wanda vision and the church have in common

The wildly popular Marvel Universe launched the short series of shows called Wanda Vision earlier this year.  If you don’t know these characters’ backstory from the Avenger films, you may not understand this blog entirely, but I think you will get the idea.

In the series Wanda Vision, Wanda, the main character, is still grieving over her love, Vision.  Vision, an android creation, died in an earlier movie.  Wanda Vision is essentially a fantasy land that Wanda creates where she brings her love Vision back to life.  She has taken over an entire little town, surrounded it by an almost impenetrable force field, and controls everyone in that town to play along with her script.

So what do the church and Wanda Vision have in common?

They don’t live in reality.

As the church moves into a post-quarantine world, we must understand that the world is not the same as it once was.  The world the church thinks we are in and the world we are actually in are two different spaces.  But this was probably true pre-covid.  The church of recent years has had a gap between where they think the culture is and where it is.

 

It’s like the one pastor said,  “if the 1980’s ever come back, we will be ready.”

 

Let me state the obvious, it’s not 1980 anymore, nor is it 1950 or any other year. It is now 2021.  Some churches think when we get back to normal in a post-quarantine world, we will be going back to 2019.  But we are not in “Back to the Future” or any other time travel movie.  

 

When we pretend that we are in another time, it hinders our ministry. How can we relate and connect with a community that we are trying to reach if we don’t even know who the people are and how they think?  

They force a script on others.

In the series Wanda Vision, Wanda forces a script on all the people of Westview, New Jersey. She has taken them all hostage, enclosed in a forcefield of some kind.  Somehow, Wanda controls their minds, telling them what to wear, how to act, and what to say. She wants them to all walk along to her cultural script. She recreates different decades of the 1900s and pretends as if it is reality.

 

Be honest for a moment. Is the church doing the same thing in many instances? Do we pretend as if it is 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, or even 2010?  Thankfully by the end of the show, Wanda comes to her senses and realizes that she is not operating in the present.  Church, will we recognize the era and time that God has placed us? It’s 2021 at this writing.  I know this comparison may seem harsh, but 9 of 10 churches have plateaued or are shrinking. The present is the time God has placed us.  Let’s recognize it, thank God for it, and impact our communities for Christ.

Response-ability photo

Response-Ability, Avoiding the Victim Mindset

 

One of the top life-changing disciplines that I worked into my life is that I can choose my response to a situation 100% of the time. Yes, every single time. I had a false belief that my circumstances determined my reaction and feelings. Most of us tend to pick up little false beliefs here and there throughout life and ministry.

False Beliefs help us Cope. 

These false beliefs help us cope with situations, make us feel better but usually keep us trapped in what we think is a comfortable and safe space. One false belief many Christian leaders and pastors hold onto is that we are where we are because of our circumstances. In other words, we have given up our ability to respond to some degree.

For example, we may tell ourselves and others that our ministry is not where it should be because of a particular circumstance or person. It would be effortless to claim that the economy, government regulations, the COVID19 crisis, or any other events are the blame for where we find ourselves.

Theology, if not careful, excuses Responsibility

 If we are not careful, we rule out our ability to respond to the circumstances. Sometimes we allow our theology of God’s Sovereignty to be an excuse for our responsibility to respond to a situation and take ownership. Of course, others like to blame the devil or others. 

In his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People,” David Covey tells us there is a space between stimulus and response. Stimulus or our circumstances do not force us or make us respond a certain way. We can control our reactions and choose to do so in a thoughtful, positive, Christ-centered way. We can make these choices for leading ourselves and for how to lead our ministries.

One of the great definitions of manhood is found in the book “Raising Modern Day Knights.” They define manhood as the ability to 

“reject passivity, take responsibility, lead courageously, and expect the greater reward.” 

This definition is an excellent challenge for church leaders. We need to take responsibility and be proactive with our attitudes and actions in our personal lives and ministries. Some of this plays into the more recent topic these days on emotional intelligence. Too often, we react based on the mood of our emotions or the conditions surrounding us. We believe that our actions and mindset are based on our genetics, education or upbringing, or other external factors. As Christian leaders, we must begin to take full responsibility for our mindset, attitudes, emotions, and actions.

Focus on What You Can Control

To be more proactive with our response to what is taking place around us, we need to focus on the words we use, our feelings, and the things we can control. We need to throw out those phrases like “there is nothing I can do,” or “It won’t work,” or “that’s just the way I am.” We must recognize our feelings don’t control us, but we can manage them. We must choose again and again to master them, or they will master us. 

Sometimes this means stopping the negative self-talk, and sometimes it means creating boundaries so that others don’t have constant access to us with these false beliefs. Of course, there are things that we honestly can’t control, things that are beyond our circle of influence, but we can always control our response to those things. Before we chalk this idea up to modern-day pop psychology, consider the passages at those ends and their explicit instruction for us to reject passivity and control our ability to respond.

If I can help you understand or implement this life-changing discipline or the other three life-changing disciplines that we cover in our Leading Self-coaching sessions, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Your Brother in the Battle,

Ryan Flanders

Ephesians 6:14-17

14 Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16 above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. 17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God

1 Corinthians 10:31

13 No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.

Ephesians 4:22-23

22 that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, 23 and be renewed in the spirit of your mind

Leveraging the Power of Story in your ministry

 

I like to think in the realm of numbers.  I am not sure if that is a guy thing or what? Stories are hard for me to wrap my brain around.  They take too long to unfold and often could have been stripped down to a few numbers to quickly get the point across.  But that’s the problem.  I am often in a hurry and struggle to slow down and enjoy the story.

 

The other night we were watching a family movie together.  The movie was about Togo and the amazing dog sledding crew that traveled several hundred strenuous miles through the beautiful Alaska terrain in a storm of the century.  Their little village was being devastated by illness and many of the children were dying without a cure.  The cure could not be flown in because of the weather. It was unsafe and deadly, with winds over 50 miles per hour, snow falling rapidly.  Their only option to go and fetch the cure and bring it back quickly was this misfit dog, Togo, and his sled team.  

 

It was a captivating story and even went perfectly with our family devotions that night about going all out in something for God. (Thanks to Tim Tebow and Right Now Media.)  It was a story about perseverance, pushing yourself, doing the impossible.  It was just long, 2 hours to be exact.  My 9-year-old son, Drew, echoed my thoughts when he asked a few times, “how much longer is this going to be?”  

 

Couldn’t we have just popped up some compelling statistics on the tv to show our family that only 8% of people complete their new year’s resolutions? Boom. Done. Just like that we know going all out is hard.  Did we really need to have a two-hour story about the dog sled team in Alaska?  Did we really have to know that Togo was this pain in the neck dog that no one wanted? (spoiler alert) Did we really have to see the Dog die? 

Numbers are easily forgotten but the story lives on forever.

 

That 8% statistic I just shared….you had already forgotten it until I brought it up again.  If you have seen the Togo movie or knew the story from history, you may never forget it. The story is almost 100 years old, it took place in 1925 and it is still alive and memorable.  

“numbers are easily forgotten but the story lives on forever.”

The next time you are tempted to share a bird’s eye perspective of numbers that you think gives the BIG picture about your mission…..STOP.  Ask yourself, what is one story that represents these numbers.  Then share that story.  They will remember the story and forget the numbers before they leave the service.  This could be a story about how giving has reached someone in your community, blessed a member, or empowered a mission overseas. Tell the story and leave the numbers for the spreadsheets.

 

 As another year rolls by on the calendar, I try to forget about the numbers and remember the stories I have experienced.  After all, I really don’t have to try to forget the numbers, it happens easily.  I am trying to slow down and enjoy the story.  Our lives are not composed of numbers, no matter our age.  

Our lives are stitched together with one story after another. 

 

The great thing about our life story is it is still being written.  We are the co-authors with God.  If you didn’t like the last chapter, pick up your pen and change the script.

 

Here’s to hoping for a happy ending to your story!

 

Your Brother in the Battle,

 

Ryan Flanders.

The Day I took Jesus out of the Church

Taking Jesus out of the church Is not something that I would have ever expected I would do. 

After all, I loved Jesus or at least thought I did. 

I came to know Him as a teenager, followed Him to Bible College and Seminary, and desired to serve Him.  I’m told that some things just creep up on you and then hit you hard out of nowhere.  Others may look at what happened at our church and say that I was on a slippery slope.  

I have always feared that one day I would wake up and ask myself “what have I done? Where am I? Who I am? Who would do this?”  

Nonetheless, I took Jesus out of the church.

To be honest, seminary did not prepare me for the day I had to make this decision.  I was a very young twenty-five-year-old pastor at a new ministry, trying to revitalize an old church.  The church had a lot of issues.  

 

One of my mentors accompanied me to the first Sunday I preached at the church. They followed the service with an hour-long business meeting with 8 people, debating on voting me in as their pastor (that’s another story for another time.) 

 

They did eventually vote me in with an underwhelming 4 to 3 vote. When my mentor, a retired pastor friend, David Green walked out after the service he simply said two times with his Texas-sized and Texas-style voice, “snakes in the grass, there are snakes in the grass.”  

 

Yep, it was that obvious from a first-time visitor that there were problems.  Another pastor and mentor of mine, Mike Reid, sent over his Deacons to speak each Sunday until my family could arrive and begin the work.  His comments were, “We just tried to keep it dead until you got here.”

 

The problems with the building were just as obvious.  While the original church was built in the mid-1800s, it burned down sometime after the civil war. The current building was believed to be built in the late 1800s. Let’s see, there was red carpet from the ’70s, wood paneling covering the old plaster walls, a nasty sagging drop ceiling installed, cables that ran from one wall to other keeping the building together, a deck out front (seriously, who builds a deck on the front of a church?), handmade pews to small to sit in, an outhouse out back (yes, a real outhouse), overcrowded and awkwardly designed royal furniture on the platform and grandma styled figurines everywhere.  

 

The crown jewel was a 1970’s styled photo of Jesus with blue eyes, flowing hair, looking off into the distance.  

 

As you would expect in an old Southern Baptist Church, Jesus took a place of prominence. He hung front and center in a larger-than-life-like picture above the pulpit.  After all, Jesus should be prominent in His Church…..right? That’s definitely what the few senior citizens in our church thought.  It wasn’t just a thought for one lady, in particular, it seemed to be the bedrock belief in her life.  

 

We had slowly begun to clean up and remodel the church, to bring it from its strange mix of the 1800s and 1970s into the 21st century, it was 2005.  We got rid of spiritual figurines or graven images as I thought of them.  We took the 97 boxes of tissues and consolidated them.  We removed the open rat poison boxes that probably sat there undisturbed for 20 or more years.  We did this in preparation for our new nursery and our expected daughter to arrive in just a few months. 

 

 It wasn’t going well, but it was going…..until I did the unthinkable.

 

I took Jesus out of the church.  Yes, literally.  I grabbed a ladder, climbed up and took Him off of His prominent position, and set Him in the office.  I don’t know if I was possessed as some people claimed or if I skipped my devotions that day, but it happened. 

 

I still remember the call that I received from the former pastor.  You know it’s bad when a member calls the former pastor to rat you out.  I could tell it was awkward for him, but I did something even he was unwilling to do.  I told him there was a new sheriff in town and we never spoke again. I’m kidding, but it was strange.

 

Next, I received a call and a request to meet with the local representative from our Southern Baptist regional association.  I got a free breakfast from McDonald’s out of it, but even he said it was a little awkward that a lady in our church called him and made him promise to do something about this.  She was persuasive and put pressure on others to get Jesus back to his rightful place in the church.  

 

To protect me, I’ll change just one letter in her name and just call this….person, Lola.  Lola had been in the church for over 50 years. She told me the story of how she moved to the area when the church was boarded up and closed down.  Her father came and fixed it up and they found a pastor and reopened the church. That’s pretty amazing stuff.  However, she came to feel a sense of ownership over the place.  At one point she told me,

 

         “When you’re gone I’m turning this place into a museum.”   

 

In my quest to try to figure where Lola was coming from I stumbled across some old church minutes where she had single-handedly run off a few other pastors that attempted to threaten her control.  She called her own business meetings, rounded up the troops, and voted them out.  It was then that I realized I wasn’t just dealing with a grandma-like figure.  

 

Most of the pastors at the church over the years were retired or bi-vocational.  When aggression was made towards them they usually left, probably thinking to themselves, “this is not worth the headache.”  But I was young, stubborn, and realized that Lola didn’t have the backing she used to. She tried.  

 

She called all of the former people and family members she could think of, but somehow they had lost interest like the good old days.’  For a few Sunday’s Lola and a family member or two, that she convinced to come with her, came and tried to stir up controversy.  But by this time there were a few dozen new people.  She told visitors “this pastor is destroying the church,” and “he took Jesus out of the church.” She wrote messages in the hymnals, “pastor Flanders leave this church.”  I even got anonymous phone calls, I believe from a family member, telling me “to go back to Florida.”  We considered it.

 

I really felt Lola needed Jesus in her life, so I extended the olive branch so to speak.  I offered to give her this incredible gift.  She gladly received Jesus, I wondered to myself in arrogance, “is this the first time this has happened.” 

 

I’d love to say that picture changed her life, but we continued to deal with challenges from Lola until she eventually grew tired and departed. Strangely, even after leaving, she would drive by the church every Thursday morning to see what was changing.  

 

Normally with a story like this, I would try to weave in some kind of life lesson, spiritual application, or leadership principle. To be honest, this time it’s really just about self-therapy.  This was Therapeutic. But there is one major lesson I am reminded of.

 

We must take Jesus out of the church to give Him to others!

 

Oh, and if you have a similar story on church revitalization, I’d love to hear it.  Misery loves company!