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What a Difference a Year Makes

At 8:00 am on Sunday, September 15, 2013 (1 year ago today), I sat in front of Yellow Creek School Center in Middlesboro, KY, as a nervous wreck.  I was waiting for the gates to be unlocked, and I was going into the school cafeteria to begin setting up for an informal meeting that had two purposes: One was to introduce the new location for Middlepoint Christian Church, and the second was to talk about the huge vision God had for the church and the city of Middlesboro.  I was excited, nervous, scared, hopeful…all kinds of things wrapped into one sweaty guy.  My wife joined me a little bit later, accompanied by her parents.  They helped finish setting up the cafeteria at Yellow Creek, and we waited for people to start showing up for the 10:30 experience.

At 10:20, I was starting to get a little concerned.  No one had showed up yet, but I was confident.  People will be there.  Just give it time.

At 10:25, I started walking outside of the school, making sure people weren’t parked somewhere else and to guide people into the right parking lot.

At 10:31, I walked back into the cafeteria, silent.

At 10:45, we had everything packed up and ready to leave.  We stayed just a few minutes longer just to see if anyone would be a last-minute straggler.

A few minutes before 11:00 am on Sunday, September 15, 2013, I was crushed.  I didn’t know what to say or do.  I mainly stayed silent as we worshiped with another church down the road.

September 15 was a big deal to me.  That was the perfect date, in my mind.  It was mid-way through September, which is a prime church-launching month.  It was a nice even date to remember, and it marked just over 3 months since Amy and I had arrived on the field to plant this church.  I prayed about it and I felt strongly that September 15, 2013 was the day that Middlepoint launched publicly.

It didn’t happen that day.  It didn’t happen in October.  Or January.  Or April.  All these dates were prayed about, but nothing happened.  It wasn’t for a lack of trying, either.  I was a broken record about the church.  I unashamedly talked to everyone about it.  But, nothing happened.

If you would have told me on Sunday, September 15, 2013, that I’d be living outside of Florence, KY and the church plant would be shut down within a year from now, I would have laughed.  That was impossible.  I’ve prayed.  Audaciously.  I had asked God to do something huge like making the sun stand still, as it might be heard in Christian circles today.  But the sun set.

To be honest with you, I’m still dealing with this.  I think about Middlepoint everyday.  And I know that my wife and I were in Middlesboro for a reason.  Even if I can’t see that particular reason now, I can realize that we learned a ton about God, faith, and how to pray.  Maybe that’s the whole reason this happened.  Maybe not.  But there are some simple truths that I’m reminded of as we’ve moved forward.

First, God is still God.  I haven’t doubted that.  I’ve argued with him, sure.  But I haven’t doubted that simple truth.  God really is in control, as much as I hate that sometimes.  He’s also in control, as much as I love that sometimes.  The first time I heard this was in chapel at KCU.  Some events had just taken place that had shaken the campus family, and our campus minister, Larry, got up and simply told us that God was still God.  I remembered that for some reason.  I repeated it to myself often while in Middlesboro.  I’m thankful for this simple truth.

Secondly, our mission was to make Jesus known.  We did that.  It just didn’t produce a church.  So in this sense, maybe Middlepoint isn’t considered a failure, after all.  People who didn’t know Jesus or who had a twisted view of Jesus met, hopefully, and maybe for the first time, the Jesus who loves them and wants to meet them where they are.  We were (and still are) passionate about that.

Finally, I have to remember that successes and failures do not define us.  The fact that we are masterpieces of God Almighty defines us.  As a matter of fact, I was listening to a podcast recently in which Bob Goff, author of Love Does, talked about the things that went wrong in his life.  He alluded to the mindset that he entertains; that things do not necessarily “go wrong” or “go right.”  They just go.  They happen.  And that’s life.

And I’m thankful that Jesus is in that “life” business.

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An Open Letter About Middlepoint

In 2011, my wife and I were following God’s leading as we packed up a U-Haul and left Norfolk, VA, traveling all the way to Grayson, KY.  We weren’t sure what was next, but we knew that God was leading us back to Kentucky.  For that, we are both grateful.

In 2012, we found what we thought was the reason God led us back to the Bluegrass State.  We were going to move to Middlesboro, KY, and plant a new church.  We were excited and grateful.

In 2013, we moved to Middlesboro and met all kinds of wonderful people from different walks of life.  Some of the best friendships I have now have been made in the past year in Middlesboro.  For that, we are grateful.

It’s with a grateful, yet saddened heart, that I have to announce that Middlepoint Christian Church is shutting down.  After much prayer, conversation, and wise counsel, Amy and I feel that this is the best thing for our family.  As you know, I’ve worked closely with the Kentucky Church Planting Partnership.  We have their full support as we move forward from here, and they will be handling the future of any independent Christian church plant that may happen in Middlesboro.  I ask for your prayer for them as they continue to seek God’s direction for this wonderful city.

This was not an easy decision.  I’ve shed tons of tears and heartache, praying and seeking, as we have made this decision.  But, we feel God’s peace about this.  Let me be clear: God is moving in Middlesboro.  I’ve talked to too many pastors, ministers, priests, community leaders, and local politicians to think otherwise.  Within the past two years, this city has seen a huge turn-around, and Amy and I are honored to have been a part of it.  What God is doing in this city is nothing short of a miracle.  Keep looking at the crater in southeastern Kentucky, because you’re going to be hearing about some huge things going on here soon.

A piece of my heart and Amy’s heart will always be in Middlesboro.  We moved here with the intention of raising our kids here.  We had goals, and I even joked about the things I would say at the 10 year and 20 year anniversary of Middlepoint Christian Church, and how our son would play football for Middlesboro High School.  But, as what sometimes happens, God has other plans.  For that, we are grateful.

Amy and I are searching for what’s next.  We have some interviews scheduled, and our future is something God knows.  We take comfort in that, although it isn’t easy sometimes.  We are looking forward to what God has in store, especially since we want to put down roots and make a home somewhere.

I ask for your continued prayers and support as Amy and I move forward.  I also ask for your prayers and support as KCPP leads the charge in loving God and loving people in Middlesboro.  Although some might look at Middlepoint as a “failed church plant,” I am confident that this is a victory for the Kingdom of Heaven.  I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Amy and I, above all, are grateful.

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The Hope of the World Losing Hope for the World

I’m a fireworks junkie, if that’s a phrase that I can use safely.  Basically, I really enjoy fireworks.  It doesn’t matter when or where; if fireworks are being shot off, I want to watch.  This is why I love Independence Day, besides the obvious reason (that whole “freedom” thing is pretty cool).  Not only can I watch fireworks from the parking lot of Kroger, but I can also stand out in my driveway and watch my neighbors set off fireworks for basically the entire month of July.  It gets old when it’s midnight and I’m trying to sleep, but from 9pm to 11pm, I’m all about it.

I love Independence Day.  I also love the U.S.A.  Seriously.  I’m not talking about loving a political party or having an affinity for hamburgers and cook-outs.  I really do enjoy living in the United States, and being with people who share this enjoyment with me.

This is why I have a problem with some Jesus followers hating on America.  Constantly.  Without doing anything about it.

You know who I am talking about, because 3 or 4 people just popped into your head.  Let’s be honest, it’s a drag to be around them.  They’re the “Debbie Downers” of fun holidays like Independence Day.  They’re constantly saying things like:

“I just don’t know what’s wrong with America.”

“Our country is headed in a downward spiral.”

“The country is getting worse and worse everyday!”

They say this because they see things happening in the country that they disagree with.  With each new piece of legislation being passed (or vetoed), and with each new politician elected, they lose all hope for the country.  To carry it even further, they usually seem like they’re losing hope for the world.

But…isn’t the church the hope of the world?

What happens when the hope of the world loses hope for the world?

There’s a huge problem in this line of “hopeless America” thinking.  If anyone had a right to complain about their country and society and throw up their hands to pronounce condemnation upon it, it was Jesus.  But he didn’t.  He actually loved the country, and encouraged his followers to do the same.

Why?  Because the country (and the world) is made up of people.  And Jesus loves people.

This is the point where the “hopeless America” Jesus followers start to point out the judgment Jesus dished out in the gospels.  I hate to break it to you, but Jesus reserved the harsh judgment for the religious.  Remember the white washed tombs that Jesus referred to (in Matthew 23)?  He wasn’t addressing the nation.  He was talking to religious people.

Let’s not be “religious people” when it comes to our country and the people that live in it.  Jesus loved them, and so do we.

Sure, there’s reason to pray hard for America.  Believe me, I do not agree with everything that happens.  But I don’t have to.  Why?

God is still God, no matter what.  And Jesus loved people, so as a follower of Jesus, I do too.

As a Jesus follower, you are part of the church.  The church is the hope of the world, for the church is the hands and feet of Jesus.  Don’t give up hope.

After all, Jesus didn’t give up hope.

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A Church Waiting to Die

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I spent most of my teenage years submerged in a Christian subculture.  Every teen is submerged into one subculture or the other, and I’m beginning to think that every adult is, too.  It’s not a bad thing.  It’s just something we do as humans.  Regardless, I was in the thick of the popular Christian subculture in my teenage years.  I had it all: Christian shirts, music, wristbands, bumper stickers,…

You get the picture.

I was crazed.  I still have that tendency today, as a matter of fact.  By immersing myself in the Christian subculture, I was able to avoid one thing that seemed to cause a lot of trouble in my church.

The world.

That may sound weird, and it is weird.  But it happened.  In some way, I thought that if I could just become a Christian, not deal with people, sin, etc., anymore, then that’d be great.  So, I set out to do that.  In the name of all that was holy, I rebuked the world.  I set out to separate myself from it, because that’s what good Christians do, right?

I don’t think that’s necessarily correct.  In fact, I know it’s not right.

I struggled in college.  My faith, which was about as deep as what the preacher said last Sunday, was met with a startling reality: I live in the world.  Sounds dumb, right?  It is.  I tried to reject it all, from secular music to secular TV.  Then, in college, I met Christians who were way stronger than I was.  And guess what they were listening to?  It wasn’t Third Day.

Thankfully, I decided to search the Bible for what to do.  I vividly remember reading parts of Luke and John, and being alarmed.  This Jesus that I had concocted in my mind, the one who would have nothing to do with the world, was embracing the world.  Not just embracing the world, but going as far as to die for the world.  Then he sent this rag-tag group of guys to do what he did; love the world without conditions.  They did, and they made more followers of Jesus.  Then those followers made more followers who made more followers who made more followers.

Then there’s me.  I’m part of that group that Jesus sent out.  I’m a member of the church, the hope of the world, that was started at the news of the resurrection of Jesus.  I have a defined mission to love the world.

That’s the part that makes some followers of Jesus uncomfortable.  If we love the world, then we are saying that the world is without sin, right?

Absolutely wrong.  I’m not sure where that thought came from, but it’s poisonous to the church.  Jesus was the full measure of truth (the thing that says you’re wrong) and grace (the thing that says you’re loved anyway).  Andy Stanley gives a great explanation of it here.  So, in Jesus, we find this tension between grace and truth.  We are to love the same way Jesus did.  You, me, and the rest of the church.

There’s a problem.  I’ve been in too many churches that complain about the world, just as I did (and have the urge to still do sometimes).  When I read the Jesus of the gospels and see how he treated the world, then walk into a church and hear how they talk about the world, there’s a huge disconnect.  To be honest, if I weren’t a follower of Jesus and walked into the church to hear that, I’d turn around and walk back out.  It hurts, and it needs to stop.

You’ve probably heard it before, too:

“If we don’t watch out, the world is going to get us.”

“Our society is so sinful, I just don’t know what to do.”

“We can’t ____.  The world won’t let us!”

Why are we lying to ourselves?  People today don’t have a problem with the Jesus of the gospels.  But they have a huge problem with the church.  It sounds like that we have temporarily lost our way.  Thank God that we have the same grace that we were met with when we first became followers.  Or, if you’re reading this and aren’t a follower, the same grace that is extended to you right now.

Remember my rejection of the world during my teenage years?  This is classic in churches.  The only difference is that we wrap it up in the grandeur of heaven.  We sit in our chairs or pews, disgusted with “the worldly ways,” so we are content to sit back and wait for heaven.  All the while ignoring the mission God has given us now, through Jesus Christ.

This is the exact reason why there are so many churches just waiting to die.  Literally.  And, I guess, even figuratively.

Do you want to know why church planting has skyrocketed in the past decade and a half?  Christians have caught on to the mission that was given to them.  We want to get to heaven, and we’ll get there.  In the meantime, we have some work to do, so let’s do it.

And, for the future of the church, why don’t we stop with the bashing of the world within our church walls?  To paraphrase an old quote, everyone already knows what we’re against.  They don’t know what we are for.

Let me leave you with this question that a wise man of God once asked me: “What do we do when the hope of the world has lost hope for the world?”

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Real Church for Real People

Church planting is never definite.

I mean, hopefully the church that is planted is definite.  But a major part of church planting is change.  Actually, a major part of effective ministry is change.  I’ve learned that.  What was church planting in the late 1990s is now an archaic and ineffective thing.  I’m not being harsh or judgmental; it’s the truth.  That is why church planting books, conferences, and planter themselves constantly talk about new methods.  The message never changes, but the methods must change.

That’s a completely different blog post, though.  What I’m really saying is that I have experienced a ton of change while planting Middlepoint Christian Church in Middlesboro, KY.  My wife and I moved here, not knowing anyone in the city, and said, “Let’s start a church.”  I looked at all the other church planters I knew and all of their experiences.  I learned a lot from them.  I found out methods and ways to do things.  Then, I started to slowly implement it in Middlesboro.  Funny thing happened, though.  It didn’t work.  I mean, some things did.  But a lot of it didn’t.  I was confused, crushed, perplexed, and a bit discouraged.

I hit failure, face-to-face.

It was weird.  Let me rephrase that: It is weird.  Church planting is not definite.  I’ve readjusted, retooled, rethought, and just about any other re- word you can think of in Middlesboro.  But let me be clear: We haven’t failed.  In fact, Middlepoint is quite the opposite; we’re very much alive.  We’re very real.

Things have happened, some things didn’t work, other things did work, and here we are.  We have rejoiced, cried, been encouraged, been discouraged, stood on the mountaintops and trudged through the valleys.

Church planting is not definite.  We didn’t stay on the mountaintop, nor did we stay in the valley.  We didn’t stay discouraged, and we didn’t remain encouraged.  It happens, and we embrace it.

I said earlier that Middlepoint has become very real.  This is sometimes met with a negative connotation.  I’m not sure why, though.  We’re a real church.  This means that we look to Jesus every single day, because we know that each day brings enough “stuff” on its own.  Without Jesus, we are nothing.  We’re made up of real people, walking with a real Jesus, in a real world.

Simply put, we’re a real church for real people.

This is, for a lack of a better term, our motto.

We’re a real church for people who are hurting, who have problems, doubts, and fears.  We’re a church that embraces the “luggage” the people carry with them.  We celebrate and rejoice, and we also cry and be silent.  We’re a church for people who, just maybe, don’t know where to turn.  We’re a church for people who have given up on church, or have been out of church for so long that they don’t know where to even begin to get involved again.  We’re a church for people who searching, and also people who have found something that they just can’t keep quiet about.  We’re a church for, you know, real people.

Simply put, we’re a real church for real people.

We realize that Jesus was around real people all the time.  The sick, hurting, dying, lame, separated, sin-covered, and stained were the crowds that surrounded Jesus.  Jesus extended grace and mercy to them, while being the truth of God.  He ate with sinners, people who had no one else but themselves.  Jesus was around real people, and so are we.

Why should we, as a church, be any different?  We walk closely with Jesus, so we do what Jesus did.

Simply put, we’re a real church for real people.

If you’re in Middlesboro, KY, or in Bell County and this is something you want to know more about or even join up with, visit our website at middlepoint.org.  There, you can find out more about the church, contact us, or join our Launch Team.

After all, we are a real church for real people.

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The Space In Between (Literally)

I listen to a few church leaders on a regular basis.  As a church leader myself, I feel like this is important.  I pay attention to their style, their content, and how they structure their messages.  I’ve learned a lot from them.  One guy is Jon Weece, the Lead Follower at Southland Christian Church in Lexington, KY.  He is a calm speaker, very conversational, and his messages are simple.  I love that.  Another guy I listen to is Andy Stanley, the founder and primary communicator of North Point Community Church near Atlanta, GA.  He has very practical messages that reach every person in the room, Christian or not.  He has a gift for doing this.  This is why many non-Christians come to North Point every weekend…and then come back the next weekend.  They (North Point) started a church that unchurched people love to attend.  And they did just that.

I follow both of these guys on Twitter.  If you’re not on Twitter, then good for you.  It can be addicting and, just like other social media sites, a person can get caught up in pointless arguments.  Jon Weece doesn’t really engage his haters on Twitter, which I respect.  Andy Stanley will occasionally do it, but he makes a joke out of it (which can be viewed as a good thing or bad thing — regardless, I find it hilarious).  Just occasionally, though, I see a tweet directed towards Andy (which spawns multiple other tweets from other Stanley haters) that I just marvel at.  The line of thinking of some of these guys I just don’t get.  In fact, this happened just yesterday.

I was scrolling through Twitter yesterday afternoon, and I found that Andy had tweeted this:

Simple, right?  Then I saw this tweet, also in Andy’s timeline:

Hmm.  A non-religious and agnostic person decided to compliment Andy Stanley on his speaking.  Mind you, Andy doesn’t cover up Jesus.  As a matter of fact, he is very open about his agenda and North Point’s agenda: To lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.  He is, as he should be, pointing everyone he can towards Jesus.  So, he is obviously grateful when a person who is unchurched and non-Christian says that they appreciate these Jesus-filled messages.  But apparently @RJKelly1 isn’t.  I checked out his Twitter page and read his bio, which says: “Minister of Jesus Christ.  He saved me from my sins & will save anyone who believes & asks. All entries are my opinion. All rights reserved.”

Wait…what?  I tried to figure this out.  On one hand, it seems that RJ is trying to get this lady to see God.  But by raining on her compliment towards Andy, who is already telling her about Jesus?

I know what some people might say.  She needs to know that God’s awesome, right?  She’s so misguided, correct?  It’s our job as Christians to correct her, amen?

Nope.  I’m not sure when this mindset crept into the church, but it’s damaging.  We’ve taken the redemption that Jesus offers everyone and turned it into a tool to manufacture people who think the same, look the same, vote the same, etc.  See where I’m going with this?

As a church planter, I get this leveled against me by people who have never met me.  I’m “watering down the gospel” or “avoiding the truth” about God.  Why is this said?  Because some people in the church today think that there are only two options for people: A person must be 100% “in” or 100% “out”.  I’m not sure what that means, either, but some have built a theology around it.

This is why it bothers those people that Andy has a church that unchurched people loved to attend.  Simply put, there are people in the middle.  There are people who don’t like who they are, but they are terrified of totally surrendering to Jesus.  So Andy and North Point welcomes them and invites them to do this, one step at a time.  It’s a safe place for them.

This is why the “safe place” mentality is part of the DNA at Middlepoint Christian Church, our church plant in Middlesboro.  There are thousands of people in our city that have encountered too many people like RJ in some churches.  This is why they don’t go, turn off any inclination towards Jesus, and write off the entire church as a whole.  That bothers me.  Deeply.

There are people in the space in between their “old” life and Jesus.  Maybe @CC_Denham is, so she listens to Andy Stanley to find out more about Jesus.  She knows that Jesus is full of truth (which RJ loves), but Jesus is also full of grace.  That’s important.

If I were honest with you, I’d rather have people like @CC_Denham come to my church.

By the way, here’s the response the @CC_Denham came to after interacting with people like RJ:

Remember the people in the space in between.

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Forward!

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions.  I’m not opposed to them.  I just don’t take the time to sit down and write them out.  I guess you could say that I have a few tucked away that are the standard ones for every year: lose weight, read more, and eat less sweets.  If you were to ask me what my resolutions are, I’d give you those three.  Only after mumbling something about how they’re not really resolutions.  Then you would look at me like you’re confused and slightly offended.  Then I’d apologize.  It’d be a big thing, so it’s best to just not ask me.

We do these resolutions, though, because we want this year to be better than last.  Maybe it’s because of Christmas, but December 27 through December 31 of any year seems to be the 5 most optimistic days of the year.  Everyone wants to be better.  And what better day to start than January 1?  So I know where everyone is coming from.  I’m right there with you.

Everyone is also very quick to downgrade and be negative towards the current year.  Why?  We didn’t get better.  It’s kind of painful to think about, but 2013 didn’t prove to be the year that we lost 50 pounds, or that we found someone special, or that we graduated.  It was the year that we gained 20 pounds, broke up with a special person, failed a class or two, lost our job, got in a fight with a family member, saw our church split, lost a dear friend…

Do I need to say more?

The year was tough for some.  For others, it wasn’t as tough, but we still have those moments we want to forget.  And that’s alright.  Here’s what I know, and 2013 echoed these things:

God is still God.  No matter what.  That’s one thing that attracts people to God.  He is unchanging.  And despite what you’re going through, he is still God.  And he will be God.  Forever.

There is a plan.  At the risk of sounding too flighty, understand that God has a plan that you fit into.  No matter what your theology is, there is something organized and orchestrated that you are doing for the Kingdom of God.  You, and you only.

You’re not a slave.  This may sound like a weird one, but I see a lot of defeated Christians.  We sometimes can’t see past our own sin.  But we know that we are no longer slaves to sin.  We serve and follow Christ, who defeated everything (including death).  Yet we still sit in the shackles of our wrong-doing, although God has forgiven us through Christ.  Just remember that you’re not a slave.

2014, as I write this, is just about 6 hours away.  Japan and Australia have said that 2014 is awesome so far, so we’re in for a treat.  Here are some things I’d love to see happen in 2014 for me, my family, and my church.

Middlepoint Christian Church launching.  God is up to something huge in Middlesboro, and Middlepoint is going to play a role in that.  Just as other churches and people will.  Middlepoint will launch in 2014, and it will be loud.  I can’t wait.

Raising over $75,000.  Starting a church (or any organization) takes money.  There’s a lot of groundwork to do, and the biggest help for us is financial help.  I have set a goal for 2014 to raise at least $75,000.  I can’t do it.  Neither can you.  But God will be able to work through us and we can do it together.  If you want to help us out in this, go to middlepoint.org to find out how.

Take a vacation.  This may sound strange, but it’s necessary.  No matter what job you have, you need to some time to recharge.  This goes for me, too.  My wife and I will be taking some time to ourselves.  It’ll be great.  And I look forward to it.

Go to Catalyst.  This may sound small and insignificant, but it’s needed.  If you’re a leader of any organization, especially something like a church, then you need to take some time and go to a conference to learn.  If you don’t, then you are cheating your organization or church out of the opportunity to have a leader that is growing and learning.  For me, this conference is Catalyst.  I’ve wanted to go for about 8 years, but have never gotten the opportunity.  This past October, though, I got to go due to the generosity of some supporters of the church.  It was magnificent.  I’ll be heading back this October.

Read more.  I know.  I made fun of it at the beginning.  But it’s true.  I want to read more.  Not just ministry and theology books, either.  Recently, a church leader encouraged me to read for enjoyment.  So I picked up a couple of biographies, and geeked out for a while.  It was great!  So I will do that more.  I’m actually reading a book right now about famous people from Kentucky.  Sure, it sounds lame, but I love that stuff!

Ready for 2014?  You should be.  Happy New Year!

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