Hello, Eastside

Eastside LogoIn October I said goodbye to the friends and the church that had become family in DC and headed west to be closer to my mom, my in-laws, and sunshine. After serving on staff at National Community Church for over six years I decided to take some time to write about the things I had learned during my time in DC.

By the time I got to California, Rachel, my wife, had already been there for three months. She began searching for a church to attend before I arrived and had landed at a place called Eastside Christian Church. She received a mailer from the church, and, seeing that it was less than five minutes away from our apartment, decided to check it out.

Having tried a handful of churches that weren’t quite the right fit, she was struck by how Eastside had a rare combination of friendliness and excellence.

The second weekend that I visited Eastside, there was a dinner following the Saturday night service. They wanted to feed everyone barbecue and cast vision for the church, much of which revolved around the plan to start more Eastside locations.

While we were waiting in line for food, Rachel heard a familiar voice behind us. Andie had hosted Rachel’s table at First Step with Gene, an event Eastside does for guests. They hadn’t kept in touch since then, but Andie was pretty much the only person at church who Rachel knew.

We started talking, and Andie asked what I did for a living. At this point I was not advertising the fact that I had been a pastor. In fact, I was hiding it. I was looking to be a normal church member while I pursued writing. So I just told her that I was an author. And naturally, she asked what type of writing I did.

I decided it’s probably not good to lie about what you do for a living, especially when what you do is write about how to bring people together in community to help them become more like Jesus, so I told her that I used to be a small groups pastor at our church in DC and that I wrote about small groups.

Her response?

“Oh, we’re looking for some help with our small groups.”

It turns out Andie is one of the elders at Eastside. Exactly what I was trying to avoid.

I kinda stumbled through a reply that went something like, “Uh, um, I really am just pursuing writing right now."

A couple of months go by, and Rachel and I are joining Andie and her husband Keith for lunch after church. When we walk up she introduces us to Greg and Dave who are both on staff on the Build Community team at Eastside, which is the team responsible for groups, among other things.

Later that week I have lunch with Greg and Dave where I learn that they’re moving to a small group model called “free market” and want to hire someone to run groups, although they haven't yet advertised the position or begun a candidate search.

Let’s recap.

My wife gets a mailer for a church five minutes away from our apartment and starts attending. The second weekend I’m there they have a dinner. Of the 5000 people who attend Eastside, the one person my wife knows ends up in line behind us. She just happens to be an elder who introduces us to two members of the team responsible for small groups who tell me that they’re looking to hire someone to run groups. It also just so happens that the church model (multi-site) and the small group model (free market) are the same church model and group model we used at NCC.

I’m not someone who sees the hand of God in every coincidence or random encounter, but I find it hard to chalk up that series of events to chance.

After a number of further conversations and interviews, it truly seems that this is something God has been orchestrating, and so I start my new role as the Director of Build Community at Eastside Christian Church this Saturday.

There are a lot of words to describe how I’m feeling: humbled, honored, a bit nervous. But I think most of all I’m excited to be joining a team that has both a passion and a plan to transform homes, communities, and the world for Jesus.


Solving this Problem Would Revolutionize Small Group Ministry

What do I believe is impossible to do in my field, but if it could be done would fundamentally change my business?

Andy Stanley posed that question during a podcast entitled Bold Leadership. As I was listening, the answer struck me:

Reaching 100% participation in small groups without the lead pastor being in a group.

It’s the white whale of small group ministry: having as many or more people attending small groups than attend weekend church services, and conventional wisdom says that the single most important factor in making this a reality is involvement of the lead pastor.

It makes sense. The pastor is the most influential person in the organization. They have 30 minutes of platform time every week. They make hiring and firing decisions. They usually have a high level of influence over the budget. And perhaps most importantly, people in the church value the input of the lead pastor over any other staff member. The reality is that even if a lead pastor is supportive of small groups, if he or she isn’t in one, it signals to the congregation that while groups may be a good thing, they aren’t an essential thing.

But what if it were possible? What if there were a way to lead a small group ministry such that it was reaching as many or even more people than the weekend services?

This would be revolutionary because there are churches where the lead pastor just isn't going to join a small group. There may be totally valid reasons for this, but the fact is that it's going to limit the scope of that church's small group ministry. But what if it didn't have to?

God, Wheaton, and Larycia Hawkins

This past week Wheaton College, my alma mater, placed Dr. Larycia Hawkins, associate professor of political science, on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into her comments about Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God.

For those of you who may not be aware, Wheaton College is an evangelical Christian institution that requires all members of it's faculty and staff, along with all students, to sign a document indicating agreement with it's Statement of Faith.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, Wheaton tends to take what you might term a strict constructionist approach to its Statement of Faith with professors, and a more lenient approach with students. In other words, Wheaton would not prohibit a student from enrolling based on a minor theological dispute or discrepancy, but it would likely remove a professor for one. (If you're interested, you can read more about the situation with Dr. Joshua Hochshield.)

We could argue about Wheaton's strict constructionist approach to its Statement of Faith if we wanted to, but the fact is that it exists.

So what about Dr. Hawkins and her statement that Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Does it conflict with Wheaton College's statements about God?

Take a look at both of them:

Larycia Hawkins Wheaton College

I don't love my Muslim neighbor because s/he is American.

I love my Muslim neighbor because s/he deserves love by virtue of her/his human dignity.

I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind--a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014.

I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.

WE BELIEVE in one sovereign God, eternally existing in three persons: the everlasting Father, His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life; and we believe that God created the Heavens and the earth out of nothing by His spoken word, and for His own glory.

WE BELIEVE that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was true God and true man, existing in one person and without sin; and we believe in the resurrection of the crucified body of our Lord, in His ascension into heaven, and in His present life there for us as Lord of all, High Priest, and Advocate.

So do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Yes... and no.

To conflate the Islamic and Christian understandings of God is to do a disservice to both faiths. Each of them ascribes different characteristics to God and believes God desires to be worshipped in very different ways.

But believing different things about God does not necessarily mean that they believe in different gods.

Consider this scenario.

You're walking down Main Street and round the corner onto First Avenue just in time to see a 6'2", 200 lb, muscular man wearing all black punch another, much smaller man in the face. The larger man proceeds to tackle the smaller one. You, not being very physically imposing yourself, decide not to engage directly but run across the street and call 911. Within 60 seconds the police show up, and since you're already running late to a meeting, you continue on your way.

Now, let's look at the same story from a different perspective.

You're walking down First Avenue towards Main Street. You see a man and a woman fighting, and the man pulls out a gun. You grab your phone to call 911, when out of nowhere another man punches and tackles the assailant, keeping him pinned down until the police arrive.

The two eyewitnesses in this story probably believe two very different things about the larger man, nearly opposite things in fact. The first eyewitness likely believes he's a terrible criminal. The second almost certainly views him as a selfless hero.

But the fact that they believe different things about the man does not mean that they're describing different men. Sure, one person gets the description right and the other gets it wrong, but they're not describing different men. They're describing the same man differently.

I would argue that the same is true for Christian and Islamic descriptions of God. Muslims and Christians both describe God as all powerful, all knowing, etc. Both hold that there is one God. There is enough in common between the descriptions that a reasonable person could conclude that they're talking about the same being, even though there are obviously some irreconcilable differences in their descriptions.

What does all of this mean for Dr. Hawkins continued employment at Wheaton?

Going simply by her public statements, it seems to me that Dr. Hawkins still holds to Wheaton's Statement of Faith, even when taking a strict constructionist approach to that statement.

In fact, I would argue that only someone with a particularly overconfident and narrow-minded (read: Pharisaical) understanding of who God is would be able to state with 100% certainty that Muslims and Christians worship different gods.

You can hold that belief while still leaving room for others who disagree, but it takes a great deal of hubris to take that belief a step further and claim it is something about which you cannot be wrong.

Perhaps in private conversations Dr. Hawkins has expressed reservations or doubts about the exclusivity of Jesus or argued that Islam and Christianity are equally valid ways of approaching God.

If that's the case, Wheaton College isn't the best place for her. If you have significant doubts about the core mission of an organization, you probably shouldn't be working there. The Democratic National Committee isn't going to hire a dyed in the wool Republican, and a school with the stated goal of training students in Islam isn't likely to hire a Christian professor.

But assuming that what Dr. Hawkins has said in private is no different than what she has said in public, she should be reinstated immediately.

Five Things I Learned While Touring Frederick Douglass’ House

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879.  George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection) Exact Date Shot Unknown NARA FILE #:  200-FL-22 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #:113
Frederick Douglass' Study

I'll be honest, before touring Fredrick Douglass' house as part of my #dcfarewelltour, I didn't know a lot about the man.  He was quite an incredible and successful individual who accomplished more than most of us would in two lifetimes.

Here are five interesting facts that I learned:

  1. Frederick Douglass had no formal education and not only taught himself to read and write, he later learned French and German.
  2. As an escaped slave Frederick Douglass was chased by US Marshalls.  He later became the first black US Marshall.
  3. Anacostia, the iconic African-American community in Washington DC where Frederick Douglass lived, was founded as Uniontown.  The developer of Uniontown explicitly excluded blacks and Irish immigrants from living there in the property deeds.
  4. Frederick Douglass served as ambassador to Haiti.
  5. Douglass not only fought to end slavery, he worked alongside Susan B. Anthony in the struggle for women's suffrage.

A Farewell Tour

2015 is the year of no regrets.

For a couple of years Rachel and I have been thinking and praying about moving to California to be closer to family and because... well... it's California.  In January we realized that if we didn't want to wake up in ten years saying, "I wish we would have..." we needed to just do it, so Rachel started work in Orange County a few weeks ago, and I'm joining her in October.

Will Truman Bowling Alley
Will Fourth Of July White House

I've done and experienced a lot of what DC has to offer in the decade that I've lived here.  I've had the privilege of rolling a few frames in the Truman Bowling Alley, had the Speaker of the House show up at my office Christmas party, and celebrated the Fourth of July on the South Lawn of the White House.

But there are still adventures left to be had before I go, and keeping with this years theme, I don't want to leave DC saying, "I wish I would have..."  So here's what I still have left to do over the next seven weeks.  Let me know if you'd like to join me for any of it!

  • Frederick Douglass House - 8/24
  • National Building Museum/The Beach - 8/26
  • Marine Barracks 8th & I Evening Parade - 8/28
  • Supreme Court Tour - 8/31
  • Phillips Collection - 9/5 (Tentative)
  • Lunch in the Senators' Dining Room - 9/7
  • Vietnam Memorial - 9/12
  • Congressional Cemetery - These next four will probably just be Rachel and I while she's in town.
  • Lincoln Memorial
  • Lincoln's Cottage
  • Roosevelt Island
  • lunch in the House Members' Dining Room - 9/21
  • Newseum - 9/26 (Tentative)
  • National Archives - 9/28
  • Supreme Court Oral Arguments - 10/5

Teacher or Learner?

I had a phone meeting on Tuesday with Tim Ferrell, a small groups pastor at a local church and staff member with the Navigators discipleship ministry.  He wanted some insight into how we do small groups at National Community Church.

I take calls like this all of the time.  Our pastor, Mark Batterson, is a well-known author and speaker, and by extension, we are a well-known church, the result of which is, people want to know how we do ministry.  The fact that people are interested in our small groups has little to do with my skills or abilities.  I'm really just in demand by association.

On most of these calls, I do a lot of talking, and the folks on the other end of the phone do a lot of listening, which makes sense, since they reached out because they wanted to learn more about how and why we do what we do.  In fact, I talk about our methods and models so much, I can almost do it in my sleep.

A few weeks ago I was interviewing a young woman who applied for a position with us.  She's finishing up a fellowship program with another church (her first post-college job) and looking for what's next.  During her interview she talked about something she's doing in her current role that we thought was a great idea and intend to replicate.

And this morning I was reading A Trip Around the Sun, in which Dick Foth writes:

Engage people and life ramps up. I can learn from anyone: a ninety-three-year-old or a three-year-old, a street sweeper or a scientist.  When I make a friend, I get smarter, when I make a friend, I get richer.

I consider myself someone who's willing to learn from anyone.  Some of our best ideas, such as our Small Group Expo, have come from volunteers and staff who report to me.  And I'd like to think that I'm quick to give credit where credit is due for those successes.

But Dick, Tim, and this young woman are teaching me a valuable lesson.

Tim is in his 50s or 60s and has been in vocational ministry longer than I've been alive.  The fact is that he knows way more about small groups than I do.  That he is not just willing to learn from someone half his age but actually sought out my advice speaks volumes about both his humility and his desire to learn.

While I've been willing to learn from anyone, I usually spend more time teaching and less time learning.  I'm starting to realize that I need to move beyond willingness and begin actively seeking to learn from every person, every interaction, and every conversation.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: What’s Next?

Wow, nine weeks, nine fruit.

I can honestly say it's been transformative. Not in that, "I'm a totally different person, and my life has radically changed" sense, but rather, my actions have actually been different.

I certainly haven't acted perfectly in every situation, but I did find myself saying, "I'm supposed to be patient, so I'm just going to relax and not stress out about this." "I'm supposed to be gentle, so I'm going to respond softly to this person."

Of course, the biggest danger when a spiritual growth plan comes to an end is failing to start a new one, to lose momentum and the ground gained.

So what's next?

Well, January 12-21 we're doing a corporate fast (details forthcoming) that will be a great way to set the tone for the year.

And of course, February 1 we'll start the Elements sermon series based on the fruit of the Spirit; begin our Bible reading plan centered on the fruit; and kick off the Elements small groups.

In terms of Scripture, I'm going to read through Luke and Acts this January. I figured it made sense following Christmas to read one of the Gospels, and Acts' focus on the work of the Holy Spirit will be good preparation for further reflection on the fruit of the Spirit.

If you haven't figured out where to go next in the Bible, I'd encourage you to join me in reading through Luke and Acts this January. In Luke, I'll be looking for where I see the fruit of the Spirit evident in Jesus' life, and in Acts I'll be watching for how the Holy Spirit works.

I'll also take the opportunity to encourage you to consider leading an Elements small group. If you've never led a group at NCC before, you can read more here, and for those of you who have, here are the registration instructions.

Thanks for joining us on this nine-week adventure with the Holy Spirit. I'm excited to see what He does with a church full of people seeking to live out the fruit of the Spirit, to model the character of Jesus. We're praying and believing that God will use this to continue His transformation of our neighborhoods, workplaces, and cities.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Reflections on Self-Control

This is a guest post by Susannah Cafardi, NCC Barracks Row Saturday Small Group Director.

Fall Leadership Summit—when the fruit of the Spirit challenge was initially issued—was nine weeks ago; our corporate Daniel fast earlier this year lasted ten days; most marathon training plans are 18 weeks; and a Masters’ degree program is rarely less than a year.

Spiritual, physical, and intellectual results all require daily self-control and many small choices between the beginning and the goal. As we come to the end of this challenge, I am thankful for moments of intimacy with Him, the opportunities to bless others, and the clarity that I’ve found in the practical application of Galatians 5:22-23.

But getting to this place requires daily decisions that I often overlook and fail to have the self-control to make. In hindsight, I am thankful for the prayer, journaling, and fasting of the last nine weeks. And while it hasn’t been a great season of life (I’ll spare you the details), God has been faithful.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Were there times where I pounded my fists and cried? Yup. Did I get frustrated and feel like I couldn’t do anything right or catch a break? More times than I’d like to admit. Have I been challenged by what I’m learning about His character and my shortcomings? Definitely. Have I grown spiritually? You bet.

So what if that was just the pre-game?

Let's continue to encourage each another to spend more time in His presence, to make small decisions like they are big ones, to use challenges as an opportunity to dig in rather than retreat, to live out the Scriptures in our daily lives, and to not become complacent with yesterday’s manna.

Game on.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Thoughts on Self-Control

It feels a little weird to be writing about self-control during the week of Christmas. Between all of those presents and Christmas ham—not to mention indulging in all of the hometown food—it doesn’t exactly seem like a season of self-control.

But then, thinking about it a little more, I realized that what we’re celebrating this week is probably the penultimate act of self-control. Almighty God; Creator of the universe; Source of all that is seen and unseen; the One who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent comes to earth as one of His creations, as a human, foregoing His power and position to walk among us.

Not only that, His purpose for doing so is to facilitate the ultimate act of self-control, the appropriation of our punishment for our rebellion on Himself.

This Christmas, let’s enjoy the merriment and festivities. It is a joyous season, a season for feasting not fasting. Christ the Savior is born!

But let us also look to the example of Jesus, let us lay down our rights, our right to be right. Let us engage our loved ones with self-control, biting our tongues, controlling our tempers, and showing the same love and grace Jesus showed, even when it is not received or understood.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Reflections on Gentleness

This is a guest post by Susannah Cafardi, NCC Barracks Row Saturday Small Group Director.

Christine Caine made an assertion when introducing an individual Scripture passage: “The story starts where every story starts, before the story starts, and the story ends where every story ends, after the story ends.” Insomuch as we are involved in the stories of others, I think that loving them with a spirit of gentleness requires a similar acknowledgement.

I’ve struggled with putting my finger on how to conceptualize gentleness – seeking God for a strong, tangible illustration to share. But I was missing the lesson He was trying to teach me. Gentleness is found in the day to day and the moments that barely hit our radars.

I guess this means that I get to practice gentleness with my professional peer who doesn’t pull her weight and with the boy who was unknowingly hurtful in our last interaction. It means that He’s challenging me to practice gentleness in a way that recognizes that I’m involved in only a small part of each of their stories. Funny – I was kind of hoping for something that seemed more earth shattering since honestly I think that might be easier.

But the fact that opportunities to practice gentleness are so pervasive leads me to realize that in cultivating gentleness, I really can impact many others wherever they are in their stories.