Can L.A. become a great city?

The Greater Los Angeles area makes L.A. one of the great global cities of the world following only Tokyo and New York City in significance. It’s the media capitol of the world that likely has more impact creating culture than any other city. So in one sense it’s already a great city because of its global influence. But can L.A. become the greatest city for Christ?

This is the mission of Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, our wonderful partner supporting the new efforts at Union Church to reach downtown L.A. and its surrounding neighborhoods.

I get to share at Bel Air at all three services on August 14 about my family’s call as missionaries to downtown L.A.. They’ll hear me share about the 7-11 Principle and why our call is personal, strategic and biblical. They’ll also be invited to work with us to bless the city as God commands us to do in Jeremiah 29.

I am excited to join with other Christians who seek to to live in L.A., not to make a great name for themselves, but to make a great name for the God they worship and serve.

Going to those who might never come to church

I had the privilege over the past several years to spend some time with a professional tennis player, David Martin, who sees his time on the Tour as an opportunity to minister anyone he comes across. I’ve often told Dave, “You are the only pastor most of these people will ever meet.” Dave has taken that responsibility to heart and seeks to be a loving presence who is ready to share about Jesus on and off the court. Recently a church in London highlighted Dave and produced this video.

David Martin — pastor to the tennis world

Our church in downtown LA realizes that we can’t simply expect people to show up at our church. We are prayerfully having conversations about what it might look like for us to engage the neighborhood in a way that reflects how Jesus would.

How do you see your own vocation as an opportunity to reveal God’s love in your everyday lives and encounters with people?

The Power of Words

Our church finished a four weeks series on Acts 2 and the Holy Spirit coming on Pentecost to the disciples who had gathered for prayer. When the Jews in Jerusalem who were celebrating the Pentecost festival heard them speaking in various foreign languages from their homelands it caused them to ask, “What does this mean?” This was pre-work of the Spirit before the 3000 became converted (pre-evangelism?). I was surprised by the Spirit’s work which causes people to ask questions about God that led to putting their trust in God.

Most scholars recognize that the Spirit’s actions in and through the disciples on Pentecost 2000 years ago was a reversal of the Tower of Babel where language separated people who sought to glorify themselves. At Pentecost, God uses language to unite people who sought to glorify God. Pentecost is the undoing of Babel. So we see in Acts 2 that God’s first miracle in the church is the “healing of words” as Tim Keller points out.

In my diverse community in downtown L.A. I am glad to know that even in the first church God was speaking a clear message about unity amidst the diversity. Union Church has the young and elderly (just like in the Acts 2 church–but that’s for another blog topic), the homeless and the working professional, black and white, Asian and Hispanic and people at all stages of life. We want to a church that shows the diversity of L.A. and of our neighborhood as a sign of the coming kingdom of God. None of us should forget that God has always wanted to bring salvation to all the nations, even though he started with a mono-ethnic church (Jewish) to start it all. We need our churches to reflect the diversity that we experience Monday through Saturday. I hope our church and others will buck the trend of Sunday morning being the most segregated day of the week in L.A.

I’m also challenged to see the Spirit doing a miracle not only of languages but of healing words. Words are powerful so how strategic for God to doing healing work here because words truly have the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21). I asked a group of young adults tonight to think about the worst words even spoken about them. No one can forget painful words directed at us. No one forgets the pain of words that we have longed to hear but never heard like “I love you. I’m proud of you. I’ll never leave you. I forgive you.” Words have the power of life and death. God has come to heal our words. We have been given the power of life and death by the way we use our words. We can give life if we listen and obey the Spirit.

Lastly, I am struck by how the Spirit wants to use us to raise questions. What if our church caused the non-Christian to ask, “Could this really be true?” Revolutions have started with questions like the One Campaign: “Should where you live determine if you live?” Jesus was an expert in asking questions.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit wants to do a whole new thing with our language:

Bringing diverse groups together to worship and glorify God

Healing our words so that relationship can be mended and we can be made whole.

Eliciting spiritual curiosity from non-believers: “What does this mean?”

May God’s Spirit send you out this week with healing in your words.

 

Overlooked patriots

I see myself as a missionary to downtown Los Angeles in my role as pastor of Union Church in Little Tokyo. With a missionary mindset I am seeking to hear the stories of the church community and surrounding neighborhood. Myself not being of Japanese descent (I am a third/fourth generation Chinese-American), I am just beginning to learn of the stories of the people who have built and sustained Union Church for nearly a century. I am working to listen to the stories of the people and the ways the church has impacted the neighborhood in big and small ways as an extension of their call to serve Christ.

On a recent waking tour of Little Tokyo I was reminded of the numerous contributions the Japanese Americans made not only to downtown L.A. but to the greater Los Angeles area and throughout California. Their contributions have had national and international impact as well as the following story of the 442nd Battalion demonstrates.

 

My friend Steve Yamaguchi summarizes the story well:

“This is the Story of the Rescue of the “Lost Battalion” — a group of 260 National Guardsmen from Texas, how they were trapped, surrounded by ferocious German troops in the Vosges Mountains in France, and how they were saved in October of 1944.

Every effort to rescue them had failed, so the tenacious and accomplished 442nd infantry (all Japanese American volunteer soldiers) was ordered to liberate the Lost Battalion. In spite of seemingly impossible odds, the 442nd broke through the lethal German firestorm and liberated the Lost Battalion. 211 of the 260 Texas guardsmen were saved. Of the 442nd infantry, 216 gave their lives and 856 more were wounded while liberating their Texan fellow soldiers.”

These brave and highly decorated Japanese Americans volunteered to serve even though many of their own American-born families were being held in internment camps. Though treated in many ways as non-Americans and enemies of the U.S., they were determined to prove their loyalty to the country they were born in (yes, all of the 442nd were American born) even as their government took away their rights, their property and their dignity during this disappointing chapter in American history.

As Americans celebrate Independence Day, I want to encourage people to remember the story of the 442nd Battalion. It forces us to reject the opposite poles of romanticizing the U.S. as the world’s savior or demonizing the U.S. as the world’s oppressor. Though many of you may have already heard this story, I find that most Americans are largely unaware of the incredible sacrifices these Americans made in serving our country in World War II and the immense confrontation they faced of serving their country even though they themselves were treated as enemies before, during and even after the war. I’ll spare you from theologizing too much but I think there’s a story about Jesus somewhere in here. The amazing thing is that this story actually connects to the neighborhood I work in now. What redemptive stories are in the communities where you work, live, shop and play? As I watch fireworks this weekend, these Americans are some of the faces I want to remember as I thank God for the freedom we experience in this nation.

Do you live in a least-churched city?

This is one of the reasons why I’m in L.A. trying to develop a multi-generational, multi-ethnic and multi-socio-economic church in the heart of downtown.

Some statistics from DJ Chuang

Downtown L.A. in particular has grown so much (27,000 new residents since 2000 and conservatively estimating another 10,000 in the next 10 years), that you’d need 20 more churches of 300 persons each just to keep up with population growth! Yet there aren’t nearly enough churches in downtown L.A. to reach the growing and existing population. We need more gospel-centered churches to join us.

By 2050 nearly 67% of the world will live in a city, so cities–not suburbs–are where people are moving to. This is not only a global trend but is happening in North America as well. Young people in particular are moving to downtown urban centers in major cities in the U.S.

We need churches wherever people are, including suburbs, but because people live so densely in cities the need for new and/or revitalized churches in cities is of the utmost importance.

Is the city you live in one of the least-churched? Does your church commit resources to helping plant and/or renew churches? Ask your pastor what his/her vision is for reaching younger generations who are choosing to live in least-churched cities and downtown city-centers. Find out what percentage of people go to church in the city you live in and what churches are actively reaching out to the unchurched and de-churched.

 

 

 

What nickname would you have if you were remembered for your worst moment?

I was sharing last Sunday from John 20 where the disciple Thomas gets his famous nickname “Doubting Thomas.” How would you like it if you were remembered in infamy for your worst moment? Drunken Doug. Arrogant Andy. Cheater Chuck. Strike-out Sam. Walk-of-Shame Sandy. You get the picture. Some of you still mourn that you can’t shake a certain reputation no matter how hard you’ve tried to undo it.

I’m glad that I’m not remembered for my worst and weakest moment. I would be known as Suicidal Tim. It was period in my teens when I felt like I couldn’t match up to the crushing expectations I had for myself. For two years I actually spent each morning sad that I had woken up because I wish I had died in my sleep. I was that depressed. I should have reached out for help but I was able to hide my depression well enough that I had none of the normal signs. It was a horrible two years of my life trapped in this depression that I had no idea how to talk about or find a way out. Thank God that He literally intervened and brought me out of this self-absorbed obsession with trying to make myself feel valued by adding external things to my life. I realized that only God can satisfy my deepest need for purpose in this life and my hope for a better world. I’m so glad that I’m not remembered as Suicidal Tim. What would your nickname be if you were remembered for your worst moment?

But poor Thomas. He will be known forever as Doubting Thomas. This is totally unfair since Thomas boldly travelled  to India to share the gospel and was martyred for his commitment to proclaiming Jesus as Lord of all. In fact many seem to overlook that Thomas’ doubt was quickly erased once he saw Jesus in that room where he immediately proclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Thomas was one of the first people to rightly identify Jesus as “God” and not merely a prophet or teacher or even a messiah of some kind. Thomas has wrongly been remembered as Doubting Thomas so I hope I can do my part to undo his reputation. We all get a new start once we encounter Jesus, don’t you think?

What nickname would you have if you were remembered for your worst moment? In Christ we are offered a new identity as God’s adopted children, friends of God, ambassadors for Christ and many other wonderful realities that I feel like I’m only beginning to live into. Spend time with Jesus this week and get to know the real you instead of allowing others to define you by your worst moments–or even your best moments, too! We should never allow ourselves to find our identity in the things we do but in who we are in Christ. Never allow the worst moments or best moments define you and be free from finding your value in external things which change and fade. Find your nickname in Christ because He thinks the world of you and died so that you could reclaim your eternal significance that He created you for.

But I also admire Thomas for the very questions he seemed to be asking. I’m glad that Thomas is a thinking person. I’m glad that Thomas demanded some evidence before he would be willing to believe. I think people should have a healthy skepticism when coming to matters of faith. In fact, even those who doubt Jesus’ claims as God in the flesh actually are espousing a kind of faith. We all have faith in some way and what differs is what we put our faith in.

 

 

7-11 Principle (Part 5)

In Part 4 of the 7-11 Principle I highlighted the challenge it is for American Christians in general to be sharers instead of plunderers. Followers of the 7-11 Principle seek the prosperity of their city first before seeking the prosperity of themselves–modeling God’s perfect love which always overflows toward others.

In this post I want to spend a little time talking about what prosperity means in the biblical text and what that might look like to apply it to our everyday lives.

The word translated “prosperity” in Jeremiah 29:7 and 11 is simply the Hebrew word shalom. This word is a rich word that means far more than “an absence of war” but a complete life where in every aspect of life things are good. Tim Keller’s sermons have influenced me greatly related to this idea of shalom and his thoughts are captured in his book Generous Justice from which I will paraphrase.

The Hebrew mind would have seen all of God’s creation as a great tapestry that has been skillfully woven together. Thus the state of shalom is nothing less than the flourishing of life relationally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. With this in mind then as sin entered the human race through rebellion against God in Genesis 3, we have the great unravelling of God’s good tapestry. Relationships are marked by blame and violence. Physically human beings now experience hardship, sickness and ultimately death. Emotionally we now feel guilt and shame because we can’t live up to our own expectations and fail to do what is right. Spiritually we are separated from God and seek self-salvation through legalism/religion or liberalism/irreligion. Lack of shalom is the great tearing apart of the fabric of life as it was meant to be.

With these thoughts in mind reading Jeremiah 29 has a richness that I think is significant. When God promises that He has plans to “prosper” you this is a comprehensive kind of peace He is bringing. God is promising a quality of relationships, emotional well-being, physical sustenance and spiritual intimacy that cannot be attained on our own. I’m not saying God is promising to heal every sickness or guarantee financial security, but He is promising to weave back together your life. But the 7-11 Principle holds here still. This promise of shalom is for those who are committed to seeking this same shalom for the city in which they live. God blesses those who seek to weave back together the torn apart fabric in their cities, neighborhoods and communities.

This might mean that in Christ’s name you start a tutoring center in an underserved neighborhood. Perhaps you would start getting to know neighbors and invite them over for dinner in order to make your apartment complex a more welcoming place. A group might use their artistic skills to renovate a building. Business leaders make sure they pay fare wages while still remaining profitable. Church leaders stand alongside the disenfranchised in order to change policies that are unjust. Art is created that promotes reconciliation instead of violence and sensuality. Bringing shalom to your city could look like a million different things but it always seeks to weave back together something that was torn apart.

In many ways this is living out the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” Is there poverty in God’s presence? Is there racism or greed? Do kids go hungry? Is there disease in heaven? Bringing God’s shalom to our cities looks like a foretaste of God’s kingdom that He will establish on earth when Jesus returns.

As you look around your city, where are the torn pieces of fabric? What might God want you or your church to respond to? Do you have a community you can do some prayerful imagination with?

Easter reminds us that Jesus took the cross to take the blame for our sin so that He could give us His shalom. He allows Himself to be torn apart so that we could be woven back together. His resurrection is the beginning of the undoing of the chaos that sin brought into God’s good world. His ascension marked the beginning of His body, the Church, continuing His restoration project on earth until He returns. The Church is to bring God’s shalom into every area of life we can imagine. This includes people recognizing their torn apart lives caused by sin and submitting themselves to the only true Lord who can piece their broken lives back together. But it also means more than this because Christ’s shalom never stops with an individual but overflows through a person to others. What a privilege to be part of the weaving back together of God’s good creation.

May we live out the 7-11 Principle this Easter as a demonstration that He truly is risen, sharing God’s shalom with our cities and neighbors as we weave back together torn apart places.

 

Vision for downtown LA and cities (Part 2)

In one of my first posts I gave an overview of the need for churches to be planted and renewed in the major cities of the world and particularly in downtown L.A. Not only did the 2010 census estimate at least 15,000 new residents moving to downtown L.A. between 2000-2010, church planters and pastors I’m talking with think it’s conservative to estimate another 15,000 residents coming in the next 10 years. Just to keep up with population growth, we would need 30 new churches of 200 people each! Only a handful have started and I’m excited that Union Church is seeking to reach the diverse neighborhoods of downtown L.A. as it starts new ministries and continues the faithful presence it has had in Little Tokyo and throughout Southern California.

As I talk with church planting networks in Southern California, the East Coast and Northern California, everyone agrees that downtown L.A. is a strategic area that needs more churches to consider some kind of investment to build Christian communities in the various neighborhoods here. The need is for gospel-centered churches to work together to bring shalom to downtown L.A.

I have personally been so encouraged over the past few Sundays as I have begun my new role as pastor of Union Church of Los Angeles. I’ve met several visitors who are already calling Union Church their new home, getting connected and beginning to serve. They love that the church has nearly a 100-year history of sharing the gospel to its neighbors downtown and throughout Los Angeles. They enjoy seeing a diverse community of different races, backgrounds, ages and stages of life worshiping together. If you visit you’ll see blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos. There are several inter-racial couples as well. You’ll see 20-year-olds and 70-year-olds. Some are single and some are married. A few kids will be running around. We have college students, grad students and working professionals. Some are coming from the high-rise lofts and some come from Skid Row. We have committed Christians and those just checking out what it means to follow Jesus. The one thing we have in common is that each one of us is a fallen human who needs to rediscover that we are the song of God. It’s a beautiful picture of what the kingdom of God in its fullness will look like when Jesus returns to establish the New Jerusalem on earth (Revelation 21:1-2).

As we build this new community we are learning what it looks like to love another out of our common identity as God’s creation in need of the grace that comes through Christ alone. The Holy Spirit empowers us to be a movement in the city and in the world. We hope you’ll join us!

7-11 Principle (Part 4)

In my last post I said Jeremiah 29:11 promises that God has plans to prosper you but that must be understood as intricately linked by the preceding command in verse 7 to “seek the prosperity of the city” that they were exiled in. So before we start memorizing Jeremiah 29:11 as a mantra for personal comfort in a chaotic world we should recognize that the promise comes with an assumption of our outward-focused positive engagement with the cities, neighborhoods and communities that God has placed us in. This is the essence of the 7-11 Principle: “You don’t get 11 without first doing 7.” God is assuming you are committed to bless whatever Babylon He has placed you in (that could be in the suburbs, downtown city-centers or rural countryside) and that you understand your prosperity is directly linked to your commitment to seeing the prosperity of your city as a Christ-follower.

The 7-11 Principle highlights the challenge for Western Christians who have been placated by the myriad of churches that have sincerely worked hard to meet spiritual needs and keep people interested in spiritual things.  Even the best of our churches feel this tension each week as we recognize if the music is off or the preaching isn’t passionate enough or the parking is too difficult or the children’s ministry isn’t captivating enough or the hospitality team was too “in your face”…that we might lose a significant amount of parishioners to another church nearby that does one or all of these things better. It’s not a secret that the for the vast majority of churches, 80-90% of “growth” is via church transfer and not from reaching those who are unchurched.

As I think about how to help people (including myself) engage with the 7-11 Principle on a daily basis, I think we must confront the reality that many of us Christians are better at plundering our cities (to borrow a Tim Keller term) as consumers rather than prospering them as kingdom-minded Christians.

God commands us to “Seek the welfare of the city” but we love to plunder instead of share. What do I mean? Jeremiah 29:5-6 says:

5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.

Too many Christians read verses 5 and 6 and stop there. Jeremiah is describing the good life: building homes, starting families, eating good food, having parties…isn’t this why we choose to live in certain places over others? If we have the choice, we live in the city we do in order to get all we can from it. You might have chosen your city because of its weather, proximity to work, closeness to friends and family or the lifestyle. We choose the places we live for the good life. But Jeremiah forces us to ask: How many of us are here to make our city a better place to live for everybody else so that people will see God’s goodness? We too quickly stop reading at verses 5 & 6 which talk about our own prosperity when verse 7 tells us that the means of this is first seeking the prosperity of others. Did you notice that the Bible commands us to “Seek the prosperity of the city” instead of seeking the prosperity of ourselves, our families or our pocketbooks? God is a sharer not a plunderer. To paraphrase John Piper: “God’s love is a conduit, not a cul-de-sac.  Perfect love always shares. Perfect love always overflows.”

Do you love your city like God calls you to or is your natural inclination to plunder it? God promises that if you’ll seek the prosperity of the city, you’ll prosper as well.

I have a friend who passed away last year. He owned a manufacturing company but had spent the last several years focusing on improving the lives of the poor around the world through business mentoring and supporting indigenous Christian leaders. He sought prosperity of others before himself. But what most people don’t know was that he had the same commitment to help others in the very community his business was located in Southern California. He was committed to seek the prosperity of the city that he lived and worked in.

He made sure his company was profitable and running efficiently so that his workers could have jobs. He helped employees rise within the company so they could gain confidence and build a better life for their families. At his funeral I saw dozens of his workers who all could share stories of how they personally experienced him as their boss seeking their best just like he did for people in Africa and Asia. He truly lived out the 7-11 Principle. He lived as a sharer, not a plunderer. He sought the prosperity of his city.

God does not command us to seek the prosperity of ourselves or even our own families…but of the city, the community, our neighbors. Why? Because in seeking the prosperity of our city we reflect the heart of God. God is sharer of His goodness. And guess what? Jeremiah says that the prosperity of the city is directly linked to your own prosperity.

Pastor Tim Keller comments on our call to live out Jeremiah 29: “The most powerful way to show people the truth of Christianity is to serve the common good. The monks in the Middle Ages moved out through pagan Europe, inventing and establishing academies, universities, and hospitals. They transformed local economies and cared for the weak through these new institutions. They didn’t set out to ‘get control’ of a pagan culture. They let the gospel change how they did their work and that meant they worked for others rather than for themselves. Christians today should be aiming for the same thing.”

Unfortunately, many Christian leaders (again including myself) have been distracted from helping people seek the prosperity of their city because we have kept congregants busy with church programs and events meant to keep them interested and engaged–often on our expensive church campuses. We have spent far too many resources in a viscous cycle of trying to be cool and relevant and do whatever it takes to keep people interested in a media-saturated world that has produced droves of neighbors with small attention spans and even smaller tolerance levels of anything uninteresting. In the midst of this very real challenge, I want to take small steps today to seek the prosperity of the city God has placed me in and find myself in the middle of God’s plan of prospering my family with a life infused with God’s goodness. I want to live out the 7-11 Principle today by allowing Christ to subdue the plunderer in me and release the sharer that God has meant for me to be. It’s the only day God has given me so I’ll spend my time prayerfully asking God to show me where to take my next step today.

In my next post I’ll take a deeper look into what prosperity means in the biblical text and applying it to our everyday lives.

The 7-11 Principle (Part 3)

In my last post I talked about how the exiles in Babylon were likely hearing two divergent invitations as to how to live in the city they were held captive in. Should they succumb to the pagan culture and become like the Babylonians to survive or separate themselves from Babylonian ways and trust Yahweh to deliver them like some prophets were saying (false ones according to Jeremiah)? The prophet Jeremiah offers a third way in chapter 29: Be faithful to Yahweh by seeking the welfare and prosperity of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7).

Jeremiah instructs the exiles in verses 5 & 6 to build houses, settle down, invest in the economy and grow families. He then tells them in verse 7 to pray for Babylon and that their prosperity is directly tied to Babylon’s prosperity. If Babylon prospers, they will prosper as well.

This is all very important to understand before we decide to memorize and apply verse 11 to our own lives in the specific contexts in which we live:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)

Verse 11 must be read within the context of verse 7. The prosperity promised to God’s people in verse 11 is all part of God’s plan to use a 70 year captivity in order to bring prosperity, hope and a future about. Yahweh has already said that any prosperity that will come to them will be directly tied to them seeking the prosperity of the city (not of themselves).

So this is where the 7-11 Principle comes in: “You don’t get 11 without first doing 7.”

You don’t get God’s plan to prosper you outside of you being committed to seeking the prosperity of the city, your neighborhood and community. God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t a verse intended for personal improvement or self-actualization. God’s promise is to a faith community committed to seeking the prosperity of their city as their primary mission.

The problem is that most of us Americans are better at plundering our cities (to borrow a Tim Keller term) as consumers rather than prospering them as kingdom-minded Christians. I’ll talk about that in my next post.