Why God’s Will is Like a Freeway

Why God’s Will is Like a Freeway

As a pastor, one of the most common questions I receive from people is, “How can I know if this decision I need to make is God’s will or not?”

And I almost always reply, “Tell me what God’s will looks like to you.”

Most of the time, the answers sound similar: “Well, I know that God has a perfect plan for my life. I’m just terrified to make a decision that isn’t a part of that perfect plan. So how do I know if what I’m about to do is the right decision or the wrong one?”

After all, Jeremiah 29:11 says, “’For I know the plan I have for you,’ declares the Lord.” Right?

Wrong.

It actually says, “’For I know the planS I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘planS to prosper you and not to harm you, planS to give you hope and a future.’”

Let’s set aside the argument that this verse should only be applied to its original context with the People of Israel, and make the assumption that it can still apply to our lives today. Notice that there isn’t just one plan; there are multiple planS. I do not think this is unintentional. Also notice that those multiple plans do not spell out specific details, but rather point toward a desired outcome or end-goal.

This verse took on new light for me when I heard a brilliant man named Reuben Welch explain the will of God as being “less like a single beam of light and more like a spectrum of options.”

I’ve taken that idea and formed a metaphor that I like to share with those people who come to me with this question:

Think of God’s will as being less like a single-lane road and more like a multi-lane freeway. Instead of having one lane that you are always trying to stay in, terrified that you might accidentally stray from it, God’s will might be more accurately portrayed as a multi-lane freeway, with several options to choose from, all heading in the same direction.

As long as you’re on the right freeway, heading in the right direction, you can find comfort that you are “in God’s will.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shared that metaphor with someone and witnessed an instant sigh of relief. Although there are times in life when we think it would be easier if God could just show us the single lane that God has designed for us to be in, I’m not sure that’s how God works. I believe God gives us choices and says, “Take your pick. These seven lanes are all good. They’re all heading in the right direction.”

You can extend the metaphor in many ways. For example, there are other freeways, travelling in a variety of “wrong” directions, and they are constantly tempting us to “take a detour.” Or, I had someone once say, “I think there are also pilot cars that God puts in your life to help make sure you are travelling in the right direction.” There are also times when the traffic gets bad, and life forces you to slow down, and times when you speed up and change lanes over and over.

Take it where you will, but the bottom line is this: If you’re in a pastor’s office asking, “How can I know if this decision I need to make is God’s will or not?” chances are, you’re probably already closer than you think.

We Need to Talk

We Need to Talk

The room fell silent as soon as a 91-year-old man finished his highly prejudiced description of the picture that used to come to his mind every time he would hear the word, “Muslim.”

That was when I learned that a completely silent room could become even more silent than silent.

He continued his story, “But I’ve got to tell you—since my wife passed away several years ago, the only family in my neighborhood that has been consistently nice to me are my next door neighbors, who just happen to be Muslim. And it’s got me thinkin’, ‘If there can be nice Muslims in this world, then there’s got to be all sorts of nice people from different cultures and backgrounds that I don’t know about because I’ve never met ‘em.’”

That was when the room went from “pin-drop silence” to “speck-of-dust-drop silence.”

All 30 of us in that mid-week Bible study knew that what we had just heard was the truth, and we all recognized the fact that each one of us had been guilty of the same thing.

Take your pick. Choose your “those people.” We all have them. If you can’t think of who your “those people” are right away, then just think a little harder.

The reason we all have “those people” in our lives is not necessarily because we don’t like them; it’s because we don’t know them. Knowing “those people” changes them from “those people” to REAL people. But far too often we simply choose to remain comfortable in our boxes of unfamiliarity, boxes that lead to us form caricatures and inaccurate assumptions about who “those people” are and why they act they way they do.

Matthew 5:23-24 tells us to refrain from worshipping until we’ve settled our differences with our neighbor, or with “those people.” How do we settle those differences? By talking.

As basic as this sounds, we need to talk.

How are disputes in a marriage settled? By talking.

How do next-door neighbors decide how to split the cost of a new fence? By talking.

How do countries reach agreements and form treaties? By talking.

And yet, as simple as it seems, talking with people is not naturally our first reaction when we don’t understand the actions of “those people.”

“But people might see me talking to them!”

“But they might not want to talk.”

“But what if they really are like the prejudiced caricature of them I’ve painted in my mind?”

Those questions didn’t seem to bother Jesus. Over and over, Jesus was criticized for associating with “those people.” In fact, Jesus spent way more time with the people who were cast aside by society than he did with the “in crowd.” And in doing so, Jesus introduced the Kingdom of God by destroying the imaginary divisions that separate groups of real people from other groups of real people, one conversation at a time.

Lord, that we might do the same! Give us the courage to break the mold of comfort. Guide us into encounters with people who are vastly differently from us. Open our eyes to your image on the face of every person we are privileged to meet in this world. And fill our mouths with conversations that break down barriers.

So, the next time you find yourself tempted to judge “those people,” begin by asking yourself, “Do I even know any of ‘those people?’ Have we talked?” After all, “there’s got to be all sorts of nice people from different cultures and backgrounds that [we] don’t know about because [we’ve] never met ‘em.”

The Power of a Little Hand

Blessing of Teachers

I can’t get over this image.

This past Sunday at Table of Grace we had a “blessing of the backpacks.” I invited teachers, school administrators, crossing guards, cafeteria workers, and everyone else involved in our school systems to come forward to be commissioned into this new school year. As they gathered on the stage, I invited the children to surround them on the floor level.

I then asked those who were comfortable doing so to extend a hand of blessing toward the stage as I prayed over the school employees. Within our context, this act isn’t something that is practiced often, so it stands outside the comfort zone of many of our church members.

When I saw this picture after the service, I was humbled.

At the bottom of the photo is a child, with her hand in the air, actively participating in the blessing of these school employees in a physical way that was visible to those around her.

My sermon on Sunday was about Apollos, from Acts 18, and the lessons that we can glean from his example of humility. If you recall, Apollos humbly receives instruction from Priscilla and Aquila, immediately after preaching in the synagogue “with great fervor.”

What was inspiring about Apollos was his willingness to be corrected when he thought he was preaching correctly. He didn’t question Priscilla’s teaching; he took it to heart and changed his message to include the truth of Jesus Christ about which she told him.

Humility opened Apollos to instruction.

When I saw this image of this little hand in the air, blessing her teachers and school employees, I couldn’t help but think of the humility that was being displayed.

What would it look like for adults to bless those who are placed in authority over us?

What would it look like for us to humbly open ourselves to instruction on a daily basis?

How might we extend our hand in faith as we pray for those who lead us—whether we agree with them all of the time, or rarely?

God,

Grant me the grace to be humble, even when I think I’m right,

The openness to daily instruction, even when it stretches me,

The faith to pray for those who lead me, even when I disagree,

And the courage to participate boldly, even when my hand stands alone.

Outside-In vs. Inside-Out Thinking in Churches

SplitShire-4043

Since my last blog post, “The Savannah House—A Missional Experiment in Plano, TX,” I’ve received several comments about my thoughts on “Inside-Out vs. Outside-In Thinking.” In that post, I wrote these words:

Far too many churches suffer from an addiction to outside-in thinking. They look at what other churches have found successful and they try to mirror those same practices in their own context. Often, when the practices fail, they are left scratching their heads, asking, “Why did it work for them, but not for us?”

Outside-in thinking leads to burnout. Rarely will your church live up to the success that another church had with its own program.

Inside-out thinking, however, asks, “How is God calling us to uniquely live out the gospel in our particular context?” Like missionaries in foreign cultures, each ministry approach is most effective when it is organically shaped by the context in which it exists.

I have to give credit to Dr. Ryan Bolger, at Fuller Theological Seminary, for introducing me to this concept, particularly as it pertains to ministry in the church. I’d like to briefly expand on the impact this concept should have on the way we strategize and shape our ministries.

Many churches today begin to see decline in their weekly attendance and they think, “Uh oh, we’ve got a problem.” They desire to find a “miracle solution” that will fix it. The truth is, ministry in the 21st century is a lot messier than just a set of problem/solution formulas. There are no “one-size-fits-all” answers to reverse the changing realities of religion in the United States (which is why every “How to Really Bring Millennials Back to Church” article drives me crazy).

When we do look for those outside answers to our inside problems, we find ourselves trying to put on clothes that just don’t fit. Then we get frustrated that a church in a completely different context “looks so good” wearing the clothes that we think should fit us the same way.

It’s not that easy.

But here’s the good news: Your church is God’s church.

There is a reason God has gathered the particular people who make up your community of faith. I believe that any gathering of God’s people is one of the greatest gifts of God’s love we will experience in this life.

If that’s the case, then, God cares about your church. God is alive and active in your church. God has a purpose for your church—and that purpose is unique.

This is where inside-out thinking needs to replace outside-in thinking. Rather than borrowing strategies and goals from the outside and trying to make them fit your church, the first step should be an internal examination of the gifts and resources that God has placed in your lap.

Maybe your church thinks it should start a contemporary service, but you have absolutely no one in your congregation who enjoys contemporary worship music. Then it’s probably not a good fit.

Maybe your church thinks it should purchase a larger pipe organ to attract people who are impressed by that type of thing, but you don’t have the funds to make the purchase and your only organist is that lady who plays like a 3rd grader trying to learn to type with one finger at a time. Then it’s probably not a good fit.

Maybe your church thinks it should continue doing the same exact outreach events it has been doing for the past 20 years, even though they attract only 20% of the people they used to engage. Then it’s probably no longer a good fit.

In the same way churches tend toward outside-in thinking with other churches’ strategies and programs, churches can also get stuck participating in outside-in thinking with their own pasts.

Inside-out thinking, on the other hand, recognizes that our church—today—looks different than it ever has, and exists in a context that it never has. When we begin with the unique gifts that God has given us today in the context in which we exist today, then we open ourselves to the unique ways that God is stirring within us—and only us—to live faithfully as God’s people in our unique situation.

It’s time to stop wearing someone else’s clothes, and instead, ask God to clothe you with the wardrobe that God has designed specifically for your community of faith. When you do, you’ll find yourself with more life and energy than you ever knew you had. Instead of failing at being something that you aren’t—or failing at being something that you used to be—you’ll find yourself thriving because it just seems so natural. That’s when you know it’s the right fit.