Emerging from, as, & into church

I confess a hint of envy as I walked into the little Disciples church, a narrow sanctuary of hardwood and brick tucked into downtown Lake Worth, Florida. The little building had nowhere to grow, with barely an alley separating it from the commercial development crowding in around it. I imagined it could be a welcome refuge to downtowners seeking a moment of solice.

I was there to meet the regional minister for our first discussion of licensed ministry. He was there for a church transformation meeting. The elderly congregation no longer matched the demographics of its neighborhood. I saw a low-overhead oasis; the congregation saw shrinking coffers, rising power bills and nowhere to park.

How sad it was to learn of that church’s closing. They eventually settled on a vision, selling the building and setting up trust funds to support Disciples missions from now on. And the building is once again a thriving little church — though not a Disciples church.

Another Disciples church had offered refuge for a group of musicians who simply wanted to praise God without rehearsals, agendas or collection plates. They let us use their Log Cabin youth building on Saturday nights. When I finally sat through a Sunday morning service, I found the unfettered Gospel, a kindly pastor and a small but welcoming congregation. I joined, got my license, spent five years assisting the kindly pastor, and became senior pastor when he retired four years ago.

I’ve always had a thing for storefront churches. I remember jamming at a storefront church gathering where 25 people raised the roof and broke firecode capacity. It was an urban translation of the little country churches scattered around my small hometown. I had friends having storefront church in a bar. But when their pastor became unaffordable, I was already committed to a church, and grateful for the oversight, accountability and benefits package.

The Log Cabin gospel jam appealed to my storefront church sensibilities. I still think the out-of-business church could have thrived as a storefront church, welcoming in the passers-by alongside the retired commuters who were its last members.

That storefront church in a bar tired of going without a pastor, had trouble paying the rent and grew weary of the weekly setup/breakdown routine. I invited them to join our church, but they were already serving people who had rejected traditional church.

There was no way I could change worship styles at our church. Our mark of distinction was preserving the organ/choir worship style in a community where one by one, many churches were hitching up the rock-n-roll horse, trying to keep up with the megachurches.

So, we started a second service with a worship combo instead of the choir, collection boxes instead of the plate and intinction instead of little cups and trays. It’s not that simple, but those differences illustrate the direction of the service. Now the little storefront/bar church congregation happily worships in a worship-ready building as members of our church. The traditional members who once wondered about “those people” now see them as fellow members, volunteers, supporters and good Christian friends.

How sad that one group would struggle to keep a building while another struggles to find for affordable worship space. Isn’t the sanctuary empty most of the time? Oh sure, you could rent the space to some other denomination, but wouldn’t you rather share the freedom of Discipleship and diversify the church? Wouldn’t you rather share your sanctuary with people who also share the burdens of maintenance, missions and ministerial salaries?

My advice to all those closet emergents toughing it out in the established church: Talk to your pastor, deacons and elders. Let them know that there are new tribes of believers who would love the freedom of a Disciples church — if only it weren’t so “churchy”! Tell them those tribes love the Lord and have a passion to share Him in new and vibrant ways.

I think every church, especially every Disciples church, should host one or more services featuring the kind of music “we don’t like.” Those that no longer match the demographics of their neighborhood should conduct a service that does. Encourage your youth to conduct their own service. Then, encourage cross-service attendance and talent sharing, so everyone can discover what we have in common.

That “mainstream” church I serve was established 52 years ago in a trailer park rec hall. Members still speak fondly of sweeping up beer cans and mopping the floors to prepare for service. They can relate to tales of transforming a bar into a church and back week after week. They can relate to running from church “their” way and trying it “our own” way because that’s exactly how they started 52 years ago.

God’s church — give it away! Give it to your children, your neighbors, your friends. But stick around to share as needed what you’ve learned. One Lord, One Table, and in this case, one pastor and one building. One Body, many parts.

A Tweet from God

Tropical Sands Christian Church has an interesting mix of people. We have people who established their musical taste long before the Beatles, and those who are too young to name a single Beatles tune. (And the very fact that I selected that band tells you where I fall in that spectrum.) We have members who don’t know we have a website, and others who think that printing a paper newsletter is for dinosaurs.

Today, just having a website is not enough. You need a Facebook page and a Twitter account, and there are probably other significant social networking services that I’ve neglected.

Facebook is a social networking website that lets people post photos, links and updates. If you list someone as a friend on Facebook, their updates will display on your news page, and vice versa.

Say what you will about the trivia that passes for news on Facebook. Between my wife and my daughter, it gives me easy access to more photos of my new grandson than any wallet can hold.

I use Facebook to stay in touch with most members of our youth group and many other members of the church as well. The easiest way to contact other churches is to find the pastor’s Facebook page. If you want to friend me on Facebook, you’ll find my page at Facebook.com/pastor.joel.tucker. And to keep track of our youth group, go to Facebook and do a search for “That Youth Thing” to find their Facebook page.

Twitter takes that simple concept and narrows it down one step further. On Twitter, you’re given 140 characters to post an update. If someone “follows” you, your Tweets, as these updates are called, will show up on their page.

I post church news and other tweets on Twitter.com/TropicalSands. I don’t find very many church members on Twitter, but I do find a lot of Disciples ministers, schools and churches posting news updates on Twitter.

I like the structure of a Tweet — 140 characters, no more. In my view, people are cheating the system by including a web address to a larger article. A Tweet, like haiku, should be a self-contained idea, and not an introduction to a larger article. A pure Tweet is self-contained. And then there’s the perfect Tweet — a self-contained idea that is exactly 140 characters long. I love the challenge of structuring Twitter posts to be pure and perfect Tweets!

Recently, a Tweet led to a blog that challenged Disciples to write a statement of faith in under 250 words. I responded that we should raise the bar with something even shorter, that a 140-character Tweet was big enough for a well-written statement of faith.

I came up with the following: “Emmanuel, God with us. The Creator, most exalted, became the Lamb, most humbled. That’s how to love, how much He loves, and how big love is.”

But I continued playing with the format, typing various ideas and scriptures into the character-counting Twitter input panel. I was astounded to discover that the classic English version of the most popular Jesus quotation was in itself a pure and perfect 140-character Tweet! It goes like this: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Who knew that John 3:16, taken from the popular King James Bible, would be a perfect fit for one of the internet’s most popular and exacting social networks, some 400 years after its translation?

I get a feeling that God knew. I’m sure God cracked a smile when the Twitter developers said, “140 characters. That’s enough.” It’s all the creed we need!

It reminds me of an ingenious mission statement, written decades ago for Tropical Sands but still Tweet-ready with 61 characters to spare: “Our mission as Disciples of Christ is to Profess Faith, Proclaim Hope, and Practice Love.”

Lion of Judah, King of Israel

I preached this sermon on October 29, 2006, and guess what — the vision came true! A 53-year-old church still satisfies even charter members with traditional worship, draws young families with contemporary worship and children’s church, and builds a new community on a recovery ministry. With 150-200 worshipers on Sunday and 60-90 at Celebrate Recovery, Tropical Sands Christian Church thrives because the old supports the new — and vice versa! The premise is simple: If you want to settle down in the grasslands of Judah, you have to help the other tribes take the Promised Land!

The Bible is our story. It is not merely a story about the children of Israel, because all people are basically the same. We all have the same passions, potential and shortcomings. The Bible is not just a book of history, because people haven’t really changed much in the last 8,000 years. Adultery, thievery, murder, and, yes, bravery, intelligence and faithfulness, are no more or less common in the book of Genesis, than they are today.

The Bible is the inspired message of God to mankind, for all generations. The writer of Hebrews illustrates this with a thousand-year-old Psalm that looked back six centuries to a timeless truth. That truth applies as well today as it did 2,000 years ago. Let’s hear the Word of the LORD.

So then, as the Holy Spirit says, “If you hear God’s voice today, do not be stubborn, as your ancestors were when they rebelled against God, as they were that day in the desert when they put him to the test. There they put me to the test and tried me, says God, although they had seen what I did for forty years. And so I was angry with those people and said, ‘They are always disloyal and refuse to obey my commands.’ I was angry and made a solemn promise: ‘They will never enter the land where I would have given them rest.'”

My fellow believers, be careful that no one among you has a heart so evil and unbelieving that he will turn away from the living God. Instead, in order that none of you be deceived by sin and become stubborn, you must help one another every day, as long as the word “Today” in the scripture applies to us. For we are all partners with Christ if we hold firmly to the end the confidence we had at the beginning.

— Hebrews 3:7-14 (GNB)

So what is the story being told here? In Numbers, Chapter 13, When Moses led the children of Israel to the Jordan River, they sent spies across to search out the Promised Land. The spies come back saying yes, it’s a great place, everything God said it would be. But the people who live there are giants, and we are like grasshoppers in their eyes. Joshua and Caleb said no, we’re strong enough, and the LORD has promised us that land. The people rebelled, and in his anger God swore that generation would never enter the land. That generation lost the promise because of hard hearts and a lack of faith. Instead, they went back to the desert and roamed like nomads for 40 years.

600 years later, the writer of Psalm 95 repeated the story to say that God still had a promise for the people, and that they could hear His voice and seize the promise, or reject it out of fear and return to the desert.

The Psalmist and the writer of Hebrews, are telling us that throughout history, there’s a promise of God to be fulfilled, and God will punish those who rejected His promise. Fulfill the promise, or spend decades in the desert.

In 1958, Tropical Sands Christian Church was chartered to spread the Gospel and make Disciples in northern Palm Beach County. We could have said, no, the housing costs are enormous there! We like it right where we are. We’ll never make it! But we didn’t say that. We obeyed God, we crossed the Jordan River and took the Promised Land. And for 48 years, we’ve been living in the Promised Land. But the Word of God remains true as long as it is called Today. There were other Promised Lands along the way — new locations, new ministries, and new pastors. And since it is still called Today, there must be Promised Lands to seize today as well.

In 1958, this church had 50 active members. Now, it has about 90 active members. At one time, we had close to 200. Did we fail to cross the Jordan River when we let our youth program fall to the wayside? Did we fail to cross the Jordan River when we stuck with old programs and lesson plans that suit us fine but failed to speak to the next generation? Are we failing to cross the Jordan River when we let our elderly miss church because their eyesight fails and their licenses expire? We do a great job of feeding ourselves, but aren’t we supposed to be feeding others as well? From where I stand, we are once again looking across the Jordan River. We have another chance to reach baby boomers, another chance to reach young adults, and an opportunity to keep seniors active longer. Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.

We have a Celebrate Recovery program starting next year, and we all know that a lot of us Baby Boomers and Generation-X’ers are either doing drugs or trying to kick the habit. Is that a Promised Land we’re ready to take, or just a program for those other people? We have a young adult program going on Sunday afternoons, and we all know how those young adults like to rock-n-roll and get creative. Is that a Promised Land we’re ready to take, or just another distraction from the real service? We’re trying to keep our contemporary service going Sunday evenings. Is that a Promised Land we’re willing to fight for, or just another tick on the electric bill? We have half-empty cars driving by seniors in need every Sunday morning. Is ride-sharing a Promised Land we can seize, or a nuisance that doesn’t fit our busy schedules?

Looking over Jordan to the Promised Land, I see a church with 150 people every Sunday mornings, a few dozen every afternoon and 50 or 60 every Sunday night. In the Promised Land, we have a lot of kids running through the halls, a packed house every Tuesday night and more teenagers hanging around than we can keep up with. In the Promised Land, we stop on the way to church and share the ride with our brothers and sisters.

To me, that looks like the Promised Land. To a lot of you, it looks like the church you had 20 or 30 years ago. Let’s at least agree that it is not the church we have today — not anymore — and not yet.

“Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts…” A soft heart looks for ways to share the Gospel with more people. A hard heart says I’ve got my church, and that’s all that matters. Some of us may have hard hearts, and others might not hear God’s voice. But there’s another issue that might have us stuck in the 80-plus bracket. Maybe we’re just so happy where we are that we don’t want to cross the Jordan River!

There’s a parallel to that one, too. In Numbers chapter 32, after 40 years in the desert, the children of Israel came back to the river Jordan. The tribes of Gad and Ruben and the half-tribe of Manasseh came to Moses and said, “You know, the land over here is pretty good, too. There’s plenty of grazing land, and we have a lot of cattle. What say we just settle in over here and let the rest of you take the Promised Land.”

Moses warned them about what happened last time, so they came up with a good plan. They said, “Not only will we help the others take the Promised Land, we’ll lead the charge.” That suited Moses and God just fine. And that is why we’ve heard of the land of Israel and the land of Judah. The children of Israel took both sides of the Jordan River, Israel on the west and Judah on the east.

Some of us are looking across the Jordan River, and we see souls to be saved for Christ. There’s a battle to be waged, because it is going to take work to launch Celebrate Recovery, to kick our youth program up a notch, and to make Sunday night a viable service. But some of us like things just fine the way they are; we don’t want to change and don’t need to work any harder to have the friendly little church we want. We’re perfectly content to settle down where we are, on this side of the Jordan River.

“For we are all partners with Christ if we hold firmly to the end the confidence we had at the beginning.” What was that confidence we had in the beginning, way back in 1958? That we could win souls for Christ! Are we holding firmly to that confidence, or have we changed the game plan? If we are still partners with Christ, then our focus must be spreading the Gospel and making Disciples.

Like Judah and Israel, the East and West banks of the Jordan River. We can have new members, new ministries, new services, and still have our Sunday morning service just like it is. But if we don’t take the Promised Land, if we don’t serve God with new members and new services, then we will fade like so many churches that have died out before us. If we want to hold on to the green pastures here in Judah, we have to take the Promised Land as well.

It’s an interesting problem, but a promising solution. If we’re content with church exactly like it is, then we have to help it grow. Otherwise, our earning power won’t keep up with our expenses. But if we use the strength we have, the strength of our resources, ideas and talent, we can hold onto everything we love about church and still open the doors for more people and new Disciples.

On the other hand, if we just abandon what we have for something new, we won’t be strong enough to go for it. We won’t have the talent, or the resources, or the ideas we need to make it happen. We can’t take the Promised Land without the tribes of Judah, and we can’t keep Judah unless we take the Promised Land!

We are strong enough to grow Sunday Morning, and launch Celebrate Recovery, and revamp our Youth Program, and grow our Sunday Night service, and maybe ramp up our elderly ministries, too. The question is, are we willing? Is everyone going to pitch in and help? Is everyone going to latch onto the vision? The vision is not a threat to what we have; it is the salvation of what we have!

I think that’s what Jesus was saying when He said that the one who has will get more, and the one who has not will lose even what he has. When it comes to church, it’s use it or lose it. Use it to save souls, or lose it to time and the wrecking ball.

Jesus said that the tree that bares fruit will be cared for so that it bares even more fruit, but the tree that bares no fruit will be pulled up and burned. Will we bare fruit? Will we grow, and add new ministries? We can do this with faith, courage and effort. And not only can we, we must. Those of us who love it here in Judah must lead the charge to take the Promised Land of Israel.

Today, if you hear His voice — the roar of the Lion of Judah, and the commands of the King of Israel — do not harden your hearts. Bare fruit. Lead the charge. Take the Promised Land.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Joel Tucker

Epilog, 2010: Our traditional church Elders serve dinner each Tuesday at Celebrate Recovery, and they love it! We have a nursery full of babies on Sundays and Tuesdays, and a growing teen group on Wednesday nights. Sunday morning rocks at 8:30; at 10, we don the choir robes and crank up the organ. The financial struggle has turned into expansion plans to make more classrooms and youth activity space. My plea: Stop trying to scrap one generation for the next. Instead, remind your church of its mission — to win souls — and give them ideas for how to support the next “tribe.” (It helps to remind them that the next tribe will help pay the bills.) I’m telling you, this Bible stuff really works!