Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Try talking

Two years ago I was leading a workshop for a group of pastors and was discussing the need for churches to become more missional in their ministry.  I explained that we needed to do a better job of identifying existing needs in our communities and finding ways to respond to those needs.  When I mentioned that many churches really do not know what needs exist in the communities they serve one pastor raised his hand and asked, "Well, how can we find that out?"  I have to admit that I was stunned for a moment.  Knowing that I can be a little sarcastic when someone asks a really dumb question I tried to answer as calmly as possible, "Well, we can go out of our churches into the communities and ask people what they need.  We can talk to them about what is going on in their lives, and see if God gives us insight into how we might address that need.  But, it all depends on us engaging our communities and that demands that we enter into the lives of the people who live there."

I would like to take that thought one step further.  Not only do we need to go into the community to talk to people, we need to invite people into our churches to continue that conversation.  I begin one of my sermons by telling of the pastor who invited four people from the community to explain to the congregation why they didn't attend their church or any church.  Each Sunday for one month a different person came and spoke.  They ranged from the chief of police to an angry lesbian who had been raised in a pastor's home.  Some people didn't like what they heard and left that church.  Others realized they needed to make some changes if they wanted to be faithful to their call to impact their community for the Kingdom of God.

Another way to continue that conversation is to identify leaders within communities your church feels led to impact and invite them to meet with your church leaders.  A great example of this working well would be for the church that wants to develop stronger ties with the people of a different culture or race.  A church might realize that the community that surrounds it has changed its racial make-up over the years, and their church no longer reflects that community.  A good first step to change that might be to invite leaders from the new community to have regular meetings with the church leadership to discuss community needs and ways the church might address those.  A really courageous church might even consider inviting these leaders to have a seat on the church board to ensure these conversations are on-going.

These suggestions are risky, but if we want to see our churches move from a maintanance mindset to a missional one we are going to have to take risks.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that our churches continue to grow smaller while people are moving further away from God.  If we want to change these two trends we must become willing to take risks in order to do ministry.  2011 might be a good time to start.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The day after Christmas

My wife and I had a great time at our daughter's house on Christmas day.  We exchanged a lot of presents and ate way too much good food.  The grandkids seemed to enjoy their gifts, and almost everything we bought fit the intended recipient.  A predicted 4 inch snowfall didn't happen which made the drive home much easier that night.

The next morning I was trying to decide which of my churches to attend.  I serve 77 churches and couldn't decide which one to attend for worship.  One church that I had not been to in awhile kept coming to mind so I decided that was the one I would go to.

It's a small church, and the morning after Christmas the attendance was down even further.  The pastor seemed embarrassed by the small number that was there especially when I surprised him by walking in.  However, there were two there who definitely needed to be there that morning.  One was the Holy Spirit, and the other was a young woman who invited Jesus Christ into her life at the close of the service.  It was obvious that the Spirit had been speaking to her heart during the message when she briefly shared her appreciation to the church for ministering to her in the recent months she had been attending the services there.  The pastor invited another woman to the front as well stating that she had been very instrumental in this lady coming to church and, on that morning, coming to faith.  I do not know what gifts this lady may have received on Christmas day, but on the day after Christmas she received the most precious gift of all...a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Your church may not be the biggest in town, but that does not mean that you cannot see great things happen in your church in 2011.  Every day can be a celebration of the birth of the Savior, and every day we can offer people the gift that only God can provide.  Begin now praying for those people who need to receive the gift of eternal life.  Become involved in their lives and introduce them to the One who can bring them the gifts they really need...forgiveness, grace, unconditional love, and eternal life.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

I want to wish each of you a very Merry Christmas!  May you and your family have a blessed Christmas day and an even more blessed 2011.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Who is my neighbor?

This question was of course asked of Jesus by one of the Jewish scribes, and it led to the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Today, in the 21st century, it is a question that needs to be asked again because the whole concept of community has changed.  We can no longer focus simply on those people in a certain geographic area because that is no longer where many of our relationships exist.  Through social media such as Facebook many people today have closer relationships with people who live thousands of miles away than they do their next door neighbor.  Community is not so much a matter of geography as it is a matter of sharing common interests.  Today I am related to people through my blog, my web site, Facebook, and e-mails.  It is not uncommon for me to talk more often to people across the country and in other countries through these various forms of media than I talk to my neighbors.  I can only talk to my neighbors if we both happen to be outside at the same time.  I can communicate with my on-line community at any time.  This is having a profound effect on churches, and I believe will have an even greater impact on how we "do church" in the future.

Many younger people today see little value in church membership.  One of the reasons for this is that they don't want to be tied down to one church.  In fact, one of the trends today is that people may be involved in two or more churches at one time. They may attend one church on Sunday morning because they find the worship meaningful and attend a different church during the week because they appreciate the depth of the Bible study.  Their children may attend yet a third church because of the quality of their youth ministry.  It's not too difficult to see that a cyber church could come into the picture as part of their spiritual life.  That church with the quality Bible study may be a cyber church, and the messages are downloaded as a podcast that can be listened to at the convenience of the listener.  I listen to the messages of 3-4 ministers each week on my I-Pod that are automatically downloaded on my computer each week.  Another scenario I can see is when a person moves to another community.  Rather than joining a new church a person may decide to remain connected to their old church back home.  Services can be downloaded or even watched in real time.  Sunday school classes may have a blog they can participate in.  If the site offers on-line giving it's easy for them to continue tithing to their old church.

All of these possibilities means the church must rethink how it ministers to its community, and in fact must rethink what its community might be.  While this presents challenges to the smaller, bivocational church it also offers some options that did not exist even a few years ago.  With a web site or blog your church can now minister to people throughout the world.  You might struggle to have more than 30 people sitting in the pews on Sunday morning, but at the same time there may be many times that involved in some way with your church through the Internet.  I am now a "member"of two of the churches I serve in my Area through Facebook.  I now know what is going on in those churches just as if I attended there every week.  It's really neat, and it means that your church can now go into all the world sharing the gospel and ministering to hurting people.

Web sites can be very inexpensive.  I pay less than $20 a month for mine.  This blog doesn't cost me anything.  Through these two channels alone I touch people across the country and around the world without ever leaving southern Indiana.  Your church can do the same.

Who is your neighbor?  Today it is anyone living anywhere in the world.  Although your primary responsibility is to your Jerusalem, your church also has a responsibility to take the gospel to the end of the earth, and today any church can do that.  It's an exciting time we live in, my friend.  Enjoy it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Balancing life

This weekend I read an article about a busy female executive who struggled trying to balance the demands of her position with the demands of her family.  One day her young daughter wanted to talk, and the mother explained that she didn't have time to talk right now because she had to leave to meet with an important client.  Her daughter looked up at her and asked, "When will I be old enough to become an important client?"  Ouch!  Some of us in bivocational ministry may be able to identify with this article.

As you think about your goals and priorities for 2011 I encourage you to make time for all the important things in your life.  The needs of your family and your own personal self-care should certainly be at the top of that list.  I explained to my ordination council many years ago that my family came before my church work.  One pastor in the council claimed to have a problem with that statement.  I reminded him that the church I was serving was over 150 years old and had many pastors during those years.  If the Lord tarries, they will have many pastors follow me.  But, I am the only husband my wife has and the only father my children know, and my primary responsibility has to be to them. 

I have found that I'm seldom successful in finding time for important things; I need to make the time.  That means I have to put the weekly dates my wife and I take in my calendar in advance so other things don't fill those days.  It means we need to schedule vacations and trips to see our kids and grandkids early in the year or we soon find that there are no open weeks available for such things.  We will do that right after the Christmas holidays.  If someone calls wanting me to do something during that time I can simply tell them I am already booked for that week and we need to find another time for what they want to do.

There will come a time when our lives will end.  More important than anything else we'll leave behind are the memories we created.  I don't want my family to remember me for all the meetings I attended or any recognition I may have received.  I want them to remember the times we spent together laughing and playing and loving one another.  Make sure your life includes those times as well.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Discipleship in the smaller church

Our region will make discipleship its primary emphasis in 2011.  We've currently scheduled Jeffrey Jones to lead a workshp in our region in February to address the question of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in the 21st century.  I'm excited about this emphasis because I really feel that making disciples is something the church often overlooks or goes about it the wrong way.

For many years we've associated discipleship with education.  When church leaders are asked about the discipleship program in their church too many of them want to talk about their Sunday school or small group programs.  We offer Sunday schools on Sunday mornings, Sunday night and mid-week Bible studies, perhaps a women's Bible study during the week, and another one for men on Saturday morning.  The theory seems to be that if we fill people's heads with enough information they will become disciples.  Unfortunately, this works better in theory than in practice.

Discipleship requires education plus involvement.  People have to be given the opportunity to use the information they have been taught, and we don't want to make the mistake of believing that they must first pass all the Bible study programs we offer before they can become involved in ministry.  Jesus didn't make His disciples graduate from seminary or from a church-led education program before they could be engaged in ministry.  He sent them out to minister while they were being taught.  This is the model the church today needs to recapture.

One of the problems is that if we expect members of our congregations to attend all the Bible studies and other church functions we offer, when do we expect them to be involved in ministry?  I recently read somewhere that the average person is willing to give four hours a week to church activities.  If this is true, it would be very easy to use up all that time in church activities while never providing them the time or opportunity to be involved in ministry outside the church.

Don't accuse me of being opposed to Bible study.  I think we need to provide as many ways as possible to help people understand the teachings of Scripture.  In the process let's not overlook the value of involving people in activities that will allow them to use what they are learning.  Let's teach our people the truths of the Bible and provide opportunities for them to be involved in ministry to others.  That is the process that will produce disciples.

I would be interested in knowing how your church balances that process.  What is your church doing to develop 21st century disciples, and how effective is it?  If you don't have an intentional plan for discipling your congregation what could you do in 2011 to begin such a plan?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Intentional ministry

What is your church planning to intentionally do to make a difference in people's lives in 2011?  As I think back to the years I served as a pastor I regret the many times our church was just drifting along enjoying the journey.  We were comfortable.  We enjoyed spending time with one another.  There was very little conflict during that twenty year pastorate.  But, there were also a lot of times when we really weren't doing much to make a difference.  The times when we were most alive and most effective were the times we were focused on some specific area of ministry, and it was during those times that people's lives were impacted for the good.

I want to encourage you to spend these last few days of 2010 praying about how God would like to use your church in the coming year.  As I repeatedly say in this blog and in my workshops, I am convinced that God has a specific vision for each church.  It does not matter how large or small your church is, the average age of the congregation, the amount of money you have in your church bank account, or the style of music in your worship service.  God has a unique purpose for your church in 2011.  There are ministries that your church can offer your community that will make a difference.  I also believe that the most exciting time in the life of your church is when your congregation identifies what that purpose is and seeks to fulfill it.

The leadership cannot force that purpose upon a congregation, but unless the leadership leads in the discovery process, the church is likely to continue to drift along.  What are the steps a church can take in discerning God's purpose for their congregation?  There are many ways to approach this, but you must begin with prayer.  Earnestly ask God what your church could do in 2011 that will have the greatest impact on the most people.  Help people understand their spiritual giftedness and help them identify ministries for which they feel passion.  Identify existing needs in your community.  You will find that where the gifts of the people, the passion of the people, and the needs of the community intersect is where God desires your church to minister.  If you can discover this place of service you will find 2011 can be one of the most exciting years of ministry you will ever know.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Transition to bivocational ministry

Over the past few months I've talked with some churches that have been served by fully-funded pastors and now find that they need to look for a bivocational minister.  Many of these churches struggle with this transition.  One of their struggles has to do with their self-image.  They wonder why they can no longer attract a fully-funded pastor or why their finances are such that they could not offer a suitable salary even if a fully-funded pastor was willing to come to their church.  Others struggle with issues of expectations.  Too often, they may pay a bivocational salary, but they still have the same expectations of the pastor they've always had.  Just this week I talked with an individual who is considering a call to a bivocational church.  Prior to him, this church has been served by a fully-funded pastor.  I encouraged him to help the church identify their expectations of his responsibilities before accepting the call.  Unless this church recognizes the limitations he will bring to his pastorate, and they are willing to step in and assume some of the ministry responsibilities, it may find itself in some real conflict within a very short period of time.

The denomination in which I serve has a model we use to assist our churches when they are searching for a new pastor, but the model we have is often not helpful for bivocational churches.  I've been able to modify it a little to provide some assistance, but we need to develop a new model to assist bivocational churches that are seeking pastoral leadership.  We especially need a model for those churches that are making the transition from fully-funded to bivocational leadership.  One of my goals for 2011 is to develop such a model, and I can use your help.

I would be very interested in hearing your stories if you have been involved in helping a church transition from a fully-funded pastorate to a bivocational one.  I want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly that occurred in that transition.  It would be helpful to hear from both bivocational ministers and from lay leaders who have been involved in the transition so we can hear from both sides.  If you are a pastor who has been through this transition with your church, please send me your story and ask one of your lay leaders to share his or her perspective on how that transtion went and the obstacles that had to be overcome for it to be successful.

Many of us in judicatory leadership have churches that will be making this transition in the next few years, and I think developing this model could be a great help to all of us.  Your stories can help create that model.  Please send them to dbickers@roadrunner.com.  Thank you in advance for your assistance.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Holiday joy

A few days ago I posted about the problem some people have with depression around the holidays.  This can also be a problem for church leaders.  As pastors and other church leaders there are always additional pressures around the holiday season.  Often, there are additional church dinners which makes healthy eating a challenge.  There may be special programs that require additional rehearsals and more time from the leaders.  Trying to meet the special needs of the people I mentioned in the earlier post can present challenges.  Added to all the extra demands on the leaders around the holidays, there are also the extra family needs.  Christmas presents need to be purchased and family times planned.  The holidays are stressful enough on a family without seeing the pastor parent have to leave a holiday dinner or family gathering early because of a church emergency.

I want to encourage you to build some margin in your life this holiday season.  Not all emergencies are truly emergencies.  You may need to say no to some request during the holidays in order to have more time to spend with your family.  Eliminate unnecessary committee meetings during the month of December.  (Your committee members will appreciate this as well.)  Spend less time in the church office and be harder to reach on your cell phone.  After all, there are a lot of dead zones out there!  Your church continues to need your leadership, but your family needs you for the holidays as well, so find a good balance.  If I was going to err, I would want to err on the side of spending extra time with family.  After all, twenty years from now the church will probably refer to you as "Pastor What-was-his-name?"  Twenty years from now you will want your family to still have wonderful memories of those special Christmas moments you created over the years. To me, that is still the truest ministry of all.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Favorite books for 2010 (part 2)

Today we will complete the list I began yesterday of my top 10 favorite reads for 2010.

5.  Nelson Searcy, Ignite: How to Spark Immediate Growth in Your Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009).  This was another book I used as a textbook in the course I taught this fall.  I have become a big fan of Searcy and have read most of his books.  In this book he promotes the idea of having several Big Days in the life of your church to which your members can invite their friends.  One of his ideas that I really like is that God will not send new people to a church that is not prepared to receive them.  It is important that a church not only expects to see new people each Sunday, but that they are ready for them when they do come.  This is a great book for anyone serious about wanting to see their church reach new people for the Kingdom of God.

4.  Ed Stetzer, Richie Stanley, and Jason Hayes, Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009).  This is another book on reaching people, especially the twenty and thirty year olds that many churches are not reaching.  Based upon solid research the authors provide some of the reasons why this age group is absent from so many of our churches and what they are seeking from churches.  They identified four markers that must exist in a church that is serious about reaching this younger generation: community, depth and content, responsibility, and cross-generational connection.  The good news is that this generation is spiritually hungry and is open to the gospel.  The better news is that this book provides some solid help in reaching them.

3.  Tim Irwin, Derailed: Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership
(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009).  This is not a book about ministry.  It was written for business leaders, but the message found in this book certainly applies to anyone in a ministry role as well.  Irwin looks at six high profile business leaders who experienced major failures in their leadership.  After describing those failures and the results of those failures, he identifies five important lessons leaders should learn from reading this book.  #1 - Character trumps competence.  #2 - Arrogance is the mother of all derailers.  #3 - Lack of self-/other awareness is a common denominator of all derailments.  #4 - We are always who we are...especially under stress.  #5 - Derailment is not inevitable, but without attention to development it is probable.  I found this book to be a very interesting and troubling read.  What made it troubling is that I have known ministry leaders who failed as a result of all five of these factors.  Many of them are no longer in ministry today.  This book could have a profound impact on your own success as a leader, and I certainly recommend it.

2.  Tim Clinton and Joshua Straub, God Attachment: Why You Believe, Act, and Feel the Way You Do About God (New York: Howard Books, 2010).  Everyone believes something about God.  Some are willing to give their lives for God while others find the concept of God offensive.  One reaches out to God from his hospital bed while in the next bed another person curses God.  Why such contrasts?  The authors, both Christian counselors and professors, believe the answer is found in the relationship styles we developed as we were growing up.  They identify four styles: secure attachment, anxious, avoidant, and fearful.  Not only to these styles impact the way we relate to other people, they impact the way we relate to God.  Fortunately, they do more than diagnose; they also offer healing and the means for us to become securely attached to God in a healthy, meaningful way that can have positive effects on our lives.  Reading this book gave me some insights into my own relationship style and helped me identify some ways I could improve it.  I found it to be an extremely helpful book, and I believe it would benefit anyone to read it.

1.  Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007).  We have now come to my favorite book for 2010!  We all remember the tragic news of a shooting in 2006 inside an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania.  Five Amish girls were killed and five others wounded.  We were shocked at the news, but perhaps many of us were even more shocked a few days later when we began hearing of how the Amish community were offering forgiveness and grace to the family of the shooter.  Many wondered how they could do that, especially so quickly.  The authors have studied the Amish for years and present us with a look at the simple faith of the Amish that makes such forgiveness possible.  Throughout the book I was reminded of my own struggles with offering forgiveness to persons who had wronged me.  Simple biblical truths about forgiveness and grace came alive to me through the examples of the people discussed in the book.  This was a book that deeply moved me, challenged me, and at times convicted me of how far short I often fall in my Christian walk.  I believe this is a must read for anyone struggling to forgive someone or for the person who is wanting to grow deeper in his or her walk with God.

Well, this is my list.  There are books here that will help you grow spiritually, develop your leadership skills, and help your church have a greater impact on your community.  If you are looking for something to read and not sure what you're looking for, you can use these as a starting point.  Check them out in your library or the next time you're in your favorite bookstore.  You can order any of them from amazon.com by clicking on the title in this post.  If you do decide to read any of them, please let me know what you thought of them.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Favorite books for 2010

Last year I posted my favorite ten book reads for 2009.  Several commented positively on the list so I decided I would do it again this year.  I am slightly over my average of reading one book a week this year, and it wasn't easy to narrow the list down to a top 10, but for one reason or another these are the books that made it to the top.  I will list 6-10 today and give my five top favorites tomorrow.

10.  Elmer L. Towns, Praying the Lord's Prayer For Spiritual Breakthrough (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1997).  This is actually a re-read of a book that has helped my prayer life and my spiritual life.  Since reading this book the first time I have followed Towns' example of praying the Lord's Prayer when I lay down at night and when I first wake up in the morning.  Praying it slowly and thinking about what I'm really saying has become a very meaningful part of my spiritual disciplines.  I recommend reading this book as part of your daily devotional time.

9.  David Berlinski, The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and it's Scientific Pretensions (New York: Basic Books, 2009).  Berlinski is a secular Jew who holds a PhD from Princeton University.  This book provides a wonderful defense of religious thought and it challenges the thinking of today's well-known atheists.  It can get a little heavy at times and is not a quick read, but it is an enjoyable one.  I love the humor Berlinski brings as he asks the questions that the atheists cannot answer.  One of my favorites in the book is "The thesis that there are no absolute truths - is it an absolute truth?  If it is, then some truths are absolute after all, and if some are, why not others?  If it is not, just why should we pay it any mind, since its claims on our attention will vary according to circumstance?" (129-130)

8.  John C. Maxwell, Everyone Communicates, Few Connect: What the Most Effective People Do Differently (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010).  One cannot be successful in ministry, in family life, in business, or in any other endeavor without the ability to communicate well and connect with others.  Leaders of smaller churches especially need to remember that one of the most important characteristics needed for an effective ministry is the ability to relate well with others.  In my opinion, this is one of Maxwell's best books in recent years as he addresses this important skill.  Everyone can learn to better connect with people, and this book can help you learn those skills.

7.  Bill Hybels, Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2008).  This little book contains 76 leadership proverbs that Hybels has learned as the pastor at Willow Creek Community Church.  He breaks these principals down into four categories - vision and strategy, teamwork and communication, activity and assessment, and personal integrity.  I found it to be full of excellent advice for anyone in a position of leadership.

6.  Kevin G. Ford, Transforming Church: Bringing Out the Good to Get to Great (Carol Stream, IL: SaltRiver, 2007).  Church transformation seems to be a key word today.  Most church leaders know the church must transform itself if it hopes to effectively minister in the 21st century, but many confess they don't know how to bring about such transformation.  This book can help with that.  Based upon solid studies of the American church, Ford gives the reader five indicators that can be used to evaluate his or her church and the steps that can lead to transformation.  I used this book as a textbook for a college class I taught this year on "Growing a Healthy Church."

Tomorrow I will share my top five reads for 2010.  Before closing this post, let me share one book that made honorable mention.  I didn't feel it was appropriate to include it in the top 10 since it was one of my books, so I decided to give it honorable mention.  The Healthy Pastor is being very well-received by pastors of all size churches and across denominational lines.  The subtitle explains the book well: Easing the Stresses of Ministry.  We will never eliminate ministry stress, but I tried in this book to demonstrate some ways that those stresses can be significantly reduced.  As the stress levels becomes less, our effectiveness increases.  I certainly recommend you add this to your 2011 reading list.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Holiday depression

One of the ironic things about holidays is that in the midst of all the joy and excitement some people struggle with depression and other feelings of sadness.  It may be due to the loss of a loved one who will not be part of the holiday celebration.  It could be the result of finances that do not allow for gift giving.  We could probably make a long list of possible causes and still not include everything, but the end result is that the holidays can be a time of tremendous sadness for a lot of people.

This is a time to bring messages of hope and comfort to the people in your churches.  This can be done through the messages that are preached, the decorations that fill the church buildings, and the special personal things that are done.  The Christmas season is a wonderful time to make sure the widowed, the ill, those in assisted living homes, and others in your church are touched by as many people from your church as possible.  Perhaps a family with small children can "adopt" a senior citizen who is alone for the holidays.  A family that is struggling financially will greatly appreciate some assistance from their church family during the holiday season.  I can remember a couple of Christmases when our church provided all the Christmas dinners and gifts for some families in our congregation that were struggling financially.  Please don't forget the families of your service men and women either during the holiday season.  This can be an especially tough time for them.

The Christmas story is one of hope and joy, and your messages should reflect that.  Lead your congregation in the celebration of the birth of the Savior of the world, and do so in both word and deed.  It will make Christmas brighter for you as well as for those you touch.