Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Are you content with being average?

Not every person is going to be a rock star in his or her chosen field, but I meet too many people who are satisfied with being average. I can tell they are content with average because they do nothing to grow. They refuse to read a book or attend a conference that might stretch them and help them grow. They do the minimum that is required of them. They live average lives, have an average career, and reach the end of their lives and wonder why they never accomplished more than they did.

John Maxwell addresses this kind of thinking in his book The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach Your Potential. I've mentioned before how important this book is for leaders. I'm currently re-reading it for the third time and continue to find new thoughts that I missed the first two times I read it. In the book Maxwell quotes from an article written by Edmund Gaudet who described average this way:

"Average" is what the failures claim to be when their family and friends ask them why they are not more successful.

"Average" is the top of the bottom, the best of the worst, the bottom of the top, the worst of the best. Which of these are you?

"Average" means being run-of-the-mill, mediocre, insignificant, and also-ran, a nonentity.

Being "average" is the lazy person's cop-out; it's lacking the guts to take a stand in life; it's living by default.

Being "average" is to take up space for no purpose; to take the trip through life, but never to pay the fare; to return no interest for God's investment in you.

Being "average" is to pass one's life away with time, rather than to pass one's time away with life; it's to kill time, rather than to work it to death.

To be "average" is to be forgotten once you pass from this life. The successful are remembered for their contributions; the failures are remembered because they tried; but the "average," the silent majority, is just forgotten.

To be "average" is to commit the great crime one can against one's self, humanity, and one's God. The saddest epitaph is this: "Here lies Mr. and Mrs. Average - here lies the remains of what might have been, except for their belief that they were only "average."

Most people have been given the ability to rise above average, and to refuse to do so is to deny who God created you to be. The Bible says that we are a royal Priesthood, a chosen people. That doesn't sound average to me. The Bible tells us that every believer in Jesus Christ has been given spiritual gifts that are to be used to minister to others. That doesn't sound average to me either.

No pastor, no Christian, no church should be willing to be average. We are children of the King of Kings. We serve the Lord of Lords. We must now "press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14)." Let each of us refuse to settle for being average but instead let us strive to become the persons God has created us to be and fulfill the purposes he has for our lives. Believe me, that won't be average!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Five questions the church needs to answer

The church in the 21st century is facing great challenges today. In some parts of the world Christians are facing persecution and even death at the hands of terrorists who despise Christianity. In the US the church is finding opposition from community governments, universities, a liberal media, the New Atheists, and vast numbers of people who view the church irrelevant, at best, or immoral, at worst.

We are told that 80 percent of the churches in America today are plateaued or declining. The vast majority of those churches are declining.  Approximately 5,000 churches in the US close their doors every year. Surveys reveal that the fastest growing religious group today are the nones. These are the people who when asked their religious preference respond with "none." Many churches are growing smaller and grayer each year as they find increasingly difficult to reach youth and young adults.

One of the disturbing things about all this is that the church seems to be unaware that any of this is happening. They continue to function Sunday after Sunday much as they did 20, 30, even fifty years ago. The same thing can be said of many denominations and seminaries. Denominational leaders wring their hands and express concern about where the church is going, but few are doing anything to intentionally address these problems. Many seminaries continue to train their students to be managers of institutions that are rapidly disappearing.

What can churches do given the realities we face? I believe we need to start by asking some hard questions. The answers to these questions will determine our next steps. Although I am sure there are more than five questions every church needs to answer, let's begin with these five.

  • Why are we here? This goes to purpose and mission. If we cannot identify a God-given purpose our church is in trouble.  If that purpose does not involve the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, our church is still in trouble.  But, why does your church exist in your community in 2015?
  • How will we accomplish our purpose? This goes to vision. Each church must have a God-given vision for how it will accomplish its purpose. Without a common, unifying vision for ministry a church will spend much of its time drifting, in chaos, and dealing with conflict.
  • What will hinder us from achieving our purpose? This goes to leadership. A clearly defined mission and vision accomplishes little without someone to lead the implementation. After 30+ years in the ministry, with the last 14 years in denominational work, I am convinced that the pastor is the one who must provide primary leadership.
  • Who are we here for? The church must be the one organization that exists for its non-members. The church was never intended to be a hotel for saints but a hospital for sinners. Unfortunately, too many churches exist for its members. If you're not sure where your church is on this question just check out your church checkbook and program calendar.
  • Is what we're doing here today worth the life of the Son of God? When we look at what many churches spend their time and resources doing we really have to wonder if that is really why Jesus gave his life.
These are not comfortable questions to ask, and the answers may be even more uncomfortable. However, when we have the right answers to these questions we have a foundation for ministry that our churches can build upon.

You may want to begin by taking these questions to your leadership and inviting them to work through the answers. After your leadership has had a chance to work on the questions it will be time to take them to the congregation. Working as a church to answer these questions can bring about a turnaround in the way your church thinks and does ministry.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The cost of personal growth

Leaders must be committed to personal growth. One cannot lead people further than he or she has gone. Failing to grow as a leader means that the leader will fail to lead his or her church or organization to its full potential.  However, there is a cost to personal growth that many people never talk about. A decision to grow sometimes means that relationships are lost.

When I was first saved I had a number of friends where I worked that did not share my new faith. Some of the things I used to do with them I no longer was interested in doing. We slowly drifted apart while I found new friends who had the same interests I had. When I became a pastor there were people who were not happy with that decision. Some of them tried to talk me out of doing that, and when they failed they were soon not around very long.

A number of years ago an interesting experiment was done with monkeys. Several were placed in a cage with bananas hanging from the top. When a monkey would climb up to get a banana it would be sprayed with water from a hose. This happened to each of the monkeys. One of the monkeys was then taken out of a cage and replaced with another one. As it climbed up to get a banana the others pulled it down so it wouldn't get sprayed. The experimenters continued to replace the monkeys until there were no monkeys in the cage that had been sprayed. It didn't matter. When one would try to get a banana the others would pull it down. Since they couldn't have a banana they didn't want any monkey to get a banana.

This is the way some people are. For whatever reason they have decided to stop growing, and now they don't want anyone else to grow either. They will try to discourage you from growing, and if they can't do that they will end their relationship with you. Your growth reminds them of their failure to grow so it's just easier to avoid you.

While it can be painful to lose relationships with people you have known for a long time, it is often helpful to remind yourself that you are not the one who walked away. This is a choice the other people made. It can also be a blessing in disguise. It is very hard to grow if you are surrounded by people who do not want to grow. In fact, one of the best ways to grow as a leader is to spend time with other leaders who are further along in their own growth than you are. Their growth will motivate you, and they are often willing to share the things they have learned along the way with you.

I've heard John Maxwell speak several times, and one of the stories he sometimes tells is how as a young leader he made appointments to spend an hour with well-known leaders. In fact, he offered to pay them for an hour of their time. Many of the people he contacted was willing to meet with him. He would go to these meetings with questions written down that he wanted to ask in order to maximize his time with them. Not only did he learn much from these encounters, it also motivated him to continue to grow as a leader.

One of the leadership laws that Maxwell teaches is that we have to give up in order to grow up. One of the things will often have to give up is our relationships with people who are not interested in growing. Again, it's not that we walk away from those relationships, but it is often the case that they will walk away. As painful as that can be, it is often one of the costs we must pay if we are committed to personal growth.

Friday, April 24, 2015

How will the world know?

Several years ago I read of a new pastor in a community who began to make friends with some of the people in that community who did not attend church. As his relationship with these folks developed he asked each of them why they didn't attend church. He invited four of them to share their stories with the congregation he served. For four weeks each of them in turn shared their story of why they did not attend church.

One was the local sheriff who told the congregation that his department was called to the homes of as many Christians as non-Christians. He felt that if what they believed was true it should change the way they behaved.

The next week the speaker was a lesbian social worker who grew up in a pastor's home. As a child she had witnessed the difference between what church people said they believed and how they acted.

The third person was an official from the local school system. He could not understand why Christians were known more for what they opposed than for what they supported. His experiences with Christians had been mostly negative.

On the final Sunday a local waitress spoke. She told the congregation how everyone at her work hated to work on Sundays. They found church people to be rude and demanding, their children out of control, and to be very poor tippers. As she explained, she can't raise her children on Gospel tracts.

As you might expect, not everyone in the congregation was pleased with this series of messages. Some walked out never to return. What this pastor wanted to do was to show the congregation how unchurched people often saw those who did go to church, and how this influenced their thoughts about both the church and, more importantly, about Christ.

I developed a sermon using this story called "How will the world know?" Scripture is clear that people will know we are Christians by our love. The way we treat one another as well as those outside the church has an impact on how others view the church and Jesus Christ. The way we live our lives will often be the first gospel message some people will hear, and in some cases they will not be interested in hearing a second.

More of us needs to have the courage of the pastor in the above story. I'm sure it pained him to hear the stories of those who were not involved in church. Yet, if we do not ask to hear those stories how will we know what we need to change in order to reach more people? What stories might you hear if you began to ask people in your community why they are not involved in a church? How might you use that information to improve your church's outreach?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

At the end of the year, what has changed?

Most churches have a lot of activities going on. Larger churches usually have something happening at the church seven days a week, and sometimes multiple things. Even in smaller churches there are various activities occurring throughout the year.

A good exercise might be to take the church calendar at the end of the year, review all the activities that have occurred, and then determine how much of an impact those activities had. You may be surprised by what you find.

Many of the things churches do are done out of tradition. Although nobody remembers why the church began a particular activity, it continues today because no one can remember a time it wasn't done. Unfortunately, no one takes the time to evaluate the effectiveness of the activity by looking at how that activity has impacted the church or community.

If the activity does not provide the church with a good return on investment, this does not automatically mean that the activity should be eliminated. Maybe a different approach would produce better results. Maybe it won't, but unless you are willing to experiment you'll never know. And, if you don't take the time to evaluate the results of the activity you will never know that it may not be the most productive use of your time and resources.

A key word for me in recent months has been intentionality. Too often, churches are content to drift along hoping something they do will produce good results. Drifting seldom produces the results you want. Moving forward with intentionality is usually much more effective. Knowing where you want to go and having a plan for how to get there is much better than drifting and hoping you end up in a good place.

Churches can stay busy and yet accomplish very little. Unless the activity is leading somewhere, it is not likely to have a lot of impact on the church or community.

Barbara Corcoran of Shark Tank fame used to fire the bottom 25 percent of her sales force each year. She recognized that these were not earning their keep and was a drain on her organization. What if the church took the same approach to its programming and activities? What if we evaluated everything we did at the end of the year and eliminated the bottom 25 percent that produced the least results?

This may be a radical idea, and it won't be easy for people to give up some of their sacred cows. Some of the things that churches do can be difficult to measure, but I think we must at least try. At a time when many churches are struggling with human and financial resources, we cannot continue to keep programs and activities that are no longer effective.

In many churches, the week between Christmas and New Years is often a slow time. This could be a great time to sit down and begin to evaluate everything your church did that year and see what adjustments need to be made. Become more intentional about doing the things that give you the greatest results, and at the end of the following year you will probably find a lot has changed in your church.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sometimes a church must die

A couple of weeks ago I received a phone call from a church member telling me that their pastor had recently announced his retirement. She was asking me to help the church find a new pastor, and then she told me their church was averaging about 10 people on a typical Sunday.

Not long after that a pastor called to ask for information on a church that had contacted him about becoming their new pastor. He said his current church had about six people attending.

A church that is down to about 20 people on Sunday mornings recently asked their pastor to leave. It will soon begin a search for a new pastor.

In my 30 plus years of working with churches, many of them smaller churches, this is a scene I've witnessed many times. But, we are seeing this kind of situation occurring more frequently now. In some situations, these are good churches that have seen a steady decline in attendance through no real fault of their own. The church I pastored saw half its congregation leave when the US Army took a large section of ground for a munitions testing range. People were uprooted from their homes and farms. Roads were blocked with military fencing. As the people moved away to begin their new lives they found new churches closer to their homes to attend.

Part of my ministry responsibility is to assist our churches in their search for a new pastor, but the reality is that this is becoming more and more difficult. This is even more true for these small churches that have been in decline for years. As I talk with leaders from other denominations I find the problem is not limited to our tribe.

What is the future for these churches? They are really down to two choices. They either have to find a fresh vision from God for ministry and determine they have the human and financial resources to fulfill that vision, or they will have to close. That closure might not happen right away. They may find a layperson in their congregation to provide pastoral leadership, but if they are not able to create new ministries in their church during that time they will eventually run out of people and have to lock their doors.

Some are so far down the decline side of their life cycle they may not be able to survive even if they do identify a new vision for ministry. Their current membership may not have the energy or skills to accomplish that ministry or the needed funding may not be available. In such a situation, perhaps the best thing to do is to celebrate the ministry of the church and turn their remaining resources over to their denomination to be used in new ministries elsewhere. That seems to be better stewardship than simply running through their finances while they try to keep their doors open.

Of course, it's not always easy to know which is the best decision for a church. I know one church that was down to three people when they began looking for a new pastor. They found a retired pastor who had a great reputation in their community who was willing to go there. Within a few weeks the church had about two dozen people attending services there, and it continued to grow from there.

Making the decision to close or to seek new ways of doing ministry is a difficult decision that requires much prayer and discernment.  Approximately 5,000 churches in the US close their doors each year. If that is the decision of the church it is important to celebrate the ministry the church has provided over the many years it has been serving its community and to end its ministry with dignity.

Jesus said in John 12:24, "I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit."  Sometimes a church must die in order for new life to spring forth.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Talking to your church about finances

Most of the churches that I work with share a common expectation when it comes to the pastor's salary and benefit package. When the finance committee begins to discuss it and when the budget for the coming year is about to be discussed in a business meeting, the pastor and family are expected to leave the room.  For some reason, adult Christians can discuss anything in front of the pastor except his or her salary.

In some churches, the pastor is not allowed to request anything regarding salary or benefits. Other churches specify which board or committee the pastor is to approach when making such requests. But, when the final package is being discussed, the pastor is not allowed to participate in that discussion. I consider that to be unfortunate.

Pastors need to be able to talk to people in the church about their finances. Their situations change which means that their salary package may need to change as well.  Sometimes it's not a matter of needing more money; their situation might be addressed by changing the designation of some of the money the pastor receives.  For instance, early in my pastorate I wanted to move closer to the church.  In order to do that I asked that the church designate part of my salary as housing allowance to make it possible for us to buy a home. The amount of money I was being paid did not change, but that change in designation meant I was paying less taxes making more money available to purchase a home. Incidentally, every pastor who does not live in a parsonage should receive a housing allowance.

Some churches have no idea how their pastors are struggling financially. I know of several pastors carrying a huge amount of student loan debt but does not want anyone in the church to know it.  Others are struggling due to medical expenses or some other financial challenges. How many pastors leave the ministry for better paying jobs just to pay their bills? If you are tempted to criticize a pastor for doing this, chances are you've never been harassed by bill collectors and struggling to provide for your family.

Churches and pastors need to do a better job of talking about the pastor's finances. There needs to be much more open and honest dialogue about what the pastor needs and what the church can provide. If such discussion is not permitted in a church this may be a sign that the church is not healthy and has some deep trust issues that need to be explored. If a church insists on keeping all financial discussions secret from the pastor and the majority of the church family, it is fair to wonder what other secrets exist in the church. As I wrote recently, a church is only as healthy as the secrets it keeps.

If such discussions have not occurred before, it may be helpful to invite a denominational leader or consultant to come and lead the discussion. An outside ear and voice can sometimes help reduce the anxiety that such discussions can create.

However you do it, make plans now to begin having open and honest discussions between the pastor and church leaders about the financial needs of the pastor and his or her family. Both the pastor and the church will benefit from such discussions.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The pastor's life must be a disciplined life

At one point in my life I was serving as the bivocational pastor of a small church, working a full-time job in a factory 50 miles north of my home, and attending a Bible school 50 miles south of my home. In addition I was a husband and a father to two active children. It is safe to say that my life was interesting.

In one of the classes I took at the Bible school we were required to write down everything we did in half-hour increments for a week. It's a great exercise if you want to see how you spend your time. When the professor read my chart he remarked that he found it difficult to believe anyone's life was as structured as mine. I explained my situation to him and told him I had no choice but to live a very structured life.

Pastoral ministry is one that requires a certain amount of discipline and structure if one wishes to be effective and productive. Sundays come every seven days, and most pastors are expected to be prepared to share at least one message on that day. No matter what else may happen, your congregation expects a sermon from their pastor. That means time must be spent each week in sermon preparation.

I pastored one church for twenty years. Planning and preparing sermons was one of the things I enjoyed most about the ministry. Usually. I must be honest and admit that there were some weeks I didn't want to study and prepare a sermon. There were some weeks that I had so many demands on my time that it was hard to find the time to prepare. There were other weeks I just didn't want to. I wanted to do other things.

There is a trend among some younger pastors today to not visit the people in their churches. I think that is a mistake. It is in those visits that relationships are built, and in smaller churches those relationships are vital to effective ministry. I tried to visit our members and guests on a regular basis and almost always if they were in the hospital or facing some difficulty in their lives. However, I must admit that sometimes I didn't want to.

There were numerous times in my pastoral ministry when I did things I really didn't want to do, but I knew they were necessary if I wanted to serve my people well.  John Maxwell shares a quote in his book The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach Your Potential, "The successful person has the habit of doing the things that failures don't like to do. The successful person doesn't like doing them either, but his dislike is subordinated to the strength of his purpose."

Effective pastors will spend the time studying and preparing messages that challenge and encourage their congregations because that is what God has called them to do. They will take time to be with people in their churches and communities to develop the kind of relationships that give them the right to speak words of hope and comfort into their lives. It requires discipline on the part of the pastor to do these things when he or she would rather be doing something else.

Every pastor will have times when his or her motives or actions are misunderstood and people begin to question those motives or actions. It takes great discipline to know when to speak up and when to remain quiet. Sometimes, for reasons known only to us, we are not able to defend ourselves and must remain quiet in the midst of accusations. In such times we must be disciplined enough to share our thoughts with God alone.

Pastoral ministry is not an easy calling. We will often be required to do some things we would prefer not to do. We must be disciplined enough to do them anyway if we want to be true to our calling and to the people we serve.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

We become like the people we hang around

1 Corinthians 15:33 warns "Do not be deceived: Evil company corrupts good habits." The apostle Paul understood that we tend to become like the people we spend the most time with. I thought of this biblical truth recently while reading a business blog that promoted the same idea. The author of that blog wrote

  • If you hang around with five confident people, you will be the sixth.
  • If you hang around with five intelligent people, you will be the sixth.
  • If you hang around with five millionaires, you will be the sixth.
  • If you hang around with five idiots, you will be the sixth.
  • If you hang around with five broke people, you will be the sixth.
The same principle is true for those of us in church leadership.

  • If you hang around with five leaders who are growing, you will be the sixth growing leader.
  • If you hang around with five leaders who are always complaining about their churches, you will be the sixth.
  • If you hang around with five Christians who are growing in their faith, you will be the sixth.
  • If you hang around with five Christians who hold to sound theology, you will be the sixth.
  • If you hang around with five Christians who are willing to compromise their faith, you will be the sixth.
We could go on and on. If evil company corrupts good habits, then it is also true that good company promotes good habits. Either way, the people we spend time with are going to have an impact on us for good or evil. Therefore, it is critical to spend time with people who are going to help us grow and achieve the vision God has given us.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

2015-2016 bivocational ministry conferences

Seven years ago I had a sabbatical during which I talked with leaders from several denominations. I was interested in finding out what was happening with bivocational ministry. Without exception, every leader said that bivocational ministry was growing in their denominations and each of them admitted that training such leaders was a challenge. Some were more intentional than others about offering training to their bivocational leadership, but each of them admitted that more needed to be done.

For the past several years I've been privileged to have led numerous conferences and seminars for bivocational and small church leaders. Regardless of denominational affiliation, I've found that most bivocational leaders face the same challenges and the same is true of smaller churches no matter what name is above their door. It has been a joy to work with so many different denominations to help train their bivocational and small church leadership.

Requests are starting to come in now asking about my availability to lead workshops for bivocational and small church leaders in 2015, and I'm sure I'll soon start hearing from denominational leaders wanting to schedule something in 2016. If you think I might be able to help your small church leaders and the churches they service, I encourage you to contact me soon to get on my calendar.

I currently offer several seminars:
  • The Healthy Small Church (This has been my most requested.)
  • Bivocational Ministry for the 21st Century
  • Transforming the Small Church from Maintenance-Minded to Missional
  • The Healthy Pastor: Maintaining Balance in the Ministry
  • Church Hospitality: A Key to Seeing Your First-Time Guests Return
In addition to these, I have developed some special presentations that met specific needs such as keynote messages. I would be glad to do that for your special needs.

If you are a denominational leader, I would be glad to talk with you about presenting one of these seminars to your small church leaders. If you are a pastor and feel that one of these would be a help to you, please forward this article to one of the leaders who could arrange for me to come to your area. Perhaps you are not part of a denomination. I would encourage you to contact other independent pastors in your area to see if they would like to host of one of these events.
In an effort to maintain balance in my own life, I only schedule a few of these events each year.  My schedule tends to fill up fairly quickly so I encourage you to contact me soon if you think I may be able to help your bivocational and small church leaders. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

What every pastor should know 3

Today concludes a three-day look at the book What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Indispensable Rules of Thumb for Leading Your Church by Gary McIntosh and Charles Arn. If you missed the two previous posts I recommend you go back and read them. This is an excellent resource book that can benefit almost any pastor. In these three posts I've only presented some teasers to give the reader a sense of what they will find in the book. Today I want to focus on what they have to say about church renewal or revitalization.

In my opinion, a high percentage of smaller churches are candidates for revitalization. How does a church know when it needs to be revitalized? The authors write that the churches with the greatest need are those who have declined by more than 5 percent over the past ten years and how have fewer than fifty members.

The longer a church is declining the more likely it will eventually close. In the United States between 3,000 to 5,000 churches close each year. Most of these will be smaller churches who, in my opinion, lost their vision for ministry and lacked the resources to remain open.

Sometimes people will ask if their church should merge with another church. My answer is that such mergers usually do not work. As the authors write, consolidating two sick churches does not bring life, it simply prolongs death. They go on to list ten reasons why most church mergers do not succeed. There are exceptions to this, which they also address, but a merger is usually not be best choice for declining churches. Revitalization is a better option.

It is important to recognize that revitalization is not a quick process. The authors point out it takes on average four to seven years to completely renew a church. This means that a pastor serious about leading such revitalization must be willing to commit to the church for at least seven years. It also means that both the pastor and congregation must be patient and not expect a quick turn-around.

Like the other topics covered in this series, renewing a church requires that the church take some intentional actions. It needs to identify what is causing the lack of growth in the church. The authors point to five common barriers that limit growth in most churches. After identifying which ones are creating problems in your church, you must then be willing to address them. Some of these barriers may have become sacred cows in your church and addressing them won't be easy. Again, the authors provide some recommendations that the reader can implement.

This concludes this brief look at this book and some of the topics it covers. Much of what you'll find here is applicable to churches of any size. I'm still reading through the book, but I've found so many things I wish I had known when I pastored our small church. We would have done some things differently that I believe would have greatly benefited our church and the community we served.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

What every pastor should know 2

Yesterday I posted some information that comes from a book I highly recommend every pastor reads, What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Indispensable Rules of Thumb for Leading Your Church by Gary McIntosh and Charles Arn. In that article I focused on some of their findings about visitor retention and how to close the back door of your church. Today, I want to look at some recommendations they have about a church's education program.

Many churches report declining Sunday school attendance figures, and this decline has been occurring for several years. Some smaller churches have nearly abandoned their education programs while others continue to limp alone with only a handful of faithful people attending each week. This problem is not limited to smaller churches. One denominational leaders told me a few years ago that some of their fastest growing churches were seeing their Sunday school attendance decline at almost the same rate as their church was growing. He was very concerned about what this meant for church leadership in the future.

The authors begin this section of the book by stating that one of every five adult education classes should have been started within the last two years. Why? Because new classes grow. The tendency in churches with declining Sunday school programs is to merge their classes. Merged classes usually inhibit growth while creating new classes encourages growth.

Many years ago before beginning my pastoral ministry we became members of a church. The young adult Sunday school class had about 40 people attending, most of them had been in the class for many years. As new members in the church it was very difficult for us to feel comfortable in that class. We didn't have the relationships the others in the class had with one another.

A year or so went by and our pastor asked me to help him start a new young adult class. We didn't ask anyone to leave the existing class although people could if they chose to. Anyone in that age range who came into the church would automatically be directed to our new class. Because it was a new class, new people felt much more comfortable coming there, and it soon grew.

The problem in many smaller churches is that it can be difficult to find a qualified teacher for its existing classes much less for a new class. However, this problem can be overcome by a church being intentional about planning to add classes and identifying persons to train to teach them. Train your teachers and leaders first and then begin to add new classes.

In the book the authors recommend that both short-term and long-term classes be offered to adults. The long-term classes would be a more traditional approach and gives people an opportunity to forge long-lasting relationships. The short-term classes may only meet for a quarter or an even shorter period of time and focus on a specific topic that is of interest to the class. At the end of the time period the class can be asked if they would like to continue meeting and study another topic. If they agree you can offer another short-term class with perhaps a different teaching leading it.

The short-term classes have some advantages. It can be a safe place for people who are not used to attending Sunday school classes. They are not making a long-term commitment and there are other new people in the class. It may be easier to get teachers who only have to commit for a short-term. This can appeal to a lot of people with the busy lifestyles many have today. It also provides an opportunity for persons to study subjects that meet their needs at that time in their life. This is especially true when the class has input into the subject matter that will be studied.

Again, the authors of this book provide a lot of practical information to help a church improve its education program. If you grow your education program you will grow both your people and your church.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

What every pastor should know

Every writer comes across a book now and then that makes him or her wish they had written that book.  That's the way I feel about What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Indispensable Rules of Thumb for Leading Your Church by Gary McIntosh and Charles Arn. Even more than wishing I had written the book, I wish the book had been available when I served as a pastor.

One of the great things about this book is that it is not necessarily one you want to sit down and read from front to back. The 101 rules of thumb are grouped together in sections which makes it a convenient guidebook. If you have a church leadership question you can turn to the chapter that covers your question and quickly get the information you need. My recommendation is that you do read the book so you'll know what's covered and so you'll begin to gather information that will help you more effectively lead your church.

For the next few days, I want to share with my readers some teasers from the book so you'll begin to see some of the material covered in this book. The authors go into much more detail about each of these issues than I will cover, but I want to simply demonstrate some of the information that pastors need to know that is discussed in the book.

Many smaller church pastors tell me they have a problem closing the back doors of their churches. They bring new people into the church, but within a matter of months these folks seem to disappear. The book explains that of all the people who drop out of church, 82 percent leave in the first year. Further research has found that many of them leave at the six-month mark and at the twelve-month mark. The authors provide some clear steps the church needs to take to ensure that their new members want to continue to be a part of the church.

The most important reason new members remain at the church is that they have made friends with people in the congregation. It is vital that newcomers have at least seven friends in the church within the first six months. Those who have two or less friends in the church are more likely to drop out at the six month mark.

I know that many smaller churches pride themselves on being the "friendliest church in town." From attending a different church nearly every week I can tell you that many are not. They may be friendly to their fellow members, but I've been in many churches in which my wife and I were totally ignored. If you are seeing a lot of people slipping out the back door there's a good chance that your church is not doing a good job of developing friendships with your newcomers.

Declining churches will only retain about 9 percent of their visitors. Growing churches will average about 21 percent retention, and those churches who make it a high priority to follow-up with their visitors will see more than 30 percent of their visitors become involved in the life of their church.

At this point, it is simple math to determine your visitor retention rate. If it's less than it should be, then you need to determine the causes for that and correct them. Again, this book will provide you with some information to help you increase those figures and close that back door.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Worship services in the smaller church

Many of the churches I visit in my role as a judicatory minister are smaller churches. One of the things I am noticing is the number of these churches who are changing their worship services to reflect a more contemporary style of worship. Another thing I have noticed is that many of them are struggling and the services seem disjointed as a result.

Much has been said about worship services in the past few decades. The worship wars continue in some churches as they transition from singing hymns to singing more contemporary songs and from having choirs to having praise teams lead the worship. I enjoy both good contemporary music and praise teams if they are good, but I find that in many smaller churches the talent is just not there for these to be good experiences.

I also find that when these churches blend their music with both contemporary and hymns there is a noticeable difference in the singing. Many in the congregation (often older in many smaller churches) simply do not sing the contemporary songs, but the volume noticeably increases when the music shifts to more traditional hymns.

In some cases it may be that the congregation does not know the contemporary songs well enough to sing them. I was recently in one church and had never heard a single song they used in the worship service before in my life. Apparently, neither had many of the others in attendance because few people were singing despite the best efforts of the praise team to get people to sing.

For some time now we've been told that if churches want to grow they need to change their worship services to appeal to younger people. We are told that we need to change our music styles and we need to make use of technology. Get rid of the hymnbooks and get a projector. I'm fine with using a projector to put the words on a screen if someone in the church knows how to use a projector and the church can afford decent technology. I was recently in a small church that had problems with its computer/projector. Midway through the songs the computer kept shutting down. They would quickly reboot, but by then the song was about over, and it would shut down again in the next song. The worship service was a mess.

The worship service should be a time when we can connect with God in a meaningful way. We want people leaving the service talking about how God spoke to them through the message or through a song or a prayer. We don't want them leaving frustrated with technology glitches or other distractions that made it difficult to worship God. Some smaller churches can and have made the transition to more contemporary worship styles, but for many smaller churches it may be best to continue to use the hymnbooks and sing the great songs of the faith that continue to mean so much to so many Christians.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Shepherds should not beat the sheep

A few days ago I was talking with an individual I have known for many years. She is an outstanding Christian and a faithful worker in her church. She was telling me why she had left a church she had attended for several years.

This was a strong church that had been growing for the past few years, but something has changed in the pastor. Sunday after Sunday he beats up on the congregation. He publicly calls out the lay leadership of the church and speaks critically of them during his sermons. He refuses to visit people even if they are in the hospital. One of the saints was in hospice care for a couple of months before she passed, and the pastor never took the time to visit her and her family. Not surprisingly, a number of people have now left the church. Unfortunately, this individual is not the only one who has told me this is occurring in this church.

What is surprising is that the congregation has allowed this to happen. Something is seriously wrong when lay leadership in a Baptist church permits this kind of behavior from the pastor. As I told the deacons in another church, if you are not going to address the problem then learn to live with it, but don't expect anything to change or improve.

Pastors who abuse their people in this way are not shepherds. Jesus called them hirelings, people who cared nothing about the sheep but only about what the sheep could provide them.  In Exekiel 34 God says this about such shepherds.

You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock.  The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them. So they were scattered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them.

God goes on to say in this passage that he will take the flock from such shepherds. In the New Testament, James warns that those of us who are teachers will face a stricter judgment, and I believe this applies to anyone in ministry.

If this pastor was confronted about his lack of pastoral care I'm sure he would defend his actions on the fact that he is bivocational and has a limited amount of time to devote to the church. Who cares? If God has called him to the ministry and to this church, then he has an obligation to be a shepherd to these people. A shepherd's obligation is to feed the sheep, not beat them.

Is there ever a time when a pastor needs to speak firmly to the congregation? Of course there is, but there is no need to pound the congregation week after week after week. Such behavior speaks more about the failures of the pastor's leadership than it does of the congregation.

If you have been called to serve as a pastor you have been given a high privilege from God. He is trusting you to feed and care for his people. Our call is to one of servant leadership. We are to teach them the truths of Scripture, we are to equip them to use the gifts God has given them for ministry, we are to love and care for them, and we are to lead them in a way that will nourish their souls and enable them to withstand the attacks from the enemy. Anything less than that means we have failed to live up to our calling.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Evangelistic preaching conference

How does one effectively preach evangelistic messages to the 21st century listener?  It can be a challenge, and yet such messages are desperately needed in today's culture. That's why I'm excited to recommend an upcoming evangelistic preaching conference hosted by Campbellsville University and featuring Dr. Robert Smith, Professor of Christian Preaching at Beeson Divinity School.  This two-day event will be held May 18-19 at the CU Louisville center and will feature workshops led by various speakers as well as messages from Dr. Smith.

I have heard Dr. Smith preach, and I can assure you he is an excellent communicator.  I have registered to attend and would like to invite you to do so as well. I think you will find it to be an excellent investment in your ministry.

You will find more information and a link to register online here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Is atheism winning?

While traveling to a meeting yesterday I listened to a podcast from William Lane Craig, the well-known Christian philosopher and apologist. He was reviewing an article from a Christian publication that claimed that atheism is winning in today's culture. The reasons for that writer's conclusion was that many young people are leaving Christianity and that a large number of Christians are unable to effectively share their faith.

Craig did an excellent job of showing that the claim that atheism is winning is not correct. While he agreed that both of the writer's statements were true, Craig pointed to the growing number of Christians in China and elsewhere in the world. While it is true that many young people are abandoning their faith, it is also true that many others are coming to faith in Christ at the same time.  Despite the best efforts of "new age" atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others, atheism is not winning.  Christianity is growing around the world.

One of the reasons for this growth is the excellent material now available in the area of Christian apologetics. The old method of evangelism, what I call the "Turn or burn!" method, simply does not work today. People are asking questions and demanding answers before making a faith commitment. Many struggle with Christianity because they have questions that no one has attempted to answer or failed to answer to their satisfaction. I recently spoke to a woman whose husband cannot believe in God due to the widespread evil in the world, and this is a major stumbling block for many.

When I began pastoring in 1981 there was very little material available in apologetics, or at least I wasn't aware of them. Today, there are many such resources, and pastors and other church leaders should take advantage of them.

William Lane Craig has written several such books, but I have to admit that some of them are over my head academically.  However, he recently published an excellent book, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, that he wrote for the non-scholar. I read it earlier this year and found it to be a wonderful resource.  I'm currently reading The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller. This is another excellent resource that addresses the questions and concerns people have about Christianity. Anything by Ravi Zacharias is also a great resource for the person who wants to effectively share his or her faith with others. I especially recommend his books Why Jesus?: Rediscovering His Truth in an Age of Mass Marketed SpiritualityJesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message, and Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn't Make Sense.

I encourage pastors to study these resources and teach the material to your congregations. We must be able to respond to the questions people have about Christianity if we want to do effective evangelism in the 21st century, and this material will help you do that. Atheism isn't winning, and it won't win because it is not based on truth. We have the truth, and it is our responsibility to learn how to most effectively share that truth with others.