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Retreat & Conversation for Pastors, Priests, and Worship Leaders



Hello pastor, priest, and worship leader friends…

If you are exploring the intersection of ancient practices with the modern world, please join us.
If you desire to live unforced rhythms of Grace and invite your church to do the same, please join us.
If you often feel alone on this journey and long to meet others asking similar questions, please join us.

On February 14-16, The Practice Team, Fr Michael Sparough SJ, and Jonathan Martin are hosting a small retreat & conversation for pastors, priests, and worship leaders who don’t just want to exhaust themselves building church programs, but who deeply desire to learn how to align their lives and communities with the eternal, redemptive rhythms of God. We’ll practice together (guided masterfully in a half day retreat by Fr Michael Sparough SJ), engage meaningful conversation (lead by The Practice Team), gather around the communion table (pastored by Jonathan Martin), and spend all of Tuesday morning dreaming about how to tangibly invite our church communities into these unforced rhythms of Grace.

The Story, Details, and Registration

Finally, if you need any more motivation, Chicago is BEAUTIFUL in February. (That is a lie.)

Grace and peace to you all,


Four Free Advent liturgies

Filed under: A New Liturgy,church — 4:01 pm

A couple years ago, the Willow Creek worship leaders all got together to record four Advent liturgies for our church. The eight of us wanted to offer simple recordings to help people create holy space in their cars or homes during this very busy season. Maybe you need this holy space too. Available for free download right now on Noisetrade…




Too much Bono in the church?

Filed under: church,Discipleship,music,worship — 9:30 am

About ten years ago, I wrote a piece called “Everything I Know about Worship Leading I Learned from an Irish Rock Star“.  But after seeing U2 last week in Chicago, I no longer agree with what I wrote. Let me explain…

The concert was incredible. I’ve seen U2 over a dozen times, and the first half of last week’s show was one of my favorite performances yet. (The second half felt a little tired.)  Bono’s voice was in top form, and the journey they took us on was powerfully stunning. I loved it and am already looking forward to their next tour.

U2 Chicago 07.02.15

U2 – Chicago 07.02.15

But as I marveled at Bono’s ability to create such an epic worship experience, it occurred to me that this anthemic, euphoric, cathartic, euphoria is the perfect model for a traveling rock show, but a potentially unhelpful model for weekly church. And yet so many worship leaders–myself included–have been trying to emulate this mountaintop experience every Sunday morning for years: “Did people lift their hands in the air? Did they sing loudly? Did they have a deeply authentic emotional experience?”  These questions, learned from traveling rock stars, have come to define so much of the current Christian worship culture.

Why might this be a problem?

Disney World is a wonderful place to visit, but would be a strange place to live. And an extravagant, 12 course meal is great for an anniversary celebration, but would be impossible to replicate every night.
In the same way, I’m becoming convinced that the rock concert worship event is wonderful in small doses, but dangerous when it becomes normative. A few reflections…

First, mountaintop experiences are not the entirety of the Christian life. And if our worship mis-communicates that this is what everyone should be feeling all the time, we do a huge disservice to people who are currently in the valley or will be in the valley…which is everyone. There’s a reason the Psalms include celebration, lament, anger, joy, dancing, and doubt.

Second, a steady diet of rock concert worship doesn’t teach us how to engage 99.9% of real life, which is not spectacular or very entertaining, and often involves quiet, awkwardness, and less-than-spectacular people. Reality is gloriously diverse. A worship culture that doesn’t equip and propel us to find God in every moment of life is not a gift…and much too narrow to form well-balanced people.

Third, a pressure to be spectacular can be crushing to worship leaders, pastors, and everyone involved. Every Sunday can’t be the Super Bowl. And trying to create epic experiences every week often leads to burnout (everything needs to be bigger and better than last week) and eventual disappointment (no church has the resources of U2).  Check out Ian Cron’s words about this.

Fourth, if left unchecked, this form of worship can form shallow worshipers–because always getting what we want, like, and enjoy has unintended consequences that can keep us from certain depths. We often learn best when outside of our comfort zone. Furthermore, God often speaks in a whisper, and constant over-stimulation can actually distract us from what God is trying to say and do in the moment. Sometimes a simple and quiet space is the biggest gift we can offer.

U2 live

U2 live

So can worship leaders learn from Bono? Absolutely! We have SO much to learn from him that will benefit the church and world. But let’s also learn from poets and parish priests, therapists and theologians, praying grandparents and passionate 2nd grade teachers, spiritual directors and singers of the old spirituals. The Kingdom of God is infinitely high and wide and near and deep and mysterious and closer than the air we breathe. May our worship help us to humbly embrace it all.

Grace and peace,


Why Everyone Should go to Praxis

Filed under: church,God's movement,The Practice — 8:33 am

Last year, my absolute favorite event of the year was The Praxis Conference.  Along with getting stretched (by learning from brilliant voices) and inspired (by meeting some fascinating people), those three days in Tulsa were deeply moving. Here’s why:  They showed me that I wasn’t alone.  In fact, I met people from all over the country and world who were asking and struggling with similar questions.  I can’t begin to tell you how moving and healing it was.

In exactly a month, Praxis is meeting again in Houston, and you should join us.  If you’re interested in the intersection of liturgy and the contemporary church, you should join us.  If you believe that the future of Christianity must be ecumenical rather than ghettoed, you should join us.  If you are an Evangelical and believe our tradition is wonderful but a bit too thin, you should join us.  If you love the music of The Brilliance, you should join us.

I can’t wait to attend and learn as much as possible.  And I’m really looking forward to participating. (Father Michael and I get to partner in a couple of sessions.)  Take a moment to look through the “What is Praxis?” page and check out the themes and speakers.  They are packing a ton of goodness into two days.

See you there?


This Week Only: Streaming Video for Free

Filed under: A New Liturgy,church,The Practice — 8:36 am
Fr Michael and Aaron

Fr Michael and Aaron

For this week only, we are streaming a 12 minute video interview of Fr Michael and me for free at Act3 Network.  I respect Fr Michael a ton, and we really enjoyed this conversation about spiritual direction, The Examen, and what happens when a Jesuit Priest shows up at Willow Creek Church.  Check it out…

Watch Video on Act3 Blog

Beyond the video, I am thrilled to introduce you to John Armstrong and his Act 3 Network.  For the last 30+ years, John has been a leading voice of mission-ecumenism:  the idea that unity among the whole church is central to spreading Christ’s kingdom to the ends of the earth.  I’ve honestly never met anyone doing more to intelligently and humbly build a bridge between Protestants and Catholics, and I’ve learned so much from him.  John is the real deal and has paid a huge personal price for giving his life to this work.

If you’re interested (and I really hope you are!), here are three ways to explore and learn more…

(1) Explore the Act3 Network website.  They tell the story and share great resources.

(2) Last week, ABC ran this story about John and Act 3. (They even included a couple clips of me. Ha!)  Here’s the show…

(3) Read John Armstrong’s incredible book: “Your Church is Too Small“.  Why unity in Christian mission is vital to the future of the church.


May we all become bridge-builders today in our thoughts, words, and actions.

Grace and peace,


Three ways to begin exploring Liturgy

Filed under: A New Liturgy,church,worship — 3:56 pm

The traditional church had the form but lost the heart.
The modern church found the heart but lost the form.
Our invitation may be to anchor our hearts in the form,
and join God in the holy tension.

More and more people seem to be exploring the intersection of liturgy and modern Christianity. My evangelical friends often love the energy of our tradition but feel it’s a little too thin. And many of my mainline friends are deeply committed to their roots, but trying to breathe new life into the form.

It’s a really exciting time.

And while there are many people exploring this both/and path, here are three that really inspire me…

Brilliance / Packiam / Common Prayer

Brilliance / Packiam / Common Prayer

(1) The Brilliance. In my opinion, David Gungor and John Arndt are creating the best spiritual music on the planet right now. Their honest, beautiful, raw, and haunting albums provide a powerful soundtrack for Lent, Advent, and every season of life. Check out their newest project – “Brother” – which comes out next Tuesday.

(2) Glenn Packiam: Discover The Mystery of Faith.  Any time a worship leader asks me: “So what is liturgy all about? How do I move beyond singing into a more formational approach?”…I recommend Glenn’s book Discover The Mystery of Faith. It’s the most winsome, intelligent, and compelling invitation into this conversation I’ve ever seen. Especially for evangelicals. And his accompanying album The Mystery of Faith fleshes these ideas into powerful songs.

(3) Common Prayer (A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals).  This resource by Shane Claiborne and friends is a freight train of goodness. I’ve used it for my personal prayer many, many times, and it continues to influence how we approach Sunday nights at The Practice. Shane and I even got to lead the Willow Creek Community in one of the liturgies (watch video). Most of all, “Common Prayer” connects our inner prayer life with the outer world…inviting us all, over and over, to become contemplative activists.

What resources would you add to the list?  What are the other resources, artists, thinkers, and authors you have found helpful?


Cutting away everything but the essence

Filed under: church,God's movement — 1:31 pm
old church


My friend Rob used to say that the mark of a great sermon is how much content you leave on the cutting room floor.  So he’d learn as much as possible…and then spend the rest of the week cutting away everything but the very essence of the idea.  Out of this deep knowledge and complexity, he was able to make things profoundly simple and focused.

I wonder if it’s time for the church to do the same thing.

Over the last couple decades, the modern church as become really complicated: programs, services, classes, coffee shops, gymnasiums, and everything in between. It’s all great stuff, of course, but the sheer quantity can overwhelm and make it difficult to distinguish the essence from the extras.

One of my friends recently confessed “I’m not exactly sure why I go to church these days. Mostly out of guilt, I guess.” He went on to explain…

“I can build a case for really ‘high church’ (taking the holy sacraments) and a great case for really ‘low church’ (praying/sharing in a living room), but I can’t figure out why we need all the stuff in between. And my church is ONLY the stuff in between.”


What do you think? Does this resonate with you? What would it look like to trim the church down to its essence? What would we lose…and what could we gain?


To all my pastor friends on Holy Week

Filed under: church,Discipleship,God's movement,leadership — 7:47 am

Hi pastor friends,

It is possible to work so hard helping a community connect with God, that we wind up disconnected from God. I’ve done this many times. And so in the middle of Holy Week – often the craziest time of the year for pastors – may I share these prophetically freeing words from Dallas Willard…

“The easy yoke is to lay aside your projects and mine and to take up God’s projects.  I will say that again.
Taking the easy yoke is to lay aside your projects or my projects, which are crushing…and this is
where leaders come under intolerable pressure. It is because they are carrying their projects; they have presumed to take God’s projects and make them their projects.

“The great temptation is to try to make it happen, whatever it is.  That’s where we need to step out of
our yoke and into Jesus’ yoke and let him carry the burden.  This is true as parents, this is true as pastors,
and in every way.  We feel like we have to make it happen, and that’s what we have to lay down. We don’t make it happen.  We turn it loose.  Whatever we are doing for the Lord, we let him carry through with it.
We do our best, but we don’t trust our best.”

(Dallas Willard, Living in Christ’s Presence)


Getting the tribe together for the first time

Filed under: church,Discipleship,The Practice,worship — 11:11 am
The first night

The first night

As you know, last Sunday was the first gathering of The Practice tribe.  To watch this holy experiment begin to live and breathe in the hearts and bodies of our community was really moving.  To me, as beautiful as it was to pray and worship and practice a “divine reading” of the scriptures together, the absolute highlight was communion. Wow. I can’t stop thinking about it and can’t wait for this coming Sunday.

Our prayer is that after 18 months, every one of us would have a Vision, a Practice, and a Tribe…

•A Vision of the Kingdom of God – the redemptive Movement of God on this earth and
His invitation for each of us to join Him.
•A set of Practices, or rule of life, that help us daily align with God’s Movement
•A Tribe of people who are walking and practicing together in Jesus name.

Vision / Practice / Tribe

To learn more and be a part of this journey, please visit us at PRACTICETRIBE.COM.

Every Monday morning, we will post the week’s Kingdom Practice on our blog. We believe that gathering
on Sunday nights is only helpful if it launches us to PRACTICE the way of Jesus for the rest of our week.
Sunday night is not the main event, but simply a springboard into where the actual
holy work happens: Our real lives.

So please practice with us!  This first week we’re diving into the ancient practice of Lectio Divina.  On our blog, you’ll find a short explanation, some simple coaching, and the specific texts we’ll all be engaging.  You don’t need to attend with us in order to practice with us.

Let’s learn the unforced rhythms of Grace.


Asking different questions

Filed under: church — 4:11 pm
Moody Radio

During broadcast

Yesterday I had the fun of getting to dream about the future with my friend Skye on Moody Radio.  The title of the segment was “Rethinking Church”, and we got to share a few hopes for what the church could become – both inside and outside of it’s walls.

You can listen to the whole thing HERE.

During the interview, I realized that there was one idea beneath everything I was trying to say:  In order to change anything,
we must ask new questions.
 Beginning with the same question will always lead to the same core result, even if we update the packaging. Like trying to pour new wine into old skins.

For example, if my question as a worship leader is “How do I get the church pumped up during worship?”, then the correct answer will never be “corporate confession”.  Right?  But how can a worship community become fully healthy if we don’t include confession on occasion?

So I’m discovering that a more helpful question can be “What are the worship practices that we can do over the course of a year to form our community in Christlikeness?”  Or “How do I offer a well-balanced meal?”  These kinds of questions can help us get at the heart of what we’re all trying to do (help people follow Christ in a deeper way), rather than paint us into a corner.  I can’t tell you how much clarity and freedom has come from discovering new questions to ask.

Friends, what are the questions that drive you?  What are the questions that frame your decisions?
And then…Are these the questions that will lead to the future you imagine or desire?

What might it look like to ask different questions?


My new job

Filed under: church,God's movement,willow — 10:50 am

Hey friends.  In terms of vocation, the last couple years have been a tumultuously beautiful journey.
Great moments of pain and great moments of blessing – often in the same day.  But through God’s mercy,
the last few months have brought incredible clarity and a brand new adventure.

No, it’s not my life-long ambition to become a Chippendale’s dancer.  That dream will just have to wait.
But instead…

We are starting an experimental community at Willow Creek called The Practice: Learning the
Unforced Rhythms of Grace.  We aim to be a discipleship-focused, formation-oriented, practice-based tribe
asking two simple questions:  (1) What is the Life that Christ invites us into? and (2) What are the 
we can do, together and on our own, to embrace this Eternal Life now?  Or said simply:
What is God doing and how can we join Him?

That’s it.

We’ll gather on most Sunday nights in the Willow chapel to explore this together.

Friends, I haven’t been this excited or hopeful in years.  This is the kind of work I was made for.
But more than vocation, this is the kind of tribe I desperately need to be a part of.  I need them.

Here are a couple foundations we’ll be building on…

(1) The Kingdom.  Jesus has invited every one of us to join God in healing and redeeming this
world.  Through the scriptures, story, and worship, we want to align ourselves with this good work.
(2) Equipping.  According to Eph 4, the church exists to equip the people for ministry.  Sunday
night is not the main event, but a training ground to be God’s hands and feet in our world.
(3) Practice-based. More of a spiritual gymnasium than classroom. The focus is on the practices and disciplines that form us into Christlikeness.
(4) Ecumenical. Relentlessly committed to humbly learning from other Christian traditions and practices.
(5) Eucharistic. Every gathering will culminate with communion to weekly anchor us in Christ’s death, resurrection, and promos of return.

Over the next few weeks and months, our little tribe will begin fleshing out these pillars.  Please pray for us!
Please pray that God would give us supernatural Wisdom, strength beyond ourselves, and deep humility.
Please pray that God would pull us into His Revolution in ways we never could have imagined.

And if you live in the Chicago area, we’d love for you to join us. (Sign up to our email list to learn more.)  We don’t have it all figured out…in fact…we don’t have almost anything figured out! But we are throwing ourselves into this adventure and can’t wait to see what God does.

Grace and peace,



The Next Right Step

Filed under: church,Discipleship,God's movement — 2:38 pm

The last minute of this video is stunning in it’s simplicity and beauty.  (Starting at 4:57)

Apparently someone asked Dallas Willard “If a person wants to grow spiritually, where should they start? Read the bible? Go to church?”

Dallas’ answer was amazing:  “Do the next right thing you know you need to do.”  He explains…

“Doing the next right thing is what God wants you to do.  Now when you try that, you might wind up going to church, because you’re going to need some help.  Nothing will drive you into the Kingdom of God like trying to do the next right thing…because you will need help, and you will get it, because that’s where God is.”

First, I am struck by how much confidence Dallas has in God. He is confident that God is already working to help you know what you need to do. And he is confident that God will always give you the help you need, because that’s where God is.

These are stunning declarations of faith in the Goodness and present Grace of God. I wish I lived with that kind of faith.

Second, it makes me ask the obvious question: “What is the next right thing I know I need to do?” But rather than sharing mine, may I extend the question to you…

What is the next right thing you know you need to do?
And in the next seven days, will you take one step in that direction?

In this together,


Transcend and Include

Filed under: church,God's movement — 12:58 pm

These two words are trying to change my life…if only I would let them.

I’m learning that true growth doesn’t happen by rejecting where we were…but by including it into the next season.  Or said another way, “step four” is not a rejection of steps 1-3, but the inclusion of all four steps.  In fact, you never would have arrived at step four without the gifts of step one, two, and three.

It seems that we face two great temptations:  First, to simply believe everything we were taught and never move beyond it.  Or second, to realize that we were only taught part of the story, and then completely reject that part of the story in favor of something brand new.  But both miss out on the great reality and opportunity of Life.

And so the simple (but incredibly difficult) solution is, in the brilliant Ken Wilber‘s words, to transcend and include.  We can’t stay where we’ve been, but we must honor and embrace the journey that has led and will lead us into a new future.

Let’s get really practical:  Math.  My 7 year old son Henry is currently learning addition and subtraction.  To his mind, these are the only ways to engage numbers.  But soon he will discover multiplication/division and be presented with three options:  (1) Head in the sand:  Ignore the new and be content with the math of his youth.  (2) Reject the old:  Feeling lied to by his addition/subtraction teachers, he could vow to never add again in the name of the revolutionary new multiplication table.  (3) Transcend and Include:  Bring his addition/subtraction skills into a more powerful way of engaging numbers: multiplication.


Or let’s get a little deeper:  Religion.  If we’re honest, it can be very easy to critique the tradition we most recently came out of.  We can find grace for other traditions and religions, but have nothing good to say about our last church.  We left that for good reason…right?!?  But what if the church of your childhood (or the community you just left) is the tradition you needed to bring you to the point where you know you need more?  In that way it has been an incredible gift that will stay with you forever.

My friend Jeff has been doing some of that work.  He recently shared a beautiful reflection on some of the best parts of the Christian tradition he grew up in but has since left:  The Plymouth Brethren.  (Side note:  I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren tradition as well, so this post was especially moving to me.)

These days I’m working really hard to transcend and include in as many ways as possible: faith journey, politics, family patterns, etc. But it’s not easy for me.  My kneejerk is “transcend and reject,” which isn’t transcending at all–just rearranging the chairs.

What about you?

It there anything you’ve been rejecting that might need to be re-embraced into your new, bigger story?

How hard would it be for you to make a list of the best parts of your old church?  Or the biggest strengths of the political party you no longer align yourself with?  Or the best characteristic of a friend you don’t hang with much any more?

May we be people who people who transcend and include.


Why is Discipleship SO important?

Filed under: church,Discipleship,God's movement — 12:55 pm

These are powerful and prophetic words about discipleship and the role of the church in the world.  I think the world of Dave and find this perspective both challenging and inspiring…


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