Monthly Archives: February 2014


Market share, brand loyalty, followers, subscribers – there is the constant push for more and more and more and more. It seems that everyone wants you (sort of). In our work of beginning a new church in Worcester I think a lot about growth and the tensions of the right ends, healthy means, and appropriate expectations.
The Right Ends Early in the 1950’s there were outbreaks of polio which affected ~80,000 children.  Life long disability, paralysis and death were potential consequences. There was an incredible push to develop a vaccine and when it was found safe there was the first instance of mass inoculations. On the opposite end of the spectrum I think of a celebrity trying to expand their following on twitter or some other form of social media. When speaking of adding people to the church people’s response will depend on whether they think of the Christian faith as similar to the polio vaccine or the celebrity gaining a following or the company looking for more consumers. As a minister, and even as a participant in a church there can be all sorts of mixed motives for adding people but the solution is not to give up on growth. I think of the Peter’s words to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” We need to search our hearts and ask God for truer motivations that reflect his love for a world that is sick within.

Healthy Means: Do I believe in conversion to the Christian faith?  Do I believe in the complete change of a persons’s life originating from faith in Jesus Christ?  There is ample evidence of it happening , Jesus says it is a reality – necessary for knowing God, and it happened to me.  It is easy for churches to shuffle around people from one congregation to another, thinking this is growth.  While this is an inevitable part of “adding” people, it is important to ask what, if any, percentage comes from real conversion.  If five years down the road God has used us to begin a church in Worcester but there is little growth by conversion, what have we done?  Have we truly added?  If it is merely followers of a celebrity, consumers of a product, or membership in an institution the question of true addition (conversion) doesn’t matter.  However, if adding to the church is like the vaccine we can strive for nothing less than the conversion of many.  What are the best means to pursue this addition?  We’re thinking.  Each of us has a network of relationships and we must each pray for God to work within these and seek to share the gospel.  On the other hand we need an avenue for a regular ministry where we can begin with people knowing we are Christians and having the message of Jesus up front.  In all this we know that new life only comes from God but that he uses people.  So we are praying and thinking.

Expectations If there really is a God who is full of love and power and actually works in this world, our expectations should be high  On the other hand, God does not seem to do things the way we would expect (Jesus dying on a cross for example) and plainly says that many will reject Christ.  What are my expectations for “adding people?”  In the book of Acts we see the refrain…

And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. – chapter 4 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women – ch. 5 And a great many people were added to the Lord. -ch. 11 and more

At different times and places the rate at which God adds people to his church varies.  This seems to be a reflection of both his plans and the faithfulness of his people.  But what expectations should we have?  Are there specific goals or numbers for which we strive?  I heard a helpful distinction between goals and desires in church planting.  Goals are things we can accomplish whereas desires are things only God can do.  So I think our goal could be sharing the gospel with a certain amount of people or having ongoing evangelistic activities whereas our desire would be to see are certain number or percentage of people converted within a specific time frame.  What is my desire then?  Is it two people a year?  Ten?  How about 8% of attendees and with an annual increase of .5%?  Again, I think of the polio vaccine and the needs of the city of Worcester and know that my desires need to grow.  While there is an immediate, desperate need, I also know that important things take time.  What does it mean to set my expectations towards a longer horizon looking for growth today but especially over 10-20 years?

What we do not see

2100747120_c19d506974No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment… a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”

The metaphor of holding a lie in your hand makes me think of our incredible capacity for self-deception.  I think of a frog or fish, slippery and writhing, which I can barely keep in my grasp.  I think of pine needles that I cannot pluck from the sap smeared across my palms.  A lie is wilily in that it both wants to escape and wreak havoc, and cling to leach away your life.  

The above quote comes from the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah and is part of a larger critique of idolatry – making something other than God the center of your existence.  As he sharply criticizes God’s people for turning from the true and living God to others he talks about the depths of our self-deception.

The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

And while it might be easy to look down on “primitive ancient cultures” or just excuse these people as living in a prescientific age, we are like them, putting too much hope in the things we make and serve.  It happens with money, family, work, hobbies, friendships and just about anything we hold too tightly.  We think that these can provide what we need and protect us – “deliver.”  A few chapters later Isaiah talks about these same idols being taken into captivity as their worshipers are conquered.  

Bel bows down; Nebo stoops;
their idols are on beasts and livestock;
these things you carry are borne
as burdens on weary beasts.
They stoop; they bow down together;
they cannot save the burden,
but themselves go into captivity.

Only in a crisis do the people begin to see the inability of their gods to protect them as they go with them into captivity.  The image of an idol being carried on the back of livestock is a mirror for the worshipper who has supported this false god all along.   The veil is pulled back and the lie that was so plain and had been held so long is exposed.

I think about my own blindness and wonder what is stuck to my hands or trying to slip out.  I recently purchased a variety of short booklets written for those investigating the Christian faith.  As I was flipping through one, right in the middle there was an advertisement for further materials by this company and I had this visceral negative reaction.  As I was trying to understand why, I realized this single full page ad would put this otherwise excellent publication in the category of “another company trying to sell me something.”  This feel of being sold a product is the exact opposite of the impression I’d want someone to have in reading about Jesus.  Is the lie in the right hand about marketing?  Is it about promotion of excellent resources for the benefit of others?  Is it about getting our produce out there? I don’t know.  While I try to be aware of the lies that I am tempted to hold I fear that I am blind to the things that I would make to displace God – crafting it and having confidence that it can deliver; carrying the burden on my back only in crisis to have my false God exposed.  This last passage from Isaiah (46) follows the previous one in which the idols are carried into captivity, and gives me great hope.

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save.
“To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
and compare me, that we may be alike?

Even as we carry idols on our backs, becoming less than human, God is carrying us.  Even when we hold the lie in our hand and believe it will deliver, God says I will save.  What an amazing salvation.

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Focusing in

Commute time 01602 from

Commute time 01602 from

Since we began learning about a Worcester a year ago I’ve looked at a lot of charts and figures like this one, trying to better understand the city and its different sub-communities.  This chart reflects the commute time for people in our zip code and is part of a larger array of information I went through with the group that is helping us start Grace Pres. Worcester.  From the beginning we’ve known we need to be more specific than saying “We’re here to serve Worcester.”  So, we’re narrowing.  We’ve been looking more specifically at two zip codes, one of in which we live, the other which is close and for which we have affinity.  So here is a summary of a few of the important demographics along with some implications.  If the hard data isn’t your fancy, then just ski down to some of the implications.

Population: 42,000 total with an even split between males and females.

Age distribution: There is a significant spike at college age, a down turn in the mid twenties, an uptick in the thirties and then stability until age 65 at which point there is a decline.

Marriage: there are significant populations of both married and single adults in this area. While a portion of the single population is due to the many college students, there are many singles outside of this demographic.

Income: Within this area there are sub-sections whose household income is near $30,000 and others nearly four times higher. The median income for these zip codes is $60,000 and $40,000 respectively.

Education: While ~90% of students complete high school only 40% of the population achieves a bachelor’s degree. Of this 40% nearly half achieve an advanced degree. There is significant diversity in regards to education, even at the elementary and high school grades (20%, 40%, respectively, at private schools).

Ethnic diversity: Within these zip codes some subsections are predominately white (70-90%) whereas others are predominately minorities (hispanic, black, and asian). As a whole there is significant diversity (~25% of population non-white) but this will vary by neighborhood.

Locals: In the past five years ~80% of current residents have lived in Worcester County while ~90% have lived in Massachusetts. Thus, despite some transition or moving the vast majority of those living here are from the area.

Commute time: The median commute for residents is 21mintues with 2/3 of the population commuting less than 25minutes.

Density: 3,900 / 5,800 per square mile

Homes: about a 1/3 in 01602 and ½ in 01609 rent and 2/3 of homes were built before 1939.

Future trends: Until 2030 Worcester is expected growth by ~7%, reaching 195,000 as a total popluation. This exceeds the MA average (4.4%) but is under national averages (14%). Between 2000 and 2010 the African American population of Worcester increased by 77%, the Latino population increased by 45% and the white population decreased by 5%.

Some implications:

Engage diversity and disparity: In this small area of the city (<10mi2) not only are there a variety of people, but there are significant differences in income, housing, and education. The ideal would be to reflect a measure of this diversity in the church and through Christian friendship help each other with the unique challenges of our specific point in life.

College students: There is a great opportunity to reach college students but we need to be cautious about building the church too much around a college ministry. According to population data it seems that many students leave Worcester following graduation with a good proportion returning in their thirties.

Locals: Many in this area of Worcester have local or regional roots. Finding a way to work through existing relational networks will be important. On the other hand it seems that these networks could be isolated from each other among smaller sub-communities within his area. So it will be important to have different starting points or nodes so that we can connect across different types of people.

Finding a name

In an earlier post I described the approach we were taking to land on a church name.  As different people from our group shared a list of potential church names with friends and associates church names that included “grace” were at the top of the list.  And so we narrowed it down to a few (Grace Redeemer, Grace Community, Grace Presbyterian) and ended up going with Grace Presbyterian Church of Worcester.    Here’s what we liked…

1.  Grace is central to who we strive to be as a church and resonates with our community.
2.  Having grace in the name can be a great bridge to talking about the essential feature of the Christian gospel (a gift we don’t deserve, given at God’s expense)
3.  Presbyterian is part of our identity and the combo of “Christian term,”+ “denominational affiliation,” + “church” is very common in Worcester.  In a place where anything that isn’t Catholic is somewhat suspect, the more classic pattern name fits the mould and helps provide credibility .
4.  It is our prayer that this church in Worcester will be around for a while and the danger of choosing a super hip or trendy name is that a decade or two down the road it could easily be passé.  While Grace Presbyterian will never be cutting edge, it also has staying power.
5.  There are all sorts of ways to abbreviate it.

While none of these might be sufficient in and of itself (especially #5) these reasons seem to come together quite well and at some point you need to choose.  So, like many of the other decisions ahead of us, here we go.

Having drunk from the fire hydrant

7359775210_61c21abdaaI began writing this post on the flight back to Boston from Orlando when my mind was full from a week’s worth of meetings and training.  I’ll relate two stories and five pieces of the training (briefly).

The first part of my trip was spent in Birmingham, Al networking and fundraising.  I had the privilege of speaking with pastors of various churches around the city and one of the highlights was hearing from two long time pastors how God called them into ministry.  One pastor recounted the story of his maternal-grandfather who, when he heard that his daughter was pregnant, began praying that she would have a son who would become a minister.  This godly man in his eighties prayed each day until his death, at which point his grandson was only a year old.  But in his earliest memories he recalls telling those who asked that he wanted to be a pastor when he grew up.  He did not know of his grandfathers’  prayers until later in life.
Another gentleman told of his mother who became a Christian in her late teens and wanted to be a missionary.  She married but due to the great depression and the responsibilities of raising a family was unable to go.  So, she prayed that God would call half of her children into ministry.  The pastor who told this story and two other siblings serve in ministries and at least half of the grandchildren do as well.  Again, he learns of this later in life and eventually finds out that his mother desired to go to China as a missionary, which is where his son serves.
It was amazing to hear the stories of God’s answer to these prayers and his faithfulness in raising up servants for his work.

After my time in Birmingham I flew to Orlando where it was sunny and in the 70’s.  Unfortunately it rained the rest of our time there… In our training through Global Church Advancement (GCA) we went through 10 modules and I’ll give a highlight from half of them.

Focus:  How well do you know the community among which you live and serve?  The goal, as a church planter, is to know your community better than someone who grew up there.  You talk to as many people as you can, both community leaders and regular people you meet, asking who lives there and what their lives are like.  What could the church do to serve the community?  What are your impressions of the church?  Who should the church be?  What is right and wrong with our world?  Who is God?  These and many other questions fill out a rich of the unique place you are.  You should be a student of both the culture and your own church,  continually learning who you are called to serve and how this brings focus to everything else.

Purposes:  There are five purposes that we see in the bible which must exist to some degree in every church: worship, teaching, fellowship, evangelism, and mercy.  Each church will emphasize one or two of these due to the gifts of the leaders and needs of the people, especially in a new church.  We need to find ways to round out our weaknesses and have ministries that fulfill each purpose but still build off of our strengths.

Values: Put more emphasis on “why” you do things rather than “what” so that the appropriate “whats” all continue to happen.  If you put the foundation in place of who you are and people understand what you most value then the right things will flow out of this understanding.  If, on the other hand you start with your programs or activities it is easy over time to forget the “whys” and eventually stop the “whats.”

Planning:  Imagine the team which is working to begin the church as a group  paddling across a lake in a large canoe.  Unless your destination is clear and there is consensus you will spin or capsize.  In a small boat you will either paddle together or you will not make it.  It is so important to have a clear destination and a course to get there.  Both the destination and course must be understood and embraced by everyone in the boat.  Specifically this comes down to training, sacrifice, and living out your purposes and values in light of your focus group.  An example of this is that in the North East it is best to start worship services (purpose) in late October or mid-February:
-September is busy and disorienting as the academic year resumes, but by October rhythms emerge and it is easier for someone to visit a church.
-You then have a month or two until Christmas at which people are open to visiting a church and this can then give you a little boost after the initial surge of excitement and newness has worn out.
-Then in the cold months of January, February, and March people are generally around and looking for some reason to get out of the house.  Except for Super Blow, Blizzards, and Spring vacation there isn’t too much that will compete.
-Then you gain another boost through Easter and have the momentum to make it through summers in which so many people travel.

The main thing:  This was the concluding session which had outstanding content and sought to bring it all together.  One of the “main things” was to remember that you are not merely God’s “soldier” or “servant” but a son.  With all the learning, planning, and pressures of this intensive training it is easy to see yourself primarily as someone who does things for God rather than belonging to him as a child.  This is a pretty basic part of the Christian faith but is one of the main things we can overlook as we charge ahead with things to do.

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