Monday, January 31, 2011

The Year of the Dog

My wife and I visited a small bivocational church yesterday and had a wonderful time.  As soon as you walked in the building there was a sense of excitement.  When I visit churches I like to hear a "buzz" in the building that comes as people are talking and interacting with one another, and this church had the "buzz."  Some churches sound like a funeral home when you walk in, but this one did not.

In his message the pastor reminded the congregation that he had earlier challenged them that this year would be the year of the dog.  He reminded them of his own little dog that stands only a few inches tall.  It's a small dog, but it doesn't know it's small.  He told of a time when the dog ran outside to run another animal out of their yard.  The pastor said it sounded like his was the biggest dog in the neighborhood when it was challenging the intruder.  He acknowledged that they were a small church, but there was no reason to act small or think small.  He reminded them of the song "Who Let the Dogs Out?" and said that they were letting the dogs out as each person went into their community, their circle of relationships, and shared what Christ was doing in their lives.  It was a clever message and one the congregation was living out.  Their program listed several ministry opportunities in the church all being led by volunteers.

Contrast that to many small churches I talk with and visit.  They have a common complaint and reason why they just can't do anything.  They're too small.  Their resources are too limited.  No one wants to be involved in ministry.  They give a steady litany of reasons why they can't grow and why they no longer have any impact on their community.  To such churches and leaders I would remind them that as long as they keep thinking they're too small, they will always be too small.  If they continue to remind themselves of all the reasons why they cannot do more as a church, they will never accomplish anything for the Kingdom of God.  More times than I care of remember I have been told that their church is just trying to hold on and survive.  Why?  Since when is survival a spiritual goal?

I am often amazed at the wonderful ministries I encounter in small churches.  Each of these churches share something in common.  They don't know they are small and shouldn't be able to something significant for God.  LIke that little dog, they act much bigger than they really are.  They share a vision that is not limited by the size of their church but by what they believe God has called them as a church to do.  Rather than looking for excuses why they can't do something, they just do it.  And lives are changed forever.

What challenges do you have that are greater than your apparent abilities?  What are you tackling that appear to be bigger than you are?  What is your church doing that, when it is accomplished, you will have to say, "That was a God-thing because we could never have done that by ourselves."?  I'd like to hear your answers.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Campbellsville University

If you have young people thinking about college may I suggest they consider attending Campbellsville University in Campbellsville, Kentucky.  For several years I have served on the Church Relations Council for the school.  Our Executive Committee meeting occurred yesterday on the campus, and once again I was blown away by all the things happening there right now and their plans for the future.  If there ever was a time for Christian higher education it is now, and Campbellsville University is delivering the goods.  Consider just a few facts about this university.

  • 21 consecutive semesters of record enrollment.
  • US News and World Report rank it as one of America's best Christian Colleges and ranked it among the top 25 colleges in the South for the fourth consecutive year and 3rd in the South for "Up-and-Coming Schools."
  • Ranked as a Military Friendly School in G. I. Jobs magazine.
  • 18th in the nation and 1st in the South for international students among baccalaureate granting institutions.
  • 7 Mid-South Conference Championships
  • Ranked in the top 20 Most Improved Program in all of college football
  • 124 students and faculty went on mission trips during the 2010 Christmas break resulting in hundreds of decisions for Christ
I could go on and on listing recent achievements of this school, but it's also important to know that it has an agressive vision for the future.  They are preparing to build new dorms for students who live on campus and are starting new regional sites across Kentucky.  New programs of study are being developed.  New facilities are also being developed to house some of their existing schools.  They offer classes on-line to make it possible for students to take courses more convenient to their schedules.

The School of Theology has some excellent professors that, in my opinion, are as fine as you will find in any seminary or university.  The school offers a Master of Theology degree designed to develop anyone called to pastoral ministry.  This school also offers an on-line program specifically designed for bivocational ministers who have not had the opportunity to attend seminary.  It is an excellent program that all bivocational ministers should consider.

This is a school that believes that character development is an important part of a student's education.  In a time when so many colleges and universities have adopted an anything goes mentality it is good to know that there are still some schools that believe in developing the whole person, and Campbellsville University does that.  Your future college students will find that Campbellsville University may be exactly what they want, and I encourage you and them to look into this fine school.  You can get much more information about Campbellsville University at or contact me for more information.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Each year I try to do something different for my devotional reading.  Many years I will read through the Bible as I did again last year.  Some years I read a number of commentaries and other resources as I did a few years ago with the book of Romans.  As I considered what I would focus on for my devotional reading this year I settled on reading apologetics.  In particular, I am reading some of Ravi Zacharias' books.  Over the years he has become one of my favorite authors and speakers.  In addition to reading his books I download his podcasts to my I-Pod to listen to while driving.  I also recently discovered William Lane Craig's podcasts, and I have added him to my regular listening each week.  He is another excellent speaker in the area of apologetics.

Why apologetics?  In our current society there are so many assaults on our faith.  Much of the music we hear, the movies we watch, many in the media, and some of the books and magazines we read all at least challenge our beliefs, if not outright attack them, that we hold as Christians.  In light of that continual onslaught even the  firmest of faiths can become shaken over time.  For me, reading books that present an apologetic defense of the Christian faith and hearing excellent speakers address the issues of the 21st century from a biblical perspective helps keep me grounded in my own faith in God.

I am currently reading Zacharias' book Can Man Live Without God?.  There is a move today to promote the concept that man can be good without God.  This is certainly not a new concept, but it seems to be one that the atheists have returned to the forefront of their challenges of the Christian faith,  Throughout the book Zacharias proves how empty that philosophy is.  Eliminate God from life and we
remove moral absolutes from the equation.  At that point every person is free to choose his or her own morality leading to complete chaos.  Sounds a little biblical doesn't it?  In Judges 21: 25 we read, "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes."  Even a brief reading of life in Israel during those times illustrates the chaos and futility of living without a moral code that comes from a greater authority than our own feelings of right and wrong.

As I visit different churches each week I hear very little apologetic preaching.  I think that is a tragedy.  Unless we can provide believers with a solid biblical foundation for their faith we will continue to see them tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine that comes along.  We will continue to see our young people going off to secular colleges and universities, and in some cases Christian schools, to have their faith savaged by secular professors whose only goal it seems is to destroy people's faith in God.

We have a lot of feel good preaching both on television and in our churches.  At the other extreme we have some preachers who feel it is their calling to beat their sheep each week.  What we need are preachers who will give their congregations a foundation for their faith that will stand against all the pressures that will come against them in their journey through life.  That means that we who preach must first ensure that our own faith is solidly rooted in Christ and the Word of God, and, secondly, it requires that we spend the time necessary to develop messages that will deepen the faith of our listeners.  Such preaching will not tickle the ears of some, but this may well be one of the greatest needs in our churches today.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Church foreclosures

The Wall Street Journal reports that since 2008 almost 200 religious facilities have been foreclosed on by banks.  The two years prior to that there were eight such foreclosures and virtually none in the decade before that.  Clearly, our national economic crisis is having a negative impact on churches.  According to the article there are perhaps hundreds of additional churches that will be facing foreclosure or bankruptcy in the near future.

This impact isn't limited to foreclosures however.  I know some churches that are severely strapped by their mortgage payments to the point that their ability to do ministry is quite limited.  There simply isn't money available to do ministry; it's all tied up in making their mortgage payment.  I know of at least one church that is struggling to find a new pastor because of their mortgage payment.  In better times, they were making payments ahead of schedule, but now they are finding it difficult to offer a salary that will attract a pastor with the experience and skills this church needs. 

Too many churches operated under the premise of "if we build it they will come" only to find out that only works in movies.  Churches expanded for an anticipated growth that never developed.  In fact, rather than growing some of these churches experienced a drop in attendance.  One church that stretched itself for a new mortgage had a serious drop in attendance due to a conflict that erupted.  As people began to leave the church their finances followed leaving them struggling to pay a mortgage payment, staff salaries, and offer programming.  Other churches saw their offerings drop, not because of people leaving but because of the declining finances of their members.  It's hard to tithe on an unemployment check.

It's always difficult to predict the future, but some believe that we will not see a major increase in the numbers of people attending traditional churches in the near future.  As the Builder generation continues to shrink churches will find that much of their financial support has come from that generation.  Succeeding generations are not making up the difference as long-time members pass away or move to warmer climates.  The younger generations are not as committed to church or giving as the older generations.  An increasing number of the younger generations are becoming involved in house churches and other non-traditional church settings and are unlikely to return to traditional churches any time soon, if ever.

All of this is to say that now is probably not a great time to be building new ministry facilities.  That is not to say that such building is always wrong.  I know one small, bivocational church that just voted to add on to their fellowship facility.  They have outgrown their current one and need the additional space.  They are not building for anticipated growth; they are building because of growth that has already occurred.  Perhaps more importantly, they plan a very modest addition to their existing facility and have the money in hand to pay for it.  They will incur no debt to build this addition, and it will not limit the ministries they are currently doing.

Limiting a church's ability to do ministry by incurring large debt on building new facilities seems foolish in today's economy.  I think it is important to remember that buildings are merely tools for ministry; they are a means to an end, not the end itself.  IF the church facilities are limiting the church's ability to do ministry, and IF the church has the funds to pay for an addition or new facility, and IF the church is convinced that new facilities are part of God's vision for that church, then go for it.  But, if any of these aspects are missing I would be very cautious about building anything right now except the Kingdom of God.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Leader or dictator

Anyone who has read my books or attended one of my workshops knows that I believe in strong pastoral leadership.  If one is called to lead, then he or she should lead.  If a church calls a pastor to lead then that church should allow that person to lead.  However, there is a difference between being a leader and being a dictator.

A lay person recently called to tell me about problems existing in their church with their current pastor.  Anyone who disagrees with this person is ridiculed, ignored, or asked to resign their positions.  This person had been an effective leader in that church for three decades, strongly supported previous pastors, faithfully tithed, but now she was finding she could no longer attend the church due to the pastor's dictatorial ways.  She called desperately wanting to know what could be done.

This was not the first call I had received about this church so I was not surprised about the accusations.  I was also not surprised about the response I received concerning my recommendations.  As I did to the other callers, I encouraged this person to contact the leadership board in the church and ask for an opportunity to meet with them and the pastor to discuss what is happening in the church.  As previous callers had told me, this caller responded that the leaders will not confront this person nor will they address the issue.  I then told the caller that in that case the church deserves the pastoral leadership they are getting.

A healthy church will be one that enjoys strong pastoral leadership, but not dictatorship.  A healthy church is one in which the pastor can accept constructive criticism regarding his or her ministry in that church.  Every pastor has blind spots that will not be seen until they are pointed out by someone with the courage to speak up, and a pastor should welcome such input as it can only strengthen his or her ministry in that church and in the future.

Unfortunately, when a church selects lay persons to leadership positions who will not lead, who do not have the courage to confront obvious wrong in their church, that church will quickly struggle.  Good people will not allow themselves to be abused by others and will leave the congregation in search of another one.  They will take their leadership talents, their financial support, and their efforts elsewhere.  Soon the church will consist only of those who are so needy and desperate that they are willing to accept pastoral abuse, and the church will quickly spiral downhill. 

This is what is happening in this church.  A once great congregation is being reduced to ruin because of the actions of a pastor that no one is willing to confront.  This pastor has mistaken strong pastoral leadership with a "my way or the highway" approach to ministry, and he is abetted in this wrong-headed approach to ministry by a board lacking in courage unwilling to confront this style of pastoral leadership.  It is a sad thing to see.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Embracing change

This past Christmas our daughter gave my wife and I each a Nook Color reader.  Neither of us were sure this would be a gift we would use.  Both of us read quite a bit, but we weren't sure that we would enjoy reading a book on an electronic gadget.  I like holding a book, highlighting important sections, and writing in the margins to interact with the material.  But, we were not about to disappoint our daughter so we registered our Nooks and downloaded a book to read.  Since Christmas I have read three books on the Nook and two "real" books.  This morning I was looking for a new book to read and realized that I had rejected two or three because they were not available on Nook!  Earlier this week my wife told me she really enjoys her Nook and has downloaded two books that won't even be available on the device for another month or two.   The other evening I realized that each of us were sitting in the living room reading our Nooks and listening to Pandora, an online radio station that personalizes the music they plan based on the preferences you give them.  (We were listening to different styles of music.)  I started laughing and told my wife that we had come a long way for a couple in their 60s!

This post isn't a plug for Nook versus Kindle.  Both are fine readers as I'm sure some of their competitors are.  This is about being willing to try new things.  Had someone other than a family member given us the Nooks I'm not sure we might not have returned them for the money.  But, we chose to try them out, primarily to honor the gift our daughter gave us, and we've found out that we really enjoy them.  Plus, we learned about Pandora and have the added benefit of listening to that station as well.

How many times have we be challenged to consider doing something different only to reject it without even giving it a try or even much thought?  How many times have our congregations done the same thing when some new ministry has been proposed?  Even worse, how many blessings have we missed for those rejections?

The fact is, change is going to to happen whether we embrace it or not.  Now, we can choose to reject change, but that doesn't mean that the change won't happen.  It will just happen somewhere else, and we'll find ourselves being left behind in a world that no longer exists. I'm afraid that describes too many of our churches, and, quite honestly, it describes too many of our pastors.  God brings us opportunities for new ministries and new ways of doing things, and because of fear or tradition we refuse to take advantage of the new opportunities.  We sing the favorite hymn of many churches, "I Shall Not Be Moved."  Our rejection of these opportunities doesn't make them go away.  God simply raises up another church, often down the road from ours, who will embrace those opportunities.  We are left behind wondering why we can't grow and have the ministries that these new churches enjoy.

I am not advocating change for the sake of change.  That's stupid.  What I am calling for is that we become more aware of new ministry opportunities around us and a willingness to respond to those opportunities.  It's all right to stick your toe in the water before jumping in.  You may decide that you will try some new thing for six months or one year before fully committing to it.  There is often great wisdom in such a decision, especially if the change you are making is a major one.  This allows people time to adjust to the change; it allows the church to evaluate how well the change is working; and it often reduces the initial reaction that often comes when new things are proposed. 

There are now three churches in my Area that wanted to make major changes in the way they were structured and governed.  What each of them did was invite their congregations to agree to suspend their church constitution for two or three years and operate under a new proposed constitution.  At the end of the agreed time the church would evaluate how well the new structure was working and could decide then whether or not to make the change permanent.  The first church stayed with the new structure.  The second church still has about a year to go in their trial period.  The third church just began their trial, and I now have a fourth church that is voting on doing something similar next month.  This is proving to be an effective way to introduce major change into a church.

What needs to change in your church that would allow it to more effectively minister to your community?  How do you feel personally about those changes?  How would your congregation respond if you took those changes to them for consideration?  If rejection is the first word that comes to your mind, why?  Is it due to fear?  Tradition? Control issues?  Genuine lack of resources?  Identify the cause of the possible rejection and ask yourself how that cause could be addressed.  Then ask yourself what the potential gains would be if you embraced the change.  If the gains are substantial then I suggest it is worth the risk and the time spent in overcoming the challenges.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Leaders or followers

There are many ways we try to measure how well our churches are doing.  We measure the number of members in our churches, average attendance, the numbers of people attending Sunday school or small groups, the amount of the offering, the number of baptisms, the number of new people who join our churches, and the number of people who leave our churches.  All of these figures can be important when we are trying to decide how well we are doing, but I think there is an even more important measurement we can take.  How many of the people in your church are developing as leaders?

When we count the number of people attending any event we are merely counting warm bodies.  The perception is that the higher the number the more successful our church is.  That may not necessarily be the case.  There are any number of ways you can entice people to attend an event in your church.  The real question is how many of those people are involved in ministries?  How many of them currently serve in some leadership capacity in your church, and how many are developing as future leaders?  Warm bodies are followers, and the goal of a church leader should not be to see how many followers he or she can attract.  The goal should be to see how many leaders he or she can develop, and how many of them are personally involved in some type of ministry.  It will be the leaders that will have the greatest impact on the church and surrounding community, not the number of followers.

Everything rises and falls on leadership.  Most of us have heard that numerous times.  To increase our ministry presence in the community we need more leaders in our churches.  It will be the leaders who will enable our churches to grow both numerically and spiritually.  This is why it is important that we are intentionally developing our current and future leadership.

Earlier today I met with a new pastor of a good size church.  This pastor has been in the ministry for a number of years and has enjoyed a very successful ministry, but he has never pastored a church as large as this one.  We talked for over an hour, and much of that conversation centered around the leadership in his new church.  Not once did we mention the numbers of people who attend this church.  Our focus was on the leadership in this church and the various ways they went about their ministries.  He is excited about the future ministry he will enjoy in this church, and that excitement comes from the persons he is working with and the skills and commitment they possess.  If you want to be excited about the future ministry of your church it is necessary to be developing leaders in your church.

This may be a good goal for 2011.  You may want to spend the first month or two taking a good look at the leadership potential of people in your congregation.  Once you've identified some prospective leaders try to understand what training they will need to develop into leaders, and then offer to provide that training to them.  This needs to be very intentional on the part of the pastor, and it may mean that you have to back off a little on some of the maintenance work you spend much of your time doing to be able to devote additional time to leadership development.  While you're working with your future leaders don't forget your current leaders.  What training do they need to become even better leaders?  As you focus on leadership development you are laying the foundation for future ministry which will lead to a healthier church and a growing church.

Some bivocational ministers will read this and worry that they may only have one or two people in their congregations that really demonstrate any leadership potential.  Instead of seeing that as a negative, rejoice that you could identify one or two people and begin with them.  We often make the mistake that we have to have great numbers to make a difference, and that's simply not true.  Take what you have, develop them, and see what happens.  My guess is that as they begin to provide leadership in your church you will find additional people who can be trained, and you can work with them.  As this cycle continues you will have a number of potential leaders in the pipeline being developed to provide ministry leadership.  I would much rather have one or two potential leaders to work with than to have 50 followers who are waiting to see what I'll do next.  I think you would, too.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reaching out to the business community

This morning I heard from a bivocational church that told me of their plans for a block party for local businesses to be held in the spring.  There are approximately two dozen businesses in their small community, and the church is having an event specifically planned for their owners and employees.  I think this is a great way to do outreach and provide ministry to an often overlooked group of people.

For 15 years I was the owner of a small business.  It was not uncommon for people to come with their hands out wanting donations for one cause or another.  As much as possible I tried to give to most of these causes.  It was good publicity and the right thing to do.  But, not once in those years did anyone ever come into my office asking if there was anything they could do for me.  No church or Christian ever came in asking if they could pray for me or my employees.  No one invited me to any activity that did not involve trying to sell me something.

I have often thought about that and determined that if I returned to pastoral ministry that might be a group of people I would intentionally reach out to.  Business owners face a multitude of stresses and pressures, especially in today's economy.  While some are believers and involved in their local churches, many others do not.  Many of these businesses are open on Sundays, so even if they wanted to attend church services they would not be able to do so.  Who ministers to these people?  The answer is not many.  I just think this could be a great ministry opportunity for a church to reach out to people who are often overlooked.

At this time I don't know what all is planned at the upcoming block party this church is hosting, but there are numerous things that can be done.  It could be something as simple as providing a meal and some words of appreciation for all these businesses do for the community.  Churches that want to do more could offer some video training on leadership principles that are especially appropriate for business leaders.  At one time John Maxwell had an annual live video conference designed for business, government, and religious leaders.  I attended one of these day-long events held at a local church and left there encouraged and refreshed.  A Christian business person could be invited to come and speak on how he or she has developed a business influenced by his or her Christian beliefs and values.

None of these suggestions would cost much money.  The church that hosted the Maxwell video conference I attended sold tickets to offset their costs, and it was still less expensive than if I had driven to a conference center somewhere to attend the event.  At very little cost to your church you could become known as the church that reaches out to the business leaders of your community.  A block party could be followed up by asking for appointments to meet individually with the leaders for prayer or to just talk about some of the challenges they are facing.  I see tremendous ministry opportunities available to the church that reaches out to the business community in their neighborhood.  Could this be your church?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Reaching out to the hurting

This week I received word that a bivocational pastor that I have known for many years lost his home in a fire.  No one was home when the fire began, so there were no injuries, but there was also nothing saved.  They were left with the clothes they were wearing when they left home that morning.  I can think of few things that would be more devastating than to lose everything in a house fire - family pictures, keepsakes, furniture, books, files, etc.  Insurance can help replace the house and material items, but it can't recover the lost pictures and other things that make each family special.

Word has spread quickly of the loss, and many churches are responding.  Several have contacted me asking how they can help and where assistance can be sent.  Other nearby pastors and people have surrounded this family with their love and support.  I can only imagine the pain and hurt they experienced when they realized their home was gone, but I'm certain they are appreciating the support they are receiving from so many different people and churches.

The church is never better than when it is reaching out to those in need.  It is there that we see the love of God we profess expressed in action, and it is there that those outside the church see the church as it really is.  All around us are hurting people, and as we address the things that cause them pain we are showing Christ to them.  I would encourage you to always be aware of those around you who might be hurting and seek to find ways to minister to them.  It will do both of you much good.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The purpose of a home

In my devotional reading this morning I found these words: "The primary purpose of a home is to reflect and to distribute the love of Christ.  Anything that usurps that is idolatrous."

As I re-read those words several times I wondered how many times I failed to reflect and distribute the love of Christ to my family.  As bivocational ministers we usually have many things demanding our attention, and it becomes easy to give our best energies to outside demands and overlook or neglect the needs of our own families.  Just as the plumber's home often has leaky faucets because he is busy fixing everyone else's leaks, we can be so busy being a pastor to others that we fail to be a pastor to our loved ones.  As I often explain in workshops, the church I served had many pastors before me and will have many follow me.  I will be the only husband my wife has, and I will be the only father my children know.  Do their needs not deserve my best energies?

In recent weeks I have heard from a number of people who are feeling a sense of call to bivocational ministry.  Virtually every one has admitted that their primary concern is for their families.  My resposne to them has been to affirm that concern because it is valid and important to consider.  My advice to them is that if they do enter bivocational ministry they have to make their families a priority from the beginning.  The church that calls them has to know of this priority and be on board with it.  I have known some churches that believed that their needs should be more important than the minister's family, and in my opinion such churches do not deserve a pastor.  When contacted by ministers in such churches my advice has always been that if the church is not willing to change that mindset they needed to leave as quickly as possible as it is toxic to their families and to their own well-being.

The value you give to your family is not only important to them; it is also an important example to others.  People need to see examples of healthy families.  Notice, I didn't say perfect families.  As we all know quite well the families of ministers are no more perfect than other families.  We have our challenges, our failures, and our disappointments just as all families do.  But, such struggles do not prevent us from having healthy families that are able to work through those challenges in love and respect and commitment.  That is a much needed example to both the unchurched and to the churched world.  It is also a way by which we can reflect and distribute the love of Christ to those outside our families.

"The primary purpose of a home is to reflect and to distribute the love of Christ.  Anything that usurps that is idolatrous."  Reflect on these words today.  You may want to write them down and put them on your desk or some other place where you will frequently see them.  Most importantly, look for ways to live them out this week and in the weeks to come.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The church's response to a national tragedy

Yesterday's post addressed the tragedy that occurred in Tucson and the incivility that exists in our nation that I believe was largely responsible for it.  If you have not read that post I encourage you to do so now before continuing this one because I want to follow up my thoughts from yesterday.

My words could have been understood to be words of compromise, that we are to accept all ideas and beliefs as equally valid.  That is not what I meant to convey.  I believe in absolute truth and believe that two contradicting statements cannot both be true.   As a Christian I believe the Christian faith is true, and any belief system that contradicts the teachings of Christianity cannot be true.  I do not believe that every lifestyle choice is equally valid.  I further believe that the church has a responsibility to proclaim its beliefs and to challenge those who make choices that are in opposition to the clear teachings of Scripture.

What I am advocating for is that the church do so with humility and grace.  As I said yesterday, every person ever born was created in the image of God.  Each person is part of the world that God so loved that He gave His only begotten Son.  Every person you meet is a person of inherent worth because Jesus died for that individual.  At the least this means that every person we meet are to be treated with dignity and respect.  They may not believe as you wish they did; they may have made moral choices with which you disagree; but as the recipients of God's grace ourselves we cannot do less than offer them that same grace.

There is great incivility in our society today, but such incivility exists as well in the church.  As Ravi Zacharias argues in his book, God hasn't failed us, but the church often does.  A person stumbles and instead of helping that person up too many in the church want to kick him while he's down.  A pastor is terminated by his church because of a moral failure by one of his children.  Kick.  A wife is divorced by her husband for another woman and the church shuns her.  Kick.  A single mother with four children begin attending a church and within a few weeks a "helpful" member tells her the mistakes she is making in raising her children.  Kick.  I've seen each of these, and more, occur within churches.  We proclaim the love of God for all mankind and speak often of grace, but too often we seem to find it hard to demonstrate either one through our actions.

How loving is it when a church pickets the burial of a serviceman because they believe his death is God's judgment on a nation for its sins?  Is this not part of what Zacharias said was the tendency in our world today for ideology to be more important than people?  What is the image of the church, and, more importantly, of God that is broadcast to the world when they see such events in the media?  Until the church's walk matches its talk our message of the grace of God will be meaningless.

To restore civility to our nation will take more than new laws and changes in political rhetoric.  It will take no less than a change of human hearts, and no law or political leader can bring about such a change.  It is only when men and women are introduced to the person of Jesus Christ and allow Him entrance into their lives can such change occur.  Yes, the church must stand for truth, but in a way that honors the dignity of each person.  We cannot compromise our values and beliefs, but we must also not try to force those values and beliefs on others.  We lovingly discuss and debate these values and beliefs with others and then trust God to use the seeds we've planted to change hearts.  The church must confront wrong behavior, but we must also remember that each of us are the recipients of God's grace that forgave our own wrong behavior, and still does, and not refuse to extend such grace to others.  And we must always proclaim Jesus Christ and Him crucified as the only hope for all mankind because that message alone will change the hearts of men and women.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A national tragedy

By now we are all aware of the tragedy that occurred in Tucson.  It shocks our sensibilities that such a thing could happen in our nation.  Because it is so shocking people have immediately tried to make sense of why it happened and began to point fingers at the causes and/or people they thought was most responsible.  Newspaper columnists blamed radio and television personalities who they believe engage in reporting that inflames the passions of people.  Most of that blame was directed towards conservative personalities; few seemed to recognize that liberal commentators are not immune from making statements that can be taken out of context and have the power to inflame passion as well.  Both political parties were defending themselves while accusing the other side of using this tragedy to promote their own agendas.  Of course, Sarah Palin was blamed by the left because, after all, she is the cause of all the problems that now exist in our nation.

There is no doubt that the recent election campaign was brutal.  Strong words were used on both sides, and some candidates were especially unpleasant.  Television and radio programs that address political issues seemed even more strident than usual.  Occasionally, interviews turned into shouting matches that only ended when they had to take a commercial break.  Later, the host would comment on the good spirited debate that had just occurred.  There was no debate!  There was no discussion of the issues; there was shouting and blaming but no debate.

In one of my books I mentioned the problem of incivility in our nation.  It is not just in the political realm but exists in every area of our society today.  It exists in the church, in the marketplace, on the highways, and in the family.  We are a society that believes that the world does revolve around us and that our opinion is the only one that really matters.  It has become increasingly difficult for us to accept people who have differing beliefs.  Such people are too often seen as the enemy, and it is difficult to co-exist with enemies.

In my devotional reading this morning I read these words by Ravi Zacharias, "The reason for all the bloodshed in the world is that somebody somewhere has deemed ideology more valuable than human life."  As I read those words I thought that summed up the cause of what happened in Tucson as well as any reasons I've heard so far.  A young man who believed that his ideas were more important that the life of a human being decided to end her life.  He failed but took the lives of other innocent people and forever changed the life of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and his own.

There are many people with whom I disagree regarding their political views, their moral choics, their religious beliefs, and how they drive down the highways.  But, no matter how much I may disagree with them I must remember that these are individuals who have been created in the image of God and for whom Jesus Christ gave His life.  Because of this they deserve to be treated with the same dignity that all people deserve.  Can we discuss our differences?  In a free society we must, but we can be civil about it and engage in real debate, not heated rhetoric that produces more heat than light.  We can leave that discussion without either one of us changing our perspectives but having learned more about how the other thinks our relationship with that individual can deepen.

I hope the politicians and the media people do tone down their language.  If our leaders can learn from this and resolve to work together to resolve the problems of our nation, then good can come out of this tragedy.  But, until our society learns to treat one another with respect and restore the civility that once existed I'm afraid we will see more events like the one that occurred in Tucson.  It is here that the church has a key role to play because this change will not occur until a change takes place in the human heart.

New laws will not change the hearts of people.  They can at best control behavior, but obviously they are not effective if people ignore the laws that already exist.  Until we begin to see the value that exists in each human being, until we can begin to see them through the eyes of God, we will remain a society that believes that ideology trumps human life.  The church alone has that message and must begin to proclaim it and live it.  If we fail to do so, we will have failed to speak a prophetic word in the face of this tragedy, and that will be an even greater tragedy.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A good Sunday

In my current ministry I directly relate to 77 churches.  Nearly every week I am in a different church as I try to visit each of them as often as possible.  Yesterday morning my wife and I visited a small, rural church led by a bivocational pastor.  He was a lay leader in another church in their association until a few years ago when this church asked him if he would be willing to serve as their pastor.  This church had been struggling for some time and needed a steady hand to guide them.  He and I sat down as he shared his doubts about his ability to serve as a pastor.  After we discussed it and he and his wife spent some time praying, he decided to accept the call.  I'm glad he did.

We had a very enjoyable worship experience in that church yesterday.  The church has grown both numerically and spiritually.  They are discussing adding on to their fellowship area as they now don't have enough room for church dinners.  The church is active in associational activities including ministries to other communities.  This pastor began attending a leadership development school we established in our judicatory and continues to grow as a Christian and a leader.  It is so exciting to see the changes in him and the church.

Across our nation we have countless numbers of small churches like this one was a few years ago.  They have lost their ability to have any impact on their communities.  They are drifting along trying to survive.  Their members can tell stories of great ministry in the past but cannot share a current vision for the future.  For some reason they have lost their sense of purpose.  Many of them need a person who can come alongside them, love them, and provide Godly leadership to help them get back on the right path.  This church, and dozens of others like them that I know, have demonstrated what can happen when such a person is found.

Let's pray that God will raise up an army of bivocational ministers who will accept this call of God on their lives.  Challenge the persons in your church who might have that calling to pray about it and see how God will lead them.  Yes, you might lose some of your best leaders, but the Kingdom of God will benefit from their serving in their new capacities.  Find ways to help develop these individuals through educational and ministry opportunities.  We have thousands of churches across America right now waiting for such leaders, and the impact these churches and individuals can have is immeasurable.

Friday, January 7, 2011

What is your call?

I am convinced that some people are called into bivocational ministry.  Some will argue that the call to ministry should always be to a fully-funded position and that ministry is too important to spend part of one's time doing other work.  They believe that persons become bivocational only because they cannot find a fully-funded position, and that such a situation will only exist until those people can find a church that can afford to provide a living salary and benefits.  While I have known some ministers who accepted becoming bivocational because of the financial situation in their churches, I remain convinced that many bivocational ministers feel a specific calling to that ministry.

Where do you fit in?  Do you believe you have been called specifically to bivocational ministry, or did you become bivocational out of financial necessity?  Are you waiting until you can find a fully-funded position so you can leave the bivocational life behind?

In my situation, I felt called to the church I served for twenty years.  This was a church that was bivocational because of its finances, but the finances of the church were not a concern for me when the church asked me to become their pastor.  I knew this was the place where God wanted me to serve, and I was able to do so and provide for my family because I had another job that provided for our financial needs.  I never really expected to leave that church until I retired, so I was quite surprised twenty years later when God opened up a door to the ministry in which I currently serve.  He gave me just as clear a call to accept this role as He did when I first felt called to the church.  Interestingly enough, during my tenure as the pastor of that church I was invited by other churches to consider becoming their pastor, and some of these were fully-funded churches.  In every case I asked about the possibility of remaining bivocational.  Most were opposed to me remaining bivocational, and our discussions ended there.  I just felt my call was to serve as a bivocational minister and was not willing to give that up.  My current ministry is considered fully-funded, but I am given enough leeway to write, lead conferences and workshops around the country, and do other things that I still consider myself bivocational.

This is a brief look at my sense of call to bivocational ministry, but I am really interested in hearing yours.  Again, do you feel specifically called to bivocational ministry, or are you doing bivocational ministry until a fully-funded position opens up?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A matter of faith

Earlier this week I watched a debate between Bill O'Reilly and the head of an atheist organization.  It was a very interesting discussion.  O'Reilly was asking what this group hoped to gain by posting billboards ridiculing God and those who believe in Him.  The atheist leader denied ridiculing Christians but only in what they claimed to believe.  He said that religion is a scam, that most people realize it is, and even that many people sitting in church pews each week are atheists and they hope to give these people the courage to admit it.  He kept claiming to be giving facts to prove his various claims, but when questioned by O'Reilly he could not substantiate a single one of them.  I think he believed he had accomplished something by appearing on the program, but in my opinion the only thing he accomplished was showing how empty atheism really is.

As O'Reilly pointed out in the discussion, this individual was not relying on facts; he was relying on his beliefs.  He is certainly entitled to have his beliefs the same as any American, but that does not make his beliefs true.  Throughout history atheists have written books designed to disprove the existence of God, and quite often they point to certain facts to back up their claims.  In recent years we have seen an increase in these books by people such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others who claim all kinds of scientific evidences to disprove the existence of God.  If you want to read an interesting response to their writings I would encourage you to read The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and It's Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski.  Berlinski is a secular writer who challenges their claims and shows how false they really are.  You'll also enjoy his humor as he asks some questions of the atheists that poke huge holes in their "scientific findings."

Atheism is a belief system, not a scientific fact.  The thing that I find so interesting is the question of why atheists try so hard to prove the non-existence of a God they don't believe exists.  If He doesn't exist, they why should they care if someone else believes He does?  What difference does it make to them?  Why would someone invest their entire lives trying to prove something doesn't exist or isn't true?  Would it not be a better use of one's time and intellect to find solutions that would benefit mankind?

The fact is that atheists do believe in a god.  They believe in the god-of-the-gaps.  They can't explain how the earth came into existence; they cannot explain creation without a creator; they cannot explain the existence of intelligence without a source for that intelligence; they cannot explain anything without pointing to unknown gaps in time in which these things occurred on their own without any creator making them possible.  My question then is which God requires the greater faith?  Is it easier to believe in the God of the Bible or the god-of-the-gaps?  I find it much easier to believe in the God of the Bible who created the universe and gives it purpose and meaning and who offers life even beyond this one than a pseudo-science belief system that offers no answers, no hope, and no purpose.

For many years I have preached that atheists hold on to their beliefs, not because they make sense, but because they fit the moral values and lifestyle they want to practice.  If they admit the God of the Bible is true they would have to address how they live their lives.  If there is no God then there are no moral absolutes, and each person is free to live as he or she pleases.  However, if God does exist then there are moral absolutes that cannot be violated without consequences, and this they do not want.  I will close with one more question.  If there are no moral absolutes, then why are our prisons full of people who have violated the laws of our nation?  Where do we get the authority to create laws if there are no moral absolutes, and what is the basis for that authority?

Like the atheists before them the new atheists will soon be gone from the scene.  Others will rise to take their place and spout their own "scientific" facts disproving the existence of God.  However, the one thing that will not change is that God will remain continuing to offer hope and purpose to all who will believe in Him.  This is what you and I have been called to proclaim.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Transitioning to bivocational ministry

For the past 2-3 years our judicatory has seen a number of churches that need to move from having a fully-funded pastor to a bivocational pastor.  This usually occurs when the church is looking for a new pastor, but on rare occasions the church and current pastor has agreed for the pastor to find outside employment to supplement his or her income.  This is usually a difficult transition for these churches.  It raises questions of self-esteem for the church and causes them to wonder what has happened to them over the years to make this transition necessary.  Today, I am meeting with the leaders of such a church.  Their pastor will retire in a few weeks, and some initial conversations I've had with some of the leaders tell me this church will probably be looking for a bivocational minister.  I am meeting with all the board to see if everyone is in agreement with this change and what they believe will be the congregation's reaction to becoming bivocational.

There are several problems that occur when this transition needs to happen.  One is what I mentioned earlier: the church feels that it has failed in some way.  In most cases, the church has steadily lost members at the same time that the financial needs of their pastors and families have grown.  Health insurance cost is a big factor.  This decline in the number of church members usually happened over a long period of time, and while people realized their numbers were shrinking they didn't realize what a problem it was until they found they could no longer afford a fully-funded pastor.  Here is where the self-esteem problems come in.  Many in the congregation wonder what is wrong with them that people are no longer attracted to their church.

A second problem is that we have no good system for helping churches make this transition.  Our denomination has a placement system designed to assist churches find candidates for their pastorate, but it really doesn't work well for bivocational churches.  It is probably even less effective for churches transitioning from being fully-funded to bivocational.  One of my goals this year is to try to develop a system that will be more effective.

The third problem is that we do not have enough persons who feel called to bivocational ministry.  For a fully-funded church we can do a nation-wide search, but bivocational ministers usually come from the community where the church is located.  Few people feel led to move across the country and find a new job to pastor a church that pays $200 a week.  The ones who do are usually church planters, not bivocational pastors.  We simply must help identify persons God has called to this ministry, encourage them to accept that call, and provide them with training that will allow them to be effective.

The upside is that every church in my area that has made this transition has benefitted from it.  We're only talking about 2-3 churches so far, but they are actually enjoying healthy ministries and tell me this was a good move for them.  Right now I have two churches that will probably be making this transition in 2011, and I pray that it they experience good results as well.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A fun weekend

Our daughter and grandkids came up for a long holiday weekend.  There was a large multi-estate auction on Thursday and Friday near my home so she came up so we could attend.  She enjoys going to auctions as much as I do.  We had a great time and got some incredible deals on some nice items.  Some we'll keep and some I'll put on e-bay to resell.  As I was reading Friday's paper I found another estate auction being held on New Year's day.  She was planning on going home that morning, but there were some items being sold she was interested in and decided to stay and attend that one as well.  I was a little tired and not really wanting to go, but I agreed to go with her and just see if there was anything I might be interested in buying.  Well...we loaded up the car again before they closed the auction down!

Granny and the grandkids had a great time making cookies.  We had fun at the auctions, and had an even better time each evening just enjoying one another.  The last evening I showed some old (1960s) slides of when I was in the Navy.  Our grandkids did not know I was in the Navy and had never seen some of the places I had been to.  These were slides I had not viewed in years, and yet I remembered the story of each of them clearly.  The grandkids had a lot of questions about what some of the slides meant, and we had a good time sharing some family history with them.  They also saw some pictures of their mother when she was one year old and other slides of her as she grew up.

This was a very good weekend filled with much laughter, a lot of good eating, and the making of some great memories.  Family history was passed down to a younger generation who will hopefully have a greater appreciation for their heritage.

Are there stories you need to pass down to new generations in your family?  What special family memories will you make in January?  I have a pretty full calendar this week, but I'm thankful for the time spent with our family this past weekend, and I'm thankful we took the opportunity to create new family memories.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Responding to the challenges

I am beginning my devotional time this year reading Ravi Zacharias' book Has Christianity Failed You.  In the book he tells of attending a Prayer Breakfast in a continent that faced many serious issues.  As the various heads of state of the different countries spoke he began to realize how serious these problems really were.  During their time together one president admitted to Zacharias, "Our cumulative wisdom is unable to meet the daunting challenges of our time."

Those words leaped off the page at me because they ring true for us as well.  Two years ago we elected "Change we can believe in."  In last fall's election much of that change was rejected as Americans voted their belief that the nation needed to go in a different direction.  The problem with both elections is that we are trusting in people and mindsets that cannot solve the issues we face.

We now have a national debt that threatens to bankrupt the United States.  We are fighting two wars that cost us incredible amounts of money.  Despite what some critics say, these wars are against forces that would destroy us in a heartbeat if they have the opportunity, and they must be won.  Millions of homes have been lost to foreclosure, and some economists claim that the problems in the housing market are not over.  Others claim that until housing improves our economy will not improve.  Millions of people are unemployed and have been for months.  School systems are mandated to provide programs that are unfunded forcing many of them to reduce teachers and combine classes to remain solvent.  In many communities the schools are broken and children are not receiving the education they will need to be successful in the 21st century.  Our infrastructure is in poor repair.  Illegal immigration continues to be a serious problem as we cannot control our borders.  Drug usage is literally destroying entire sections of some communities and the lives of millions of people.  The racialization of America continues driving people from different races and cultures further apart in every measurable way.  I could go on and on listing the problems facing our nation, and these same problems, and more, exist in many other countries as well.  And to quote the president Zacharias referred to, "Our cumulative wisdom is unable to meet the daunting challenges of our time."

If this nation is to be saved the answers will not come out of the White House or the state capitals.  As smart as these individuals may be, they cannot provide the solutions to our problems.  At best, they can only offer band-aid solutions to the problems and complain that their opponent's refusal to apply the band-aids is the reason their solutions are not working.

2 Chronicles 7:14 tells us "If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land." As a nation we have turned our back on God, and until we repent and turn back to Him we cannot expect the problems we now experience will ever improve.  Nothing less than a spritual revival will restore health to this nation and the world, and such a revival must begin within the church.  We cannot depend on the ACLU, the atheists, the Hollywood crowd, or those trying to force Christianity out of our society to repent and seek the face of God.  It must begin in churches, and for such a revival to begin in churches it must first begin in the hearts of church leaders.

Do not think your church is too small to make a difference in the world.  As a church leader begin to pray now for revival in your own heart and then in the life of your church.  I believe that genuine revival begins in the heart of a person, then it spreads to a church, then to a community, then to a larger community, until it finally begins to impact a nation.  You and your church can be the start of such a revival, and it is only that kind of revival that will bring healing to our nation and to the world.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Stay thirsty, my friends

Perhaps it's not appropriate to include a tag line for a beer commercial in a blog for bivocational ministers, but I really like this particular commercial.  (Why is it the beer companies seem to have the best commercials?)  The spokesman for this commercial is billed as the "world's most interesting man," and his tag line is "Stay thirsty, my friends."

Actually, this is a great line for each of us to incorporate into our lives, but not for beer.  Ps. 42: 1-2 reads, "As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God."  How many of you find yourself thirsting for God?  Was there ever a time when it seemed you just could not get enough of God?  Has that changed for you?  So often, after one has been involved in ministry for a time, we can actually find ourselves drifting away from God.  When it happens it's usually a degree at a time.  There's normally no great shifting away from God.  We just find ourselves so busy trying to balance all the various demands in our lives, including ministry, that we give God less and less of ourselves.  For a time nothing really seems to be different, but if it continues we will eventually find our spiritually lives dry, and we will find we are depending more and more on previous experiences with God to sustain us.

You can drink a lot of water one day, but you will still be thirsty the next.  There is only so long any of us can live without water.  Our bodies not only crave it; our bodies are dependent upon it for life.  A relationship with God that is not sustained daily will cause our spirits to cry out for such a relationship, and if that cry is ignored long enough our spirits can shrivel up and begin to die within us.  Soon, we find ourselves spiritually dry and God a long ways off.

Don't allow that to happen to you in 2011.  Set aside time each day to spend alone with God.  Connect with Him, and allow Him to refresh you spiritually each day.  Stay thirsty, my friends.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year

I want to wish all the readers of this blog a very Happy New Year!  It is my prayer for you that each of you are richly blessed in 2011 in all you do.  For some, 2010 was a great year while for others they are glad it's over.  Regardless of which camp you are in, today marks the beginning of a brand new year with new challenges and new opportunities.

It is my hope that instead of having New Year's resolutions you have set some goals for the new year that include your family, your ministry, your own self-care, and a growing relationship with God.  As you work towards those goals you will be amazed at how you meaningful you will find your work to be and the difference your life will make in the lives of others.