Our culture is obsessed with success and fearful of failure.

Christian ministry often carries added pressure for success. There is a popular notion that really spiritual people will always succeed in ministry. In other words,  good Christians – people who pray a lot, know the bible, and stay morally clean – do not fail.  That idea is not biblical. That idea does not match experience. That idea actually stifle leaders and hinders the work of God. It is poison.

I am not a fan of failure. Failure is not the goal that we should set for ourselves (I hope to have more success my life!).  Yet, I think that in our success oriented culture failure is underrated.

Here are a few ways that a Fail can be a Win:

1. If you failed, you actually tried to do something! You probably tried to do something that you believed needed to be done. You probably tried to do something unique. Failure is not the worst thing.  Failure is better than selling out, or conforming, or cowering in the face of adversity, or just talking.  Find pride in your failure.

2. If you failed, you have an opportunity to learn and grow. Failure gives you a grip on reality that is not shared by those who have not failed, or risked enough to fail. The biggest “failures” in my life, I would never want to repeat them, have provided me with a unique perspective on life. Find wisdom in your failure.

3. If you failed, you have the opportunity to know your true self. Failure provides you the opportunity to check where your identity is rooted. Failure can strips away the false self of image and performance.  In failure you are valuable and you are loved simply because you are. Find grace in your failure.

4. If you failed, you opened up the possibility for something wonderful. Failure creates a new reality, a new context for creativity. When you factor in the God of resurrection into our failure, what seems to be empty is often the beginning of something new and beautiful.  God will bring light into the darkness. Find hope in your failure.

For more honest and liberating discussion of failure and success in ministry, I encourage you to participate in the the upcoming Epic Fail Pastors Conference April 14-16.  If you can’t make the conference, you will find even a visit to the website to be refreshing.



In addition to living in Wisconsin, one of my favorite things about serving at Elmbrook Church is working with Scott Arbeiter.

Scott recently gave our pastoral staff a list of observations on walking with the congregation in times of transitions and conflict. I thought that there was a wealth of wisdom in his observations – and not just for pastors, but for anyone who wants to build healthy relationships.  Scott gave me permission to post this list.

Some things I have learned regarding what people in the congregation need from us:
1.) Ready access (not just begrudging acceptance)
2.) To be genuinely heard (not just listened to)
3.) To find common ground (know that we care about what they care about)
4.) To know that we understand that they are not always able to articulate their concerns well. We must “be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.”
5.) To know that we value them and want them to be part of the congregation
6.) To hear of our struggles to find the best path forward in the situation
7.) To understand the principles involved in our decisions
8.) To be trusted with the information discussed in private
9.) To be challenged to do the right things; even (especially)when in disagreement
10.) To hear that we were wrong and are sorry (when we are indeed wrong and sorry)
11.) To know that we hear many conflicting opinions about topics (often diametrically opposed)
12.) To know that we will decide on principle, not pressure
13.) To be well received even when we leave in disagreement
14.) The goal is not to have them feel good about us; it is to elevate truth and find unity in diversity. In doing this there should be no defensiveness; nor cowardice.
15.) Do not make false promises.
16.) Warn a divisive man once then have nothing to do with him.

Our pastoral staff had lunch with N.T. Wright (Yes, I like my job!).

Scott Arbeiter asked the Bishop of Durham what blind spots he observes in the American Evangelical Church.

As a good historian, Bishop Wright responded to the question by naming two periods of American history: The 1770s and 1860s.

The 1770s

Americans not only revolted against the British government,  they also rejected the Anglican Bishop’s authority over the Church. This may seem natural to Americans, but Wright noted two unhealthy trends in American Evangelicalism which he traces back, at least in part, to those events.

1.   Isolation of Our Faith from the Global and Historic Church. Wright believes that church unity must transcend place and time. He sees much of American Evangelicalism indifferent to the church outside of itself.

2.   Isolation of Our Faith from Our Public Life. Wright notes the tremendous influence of the Enlightenment upon the founding of America. This philosophy drives the idea that we can separate religion from institutions.

The 1860s

The Civil War has left a profound divide in American culture, and the Evangelical Church is not immune. Wright sees the Mason-Dixon divide as one of the roots of the culture war in modern America. He identifies two ways that this has harmed the American Church.

1.   Limitation of Our Church Unity. Wright believes that Church unity is a centerpiece of the scriptures. However, the American church is almost as divided as the rest of the nation in our ongoing culture wars.

2.   Limitation of Our Practice, Proclamation, and Discernment of Truth. Many Americans are so entrenched in their side in the culture war that they are not able to identify reality. Christians on the Left and Right often place a higher value on their team’s position than the teachings of scripture.

I have spent some time prayerfully thinking about this friendly critique and it’s implications for me, our congregation and the movement. It seems profound and urgent to me.

What do you think?

Where is this an accurate description of American Evangelicalism, and the American Church in general?

What can we do to (W)right the ship?

A number of people have asked me about the recent Poets Prophets Preachers conference. This is the final of four brief summaries and reflections of the conference highlights. These will be posts that are relevant for everyone – even those who do not consider themselves Poets Prophets or Preachers.

The One Thing that Changes Everything – Rob Bell

Rob Bell closed the conference sharing the “one thing that no one every told me, but changes everything.” (How is that for a hook?)

So what is that “one thing?”

Forgiveness (Really!)

All of us have taken hits from others. Sometimes it is an obvious attack. Normally it is a series of small criticism or negative comments that eventually wear us down. These hits wound us. The pain turns into anger. The anger destroys us. This process normally begins and we do not even realize it. Bell calls this “death by paper cut.”

There are a few warning signs that we need to dive into forgiveness before it is too late. We begin holding back from doing our best. We label people. We seek revenge.

Here are some steps toward genuine forgiveness:

  1. Know your wounds. Be honest about them.
  2. Identify the various issues that are involved. Choose to own only what is yours.
  3. Get to the core of your issues.
  4. Accept that there may be unresolved issues with the other people.
  5. Let the other person go. Release them, and desire good for them.

The process of true forgiveness will hurt. It will hurt deeply. It will hurt like death. However, it is a death that leads to life. The other option is the slow death of bitterness.

Once we forgive, we are freed to live, lead, and teach simply as a gift. We can give the gift and be happy in the moment. It is simply an act of love. It is no longer dependant upon the feedback of others. They are free of that weight, and we are also free.

Forgiveness allows us to approach preaching, or leadership, or simply living with the attitude, “I can not wait to give this gift to these people who I love.”

Rob Bell was able to deliver this message like few others (See previous post on the medium is the message.). In addition to the normal hits that a pastor takes, Rob has been has been attacked by a number of self-proclaimed “defenders of the faith” from around the globe. He has been deeply wounded by these attacks. However, I have never heard him retaliate against the attackers. Rob was able to teach on forgiveness with integrity.

A number of people have asked me about the recent Poets Prophets Preachers conference. This is the third of four brief summaries and reflections of the conference highlights. These will be posts that are relevant for everyone – even those who do not consider themselves Poets Prophets or Preachers.

The Medium is the Message – Shane Hipps

Hipps is a former advertising guru who is now a pastor. He has been impacted by the works of Marshall McLuhan on technology.

The conventional evangelical approach toward communication has been, “The Methods change, but the Message stays the same.”

This approach is flawed because the Medium is the Message. The medium is never neutral in communication. The medium is incredibly powerful.

We must recognize the impact that technology has historically had upon faith, preaching and worship. The communication era always influences the faith and practice.


MID AGES: —-Mystery —- Bible Stories — Eucharist as Central — Sanctuary

PRINTING: —Linear ——- Theology —– Abstract Lecture ——- Lecture Hall

BROADCAST: Image ——- Stories ———- Attractive & Practical — Theater

INTERNET: –Interactive – Community —- Voices in Conversation – Coffee Shop

There are strengths and weaknesses of each of these communication eras. Today we live in a world shaped by all four of these eras. Our context is that complex.

We should have a prophetic distance from new technology and communication, being slow to embrace or reject it. We need to know what every medium does to the audience and discern if that is the right goal for the time.

Example 1: Words release our imaginations. Images limit imagination but provide shared experience. Audiences will always choose the image over the word.

Example 2: The audience will always choose a projected image of a person on a screen over a live person. The large screen gives instant authority. However, the screen also creates a celebrity and reduces the audience.

In the end we follow the example of God in the incarnation – the human being is the medium and the message. Who we are as people is the message that is ultimately communicated.

A number of people have asked me about the recent Poets Prophets Preachers conference. This is the second of four brief summaries and reflections of the conference highlights. These will be posts that are relevant for everyone – even those who do not consider themselves Poets Prophets or Preachers.

Toward a More Substantial Transformation – Peter Rollins

As I listened to Peter Rollins I had a giant whirlwind of thoughts going through my mind: This is hilarious! This is way over my head! This pushes my buttons! This is right on!

I believe that the main thrust of his two talks was that Christianity is about Substantial Transformation for the Good. Here are paraphrases of some of his lines.

The problem with much of our preaching is that we say we want to get people active, but we preach in ways that make them entirely inactive.

The problem with much of our religious practices is that while they appear to be the points of resistance toward the world, they are often the very things that keep us in the grip of the world’s powers.

The problem with tough-talking Fundamentalists is that their violent rhetoric is actually not violent enough. In reality they simply promote the status quo. God calls us toward a much deeper transform than they generally acknowledge.

We must be more radical … not just with our dogma, but by making real dramatic change. We need to work for substantial change, for true conversion of people and systems toward what God created them to be.

The church should be sites of insurrection in this massive revolution of good that God is bringing about in the world. We are called to be flash points of the revolution of the healing of the world.

Preaching should create experiences that foster dramatic change. In a genuine religious experience God is not another object in our world, rather God transforms all of the objects in our world.

Knowledge in Christianity is not limited to the knowledge of science – stale observations. Rather, when we experience true revelation: We fall in love, Our world is rocked, and We are not the same. True belief is proven more by our actions in the real world than by our words. What we do shows our belief more than what we say.

Rollins closed his second talk with a story about when he was asked if he denied the resurrection of Jesus. He replied, “Yes. Every time that I neglect the poor, every time that I participate in an unjust system, … I deny the resurrection of Jesus. But occasionally I affirm the resurrection, when I live like it is true.”

A number of people have asked me about the recent Poets Prophets Preachers conference. This is the first of four brief summaries and reflections of the conference highlights. These will be posts that are relevant for everyone – even those who do not consider themselves Poets Prophets or Preachers.

The Story We are Telling – Rob Bell

Where we begin and end the story has dramatic implications on how we think, live and speak.

The full biblical story begins in Genesis 1 & 2, and it ends in Revelation 21 & 22. The story begins with God creating a world that was very good.
The story ends with God returning the world to being very good.

The time in between (where we live) is marked by two things:
The unraveling of the goodness of the world (Genesis 3).
The beginning of the new creation/ healing of the world (Resurrection of Jesus)

While Genesis 3 is crucial to the story, it must be put in context of the larger story. It is neither the beginning nor the end of the story.

If we begin in Genesis 3, we begin with what is wrong.

If we begin in Genesis 1 & 2, we begin with what was intended.

If we begin in Genesis 3, the point is the removal of sin.

If we begin in Genesis 1 & 2, the point is the restoration of shalom.

If we begin in Genesis 3, we emphasize what we are not.

If we begin in Genesis 1 & 2, we emphasize what we are to be.

If we begin in Genesis 3, the goal is disembodied evacuation.

If we begin in Genesis 1 & 2, the goal is participatory physicality.

How we frame the story is crucial.
Beginning the story at Genesis 1 & 2, and ending the story with Revelation 21 & 22 clearly better captures the storyline of the Bible than the Genesis 3 thru Revelation 20 version of the story.
It is also better captures the life that we live in this world, the world that is so crucial to the story.

What implications do you see?