Church Re-Planting or Re-Vitalization?

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Western Christianity is hemorrhaging. With 80 to 85 percent of churches in America either plateauing or in decline, an urgent appeal for revitalization and church planting exists.[1] To keep up with the current pace of population growth, Western churches would need to plant approximately 3,000 new churches each year.[2] As well, church planting remains as one of the most effective means of following the Great Commission in multiplicative disciple-making.[3] Likewise, since the West has a devastating amount of churches in decline and plateauing, the call for revitalization has been trumpeted throughout evangelical circles.

For the record, I have been a church planter and a revitalization pastor. I am now in my fifth year as a revitalization pastor. I’m the director of operations for New Breed Church Planting Network and nearing the completion of my doctorate in developing a reproducible disciple-making strategy for church planters. In my doctoral research, I’ve studied other church planting organizations, examined revitalization, unreached people groups, discipleship, and in over two years, probably read every book about church planting and discipleship that exists. I add that information only because I believe I understand this issue.

So, let’s explore the question, should dying churches revitalize or replant?

I want you to understand what I just wrote, “should dying churches … ”

Here’s the kicker—what constitutes a dying a church and when will that church know? I’m not going to address that—there’s much written about it—however, I will add to the conversation that a breaking point exists. A church simply cannot continue to do things as they always have—some churches see change occurring and attempt to adjust and some do not—thereby, dying. At launch, a vibrant gospel-centered gathering of individuals make up the body of Christ—a church. These gathering believers reach new converts, serve, and disciple their new community. Over time, the church body grows and becomes a healthy living organism. But after a few generations (or less), the church body encounter factors that cause a downward turn. Somewhere in between the downward turn and dying (see figure below) revitalization tends to take place—what I believe to be true, may have you thinking differently. I am also fully aware of what is at stake.

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I was at my usual coffee hangout with a church planting strategist from a major Baptist association, he asked about revitalization and replanting. I revealed to him what I am about to reveal to you. This is not theoretical jargon, but applied praxis and observations, coupled by research.

…to be continued. This is a three part series. 

 

[1] Aubrey Malphurs, Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 200.

[2] David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 181.

[3] Craig Ott and Gene Wilson, Global Church Planting: Biblical Principles and Best Practices for Multiplication (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 20.

You Can’t Do It Alone

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It’s 10:02 am. My iPhone’s alarm reverberates through a crowded Panera Bread.

People begin to stare in my direction. I fumble to reach my phone—you’d think I’d be aware of it by now.

The “you-pick-two” crowd obviously peers over in disgust, as to say, “Shut that thing off!”

I politely look at my church planter invitee, “Excuse me for a second.”

I turn off my alarm, bow my head and silently—but fervently—pray. As if I’ve never prayed before.

I’m pretty sure by now that my guest is staring at me—I know he’s wondering, “What’s up with this guy?”

I’m also pretty sure that thoughts are probably going through his head— “uh—organic onlookers alert! —WTH is he doing?”

Surely, I’m not invisible with the sun glaring off my shiny head. That’s the down side to being follicle-ly challenged (don’t hate, man).

So—when I’m finished, I look up and humbly explain to my coffee confidant, “I’m sorry man, that’s my alarm. I have it set for 10:02 every day.” I begin to talk as if nothing happened.

This of course prompts a conversation!

A puzzled look and reply, “Wait, wait, wait—10:02? Why 10:02? C’mon, that’s sort of a weird time—isn’t it? You don’t like 10 O’clock or something?”

I chuckled under my breath. My reply was reassuring and yet caught my guest as provocative.

“No, I have nothing against 10 O’clock, bro—it’s just that I pray every day at 10:02—it reminds me of the words of Jesus from Luke 10:2, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

His reaction was even better—I could almost see and hear the gears in his head begin to connect and crank out an illuminating thought— “I need to be doing this.”

I added, “If you’re not praying for more laborers, bro, I guess you’re content with being a Lone Ranger.”

That wasn’t his deal at all—he’d just never thought about applying Luke 10:2, as I had.

But there’s a bigger picture—the realization that we can’t do mission alone!

Praying to the Lord of the Harvest

Enmeshed within a culture filled with nones, dones, and unchurched “labeled” people—sometimes church planters forget about who is doing the actual work. Don’t get me wrong—we’re called as frontlines missionaries, and to be obedient disciple-makers, but we can’t do it alone. Prayer must be intrinsic. And prayer engages and enacts the director and commander of the harvest.

There are three essential aspects of harvest servitude. The first is Christ as the Lord of the harvest, the second relates to the harvest itself, and lastly, there are supposed to be other laborers.

Lord of the Harvest

In David Bosch’s paradigmatic book, Transforming Mission, he renders Matthew’s Gospel as “essentially a missionary text” providing “guidance to a community in crisis” concerning their calling and mission.[1] Matthew’s Gospel also shares the Lord of the harvest passage, but I was not ready to have my alarm go off at 9:37 every day. However, Matthew begins his writing with the prophetic Isaianic Immanuel passage (7:14) and ends with the words of Christ, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). You’re never alone and were not designated to be alone.

The Great Commission (Mt. 28:18–20) begins with the authority of Christ’s cosmic rule and reign and closes with his continual omnipresence with the laborers. The resurrected Jesus rules over, “angels and archangels, powers, principalities, might, dominion, thrones, and the saints in glory … over the evil spirit world, whose prince is conquered and despoiled, and whose hosts lie in abject submission beneath Jesus’ feet.”[2] That’s the authority of the Lord of the harvest.

Christ has commissioned his church with marching orders, and yet, he’s supplied it with Holy Spirit enabling empowerment (Acts 1:8). The Lord of the harvest has ultimate and abundant power—given to you for the purposes of mission. While the world may currently be positioned within a cosmic conflict of spiritual clashes between the forces of bondage and evil, and that of righteousness and liberation—but, God has positioned his people, equipped them, and provided his omnipotent presence to abide in them. This gloriously translates to—you’re never alone.

The Harvest

Abraham Kuyper once declared, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine. This belongs to me!’” The “harvest” belongs to Jesus.

The reality is that natural harvest time is usually temporary or seasonal—finding laborers for temporary work can easily be achieved. However, the harvesting of souls—or gospel proclamation and liberation—will never cease. The harvest that Jesus refers to is a continual-persevering spiritual harvest.

I have a confession—when I say to myself, “I got this!” it’s usually about that time when I fail. Church planting is one of the most difficult, sometimes depressing, and arduous callings on the planet. We’re dealing with eternal salvation, not used cars or insurance sales.

In Luke’s passage, the laborers are told to pray because the harvest is not theirs, but God’s. The Lord will supply every need and every resource needed for the harvest. The mission is not about me, but about God’s reconciling power bringing back his people to him—this means that God has way more invested in the harvest than I do. I ‘m also only one laborer. The vastness of the field can be overwhelming—I cannot harvest everything by myself. The job is too big.

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful!”— it’s abundant! With a world population of over 7 billion people, the harvest surely is grander than what I can accomplish. This is sobering in many ways because it relieves me of the guilt that I may have (for not reaching enough people), humbles me to recognize that I need help, and wisdom to pray for more laborers like me. Daily, at 10:02, I’m praying that God will not only send more laborers into the harvest, but that he helps me to train laborers, and to be a laborer.

Charles Spurgeon once proclaimed, “Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.” The beauty of church planting is that you were not meant to be alone, or to do it alone. Christ gave his command to go and make disciples—there’s a need for more laborers, and a new disciple becomes a “co-worker” (Phil 4:3; Col. 4:11). Empowered with Holy Spirit presence and ability enablement, the goal is to make disciples—co-laborers of the harvest.

Laborers of the Harvest

Sometimes church planters go the route of “parachuting” into a location. This happens. It is also one of the most difficult ways to church plant. Reaching a large city can feel daunting. The size, span, and magnitude of the harvest is a reminder of the need to pray for more laborers. Church planters need co-laborers.

I’ve been asked, “Why are you bent on core groups?” Why? Because these are your teammates—your core group and congregation—they are the committed family of God—your co-laborers in the harvest. You were not meant to “go it alone,” but to have helpers. Jesus never sent out the disciples on mission alone. Even within the context of the harvest passage, Jesus sends out the seventy-two in pairs. And for good reason.

Jesus describes the harvest—it’s a ferocious world of “wolves.” It’s a world of sick people in need of healing. It’s a demon-possessed and spiritually blinded world. As Lord of the harvest, Christ is the missionary Commander sending out his workers into hostile environments. They’ll be rejected on all sides. Companionship is essential—co-laborers that will walk with you.

Jesus never asked for Lone Rangers. You were not meant to be alone. Co-laborers share in the mission: they rejoice when you rejoice, weep when you weep, and when areas of strongholds are conquered—they pronounce victory and triumph. The mission of God is a shared mission, dependent upon God. Every believer is called to the mission field—some far, but all within their neighborhood, home, and community.

Lastly, making disciples is part of the harvest prayer—that in praying for more laborers, you’re praying that you’d be an obedient Great Commission disciple-maker, creating more laborers to be sent out. The fields were meant to be harvested. No one plants seed without an expectation of harvest. Jesus expects a harvest and commands laborers to pray for more laborers.

So, the next time 10:02 comes around and an alarm goes off, don’t look at the person in a strange way—he’s your co-laborer. You weren’t meant to do it alone.

[1] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991), 57.

[2]  R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 1171.

What is the Future for Church Planting in America?

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December 2016 Church Planter Magazine cover article http://bit.ly/17KGc6S

Due to the rising spring temperatures, the small winter stream that Christopher hiked across had become a widened, deep, raging, impassible river. In the blockbuster hit, Into The Wild, Christopher McCandless leaves society—rejecting the corruption of modern conventional life—and finds himself exactly where he desired to be—without intrusion, people, and absent from culture.

McCandless was from a good home and earned a distinguished degree from Emory University, but he found modern society disturbing and corrupting. He purposely destroyed all of his identification and credit cards, along with gifting away his $24,000 in life savings.

However, in McCandless’ identity-less trek across America, his journey took him to “The Magic Bus,” an abandoned outpost in the Alaskan wilderness. Finally by himself, McCandless comes to the self-realization that life was to be shared—unfortunately—it was too late. The river could not be passed and he became deathly ill. While slowly dying, McCandless recorded his last days in a journal, recollecting the days he had with family.

The current and future state of the Western church has much in common with McCandless’ story. cpmagcover

Identity-less?

McCandless changed his name to Alexander Supertramp—an empty shell of who he was. “Supertramp’s” transition reminds me of what Jesus declared to his church, “you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4). Like McCandless, the church has taken a long trek to get away from culture —to find itself identity-less, without intrusion, and absent from the power of Christ.

In the church’s obsession for “growth” or “empire building,” it has lost its true identity. The church has become the ultimate “Supertramp,” leaving the power of the Holy Spirit. It has disregarded the command to make disciples and instead, sought out intellectual self-realization for another identity.

But, the reality is that Christ commanded the church to “go and make disciples” (Mt. 28:18–19), with the power from the Holy Spirit to be his “witnesses…to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Like McCandless, perhaps some in the church are coming to the consciousness that we need to go back to the basics—back to first century principles, actions, and engagements.

Church planting brings the church back to the journey of passionate evangelism, devotion to a powerful God, and a willingness to reach the unreached. Regardless of whether the path seems impassable—church planters must move forward.

Is It Too Late?

            When McCandless first arrived in Alaska, he fell in love with the serenity, the beauty, and the solitude. But, in just a few short months, the thawing snow caused his only homecoming—a once small stream—to become an impermeable chasm. The church finds itself in a similar situation. It was too late for McCandless—but is it too late for the church?

With over 7,000 churches closing each year, and only 4,000 starting, some estimates demonstrate a need for 15,000 new churches to be planted each year, just to keep up with the growing population.[1] While this number seems large and estimates may vary, the number that does not vary, but only decline is the twenty-six percent (26%) evangelical rate in America. And, with the recent election, I would even question how the term “evangelical” is currently defined. The point? America goes the way of Europe—we may be facing a chasm of impassibility—or at least a point of no return to the days of old.

What does this mean? As the late C. Peter Wagner declared, “Church planting is the most effective form of evangelism.” While some churches have relegated to “recording their last days,” desiring to be absent from culture via isolationism, and/or abandoning their true identity in Christ, we realize that unlike McCandless, there is a supernatural working power through the body of Christ, raising up bold, courageous, and innovative church planters. But it will take more than courage and innovation.

A Kingdom-Minded Collective

Like McCandless, the church will see that it’s imperative to share life together—to be kingdom-minded. A gospel-centered life must be shared with community—this was the reality of the first century church (Acts 5:42). The church was never meant to become isolationist, but a fiery unstoppable and penetrable force of God—a tangible collective of kingdom-minded people.

The future of church planting resides in how well church planters can collaborate. What is inevitable is the millennial trend of collaboration and their disdain for exclusion. Entirely exclusive denominations will find themselves on the outside looking in. Kingdom-mindedness will be the future of church planting, as planters glean from every viable resource. Why? because church planting models and resources fluctuate with culture—more than the stock market. This means that church planting networks and missions must realize that their material has a time stamp. The great and new thing today is tomorrow’s fodder.

The effectiveness of church planting that Wagner expresses will only occur when churches are planting churches that plant churches—with the understanding of reaching the unreached with the goal of making disciples. It’s the realization that church was designed to be lived-out together (Heb. 10:25). Church planters will flock to kingdom-minded collectives…

What’s the Future Hold?

With 80–85% of all American churches either plateauing or in decline, and only 10–15% of pastors equipped to turn them around, we need to admit there’s a huge problem.[2] An elephant in the room—and a dire need for church planters.

Unlike McCandless leaving society to seek solitude, church planters must leave the comfortable serenity of the church culture to seek out the lost. They will find themselves facing a raging, violent, and nearly resistant chasm, a climate consisting of post-Christendom. For this reason (and a few others), I believe the twenty-first century church mirrors the first century church. I believe our future resides in unpacking our past.

The first-century Roman world was very superstitious. It delved into syncretistic spiritualism, and professed many gods—one of which being the emperor himself. Our modern society is eerily similar. American culture may not sacrifice to Zeus or the president, yet it does sacrifice to sports, spiritual new ageism, and is the salad bowl of religion. As Paul proclaimed to the Athenians, “You are religious people with many gods,” so are Americans (Acts 17:22).

During the pre-New Testament days of the first century, all roads led to Rome. Rome was the great empire of the known-world. It existed during the time of Pax Romana, Roman Peace—Rome was the world’s elite police force. I think it’s easily observed that the United States, and its people, views itself as a sole super power.

Not only do many Americans worship the country with a lustful pride like a first-century Roman, but with a gladiatorial UFC-endowed lack of love for one another. America is much like Rome and the twenty-first century mirrors the first century in many ways. So, how can church planters navigate the future of such a prideful, self-centered, and religious culture?

Into The Wild

Unlike McCandless’ journey for self-realization, the church was called to go into the wild, to reach the unreached, to make disciples of all people groups (Mt. 28:18–20). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer proclaimed, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Church planters know that they’re on the precipice of culture, that’s why they’re usually apostolically gifted—to navigate the turbulent waters with godly vision and insight. Planters were created for white water rafting!

The river of impassibility should be viewed more like the river in Ezekiel’s vision. It began with a sprinkling at the Temple and became ankle-deep, continued to knee-high, onward to waist high, and eventually swelled to an immeasurable depth:

And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live…so everything will live where the river goes. Fishermen will stand beside the sea…it will be a place for the spreading of nets. Its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. (Ezekiel 47:9-10)

Though demographics, statistical data, and even social media demonstrate a culture of intolerance enmeshed with post-Christendom, we ought not fear—for God gave us not a spirit of fear (2 Tim. 1:7).

The future of church planting resides in its dedication and devotion to the great Commission and to Christ (Mt. 28:18–20). The call is real. The dangers are real. The difficulties and obstacles are very real—some visible and many more invisible. Yet, church planters must trek into the wild to reach the unreachable. They must rely on the power of God, through prayer. As the Lord declared to Zerubbabel, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 4:6).

[1] Rebecca Barnes and Linda Lowry, “Special Report: The American Church in Crisis,” Outreach Magazine, June 2006, 1, accessed October 16, 2015, http://www.simplechurchathome.com/PDF&PowerPoint/AmericanChurchCrisis.pdf.

[2] Matthew Fretwell, “Is Church Revitalization Necessary?,” Urbanchurchplanting.co (blog), September 7, 2015, accessed November 14, 2016, https://urbanchurchplanting.co/2015/09/07/is-church-revitalization-necessary/.

Intentional Battle: Recovering the Disciplines

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Within the sphere of church planting, there’s much talk about the Great Commission—Christ’s command for the church to “go and make” disciples (Mt. 28:18–20).

While some are going and being sent, the struggle is real. I hear the confessions and feel the angst of many planters. My heart and prayers are with always with you—it’s lonely, depressing (at times), and an uphill spiritual battle (home, streets, & church).

So, I would like to encourage you today with some sound advice.

The words of Christ are powerful, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). The urgency to stay plugged in and get back to the basics, carry the purpose and veracity of the spiritual disciplines.

Let’s re-examine a few—

Prayer

You have been called to a specific and courageous task. You have been awarded enemy territory for the kingdom. Like Joshua, God speaks to your heart, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9; Matt. 28:20).

However, I think we march off to war without getting the day’s battle plan. As Martin Luther once declared, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” We neglect the spiritual discipline of prayer—connecting to our Lord and Master. By example, Jesus demonstrated the importance of being alone with God: “he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone” (Matt. 14:23).

Let’s ask the question: how many hours do you devote to prayer? Do you set aside alone time with the Almighty? Maybe things are so busy that you need to write down your daily thoughts in a prayer journal? Or utilize an App like Evernote?

Note-taking and journaling allow you to quickly jot down needs/concerns and pick them up later— praying over the contents? Prayer journaling sets up intentional organization, which leads to good discipline—especially during times of trial. Try it; click here for some cool affordable prayer journals, or here (and here) for some special ones.

The Word

            Jesus is the Word (Jn. 1:1, 1:14; Rev. 19:13). Jesus declared, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). The work of the Holy Spirit is to teach us all about Jesus and to glorify God (Jn. 16:6–15). Therefore, studying and being in connection with the Word of God brings us into connection with the Trinitarian Godhead.

Assuredly, you read the Word of God when you felt called into church planting. But perhaps over time, you’ve been so busy that you neglect your time in the Word?

How important is praying over what you’re about to read? In my book Sanctificagious: The Sanctifying & Contagious Fire of Scripture, I mention how vital it is to seek God’s heart and wisdom before reading. I believe that! There is something holy and devout about getting into the Scriptures—there should be a fire within us that becomes contagious.

The spiritual discipline of reading the Word for transformation, challenge, and change becomes neglected when we count our “ministry” more important than our spiritual formation. Reduced down, we’re called to be disciples of Christ, first and foremost. Following a daily schedule of reading through the Bible (and not hunting for verses) should be a foundation for our spiritual growth.

Fasting

Let’s be honest—this is probably the most neglected discipline of all. But, the reality is that you’re encountering spiritual forces of wickedness—celestial giants of deception and evil (Eph. 6:10–18). You need focus for the task at hand and protection from the adversary. Fasting sets aside the carnal for the spiritual. You enter the realms of spiritual warfare.

Jesus didn’t say, if you fast, but joined fasting with an expectation of “when” (Mt. 6:16). We should have intentional periods of fasting. Fasting sets the Spirit in control of the flesh. From the onset of creation, man has been tempted by food—and miserably failed.

The enemy knows our weaknesses and our need for sustenance. Humanity must have food for nourishment, but there are times when it is better to remember, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Sacrificing food, not to manipulate God, but for a closer walk with God is vital. Fasting replaces eating with prayer and nourishment with God’s presence.

Devotionals

While it is imperative to have time to study the Scriptures and to reflect upon God’s magnificent grandeur and sovereignty, devotional reading can be necessary. There are many great men of the faith that have poured out their souls with the pen. We should look to their inspiration to encourage our journey, walking with them.

Devotionals should bring glory to God, exalt Christ, and challenge us by the Holy Spirit. They should manifest the presence of God. I would recommend that you read them with a pen—meaning, take notes as you scour over the pages. Don’t read for completion, but reflection. Take your time—it’s not a race. Pick it up. Put it down. Think. Pray. Meditate. These should be used as field manuals for your journey.

Here are just a few that have inspired me:

  • My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers
  • Prayer Treasury, Richard Foster
  • The Imitation of Christ, Thomas A Kempis
  • The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard
  • A Serious Call To a Devout and Holy Life, William Law
  • The Confessions, Saint Augustine
  • The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of Religious Imagination, Esther De Waal
  • The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Recalculating Discipleship

Recalculating—Recalculating—Recalculating. You’ve probably heard those words. I’m guilty. If I’m not sure of the address, I plug it in my smart phone and drive. Sometimes I’ll hear—make a U-turn—this usually happens when I’m not paying attention.

I’ve been driving for thirty years. Growing up in New York there were hundreds of highways and expressways: north, south, east, and west—even diagonally! As I began to venture out, I would grab a paper map and write the directions down on a piece of paper. The first time in the City was a little nerve-racking—cabs don’t slow down—or use blinkers! But always, with directions in hand, I set out, carefully observing signs, buildings, road conditions, and routes. I quickly learned my way around an unknown place. The next time I went, I knew where I was headed, and stopped at some great delis (NY is known for their delicatessens—and super good ethnic foods).

But technology has made things easier! I’ve been living in Richmond for almost five years—confession—I still rely on my smartphone. As I was driving it hit me—this is a great analogy regarding discipleship—and I believe it’s time for recalculating—for the church to make a U-turn.

Everything traditional is not bad and everything new is not good. The modern church has become so enamored with growth and numbers that we’ve neglected discipleship. But, we have a mandate and command from Christ, to go and make disciples and be disciples (Mt. 28:18–20). Unfortunately, what we label as discipleship is someone lecturing about what the Bible says.

I notice that when I use my smartphone’s directions, it’s easy—I just follow the voice—but I rarely pay attention to the actual side streets, buildings, billboards, and such. Basically, I’m not learning or navigating the area—I’m just driving it.

I think the modern church views discipleship this way. We’re not learning how to navigate life with others in Christ. We’re listening to the pastor or Sunday school teacher speak, or even small group leader in discussion, but we’re rarely engaging what the message means, applying it, and watching where it takes us. We’re not observing the “streets” of life—we’ve boxed up discipleship and are selling it as a program or format.

Discipleship is becoming more like Christ. It’s living with others and cannot be done in isolation. Discipleship is about learning and navigating gospel-centered life with others. It’s not about getting to a destination (namely, heaven). The early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

The church needs to make a U-turn, back to the 1st century principles of devotion, fellowship, and discipleship. It’s time for us to recalculate where we’re headed—to be intentional about our direction—not blindly moving along in our faith, but growing in maturity and dedication.