Do a google search. Type in the words “church turned into apartments.” See what comes up. You’ll be surprised. It’s been happening for a while now. What were once beautiful, strategically placed Gothic-like structures in many of our cities and suburbs, are now really cool modern overly priced apartments and homes.
It’s hard to believe that we once wanted people to come and see our church sanctuaries. We invited everyone. We made it a big deal (and still do) about decorating our sanctuaries, because we wanted guests to be in awe of how awesome our worship spaces were, and we wanted our church folk to be proud of our living room called the church sanctuary.
If you entered the house of the Lord, you dressed up for the occasion. There was a day when women wore dresses and really big hats and men wore their dark gray suits and neatly pressed shirts, because the country club (I mean the church) had a dress code.
My home church in Los Angeles is beautiful. A long time ago I was one of the church custodians (It was really my first job in the church). I had almost every key to the church. I’d often escape into the sanctuary because it was the quietest place on the earth. I’d play the church piano, pray, or simply just rest. We would sometimes take the youth groups into the sanctuary and play hiding go seek in the dark at night. Kids loved it. We big kids loved it too.
The local church is much smaller now. Churches that used to have 2 or 3 morning services can barely fill their pews. Honest heartfelt questions are being asked. “Do we close and rent the church out to a bigger church, doing all of the things we can’t do anymore? Do we sell the property, downsize, and relocate? What does the local church do, with its buildings, now that we’re not the most popular place in the community on any given Sunday morning anymore?
Some of these churches don’t have the volunteers they once had. They can no longer afford to pay the bills, pay staff, and are coming to the conclusion that it’s time. And how do you not say yes to the first real estate agent that walks through the sanctuary doors, and offers to buy the church? What if rethinking what we do with our church buildings is an opportunity for God to help us get up from our pews, and actually move back out into our neighborhoods? What if it’s God’s way of rebooting our hearts and helping do what really matters most when it comes to loving the people that are literally right outside the walls of our churches?
I’m confident that there’s still life in some of our small churches. Might these churches sell of their buildings one day to the highest bidder, to have their sanctuaries turned into cool hip energy saving apartments? Maybe. I believe that the there are still faithful Christ followers who care about their neighborhoods and simply have forgotten Christ’s simplest commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) These are people who get God’s mission and who want to be the church in the world, but their buildings have become financial burdens.
What if we empowered the local church to love and to partner with others in the community around a cause that resembled God’s love in way that reached those who could care less about whether or not the local church sat on any given corner in any of our cities? The question really isn’t whether or not we can do church better. The question is what would it look like if we did church differently and in a way that grabbed the attention of those who have forgotten what the church looks like or should look like? I’m thinking the only way we’re going to do this is by reminding the people in our pews that the church needs to wake up to the reality that there are real people outside the walls of our church buildings, starving for community, who want to feel like they belong, and who want to be used in ways that bring life into our neighborhoods.
What gives me hope for the local church is that Jesus hasn’t changed. God’s love still remains. The reality is that God’s people need to change. Maybe, it’s time to ask God to begin removing the walls that keep us from getting up from our pews, walking outside, and engaging with those who want more than just a building? Maybe, it’s time to reengage with those who could care less about the building and who actually want to follow Jesus because of the frightening and radical call to love those outside the walls of our churches?
When our phones stop working, we’re told to power off the phone, wait a few moments, and power it back on. That’s where I’m at right now in my life as a pastor. I feel like my heart has been powered off and back on and that I’m waiting for the reboot to take effect. For those of us who’ve decided that we’ve been called by Jesus, to serve in the local church, sometimes the pastor’s heart needs a reboot. We need to stop, listen, pray, rest, and repeat and allow for that divine reboot to take effect.
If you’re a pastor and serve a local church, the assumption is, that God’s given you a heart for people. It’s not just about making sure your sermon is all fluffy and has the ability to rattle someone hard enough into the kingdom. It’s about actually responding to that call from God to go and be with people. Bruised and broken people, afraid to tell anyone else in the world, what it is that scares them or makes them angry. People, who in their own minds feel are not worthy of even being near the God who loves us and sets things right in the world, especially when the world is a complete mess. People who feel ashamed and guilty and wouldn’t even consider looking to the church as a place of refuge.
The reality is that the pastor’s heart sometimes gets overworked. The need to please everyone takes over and the noise of playing church some how crushes the pastor’s deep sense of call that got them to say yes to God in the first place before they were told they were allowed to call themselves pastor.
What am I doing right now? I’ve asked God to heal and set things right in my own heart. I’ve asked God to help me move forward. I’m asking God to help me fall in love again with that divine call to actually go and be with people. Not just on the inside of the church, but on the outside of the church. Don’t get me wrong. The insiders of the church need a pastor. I’m learning a lot about what it means that we pastor the insiders of our churches. There are plenty of people who understand the call we’ve been given. They get it. They’re the ones who are already in trenches. They’ve been doing it for years. They’ve been doing things missional long before the word became a fad. I’ve noticed something about these people I’ve had the opportunity to serve alongside in ministry over the years. These are people who’ve been broken, understand what it means to be broken, and who’ve allowed Jesus to lead their lives, and who care about inviting the outside world to come to the same table, we all sit at when it comes to following Jesus and experiencing Jesus face to face. These are people who recognize their brokenness, trust God with it, and fully comprehend who Jesus actually came for and who get that Jesus calls us to go and be with the forgotten of the world. I’m also learning that it takes time for the insiders to get to that divine place of owning together the hard work of doing God’s mission in the world with those on the outside.
Pastor’s aren’t called, just to sit at a desk, push paper, and write sermons that move people to singing kum-ba-ya, hold hands, and wait for Jesus to return. At the end of the day, the pastor has been called to help the outsiders know that they’re just as welcomed to the table as the insider. I know I’ve been called by God, to believe, that the outsiders, who live in our neighborhoods, work in our cities, are asking the same questions, many of us on the insides of our churches are asking. “Lord, when are you going to come back and make things right again?”
One of the biggest helps at rebooting my heart has been the freedom to just go and camp out in a pew. I’ve visited a few churches. Some large, some small. I’ve preached at a couple of churches, I care about deeply and pray that God will help them remain faithful. I’ve been able to watch and listen to some good preachers who are gifted and have a heart for helping reshape how their churches view their communities and their call to own their parish around them. Not just their buildings, but their neighborhoods.
At the end of the day, I’ve found that the best place to reboot is home. My home church has been really formative in my call to follow Jesus and serve the church over the years. It’s the church where I came to faith in Jesus. It’s where a group of people loved and prayed for me. It’s the church where I promised my wife that I’d love her for the rest of my life, and it’s the church where I heard that call to go.
It’s been hard going home, but it’s been a good place to regroup, lick my wounds, and reclaim, with God’s help, my heart and soul for not throwing in the towel, not walking away, and finally getting back to the work of helping others fall in love with God’s sacred mission of helping others experience the rabbi Jesus, face to face, with no strings attached, a come as you are message, that is still able to do great things, in the name of Jesus.
I’m writing this for me. No one else. For those of you who might read this? I’m okay. If anything this is my attempt at rebooting. I’m writing from a dozen plus years of pastoral ministry experience. Honestly? I’m writing from a place of brokenness. I’m writing from the trenches.
Over the years, I’ve made some lifelong friends as a pastor. I’ve also lost some friends along the way. Most likely have made some people mad and have disappointed some people too. When it comes to pastoral ministry, the pastor isn’t perfect. Pastors make mistakes. I own my share of mistakes. Some of them have hurt. As for decisions I’ve made in my ministry over the years?Some I have no regrets making. Others, I wish I could have a do-over. If only there was a reset button.
Honestly? Over the years, I’ve been beaten up, bruised, kicked around, and it hurts. Yes, it hurts. My heart hurts. It’s not the scary kind of hurt. I’m not going to jump off a bridge. I’m not super angry either. Okay, maybe just a little. If anything I’m just sad. It’s what every minister is afraid to talk about. There’s no place in the church for the pastor to be sad. It’s the 21st century and there’s nowhere for the pastor to be sad in the church. Nowhere.
It’s true. I’ve officiated funerals, memorial services, counseled hurting people, have sat in emergency rooms in the middle of the night, watched people breathe their last breath, have played the role of conflict mediator, social worker, and drug and alcohol counselor. I’ve sat in courtrooms, listened to sentences handed down by judges, and have watched people’s loved ones being taken away in handcuffs. I’ve helped people when they’ve been hungry, homeless, and needed me to just simply listen. I’ve done a whole lot of listening. Sometimes, I think people forget the burdens pastors carry at the end of the day and into the night and I think sometimes people think it’s easy just to leave everything at the office. Sometimes it’s not that easy. Pastors sometimes experience real pain and sadness.
The reality is that ministry sometimes just sucks. It’s messy work and yes sometimes being a pastor isn’t the easiest call to receive either from God. Sometimes, it’s lonely work too.
At the end of the day, I’ve decided that when God calls you to something and if by chance, you say yes, you’re saying yes to the possibility of God disrupting your life. I said it. God will disrupt your life. God has disrupted my life and I know God will disrupt it again. By the way? Don’t forget that when the pastor’s life is disrupted, the pastor’s family is disrupted too. I bet they have some stories. I’m so thankful for them, their patience, and most of all their resilience. It’s divine resilience.
Has God disrupted my life? Yes. Would I say yes again and do it all over again? Most definitely. I’m still standing.
I’ll say it again. Ministry sometimes sucks.
Would I ever do anything else?
Romans 8:38-39 (NLT) “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Seems like yesterday.
Although I’m not preaching today, I’m praying for my friends who will be preaching today. Yes, it’s Father’s day, it’s also a day, that many are still hurting from what happened in Orlando last weekend. My prayer is that you who will be preaching today will take the opportunity, to be honest, and real. I’m praying that you’ll set aside your notes. Don’t quote everything you know. Who cares that you memorized your sermon notes. Be authentic. Be real. Be honest. Don’t try to have all of the answers and don’t try to fix it with a three-point sermon.
Today is the day you really need to listen. You shouldn’t be doing all of the talking today. You should be inviting others to talk. They need to be invited to express themselves, to be angry, and most of all, to cry. What would it look if our church services allowed for people to really cry? Today is the day that we really want and mean for people to come as they are.
You might pray out loud today and you might simply have a space for silence. For people to be still. To be quiet. Our church services are too noisy sometimes. A little silence might be a little healing today.
Forget about the cool slides, the background music, and the freshly brewed coffee and Krispy Kreme donuts in the back of the narthex today. No one cares. I beg you today, set aside your sermon notes and trust your heart. Keep your eyes wide open. Visit people on the sides and in the back of your churches. Talk to people you wouldn’t usually talk to. Look for those who are on the margins. The uncool. The poor. Those who don’t fit in. Those who might not look like you or anyone else. The ones who might not sound like you. The ones who might smell. They might be covered in tattoos. Look for the ones who make you feel uncomfortable. And yes, the pretty ones will be hurting too. Don’t forget them. They need you too. Did I say open your eyes? You won’t see these people unless you’re eyes are open. Look up for a change. Most of all? Listen. We who have been called to preach, have forgotten how to listen. We stink at listening. Today, of all days, please listen to those who you’ll be talking to.
Today, there are people who are just simply sad. Their hearts are broken. Their hearts are also being melted. They’re pondering what it would mean to consider something new and different. A different approach. A different way. A new way. It’s your job today to invite them to come to the table to experience the one who truly understands what it means to suffer. You’re the table setters. Our table is huge and it’s your job to invite them to the table. It’s not your table. It’s the Lord’s table. It’s not your agenda, but God’s. I heard someone recently say that sometimes “trouble makers are change makers.”
Your sermon today might get you in trouble. That’s my prayer. I hope you get in trouble because your sermon today needs to be different. It needs to be about Jesus and his example of loving people on the margins. No matter who they are. Your church might actually appreciate your boldness for a change and the challenge to step outside of the walls of the church and to actually interact with the world. It’s not about being comfortable today. It’s about being uncomfortable because it’s where the real change begins. It’s where God meets us and it’s where our purpose becomes crystal clear.
The one who indeed was a trouble maker brought people to the table. He changed the world. He was the great change-maker. He invites real, authentic, broken people, who are suffering and who are looking for something a little different today, to come and receive from him. Today might be the first day, the cross becomes real for the first time in a long time.
Today, hungry people might be coming to church. It’s not your job to feed them. It’s not your job to save them. It’s simply your job to invite them to hear and listen to the one who says, “Come to me all who are tired, and I will give you rest.”
I’ll never forget the day I took this picture. This is my friend Dino. Yes, he’s sleeping in the front of the church. Yes, he’s homeless. Dino is a cool dude. A lot of us love this guy. I’ve had the opportunity to serve Dino communion. I’ll never forget that day either. The reality is that there are a whole lot of Dino’s all over the city and yes, not all of them are homeless.
I love where Dino is sleeping. Do you see where he’s sleeping?
Our job today is to show others the cross. We all need to be in front of the cross today. It’s what we need to be telling people about today. We need to be showing them where the cross is today. Nothing else. Just the cross.
Maybe today is the day, we all just sit for an hour or two in front of the cross. No words. No music. No noise.
Simply, right in front of the cross.
I’ve started thinking a lot about the role of hospitality in the life of the church. I think it’s an important theme for every church in a city like Los Angeles to talk about and to pray about. I think it’s very gospel-centered and fits well into anything and everything pertaining to God’s mission in the world.
There is a sweet couple who I’ve recently gotten to know at the church. Well, they’re not really part of the church. Not yet at least. They recently became homeless. We’ve been spending some time together of late. They have a sweet spirit and are very humble people.
Yesterday, I took them over to the department of social services to help them begin the process of getting public assistance. I’ve made several phone calls to agencies or shelters, trying to find a place for these friends to stay. I’ve found nothing yet. Some of the people I’ve talked to at these agencies are amazing and they’ve been very helpful. Some haven’t called me back. The agencies are in an awkward space right now. There’s really nothing out there for a couple like this. Shelters are full. There are waiting lists. The waiting lists have waiting lists. The reality is that if you’re homeless in the city of Los Angeles, it’s really tough to find anything right now that is available.
As I was leaving the church, one of them offered me something to eat. He wanted to go down the street and grab some frozen burritos from Trader Joes. I know he doesn’t have much money. I also said, “I was alright.” He said, “What kind do you want? They’re really good.”
I said, “how about chicken?” He said, “I’ll be right back.”
I couldn’t say no.
As we sat in the church kitchen, he put each of the burritos in the microwave. I went and packed up my bag and started locking things up for the day. As he made his way down the hall, with his wife, he handed me a burrito on a paper plate. I told him, I would eat it on the road. He smiled and I said goodbye and watched them both leave the church building, as I locked up.
As I drove off, I realized I forgot something in my office. I drove back, got out of my car, ran into my office, and there they were eating their frozen burritos, sitting outside, in front of the church. My heart aches still for them. I know there are tons of other people in the city looking for shelter. I know social workers, agencies, case managers, and volunteers are doing their best in helping others get connected to resources available for those experiencing homelessness. I don’t know what’s going to happen to these friends. I’m praying and I’m hopeful that they will find something and soon.
All I know is that my heart was ministered to and the chicken burrito I ate on the road while I was driving home, tasted like a thick juicy steak, made with love.
More to come.