Why I love “religion” (and my relationship with Jesus too)

If you’re an evangelical, you’ve probably gotten used to the “religion/relationship” dichotomy. E.g. “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship”, or “you don’t need Christianity, you need Jesus”. On a lot of levels, I get this. Jesus is the center, and it’s certainly easy to lose sight of him in the glare of all the “church stuff” that’s all around us. And, as much as the church and its trappings may cause us to roll our eyes, we all love Jesus.

All that being said – I’ve grown to really dislike this entire line of thinking. I don’t think it’s possible to separate Jesus from the religion of Christianity. Even more, it’s counterproductive to try to turn Christ-following and religion into differentiated endeavors. That being said, here are a few reasons I think we should ditch this well-meaning (but fatally flawed) language.

  • What is the practice of religion anyway? For me, religion is the practices that express our devotion to God, celebrate his action, and bind us together with other Christians. Are these practices infallible? Absolutely not, and often the various practices and traditions deserve to be re-examined and even tweaked. That being said, our experience of God’s Spirit is strengthened by repetitively acting out our internal devotion, and that’s what the institutional church gives us the chance to do.
  • The practice of religion is our way to expressing and experiencing the supernatural. Whether you are a highly liturgical Anglican or a much less liturgical Baptist, the places, traditions, sacraments and communities that come with religion all have the power to express indescribable truths. Yes, we can turn them into idols, but merely internalize our relationship also leaves our faith neutered. The answer to the idolization of our traditions isn’t to abandon them, but to remind themselves what they are actually about.
  • As much as the institutional church and it’s messiness has the ability to turn people off towards Christianity, it also is the greatest mobilizer of God’s people towards growth, evangelism and impact.
  • Lauding “relationship” while simultaneously denigrating “religion” turns the focus of faith almost entirely inward. The apparatus of christianity is often the very thing that causes us to see out place in the grand, varied, and odd collection that is the Body of Christ. It reminds us that God not only invites us into relationship, he calls us out into mission.

I don’t want to be naive, and I’m sadly aware that the religion of Christianity has the power to dim the light of God’s love in people. The church is not infallible, it deserves to be questioned, challenged and confronted. If our faith is solely in the religious institutions we love, then we will invariably be disappointed.

But at the same time, the institutional church – the “religion” of Christianity – is also a great and powerful conduit through we experience the wonder, healing, growth, and change that our relationship with Jesus offers. We should love our relationship with God first and foremost, and also love the religion that imperfectly points us further up and further in to his kingdom.

So yes – it’s all about relationship, and the institutional religion that helps it grow.

The Story of King Jesus – a review

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My son is 19 months old, and he loves books. The other day, he brought 13 books in a row to my wife – one after another – and asked her to read every one of them. Over the past year, we’ve pretty much figured out what makes Titus love books. If the illustrations are attention-getting, or if the words lend themselves to dramatic reading, he’ll enjoy it.

All that to say, I was really excited to get a copy of The Story of King Jesus by Ben Irwin. The Story of King Jesus is aimed at kids ages 4-8, and it tells the story of Jesus from creation through his death and resurrection, all the way to His return. Best of all, it’s designed to be read in one sitting, so kids can get a great picture of God’s reign from creation to eternity.

This book is written beautifully, and Irwin has done of wonderful job condensing the timeline of scripture into a compelling book suitable for young children. However, what stood out to me most were the incredible illustrations by Nick Lee. My son wouldn’t normally be interested in books written for 4-8 year-olds, because the amount of text would typically leave him antsy. But he loved The Story of King Jesus immediately, because the illustrations grabbed his attention. This book is certainly the longest one that we read to Titus, but because he loves the illustrations so much, he keeps asking us to read it again.

But what makes The Story of King Jesus really great (especially if your kids are more than 2 years old), is how it gives parents to opportunity to continue the tradition of passing on the story of redemption to their children in one sitting. I’m looking forward to reading The Story of King Jesus again and again with my son, because it tells the story of God’s past and future redemption so compellingly.

Why Church Matters – Because following Jesus is hard

004If you work in professional ministry, from time to time you’ll find yourself needing to be reminded why what you do matters. It’s easy to feel like all you do is manage events, leaders, emails and materials. When I find myself in this mindset, I also find myself doing ministry under my own power, rather than relying on the Holy Spirit – sure, I can keep the doors open and lights on, but it’s not ministry to the fullest of potential.

I can only do ministry the way God calls me to if I remember what God wants his church to be. For all the programs and details that make up ministry life, I need to be reminded that the church is designed to allow God to work most effectively in the life of his people.

One of the realities of following Jesus is that the journey toward holiness is not easy. As beautiful as the Beatitudes are, they are also a downright intimidating look into the heart of God for his people. The truth is that following Jesus means growing in our ability to lay aside our natural selfishness and live for the good of God, his kingdom, and the world around us. That doesn’t come naturally.

The good news is that God works transformation through other people. He hasn’t called us to grow on our own, or even solely with his help. He’s called us into community, where he can speak, inspire, challenge, critique and stretch us. He calls us into a community where we grow by serving the needs of others. When our needs are met by others, the past toward holiness becomes smoother. Likewise, when we are drawn out of ourselves and into serving the needs of others, we are transformed. In so many ways, the church is God’s way of easing the journey of spiritual growth.

As someone who works in the church, and loves it, I need to be reminded that following Jesus is hard, but God doesn’t has made our path navigable. He does this through his Spirit, his word, and the actions of others.

How big is your front door?

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Like most churches, the leaders my church spend a lot of time talking about our “front door”. We do our best to create an environment that’s welcoming to new visitors. We have two layers of greeters, newcomer cards (if you turn one in you get a free coffee or smoothie from our coffee shop), good follow up, and generally warm people. Something we hear is that when people visit, they are usually impressed with how comfortable they feel. And, while that’s great and very important, something that we’ve been realizing is that we still need to improve our first impression. While people may like the experience when they come on campus, the true “front door” – the first experience people have with our church – is our online presence.

I’d give our church website a B-. It’s functional, it communicates that we are a contemporary church, and has a lot of good info. On the downside, it’s not optimized for the mobile experience (ergh), it’s pretty busy, and it isn’t the most easily navigated place on the internet. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t stand out when a new family is looking at church websites, hoping to figure out which church to visit. In that regard, our web presence currently represents a missed opportunity to really stand out. I’m hoping for some changes in that regard, and as I’ve talked with our lead pastor about having a better “virtual front door”, here are a few things we’ve realized.

  • Prioritize information for seekers. Your most valuable web traffic will come from people looking to find out about your church. Identify the key information they will be looking for (times, location, children’s and youth services, recordings of past teaching) and make sure it’s easy to find.
  • Make sure it’s good. A simple, clean website is far better than a cluttered, cheesy one. Make sure that everything on your site is as high of quality as possible. Strive for clean recordings of sermons, and sharp graphic design.
  • It’s worth the money to make it great. According to Thom Ranier, 75-90% of people will visit a church’s website before visiting in person. With those kind of numbers, a sub-par website is costly.
  • Logos matter. There are lots of people who can hop on photoshop and pull something decent together, but finding (or paying) someone to craft a solid, memorable logo not only helps tie your website together, it makes it more memorable for people who may be looking at several different church websites trying to decide where to visit (currently I’m loving the logo for Rise City Church in San Diego)

So what about you? Which church websites are you impressed with? Any tips you’d pass on? Please share!

February Links

Hey there! I hope your March is off to a fabulous start. I’m knee-deep in Easter prep, and I’m looking forward to trying a couple new things this year.

Instead of looking forward, however, today I wanted to share some links to stuff I wrote that went up at Truministry.com last month. Check them out, and then see what else is on the blog over there. You’ll find some good stuff. Anyway, here they are…

Six Life-Hacks Every Children’s Minister Should Know

Why You Need to be Able to Confront Your Ministry Leaders

How to Schedule Your Ministry Team Effectively

Why You Need a Spiritual Mentor

On trying to balance family and ministry

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I’ve been in professional ministry for 5.5 years, my fifth anniversary is this month, and my son is nearly 18 months old. Which means I’ve had enough practice to pick up some wisdom about being a good dad/father while in ministry, and I’ve had lots of opportunities to learn from my mistakes. As someone who loves what I do, I’ve come to see how crucial caring for my family is, because ministry inescapably makes demands on my family. If they’re not loved and protected well, it will affect our home life and our faith life. On the other hand, the moments when I do care for them well allows them to love the church in unique and special ways. That’s why it’s on my mind all the time, when I do it well or screw it up. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

  • Communication is the foundation. Ministry demands are unpredictable. Sometimes things come up in the evenings, meetings go long, or you need to block time at home to prepare. I’ve found that communicating clearly helps smooth over the stresses of a somewhat unpredictable schedule.
  • Take advantage of your flexibility. On the flipside, ministry often provides a good amount of flexibility during the day. I find that one of the great advantages of working in ministry is the ability to dash out to pick up Titus or take him to the doctor. If you don’t abuse you flexibility, you’ll often find that there are good opportunities to use it to maintain balance in your home.
  • Be careful which issues you bring home. Yes, I need to get things off my chest sometimes, and Dana gets a pretty good look at the behind-the-scenes life of ministry. Nonetheless, I’ve also learned how to go about sharing about my frustrations and challenges, because my workplace is our place of worship. I need to protect our ability to worship and be fed by our church, and bringing home too much negativity can really hinder that.
  • Temper your cynicism. One of the great temptations of ministry is to give into cynicism about the people of God. This hinders your ministry, but it also hinders your family’s ability to worship, interact, and trust the people around you on Sundays. Cynicism is a weakness of mine, and it’s more dangerous than we think, so be careful.
  • Practice Kindness. One of the great challenges of ministry is living up to the expectations of others. We’ll always fail, but at the same time being in ministry does give us the opportunity to strive to be role models. One of the best things that balancing family and ministry does is give you the opportunity to model kindness and grace daily. The more you embody kindness at home, the more support you’ll have from your family as you lead the church. The more kindness you show at church, the more grace you’ll receive, which will affect your demeanor at home. No matter what, kindness pays dividends. (Full disclosure: I have room to improve on this one)

Cary Nieuwhof says it well:

“What you do is what you believe.

What you believe is what you do.

Your friends are also the people you serve and lead.”

Professional Ministry is a balancing act between your personal faith and journey with Jesus, and the practical demands of leading an organization. This balance is challenging, but not impossible. However, to survive ministry in the long run, you need your family on board, and they’ll only stay on board if they are loved, honored and protected. If we communicate well, protect our time and, and ensure that our families can authentically worship in our churches, we also protect our ability to work in the weird, lovely and challenging world of the church for a long time to come.