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Archive for May, 2011

Most of the writing I do on this blog concerns pastor-church conflict issues, although I try and write more for lay people than anyone else.  By necessity, this means that I’m focused more on the dark side of the church, and it’s hard to think about that all the time.

So today, I want to shine the light on what’s great about attending a local Christian church.

While I might have missed a few, I believe that I’ve attended at least 14 different churches in my lifetime: 8 before I became a pastor and 6 afterwards.  Since I grew up in a pastor’s home – and I was in church every Sunday – a safe estimate is that I’ve attended at least 2,500 Sunday morning services, not counting Sunday evening or Wednesday night extravaganzas.

So here’s what I like about church:

First, there is a minimum of one solid hour to focus on God.  The closer we get to God, the more life comes together.  The further we get from God, the more life starts unraveling.  We all know we need to interact with our Creator more often, but the routine intrusions of life can make this challenging.

But when we attend a church service, outside intrusions are largely eliminated.  The phone doesn’t ring (okay, there are exceptions), we aren’t watching TV (although many churches now have monitors), we’ve left our favorite books at home (unless they’re on our Smart Phone), and household chores cannot be transferred to a worship center (thank God!).  While we can sleep, it’s generally discouraged, and while we can read, the Bible remains the preferred literature.

The praise and worship time, the testimonies, any video elements, the various prayers, communion, and the pastor’s message all point us in a heavenward direction.  Even for the best Christians, it’s possible to go 167 hours without looking up too often.  A worship service specializes in a vertical relationship with God – and that’s a very good thing indeed!

Second, you’re hanging around others who also love Jesus.  When I worked for McDonald’s, I was assigned primarily to the grill area.  Although I knew how to cook meat and dress the buns, my primary role was toasting the buns.  One night, while doing just that, I decided to share Christ with Matt, my co-worker who was cooking meat.  I asked him, “Hey, Matt, who is Jesus Christ to you?”  He replied, “One in a cast of thousands.”

I never followed up with him.  I didn’t know what to say after that.

There may have been Christians working at McDonald’s, but I don’t recall meeting any (except the boss’ mother Myrtle, but she wasn’t a co-worker).  So, like most of you, I was surrounded by unbelievers at work.

But when I went to church, there were believers everywhere!  In fact, we assumed you were a believer unless we heard otherwise.  While I was only at church for a few hours each week, it was relaxing and fulfilling to hang around people who believed as I did – and many of those people helped me grow in my faith.  There is nothing in the world like a concentration of Christians in one place.

Third, you make lifelong friends at church.  My first friends lived in my neighborhood.  I met the next wave at school.  And I made a host of friends through playing sports.  But I always enjoyed a deeper friendship with my church friends than any others.

When I was in ninth grade, my three best friends and I were all officers in the Honor Society.  I signed a few hundred yearbooks on the last day of school.

Three years later, on the last day of high school, I signed three yearbooks.  (And I didn’t buy my own, either.)  Why?  Because nearly all my friends were at church.

My good friend Ken invited me to his church and I stayed.  Then I eventually invited our mutual friend Steve.  I met and married Kim, and Steve met and married Janie.  While I haven’t retained all the friendships I made at that church, I have retained many of them, and they continue to enrich my life to this day.

Sixteen years ago, the church held its 40th anniversary reunion.  That night felt like a taste of heaven.  I saw friends I hadn’t seen in more than twenty years, and nobody seemed to remember the bad stuff anyone had done – we only remembered the good.  I’ll never forget one young man who was in my youth group.  He told me that I was the first man he had ever met who was both an athlete and a Christian, and that my example is what kept him following Christ.  (He was married with four kids, as I recall.)  The whole night was like that.  Where else can you find that kind of friendship?

Fourth, church is where we discover and develop our gifts.  As a kid, I read to my class at times, and had a few things I’d written read for me, but I hardly did any public speaking.  In fact, I rarely spoke up in class at all, even when I knew the answer.  But I learned to speak in church.

My first message was on the friendship between David and Jonathan.  It was on a Sunday night in July (when experimentation was permissible).  I did not study adequately for it and really didn’t know what I was doing, but one has to start somewhere, and my church provided a safe place for me to test my gift.  Fifty or so messages later, a church called me to be their pastor.  That only happened because I was allowed to practice preaching on three church families.

The same is true for so many of us who know Jesus.  We first learned to teach kids and run events and sing songs and lead groups and pray with people not at home or at school, but at church.  In the warm, safe environment of God’s people, we tried and failed and tried and failed until we found an area where we had success.  Since it’s hard to experiment in a megachurch that expects perfection, experimenting is best done in the myriad of small and medium-sized churches that dot our land.

Fifth, we are exposed to Scripture and all its wonders.  With its various complexities and ambiguities, many of us still love the Bible.  No book contains more wisdom, or power, or grace.  No book has better stories.  No book possesses such powerful lessons.  From Abraham and Esther through Peter and Paul, where can anyone find such characters in literature?

I thank God for every person who taught me the Bible.  With a few exceptions, I remember them all.  They influenced my life in countless ways.  If you want to attend seminary, you have to have one near you and pay out the nose.  But there are thousands of mini-seminaries all over the world found in local churches.

And while I appreciate every pastor who preached God’s Word, the most influential teachers are the ones who teach the toddlers and the fifth grade boys and the high school group.  They keep the kids inside the church so that the preacher can later reach them as adults.

Finally, church is the source of the greatest music in the world.  I had breakfast yesterday with a dear friend, and he mentioned that George Beverly Shea, the soloist for Billy Graham’s Crusades for so many years, just turned 102!  When he mentioned Shea’s name, I instantly started singing the song he co-wrote with Rhea Miller:

I’d rather have Jesus, than silver or gold,

I’d rather be His than have riches untold

I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands

I’d rather be led by His nail pierced hand

Than to be a king of a vast domain

Or be held in sin’s dread sway

I’d rather have Jesus than anything

This world affords today

Where did George Beverly Shea first sing that song?  In church.  Where did many of us first hear it?  In church.

It’s the same place we heard “A Mighty Fortress” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “How Great Thou Art” and “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” and “Shout to the Lord” and “My Glorious” and hundreds of other great songs.  Unlike Mozart, Bach wrote his masterpieces first for church use.  And so many entertainers got their start by singing in church.  (It would be great if they would go back to church, but that’s another story.)

Those are just a few of the reasons that the local church is so great, but I’ve barely scratched the surface.

What is great about church to you?

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My professors never said anything about this issue when I was in seminary.  Over the years, I only recall reading one article on the topic.  And yet it’s one of the biggest sources of conflict in any church – especially for pastors.

What should a pastor do when a church leader is highly dysfunctional?

We all have our dysfunctions, don’t we?  There are areas in our lives that just don’t work.  It could be that we experienced trauma in our childhood or pain in our recent past, and we’re just not very good at handling certain issues.

Many years ago, a church I led hired a contractor to do some remodeling for us.  The contractor turned out to be a crook.  The board had to hire a lawyer.  It got nasty.

For months after that experience, if I sensed that anyone was even remotely cheating me out of money, I became very upset – even if it was just a store clerk handing me the wrong amount of change.  It took a while for me to heal, but I eventually did.  During that time period, I was dysfunctional in that one area of my life, but that didn’t mean I was unhealthy overall.

However, some people never heal from their hurts, and they in turn have a habit of hurting others.

So granted that “we all have our issues,”  how should a pastor handle a dysfunctional leader?  Notice that I didn’t say anything about a dysfunctional attendee (because everyone needs to feel safe in a church).

Instead, I’m talking about people who cannot communicate properly, have consistent problems with authority, engage in highly inappropriate behavior, and seem blind to the way others respond to them.  In a word, dysfunctional people are unpredictable.

And many of them are experts at maneuvering their way into leadership positions.

Dysfunctional people have a way of making their entire ministry dysfunctional.  Rather than advancing the cause of Christ, they cause such consternation that their overall impact damages others.

Let me give you an example.  I once supervised a staff member who could not write a coherent sentence.  This person would submit a newsletter article to me but it was such a mess I couldn’t publish it.  Someone had to rewrite it for publication, and since I served as editor, the responsibility fell to me.

For a while, I asked the staff member to do the rewriting, but his second attempts were usually no better than his first ones.  So I rewrote his article, gave it to him, asked if he wanted to change anything, and then submitted it for publication.  While this system tied me in knots, it was the best we could do at the time.

But after a while, he started to become upset with me.  Since he didn’t see anything wrong with his articles, he thought I was being way too critical – but we could not publish something that made him, his ministry, and the church look bad.

While I really liked this person, he carried that same attitude over into his ministry.  He was going to do what he desired and no one – not even his supervisor, the pastor – had the right to dictate otherwise.  Yet what was normal for him was abnormal to others.

Should I have let him remain in leadership?  While I wanted to think about his well-being, I also needed to think about all those people that he was adversely affecting.

Since I have always tended to give staff members more chances than they deserve, I let him stay until he resigned.

In another situation, I served with a woman who had a bleeding heart.  She was very intelligent but always gravitated toward wounded people.  If I yelled out to our leaders, “Let’s take the next hill for Jesus!” I’d focus on making the hill while she would stop and help the first casualty.  It’s safe to say she had the gift of mercy.

Remember when the OJ verdict came down?  It happened on a Wednesday morning.  That night, at our midweek Bible study, I made a passing comment about the verdict.  Most people were tracking with me, but this woman said, “But why did you think he was guilty when his own mother believed in him?”

After the service, this woman trapped me in the church kitchen and ranted at me for at least ten minutes.  Whatever hostility she had bottled up inside of her came pouring out.  I thought pots and pans were next.

Here’s where this gets tricky.  What was the real reason that she came unglued?

It may have been that she saw her husband or her father or her boss in me, and because she couldn’t tell them how she really felt, she unloaded on me.  Pastors are usually perceived to be safe people who won’t hurt back.

But she led an important ministry in the church.  A lot of people looked up to her.  Should I have let her stay in leadership?

She later apologized.  I forgave her.  We both moved on.  And she stayed at the church and continued in leadership.  But it wasn’t an easy call.  It never is.

Let me share a few thoughts about pastors and dysfunctional leaders:

First, sometimes a pastor inherits dysfunctional leaders from his predecessor.  Whether it’s a staff member, a board member, or a ministry team leader, a new pastor usually comes to a church with many leadership positions already filled.  Since the previous pastor chose them, these leaders sometimes feel entitled.  As time goes by, the pastor tries to determine which leaders are healthy (and effective) and which are not.  The healthy ones get to stay.  The unhealthy ones either need to be marginalized or removed – or else that entire area of ministry could go up in smoke.

Second, the pastor needs wisdom to do this well.  For example, he can wait for the ministry to go into decline and then die.  He can then bury it, wait a while, and restart it with a new leader.  Or he can offer the leader another position in the church (usually one where they can’t cause much damage).  Or he can call the leader into his office (possibly with a witness) and gently but firmly remove the person from office.  But if he does this:

Third, the pastor may face a backlash.  The dysfunctional leader probably won’t understand what the pastor is saying.  He or she may interpret the pastor’s words as personal rejection.  Then they’ll contact their friends and begin to lambast the pastor (proving his judgement right).  While every pastor wants peace in the church, allowing dysfunctional individuals to remain in leadership can ultimately lead to church wars.

I’ve had this happen so many times.  After you make your decision, you know what’s coming.  The former leader and their friends may form an unofficial coalition and mount a counterattack against the pastor, or withhold their giving, or leave the church altogether, encouraging others to join them.

If the pastor can just wait it out, the whole situation usually blows over in a couple of months.  But as these scenarios become more difficult over time, a pastor may stop making the hard calls and allow unhealthy leaders to remain – but he’ll have more problems down the road if he does.

Fourth, some people will applaud the pastor for his courage.  Many years ago, I needed to remove someone from leadership who had only been there a few months.  By doing this, I was admitting that I had made a mistake in choosing this person in the first place, but it was evident they just weren’t working out.  After I made the decision, a top leader came and asked, “What took you so long?”  It quickly dawned on me that other leaders were seeing what I was seeing and were just waiting for me to eliminate the dysfunction – and when I did, they gained new respect for my leadership.

Finally, it’s better to have no one than the wrong leader.  For the church’s first 18 years, Don Cousins served as Bill Hybels’ right-hand man at Willow Creek Church.  As the church grew into the thousands, the leadership team could not find the right person to lead their Jr. High ministry.  While they searched, many families left the church and went elsewhere, but this did not sway the leaders.  They were determined to wait until they found the right person for the job.  They believed that if they acted out of anxiety and placed the wrong person in that position, then (a) kids and families would leave anyway, (b) it would take up to a year to remove the person, (c) then they’d lose people who liked the Jr. High leader, (d) it would cost them a severance package, and (e) they’d have to engage in the whole search process over again.

In the end, they waited two years to find the right person, but it was worth it.

After a whole night in prayer, even Jesus chose a leader who didn’t work out: Judas.  If our infallible Savior selected a leader who was unhealthy, we can expect it will happen to pastors as well from time-to-time.

What are your thoughts on this issue?  I’d love to hear them!

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In my mind, the biggest question facing every pastor and church leader is this one:

Who are we trying to reach?

As soon as a pastor answers that question, nearly everything else falls into place – but his problems are only beginning.

For example, if a pastor believes his church should reach men, that will impact his message themes, the kind of music the church offers, the way people dress, and a host of other decisions.

The church my wife and I have attended for the past year targets men.  They believe that if they reach a man, his wife and their children will also come to church.

So the parking lot attendants are all men.  The initial wave of greeters are men.  (The second wave includes women.)

At yesterday’s service, the pastor talked about what happens to partners after they divorce.  The video testimony during his message was given by a man.

The music style at services is primarily rock with a little pop thrown in.  The worship leaders and band members are always men.  There are always two backup vocalists – one on either side of the stage – and they are usually women.  Performance songs are sung equally by both women and men.

The pastor announced that softball leagues are beginning for the summer, and you can either play on a coed team or a men’s team.

The dress at the church is Phoenix-casual.  Many people – including men – wear shorts, some year-round.  In other words, men don’t need to get dressed up to come to church.  (That appeals to a lot of guys who never get dressed up for anything.)

When new men visit the church, they relax when they see other men everywhere.  They start thinking, “Maybe the Christian faith isn’t just for women and children after all.”

However, a lot of pastors are afraid to decide on a target group because they know such a decision is inherent with conflict.  And yet if a church tries to reach everybody, it will eventually reach nobody.  No person – or church – can be all things to all people.

Once a pastor decides on a group to target, should he announce that decision to the congregation?  It might seem like the church is excluding entire groups, especially in this politically-correct world.

So if a pastor announces the church is targeting men, some might say, “Then you obviously aren’t interested in women or children!”  And if a pastor says, “We’re trying to reach young families,” some of the seniors might complain, “Then it’s obvious you don’t care about us.”

It’s a dilemma for pastors: if you do target a particular group, then your ministry has more focus and you enhance your ability to grow – but some people also might feel excluded, which can affect their attendance, giving, and morale.

If a pastor can’t make a decision about this dilemma, then his church won’t grow until he does.

But if the pastor doesn’t handle the target thing just right, it can result in a mass exodus – or his head on a platter.

In my second pastorate, there was a couple in the church who came from the Midwest.  They had Swedish roots, and they attended that church partly because it had a Swedish background.

One Sunday morning, the couple sang an old hymn in Swedish – and they did not sing it well.  Who was their target?  People who knew Swedish.  How many people in our church knew Swedish?  Probably a handful.

I thought to myself, “These Swedish songs have to go.”  I’m not sure I ever told anybody that, but I set up a policy that insured that all song selections had to go through me before they were done in a service.

That went for any songs in French, Japanese, and Navajo, too.

But that didn’t make me popular.  In fact, the couple that sang that hymn became the worst church antagonists I had for years.  (However, they have since been surpassed.)

Then I had to discern who we were going to reach.  I settled on young families.  Why?  Because younger people are more receptive to the gospel than older people.  The older a person gets, the more resistant they become to the gospel.  God’s grace can reach down and touch anyone’s heart, but if a church truly wants to make an impact in their community, they usually target younger families.

Once a pastor and his key leaders make that decision, they need to view the entire ministry through the lens of that group.

And they need to make sure that the music style fits their target audience.

The leaders need to ask themselves, “What kind of music do young families listen to these days?”  While most younger people are pretty eclectic musically, most churches can’t produce a variety of genres at a weekend service.  So the leaders also need to ask, “What kind of music can we offer that will attract those families?”

Once that decision is reached, it may exclude the choir, the organ, and the musical saw.

The “worship wars” were fought in the 1980s as baby boomers gradually began to assume the leadership of Christian churches.  Choirs and pipe organs started to disappear.  They were replaced by guitars and keyboards.  While this trend delighted younger people, it upset many seniors.

And this once again created a real dilemma for pastors.  While seniors are often more generous and consistent in their giving, younger people tend to be more stingy and sporadic.  So if a church changes their musical presentations from a choir to a rock band overnight, that move might offend older people without necessarily attracting younger people – and the seniors might withhold their giving or take it to another church.

This is why a pastor needs to bring all the leaders along together in determining which group a church is going to reach.  Because when the outcry comes – and it will – the pastor will need all the support he can get.

Some of you might remember the musical changes that happened in the ’80s and ’90s:

*The songleader (who waved his arms to the time of the music) was replaced by a worship leader (who played guitar or keyboard).

*The organ and piano (sometimes) were replaced by several guitars, bass, and drums.

*The volume was cranked up a lot (to give the service an event feel).

*The words to the songs were transferred from the hymnbook (which caused everyone to look down when they sang) to a video screen (where everyone had to look up to see the words).

*The worship leader often introduced new songs into a service, which meant fewer hymns were sung.

*While the congregation used to sit while singing some songs, now everyone stood for every song.

*The churches whose music hit the target group grew, sometimes rapidly.  The churches that canonized their musical presentations usually remained stagnant, sometimes going into a death spiral.

(Incidentally, I love many of the old hymns.  I have a “Christian Hymns” Playlist on my iPod that includes 175 songs by artists as diverse as Amy Grant, Johnny Cash, and Michael W. Smith.  If we have a hard day, sometimes we play those songs all night.  Hymns are great as long as they aren’t done in a dirge-like style.)

Once a target group is chosen, the following questions become easier to answer:

*What time will our services start?

*How long will our services go?

*How will we structure our services?

*What kind of events will we offer our church and/or community?

*How will we follow up guests?

*What kind of lighting will we have?

*How will we invite people to receive Jesus?

Choosing a target group simplifies scores of decisions just like these for a pastor.  But the alternative is for a pastor to impose his own personal tastes onto a congregation, which some pastors do.

I love the band U2.  For years, I looked for opportunities to sing a U2 song like “40” or “Yahweh” in a service, but it never happened.  (We did manage to play “Magnificent” between services, however.)  And yet if the worship leaders didn’t like the songs, or the target group didn’t like U2, then we shouldn’t have done their songs just because I liked them.

While it might not have worked in that venue, many worship leaders where we attend now love U2, and their songs are played all the time.  (When I heard “In God’s Country,” I knew I was home.)  Playing U2 songs works at this church – but it doesn’t work everywhere.

Someday, people from every race and tribe and culture will surround Jesus’ throne, singing songs of praise directly to Him.  What a great day that will be!

While every kind of person will enter Christ’s kingdom, no church can reach everyone.  A pastor needs to prayerfully consider the group a church is best positioned to reach and then pursue them vigorously.

I’d love to hear from you.  Who is your church trying to reach?

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Yesterday morning, my step-father stopped by our house to do a couple of projects, and he brought with him an obituary torn out of the newspaper about the death of Harmon Killebrew.  The paper said that his funeral was going to be held this morning at the church my wife and I have been attending (Christ’s Church of the Valley) for nearly a year.

She asked me, “Why not go?”

So I did.  To be honest, I haven’t worn a dress shirt or dress slacks or dress shoes for nearly 18 months, but I did today – but I would only do that for Harmon Killebrew.

Why did he mean something to me?

When I was 13 years old, two of my friends called me on the phone and told me that they had gotten the autographs of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford just a few hours before.  I couldn’t believe it.  I grew up collecting baseball cards and could not imagine meeting any baseball player, much less two of the all-time Yankee greats.

My friends told me they got their autographs at the Grand Hotel behind Disneyland.  It was about a three-mile drive from our house.  I didn’t know how I was going to get there, but since the Yankees were still in town, I had to go.

So my mother drove a few of us to the hotel, and when the players came out to go to the ballpark, we got their autographs – even those of Mantle and Ford.

Since the Minnesota Twins were the next team in town, the mother of one of my brother’s friends drove us to the hotel on a Saturday afternoon.  When we entered the lobby, there were three baseball cards come-to-life sitting on the couch: Bob Allison, Harmon Killebrew, and Jim Perry.  There were all cordial, but Killebrew actually talked to us.  He was relaxed, warm, and kind.

Although I don’t have the signature he gave me that day, I still retain a few that I received from him later that year.  And over the years, I saw him in various venues, including spring training, and he was always the same great guy.

So at today’s service, I wept a little.  Country singer Charlie Pride sang three songs on his guitar, including, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “I’ll Fly Away.”  Friends and family members shared tributes about The Killer, including a grandson who played an instrumental version of Don McLean’s “And I Love You So.”  Twins’ announcer and recent Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven shared a heartfelt tribute to Killebrew as well, finally encouraging us to give him a standing ovation.  We did.

And then our pastor spoke.  He had met Killebrew many times and stated that he had received Jesus into his life.  And our pastor presented the gospel in a brief but clear way.

Two of the great loves of my life intersected this morning: Jesus and baseball.

After the service was done, I spotted a lot of ex-ballplayers in the patio area: Don Baylor, Bert Campaneris, Tony Oliva, Fergie Jenkins, Frank Robinson, Robin Yount, and Rod Carew, as well as current Twins Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau.

All at my church!  What a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

Tony Oliva spent a long time talking to Bert Campaneris, and I wanted to talk to him for just a minute, but I didn’t want to interrupt their conversation.  Tony Oliva was named to the All-Star team in 1967, and a week or so before the game, the Twins came to town and my friend Steve and I obtained autographs from the various players, including Oliva.  Steve had the chicken pox at the time.  A few days later, Tony Oliva got the chicken pox and missed the All-Star game.  Steve was certain that he had given the chicken pox to Oliva.  I wanted to tell Oliva that story.  I’ll bet he never heard that one before!

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  It was a relatively quiet day in the picturesque town, and I was able to wander around at my leisure.  While I’ve been in the gallery that has all the Hall of Fame plaques before, this time I wasn’t in any hurry.  It gave me the opportunity to think about those guys not just as ballplayers, but as men.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting scores of Hall of Famers.  Some have been grouches for forty years.  Some used to be nice and have morphed into grouches.  It’s tough to walk around in public, I guess, when you are constantly bothered for your signature, which has become a commodity to be sold on eBay rather than something to be treasured by a true fan.

But for some reason, Harmon Killebrew never changed.  Of the few hundred pictures displayed this morning, a good deal of them were of Killebrew signing something: for a child, for an elderly man, or for dozens of fans.  For years, I had a signed 1967 Topps baseball card of Killebrew and teammate Bob Allison up on my bulletin board.  To hold it up, I used a push pin.  That little action devalued the worth of the item, but that’s okay.  To me, it’s priceless.

Because I remember the man.  Harmon Killebrew.  Number 3.  Minnesota Twins.  573 home runs.  1969 Most Valuable Player in the American League.  And along with Brooks Robinson, Hall of Fame third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, the two nicest superstars I ever met.

While there may be more, I only know of a handful of Hall of Famers who have professed to be followers of Jesus: Bobby Doerr, Ernie Banks, Mickey Mantle (who received Jesus in the closing days of his life), Gary Carter (who gave praise to Jesus at his induction ceremony), and Duke Snider (with whom I had a wonderful conversation about his faith more than twenty years ago).  There are a few others who have professed to be Christians who seem to have gone off track a bit – but maybe they’ve come back to the Lord.  I certainly hope so.

But it’s one thing to be a Hall of Famer on the field – it’s another to be an all-time great with people.

Harmon Killebrew was both.

I’m reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

How about a paraphrase: “If I hit 500-foot home runs, and am recognized everywhere I go, and have been immortalized inside my profession, and made a ton of money, but I’m a selfish twit, I am nothing.”

If love is the measure, then from all I know, Harmon Killebrew was really something.

And that’s the true legacy of the man – and of every man and woman.

Mr. Killebrew – thanks for being so cool to a 13-year-old kid.  I will never ever forget you.

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“Never follow someone successful.”

That advice was given to me and seven of my classmates when I took a class on managing church conflict in seminary.  Our instructor was a retired army colonel who seemed to know what he was talking about.

I learned this the hard way at the last church where I was a youth pastor.

The previous youth pastor (let’s call him Bob) was a friend of mine who was moving to another state to complete seminary.  We had known each other off and on for quite a while.  As I recall, he had a hand in recommending me to be his successor.

I had many friends in that church already.  The search team was very positive toward me.  It seemed like a good fit.

But after Bob left, I was unaware of the affection that the adult leaders and the young people had for him.  Some of them practically worshiped him.  One girl told me, “I feel sorry for you.”  An adult leader told me, “You’re just so … different” – implying that there was something wrong with me.  There were even signs of rebellion among the ranks.

Since I had never been through this experience before, I began to feel tinges of jealousy toward Bob.  I didn’t really know why he was viewed as being godlike and why I was held in contempt by certain people.

One Christmas, Bob came home from school and was scheduled to speak on a Sunday morning.  You would have thought that Jesus was appearing live on stage.  There was a buzz throughout the campus that day that I didn’t know how to handle.

Years later, Bob and I got together for a meal, and I told him about his near-saint status inside the church and what a challenge that was for me.  We both had a good laugh about it.

But I wasn’t laughing at the time.

However, I learned some valuable lessons through that experience that I couldn’t have learned any other way.  How can a Christian leader stay sane when following someone successful?

First, realize some people grieve the loss of a spiritual leader for a long time.  I had a youth pastor that I greatly admired when I was at Biola.  Since he was in seminary, sometimes we’d ride back to the church together after school.  I could talk to him for hours.  He was smart, human, and funny – and he knew his Bible well.  I picked his brain about everything.  (One time, we tossed a Frisbee down the center aisle of the church while talking.  Then I went up to the balcony and tried to throw the Frisbee into the baptistry.  We called our game BapFrisbee.)

My youth pastor meant the world to me.  When he graduated from seminary and took a church in Colorado, it hurt – a lot.  He was my spiritual mentor, my go-to guy when I got stuck in life.

Darrell, I will never, ever forget you.  Without you, I would probably still be flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

Although I became the church’s youth pastor after Darrell left, I never felt any sense of competition toward him.  As far as I was concerned, he could do no wrong.

And that’s how many of the kids felt about Bob.  He had taught them God’s Word, played crazy games with them, led them to Christ, and listened to their problems.  He had earned the right to be greatly loved over time, while I had not.  I slowly began to understand why they felt the way they did about him.

Second, determine to be yourself.  Bob couldn’t be me, and I couldn’t be Bob.  We were completely different individuals.  But I think it was difficult for some people to see that.

After a while, Bob became predictable to the adult youth leaders and the kids.  They learned to understand his humor.  They could tell when he was upset.  They became accustomed to his teaching style.  And then all of a sudden, Bob was gone, and I was taking his place.  At first, I wasn’t predictable.  My personality, leadership style, and methodology weren’t better or worse than Bob’s – just different.  Some people were just off balance around me.  While that bothered me, I couldn’t be a Bob clone.

There were times during the first year after Bob left when I just wanted to quit.  But slowly, changes began to occur because …

Third, expect that as a new leader, you will gain new followers.  Some of Bob’s biggest supporters gradually dropped out, moved away, or left the church, so they weren’t around forever.  And some of the new Jr. High kids didn’t really know Bob at all, so I was their first youth pastor.  Then some new students came to the church, and I instantly became their youth leader as well.

There was a group of high school and college guys in that church that I really loved.  We played sports and went to ballgames together.  They meant so much to me.  Some of us became friends for life.

I learned that youth groups, like churches, never remain static.  They are constantly turning over, maybe 10-20% per year.  If a leader just hangs in there, most of his opposition will eventually leave – and most newcomers will become supportive.  The process just takes time.

Fourth, pave the way so someone can succeed you.  When I finally left my last youth pastorate after 3 1/2 years, I truly loved the adult leaders and the students.  My wife and I sensed a great outpouring of love as we prepared to move to Northern California, a response we couldn’t have envisioned just three years before when I was chasing a ghost.

Now someone had to follow me.

So on my last Sunday, I took a few minutes to encourage the congregation to love my successor the way they had loved me.  I didn’t want anyone to go through the hell that I had gone through.

I learned a lot about following someone successful, so much so that those lessons have stayed with me for the rest of my ministry.  And I especially learned this lesson:

If they loved your predecessor, most people will gradually come to love you.

Finally, remember John 3:30.  For a few months, John the Baptist was the biggest star in all of Israel.  His appearance became iconic.  His preaching drew crowds.  His message sparked debates.  Arising out of nowhere, John had become THE MAN in the land.

And then Jesus came along.

Suddenly, the crowds left John and began following Jesus.  It would have hurt a lesser man.

Someone told me recently about a man who succeeded a well-known Bible teacher as pastor.  This Bible teacher had his own unique speaking and writing style that endeared him to thousands.  I have many of his books and once subscribed to his messages on cassette.  He would have been a tough act for anyone to follow.  After a few years, his successor resigned and became very upset about the way he was treated.

I can understand why he might have felt that way.  It’s unfair to be compared to someone else when you’re just trying to be yourself.

But remarkably, John adopted an alternative viewpoint.

John knew his role.  It wasn’t to be the Messiah.  It was to pave the way for Israel’s Messiah.  When the crowds left John and followed Jesus, John didn’t become jealous because that was the plan all along.

In John 3:30, John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Those are the best words I’ve ever run across for dealing with the whole predecessor-successor thing.  There’s a time for me to be in the spotlight followed by a time when the spotlight needs to shine on someone else.  Only a narcissist would insist that the spotlight shine on him forever.

But John was far from a narcissist.  He was truly humble in the best sense of the word.

In essence, John said, “Who gives a rip what people think about me?  I only care what people think about Jesus.”

I was once in a church where there was a little plaque fastened to the pulpit where only the preacher could see it.  It served as a reminder why we were all there in the first place.

The plaque said simply, “Sir, We Must See Jesus.”

I couldn’t say it any better myself.

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Over the past sixteen months, my wife and I have been visiting various churches in the greater Phoenix area.  For ten of those months, we’ve been attending CCV – Christ’s Church of the Valley – a mega church in the northern Peoria area.  CCV knows what they’re doing and does it all extremely well.  We love everything about the church and try not to compare it to other churches that we visit from time-to-time – but sometimes, it’s hard not to do so.

Since all of my pastoring has been done in small and medium-sized churches, I understand them very well and have a good idea of what they need to do to reach the next level.  As Rick Warren is fond of saying, it’s harder for a church to go from 100 to 300 in attendance than it is for that same church to go from 1,000 to 3,000.

Let me share with you five ways that a smaller or medium-sized church can make some simple improvements that will help them reach more people for Jesus.  This is not intended as an exhaustive list but just some things I’ve been noticing recently:

First, station greeters outside from the parking area into the worship center.  Kim and I visited a medium-sized church yesterday and no one said anything to us until a woman gave us our bulletin at the door.  Then after we sat down, the pastor’s wife came and said hi to us.  But we would have felt much more comfortable with a greeting and a handshake before we got to the door.  Even though I’ve been a pastor for eons, I still feel nervous walking up to a new church for the first time.  Strategically-placed greeters help alleviate that anxiety more quickly, and a host of good things happen with guests once they relax.  CCV does this expertly.  We’re greeted by five or six people before we even get to the lobby.

However, these greeters need to just say “hi” or “it’s a great day” or “welcome to our church” rather than do any prying.  Whenever people ask our names, they love to say, “Oh, Jim and Kim!  That rhymes!”  A staff member at a church recently went on-and-on asking Kim about herself and he was practically hyper-ventilating in the process.  “It’s SO GOOD to have you today.  We hope you’ll come back and see us again SOON!”  We couldn’t leave that guy fast enough.

Second, do whatever it takes to have outstanding music.  If I were starting a church, the first person I would hire would be a worship director who could attract people who could sing and play well.  We live in the American Idol age where everybody expects great music and everybody thinks like a critic.  If the music isn’t good, people cringe.  If it is, they relax and might sing.  From what I’ve been noticing, the better the music is, the more the people in the congregation sing.

I realize that there will be days when the music director is gone and the quality of the music will suffer.  But this just argues for the importance of having a deep bench.  At CCV, they rotate the worship leaders, the band members, and the vocalists and spread them all over the stage – but they always have at least two guitars.  Kim and I recently visited a church where the band used a keyboard, drums, and a bass guitar but didn’t have any guitars – and I cringed all through the worship time.

Third, the service can run between 60 and 75 minutes but not too much longer.  If a church is trying to reach Christians, then a service can go on for hours.  But if you’re trying to reach unbelievers, 60 minutes is best, and 75 minutes is as long as you can go if the service is good.

The last two churches that we visited had services that both went 90 minutes.  Again, that’s fine for the people who go there, but if a church wants to grow, it needs to tighten up the service, especially the transitions.  At CCV, every service lasts exactly one hour and you’re left wanting more.

Fourth, avoid mentioning the denomination during the service.  We live in a post-denominational age where people care much more about the quality of the local church they attend and far less about the affiliations that church has with headquarters.  At a service we recently attended, several of the announcements specifically mentioned denominational doings.  Because we aren’t a part of that denomination, the references made us feel like outsiders.

I have a theory: the better a church is doing, the less it mentions its demonination, and the worse its doing, the more it mentions it.  (Or the worse a denomination is doing, the more it asks its constituent churches to promote it.)  Think about it.

Finally, tell us what the Bible means.  Decades ago, I learned this little truth: there is one accurate interpretation of a biblical passage, but scores of personal applications.  One interpretation, many applications.  When the Holy Spirit inspired the authors of Scripture, He did so with a single intent in mind.  John 3:16 doesn’t mean whatever you want it to mean.  It means whatever John – as inspired by the Spirit – meant it to mean.  When I study a passage, it’s not my job to impose my own views on it (called eisegesis) but to take out of the passage what is actually there (called exegesis).

Let me give you an example.  In Revelation 3:20, Jesus spoke these familiar words: “Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”  Who is Jesus talking to in context?  Many people believe that Jesus is encouraging unbelievers to open the door of their lives and let Him be their Lord and Savior.  But Jesus is speaking to “those whom I love” and those whom “I rebuke and discipline” (verse 19) instead.  In other words, Jesus is talking here to believers, not unbelievers – and specificially to believers who have shut Him out of their lives.

We can’t twist Scripture into saying what we want it to say.  It’s our job to discern and discover what the Spirit meant by a passage and only then to apply it to our lives.

Why bring this up?  Because we’re living in a day where too many preachers are coming up with their own thoughts and then scouring the Bible for support.  And in the process, we’re getting borderline heresies and novel teachings that make the teacher famous but cause God’s people to starve spiritually.

The first four ideas above are just my ideas.  Feel free to disagree with them.  Better yet, prove me wrong.  But the last idea is non-negotiable.  Surrender that idea and we’re going to have syncretistic Christianity – and we’re already headed in that direction because many pastors only preach what’s culturally acceptable so they can stay popular.

That’s why Jeremiah is my favorite prophet.  He told the Lord, “Ah, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak.  I am only a child.”  The Lord replied, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’  You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.”  After touching Jeremiah’s mouth, the Lord told him, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Talk about an impossible assignment!  It’s far easier to build and to plant than it is to uproot and tear down.  But Jeremiah was faithful, and he got a book in the Bible for his trouble.

And that’s where I’m headed right now – to Jeremiah 32.  This is “A View from the Pew” signing off.

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Enraptured

This morning, I drove out to Surprise for my monthly chiropractic appointment.  While listening to the Nearly Famous Barry Young Show, the host happened to mention the advertised date for the rapture: May 21.  While I was laying on the chiropractor’s table, her assistant also mentioned the Judgment Day date independently of anything I said.  He said that in his town of Wickenburg, there are billboards touting the May 21 date.  Maybe you’ve seen a few of them yourself.

Why do Christian leaders feel the need to make ridiculous predictions like these?

I’ve heard about the rapture since I was a teenager.  When I was 16, one of my Bible study teachers predicted that Jesus would come back within five years.  Jesus didn’t come.

Years ago, I received a booklet in the mail entitled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988.  I looked at a few of the reasons and remained unconvinced.  The booklet was written by a man I had never heard of and wish not to remember.  Jesus didn’t come.

I believe in the rapture as taught in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.  It would be wonderful if I was alive when it happens … but I’m not counting on it.

Many years ago, I was invited to teach on a radio program called “The Pastor’s Study.”  I was given some instructions and dutifully showed up in time to tape the show at station headquarters.  I spoke into a microphone for five minutes each time and talked about holiness.  When I was done with the broadcast, I left.

A while later, I was invited back.  When I was done with my talks, I was invited to tour the facilities, and I was taken aback by the reach that this particular radio station had all over the world.  When I was ready to leave, my hostess said, “And that’s Dr. Camping’s office over there.”

I thought to myself, “Camping?  Harold Camping?  I’ve been taping a show on Harold Camping’s radio station?”

Maybe I should have done some research before agreeing to do the show.

Two weeks later, I received a letter in the mail that “The Pastor’s Study” radio show had been discontinued.  I never did find out if the whole show was cancelled or just my talks, but evidently I did something wrong, although I have no idea what it was.

Harold Camping is a strange guy.  He’s almost ninety.  Many months ago, I was doing some channel surfing in a hotel room, and I stumbled upon a man sitting in a chair talking softly to the camera.  This man did some Bible teaching and then took questions from callers.  There was nothing really special about his manner or his answers.  I later found out it was Camping.  Later that day, he spoke at a church service in a school, and that service was broadcast as well.  As the camera scanned the room, I don’t think there were as many as 100 people present.  Harold Camping dominated an entire television channel but I couldn’t figure out why!

Camping has declared that the Church Age is over and that God no longer saves people primarily through a local church.  Since he owns a big radio station, I assume it’s okay for God to save people through the use of radio waves.  But how possible is it that Camping believes the Church Age is over because his church ministry has become relatively insignificant?

Harold Camping is not a biblical scholar.  He has a Civil Engineering degree from the University of California at Berkeley but not from any recognized Christian school of higher learning.  He is not an ordained minister.  While he may know what the Bible says, that does not automatically mean he knows what the Bible means.  He predicted Jesus would return in 1994, and when that didn’t happen, his followers should have walked away from him for being a false prophet.  While some have, others have still chosen to follow him.

So is Jesus coming back on May 21?  Yes, there are lots of earthquakes, and yes, there are false Messiahs, and yes, Israel is back in the land.  But that doesn’t mean that Jesus is coming back on May 21 or this year or even this century.  While I hope He returns today, He may not return for a long, long time.

Just remember:

First, Jesus will return when He deems it right.  He is not obligated by our anxiety, our timetables, or our predictions.  When the disciples asked Jesus right before His ascension if He was going to restore the kingdom to Israel, Jesus responded in Acts 1:7-8, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses …”  In other words, Jesus told His closest followers that they were not to pour their energies into figuring out when He was going to return.  They were to occupy their time with sharing the gospel instead.

Second, setting dates for Christ’s return discredits the date-setter – and sometimes the gospel.  How many times throughout history have Christians predicted Christ’s return, only to have Him be a no-show?  The Millerites sold all their possessions and stood on a mountain waiting for Jesus to return on a particular date – but He didn’t come back.  So they recalculated, and tried it again – but when He didn’t return, their movement imploded.

If Jesus doesn’t return on May 21, I suggest the name Harold Camping be quietly forgotten.  The sad thing is that some people may reject Christ because of his misuse of Scripture and his defiant date-setting in light of Jesus’ prohibition.  However, if Jesus wanted to come for Harold Camping on May 21, I personally would not object …

Third, realize that some Christians chase novelties to seem significant.  Remember the whole “holy laughter” phenomenon in the 1990s?  It started at a church in Toronto that met in a hotel ballroom.  People visited the church and ended up rolling on the floor in laughter for long periods of time.  Gullible Christians (along with some leaders) flocked to Toronto to get in on the spiritual laughing gas for themselves.  But the Bible doesn’t emphasize “holy laughter” at all.  Are we ever told in Scripture that Jesus and His disciples used to hang out in the Temple or someone’s house and roll around the floor laughing?  What does that have to do with living a life pleasing to the Lord?

Being a pastor for nearly four decades, I have seen the competitive nature of pastors – including famous ones – up close.  Most pastors want to gain significance for something.  If they can’t build a big church, or preach to thousands, or write bestselling books, then some are liable to find a little novelty that turns the spotlight onto them.

For Camping, it’s Bible prophecy.  While I can’t diagnose the condition of his heart, it seems as if his date-setting is a way of saying to Christians, “I have a little corner on the truth that none of the rest of you have.  My life and ministry are nearly over, and I’ve had my critics, but if I’m right, I’ll get the last laugh.  If I’m wrong … oh, well, I’ve been wrong before.”  But while we’re debating the merits of Camping’s biblical interpretations, we’re still talking about him – and that makes him a player of sorts, even if he doesn’t deserve it.

When I was in my late teens, several of my friends got married, and I observed a phenomenon I began to call “Meyer’s Law.”  Meyer’s Law states that whenever a couple decides to get married, and they discuss an initial date, they always move the date up.

Wouldn’t it be fascinating if Jesus did the same thing and came on May 20 instead?

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