It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If you know me at all, the MCU has probably come up in conversation. This past week, I sat down and re-watched (for like the 100th time) the movies Infinity War and Endgame. These are the dramatic conclusions to the initial 3 phase run culminating the first decade of Marvel movies. While I was watching Endgame, there was a scene between Thor and his mother, Frigga. Thor was having a tough time, feeling sorry for himself and his mother said something to him that stuck out to me. Now, I have heard Rene Russo deliver this line a bunch of times, but this time, it hit me different. When I heard the quote again, it was like I heard it for the first time. the quote is this: “Everyone fails at who they are supposed to be. The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are.” I posted this recently on my social media and got far more response than I expected. So, I wanted to take a moment and explain why I think Frigga was spot with what she said to Thor and how it can most definitely apply to our lives.
“Everyone fails at who they are supposed to be…” We come with expectations don’t we? Whether those expectations were put on us by society, our family, our friends, or even ourselves, we all feel the weight of expectation sooner or later. The truth in this line is that eventually, we are going to fail at meeting those expectations. Now being someone who has struggled with perfectionism, the weight of that failure can become overwhelming. I know there are countless people out there who know this weight all too well. But you know what? That’s ok. Whether it is others or ourselves, we eventually have unrelenting standards placed on us that lead us to that failure because those standards are made to please an imperfect source. Eventually, we will fail to be what a friend expects us to be even though we gave them everything we had. Eventually, we will fail to accomplish something, even though we tried our very best. And what I have learned is, we place all of our value, all of our self-worth in that one basket- the basket of “who we are supposed to be.” Which leads me to the back half of the quote.
“The measure of a person…is how well they succeed at who they are.” (omission mine- I don’t get to fly around with a hammer, so I omitted the hero part). This is where we should be. This is where our self worth should lie. We should seek to succeed in who we are. Let me rephrase a bit, we should seek to succeed in who God made us to be. God made each and every one of us on purpose and with a purpose. He made each and every one of us according to His will and His plan. So often, we let a broken world try to tell us who we are supposed to be, instead of plugging into who the Father made us to be. Now, you may think that I am simply arguing semantics here, but let me show you the difference, at least in my mind. The difference here is how we measure success. When society tells us who we are supposed to be, it comes with an equally unrelenting set of measurements that we will eventually fall short of achieving. This leads us to doubting ourselves and if we place our value in those things, it leads to feeling worthless. However, that is not how God measures success. Through Jesus Christ and His work on the cross, we don’t operate in a world of do, we operate in a world of done. So, for me at least, I want to succeed at being who I am, who He made me to be, a follower of Christ, a person who loves people, a person who shares the gospel. I want to let go of whatever the world expects me to be and cling tightly to who God says I am. That is where I want to live.
We all feel the weight of expectation. We all feel the pressure to succeed. I hope this sheds light on at least my perspective of where the shift needs to happen. I hope that this helps someone let go of trying to be someone the world wants them to be instead of being who they were created to be. Frigga was right, we should start being who we are, who God made us to be, and leave behind the unrealistic expectations this broken world places on us. We might find that our measure of success was skewed all along. We don’t need to be on the cross, that job is already done; however, we will find our worth, our identity, ourselves, instead, at the foot of the cross.
I had the privilege of preaching the Sunday morning service last Sunday as a part of a series that we are doing about the mission and vision for our church. The topic for my sermon was one that is very near and dear to my heart- the discipleship of the next generation. Unlike many stories pastors have about their call, mine is different. I was not called to ministry the same way many pastors are. In fact, my calling happened long before I ever felt led to become a pastor. My calling has and always will be teenagers. Now, I realize that God’s plan for my life is a mystery and a time may come where He transitions me into another role; but the best I can tell at this point in my life, teenagers are my mission field. I get them, I understand them, and I love the idea of God using me to reach them before culture corrupts their view of this world. God has fulfilled this calling in me in a variety of ways. I spent 20 years in the classroom as a high school history teacher. That opened the door for me to become a high school baseball coach. Ultimately, God’s plan was to move me into ministry- first bi-vocationally and now, into my present place as a full-time, Associate Pastor of student and families in Missouri.
Today, I wanted to share a portion of that message as both a challenge and an encouragement to parents everywhere currently raising the next generation- a boat of which I am in with you. Parents: we are the primary disciple maker in our kid’s lives. Now, when I say parents- I am referring to ANYONE who fulfills that role in a child’s life. I realize all too well that we live in a world where biological parents can be non-existent, where grandparents are on round two of child rearing, and where step-parents, aunts, uncles, and even siblings are in the role of “parent.”
In this message, I used a couple of visuals to demonstrate the importance and the urgency we should have as parents when it comes to discipling our kids. Both illustrations come from author Reggie Joiner, who has written dozens of books and conducts many training sessions with parents across the country in how to disciple their children well. He was giving advice to his adult daughter. She had ben married a few years and she and her husband were expecting their first child. She asked him if he had any advice to give her in preparation for the child. Joiner said, “yes, put a suitcase in the nursery and keep it there. From the time that baby is born, you are packing their bag to leave. What you pack, they will carry with them the rest of their life.” That is a sobering thought. Being the father of a 15 year old, I immediately began wondering what I had put in my son’s suitcase so far. While I was taking inventory of that, I realized the great thing about packing- I can pull things out and I can help my son let go of things that are in there that he doesn’t need. I am also adding new things to the suitcase that needed to be there, but weren’t there before. When it comes to discipling our kids, it really does begin with us and what we pack in their bag. Our children will value what we value. If we value being at church and being involved, so will they. If we value our quiet time and personal bible study, they will too.
The other illustration serves as both a wake up call and sense of perspective for parents in terms of the limited amount of time we have with our children. On the stage, I had a jar of 1000 marbles. It drove a lot of people crazy trying to figure out the significance. What those marbles represent is this: from the time our children are born til the time they graduate and go to college, we have approximately 1000 weeks with our kids. 1000 weeks to pack their bag with everything they need to make good decisions on their own. 1000 weeks for us to make our children into disciples who make disciples. Each week another marble leaves the jar. Marble by marble. Week by week. Month by month. That first year of their life goes quickly. They are learning how to feed themselves, how to crawl, how to walk, and how to talk…52 marbles gone. The next thing you know, they are starting Kindergarten, learning letters and numbers and how to tie their shoes and play sports….260 marbles gone. The next thing you know, they are starting high school. When our children reach their freshman year, we now only have approximately 200 marbles LEFT!!! Just 200 weeks to teach them to drive, make good decisions on their own as they become more and more independent. While we are doing that, we must also consider what we are doing to disciple them. Have we been intentional to share the gospel with them? If they have placed their faith in Jesus, have we been intentional about raising them to value church and independent bible study, to be plugged in the local church and to serve others. Have we instilled in them the importance of sharing their faith with those who do not have the same hope of salvation that they do? As of writing this, I did the math, and I have 135 marbles left before my 15 year old graduates. My job’s not finished but it has certainly been eye opening & humbling to realize how little time I have left. Reggie Joiner said it best I think when he said:
“When you see how much time you have left, you tend to get serious about the time you have now.”
Parents, as soon as they got here, we started packing their bags to leave. What we pack in those bags they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. I’ll leave you with this story that sums up well the importance, the urgency, and the desperate need to disciple the next generation of believers: The English poet Samuel Coleridge talked with a man who did not believe that children should be given any religious instruction at all.This man claimed that the child’s mind should not be prejudiced in any direction, and when he became older he should be permitted to choose his religious opinions for himself.Coleridge said nothing; but after a while he asked his visitor if he would like to see his garden. The man said he would, and Coleridge took him out into the garden, where only weeds were growing. The man looked at Coleridge in surprise, and said, “Why this is not a garden! There is nothing but weeds here!” “Well, you see,” answered Coleridge, “I did not wish to infringe upon the liberty of the garden in any way, I was just giving the garden a chance to express itself and to choose its own production.”
There are so many famous sayings about home: “Home is where the heart is,” “There’s no place like home,” “Home is my happy place,” and my personal favorite, “Home is where the wi-fi connects automatically.” Home is relative. I was born and raised in Tennessee and that is home; but I have never felt more at home than I do here- Centralia is my home. Tennessee and Missouri hold spots in my heart that make them both home to me. In fact, I have adopted the phrase “Show Me State with a Tri-Star Heart.” And though I absolutely love my Centralia home, I do come home to Tennessee to see family and friends. It’s always good to be in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, seeing family, driving through Pigeon Forge & Gatlinburg; but by the end of the trip, I’m ready to be home in Centralia. Home holds a lot of meaning for me.
Not everyone is as fortunate as I am though. For some, home holds painful memories and rough experiences. It’s not a place of fond recollections of time with friends or happy holiday festivities. Home is not some place they ever want to return. To you, my friend, let me encourage you today to change your definition of home. Let me encourage you to not look at home as merely an address or a location, but the place where you feel loved, cared for, encouraged, and supported. That may very well be an address or it may be a group of people. Regardless of your situation, whether home holds fond memories or terrible nightmares, let me encourage you today to come home to a place where you are loved. Wherever or whoever that may be. Too often, our default is to tackle the world on our own and one of the hardest things for anyone to say is, “I need help.” I want to encourage as many of you as I can today, no matter where you are, to come home- no matter what level that is for you.
Church- those who call Jesus Lord, be that home. Luke 15:11-32 tells the story of the prodigal son. A story that most people are familiar with. It focuses on a son who squandered his inheritance and wound up living with pigs. He finally came home, expecting to be servant, but was treated like a king. This is EXACTLY what God did for us when Jesus died on a cross. He made us joint heirs with Jesus Christ, clothed us in righteousness, and called us sons and daughters. The forgotten son in the story is the older son who resented his brother being welcomed back. His argument was that his younger brother didn’t deserve to be welcomed back or treated like royalty. Jesus reminds us in this parable, that none of us were worthy, but the love of God surpasses all of that and we should rejoice every time one comes home. We must be home to those who struggle, those who have messed up, those who live without hope. We must be home to those who don’t agree with us, not compromising truth, but proclaiming it and trusting GOD to change hearts.
So, to the person struggling to get through the day, welcome home. You can find peace & rest in Jesus Christ. To the person who believes they have messed up beyond help, welcome home. We cannot out sin God’s grace. You can find forgiveness in the love that Jesus offers. To the person who has walked away from their faith and the church, welcome home. It is never too late to hand your life over to the Lord. You can find redemption in Jesus Christ. To the person who hasn’t made their faith a priority, welcome home. You can find grace through Jesus Christ who wants to know you and wants you to grow daily in that walk as you follow Him. To the person who has hardened their heart to outsiders and change, welcome home. You can find truth in the Word of God that will open up a vast world of opportunity to reach people who are lost, lonely, hurting, and in need of hope. To the person who doesn’t know Christ as their savior, welcome home. We aren’t perfect. Someone will say the wrong thing to hurt feelings and we won’t always live up to expectations; but I promise you this, Jesus ALWAYS does. He can transform your life in a way that you could not possibly imagine. You can find salvation in Jesus Christ and I would love to share with you just how He can do that.
It’s football season and I am looking forward to being in the stands tonight to cheer on Centralia. That is where I want to be fan. I do not, however, want to be caught on the sidelines of my faith. Several years ago, Kyle Idelman, now Senior Pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY, wrote a book called Not a Fan. It was a well written, thoughtful book about how Christians participate (or don’t participate) in their walk with Christ. The message of that book has stuck with me through the years since I read it and it caused me to view the Christian life, particularly mine, in a different light. One thing that it did, was it made me realize that, like the book said, there are far too many people sitting on the sideline, just a spectator, not really participating. However, as I continue to look through this lens (always at myself first), I came to the realization that there are so many different reasons that people stay on the sidelines. While I cannot address all of the individual reasons we choose to stay on the sidelines, I always feel the need to encourage you to get up and get in the game; and maybe, just maybe, I can encourage you today to do just that.
To my fellow believers- Get off the sidelines: The old cliche of 20% of the people do 80% of the work needs to exit our vocabularies. Get in the game. The Great Commission does not say “Church Staff” go and make disciples. It does not say “Sunday School Teachers” go and make disciples. It does not say “People who have their lives together” go and make disciples. It is an imperative from Christ Himself to ALL OF US to go and make disciples of all nations. In fact, the exact wording if you need the reference is:
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Then in Acts 1:8, a coinciding promise and command is given, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” It is has been made pretty clear that we all have the responsibility to share the gospel, to see people baptized, and to walk with them as we all grow in our faith.
To the casual believer- Get off the sideline: God has placed you on my heart. I want you to be sure, without a shadow of a doubt that you belong to the Lord and not just think you might be. No one who truly has an encounter with Christ will ever walk away the same. I want you to have assurance that beyond a shadow of a doubt that your life has been handed over to the Lord. In his book, Kyle says this:
“The biggest threat to the church today is fans who call themselves Christians but aren’t actually interested in following Christ. They want to be close enough to Jesus to get all the benefits, but not so close that it requires anything from them.”
Kyle Idelman- Not a Fan
If you know that you belong to the Lord, but you’ve been on cruise control lately or for most of your walk, it’s never too late to get in the game. Don’t try to satisfy your conscience by checking boxes of “good, religious things to do.” Get in the game, do the work, and experience the amazing pain of growth. Jesus never asked for fans, He asked for followers; and following requires a response. We cannot hope to follow if we are firmly planted on the sideline.
To the non believer- Get off the sideline: There is a God who loves you. There is a God who wants to save you. I know it’s not always easy to believe that when people who claim to believe in Him don’t exactly reflect it. I get it, I really do. Let me say this though, being a follower of Christ doesn’t make anyone perfect. God never expected us to be perfect as believers, He does expect us to be authentic. If you have tried church before, let me encourage you to try it again. This time, look for one that is authentic and not perfect. The perfect church doesn’t exist, but there are authentic churches out there. You will always run into believers that will upset you, we do too. What I can promise you is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true and real. It offers hope and salvation, and it provides a love that you could not imagine. It will change you- the way you think, the way you act, the way you perceive things. It will cost you and once you place your faith in Him, life doesn’t automatically become a bed of roses because we still live in a broken and fallen world. But, you will no longer be a slave to this broken world and this life will no longer be as good as it gets. You can’t know this peace and this love if you never respond to it. God is calling you to Him, the message is this repent, turn away from the broken life of sin you lead, and trust that Jesus is the Son of God and that He paid the penalty for those sins. That he lived the life we couldn’t live and died the death we should have died. But not even death could hold Him because He rose 3 days later to give us victory over death. Don’t look for faith based on what you read or see on social media, find a believer, an authentic believer, not perfect, and let them share with you what God can do.
No matter where you are in life or your walk with Christ. If you are sold out or if you aren’t even a believer, get off the sideline and into the game. Respond to the gospel, be baptized, actively grow in your faith, and while we are at it, let’s make more disciples one person at a time. It’s good to be back.
This summer, I took my family on vacation to Universal and we were having a good time. Then four days into my vacation, I found myself in the emergency room with a blood pressure of 200/120. They ran tests and then I spent the next several weeks going to doctor’s appointments, finding the right combination of medications to manage my high blood pressure. During that process, they got family history, blood work, did an EKG, and took my blood pressure regularly. You know what they didn’t do? They didn’t x-ray my knee. They didn’t run an exam on my eyesight to see if I am wearing my contacts. They didn’t even take a throat culture to see if I had strep… I mean, it’s my body right? My heart is instrumental in making all of those things work. They didn’t count how many times I had been to the doctor. Surely if I am going to the doctor and I haven’t missed an appointment, I should be healthy, right? I even looked up high blood pressure on WebMD (by the way, I now have 15 other diseases thanks to that search). If only that actually worked, I mean I am really good at not missing doctor’s appointments. Unfortunately, if I plan on beating my high blood pressure (and I will), my doctors are going to need to assess things that ACTUALLY measure the health of my heart.
A lot has been said about the health of the church over the last several years. Tom Rainer, former CEO of Lifeway, wrote a book a few years ago titled Autopsy of a Deceased Church. In it, Rainer said this about healthy churches:
“Thriving churches have the Great Commission as the centerpiece of their vision, while dying churches have forgotten the clear command of Christ.”
Thom Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church
You notice that at the centerpiece of these churches is the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). That beautiful, wonderful command given to us by Christ before he ascended back to the Father. In those few short verses, we have been given the concept of missions (taking the gospel to all the nations), the idea that we are all messengers of the gospel (baptizing people), and the truth that we are all disciple-makers (teaching them to obey God’s commands). This is the barometer. A church and the health of a church should be measured based on how they are making disciples.
You know what is NOT at the centerpiece of healthy churches? NUMBERS!!!! You cannot adequately define the health of a church through the number of people coming in and out of your doors. That’s like gauging the health of my heart by counting the number of doctors appointments I have gone to. Unfortunately, all too often, this is the ONLY barometer used. Questions like, “So, how many people came to youth last night?” or “Wow attendance in the service has been down, what is going on?” or “People are leaving, there must be a problem.” Now, analytics are certainly useful and we do keep a close eye on the number of people walking through our door; but what I am interested in is how many of those people are walking out of our doors fully committed to living every second of every day for Christ to the best of their ability. Too often, churches and organizations make the grave mistake of making budgets, money, and jobs tied to numbers. The unfortunate realization is that we treat our church, our associations, and our conventions TOO much like a business. I understand the money needs, I really do. However, we see a decline in product, therefore we have to make cuts and the only measurable way we can gauge production is the number of baptisms and salvations. Doing this makes often causes us to cut in the wrong places. Let me explain 3 dangerous ways this is ultimately a death sentence to churches, associations, conventions, and in more drastic cases, church goers if they do not pull away from this measurement of health and begin gauging health by discipleship.
First, when you put such an emphasis on numbers, the inclination is to associate it to tithing members. The erroneous thought is, the more members we have, the more tithers we will have. So the CFOs and the finance committees begin pushing for more and more members. Stop….is tithing something that magically happens when we are saved? When you were baptized, did you emerge from the water and immediately think, “Oh man, I better start giving 10% of my income.” No, you didn’t. If you tithe, it is because you were discipled to do so. There is a lot of good truth in the gospel, tithing isn’t mentioned in the free gift of salvation though. That always comes later. So, what you have is pressure on your staff or, if you are an association or convention, pressure on your churches to baptize more people so that “giving members go up.” Listen to a hard truth, there are more “members” sitting in church today that are not tithing than are. So, obviously, the innate desire to tithe doesn’t come with salvation. What does come is the desire to learn more and draw closer to Christ and in that discipleship, tithing becomes apparent and necessary to the believer.
Second, a church based on numbers almost universally has an unhealthy tie to “the good old days.” They remember when pews were full and the money flowed. The church did whatever ministry they wanted because they had the manpower and resources to do it. Then, as time went on, church attendance began to decline. Money stopped coming in like it used to. Businesses started being open on Sundays in search of a few more bucks. We started playing sports every weekend in hopes of that college scholarship or professional career. Church, which used to be a way of life, now became an option on Sundays and then eventually Wednesdays. So what happened to our people? Did they stop being members? Did they stop being Christian? No, they were never discipled to prioritize church and spiritual growth over other offerings of the world. We thought, it must be the pastor, so we fire him and hire a new one only to experience the exact same thing. And when a pastor came in determined to make discipleship the focus, people got mad and left the church because “everything was changing” and “its not like it used to be.” That’s because discipleship is hard and requires sacrifice of self (see Luke 9:23). Rainer also explained this phenomenon in the “dying” churches he autopsied in his book. He said:
“The most pervasive and common thread of our autopsies was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as hero. They held on more tightly with each progressive year. They often clung to things of the past with desperation and fear. And when any internal or external force tried to change the past, they responded with anger and resolution: “We will die before we change.”
Thom Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church
Last and by far the most devastating effect of making numbers the focus of our health is the danger of false conversions. I worked with a camp for a decade that taught, encouraged, and most importantly discipled students to lead a life devoted to Christ. Our director built a rock solid, biblically strong program that was changing not only lives, but communities as well. Then one September, I get a call from our director saying that we were out at camp. The governing body decided that we were not generating enough “salvations and baptisms” from our program and they were going to go in a different direction. By the way, this is the same governing body who’s 5 objectives are completely centered around numbers. I was devastated. We FELT the Holy Spirt working in that camp environment every year as lives were transformed and recommitted to truly following Christ. What were we supposed to do? Tell churches they could only bring their lost kids? The message was clear, discipleship was not measurable in numbers and as a result they could not report on their “product” so there was no room for discipleship at camp. When you put that kind of pressure on staff, camp directors, or department heads in your convention, the motivation shifts from making sure people are saved to making sure people walk and aisle and get baptized. Believe me, there is a difference. Everyone who truly accepts Christ as their Lord and seeks to grow in Him daily, will walk an aisle, make a profession of faith, and get baptized. However, not everyone who walks and aisle and gets baptized truly accepts Christ as their Lord. As a result of a number driven Church Healthcare System, we have created an unknown number of people who think they are saved, but have never made Christ Lord- and in order to save livelihoods, we have turned the gospel of transformation into an ego-driven numbers mill.
I once had a conversation about this very topic and I told someone that I would rather have a youth ministry of 20 kids who want to grow in Christ every day, than a group of 100 kids who are not concerned about growing whether they are member or not. You want to know where your numbers will come from? Do you want to know how to grow your church numerically? Start by growing your church spiritually. As we disciple every believer, the message of the gospel will go out to those who our members interact with. That will in turn lead people to come to church. Then we take the journey of discipleship together. When that happens, multiplication happens. Then watch God create a building full of world altering disciples. Not every small church is sick and not every big church is healthy. Yes, healthy churches often have a lot of people, but it’s not because pushing numbers. It’s because they have bought into following Christ and their life choices reflect that. Let’s start measuring the health of our churches by the disciples we make- the numbers will take care of themselves.
In Christ Alone,
Rev. Bro. Coach
*many thanks to by medical team, Ryan & Michelle who made sure I didn’t sound like an idiot and mess up any of the medical terms or procedures I mentioned here.