Pastoring Spiritual Refugees

As I have been praying for the people I pastor this week I was struck by the realization of just how many of them have been harmed or carry scars from difficult church experiences. Now it is to be expected when you replant a church after leadership failure and abandoning of the church but even those new since my arrival have similar stories.

Thankfully we do have a few that are new to the faith and learning “church” as we worship together but the vast majority came seeking something different than their previous experience, a better polity, deeper theology, smaller numbers, quieter music. Even just a place to lay low and heal after a hard church break-up.

Truth be told I am okay with this. Of course I, and the people in our church, would like to have growth with new believers. But when we took this assignment Stacy and I knew we were going to be used by the Lord to help bring people to health. And I think I am learning to see what that health looks like, but there are challenges I didn’t expect pastoring spiritual refugees.

Patterns are hard to unlearn

Repeat “offenders” in church experiences are common. Why some left their last church might very well be why they leave yours or more likely, the way they left will be the way they make the next exit. Personalities are slow to change the things most traumatizing about church (except actual abuse) are quick to have an effect on those personalities prone to it.

Even the way in which people engage and the expectations they have cling tightly. For some, the patterns won’t break (but by prayer and fasting.)

It can be a challenge to understand the hurt

Because stories and experiences are all so varied in nature and you usually only have a narrow view of the reality, it can be hard to be empathetic. On top of that, those still healing can’t always articulate their pain or how to avoid it again.

I suppose if you have had a difficult experience yourself you might have a leg up in understanding the pain. Personally, however, I have never been so close to church difficulty as to be traumatized by it. There have certainly been difficult moments but none that forced me to leave. So I often feel disadvantaged in leading those most hurt from their history.

Even with these challenges, the remedy remains the same.

The gospel is the only remedy

It is grace we are all in need of and honestly if we each recognized that we are still “sick” we can get a long way on. Even when we come out the other side of church difficulty we can think our way is best, but the first inclination should be to see our sin and the greater grace of Jesus. That also goes for those leading the hurting. We have to be so passionate about the gospel that we respond to each challenge with grace and a willingness to listen and learn alongside each other.

Shared vision, direction, and unity are only found in that which brings us together, the good news of Jesus. So we endeavor to know nothing else but Christ and him crucified. He took on the cross to deal not only with my sin but also your bad church experience and by his grace we can get through it.

The gospel must be applied with gentleness

I am just learning this truth. While I have a litany of solutions to any situation and desire to run ahead as I lead, it is the gospel applied with patience and gentleness that is the salve for the burned and broken.

I am sure I will miss the mark on this and need to come back to the well myself and recognize Jesus’ gentleness toward me.

We are all refugees

While I have categorized spiritual refugees here, truth is that in the church we are all refugees in need of renewal and redemption. Far from home and waiting on our ultimate deliverance in Christ. So brothers and sisters, keep going. Preach the gospel to yourself and each other. Mine its depths for resolution and the fuel to keep going. And know that even when it feels like it, you are never alone.

“But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” 2 Timothy 4:17–18 (ESV)

Worthwhile: May 24, 2019

Long weekend ahead. Which means either you will have more time for delighting in great reading or you will be busy with burgers and hotdogs on the grill. Either way, breathe deep, find some people you like, and enjoy the gifts we have been given.

Four nuggets of good if you missed them earlier in the week. Grace, devices, discipleship and a place for all of us. Cheers!


First up, Sam Storms in a surprisingly short post for him, helps us think through ways we don’t fully embrace or understand the grace of God. It is a helpful list to think through and not meant as a guilt trip but an invitation into the true grace of Jesus.

I even found myself on the list, needing more embrace and understanding of grace. Help Lord!

Check the list for yourself, find grace and be free!


Are you reading this on your phone? Well, don’t put it down just yet… John Thomas has a review of Competing Spectacles on Christianity Today. Tony Reinke wrote the book encouraging discipline in our media age and seeing Christ as our treasure.

If you are hesitant to tackle the whole thing perhaps the review is a good place to start and be stirred to something less screen driven.

When we seek out glory in the passing spectacles of this world rather than in Christ, the culprit isn’t an ever-expanding buffet of shallow entertainments; our own sinful hearts are to blame. Adam and Eve didn’t have an endless selection of forbidden fruits tempting them to reject their Maker; they only needed one. And our spectacle-craving eyes have been looking elsewhere ever since.

Read the review, think it through, look to Jesus.


Next up, how should we approach the church, as consumers or as disciples? Matt Chandler punches our expectations in the face and calls for an end of consumeristic Christianity. Don’t go to church to be entertained or coddled, go to be equipped for ministry!

This is an important perspective from a large church pastor and it is helpful for all believers as we envision the future of the church in increasingly more hostile environments. The gimmicks won’t work, mission will.

Faithwire essentially unpacks Chandler’s sermon, which you can also watch. It is worth hearing and strategizing through. Check it for yourself.


Coming in last this week, among the least… is an encounter with neighbors we don’t always expect. Earlier this week I tweeted that I wanted to be a pastor for those that eat at McDonald’s and drink cheap coffee wherever they find it. Mostly because I want to pastor myself!

We live in a far too stylized world and the mess of artisan hipness has a stranglehold on the church. But it is the church that is the remedy to the mess.

David Zahl shares stories from Chris Arnade’s upcoming book chronicling his journey to highlight the back bench and back roads of America.

But he went further than mere surprise. “Soon I saw my atheism for what it is: an intellectual belief most accessible to those who have done well.” Woah! I couldn’t believe his guts then, and I can’t believe them now. In a world in which ‘de-conversion’ narratives seem to grow sexier with each passing day (just peruse latest issue of the New Yorker if you don’t, er, believe me), no one wants to surface the privilege component—to say nothing of social class. But it’s getting harder and harder to ignore.

How can we be more accepting and welcoming of the least? How can we recognize the effort to keep up the facade isn’t worth it? Take up and read. Be encouraged.


That’s it folks. Have a splendid weekend.

The Way from Above and the Church

I am encouraged as I am reading The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that Has Abandoned It by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel.

It is essentially a call to weakness that lives in the power of Christ. Recognizing that so much of life is lived under power schemes that are actually unhealthy or evil.

Living the way of Jesus though is not a solitary endeavor. Here is what they say of the church, take it to heart.

Because we are prone to waywardness, prone to walk the path of pride, self-sufficiency, and power, we need the church to ground us in Christ and his way. We cannot live in Christ’s way on our own. This likely sounds right, but many of us functionally doubt our need for the church. Pursuing the way of Christ seems like a “me and Jesus” kind of endeavor. But our focus on ourselves unearths a deep foolishness that owes more to our culture and worldliness than it does to Scripture. We have no hope of pursuing the way from above apart from the church.

Steady as We Go

It has been a tough weekend in the suburbs of San Diego. As you may have heard from news reports, a teenager, somehow influenced by hate, murdered a women and hurt others at a synagogue in Poway, CA. A block from San Diego City limits and just a short drive from Escondido where we call home.

We deplore hateful violence. There is no quarter for it in the church and we must actively and repeatedly communicate that such animus for other image-bearers is anti-Christ.

But it was so close to home. The alleged terrorist grew up in a neighborhood called Rancho Penasquitos, graduated from a good high school and was a member of a church in Escondido. A church, reformed in doctrine, certainly proclaiming the gospel, and meeting on the campus of respected seminary. The synagogue is the same neighborhood where members of our church live… this happened on our streets, where we do our best to flourish.

There will be much time for processing and working in the community for healing and I am thankful for the group of local pastors striving toward that end.

As I reflect on this today, I am struck by how quickly culturally we will move on from this tragedy and how active we must be to prevent it from happening again. But also that the gospel empowers us to keep on, to speak for justice in every day life.

Before my sermon at Reservoir yesterday I shared my joy at returning to the normal life of the church:

Coming off of Easter I was reminded in my own heart of the draw toward experience. The big Sunday, the whizbang sermon, the emphasis we put on special events. But more so I reflected on the reality that faith is lived out in community, in the day-to-day, nitty-gritty, happiness and sorrows of life. And the gospel, the good news of Jesus speaks to and holds us up in all of it.

What relief!

It is a relief. Because we need holding up. We need spiritual power for every moment of life, especially those with such darkness.

So we press on. Clinging to Christ, our hope.