Hard Things: Discipline or Obligation?

Discipline

I do a lot of things every day that I don’t really want to do.  In fact, many of them are things that I really don’t want to do: get out of bed, go to the gym, reply to emails, and many of the other things that keep me healthy and productive.  Unless you’re independently wealthy, laying in bed, and eating ice cream right now, you would say the same thing about your life.  We all know that the easy road never leads anywhere worth going.  Our willingness to do hard things is directly related to the significance of our lives.

We call all of this self-discipline – the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it, according to the nice people at dictionary.com.  It’s a good and biblical thing.  Paul urges Timothy, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)  Even in the spiritual life, Paul commends self-discipline, “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”  In other words, the spiritual secret to spending time with God in the morning is called an alarm clock!

But I’m learning that there’s a huge difference between discipline and obligation.  Both require us to do things we really don’t want to do.  But they have very different outcomes.  Discipline leaves us better off, more fully alive, growing, and with a satisfied soul.  Obligation leaves us exhausted, frustrated with ourselves for giving in once again, and with a depleted soul.  Discipline takes us where we want to go, even if the road is hard, while obligation takes us away from where we want to go.  

A lot of our success and happiness in life depends on our ability to decide if each new request for our time, each new opportunity, and each new activity is an obligation to be avoided or something we should discipline ourselves to pursue.  If it takes discipline, it’s worth doing but if it’s an obligation, it’s worth avoiding.  I’ve started using three filters to help me tell the difference:

Filter #1: Desire

I know this is a strange starting point when we’re talking about things we don’t want to do but it’s essential to probe that lack of desire a little bit more.  If it’s an obligation, the more you press, the more that lack of desire is confirmed, “I really don’t want to do this.”  But if it’s an opportunity that calls for discipline that lack of desire starts to morph into, “I don’t want to do this but I want to have done this.”  For example, going to the gym.  I would rather sleep in but an hour from now, I’ll be glad I got out of bed and worked out.  If you’ll be glad you did it later today, it’s worth doing.  But if the opposite is true, it’s worth skipping!

Filter #2:  Benefit

There’s really two questions when it comes to benefit.

One, is anybody going to get any benefit from me doing this?  Notice, you might not get any benefit but someone else might benefit greatly.  Or you could be the sole beneficiary or some combination.  But the point is someone, somewhere is benefiting.  If that’s the case, it might be a time to dig deep and summon a little self-discipline.  On the other hand, if nobody gets anything out of you doing something, why in the world would you feel obligated?

The second question is a little trickier because it requires a cost/benefit analysis.  Yes, your friend might be touched that you flew across the country for her bachelorette party but is that worth $1,7000, an exhausting weekend, and missing church?  If she’s a really good friend, the answer could be yes!  But it’s also possible the answer is no – and that’s okay!  Not every benefit is worth the cost.  Discipline gives us the freedom to say no whereas obligation condemns us to a lifetime of resentful yeses.

Filter #3:  Prompting

This is where we drag the Holy Spirit into the conversation.  What’s He saying?  Is He leading you to do something that may not make much sense to anyone but will honor God and be a mark of obedience?  Then listen!  Be disciplined and go for it.  If, on the other hand, He’s leading you to say no, then go with Him in that as well.  We don’t just grow our faith by saying the difficult yes, often times we grow it by saying a difficult no.  In some ways, this last filter is the only one that matters.  Just be aware that the voice of God probably sounds very different from the voice of the person asking you for something.

I want to say yes to everything that God brings into my life, even if it’s hard.  I want to pursue life with a vigor that can only come from God.  But I’m realizing that requires me to say no to things I would be doing purely out of obligation.  So, I’m trying to filter all of life through a framework that says. “Disipline, yes.  Obligation, no.”

You’ve Gotta Say It

I came home from work the other day and started filling Laura in on everything that had happened since we last connected in the morning.  In the course of our conversation, I started talking about a member of our church and said something along the lines of, “I really love that guy and am so grateful for him.”  Laura’s response was so typically female and so incredibly convicting, “Did you tell him that?”

Umm….no!  What’s wrong with you?  Guys don’t talk that way, babe!

Rather than say all that, I just mumbled something like, “no, but I’m sure I will” and quickly changed the subject.  But Laura’s point was right on.  Secret gratitude doesn’t do much good.  But the words “thank you” have tremendous potential to lift, encourage and honor other people.  So many times, I make the mistake of assuming people know I love them or appreciate them.  Don’t fall into that trap.  Be vocal, genuine and generous with your love and your gratitude.

The Apostle Paul (who is not the most touchy-feely guy in the Bible!) did this so well in his letter.  Look at what he says about the church in Philippi in a letter addressed to them, “For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:7-8)  Talk about swinging for the emotional fences!

You don’t have to be as eloquent as Paul to encourage someone today.  So, let me ask you; Who do you need to text, call or look in the eye and thank?  Who are you assuming knows how much they matter?  Take some time to reach out today and tell them!

Vision Versus Reaction

It can be so easy in leadership to mistake a reaction for a vision.  I know I’ve made that mistake a number of times in my life and it’s led to bad decisions, misspent energy and reduced effectiveness.  It’s a trap I’m asking God for the grace to avoid going forward in my leadership life but doing that requires a solid understanding of the difference between the two.

I’ve never come across a better definition of vision than the one Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, has made famous, “Vision is a picture of the future that produces passion.”  Definitions of reaction are harder to come by so I’m going with the ever reliable dictionary, “an action performed or a feeling experienced in response to a situation or event.”  Understanding the difference between the two is essential.

Let me give you a very practical example.  Let’s say you attend a church where the pastor preaches largely topical messages organized into short sermon series that are well packaged for a non-Christian audience.  Let’s take it one step further and say you aren’t getting as much out of those messages as you think you should; maybe you’ve even called them “shallow.”  Just for fun, let’s say you’re on staff at that church.  One day you’re driving home after church with your spouse and you let loose with, “I’m so tired of this watered down nonsense week after week, if I was the pastor of this church, we would actually teach the Bible.  People who don’t do verse by verse expositional teaching are just wasting the congregation’s time and dishonoring God.”  Boom.  Tweet that and call it vision.  Except for the fact that it isn’t…it’s a reaction.  Reactions do very well on social media but they’re horrible at building a healthy organization.

Vision for preaching would sound a lot more like, “Nothing has ever changed my life the way God’s Word has.  I love it.  I can’t get enough of it.  It’s fresh every time I come to it and I want to devote my life to helping people see that.  When I preach, I want people to know they are hearing from God through His Word and that His Word changes lives.  So, I don’t want anything in my message to distract from God.  Can you imagine a church where people come expecting to hear the voice of God speaking into their lives?”  Totally different – I’d get fired up about building that church!

So, how do you spot a reaction?  Here’s a few thoughts:

  • It’s a statement of what you aren’t as opposed to what you are
  • It’s motivated by a desire to prove someone else wrong
  • It’s disconnected from the personal life of the leader
  • It’s a means to an end, not an end in and of itself (you’re only doing x as a means to get to y)
  • It’s quickly formed
  • Success is virtually impossible to define or illustrate
  • Close friends are more cautious than supportive

Think about how different that is from vision:

  • It’s all about the organization you want to see come into existence
  • It’s motived by love for what could be
  • It flows out of and is consistent with the personal life of the leader
  • You know what success would look like and feel like
  • You believe the picture you are trying to paint is inherently valuable
  • It percolates over time, is confirmed in prayer and sharpened by God’s Word
  • Close friends are leaning in and telling you to go for it.

The bottom line in all of this – beware of the danger of mistaking a reaction for a vision.  Sure, reactions might help sharpen our vision but they aren’t the same thing at all.  Lead from vision and leave the small bands of angry reactionaries to other people!

Measuring Success

Pastors and churches have a strange relationship with numbers.  By that, I don’t mean math in general (although I would personally plead guilty to that!) but the idea of measuring things in the church.  What business people call metrics, pastors call numbers.  And we have no idea how to feel about them.  Sometimes it’s just downright painful to listen to pastors work their way through a tortured and insincere rendition of the old “obviously, numbers aren’t everything” cliche.  We all know that if the same pastor heard the offering just doubled, he would get a little more comfortable with numbers!  It’s a strange tension – living and dying by Sunday’s attendance is a crushing form of idolatry but totally ignoring numbers is irresponsible leadership.

In planting Restoration City, we decided to navigate the tension by making an unapologetically big deal of numbers.  We measure things.  For example, I know how many people have been to each service, what our offering is, how many kids go to RCCKids, how many people serve those kids and a bunch of other things.  Without good information, we can’t make good decisions.

But here’s the key for us at Restoration City when it comes to numbers: What we celebrate matters more than what we measure.  So much of the awkwardness around the numbers conversation doesn’t come from the fact that we measure things, it comes from the fact that we celebrate the wrong things.  If all a church ever celebrates is it’s attendance and offering, the congregation will get the message – what the leadership really cares about is butts in seats and dollars in offering plates.  Celebration is a powerful communicator of culture and values.

For us at Restoration City, there are three numbers we celebrate: baptisms, community group participation and membership.  We measure a lot of things but celebrate those because we think they are the three most important indicators of our success as a church.  In other words, if those numbers are healthy and moving in the right direction, everything else should fall in place.

Here’s why we picked those three numbers:

  • Baptism is the best way for us to measure life change through salvation and the beginning of a discipleship process.  Counting decisions for Christ is inexact and often inflated.  Baptism is a far more reliable and helpful number for us.
  • Community Group attendance is the best way for us to measure a person’s commitment to Restoration City.  When someone takes the step of joining a Community Group, they are more or less committed to us as a church.  They’re moving through our discipleship process and developing the relationships that will make RCC a spiritual home.
  • Membership is the best way for us to measure that a person is fully participating in the life of the church.  All of our members agree to a fairly specific membership covenant.  When someone is willing to make all of those commitments, we know they are fully engaged in the mission and culture of Restoration City.

When we look at our first weeks as a church, we realize just how much we have to celebrate.

  • We have baptized 9 people since this summer.
  • We currently have 80 people in Community Groups.
  • We have 41 active members.

When we remember those numbers come from God’s grace, not our merit, our celebration turns into worship, praise and gratitude.  As we enter into a week of thanksgiving, I hope you will join me in thanking God for all He has done through Restoration City.

Owning Our Weaknesses

I had a conversation earlier this week with a friend about the importance of self awareness in the life of a leader.  It’s a topic I’ve read a lot about, thought a lot about and even taught on in various leadership development environments.  I know it’s a really big deal – so many leaders have no clue who they really are and spend their whole lives impersonating other leaders whose results they admire.  It’s an exhausting, unfulfilling and destabilizing way to lead because you’re always faking it and wondering if anyone is noticing.  Self awareness frees us to lead more passionately, authentically and naturally.

As the conversation progressed, we started to focus in on the importance of a leader knowing their weaknesses.  This honestly wasn’t new territory for me – none of us are perfect, we all have weaknesses and team leadership is essential.  But as we were reviewing this familiar territory, I was struck with the realization of just how much I had paid lip service to this idea for years without genuinely accepting my weaknesses.  For the record, there are few things as disingenuous as faking self awareness!

I would talk about my weaknesses but that was usually just a tool to get others to open up about theirs.  In my heart of hearts, I believed that while I was better at some things than others, I was at least above average at everything.  That underlying belief showed up in my leadership: I kept too much on my plate that should have been delegated to others, I made excuses to hide my weaknesses, and I would occasionally bully others into accepting my bad ideas.  I was on the road to becoming a delusional, egomaniac control freak because I was convinced people wouldn’t follow me if they figured out I wasn’t perfect.  My fear of rejection had me on a path that would kill my leadership life.

As my understanding of the gospel deepened, so did my capacity for self awareness.  The link between the gospel and self awareness is why I honestly believe followers of Jesus should be the best leaders in any organization.  At the very least, we should be the most self aware.

As Christians, we swim in a sea of grace, acceptance and love that flows from Jesus’ perfection to our weakness.  The more I learned about God’s grace, His love for me and my standing in Christ, the easier it became to admit my weaknesses to others.  God knows all of my flaws and still loves me.  That simple understanding allowed me to find the confidence I needed to be more honest with myself and others about my limitations.  The gospel makes it okay to not have life completely together.  If you don’t have to fake it with God, why bother faking it with anyone else?

I’m learning how to lead in light of who I am, what God has called me to do and how He’s wired me.  It’s more fulfilling, enjoyable and fun than I ever would have imagined when I was busy maintaining an image.

But what about you?  Are you trying to be someone you aren’t because you’re afraid people won’t love you if they find out you aren’t perfect?  Guess what…they already know! They’re just waiting for you to catch up.  As you do, you’ll be a much better, happier and fulfilled leader.

Build Partners, Not Ministries

This past Sunday, we wrapped up the sermon series “Our House” by looking at the third component of our mission statement, “Live For Restoration.”  I had been looking forward to this talk for a long time and love being part of a church that seeks the welfare of our city (Jeremiah 29:7).  At Restoration City, seeking the welfare of our city is something we do in partnership with other local organizations.  We’re not trying to build our own outreach ministries.  We’re trying to connect people from Restoration City with existing organizations.  Put simply: we build partners, not ministries.

That’s a pretty big paradigm shift for many who come to us from a churched background so I wanted to lay out the rationale for why we build partnerships instead of ministries.  The argument boils down to five essential benefits.

  1. Leverage The Expertise Of Our Partners.  The decision to partner is rooted in humbly admitting that we don’t always know what’s best and there are others who do.  I’m trained to preach, develop leaders and make disciples.  I don’t know the best practices for serving a teenage mom or immigrant family.  Partnership is about putting the needs of our community ahead of our need for control.
  2. Focus On Our Mission.  This is closely related to #1.  If we spent all of our time trying to replicate what others are already doing well, we wouldn’t have enough time to focus on the things God has called us to do.  Partnership is about creating margin for a healthy discipleship culture.
  3. Keep A Leaner Staff.  Churches can tie up a lot of money paying people to reinvent wheels.  I would rather free up resources to invest in our mission and in our partner organizations.  Partnership is about good stewardship.
  4. Stay Kingdom Focused.  Working with others is the most tangible way to remind ourselves that the Kingdom is more important than any one local church.  Restoration City isn’t the hope of Washington; Jesus is and He’s building His church in wonderfully diverse and interconnected ways.  Partnership is about leveraging our church for the benefit of the Church.
  5. Double The Impact.  By serving through partnerships, we’re able to minister to both the people served by a ministry and our co-laborers.  The relationships we build with co-laborers are as significant as the relationships we build in the communities we serve.  Partnership is about exponential impact.

Every church needs to follow the leading of God in how they love and serve their communities.  For us at Restoration City, that means a deep commitment to building partnerships instead of ministries.  You can learn more about our partner organizations on our website: http://restorationcitydc.com/dosomethingdc/.

You Pick: Intimidation or Inspiration

If you want to know what a leader is made of, watch how he or she responds under pressure.  If you want to know what you’re made of, run the same test on yourself.  Pressure reveals whether we lead through intimidation or inspiration.  Fear is the currency of intimidation whereas inspiration trades in grace.

We see the choice between intimidation and inspiration play out in the life of a young Old Testament King named Rehoboam.  Rehoboam’s dad was a guy named Solomon who was a political rock star in Israel.  Solomon ushered in an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity all the while establishing a reputation for wisdom that earned him a huge personal fortune and international acclaim.  But Solomon had a little problem with women that led him down a path to the place where Scripture records, “Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not follow the Lord fully.” (1Kings 11:6)  As a result of Solomon’s unfaithfulness, God raised up military and political adversaries to oppose his rule.

With all of that going on, Solomon died and his son Rehoboam ascended to a now weakened throne.  To make matters worse, the people of Israel, led by one of Rehoboam’s rivals, come and ask him to “lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke.” (1 Kings 12:4)  They want him to ease up a bit and in return, they promise to follow him.  The elders of Israel tell Solomon to take the deal.  But rather than listen to them, he follows the advice of his boyhood friends who tell him to crack down.  His response is stunning, “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins!  (Yes, that means what you think it does!) Whereas my father loaded you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.“(1 Kings 12:10(b)-11)

Rehoboam goes all in on intimidation – do what I say or face my wrath!  Rehoboam is under pressure, he doesn’t want to show weakness in front of his rivals and he’s afraid.  So he lashes out in pretty spectacular fashion.  I bet you know leaders who make the same mistake today just in subtler forms: an angry rebuke, cold disapproval, a nasty email, publicly embarrassing employees, firing rivals or belittling someone’s ideas.

If that’s your leadership style, head the warning of Rehoboam.  Intimidation always implodes!  The people rebel against Rehoboam and Israel splits into two divided kingdoms.  True, You might not start a civil war but your employees will leave, your teams will lack volunteers and people won’t go the extra mile for you.

Imagine how much better things would have gone if Rehoboam had gone with inspiration.  He might well have exceeded the greatness of his father.  He certainly would have been more in line with the heart of God.

Think about Jesus’ leadership.  He consistently leads with inspiration.  He calls people to live for a greater mission. (Luke 5:10)  He patiently teaches His frequently clueless followers. (Mt. 13:36)  He restores those who betray Him. (John 21:19).  He didn’t see it as a sign of weakness to offer rest to weary souls. (Mt. 11:28)  He deals in grace.  And His followers changed the world.  They were willing to sacrifice everything, including their lives, to advance His kingdom.  Inspiration works!

Don’t fall for the trap of intimidation.  It’s just self-destruction in disguise.

If you chose the path of inspiration and grace, you’re demonstrating the beauty of God and His gospel to the world.  Don’t lead with inspiration simply because it works.  Do it as a reflection of how God has dealt with you.  He meets our rebellion with grace.  He calms our fears with mercy.  He empowers us to do what we could never imagine.

Our job as leaders is to treat our people the way God has treated us.

The Not Ready To Lead Club

Most Christians wait way too long before stepping up to lead in the church.  There are all kinds of reasons for this: over committed schedules, church cultures that stifle lay leadership and lack of opportunity are all too common.  But one I hear pretty regularly is, “I’m just not ready.”

To which I say, “Join the club!”

No, I don’t always feel ready to lead a church.  But I’m not even close to being the founding member of the not ready to lead club.  We have a long and distinguished history.  Consider a few of our better known members:

King Saul: “Then he brought the tribe of Benjamin near by its families, and the Matrite family was taken. And Saul the son of Kish was taken; but when they looked for him, he could not be found. Therefore they inquired further of the Lord, ‘Has the man come here yet?’ So the Lord said, ‘Behold, he is hiding himself by the baggage.’”(1 Samuel 10:21-22)  Samuel was ready to anoint Saul King and Saul is hiding in the baggage cart.

Moses: “But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?'”(Exodus 3:11)  God calls Moses to free Israel from slavery and Moses spends two chapters trying to talk God out of it(Exodus 3&4).

Gideon:  “He said to Him, ‘O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house.’” (Judges 6:15).  Gideon is busy explaining his lack of qualification to the angel of the Lord.

If you want to go New Testament on this one, just pick a disciple.  That whole crew was pretty inept!

Where are you offering God excuses when He’s asking for obedience?

My point isn’t that training, preparation and equipping don’t matter.  They do.  But if you’re waiting to lead until you feel ready, you’ll never get in the game.  God isn’t looking for people who are sure of their ability.  He’s looking for people who are utterly convinced of His.

If God is calling you to lead, trust He knows what He’s doing.

I’m praying for a wave of new Community Group Leaders at Restoration City Church.  We’ll train you and we’ll provide weekly Community Group discussion guides.  We’re not going to toss you into the deep end to drown.  But we need you to jump into the pool with us!

It’s time for some of us to get out from behind the baggage and get into the game.

When A Good Party Goes Bad

This is a week of celebration for Restoration City Church.  Last Sunday’s launch service is still so fresh in my heart and we should all be in awe of what God is doing through our church right now.  He’s allowing us to experience something unique and we should celebrate!

But this is also a spiritually dangerous time.

My concern comes from the dramatic shift we see in three short verses out of 2 Samuel 6.  King David and 30,000 men had just taken the ark of God from Abinadab’s house and were on their way back to Jerusalem when Scripture records this:

“And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.” – 2 Samuel 6:5-7

They were partying it up in verse 5 and why wouldn’t they?  God had shown them great favor and was blessing their efforts.  They had the ark, they were headed home and everything was right with the world.  But the favor that should have deepened reverence got twisted into pride.  Uzzah got sloppy and he paid for it with his life.

The real issue is that they never should have been carrying the ark on a cart in the first place.  God had made it very clear that the ark was to be carried with poles so no man even came near it.  Exodus 25:13-15 couldn’t be clearer, “You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it.

David and his men assumed God’s blessing gave them license to get sloppy, to cut corners, to slack off just a bit.  And the results were disastrous.

God is working through Restoration City.  We have much to celebrate before the Lord.  But don’t let last Sunday’s victory become an excuse for sloppiness in your life.  Don’t start indulging temptation, don’t neglect your Bible, don’t let your prayer life falter, don’t run from community.  Stay sharp!

Our work as a church is just starting.  Stay focused on Jesus, anchored in the gospel and in awe of God.  There’s so much ahead of us.  Now isn’t the time to get complacent!

Water skiing & Church Planting

As we get ready to launch Restoration City this Sunday, I keep thinking back to a conversation I had with a friend.  We were having lunch one day and he was telling me about the ministry he was helping lead.  As we were talking, he asked me if I had ever seen the chewing gum commercial with a guy barefoot water skiing behind a boat.

I vaguely remembered it but he had to fill me in on the details.  Basically, the commercial starts with a guy (by the way, it might have been twins…we never could agree on that!) standing on a dock in water skis.  The idea was the boat would gently pull him into the water for a quiet ride around the lake.  Instead, the captain hit the throttle a little hard, ripped the guy out of his skis and took him on a wild, barefoot ride around the lake.

That’s how my friend described his ministry – a wild, barefoot ride powered by the Holy Spirit.

He felt like God was dragging them on an amazing adventure, they could barely hold on but they were in love with all He was doing.  I wanted that so badly in my life.  I was tired of feeling like I was trying to water ski behind a rowboat that I was also responsible for rowing.  I knew my friend was on to something and I wanted the same in my life.

That was one of many conversations God used to encourage me down the road of church planting.  Years later, we’re standing on the dock ready to see where God is going to take us.

I don’t know what our ride will look like.  But I do know our hope in planting this church isn’t in our logo, our strategy, our team, our resources, our website, our location, our merit, our talent or anything else.  Our hope is in the power of God, the promises of God and the faithfulness of God.

If He doesn’t do the work, we’re in trouble.  We can’t power the boat.  We don’t even know which direction to steer it half the time.  But we can hold on, trust Him and go where He tells us to go and do it in the power He provides.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”(Ps. 127:1)  

Father, build your house.  Advance the gospel.  Bear fruit.  Transform lives.  Use us for the glory of Christ and the good of our city.