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Archive for June, 2011

In my last post, I discussed a problem that seems to be increasingly prevalent in our day: staff members forming alliances with board members or other staff against their pastor.

This kind of behavior is one of the reasons why pastors are being forced to resign from their positions at the rate of 1,300 every month.

Of course, we can find an example of this inside Jesus’ inner circle when Judas collaborated with the Jewish authorities to tell them where Jesus was hiding out the night before He died.

Betraying an innocent man is an evil action, whether it’s Judas flipping on the Messiah or a staff member turning on his pastor.

Theologians have wrestled for centuries about Judas’ motives for turning in Jesus.  Was it purely for the thirty pieces of silver he received?  Was it because Jesus disappointed Judas in some fashion, like not being the political leader he wanted Him to be?  Was it because of Satan’s gradual influence in Judas’ life?

We may never know for sure this side of heaven.  However, let me share with you four reasons why staff members – most often, associate pastors – flip on their supervisor, the senior pastor – and I’m assuming here that the senior pastor is innocent of any major wrongdoing.

First, the associate pastor wants to be a lead pastor.  I wanted to be a pastor when I was nineteen years old, but I knew I’d have to finish college, complete seminary, and be ordained before that would happen.  I was a youth pastor in three churches before ordination, and because none of those churches had associates, I was the top staff member in the church behind the pastor in each situation.  While it was no secret that I wanted to become a pastor, I knew that I had to undergo a process before that would ever occur – and I had a lot to learn.  There was no way I could hurry the process along.  Since I believed that God had called me to preach, it was a matter of waiting for God’s timing.

It never occurred to me to conspire with some board members to “take out” the pastor so that I could become the senior pastor – and no one ever suggested it to me.

However, this scenario is happening more and more in churches, and when it does, my guess is that most people never discover what really happened.  All they know is that the lead pastor resigned and that the board announced that the associate would assume the pastor’s duties – either as an interim or as a pastoral candidate.  Most people never discover that the associate and some board members engineered the whole thing.

A variation on this is that the staff member resigns and starts a new church a short distance away from his former church.  The core group for the new church is almost exclusively composed of friends from the ministry he just left.  This kind of church plant creates pain for all parties that lasts for years.

Second, the associate chooses to rebel against the lead pastor.  Senior pastors all have different management styles.  Of the five I served under, only one was directive, while the others let me run my own ministry.  The only pastor who really gave me direct orders was the first one – and I did my best to do what he said.

As a pastor, I tried to hire staff members who were self-starters and who could do their job better than I could.  While I gave them general direction, I rarely gave them orders – and when I did, they usually didn’t like it.

Here’s my theory: when a pastor hires a staff member, he often does a “sales job” to convince that person to come aboard.  Sometimes the sales job continues for a few months as the pastor acclimates the associate to the ministry.

But when the pastor has to correct the associate for any reason, he becomes upset and thinks that the lead pastor has turned on him.  Looking back over my ministry, I have found that this was often the key moment in our relationship.  In my mind, I was just trying to make their ministry better, but in their mind, I was criticizing them needlessly.

When I was in eighth grade, I had a math teacher named Mr. Heymers.  Even though he was young in age and short in stature, he started the year using a firm tone and letting us know in precise terms what he expected from us.  Most of us were scared of Mr. Heymers at first, but as the year progressed, he loosened up a lot.  He became the best math teacher I ever had.

When I supervised staff, I may have started a bit too loose, so when I eventually had to get firm about something, some staff members couldn’t handle it – and they went in search of allies.

By the way, I believe that if a staff member is given a direct order by the senior pastor (provided he’s not asking him or her to sin), and the staff member refuses to carry out the senior pastor’s directive, the staff member is guilty of insubordination and subject to dismissal.  While I never fired a staff member for this reason, in several cases, maybe I should have.

Third, the associate has an immature spouse.  Which of the following associate pastors has the best chance for success?

Associate A is married to a woman who never wanted to be a pastor’s wife.  She has a high opinion of her husband and an even higher opinion of herself.  She constantly tells her husband things like, “You’re a better preacher than the lead pastor.  You’re a better leader.  You work harder than he does.  You should receive more recognition.  You should be paid more.”  And when her husband comes home and says he had a disagreement with the senior pastor, she becomes angry and complains about the pastor to family and friends – most of whom take her side.

Associate B is married to a woman who believes she was called to be a pastor’s wife.  While she believes her husband is a gifted man, she constantly encourages him to work with the senior pastor in collaboration, not competition.  She tells him often, “Our pastor is a good preacher, and I thank God for him.  You’re a good preacher too, although you’re both different.  You’re a wonderful leader as well, although you still have some issues to work on.  While I wish you made more money, our day will come.”  And when her husband tells her about a disagreement that he had with the lead pastor, she tries to get him to see his supervisor’s viewpoint as well as understanding his.

The first associate is far more susceptible to flipping on the senior pastor because of an entitlement mentality.  The second associate can look forward to a long career in ministry because he’s waiting for God to elevate him.

Fourth, the associate starts collaborating with a board or staff member.  If an associate has problems with the senior pastor – and I’ve been in this position myself – he has four options: (a) prayerfully submit to the pastor’s wishes, (b) discuss the situation directly with the pastor, (c) seek counsel from someone outside the church (like a counselor, a pastoral colleague, or a seminary professor), or (d) leave that ministry.  If the associate doesn’t feel he can speak directly with the pastor (or has tried but become frustrated), he may look around the church for sympathetic ears and “triangle” someone into their situation.  This is where division starts.

Once the associate finds this person, then (a) he stops working on his relationship with the senior pastor, and (b) his new collaborator carries his burden for him.  In fact, the collaborator may very well pass on the associate’s complaints to other board or staff members – and over time, a consensus may form: the senior pastor has to go.

The lead pastor’s offense?  “He hurt and upset the associate pastor – whom many of us love very much.”

Let me share two possible solutions for this perennial problem:

First, if the associate cannot support the senior pastor anymore, he should resign as soon as possible.  Don’t stay in the church and undermine the pastor, forcing him to leave – the associate should leave quietly.  It is not up to the senior pastor to adjust to the staff – it is up to the staff to adjust to the senior pastor.

Second, the associate pastor may choose to admit his mistakes to both God and the senior pastor and renegotiate their relationship.  This is possible only if the associate hasn’t already complained to others inside the church about the lead pastor.  A humble, teachable spirit works wonders.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

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There is a problem in Christian churches that I keep hearing about.  It’s not an issue that most of us think about very often, if at all, but it’s one that demands attention if the kingdom of God is to advance in our day.

How loyal should staff members be to the senior/lead pastor?

Throughout my more than three decades in church ministry, I’ve viewed this issue from both sides.

As a staff member, I did not always agree with the senior pastor, and I served under five of them.  Sometimes I didn’t like what he said from the pulpit.  Other times I disagreed with his private assessment of the direction the church needed to go.  One pastor I worked with worked way too hard.  Another hardly worked at all.

Being the Number Two Man in each of these churches placed me in a position of trust.  I saw and heard things that few other people knew about.

But that was the whole point.  I was hired for those positions because the lead pastor felt he could trust me, and I always believed it was my job to reciprocate that trust.

This was especially a problem when someone from the church tried to “triangle” me into a problem that they had with the pastor.

In one church, a man approached me and made a threat against the pastor.  I was uncertain if he wanted me to join his cause or pass the message on to the pastor himself.  When our conversation was finished, he knew that I would not join his cause.

How could I ever do that?  In all five churches, the pastor chose me to serve alongside him, and I chose to serve with him as well.  In my mind, we were a team – as long as I kept doing my job.

In each situation, I worked for the pastor, and the pastor worked for the board.  I did not work for the board, and the pastor did not work for me.

While I privately had reservations about some of the things my pastors did and said, I kept those to myself.  He needed to know that if everyone in the church turned on him, he’d have at least one person standing by his side.

So when I became a pastor myself, I was able to see the pastor-staff relationship from both sides.  But the staff members – none of whom had ever been a pastor themselves – were only able to see the relationship from their side.

And some of them made choices that eventually demonstrated their disloyalty.

Let me give you an example of the kind of problems that pastors are having today with staff members – especially associate pastors.

Jack has been the pastor of a church for three years.  At first, he was able to juggle all the leadership, administrative, teaching, counseling, and pastoral duties, but the church gradually grew to the point he couldn’t handle things anymore.  Both Jack and the governing board agreed that they should hire an associate pastor as soon as possible.

So the board appointed a search team, and since there weren’t any suitable prospects inside the church, the team eventually recommended several candidates from the outside to Jack, who settled on one in particular.  Since the top choice had some concerns about coming to the church, Jack engaged in a sales job that proved successful.

While still in sales mode, Jack welcomed the associate to the church and spoke glowingly of the church’s future and the way the associate could make a difference with his gifts.  And at first, that’s exactly what happened.

But just a couple months after the associate’s arrival, Jack began to notice some things that bothered him.  For starters, the associate had a habit of showing up late on Sundays – and then he’d leave as soon as the last service was done.  Jack believed it was important for all staff members to mingle with the congregation on Sundays, but the associate just wasn’t doing it.

So Jack spoke to him about it.  The associate promised to change, but a couple weeks later, he was doing the same thing.

In addition, the associate left a mess everywhere he went.  If he used a room for a meeting, the next person to use the room would complain that they had to spend 15 minutes cleaning up before they could arrange the room the way they wanted.

Once again, Jack spoke to the associate directly and swiftly, and the associate promised he would change, but a few weeks later, he reverted to his previous behavior.

Now every staff member has their flaws.  Some are messy with rooms but incredibly effective with people.  Others hang out at the church all day but never get anything done.

The wise pastor – conscious of his own failings – has to decide which issues he’s going to press and which he’s going to let go.  He has to both model and set the boundaries.

And he has to treat all staff members with fairness.  If he requires all staff members to show up at 8:15 am on Sundays, then the associate needs to show up at 8:15 as well – because if he shows up at 8:50 instead, the pastor will hear about it from the other staff members – guaranteed.

As the months went by, the pastor spent a lot of time with the associate pastor, discussing the church’s future and trying to plug holes in the ministry.  It appeared as if the two of them had negotiated their differences and were working well together.

But after the pastor returned from a vacation, he discovered that the associate had allowed people to do things that the senior pastor expressly forbade.  So the senior pastor sat down with the associate to discuss what happened.  During their time together, the associate demonstrated insubordination and defiantly said that his decisions were correct and should not have been questioned.

The senior pastor was shaken.  While the associate deserved to be fired, the pastor realized that he’d need board support to take that action.  If the board backed him up, the senior pastor knew that some people would leave the church and that momentum would grind to a halt – at least for a few months.  But if the board didn’t back up the pastor, wouldn’t that just empower the associate all the more?

So for the time being, the lead pastor did nothing but pray and seek counsel from colleagues outside the church.

But while the senior pastor waited for divine wisdom, the associate went on the offensive.

Knowing that the senior pastor would have to go to the board to dismiss him, the associate contacted several board members that he sensed were on his side and told them he was having trouble with the lead pastor.  He told these men that he couldn’t sleep, that his wife was barely functioning, that his kids were feeling the stress, and that he was thinking about leaving the church because of the senior pastor.

This is the point at which the entire future of the church is at stake.

If the board members take the side of the associate pastor, the senior pastor’s future in that church is in serious jeopardy.

If the board members take the side of the senior pastor, the associate pastor’s fate is probably sealed as well.

The best decision for the church is for the board members to support the senior pastor.  If they do, the associate won’t have many options left.  He can either apologize to the senior pastor and vow to fully support him or make plans to leave the church.

The worst decision for the church is for the board members to support the associate pastor.  If they do, then they have betrayed their senior pastor and their decision will eventually manifest itself.  If the senior pastor comes to a board meeting to discuss his problems with the associate, the board members who met with the associate will either fail to support their pastor or veto any recommendation for dismissal.

Protestant churches are designed for the lead pastor to work closely with the church’s governing board.  In most cases, staff members – including the associate pastor – work directly for the senior pastor and do not attend board meetings.

The senior pastor is the key to everything.  He must get along with both the board and the staff.

But if staff members form covert alliances with other staff or board members against the senior pastor – that church, and its entire leadership structure – is in serious trouble, and ripe for a satanic invasion.

I do not pretend to offer easy answers for these situations.  Sometimes if the key players pull back and look at matters more objectively, they can work things out.

But these situations are usually about one thing, and one thing only: who is in charge of the church?

I’ll write more about this issue in my next article.

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Many years ago, I saw an ad in a Christian publication promoting a product I found offensive.  A certain televangelist was inviting churches to buy satellite equipment so they could beam the messages from his church into their worship services.  The idea behind the ad was that if a church really wanted to grow, then its people needed to listen to this single gifted man.

The ad outraged me.  This televangelist came from the South, while our church was in the West.  He came from a charismatic church, while ours was non-charismatic.  He often used a condemning tone, while I tried to speak with grace.  He did not know our people, but I did.  And he was not a biblical expositor, while that’s what I loved doing most.

How dare he presume that every church in America needed to hear him preach every week rather than their own pastor!

I hope that few churches signed up for this offer.  Not long after that ad came out, that televangelist engaged in some extracurricular activities that resulted in the satellite dishes being turned off – for good.

While that was an extreme case, the Christian world seems to be increasingly listening to fewer and fewer biblical teachers.

Many churches now have only one teacher in the entire congregation: the pastor.  Since most churches don’t offer adult classes or Sunday evening services or midweek worship anymore, the pastor becomes the lone communicator of biblical truth by default – or design.

Even if a church has small groups, leaders are usually instructed to facilitate discussion rather than teach in any meaningful way.  And increasingly, that discussion is about the pastor’s message from the week before.  So even gifted teachers who lead such groups aren’t supposed to teach anything but let everyone talk.

There are pros and cons to this new approach.

For starters, it helps some preachers lead a more balanced life.  I once knew the pastor of a megachurch who told me he studied 50 hours every week.  (You read that right.)  He studied 15 hours for the Sunday morning service, 15 hours for the Sunday evening service, and 20 hours for the Wednesday night prayer meeting.

Why so long for the Wednesday night service?  Because he never knew who might show up to hear him, and he wanted to be accurate in his teaching.  (John MacArthur showed up a few times unannounced.)

Forgive me, but that’s insane, if not self-destructive.  In fact, that pastor died less than two years after he shared that information with me.  Since studying is a sedentary habit, the lack of bodily movement may have done him in.

So that’s one extreme: the pastor is the primary teacher in the church and teaches all the time except when he’s on vacation.

We now have another extreme which I believe is much more healthy: the pastor shares the teaching role with several other gifted communicators.  Each teacher may teach for an entire series and then take the next one or two off, or each teacher might be assigned a different Sunday during the same series.

The advantages are enormous.  The congregation gets to hear from several gifted teachers.  The pastors have plenty of time to prepare their messages.  And messages can be divided up by specialties.  It can be difficult listening to the same voice all the time, but if you hear two or more voices, it’s much easier to take.

The downside, of course, is that most churches can only afford one gifted teacher, not three or four.  And the more gifted someone is, the more often they want to speak.

Now a few megachurches are planting satellite churches in outlying areas and sending a live feed of the message from the mother church into those venues.  The church we’ve been attending for the past year plans to do this all over the Phoenix area and has already started a satellite campus in the area where we used to live.

When they did this, they absorbed another megachurch.  The pastor from the megachurch now teaches periodically at the mother megachurch.  While he now speaks to more people, he also speaks less often.

It seems to me that technology is leading to a social Darwinism in the Christian community.  For example, what would happen in your church if Rick Warren or Mark Driscoll decided to open up a satellite campus in your area?  Would people from your church flock to the satellite campus and desert your church and pastor?  (By the way, I know an area where both Warren and Driscoll are planning on opening satellite campuses.)

Is this about reaching more people, trying to amass the most followers, increasing revenue streams, or all of the above?

Sometimes it feels like there are only going to be ten preachers left in the entire US: Warren, Hybels, Driscoll, Lucado, Osteen, both Stanleys, Piper, Beth Moore, and a few others.  There will be Warren churches, Lucado churches, and Piper churches.  The music will be different in each locale, but instead of being known by denominational labels or movements, a church will be known by the name of the teacher it beams in on satellite.

Isn’t there a biblical prophecy about this phenomenon somewhere?  Does Harold Camping have any insight about this?

I have five concerns about this particular trend:

First, what happens when a popular teacher veers off course theologically?  If thousands of people have to choose between the teachings of Paul the apostle or their favorite Christian communicator, who will they choose?  There is a Gen X preacher who is clearly off the rails theologically, and I know someone who thinks he’s great.  How much effort should I expend in trying to convince him otherwise?

Second, what happens if a famous teacher falls morally?  Twenty years ago, some of America’s best-known Christian leaders were involved in sexual scandals.  It was a hard time to be the pastor of any church.  I remember one woman (who did not attend our church) who kept calling and implying that all these guys were crooks.  Although there have been fewer scandals in recent years (thank God!), when we farm out our teaching to a chosen few, those teachers seem to represent all of Christianity to many people.  And if a few of them go down, it impacts all of us.

Third, what happens to smaller and medium-sized churches?  Back in the 1990s, Christian pollster George Barna predicted that the days were coming when most churches in America would be either small or large and that medium-sized churches would soon become extinct.  I’m not worried about the satellite churches winning lost people to Christ.  There are enough unbelievers out there for everybody.  Instead, I’m concerned about believers in smaller churches who have struggled for years to make their church go and finally leave it to join a satellite church.  While the jury is out on this approach, I hope we’ll see the results of surveys on this trend soon and be able to adjust accordingly.

Fourth, why are we letting a few people do all our thinking for us?  I once heard a new pastor in Silicon Valley tell a group of pastors that whenever he started preparing for a message, he first read all the commentators and then added his own thoughts.  My immediate response was, “Why aren’t you letting God speak directly to you first?”  Like many pastors, whenever I selected a passage to preach on, I first did all my own work and then consulted with the commentators to check my conclusions.

I didn’t want to preach a message that God gave to Chuck Swindoll or Bill Hybels: I wanted to bring a message to our people that God had given me.  Since many of these satellite churches hire pastors to be on premises while the megachurch pastor is speaking on satellite, how do they feel about having their teaching gifts shelved?

We need tens of thousands of pastors all over the world who don’t buy sermons from Rick Warren but who let God’s Spirit speak directly to them through His written Word.

Finally, what happens to rookie preachers?  I preached my first sermon at 19 years of age in a Sunday night service at my home church.  While it wasn’t very good, my church let me teach many more times because I told them I had been called by God to preach.  There were a lot of venues back then for someone who was learning to preach: Sunday School classes, the Sunday evening service, the midweek service, as well as the local rescue mission.

But where does a preacher learn to teach today?

I have always believed that if someone is called by God to preach, they should preach first in front of their home church.  But the larger your home church is, the less likely that is to happen.

Before I became a pastor at age 27, I had preached in a church setting about 50 times.  There were a lot of things I had to learn – and a few I had to unlearn.

But with increasingly fewer opportunities, where can a young preacher learn to develop their gift?

What are you seeing?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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I want to thank all of you who read this blog on a regular basis.  Let me share with you some quick updates about how the ministry is going.

First of all, thanks to all of you who read the article “Thoughts on a Scandal” last Friday.  It was the largest number of views I’ve ever had, thanks in part to my friend Kathi Lipp, who linked the article on Facebook.  Kathi is the author of the books The Husband Project, The Me Project, and the almost-published The “What’s For Dinner?” Solution and has, at last count, 2,462 friends on Facebook, some of whom were gracious enough to read the article.

Kim sent the article to Sean Hannity and Mike Huckabee but I haven’t heard anything from them yet!

If you’re interested in Kathi’s Amazon page, here it is: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=kathi+lipp

Next, I had breakfast today with my good friend Chuck Wickman, who just published the book Pastors at Risk.  Chuck was a pastor for 40 years and has been doing research and ministering to pastors who have gone through forced terminations for many years.  He is the founder of Pastor-in-Residence.  His wife’s uncle was John W. Peterson, who wrote gospel songs like Jesus is Coming Again and Heaven Came Down and Glory Filled My Soul.

If you’re in a church where the pastor is hurting – or you know of a pastor who has been wounded in ministry – Chuck does a great job of laying out the problems and offering solutions.  You can order the book from Amazon by following this link: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=chuck+wickman

Third, I’ve completed the manuscript for my book, and six people are reading and reviewing it right now, with others agreeing to read it as well.  Most of the book is in narrative form with the last one-third of the book analysis.  It is my desire to lead a crusade to stop the forced termination of pastors in churches today.  While we can and should minister to pastors who have already been victimized by this epidemic, we also need to work together at preventing this plague that harms pastors and their families as well as churches for many years.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to my family.

For Father’s Day, Sarah arranged for Kim and me to go and see the Giants and Diamondbacks play at Chase Field here in Phoenix last week.  It just so happens that was the last game the Giants won!  Thanks, Sarah, for being such a blessing to your dad and mom.

Also for Dad’s Day, Ryan and his fiancee Vanessa gave me a framed photo of our son – in a baseball uniform – when he was just two years old.  He also wrote a wonderful note in a card that indicated that he is happy that I’m conducting their wedding two months from today.  I can’t wait for that special day to arrive!

Also for Father’s Day, Kim took me to a special place in Scottsdale yesterday where you can watch a movie and eat a great meal – both at the same time.  I am truly blessed to have such a special woman in my life.  We celebrate 36 years of marriage in early August.

To Sarah, Ryan, and Kim: I love you all so very much!

Kim is going on her fourth trip to Kenya next week, so please pray for her ministry there when you think about her.  Her main ministry is coordinating a conference for pastors, many of whom are very poor.

A few minutes ago, I passed 5,000 views on this blog.  While some bloggers get that many views in one day, I’m still learning about the wonderful world of blogging.  Thanks for reading and for all your comments!

And if you would like me to address an issue involving pastors, churches, or conflict, please let me know.  If you’d like, you can email me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org.

Enjoy a God-blessed week!

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New York Representative Anthony Weiner announced his intention yesterday to resign from his seat due to a “sexting” scandal.  While he was making his announcement, some in the audience jeered him.

There are many ways to view such a scandal: politically (does he have a future in politics?), legally (did he break the law?), ethically (did he “sext” on the taxpayers’ dime?), morally (how damaging were his actions?) and relationally (should his wife stay married to him?).

Let me add one more perspective: the spiritual one.

I have seen Anthony Weiner on television many times in the past.  In my opinion, one word best describes his television persona: obnoxious.  Whenever I saw him, he consistently talked over people in an argumentative and combative tone.  While I’m not sure that he convinced anyone from the other side of the aisle to adopt his positions, he undoubtedly cheered his own constituents with his relentless rhetoric.

Party politics – and last name – aside, I never liked the man.  And to many people, he seems even more unlikeable – even repulsive – after his recent revelations.

However, we need to remember a few simple truths about anyone – whether we like them or not – who is caught in a scandal.

First, God loves Anthony Weiner.  The same Bible that tells me how much God loves me specifies that God loves everyone, regardless of their politics, height, accent, ethnicity, or spirituality.  John 3:16 settles this issue once and for all.  God loves the world of people, and Mr. Weiner is a person created in the image of Almighty God.

A wise man once said that there is nothing we can do to make God start loving us and there is nothing we can do to make God stop loving us.  If God only loved those who are perfect, He would only love Jesus – and definitely not me or you!

Second, Anthony Weiner is a sinner – just like each one of us.  While many Christians readily admit that they have a sin nature and commit general sins, it’s much more difficult for us to admit that we’ve committed specific sins.  In fact, whenever someone  accuses us of a particular sin, our immediate reaction is either to deny that we did anything wrong or to defend ourselves.

When confronted about doing wrong, few of us immediately admit that we err.  Like Mr. Weiner, we have a tendency to blame others (“someone hacked my account”) for our own indiscretions.  Sometimes we do this because we don’t want others to know what we’ve done.  But other times, we do this because we refuse to admit to ourselves what we’ve done.  We have an image of ourselves that we present to the world, and when that image gets tarnished, we try and convince people that they’re seeing things the wrong way.

Of course, this is the essence of sin: believing that I don’t engage in it.  But I do – and so do you.

While you and I may never be guilty of the offense of “sexting” anyone – much less people we don’t know – we are guilty at times of presenting a false image of ourselves to the world.  For that reason, I saw some of myself in Mr. Weiner’s recent public appearances.  Didn’t you?

Third, Jesus died for every sin – and sinner – including Mr. Weiner.  I haven’t yet heard any television or radio commentator frame this scandal in spiritual terms, so let me briefly do that.

Jesus died for every sin: for anger, manipulation, interrupting people, gossip, heresy, being judgmental … and thousands of others.  Even though it’s never mentioned – or envisioned – in the New Testament, Jesus paid the price for “sexting” strangers as well.

According to my favorite Bible verse, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Jesus actually became sin incarnate on the cross.  He became anger and gossip … and sexting … to take them away.  To use an Old Testament analogy, Jesus became our scapegoat.  He voluntarily took the blame that we deserve.

Jesus also died for every sinner.  He died for those who loved Him – like Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene – as well as those who didn’t – like the chief priests, Pontius Pilate, and King Herod.  In our day, we might say that He died for Joel Osteen and Rick Warren just as much as He died for Charlie Sheen and Anthony Weiner.

No sin or person is ineligible for forgiveness.

Fourth, Jesus wants to redeem every sinner – even Mr. Weiner.  Jesus wants to redeem his soul.  Jesus wants to redeem his marriage.  Jesus wants to redeem his usefulness.  Jesus wants to redeem his talent, and his relationships, and his life.

Remember John 3:17?  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

It’s important that we all learn lessons through this experience.  Don’t send risque photos of yourself to anyone, much less strangers.  Don’t lie to people who trust you.  Don’t blame other people for the things that you’ve done wrong.  These are all legitimate issues for discussion around the family table and water cooler.

However, God does not want Mr. Weiner to be condemned.  He wants to see him redeemed.

Whenever these celebrity or political scandals occur, I’m always concerned that the negative publicity will drive someone to self-destruction – and that would please the devil, not the Lord.

I once read about a prominent pastor who said something stupid to a woman on the phone.  The two of them were not having a relationship, and she lived in another state, but his comment was overheard by his son.  When later confronted, the pastor immediately repented.  While the pastor should not have said what he did, the Christian community became involved and made things far worse.  He eventually was forced to resign.

A restoration team was set up.  The pastor was disgraced.  Before the dust settled, he lost his ministry, his career, and his reputation – and in the end, he took his own life.

I’ve heard people say about this situation, “Well, we just don’t know what demons lurk inside of people.”  But maybe we don’t know what demons lurk inside the church of Jesus Christ, either.  Sometimes we make things worse by trying to make things better.

Some would say, “We all need to be careful.  Be sure your sin will find you out!”  But we all sin – all the time – and most people never find out what we’ve said or done wrong.  It’s enough that we know it, confess it to God, receive His forgiveness, and move on.  It’s Satan who wants to publicize our sins and destroy us.

If Mr. Weiner has truly apologized – and it appears as if he has – then he should not be condemned anymore.  Those who try and jeer and shame a repentant person are guilty of sin themselves.  Wasn’t it Jesus who uttered these words after presenting The Lord’s Prayer?

“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).

Finally, we need to pray for Mr. Weiner.  Some of us have talked about him to others.  But have we talked to God about him at all?  Rather than feeling smug about the fact that we’ve never “sexted” anybody, we should realize that we have our own personal struggles with certain sins.  I know some older Christians who still commit the same sins they committed decades before.  Rather than dump on someone they don’t know, shouldn’t they do something about their own shortcomings?

Let me offer a prayer for Mr. Weiner:

“Heavenly Father, I thank You for the privilege of living in this great land where we elect our own officials.  Lord, one of those officials has been guilty of some serious indiscretions, and although he has asked forgiveness from many people, I pray that he will ask forgiveness from You as well.  Through this experience, may he hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and respond to Christ’s invitation for salvation.  May he receive the help he needs to conquer his personal demons.  And may his friends and family – especially his wife – love him unconditionally so that he may once again become productive.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue.  Thanks!

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Have you been hearing anything recently from major Christian leaders about Satan?

It recently struck me that ever since my wife and I moved to Arizona, I can’t recall any mention of the enemy in any message that I’ve heard, much less any message about the devil.

He has suddenly become as unpopular as hell.

Maybe there’s a good reason for that.

Years ago, I learned that whenever I planned to present a message about Satan – and it wasn’t a regular occurence – a bunch of weird stuff would happen right before the service.  The microphone wouldn’t work, or the sound would go out, or a key participant in the service would suddenly fall ill.  It was inevitable.  I’d still give the message, but it felt like I was running uphill.

And that’s how I felt last Monday when I tried to make my last point on the blog about Satan.  Suddenly, the formatting went haywire.  I wrote the entire point, quoting both the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther, but things became so messed up that I couldn’t present it to you.  It became so frustrating that I resolved to wait until today to finish.

Satan is real.  We shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about him – as C.S. Lewis said, that would please him greatly – but we shouldn’t ignore him, either.  There’s a lot of stuff going on in this world that can only be explained if there is a devil.

If you haven’t done any reading about Satan, but you’re willing to work up your courage and do so, I recommend Michael Green’s classic book I Believe in Satan’s Downfall.  Green is both a scholar and an evangelist – a truly rare combination – and he writes both eloquently and passionately about the one who forments mischief and evil behind the scenes in both our communities and our churches.

Twenty years ago, I was involved in launching a new church in Silicon Valley.  Our core group settled on a warehouse at a key intersection.  But we ran into all kinds of problems, especially with the city planning commission.  They refused to issue us a conditional use permit to meet there, even after we signed a lease.

So we appealed to the City Council and called for a special day of prayer and fasting.  John, our outreach director, created a one-page flyer on a Macintosh computer encouraging everyone in the church to pray for “our building, God’s will, God’s power, and unity.”  When John looked at the flyer on the computer screen, all the words were right side up.

When he printed the flyer to hand out to our people, the word “Pray” was upside down while all the other words were right side up.

No matter what John did, he could not get the word “Pray” to print right side up.

We eventually handed them out that way, and some of our people freaked out because they had never seen any supernatural mischief before.  But to me, this was an indication that what the devil didn’t want us to do was to pray.  In other words, he had laid out a plan of victory for us.

During this time, Ephesians 6:13 became my go to verse:

“Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”

We did try and do “everything.”  Along with several of our board members, I talked to other pastors, Christian leaders, attorneys, planning commissioners, and City Council members in our city, along with the Mayor.  One of the Christian leaders, who is well-known in the Bay Area, told his attorney to distance himself from our situation because he predicted we were going to lose.

But when our appeal came before the Council, we won an incredible 7-0 vote and received our conditional use permit – the first church in our city to ever go into the light industrial area.

I didn’t know it at the time, but we had situated ourselves smack in the middle of the devil’s territory.  No wonder he fought us so hard the entire time we were there.

Years later, I learned that the intersection where our church was located was a haven for drug dealers.  And across the road was a massage parlor that, like the House of the Rising Sun, ruined many a poor boy.  (As our church was getting ready to relocate from that intersection, a man called to ask me to do whatever I could to close down that massage parlor because, he said, it had ruined his life.)

During our whole time together, the church stayed united against outside forces that tried to assail us – and they were continually trying to do so.  I have never been in a church that was so effective at winning lost people to Christ – or a church that endured so much external suffering.

We were successful in defeating the devil time and time again, but he was relentless, and in the end, he and his minions wore us down.  When our church was forced to relocate five miles away, I knew I was going to need a long break away from church ministry.

After years of putting it off, I finally did a series on controversial social issues, including homosexuality.  The night before I planned to give that message, all hell broke loose in my home and in our church.  In fact, it was so bad that I typed out a resignation letter because I felt too weak to deal with the assaults anymore.  (However, I never gave it to the board.)

The next day, I did give the message I had planned to give, but only after making peace at home.  I have never, ever sensed spiritual warfare like I felt the 24 hours before I gave that message.

And the truth is, I never want to feel that way again.

But when we invade the enemy’s territory, we never know what’s going to happen to us.

Twice in Ephesians 6:13, Paul encourages believers to stand.  By contrast, the devil wants us to run and hide (like Jesus’ disciples did the night before He died), or to deny Him (like Peter did), or to hang (like Judas did).

But Jesus wants us to stand.

The only way we can stand against Satan is to do it together.  The strongest pastor in the world cannot fight the enemy by himself.  Even Paul ended this passage by telling the Ephesians, “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains.  Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (Ephesians 6:19-20).

Let me make four quick points about Satan:

First, he is real.  He tried to take Jesus’ life as an infant through King Herod the Great.  He battled Jesus in the wilderness, infiltrated His disciples through Judas, and was behind most of the events in the final 24 hours of Jesus’ life.  Jesus said that Satan exists, and that should be good enough for us.

For an interesting take on Satan, read the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s song Man of Peace.  They ring true.

Second, he hates God.  Most of the hatred directed against God in our country doesn’t come from the ACLU or a certain political party or candidate or from godless late-night comedians.  The hatred originates with Satan.  He influences people to hate God and even injects thoughts into their brains, but as many Christians have pointed out, godless humans are not the real enemy, but victims of the enemy.

Third, he hates God’s people.  So he deceives and destroys – often among Christians – so that he can divide us and negate our united front to the world.  I have noticed recently that many younger evangelicals view older Christians as their enemies, embracing the culture while condemning other churches.  When any of us succumb to this hatred, we are doing the devil’s work for him – and we are all susceptible to it.

Finally, he has been defeated.  We all know this – we just need to be reminded.  He cannot overthrow God, or undermine Jesus, or take out the Spirit – so he focuses on frail humans like us.  But I love the way the writer to the Hebrews puts it:

“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Jesus’ death defeated Satan.

Let’s let Martin Luther have the last word in A Mighty Fortress:

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;

Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing;

Dost ask who that may be?  Christ Jesus, it is He;

Lord Sabaoth, His name, from age to age the same,

And He must win the battle.

Amen?

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It’s my sophomore year in high school.  I’m in “sex education” class.  The class is being held in a quonset hut.  There are about 25 guys and girls in the class.  And yes, I remember the teacher’s name.

She asked the class this question: “If you fell in love with someone, and you wanted to marry them, but you found out they had already had sex, would you still marry them?”

I didn’t like the question.  And I liked it even less when the teacher started going around the room and began soliciting answers from students.  24 of 25 students answered the exact same way: “Of course I would marry them, especially if I loved them.”

I was last.

Now you have to understand, I was raised in the home of a Baptist pastor, and I was taught to stand alone if necessary.  I was also taught, both at home and at church, about the importance of maintaining sexual purity before marriage and of seeking someone to marry who lived that way as well.  Over time, I had learned that when I stood alone, I usually ended up alone – and I was like any other kid my age.  I wanted to be liked and have friends – and I didn’t want to be singled out as a Christian.

But some things just can’t be helped.  Both my family and my church had taught me to live by and express my convictions, and one of my convictions was that I was going to remain a virgin and only marry a virgin as well.

So even though I never talked in class, I felt the pressure mount as the teacher went around the room.  When my turn came around to answer her question … she never asked me.  I don’t remember if the bell rang, or if God made me invisible, or if she lost her train of thought – but I never had to answer her question.

But if I had, I would have been the only person in the class to offer a differing viewpoint.  Some would have laughed at me.  Others would have ridiculed me.  Maybe a few would have respected me, I don’t know.

But I do know this: now more than ever, Jesus needs strong Christians to stand up for their faith and to stand against evil.  But too many Christians are spineless instead.

Let me contrast spineless and strong Christians in four areas:

First, strong Christians stick to revealed truth.  Unlike John Lennon, I believe in both heaven and hell.  I believe in those places not only because they’re explicitly taught in Scripture, but because Jesus taught their reality, and He is my Lord.  Both destinations are implicit in John 3:16 (“shall not perish … have eternal life”) and Matthew 7:13-14, where Jesus contrasts the broad road that leads to destruction with the narrow road that leads to life.  Then along comes Rob Bell …

Who are you going to believe: Jesus or Bell?

If you want to be cool, and go along with some of your peers, then maybe you’ll opt for Mr. Bell’s view of the afterlife.  But the classic Christian view of the afterlife hasn’t changed in 2,000 years … and while I fully believe that the words of Paul and Peter and John are inspired, Jesus’ teaching on the subject clinches it.

Spineless Christians change their beliefs depending upon the latest book they’re reading or the current Bible study they’re attending or the prevelant view in the culture.  They are still infants who are “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:13-14).  Such Christians should not be permitted to be in church leadership or to lead a group study!

But strong Christians know what they believe and why they believe it.  They read Scripture and learn theology and attend solid churches and amass libraries featuring only the best Christian scholars.  And when heresy rears its ugly head – as it’s been doing more and more – they discern error and stand up for the truth!

Second, strong Christians are proud of Jesus Christ.  I’ve never been one for advertising on bumper stickers and  t-shirts, but a lot of believers like to proclaim their faith this way, and I don’t see anything wrong with the practice.  Most of the time, they are publicly identifying themselves with Jesus, and that’s fantastic!

But other Christians seem ashamed of their faith – like the Jewish leaders in John 12:42-43.  The apostle tells us that “many even among the leaders believed in him.”  That’s great.  But … “because of the Pharisees, they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue …”  In other words, if they admitted they followed Jesus as Jews, they could be banished from their house of worship.  The synagogue was not only the center of religious life, but social life as well.  To stand up for Jesus meant that a person would be ostracized.  So most of these Jews secretly believed in Jesus but refused to publicly acknowledge Him.

Why not?

John tells us at the end of verse 43: “for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.”

Mormons stand up for their faith, as do Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses and even cult members.  Shouldn’t we stand up for our faith in an even greater way than those groups do?

Delirious? has long been my favorite Christian band.  I love their anthem I’m Not Ashamed.  They sing with passion and conviction:

I’m not ashamed of the gospel

I’m not ashamed of the One I love

I’m not ashamed of the gospel

I’m not ashamed of the One I love

Are you?

Strong Christians are not ashamed of the One who died and rose again for them.

Third, strong Christians stand up to church antagonists.  Instead of making this point myself, I invite you to read the following article from Dr. Lloyd Rediger.  Dr. Rediger is a pioneer in identifying and protecting pastors from individuals he calls “clergy killers.”  In fact, that’s the title of his classic 1997 book.  He wrote this article four years earlier but it’s still relevant today:

Fourth, strong Christians defeat Satan in the Lord’s power.  I finished this last point – and the entire blog – a few minutes ago, but when I did, this entire final point became completely reformatted.  In the process of trying to fix it, I lost the entire point, even though I had saved a draft already.  (Guess who is responsible?)  So I will endeavor to finish this point next time!

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In my last post, I asserted that all believers want the same thing for their churches.  We all want God’s blessing, whatever that looks like.

When God is blessing a church, people come to church expectantly, everyone senses the presence of God, people value right relationships, and spiritually lost people find the Lord.

But how can a church secure that blessing, especially when it often seems elusive?

First, all the top leaders need to be walking with God.  If the pastor is walking with God, but the board chairman is not, that’s a problem.  If the youth pastor is walking with God, but the lead pastor is not, that’s an even bigger problem.  Galatians 5:16 says it well: “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”  But when the pastor, staff members, and board members are all living by the Spirit at home, at work, and at church, the Lord has already started pouring out His blessing on that church.

To me, the measure of a leader’s spirituality is his or her willingness to put aside their own personal agenda and to submit themselves to God’s agenda for their church.  When every leader is fully surrendered, the church will begin to gain an unstoppable momentum.

Back in the early 1990s, I was involved in the biggest project of my church career.  Our church sold its property and used the proceeds to begin a ministry to unchurched people.  Because the vision required divine power, every one of our leaders was completely sold out to Jesus.  Although we were tested like we’d never been tested before, we constantly sought and received divine guidance, and it paid off big time.  As tough as it was at times, I’d never trade that experience for the world.

Second, the top leaders must all support each other.  Walking with God must translate into walking alongside one another.  The board chairman must get along with the pastor, who must get along with the associate pastor, who must get along with the other staff members.  The leaders may have genuine disagreements about certain issues – that’s healthy – but they need to openly and honestly talk them through and arrive at consensus.  God longs to bless leaders who all stand together.

But when the associate pastor forms an alliance with several board members, or a couple of staff members continually undermine the pastor, God withholds His blessing from that church.  When Miriam and Aaron began to criticize Moses because of his new wife, Israel’s wilderness leadership team became fractured, and God’s people stalled until the Lord dealt with Miriam specifically.  Numbers 12:15 tells us that “the people did not move on till she was brought back.”  Division in the ranks affected progress on the ground – and it always does.

Third, the entire congregation understands and supports their unique mission.  If the pastor has one agenda for a church, several board members have a second agenda, and a faction in the church has a third agenda, God’s blessing on that church will be short-circuited.  While there are various ways for a church to discern its mission, once it has been written down and announced, God’s people need to get behind it.

When they do, it’s amazing to watch what God does!  But when there’s grumbling and complaining and internal sabotage, the fulfillment of the mission will either be slowed or stalled.

In one church I served as pastor, the congregation unanimously decided to construct a new building.  It was exciting to watch people share their input about the building and give sacrificially for its construction!  But a handful of people tried to undermine the project from within, and although they were unsuccessful, they did slow down the momentum enough to mess with our timetables.  The Lord overrode them and the building went up anyway, but every congregation seems to have its ecclesiastical saboteurs.  While the leaders may choose to listen to their ideas and feelings, the leaders cannot allow them to set the church’s agenda.

Fourth, the church makes prayer a priority.  In Christian churches today, there is little public emphasis on prayer anymore, and frankly, I don’t get it.  When the staff meets, they may share for an hour but pray for five minutes.  When the board meets, they may dispense with prayer altogether except for a quick opening and closing prayer.  When the leaders fail to take prayer seriously, it spills over into the rest of the congregation – and God will not bless that church.

Prayer is simply asking God for His intervention.  When a church fails to pray very much, they are implicitly saying, “God, we don’t need Your help at all.  We can handle things by ourselves.”  And God will let that church handle matters on their own and pull back His supernatural power.  But when the pastor and staff and board take prayer seriously, the practice has a way of becoming contagious and natural throughout the rest of the church.  I’m always cheered by how often the early church talked to God and received incredible answers.  For example, in Acts 4:29, God’s people prayed, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

He did.

Finally, a congregation has to want God’s blessing more than anything else.  Many of us assume that if God is going to bless our church, then we’re going to grow numerically, or purchase more land, or add some staff, or have bigger offerings.  While these may be signs of God’s favor, can’t the Lord bless in other ways as well?

Sometimes relational unity is a sign of God’s blessing.  Other times accurate biblical teaching is a sign of God’s blessing.  Still other times it’s how quickly a congregation can raise money for a great need.  Proverbs 10:6 tells us that “blessings crown the head of the righteous …”

Whatever He does, and however He does it, it is crucial that from time-to-time, we stand back in our churches and marvel, “Wow, look what the Lord has done!”

When we’re confident that He’s responsible and should receive all the credit, then we know He is blessing our church.

It’s the greatest feeling in the world.

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When I was a pastor, there was one thing I wanted for my church more than anything else.

It wasn’t increased attendance, or above-the-budget offerings, or even mass conversions.

I wanted the blessing of God on our church.

It’s possible to manipulate people into coming to church and giving – at least for a while.  But the divine blessing cannot be manufactured by humans.  It can only come from above.

Whether they articulate it or not, most Christian pastors want the Lord to pour out His blessing upon their church.  God’s promise to His people in Ezekiel 34:26 sums this up well:

“I will bless them and the places surrounding my hill.  I will send down showers in season; there will be showers of blessing.”

Some of us used to sing this chorus in church:

“Showers of blessing,

Showers of blessing we need,

Mercy drops ’round us are falling,

But for the showers we plead.”

What does God’s blessing look like in a local church setting?

First, the people come to church expectantly.  They aren’t forcing themselves to show up; they want to be there.  They arrive as early as they can, greet their friends in Christ, look around for guests they can minister to, and sit down early to focus upward.  They don’t cross their arms and inwardly say to their pastor, “Tell me something I’ve never heard before.”  Instead, they eagerly await the worship time and prayerfully look for God to speak to them.  I like the way Dr. Luke puts it in Acts 2:43 when he says that “everyone was filled with awe.”

Second, everyone senses the presence of God.  D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones served as the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London for decades.  He was such a great biblical expositor that I’ve read his entire eight-volume commentary on Ephesians and loved every minute.  When he came to the United States, he would visit various churches, and sometimes when a pastor would get up to preach, he’d look out at the congregation and see Dr. Lloyd-Jones sitting there – and he’d want to trade places instantly!  Lloyd-Jones was asked once what he looked for when he heard other men preach, and he said that he wanted to sense the presence of God.  What a profound answer!

When God is blessing a church, people sense His presence in the music, in the message, and in everything else.  They sense that God is present and that He that He is comfortable in that particular location.  When God appeared to Jacob at Bethel, he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.  How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:16-17).

Third, people value right relationships.  When I was a youth pastor, I took various youth groups to retreats in mountain cabins.  As we all drove up the mountain, the group would become fractured as students insulted other students and formed exclusive cliques.  But by Saturday night, a few students would become convicted about how they were treating their peers, and they would break down and ask for forgiveness.  This made the ride down the mountain more joyful and unifying, and at least for a little while, the students would experience God’s blessing in abundance.

If only the adults could learn from the youth.

Young people aren’t very good about hiding how they really feel about anything, including the other kids in their group.  But as those young people become adults, they learn how to mask their true feelings as they interact with people they don’t like.  So it’s possible for two Christians to be cordial to each other in the church patio and turn around and verbally knife each other in the back as they drive home from worship.

Sometimes these kinds of relationships are what prevent God from blessing a church.  If we could learn the practice of keeping short accounts with each other, God’s presence would become clearer and His power would become greater in our midst.

And let me be honest here: oftentimes the greatest relational problems are buried inside the leadership of the church.  If we want God’s blessing, we have to humble ourselves and seek restoration with those with whom we serve.

Finally, spiritually lost people find the Lord.  When God is blessing a church, unbelievers come to faith in Christ in a natural way.  It’s not because the church launches an evangelism campaign, or because they hold an evangelistic crusade, but because believers are sharing their faith with their unbelieving friends and inviting them to church.  The Lord obviously blessed the first church in Jerusalem, and as the people loved God and each other, we’re told that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

As a pastor, I always sensed God’s blessing when people were becoming Christians, but wondered what was wrong when we went for weeks without a single convert.

What are some of the other indications that God is blessing a church?  What have you seen?  I welcome your comments!

Next time, I’ll discuss what the leaders of a church can do to secure the Lord’s blessing.

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My wife and I just returned from a weekend trip to Southern California for a family wedding.  Because we drove 375 miles each way, I was concerned before the trip even started about traffic jams.

I hate traffic jams.

And I hate feeling trapped.

Evidently a lot of people agree with me because, whenever traffic backs up, people start doing weird things, like driving on the shoulder, or changing lanes incessantly, or getting off at the nearest off ramp (even when it doesn’t help at all).

Fortunately, we didn’t encounter one traffic jam while driving: not leaving Phoenix at rush hour, not on Highway 60 near Riverside (always a pain), and not on Highway 91 (thank God for toll roads!).

Because traffic jams make me anxious.

Anxiety occurs everywhere you find people: in medical waiting rooms, before school exams, and yes, even in churches.

Some events that cause anxiety in a church tend to bring everyone together, like the death of a prominent leader, a national catastophe (like 9/11), or a local natural disaster.  Since we cannot prevent or manage these events, we turn to each other for comfort and support.

But other events that happen in a church raise the anxiety level, like the introduction of an unpopular change, a steady decline in attendance, or the resignation of a popular leader.  Since many churchgoers believe these events could have been avoided, they react in the following way:

They complain.

And the ones who complain the most are the ones who can handle anxiety the least.

Meet Marie.  She’s been attending your church longer than anybody can remember.  Nearly everybody views her as a sweetheart.

But life hasn’t gone well for Marie in recent years.  She’s had problems with her relationships, jobs, finances, and body.  In fact, she’s suffered a lot – and doesn’t feel she’s deserved most of her maladies.

So she lives with a high level of anxiety.  Everywhere she goes, she hopes to find peace and understanding, but it usually eludes her.

But there is one place where she usually finds comfort and rest: at church.  When she experiences the loving acceptance of God’s people, Marie relaxes and basks in the beauty of Christ’s body.

However … it doesn’t take much for Marie to become anxious, even at church.  She becomes upset when the leaders try and introduce any kind of change.  She feels pain when she doesn’t know what’s going on behind-the-scenes.  And if the pastor says the wrong thing during a message, she’s ready … to complain.

Not just to her husband, but to her friends, to her small group, and to her ministry colleagues.  Marie is a chronic complainer.  And though she has her positive traits, her complaining – if left unchecked – could destroy her church.

The Bible has a lot to say about complaining, and it can be summed up in one word: don’t.

Sometimes the Bible also calls it grumbling or murmuring.

In Numbers 14:2, we’re told that “all the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt!  Or in this desert!'”  God’s people complained because they were afraid to enter the promised land due to the giants the scouts had seen there – and they were particularly upset with their two leaders.  (Numbers is full of stories of God’s people complaining about God, their leaders and their conditions.)

In I Corinthians 10:10, Paul warns the church at Corinth, “And do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel.”  This incident is probably the one in Numbers 16 where 14,700 Israelites died after Korah’s rebellion.

In Philippians 2:14, Paul warns the church at Philippi: “Do everything without complaining or arguing …”  Evidently this church had a problem with both practices, especially the feuding women Euodia and Syntyche (see 4:2-3).

And Jude 16 refers to false teachers who are “grumblers and faultfinders” who “follow their own evil desires” and “boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage.”

You won’t find complaining commended in Scripture.  God doesn’t like it.  Why not?

First, complaining demonstrates a helpless attitude.  When I complain, I am saying, “I don’t like this situation, and I can’t do anything about it, either!”  But many times, we can do something – we just don’t want to do it.

Not long ago, my wife and I encountered an unpleasant situation at a church we were visiting.  It made us feel very anxious.  Complaining wasn’t going to make anything better.  We had two choices: leave the campus or stay and bear it.

We made a choice and stayed – and no longer felt helpless.

Second, complaining becomes contagious.  Have you ever seen a focus group on television?  At first, when the group is asked a question, the initial speakers seem respectful and positive.  But as soon as one person begins to complain, the dam breaks and others begin complaining as well.

In fact, church consultant Peter Steinke believes that complaining in a church may be compared to a virus in the body.  The virus travels through the body trying to find host cells.  If the host cell receives the virus, it replicates it and then spreads to other cells.  But if enough host cells resist the virus, it cannot spread.

We pastors are good at condemning the practice of complaining from the pulpit, but we also need to encourage those who hear complaints to resist them rather than receive them – because once a person receives a complaint, they tend to spread it to others.

This is often the point at which a church becomes unhealthy.

Third, complaining demonstrates a lack of faith in God.  There is often a permanency about complaining.  We act like life will never get better.  We say things like, “This church will never grow,” or “I can’t stand the music,” or “The pastor’s messages are getting worse and worse.”  But if God is involved, can’t the church grow?  Can’t the music get better?  Can’t the pastor start touching your heart?

For this reason, complaining factors out the Holy Spirit and factors in the flesh.  However, if we would turn our complaints into prayer, we’d see God do more and we’d gripe a whole lot less.

If you struggle with complaining, let me share four quick remedies:

First, speak directly with the person you’re unhappy with.  If you thought the pastor’s joke was tasteless, find a way to tell him, not five friends after church.  If you didn’t like that girl who was running through the worship center after the service, talk to her, not to everybody but her.

However, there is at least one exception to this rule.

If your pastor announces a policy, and you don’t agree with it, then either speak with him or those who put together the policy.  In fact, if a board created the policy, it’s perfectly acceptable to speak with the board member you know or like the most as long as you go on the record.

So if it’s a matter of personal sin, talk directly to the person who sinned.  If it’s a matter of policy, talk to any one of those who created it.

Second, talk to a friend outside the church.  There have been times when I’ve felt very strongly about an issue but (a) I wasn’t entirely sure I was seeing things right, or (b) I needed some additional perspective.  So I contacted someone who didn’t know the players and shared my concerns with that individual.  I would then incorporate as many of their suggestions as I could.  The advantage of this approach is that you’re not spreading the virus of complaining throughout your church.

Third, increase your prayer life.  Incessant complaining is often a telltale sign that a person has all but stopped praying.  If we took more of our complaints to God, we’d have fewer things to complain about with others.

Finally, learn to keep quiet.  Some people are more expressive than others, but you don’t have to give a running commentary on everything that happens to you in life – especially at church.  Just learn to muzzle your mouth as King David says (Psalm 39:1).

A few years ago, my daughter and I went to church at a famous cathedral in Scotland.  If my wife had been with me, we would have talked about the service afterwards, so I thought I’d take the same approach with my daughter.  As I started to make a comment, she assertively told me, “Dad, I don’t want to hear it!”

So I kept quiet.  (But it was killing me.)

May I encourage you to do two things about this post:

First, if complaining is a problem, take positive steps to eliminate its hold on your life.  You’ll be much more joyful – as will everyone around you.

Finally, choose not to receive other people’s complaints unless you can take action.  If you can’t, then send them to someone who can address their concerns.

If everyone in a church followed these steps, the virus of complaining would never plague us again.

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