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Church Leadership

How to minister to god-fearers in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, pluralistic society

Photo by fortune cookie via Flickr (Creative Commons)

We all know the church in America is in trouble…

  • More than 50% of Americans, if given a box to check, would label themselves as Christian while less than 10% affiliate with an actual church.
  • While the dominant suburban white church ignores this reality, we are becoming a multi-ethnic nation. (again)
  • While the church is typically racially/ethnically homogenous, our society has embraced multi-culturalism.
  • While church leaders have lacked a thoughtful, tactical response our society has rapidly embraced the philosophical framework of pluralism.

In other words– society is doing things that the church has no clue how to respond to. In any given community in our country on any given Sunday less than 10% of the community is actively involved with a church. (Any church)

The only place the church is seeing growth? Circling the wagons. Big churches are getting bigger, little churches are getting littler, and medium-sized churches are squeezed.

In the last decade we’ve seen three general concepts rise and ultimately fail to reach more people:

  • Political involvement. The early part of the 2000s was marked by the rise of power of the Evangelical politically. This completely backfired. Society was repulsed by our Scarlet Letter-like tactics to try to change society.
  • Church planting movement. The last 10 years has seen a massive mobilization of younger leaders to plant churches. Unfortunately, these church plants are ineffective because they are just re-dressing the same pig. While it’s true that lots and lots of churches have closed in the last 20 years and church plants are supposedly out to replace them, the people aren’t fooled. Putting a nice marketing edge on the same old tactics won’t ever work.
  • Christian hipsters. Also popular in the 2000s was a desire for Christians to quietly embed themselves in pop culture industries like movies, television, and music. The idea seemed to be that if Christians could embed themselves in things seen to create culture we could reach people by interweaving redemptive analogies into our culture. That backfired because it just became a marketing ploy by those industries. (A very successful one at that.)

What does this have to do with the book of Acts? EVERYTHING. The parallels between the first Century synagogue and the 21st century church are shockingly similar. The Jewish people, many of whom had dispersed to other parts of the modern world, struggled to maintain their numbers. Many congregations had shrunk to the point where they couldn’t even hold services because they couldn’t get 10 men there. (Which Jewish law requires for worship.) While they were strictly monotheistic and moralistically concrete, scattered in the Greco-Roman world they struggled to survive.

Several times in the book of Acts you see Luke mention a group of people called, the god-fearers. (Greek derivatives of the word, “theophobes”) These were people who hung out around the synagogue, worshipped with Jews, identified and sympathized with the Jews… but weren’t actually pursuing conversion. This wasn’t a rare thing. This was actually a subculture of people who hung out around the synagogue and in some contexts likely out-numbered the Jews in a community.

They were fans of God, worshippers of God, but they didn’t know God and certainly weren’t on His team.

They just kind of hung around. And the rabbi’s probably seemingly had no idea what to do with them. Maybe they even had conferences to talk about what to do with them? I’m just saying….

Does this sound familiar? 

The American church is full of these people. And I think the second half of Acts gives us a few ways to minister to them. Let’s look at a few.

  1. Present the facts and call them to repent, invite them to join God’s team. (Acts 13:38-43)
  2. Raise the bar and demand painful obedience. Look at how Paul dealt with Timothy. (Acts 16:1-4)
  3. Call them to not only hear from God, but respond to him. (Acts 10)
  4. Ask them to examine the Scriptures for themselves and then ASK them to believe. (Acts 17:10-15)
  5. Stop wasting your time and move on. There’s no time for people who are merely looking for intellectual debate. Move on. (Acts 18:4-7)

Call me crazy on this but it’s all over Acts. Stop calling them Christians. Luke was careful to label them what they were and there was likely a community of god-fearers in every synagogue. They knew who they were and they knew what they needed to do to identify with God.

If we keep telling them they are a duck. And they keep acting like a duck. They are going to think that they are ducks. 

 

Categories
Christian Living

Fire is Free

Photo by Harsha K R via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I was listening to a message by Rob Bell a few years ago and someone posed the question to him, “Why do people drive for hours to be a part of Mars Hill.” His answer was profound and simple: “People will drive from miles around to see what’s on fire.

Very true, isn’t it?

When I read the book of Acts I am sucked into the story of both the fire God started and the massive attention that fire drew wherever the Apostles traveled. Sure, there was spectacle on the day of Pentecost where God dropped tongues of fire on believers as they were indwelled with the Holy Spirit.

Yet they only grew by a few thousand that day.

By the end of Acts there were tens of thousands of believers. (Maybe more?) They had unleashed a virus of forgiveness of sins and restoration of relationship that the Roman army couldn’t stamp out. By Acts 28, what started as a small fire in Jerusalem was spreading. God had captured hearts whereas other gods and kingdoms tried to capture their bodies– and the Romans simply couldn’t shut down a virus that spread with love.

Because of the division between Luke-Acts we lose sight of the resolution of the story of Jesus’ ministry. While the credits roll and Easter is celebrated at the empty tomb, the story isn’t over!

The story is really just beginning.

It was a virus so strong that within three centuries it would topple the most powerful and dominant empire the world has ever seen.

The empty tomb is the climax. But the unleashing of God’s people by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are the resolution.

Why did Jesus come to earth? Surely, to seek and save the lost. Surely, to make a way for salvation of all who seek him. Of course those are reasons He came to earth.

But it was also to unleash a fire through his believers that can’t be stopped.

For 2,000+ years the fire has burned as the only hope of the planet spreads. While evil has appeared from every direction over millennia the fire has spread. Even as martyrs were literally burned at the stake they passed the flames on with their love. The fire is shared from father to son, neighbor to neighbor, classmate to classmate, and homeless man to executive.

A lot of people I know are disappointed in God today. A new year has dawned and they look at the resources they have available, they scratch their heads, they look at the agenda God has laid on their heart, and they cry silently– God, there is no way I can do this with the resources I have.

Unfortunately, too many of my friends in ministry woke up this morning wondering if God has still called them to a life in ministry.

To both, I have this simple reminder from Acts: Fire is free.

The great Hope of the world flows from the pores of our weakness. While we may be depressed by a lack of resources or even a lack of a job– be encouraged the your greatest calling spreads fastest through people with no resources, no stock piles, and nothing left but a flickering flame.

Categories
Christian Living Church Leadership

Giving and Receiving at Church

Photo by Vintage Collective via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Confession: There are times when I am frustrated with my church.

  • To the point of not wanting to go.
  • To the point of wanting to give up on organized church.
  • To the point where I think the action of attending church may actually be hindering my ability to live out the Gospel in my life.
  • To the point of wanting to withhold myself, my money, my children, my thoughts, and even my prayers.

This causes me to search myself, my motivations for the action of going to a church, and even what Scripture does or does not say about what goes on at church.

Lately, at the bottom of that barrel I am left with this thought:

Going to church is about giving and receiving simultaneously like the heart pumping blood in both directions. When I’m dissatisfied I am either unwilling to give of myself or I’m unwilling to receive ministry created for me (as part of the congregation). Conversely, I will be most satisfied with the corporate worship experience when I go with my heart pumping a desire to both give an receive.

In other words, I think too much and I must be more simplistic in this exchange with the church. I need to discipline myself to give what I can (in its various forms, not exclusive to money) and receive what I can. (in its various forms, not exclusive to teaching)

It’s a two-fold relationship. When I go more needy to receive I don’t go with a heart to give of myself. When I go needy to give of myself I don’t go with a heart to receive.

Questions for Reflection

I’m not accusing anyone of ever being dissatisfied with their church. I’m only confessing that sometimes I am. But if you find yourself discontent, here are some questions for reflection that have helped me.

  • What is the thing that drives you nuts, that has become a block between you “truly coming to worship God?
  • What category would you place that thing in? Personal preference? Desire for excellence? Biblical accuracy? Effectiveness? Something else?
  • Is that really a big deal or do you just have an attitude problem?
  • Could you chose contentedness with that issue if it never changes?
  • Where areas are you contributing to your church?
  • If a leader thinks about you, would they label you as someone who contributes significantly to the vision and mission of the church? (Not just money, but your actions and heart for the congregation.)
  • Are  you comparing what you want with what you’ve seen at another church? Is that a fair comparison?
  • Is the root of your dissatisfaction a personal sin issue that is manifesting itself as dissatisfaction with something at church?
  • Are you seeking out relationships with people in your congregation or are you waiting for those relationships to pursue you?
  • Are you just being a jerk?

This is what I know

I know that Jesus expects us to live inter-dependently with a community of other believers. As I read the New Testament I never read about the early church being a place of comfort, cushy chairs, mono-cultural, or without tension. Instead, I see a church which gave of itself fully, which recognized that some people were mature while others were immature, was as functional and dysfunctional as a family, and was all about giving and receiving fully of themselves.

Categories
Church Leadership

The Goal of the Staffless Church

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Which came first? The staff who ran the programs or the programs which required the hiring of staff?

No offense to my friends who work at churches– but I wonder if their goal is to secure a job for life or to work themselves out of a job as quickly as possible?

When I read church growth strategy books and articles I’m always amazed that they only talk about getting larger budgets, larger buildings, and larger staffs. Never mind that it’s a horrible strategy. Most think tanks only think about one strategy… how to get bigger. The idea of getting more efficient is ludicrous.

When I read about the church of the first 100 years after Jesus I see a church growth strategy of “get in, train people up, and get out as fast as possible.

Here’s a centuries old tried and tested church growth strategy we have rejected: With no staff your church will grow.

The “if you build it they will come model” of the last 50 or so years has lead to utter devastation of the church. Numbers are down big time. Sure, you can point examples of big churches. And no doubt people will leave comments saying how awesome their programs are. But the percentage of Americans regularly involved in the local church has declined sharply in the current multi-staff model.

The fact remains that a church with less staff will be forced to be the church more than a church with programs where people show up and everything is done for them. This “worked” for thousands of years. What we are doing now isn’t working and we all know it.

At some point someone decided that everyone needed to be on staff at the church. So we hired a music pastor. A worship pastor. A youth pastor. A children’s pastor. An associate pastor. An administrative pastor. A senior ministry pastor. And all of that staff required administrative support. Oh- and they’ll need offices and space– so we’ll need a bigger building.

If I put my businessman’s glasses on I examine this trend and say: You’ve added a lot of overhead. Your business multiplied by 25 times, right?

Wrong. The strategy didn’t work. But now we have an entire industry of church workers in an environment where they are reaching fewer and fewer people with bigger, more expensive programs. Now we’ve created an entitlement that simply isn’t sustainable nor is it leading to the growth long ago predicted.

It’s almost too easy for me to point to examples of this in other countries. (We certainly saw this in Haiti.) But it’s also true among the exploding Latino and African-American churches in the United States. With almost no infrastructure they reach thousands. In your own community it is likely that there is a church kicking butt with nearly no overhead of staff or a building.

I’m well aware of the biblical justifications that church staff deserve to make an income. Yes, I’ve used that myself. I’m not arguing that you have a right to claim that to be true. I’m merely questioning the strategy and inviting you to recognize that this strategy has seemingly paralyzed the church.

Even those who bring up the Pauline argument for getting paid in ministry often neglect to mention that Paul also didn’t implement this strategy in all the places he ministered. Nor did he ever buy a house and start a family.

Some questions to get you thinking

  • Where does the offering at your church go?
  • Where did the funds in Acts go?
  • How much has your church grown in the last 10-30-50 years using the current staff-heavy strategy?
  • What would it look like if say… 90% of that offering were given away in your community to feed the poor, care for the sick, take in orphans, protect widows, on and on?
  • Don’t you think that would be good news to the neighborhood?

What I’m not saying

  • The church is wrong to have staff
  • The church should fire staff
  • All of my friends who do associate level ministry are bad/dumb/hurting the ministry of the church in their community
  • My own church is bad, filled with money hungry punks who make fat salaries. (Um, they all raise their own support!)

What I am saying

  • A church as effective as the Book of Acts is possible today.
  • Churches should ask hard questions about meeting the needs of their community.
  • A lot of church growth strategies are really “church growth industry” growth strategies.
  • Church leaders should challenge their assumptions of what they know vs. what they know to be true in Scripture.
  • It is possible for the local church to reach 90%+ people in your community.
  • We should not be satisfied to “pay the bills” and reach 5-10% of our community.

Wake up, O sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
Ephesians 5:14

Categories
Church Leadership hmm... thoughts

The Peak of the Christian Life

pinnacle-of-christian-life

Question One: What is the chief end of man?
Answer One: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Westminster Shorter Catechism

If you were to ask most preachers the question, “Practically speaking, what does the peak of the Christian life look like?” most of them would give an answer related to the answer given in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. (Even if you don’t come from that tradition.)

The theologically correct answer to that question sounds like this, “You are in God’s sweet spot when you follow God’s call wherever that is. So it’s different for each person. For me, being in God’s sweet spot has meant being a pastor at this church. But for you, the pinnacle of the Christian life could be ____. Anything less than following God’s call to that is not the pinnacle.

But if you listened to their preaching you’d hear a much different message.

A lot of preachers accidentally lift themselves and their calling to an unhealthy place. Preachers, in their messages, often imply that their calling to become a pastor is a higher calling than anyone else in the church. (Read 1 Peter 5:1-10) They use their obedience and their life as an example of getting into God’s sweet spot. Sitting there, listening to them preach and use themselves as the pinnacle of the Christian life week after week… you might start to believe that working for a church is the pinnacle of the Christian life. While I don’t think that most preachers really believe this to be true, it is easy to use themselves as an example to illustrate their sermon. And more often than not they use themselves as a heroic protagonist in the story… thus the implied status that they are the example of the peak Christian.

The truth is there are a lot of people attending and even working at churches that believe that lie. (Heresy) Even if the preacher never directly says that that working at a church is close to the peak of the Christian life and being the lead preacher is the peak, most people believe that a pastor must be somehow superior unless they are taught otherwise.

Next, you see this pattern emerge all the time! A person feels stuck in their spiritual journey. They desire something “greater” and decide that they need to take a leap of faith. Out of an earnest desire to experience the peak of the Christian life, they start pursuing something else. They follow the leadership example they hear year-after-year and walk away from where God has them in order to chase “the pinnacle of the Christian life” by serving at a church. And those people further perpetrate the lie by testifying, “I used to be an accountant, but God called me to become the Pastor of Finance at this church. Even though I am making much less money I am happy to be in the Lord’s service.

Financial sacrifice does not equal a ministry calling. But listening to the testimony of a lot of preachers, you’d think it was. As if God was going to cosmically bless a ministry simply because you gave up earning potential?

The irony continues once you make that leap. Once you get on staff at a church you learn a dirty little secret. The priesthood of all believers is true.

You want to reach a majority of the community you live in for Jesus Christ? (I believe most churches do.) It simply will not happen through the church staff or its programs. [Even the biggest megachurches only have a tiny reach into their community.] It will only happen when the people in the congregation take hold of what the Bible teaches and takes the Gospel to the places they have access and influence. (Places 99% of pastors have no access or influence.) This mega-change in a community is just as likely to come from a house church of 12 as a megachurch of 20,000. Just like in Acts, God is not interested in the size of the Temple. He is interested in bringing the message of the Jesus to the people where they are. Did Peter, Paul, John, or Timothy grow endearing church organizations? I think not. It was never the goal of the early church to create a massive, efficient organization. The early church built no cathedrals, had no mega-meetings, and lifted nothing but spreading the message as far, deep, and wide as they could in their lifetime. This is a far cry from the little-church-kingdom building we see among clergy today.

I belive most Christians aspire the peak of the Christian life. It’s a good thing to aspire to! Let me encourage you with this. To reach the peak of the Christian life probably won’t mean an Abrahamic move. You likely won’t be called by God to sell your land and move your sheep, goats, and wife to a foreign place. Nor is it likely that God wants you to stop being an accountant, teacher, nurse, or business person to work in a church. The church needs more Christ-followers in the workplace and fewer business people dressed up as pastors.

More than likely you can reach the peak of the Christian life right where you are, in the career you are in, with the friendships you have.

“But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does.” James 1:25

If you are seeking something more significant in 2010 I want to challenge you to first do your very best right where you are. Don’t forget to consider that God may have you in the right spot– it may just be you that needs to change.

Look at your life through the eyes of Jonah and ask yourself… what am I running from? That’s most likely what God is calling you to.

Categories
Church Leadership

Teaching Acts

book of actsRight now I am teaching the book of Acts for a class at Romeo Bible Institute. It is both fun and challenging. It’s fun because Acts is one of the most action packed, exciting narratives in the world as a band of eleven takes hold of a challenge from the Risen Jesus and (under the power of the Holy Spirit) takes the Great Commission literally. Within one lifetime Christianity went from 11 to over 100,000.

It’s challenging because I am trying to cram 28 chapters into 6 weeks. Pray for my students.