Congregational Life and Ministry

The Church: Museum, University or Lifeboat?

imag0121
Ross Perot Museum

This story is a familiar one. In 1972, and after 308 years, the First Church of Newton, Mass., called it quits. It gave its assets to a museum, sold its building to a Greek Evangelical Church, and disbanded. The church started in 1664. It rose to a high of 1,200 members in 1952 but dropped to 325 in 1972. Three-fourths of the membership was over fifty.

In my current ministry position, I see congregations at various stages of the life cycle. But that is not the focus of this post. For the church to carry out its mission, it needs never to lose sight of the reason for its existence. The church can easy fall into the first two descriptions listed below without every realizing it has done so.

The Church as a Museum.

What does that mean? First, by way of a definition. “A museum is a building or place where works of art, scientific specimens, or other objects of permanent value are kept and displayed.” – Webster’s Dictionary.

works of art, scientific specimens, or other objects of permanent value are kept and displayed.” – Webster’s Dictionary. I remember my time in Detroit as a parish pastor vividly. I toured so many historic churches in that once great city. These buildings were massive structures, that displayed with great detail man’s ability to create amazing buildings. These monuments are a fitting tribute dedicated to worship a God worthy of those accolades.

The problem is those days had passed for many of the churches in Detroit. There were not thousands of people praising God in those beautiful structures. There were less than a hundred people there. Those few faithful souls left were spending every penny they had to maintain the building’s beauty. If you took the time to stop and talk with those who remained, they would regale you with stories of the past. They would walk you down memory lane. It felt like a museum tour. They could tell you how the church was built and how it was making a difference in the lives and fabric of their community.

Sunday morning becomes the major donor event to keep the museum open. The patrons have very little time for outreach. And the outreach they do is to increase the donor base. I don’t blame the supporters; the mission got lost when the focus became survival. Don’t get me wrong I know that God is still proclaimed there, but if reaching the lost is not the primary focus, survival has replaced mission.

The Church as a University.

“Knowledge is useless without consistent application.” Julian Hall

I have been blessed in my life with great Christ-centered brilliant men of God who taught the mysteries of the faith. It was a joy and blessing to learn at the feet of such scholars. There are a certain number of churches that have been blessed with similar people of God who teach and share God’s truth in a powerful way to the flock who attend. The caution with a focus that centers primarily on education is there is a need for mission action as well. I love this quote. “Knowledge is not power. Applying what you know is power.” That applies to the work that the church is called to do. We are called to take the message of truth that we learn from gifted and knowledgeable people of God and take that into the world to be ambassadors of Christ. The apostle Paul reminds us of this in 2 Corinthians 5. “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The call to reconciliation is the work the church is called to do.

sea-ocean-boat-ship-large.jpg

The Church as a Lifeboat.

C.T. Studd, said, “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell, I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.”

The church has been given the task to carry on the mission that our Lord Jesus Christ began. He did not spend all his time in the Synagogue. Nor did he just go around preaching and teaching the truths of the faith. He never lost sight of his mission. Jesus’ mission was to give up his life to save others. Jesus came to set the captives being set free. He conducts a search and rescue mission to find the lost sons and daughters. Jesus’ ministry afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted. We are called to continue the work our Savior started. The Church is not about meetings and building projects, or even denominations conventions and politics. It is about the lost, the brokenhearted; the disenfranchise all finding their place in the King’s kingdom through faith. Reaching those outside of God’s sheepfold is the burden of the Gospel; this is the responsibility of the Church’s mission. We are called to go out daily on search and rescue mission and proclaim the love of God to those who are looking for hope in a hopeless word. Go armed with your grounding in the Word of God and be a lifeboat.

God in His plan for us (and for a lost world) spared not His own So tell the world of His love. Love is costly, but we must show it to the world at any cost.

 

Advertisements
Culture Change

Warning If You Track Church Attendance: The Numbers Are Lying to You

IMG_0184

There is much conversation in my church right now about whether we are a declining church body and whether or not we will survive this decline.  So, purveyors of statistics tell us that we are in for a long slow, steady dip before we hit rock bottom and recover.  Not exactly the message you want to hear if you are a believer faithfully caring out the work Christ left the church to do.  Here’s the thing, the numbers are the numbers, right?  We have to trust the numbers, the numbers wouldn’t lie, right?  Na, Na I say the numbers are lying. Here is what we know about the church. Chuck Colson summarized it nicely in his book, The Body, 1992, Word Publishing, p. 70.

“Yet membership in a confessing body is fundamental to the faithful Christian life. Failure to do so defies the explicit warning not to forsake “our assembling together.” His understanding of this prompted Martin Luther to say, “Apart from the church, salvation is impossible.” Not that the church provides salvation; God does. But because the “saved” one can’t fulfill what it means to be a Christian apart from the church, membership becomes the indispensable mark of salvation.

“So highly does the Lord esteem the communion of His church,” Calvin wrote,” that He considers everyone a traitor and apostate from religion who perversely withdraws himself from any Christian society which preserves the true ministry of the word and sacraments.””

The Lie.

If we measure the success of the gospel by church attendance and dollars in the offering plate, then we have to also admit that the life-saving message of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins is not working.  That is what the numbers say, right?  No matter how faithfully you preach and teach the gospel and administer the Lord’s Supper and baptize, it won’t change the numbers.  We continue to see a steady decline in the numbers of people coming to church and supporting the work of the church.  What we don’t want to deal with is that if we believe the numbers, our work is ineffective.  The gospel has lost its power.  Stop and think about that for a moment.  Is that what is deflating morale in our churches?  We see the numbers, and our answer to stop the decline is to do what God called us to do, and it is not working.  The numbers do not define the power of the gospel.  Attendance is not a reflection on God’s word.  The lower offering numbers do not mean we have no mission left to accomplish.  It’s lies all lies.  God made us a promise, and God keeps his promises. In Isaiah 55,

10 Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky
and don’t return there without watering the earth,
making it conceive and yield plants
and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater,
11     so is my word that comes from my mouth;
it does not return to me empty.
Instead, it does what I want,
and accomplishes what I intend.

 

The numbers do not define us, they serve as useful data.  But God’s mission is still needed.  If anything, the numbers prove that God’s mission is needed more than ever.  The church is facing stiff competition for the heart of culture.  This writer captures the challenge well by comparing the church to sports.

“Football in the fall. Basketball in the winter. Baseball in the spring and summer. This pastor has been an avid sports fan all his life. But I’ve had it! I quit this sports business once and for all. You can’t get me near one of those places again. Want to know why…

Every time I went, they asked me for money.
The people with whom I had to sit didn’t seem very friendly.
The seats were too hard and not at all comfortable.
I went to many games, but the coach never came to call on me.
The referee made a decision with which I could not agree.
I suspected that I was sitting with some hypocrites — they came to
see their friends and what others were wearing rather than to see the game.
Some games went into overtime, and I was late getting home.
The band played some numbers that I had never heard before.
It seems that the games are scheduled when I want to do other things.
I was taken to too many games by my parents when I was growing up.
I don’t want to take my children to any games because I want
them to choose for themselves what sport they like best.”- Author Unknown, At Calvary, Covington, KY.

Be Encouraged.

One of the most hurtful things the idea of church attendance has planted in the America Christian psyche is that “if you are not growing as a church you are a failure as a pastor and congregation.” So, we play the comparison game with our younger self.  So, how were we doing 10 years ago today?  Imagine doing that in your life now.  Compare your fifty-year-old body to the body you had in your twenties, how is that comparison going to turn out? And we judge our shepherds on the number of new converts.  And our church body on the number of new churches planted.

If you want to stop that madness, then we need to find new ways to gauge the congregational health and denominational health.  By putting the health report numbers of attendance and weekly offerings in the Sunday bulletin, we are asking those reading it to judge our success based on those measurements.  And we are buying into a false narrative about the effectiveness of the Word of God.  When the church continues to miss the mark of the weekly recording of those numbers it only serves to further demoralize the membership and even an entire church body.   So, if you don’t want to be judged by those figures and feel like you are losing the battle, start tracking other things.  Not to mention the numbers are Holy Spirit driven numbers, and we can’t control His work anyway.

Instead, track numbers that help hold your church accountable for those things that the church in Acts was measuring: people studying God’s word, the number of individuals engaged in living life together in community, the number of people helped with the offerings of God’s people, the number of prayer gatherings and the number of answered prayers.  Imagine measuring in church what God is doing among his people vs. the number of individuals coming on one day a week?  Isn’t faith a 24/7 thing not just one hour on Sunday?

More on Metrics:

https://revheadpin.org/2017/08/09/new-metrics-for-the-small-congregation/

Community Outreach

Two Ways to Bring Christ to Culture

lightstock_101070_small_byrene_haney

Christians are losing their power and influence … because they are losing their separateness.- Charlene Kaemmerling

When Robert Ingersoll, the famous atheist, was lecturing, he once took out his watch and declared, “I will give God five minutes to strike me dead for the things I have said.” The minutes ticked off as he held the watch and waited. In about four-and-a-half minutes, some women began fainting, but nothing happened. When the five minutes were up, Ingersoll put the watch into his pocket. When that incident reached the ears of a certain preacher, Joseph Parker, he asked, “And did the gentleman think he could exhaust the patience of the Eternal God in five minutes?” [1]

The world outside of God’s sheepfold is fond of playing this game of spiritual chicken.  “Come on God prove to me you exist.”  As Paul faced the religious skeptics in Athens, he explained a foreign concept to them, the patience of God.  People are familiar with the wrath of God, or so they think, but patience is a concept far from the mind of the skeptic.  In this post, we will cover the final two ways Paul turned their religious thinking on its head and left the learned spinning in their philosophical seats.

Jesus is the Savior (v. 30).

 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  As Paul brought his arguments to a close, he summarized the clear evidence of God’s patience and the power of His grace. For centuries, God was patient with man’s sin and obliviousness.

“This was to show God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” Romans 3:25

Let’s not get things confused here.  This by no means indicates that humanity was not guilty, as You will see below in Romans 1.

For what can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So, they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.  Romans 1:19–23.

What Romans 1, does reveal is that God withheld His divine wrath.  Does that fit the narrative of a God who wants to punish all humanity in a whimsical sort of way?  It instead exposes a different side of God that we Christians know all too well; God is a God of love.  In His time God sent a Savior, and now He commands all men to repent of their foolish ways. This Saviour was killed and then raised from the dead, and one day, Jesus will return to judge the world. The proof that He will judge is that He was raised from the dead.

Paul wipes away the prideful Greek culture by calling it “times of ignorance.” With all their knowledge and learned thinking, and being the height of culture, the Greeks failed to find the true nature of God. If humanity just repents and believes, God is ready and will forgive no strings attached.

Jesus is the Judge (v. 31).

 “…because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this, he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17:31

There will come a day when God will judge. God has appointed a day of judgment, and the Judge will be His Son, Jesus Christ. Why that should give us comfort is that this is not some distant judge, but one who understands our struggles and our temptations because he has experienced them Himself. For us as believer’s, judgment day is not a day of dread but a time of celebration.   If we trust Christ through faith in His death and resurrection, He will save us.  However, if we reject Him, tomorrow He will judge us.

The people of Athens responded with three different attitudes toward the Gospel. Surprisingly enough those responses are still relevant today.  1) Some people openly oppose the Word, 2) some will mock it and even openly challenge God to prove His existence as in the opening illustration, and 3) some receive the Word gladly and believe. We cannot control the response.  We are not called to, that is all the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit produces faith.

God calls us to be seed-planters and not to grow tired and discouraged.

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”  Galatians 6:9

The proof of the pre-eminence of Christ is the resurrection. It is no unknown God but a risen Christ with whom we have to deal. And this Christ has died and risen from the dead for you and for me, and invites us to believe on Him and live forever with him in Eternity.  Does it make sense to the learned, NO?  It is a message and a gift that we receive by faith alone. The Holy Spirit makes the Unknown Savior, Jesus Christ the God of our Salvation.

[1]  Jones, G. C. (1986). 1000 illustrations for preaching and teaching (pp. 146–147). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

 

The other post in this series:

https://revheadpin.org/2017/05/24/where-did-we-come-from-and-where-are-we-going

 

 

 

 

Leadership

Warning: We Are Taking On Friendly Fire

lightstock_81002_small_byrene_haney

Friendly fire is an attack by a military force on non-enemy, their own, allied or neutral forces while attempting to attack the enemy, either by misidentifying the target as hostile or due to errors or inaccuracy.- Wikipedia

I made a promise to my readers to be real and authentic.  The problem with that is you also leave yourself open and vulnerable to criticism and attack.  And while serving as a parish pastor in many smaller declining congregations fighting change yet struggling to find the air to survive toughens one up, attacks and criticism still feel very personal.  As I look deeper at the landscape of my beloved Missouri Synod, my soul is grieved. In my church body, we are going through a trying time, at that heart of one of our deep-rooted issues is trust. Our church leaders, our pastors, struggle to trust each other.  There is a real fear about the ability to be open about the ministry challenges we face because there is a perception that brother clergy will pick up a blog post or see something on your church website that will cause you to draw friendly fire for your ministry choices.  It took me a long time to decided to start a blog just for that reason.  But my dear mother had a “Go big or Go home” approach to life, so I blame her.

Our numbers, like many mainline denominations, have been declining for the last twenty years or so. This decrease and feeling of hopelessness combined with frustration have led to internal conflicts.  We have heated debates on the direction of the church, the mission of the church, and who has been entrusted to accomplish the task. Instead, of seeking answers together, we have allowed the chasm to grow wider.

The natural tendency when you are sick is to ignore all the signs. You pray that the pain in the body will just naturally go away.  You may search the world-wide-web for others with similar symptoms until you find a favorable diagnosis.  You hope the illness goes away, or you try radical new treatments to save the dying organization. Both sides of this pendulum are colliding with tremendous force in my church body. As I stand and look into the future, we need to find a way to reconnect.  To get back the meaning of “church,” we are people “belonging to the Kyrios-Lord.”

We Need a Beer Summit

At fifty plus years old I have reached a point in my life where I have no taste for fighting anymore. God’s mission is too important. Those out of God’s grace are too important. The harvest we have been called to as the body of Christ is too vital.  The doctrine our forefathers fought and in some cases died to defend is too critical.

The foundational text for this post comes from Jesus’ High Priestly prayer.  Jesus, as He prepares His followers for His departure gives them this final rallying speech.  Jesus understood the challenges the evil one would place on the church and its leaders.  Neither side in our church body is evil, but Satan is using our differences to divide and distract us from our true calling. Jesus knew the tools and schemes Satan would employ on the church. So, Jesus points us to the best way to overcome Satan’s attack, fight back with the unity of being joined together to one faith (doctrine), one Lord (Jesus Christ) and one baptism (means of grace). Jesus prayed that the believers be united.  Would it be grand if we stop shooting at our allies and fight against our common opponent, Satan, and his army?  Maybe we should have a beer summit. Where you invite someone who is the polar opposite of you to sit and talk.  I think we will find we have far more agreement than differences.

Jesus Prayers for Unity.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:20-23

William Wallace, the leading character in the movie “Braveheart” chastised his fellow Scots for allowing minor issues, internal strife, and power struggles to stand in the way of their fight for independence from the English. “We have beaten the English, but they’re back because you won’t stand together.” I feel that is what is happening far too often in the church. The enemy, Satan, has been defeated. When Jesus Christ rose on Easter Sunday, the message was clear. “Satan, you are finished! Christ is victorious.” But with our internal fights and disagreements, we have turned the sweet taste of victory into the bitterness of defeat. Understand, I realize disagreement is a part of relationships, but what is not normal is the inability to move beyond the conflict and be unified. When there are issues that need correcting, the church needs to have those discussions. If we fail to teach the truth of God’s word we are doing the work of Christ a disservice. There also needs to be a desire at the end of the day to work together to do our shared mission.

In this High Priestly prayer notice how often the word “one” is used. “One” appears in verse 21, twice in 11 and 22. The unity of God’s church should reflect the unity of the Father and the Son. Verse 23 reveals to us the nature of this agreement: the Son is obedient to the Father, and the Father loves the Son (v 23). Paul describes us as many members, but one body (Rom 12:4-5, Col 3:15).

To be crystal clear, to be one is not the absence of opinions. Opinions are healthy. Disagreements are healthy.  What is not healthy is creating an environment where we do not trust each other.  Where we assume our brother is out to get us or destroy us and our ministry career.  Unity is the lack of divisions. The church causes the greatest damage when it allows disagreement and disunity to grow in the body like an open sore. That open sore unchecked only festers and swells and spreads until it kills the body. Disunity weakens the effectiveness of the gospel. It scatters the flock. Disunity muffles the church’s witness in the world. The outside world looks at a church without unity and asks, “Who can believe their message?”

Let us not be divided, but united, to grow the church into what God would have it be. A pastor reminded me when I started in ministry, “there is nothing on earth like the local church when it is working right. It has the power to transform and changes lives.” Followers of the Lord Jesus Christ know that He is praying for you.

Jesus wants us to live as children of God. He promises to give us the strength to face whatever comes. Remember to pray for those around you and those far away. Bear in mind that we are to be salt and light to a bland and dark world. Bear in mind that Jesus is praying for us. Be like the tree of Psalm 1, “…their delight is in the law of the Lord…They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in due season.”

 

 

Discipleship, Servant Leadership

Rugged Individualism vs the Common Good

lightstock_378677_download_medium_byrene_haney_

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (ESV) 1 Corinthians 12:4–7

 Having served with and on many different teams on this perfectly created biosphere during the course of my fifty plus years of my existence, I have come to the realization that doing ministry is challenging. Team ministry is uniquely challenging because sin has an ugly way of rearing its head and messing with us. Our natural inclination is to elevate and even overestimate our importance to the team, to God and His kingdom. It is so easy to believe that the very life and fruitfulness of the ministry rises and falls on our spiritual gifts alone. The truth of the matter is that a fruitful God-pleasing ministry does not contain one dominate gift nor gift-recipient, like a good salad the perfect team and ministry has more than one recognizable ingredient. A good salad is not all lettuce or dominated by onions or garlic unless you are trying to keep people or vampires away. An effective ministry team like a good salad encompassing a wide variety of flavors and gifts. Each spiritual gift is unique and retains its distinctness but when mixed into a well-oiled team packs and incredible kingdom punch that can meet human hurts and needs in a holistic way, that one single gift could never do.
As a background text for this post, we will dig into the issues the apostle Paul was facing the church in Corinth. The believers in that church were fighting over spiritual gifts. You may have been in a situation where there are people on your team who believe their gifts are far superior to anyone else’s gifts on the team and they have no problem reminding the team how gifted they are. People tend to get enamored with the gifts that are more public. The gifted orator, the dynamic teacher, shrewd administrator and overlook the people whose gifts are behind the scene, but are critical to the success of the ministry. Gifts like hospitality, the ability to welcome the stranger and make them feel like a part of the family.  The organizer, who has the ability to take the leaders vision and work out the details of what it’s takes to make this dream a reality.  The volunteer coordinators, who can get people to give up their free time to come and join you on a greater mission for the kingdom.  In the next two weeks join me on an adventure and learn six lessons about spiritual gifts.

Paul establishes the foundations of his answer in six ways. We will cover three in this post and three in the following post.

  1. It is important not to be ignorant about spiritual gifts (v. 1).

The Greek word Paul uses in verse 1 means ‘spiritual matters’ but verse 4 and Paul uses the Greek word charisma to distinguish the shifting of the discussion to spiritual gifts.

The Corinthian pagans should serve as a caution to the church. Their pagan background shows how easy it is to become carried away in jubilant worship and lead astray by a flashy, charismatic orator, even one who is articulating falsehoods in the name of a false god. Thus, Paul is warning the people not to be blindly inspired by the gifts and ignore who it is that is the giver of the gifts, namely God. Our message must be inspired by the Spirit of God.  Our gifts must only be used to share with the world the saving message of the Christ and Him crucified. The truth of God’s word is our test for whether the gifts we possess are being used to the glory of God and the advancement of His kingdom.

  1. We share one common Faith (1 Corinthians 12:1–3).

A nationwide poll was taken in the United States on religious questions. When asked whether they believed in God, 95 percent of those polled answered “yes.” When asked whether religion in any way affected their politics and their business, 54 percent said “no.” They had a belief, but they did not have a directing faith. Faith is action. Faith encompasses the entire spectrum of life’s encounters and experiences.
No true Christian could call anyone but Christ “Lord,” so this was a definite test of whether or not a person was saved. It is only by the Spirit that we can confess Christ as Lord.[1]

  1. We serve the same God (1 Corinthians 12:4–6).

The church is not a gallery where we exhibit the finest of Christians. No, it is a school where we educate and encourage imperfect Christians.[2]
The church has been blessed with diversity and bounded together in unity by our God. While our personalities and our gifts all differ, yet they work together for the health of the body of believers, the Church. We have been gifted at our baptism with gifts from the Holy Spirit (v. 4).  Each of us has been called into service by the same Lord Jesus Christ (v. 5).  Each of us shares in the workings of the same Father (v. 6).

As we serve with these band of brothers and sister in God’s kingdom it is helpful to keep us grounded to remember why we serve.  We don’t serve to puff ourselves up.  We serve because we hold to one common faith.  We have one common baptism.  We serve the one and only one unique Savior, Jesus Christ.  This common good is what unites us and binds us together into the perfect team.

[1]  Green, M. P. (Ed.). (1989). Illustrations for Biblical Preaching: Over 1500 sermon illustrations arranged by topic and indexed exhaustively (Revised edition of: The expositor’s illustration file). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[2]  Green, M. P. (Ed.). (1989). Illustrations for Biblical Preaching: Over 1500 sermon illustrations arranged by topic and indexed exhaustively (Revised edition of: The expositor’s illustration file). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.