Kathy Escobar’s Faith Shift: When Religion Just Isn’t Enough (Book Review)

One of the founding pastors of The Refuge in North Denver and a regular blogger, Kathy Escobar delivers her latest book, Faith Shift, for those who find that church as they know it just isn’t cutting it.

Why am I even a Christian? Do I still really believe in God? Is my whole life of faith a sham? Why have I given myself over to the church for years when it has consistently used me? How could I ever have belied some of the things I have been taught?

It’s questions like these that drove her to found The Refuge and to write this book, hoping to help people find freedom in their questions and a greater understanding of how they are loved by God. Escobar breaks down “Fusing” (Believing- Learning- Doing), before looking at various degrees of ‘separation in “Shifting,” “Returning,” “Unraveling,” and “Severing.” But she doesn’t leave us there: the various forms of “Rebuilding” take up the second half of the book!

Points I’d highlight include:

-Escobar’s “Ten Commandments of a Fused Faith,” which are humorous… and deadly at the same time, ranging from “You shall vote Republican” to “You shall always work hard to earn God’s love.”

-God can handle your process of exploring your faith, challenging what you question, and tearing down the false altar of religion. As Escobar writes, “If God is going to consign me to the pit of hell because I start asking some really important questions or let go of religiosity, then I’m not interested in that kind of God anyway”… right before she quotes Romans 8:35,38-39!

-Escobar quotes Rachel Held Evans, Anne Lamott, Alex Haley, and Paul Tillich (via Peter Rollins). Lamott: “We learn through pain that some of the things we thought were castles turn out to be prisons, and we desperately want out, but even though we built them, we can’t find the door.” Rollins: “The serious rejection of God is a deeply sacred act. For when someone rejects the notion of God because of the wars that have been fought over that name, as well as the abuse, the fundamentalism and ecological destruction that is bound to so much religion, they are demonstrating a profound concern for both people and the planet… The result is a proclamation of the sacred.”

-Escobar espouses a hopeful realism, worded nicely in the poem by Australian Cheryl Lawrie based on Ezekiel 37, launching us deeper into the rebuilding-to-resurrection stage.

-Escobar embraces our need to recognize that we are paradoxes, clinging to what we know yet desperate to find the real, as ingrained in this Richard Rohr quote: “A paradox is something that appears to be a contradiction, but from another perspective is not a contradiction at all. You and I are living paradoxes, and therefore most prepared to see ourselves in our reality. If you can hold and forgive the contradictions within yourself, you can normally do it everywhere else, too.”

Ultimately, Escobar’s book revolves around what you believe God’s church to be- and if you can move your faith/beliefs from “thou shall nots”/rigidity to freedom in the spirit of what God is calling us to be. It’s a different kind of read- and will challenge most- but it’s from the heart of a healer/counselor who longs for everyone to find their space in God’s kingdom.

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God The Father: Many Ways To Be ‘Born Again’ (Movie Review)

Michael Franzese’s story, growing up in the Columbo crime family and becoming a ‘made man,’ a kingpin for the Costra Nostra in New York City, takes a turn because of the influence of Christianity. Now, his story is told through his own narrative, real-life footage, reenactment, interpretive dance, Passion play, and some imaginative animated scenes, in theaters today. As the tagline goes, it’s a movement from “the Godfather” to “God the father.”

The film is fascinating- and I’m no documentary fan. But the way that Franzese tells his own story, frankly and openly, mixed with the scenes of what might happen (animated) and what did happen (reenactments), works well. It’s not too surprising given that Franzese was once a film producer himself, or that he’s practiced telling and retelling his story as a traveling motivational speaker. What is fundamentally important is to note that it’s his relationship with Camille Garcia, a dancer and the daughter of an evangelical Christian mother, who spurred the ‘Road to Emmaus’-like conversion for this mafia don. It’s like the love St. Augustine references in his mother, the daily, constant prayer and casual influence, rather than the sudden moment.

Watching the film, I could appreciate the early scene from Halloween night in the 1970s when Franzese becomes a member of the Costra Nostra officially, where he’s told that he is being ‘born again,’ and that nothing in his life matters more than his commitment to ‘the Life.’ The decision is bound in blood, and, to the mafia, forever bonding. Now, fast forward to his actual conversion, and we recognize the same language in the commitment that believers make to Jesus and the church. Born again? Check. Commitment above all others? Check. Bound by (Jesus’) blood? Check. Maybe it’s because he understood the conditions because he’d lived them before, or maybe because of the fear he felt when considering how the Mob would affect his family, but the switch to Christianity seems like a no-brainer as set up by the film.

It’s also interesting, in reflecting on the depictions of Franzese and others in Costra Nostra, how the Mob has Christianity tied into its “flow” like the Masons or other groups, but is not necessarily Christian. It’s a testimony to the way that the church can be adopted/twisted/used, from Scripture to the way the faith group works itself, to fulfill human desires and needs, rather than what God wants from it. This in itself is a warning to all of us, regardless of what we’re wrestling with, that we not twist Scripture, prayer, church (or more widely, even religion) into what we want, and instead keep the main thing the main thing.

I’m a fan of the way that the film blended all of the aspects and styles (the animated, Grand Theft Auto takes might be my favorite, next to hearing from Franzese himself), because it’s different and engaging. It’s not necessarily what you’re expecting, just like Franzese never thought he’d be a guy who could be forgiven or would help others to be forgiven themselves. But in the end, it’s a great story, and a film that proves to be both intellectually intriguing and emotionally movie. [The MPAA has ruled that the passion scenes, the torture and crucifixion of Christ, were too violent for children under 17. Ironic much? Absolutely.]

It’s testimony to the power of God moving in our world, to grace that can forgive the darkest sins and draw us closer into the truest family, the family of God.

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The Boxtrolls: Fighting The Fear Machine (Movie Review)

Laika, the stop-action animation company behind Coraline and ParaNorman, delivers another not-quite-for-kids film that wows the eyes and challenges our awareness of the world around us. It’s not that it lacks humor (seriously, Eric Idle wrote the theme song for the film), but it’s a darker sense of what lies beneath, in our hearts, that Alan Snow’s story delivers on the big screen.

Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) has the little pseudo-English town of Cheesebridge in a tizzy, claiming that the subterranean box trolls have stolen a child and are coming to steal all of the good people’s cheese. (Cheese is the primary food eaten but it serves as a stand-in for high society’s privilege and power as well.) Snatcher has pulled one over on the dolt of a town leader, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), but not his daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning). When Winnie discovers that one of the box trolls is a real boy, Eggs (Isaac Hampstead-Wright), Snatcher’s plan to eradicate the box trolls and worm his way into high society is threatened.

The film is visually stunning– especially if you consider that it’s been hand painted and formed. But it’s the story that is much deeper than what the average cartoon is pulling off- and more certainly than my seven-year-old could see.

Snatcher or FOX News/MSNBC (you pick) has made the people of the town fear what they didn’t understand, what was different or new, and carved out power for himself when the box trolls are really harmless and well-meaning. It’s even more nefarious than political though, because Snatcher’s lair is (or looks like) a church- and his high society desire seems to be intent on holding the poor down and making the rich richer. Sick stuff, indeed.

What it takes is one little girl unwilling to buy into it- and the belief that a father should be and can be good. Winnie teaches Eggs what it means to be human and tells him what life should be like. It’s a transformation in Eggs, in the box trolls, in the situation that spreads a new gospel of respect and courage, that says we don’t have to accept the fear, we don’t have to cower, that we don’t have to let our worldview be warped.

The Boxtrolls is a beautiful movie, visually and morally, but it’s probably over the heads of most kids (and maybe some adults…) Experience a new world, watch with wonder. And consider what your world would look like if you abolished fear.

I John 4:18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear. 

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Samuel’s Story: Answering The Call (Sunday’s Sermon Today)

Do you know what you’re called to do? Better yet, do you know what you’re called to be?

I recently saw the World War II drama, Fury, with Brad Pitt and Shia LaBoeuf. It focused on one team of soldiers who fought from inside of a tank against the Nazis in Europe, specifically Germany. None of the men in the tank are quite as religious as LaBoeuf’s character, called “Bible,” but they all seem to understand what he believes in. He thinks, win or lose, live or die, that God put him in a position to do something about the evil of the Nazis by fighting against them. It’s not metaphorical or haphazard: Bible literally knows he’s supposed to be where he is because he’s convinced God would want him to stop the evil Hitler was doing.

Bible has a clear sense of his calling; some of us don’t. But the Scriptures are full of people who either denied their call or who recognized a change in their call and responded to the urging of God. [To be clear, not all of them responded obediently: check out Jonah for instance, or consider the way that Cain responds to God's call on his life!] My profession has a strong pattern of men and women who ‘put off their call’ until they were older, and switched from some career or calling to the pastorate later in life.

What if we could learn from the Bible what we were supposed to be and how we could look for those patterns in our own lives?

Let’s dive into the story of Samuel. Now, Samuel is one of the Bible’s miracle babies: he’s specifically prayed for by his mother Hannah, who mourns because she is infertile. When she discovers that she’s pregnant, she calls her unborn baby Samuel, “because I asked God for him.” When he is old enough, she gives him to the priest Eli to raise in the temple as one of God’s priests.

The first sign of calling: recognizing that we are God’s to begin with and our lives find their purpose when we acknowledge God.

Do you acknowledge God? Do you recognize that your life, the air you breathe, is God’s? Do you recognize that your money, the work you’ve accomplished and the stuff you’ve acquired, is God’s? Do you recognize that everything you have, and everything you are capable of becoming, is because God knit you together before you were born?

God breathed Spirit- air – life into Adam’s lungs in Genesis, and it made him come alive; God continues to breathe life into you and me, and it’s what makes us alive, makes us human.

The first sign of calling is recognizing whose we are.

So Samuel is raised up by Eli in the temple. Eli teaches Samuel the Scripture, and what it means to be a priest. I’m sure he put Samuel to work with the menial things, like sweeping out the temple, and counting the offering left by those who came to worship outside. As Samuel grew older, and accepted more responsibility, Eli gave him more to do, more practical ways to act out being the priest of God.

The second sign or mark of calling: recognizing the need to learn more about God and seeking out opportunities to study, pray, and grow.

Are you learning, or are you going through the motions? Do you recognize a need to know more about God, about the Bible, about the tools you need to practice prayer, and other marks of being a disciple? Are you recognizing that call to be a disciple, the marks of which many of you have taken on when you promised to be faithful by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness, in joining the church? What are you doing to gradually grow in those things, whether it’s being more intentional about coming to worship on Sundays or setting the alarm an hour earlier so that you can make it to Sunday School or increasing your tithe, what you give back to God, by a percent or two each month?

It’s been an exciting couple of months here because there is a core group of kids who want to be here. Do you all know that every Sunday morning, Kathy has a deal with the kids in her neighborhood, that if they are there at 9:30, that she’ll get them a ride to Sunday School and church? Have you noticed that the number of kids keeps going up?

Let me tell you: Kathy is a saint. And she’s constantly working other people to sainthood, too, like Becky and Jo, driving kids, rounding them up, and getting them here. The thing is: these kids want to be here. There’s something they know is different about being here, and they recognize it.

Now, imagine what it would look like if we could get adults to recognize that need…

The second sign of calling is to recognize the need to grow.

Now, Eli is raising Samuel as a son, as a priest, in the temple, even while Eli’s sons are falling away from what God has called them to. Samuel is growing in “favor with God and all the people”- people are noticing that he’s good at being a priest- even while the people are stirring against the sons of Eli. They are abusing their power as priests by taking what they wanted, in terms of offerings brought by people to pray and by manipulating the women outside the temple. God was not pleased, and he prophesied against Eli’s house that he would be calling up a priest from outside of Eli’s house. God’s people needed priests but the priests weren’t getting it done; someone had to rise up to be the voice of the people to God and the voice of God to the people.

The third sign of calling is recognizing the need for what you bring, what gifts and graces God has given you in your personality, skill set, interests, and experience.

I read a story a few weeks ago about a young man named Carson Jones. He was a senior and starting quarterback in his high school. And one day, the mother of a special needs child came to him and asked him if he could figure out who was bullying her daughter at school. Easy enough, right?

Jones could’ve gotten some of his buddies together and ‘taken care of’ the problem. But instead, he changed things subtly. He brought his new friend with him to the football lunch table; he saw that someone walked her to class. Pretty soon, other people weren’t bullying her- they were looking for ways to help her out, too. Jones knew who he was and what he could do, and he did it- and it changed everything. [From Rick Reilly's "Special Team" as republished in Tiger, Meet My Sister.]

Sometimes, it’s as simple as being there.

Have you ever thought about what gifts you have that you could bless others with, in and outside of church? Have you ever prayed about how you could get more involved with church? Sometimes, it’s the preacher who points it out to you- sometimes it’s someone else in church. But what would it look like if you actively stepped up to get involved, whether it was helping in children’s ministry, helping paint a room or two, serving food at a mission project or fundraiser? There are spiritual gift inventories you can take if you haven’t done one before – see me afterward if you want a copy to explore!

The third sign is self-examination of your gifts and situation to see what you can bring.

Back to Samuel: It says that “in those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions” (I Samuel 3:1). Is that any different from our days? Do we really think God is heard more frequently now, that the world is moving toward “your kingdom come?” But we know that we have a lot to turn off, from the television to our wifi feeds, if we expect to be able to hear from God.

Our boy-turned-priest is listening. Samuel hears God call him three times, and he thinks that Eli is calling out to him in the middle of the night to do something; stoke the fire, check the locks, etc. But Samuel is alert, even in the midst of sleep, to know that he is being called.

The fourth sign of calling is listening- there’s a difference between hearing and listening. Listening involves change, adaptation, transformation based on what we receive from the other person… or God.

How do you listen? It’s different for different people but there are many ways we can listen. We can read our Bible and reflect over it; we can actively quiet our hearts and turn everything else off and speak with God. We can have holy conversations (I’ll get to that in a minute) and seek wise counsel. But listening requires a heart primed for receiving what God has to speak into our hearts. Listening requires an expectation that God will and does speak, that God has a plan for us.

Do you show up on Sundays and expect God to show up? Do you come ready and prepared to see what God has for us in worship? Do you know that God wants all of you, from what you do to what your heart feels to what your mind thinks? God wants to talk to you. God has so much for us if we would only listen.

The fourth sign is listening to the heartbeat of God running through our lives.

Back to our middle-of-the-night story, Samuel thinks Eli is calling but he, Eli, knows that it’s really God. And it’s Eli who points Samuel in the right direction. He tells Samuel to go back and wait, and to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel was listening but he didn’t know how to differentiate the noise. He couldn’t identify the Lord’s voice correctly until he was told, until the more experienced priest showed him how to respond correctly.

Samuel was called but he needed mentorship. He’d already received training and care and direction but mentorship connected his call from God with what he was supposed to be doing.

The fifth sign of calling is confirmation and mentoring that requires community to be involved with the individual’s call.

Who is mentoring you? Who are you regularly talking with in the faith community to show you the ins and outs of faith, the ways to grow and the direction God has for your life? Leonard Sweet asks in his book 11, about the crucial relationships in our lives, who is our Butt-Kicker? There are plenty of folks who will blow smoke at us, but when it comes down to it, who is helping you stay accountable to who you are called to be, whether that’s a pastor, a Christian stay-at-home mom, a Christian retiree, a Christian teacher, a Christian businessman, whatever it is?

Who is saying, ‘God’s calling you to this and it’s time that you respond?’ If you’re not in a relationship like that, let’s be clear: you should be.  For many of us, it starts with whoever first brought us to church and it grows out from there. On a Sunday when we recognize our saints, we need to see that God has set these people before us to show us the way and to direct us on the journey toward what God wants us to be.

That’s one of the things that I love about the football story of Carson Jones: he was getting ready to leave for college, and his mother wondered one night who would watch over the younger girl that the football team had sheltered. His younger brother, a sophomore, piped up: “Don’t worry, I got this one.”

Whether we know it or not, we’re mentoring; good, bad, indifferent, we’re teaching people around us what the right way to behave is. And that doesn’t matter if you’re sixty-seven or six going on seven. Sure, our role in church may change over time, but you old-timers, you need to be sharing what you know, have learned, and experienced with those who are younger. Half of the mentoring is the stories, the time together. Samuel doesn’t become who he is without Eli’s involvement.

The fifth sign of calling is mentoring and confirmation, in who we are. 

Samuel goes on to have a pretty good career as God’s priest. He anoints the first two kings of Israel; he speaks for God and develops the priesthood further. Samuel’s heart and experience, mixed with the call of God on his life, meets up in what Samuel does as he goes on to be the man of God who he was called to be.

The sixth sign of calling is responding, in doing what you are called to do.

So where are you? What signs are you seeing? Are you the one that God is calling to step up and help lead the children of our church as a teacher or nursery worker? Are you the one that God is calling to help lead the next mission project, or fundraiser? Are you the one God is calling to pray more, be in church more, give more of your time and money to benefit the church?

Our call does change over time, sometimes incrementally and sometimes exponentially. Sometimes, we’re called to change an attitude; sometimes, we’re called to change careers! [Did you know the percentage of 'second career' pastors? Folks who were pharmacists, car salesmen, prison guards, etc. before they became pastors?] I love that part of the story from Planes: Fire & Rescue, as Dusty realizes that he can no longer race (remember he was a crop-duster first) and he recognizes a need for firefighting planes. Dusty could’ve been disappointed, or sad, or scared (and he was all of those things at times) but he accepted the challenge, answered the call, and made a difference.

Do you recognize the call? Are you listening? Will you go where you’re supposed to go?

One of my favorite hymns, “Here I Am, Lord,” which we’ll sing later today, starts like this:

I, the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard My people cry.
All who dwell in deepest sin
My hand will save.
I who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear My light to them?
Whom shall I send?

God calls- someone goes. Maybe it’s not the first person he calls, maybe there are those like Jonah who reject him and run. But what of the people God uses, who answer the call, who embrace the call of God on their hearts? What glory for them!

Are you responding to the call of God on your heart?

Because God is calling. And if you’re not responding yet, that’s a call you don’t want to let drop.

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John Connolly’s Wolf In Winter: Evil Feeds (Book Review)

The twelfth Charlie Parker novel that John Connolly has intrigued, scared, and tortured us with since 1999, The Wolf in Winter delivers the powerful, supernatural punch that the other books have, combining elements of Scott Smith’s The Ruins with cultic small-town evil found in the works of Stephen King (think Haven), stirred to a froth by the characters Connolly has cultivated over those dozen books. Now, it’s a race to find a missing girl balanced against the ongoing vendetta between Parker’s crew and The Collector. Will there be enough time or will evil feed?

Both strains of the story have interesting developments. In the first, we’re shown how Parker is drawn into a quest to find a junkie daughter of an intentionally homeless loner, even while we explore the town of Prosperous, where the townspeople are joined in an awful Cabin in the Woods-type conspiracy. We know there are various shades of involvement in the town, but that the mystery will be unveiled because Parker is too dogged to give up. There’s a sense that we see Parker’s desire to pursue justice and stop evil, and his growing weariness with missing/mourning his murdered wife and daughter. Nuance already, right?

The pursuit of the Collector, primarily by Louis and Angel, Parker’s two partners-in-crime/justice, is exciting in its own right. There’s plenty to see here, and significant amounts of violence and intrigue, but it shows us the way that evil is categorized, layered, even relative. What Louis and Angel do is more Punisher than Batman, but it’s significant, and it puts them in harms way to keep others safe. Still, when the rubber hits the road, and Parker finds himself in over his head, it’s these two who provide the means of resolving the issue. Seriously, this is the time when it seems that there’s more than just a partnership; instead, this is family.

Connolly is one of four authors I must read every time (along with Lee Child, Brad Meltzer, and Harlan Coben), but he’s clearly the scariest. And yet, it’s that space between our world and the supernatural one that Connelly delves into, where big good and big evil battle, that makes for some of the most interesting stories. This is one of them, and you should be reading it.


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Amy Poehler’s Yes Please: A Funny Look At Life (Book Review)

Saturday Night Live and Parks & Rec star Amy Poehler delivers a stunning book debut with her memoir, Yes Please. Given that I’ve occasionally watched the first and never watched the second, I’m not sure why I requested a copy of the book- but I’m glad I did. With charm, transparency, humor, and grit, Poehler talks about her childhood, her rise in the improv ranks, breaking in to SNL, her other TV ventures, marriage, dating, and parenthood. It’s a whirlwind like she’s actually speaking to us, but it shows plenty of insight into her world… and into ours.

The majority of the book is a blast (even for a non-SNL fan) but a few thoughts rose above the rest and caught my attention.

“I’m interested by people who swim in the deep end.” This one seems so obvious, and yet, it’s brilliant. My best friends (Poehler talks about friends-post-forty) are the ones who aren’t treading water with their feet grazing the bottom; they’re the ones who dive in (sometimes without looking) and tackle situations other people don’t want to, often helping people others consider too dangerous or too unnecessary.

“It’s easier to be brave when you’re not alone.” Half the time, the thing causing you to feel the need to be brave isn’t really scary- and the other person can point that out to you. The other half of the time, you know it’s really scary, but the person with you works with you to overcome your mutual fear!

“Short people do not like to be picked up.” Okay, so it’s not deep, but it’s true- my pint sized sister, who reminds me of Poehler, can’t stand it.

“Nobody looks stupid when they’re having fun.” Seriously, have you ever pulled up next to someone who is rocking out at a stoplight? If they’re really into it, when they notice you, the grin and go back to it. That’s different from the average desperate dancer who you see at a wedding or a party who doesn’t really want to be there, recognizes they do look stupid, and sits out the rest of the party.

“Your career will never marry you.” Amen. That one is almost worth the price of admission, no? Too often we’re overcommitted to work and underperforming at home, failing to be who we’re supposed to be as spouses and parents. Poehler has seen the best and the worst of her career so far, and she urges us not to make the same mistakes.

But my favorite story involves Spike Jonze, Chris Cooper and his wife, Marianne, and a young disabled woman named Anastasia Somoza. It’s absolutely worth the price of this book as it will teach you about making mistakes, accountability, and forgiveness. In a word: amazing.

If you’re going to read one memoir this year, read this one.

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Marketing & The Church: Let’s Make Money! (A Mustard Seed Musing)

Lately, there seems to be a growing buzz about how the church is out of date and needs to find a way to be more attractive to the next generation (or two). A week or so ago, a church member suggested that maybe the church needed some “sponsors” (not the AA kind or the baptism kind) to help defray the costs.

[I'm aware that it's worked for soccer and NASCAR (and that the NBA and NFL are considering it); I've wonder if Peyton Manning and Omaha Steaks would ever get together; Joseph Randle seems to have kept underwear handy after getting handy with the underwear, but I digress.]

And then it hit me… corporate sponsorships!

Maybe State Farm or Geico can sponsor the pastors, because to some, we’re just selling fire insurance anyway.

Maybe the offering could be insured by Brinks, even though most weeks, it could really be collected (and is collected) by a little old lady and her Buick.

Maybe the pastor’s outfit can be provided each week by Nordstrom or JC Penney [personally, I'm a Kohl's guy], and (I’ve actually seen some of this), the pastor’s wife can work out her own deal.

Maybe the bulletin can be sponsored by Wite-Out, the pews can be be replaced with the local team’s stadium seating, and the organ can be sponsored by a funeral home.

Maybe we can splash some graffiti logos up on the front of the sanctuary with special messages about coming events, by a few local business, with Walmart as the sole sponsor of church potlucks; I’m sure Sunshine and Welch’s  would sponsor communion (but we might have to change over to Cheezits).

Maybe adult Sunday School could be sponsored by Depends? Would it be too far to use Trojan as the backer for the church’s Human Sexuality seminar or ask the local divorce attorney to sponsor the parenting class?

Maybe we could outsource our nursery care to Monkey Joes and just shoo the youth group off to Sky Zone every week.

All joking aside, when will we recognize that the farther we get from ‘the main thing,’ the harder it is to explain to anyone outside the walls that the church actually matters? If we’re so busy chasing the quick fix that we lose sight of actual discipleship, then maybe we’d better close the doors, lock the windows, and… wait, we already did that?

The church isn’t antiquated because of the gospel or because of people; the church has become antiquated because it has forgotten who it exists for.

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