Read an Excerpt
a multigenerational mission for God's family
By Ross Parsley
David C. CookCopyright © 2012 Ross Parsley
All rights reserved.
"Babe, I think this is it!" Aimee said.
I didn't open my eyes. I was too exhausted. I had been asleep for barely two and a half hours. The stench of yesterday was still on my breath. Did it really happen? Did I really just walk through that? And what now? What is supposed to happen now? These questions were clattering around in my brain when I somehow finally drifted to sleep. Yesterday was a day that I never thought would happen, a day that seemed surreal and grainy, like an awful nightmare....
Aimee poked me on the shoulder and said, "Babe, I think this is really it."
I didn't even open my eyes. "No it isn't ..."
"Yes, this is it! Get up and get dressed. We've got to go," she said firmly.
I opened my eyes and looked at the red numbers glowing from my bedside clock radio: 2:06 a.m.
Begrudgingly, I rolled out of my cozy bed and began to get ready to go to the hospital. I should have known better than to doubt my bride of fifteen years. She had already done this four times, and it was clear by now that she knew what labor pain felt like. She was on a mission. Baby number five was not going to deliver without an epidural!
We arrived at the hospital without too much drama, got checked in, and then nurses hooked Aimee up to all the monitors and sensors that accommodate a twenty-first-century birthing center. It was four thirty in the morning, and the soft glow of the birthing room with casual blond-wood furniture became our refuge for the next forty-eight hours. I curled up on the makeshift bed/window bench and pulled a hospital throw blanket up close to my face.
We had just begun, and already I felt emotionally spent. My mind raced. The heaviness in the pit of my stomach was unbearable. Our family was about to change. We would welcome a brand-new baby boy into this world in just a few short hours ... and at the moment it seemed like a world of anguish, disappointment, and pain.
It was Friday, November 3, 2006.
Thursday had come like a whirlwind that tore apart our church family with an emotional severity that I had never experienced. A tornado of allegations, rumors, and unbelievable accusations had consumed our thoughts and emotions all day at New Life Church.
I had known since nine thirty that morning that some of the allegations were true, and we were just trying to get our arms around what to do next. I called a staff meeting and said some words that sounded hollow as I tried to bring comfort and strength to a roomful of people in need of assurance.
"We have a process to deal with these kinds of allegations set forth in our bylaws, and the overseers are flying in now to engage ..." I was barely present. It was surreal. I felt the out-of-body experience happening to me as I sat in front of our staff on that wooden stool inside the little youth building we called "The Tent." They looked fearful, with empty looks in their eyes as they wondered why I wasn't saying, "This is all nothing to worry about; everybody go back to work."
Later Thursday evening, I attended a trustee meeting where six wise, older men heard the unthinkable. I walked across the parking lot to the next meeting, where our elders had gathered with our church overseers. The cold November wind felt like relief on my warm cheeks. The room was tense when I arrived, and I felt the shock and disbelief transition to anger and frustration. Tearstained faces and others with clenched jaws stared at one another as we began to accept the struggle our church family was about to endure. The unimaginable was happening. Our pastor had violated his marriage vows and betrayed his congregation.
Our family was falling apart.
I gave the first public interview to a local Denver news station while walking out of the World Prayer Center at 11:15 p.m. It ran on national cable news stations all day long on Friday, but I never saw it. I was at the hospital!
The conflicting emotions in my heart seemed to physically affect my whole body. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then those nurses and doctors saw a tempest inside of me. I felt overjoyed one moment and agonized the next. I was thrilled by the prospect of our newest arrival and yet full of turmoil and fear.
My wife was amazing! Since this was our fifth (and final) child, the doctor asked if I wanted to help deliver. It was a side of childbirth that I had never before witnessed. Usually, I was there as my wife's coach, helping her breathe with my futile attempts to push along with her, saying encouraging things from time to time, and trying to perceive when to shut up. It was hard work ... not as hard as the work she was doing, but difficult nonetheless. There was danger involved as well: fingernail marks on my flesh, screams in my ear at close range, even a headlock during an extended push. I was happy to sit where the doctor usually sits to witness this miracle and receive this new little life into my hands.
After several pushes, the baby crowned, and the doctor started to say things like, "Wait, wait, don't push too hard yet," and, "This boy may be a little bigger than I thought." Finally, this wrinkly mass of joyous flesh and bone, blood and water, entered our world. I caught him with my own two hands and held him in my arms, Dad and baby both crying in this moment of miracle and mess, wonder and wailing.
Aimee leaned back feeling the relief that follows God's great birthing process. I cut the umbilical cord, and we laid my son on the scale. I can still remember the surprised "oohs" and "ahhs" in the room as the numbers came up on that little digital screen: 10.05 pounds.
One family was growing, birthing, and celebrating. The other family was wounded, disillusioned, and bewildered. One family was staring into the future with bright-eyed wonder and anticipation. The other family wrestled with the past, and felt fearful of what the future would hold. I was part of both families.
These are the experiences, the moments, and the challenges that make us a family.
THE STRENGTH OF FAMILY
Families are amazingly resilient. Aimee and I did not plan to have five kids. She wanted three; I wanted four; so we had five. Neither of us are very good at math. It was the biggest surprise of our lives up to that point. Aimee cried for three weeks when we found out she was pregnant nine months earlier. But we pulled ourselves together and began the slow and steady process of preparing for a new season for our family—a season of feeling overwhelmed and overstressed, but a season of uncommon grace that would also fill our home with peace, joy, and contentment.
My church family would be no different. We were heading into a season of questions, trials, and grief, but we would also experience uncommon grace filling us with that same peace, joy, and contentment. This process was full of angst and anger. We all experienced deep frustrations and major freak-out moments, and of course, the bonds of our family were tested.
But I've never seen a family of believers come together like New Life Church did in the months and years after that day. We did what families always do when hard times hit. We pulled together. We cried together and consoled each other. We stayed together and loved each other into the healing and grace that God gave us in that season. We began to understand our identity as a family.
We began to see that we were more than just a group of people who were called New Lifers. We were something more. Through this wilderness of failure and faith, we learned that we weren't just a religious corporation, a rowdy pep rally for God, or even an organization that helps the poor, as good as that is. We weren't a manufacturer of curriculum to boost self-esteem, or a program for people who can't figure life out. What we learned in our most difficult season at New Life Church was that we were a family—good, bad, ugly, beautiful, weak, strong, foolish, and fiery ... a true family.
As a member of a large family, I can assure you that families don't come in neat and tidy shrink-wrapped packages. Families aren't revealed through picture-perfect framed glass. For many, the idea of "family" doesn't evoke warm feelings of Norman Rockwell–like paintings of inviting fireplace gatherings and dinner-table prayers. Families are filled with grit and grime, sunshine and storms, whining as well as wonder. Families contain stories of tragedy and triumph, fun and foolishness, grace as well as gunk—or grace in the midst of gunk.
The family is where we're supposed to learn how to love deeply, fight fairly, share justly, work willingly, and survive during tough times. In families we are given our best opportunity to discover the basic building blocks of identity, history, heritage, meaning, and purpose. In a family we learn how to work hard, sort out injustice with siblings, and wrestle through disappointment with our parents. We learn expressions of love, humor, manners, and humility, all within the family context.
The family analogy is the best picture of what a healthy and vibrant church community is supposed to look like. If you think about it, families are perfectly designed for discipleship: constant access, consistent modeling, demonstration, teaching and training, conflict management and resolution, failure, follow-up and feedback. And this should all happen in an attitude and atmosphere of love. Children are raised, parents are matured, and grandparents are valued all at the same time.
This is God's design.
But our churches don't tend to have the characteristics of families anymore. Instead, we are more often full of consumers looking for our next God product, bingeing and purging Sunday to Sunday with a steady diet of fast-food TV preachers. We don't often learn how to fight fair with loving correction and guidance but instead appear to be recruiting culture warriors to fight against an unholy society—or worse, against a perceived political opponent. We all hate religion but love our spiritual individualism with such passion that we may be creating a generation of dechurched orphans who have no authentic spiritual family or heritage.
We're losing our children and teenagers. Our college students are disappearing from our pews. Demographic niches and consumer conveniences are not attracting the next generation to join us. The longevity of a church community is not even considered in the model of church that appeals to just one particular segment of society. We might be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
The big C Church is on the verge of a massive shift philosophically and generationally. We are addicted to instant gratification. Microwave Christianity has replaced cooking the family meal. Instead of filming a movie classic, we're capturing YouTube videos. Instead of taking long, leisurely walks, we're making mad dashes to the mall. Instead of saving for our children's inheritance, we're buying lottery tickets. Our picture of who we are as the church is woefully inadequate and tragically shortsighted.
We are not learning enough from each other. We are not connecting generationally, and we are not birthing new family members. Most tragically, we are not making enough disciples to make a dent in our current culture. We're sneezing into the wind.
EXTREME HOME MAKEOVER
The idea of church is undergoing a massive makeover in America today. We desperately need a new paradigm for doing ministry so we can create the kind of community and connection that our culture longs for and needs. With skyrocketing divorce rates and family dysfunction in America at an all-time high, no wonder our churches are experiencing their own tragic crisis of definition and purpose. The argument raging over attractional church or missional church is valuable for us but may not be the whole story. We've seen purpose-driven, power-driven, culture-driven, and seeker-driven movements evolve, and while they all have something very good to say about how church should be done, we may have missed this fundamental and foundational principle that shapes who the church is: the fact that we are the family of God.
The Scriptures are full of this imagery. Family is the picture we get from the very beginning when Adam and Eve lived in the garden in Genesis 1. God saves one family in the story of Noah and the ark. God chooses the family line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be a blessing to the nations in Genesis 12, and the story continues as Esau and Jacob fight it out over birthrights, property, and livestock. The twelve tribes of Israel are the family lines of Jacob's twelve sons, who learn the lessons of God's sovereignty in the sibling rivalry of the story of Joseph. Moses, his brother, Aaron, and sister, Miriam, are all part of the story of leading the deliverance of God's people out of Egypt.
The good news for us is that each of these families is deeply flawed. Violence, forgiveness, betrayal, trust, and loyalty all play out in the drama of God's great story. This should encourage us as we read the Bible because we can see ourselves in it. These family stories present a vivid and beautiful picture of God interacting with imperfect and messy humanity. God is not interested in His people reflecting some kind of unattainable perfection. But He does want us to learn how to be healthy, secure, and sure of our calling as we embrace one another in honesty, love, truth, and grace. He's teaching us about family.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul described the church as a "household of faith" (Gal. 6:10 ESV). He called Timothy his true son in the faith, and he coached and encouraged him not to give up and to be strong. Paul addressed his letters to the churches in each city as his brothers and sisters. He told the church at Corinth they had many guardians but not many fathers as he made his case for a parental relationship with them. Jesus even chose two sets of brothers to follow Him as disciples and described those who did God's will as His "mother, sisters, and brothers" (see Mark 3:35). Jesus taught His disciples that prayer is not just addressing God as Yahweh, but as our heavenly Father.
The Bible is a family book. It is a story about family—God's family.
Our Sunday mornings at church ought to have the kind of feeling that we have when we invite people over to our house. Of course, we clean it up a little more than normal because we don't want people to see how we really live—at least not at first—too embarrassing. But then as we get comfortable with them, we find that we really can let them in. As the relationship grows, they get to see how we really live.
They have refrigerator privileges.
You know, the kind of relationships you have with family members and friends who can come over and look in your refrigerator for something to eat at any time of the day or night. That's exactly how church should be! We need the kind of family that knows us, our fears and faults, but loves us anyway; the kind of family that will invest and forgive no matter what. It's a community of people who share privileges and responsibilities as we learn how to live together in harmony. Church can't be a place where we feel like a visitor, or somewhere we're afraid to allow others to see our messes. It's got to feel like home.
Most of us have grown up thinking churches are not messy places. They are clean, tidy, orderly. We spend our Sunday mornings fixing our hair, applying the right amount of makeup, ironing our shirts, and straightening our ties. At home we may fight about breakfast, get angry at our spouse for being late—causing us to settle for a bad parking spot—and finally threaten our kids with no TV or candy if they whine about going to church.
But when we walk through the church doors, everything changes. We put on our best Sunday smiles. We swap stories about how wonderful life is going. We laugh, we shake hands during the time when we're supposed to greet the people near us, and we smile and nod along with the sermon. We don't want everyone there to know the truth. We have problems. Sometimes frightening, overwhelming problems. Our homes are on the brink of foreclosure; our marriages are crumbling and on the edge of divorce; our children are getting bullied and being pressured into doing the unthinkable.
We don't like to bring our messy lives into the church. We're scared that it will unsettle the pews. We don't want to feel out of place, unaccepted, and unwelcome at the potluck. We don't want people to judge our mess.
So we keep smiling.
Excerpted from MESSY CHURCH by Ross Parsley. Copyright © 2012 Ross Parsley. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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