A New Belonging

At this past Sunday's Town Hall Meeting, I briefly presented our renewed Community Group vision that we hope to start in the Fall and made a call for help to make this vision a reality. I want to outline this vision here for those who couldn't make it but also to better explain the rationale and hope behind it.

Why are we doing this?

After over a year of Zoom gatherings, punctuated by major life changes (moving to a new neighborhood, changing jobs, welcoming new children, etc.), we needed re-imagine community building for our church. The isolation/independence we've practiced over the past year+ only reinforced the hyper-individualism already apparent in our city and culture. The question for us, as we grow together is this:

How can we [re-]learn and put into practice the truth that God calls us to be members of one another (Romans 12:5)?

The purpose of this new vision and structure is to help us embrace our communal identity in Christ -- that God has called us to a mutual belonging, where each of us is an essential conduit of grace for one another.

The structure:

Community groups will follow a monthly cycle where the various weeks will give each group an opportunity to grow together in different ways. Of the four weeks in every month, the first three weeks will be with members of your community group and the fourth week will draw from the entire church

Week 1 - Bible Study (what we've been doing...)

If you've been part of our community groups before, this should be standard fare. We are committed to hearing and learning from the Bible. It is God's gift to his people that we may know him and become who he has called us to be. Every month we gather to be challenged and encouraged by God's Word to us that we may better love him and love our neighbors in our daily lives.

Week 2 - Smaller Group (getting deeper into one another's lives)

Within your community group, you will be a part of a smaller group of 3-5 people. On this week, your smaller group will meet together to get to know one another at a deeper level. Oftentimes at the end of a typical "Bible Study" gathering, we try to squeeze in sharing about our week, asking for advice and perspectives, and praying for one another in the span of five minutes (or alternatively extending the duration of the meeting). We have this week set aside for growing in relationship beyond the small talk, to see how God is working in each of our lives.

Week 3 - Larger Group (more space for visitors and friends)

While some people may prefer to enter into community in smaller groups (see above), we set aside a week to welcome friends, neighbors, and co-workers to experience life together in larger groups. These gatherings are meant to be hospitable, making space for people to share interests and experiences. This week can take a number of forms to better welcome one another to our lives: dinners, games nights, bowling, social events, etc. If you've been with our community group ministry before, this is similar to our "fellowship weeks."

Week 4 - Affinity Group (this is new!)

The first three weeks (above) can happen in any order, but the fourth week is across our entire congregation; people are welcome to attend groups of varying interests. For example, on the fourth week of every month we can have a Young Adult Singles group, or a Families with Young Children group. We can periodically host a Men's or Women's Fellowship, a Book Club, a gathering based on careers (e.g. Faith and Finance/Education/Medical/etc. group). We can host regular praise & prayer gathers on this week. This final week gives us opportunities to connect with others in the church across our respective community groups and provides space for new communities to form. A church-wide schedule of events will be provided as this begins.

Great! How can I get in on this?

If you're a member of our church and interested in forming a group, let me know! (see contact form below) If you're kinda interested and find someone else who is kinda interested, you can let me know together. We would welcome more people who are willing to host or willing to be the point person for a group. It begins with a recognition that we need one another to mature in our faith and a willingness to be available for others.

Based on the current locations of our church members we're hoping to have...

  • 3-4 groups in Downtown Flushing
  • 1-2 groups in Forest Hills
  • 1-2 groups in Eastern Queens

If you have questions about what these groups could look like or have other ideas about getting involved (e.g. "I'd be interested in hosting a one-time affinity group!" or "I have an idea for ______________."), I'd welcome it!

It's my hope that we will better see and know one another, recognizing one another's gifts, and have opportunities to use these gifts to bless one another.

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    Burnout and Serving

    Everyone is afraid of burnout

    Everyone is afraid of burnout. We talk a lot about spreading ourselves too thin, about over commitment, about work-life balance. Everyone seems to be concerned about self care… but is it really self care?

    I’m starting believe that what many are now passing off as “self care” when choosing not serving others or refraining from active participation in community is really a stubborn and perpetual self ignorance masquerading as prudence. We think, “Do less things and we’ll solve the problem of over commitment!” But this is a false peace, akin to Jeremiah’s challenge to Israel:

    They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
    saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
    when there is no peace.

    Our problem goes deeper than merely “doing too many things.” I’m sure all of us are guilty of over-commitment – promising to do more than we can handle. Maybe some of us ended up doing too much unintentionally: served too much at a previous church, felt pressured or obligated by leaders who were more concerned about us as workers than as people.

    And our reaction is to pull back.

    We don’t want to be taken advantage of again. We don’t want to be caught in such a position ever again. Our reluctance to service or commitment may be a way to avoid tension or conflict, echoing the belief that “if there is no stress, then there is goodness.” Our modern false call of “peace, peace,” healing our wounds lightly when the truth is that there is no peace.

    But this reaction is often a settling for a much lesser “good” at the expense of pursuing the greater good of self knowledge, growth, and transformation. We think the question is “how much?” rather than “why?” with regard to work and service.

    We often overcommit, not because we don’t know how much to serve, but because we don’t know who we are.

    Parker Palmer writes in Let Your Life Speak:

    One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess-the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.

    We find ourselves doing anything and everything to fill this void within us… to heal the wound that festers within us… We burnout because we try to give out of this emptiness, trying to be someone other than ourselves.

    But why serve?

    Before getting into reasons why we should be serving one another in community, it’s just as important to lay out some reasons why we shouldn’t serve. Allow me two short disclaimers before diving into why serving is not only a way to show love for others, but to love yourself – true self care.

    There are some of us that are really good at serving. We have a greater capacity for work than others; we are high-functioning people who need less sleep than most. But there’s a danger in basing our identity upon our service and seeing yourself as a worker more than person. We can unintentionally hide from ourselves through our service. Sometimes we need to “take a break” from serving to find ourselves in the absence of service and work. We can ask ourselves, “Who am I without [this job/function/position/ministry]?” And if you’re willing, ask someone who can speak truth to you, “Do you sense that my identity is too attached to my work/ministry?”

    And I know there are some of us that do need to pull back from serving. Maybe you are coming from an environment where you really did serve too much but did not feel like you had a choice. Over time, your understanding and posture toward serving has really soured; the effects of that souring affect the whole person. And it will require more than just a new understanding in the mind about service; we’ll need our hearts and minds and our bodies – all that we are – to experience a “reset.” BUT this isn’t done alone. What’s often missing in the “break” from serving or commitment is any plan or purpose to the break. A break is not supposed to be permanent, but without purpose, we can easily get used to it and find ourselves stuck. Don’t take breaks without purpose, for there is and inherent good in serving.

    Transformed by love

    We should serve because it is through disciplined love to one another that we grow in Christlikeness. When serving others, we are bound to experience tension and conflict, but tension and conflict are not bad in of themselves. It is in conflict and tension that we learn more about our souls. If we avoid service and tension altogether, some of sinful and selfish tendencies will never be revealed.

    Thus, when tension arises, we should not treat it only as something to avoid or despise, but see it as an invitation to transformation; ask the Spirit to work as our hearts are revealed. For the LORD knows us intimately – better than we know ourselves! (and that is not just a figure of speech; Psalm 139:1!) And we can join with the psalmist,

    Search me, O God, and know my heart!
    Try me and know my thoughts!
    And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting!

    In this we join with God’s work in the world and in our souls. What do our hearts tell us in conflict? What have you learned about yourself through difficult experiences? How is the LORD teaching us and shaping us to be more like Christ? It is in committed love that we are transformed. And we can confidently enter into this transformation because it is Christ who holds us, thus we cannot fail.

    Let us enter into this disciplined love of service with confidence.


    Reflections on Life Together in 2020

    Indeed, the past year has been one of much loss, grief, and pain. Challenges in identity, community, ministry. Please forgive me getting this out after the year has rolled over. These reflections have been a long time coming. Longer than most of my posts here. I'm sure we'll still be processing for many years to come, but as we're looking forward with hope in 2021, I do believe that this past year has been deeply revelatory and forming for us as a community.

    Sunday Worship

    A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a friend from another church. He was telling me about an end of the-year "think tank" of sorts between different church leaders on how to adjust and improve Sunday Worship via Zoom. He shared lots of ideas from that gathering: thoughts on music, streamlined processes, different uses of technology, etc. Surely this year has been one where we've been forced to adapt so it was encouraging to hear that these fellow church leaders were constantly innovating. But the more I considered these ideas and our church community, the more deeply I began to appreciate the ways God has sustained us as we are; that the big draw for our church wasn't our polish in worship service. It wasn't quality of the sermons or the music (even though I think we are faithful to the gospel and have great song leaders in our church!). What ultimately kept our people together was not any gimmick or good that we were broadcasting over Zoom; it was the people.

    PC: Uncle Sam

    PC: Treyton Moy

    Though we did not have true foresight when we decided on our Sunday Service format in March 2020, I'm grateful that every single week since lockdown, our Sunday Service has been live. Our church is not primarily an organization that produces goods for people to consume; we are the good, imperfections and all. I don't think any of our worship presiders is exaggerating when we say our favorite part of Sunday Service is the brief, chaotic, period when everyone unmutes their mics and greets one another. We're not listening to a recording. We're not consuming a good. The church -- the people of God -- are engaged in something beautiful and sacred... together.

    I had these thoughts in mind when I was giving the sermon during our last Sunday Service of 2020, when all of a sudden my Internet cut out (2020 must've thought, "this is my last chance. now or never to disrupt their service!"). If I were a pre-recorded sermon, it would be so easy for our church members to check out and "switch the channel" to another church service. If the sermon was just a good to be consumed, then that would make sense! Somehow in that moment, while no one in the church could hear me... but I was able to hear everyone else! I heard the awkward silence as people were hoping for my Internet not be "unstable" (as Zoom would soon inform me). And soon the Spirit got to work, hold us together. There were no changes to the number of participants -- no one checked out. And, Rob led the church to pray for my connection. I was back in a few minutes, preaching the remainder from my building's stairwell -- motion-sensor lights triggering on and off every 2 minutes and all. What a wonderful experience to see the church together in an unexpected moment of testing.

    Grace in Community

    Not only in our formal gatherings on Sunday, but what an encouragement to see the life of our church extend beyond our Sunday Service. From engaging in Q&A in our brief Bible studies that I've affectionately called "Three Pastors Walk into a Bar" to the song leaders in our church giving of their time and energy to encourage the church through InstaLive praise sessions in the middle of the week to encourage our congregation through some of the darkest months of the pandemic, I'm proud to be part of this community. And no reflection on our church community this year would be complete without mentioning the daily -- yes, daily -- video posts by one member of our community to lighten the mood and bring joy to our lives through reviews of garden tools, tours of semi-empty public spaces, Billy on the Street-esque encounters with people on the street, live drive-bys to see holiday home decorations, and oh so much more! You know who you are. You've left a mark on my memories of this year.

    I'm also grateful for how the Spirit has been doing this very same work in our community groups (CGs). Our CG Leaders really stuck it out in keeping our church community connected and together. I'm am so grateful for their commitment to gathering and meeting (virtually!) when the shock of Zoom fatigue was high for all of us. Our community groups also engaged in some difficult conversations -- many of which we are still processing and working through now. Different stories and histories on race. Different perspectives on politics and policy. Conversation topics which have divided our public spaces and threatened to divide us in our church community. I believe it was the grace of God and the presence and power of the Spirit that enabled us to weather the many difficult storms together, bearing with one another in love. One of our CG leaders shared with me that it was their grounding in Christ and the established love and fellowship between their group members that gave their group the confidence to engage in divisive topics and in so doing stretch and build one another in love and compassion. We're far from perfection on this, but this year has taught me that the people of our church are not one homogenous block. We don't always see eye to eye. But God has called us his own and our striving for unity in diversity is a testament to his Spirit at work in us. He's working still and we depend on him still.

    Advent Hope

    Because of our need of him was more strongly accented this year, the season of Advent took on a different tone. There was a need that we acknowledged not only in our minds -- with our theology -- and not only with our eyes -- in all the corruption we could see around us -- but a desperation that we could collectively feel in our gut. Our world is broken. We are broken. And we need a savior. Our theme for Christmas as we closed out the year together was "What does Emmanuel, 'God with us,' mean to you this year?" And the response from the church, testifying to God's presence with us through this year, affirmed God's promise: that he will never leave us nor forsake us. Various members of our church submitted testimony and videos. Bakers making cookies for our covid-19-adapted cookie swap. Artists sent in beautiful expressions of longing and hope. Musicians and readers lent their voices to retell the story of the birth of Christ through scripture and song. In many ways, our Christmas Eve Service was our culminating testimony of God's steadfast love and faithfulness to us when everything else in the world seemed uncertain.

    https://youtu.be/QBM1egCm2Cg

    This year has affirmed to us that God is ever with us most tangibly through the gift of his body, the church. This past year has forced us to slow down and see one another more fully, not for our gifts or talents, nor for the goods we can produce, but because God has bound us together in love through his Son. It is my hope that as we move forward together in 2021, we will cherish one another more and that this practiced gospel love will spread will be our testimony to the world that the Spirit indeed dwells with us.

    Because of Christ, let us look forward with hope.


    When Life Gets Wild, God is Good

    Hello Church,

    Elder Matt here. As our church’s 7th annual Summer Saturday Program is fast approaching, it is important that we remember how our Lord Jesus Christ considers and sees the children.

    In Luke 9:46-48, Jesus’s disciples are arguing who amongst themselves is the greatest. Jesus responds by taking a child by his side and says,

    “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is the greatest.”
    Luke 9:46-48

    Jesus is saying that whoever loves the low, the poor, the sick, the widowed, the suffering, the forgotten, whoever enacts mercy and justice will be great in God’s eyes. And although some children today are the most cared for in the history of mankind, there are still many children today who are not as loved and cherished as they should be. And so Jesus is saying that among the greatest are CEM teachers, SSP volunteers, and anyone else who serves the destitute and defenseless. How amazing is it to take part in such an endeavor and task that our God sees as weighty and great?! To be part of God’s plan in forming new friendships and planting seeds of the loving gospel of Jesus Christ into the hearts of little ones...YES!!! The children in SSP, and CEM, and everywhere are important and cherished by God, and we should believe the same too. No matter how many or how young or old, every single child is worth our time.

    Working with children is always a difficult task. If you are volunteering, know that despite kids being uncooperative at times, and the craziness that comes with leading and teaching children, God is with you. As you have experienced mercy from God numerous times, show mercy and compassion to these children. Be their friend, even if they don’t want to be your friend, lol!

    And if you are unable to participate at SSP, we humbly ask that you pray with us. Let’s give thanks to God for this opportunity, and here are three things that you can approach God’s throne of grace for:

    Pray that whoever God brings to us, that the Holy Spirit may work and stir the hearts of the children, and the parents, to hear and believe that they are in need of a savior for their sins, and that Jesus loves them and is the only one who can forgive and change them, and give them hope, renewal, and acceptance from God. (Rom 3:23-24 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.)

    Pray that God would grant all of the volunteers the faith to trust that God is present with them as they work for and teach the children. That despite their tiredness and weakness, God will be their strength. That they have nothing to offer, but that everything comes from God. (2 Cor 2:9 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.) 

    Pray that as a church we will be welcoming, caring, and celebratory towards children. That even after SSP is all done we can continue the good work of teaching the gospel to the children and see the value and weight that this has in the eyes of our God. (Luke 9:46-48)

    Bottom line, lets all pray that God’s will may be done.

    When life gets wild, God is good!