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Reflections from “The Christmas Shoes”

Christmas is just around the corner and two events this past week heightened my appreciation of this special holiday. Obviously, as a pastor, I still highly esteem the purpose of our celebration—the birth of Christ. But I also value the culturally recognized importance of gathering as family. Yes, it can be a busy, draining, and stressful time, but it also continues to serve as a catalyst for family connections. 

The first event this week was hearing the song, “The Christmas Shoes” by Newsong. It’s quickly become a Christmas classic and was so uplifting that it even inspired a full length movie. This week was the first time I’ve heard it this season, and as it does each year, it brought me to tears, reflecting on “What Christmas is all about.”


The second event was connecting with Pastor Wayne Presnell from Nashville, TN. We became acquainted as Pastor Wayne quoted from an article I wrote for Leadership in Fall, 2006 on his blog entry for 8/28/2011. My Leadership article was, “Observing a Pastor’s Grief” as I described events at my first church as a youth pastor from March 10, 1989. I’d been at the church for just four months when the senior pastor’s wife and three children were killed in a car accident. That was my first funeral as a pastor. Melissa drove safely on a country road as two cars of high schoolers chased each other at estimated speeds of 75-90 mph. Attempting to pass the other, one car hit Melissa head on, also killing two passengers in the high schooler’s car. It became more dramatic for my wife and me as she worked in intensive care at the local hospital and helped nurse back to health the only survivor—and the one who caused the accident.


Now, we’re parents with two young drivers and a third who will soon join them. We’ve learned to try and value each day, as none of us knows the future. And I’m especially thankful for Christmas—the meaningful holiday that causes our culture to slow down, reconnect with family, and reflect on what’s really important.


Welcome or Warning? Which message is your church facility is sending?

The following is part of an article I wrote for Your Church magazine in the December, 2008 issue:

The church in the cartoon (Christianity Today Cartoons) may really be the “Friendliest Church in the Valley,” but what message is it sending by the posted signs?

Imagine a church sign that says: “Welcome to our church! We are a cold, confused club, and you probably won’t like it here! Worship service at 10:30.” 

No one would be dumb enough to put that message on a church sign, but some churches are sending that message by the appearances of their buildings.

It may sound unspiritual, but it’s a fact: we’re all affected by the spaces we occupy—even church spaces. The curb appeal of your church provides the first impression to your visitors. Then as newcomers move throughout your buildings, each space announces new messages as effectively as a flashing marquee. If they “see” or “hear” a negative message, they might not come back—or might not even enter in the first place.

So, what message is your church facility announcing?


A Church Building that is Changing Lives

Springbrook Community Church baptized seven people on October 30, 2011 (6 adults & 1 teen). That’s exciting—it’s always exciting when lives are changing! But, at the surface level it may not seem unusually dramatic. However, it adds a dramatic flare when you understand that they were baptized:

On October 30; Outside; By immersion; In typical weather for Chicagoland!

What prompted the church to schedule the “baptism for hearty Christians?” It was the groundbreaking event for the new church building for Springbrook Community Church. Several hundred people gathered on 20 rolling acres for Scripture reading and singing. A piece of steel, that will be part of the building, was available for signing with a verse & prayer.

And there was a baptism.

Why a baptism? Because it represents the initiatory experience for a Christ follower. And the primary purpose of the new church building is to create the right environment for people to become a Christian. Pastor Matt shared, “we’re not really ‘golden shovel’ shovel people. But we are about changed lives.”

Suddenly, a baptism service at the “groundbreaking” seems very appropriate. So with windy conditions and temperatures holding around 50 degrees (no doubt in answer to many prayers), 7 people made a public proclamation of faith. Rising out of the water they were hugged with blankets and dashed off to a nearby church family’s home to change.

And their lives were changed. Along with the lives of those who witnessed the event!


iPad winner from the Christ Together Forum!

The Christ Together Forum 2011 is in the books as 400 pastors & church leaders from Lake County gathered for time of encouragement and challenge. Great speakers and a collegial environment allow leaders to recharge their batteries.

I’ve been a workshop presenter at a couple of previous forums, but this year I was there with Church Building Consultants as we gave away an iPad 2. It’s been a challenge protecting the prize as I’ve had requests to “sign me up” from pastors who couldn’t make it, our office staff, and even my own family. I had to keep the iPad in the original cellophane wrapping, because I knew that if I opened it that I might be facing a great temptation to just “try it out.”

I’m pleased to announce that the winner is Ben Denen, Director of Student and Worship Ministries at Fellowship of Faith in McHenry. Ben, who is married with an 18 month old son, was very surprised to be the winner, but accepted the blessing from God as a special encouragement.

I was blessed to deliver the iPad to Ben and learn more about his ministry. He has networked with the youth ministries at four other area churches to develop Fuse Ministries. The group continues to grow as a 6th church was just added this month! 

Special thanks to Church Building Consultants for providing the iPad. Thanks also to Bill Yaccino and the Christ Together staff for putting together another great event. And congratulations Ben—and keep up the good work in serving Christ!


What happens when local churches act like THE CHURCH?

During my nineteen years as a local church pastor I’ve encountered many efforts to rally area churches for greater impact—I’ve even helped lead some initiatives. But usually they are more good intentions than actual results. However, the Christ Together movement is different.

They’ve clearly defined evangelical distinctives—and the core leadership is comprised of solid evangelicals. But under that large umbrella, they’ve rallied together churches of all denominations, worship styles, and ethnicity. And it’s working! 

The unity demonstrated by service initiatives is catching the attention of community leaders and school systems. Simply, they can’t speak against any efforts because they come with such energy—and most of all—the love of Christ.


A core annual event is the Pastor’s Forum, which will take place on Thursday, November 3 from 8:30-noon at the Village Church in Gurnee. The focus is “Measuring success in the church,” which is not based on the clichéd “abc’s of ministry success: attendance, buildings, & cash.” Rather, real success is obedience to the command, “Go.” Some 400 church leaders will be in attendance and there’s still time to register—and it’s FREE!


I’ve been a workshop presenter at a couple of previous Forums. This year, I’ll be there with Church Building Consultants as we’ll be giving away an iPad2. There’s still time to register—and did I say, it’s FREE. 


Inspiring Evangelical Church Architecture

Evangelical church architecture is a tough style to identify. Obviously it doesn’t fit with the classic cathedrals of the reformation; nor does it belong with the strongly liturgical churches of today that employ ornate symbols—and even idols (they claim they’re icons).

Unfortunately, evangelical church architecture often can mean “utilitarian”—or dare we say it, “cheap.” Evangelical churches are burdened with the spreading of the gospel so they may tend towards investing more money on ministry and programs rather than on facilities. As a result they do not often produce inspiring worship spaces.

However, I believe there is a place for inspiring evangelical church architecture—along with frugality (I want money for evangelistic efforts too!). I encountered one example recently at the annual conference of the Evangelical Homiletics Society which took place at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

The chapel is void of symbols and traditional elements, but provides an inspiring space. The economy of scope and space create a cost efficient chapel—fitting with evangelical priorities. However, extensive attention to detail and thoughtful arrangement of space characterize a setting for invoking worship and God’s presence.


Super Bowl of Preaching Delivers a Classic


Last week I had the blessing of attending the annual conference of the Evangelical Homiletics Society, at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, north of Boston. In a previous blog I referred to this as “The Super Bowl of Preaching.” While some Super Bowls (the football kind) end up being duds, this event delivered quality content, engaging interactions, and encouragement in the ministry. I also had the opportunity to discuss how facility issues can be used to help improve church health—this is further development of a paper I presented at last year’s conference, “The Heart of Worship and Facility Stewardship.” 

The plenary speaker was Hughes Oliphant Old, speaking on the theme, “Learning from the History of Preaching.” While much in our culture continues to change, many things stay the same. For instance, Dr. Old focused on the power & place of rhetoric in our culture and how that impacts the preaching experience. Simply: even if you have great content, you have to be able to communicate it well or it will fall on deaf ears. 

An example of the power of rhetoric that became discussion fodder is, Presidential candidate Rick Perry. Perry has the experience and a track record of a reformer & jobs creator, which catapulted him to the top of the polls. However, some stumbles in recent debates caused a similarly rapid fall. His weak rhetorical engagement cost him dearly. As preachers may we continue to sharpen our rhetorical skills. After all, we are stewards of a more valuable message than jobs—ours is the ultimate message that leads to “eternal employment.”


Fog Lifting for a Clearer View

From my days as a Senior Pastor, the following is from an article I wrote for Your Church magazine in the December, 2008 issue:

A congregation on Chicago’s North Shore area built a new worship center two decades ago. When they called a new senior pastor two years ago, he was shocked to find steep steps leading from the entry area to the worship center. He called them “the climbing wall.” But recently, when I visited the church and commented on the steps, he said that he had gotten used to them and had forgotten how imposing and intimidating they appeared to him as a newcomer.

In a short amount of time, we can lose our ability to see our facilities as a newcomer sees them. We lose our objectivity in evaluating facility issues.

Here are a few ways to look at your building with clear eyes.

  • Recall your first days at the church. When you first visited the church, your objectivity was fresh. Think back to your first impressions.
  • Ask your spouse. Men and women notice different things. My wife knew all about the mold issue in the nursery long before I noticed it.
  • Read past prayer or planning journals. If you journal, skim through past entries. You may have jotted down facility issues you wanted to address—but have forgotten. Reading past records may jog many helpful recollections.
  • Prayerfully walk around the building by yourself. The church building seems a much different place when no one else is there. The quiet moments in prayerful reflection may enable the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to an entirely new idea.
  • “Visit” the church with a friend who’s never been there. A true visitor to the church will have a completely fresh perspective. Also, asking a non-Christian for his perspective may open your eyes to the facilities—and Lord willing, his eyes to the gospel.

Moldy Restrooms that "Feel like home?!"

        From my days as a Senior Pastor, the following is a true story and printed in an article I wrote for Leadership Journal in the Fall, 2009 issue:  

Renovating the women’s restroom was more complicated than I realized. Repeated efforts in the past to paint the block wall surfaces were only a temporary solution as the molds kept reappearing. We hired a couple of contractors to perform specialized tasks: sealing the walls, floor, and ceiling to keep the molds from reappearing. As a result the project cost some more money, but the fixtures, colors, and finishes produced a room everyone would appreciate.

Well, almost everyone.  

Following the project, one woman sat in my office complaining about the money spent on the women’s restroom renovation. Her judgment was clouded because she couldn’t discern that this facility issue had become a ministry issue. She tried to appeal to the humility position—that we had wonderful facilities compared to a Third World country. Why did we spend so much money on the renovation? 


“We could have sent the money to our missionaries,” she said, playing the humility trump card. She only shook her head when I countered that sending the money to missionaries in the “uttermost parts of the world” is important, but we also need to invest in areas that help us reach our own “Jerusalem.” 


I reminded her of the molds on the restroom walls and some of the stall partitions. 


With distorted logic, she replied, “I don’t know, it kind of had a homey feel to it.” 


I ended the conversation as graciously as I could, but when I got home I told my wife that comment. She was as stunned as I had been and countered, “Well, not our home!” Today we laugh recalling this event. But it clearly illustrates how clouded people’s judgment can become. What we overlook, we learn to accept. What we accept, we eventually become attached to. And what we become attached to, we resist changing—even unclean or unsanitary conditions. 


Facility Funnies

 Church ministry would be a much greater challenge if we cannot laugh a little along the way. When my Leadership Journal comes, I admit to first skimming through to check out the legendary cartoons. In the Spring, 2009 issue their Create-a-Caption contest included a facility cartoon, so I had to submit an entry. May the smiles along the way help us to press on in ministry service.