Knowing the Direction We Face

We have been building to this moment in our sermon series “Known.” Colossians 1:26-29 shaped the scope of the series. Where in a world of faulty maps we see what Paul says about the map that can be known and followed—in Jesus.

In the first sermon of the series, I began explaining about Captain George De Long’s expedition to the North Pole. Captain George De Long set a course for the North Pole and crashed because he hoped that there would be a warm North Polar Sea. Instead, he ran into the rocks of reality. The North Pole is surrounded by ice. Trevin’s Wax’s book, This is Our Time, uses Captain De Long’s journey to set-up the longer illustration that we live in a world full of faulty maps. I carry on the same illustration to communicate the truths in Colossians 1.


Every day we are surrounded by people who are in search of the meaning of life, community, purpose and the map they are using cannot adequately guide them. 

Right out of this section Paul has used himself as an example and he continues to describe his role within the world. The reason Paul uses the example of himself as he makes this point to the Colossians is to how God uses us to expand God’s family.

Here’s an example of what I mean…I was in Starbucks…I’m sitting there and right beside me a two people are talking about religion. As they discuss religion the second person describes the religious relics within his house while railing against Christianity and religion. While the first person it attempting to follow Jesus, they have no rebuttal for the second. Having been in the first person’s shoes, the easiest question to ask, “Have you ever tried getting to know Jesus?”

The second person has left Jesus on the walls. When you leave Jesus on the walls you can make-up whatever Jesus you want to follow. When we leave Jesus on the walls and uninvited to our life we will be unable to identify the faulty maps that attempt to guide us off course. It’s a Jesus that you make look more like what you want rather than Jesus providing the map that leads you to the very thing you are searching for—himself.

God has been working plan to rescue and redeem through history chronicled in the stories in the Old Testament. The question remains: How would God fulfill his promise of rescue and renewal?

Paul describes this “how” as the profound “mystery.” The mystery is made known in Jesus. The mystery was something previously unknown, but is revealed by God in Christ in the power of the Spirit—and open to all.

Christ enables the Gentiles to be part of God’s family through faith. This mystery used to describe the newness of the age that creates Paul’s mission: what was once given to Abraham as intended to be a blessing to the nations is finally fully underway in Paul’s mission to the Gentiles (non-Jews). The presence of God no longer needs to be mediated in a temple. Paul is willing to suffer so that all people know of their access to God through Jesus. Not only that, but that they begin to apply the way of Jesus in every area of their life.

The presence of Christ among the Colossians, then, is ground for their hope of life in the age to come. Having explained that the term “mystery” is the plan of God to expand the people of God to include everyone. Re-read Colossians 1:15-20.

Here’s the difficulty: Even though it has been disclosed, it remains partially grasped.

My kids were watching Scooby-doo the other day. It’s so funny because time and time again the group of Fred, Vilma, Daphne, Shaggy, and Scooby know that behind every monster is an explanation. It’s just that they have to go on a journey to figure out who it is.

The journey begins with God’s people. They are identified with their representative, Christ, and how that new identity gives hope for the future. Christ dwells in the new people of God, the church (corporates), through the Spirit, he truly also indwells the believer (individual).

As individuals, we have to apply the good news of Jesus to our life. However, we do not do this alone. We follow Jesus as the church.

In the Gospels, Jesus called the would-be disciples to follow him. But the actual relationship between Christ and his follows is greater, deeper, and higher than that: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). The church is spiritually united to Jesus Christ.

No other religion speaks of the relationship between its leader and followers that way. But this is the spiritual union between Christ and the church. We are in Christ, and Christ is in us.  The indwelling presence of the Life-Giver King resides within each us and has made us one in Christ.

It is still a mystery to others. God “wanted to make known to the Gentiles” and he chooses us to make it known.

Paul’s work was empowered by God’s mighty strength. This is true for everyone: Part of the deception of the false teachers is that the way of salvation to be so involved that it could only be understood by a select few.

When you have a relationship with Jesus and relationships with people who are pointing you over and over again to the character and priorities of Jesus—you don’t need me in that coffee shop with you.

You will be able to discern the longing and the lies and live according to the map that leads to peace and purpose.

James K.A. Smith sums it up this way: “To be human is to be for something. To be human is to be directed toward something, oriented toward something. To be human is to be on the move, purposing something, after something…We are not just static containers for ideas; we are dynamic creatures direct toward some end.”

When we follow Jesus together as the church we will be able to identify the gravitational pull of false hope. Together we will be able to present what it looks like to be directed toward Jesus especially when we reflect a community of people that come from all walks of life.

Trevin Wax presents sums up his illustration and main point this way:

The first people to reach the North Pole were Frederick Cook and two Inuit men. On April 21, 1908. Unlike George De Long, they didn’t try to sail there. They were well aware that there was no “Open Polar Sea.” Instead, after an arduous journey across the ice, they arrived on foot, stocked with the provisions they needed to achieve their goal.

When you compare De Long’s expedition to Cook’s, you find that all of these men exhibited similar character traits. They were brave and courageous, ready to persevere through the worse circumstances. Why, then, did Cook make it to the North Pole while De Long did not? It wasn’t because Cook was braver then De Long but because Cook had a better understanding of the terrain he world encounter. Therefore, Cook had the provisions he needed for the long trek across the ice. De Long did not. No matter how strong these men were, one crew made plans that took into account what was really there while the other made plans based on what they hoped to find.

There is an important lesson for us here. You can be courageous yet still be wrong about the world. You can be brave yet perish. You can be a strong and determined person on a path to destruction. Sincerity, as a good quality as that may be, cannot ultimately save you.

So what does faithfulness look like in a world where everyone has a different map—a different idea about what life is all about and the best route to take toward your destination? A world in which people seem to think sincerity is all that matters? That is doesn’t matter what map you have a long as you think you’re right? Even more, how can we be faithful when so many Christians have faulty maps too?

Here, we join with Paul in being prepared for the journey. Recognizing it is Christ in us. It’s not us knowing or us proclaiming. It is resisting and re-applying the message that we are included in God’s family because of Jesus. We didn’t deserve it. We didn’t earn it. 

Living as if we know that behind every monster is a man.

We repeat some version of the rhetoric that the point of life is to “enjoy God forever and glorify him.” But our actions often reveal that another map has captured our imaginations. We give the right answer but sail the wrong way. Even worse, sometimes we hoist the Christian sail over a boat that’s being directed by mythical map. We use Christianity in order to go where we want to go.

What is our North Pole? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

You want to show the world a different map? Then focus not on being true to yourself but on loving and being true to God and neighbor. See your life as a journey in which you were rescued from your fallenness, not affirmed in it. See your life as a journey in which you recognize the great mystery of Christ in you—embracing a vision of who God is making you to be—the hope of glory.

Making Christ Known Through Suffering

Sunday I preached one of the most difficult sermons to date at Generations Church. Not only did my teaching text have a difficult verse, but it also had a difficult meaning an application. I have written out a portion of my sermon that covers suffering for the sake of others.

The letter of Colossians is written to a church by the apostle Paul. He wants this church to know that they have been following the real Jesus. The feeling that they are missing out on a fuller spiritual experience has been evoked by false teachers through a cheap trick.

Paul can’t counter these false teachers in person because Paul is in prison. For those who may not know the backstory for Colossians, Paul didn’t plant the church. But, Paul introduced Jesus to a guy named Epaphras who then started this church. This church is filled with people from different backgrounds and ethnicities.

So far in this letter to the Colossians: he has praised this church for their impact on the world. He has reminded them that they aren’t missing something. It’s not Jesus+. After this long build-up, Paul as he often does gives them an example of sorts. This example comes from his life.

Paul is a guy who had power. He had comfort. He was in control. He had the approval of others. He gives that up when he encounters Jesus. Here’s how he describes what he is doing to the followers of Jesus…

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body, that is, the church. 25 I have become its servant, according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.

– Colossians 1:24-26

This first verse is difficult. Is something missing in Christ’s sacrifice for us? The short answer is no. Nothing is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

Paul’s point is that he is suffering for the sake of others so that Christ is made known and mature believers are grown.

Paul’s claim is steeped in the backstory of God’s chosen people. Israel’s experiences of affliction throughout its history—particularly Egyptian slavery, the Babylonian exile, and subsequent oppression under the Syrians and Romans—is understood as part and parcel of God’s redemptive purposes. The age of suffering was limited, and the age to come would dawn soon and God would judge the measures used.

Paul is not attaching atoning value whatever to his own sufferings for the church. The term ‘afflictions of Christ’ speaks, rather, of those ministerial sufferings which Paul bears because he represents Jesus Christ.

Christ’s sufferings climaxed in the cross are all-sufficient. Peace, reconciliation, and right standing with God are its results. At the same time, Paul is also convinced that this gospel must be proclaimed, received in faith, and implemented in everyday life in order for God’s redemptive purposes to be achieved.

The type of suffering that Paul is speaking to is the result of the verbal proclamation of Jesus as King that’s a direct assault on one’s culture. This is not the general consequences of living in a fractured world.

The reason the Colossian people are suffering and the reason for their prior success in impacting others are their following Jesus. However, there were these teachers who advocated they missed part of the gospel because of their suffering. Let’s get rid of it through intense self-discipline and seeking individual spiritual experiences. They could be described as ascetics or mystics. Here’s where they differ from the core of the gospel.

Ascetics focus on their holiness, on their spiritual growth, and on their perfection. These mystics focus on spirituality removed from community. Paul followed in the footsteps of Jesus and was an others-centered person. Paul found holiness, spiritual growth, and maturity when he pursued these things for others.

Here’s the temptation as you focus on resolutions or goals….If your goals and resolutions are purely for yourself and have no benefit to others, then you’ve missed the “for” aspect of faith. Read those verses again. Suffering “for” the body. I was given a commission “for” you.

A self-focused lifestyle is a Jesus+ lifestyle. A Jesus+ lifestyle doesn’t work when suffering comes because whatever you have added to Jesus will tell you it’s not worth it.

The cost of suffering begs the question: What type of motivation does one have to willingly put themselves out there in the awkward and uncertain?

Paul’s goal is to make God’s message fully known. In part, the message holds a “mystery that’s been hidden for ages and generations.” Paul is referring to the process by which God was going to rescue and redeem his creation. The mystery was “when” and “how.”  The mystery was not the “what.” In Jesus, what was once pixelated is now in 4K.

Paul is now working to advance this message and bring clarity to the mystery by participating in God’s mission. Here’s an example of how these principles are applied because as American Christians we don’t always understand suffering. The following was taken from two separate articles.

“Over 100 members of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China, were arrested beginning Sunday, December 9, 2018. Among those taken away were Pastor Wang Yi, senior pastor of Early Rain, and his wife, Jiang Rong.

On December 26, 2019, Wang Yi was secretly tried at the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court. On December 30, the court announced that Wang Yi was sentenced to 9 years of criminal detention and fined 50,000 RMB. This is the longest sentence given to a house church pastor in a decade.” You can read Wang Yi’s full statement on Civil Disobedience here. I have quoted the portation I read below.

On the basis of the teachings of the Bible and the mission of the gospel, I respect the authorities God has established in China. For God deposes kings and raises up kings. This is why I submit to the historical and institutional arrangements of God in China.

As a pastor of a Christian church, I have my own understanding and views, based on the Bible, about what righteous order and good government is. At the same time, I am filled with anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by this Communist regime, at the wickedness of their depriving people of the freedoms of religion and of conscience. But changing social and political institutions is not the mission I have been called to, and it is not the goal for which God has given his people the gospel.

For all hideous realities, unrighteous politics, and arbitrary laws manifest the cross of Jesus Christ, the only means by which every Chinese person must be saved. They also manifest the fact that true hope and a perfect society will never be found in the transformation of any earthly institution or culture but only in our sins being freely forgiven by Christ and in the hope of eternal life.

As a pastor, my firm belief in the gospel, my teaching, and my rebuking of all evil proceeds from Christ’s command in the gospel and from the unfathomable love of that glorious King. Every man’s life is extremely short, and God fervently commands the church to lead and call any man to repentance who is willing to repent. Christ is eager and willing to forgive all who turn from their sins. This is the goal of all the efforts of the church in China—to testify to the world about our Christ, to testify to the Middle Kingdom about the Kingdom of Heaven, to testify to earthly, momentary lives about heavenly, eternal life. This is also the pastoral calling that I have received.

For this reason, I accept and respect the fact that this Communist regime has been allowed by God to rule temporarily. As the Lord’s servant John Calvin said, wicked rulers are the judgment of God on a wicked people, the goal being to urge God’s people to repent and turn again toward Him. For this reason, I am joyfully willing to submit myself to their enforcement of the law as though submitting to the discipline and training of the Lord.

At the same time, I believe that this Communist regime’s persecution against the church is a greatly wicked, unlawful action. As a pastor of a Christian church, I must denounce this wickedness openly and severely. The calling that I have received requires me to use non-violent methods to disobey those human laws that disobey the Bible and God. My Savior Christ also requires me to joyfully bear all costs for disobeying wicked laws.

But this does not mean that my personal disobedience and the disobedience of the church is in any sense “fighting for rights” or political activism in the form of civil disobedience, because I do not have the intention of changing any institutions or laws of China. As a pastor, the only thing I care about is the disruption of man’s sinful nature by this faithful disobedience and the testimony it bears for the cross of Christ.

As a pastor, my disobedience is one part of the gospel commission. Christ’s great commission requires of us great disobedience. The goal of disobedience is not to change the world but to testify about another world.

…The Bible teaches us that, in all matters relating to the gospel and human conscience, we must obey God and not men. For this reason, spiritual disobedience and bodily suffering are both ways we testify to another eternal world and to another glorious King.

This is why I am not interested in changing any political or legal institutions in China. I’m not even interested in the question of when the Communist regime’s policies persecuting the church will change. Regardless of which regime I live under now or in the future, as long as the secular government continues to persecute the church, violating human consciences that belong to God alone, I will continue my faithful disobedience. For the entire commission God has given me is to let more Chinese people know through my actions that the hope of humanity and society is only in the redemption of Christ, in the supernatural, gracious sovereignty of God.

If God decides to use the persecution of this Communist regime against the church to help more Chinese people to despair of their futures, to lead them through a wilderness of spiritual disillusionment and through this to make them know Jesus, if through this he continues disciplining and building up his church, then I am joyfully willing to submit to God’s plans, for his plans are always benevolent and good.

Precisely because none of my words and actions are directed toward seeking and hoping for societal and political transformation, I have no fear of any social or political power. For the Bible teaches us that God establishes governmental authorities in order to terrorize evildoers, not to terrorize doers of good. If believers in Jesus do no wrong then they should not be afraid of dark powers. Even though I am often weak, I firmly believe this is the promise of the gospel. It is what I’ve devoted all of my energy to. It is the good news that I am spreading throughout Chinese society.

I believe we need to take a sober look at our lives. We can learn from our brothers and sisters in places like China and the Middle East.

Our priorities as followers of Jesus must be to not live in a space that we can meticulously control or pursue comfort but to live and work for a coming kingdom.

In our country, the type of religious devotion present by both Wang Yi and the Apostle Paul seems so foreign.

Christianity is the only religion in the world the proposes an argument to endure suffering for the sake of others. We serve a suffering Savior. We have a hope of vindication on the other side of suffering. May we live our lives in such a way that it communicates everything we do is “because of Jesus.”

Breaking The Seal

It has been almost two years to the day since my last post. I have written a ton. Sermons. Email updates. Devotionals. Generations plans and material. I have written down stories. I have even written about the emotions and spiritual pressures in the lead up to starting a new faith community. While I was in the midst of it all, I found it difficult to share the words in writing. Like I said, I wrote a ton, but it did not seem adequate. At times what I would write seemed almost too good to be true, especially the numerous answers to prayers. Other times, I was scared to share because I did not want my words to be perceived the wrong way.

I was always conflicted in my soul as I secretly evaluated my journey of church planting. I would often compare it to others’ journeys. What was their training? What is their background? How old are/were they when they planted? What success are they having by the metrics of multiplication and disciple-making? The comparison was never out of spite or pride. I have been told enough times the comparison trap in life and ministry will eat you up and spit you out. I evaluated and compared the stories because I wanted to figure out exactly what God was doing. I wanted a better understanding of God expressed in these other stories so that I could better understand mine. What was He up to in the midst of all these different locations and planters’ lives?

My whole life I had been conditioned to get it “right.” I have always been good at gaming the test in order to get the answers “right.” Even when I tutor kids on Thursdays I find myself explaining the logic of test makers and how to reduce your options down to two without even knowing any of the material. What I have become increasingly aware of is my desperation to know the “right” answer once again. This time…it comes in the form of church planting. I want to get it right. However, for the first time in my life, there is no “right” answer on a graded test or argument to present to persuade. Because even if I got something wrong, as in the past, I could attempt to talk my way into a differing score. This experience is another thing entirely.

My subconscious would not let me escape the nag of getting it “right.” The desire of knowing exactly what God was up to came out in the first sermon series at Generations. KNOWN. The mystery that had been hidden for ages and generations was made known in Jesus, which is Christ in you (the Colossians and those of us that are believers) the hope of glory. Thy mystery of the “right” answer is only found the centrality of Jesus in my own life.

God has not given me some glorious picture of the future for Generations Church. Some perfectly “right” location that I can take it to and then be graded in order to be given an A. I am not sure why He would give me some insight into the other stories when they are viewed through social media or even passing conversations. During my yearly reflection, I have realized that some of my joy in seeing God work through others began to drift into a critical spirit about my own journey. Was I getting it “right” and can I prove it?

On this side of the “launch” of Generations Church, What God has reaffirmed in my soul again and again…what is known is Jesus. Give people Jesus. Point others to Jesus both in word and deed. Follow Jesus. The mystery made known is not how to get planting a church “right,” instead it’s Christ in us (those who believe) the hope of glory. I am the recipient of this good news of Christ’s presence in our lives being the hope and knowledge that we need.

To do the above well…I must pay attention to Him, pay attention to those in proximity to me, and give voice to what I see. I may never know what God is exactly up to across the country even though I like to analyze it. My journey in church planting does not belong to me at all. I am participating in a project that’s already underway. God is at work in Vancouver, WA.

He is at work in the lives of everyday people committed to expanding His family together because of Jesus for generations to come.

Five Contextual Agreements for 2018

Beginning the year is always an interesting time in the blogging world. Christian leaders make their predictions on the church, changes, and challenges for the coming year. Three of the best lists I have seen thus far are Carey Nieuwhof’s, Thom Ranier’s and Chuck Lawless’s. Rather than create my own, I have decided to list five which directly connect to my context and what I am wrestling with as a church planter. Here they go in no particular order:

One: Carey’s number one disruptive trend is “A move beyond church in the box.” Chuck Lawless predicts, “Life-on-life, genuine community will ground people in a church.”

I combine these two together because I believe they go hand in hand. Especially in the Portland area, people crave authenticity and accessibility. As Nieuwhof articulates, gone are days when “you sat down Thursday night at 8 to watch your favorite show, because you didn’t want to miss it.” Yet, churches still function on a set time and schedule which is not on-demand. I will address this later, but the on-demand culture does not mean the physical space will cease to exist; instead, the culture enhances it.

“Bottom line? Churches who only think Sunday and who only think building will continue to shrink. In 2018, if coming to Christ means coming to your church in a set location and a set hour, you need a new strategy” says Carey.

How will people engage with the local church? A life-on-life genuine community will attract and connect people to a local church. These life-on-life relationships are on demand and can be engaged with a quick text, Facetime, Facebook message, etc. Conversation can happen in an instant, followed by a genuine embodiment of the characteristics of Christ. Hence, spiritual formation and discipleship will become essential for the local church to thrive moving forward.

In fact, one of my current projects is a series of conversation points followed by basic resources for anyone to employ in an on-the-go world.

Two: The Team is Eclipsing the Solo Leader. I am a church planter and my greatest desire is to have 1-2 other spiritually mature couples to move to Vancouver and co-lead with me and my wife. While The Village Church is not the first to function with three lead pastors, they are the church which has the most viable track record and visible presence. These other lead pastors would help oversee and champion mobilization and spiritual formation. These pastors would help expand the good already in the community. These other pastors would help free me up for what I do well, and I, in turn, will enable them to lead out of their strengths. “The leader who can do everything well is being eclipsed by the team that can do everything well.” To reach, teach, equip and send a diverse group of people will require a diverse and well-rounded team.

Three: Thom Ranier notes, “The e-book has not proved to be nearly as popular as we thought it would be. Many blog writers are reporting declines in readership. But audio books are rising in popularity. Listeners are moving to podcasts so they can learn while they jog, drive, and exercise. Outside of preaching podcasts, churches have many other opportunities to reach and disciple people through audio ministries.” The Village Church does this through their ‘Knowing Faith’ podcast which takes complex theological issues and makes them accessible in order to equip the everyday Christian.

In Vancouver, people are increasingly working odd hours and 50 hour-plus weeks via two jobs. Therefore, having a small group on Tuesday evenings is ceasing to be an option (think point #1). Spiritual formation will occur as they walk to work, ride their bike, or on the MAX (public transit). As Lawless notes, while this will increase, the subsequent results will be less evangelism. The life-on-life portion of discipleship is so crucial, evangelism must be modeled so that discipleship leads to evangelism. I have stated before how both are the wings of a disciple-making airplane.
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Four: One of the options to maintain a viable presence in the community is a trend which Ranier highlights: “Churches moving into retail spaces.” Anecdotally I have seen greater success for church plants who have rented a storefront. The brick and mortar can be used throughout the week, can be multi-purpose, and don’t require extensive set-up for services on Sunday. In addition, the presence enables a return to the parish model (see point five). Where we are specifically looking to plant, there is an abundance of affordable retail space. I envision a ministry center which can double as a worship space. I envision a place that is filled with worship and ministry seven days a week. A place of resource for the needy. A place of growth for the spiritually hungry. A place which champions and models unity. A place of worship for the gathered church. A place of sending for the scattering during the week. A hub for life and ministry in the community, in the neighborhood, and in the home.

Five: “The rise of the neighborhood church.” The parish model is on a comeback. Because people like their craft or customized “fill-in-the-blank” (i.e coffee, beer) they will increasingly expect this in their church. Further, pastors will be forced to lead wellness for their whole community. They are not just the pastor of the people who attend the church on a Sunday service. They are also the pastor of a select community. A church will gain credibility in our skeptical world when it seeks the good of the whole community. This can only be done when they understand the narrative of the neighborhood and highlight how the story of God brings wellness. It will be increasingly difficult for pastors to know the narrative of multiple neighborhoods. Therefore, multiplication of churches will happen when a group of people lives in another neighborhood. In order for this to be effective, team leadership must be modeled and championed.

These five create a perfect storm for a revival of old models and methods blended with the technological advancement of the twenty-first century. Regardless of theory and prediction, would you join me in praying for the advancement of God’s kingdom during 2018?

New Year. Same God.

“Sing a new song to the Lord for he has performed wonders; his right hand and holy arm have won him victory. The Lord has made his victory known; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.” – Psalm 98:1-3

It is day one of the New Year. As many look forward to the newness of the new year with anticipation, excitement, anxiety, and even determination, I find myself resting in the won victory of Christ. For me, that’s more than a cliche Christian response; it is a necessity. I (we, my family and I) need it to survive just like we need oxygen. We will live in Vancouver, WA for a full year in 2018. This is far away from immediate family, yet God is creating a new family around us. We will attempt to discern where God wants us to specifically plant. We will attempt to gather a core group of people who may want to be a part of a new church. We will begin to more clearly articulate the vision for the church God desires us to see planted. In all these, while I may not have every ‘i’ dotted or every ‘t’ crossed, I am confident in God’s track record of revelation.

I could not have confidence in any of the future plans if it was not for the assurance that Jesus wins. We know the ending to the story. God is sovereign. Therefore, His righteousness will be revealed to the nations (including Portland/Vancouver) because He has been revealing himself to the nations since the beginning of time. God will be faithful because he has been faithful and is being faithful.

We could not manufacture, program, or schedule God working in the ways He had in 2017. God is consistent and unchanging. New year, same faithful God.

“Let the sea and all that fills it, the world and those who live in it, resound. Let the rivers clap their hands; let the mountains shout together for joy before the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth/ He will judge the world righteously and the peoples fairly.” Psalm 98:7-9