Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Ministry opportunities for the smaller church

Small churches often feel the pressure that comes from having to compete with the larger churches in the community. Personally, I hate this idea of competition between churches, but it is something I frequently hear from smaller church pastors. The facilities of the larger churches may be nicer, their youth groups larger and more dynamic, they can offer more programs that appeal to a greater number of people, they have more resources to draw from, their worship services offer live praise bands and seems more powerful, and they have a greater presence in the community. This list could go on, but these are the common complaints I hear most often. And...for the most part, they are true.

These small church leaders then ask me how their church can compete with all that. Again, I think this question is the wrong one to ask because churches are not called to compete with one another. Perhaps a better question is how can we complement what these other churches are doing?

Despite what we sometimes think, there are many ministry opportunities these larger churches are not meeting. Some of these opportunities are where a smaller church can complement the ministry of the larger church.

  1. There are many people who do not feel comfortable in a large church and prefer a smaller church. Smaller churches can offer a sense of community that will appeal to these people. These folks are not looking for a "friendly church" as much as a place where they can make friends.
  2. In every community there are likely to be people groups that are not being reached by any church, large or small. Identify them and begin a ministry that will best serve their needs.
  3. Despite all the talk around contemporary music and praise bands, there are many people who prefer a more traditional worship experience with hymnbooks, pianos, and organs.
  4. Smaller churches often offer a more personal touch than larger churches can. There is something very appealing about a small church that still recognizes birthdays and anniversaries to many people.
  5. People with average gifts may be overlooked in a large church but find numerous opportunities to serve in the smaller church.
  6. Some people have no desire to go to any church but may have issues in their lives for which they seek spiritual answers. They may not want to wait three weeks for an appointment to speak to one of the pastoral staff.
Smaller churches that try to compete with larger ones often attempt to do more than their resources allow. This usually results in mediocre ministry which further frustrates the small church. As I've often said, small churches can usually accomplish more by doing less, and doing it with excellence. Identify those two or three things that your church can do well and focus on those. Let the rest go. As your church becomes known for doing those two or three things well you will begin to make connections with the people listed above.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Return to my former church

Yesterday I had the privilege of preaching at Hebron Baptist Church, the church I served as bivocational pastor for 20 years. Their pastor had resigned, and I was asked to fill the pulpit yesterday. It was a great experience being back in that church and brought back a lot of memories.

I had last visited the church about five years ago, and at that time I had noticed a lot of changes even then. Yesterday, I noticed even more. There were a lot of new people that I didn't know, and many of my former congregation were no longer there. The format of the worship service had changed. The appearance of the sanctuary was somewhat different although there's not a lot that can be done to a sanctuary built over 100 years ago.

There's an old proverb that says you can never step into the same river twice. Even if you step in, step out, and step right back in the river will be different. The water is always moving and changing so the river is constantly changing.

Churches definitely do not change that quickly, but change is always happening in a church even if it's not immediately noticeable. The people who attend the church are experiencing changes in their lives. During any given week a person may receive a poor medical diagnoses from tests they've had, someone else may have a loved one in a serious accident, a third person may have received a lay-off notice from his or her employer, a fourth may be dealing with marriage or family issues, and the list goes on. Because the church does not consist of the building or the organization, but the people, the church is always going through changes. How we minister to those changes must change as well.

When I was the pastor of that church I was privy to many of the problems the people were facing. Yesterday, because I didn't know most of those in attendance I could not know what they were dealing with in their lives. What I did know what that they had recently lost their pastor which often results in some level of pain. I also knew that because they live in a fallen world that many of them had some issue in their lives that was causing uncertainty, sorrow, grief, or fear. So I did what I try to do every time I preach; I shared with them how Jesus Christ can minister peace and healing to them no matter what they might be going through.

The church is the one place where people can hear a message of hope. Many people are hammered six days a week; the church should be a place where they can be encouraged and hear words that offer them a peace that passes all understanding and a hope that will endure the storms of life. That's what I tried to do yesterday and what I try to do every time I preach. I pray you do the same.

Friday, February 5, 2016

It's OK to repeat sermons

A few years ago I was invited to preach in a church. I had preached there about five years earlier. It was a larger church with two morning worship services. As I considered what to preach I kept feeling drawn to a sermon I had preached there previously. It seemed like the right message to address some issues I knew was going on in the church. Since I felt so strongly that this was the message I decided to go ahead and preach it again. After all, I reasoned, no one would remember this sermon after five or more years.

No one mentioned they remembered the message after the first service. However, when the second service ended a teenager came to me and asked if I had not preached that message previously in that church. I was busted and by a teenager no less.

That was not the first time I've repeated a sermon in a church nor will it be the last time. If a few years has passed since I preached a particular message in a church I don't feel it will hurt anyone if I preach it again in that same church.

  1. There are new people in the church who did not hear it previously. This will be a new sermon for them.
  2. I'm sure the church has sang the same songs since I was there. If repetition is OK for the music it will also be OK for the sermon.
  3. People's lives change. The message may have a greater impact on them the second time they hear it because it addresses an issue that is current in their life. That issue may not have been a problem the first time you preached the sermon.
  4. If a message is worth preaching once it should be worth repeating.
  5. When we re-read a book we often discover things we overlooked before. The same thing happens when people hear a sermon for the second time. They will hear something they didn't hear before.
Sometimes you don't plan to preach a sermon in a church the second time but find you are. A few weeks ago I was scheduled to preach in a church. I pulled out a message that I thought was applicable to the church and planned to preach it. Just prior to the service I was placing my Bible and sermon on the pulpit when I noticed I had preached that message just a couple of months earlier in that church. I always write down the church's name and date when I preach a message in the left margin of my sermon notes. I had looked but failed to see this church's name before leaving for the service. I had taken only this one message with me.

When I began the message I mentioned to the church that I had preached it in that church a few weeks earlier but I felt there was still a message there the church needed to hear. While the main body of the sermon was the same, I used some different illustrations and made a slightly different application than when I preached it before. Only one person commented that she remembered the message but noted that it was different this time.

This is yet another reason it's Ok to repeat a sermon. Most sermons will have more than one application. Although I was preaching from the same outline and from the same text, the Holy Spirit led me in a slightly different direction from the previous time I preached it. Most likely, it spoke to different people than the first time I delivered it.

You may feel that you're being led to repeat a message to your congregation. If so, do it. We can trust God to know how to lead us in our pulpit ministry. There may be people there who did not hear it the first time. There may be people there who have different needs this time and need to hear this message again so it can speak to those needs.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Preach the Word

Regular readers know that I recently retired after spending the past 14 years serving in a judicatory ministry capacity. Nearly every week I was in a different church in our judicatory either to preach or to visit. Prior to that I was the bivocational pastor of a small church in our community for 20 years. Since retirement I have preached a few times, and on those Sundays I haven't preached I've been visiting different churches of various denominations. After 34 years it's interesting to see what churches are in our community.

This past Sunday I visited a church affiliated with Calvary Chapel. Calvary Chapel churches are often known for their verse by verse exposition of Scripture, and this one was no different. The pastor is a local doctor who serves the church as a bivocational pastor.

I have to say that I enjoyed the in-depth study of the text. Although as a pastor I often preached expository messages I had not experienced that very often since leaving pastoral ministry. Most of the churches I visited as a Resource Minister tended towards more topical preaching. While such preaching has its place at times, I do believe that expository preaching will do more to build up the faith of the listeners.

The pastor was working his way through 2 Samuel. Again, it brought back memories of my own pastoral ministry. Each summer I would preach through a book of the Bible or a major section of Scripture such as the Sermon on the Mount. I always enjoyed the preparation that went into that style of preaching. It prevented me from always preaching on my favorite topics and it did not allow me to skip over controversial issues. I had to preach what the text gave me. That's good discipline for any preacher.

It's also good for the congregation. It allows them to see how a particular passage fits into the overall message of the book. It takes them much deeper into the passage than when the pastor preaches a sermon on this text one Sunday and jumps to another text and topic the next.

Our opinions will do little to change lives. Preaching the Word under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit allows that Word to penetrate into the hearts and souls of the listeners. It is then that real change can begin to take place.

If you do not regularly preach through a book of the Bible you may want to prayerfully consider doing so this year. Rather than starting with an entire book you might want to begin with a section of Scripture such as the Sermon on the Mount or the Ten Commandments.  Try it and see if it makes a difference in the life of your church and in the lives of the individual members.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Taking your church to the next level

One of the most difficult things for a pastor to do is to successfully grow a church from one level to the next. Churches have a life-cycle, and during that cycle there will be times of growth and decline. The church hits a plateau and sits there for a period of time trying to move past it, and if it doesn't the church will begin to decline. Sometimes the church is able to regain its traction and begin to grow again, and sometimes it never does and continues its decline to eventual death.

I'm familiar with one church that grows to around 180 people before declining back to 140-150. In time it starts another growth spurt to about 180 again before beginning another decline. It's done this several times. The reason for this is that the church and pastor have never discovered what keeps it from moving past that 180 barrier.

Gary McIntosh wrote an excellent book to help churches that are stuck in this growth/decline cycle. In Taking Your Church to the Next Level: What Got You Here Won't Get You There he calls churches at 200 or below in attendance relational churches. Approximately 80 percent of the churches in the US are in this size category. Busting through the 200 barrier is difficult, but it can be done if one understands the dynamics that makes it so difficult to grow a church beyond that number. McInstosh points out that some of those dynamics are:

  1. The church sees the pastor as a caregiver, not a leader. This makes it very difficult for the pastor to provide the leadership needed to grow the church beyond 200 worshipers.
  2. Churches of this size often do not have sufficient capacity to grow beyond 200 people. If the sanctuary seating, the parking lot, and the education space are at 80 percent capacity they are full. You might exceed that 80 percent for a short period of time, but eventually people will begin to leave until the space feels more comfortable to those who remain.
  3. To grow beyond 125 the church needs to call a second fully-funded pastor and two full-time support staff. This means the church is staffing for growth, but paying for that additional staff before the growth occurs can be a major challenge that many smaller churches do not want to tackle. Fortunately, there are some options available which the author offers.
In addition to the issues McIntosh addresses I believe there are some others. A growing church must have a leadership pipeline in which leaders are being continuously developed. Churches cannot wait until they are running 200 people to begin developing new leaders, but where will those leaders come from before the growth occurs?

The same is true of teachers for Church school classes. We are often told that it's important to be adding classes in order to grow the education ministry of a church, but it's not always easy to find teachers for these classes. There needs to be on-going recruitment and training of people to serve in these classes if one wants to take the church to a higher level.

A third requirement is that the pastor must be committed to remaining at the church for an extended period of time in order to see significant growth occur. Taking a church from one level to another will not happen quickly and is unlikely to happen at all if the pastor is not committed to staying at the church.

Breaking through various attendance levels is difficult. There are many factors responsible for the size church you have today, and some of them are not easily overcome. But, with commitment, vision, and a sound strategy, bathed in much prayer, these barriers can be overcome.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Larger churches still need their denominations

My friend, Terry Dorsett, wrote an article on his blog yesterday on the need for larger churches to remain involved in their denominations. I thought it was an excellent piece and asked him for permission to share it with you as a guest post. Of course, he was agreeable. Larger churches can do much to encourage and support smaller churches. If you are serving in a larger church I hope after reading this article you will contact your denominational representative and ask how you can be more involved in the life of your denomination.
This is the third in a three-part series by Terry Dorsett, executive director of the Baptist Convention of New England, on the topic of joining a denomination. For the first and second articles in this series, click here and here
NORTHBOROUGH, Mass. (BP) -- Though many feel we are living in a post-denomination age, I believe denominations still have a valuable role to play in God's plan for the church. Denominations provide a way for local churches to work together on projects too big for any one church to handle on their own.
(Click here for Part 1 of this series on why I joined a denomination and here for the article on denominations serving churches.)
But what about churches that have grown numerically to the point when they no longer need many of the services the denomination provides? Should they remain invested in a group that provides many services they may no longer need? With the rise of the mega-church, this is a question that even many non-mega-churches are asking.
I think there are a number of reasons why larger churches need to remain involved in and actively support their denomination. Large churches have often learned something about reaching people that other churches need to learn. They often have developed specialized ministries that other churches need to know about.
One might argue that those churches can host their own training conferences and seminars to promote these ideas without any connection to the denomination. While that might be the case, why recreate an information distribution system and spend money on mass advertising when the denomination already has numerous the channels needed to get that information out to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of churches? It would be better for larger churches to partner with their denomination to provide those training experiences through the denominational system.
Think about this from a local church perspective. If the most gifted church members decided to keep all their talents and abilities to themselves or to only use them for para-church groups and never use them in the local congregation, it would adversely impact the ministry of the local church. It would set the local church back and hinder its effectiveness greatly. The same thing is true when the largest churches in a denomination start doing their own thing outside the denominational system. It robs the group of the very thing they need to move to the next level. When large churches work through the denominational system, instead of outside of it, they help raise the level of training and effectiveness in the entire group.
Then there is the issue of money. Larger churches almost always have more financial resources than smaller churches, yet as they grow, they often redirect their resources away from the denomination toward their own causes. That lowers the resources available to the denomination to offer high-caliber services to the smaller churches that remain -- churches which often need those services the most. For example, I serve a denominational missionary organization that serves 337 churches, most of which average less than 85 in regular worship attendance. Twenty five of those 337 churches provide 61 percent of the financial support for our ministry. If any one of those 25 key churches withdrew its support, it would severely limit the services we could provide to the other 312 churches.
Some might be tempted to disparage all of those smaller churches as "ineffective" and therefore not worthy of support. That is not always the case. In our situation, 40 percent of our churches are from 19 different ethnic groups we serve, some of which are economically disadvantaged. Nearly 50 percent of the churches in our network are new church plants less than 10 years old and are still in the process of becoming stable. Many churches in our family of faith are located in small villages and mountain towns or other out-of-the-way places that will never be serviced by a larger church. For the sake of the Gospel, we must have a strong denominational budget so these small churches can continue to be assisted. The only way we can have a strong budget is for our larger churches to continue to support the denomination.
Larger churches may no longer need someone from the denomination to train their Sunday School teachers or deacons, but that does not relieve them of the obligation of assisting the denomination in training Sunday School teachers and deacons in other churches. Larger churches may no longer need financial assistance from the denomination, but many smaller churches do need it and larger churches should have a Kingdom mindset and continue to invest the funds needed for the whole family of churches to be healthy.
There may have been a day when denominations had bloated staffs and wasteful budgets, but those days are long gone. Denominations that are thriving today are lean and efficient and need their larger churches to remain engaged for the sake of the Kingdom.

Monday, February 1, 2016

When church leaders grow weary

One of the disturbing things I saw again and again as a judicatory leader was the growing number of pastors who had grown weary in ministry. There is an excitement in first sensing a call to ministry. That excitement often continues as one pursues a seminary education and then culminates when called to that first pastorate. There is an anticipation that one is going to be involved in changing people's lives for the better by helping them encounter the living Christ.

Unfortunately, that excitement can begin to wane when things don't go as exactly as planned in that first church. In my first business meeting as pastor of our small church I made just one announcement, and it was soundly rejected by everyone in the meeting. I hadn't even made a motion or asked for a vote. It was merely an announcement, but those present let me know immediately that what I was announcing was not going to happen. I left that meeting wondering if I had made a serious mistake and completely missed God!

The good news is that I remained in that church for two decades and saw many wonderful things occur. Other pastors are not so fortunate. As they go from church to church they are confronted with apathetic church members, manipulative boards, dishonesty, and pure pastoral abuse. There are few things more frustrating and painful than realizing that much of what you're doing is little more than spinning your wheels waiting for retirement.

I've never felt that way about ministry, but I have met many pastors who did. More than a few admitted they were just trying to hold on until they could retire. Others didn't feel they could wait that long and left the ministry for secular work.

What can a minister do when he or she begins to feel weary in ministry? I think there are several things.

  1. Remember that weariness in ministry is not a new thing. Go back and re-read the stories of Jeremiah, Elijah, and others who grew weary serving God. It seems to be an occupational hazard for many of God's servants throughout history.
  2. Remember your calling. One thing that always helped me when facing weariness was to think back to the time I knew God had called me into the ministry and to that specific ministry I had at the time. As I remembered that calling it energized me and helped overcome any weariness I was feeling.
  3. Remember who your Sustainer is. The one thing each of the persons in the Bible who grew weary in ministry had in common is that God came alongside to comfort and sustain them. When we grow weary we need to call upon the Lord to come alongside us to strengthen us.
  4. Remember that we are ultimately accountable to God for our ministries, not someone else. People will cause us pain, but we need to take that to God and let him deal with it. Prophets, priests, and pastors alike have all been persecuted by those who did not want to hear a message sent by God. When we are doing God's will we should expect to experience rejection and even abuse at the hands of those who oppose God's will. When such rejection and abuse comes, turn it over to God.
For most Christian leaders, it's not a matter of if we will become weary but when we become weary in ministry. Weariness is likely to come, but if we are prepared for it and able to remember these four things it will not have the impact on our lives and ministries that it would have if we were not prepared.