Friday, December 30, 2016

What should a layperson do?

Almost every church has a job description for the pastor, but few have one for its lay people. Maybe this is why many lay people really don't know what their job is. A few years ago I read an excellent book by Randy Pope titled The Intentional Church: Moving From Church Success to Community Transformation. I'm in the process of reading it again and am finding it as helpful as it was the first time I read it.

Pope suggests that a biblically-based job description for lay people should include

  1. To discover and develop their spiritual gifts. Although there are many tools available to help a Christian understand his or her spiritual gifts, many Christians have no idea what their gift(s) might be.
  2. To view themselves as the primary ministers of the church. I often say that the church must move from a pastoral care model to a congregational care model.
  3. To spend the time needed to be equipped adequately to use their spiritual gifts. The pastor's job is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry (Eph. 4). The layperson's job is to be equipped, and that takes time.
  4. To commit the time necessary to use their gifts in ministry. There is little value in knowing one's spiritual gifts and be equipped to properly use them if one doesn't take the time to do so. (Page 132)
This a far more challenging job description than it might first appear. For one thing, it does demand time from a lay person, and time is a precious commodity in our day. It takes time to identify our gifts, it takes more time to be equipped to use those gifts, and it requires even more time to actually use those gifts in ministry.

This job description also flies in the face of how many Christians view the roles of pastor and lay person. Many believers have adopted an entitlement mindset. They expect the pastor to serve their needs, to entertain them, and to provide a worship experience that will meet their preferences. As one lady told a pastor friend of mine one Sunday, "That's what we pay you for." (He resigned a few weeks later.)

But, think of what would happen if your church members began to view themselves as gifted ministers. Instead of having one minister your church would have numerous ministers involved in many different ministries throughout the community. This will allow your church to have a much greater impact on the community which will also make it more likely that your church will grow.

An added benefit is how this job description impacts the lay people in a church. We all want to feel that our lives make a difference in the lives of others, and living into this job description makes it far more likely that we will have a positive impact on other people.

Finally, this job description gives permission to lay people to do ministry. Some seldom do much ministry because no one has asked them to. Lay people do not need the pastor or others in church leadership to ask them to become engaged in ministry. God has already called every lay person to do ministry. We are all ordained at our baptism to fulfill the ministries that He has gifted us to do. No one has to wait on another person to ask them to do something. Find a need and meet it.

Your church likely does not have a written job description for its lay people. That's fine. Create your own job description using this as a model. If enough people in your church does this you will be amazed at the difference it will make in the church and in those your church is serving.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Pastoral self-care

I've had the good fortune for the past 15+ years of working with many pastors. As a judicatory leader in our region and in the various conferences I led for small church leaders I have worked with thousands of pastors. Most are hard working and totally committed to their calling. They are focused on serving the people in their churches through providing content-rich messages and faithful pastoral care. Unfortunately, many of them are not very good at caring for themselves as well as they do others.

That is why I wrote the book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry. It was designed to help pastors identify problem areas in ministry and ways to address them. While it's not possible to eliminate the pressures associated with ministry, we can ease those pressures making our lives and ministries much more enjoyable.

I saw one pastor struggling with depression while trying to serve a difficult church and care for his family. When I asked him if he had seen a doctor he admitted he had not but knew he needed to. I asked if I could speak to his wife. When he agreed I told her that I was concerned that her husband was battling depression. Immediately, tears began to run down her cheek. She knew long before I said anything. I encouraged her to see that he talked with his doctor. Several months later I was told he had still not seen a doctor and was not any better.

Another pastor called saying he was going to retire. He did not want to, but the pressures he felt from his church was causing health problems. He was only 62 and wanted to pastor a church for several more years, but his doctor had expressed concern that he was doing permanent damage to his health if he didn't get out of that church. He did retire and was out of the ministry for several months. His health began to improve. I was able to help him find a healthy bivocational church that would have minimal stress, and he has enjoyed a very fruitful ministry in that church.

There are fourteen chapters in the book addressing different areas of potential ministry-related stress. I have experienced some of them in my own life and have worked with pastors who have struggled with each of them. These stressors are real, and they drive a lot of good pastors out of the ministry. That does not need to happen. There are healthy ways of dealing with each of them, and I try to point them out to the reader.

To be perfectly frank, this book has not sold nearly as well as I thought it would. Because I am aware of how many pastors struggle with the pressures associated with ministry I would have thought they would seek out a resource that would help them address those pressures.

If you know a pastor who is struggling right now with stressors related to the ministry, this might make a wonderful resource to give him or her. They will understand that they are not the only ones that have to deal with their particular problem, and they will find suggestions to help them address their pressures. It might just save their ministry.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Favorite reads of 2016 1-5

Today I'll finish my top 10 list of my favorite reads for 2016. Yesterday, I listed 6-10 so if you haven't seen it you can find it here.

5. Growing God's Church: How People Are Actually Coming to Faith Today by Gary McIntosh. McIntosh is a professor at Talbot School of Theology and a church consultant who knows what he's talking about. All of his books are must reads for anyone in church leadership. He and I were speakers at an event earlier this year, and I had a great time talking with him about this book. You need this book in your library.

4. Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense: A Response to Contemporary Challenges  by C. Stephen Evans. This is a very readable book that will help you respond to the skeptics and critics of Christianity. As you can see from these next few books, this year I was very interested in books on apologetics and how to speak to unbelievers. I'm convinced it will become increasingly more important to know how to do this in the future.

3.  Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Timothy Keller. Anyone involved in ministry today knows how difficult it can be to talk to persons who are skeptical about God.  Keller lives and ministers in New York City. He is surrounded by persons who question the existence of God, and he has learned how to communicate with them. He shares that knowledge in this book and teaches the reader how to share his or her faith with skeptics. I found this book extremely helpful.

2.  Has Christianity Failed You? by Ravi Zacharias. Here is another one of my favorite writers on apologetics. I listen to Zacharias on his podcasts as well as read his books. Many people have left the church because they feel God has failed them. The author points out that individual Christians and the church might fail us, but God never will. His arguments will be very helpful to me as I run into people who feel that God has abandoned them or failed them in other ways.

1. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller. I knew when I read the first chapter that this would be my favorite read for this year, and it was. Suffering is common to all of us, and Keller shows how God is always with us in our suffering and walks us through it. Christians need to read this for their own spiritual understanding, and church leaders certainly need this book as they minister to others who are going through the various trials in their lives.

This is my 2016 list. Each of these books have deepened my understanding of God and how I can better serve Him. I hope if you decide to read them you'll find them as helpful as I have.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Favorite reads of 2016 6-10

It seems like I just posted my favorite books for 2015, but according to my calendar it's time to post the 2016 list. This year I read more fiction books than any year since I graduated from high school. Most of them were the J. R. Tolkien Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books. I also read several military books. As a former Navy carrier sailor I was especially interested in some books that looked at the impact carriers have made in our wars. For this list I will just include my top ten favorite books for this year that would be of special interest to church leaders. Here are numbers 6 through 10.

10. The Four Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership: The Power of Leading from Your Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength by Jennie Catron. The author looks at the Great Commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." She explores how we can lead through each of these four aspects of our lives.

9.  Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups by Nelson Searcy. I have long been a fan of Searcy and have read most of his books. The church I currently serve as Transitional Pastor will begin small groups in January, and this book has been very helpful in recruiting leaders and marketing our small groups.

8. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller. This is the first of three Keller books on this list.  I've been preaching for 35 years and found this book to be a great resource especially as I've returned to pastoral ministry after serving as a judicatory minister for the past 14 years. This generation is much different than the ones I preached to 14 years ago. I'm glad I read this book!

7. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor. Conventional wisdom tells us that becoming successful makes us happy. Using research Achor shows that being happy leads to success, and then he gives seven principles to help us remain positive and happy. When I find a book that is helpful it will be marked up and notes written in the margin, and my copy of this book is filled with highlighted sections and notes in the margin.

6. Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ by Dallas Willard. This was one of the books I read in my devotional reading. Although it was not an easy read, it was an important read. Willard insists the greatest need of mankind is a renovation of the heart, and he goes on to teach us how to experience it. This is a book I purchased used and when it arrived I was surprised at how much the previous reader had marked it up. Fortunately, I use different marking systems so this book is really colorful!

Tomorrow we will list the final five books.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The greatest gift

"For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given." These words from Isaiah 9: 6 have been on my mind a lot during this Advent season. Notice the difference. A child was born, and we celebrate His birth during this season. But, a Son was given. Jesus didn't come into existence at the time of His birth in Bethlehem. He has existed throughout all eternity as part of the eternal Godhead. But, on the night which we celebrate as Christmas He was born into this world to live as one of us and to eventually give His life that we might experience the grace of God through which our sins could be forgiven and we could live with Him through all eternity.

As one reads the Isaiah passage the mind is immediately drawn to John 3: 16, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." Again, we find God giving His Son so that we might have everlasting life.

During this time of the year we decorate trees, hang lights, prepare wonderful meals, and fret over purchasing just the right gift for each person on our list. Few people spend much time thinking about what this season is really about. If we did, we would realize that God has already given each of us the perfect gift of all, His own Son, and through His Son each of us can know what it means to live free from the guilt and pain of sin and know what it means to walk with God for now and forever.

So, what can we give Him in return this holiday season? There is really only one gift that God wants from us, and that's us. Our entire being. In Romans 12: 1 we read that God wants us to "present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God..." He wants us to love Him and receive Him as Lord and Savior of our lives. He wants to come into our lives in such a way that our lives are totally and completely transformed.

Some of us will make New Year's resolutions to change things we don't like about ourselves. Many of us struggle with so many things in our lives that weigh us down and keeps us from being the persons we want to be. We promise ourselves that we'll do better, but we find ourselves falling back into old patterns. Some may have even given up and have decided that they are condemned to live lives of defeat and pain and shame.

No one has to live that way. God gave His Son so that none of us have to live such lives. Invite Him into your life. Receive His gift this Christmas season and find true freedom in your life. If you will do that you will have a very Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The theological crisis in the church

A 2016 survey conducted by LifeWay and Ligonier Ministries revealed how confused Christians are regarding theology. For instance, although 62 percent of those responding agreed that Jesus Christ is truly God with a divine nature, 53 percent said that Jesus was the first and greatest being created by God. Sixty-four percent of Evangelicals reported that everybody will go to heaven and yet they also said that only persons who trust in Jesus Christ as Savior will be saved.

Other recent surveys found that some believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife, and that over 50 percent of high school seniors thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife.

Why is there such a lack of theological understanding among Christian people? For years we've heard complaints from church leaders about this problem, but it's obvious that little has changed. Why is that?

Any pastor who has been at his or her church for more than three years has no right to complain about the lack of theological knowledge within that congregation. As the authors of The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision writes, "The theological integrity of the church will never rise above its pastors." The authors go on to blame pastors for the lack of theological integrity that exists in many congregations.

In too many churches today the sermons sound more like they came out of a self-help book than from the Scriptures. People attending these churches are seldom challenged to think theologically nor are they taught how to do so.  Pastors have so many things that demand their time they don't have time to do the difficult, time-consuming work to develop theological sermons that contain rich, meaningful content. At least, many of them do not believe they have the time.

Pastors are the primary theological teachers in their congregations. If we do not fulfill that role we cannot expect our church members to hold to sound theological beliefs. We should also not be surprised if they begin to buy into questionable and even pagan beliefs that they hear from other sources. If pastors do not help them understand the theological truths found in Scripture they will be unable to identify false teaching when it appears.

Of course, not all the blame can be placed on pastors. Compare the numbers of people who attend the morning worship services with those who attend Bible studies. The numbers at the latter event is so low that many churches today have eliminated Bible studies. Some replace them with small groups, but these groups are often more for fellowship than for the study of the Scriptures. Many Christians never pick up their Bibles except to take them to church on Sunday. It's sad to hear people say they are leaving their church because they are "not being fed" when many of them do nothing to feed themselves.

Both pastors and lay people must take action to reverse the problem of widespread theological illiteracy among Christians. Pastors must take seriously their mandate to "Preach the Word," and lay people must become serious students of theology themselves. We cannot afford to continue in the direction we are going.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Communication is critical in times of change

As a Resource Minister in our Region I was occasionally called in to address church conflict. While there were many reasons for the various conflicts, one seemed to be found in almost all of them: a lack of communication. So many times people would tell me that there was little or no communication between church leaders and the congregation.

Most of the time this wasn't intentional. Often, the leaders felt they had communicated with the congregation. Obviously, they had not done so in a way that was received by the congregation. When people feel leaders are keeping things from them they quickly begin to distrust those leaders. They become suspicious of everything that goes on in the church fearful that somebody is trying to get away with something.

Even worse, when people do not have the facts they begin to create their own. Rumors begin to fly and the gossip mill begins to churn out information hourly. Often, these made-up facts are not even close to the real truth, but because the truth has not been communicated to the congregation this is all they have.

Where there has been a history of poor communication there is often a low-trust church. Such churches must begin immediately to improve their communication. In such cases it is almost impossible to over-communicate. This communication will, in time, begin to restore the trust needed for a church to enjoy an effective ministry.

Communication is critical in times of change. Many churches do not handle change very well. It creates a level of stress that these churches would prefer to not have. It is important that the WHY of the change is communicated. In fact, this should be communicated before discussing the WHAT of the change. John Kotter, author of
Leading Change, tells us that most change efforts fail because the leaders failed to create an urgency around the change. Talking about the why of the change does create this sense of urgency in the minds of the congregation.

It is also critical during times of pastoral transition. As I've often told pastor search teams, "Inquiring minds want to know." The church is very interested in the progress the search team is making. While it's important that the team keeps the congregation informed of where it is in the process, it must also maintain certain confidences such as the persons with whom they are speaking. Most people in the congregation will be satisfied with knowing that the team is making progress and won't push for more information that should not be shared.

One pastor was proposing something that the church had never done previously. Rather than make a big announcement at a business meeting that may have generated a lot of opposition, he presented it first to the church leadership. When they approved, it was taken to small groups within the church for feedback. Although there were some questions, there was no real opposition. More importantly, people felt that the pastor had not gone behind their backs and tried to do something new. Good communication had occurred, people had been heard, and it was possible to move forward with the suggestion.

This is the way good communication should work in a church. Make sure people are informed and any concerns they have are heard. Over-communicate if necessary. I have found that most people in the church can be trusted to do the right thing if they have the right information.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

When things don't go as planned

Last week our plans were to travel to the Philadelphia area where our son and his family lives. My wife and I left home at the time we had planned. As we were leaving a light snow was falling. A couple of hours later the snow was getting heavier. We saw a number of vehicles off the road including one semi that was laying on its side. It had caught fire. We were almost involved in two accidents ourselves. I kept slowing down due to the amount of traffic and the dangerous conditions. When we got to Wheeling, WV we decided to spend the night.

I called our son and told him of the weather. He advised me that he would have turned around and went back home and suggested we do the same. Later that night he sent me a text saying their weather was going to be just as bad or worse later in the week, and we would be driving back in that when we returned home. I started watching the weather reports and didn't like what I was hearing. The next morning we made the decision that for once we would be smart and head back home before more bad weather arrived.

 As we started back the next morning I wasn't feeling very well. By the time we got back home I was sick with a bad head cold. As I write this I'm still not feeling well, but I think I have improved. It was definitely not the week we had planned.

We were looking forward to spending time with family last week, but that didn't happen. To say we are disappointed would be a major understatement!

I sometimes wonder how often God is disappointed when I fail to live up to His plans for my life. Scripture is clear that even before we were born God knew the plans He had for us. However, He also created us with a free will that allows us to make choices, and sometimes those choices go counter to the plans He has for us.

He could have eliminated that by making us robots, but He didn't do that. He created us as free moral agents with the ability to choose for ourselves the paths we will travel. I have often chosen a path for myself that was not in line with His purpose for my life. I have made choices that have brought pain and problems in my life and the lives of others I care for. We all have.

The good news is that our God is a God of grace, and when we repent of those wrong choices He is willing to forgive us and help us get back on the right path. Very often that means that we can still fulfill the purposes for which we were created. Failure doesn't have to be final.

Although we didn't get to see our son and his family before Christmas, we will go back soon after Christmas and spend a few days with them. When we do, this failed trip will be all but forgotten and we'll enjoy the time we do spend with them. Of course, we'll check the weather a little closer before we start out again!


Monday, December 19, 2016

Put your hope in the right place

In an upcoming interview first lady Michelle Obama suggests that America has lost hope now that Donald Trump has been elected President. Her husband ran his campaign on hope and change, and now that he's leaving office his wife believes the hope America felt is gone as well.

She's not the only person to feel this way. People have been screaming the sky is falling ever since the election. College students, who should be approaching adulthood, need to see counselors to address the anxiety they feel with Trump taking office. Some former Facebook friends expressed their anxieties over a Trump presidency about every two hours after the election which is why they are former FB friends. (I just got tired of all the drama.)

The problem with Michelle Obama's claim that America is losing hope, and all the other Chicken Littles out there freaking out over the election, is that it reflects a secular worldview regarding hope. No person is going to fix your life or make you happy. If your hope is in an individual you are going to go through life very disappointed. Did President Obama do some good things in office? Yes, he did. He also did some things that were not so good. History will one day judge his overall effectiveness as President. Guess what? President Trump will also do some good things and some things not so good. If your hope goes up and down based on what the President does your life is going to be very unsettled.

In our Western society today we have the mistaken belief that everyone should be happy all the time. It is a symptom of our entitlement mentality. People want free healthcare. College students want free tuition. Here's a newsflash for some people: Life can be tough sometimes. There is no free lunch. Someone is going to pay for that free healthcare and free tuition. Grown up people understand that they have to provide for their own needs. If your hope is based on the belief that the government or some other entity is going to take care of you then your hope is based on the wrong thing.

Our hope must be focused on the one thing or person that can never change, and that is God. We celebrate Christmas because the birth of Jesus Christ ushered in the one hope that will never fail. Our expectations of God might fail us at times, but He will never fail.

For many elections now I have reminded congregations and others that God does not fly on Air Force One. He's not up for election every four years, and He doesn't make decisions based on the latest polls, how many in Congress He can get to agree with His policies or the make-up of the Supreme Court. He provides us with a solid foundation for our lives that we can rely on regardless of what occurs in our lives, and that is the foundation for a hope that will never fail us.

If you believe that the election of Donald Trump is going to usher in a new era of suffering in America, I just finished reading Timothy Keller's book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. I mentioned it a few days ago and said that it would probably be my favorite book of 2016, and now that I've finished it I have not changed my mind. It is an excellent book that speaks to this whole issue of pain and suffering and the evil that exists in the world. As he points out, a Christian worldview does not deny the existence of evil and suffering, but it also points to the one true source of hope we have when such times come into our lives. If you've not read this book it should be on your 2017 reading list.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Transparency in ministry

One of the quickest ways to undermine your ministry is for people to begin thinking you are doing things behind their backs. I understand that some churches are very risk-adverse, but if the pastor begins to implement changes without the congregation's permission or even being aware that changes are coming he or she may find their ministry in that church to be very short-term.

Transparency is critical, especially in a smaller church or in one in which there has been a lack of transparency in the past. I have worked with enough churches in which there was little trust in the leadership to know how important it is that leaders be upfront with their congregations. Communication is key.

In one church the pastor wanted to do something that could have been controversial. After discussing it with the appropriate leadership group he presented it to other groups within the church. Even he was surprised how little controversy the proposal generated. While there were some questions, in general it was very well received, and the pastor was able to move forward with his idea.

Contrast that to another pastor who decided that it was easier to get forgiveness than permission so he went ahead and made a significant change without discussing it with anyone. What he learned was that getting forgiveness wasn't a given either, especially since he had done such things previously. The church had become tired of him going around the various leadership groups in the church and doing whatever he wanted to do. Although he would have probably eventually been given permission to do what he wanted, he didn't want to wait and proceeded without congregational approval. This final action damaged whatever trust that existed in this church for his leadership, and he soon had to leave the church. A friend of this pastor and one of his strong supporters in the church later told me that he could have served that church for many years if he had been willing to be patient and work with the leadership groups within the congregation.

Such transparency is important in all size churches, but it is critical in smaller churches. These churches often have a revolving-door pastorate as many ministers view these churches as stepping stones to a larger ministry. As a result, these churches have learned to depend primarily on their lay leadership. They can be very concerned if they believe that their pastors are bypassing these lay leaders. These churches often have a great deal of confidence in their lay leaders; they seldom have the same level of trust in their pastoral leadership because these individuals do not stay long enough to earn that level of trust.

The quickest way for a pastor of a smaller church to earn the trust of the church is to be extremely transparent, especially when introducing any type of change to the church. Over-communicate to ensure transparency. Make sure that no one is surprised when you begin something different or want to change something within the church.

Almost no one will become upset if you include them in your thinking process as you consider the ministry of the church you serve. In fact, most people will be honored that you thought enough of them that you sought their input. You will find that you will enjoy a much more productive ministry in the long run if you practice transparency in every aspect of your ministry.

Friday, December 9, 2016

You can't lead sitting on a fence

Studies have found that many pastors do not see themselves as leaders. In fact, many of them do not want to lead. That's a shame because pastors are called to be leaders in their churches. Maybe their reluctance to lead has to do with a misunderstanding of what a church leader is to be.

Church leaders are not dictators nor are they CEOs. They are servant-leaders who recognize they are there to serve their churches and the communities in which their churches are located. In Mt. 20:28 we find Jesus reminding his disciples "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve...." That is the model for pastors and other church leaders. We are not called to our places of ministry to be served but to be servant-leaders.

Another reason some pastors are reluctant to lead is that they've never been taught how to lead. As I've written before, many seminaries do not train pastors to be leaders. They train them to be managers. They are taught how to keep the machinery running and the church operating. They are taught how to prepare sermons and provide pastoral care. They are taught how to work within their denominational polity so as to not create waves. They are taught many good things, but they are not taught to be leaders.

A third reason I've found that keeps many pastors from leading their churches is that they have an intense desire to be liked. They don't want to upset anyone or cause any dissension in the church. If you have an insatiable desire to be liked by everyone you will find it impossible to lead. Inherent in leadership is the need to make tough decisions, and some of those decisions are not going to be popular with everyone.

I have found that many in church leadership are great at sitting on the fence. They remind me of the politician who was asked his opinion on a controversial issue. He responded that some of his friends favored one viewpoint and others supported the opposite viewpoint. When he was again asked his opinion he said he agreed with his friends.

 You can't lead sitting on a fence. There comes a time when a leader must make tough choices. Leaders have to sometimes say things that are hard for some to hear. Leaders have to take risks if they are to effectively lead their organizations. Some Christians will threaten to leave the church if they do not get their way. Leaders have to be willing to watch them walk away if they want to lead the church forward. Leaders refuse to be held hostage by church controllers. Leaders will take a stand and defend it.

Although everything I've just written is true, we must be careful. Timing is everything. Just because someone is the pastor of a church does not mean he or she is a leader in that church. In most churches it takes time before the pastor actually is able to lead a church. This is especially true in smaller churches. We also have to be careful that we don't try to force our ideas on congregations. Trying to force church members to do something they don't want to do is like trying to push a rope. We also have to determine which mountains are worth dying on. Sometimes the rewards of accomplishing something isn't actually worth the risks involved in doing so.

This is what servant-leadership is all about. We do not need to tiptoe around on eggshells, but we do need to work with the people in our churches to accomplish the tasks God has given us. We never want to come across as arrogant or mean-spirited or give the impression that we will get our way by whatever means possible. We are there to serve, not demand, but at the same time we are to lead.

 No one ever said leading a church is easy, but if this is what God has called you to do, then lead. Get off the fence and lead your church to accomplish the vision He has for it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Pray without ceasing

We know the Bible says that we are to pray without ceasing, but prayer is one of those things the church often talks about more than it actually does. The fact is, we're too busy to pray much. Life gets in the way. Sometimes we are so involved in church activities that prayer gets left by the wayside. This can especially be a problem for pastors and other church leaders. Besides, just how much time should we devote in prayer? How in the world could one pray without ceasing anyway? You can't spend all your time on your knees.

It's interesting to look at some of the spiritual giants from the past and their attitudes towards prayer.

Martin Luther once said, "I have so much to do today that I'm going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to get it all done."

We know from the book that bears his name that Daniel prayed three times a day. So did E. M. Bounds, who was an influential pastor around the time of the Civil War. Some of his books remain classics on prayer.

George Whitfield, an important evangelist in both England and the United States, prayed an hour in the morning, an hour in the afternoon, and an hour each evening.

Maybe someone would argue that these individuals lived in a simpler time without all the demands of modern society which meant they had more time to pray than we do today. That would be true. They weren't distracted by televisions, games of the week, movies, and many of the other things that seem to pull people away from spending time with God. They were also not blessed (?) with all the time-saving devices of our modern society such as computers, smart phones, social media, etc.

Their distractions were more in the order of having to make their own bread, growing their own food, cutting their firewood to heat their homes plus serving their churches as pastors and evangelists. I think we need to be very careful to assume they had more time to pray than we do today. The safer assumption is that they took prayer more seriously than many of us do today and sought out times to pray.

I am in no way insinuating that each of us needs to pray three hours or more a day although that would not be a bad thing if you do. God does not love us more if we pray more. I can assure you that I do not spend anywhere close to three hours a day in prayer. In fact, there are times I struggle to pray as I should as much as anyone.

What I am saying that that most of us would do well to make prayer more of a priority in our lives than we do. We need to become more intentional about blocking out times to pray. We also need to realize that we will often accomplish more in our prayers than in anything else we do.

Pray without ceasing. Look for opportunities to pray. If you hear a siren going down the street, stop and pray for those first responders and for those they are going to serve. If you're stuck on the interstate behind a line of cars due to a wreck ahead, pray for those persons involved.  You may not know the situation or what they need, but God does. If you see someone struggling to cross the street, don't honk at them to hurry up. Pray for them. When someone asks you to pray for them, actually do so. We may not pray three hours a day, but each of us can be in an attitude of prayer where we are looking for opportunities to pray.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Toxic people at church

In yesterday's post I addressed the problem of toxic people in our personal lives. Such people, as I pointed out, will prevent us from becoming the person God wants us to be and from achieving the purposes for which He created us. Also, if we are not careful, they will pull us down to their level and cause us to become toxic ourselves. The best way to overcome toxic people is to just ignore them. Walk away. Find new friends and develop relationships with healthier people.

But, what if you are a pastor or church leader and those toxic people are in your church? It's not always easy to walk away, and in most cases we shouldn't, but what can we do to protect ourselves from their toxicity?

First, and foremost, we must set boundaries in all our relationships and especially with the ones we have with toxic people. Dr. Henry Cloud wrote an exceptional book on this issue called Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. Since many of us struggle with setting appropriate boundaries for different relationships in our lives, I often recommend this book as one that everyone needs to read.

One of the first things to remember about boundaries is that we really cannot set boundaries or limits on other people. We can only set limits on our own exposure to people who are behaving poorly. Those boundaries are not going to immediately cause them to act differently. They will just change the way we respond to their actions. In time, we hope setting appropriate boundaries will cause them to consider their actions and change, but the initial boundary is to protect us from their current misbehavior.

As church leaders we know that our churches are going to attract people with problems. That is as it should be. The church was never intended to be a hotel for saints but a hospital for sinners, and we are all sinners. However, some check in with more problems than others, and some are more toxic than others. We have to protect ourselves from that toxicity or we will find ourselves soon unable to help anyone. Setting proper boundaries help provide that protection.

Pastors often struggle with setting boundaries. Most of us go into ministry as a result of sensing God's call on our lives. We want to help others, and if we set boundaries we can begin to feel as if we are failing them. By the way, some will accuse us of ignoring them or not wanting to help them if they run up against some of the boundaries we've set. Be prepared for that!

However, we are not failing them. We are helping them by allowing them to assume more responsibility for their lives. We are also helping ensure our own well-being by not being drawn into every mess in their lives. Healthy boundaries are beneficial for everyone. In fact, refusing to set boundaries really isn't helping those we think we are helping.

There's not space in this post to go into great detail about setting boundaries. If this is a need you have I highly recommend reading this book. It is an incredible resource for anyone who needs to have better boundaries in their lives.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Dealing with toxic people

Our community has a minimum security women's prison. Many of these prisoners are allowed to work outside in the community cleaning the roadsides, mowing grass, working at the animal shelter, and doing other work. Of course, they have a guard with them to ensure they don't walk off, but it's worked well for our city and I would imagine the women enjoy being able to leave the prison to do outside work.

I often pass these work details and wonder how these women became incarcerated. Specially, I wonder how many of these women got into trouble because they began to run with the wrong crowd? On a couple of occasions I've heard some of these women share their testimony, and this seems to be a common theme. They developed a relationship, often with a guy, that became toxic and they ended up committing a crime that landed them in prison.

Fortunately, most toxic relationships do not end in prison sentences, but they do have a negative impact on our lives. Toxic people cannot stand for anyone to enjoy any measure of success in their lives. Toxic people are often very sad individuals, and they want others to share in their sadness. They are very negative people, often perpetual victims in their own minds, who blames others for all their problems. They use people for their own purposes and think nothing of throwing them away when those purposes are finished. They always look for ways to pull others down to their level. They are often very needy individuals who look to others to validate their existence or to care for them. Toxic people are very skilled at hooking others with guilt. In the end, they will suck the very life out of other people if allowed to do so.

We all encounter toxic people in our lives. Sometimes a relationship doesn't become toxic at first but develops into one later. I recently ended a Facebook friendship with a couple of people. For much of that friendship we shared common interests and ideas with one another. After the recent election, their posts became very negative as they continually whined about how their candidate lost. I could understand their frustration for a few days after the election, but their negativity continued day after day. People were responding to their posts and the discussions were becoming more heated. Finally, I decided to pull the plug and end the relationship.

Of course, that's much easier to do on social media than in real life. On social media you can end the relationship with a couple of mouse clicks. It's messier in real life, but if you are in a relationship with a toxic person it needs to be done. A person will never get ahead if there are people holding you back.

We need people who encourage us in our lives, and we need to be such people for others. We need people who will cheer us on and believe in us. We need people who will love us unconditionally, and yet be willing to point out areas where we come up short.

In the few passages we read about Barnabas we find him being a source of encouragement. When Paul was converted and wanted to join the disciples in Jerusalem those disciples were fearful of him. Barnabas stood up for Paul and convinced the disciples they could trust him. Without that early trust Paul's later ministry may have looked much different.

At the same time, when Paul refused to let John Mark go on a second missionary journey Barnabas supported John Mark. He and Paul got into a heated discussion over the issue and eventually took John Mark on a missionary journey while Paul took Silas and went another direction. What an encouragement that must have been to John Mark, and yet we do not sense a breakdown in the relationship between Paul and Barnabas. They simply went in different directions, and later, towards the end of his life, Paul sent for John Mark as "he is useful to me for ministry."

In our personal lives we must avoid letting toxic relationships infect us. If we find ourselves in such a relationship, and it does not appear that it will become healthy, it's best to walk away. Life is too short to allow a steady stream of negativity to impact our lives. While walking away from such relationships is often not pleasant, it must be done if we want to be able to enjoy our own lives to the fullest and accomplish the things God wants to do in and through our lives.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Religious liberty and the media

As I was trying to write an article on the current state of religious liberty and the media I came across this one. It was much better than what I had written so I thought I would share it instead of mine. Click on the link to read the article.

http://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/religious-liberty-needs-a-fixer-upper

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Fake news, spam and sermons

There is a lot of useless information out there. Fake news sites have been blamed by some, including President Obama, for the defeat of Hillary Clinton in our recent election. These sites publish fake stories and place them on social media where many of them quickly go viral. Because they confirm what people on both political sides want to be true, they share them with others, and these stories take on a life of their own. Many of these fake stories are spread through Facebook which has promised to clamp down on them.

It's a shame that many of these fake stories are spread by Christian people. In the recent election my Facebook was filled with such stories being shared by Christians on both side of the political spectrum. While some of these stories sounded plausible, many of them were so far out there that one would think no discerning person would spread them without confirming whether or not they were true. I'm concerned that some of these stories are written just to see if gullible Christians will believe them.

And then there is spam. Every day my computer is filled with spam emails. I've been able to block many of these on my computer, but because Apple doesn't care about spam these emails still make it to my I-Phone and I-Pad. Every evening I have to spend several minutes deleting all the spam messages on these two devices. I see many complaints on the Internet about Apple's refusal to correct this issue. Since they've not addressed it I can only assume they don't care about the inconvenience. It's about time to get a new phone so this will be one of my considerations when I start looking.

This post isn't really a rant about fake news sites and spam. It is meant to be a caution to those of us who speak to our congregations each week. People are inundated everyday with false and misleading information. When they come to church they need to hear a message that is filled with truth and hope. After listening to bad news all week from the various news channels they want to hear something positive, something that will inspire them and fill them with hope in something eternal.

Yes, sometimes we have to speak on difficult subjects. Sometimes we are going to step on toes, but even these messages do not have to be negative or delivered in a mean-spirited manner.

Several years ago I realized that my sermons had become rather negative in recent months. As I reviewed my sermons during that time I was convicted about my negativity. The next Sunday I apologized to the congregation for this and promised that I would be diligent in making sure that did not happen again. Even when I need to speak on difficult subjects I can do so in a positive way and not come across as beating up the people.

We also need to ensure that we use reliable resources as we prepare our messages. It's very easy in this time of social media to grab information from one of these fake news sites to use in an illustration. If we do that it will eventually undermine our credibility, and people will begin to question everything we say.

If God has entrusted you to preach to His people He has given you a tremendous privilege and an even greater responsibility. Those who teach are under greater judgment. This is not a call that should be taken lightly. Speak the truth in love. Do so with authority and only after careful study and much prayer.



Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Do you want a great church?

"A great commitment to the Great Commission and to the Great Commandment will grow a great church." This has been a slogan at Saddleback Church in California for 30 years. Pastored by Rick Warren, this church reaches over 20,000 people each weekend. The church has over 200 ministries, but each of them are focused on either the Great Commission or the Great Commandment.

The church has a bad habit of chasing fads. We are always looking for the new thing that will grow our church. Church leaders run from seminar to conference trying to learn the secret to make their church great. We seem to think if we can learn the secret of this growing church or that one we can just duplicate what they are doing and reap the same benefits.

In his 2001 book Carpe MaƱana Leonard Sweet writes, "The church has tried everything except the one thing that is needed. It has tried to be an inclusive church. It has tried to be a confessional church. It has tried to be a program-driven church. It has tried being a purpose-driven church. It has tried to be a seeker-sensitive church. What if it tried to be a spiritual church?"

A spiritual church doesn't need gimmicks to reach people. It merely attempts to do what Jesus taught us to do in the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. Fulfilling these two directives is the mission of the church, and when a church is focused on doing these two things it will be a great church.

Smaller churches, in particular, need to be very careful they do not overextend their resources. This includes both their financial resources and their human resources. Many smaller churches are attempting to do too much, often in an effort to compete with larger churches in the area. When this happens they find themselves spread too thin and not doing anything very well.

Most smaller churches would accomplish more by doing less and by focusing more on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. Anything that is not tied to these two things should be eliminated in smaller churches and in most other churches as well. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be distracted by trying to do other things.

If you want to be part of a great church focus on fulfilling the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. When your church is reaching people for Christ and serving people in His name, it will be a great church.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Wounded by the church

A few years ago I coached a pastor in North Dakota. In one of our coaching sessions I asked her, "If you could do anything in ministry that you wanted to do, what would that be?" She responded that she would like to create a ministry that ministered to people who had been hurt by the church. I chuckled a bit and responded that if she developed such a ministry her church would not remain small very long because there are many such people in every community.

Unfortunately, I hear their stories too often. In my book, The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision I share the story of a woman I once met. Her daughter had accepted Jesus Christ into her heart at Vacation Bible School. The pastor and I visited her single mother to see how she felt about her daughter's decision. Although she was pleased that her daughter had made her decision, she was concerned about the baptism. She didn't want her daughter to become a member of the church.

When we asked why, she shared that she had been an active member of a church in our community until her husband divorced her. The Sunday after it was known she was getting a divorce she said it felt like she had walked into a freezer when she entered the church. Former friends ignored her. Few would even speak. After this went on for several weeks, she left the church and never returned. She did not want her daughter to be hurt by the church as she had been.

For some reason too many churches forget that Jesus showed the most grace to those the religious leaders of the time condemned. When religious leaders wanted to stone a woman caught in the act of adultery Jesus extended grace to her. Zacchaeus, a despised tax collector, was the recipient of Christ's grace when Jesus spent the day with him. Lepers, who were shunned by religious leaders as unclean, received a healing touch from Jesus. In fact, the only ones Jesus did condemn were the religious leaders who refused to offer grace towards those they deemed unworthy.

It is time the church repents of its tendency to shoot its wounded. We are not called to judge people; we are called to love them. This does not mean we have to compromise our beliefs or ignore the clear teachings of Scripture. It does mean that we treat others as individuals created in the image of God and as persons for whom Jesus Christ gave His life on the cross. It also means that we love people with the same unconditional love that God has for each of us.

The church is not a hotel for saints; it is a hospital for sinners, and we are all sinners. We need to offer grace to one another because we all need to receive grace for our own shortcomings. The Christian life can be difficult enough without being wounded by "friendly fire." When one of our fellow believers falls or is going through a tough time, let's extend grace and a helping hand to lift them back up to a healthier place in their lives.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Transition times are not for rest

As many of you know, I am currently serving as the Transitional Pastor of Madison FBC in Madison, Indiana. This is one of the oldest churches in the state of Indiana with a rich history of ministry in this area and around the world. It enjoys a sister church relationship with a church in El Salvador, is a strong supporter of American Baptist mission work, supports a number of individual missionaries, and has numerous ministries in the community. In the few short months I've served in this current ministry I've been impressed with the dedication and commitment of its members as well as the fellowship that exists in the church.

I was called to be the Interim Pastor as is common in churches seeking a new pastor, but in my first message I shared that I would prefer to be seen as a Transitional Pastor. The term interim seems to have the image of something that is biding its time while it seeks more permanent leadership. The word transitional sounds more like something that is moving forward. A transition is going from one place to another, and that seems to be a better image for a church than one that is just sitting around. The church responded very well to that shift in thinking, and we are moving forward even while the Pastor Search Team is doing its job.

In January we will begin a visioning process to see where God might be leading the church in the next few years. It has been ten years since the church went through a similar process and formed a vision statement. Vision needs to be re-visited every 5-6 years anyway, and the transitional time between pastors is a great time to do that.

We will also begin small groups in January. These groups will meet for ten weeks and address a number of subjects designed to help persons grow in their faith. We've had several people volunteer to lead these groups, and we are praying that a large number of our members and others from the community will join one of the small groups.

Our Sunday night Bible study has begun a study through the book of Acts with a special focus on the first century church. It's been interesting to see how many of the challenges that church faced are similar to ones the church is currently facing.

We will begin the new year challenging people to read through the Bible in 2017. Many, including myself, have found this to be a meaningful devotional exercise, but there are many others who have never read through the Bible in one year. We want to encourage people to spend more time in God's Word, and this is one way to promote that.

There are a number of other events being planned for 2017 that are designed to increase the ministry and fellowship opportunities in the church and community. Transition times are not times to settle in but a time to grow and expand what God wants to do in and through the church. This is exactly what this congregation is doing. When they do call a pastor he or she will not have to figure out how to get them started doing ministry. The new pastor's biggest challenge will be trying to figure out how to get on board a moving train! Believe me, most pastors would prefer the second challenge over the first one!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thanksgiving

This past Sunday I encouraged our congregation to begin to list the things for which they are thankful. We have had it so good for so long in America that many have forgotten how blessed they really are. Yes, some might have more than others, but even those with little have far more than many people throughout the world. If you have food to eat, clean water to drink, and family and friends who love you, you are blessed.

As we approach Thanksgiving Day I have thought about some of the things for which I am thankful.

I am thankful to God for loving me enough that He sent His only begotten Son to die for my sins. I am thankful that He has extended His grace towards me, forgiven me of my sins, and adopted me into His family.

I am thankful for my family. I had parents who loved me enough to discipline me and teach me right and wrong. Fifty years ago I married a wonderful girl who has continued to show me unconditional love and is my best friend. We have two children who have been a blessing to me in every way, and we have seven grandchildren who are a joy and delight.

I am thankful for good health. Yes, I have some health challenges as most people have as they get older, but they are minor. There are many much younger than me who have much more critical health issues.

I am thankful to serve a wonderful church, Madison FBC, as their Transitional Pastor. This is an incredible church with great people committed to ministering to this community and around the world. It is a privilege to serve them in this capacity while they seek their next pastor.

I am thankful for the opportunities God has given me. Growing up on dairy farms in southern Indiana I never dreamed I would serve as the pastor of a church for 20 years, serve in judicatory ministry for 14 years, publish books related to ministry, be invited to speak to numerous denominational groups throughout the United States and Canada, and now continue my ministry even after I "retired."

I am thankful that God has brought us through many valleys in our lives. I've enjoyed many mountaintop experiences, but I've also known deep valleys. In every instance God proved Himself faithful bringing us through every one. Jesus has proven over and over again that he will never leave us nor forsake us.

I am thankful that when my race here on earth is done I have the promise of eternal life with Him. My last breath on earth will be my first in eternity where I will be reunited with many loved ones who have gone on before. Why anyone would reject Jesus Christ and the eternal life He offers is beyond me.

I am thankful for the many freedoms I enjoy as a citizen of the United States of America. There are many people around the world who can only dream of the freedoms that many of us take for granted. I am thankful for the opportunity to have served in the US Navy to help protect those freedoms for all who call this nation home.

I am thankful for the friends I've made along the way. It has been said that if a man has 2-3 really close friends he is fortunate. Well, I am beyond fortunate as I have far more than that. I have friends who have stood by me in good times and bad, friends who would literally do anything to help me in a time of need, friends who can laugh with me in the good times and cry with me in the bad times.

This list could go on and on. I am indeed a blessed individual who has much for which to be thankful. Thursday will be much more than a day to eat turkey and watch football games. Our family will gather and do that, but we will also celebrate the many things for which we are thankful. I pray you and your family will as well.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Success is just around the corner

Why does one marriage work out while another one ends in divorce? Why does one small business succeed and another one down the road closes its doors within months after opening? Why do some churches seem to attract people to Christ while others struggle to keep their doors open? Why do some teams seem to always be ranked near the top and others rarely have winning seasons? We could ask similar questions of every endeavor known to man, but the fact is that some have found the secret to success, if it may be called a secret, and others seem unable to recognize what it takes to succeed.

A few months ago I read a very insightful book about success called Take the Stairs: 7 Steps to Achieving True Success by Rory Vaden. One of the reasons I enjoyed the book is because Vaden doesn't pretend there are secrets to success. In fact, he insists throughout the book that success is hard work, and that is a fact that many in our society today have either forgotten or want to pretend it isn't true. He writes

"The vast majority of Western societies have adopted an 'escalator mentality' - one that says getting what we want shouldn't require much work, and that there are always shortcuts in business and in life." There are no shortcuts to success. There is no easy way to the top. Most of us will find that finding success is more like climbing stairs than riding an escalator.

He goes on to write that, "There is one thing that all successful people have in common: Successful people have all had to do things they didn't feel like doing in order to get where they are."

We've all heard the saying: No pain, no gain. Well, this is certainly true when we think of success. It's true whether you are considering how to have a better marriage, a more profitable business, or a growing church. All require a lot of hard work, and there will be times when you find yourself doing things you would prefer to not do in order to enjoy the results you are seeking.

Many decide the hard work isn't worth it. They prefer to take the easy way out and seek a new spouse, a new career, or a different church. Surely, they think, the reason the current situation isn't working out is because they chose the wrong spouse, the wrong career, or the wrong church, and all their problems will be over once they correct their mistake. WRONG!

Running from one spouse to the next isn't going to solve your marriage problems. Jumping from one company to another probably won't be the solution. Church leaders who go from one church to another certain that this one will be the perfect church for them soon come face-to-face with the reality that there are no perfect churches. Success comes to those who are willing to work hard to make their current situation the right one.

Vaden points out in his book that success is often just beyond the point you feel like quitting. It's often just around the corner. I wonder if there will come a time in eternity where we will discover how many times we were inches from the goal line of success only to walk away defeated. One more play would have put us over, but instead we gave up.

It's almost always too soon to give up. When you feel that you've done everything you know to do, think of something else to try. Ask to see someone else's playbook. There's lot of things you can still try to do to succeed. Isn't success worth at least one more effort on your part?

Monday, November 21, 2016

Common trait of growing churches

In 1972 Dean Kelley stunned many in the church world when he published WHY CONSERVATIVE CHURCHES ARE GROWING: A Study in Sociology of Religion with a new Preface (Rose, No. 11). Two factors led to people being surprised by this book. One, at that time many thought the church was nearly dead, and now they were being told that some churches were actually growing. The second reason this book surprised many is that Kelley was a leader in the National Council of Churches, an organization mostly composed of liberal and moderate churches.

Since the book was first released it has been applauded by conservative Christian leaders and challenged by liberals. The conservatives have pointed to its findings and felt their approach to the Scriptures and ministry had been validated. Liberals claimed the findings were wrong and other things, such as birth rates, accounted for the growth among conservative churches. However, a more recent study has again confirmed Kelley's earlier finding that theologically conservative churches led by theologically conservative pastors is a key to growing churches.

A major five year study of churches in Canada involved a survey of 29 clergy and 2,255 lay attendees of mainline churches in Canada. The results are quite telling. In the growing churches there was an emphasis on prayer. 71 percent of the clergy in growing churches read their Bibles daily while only 19 percent of the clergy in declining churches did the same. There was a similar difference in attitudes towards evangelism. 100 percent of the clergy in growing churches agreed that it was very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians. Only 50 percent of the clergy in declining churches felt this was important.

Conservative Christian teachings about the basic articles of faith, the authority of the Scriptures, the exclusivity of Christianity, and other aspects of conservative theology were stressed in growing churches. These churches also had an emphasis on youth groups, a commitment to evangelism, and enjoyed a higher presence of young families.

Another interesting find in the study was that if a pastor of one of these conservative, growing churches left for another church it would also begin to grow even if it had not experienced growth in the past. This pointed out how critical it is for the pastor to hold to a conservative theology and the impact such pastors have on churches.

This is not to say that all conservative churches are growing, but growing churches share these values and theology. The same is true in the United States. Where you find a growing church you are apt to find people holding to conservative theology and values and putting them into practice.

While there isn't space in this blog to discuss all aspects of this study, one thing is evident. Churches do not have to water down their theology to attract people. People are not looking for a watered-down theology and churches that really don't believe anything. They are looking for churches that are not afraid to stand for the things they believe in, a theology that will provide them with a firm foundation for their lives, and a relationship with God that will sustain them. They are looking for churches that can provide solid answers to their spiritual questions and churches that can help teach their children good morals and values.

There are many things a church can do to become more attractive to non-Christians but compromising biblical teaching isn't one of them. In fact, doing so will cause more people to leave a church than it will to attract people to the church.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Repairing a divided nation and church

In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech which impacted all America. In this message he shared how he dreamed that one day people would not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character, and that people would not let their differences continue to divide them. This message resonated with people from all walks of life and helped this country begin to heal some of the racial divisions that had longed plagued this nation. Obviously, we still have a long way to go to see his dream completely fulfilled, but we have made progress.

We are today a nation divided by more than racial divisions. Our recent election process has demonstrated how divided a nation we are. In the past elections produced winners and losers, and everyone went about their business after the election. Some were pleased with the results, and others were not pleased, but the results were accepted and people went on with their lives. That has not been the case this time.

Riots broke out in many cities with much loss of property. People were pulled from their cars and beaten because of the candidate they supported. Some were shot. Numbers of people were arrested, and innocent people were terrorized by thugs all in the name of protesting the results of the election. Schools canceled classes so students could go to their "safe places" and grieve in safety over the election results. Suicide hot lines were reportedly overwhelmed with callers thinking of ending their lives because their candidate was not elected. Never in the history of this nation have we seen such actions at the end of an election.

We are a divided nation. We are a nation of African-Americans, Greek-Americans, Asian-Americans, Euro-Americans, Native-Americans, etc. As long as we are a hyphenated people we will be a divided nation. There is nothing wrong with appreciating our heritages, but we must first and foremost be Americans or we will continue to be divided. We are conservative, liberal, independent, libertarian, green, etc. As long as we are more focused on our political bents than on focusing on making American great for all Americans we will remain a divided nation. Until Democrats and Republicans commit to working together to ensure that all Americans can share in the American dream we will be a divided nation. Until political parties are more committed to America than they are to winning votes we will continue to be a divided nation.

For 35 years I have served in pastoral and judicatory ministry, and I have seen the church divided over both major and minor issues. I have seen some of the most childish behavior among church people, most of whom would insist they were mature believers, over matters that didn't deserve even minor discussion. I have witnessed believers scream and curse at one another over matters of minor church polity and then wonder why their children were not interested in the church or the Christian faith.

Because of social media this election has brought out some of the worst in many Christians. The election is past, but some are still whining about the results. They are judging the actions of a man who has not even taken office and expressing their fears about what he might or might not do. At the least one would think they would withhold their criticism and judgement until he has actually done something that alarms them, but they are already demonstrating a critical spirit.

The church is divided among liberals, moderates, and conservatives and a host of newer categories. Seldom are these various factions able to work together on matters of importance. Billy Graham was often criticized because he invited leaders from all factions of Christianity to work together to help his crusades touch the most people possible. It's like some Christians would prefer that people not hear the Gospel than to work alongside some they disagree with to help make that possible.

America and the churches within its borders are in a dangerous place right now. Until we address the divisions that exist in both we are going to continue to drift away from what we might have been. Until we recognize that what we have in common is far more important than what divides us we will never be able to work together for the common good. I'm not calling for us to ignore our differences or pretend they don't exist. I am calling for us to stop putting people in boxes based upon those differences and refuse to work with anyone who isn't in our box.

If we truly want all Americans to once again participate in the American dream then our leaders and those of us in the streets and fields of this nation have to put aside our differences and find ways to work together to make that happen. If we in the church want the church to once again influence and impact our culture we have to find ways to work together to make that happen. If we fail, our nation and churches will continue their downward spiral, and the dreams of Dr. King and countless others will never be realized.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Current reading list

Every once in a while people ask what I'm currently reading, so occasionally I like to post my current reading list. I don't mind doing this because I'm often curious about what other leaders are reading. A few years ago one leader I appreciate posted a rather long list of books he had read the previous year, and I made it a point to read as many of them as I could. If you find this list helpful then I'm glad to provide it. I do want you to know that if you click on the link to the book I will receive a small percentage of the book's cost. You should also know that I have no plans to quit my day job over the amount I might get!

For my devotional reading right now I am reading Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Timothy Keller. This book will probably be my favorite read of 2016. I am late to the game of reading Keller, and I'm trying to catch up. Everything of his that I've read has been excellent, and this is his best one IMHO.

It has been years since I read The Great Evangelical Disaster by Francis Schaeffer, but I am currently re-reading it now. Published in 1984 it is as current today as it was when it first hit the stands. Schaeffer understood better than most what the result would be if Evangelical churches began to turn away from the authority of the Scriptures as the liberal churches had already done. The chaos he predicted is what we see on the news every night. The book provides a much needed warning to those churches and denominations who still hold a high view of Scripture to not accommodate those who would challenge and attack that view.

The third book I am currently reading is The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. Earlier this year I read The Hobbit and the first two books of the Lord of the Ring series by Tolkien. I'm now finishing the series and enjoying it immensely. I will have to say that I enjoyed the movies more, but the books have helped fill in some gaps that I missed in the movies.

Some other books I've recently read include Connect: How to Double Your Number of Volunteers by Nelson Searcy, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin, and The Relationship Principles of Jesus by Tom Holladay.

Sitting on my shelf patiently waiting their turn is Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller and Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense: A Response to Contemporary Challenges (Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology) by C. Stephen Evans.

I really thought when I retired in 2015 that my reading would slow down, but that hasn't been the case. I was certain I would read more non-fiction, but that hasn't happened either. Being a life-long learner demands that I continue reading good books that touch on those aspects of ministry and leadership that I continue to do. As a Christian and a leader I hope you feel the same way and are investing in good books to help you on your journey.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Your life can change in 2017

I know we still have the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons ahead of us, but it's not too early to be thinking about 2017 and how your life can change in the coming year. I hope one of your goals for each year is to grow spiritually, emotionally, physically, and mentally every year. We never get so old or mature that we cannot grow so growth should be on everyone's list of goals for the coming year.

Spiritual growth is most important. If you are not a Christian spiritual growth begins by inviting Jesus Christ into your life as your Lord and Savior. If you are a Christian then you should seek to grow deeper in your walk with God. Daily Bible reading and study is a must. No one can grow spiritually without spending time in the Scriptures. Daily prayer is also important, and not just over your meals or before you go to bed. We need to get in the habit of praying all through the day if we want to grow spiritually.

Healthy relationships with other people is one key to emotional growth. We need positive people in our lives who will encourage us to achieve all our goals and who will lift us up when we get down. We need people who will laugh with us and cry with us and who will love us unconditionally. Men often struggle the most developing such relationships, but they are essential to everyone if we want to enjoy emotional health.

We all know what we need to do to grow physically. We need to eat right, exercise more, and get sufficient sleep. The problem is many of us fail to do one or more of these things even though we know we need to. These are the areas most likely to be found on many people's New Year's resolutions, and they are often the first resolutions to be broken. Rather than making a resolution it might be better to set realistic goals in this area and work to achieve them.

Finally, we come to mental growth. This might come through learning a new skill or developing a new hobby. It certainly will include reading good books. According to research, 28 percent of Americans did not read a book in 2015. The median number of books read by individuals was four. However, highly successful people read between one to two books per week! When Warren Buffet began his investing career he read between 600-1,000 pages per day. Even today, this multi-billionaire spends 80 percent of each day reading. Mark Cuban reads three hours a day. One very effective minister says he reads about 100 books a year.

It doesn't matter where you are in any of these areas of your life today. You can improve in 2017, and that improvement will begin when you set goals to grow in each of these four areas. Unless you intentionally plan to grow, you probably won't, and you will be the same person at the end of 2017 as you are today. It's your choice, but it's always in your best interest to be steadily growing in each of these areas.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Accepting responsibiity

The day after the election a news program was interviewing various people about the results of the election. One of the interviewees was a former adviser to Bill Clinton when he was President. In fact, I think he might have managed one of Clinton's campaigns but I do not remember. Regardless, he had been in close proximity to the Clintons and had seen behind the curtain.

He was asked how Hillary Clinton would take this surprising defeat. He was certain that she was blaming various persons, that she was not one to admit that she might be responsible for losing the election. It appears he may have been right.

She reportedly did tell some of her campaign staff that she had "stepped in it" when she said that half of Trump's supporters were "deplorables." However, according to news sources, in a telephone call to large donors, she was putting much of the blame on the FBI's letter announcing that new emails had been discovered on another computer, and the case was being re-opened. Her internal poll numbers immediately went down. They rose when a few days later the FBI reported there was nothing new in these newly discovered emails, but she claimed that report re-energized some of Trump's supporters even more.

The fact is that these emails would not have been much of an issue in the election if (1) she had not used a private server to send classified information and (2) if she had not lied about it to the FBI and the American public when it was discovered she had done so. The FBI is not responsible for her email problems, she is.

Clinton's response to her election loss is typical of many of us today. We always want to find a scapegoat to blame instead of looking at how we have responsibility for our problems. It is so easy to play the "victim" card and pretend that all our problems are the fault of others.

Maturity comes when we accept responsibility for ourselves. Instead of pointing the finger at others when we fail we look inside to find out why we did not succeed as we wished. After our family-owned small business went under I could have blamed the economy, our suppliers, our competitors, our employees, but the truth was that none of them were ultimately responsible for our problem. As the owner/manager I was responsible. As Harry Truman said, "The buck stops here." After the business sold at auction I wrote a book called Mistakes: Avoiding the Wrong Decisions That Will Close Your Small Business. The book is available for either Kindle or NOOK devices.

Some who have read the book have said that I was too rough on myself, but I don't think so. The closing of our small business was the direct result of poor decisions I made. I accept total responsibility for it. I wrote the book to help others avoid similar mistakes that might lead to losing their businesses.

Our God is a God of grace and forgiveness, but in order to receive that forgiveness we must first admit that we have made mistakes. We have to own them and stop blaming others. Maybe the environment we grew up in wasn't the best. Factors outside ourselves may have made it easier to make bad choices, but ultimately the choices we make in life are ours. While it's never easy to admit we messed up, it is the only way to true redemption and ultimate freedom and success. Own your mistakes, and ask God to forgive you. He is far more willing to do that than many people believe.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The church is not dying as some hope

We have heard much in recent years about the fastest growing religious groups in America: the Nones. The Nones are those who, when asked for their religious preference on a survey, respond None. The fact that increasing numbers of people are responding that way has given rise to the belief that the church in America is dying and that Christianity is finally slowly fading away.

Unfortunately, for those who wish it was true, it's not. More recent studies have found that there is a rising number of people who identify themselves as having no religious preference, but many of these are coming out of liberal and mainline churches and denominations. At the same time, Evangelical and conservative churches are growing.

People are leaving the liberal and mainline churches because they have found there is nothing there to sustain them in their search for spiritual truth and meaning. They go there spiritually hungry and leave the same way. Since they find little there to satisfy their search for spiritual truth and meaning some decide to give up their quest. They reason that if what they have experienced is all there is to the Christian faith they don't need it.

It reminds me of the story in Jim and Casper Go to Church: Frank Conversation about Faith, Churches, and Well-Meaning Christians. Casper, an atheist, agrees to attend church with Jim, a Christian, for several weeks one summer. Although an atheist, Casper admits that he is open to believing in God if he can be given enough evidence that God exists and Christianity is true. They attend some of the most-recognized churches in America. Although many of them would be considered conservative, at the end of the summer Casper remained an atheist. What he saw and heard in these churches did not convince him of the truth of Christianity. It is an interesting read as they debrief each church they visited, and Casper points out his concerns about each of them.

The churches that are growing as those that challenge people to make a decision about becoming a Christian through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. These churches have a high view of Scripture and they take the teachings found within those Scriptures seriously. They hold to a conservative theology without apology. Those on a spiritual journey are often attracted to these churches because they stand for something.

This country is more divided today than it has been since the Civil War, and this is true of the church as well. For years many churches and denominations have tried to straddle the fence on many of the social issues that have divided this nation, but they are not going to be able to do so much longer. It's time that churches take a firm stand on what they believe theologically and about the moral issues facing the nation. There have been enough "study groups" and "focus groups." It's now time to say where you are on these issues, and then let the people decide what to do.

Churches that try to be all things to all people have been slowly bleeding to death for years. It is from these churches that many of the Nones have come. These are among those who have been wounded by the church, and their wounds run so deep that they may never recover spiritually.

A couple of months ago I was called to be the Transitional Pastor of a church in my community. In my first sermon in that role I told them they deserved to know where I stood on the Scriptures. I explained that I believed the Bible to be the inspired, infallible Word of God, inerrant in its original languages, and that belief would serve as the foundation for every sermon I would preach there. This is not a church where a lot of "Amens" are heard, but there was a loud Amen from the congregation when I said that.

If you want your church to grow, if you want your church to make a difference in people's lives, if you want your church to have an impact on your community, I encourage you to take a stand for the "faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." Do so with love but without apology.

Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church. Don't let anyone tell you the church is going away. When the church goes away it will be because there was a trumpet sound and the saints were gathered into heaven!