First Year Thoughts, part 2

First Year Thoughts, Part 2

After crossing the 1-year checkpoint at Advent as Senior Pastor, I’m taking the space in my Friday morning email to share some thoughts about who we are as a church and what possibilities that we have ahead. If you missed last week’s post, no worries. I also posted it on my personal blog. You can read it here.

Advent is a Scattered People

Recently, I had staff teammate Nancy Garrison print off our best mailing list for those who interact with our church, at least a little bit, throughout the year. My main inquiry was to find out where we live in the Greater Memphis area. I batched all of the zip codes together, did some simple math, and calculated the percentages of where we live. Here are the (approximate) results:

29% live in Cordova, TN

22% live in Arlington, TN

15% live in Bartlett, TN

12% live in Lakeland, TN

5% live in Collierville, TN

4% live in Germantown, TN

4% live in Eads, TN

4% live in “Memphis, TN” (13 other Memphis zip codes not otherwise represented above)

1.7% live in the “outer Memphis area” (Oakland, Munford, etc.)

0.9% live in Northern Mississippi

Here are a couple of things that I would suggest from this data:

1.   Our two campus sites (north Cordova and east Arlington) appear to be the best places for our current church community. They resemble helpful epicenters of where we scatter on the map. Some have said that for every 10 minutes that person needs to drive to your physical church building from his/her home, (s)he is 10% less likely to be involved in your ministry. For instance, if Barry Bonafide drives 25 minutes in order to arrive at the Cordova campus, Barry is 25% less likely to establish vital connections to the Cordova campus: its ministries, its people, its core leadership. To have two locations at different parts of Shelby County provides two outposts of connection and mission for our people.

2.   Advent is a regional church. We don’t have the majority of our church in one location or neighborhood. Although Advent may have been a neighborhood church at one point in her existence, she is no longer. Although there may be some things that are common with each location where we are scattered, I think that we’d also have to admit that there is something fundamentally different about one’s experience because they live in Bartlett versus Collierville versus Eads, etc. This is particularly important to consider if we truly believe that Christianity is practiced beyond the property of our two church campuses. If we want to dream that our members can have vibrant, Christian experiences in their lived contexts, our staff and leaders must come up with creative ways to help deploy regional ministry with a congregation this scattered. This means we will have to get creative about how to make more capable leaders in all of our micro-centers of Memphis and learn new ways to “organize religion” way beyond our walls. Stay tuned for more on those developing plans.

This gathered and scattered reality is nothing new. One read of the Book of Acts in the New Testament shows that our faith has been centralized (around common teaching and practices) and de-centralized (developing zip-code-driven-spirituality) at the same time. G.K. Chesterton once said that you’ll notice Christian truth “stands on its head in order to gain attention,” that it is prone to honor paradoxes, to dangle its two feet in the air. Advent’s future will be shaped by how comfortable we can be a gathered-and-scattered people. I pray that we are up for that task.

What I am currently reading: The Cynic and The Fool by Tad DeLay

What I am currently listening to: The “Elton John Takeover” playlist on Spotify

What I am currently watching: The NHL Playoffs (go #CBJ)

An app I find helpful: Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals

Friday Post- First Year Thoughts, part 1

This post is the weekly email I send to our congregation as a regular correspondence from the Senior Pastor’s Office. I just wrapped my first year at Advent. I’ll do a series of posts to share my year-in-review.

First Year Thoughts, Part 1

Hello Advent! This past Tuesday was my one-year anniversary as your Senior Pastor and I was thrilled to reach this first milestone. We’ve had a full year together; the Skillen family has enjoyed getting used to our new city and making so many new connections at Advent.

A year anniversary provided me an opportunity to collect my thoughts about who we are as a church, what we are currently facing, and what our future might be (with God’s help, of course). These observations are hopefully received as my own generous reflections of a church that we have come to know and love. Warning: It’ll take a few weeks of longer posts to share them all. Perhaps you’ll allow me the space to do so.

Part 1: Who We Are

Advent turns 40 years old this December, which has allowed our church to include a few, different generations of worshippers within one church community. Along with that, we have chosen to be a multi-site church that meets in two different locations. At each of those two locations, we’ve organized two, distinct worship styles and expressions to praise our God. Not too long ago, Advent had two co-pastors to help lead the mission and vision of the church. We are a church that has attempted to have multiple “worlds” exist at the same time. In fact, Advent’s theme song might be “Double Vision” by Foreigner. (Try to get that song out of your head for the rest of the day)

If you or I were to ask 10 different Adventites “Who are we?” I hope that we wouldn’t be shocked when we get a few different answers, bracketed by their individual micro-stories, while being situated within the larger narrative of Advent. In fact, Advent is at the church size and church age where 2 to 3 different expressions of a church life cycle are active and present. Let me give a brief overview of the 3 eras of a church life cycle that I find helpful:

When a church begins it starts in the “Prophetic” stage of life, seeking to be a church that doesn’t resemble many or any other ones out there. If it can’t articulate why they are different than others than it is hard to justify the need to exist. So, a group of renegades launch out with a crazy idea to start a new church with zero proof that it’ll last. And at times, it does. It gets stable and able to continue on. It is fueled by being different, new, fresh, and innovative. After some time, that “Prophetic” church start graduates into the next phase of life: the “Therapeutic” stage.

The “Therapeutic” stage of church life transforms the church into a more common church experience where it resembles other churches in the area. One can go from that church to another church and have a comparable experience. It’s innovative edge from its “Prophetic” stage is softened because the church’s currency is no longer to be different, but to be admired and respected within the wider civic community. The “Therapeutic” church often grows by transferred membership, either by area residents transferring from nearby churches or out of town new residents looking for a church similar to the one they used to attend to call home. The “Therapeutic” church’s pastoral team is constantly encouraged to make their church look like others out there.

Religious institutions are like any other sector of society for they are susceptible to changes in culture. During a church’s “Therapeutic” stage it reaches a critical juncture where it must make a decision: will we find unique ways to adapt and change to the contours of culture while still being ourselves? Can we “start over” and continue our story, at the same time?

If the church chooses the courageous journey of being “born again” for a new era of cultural life, it has the opportunity to host a “Prophetic” form of church within its “Therapeutic” operating software, for there is still enough “Prophetic” memory in the “Therapeutic” consciousness to endure years of disruption and transition to organize for mission again. This is not an easy task, admittedly, so some churches steer away from that opportunity and enter into the final life stage of the church life cycle: “Messianic.” And once a church becomes pervasively “Messianic” it cannot transform into a “Prophetic” community, again. The difference between the two is too drastic and the change too disruptive to endure.

The “Messianic” stage of church life is the final stage of life, for the church decides to remain committed to a set of values, ways, and practices primarily from a different era, one that is less and less prevalent among existing churches and that is less desirable to the wider culture. Sometimes these “Messianic” churches have large buildings and great endowments, but shrinking membership and participation. It is not uncommon for “Messianic” church members to move out from the neighborhoods around the church facility, to then have to drive to the building for church functions, and to therefore not have much connection to the communities near the church property. The goal within “Messianic” churches is to keep things the same until the church comes to an end or until Jesus returns, whichever comes first.

This church life cycle paradigm provides three different “worlds” of church where lovely people do their best to represent Jesus towards a watching world. But their difference is definitive. Take for instance the occasion when a church member is asked, “What does success look like to you?” Within this framework, there are three possible answers:

Prophetic- “Success is doing something we’ve never seen before.”

Therapeutic- “Success is updating ourselves to look more like a modern church.”

Messianic- “Success means to not to be influenced by culture and to our best to keep things the way they are.”

I hope that it is fair to say, with as much objectivity as I can employ, that Advent has both Messianic and Therapeutic expressions co-existing within our congregation. And, there is a growing sentiment for a new Prophetic expression among us, too. This framework might explain why when something changes or are suggested at Advent AND when a tradition is preserved at Advent we get a panorama of replies, some in favor of change and some in favor of the preservation.

This is not unique to Advent, but prevalent in most mainline, Protestant churches that desire to do something within our world. So, as we engage in the critical work of forecasting future, engaging in vision casting, and creating strategic plans, let’s keep in mind both the diversity of our congregation and our common dream to make much of Jesus in our world. My prayer is that God would knit our community together in unity as we seek to make more space for new Advent members for our future.

What I am currently reading: Foolishness to the Greeks by Lesslie Newbigin

What I am currently watching: NHL Playoffs (Go #CBJ)

What I am currently listening to: The Bible in 90 Days (Minor Prophets)

An app I am enjoying: Anchor Podcasting

Friday Post: Crossing the Finish Line

Here is my Friday email sent to Advent Pres:

This year, I’ve been running in a Memphis race series called #runthe901, four races in the city of Memphis from January through March, which culminate in the Germantown ½ marathon on March 11th. If someone is able to finish all four races in the series, they receive a certain medal and other prizes. I’m two races down at this point, and am preparing for the Laurelwood 15K in just over a week. It’s been a good way to stick with personal health goals for 2018 and to get more acclimated to Memphis.

I’ve met a lot of new runners during these first two races, folks who responded to a promotion email or who were encouraged to run by a group of friends at a New Year’s Eve party, perhaps. They bought new shoes before the series and an Apple Watch or a FitBit to track their miles and exercise stats. I’m sure great enthusiasm swelled in their hearts as they started their first race. Then, these new runners eventually experience what seasoned runners know all too well, a feeling of being in over one’s head.

You can usually find the new runner towards the back 1/3 of the race, gasping for air, walking with tired legs, and with an expression of disbelief. “Three miles didn’t seem like too far of a distance,” they think, and “Why are there people who look less ‘in-shape’ than me passing by me with little effort?” Endurance exercise has a way of caving in any romantic ideas of fitness that we might have, and it is no respecter of athletes: seasoned and novice runners eventually have to endure moments when their energy runs out.

That is what I love about the running community during a race, for they seem to try and not leave anyone behind. Sure, there are some who are trying to beat personal best times or trying to place for a medal during the race. For the most part, people are there to finish the course. Along the way, a certain sentiment builds among participants: we should all get to the finish line.

I think that this is a great metaphor for the Christian life and it is probably why “running a race” is a popular trope to describe the Christian life. What I fear is that, in an effort to finish “our own race,” we so easily pass by the struggling Christian gasping for air, who is moments away from deciding to go no further.

May each of us scan our peripheral vision today in order to help someone continue on. May we whisper them encouraging words for endurance. May we all seek to help one another finish well.




What I am currently reading: 5Q: Reactivating the Original Intelligence and Capacity of the Body of Christ by Alan Hirsch

What I am currently watching: Atypical

What I am currently listening to: the Bible in 90 Days plan on Youversion (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus this week)

An app I find fun: The Journey Surf video game

The Big Give

The post below is the weekly email I send to Advent Pres folks. Check it out!

The Big Give

John’s gospel tells us that Jesus is God in flesh who made his dwelling among us (John 1:14) or as Eugene Peterson’s The Message puts it, God “moved into the neighborhood.” At its heart, Christianity is a wager in proxemics, of God moving in and dwelling with humanity. In one of the last stanzas Revelation, the whole of the Biblical drama arrives to its stunning conclusion:

“Look! God’s dwelling place in now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Rev. 21:3)

The whole of the Bible’s hope is that creation will move towards one another and towards God, as God has already done in Christ Jesus. The Christian faith operates in a bit of a paradox, then. We are nomadic in that we move towards the needs within God’s world. But we also dwell, to have a “stubborn loyalty” as Jon Tyson puts it, to communities and partnerships where we find life and friendship.

One of the cosmic struggles we face today is the refusal to get along with one another. Atheist thinker Kurt Vonnegut nails it on the head:

“There are too many of us and we are too far apart from one another.”

Our communities are crowded, but our proximity doesn’t seem to transform us to be more pliable, humble, and attentive people. We are tempted to stay far apart instead of getting used to dwelling together. We quickly lose our tempers, breathe out passive aggressive sighs, roll our eyes in indifference, and say demeaning things under our breath.

If we are not careful, a thousand little slights towards our neighbor can evolve into hardened worldviews and preferences and the more difficult it becomes to imagine God’s renewed creation, his dream to dwell with all of his people at the end of the age. Part of our Christian disciple process is to learn to embrace, enjoy, and enrich all of life around us as we anticipate Jesus’ return.

This weekend, we’ll conclude our Vitals sermon series with an invitation into an experiment. You might remember that we set aside a portion of our Christmas Eve service offerings for a project that we named “The Big Give.” This Sunday, the wait will finally be over and we will share the details about The Big Give. At the conclusion of the sermon at both campuses, we will invite Advent folks to join temporary groups of compassion that will seek to do good for immediate needs around us.

The project will serve as a practice in proxemics, convincing us that the places where we dwell are strategic places for mission and that God blesses us in order for us to be a blessing to others. I hope that you will be there on Sunday and that God will lead you to respond to the invitation to participate in The Big Give.



What I’m Currently Reading: Jim and Casper Go To Church by Jim Henderson

What I’m Currently Watching: The final episodes of “The Office” (so good!)

What I’m Currently Listening to: Chase the Lion audiobook by Mark Batterson

An App I find Helpful: Patreon



Friday Post: Healing Prayer

I send out a weekly email to Advent to preview the weekend. I thought I’d begin to post it on my personal blog, as well:

A few months ago, Advent engaged in a study series called “This is Us” which highlighted five, critical practices for the Christian life in a post-Christian era. Those practices are highlighted in a short book Surprise the World by Michael Frost. For those who did not get a chance to read that book, we have a few more copies in our office area that we’d like to share with you.

Frost organizes these practices in the form of a handy acronym: B.E.L.L.S:

Bless three people each week, including one person who is not a church member

Eat with three people each week, including one person who is not a church member

Learn the way of Jesus by studying God’s word (especially the New Testament Gospels) each week

Listen to the Spirit by connecting with God through prayer and following through with how He leads you

Sending oneself into God’s world as a person on mission, not just hanging in the “Holy Huddle” of church life


As a pastor, I often wonder how far this series would go before it is placed in the library of sermons that we hear within church life. A few of the questions that fill my mind are:

  • Would it be good for just one month of Sundays?

  • Or will it “get legs” and continue to travel within the social consciousness of our church?

  • How could we have equipped our church to life into this more deeply during the series?

  • How much money would it cost to hire Michael Frost to fly over from Australia to speak at Advent so we have more exposure to this paradigm? (I don’t know about you, but the Australian accent makes things sound more convincing.)


I’ve been thrilled to hear the language (and practices) being used. Here are a few that come immediately to mind:

  • I hear of people going out of their way to bless others.

  • I am stoked by over 100 participants in the “Eating with Eight” event, recognizing it as a vital way of connection and fellowship.

  • I am amazed that our Cordova Wednesday EPIC curriculum will cover Jesus’ words in the Beattitudes of Matthew 5.

  • Just this past Tuesday, there were two groups discussing how clean water projects could be funded by Advent.

  • This Sunday, our Honduras mission team will host an information meeting for those interested in travelling as short term missionaries.

As we continue in our Vitals sermon series this weekend, we have another chance to participate with BELLS. Our governing theme for the sermon will be “the Heart of Christ,” that compassionate, merciful heart that never ceased to bind up the brokenhearted and to set captives free.

One unique way we will do that this weekend during worship is to pray for those seeking healing from God at the end of each worship service at the Cordova campus. Matthew 9 says that Jesus saw the multitudes and he “had compassion” on them and that he healed their sicknesses and diseases. The New Testament encourages the on-going ministry of healing prayer for the church, with specific instructions in James 5. At the conclusion of the worship services, the Elders and I will anoint anyone seeking healing with oil and pray that God would minister his healing work in their lives. We encourage those of you seeking healing to join us this Sunday and to bring loved ones that you have been praying for, as well.




What I am Currently Reading: God’s Long Summer by Charles Marsh

What I am Currently Watching: Season 9 of The Office

What I am Currently Listening To: The UnSeminary Podcast

An App I Find Helpful: Apple News

Friday Post: Weighing Disciples

I send a Friday email to our church with a little devotional thought. I thought I’d start placing it here, too

On my last day at Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta, a fellow pastor on staff, Mark Brewer, gave me an important and challenging task: “Make sure you find a way to routinely weigh members of your congregation. Don’t just count them.” Don’t worry, we are not going to install scales at the doors of the sanctuary, nor are we going to launch a weight-loss, Daniel Plan initiative. The admonition from Pastor Mark is a metaphor that points to a dilemma for church leaders: “There has to be more to what we can study about how our church is doing than just the three B’s: Budgets, Butts, and Buildings.”

There is and Jesus is focused on who we are becoming, not merely how many are showing up for worship. His Sermon on the Mount is filled with teachings that check our character, especially when no one is watching. Paul regularly launches into tightly, packed sections in his New Testament letters concerning our life lived together. While listening to John Ortberg recently, I was challenged. He made this neat comparison between our bodily health and our spiritual health. “Your body is always being shaped, whether you like it or not. Your body takes no breaks in being shaped. In the same way, your soul never ceases to be shaped, by what you do or not do in correspondence with the way of Jesus.” (paraphrase) What a stunning reality, one that should be a primary focus for us as Christians and for us as church leaders.

To that end, we will launch into a new sermon series this Sunday called Vitals. Vitals will outline three categories for spiritual formation, how one might grow in Christ. The image we’ll use is the Apple Watch face, which has three rings worth of daily goals that monitors our personal health. I hope that you not only make it to the opening sermon this Sunday, but commit to listening to each part of this series so each of us can make a personal and family plan to grow up in the knowledge of Christ in 2018.

This Sunday at the Cordova campus and next Sunday at the Arlington campus, we’ll have a unique wrinkle in our worship liturgy. Our faith formation team on staff has put together a way for each of us to “weigh” how we are doing as a follower of Jesus, a simple examination exercise to sketch how our faith life is going. I don’t want to give too many details at this point, but I wanted to share our enthusiasm for this opportunity and for you to know that we want to do all that we can to help you shape a deep, relevant, and informed faith. I pray that you and I will be eager to weigh ourselves this weekend and to be open to God’s transforming power in the year ahead.

Happy New Year!

What I’m Currently Reading: God Dreams by Will Mancini

What I’m Currently Watching: One Wheel promo videos (and trying not to cave into envy)

What I’m Currently Listening to: Queen’s “Forever” album

An App I find helpful: Adobe Photoshop Express