Friday, April 29, 2016

Your entire worship service is your message

Some pastors believe that everything that happens prior to the sermon is merely an introduction to the main performance. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, our messages are conveyed through the entire worship service. If the service is well planned it will point to the One whose truths you will be communicating in your message. This is why it is so important that the pastor and the worship planning team work together in developing the service each week.

When I was a pastor I tried to give our worship leaders the title, text, and theme for my messages at least a month in advance. This allowed them to develop a worship service that would complement the message and bring the whole service together in a meaningful way.

The one thing I wish I had done differently was to incorporate more elements into the service even if it meant that there would be some Sundays there would be no sermon.

Our music was fairly basic. I often joke that we could have never built a ministry around our music, but what we did was done well. Music is the most important ingredient in a good worship service. It influences who your church will reach. Rick Warren correctly states that when you determine your music style you will also have determined who your church will and will not reach. It also prepares the soul for the message.

I visit too many small churches whose music ministry seems to have been an afterthought. The musicians have limited talent, the singing is anemic and uninspired, and there seems to be no flow to the service. Some churches have told me they are using the best talent they have. I would suggest they begin asking God to send them some talent. Believe me, I have extremely limited musical ability, and when I can tell that about every fourth note is off, it's off! It's an unnecessary distraction to the service and a stumbling block to attracting new people.

Multimedia wasn't available during my pastorate. The closest we came was overhead projectors which we did use occasionally. If I was pastoring today I would certainly use multimedia. We are a visual society. Talking heads do not communicate well to everyone. Add media to the sermon and it will have a greater impact. The cost of video projectors and laptops is now low enough to be affordable for any size church.

I would give one warning. Use multimedia wisely. You may not want to use it every Sunday. Have lots of white space on your slides. Media can also include objects, noises, etc. so mix it up to make your message stand out even more.

Several years ago I began to tell more stories in my messages rather than giving three-point sermons. I find that stories connect with people and make messages more memorable. The parables Jesus told were stories. If he found them helpful to get his point across we probably will as well.

Depending on the available talent in your church you can also use drama, puppets, liturgies, and other means to get the message across. Be creative. Remember that the purpose of worship is to allow people to experience God in a way that is meaningful and life-changing.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The hardened heart

In the book of Mark Jesus was confronted by a man who had a withered hand. He asked the religious leaders if it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil. No one would answer. The text goes on to say that Jesus looked at them with anger at the hardness of their hearts before He healed the man's hand.

I can't help but think that He may also look upon much of what the church does today with anger. Like the Pharisees of his time, we too often prefer our rituals and traditions over the opportunities we have to touch people for the Kingdom of God.

Such churches live in the past preferring their memories to a vision of the future. After spending 14 years in judicatory ministry and visiting in many churches I've seen many with large pictures hanging on their walls showing hundreds of people attending church events 40-50 years ago, but they could not tell you the last time anyone was baptized in their church. They point to these pictures with great pride, but they cannot point to a vision for doing ministry in the future.

In his commentary on the book of Revelation John MacArthur, Jr. wrote

A church is in danger when it is content to rest on its past laurels, when it is more concerned with liturgical forms than spiritual reality, when it focuses on curing social ills rather than changing people's hearts through preaching the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, when it is more concerned with material than spiritual things, when it is more concerned with what men think that what God said, when it is more enamored with doctrinal creeds and systems of theology than with the Word of God, or when it loses it conviction that every word of the Bible is the word of God himself. No matter what its attendance, no matter how impressive its buildings, no matter what its status in the community, such a church, having denied the only source of spiritual life, is dead.

If any of this sounds like your church, it's time to take a serious look at the heart of your church. A church in this condition will need a heart transplant or it will eventually die, and while it's waiting for the inevitable it will accomplish little of significance for the Kingdom of God. What will it take for a church to receive a change of heart.

  • The church must be confronted with the hardness of its heart. This is what Jesus tried to do in the Mark passage, but the religious leaders refused to repent and instead sought ways to destroy Him and His ministry. The same may happen to you.
  • The church must repent of its hardness of heart. Prayer will be an essential part of this repentance. God is more than willing to forgive us our sins if we will first acknowledge them and repent. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is a powerful promise to the church, and as we repent of our sins we need to stand on this promise.
  • The church must begin to see people through the eyes of God. Until they matter as much to us as they do to Him, our repentance will not be complete.
  • The church must seek a fresh vision from God as it prepares to move into the future. Your church started due to a vision, and if it is to continue to have an effective ministry it will need a God-given vision that is fresh for today and the future.
For more helpful thoughts on this subject I refer you to my book The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Training for bivocational ministers

In my last post I discussed the need for denominations and judicatories to begin to intentionally develop pools of potential bivocational ministers to serve their smaller churches. Just identifying these individuals is not enough. We also need to provide the training they will need to be effective in this role.

Many of the people we identify as possible bivocational ministers will not have any kind of formal ministerial training. Since they have other jobs they may not be able to pursue a typical seminary education. Such education may not be what they need most anyway, but they do need to have training available to them.

When I joined the staff of the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky one of my portfolio responsibilities was a program called the Certified Lay Ministry training. The way it was structured was not working so after a few months we eliminated this for another program we called the Church Leadership Institute. I led a great committee consisting of educators, lay persons, and pastors who developed an outstanding program that has not changed much since its inception. Although originally designed primarily to train lay leaders, a number of people competing the program have gone on to serve as pastors in our bivocational churches.

Similar training programs are found in numerous denominations and judicatories. However, some areas still lack any kind of training for bivocational ministers. This will have to change or these areas will struggle to find qualified persons to serve in these churches. Not every person serving in bivocational ministry will avail themselves of such training, but the best ones will, and they are the ones who will serve their churches well.

Various schools such as Campbellsville University's School of Theology are now offering online programs specially designed for bivocational ministers. I predict we will see more schools offer such opportunities in the future, and denominations may want to partner with these schools to help train their bivocational ministers.

Every judicatory needs to consider offering one or two training events each year specifically for their bivocational leaders. Obviously, most of these will need to be held on Saturdays. I'm leading about a dozen of these events this year for numerous denominations, and it's exciting to see more denominations and schools hosting such events each year.

Just as it's important to be intentional about identifying persons who might have God's call on their lives to become bivocational ministers, we must be intentional about offering them training to help them succeed in their ministries.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Where are the bivocational ministers?

This past evening I had a conversation with a denominational leader who asked if I knew of a pool of bivocational ministers. It's not the first time I've been asked that question as these leaders are finding it difficult to find such ministers for their churches. Unfortunately, there is no such pool of which I'm aware.

The denomination in which I've served has a formal listing of pastors who are open for placement, but there are very few bivocational ministers on that list. The reason for this is that bivocational ministry tends to be very geographic. It's unlikely that a minister will come from New Jersey to pastor a bivocational church in Kansas. I've found a good rule of thumb is that most bivocational pastors will be found within a one-hour drive of the church. If they have to travel much more than an hour it really lessens their ministry in the church.

As more and more churches move towards calling a bivocational pastor it is imperative that denominations and judicatories begin seeking such persons to serve these churches. Otherwise, these churches will be tempted to call persons who may not be qualified to serve as pastors. I've seen too many instances where small churches have taken a warm body just to have a pastor who turned out to cause much harm to the church.

I'm convinced that many smaller churches will find their future pastors within their own membership. I've seen several instances when a church called a gifted layperson to be their pastor, and in many cases it has worked very well. Such persons already are trusted by the church and in the community. Because they have roots in the community they are more likely to remain as pastor for an extended period of time, and this is usually good for the church.

Denominational leaders can work with pastor search committees to discern if there might be someone in the church who could serve as pastor. Calling someone into the ministry is the work of God, not of denominational leaders, but we can approach people and ask if they have ever felt that God might be calling them to such ministry.

We also need to be looking in both our larger and smaller churches for others who might possess ministry gifts and begin discussions with them about serving as bivocational ministers. Pastors are often the best persons to initiate these discussions, and as they find people who do sense a call of God on their lives this can be made known to their judicatory leaders.

Every judicatory needs to develop several pools of potential bivocational ministers so they will have people available when their churches begin searching for new pastors. The time to develop these pools is yesterday, but today is not too late! Someone in every judicatory needs to have the responsibility to intentionally focus on this growing need or our smaller churches are going to struggle to find suitable pastors.

Once we have a pool, even a small one, we must find ways to offer training. That will be the topic of my next blog post.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Freedom of the pulpit under attack

We live in a time when religious freedoms are under growing attack in the United States. This is especially the case for those who hold to conservative Christian values. Ten years ago few would have thought that SCOTUS would determine that same-sex marriage was a Constitutional-given right. Even fewer would have guessed that states, courts, and school districts would demand that people be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice. Virtually no one would have believed that government agencies would monitor the sermons preached from the pulpits of this nation and fire those whose messages did not meet their political correct litmus test. That kind of thing only happens in Communist and Socialist countries, doesn't it? Not any longer.

The Georgia Department of Public Health fired Dr. Eric Walsh from his position as a district health director due to sermons he preached as a lay minister with the Seventh Day Adventist church. Shortly after his hiring in 2014 a team from the Department began investigating his sermons. A few days later the Department announced it was rescinding the job offer which Dr. Walsh had already accepted.  You can read more about this here.

This situation should give pause to every bivocational pastor. If you take a biblical stand that does not meet with the worldview of your employer your job may be in jeopardy. Dr. Walsh has sued the Georgia Department of Public Healthy, but there is no way in today's political climate to guess how this will end. If he loses, evangelical bivocational pastors may face increased scrutiny in the future.

Of course, every pastor and every Christian should be alarmed at this assault on religious freedom. We have gone from being a nation who holds to religious freedom to one that practices religious tolerance, and anything the government merely tolerates one day can be challenged the next.

This should serve as a wake-up call to American Christians, but I am not hopeful. We have been asleep for the past 50 years and generally apathetic as our nation has become more and more secular. The majority of us do not vote in elections. We do not hold our elected representatives accountable. They are much more afraid of offending large corporations and losing their financial support than they are of losing the votes of conservative Christians.

Even worse, we have not seen a religious revival in this nation in many years due to the apathy of Christians and their leaders. We have become content to gather in our "sanctuaries" and play church games. Maybe our "sanctuaries" are not so safe after all. 2 Chr. 7:14 still says that God will heal the nation when His people humble themselves, confess their sins, and pray.

Evangelical Christians must do two things if we have any hope of restoring this nation to its Christian foundations. We must become informed voters who vote our values, not our financial interests. Many of us need to run for public office and be willing to stand up to the special interest groups who want to shape our nation according to their worldviews. We need to hold our elected officials accountable and vote them back out if they refuse to listen to us.

More importantly, we have to pray for a spiritual revival in this land. Ultimately, a nation's salvation does not come from the White House, the State House, or the Courthouse. It comes from God. God is no longer willing to wink at our apathy. In the Old Testament when He judged a nation he sent warning after warning, each a little stronger, trying to turn that nation back to Him. Eventually the warnings stopped and judgment fell. We are experiencing such warnings in America now, each one a little stronger than previous ones. If the church and this nation do not heed those warnings we can expect God's judgment to fall upon us as well.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Who will fund your church ten years from now?

There is an elephant in the room that many churches are trying to ignore. It has to do with their future finances. Many small, struggling churches survive financially today because of the faithful giving of people in the past. When churches were full of the Builder generation the giving was strong enough to allow many of them to save significant sums of money. Now, after several years of decline, many of these churches regularly dip into those savings to pay current expenses. What happens when that savings is gone and the last of the Builders and Boomers are gone?

It's well known that the Builder generation strongly supported institutions such as churches. Even many of us in the Boomer generation, once we returned to the church, have been pretty faithful financial supporters. However, that has not been the case with many of succeeding generations. As younger generations have reached adulthood they have often been saddled with excessive debt, including student loans, and were facing a combination of shrinking wages and rising costs of living. Those factors, coupled with a lack of interest in institutions in general, have led them to give much less to their local church. Even those who are generous givers often split up their giving between their church and other charities and groups they want to support.

A few years ago I was speaking with a denominational leader whose primary role was to work with the churches of that denomination to help them realize what the financial future looked like for churches. He said most of the churches have no idea, and those who do want to pretend it won't happen to them. We can pretend all we want, it is the reality facing many of our churches, and now is the time to begin preparing for it.

What can churches do in light of expected reduced giving in the future?

  • Avoid debt. Be sure you really need to build that new addition or undertake that capital project. If you do, cash-flow it. The Bible tells us that the borrower is slave to the lender. Churches are not the exception. The last thing you want if your giving drops is a large mortgage payment.
  • Teach biblical stewardship. Many churches are very reluctant to hear sermons about money. Some have insisted their pastors never discuss money from the pulpit. Those are the churches that need to hear about stewardship the most. Many denominations have sound, biblical stewardship programs that you can use. Don't wait until the church needs money to talk about money. Stewardship is part of discipleship. Talk about it in that context.
  • Invest in God's kingdom. As a pastor I often reminded our church that God honors churches that honors missions. When we had very little money we still gave 10 percent of our offering to our denomination's mission program. I told our church that we can't expect people to tithe if we as a church don't tithe. When our finances became stronger we increased that giving to 15 percent of our offering. The more we gave the more came in. We were never able to outgive God.
  • Take a close look at staffing needs. In many small and medium size churches salary and benefits for pastoral staff often take up the majority of the church's income. That leaves little money for ministry and other expenses. Many of these churches are now looking to call bivocational people as pastors and for staff positions. Many churches are using more volunteers in some positions.
  • Finally, accept the reality that your church could be affected by reduced giving in the future. Begin to talk about that now and take the steps appropriate to your church to counteract that possibility.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Just be yourself

When Rick Warren and Saddleback Church first became well-known it was interesting to watch some pastors begin to shape their ministries and even their dress after him. At the time I read a comment that pastors around the country had stopped wearing suits and even socks in the pulpit! Others modeled their leadership styles and actions after Bill Hybels. I read one pastor's admission that he began to pronounce his words like Ravi Zacharias even though he wasn't Indian. And how many have tried to copy Billy Graham's style of preaching? I remember attending a revival a number of years ago when the speaker's mannerisms and speech reminded me of Graham. Since I had numerous private conversations with him I knew these mannerisms and speech were reserved for the pulpit and found them an unnecessary distraction.

Many of us go into the ministry impacted by those we admire. It's natural that some of our mentors' influences will show through in our ministry and preaching styles. However, we must be careful that we don't simply become a clone of another minister.

God has created each of us with our own individual personalities and gifts. He equipped us just the way he wanted us. Now, we are expected to develop those personalities and gifts. That development will last a lifetime if we want to remain effective in ministry, but such development will not happen if we are content to just model ourselves after someone else.

We need to just be ourselves whether we are in the pulpit or elsewhere. We don't need to develop a pulpit voice or manufacture special mannerisms for when we are preaching. I think this is even more critical for bivocational ministers because people are used to seeing us in our non-ministerial roles. I don't want people to see me conduct an auction and then later preach in a church and wonder if I have a split personality. I simply want to be Dennis because I believe that is how people will best relate to me.

Have you developed a ministry persona that is different from your everyday life? Does that persona feel natural to you? If not, it probably doesn't feel natural to those around you either. God didn't call you into the ministry to be someone's clone. Just be yourself.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Small things can bring great harm

Solomon once warned us that small things can cause great harm. In Song of Solomon 2:15 he reminds us that the little foxes can destroy the vines. I thought of this verse when I recently read that another leader of a large church had been removed from his position because of misconduct.

Darrin Patrick, pastor of The Journey, a megachurch in St. Louis was fired as the pastor after church elders investigated some allegations of misconduct. While they emphasized that there was no evidence of adultery, they claimed that Patrick had engaged in inappropriate contact with two females. In addition, they said that they had been working with him for several years on some other areas of sin in his life including misuse of power, manipulation and lying, and lack of self-control which they claimed amounted to "deep historical patterns of sin."

Patrick joins other well-known ministers who have been terminated or resigned from their churches in recent years due to issues such as pride, misuse of power, and a lack of accountability.

In no way am I going to point a finger at Patrick or any other pastor who struggles with such sin in their lives. I do not know the circumstances nor do I want to. Anyone in a position of leadership, including pastors, will be tempted to misuse their power. Notice, I didn't say they might be tempted; I said we will be tempted. However brief the temptation may be, there will be times when it will come, and how we handle it will shape our ministries and leadership for years to come.

I am sure that Patrick and other pastors in similar situations did not get up one morning and decide they would begin to manipulate people, lie to them, and misuse their positions of authority. More likely, one day a "mispeak" was used to advance something that would benefit the church. I use the term "mispeak" because it is a popular term among politicians who somehow seem to get by with it quite often. Maybe the end result was good so the lie was overlooked. However, one lie often leads to another.

One misuse of authority also leads to another. After all, we can always justify it because we are doing the Lord's work, and what we are doing is to advance the Kingdom of God. One flirty moment leads to another. Again, it's all harmless because we would never follow through with anything physical. And then one day we stand before our leadership group trying to respond to allegations of misconduct.

God reminded Cain (Gen. 4:7) that sin lies at the door desiring to take control of his life. That same warning applies to those of us in ministry. Small, seemingly insignificant things can overtime grow much larger. We open the door, and suddenly a foothold that sin had in our lives becomes a stronghold that we cannot overcome.

At the very root of such sin is pride, and the cure for pride is humility. The best leaders I've known were very humble people. They recognized any success they enjoyed was not of their own doing. They are quick to give God and those who work with them the praise for the good things that occur under their leadership.

As a leader, there will be times when you will be tempted to think more highly of yourself than you should. When such times occur it is important to spend even more time in prayer, in reading the Scriptures, and in worship. Maintain a humble spirit, and you will be less likely to fall into the traps that pride can set for you.

Finally, let's pray for one another. Again, I am not criticizing any of these pastors nor should you. Rather, let's pray for them and for one another that we will not fall victim to Satan's snares.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bivocational ministry and life-long learning

I spoke at a recent bivocational minister's conference at Earlham College's School of Theology. The final segment was a discussion by all present about how seminaries and Bible schools can do a better job of training bivocational ministers. There were many great suggestions made from the bivocational ministers. Some of them had attended a seminary or Bible school; others had not. At one time I told them that if a school tried to teach all the things they were suggesting it would be a 10 year program! The dean and a number of his staff were present and promised to continue to study this matter.

As reported here before, all expectations are that bivocational ministry will continue to increase in importance in virtually all denominations. This is an important discussion to have. Most of the participants at this conference who had graduated from a seminary or Bible school agreed that much of their education did not prepare them well for the realities of bivocational ministry. If the numbers of bivocational ministers are going to increase then it's important that we find the best possible ways to educate and prepare them for this ministry.

However, we must also realize that seminaries and Bible schools cannot do it all. I was only half joking when I told the group that they were describing a 10-year program if any institution tried to teach everything they were suggesting.

It would appear to me that seminaries, Bible schools, and denominations need to work together to develop the training that bivocational ministers need. There are some things that the educational units should teach such as theology, church history, leadership,  pastoral care, preaching, etc. Denominations can then provide training in church growth, relationship building, and other practical skills bivocational ministers need. I certainly don't have it all figured out, and it would probably vary by school and denomination.

The key to this training, however, will be the bivocational minister. I've met too many who see little value in formal training, and among those who do many see no way they have the time to pursue it. I'll be the first to admit that it's tough. I was a bivocational pastor working full-time in a factory with a wife and two children at home when I first enrolled in a Bible school. It isn't easy, but the difference it made in my ministry caused me to enroll in college when I graduated from the Bible school. Later I went on to earn my master's and doctoral degrees while serving in fully-funded ministry. In between degree programs I attended numerous continuing education events.

Ministry is changing just as rapidly as everything else in our world. I still have most of the text books from the Bible school I attended in the mid-1980s on my bookshelves, but much of what's in those books no longer apply to the 21st century church. If you want to enjoy the ministry today you have to commit to being a life-long learner. Seminaries and denominations must offer cutting-edge continuing education events at a time that is convenient for bivocational ministers to attend, and these ministers must commit to attending such events. The ministers must invest in good books that explore new findings in theological thought and practical ministry skills.

I do not know what seminaries and Bibles schools will do in the future to train bivocational ministers. Some are already offering certificate programs that can be taken online that provide a nice mix of theological and practical ministry skills. Some are exploring how they can better serve this sector of ministry, and I'm sure some will choose to ignore it and focus on preparing people for fully-funded ministry.

However, regardless of what these institutions do, nothing stops you from being a life-long learner. There are numerous workshops and conferences held around the country today that are developed especially for bivocational and smaller church leaders. I know because I'm involved in several of them this year. Take advantage of these opportunities. If there are none close to you, contact your denominational leaders and ask them to provide some training that will improve your ministry. Take the initiative and develop the skills and knowledge you need to fulfill the calling of God on your life.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

10 Stupid Things That Keep Churches From Growing

I admit it...I like book titles that catch my eye. Even more, I like books that tell it like it is. No spin. No worries about being politically correct. I've got a few books like that on my shelves: People Are Idiots and I Can Prove It!: The 10 Ways You Are Sabotaging Yourself and How You Can Overcome Them by Larry Winget, They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations by Dan Kimball, Jim and Casper Go to Church: Frank Conversation about Faith, Churches, and Well-Meaning Christians by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper, and No Time for Tact: 365 Days of the Wit, Words, and Wisdom of Larry Winget are some of my favorites.

Ten Stupid Things That Keep Churches from Growing: How Leaders Can Overcome Costly Mistakes by Geoff Surratt also sits proudly on my bookshelf. The sad thing about this book is that I've seen each of these things done in churches, and I'm guilty of a couple of them myself. Here's a list of the ten things he discusses.

  1. Trying to do it all
  2. Establishing the wrong role for the pastor's family
  3. Providing a second-rate worship service
  4. Settling for low quality in children's ministry
  5. Promoting talent over integrity
  6. Clinging to a bad location
  7. Copying another successful church
  8. Favoring discipline over reconciliation
  9. Mixing ministry and business
  10. Letting committees steer the ship
Do any of these sound familiar? Hopefully, your church isn't guilty of doing any of these, but there's a good chance it is. Since about 80 percent of the churches in North America are not growing it's likely that your church falls in that category as well. It's also likely that one of these ten items is part of the reason. The question now is what will you do about it?

I once heard Dr. Elmer Towns say in class that we don't have to worry about growing our churches. All we have to do is to identify the reasons why our churches aren't growing and remove them. If we do that, growth will occur.

Surratt not only identifies these 10 issues that will prevent a church from growing, he provides solutions for each of them. He doesn't offer theories but real world ways to address each one of these roadblocks to church growth. I ask again, if your church is guilty of any of these what are you going to do about it? If you're not sure I suggest you begin by reading this book!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Questions the church must answer

If a church finds itself stuck in a rut it needs to begin asking some questions about how it got there and what it needs to do to get out of the rut. Asking questions is also a good thing to do when a church is going through a transition such as seeking a new pastor. Unfortunately, many churches never stop long enough to ask questions, or if they do, many of them ask the wrong questions. Here are five questions I often recommend churches ask.

  1. Why are we here? This has to do with the church's purpose or mission. The correct answer is actually rather simple. The mission of the church is to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. The mission of the church is the same for every church regardless of size. However, if they are honest some churches would have to give some other answer. They would be hard pressed to prove that they take either one seriously.
  2. How will we accomplish our purpose? This goes to vision. While the mission of the church is the same for all churches, the vision will be different for each church. The vision will be how will this church fulfill its mission today in this community. A church without a unifying vision will be a church that is drifting along accomplishing very little. Be very careful about how you answer this question because your checkbook and your planning calendar will demonstrate what your church's vision really is.
  3. What will hinder us from achieving our purpose? This goes to leadership. Everything rises and falls on leadership. Virtually every church seeking a pastor that I have worked with have told me they want a pastor who will grow their church. When I have explained that if their church could grow by what it's been doing it would already be growing so I'm assuming they want a pastor who will change everything they are doing they usually back off that answer. Church controllers and traditions are often the main culprits that keep churches from achieving their purpose.
  4. Who are we here for? The church should be the one organization that exists for the life of its non-members. If the church just exists to take care of its members then it really doesn't matter what they do. Such churches don't really want a pastor anyway. They want a chaplain.
  5. Is what we are doing here today worth the life of the Son of God? I often rephrase this question and ask it this way, "Did Jesus really die for this?" You may want to ask this question at the start of every meeting and ask the congregation once a month.
These are not easy questions for many churches to answer, but they are critical if the church wants to fulfill its God-given purpose. Of course, a church doesn't have to wait until it is going through a transition. It wouldn't hurt for the leadership to ask these questions annually. Once they've answered these questions they could ask them of the congregation to see how aligned their answers are compared to the entire congregation.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Great Commission is not the Great Suggestion

Most of the Evangelical church knows about the Great Commission. Pastors preach about the need to evangelize from the pulpit, and we talk about it in our Sunday school classes and elsewhere. The problem is that talking about it is all many churches do.

In many of our churches there is no intentional effort to reach out to the unchurched in our communities. It seems that we look at the Great Commission as the Great Suggestion, and we've decided to ignore it.

While working on my DMin I coached a young pastor who was serving in his first church. In one of our coaching sessions he said the church was going to have a baptism the next week, and that was what he wanted to discuss in our session that day. This was the first baptism he had done, and it was important to him that it go off without a hitch. I appreciated his concern, but it seemed he was overly concerned about doing something wrong. When I pointed this out to him he said that he wanted it to be extra special because this was the first baptism this church had done in 50 years!

I know several churches that have not had not had a baptism in decades, but I could not imagine a supposedly evangelical church that had gone 50 years without a baptism.

People often say the two most important questions a business needs to ask are: "What business are we in?" and "How's business?" These are not bad questions for a church to ask either.

"What business are we in?" Our mission is to fulfill the Great Commission. The follow-up question then is "How's business?" Are we reaching people for Jesus Christ and teaching them so they can grow as disciples? Different traditions may measure this in different ways, but it's really simple math to determine if we are in fact reaching new people with the Gospel. If not, then we need to ask what business are we really in, and where in Scripture do we justify that being our mission.

Our culture is rapidly turning from God and the teachings of Scripture. The church can no longer ignore that fact. We must become intentional about evangelism and discipleship training or we are going to see countless friends and family die and be eternally separated from God.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The disorganized pastor

My book The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide came from my Doctor of Ministry thesis. My project was to coach several bivocational pastors and write on the results of that experience. There are ten case studies included in the book which are representational of many of the challenges bivocational ministers experience. They are also not uncommon for fully-funded pastors either. One of the chapters discusses the coaching relationship I had with the person I called the disorganized pastor.

In a coaching relationship the person being coached sets the agenda for the discussion. This pastor struggled to identify one issue to discuss in our first session but finally decided to focus on time management. The pastor admitted that feeling overwhelmed by all the demands of ministry, a second job, and family responsibilities was common.

It turned out this was a good choice for this pastor because this pastor was one of the most disorganized persons I've met. After missing two appointments for our second session I had to confront an obvious lack of commitment to the coaching process. The pastor insisted that it wasn't a lack of commitment but that so many responsibilities often led to missed appointments. I explained this demonstrated just how out of control her life had become.

It was nearly impossible to keep this pastor focused on completing anything. Like many, this pastor had become used to living in chaos. She was used to living on adrenaline which can become addictive. The problem with living like this is that one day the adrenaline is used up and will be replaced by depression and or other health issues.

This happened to me in the mid-1980s when I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I had been going for several years with little sleep and trying to juggle too many responsibilities. Eventually, my system shut down. The adrenaline ran out. I had nothing left to give. It took a year of medication and counseling to recover.

No one can do it all. Some bivocational ministers try to, but they often end up like this pastor I coached. They end up with disorganized lives that are frustrating to them, to their churches, and most of all, to their families.

Like many, this pastor needed to learn to delegate and to focus on doing those things in which she was most gifted. She needed to set priorities for her life and ministry and learn to say no to those things that were outside of those priorities. These were some of the important lessons I learned from my own experience, and they are some of the things I've tried to teach other bivocational pastors through the years.

In the book we go into this coaching relationship deeper than we can in this post, plus we also look at nine other pastors and their challenges. Chances are you might find some solutions for some of the issues you are facing. You may also decide that you are ready for a ministry coach. If so, contact me, and I'll be glad to talk with you about what that might look like.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Greet your neighbor

I know I will ruffle a few feathers with this post, but I want to address something that annoys me every time I visit a church that does it. I'm talking about the time when we're told to "Greet your neighbor." For the next five, ten, or even fifteen minutes we walk around shaking hands with people we've already spoken to. Exactly what does this add to a worship service?

Studies consistently show that most church members don't enjoy it. Neither do most first-time guests. Yet, churches continue to do it. Why? So they can continue to believe they are "the friendliest church in town?" I've never felt it made a church friendly when people had to be told it's now time to be nice to one another.

In yesterday's post I mentioned the importance of having a flow to the service. This welcoming time is a major disruption to that flow. In some churches it takes forever to get everyone back to their seats.

There is no question that many churches need to improve their hospitality, but this is not the way to do it. It feels forced. I want people to speak to me because they are genuinely glad I'm there, not because it's the next item in the bulletin.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Prepared to worship

Visiting in smaller churches as often as I do gives me the opportunity to experience a lot of different worship services. It's always easy to tell when some thought and preparation has gone into the worship service and when it hasn't.

This is especially true if I am a guest speaker that day. When I'm speaking in a service where there has been some preparation I can expect to meet with a worship leader about 15 minutes before the service to go over the plan. This person will often hand me a program with my parts highlighted. We usually go over each aspect of the service so I will know what to expect. Often, someone from the church has contacted me a week prior to the service to ask for my sermon title and text so they can be included in the bulletin. The service usually goes very smoothly and has a comfortable feel to it.

Contrast this with a church that does little or no worship planning. I usually have to hunt someone down to ask about their sound system. The pastor or song leader is talking with the pianist five minutes before the service deciding on the music for the service. I was speaking in a service recently when the song leader nodded for me to go to the pulpit to begin my message. As I opened my Bible the sound person said, "I'm loading a video for special music to sing before the message if that's OK with you." I sat back down.

Some churches argue that they don't plan their worship services because they want the Holy Spirit to be free to lead them. I don't think I would blame some of the services I've seen on the Holy Spirit! Besides, I've always believed that He can lead us in a planning process, and we'll usually come out with a better service.

One pastor explained to me one Sunday that the pianist refuses to talk with her about the music until about five minutes before the service begins. I explained that was a power play on the part of the pianist. The pastor agreed but was unwilling to confront the pianist about this unacceptable behavior.

A worship service should allow people to experience God in ways that are meaningful to them. This will seldom happen without some prior planning. There should be a flow to the service that feels comfortable. A worship service is not the time to bring up church business or discuss conflicts in the church. Announcements should be kept to a minimum. Persons who will speak from the platform should be seated in the front pew so time is not wasted while they walk from the back of the church to lead in prayer or make an announcement. Unless there is a quiet time for reflection scheduled, the service should be kept moving at all times.

When I was a pastor I had my sermons planned out a quarter ahead. I made sure our worship leaders knew the titles and texts for my sermons at least one month in advance. This allowed them to plan the worship service to reflect the theme of the message.  We didn't do such planning in my first few years as pastor, but when we did start it added much to the services.

When you plan your worship you will be prepared to worship. It makes the experience more meaningful for everyone.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Make use of social media

Periodically, I return to this theme of the importance to churches of social media. The reason I keep returning to the subject is that many churches, especially smaller churches, still do not take advantage of the opportunities social media provides.

In the mid-1990s our church began to send out a quarterly newspaper. We continued that until I resigned from the church in 2001. The paper was well done with timely articles about the Christian faith, family life, and other items of interest to most people. The church got the top half of the front page and one page on the inside of the paper to promote our church. The company printed all the articles and mailed the paper to everyone in our zip code for a reasonable fee.

It is largely recognized today that such direct mail isn't very effective, and it's not inexpensive either. Fewer and fewer people take their local newspaper any more so buying ads there often isn't productive either. Door-to-door visitation has long since ceased being an effective outreach strategy. So how can a church promote its ministry and reach out to the community?

Social media is very inexpensive (usually free) so it's affordable for any size church. It can be used to inform both your congregation and the community about activities occurring in your church. It's not difficult to learn, and you don't have to worry about deadlines. You can publish your material any time you want. It is a great way to promote a new sermon series, a special event, or anything you need to market to the community.

I have people following me on this blog. In addition, people can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn. I also have another blog at where I write business and leadership articles. Almost every week, Monday through Friday, I publish links to about 20 articles that I believe my readers will find interesting or helpful. These articles come from blogs that I scan each day. They are scheduled on Hootsuite to be published throughout the day on my Twitter account (@DennisBickers). Of course, anything that I put on Twitter automatically shows up on my Facebook account. Every day there are dozens of opportunities to connect with people all around the world. All of that is possible just by spending a few hours each week at my desk writing articles and scheduling the posts.

Social media is becoming a principle way I market my auctions as well. With newspaper ads I have to remember to get my ads in by a certain date. That's not a problem with social media. I'm on Buy-Sell-Trade sites for my Facebook account in several surrounding communities. I can post a brief ad on these sites in a matter of minutes. These also show up on my main FB site so in a few minutes there are potentially 20,000+ local people seeing my ad at zero cost. It would cost me hundreds of dollars to advertise in all the local papers to reach these same people. I have people come to every auction as a result of seeing the ads on Facebook. Social media works.

For a busy pastor, a bivocational pastor, or anyone in ministry using social media to connect with people is a tremendous time saver and gives you the opportunity to connect with far more people than you could in a face-to-face setting. If you don't feel comfortable using these tools, ask any Junior High school student in your church to teach you how. It won't take them more than a few minutes to show you the basics. As you remain consistent in posting information you will begin to build a following, and you will see results.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Is your church a great place to serve?

I'm always saddened when I talk with a pastor who has little good to say about his or her church. After serving in denominational ministry for several years I know there are some very dysfunctional churches out there. Some go beyond dysfunctional into the category of mean. Others are not dysfunctional or mean; they are just scared. They are so frightened that they might close that they become very resistant to new ideas. This frustrates the pastor who wants to lead them to a better place.

On the other hand, it is a joy to talk with a pastor who cannot say enough good things about his or her church. This past week I was speaking with a pastor who told me that last year the church set a record for giving and saw a large growth in membership. A few years ago this church allowed him to become bivocational, and it is working well for both the church and for him and his family.

A few weeks earlier I was talking with a pastor of a small church who told me they had baptized eight people that morning. Their little, rural church, led by a bivocational pastor, is having a great season of ministry.

Around the same time I was talking to someone who told me about the ministry of another church. This small church had an average attendance of about three dozen people a few years ago when they called a bivocational pastor. Today, they average well over 100 people every Sunday. They have developed an exciting youth ministry and are heavily involved in ministry to their community. They have expanded their parking and their facility.

These three churches all share a few commonalities.  One, they are served by bivocational pastors. Two, they were all much smaller churches prior to their current pastor's arrival. Three, all of these pastors are serving in their first pastorate. Fourth, these pastors have all been in their churches for several years.

Several years ago I read a book that had a great impact on my life and ministry,The Heart of a Great Pastor: How to Grow Stronger and Thrive Wherever God Has Planted You by H. B. London, Jr. and Neil Wiseman.  They wrote, "Most desirable places were difficult until a previous pastor loved the church into greatness. Face it - few Camelots exist in the ministry."

Elsewhere in the book they wrote, "Every assignment is holy ground because Jesus gave Himself for the people who live there. Every place is important because God wants you to accomplish something supernatural there. Every situation is special because ministry is needed there. Like Queen Esther, you have come to the Kingdom for a time like this."

Is your church a great place to serve? If so, it is because someone before you helped it become such a place. If not, then perhaps God has called you there to make it a great place. If that is the case, put down roots and plan to stay there until it becomes a great place of ministry. Outlive your critics and church controllers. Love your people and pray for them. Keep your eyes upon the One Who called you to this place and His vision for what this church can become. Do these things, and one day something supernatural will occur. The church will experience a spiritual breakthrough and wonderful things will begin to happen in and through the ministry of the church you serve.