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Archive for July, 2011

John Stott died two days ago in London.  He was ninety years old.

More than any single person, he shaped the way I approached, interpreted, and taught Scripture.

Although Protestants don’t have a Pope, the British leader, author, theologian, and teacher was the next best thing for many of us.

A lifelong bachelor, Stott was the rector for many years at All Soul’s Church in Langham Place in London – right across from the BBC.  Although I’ve been inside the church, I’ve never attended a service there.  (If you look across the photo, you can see an exterior balcony at the BBC building.  U2 did a brief concert there not too long ago.)

After his tenure at All Soul’s, Stott undertook a worldwide teaching ministry.  I had the privilege of hearing him one time – at the Congress of Biblical Exposition in Anaheim in 1986.  Although the conference featured such great preachers as Chuck Colson, Chuck Swindoll, J. I, Packer, Howard Hendricks, Stuart Briscoe, and many more preaching all-stars, Stott was invited to give the first message.  During his talk, he referred to the perspicuity of Scripture, a term I had never heard before.  It was the genius of Stott that he could use a word like that and help us to understand both its meaning and application for our ministries.  (The word refers to the fact that the Bible is clear in its teaching.  If a passage seems unclear in one place, it will be made clear in another place.)

Although he was a great teacher, for me, Stott was primarily an author.  In the series The Bible Speaks Today, Stott wrote books on The Sermon on the Mount, Acts, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.  Stott’s analysis of each Bible book is accurate, clear, succinct and practical – and he can turn a phrase like nobody else.  And while some popular Bible teachers skip the problems in Scripture, Stott fearlessly plows right into each one, a trait I greatly admire and have tried to emulate.

For some reason, I have always been attracted to British thinkers and theologians, like Stott, Packer, F. F. Bruce, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Alister McGrath, and the incomporable Charles Spurgeon, to name a few.  Their scholarship, thinking, and writing styles have always resonated with me.

Let me recommend three books by John Stott to you.  They are relatively inexpensive volumes:

First, Baptism & Fullness: The Work of the Holy Spirit Today.  While I’ve owned as many as 30 books on the Holy Spirit, Stott’s 119-page paperback volume has long been my favorite.  He deals biblically and sensibly with four topics: the baptism, fullness, fruit, and gifts of the Holy Spirit.  When I first encountered this book 35 years ago, it challenged and then changed my thinking on the Holy Spirit.

For example, he writes “a word to those who may have been given some unusual visitation of the Spirit.”  He goes on:

“It is understandable that you should want to bear witness to what God has done for you.  But I beg you not to seek to stereotype everybody’s spiritual experience, or even to imagine that the Holy Spirit necessarily purposes to give others what he has given to you.  It is spiritual graces which should be common to all Christians, not spiritual gifts or spiritual experiences.  In a word, let your experience lead you to worship and praise; but let your exhortation to others be grounded not upon your experiences but upon Scripture.”  Wow, that’s good!

Second, Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today.  Although the book is now 21 years old, Stott goes where most Christian teachers won’t go: headlong into controversies about social issues like the environment, human rights, racisim, feminism, abortion, and homosexual marriage.  Stott interacts with secular authorities first (many of them British) so we can understand their positions, and then lets Scripture clarify and arbitrate.  For example, here’s what he writes about gay sex:

“Christians should not therefore single out homosexual intercourse for special condemnation.  The fact is that every kind of sexual relationship and activity which deviates from God’s revealed intention is ipso facto displeasing to him and under his judgment.  This includes polygamy and polyandry … clandestine unions … casual encounters and temporary liaisons, adultery and many divorces … and homosexual partnerships…. In sum, the only ‘one flesh’ experience which God intends and Scripture contemplates is the sexual union of a man with his wife, whom he recognizes as ‘flesh of his flesh.'”

Finally, The Cross of Christ.  Published in 1986, it may be Stott’s greatest book.  It’s certainly my own favorite.  I have turned to it over and over again over the past 25 years, always with great profit.  Because Stott is always well-read, the book is penned with some theological depth, but is always richly rewarding.  This passage about Pilate protesting his innocence before Jesus’ crucifixion makes us think:

“It is easy to condemn Pilate and overlook our own equally devious behavior.  Anxious to avoid the pain of a whole-hearted commitment to Christ, we too search for convenient subterfuges.  We either leave the decision to somebody else, or opt for a half-hearted compromise, or seek to honour Jesus for the wrong reason (e.g. as teacher instead of Lord), or even make a public affirmation of loyalty while at the same time denying him in our hearts.”  Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Stott’s hobby was bird-watching, and I’ve read that he loved James Bond movies as well, so he wasn’t just a pie-in-the-sky leader.  He was transparently human.

But even though the man’s body his left our planet, his writings live on.  While he certainly wasn’t infallible, Stott was always gracious, willing to dialogue with his enemies and even chide his friends in the pursuit of truth.

Heaven is richer because of his departure from our planet.  But I am eternally grateful to God that I not only own most of his books (some are about two feet behind my left shoulder), but that the truth of God as taught in those books has worked its way into my own heart and soul.

Long live John Stott!

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When I was at Fuller Seminary a few years ago, I sat under a well-known professor who is also a prolific author.  My guess is that he was in his late sixties when I took the class.

This Christian leader did not attend a traditional church, even though he’s been identified with a specific denomination nearly his whole life.

Instead, he attended a house church of about 35 people on Sunday evenings.

When I first heard him mention this, I thought he was being a bit rebellious.  Weren’t there scores of already-existing churches within a few minutes’ drive of his home?  Couldn’t they benefit from his worldwide teaching ministry?

At the time, I was probably at the apex of my own pastoral ministry.  In fact, our church was ready to start construction on a new worship center.

Fast forward ahead a few years and matters are very different.

In my last article, I wondered if my wife and I have outgrown the local church.  I certainly hope not.  We need to continue to grow spiritually.  We need to hear the Word of God preached.  We need to use our spiritual gifts.  We need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

As Joanna Hogg of the Irish group Iona sings in their song “Dancing on the Wall”: “I am part of something that is going to change things for the better.”

We’ll always be a part of the kingdom of God.  And we’ll always be members of the Church Universal.  But what about the local church?

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that my wife and I have entered that season in our lives when some Christians decide to become part-time churchgoers rather than full-time ones.

Let me share two more concerns about the churches I’ve been visiting (the first three were presented in my last post):

Fourth, there are fewer invitations to receive Christ.  I grew up in churches where the pastor gave an altar call at every service.  He invited unbelievers to receive Christ by asking them to leave their seat and walk to the front of the worship center.  Too many pastors back then used manipulative tactics to force people to “walk the aisle” and implied they couldn’t be saved unless they did.  Although this practice is never mentioned in the New Testament, it was a third sacrament in many churches until baby boomers became pastors.  I was so alarmed at what I saw in some churches that I wrote my thesis in seminary on this practice.

But now the pendulum seems to have swung in the other direction.  I honestly cannot remember the last time I was in a church service and a pastor invited unbelievers to pray and receive Christ.

In the church we’ve been attending, many people are being converted, and although we haven’t gone to the membership class, my guess is that that’s the place where people are being won to Christ.

But what about those who choose not to attend the class?

Pastors have differing views on this issue.  A decreasing number of pastors invite unbelievers to receive Christ after every message.  Some rarely if ever do.  In my case, I did so if (a) the passage called for it, or (b) the Holy Spirit prompted me to do so.

Decades after my own conversion, I’m still thrilled when I hear the gospel preached in a biblical and relevant way.  But I’m hearing it preached less and less.

What have you been noticing along this line?

Finally, too many churches act like they constitute the kingdom of God.  Six months after arriving in the Valley of the Sun (it’s only 104 degrees here today), I visited with a denominational executive.  I asked him if there was any kind of annual convention or larger meeting of Christians in the greater Phoenix area, and he told me he didn’t know of any.  (When I was a pastor in Silicon Valley, for example, the National Association of Evangelicals sponsored a monthly luncheon for pastors.)  This leader told me that Phoenix has a Wild West mentality about it and that it tends to be “every man for himself” here.

And maybe “every church for itself” as well.

I’m a local Christian but a global Christian, too.  I like knowing that there are churches and Christians in Western Europe and Eastern Africa as well as in California and Texas.

But it seems to me that more and more church leaders aren’t promoting much about Jesus’ worldwide kingdom outside the four walls of their own buildings.  In the process, it’s easy for a church to give off the impression that “we are the kingdom of God” rather than “we are just a part of the kingdom of God.”

There are exceptions to this, of course, but this is the trend I’ve been seeing.

My favorite verse about the church is Ephesians 5:25 where Paul tells us that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …”  If Jesus loves the church, then I need to love her as well.  And if Jesus gave His life for His people, I need to do the same.

But Paul is talking in context about the Church Universal, not necessarily a local church.

I agree with Bill Hybels that “the Church is the hope of the world.”

But how does that play out in the 21st century?  Must we all attend services in a church building in our community?  If not, is a house church a legitimate biblical expression of the church in our culture?

And what if we choose not to participate in a local church at all?  (Yes, I know about Hebrews 10:24-25!)

I’m not trying to be a heretic, but I am trying to be provocative.

What do you think about the future of the local church where you live?

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When I was a young man in my twenties and thirties, I met a fair number of professing Christians who regularly missed worship services – either at our church or at the one they attended.  They seemed to have a cavalier attitude about being absent, an attitude that I as a pastor could not relate to.

After all, church was my life.

While I knew that attending church services could not gain salvation for anyone, I believed that it was essential for spiritual growth – and I still do.

But lately, I’ve been wondering.

I’ve attended services at about 25 different churches over the past 18 months, so my observations aren’t based upon going to a mere handful.  I’ve been to small, medium-sized, and large churches, as well as a few mega-churches.

Since growing, cutting-edge churches tend to follow trends, there’s a lot of sameness in our churches today, even though evangelical churches don’t use a common liturgy.

But attending worship is starting to become less meaningful for me, and I’m wondering if I’m all alone on this one.

Let me make some observations about my experiences:

First, the music has been uniformly good.  Most of the churches I’ve attended have bands, and they know what they’re doing.  Some play soft, others play loud.  They all play contemporary praise music, and most mix in a hymn or two.  And I don’t think any band has played longer than 15 minutes, or 4 songs.  In addition, the state of musicianship in our churches has vastly improved over the past decade.

However … too many of the lyrics contain Christian cliches.  What if we declared a moratorium on using words like “praise” and “worship” and “bow” and “adore” and insisted that Christian songwriters quit cranking out songs like they were working for Tin Pan Alley?

Back in the early 1970s, Lovesong, the original Christian rock group, put these lyrics on its pioneer album:

Sing unto the heavens with a brand new song

The one that we’ve been hearing’s been a hit too long

The lyrics sound confused as if they don’t belong

So sing unto the Lord and sing with feeling

I’m starting to get to the point where I’m content to miss the first few minutes of the worship time, and I’ve never felt that way before.  Is it just me, or is there an increasing sameness about worship music today?

Second, the prayers are so short they’re practically meaningless.  In my humble opinion, they sound perfunctory.  To quote Keith Green out of context, “no one hurts, no one aches, no one even sheds one tear.”  I’m non-charismatic in my approach to worship, but the prayers I’ve been hearing lately have one thing in common: let’s get through this prayer quickly so we can say we prayed … and move on to the good stuff.

But in the process, we don’t really touch heaven, and heaven doesn’t really touch us.

Many pastors operate by the philosophy, “When in doubt, pray.”  At one church my wife and I attended recently, the pastor prayed six or seven times during the service – and it seemed a bit much.  But I’m longing for one meaningful time of prayer during the service so we can know we touched the face of God.

Sometimes, the pastor will offer that prayer – and I love to hear a pastor’s heart poured out for his congregation.  Other times, someone else might encourage people to pray silently right where they’re seated.

But let’s do some planning so that prayers aren’t just whizzing by us during a service.

We can pray a little longer, a little more intensely, and much, much better.

Amen?

Third, I long to hear a pastor teach from one passage of Scripture.  I’ve heard messages from Genesis 1, Exodus 1, Joshua 4, Nehemiah 13, Song of Solomon, Luke 22, John 10, Acts 1, and Acts 28 (among other passages) – but I’ve mostly heard topical messages.  (And I can’t recall one message from any of the epistles.)  While I like topical messages – and usually preached a high percentage of them myself – I’m concerned about the lack of biblical ignorance among Christians today.

We don’t seem to know our Bibles anymore.

Let me use the church we’ve been attending as an example.  The pastor does very little exposition of Scripture.  Instead, he preaches topically, referring to and quoting key verses.  There’s a place for that, and he does a great job.  But if you want to study a biblical passage or book, where in the church can you do that anymore?

Can you do it in small groups?  The groups at our church are designed around discussing the pastor’s message from the week before.

Can you do it in Bible classes?  The only Bible classes that exist are unadvertised.

The church encourages us to read our Bibles through in a year – a very good thing to do – but where in the church can people learn how to interpret and study Scripture for themselves?

Instead, it’s done for us by a professional.

Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems as if Protestant churches are starting to go Roman Catholic: only the priest is qualified to interpret the Bible.

What do you think about what I’ve shared?

I’ll share my final few observations next time.

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How much power should a pastor have in a church?

Should a pastor have absolute power to make decisions?  Or should he implement change only after consulting with other leaders?

I once met with a well-known pastor in the San Jose area.  He had a commanding presence and seemed like someone who knew how to wield power firmly.  He told me that he had two boards in his church.  One kept telling him, “Go, go, go!”  The other one kept saying, “Slow, slow, slow!”

Over my years as a pastor, some people told me that I needed to exercise more power than I did, while others labeled me a dictator who didn’t let others make decisions.  I suppose most pastors struggle with the proper balance here.

Let me share with you five principles about how pastors should wield power in a church:

First, a pastor’s authority originates from God.  A pastor does not gain power through ordination, or by being a seminary graduate, or by attending a conference at Saddleback or Willow Creek.  No, a pastor’s authority comes directly from the Holy Trinity.  The Father, Son, and Spirit call specific individuals to pastoral ministry.

Before ascending to heaven, Jesus told His disciples that even His own authority was derived from His Father: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).

And Paul told the elders/pastors of the church at Ephesus that “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28).

Many – if not most – of the men who pastor a Calvary Chapel are taught “The Moses Principle” of leadership.  God spoke directly to Moses, and Moses told the people what God said.  Pastor Chuck Smith is fond of asking pastors if they work for the Lord or for the board.

Since God calls people to be pastors, those pastors always need to be accountable to Him for the way they exercise authority.  While the Godhead truly possesses all authority for all time, a pastor’s authority is both partial and temporary.  Therefore, it needs to be stewarded wisely.

Second, pastors are to advance the kingdom of God.  They are to say with Jesus, “Thy kingdom come,” not “my kingdom come.”  It is the job of a pastor to make Jesus look good, not make himself look good.

Pastors should be content to have people talk about Jesus rather than themselves.  It is unworthy of a pastor to aim to make a lot of money, or to become famous, or to be unnecessarily admired, or to have his eye on a larger church.

I Peter 5:6 is written in the context of church leadership and says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”  A humble pastor knows that he is accountable to God and that the Lord will reward him in His own time and way.

In other words, it’s important for a pastor’s motives to be pure – and a true desire to build God’s kingdom usually results in more pastoral power, not less.

Third, a pastor earns power as he serves people.  A pastor cannot stay in his church office all day and earn power by thinking up new projects.  He earns power by touching the lives of hurting people.

In my second pastorate, there was a couple that didn’t seem to like me.  The husband was standoffish and the wife could be caustic at times.  While they weren’t overtly antagonistic toward me, I didn’t really know how to win them over.

Three years into my tenure, the wife’s mother died.  As I ministered to the family in their time of grief, I could sense that things were changing.  Before long, this couple was one of my best supporters – but it took time.

Isn’t this what Jesus said in Matthew 20:26-28?  “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

If anyone deserved to exercise authority over people, it was Jesus.  He had the ability to force people to do things against their will – but He identified and met their needs instead.  He never bulldozed anyone over.  He presented His case and let people make up their own minds about His kingdom.

I am eager to follow a leader who says, “I care about you.  Come follow me.”  But I resist following anyone who says, “Do what I tell you to do just because I tell you to do it.”  Uh uh.

Fourth, a church grants a pastor power when it trusts him.  When should a pastor begin to make major changes in a church?  Some experts say, “The pastor should start making changes from Day One.  He’s in his ‘honeymoon period’ and can do no wrong.”  Others counter by saying, “But how can a pastor institute major changes when he doesn’t yet know the congregation or the community?”

For example, Ronald Richardson summarizes the view of Israel Galindo in Galindo’s book The Hidden Lives of Congregations: “A believer in longer pastoral tenures, he suggests that it may take about five years to get to know a congregation well enough to articulate a vision of ministry.  This seems exactly right to me.  During that time, the pastor can become an accurate observer of the congregation, get to know the subterranean forces at work, and make a solid connection with the leaders and members, finding out what ‘church’ means to them.  It is also critical that the pastor find ways to honor and respect the members of this church and what they have created over time.  Within this context, the pastor then courageously upholds a vision for mission and ministry that fits that specific congregation.”

A pastor cannot go into a church and automatically implement an agenda that he’s read about or seen work in another situation.  Every area and fellowship are unique.

The wise pastor realizes that trust takes time.  This is why a pastor’s best years begin after he’s been in a church for at least five years.  The people have learned that the pastor truly knows them, understands them, loves them and wants what is best for them.  He doesn’t view the church as a mass of statistics but as a collection of individuals and families whom he deeply treasures.

If a pastor truly loves the people of his church, then he should retain the title “pastor.”  If he sends off signals that he doesn’t love them, then he should be called “reverend” or “CEO” or “your royal highness” – anything but “pastor.”

That’s a title that must be earned over time.

Finally, a pastor’s power needs to be shared.  While I thank God for all the leaders in the Old Testament, I don’t think that pastors should ever be viewed strictly as generals (like Joshua) or kings (like David) or prophets (like Amos).  While Israel did have elders, the OT is filled with stories of individuals making decisions in consultation with God alone.

But the New Testament applauds a plurality of leaders in a local church setting.  Read Paul’s words to the elders in Ephesus (Acts 20:17-38) or Paul’s instructions about overseers to Timothy (1 Timothy 3:1-7) and Titus (Titus 1:5-9) or Peter’s admonitions to elders (1 Peter 5:1-5).  There isn’t just one governing leader in a local church – there are many.  Some elders are set apart and paid because of their giftedness in leading and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17-18) but every NT church has multiple leaders – not just one.

However, I believe that a pastor needs to set the agenda for a church.  As he reads Scripture, prays, studies the community, and learns the congregation, the Lord gives him a direction for the church.  (If a pastor chooses to implement change without the governing leaders, that’s a formula for termination.)

The pastor then shares his agenda with the leaders.  Unless the pastor is promoting heresy or building his own kingdom, those leaders need to take the time to understand that agenda so they can fully stand behind it.

No church can have a board alone set the agenda.  I can’t think of a single church that is doing anything for Jesus where the board casts the vision.  That’s going nowhere.

Instead, the pastor needs the leaders to help promote and explain and even defend his God-given agenda.

But more than anything, the pastor needs the board’s counsel as to the timing of the agenda.  If the pastor gets too far out ahead of the congregation, some people will become highly anxious and conflict will break out.  If the pastor lags behind the congregation, there may be calls for a new leader!

This is why leadership is an art, not a science – and why your pastor needs your prayers so very much.

 

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Ever work alongside someone with whom you just didn’t get along?

How did things end for you?

The first church that I served as pastor met in a school cafeteria.  The district gave us advance warning that they had sold the property to a developer and that we would have to move by a certain date.

A sister church nearby invited us to merge with them, so after a brief period of negotation, we did just that.

One of the board members from the other church was a man I’ll call Bob.  When the two boards initially met, Bob stood out because he was outspoken and opinionated, even though some of his views didn’t make much sense to me.

I liked Bob personally.  He seemed to be a good husband and father and was warm and kind to our family.  In fact, after I’d been at the church only 18 months, he arranged for me to attend an event at a midwestern seminary and to stay with his son and his family.  Bob even leant me his heavy coat for the meetings.  (The wind chill that week got down to -35 degrees.)

While I was very grateful to Bob for his kindness, I wondered if he had ulterior motives.  Was he trying to buy my favor in some way?

As our church slowly made changes designed to reach younger people, Bob and his wife began to express their dissatisfaction to those in the church’s inner circle.  While most of those people supported me, Bob was becoming increasingly vocal.  Our board held a weekly meeting for spiritual enrichment but Bob was always the odd man out.  His views on everything were vastly different from those of the other board members.

One Sunday, Bob’s wife stopped coming to church.  She couldn’t handle the changes.  A month later, Bob stopped coming as well.  Even though I was suffering from a cold, two board members and I visited Bob and his wife in their home to find out why they were so disgruntled.

They told us they hated the music.  They disagreed strongly with the changes that were being made.  And then Bob’s wife left the room and began to work in the kitchen.

The meeting was essentially over.

In consultation with the board, we decided to move ahead and implement the changes we had already planned on making.  While I heard rumbles from Bob and his wife from time-to-time, they chose to attend another church, for which I was very grateful.

Then a year later, everything changed.

A board member from my first church had been teaching a Bible class for seniors on Sunday mornings.  This man had been a pastor for many years but was now a school teacher, and yet he longed to be in ministry again.  He began to criticize some of the changes that our church had been making.  This may have been his way of feeling important again, but his sentiments began to sabotage our ministry.

Before I knew what was happening, some of the people in this class invited Bob to return to the church and help them.

One Sunday, I was scheduled to speak from Mark 6 where King Herod Antipas beheads John the Baptist.  Bob sat several rows from me with his arms crossed, staring me down the whole time.  When the service was over, Bob told the board chairman that my message was aimed directly at him.  To his credit, the board chairman told Bob, “Look at the bulletin.  We were in Mark 5 last week.  We’re in Mark 6 this week.”  But Bob remained unconvinced.

So Bob and his new followers decided to get organized.  They scheduled a “secret meeting” at someone’s house.  When one of the board members announced his intention to attend the meeting, it was quickly cancelled.

Eventually 17 people met with one goal in mind: to get rid of me as their pastor.

They used every trick in the book to accomplish their mission.  They accused me of being a dictator.  They made charges against my family.  They called up people who had left the church to find dirt on me.  They compiled a list of all my faults.

It wasn’t an easy time to live through.  To be honest, I don’t know how I made it.  The board and I had worked together on all the changes, and we implemented them very slowly – almost too slowly.

In fact, the whole board told me that if I quit, they would all leave the church together, in effect giving the church to Bob and his minions.

Bob then went to the district minister and laid out his case against me.  When the district minister and I spoke on the phone, he recommended that I resign.

I chose to stay and fight instead.  It proved to be the right decision.

It all came to a head when our denomination held their annual meetings in the city where our church was located.  Bob and his group left our church and started a church in a school one mile away.  They had between 20 and 25 people meeting there.  Our church was their only mission field.

Some of our people visited that church because they had friends there.  But in almost every case, they returned to our fellowship.

Anyway, Bob wanted recognition from the district for his new church.  I told the district minister that if they recognized Bob’s church – which was organized not to perpetuate the gospel but to fire missiles at our church – that we would leave the district.

It wasn’t a pretty time.

At the annual meetings, Bob did something unprecedented.  While my wife and I were working with scores of children upstairs, Bob was downstairs passing out literature about his new church – which had not been sanctioned by the district.  And every chance he had, he took verbal shots at me.

I asked our district leaders if they would do something about Bob’s conduct.  They said they didn’t have the authority to do anything.  Finally, a couple pastor friends collected the literature about Bob’s church and threw everything in the trash!

It’s hard for me to believe that I lived through those days.

Bob and I went our separate ways after that.  After a year, his church disbanded.

Without Bob and his crew, our church eagerly looked forward to the future, and several years later, we had tripled our attendance.

I felt terrible for the people who had followed Bob to his new church.  They were now spiritually homeless.  While I had initially assumed they had left our church because they disliked me, I found out that wasn’t the case.

They didn’t dislike me or our church at all – they were seduced by someone who made them feel important.

One night, I was informed that a woman who had left our church for Bob’s church was dying.  She didn’t have long to live.  When I went to visit her in the hospital, who did I run into there?

Bob.

While this woman slept, Bob and I talked across her hospital bed.  Life had changed for both of us.  While Bob wasn’t doing well, life was on the upswing for me.

I don’t remember much about what we said to each other that night, but I do remember that Bob had pegged me all wrong.  He had completely distorted my motives.  He had some issues with authority anyway, and viewed me through the lens of unresolved conflicts from his past.

The fighting was over.

We left the room, went down the elevator together, and spoke with each other outside the hospital before parting amiably.

We had finally reconciled.

And I was glad we had, because several years later, Bob’s best friend – who attended our church – died suddenly.  When Bob and his wife came to pay their respects at their friend’s home, we were all on speaking terms and worked together to bring comfort to the family.

Bob and I never really understood each other.  It was appropriate that we parted ways.  God had given our church a clear mission that Bob couldn’t support, so he needed to find a church whose mission he could get behind.

I truly wish that every conflict story ended with reconciliation.  A few do, while most don’t.

But I try to live by the words of Paul in Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Is there someone that God wants you to reconcile with today?

What is it possible for you to do to make that a reality?

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Winston Churchill is one of my few heroes.

When Time named their Person of the Century in 1999, they gave the award to Albert Einstein, truly a great man in a century dominated by scientists.

But without Churchill, we might be living under a Nazi flag.

I’ve had the privilege of visiting some Churchill sites, including Blenheim Palace (his birthplace and boyhood home), the nearby churchyard in Bladon (his final resting place), and the underground War Rooms in London, from which he coordinated the British fight against Hitler’s Germany.

Right now, I’m reading William Manchester’s second volume on Churchill entitled The Last Lion: Alone 1932-1940, and I’m continually drawing parallels between the way Sir Winston viewed the Nazis and the way churches deal with antagonists.

The First World War was horrendous, resulting in 885,138 combat deaths for England and 2,050,897 deaths for Germany – not counting wounded soldiers.  When the Allied Powers drew up the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, they threw the book at Germany, demanding financial reparations totaling $442 billion in today’s currency (Germany made their last payment on October 4, 2010), forcing them to disarm, and making them take full responsibility for the war.

While the German leaders at the time tried to cooperate, Hitler and his cronies began their slow rise to power.  Hitler telegraphed much of what he did – through his autobiography Mein Kampf, his speeches, and various interviews.

After he became Chancellor of the Reich in 1933, Hitler charmed diplomats from countries like England, assuring them that he was rebuilding the German military only for defensive purposes.  Still gun-shy 15 years after the end of World War 1, the nations of Europe – and their leaders – chose to believe him.

All the while, Hitler was training young men to be soldiers, cranking out munitions at a non-stop pace, and putting together a top-flight air force, the Luftwaffe.

There were British citizens inside Germany who knew exactly what Hitler was doing.  But when they sent their data to the Foreign Office in London, they chose to ignore the facts, convincing themselves that Hitler’s military buildup had no relevance for England.

But Churchill knew better.

While still a member of the House of Commons, Churchill had been banished from any top leadership posts in His Majesty’s Government.  Whenever he rose to speak in the House, his views were ridiculed because he was relegated to being a Backbencher.

But Churchill had a friend who lived near his Chartwell home who consistently delivered hard data about the Fuhrer’s real intentions.  Churchill had to be careful with the information because if he shared too much in public, politicians and journalists would demand to know where he obtained it.

Let me share with you four parallels between how England viewed Hitler and how many churches view conflict:

First, most people are conflict-avoiders.  The British did not wish to fight any country so soon after the Great War, a conflict that the United States entered late in the game.  And even when Hitler conquered Poland and bombed London, our country publicly remained isolationist.  (We didn’t officially enter World War 2 until Pearl Harbor.)

Most of us act the same way.  If there is a conflict in our family, we avoid it as long as we can.  If there is a shouting match between politicians on television, we turn the channel.  And if there is conflict at church, we look the other way or deny that it’s happening.  After all, we reason, it’s not my fight.

The truth is, even if it is our fight, we’ll do almost anything not to fight – and that emboldens certain people.

Second, there are usually signs that conflict is brewing.  The increasing number of German soldiers and munitions – along with the expelling of Jews – was a clear indication that something ominous was about to occur on the Continent.  Conflict almost never erupts without warning.  Those whose eyes are open can usually connect the dots.

During the message time at our church yesterday, we saw a video interview of a father and mother.  Their son had been acting strangely but they had no idea what was wrong.  As it turned out, he was on drugs, eventually taking both ecstasy and heroin.  The signs of drug usage were there, but this couple – who prided themselves on having a harmonious, loving family – refused to admit that their son could be involved with any mind-altering substances.

Denial in the face of evil can lead to destruction, not life.

Something similar happens in church life.  We don’t want to believe that the pastor is immersed with pride, or the youth pastor is getting too close to that Jr. High girl, or that board member has destructive intentions.  While the warning signs are there, we don’t act on them.

If the problem is within your authority, deal with it as soon as possible, using Matthew 18:15-20 as a guide.  If the problem lies within someone else’s purview, inform them quickly.  If you see something that concerns you, speak up and take action!  Delay leads to defeat, not victory.

Third, call evil for what it is.  The first time I heard about Adolph Hitler was when I was five years old.  (Hitler had committed suicide only fifteen years earlier.)  The atrocities he committed were still fresh on everyone’s mind, bolstered by The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by journalist William L. Shirer in 1959 (the longest book I’ve ever read besides The Bible).

When I entered fourth grade, our class saw a lot of newsreels of Hitler.  We saw him making speeches.  We saw the torchlight parades in Nuremberg.  We saw the Nazis burning books (that spot is now a peaceful little park in East Berlin) and the Jews being fed into ovens.  We saw images of evil that never left my innocent little brain.

And much to the credit of my teachers, we learned how Hitler came to power, fooled his own people, and disguised his true intentions to the world.

In other words, we learned how to detect evil before it openly surfaced.

Please hear me: evil isn’t confined to dictators.  You will find evil in churches, too.  And not just evil actions; people can be evil.

How can you tell who they are?

They never admit they do anything wrong.  They blame all problems on other people.  They disguise their real intentions and lie about others – especially leaders.

Their ultimate goal?  The destruction of church leaders so THEY can be in control and call the shots.

Scott Peck wrote about such people in his book People of the Lie.  It’s a chilling read.  Lloyd Rediger has also written about such people in his book Clergy Killers.

Hitler was evil.  Sadly, a handful of church people are evil, too.  I hope no one like that is in your church, but evil people have been known to infiltrate churches.

I’ve met a few.  Have you?

Finally, Christians have to be willing to fight evil.  Whenever Hitler bombed London, businessmen and families headed for shelter, especially in the depths of the British subway system known as the Tube.  They ran from evil.

But the British war planes couldn’t hide in the Tube.  It was their job to take on evil – and they did so nobly.  We might not be living in a free country if the British hadn’t confronted Nazi evil in their own backyard.

No Christian should go looking for evil in a church.  Churches have enough hyper-critics.  But when evil rears its ugly head, and it’s obvious there are people bent on destroying the pastor or other leaders, evil must be resisted – and defeated.

Evil cannot be appeased.

A few weeks ago, I caught The Two Towers – the second film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy – on television.  At the end of the film, as Frodo is nearly possessed by the ring’s evil, he says, “I can’t do this, Sam.”  In what is probably my favorite speech in any movie, Sam replies:

“I know.  It’s all wrong.  By rights we shouldn’t even be here.  But we are.  It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo.  The ones that really mattered.  Full of darkness and danger, they were.  And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end.  Because how could the end be happy?  How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?  But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.  Even darkness must pass.  A new day will come.  And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.  Those were the stories that stayed with you.  That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.  But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand.  I know now.  Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going.  Because they were holding on to something.”

Frodo asked wearily, “What are we holding onto, Sam?”

Sam replied, “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo … and it’s worth fighting for.”

Churchill would be proud.

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Who are the board members in your church?  Do you know their names?  Do you have any idea what they do?  Do you even care?

You should, because the success or failure of your pastor – and your church – is often determined by the people on your board and the decisions they make.

The whole concept of a “board” does not originate from the New Testament but from American corporate life.  The term in Scripture that best describes a church leader is elder.  Over 28 years of church ministry, I worked with deacons, then elders, and finally with a Board of Directors.

I much prefer the term “elders” because it’s a biblical concept and because the qualifications for the office are clearly delineated in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, among other passages.

Where are the biblical qualifications for “board members?”  There aren’t any.  Besides, the whole concept of a board presupposes that a church should be run more like a Fortune 500 company than the living body of Jesus Christ.

And it’s transferable.  A church in Eastern Europe or Africa may not understand what a board is but they sure know what elders are.

In my last article, I mentioned three deadly sins that church boards sometimes commit:

First, they fail to view the pastor as a professional.

Second, they side with staff members over against the pastor.

Third, they begin making decisions without the pastor.

Let me now add to this list:

Fourth, they neglect to become accountable to the congregation.  From my early teens through my late twenties, I attended scores of church “business meetings.”  Most of them weren’t productive and caused friction in the church.  Think about the town hall meetings that Bob and Joanna used to attend in their little Vermont town on the Newhart show and you’ll have some idea of what I’m talking about.

Churches in our day can do without the tension, griping, and ill manners those meetings produced.  Most decisions in a church should not be made by the entire congregation but by the pastor, staff, or church board.

However, what about accountability?  The staff are usually accountable to the pastor, and the pastor is almost always accountable to the board (at least humanly speaking).

But who is the board accountable to?

In a congregationally-run church, the board is accountable to the congregation, which sometimes nominates but almost always validates who the board members will be.

Staff members issue either verbal or written reports to the pastor, and the pastor issues a verbal or written report to the board.  But how often does a church board account to the congregation?

In some churches, only once a year: at the annual informational/congregational meetings.

But if the staff have to account to the pastor every week (and they do), and the pastor has to account to the board at least monthly, shouldn’t the board account to the congregation more than once a year?

When a board accounts to the church in a regular fashion, that board is less likely to become secretive and power-hungry.  But when a board keeps its own counsel and rarely if ever reports to the church, it becomes a self-contained unit and groupthink easily becomes the norm.

The reports can be made in the church bulletin or in the newsletter or on the church website or from the pulpit or in an all-church letter.  They can be made monthly or quarterly – but they need to be made.

If a church has membership, the members have the right to attend board meetings and even read board minutes.  The members have the right to know the decisions the board is making and ask questions about those decisions.  While board members do not have to share every thing, they need to share many things, if not most things.

Because one day, the church will have a crisis, and the board members will stand before an anxious congregation, and they will endeavor to explain some decisions they’ve made, and people will whisper to those nearby, “Who are those guys?  Why should we listen to them?”

That’s Deadly Sin Number Four.

Fifth, they become jealous of the pastor.  It’s not easy to be a church board member, especially when there’s a lot of stress in the church.  A friend of mine who is an advocate for pastors told me that when the recession started, an increasing number of conflicts began breaking out in churches over financial issues.

Church board members have to read documents, prepare reports, respond to inquiries, and reguarly endure meetings that begin around dinner time and end close to midnight.

And they do it all for free because they love the Lord and their local church family.

So how would you feel if you donated a lot of your valuable time to your church and nobody ever knew about it?

With some people, that’s okay.  But with others, it’s not.

Even though you put in many hours for your church, whose name is on everyone’s lips, for good or ill?

The pastor’s – and that doesn’t sit well with some people.

In addition, board members often know certain things about the pastor that few others do, so when they hear people extolling the pastor’s virtues, they might think to themselves, “If you only knew the guy that I know.”

This can easily lead to jealousy: “I serve for nothing.  He makes a lot of money.  I’m invaluable.  He’s expendable.  I serve from pure motives.  But him?”

I honestly believe this is one of the reasons why church boards involuntarily terminate their pastor.  They can’t tell the congregation this but their feelings smolder inside.  “Why does everyone know him but nobody knows me?”

Like Joseph’s brothers, they’ve had enough!  So they capture the pastor, throw him in a pit, go home with a phony story, and hope they’ll never see him again.

That’s Deadly Sin Number Five.

Sixth, they opt for making fast decisions when under stress.  There’s a lot of literature out today that identifies anxiety as the primary culprit in church conflicts.  Let’s say that you serve in a ministry where a conflict surfaces.  There are two ways to handle the conflict: the fast way or the slow way.

If you use the fast way, you can eliminate the stress quickly.  If you use the slow way, you may still feel the anxiety for weeks, if not months.

On a church board, there will always be one or two people who do not handle anxiety well.  They will opt for the fast way to handle tough issues.  They just want relief from all the uncertainty.  These are people who often have a lot of anxiety in their personal lives – at work, at home, with their health, and with their finances.  They can’t take any more anxiety at church.

So they opt for shortcuts instead.

This is especially true when the conflict involves the lead pastor.  Regardless of the issues – and because of the strong feelings involved – there are board members who just want the conflict over.

So they short-circuit using Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Timothy 5:19-21 in their deliberations.  They exaggerate the claims against the pastor.  They don’t let the pastor face his accusers or respond to any accusations against him.

They just want him to leave, the sooner the better.  Then church life – and home life – can return to normal.

That’s Deadly Sin Number Six.

Finally, they fail to understand the consequences of their decisions.  I recently heard about a church board that made a decision involving their pastor that I believed was suicidal for their church.  After they announced their decision, something horrible did happen, and I thought to myself, “Didn’t they know that was going to happen?  How could they be so blind?”

After all, most people attend a church because of the pastor, not because of the board.

A pastor usually knows his congregation so well that he can predict how a major decision will impact the entire ministry.  But many church boards only know how their families and friends will react to a decision.  They don’t necessarily know the congregation as a whole.

Then rather than admit, “We made a stupid decision,” the board members circle the wagons and find someone else to blame.  It’s classic.

That’s Deadly Sin Number Seven.

Now pastors commit deadly sins, too, I’m sorry to say.  And so do staff members and ministry team leaders and others in the church.  But most of the time, these are individuals who make mistakes and who then must take responsibility for what they’ve done.

But by its very nature, a church board is corporate – and the individuals on the board rarely admit they make mistakes because they made their decisions together.  As a wise pastor once told me, “If you have a tough decision to make, bring it to the board and let them make the decision – and then hide behind the board.”

What you have seen along this line?  What do you think about the seven deadly board sins?

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