Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A world of empty selves

The book I am currently reading as part of my devotional time is Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life by J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler. In the first chapter they  discuss how self-centered most people are. Such people tend to view everything and everyone based upon the pleasure they bring them. They refer to such people as "empty selves."

They quote a description of an empty self by Philip Cushman, "The empty self is filled up with consumer goods, calories, experiences, politicians, romantic partners, and empathetic therapists." They then discuss several traits of empty selves.

  • The empty self is inordinately individualistic.
  • The empty self is infantile.
  • The empty self is narcissistic.
  • The empty self is passive.
You can't read such words without immediately thinking about people who would qualify as an empty self. I thought of many people in the media, in the entertainment industry, in sports, and in political office. I also thought of some people I know in the ministry. In the church I pastored there were a few empty selves who created what problems we had.

One of the primary problems of the empty self is that he or she is seldom satisfied. That's why they have to have the latest gadget when it comes out even if they have to stand in line all night to get one. It's why they buy things on credit that they don't even need. It's why they go from one relationship to another, eat too much or too little, and jump around from one thing to another. They are trying to find something that will satisfy, something that will make them happy. And when it doesn't work, they move on to the next thing.

We should not think that it is just bad things that empty self people seek. I wonder how many advanced degrees have been pursued by ministers who were really looking for something that would fulfill them as a person. Could being a workaholic really be a sign that one is an empty self? How many empty selves have gone into the ministry seeking to be affirmed as a person in hopes that would satisfy the emptiness they felt?

The danger of spending too much time reflecting on such things and trying to identify the people who would qualify as an empty self is that eventually you find times when you fit the description. I hate it when that happens! But it does, and it did. More times than I like to admit I've shown some of the traits of an empty self.

So what's the answer? I'm still early in the book so I can't go into much detail, but the authors point out that the ancients believed that true happiness was a life of virtue and character with a deep sense of well-being. Such a life comes through practicing the spiritual disciplines that help us achieve such happiness. The remainder of the book points out how to practice these disciplines.

I don't normally recommend a book I haven't completed, but this book is having an impact on me even though I've just started reading it. I find it explains a lot of the issues I've faced in my life, and it helps a pastor better understand those he or she is serving. I believe the wisdom contained in this book will help anyone grow in his or her personal and spiritual life.

Most of us, at one time or another, will demonstrate some of the qualities of an empty self. We need to be able to recognize when that is occurring in our lives and the steps we need to take to address it. I think this book can help us do that.

Monday, June 29, 2015

When things look dark remember Sunday's coming

Regular readers have probably noticed I've not posted any articles on my blog for the past several days. I was supposed to be gone on vacation. Unfortunately, due to several factors which included a kidney stone that decided to move on the first day, I didn't get to go anywhere. I ended up canceling the vacation but decided to go ahead with my plan to not write on the blog for the days I was supposed to be away.

It turned out to be quite a week with many things that could have been addressed. The church shooting in Charleston, the resignation of Tullian Tchividjian after his confession of an affair, and the SCOTUS ruling that makes same sex marriage legal in all 50 states would have likely been addressed if I had been blogging this past week.

As I've considered what to say about these events now that I'm back I decided to say very little. There has already been much written about each of them, and I'm sure that others will continue to write and discuss each of them. At this point, I don't think there is anything I could say that hasn't already been written, so I'm just going to say one thing and move on.

None of these events caught God by surprise. At no point this past week did God ever once look at what was occurring and shake his head in amazement. I'm sure some will ask that if God knew this young man was going to kill the people in the church why didn't God stop him? Why didn't God stop this young pastor from having the affair that forced him to resign from the pulpit at Coral Ridge Church? One atheist who supported the Supreme Court's decision on same sex marriage asked why, if God exists and is against such marriage, did he not answer the many prayers that Christians prayed that the court would not rule in favor of such marriages?

Quite honestly, I can't answer any of those questions and feel no reason to try. I guess if I could explain God's actions I would be God, and I'm not, and neither are you. What I do know is that God was not surprised by any of these events. I also know that he is still God, and in the end his decision on each of these events will be the only one that matters.

As we study the Bible we often find that the times were the darkest just before God turned things around. We see that scenario played out time and time again in the life of Israel in the Old Testament and even more in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.

That Friday when Jesus died on the cross was the darkest day this world has ever known. No doubt, the demons of hell celebrated the death of the Son of God. Those who had followed Jesus must have felt that the world was coming to an end. What no one realized was that it was only Friday. Sunday was coming. When Sunday morning dawned the stone was rolled away, and the world hasn't been the same since.

No, the events of the past few days did not catch God by surprise, and Jesus is still alive. The church is not to give up hope. We are not to hide behind locked doors. We have work to do. God's will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven so let each of us be about our Father's business.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Where is your focus?

In 1999 I bought my first motorcycle, a Honda Shadow Ace Tourer. It was 1100 cc and a great road bike. However, I had a problem as I was learning to ride it. If I looked off the road at something I tended to go in that direction. I nearly ran off the road a few times until I realized I needed to stay focused on the road ahead. Eventually, I was able to look around without going in the direction I was looking, but it took me a couple of months.

Of course, this is true in much of our lives. We go in the direction of our focus. People who are focused on their own needs often have problems in their marriages and other relationships. Those who are too focused on one aspect of life, such as making money, will usually suffer in other areas of their lives.

The same is true in churches. Our churches function according to their focus. Growing churches are typically focused on doing ministry in the community and reaching new people. Plateaued and declining churches are likely to be focused on maintaining what they have. Your church is today what it decided 5, 10, and even 20 years ago what it was going to be. When it determined what it would focus on it set itself on a path that has resulted in its present state.

As I tell church leaders in one of my seminars, if you like what your church is today, congratulations! Your church has made good decisions that has brought it to this place. But, if you are not satisfied with the current situation in your church you must change something if you want the church to change. Your church must change its focus.

That is why I wrote the book Intentional Ministry in a Not-So-Mega Church: Becoming a Missional Community. The majority of small churches are focused on themselves, their survival, and maintaining what they currently have. That is a recipe for growing smaller and eventually dying. However, these churches can transform themselves from that maintenance mentality to one that is more missional. This book provides churches and their leaders with the necessary steps to make this transition possible.

In the book I point out the importance for a church to understand the culture it is trying to impact. Today's culture is much different than the one many of us in smaller churches grew up in. If we don't understand some of those differences we will be seen as irrelevant.

I address the importance of vision. Having a clear God-given vision is essential for a church to have the right focus. When we focus on the right vision we are less likely to be led away to doing lesser things. It keeps us from running off the road.

Smaller churches are often quite resistant to change. In the book I explain how to introduce change to our congregations and what is needed for change to occur. I also address how to best respond to those who oppose change.

The focus of your church is extremely important. It will determine the direction of your church. Is your church focused on maintenance? If so, expect a steady decline until your church eventually closes its doors. Is your church focused on the vision God has for it? If this is the case, both the church and the community it serves will be blessed.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

But, I'm just a layperson

As I meet with the pastor search committees of smaller churches there is usually a concern that it will be difficult to find a pastor. That concern is well-founded. Most denominational leaders will tell you that one of their biggest struggles is to find pastors to serve in their smaller churches.

Pastoral churches, those who are large enough to have a fully-funded pastor, face the same problem when they seek a staff person such as a youth leader. Quite often, they are looking for a bivocational person to lead some ministry in their church. It can be quite challenging to find these persons as well.

My advice to these churches is often to look within their congregation for such persons. People who are already attending the church have bought into the ministry and vision of the church. They are known entities. It may well be that the next pastor of your small church or staff member is already sitting in your pews.

We spend too much time looking for persons with degrees and formal education. It is going to become increasingly more difficult to find seminary trained ministers to fill positions in our smaller churches. We need to seek persons who have the giftedness and passion to serve in these ministries. Once we find such persons the church can then invest in helping them obtain the training they will need to be more effective, but such training can occur while they are serving.

Of course, one of the challenges will be to convince these persons that God may have more of a call on their lives than they realize. I once challenged a lay leader in a very small church to consider that God may be calling him to pastor that church. His response was typical. "I'm just a layperson. I don't think I could do that." As we talked further he admitted that he did preach there often since their last pastor left, and he had thought about the possibility of being the pastor there, but he just didn't think he had the education or experience. Within a few weeks the church called him as pastor, he has graduated from a ministry training program, and he is enjoying a very effective ministry in that church.

Another small church was struggling to find a pastor. One of their deacons, a local farmer, called asking to meet with me. As we met he shared that he felt that God was calling him to be the pastor there, but he was a farmer, not a minister. I reminded him that he was highly respected in that church and community. He had excellent interpersonal skills. He had led Bible study in the church for years and was well-grounded in the Scriptures. I told him I had no doubt he could be a very good pastor for that church and recommended he continue to pray about it. A decade later this church has flourished under his pastoral leadership. Both of these churches have been exciting to watch.

"I'm just a lay person," is an excuse people often give, but it overlooks a very important truth. We are also children of God who have been given spiritual gifts to equip us for ministry. Each of us were ordained for ministry at our baptism. Not all of us are called to be pastors or to fill staff positions in churches, but some of us are. God has ordained us and gifted us for the roles he has given us, and to refuse those ministry roles is to deny the purpose for which we were created.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Oak tree churches

Due to the past few articles I've posted here some people may wonder if I am suggesting that we abandon small existing churches. Not at all. While some are probably so far down their life cycles that they cannot survive, there are many others that are strong, healthy churches. I worshiped in one this past Sunday.

This small, rural church still has an attendance board in the front of the church. It showed there were 12 people there for Sunday school. About 35 attended the worship service. I had not been at this church for a couple of years, but the people greeted me like a long-time member.

The worship service was very traditional with everyone singing familiar hymns from the hymn book. There are no screens or projectors here. They have an excellent pianist who really brings the hymns to life. The singing was loud and energetic. There is no mumbling songs like I hear in some churches. The choir had a great anthem just before the sermon. I've known the pastor for a number of years, and he has served as the bivocational pastor of this church for many of those years. His sermon was on target and engaged the congregation.

Within a five-mile radius of this church I have several other smaller churches that are barely hanging on. One is likely to close its doors soon. Another one is struggling to pay its bills. The others struggle with one issue or another. The contrast between these churches and the one I visited this past Sunday is stunning. What makes the difference?

The church I visited this past Sunday has a strong root system that enables it to remain strong and solid. The people are grounded in their faith, and such faith produces joy. That joy is evident in their worship and in their attitudes. Every church experiences problems at times, but those with a strong root system address those problems with confidence.

What allows a church to develop such a strong root system? I can identify several in this church that has contributed to its root system.

  • They have a strong belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture. They are well grounded in the teachings of the Bible and are not blown away by fads or anything else that sometimes cause people to question their faith.
  • They have a pastor who loves them. His feelings for them has been proven by the years he has served this church. In return, they have returned that love through their generosity towards him and his wife.
  • They are committed to one another. It is obvious that they enjoy being with one another. Every Sunday I've been at this church has seemed like a family reunion.
  • At the same time, they welcome new people. I've never visited this church and not been warmly welcomed by many in the congregation.
  • They are not afraid to be who they are. They are a very traditional church that is not interested in trying to become anything else. While this won't appeal to some unchurched people, it will appeal to others, and these are the ones they want to reach. Too often I've seen churches try to become something they are not and lose themselves in the process.
  • They have a strong tradition of worship. I've been in churches three times the size of this church that did not worship with the enthusiasm and excitement you experience in this congregation. 
  • It is obvious that they have been taught stewardship. This is a blue-collar church with many retired members, but their giving is strong reflecting a belief in being good stewards and a belief that their church is doing something worthwhile with its resources.
What's the root system like in your church? Churches with strong root systems don't have to worry about survival. While some small churches will not survive, those with strong root systems will continue to be used by God to reach and disciple those He brings to these churches.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Why do we need to plant new churches?

Occasionally, a small, struggling church will ask me why so many denominations spend so much money to start a new church when they have numerous small churches that could use those resources. Their theory is that if they had access to that money they could do many more things that would enable them to grow. Unfortunately, that is not a valid theory.

For one thing, many of these struggling are sitting on more resources than they need. I've been told more than once by a person in some of these churches that they have savings of over $100,000. These monies are often in CDs or some other savings instrument and marked as Building Fund. These churches ensure that these funds can't be spent on ministry or anything else by designating that they can be spent only on the building or to build a new building. Of course, their sanctuary may seat 100 people now with an average attendance of 15 so it's unlikely that they will need to build anything soon.

At the same time, these are often the churches that become upset that the denomination won't give them some of the money the denomination is spending on starting a new church. Their anger grows even greater if they view the new church as competition in "their" area.

I receive publications from various denominational groups, and one of those publications is the Baptist Bible Tribune that comes from the Baptist Bible Fellowship. In the current issue a writer begins a series on "15 Reasons Why We Need to Plant Churches." He begins by reminding us of the Great Commission given to us by Jesus Christ and then showing us how badly we are failing to fulfill this mandate.

Eighty-five percent (or more) of our churches in the US are plateaued or declining. I believe the vast majority of these churches are declining. Many of these churches have completed their life cycles, and it may not be possible to revitalize these churches regardless of how many resources are poured into them. The writer, John Gross, points out that of the 15 percent of churches that are growing, only one percent of that growth is conversion growth. The rest is transfer growth.

Studies tell us that only 18.7 percent of Americans attend church on a given Sunday. In the past 13 years there has been a 92 percent increase in the number of unchurched persons in the US. By any measure, the present churches are failing badly to fulfill the Great Commission.

We have known for some time that new churches reach new people. The article tells the story of one new church that began with eight people. Five years later it had seen over 5,600 first-time guests. Over 2,700 have been saved and nearly 450 baptized. The church is averaging almost 400 people on Sunday. Certainly every new church will not experience such growth, but some do, and some exceed this church's experience.

That is why we must plant new churches. Our mandate is not to maintain congregations that refuse to be engaged in ministry but to reach people for Christ and help them grow as disciples. I believe any church that is willing to pay the price to be revitalized should be, but it is poor stewardship on the part of denominational bodies to pour resources into organizations and institutions that prefer their dysfunction over ministry. It is far better to direct those resources to new ministries that will engage men and women with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Do you really need your church building?

This is a difficult article to write, but I think the topic is one that many smaller churches need to discuss. A few years ago I was a speaker and work shop leader at a denominational event. While there I met an organic church planter for that denomination. Rather than taking a more traditional approach to church planting he was committed to planting small churches that would meet in people's homes. Part of his time was spent in trying to convince people that they would be better off selling their church properties and using that money to do ministry in their communities. I ate lunch with him each day of the conference listening to his ideas and vision.

One of his comments has stuck in my mind. He said that anything a church of 30 people does can be done in a home as well as in a building that is used one day a week. Let that thought sink in for a few minutes.

If you are a member of a church of 30 people or less each Sunday, ask yourself how much money are you spending on building upkeep, insurance, utilities, and other costs of owning property. What might happen is you spent that same amount on ministry that touched people's lives? If we are to be good stewards of God's money should it be spent on buildings or people? I'm not saying there is anything wrong with buildings, but if those buildings prevent us from doing ministry with people there is something seriously wrong with our sense of stewardship.

I know we have an attraction to our church buildings. They are the places where we were married and where our children were baptized. Perhaps a family member's funeral was held in that building or our grandparents gave a gift to install a stained glass window that has their name on it. I understand all that, but at the end of the day it is a building. It is not the church; we are the church, it is a building. As I used to remind our congregation occasionally, our building would hold a lot of hay, and if we're not doing what God has called us to do then it might as well be used for that.

The church planter I was talking to encouraged smaller churches to turn their buildings over to their denomination for sale. Once the property was sold the people would begin meeting in homes, and the money would be divided between the denomination and the congregation. The denomination would use that money for new church planting, and the congregation would use their money to do ministry in their communities. If their congregation grew beyond 20-30 people a new group would be formed and meet in another home.

My new friend admitted that very few people were excited about his vision for new church planting. It requires a major paradigm shift in how we define what constitutes a church. Just as many denominations struggle trying to identify their bivocational ministers I would imagine they would struggle with recognizing these house churches as real churches.

Despite the resistance many people would have to such an idea, I think this is a conversation many smaller churches and denominational leaders need to have. Many smaller churches have neglected building maintenance for years and will soon face some major expenses making needed repairs. These churches face growing challenges finding pastoral leadership, and even with the increased numbers of bivocational ministers some find it very difficult to find a pastor. The church is also facing an uncertain future with many questioning the tax exempt status churches now enjoy. Governments at every level are constantly looking for new tax revenues. Forcing churches to pay property taxes would add multiplied millions of dollars of new tax money to their coffers, so I think it is dangerous to assume that we will always enjoy the exemptions we now have.

More important than any of these reasons is that it would force us to think differently about what it means to be a church. It would require us to think about what God's purpose for the church really is. It would cause us to be a community rather than an organization.  Caring for one another would become more important than Robert's Rules of Order, and we could learn what it means to minister to one another and to those outside the church as a community of believers. Rather than waiting on the paid professional or someone else in a position of authority to do something we would each use the gifts God has given us to minister as we see the need.

Yea, I think this is a conversation many of us in smaller churches need to have.