Devotional Message, Faith Conversations

Can We Really Be All​ Things to All People?


The Times-Reporter of New Philadelphia, Ohio, reported in September 1985 a celebration of a New Orleans municipal pool. The party around the pool was held to celebrate the first summer in memory without a drowning at the New Orleans city pool. In honor of the occasion, 200 people gathered, including 100 certified lifeguards. As the party was breaking up and the four lifeguards on duty began to clear the pool, they found a fully dressed body in the deep end. They tried to revive Jerome Moody, 31, but it was too late. He had drowned surrounded by lifeguards celebrating their successful season. -Times-Reporter, September 1985.

From a very early age, God put on my heart a passion for connecting wayward souls to the life-saving gospel of Jesus Christ.  It comes from a sincere place.  My father lived his life on the edge of uncomfortable for me.  He wasn’t a churchgoer.  I believe he had faith, but his life called that into question.  When he died on Christmas day nearly 11 years ago, I was called upon to do the funeral.  That was the toughest funeral of my ministry.  I had done funerals for young victims who had their futures snatch away by a stray bullet.  I have done funerals for the very young and the very old who left behind a wife who was not prepared to spend her waning years alone.  But no burial was as personal, it felt like I had personally failed my calling as my dad’s son (pastor?).  I keep hearing Paul’s words in my head, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews, I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law, I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak, I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means, I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel that I may share with them in its blessings. [1]” 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

Why do these words haunt me? Because I have heard sermons on this text preached so condemningly, with the message that if you are not sold out for the gospel like Paul, somehow you are a failure as a Christian that I have tremendous guilt.   Dear readers, dear saints, if you have ever felt that way I pray this post gives you a sense of comfort.

What does Paul by “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them?” Is Paul permitting us to put our Christianity and our witnessing on the shelf for the sake of reaching the lost? And if Paul were saying that how does that look?  I got the privilege to serve in Milwaukee for nearly ten years, and the is Harley Motorbike country.  I have always wanted to bike, is Paul permitting me to buy one and put on my leather jacket and hang out with unchurched bikers?  I am all over that.  Not exactly.  What Paul is saying is that his goal as a follower of Jesus Christ is to put himself in the place of the person far from God.  He sought to get into their souls, to cloth himself with their feelings and argue life from their perspective.  Imagine taking that posture in our sharing of the gospel with people.  What approach does the gospel need to take to be most effective for the hearer?   For example, for the Jews who were under the burden of the law, Paul preached freedom from the law.  “Sin will have no power over you because you aren’t under Law, but under grace.” Romans 6:14

For the weak Paul pointed those to the strength and sufficiency of God.  So, for the Jew, he made himself a Jew in feeling, with the Greek a Greek in feeling, with a slave a slave in feeling.  Paul connected and tailored the gospel in such a way that the person heard God’s grace applied to their situation.  I realized that I did do that to the best of my ability with my father and only prayed that he heard God’s message of forgiveness for a prodigal son.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Co 9:19–23). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.


Faith Conversations

God’s Word Never Returns Void, Don’t Give Up!


I remember this particular couple even fifteen years later. In ministry, I viewed weddings as an evangelism opportunity. There was one couple that caused me to question that this approach.

It was evident the bride was a believer, but the husband was not all that interested in connection with Jesus. We went through the mandatory five pre-marriage counseling sessions. I connected with them through the counseling sessions. I could not get him to discuss having faith as an important component in their marriage life. Nothing seemed to be working. So I stopped pressing. They had a Christ-centered ceremony. But I could tell he was tuning out during those parts of the service. He was waiting to get to the”I do’s” and to get out the building as soon as possible. I know it isn’t about me, but I felt as though I had failed. I had a strong feeling he would never set foot in a church again. He was adamant about his denial of the Savior. I made my standard offer to all my newlyweds, “Just remember I am your pastor. If you need anything, call. If you hit a snag that first year, I am here.” I heard nothing for nearly a year until the wife calls. Her husband requested a visit. I inquired what was wrong only to discover he was dying of cancer. God provided a second chance to proclaim the gospel to him. I visited him often before God called him home. I am confident he died a believer. What appeared to be a failed attempt to be an instrument of God’s grace was a reminder that God has a plan. God has his timing.

I love the quote from Doug Pollock in a book entitled “God Space: Where Spiritual Conversations Happen Naturally.”

He quotes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians; The good news is that most of our failures can be reclaimed. There’s no statute of limitations. He also suggests we commit this verse to memory, “So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days” (Ephesians 5: 15-16, NLT).

“So if you have someone in your life that you feel you blew it with them, don’t give up. We serve a God who is great at giving second heck third, fourth and fifth chances. If you feel you have blown it here are a couple of questions to ponder if you get that second chance to share the gospel.”

What do you do when the person you are talking to is so resistant, hurt, or turned off to talk about of God? When there is nothing you say, that appears to make a difference?

Practice patience. Respect their real pain. Acknowledge the hurts they have experienced in life. Realize your conversations may be triggering some deep-seated emotions that they have long buried. If that is the case, your only path at this point maybe to pray with them and pray for their circumstances. Pray intentionally for that the emotional turmoil they are facing. That could be the method God uses to open the door to that deeper spiritual conversation.

What do you do if you have someone who is not open to these kinds of spiritual conversations? Does their lack of openness mean you should just leave them alone?

Maybe. If your conversations are causing damage to the relationship be willing to take a step back and give the person some space. What you don’t want to do is push the person away from you. Give them some time and keep the relationship intact. Maybe this is not the time for this conversation. Perhaps, down the road, the right opportunity may present itself. In the meantime keep the lines of communication open. Be willing to apologize if your conversation has caused offense. Say “I sense that I might have said something in our last conversation that caused you to shut down. If so, could you help me understand what I said or how you interpreted my message? I value our friendship. I enjoy our conversations, so if I’ve offended you, I’d like to make things right.”

You never know where and when the opportunity to share the gospel will present itself. Be always ready to share the hope that you have in Christ Jesus. You may be the vehicle God uses to share the gospel with someone outside of God’s grace. Realize that God when that happens God will give you the words to say. God is the one who waters the seed and makes the seed grow. We are just called to spread the seed.


Missional communities

How Missional Communities Are Not Your Father’s Small Group Ministry

lightstock_31670_small_byrene_haneyAnyone at all who are acquainted with me realizes that when I do anything, I go all in or not at all.   When our church decided to launch into a small group ministry, I studied at the feet of the very best.  At that moment, it was Rev. Dale Galloway and his 20/20 Life Transforming Small Group ministry program.  His flock has figured out a system to do small group ministry in a way to not only enhance the arm of pastoral care and outreach but also to cultivate leaders.

Developing saints is essential to my approach of what a church is called to do.  So, when I first discovered this new thing, Missional Communities (MC’s as will call them), I falsely assumed it was just the resurrection of small group ministry.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I have concluded that MC’s are small groups on steroids.  Join with me as we explore the essential foundational elements of MC’s.  It is not my objective to weigh in on whether or not MC’s are good or bad, but to start the conversation.  I am by no means a specialist.   I have not led one even though I remain fascinated by the potentialities.

Two Central Goals of Missional Communities:

  1. MC’s regularly engage in a Third Space.  A third space is a neutral location. It is an area your group regularly gathers to bask in each other’s company and promote what Hugh Halter, one of the earlier leaders of this movement calls “inclusive community.”
  2. MC’s seek opportunities for Service.  These service opportunities happen when the groups find occasions to meet the needs of and bless people in their enclave or some other neighboring community, the desire to live a Matthew 25:40 life, serving the least of these.

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:40

Four Key Elements Required:

Two ways MC’s differ from small groups are the size of the group and its desired outcomes.   A Missional Community is a group of approximately 18-40 people who are seeking to reach a distinct neighborhood or connect with an individual network of relationships with the good news of the Kingdom of God.

  1. It is a mid-size group of committed people – Sizes is necessary! Missional communities fit into a place between small groups, but less than a congregation.

“Small enough to nurture and support” – Think of MC’s like a large family. People can come and test out the concept of living life on the mission together. Missional communities also create a welcoming environment.   The groups are large enough that there is a sense of anonymity.  MC’s allow people to become a part of the team when they are ready while witnessing living out their faith impacting the lives of others.

“Big enough for transformational impact” – Because MC’s are large enough to have the shared resources, they can have a more significant impact in their neighborhoods for causes of Christ.  Often these groups raise up leaders and send them out to plant new MC’s.

  1. Clear Missional Vision– Churches have a tendency to start many projects.  While that keeps things exciting, it also can be frustrating.  If your church or group of believers start MC’s make sure you have a clear missional focus.  Be clear what specific need you want to address. What will be your unique community context?  What is the common mission your community will be committed to?  Social justice?  Poverty?  Some have dealt with trafficking of young girls.  The vision for your MC’s will help reduce the possibility of your group becoming another social group. Mike Breen, another leader in the missional community movement, says, “Vision is the magnet that draws people to the community and the engine that keeps the community moving” (Mike Breen).
    • Question to develop your Missional Focus: Who Is God calling you to love as Jesus loved unconditionally?
  1. MC’s Are Organic and yet Organized– That may sound counterintuitive. MC’s are organized in that they have weekly gathering times.  This is important because that is the foundation for the growth of the depth and trust needed to be a community. That developing community is organic in you can’t plan relationships.  Relationships happen organically.  Relationships are built over time as you create natural, inclusive, intentional time for people to party together, to eat together and even grieve together. The links are organic; the events are organized.
  2. MC’s have accountable Leader(s) – One of the fears many have who are opposed to MC’s is that there is no congregational overseer.  However, MC’s must have clear facilitators/leaders who help organize and guide the life of the MC. While there is no church board per se, these leaders are accountable to other MC members and should be connected to the larger church.

The lower control allows the vision for each MC to come from the leaders and the group.  The MC’s can better adapt to the changing needs of the community they are serving. For high accountability, church leadership should be involved in helping MC leaders carry out the vision that God has given to him/her and their community. The church can assist the leaders by providing on-going training, support, and prayer.

While this is by no means a rigid requirement,  it is a starting point to consider if you or your congregation is thinking of dipping your toes in the missional community pool.  Come on in the water is warm, the mission opportunities great, the needs many, and workers few.

Urban Ministry

In Urban Ministry Is Compassion Alone Enough?


Urban Ministry is messy. It involves loving all people. Some come into our stream of consciousness with messy and broken lives. Because of the struggles their lives have gone through that makes our ministry with them will look messy. Our need to include others makes our partnerships with community leaders and congregations outside the comfort zone of our tribe look messy. But our message is unchanged. Our purpose is clear. We preach Christ and Him Crucified! – Keith Haney

I need to begin this discovery process to figure out how we witness to those in our cities. I want you to know my roots. Honest reflection is good for the soul and transparency. I did not grow up in the bright lights of the city. I grew up in a medium size southern city. We had only one tall building in my town and no downtown area. When I graduated from the seminary, I had no desire to do urban ministry. My intern year in Detroit was more than enough of the big city. To be clear, it is not that I was afraid of urban ministry. I know some who are just terrified of being in the city. There are reasons to be fearful or at the very least cautious. Urban pastor’s and congregation on a daily basis face real life and death issues right outside your door. If were to ask those who do ministry in the city they could share stories of real human hurt and pain.

That one story that remains frozen in my memory bank took place over ten years ago. In one parish I served, about twenty minutes after our elementary school’s spring musical there was a drive-by shooting on the steps of our church. I came back the next day and saw the bullet holes. Left in the aftermath was a twenty-four-year-old man whose life was snuffed out and the funeral was at our church. A funeral attended by his fellow gang members. His life shortened and his toddler daughter and unwed mother left with an uncertain future. He had big plans to move to Atlanta and start fresh. The city streets have a way of changing dreams in an instant. Two minutes changed the course of their history in the blink of an eye. I don’t write this post to come off as some know-it-all expert in urban ministry because I am not. It was thirteen years of mistakes and a lot of on the job training. You can check my head for the bumps of experience. If you asked me about how to do ministry in the Deep South that would be an area I could talk about with some level of confidence. Or if you wanted to talk about doing ministry with college students, that was where my passion was, but that door never opened. God placed me in the city centers of Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee and now near Chicago and God said: “Go!” My answer was, “Who me and are You sure?”

So, this is the beginning of a deeper discussion. There are my impression of the challenges and the opportunities the church has to make a positive impact on the city. As Reformed Pastor Tim Keller points out, “It is imperative that the Church understands how to reach out to the expanding cities of the 21st century.” We have to figure this out because studies show that half of the population of the world lives in cities of one million or more. If we don’t reach and disciple this community, our churches will continue to decline, and our pastoral ranks will be diminished.

The needs are great, the resources limited but we are called to help.

I am not a big fan of the writings of James the brother of Jesus. He is a little too blunt at times for my taste. For example, the way he talks about faith in chapter 2. Just read this.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; (ESV) James 2:14–22

People often ask me as a former urban pastor isn’t ministry in the burbs the same as in the city? Don’t all people have “stuff” to deal with in their lives? Isn’t there brokenness all over? Don’t all people need the same, Jesus? The answer to all those questions is a big “YES!” And here it comes, “But” poverty is a major problem in most cities. You cannot do effective urban ministry outreach without addressing the felt needs of the people struggling our communities. Our connecting point with people are the services or ministries our congregations provides to the urban poor under-resourced. There is a collaborative relationship between outreach to the poor and needy and an urban church. As James points out in the verse above it is hard to connect someone to a church who is struggling with the daily concern of having their necessities met. Just saying, Jesus, loves you does not address their needs. Faith is active. The probing theological question asked by James gets right to the heart of the question urban ministry must seek to answer. And this is not only an urban ministry question it is a question the church doing ministry among all people must struggle with as well.  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? James 2:15-16. This post is the starting point of this conversation. It is too big and too important not to give it several weeks to review, discuss, and dream of ways we can make a difference in the lives of those living in our urban backyards. I pray it will generate discussion and maybe together we can explore solutions and brainstorm ministry partnerships to reach those struggling in our cities.

Other posts in this series.