24 October 2014

Go Big or Go Home!

Big.  That's the word.  "Go big or go home" is the catch phrase of the real success stories.  Right?  Winners produce results.  Great winners produce dramatic, big results.  This is what is ingrained in our minds and egos from day one.

Pastor, I bet you're a little like me. I want people to want to come to church faithfully with eager hearts.  I want empty seats filled with people genuinely seeking the Lord.  I desire for the church to fulfill its mission to proclaim the Gospel and minister to people.  I crave for people to understand that they are the church.  I want to see big results.  I long for greater attendance, more giving, and increased enthusiasm.  I'm just being honest.  I bet you want those things too. Striving for all this in service to God is what the church is to be doing.  We are to be increasing with God-honoring methods while we are about the work of reaching, teaching, and ministering to people. 

However, if we spiritually perseverate on big, we are going to take for granted or miss altogether the small gratifying blessings of ministry.  Of course, ministry is not about getting gratified; it is about calling and serving.  But let's be real.  If you get no gratification from your ministry, you won't be doing it for long.  And I don't think it is spiritually shallow or off target to be personally gratified by spiritual victories and success that is truly of the Lord, whether big or small.  The gratification comes in knowing that God did a good work in someone's life of which you got to be part.  That is a ministerial blessing and gratifying.  It's like a divine at-a-boy, which we all need from time to time.

Here's the potential pitfall.  If we are always measuring ministry success by big we are going to fall into some dangerous, self-destructive traps.  We will actually condition ourselves to believe that success is measured by big.  I don't believe that this is simply jealousy speaking or the proverbial sour grapes. Big is not proof of true ministerial success anymore than small is proof of genuine ministerial failure.  Conversely, big isn't necessarily the product of compromise, gimmicks, or appeals to all that is shallow anymore than small is somehow indicative of spiritual superiority.  Some of our greatest heroes of the faith served in both contexts.  Charles Spurgeon preached to thousands in London and oversaw several successful ministries, yet Adoniram Judson didn't see a single convert on the mission field in Burma for years. In the end he actually saw very few converts and endured great personal hardship throughout his ministry.  Biblically, I think that we are hit with the principle that ministerial success is measured by faithfulness, whether big or small.  From what we know, both Spurgeon and Judson were faithful in the contexts in which they were placed by God.  Nevertheless, even if we know this, we still seem to feel intuitively that bigger is not only better, but evidence of ministerial success.  We might admire Christians from history that sacrificed and ministered in the small, but we secretly don't what that to be us.  Our selfish desire cries, "please, Lord let me be a Spurgeon, not a Judson!"   

Relatively speaking, we already know that Jesus told us that narrow was the way of the true Christian path and few there would be that would actually walk it.  Jesus also said that, within the larger crowds, many who were sincerely wrong and outright fakes would exist (I'd say even at the Metropolitan Tabernacle too!).  Jesus said that many would claim to be followers, but in the end God will declare that He never knew them.  This is a sobering reality that genuine Christians have always walked in a minority and always will.  With this knowledge alone, it should be clear that big is not the goal.  Therefore, if I can get it into my think head that big is not the goal, then I can position myself mentally and spiritually to celebrate and find gratification in what may appear to be small or even singular spiritual victories. 

It's wonderful to see a big crowd on Easter or at Christmas or some other special event.  If I do my duty as pastor, then all those present will hear the Gospel. This is a great opportunity and privilege, even if it just changes one life.  But all year long, especially in a small, economically stagnant town, one can get really discouraged if all I'm looking at is the church stats.  Don't get me wrong, I still need to look at baptisms, attendance, and giving. They are important indicators to which every leader needs to attend.  Additionally, I need to be leading the church to plan and strategize for bigger.  However, the bottom line numbers are not the only or ultimate measure of my ministry's effectiveness.       

It's important that we don't miss the notable, individual matters that may never show up on an annual church profile (SBC), or whatever reporting your denomination uses.  Praise God and celebrate the fact that Wednesday night prayer meeting is becoming more real and more important to those who participate and that the average attendance is increasing, even though its still a small percentage of the whole church.  Rejoice when a church member tells you how much she has grown in responding to your challenges and encouragements as you have preached the Word.  Some people really are listening!  Take joy in how you have witnessed God work in a family as they endured a difficult trial and sought your counsel through it all.  Praise God when a deacon calls you on the phone one evening and reports to you a great visit they had with an elderly couple in the church who are going through a rough time.  Don't miss the fact that God is growing the choir, not just in numbers, but in their joy and spirit and you see the difference in worship when they sing.  Be encouraged when you see a couple getting plugged into a small group and you hear from others how they are walking closer to the Lord.  Get excited when a single leader begins to get it.  These and so many other so-called small things might not catch your appreciation as they should if you're only focused on the big.     

An inappropriate focus on big can also lead you to questionable methods simply to get a crowd and produce big results.  We've seen many, many examples of this.  Additionally, if you simply live for big, then you live in the world of the law of diminishing returns that can certainly lead to burn out.  It's a trap in which everything has to be bigger than the last most awesome big thing.   

The point is that we don't want to miss God at work even in what we may think are the small and most modest things, while we are always planning to reach more and do more.  When we see God at work even in small ways we need to rejoice.  Jesus himself talked about rejoicing over the one.  Take time for the one.  Take joy in the one.  And maybe we'll finally realize that small and insignificant are not the same.  Keep striving to reach more, but don't take for granted what God is doing in the people who are already there.  Celebrate them in the presence of God, continue to do the work to which God has called you, and make sure to take note of and take joy in the small things that God is doing that in the end may not be so small after all.

17 October 2014

Four Musts for Church Revitalization

There is so much being written and spoke of these days on church revitalization, and I'm grateful for it.  I have benefited from much of it.  All the books, blogs and conferences are certainly responding to the fact that individual churches and denominations as a whole are on the decline in this country.  We are finally waking up from our denial and constructively looking to see what has happened and how to correct the course. 

I offer the following four MUSTS for a declining or stagnant church to rebound and become a healthy church again.  Depending on your location and your local circumstances becoming healthy could mean modest or rapid growth.  I believe getting healthy may actually begin with some decline as hard decisions are made and a new course is charted, which some may not like.  In other words, revitalization is not going to look the same everywhere; however, I do believe there are a few common denominators in truly healthy churches (I said healthy not big). Healthy churches are God focused and God honoring in their worship and activities, possess unity that comes through a proper focus, and are sharing the Gospel and ministering in its community.

The following four MUSTS have emerged in my mind and heart after much reading, listening, and a few years of experience in attempting to lead a church to revitalization.  I'll admit that, as a pastor, I am still a work in progress, just like the church I serve.  However, I believe this is what I've learned so far.

Four MUSTS for church revitalization.

1. A Healthy Organization

A church must be free from organizational dysfunction. It needs strong pastoral and lay leadership and congregational participation and buy in.  It must be free from power groups that resist change and exert control.  There needs to be good lines of communication and transparency.  The leadership within the church needs to be intentionally developed continually.  Leaders need to be allowed to lead, trusted with the jobs the congregation has entrusted to them.  Above all the organization must have embedded key biblical principles, even if details of organization are negotiable.  These principles are the Lordship of Christ over the church, the importance of pastoral leadership, and the presence of congregational authority and responsibility. 

2. Clearly Communicated Core Values

A church must know what is important and why.  I believe the best way to communicate this is through a set of core values that are officially adopted by the congregation.  These core values serve multiple purposes.  First, they define the church's commitments.  Second, they shape the church's ministry to those commitments.  Third, they serve to guide the leadership to constantly evaluate if the church's activities are truly serving the desired commitments.  Fourth, they communicate to the congregation and the community what is important to the church and what it is striving to accomplish.  Again, these core values must be biblical and communicated to the congregation repeatedly in every way you can think of.     

3. Spiritually Committed People

Let's be honest, not everyone who attends church is deeply spiritually minded.  And that's okay.  However, within the leadership of the church and those who are serving, a critical mass of truly spiritually committed people must occur.  Of course, the pastor and staff must possess this quality, but so do many others if the church is to be revitalized.  Enough people have to be committed to a genuine spiritual lifestyle guided by God's Word and prayer.  Their lives will be evidence by their commitment to worship and service.  They will not be shy about their church having a prophetic role based upon the clear teachings of God's Word, and they will never be ashamed of the Gospel.  They understand the expectations of church membership and have a passion for the Gospel and for making God's name great in their lives.  Not everyone will be this, but when enough are, the scale will begin to tip and the difference will be undeniable.  I believe, however, one of the consequences is that the cultural Christians among the congregation may feel less and less inclined to participate as new people come in and leadership begins to change and become more spiritually committed.  They simply won't find church comfortable anymore.

4. Leadership Perseverance

Lastly, It seems clear that revitalization does not happen overnight.  Every study based on real research proves this.  My own experience is teaching me that healthy change is slow, with its ups and downs along the way.  A pastor must be willing to stay the course and stick it out.  He must have a long-term mentality.  Of course, no pastor can presume that he will stay in a certain place for ten, fifteen, or twenty years or not.  However, his default setting should always be on long-term, continuing to cast vision, planning for the future, working hard, leading others, and continuing to grow and learn himself.  And when the difficult and challenging times come - and they will - he must persevere and inspire the spiritually committed people to persevere with him.

Of course, these four MUSTS are encapsulated within the absolute necessity of devotion to God's Word and a desire to always place God center stage.  In the end, God does the real work of revitalization in his people as they submit to Him and get His house in order.  Pastor, read, plan, seek counsel, work and lead like revitalization depends on you.  But know that ultimately it is God who is at work in you to do His good pleasure.       

15 October 2014

The Creep of Same-Sex Marriage Continues

Another wrinkle in the developing story over same-sex marriage occurred this week in North Carolina.  I just happen to be the state this week and heard a news blurb on the radio while in my car.  This sent me to my computer later to discover the context for the story.

Last week the Supreme Court of the United States made the decision not to hear appeal cases from states in which federal judges have overturned voter mandated definitions of traditional marriage which banned same-sex marriage.  On the same day, October 10, a federal judge in Ashville, NC, Max O. Cogburn Jr., (an Obama appointee) struck down North Carolina's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that had been adopted in May 2012.  The case that brought this decision from this judge was actually brought by a group of clergy who argued that by not being allowed to perform same-sex marriages their religious rights were being violated. 

The fact that a liberal federal judge overruled the will of the people on this topic by ruling the law unconstitutional is not new.  This is happening more frequently all across our land.  What is new is that a civil magistrate in Elizabeth City, NC refused to marry two gay men on Monday, October 13, and is now facing suspension or possible dismissal.  Gary Littleton declined to officiate and validate the gay marriage based on the fact that his participation in it violated his religious conscience.  He believes that marriage is only reserved for a man and woman.  However, the law is clear.  North Carolina state law requires magistrates to  perform their duties; they do not have the option to refuse.  Now these duties for Mr. Littleton includes performing same-sex marriages.  His choices now seemed limited to sticking to his convictions and losing his job or compromising his sincerely held religious belief to keep his job.

Legalized same-sex marriage is gaining tremendous momentum in our country.  I have no doubt that our Supreme Court will eventually hear a case in which they rule any law in any state denying gay couples the right to marry as unconstitutional.  This will have serious consequences on government employees who hold Mr. Littleton's view and may be forced to be involved with same-sex marriages. 

Although I try very hard not to be an alarmist, I can't help but think that this ideology will eventually challenge the pastors and churches that refuse to marry same-sex couples.  Ironically, support for government intrusion may get support from some churches and denominations themselves.  The same-sex marriage rights creep is already happening within the religious community.  Don't forget the group that created the court case that led to the overturn of North Carolina law, that led to the moral dilemma of Mr. Littleton was initiated by clergy.

Churches, get ready for this battle.  It's knocking at the door.  And when you answer that door, don't be shocked to find the face that is staring at you is a leader from the liberal church across the street. We better have our houses of worship in order and ready to respond in a way that honors God and His Word. 

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