Friday, June 24, 2022

Denominational challenges and decline

I just read an article about the challenges facing the United Methodist Church. Due to changes that have occurred in that denomination in recent years a growing number of churches are seeking to leave the UMC. Some are finding the process fairly simple while others are encountering huge roadblocks placed there by their bishops. Some churches are being forced to give the denomination up to 50% of their property's value in order to leave.

The problems for the denomination does not stop with the number of churches seeking to leave the denomination. They, like most denominations, are also facing declining memberships in many of their churches. Many in their congregations are older. As they pass away or become unable to be active, the finances of the church are impacted and so is that of the denomination. UMC leadership will have to make tough decisions in the next few years about how to best respond to these challenges.

Of course, this is true for most denominations. They are finding they are in a vicious circle of decline. Declining church membership and a growing discontent among some with the policies the denominations have adopted on certain social issues means less money flowing into the denomination  and its judicatories. This results in reduced staffing and fewer resources being provided to the churches which results in less connection with the local church which leads to even further reduced funding. New denominational groups are springing up that seem a better fit for some churches who become willing to abandon their historic relationship with their denomination to be part of what the new groups are doing, and this leads to a greater loss of member churches and their financial support.

Much of this could have been avoided if the denominations had not strayed from clear biblical teaching on these social issues, but unless there is a major reversal in policies, which is highly unlikely to happen, it's too late to dwell on that now. The decline is likely to continue until the denominations are a shell of what they once were if they even exist at all. My concern is for the impact this has for the spread of the Gospel message, the local churches and the missionaries connected to these denominations.

There are issues with which I do not agree with my denomination, and I was a judicatory leader in this denomination for 14 years. But I am able to work through those because my focus is on preaching the Word of God. As a Baptist the denomination has little impact or influence on my ability to minister or the ministry of the church I serve. I am also blessed by serving in a judicatory whose leadership has always been supportive and whose policies I fully endorse. While that might not be the case in other denominations, it is true in the one in which I serve. I also want to be able to continue to support the wonderful work our missionaries are doing around the world.

Only God knows what the future will be for our current denominations or if they even have a future. My suggestion to pastors is to be faithful in preaching the Word of God regardless of what happens with denominations and continue to support the good work of your missionaries. Many of them are caught in the middle of all this without it being their fault. 

Monday, June 20, 2022

So, whose tent is the biggest?

 The story goes that two tent evangelists in the mid-1900s got into a public argument as to who had the biggest tent. It was finally decided that each would measure their tent when it was discovered that both tents were the same size. One had been measuring their tent from the outside while the other had been measuring his from the inside.

After 40+ plus years in ministry I have seen a number of pastors jealous of other pastors and what other churches were doing. This often happens when a church's ministry begins reaching larger numbers of people. Pastors of these churches are often accused of "sheep stealing" or having questionable theology. These pastors and the churches they serve may find they are attacked by other pastors, and the reason for these attacks may be no more than jealousy.

This past week at the national convention of the SBC Rick Warren was given an opportunity to speak to the delegates regarding his church's decision to ordain women to the ministry, a grave sin in the eyes of much of the SBC. I read many of the comments on Twitter from pastors in attendance, many of whom had little good to say about Warren or the church he served for over 40 years. He was accused of being weak on theology, of being egotistical and being the primary reason evangelicalism is under attack today. I found many of the comments to be little more than jealousy of the success he and his church has enjoyed over the years. I really think what was behind many of the complaints was that his tent was bigger than those of his critics.

Ministry is not a competition. Our battle is not to be between churches but between the forces of evil and the work God has called us to do. If a soul is saved, who cares what church or pastor was used by God to reach that individual. Rick Warren was gifted and called by God to serve a much larger church than I could ever pastor, and I praise God for the work that he and the church has done. I spent 20 years pastoring a rural church that never grew beyond about 55 people, and I praise God for the opportunity to serve that church. Since then I've been given the opportunity to serve in a denominational role and as a Transitional Pastor of two churches a little larger than the one I pastored. Not once have I ever been critical of another church because it was larger than the ones I was serving.

I've said for a long time that too many pastors never fully unpack their boxes when they move. Almost as soon as they arrive at their new church they are looking to see what larger churches might be soon opening up. They're looking for the larger tent and, dare I say it, the larger salary package that goes with it. I have to wonder how the Kingdom of God would be if those of us called to ministry would see our current place of ministry as God's calling on our lives. Rather than seeking a larger tent, maybe we should see that we have been called to this place "for such a time as this."

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Systems determine results

 One of the things I've learned in 40+ years of ministry is that your system is perfectly designed for the results you are getting. This is not only true for churches but for every area of life as well: Family, Career, Physical and Mental Health, Personal Growth, Etc. We create systems in every area of our lives, and those systems then create us.

Many years ago, even before I began to serve as a minister, I was a member of a church that had a lot of parking lot meetings. At the time I didn't understand why that church always seemed to have problems, but it was because their system of dealing with issues was not to address them but to complain about them in the parking lot. That church always struggled with distrust and dissension. Later in my ministry as a judicatory minister I found many churches with the same broken system who could never understand why they always seemed to struggle.

Churches that win numbers of people to Christ and have a lot of baptisms have systems in place that make doing evangelism and outreach easy. Churches that bring in a lot of first-time guests have systems in place that is inviting to those who do not attend church. Churches that are financially secure have systems in place that promote stewardship. Churches that do none of these things have systems in place that make doing them difficult.

Pastor and author Nelson Searcy identifies 8 systems that should be operating at maximum efficiency in a healthy church. These are

  • The Worship Planning System
  • The Evangelism System
  • The Assimilation System
  • The Small Groups System
  • The Ministry System AKA The Volunteer System
  • The Stewardship System
  • The Leadership System
  • The Strategic System
If any area of a church's life is not working well it's important that the leadership look at their current system in that area. Identify the things that are limiting your effectiveness in that area and replace them with other things that will work. Until a broken system is fixed the church will never be healthy and will struggle to minister in that area of church life.

Monday, May 2, 2022

The church and mental illness

One of the chapters in my ebook "Is Your Church Ready for Ministry in the Coming Decade?" addresses the church's response to mental illness.  According to one study of 500 churches, over 98% of the responding pastors said they knew members in their congregation who suffered from some form of mental illness. Yet, only 12.5% of those same pastors reported that mental health issues were ever discussed in the church. There seems to be a major disconnect here.

It is estimated that 1 in 4 adults sitting in our pews each week and 1 in 5 children are dealing with mental illness. Their needs are being ignored by the majority of our churches. We have no problem offering healing to those with physical, financial or relational issues, but we seem to avoid those with mental health issues. Perhaps we forget that many of our giants in the faith struggled with mental health challenges. Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon and J. B. Phillips among others struggled at times with depression.

As I point out in my book, there are a number of misconceptions Christians have about mental illness which may result in our reluctance to address it. Some believe that mental illness is a sign of a lack of spiritual growth and maturity. They would advise the person suffering from a mental illness to pray more, read their Bibles and trust God. Others think that mental illness is the result of unconfessed sin. Some insist that mental illness is a sign of demonic possession. When we have such misconceptions we tend to offer simplistic solutions, which when they fail, can make the problem worse.

Unfortunately, too many churches continue to teach that a Christian seeking treatment for mental illness is committing a sin. They see if as a lack of faith. In their view, taking medication or seeing a counselor for treatment is showing a lack of faith in God. Teaching such as this can cause even more anxiety in a person who does not need that anxiety.

I've been very open about my battle with depression in the mid-1980s. For a year I took anti-depression medication and saw a counselor weekly until the depression left me. During that time I continued to pastor my church and work a full-time job although there were days when that was a struggle. I also learned a lot about myself and a lot about God. One of the things I learned as I emerged from that depression was that God truly would never leave me nor forsake me. It became more that a Bible verse I believed; I now knew it from personal experience.

What can the church do to provide a positive ministry to those dealing with mental illness? First, I recommend that pastors and others in leadership speak openly about it. I have shared my testimony in many settings, and every time people came to me privately and thanked me for being so open. Second, I recommend that pastors be careful in their use of language. Being careless in how one speaks of those dealing with mental illnesses can be very hurtful even when that it not the intent. Third, it is helpful to understand what can cause various types of mental illnesses. Rather than clinging to misconceptions study the issue for yourself and learn what causes these problems. One reason I included this chapter in the book is so I could offer a brief overview of some of the causes. Finally, be careful about diagnosing and treating those with mental illness. Unless you are a trained counselor it's best to refer those who think may be dealing with a mental illness to trained people. Always be willing to provide pastoral care, but leave the counseling to those trained to do so.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Speaking the truth in love

 A number of years ago I attended the annual meeting of our denomination. In one session there was an opportunity for people to address issues that were important to them before a committee of our leadership to consider. Each person was allowed a brief time to state their concern and their suggestions for how it should be addressed. A lengthy line was formed of people who had signed up to speak. I noticed the more conservative speakers were lined up along one wall while the more liberal ones were lined up along another wall. Each line alternated speakers.

Many of the more conservative speakers appeared angry as they spoke. I even wrote in my notes "Why are we conservatives always so angry?" The other side seldom spoke harshly and simply presented their perspective on the issue. Even though I seldom agreed with them, I appreciated their tone.

Today it seems that neither side wants to calmly address our differences whether they be religious, cultural or political. Many appear to believe that the one who shouts the loudest wins the argument. In too many cases a discussion isn't even possible. In our cancel culture of today opposing voices are simply silenced by disinviting those who hold such views from the discussion. It's no wonder our nation, our government and our churches are in the shape they are in.

Colossians 4: 5-6 reminds us to "Walk in wisdom toward those who are outsiders, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, and that you may know how you ought to answer each one." Behind every question or statement there is a person. Paul is telling us to know that person so that we might be able to answer his or her question or respond to the statement. We sometimes become so focused on the question or statement that we forget we are dealing with an individual who has a reason for believing what they do.

He further writes that our speech should always be with grace. Sometimes in our desire to win the debate we harm the person. When someone feels attacked or disrespected they will not hear what we are saying. In our minds we may have presented the strongest argument, but that is of no value if we have driven a wedge in our relationship with the other individual. We are cautioned to not place a stumbling block before other people, and this is easily done when we do not respect the dignity of those who hold views different from us.

We are always called upon to stand for truth, especially the truth of God's Word, but we are also called upon to do so with love. Let's speak the truth in love to all people and let the Spirit of God reveal to them its truth. 

Friday, April 1, 2022

Study to show yourself approved

 As most regular readers of this blog know, when I began my pastoral ministry in 1981 I had no education beyond high school. As the bivocational pastor of a small, rural church I frankly did not expect to pursue an education, but over the years I managed to graduate college and earn both a masters and a doctoral degree while continuing to serve in ministry and working full-time jobs. With online classes being offered by many schools today it is far more doable that when I started my educational pursuit. However, not everyone can, or probably should, follow the route I did.

Some churches will not consider calling a pastor without a formal degree while others, especially in smaller, rural churches, may look upon formal education as a hindrance. My life-long work with bivocational churches and pastors has convinced me that the need for such ministers will continue to grow, and many of these individuals will lack a formal seminary education. However, this should not negate God's call on their lives nor should it excuse any unwillingness on their part to learn and preach sound doctrine to their congregations.

Much of my early preaching came from what I had learned from pastors I had sat under from my childhood up. While much of it was sound, in some cases I was passing on the traditions long believed within my tribe that were not necessarily biblical. As a denominational minister for 14 years who visited in different churches almost every Sunday I heard my share of similar sermons. 

Paul challenged Timothy to study to show himself approved. This is sound advice for all of us called into ministry. That does not mean that all must get a formal seminary education, but there are other ways to study the Word before we preach it.

My library has a large collection of commentaries and Bible study help books written by respected Bible scholars and theologians. It also includes several books on apologetics and systematic theology. I have a Bible study software program on my computer that gives me access to far more material. These help me prepare sermons and Bible studies that are doctrinally sound. Another section of my library includes large numbers of books related to pastoral and church ministry and leadership. A third section contains books that focus on the Christian lifestyle. These books have been collected over 40+ years and have helped me develop into the minister I am today. I have never looked at these books as a cost but rather as an investment to help me fulfill the calling God placed on my life.

Some pastors use their lack of formal education as an excuse to let the Holy Spirit lead them in what they will preach each week. I'm not sure I would want to blame God for some of the sermons I've heard! Saturday night specials can be dangerous. The fact is that in the times in which we live we have an abundance of material to help us prepare biblically sound messages that will enrich the lives of our congregations and teach them what the Bible says. It only requires that we spend the time in study and preparation.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Now is the Time

 Many of us live in a wonderful land of Someday Isle. How many times have you said, "Someday I'll....?" You can fill in the blank yourself. We've all been there and done that. Faced with opportunities and choices we often choose to put them off until a more convenient time. We come up with dozens of reasons why this isn't the right time to do .... Ah, but someday I'll get around to doing that.

Then a funny thing happens. One day we realize that time has passed us by and there isn't time to do that thing. When this realization hits something happens inside us. A dream dies, and a little bit of us dies as well.

Who among us has not wished we could go back and relive our lives, or at least part of it. I doubt anyone wants to go back to when we were being potty trained, but there are many times in my life I wish I had made different decisions. I would love to have the opportunity to revisit those times and make a different decision than the one I made at the time.

Even though I've been blessed with opportunities to do many things in my life, there's probably 101 other things I would have liked to have done. Many of the things I did do I wish I had done differently.

Probably my two biggest regrets is that I wish I had become a Christian sooner than I did, and I wish I had gone into the ministry sooner. Out of all the things I've done in my life, apart from my family, nothing has been more rewarding that the ministry to which God called me.

Since we cannot turn back time I want to encourage you to make the best of every minute. Focus on the things that are most important to you and give them the time and commitment they deserve. Live every moment. Live life to the fullest. Determine what God has called you to do and pour yourself into that.

Now is the time to read that book, take that vacation, develop a savings and investment strategy, or further your education. Now is the time to spend more time with your family and create memories that will outlast you. Now is the time to clear away the clutter in your life so you can more easily focus on the things that are truly important. And, now is the time to invite Jesus Christ into your life if you've not already done that. The Bible says that "Today is the day of salvation."

Don't put off the most important things in life until tomorrow because none of us are promised tomorrow. Now is the time to do the things you've always wanted to do.