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Solving The Puzzle

In July 2018, I flew to Los Angeles to tape my episode of Wheel of Fortune. The episode aired October 5. The entire experience was more than I could have imagined.

My flight arrived in late afternoon. I spent the night in Culver City, a few miles from Sony Pictures studios. In the morning, I dressed and made my way to the studio lot. I was nervously excited.

At 7:45 AM, I met the other contestants in the parking garage ground floor. We were escorted through security and into the studio building. For the next four hours, we were trained and coached in everything related to spinning the wheel. We were sequestered in a room separate from the rest of the studio. Legal contracts were explained and signed. The contestant coordinators took us out to the main studio so we could get comfortable with the surroundings. We were taught how to spin the wheel, and we each took turns practicing. We practiced our introductions. We filmed a short promo for our local TV station. The experience was surreal.

Late in the morning, my team assembled at the wheel to do a practice game before recording our episode for TV. There were stand-ins for Pat Sajak and Vanna White. We played a condensed version of the game including introductions, toss-up rounds, and regular rounds. As the practice round progressed, a contestant coordinator came to me to coach me in the game. “Tim,” she said, “don’t look at the wheel or the other players. It can be mesmerizing but don’t do it. Just focus on solving the puzzle. Don’t think about anything else. Just solve that puzzle.” It would be the best advice I received.

The wheel hypnotizes, and there are many distractions in the studio. Off camera, in front of the wheel, is a TV monitor showing how much money you have on the board, what you have already won, and any prizes you have won. The audience cheers you on. Large cameras shift positions. Between rounds, contestant coordinators encourage. Make-up artists touch up your make-up. Distractions abound.

Finally, the time came to record our episode. I stood at the wheel as the announcer Jim Thornton announced, “Please welcome the hosts of our show, Pat Sajak and Vanna White.” The game was on!

Everything went quiet. Adrenaline surged into my veins. Time slowed down. And one simple thought locked into my brain: “Solve the puzzle.” Nothing else mattered. I did not look at the monitor to see what I had on the board. I didn’t look at the wheel. I didn’t look at the other players. I didn’t even pay attention to Pat. Everything in me was focused on solving the puzzle.

In the end, I ended up solving most of the puzzles. I think back to that moment when the contestant coordinator told me to focus on solving the puzzle. That made all the difference. I share this because I think there is an interesting correlation between my experience on Wheel of Fortune and the Church in North America. Let me explain.

The decline of the Church in North America is a puzzle to me. As an itinerant minister, for the past thirty years I’ve ministered in churches across the denominational spectrum. Across denominations, it is increasingly difficult to find a healthy church. Most are in steep decline. This should alarm us. We must solve this puzzle. This is the one thing on which we must focus. We have to come to the place where nothing matters but solving this puzzle.

Unfortunately, often we are mesmerized by lesser things. We are easily distracted by things that do not matter. And we must change.

On Wheel of Fortune, when I landed on bankrupt, I lost everything I had accumulated in that round. It didn’t faze me in the least. I didn’t care. Honestly, I didn’t even know what I had lost. All I cared about was solving the puzzle. With the church, all I care about is solving the puzzle of why we are in decline. I don’t care if I lose everything in the bank. I don’t care if I lose my retirement account. I don’t care about anything but solving this puzzle. It may cost me everything. I don’t care. I have to solve the puzzle.

On the set of Wheel of Fortune, there’s a used-letter board. It hangs from the ceiling just off camera to the left of the puzzle board. It shows all the letters that have been called and any letters that have not been called. When a contestant guesses a letter that is not in the puzzle, a loud buzzer sounds, and they lose their turn. The letter is marked off on the used-letter board. You don’t want to call the same letter again. That would be foolish. In the church, we’ve tried to solve the puzzle of our decline with programs, better music, and more interesting messages. But those things haven’t solved the puzzle. We’re no closer to solving the puzzle than when we started. Sadly, we keep calling the same letter. At some point, we have to call a new letter. To continue to try the same things and to expect a different result is foolishness on a Biblical scale. We’ve already proved that those letters are not in the puzzle solution.

For the church, let’s consider using some of the letters that have not been called. How about prayer? How about fasting and prayer? How about an utter dependence on the work of the Holy Spirit? How about an expectation of sacrifice, of putting it all on the line for the cause of Christ? How about discipling one another? How about confessing sin to one another? Perhaps we might solve the puzzle by trying some of these things.

What if we stopped calling the same letters and tried one of these options? For example, what would happen in our churches if for forty days we stopped all of our programming, our worship music, and preaching, and simply fasted and prayed over the state of the church? What would happen? It’s a letter worth calling. Perhaps it would help us to solve the puzzle.

These things might not draw a crowd, but they may solve the puzzle of why we are in decline. Personally, I’m willing to try. I’m not going to keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them and expecting a different outcome. Something has to change.

It’s more than just a game. In the end, the only thing that matters is solving the puzzle.

 

Teach Us to Pray

Recently I spent fifteen days in San Francisco with Church Intensive, a training and equipping ministry of We Are Church, the house church movement in San Francisco. My goal was to learn more about the house church movement there. Seven participants, including myself, met with elders, pastors, and other leaders from the house churches. The experience profoundly affected me.

I was expecting to meet like-minded people. I did. I was expecting to get a better understanding of the structure of their organization. I did. I was expecting to learn about their values and practices. I did. But I was not expecting a move of the Holy Spirit in my own life that continues within me today. And it all began with prayer.

Every morning we met together for prayer. But it was not like any prayer meeting I have ever attended. I struggle to describe it.

Our group sat in the living room of the building where we were staying. Usually, I cradled a cup of coffee in my hands. We sat in silence until someone in the group prayed. When someone prayed, the rest listened carefully, praying silently with them. When someone finished praying, we sat silently waiting for the Spirit to move someone else to pray. We became comfortable with long moments of silence. There was no prayer list. We prayed as the Holy Spirit led. Sometimes the Holy Spirit would bring to mind a passage of Scripture to someone, and they would read the passage to the group. Other times the Holy Spirit would bring to mind a worship song, and someone would play it on their cell phone. We sang along or sat and listened to what the Holy Spirit was saying through the song. The cadence of prayer moved back and forth from heaven to earth and back again. We prayed as the Holy Spirit led. The Holy Spirit spoke through the prayers, Scripture, and song. We responded in prayer. On it went. Over time the Holy Spirit wove a theme of what he was saying to us. Sometimes the prayer time lasted almost two hours. No one wanted to quit. We soaked in the presence of God during those moments. For fifteen days we met like this. On the last day, when the final amen was spoken, I was profoundly saddened to know this experience was ending. In my short fifty-three years, I’ve never experienced the Holy Spirit moving in prayer as I did in these gatherings. I will never be content to just go through the motions again.

These prayer times are the one thing I intend to replicate here at home. I believe it is the key to my life and ministry. It is the key to the renewal of the Church in North America. Prayer. Simple, Holy Spirit led prayer.

Over the past several months, I’ve blogged about prayer. God has taken me on a personal journey in this area. But this time I saw prayer in the context of the Church. Now I am beginning to understand what prayer could look like in our gatherings. Imagine what would happen if our churches prayed like this.

I long to see churches pray with passion. Not just going through a list, but humbly pleading with God to revive their church, their families, and their homes. I long to hear reports of people confessing their sins to one another and praying for one another. I long to hear of marriages restored because someone begged God to intercede. I long to see the fullness of the Holy Spirit poured out in my generation, for my country, because people prayed. I long to hear of buildings shaking because the Holy Spirit moved as people prayed. It has happened before. Why should I be content with less?

Please hear my heart. I love the Church. I hurt for the Church in North America.  A few of our churches are healthy. Perhaps your church is one of the healthy ones. I celebrate with you. But in North America, most of our churches are unhealthy. Most are slowly dying. Instead of injecting the renewing work of the Holy Spirit into our dying churches, we’ve caked layers of makeup on the dying bodies. We repaint the sanctuary. We install chairs instead of pews. We change the music. We try the latest program. We try anything but prayer. Frankly, I am broken over this. Meanwhile, God is calling us to the simplicity of prayer. Will we heed the call?

Consider these passages:

“It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46, ESV).

“Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another…” (James 5:16, ESV).

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7, ESV).

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, ESV).

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12, ESV).

“…praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18, ESV).

“All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer…” (Acts 1:14, ESV).

“And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31, ESV).

Throughout history, every move of God has started with prayer. In the generations before us, revivals swept continents because someone prayed. Think about that.

I returned home from San Francisco. I unpacked my suitcase. I made a cup of coffee and made my way over to my favorite chair. I sat for a moment in silence. I bowed my head, and a simple prayer pursed my lips.

“Lord, teach us to pray.”

The Priority of Prayer

It is an interesting season in my life. I am transitioning from a focus on full-time ministry to splitting my focus between responsibilities with the rental house, sailboat, managing another property, and the ministry. The greatest challenge I have is finding time for creative work like writing this featured blog. I started this article weeks ago. Now June is past, and I finally have a moment to complete the work and get it sent to you. I am so far behind, but I am content knowing God is completely in control. How freeing that is!

If you read my last few blogs, you know I am asking a lot of questions about the way we do church in North America. I’m seeking God and searching his Word for answers to what it means to follow Jesus. In a previous blog, I wrote about how he has led me to pray daily for opportunities to share Jesus with those who do not know him and for opportunities to disciple others. I continue to do this. It is interesting to see how the mundane moments of life are transformed into opportunities for ministry.

Working outside of the ministry is a blessing. I enjoy living out my relationship with God in the everyday moments of life. In many regards, now my life is a better example of what it means to follow Jesus than when I was full-time in ministry. God has taken my focus from operating a ministry to ministering to others on a daily basis. I enjoy it. Most of us have jobs outside of ministry. We have family responsibilities. We may have kids in sports. We may have grandchildren. We may have responsibilities with school. Our lives are jammed with activity. Every day, in the midst of my packed schedule, I look for opportunities to share Jesus or to disciple someone. And the opportunities are all around me.

I continue to pray. Recently God impressed on me to pray for him to do something supernatural in North America. So now I daily spend time pleading with God to do something here. I pray for revival. I pray for repentance. I pray for God to move with power and authority. Again, I find it interesting he is not yet leading me to do anything except to pray. In my mind I know prayer is important, but God is reminding me to make prayer the priority above all else.

It occurred to me that God does not need me to start anything. I don’t need to start a new program. I don’t need to start a new model of ministry. I don’t need to start a church. He doesn’t need me to start anything. I only need to join him in what he is already doing with his Church. He started the Church thousands of years ago. Sometimes we make a mess of it. Through the years it often strays from what God intended, but it is still alive. He still draws people into relationship with himself. He still longs for a relationship with his creation. He still forgives sins. He is still calling us back to himself. We do not need to come up with a new program to make it happen. He will make it happen. We join him.

God led me to pray. That means, at this time, my job is to pray. So I take time out of my day to pray for God to do something in North America. That is my job description until he changes it. As I pray, I find my heart longing deeper and deeper for the church in North America.

The challenge is to be content with prayer alone until God says it’s time to move. We live in a results-oriented culture. We work hard. We get a paycheck at the end of the week. We strive for goals and celebrate the moments when those goals are met. In the physical realm, when we make something with our hands, we get to see the results of our labor. But when we pray, we don’t always get to see a result. Usually, there is no obvious physical connection between our prayer and an outcome. Because of this, we may minimize the importance of prayer. Our natural tendency is to let prayer slide so we can get back to work doing something for God. We unconsciously think, “I could get so much more done for God if I weren’t spending all this time in prayer!” How silly we are.

If and when God says, “Move,” I will gladly move. Until then, I will pray. I am convinced that prayer is the most important thing. It is more important than anything I could do. It is not an abstract theory. It is the truth. I am attempting to live this out. The question is, “What would God do if I would pray?” That, my friends, is a question all of us need to ask.

How about you? Is prayer an important part of your life? Do you believe when you speak to God, he listens? What would God do if you prayed?

I always enjoy reading your comments.  Feel free to post your thoughts below.

Intentionally Following Jesus

Last month I asked a lot of questions regarding how we think about church. You can read the full blog here. I continue to process these questions. I’m seeking God’s guidance in all of it. Here’s where my thoughts are currently.

Right now I am praying daily for God to give me opportunities to share Jesus with people who do not know him. God is always at work drawing people to himself through the work of the Holy Spirit. I want to look intentionally for those whom God is drawing into a personal relationship with himself. I want God to use me to reach them. I am also praying daily for God to give me opportunities to disciple those who already know him. I am intentionally looking for those one-on-one opportunities to help others grow in their relationship with God.

The key word in both scenarios is “intentionally.” This idea is new to me, and it fills me with a sense of anticipation as I begin my day in this way. I am learning to slow down and readjust my schedule to take time for others.

My laptop is not working well. At times, the processor will grind to a halt. Sometimes it shuts down unexpectedly. It is frustrating. One day a particular program I was using was conflicting with my calendar program. I called the Customer Care line and learned they were aware of the conflict and were working on a fix. I was on the phone with the agent for over an hour while we tried to fix the issue. During a slow reboot, we had time to talk. I learned the agent had been a youth pastor. I asked him to tell me about his relationship with God. He shared with me the various ways he was serving in his home church. I listened for a few minutes.

Then I said to him, “So far you have told me what you are doing for God, but you still have not told me about your relationship with him.” There was a pause on the line. After a moment he replied, “That is very insightful.” As we continued to share, it occurred to me that this was a moment I had prayed for that morning. This moment was an opportunity to disciple someone, even though I did not personally know him. I shared with him about learning that ministry can become an idol. I shared my own story with him about learning to enjoy sitting on God’s lap and focusing on my relationship with him instead of the pressures of ministry.

Because that morning I had prayed for the opportunity, I was aware of the moment when God showed up. It occurred to me that when I pray this way, by default I give God full control of my calendar. If he wants to cause my laptop to fail so I will spend time with someone on a tech call, he has the right. Surprisingly, it gave purpose to what I would generally consider a delay. I had plenty of items on my to-do list for the day. God cleared all of them away so he could use me to minister to someone else. When we live with intention, it gives purpose to the mundane moments.

What would happen if daily we intentionally looked for opportunities to share Jesus with those who do not know him? What would happen if daily we intentionally looked for opportunities to disciple other followers of Jesus? Would our lives look different? Would it affect our schedules? What would happen if we made it our intentional daily goal to love God with abandon and selflessly love others? Would we give away our resources to meet the needs of others? Would we use our resources to minister to the poor in our communities? How would our world change?

I ask these questions because it seems like these are elements missing in many churches today. We seem comfortable to attend church, sit when it is time to sit, stand when it is time to stand, sing when it is time to sing, listen to someone teach, and then return home and live lives that are pretty much the same as the lives of anyone else in our neighborhood. There is an uneasy disconnect between what we do on Sunday and how we live Monday through Saturday. This disconnect is why I repeatedly call for an authentic relationship with God. If our relationship with God does not affect our lives and the lives of those around us, then maybe we should question if we are actually in a relationship with him.

In the end, I want to follow Jesus intentionally. I’m not content to hope it will happen by osmosis. I want to live a life of abandon, willing to give all to see others come into a personal relationship with God. I want to do whatever it takes to see others grow in that relationship. I want to share my faith intentionally. I want to disciple others intentionally. I want to grow in my relationship with God, intentionally loving him with abandon and selflessly loving others.

Will you join me? Will you live a life of intention? What would God do through you if daily you asked him to give you opportunities for sharing Jesus and discipling others? It just might change your life and your world.

I always enjoy reading your comments. Feel free to post your thoughts below.

What if…?

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Jesus

I live aboard a thirty-foot Catalina sailboat on the Southwest coast of Florida. There is little room to store things. It is tiny-house living. There is no room for clutter. To make the move onto the boat, I eliminated all but the essential items from my life. I donated trunk-loads of goods to my local Salvation Army. I cleaned out my closets. I picked my nine favorite shirts, three pairs of shorts, one pair of jeans, two pairs of shoes, a pair of flip-flops and a jacket. I saved two pair of dress slacks and five long-sleeve shirts for ministry events. I got rid of the rest.

The tiny-house model of living focuses on the essentials and eliminates the rest of the clutter. I enjoy it immensely. It is freeing.

I think the Church in North America can learn a lot from the tiny-house movement. Lately I’ve thought a lot about discipleship. What if we eliminated the clutter and focused on the essentials?

In North America, the primary way we make disciples is through a church setting. It begins by inviting people to a meeting at a church building. At church we sit and listen to a paid staff member teach the Word. Usually the teaching time lasts about thirty minutes. Hopefully the individual gets enough information in those thirty minutes to help him or her grow in their relationship with God and to carry them Monday through Saturday. This, of course, depends on the quality and depth of the teaching.

This model relies on addition for growth. Hopefully the church grows by adding new converts through the year. Individuals are encouraged to invite new people to church where the paid staff presents the way of salvation. As individuals respond to the gospel, they are discipled through the ongoing teaching during the service each week. Individuals are encouraged to give financially to support the facility and the paid staff. Staff is also hired to take this model to other countries. In this way, we fulfill the command of Jesus to go into all the world and make disciples.

This is a simplification of the basic church model, but I wonder if there is a better way. What if we thought smaller? Is there a way we can look at following Jesus where we focus on the essentials and eliminate the rest of the clutter? Is there a tiny-church model that produces disciples? What if we eliminated all but the essentials needed to follow Jesus? What would that look like?

My concern is that it seems like we have missed what Jesus instructed us to do. His command was to make disciples. We tend to focus on the big things – build a church building, hire staff, develop programs for children, youth, and adults. None of these things is bad, but are we actually making disciples? It doesn’t seem like it to me. Are we seeing the fulfillment of what Jesus called us to do? And at what cost? A church of five hundred seems successful until you look at the numbers. A church this size will have a budget around a million dollars a year and produce about thirty new followers of Christ a year. This means we invest about $33,000 per new follower of Christ. How can five hundred people follow Jesus and see only thirty new disciples birthed out of the congregation? Surely there is a better way.

I believe the time has come to think smaller.

What if groups of followers of Jesus met regularly together in homes or other public spaces? What if they lived in community with one another and encouraged one another in their relationship with God? What if every member of the group were expected to share their faith with others and taught to do so? What if every member of the group were expected to disciple someone else? What if the group were led by volunteers? What if the giving from the group supported needs within the group instead of supporting a facility and paid staff? What if the giving from the group ministered to the poor in their communities? What if every member of the group were expected to use their gifts for the sake of the group? What if the group intentionally planted and supported new groups of followers of Jesus and then mentored those groups to plant new groups? What if by doing these things the group multiplied its membership each year?

As a result of my asking these questions, I am exploring different models of making disciples. I believe God is leading me to participate in some way in some sort of multiplying small group discipleship model. At this time I am merely learning about what God is doing in this area, and I am intrigued by it. I continue to pray for wisdom and welcome your prayer as well.

I value your prayers. I believe my best days of ministry are still ahead. In our last board meeting, I shared with the ministry board of directors how I believe the first thirty years of ministry have been preparing me for what God has planned to do through my life and ministry in the days ahead. I am more confident of this than anything else in my life. I believe God is going to do great things. There is no logical reason to believe this. If you look at the schedule you might think I am nearing retirement. Truthfully, I wouldn’t mind setting my sails for the Caribbean and literally sailing off into the sunset! But I doubt God is done with me just yet. I believe God is going to do exciting things in the days ahead.

Perhaps you read this today and wonder how this applies to your life. My encouragement for you is to ask these types of questions yourself. All the questions I’ve shared flow out of my own relationship with God, so I encourage you to explore where you are personally in your relationship with him. This is why relationship matters. This is why loving God with abandon matters. It changes us. It changes the way we think and act.

Almost a year ago I posted this comment on social media: “It is one thing to say, ‘Why isn’t the church doing discipleship?’ It’s another thing to say, ‘Whom am I discipling?’”

I’ve asked a lot of questions in this blog. My final question for you today is this: Whom are you discipling?

I always enjoy reading your comments. Feel free to post your thoughts below.