Why discipleship feels impossible

In a recent study, the Schaffer institute found that 50% of all pastors polled reported that they felt inadequate to the job.  On the one hand I’m sort of surprised that number isn’t higher.  After all, the commission we’ve been given is to reach all nations and all peoples and all tongues, not only with the Gospel but to see all these people discipled as well.  That sounds kind of impossible.

On the other hand, though, I’m not sure this is what most of these self reporting unqualified pastors are really referring too.  I suspect that they are looking at the job as it’s been handed to them, with its admittedly impossible expectations of time (on call 24/7/365), energy (sabbath is for everyone except the pastor), objectivity (Sure I hate your sermons, kids, spouse, and philosophy of ministry, but don’t take it personally), and isolation in the midst of mini-celebrity (everyone knows you and yet nobody does.)

Either way, how can we expect anyone to persist day after day, year after year in a job they feel desperately unqualified to do, particularly when they care so passionately about it being done?  

Well, really we can’t, and they don’t.  According to this same study 90 percent of pastors leave the pastorate in pursuit of another career.

It’s not a lack of instruction. New books on “how to” disciple or grow a church come out several times a year, but I suspect that our seeming inability to disciple is based not so much on a lack of know how as it is on other problems which convince us we’ve failed even before we can effectively figure out “how.” Here’s three quick thoughts.

Discipleship feels impossible because we don’t know how passionate God is about it.

We’ve forgotten that the reason we’re doing this job is not because Jesus arbitrarily gave us busy work to keep us occupied till He returns, but because it’s a job about which He is extremely passionate!  Sometimes we mush think God is either very stupid or really uninterested in the results.  The truth, of course, is that He is neither of these things and therefore it must be not only possible, but preferable to have us involved in discipleship.  As pastors we need to reconnect with God’s passion for discipleship. It’s not merely a task, but a mission.  It’s not merely about members, but about people.  It’s not merely about obedience, but about people coming to life and living life as God intended it and they crave it.  At it’s largest, discipleship is about the unfathomably large plan to bring all things under headship of Christ in redemption, joy and glory.  At it’s smallest it’s about individual lives being changed forever.  These are passions we can share if we seek to remember.  No “how’ to discipleship will ever grab our hearts if the why doesn’t first.

Discipleship feels impossible because we don’t recognize that it’s already happening around us.  I guarantee it.  More importantly God guarantees it.  

Matthew 18:20 (For where two or three gather in my name I am with them) is not specifically about prayer or even fellowship. The context seems to indicate this is about authority, specifically authority of the church as regards discipleship. First he talks about how Jesus seeks everyone out in the parable of  the wandering sheep.  Then he talks about winning over a brother or sister who sins, and how to do this in community of a church, indicating how this is part of how God seeks out his wandering sheep. Then he talks about the authority he gives the apostles to bind or loose, also seemingly connected to the previous exhortations about winning over your brother or sister or setting them loose if they refuse to follow Jesus.  Then he says that wherever two or three are gathered He is among them.  I believe He’s expressing his own authority in the midst of their community. He’s explaining that in community Jesus will exercise His authority and power to disciple.

In other words, it feels impossible to disciple because it is. And yet, the idea that with God all things are possible is not just theory in this case but practical reality. Of course we are not up to the job if it’s merely a task God set for us before he left; but it is more than metaphor to say that Jesus is the head of the church.  Paul and Peter, James and John all express in one way or another in their epistles that it is Jesus who does the actual discipleship in the church body.  

This means it’s happening somewhere in your church right now, with or without your blessing.  Likely it’s happening in meals and informal gatherings of friends who are not even aware that the strength, prayers, support, love, challenge and encouragement they give each other are precisely what discipleship looks like.  They are possibly unaware because no one official has ever made that clear.  In fact, the official routes for discipleship may look very different.  How often, I wonder, do we pull people away from discipleship by insisting they attend our programs leaving them less and less time for the connection and relationships that truly disciple?

 Just like we need to reconnect with why God is passionate about discipleship, we need to reconnect with what discipleship actually is.  How can we figure out how, until we are clear on what?  Look around pastor.  Where are lives changing? Where is the grace of God flowing from person to person?  Can you emphasize these moments and structure such that more of these happen?

Discipleship seems impossible because we’ve accepted the wrong expectations.  

A pastor friend of mine recently told me that he’s had to tell the local funeral parlor that he can only do two funerals a week that are not for people in his church. He said this with regret and a slight degree of defensiveness.  This same pastor told me that he can no longer drive a two hour round trip several times a week to visit congregants in hospitals.  This he said with outright guilt.  This church is a loving and amazing church and yet due to the emphasis (and no doubt love and other admirable qualities) of the previous pastor, they developed the idea that their pastor is supposed to spend hours on funerals and hospital visits, prepare sermonS for four different services, administrate every ministry, disciple every leader, keep an eye on the budget, the building, and on and on and on.  

Years and years of loving pastors willing to try meeting every need and congregations who have become increasingly accepting of their role as consumer or patient or client have lead to a not only unbalanced approach to discipleship but a completely untenable and unsustainable one.  Pastors who are desperate to get back to the work of equipping saints to serve each other are faced with tough decisions as they discover that saying yes to discipleship means saying no to so many other expectations and pressures.

Pastor, not only do we need to reconnect with why discipleship matters to God, and what discipleship actually looks like, but we’ve also got to reexamine our understanding of our role and our congregation’s role in this whole process.  As I understand it scripture says that pastors (among others) equip their congregations to serve each other in love, congregations serve through the Grace of God and as a result it is actually Grace which does the discipling. This distribution of the Grace of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, by the appointment of God the father can indeed be 24/7/365 in a way that no individual can be.  

The truth is that discipleship is impossible if it is a task we seek to manufacture apart from the grace of God.  The good news is that the Grace of God is freely available, Jesus is ready and eager to lead His church and the Holy Spirit is ceaseless in His work in our churches.  

As in everything else Christ did not give us a truly impossible task, but He did give us one that requires constant surrender and dependence upon Him.

If you’d like to hear more, or are open to help and encouragement visit discipleshipmatters.online where you can sign up for my online course or contact me for more information on a multitude of other resources to support you in your important work.

 Together we can build a fresh crop of discipleship communities of Grace all across this country and beyond.

Three tips for small group leaders and their leaders

I just recently returned from a trip to Illinois where I was training the coaches of small group leaders at Harvest Time Bible Church. I was asked to do this training because I had been at the same church a few weeks before training the small group leaders. It’s encouraging that this church is willing to invest such significant effort in not just ramping small groups up, but in living up to the promise. Here are some pictures:

It’s a problematic thing in the American church that despite virtually every church promising that small groups are the heart of our ministry, few churches actually provide the kind of support for their small group leaders which confirms this priority. Typically pastors intend to offer such support, but the truth is that saying yes to small group leaders means saying no to so many other things that also demand attention and resources. Saying no is an extremely tough thing for pastors to get away with but that’s another blog for another day.

For today I just wanted to provide a little support to small group leaders and their leaders (pastors or small group pastors for example) in the form of three quick but powerful tips to consider. So without further ado, here goes.

  1. Facilitate discipleship through Grace, rather than merely discussion. This is a fairly complex concept, but it’s one that can significantly change the effectiveness of your group if you even begin to explore the possibility. Essentially it goes like this: Your group is full of people who have all received a gift or multiple gifts of the Spirit. We think of these spiritual gifts sometimes as mere talents or personality traits that can possibly benefit others, but Paul and Peter describe them as, much more significantly, portions of God’s grace given to believers for the purpose of building up the body. Peter specifically says

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

1 Peter 4:10-11 NIV

Take a moment on that very big idea. Peter says we are stewards of God’s grace. Grace is a slippery term for many of us but essentially scripture speaks of it as the power and desire of God to do good to us. He not only wants to do good to us, but He is fully capable of doing so. This Grace is not something we control or create. It is inherently part of God as much as His ominscience. You are granted a stewardship of God’s own love and power to bless others. If this doesn’t blow your mind, you’re not listening. This is greater than any other stewardship we spend time discussing: more than our time, so much more than our money. And this is what Paul and Peter are speaking of when they speak of spiritual gifts. Now, group leader, consider this:

“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,”
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Titus 2:11-13

It is not you or me or even the spirit filled members of our church that truly disciple. It is not the law or accountability or policy or careful process that teaches us self control. It is the Grace of God! The same Grace which saves us. No doubt there is a lot to this, but at least one thing it seems to mean in conjunction with the spiritual gift emphasis in scripture is that as we share our gift of grace with each other, it is God’s own power and love which disciples the body.

Small groups are not just a place for a good discussion, but a great place (and in some churches the only official place) for people to share the Grace of God with each other and you as leader get to encourage, equip and nourish this flow of Grace. Your job is to facilitate discipleship.

2. Look for God’s curriculum; what appear to be distractions are often the heart of discipleship. In Matthew 20 we encounter one of the greatest lessons Jesus gives to his apostles. He explains here that true leadership is about service, and that even the Son of Man came, not to be served but to serve. It’s clear that this lesson did not come about because of some arbitrary point in some planned curriculum which the apostles had reached on that day. Let me remind you of the context. James and John’s mother approach Jesus and ask that He consider putting James and John in places of honor when Jesus has accomplished his messianic mission. We’re told that the rest of the apostles are indignant at their gall (and probably mostly because they feel like they should be at least as deserving of this honor as the two brothers!). Imagine for a moment that you are a group leader and this scenario is playing out in your group. Whatever you had planned for the day has just become seriously derailed by the immaturity of your group. People vying for position, the group’s unity being disrupted by ego, pride and entitlement. How easy it would be for us to focus our energies at this moment on squelching the disruption so we can get back to the important work of discipleship.

But that’s not how Jesus saw it. To Him, this was not distraction. This was discipleship. Humility was the agenda precisely because pride was the issue. Even a cursory reading of Jesus‘ interaction with the apostles throughout the gospels reveals that this is how Jesus most always determines the lesson of the day. So it ought to be in our groups. Of course we will have agendas and at Focus Church the groups will not infrequently use an established curriculum, but the most significant agenda and curriculum must come from attention to what’s happening right in front of you in your group,. Are kids a distraction? Then they must be part of God’s curriculum. Is someone’s struggle making it impossible to focus on your agenda? Then in someway their struggle, or your groups struggle with their struggle is your curriculum. Logistics, ego, illness, trials, disrupting events…all these can be viewed as distractions or discipleship. Choose the latter and let God set the curriculum and follow hIm where it leads. After all, it is God’s grace which disciples.

3. Say No to other events, meetings and programs until there is space for regular consistent support and interaction between your small group leaders and someone to coach and encourage them. Ok, so this is really for Pastors. If you believe in small groups and you really want them to live up to the promises you’ve explictly and implicitly made about them, you’ve got to find a way to provide regular support, coaching and training for your small group leaders. This is not just a neat idea; it’s absolutely crucial. When I have this discussion with churches considering a new emphasis on small groups, inevitably the realization comes up that truly prioritizing small groups will mean more meetings for the leaders for training and encouragement. The next realization is that another meeting just won’t work in our overcommitted churches among our overcommitted leaders. I wholeheartedly agree with this. The trick is that if you are serious about this, you will need to decide that supporting your leaders is more important than some other important meeting and find a way to replace a meeting with a meeting. You will never find space to train your small group leaders, you will have to make it. Say no for your leaders to things which are not small groups.

I am available for discussion, coaching, training, conferences, and any other way that I can help your community live up to the promise of small groups. Let’s build communities of discipleship by Grace!

Contact me at discipleshipmatters.online if I can help in anyway.

Are there gaps in God’s grace?

It was a McDonald’s about a month ago, where I ran into an old friend of mine, someone I hadn’t seen for a decade or so. He was friendly (he always is) and we exchanged pleasantries while we waited for our orders. In the course of our very brief conversation he asked if I had read a certain book. I said I hadn’t and he followed up with “I always think of you when I read books like that. You should read it, it might fill in the gaps for you.”

Fill in the gaps.

This man is a former congregant of mine and I knew exactly what he meant by fill in the gaps. One of the few consistent things about my preaching of the last 27 years of a 30 year preaching ministry is my strong emphasis on the Grace of God. Paul declares and defends a Gospel of Grace where God is the author and perfector of our salvation; where God’s love for us is based not on anything we’ve done but solely on the fact that He is a God who loves; where righteousness is something we’re given not something we earn or create; where Christ on the cross declares “it is finished” and not that he merely started something that we’re expected to complete.

Fill in the gaps.

One thing I’ve learned from thirty years of preaching and defending the Grace of God through the death of Christ as the sole means of salvation is that surprisingly the temptation to always want more than this message is strong. It has been so since the early church. During Paul’s time there were the so called Super Apostles who claimed that special acts of righteousness were needed to fill in the gaps of the gospel. During John’s ministry there were the Gnostics who claimed enlightenment was necessary to fill in the gaps of the gospel. Whoever wrote the book of Hebrews had to defend the idea that it was not the gospel which had gaps but the law. The well meaning judiazers had it backwards: it was the law which had gaps; gaps which could only be filled and completed by Christ, as he brought fullness to the two dimensional shadow of the law.

Fill in the gaps.

Don’t get me wrong. I suspect this friend of mine has a sincere and genuine faith, faith in the Cross of Christ which saved Him. I suspect it is not gaps in his own life he is looking to fill. Like so many others who themselves have seen the Grace of God lift them from a life of wretchedness and seen that same Grace propel them forward in a life of increasing holiness, he is now more concerned about the gaps he sees in the lives of others. Ironically as we become more comfortable living in the Grace of God we may be inclined to forget our early complete dependence upon Christ and how little we actually did to get where we are. Perhaps we’ve forgotten how much worldliness existed in our own early years and for how long we resisted some areas of change, and perhaps even still do. Instead we look at a church which to our mind is increasingly full of immaturity and worldliness and see a gap between God’s promised holiness by Grace and the seeming paucity of holiness in others.

Fill in the gaps

I’ve since become familiar with the book he asked me about as well as another trending book, both of which share a similar idea that the reformers, having less information than our current scholars lead the church into entirely wrong directions regarding essential ideas like Grace and faith. Like the early church with the Gnostics there is an appeal to being in the know, finding there is special information hidden from all the church until this moment and we are of the few enlightened, but like the early church with the Gnostics, we should be very cautious about such claims.

Fill in the gaps

It will be a shame indeed if the evangelical world moves away from Grace in an attempt to fill in gaps. It would be a shame because it obscures the Gospel which is literally good news. The Gospel is all about what Christ did for us and not about what we do to merit, earn or cling to what Christ has done for us. Too often we share the gospel as if it’s a great challenge, a war cry, instead of a victory shout.

Oftentimes it’s about motivation. Grace doesn’t motivate, we think. So, pastors try to close the gap with guilt, or fear, or anger, but while it sometimes appears to work short term, it is destructive in the long term, teaching people to react not to Christ’s leadership but to emotional appeals.

Fill in the gaps.

To be fair, what he meant, of course, was not that the gap was in the Grace of God but in my understanding, and on this we do agree on one thing. There is a gap in the understanding of grace, but it’s not that we have to somehow earn it or that God is waiting for us to pay him back for some sort of righteousness “loan”. It’s not that too much grace leads to a lack of motivation or licentiousness. It’s not that we misunderstand faith and what is really needed is a pledge of loyalty. None of these are the gaps, although I’ve heard each of these in the last two weeks alone. No, the gap is simply this.

For people who fear that teaching Grace alone will lead to licentiousness; for people who fear that there are gaps in such a presentation of the gospel I would suggest that the gap in their understanding is simply this. Grace is not merely the unmerited favor of God. It is also the incredible power of God. Power to raise Christ from the dead. Power to transform sinners into saints. Power, as Paul reminds Titus, to teach us to say no to ungodliness and yes to self control. Power to sanctify us. In other words the gap in our understanding of grace is not that more is somehow required of us, but that we see grace as weak where scripture teaches clearly it is very strong.

Too often we believe it is our job to transform people through rules and accountability. Too often we believe it is our job to motivate people through fear, guilt or anger. Too often we believe that apart from us Christ can do nothing. Too often we feel we need to fill in the gaps of God’s Grace.

But, if the Grace of God is not enough to remove our sin as far as the east is from the west, if it is not enough to bring life to the dead men and women we were, if it is not enough to exchange our wickedness for Christ’s righteousness; if it is not enough for any of these things then nothing is. Certainly nothing we could do could accomplish such miracles or have such power.

Grace is not just God’s desire to do good to us, it is His mighty power and ability to do so as well.

Stop trying to fill in the gaps. God’s got this.

Did you know that Scripture teaches even discipleship is a work of God’s grace and not of our own efforts? What we need is not less reliance on grace but more. My new online discipleship course designed specifically for pastors of small churches but open to all who care about discipleship is now up and running. Let’s build communities of Grace Discipleship and watch the Lord be glorified! If you’ve already watched the intro video, click the link below to get you or the pastor you love signed up for the course.

DiscipleshipMatters.online

The Discipleship of Grace

I almost quit in my third year as a pastor. Turns out this is not too unusual. A recent study suggests that’s half of all pastors quit within five years of their ordination and only ten percent make it all the way to retirement as a pastor.

Truth is there are lots of reasons to quit. Poverty level wages, impossible expectations, fishbowl stress for your family, an almost constant sense of being misunderstood by those close to you, frequent feelings of betrayal, isolation, depression, and inadequacy are just a few of the day to day details for many pastors. I experienced all this in the first three years. There are lots of reasons to quit.

But twenty seven years ago, God gave me only one reason not to. It wasn’t a sense of obligation, or responsibility, or a new found sense of ability. It definitely wasn’t guilt or coercion.

At the moment of my greatest despair, when I could see no way forward except out, God kept me in the ministry by doing something very strange. He gave me complete freedom to leave.

In a series of events I describe in my book The Hidden Life (https://davidmegill.com/product-category/books/), I came to realize that despite preaching the Gospel of Grace for three years I personally had no real idea of what that meant for me. My relationships were so much more performance based than I had ever realized and this included with God. I was on an airplane crying out to God, apologizing over and over for the failure I’d become, desperately seeking some assurance from God that He would not abandon me as I abandoned what He’d called me to.

I received exactly such assurance. In fact, I’m pretty sure I heard God chuckle as He reminded me that I wasn’t His Pastor and that He would get along quite well without me in that role. He reminded me that as serious as the pastorship was (and is) I was taking it too seriously while not taking my my adoption as son seriously enough; that somehow I thought God was monitoring my job as some sort of litmus test to validate the faith He’d put in me. God showed me that he loved me and not because of what I could do for Him.

The idea that we have something God needs is of course absurd, but it’s a deception easy to swallow. The idea that we are something God wants is a truth hard to grasp.

The truly dark side of my incomplete acceptance of Grace was that I had somehow accepted the seed of the idea that I had some special claims too God’s favor and that being a pastor proved that. The truth, of course is I had never earned the pastorate in the first place and had zero claim on deserving the Grace I’d been given. God revealed this all to me and as a result gave me complete freedom to leave.

The Grace of God had opened the door to my cage, the impossible expectations, and desperate desire to prove myself worthy of other people’s respect and love, and once the cage was open and the job no longer felt like a trap, I suddenly remembered why I had become a pastor in the first place. I wanted others to know this same grace which I was only now beginning to grasp.

11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:11-14

Paul tells Titus that the same undeserved grace which saved us is the same Grace which trains us to live Godly lives. We often forget that the Grace of God is not only his benevolence, but it is also the very power of God to express this benevolence. This is the definition of grace which God has impressed on me over the last three decades.

Grace is God’s power and desire to do good to us and is integral to who He is, meaning you can do nothing to increase or decrease either aspect. You can not make Him more powerful, nor can you make Him more or less desirous to do good to you. It is who He is, not just what He does.

Many pastors have begun to wisely realize that they are not responsible for all the discipleship in a church. But what if it goes further? What if it’s not even the congregation that’s responsible for discipleship but God Himself? To take seriously the idea that Grace Disciples us will necessitate for most pastors some changes in their understanding of their role and the role of every person in the church. Titus 2:11-14 can’t be ignored in our search for effective discipleship.

If you are a pastor and wrestling with this idea from Titus 2, know that I am more than happy to wrestle it through with you. Comment on this blog, or consider the online discipleship course with customized coaching. Check out the video below and the link below that for more information on this course.

DiscipleshipMatters.online

Pastor, when it comes to discipleship, size really doesn’t matter

(Having a busy day?  Feel free to skip to the video at the bottom of this blog for four quick tips building a discipleship community.  It’s only 8 minutes and you can always always come back to this written portion when you have more time. )

When any of my Focus Group Leaders at Focus church is considering canceling on a night most members in the group are unable to attend, I remind them that when it comes to discipleship, size doesn’t matter. If you and one other person are getting together, they are worth your time and discipleship is worth the effort.

I remind my small group leaders that when it comes to discipleship, size doesn’t matter. If you and one other person are getting together, they are worth your time and discipleship is worth the effort.

It’s a weird cultural phenomenon that when it comes to churches in America we have decided that a normal, healthy church is represented by only about 10 percent (the mega churches).  By definition this is not normal. You might argue that’s the ideal (I personally wouldn’t), but you definitely can’t argue it’s normal.

The reality is that half of all churches in America have fewer than 80 people in attendance. While it’s possible to argue that this means over half our pastors are failing, I don’t think this is the correct conclusion; and yet this is the message those pastors routinely receive. They are encouraged to see their church as failing unless they can break the 100 barrier, then the 200, then the 300 and so on.

 Instead of being given permission to focus on discipleship in the community they’ve got, they are encouraged to change the community first, to add people to their community so they can reach some magic number.  What if instead they were given room  and support to gear down and focus on the things which drove them to become pastors in the first place?

Discipleship materials and trainings are almost always geared towards churches who have or anticipate more and more resources. The pastors of these “smaller” (actually normal sized) churches are implicitly being told they are a failure and that discipleship can’t even happen until they become a larger, more “normal” church.

I think most of that is just plain wrong and that’s why I’ve created a discipleship course geared specifically for these other pastors. Discipleship is just not size-dependent and there is no reason pastors can’t build thriving discipleship communities and enjoy the benefits of such a supportive loving growing community themselves at the same time.

Pastors are busy and with an online course they can complete it at their own pace. If you are a pastor, or love a pastor, I encourage you to check out the video below.  It’s only eight minutes long and includes four quick tips which will help every pastor interested in discipleship. 

Check it out, pass it on, and if you’re interested in the course, click the link below the video.

 

DiscipleshipMatters.online

Pastor, so it didn’t work out the way you expected, now what?

I was having a conversation yesterday with an old mentor, the man who ordained me into my first pastoral job almost 30 years ago. He left the pastorate a few years ago and, in trying to understand how things ended up so far from his expectations and dreams, he’s extended that analysis to the evangelical world as a whole. He’s embarked on an attempt to awaken pastors and churches to what he sees as significant flaws in the evangelical structure itself.

Many of the points he made are ones I’ve made on this blog before and are reasons we are doing church entirely differently at Focus. I indicated at one point that we might have some very similar views and he initially expressed skepticism on that point. Having not watched the videos yet, he may be right, but one thing he said specifically struck me.

“I don’t get into solutions at all. I come at it from a very macro level.”

I think at any point of major transition, like the one I suspect the American Church is undergoing, it’s probably healthy that we have people willing to raise questions with no answers and I suspect that is part of his role in this. I am not criticizing him for taking this thankless role in the slightest. But he’s right, it’ s not exactly where I am.

Because what struck me is that pastors in the thick of the battle don’t usually disagree with the macro points he was making.

There’s a great deal of talk about how evangelicalism is failing and I don’t meet many pastors who fundamentally disagree with that. Pastors, in general, are quick to believe they are failing at their job anyway. Other pastors may feel better about their role and work but still scratch their heads in perplexity as program after program fails to bring the fruit they are expecting. For them the macro message that things are wrong is not something they will argue with but begs the question, what now?

After five years watching, coaching and critiquing from the outside I decided to jump back into the fray, to return to pastoring, because I believe there is a “what now.” There is a next step. And I’m personally excited to be part of it’s unfolding.

Pastor, your ship may be taking water, but if you can cut some of the dead weight it doesn’t have to sink. (And I know your tendency is to think you are the dead weight and you need to just get out, but that’ s not it either.)

I acknowledge that the way we’ve been doing church no longer works and that pastors are feeling either desperate or hopeless but I want to do more than simply stand next to you and grieve with you over the losses. I want to do that too, but I want to do more. I want to help you right the ship or build a new one or whatever metaphor is most appropriate. But I want to tell you there is a next. There is a what now. There is a way forward as a pastor.

Let me leave you with four short nuggets and encourage you to chew on it. If I can help unpack these for you please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’d love to come alongside and help you remember why you became a pastor in the first place.

What now?

  1. Sharpen your focus on discipleship, the mission of the church. Make it your mission to understand that mission. Give yourself (and your staff) permission to ignore the rest. Don’t be in such a hurry to move the ship forward that you end up traveling further away from your destination.  Pull into port if you need.  Take a breath and if you need a place to start I would say read and reread Ephesians until the mission takes on some clarity.
  2. Answer the right questions in the right order. Before asking “how” to disciple, do you understand why discipleship is God’s passion, or what discipleship is, or who is responsible for what? Answering these will leave you fewer options for how, which makes it easier to implement and communicate. Pastors are often surprised and delighted to learn that the  right answers to these questions will likely relieve you of a lot of burden rather than add to it.
  3. Cut the dead weight of good things. All the good things which are not discipleship are pulling you down, causing you to forget why you became a pastor in the first place. The job of creating a discipling community is enough to keep you plenty busy without all the other stuff. It’s true that most of it happened in the name of discipleship anyway, I get that. But go back to point 2 and see what’s really necessary.
  4. Get help from someone outside your “box”. The pressures inside your “box”, from congregants, co pastors, directors and so on make it very difficult to see what has come from agendas other than the Great Commission. Find a friend, a pastor of a different church, a coach, someone wise and honest and gracious who can help you navigate righting the ship.

Pastor, you are not alone, and God is not failing you. Your job requires dependence and faith, but it is not impossible, nor should it be the source of depression and misery. If the words above seem intriguing please contact me and let me help you. There are answers to what now. Feel free to call me at (505) 393-LIFE.  Let’s chat about next.

Going forward this blog will focus on the encouragement and training of pastors and those who love them. We will spend time exploring the “what now?” Although I believeit will be encouraging to all pastors we will specifically be aiming at pastors of what we tend to call small or medium sized churches, but are in fact the size the majority of pastors have in their flock. Truth is half of the churches in America are fewer than 80 people large. I suspect this isn’t a sign that we’re failing as much as it’s a sign that we need to reevaluate what makes a successful church.

Currently I am finishing up an online video course to allow any pastor to complete at their own pace which will walk through Ephesians to find the answers to the questions alluded to in the box above. And off course I am still available for personal coaching or training retreats for your leadership or small group leaders as well as whole church conferences to help reinforce your efforts to build a community of Grace and Discipleship. If you are interested in staying informed on these developments please email me at hiddenlife@icloud.com and ask to be put on the mailing list.

Smiling at the future,

David “pastormac” Megill

Finding Easter Eggs in the Easter Story

Easter eggs are little surprises that directors and writers

sometimes hide inside their movies as a bonus surprise for those willing to take a closer look.

Whether or not you are part of a family which included church attendance on Easter among their holiday traditions, it’s likely that you are at least somewhat familiar with the story of the man named Jesus who died and how he came to life again three days later announced by Angels and an empty tomb. As we approach Easter Sunday I wanted to encourage you to consider a second look at the Easter story. Here’s three Easter eggs you might have missed the first time around.

The Easter Story is Beautiful

Some stories are particularly beautiful and we are drawn to this beauty. When a book or movie strikes us as truly beautiful it often produces an almost painful longing in our hope that such beauty is real.

  • Some of the stories we love most are stories of justice at long last being dealt, rescuing the oppressed and downtrodden.
  • We also love stories of redemption where people become somehow not just better but more than they were; perhaps we love these stories because they give us hope that our own lives can rise above the bad choices and wasted moments to become somehow something great.
  • Stories of heroes saving the world, or even groups of heroes who together are more than they could be by themselves, touch our deep need for salvation and our deep desire to change the world.
  • We love stories where the hero rises from the ashes victorious after a seeming certain defeat.
  • We cry not only in sorrow but in joy at the beauty of a lover who sacrifices everything to save her beloved.
  • And finally we love stories which speak of more beautiful lands, fantastic places which become more home than home, where magic happens and good always wins.

Some people speak of these kinds of stories as being a sort of shadow of deeper universal truths. I agree with this, but what’s amazing about the Easter story is that it’s not just another one of these shadows.

It is the glorious light from which all these other stories get their inspiration. It is the absolute beauty which is merely reached for, hinted at, and approximated in every other beautiful story or song or piece of art you’ve ever been moved by. It not only speaks of all the themes we love–of justice, redemption, heroes, fellowship, resurrection, sacrifice, and a beautiful new home–but is the reality from which these themes come. It is because we are seeking the precise beauty of the Easter story that we find joy and longing in these stories which approximate it.

Well, you might disagree, but until you look, how can you be sure? The Easter Story deserves a second look for its beauty alone.

The Easter Story is True

We’ve already talked about one sense in which the Easter story is true. In the way it captures grand beautiful truths of the universe. This is the way in which many people view the Easter story. They’ve found this first Easter egg but stopped short of finding the second. Here I mean not only that it is true in that it contains larger truths, but that it is also true in the historical sense.

I know that the claims of the Easter story are outrageous and large and it might seem a bridge too far to claim that it is in fact historical.

In truth there are many reasons to give the factual nature of the Easter Story a second look. As outrageous as the claims are there are also big reasons to give them credence. I won’t go into them all here, but would point you to the resource links at the bottom of this article if you’d like to engage with some of the best arguments for the factual nature of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

I am persuaded by many convincing empirical and logical arguments of the history of the Easter story because I took another look.

But how can it be possible that the incredible claims of Easter are factual? Let me ask you a better question. What if it is true and you never spent the time to give the story a second look and see for yourself? This is truly an Easter egg of great value and to give up looking for it because it might not exist seems shortsighted, particularly when so many of your fellow human beings claim to have found precisely that valuable egg already.

The Easter Story is Powerful

You may have heard of C.S. Lewis as the author of the great children’s books about the land of Narnia. C.S. Lewis is the brilliant and prolific author of everything from fantasy and sci-fi books, to poetry, to some of the most important theological and cultural essays of the last two centuries.

Even if you’ve never heard of him, perhaps you’ve heard of his great friend and author of the Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.

In 1931, Lewis and Tolkien and a third friend, Hugo Dyson, were having a discussion on the truth and power of the Easter story. Lewis at the time was not a believer in the factual truth of the Easter story but was convinced of the beauty and the power that a beautiful myth can have upon us. Tolkien and Dyson on the other hand believed in both the beauty and history of the Easter story. Lewis writes of these conversations.

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself … I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’. Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.

Lewis began to recognize that the true power of the Gospel was in the fact that it was both beautiful and true.

The third Easter egg worth exploring in the Easter story is the idea that it can profoundly change you. The Easter story tells us that while it is objectively true and while it is universally beautiful, it can also be powerful if we embrace the truth of it.

Merely to realize that the God of the universe loves you so much that he made himself a man, suffered as a man and conquered death to rescue you from the sin and selfishness to which you are enslaved can just by its recognition change a person profoundly. But the reality is even more astounding. When the God of the universe sacrifices Himself for the sake of His creation it unlocks a deeper magic of the universe (to use a phrase found in The Chronicles of Narnia), which truly and deeply changes those who embrace it.

Sometimes you’ll hear the Easter Story referred to as the Gospel by those who believe it. Gospel just means good news, and this is what it is. It is the best news because it is the truest beauty and the most beautiful truth and as Paul says, “The Gospel is the power of God for those who believe.”

If you’d like to take a second look at the Gospel, you could attend one of the many Easter services in a local church this weekend. Listen with ears ready to hear something of beauty and truth and power. Focus Church will be gathering this Sunday Night at 6:00 pm to celebrate Easter if you’d like to join us. Click the link for details.

Here are some other resources:

The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict: Evidence I & II Fully Updated in One Volume To Answer The Questions Challenging Christians in the 21st Century. (This is a two volume book of historical references and evidence for the historical reality of the Gospel.)

Seven Themes You Can’t Escape. (A book I wrote on the beautiful themes of the Gospel working their way into every story we love. If you order it this weekend and use the coupon code Beauty, you’ll get 50 percent off.)

The Hidden Life. (Another book I wrote, this one on the power of the Gospel. Similar deal as the one mentioned above. Use the coupon code Power and I’ll give you 50 percent off. If you order both just use either code and get 50 percent off both.)

Mere Christianity by Lewis, C. S. (2012) Hardcover. (I can’t give you a discount on this one because I didn’t write it. This is a very good book on the essence of Christianity, worth a look if you want a smart take on the Gospel.)

The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe. (This is Lewis’ powerful story which uses a fictional setting to elucidate the power and beauty of the Gospel.)

How then should we respond:The Kavanaugh Hearings

I have a confession.  I don’t always know how to respond to big events in our culture.  I mean, I’m an evangelical pastor; we’re supposed to have our responses ready-made from the very pages of scripture, aren’t we?

You might want to remove my credentials when I tell you that I haven’t even known how to respond to the allegations made against Bret Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford.  I mean, from perusing the internet it is clear that everyone else knows exactly how to respond.  My friends don’t agree in their response but they are all very sure of what they see, how they see it and how they should respond.  The whole world seems to know instinctively how to respond and who to trust.

But, I don’t.

I listened to the hearings and when Christine Blasey Ford spoke I found her credible and felt sympathy for her.

Then I listened to Bret Kavanaugh speak and I found him credible and felt sympathy for him.

All the reports the next day told me I was wrong and that in fact only one of them was even the slightest bit credible; although, again, the sources all disagreed on exactly which was which along already preconceived opinions.  Few opinions seemed to have changed.

Then I had a discussion with my daughter and realized I might not be the only Christian who is more frustrated than enlightened about not only this event but many such polarizing events in our culture.  And so I began to think.  As Christians, as those whose allegiance is to Christ first what should our response in such events be?

As expected, Scripture doesn’t actually comment on Supreme Court Justices or the #metoo movement directly, but are there sign posts, markers to help guide our way?

I think there are, and so for the benefit of people like me I pose the following suggestions.  If you are not like me, meaning you have no interest in trying to respond in a Christ like manner, or that you already have complete confidence in your own response, then this is not for you.  I am not writing to persuade anyone of who’s wrong or right but only to give some sign posts to help guide the way for this and other similar moments which ar sure to come to us.

     1. Your only allegiance is to Christ.  It’s good to be part of community.  Loyalty is also a positive value.  It’s good to labor together with people of similar convictions, ideals and pursuits.  On the other hand,  the decades since I first voted in a presidential election, it appears to me that the tribalism of the parties and other communities has gotten worse. It’s not helped by the fact that our tribes are so big we end up defending complete strangers about whom we know nothing simply because they are part of our tribe.  As Christians we can certainly decide that one group or another may more closely align with our values as believers, but closely align is not the same as exactly align. Never should we confuse a political victory with a moral one, just because it happens to fall on a certain side of the political aisle.  We must always seek to rise above the prepackaged beliefs of the particular group to which we happen to belong in the interest of defending the values of Christ.  Women are expected to respond one way, white men another, minorities another, democrats, republicans, conservatives, liberals…all have prepackaged ideas of how we should respond and all too often it becomes easiest to simply follow the course of least resistance.  Both sides of the argument regarding Kavanaugh and Ford like to tell themselves that it’s all a big moral issue but if that were the case would it really split along such strict party lines?  if there are any heroes in this whole story perhaps they are Senators Joe Manchin and Lisa Murkowsky who were the only two to break with their respective parties in the vote and each likely viewed with scorn by their respective parties for that reason.  One can hope they did so for reasons of conscience, but it’s easy to be cynical about that too.  Tribalism avoids having to actually spend time consulting our consciences, our scripture, or our Lord and assume someone else already did the hard work for us. If our allegiance to anything or anyone becomes more significant than our allegiance to Christ, we may find it too easy to justify almost anything for the sake of our tribe. The crowd with which we associate cannot be our final guide to what’s right.

     2. Defensiveness causes a failure of imagination.  So much of what I see as I watch things unfold in the media, social and serious, seems to be a failure of imagination.  My liberal friends tell me there is no reason a woman would ever lie about such things.  My conservative friends tell me there is no way a judge of such standing could be guilty without corroboration.  Now I know I have a pretty active imagination, but I can come up with dozens of scenarios for either possibility.  Interestingly both sides are screaming injustice, accusing the opposite side of caring more about their own agenda than about justice. Neither side is claiming that justice doesn’t matter.  In their defensiveness they’ve just become unwilling or possibly even unable to perceive the potential injustice on the other side.  My conservative friends, how much better would your conversations be if you could simply say, “If Bret Kavanaugh did what Christine Ford claims then he has potentially ruined her life and there has been a grave injustice which needs to be corrected.”  My liberal friends, how much better would your conversations be if you could simply say, “If Bret Kavanaugh did not do what Christine Ford claims than she has potentially ruined his life and there has been a grave injustice which needs to be corrected.”    Instead I hear defenders of Kavanaugh saying it doesn’t matter what he did and defenders of Ford saying it doesn’t matter if she’s telling the truth.   So as Christians what do we do about this failure of imaginations?   I’m not entirely sure, but mostly I would suggest we make sure that we don’t get trapped into defending and essentially bearing witness for people we don’t know simply because they are part of our tribe.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.–Micah 6:8.   

3.  Act justly:  It is good and right that we be concerned about justice in this.  However justice is so easily confused in our minds by our own partiality.  I am old enough that I was also paying attention during the Clinton Impeachment hearings and It’s hard not to be disconcerted watching the Democrats of today use arguments made by the Republicans then and vice versa.  Its not that the arguments on both sides don’t have their points; it’s that those points seem only to be seen by someone inclined toward them in the first place and completely not seen when it doesn’t suit our allegiance.  Some of the strongest laws in Scripture relate to giving false witness due to reasons of partiality.  While it’s not exactly the same thing, our tendency to aggressively side with complete strangers based not on evidence but on our allegiance to a tribe seems similar and is strongly warned against.  Consider::

Do not spread false reports. Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness.2“Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, 3and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit.

And later

“Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. 7Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.

And in the New Testament James says this

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

4. Love mercy: While we do justice, we are to love mercy.  We are to recognize that all of us need mercy, someone to advocate for us and be more gracious than we deserve.  The tension between mercy and justice is real in our effort to respond as followers of Christ at moments like this. All I want to suggest here though is that just as Justice can be peverted by partiality and false allegiance so too can mercy.  In the verses above, notice that neither the rich nor the poor should be judged based upon their richness or poverty.  There is a healthy normal desire to speak for the oppressed and powerless.  Jesus often does this and encourages us outright to do the same. This might incline us towards defending Ford and this is not a bad thing.  Those who believe Ford will rightly make the argument that it’s wrong to overlook her allegations because of her status as compared to the powerful and prosperous Judge Kavanaugh.  But what I want to gently suggest is that as Christians we need to be careful to recognize that in any argument among strangers we will be inclined to be sympathetic to those we most immediately relate to.  It’s probably true that as a white evangelical pastor, I find it easier to imagine a scenario where someone out of power would speak completely false claims in order to bring someone down in power.  I find it easier because I’ve experienced it in far less significant ways.  it’s not a theory to me that someone could lie about me for completely inscrutable reasons.  To feel personally the injustice and pain of such a thing is an experience I can easily relate to and imagine. This doesn’t make me wrong, but I should recognize my partiality here.  On the other hand this scenario I’ve laid out is almost impossible for my daughter to comprehend, and yet her ability to believe someone might assault a young girl, get away with it and then lie to protect themselves seems much more real to her.  My point is this, it’s easier for us to show mercy to someone in whose shoes we can immediately see ourselves.  My only suggestion is not to curtail these instincts towards mercy and advocacy, but to recognize our own inclinations and accept the inclinations and experiences of those who are inclined differently. As we listen to each other we can become people who love mercy more, with a greater reservoir of empathy.  Our confidence, in other words, may not be based on truth and raw reason as much as we’d like.  And that leads us to…

5. Walk Humbly with Your God: Humility.  I suspect this is a value in which no one is intuitively strong; but worse than that, while it used to be aspired to, it is now actually seen as a weakness in some corners, even among Christians.  So much of polarization seems to me to come from a sense of arrogance and supreme confidence in our own ideas and opinions.  So rarely do we see the willingness to consider we might be wrong.  Humility in the public eye often appears only as humiliation.  Only after someone falls beyond repair, when they have not only been wrong but been caught and completely shamed by the media do they then come forward in tones of something approaching humility.  That should not be our practice as Christians.  We should always remember that our allegiance is to the God of the universe who has sacrificed Himself because we were wrong, supremely wrong. Only He could make things right and He did so with great Humility, seeing our needs as more important than His own rights as God.  This should be our attitude as well.

It is not my intention in this blog to fan any flames.  I don’t expect anyone’s opinions about the Kavanaugh or Ford will be changed by this and as I’ve tried to honestly convey, I don’t even know for sure what your opinions ought to be.  I have my own conclusions, but based on such little actual knowledge as I personally feel I have, I think those conclusions are much less important for me to share as a pastor than what I’ve tried to do here, which is simply to help us continue to think about how we, those whose allegiance is to our Lord Jesus, ought to respond when the rest of the world seems so certain.

Any comments in keeping with this goal will be welcome, even (maybe especially) ones which disagree.  Any comments which declare an absolutel certainty of what’s right in this instance complete with excoriation and demonization of opposition will be stricken from the record.

The Journey Podcast: Psalms 17,19

This is the partial recording of the Chronological study for July 2, 2018.  Due to technical difficulty we are missing some of this recording.

Psalm 17

A prayer of David.

Hear me, Lord, my plea is just;
    listen to my cry.
Hear my prayer—
    it does not rise from deceitful lips.
Let my vindication come from you;
    may your eyes see what is right.

Though you probe my heart,
    though you examine me at night and test me,
you will find that I have planned no evil;
    my mouth has not transgressed.
Though people tried to bribe me,
    I have kept myself from the ways of the violent
    through what your lips have commanded.
My steps have held to your paths;
    my feet have not stumbled.

I call on you, my God, for you will answer me;
    turn your ear to me and hear my prayer.
Show me the wonders of your great love,
    you who save by your right hand
    those who take refuge in you from their foes.
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
    hide me in the shadow of your wings
from the wicked who are out to destroy me,
    from my mortal enemies who surround me.

10 They close up their callous hearts,
    and their mouths speak with arrogance.
11 They have tracked me down, they now surround me,
    with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.
12 They are like a lion hungry for prey,
    like a fierce lion crouching in cover.

13 Rise up, Lord, confront them, bring them down;
    with your sword rescue me from the wicked.
14 By your hand save me from such people, Lord,
    from those of this world whose reward is in this life.
May what you have stored up for the wicked fill their bellies;
    may their children gorge themselves on it,
    and may there be leftovers for their little ones.

15 As for me, I will be vindicated and will see your face;
    when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.

Psalm 19[g]

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice[h] goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
    It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
    like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
    and makes its circuit to the other;
    nothing is deprived of its warmth.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
    making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
    giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
    giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
    and all of them are righteous.

10 They are more precious than gold,
    than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
    than honey from the honeycomb.
11 By them your servant is warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can discern their own errors?
    Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from willful sins;
    may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
    innocent of great transgression.

14 May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
    be pleasing in your sight,
    Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.