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Archive for August, 2011

Today’s guest blogger is Russ Jones.  Russ and his wife A.J. visited our church in Santa Clara nearly 20 years ago and chose to stay.  Russ eventually became chairman of the governing board and has always been there for me, in good times and bad.  Russ and A.J. live in Wickenburg, Arizona.  Russ and I meet for breakfast every month – even though he’s a Dodger fan – and his friendship and counsel continue to inspire me to this day.  Here is Russ’ view of the connection a board member needs to have with a pastor:

Russ and A.J. at home in Wickenburg

Having served on several church boards and been the board chair at a couple of churches, I believe that the most important characteristic of a board person is loyalty.  It is imperative that the board person consider the pastor as the leader of the board and the church and that he or she must accede to the dictates of the pastor.

Now, certainly, if the pastor is indulging in heresy or some type of deep sin, the board must act to replace that pastor.  In lieu of that type of behavior, I believe that the pastor should be the real chairman of the board, that he is the professional while we who serve are the lay persons.  We are there to serve him and therefore to serve God.

If the board is carefully selected and conforms to the qualifications as Paul dictated in 1 Timothy, I don’t believe that we would have the all-too-frequent problems between the board and the pastor.

I have seen a number of pastors thrown out of the church by a board for personal reasons.  Not only is this devastating to the pastor, but inevitably the kingdom of God is affected as people will leave the church for their own personal reasons.

As a relatively young Christian, I was blessed to serve a godly man on his board.  There was conflict in the church and the end result was that he was terminated.  Now please understand that this pastor was a friend of mine, a hunting buddy, and a man who I had turned to for godly counsel.

Outside the Giants' Spring Training Home in Scottsdale

As a result of his being forcefully terminated, I left the church.  I remember so well that I told myself that I could pray and read the Word and didn’t need any fellowship to continue as God had ordered.  How foolish and how wrong I was!  For it wasn’t a week before I quit praying and reading my Bible.

I thank God that I have returned to Him and prayerfully serve Him to the best of my ability.  Today, I use that story as my testimony to young people to tell them that we must continue to fellowship with other Christians and that they must find a church where they can feel comfortable and learn what God has so beautifully given to us through His Word.

It pains me deeply to see Christians – or at least those who purport to be Christians – act so contrary to God’s Word.  They murmur, they gossip, and they display no loyalty to their church, their pastor, or their God.

What a Wise Man Looks Like

If I may give a little advice to anyone sitting on a church board – or to anyone who might reasonably be given that blessing in the future – do not let any murmuring or criticism of the pastor go unchecked.  The first time you hear someone make a derogatory comment about the pastor or criticize the church or the way it is being run, you must take that person and demand that he or she go with you to the pastor to air their differences.  You might be surprised at how often that person will find a reason not to talk to the pastor about their criticism when challenged in such a manner.  And again, how often that ends the problem with no further discussion of the matter.

In conclusion, if you don’t feel you can fully support your pastor, giving him 100% loyalty, do your church, yourself, your pastor, and God a favor and decline the offer to be placed on the board.

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Today is my 100th blog post!  I’d like to celebrate by telling you a story about the second pastor I worked for.

He was a tall man with loads of charisma.  He wore colorful shirts, loved to crack jokes, and had a thing for Star Trek.  I enjoyed listening to him speak, either from the pulpit or in private.  He was primarily an evangelist who had spent a lot of time traveling and speaking at revival meetings.  We got along well.

But it was soon evident that he wasn’t getting along with the Church Council, the church’s governing body.  At first, I only heard his side of things, but it wasn’t long before the Council’s view started to leak out.

The pastor told me that the church couldn’t grow because of the way the facility looked.  The facility was 90 years old and looked it.  There were cracks in the exterior church walls as well as the parking lot.  Some rooms hadn’t been used – or cleaned – in years.  Trained in the Robert Schuller style of church leadership, the pastor believed that the entire campus needed to be renovated before the church could attract new people.

However, there were two different perspectives on the Council.  One group – headed by the chairman – was ruthlessly legalistic, criticizing the pastor for every little thing he did wrong.  In all my years of serving Jesus, I’ve only met a few church leaders whose salvation I’ve questioned – but I did question his.  He was just plain mean.  I’ll never know how he became chairman.

Another group on the Council was more spiritually-oriented.  They wanted the pastor to feed them from God’s Word and lead them in a biblical manner.  They also wanted the pastor to work a full week.  (He only came in 6-8 hours a week at the church office.)

The pastor told the Council that if they requested his resignation, he would give it to them.  They eventually requested it.  He countered by quoting “Touch not the Lord’s anointed” from the Old Testament and promising the Council he would meet them in a business meeting to settle matters.

I was only in my second year of seminary, but I knew things were about to get ugly.

It was a tough situation for me.  On the one hand, I liked the pastor a lot, and thought that some people were exaggerating his faults.  On the other hand, the pastor didn’t seem to work very hard, almost as if he’d stopped trying.

When the business meeting was announced, I felt sick inside.  It should never have come to that.

Both sides began campaigning.  Since the church rolls hadn’t been cleaned up in eons, people invited their long-gone friends to show up at the meeting and vote their way.  One party traveled four hours just to vote.

The pastor assumed that it would take a huge vote to remove him from office – either 2/3 or 3/4, I don’t remember.  He was confident that the opposition lacked the votes to oust him.

The district minister came and talked for a few minutes, but most people didn’t even hear him.

When the vote was taken, there were 63 votes to remove the pastor and 54 to retain him.

The pastor believed that he had carried the day.  However, the moderator declared that the pastor had been officially removed from office.  As it turned out, the constitution was so poorly written that it didn’t specify the percentage of votes necessary to remove a pastor.  The last paragraph stated that in those areas where the constitution didn’t designate a percentage, any vote would revert to a majority.

The pastor was angry.  He verbally castigated those who voted against him.  The next day, he knocked on my office door and told me, “There are some very evil people running this church.”  I did not disagree with him.

That was the last time I ever saw him.

The church survived.  The district sent over an interim pastor who had a big wart on his nose but who loved Jesus.  I worked with him for a while until I was called to serve at another church.

Although they later changed their name, there is still a church on that property.  I visited it several years ago.  Churches are incredibly resilient.

I share this story because I know what it’s like to be in the middle of a big church fight – and it’s disorienting for everyone involved.  Even though I wasn’t the target, the whole experience resulted in heartache and the severing of relationships.

To be honest, the entire conflict was bungled from top to bottom.  That was the church where I learned how not to do things.

One of my primary goals with Restoring Kingdom Builders is to teach pastors, governing boards, and lay people biblical ways to correct and, if necessary, remove a pastor from office.

When these situations are handled well, it’s because the leaders patiently followed Scripture rather than business practices or the law of the jungle.

When these situations are bungled, it’s because Scripture was ignored or violated.

For the sake of our Lord Jesus and His kingdom, Christian leaders and churches must do better when they have a conflict with their pastor.

Thank you for reading my blog today!  In case you’ve missed some articles, there are 99 of them waiting to be read.  And you can subscribe to the blog so it will come directly to your computer or cell phone as soon as it’s published.

And if I write something that really resonates with you – and you think it might resonate with others – please link your friends to it via Facebook.  My best days for views have resulted from other people’s links.

On to the next 100 articles!

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Bursting With Joy

It was a moment I’ll never forget.  In fact, I can’t get it out of my mind.

Sanctuary at Laguna Beach Presbyterian Church

Last Saturday afternoon, I stood on the platform of Laguna Beach Presbyterian Church.  For the first time in several years, I was officiating at a wedding.

My wife and daughter were sitting in the front row on the right side, followed by assorted family members and friends.  The bride’s mother sat in the front row on the other side, cheered on as well by loved ones.

The bridesmaids walked down the aisle, followed by the flower girl – and then the back doors were closed shut.  The organ uttered its magnificent tones …

And then the bride appeared.  She looked radiant as she walked down the center aisle, escorted by her father.

But while all eyes were on the bride, mine were on the groom – my only son, Ryan.  Only the two of us shared our unique vantage point.

He stood there waiting for Vanessa, the love of his life … waiting to shake hands with her father and offer her his arm and escort her onto the platform.

Vanessa's Father John Gives Her Away

As she came down the aisle, I thought to myself, “Lord, he’s waited so long for the right one … and now she’s finally here.”

My heart was bursting with joy.

Vanessa’s grandfather began the service.  He has served on the staff of the Laguna Beach Church for many years.  He told me that he declined to officiate at the weddings of his three children because he was afraid he’d get too emotional.

I now know what he means.

We all sang “Come Thou Fount,” followed by “I Love You Lord.”

And then, with my son and his bride standing before me, I read Scripture and shared a brief message with them.

After that, while someone sang, Ryan and Vanessa walked forward and lit a Unity Candle.  I’ve seen some couples do that and talk to each other, but Ryan and Vanessa did something I’ve never seen done before.

They prayed quietly with and for each other.  It was so moving.

Ryan and Vanessa Pray After Lighting Unity Candle

We sailed through the vows, and it felt great to finally make this pronouncement: “I now present to you for the first time … Mr. and Mrs. Ryan Meyer!”

Presenting Mr. and Mrs. Ryan Meyer!

While pictures were being taken, I had a great time talking with Ryan’s pastor, Terry; a missionary I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years, Dave; my niece Jolene’s husband, Danny, who is also a pastor; and the pastor of the church where Vanessa’s parents attend.

And then the shuttle came and took us all to a mansion up a hill … a place with a multi-level backyard, including a swimming pool and beautiful gardens.  You could see the ocean from the top level, and as the night went on, nobody wanted to leave.

House in Laguna Beach Where Wedding Reception Was Held

As my son and his new wife celebrate their honeymoon in Hawaii, I am still both teary-eyed and grateful to God that the Lord still brings a man and a woman together – in His own time and way.

Two years ago, I flew to Orange County to see Ryan.  Once again, a young woman who held my son’s interest told him she just wanted to be “friends.”  Ryan was distraught, unsure that he would ever meet the right one.  I encouraged him to keep waiting on the Lord and to keep taking risks – because once we start playing it safe in life, we begin to die inside.

When Ryan met Vanessa through eharmony a little more than a year ago, they instantly clicked – and have been together ever since.

My wife Kim and Ryan danced to Lee Ann Womack’s classic song I Hope You Dance.  Remember these lines?

Ryan and Kim Dancing

I hope you still feel small when you stand by the ocean

Whenever one door closes, I hope one door opens

Promise me you’ll give faith a fighting chance

And when you get the choice, to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance

May Ryan and Vanessa dance throughout their life – and may you dance as well!

This Says It All!

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A Justly Proud Father

Tomorrow will be one of the most joyous and blessed days of my life.

My son Ryan is getting married to a fantastic Christian girl named Vanessa.

Ryan and Vanessa on the Day of Their Engagement

My wife and I have been praying for this day for years – but for a long time, it didn’t look like it was going to happen.

Ryan was born in Orange, California, on Labor Day.  Although we did not know the gender of our first child before birth, I was giddy as I was putting on my gown before he greeted the world.  The California Angels were playing at nearby Anaheim Stadium that day and Nolan Ryan, my favorite player, pitched and won against the White Sox.  Many people assume that I named Ryan after Nolan Ryan, but I actually saw the name Ryan Andrew in the sports section of the LA Times, and we chose to go with it.

When Ryan was growing up, he loved to collect baseball cards (he would talk to the players directly), build forts in our living room out of blankets and pillows, and lead neighborhood kids in endeavors like Spy Camp.  He played Little League and went with me to spring training in Arizona and countless Giants games at Candlestick Park.

But his whole world changed the Christmas we bought a family computer – a Mac IIsi, to be exact.  That was 20 years ago.  I can still see his eyeballs bulging out of their sockets when he saw it.

One summer, Ryan worked hard to earn enough money to buy his own computer.  I was very proud of him for doing that.

When he turned 16, I took Ryan to the East Coast for a 10-day trip.  We had a marvelous time seeing the sights, but most of all, we understood each other a lot more after that excursion.

While I taught Ryan how to play sports and drive, he taught me about The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Hootie and the Blowfish.  Seems like a good deal to me.

Ryan eventually learned how to run the sound board at our church and later become a drummer.  Many nights, he assembled a band that played outside in the church parking lot very late at night – with the approval of security.

After graduating with a computer science degree from UC Irvine, Ryan chose to live in southern Orange County, where he has worked for several companies.

Somewhere along the line, he started attending a wonderful church in Irvine.  We thank God for Pastor Terry’s leadership and teaching and for the many friends Ryan has made there.

Ryan has also been mountain biking for years, training diligently and competing in races all over Southern California.

Ryan Mountain Biking

Even though he led a full life, something (or someone) was missing.  After dating numerous young women, Ryan finally met Vanessa via eharmony in the summer of 2010.  (Thank you, Neil Clark Warren!)  My wife and I have prayed for many years that Ryan would marry a mature Christian woman from a healthy Christian family and that they would serve the Lord together.  Vanessa is the answer to our prayers – and those of our son as well.

Tomorrow they become man and wife.  I’m privileged to be conducting their ceremony.

Tonight I’ll think back to the joy I felt the day he was born, the times we played catch together, three vacations where it was just the two of us – and a time two years ago when he wasn’t sure he would ever meet the right woman.

At Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It’s now the right time.  Vanessa is the right woman.  And, as usual, God orchestrated the whole thing.

May the Lord be high and lifted up!

And may the Lord bless Ryan and Vanessa with a few little Meyers – eventually!

With Sarah and Kim Overlooking The Forum in Rome

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How can you tell when a leader is trying to control you?

In my last post, I mentioned that control freaks:

*use guilt

*use manipulation

*are insensitive

Let me add three more characteristics:

Fourth, control freaks exude anxiety.  As I neared my 40th birthday, I realized that a lot of my thinking was affected by anxiety.  I was always concerned about what might happen.  This led me to try and plan my life so that I could minimize being hurt or harmed by others.

You might wonder, “How has that worked out for you?”

Not as well as I’d hoped.

It struck me that the more anxious I became over something, the more controlling I came off to others.

For example: most of the time when my wife and I travel, I drive.  On those rare occasions when she drives, I find myself inadvertently telling her how to drive.  (For some reason, she doesn’t like this.)  If we’re on the open road with no one around and she’s going 70, it’s all good.

But if road conditions are crowded, or I spot a Highway Patrol officer nearby, or it starts to rain, my anxiety leads me to start telling her what to do.

This happens with pastors, too.  As long as the road ahead looks good, and there aren’t any obstacles around, pastors can be charming and pleasant.  But when things at church get complex, and they’re feeling stressed out, and anxiety rises – many pastors can shift into control mode pretty easily.

And it’s not a pleasant thing to watch!

Fifth, control freaks utilize intimidation.  And this is where staff, board members, and ministry leaders want to jump ship on a pastor.

It’s always better for a pastor to draw sheep toward new pastures than to drive them.  It’s better to use persuasion than coercion.  But when the other leaders in a church become afraid of their pastor and his reactions, it’s impossible for those leaders to do their best work.

I once worked for a supervisor who scared me to death.  When he drove onto the premises, I’d freeze up inside.  I couldn’t predict his moods or his words.  He never commended me for anything but pointed out lots of things I did wrong.  Under that kind of pressure, I just wanted out.

But then a new supervisor was assigned to work with me, and he was fantastic.  He took the time to ask me questions about the job.  He demonstrated a caring attitude.  And he even pitched in and helped me at times.  I John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”

In the context of love, a pastor can correct a staff member or confront a board member.  But if a pastor uses fear as a continual weapon, he shouldn’t be suprised if people only do a minimal amount of ministry for him.

Finally, control freaks dictate methodology.  Such a person cannot assign you a job and let you do it your way.  They have to tell you how to do it as well.  They want everything done “my way.”

Let’s say that I ask you to clean a room at church.  It’s fine for me to say, “I’d like this room to look neat and clean by 4:00 pm because there’s a board meeting in here at 5:00.”  Then I can delegate that task to you.

But a control freak will say, “I want you to clean this room before the board meeting at 5.  So get the vacuum and a rag and the furniture polish and the window cleaner.  Here, let me show you how to clean the windows.  And here’s how I want the chairs.  No, not like that – like this!  And give me your cell phone.  I don’t want any distractions between now and 5.”

Control freaks want to be the source of all information.  They do not desire collaboration.  They don’t want your input on cleaning the room – they don’t care about what you think.  But they definitely want you to care what they think!

It’s difficult if not impossible to work with control freaks, either at work or in the church.  They may not realize it, but they demean and disrespect their fellow workers because they do not know how to train and delegate responsibilities.

How many pastors are control freaks?  There are as many control freaks as there are anxious pastors.

I’d guess, oh, 212,376.

Is your pastor one?

If so, pray for him.  Encourage him.  And give him more lead time when it comes to your ministry assignments.

But it’s hard for control freaks to change.  And if it all gets too much for you, you might have to prioritize preserving your health, sanity, and sanctification.

Of course, the ultimate solution for a pastor is to let Jesus Christ lead and control His own church on a daily basis.  As one of my seminary professors was fond of saying, “While Christ is the Head of the church in the body of Christ, some pastors want to be the neck.”

If you’re unsure what to do about a CFP (control freak pastor), consult with the Head.

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Have you ever had a teacher from hell that you just wanted to forget?

There was a teacher who taught Russian literature at my high school, and to be kind, she looked like death warmed over.  Maybe that’s why she was so unpleasant, I don’t know.

The first day of class, she told us pupils to write our names in the top-right corner of every homework paper.  Not on the top right line – like every other teacher expected – but in the top-right corner.

I followed tradition, not her novel approach – and was promptly marked down.  I also received the only detention I ever got in school from her, although I can’t remember what I did wrong.  (Call her a Commie?)

And I can’t remember learning anything about Chekhov or Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, either.

It’s one thing for a public school teacher to impose her personal preferences on her students.  It’s quite another matter for a pastor to do that.

What are some of the signs a pastor is a control freak?

First, control freaks use guilt.  My wife and I recently visited a church where the music leader gave a talk before the offering.  He told the people how much he loved the church but then chided them for not being as committed as he was, exclaiming, “Shame on you!”  Translation: there’s something wrong with you if you’re not as committed as I am.

Then the pastor told us that he’s tired of reading how millions of people are leaving local churches, saying that it made him mad!  Translation: if you ever leave this church, I’m going to get really ticked off at you.

While guilting works with a small segment of the Christian population, it rarely works with most people.  When the Spirit of God convicts us – especially through God’s Word – we feel true guilt.  But when someone is trying to push their personal preferences onto us, most of us see through it.

Leaders – including pastors – must appeal to higher instincts instead.

Second, control freaks use manipulation.  I once saw a televangelist do some fundraising inside an auditorium.  He told the congregation to stand up, so they all stood.  He then said, “Listen to the man of God!”  He told the men to take out their wallets and the women to open their purses – and to donate all their money when the offering plates came around.  He punctuated his appeal by reiterating, “Listen to the man of God!”  (I didn’t see him give anything.)

Thank God I was at home, because if I had been in that auditorium, I might have walked out.

I once ran across the difference between manipulation and motivation.  When a leader manipulates people, he tries to get them to do what is in his best interests.  When a leader motivates people, he tries to get them to do what is in their best interests.

So if a pastor encourages his congregation to donate money to the ministry to inflate his stats or so he can get a raise, he’s manipulating people.  But if he encourages them to give to expand Christ’s kingdom or so they can grow spiritually, he’s motivating them.

Pastors need to monitor their emotions, language, and tone when they speak to make sure they’re engaged in motivation, not manipulation.

Third, control freaks are insensitive.  They are so in tune with their own discomfort that they cannot sense when they are making others uncomfortable.

As a pastor, I ministered to various kinds of people.  Some could barely walk or hear.  Others felt rejected by almost everyone in the culture.  Some had no job or money.  Others kept doubting their salvation.

I tried to listen to each person who came to me with a struggle.  I tried to understand how they were feeling and how I might be able to help them.  Every caring shepherd does this.

But control freaks can’t be bothered.  They don’t see people as individuals but as part of a congregation they need to whip into shape.  Everyone needs to be going in the same direction at the same speed.  If you can’t keep up, they’ll leave you behind.

Years ago, I saw the film Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole.  There’s a scene where Lawrence is riding all night with some warriors to attack the coastal city of Aqaba.  When daylight comes, Lawrence notices that one of the horses lacks a rider.  When Lawrence inquires about him, he’s told that the man fell off miles back and should be left to die.

But Lawrence can’t do that.  He reverses field and rides back for hours until he finds the man immobilized on the hot ground.  Lawrence places the man on his horse and rides back toward Aqaba.  When he arrives with the man near dusk, Lawrence becomes the undisputed leader of the invading party.

He cared about every single person.

Control freaks don’t mind losing people along the way.  In fact, they expect it.  “If you can’t get with my program,” they reason, “then I don’t want you around here anyway.”  They only care about those who can help them reach their goals.  Everyone else is dispensible – especially those who require too much attention.

What have you seen along this line?

I’ll write more about control freaks in leadership next time.

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You win a contest at your church and become Pastor For A Day.  This means you get to preach a sermon on an upcoming Sunday.  Which topic would you choose?  (Just humor me.)

Let’s say you decided to talk about stealing because of all the looting that’s been going on in London.  Would you slant your message toward warning people not to steal or making things right after they’ve already stolen something?

If you talked about lying, would you present reasons why it’s best to tell the truth in all situations or how to be forgiven after someone has lied?

This is a continual dilemma for those who preach and teach God’s Word.

Because I grew up in more fundamentalist churches, most of the sermons I heard were preventative.  From our youth leaders to the pastor, we heard talks on “how to avoid having premarital sex” and “reasons not to take drugs” and “why you shouldn’t listen to rock music.”  Those who spoke assumed that if they scared us enough, we would never sin.

Of course, public school teachers warned us not to do those things in Jr. High and High School as well – and it worked in some cases.  (I still remember seeing a film featuring Sonny and Cher encouraging us not to take drugs.)

But as time went on, an increasing number of young people did have sex before marriage and did take drugs – and everyone listened to rock music.  So if a high school kid visited a friend’s church and the pastor’s message was on the prevention of sin, that kid couldn’t relate to the message at all.  Heck, he’d already done all those things and a whole lot more.

Revivalist Billy Sunday exemplified the “preaching against sin” attitude when he once said: “I’m against sin.  I’ll kick it as long as I’ve got a foot, and I’ll fight it as long as I’ve got a fist.  I’ll butt it as long as I’ve got a head.  I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth.  When I’m old and fistless and footless and toothless, I’m gum it till I go home to glory and it goes home to perdition!”

Whenever I taught, I believed that I needed to make a case for the wisdom of what God said in Scripture.  When He said don’t get drunk, the Lord gave good reasons why this isn’t wise (Proverbs 23:29-35).  When He prohibited gossip, He knew how badly the practice wounds people (Proverbs 6:16-19).  The fundamentalists I heard preach kept telling us, “Don’t do this, avoid that, stay away from this, walk around that.”

But what do you do if you’re speaking to people who have already broken every commandment?  The prevention prescription feels like condemnation to them, not liberation.

What did they need instead?  They need to know that even though they’ve sinned, God still loves them.  They need to know the wideness of His mercy and the depth of His grace.  And they need to know that when they confess their sins, God will forgive them – every time.

I don’t remember hearing the message of forgiveness very much growing up.

Many years ago, I had lunch with one of my ministry heroes.  He was an educator, a missionary, and an author.  But this man wrestled with perfectionism and an obsessive-compulsive mentality.  As we compared notes, we both concluded that we struggled with certain issues not because of our parental upbringings, but because of the perfectionistic, nitpicky churches we grew up in.

To counter this thinking, some pastors have stopped warning people about sin and just tell people how they can be forgiven instead.  They continually preach that “God loves you” and “I just want to encourage you” and “Isn’t life with God great?”  They intentionally self-censor any talk about sin, focusing instead on how great God is – and how great we all are as well.

This reminds me of the famous quote by H. Richard Niebuhr who said that modern Christianity was about “a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

That quotation perfectly sums up a lot of preaching in our churches today.

When I was a pastor – and I hope to be out speaking again very soon – I tried to maintain a balance between prevention and forgiveness whenever I spoke about sin.

The next time you hear a pastor speak, listen carefully.  If he talks about sin, see if he mentions both prevention and forgiveness.

John 1:17 expresses my philosophy of preaching: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

The best preachers utilize both grace and truth.  Liberals emphasize grace (or God’s love); fundamentalists emphasize truth (or God’s holiness).

Biblical preachers emphasize both.

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Five years ago, my daughter Sarah and I went to the 11:30 am Sunday service at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The great Scottish Reformer John Knox preached there and is buried underneath Parking Space 23 behind the church.

St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland

                     

When we arrived that morning, rain was pouring down.  We settled into seats next to the heater on the right side – only it wasn’t working.  (After a few moments, a large puddle of water formed beneath my chair.)  Because I was a mess, I chose to visit the men’s room, which was down the back stairs – only I had to walk through the choir to get there.  (When I came out, I had to walk through them again.)

The service began with a choir anthem – in Latin.  After some festivities, it was time for the message.  The speaker was one of the chaplains for the Queen of England, and this was his regular gig.

I’ll never forget his message.  He lambasted the congregation for the decline in attendance over the years – from 1,400 to 600, as I recall.  He spoke all of 10 minutes.

I can tell you why people weren’t coming: busted heater, poor access to the restrooms, singing in a dead language, and a preacher who blamed the people who showed up for the church’s decline!

The topic of church attendance is touchy, isn’t it?

Let me make four brief points about numbers in churches:

First, numbers require context.  Jesus talked about rocky ground and good soil in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-8).  Some communities are fertile ground for the gospel, like Phoenix (where there are large churches everywhere) and Orange County (where spiritual and political values match).  Other communities represent stony ground, like New England (with its old buildings and liberal theology) and the San Francisco Bay Area (full of hostile atheists and agnostics).

In Phoenix, it’s common for a church to own a 5-acre campus with 500 people attending.  In the Bay Area, that’s uncommon.

Every church is unique.  There is no one-size-fits-all pastor or church.  What works in one place doesn’t work in another.  So it’s hard to compare churches – and often difficult to compare their statistics as well.

Please remember that.

Second, numbers can become idols.  Ask some pastors how their church is doing and they’ll say, “Our numbers are up 22% over last year at this time – and our giving is keeping pace.  We’re doing great!”

But how did their churches grow?  Through a renewed emphasis on evangelism?  Through an expansion of small groups for seekers?  Or was it by injecting secular methods into the church?  Or by receiving a flood of new people from the church that split down the road?

Pastors feel tremendous pressure to keep numbers going north.  And in the process, stats can become way too important.  If someone’s life was changed but attendance was down 15% from the previous Sunday, does that mean the pastor is a failure?  Or if God didn’t show up in the service but the giving was 31% better than two weeks ago, is that all that matters?

If a pastor thinks he’s a success when the stats are up, and a failure when the stats are down, it may be that numbers have become an idol.  Most pastors continually struggle with this issue.

Third, numbers are impossible to control.  My wife and I once held a small group in our home.  15 people signed up.  The topic was interesting.  We always had refreshments.  There was great chemistry among group members.

And we always contacted people in advance to remind them about our next gathering.

One night, we had 14.  Another night, we had 3.  Think I could control the attendance?

As a pastor, sometimes I’d go to church on Sunday morning and think, “This topic may seem irrelevant, so I’m not expecting a big crowd.”  And the place would be packed.  Other times, I’d think, “I can’t wait to get to church today because I anticipate great attendance.”  And I’d get up to preach and stare at empty chairs.

I delude myself – and even play God – when I think I make things grow.

I take comfort in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:6: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”  Only secularists believe that man makes things grow.  Jesus’ followers know that only the Father produces growth.

Finally, numbers alone cannot measure success.  I believe that success for a believer – including a pastor – is defined not by numbers, but by attempting and completing divine assignments.

When Jesus told the multitudes that they needed to “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” (John 6:53), we’re told that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).  By today’s standards, Jesus was a failure.

And yet the night before He died, He told His Father, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4).  If numbers are everything, why didn’t Jesus submit His stats at that moment?  Instead, He measured success by doing God’s will.

He may have looked like a failure in secular eyes, but was a total success in His Father’s eyes.

I wish Christians could set aside the success measurements of the business world (bodies, bucks, and bricks) and return to biblical standards – but the business model has become so ingrained in us that I don’t know if we can.

Think we can do it?  Do we want to?

In Mark 4:26, Jesus told His disciples:

“This is what the kingdom of God is like.  A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.”

Did you catch that?  “He does not know how” the seed grew.  While it’s our job to scatter seed, it’s God’s job to make things grow.

Let us resolve never to reverse those roles.

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Nearly 20 years ago, I was invited to meet with a group of pastors for an all-day meeting at a mountain cabin.  I felt privileged to be included and was looking forward to our time with great anticipation … until the group leader asked this question:

“How did Easter go at your church?”

One by one, the pastors talked about the number of people who came out for Easter services.  We didn’t hear much about the biblical passages the pastors used, or the music that was sung, or the way the Spirit moved.

No, every pastor present talked about the number of people who showed up for Easter services.

All except one, that is.  Out of the dozen or so men gathered around a table, nobody asked me how many people showed up for our Easter service – and I didn’t volunteer the number.

I’ve never told anyone – until now.  It was 70.

Years later, I’d be the pastor of a church that had ten times that amount on Easter Sunday, but so what?

While numbers at a church do tell a story, they never tell the whole story.

Why are evangelical Christians so obsessed with numbers?

For starters, numbers are a way to measure a church’s progress.  If your church had 225 people in attendance a year ago, and you have 270 today, you’re reaching more people for Jesus.  And on the surface, that’s good.

Conversely, if you have 270 today, but 183 a year from now, that doesn’t look so great.

Ten years ago, Dr. Archibald Hart told our “Pastor’s Personal Life” class at Fuller Seminary that the church growth movement was dead.  That was a surprising statement to hear coming from a Fuller leader because the church growth movement originated there.  Dr. Hart told our class that the emphasis now was on church health, not church growth.

And that seems like a healthier emphasis to me.  The New Testament epistles never mention specific attendance numbers.  Paul doesn’t commend the church at Philippi for growing 23% in the past year.  John doesn’t applaud his readers for growing their church from 100 to 150 over the previous six months.  And in Revelation 2-3, when Jesus addresses the seven churches of Asia Minor, He never once mentions numbers.  The emphasis of the New Testament is on spiritual qualities like faith, hope, and love.  (Read the first few verses of Paul’s epistles and notice how many times he mentions those terms.)

The biblical implication is that a healthy church is doing its job and will have some impact on the surrounding culture.

Thank God, we sometimes hear people say, “That’s a really loving church” or “Those people exercise great faith.”  But it’s easier to measure cold hard numbers than spiritual intangibles, isn’t it?

Next, numbers are a way to measure a pastor’s worth.  Is this a good line for a major league baseball outfielder (.227, 3, 14)?  No, it’s not.  It means his batting average is .227, he’s only hit 3 home runs, and he’s knocked in a mere 14 runs.  He may be a great outfielder with speed, but unless he can raise his offensive stats, he won’t be in the majors very long.

In our day, pastors are often measured by a single line as well, like this one: (17, 847, 23).  This pastor has 17 staff members, an average weekly attendance of 847, and an average weekly offering of $23,000.  In some areas, those are fantastic numbers.  In others, they’re average.

The pastor could be a godly man and a great husband and father.  He could be a phenomenal preacher and raise the dead with his prayers.  Doesn’t matter.  In the Christian world, those statistics summarize his worth.  Every pastor knows this, and most find they cannot fight the system.  So every week, they live and die by their stats.

When summer hits, the numbers go down, especially in more affluent communities.  Sometime during the fall, they go back up.  In December, the numbers trend downward as people stay home due to illness or travel for the holidays.  In the spring, the numbers rise again because people feel better and are not traveling.

You can track a pastor’s moods by the seasons.

Pastors are aware they cannot fully control these numbers, but that doesn’t keep them from trying.  On Monday mornings, they are eager to know “how many we had yesterday” and “what the offering was.”  If the attendance and offering were above average, the pastor feels good.  But if the attendance and offering are poor for a few weeks in a row, the pastor wonders if his tenure in that church is over.

I fought the “numbers game” for years, believing they are just one way to measure a pastor’s worth, but not the only way – but evangelicals continue to live and die by them.  Every year, denominations request various numbers from their churches.  They don’t ask who got saved – they want to know how many were baptized (it’s more easily quantifiable).  They don’t ask if God did any miracles – they want to know how much the church gave to missions.

If you want to know how a particular pastor or church is doing, you just open up the denominational annual and look.  It’s all there on one line in black and white.  And for many, those numbers define that pastor’s true worth.

In addition, numbers are a way to gain credibility with the culture.  If I’m telling a co-worker about Jesus, and I attend a church of 50 people, I might feel embarrassed to invite her to my church.  But if I attend a church of 5,000, I feel a sense of pride.  Poor stats seem to reflect poorly on the gospel, while large ones seem to give it more weight.

This is one reason why large churches are growing and smaller churches are shrinking.

For years, I assumed that everybody in the churches I pastored viewed numbers the way I did.  If we had a poor Sunday statistically, I believed it was a frontal lobe issue for others as well.

But it wasn’t.  People didn’t come to pad the stats.

Instead, they came to meet God.  They came to learn Scripture.  They came to fellowship with friends.

In fact, their value systems were often more spiritually-oriented than those of their pastor!

I’ll have more to say about the “numbers game” next time.

How do you feel about church statistics?

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In my last article, I mentioned the book Crushed by former pastor Gary Pinion.  Although most of the book is about the pain that pastors in general are experiencing today in ministry, the author relates a personal story about one of his own pastorates.

One day, a governing leader came to Pastor Pinion and told him that several people in the congregation had complained to him about the pastor.  When the pastor asked how long this had been occurring, the leader replied, “Several months now.”  The pastor then asked the leader, “Have you told even one of the complainers to come and visit with me about their concerns?”  The answer was, “No.”

When a pastor hears that people have been publicly pooling their complaints about him, it makes the pastor uneasy, because he knows this is how major conflicts in a church are launched.  And when a leader fails to encourage the complainers to speak with the pastor personally about their issues, unbiblical behavior begins to snowball.

When Pastor Pinion learned that one of the complainers was “a catalyst for all the lies and innuendos that had been circulating,” he invited the man to his office.  When the pastor confronted the man, he began to yell and scream, “You are not feeding me and I have been at this church a lot longer than you and I have sure given a whole lot more money to this church than you and I’m not leaving!”  Pastor Pinion laments that “that was the beginning of my ‘forced exit.'”

Why do professing Christians abuse and attack their pastors?

Last time, I mentioned three possible reasons:

First, they are angry with God, and blame His audible, visible messenger for something God did or didn’t do.

Second, they are angry with their father and blame the man of God because he reminds them of their father in some way.

Third, they feel that the pastor slighted them in some way.

Here are four more possibilities:

Fourth, they want their pastor to be someone he’s not.  Most Christians have a favorite pastor from their past.  Maybe he always said hi to them, or baptized them as a child, or helped their family through crisis.  Or maybe they have an affinity for a particular pastor on television or radio.  Or maybe they’ve combined the attributes of many pastors into one perfect pastor.

Although they may not be aware of it, they measure all subsequent pastors by their mental ideal.  And when they finally discover that their current pastor cannot be the person they want him to be, they feel hurt, disappointed, and angry.  They want their pastor!  And if they can’t have him, they’ll begin a whispering campaign or call their favorite pastor and complain about the current one.

Fifth, they want to retain their friendships.  Have you ever had this experience?  You’ve been reading your Bible recently and feel convicted about the way you sometimes talk harshly about other people.  So you resolve that you’re either going to keep your mouth shut or only say kind things about others.

One day, you go out to eat with some church friends, and one of them starts criticizing your pastor.  You instantly recall your pledge to the Lord, but you also want to join in the conversation.  Before you know it, you’re agreeing with some of their criticisms and adding a few of your own.  Although you feel guilty as soon as you leave the restaurant, you convince yourself that no real harm was done.

Why did you do it?  You wanted to fit in with your friends.  After all, when the pastor isn’t around to defend himself, he doesn’t seem so great, does he?  In my previous article, I shared the story about Pastor Pinion’s friend who flipped on him and couldn’t tell him why he did it.  I know why: his destructive friends meant more to him than his godly pastor.

Where are the Christians in our day who know how to stand up for what’s right?  If we can’t stand up to fellow Christians when they are committing evil deeds, how authentic is our faith?

Sixth, they think the pastor is attacking them through his preaching.  Think about this: the only person in our culture who consistently tells adults how to live is the pastor.  The president gives speeches but doesn’t talk about divorce or sexuality.  Your boss may give occasional talks but she never encourages you to love God or others.  Your spouse may not like the way you manage money but he never sits you down for a 30-minute lecture on tithing.

Christian pastors regularly give unpopular messages about unpopular topics from an unpopular book – and occasionally in an unpopular tone.  The worst possible response I could have to a talk I gave was to have no response at all.  As Spurgeon used to say, you want people to be “glad, sad, or mad.”  But when some people get mad at a pastor – often just for preaching what the Bible says – they can go on the attack and harshly criticize him to others.

Finally, they want the pastor to leave.  The man who came to see Pastor Pinion told him, “I have been at this church a lot longer than you and … I’m not leaving!”  When people get to this point – whether they say it to their pastor’s face or not – they’re saying, “Either he’s going to leave or I’m going to leave … and it’s not going to be me.”

Sadly, there seem to be people in every church who assign themselves the project of getting rid of the pastor.  Sometimes they’re members of the governing board or staff.  Sometimes they’re a long-time member or a former pastor or the leader of a coalition.  But they have made up their minds that they cannot co-exist with the pastor.  By all rights, they should leave the church – quickly and quietly.  Instead, they convince themselves that this is their church – not his – and that he needs to leave their church as soon as possible.

Unless the pastor is guilty of heresy or destructive behavior, this is a supremely selfish action.  After all, most of the people who attend that church are there because of the pastor, not because of the board or a long-time member.  Besides, every church belongs to Jesus rather than chronic complainers.

If people would put the same energy into praying for and encouraging their pastors as they do into criticizing and attacking them, everyone would benefit.

What is God asking you to do for your pastor?

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