This last week at Eastlake Community Church has been incredible. We saw five people come to faith in Christ and it has really made me overwhelmingly grateful for what we have. Some of you have wondered, what makes ELCC tick? Why does God seem to be working? What is the "magic" formula? Hey, I would be the first to say we do NOT have all the answers. We have so many areas to improve in how we wish we could know God and serve others better! And so this list I offer you is not a "look what we are doing right" boast. It is simply 30 observations I have made that I believe help make ELCC into the church it is today. I know...thirty is a long list! Maybe you might want to read half and then take your afternoon nap before reading the second half. But if only one of these is of help to you, I count this post a success! Enjoy.
1 - Talent does not keep true believers
When I first got out of Bible School, I was praying God would send me talented people for my church planting team in Toronto. People who could sing well and lead ministries well. But I have come to believe that talent is largely overrated. Don't get me wrong, we have some serious talent at ELCC! We have people who can really sing, preach, and lead ministries. But I am convinced through observation that Spirit-led ministries stay for the long haul while talented ministries in the flesh will fail. I will take a Spirit-filled person over a talented person any day of the week. (It's kind of fun when you get both in one package though!)
2 - Big things matter
As our youth pastor, Lincoln Bryan says, "Our church attempts to be pretty and not petty." (I have to pay him a royalty every time I use this quote) Petty churches talk about petty things. We all have our definition of what we think is petty and what we think is important. But our standard for what we believe is important is set by the standard Jesus set. (Seriously!) Things like Loving God and others are critical to us. Fulfilling the Great Commission is important to big. Living a Holy life is monumental. Giving glory to God and enjoying life to the fullest (shout out to the Christian Hedonist crowd) is awesome! We do our best not to let small things squelch the big things.
3 - Silent killers are big killers
Very few people complain if they have had a bad experience in church. They just don't come back! We ask ourselves these questions all the time: How friendly are our greeters? What is the lighting like? Was the sound too loud? Are Nathan Gumbiner's ridiculous pointy Texan shoes an eyesore to the stage set? (Sorry bro) Is one style of dress assumed for everyone?
You might think, well if visitors have a problem, they should let us know! But my observation says that not many new people will complain about these problems. And so it is our responsibility as a staff to identify these before they turn into a problem. If every week people are leaving our church and no one knows why, maybe thats a problem...okay, it IS a problem!
4 - Be the First to Acknowledge an Elephant
My default mode used to be to ignore problems. By not dealing with them, maybe they will go away or magically grow smaller. But one of the reasons I admire the culture at Eastlake is we deal with problems very quickly and directly. We do not let things build. Troy likes to say, "Lack of communication causes confusion, confusion breeds doubt, and doubt causes disunity." (Or something like that. Read his book, "Seven Secrets to Having Great Associate Pastors" to get the exact quote) When I have an issue with a person, I can't let it build a week before I talk to them. If I do, the blame lies with me.
5 - Birds in the cages and lions tamed (since we're on the animal kick)
We do our best not to let one person dominate a service or a ministry. Some churches have an open testimony policy. This might not be all bad and we do this on occasion. But it never happens on a Sunday morning and often does not happen on a Wednesday night. The reason for this is an open testimony format often lends itself to people who want to testify about the same struggles. Before long, the service becomes chaotic like a bird out of a cage. So instead, Pastor Ben will often have people from the choir share a PREPARED uplifting verse of Scripture or testimony. You might call this squelching the Spirit. I tend to think it is smart. (And I tend to think 98% of the congregation agrees)
Along with this, ELCC does their best not to let one person monopolize a ministry. Leadership does not come with a title. It comes through influencing people. (John Maxwell actually got this thought from me) Everyone can view their ministry as the most important thing. But in reality, every ministry is just a part of a bigger picture. A lion leader is great because they are a self-starter. They just can't hi-jack the ship. (Okay, enough animal references)
6 - People grow fastest when they serve others
I believe churches that make it difficult for people to serve are not only unbiblical but they are also self-defeating. The quickest way to grow a person is not to place them in a year long Sunday School class. The quickest way is to mentor and disciple them WHILE they have a level of responsibility. People want to belong. If the only way a new person can have a sense of ownership in your church is by acting and looking directly like the leaders, growth will be minimal. Besides, this is just not Biblical. What restrictions does it take for a new person to lead a ministry in your church? Are all of these restrictions really necessary?
7 - Numbers matter to us because they matter to God
Numbers matter to us because numbers mattered to Jesus. The reason the good shepherd realized one of his sheep was missing was because he counted the other ninety-nine. Yes, it is harmful to obsess about numbers. But keeping close track on who is present, who is not, and whether we are losing/gaining people is so important. Hey, if counting the offering is a requirement, I believe counting people is that much more important.
8 - The Jeremiah argument just doesn't always fly
The prophet Jeremiah preached for many years and had what we might consider discouraging results. So this begs the question: Is my church just destined to be a Jeremiah church? Maybe no one in our community really wants to accept Jesus. Too often, I believe pastors use this type of thinking as a free pass. Here is my simple thought: Before calling yourself a "Jeremiah" perhaps you should ask if you are as active as Jeremiah was in his day. (And he was VERY active!) Are you really willing to be as bold as he was and get thrown into prison and ridiculed for what you believe? This might be crazy but I believe if we as pastors grabbed half of the passion Jeremiah had for reaching people, we might see some different results in our churches and in our nation!
9 - It's a battle!
When Satan is not fighting you, perhaps you are no longer relevant to him. At ELCC we are reminded often that the devil is alive and well. But we are also comforted that we serve a Jesus who is much stronger! He has already defeated Satan and is our great intercessor before the Father. I thank God for the battle that I sense raging at ELCC. Real souls are being claimed for Jesus Christ and Satan hates this with everything in him.
10 - Do not be afraid to cut and change
We run two services on Sunday morning. It is not uncommon for the second service to be noticeably different from the first. Maybe a video didn't fly so well with the people in the first. Perhaps a song needed to be cut out. There is a risk when we cut something. Someone might be offended. But we believe there is a greater risk through not making a change. We would rather risk offending one person than turning off an entire congregation. That is a difficult decision to make as a leader but I believe it is a critical one!
11 - It is hard to do ministry while wearing handcuffs
I term a handcuff as any unnecessary binding we place on people. In Matthew 23:4, Jesus spoke out against religious leaders who placed burdens that were too heavy for people to bear. (This passage is really very fascinating) What kind of restrictions does your church place on people? Are these really necessary or does the leader have them in place because THEY want to maintain a level of control over others? Hm...that hurt...and I'm the one writing this! As the saying goes, micromanaged people always leads to macro sized problems! (Totally just made that quote up. Not sure if it really makes too much sense but it felt too catchy not to include!)
12 - Step boldly and then God steps
This sounds backwards to me. Doesn't God move and then we move? Doesn't God lead us through "open doors?" Honestly, I agree with one of my seminary profs (It's fun to say profs) from WBS that "Open Door Theology" has been deadly for many in the church. Yes I believe in going where God leads and yes I pray for God to open and shut doors daily. But what happens when God calls you to do a work and it is difficult? Did the door just shut? Did God really call me to Toronto when three years in we are still struggling? Or, is God allowing you and I to persevere so that he can do something incredible through our lives? Walking by faith often requires us to take steps that are unknown to us.
13 - People must always be first
When I first came out of Bible College, I am ashamed to admit I enjoyed spending more time studying God and people than I did spending time with them. Why? It's easier! People make so much more sense on paper than they do when we interact with them in person. Today, I can honestly say that this mindset has changed. At ELCC, people always trump actives and programs. Besides, I've learned so much from the people in our church! I'm totally convinced I am the one who is the most blessed when I talk to them. How do you know if you really value people? A good place to start is by asking yourself: What eats up the most of my time each week?
14 - There are levels of priority in Scripture
I have developed a threefold filter that I use to help me prioritize Scripture and what God reveals to me. (Hopefully it is not heretical) There are: 1) Primary Beliefs 2) Principled Ideals and 3) Personal Convictions. Primary beliefs are essential to knowing God and growing in him. Without accepting these areas, we cannot continue to be Christ's disciple. Principled beliefs are those areas that require some homework and require piecing together various Scriptures. These are not always cut in stone. And then Personal Convictions are what God specifically reveals to me as a person. (E.g. No media entertainment on the Lord's day) In my opinion, the problem with a lot of churches is they do one of two things: A) They throw all three levels at a person when they walk in the door or B) They only emphasize level 1. At ELCC, we believe it is important to start people with the basics of who God is and be intentional about growing them to levels 2-3.
15 - Self-centeredness comes in different forms
Moving down to ELCC a few years ago was difficult in some ways. I had numerous friends strongly encourage me not to in fact. Because we at ELCC differ slightly in areas from my personal upbringing, I realized that through coming down here this might damage some of those relationships I had worked hard to establish. Honestly, in my mind I feared that it might keep me from speaking at places I wanted to speak at in the future. Maybe it would cause my mentors to look down on me. Would classmates think less of me? But do you notice a common denominator in all of these fears? They are all man-centered. I believe in order for God to do his greatest work in our lives, we will have to die out to the fear of men. It grieves me when I hear someone say, "I want to break out and do ------ for God but I am worried what ---- will say." What they just said is their fear of man is higher than their fear of God. Don't misunderstand, I believe Godly counsel is critical! But at the end of the day we are held accountable to God and not men. I believe with all my heart that if you are in a rut, a death to self may be in order before you break out and do something radical for God!
16 - The Best Lessons are Caught and Not Taught
When I first moved down, I remember asking Pastor Troy to be sure to tell me if I was doing anything wrong. This was the "college kid" in me coming out again. I wanted to learn all I could to grow a successful church. But he has taught me that sometimes the only way to learn a lesson is not through hearing someone teach about it but to see it lived out. This is why I decided to move down here for three years. Through being here, God has really taught me about what it means to be a part of a winning environment. By winning, I mean a change in expectations. If you are always around a culture that does not expect to lead people to Jesus, that is likely what you will accept. (although this need not be!) We expect to hear from Jesus in our service. We expect to lead someone to Christ this week. We expect that people are going to grow in new and exciting ways this coming year.
17 - Have fun...seriously!
Call this trivial but I believe it is foundational to our culture at ELCC. Honestly, when I first came I got a little frustrated at how fun our staff meetings would get. (Single graduated college students have very busy schedules after all) We commonly spend fifteen minutes in a staff meeting just joking around. (some of you are getting worried I know!) Throughout the day we will often play pranks or show each other a funny video clip we came across. (Always on lunch hours...or when Pastor Troy is not around!) Why is this important? It creates bonding. Ideas become much more fresh and innovative when people actually enjoy showing up for work. This translates into our culture on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. If the leaders are joyful, everyone is happy happy happy!
18 - Corporate prayer is powerful
Every year at ELCC we start with a corporate 21 days of prayer and fasting. In my book, this is the most meaningful season of the year. Yes, we get hungry for food. But we grow even hungrier for God. But through it God unites us in ways unimaginable and numbers of people have come to Christ through this time. (Including our current Men's Ministry Leader) I've found that extended times of prayer and fasting as a church body get you focused on the battles in life that matter most. On Monday nights, we have a couple who lead a corporate prayer meeting at church. Pretty awesome! On Sunday mornings, Pastor Troy is intentional about having times of corporate prayer at the close of services and having people come forward to pray. This can be awkward for new people and so we try to make it easier by having prayer partners in place to immediately pray with people who come forward.
19 - Unity versus uniformity
You can smell within five minutes of walking into a church if the church walks in unity. By unity, this does not mean uniformity. We are a very diverse congregation with all types of believers. We worship with Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Mormons. (Okay, I threw that last one in there just to make you a little nervous) We do not have membership but we ask that people agree to the core tenants of the Christian faith and submit in areas where they may disagree theologically. We have yearly business meetings instead of monthly ones and this keeps us from getting caught up in issues that are not important. On Wednesday nights we have 150-200 people in the sanctuary sharing a meal and studying the Bible together. (In the middle of the week!) I can't really explain this but people in our church just generally really enjoy being with each other!
20 - Organization beats smorganization every time
Every week we meet at least twice as a staff. On Tuesday morning, several of us get together and we rehash the Sunday morning service. We ask ourselves how we won and lost over the weekend. On Wednesday we have an all staff meeting. I could not imagine doing church every week without these. They are incredibly valuable! We do staff retreats quarterly. We plan in advance what our sermon series will be. In fact, every single role of toilet paper in our restrooms is symmetrically aligned before every service (Okay, so maybe our organization has it's limits and this being one of them) And no, I have never watched our worship pastor run in five minutes before service to find what he is going to lead in singing this week.
21 - Worship service goals
If we shoot for nothing, we will hit it every single time. (I think that is in Leviticus) One of the reasons I believe pastors feel that they have failed on a Sunday morning is they do not know what their goal of Sunday is in the first place. At ELCC, we have three objectives to every Sunday morning service: 1) Create Community 2) Create Experience 3) Create Transformation. Everything we do falls under these three categories. Did our announcements help to create community? Could people really worship in the song service? Was our pastoral prayer meaningful? (Obviously...Darnell Wilson was leading it after all!)
22 - Follow well and let your dream die
One of the best lines that Pastor Troy said to me after moving down was, "You are cut out to be a general...but now you are not." Some of you reading this can probably relate. You are generals in the making. You're really waiting for your chance to break out and do something. It is a "put me now coach" mindset. But have you really learned to follow well? Do you completely support the person leading you now? Let's take that a step further. Do you not only support, but do you search for ways to help your leader accomplish what they want to accomplish? God spoke this message very clearly when I first moved down. (Him and a John Maxwell as well) He said, "How well you follow down here will be how well people will follow you in Toronto." Ouch...that changed my perspective! With the best of my ability, I now try to answer assignments with a "SURE!" attitude rather than a "K" attitude. (All you emotional texters out there can relate to this!) I am a dreamer. Since I was 15, I have had huge dreams for Toronto. But I have found that in order for a dream to really thrive, it must first die. Until our dream has died to self, God cannot raise us up. But when it has died, God will raise up this dream he has placed in our heart in ways we could not have even dreamed possible! Are you a general with a dream? Question: How well have you learned to follow and has your dream died to self?
23 - We expect new people to show up!
You can tell very quickly if a church expects new people to attend their service. Are the announcements all geared towards "church people?" Does the pastor talk as though everyone heard his message the week before? Do the leaders in the church use theological language that only "devout saints" would understand? These subtle messages are subtle but they are significant. Since we expect and know new people will show up, our greeting, our ushering, and our planning all has to change! Telling someone, "The nursery is three doors down on the right" is unacceptable. A new person is to be treated, well, as you would want to be treated when you go to a place you don't know.
24 - No second class Christians
This thought is close to my heart. I've worked closely with fellow believers who have felt like second class christians in their church. Maybe they are divorced but want to serve God. Maybe they came out of a homosexual relationship but still feel no one accepts them even though they have changed. Maybe they struggle with X-Y-Z. Maybe they act a little eccentric. At ELCC, I have learned that there really are no second class Christians. Hey, every church might make this claim but here is a thought provoking question to ask yourself: How many hurting people are in my church? By hurting, I mean seriously broken individuals. If there are not many, why is this the case? Maybe the actions of people in your church convey they are not wanted.
25 - We preach a different gospel
Without going too deep into theological terms, I believe ELCC preaches a gospel that is very different from many churches in our day and age. We teach sanctification is an ongoing process in the life of a believer. Salvation is just the starting point. The Holy Spirit wants to fill every person with His presence and equip them with new power and purity. (Often people like to emphasize only one side of that coin when both are so important) We believe a true Spirit-filled person loves people in such a way that it motivates them to serve others in a way they had not previously imagined. (NOTE: This is why most of our congregational growth comes through members of the congregation bringing other non-Christian friends) If your church only emphasizes a front heavy salvation, I'd say long term sustainability and corporate unity in evangelism is going to be very difficult.
26 - Christian education is the route for saving our kids
We take heat for being so passionate about having our children grow up to receive a Christian Worldview education. (We must be crazy!) But we take the heat willingly. It has been noted that Jesus spent roughly 16,000 hours with his disciples. Do the math and this comes out to almost the same amount of hours a kid spend in K-12 grade education. Renewanation is an organization that has been very influential and through it I am convinced many lives in our church have been saved. Our church strongly supports Christian education because we believe forty hours with a kid in a week are more effective than 45 minutes in Sunday School. Besides, the future of our church will not survive without it.
27 - Community involvement is more than door to door calling
We believe the church should not beg the world to pay our bills. This means we don't go out into the community begging for money. Instead, we have given away thousands of dollars into our community through gas giveaways, water giveaways, and volunteer projects. (Granted we did sneak "Turn or Burn" tracks underneath the wiper blades of every car - kidding!) Unfortunately, the only time the community often sees the church is when they are begging them to come to church or begging for money. Enough said.
28 - Poor people were close to Jesus
Jesus loved poor people and spent a lot of time with them. Poverty comes in different forms. It comes through poor finances but it also comes through a poverty spirit. ELCC partners with a ministry called the Agape Center and it has been a win win all around. Agape, as the name might suggest, is an organization that spreads unconditional love to people. They do this through providing food, clothing, furniture, and counseling to roughly 1,500 people a month. Here is what I love. Agape partners with other churches in the community. They found an area where churches can have common ground and it has actually been probably the single greatest unifier of church people in our community. I believe failing to minister to poor people causes something within you to well up an die. Ministering to poor people reminds us to serve as Jesus served.
29 - If you are wrong, admit it
My respect has not been higher for a leader at ELCC than when they acknowledge they are wrong. I have worked to gain this trait and I hope it is true of my life. I cannot think of a more lonely road to be on than one that says "I am always right." Nothing brings apart a church quicker. I have watched repeatedly as our leaders at ELCC have apologized for things - even when they maybe did not think they were entirely wrong. Without the guts to apologize, I am convinced a church cannot last.
30 - The God of Daniel is still the God of today!
I was not a fan of missionary services growing up. One reason was because I thought they were unrealistic. I heard talk of thousands getting saved and hundreds of churches getting started. And in time I just started writing them off. But why was this the case? It was because I could not imagine that reality being true in my situation. God could not really save a thousand people in my neighborhood, could he? I started to become cynical and mentally I checked out when I saw churches speak of leading ten, twenty, or hundreds of people to Jesus in a year. After all, "They were probably just a bunch of liberal churches with non-genuine conversions anyway." God forgive me for my horrible unbelief. Through ELCC I am more confident than ever that the God of the Bible is still very much alive today. And...He wants to do incredible things through your life!
Closing thought - As I said in the opening, we DO NOT do things perfectly. Right now you might be discouraged reading this. You might be thinking, man I sure wish God would allow me to be part of a church like this. Hey, I'm probably going to be right with you in a year when I have moved to Toronto and things are tight! But my encouragement is to start where you are at. Are you really doing all you can do right now or have you settled to plateau with other lukewarm Christians around you? Are you sarcastic about your pastor and look down on other Christians as lazy.....while you yourself do very little? Or, will you back the church God has placed you in with all of your strength because you serve a cause that is higher than your personal ego? My challenge is don't settle! The God of the Bible is still exciting and eager to do what you couldn't begin to imagine through your life! Serve him alone and HE will raise you up out of any situation you are in on his time schedule!
In and all for Jesus - Ezra