Thursday, April 20, 2017

Why would a healthy church remain small?

This is a question many small church leaders have asked. Karl Vaters recently addressed it in a way that will encourage small church leaders and help them gain insights on why their church might not be growing even though it is healthy. Like me, Vaters is a supporter of smaller churches and those who serve them. If you are serving in a small church I think this article will encourage you. Check it out here.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What should you look for in a seminary?

In yesterday's post I talked about my personal educational journey, and I encouraged my readers who have not pursued a formal theological education to consider doing so. Today, I want to suggest some things you should think about when pursuing such education.

First, the seminary you attend should be one that will help you grow in the faith. Some seminaries are so liberal that they do more harm than good. They turn out graduates who have more doubts than faith. More than one seminary student has walked away from his or her faith because of the teachings of the professors under whom he or she studied.

This does not mean that you will necessarily agree with every professor and that your theological beliefs won't be challenged. Part of an education is being exposed to different beliefs and viewpoints, but this exposure should help you solidify your beliefs so you become stronger in your faith. There is a difference between presenting different viewpoints and trying to indoctrinate you with heretical teaching.

Second, the school you choose to attend should offer you a variety of degree choices. As I said yesterday, because of my sense of being called into bivocational ministry I did not want to pursue an MDiv degree. The school I chose to attend offered a variety of MA degrees in their theological school that seemed to be a much better fit for me. Because these programs were offered through distance learning, it was an even better fit for me since I was serving in a judicatory role at the time and managing a small business. I was able to schedule my studies around my schedule rather than having to adapt to a rigid school schedule.

Third, the school you select should be one that is affordable for you. There is absolutely no reason for anyone going into pastoral ministry to incur $60,000 in student loan debt, but I've known several who have. There's nothing wrong with going to some big, prestigious seminary if you can cash flow it, but there is also nothing wrong with attending another seminary or Bible college that you can afford.

Fourth, without question the school you attend should be fully accredited. There are a lot of diploma mills out there offering a theological education. You may find you've spent a lot of money for very little return.

Be wise when you consider which school will be best for you. This is a significant investment in your life and ministry and is not a decision to enter into lightly. I believe I grew as an individual and a minister through my educational experience, and this should be your goal as well.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Seminary or not

It's funny that I've often been accused of being anti-education because of some comments I've made about a seminary education. As many of you know, I began my pastoral ministry with no education beyond high school, and I did not follow a normal ministry education track.

About 18 months after beginning my ministry I began to attend a Bible college about an hour from my house. Although it was a two year program I needed four years to complete it as I was working a full-time job and pastoring a church besides attending school and being a husband and father. When I completed that program I enrolled in a university, also about an hour from our home, and spent the next seven years earning a bachelor's degree. I sat out five or six years before beginning a master's program, and then I followed that with a DMin degree which I completed when I was 62 years old.

The truth is that I sometimes wish I had sought even more education, maybe a PhD or a ThD so that I could teach in seminaries or Bible colleges now that I am retired. Although I have 35 years of practical ministry experience as both a bivocational pastor and a judicatory leader, I do not have the education that these schools seek in their instructors.

However, that is not the only reason I wish I had pursued additional education. While in Bible school I fell in love with learning. I learned to love the reading, the study, the writing of papers, especially in the postgraduate studies. I was able to go deeper in my understanding of the Scriptures and the ministry through my studies.

Although my education experience was not the norm, there were some advantages in doing it the way I did. I never incurred any student debt as I was able to cash flow my education since it took me so long to complete each of my degrees. In college I enrolled in General Studies which meant I did not have to take specific courses to complete a major. That gave me great freedom to take courses I thought would be most helpful to me and fewer courses that were required to complete a major or minor. Rather than earning an MDiv I enrolled in a MAR program with an emphasis in leadership. Again, a much more practical program for a bivocational minister (and for many other pastors as well IMHO).

I've written in this space recently about how ministry is going to change in the future, and one of my prayers is that seminaries are looking now at how to best prepare their students for these changes. I am concerned that many seminaries are now preparing people for a ministry that will not exist in a few years.

Do I believe that pursuing a ministerial education is a good thing? Absolutely, but don't think you have to follow an educational path that might have made sense in the 1950s but might not be the best one for you to take today. Also, do not limit your education to formal degree programs. Young ministers today must accept the fact that they will be lifelong learners if they are to remain effective in ministry.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Teaching the Bible

We are working our way through the book of Acts for our Sunday night Bible study. In Acts 11 we find the Gospel going to Antioch where a great number of people were saved. Barnabas was sent to Antioch to check out the reports of the people turning to the Lord. He soon went to Tarsus to find Saul to bring him back to Antioch where they spent a year teaching the new converts.

As I was studying this passage it dawned on me how these first converts to Christianity knew nothing about the teachings of Christ. They had no Bible. They had never had contact with Jesus Christ to our knowledge. They were a clean slate when it came to Christian teaching.

To make their lack of knowledge of Christian teaching even worse, they came out of a very secular and immoral environment. Antioch was not only a large cosmopolitan city, it was also well known for its immorality. The temple at Daphne was only about five miles away. Filled with temple prostitutes it was the center of immoral practices which impacted the entire city of Antioch. These new converts needed solid Christian teaching if they were going to successfully put their immoral past behind them.

I became very much aware that this is another way in which our society today resembles the first century. Several decades ago people often came to faith in Christ after having learned much about him through regular attendance in both worship services and Sunday school. Even before they became Christians they had an awareness of biblical teaching and Christian doctrine. That is often not the case today.

People in today's culture often come to faith in Christ with little to no knowledge of Christian teaching. They have not had regular exposure to Scriptural teaching so they do not have a sound grasp of Christian doctrine. This makes them easy prey for the enemy of their souls and is one reason so many fall away after making a profession of faith.

Not only have they not received very much Christian teaching before they became Christians, many do not receive much after inviting Christ into their lives. Sunday school attendance figures continue to go down in most churches. Mid-week and Sunday evening Bible studies no longer exist in many churches. Some of the churches offer small groups that study the bible at other times, but many of them don't.

Churches need to recognize that evangelism and discipleship are two sides of the same coin. Not only are we to share the gospel with others to lead them to a relationship with Jesus Christ, we also have a responsibility to help them grow in their faith. We have to find ways to encourage people to want to be taught the Word of God, and Christians must want to be taught.

We will never walk in victory or enjoy the kind of life God wants for us if we are not knowledgeable about what the Bible teaches. It is imperative that new Christians ensure they are attending a church that is not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and teaches it in every possible setting. Churches must see teaching the Scriptures is one of their primary duties and be very intentional about how they go about doing this.

Monday, March 27, 2017

What is God doing in your church?

Can you identify three things God is currently doing in your congregation that would not be happening if He was not involved? Some churches could name several things; others would struggle to identify even one thing that God is doing. I'm not trying to be argumentative, but it seems that there should be things happening in churches that only God could do. If nothing is going on in a church that doesn't require supernatural power and favor, then something may be wrong.

Our Sunday night Bible study is currently going through the book of Acts. Over and over again we find God doing things far beyond what any human could do on his or her own. Some would say that God doesn't work like that today, but I would challenge that and ask them to prove that statement. Maybe the reason more of us do not see God at work as in Acts is that we are limiting Him by our doubts and unbelief. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. There is no reason He cannot be actively at work in our churches today.

One of the joys of being a pastor is seeing God work in people's lives. For reasons of confidentiality I cannot speak of specific instances, but I can say that in the past few weeks I've witnessed God do some amazing things in people's lives. Lives are being changed because of the Holy Spirit moving in those lives. A church where God is so active is an exciting place to be, and right now the church I'm currently serving as Transitional Pastor is such a place.

Do you pray asking the Holy Spirit to work His will in the lives of your congregation? That is one of my constant prayers, but it's not enough to just pray that. We have to give Him room to work. I'm in favor of structure, but we must not become so structured that the Spirit has no opportunity to break through to impact people's lives.

A pastor can't change a person's life. Our best sermons can't change someone's life. We can be instruments God uses to help bring about that change, but only God is capable of truly changing someone's life.

Does your church give the Holy Spirit room in which to work, or do you quench the Spirit? Are things happening in your church that can only be contributed to the work of God in people's lives? If that isn't happening, ask yourself why. If it is happening, give Him the praise!

Monday, March 20, 2017

The church of the future

At a recent meeting with pastors I spoke directly to the younger pastors who were present and told them I envied them because of the changes in the church that would occur during their ministries. Although I cannot predict what those changes will look like, there is little doubt that significant changes are occurring and will continue to occur as we move through the 21st century. The church I have known and served as pastor for the past 36 years will disappear. Please note that I did not say the church will disappear. Jesus made it very clear that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church. But, much of what we now know as the church will change in the coming years, and I believe these will be exciting changes for both the church and the world it is called to reach.

We live in a very unsettling time in virtually every area of life. It seems that everything is under attack today, and that certainly includes Christianity and all it teaches and believes. The church is seen as irrelevant by a growing number of people both inside and outside the church. Denominational structures are viewed as even more irrelevant. Christian teaching is seen by many as judgmental, arrogant, and divisive.

It seems that every worldview is acceptable except the Christian worldview. This holds true on many university campuses as well as in the entertainment and business communities. In many parts of the world today Christians are under extreme persecution that includes martyrdom for tens of thousands of believers. While Christians in the US do not face that level of persecution, we continue to see new challenges placed on churches and other Christian organizations.

I hate to quote the atheist Nietzsche, but he did remind us that out of chaos comes order. There is little question we live in a chaotic time, but perhaps this chaos is to prepare the church for the changes that are coming. I am convinced that the church of the future will look much different and will minister is much different ways than it looks and ministers today.

It's interesting to me that many people are saying what I'm saying, but few attempt to describe what the church of the future will look like. I doubt that any of us knows at this point so trying to predict that would be a waste of time. At the same time, I would make two observations that I believe will be correct.

The first is that churches that value their models of ministry more than their mission will not survive the changes that are coming. We are already seeing established churches change the structures that served them well for many decades, but even these changes might not be enough. Regardless of size, churches in the future must clearly understand their mission, have a clear God-given vision for how to achieve that mission, and have the flexibility to make the necessary changes to see that mission fulfilled.

The second observation I would make is that the education today's current seminary students are receiving is going to be woefully inadequate to lead the future church. Most seminaries are still teaching a maintenance approach to ministry. The church of the future will require a more adaptive leadership style. This does not mean that those preparing for ministry should avoid seminary education, but go into it knowing that it will not be enough. Church leaders of the future will have to be even more committed to life-long learning as ministry will be changing at a rapid rate.

While I do not claim to know what the church of the future will look like, I repeat that I envy those who will be leading those churches. It's going to be a wild ride but a very rewarding one and one I would love to be a part of.

Friday, March 17, 2017

How intentional is your church?

One of the words that I have thought about a lot in recent years is intentionality. Maybe it's because one wants to live life more intentionally as one gets older. Maybe it's because I hate to waste time. It might be because during my 14 years as a judicatory minister I saw very few churches doing anything with any sense of intentionality. Actually, it's probably because of all three of these reasons.

As I've often said, many churches open their doors each Sunday morning hoping something good will happen. Few do anything intentionally to make that happen. Many churches complain about their lack of growth, but few are taking intentional steps that will enable growth to occur.

The working title for my book Intentional Ministry in a Not-So-Mega Church: Becoming a Missional Community was Transforming the Small Church from Maintenance to Missional. The thesis for the book was that churches had to be intentional in their efforts to minister or effective ministry would never occur.

The church I am now serving as Transitional Minister recently completed a vision discernment process. We worked hard to identify God's vision for the future of this church, but the real work is just now beginning. A vision statement is only worthwhile if it actually guides the decisions and actions of the church. Too often, the vision statement is approved by the church, filed away in a folder, and never heard from again. I don't want that to happen in this church.

I've challenged each ministry team in the church to begin discussing what they need to do to make this vision a reality. I asked them to consider what they need to do differently, to set goals, and identify the steps they need to take to reach those goals that will allow them to live into this vision. I want every ministry in the church to be very intentional about what they are doing so the church can have the greatest possible impact on our community.

How intentional is your church when it comes to planning ministries? Do you identify what your community needs, or do you just try something you heard worked for another church somewhere else? Maybe your church is one that simply unlocks the door and expects God to bring in the masses. Exactly how well is that working for you? If it's not working as well as you would like (and I doubt it is) then what do you need to do differently? What intentional steps does your church need to take to have a more powerful impact on the people God has called you to reach? Intentional. It's a good word for ministry.