The Ministry of Space

It was Thursday before Christmas at 4:48 in the afternoon. My brain was shot. My eyes hurt. I’m a web designer, and by 5  my head hurts after facing a Mac all day. Plus it was Christmas season. Who wants to work during Christmas season?

I walked upstairs to where my kids were sprawled in front of a cartoon. Elijah was slumped on the couch in a blanket to shut out the oddly cold Texas afternoon.

Abigail, our 4-year-old was draped superman style over an ottoman, pivoting back and forth. This was “Daddy’s ottoman” for “Daddy’s chair.” I walked in, she caught my eye; she knew I’d told her not to swing on my chair, she I knew I was thinking that, and figured my next words would be a scold.

Instead I walked over, scooped her up, blanket and all, flipped her over to face the TV and collapsed on the couch in one motion. I dug my fingers into her ribs prompting the familiar high pitched squawk of laughter.

Between laughs, “Daddy stop tickling me, I’m watching a showwwwww!”

I pulled her close, wrapped the blanket around her bare feet (she hates socks), and sat with them watching Wild Krats. Eventually she pushed her legs out, poking her feet out of the blanket. Gosh, she’s getting big. She has long legs and toes like her mom. Good, I thought, not like short-legged, long-waisted me. She’ll be glad for that later. For now, God, thank you for this moment. 

God Said Stop

A year ago, in the week before Christmas, December 22, 2016, we were in a very different place.

I was an executive pastor at a church on the East Coast. A church with nearly 2000 people. And at our Christmas Eve services, we’d pull in over 4000 people. Needless to say the week before Christmas was go time – our “Super Bowl.” I led the music ministry, so the week was filled with practices, rehearsals, production prep, planning meetings, and more.

But December 22, 2016 was different not only from 2017, but from the previous 13 years at the church.

On December 22, God said “stop.”

I was about to lose my family. My ambition for the direction of the church and proving myself capable of someday leading had resulted in a standoff between me and the senior pastor (also my father-in-law. Yeah, yeah I know.) and unveiled issues of integrity we couldn’t look past. And through a series of events, God pulled us away from jobs, my wife’s family, and our church community in one day. We resigned in January followed by a move near my family to my hometown of Temple, TX.

The Best Teacher

It’s been said pain is the best teacher. What a freaking cliché. Yet wrapped in the previous paragraphs are years of struggle for my wife and me – and hard lessons. Through the heartache of packing up dreams and a home and moving across the country with no job, we discovered much about the nature of God’s calling on His people. Lessons we would have never learned while planted vocationally in a church.

That’s just the way it works sometimes. I wouldn’t choose it, but I wouldn’t not choose it.

And so sitting with my daughter snuggled in my arms, I thought through the year and one of it’s biggest lessons I’d like to share.

The Ministry of Space

A few years back I had lunch with a buddy in Maryland. He was new to his faith, had joined our small group and was trying to figure out how to grow. Or at least I projected on him he needed to grow.

We were talking about an Easter “prop” used by our pastor. It was a small metal wheel with spokes. We gave them to everyone who came at Easter. The prop was my idea and stemmed from the concept that our lives should revolve around the “hub” that is, Jesus. And the spokes should point to Him.

It sounded good (even now it sounds snazzy). Yet, as I sat across from this friend I was troubled. Why? I kept inserting “church” for “Jesus.” Intentionally. “So if you guys can figure out how to make coming Sunday mornings priority, and our small group as well, and serve and get your wife to serve too, you’ll find your lives centered on church…uh and Christ.”

They were busy people. Young kids, jobs, family, all things families juggle. But I needed them to be “all in” as we called it. “Fully devoted.” Attend each week – it’s the best hour of your week. “You’ll see everyone and watch – um – sing with the smokin’ band and hear a relevant message you’ll do your best to remember on Monday.”

“Then you need to grow. Join our small group. Drop kiddos at childcare and make sure you read the study beforehand.”

“Then you need to serve. Find a ministry and serve coffee, clean bathrooms, teach kids’ class, watch babies, lock up the building, perform with the drama team or band, move stage props (wear black, no phones in your pocket, no logos on your t’s, no jeans, or skirts without leggings, move with purpose, don’t mess up, don’t be a distraction, don’t talk, don’t walk out the wrong doors, don’t walk on the wrong side of the stage, be on time), fold bulletins, set up chairs, tear down chairs, move chairs, clean chairs, usher people to chairs. In other words, find your “gift,” and use it!”

“And finally, do “life” with us! Don’t forget community events: movies, game nights, coffee shop live music (yeah, we had a coffee shop), family nights, and more.”

In other words, “Make Jesus – or church – the center of that wheel of life.” The words felt slimy coming out of my mouth. I drove away wrestling with the idea. Is it church, as in activities and attendance and serving and doing that make Jesus the center of our lives?

That was several years ago. At the time, it was difficult to process. I was swimming in that culture. We had friends at a church activity literally 4 nights a week with kids in front of movies or iPads as sitters. I had other friends who drew the line at 2 nights/week and were ridiculed – chided in fact. I guess they were seen as “kinda in” rather than “all in”? My wife and I were navigating new babies, new houses, time-consuming jobs, and the guilt of not wanting to be in the church building ALL THE FREAKING TIME, not to mention a desire to get to know people outside the church. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

We left that church – not merely for those reasons, but we left, and now that we’re not neck deep in “church life” we see things clearly. Fact is, this issue isn’t unique to the church we left.

It’s everywhere. I call it the vicious church cycle. It may not sit well, but hear me. It’s this: for some reason, the modern, western church has this lustful need to grow in numbers and influence, and the way they do that is by becoming all-consuming in the lives of believers, particularly middle-class American families.

But why would a church not want to grow? Good question. I’m not talking about a healthy growing discipleship-based church interested in the movement of the Spirit. I’m talking about what I heard a large mega-church pastor call “dumb growth.” I’m talking about when a church has such “girth” that everyone just goes to _____ (insert big local church in your area) because it’s the cool place to go.

And because of this need to be the biggest and most “excellent,” our churches have become resource suckers in (at least) two ways: hospitality and generosity.

The church (people not the org) has lost its “space” – our ability to respond to the Spirit’s leading the moment He gives us direction.

Now I know, it’s easy to dog on churches and not provide a solution.

The Vicious Cycle

Allow me to build out this vicious cycle:

  1. A new family arrives at church (an organizational meeting on a weekend).
  2. They’re impressed with the parking, coffee, music, and message. They want to get involved and meet people like them.
  3. A connection person contacts them and advises to meet people and grow they need to get into a: 4-6 week welcome class (Wednesdays); small group (Sundays or Fridays); serving ministry (“We need more people in Children’s!”); youth ministry (Wednesday and/or Tuesdays if you have kids in middle and high school); community event to meet other families (“We have one this Friday night!”); a Bible study class (Mondays or Thursdays). They also strongly  encourage Sunday attendance to “gather.”
  4. The family is then instructed from the stage to reach their neighbors/co-workers/classmates. And they sit there, consider their church-activity-jammed calendars and think, “Sooo…when does that happen?” And as if the pastor is reading their minds, he says emphatically, “Invite them to church!” Yes invite them so they can jump on the ferris wheel and make church central in their lives.
  5. The church grows because the music is good and the messages are too funny; so the decide they need more space, a bigger building, better sound, lights, more children’s space, a park, another community building, and above all more staff to handle the influx of people. So how do they pay for that…?
  6. Teach the tithe, ensuring the local church should be the primary (only?) recipient, steward and distributor of the tithe, allowing the cycle to start all over at 9 AM next Sunday morning.

Obviously, my sarcasm is heavier than haze of a volunteer running the church’s fog machine. But after being away from the vocational scene, it weighed heavily on us. So much so, I decided to let it marinate before voicing. Why? Because it can seem inflammatory to our culture and understanding of church. You may be reading this like, “Yeah, that’s kinda what we do at our church. We center our lives around this place and the same people every week and when we’re asked to do something “missional” like spend time with people outside the walls of our church, we’re out of time (and funds), and we resort to an Easter invite left in the mailbox with a smiley face and ‘will you come to church with us?’.”

Or you may read and be like, “But we love being at our church all the time! It’s so nice to escape the real world.” To which I’d ask if you’re after a church or a country club. Worth pondering…

May I suggest something? This isn’t going to work much longer. A day is coming when centering our lives around a church organization will be at best apathetic, at worst, illegal.

Yes, anyone can voice ills about the church these days. But I have two suggestions. These are two things our family has enacted.

Space in Hospitality

Everyday, before working out, or checking my phone, or anything, I grab coffee and scripture. The first book I read after moving to Texas was Acts. Start to finish, verse by verse.

And in the quiet, while studying the first century church, I sensed a new way of thinking through our family life’s engagement with the local church.

My wife and I had discussions about what church to visit or small group to join or ministry to lead. In other words, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. For so long a leader or pastor told us what to do. There’s nothing wrong with responding to a good leader, but there is also a plethora of scripture encouraging growing up…right?

So we grew up. Once again, God said “stop.” Stop looking for the doing. Why do you need a church activity to think you’re doing my work? Why do you need a church organization to think you’re pursuing your “calling?”

While studying Acts, I witnessed overwhelmingly the hospitality demonstrated by the early church believers. And I don’t mean a monthly supper club or serving donuts and coffee before church. I mean real hospitality. Opening your home to the “stranger” – aka someone not like you. Or discovering a church body where you’re the minority: socially, racially, or economically so you can engage in lives very different from your norm.

We did. Through a series of random (read God) events, we discovered a local church community that is loosely – and I mean loosely – organized. Rather than Mercedes parked out front, there are shopping carts. They reach and care for the poor and homeless in our city. Care = food both spiritually and physically. Through this community, we’ve discovered the difference between charity and compassion. One is a handout, a program to remedy an “issue” or bolster your organization’s ego through measurables on a report. The latter is engaging in people’s lives and getting messy and uncomfortable, whether they can be measured or not. We prefer compassion.

One small example: we met a family through our soccer team. Soon we realized they were not like the other families. My wife and I (erroneously – we’re not soccer players) decided to coach. The dad from this family came to every practice and game. He was a nice guy, but a guy most of our “church” friends wouldn’t choose to invite to a dinner party or the like. He was between jobs and “hard” – like central Texas hard. You know what I mean.

After a game, he invited us to his son’s party. I’m not a huge social butterfly, and a 7-year-old’s birthday ranks just above digging ditches in Texas summer for me. But we talked about it and decided it was right to go.

And God ensured we saw his plan. The family had invited 16 of his classmates to the party. Not one showed. Our family walked in, and the birthday boy hugged our son as if Tom Brady made an appearance. We had a nice time and learned a lot about their family that most would have overlooked. We responded in the moment with the space we had available and blessed another family.

What does this have to do with church? A year ago, I would have been preparing for our Saturday service at our church. A Saturday birthday party would have been out of the question.

We’ve purposely stayed out of high levels of commitment at any church in order to give ourselves the time and energy to respond when God puts someone in our path to care for and invite into our lives. Yes, I occasionally play music on weekends with our new church. Yes, we attend weekend services. Yes, my wife is part of a Bible study with other Christian women. But it’s a far cry from the time “hub” we had created of our previous church.

We love it.

Space in Generosity

Space in generosity came next and was tough. Previously we had been taught to tithe exclusively to the local church. Not only does that fund ministries and staff, it also provides a deduction. Though the pastor didn’t keep tally of who gave, the other executive pastor kept up with the 10% of gross income staff were to give. If we fell below 10% – which I did once – we were called in for uncomfortable questioning – which it was.

Why didn’t the church just remove 10% from our salaries? I’ll never know.

Is giving to a church organization wrong? Absolutely not. Our church did amazing things caring for the local community, feeding the poor, providing firewood for families, and much more. But again, this is where discernment of “space” is critical. Does the church need an $80,000 top-of-the-line speaker system to reach the lost? Possibly not. What about a $500 subwoofer in the lobby so you can listen to Adele in 2.1 stereo sound while sipping a skinny mocha latte? Eh, maybe not. Or do we need 50 people on staff to organize and run the 10,000 different ministry activities? Hmmmm.

Do you see the viciousness of the cycle? Keep people busy with great activities, then ask them to pay for the staff and facilities to keep them busy with the great activities. Rinse and repeat.

Problem is, there’s a world of lost people who aren’t interested in flooding their calendars with church activities and giving money to a church to paint elaborate Jesus murals on the children’s ministry walls.

Can you imagine a pastor standing on a stage at a large church and saying something to this effect, “Live generously. The early church lived generously. The apostles lived generously. Open your hand and give. Yes, give to our church as God directs. You can witness the valid ministry we do in this church body. You see the ways in which we provide care. You see that we need space in which to gather and be discipled and worship. The apostle Paul said, ‘don’t muzzle the ox. I.E., pay a worker what he or she is due. Church leaders deserve the living provided by the church community. However, if God brings you a person or family desperate to pay for rent, or medicine, or clothing for their kids – then it’s your job to care for them. It’s your job to provide. Don’t rely on a church organization to do what scripture has clearly given you the mandate to do. If that means you don’t tithe to the church and miss the tax write-off, so be it. Be generous with what God puts in front of you, not what an organization may or may not need.”

Can you fathom a pastor saying that? “If God says don’t give to our church – don’t. Seek wisdom and Godly discernment, and give where He leads.”

My parents are the most generous people I know. My goal is be as generous as they are. At our new church community my mom met a young single woman with 2 kids and one on the way. The father was out of the picture.

This woman was desperate. She was living in a musty, old house that was falling apart, and she saw no way out. Her rent was way high for what she was getting and her monthly bills were absurd. She had no car or license or job. She lived in fear daily that her kids would be taken from her.

Her relatives weren’t much help, and she hadn’t found the depth of a church community. Until she met Mom.

The story that ensued (and is still happening) is too long for this already too long article, so I’ll provide highlights.

  • My father pursued what he felt were first steps: he called the big churches for a benevolence fund. Nothing but institutional red tape. He pursued help from city orgs. They gave him a few phone numbers. Dead end after dead end. The single mom had just had her baby and was in a house without running water. Running water, people – and a government employee said her status was not dire enough to merit assistance. I guess the baby needed to die? Or be hospitalized? I’m not sure what the right amount of direness is when you have a newborn and have no water in Bible-belt America.
  • My parents decided to reach elsewhere. The organized church and government failed. They reached out to people in their sphere of influence. Slowly, they responded. Checks showed up. Networking ensued. You could almost feel the embedded, latent power of the early church rising from slumber.
  • They covered rent for a month to ensure they had time get her on her feet.
  • Next they went through the laborious process of getting her driver’s license. In Texas it’s easier to buy a AR-15 than get a license.
  • Then she needed a car. A job was in the works, and she needed transportation. They went through a few contacts and found a great deal, all through other believers.
  • Finally, after the car and job were secure, they organized some guys to move her into a nicer duplex not only bigger and cleaner, but cheaper.
  • We thanked God for the people who stepped up.

This, friends, is how the body works. Can you imagine if the people of God were not only given permission but also encouragement from church leaders to be generous with resources in ways He determines, not always what a church budget dictates? Think about it.

My family has taken that on. We believe it with all of our hearts. Late 2017, we gave sacrificially to help pay off a building for our church. We were glad to help. The building is now paid for. We gave to an “organized church” – joyfully.

What’s next? We don’t know. We’ve been spending time with an older gentlemen who needs furnishings for a place he could finally afford to live in. That type of giving won’t show on my 2018 tax return. Oh well. There’s bigger treasure we’re working on. Now that the pressure of tithing to an organization with a $3 million dollar budget is over, we can be generous in ways unimaginable. We almost feel guilty it’s so freeing!

I Need to End This Post

If you’re still reading, you’re a trooper. Either you’re thinking deeply and excitedly or you’re steaming angry. I pray for the former but if it’s the latter, I’m open to a conversation. This is new to us too.

One thing we may agree on is the landscape of the modern church is changing dramatically. And quickly. Socially we have never been so polarized, and for the most part the organized church has done little to mitigate this. I believe our complacency and comfort as Christ-followers is moving us to the fringes.

Will we be ready? How will we respond when our big box church buildings with lights and screens and cameras and climbing walls and small group parties are threatened? What if we start now? What if we stop reacting and begin enacting?

For the Palmer family, our place to start is in the ministry of space: through hospitality and generosity. We hope you will join us. We hope you’ll share stories of that time you scrapped a few church activities from your calendar and instead engaged a neighbor or co-worker with coffee, a meal, or a home project. Or took a few bagged lunches to the men in your city or county pushing shopping carts wrapped in blankets. Or, call me crazy, spent time loving and leading your own kids and family for a season.

What if you stay home one Sunday (not every Sunday, people!), invite a family over eat, sing a few songs (without the professional musicians – *gasp*), read scripture, pray and teach a simple lesson on hospitality rather than rushing to get to church only to spread out as a family all over the building.

Or church leaders, what if you took a hard look at the core message of your church and pulled back the unnecessary layers that fill schedules and cash checks? What if equipping and sending were the only “activity” of the organized church?

What if?

A year ago, God said stop. Now God is saying start. Start living with an open schedule. Start living with an open hand…

The credits to the cartoon came on the TV, Abigail stirred and “woke” me from my day dreaming. I squeezed her again, she broke free, off to the next thing. I thanked God for the moment. I thanked Him for the extra time with my daughter, my son, my wife. I thanked Him for his hospitality with us. His Son coming into our crappy world. I thanked him for His generosity with us – sharing His “cattle on a thousand hills.”

I thanked Him for the clarity and the ministry of space.