Monday, February 18, 2019

Keeping the main thing the main thing

For years we've heard the importance of keeping the main thing the main thing. All that it means is that we need to keep focused on doing what's really important and refuse to allow ourselves to get sidetracked on lesser things. For those of us in leadership roles this is especially important. If we allow ourselves to get involved in lesser things it will affect our entire organization.

Congress has lost sight of this imperative. They have spent two years investigating the president and any involvement he may have had with Russia that might have influenced the election. Since the latest report from the Senate Intelligence Committee seems to vindicate the president it appears this has been millions of dollars and hours wasted for political purposes. Congress continues to promote policies regarding tighter gun laws that are unnecessary and have no chance of passing. Congress was willing to shut down the government over funding for a wall that would cost a minimal fraction of the total budget. Newly elected members of Congress continue to promote radical agendas that the nation cannot afford and does not need. To read and listen to the news one would think these are the most important challenges facing our nation.

At the same time we have military men and women fighting and dying in wars across the globe, homeless people living on the streets in the midst of a frigid winter, veterans who cannot get into VA hospitals for the assistance they need, children who are going hungry, an infrastructure that has long needed attention, an education system that often fails its students, a drug epidemic that is creating more and more crime and probably partly responsible for an increase in suicides, gang violence that is in both large and smaller communities, prisons that are overcrowded, and the list goes on. Can anyone tell me one thing our government "leaders" have done to address any of these issues in recent memory?

The only thing these "leaders" want to do is to promote their own political agendas. Let the nation go down the tubes as long as they get their way and keep the other side from "winning." Long ago they lost the idea of keeping the main thing the main thing. What is good for the nation is a long-forgotten concept in the minds of many of our "leaders."

Before anyone accuses me of going political, I'm blaming everyone in office, and this is not a political problem, it is a moral problem. Everyone of the issues I listed above is a moral issue. Building a wall is no more immoral than locking one's doors at night. But, ignoring the many problems I mentioned above while focusing all one's attention on "beating" the other side is a moral issue.

I don't expect the hardliners of either party to change. They live in districts that will re-elect them regardless of what they do or don't do. They've never had the good of the nation in mind anyway. I also have little hope that some of the more outspoken newer members of Congress will change. I can only hope their radical agendas and statements will make them one-term members of Congress. What I would like to see are the moderate voices of both parties begin to say "Enough is enough." It would be great for them to speak out and challenge their "leadership" to begin to address the real issues facing our nation. It would be even better for them to begin to work across the aisle to find common ground that would address some of these issues. I know that's not how our government works anymore, but but the fact is our government hasn't worked in years. Maybe we need some people with the courage to make it work like it is supposed to.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Millennials and evangelism

For years churches have focused on reaching millennials with the gospel. This was the age group many churches wanted to reach. For some, it was the desire to carry out the Great Commission to this age group. For others, their efforts to reach this age group was for the hopeful survival of their church.

In a recent Barna study nearly three-fourths of millennials believe they know how to respond if someone asks about Christianity, However, nearly half of the millennials who responded said it was at least somewhat wrong to share their faith with a person of another faith in an effort to convert that person to Christianity. This was four times higher than Boomers who responded the same way.

This reflects the mentality that many millennials have that if someone disagrees with you it means they are judging you, and young people do not want to be accused of judging anyone. This makes evangelism a challenge to many in this generation.

It also reflects a serious problem. Our culture and educational system is having a greater impact on the thinking of young people than the church. In a society in which there is no absolute truths how can anyone justify professing that they have the truth. It becomes even more difficult to tell others that they not only have the truth, but they know the Truth, and His name is Jesus. This type of conversation isn't acceptable in our politically correct society that values diversity more than truth. When everyone has their own truth, to make such statements does come across as judgmental.

Many Christian millennial leaders place the blame for their generation's views on evangelism on the church. They believe the church needs to do more to disciple this age group so they have a better understanding of their faith and the importance of evangelism. There's been a great deal of emphasis on getting them in the church and less of an emphasis in discipling them. As one millennial wrote, "The data here strongly suggests that Christian millennials are being catechized by their colleges, not churches."

For several decades we have seen a steady drop in the number of people coming to faith in Christ and becoming members of churches. The latest studies do not suggest that this is going to improve unless the church recaptures the mission God gave it which is found in the Great Commission. Until the church takes this mandate seriously and begins to teach its members the importance of evangelism and equips them to do it, this decline is unlikely to improve.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Leaders and change

Growing leaders grow churches. Growing leaders grow other people, especially other leaders. Growing leaders can expect greater opportunities to serve because they can be trusted with greater responsibilities. Growing leaders get to enjoy the joys of leading. Obviously, if these are true, each of us should seek to grow as leaders. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

For some reason many ministers are not interested in personal growth. They are content to continue doing the same things they've done throughout their ministries. They never examine their leadership styles to determine if they remain effective. They still preach exactly like they did when they were trying to impress their preaching professor. They continue to operate with the same church structures they have always known without ever looking into other structures that might be more effective. When they retire their ministries look very much like it did when they began their ministry.

In order for growth to occur change is required, and many ministers are not too fond of change. It's kind of interesting because many of us talk about change from the pulpit, but the context is always in the church changing, not us. Maybe our congregations are not interested in changing because they never see any change in us or the way we approach ministry.

What needs to change for growth to occur? Basically...everything. The way we think about ministry, the way we go about ministry, and the way we lead. By saying everything has to change I am not necessarily saying that everything we are doing is wrong. I am saying that nearly everything we have been taught in the past about ministry can be improved upon.

An article in the Harvard Business Review has said that the skills learned while seeking a bachelor's degree used to provide enough basic training to last during our career. Today, that education is good for about five years. In other words, much of what we learn in college will be outdated before we pay off our student loans. I doubt that a seminary education has any greater shelf life. If we want to continue to grow as leaders and enjoy the most productive ministries we can we must be committed to lifelong learning that will allow us to grow as ministers and as human beings.

As we are exposed to new learnings we will have to make the decision about whether we are willing to change what we have been doing to be able to incorporate the new knowledge into our leadership. New information is only useful if it changes the way we function. Those changes will never be comfortable either to ourselves or those we lead, but they are necessary. And the bad news is that those new changes will soon have to be replaced again by newer knowledge and skills we acquire. Growth is a never-ending circle of making constant improvements in how we minister based on what we are continual learning.

If we are unwilling to do this we are not fully committed to God's call on our lives. If we are willing to only do the minimum required to get by we dishonor our calling and shortchange the people we have been called to serve. At the end of each year we should be able to look back and see areas in our leadership and ministry in which we have grown.

In closing, it must be admitted that change is never pleasant nor easy. It often creates pain both within ourselves and those we serve. There is always a risk in change, but it is a risk we must be willing to take if we want to remain effective in our calling. As painful as it might be to make the changes we need to make in our own leadership, there will come a day when we realize the pain was worth it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Politics and the pulpit

One of the most controversial questions in the church today revolves around the topic of politics and the pulpit. Should pastors talk about political issues, politicians and political parties from the pulpit? People have strong feelings on both sides of this issue. Churches have been threatened with the loss of their 501(c) 3 status if they engage in political issues. Various organizations have discussed how far churches can go without running afoul of these rules. Some churches avoid any discussion of political issues while others seem to be highly engaged in helping their preferred candidate be elected.

I'm no expert on the law, and I don't pretend to be. In this blog I can only talk about what I've done and believe. As a pastor I avoided publicly supporting any candidate although in private conversations I would talk about my preferences. When my father was running for a county office several years ago I would not even allow him to put a sign in my yard. I told him I would certainly vote for him and encourage others to do so, but I felt a campaign sign in my yard was something I was not comfortable with as a pastor.

I avoided political issues unless they were moral issues, and many of them are. I never had a problem speaking out against abortion as this is a moral issue, not merely a political one. The same would be true of other moral and justice issues. The church must take a stand on the moral issues of the day regardless of whether they are supported by Democrats or Republicans. I can criticize either party equally when they support things that run counter to scriptural teaching.

A few years after I resigned from the church I served the church was going through another pastoral change. A few months into that transition my father called quite upset. He and his wife had got up during the sermon and walked out. His voice was still shaky when he called me. He could not believe he would ever have done that, but he said he was so tired of hearing the interim pastor condemn the political party he had supported his entire life. No, he didn't agree with everything that party supported, but he said it was also not the evil monstrosity the interim pastor accused it of being every week. He said what I believe many Christians feel: He did not go to church to listen to political speeches but to hear the Word of God.

When Jerry Falwell started the Moral Majority he, and many others, felt that it would bring about a moral revival in America. A lot of money and time was spent trying to influence elections and laws enacted in Congress. While the Moral Majority was welcomed to the political table by one party, it's influence within that party was minimal. Falwell was not a person who easily surrendered, but I think he finally realized that the answer to America's problems was not through the political process. In the late 1980s he returned to focusing his attention to the pastoral work to which he had been called.

The 2020 election cycle has already started. It will be tempting for church leaders and ministers to begin taking sides and supporting their preferred leaders. I just encourage caution. In the 2016 election I found a lot of the political rhetoric coming from Christians, especially on social media, to be very unhelpful to the work the church is called to do. We don't have to talk about individuals or parties. I believe speaking to the moral issues will help people determine who they should support in the upcoming elections.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Great way to look at bivocational ministry

Several years ago I led some workshops for an annual denominational gathering. Also leading a workshop was Nelson Searcy, pastor of The Journey Church in New York. Both of us had books released in the months prior to the conference, and we were leading workshops built around those books. My workshop was held in the morning, and Nelson's was held later. I attended his workshop and was very impressed by the material he presented. Since then he has released a number of books, most of which I own.

This year his newest book The New You: A Guide to Better Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Wellness was released. I am finding it a very helpful book for anyone and especially for those of us in ministry. Our personal well-being will directly impact our effectiveness in life and ministry. Many ministers I know are much better at caring for others than they are in practicing good self-care. I am one of those ministers. In this book he and Jennifer Dykes Henson offers very practical steps to take to become healthier in each of the areas listed in the subtitle.

In my reading this morning I came across a statement in the book that I thought was especially relevant for those of us in bivocational positions. He referred to a friend who runs the New York City Marathon each year. His friend has commented that life is a marathon, a statement with which Nelson disagreed. He wrote, "Life is not a marathon, and it shouldn't be looked at as one. Life is better viewed as a series of short sprints with periods of rest in between."

What a great way of thinking for bivocational leaders! I've written elsewhere about the danger of allowing our lives to get out of balance. With all the various demands on our time, this is easy to do. We can very quickly fall into the trap of believing that we have to respond to every request, every demand, and allow ourselves to get overloaded, overworked, and overscheduled. No one can keep up that kind of life style for very long. Trying to do so can lead to various health issues, both physical and emotional. I've been very open about my battle with depression during the mid-1980s, and much of that was directly due to trying to live life as a marathon.

We should not forget that God created the universe in six days and then rested for a day. You are not a slacker for taking time away from your responsibilities. Each of us needs time for refreshment and renewal if we want to live peak lives. But, I can guarantee that if you do not intentionally schedule such times they will not happen. Somebody, somewhere will need you to do something. I got to the point where I wrote on my calendar date nights for my wife and me. If somebody asked me to do something at that time I just told them I already had an appointment. It was NEVER a problem.

I have also appreciated the chapters on diet and exercise. They provided me with information I did not know about eating healthier (which I needed to know!), and I have already began implementing these changes into my life. I am currently about half done reading the book. I normally do not recommend books until I've finished them, but I want to encourage you to read this one. The material you'll find asks you to take small steps towards becoming healthier in every aspect of your life. Any of us can take small steps, and most of us need to.

Friday, February 8, 2019

The ministry of prayer

Earlier this week I was sitting in the car waiting on my wife to get off work. A young couple came out of the store pushing a cart. She was pregnant. I began to pray for them and for the unborn child. I prayed the child would be healthy, and I prayed that, if the couple did not know Christ that He would reveal Himself to them. I prayed that the child would grow up in a godly home.

This was something I had not done before. Often, when I see an accident on the highway I'll pray for the people involved and the first responders. I've prayed when I've seen older people struggling to get across a road or into a store. I've prayed for people who had asked me to look at items they were considering selling in my auction. You would be surprised at some of the stories I hear in those settings. Not once has anyone refused to allow me to pray for them when I've asked. However, this was the first time I had prayed for a young, pregnant couple walking to their car.

Throughout my ministry I've had people tell me they don't know how they could minister to other people. I've often heard this from older persons who feel their best years are behind them. Maybe you can't go on a mission trip or be involved in an outreach ministry, but anyone can pray. Intercessory prayer is a ministry that anyone can do.

I've read that when Corrie ten Boom was bedfast her caretaker brought her mail every day. Corrie would read the cards and letters and then pray for the sender. No longer able to travel and speak she was still involved in the powerful ministry of praying for others. This same ministry is possible for each of us.

I can imagine that when I get to heaven I will find out a lot of people have prayed for me over the years that I never knew about. You will probably learn that people were praying for you as well. As wonderful as that is, think how you'll feel when someone you've never met comes to you to say that they've learned that you prayed for them one day in passing and God marvelously answered your prayer.

Let's look for opportunities to pray for one another. We all need prayer, and we all need to be praying more than we do.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Action, not mere words, are needed

I did not watch the State of the Union address this week. In fact, I stopped watching them several years ago. It has been reduced to political theater with both parties inviting spectators that might embarrass the other side, the president's party applauding every few moments while the other party sits on their hands, and a lot of words that seldom are translated into action. Personally, when the Speaker refused to allow the STOU to be delivered in the House chambers during the government shutdown, I was hoping the president would deliver it from the Oval Office. Then he would have been speaking to the people without the political spectacle. I would have watched it if that had occurred because it would have seemed to have more meaning.

During the SOTU, and most political speeches, many words are spoken. What one needs to check out is what happens when the cameras stop rolling. Is there actually any action taken on anything that was said? The president called for unity. Will that happen? Can that happen? I would say not as long as both parties refuse to yield on anything substantial, and it doesn't appear that is going to occur.

The president talked about the dignity of every person, including the unborn. He asked Congress to pass a bill that would ban late-term abortions. This excited his political base, but will this translate into any action? From past experience, and the response of the Democrats in the House, it's unlikely. More talk, no action, and this action on many of the issues facing the nation continues to bring harm.

Of course, this isn't much different that what occurs in many churches. Churches talk a lot about growing, but many of them will oppose anything that is new that might lead to growth. There is much talk about evangelism, and little evangelism actually taking place. There are many sermons on the importance of prayer, but few in the church pray with any consistency, and if the church even still has a prayer service during the week it will be the poorest attended service in the church. The church talks a lot about the importance of making disciples, but few have any idea of what a disciple might look like nor do they have plans for how to help people grow into discipleship.

Talk is cheap in the political and church arenas. It's easy to say the words that will fire up the base, but it's much more difficult to put those words into action. There are always those who prefer the status quo because that is where they are the most comfortable. If nothing is done, nothing changes. Everything continues as before, but in time everything becomes less effective, less relevant, and less likely to address the changes occurring in our world.

Anyone who attempts to actually do something will have their critics, but again, their words are cheap and meaningless. When Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem he had his vocal critics who tried to discourage the people and halt the work. He refused to listen to them, and he refused to allow them to stop the work.

Ann Coulter, once a strong supporter of President Trump, has become just as vocal in her current criticism. Some have suggested that if she feels she could do better she should run for the office. Recently, she told Bill Maher there's not a chance she would run. Of course not. If she was elected then she would have to do something besides offering her trade-mark flamethrower criticisms. She well knows that it's much easier to criticize, to offer up talk, than to actually accomplish something. Unfortunately, talk alone doesn't bring about the changes we need in our churches and our nation.