J.R. Briggs

Attempting to behold the miracle long enough without falling asleep

  • Our sobering, fascinating, harrowing, hopeful visit to Braddock, PA

    August 27, 2014 // 1 Comment

    On our City-A-Year trip we spent half a day in the town of Braddock, PA – a small town about 20 minutes southeast of Pittsburgh.

    My brother sent me a link of an hour-long documentary. The email said, “Dude. Watch this. Just trust me.” The documentary is charmingly quirky, deeply saddening, creatively engaging and incredibly inspiring all at the same time.

    Here’s the link to the documentary “Ready To Work: Portraits of Braddock” – available online for FREE.

    And let me just say this: Dude. Watch this. Just trust me. It’s totally worth an hour of your time.

    Braddock Farms

    I won’t give you the entire history of the town, but during the boom of the steel industry and the significant investment of Andrew Carnegie, Braddock was the happening place to be.

    Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill and first Carnegie library was built it Braddock. But when the steel mill (which employed tens of thousands of employees) was shut down in the 80′s, the town fell off the cliff. And it’s been that way ever since.

    In fact, John Fetterman, Braddock’s mayor, has said that 90% of the original Braddock is in a landfill. Much of the remaining 10% is in disrepair. It reminds me of a little Detroit.

    You can watch two TEDx talks by the mayor of Braddock which I highly recommend here and here.  Also, check out the Braddock website here. 

    But a group of community leaders is committed to bringing Braddock back – maybe not to where it once was, but at least to a place of respectability. The mayor has worked hard to secure grants and the library has been saved from the wrecking ball by some devoted leaders.

    Other leaders have encouraged the arts, created jobs, built parks, opened a free store and a funky art gallery, started an urban farm in the shadows of the last remaining steel mill in Allegheny County and lured a high-end restaurant called Superior Motors to open some time next year (the first restaurant Braddock will have had in town in years). It has to have its own Kickstarter campaign because no bank would back such a financially risky endeavor.  (Doesn’t stuff like that just make you want to root for the success of a town like Braddock??)

    We knew we just had to visit Braddock where we were in Pittsburgh.

    We visited with urban farmer Marshall Hart at Braddock Farms (first time I’ve ever visited an urban farm).

    Vicki (the executive director) gave us a tour and told us stories of the Carnegie Library, including the indoor swimming pool (the first of its kind in the area when it was built) and the old gym.

    We bought produce from Lou and Walt at Bell’s Market.

    Marshall, Vicki, Lou and Walt were all featured in the documentary.

    We also visited Ink Division, a great screen printing shop in town. We stopped by New Guild Studio, an art studio run by a couple who makes beautiful Byzantine religious art for churches all over the U.S. and Canada. 

    We even toured an abandoned church building – where the floor has collapsed and absolutely everything (the pulpit, the pews, the stained glass windows – even the hymnals and Bibles in the pews and the Sunday school materials on the shelves) were left inside. It looked like something from a zombie apocalypse movie. It was the most eerie and the most significant ten minutes of my entire trip to Pittsburgh. 

    Braddock church 2

    Below is a panoramic picture I took on a street corner. There are five – count ‘em, five – churches at this intersection and four of them are abandoned and shuttered. (Click to enlarge).

    Braddock church 3

    We loved hearing the stories of people committed to Braddock.

    I couldn’t help but think:

    • If I were the mayor of a community in such dire straights, what would I do? With the problems seemingly insurmountable, where would I start?
    • And as a pastor, I can’t help but think: where are the churches in all this? What presence do they play, not just in Sunday morning services, but in seeing this city reborn and its people given true hope?
    • Imagine if I cared for my city so much that I got a tattoo of the date when someone was murdered in my community – like the mayor has on his arms, which he talked about in the documentary.
    • Imagine if a church planter came in to Braddock but just served, loved and listened to the people for the first 2 years before even attempting to have a service.
    • Imagine if a group of friends decided to move in to Braddock – not to use it, but to serve it – in order to live, work and make a life there with the intent to bring about good kingdom mischief over the next few decades.

    My mind was spinning and my heart was racing. And it still is.

    If you ever visit Pittsburgh, make sure you visit Braddock. It will mess with you in all the good and uncomfortable ways. 

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  • The 3rd Annual Briggs City-A-Year Trip: Pittsburgh

    August 26, 2014 // 0 Comments

    Incline

    For the past three years, my dad, brother and I have participated in the Briggs City-A-Year trip. It’s quickly become one of our favorite traditions. Since my parents live in Phoenix, my brother and his family live in Colorado and I live in the Philadelphia area, we don’t get much quality time together in a calendar year. So we’re a bit purposeful about our time together.

    With City-A-Year we carve our three days during the third week of August.

    We pick a “B level” city somewhere in the country (e.g. San Antonio, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Memphis, Salt Lake City, Kansas City, St. Louis, etc).

    And because of our love of the great game of baseball, the city must have a major or minor league baseball team that’s playing at home during our trip.

    PNC Park

    We explore the cultural elements of the city in various forms (bike, Segway, canoe, the Metro, kayak, cable car, etc). We have lingering talks in local coffee shops, uninterrupted conversations in cool diners and lengthy discussions in our hotel room.

    We eat at local eateries and hole-in-the-wall joints.

     

    We do research on the city (watch a documentary or read a book about its history) ahead of time.

    We try to make lasting memories while doing all we can to avoid the “touristy” things. We try to get the real experience, doing our research ahead of time to get the insider’s scoop on the place.

    Three years ago was Indianapolis. Last year was Charleston, SC. And this year was Pittsburgh.

    Kayaking PGH

    We saw the Pirates win in dramatic walk-off fashion against the Braves at PNC Park (which ties for my favorite ballpark in the country).

    We ate the most amazing hotcakes at Pamela’s, explored the Strip District, visited an old decommissioned Catholic church that has been turned into an incredible brewery, did some urban kayaking through the three rivers right past the high rise buildings downtown and under the bridges and ate a very “unique” sandwich at Primanti Brothers.

    We biked for at least 20 miles along the river fronts and around the city.

     

    We even drove two hours to Cleveland to watch the Indians play the Astros at Progressive Field. (Dollar Dog Night and post-game fireworks are a nice bonus).

    We also narrowed down the list of the final three cities we will go for City-A-Year next year (Austin TX, Boise ID and Portland, ME).

    Church Brew Works

    Needless to say, we had a blast. And Pittsburgh was way cooler than we imagined.

    If we want to see more of our adventures, check out the hashtag #briggscityayear on Instagram.

    Mt Washington selfie

    Tomorrow I’ll share about the most impactful half-day of our trip, a visit to a nearby town where 90% of its original buildings are in a landfill. The stalwart resolve of the community leaders was palpable, the sites we saw were sobering and the stories we heard were inspiring.  

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  • Conduct us

    August 21, 2014 // 0 Comments

    Conduct us 2

    Take a moment and watch this fascinating and heartwarming social experiment of an orchestra in Times Square. 

    I wonder what might happen if every church waited with the same readiness and anticipation for the Holy Spirit to step up, take the conductor’s wand and lead.

    Imagine if every church boldly and regularly prayed: “Holy Spirit, conduct us!” 

     

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  • Lies Pastors Believe

    August 19, 2014 // 1 Comment

    lies

    This summer I wrote the following introduction to a piece published by OnFaith:

    “What lies are you tempted to believe in ministry?” Over the past several months, I’ve asked this question to dozens of pastors and Christian leaders. It’s a question that often goes unasked in religious leadership circles, but the resulting conversations have been honest, vulnerable, and revealing. Here are some of the common answers:

    I have a small church, which makes me a bad and ineffective pastor.

    My addiction has no effect on my congregation.

    More speaking opportunities at ministry conferences means I’m a legitimate pastor.

    The size of our buildings, budget, and attendance are the only viable way ministry success can be measured.

    If I pastor better, God will love me more.

    I can please everyone and be faithful to my calling.

    If I preach better, my church will grow.

    My physical health and wellbeing are not spiritual matters.

    I don’t need help.

    I don’t have time to rest.

    God’s grace is big, but it’s not big enough to cover what I’ve done.

    My personal identity is directly related to my ministry performance.

    These answers reveal the dark crawlspaces of the psyche of a pastor. They’re not surprising to me, though — in almost a dozen years of vocational ministry, I’ve been tempted to believe these things, too.”

    There are dozens more lies that are tempting and seemingly credible, even for those in ministry. A big one I often am tempted to believe is this: if I do more ______ then God will love me just a little bit more…

    I’d like to hear from other pastors and ministry leaders: what lies are you tempted to believe in ministry? 

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  • Why I love (and hate) that God takes our shame

    July 31, 2014 // 1 Comment

    shame

    Where is God when we feel ashamed? 

    Shame is one of the most powerful forces in our lives. It is that deep and severe fear of disconnection. The most painful part of shame are those topics nobody knows about: when you were molested as a child. That DUI. That abortion. That one night stand. That mistake you made that you’d give anything to take those few moments back.

     Shame is the terrible fear of being unloveable. Shame normally comes on when we’ve failed. It is the swampland of the soul. Shame says, “I’m not good enough”and “How do you think you are? Interestingly, the Thai word for shame literally means: “to tear one’s face off so they appear ugly before friends and family.” Sometimes shame feels that intense, doesn’t it?

    If shame goes unaddressed it leaves us susceptible to a staph infection of the soul.

    For some of us, the shame has been so deep it has caused psychological damage or trauma in your soul. And when we feel shame we normally respond in three ways:

    1. We go into hiding: we run away, we hide, we cover, we mask, we pretend. It’s nothing new. It’s what Adam and Eve did in the Garden. When sin entered the world, they did what? Covered themselves with fig leaves because of their shame. We do the same. We put on masks, pretend and go into hiding. And we have pretty ornate masks we reach for. One of the most common masks we use in church is uttering the Christian four-letter F-word: “fine.” As in, “How are you?” “I’m fine.” We lie. We refuse to show our true selves.
    2.  We self-medicate: We use humor or alcohol. We spend time playing video games or looking pornography. We eat too much food or hardly any at all. These are often called coping mechanisms.
    3. We deceive ourselves. We are susceptible to the lie, “It’s really not that bad to cope by ______” or “What event that triggered shame now defines me. It’s who I am.” All of these are lies – or at least the truth, plus or minus 10 percent.

    Brene Brown reminds us there is a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt says, “I did something bad,” but shame says, “I am bad.” One is an action and the other is an identity. What’s important to understand is that the more you talk about shame the less you feel it. But the less you talk about it the more you feel it.

    I am grateful that God takes our shame upon himself – but I also hate it. As an American male I tell myself I have to handle it all by myself, to be self-sufficient. But the thing is I can’t. I have to let Him do it. And this is excruciatingly painful.

    I’m reminded of what C.S. Lewis writes in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. A young, stubborn and selfish boy named Eustace finds himself on an island. As it begins to rain, Eustace seeks shelter in a cave and falls asleep. When he wakes up he feels strange and realizes he has turned into a dragon. He is scared and wants to turn back into a boy.

    One evening Eustace hears the lion Aslan’s voice calling out to him saying, “Follow me.”Though as a dragon he could have eaten any lion, he is still afraid. Following Aslan, he finds himself by a pool where he wishes to wash his wounded leg, but Aslan tells him he must first undress. Using his dragon claws, he desperately scratches and claws himself to shed his dragon skin much like a snake sheds its skin. Three times he claws and scrapes in desperation, but each time he notices another layer of hard, rough scales. He realizes he is incapable of fully ridding himself of his scaly skin.

    “You will have to let me undress you,”Aslan tells him.

    Eustace replies,

    I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back and let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. . . . Well, he peels the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobby looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft. . . . Then he caught hold of me . . . and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.

    The good news is this. “Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces.”–Psalm 34:5

    God takes our shame from us and invites us to be honored children of the King.

    The process hurts like hell – but it’s worth it.

    It’s the only way we turn from dragons into children again.

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  • Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure

    July 17, 2014 // 2 Comments

    Fail (FINAL COVER)

    It’s been quite some time since I’ve written new content on the site and there’s one big reason for it: the past year I’ve been working on two book projects with InterVarsity Press. I’m just now coming up for air.

    I’m proud to announce that the first project has been released: Fail: Finding Hope in the Midst of Ministry Failure. Thank you to so many of you for your encouragement, support and help along the way the past several months. I am grateful to work with a great publisher in IVP, whose team has been tremendous to work with.

    Here are a few links about Fail that you may find helpful:

    You can find the book here (or, if you are looking for a great alternative to Amazon, check here).

    And, if you’d like to stay in touch, here’s my Twitter account. 

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  • A great description of our charmingly eccentric Jesus community

    May 8, 2013 // 1 Comment

    Doug Moister, the pastor I have the privilege of serving alongside of in the context of The Renew Community, recently wrote these thoughts for our church’s weekly email. It was such a great summary of our charmingly eccentric Jesus community I thought I’d pass it along:

    “How would you describe Renew?” I am asked this question many times throughout a month as I interact with people inside and outside of the Church and I always begin with this statement: “Renew is unique.”

    We don’t own a building, we gather alternating weeks in the gym of the Lansdale Boys and Girls Club or in homes across the region and we have an intermission in the middle of our gatherings.

    We value stories, communion, giving, prayer, worship, dialogue during the teaching, skeptics, dreamers and children.

    Our one rule is simple: no perfect people allowed.

    We push and remind each other that we are followers of Jesus who have been called to be “missionaries cleverly disguised as neighbors, coworkers, students, employees, business owners, managers, designers, steel workers, chemists, retirees, stay at home parents, IT people, contractors, sales people, healthcare professionals, teachers and family members.”

    We pursue authentic Jesus community which doesn’t mean there are not messes; on the contrary, it is messy but Jesus is in the midst of our messiness.  We are concerned with how people growing and being shaped to be more like Jesus.

    Our Uniqueness says a lot about who we believe God is and how he interacts with us.

    Our gatherings are not a time to come and be entertained, but a time for us to enter into sacred dialogue and conversation with the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures.

    Our house churches enter into authentic community where we are vulnerable with one another and the Lord. Our house churches force us to see church not just as a building or a meeting place with stained glass and a choir but Church as People who are beloved children of God.

    I am blessed to be a part of this unique community!  It continues to challenge and shape the way I think about our relationship as individuals and a community partnered to Jesus and I want to challenge you to think about how what we do shapes the way we think about God…”

    I, too, am blessed to be a part of this unique community and to serve alongside of a great pastor like Doug.

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  • Seeking to be the Home Depot of the Kingdom of God

    May 6, 2013 // 0 Comments

    Every few months I carve out some time to step back and view the entire landscape of what is going on around me.

    Recently I stepped away from the daily flow of traffic and spend time in reflection with a specific focus on the efforts we’ve made with Kairos Partnerships, the initiative we created about 18 months ago. I was incredibly encouraged by the significant ways we’ve been able to walk alongside of pastors, church planters and leaders in various fields, sectors and ministries.

    brandIn many ways, we see our unique contribution to others as the Home Depot (“You can do it. We can help.”) of the Kingdom of God. (Lowe’s tagline works well also: “Never stop improving.“)

    We aren’t the experts or the ones with all the answers, but we have experience and an outside perspective that many leaders need to help navigate their contexts with greater effectiveness and faithfulness through a relational approach that includes training, offering resources and tools and asking probing and incisive questions. 

    It’s a privilege to walk alongside of pastors hungry and eager to grow personally and in their leadership roles. More specifically, I realized we’ve had the privilege of working alongside of great leaders in organizations, schools, non-profits and churches including:

    The Kairos team has had the privilege of working with leaders representing over 30 different denominations through speaking, consulting, training and coaching.

    In addition, we’ve been coaching pastors and leaders in various parts of the country including Pennsylvania, Georgia, Minnesota, Florida, New York, Illinois, Indiana, Delaware, Texas and New Jersey.

    If our team can walk alongside of you – either personally or as an organization, church, school or non-profit – in any way, we would love to talk to you. If we’re Home Depot of the Kingdom, then we’re here to help you with that leaky faucet of ministry conflict, decide which new light fixture to install in your vision or plan for that remodeling job in your organizational structure you’ve been thinking about for a while.

    We also depend upon the generous donations of others who believe in the vision of Kairos Partnerships. If you are interested in knowing more about how you can partner with us financially you can find out more here. 

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  • [7] questions speakers should ask before they open their mouths

    May 2, 2013 // 0 Comments

    mic 2

     

    As a speaker, teacher, presenter or preacher, it’s important we know two things: our material and our audience.

    Nancy Duarte in her fabulous book Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations asks seven poignant questions to know your audience:

    1. What are they like? Understand them on a personal level. 
    2. Why are they here? What motivates them to hear anything you have to say?
    3. What keeps them up at night? What fears or dreams do they have? What issues or problems are they facing?
    4. How can you solve their problem? What’s in it for your audience? How are you going to help them?
    5. What do you want them to do? So what? What’s the clear action when you are done?
    6. How might they resist? What barriers exist that could keep them from adopting your message and carrying it out?
    7. How can you best reach them? What would work best to make this most effective (i.e. room set up, temperature, volume, power points, humor, length of time, visuals, etc)?

     

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  • Debriefing from the Epic Fail Pastors Roundtable in Chicago

    April 30, 2013 // 2 Comments

    On Friday night and Saturday we held another Epic Fail Roundtable event, this time at Northern Seminary in the Chicago area.

    It was a rich time but, as to be expected, when you host a space for wounded and discouraged pastors to talk openly about failure you get a lot of weighty stories emerging to the surface. This event was probably our most diverse group – from staff members of large megachurches to journalists/reporters curious about the event to intrigued pastors who wanted to know more about this unique space to even some repeat attendees from other Epic Fail events.

    And, of course, some pastors who have gone through some failures of epic proportions, including a young pastor with an international preaching ministry who was so broken by his failure about a month ago that he could hardly look anyone in the eyes during the two days. I’m proud of the pastors and leaders who share their stories with courage and authenticity. These spaces truly are sacred because of it. Pastors: thank you. You know who you are.  

    It was excited as we added two new team members to the Epic Fail events team who helped lead throughout the time: Mandy Smith, an Australia-American who pastors in Cincinnati, OH and Adam Gustine, who serves as a catalyst for missional expressions in Mishawaka, IN.

    This topic and these events are incredibly heavy. My wife will tell you I am not myself for about 48 hours after each event, as I carry the stories home with me. It takes two days for the fog to lift again. I’m convinced more than ever that this stuff is needed, its necessary and its assisting in the healing of pastors who need grace and space to hear from Jesus, but it comes at a personal cost. It’s worth it, but man, it’s heavy.

    What sustains is knowing God is in control and there are stories of healing that emerge on the other side of these events.

    If you’re interested in hosting an Epic Fail event in your context (either one day, two days or three days in length) let us know. We’d love to share a bit more of what a partnership might look like.

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