Thursday, March 31, 2016

Youth are not the future of your church

A few years ago I was asked to preach in a small, rural church. I had been in that church before and knew that it was a church that had been struggling for some time. I sat on the platform during the worship service observing the 25 or so people in attendance. There were a handful of children. The vast majority of the congregation was probably drawing social security. There were virtually no one between the ages of 15-50.

There was very little energy in the worship service. The singing was listless. The prayers seemed to lack hope that any good would come from them. There was only one moment in the entire service when people began to sit up and seem energized. It was during the Children's Sermon. As the handful of children made their way to the front for the message the people began to smile. Their eyes seemed to sparkle. After the Children's Sermon finished the children returned to their seats, and the energy level quickly went back down.

As I sat there watching this I realized that the congregation believed that these children were the future of their church. They believed they were watching the ones who would keep this little church open in the future. These children gave them hope, and that's what brought about their smiles and temporary energy.

I wanted to tell them that these children were probably not the future of their church. Yes, they are the future of the church, but probably not this church. They will grow up and get married. They may move from that rural community. Even if they stay in the area there is a good chance they will not attend that church as adults for the same reason that their older siblings and parents don't attend there.

I once met with a pastor search committee of a small church to help them begin the process of searching for a new pastor. The church had a history of being a rough place for ministers and none stayed very long. One of the questions I always asked these committees was what they believed they needed in their next pastor. I got the usual answer I often received when I asked that question: We need a pastor who will grow our youth group. However, I didn't give my usual response. Instead I asked, "Why do you think you can attract new youth to this church when you couldn't keep the youth you had?" You could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

Young people don't want to be the future of the church. They want to be involved in the life of the church now. They want to be a part of a church that is making a difference in the lives of people. They want to be in a church where they can experience worship in a way that's meaningful to them. As children, they may be content to be picked up by Granny and taken to church, but when they get older they want more from church. Too often, we are not providing what they need.

Small churches need to provide meaningful ministry to children and youth but not out of the mistaken belief that they will carry on the traditions of that church. We need to help them find a relationship with Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith. We also need to be prepared to wish them well if they decide to worship elsewhere when they get a little older.

Neither of my children worship in the denomination in which they were raised. They have found other churches that better speak to their needs as adults with children of their own.

You should view your youth ministry as an opportunity to raise leaders for the Kingdom of God, not as saviors who will keep your church doors open. Don't put that burden on them. It's not one they are called to bear.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Bivocational ministry compensation

A question I'm often asked concerns compensation for a bivocational minister. Churches who ask the question are often concerned that they are not adequately compensating their bivocational minister but are not sure what would be considered fair. Others might be considering calling a bivocational minister for the first time and wonder what would be fair compensation. Occasionally, I've felt the church asking the question was just wanting to get by as cheaply as possible.

When a bivocational minister asks the question he or she is often feeling that their compensation is too low. They wonder what others are being paid.

Whatever the reason for the question, my initial response is usually the same, "As much as you can afford."

In 2004 I did a survey of bivocational ministers in the American Baptist Churches of USA. I received 112 responses to my survey and found that compensation varied widely. The average was $9,770 for male pastors and $8,578 for female pastors. The highest salary reported was $26,430 for a male pastor and $24,000 for a female pastor.

A few pastors reported they received no salary. Some churches paid their insurance premiums in lieu of a salary. A couple of pastors were allowed to live in the parsonage rather than receiving a salary.

Churches have an obligation to provide for their ministers. While a church may not have the financial resources to pay a fully-funded pastor, they need to be responsible enough to provide reasonable compensation for their pastor. Such compensation can come through a fair salary, but it can also come through non-taxable benefits.

Over one-half of the persons who responded to my survey reported they did not receive a parsonage allowance from their church. Properly set up, this can provide a tax-free increase in what the pastor receives from the church without it costing the church anything. Your CPA can advise how to properly set up a housing allowance.

Many of the respondents said they received no compensation other than a salary. Churches can include reimbursements as part of the salary package as a way of adding to the pastor's compensation. Many churches pay a mileage reimbursement to their pastor. The church I served provided a book allowance and reimbursed me for attending continuing education events and denominational gathering.

One of the best components of my salary package as a bivocational minister was when the church decided to pay into our denomination's retirement plan. Since retiring this past December I am thankful every month for their willingness to help provide for my future. If your denomination does not have such a plan, contact me, and I will help you contact the representative for our plan. They now accept ministers outside our denomination.

The proper answer to the question of how much to pay the bivocational minister is for the church to be as fair to that person as possible. You should set up a salary and benefit package that can meet the current and future needs of your minister. Few people go into bivocational ministry expecting to become wealthy, but we also want to honor those who serve our churches and one way to do that is to be fair with them financially.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Relationships are key in the small church

One essential quality of a pastor who will enjoy a successful ministry in a smaller church is the ability to develop relationships with the people in the congregation. Everything in the smaller churches revolves around relationships. This is why these churches are often referred to as family churches. They function much as a family. A pastor who cannot develop solid relationships with the folks will never be able to serve them.

What can a pastor do to develop such relationships?

  • The pastor needs to spend time with the church members to experience life from their perspective. The small church pastor cannot spend the bulk of his or her time sitting in the church office. You have to be with people doing what is important to them. 
  • The pastor needs to listen to people. We live in a rather impersonal world that communicates more by emails, IM, and tweets. We send facts to one another, but we spend less and less time actually talking with one another. When the pastor is an active listener he or she is looking at body language and trying to understand the emotions behind the words. It's also important to ask questions to clarify anything that we might misunderstand.
  • The pastor needs to be transparent. Ministers make mistakes just like everyone else. We don't want to be sensational, but we do want to be honest about our humanness. People struggle to relate to someone on a pedestal. Don't let them put you there, and don't put yourself there either.
  • The pastor needs to be honest about his or her doubts. Some in the church do not believe that ministers ever have questions about their faith so they don't feel that they can talk about such things when they struggle with their faith. We need to help people understand that God is not threatened by our doubts, and sharing our own questions about the faith is one way to do that.
  • The pastor needs to work alongside the members of the congregation. I've known some ministers who would challenge people to get involved in hands-on ministry but would never do so themselves. As a pastor I enjoyed working with members of our church and association when we took one month a year to prepare and serve meals with the Salvation Army. I enjoyed working alongside some of our members as they built houses for Habitat for Humanity. I always showed up in my work clothes when we had a work day at the church. Those kinds of experiences helped create positive relationships with our members.
  • The pastor must always keep confidences. Perhaps nothing will damage the pastor's relationship with members of the congregation faster than sharing confidential information with others. It sends a clear message that you cannot be trusted, and people seldom enjoy positive relationships with people they do not trust.
  • The pastor must make a long-term commitment to the church. Smaller churches are used to revolving-door pastorates. People in such churches have little interest in developing a deep relationship with someone they believe will soon be leaving. Don't be surprised if you do everything listed here and still struggle to have the kind of relationship with people that you want. That will come after people realize that you see them as more than a stepping-stone to a larger church.
Many more things could be listed, but if the pastor focuses just on these things he or she will be well on the way to developing a positive relationship with the congregation. Such a relationship will go a long ways to being able to lead the church. Even more important than that, having such a relationship in a small church makes the ministry there special and much more enjoyable.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Always take the high road

Just when you may have thought this presidential race could not get much uglier, the wives of the Republican front-runners are now being attacked. It started when a nude picture of Trump's current wife was posted by a Cruz supporter. This picture was from a 2000 photo shoot for a British tabloid. Trump fired back threatening to "spill the beans" on Cruz' wife and posted an unflattering picture of her next to a picture of his wife (dressed).

Cruz denied knowing about the first picture stating his campaign had nothing to do with it. That could be true. Personally, I believe that campaign ads, regardless of who pays for it, should not be legal unless the candidate states that he or she supports the ad. This is a loophole that needs to be closed to prevent this kind of nastiness from occurring again.

However, while Trump was understandably angry about the nude picture of his wife being used in a campaign ad, his response does not reflect the kind of maturity and demeanor we should expect from our nation's leaders. This whole campaign so far has looked more like something one would see on a grade school playground than in a campaign for the highest office in our nation.

Trump should have taken the high road. Certainly, he could have expressed his anger at this campaign tactic taken by someone supporting Cruz. Anyone whose spouse is attacked in this manner should be outraged. Whether Cruz knew about the ad in advance or not, he did not look good when it was released. Most people thought it crossed the line. However, when Trump responded with a similar ad he lost whatever advantage he might have had in this issue. Maybe Cruz didn't know about the ad, but no one would doubt that Trump ordered his ad in retaliation. He came across as childish, vindictive, and hardly presidential material.

Unfortunately, I have seen the same type of scenario played out in churches. I knew a pastor who was frustrated by a family in his church who seemed to undermine everything he attempted. Finally, he responded by sending an e-mail to the wife and said some very unkind things about her and her family. That e-mail was soon circulated throughout the church, and the pastor was in trouble. I saw the e-mail and could not believe that a pastor would write such things to a parishioner. Even more, it amazed me that he would not know that such a letter would be circulated to other members of the church. Although he remained at the church for a little while after this event, it was not a positive thing for him and his family.

Ministry is tough. Regardless of what type of leadership position you are in, you will come under attack by someone. People will not like you personally, they will not like what you are trying to do, they will be jealous or envious, and they will find ways to attack you. Any time a leader responds in kind, it just pulls them down to the level of the attacker. By taking the high road you put yourself in a superior position. Those who know the circumstances will be impressed by you taking the high road. Those who do not know the circumstances will wonder why you became negative towards some people.

Never be the one who has to say you're sorry when a negative event runs its course. Yes, you can defend yourself. You can explain your position. You can even admit that the attacks make you angry, but you can do all these things from a positive perspective without responding in kind. Always take the high road. You'll find it's the best road to travel.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Bivocational ministers and entrepreneurs

Wikipedia defines an entrepreneur as "a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk." That also sounds like a good definition for a bivocational minister which is why I believe bivocational ministers are entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs are risk takers. They often operate their organization outside the box of traditional thinking. They believe there are better ways of doing what their organization does, and they are not afraid to experiment to find out what works and what doesn't.

Entrepreneurs are hard to control. They often don't conform to standard practices. In a world of suits and button-down collars they think every day is casual Friday. They view most policies as ways to avoid creative thinking. They understand that today's "best practices" replaced what was recognized as "best practices" in the past, and they are convinced that there are better practices that should replace the current "best practices."

Corporate offices are afraid of entrepreneurial thinking. Most organizations are risk-averse. The don't want thinking that takes the organization away from the tried-and-true way of doing things even if those ways are no longer as effective. With their eyes on the quarterly statement, they don't want anything that might affect that statement. An organization whose vision is limited to the next quarter cannot afford to have entrepreneurs who are looking long-term.

Everything I've said about entrepreneurs is also true of most bivocational ministers I've known. The very fact of becoming a bivocational minister is to take a risk. We put ourselves out there knowing that we could fail. We're trying to balance a ministry, a second job, a family, and other commitments. There is a huge amount of risk involved in that.

Churches that call bivocational ministers take a risk. Will he or she be able to provide the ministry the church needs with the other responsibilities that person may have? Who will pick up the tasks the bivocational minister cannot do while at work?

Bivocational ministers are by nature creative thinkers. Adding ministry responsibilities to the other demands on our lives requires creative thinking. We often do not understand why our churches do some of the things they do, and we are often challenging them to consider new ways of doing things.

We frighten many in denominational leadership. Many tend to be less involved in denominational activities than our fully-funded colleagues. We're also less likely to buy into the denominational way of thinking. We know our church better than someone in a far-away office, and we're less likely to follow the "best practices" that come down from denominational headquarters.

Bivocational ministers should embrace their entrepreneurial tendencies. Our churches need such thinking. However, let's not become so independent that we refuse to find ways to work with other churches. Let's not be so certain that we are right that we automatically assume everyone else is wrong and that we cannot learn from others. Our churches do not need a Lone Ranger mentality from their pastors.

Some bivocational ministers believe that everything associated with traditional thinking, traditional worship, and traditional ways of doing things must be replaced. We should be careful of such thinking. As someone once said, "Before you remove a fence, first find out why it was put there." Some traditions should be preserved. Others can be changed, but first let's understand why they exist.

The best bivocational ministers will be wise entrepreneurs, and this is a worthy goal for each of us called to this ministry.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Preaching with authority

In the 1940s Billy Graham was a young evangelist who was beginning to have questions about the authority of the Bible. A number of theologians were questioning that authority and Graham began to have doubts. He began studying the subject because he knew he could not continue his ministry if he could not be certain of the authority of the Scriptures he was preaching.

One night he went outside, opened his Bible, placed it on a tree stump and began to pray. In his prayer he told God that he even though there were things he did not understand he would accept the Scriptures as the Word of God by faith. When he finished his prayer he never again doubted God's Word. Interestingly enough, this occurred about one month before his Los Angeles crusade which launched his ministry.

Graham was well known for saying "The Bible says...." throughout his messages. The foundation of his preaching was the Bible, and this is what gave his messages the power and authority they had. His absolute confidence in the Scriptures enabled him to preach with passion resulting in large numbers of people coming to faith in Jesus Christ.

The authority of the Bible must also be the foundation that supports our preaching. Man's wisdom and philosophy cannot change a person's heart. Only the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword and able to divide even the soul and spirit of a person. Only biblical truth can convict a person of his or her need for a Savior.

Some preachers believe they must water down the Gospel in order to reach more people. Studies have found that is not true. Formerly unchurched people report that one of the things that attracted them to the churches they eventually began attending was strong, biblically based messages that did not compromise the teachings of Scripture.

The apostle Paul told Timothy, "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching." His word is for those of us today who preach as well. Preach the word! Preach it with authority as one who believes that Word has been inspired by God. Only such preaching will change a person's life.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

How can seminaries better equip bivocational ministers?

This past Monday I was privileged to deliver the keynote message at a bivocational minister's conference hosted by Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana. The event had about forty people in attendance including bivocational ministers, members of their churches, and individuals from the School of Religion. It was a very well developed conference that included insights from a recent study conducted by Phil Blaisley who traveled the country interviewing bivocational ministers and members of their churches as well as a brainstorming session on how seminaries and Bible schools can better train bivocational ministers for ministry.

This final question is one that every seminary and Bible school needs to address. The facts are obvious. Bivocational ministry is growing across denominations and is projected to continue that growth. The church is going through an incredible transition, and I don't think anyone knows right now what it will look like on the other side. Most seminaries are still training pastors for the old model of church. Their assumption is that their graduates will go to fully-funded, growing churches, and the role of the pastor is to manage the church.

I'm not sure that assumption will be valid in the future; I'm not positive it's valid now! The median size church in America continues to be around 75 people. This size church can seldom provide adequate compensation for a fully-funded pastor. In fact, we now see churches of 100-120 unable to provide a financial package that will support a fully-funded pastor and his or her family. Add to this, there are a growing number of ministers who feel specifically called to bivocational ministry and have little interest in serving a fully-funded church.

While bivocational ministers might want to pursue theological and ministerial training, many of them are not going to be interested in the traditional MDiv degree. Serving a church and working a second job often doesn't allow them time to attend seminary, and many of them don't see the MDiv as suitable for the ministry they are doing. Many of them will look for a two-year degree that offers practical ministerial training as well as some theological education, and many of them want that education available online.

As the attendees brainstormed some of the things they would like to see seminaries offer bivocational ministers I was struck by the number of them who did, in fact, already have an MDiv from Earlham or another seminary. However, they realized there were some things missing from their previous seminary education that would have better prepared them for the realities of bivocational ministry. They contributed much to the discussion about how seminaries can better equip bivocational ministers for their ministry.

The Dean of the School of Religion was in attendance throughout the conference. He and others from the school have much to consider over the coming months, and I applaud them for their willingness to listen and think about how they can better serve their students. This is a conversation that every seminary and Bible school needs to have or they are going to see their future students seeking their education elsewhere.

As we all agreed, this is not an easy discussion for seminaries to have because we don't really know what the church is going to look like as it goes through it's current transition. The only thing we do know is that it will likely be different than it is now, so now's the time to begin thinking about how this transition will impact the education our seminaries will offer the students of the future.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

You will choose today what your church will be five years from now

I often like to tell churches that they are today what they decided five years ago, ten years ago, and even twenty years ago what they would be. I doubt that people thought the decisions they were making back then would continue to impact their church years into the future, but they often do. There are consequences to the choices we make, both positive and negative, that can have long-term effects on our churches.

We can't do anything about the decisions made in the past, but we can be cautious about the decisions we make today because those decisions will impact what our churches will be in the future. Our churches will be five years from now, ten years from now and even twenty years from now what we determine today they will be. That determination will come from the decisions we make today.

If we want our church to be a strong, healthy church in the future what are some choices we need to make now? There are many including

  • We must stand on the authority of the Scriptures. Too many churches have abandoned biblical authority and replaced it with man's philosophy. Some believe if we weaken biblical teaching we will be seen more favorable by the unchurched. Actually, studies have shown that is not true. Even if it was true, we still must not compromise the Word of God.
  • We need to call strong leaders as pastors and be willing to follow those leaders. Many smaller churches want to call chaplains to serve the needs of the congregation and make sure they are comfortable rather than calling a leader who can lead the church into serving its community.
  • We must understand that the Great Commission and Great Commandment make up the mission of the church. These make up the purpose of the church, and a congregation that is not seeking to fulfill both is a church in name only.
  • We must be vision-driven. That vision will differ for each church and will describe how your church will fulfill the mission today in your community. Every decision made by the church must be congruent with that vision.
  • We must call spiritual men and women to serve in lay leadership positions in the church. We cannot afford to ask people to serve in leadership based on their seniority in the church or their last name.
  • We must not allow controllers to continue to run our churches for the benefit of themselves and their families. These people are killing our churches and must be confronted. If they will not change, they need to be removed from all positions of leadership.
  • We must become serious about discipleship. We have long associated discipleship with education, but education is only part of it. Discipleship comes from combining education with experience. Churches need to find opportunities for their people to serve others.
What might a church look like five years from now if it focused on doing just these seven things? What might such a church look like in twenty years? Now, read each of these from a negative perspective. If a church decided to do just the opposite of what is written here what would it look like? See, the choices you make today will determine what your church will look like in the future. Choose wisely.

Monday, March 21, 2016

What will your church do with your Easter guests?

For many churches Easter Sunday will be the highest attended service of the year. Members who haven't been seen since Christmas will make their appearance. Others who have been wanting to start going to church will choose Easter as the day they do so. Unfortunately, few of them will be seen the following Sunday.

There are many reasons why this is true, but one of the big reasons is that many churches do not know how to follow-up with their guests. It is important that the church does everything possible to make their guest's worship experience on Easter meaningful. This includes not just the music and sermon, but everything the guests experience that day. The place should be clean. The people should be friendly. Quality child care is critical that day. Information cards should be filled out by every guest so the church has a record of their attendance and the information needed for follow-up.

It used to be common to do a follow-up visit at the guest's home, but that is not very practical today, and people are reluctant to allow people they do not know into their homes. An e-mail should be sent to the guest within 36 hours thanking them for their attendance and inviting them back. By the end of the week they should receive a handwritten note from the pastor again thanking them for coming and an invitation to return the next Sunday. A simple gift should be included with this letter. Something as simple as a five dollar gas card is sufficient.

When they return the following week they should receive a second e-mail and letter from the pastor. Another small gift should be included. At this point, your guests have reached an important crossroads. Nelson Searcy points out that after four to six months from that second visit "they will either be assimilated into your church or they will be gone - far from the church and likely far from any kind of relationship with Jesus."

At this point it is important to ensure that your new church attendees enter into relationships with others in the church. However, it's also important to remember that they are often not going to be comfortable joining an existing group that has existed for a period of time. If you are serious about assimilating these folks into the life of your church you will need to continually be forming new groups.

Absolutely the best book I've read on this whole subject of doing effective follow-up with church guests is Nelson Searcy's book Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church. I wish this book had been available when I began my pastoral ministry. This is one book I am not afraid to say should be on the bookshelf of every pastor and lay leader committed to reaching people for Jesus Christ. Much of the material in this post I learned from this book, and I didn't scratch the surface of all that Searcy teaches about follow-up. If you'll implement his suggestions you will see more of your Easter guests return.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Dedicated to the call

For some time now we have been told that one-half of all seminary graduates leave the ministry within five years after graduating. Whenever I mention this in a seminar people are shocked. I was as well the first time I heard this figure. How could someone believe he or she is called to the ministry, sacrifice the time and money into pursuing a seminary education, and then walk away from it that quickly?

Some probably realize they missed God's call and didn't really belong in the ministry. It happens. Others might discover they do not possess the gifts needed for pastoral ministry and pursue something else more in line with their giftedness. Sometimes the minister's spouse doesn't want to be married to a minister. Ministry can be tough, and some ministers grow weary of the conflict and politics that can be associated with ministry. Circumstances change, and the minister must leave the ministry to address those issues.

These, and many more reasons, can be behind the minister's decision to leave the ministry. I'm not here to judge those who do so. I want to celebrate the 50 percent who do not abandon the ministry.

Spending fourteen years as a judicatory minister gave me the opportunity to meet many wonderful ministry leaders. As I've traveled the nation leading seminars for church leaders I've been able to meet many more. Despite the challenges these men and women face they are dedicated to the call of God on their lives. Some of them have been in the ministry far longer than I have, and I admire their faithfulness to their calling and their continued passion for ministry.

I've often wondered why they have lasted when others have left the ministry. My only answer is that they cannot forget God's call on their lives. I know that's true in my life.

People sometimes ask how I remained at one church as a bivocational pastor for twenty years. The only answer I can give is that I knew that God had called me into the ministry, and that He had called me to that place. I had many opportunities to leave for other ministries, and more than once I wanted to leave! But, I could never escape the sense of call I felt towards that church. It wasn't until I knew God was calling me to another ministry opportunity that I became willing to leave my church.

Ministry can be very challenging. It's during those difficult days in ministry that we need to go back and re-examine God's call on our lives. Sometimes that may be the only thing that will keep us going, but it's enough. When we are dedicated to that call, wherever it may lead, we will leave a legacy of ministry that has impacted those we touched. One day, when we stand before the One who called us we will hear, "Well done, good and faithful servant...." What more could any of us ask for?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The intolerance of those who demand tolerance

How many people who support any of the Republican presidential candidates have protested an appearance by one of the Democrat candidates? Perhaps there are a few present with signs advocating for one of the Republican candidates, but we've seen no media coverage of riots and violence except by supporters of Democratic candidates opposing Republican candidates.

It's fast becoming a common theme. The people who demand others be tolerant of their views demonstrate a complete lack of tolerance towards anyone holding an opposing view. The same thing is true on many university campuses. Conservative speakers are often uninvited after students and faculty protest their appearance.

Bakeries owned by Christians are forced to provide wedding cakes for same-sex couples. If they refuse they are heavily fined and may be ordered to attend diversity training. Why are the same-sex advocates not ordered to attend diversity training so they will better understand the values the Christian owners hold?

Those who held to evolution first said they were just asking for the right to teach their theory in schools alongside creation teaching. They got that right. Now, anyone who attempts to teach creation rather than evolution is accused of promoting religion and is at risk of losing their jobs. Yet another example of the intolerance of those who demand tolerance.

Recently, a study was released that showed that a majority of Americans believe that conservative, biblical beliefs are extreme and those that hold to those beliefs are extremists. Sixty percent of Americans in the study claimed that any effort to convert someone to your religious beliefs was extreme. This would put most conservative, evangelical Christians in the category of being an extremist since evangelism is one of the marks of such Christians.

If we take that to a logical conclusion, evidently sixty percent of Americans would put Billy Graham in the same category as ISIS. I doubt most of those responding to the study would admit to believing that, but in essence that is what they are saying.

This demonstrates the challenges ahead for the Christian church, at least those of us who hold to evangelical doctrine. We have gone from being a nation who embraced Judeo-Christian values and beliefs, to a nation who began to challenge them, to a nation who merely tolerated such beliefs, and now to a nation who holds such beliefs to be extremist.

Sadly, it also points to a difficult future for America. No nation has ever turned its back on God and prospered. Once again, we have learned nothing from history. We have been warned for a long time that we were on a slippery slope. We're no longer on that slope; we have fallen off the edge, and I hurt for our children and grandchildren.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Have we lost our sense of a Christian culture?

On my Twitter account (@DennisBickers) today I link to an article written by a university professor who describes this generation as one who has lost its common culture. He describes the majority of his students as nice people who have learned how to take tests and pass their courses, but they have little understanding of Western culture. The majority have no idea of the things that have shaped Western culture.

As I read the article it helped me understand why so many Americans seem willing to elect a socialist to the presidency. They have no idea of the differences between socialism and capitalism. They do not know the history of how this nation has fought against socialism throughout its history. Obviously, they do not realize that socialism has not worked anywhere it's been tried. They may know how to take tests,make good grades and graduate, but they do not know, or even believe, that a capitalist society is far superior to a socialist society.

The second thing I thought about while reading the article is that the same complaint could be made about many who call themselves Christian. Many Christians have a worldview that is far more secular than Christian. We struggle to think biblically because we do not know our Bibles. We may know stories from the Bible, but many struggle to integrate those stories into their lives and their mindsets.

As we continue to lose our sense of a Christian worldview we also continue to exercise less influence on our society. It's difficult to be a light shining in the midst of a darkened world if our lights are so dim that they are indistinguishable from that darkened world.

Christians must begin to recapture a Christian worldview. This will not happen if churches continue to proclaim an easy-greasy gospel that is designed to offend no one. Such a gospel may go down easy, but it will sicken the listener, not make him or her well. Churches must begin once again to teach sound theology that exalts God and makes Him bigger and us less. Too many pastors are doing the opposite today in an effort to attract more people. That is a tragedy that is hurting both believers and the churches they attend.

Not only must our sermons and lessons be theologically sound, they must also be applicable to people's lives. Teaching biblical truth does little good unless it includes the admonition to "go and do likewise." The best sermons will always include application to the lives of our listeners.

There are many reasons the church is in trouble today, but one of those reasons is that many Christians do not understand their Christian heritage and culture. They do not hold to sound theology, and they do not know how to relate what they do know to their lives. This needs to change, and those in church leadership are the ones to lead that change.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Reaching our mission field

Too many churches consider themselves mission-minded because they send money to support people they probably will never meet to do ministry in places they will never go to. I am a big believer in supporting mission work around the world. As a pastor I led our church to increase our giving to our denomination's mission work from ten percent to fifteen percent of our offerings. However, just sending money to denominational headquarters is not enough.

Our primary mission field lies outside our church property. (In fact, it might actually be within our churches. Billy Graham once estimated that half of church members were not Christians, but that is for another post!) I have read that a minimum of 50 percent of every county in the United States is unchurched. In some counties it is as high as 80-90 percent. This is a huge mission field that we are obviously not touching. How do we change that and begin impacting this huge percentage of our population for the Kingdom of God?

Many of the things that churches did in the past are not very effective today. Churches used to hold revival meetings each year to reach out to the unchurched. Most of the revivals I've seen churches hold in recent years have not been very effective in reaching unchurched people. In some cases, they didn't do a great job of attracting even their own members.

Early in my pastoral ministry we did a lot of door-to-door visitation. That is also not very effective today. It's very hard to find people home, and if they are home they are often preparing to go back out. People today are not as accepting of strangers knocking on their doors at night as they once were.

Another mindset of the past was that if we could reach children their parents would start coming to church with them. Many churches began bus ministries to pick up these kids each week. The cost of gas and the fact that this strategy was often not very effective in reaching the adults ended many of these bus ministries.

So how can the church become more effective in reaching out to this mission field in their communities? Here are some quick suggestions.

  • Identify as many side-doors into your church as possible. This may be church sponsored sports activities that invites the community to participate. It may include leadership development programs to which you can invite local business and government leaders. You may want to sponsor something like Financial Peace University that would be open to both church members and unchurched people alike.
  • Begin to reach out to the police and fire fighters through recognizing their importance to the community. I know one church that adopted a fire station near their church building. This allowed them to know these individuals better and gave them opportunities to minister to them and their families.
  • Determine if there are people groups in your community that no other church is serving. Your church may want to target those groups with specific ministries that meet actual needs they have.
  • Become involved in programs that make your community better. For instance, you may have people who would enjoy working with Habitat for Humanity. This would allow them to work side-by-side with the people who will one day own that house, and it may give them opportunities to share their faith with these families.
The possibilities are endless depending on where you live. Your church will be limited on how many different things you can do by the resources you have available, but if you could only do one thing your church will begin to impact your community by that much. The key is to become intentional about reaching out to the unchurched in your community by finding out how your church can best do that and then doing it.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Defending the faith

How many people in your church could defend their faith if challenged by a non-theist? A large number of Christians really do not know what they believe, and of those who do few could explain why they believe it.

As an example, non-theists like to challenge Christians with the problem of evil in the world. Their question goes something like this. You believe that your God is all-loving. You believe your God is all-powerful. Then why would an all-loving, all-powerful God allow such evil to exist in the world? Why do innocent children die of cancer? Why do wars occur that take the lives of thousands of people? The questions go on and on highlighting the evils that plague mankind. They often conclude with the final challenge that our God is either not all-loving or He couldn't allow such things to exist, or He is not all-powerful since He seems unable to stop evil. In either case, the unbeliever says, he or she would not be interested in such a God.

It is the fear of such questions that probably keeps many people from attempting to share their faith with another person. They are afraid they will be asked questions for which they have no answers.

In recent years I have been reading more in the area of apologetics. J. P. Moreland defines apologetics as "a ministry designed to help unbelievers to overcome intellectual obstacles to conversion and believers to remove doubts that hinder spiritual growth." This is as good a definition as I've seen.

Apologetics enables us to defend our faith by giving reasonable answers based upon the rules of logic and in line with biblical teachings. People have a right to ask the hard questions about faith, and we need not be afraid of those questions.

The church needs to be teaching apologetics. We need to help our people to begin thinking about why they believe the way they do. Such teachings can occur from the pulpit, in Sunday school classes, and in small groups.

Church leaders, both pastoral and lay, need to begin to read more in the area of apologetics. Some of my favorite apologists are William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, J. P. Moreland, and Norman Geisler. I try to read 2-3 books a year by one or more of these writers plus I often listen to Craig's podcasts.

We live in a time where the Christian faith is under constant attack. Our values, our doctrines, and everything that is Christian is being challenged as never before in the US. Christianity is no longer the dominant worldview. Let us be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within us.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Never enough hours in the day

A critic of my first book wrote that he could have written a much better book on bivocational ministry if he had the time. I had to laugh because I thought, "Who couldn't?" The time factor is a huge challenge for every bivocational minister, and the same could be said of many fully-funded pastors as well.

The bivocational pastor has to balance many different demands on his or her time. There is the ministry work that needs to be done, the second job that often consumes at least 40 hours a week, family responsibilities, one's own self-care, and our relationship with God. We also can't forget that Sunday comes every seven days so there is at least one message to prepare and sometimes a second. Of course, there are the unexpected emergencies that arise in both our ministries and our personal lives that must be attended to.

As a bivocational pastor I had to come to grips with the fact that at the end of the day there would always be one more phone call I could have made, one more visit I could have made, more time spent in sermon preparation. Not only could those things have happened, in some cases they probably should have happened. Nearly every day the minister leaves unfinished work when he or she lies down for the night.

Life became easier what I finally realized that was OK. I am not SuperPastor. Neither are you, and if you try to be it will bring a lot of stress and pain into your life. Pastors refuse to take vacations because they don't believe the church can function without them. They won't delegate some ministry tasks to others because they don't believe others can do them as well as they can. Or...they are afraid that people will find out they can do them better than the pastor.

Too often, we allow others to impose their beliefs about the role of the pastor onto us. This will cause us to try to meet unrealistic expectations they have for our ministries. We are then no longer serving God but serving those expectations. Even if you serve a small congregation of 50 people you could easily have 50 different expectations placed upon you. A hamster in a wheel enjoys a better life than a pastor trying to meet that many different expectations.

Bivocational pastors must know who they are, what their strengths are, understand their priorities and then live into that as much as possible. I want as much of my work to line up with my strengths and priorities as possible. At times I had to say no to expectations that I do things outside of my strengths and priorities. Sometimes I could delegate those tasks to others, and other times I had to simply ignore those expectations. Spending too much time in areas where you are not gifted and are not in line with your priorities is draining and seldom productive.

Over the years I have met many pastors trying to meet unrealistic expectations placed upon them and their families. Some struggled under the stress. Some left the ministry because of it. As I have worked with these pastors and their churches I became convinced that they needed help dealing with the stress they were feeling. That's why I wrote The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry.

Ministers will never avoid feeling pressure at times, but there are ways they can ease that pressure. There are strategies we can incorporate to help make our ministries and lives less stressful, and that is a good thing for our families, our personal lives, and our ministries.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Pastors shooting themselves in the foot

A few years ago as I was leading a conference for small church leaders a pastor stood to ask why so many churches stab their pastors in the back. I responded that I wasn't sure we got stabbed in the back as often as we shot ourselves in the foot. I explained that we bring some of our problems on ourselves. I recently preached in a church where that had happened.

This church called a pastor about four months earlier. He was not from the same denominational background as the church and approached pastoral leadership from a different perspective than is common for churches of this denomination. Although the church was working with denominational leadership to help them find a pastor, they called this person on their own. It proved to be a mistake.

Immediately upon arriving as pastor he began to change the order of the worship service and make other changes in the church. He did all this without going through the appropriate leadership groups in the church. He removed part of the worship service that the congregation felt was important. At this point the lay leaders approached him and asked that this be put back in the worship service.

The Sunday prior to my preaching there he asked to meet with the deacons of the church after the service. In the meeting he presented them with a list of complaints he had about the church and resigned effective immediately. At the start of the worship service on the Sunday I was preaching a lay leader read the pastor's reasons for resigning and briefly addressed them. I worried this might bring the service down, but instead I sensed a relief was felt by most of the people present.

Just before dismissing the congregation at the end of the service, I reminded them that I had told them in the past that being without a pastor is better than calling the wrong person. They had called the wrong person. Any pastor that would resign from a church after four months over the issues he identified doesn't belong in the role of a pastor.

Here was a classic example of a pastor shooting himself in the foot. He had not been there long enough to change a light bulb much less the order of their worship service. He had not been there long enough to earn the trust of the church and needed to work closely with the lay leaders if he wanted to make changes or introduce new things in the life of the church.

I'm sure he is going around condemning the church for not letting him do what he wanted to do. If he is, he's wrong. This is a good, small, rural church that is very traditional. He should have known that going in and respected their traditions. This church is willing to make changes, but such changes will happen slowly and only after the congregation buys into the change.

As pastors of smaller churches we must learn to work within the traditions and timetables of our churches. I found that almost every change our church experienced took longer than I wanted it to, but those changes stuck because the congregation was given time to buy into the changes before they were made. Towards the end of my pastorate there changes came more rapidly as the people trusted my leadership, and I trusted and respected them, so we were able to work together to make needed changes.

Pastors, don't shoot yourself in the foot and blame the congregation for your problems. When you do make mistakes, be quick to apologize and learn from them. Most congregation will give you a lot of grace when you do those two things, and you'll enjoy a long, productive ministry in your church.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Bivocational ministry conference on March 21

Earlham School of Religion will host a Pastor's Conference that will explore "Bivocational Ministry for the 21st Century" on March 21, 2016. Earlham is located in Richmond, Indiana. I have been asked to present the Keynote address for this event. Throughout the day there will be panels of pastors and congregants speaking on bivocational ministry as well as a report given on new research that ESR professor Phil Baisley has been doing. This promises to be an excellent event for anyone interested in bivocational ministry, and I am honored to have been asked to have a part. You can read more about the event and find online registration here.

It is exciting to me to see so much research and focus being done on bivocational ministry. When I was a bivocational pastor from 1981-2001 I cannot remember a single conference offered specifically for bivocational ministers. Perhaps there were some of which I was not aware, but I cannot recall anyone offering such a conference. For the past few years numerous denominations and schools have scheduled conferences that addresses bivocational ministry. As bivocational ministry continues to grow across denominations the number of such conferences are also growing. I am currently scheduled to speak at several of these in 2016.

I want to encourage the readers of this blog to locate some of these conferences and make plans to attend. Many of these offer excellent resources and information. Some offer just one primary speaker while others have several workshops to choose from. It's also encouraging to meet other bivocational ministers at these events. So often, we can feel that we are almost out here by ourselves doing this ministry. The fact is that there are many bivocational ministers, and we need to connect with one another.

This conference should be a good one. I'm interested in hearing what Phil has learned in his research, and I'm looking forward to hearing the panel discussions. I expect each will be very informative and encouraging. If you are able, I encourage you to register for this event.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The leadership crisis in the small church

For the past fourteen years I served as a Resource Minister in our region. My role was to assist the churches in the region with whatever they needed, A good portion of my work was with pastor search committees. I would meet with these committees, help them through our process of searching for a pastor, and give them information on persons that might meet their criteria. Finding qualified persons for the smaller churches was often a struggle.

Studies tell us that many pastors refuse to serve smaller churches for a variety of reasons. That is very unfortunate. Having served as a bivocational pastor of one church for 20 years I can tell those pastors that they are missing the opportunity to be blessed and to be a blessing. However, I am realistic enough to know that this is not going to change. In fact, it's going to get worse.

We are already seeing some churches that used to have no trouble attracting a fully-funded, seminary trained pastor struggle to find their next pastor. They are finding that they can no longer pay the salary and benefits needed to attract these pastors. Other factors can also result in them struggling to fill their pulpits with pastors who meet their historic requirements.

Since I retired at the end of 2015 I've stayed busy preaching in various churches, many of them small churches who are seeking new pastors. These churches are looking for bivocational pastors but are struggling to find someone who can serve their churches. My heart breaks for these churches because these are precious people who just want a pastor who will love them and lead their church.

I know I write on this problem fairly often, but it's one I think is important to keep before our churches and our denominational leaders. Small churches need to continually look for persons who have pastoral and leadership gifts and challenge them to consider if God might be calling them to pastoral ministry. I'm convinced that many of the future pastors in smaller churches will come from within the church they will serve. We need to keep such people in leadership pipelines so they will be ready when called upon to serve.

Denominations must seek new ways to train these persons for ministry in the smaller church. Very few of them will seek a traditional seminary education. Denominational and church leaders need to determine what education and training is needed for such pastors and find ways to make that available to them. Seminaries can be a great help here as well. Some now offer certificate programs to persons who feel called to ministry but cannot pursue a traditional degree program. We need more to make such training available.

Many of these smaller churches also need to change the way they think about their pastors. In some denominations it's not unusual for a pastor to serve 2-4 congregations. In my Baptist tradition few churches are willing to share a pastor with another church. I've tried to convince several that this might be their best option to find a quality pastor, but I was never able to make my case. Each church wanted their "own" pastor. In my opinion, many of them might have enjoyed a better pastor by sharing one with another church than the one they called to be "their" pastor.

This is not a problem with an easy fix. Pastors, churches, denominations, and seminaries are all going to have to accept changes if we are going to have pastors for our smaller churches.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Lessons from the formerly unchurched

Several years ago Thom Rainer wrote a book that examined the things his research discovered about new Christians. He called these people the formerly unchurched. The title of the book is Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them. When I first read the book I felt it should be a must read for pastors, and I still do. Rainer's research team wanted to learn what factors influenced, and did not influence, a person's decision to attend church and come to faith in Jesus Christ.

There's always a lot of speculation about this, and most church leaders will have an opinion, but this was a study of 353 formerly unchurched persons to learn what actually impacted their decision to go to church and commit their lives to Jesus Christ. As such, it offers a great deal of practical insights into what churches need to do in order to reach unchurched people. Here are just a few of things learned in this study.

  1. Over 80 percent of the people surveyed said that the name of the church had little or no influence on their decision to join a particular church. For the past several years some churches have debated removing the name of their denomination from their church name, but this seems to have had little impact one way or the other on the decision to join a church.
  2. The pastor did not need to be a dynamic and charismatic leader, but he or she did need to be authentic and a person who spoke with conviction.
  3. It is not necessary to dilute biblical teachings to reach unchurched people. In fact, 91 percent of those studied indicated that doctrine was an important factor that attracted them to the church. They were looking for conservative churches that would not compromise their beliefs.
  4. Many people claim that Sunday school is nearly dead, but almost 70 percent of the people in this study reported being active in a Sunday school class. They believe Sunday school is a great place to learn about their new-found faith.
  5. The unchurched want to be challenged. They want to be involved in activities that will make a difference in people's lives. The church does not need to water down its expectations of these people.
The book covers more than just these five things, but it also goes in detail about how a church can best address each of them. Much of what we've believed about unchurched people may be wrong, and until we correct those myths we will continue to struggle to reach them with the gospel. Many are receptive to hearing the gospel and becoming involved with a good church. This book continues to be a good resource to help us do that.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Good things happen when small churches come together

This past Sunday evening I was invited to preach at an associational Lenten service. For the past three years this Baptist association has come together during the Lenten season to hold joint worship services on Sunday evenings. Each week they meet in a different church with a different pastor speaking. Often, still another church in the association will bring special music. They had asked me to preach this service prior to my announcing my retirement as their Region's Resource Minister.

Many of the churches in this association are smaller, bivocational churches. In addition to having joint Lenten services, this association also holds various training opportunities that their churches can attend. In the past they have held a large county-wide revival. It is really exciting to see how this association works together to accomplish much more than any of these churches could do by themselves.

It was just a few years ago this association wasn't sure that it would survive much longer. They had not had an associational meeting for a few years because no one was willing to lead such an event. Although the churches had a good relationship with one another, each was focused on their own ministries, and there was little interest in coming together for anything. Frankly, their association was like many in the area I served. The senior saints remembered better days in the past when the association was strong, but few saw much of a future.

Suddenly, people began to see that there were some things they could do together than they could not do by themselves. The decision was made to try to hold another associational meeting, and the attendance far exceeded anything in recent years. The idea of working together caught fire, and the association began to plan various events they would host together.

The church was nearly full Sunday evening when I spoke. The congregational singing and the special music was wonderful, each song reminding us of the season we were celebrating. One smaller church in the association announced they had baptized eight people that morning, and the entire congregation broke out in applause. By the time I got up to preach the congregation was ready. It was one of the easiest sermons I've preached in a long time!

Smaller churches often point to their limited resources as a reason they cannot do as much as other churches, but when these churches come together they are able to do far more than they realize. I have worked with other associations who went into less affluent neighborhoods to winterize homes. I've seen associations and groups of churches come together to do repairs at church camps. I've seen groups of smaller churches plan training events that all the churches in the area can attend. When we work together all our limitations as smaller churches go away.

Is there something you've wished your church could do but just didn't feel you had the resources? Are there other churches who might be willing to participate in that with you? I bet if you ask around you'll find some that would love to partner with other churches to minister in the community. Begin asking God what might be the possibilities if you come together with other churches to better serve your community.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A problem with big Sunday school classes

Last week I shared a link on Twitter to an article that explained how big Sunday school classes can harm a church. The article was very well done, but I felt the author left out one important issue with big Sunday school classes. They are often not attractive to new people.

The people who enjoy a big Sunday school class are often the people who have been in the church for years. This class is like a second family to them. In a very large church this may be the primary place where they receive pastoral care. Everyone in the class knows everyone else, and it's like going to a family reunion once a week.

However, new people don't know everyone and do not have the relationships with the people in the class that the long-time class members enjoy. They can feel very much like an outsider who has crashed a family reunion. After a few weeks of trying to join in they abandon the idea and either come to church after Sunday school or go to another church entirely. Because the class is already large it's possible that their absence won't be noticed for weeks, and by then it's too late to get them to return.

The Sunday school can serve as an important outreach arm of the church. While it's primary purpose is to educate and disciple, it can also be used to reach new people who are not attending church services. However, it's important that the adult classes be kept small for it to appeal to new people. You don't want a small Sunday school program; you just want small adult Sunday school classes. This is why it's important to begin new adult classes on a regular basis.

A good rule of thumb is that an adult Sunday school will stop growing after about eighteen months. This means if you want to grow your Sunday school program you need to be adding new adult classes about every eighteen months. This will require a great deal of intentionality on the part of the church leaders.

New leaders and new teachers must be kept in the developmental pipeline so they are ready to lead and teach when you begin a new class. Sunday school budgets should reflect this planned growth. Effective outreach tools must be developed. People must be trained in outreach and hospitality, and prospect lists must be maintained. Follow-up with first-time guests should be a priority of the leadership, and systems should be developed that will make your follow-up more productive.

When I was going to Bible school in the mid-1980s we were taught that one purpose of the Sunday school program was to reach out to the unchurched. I believe it can still be an effective outreach tool if it is used correctly, and that includes keeping the adult classes small enough that new people will feel comfortable and want to return.