Water and Spirit

Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Genesis 1:2 says, “Now the earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Genesis 1:3 says, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

The first thing God created, according to the creation poem in Genesis 1, was light. But something existed before light – water. God never spoke water into existence. Yet in the very first verses of scripture, God’s Spirit is there with the water.

Then in the story of Noah and the flood in Genesis 6-7, God destroys the earth with water. After a very grim description of the carnage brought by the flood, Genesis 8:1 says, “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.”

That word wind is the same word as Spirit in Genesis 1:2. When the world was created, there was water and Spirit; when the world was created a second time after the flood, there was water and Spirit.

Fast-forward to Jesus sitting at the table with Nicodemus in John 3. Jesus tells Nicodemus that anyone who wishes to see the Kingdom of God must be “born again” (what a loaded phrase that has become!). Nicodemus protests: “How can I be born again when I’m a grown man? Can I enter into my mothers womb?” But Jesus tells him that if he really wants to see the Kingdom of God, he needs to be born of water and spirit

Creation. The flood. Jesus. 

In each story there are elements of both death and life; destruction and creation; chaos and order. And in each story there is water and there is Spirit.

baptism3

In my heritage in Churches of Christ, we’ve often been guilty of reducing baptism to that thing we do to stay out of hell. That’s been our message to our children and to those with whom we share Jesus: get baptized or go to hell. But surely there’s something more to baptism than that. Surely it meant something more to Jesus.

In the broader narrative of scripture, water is used for three purposes that I’ll explain using the letter P:

Presence, Purification, and Preparation.

PRESENCE In the Hebrew scriptures, every time we see water, we see God. Again, consider creation and the flood, as well as Jesus’ baptism when God spoke from heaven. You should also read a really cool story in Ezekiel 47. Each time God’s presence is there with the water. So when we are baptized, we are drawn in to God’s presence.

PURIFICATION The Hebrew scriptures also teach that water is used for purification. The Law of Moses commanded the Israelites to wash with water when they were pronounced clean from infectious disease, or when they were about to eat, or when they entered the Temple to worship. Priests went through a rigorous washing ceremony before offering sacrifices on behalf of the people, and then again once the sacrifice was complete. And in the Christian scriptures, especially in Acts, we see baptism as a form of purification. Churches of Christ hold fast to Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, for the forgiveness of sins.”

PREPARATION If a Gentile wanted to become a Jew, he had to do three things: 1) be circumcised, 2) seven days later be baptized, and 3) offer a sacrifice as an act of worship to God. Baptism purified the Gentile in order that their worship might be acceptable to God. It was an act of preparation for worship. When Jesus was baptized, he was immediately led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. His baptism prepared him for that act of worship, and it also launched him into his earthly ministry. In the same way, it prepares us to be what Paul calls living sacrifices. 

Now, back to Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus said that to see the Kingdom of God we must be born of water and Spirit. We must be drawn into the presence of God, purified of our sin, and prepared for a life of worship. What, exactly, is the Kingdom of God? Jesus said it’s everywhere, it’s all around us, it’s among us, it’s within us (Luke 17:7). He also said it’s like a woman who lost a coin, swept her house until she found it, then called her neighbors over for a party because she found something so precious (Luke 15). It’s also like a man walking through a field who stumbles upon a treasure. He runs home, sells all his possessions, and buys the field (Matthew 13:44).

In other words, the Kingdom of God has no border, it has no definition. It is both here and now, and also in the age to come. More importantly, the Kingdom of God is worth everything you have! There’s nothing on earth greater than life in the Kingdom. And we enter into this Kingdom through a mysterious act of worship called baptism – through water and Spirit – because, from the very beginning of time, those have been the ingredients for a true, God-breathed life.

Isn’t that a better story than, “be baptized or go to hell?”

A Flood of Love

“An iPod, a phone, a breakthrough internet communication device.

An iPod, a phone, a breakthrough internet communication device.”

Remember these immortal words from Steve Jobs back in 2007? He announced to a crowd that Apple was prepared to ship three things: an iPod, a phone, and a breakthrough internet communication device. Three things, one product. 

The iPhone.

It was only seven short years ago, but consider how far we’ve come technologically. Consider what the iPhone has meant to the world and how we go about living.

It was a breakthrough. And we love breakthroughs.

In Genesis 6 we read the story of the flood. The flood came because of what the storyteller describes as “wickedness” (6:5), “evil” (6:5), “corruption” (6:11), and “violence” (6:11). We’re not told specifically what was involved, but we can use our imaginations. 

Our traditional recounting of the flood narrative is:

A) God created the world

B) The world went bad

C) So God flooded it and started over

That’s mostly true, but we miss a really important detail. God didn’t start over entirely. Noah and his family hung around.

But why?

God already showed he can make mankind from the dust. So why did he keep Noah and his family alive? Why run the risk of wickedness manifesting itself again in Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, or Japheth? Why not kill everybody, make brand new humans, and have a few more restrictions in the new world?

At first glance it appears God saved Noah as a reward for his righteousness, as though he earned his ticket onto the ark. But if we read the flood narrative as part of the entire story of God’s people, another possibility emerges. God didn’t reward Noah. God needed Noah.noah-298x144

Creation is the only thing in scripture God did alone. After the world was created, everything was a partnership between God and humanity. So, the flood wasn’t God’s solution to wickedness, evil, corruption, and violence. Noah was the solution.

God spells it out in verses 17 and 18:

I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you…

To tell the flood story with Noah as a minor character is to miss the story entirely. Yes, God flooded the world and killed all who lived in it, but Noah gave humanity a better way forward. He was the breakthrough God was looking for. In a world filled with wickedness, evil, corruption, and violence, there stood Noah, “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time.” (6:9)

The story of scripture is about a partnership between God and us. Israel was established through Abraham, delivered through Moses, held in check by Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and found total redemption through Jesus. Esther led. Habakkuk prayed. David wrote. Paul preached. Peter healed. 

Now you and I take the reigns. Which way will we steer humanity: toward wickedness, evil, corruption, and violence, or toward righteousness, peace, and love? 

The world looks bad most days, but it doesn’t need another flood; it needs another Noah. 

If you’re overwhelmed by the pain you see in the world, what are you going to do about it? How will you, like Noah, show us a better way forward?

Sex, Beer, and Cigarettes

You know a non-believer when you see one. Just look for the signs:

Sex. Beer. Cigarettes. Cussing.

True believers are easy to spot too:

Abstinence. Non-alchoholic beverages. Tar-free lungs. Gosh, darn, and shucks.

God hates those who do the former and loves those who do the latter. Trust and obey or meet your doom. End of discussion.

ned_flandersThat was – and in some ways continues to be – the message. Eventually, though,  it starts to feel a little arbitrary. Like God made up certain rules just for the
“h-e-double-hockey-sticks” of it. Do his rules even serve a purpose?

Yes.

In Genesis 6 we read that the “sons of God” married the “daughters of men,” and total chaos ensued. The “sons of God” – heavenly creatures who roamed the earth – took any woman they wanted.

No limits.

No boundaries.

The Nephilim were there too. They were giants. Nephilim comes from a Hebrew word that indicates a violent fall – as in they experienced a violent fall the way angels might who are cast out of heaven.

Violence. Disruption. Chaos.

In verse three God is fed up:

“The Lord said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with humans forever. For they are mortal. Their days will be one hundred twenty years.'”

Humans are mortal. They have limits. Hooking up with heavenly creatures – striving for immortality – that’s against God’s created order. “QUIT TRYING TO BE ME!” God says.

So God proclaims humans will live no more than 120 years. Gone are the days of 777-year-long lives like Lamech or 969-year lives like Methuselah. Clearly, we cannot handle such long lives without disrupting the whole thing. We get 120, tops.

Our lifespan was given a limit because God’s concern was not just for humanity, but for creation as a whole. The created order – heaven and earth, man and animals, land and sky and sea – was in complete DIS-order. The earth was not thriving as God always dreamed, like in the Garden of Eden.

GOD’S RESPONSE

According to Genesis 6, when you and I step outside God’s created design, God’s response is not anger, but rather grief. In the flood narrative, God saw what creation had become, and he was troubled, grieved, sad.

Troubled like a parent watching their teenage daughter self-destruct. Grieved like a child watching his older brother smash his LEGO creation. Sad like a jilted groom standing alone at the altar.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Created order became chaotic madness, so he destroyed it and started over.

After the flood, Noah died and God gave Abraham a specific promise with a specific command – circumcision – to identify God’s chosen people.

Then he gave Moses 614 commands for what it means to be Israelites, a nation set apart from the others.

Then he gave Jesus specific instructions for redeeming all of creation. Instructions like healing the blind and the lame and the deaf and the hard-hearted. Instructions like turning religious legalism on its head, making room for all those left out in the margins. Instructions like making the Kingdom of God just as alive on earth as it is in heaven. Instructions like denying oneself to the furthest extreme in order to make all of the created order better.

Then he gave the Church specific instructions for what it means to live like the people of God in light of Jesus.

SO WHAT’S IT ALL FOR?

All these instructions are moving perpetually toward the same destination – a return to the Garden. A return to the place where all of creation – including humans – lived in an eternal state of shalom with God. Each piece of the created order cared for the next. There was beauty. There was trust. There was generosity. There was love.

So when we read that too much wine is a bad thing, it’s not arbitrary. Neither is promiscuous sex. Neither is financial irresponsibility. Neither is a harsh tongue. Neither is selfishness, the pursuit of wealth, gluttony, or disobeying ones parents.

God’s limits are all part of the design moving the whole creation toward a better place.

And that’s a gosh darn good way to live.

I Don’t Want Kent to Die

 

How you do life is your real and final truth, not what ideas you believe. -Richard Rohr

THEOLOGY MATTERS. MOSTLY.

I love theology and Bible study and good, healthy debate. What we think about Jesus matters, but only so far as it prompts us to action. This sounds harsh, but I really don’t care what your theology is if you’re on the broad road with everybody else. If you’re part of the individualistic, materialistic, comfort-driven crowd who hasn’t sacrificed so much as a scrap of life for another person, then I just don’t care about your theology. As Jesus said, the wise man hears Jesus’ words and puts them into practice. The fool hears them and does nothing.

Think of the number of us who listen to (and preach) sermons, read (and write) dozens of blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts every week telling us what to think about God or the Church or the latest political crisis. Compare that with the number of people who haven’t got time for such things because they’re actually out there doing it – they’re living their theology instead of reading and writing about it. As Hermann Cain famously said, “I don’t have the evidence to back this up,” but I have to believe there are far more of us preaching and reading and writing than actually doing. That is exactly what Jesus meant when he said there is a broad road and a narrow road. Most of us are on the broad road that’s going nowhere, but only a few are on the narrow road that leads to life.

Which is why I don’t want Kent to die.

DR. KENT BRANTLY

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I met Kent Brantly – the American doctor who contracted Ebola – a few times. I didn’t know him well. He was two years behind me at our small Christian university in west Texas. Kent’s older brother and sister-in-law were my age. My wife and I knew them moderately well. I remember Kent being a tall, gangly guy whom I never saw without a smile. He was in the same social club (Christian university lingo for “frat”) as most of my friends, so I had an awareness of him and his pleasant personality.

Like many of you, I’ve read lots of articles about his condition and, more importantly, about his life and the choices he’s made. Kent is obviously an intelligent guy, and intelligent people sometimes choose the broad road that leads to comfort and wealth and fame and power. Kent, however, chose the narrow way that leads to life.

His story has weighed heavily on my wife and me. It’s tragic on every level. For people like us, reading and watching from afar, it’s like a punch to the gut. Our hearts break for his wife and children, his brother, his family, and all his friends.

I don’t want Kent to die.

I don’t want Kent to die because the world needs people who look and live like Jesus. The world needs people who see disease, risk, and danger as invitations for going instead of excuses for avoiding.

I don’t want Kent to die because if he does that’s one less person living out the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus in real time, in real life. Not somebody talking about it from a pulpit or reading about it in a coffee shop. Kent strikes me as a guy who believes the Word became flesh so he has done likewise.

I don’t want Kent to die because we need people who are living now like Jesus, without much concern for a proper eschatological view or theology of infant baptism or clearly spelled out explanation of hell and how one arrives there. Sure those things are important, but only if they get you off the couch and into a world full of hurt. We need people who aren’t satisfied with a safe, comfortable theology that gives them permission to lead a safe, comfortable life. We need people who are willing to stand toe-to-toe with death and pain and disease and brokenness because their love for life is so fierce.

I’ve said many times that there’s always a reason you shouldn’t make sacrifices for others. It will never be the right time, it will always cost you something, and you’ll be forced to sacrifice something precious to you. There’s always a reason not to move your family to Liberia. There’s always a reason to stay on the road that’s broad, avoiding the one that’s narrow.

But the world moves nowhere when we’re only concerned with ourselves. The world only gets better when I sacrifice what matters to me so that I might do what matters to us. The world gets better when the Church decides that the Word only matters when it takes on flesh.

As Jesus followers we’re driven by two fundamental practices: incarnation and resurrection. With incarnation there’s nowhere we cannot go, and with resurrection there’s nothing we cannot do.

I pray with great hope for Kent’s healing. I pray his life inspires a thousand others to live with the incarnational spirit of Jesus. I pray his life gets all of us off the couch, doing something in the world that actually matters. May Kent’s life not end here, and may he continue on that narrow road, giving others life along the way.

I Think We Can All Agree…

There’s one thing we can all agree on – that somebody always disagrees. Go ahead, disagree with me. You’re only proving my point.

In college my then-girlfriend-now-wife and I attended a weekly worship night on Thursday’s called Grace. It brought students from the three Christian universities in town – Abilene Christian, Hardin-Simmons, and McMurry – together to worship. Matt Chandler was the weekly speaker, and Matt now leads a mega-church of over 10,000 people in the Metroplex. He’s a fantastic teacher. He’s funny. He always “brought it.” It was hands-down some of the best preaching I heard in my college years. He was the closest thing to a Christian celebrity I’d ever seen in person. We were all gaga over Matt Chandler.

One week he said something that made me pause. I realized I disagreed with him, and after worship I told Christina about it. She thought for a moment and then said, “I like that you disagree with him. I like that you don’t just agree because Matt Chandler said it.”

From that day forward I had my mission: disagree with Matt Chandler.

After Grace each week we’d discuss the lesson in the car on the way to wherever we went next. I’d let conversation flow for a bit, and then I’d chime in with, “Yeah, but did it bother anybody else when he said…”

It was gold for a few weeks. Everyone seemed to appreciate having such a sophisticated theological mind to keep the likes of Matt Chandler in check. But after those few weeks passed, I was the only one impressed with my critique. It was almost as though people just took the good and ignored the bad. Like they didn’t want to hear about the time Matt Chandler said it was Genesis 2:8, but when I looked it up it was actually Genesis 2:16, so…

After a while I even exhausted myself. Dissecting a person’s words in hopes of finding fault will ultimately reach its goal. You will find something wrong with just about everything everyone says. Whether it’s politics, religion, play group, the local op-ed, your mom, or the fry cook at Burger King, you will find something wrong if you’re looking for it. You will find a reason to complain. However, as a word of caution, if this is how you spend your life, you will be exhausted, and so will everyone around you. Spending your days searching for the negative is about as unhealthy a way to live as a diet of McDonalds, Miller Lite, and Marlboro’s.

This is typically a power move, right? We point out the negative so we can feel superior, smarter, better than all the sheep that willfully bowed to the guy saying nice things. It’s arrogance dressed in a really bad suit. We all pass through stages when we play the “I’m-Smarter-Than-The-World” game, but that’s usually in adolescence when one bad hair day can ruin your entire junior year. Everyone was so sensitive and self-absorbed back then because they were terrified of being ridiculed. Sadly, many of us don’t outgrow that habit, and the only thing worse than a self-absorbed 17-year-old is a self-absorbed 37-year-old still trying to prove he’s smarter than everybody.

The opposite is also true – if you’re looking for the good, you will find it. There’s good everywhere and in everything. But we only see it when we’re looking for it. And aren’t we drawn to the happy optimists? Don’t we generally enjoy the people who are amazed at everything? Don’t we prefer to work with people whose answer is “Yes” first, and they work and work and work until the only possibility is to say “No?” We like those people, but somehow they’re not contagious. We get sucked into Negativeville because it requires little-to-no effort to say no. It requires no effort to disregard someone’s passion. It sounds too hard to get swept up in the joy and thrill of living a life of wonder.

One of my favorite YouTube clips ever is Louie CK on Conan talking about how everything is amazing but nobody’s happy. You should watch it.

For one day, let’s just all be happy. If you have kids, be thankful you’ve got them instead of complaining that they’re being annoying (that one’s for me). If you’re upset with that politician for saying that thing and not doing that other thing, be glad you got to vote. If you have a job, be thankful for it whether it’s your dream job or something you hate. If you’re stuck in traffic, be thankful you have a car; you could be walking to work. If you’re low on cash, be thankful you had enough to make it to today. If you’re reading a lousy book, be thankful that you’re among the world’s literate citizens. If your team lost, be thankful for the sport you love.

Turn off negative TV and radio. Stop yourself before you speak ill of something without acknowledging the good. Be amazed at the world. Live happy. And give us all a break because, just like you, everyone’s doing the best job we can.

It’s fine if you disagree.

Fight Flight Love

I don’t often dabble in neuroscience, much less post about it. But I’ve been fascinated by something I heard recently.

Our brains have a hypothalamus. It’s at the base of the brain, and almost all animals have it. The hypothalamus pairs with the sympathetic nervous system to control our fight or flight instincts. The hypothalamus is primal – it can do no higher thinking. But, when faced with a threatening situation, it decides in a split-second between fight or flight.

We also have a section called the frontal lobe. That section is largely what distinguishes us from the beasts. Our frontal lobe helps with higher cognitive reasoning, handles emotions, etc. When you’re in calculus, or when you’re at a new restaurant deciding what to order, or when you’re trying to get that riff just right on the guitar, your frontal lobe is fully engaged. The frontal lobe is also where we find higher human expressions like love, grace, and forgiveness.

Over time we train our brain to receive input and send it to the proper section. Example: what comes to mind when you read this word -

OBAMACARE

Depending on your experience with Obamacare, you felt something in the hypothalamus (fight or flight) or in the frontal lobe (higher cognitive processing). If you felt it in your hypothalamus, you probably had a physical reaction too. Your blood pressure went up. You shifted in your seat. You felt a subtle surge of adrenaline. You were ready to fight because your experience with that word has been negative and you’ve trained your brain to receive it in the hypothalamus. The second you saw it, you weren’t sure what I was going to do with the word, so your hypothalamus prepared for a fight.

(Interesting note: the Obama administration has consistently referred to the law as “The Affordable Care Act” because more people approve of the ACA than Obamacare, even though they’re the same law. Hypothalamus vs. Frontal Lobe)

But, if you’ve had a positive experience with the Affordable Care Act, your brain sent a signal to your frontal lobe. You probably thought about the health coverage you now have that you once couldn’t afford, or the joy you had at hearing it passed into law, or simply that you like Barack Obama and you want to see his policies succeed. Even if you have not had a good experience with Obamacare but are willing to weigh through the pros and cons, your brain will send it to the frontal lobe for higher processing.

Here’s what’s fascinating: those two parts of the brain cannot work simultaneously. When one is engaged, the other shuts down.

Consider the implications of this. We train our brain to send signals to one part or the other based on our experience, and the two parts cannot work simultaneously. When it comes to politics, most of us have politicians we either support or despise. There are political figures and pundits who, when they start talking, I stop listening. It’s true. I don’t think I’m alone in this. And I believe it’s because we have trained our brains to send some people to the hypothalamus, and others to the VIP lounge of the frontal lobe. Why do partisan people point out the specks in the other party’s eye while ignoring the log in their own? Because the frontal lobe is far more forgiving than the hypothalamus.

Think about your child. You’re thinking (hopefully) in the frontal lobe. You’re thinking about the latest stage of development they reached, or the art project they brought home, or the way they finally seem to understand what you’ve been teaching them for so long.

But what about the bully at school that made your child cry every day last week? Hello, Hypothalamus!

Now think about this in the context of Christianity. When the world sees this word:

CHRISTIAN

do they receive it in the hypothalamus or in the frontal lobe? Have we “trained” the world to love us or fear us, to listen to what we say or to engage flight mode and get as far away as possible?

The frontal lobe is usually for people who:

1) Love us in a way that makes us feel loved

2) Treat us with generosity and respect

Typically, the hypothalamus is for people who:

1) Judge us from afar

2) Treat us as inferior

I think it’s essential for Christians to start acting in a way that sends us to the world’s frontal lobe and gets us out of the hypothalamus. We are often so bent on being right that we forget to love. We have conditioned ourselves to fight for our “rights” even at the expense of others. Yet that’s the opposite life that Jesus calls us to. We get to be people who lay down our lives, give up our rights, and trust that love will always win in the end.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not drawn to people who are always right. I’m drawn to people who are always kind, always generous, always humble, always forgiving. When Jesus said to treat others how you want to be treated, it was because nobody wants to listen to a jerk. People were drawn to Jesus because he knew how to love better than everybody else. Wouldn’t that be a great slogan for the Church – “We know how to love better than everybody else!” Imagine if the whole world looked to us when it needed to know how to love, how to forgive, how to show grace, how to give mercy, how to help the needy, how to welcome the outcast. What if people couldn’t stay away, whether they believe in God or not, because the human heart simply cannot resist that level of love.

I’d like that sort of Church. And, if I had to guess, so would the rest of the world.

Two Days with Rob Bell

I did it.

I saw it promoted for a couple years, and I always thought “Two Days with Rob Bell” sounded a little pretentious. But then he changed the name from “Two Days with Rob Bell” to “Craft Lab.”

I was sold!

I booked my seat/flight/hotel/car and spent two days last week in beautiful Laguna Beach, CA with Rob Bell and around 50 or 60 people from all over North America. I met some incredible people doing seriously mind-blowing things, made more foster-adoptive connections, tried (and hated) surfing, and, of course, met Rob Bell.

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Initially there was a lot of what my wife calls “peacocking” – people strutting their stuff, trying to distance themselves from the rest of us lower-tier humans. But then Rob (or Robbie-Rob as I decided to call him) entered the room. An awe-full hush settled over us star-struck drones and without even saying a word, he’d begun.

Eventually, peacocking gave way to beautiful honesty and transparency. And by the end I declared it to be two of the most important days of my entire ministry.

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Rob Bell has a gift. Not just preaching, not just writing, but he has a gift of getting to the heart of what a person is truly saying in a matter of seconds. He’s a relentlessly hard worker and a genuine inspiration. He spent the first morning asking people about projects they’re working on. Within a few moments, he opened door after door after door to each person’s insight and what the project is actually about. It sounds a bit arrogant to say he sat and told people how to make their books-films-sermons better, but that’s exactly what he did and it was amazing. He read excerpts from his new book set to release in August called Yes, You. He shared some personal stories about ministry, about criticism, and about making the move from Michigan to L.A. to find a way to share his message on television. He explained his move this way:

Politics and religion are the two hot-button issues in America. Politics is everywhere on television, but where do you turn for religion? Where’s the religious equivalent to Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert?

He starts filming his show in a couple weeks, and it airs in October on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

He gave us priceless advice on the craft of presenting our thoughts like:

Be tight and ruthless

No B-minus stuff

Be able to tell the gist in 30-seconds

Structure breeds spontaneity

Use the particular to explain the universal

These have already had a profound impact on my preaching, and I’ve only been back one week!

Yes, Rob Bell has a gift.

But Rob Bell also has a curse – he’s a celebrity. I learned as much from his curse as I did from his gift.

One of the more insightful moments for me was when we talked about the daily slog of ministry. Most of us agreed ministry was exactly where we wanted to be, but some days are much, much harder than others. He told stories of his days at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, MI. Their church was enormous so he had to draw very clear lines around what he would and would not do. Like weddings. At a church of around 17,000 people at its highest point, he was simply unable to do every couple’s wedding. So his church formed a wedding team and the members of that team did all the weddings for the church.

He also spoke of a much darker side to being a celebrity pastor – the hate, the criticism, the toll on your family. And as I listened to other pastors in the room who work for large churches share their ministry struggles, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “I really, really love our little church in Little Rock.”

CrossWalk is about 120 people strong. I hear preachers say all the time that they’d trade all their lukewarm members for just a handful of committed disciples. That’s what CrossWalk is. We’re not big in number, but we’re huge in impact.

This is both a gift and a curse. A gift because we have the intimacy so many people mourn when moving to a larger church. We have a level of freedom that comes with our smallness (big ships are hard to turn). We don’t suffer from the typical 80/20 rule of most churches. Almost all of our people are fully committed in some way or another to growing the Kingdom in Little Rock. We don’t deal with much politicking because at a church our size hierarchy has no place. People don’t get upset with “the elders,” they just go have a conversation with Brooks or Tom or Euel or Brad.

But it’s a curse because we don’t have the resources of a larger church, which can be especially hard for families with young children and teenagers. It’s a curse because when all the right people are out of town on the same Sunday, we take a hit financially. It’s a curse because when a family moves away, the gap is often hard to fill.

It’s easy to get caught up in the trap of wanting to be a celebrity pastor or build a megachurch. Rob Bell tells a story in his upcoming book about a young man who bluntly asked him what it takes to “do what he does,” which is to speak in front of large crowds of people. This is often the dream and the standard by which we judge our pastors and ministers. Success=Numbers. But, oh boy, is that toxic!

Rachel Held Evans wrote a blog  about success versus faithfulness, and points out that one is not necessarily indicative of the other. It reminds me of the last time I taught the 200 or so inmates at Wrightsville Prison. I tell you the number because, ironically, it’s the largest crowd of people I teach on a semi-consistent basis. One of the men brought me a glass of water after I sat down and said, “Thank you for being faithful.”

Not: “Wow, great sermon!”

Not: “You should preach to millions of people!”

Not: “That sermon changed my life!”

Not: “You’re the best preacher I’ve ever heard and for the rest of my life all other preachers are dead to me!”

No, just a simple, “Thank you for being faithful.” It rocked me.

Most of the megachurch leaders I know are tremendously faithful people. My wife and I are part of an adoption support network that meets weekly at the biggest church in Little Rock, and we’ve grown to love the hearts of the people there. I was thankful to be with Rob Bell for two days and come away believing even more that despite his celebrity he is also a tremendously faithful man. And I was thankful for the reminder that we are to carry out the task God has given us simply because it is the task God has given us, whether we’re celebrities or nobodies, whether we’re teaching thousands or dozens.

We are to love because all people in all places need love.

We are to serve because pastors and preachers should be the model of service, not just the ones holding the bullhorn.

We are to preach because we have been given a word from the Father, not because there’s a crowd.

And every single time, we give it everything we’ve got.

If you have a chance to spend two days with Rob Bell, I recommend you take it.