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A New Baby (!) and the Indispensability of Church

A New Baby (!) and the Indispensability of Church

Our daughter, Juni, nuzzles deeply into her handknit yellow blanket each time I lift her into her crib. Whether naptime or bedtime—and many roadtrips in-between—her “banky” is her constant companion. Our friend Gwen surprised us with the blanket, bundled in a simple ribbon, a few weeks after Juni arrived. Gwen, a recent retiree, and acquaintance from our church did not tell us she was working on it before she gave it to us rather matter-of-factly.

“I make these blankets for new babies in our church and I made one for Juni,” Gwen shared when she handed the treasure to us. The blanket is a reminder of Gwen’s generosity. But even more, the blanket reminds us of the practical provision of our church.

According to Pew research, the percentage of Americans who place a great deal of trust in the Church has been cut in half over the last 45 years—from 43% to 20%. During that same period, those who place very little trust in the Church has more than tripled—from 7% to 24%. It’s not undeserved. There are scores of valid reasons Americans grow increasingly distrustful of religious people and our institutions.

In this new religious landscape, most of my Coloradan neighbors are unconvinced they should attend church rather than indulge on Sunday brunches and backcountry camping trips. Colorado is one of the least-churched states, with just one in four Coloradans attending religious services regularly. The mountains lure hikers in warm weather and skiers in the cold. The sun and snow beckon more alluringly than the pews and praise bands. Today, churchgoing in Colorado is more of a surprise than an assumption.

Pragmatically—beyond the sacramental and theological reasons I believe in Church—I cannot imagine how we could survive without our church. Since joining our church ten years ago as fresh newlyweds, my wife and I have welcomed four biological children into our family and fostered seven more. And we would be adrift if not for the steady support from our church family.

I don’t know the religious commitments of the founders of mealtrain.com, but they are doing the good Lord’s work. When each new child has joined our family, friends from church established a Meal Train, inviting our church friends, acquaintances, and even quasi-strangers from our small church to give us meals. These meals have been a lifeline over the last month since the arrival of our fourth, baby Mack.

For months into the lives of our new babies, lasagna trays, Indian takeout platters, and bountiful salads show up on our doorstep. They always arrive, it seems, at just the right time. While rocking a new baby in one arm and wrangling feisty toddlers with the other, these meals allow us to easily get food on the table. Sometimes these gift-bearing guests join us for dinner, but more often they stop in to say hello, kiss the cheeks of the new baby, and leave us with warm food ready to-be-dished-up for our growing hoard of hungry children.

When we sit at the table and enjoy the meal prepared for us by our church family (or their favorite takeout chef), we are more than just grateful for our church. We partake in the generosity of our church, feeding on their kindness and compassion toward us in those chaotic early months. In our seasons of highest vulnerability, these meals remind us of whose family we are in. Over ten years, dozens upon dozens of meals sustained us, allowing us to hold on a bit more surely to the healthy routine of family dinner, and, to our sanity.

Our non-churchgoing friends recently welcomed a new baby into their home. When our church friends provided them with meals, it came as a surprise. Though Meal Trains certainly exist outside of the Christian church community, it did not seem to in theirs. And, it made me curious as to whether evangelism marketers might consider a different approach. Rather than a kitschy catchphrase, perhaps we should title our tracts: “Free meals for exhausted parents” or “Handknit blankets > Store-bought blankets” or “Suffer the sermon for the casseroles.”

Most new parents have friends. And, they have friends who bring gifts and meals to help them survive those first few months. But what’s remarkable about a healthy church aren’t our friends, but those who are not yet our friends. Almost strangers, they sit at the opposite side of the sanctuary and participate in different corners of our church’s ministry. But because of church, these are strangers-turned-family who show up exactly when we need them to. As the confounding magi with Joseph and Mary, these friends arrive bearing gifts—not of gold and frankincense, of course—but of enchiladas and barbecue.

We are never more evangelistic about our church than when we have a new child in our home. In these exhausting moments, our church is our lifeline, so much it’s hard to not talk about it. In our increasingly self-sufficient, though isolated, Western societies, this practical case for church could do good work for us. Not all new parents are ready for the lectionary, but believe me, they are all ready for a hot meal.

The Day the Manna Disappeared

The Day the Manna Disappeared

Alli and I love being foster parents. Over the last four years, seven precious children have arrived at our doorstep as the result of some unspeakable hardships they’ve faced.

Two years ago, on a freezing cold Sunday morning in January, a phone call woke me up at 3:30 AM. An almost-3-year-old boy, Sammy, needed a safe place to go. An hour later, a caseworker pulled up in front of our home in a Chevy Suburban. Sammy laid on the backseat, asleep, and I carried him into our home. He stayed asleep until after 9:00 AM the next morning.

At the time, the only thing we knew about Sammy was his name and age. He arrived with only the clothes on his back and a blanket and pillow. We did not even know what language he spoke. When he came out to the kitchen that morning, he had no idea who we were. He experienced the heartache of being ripped away from everything he knew and was waking up in a place completely foreign to him. Sammy was hungry, isolated, and scared. I’ve never known that level of fear. I’ve never felt the things that sweet boy felt. As he scanned the kitchen, we did the only thing we thought might help: We pulled out a chair and dished him up some pancakes.

Photo: Sammy

Both here and across the world, Sammy’s experience is mirrored by so many. For people experiencing these levels of desperation and fear, no amount of job training or long-term development strategies will be all that helpful. There are times in all our lives when we simply need a plate of hot pancakes and a warm bed.

I wonder if this desperation is what Israel felt when God freed them from slavery in Egypt. Yes, life in Egypt was terribly hard. But life in the wilderness was terrifying. Like Sammy and many of our neighbors, God’s people in the wilderness felt instability and hunger and they were isolated and scared. As the Jewish people escape generations of captivity in Egypt, they escape their chain not into the Promised Land, but into the barren wilderness.

Even though God performed miracle after miracle, the people of Israel did what humans do: They forgot. They forgot God’s provision and complain that though they are no longer slaves, they will die of thirst. So God provides water for them to drink. Then, hunger sets in. 

“Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3)

Now, it’s easy to beat Israel up for their tone. From my vantage point, their persistent fearfulness is equal parts maddening and confounding. Hadn’t God just deployed legions of frogs and locusts, turned river water into blood, and turned daytime to night? You don’t think he can keep you fed?

But if we see them compassionately, as God absolutely did, our perspective changes. These freed slaves were desperately afraid. They were isolated and homeless. Like Sammy arriving in our home, Israel faced a scary new world. But God responds in love, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you… and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD.” (Exodus 16:4,6)

As always, God comes through on his promise. God does something miraculous and rains bread from heaven. “And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground.” (Exodus 16:14)

Manna was unexplainable to those who first tasted it—and even more mysterious to read about today. But one thing we do know is this provision of manna was not dependent upon the attitudes or beliefs of the recipients. Manna was a daily reminder of God’s unconditional love. No matter how little they trusted, no matter how far their hearts wandered, no matter what… the manna kept showing up. Every morning, for decades, God demonstrated no-strings-attached generosity. Until recently, though, I never considered why it stopped. I never really thought about what caused God’s daily provision of bread to stay in heaven. 

It wasn’t an imprecise day.

“The people of Israel ate the manna forty years,” we read, “till they came to a habitable land. They ate the manna till they came to the border of the land of Canaan.” (Exodus 16:35) 

“And the manna ceased the day after they ate of the produce of the land. And there was no longer manna for the people of Israel, but they ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year.” (Joshua 5:12)

It wasn’t like there was a weaning period where God provided half manna distributions. It was there each morning until it wasn’t. After providing manna for 14,600 consecutive weeks, the manna dried up. Theologian Jen Wilkin writes, “God provided manna supernaturally until the day they no longer needed it.”

God’s compassion did not stop when the manna dried up, but it did look different than it did before. For a specific time, God did give his people manna. God also gave His people land, and with the land, an invitation to put their hands to work and cultivate it, to provide for what their families needed. This, not the manna, was what God’s people longed for and prayed for—to have a place and a livelihood to call their own. And God invites us to do the same, showing us how we should care for each other.

God’s people in the wilderness and in the Promised Land enjoyed the dignity of participating in God’s good provision. As they harvested manna and later harvested the bounty of their fields, they worked and tasted the gifts of their Creator. And God called them to extend that same provision to their neighbors. In their lives and ours, sometimes that generosity looks like manna–unmerited, no-strings-attached, warm pancakes compassion to those who find themselves in the wilderness and in need of help. At other times, that generosity looks like the gift of the Promised Land–opportunity and investment availed to those ready to provide for themselves and their families. 

Front Yard People in a Backyard World

Front Yard People in a Backyard World

Nestled amid tea fields in a valley outside Byumba, Rwanda, a group of 28 farmers, grocers, and tailors gathered in a small Anglican church. We heard the group before we saw them. They sang with gusto, beating their drums and stomping their feet in worship as we filed inside. Even our most-reserved visitors could not help but join the rhythm of dancing and singing.

After introductions were made, we settled in to observe the group. They studied Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, discussing how they might better practice community. “But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up,” they read. “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” They then made savings contributions. Together, they had saved close to $500 USD over the past 12 months and had lent far more out to each other in small loans to grow their livelihoods, pay for school fees, and improve their homes.

And then they began sharing their stories. Every year for the past decade I’ve visited groups like this one in the communities where HOPE works around the world. To be frank, I’ve grown almost immune to the power of these stories. But not on this visit.

One group member stood up and shared, “I was depressed and alone before joining this group.”

Another stood and said, “I was ashamed and invisible before joining this group and now I have an identity.”

Still another member stood up and she said, “I used to be a backyard person only. I would not leave my house.”

This group member—a mother and wife—described how isolated she once was from her neighbors. How alone and ashamed she felt because of her poverty. She described how members of the group invited her to join their group. And how that invitation changed her life.

“I was saved at this church,” she shared. “And I now have people who can pray with me.”

The isolation she experienced is not unique to rural communities in Rwanda. It is not even unique to rural communities on the continent of Africa. Across the world, loneliness is endemic. Over the last 30 years, even as our wealth and technology have boomed, the “percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20% to 40%.” Studies have shown that feelings of isolation increase poverty and are “linked to cardiovascular disease, dementia, and depression and, according to some researchers, its effect on mortality is similar to smoking and worse than obesity.”

We are connected to everyone but truly known by very few.

She sat down after sharing her story. I stared out the front door of the small Anglican church to the hilly Rwanda landscape and beyond. Across the world, HOPE and our partners serve 550,661 savings group members in 32,789 groups like this one. Together, these groups have $11.9 million (of their own money) in savings accounts. But their impressive financial accomplishments pale in comparison to their isolation-fighting work. In these savings groups, men and women are known, dignified, and served.

No longer confined by her shame, this woman from Byumba, Rwanda is now a front yard person. She goes out into the world with confidence, feeling known and supported. Her savings group has not freed her from all hardship, nor fully eradicated the effects of poverty in her life. She may never have a big house nor the latest iPhone. But she has people who see her, pray with her, and depend on her.

Behind the Scenes of Rooting for Rivals  

Behind the Scenes of Rooting for Rivals  

On a Thursday afternoon in September 2016, Peter Greer scribed notes on his whiteboard as Jill Heisey and I kicked around ideas about a new book project. We came into that meeting with very little clarity about what the project would become. We left that meeting with just a bit more clarity, but a shared commitment to pursuing the project together.

In just two weeks, Rooting for Rivals will be available in hardback and audiobook at all your favorite booksellers. Nearly two years after the genesis meeting, a whiteboard becomes a book. Just for fun, I’ve included the most common questions I get about the book below.

  1. What’s the story behind the name?

The original working title for the book was Open Hands. We also kicked around the title Kingdom First. In the end, we liked Rooting for Rivals because it is both sticky and communicates the heart of the book. It was on a trip to Australia, however, where we learned that “rooting” holds quite lewd undertones Down Under. While blushing during a meeting with an Australian director of a Baptist camping ministry, I asked if we should consider changing the title. Without hesitation, he responded, “Absolutely not. Most Australians understand the American use of the word. And, you’ll likely sell more copies in Australia if you keep it as-is.”

  1. What role do your agents play?

Andrew Wolgemuth was our agent for both Mission Drift and Rooting for Rivals. Andrew (also my brother-in-law!) is an agent with Wolgemuth & Associates (“W&A”). Akin to sports agents with athletes, literary agents help authors pitch their ideas and serve as guides to the confusing world of book publishing. We’ve said this elsewhere, but Andrew and the W&A team—Robert, Erik, and Austin—are the very best in the business. I’m obviously biased, but these guys are capable, faithful advisors and friends.

  1. Who is the publisher?

Like with Mission Drift, Andy McGuire at Bethany House (an imprint of Baker Publishing Group) believed in this project and believed in us from the very beginning. The first time around, we pitched Mission Drift to a slew of publishers. Because of that experience, though, this time we went straight to, and only to, Andy. What stands out about Andy and the Bethany/Baker team is their genuine enthusiasm for these ideas.

  1. What was Jill Heisey’s role?

Better question: What wasn’t her role? Jill and I both joined HOPE’s staff in 2006. During the last 12 years, she has worked in a whole host of full-time and part-time roles. But, in every assignment, she demonstrated her gifts as a writer, editor, and thinker. Jill sharpened our thinking and refined our writing. That she agreed to work with the two of us makes Peter and I forever in her debt. It’s not an exaggeration say this book wouldn’t exist if not for Jill. I’ll also note the roles of Brianna Lapp and Tom Lin. Brianna joined HOPE’s staff midway through this project and has played an important project management role over the last year. Tom embodies the principles in the book and wrote an exceptional foreword.

  1. What’s it like to co-author?

Writing with Peter Greer is like sparring with a grizzly bear while riding a bull.

In seriousness, writing with Peter makes both of us better. He invites critique and offers it. He puts forward bold goals and invites helpful constraints. Our team used a shared Google Doc to draft, suggest edits, and collaborate. It became a bit unruly when the draft surpassed 30,000 words. But, otherwise, we found it to be a big improvement over emailing Word documents back-and-forth like we did last time. Some people ask if Peter is involved in the nuts-and-bolts or just the big ideas of the book. And, I can honestly say it’s both. Despite leading a full life and a growing organization, he is actively involved from start-to-finish.

  1. Who financially profits from the book?

The Kingdom! Unless your last name is Rowling or Sparks, writing is not lucrative work. But, Peter and I have committed all the royalties from this project to HOPE and other like-minded churches and ministries. So when you buy a copy or a case (thanks, Mom!), you can trust it’s lining God’s pockets, not our own.

  1. Why the seven deadly sins? …and the 2×2?

On the whiteboard in Peter’s office, we scribbled out a bunch of chapter ideas about how open-handed faith-based nonprofit leaders operated in contrast to close-fisted leaders: Covet vs. Celebrate, Hero vs. Humility, Enemies vs. Allies, etc. As these ideas germinated, we discovered our somewhat arbitrary list tightly mapped to a more time-tested list: the seven deadly sins. An early iteration of this concept, circa March 2017, shows a snapshot of the progression of the chapter outline.

The version of the 2×2 we included in the book emerged from the brilliance of Madi Burke. Madi, then a college student interning with us in Lancaster, suggested we consider Augustine’s categorization of sin as deficient love, excessive love, or misdirected love. These categories proved enormously helpful in organizing a 2×2 that was at that point still very much a work-in-progress (an earlier draft also included here, just for fun). Those two organizing frameworks helped to make sense of the book’s main ideas.

  1. Are you doing anything fun to launch this book?

Yes! A group of 180 friends, family, and co-workers signed up to help us launch the book (THANK YOU!). With the tutelage and hosting of our colleague, Blake Mankin, we are producing a six-episode Rooting for Rivals podcast series. We interviewed a few of our heroes and can’t wait for you to hear directly from them. We also have a series of videos forthcoming where we’re not promoting the book but practicing it—actually rooting for our rivals. Be on the lookout.

  1. What do your kids think about Rooting for Rivals?

My kids—ages 7, 3, and 1—are absolutely pumped about it. Apart from our oldest, all they know about the book is that the only pictures are tiny author headshots. Still, when I first saw the final product, they expressed their enthusiasm in their own unique ways:

Many other friends—some of you are reading this very post—volunteered to help launch Rooting for Rivals. Thank you, thank you.

Rooting for Rivals: Join us?

Rooting for Rivals: Join us?

Four years ago, Mission Drift hit shelves.  In the book, we argued faith-based organizations make unique contributions to our world because of our Christian identity.  And, demonstrated just how common it is for leaders of faith-based organizations to forget that. The continued enthusiasm for this book has surpassed even our high expectations for it. But when Peter and I reflected on the book’s impact, we realized it was incomplete.
Because even if our organizations remain steadfast, we might miss the mark. It is possible our efforts to protect and nourish the Christ-centered identity of our organizations can actually blind us to what exists beyond our organizational borders.
In our research for Mission Drift, we met leaders like Wess Stafford, president emeritus at Compassion International.  We experienced something in these leaders, but had not fully articulated it: They understood their mission was bigger than the organizational name printed on their business cards. Mission true leaders like Wess volunteered their time, organizational resources, and influence even when there was nothing in it for them. 
Though HOPE International is far smaller than Compassion, we are also a faith-based international nonprofit. Many of the donors who give to HOPE also give to Compassion. In many respects, we could be considered rivals,  peer organizations appearing to compete for funding, staff, or recognition.
Wess didn’t see it that way.
Even though we worked at different organizations, he graciously offered assistance. In retrospect, it wasn’t just Wess who modeled this type of radical generosity. This attitude was common with the exemplary leaders we interviewed in Mission Drift.
They consistently went out of their way to help. Though they were busy leaders, they always seemed to make time. They shared openly about their models and missions. They answered our questions, and our follow-up questions, and our follow-up-to-the-follow-up questions. They seemed to have nothing to hide from us, no proprietary information or trade secrets. And they offered their time with no strings attached. They talked with us without any guarantees or even expectations we would feature them in the book. They actively pursued our good and not just their own.
It was as if they had a calling and passion that superseded their organization—that helping us was in some way part of their mission. They acted as if we weren’t leaders of rival organizations competing for funding or recognition but friends on the same team working toward the same goal. At the core, these leaders seemed to think more about the Kingdom and less about their organization. Of course they cared deeply about the work they do, but they seemed just as passionate about serving others outside the organization.
These encounters with Wess and other Mission True leaders left a lasting impression. We learned from these leaders who are even more animated by advancing God’s Kingdom than building great organizations. They were in it for the “long game,” willing to sacrifice time and organizational glory for this larger purpose.
This point, which we almost missed, is significant. Beneath the very best mission true organizations are leaders who believe they have a calling beyond building their organizations. They see themselves as part of a much bigger team pursuing a much bigger mission.
They root for their rivals. 

Two months from now, Rooting for Rivalsour follow-up book to Mission Drift, releases. Peter and I are excited about this project. We had an incredible team behind this book. Dozens of people contributed to this book. Most notably, Jill Heisey provided invaluable research and editorial support over the last 18 months. And, Brianna Lapp served an important coordination role all along the way. Rooting for Rivals would not exist if not for their belief and commitment to this project.
And now we need your help. As we saw with Mission Drift, the months immediately surrounding a book’s release date are the most critical for its success. If you join our launch team (link below), we’ll provide you a free copy of the book and ask you to do four simple tasks this summer.
Will you join us?