Thursday, June 22, 2017

Should you preach your old sermons again in the same church?

A few years ago when I was serving as a Resource Minister in our Region I was asked to fill the pulpit in one of my churches for a couple of weeks. I used to joke that I really only needed five sermons as a Resource Minister since I was usually in a different church every week. Since I would be in a different place the people there would not have heard the sermon I did the previous week in a different church.

On the second Sunday I was scheduled to preach in that church I decided to preach one of my favorite sermons even though I had preached it in that church seven years earlier. Few people remember a sermon more than a few weeks at the most so I wasn't worried. After the second service in that church a teen came up and asked, "Didn't you preach that message here before?" Busted! All I could do was smile and admit that I had.

There's nothing wrong with preaching a sermon over again in the same church. After all, the church sings the same hymns and songs over again. If a sermon is worth preaching once it's probably worth preaching again. Sometimes.

When I began my current ministry as the Transitional Pastor in a church I was convinced that sermon preparation would be the least of my concerns. After all, I had been a pastor for twenty years and had a file drawer full of sermons I had preached in my previous church. However, as I've gone through them I've discovered some problems with most of those sermons.

One, many of them are outdated with illustrations that have no relevance to our culture today. Two, most of them no longer reflect my preaching style today. Three, the majority of them lack the scholarship I now want in my messages. Fourth, few of them are pertinent to the church I'm currently serving. They were addressed to another church for another time. Almost none of them are suitable to preach in my current church.

Occasionally, I'm able to use one for inspiration and can sometimes use bits and pieces from it as I prepare a new sermon on the same topic. That's what I would suggest you do with your old sermons. A sermon that is not culturally relevant is of little value and will lack the impact on the congregation that you want.

There's nothing wrong with preaching a sermon over, but before you do check it over and make sure it will still communicate the message you want today's audience to hear.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Is your church ready for a new pastor?

In yesterday's post I focused on one reason it may take longer than expected to find a new pastor. Today I want to address a new question: Is your church ready for a new pastor? I believe one reason it may take longer for a church to call a new pastor is that they are not really ready to have a new pastor.

Calling an interim pastor should be one of the first steps a church takes when beginning the search for a new pastor. Surprisingly, some churches do not want an interim pastor. They are content to have people fill in each Sunday while the search team quickly looks for someone to come as pastor. These churches often mistakenly believe that it will be a quick process. It isn't unless they are willing to call the first person who comes down the road wearing a cross around his neck.

A good interim pastor can take the pressure off the search team to hurry through the process. He or she will provide quality ministry during this interim time especially if he or she has been trained in the work of interim ministry.

There are certain tasks the church should address during this time of transition which an interim pastor can lead. Certainly, if there is unresolved conflict in a church that needs to be addressed before calling a new pastor. It is very unfair to ask someone new to come into a church that has such conflict.

Another task the interim pastor can address is any changes in church structure that should occur. Some churches have very outdated systems in place that need to be changed but are seen as sacred cows by some in the congregation. The interim can help lead changes in those systems. If people become upset, they will be upset at the interim rather than the new pastor if he or she tries to lead such changes.

Churches that have had long-term pastors and are now seeking a new pastor need to call an intentional interim pastor. I often encouraged such churches to not even begin looking for a pastor for at least a year. Since it often takes a year or more to find a pastor the interim will be serving there for 2-3 years. This gives the church time to transition away from the leadership of the previous long-term pastor and be better prepared for the new pastor. Failing to do this often results in the new pastor being an unintentional interim pastor who will leave within a couple of years because the church was not ready for new leadership.

I am a believer that God knows the person He has prepared to serve as the pastor of a church. The process of seeking that person provides the opportunity for the church to be prepared to receive that individual. It helps ensure the church is actually ready for new pastoral leadership. Only when the church is ready will God reveal the right person.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The challenge of seeking a pastor

I apologize for not posting more often in recent weeks. Since last September I've been serving as the Transitional Pastor of a church. That responsibility plus my auction business has kept me rather busy and has limited the amount of time I can devote to social media and writing.

I'm certainly not complaining as I've enjoyed the work of Transitional Pastor. The church I'm serving has a lot of exciting ministries, a fantastic staff, and some amazing lay leaders. This has been a great opportunity to help prepare this church for their next pastor.

A few weeks ago the Pastor Search Team was ready to recommend an individual to the church to serve as Senior Pastor, but he decided he felt called to remain in his present ministry. This means the search will continue, and while the Team was disappointed, they accepted the decision as God's will and are moving forward.

This highlights the challenge many churches have today finding their next pastor. It is not unusual for a church to spend 18-24 months searching for a pastor. When I served as a Resource Minister in our Region I often cautioned search teams to not get in a hurry and to expect the process to take longer than many expect. It's far more important to get the right individual than it is to take the first person who expresses an interest in the position.

Why does it take so long for a good pastor search process? For one thing, at least in our denomination, there are not a large number of candidates seeking to move. Once a search team identifies several potential candidates that number is reduced even more as they compare the gifts and skills of the candidate to the needs of the church. It's possible that out of 15-20 possible candidates there may only be 2-3 who appear to be a good match for the church. Further interviews and reference checks may even reduce the number further.

For smaller churches the number of possible candidates may be even smaller. Studies have found that many pastors are unwilling to serve smaller congregations so the pool of available pastors is even smaller for these churches. Many of these churches are now seeking bivocational pastor, because these pastors are often found in or near the church's community those churches may find an even smaller number of candidates. People are not apt to be willing to move across country to serve in a bivocational church.

Every Sunday we ask the church I'm serving to be in constant prayer for our Pastor Search Team. Prayer is absolutely vital if the church is to identify the person God has prepared to serve a church.

So is patience. Some churches cannot stand to not have a pastor and will rush their search team to quickly find someone they can call to be their pastor. This often proves to be a mistake. Calling a pastor will impact the life of the church for years, and even decades to come, and is not something that should be rushed or entered into lightly.

If your church is currently seeking a pastor, pray for your search team. Encourage them. Respect their need to maintain confidentially. Prepare yourself for the next pastor. Oh, yea, pray and then pray some more.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The growth of bivocational ministry

When I wrote my doctoral dissertation in 2010 I assumed my adviser and the ones with whom I would present my oral defense would be the only ones who would ever read it. This week I received notice that it has been downloaded nearly 2,500 times. To say I am surprised is putting it mildly. But, I am also very pleased that it is being used to help people better understand bivocational ministry and the way coaching can assist those involved in that ministry.

Every year I receive one or two calls from someone writing their doctoral paper on some aspect of bivocational ministry. That alone is very encouraging to me because in the past there have been few resources available to bivocational ministers. This is changing, but there's not been anywhere close to 2,500 doctoral papers on bivocational ministry written in the past seven years. That tells me that others are reading my paper for other reasons, and it shows the growing impact bivocational ministry is having on ministry.

More and more churches are calling bivocational ministers as pastors and in other staff positions. While part of this is due to finances, part of it is also due to a shortage of pastors willing to serve in smaller churches. As I've written elsewhere, a growing number of pastors are unwilling to serve smaller churches. Some of these churches are forced to look for bivocational leadership. The good news is that they often find the ministry these bivocational pastors provide is second to none.

Because bivocational ministry has become more accepted it is drawing greater attention from denominational leaders and seminaries. Many of the leaders in these organizations are seeking to better understand bivocational ministry and how they can better support these ministers and the churches they serve. This has led to doctoral students studying aspects of this ministry and has led to more books written on the subject.

When my first book on bivocational ministry was published I was only aware of three other books that had been written on the topic. Today, there are several, but still not nearly enough. Many denominations now schedule seminars and conferences that focus on bivocational ministry. I've been privileged to lead several of these. Some denominations are also calling staff people at the regional and national level to relate specifically to bivocational ministers and the churches they serve.

Since much of my ministry focus has been on this form of ministry I rejoice at what I see happening with bivocational ministry today. Those who serve in such ministries continue to be my heroes.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Playing the victim

Ever since the Garden of Eden mankind has tried to shift the blame for their problems onto others. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and the serpent didn't have a leg to stand on. (OK, it's a bad joke but you get the point!) And the blame game has continued throughout history to today.

Hillary Clinton has started another round of the blame game as she appears on one program after another blaming everyone for her loss in the recent election. She continues to blame Comey and the Russians and has even now started  blaming the Democrat National Convention for their lack of revenue and poor statistical information. Evidently, she forgot that the DNC rigged the primary so she could defeat Bernie Sanders and the former DNC chair sent her some of the questions she would be asked in the debates.

Clinton is unable to accept the fact that the American people did not trust her, and as fearful as they were of Trump, they were more fearful of her. Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, the incredible wealth the Clintons have amassed since leaving office, and the lost emails were more than most Americans could stomach. She can complain about Wikileaks all she wants, but they couldn't have leaked anything if there wasn't anything to leak.

Then we have the disgusting image Kathy Griffin posted recently which has already cost her a number of jobs. No doubt you've seen the image so there's no need to describe it here. Democrats and Republicans alike have condemned it as inappropriate and possibly a violation of law. Although she gave what she considered to be an appropriate apology, like Clinton she is pointing the fingers at others for the consequences of her actions. Reportedly, all of her upcoming shows have been canceled by the various groups that were sponsoring them.

She blames President Trump for sending an army of people to ruin her life. The only person who is ruining her life is herself. She is the one who chose to publish the image that most Americans found to be in very poor taste at a minimum. She can try to hide behind free speech all she wants and claim artistic license, but that image went far beyond the line of decency.

Both Clinton and Griffin wants to be seen as victims, but they are only victims of their own personal choices. Both need to accept responsibility for their actions and stop blaming others for the choices they made.

But, then again, don't we all do that? We are all guilty of making personal choices that are wrong and outside of God's will. It's called sin, and the Bible is very clear that "We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God." Sin is not a very popular word today because our postmodern society has given us so many other options. It's much easier to blame forces outside of us than it is to accept responsibility for the sin that lives within each of us. God has not provided a remedy for blame, but He has provided a remedy for those willing to admit they have sinned. It's called forgiveness, and it's only available when we come to the cross of Jesus Christ and receive Him into our lives as our Lord and Savior.

Have you ever confessed to God that you are a sinner in need of His forgiveness? Have you ever asked Him to come into your life to be your Lord and Savior? If not, can you give me one good reason why you would not want to do that? I would love to talk to you about it.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

It's time to learn to work together

Is anyone else getting as sick and tired of the petty partisan fighting that has existed since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States? There was a time when elections were held, a winner was declared, and our elected representatives returned to conducting the business of the United States. No longer. What we have in Washington DC today are a bunch of sore losers, masters of innuendo and spin, and individuals who could care less about making America a better place to live. Their focus and priorities lie in their base and in the lobbyists who line their pockets with enough money to continue to be reelected. Since the election some have focused on nothing else but finding a way to try to impeach the president.

Many Republicans do not come across any better. Because Donald Trump doesn't toe the party line he has made more than a few enemies on that side of the aisle as well. People who would have supported almost anyone representing their party have been among the first to criticize, question, and accuse.

Reading the headlines and listening to the newscasts one would think Trump is the first president to have a few rough days at the start of his presidency. According to some "reporters" Trump's presidency is already a failure. Has he made mistakes? Absolutely. You try to govern the most powerful nation in the world and see how well you do during your first 100 days. Is he perfect? Not by a long shot. I doubt he would have been elected if the Democrats had ran anyone the American people found even slightly trustworthy. But, he did win, and it's now time for those who have been elected to be leaders in our government to begin acting like responsible adults and actually lead.

Unfortunately, it's not difficult to make comparisons to the way many churches operate. Pastors are not perfect people either, and we make our share of mistakes. We say things we should not have said, we fail to make wise decisions sometimes, and occasionally even the best of us will not follow though on something we promised we would do. Sometimes our sermons are boring, sometimes they are too long, and occasionally they are too short (although you are unlikely to get many complaints about the latter).

Sometimes we get sideways with the leaders in our churches. They may not like our recommendations, our theology, our leadership style, or the way we comb our hair. It doesn't matter what their complaint is, they just don't like us. As a result, many pastors find some of the leaders in the church will refuse to work with them and often will work against them. Gossip, innuendo and outright lies happen in churches, too. Rather than acting like adults and working together in those areas in which we can agree, we sometimes find church "leaders" acting like spoiled kids and working only for their own best interests.By the way, the same can be said for presidents and pastors.

President Trump would probably be smart to stop tweeting so much and keeping quiet. I would tell some pastors the same thing. True leaders do not feel they have to respond to every critic. There is a time to respond to unfair criticism, and a time to ignore it. It's too easy to go on social media and give your critics even more to criticize. Pastors and presidents would be wise to find areas of agreement with their critics and try to work in those areas.

This nation has a lot of work to do to make life better for everyone. Our churches have a lot of work to do to take the Kingdom of God to everyone. It's past time our leaders in government and in the church begin to act like adults and work together to accomplish worthy goals.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Financial Peace University

I am excited that the church where I am serving as Transitional Pastor will soon offer Financial Peace University (FPU). FPU was developed by Dave Ramsey as a way to teach personal finance from a biblical perspective. This program has been taught in tens of thousands of churches since its inception resulting in thousands of families getting control of their finances for the first time in their lives.

Since arriving at the church last summer I've occasionally mentioned that I would like someone to coordinate this class. Recently, one individual came to me saying she was willing to do so. We are currently accepting registrations and hoping for at least 10 families in our first class.

One reason often given for the poor giving in many churches is that the people are overwhelmed with personal debt. I've been there myself, and it can make it hard to give to the church as one would like. Proverbs 22:7 is certainly true when it says that "the borrower is slave to the lender." FPU teaches a method for getting out of debt and staying out of debt. There is great freedom when one has no debt.

Not only is FPU a way to teach the people in our church about personal finance, it is a way to reach out to the community. We saw how the recession of 2008 destroyed many people financially. Many lost their homes, their cars, their retirements, and their careers. Many have still not recovered and continue to struggle financially. FPU seems to me to be a great way to reach out to those in the community who might have little interest in God but great interest in learning how to better control their finances. As they see how the Bible speaks to their financial questions, they may become open to what it says about other matters including their need for God.

Over the past few years I've followed the principles Ramsey teaches in my own personal finance. It's made a huge difference, and I can only wish I had learned them much earlier in my life. I don't claim that I do everything exactly like he teaches, but I certainly try to do so most of the time.

If you live in the Madison, Indiana area and would like to attend this nine-week program, contact me. If you live elsewhere you will find an FPU class near you. You can go to Ramsey's website to find the closest class to where you live.

I am not being paid anything for promoting FPU. I just think it is a positive way to teach our church members about personal finance and a way to reach out to the non-churched in our communities to help them see how relevant the Bible really is to their daily lives.

Monday, May 15, 2017

A vision that goes beyond the four walls of your church

Several individuals from the church where I currently serve as Transitional Pastor returned last week from a church that we help support in El Salvador. They had gone down to be with that church as it celebrated its 25th anniversary. Yesterday morning one of the people who went reported some of their experiences in both of our worship services. It was an amazing report of what God is doing through that church.

In addition to supporting the church, we also help support the education of some of the members. While our team was there last week some of the graduates told of the difference their education was making in their lives. One had recently completed his engineering degree, another had graduated from law school, and I believe a third was now a doctor. I believe there are others our church is supporting who are either in school or have graduated. The individual who gave his report to our church said no one from our church who went had a dry eye as these young people shared how much the support from our church meant to them.

This church I'm serving supports a number of special interest missionaries around the world in addition to this church in El Salvador. Many of these missionaries are related to our denomination, but a number of them are independent missionaries who have some connection to the congregation. Plus, this church sends a large sum of money each year to our denomination's overall missionary effort.

As I listened to the report given about the church in El Salvador I could not help but think of the world-wide impact our church is having for the Kingdom of God. We are a church with an average attendance of around 200 people in a county with a population of around 32,000 people. Yet, through our support of mission work world-wide we are impacting the lives of countless tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people for Jesus Christ.

So many churches have no vision for ministry that goes beyond the four walls of their building. Virtually their entire budget is directed at activities and needs of their own church with little to nothing given to ministry outside the church. Most of these churches will claim their giving is poor and they do not have the funds to give to mission work or even to ministries within their community. Money is not the problem. A lack of vision is the problem.

Two things are at work when a church suffers from poor giving. It either has no vision for ministry or the church needs teaching in biblical stewardship. If a church is only going to use its offerings to meet its expenses, that is all that will come in. But, if a church has a vision for ministry that goes beyond its four walls, it will see its giving increase IF the people have been trained to tithe and be responsible stewards.

As an Area Minister I had many pastors serving in financially-strapped congregations tell me they were not allowed to speak about money from the pulpit. I always told them they were in a church that most needed to hear about stewardship, but few of them were brave enough to go against the mandate they had been given. As a result, the church continued to struggle financially which continued to result in little to no ministry being done outside the church walls.

I can't take credit for anything the church I'm currently serving is doing with its support of mission work. They were doing this long before I arrived, and I pray they will continue to maintain their vision for doing ministry around the world through their support of various missionaries. I have always said that God will honor a church that honors missions, and this church is a great example of that. I pray your church is as well.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

When you're only against something

The fitness center where I work out has eight televisions lined up in front of the treadmills. You can plug ear phones into any of them if you want to listen, but I take an I-Pod to catch up on listening to my podcasts. However, I do occasionally look to see what's on each of the stations they have playing. Yesterday morning the entire hour I was at the fitness center CNN ran nothing but stories that focused on what they perceived to be the negatives of the Trump administration.

There were other news stations besides CNN on the TVs, and they ran various stories during my exercise routine, but CNN was only focused on trying to discredit the President and his administration. It's very difficult for me to imagine those responsible for selecting what news to report can find nothing worth reporting except their issues with President Trump. I do not normally watch CNN, and I understand that puts me in the majority of viewers. If this hour is any indication of their journalism it's not hard to understand why their ratings are low.

This post is not really about CNN and its issues with the President, but it is a good illustration of what happens when you become solely focused on what you are against that you forget what your real purpose should be. Unfortunately, many churches and pastors fall into that trap as well. We get focused on some behavior and we become better known for what we are against than what we are for.

For instance, many churches get caught up railing against the "sin of the month." These churches jump from one sin to another based on what the culture is doing at that particular time. I'm not saying we should not preach against sin and even name the sins, but if that is our only focus we are doing our congregations a disservice. Our primary focus should be on Jesus Christ and His grace. If we can introduce people to Christ, He can work to clean up the sins in their lives. I certainly don't mind challenging people about the wrong choices they are making in their lives, but I also do not intend to beat them up over those choices. Instead, I want to help them connect to the One Who can offer them forgiveness and help them make better life choices. If you want to drive people away from the church, spend all your time telling them what you are against. If you want to attract people to the church, tell them about the hope they can find in Jesus Christ.

Frankly, I did not always feel this way. I went through a period several years ago where my sermons had become quite harsh. I was beating up my people on Sunday. One day I was reviewing the past few sermons I had preached and became overwhelmed with conviction. That was not what God had called me to do. My job was to preach Christ. The next Sunday I confessed to our congregation what I had done and asked for their forgiveness. As always, they were very gracious, and I made sure that from then on my sermons offered the hope found in Jesus Christ and not the condemnation that would come from the Pharisees.

Change is another thing in a church that some people will always oppose. It doesn't really matter what the change is, some people will be against it simply because it's new and seems threatening. Again, these churches can develop a reputation for being against change which can scare away potential new members and pastors.

If there are people in your church who are always opposed to anything new, and never in favor of any change, you have to find a way to deal with them. You either have to try to get them on your side and include them in the initial discussions of any proposed change, or you have to find a way to work around them. Neither option is likely to be easy, but you cannot allow people who are only known for what they are against to set your agenda.

President Trump is far from a perfect individual, and he and his administration have made some mistakes. But, everything they've done hasn't been wrong, and for supposed news organizations to focus only on the mistakes isn't journalism.

We in church leadership are also not perfect, and there will be times when we are wrong. But, we're not always wrong, and people who only focus on our mistakes are not interested in seeing the church move forward. Don't be a church that is known only for what you are against. Such churches will never have a positive impact on people's lives.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Is your ministry an idol?

One of the books I'm currently reading is Designed to Lead: The Church and Leadership Development by Eric Geiger and Kevin Peck. In a section that discusses why many pastors do not develop leaders within their churches one of the reasons the authors give is that ministry has become an idol to many pastors.

As they note, it is easy to become addicted to the approval and applause that often comes to those in ministry. What pastor doesn't enjoy being complemented and praised when he or she serves people well? We all want to be appreciated for a job well done. The problem comes when we pursue that appreciation and it becomes more important to us than even our relationship with God. The authors caution, "If we only rejoice in God because of what He is doing through us and not because of what He has already done for us, we cherish our ministry more than Him."

They remind us of the time the disciples returned from ministry filled with joy because even the demons had submitted to them. Jesus responded, "Don't rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven." If we do not love God more than our ministries, those ministries have become idols in our lives.

The book lists five questions to ask to help ministers determine if their ministry has become an idol. They are good questions we should probably ask ourselves regularly.

  1. How much of my contentment is connected to the tide of my ministry influence?
  2. Do my prayers reflect that I am more thankful for the salvation He has provided for me or for the ministry He has given me?
  3. If I had to choose, which would I prefer: a closer walk with Jesus or a more "effective ministry?"
  4. If my ministry were suddenly taken from me, would I still rejoice that my sins are forgiven?
  5. Do I seek God only for His blessing and direction or do I also seek God simply for Him?
These could be painful questions to honestly answer for some of us, but it's important to answer them honestly. Nothing, not even our ministries, should come between us and God. We must always remember that what we are is more important than what we do. What we are is forever; what we do is only temporary.

I strongly encourage you to get and read this book. I'm only 50 pages into it, and it has already blessed me more than anything else I've read this year.

Friday, April 28, 2017

What is the #1 thing people want in a church?

In the 36 years I've been in ordained ministry there have been many theories about how to grow a church and what people are seeking in their churches. A growing church holds a conference explaining what they did to cause their church to grow and that theory becomes the latest fad. Suddenly, all around the country churches begin to copy the model they were taught and are surprised to find that their church still didn't grow.

Let's forget about the growth aspect for a moment and just focus on what people are wanting in the churches they attend. According to a recent poll the number one thing people want in their church is preaching that is based on the Bible.

I encourage you to read this excellent article by Tim Challies on what this means going forward.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Why would a healthy church remain small?

This is a question many small church leaders have asked. Karl Vaters recently addressed it in a way that will encourage small church leaders and help them gain insights on why their church might not be growing even though it is healthy. Like me, Vaters is a supporter of smaller churches and those who serve them. If you are serving in a small church I think this article will encourage you. Check it out here.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What should you look for in a seminary?

In yesterday's post I talked about my personal educational journey, and I encouraged my readers who have not pursued a formal theological education to consider doing so. Today, I want to suggest some things you should think about when pursuing such education.

First, the seminary you attend should be one that will help you grow in the faith. Some seminaries are so liberal that they do more harm than good. They turn out graduates who have more doubts than faith. More than one seminary student has walked away from his or her faith because of the teachings of the professors under whom he or she studied.

This does not mean that you will necessarily agree with every professor and that your theological beliefs won't be challenged. Part of an education is being exposed to different beliefs and viewpoints, but this exposure should help you solidify your beliefs so you become stronger in your faith. There is a difference between presenting different viewpoints and trying to indoctrinate you with heretical teaching.

Second, the school you choose to attend should offer you a variety of degree choices. As I said yesterday, because of my sense of being called into bivocational ministry I did not want to pursue an MDiv degree. The school I chose to attend offered a variety of MA degrees in their theological school that seemed to be a much better fit for me. Because these programs were offered through distance learning, it was an even better fit for me since I was serving in a judicatory role at the time and managing a small business. I was able to schedule my studies around my schedule rather than having to adapt to a rigid school schedule.

Third, the school you select should be one that is affordable for you. There is absolutely no reason for anyone going into pastoral ministry to incur $60,000 in student loan debt, but I've known several who have. There's nothing wrong with going to some big, prestigious seminary if you can cash flow it, but there is also nothing wrong with attending another seminary or Bible college that you can afford.

Fourth, without question the school you attend should be fully accredited. There are a lot of diploma mills out there offering a theological education. You may find you've spent a lot of money for very little return.

Be wise when you consider which school will be best for you. This is a significant investment in your life and ministry and is not a decision to enter into lightly. I believe I grew as an individual and a minister through my educational experience, and this should be your goal as well.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Seminary or not

It's funny that I've often been accused of being anti-education because of some comments I've made about a seminary education. As many of you know, I began my pastoral ministry with no education beyond high school, and I did not follow a normal ministry education track.

About 18 months after beginning my ministry I began to attend a Bible college about an hour from my house. Although it was a two year program I needed four years to complete it as I was working a full-time job and pastoring a church besides attending school and being a husband and father. When I completed that program I enrolled in a university, also about an hour from our home, and spent the next seven years earning a bachelor's degree. I sat out five or six years before beginning a master's program, and then I followed that with a DMin degree which I completed when I was 62 years old.

The truth is that I sometimes wish I had sought even more education, maybe a PhD or a ThD so that I could teach in seminaries or Bible colleges now that I am retired. Although I have 35 years of practical ministry experience as both a bivocational pastor and a judicatory leader, I do not have the education that these schools seek in their instructors.

However, that is not the only reason I wish I had pursued additional education. While in Bible school I fell in love with learning. I learned to love the reading, the study, the writing of papers, especially in the postgraduate studies. I was able to go deeper in my understanding of the Scriptures and the ministry through my studies.

Although my education experience was not the norm, there were some advantages in doing it the way I did. I never incurred any student debt as I was able to cash flow my education since it took me so long to complete each of my degrees. In college I enrolled in General Studies which meant I did not have to take specific courses to complete a major. That gave me great freedom to take courses I thought would be most helpful to me and fewer courses that were required to complete a major or minor. Rather than earning an MDiv I enrolled in a MAR program with an emphasis in leadership. Again, a much more practical program for a bivocational minister (and for many other pastors as well IMHO).

I've written in this space recently about how ministry is going to change in the future, and one of my prayers is that seminaries are looking now at how to best prepare their students for these changes. I am concerned that many seminaries are now preparing people for a ministry that will not exist in a few years.

Do I believe that pursuing a ministerial education is a good thing? Absolutely, but don't think you have to follow an educational path that might have made sense in the 1950s but might not be the best one for you to take today. Also, do not limit your education to formal degree programs. Young ministers today must accept the fact that they will be lifelong learners if they are to remain effective in ministry.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Teaching the Bible

We are working our way through the book of Acts for our Sunday night Bible study. In Acts 11 we find the Gospel going to Antioch where a great number of people were saved. Barnabas was sent to Antioch to check out the reports of the people turning to the Lord. He soon went to Tarsus to find Saul to bring him back to Antioch where they spent a year teaching the new converts.

As I was studying this passage it dawned on me how these first converts to Christianity knew nothing about the teachings of Christ. They had no Bible. They had never had contact with Jesus Christ to our knowledge. They were a clean slate when it came to Christian teaching.

To make their lack of knowledge of Christian teaching even worse, they came out of a very secular and immoral environment. Antioch was not only a large cosmopolitan city, it was also well known for its immorality. The temple at Daphne was only about five miles away. Filled with temple prostitutes it was the center of immoral practices which impacted the entire city of Antioch. These new converts needed solid Christian teaching if they were going to successfully put their immoral past behind them.

I became very much aware that this is another way in which our society today resembles the first century. Several decades ago people often came to faith in Christ after having learned much about him through regular attendance in both worship services and Sunday school. Even before they became Christians they had an awareness of biblical teaching and Christian doctrine. That is often not the case today.

People in today's culture often come to faith in Christ with little to no knowledge of Christian teaching. They have not had regular exposure to Scriptural teaching so they do not have a sound grasp of Christian doctrine. This makes them easy prey for the enemy of their souls and is one reason so many fall away after making a profession of faith.

Not only have they not received very much Christian teaching before they became Christians, many do not receive much after inviting Christ into their lives. Sunday school attendance figures continue to go down in most churches. Mid-week and Sunday evening Bible studies no longer exist in many churches. Some of the churches offer small groups that study the bible at other times, but many of them don't.

Churches need to recognize that evangelism and discipleship are two sides of the same coin. Not only are we to share the gospel with others to lead them to a relationship with Jesus Christ, we also have a responsibility to help them grow in their faith. We have to find ways to encourage people to want to be taught the Word of God, and Christians must want to be taught.

We will never walk in victory or enjoy the kind of life God wants for us if we are not knowledgeable about what the Bible teaches. It is imperative that new Christians ensure they are attending a church that is not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and teaches it in every possible setting. Churches must see teaching the Scriptures is one of their primary duties and be very intentional about how they go about doing this.

Monday, March 27, 2017

What is God doing in your church?

Can you identify three things God is currently doing in your congregation that would not be happening if He was not involved? Some churches could name several things; others would struggle to identify even one thing that God is doing. I'm not trying to be argumentative, but it seems that there should be things happening in churches that only God could do. If nothing is going on in a church that doesn't require supernatural power and favor, then something may be wrong.

Our Sunday night Bible study is currently going through the book of Acts. Over and over again we find God doing things far beyond what any human could do on his or her own. Some would say that God doesn't work like that today, but I would challenge that and ask them to prove that statement. Maybe the reason more of us do not see God at work as in Acts is that we are limiting Him by our doubts and unbelief. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. There is no reason He cannot be actively at work in our churches today.

One of the joys of being a pastor is seeing God work in people's lives. For reasons of confidentiality I cannot speak of specific instances, but I can say that in the past few weeks I've witnessed God do some amazing things in people's lives. Lives are being changed because of the Holy Spirit moving in those lives. A church where God is so active is an exciting place to be, and right now the church I'm currently serving as Transitional Pastor is such a place.

Do you pray asking the Holy Spirit to work His will in the lives of your congregation? That is one of my constant prayers, but it's not enough to just pray that. We have to give Him room to work. I'm in favor of structure, but we must not become so structured that the Spirit has no opportunity to break through to impact people's lives.

A pastor can't change a person's life. Our best sermons can't change someone's life. We can be instruments God uses to help bring about that change, but only God is capable of truly changing someone's life.

Does your church give the Holy Spirit room in which to work, or do you quench the Spirit? Are things happening in your church that can only be contributed to the work of God in people's lives? If that isn't happening, ask yourself why. If it is happening, give Him the praise!

Monday, March 20, 2017

The church of the future

At a recent meeting with pastors I spoke directly to the younger pastors who were present and told them I envied them because of the changes in the church that would occur during their ministries. Although I cannot predict what those changes will look like, there is little doubt that significant changes are occurring and will continue to occur as we move through the 21st century. The church I have known and served as pastor for the past 36 years will disappear. Please note that I did not say the church will disappear. Jesus made it very clear that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church. But, much of what we now know as the church will change in the coming years, and I believe these will be exciting changes for both the church and the world it is called to reach.

We live in a very unsettling time in virtually every area of life. It seems that everything is under attack today, and that certainly includes Christianity and all it teaches and believes. The church is seen as irrelevant by a growing number of people both inside and outside the church. Denominational structures are viewed as even more irrelevant. Christian teaching is seen by many as judgmental, arrogant, and divisive.

It seems that every worldview is acceptable except the Christian worldview. This holds true on many university campuses as well as in the entertainment and business communities. In many parts of the world today Christians are under extreme persecution that includes martyrdom for tens of thousands of believers. While Christians in the US do not face that level of persecution, we continue to see new challenges placed on churches and other Christian organizations.

I hate to quote the atheist Nietzsche, but he did remind us that out of chaos comes order. There is little question we live in a chaotic time, but perhaps this chaos is to prepare the church for the changes that are coming. I am convinced that the church of the future will look much different and will minister is much different ways than it looks and ministers today.

It's interesting to me that many people are saying what I'm saying, but few attempt to describe what the church of the future will look like. I doubt that any of us knows at this point so trying to predict that would be a waste of time. At the same time, I would make two observations that I believe will be correct.

The first is that churches that value their models of ministry more than their mission will not survive the changes that are coming. We are already seeing established churches change the structures that served them well for many decades, but even these changes might not be enough. Regardless of size, churches in the future must clearly understand their mission, have a clear God-given vision for how to achieve that mission, and have the flexibility to make the necessary changes to see that mission fulfilled.

The second observation I would make is that the education today's current seminary students are receiving is going to be woefully inadequate to lead the future church. Most seminaries are still teaching a maintenance approach to ministry. The church of the future will require a more adaptive leadership style. This does not mean that those preparing for ministry should avoid seminary education, but go into it knowing that it will not be enough. Church leaders of the future will have to be even more committed to life-long learning as ministry will be changing at a rapid rate.

While I do not claim to know what the church of the future will look like, I repeat that I envy those who will be leading those churches. It's going to be a wild ride but a very rewarding one and one I would love to be a part of.

Friday, March 17, 2017

How intentional is your church?

One of the words that I have thought about a lot in recent years is intentionality. Maybe it's because one wants to live life more intentionally as one gets older. Maybe it's because I hate to waste time. It might be because during my 14 years as a judicatory minister I saw very few churches doing anything with any sense of intentionality. Actually, it's probably because of all three of these reasons.

As I've often said, many churches open their doors each Sunday morning hoping something good will happen. Few do anything intentionally to make that happen. Many churches complain about their lack of growth, but few are taking intentional steps that will enable growth to occur.

The working title for my book Intentional Ministry in a Not-So-Mega Church: Becoming a Missional Community was Transforming the Small Church from Maintenance to Missional. The thesis for the book was that churches had to be intentional in their efforts to minister or effective ministry would never occur.

The church I am now serving as Transitional Minister recently completed a vision discernment process. We worked hard to identify God's vision for the future of this church, but the real work is just now beginning. A vision statement is only worthwhile if it actually guides the decisions and actions of the church. Too often, the vision statement is approved by the church, filed away in a folder, and never heard from again. I don't want that to happen in this church.

I've challenged each ministry team in the church to begin discussing what they need to do to make this vision a reality. I asked them to consider what they need to do differently, to set goals, and identify the steps they need to take to reach those goals that will allow them to live into this vision. I want every ministry in the church to be very intentional about what they are doing so the church can have the greatest possible impact on our community.

How intentional is your church when it comes to planning ministries? Do you identify what your community needs, or do you just try something you heard worked for another church somewhere else? Maybe your church is one that simply unlocks the door and expects God to bring in the masses. Exactly how well is that working for you? If it's not working as well as you would like (and I doubt it is) then what do you need to do differently? What intentional steps does your church need to take to have a more powerful impact on the people God has called you to reach? Intentional. It's a good word for ministry.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Preaching truth

Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias, tells of being invited to speak to a gathering of six Russian generals in Moscow. At the end of their discussion a general shook his hand and said, "Dr. Zacharias, I believe what you have brought us is the truth. But it is so hard to change after seventy years of believing a lie."

Pilate asked "What is truth?" and many today would be hard-pressed to answer that question. We have all but eliminated the concept of absolute truth in America, and, unfortunately, this includes the church. Zacharias writes in his book Can Man Live Without God that 67 percent of Americans deny that there is such a thing as truth.

The church wasn't paying attention in 1984 when Francis Schaeffer wrote The Great Evangelical Disaster. In that book he said that the great evangelical disaster was accommodation to the world seen by refusing to stand for biblical truth. Let me quote one passage from this important book.

“Here is the great evangelical disaster – the failure of the evangelical world to stand for truth as truth. There is only one word for this – namely accommodation: the evangelical church has accommodated to the world spirit of the age. First, there has been accommodation on Scripture, so that many who call themselves evangelicals hold a weakened view of the Bible and no longer affirm the truth of all the Bible teaches – truth not only in religious matters but in the areas of science and history and morality. As part of this, many evangelicals are now accepting the higher critical methods in the study of the Bible. Remember, it was these same methods which destroyed the authority of the Bible for the Protestant church in Germany in the last century, and which have destroyed the Bible for the liberal in our own country from the beginning of this century. And second, there has been accommodation on the issues, with no clear stand being taken even on matter of life and death.”

He went on to discuss some of the results from this accommodation, which we have seen played out in our lifetimes. What was true in 1984 is even more prevalent in many of our churches today. Many of our congregations sit under watered-down preaching that denies the fundamentals of the faith including the authority of the Scriptures. Pastors are afraid of offending someone or being seen as intolerant or exclusive so they tickle the ears of their listeners. Their preaching is guided by the latest opinion poll or survey rather than by the Scriptures.

Many of our congregations are like the Russian generals. They have been taught and believed a lie for so long it will be hard for them to hear the truth. It will be even harder for them to believe that truth and begin to change the way they live their lives.

But, preach the truth we must. Jesus said His words have life, and this life is what we must preach. In a world where many people are looking for ways to be offended, preaching the truth will not always make you the most popular person in town. Like someone recently said, if you want to be popular, sell ice cream. But, if God has called you into the ministry then a significant part of that calling is to proclaim the truth of God's Word from the pulpit, in the classroom, and wherever you speak. Only then will you be able to point the way where your listeners can find the life that Jesus Christ came to give them.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Questions we must answer

A couple of weeks ago I discussed a seminar I had attended based upon the book Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. In that seminar Kara Powell, one of the authors of the book, talked about the three questions that young people ask.

  1. Who am I? (Identity)
  2. Where do I fit? (Belonging)
  3. What difference do I make? (Purpose)
These are critical questions that churches need to help young people answer if we are serious about wanting to impact their lives with the gospel. Actually, these are the same questions that all of us ask, often at various times in our lives. In fact, I would say that every time we go through a life transition we ask these same questions.

One of the things I found interesting is how many young people answer the identity question. For many, they find their identity

  • By the number of likes they have on social media.
  • In their selfies.
  • By the number of followers they have on social media.
  • In their daily contacts on Snapchat.
  • By the types of phones they have.
Before you think these responses to the question about identity are shallow I encourage you to think back to your teen and young adult stages. Where did you seek your identity? For many of us it was

  • In the cars we drove.
  • By our hairstyles.
  • In the groups we associated with in school.
  • By the colleges or universities we attended.
  • By the people we dated.
  • By the music we listened to.
It's easy to judge and stereotype today's young people, but doing so will not help us point them to the answers they find in a relationship with Jesus Christ. They don't need people judging them, any more than we did when we were going through those life stages. They need people to walk with them in their journey who will help them find the answers they are seeking.

The authors of the book suggest that their answers to the identity question is found in God's grace. Their belonging question is answered through the love of community, and the purpose question is answered as they become involved in God's mission in the world.

I long has it been since your church addressed these three life challenges?

Friday, March 3, 2017

Politics in the church

In yesterday's post I commented on the divisions that exist in our nation and in our churches. One person commented privately to me that many of the political differences that we have as a nation are also found in the church. That is why I try very hard to not make overtly political comments in this blog or at the church.

I have very strong political opinions which I share privately with friends and family. I have never failed to vote in any primary or general election since I became eligible to vote, but I vote for the individual, not the party. I don't believe either political party is right on every issue. Despite having strong opinions, I have never addressed my political views from the pulpit. I do speak to moral issues which are sometimes related to political views, but I do it from a biblical perspective, not a political one. There is a difference.

My father was a strong Democrat who worked for the local Democrat party. Although he would occasionally vote for a Republican when he felt that person was better than the one the Democrats were running, he voted Democrat most of the time. My mother leaned towards the Republican side. They would often go vote and come back joking that they had canceled each other's vote, but they always voted.

My father called me one day, his voice still shaking, saying he had walked out of church that morning and would not be returning. The church had an interim pastor who was very political. Dad said he was tired of hearing every Sunday what a great man President Bush was and how sorry the Democrats were. He said this was a weekly message regardless of what the sermon topic was supposed to be. He was embarrassed by what he had done, but he refused to sit there any longer and hear how bad Democrats are.

Our churches are made up of Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and others who could care less about politics. They are bombarded nightly with political messages from the media and political campaigns. They don't need to hear such messages from the pulpit. The minute a pastor begins to speak to political issues he or she will begin to create divisions within the church. Yes, we are called to address moral issues, and yes, sometimes those will cross over into political differences, but we must speak to those issues from the Bible, not from what some political hack says about them.

This last campaign was one of the most bitter campaigns I've witnessed. Unfortunately, I saw a lot of that bitterness come from ministry leaders, especially on social media. As I read their posts I wondered what kind of issues they were creating within their churches. Surely, there were persons in their congregations who were offended by what they were writing. How would these ministry leaders lead those persons once the election was over?

As I wrote earlier, I have never failed to vote in any election since I became eligible. I will continue to vote for those persons I believe best represent my Christian values regardless of their political party. But, I also know that our salvation will not come from the White House, the State House, or the Courthouse. Our salvation comes from the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is He who we must be preaching. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have the answer for healing our land. Such healing can only come from God, and that is what we are called to proclaim. Let's not dilute our message and alienate one another by focusing on lesser political agendas.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Divided nation, divided church

In my 68 years I have never seen the United States as divided as it is today. In the 1960s we had major issues over the Vietnam War and civil rights, but even those issues didn't have the divisive impact on this nation that we see today.

I did not watch the State of the Union speech last night because I knew what would happen. The Republicans would applaud after every paragraph, and the Democrats would sit on their hands. It's the same reason I haven't watched any of the recent awards shows. I have no interest in hearing a bunch of multi-millionaire performers whine about how bad things are. How they think they know how to run a country when they can't even read their cards properly is beyond me.

As I've said before, Trump was not my first choice in the election, but he won. It's time the nation accepted that and looked for ways to work with him. This nation has serious issues that need to be addressed, and if elected officials are not able to work together to address them they need to be removed from office. I've heard some say that Republicans didn't work with Obama when he was President so the Democrats shouldn't work with Trump now. Well...isn't that an adult way to govern a nation?

That argument is so weak on many fronts, but those who say that forget that the Republicans did work with Obama on many issues. President Obama was able to get a lot of his agenda passed with bi-partisan support. No President should expect the opposition party to agree with everything he or she wants. Sometimes compromise gets you part of what you want; sometimes you simply don't get your way.

Today, there seems to be little interest in discussing issues and seeking common ground. Already some in the Democratic party are looking for ways to impeach President Trump. They detest him so much they want to drive him out of Washington almost before he finishes packing. One of the problems with that is that they don't control the House so that isn't happening. What is happening is that a lot of time is wasted wanting to do something that won't happen, time better spent on addressing the real issues facing Americans.

Unfortunately, everything I've said about the political divisions in the nation could be said about much of the church. While serving as an judicatory leader I had a call from one church moderator who said their church was so divided she could not even get a second on a motion to adjourn their business meeting. She finally asked her son to second the motion.

Many of our divisions are over some of the social issues that have also divided our nation. Some of the divisions are generational. In recent weeks I've had discussions with various church leaders telling me that they were having problems between their existing youth groups and young people from the community. Just today a pastor told me several of the young people in her church have said they won't come back if kids from the community are going to attend their youth functions. Of course, many of the divisions come when controllers do not get their way, and they begin to resort to childish behavior to try to force their will upon the people.

Jesus was very clear when He said, "A house divided against itself falls." It's true of a nation, and it's true of a church. I'm not sure this nation will ever recover from its divisions. I have very little faith in the political process to effect change and even less faith in the electorate to select men and women of integrity to represent them. However, the church must do better.

We have a Great Commission to fulfill, and that is not going to happen if we allow divisions to impact our ministries. We do not all have to think exactly alike on every issue, but as mature Christians we should be able to set aside our differences to work towards common purposes. That is...we should be able to do that if we are indeed mature Christians.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Real men provide

By now you've probably heard of the billboard dispute in North Carolina. The billboard reads: Real men provide. Real women appreciate it. One woman who found the message offensive has announced a protest against what she believes to be the demeaning message behind the billboard statement.

After a while it just seems that people are determined to find something to protest. Night after night we watch people protesting something on television. Facebook is full of people angry about something and determined to let everyone know about it. We have become such a selfish, me-centered society that no one can say or do anything without people becoming offended.

I see many messages throughout the day that I find offensive or with which I disagree. So what? I don't go on social media proclaiming how offended I am, and I don't protest. As I recently posted in this space, it is perfectly OK to see something with which you disagree and go on with your life without responding. I don't believe the entire world needs my expert advice on everything that is happening.

Regarding the billboard message, I struggle to find how that can be offensive. I suppose it is in the mind and life experiences of the reader, but I found nothing offensive about it. In fact, I found it to be a very positive message.

Real men do provide for their families. How is that demeaning to single mothers as one protester put it? That doesn't say anything about women not contributing to the home nor does it degrade women at all. It simply states a fact that was accepted for thousands of years. Real men provide for their families.

To me this says that men do not impregnate a woman and then leave her to raise the child. As one writer put it, it takes a male to make a baby, but it takes a man to raise a child. It says that a real man doesn't abandon his wife and family and run off with another woman. It says that a real man works to provide for his family. Yes in today's society it often requires two incomes to make it, but he is contributing his share and not laying around the house playing video games while his wife works.

Real men provide security for their families. They are wise with finances and lifestyle choices. They invest wisely. They ensure their children receive a quality education to prepare them for their own futures. They lovingly discipline their children so they will grow up to be responsible adults with good moral and ethical values.

Real men provide their families with good communication. They listen to their wives and children and respect their opinions. They talk over both major and minor decisions that will impact the family. Real men don't go out and buy motorcycles and boats without seeking input from the rest of the family.

Real men provide love to each member of the family. They put the needs of the family above their own desires. They do not force others to earn their love, but they love unconditionally. Real men publicly praise their wives and children and supports them in the things they do.

Frankly, I do not know a woman who would not appreciate a man who provides such things.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Growing Young

This past week I attended a seminar on Growing Young led by Kara Powell, one of the authors of the book by the same name. The seminar was hosted by the Center for Congregations, an organization that is a real blessing to the churches here in Indiana.

I had actually purchased and read the book last fall but was quite excited to learn that Kara would be here to lead a day-long seminar on the material in the book. The book is the result of extensive research with over 250 congregations that are successfully reaching teens and young adults. In that research they identified six things that these churches are doing that allows them to effectively reach these young people.

My reason for reading this book and attending the seminar is probably the same as the other attendees. The vast majority of churches are not effectively reaching young people. At a recent Church Council meeting we heard about declining Sunday school attendance, especially in the children's and young adult classes. Teens and young adults ages 18-29 make up a small minority of our congregation. I wanted to know what churches that are reaching these young people are doing.

I did not want a three-step approach guaranteed to reach young people (OK, I would have taken that even though I know it's not going to be that simple.), and that's not what we were given. We were taught important ways our church's culture needs to be changed that will make it more appealing to young people.

One example of this was called unlocking keychain leadership. We all remember the first time we were given the keys to the family car. We felt empowered and trusted. We felt the responsibility that went along with that trust. The same is true when we give keys to the young people in the church. The authors write, "When we refer to keys, we mean the capabilities, power, and access of leaders that carry the potential to empower young people." They later write, "If you are willing to entrust your keys to young people, they will trust you with their hearts, their energy, their creativity, and even their friends."

When I first read this in the book I made a note in the margin. As a young man in my late 20s our family became very involved in a local church. The pastor asked me one day if I had ever felt called to become a minister. I admitted I had, and we talked about that. Sometime later he handed me the key to his study. He knew I enjoyed reading, and he wanted to make his library available to me. I was free to use it any time I wanted.

That key opened up a whole new world to me. There were shelves filled with theology books, books on ministry, commentaries, and more, and I had access to them. But that key meant more to me that just the accessibility of the books. It meant that I had a relationship with the pastor who entrusted me with a valuable possession, his library. As a young man, and a relatively new Christian, my pastor invested himself in me, and a couple of years later I accepted God's call on my life to become a minister.

Who are the young people in your church you can trust with leadership responsibilities? What keys can you turn over to them, and what is the likely impact of you doing that? Is that even possible in your church, or does the culture in your church need to change?

If you are interested in seeing your congregation reach more teens and young adults I would recommend you to read Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. If Kara Powell is in your area leading the seminar on this book I would highly recommend you attend it as well, and be sure to take others from the church with you. It will make interesting conversation on the way home!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Talking about differences

I was saddened today by the news that Alan Colmes has passed away. Colmes was the liberal half of Hannity and Colmes on Fox for a number of years before the channel gave Hannity the program by himself. Colmes remained a political commentator on Fox providing liberal insights on the news of the day.

Although I seldom agreed with most of Colmes' views, I deeply appreciated the way he conducted himself as he debated with the more conservative commentators at Fox. I seldom heard Colmes interrupt a speaker or try to shout over those with whom he disagreed. Frankly, I've stopped watching most of those who debate political and social issues on television because of the way they approach their debates. Most seem to think if they interrupt and talk louder it makes their points stronger. Colmes did not approach his discussions like that. He spoke in even tones, presented his views, explained why he believed as he did, and listened to opposing views. I admired him very much, and from the comments that have appeared today, so did many others.

Colmes provided the type of civil discussion that is often missing today. Many in our culture no longer know how to carry on civilized discussion. Rather than trying to explain their views many begin to personally attack those who disagree with them. We talk at one another rather than talking to one another. We gather in mobs and riot to get what we want instead of engaging in civilized discussion.

Unfortunately, the church is not immune to such activity. Church business meetings can become intense when opposing sides begin to engage in personal attacks rather than discussing the actual issues that have caused the division. Church members begin to form alliances in order to do battle with those with whom they disagree. Parking lot meetings become the order of the day, and gossip and dissension creates division within the body.

As the body of Christ, the church must set the example for civil discussion. Even when protests and civil disobedience is called for they should be done in a way that honors God. As I stated in a recent post, Rosa Parks protested by refusing to give up her seat on a bus; she did not set fire to the bus. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led numerous protests in an effort to get civil rights laws passed, but he insisted on peaceful protests. The ones he led only became violent when officials made them violent.

I did not know Alan Colmes personally, and any opinion I have of him comes only from watching him on TV, but I found him to be a gentleman who held to strong beliefs about politics and social issues. He defended his positions well and in a way that was decent and honorable. Even his critics have said today that he was a kind and caring man, a decent human being, who will be missed. May that be said of each of us when we pass.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Your church five years from now

This past Saturday I led the church in which I am serving as Transitional Pastor through an exercise to help discern God's vision for the church. This is an important step for any church to take when seeking new pastoral leadership, and it's one every church should do every 5-6 years anyway. Knowing God's vision for a church is key to that church enjoying maximum ministry effectiveness. Pursuing God's vision is always going to be more effective than merely drifting along hoping something good happens.

An important part of the process I use has each participant spend about 30 minutes answering a series of questions I give them. This is done three times during the course of the day. Sometimes they are given Scriptures to read and reflect on prior to answering the questions. After the 30 minutes they come back to their small groups and discuss among themselves what they have heard God say to them in the process. Then they report to the larger group.

It's always rewarding to me to hear them go around their tables talking about the future of their church. Every time I lead a church through this process I wonder how long it has been since they have had such discussions. I get excited as I listen to them talk about their dreams and hopes for their church over the next five years because this is not a conversation that happens to many churches.

As the day comes to a close we begin to talk about we have sensed God is leading the church to become and do in the next five years. Sometimes, that is very clear to the participants and a vision statement can be formed. Other times, it's still not clear, but the church now has something to work on. At the least, they have had important conversations that may not have occurred in the church in many years.

I'm glad to announce that in the recent event the participants were able to develop a vision statement. We actually went beyond our time limit as we worked on the wording, but no one seemed to care. It was exciting to watch as they continually sought out the best way to word their vision statement so it would be clear.

Now, when the pastor search team begins interviewing candidates they can be very clear to that individual what the church's vision is for future ministry. They can look for the person who will best be able to lead them in pursuit of that vision. That will be a big benefit to the church as it calls a new pastor.

Now we begin more work as church leadership begins to determine the best ways to achieve this vision. With a clear God-given vision we can now begin to do strategic planning to help us develop goals that will enable us to achieve that vision. This will help the church better focus its resources and efforts. If the church can maintain this focus I believe it has exciting days ahead of it.

Your church doesn't have to go through a formal visioning process although it would be a good thing if it did. Any church can gather to talk about what they would like to see be and do in the next five years. Who are the people your church is most likely to serve five years from now? What ministries would you like to see in your church five years from now? Who are the people groups your church might need to target? What has to change to allow these things to happen? Answering these questions, and more, would greatly benefit any church serious about its ministry and its impact on its community. How long has it been since your congregation has had this kind of conversation? Do you think it might be time?

Monday, February 20, 2017

Mission support and denominational differences

I read an article last week stating that a large Southern Baptist church in Texas was putting their mission giving to the denomination in escrow while they discuss their concerns with the direction of the SBC. We are talking about $1 million so it is a substantial sum of money that is being at least temporarily withheld.

Although the article singled out some actions and public statements made by an official in the denomination, the pastor claimed that the congregation's concerns go beyond one person. You can read the article here if you are interested.

I am not Southern Baptist and do not plan to speak to any issues this church may have with their denomination. My concern here is the withholding of mission money for any reason. Over the past few years we've seen a number of churches withdraw from our denomination (American Baptist Churches, USA) and others significantly reduce their mission giving, or eliminate it completely, over concerns they had with decisions that were being made at the national level. Regardless of denomination, this is wrong.

This is the equivalent of church members withholding their tithes and offerings because they disagree with the pastor or a decision that has been made by the church. No pastor would want church members doing that so why would a pastor encourage the church to do that to their denomination? I have worked with two churches who had people stop giving to the church in an effort to force the pastor to resign. In both cases it worked. When I was called in afterwards to work with the churches I told both of them that such action is spiritually immature and unbiblical. I consider the withholding money designated for mission work to also be immature and unbiblical.

At a time when we need to be sharing the Gospel more than ever why hamper the work of missionaries and judicatories by withholding money because you disagree with something that was said or done? I don't see that the church has any disagreement with missionaries in the article, so why hinder their ministries by taking this action?

There are two possible actions that a church could take. One is to work to correct the problem. The other is to leave the denomination if the conflict is too great to resolve. Either of those would be far more biblical and ethical than withholding money because you disagree with an issue.

Again, I am not singling out this particular church or denomination. They are just the latest to make the news for this type of action. As a judicatory leader I saw this happen over and over again in the churches I served. Because of such action denominations and judicatories are facing serious financial shortfalls and cutbacks resulting in fewer staff and less resources to assist churches. Nobody wins in this scenario.

I can tell you that denominations are not perfect, and neither are their leaders. Denominations are no different than churches in that regard. Mistakes will be made. Honest people can also disagree on some issues. When they occur we need to extend grace while addressing our concerns. Unless our differences involve heretical teachings or actions mature Christians should be able to work together to further the Kingdom of God.

I would encourage every church, regardless of denomination, to pray long and hard before deciding to withhold its mission support. Too many innocent people who had nothing to do with the issues are hurt when churches take such action.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

God's vision, not ours

I have published a number of articles in this blog over the years about the importance of vision in a church. Working with numerous churches over the years I found that a very small percentage of them had any semblance of a vision, and those that did seldom referenced that vision in their planning or ministries. The majority of these churches flounder around week to week hoping something good will one day happen in their church and wonder why it seldom does.

Vision is essential to a church, but it's also essential that the vision is revisited occasionally. A church should look at its vision at least every 5-6 years to make sure it is still relevant to the ministry needs that exist within and around the church. Also, any time a church is going through a transition is an important time to revisit the vision. Certainly, when a church is seeking new pastoral leadership would qualify as a significant transition time.

This is where the church I'm currently serving is at. They called me to serve as their Transitional Pastor when their previous pastor resigned. One of the things I am doing is leading the church in vision discernment. As I explained to them, it is important to understand where God is leading a church before the church calls a new pastor.

Previously, we spent an evening determining the Core Values of the church and another evening identifying its Bedrock Beliefs. This coming Saturday we will spend the day in a vision discernment exercise. It will be an important day in the life of the congregation and we are praying for a good turnout of people to help in this process.

One of the challenges we will face is common to all churches doing vision discernment. It will be hard to make the distinction between what we are hearing God say and what our individual preferences might be. Most people entering into such a discernment process will bring their own thoughts of what a church should be and do to that process. It is easy to want to filter everything done during the exercise through those individual ideas. The challenge will be to be open to what God is saying regardless of how that might relate to our personal thoughts.

Vision discernment is messy. As Baptists we prefer to discuss things (endlessly at times) and take a vote. The majority rules. While this often works in most things, that is not discernment. Discernment is listening to the still, small voice of God to see how He would lead. The pastor's vision, the deacon's vision, the desires of the largest financial contributor are all irrelevant. What is God saying? Where is He wanting to lead this congregation? What is He wanting to do in and through this church? These are the critical questions that lead to discerning a vision from God, and that is the only thing that ultimately matters.

I'm looking forward to this Saturday because we have excellent people who attend this church who truly wants to follow God's leading for their ministry in the community. I think it will be an exciting day.

What is your church's vision? How long has it been since you revisited it? How does it impact the decisions that are made in your church? Is it God's vision for your church or is it something you copied from another church's web site or was given by a previous pastor? These are questions that any church that wants to enjoy God's blessings on its ministry needs to answer.

Monday, February 13, 2017

What is the most important thing a pastor can do for those he or she serves?

I written before about the impact Eugene Peterson's book, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, has had on my ministry. In the book he mentions that while pastors are judged by their people for the visible tasks of ministry, the most important tasks are those that are often not seen by others. These are what he calls the angles of ministry, and only when the angles are right can we do ministry with integrity. These angles are praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction.

Although this book has influenced me, like many pastors I sometimes get so busy with the visible tasks that I find it easy to neglect the angles, and God has to remind me again of what is most important. He did this recently when I was reading an article that asked "What is the most important thing a pastor can do for his or her congregation?" The answer was to pray for them.

I often find that when God speaks it's not long until I have the opportunity to respond. A few days after reading that question and answer an individual approached me at a store and shared a private prayer concern and asked me to pray for their family. That evening I began to pray about their situation, and as I prayed I began thinking about others in our church family that needed prayer. I began to pray for them as well, and then I thought of a recent tragedy in our community and began to pray for the family affected by it.

My primary spiritual gifts are preaching, teaching, and leadership. I am working in my natural giftedness when I'm involved in any of these tasks. You'll immediately notice that these are all ministry tasks that are done in public. The angles Peterson talks about do not come natural to me. In fact, at times I can become jealous when I read about some of the saints of old who spent hours each day in prayer or in the study of Scripture. But, just because these do not come natural to me does not mean that they are less important nor does it mean that I can ignore them. It does mean that I must discipline myself to ensure that I do pray for those I serve, that I do spend time in the Scriptures, and that I am involved in giving spiritual direction.

This also means the pastor must spend time with the people in order to know how to best pray for them. The pastor who never leaves the office can only pray in generalities, and that's not enough.

I love to talk to people about God, but I think Peterson would argue that it's more important to talk to God about the people. And, I think he's right.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Have you been called to the ministry?

While serving as a judicatory minister in our region for 14 years I saw it become increasingly more difficult to find pastors for our churches. Smaller churches often seek bivocational ministers to serve in their churches, and these tend to be found primarily near the location of the church. Few pastors are going to move from New Jersey to serve a small, bivocational church in Indiana. Our search for a pastor for these churches was usually limited to within about a 20 or so mile radius of the church. That really limits the number of potential candidates for these churches.

It wasn't much easier to find fully-funded pastors for our larger churches. A typical pastor search process for these churches often took 18 months or more. This was often frustrating to the church members who can't understand why it takes so long to find a pastor who then begins to put pressure on the search team, and this can result in calling someone the church really doesn't want.

This problem is not going to get better any time soon. We continue to have large numbers of pastors approaching retirement age. I recently read that around 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month for various reasons. Many denominations are pushing the planting of new churches, and this is often attractive to younger ministers who prefer doing that to dealing with the sacred traditions found in many existing churches. All of this means that we are going to see more churches fishing in a shrinking pastoral pool trying to find the right pastor for their church.

While this has long troubled me, one thing continues to encourage me. This has not caught God by surprise. I believe He is calling individuals to the ministry to meet the needs of both our existing churches and the new ones being planted. The problem is that some are not hearing that call. This is where we who now serve in ministry come in.

I cannot call anyone into the ministry. That is God's work. What I can do is to talk to persons I believe have ministry gifts and ask them if they have ever felt God might be calling them to use those gifts in a pastoral role. I'm in the ministry today because my pastor asked me that question back in the 1970s. That led to discussions between him and my wife and I which, two years later, led me to say yes to the call I had felt off and on for many years. Chances are, if you are serving in ministry today, it's because someone once challenged you to pray and consider that God might be calling you. We now have the obligation to do that for the next generation of ministers God is calling.

Growing up in Baptist churches I heard the same invitation every week at the end of the worship service. People were invited to come forward if they wanted to be saved, if they wanted to rededicate their lives to Christ, if they wanted to move their membership to this church, or if they felt the call to "full-time Christian service." I almost never hear the fourth one any more, and I wonder if that is one reason we are not seeing more people respond to God's call on their lives. Of course, today we need to add "bivocational ministry" to "full-time Christian service" because God is calling many specifically to serve Him in a bivocational role.

I want to encourage pastors reading this post to consider making that part of your invitation. In addition, we need to identify persons God might be calling to ministry and just ask if they have ever sensed such a call on their lives. As I said earlier, we cannot call someone into the ministry, but we can encourage people to pray about and consider such a call on their lives.

For those of you not currently in a ministry role, have you ever felt God might be calling you to serve Him in that capacity? If so, I encourage you to begin praying about that and talking to people who can give you Godly counsel. Feel free to contact me if you have questions. Our churches need individuals who have God's call on their lives to serve them in various ministerial roles. You might be one of those individuals.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Some fully-funded pastors should go bivocational

One of the bloggers I enjoy reading is Thom Rainer. He addresses so many topics of interest to church leaders, and his research and insights are always spot on. In a 2015 article he gave eight reasons why some full-time pastors and staff should go bivocational. You can read the entire article here. I will just list the reasons he gave and you can check out his article if you want more information.

  1. Opportunities to develop relationships with non-believers will be greater.
  2. Full-time pastors and staff often get missionally stale in their "holy huddles."
  3. Smaller churches are increasingly unable to afford full-time pastors or staff.
  4. The digital world is offering more opportunities for flexible secular jobs than ever.
  5. More churches are moving toward multiple teaching/preaching pastors.
  6. More churches would like to expand staff, but don't have the resources to do so.
  7. A bivocational pastor or church staff can have greater freedom than in a person in a full-time role.
  8. A bivocational pastor or staff person has transferable skills.
I would add one more reason to his list. When a pastor is bivocational it often frees up more money that can be spent on ministry. In many marginal fully-funded churches a very large percentage of the church's income is used to fund the pastor's salary and benefit package leaving little to be used for other purposes.

However, as you can see from the above list, finances are not the only reason a pastor should consider becoming bivocational. There are other good reasons why a pastor might want to become bivocational.

As I've often said in this blog, I believe we will see the numbers of bivocational ministers continue to increase in the coming years. They are going to be involved in pastoring churches, planting new churches, and working in staff positions in churches and para-church organizations. I would also not be surprised if we do not see more bivocational ministers involved in judicatory and denominational roles in the next few years. We're already seeing this beginning to occur, and I predict we'll see even more as denominations continue to struggle with their funding.

Anyone preparing to enter the ministry should carefully consider that at some point in his or her ministry bivocational ministry will be a real possibility. It might be wise to pursue education in another career field in addition to preparing for the ministry. Dual degrees are now being offered at some seminaries. Gaining experience in another career before entering the ministry might also be wise. I've had more than one fully-funded pastor tell me that he would need to become bivocational if he remained at his church, and he was scared because he didn't know what else he could do besides ministry.

I spent 20 years as a bivocational pastor. No one can tell me it is not doable or not rewarding ministry. It is very doable, and my time in that church was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things I've ever done. The call to bivocational ministry is a special call from God upon a person's life, and He only calls those He knows can do the job. That's one reason bivocational ministers will always be my heroes!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Losing friends on social media

I just unfriended another individual on Facebook. Typically, there are only two reasons I do that. They either use vulgar language or have a number of friends who do, or they continually post political articles that go over the top. I don't need the vulgarity on my social media, and if people cannot communicate without being vulgar I really have no interest in talking with them. The political articles have just gotten out of hand since this election cycle. Most of them are inflammatory and add nothing to any worthwhile discussion. Others are articles from fake news sites that people want to promote. This last individual posted numerous such articles, and I just got tired of seeing them on my page.

I am an equal opportunity unfriender in that I've unfriended persons on both sides of the political spectrum. The election is over, and if all a person wants to do is whine and pout about it they don't need to post their articles on my FB page. I also have no use for persons who keep fanning the flames with fake news stories intended only to make people mad.

What makes this frustrating is that most of my social media friends are probably Christians. I say probably because I do not personally know all of them. I accepted them as a friend because they were friends of some of my friends who I trust or they are involved in ministry in some capacity.

Christians need to be especially wary of what they post on social media. We've all heard that we might be the only Gospel some people ever see, and what we post on social media is helping some people form opinions about God and Christianity that are not good. Even if someone posts articles that end up on your page that are filled with vulgarity, rude comments, and lies, that will reflect on you and ultimately on your faith. That may not be fair, but it is the reality in today's world.

It's fine to express your opinions. Otherwise, all we'll have on social media is pictures of cats. But express your opinion well, and remember that you don't have to respond to everything you disagree with on social media. Contrary to what some people believe, it is permissible on social media to read something with which you disagree and walk away without saying anything. Believe it or not, not everyone deserves your opinion.

Social media is a great communication tool and a good way to stay connected with people you may not often see. It can also be a positive tool for Christian outreach. But, social media can also create major problems if not used wisely. I hate losing friends, but if that is what I have to do to keep my social media positive and relevant then I will continue to weed out the negative people. So should you.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A theology for suffering

One argument atheists like to use when trying to prove that God does not exist is the problem of suffering. I admit it is a difficult argument to address because there is so much emotion associated with suffering. How does one explain an innocent child suffering and even dying from cancer? Turn on any newscast and you'll find story after story of innocent people suffering. It's easy to see such stories and wonder why God does allow such suffering to exist.

In the past few weeks I've been studying the issue of suffering as part of my preparing a four-week series of sermons on the topic that I will begin sharing in a few weeks at our church. One of the interesting comments I came across in my study was the statement that many Christians have never developed a theology for suffering. I must admit I had never thought of a theology for suffering before.

Suffering is not a subject that is addressed very often from the pulpit. I don't remember ever hearing any of my pastors preach on the topic. In my own preaching I've certainly referred to suffering in any number of sermons, but I've never preached a series on the subject before that would attempt to more deeply explore the problem of suffering in human life.

Maybe this failure to address suffering from the pulpit is one reason many Christians struggle so much when they experience suffering in their own lives. I've seen Christians struggle greatly with their faith when they go through deep suffering in their lives. I've seen some walk away from the faith due to intense periods of suffering in their lives or in the lives of their loved ones.

I've also seen Christians who have suffered greatly maintain a calm confidence in God. They didn't approach suffering from a fatalistic perspective; they just had confidence that God would bring them through their trials. Although the storms blew hard against them they were able to stand on a firm foundation and maintain their trust in God. These men and women had developed a theology of suffering long before the storm hit, and their faith could not be shattered.

Have you developed such a theology around suffering? If you are a pastor, are you preparing your people for the suffering that is common to all who live in this fallen world? I do hope you are not preaching some kind of a rose garden Christianity that is all butterflies and sunshine because if you are your people may not stand when suffering comes into their lives, and it will at some point.

I really pray this series of messages will help some of our folks who are going through dark times in their lives right now and will prepare all of us for difficult times when they do come. I also pray that it speaks to those who may not have invited Christ into their lives previously because they believe He failed them at some point in their lives.

The atheists do have a strong argument when they ask how an all-powerful, all-loving God can allow innocent people to suffer, but it's not a difficult argument to counter when you have a good theology around suffering. This is one sermon series I am looking forward to preaching!