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Monday, April 11, 2005

In the wake of all that has happened in the last couple of weeks, I have talked to many people who want to bend my ear about Westwinds. I have talked to many who have sent emails and phoned up the church to sing the praises of Westwinds for taking such a stand (you can read my earlier blogs below if you have no idea what I am talking about). Such conversations are flattering on one hand and a little unsettling on the other. I have been giving a lot of thought lately to the idea of being enamored with other churches and what they are doing. We make heroes out of churches and compare ourselves all the time. I gathered some of my thoughts for you below.

As a kid, I collected autographs from all my favorite musicians. What a thrill it is to see your heroes up close. I still get giddy when I meet famous people. My friend Steve (a fellow U2 fanatic) bumped into Bono at a restaurant in Chicago a little while back. “What did he say to you?” I asked. “He said, ‘Excuse me,’” Steve replied. “Lucky! I can’t believe you talked to Bono!” I said. I love being at an NBA game close enough to the court where you can hear the shoes squeaking on the floor and hear the players talking smack to one another. It makes me feel like I’m part of the action—one of the boys—brushing up against greatness. I know this guy that hated (I use that term loosely) a former president that shall remain nameless. But, when he had a chance to meet this president, he just about lost control of his bladder because he was so thrilled to meet the man. We are easily excited.

Rock stars, icons of the silver screen, politicians, athletes—they all charm and bedazzle us. We want to be like them. They have something we want. We live vicariously through them. Popularity. Notoriety. Smarts. Style. Flair. We don’t really admit this to anyone, but we’d love to be noticed like they are noticed. We’d like the idea that we may have something to offer or something to say that other people are enamored by. I don’t think I am the only one that feels this way. I know I’m not.

True confession? I have been enamored by churches. I think you have too. Let’s admit it. We go to the big conferences, we read the articles, we listen to the DVD’s, we buy the resource books, we read the writings of the senior pastors, we buy the CD’s of the worship bands, and we cry in our beer (Um, beer is the preferred drink to cry in for the emergent churches. If offended, substitute with a non-alcoholic beverage of your choice). We feel bad because we are not as cool as them. “Who is them” you ask? You know. “Them.” “Them” are all the churches cooler than us.

Have you ever watched “Behind the Music” on VH1? I’m addicted to those shows. I don’t know why. It’s always the same story. That VH1 voice guy says something like “Fame, fortune, and women—the band had it all. But, behind the scenes, rumors of a breakup and sever drug addiction began to surface. When we return, the band hits rock bottom on Behind the Music.” We know the Hollywood lifestyle isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Yet, we continue to catapult our heroes into the limelight. We literally worship them. We forget they are real people—with real hurts—with real struggles. We do the same thing with the church.

I have the privilege of being a pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. My official title is “Worship Arts Stylist” which is a fancy way of saying “music-and- various-program-things-guy.” I am also an elder and one of three teaching pastors on staff. Westwinds has garnered a reputation in the church world as one of those “cool” churches. I know we have this reputation because I hear about it constantly. Constantly.

I get monthly—sometimes weekly—calls from students at Christian Universities that want to come interview me and the staff and ask some questions about us. We get continual visits from people who are modeling their church after ours.

I met a guy recently who admitted to me that he comes to our church regularly to “rip off” (his words) our weekend Fusion and copy it at his church which meets a half hour away. We get written up in many magazines. We are quoted in books. We are referred to at seminars. Everyone wants to know how it is going at Westwinds—the Mecca of emergent churches.

I have come to a conclusion recently: I think our enamorment with other churches is dangerous. I will admit that for myself, my fascination has sometimes gone beyond respect and admiration, beyond a love for good resources, and beyond a desire to stretch and grow. It has gone right past all of those admirable things straight to jealousy. And for some (and you know who you are) your jealousy has consumed you. You no longer measure success in your local body by how many lives are being changed—success is determined by how close you are edging up against the “standard” in hip Christendom.

Our “Christian” media doesn’t help us one bit. Someone or something is always being marketed to us as the newest thing. There is always a new book with a new way of thinking. There are always new methodologies. There is always a new curriculum to adopt. There is always a new book that everyone MUST read or a new seminar we NEED to attend. “You must stay sharp to keep up with the change (and it changes about as often as Apple launches a new product).” “Don’t be left behind!” “Participate in the conversation!”

Don’t get me wrong. I am all about being culturally relevant. I want to change with the times. I want to speak the language of my not-yet-believing friends. I want to be creative. I believe it is a sin to bore people with the gospel. I don’t want to play church—I fear, however, that is EXACTLY what we (in the big “C” church) do more often than not.

I feel a sense of duty to all of our admirers. I believe, since we have somehow found ourselves getting national attention that we at Westwinds have a responsibility to the church on a national level. There ARE great things happening at our church, but I really believe you need to know the whole story. The announcer may say it like this: “But, behind the scenes, rumors of a breakup and sever hurt began to surface. When we return, the church hits rock bottom on Behind the Music—Westwinds.” In other words, don’t believe everything you have read. Keep reading on and I promise to share the truth with you—as best as I can articulate it.

Over the past year, Westwinds has seen its share of pain. Three very charismatic and highly visible staff members have resigned—including our founding senior pastor. Two of those positions have been replaced. One influential staffer went through a divorce. Some of our elders have resigned—all for appropriate reasons, but some because of some very painful situations. Other staff have left as well. Some staff resignations caused a wake that swept others away with them. We have had church discipline issues with staff. Some leaders have confessed some grievous things to the church. The church’s numbers have decreased. We have struggled financially. At least a few on staff have cried because of some drama every day for the last year. We have found sin in the camp. Insults have been hurled. Gossip has run rampant. People have intentionally hurt one another. Names have been defamed in public places. There has been an epidemic of comparing and rating our teachers against each other. There has been an addiction to the pursuit of knowledge and a spirit of pride along with it.

Westwinds has been caught in a trap where its reputation for creativity and its status as a model for others has been the tail that wags the dog. While the church has prided itself on being an atmosphere ripe for change, it has feared the kinds of change that may change its personality—even if those changes would be more effective for the community it is in.

Many of us have worked way too many hours a week for way too long. Those hours have been spent performing triage, counseling, putting out fires, crying with the wounded, confronting sin issues, following through with church discipline, asking God for help, asking for wisdom, asking for direction. Some staff have admitted a huge spirit of pride—really thinking we were better than most and feeling good about setting the standard.

I have been convicted lately that THIS is the account the enamored church needs to hear. These are the stories that need to be told. We are the church. We are a hurting bunch of people. We are the sick. The toilet at Westwinds smells a lot like the toilet at your church (although, in light of our past year, we are hoping ours smells a little worse than yours). I never want any soul to walk away from one of our conferences or another church’s conference thinking they can never match up to that level. I never want another person to visit us and think we have it wrapped up nice and tidy. The enemy is already hard at work to make us think that God’s grace and sufficiency is not enough for us. He is already working hard to distract us from the Great Commission. The last thing we need is to work against one another to the same end.

When I left California to come to Westwinds, I told my sending church that God was doing a “new thing” in Jackson Michigan. There was excitement and anticipation in my words. I must admit, the last year has discouraged me in many ways. I was expressing frustration to a comrade in ministry the other day and he asked me if God had changed his mind about the “new thing” or if I had it wrong. I didn’t have it wrong at all. As a matter of fact, it was somewhat prophetic. God has been doing a new thing at Westwinds. He is showing us our weaknesses. He is cleaning house with a pitchfork.

On a good note, we have been on a safari for pink elephants in the room and have called them out one by one. We are coming to grips with the pride thing. The authenticity meter has been peaking way higher than it has ever registered. Many new people have started to call Westwinds home—and not just transplants—we have seen an increase in enquiring minds and not-yet-believers. We are rethinking some of our strategy and asking some tough questions about what we have been neglecting in our community. We are seeing some ways we need to change.

Cool churches are not the hope of the world—Jesus is. Let’s not forget that.

The following blogs are a continuing update on the circus that began a couple of weeks ago. If you want the whole story, scroll down to March 29th 2:00pm. Warning: it is controversial at times.