Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The secrets we keep

Secrets are a serious problem because most of us have them. I was recently reading a book about estate selling, and one of the things the writer cautioned people about was to make sure they didn't leave their secrets for others to find. The writer is a 20-year veteran of selling estates. As he has gone through houses preparing them for an estate sale he has discovered many things that would be very troubling if loved ones found them. For instance, he says that in about 80 percent of the estates he sells he finds pornography, which he does not sell. He finds pictures of people in compromising situations which would hurt family members. In my auction business I have also found items that would be very hurtful if family members had seen them.

Of course, one of the problems with secrets is nearly everyone has them. There are things we simply do not reveal to anyone. Some of these secrets may be relatively minor, but others have the potential to do great damage to one's family or to others. Of course, they have even greater potential to do harm to us. I often tell troubled churches they are only as healthy as the secrets they keep. The same is true for individuals.

Perhaps the quickest example of this in the Bible is the story of David and Bathsheba. King David had an affair with the married Bathsheba while her husband was fighting in a war David should have led. The affair led to her becoming pregnant. When David learned of this he sent for her husband thinking he would be intimate with her while he was home, and everyone would assume the child was his. However, her husband refused to sleep with his wife while his fellow soldiers were fighting a war. His refusal led David to send him back with secret orders to have him placed on the front line and abandoned so he would be killed. When word was received of his death, David married Bathsheba hoping that no one would know of his sin.

For approximately a year it seemed that his secret was safe, but David admitted that his strength had left him, that he had lost the joy he once had known through his relationship with God. Still, he kept his secret until God sent a prophet, Nathan, to confront David. Once confronted, to his credit, David admitted his guilt and cried out to God for forgiveness. God did forgive him, but he and his family paid a terrible price for his disobedience and his attempt to hide his secret from others.

Secret sins have a way of eating at us. Satan uses them to cause us to feel great guilt and shame which robs us of the joy of the Lord. Being unwilling to confess our sins we often become unable to overcome them leading us further and further away from God. They not only alienate us from God, they can alienate us from our loved ones.

In Psalm 51 we read David's prayer of confession. Like David, we need to repent and seek God's forgiveness for the secret sins we might be keeping. There are many reasons why some people are unwilling to admit their sins, but none of them make any real sense. God already knows our lives, both the good and the bad. It's not like we are hiding anything from Him. When we refuse to confess our sins we are only deceiving ourselves.

The author of the book I'm reading is right. If you have physical things in your home that you would be ashamed of someone finding, you need to get rid of them. More importantly, if there are secret sins in your life you need to deal with them so you can be spiritually whole. If you do, like David, you will find that God will quickly forgive you and set you back on a course of spiritual healing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Preaching with authority

Billy Graham was always known for preaching with great authority. Throughout his messages he frequently began a statement with the words, "The Bible says...." As a result of his belief in what the Bible said his powerful preaching brought millions of people to faith in Jesus Christ.

What many do not know is that at one time his faith in the authority of the Scriptures was shaken. After a crusade that produced poor results a fellow preacher and friend told Graham that he was too dependent on the Bible. This man had graduated from a liberal seminary that had convinced him that the Bible contained errors and was untrustworthy. For a period of time Graham didn't know what to do or believe. About that time he reluctantly accepted an invitation to speak at a camp.

While at the camp he continued to wrestle with the authority of the Bible. One evening he walked out into the woods by himself and his Bible. He later wrote that he laid the Bible on a stump and began to pray telling God he could not continue to preach if he could not be certain that the Bible was true. While praying the Holy Spirit began to move in him, and he rose to his feet fully convinced that the Bible was true. The next day he preached at the camp and 400 people came to faith in Christ. A few weeks later he held the famous 1949 Los Angeles crusade that launched his worldwide ministry.

Too many preachers are content to tell people what they think or what some professor told them in seminary rather than pointing out what the Bible says. Such preaching lacks authority to change people's lives which is one reason the church today is in the shape it's in. Some pastors believe if they refer to the Bible too much it confuses people because so many people are not familiar with the Scriptures. (Maybe they're not familiar with the Scriptures because they never hear them in the churches they attend!)

There's certainly nothing wrong with quoting people, referring to contemporary studies, and using other illustrations to support your points, but the most powerful tool in the pastor's preaching arsonal is the Bible. It is sharper than any two-edged sword able to penetrate even the hardest heart. The Bible is just as relevant and powerful today as it was when holy men of old wrote it. The Holy Spirit can take the words of Scripture to speak truth into a person's life.

I am convinced that until the church returns to the Bible and is willing to proclaim its truths to a postmodern age that it will continue to be weak and ineffective. We have God's infallible Word, and any authority our preaching may have will only come through that Word.

Monday, October 15, 2018

What does the small church have to offer?

During my 35+ years of ministry I have heard many people question the value of smaller churches. As the bivocational pastor of one of those churches for 20 years I occasionally heard people question my call to the ministry or wonder why I continued serving in a smaller church. Unfortunately, some people do not know all the things a small church can offer people.

  1. In smaller churches it's easier to develop relationships with other people. Larger churches have to form small groups. A small church is already a small group. In the small church you do not become merely a member; you become part of the family. In our world today where it is often difficult to develop genuine relationships with people, the small church makes that possible.
  2. People often have an opportunity to serve sooner in smaller churches. I often joke that a small church will work a new member to death if he or she doesn't learn to say no! In a small church you don't have to wait 10 years before you are allowed to serve in a ministry role.
  3. Small churches communicate quickly. Sometimes too quickly I might add! When I would be invited in for a church conflict mediation one problem I often heard was that the communication was very poor in the church. People often did not know what was going on, and when people don't know the facts they sometimes create their own. In smaller churches people tend to know what's going on.
  4. In small churches people are more important than programs. People are less concerned about your qualifications than they are about the type of person you are. Folks are not judged by their skills as much as they are by their heart.
  5. This last one is a benefit of a small church that I enjoy most of all. They have some of the best cooks you'll find anywhere. I've been invited to a lot of larger churches when they had meals catered in. The food was good, but not nearly as good as when the church ladies brought in their finest dishes for the church pitch-in.
For years people have predicted the end of the small church. Don't you believe it. Small churches can offer things that the larger churches can't. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with large churches, and nothing I've written here should suggest that I believe there is. It's just that there are people who are looking for the things that smaller churches can offer. There will always be people attracted to smaller churches.

If you are called to serve in a smaller church, carefully pray about that opportunity. You may find you will love it as much as I have.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Good intentions

I just finished re-reading a book, Take the Stairs: 7 Steps to Achieving True Success by Rory Vaden that I would recommend to anyone involved in ministry. So many ministers complain about how things are not what they should be in the church but few do more than complain. Many never take any action to change things, and if they do they often run into opposition. It becomes easy to decide to sit back and do nothing but hope that someday, somehow, things will change, That is the escalator approach that the author warns against. Although taking the escalator might be easier, it often leads to compromise and mediocrity.

This is a book I read when it first came out, and decided it was time to read it again. Even though it had a lot of highlights in it, I was surprised at how many new ones I made as I re-read it. New thoughts jumped out at me in my second time through the book which confirmed I was wise to pick it up for a second reading.

Vaden talks about how often fear keeps us from doing what we know we should do. That has certainly been true in my life at times, and I'm confident it's been true for you as well. Fear tells us we can not succeed so we don't even try. The author told a powerful story about a woman who was so fearful of heights and enclosed spaces that she was willing to die in an apartment fire rather than escape. A firefighter found her, and when she resisted his efforts to lead her to safety, he kept telling her to "Do it scared." That later became the keywords that helped her make better choices in her life.

Sometimes in ministry, and in all leadership positions, we need to do things scared. It's true that we don't know the outcome of our efforts, but if we never put forth the effort nothing will change. Is the status quo really better than the possibility we might fail?

Another point he brought out is that we are much more likely to act our way into healthy thinking than we are to think our way to healthy acting. I've read that elsewhere, and it makes a lot of sense. It becomes too easy to just keep thinking about how we can do things differently but never move beyond the thinking phase. Nothing really happens until we take action. Just like nobody believed it was possible to run a mile in under four minutes until somebody did it, taking action has the power to change the way we, and others, think about what's possible.

It's a good book, and I do recommend it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Plan your preaching in advance

Each year about this time I post an article recommending that ministers need to plan their preaching in advance. This is especially true for bivocational ministers. It's another way of controlling your time, a topic I covered in yesterday's post.

When I was a pastor I began my preparations in the fall of the year for the next year. The process I used was very simple. I took a legal pad and wrote down every Sunday's date. Because we had evening services each date had two lines, one for the AM service and one for the PM service.Using two lines allowed me to have enough room to record the Sermon title and text for one quarter of the year for each message. I would then go through the calendar and note any special days such as Mother's Day or Easter.

I would then prayerfully consider what needed to be addressed in the upcoming year. On the Sundays between Mother's Day and Father's Day I would normally do a series of sermons on family life. During the summer I would do a series through a book of the Bible or a major section of the Bible such as the Sermon on the Mount. By planning in the fall of the year this gave me a lot of time to get any research material or books I might need for my sermon preparation. Once I filled in major blocks I could begin to look for opportunities for shorter sermon series or individual sermons. Possible titles and text would be written on my sheet of paper in pencil. I always wanted to be able to make a change if circumstances required. My goal was always to prepare at least one quarter in advance.

There are so many advantages to planning your preaching schedule.

  1. When you plan ahead you can focus on sermon preparation instead of trying to decide what you are going to preach on the next Sunday.
  2. You avoid the "Saturday night specials" which usually are not that special.
  3. You allow your worship teams to also plan in advance. During a recent stint as a Transitional Pastor the worship leaders in both services voiced their appreciation for knowing my sermons a month in advance so they could develop a worship service that flowed around the message.
  4. You are prepared for those times when you have an extremely busy week with people in the hospital, funerals, and other situations that would make preparing your sermon difficult.
  5. You will have a more balanced approach to your preaching because you will have more time to prepare messages on the more challenging topics that require more study.
I always began this preparation in the fall because I found that time was a little slower for me, especially the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas when many families were involved in their own activities.

Some question whether such preparation takes away the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I've always believed the Holy Spirit can lead us in preparing a quarter in advance just as well as He can lead our preparation a week at a time. That's not to say that I never changed my message from what I had scheduled. Certainly, the Sunday after 9/11 I did not preach the message I had prepared for that Sunday but preached one more pertinent to that event. There were other times I switched messages around, but these were few and far between.

If you have not prepared your messages in advance I encourage you to try it in 2019. I think you'll be happy with the results.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Bivocational ministry and time

Without exception, in every bivocational ministry conference I've led, the number one challenge those attending voiced was how to properly manage their time. Many bivocational ministers feel overwhelmed by the expectations that are placed upon them by their families, their employers and their churches. I used to joke that I often waved at myself when I passed me on the road, but I'm not the only one who feels that way.

There is a simple reason we so often feel overwhelmed. It's because we are. It's not easy trying to meet everyone's expectations. There are only so many hours in a day, and many of those days contain a lot more things to do than time in which to do them. I offer a workshop on Time Management for Ministers so let me share some of the information I give those who attend this workshop.

  • You have to set priorities for what is important to you. Bivocational ministers will have at least these five.
    1. God
    2. Family
    3. Church
    4. Other Employment
    5. Self-care
  • Once you have determined your priorities you have to own and control your calendar. Begin to write in your calendar what you need to accomplish in each of these five area to remain healthy and live a more balanced life. Certain things are a given such as if you work a 40 hour week those hours are probably not optional.
  • If you want a date night with your spouse you need to put it in the calendar. (I'll help you with this do want a date night.) Put it in your calendar as an important appointment and keep it.
  • Make sure there is time for your own self-care. You need time to exercise, to enjoy a hobby, or to just rest.
  • Do not fill your calendar with things to do. Build margin in your life so when true emergencies happen you will have available time to respond to them. A full calendar isn't impressive; it just reflects a life that is too busy and out of control.
  • Do not allow others to rob you of your time. You may have noticed that people who have nothing to do want to do it with you! That's because you let them.
I cover this, and many other challenges ministers face, in my book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry. Bivocational ministers will always face time pressures, but there are ways to help alleviate them. I've only shared a few of those in this space.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Dealing with differences

I was hoping that after a decision about Judge Kavanaugh was finalized that people would begin to tone down the rhetoric and decide to pursue different ways of discussing our differences. Silly me! I should have known after the events of the past 2-3 years that is not going to happen. We have become a nation that no longer knows how to discuss differences without making personal attacks on people's character, their intelligence, and anything else we can use to degrade one another.

Unfortunately, our President is not exactly leading the way in promoting civil discussion. His tweets often include name calling and sarcastic comments towards those who disagree with him. Some of our elected officials have taken it even further with some having actually encouraged their supporters to attack Republicans and their families in restaurants and other public places, and their supporters have been eager to do so. The fact is, we have precious little leadership today; we only have elected officials who often act more like children than national leaders.

I wish I could say the church has stayed above the fray, but that would not be true. I've seen many comments on social media from Christian leaders and lay persons that were just as hateful and mean-spirited as those coming from non-Christians. In a few cases, I became so weary reading their negative attacks I just unfriended them. I didn't want to drink their poison any more.

A friend of mine recently wrote that she was tired of being called stupid, and I'm sure worse, because she expressed her opinions on various matters. As a church leader I'm sure she did not expect that, especially from other Christians, but that has been her experience. I'm sure she and I would differ on many things politically, but she is certainly not stupid nor does she deserve to be attacked personally for stating her beliefs.

Screaming at one another on social media isn't going to change anyone's mind. Neither is blocking interstates, screaming at elected officials in elevators or running families out of restaurants. If you want to change people's minds engage them in actual discussions. Use real facts. Present actual evidence supporting your arguments. And if you still disagree, then do so civilly, and when election time rolls around vote for those people who best support your values.

Should the church be involved in political questions? Absolutely! Political issues often have moral values attached to them, and the church should be taking the lead when it comes to speaking on moral values. But, let's not resort to the kind of childish attacks we've seen in recent months. If we do, we have nothing better to offer the world than what is currently coming out of Washington, DC.