Let's learn together from the Psalms!
View Pastor Dave's message or read the transcript that follows to learn about what's next for Highrock!
After discerning with our pastors and board, each Spring I share with you a “vision” of what God may be calling Highrock to in the season ahead. Every year that’s difficult, but this year more than most, because I believe that God is asking us to imagine something that doesn’t exist anywhere yet.
Recently Peter Sung, one of Highrock’s founders, shared an illustration that captures my sense of this moment, and suggests a hopeful path forward. A Wildfire.
We all know that wildfires can be devastating, which is why we fear them. But wildfires are also the key to forest renewal. Immediately after a fire, beautiful new flowers like fireweed and bakers globe mallow, pop up among the charred debris. Some tree species, like redwoods, require a fire to reproduce, and the root system of each old tree supports the growth of many new trees in the next generation. So the destruction of the old forest is often the uncomfortable but necessary step to create a more vibrant one in its place.
Over the past several decades many of us sense that the American Church has been engulfed in a fire. External cultural forces, including the rise of ideologies and mistrust of institutions generally may have lit the match, but a long-ignored failure of discipleship that filled pulpits with leaders promoted for their celebrity potential more than their Christian character, and filled pews with more consumers than true Christ-followers, left many churches dry and vulnerable to these flames.
But perhaps God can use this fire to bring new life. Many times the Bible describes God bringing fire to refine the Church like gold: burning away the dross that makes it dull so that what remains is more luminescent than ever. (I Pet 1:7) I suspect that’s what’s happening today. So I’m eager to see how our God who works in all things for the good of those who love Him can use the Church’s current challenges to bring about changes that we’ve long needed. (Rom 8:28)
What could this mean for Highrock?
Now that the pandemic seems to be moving toward endemic, many churches are hoping to go back to “normal”, by which they mean “how it used to be”. But to me that feels like “going back to Egypt”. The promised land is in the other direction! So right from the start of the pandemic we declared that we’d never “go back” because even before current crises we recognized that the many common ways of “doing church” were no longer working as well as they once did. So we saw this disruption as the opportunity for some long-delayed innovations necessary to bless our neighbors and advance the Gospel in the decades ahead.
I confess that I don’t know exactly where God’s leading us next, but I know it is not backward. That means that we need to remain attentive to God’s guidance, suspicious of some of our assumptions and anxieties, and open to what might be next. Today I want to share the first glimpses our team is seeing of potential pathways forward, trusting that if we faithfully take the steps God is showing us, the next steps will be made clear when we get there.
Before dreaming about the future, let me remind us of the two special emphases of the past year.
The first was our move into a hybrid model. After developing a digital platform that could keep us connected and growing during the pandemic in 2020, in 2021 we reopened our in-person congregations for Sunday worship. During this time we’ve been developing a hybrid model of ministry that’s sustainable and incorporates the respective advantages of both digital and in-person ministry.
The second goal was to begin a transition from being a multi-ethnic church to a multicultural one so that rather than just being satisfied having people of different colors in our congregations and leadership we’d more deliberately learn from multiple cultures ways we can relate to God and one another.
Over time we realized that this needed to apply to more than ethnicity, but include ideology, social class, and ability. For example, our passion to welcome people prompted us to become curious about small changes we could make in both our digital and physical environments that could make a big difference for people with physical, emotional, and mental disabilities to engage with God and our congregations.
I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made together in both these areas, and of the Highrock staff who led these efforts, but neither of these two goals could ever be accomplished in one year. This year we took many great steps, but will continue learning and growing in the years ahead.
So what of the coming year? There are so many healthy things already happening at Highrock, but how might God be inviting us to be stretched next?
Historically, putting on a great Sunday "show" has consumed most of our energy and money, but that’s actually not the Church’s central calling. That’s only a recent model designed to help people in a post-war, pre-digital, enlightenment culture achieve our central calling, and much good came from it! But the cultural conditions that made that model effective have changed, which should prompt us to reconsider whether that old model is still as useful.
In order to evaluate that, we need to begin with our central calling, which we find in Jesus’ Great Commission to “Go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I commanded you.” (Matt 28:19-20)
And what did Jesus command us? Many things to be sure, but Jesus insisted that they all boil down to loving God, and loving others. So our calling is to go into the world teaching people how to love God and love people. From the beginning at Highrock we’ve summarized this calling as “being transformed into the likeness of Christ through connecting to God personally, to God’s people, and to God’s purposes.” (Matt 22:36-40)
This commission never changes - in every era it’s the calling of Jesus’ Church. What also endures through all centuries and cultures are the two primary tools the Holy Spirit has used in this transformation process: information & relationships, or put another way, truth & love.
This comission Jesus outlined for the entire Church has birthed the specific mission of Highrock Church to form a particular KIND of community, and cultivate a particular KIND of transformation. This is the Highrock secret sauce that makes us distinct from other churches who may have different cultures and missions.
Highrock’s mission is to follow Jesus by creating communities that inspire curiosity and compassion. Let me break that down by unpacking the five key concepts.
1. Follow Jesus - We are learning from Jesus and depending on the power of the Holy Spirit. So, as eager as we are to serve our neighbors, we are not a civic organization, we are a spiritual community that finds its purpose and power in Jesus.
2. Communities - The world divides us into demographic groups, and since WW2, churches have increasingly embraced this. But while this approach may help churches get large, it actually stifles discipleship - because breaking down the dividing walls between us is a central part of Jesus’ passion, and one that will both require and result in personal transformation. This is why we continue to be committed to the Rev 7 faculty of diverse preachers, the LMDJ team leading us toward justice and mercy, and offering classes that help us grow in this area. But diversity needs to be about more than ethnicity by addressing the other lines we divide along these days, including class, political ideology, ability, and age. Most of us unconsciously assume that community requires uniformity. This is why we fall into echo-chambers with people who reinforce what we already think. But Jesus calls us to be a boundary-breaking community built on solidarity - which is uniting despite differences by embracing each other’s gifts, needs, opportunities, and wounds as our own because we are one body. (Eph 2:14-16)
3. Inspire - We’re not in a competition with those who don’t follow Christ, or follow Christ the way we do, we want to be in life-giving relationships with them. Our goal is to live and love in such a compelling and Christlike way that our neighbors become more curious about Jesus and more compassionate toward themselves and others.
4. Curiosity - In this chaotic age most people come to church in search of certainty. They ask us for doctrines and directives that will make things black and white, and assure us that we’re right. We see our wider society giving into that demand by becoming fundamentalist on both ends of most debates, but denying the complexity and nuance that truth requires. God is way beyond our ability to fully understand, so we will never figure God out completely (Job 36:26), and Jeremiah warns that even our own hearts are too complicated for us to fully understand. (Jer 17:9) At Highrock we invite people beyond grasping for the illusion of certainty into constant curiosity about God, ourselves, and others. And for those who have already dismissed certainty but feel hopeless about ever discovering anything or anyone they can trust, we invite them out of cynicism into curiosity.
5. Compassion - Many people feel too depleted these days to care for others - so they come to church looking for comfort. But we experience the comfort of God’s grace and power most when we follow Jesus into sacrificial love for others. And this is also what enables others to experience God’s grace and power through us.
Highrock’s mission is to "follow Jesus by creating communities that inspire curiosity and compassion.” A church like that can be challenging for cultural Christians. and compelling to not-yet-Christians.
With all this in mind, I want to offer three “next steps” we can take together to follow the Holy Spirit on mission in the year ahead:
The first is a transition from a Sunday ministry model to a 7-day ministry model. The Sunday church model is built around providing information (a sermon) and relationships with God and other people. That’s what made it work so well! But it’s not the only way.
In Acts 2 (vs 42-47) they had the same mission, and the same two essential ingredients of information (the apostles teaching) and relationships (breaking bread in each other’s homes), but the model was completely different.
One interesting aspect of their ministry was that it happened every day. Every day they met in homes. And every day God added to their number.
Over the centuries this frequency kept decreasing. If you’re old enough, you might remember church on Wednesday nights, Friday nights, and Sunday nights in addition to Sunday morning. Even before the pandemic, attendance among the most active church-goers had dropped to two Sunday mornings a month.
That’s not enough time when your smartphone is “discipling” you 168 hours a week! There’s no song, sermon, or social event good enough to counteract all that.
Today I believe we have the opportunity to reclaim being the church EVERY day by combining the best of both arms of our hybrid ministry model, digital and in-person.
Our embrace of the digital revolution is helping us reach more people than ever with our Sunday services, and more people engage digitally each week than attend all our in-person congregations combined. We find that most people who eventually join us in person have “checked us out” online for months already. The sermons and life-stories offer information, and the Online team is making a significant effort to make the digital Sunday service increasingly relational as well, using chat and after-service gatherings.
So I believe that Sunday service is still essential as it embodies so many of our values. It’s one of the few places we can connect to God personally, God’s people, and God‘s purposes all at once in a way that welcomes new people. So I am absolutely committed to Sundays.
But most of my excitement is about the new things digital ministry enables us to do the rest of the week to engage people with information and relationships that are transformational. We know that Digital can be a distraction; it can also be discipleship. We’ve seen multiple examples of this, including...
Both our children’s and youth ministries have been learning how to leverage digital platforms for discipleship that can reach the younger generations.
Sunday services continue to be powerful in person as a way to connect people to the community. If Highrock Online is our entry door, Sunday in-person services are our lobby where most people come when they’re ready to get connected. They move from consumer to community. As with digital, I see Sunday services continuing to be essential because it's one of the few places we can connect to God personally, God’s people, and God‘s purposes all at once, and makes it easier than online to invite new people beyond receiving information to engaging in relationships.
But as with digital ministry, all my excitement is about what can happen the rest of the week. We are imagining how we can use each of our facilities to serve and engage with our respective communities throughout the week. The possibilities are different in each of our locations, but my enthusiasm for this is high because in what pundits are calling the “Great Human Reconnection” following the pandemic, people are looking for “third places” where they can build new relationships. I would add that many people are asking new spiritual questions after the pandemic given the way that many previous certainties were shaken. This is an opportunity for the Church to serve and shine.
The second step we can take this year is to reimagine what we do together on Sundays. Now that “information” is more accessible during the week, perhaps it’s time to put more energy into developing relationships. A quick review of history can give us perspective here.
Our third focus for this year is on the emotional and spiritual health of our leaders. In this post-modern environment where people are intrinsically suspicious of leaders, leadership depends more on being trustworthy than impressive. This is even more essential in light of recent failures of high-profile Christian leaders. We must value integrity far more than popularity. In addition, given the high levels of ambient antagonism and anxiety in our society today, leadership requires exceptional emotional health to build trust and connection rather than relying on pedigrees or positional power.
Hebrews (13:7) encourages us to “Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God. Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith.” Our most effective ministry will not come simply from compelling words, but compelling examples of following Jesus to the kind of full life that everyone is longing for - whether they know about Jesus or not. This means our leaders need to concentrate on our:
• emotional health,
• spiritual vitality,
• missional clarity, and
• relational connections with other church members
We’ve always had a hard-working staff, and amidst the national staffing shortage there could be a temptation to work even harder. Many of us know the old advice to “work smarter, not harder”. We believe we can be most effective when we “work healthier not harder”.
How will we take steps in this area?
We already have spiritual direction available to all our pastoral staff, and have been learning how to give better feedback, accountability, and support. That’s a good start, but only a start.
I was privileged to take a truly transformational sabbatical last summer. Thank you so much for that gift! This summer four of our pastoral staff will be taking sabbaticals and I hope they have a similar experience.
In addition, three others are on maternity or paternity leave. That means that activities may be light this summer, but it also prepares the possibility for much richer substance in the Fall as our staff returns rejuvenated and ready to serve. At the same time, we are modifying some policies to make it easier for staff to rest and reconnect with God in rhythms that respond more to their spiritual needs than a predetermined schedule. Our hope is that both of these changes will enable us to lead well out of a place of passion and health.
Friends, I know that it’s trendy to be cynical, especially about the American Church. But I feel very optimistic about our church. The wildfire that seems to be destroying American Christianity these days may actually be reviving it! American culture is cannibalizing itself right now, leading to unprecedented levels of loneliness, depression, and division. As people lose faith in the false promises popular and political culture have made, I believe that God’s Good News is going to have a new moment of relevance and attractiveness. Jesus is good news in every generation. We just need to learn how to invite people to encounter Jesus in ways that correspond to their current questions and needs, and inspire them by the ways that we love.
That’s what we are trying to do because I believe that the best days of the Church are not behind us, they are ahead. I want to be ready.
Thanks for reading. I really appreciate your partnership in this.