Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Is atheism winning?

While traveling to a meeting yesterday I listened to a podcast from William Lane Craig, the well-known Christian philosopher and apologist. He was reviewing an article from a Christian publication that claimed that atheism is winning in today's culture. The reasons for that writer's conclusion was that many young people are leaving Christianity and that a large number of Christians are unable to effectively share their faith.

Craig did an excellent job of showing that the claim that atheism is winning is not correct. While he agreed that both of the writer's statements were true, Craig pointed to the growing number of Christians in China and elsewhere in the world. While it is true that many young people are abandoning their faith, it is also true that many others are coming to faith in Christ at the same time.  Despite the best efforts of "new age" atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others, atheism is not winning.  Christianity is growing around the world.

One of the reasons for this growth is the excellent material now available in the area of Christian apologetics. The old method of evangelism, what I call the "Turn or burn!" method, simply does not work today. People are asking questions and demanding answers before making a faith commitment. Many struggle with Christianity because they have questions that no one has attempted to answer or failed to answer to their satisfaction. I recently spoke to a woman whose husband cannot believe in God due to the widespread evil in the world, and this is a major stumbling block for many.

When I began pastoring in 1981 there was very little material available in apologetics, or at least I wasn't aware of them. Today, there are many such resources, and pastors and other church leaders should take advantage of them.

William Lane Craig has written several such books, but I have to admit that some of them are over my head academically.  However, he recently published an excellent book, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, that he wrote for the non-scholar. I read it earlier this year and found it to be a wonderful resource.  I'm currently reading The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller. This is another excellent resource that addresses the questions and concerns people have about Christianity. Anything by Ravi Zacharias is also a great resource for the person who wants to effectively share his or her faith with others. I especially recommend his books Why Jesus?: Rediscovering His Truth in an Age of Mass Marketed SpiritualityJesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message, and Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn't Make Sense.

I encourage pastors to study these resources and teach the material to your congregations. We must be able to respond to the questions people have about Christianity if we want to do effective evangelism in the 21st century, and this material will help you do that. Atheism isn't winning, and it won't win because it is not based on truth. We have the truth, and it is our responsibility to learn how to most effectively share that truth with others.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Every solution doesn't need a proof text

It's human nature for people to spend too much time focusing on their critics, and I am human. I came across such a critic who complained that my book on coaching bivocational ministers didn't make use of the Bible. He didn't elaborate on what he meant so I can't respond to specific concerns he might have had. Recognizing that assumptions are dangerous things I will still assume he thinks that every problem requires a "Thus saith the Lord" response. They don't.

Of course, Scripture should serve as the basis for our core values in life and everything we do should be God-centered and done in such a way that will glorify Him. At the same time, the Bible does not specifically address every issue that comes up in our lives. Every solution does not require a proof text.

In the book I mentioned one bivocational minister I coached whose wife was upset that some repairs and maintenance on the house were being neglected. He was struggling to find the time to do that while working a full-time job and pastoring a church.  Sound familiar?  However, there was an even deeper issue at work in his life. He wasn't convinced he was effective as a pastor, and as we dug deeper into this he admitted that he lacked a strong personal spiritual life.

As we looked at possible solutions he was able to identify two problems that he felt were major hindrances: finding the time to focus on his spiritual development and finding something that would help him start on this journey. We began looking at his schedule to find ways to create enough margin in his life to focus on his own spiritual growth. Finally, he decided to ask his wife to help hold him accountable. The remainder of that chapter reveals how this developed over the next several months. By the end of our coaching relationship his spiritual life had improved, he felt better about his ministry, and as our final coaching call was being done, some individuals from his church were there helping him make some repairs to his house.

He didn't need 30 scriptures on the need for spiritual growth. He already knew he needed to grow spiritually. He had enough guilt; he needed practical solutions around time management and how to pursue spiritual growth. He needed a coach who could help him realize that he needed to do what he would have told anyone else to do who came to him with the same needs in his or her life.

The book includes case studies of ministers, mostly bivocational, I have coached. It examines the issues they raised and some of the solutions we helped them identify. I believe every one of those solutions were God-honoring and scriptural even if they didn't come with a proof text.

I have found coaching to be a very helpful tool for ministers who are stuck or who want to develop even more effective ministries. I have found it especially helpful for bivocational ministers as it can fit in their busy lifestyles. This book was written to serve as a tool for ministers to see how others in their situations found solutions to their problems. My prayer is that you will find help in overcoming your own challenges from these case studies.  You can order the book here.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Pursuing an education

For several years I have been privileged to serve on the Church Relations Council at Campbellsville University (CU) in Campbellsville, Kentucky. This past week we had our annual spring meeting on the campus. I never attend one of these meetings without being impressed with all that God is doing at this university and with the students who attend there.

Occasionally, I am asked to help evaluate the individuals who apply for the Baptist Leadership Award. I'm always grateful that I am part of a group of persons who evaluate these students and not responsible for selecting the winners myself. This year we had close to 100 applications, and I was amazed at the level of maturity and leadership these students demonstrate. There are some incredible students attending CU.

CU has a tremendous vision called Vision 2025: Preparing Christian Servant Leaders which is their blueprint for the continuing growth and development of the university. We had the opportunity to hear from the president, Dr. Michael Carter, and the deans from the various schools how this vision is shaping the direction of the university.

At a time when many colleges and universities are growing hostile towards Christian organizations on campus, I think it's important that we promote Christian higher education. Students come to CU from many different cultures and religions, but while there they have the opportunity to be exposed to the Gospel through chapel services, campus revivals, Bible studies, and mission trips led by campus ministries. Each year a number of students accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and when they return to their homes they take their new faith with them.

The School of Theology now offers five baccalaureate programs, a Certificate in Christian Ministry, an associates degree, and the Master of Theology. These programs are available on campus or online. This can be a big help for the bivocational minister who may not be able to quit work in order to receive a theological education.

I consider it a privilege to recommend Campbellsville University to individuals who are looking to further their education.  Last week a father called to say his son felt called to the ministry and wanted to know what he needed to do when he graduates from high school this spring. I encouraged him to look at the programs CU offers.  A pastor told me he wanted to further his theological education, and I told him to check with CU to see which of their programs would best meet his needs.

If you are thinking of furthering your education or if you have young people who are looking at colleges, I encourage you to check out what CU has to offer. I think you'll be pleased with what you find. For more information check out their web site at www.campbellsville.edu.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Focus is critical in a smaller church

One of the things I often stress when doing conferences for small church leaders is that many smaller churches are trying to do too many things. These churches are often trying to compete with a larger church in the area that offers more ministries or they may still be structured as they were when they were a larger church themselves. In either case, with limited resources it is a mistake to attempt to do too many things at the same time. Most smaller churches would accomplish much more by doing less, and then what they do offer could be done with excellence.

For some time multitasking was considered the way to get more done in an hectic environment. Recent studies have found that is not the case. One can actually accomplish more by focusing on one task at a time, and there are often fewer mistakes.

I had bought into the idea of multitasking and thought I was pretty good at it. That view began to change some time ago when I was on the phone with an individual. Quite frankly, it wasn't the most interesting conversation and one that I had with this individual and others before. I was only half listening when I noticed that I had several new e-mails. I thought I would scan those to see if any of them were important. While scanning them the caller said something that caught my attention. I knew it was important, but I had missed the background information he had given to put it in context. I had to ask him to repeat himself as I turned off my e-mail. Since that experience I have reduced my efforts to multitask by quite a bit.

When smaller churches attempt to do too many things it is a form of multitasking. Just as multitasking doesn't enable an individual to give his or her best effort to a task, it doesn't allow a church to do so either. This is when mistakes are made and when critical opportunities to do something really worthwhile are missed. When a smaller church focuses on doing one or two things with excellence it can accomplish much more and have a much greater impact for the Kingdom of God.

If you feel you have been trying to do too many things as a church the first thing to do is to evaluate everything you are doing. What has been the return on all the time and other resources you have given to each task? Which activities are making a real difference in the life of your church and community and which ones are being done out of a sense of tradition? Businesses talk about return-on-investment (ROI). If something doesn't have a good ROI they stop doing it. Churches may want to follow that model.

As you consider the mission and vision of your church, which of the things you do contribute to fulfilling that mission and vision? If your church is doing something, even if it's good, that isn't having an impact on your mission and vision then that's a sign it's time to stop that activity.

When smaller churches focus on doing one or two things with excellence they find their ministries grow and more lives are impacted. God doesn't call you to compete with other churches. He calls you to be the best you that you can be, and that will occur when you focus on the few things that enable you to achieve the purposes God has for your church.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Let's invite people back to church

This past week I was privileged to lead revival services for a small, rural church in our county. There was a good spirit in each service and very good attendance at each service. Revival services may be a thing of the past in many places, but for this church at this time it seemed like it was a very positive experience.

One of the interesting things that happened occurred as I invited people to the services. Everywhere I went throughout our community I invited people to attend the revival services. Two weeks ago I had an auction and even announced there I would be preaching at this church during this week. The interesting thing was the number of people who told me how they attended that church when they were younger. In fact, I even found out my wife had attended that church with one of her brothers and his wife when she was very young. At the last service I told the church if they could get everyone back who had attended there as a child they wouldn't be able to hold everyone!

Of course, that is true of many of our smaller churches. I don't know why all of these people stopped attending this church. Some may have married and started going to their spouse's church. Some probably quit going due to some disagreement that occurred in the church. The majority probably got out of the habit and aren't going anywhere.

Life does that to people. We can have good intentions but find that life gets in the way. We keep telling ourselves that we will get back in church when we get through this one obstacle, but of course another one soon follows. Soon, we're out of the habit of going to church and unless something drastic occurs in our lives we may never return.

Maybe it's time that our smaller churches begin to invite people back who used to attend there. This could be a good marketing plan for our churches. (I'm sorry if you feel that marketing is not a good word, and if that's the case feel free to use whatever word that makes you more comfortable.) Newspaper ads and radio spots could be used to invite people back to their church home.  Church membership rolls could give you the names of people who used to attend, and you could send them a direct invitation.  You might even want to plan a special service and an event after the worship service to allow people to get reacquainted.

This should not be used to encourage people to leave churches they may now be attending. This is to reach out to those who have simply dropped out of church life completely. It gives them a reason to return without feeling embarrassed about having been away so long.

This is also not to replace reaching out to unsaved people. The Great Commission is very clear that our purpose as a church is to reach those who do not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But, at this same time we are doing that we can also reach out to those who used to be part of our church family and let them know we would love to see them come back.

Finally, and this will be controversial to some, a church may not want to invite everyone back who has left. Controllers and others who create dissension in the church are not needed. Let them find another place to worship if they choose to do so. You do not need disruptive people who are more interested in pursuing their own agenda than pursuing the vision God has for your church. I have often said I am a believer in back-door revivals.  Sometimes, people need to leave a church before God can do great things in the church. Churches do not need to invite back those who have a history of creating problems in the church unless they have repented of their past ways and are ready to move forward with the church.

The good news is that I believe these will be a minority of people. Most who have left are good folks who just got sidetracked by life. Some of them might return to church if they were invited, and I think now is the time to do that.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Second career ministers

Once upon a time people looked at retirement as the opportunity to enjoy life and do the things they never had time to do during their working careers. Some moved to the beach; others to the mountains. Others moved closer to their grandchildren to enjoy more time with them. While some people still look forward to such retirement, increasing numbers of people are finding new life in second careers.

There are a number of reasons for this.  One is financial. It has been well documented that most baby boomers have not saved enough to enjoy a comfortable retirement, and it appears that those generations that follow us will be in even worse shape financially when it comes to retirement. A second reason is the large numbers of people who take early retirement. Many companies offer such lucrative early retirement options that it's foolish not to take them. A third reason is that we baby boomers enjoy work. We like staying busy. One can only golf and fish so much before it becomes boring. Besides, we like to feel that we can still make a difference even in our sunset years.

Several years ago Bob Buford wrote the book Finishing Well: What People Who Really Live Do Differently! that looked at people who successfully transitioned into second careers. Buford interviewed 60 people who turned their retirement years into opportunities to do things that made a difference.  It is an inspiring read for anyone approaching retirement who wonders what he or she will do next.

Your Ministry's Next Chapter: Restoring the Passion of the Mid-Career Pastor (Pastor's Soul Series) by Gary Fenton looks at the various stages of a pastor's ministry including the retirement years. I've also found it to be an interesting and helpful read.

We are seeing a number of individuals entering the ministry as a second career. Many of these had felt a call to ministry earlier in life, but for one reason or another did not respond to that call. I know one individual who is currently working on his master's degree from seminary as preparation for his upcoming retirement. He currently fills the pulpit in churches on Sundays and plans to become a pastor when he retires from his current job. That retirement and his seminary degree will come at about the same time.

His example points out an important point. If you are planning to do something different in retirement, now is the time to begin preparing for that. If you need additional education, pursue it now before you retire. If you need to learn new skills, now is the time to get those. Don't wait until you retire before you begin preparing for a second career.

What about those of us already in ministry? What might we do as a second career?  Many choose to serve as interim pastors. This allows them to use their skills and experience to serve a church that is seeking a new pastor. A number of retired pastors become bivocational ministers. Again, this allows them to use their education and experience in ministry without many of the pressures of a larger church. Some teach in seminaries, Bible schools, and universities training the next generation of church leaders. Others become church consultants, coaches, or mentors.

Just because a job ends at retirement it does not mean that one's calling ends as well. There are many things a minister can do in retirement that honors God's call on his or her life. Even if you are a few years away from retirement, now is the time to begin thinking and praying about what second career options might be best suited for you.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Can your church make a difference in the world?

The title of this post is a question I asked a church yesterday as I began preaching a revival for them. The church is a small, rural congregation that has not seen much growth in a number of years.  I began the message by pointing out some of the challenges our nation and the world is facing and then shared my belief that only a God-sent revival can save our nation.

We cannot depend on the White House, the statehouse, or the courthouse to rescue us from the many problems we face as a society. In fact, it is often their policies that create the problems. Besides, at the core of many of our problems we are dealing with spiritual issues that can never be solved by man-made solutions, no matter how well intentioned.

Spiritual problems require spiritual solutions. As a nation, we must turn back to God. Church as usual will not be sufficient. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is clear that it is when God's people begin to humble themselves and pray and turn from their sins that God will bring healing to the land. This is the true revival that our nation needs, and it won't come just by inviting in a special speaker and some singers to get everyone excited for a few days.

There will be tremendous opposition to such revival. Secularists demand that religious beliefs, especially Christian, be kept within the four walls of churches. Genuine revival cannot be contained, and it will spill out into the marketplace. Lives will be changed as people are confronted with a holy God. Businesses that depend upon the sinful weaknesses of people will begin to shut down. Liberal churches will see their doors close as people leave for a real encounter with the true God. There will be great outrage, but we must remember that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces of Satan.

I read recently that ISIS consists of about 20,000 forces. I also recently read one report that claimed there are about 270 million Christians in America. Each evening the news is focused on what ISIS is doing. Little is said about what the church is doing.

What could happen if revival came to the 270 million Christians in America? If even half that number is right, what impact on the world could 135 million Christians have if they experienced true revival in their lives?  Revival is an inside job. It begins with one, and then spreads to a few, and then spreads to a church, then to a community, and then to a nation.

God has sent nationwide revivals before, and He can do it again. But, it will only happen if churches and individual churches will humble themselves, turn from their sins, and pray and seek God's face. Can your church, regardless of its size, make a difference in the world? The answer is yes if you are willing to seek genuine revival in your lives.