Monday, April 10, 2017

How I Found My Place (And My People) at a Megachurch

I used to wonder why people would attend a megachurch.

I mean, THOUSANDS on THOUSANDS of people streaming into a building on any given weekend? Is that ANYONE'S idea of a good time? I actually wondered what people were thinking in CHOOSING a church so large as their place of worship when they could attend a smaller church down the street with easy parking, good ol' fashioned potlucks, and a small community of people who all know each other.

I've had several friends over the years who attended some of the biggest and most well-known churches in the country, and the reasons I was CERTAIN they attended them are the SAME reasons people assume I attend one now.

- It's because of the GREAT programming: children's activities, women's ministries, a totally TURNT UP VBS, opportunities galore laid out right before you. Well, let me tell you, that ain't it. While that stuff can be great in ANY size church, I'm not gonna choose a church based on programs and activities that could come and go.

- Or maybe it's the amazing worship band covered in smoky awesomeness wearing hipster glasses and weathered plaid button downs? Annnnd ... a big fat NOPE. Not it either. I can fire up iTunes and hear the originals anytime, anywhere.

- Maybe it's that I don't really want to be known - you know, you can sneak in and out of a megachurch and NO ONE will notice you, right? The pastor doesn't know you, the people don't know you - come on in, get a little pumped up for the week, and go right on out. It's Dreamland for Anonymous-Wanna-Bes. Yeah well, if you know ANYTHING about me, I ain't trying to be anonymous, y'all. ANYWHERE. I want to be known and loved. Deep down, don't we all?

- It's probably that megachurches are BIG and RICH and FANCY. Which OF COURSE means I now have a big and rich and fancy life. Well, my church meets in a warehouse/strip mall of sorts - and has YET to write me a big, fat check from the tithing pool. And based on the number of straight up broke college students rolling in and the number of clunky, barely hanging on minivans I see in the parking lot each week, I highly doubt anyone else is gettin' one either.

So WHY then? If it's none of those reasons... then WHY?

Well, here's how it went down for us: My family moved into the area and went searching for a church where the gospel was preached EVERY week and the people loved Jesus and had hearts for the lost people he came to save - not just each other. And, when we found that in a church TWENTY times the size of what we might've considered ideal, we stayed.

We've been at our church, a church of over 10,000 people, for six years. We have grown in our relationship with Jesus and in our passion to love people well in ways we never could've imagined. And as I sat down to think about WHY we've stayed and WHAT we love about our church, I wanted to share with you how we found our place and our people here.

If you want true, rich, deep community within a larger (not just mega) church:

1. You MUST join and be part of a smaller group of people within the church. At our church, we call them... well, small groups. (SEE? We fancy.) If you're in an church of 10,000 plus people, you NEED people within the church who know your stuff. I mean, your REAL LIFE STUFF. They don't have to be your BFFs, but they NEED to know HOW to pray for you. They bring meals, they hold the baby, and they laugh and cry with you through your hot mess of a life. These are people who KNOW you, walk everyday life with you, open their Bibles with you, hold you accountable, and are committed to praying for you. They rally around you, help you when you're sick, laugh with you and celebrate your victories, and they hurt with you when you are hurting. And, you will know TRUE JOY in getting to do and be that for them.

The only way to be truly known within a very large church is to have a core of people, WITHIN the church, who know you, love you, care for you, and are walking closely through life with you. This group may change as seasons change and people move or you branch out to start new groups as you grow, but they are IN IT with you for the season you're together. THESE ARE MY PEOPLE, y'all. They effectively take a large church, and make it smaller - so that within the larger community of your church as a whole, you are known, cared for, prayed for, and loved.

2. You HAVE to serve in some capacity within the church. You can't come in, sit down, be entertained by the band, get pumped up with a God pep-talk for the week ahead, and leave. If you don't serve inside your church, you are not only missing out on being known by the people you regularly serve with, but you are depriving the rest of the church of your specific, God-given gifts and talents. At a large church, there are no small amount of opportunities to serve - volunteers and servant leaders and people willing to give of their time and talents are needed ALL OVER the place. In serving, the larger church gets to be blessed by you, and YOU get to experience the collective joy of ALL serving God together - ALL for His glory and for the eternal work of seeing others come to know Jesus.

This next one is a BIG one. I've heard people say that if you go to a megachurch, the pastor doesn't really know what's going on in your daily life, what you're struggling with, and well, "he just can't possibly know ALL those people."

They are ABSOLUTELY right. He does not and cannot. But because of my small group, and the people I serve with, I don't need him to be that. I've already got it.

So this is an IMPORTANT one:

3. You don't need your pastor to know you and all the details of your life. A pastor COULD NOT do this for even THIRTY people. So if you go to a church of more than that, megachurches aside, a pastor cannot be that for you. NOTHING and NO ONE can replace the role of God's people in your life. One man most DEFINITELY cannot. I don't care how charismatic or godly you think he is.

Here is what I do need from my pastor:

A. I need him to personally love Jesus and have an urgency about unsaved people. But how can you know this when you rarely, if ever, interact with him? Well, because he is transparent about it when he preaches each week. My pastor talks about his time in the Word and what specifically that looks like for him and he helps us become better at it. He shares with us various everyday encounters he has with people and how he strikes up gospel conversations with them - and challenges us to do that as well. {I pity the fool who sits next to my pastor on an airplane. They don't even know what's comin'.} And, he not only INSISTS that we go on missions trips (short or long term) to spread the gospel to unreached people groups, but he has modeled that by taking his family and going himself.

But most importantly, I will see and know his worldview and his basis for it because...

B. I need him to faithfully preach God's word every week. Straight up. Not some watered down version of the Bible or some alliterated, hokey thoughts he's thinking on it, but the straight up, reading right from the text, WORD FOR WORD, chapter by chapter, book by book Word of God. If what he preaches from the stage each week is DIRECTLY coming from God's word, and he stands on THAT as the truth in his life (and points me there in mine), then I trust that he is leaning on the word of God and faithfully preaching it to us as well.

It took me some time to understand this one, but hear me on this:

C. I need my pastor to love and pray for HIS family and HIS neighbor, not mine. I don't need him to know the details of MY life. I want my pastor to be living out in HIS life and family the same call God has given to all of us as believers - "Go and make disciples." Yes, he is a pastor by vocation, but he is also a husband, a Dad, and a neighbor. I would rather have a pastor who is praying for HIS family and for the salvation of HIS kids and HIS lost neighbor than have a pastor who knows all of my family's junk and is praying for me.

Further, I would rather worship alongside a room full of one thousand people on a Sunday morning who are sharing the gospel with and LOVING HARD the lost people God has put in their lives than a room of one hundred whose primary purpose at church is to know and love me.

4. Going to a megachurch means setting aside your preferences - ALL the time. We didn't find the "perfect" church when we found ours, contrary to what some might believe about people who attend big churches. Quite frankly, it wouldn't take me long to write out a nice, hefty list of things I don't like about it or wish were done differently. But, I have come to see setting aside my preferences as a way of LOVING people well and celebrating the diverse makeup of the Kingdom of God. Of saying, "There are 9,999 other people here and there are thousands of others in my city who might consider coming through these doors, many of whom are VERY different from me, and I don't need to have things my way." If I don't like the worship music, it ain't changing because I throw a fit to the pastor, anyway. And, if I determine the VBS theme is terrible this year, I can march up to the kids pastor and tell him, but he will surely be able to point me to hundreds if other families who LOVE it. So week by week, I lay down how I might want things to be because it ISN'T about me. It's about Jesus - and I yield to the wisdom of the leaders in my church to determine how we can best reach people to know him.

So, here I am.
Known and loved.
Serving in a megachurch, a place I NEVER thought I'd be.

I've found my place here and I've found my people. REAL people with REAL problems and I've found deep and true relationships.

I need to say this: I could leave my church of 10,000 and attend a church of 20 people tomorrow. Why? Because what I've come to value about my church has NOTHING to do with its size - and EVERYTHING to do with its mission: To see lost, unsaved people come to know Jesus. I've seen people that I love and respect be sent out by my church in the name of that SAME mission. People I've grown to dearly love have left to go plant new churches, to serve overseas - to reach lost people ALL over the world. I am NOT saying that a megachuch is the place for everyone. I want to make that clear. But I AM saying that it is absolutely possible to find real, true, gospel-centered community in one.

I love the hearts of the people in my church - who lay down their preferences EVERY week in a thousand different ways to see the lost come to know Jesus.

I love the heart of my pastor - who boldly proclaims the gospel of Jesus every week.

And I love that church used to feel like it was for "me" - but, now I walk through those doors each weekend and see faces I don't recognize and people who don't know me and I see ALL of it, everything we do as a way to reach people, love them well, make them feel welcome and wanted, and make much of Jesus.

And my hope each week is that when I look around at ALL these people, they know Jesus. That they hear the gospel preached from the stage, that they see people loving them and serving them and each other and that their lives are changed - right inside my big ol' megachurch.

And, that they find their place and their people.

Just like I have.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The {Annoyingly} Awesome Life of 'The Best Day Evers'

I have this disease. At least I think much of the world sees it as a disease.

What do I mean by that?

Well, I am an optimist. And, I have the worst case of it, y'all. Not only am I one of those glass half full kinda people (henceforth referred to as 'The Best Day Evers'), but it's overflowing and spilling out all over tarnation and landing on whomever is before me.

It isn't particularly welcome in the world we live in. I'd say it's more of a social leprosy these days.

My husband will tell you - it's annoying and endearing and annoying and endearing and annoying and ... AND HE"S the one that's stuck with me for all his days. Sometimes I bring him up along with me. Other times - it drives him STRAIGHT BATTY.

Oh, look. We ran out of gas. Well, BLESS - let's make out!
We're way over budget this month. I just found two quarters under the bed and THERE IS A REESE'S EGG CALLING MY NAME, YO!
The kids drew on the walls, again. Eh, I've been wanting to paint.

I was born with this optimistic spirit. I don't know how or why I have it, but it's here. And, let me clarify: I'm not talking about joy - the deep-seeded foundation of knowing who we are and WHOSE we are that guides us through life. That is a different post for a different day. I'm talking about optimism - a way of seeing little annoyances and interruptions as having some SHRED of positive in them.

It's also categorically NOT naivety. It's not head in the clouds, don't wanna face real life, living in a dream world, sugar-coated bliss. It's not I haven't been through any of life's HARD things and it is NOT turning a blind eye to the REAL problems and issues we are facing.

It is instead an inner resolve to NOT let cynicism get a hold of me. I resist cynicism with everything in me.

Surely you know some Best Day Evers, right? (BLESS if you are actually one of my real life people and have to put up with me.) Or, maybe you're a Best Day Ever, too. From the moment you were born, you've had it. Maybe you have kids or a husband or best friends like this. They are generally optimistic people. And, FOR THE LOVE, we can be the most annoying creatures to be around - especially when THE DOO OF LIFE hits the fan. We have birthed a hundred sayings and song lyrics:

"Looking on the bright side of things."
"The sun'll come out, Tomorrow...tomorrow...I love ya'..."
"Don't worry about a thing..."

We are annoyingly ... annoying with all this mess. But, I don't know that we can help it. And we wouldn't want to.

Optimism: I think it's most often hard-wired.

And, the world will do everything it can to snuff it out.. I have seen people look at something shining so bright and literally STARE down the bright so hard that it becomes dark.

We live in a world where we give our best standing ovations to the person who stands up and says, "LIFE SUCKS and here's why." Find the bright side? You're Pollyanna playing The Glad Game and living in a bubble.

I've seen how my optimism grates on people. I see it on their faces and I hear it in their voices and I feel it in the air when we're talking.

Best Day Evers: "...and so we made out like teenagers past curfew for like 15 minutes while we waited for AAA."
"Yeah, but, running out of gas on date night really sucks."

Best Day Evers: "...and since Reese's eggs were fifty cents at the Walmarts, BEST DAY EVER."
"Oh, are y'all having financial problems?"

Best Day Evers: "...and this light shade of gray is PERFECT for their room."
"UGH. But, painting!"

But, I've also seen it DO SO MUCH GOOD to take someone by the hand and lead them out of Funksville and into the land of "We got this, right? We do. We got it."

Life's interruptions? They're really just a matter of perspective to The Best Day Evers. Circumstances don't change when you look at things through a more optimistic lens. YOU change.

And while I think optimism is generally hard-wired, I ABSOLUTELY believe some version of it CAN be installed. I have seen people do it - friends who are naturally inclined to boo/hiss, TURN IT AROUND and head towards "It ain't so bad." All of us can choose to see little annoyances and our batch of "first world problems" as reasons to be in a perpetual funk (to each other, on social media - which ALL THE CAN'T EVENS, and towards anything in our path) or we can choose to find some shred of light in them.

It might be easier for some of us, harder for others. But, aren't most things in life that way?

There is SO much to grumble about, y'all:

Ungrateful kids.
Moral decline.
Long lines.
Naggy bosses.
Change of plans.

And, there are a whole lot of people taking the microphone to grumble about them. It takes ZERO effort to find the "pain in the ass" in just about every situation.

But, to my fellow Best Day Evers:

Fight for it.
Don't let the world snuff it out of you.
Keep finding the good where it's hidden.
Let them stare.
Let them grumble.


Make out.
Reese's your way through.

The world needs us, too.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Iron Tribe, One Year Later: "Mommy, When Are You Gonna Use A Big Girl Box?" + #whyiSTILLtribe

I walked into Iron Tribe, my gym, with my three year-old daughter a couple of months ago, set down my water bottle, and struck up a conversation with Phil - my favorite 12:15pm-er because he will ALWAYS engage me in some sort of "THIS IS GONNA BE AWFUL" talk, and I inevitably feel better knowing he is suffering as much as I am.

Box jumps were on that day's menu, as were burpees and some sort of "get the bar off the ground" + "hoist it over your head in any manner possible" kind of cocktail. I gave a cheesy grin to my coach as I made my way to the back, and in his usual manner, Josh quipped, "Come on, Sarah. This is gonna be fun." He is one of THOSE, y'all.

After a "quick" (#LIES) warm up, also known as A FULL ON WORKOUT TO ANY SANE INDIVIDUAL, I set up my box and bar, pulled my workout pants up over the "I've had five babies here" section of my body, and got to it. I finished somewhere near the bottom of our class (read: DEAD LAST), died DEAD on the floor, and laid there going through the list of treats I'd reward myself with for making it through another day at Tribe - because, as it turns out, I AM A DOG. Will burpee for treats.

I was laying on the ground stretching, and my daughter whispered in my ear, "Mommy, when are you gonna use a big girl box?" I looked over at my 12" box, set up next to 20" and 24" boxes and leaned into her, "You know, that IS a big girl box. It doesn't matter what KIND of box you use, just that you're using one and working hard." I love that I get to teach her this, and that she is watching her mama fight like the DICKENS to be stronger.

Today, it's been one year. ONE YEAR since I first walked through the doors of Iron Tribe. ONE YEAR since I first laced up my ratty old "tennis shoes", pulled an old pair of "lounge pants" from the bottom of my drawer, and bought my first "this actually fits me" sports bra. (Y'all. The struggle was so very real to get me there.) I walked into the gym at 6:30am on a freezing cold February 8th morning and I've now walked through that door over a hundred times since.

I suppose I could tell you my successes at Tribe - the triumphs, the PR's, and the way my body looks and feels NOW compared to how it looked and felt a year ago. But, I won't. Because like with anything we stick to, those physical successes always follow hard work and determination and resolve. But, these successes? They are absolute treasures to me. They are sacred victories - won with sweat and TEARS and a WHOLE LOT of hauling ass.

But, I will tell you this: My FAILURES this year at Iron Tribe are the things I hold as most valuable.

I've learned that my body, the ONLY one God has given me - I honor Him when I take care of it, even when it fails me. When I hustle through a workout - determined to be a stronger, healthier, BETTER physical version of myself, it's an act of worship. It's me saying to God: Thank you for giving me this body, when it can and when it can't. Thank you that I can do HARD things, and THANK YOU for the ability to try the things that seem impossibly hard.

It has been in my FAILURES that my mind and spirit have been made better and I've seen the POWER of community in pressing towards a goal.

NONE of it, not a single overhead, not one burpee, not a squat, not ONE SINGLE anything with a barbell or a mat or a box has come easy to me. But, the things that mold and change us, the things of TRUE value and worth - well, they never do. And the people who walk with us through the "Not-Easy" of life, well - THEY are the best reward in achieving our goals.

- When I drop the bar in frustration, Ashley gives me that knowing look from across the room and says, "We got this, Sar. We got it."
- When I'm 200 meters from finishing a wretched, horrible, awful row, Chad walks over (because LORD KNOWS he finished LONG ago) and says, "YOU WILL FINISH THIS. Come on."
- And when the hot tears are falling, because there's just not enough time left to do TWENTY more burpees, Jason (my SWEET, and VERY fit husband) leans in and whispers, "I could NOT be more proud of you."

And, when my tiny girl asks me when I'm gonna use a "big girl box", I can look down the row at all the boxes, see mine sitting there amongst them, teach her that it's all in the TRY, and know that because of the PEOPLE jumping on those bigger boxes, I'm better and stronger.

So here I am - one year after walking through the doors of Iron Tribe and DECIDING to trade the sofa for sit-ups and packs of Oreos for a six-pack. (BAH HAHAHA! Just kidding. Still rocking some sort of, I don't know, bowl of vanilla pudding in the midsection over here.) You won't see me competing in the CrossFit Games or running a marathon or going all pre-Gov Arnold on the world.

BUT. Carrying in those grocery bags sure is easier, and squatting down to kiss the sweaty foreheads of my kids ain't so bad anymore. Man, that is REWARD that changed my life.

Honoring God with my body, pressing on when it's IMPOSSIBLY hard, teaching my only daughter that being strong is WORTH THE FIGHT, and celebrating victory and defeat with a community of THE BEST kind of people.

Well... that's #whyitribe.

That's #whyiSTILLtribe.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

When God Says "No". Or "Wait".

When I was in high school, I had six different operations on my hips and knees. Which landed me in a body cast for months.

For many, many months. Three separate times.

So during all four years of high school, when I wasn't in surgery, staying in the hospital for physical therapy, or home recovering, I walked with crutches. I didn't have a boyfriend. And, though I was just like every other high school girl who longs to be noticed and loved, I didn't really expect to have one.

Because what high school boy wants to date the girl who can't walk?

As God began to heal me - after my third three-month stint in that horrible body cast - I dropped my crutches and learned to walk with a cane. And, the day I graduated from high school, I decided it was time to let go of the security of my cane and walk - and I walked for the first time since the beginning of ninth grade.

But, I would look down at the scars on my legs, or cringe in pain from the arthritis that I would soon learn would never go away, and I couldn't let go of the question:

Who will ever want me?

Less than three years later, I met my husband. The sweet and tender boy who looked past the scars that cover my legs, who walked slowly, hand-in-hand with me when my arthritis kept me steps behind everyone else, and who sat next to my hospital bed, hour upon hour, after my first hip replacement just after college.

The happiest day of my life was that cold, December day when that boyfriend became my husband. And, his love for me made my scars seem to fade.

As we began to think about starting a family, I looked down with freshly doubting eyes at the scars on my legs - the evidence of the trauma of my many surgeries in high school and double hip replacements years later. I could feel the effects of arthritis on my body and I was filled, again, with doubt. Upon doubt.

Will I ever be a mother?

I got pregnant with my first son, this miracle child who surely signified the end of a season of doubt, and four months later, my Dad committed suicide.

God, wasn't I due a season to just ... not wonder what on EARTH you're doing?

We all have them, right? Seasons of questions and doubts about who God is and WHAT He's doing. Doubts upon doubts. Over and over. Wanting. Waiting. And, wondering.

Will I ever get married?
Will I have children?
Will I get the job?
Will I ever stop feeling such pain?
Will my heart ever heal?

I can remember every season I've walked through where I just didn't know what God was doing with me. Some have been LOOOONG, and some - well, not as long. I know how it feels to not know if or when. I know what it means to LONG for and want and JUST. NOT. HAVE. And, for GOOD things I desperately longed to experience and "God, why does it always feel like your answer is 'No'? Or 'Wait'?"

But here's what I've learned:

"No" and "Wait" are the words God uses to teach me to trust Him.

His "Nos" and "Waits" are always the dark tunnels of my life through which I call out, "God, Where are you?" and He says, "Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you."

Friends - He. Will. Never. Leave. You. Not when things are going as you want them, not when He says "No" or "Wait" and DEFINITELY not in that dark tunnel of doubt.

You know, my legs still bear the scars of the trauma from those many years ago. And, I still have doubts, I will ALWAYS have doubts - about new things and old things and the same things. Don't we all? Doubts and wonderings and "Oh, God, you haven't forgotten me, have You?"

But, when I'm doubting His goodness to me now, I cling to this promise:

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
Isaiah 43:19

I used to think this meant that God was making a way for things to work out the way I wanted. Or work out in a way that I could understand or KNOW that He actually knows what He's doing.

But, friends - when we travel down each new road He's asking us to walk - or crutching, or hobbling, or wheeling, or crawling with tears of doubt falling onto the wasteland below us - we can know that God NEVER wastes our wounds.

These scars? The "Nos" and the "Waits" and the hard seasons? He is using them to draw us near to Him.

And, in time, when we look upon our scars - the ones on our bodies and the ones on our hearts - the evidences of seasons of doubting and waiting and sometimes that really hard "No" - we may not get any answers that satisfy us on this side of heaven. And, man - is that hard.

But. We have a promise that ALL ALONG, always - He is indeed making a way...

Straight into our hearts. His favorite place to be.