The Leader’s Problem with Pretense

2 09 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Hebrews 4:15

transparencyMy friend Scott is a gifted teacher.  I remember one of his illustrations using a bunch of unmarked tea bags.  He had everyone pass them around and smell them to see if we could tell what kind of tea each one held.  Then he said something really profound: “Tea bags are a lot like people…you don’t know for sure what’s inside them until you put them in hot water.”  It was a beautiful illustration about integrity and transparency.  Together, those are the currency of leadership in the church.

What was truly transformative about Jesus (and what has been transformative about Christianity for over 2,000 years now) is not the power nor the persuasion nor the perfection of Jesus.  Rather, it was the almost spellbinding “connection” he had with everyone he met.  He connected with the Samaritan woman at the well.  He connected with the Pharisee, Nicodemus.  He connected with fishermen and tax collectors and soldiers and prostitutes.  What changed people was his ability to see right into their souls, and at the same time allow them to see right into Him.

That was the founder of this revolution for which you and I are contending.  And we should reflect that same level of transparency and connectability.  It is important to our mission.  In fact, the revolution depends on it.

But in our efforts to work harder to do all the things good Christians should do, and in our efforts to manage our people’s perception of us, we often tend to lose the transparency.  In our churches’ efforts to elevate our leaders to praiseworthy heights, we create an environment where it is no longer safe for them to be truly transparent, lest they lose the very popularity which placed them there.  We want heroes for our leaders, so we “create” them, leaving little or no room for their humanity.  And as leaders, we fall in line with this very system, as it often seems like the only opportunity to lead.  The very pretense which lifts us up eventually becomes our downfall.

But here is the magnified effect of that pretense: Leaders who pretend to be something they are not end up building organizations which pretend to be something they are not.  An entire culture of pretense and shallow relationships results.  And, more times than any of us want to admit it, we call it “church”.

As I reflect on Hebrews 4-5 and its description of our “great High Priest”, I am reminded that it is transparency and “connection” which are the real stuff of which Christ-like leaders are made.  Our ability to relate to our people and their ability to relate to us…to connect with us…is what really matters.  That’s what our founder taught us.  I just need a reminder a few times each day.  Because, in the end, when you put me in hot water, all I really want you to see coming out of me is Jesus.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The Medium is the Message

19 08 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… Hebrews 1:1-2

God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.  Hebrews 2:4

JesusMarshall McLuhan was the first to coin the phrase, “the medium is the message”.  In his instance, he was referring to the ushering in of the information age (specifically, television) back in 1964.  He noted that television (and other similar media) were more than just conduits of information, they were actually shaping and reshaping the message and were as much a part of the message as the message itself.  I suppose we could make the same observation today about social media.  Twitter and YouTube and SnapChat are literally reshaping how (and what) we communicate.  It just seems that, from time to time, a medium comes along that changes everything we thought we knew about messaging and communication.  When that happens, “the medium becomes the message.”

Never in the history of the world has this notion been truer than with Christianity.  In ancient days, God spoke His message through angels, He spoke His message through the prophets, He spoke His message through the law, and He spoke His message through miraculous signs and wonders.  But never was the message so clear and so divisive and so disturbing as when God spoke His message through  Jesus.  The very embodiment of God, representative of all His glory and power and authority, Jesus is “the Word become flesh.”  He is BOTH the medium AND the message.

For Christ-followers (for His church), we have a contemporary medium through the gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed among us.  For us, this is a visual representation of God at work among us.  But for the watching world, it is gibberish.  For that world, there simply is no clearer image of God than Jesus Christ.  His life is a canvass upon which God’s Word is painted vividly in living color.

There is a great deal of talk in the church today about messaging.  It is good talk.  Important talk.  Using all the media available to us to tell the Gospel story is, I believe, important.  But even as we discuss websites and Twitter and blogs and videos…even as we consider signage and platforms and lighting and projections…we must keep one medium ever before us: Jesus.  In the midst of all our new languages and vehicles, we must show the world Jesus.  Because, in the end, He is the medium which really matters.

Show them Jesus.  And let all the other messaging flow from that.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Good-sized Vision v. God-sized Vision

10 09 2013

Tuesday Re-mix –

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Acts 1:6

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Acts 1:8

For both churches and individuals, there is a difference between a good-sized vision and a God-sized vision.  Which do you have?  Great story about this in Acts 1.

I am thinking this had to be a disturbing and frightening scenario for the disciples who, for almost three years, had awakened each morning and simply allowed Jesus to set the agenda for the day.  The only thing he asked of them was that they follow him.  It was an easy arrangement, one that led them through amazing and miraculous moments and obviously changed them forever.  Now, Jesus was leaving them and telling them “you guys take it from here…go and do this ministry!”

“Wait.  What?”

With this, the most significant revolution this world has ever known or will ever know was begun.  The church was born.  Your local body of believers and my local body of believers (and every local church around the world) all call ourselves followers…soldiers in this revolution.  But the question this passage raises in my mind is this: am I an Acts 1:6 follower or an Acts 1:8 follower?  Additionally, which is my church?

These disciples had an impressive vision…one found in scripture and supported by nothing short of a promise from God: they envisioned an Israel no longer under Rome’s thumb nor its puppet governors…an Israel who once again was on top of the world, boasting strength and numbers and the support of the sovereign God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  It was a grand vision.  It was a glorious vision.  But it was a small vision in Jesus’ eyes, one which fell embarrassingly short of what this revolution was all about.  They had a vision for changing Israel.  Jesus had a kingdom vision for changing the world.  Forever.

An Acts 1:6 vision is like that.  It is when I believe big things for me and for my ministry and for my church.  It is when I believe in a God who wants me to be rich in material possessions and free of sickness or injury and living easy.  An Acts 1:6 vision for my church is when I believe we will make budget this year (and more) and we will get that new sanctuary built and we will make it through this season of conflict or that season of dwindling numbers.  An Acts 1:6 vision is what I get when I seek after God’s will for me or after God’s will for our church.  It is big enough…and faith-filled enough.  But it is woefully off the mark in terms of the kingdom.

In Acts 1:8, Jesus casts a vision bigger and more impactful than any of the disciples had in mind.  Even years later, they would not fully grasp the fullness of the vision, as they debated Paul’s and Barnabas’ taking of the gospel to the Gentiles.  An Acts 1:8 vision doesn’t ask what is God’s will for me?  It simply asks what God is doing and then seeks to align with that larger, kingdom-oriented vision.  An Acts 1:8 exploration of God’s will does not start with me or with my church and work up toward God…it starts with God and works out into the world and then explores how I (or my church) can join that vision.

So, do you think Dr. Luke got a bit of a chuckle as he wrote this portion of Acts and recorded how embarrassingly small those early disciples’ vision was?  I wonder how God’s people will look back and remember our vision today?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The One Test Your Church Really Must Pass

26 03 2013

Tuesday Re-mix –

This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand.  And the LORD asked me, “What do you see, Amos?”

   “A plumb line,” I replied.

   Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.  Amos 7:7-8

plumblineThere are a lot of ways to measure the “success” of the church today, a lot of standards from which we can draw.  I suppose which standard we use will depend on who we are trying to please at the time.  Whether they will admit it or not, our people most often use their own comfort level as the standard for judging whether or not we are “getting it right”.  Our denominational entities likely would care about our level of “support” for their programs and, more importantly, their budget.  Our communities would measure our effectiveness by how much assistance we offer them.  And you and I?  Oh we probably count noses in gathered worship or baptisms last year or variance from budget or some other such objective, measurable standards.

Please hear me when I say that, as far as I am concerned, all of those standards are fine measurements of some aspect of our effectiveness as a church.  I really have no qualms with any of them.  Each of them, it seems to me, has a right place in our strategic planning and in our “doing church”.  Similarly, I suspect that, during Amos’ time, the people of Israel had some objective, measurable standards for their own version of church and worship and honoring God.  I also suspect that, like the church today, they were knocking it out of the park by some of those standards.

But from God’s perspective, they were failing miserably.  When God placed His plumb line up against what they had built, well, there was a problem.  You see what happens when we lose sight of the perspective that matters most?  There are a lot of ways to measure or evaluate a wall.  You can test its thickness to make sure it meets those specifications.  You can measure its height or its width and find both to be admirable.  You can test the weather-proofing of the exterior material or the finish of the interior and determine that either or both are just fine.  But when you hold a plumb line up to it and find that it is leaning horribly in one direction or the other, none of those other measurements mean much.

Your church may be like that.  It may be pleasing to your members, or to your denomination, or to your community, or even to you…but if it does not measure up to the plumb line of God’s Word (which, for the New Testament church, is Jesus), then it is failing.  And while we are working to please all those other people and measure up to all those other standards, it is easy to lose sight of the one that matters most: what does Jesus think of our church?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Leaders Wobble But They Don’t Fall Down

11 12 2012

Tuesday Re-mix –

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  2 Corinthians 4:7-9

weeble3Is it just me?  Does anybody else read these words from the Apostle Paul and remember those silly Weebles ads about “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down” (with apologies to all my international friends who all think I have finally lost my marbles!)?  Weebles are those cute little Hasbro/Playskool toys with the weighted bottoms so that they literally cannot be knocked over.  They are a near-perfect illustration of this revolution we call Christianity.  No matter what the world tries to do to stamp it out, it just gets back up and keeps growing.

And it is that same “struck-down-but-not-destroyed” spirit which inhabits you and me as church leaders today.  That is the encouraging word here from Paul to us.  We are filled with this same indestructible spirit.  The question is, does it feel like that to you?  And if it does not, how can you recapture it?

It seems clear to me that this spirit of “indestructibility” which Paul talks about in verses 8-9 is very much tied to his “jars of clay” illustration in verse 7.  In other words, it is only when we lose sight of our position as flawed and fragile vessels that we begin to set ourselves up for destruction.  When we, as leaders, begin to believe people’s scouting reports on us as “amazing communicators” or “extraordinary people”, when we begin to see ourselves as being just a little bit better than most of those around us, when we tend to forget that it is only the Spirit within us which makes us any kind of leader at all, then we begin putting into place the very cancer that will eventually become our demise.  Rest assured, when your leadership rests on your human shoulders, it is doomed from the start.  When you allow yourself to be placed high on a pedestal, you only ensure a much higher fall in the end.

But when we can say (with Paul) that we are mere earthen vessels, flawed and fragile, but carrying an invaluable and indestructible Spirit given to us freely by the grace of the sovereign God for purposes of His own glory and not for ours, then we can indeed be hard-pressed but not crushed, struck down but not destroyed.  We can survive even the most painful season of grief and betrayal and failure…not because of who we are, but because of Who we have with us.

That encourages me greatly!  I hope it encourages you as well.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Theology as God

3 04 2012

Tuesday Re-mix –

“Theology is the science of religion, an intellectual attempt to systematize the consciousness of God. If we take the doctrine of the Trinity (which is a noble attempt of the mind of man to put into a theological formula the Godhead as revealed in the Bible) and say – ‘That is God,’ every other attempt as a statement of the Godhead is met by a sledgehammer blow of finality. My theology has taken the place of God and I have to say, ‘That is blasphemy.’ Theology is second, not first; in its place it is a handmaid of religion, but it becomes a tyrant if put in first place.  The great doctrines of predestination and election are secondary matters; they are attempts at definition, but if we take sides with the theological method we will damn those who differ from us without a minute’s hesitation.  Is there any form of belief which has taken the place of God with me?” Oswald Chambers

My sister married a Lutheran.  Of course, by the time of the wedding, Chad (my brother-in-law) had pretty much convinced most of us that he was OK and that he was not a pagan or anything.  But still, my sister was getting married in a Lutheran church.  It was not a huge thing, but for my very Baptist family, it was also not a completely small thing.  I think it mattered a little to some in the family.

That was a long time ago, but even by then I was already being shaped into a peacemaker…and this peacemaker was a little worried about how my very Baptist and sometimes loud and argumentative family might behave in that Lutheran church.  Oh, I’m not saying I stayed up at night worrying about it.  I’m just saying…I wondered.

So it was no huge surprise when, within the first 15 minutes of the rehearsal, one of my family members sitting out in the pews leaned over to another one and said (pretty loudly), “Hey look!  They’ve still got Jesus up on the cross in this church!”  I tried to become completely invisible…don’t know whether it worked or not…the invisibility thing, I mean.  But, in the end, I did get an awesome brother-in-law out of the whole ordeal.

The point of this story is that I believe our intellectual constructs of God (i.e., our “theology”) actually sometimes get in the way of our Spiritual growth, and certainly get in the way of Christian unity. We tend to cling to the metaphors about God with which we are familiar, the illustrations and the symbols and the sound bites with which we’ve grown up as a Christian.  So, when confronted by another Christian with something a little different than our own construct, it immediately creates enmity between us and that other Christian.  When your metaphors are not the same as my metaphors, we have a problem, and we must be careful how we measure that problem.

I think the real danger here is that our beliefs about God sometimes become more important to us than God Himself.  Call it the “deification of theology” if you want.  I choose to call it idolatry…the replacing of God with some intellectual model with which we are more comfortable…or which we can better comprehend.

Really, I cannot say it nearly as well as Oswald Chambers said it above.  So, I will stop trying.  But I love his question: “Is there any form of belief which has taken the place of God with me?”  Ouch.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




God, Google, and Magic 8 Balls

20 03 2012

Tuesday Re-mix – 

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. James 3:17

Do you remember Magic 8 Balls?  I do…that awesome Mattel toy (wow, just the name Mattel conjures up so many exciting feelings for several generations of Americans…Barbie dolls, Hot Wheels, Matchbox cars, and all those games!) that would answer any question you have about anything!  Ask it any “yes” or “no” question and then shake it and, voilà, the answer would magically appear in the little window.  “It is decidedly so”, “signs point to yes”, “Don’t count on it”, “Ask again later”…it was all very simple, really.  We liked that about it.  We got to set the agenda, we got to ask the questions we wanted answered…and if we didn’t like the answer, we could just shake it and ask again!

We’ve grown up now and we no longer rely on Magic 8 Balls to answer all our pressing questions.  We realize, of course, how silly we were when we did that.  Now, we have something much more powerful, something much more completely accurate to answer all our questions.  Now we have the internet.  The process still works the same way, of course, because it is a process we like, one we get to control.  We simply log on and Google whatever our question is and, voilà, the answer magically appears on our screen.  We like getting wisdom that way.  It appeals to us.  We set the agenda, we ask the questions, and we get the answer.  We are powerful.

It is this notion of being in control and powerful, I think, that makes it so difficult for us to embrace the Bible (or a walk with Christ, for that matter).  Oh, it is a book filled with all the wisdom we could ever need, but we don’t particularly like the process for retrieving it.  We do not feel nearly as comfortable with receiving God’s wisdom, because we do not get to be in control of how it is imparted.  More often than not, we don’t even get to ask the questions.  Well, we can ask whatever questions we want, but they are probably not the right questions.  And since we tend to ask all the wrong questions, God’s wisdom tends to confound and frustrate us, because He doesn’t necessarily dole it out to us on our terms and in response to our silly questions.  Sure, we may have access to the highest intelligence in the universe, but we do not control how that wisdom is imparted.  That is bothersome.

We are like the rich young ruler (Luke 18) who comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He asked a question about his life after his death.  But Jesus’ answer had an entirely different focus.  His answer, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” focused on the here and now, on this man’s life starting today.  The young man didn’t like that wisdom.  Neither do we.

It would be like asking the Magic 8 Ball a question and having it say, “You’re asking the wrong question…the question that really matters is…”.  Let’s be honest, if Magic 8 Balls said that, nobody would buy them.  And if our search engines did that, we would be looking for a new search engine…one that will play by our rules and answer the questions we want answered…because we are powerful.

But on a genuine faith walk with God, we do not get to set the agenda.  We rarely even get answers to the questions we are asking, at least not when we want them and not the kind of answers we want.  Rather, Jesus says, “Come follow me.”  And it is in the following that we begin to get answers to questions we didn’t even know to ask.  It is in the regular, daily dose of scripture that we begin to receive wisdom that matters.  It is in the regular time in prayer that our perspectives on this world and our family and our neighbors and all our silly questions begin to change.  And over time, before we even know it has happened, we have a profound understanding of things and we have a peace that surpasses all that understanding.  We have something infinitely better than an answer to all our little questions and infinitely better than our own terms and our own agendas.  We have God.  We are not powerful.  But He is…and we have Him.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com