Pro-Life Is Not Enough

I’ve never accepted abortion. Even when God seemed nothing more than imagination, babies being ripped from wombs made me sick. Atheism didn’t blind me from that, at least.

But Christ made me see that my revulsion at doctors hacking babies to pieces isn’t enough. Even voting “my values” doesn’t go far enough. That’s because being pro-life (or anti-abortion, if you prefer) doesn’t stop with saving children from death. There’s much more.

There’s the root.

Women and men make the choice to rid themselves of pregnancies because they lack vision—vision of a world with them as parents. They see stalled careers; they see dead-end relationships; they see poverty. But they don’t see the lifetime commitment it takes to raise a child.

Passing laws, posting pictures of aborted babies, pushing ultrasounds—all of those have power, but none of them suck the fear out of the unknown. None of those give prospective parents a vision of a successful life for themselves or their child. They may see what’s inside, but they don’t see a way forward.

If we call ourselves pro-life, we have to go all in. We have to lay out a vision for single mothers that doesn’t involve poverty, drugs, and abusive boyfriends. We have to provide a road forward that doesn’t seem bereft of help. If we save a child from abortion, we’ve done well. But if we leave a mom without any support, if we’ve left her to fend on her own, we’ve shown her neighbors that abortion may be the better choice.

If we call ourselves pro-life, we have to take up with the young men of our nation. We have to provide them with examples of what it means to take care of others. We have to show them that love comes down to serving, show them a vision of responsible fatherhood. Otherwise, many of them are stuck fatherless and broken, which only empowers abortion providers.

If we call ourselves pro-life, we must adopt young parents as our own children—even if they aren’t married. Many of them have only TV shows and movies for instructions on raising kids, since their real parents weren’t around. They lack faith in lasting relationships; they have no idea that marriage can reveal Christ’s love for us. They need you. They need Him.

If we call ourselves pro-life, we can’t stop at the picket line. We have to take Christ to the core of the problem. We have to give vision and hope to those who see none beyond the abortion clinic.

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Reaching Inbox Bliss

[This is a reprint of an article published last year.]

On a given day, my five email inboxes fill up with around 100 emails. The urge to read, respond, sort, and delete often proves overwhelming. I have to get the number back to zero before I can move on. I confess—it’s almost a compulsion.

Unlike traditional mail, email is cheap and instant. You can whisk out dozens of them without spending a cent, and the recipients have the digital bits nearly as soon as you press the send button. Of course, the same is true in reverse. With a good percentage of the population clacking away at their keyboards, the avalanche of emails often buries ministry leaders.

But you can get your email to work for you instead of being enslaved by it with a few simple steps.

Multiple Email Addresses

Cut down on the email time warp with more email addresses? That might sound crazy, but consider who exactly has your email address. Often, you have to give your address to online sites to purchase items, establish new accounts, and register for giveaways. If you set up an email address specifically to give to such sites, you’ll know that most emails you get on that account are low priority or promotional.

Reserve your main email address for friends, family, or professional contacts. If you have limited time, you can focus on that address for the more important missives.

A program like Apple Mail or Microsoft Outlook can easily handle all your accounts (they gather your mail from Exchange, Gmail, iCloud, Yahoo! Mail, and other accounts). Setting them up is easier than you may think.

The When

Resist the urge to check your email more than once or twice per day. If you leave your email program or site open, you’ll constantly check as soon as a new piece of mail pops into existence.

In fact, be careful about checking first thing when you sit down to work. If you do, you’ll likely spend most of your time deleting and typing instead of working on the project you meant to tackle. Could you miss something urgent? Perhaps. But if it’s really important, you’ll likely get a phone call or text message instead.

Plan your time carefully. Open up your mail, work through what you can, and get out when time’s up.

Inbox Zero

Do something with every email you receive instead of letting it taunt you from the inbox. Respond to the most urgent ones and then either delete or archive. If some have information you’ll need later, put them in a folder or archive. For messages that need a response later, move them to folders based on the date or timeframe you need to write back. After that, go through the folder for today’s date and either respond or move them.

Mastering email means being intentional. If you try to simply handle it as you can, you’ll likely end up frustrated with a bloated inbox. Put a system in place and stick with it.

Unresolved for 2012: Using a Life Plan Instead

I gave up on resolutions a few years ago. I’d look up at those lofty goals, get excited for a week at most, and then promptly procrastinate my way through the year. The resolution train got me nowhere.

That’s where a life plan comes in. Now, “life plan” and “resolution” may sound dangerously similar, but it’s all about the mindset. Instead of considering big projects for the year or major changes to accomplish in twelve months, a life plan breaks things down into manageable chunks. It shows just how much of a work in progress you are. Plus, you don’t ignore it after you make it—you keep at it.

Here’s the life plan model that works for me:

First, jump on Evernote or something else that has multi-platform support. You need a life plan you can access anywhere. If you write it in a notebook, you’ll probably forget about it.

Next, establish several categories that you’d like to focus on. I broke my life plan into God, Marriage, Family, Outreach, Health, Time Management, Skills Development, Finances, and Future. Basically, I just stole some of that from the fine folks at 3DM, and the categories cover most of what I need. But pick whatever makes sense for where you are in life.

Under each category, establish small improvements from where you are. This is the main part. Pray about where you’re falling short, and then aim for a slight bump that’s concrete. If you write “Love my wife more,” you haven’t really helped yourself improve. But if you write “Go on a date once per week,” you’ve got something to hang on to. Also, you may simply want to maintain what you’re doing. And that works, too.

Mine looks something like this (note: I’m still working on some of these):

God

  • Pray at least 30 minutes per day.
  • Read the Bible each day.
Outreach
  • Volunteer once per month (with my family if possible).
  • Frequent the same local businesses each week.
Time Management
  • Check my email no more than 3 times per day.
  • Access Facebook in the mornings only.

After you’ve written a few points under each category, share your list. If you’re married, email it to your husband or wife. If not, then ask a friend. You need someone who can help you keep focused.

When working through your life plan, make sure that you address one point at a time. Keep it simple, and don’t try to tackle everything in one massive life renovation. God improves us gradually throughout our lives—so, work with Him in whatever He’s doing. A life plan really depends on prayer and keeping a God rhythm going.

And once you’ve got the list ready, set a calendar reminder to look at it at least once every three months. I prefer once per month, but go with what works. When I review, I make some tweaks and decide what area to look at next.

Yes, I know this look suspiciously like goal setting, but—as I said—the biggest difference is constant evaluation and incremental improvement. Don’t waste your resolutions on grandiose aspirations. Make each step a bite-sized morsel—of salad, of course.

From the Inside Out: Sharing the Unchanging Gospel in a Changing World

[I wrote this about a year ago for a magazine and can now share it here.]

On the south side of Richmond, Virginia, the elderly couple holds their sign and waits fruitlessly. In a place where Saturdays mark fish fries and sidewalk gatherings, they beckon to a church yard sale. In an area populated by weather-worn buildings with rough, hand-painted signs for the “Apostolic Kingdom of Jesus Worshippers,” they offer a pristine mainline church with a name handed down for decades. Around them the community reflects a diverse mix of African Americans and Asians and Hispanics, but the parking lot of the church contains only one skin color—one completely dissimilar to those passing on the sidewalk.

It’s a moment that suits Richmond well, a city where pylons still stretch up out of the James River to hold a bridge that no longer exists, a casualty of the fleeing Confederate army. Here you’ll find many mainline churches with middle-class, aging congregations. Their homes retreat farther and farther away from the little islands they’ve kept up in the middle of rough neighborhoods. Tradition holds them there—but it’s doubtful they’ve seen a new believer in years.

Some area churches have already succumbed to dwindling membership. Only a few miles from where the couple waits, a tall steeple casts an impressive shadow across Cowardin Avenue, and you might be excused for thinking this growing mosque still housed a church. Other former mainline churches boast boarded-up windows, graffiti, and orange notices to keep out.

The River City changed, and when those churches wouldn’t budge, the city changed them.

Hope and a Drug Dealer

Walker’s not the type of guy who would care much about the history of such churches in the city he calls home. The drug-dealer-turned-Bible-smuggler spends his days telling people how Jesus spared his life from his former employer and how the Holy Spirit empowered him to tell Egyptians about Christ without a translator.

His nights only vary because of the location. Instead of speaking to the people in his apartment building, he’s talking about Jesus as a bouncer at a bar. He’s intimidating, and he’s enthusiastic. He’s also evidence of hope, a sign that some Christians in Richmond have realized the seismic shift that’s happening. Instead of boarding up and taking flight, they’re taking the gospel to the people outside.

Pastor Bryan Ogle of Enon Church of God knows something about the importance of this outward focus toward a changing culture. Twenty-five minutes south of downtown Richmond, the community around Enon continues to swell. “The church moved to this location eight to 10 years ago,” he says. “Where we are now is more of a suburb of Richmond. There’s a military base that’s supposed to triple in size. So, just the culture of the area that the building sits in now is much different.”

When he first arrived, however, the church had faced struggles. “The congregation had just gone through some difficult times. They just went through a transition of culture, and some people left. It was a low-morale type environment.”

In many ways, the first steps Pastor Ogle took reflect the purpose statement of the church: “Love God. Love people. Serve the world.” He opened his home to the congregation, inviting them to learn about the vision God had given him for Enon. From there, he’s leading the church through necessary change to better serve the community.

“We’re in the process of not thinking of the church as the way it’s always been. That goes from music to our discipleship approach to just having the church go from a smaller church mentality to a bigger church one. Changing the mentality of how leaders within the church lead. We are in the process of embracing the culture that will lead us into the future.”

From handing out Gatorades at the local Y to hosting a night of camping on the church grounds to special seminars and events, the outward gestures to the changing community are already having a big impact as the church grows.

Hope and a Hurricane

Few shifts in culture, however, have been as dramatic as what happened in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The vibrant community of Homestead Church of God collapsed from about 200 people to 27 following the devastation. Seemingly overnight, South Miami-Dade County shed 250,000 people who left the ravaged area behind.

Their example deeply influenced his desire to reach the “new” Homestead. “I’ve never seen such devotion and raw, pure, self-sacrificial ministry that close. I think most people would have left the community for normal lives. They didn’t. They deserve [much] credit for their tenacity and faithfulness.”

The church he began leading had around 32 dedicated members, but God gave him a vision to remove as many barriers as possible and to create a “gospel-obsessed community that loves God and man with reckless abandon.” Disaster had changed the city, economic adversity had hardened those in the area, but the need for the unchanging gospel is always the same.

Homestead, the post-Andrew Homestead, needed to hear that message, and Pastor Johnson wanted to make it happen. “We considered ourselves a church re-plant. We rebranded [as Life Pointe Church], sold property, re-opened, restructured, and relocated. But, in order to do all that, we had to have the buy-in from our church body and from the COG state office. The process for that [took] several years.”

Even seemingly small cosmetic changes had a significant impact. “As we talked about the future, we improved the facility. We simplified everything by throwing away anything that hadn’t been used in a year. We painted using Starbucks’ colored themes. We re-landscaped. We were broke. So, everything we did was with elbow grease and donated services from new members. The week we painted, we had families show up for the first time saying they had never seen the church before. The physical changes lent credence to and reinforced the vision. As small wins built up, we were able to tackle the greater pursuit of relaunching.”

A New World Outside

According to early results from the 2010 census, the world outside the church building continues to transform. Married couples with children account for only 22% of all households nationally, and “minorities” are no longer minorities in many places. Three million people have left the Northeast, and the Midwest shed another two million—many of them relocating to the South.1

Shifting demographics affect all churches, perhaps more now than in many years. To share the gospel effectively, churches must reach out to the changing realities like Enon and Life Pointe have. Otherwise, the community may increasingly ignore the church—and the message.

Footnote: 1http://adage.com/article?article_id=139592

Being Gutted

You don’t realize how much you idolize someone until they fall. Before that point, it’s couched in terms such as admiration and respect. After the fall, it’s shock and awe.

We often look back and wonder why we didn’t see the person’s shortcomings, why we didn’t realize they would betray our trust. By then, of course, it’s far too late.

I don’t say this as a what-if scenario. Someone I considered a role model recently confessed serious shortcomings. The news gutted me. I didn’t personally know the guy, had no real connection with him (other than by reputation), but the revelation hit close.

And maybe that’s what really makes the impact. This guy had done something I have a vision to do—and then fell. He had it together—but not really, not behind the veneer.

In other words, I’m not that different. If this guy could have a Bathsheba moment, so could we all.

Watching idols fall serves as a warning to each of us. If you could somehow erase the section of your brain concerning King David’s life and read it fresh, imagine the shock you’d have finding out this goodie-two-sandals, Goliath-head-chopping, shepherd-king became a petty, wife-stealing wimp.

If he messed up—God’s chosen king, a man after God’s own heart—so could you. Don’t think you’re immune. Instead, realize how much you need the Holy Spirit every time you pull yourself out of bed in the morning.

The Day Without a Computer

The title of this post sounds like a horror movie. But maybe not the way you think.

My first thought when I don’t have some piece of “essential” information (e.g., where can I buy Cheerwine?) always involves silicon and a screen. In fact, my life has gotten to the point that it orbits some sort of technology all the time.

And that’s where I find some horror. If I’m honest, I’ll tell you that most days computers see my face more than my family. That bothers me—a lot.

Granted, most of my work involves hunching over a keyboard, pounding out words. I love words, love how they can make much beauty out of something so simple as letters fitted together.

But I love my family more.

So, I’ve started taking a day off the computer each week (usually Sunday). I really can’t take credit for this stroke of obvious genius, since my wife started it, but the impact has been amazing. For one thing, my stress level plummets when I’m not under the purview of my computer-master. If I don’t take a day off, I notice my irritability rising—probably because my inbox is never zero.

Also, I savor the days when I’m not caught in the endless Wikipedia link-loop (you know what I mean). Time passes much more slowly. Considering how quickly my girls grow up, I’ll take all the time I can get with them.

No computer means a focused connection with my wife—rather than the 7 billion other people on Facebook and Twitter. I love social media, but sometimes I just want to focus on her.

Finally, I’ve found that just about anything can take my eyes off God. Being able to put something aside for a day without being reduced to withdrawal symptoms shows me that He still takes priority. (Frankly, not using a computer can challenge me here, as the temptation to dive back in is pretty strong.)

Take a day off each week. You’ll enjoy the break.

Dislodging Dysfunction

Dysfunction saps creativity in ministry, usually because innovators find too many obstacles to complete their work. Communication sputters; handoff becomes hands off; and follow-through falls through.

I’ve had the privilege of working for both highly efficient companies and living-on-a-miracle ones. That’s “privilege” in the sense of being a guinea pig and figuring out what works—and what makes you want to take sick days. Just being real.

Here’s what the efficient ones had in common:

A Funnel

Each department inherits ministry responsibilities—sometimes strategically, sometimes out of need. For example, a web team might be tasked with email communication or social media. That’s to be expected. But when these responsibilities shotgun into the department, you’ve got a mess. In departments with dysfunction, every team member gets forced into the corner of “we need this right now” and feels responsible. All other tasks get bumped down the list. What gets done depends on which demand comes from the higher authority or which has the most exclamation points in the email.

Efficient departments establish a single point of contact—a funnel. The person needs to have the authority to make decisions about task importance and the authority to reject or redirect tasks. To do this, he or she must also know who’s doing what and how projects relate to the ministry’s vision and timetable.

The person tasked to be a funnel must be gifted in administration, or the department falls right back into the shotgun method.

Clear Windows

Efficiently assigning projects means nothing if team members isolate themselves. In dysfunctional departments, projects disappear in one person’s email inbox. No one knows what anyone else works on unless accidentally revealed in a rant fest.

Cohesive departments (and businesses) share tasks continually. My last supervisor led a weekly department meeting focused almost exclusively on our personal agendas (there were also hilarious pop culture asides). During those meetings, related projects could be coordinated instead of languishing in the “to-do” folder. We also often found that someone else had already done what we needed to do or knew a contact who could help (i.e., shared knowledge = saved time).

Clear windows don’t happen by chance. You have to open them.

Mile Markers

Funnels and windows only get the projects rolling, but they’re not enough by themselves. In companies with a vision problem, a lack of follow-through often derails projects or makes for rushed results. You’ll hear this: “Go ahead and do it. We’ll fix it later.”

What you need are mile markers—clear, consistent goals. In ministries that lack these, I often see a great deal of wasted time because no one ever examines the workflow and barriers. Person A needs Person B to do something before the project can get finished (usually over and over). Meanwhile, Person B is waiting on Person C (usually over and over).

Mile markers allow a project coordinator (often the funnel) to see where hangups are and find ways around them.

Bottom Line

Efficiency is not the default mode of operation—it takes guts and determination. But if we’re working like it’s all for God, then shouldn’t ministry be more efficient than most businesses?