Archive for the ‘Change and Conflict in Church’ Category

I ran into a little incident outside my bank yesterday that illustrates why some Christians create conflict in their churches.

My wife and I are buying a house, and while it’s a joyful time in some respects, it’s also very stressful.

Suddenly, we have to meet other people’s deadlines: producing bank statements … scanning documents … signing disclosures … scheduling an inspection … paying for an assessment … and figuring out how to turn brown dirt in the front and back yards into something attractive yet low-maintenance.

Yesterday, after several days of waiting, I finally received the go-ahead I needed to complete a financial transaction involving the house.  I promised someone I would send her the money by a certain time in the late afternoon, and I drove to the bank to finish the task with a few minutes to spare.

Only when I got to the bank, the teller … whom I have never met … told me in a “you’re stupid” tone that the deadline for completing the transaction had passed several hours before, and that I would have to come back this morning instead.

I felt the stress level rise quickly inside me.

As calmly as I could, I went to my car … called the woman who expected the funds … apologized to her for not sending them … backed up slowly … and began driving out of the parking lot.

As you leave the bank, there’s a lane on the right just past the building where cars can appear out of nowhere.  I always approach that small intersection cautiously.

And it’s a good thing I did, because a lady (I use that term loosely) came flying around the corner and nearly hit my car.

I froze … and then got out of my vehicle.

The driver pulled into a space in front of the bank, saw me, pointed right at me, and yelled, “MOVE ON!”

I loudly said, “You almost hit me!”

Then she used a creative combination of vulgar terms and yelled again, “MOVE ON!”

I wanted to move on, but I had to make my point, and I was so upset that the words weren’t coming.

Finally, I blurted out, “When you’re driving through a parking lot, SLOW DOWN!”

She used the creative combination again, and then threatened to call the police on me.  I told her, “Go ahead.  I’ll tell them what a bad driver you are.”

I got back in my car and drove away, not feeling real good about the encounter I had just experienced.

As I drove toward home, I thought to myself, “That person (she wasn’t a lady) was driving recklessly, and she’s probably had similar near-misses before … and she’s trained herself to act like a bully when she violates other people’s rights.”

Okay, that bit of psychoanalysis made me feel a tiny bit better.

But then I reflected on my own behavior, and I asked myself, “Why did I feel it necessary to confront that bully in the parking lot?  Why didn’t I just move on?”

Most of the time, I do.  In fact, I’ve trained myself to let most things go on the road.  It’s just not worth it.

But I know why I did it: right now, I am on emotional overload … my stress level is super high … and I lack a measure of self-control.

Now let’s think about some Christians in your church.

Let’s take Frank.  Frank is in his mid-60s.  In the past four months, he has undergone the following experiences:

*He’s been outsized at work and realizes his career is probably over.

*His work problems drove up his blood pressure so he’s now taking medication for that … and the medication has some strong side effects.

*Frank’s wife has recently been having memory problems, and Frank is worried that she might have … you know.

*One of Frank’s daughters recently separated from her husband, and she’s been coming over a lot more … sometimes staying the night.

So when Frank comes to church on Sunday mornings, he longs for an encounter with God.  He comes with a spirit in turmoil.  He hopes to depart with a spirit of peace.

But what happens instead?

*The music is pounding and seems louder than ever before.

*The announcements drag on and on … and several events are coming that Frank would like to attend, but he doesn’t have the money.

*The pastor’s message contains references to current movies that Frank would never see because he believes they’re immoral … but the pastor seems to love them.

*After the service, Frank hears that two of his best friends have left the church because they don’t like the music or the pastor’s preaching.

And Frank suddenly feels very much alone … in his own congregation.

Frank came to church highly anxious, hoping that God and His people would calm him down … but just the opposite happened.

And right now, Frank can’t handle his emotions.  He needs to talk to somebody about how he’s feeling.

He’d like to talk with the pastor, but he hasn’t been there long.  Frank doesn’t know him very well, and he’s afraid he’ll blow his top and end up a sermon illustration someday.

He’d like to express his displeasure to the music director, but doesn’t think it would do any good.

He’d like to talk to his wife, but she’s struggling to remember anybody’s names right now.

So when Frank gets home from church, he calls his friends who just left the church.

His friends rattle off a list of complaints … mainly about the pastor … and then Frank shares his grievances with them.

And before anyone knows it, a campaign to force out the pastor has begun.

Because this is where division begins in a church: when people begin to pool their complaints with one another rather than speaking directly with the person they’re upset with.

I’ve never tried to get rid of a pastor before, and I wouldn’t want to be a part of any campaign that had that as its goal.  I’d leave the church before I tried to push anyone out.

Yes, like the woman in the bank parking lot, some professing Christians are bullies.  They want to run the church their way … or else … and they will use threats and demands (they work well in churches that pride themselves on how loving they are) to intimidate the pastor.

But many churchgoers who end up causing trouble aren’t bullies … or even immature believers … but are ordinary believers who have been undergoing extraordinary stress in their lives.

They bring that stress with them to church, and if something at church adds to their anxiety, they start complaining … usually the first indicator that conflict is about to erupt.

Rather than dealing directly with their behavior, the pastor and/or key leaders might ask such people about their personal, family, and work lives instead:

*How is your husband or wife doing right now?

*How are your children doing?

*How are things at work?  How does that affect your career?

*How are you doing spiritually right now?  Emotionally?  Financially?

*How can we pray for you specifically?

*How can our church family assist you right now?

Many believers who end up creating havoc come to church highly stressed … become even more anxious when church doesn’t alleviate their anxiety … and finally decide to eliminate the source of their “church anxiety” … their pastor.

I don’t excuse it.

I do understand it.

And maybe … just maybe … understanding such anxiety can help church leaders address the concerns of “the anxious among them” in a more caring and compassionate manner.













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Many years ago, a church that I served as pastor held an Italian-themed outreach event on our campus one gorgeous Saturday evening.

Because we had a lagoon behind our property, my wife obtained a gondola and we offered our guests rides while someone serenaded them.

After one gondola ride, I greeted a woman I didn’t know and learned that she was from the Czech Republic.

As we walked toward the back entrance to our multipurpose room, she suddenly stopped and refused to go further.  When I asked her what was wrong, she said that she was afraid of entering the church building.

We weren’t going to enter the worship center … merely a larger room used by various groups … but she became so petrified she would not advance a step further.

Many people in our culture won’t set foot on a church campus for a variety of reasons.  Some have terrible memories from childhood.  Others can’t forget the way a family member was mistreated.  Still others are possessed by hostility toward God or pastors or churches as a whole.

But sometimes, people have a negative reaction because a church long ago made them feel so uncomfortable … or anxious … or excluded … or afraid … that they don’t want to feel that way again.

My wife and I attended a church in our area recently for the second time, but sadly, it will be the last time because that church … like thousands in our country … simply wasn’t ready for anyone new to show up.

The only way for any church to grow is by reaching newcomers … and you can only attract and keep them when you make them feel comfortable enough to stick around.

Let me share with you five things that many churches do to keep people from returning … and this is only a brief list:

First, they let the church phone go unanswered.

I was once speaking with a pastor in his office when the phone rang.  When I asked him, “Shouldn’t you get that?”, he said, “No, the church answering machine will get it.”

But if a church wants to reach people for Christ, they need to treat every call as precious.  You never know who’s on the other line.

I once read a story about a Christian leader who called many churches in his community before Christmas.  In more than half the cases, nobody picked up the telephone.

We had a rule in our last church: during office hours, we will personally answer every call that comes in.  When the office manager needed to use the restroom, she would first ask me or another staff member to answer the phone until she returned.  If the entire staff was going out to lunch, the office manager would arrange to have a volunteer answer the phone during her absence.

There are many people who will call a church once.  If nobody answers, they figure nobody cares … or they will call the next church on their list … and it won’t be yours.

What if it’s a potential leader … a large donor … or that prized volunteer you so desperately need?

Second, they fail to greet every guest personally.

Years ago, the late Howard Hendricks – speaker, author, and professor at Dallas Seminary – said that whenever he visited a new church, he played a little game.

He tried to enter the worship center without anyone greeting him.

Over the years, I’ve tried playing the same game, and so far, I’m winning.

A while back, I visited a church that meets on Sunday mornings at the local community college.  I walked past two booths without anyone greeting me, and then I walked straight into the auditorium while a greeter kept his back to me while talking to someone he knew.

After I sat down, an older woman told me that I was sitting in her friend’s seat, and that she always sat next to her friend, the implication being that I was doing something wrong by coming to her church.

So I left and never went back.

The greeters in a church are crucial.  Most people receive a warm feeling when someone says hi to them.

I’ll never forget the first time I visited Saddleback Church in Orange County where Rick Warren is pastor.  They were meeting at Trabuco High School in the early 1990s.  As my wife and I walked toward the gymnasium, we were instantly greeted by a couple of younger people who communicated, “We are so glad you’re here.”  Their greeting took a lot of our initial anxiety away.

Then we were greeted when we entered the gymnasium.

Greeters don’t corner newcomers and ask if they can teach the fifth grade class.  They just stick out their hand, say hi, and welcome you to their church.

I believe that greeters are so important in a church that they should be trained on a regular basis … and it’s so vital that the pastor may need to do the training himself.

Third, they fail to keep their promises.

I am one of those people who take their promises seriously.  I try and underpromise and overdeliver.

But some churches do the opposite in their advertising: they overpromise and underdeliver.  And when that happens, many people will stay away.

My wife and daughter and I recently visited a church on Christmas Day that advertised their service from 10:00 am to 10:45 am.  We had visited several years before and didn’t return, but thought we’d give them another chance.

We didn’t get out at 10:45, though … we got out at 11:15.

Another time, my wife and I visited a church near our home and she signed up for a women’s Bible study, leaving her name and number.

She’s still waiting for a call.

Someone gave me a gift card to Kohl’s for Christmas, and I received a 15% off card in the mail.  The checker at Kohl’s honored both cards, and I left a satisfied customer.

Church leaders need to make sure they honor their promises as well.

Fourth, they fail to use visuals during the Sunday service.

A church I admire has an annual emphasis on doing things for their community over several weeks.  To celebrate what they did, they showed a video recapping the highlights of the previous few weeks.

It was quick … celebratory … and effective.

Even though I wasn’t there to witness what happened, the video made me wish I had been there.

I am a firm believer that churches need to use visuals as much as possible.  Most churches nowadays have large screens to project the lyrics of praise songs.  They need to do more than that, however:

*Put the announcements on the screen while they’re being made.  Some people respond better to what they see than what they hear.

*Celebrate every major victory with either photos or a video.  It will make people feel that they were present at the event.

*The pastor should use photos when he speaks.  When I was a pastor, I took hundreds of digital photos everywhere I went.  Most of them went unused, but when I told a story, I’d often say to myself, “Hey, I have a photo of that.”  And I knew how to find it quickly.  In fact, I had a private rule to use at least seven photos during every sermon.

*Use video when it’s appropriate.  When I saw a concert at the Hollywood Bowl last fall, the performer used video.  When I attend a major league baseball game, they use video.  If you attend a business presentation, they use video.

For years, I’ve felt that whenever a pastor refers to a scene in a movie, he should show that scene during his sermon.  It has more of an impact than if he tries to describe it.

There’s a famous church in London called Holy Trinity Brompton.  They meet in an old Anglican Cathedral down the street from Harrods.  I’ve visited the church three times.  What do they do in that old building?  They use photos and video.

Why don’t more churches use visuals?  I don’t think the reason is theological.  I tend to think it’s due to laziness.

We use microphones so people can hear.  We need to use visuals so people can see.

Finally, they fail to plan the service wisely.

When I go to a play, I receive a program telling me the names of the actors as well as the scenes.

But when I visit most churches nowadays, I don’t know what’s going on.

On Christmas Day, the congregation sang six stanzas of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” even though the song officially has only three.  Then at the end of the service, we sang all six stanzas again, and I thought to myself, “Somebody didn’t plan this well.”

I like an order of service.  I like to know who did the announcements … who read the Scripture … and who gave the message.

But many churches have dispensed with that information altogether, and to be honest, it makes me anxious.

My wife and I attended a service a while back that met in a middle school.  The pastor spoke for a solid hour without notes, but his message was, in my view, much too long.

If a sermon is good, I don’t want it to end.  If a sermon isn’t good, I want to escape.  When it isn’t all that good, and the pastor goes on and on, I feel like a prisoner in church.

It’s fine to be spontaneous in the Spirit.  Just let us know the general structure of the service … or guests may not return.


I pastored four churches.  Two were under 100 … one was over 200 … and one was over 400.

I became a more effective pastor when I decided to ruthlessly evaluate how each church was doing and create a plan for becoming more outreach-oriented.

Most pastors focus on what’s happening on the stage … especially the worship music and the sermon.

But sometimes the impact of a church is determined more by little things like answering the phone promptly … greeting every guest warmly … keeping promises effectively … using visuals in the service regularly … and planning the service wisely.

What are some areas that make you feel uncomfortable at church?

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Several years ago, I preached a sermon on the topic “Resolving Conflict Biblically” at a church several communities away.

When I was done speaking, a woman in her mid-80s – who had attended a prominent California church for most of her life – told me, “I have never heard a sermon on the subject of conflict in my entire life.”

Now maybe she was ill or away on the Sundays that her pastor spoke about conflict, or maybe all his sermons fused together in her mind.

But I happen to know that her former pastor – one of America’s best-known Bible teachers – experienced a major conflict in his church before he eventually resigned.

The best churches experience major conflicts.  In fact, I still agree with this adage that I heard years ago: “Small churches have small problems, while big churches have big problems.”

Regardless of your church’s size, it’s almost certain that your congregation will experience a severe conflict within the next ten years … and about a 40 percent chance that you’ll suffer through a major conflict within the next five … unless your church is ready when that conflict strikes.

But sadly, most churches aren’t ready for a major conflict.

Maybe they’re in denial, thinking, “We’re such a nice group of Christians that nothing horrendous could happen here.”

Or they’re thinking, “Our constitution and bylaws specify what to do if conflict breaks out, so we’re adequately prepared.”

Or they’re thinking, “Our leaders are such godly individuals, they will handle any conflict expertly” … not realizing that church leaders are often the source of major conflicts.

There isn’t a lot written on how to prevent major conflicts in church life.

That’s why I’m doing a workshop for Christian leaders next week called “Strengthening Your Church’s Immune System.”  I’ll be talking about ten ways that a church’s leaders can prepare for and prevent major conflict from even happening in their congregation.

Let me share with you one of the ten steps I’ll be presenting next week … and it takes a bit of work.

I believe that the lead pastor in a church must take the initiative to prevent major conflicts from surfacing.  He should allow people to share feedback and even disagree about matters without, at the same time, letting them start a bloodbath.

One way to do that is to hold regular meetings involving every key leader in your church: staff members, board members, ministry team/committee leaders, small group leaders … and to find reasons to make the group larger rather than smaller.

So if feasible, I’d invite their spouses as well.

The meetings can be held monthly or quarterly … maybe after the last service on Sunday morning, which means you’ll have to provide lunch … but it’s essential that they be held.

During one of those meetings, here’s what I would do if I were the pastor:

First, I would prepare a 3-4 page document for each person listing every New Testament reference – word for word – on church conflict. 

Maybe throw in some verses from Proverbs on the tongue as well.

Don’t ask people to look the verses up in their Bibles.  It takes too long … people have different versions … and you want all the relevant verses gathered in one place.

So the pastor should do the work for them.  Write out Matthew 18:15-17 … 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 … Titus 3:10-11 … 3 John 9-10 … in chronological order.

Second, I would ask the leaders to divide into groups without their spouses. 

The fewer people in each group, the more each person will have to interact with Scripture themselves … and that’s what you want.  Aim for five people per group.

I would have at least as many groups as there are pages.  For example, if you hand out five pages of verses, make sure you have at least five groups.

If you have 50 leaders present, then make ten groups with five individuals in each group.

Third, I would ask each group to appoint a leader … and for group leaders to ask for volunteers to read the verses.

My last few years as a pastor, I always asked for people to volunteer as readers.  Some people can’t read very well, and others become anxious when asked to do something in a group.  You want people to feel comfortable going through this exercise.

Fourth, after the verses have been read, ask each group to summarize the verses on their page in five principles. 

This should take 15-20 minutes per group.

Then starting with page 1, ask each leader to appoint a spokesperson to present their five principles to the entire group.

Fifth, the pastor should ask someone ahead of time to record each principle word for word on newsprint and hang each sheet on the wall. 

This isn’t busy work … it’s documentation.  In fact, the pastor should store the newsprint somewhere safe in case someone ever challenges the wording of the principles.

Sixth, after all the reports, the pastor should ask the entire group questions like:

*Can we summarize the teaching of Scripture concerning conflict resolution in one sentence?

*Which verses that you studied stand out to you?

*How well do you personally carry out these principles in your own life?

*Why do we have such a hard time dealing with conflict?

*How realistically can we follow the teaching in these verses in 2016?

*How well does our church follow Scripture when it comes to conflict resolution?

Seventh, after that discussion, the pastor should do two things:

*Ask someone to collect all the newsprint sheets and give them to the pastor directly.  The pastor should consider reproducing everything written down word for word on the church website.  This not only shows the leaders that their words are taken seriously, this also shows the congregation that the church takes Scripture seriously when it comes to conflict.

*Then reserve time on the agenda of the next board meeting – or call a special Saturday board meeting – and ask the governing board as well as members of the church staff to summarize the biblical teaching on conflict resolution in ten principles.

(The board and staff should do this because they are ultimately the guardians of both the congregation and the pastor … and because they are sometimes the sources of potential trouble themselves.)

When that’s complete … maybe at the next board meeting … three more things need to happen:

Eighth, the pastor makes sure that those ten principles for resolving conflict are posted in key places all over the church.

This includes the rooms where staff meetings, board meetings, finance team meetings and other key meetings are held.

Ninth, the pastor then schedules a brief series – maybe two sermons – on those ten principles, letting the congregation know, “This is how we handle conflict around here.”

And every year – possibly before the annual meeting – the pastor should preach another brief series on biblical conflict resolution.  Call it internal insurance.

Finally, the pastor schedules time every six months to review the principles with the staff, the board, and the key leaders. 

This doesn’t have to take long, but it has to be done.

Some people might say, “But Jim, if a severe conflict does break out, some people will become so emotional that they will ignore those principles, so aren’t these principles really worthless?”

No, they aren’t worthless.  God gave those principles to us, and He never gives His people anything that isn’t of value!

But even if some people become irrational during conflict, there are others in the congregation who will view matters in a more biblical and rational fashion, and you want the more logical people to deal with the more emotional ones.

Let me give you an example of how these principles can help once they’re posted:

Imagine that you’re in the church library after a Sunday service, and a woman saddles up to you and says, “Listen, a few of us are meeting for lunch today to discuss the latest changes that the pastor is trying to impose on our church.  If you want to join us, we’re meeting at Olive Garden at 1:00 pm.”

Instead of answering her directly, you take her by the hand, waltz her over to the north wall, show her the list of ten principles for resolving conflict biblically, and say to her, “Look at principle number seven.  It says, “If you are upset about a policy, please speak directly with any member of the church board.  [They set policy along with the pastor.]  And if you are upset with the pastor personally, please speak directly with him.”

You then ask this person, “Are you upset with a policy?  Then you need to speak directly with a board member … maybe the one you know the best.  But if you’re upset with the pastor personally, you need to speak with him directly.  Which is it?”

If the person says, “I’m upset with the policy,” then ask the person, “Which board member will you speak with about this issue?”

If the person says, “I’m upset with the pastor,” then ask them, “When will you be speaking with the pastor about this issue?”

If the person says, “Forget it.  I thought you were a friend, but you aren’t,” I’d say to them, “These ten principles summarize how we handle conflict around here.  If you don’t comply, I will report you to the pastor and the church board and tell them what you’re planning to do.  It’s your call.”

The beauty of this approach is that these principles:

*are based on Scripture.

*have been devised by all the key leaders in the church.

*have been ratified by the governing board and staff.

*have been presented to the church through the pulpit.

*have been posted all over the church facility.

*can then be enforced by all of God’s people.

If you follow this plan, I can’t guarantee that you’ll never experience a major conflict in your church.

After all, when some people are intent on committing murder, they can be hard to stop.

But I can guarantee that if you do this, the plotters will know that they’re violating Scripture and the culture of their church … and that will take all the fun out of plots against the pastor … secret meetings … and playing politics.

If you can manage major conflict in your church, that might allow your church to do what Jesus called it to do:

Fulfill His Great Commission in your community.






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As I consult with leaders from various churches, I often hear the following question asked:

Since our church has been shrinking numerically for a long time, what can we do to turn things around?

And there’s usually a corollary that goes along with it:

If we dismiss our pastor, will that single action turn around our church?

I explored this issue several months ago in this blog entry:


After I wrote the article, I kicked out the following question to my ministry mentor, who seems to know everybody worth knowing in the Christian community:

At what point should the pastor of a church that’s steadily shrinking voluntarily resign or be involuntarily terminated?

I received responses from six top Christian leaders.  These men are consultants, professors, authors, conference speakers, and former denominational leaders.

Here’s a composite of what they wrote … and they copied each other for maximum interaction:

First, a declining church should invite a consultant/interventionist to do a full assessment. 

One expert wrote, “After the assessment, the pathway forward should be clear.”

In one ministry, I invited one of these six men to do a day of workshops on a Saturday just a few months after I became pastor.  We had 43 leaders attend that day, and we made many major decisions soon afterwards that positively impacted our church for years to come.

A consultant can be expensive, but if the pastor and church leaders are willing to consider what he has to say, the consultant can save the church hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars down the road.  It’s usually misplaced pride that keeps a pastor … and a church … from consulting with a seasoned consultant.

Second, the pastor of a steadily declining church may need to consider leaving voluntarily.

Another expert wrote, “If a pastor comes to the point where he doesn’t know what else he can try that he hasn’t tried already, he should start working his networks for a move – thus giving someone else the chance at guiding the church forward.”

Someone else suggested, “I’ve known about several pastors who voluntarily left a church after an assessment.  At that point, they knew they could not lead the church through the needed steps to produce a turnaround.”

Third, two factors are essential for a church to turn around.

Another expert observed, “Two things are necessary for a turnaround: a willing congregation and a skilled pastor (in most cases I’ve seen both elements lacking).”

The same expert than offered this crucial point: “If the assessment reveals that the congregation shares responsibility for the problem, then it is pointless to think about the pastor’s resignation.  They’ll simply bring in another pastor who will eventually fail.”

Fourth, it takes enormous time and energy for a pastor to turn around a church.

One leader wrote, “If the pastor cannot provide the physical and emotional energy that will be needed to execute a turnaround plan, he should resign.  This inability may be due to health challenges, family problems, or an unwillingness to make the 5 to 7 year commitment required to turn the church around.”

Let me add that by God’s grace, the Lord used me to turn around two churches, but I spent so much energy turning around the first church that I have no idea how I was able to turn around the second one.  Years ago, I read where George Barna said that a pastor can realistically only turn around one church in his lifetime.  I would agree with his assessment.

Fifth, many pastors lack the ability to turn around a church and might need to leave.

Someone noted, “If the pastor is ‘uncoachable’ (many of them are!), incapable of mastering the skills required to lead a successful turnaround, or unwilling to do his job then he should resign or be terminated…. If the pastor is hanging on because this is his last church and he’s padding his retirement, he should be cut loose sooner rather than later.”

Sixth, the pastor of a church that’s been in decline for years probably isn’t the person to turn the church around.

One expert commented, “My predecessor … says that if change hasn’t taken place in five years, change won’t happen.”

Another leader wrote, “The pastor who has been part of a declining church for an extended period, say more than five years, is not the one to lead it out of the death spiral.  And the longer the stay, the less likelihood of success.”

Still another expert observed, “One of the problems is what’s called a coefficient of familiarity, i.e., the longer a leader leads any organization the less impactful his voice is.”

Echoing that last statement, someone else wrote, “In one church I pastored for 14 years, they no longer heard what I had to say.  The church did turn around, but I could lead it no further.”

Finally, the pastor of a church that’s been in decline a short while needs to have a clear vision for the church to turn around.

One commentator … a professor and author of a truckload of books on church matters … said, “One of the big questions is does the pastor have hope (vision) for the church’s future.  After 10-12 years of unsuccessful effort, most pastors have lost hope and usually find they can’t restore hope even if they stay longer.”

I trust that these comments from noted church experts have provided insight to you.

What are your thoughts on the future of a pastor whose church is in steady decline?

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Many years ago, I saw an ad in a Christian publication promoting a product I found offensive.

A certain televangelist was inviting churches to buy satellite equipment so they could beam the messages from his church into their worship services.  The idea behind the ad was that if a church really wanted to grow, then its people needed to listen to this single gifted man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are pros and cons to this approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now a few megachurches are planting satellite churches in outlying areas and sending a live feed of the message from the mother church into those venues.  A church I once attended has been doing this all over the Phoenix area and has started several satellite campuses in the area where we used to live.

When they did this, they absorbed another megachurch.  The pastor from that megachurch taught periodically at the mother megachurch, but several months later, he left … and hasn’t been heard from since.

It seems to me that technology is leading to a social Darwinism in the Christian community.

For example, a pastoral colleague recently told me that Rick Warren was opening up a satellite campus in his community.  What would happen in your area if that happened?  Would people from your church flock to the satellite campus and desert your church and pastor?

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

I have six concerns about this particular trend:

First, what happens when a popular teacher veers off course theologically? 

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

Second, what happens if a famous teacher falls morally?  

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

Third, what happens to smaller and medium-sized churches? 

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

Fourth, why are we letting a few people do all our thinking for us?  

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

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

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

Fifth, what is this one-teacher trend saying to other gifted teachers in a local church?

Let me share my own situation.

My primary spiritual gift is teaching.  It’s what I love to do more than anything else.

But after 36 years in church ministry, I don’t think I will ever be able to use my gift again inside a church.

Why not?

If I attended a small or medium-sized church, and the current pastor found out I was a former pastor and invited me to preach … and I did well … I would become a threat to him … and he would never ask me again.

If I attended a large church or a megachurch, it would probably take me years to be asked to preach … because 36 other guys would be asked before me.

So my teaching gift sits on the shelf, unused and unvalued by the wider body of Christ.

I wonder how many other gifted teachers have been banned from using their gifts in local churches because of the one-teacher approach?

Finally, what happens to rookie preachers? 

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

But where does a preacher learn to teach today?

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

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

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

Acts 13:1 says that the church in Antioch had “prophets and teachers” [plural], including Barnabas and Saul.

1 Timothy 5:17 mentions “the elders who direct the affairs of the church well” and then singles out “those [plural] whose work is preaching and teaching.”

Seems to me that New Testament churches didn’t have just one teacher … they had multiple teachers.

Romans 12:6-7 says, “If a man’s gift is … teaching, let him teach …”

If local churches have one only teacher, where are the other gifted teachers supposed to teach?


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Several years ago, I visited a large church where the attendance had been plunging.

A key leader told me that the average Sunday morning attendance had once been 1300 but was now 650 … and yet the same pastor was still there.

The church had declined by 50% over the past few years.

Should that pastor have been allowed to stay … or should he have been let go when the church declined by 10% … or 20% … or 35%?

This makes me wonder: at what point should the pastor of a church that’s steadily shrinking be terminated?

This question makes two assumptions:

*that the pastor of a church is ultimately (not totally) responsible for its success or failure, and …

*that there is a point at which church leaders need to dismiss the pastor to preserve their church.

I confess that I don’t have a ready answer for this question … yet … but I plan on consulting with experts over the next few months to see if I can find a consensus.

In the meantime, let me offer a few observations on this topic:

First, many declines occur because a pastor is experiencing burnout.

When a pastor is stressed out, his body becomes unhealthy because he’s overwhelmed by all the demands upon him.

When a pastor is burned out, his emotions become unhealthy because his caring mechanisms are fried.

You can recover from being stressed out by renegotiating your job description … taking better care of your body … doing more things you enjoy … and taking time off.

You can recover from burnout only by taking extended time off … but even then, it’s usually delaying the inevitable.

One well-known pastor feared he was nearing burnout, so he took more than six months off.  When he returned, he served for a short while and then retired.

Time off will cure distress, but it usually won’t cure burnout.  As Dr. Archibald Hart says, burnout is often the beginning of the end of a ministry.

The burned-out pastor lacks internal motivation.  He can only accomplish minimal tasks, like preaching … attending staff and board meetings … and keeping basic appointments.

He also can’t handle people’s problems like he once did.  They deplete him of badly needed energy.  It’s not that he doesn’t care … he does.  It’s that he’s cared about people’s problems so long that they’ve worn him down … a condition Dr. Hart terms “compassion fatigue.”

But here’s the killer: the burned out pastor doesn’t want to see people.  He just wants to hide from them.  He can’t greet people on Sunday … can’t relate effectively to church leaders anymore … and becomes unpredictable.

And if people don’t feel their pastor cares about them anymore, some may stop attending.

For a church to grow, the pastor needs to be in top shape spiritually, physically, and emotionally.  And when he’s emotionally drained, he’ll need months off to recover … and even then, there’s no guarantee that he’ll return healed.

Here’s the tipoff: if a pastor once led the church to growth … but that same church is now in steep decline … he may be burned out without knowing it. 

There’s only one way to tell: the pastor has to visit a Christian counselor … take some assessments … and receive a diagnosis from that counselor.

I don’t think that Christians should condemn pastors who have experienced burnout.  Sometimes the cause of the burnout is inside that pastor … but other times, it’s found in the way the church functions.  Because the pastor burned out trying to serve the Lord, I believe that the church should pick up the tab for his counseling and treat him with dignity and respect.

And if church leaders decide they can’t wait for the pastor to recover, they should let him take some time to look for a new job … and offer him a generous severance package.

But too many pastors fear that if they are diagnosed with burnout, they will be terminated immediately … so they stay in hopes they will recover … which ensures that the church will continue to decline numerically.

Second, many declines occur because the pastor has to control everything.

I recently attended a church where the pastor announced that there was going to be a barbecue … and that he was going to be cooking the hamburgers.

That might be okay in a church of 25 that’s full of invalids, but this is a church of several thousand.

That pastor may be trying to send the message, “Since my whole ministry is about service, I am not above getting greasy for my congregation.”

But he may also be sending this message: “I’m the only person around here who really knows how to cook good hamburgers.”

I believe that a pastor needs to be “in touch” with every ministry in the church.  He needs to know what’s going on with the children’s ministry … the young couples … the seniors … and the music.  In fact, people expect this.

But many pastors end up sending this message instead: “I know how to do everything at this church, and I can do things better than anyone else.  In fact, if I could just clone myself many times over, this church would grow into the stratosphere.”

Control freak pastors can usually grow a church up to a certain point, and then things start to go south.

The pastor doesn’t trust others … and they can sense it.  He doesn’t believe others are competent … and they feel rejected.

And when the church begins to decline, the pastor doubles down and tries to control things even more … leading to further decline.

Can control freak pastors change?  Maybe … but they have to unlearn some habits first … and learn how to turn over responsibility to others … even if those others aren’t as gifted as their pastor.

And if a pastor doesn’t see the problem … or refuses to change … church leaders need to request his resignation and find somebody who will trust the congregation.

Third, many declines occur because the pastor has no plan to turn things around.

Nearly a year ago, I attended BridgeBuilder training with Dr. Peter Steinke in St. Paul, Minnesota.

I can still hear Dr. Steinke sharing some case studies with the dozen of us in attendance.  He said that many times when he consults with a church in conflict, he keeps asking the same question:

“What’s the plan?”

The pastor has to know the plan … and communicate that plan to the board, staff, and congregation … or the church may start to drift and fall into decline.

If a pastor’s primary gifting is shepherding, he’ll usually find himself in a small church … and be very content.

If a pastor’s primary gifting is teaching, he’ll usually find himself in a medium to large church setting.

If a pastor’s primary gifting is leadership, he’ll usually find himself in a large church or a megachurch.

Some pastors who are great teachers and shepherds can only take a church so far.  They may have learned some leadership skills, but God never gave them leadership gifts.  They may need to step aside so that someone with leadership gifts can take the church to the next level.

However, there are many ways to create a plan for growth:

*the pastor can attend a turnaround conference (preferably with key staff and church leaders)

*the pastor/board can hire a church consultant

*the pastor can solicit ideas from the congregation and key leaders and create a plan that starts from the bottom up

*the pastor can lead the charge to add an additional worship service

*the pastor can find a coach/mentor who will help him improve his skills and boldness

But without a plan … that everybody knows … the church will continue to drift and decline.

And if a pastor can’t … or won’t … create that plan … I believe he needs to go.

Finally, many declines are not the pastor’s fault … but he may need to leave anyway.

Back in the late 1990s, I pastored a church in Silicon Valley.  It was a very exciting, cutting edge church, and in many ways, we were ahead of our time technologically.

But on Mother’s Day in 1997, the owner of the building we were renting told us that he wasn’t going to let us renew our lease.  (This was around the time of the dotcom boom and he could make more money renting to someone other than a church.)

The only building we could find to rent was the cafeteria at Homestead High School in Cupertino (where Steve Jobs from Apple went) … five miles from our previous building.

When we made the move, we lost 1/3 of our people … those who lived in the opposite direction from our previous meeting place … overnight.

That was the end for me.

Nobody asked me to leave.  I just knew it was time.  It took us several years to find and assimilate those people that left … and it would take us several more years to regain the same amount of people.

And I lacked the drive and energy to do that.

The best chance the church had to grow again was for me to leave … and for the church to call a pastor with fresh energy and vision.


I once attended a conference at a very visible megachurch.  Their attendance had declined by 2,000 per Sunday one year, and they took some steps to turn things around … with the same pastor at the helm.

And since he’s an incredibly gifted leader, they did turn things around.

But I remember having lunch with another megachurch pastor a few years ago.  He told me that when the attendance begins to decline at a church, that pastor needs to leave because the same person who presides over the decline usually can’t turn things around … so he negotiated a separation agreement and resigned.

Two questions for you:

First, how often can a pastor who presides over an attendance decline stay and turn things around?

Second, what’s the magic number (if any) for dismissal: 10% decline … 20% … 50% … or what?

Several months later, I consulted with some top Christian leaders and received their views on this topic.  Here’s that article:



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Many years ago, I was invited to conduct a wedding inside a mainline church building.

While wandering around the lobby before the service, I happened upon a pamphlet that asked on its front, “What did Jesus say about homosexuality?”

When I opened up the pamphlet, it was blank.

On the back, it said, “That’s right.  Nothing.”

The implication was that since Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality, it must be okay.

This argument from silence, though, proves nothing.  Jesus didn’t say you can’t torture and kill the neighbor’s cat, either, but I seriously doubt He would think that’s good!

Never mind that Moses and Paul did make negative statements about homosexual conduct, and that Jesus fully endorsed all of Moses’ writings and made provision for Paul’s epistles by calling him to be an apostle.

This illogical kind of thinking is what happens when people start with the result they want and then work backwards to prove their initial assertion.  We used to call this “the end justifies the means.”

I’m greatly concerned about the Supreme Court ruling of June 26, 2015 recognizing gay marriage in all fifty states.

I’m concerned for our culture, but as a writer and consultant on church conflict, I’m far more concerned about the divisions that have already begun inside the Christian community.

For example, journalist Jim Hinch from The Orange County Register has estimated that one-fourth of all evangelical Christians already support same-sex marriage.

In addition, Idaho State University sociologist Jeremy Thomas confidently asserts that “evangelicals will more or less come to embrace homosexuality in the next 20 to 30 years.  I would put all my money on that statement.”

Although I am no longer a pastor … with attendees and donors I might offend … let me share five thoughts about the implications of the Court’s ruling for Christians today:

First, the way Christians view this ruling reveals what kind of believer they are.

There are many ways to describe people who profess to be Christians:

*Cultural Christians.  These individuals take their cues on moral/social issues from Jon Stewart … Modern Family … the latest book or film … or whatever their friends and co-workers think.  Cultural Christians always want to be cool, which means moving with the times and rarely taking an unpopular position on anything.  Some of these people reflexively superimposed gay colors on their Facebook profile photos after the Court’s ruling.

Let’s be honest: when an unpopular Bible and popular culture clash, these people almost always side with culture.  After all, since He doesn’t have an account, God won’t disagree with them on Twitter.

*Compassionate Christians.  These people know somebody who is gay … a family member, friend, or co-worker … and they identify with their struggle.  These individuals believe it’s more important to express sympathy and even solidarity with their loved ones than support the stance of Scripture or their church.

Nearly seven years ago, I preached a sermon called “Defending Biblical Marriage” a year before I left church ministry.  After the sermon, many people approached me and were torn.  They knew that God’s Word only permitted marriage between a man and a woman, but they also had gay friends “and I just want them to be happy.”

*Feeling Christians.  These professing believers look to their emotions to tell them what’s right and wrong.  They don’t care what Scripture says or what 2000 years of Christian history teaches (with an additional 1500 years of Jewish history beyond that).  No, they let the way they currently feel about an issue dictate the position they take.  Some have added their own personal experience as the basis for their morality.  It’s fruitless to debate these people over a moral/social issue.  Their feelings are never wrong … and your arguments are never right.

Jewish commentator Dennis Prager writes, “More and more Americans are relying on feelings to make moral decisions.  The heart has taken the place of the Bible.”  I’d put it even more succinctly: for these people, their feelings and experiences have replaced Scripture as their moral authority.

*Liberal Christians.  These people are politically liberal first, Christians second.  Whenever the two positions clash, they always lean left.  Their politics inform their faith … their faith rarely informs their politics.

Some famous members of Congress from the Bay Area exemplify this type of Christian.  Even though these members identify with religious organizations that take strong stances on issues like gay marriage, they ignore their faith and adopt the views of their political ideology instead.

*Biblical Christians.  These people have learned to ask themselves, “What does the Bible say?” before they take a stance on any moral/social issue.  As the great British preacher Charles Spurgeon used to say, their blood runs “bibline.”

These people want to know what the entire Bible teaches on an issue before they take a position.  They interpret each text in context and then try and harmonize that passage with others that mention the same topic.  They don’t care what the Supreme Court ruled four days ago, but what God’s Word has taught for millennia.

I once knew a married couple who had an adult lesbian daughter.  This couple loved her very much, but they stated emphatically that her lifestyle was wrong.  They visited her whenever they could, but because they were biblical Christians first, they could not give their daughter the approval she desired.

It seems to me that the Christians who support gay marriage are cultural, compassionate, feeling, or liberal Christians.  While they may take the Bible seriously on some issues, when it comes to gay marriage, they’ve either chosen to interpret it using the political correctness of 2015 or they’ve chosen to ignore it altogether.

Christians who don’t support gay marriage are uniformly biblical Christians.  This is the way I identify myself.

Whenever Jesus got into a debate with His opponents, He quoted the Old Testament to settle the matter.  (For example, read Matthew 22.)  Jesus didn’t use feelings or personal experience to settle an argument.  Scripture was paramount for Him.  If Jesus is both our Savior and our Lord, shouldn’t we emulate His example?

Second, this ruling indicates that some Christians have completely abandoned the idea of God’s holiness.

Have you seen the two-word phrase “love wins” bandied about over the past few days?  It’s being used by gay marriage supporters as a celebration of their Court victory.

But I’ve been tempted to say, “If love wins, then holiness loses.”

The contemporary Christian church has completely lost its concept of God’s holy character.

Two days ago in church, we sang that God is holy, but I can’t remember the last time I heard a pastor state that the holiness of God is the basis for biblical morality.

When we say that God is holy, we’re saying that God cannot sin … cannot have any evil in His presence … and that His holy character is the basis for human right and wrong … not polls, politics, or preferences.

When a pastor only preaches that God is love … and neglects to preach that God is holy … the Christians in that church will become morally unbalanced.

When Bill Hybels started Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, he only preached that God is love.  He wanted to attract new people who would place their faith in Christ … and he was largely successful.

But when these new believers went off the rails morally, Hybels tried talking to them.  They responded by saying, “But God loves me no matter what.  Isn’t that what you’ve been preaching?”

Hybels realized that his preaching was resulting in people’s salvation but was completely negating their sanctification.

So he went out and bought a Plexiglas lectern as a reminder that from that moment on, he would always keep the truths “God is love” and “God is holy” in balance.

Without God’s holy character, the love that Jesus displayed on the cross means nothing.

“God is love” is popular.  “God is holy” will never be popular.

But jettisoning the holiness of God misrepresents both His character and His commands … and any pastor that does so will pay a heavy price …  either in his own life and family, or by watching the lives and families of others be destroyed.

Third, churches that accept gay individuals/couples into membership/leadership will end up abandoning the biblical sexual ethic.

If I asked you right now, “Can you summarize for me what the Bible teaches about sexual activity?”, could you do it?

From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture teaches that sex is a gift from God  … belongs exclusively inside a heterosexual marriage relationship … and that all sexual behavior outside of marriage is contrary to God’s will.

This means that premarital sex … extramarital sex (including adultery and prostitution) … sex with children and animals … and sex between two men or two women (or more than two men or two women) meets with God’s disapproval.

But most gay men … even when they’re married and attend church … are sexually promiscuous, and such a lifestyle becomes very addicting.  Marvin Olasky from World Magazine notes “the sociological data that most gays are not monogamous” in this article reviewing recently “Christian” books on homosexuality:


So imagine that you’re the pastor of a church that accepts sexually active gays into membership … or into leadership … like Stan Mitchell from GracePoint in Franklin, Tennesse, or Fred Harrell from City Church in San Francisco.  Here’s an article from World Magazine on City Church:


How can you preach the biblical ethic of sexuality in your church if you admit practicing gays into membership or leadership?

You can’t.

Whatever you say about heterosexual sexual behavior must also apply to homosexual sexual behavior.  How can you have two separate sexual ethics?

Since you can’t preach against gay promiscuity, you won’t be able to preach against straight promiscuity, either.  You will either have to abandon the idea that some sexual behavior is wrong, or you’ll be reduced to some meaningless sexual ethic like “we’re all called to love one another” or “let your feelings be your guide.”

Parents, is that the sexual ethic you’d like your teenagers to be taught at church?

Liberal Christian professor/author/speaker Tony Campolo recently came out in support of same-sex marriage.  Since the great majority of gay men (even the married ones) are promiscuous … and Campolo has to know this … doesn’t this “acceptance” require a radical reinvention of the Christian sexual ethic?

What will that reinvention be?  And who will create it?

While we’re at it, let’s just reinvent God’s character … sanctification … the atonement … and anything else we don’t like in Scripture.

Maybe this is why commentator Glenn Beck predicts that within five years “50% of congregants will fall away from their churches.”

I’d rather stick with God’s original plan …  even if it requires disicipline to carry out.

Fourth, Christians need their pastors to stay informed and to provide guidance on the implications of same-sex marriage for believers.

My wife and I have been attending a megachurch about twenty minutes from our house.  When we left for church last Sunday, I told her that it was extremely important that the pastor say something about the Supreme Court ruling.

To his credit, the pastor used the Court’s ruling as an introduction to his sermon, telling the congregation that he had received many emails and text messages from people who wanted to know his interpretation of events.

Time Magazine has just published an article calling for religious organizations to lose their tax-exempt status.  If that ever happens, it will mean far more than that donors won’t be able to deduct their contributions on Schedule A.

It will mean that the government can tax … and thus control … all churches and religious organizations.

And as in the days of Hitler’s Germany, the state would be able to tell churches what they can teach … and how they must behave … and that is truly scary.

Today … at least in Southern California, where I live … most churches don’t offer any classes where moral/social issues can be discussed … and most small groups discuss the pastor’s sermon from the previous Sunday.

Whether or not it’s been planned, the pastor has become the only teacher in most evangelical churches.

Most Christians don’t have time to read about and discuss the arguments for and against gay marriage … and if they do, they’re liable to overreact or be thrown into despair.

For that reason, pastors need to step up to the plate and interpret what’s happening in the culture for churchgoers.  If the pastor won’t do it, who will?

But according to Christian researcher George Barna, less than ten percent of all pastors preach on controversial issues.

Why so few?

One possibility: because they’re more interested in being successful than faithful.

You can read the interview with Barna here:


But what do we do with the apostle Paul’s words in Galatians 1:10?  “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God?  Or am I trying to please men?  If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

I believe that the days ahead will not only determine who the real Christians are, but who the faithful pastors are as well.

Pastors and churches are going to be forced to choose their positions.  Silence isn’t going to work anymore.  It’s better to say, “This is where we stand” early on … letting those who disagree find another church … than to hide your position and have a potential mass exodus later on.

Although we can’t predict how many evangelical pastors and churches will surrender to the culture over the next few years, pressures inside and outside of churches are going to be great.  Marvin Olasky from World Magazine describes the signs that your church might be caving on this issue:


Finally, it’s crucial that Bible-believing Christians transcend their differences and remain visibly unified.

Look, there aren’t just a couple of thousand Christians in the United States.  There are millions and millions of us … and we’re stationed in high places.

If we don’t change our position on this issue, we’re going to be maligned … ostracized … and vilified by many … even by some within our churches.

If we stay together, we’ll survive this challenge to our faith.  If we splinter and divide, we may be in real trouble.

I want you to imagine that this Saturday, you attend a wedding that your pastor is conducting at your church … and the wedding is attended by both believers and unbelievers.

In light of the recent court ruling, will he have the courage to read Ephesians 5:22-33 where Paul says that the marriage between a man and a woman is a picture of the relationship between Christ and His church?

If he does, will the pastor be heckled?  Will people walk out?  Will reading those verses ruin the wedding?

Pastors need to be prepared for scenarios like these … and they need your visible support so they remain courageous.

Let me suggest four ways that you can stand strong for biblical morality:

*Stay informed about the issues.  I subscribe to National Review on Facebook and Twitter and have a monthly $2.99 digital subscription to World Magazine, which shows up on my Facebook page.  I like these publications because their articles are intelligent, well-written, and interact with the culture.  Please don’t avoid these issues because they’re unpleasant.  Get involved!

*Pray for your pastor(s) and for Christian leaders on the front lines.  They are going to be taking some vicious attacks in the days ahead.  Intercede for them before the Father and pray that their spiritual armor fits well.

*Let your pastor and these Christian leaders know that you support their efforts.  When your pastor stands up for biblical morality, write him a note of support.  When you read a great article on World, like it on Facebook.  Hold up the hands of your leaders … just like Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ hands in Exodus 17.

*Carefully consider engaging in civil disobedience.  I read an article two days ago about a group of African-American pastors who are organizing to engage in public, passive resistance about the gay marriage ruling.  They know they’re going to end up in jail … at least for a few hours … but they don’t know how else to make their voices heard.  Think about it.

I’m writing this article not as an activist on social issues, but as someone who longs to see unity in the body of Christ.

The night before He died, Jesus prayed for His disciples, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).

And then Jesus prayed for His disciples “that all of them may be one … that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

Jesus said that the basis for unity among His disciples was God’s Word … and that their visible unity would be the single best argument that the Father sent the Son.

When Christians stayed united around God’s Word, the world believes and churches grow.

When Christians are divided around God’s Word, the world ignores Christ and churches stagnate.

I pray that we will stand strong and stay united.

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A pastor friend who reads this blog told me a story recently that seems paradoxical.

My friend became the pastor of a church several years ago that averaged 45 people on Sundays.

Three years later, the attendance had tripled and the ministry was going great … except that the rapid growth upset some key leaders.

They began making accusations against the pastor … who was shocked by what they were saying and how they started treating him.

So he eventually resigned … those who came to the church because of him left … and the church reverted to its original size.

This pastor was asked recently to attend a function where many of his pastoral colleagues were present … and many of those men pastored congregations on the small side … even smaller than 45.

But they still had their jobs, and if history is any indication, most of them will remain as pastors for a long time.

We might put this ministry paradox this way:

If a pastor grows a church too rapidly, he can find himself unemployed … but if someone pastors a stagnant church, he may keep his position for years.

For an existing church to grow in 2015, a pastor must institute change … which usually involves risk … which creates anxiety among some people … which leads to complaining … which can lead to antagonism, plots, secret meetings, charges, demands, threats, and the ultimate resignation of that pastor.

Let me give you an example of this scenario from my own ministry:

Many years ago, I pastored a church that was growing at a steady pace.  I initially focused primarily on teaching and shepherding … and the ministry went very well.

We crowded out two services in our worship center, so I had to put on my leader hat and make plans to build a new worship center on our property.

This meant putting together a building team … allotting special funds to hire an architect … letting the architect explain his ideas to the congregation … letting the congregation respond to the architect’s proposal … hiring a contractor … starting a capital funds drive … collecting pledges … overseeing construction … dealing with the planning commission … dealing with resistant neighbors … calling in a federal mediator to help with the resistant neighbors … holding a groundbreaking ceremony … overseeing construction for a year … getting final city approvals … and holding a dedication Sunday.

And I’m sure I missed at least a dozen other steps!

I kept the congregation informed at every key juncture.  Every vote that our church took on every building-related issue was unanimous.  In my view, I handled the changes well.

But there was still fallout.  We lost around 8% of our regular attendees.  Some didn’t want to contribute to the building.  Several leaders tried to sabotage the entire project.  And when the building was finally unveiled, some people complained about colors … furnishings … room functionality … you name it.

I once heard that 70% of all pastors resign soon after completing a building program.  I can see why.  You’re so worn out by the time the building goes up that you have little energy left to grow the church.

But just constructing a worship center (called “architectural evangelism”) never attracts new people.  The pastor still needs to exercise leadership to fill the building, and when he begins taking risks again, the whole anxiety/complaining/antagonism/plots/threats cycle starts all over again.

If a pastor chooses to exercise true leadership in a church, then someone is going to attack him.  Most pastors instinctively know this, and because so many pastors are sensitive individuals, most opt not to lead, which is why 80-85% of all churches in America are stagnant or declining.

But when a pastor does lead, he invariably makes some enemies.

If those people perceive that the pastor is strong, they will probably leave the church.

If they perceive the pastor is weak, they may organize to try and force him to leave.

But if a pastor chooses not to lead … but to focus on administration and teaching and shepherding instead … the chances are much greater that he’ll keep his job for a long time … even if his church never grows.

I visited a church several years ago where the pastor had been there for more than three decades.  The church had been in decline for years (the attendance was half of what it once had been) but the pastor was allowed to stay because he functioned best as a teacher and a shepherd rather than a leader.

Although the boat was taking on water, at least the pastor wasn’t rocking it!

By contrast, Dennis Maynard mentions in his book When Sheep Attack that the 25 clergy he interviewed for his study were all leading growing churches when they were forced to resign.

Maynard states that “… several of our participants noted that they believed that returning the parish to its former state of mediocrity was what they thought the antagonists really wanted.  They observed that the antagonists often objected to the increase in attendance and new members.  They resented the expanded program.  They particularly objected to having new leadership raised up in the congregation.  Once the parish is returned to its former size and activity the antagonists are in a better position to, as one priest wrote – ‘run things themselves.'”

The idea that many of the pastors of rapidly growing churches lose their jobs while the pastors of stagnant/shrinking churches keep their jobs isn’t based on a scientific study.  It’s just a personal observation.  But in my mind, it seems to ring true much of the time.

All of this leads me to ask four questions:

First, is it better for a pastor’s career prospects for him to focus on teaching/shepherding rather than leading in any meaningful way? 

In other words, should a pastor focus on a few things and leave the leadership to the staff … the board … or other influencers?

Second, at what point do a church’s lay leaders begin to turn on the pastor of a growing church?

Is it when their friends/spouses threaten to leave?  When the church grows beyond their control?

Third, to what extent can a pastor be run out of a church for doing too much good?

Can a pastor be too successful?  How does a pastor know when he’s in career jeopardy?

Finally, why do Christian leaders permit this kind of sabotage in our churches?

Why aren’t our seminaries teaching prospective pastors that church success can very well lead to eventual unemployment?  Why don’t our denominations support productive pastors over against damaging antagonists?

Jesus wasn’t executed because His following was insignificant, but because His influence and popularity were expanding.  He was crucified for being too effective.

Twenty centuries later, the careers of many pastors end for the same reason.
















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How would you like to receive top-notch training from an expert you respect and admire?

That’s what happened to me last week when I flew to Minneapolis and received 14 hours of training in church conflict from veteran congregational consultant Peter Steinke.  He’s the author of several books, including Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, one of my top five favorite books on church conflict.

Steinke has engaged in congregational interventions over 27 years.  He’s been involved with 217 churches/Christian entities encompassing 16 states and 8 denominations.

And from his experiences working with churches, he’s created a process for helping churches in crisis called Bridgebuilder.

Steinke presented case studies … worked his way creatively through a syllabus … and made lots of offhand remarks, many of which I wrote down verbatim.

Here are ten insights concerning church conflict that I found fascinating and that I thought you might benefit from.  They aren’t in any particular order.

Insight #1: “When you replace a music director, you sign your death warrant.”

Why is this?  Because many people become emotionally attached to the staffer who leads them to God’s throne in worship.

And if a pastor or a board tries to force out that person and put someone else in their place, things can become very unpredictable.

Insight #2: “People engage in sabotage when they are losing control.”

How many times have you witnessed this experience?

A board member … staff member … key leader … or opinion maker is unhappy with a decision made by the pastor.  The pastor meets with them … listens to their concerns … explains his position … and concludes the meeting in prayer.

Then that unhappy person immediately goes out and begins to undermine the pastor using threats, demands,  and complaints.


Because the pastor seems to be in control … and the discontented person senses they’re not.

Insight #3: “Getting rid of a pastor won’t solve the [presenting] problem.  The problem is within the system.”

It is common for some people in a church to think, “We’re having problems because of our pastor.  If we get rid of him, this church will be far better off.”

This kind of thinking … borne out of anxiety … is counterproductive.  Many churches have built-in patterns that cause them to go off the tracks.  Those issues must be identified, faced, and resolved.

But if they aren’t, the next pastor … and the next one … and the next … may all be sent packing because the real issues haven’t been addressed.

Insight #4: “Peace is often preferred over justice.”

During a conflict situation, churchgoers just want the conflict to end, even if the pastor … staff members … or others are treated shabbily.

The mature congregation says, “We’re going to aim for justice, so we’re going to devise a process, take some time, and handle this wisely.”

The immature congregation says, “We just want peace, so we’re going to ignore processes, take shortcuts, and get this over with quickly.”

Insight #5: “It’s better for people to leave than go underground.”

When a major conflict surfaces in a church, there are going to be losses in attendance and donations and volunteers, no matter which choices are made.

When people leave the church for good, there is closure for everyone involved, painful though it may be.

But when people start meeting and plotting in secret, they’re prolonging and intensifying the conflict … and there’s going to be some form of implosion.

Insight #6: “The consultant is responsible for the process, not the outcome.”

Steinke says that when prospective congregations ask him about his success rate with interventions, he answers, “100%.”

He believes he’s been successful when he works the process he’s devised, which is his responsibility.

But the outcome of his intervention?  That’s the responsibility of the congregation and its leaders.

For this reason, he doesn’t make recommendations to churches in conflict, but gets them to make their own recommendations.

Insight #7: “The top trigger for conflict is money.”

Steinke says these are the top 7 triggers for conflict in churches: money, sex, pastor’s leadership style, lay leadership style, staff conflict, major traumas/transitions, the change process.

Just my own observation: when money becomes the bottom line in a church, it becomes an idol, and God is relegated to second or seventh or tenth place.

But when God is first, money takes its rightful place.

But when giving goes down … or doesn’t meet budget … some leaders/people become anxious, and instead of turning to God, they try and control the money even more.

The result?


Insight #8: Conflicts in churches increasingly revolve around the change process.

Steinke said that 42 of the last 47 interventions he’s done … nearly 90% … have to do with change.

Many pastors feel that all they have to do is announce a change and it will automatically happen.  Once they’re convinced, they assume others will be as well.

But people need time to process change … ask questions … share feelings … and seek clarification.

When they’re not given those opportunities … conflict results.

Insight #9: During public meetings, there will be no verbal attacking, blaming, or abusing of others tolerated.

During his interventions, Steinke gives church attendees opportunities to speak publicly about how they feel about the conflict.

But they are not allowed to begin their sentences with “You,” but must make “I” statements instead.

If people violate this rule, Steinke reiterates it and expects people to abide by it.

If only we’d had this rule during all those business meetings my churches had over the years …

Insight #10: The consultant focuses on working the process, not on changing others, alleviating their anxiety, or giving them answers.

When Steinke goes into a church situation, he focuses on his role and reactions, not those of others.  He tries to remain a “non-anxious presence.”

Once again, the consultant’s job is not to analyze the church and fix everything, but to work a predetermined process that causes a church’s members to discuss and affect their own outcome.

After attending Bridgebuilder, I am now qualified to offer it to congregations in conflict.  If you know a church that might benefit from this process, please send them my way.

Thank you!









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Four decades ago, I visited a church near my home to hear a famous theologian speak.

The church had recently called a new pastor, and he eventually became a household name among Christians worldwide.

A friend of mine attended that church, and years later, he told me that their leaders had conducted a study of their new members.

The result?  98% of their new members came from other area churches.

Years later, I attended a major Bible conference, and that famous pastor did a two-hour question-and-answer session.

Someone asked him, “What is your church doing in the area of evangelism?”

His response?  “That’s the next thing we’re going to look at.”

He had been senior pastor of that church for 15 years.

Something troubled me about his answer.

He was a Bible teacher par excellence, and while he was now leading a megachurch, the newcomers flocking to his ministry were almost exclusively believers from other congregations.

I once heard him say that he wasn’t trying to steal sheep from other churches, but his mission field seemed confined to nearby assemblies, which caused resentment among smaller church pastors.

As I learned in seminary, there are three ways a church grows:

*biological growth (the children of Christian parents receive Christ and stay in the church)

*transfer growth (the church expects they will attract new residents and believers from other churches)

*conversion growth (the church deliberately tries to reach spiritually lost people for Christ)

Most churches in America are growing because they attract dissatisfied believers from other congregations … but that’s never been Jesus’ design for His church.

Jesus’ Great Commission is presented in all Four Gospels and in Acts 1:8.  The best-known version is found in Matthew 28:19-20, where Jesus tells His disciples:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

There is one command in these verses: make disciples, which begins by winning lost people to Jesus Christ.

Jesus doesn’t say:

“Make better believers of the already convinced.”

“Make members on a quarterly basis.”

“Make as many Baptists as you can.”

No, His first priority for His church in these verses is evangelism … making disciples of all nations … which starts with a church’s own community.

But in most churches … as was the case with that famous megachurch pastor … evangelism ranks dead last among church activities.  In what sense can such churches claim they are carrying out Jesus’ final orders?

I’ve discovered that churches that are serious about reaching their community do the following five things:

First, the pastor preaches from Scripture about issues that people care about.

I once preached through 2 Chronicles and began emptying out the church.  While I find that book fascinating, most people don’t.

What do people care about?  Their marriage … kids … health … job … finances … emotions … and future, for starters.

It’s easy to ask your neighbor or co-worker to church when the topic is marriage or raising kids.  It’s nearly impossible when the pastor is stuck in 2 Chronicles 12.

Since there are very few outstanding Bible expositors around, it’s better for most pastors to preach like Jesus did: topically.  (Jesus never did an exposition of any Bible book, but He sure quoted a lot of Old Testament verses.)

Second, the church makes sure that newcomers have a great worship experience.

My friend Gary McIntosh says that guests make 11 decisions about a church in the first 30 seconds.

If those first 30 seconds are great, the music, preaching, and after-service experience still need to be positive for people to return.

But if those first 30 seconds are uncomfortable or offensive, people rarely will return.  Churches only have one chance to make a great impression.

My wife and I once visited a church and were forced to stand outside the church doors for 10 minutes while they held a baptism.

We never went back.

Third, after several visits, guests are invited to join small groups and serve in entry-level ministries.

There’s a guaranteed way to keep people from becoming involved in your church: don’t invite them to anything.

The people in outreach-oriented churches personally invite family, friends, and co-workers to small groups and ministries.

Those in inwardly-focused churches don’t invite people because they’re thinking, “That’s my group … that’s my ministry … and those are my friends.”

Share your group and your ministry, and your church may grow.  Hog it, and it won’t.

Fourth, the church creates services and activities that appeal to unbelievers and believers alike.

When God’s people know that their worship services are consistently great, it’s natural for them to invite newcomers along.

And when God’s people know that an outreach activity will be done first class, they will definitely invite unbelievers from their network to attend.

I found that if a service or event was designed for unbelievers, our church worked much harder on it than if it was just for Christians.

I once oversaw an outreach event that featured a Christian illusionist.  We were forced to think and plan big, but the place was packed, and many people prayed to receive Christ that night.

Finally, the church reflects their outreach orientation in their mindset, staffing, budget, and ministries.

Mindset = the entire congregation is trained to invite people from their social networks as well as greet the newcomers around them at services.

Staffing = the church employs at least one person who is focused on outreach.

Budget = the church sets aside as much money as they can to reach their community for Christ.

Ministries = the church offers specific ministries for those who don’t yet know Christ.

I’ve visited scores of churches over the past few years and I can tell you this:

You can sense whether a church is outreach-oriented or inreach-oriented within the first few minutes.

How well is your church fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission?















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