Training Institute: United Kingdom Update

One of Harris Creek’s ministry principles, Create Over Reproduce, drives us as a body to pursue creative solutions to hurdles that we face as we look to seek the welfare of our city. Our culture is constantly shifting, and we desire to be proactive when positioning our church to intersect the Gospel with that culture. One way to approach the unknowns that lie ahead is to learn from those who have gone before us.

Over the last few years our staff has been hard at work identifying churches that have wrestled with what we are just beginning to see here in our country. Our research took us to England. We have found a handful of unique and passionate churches that we think we can learn from. Though these partners aren’t an exact match of Harris Creek in terms of theology and practice, they do share a true desire to creatively engage their cities with the Gospel.

With trusted partners in place, we have begun to send young leaders into a summer long learning environment. The reciprocal aspects of the Training Institute:UK allow us to bless these churches with excellent volunteers for an extended period of time, and in turn we get to observe and ask questions as to their approach.

Church life in a post-Christian world is going to look different in each city. Our second summer rotation marks the addition of a ministry partner. As of right now, we have four residents in two different cities/churches in England. This cohort will experience vastly different approaches to seeking the welfare in Brighton and Birmingham. We are excited about what they will learn and bring back for us to consider.

This summer’s residents are Nathan Scott (Brighton), Christy McCaw (Brighton), Zach Winterrowd (Birmingham) and Shayna Bettinger (Birmingham). We will be providing updates on their experiences throughout the summer by way of this blog and our social media platforms.

 

We are excited to announce that we are adding short term options (8 days) for those looking to experience the TI:UK in an accelerated way. Stay tuned for those details!

2016 Sermon Recap

 

As we near the end of 2016, I’ve taken some time to reflect on the past year, particularly when it comes to preaching. Every year I try to devote some time to processing how things went – what was effective, what was less than stellar, and how I can improve. Just like an artist, an actor/actress, or even a coach, there are some final products that I’m personally more pleased with than others. I think working back through what seemed to be most and least effective, along with figuring out why, is an important discipline if you are serious about your craft. This is a yearly attempt to stay disciplined as a preacher, teacher, and communicator.

In general, I would say that preaching this year has been both harder and easier than in years past. The part that has come easier is the delivery side of the message, as I am grow
ing more comfortable communicating on a stage. There were some tangible delivery goals I was able to accomplish over the past 12 months, some of which were aided by using a chair and pub table. This approach has allowed me to be more deliberate and even slow down (just a hair). The aspects that have been harder this yearhave been on the content creation side of the process. In October, I reached my six-year anniversary of being Lead Pastor at Harris Creek. The most candid way to put it is that I feel like I hit a bit of a wall this year. When you preach 40+ times a year for six straight years, it’s not always easy to keep your creative edge while also remaining rooted in Scripture. The delicate balance is to try to keep reading Scripture with a fresh perspective without getting too “cute” with it and end up butchering what the text is actually saying.

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The other unique challenge in 2016 was changing my approach to preparation due to the design of Elements. To begin with, the sermons in Elements are slightly different than the way I tend to teach. This was something I warmed up to because, as I said earlier, I probably needed to change something up after hitting a creative wall. The process of creating content for Elements is also much more collaborative, with five other people having a role in the development of the material. Each voice at the table is uniquely gifted and incredibly helpful. On the flip side, it feels a bit like multiple artists trying to paint a picture on the same canvas. Each person might have a slightly different style, and it’s my job to bring a singular voice to the final product (including the sermons).

All in all, I am proud of the ground we covered as a congregation in 2016 and the license our people gave me to try new things. We have an incredibly flexible, gracious, and supportive ethos amongst our congregation. There is great value in people coming together on a weekly basis, doing their best to listen to the Spirit speak through Scripture, and earnestly seeking to respond obediently to what God is saying to us. The approach I like to take in this recap is to follow this pattern: I am going to list the series from the last year, give you some “measurable stats” from my 2016 sermons, then follow that up with a list of my own commentary and reflections from my messages over the last year. I hope this gives you some helpful insight into my world and what goes into the sermons each week.

 

2016 MEASURABLE STATS
2016 Sermon Stats.jpg

 

SERMON SERIES IN 2016
– Rebuilding from Rubble
– Rediscovering Freedom
– God in the Movies
– Thriving in Exile
– Two Pictures of Discipleship
– Elements: Unit 1
– The Glorious Return

 

LEAST FAVORITE SERMON: “Stone Tablets” from The Glorious Return
WHY: This one is still fresh for me, which means I’m still not over it. The week before this sermon we were coming off of a fairly intense stretch of discussions with our bank regarding the “Our Turn” initiative, and I updated everyone on the not-so-fun surprise appraisal. The following week, I was worn out. It took me twice as long to get something semi-coherent on paper for this message.

This was one of the few times I have ever had to work on a Saturday to land a message. Some pastors love to create “Saturday Night Specials.” Not me – they stress me out. All that to say, I was not as confident in the message as I wanted to be heading into the morning. I think one of the most challenging aspects of my job is having a “project” due every weekend for people to review, no matter how I feel or what’s going on. It’s part of it, and our congregation is always extremely gracious, as I stated earlier. But I personally hate when I haven’t landed things the way I wanted to in a message, and this one stands out to me as one of those times this happened in 2016.

 

FAVORITE SERMON: From the Ground Up” from Rediscovering Freedom
WHY: This sermon was my message for Easter in 2016, and I felt like it struck the best balance of all my Easter sermons to date. The typical rhythm is for Easter to conclude our sermon series during the Season of Lent. This means people who haven’t been with us previously are hearing the final message that we’ve been building up to for six weeks. Easter also presents some distinct challenges because the demographics on Easter Sunday tend to be different than the typical makeup of our congregation the rest of the year. Finally, the congregation seems to be a little “stiff” (from my perspective) every year on Easter Sunday. This is probably due to the fact that we have more guests, we have church members who have invited friends, and people are even a little more formal in how they dress compared to your average Sunday.

My first few years, I was not exactly prepared for these shifts and the different dynamic in the room on Easter. This year, I felt like I was able to anticipate what was coming and speak to the people in the room. That meant speaking to our congregation and wrapping up our series in a satisfying way. It also meant speaking to newcomers in such a way that they could join the conversation without feeling lost. Finally, it meant speaking to anyone who might be a skeptic in such a way that might make them more open them to the revolutionary power of the resurrection. With all that is on the line every Easter, it’s easy to get disappointed with yourself as a communicator and feel as though you didn’t do it justice. This year, I was pleased and content with how things landed.

 

LEAST FAVORITE SERIES: God in the Movies
WHY: This is typically an annual series that I really look forward to every spring. This year, I felt a little more constrained based on feeling conflicted over a particular movie I considered reviewing. The film had an “R” rating, but it was not for the reasons that seem to be more gratuitous which sometimes draw this rating. The violence and disturbing images that caused it to be restricted carried an important message in the film, and it was a message I believed was worthy of discussion. However, after getting some wise feedback from our leadership (elders and staff), I ultimately decided to go a different direction. It was also a conversation with another local pastor who I trust and respect that helped me make this decision. But the whole conversation had (and still has) me questioning if this series can accomplish its intended purpose of engaging the culture around us.

If there are films that seem to be shaping our culture and they aren’t overly perverse “just to be perverse,” I think those are movies we need to be aware of as Christians. Yet, I also recognize that there is a line here, and there are some conversations that can’t be had with the entire church family due to the broad range of both age and maturity levels within our congregation. The line on this whole discussion tends to be a bit of a moving target. I do know that if we simply talk about the parts of culture that we’re comfortable with or “family friendly,” then we need to probably call it for what it is – “God in the Disney Movies.” I’m still praying through which direction this needs to go in the future, but I’m thinking this series may have run its course.

 

FAVORITE SERIES: Thriving in Exile
WHY: For years, we’ve talked about “planning in pencil” around Harris Creek as part of what it means to be a leader on our team. This approach has two sides to it: (1) doing the hard work of actually charting the direction we are heading, and (2) being flexible enough to call an audible when the situation demands it. This series was one of the bigger “audibles” I’ve called when it comes to planning a sermon series. The original plan was to preach through the Book of Ecclesiastes last summer, but it just didn’t seem to fit where we were as a congregation. The next plan was to preach through the second half of the Book of Acts, the part that tends to get ignored. This, too, felt like it wasn’t exactly what was needed at the time.

Ultimately, we ended up studying the narrative portion of the Book of Daniel, and it was a series that seemed to be timely for where we are as a culture. “Upheaval” would be one word that I think accurately describes 2016 for many people. With an unconventional election on the national front and a lot of turmoil surrounding the highly visible Baylor football program at a local level, the past year was disorienting for many of our people. The story of Daniel was one that came to me as the summer was approaching, and it turned out to be a fascinating study. I personally learned a lot from Daniel’s story and the faithfulness of the Israelites in Exile. For something that wasn’t planned on my end of things, this series became a great encouragement to my own faith and hopefully the faith of many others.

 

Training Institute: U.K. (Month Review)

 

Here’s a quick rundown of the first month of the Training Institute: U.K.:

  • Katie Yarbro, Elizabeth Ogburn, and Merritt Denman are the first interns for the program, and they are all serving with One Church in Brighton, England.
  • They hit the ground running and headed to Youth Camp, an off-site but nearby gathering of multiple congregations that gave the interns an early jump on meeting some One Church members.
  • The host home for each of the girls has been incredible with hospitality and inclusion.
  • 13568882_10207130039034012_1407876478704108352_oOne Church hosted its first of several CHOMP events, which are meal and activity provisions for the local community while kids are on holiday from school. The interns have mentioned that a noteworthy takeaway was how disarming it can be to simply sit down next to someone at a meal table. The volunteer servers do not stand back and keep to themselves, but rather they are expected to pull up a folding chair and sit with those whom they serve at the plastic pop-up table. Continue reading “Training Institute: U.K. (Month Review)”

2015 Sermon Recap

Every year I take time to reflect on my sermons from the last year as a way to think through what worked, what didn’t, and how I need to proceed moving forward. It might seem odd to have me talk about this process (for a variety of reasons), but I think it’s important for people to peek “behind the scenes” when it comes to how sermons are prepared. Often times, people think they are either (a) hand delivered on a golden tablet every Saturday evening by an angel, or (b) half-cocked ideas from someone who is just talking off the cuff. The truth is, preaching is a serious task that requires a lot of prayer, work, and effort.[1]

The other thing people rarely think about is the fact that I don’t love the way every sermon turns out. I strive hard to, first, be a listener of the Word before preaching it. That means preaching is born out of what has convicted me first, not on the annoying things everyone around me needs to get better at to be more spiritual. The other thing that I naturally do is critique my own work. In fact, I tend to be harsher than (or at least as harsh as) many of the skeptical or cynical types listening to my sermons.[2] In the same breath, I also know I am anything but unbiased. Sermons are a little like your kids: you can be frustrated with your own children, but you naturally get a little defensive if someone else gets upset with your child. I’m not sure if it’s possible to avoid this dynamic. It just kind of is what it is.

That being said, this blog is the one chance I get to publicly do what many people do on a regular basis, which is armchair quarterback the sermon. I realize critiquing the worship service is simply Sunday lunch ritual for a lot of people. I get it. It comes with the territory. Rather than telling you to change your ways, I’m going to weigh-in myself. The approach is going to be this: I am going to list the series from the last year, give you some “measurable” stats from my 2015 sermons, then follow that up with a list of my own commentary and reflections from my messages over the last year.


SERMON SERIES IN 2015

  • Ethos
  • The Great “I Am”
  • God in the Movies
  • The Dreamer
  • #blessed
  • Life After Life
  • Our Turn
  • Joy to the World

 

SERMON STATS FROM 2015

2015 Sermon Stats
FAVORITE SERMON: “Interstellar” from God in the Movies
WHY: There were a few sermons that were really fun for me to preach on a personal level, so it was hard to pick my absolute favorite. It was a year in which I got to share the stage with my dad, which was a huge highlight for me. I also had a few moments of personal insight[3] that led to the message scratching the creative itch for me. These were messages like “The Colors God Uses” in the series on Joseph called The Dreamer and even a few of the recent messages in our Advent series called Joy to the World.

With that being said, “Interstellar” was the way I would preach on a regular basis if context weren’t something you have to take into account. It combined elements from recent culture, science, philosophy, and was a sermon that was a form of what I would call “micro-apologetics.”[4] There was a mountain of information to cover, so this was a rewarding process in whittling it down as much as possible to what was essential. It was also challenging to work in ways to keep people engaged, which was part of the idea behind using the chalkboard and throwing the ball into the congregation how I did in this message. All in all, it was the message I was most proud of in 2015.


LEAST FAVORITE SERMON:
“LOCAL/GLOBAL” from Ethos
WHY: There are certainly messages I personally liked less, and there were messages that were less effective than this one, as well. I will also say that the most stressful sermon was sharing the stage with my dad. He did a fantastic job answering some incredibly difficult questions. On the flip side, the dialogue or “interview with commentary” style as a form of communicating is drastically different than preaching.

But the reason “LOCAL/GLOBAL” was my least favorite message is because there were way too many people who walked away thinking I am against global missions (as if that’s even something that is optional for a church or an individual disciple of Jesus).[5] Part of this may have been due to the fact that this was the first message in the series. I think it took a while to understand that we’re not opposed to doctrine, nor do we believe the Church should ignore the needs of “insiders.” For whatever reason, though, this message was received a lot of different ways, which is, first and foremost, on me as the communicator.


FAVORITE SERIES:
The Dreamer
WHY: The best reason I can give you for this being my favorite series is I got really enthralled with the details of Joseph’s story. It stands out in Scripture for a reason and is an amazing story of faith. Joseph is someone that I felt like I could relate to in many ways, yet he is simultaneously one of those people in the Bible that is in rarified air when you look at all he endured. All I can say is that means the author recounted Joseph’s story in the most captivating way possible. To tell a story in such a way that you can relate to someone who is nearly “untouchable” is unique. I’ve already thought back on Joseph’s life and his example of faith countless times since this series.


LEAST FAVORITE SERIES:
#blessed
WHY: Starting a new semester in a “college town” is always a difficult task because of the mixture of listeners you are going to encounter the first few weeks of the semester. Inevitably, we are going to have young people trying us out for the first time and making snap judgments on what we’re all about as a church. You also have families looking to get connected to a new church during this time of year, which is a completely different “audience” than college students. On top of all of this, you have the core of our church who also needs to grow and be challenged in their faith, and hearing some of the most fundamental aspects of our church get repeated too often can cause the vision to become stale for this group over time. And just for fun, you get to do all of the legwork of starting a new series with this complicated concoction of listeners. I’ll just say it’s not my favorite time of year to preach.

On top of all of the normal fun during that time of year, I was not pleased with how I executed as a communicator within this series. I felt as though I was extremely faithful to the text in the messages, but I didn’t do a great job of connecting the text (usually one or two verses) to the chapter it is in, the primary themes in Luke’s gospel, the message of the New Testament, and the major theological strands throughout the entire Bible.[6] All in all, the stakes were high and I felt as though it was important to set the stage for what was around the corner for our congregation. In doing so, I missed some key opportunities to be as clear as I needed to be with certain aspects of the Gospel message for those who were dropping in for the first time. I have to trust that the Spirit connected the dots for people despite my ineffectiveness.


CLOSING THOUGHTS
Overall, 2015 is a year that I am really proud of when I look back on all that we covered. I love being able to teach Scripture on a regular basis and realize that it’s a privilege, not a right. I believe preaching changes things and carries an inherent eternal value and weight. That’s probably one reason why it’s not always easy or “fun.” However, it is something I thoroughly enjoy doing and is something I want to keep getting better at over time.

I would love to hear your thoughts on what stood out to you over the last 12 months. What was something you learned over the last year? In what new ways did God shape you as a disciple? What books of the Bible or topics would you personally like to see covered in 2016? Go ahead and share those lunch conversations you’ve already had in the comment section below.


[1] For those “purists” that think the Holy Spirit can only work in the moment, I think that is a fundamentally flawed idea. Spontaneity is not a pre-requisite for the Spirit to work. If that’s the case, then the Incarnation wasn’t a true work of the Spirit of God because it was prophesied thousands of years before the birth of Christ. What I find to be more inspiring and humbling is when the Spirit works in my sermon planning months in advance to reach someone in a unique way down the road.
[2] What is really fun is preaching a message that I know is falling flat a second time in our multiple service/multiple campus model!
[3] Call it “revelation,” if you will.
[4] This is when I begin by asking how this Scripture can be true because it sounds crazy on an initial, surface reading of it, and then we work to unveil the truth that your average person, no matter their worldview, agrees upon behind the text.
[5] The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 is not optional or “a piece of good advice” for followers of Jesus.
[6] This method of biblical interpretation is a skill I plan on teaching in the spring of 2016.

Transitions and Planting Trees

Mark and Carol Welstead are the kind of people you want your children to know because they are the kind of people you yourself hope to become. Steady, reliable, and a brand of sincerity that can only be produced from one divine source. At a time such as this when we wait for God to demonstrate righteous deeds again, it’s important to see the God-fearing people in our midst now as we proceed to establish new “oaks of righteousness” for our future (Isaiah 61).

Continue reading “Transitions and Planting Trees”

Welcome to Church

A faint ringing in the ears forced an inevitable pause in Mark’s Sunday morning. Standing outside of an historic, renovated theatre, Mark had been engaged in conversation alongside other volunteers preparing for their weekly gathering time. The gathering on some occasions was a homogenous roll call of arrangements and readings for like-minded and like-attired citizens, but nevertheless it was a once-every-7-days kind of reminder to Mark that there was more to his life than going to class and acting with class to impress the people he tended to be around. Suppressing the ringing in his ears with a palm on his temple, Mark looked down the street to see two men walking towards the theatre, appearing to come from nowhere, or at least from a different part of town than Mark was used to encountering.

Continue reading “Welcome to Church”

3 Factors in Providing Feedback // Life Group Evaluation

When Paul talks about the Church in 1 Corinthians 12, he says that the Church is a body. Such biology of the Church calls for frequent check-ups and evaluations in order to assure generally healthy standards. Although the providential work of God cannot be quantified with a blood pressure cuff, the effects of God’s grace can be measured. As a small group church, we have various Life Groups that are everything like living, breathing organisms on their own, so we want to do our best to create metrics and diagnostics to promote community-building within groups and, on an individual level, equip each person to serve the Church and make disciples.

One of the tools we have developed to evaluate our Life Groups is now live online, and we invite all Life Group participants to provide their own feedback. We have a separate form for young professionals, but all adult participants in Life Group are encouraged to offer honest feedback.

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As you complete an assessment tool like this one, you can consider three important factors:

  1. Quantity
  2. Posture
  3. Movement

Quantity – I could tell you until I’m blue in the face that I am in good health, or I could show you some hard data and numerical depictions of why I am, in fact, blue in the face. When it comes to measuring the substance of Life Groups, we’re not looking for numbers as in grades or percentages, but we are unashamedly looking for stories–quantifiable evidence of transformation. We do want to see your scaled ratings for things like group dynamics, but more importantly, we want to hear about your lived experiences because it’s stories of transformation that encourage the individual and can encourage others, too.

Posture – As we offer reflections on the past semester of Life Group, we must approach this evaluation with a posture of honesty. If your lived experiences include negative moments, then do not overlook them, but be transparent and acknowledge them. To calm fears, I would say, “There are no wrong answers,” but the reality is that the one wrong answer in a feedback form is a false answer, something in complete denial of the truth. If we’re willing to be transparent, a critical posture provides honest to goodness insight into our current state. If there is an element of biblical community where we could improve, then let’s call it out, and if we’re healthy, then it’s our duty to bear witness to God’s providence.

Movement – With an honest posture of reflection and some tangible evidence in hand, feedback is only as good as the movement it creates. Feedback is for evaluation and for corrective information, so let it correct you, let it set a fire beneath your group, and let it spur us on to continue the Great Commission. On this particular evaluation form for Life Groups, our team will follow up on individual requests for further assistance, we will be using the reports to coach individual groups and leaders, and through it all, our hope is not the pursuit of a better “grade” for Harris Creek but for willing disciples that are better equipped to serve our role in the Body of Christ.