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.