invested significant funds into this building over our history and this has helped to strengthen our bond with the church from which we rent.

That's why I want you to join us this Sunday for a special event. This Sunday morning, October 4th at 11:00a.m., Echo will meet together with the Walnut Hills Christian Church in a combined worship service. In addition to our four-year anniversary, this date also serves as the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Christian Churches in the United States. Since our two churches share a common heritage, it's the perfect opportunity for the two of us to worship together (these kinds of joint gatherings will be happening all over the country this Sunday). I'll be preaching and, after the service, we're serving a meal while we'll view the Bengals-Browns game on large projection screen. We're even canceling our Sunday night service this day for this celebration.

As Echo explores the possibility of starting a Sunday morning worship service, we'd love a strong showing of people this week. I've asked and I've asked and I'll do so again: if you don't have any other commitments, we'd love to have you join us this Sunday. It would mean a lot to me.

If you have any questions about the service or how to get to 1438 East McMillan, shoot me an email.

Again, thanks for supporting us and our ministry here in urban Cincinnati.

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 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."

Preferring Bats in the Belfry

Here's a follow-up post to yesterday's pandering for someone to buy Echo a school building.

When I was a child, our church met in an old building on the corner of Price and Grand Avenue in Price Hill. The Westminster Presbyterian Church sold the building to Cincinnati Bible Seminary [now Cincinnati Christian University] in the 1940's for use as a chapel. This purchase allowed for a new church to be started in it: the Price Avenue Church of Christ. Once the college built their own multi-purpose facility, they gifted the building to the church. Unfortunately, the building was not properly maintained and the church couldn't afford the upkeep on the facility, so it was razed. Here's a picture I found online from the Cincinnati Public Library:

I loved that old building. We [the people of the church] actually tore it down by hand; our family spent every Friday night there for years doing demolition. I believe it was finally leveled in 1988, nearly 100 years after it was constructed. That was, for me, the end of an era in worship.

After the uniqueness of that century old building, the rest of my church-going was unspectacular. The rest of my church attendance throughout my childhood took place in a bland annex building constructed on the plot east of the old building. While in college, the chapel services I'd occasionally attend occurred in a gymnasium. My first ministry was at a church whose building resembled a UFO [use Google Street View for full effect]. Our next church was a boring 1970's sanctuary originally built for Jehovah's Witnesses. And the inside of my last church's building could easily be mistaken for a convention center. All these buildings were functional, but far from impressive.

Hence, my current love for the building Echo rents— pictured above, it's over 80 years old, filled with beautiful woodwork and stained-glass. Overall, it has a certain character that I hadn't enjoyed since my youth attending church in Price Hill. I used to think my affinity towards the building was only about my personal taste, but it might more indicative of the trend in our country.

A recent Southern Baptist survey discovered that people who don't go to church prefer older, "churchy" buildings to more contemporary looking ones. To be fair, this wasn't an exact survey, as it asked opinions about aesthetics. Regardless of the legitimacy of this sampling, I do think the message to be true. And I think it has something to say about Americans' conceptions of church.

First, these older sanctuaries immediately convey a link to the past; it gives people a sense that this faith has roots. I'd propose that people of "my generation" are not quite as enamored with the newness concept in architecture as previous ones were. Sure, you might have a bookstore and a coffee bar, but can the new structure offer history?

Along those same lines, I'd say that older church buildings, especially those that pre-date World War 2, are a unique experience for Americans. This isn't Europe where ancient cathedrals abound. Walking into an older church building separates the worshipper from our fast-paced society. These buildings were built before air-conditioning, before television. Heck, the church we rent has fewer bathrooms than some houses. It's not normal, and sometimes a departure from normalcy helps us clear our minds.

One of the benefits of doing ministry in the city is access to these old churches. Fortunately, it seems that more people actually prefer them. We're just trying to take advantage of it.

If You Want To . . .

I have all these dreams about ministry in Walnut Hills. Since we're on a thirty year plan, I don't get "over-visionary" about things we HAVE TO do right now. I like to think that God provides in response to our faithfulness— so our job is to be patient and trust that God will give us what we need. The timing thing shouldn't be rushed.

One of those dreams I have is for a permanent facility to call our own. I know it'll eventually happen, so I try not to worry about it.

That said, perhaps God will use someone else to assist us on this journey. For example (off the top of my head), in the second week of June, Cincinnati Public Schools is auctioning off the old Windsor School* in our neighborhood. It's a gorgeous structure that needs to be used for something positive— why not a church/community outreach center?

So if you're feeling a little generous (perhaps even a tad guilty— with the kind of guilt only a significant financial donation could resolve), you could go ahead and buy the building and gift it to Echo Church. I'm sure it'll cost less than $500,000. And I bet they'll even take a personal check. We'd gladly name one of the bathrooms after you.

I'll clear all lines waiting for a response . . .

. . . waiting VERY patiently, that is.

UPDATE: I recently learned that the roof of the older part of the school is in horrible shape. The cost of repair would be so ridiculously high that you'd have to raze the whole complex. Too sad that such a beautiful structure wasn't properly maintained.


*Dan has some brief information on the facility at the bottom of this page if you're interested.

Staking Ground

I never wrote much about Richard.

Sure, I mentioned a little about him during those early days of Echo Church, but didn't see fit to tell much more after that. Richard died a couple of weeks ago. It's difficult to determine the background of his life, because he could never tell the truth. For example, reading that old blog post when he told me his age, he should've been 50 when he passed. His obituary stated that he was 53.

Richard was a guy from the neighborhood, known to every church and business establishment throughout the area. Although he was harmless, he had a drug problem which caused him to do whatever he could to get his next fix. He would beg. And he would steal. I visited Richard in jail once. He had stolen some CD's to sell them to buy crack. Most of the time I knew him he was in and out of jail for petty theft. Still, we tried to love Richard. Refusing to give him cash, we'd buy him meals.* One time he urged me to get him winter clothes because he didn't have any. I scrounged around for stuff to give him, trying to meet his need. I never saw him wear the clothes I gave him. Those too were most likely sold for drugs.

We still maintained a good relationship with him until one Sunday night Kelly saw him breaking into a car in the church parking lot [someone had left their doors unlocked]. I told him to go home and that if we found anything missing, I'd call the cops. He didn't get enough time to take anything from the car.

A few months later, Richard seemed hopped up and was desperate for some cash. I told him we had nothing for him. At the end of the worship service that Sunday night, he created a diversion and stole money from the offering plate. Ironically, since our offering was collected after the service at the front of the sanctuary [and because our church is small], we knew the only money that had been given was from a newer couple who had been attending. That night I had to call them to see how much money they had given to decide whether or not to call the police. It was a small amount, so I didn't think it the best investment of my tax dollars to have the cops pick him up. By the way, this is why we now have an offering box with a lid instead of a plate.

As he returned the next week, I sat Richard down and forced him to admit his theft; he did and apologized. I informed him that he had broken trust with our church and before we let him back in, he'd have to pay God the money back and apologize to the church. After that, he was gone for almost a year; yet another theft charge kept him in jail until this past January.

Richard came into the church service early a few weeks ago. He shook many a hand throughout the church and sat silently through our service. He spent my sermon time drawing me a picture of a flower. Afterward, our leaders sat down with him and informed him that the terms of his reconciliation still existed— he needed to repay the money he stole and apologize to our church [many of whom had started attending since Richard was last incarcerated and had no idea who he was]. It was the most peaceful I'd ever seen him. He never even asked for anything. He said he wanted to right his wrongs, and he was ready to get his life in order.

The next week, I was at a meeting and not at our service, so I might not get all these facts straight. From what I understand, Richard was once again seen attempting to break into a car. He fled inside the church and hid under a table in a darkened room. He was confronted, told to leave, and still asked for money before being kicked out. I knew that he would be back, and I'd have to deal with him myself.

The week after that, right before the beginning of our service, our worship leader Tye alerted me to some snow tracks heading back to the minister's office. I knocked on the door, heard nothing, so I entered to check things out. I didn't see anyone and was ready to leave when I thought should glance into the private bathroom there. There was Richard, sitting in the dark on the toilet, claiming that he really had to go. I was irate. I had him come out and frisked him to make sure he hadn't taken anything. I kicked him out and told him that he had completely broken his trust with us. We are renting our space and are responsible for taking care of it and we couldn't babysit him throughout the building. I was so angry, I told him that I would need some time before my anger subsided and I would seek him out.

But within a couple of weeks, Richard was back in jail. There the years of drug abuse finally caught up with his heart. He died in prison.

This, friends, is a very depressing story. For over three years, we tried to infiltrate this man's life and were unsuccessful. We never got through to him— addiction won out. What good could come of this?

But even though experiences like this could reinforce the idea that there is no hope for the city, I am not dismayed. The culmination of the Scriptures in the book of Revelation is the city. And throughout the Bible, we are given a vision where the city is redeemed. We might not win every battle, but the war will not be lost.

One last story. Richard had roommates in a recovery home in the neighborhood. He lived with them for quite a few years. As I understand, not one of them will miss him. They described him as a "pain in the ass" whom they always watched out for, fearing he would take their stuff. Walnut Hills will soon forget Richard. We won't.

There will always be Richard's in this neighborhood. They will come to us wanting to find a path to their fix, but we will give them Jesus. We're continuing to stake our ground. Our community needs our church. And we're not going anywhere.


*While our church doesn't give out money to people, I will occasionally. I make sure that the recipients know that it's coming out of my pocket. I will usually only give a couple of bucks and will tell them that they'd had better not buy booze or drugs with the preacher's money. I doubt that my warning is ever observed.


My job is weird.

For the bulk of my job, I spend hours of my week in preparation for a 35-50 minute speech. My subject matter is always the Bible, and I usually spend a good amount of my research time examining the nuances of particular texts. For example, in order to teach from 1 Corinthians 8 last night, I spent time last week researching the worship of the pagan Roman deity Asklepios [a healing god] in order to better understand what the apostle Paul was referencing. Additionally, I always highlight my messages with pop culture tidbits as a means of reinforcing relevancy. The climax of my professional week is the sermon, something which I spend a considerable amount of time crafting each week, only to start all over the following Monday.

One thing I've discovered throughout the past fifteen years of doing this somewhat consistently is that the process is the same. Although I could always be "more prepared"* I make sure to invest hours into this process; I do this so that I never take for granted my role in teaching people the Bible.

What this truly means, is that I try to give my all whether I'm speaking to seven people or seven hundred people.

Echo is still a rather small church. We're blessed to have visitors at least every couple of weeks, but our growth has been rather slow. Sure, since our first year we've tripled in size [ah, how math comes in handy when you're dealing with smaller numbers], but I can tell you pretty accurately what our crowd will look like from week to week. And I know on Monday morning that there won't be hundreds of people busting down the doors of the church to hear what I have to say on Sunday night.

So as I approach my study for the week to come, understanding that few people will notice the fruit of my labor, it wouldn't be surprising if I decided to mail it in. I suppose I could scour the interwebs to get someone else's sermon series. I'm sure there are books a plenty at Family Christian Store that I could steal from use as a template for some messages. Heck, I could go buy the complete set of Nooma's and allow Rob Bell to babysit our church for a few months.

But I could never do that.

Because I absolutely love what I do.

Right now, I'm still engaged in the same wonder that my three year-old is experiencing now for the first time.

For her birthday, Kaelyn's great-grandfather gave her an interesting gift: seeds. Kelly thought it would be educational for the little girl to witness what it is like to watch plants grow. Since she's already seen it on every kid's show available, Kelly figured that Kaelyn should get to observe it first hand.

A few weeks ago she planted the seeds and has watered them every day or so. And absolutely nothing happened. Nothing, that is, until last week. A couple tiny green sprouts began to reach up towards the sky. Saturday, those first sprouts were joined by a few more. And then this morning, quite a few more have emerged, which led Kaelyn to exclaim, "Look at my plants!" And she never would've experienced such joy if she had never planted the seeds.

I want a garden in the city. But I'm still planting seeds and watering.**

Some antagonists might insist that it that wasting hours of my week writing sermons isn't the best way to accomplish this, and I could see their point; understand that preaching is by no means "all" I do. We continue to immerse ourselves in this community. But my theology insists that preaching plays a major role in the transformation of the world. So as I spend hours of my week crafting words and concepts that only few will hear, I'm not discouraged. In fact, I feel as if its importance is gravely underestimated.

I'm not a farmer, aiming for the biggest yield; I'm gardening. What grows will grow.

And I'm so happy.


*One way I am not as prepared as I used to be is that I used to always attempt to go note-less into the pulpit. I could easily memorize my 25-30 messages years ago. But since I've extended the average length of my sermon, and since I desire to more deliberate in making certain observations and pre-crafted sentences, I now preach with notes. Not sure if I'll ever go note-less again.

**I'm not claiming to be revolutionary with this gardening metaphor. It's quite clearly stolen.

Our Festivities

This past Saturday our little church got a lot done.

We'd been planning on being involved in the Walnut Hills Festival since last year. Echo even signed on as an official sponsor for this year's event. In this planning, we didn't realize that our new commitment to the Walnut Hills Soup Kitchen would require our involvement on the same day. But instead of trying to find someone to cover for us at the Soup Kitchen, (heeding Kelly's suggestion) we decided to try and do them both.

So from 9am-5pm last Saturday, we interacted with our community in two different locations. One crew manned our booth, playing games and making crafts with almost 100 kids. The other crew prepared dinner for about 125 people. Both events went off without a hitch.

I was so proud of our people, I've still not gotten over it.

A few special shout-outs here.

First, to Larry, who once again submitted to his higher calling as a stage manager and helped keep the main-stage acts moving in and out with ease. He's become a staple there; I'm sure some people think he's part of the production crew. And he kept at it all day. That's our Larry.

Second, to my wife Kelly, who worked her tail off to organize the operations of both the soup kitchen and the booth. Even when I had no idea what was happening, she did. And it allowed me the opportunity to be incredibly flexible throughout the day. Because of her role, I never doubted that things were running smoothly in both locations.

Third, to the in-laws as well as Ed and Sheryl, who kept Kaelyn occupied throughout the day so we could devote our full attention to the task at hand.

And finally, to my friends at Echo, who are committed to this community, catching a vision that will help transform our city.

Good work, y'all.

Walnut Hills Festival

Good news: I know what you can do this weekend.

The 2nd [or 3rd?] annual Walnut Hills Festival takes place this weekend on East McMillan Street at Peebles Corner.* This year, Echo is a sponsor and we're going to have a booth set up with kids games and crafts. We could always use some extra hands if you want some booth time. But more than that, come on out and see our neighborhood on its best day. Plus, the extended forcast is calling for good weather— no rain in sight.

I usually joke with people that the festival is when you'll see more white folk at Peebles corner than any other day of the year . . . except for the Flying Pig marathon . . . when they're running like hell to get through there. Too many people only see this section of our community by car. There's some great architecture in the business district, and they'll be a stage with plenty of entertainment. Seriously, what more could you ask for?

So block out some time between 11:00am and 6:00pm and join us. Fun times for all.

*You can park in the Krogers parking lot, entering at Gilbert just past McMillan.

You Can't Know Where You're Going . . .

. . . until you realize where you've been.

Even though my preaching habit is to continually teach through books of the Bible, I usually use my September teaching time to focus on Echo Church. It seems we always have people coming and going at Echo, so I like to notify the newbies and remind our regulars why we started the church in the first place.

But this month, I'm taking a different angle at this. Although we're steadily increasing the number of folks who live in this neighborhood, Walnut Hills is a tough place to really understand; one example of this: drive west to east on McMillan and you go from ghetto to gentrification— the socio-economic rainbow. So as I remind people why we're here, I'm going to try to explain what "here" is.

In my opinion, there are three factors that have shaped Walnut Hills: religion, race, and riches.* I've spent time the past couple of weeks in the downtown library doing research, in addition to driving down practically every street in our neighborhood. I've accumulated a ton of information and will try to figure out how to present it in digestable bits over the next month.

I know, this is the kind of research I should have done long before now. But it's not as if I haven't been trying to understand our community; I've constantly been learning more and more about Walnut Hills during the past three years. We're living in this neighborhood, meeting people and embracing its culture. This, however, is my first effort at an academic approach to analyzing the neighborhood. Hopefully it's something that I'll be able to tweak throughout the coming years.

So I hope you can join us at Echo this September for our series: God of the City.

*When I refer to "riches," I really mean "economics." But since I started out with two "R" words, I figured I'd side with mnemonics and keep it consistent. 

Where's Our Worship Leader?

One of the blessings we've had at Echo is having a consistent worship leader. Tye VonAllmen usually fronts the band Artists and Authors with his wife Andrea [who is now blogging here]. But he's also a wicked drummer which allowed him the opportunity to tour with up-and-coming local band Seabird. So while we've missed having him with us on Sunday nights, he gets another taste of life on the road and we're blessed to have Andrea help us out. To get an idea of how good this band is, check out their recent album release video here. That's Tye behind the drum-kit.

I really need to get a copy of that CD. Still waiting for the release from A&A too.

The Shack Book Review [Part One]

One of the blessings of my previous class at Xavier was the freedom to choose our own subjects for papers. Fortunately, my class was on views of the Trinity, so I tailor-made one of my papers so that I could read and examine The Shack.

As I mentioned here before, The Shack is a piece of fiction that is quickly becoming a best-seller and is said to be transforming the way that people are viewing their relationship with God. Originally I was skeptical, but I knew some good Christian people who enjoyed the book so I decided I would refrain from commenting any further until I read it myself. Well I have read it and studied it thoroughly. And after finally taking the time to type out my response, I am ready to unveil the following conclusion:

I do not like this book at all.

In my previous post on The Shack I gave a quick synopsis on the book. So as I continue here, I'm assuming you at least have a cursory understanding of what it's about. Quickly, The Shack is about a guy [named Mack] who is angry with God because his daughter was killed by a serial killer. So God chooses the location of her murder [the aforementioned shack] to be the site of His reconciliation with Mack. Mack spends the weekend with the Trinity [described as a black woman, an Arab man, and an Asian woman] who try to tell them "the truth" about God.

As I begin to critique, let me start here: to be fair, I don't know William Young [the book's author]. I don't fully understand the circumstances surrounding his life [which were apparently somewhat hellish] and I am not judging him directly. As I understand it, the book was supposed to be a therapeutic gesture written for his children, but Young later sought for the book to be published; from there it gained widespread popularity. So it's no longer a personal matter, but a public one, and people are going to this book for spiritual guidance, then it is then fair game for me to deconstruct its contents.

I'm assuming that Young had good intentions in getting this work out there to the masses, but there is objectionable content in it. And while some suggest that it's just an innocently written fictional book that shouldn't be over-examined, I disagree. There is power in the written word. And just because something was done with good intentions does not excuse it from scrutiny if it is, in fact, harmful.

As for its artistic merits, I found it lacking. I've admitted before that I'm not very big on fiction. That said, I can easily recognize good writing and The Shack isn't it. For example, while I disagreed with practically all of the "factual concepts" found in The DaVinci Code, I could definitely see why it is so popular— Dan Brown was a good storyteller. The Shack was not at all similar. Young vacillates between humor and seriousness to the point that it is uncomfortable. And much of the dialogue seemed forced, completely unnatural. It isn't good fiction.

So if I were merely a book critic, this would be reason enough alone for me not to recommend it. But even more than its literary attributes, this book attempts to speak authoritatively on theological issues. Again, Young can claim that it was never his intention to do so, but he does make statements about God and Christianity that are presented as fact, not opinion. So it must be examined from a theological perspective as well.

A roadblock to examining The Shack theologically is the fact that it speaks authoritatively under the veil of a rather emotional narrative. The catalyst behind Mack's weekend conversation with the Trinity is the brutal sexual assault and murder of his daughter. I would suggest that Young's use of the worst possible crime in our society [the violation/death of an innocent child] as a backdrop to this story is a method of deflecting any criticism towards his more controversial statements. Bolstering this observation, Young gives the illusion that this story could possibly be true by inserting himself into the story as narrator. While all of this might seem like no big deal, it creates a barrier for those who dare to criticize the content of the story; so if I question Young's assertions, I'm a heartless person who is unsympathetic towards parents who have lost their children. But the inclusion of such a horrific back-story works for Young by giving his statements strength. So if you are going to truly assess The Shack for what it is, you must immediately divorce the narrative from the given statements about God.

Like I said in my earlier post on The Shack, I am always skeptical of the theological fiction genre. One might counter that that's exactly what C.S. Lewis' classical writings were, but there is a distinct difference. Notice how Lewis worked theology into fiction— He never directly spoke through the Trinity, but always used different representations: The Screwtape Letters is very theological, but it is a conversation conducted between demons; in The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan was certainly a Christ-like character, but it was in a completely different world; in The Great Divorce, the heaven seen does not specifically involve the Three Persons. This is advantageous because if Lewis' theology [like all humans] isn't perfect, it does not suffer from putting definitive statements into the mouth of God.

And this is exactly where Young makes his initial [and crucial] mistake— he puts words into God's mouth. Fiction or not, that makes huge statements and you must ensure that you make no mistakes. And I'm afraid Young is mistaken.

In the next part of this review, I'll give specific instance from the book that I find problematic.


The Dale Farewell

No way I can be as poetic as my wife in her description, but I too must express sadness at the departure of our good friend Dale. Dale, or "THE Dale" as I nicknamed him, was there at our very first core group meeting. He was there for all the Echo firsts [except the first group picture?], and became a mainstay at Echo Church. He ran our sound. He managed our tech issues. And he cooked like a mothah' [or at least like a mother who watches the Food Network].

Most importantly, The Dale is our friend. Kaelyn absolutely loves him. While it's nice to know that I have a place to stay in New York City if I ever visit, I'd much rather have had him here in Cincy.

It's a bummer when people leave, but I'm sure we'll be seeing him again soon.

A few pics . . .

My reflecting about a crazy night in Georgetown, Ohio.

A snapshot with the Carr fam.

Sometimes I Doubt . . .

. . . what we're doing here in the city because no one is really doing ministry the way we are at Echo; I really haven't found a model that resembles us. As a result, I'm left to compare our plight to either the inner-city mission that reaches predominantly impoverished people [which isn't us] or affluent "emerging" churches that do attraction programming that hinges on big events [which we aren't either]. Being in no man's land can be exciting, but it's a lot like running a marathon alone: you have no idea how well you're doing. When it comes to my mental status, I do pretty well as long as I don't dwell on the negatives too long. But even the optimist can stray to the dark side. But it seems that whenever I hit one of those frustrating patches, God sends me encouragement that keeps me going. Sometimes the edification is found in wisdom from my wife, or in words offered by our church leaders, or, occasionally, from people I've never met.

I read the blog of marketing guru Seth Godin because he consistently offers great insight. He wrote a post this week the coincided with one of my low days and it picked me up. He observed that while our society craves the grand opening, they are truly overrated. Godin offered,

"Make a list of successful products in your industry. Most of them didn't start big. Not the Honda Accord or Facebook, not Aetna Insurance, not JetBlue or that church down the street. Most overnight successes take a decade (okay, four years online)."

He continues,

"The grand opening is a symptom of the real problem . . . Grand opening syndrome forces marketers to spend their time and money at exactly the wrong time, and worse, it leads to a lack of patience that damages the prospects of the product and service being launched . . . Far better to spend the time and money building actual relationships than going for the big 'grand' hit."

He concludes,

"The best time to promote something is after it has raving fans, after you've discovered that it works, after it has a groundswell of support. And more important, the best way to promote something is consistently and persistently and for a long time. Save the bunting for Flag Day."

At the conclusion of the summer will have completed three years of ministry here in Walnut Hills and we still have yet to develop the momentum I know we have in us. But at the same time, I'm just starting to feel like we're planting significant roots here. I have no idea how long it's going to take to accomplish our plans; this endeavor that is Echo Church might take a decade [or decades] to gain traction. But I'll skip the instant gratification for long-term meaningful ministry any day.